Growth by Ben Segal

The tall guard who watches our building is growing. A few years ago he was unremarkable, but now he is enormous. He towers. Now he bends deeply just to shake hands or open a car door, as he often does for our building’s many guests

When I began to work here, the man was hardly memorable. He was a little gangly and his face was the kind of lean and acne-scarred that made one think, unfairly, of methamphetamines. His suits, already inexpensive, looked cheaper for draping his body. Yet there was something winning about him, a sweetness, a slight and almost pitiable magnetism.

He remains ungainly, but now he is impossible to miss. He grows perhaps an inch every three months and has just crossed to the other side of 8 feet.

I too am growing inexplicably. I gain almost a quarter-inch each year. It is not a noticeable phenomenon. Or, at least it’s not to most. I notice it. My mother thinks my posture has improved. For everyone else, the change is too slow to register.

But one day, when I am very old, I will be enormous. I will age into a stooped seven-footer and I will walk slowly past strangers who will imagine I was once a professional athlete. It will be nice, in that future, to lie about my feats of strength.

The guard, however, will not grow old. A body cannot grow like his and survive. His heart will swell and fail. He will die by nine feet, maybe a little past. This is a year away at most. He must know this, as we all do, but still there he is, opening doors, checking guests into the building. He is bending and smiling for pay.

We should not make him come any longer, I think. Surely it is a cruelty. Surely a building such as this – its teeming staff, its endless polished surfaces – can allow the man to stretch out peacefully on his own schedule.

Then again, why does the proximity to death make each hour worked that much more obscene? Perhaps it does not. Perhaps the entire bustle of this building is a slow atrocity. The same fraction of all our lives is wasted. The building is a stack of cruelty with clean bathrooms and packaged snacks.

I watch the giant pull open a glass door and can think only of a general strike. He holds the door open and we nod to one another. I ride the elevator to my office, and I am silent, and I am basically mostly good.

 

Ben Segal is the author Pool Party Trap Loop (Queen’s Ferry Press), co-author of The Wes Letters (Outpost 19), and co-editor of The Official Catalog of the Library of Potential Literature (Lit Pub Books). His short fiction has been published by or is forthcoming from The Georgia Review, Tin House, The Collagist, Tarpaulin Sky, and Puerto del Sol, among others. He currently lives in Los Angeles.

How I Learned About Evolution by Michelle Ross

Dad wouldn’t let me go to school with the other kids in town. He said school was for people who couldn’t or wouldn’t think for themselves. Other things that were for such people: the internet, greeting cards, and breakfast cereal, to name a few.

Dad worked as an inspector for a sports sock manufacturer. His job was to check socks for imperfections—holes, loose threads, and whatever else went wrong with socks. He had an eye for flaws and took pride in finding more defective socks than any other inspector. Officially, Mom was my teacher. She didn’t have a job outside the house, though she did have laundry and dishes and a toilet to scrub. Unofficially, they split the curriculum pretty evenly. Mom taught me rain with a silver metal colander. “See how the water pours out of all those holes?” Dad taught me sun with a yellow flashlight. “It turns on for day. It turns off for night.” He flicked the flashlight’s chunky switch. Mom taught me Earth with a buttermilk pancake. “We’re about right here,” she said, pointing just off-center of the middle. Dad taught me birds with a helium balloon. “It’s filled with flying gas.”

Dad was an inventor when he wasn’t inspecting socks or overseeing my education. Perhaps he thought of himself as an artist. He didn’t apply a word to his tinkering in the shed with scraps of metal and wood and string. He built countless useless things. Over the years, these things proliferated in our yard and our home, crowding out everything else. Grass yellowed then crumbled because sunlight no longer touched it. Trees became stunted, gnarled. I bruised and scraped as I made my way to the bathroom in the dark of night.

Mom never spoke a disparaging word about Dad’s creations, but she navigated our house gingerly, as though any step could set off a booby trap. Sometimes I found her staring worriedly at one of his hunks of metal like she had at the trail of ants that had entered our house from a crack in the wall above the kitchen sink one dry summer or the lone earwig she’d once found wedged between bristles of her toothbrush. When she saw me, she’d return to her cleaning or cooking or mending. She’d smile, the worried look flicked away like a speck of grit from her eye.

Then one day, Dad erected a thing so enormous, so hulking, I said, “It looks like a dinosaur.”

We were out near the shed. It was dusk. He’d been teaching me fireflies. “Like the sun, only smaller, and on and off faster,” he said. “They have to blink off frequently or else they’d burn alive.”

When I glimpsed the shadowy, towering figure through the shed’s darkened doorway, my spine tingled.

