To Repel Ghosts by Ran Walker

My mother used to tell me about a ghost that haunted the house across the street from where she grew up. The ghost was a little boy, who, according to legend, was shot by his stepfather. It was the kind of story that was difficult to determine the truth of, but the kind of story that would sneak into my consciousness, just as I was preparing for bed.

The story felt like one of those tales spun to scare kids around campfires or during sleepovers. It probably wasn’t real at all, but that didn’t stop me from imagining a kid of no more than ten, standing face-to-face with his stepfather, a twelve gauge pressed against his forehead.

I had no explanation for why my mother would tell me a story like that, except that maybe it had something to do with my father choosing to leave us after his girlfriend became pregnant. My mother never talked about him, and because I didn’t want to upset her, I never brought him up either.

Maybe the ghost was supposed to represent my father, although I couldn’t see how. Or maybe this bit of the macabre was my mother’s way of exorcizing some other demon. Then again, knowing my mother, she could very well have been talking about an actual ghost.

When she grew particularly melancholy, I would ask her to tell me about the ghost. For some strange reason, she enjoyed recounting the story, as if it provided some relief to her keeping the darkness bottled up inside.

One day, I built up the courage to press her more about the ghost, wondering if there was any greater specificity to her usual anecdote.

“Did you ever see it with your own eyes?”

“Yes. Twice.”

“What did it look like?”

“Everything above his chin had been blown completely apart. His entire head kind of folded in on itself. It was the kind of thing you kept looking at just to see if you could make sense of it.”

I hadn’t expected that level of detail from her, and my stomach tightened. My mother was carrying this around in her head like loose change in her pocketbook. She had told the story so nonchalantly that I wondered if she even knew what she was saying to her sixteen-year-old son. My imagination had never constructed so graphic an image of the ghost and now I found myself unable to think of anything else.

After that revelation, whenever I prepared for bed, I found myself unable to lie down without the aid of a nightlight. I was afraid the ghost might appear in my bedroom, the nearly headless figure creeping closer to me with each child-like step.

One night my fear-induced insomnia led me to seek protection in my mother’s bedroom. I found her asleep, upright against several pillows in her bed, a cocked twelve gauge resting in the corner, not even a full arms length away.

I backed away slowly, careful not to make a sound. Until that moment, I was not aware my mother even owned a shotgun, especially one identical to the gun in her story.

As I tiptoed back into my bedroom, I locked the door behind myself. I didn’t know who or what my mother feared, but I immediately feared it, too.

With darkness encroaching on my nightlight, I buried my head beneath the covers. It was all I could think to do to repel the ghosts.

 

Ran Walker is the author of sixteen books. He currently serves on the creative writing faculty for Hampton University in Virginia. He can be reached via his website, http://www.ranwalker.com.

Natural Resources by Anita Goveas

The shelves are half-empty, an improvement. Too many options cut down on foraging time, and time is finite. We know this now.

Mongooses are too soft, dormice don’t cover enough, hedgehogs fight back. Trial and error, word of mouth indicate armadillos are the most effective.

Rocks, sharp flints, wood shaved into spears. These are among the products we still have. In the After, protecting the head is essential during hunting and/or gathering. What we don’t eat isn’t wasted. Unlike Before.

 

Anita Goveas is British-Asian, based in London, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, most recently in Spelk, Lost Balloon, and Terse. She is part of the editorial team at Flashback Fiction, is a reader for Bare Fiction, and tweets erratically @coffeeandpaneer.

When It’s Time to Go by Neil Clark

This time, you just wanted a simple life. Go to work. Watch kitten videos and food vlogs before bed. Over-order Chinese food at weekends when the hangovers bite.

But wherever you go, there’s always something.

Your first ever room had rising damp. The next had moths that ate your clothes.

Your last place had a switch in the cupboard under the kitchen sink, with “NOT IN USE” written above it in red pen. Your head would constantly be in that cupboard, oblivious to your phone pinging in your pocket with concerned texts from family, stern voicemails from work. You’d stroke the switch for days on end, applying tiny and tinier amounts of pressure. You’d trace the letters with your fingernails and wonder if you’d discovered the reset button for the universe.

When it was time to go from there, you flicked the switch, put the keys on the table and left the flat for the first time since the day you moved in. As your plane took off, you saw an earthquake below, just how you’d imagined.

The new house smelt of fresh carpet and just-dried paint. It felt efficiently put together, like it wasn’t passive aggressively wired to the fault lines of the universe.

