Beauty is Only… by Jessica June Rowe

Or, How to Get Over Your Shitty Ex: A 10 Step Skincare Routine.

Step 1: Cleanser. You’ve got to start with a clean slate. Apply to damp skin in slow, circular motions. This is your chance to wipe away the past. Wipe until the long-lasting makeup you applied this morning lasts no more. It all breaks down: dark circles around your eyes, a red smear around your lips. Rinse. Watch the colors bleed from your face to your fingers to the sink.

Step 2: Exfoliator. You missed a spot. Scour your skin with a sugar-based scrub. Like your ex, who called you sweet and said you liked it rough. Exfoliate every molecule, spare no tender place. Rub your eye sockets, bruise your jawline, wring your hands around your throat until your muscles give way. Rinse.

Step 3: Toner. Restore the acid in your skin. You’re getting older, losing your edge. You wanted to leave him for ages, but you didn’t until it was him leaving you. But you don’t miss him. You shouldn’t miss him. Balance yourself every night with an alcohol-based toner. Feel the light burn of chemical stability, feel your tolerance build, feel better about your choices.

Step 4: Essence. What exactly is an essence? It doesn’t matter. Your skin is as dull as single life. Slap a hydrating essence onto your skin. When fully absorbed, slap on some more. You always need more hydration. Didn’t work? Are you drinking enough water? Are your showers too hot? Too long? Stop crying in those showers. Stop letting the tears and steam drain your sinuses, letting the water run until your skin shrivels. You’re always falling short. Drink more, cry less, slap more until your skin is drowning. Think it’s enough? It’s not enough.

Step 5: Roller. Take your routine to the next level with a jade roller. Start at the center of your face and roll outwards until you reach your hairline. Use the roller’s edge to work under the top layers of your skin and peel them off in a single motion. Set your face-skin somewhere flat to dry. No wrinkles here.

Pro-tip: Use the roller on your exposed superficial fascia. Fascia massage is all the rage, after all, and you know how to deal with rage. Be sure to wash your roller with warm water and gentle soap afterward; leftover blood can lead to bacteria build-up. You know how to deal with blood.

Step 6: Sheet Mask. Without your skin, you’re so sensitive. A sheet mask is soothing, revitalizing, reinventing. For 15-20 minutes, you can pretend that you’re someone else entirely, that you’re applying their skin. You pretend you’re the girl your ex is now dating. You watch the makeup tutorials she cross-posts on Instagram, YouTube, TikTok. You analyze every new video, searching for bruises lurking under all those layers of foundation. All you find is flawless skin. You wonder if your ex is the one taking all her staged poolside photos. You hate her. You envy her skill with liquid eyeliner. You love her skincare tips, her gentle voice, her #glow.

Step 7: Serum. God, you’re pathetic. Didn’t we go through this already? You need a serum, a punch of perfection. Active ingredients will actively eradicate your shame, your spite, your ugliness, your inability to let go. Use a high concentration, enough to erase any skin-memory that makes you you. No one wants that. For the best results, tear away the fascia, the subcutaneous fat, the retaining ligaments. Make it all the way down to your thick skull. Smear the serum across your cranial bones; let it soak into your marrow. If you experience soreness, irritation, instability, despair—ignore it. Dig deeper with a pair of metal tweezers. Chip away at your forehead; twist the sharpened points until you trepane your way to your frontal lobe.

Step 8: Spot Treatment. Through your skull-hole, it’s so much easier to see those hard-to-reach spots. Tweeze away the tricky blood vessels, the wrinkles in your brain, the scar tissue that keeps forming from overthinking, not thinking, stupid thinking. Trauma isn’t cute. You don’t want him back. You don’t. You do. You don’t. Apply a strong spot cream to the places, spaces, memories, emotions you want stripped away; apply at night so you can let it penetrate your imperfections all night long.

Step 9: Moisturizer. Doesn’t that feel better? Time for more hydration. A moisturizer will create a nourishing barrier to prevent all your efforts from going in vain—and it’s a great adhesive. Slather generously to both sides of your skull-bones and face-skin and press gently to re-adhere.

Pro tip: Follow up with a facial oil for true resilience. Feel your pores, your sweat glands, your nerves seal shut. Trap in everything from before. Your face should be as smooth as a mirror: reflecting everything, absorbing nothing. You are bright, immaculate, beautiful. The pain you felt, you feel, is nothing.

Step 10: Rinse, Repeat. This is the rest of your life. You will care for your skin until it dies, and you with it. Probably alone, but who knows. New skin, new you, maybe even new love. You deserve love, even when you don’t. You do. You don’t. You do. If you ever forget, just add more steps. You always need more hydration. Try creams, peels, correctors, removers. Mask your face, your hands, your feet, your hurt. Remember: you can’t break out if you never break.