Dad’s expression quickly sharpened. “Dinosaur? What do you know about dinosaurs?”

I told him Mom had taught me that humans were why the dinosaurs went extinct. We overhunted them.

“Extinct?” he said. “What do you know about extinction?”

When Mom emerged from the bathroom after taking her nightly bath, Dad and I were waiting for her in the hallway. He was squeezing my arm too hard, as though he were trying to crush whatever was inside.

He said, “You believe in dinosaurs?”

Mom’s hair was wrapped in a red towel that sat upon her head like a lampshade. She was silent for a long moment. Then she said, “I saw a footprint of one once. In Utah. When I was her age. It was the size of a toddler.”

Dad said, “A footprint? You mean a shape carved in dirt?” He shook his head in disgust.

Mom said nothing, but I saw with my eyes how her face shifted.

Another lesson I’d learned via pancakes, though this one I’d acquired without either of my parents’ instruction, was irreversible change—how some transformations, such as gooey, drippy pancake batter cooking on a hot griddle, can’t be undone. When a pancake wrinkles around the edges, a signal that it’s cooked on bottom, you better flip that pancake fast before it scorches, before it’s ruined. There isn’t any starting over again. Hardened batter is no longer and never will be batter again.

 

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 appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, The Pinch, and other venues. Her work has been selected for Best Microfictions 2020 and The Wigleaf Top 50 2019, as well as been a finalist for Best of the Net 2019, among other awards. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review. You can find her at www.michellenross.com.

Stranger Disconnected by Darren Nuzzo

The banner atop the webpage says you’ll be paired with seven F’s for every two M’s – that’s how they get you. The ratio is actually much different. I’ve only seen one F. She was thirteen and from the Philippines. I asked her Buttigieg or Biden and she thought I was talking about laundry detergent. When she lived in Quezon City, her family used Ariel. In Manila, they switched to Zonrox. Then the conversation moved to dish soap until we ran out of opinions on the matter. That was my one experience with an F. Mostly, it goes like this: M 22, M 27, Stranger disconnected. It’s a good idea for a website, linking one stranger to another. It’s just that the math doesn’t add up. M’s want F’s and F’s are smarter than that. For me, I just want someone to talk to. So I’ve changed letters, fixed the problem for most everyone. Things have been going much better ever since. Are you tall? is one of my favorite things to ask. You sound tall, I like to assure them. That always makes the M feel big and strong, and I know that’s important. I like to ask what they do for work. If M says he does construction, I say, “Like an architect.” If M says he hasn’t read a book in eleven years, I say, “There’s nothing found between pages a smart guy like you can’t find on Earth.” When M says he has insomnia, I say, “The brightest minds always do.” And when M tells me all the good things about his penis, I let him know that I really believe him. They never want me to leave. But I say goodnight and move to the next, well aware of this unique opportunity I’ve been given, the chance to put the most good into the world at the cost of the least evil, sinning to the smallest degree possible, telling man everything he needs to hear, lying by just a single letter.

 

Darren Nuzzo is the author of I’ll Give You a Dollar If You Consider This Art—a collection of stories, essays, poems, and comics.

Concerning the Power Cord by Lyndsie Manusos

You are what you watch. Every few years, my schedule fills up with requests for separation. I can sense the onslaught of demands before it happens, the sizzle of static permeating off the screens. The air changes. The tiny hairs on my neck and arms stand to attention, as if lightning is about to strike.

I have plenty of TVs to go around now, from all the separations. My basement is full of them from people coming to me and pointing to their heads, a big screen blinking in an out where their face should be. Sometimes the screen bursts into static and the shape of a face peeks out through the grey.

“Help me,” they beg.

I promise them to try.

They seek to be separated, to become themselves again. Screens made flesh. It’s dirty work, and to be honest, it isn’t always successful, but someone has to do it–it–it–

 

heard it through the grave vine. California grapes from the California vineyards.–

 

Like I said, it’s dirty work. I’d separate from my screen, too, but separating requires knowing who you were before the screen. I don’t know who I was before this. There are scars on my neck and shoulders, as if someone scratched away trying to find where blood and bone ended, and the wires and plastic began. An amateur move. Of course, at some point I know I must have been the amateur. But years of practice and research have taught me that the point of separation is through the TV itself. Through connection. The power supply. I ask patients to bring their power cords. I plug them in and find the channel that fused them. Then we go through the act of separating from there.