But you couldn’t figure out how to turn the power to the shower on. Your first morning, you had to wash yourself over the sink. It was cold, and the floor got sudsy and wet. Your shivering made you late for your new job.

Then later.

Later still.

Too late.

Absent.

You put a towel over the puddle and spent the next year sat in the bathroom, watching rings of mold circle the loops of fabric, witnessing ecosystems turn from green to light brown, dark brown to black.

You wondered if this was what God was doing. Sitting naked on His bathroom floor instead of turning up to His day job. Shivering. Watching the hues of the globe shift a little each time we loop round the sun.

You found out about your nickname at work. “Jesus.” You thought it might be because everyone was waiting for you to turn up. That wasn’t it. It was because the suit you bought for your first day was getting holier and holier.

You’d never seen a single moth in the flat. You asked the internet if moths can lay eggs underneath human skin. Took the year off to read all 365,000 results.

After you finished reading each article, you inspected your skin so closely, looked so deeply into every pore that every pore became a black hole. Your body became a network of rifts in the space-time continuum, through which the moths were travelling via the ice age and the space age and the stone age, only emerging into the present day to feast on your suit when you were asleep.

Today, you got a letter from the bosses, asking if you owned any other suits. “The holes are getting ridiculous,” they said. “They leave you exposed in places that shouldn’t be exposed. We see red marks all over your body, like a toddler went mad with a permanent marker.”

“We can see right through you,” they said.

You knew it was time to go when the earthquake caught up. Shook your flat so hard the towel crinkled on the floor, sent ecosystem crashing into ecosystem. Shook the moths out your pores. Shook open the cupboard doors. Revealed a switch under the bathroom sink that said “SHOWER.”

You flicked it and left the keys on the table.

Outside, low black clouds touched the tops of derelict buildings. People ran naked in tight circles, bumping into one another.

As you fled on a stolen scooter, the heavens opened behind you. Flooded the town. Swept your towel into the sea like a magic carpet in the middle of a nervous breakdown.

Your next place will be at the summit of the highest mountain on Earth. The locals will worship the roar and smell of your battered scooter. Feed you. Paint red patterns on your chest and forehead.

You’ll be above the clouds, where you can watch the rains wash away the world underneath until you feel your sense of scale float out of your skull. Until you’re standing over a sink, tap running.

You’ll see a plane on the horizon, with red writing on the side that says, “NOT IN USE.” There’ll be a glint in the window of the cockpit.

Raise a finger, see if you can beckon it over. The locals will love it if you can.

 

Neil Clark is a writer from Edinburgh. Where he lives, there is a strange switch. He thinks about it. All the time. His work has been published by 404Ink, The Open Pen, formercactus, Memoir Mixtapes, and other cool places. Find him on Twitter @NeilRClark or at neilclarkwrites.wordpress.com.

Tea Kettles by Michelle Ross

I was at the mall to replace a broken tea kettle when I saw one of the dads from my kid’s school, the one who’s a cop. He looks exactly like what he is. Honest, I call that. The way a good tea kettle looks like a tea kettle, whereas some are designed these days to masquerade as other things—flamingos, giraffes, UFOs. For no good reason at all, other than that people in the world collect such shit. This department store, in fact, sells a tea kettle that resembles a toilet. It doesn’t even make sense.

This cop, his name is Donny, keeps his head shaved. His irises look like discs of ice, like if you were to put your finger to his eyeballs, your finger would freeze to them. At a school spaghetti dinner he showed everyone at our table the raised bump on his bicep where he’d been bitten by a police dog. The word “bump” does not do the scar justice unless you think on the scale of the protuberance and hardness of a baby bump. Or like how a tree oozes out its own liquid bandage when you prune it, only the liquid bandage hardens into an impenetrable barrier. Not that I touched his scar. I mean I’d wanted to, because I’m a curious person. But how would that have looked? Me reaching out to place my hand on Donny’s bicep?

Anyway, I spot Donny in the women’s lingerie department, staring absent-mindedly at a rack of animal-print bras. Again with the animals.

I think he must be purchasing a gift for his wife, Kate. That woman is on the board of a charity for dogs and is always asking people to attend this or that fundraiser or purchase this or that expensive raffle ticket for makeovers and computer repair certificates and what have you, but then when the middle school kids are having their bake sales, she’s all oh-I-can’t-buy-any-of-that-or-I’ll-end-up-eating-it-all.

Or maybe since he doesn’t seem to be so much considering the animal-print bras as to be resting his focus on them, he’s just waiting on Kate while she tries on lingerie. Kate runs with that dog of hers, I know, because I’ve seen her, and even if I hadn’t seen her, I’d know because of those calf muscles. Only runners have calves like that, calves so meaty they make you think of drumsticks, like the way predators in cartoons picture their prey as cuts of meat. What I mean is Kate is probably the type of woman who actually enjoys trying on lingerie.