 

Jessica June Rowe is an author, playwright, editor, and perpetual daydreamer. She is on the Editorial Board of Exposition Review and has served as both the Editor-in-Chief and Fiction Editor. A Best of the Net nominee, her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Gigantic Sequins, Atlas and Alice, Pidgeonholes, Timber Journal, and Noble/Gas Qtrly, while her short plays have been featured on multiple stages in Los Angeles. One of her poems is stamped into a sidewalk in Valencia, CA, where she currently lives. She also really loves chai lattes. Find her on Twitter @willwrite4chai.

Undertow by Matthew Mastricova

Jeff wants to grows long enough to reach the moon. He’s been doing those stretches, where you grab on the gnarliest limb of a tree and let your body stretch down. Jeff says the neanderthals used to do it. He says one day he’s gonna get big enough to crush the moon between his palms. Serves it right for sitting up so close in the sky, causing tides and shit. His arms have grown like an inch or two. Or maybe he dropped his body so hard he unraveled something. I missed the first two snaps and have to settle for gawking at the rough fractal guts of his uncle’s maple tree. It was like looking at the inside of my own skeleton. I wanted to hurl. The last time I wanted to get sick so bad was when Jeff’s older brother pushed me off their back porch and I landed on my arm wrong and clean broke it. He was that kind of motherfucker.

The third time Jeff’s fat ass breaks a branch, I’m videotaping him to find the moments where gravity drags Jeff’s arms down beyond their limit. No one believes in Jeff but me. They don’t know how much spite is in that guy’s teeth. Venom can take you a long way if you let it, so even though Jeff’s hands are splintered to hell after the branch breaks, he doesn’t even wince. He’s been through worse. At his brother’s funeral, Jeff showed me the scar from where his brother sliced his stomach for hogging the xbox. He pulled me into the bathroom and said “Jody I gotta show you something” and he let me trace the shape of it and I swear to god I could feel it breathing.

Jeff gives me his hands and I get to work removing the slivers of pulp. I want to stick his whole fist in my mouth, suck out the poison that’s keeping him going, but I focus on the damage I could see. By the time I return Jeff his hand it’s swollen like a corpse. Another shot at vengeance the wild stole from him. Even with the dead hand he still plans on trying. He asks me if I’d come over next time and watch just in case something happens and the other hand goes, too. If I’d tie his hands to the trees, then. I say yes, of course I’d do that Jeff, but it’s only because I believe he’d figure a way to do it some other way. Jeff, one day he’ll crumble the moon between his fingers and banish the ocean tides, and then he’ll have nothing left to break but himself.

 

Matthew Mastricova is the fiction editor for Third Point Press. Their work has appeared in Catapult, Joyland, Redivider, The Threepenny Review, and elsewhere.

The Curtains We Bought by Sheila Mulrooney

We ordered curtains from a second-hand furniture shop. They said shipping took nine weeks, but we agreed that two months of naked windows was better than funding Bezos. I remember how we murmured this to each other as we fell asleep, like a lullaby. You in your boxers, me in my t-shirt, both thick with sweat. I didn’t tell you, but I was scared those nights, unable to sleep with the glare of streetlamps on our drywall. I felt like the whole city could see us. They were watching, laughing at our poverty and love.

~

They came wrapped tightly in plastic and crinkled with static. The white polyester was blotched with purple lavender, a synthetic pattern repeating itself like cars on the highway. You shook them out and immediately the room smelled of something processed and unclean. I wished we could afford nice things, like linen curtains or cotton bedsheets. You took four quarters from our Mexico Vacation Jar and left for the laundromat. I saw the static shock you as you turned the doorknob.

~

You picked them up after dinner, along with two six-packs. We were slightly drunk when you plastered them against the glass and said look, we can finally do it with the lights on. This reminded me that I wanted to string Christmas lights around the rod, then drape the curtains over them, creating a gauzy purple glow. Kinky, you said. So we fished out a string of lights, untangled them, then looped them around the curtain rod, singing Deck the Halls and spilling beer on our jeans. What I wanted to say was we are so happy, we should die so we don’t have to be scared and unhappy tomorrow. But I didn’t because I knew doing so would bring tomorrow anyway.

~

The next morning we tried putting up the curtains hungover. I think you were ashamed of our silliness the night before. You clipped your movements so they were angular and sharp. The stitching is already coming apart, you said as if the low quality disgusted you. Again I wished we were rich and spent our Sunday afternoons shopping instead of bartending and writing blogs for start-ups. You would choose beautiful curtains and we could be happy in this life that we share.

~

The curtains did not fit over the Christmas lights. We tried for forty-five minutes before stripping them from the iron rod and letting them fall into tangles.

~

We abandoned the apartment for the afternoon, the curtains a pile of soft purple on the floor. We went to Tops, bought heaps of ramen, eggs, and vegetables, planning an enormous stir fry to fight the hangover. You needed shampoo and I remembered toothpaste. By the time we checked out, the bill was $77.93, almost $30 overbudget. We walked home deflated, knowing we spent too much but could not take it back.

