A Universe Waiting to Be Born by Cathy Ulrich

In this universe, time is on a rewind, time is in reverse, and the girl detective gets unkidnapped, gets set back down on the sidewalk beside the gaping Thomas from chemistry class. He is thinking apples like smells hair her, and his smile goes and comes, white-toothed. The girl detective becomes unaware of the long black car turning round the corner, her head dips down and up as she listens to Thomas’s backward talk, as they go backward into the school, as they grow younger imperceptibly, as Thomas’s hand nearly brushes the girl detective’s, as it pulls away.

The sun falls back into its rise, birds migrate north for the summer, the spools unwind and unwind, and the girl detective sits at her bedroom window and thinks alone not am I. Universes and universes and universes are there.

The girl detective walks backward home, her mother plays Billie Holiday backwards, her father returns from a trip he hasn’t yet left for. They uneat their dinner at the long dining table, empty forks becoming full, tipping back down to their plates. There is a silence of unspoken words that surrounds them.

The girl detective heads backward to her birth, she will be unborn, she will be part of the fabric of everything, small and new in this reversing place, she looks out across a sea of universes and a sea of girl detectives going forward and away from her, and she wants to tell them, I know how it ends, I know how it all ends, but she is swallowed up in her beginning and carried with everything into a universe waiting to be born.

 

Cathy Ulrich always sets her clocks at least 10 minutes ahead, which is kind of the opposite of going backwards in time. Or something. Her work has been published in various journals, including Quarter After Eight, Ecotone, and Flash Frog.

Other Husbands by M.L. Krishnan

 We aspired to be like you, with your spouse and lover and child, with the way that you gathered and displayed men as though they were hand-hammered coins that you strung from your wedding girdle—your veshti-clad husband with a voice like the wind at sea and a throat filled with song, and your lover from Bareilly or Ludhiana or some other city from the North with an incomprehensible name, with his mongrel loyalty and film-star looks, and your beautiful child whose joy fell upon you like a meteor outburst, her laughter slopping cosmic debris around your toes sheathed in silver. It didn’t matter who the father of that child was. It didn’t matter that you deserved none of this, the love, the men and their fevered attention, the way that you held yourself so self-effacingly, as if to dare us, as if to say, look what I can do with this cratered skin, with my unplucked eyebrows and unshaved armpits, with my teeth, with this phlegm-colored nighty that hung on me like a military tent, vast and irregular and frowned with creases. As though your good fortune was a life-insurance agent with a steady name like Kannan or Manikandan who pressed his bearded face into your upper thighs, and you took him in with your homemaker dullness, just as you did everything else. You were never like us. We shone too much, we jumped too far, we stood tall and proud in our splendor, in our angles of nose and jaw and leg, in the way that we excelled at everything that we put our minds to: field hockey, polynomials, makeup, the devotional compositions of Saivite saints. Maybe that was our downfall. Your compliance, wielded like a razorblade that slid easily under men, under us, under the viscera of our anxieties, our love, slick and hot and foreboding to the touch.

 

M.L. Krishnan originally hails from the coastal shores of Tamil Nadu, India. She is a 2019 graduate of the Clarion West Writers’ Workshop, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Trampset, Paper Darts, Quarterly West, Sonora Review, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @emelkrishnan.

The Painted Moth by Jennifer Fliss

My boyfriend Mark and I were painting the walls of our shitty little rental. The landlord gave us permission, though he refused to replace, or even spot-clean the haggard carpet – dotted with who knows what from who knows when.

We taped up the door frame and windows and the perfect place where the walls meet the ceilings. Blue tape like bodily outlines saying a death had been there.

“You idiot. You did it wrong. Let me,” Mark said, as he used his body like an insult and pushed me out of the way. As he grabbed the tape roll, he left a patch of scratches on my wrist, like a special plaid. He was not a man who bit his nails and he rarely trimmed them, preferring to go for monthly manicures. He liked them in points. His daggers often left marks, and I often ran my own fingers over the cuts and felt the burn again and again.

In the quiet of a cricket night, the screen door open, I stood on a ladder painting the upper reaches of the bedroom. Mark crouched at the floor, working near the baseboards. I closed one eye for precision. Ran the brush in a smooth line, impressed with my even lines.