But the person who comes out of the dressing room isn’t Kate but Allison, the mom of that girl in my son’s class who he says lives in a shelter. My son, barely seven, told me the girl, Reilly, isn’t allowed to see her father or rather he isn’t allowed to see her and her mother. Because he threw something at Reilly’s mother. Because glass shattered all over the kitchen floor. Because Reilly’s mother’s cheek turned purple. My son tells me this, and I’m thinking he’s too young to know about stuff like this, but then I think about Reilly and all the other kids who know-know stuff like this, and then I just shake my head. My son told me that Reilly both misses her father and doesn’t. He said, “I understand that, Mom,” and I said, “You do?” “Not about Dad,” he said. “Oh,” I said. “I mean,” he said, “feeling two ways at once. I feel that way a lot, like when I want to go swimming but also I don’t because then I have to have a bath after to get the chlorine out, plus the chlorine always makes my penis sting.”

I realize I’m not so surprised to see Allison. This Donny guy looks like the kind of guy who would cheat on his wife. Like I said, he looks like what he is.

So Allison walks out of the dressing room in this summery white dress. It’s an eyelet fabric, falls to just below her knees. I think of photographs of Woodstock, only she’s a clean, bleached version of that time. And she doesn’t have flowers in her hair, though she looks like she could pull that off, like she should be running barefoot through a meadow in that dress. What is it that bear used to say in that laundry detergent (or was it softener?) commercial? Fresh like a summer’s breeze? Something like that. Scratch and sniff Allison, and she’d smell like daisies and fresh-cut grass and pot.

What I’ve wanted to know ever since my son told me about Reilly and Allison in that shelter is what is her ex like out in the world? Like if he were sitting across from me at a school spaghetti dinner, would he give off a creep vibe? Would I think there’s something not right about that guy? Like Donny over there. Not the most charming man I’ve ever met. Doesn’t smile much. Has that steely stare you expect from a cop, particularly if one is pulling you over for speeding. Or was he more like my Carver? Smiling across the table at Donny at that spaghetti dinner. Offering to refill my lemonade. But then later that night, after our son was asleep, he was all everyone-saw-you-staring-at-his-bicep and don’t-you-fucking-embarrass-me-like-that-again. Carver is like a tea kettle disguised as a sheep.

 

Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, CRAFT Literary, New World Writing, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Tahoma Literary Review, TriQuarterly, and other venues.

The Circus Comes to Town When You Die by Liz Wride

The last drops were squeezed from my childhood on a sun-drenched afternoon, when my Mother decided to tell me the honest truth about death. I was at that odd sort of age, where adults were constantly pulling at the corners of the world, unsure of how much to reveal to me. With her face and apron creased, she crouched down to my level.

The previous Summer, I had taken the Santa revelation well. I had just been glad that the Naughty List wasn’t real. Now, as my Mother’s brown eyes met mine, I got the feeling that she was about to tell me something she believed in wasn’t real.

“Your Uncle Joe will come stay with us for a while. He should get here tomorrow, but he’ll look a little different.”

“Will he have his beard?”

I remembered my Uncle Joe, a bear of a man all checked-shirts and bushy beard. He taught me how to juggle with oranges in the grocery store and watched the Super Bowl with me, shouting “Touchdown!” He’d share his nachos and dip with me during half-time.

My Mother hesitated. “You know how when people die, they are in the cemetery… the way Grandpa is?” She screwed her face up, like she’d been sucking on a lemon. “That’s not true. When people die… they become animals.”

My brain was citrus-sharp with questions: Did Uncle Joe get to pick what animal he’d be? What animal would I be when I died?

“Who did Bucky used to be?” I asked.

“Nobody – Bucky’s just a dog.”

“Your Uncle will be with us tomorrow, I’m told…” There were tears in her eyes.

* * *

With tomorrow, came animal control and a huge truck. For a moment, I thought the circus had come to town when I saw a crane haul the huge cage, covered in a huge sheet, out of the back of the truck. There was a deep, low growl.

“Who gets to decide what we’ll be once we’re dead?” I asked my Mother. She looked to my Father for answers, but he had none.

“I think it’s decided already.” She said, quietly. “I think we are that animal, deep down inside, even when we are alive.”

The crane dumped the cage in the backyard. What was surprising, was that folks never came out to look.