~

It is sunset, dinnertime, when the curtains are finally up. In the flutters of evening wind, they seem both mysterious and adolescent. Like a symbol in a coming-of-age movie, where a female protagonist will lose what her parents call her virginity to the wrong boy. This will be the greatest hardship of her affluent life, the only plot point bourgeoise screenwriters can produce. I imagine the actress as wispy with thick eyebrows, and I resent her and her fictional ilk. I stand there hating her, wanting to be her, until you yell food’s ready, come and get it. Then I shut the window and return to you.

 

Sheila Mulrooney has an MA in English Literature from the University of Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of journals including White Wall Review (forthcoming), The Wayfarer, Rejection Letters, and others. She is at work on her first novel.

The Blob by Karissa Venne

I was chopping onions when the blob materialized in my kitchen.

I turned, and the blob was there, tucked in a corner by my fridge. I yelped, dropped my knife, and backed into the counter, its edge rocklike against my spine.

The blob didn’t react. It stayed in its corner, pearly and jiggling. Its amorphous body was opaque, like a giant egg white. It was as small as a basketball or a toaster or a Maltese dog. Every few seconds, I thought I could spot a pair of eyes or a mouth, but then it would shift, and the features would fade. It was a bleached-out Flubber, a mercurial creature of my very own.

A normal person would have shooed the blob away, attacked it with bleach, called their landlord or animal control. But I wasn’t normal, or at least, not in a normal stage of my life. I was 21, newly graduated from college, and I lived alone. I’d metamorphosed from a fledgling surrounded by warm, laughing bodies to a solitary and apathetic adult existence, the stuff of nightmares. There were days when I didn’t talk to a single person unless I ran into one in the office bathroom.

So I welcomed the blob. I cooked an omelette and ate it, studying my new houseguest. Before leaving for work, I filled a bowl with water and left it on the floor, figuring all creatures need hydration. Eight hours later, I found the bowl drained and the blob sporting a lovely translucence, like liquid soap or plastic wrap.

The next morning, the blob was opaque again, and though I’d struggled through high school biology, even I could figure this out. I left out another bowl of water and that night, the blob was clear again. As I fell asleep, I wondered how it drank. Did it have a mouth I couldn’t see?

Days passed. The blob huddled in its corner, its jiggling mass a comfort to me. It was always moving, but never getting anywhere. I watered it every morning and evening, the routine cemented like teeth-brushing. The blob was always translucent now.

I tried feeding it. I offered it sliced banana, spoonfuls of yogurt, handfuls of cereal. I experimented with kale, salted cashews, a chicken breast. I even tried a poached egg, figuring it might appreciate the egg’s blobbiness, remind it of itself.

The blob didn’t touch any of it. In my cubicle, instead of compiling spreadsheets, I’d Google things like, “what to feed a frog” because it felt like the pet closest to my blob. My blob. Somehow it had become mine.

That was when I wondered if my blob was like a plant, and needed photosynthesis to survive. If that was the case, I was worried, terrified really, as my blob had chosen the darkest corner of my kitchen to habitate.

That night, I dragged a cushion from my couch to the kitchen floor, sat across from my blob, and ate with my plate in my lap. After a few nights of this, my blob jiggling in agreement as I complained about my day, I finally touched it.

It was wiggling like usual, the movement even lovelier up close. I lifted a single finger. As I reached, my blob jiggled faster, almost vibrating.

My finger brushed the blob’s surface and it was exactly as I’d imagined: cold, smooth, and pliable, like gelatin. Our contact filled me with confidence. I moved to grip the blob with both hands, imagined pulling its entire body toward me. But instead, it shuddered and flattened onto the kitchen tile, trying to hide.

My blob was scared of me.

I woke up the next morning optimistic: I’d proven my blob could move. That day, I placed its water a foot away.

At work, I was filled with a jittery anxiety, as if I’d downed four coffees instead of three. Was I right? Would it move? I ached to leave my cubicle.

That night, I found my blob in its corner, but with the bowl of water drained. I congratulated it, and it jiggled faster in response.

Each day, I moved the water bowl further, and my blob drained it and returned to its corner. After a week, I placed the bowl in front of my kitchen window, sun streaming through the panes. I bounced out of my apartment and spent hours daydreaming about my blob. No one at work noticed. That was the problem with my life then, nothing I did made any impact.

I imagined my Blob, capitalized in my mind now like a true name:

Dragging itself to the window, slurping its water, and finally soaking up the sunlight it craved.

Transforming into a small doughy person, greeting me with open gelatinous arms each night, and talking in a gurgling language only I could understand.

Evolving somehow, infusing color into its viscid insides, dashes of bright pinks and purples, dots of yellows and oranges, bursts of blues and greens, like one of those bioluminescent sea creatures in National Geographic.

So convinced I was of this fantasy, that what happened instead took a moment to register. The Blob was indeed in front of the window when I returned home. But something was wrong.

It was a puddle on the kitchen tile. Completely still, no jiggling, not even a quiver. I rushed to its side, placed my palm against it, and felt a warm, hardened, plastic-like surface. It smelled acrid, wrong.

Peeling it from the floor, I held the flattened Blob to my chest, its hard edges poking my arms. I waited for the Blob to rouse and transform into its usual lump, prove it was hiding like the last time, only faking, what a great joke.