Lately, with the people coming to me for help, it’s almost always a news channel that connects them. People are often yelling at each other . Occasionally it’s an old game show network, or reruns of sitcoms where there’s so much clapping–clapping­–clap–clap–

 

Clap on! *clap-clap* Clap off! *clap-clap*–

 

My screen is a tabletop Trinitron, and my phosphor bars are freaking the fuck out. Plugging myself in doesn’t help. My screen is fading. My signals are jumbled. I have to smack the side to get it to stop. My old self is trying to tell me something. Clues of who I was, where I’ve been. Now, I’m the only one, at least that I know of, who can separate people from their screens, who knows the steps. I could teach someone, but then I’d have to ask them to give up their old life, to become the screen. Become this–this–this–

 

This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs.

 

Did I used to like eggs? When I get these hiccups, I like to daydream about images that stay with me. Maybe I used to cook eggs in the morning. Maybe I used to stir cocoa powder in a glass of milk and suck the clumps of chocolatiness over my tongue.

Maybe I’d been in love.

The most intimate I’ve been in this life was when a person came to me for help with their small screen stuck on a reality show. The scene kept playing on repeat. The screen showed a crying woman reaching for someone just off camera, begging, “But you don’t understand! I love you for God’s sake!” She was keening with passion. The person clutched my hand as I separated the screen. It was a hell of a screen too, an early 90s plasma. After I was finished, it clunked to the ground. Without the screen, a man sat up on the table, the angles of his face perfectly arched and beautiful. Long eyelashes. Curly hair. Like someone straight out of a soap opera. He leaned in and took my old Trinitron between his hands and kissed the plane of glass where my lips would’ve… should’ve… been.

“Thank you,” he whispered, pressing his forehead to the glass. He took big gulps of air and then kissed me again.

I usually store these TVs in the basement until they’re covered in dust, but I keep that 90s plasma close to me. When I plug it in, the scene still shows: “But you don’t understand!” Her lips are full, glossy. I wonder what the man’s lips would’ve tasted like if I had lips again. I wonder whether it would tasted like–tasted–taste–taste–

 

tastes great, less filling!–

 

Listen, I don’t have much time.

The feeling has come again, a resurgence leaving thick ozone tickle along my skin. Everyone is watching, and everyone is angry. Soon, there will be too many TVs to separate, and I will be long gone. I’ll clear out the basement and leave them on front lawn of my house like some zombie MTV cemetery. A Panasonic for you. A Sony for you. A Zenith for you.

And with the amount of separation demands rising, the world better take note, better change the fucking channel. Better clutch their beating hearts, their fleshy heads. My heart and head are still in there, somewhere, buried beneath the wires and phosphor bars, beneath the knobs and power button. My–my heart–no, no, my–my–

 

my buddy, my buddy, my buddy and me

 

maybe she’s born with it

 

­–loving it–

 

Please check the power control settings. The power supply may be interrupted.

 

Lyndsie Manusos’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, CHEAP POP, Passages North, and other publications. She lives in Indianapolis with her family, and writes for Book Riot and Publishers Weekly.

Careful by Dan Sanders

If there’s anything I know about, it’s being careful. I don’t like the idea that anything could happen by accident. I like a schedule. I like clocks. I like a list. I like to bake. I like method and precision and avoiding anything that would disrupt this, like other people, animals, I don’t own anything fragile. I don’t like to own anything that might break or would be difficult to reacquire if I misplaced it, though I don’t misplace things. Everything has a place, and I will put it there. I am careful of who I speak to and why. I don’t wear shoes in the house. I have house shoes but mostly for show, in case someone asks. I don’t sleep with socks on so my feet can breathe. I read an article about gangrene that set me straight about feet.

I don’t take any medicines, before you ask. If you go to the doctor and ask for medicine your name gets put on a list, and then the police see the list if anything out of order ever happens. Even if you’re not involved, even if something just near you happens, they’ll ask about that list. It’ll say you’re on drugs and then they throw you in some dark hole. Medicine? No. No, absolutely not.

I live alone and quietly. I keep the radio down. I don’t have any hobbies that make noise, or require me to make nose. I avoid calling attention to myself. Noise gets in my chest, seizes me solid, tries to break me apart. I drum with the pads of my fingers against my temples sometimes to make sure I can still hear, that I am still there, that I am in perfect working order. Three taps, each side, all clear.

I keep myself busy. I have projects and hobbies because I don’t want to go crazy. I collected stamps until I heard some of the glue was poison, switched to puzzles. I put the stamps in the fireplace, burned them, reconsidered my fireplace, bricked it over. Bricks are made of cancer dust, compressed. I covered my house in plastic sheeting, left it up for weeks to catch the particulate when I wasn’t around to vacuum, sealed in a containment suit of my own design, trash bags and scotch tape, holes for my arms and legs.