Men in high-vis vests and animal control officers with darts did a strange sort of dance. They moved their arms and stopped, they circled the cage…

There was another low growl.

“Please don’t dart him, officer. He’s had enough needles stuck in him when he was alive…,” my Mother said.

Eventually, they ripped the covering off the cage, and there, on it’s hind legs, stood a huge, brown grizzly bear. It’s jaws were open and it looked like it wanted to eat me.

I hid behind my Mother, even though I thought I was too old to hide behind anyone.

“Uncle Joe?” I asked, to nobody in particular. My Mother was already encircling my head with her arms. I didn’t see, as our neighbors twitched their curtains and peeked out from behind their blinds.

There was talk of diet. My Mother mentioned grasses, honey. My Father mentioned baby deer. The Animal Control guy mentioned the salmon in the National Parks. He had a jovial sort of sadness about him. I didn’t realize as a kid, but it’s the same sort of day-in-day out stoicism that people in the Emergency Room have.

My Mother said something along the lines of “We’ll think about it,” and the circus of animal control, with their high-vis and their trucks left with no fanfare.

Now, it was just us and the bear.

* * *

Once, when I was quite young, my Uncle Joe had been watching the Super Bowl with me. He’d lifted me up and then dumped me on the sofa, shouting “Touchdown!” along with the game. I laughed – but my Mother got angry and said he was being too rough.

They had their argument behind the closed door, and all I heard was the odd word, about blame and who was wrong.

I wondered now if Uncle Joe and I could still play our touchdown game, but I saw his big bear claws, and I knew we couldn’t. I was too scared.

That night, when I heard the sounds through my open window: critters going through bins, or owls hooting, I wondered whose Mom or Grampa or Dad they used to be. Mainly I thought about Bucky, at the foot of my bed, and what would happen to him when he died, being just a dog.

* * *

I woke up in the middle of the night, to the sound of a sudden scream and Bucky barking. My father’s frantic footsteps on the stairs. The sound of something scraping against metal.

He had mauled her.

In the darkness, I couldn’t see, but I knew Uncle Joe had killed my Mother. There was that odd sort of stillness that happened when I was in the house with my Father, and she was at the grocery store. The bated breath where we all just sat and waited for her to return.

In the dead of night, my Father called animal control. They had their argument behind the closed door, and all I heard was the odd word, about blame and who was wrong.

* * *

The next day the truck turned up again. The neighbors lined the street this time in a quiet sort of reverence. The only words I remember hearing were “Yellowstone.”

* * *

My Father told me that when people die, we want to keep them with us. But really, we have to let them go. He said all this, while preparing straw bedding for my Mother’s cage, trying to make the grey rabbit she’d become comfortable. As he spoke, he passed me handfuls and handfuls of straw. He didn’t want to put his hand back into the cage, because he’d tried to pet her but she’d bitten him.

 

Liz Wride writes short fiction and plays. Her work has appeared in The Ginger Collect, Empwr, and Mantle Arts Anthology’s Beneath the Waves. Her work has been shortlisted for the ELLE U.K. Talent Awards and Liar’s League. She is an administrator by day and a writer by night.

Sales Call by James Gapinski

I arrive bright and too-early for my new sales gig. Turns out I’m selling cubes. Slick, black cubes that are warm to the touch. I think they have something to do with next-gen technology. Something cutting edge. Brand new. Everybody in the call center has the latest smartphones. Post-iPhone prototype stuff, with peripherals and floating screens like in a sci-fi flick. There is a training seminar set up. But there are no other new employees, so it’s just me and Training-Guy in a large conference room. He says business-jargon things like synergize and innovate. He smiles at me with these big fake teeth the whole time. Super white teeth. Practically glowing. He probably goes to the dentist twice a month.

I ask a few questions, but each reply includes inter-dynamic-matrix-accessory-code or some shit like that. It’s all gibberish, and I worry that any follow-up might cost me the gig. I need money. The mortgage is past-due.

Training-Guy brings out a product sample. He touches the slick cube, and it turns blue for a second. He plays a confusing video that shows people laughing and drinking Coca Cola around a cube, and I still have no idea what the cube does. The company also sells black spheres. I think the spheres are premium products, because Training-Guy makes a point of telling me that I won’t be selling spheres for at least six months.

Training-Guy points toward my workstation and sends me a call list. The list is an attachment that my flip-phone cannot open. I ask Training-Guy to e-mail it to me. “Old school! I love it. No worries,” he says. My workstation makes a high-pitched chime. It takes me a minute to figure out that the computer activates via voice command. Training-Guy’s e-mail contains a few dozen names, a few dozen phone numbers, and one sexually explicit gif—at least I know that I can count on a hostile workplace lawsuit if my commissions don’t add up.