About two inches from the ceiling, I discovered a moth on the wall. It was the size of a half dollar, beige, as moths are, mottled like it was diseased. I saw its whisper thin wings flutter. Well, it was really more of a tremor, so faint was the movement. But as I got near, the moth stilled its subtle beating. I blew at it and thought about flicking it with my finger, but imagined it immediately turning to dust and crumbling, and I don’t know where I got that idea. I decided to leave it, but when I bent to dip the brush in more paint, it had moved. Spectral. The ghost had departed.

I painted a few more lines, and dipped again and continued to search the walls for the creature. It only took a moment to realize that the moth had moved a couple feet back and I had accidentally painted it over. It’s wings, thorax, even the fine antennae, now a relief, but not quite a work of art. I dropped the brush. Horrified. I stared at the winged creature, wondering what to do. I tapped its body with a fingernail, came away with a smear of blue. The moth only twitched its antennae and then stopped moving altogether. It stayed on the wall, a tempest blue fresco of a moth; it could’ve been a butterfly for all the paint.

The color we had chosen was Hawaiian Blue. It’s like we’ll always be on a honeymoon, Mark had said. I’d never been to Hawaii, so I wouldn’t know. And we never talked about a honeymoon since, or the pomp and circumstances that would lead to such a trip. The color was closer to the tears painted by children. We adults know that tears are clear and they dry white and phantom-like on our skin. They aren’t blue at all.

Up on the ladder, I felt a sudden surge and dropped my paintbrush. “Gotcha”! Mark growled as he grabbed my waist. I slipped down the rungs of the ladder and my head whacked the corner of the counter. I saw speckles. They looked like the wings of a moth. Of my moth. Of a moth shaking off its paint, its bindings.

“Ha,” Mark said, and went back to his corner to continue his important work.

Mark painted as I nursed my head with a bag of frozen corn. Mark called me lazy a few times with a smile. But he never noticed the moth as he went over to fix my mistakes.

We stayed in the house for four years. I’d made up many stories for the stains on the carpets. Stew. Coffee. Love. Miscarriage. Death. And nearly every night, under the great heft and misguided love of my boyfriend – who was still my boyfriend and not my husband, or even fiancé despite his move-in promises – I watched and waited for a sign from the moth. Whacha looking at? Mark would say before he came. Whacha looking at? as he rolled over and turned out the light. He never waited for the answer. I know because his snores quickly replaced his oh gods.

The moth, I understood was dead the minute I coated its not diseased but beautiful wings.

 

Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based writer whose writing has appeared in PANK, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, F(r)iction, and in the 2019 Best Small Fictions anthology. She is also the 2018/2019 Pen Parentis Fellow and a 2019 recipient of a Grant for Artist Project award from Artist’s Trust. Her debut short story collection, THE PREDATORY ANIMAL BALL, is forthcoming from Okay Donkey Press in November 2021. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or on her website at www.jenniferflisscreative.com.

After 70 Years in the Ice, Steve Rogers Visits Whole Foods by Emily Capettini

I.

The first time, he never makes it past the fresh produce section.

Steve stares at the leafy greens ivied against the far wall, radishes like low-slung suns through smoke. He recognizes the cloudy marbles of cabbages, tucked in with purple twins. Knuckles of ginger root and seven kinds of apples, piled high like pirate treasure. There are packages of fruit slices nearly as green as that liquor a grateful woman in Belfort had insisted they take. They’d known it, too, was a treasure excavated, cellar dust layered thick on the bottle.

One of his men had thrown up in a field later and Steve thinks that field must have grown lush since ’44, plants gone to seed decades-thick over where his boots sunk. How many ghosts layer there like impression fossils. Then, Steve had hoped to press his own mark on history, leave something for another to find.

Now, he fills his basket with fruits and vegetables bright enough to hurt.

 

II.

Steve goes to the far side of the store next time, back set against the lure of produce. He finds himself in front of a long case heaped with cheese like rubble. Steve rests his hand just inside the glass, the cool breeze a modern marvel he expects will never fade to ordinary. There are things that stay fixed, even in this new century: summers are still sticky in New York; a body still sweats.

He picks a few wedges of cheese, soft-rinded and dimpling under his gentle grip. They’d always been his favorites, even before hard cheeses disappeared overseas.

There was a day not long after Steve hung up that prop shield when he had to dart through a farm field gone fallow. He ducked into a cave, tried to remake himself small. Steve brushed against rough wood and found on top a cool surface that dimpled under his touch.

The search for him crossed back and forth in front of the cave, and Steve slivered off pieces of the cheese, letting each melt on his tongue until dawn or death found him first.

 

III.