I bought a computer, but I try not to use it. It was a good distraction but potentially addicting and dangerous, a kind of mind control. Even though I stopped using it, I don’t bring liquid of any kind into the room where I keep the computer which I’ve dubbed “The Computer Room.” I also, as general practice, don’t leave glasses half full of liquid near anything. I’m careful about liquid and I know a lot about stains.

I speak to my landlord as little as possible and my neighbors even less. I’m considering moving to the woods or the desert, I wonder about why I don’t live there already, and it’s mostly to do with ordering in. Ordering food in is expensive, though I am particular about saving. I invest. I am risk averse. I get 30 minutes of exercise a day and will soon enough money to sustain me in this room until I am 120 years old, not that I want to live that long or even much longer, but I could, it’s been done. I do yoga, I stretch. I drink bright purple juices and eat dark leafy greens. I order them in, like I said, repeating myself, making sure it’s clear, I am to be understood.

Food is tricky. I try not to cook because the stove has a spot of rust and the vent rattles when it’s on. It’s broken. The landlord said it still works. But broken is broken, broken is a degree of not working, I can see it still works but it rattles so it’s broken. Rattling is step one of a larger problem that will lead to total failure and eventually that thing is going to snap off and send a blade flying into my head or bring the vent crashing through the ceiling and down on top of my head, destroying my kitchen and dinner.

In a pinch I’ll leave the vent off but keep an eye on it. Cook staring straight up, blindly burn my hands, season my food with tears and curse words. I try to be quick about it. Mies en plas. You’ll get cancer if you stand in the chicken and vegetable fumes, whichever fumes, doesn’t have to be chicken. Whatever you cook has fumes. I’m mostly white meat and vegetables. Maybe a tofu. Press that down for a week or two though, I don’t trust that tofu water.

This vent is criminal. I have a carbon monoxide detector in every room of the house. I test them three times a week, along with the smoke detectors. I do not smoke. Of course I do not smoke. I go to the deli when I check the mail. I check the mail a lot. Just in case. I wear gloves when I open the mail in case it’s full of poison. I’m wearing gloves right now.

I was considering buying plastic sheeting for the door handles until I heard that the metal in door handles is anti-microbic or antibiotic or something. Germs hate stainless steel for some reason; they touch it and break apart. I looked into getting more stainless-steel surfaces, tables, chairs, anything that could kill simply by existing. I could sleep strapped down to an operating table or standing up in steel tube like an iron maiden. Something to contain me, keep me right in line and hidden, somewhere I could breathe for once, somewhere I could go to just scream and scream and scream.

 

Dan Sanders is a writer of short fiction, essays, and vending machine repair guides. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Hong Kong Review, Coffin Bell, Bridge Eight, and wherever fine vending equipment is sold. His novella The Loop will be published this Fall by Anvil Press. Bad drawings of his writing can be found at dan-sanders.com.

Diets by Lucy Zhang

1. Pescatarian

This girl doesn’t eat meat. But she eats eggs, lobster, mussels, cod, and Bronzini. Sometimes she’ll even buy pork bones to make broth for pho but she won’t eat the meat. She might give the bones to the albino dog she’s babysitting. Her dad asks her how she’s going to get any complete proteins and she wonders how to explain to a research chemist that eggs and seafood are sources of all essential amino acids. Amazing what stubbornness does to science, she thinks when she hears another “meat is not the same” blanket statement argument. Instead of responding, she thinks of the turtle and the rabbit she had when she was eleven. The rabbit stayed in a cage in their backyard while the turtle stayed in a bucket. Both were fed plain short-grain white rice–everything eats rice, her dad had said. One weekend she left the turtle out on the patio, thinking it was too slow to get anywhere so it at least deserved to be free of its confines of the bucket. The next day, the turtle was gone and the rabbit was still there and she thought it might get lonely so she set the rabbit free too, hoping both animals would survive the winter. She found a dead turtle with its head sunken into its shell three days later. It’s always three days. One day of searching, one day of worrying, one day to settle the uncertain dread in an unexpected discovery on the walk back from the school bus stop. She carried the carcass with her bare hands and buried the turtle in the front yard with a gardening spade. In retrospect, she shouldn’t have felt too guilty: it would’ve died anyway; rice didn’t have enough nutrients to sustain it.

 

2. Vegetarian

The girl doesn’t eat meat or seafood. She eats eggs though. Eggs are cheap and versatile. She can buy a dozen for slightly over one dollar. She poaches them, stirs them into soup, scrambles them with chives. When her boyfriend climbs through her window to visit, she makes them omelets with cheese and onion because even though dairy gives her a stomach ache and her parents find cheese stinky, she wants it as much as she wants it to be ok for her boyfriend’s skin color to contrast her own. To have sweet potato and marshmallows casserole on Thanksgiving. To watch the Super Bowl while eating guacamole with tortilla chips. But her parents look over her shoulder, see her graduated and married with a baby of the same hair color and eye color, so she tells them she’s still single and it’s too early to worry.