I call the first number. “Hello, is Mr. Gavin available?”

“Speaking.”

“I’d like to tell you about an exciting new product.” I stare at the sample cube on my desk, wondering how I’ll sell something that I don’t understand. Mr. Gavin hangs up before my anti-knowledge becomes an issue. I slide my finger along the edge of my cube. Red lines shoot across the black surface.

I dial the second number. There is no answer this time. The third number connects me to a police dispatch center. I think that this number is intentionally near the top of my list, and maybe the cube is something that local law enforcement could use. The cube could be for surveillance. High-tech stuff is often used for surveillance, I think. I check my yellowed teeth in my computer monitor’s reflective surface, making sure there is no spinach and my gums aren’t bleeding—I want to look good for the Big Brother onlookers. A few minutes into the conversation and the dispatcher says “So this isn’t an emergency?”

“Not unless you consider missing out on the best deal of the century an emergency,” I say. I smile in the general direction of the sample cube, hoping that the police/F.B.I./C.I.A. can see me even though they haven’t purchased the cube yet.

“This line is for official police business only.” She hangs up.

I call the fourth number, and my daughter answers. “Dad? It’s early here. Why are you calling? Is Mom okay?”

“Yeah, Mom’s fine.”

“Well, what’s up?”

“I was just wondering if you needed a cube.”

“What? You’re not making any sense.”

“I mean money. Do you need money? How are you doing in L.A.? Are your classes difficult?”

“Dad, I’ve been done with school for almost a year now. And this isn’t a good time.”

I want to say It’s never a good time anymore, but I don’t. Instead, I declare “I’ll send you a check tomorrow.”

“Sure, whatever Dad. But I really don’t need it. You know that, right? I have a full-time job.”

“Okay, goodnight sweetie,” I say, but the line is already dead.

I take off my headset and wander the office. I find Training-Guy, and I say “Hey, where did you get this call list?”

“It’s all personalized to your unique sales profile. Trust me, the algorithm knows what it’s doing,” Training-Guy pats an oversized sphere sitting near a sleek, expensive-looking copy machine breezing through something like a hundred copies.

“Okay, thanks,” I say.

“Wait,” Training-Guy says. “Before you go, check this out.” He hands me one of the photocopies. It’s somebody’s ass cheeks pressed against the copy machine.

I don’t respond. Instead, I fold the photocopy neatly and go to the supply closet. I grab an empty manila folder. At least I think it’s a folder. But given the other next-gen items in the supply closet, it could just as easily be manila-colored LCD film. I write Lawsuit on the folder in big bold letters. I put the photocopy inside.

Training-Guy relocates to the watercooler area. He polishes his Rolex and eats a heap of caviar from a Tupperware container. He winks at me. In reply, I offer a slight wave.

Back at my workstation, a woman hovers over my desk. She’s doing something with the black cube.

“Excuse me,” I say.

She turns around. She’s beautiful. She looks like my wife, except different. There’s just something about her that’s wife-like without quite being my wife. As if my wife’s face has been copied, then run through some Photoshop filters and repurposed on this woman’s face. “Sorry, I was just doing some calibrations.”

“What does the cube do?” I ask. Perhaps her similarity to my wife has disarmed me. I don’t feel as sheepish about exposing my ignorance.

She laughs and says, “You’re funny.” She touches my arm like my wife used to. She writes a phone number on an LED tablet the size of a sticky note.

“I’m married,” I say.

“So am I,” she says. “This is for your call list.” She saunters over to Training-Guy and kisses him. He gives me a thumbs up and then makes a gesture that I do not recognize. I make a mental note of it because I’m sure the gesture is obscene—I must remember to research it for my lawsuit folder.

I call the number. I recognize the voice, but I can’t place it. “Hello?” the person repeats, over and over. “Is somebody there?” I touch the cube again. It’s no longer warm.

“Yeah, it’s me,” I say. I can hear the person crying on the other end.

“Really? It’s really you?” the person says through sniffles.

“Yeah,” I say. “I just wanted to say that I’m sorry.”

“Don’t bother. I’ll buy whatever you’re selling.”

 

James R. Gapinski is the author of the novella Edge of the Known Bus Line (Etchings Press, 2018) and the flash collection Messiah Tortoise (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2018). His short fiction has appeared in The Collapsar, Hobart, Juked, Monkeybicycle, Paper Darts, and other publications. James is managing editor of The Conium Review and an instructional specialist at Chemeketa Community College. He lives with his partner in Portland, Oregon.