But my Blob didn’t budge. I’d coaxed it toward the sun, overheating its innocent goo body, liquefying it. I’d reduced my beautiful, effervescent Blob into an object.

And I was alone again.

 

Karissa Venne (she/her) is a Digital Resource Development Editor at Oxford University Press who lives in Western Massachusetts with her soon-to-be wife and their epileptic kitten. She received her MFA from The New School, has a story published in F(r)ictions Dually Noted, and one forthcoming in Pure Slush’s Lifespan Vol. 2: Growing Up.

Bill Murray Terraforms Mars by Robbie Maakestad

When Bill Murray sets foot on Mars, he sets to work terraforming straightaway. That’s not to say he doesn’t first look up at the stars, bright spots of light arranged afresh within the celestial void, radiating down upon Martian meadows. After that briefest of glances up, Bill will deploy his terraform training—memorized and practiced these many years—but right now he’s still glancing up and thinking ever so briefly about how he wouldn’t have aced his terraform test, sped into space, and stepped out upon the red planet had it not been for his grandmother, Mary Agnes, who instilled industry and economy through the assignment of daily chores. If young Bill ever so much as protested his allotted workload, Grandma-Murray lobbed this axiom at his ears: “All play and no work makes Billy-boy a jerk.” And so young Bill had set about sweeping the front sidewalk, dusting between the banister rail-posts, and gathering trash from the bins about the house. On Mars, as Bill first hefts his terraformer while looking up at the stars—but before he flicks the “Grass” switch—Bill will think back to his grandmother’s finest qualities: her patience, her exactitude, her laser focus on the most banal of labors. Before he begins his terraforming, Bill will remember how her nimble fingers slipped the tiniest of colored beads upon her needle, how that silver barb dipped and rose, coursing with exactitude, and how she’d done her best to teach him to do the same. “Here,” she’d say, handing Billy a single bead of the bluest hue. “Look through the center hole and the world opens up on the other side. Stick the needle in one motion, and pull tight. Repeat, repeat, repeat. One motion, Billy. Creation requires the precision of minutiae.” And Billy had tried to be precise, really he had, but he’d always ended up with a Band-Aid on his index finger, a spot of blood blooming up beneath the gauzy pad, swirling outward, when pressed, like the arms of a galaxy. That single bead had stuck in Bill’s mind, though, for as he looks up from where he stands on Mars, before sweeping his terraformer, before turning arid regolith into fertile loam, before sprouting green grass from red rock, Bill’s eyes will affix upon Earth—that tiniest of blue beads stitched up within the patterned heavens—and only then will he understand his grandmother’s lesson.

 

Robbie Maakestad is a Senior Features Editor for The Rumpus and an Assistant Professor of Writing at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. He is writing a biography of place about Jerusalem’s City of David archaeological site. He has been published or has forthcoming work in Boulevard, The Normal School, Essay Daily, and The San Diego Union-Tribune, among others. Follow him @RobbieMaakestad.

Silver Rings by Aimee Parkison

An illusionist, Lillian could disappear inside silver rings. Shimming through silver rings, Lillian melted on stages to reappear inside me. Moving through my body, pressing against my organs, she was like a mother to me until I gave birth to her and she became like my child. Night after night in her rickety trailer with papered walls, cuddling like children, she coaxed me inside her silver rings where we joined a caravan of wheeled houses for magicians and traveling dancers.

Her makeshift bedroom would fall apart, maps sticking to my skin. When traveling with her, I would find Austria or France in the palms of my dusty hands. Once, I had to scratch Italy off my elbow in the dark, using a little scotch and pond water to whisk the boot tip away into the murk of gunpowder, soup crackers, and motor oil. After buying rough sponges to scrub Antarctica off my hip, even the thought of the poles made my skin break out in hives. Calmly, I told her the maps needed to come down from the bedroom walls. She refused.

“The maps are the walls,” Lillian whispered, polishing her silver rings. She used to whisper to me in Latin, but I grew tired of never knowing what she meant. I was weary of how estranged I felt when close enough to smell the chestnut scent of her long, tangled hair.

“What’s that sound?” I asked.

I was just a boy when I realized the whistling in the dark was wind whipping through creases of delicate paper. Her maps really were the walls. How long, I wondered, would her bedroom hold us, especially if we moved against each other with such force? She wounded me delicately, intimately, on an almost hourly basis. Our prolonged passion threatened to unravel the jumbled world of cities and villages mapped out on delicate paper.

Scarred and sacred, Lillian had been everywhere, or so she claimed. Criminals shuttled her around the world and traveled with her in scuttling ships and later in ramshackle caravans across dark country roads through entire summers of rain and locusts. She was born to the wrong people, the child of children who had no homeland, vagabonds or nomads or worse, some said. One of those men who traveled with her was supposedly her father, who died at the hand of a beautiful thief who had been a classically trained dancer. Lillian was an illegitimate child with a bastard’s knowing eyes illuminated by the loss of romantic notions. That was another life: the women her wayward father touched without remembering their names, stolen jewels more precious than spilled blood.