 

3. Vegan

This one is tricky. She’s vegan but in secret. A best effort sort of thing. It’s easier now since her mom went through chemotherapy and they’ve stopped drinking milk, cut down on meat, ditched the butter. They take walks around the neighborhood five days a week and her mother’s hair grows back. The girl didn’t find out about her mother’s breast cancer until the night of the operation. It would distract you from your studies, they said. It sure would, she thought. But then again, the tendency to latch onto secrets, bury them so deep you no longer remember it’s a secret but rather an unspoken truth, runs in the family. This is how she stays vegan–at the dinner table when she avoids meat by talking about her belly flop into the pool after a poorly executed forward dive, at school when she hides in the library with the guise that is not entirely a guise of work and study.

 

4. Keto

Her coworker lost twenty pounds eating avocados and chicken. That much fat makes her nauseous. Also, fat only makes her hungrier. She needs volume to be full: a bowl of boiled cabbage, an enormous Granny Smith apple, a pot of miso soup. She doesn’t like the idea of pouring cups of oil into dumpling filling or mixing butter with coffee.

But she tries it.

Before her dad moved to the United States, he and his siblings ate congee: clouded water with a few specks of rice. More water if they needed to fill their stomachs without spending all of the money.

When they were poor, her parents’ income meant she qualified for free peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at school. She’d never had peanut butter before. It was almost the most delicious thing she’d tasted so far in America, right behind the ice cream that she tried to microwave because grandma said you’re only supposed to eat foods warm.

She needs to buy coconut oil and grass-fed beef and free-range eggs. She needs to give away half her pantry that she can no longer eat. Maybe her parents will take it even though they’re only cooking for two now.

 

5. Something in between

The girl loves her family very much and will eat whatever they put on the table.

 

Lucy Zhang is a writer masquerading around as a software engineer. She watches anime and sleeps in on weekends like a normal human being. Her work appears in TIMBER, Ghost Parachute, Scoundrel Time, and elsewhere. She can be found at https://kowaretasekai.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.

Wetted Appetites by Molly Gabriel

We date for three months before I agree to go the farm to meet his family. I hesitate because he calls his parents by their first names. He says, “Grey and Judy want to meet you.”

I agree because he cooks for me. Well, dehydrates. Elijah dehydrates vegetables, presses and pulverizes until they almost pass for pasta.

* * *

We arrive at their front door after noon. The air is warm and thick with precipitation. He rings the bell then kicks the door. A teenaged boy wearing a bandana and muslin shorts answers.

“Judy is counting the seconds,” the boy says.

“Blame it on her—she got her period on the way here and had to stop. Twice.”

Elijah moves through the door. My face pinks in embarrassment.

“You’re Amelia?”

“Yes.” I try to collect myself.

“My brother calls you?”

“Lemon.”

“Bo,” he says. He reaches, takes my overnight bag from my hand. “Don’t call me Bowie.”

“Okay.” I follow them through the hall to the living room.

Elijah calls, “Ready?” And throws open the double doors to the farm.

 

An enormous tent flanks the house, looms over their garden. Grey and Judy lounge at a cast iron table at its center. On the table, a tea set stands on a large, handcrafted wooden tray. They’re each beautiful. Serene. Butterflies land and launch from Judy’s hair. Grey’s face is lined from effort and intellect. I believe he seduced many women in his heyday.

Judy rises and rushes to us. She puts her palms at his face. Squeezes.

“The prodigal son,” she says. His eyes drift to me.

“Lem.” He says, still in her grasp, “This is Judy.”

Her hands drop. She turns to me. “Amelia. I understand I have you to thank for the visit.”

“I can’t take credit,” I say. Her glance moves to Grey. He stands to greet me, turns first to his son.

“I thought we agreed you’d call when you got close.”

“No, sir,” he says. “You agreed.”

Bo appears again at the door to the house. “I’m ready.” Grey turns again to me.

“I think it’s time we all ate.”

 

Judy produces a plate of leaves I’ve never seen. No one moves to touch or eat them right away.

“We hear you’re a poet.” Grey says to me. Bo watches hungrily, as if preparing for a hunt.

Judy rearranges the leaves into geometric patterns. The plate takes new life with each configuration.

“She writes hybrid forms,” Elijah corrects. I grab his leg.

“Oh. What about?” Grey asks me.

“My tongue,” Elijah says. He laughs. Grey’s eyes move to me.

I let my hand fall from his leg. “I actually just wrote a series about containment.”