Segmented Moments by Hannah Gordon

The day they announce the draft, Mom starts humming again.

She used to do that a lot—a lingering habit from her musical theatre days. Soft, almost imperceptible tunes and melodies through pursed lips. A low vibration that followed her through the halls, into the kitchen, out the front door, like a perfume or a shadow.

I used to love to hear her hum; now, I hate it.

I know it means she’s entering the draft.

It’s unlikely she’ll be chosen, Dad reminds her. A lot of people are entering, volunteering, to be sent away—wherever they want. Whenever they want.

“Crazier things have happened,” she reminds him. As if we need to be reminded. As if our life isn’t a constant reminder. As if the sudden reappearance of her humming hasn’t already segmented our lives into before and after.

Before: when he was gone.

After: when—if—her name is chosen. He’ll be back with us as soon as she gets the chance to go through.

The announcement of the machine—the flurry of news articles declaring MAJOR SCIENTIFIC BREAKTHROUGH – MONUMENTAL LEAP FOR MANKIND, the ribbon cutting ceremony, the human trials, the inevitable backlash from the religious groups—had stirred something within her that we were all sure had died long ago. Yet, there it was—a spark, a smile, and a simple melody lingering behind.

With the promise of the draft looming in front of her, she becomes the mom I knew from years ago. Before the swirl of police lights lulled me to sleep, before the MISSING posters, before the kids at school all knew my name and whispered it like a curse word in the hallways. Before the endless onslaught of nightly news stories about us—about the family left in the wake of tragedy, about a missing boy.

She’d only gone inside for a minute.

That’s what she swore to the police. She never left us outside alone, especially not him—the youngest, only three-years-old. But she’d heard the phone ring, and, thinking it to be my school, or maybe her mother, she ran inside to answer it. She couldn’t have been gone more than a minute. She was sure. She hadn’t wanted to disturb his play. She hadn’t wanted to drag him inside, on such a beautiful day, for nothing.

Life is segmented by moments. Some small. Some not so small.

All—since the invention of this machine—changeable.

When she came back outside, he was gone. Vanished. I’m so fucking sick of hearing the words into thin air.

“When I get chosen,” she tells me late one night, brushing wet hair away from my face. “I won’t go inside. I won’t answer that fucking phone.”

I wonder what it will be like: one moment he won’t be here, the next he will. I wonder if I’ll remember the before.

We will be a family unscarred by the side effects of time, of moments. Of before and after.

But we will be a family again because of time. Because of the mutability of it.

Mom begins to hum again. She drags her fingers through my hair. It hurts, but I don’t tell her. I imagine her nails drawing blood from my scalp. I imagine her tearing me apart.

 

Hannah Gordon is a writer and editor living in Chicago. Her work has appeared in Hypertrophic Literary, Jellyfish Review, WhiskeyPaper, and more. She is the managing editor of CHEAP POP. When she’s not writing, she’s reading or hanging out with her two cats, Luna and Neville. If she could time travel, she’d go back and warn herself about the consequences of waxing your own eyebrows.

Bingo by Josh Denslow

My future wife and I sit in adjacent booths in a coffee shop when the internet crashes and we look up from our dating apps like groundhogs discovering our shadows. She lifts her delicate hand, her arched finger like a stamen, and pushes an imaginary button between us. “Bingo,” she says.

Behind her, two people jump up and hurry through the front door, their coffee forgotten on the table.

“I’m Lily,” she says from the seat across from me. In all the commotion, I hadn’t seen her move. She has a face so beautiful it seems almost impossible for her to exist. After the way things ended with my ex, it’s easy to feel like I’d never be able to hold on to that kind of beauty again.

“Tell me something that isn’t on your Bingo profile,” she says.

“I’m not as funny as I think I am,” I say.

“No one is.”

“I guess I’m pretty lonely.”

“The human condition.”

I suddenly want to tell her something she can’t render mundane. “I got a boner once when I was petting a cat.”

She laughs so hard that her dark eyes narrow and her nose wrinkles, and I want to be the only person in the world to ever cause that to happen again.

“Will you marry me?” I ask.

“Let’s start smaller,” she says.

“How about a scone?”

“Deal.”

I go to the counter, but it appears all the employees have walked away. The coffee machine gurgles and the refrigerator whirrs. Then they both stop at the same time. The electricity has gone out.

I turn and watch the ceiling fan above Lily slowly come to a rest. The small group sitting at the back booth begin stuffing croissants and bagels into their bags and then push out into the street.