Everyone gives him a double-take when they see him texting, as if a full keyboard would be any trouble after a telegraph. Steve sighs, wishing for the luxury of being unremarkable. The problem with imagination, he thinks, is it only looks forward.

If anyone ever bothered to ask him what he liked best about here, he’d say coffee. Not the lattes and specialty cafés that remind him he ought to see Rouen or Paris again, but the bins lining the aisles here, each tracing an origin that spirals somewhere else. He buys more than he can really drink, stacking it inside cabinets until his whole kitchen smells like coffee.

When he and his men were able to save up enough coffee for full cups to go around, they used to wish for another tomorrow, blowing away steam like birthday candles. Steve remembers the odd splendor of rest. The comfort of sitting squeezed together in whatever shelter they’d found or made. He never made his own wish, too aware of his still-new body’s mortgage.

There are thousands of tomorrows between him and those scraped-together evenings, now. Sometimes, Steve wonders if those wishes had been rationed out like the coffee, and his share is what finally pulled him free of that long sleep.

 

Emily Capettini is a queer fiction writer from the Midwest who loves a good ghost story. Her work has most recently appeared in places like Middle House Review and Lammergeier, among others. Her chapbook, Girl Detectives, is forthcoming from Porkbelly Press later this year. Find out more about her at emilycapettini.com.

The Cake You Bake Your Father is Not a Cake at All by Sara Torres-Albert

Writer’s tip: Panic-bake this story on your oven’s highest setting the afternoon after your dad’s birthday for best results.

INGREDIENTS:

Whatever dregs of groceries are left from last week’s haul. You have no time to shop.

PREPARATION:

Step 1: Bring your batter to a boil

Complete this step while beating stiff peaks into cream cheese like the froth of rabid waves. The kind that pitched your father’s stomach on the days he’d shell out a hundred bucks for two spots on a fluke boat and you’d dredge up nothing but barking sea robins as he floundered about the cabin, slipping the crewman a fifty to hook a fish on your line. The frosting will basically be meringue, and the toothpick you run through the yellow cake you pull from the oven will tell you it’s still soupy in the middle. The top will begin to burn. 

Notice your garbage bin eying your not-cake wantingly. Hurl your creation inside.

Tell yourself cookies mail better anyway. Cookies send a better message, too. Cookies say, See? I didn’t forget your 60th, and I totally didn’t blank on what to get you. Cookies are an act of love.

Step 2: Cream the butter until your heart aches

Settle on your go-to chocolate chip and leave three sticks of butter out to sit. Remember your mother won’t eat the cookies you send—not with her recent health kick. Notice the butter in its wax sleeve like a plaque-caked artery. If you know anything about your father it’s that his cholesterol has stunned three doctors and he’s compensated with fish oil and Alex Jones miracle pills ever since. Grate your teeth against the thought that maybe cookies don’t say I love you at all. Maybe if you really loved your father you would buy him an exercise bike or a juicer, an Apple Watch. At least you’d cut the sugar down by half. 

Step 3: Whip your flaxseed until it achieves egg-like consistency

The juicer you find on Amazon will be on backorder. Relent. Swap the butter for a vegan recipe by a mommy blogger with four and a half stars. Blend the wet ingredients first—the coconut oil and brown sugar, the vanilla extract. Check the yield and wonder what kind of lunatic writes a recipe that makes eleven cookies anyway. Mutter, The same kind of lunatic who puts flaxseed in dessert, under your breath. 

Tell yourself you’ve got to stop talking to yourself. Your father talks to himself and it’s always given you that fluke boat angry ocean churn, the same one you got on road trips when you’d finished telling a story and his twitching silence told you he was somewhere else, that he’d been somewhere else for some time. Stir over where it is he goes, where it is he’d rather be so badly he can’t help but beam up out of his skin without you. Your cookies will be a homing beacon—Earth to dad. Come in, dad. You’ve left someone behind.

Step 4: Mound your dough into generous golf balls

Admit you’ve felt weird toward your father since long before the abductions started, since half of every sentence your mother speaks to you became a dig at him after you asked if they were still in love at the movie theater when you were eight and she chewed the straw of her root beer through the previews and exhaled no. Swallow the fact that sometimes you’d like to tell her to shut up about him but you never summon the bile. So instead you let them wage their silent war tied up in birthday Apple Pays and holiday deposits, each extra twenty dollars that detonates in your bank account a declaration of who loves you more.