“Containment?” Judy’s eyebrows raise.

“Responses to entrapment—the physical, the self, the soul.”

“How interesting,” Grey says.

“Lem likes to examine feelings of suffering at the hands of others,” Elijah adds.

His parents’ gazes slide to me like sighs.

“That’s true,” I say.

Though, I almost hate him now.

 

A purple and yellow butterfly—a species I’ve never seen with wings the size of hands—flutters softly to the plate. Lazes on the leaves. Blinks its wings open, closed, open.

Judy puts her fingers to its wings. She works her hand over, carefully, then quickly crumples the wings. She lifts the destroyed life to her mouth. She bites. The purple wings stain the open hole of her mouth as she chews. She closes her eyes. Savors. She wipes her lips with a napkin, smiles, reveals teeth stained the color of a bruise.

Below the table, I grab his hand.

Grey continues, “Have you always wanted to study poetry?”

Another large, yellow-purple butterfly hovers around us. Bo snatches it from the air and rushes it into his mouth. He chews vigorously, crunching and snapping.

“Poetry,” I clear my throat. I watch two more butterflies drop onto the leaves, “always excited me.”

Grey picks up a butterfly by the wing, works it into his mouth. Judy plucks another, pinches its wings between her fingers. The body resists, flails. Then it’s gone.

“You two must be famished,” she says. She holds it to us—to him.

Elijah hesitates. His eyes linger on mine before moving away.

“Mom,” he says.

“It’s one.” She holds it closer. Softens. She whispers, “I know you’ve missed us.”

He looks away from me. Opens his mouth, allows her to press it in. He chews slowly.

I let him go.

“Amelia?” Grey says. “Can we get you anything?”

“No. Thank you,” I say. Butterflies descend and drift towards us from the bushes like music notes. “I’ve brought my own snacks.”

I pull the book from my purse. I tear out the first page. I rip pieces the size of butterfly’s wings. “I’m vegan,” I say.

I lay a piece on my tongue. I can feel the acid of the page dissolving. And I shiver.

 

Molly Gabriel is a writer and poet from Cleveland, Ohio. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, Hobart, and Barren Magazine. She is the recipient of the Robert Fox Award for Young Writers. She has been selected for flash readings with Bridge Eight Literary Magazine and the Jax by Jax Literary Festival. She lives in Jacksonville, Florida with her husband and toddler. She’s on Twitter at @m_ollygabriel.

10 Facts About a Winter Day, 2021 by Hallie Nowak

On this winter day in 2021, there were many things happening.

1) Bees were officially classified as extinct. The final bee’s body was being kept in the museum of All the Things That Died and Could Never Be Born Again. The last bee’s wings were pinned with care in a small glass case. The glass case was labeled “The Beginning of the End: Here Flies Forever the Final Bee of Planet Earth.”

2) Although it was winter, it hadn’t snowed at all. In fact, not one fleck of snow had come down. This was the first time in the history of the Northern United States that the temperature stayed above 50 Degrees up until December. No one could predict if it would actually snow or not. Most people assumed it wouldn’t. Many people didn’t care or pretended that they didn’t.

3) A girl was born with no face. She was born in North Dakota. Her parents wept not out of sadness, but out of frantic elation. At one week old, the faceless, nameless girl was shipped from North Dakota and placed in a glass box with two holes in it. The box resided in the same museum as the dead bee. Her face was labeled, “Do Not Touch Me.”

4) Hannah sat and drew a picture of her best friend with her skull cracked open and her brain exposed. She was careful in drawing the thin, pink membrane that peeked beneath the fractured whiteness of her best friend’s head. This was not unusual. It was based around the lyrics to a Radiohead song. There was no other reason that she would have done this.

5) A human body is capable of surviving three days without water and three weeks with no food. After her small, fluttery veins rejected the IV drip keeping her tiny body lukewarm and alive, the girl with no face and no name died two weeks into her exhibition at the museum. Nobody knew how to feed her.

6) There was no funeral for the girl, but if there was, the only person who would’ve wanted to come was the janitor of the museum. After hours, he would place his weathered hand against the cold glass of her box and watch what looked like faceless slumber.

7) When Hannah was seven years old, she often swung on her aunt’s swing set. On a winter’s eve several years before this one, she wandered out into the rare snow and swung. The hornets that miraculously survived winter fell onto her lap in a heap, still in their nest made of holes. As a result of the stings, Hannah couldn’t open her eyes for two days. She didn’t cry.

8) The night before this one, Hannah had a dream that bees were crawling into her mouth. This dream was also in close succession to her losing her virginity. She woke and wondered if the two things were somehow related. She wondered if this is how it felt to be in love.