Lily and I are alone.

“Everyone’s gone,” I say. A dozen people run past the front window, car horns blaring at them. “Should we go?”

Lily glances around the empty coffee shop. “I want to finish my coffee first. I’m tired of running away.”

I return to my chair. “I don’t want this moment to end either,” I say.

She laughs again, but this one is different. It’s a defense mechanism. “Here’s something I don’t write on my profile,” she says. “I’m uncomfortable outside the noise of the world. If I’m seen in any way, I run.”

And in that moment, I feel I can truly see her in a way I hadn’t before. She’s a bird, wings extending, testing the wind before launching into the air.

“If it makes you feel any better, no one ever notices me,” I say.

She nods. “Not until all the distractions are gone. And then…”

We lapse into a perfect silence where we drink coffee and spiritually lean into each other. The coffee shop is so quiet now that I can hear my nervous system buzzing in my ears.

“Why did your last girlfriend leave you?” she asks.

“Who said she left me?”

“You did. When you said you were lonely and you weren’t funny. Like you’d been spending a lot of time wondering what went wrong.”

I can’t argue. “My ex left me because she said I didn’t fight for her. Which I didn’t. But I would’ve also had to fight this really huge guy from her work.”

“You have to choose your battles.”

Plates rattle in the kitchen and silverware clatters to the floor. I look to the counter hoping an employee has returned, and maybe I’ll be able to order more coffee and drag this moment out for as long as possible. No one is there.

“I haven’t given a Bingo to anyone in the app for weeks,” she says. “But I keep scrolling and scrolling and scrolling. And I never look up.”

“I Bingo everyone,” I say.

She shakes her head with a smile. “Sounds pathetic.”

“Didn’t I mention that? I’m pathetic too.”

We lock eyes as she takes her last sip of coffee. “Yes,” she says.

“What?”

“I’ll marry you.”

“I don’t think I was kidding,” I say.

Her eyes close and her lips part enough for me to catch a glimpse of her top teeth. “I don’t think I am either. Life is a risk, and I stopped taking risks for some reason.”

Then someone rams into my back and I lunge forward, my coffee spilling across the table. A guy moves toward Lily in a shirt that says DON’T HAVE A COW across the back.

The guy staggers and then falls onto her lap. She tries to push him away, but he clutches her around the waist. I grab a fistful of his hair and it peels off, scalp and all, and ends up as a clump of goo in my hand.

The man lifts himself up until he and Lily are face to face and takes a hold of the back of her chair with both hands.

“That’s my fiancée!” I yell and it feels good to say it. Then the man gurgles a wet inhuman sound and Lily punches him in the forehead.

That’s when it becomes clear. Something has shut down the internet and all the power, and with it, the zombie alarm must have been disabled too. Here I am with most interesting girl I’ve ever met, probably will ever meet, and she is about to be eaten right in front of me while my ex and her massive bald protector are still alive and well somewhere across town.

I leap forward and grab the zombie’s shoulders. His flesh bunches in my hands like slices of bologna, but I hold tight as Lily lifts her knees and pushes against his chest with her feet. He has an iron grip on the back of her chair, his mouth spitting and spraying as he snaps at her face. I widen my stance and yank, but even combined with the pressure Lily is exerting, we are all locked in this position.

I look over the zombie’s shoulder and there is Lily looking back at me.

“Bingo!” I yell.

“Bingo!” she yells back.

I have chosen my battle.

 

Josh Denslow’s debut collection NOT EVERYONE IS SPECIAL will be published in 2019 by 7.13 Books. He plays the drums in the band Borrisokane and edits at SmokeLong Quarterly.

Song of the Dart Frogs by Diana Clark

Zarina was as gold as the Colombian sun and intended on staying that way. Her body like wax, shining hot beneath the heat. Beetles and ants trembled in her wake, long tongue unsheathed at her command. Princess. Warrior. Black eyes like the moon at totality. The floor of the rainforest damp and sweet beneath her toes.

When it was announced that King Midas was in search of his true love, taken from him by the curse of some Warlock, the amphibians of the forest gathered in panicked whispers. They always think it’s us, one said, black speckled body shimmering with moisture, blue skin sharp against the deep brown of the rainforest’s earth. I am not waiting to be changed. There is no better body to be had. The red-bodied frog with blue limbs raised herself in agreement. I do not want to be handled, she said. I do not want to be kissed by human men.