“She was glad,” Lillian said, speaking of her mother, who evaporated inside the silver rings to hide inside Lillian and never reappeared until Lillian’s father died. “Later that night, she was dancing. Never shed a tear. He wouldn’t have wanted her to. He would have wanted me to dance with her over his grave, so I did. That was our way, always dancing toward death, never looking back. There was no changing it, no making it right. There were only the silver rings.”

After dissolving inside the silver rings, Lillian wouldn’t let me touch her skin or her hair. I could merely caress her long fingernails or the jagged edges of her bright white teeth chiseled to shark points. Most of the time, I was afraid to touch her teeth, afraid she might bite me, although she never did. Maybe that’s why I was always stroking the maps with my sweaty hands, leaning against deep blue oceans in the night.

“Who do you think I am?” she whispered, crushing a cigarette in the ashtray.

“You remember,” I said, “who I was. Don’t you? You’re the one who found me inside the silver rings. Aren’t you?”

I discovered Japan twisted into a ribbon on my right knee and Canada encrusted on my inner thigh along with various fragments of nondescript ocean. Washing England off my arms in the shower, I found another greener England on my belly and realized there were many worlds in her bedroom, so many collections of repeated and overlapping continents and countries and oceans and rivers and islands that it was impossible to know where one old map began and another ended.

The maps were like my life, all those stories of who I was, who I could have been. Stories of me disintegrated like old maps on Lillian’s walls. In every story, my father was the exquisite thief who had stolen my childhood.

Maps of various colors and sizes, expanding or shrinking frames, repeated across Lillian’s tattered walls to reveal patterns and variations of time, temperature, elevation, rainfall, death rates, population, imports, and exports.

In the shower, washing all these wondrous places off my pale body, I sloshed and cried, realizing we went nowhere. She and I were staying in one place in her bedroom while studying maps. Only inside silver rings did I ever really go to all the places I wanted to go by exploring the complex territory of our bodies and the flat scales of her maps’ fading shores.

When she refused to look at me, she refused to say my name. She was preparing the silver rings for places she whispered like prayers. Some nights she communicated with me by saying the names of cities and countries and oceans I assumed she had traveled or longed to escape.  

She was always refusing something or someone, usually me. Everyone around her shaking her down for one favor or another, she was too giving, too generous with her vanishing until refusal became breathing. If she didn’t refuse, she would cease to exist, disappearing into her silver rings, as she had many times before an audience.

There were men who would suck the flesh off her bones if she would allow. There were women who would steal her name.

Fading, she would give herself to the silver rings that swallowed her.

Depending on which earrings she wore, she wanted to hide. The earrings were a clue to her state of mind. There were jewels inside her just as there were jewels scattered in dark corners of the trailer.  Silver rings swallowed unexpectedly rare jewels.

If I went down to the river, I could sometimes find the place where her life turned on the people we left behind. Despite all the faces she had touched as a child, there was always one face she was afraid of—the face of her father.

She walked the rickety bridge with a gun in one hand and a bottle of vodka in the other. As the silver rings moved over me without touching me, she gazed at me as if I were a boy. Then, she shot the vodka to keep me from drinking it.

Inside the silver rings, we traveled across this country and many others. Especially in rural areas braced by the old religions, there were those willing to pay to see us disappear. In her trailer where we reappeared, she ate and slept and barked orders and bathed and brushed her hair, always in the nude. The rings demanded such starkness, along with a certain abandon allowing her to suffer no shame. Life was the indignity she had to overcome daily, the comparable wealth of our poverty allowing her such freedom compared to other women, most of whom couldn’t approach us because of their fathers’ and husbands’ prejudices.

She used to call me inside the silver rings.

I ran to her brassy voice, despite my unwillingness to obey her without question. I owed so much to her because of the way she had found me and all she had done to allow me to live with her inside the silver rings, the deep warmth of her body enough to shelter me for the eternity of moonless nights we traveled. Under the clouded sky’s coming storms, mountains of distant tree hills became indecipherable walls of mist.

 

Aimee Parkison is the author of Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman, winner of the FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize.  Parkison has been published in numerous literary journals and teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Oklahoma State University. Her historical feminist horror novel, Sister Séance, is forthcoming from KERNPUNKT.  More information is available at www.aimeeparkison.com.

Laughing with Anne Hathaway by Megan M. Garwood

He moans at night, but this one rattles the house. It’s 3 am. Bleary minded, we assume he needs changing, this man, so tall he must—no—he used to duck under doorways, this man who can no longer feed himself or hold a pill or two in his hand then place them in his mouth. He probably needs his diaper changed. His blood pressure is 109, that’s good. We smell him. He doesn’t need to be changed, not that way; he just can’t change the channel on his own. He wants Hogan’s Heroes. He can’t sleep. The changer tremors in his large hand. Is it bad that we wish the sickness had taken his brain first? We flick, for him, through the channels until we land on some rerun of a late-night show. Anne Hathaway is talking about a heist movie she shot during the quarantine. In it, she steals a diamond from a department store; her character is restless. He turns to us, it takes all his strength, and asks, could this possibly mean less to anyone? And he and we laugh, so loudly it must wake the neighbors, and he coughs, and we sit down to catch our breath on the worn couch next to the rented hospital bed. On the TV Anne Hathaway, hair and makeup styled to the nines, laughs with us, and all our eyes are tearing except his.