9) After a very short intermittent period of emptiness, it was decided that the empty box of the faceless girl was to be filled with all of the found carcasses of dead bees that civilians had collected per government-issued command. The bee box was a sold-out spectacle. Everyone who had taste went to see the big bee box. One small boy, who pressed his rosy face to the glass, even suggested that each bee should have a name. All the other little boys agreed and their parents laughed in agreement.

10) At this moment, some ways away, Hannah hangs the portrait of her best friend on her bedroom wall. Hannah didn’t have plans for her life, and that was okay. It was okay, and she told herself so. Isn’t it possible to make things happen by simply telling yourself so? She turns off the lights with the flick of her wrist and leaves the room.

 

Hallie Nowak is a poet and artist writing and residing in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she is in pursuit of her undergraduate degree in English at Purdue University Fort Wayne. She is the author of Girlblooded, a poetry chapbook (Dandelion Review, 2018). Her work can also be read in Back Patio Press, Honey & Lime, Okay Donkey, and Noble/Gas Qrtrly where her poem, “A Dissected Body Speaks,” was awarded runner-up for the 2018 Birdwhistle Prize. You can find her on Twitter: @heyguysimhallie and on Instagram: @hallie_nowak.

Tumblers by Sara Lippmann

When Geoff’s out of town, it rains through our ceiling. Plinkety-plink, the sound a direct hit, but it takes me a minute to place and another to rise because lately attention and effort are in short supply. Could be anything, I tell myself, leaky sink, ambitious toilet. Rain – it’s not where my mind is. I add ice to my glass. Geoff got all these tumblers for his birthday, Princess Lea, Chewie, Willie Nelson, like the collector sets they used to sell at Burger King to offset the paper crowns which tore through every coronation. Who doesn’t love stamped on faces? (Hand wash. Don’t run the machine unless you want melted images; there are levels to fragile.) I don’t do dishes when Geoff’s gone, so we’re down to lowballs, invisible Bowie. It’s a quiet rebellion. I chew ice. Kids! Crunch! Clink! They are in the shower, one after the next, which is reassuring: water comes from somewhere. I set out rain catchers in the form of buckets, sauce pots, a soup tureen, but the drizzle becomes a downpour, the crack widens, saturating the plaster, which starts to flake in puzzle-shaped chips, my ceiling peels like a boiled egg, a cranial dissection of fetal pig. There’s no keeping up. Any second my kids’ spongy feet will poke through the sheetrock. Turn it off! I holler. Household emergency! But they either ignore or don’t hear me. Teenagers shower for hours, and still, they smell ripe and alive like they do. That night, I dream of being swallowed by flood. In the morning the water has receded but the crack has gashed open; it’s Cesarean. I call Geoff who says call someone. There’s a breach in my ceiling, I say. Don’t worry, someone answers, and I feel marginally better; Ma’am, he says, and I feel marginally worse. Help’s on the way, but the way isn’t today, and tomorrow’s the weekend, so now my ceiling’s a crater. Piece of cake on the phone becomes holy mother of God in real life, which is often the case with me. We thought it would be easy, help says. Only it’s never easy. A hole this size? It’s going to cost you. I know, I say. You’re lucky the roof hasn’t collapsed. Can you still fix it? Can’t be sure until we go in; the damage may be irrevocable. How old did you say your house is? When they step out to their truck I pee with the door open because it’s urgent, because who can be bothered, which means I’m scrambling when they return with headlamps and tools and assure me there’s nothing they haven’t seen. That’s when the objects start dropping. Rusted flatheads, faucet necks, newspapers from the Carter administration, a wig of red hair (mermaid not clown.) Support beams snap like kindling. They shine their lights in the dark. It’s a burial ground up there, they say, bona fide, as if otherwise I might not believe them. Have you found the body? I deadpan. Holy Grail? Other shoe? But it’s not even cute. Excavation takes time. They need to locate the source. Can’t just slap a patch on the problem. Guitar strings, dusty maps, a bicycle pump, ceramic dog with a chipped hind leg, an empty bottle of quinine, carousel of smoking pipes, torrent of swirled marbles, first edition of Arabian Nights, my mother’s valise, my misspent virginity, the balloon I swallowed in Florida, a shissel of sand, set of clothespin people, a boogerish round of rubber cement, and a terrarium of sea glass, leaf litter and bitter root. All day I watch things tumble and fall. How graceful, their descent, like apple cores from a window. Like ballerinas without heads. When I first came to New York, I’d sit on my grandmother’s terrace listening to opera on public radio. Boats passed beneath the Verrazano-Narrows. Princess Di had just died and a sinkhole threatened to devour her street block. Never in my life, she said, but I was young, then, riding the express bus in my discount blazer and happy hour bloat. Before the ceiling broke, I tried telling Geoff about the decline of scent, a global problem, thanks to extinct perfumes, lost correspondence, ossified insect wings, how I read once they’re gone you can’t get them back. He said I’d be better reading the news. When the men break for lunch, my home becomes mine again, so I lie on the rug beneath the pit, sleep drunk, like a fat black cat curls into a favorite spot and waits and waits for the sun.