Zarina sat inside her new flesh. Listened. The most poisonous of all the dart frogs, the Warlock had told her. He had not hesitated when she called for him, came quickly without question to her aid. Your new body will have enough toxins to kill up to twenty men. She had not intended on putting that power to use, planned only to stay deep within the rainforest, surrounded by her new people. But it was time, that much had made itself clear. It was her duty. It was justice. It was the only way she knew how to end it. If and when King Midas arrives, Zarina said, let him think I am his lost lover. I will handle it from there. They argued for a while. Protested. They didn’t want to see Zarina hurt. But she reminded them of her poison, the toxins flowing inside her like small rivers, and so they eventually agreed.

When King Midas came, it was all show. Charm. Thick blonde hair combed back in waves. White pants, white jacket, white cape, white steed: gold harness, gold belt, gold buttons, gold hungry. Zarina felt her tongue curl back inside her throat at the sight of him, felt his open palm cover her once human mouth, his teeth clenched together in anger as he thrust forcefully inside of her, hissing, Be quiet, someone will hear. Zarina’s cries not of pleasure but of pleading, of her wanting him off her, of his refusal. The cold and the dark. The immediate end to everything Zarina thought she knew.

Now, Zarina sat at six centimeters in length. Waited. King Midas noticed her almost immediately, a nugget of gold in the forest. “Zarina?” he asked. He propelled himself off his horse with a flourish so practiced it almost made her laugh. “Zarina my angel, my porcelain dove. What has he done to you? That Warlock. There were rumors, Zarina, horrible rumors in the castle, rumors that you asked for this, rumors that you summoned him. But I told them, I told them my perfect girl wouldn’t do that, not to me.” Then his eyes dripped from panicked to dark, simmering cauldrons beneath the surface. “I told them Zarina knows better, knows what would happen if she ever tried to leave me again.”

King Midas moved forward. Reached down. Pushed Zarina onto his open palm. It took everything in her not to turn away, but she could feel it—sweet, sweet poison, the curdling of her new flesh—knew that she would never find another moment of peace if she didn’t do this now.

Zarina sat, landlocked on his skin, as his lips came crashing into hers. “In order to save you,” he said, and, “You’ll respect me now, won’t you, Zarina?” When his lips pulled away—puckered and chapped—Zarina felt herself smile, could hear only the Warlock’s voice in the back of her head: They will die, those who touch you. They will die in three minutes flat.

Zarina watched, eyes black and unmoving, as the body of King Midas began to tremble, turned cold, dropped Zarina when the shaking became too much. She landed perfectly on padded feet, stayed quiet in the cool earth as King Midas thrashed and kicked, his skin pale then blue then pale again. He reached out to her, fingernails scraping and clawing the dirt, until finally he exhaled one last time. Zarina had been counting: two minutes and thirty-seven seconds. Oh, Warlock, she thought. The only human being I will miss.

Around her, the soft hum of her sisters, the song of the dart frogs. Zarina’s body shimmered. The only gold she ever wanted. The only gold she’d ever need.

 

Diana Clark is an elephant enthusiast and an MFA fiction candidate at UNCW, with a special love for LGBTQIA+ literature, magical realism, and sci-fi. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crab Fat Magazine, Peach Mag, The Passed Note, Heavy Feather Review, Longleaf Review, and more. In 2015, her piece “Singed” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. You can find her reading about pirates in Wilmington, North Carolina with her cat, Emily D.

Big Bad by Mary Hamilton

There’s this wolf outside my house. He’s tearing up trees. Throwing them over his shoulder. Making a mess.

He’s banging on the door. When I don’t answer, he pulls the sidewalk up like it’s tape on a cardboard box. He uses the mailbox post like a toothpick. He’s tearing this house apart piece by piece. From the right angle, it still has the façade of something whole, but there are holes. The roof is collapsing, the stairs are gone, rubble where there used to be flowers, music, a home. And now, I don’t know where I’d even begin rebuilding. My neighbors have all moved away. He ate their roofs, their lawns, their porches. It’s just the two of us now. Me and him.

He’s pressed up against the front door, his tongue licking the lock. I’m pressed up against the other side, holding everything together. I listen to him breathe. Listen to his dripping teeth and gums. The slurping saliva. The wheezing breath. I can smell it. Then he starts the scraping. That one claw at the door. Scraping in the same space over and over. Going deeper. Never speeding up, never slowing down. Just a consistent, slow scrape at the wood between us. I can hear his breath, his hair, his tongue lolling out of his mouth. I manage enough breath to say, “What do you want?”

“I just want you to be okay,” he says, as that one claw breaks through the last of it.

 

Mary Hamilton’s work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and the Indiana Review. She lives in Minnesota.