 

Megan M. Garwood is a writer from Metro Detroit. She has fiction published in X-R-A-Y, and her essays on art appear in publications like Triangle House and The Wall Street Journal. She is currently working on a novel. You can find her online at www.megan.wtf.

Wolf Shepherd by Sarah Arantza Amador

It gets harder to whistle and sing, which I’m doing to keep the animals away, which you hate precisely because it keeps the animals away.

We march along the trail and it’s early in the morning so there’s still an icy crust on the muck. We’re going at a fast clip, which I can never understand, how people always start out walking so fast when they hike. What’s the rush, you’ll get there or you won’t, who actually cares? My feet begin to skate out from underneath me, and I shriek and it’s like the noise of it swallows the whole world. My hiking pole catches along the side of the path just in time to keep me upright.

“Close call!” I chirp.

There were signs posted at the trailhead — bear country, wolf country, lone male spotted.

At the diner outside the campground the night before, we joked over our late-night breakfast and decaf coffee, and watched the men sitting alone at the counter. “That one’s a serial killer,” we giggled, “Oh, that one’s a psycho for sure.” The dining room was nearly empty, the waitstaff slamming chairs on top of Formica-topped tables, but I was certain that the men could hear us. I watched one after the other, a line of hunched lumberjack plaid and hunting caps, shift their weight on their stools, grind their heavy elbows into the countertop, their ears pricking like antennae, eyes like slits, as you kissed me with your open mouth. “They’re watching,” I whispered, your hand crawling up my waist. Snickering, we returned to our campsite under the vacuum of a new moon. I got my kit and scurried alone through the dark towards the tungsten glow of the restroom facilities at the far end of the service road, feeling their breath at my back, imagining their dripping incisors –

The facilities were bone cold, institutional, cinderblock. Sand and dead moths on the cracked concrete floor. Under the bright lights, brushing my teeth alone at the sink. There was an open screened-in window, where a vanity mirror would be. I bent down to drink from the tap and then stood up straight as I swished the cold water in my mouth. Framed in the window before me was the face of a man suspended in the darkness outside. It was the face of one of the men from the diner, yellow light from inside the restroom pooling on his balding forehead and the broad flat of his nose, coarse dark hair sprouting on his cheeks, spilling down his jaw and into the open collar of his tartan shirt. His watery eyes watched me. Expressionless as a mouse, I pretended to see through him as we locked eyes. Out the open window, the wind rushed through the trees, and my nostrils flared so slightly, trying to catch the scent of him. His thin, dark hair fluttered around his ears.

“Let’s watch you change,” a deep voice, loud, like he was in the room with me, “Let’s see what you’ve got under that shirt.”

I pretended not to hear him, like he was a hallucination, and lowered my face to spit the water out in the sink, thinking death. When I lifted my head to the screen again, he was gone.

We ascend through the white spruce and my heart is pumping hard. The trail is steep, and as I pick my way up through the rocks, I can’t see through the trees in front of us or side-to-side, but I imagine them in my mind — their leering yellow eyes, almond-shaped like danger. I struggle slowly up the mountainside and then you sigh as I stop at the edge of another switchback. “Just a minute,” I gasp, “just a minute to catch my breath.” I can’t whistle anymore but I think about those sly eyes, they are animals but, no, they are men —

When we reach the top of the climb, the trail cuts through a soft, level meadow and my spirit soars. We stroll past the late season wildflowers and the strangest mushrooms. “Is that bear scat or fungi?” I ask, and you get excited. You pull your camera out from its holster, and I get a chance to rest. I am excited by the thought of pulling sandwiches out of our packs at the end of this trail and I think, “I can do this, I can do this for lunch,” as we start climbing again.

The switchbacks up the second mountainside are worse, and the spruce at the top are stunted but packed together like trees on a Christmas lot. I try to force a whistle out as we wind our way through the pygmy forest but I’m a deflated balloon. The sun is hot as we step out of the trees and delight in the vista, the fertile bowl of the alpine steppe before us. “Lunch!” I proclaim. “There!” you point, and my eyes sweep up a branch of the trail scratched into the side of a bald summit hovering over the meadowlands.

We trek up the open trail and you encourage me, always one step behind me. This is my least favorite part about hiking, the words of encouragement. It means I’m failing, I’m faltering. On one side, the meadows roll up the granite faces of the peaks crowning the glacial valley. On the other, the lush spruce tumble down the slopes all the way to the lake edge, twinkling turquoise, far below us. I can feel a tightening in my solar plexus as I contemplate the view. “This is good!” I decide. You say, “To the top!” I say, “You go ahead!” But you push me on. A cold gust sweeps down from the crags above us, chilling the sweat drenching my clothes.