 

Sara Lippmann is the author of the story collection Doll Palace. She was awarded an artist’s fellowship in fiction from New York Foundation for the Arts, and her stories have appeared in Berfrois, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Split Lip, Midnight Breakfast, and elsewhere. She teaches at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn and cohosts the Sunday Salon. Find her on twitter @saralippmann or online at https://www.saralippmann.com.

Stones Are Heaviest When Swallowed by Jen Julian

There is a girl who has ended up in the belly of a wolf. At first, she doesn’t realize that’s where she is, doesn’t remember the sequence of actions that led to her being devoured. She just knows that it’s dark and the walls are hot and sting-y and spongy, and they smell like blood and bog water. When she starts to figure it out, she’s more annoyed than anything. One minute she’s on her phone, wolfing down gifs and Riverdale fanart on Tumblr, the next she has been wolfed.

This wolf though, he’s not necessarily a bad person. Even though he’s a predator, it’s in his nature, and he really can’t help himself. Right now, he can feel this girl—nowadays, she’s a grown woman in her thirties, in case that matters—and she is heavy as a brick in his belly. She sits cross-armed and sulking in the folds of his stomach lining, and he can tell she’s going to be in there for a long time, like raw cabbage, difficult to digest. He tries reaching out to her. They might as well get to know each other.

“So you like Riverdale,” he says. “That’s a fun show.”

Minutes pass, and she sits there silent.

“That Jughead, what a dish, am I right?”

She gives him nothing. This wolf, who prides himself on having a generally charming personality, tries not to feel rebuffed and carries on with his day. But as he trots the shady, gravelly paths of the woods, his belly becomes bloated and pendulous. It’s hot out. He’s beginning to feel sick.

“I think they went off the rails with this latest season though,” he says. “Too many cooks in the writers’ room, you know?”

Inside the wolf, the girl is flushed and scalded. In the face of discomfort, she retreats into her head. She thinks in cartoons.

The wolf, by contrast, thinks in fairy tales. He’s remembering another story about another wolf whose stomach is sliced open and filled with stones and stitched back up, all while he’s innocently sleeping, and when he wakes he feels wretched, heavy, dry as dust, and when he drags himself down to the river to drink, he falls in, sinks to the bottom, and drowns. What a horrible thing to do to someone. Most fairy tales are horror stories to wolves.

By the end of the day, the girl still has not said a word to the wolf. Nor does it seem he has made any progress in digesting her. He gets home and flops onto the floor, exhausted.

“You know,” he says, “trying to talk to you is painful. Like pulling teeth.”

The girl has not had very strong feelings about the wolf until now. When she hears the accusation in his voice, she’s at first fearful, then resentful. She is digesting a little bit after all; her skin is turning lacy, little pockets of red jewels. One day, maybe tomorrow, she’ll no longer have skin. She’ll be fully undressed, down to the bone, and who knows what will happen to her then.

In light of that, she musters her courage and replies to the wolf with the chill and precision of an injection: “I don’t like feeling pressured. I only respond when I feel compelled to respond.”

“Well, that’s a bit selfish,” snarls the wolf. “Conversation goes two ways, you know, you selfish child.”

He wants to say something else, but a cramp seizes him. He moans and rolls onto his back, massaging his lumbar muscles, struggling for relief. The girl rolls back and forth with him, rocked in the cradle of his belly. Maybe I am like a child, she thinks, because this rocking feels very nice. After a minute or so, the motion calms her fear and resentment and sends her back into the cloudland of her mind, all bright colors and sparkling anime eyes. Even in the fanfiction she writes, there is virtually no confrontation.

The wolf, by contrast, boils with conflict. The ridges of his cavernous mouth are sticky and taste of tar. His throat burns with bitter acid. Outside his house and down the hill, he knows he will find a clean, bright river. He would like nothing more than to go down to the river and slake his thirst. But he doesn’t dare. Oh no. He knows exactly what will happen.

 

Jen Julian is a transient North Carolinian whose recent work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Jellyfish Review, JuxtaProse, and TriQuarterly Review, among other places. She have a PhD in English from the University of Missouri and an MFA in Fiction from UNC Greensboro. Currently, she serves as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Young Harris College in the mountains of Northern Georgia.