Voices rise up and over the crest ahead of us, buzzing down the trail, deep voices. I shiver. “Oh no,” I say as I approach the summit, my chest bursting, “Oh no.” I stop and grip my hiking pole, pushing it deeper into the bare ground at my feet, this rut in the earth. And what if a wolf, spade-shaped head low and grinning, were to emerge from the other side of the summit as I struggle to catch my breath? What if a wolf were to be there waiting for me with his enormous paws and dark plaid collared-shirt, snarling and howling? “Keep going!” I hear you say behind me, “You’re nearly there!”  And if the sky were to rip apart overhead, exposing the pitch of deep space? The wolf and I suspended like a constellation in the ecstatic moment before he catches my throat in his teeth, his watery eyes and his hands under my shirt —

“Hold me,” I call into the wind. Just like I did the night before, running back to our tent through the dead thickets. I spin to face you, my eyes shut tight, spinning blind  — I didn’t tell you about the men, I didn’t tell you about pulling off my fleece and my shirt in the restroom, shivering under the lights. Clutching my hiking pole tight in one hand and the scruff of your neck in the other,  I can hear you protesting, but I bite down on your shoulder as hard as I can to keep this rock from spinning.

 

Sarah Arantza Amador resides in the Santa Cruz Mountains of Northern California and writes about longing, ghost-making, and the endearment of monsters. Her work is featured in Best Microfiction 2019 and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions. She tweets @ArantzaSarah and sometimes blogs from www.saraharantzaamador.com.

Missing Enough to Feel All Right by Janelle Bassett

I’ve recently been forced to become a morning person, and I think this shift is rearranging other parts of me. Suddenly I crave citrus and can only sleep on my back. I wake up to the still-dark and drink coffee while lying down in front of a sun lamp. My neck is covered with scalds and my pajamas are covered in stains, but I can’t seem to sit up until I’ve had half a cup and ten minutes of LED shine.

I used to wake up and lie still, refusing to open the blinds, pitying the many people who were already standing up and buttoning their shirts in the mirror like idiots. I didn’t have a job to get to, no one was waiting for me to crack their eggs, my day started when I felt ready. But now, thanks to my sister, I have become something so much worse than a daylight buttoner: a person with a coffee pot on her bedside table.

Amy asked me to take over her catering business for six weeks, during her maternity leave. She has five employees. She could have asked any one of them to step up, yet she felt none were capable of being in charge—so our Amy either has trust issues or is truly very bad at hiring. My only qualification is her trust in me. She knows that I follow directions and hate letting people down. I can cook, sure, but it’s not the kind of food you charge money for, unless it’s dumped on a buffet counter and paid for by the pound.

There was an implication in Amy’s request that I wasn’t doing anything important with my life, that I could drop everything and be her stand-in for a month and a half, no problem. This wasn’t true—I had to cancel two weekend trips with friends I used to like, postpone a laser hair removal appointment, and fully bow out of my happy hour spin class. I had prepaid for sixteen weeks, which is practically a full-term pregnancy.

Amy and I have always operated at different speeds. She’s all in, she sprints, and I get there eventually, right when I have to. Just because Amy enjoys doing too much too quickly and without necessity, she treats me like I’m not doing enough. Sometimes I wonder if she handed me her business to show me, first-hand, what the early risers and the go-getters of the world can accomplish.

To help with my lack of catering expertise, Amy maintains a constant digital presence. She’s either FaceTiming in with that baby on her breast to berate me as I stir gravy, or she’s sending WhatsApp messages about proper basting or the risk of underseasoning. The chain-of-command in the kitchen is: Amy-on-my-phone, then me, then the five employees who resent my unearned authority. I’ve overheard them making fun of my inability to chop vegetables finely. “I’m sure the client was hoping for potatoes cut like thick toenails.”

But, two weeks in, I’m rolling along with this catering gig. Very few clients have asked for a refund. I’ve learned to pronounce cumin properly and have loudly proclaimed that aprons are the mullets of clothing—dull in front, cheeky in back.

This morning I get to Plenty of Dish at 6:30 to unlock the door and warm the ovens. (Amy swears she was forced to keep this name when she bought the bakery from her mentor—to preserve the name recognition they’d built up—but I’ve heard her tell people about the business and she delights in saying it aloud. She does an eyebrow thing with “dish,” as if to help the pun along.)

There’s a bridal shower order to fill today. They want forty lemon muffins with blackberry buttercream icing and uncircumcised penises stenciled on top. Last week, when we got the order, I messaged Amy, “Where do you keep the uncircumcised penis stencils? Near the whisks?”

It turns out I had to draw one, freehand, then cut it into a stencil myself. This took seven attempts. One of those attempts ended up looking like a thorny rose, which won’t go to waste, as we get more and more clients throwing divorce parties.

I turn on the lights and all the cake stands gleam “good morning.” It’s all open shelving in here, which means the drawers are stuffed full of unsightly items like meat thermometers, paper plates, and twisty ties. To maintain that clean, sleek look, we keep the paper towels in the refrigerator door.

Amy sent me today’s agenda at 2:30 in the morning. She has no night mode. Any correspondence is answered immediately and desperately and comes with a photo of the baby against her “I’m the BRIDE” sweatpants, which she’s been wearing ever since childbirth left her with a third-degree tear. We call the baby Rip Torn for now, but we will transition into calling him Anthony as the entrance wound he made in my sister heals.

The first item on Amy’s agenda is: “Line up ingredients on kitchen island, ensuring complete inventory and correct amounts.” I get out the flour, vanilla, and baking powder, the sugar and lemons. As I step toward the refrigerator for butter, my phone pings. Amy says, “the unsalted.”

I grab the eggs and unsalted butter. Now Amy is calling on FaceTime. I answer, but point the phone toward the egg carton because it’s too early for faces. “I’m following the directions. What do you want?”

The baby is screaming. He sounds red and like he’d like to go back where he came from. I pivot the phone, so I can see Amy’s face. She’s blank, desolate—she looks like she’s just seen the next four years of her life and they were as loud and insistent as that current moment.

I tell her not to worry, to get some sleep, that I have everything under control, that Deidre will be in soon to belittle and correct me, to give me some credit—I’ve been doing this for two whole weeks.

Amy is bouncing now. She’s set the phone down and is bending her knees over and over to jostle the baby into being soothed. Her head goes in and out of the frame as she says, “I just wanted to see the light in the kitchen as the sun came up. And oh, I see the stacks of saucers behind you. My saucers. Can you walk over and show me the magnetic knife holder?”

I consider saying no, but her face is a convincing counter argument. I carry my phone across the room and hold it in front of the wall-mounted knives.

Amy sighs. “I had zero stitches in my panties when I bought that.”

The baby (I really need to start thinking of him as my nephew) is still loudly hating his existence. The two of them are going up and down but staying the same.  “Do you… want me to show you the mixer?”

“Please.” I set the phone down temporarily, so I can move the stand mixer from the shelf onto the counter. It’s heavy—high-end, comparison shopped-for. I put my hand in the frame for the reveal, gliding it along the base, like I’m either selling the mixer or am about to make it disappear. “Here it is.”

“Could you turn it on? I want to see it go.”

I affix the beater and plug the cord into the wall. “You ready?”

She’s bouncing harder, blurry. “Do it.”

I turn the mixer up to ten—full speed—and point the phone down into the mixing bowl. I can’t see Amy, but I know she’s going faster still, that she’s whirring and full-speeding to keep up with all her babies.

(She bought this place at twenty-seven. She repainted, designed a logo, took the doors off the cabinets and worked every weekend. She developed a ricotta pineapple pie that was featured on a local news segment. She changed her pants daily. Her eyebrows only conveyed a fraction of her delight.)

Deidre is here. She calls over the noise, “If you’re making an ASMR video, you should put on some lipstick.”

I switch off the mixer and the baby stops crying. No. Amy has hung up. I don’t know whether to hope that my sister, suddenly alone, has stilled or that she hasn’t slowed down at all.

I eye my ingredients on the island, trying to act like I wasn’t caught participating in a digital postpartum appliance trance. “Amy wanted to see her kitchen. I don’t think she and the baby are getting along.”

Deidre nods. She’s had babies. “It’s an adjustment period. They’ve both been forced out.”

She picks up the penis stencil I’d set near the sink. “Divorce party today?”

“No! That’s my best penis! Amy approved it.”

Deidre puts the penis back where she found it and starts her ring-removing routine. She can’t bake with rings on, she says, and yet can’t leave the house bare-handed. “That’s clearly a thorny rose. Or a rumbled pug? Amy must be underslept.”

“Do you think I should go over there and check on her?”

Deidre looks up from her hands. “You haven’t gone to see her since she had the baby?”

“I’ve been running her business!” I suppress the image of my sister’s pleading, bobbing face. If Amy wanted my help or my company, she would ask, right? I try to think of a single time when she made herself vulnerable to me, or showed any strain from traveling at the speed at which she thrives.

Deidre is no longer looking at me, the bad sister, the thick slicer. She’s stacking her rings one by one, so she can slip them into a zippered pocket of her purse with one movement.

“I’ll go to her today,” I tell Deidre, trying to work out how many appliances I can fit in my trunk and whether I can seatbelt a stack of twenty saucers.

 

Janelle Bassett’s writing has appeared in The Offing, American Literary Review, The Rumpus, Smokelong Quarterly, VIDA Review, and Slice Magazine. She lives in St. Louis and is an Assistant Fiction Editor at Split Lip Magazine.

Explanation of Your Benefits and Losses by Angie McCullagh

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

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

Amount Billed – $59,578.66

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

Your negotiated discounted rate – $53,243.22

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

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

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

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

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

Amount you may owe – $16,236.19

This is definitely not a bill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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