Think how fucked up it would be to send your father cash. More fucked up when you consider he just mailed your Christmas check. The money you’d send your father is a cash back guarantee. Plus twenty dollars? Plus fifty? Realize you don’t know how much you’d give him but you don’t know how to fucking bake either. Test your cookies to find that they are mineral oil and beeswax—food grade, sure, but better as table varnish than birthday treat. 

Say, Vegan cookies aren’t cookies anyway, talking to yourself again. Toss them out with the cake.

Step 5: No Guinness? PBR is fine

The post office closes in two hours, so find a nice beer bread recipe, done in forty minutes with prep. Recognize that your bread is a cheek gnawed with regret that your father’s not the type of dad you can grab a beer with. Fold in the protest—it’s not like you want him to start drinking. Just that maybe you’d have more to talk about if he did.

Step 6: If you can’t make your own salt, store-bought is fine

As you mix your ingredients, realize you haven’t spoken to your father in months. Guilt is the marrow that will weigh your bones before you remember he’s got your number too and you never know what to say to him anyway. Still, try him hands free and listen as the line cuts short. There will be no recording on his voicemail, the affectless beep alone. Your call will smack of the split lip you earned catching your face on the dining room table when you were five. Wonder if your father cries over you the way you’re crying now, whisking your salt into the batter. Wonder if he’ll recognize its tang.

Step 7: Season garbage with bread to taste

After twenty minutes in the oven, remove your bread to find the boule too sticky, your kitchen flourless. Feed your un-bread to the mass grave and buy an Amazon gift card for twenty bucks more than your father last gave you. Type, Happy belated, into the obligatory note space. I hope you buy yourself something nice.

Maybe he’ll get the juicer after all.

 

Sara Torres-Albert is a communication consultant by day, associate editor for the non-partisan youth vote initiative VoteThatJawn.com by night, and a fiction writer in the minutes in between. She lives in Philadelphia with her boyfriend and two cats.

Meat Bag by Hannah Gregory

Meat Bag goes to work. Meat Bag goes home. Meat Bag sleeps in her quiet, queen bed that she bought on the internet, that arrived in a narrow cardboard box with a common word for a company name with a non-essential letter missing (a silent e perhaps), that attacked her like a can of snakes when she opened the package, that off-gassed petroleum for a week. She bought a bedframe recommended by a Trusted Review Website because it was sturdy and reasonably priced; it only squeaks a little.

Meat Bag goes back to work in the morning. Her ceiling drips water on top of her head. Her boss accuses her of poking holes in the ceiling. Meat Bag wants to say that she would rather work on the first floor so she can be the first to drown when it floods, but the water dripping on her head is a good start. She wants to say this, but says she will try to fix the hole. She will be a good worker who loves her job as much as she loves her health insurance, so she can get her hormones and surgeries paid for, so she can be a Female Meat Bag, rather than a Meat Bag (culturally Meat Bags are assumed male, but the term can be used interchangeably for all Meat Bag genders; it is not a good system and Meat Bags hate it the most, especially when there are three gender options on surveys: Male, Female, Meat Bag). Meat Bag opens her lunchbox—another recommendation from the Trusted Review Website—and eats her lunch meats and cheese squares on artisanal crackers with imported olives and peak season strawberries on the side.

Meat Bag is stuck in traffic for several hours on her way home. She learns later that the driver just vanished in the middle of driving, causing a fifty-car pileup. Meat Bag also learns that the driver was another Meat Bag like her—the only fatality in the accident—but they reported her death using her old name and wrong pronouns. Meat Bag cries because that is what meat does when meat sits outside for too long. Meat Bag does not sleep well that night because there is a lump in her mattress that is not her dog. She is already past the 60-Night Sleep Trial Period so she cannot send her mattress to a homeless shelter as part of their 60-Night Sleep Trial Period Guarantee. Meat Bag tries to move to a different part of the bed, but Meat Dog takes up too much room.

Everyone gets their performance reviews at work the next day. Meat Bag has lots of Needs Improvements. Her boss tells Meat Bag that her best quality is how she shows up to work on-time. Meat Bag does not feel great about her job after her performance review. She sometimes hates being a Meat Bag. She wonders why she is part of this company, why she has to make incremental improvements in her life so she can have her health insurance and eat her estradiol too.

A co-worker comes up to Meat Bag and asks, “Hey, Meat Bag. You ever feel like a big ol’ bag of meat sometimes?”

Meat Bag looks at them and sighs. “All the damn time.” She tries to force a smile that shows them that they are in this together.

The co-worker looks annoyed and disgusted. “Why are you so weird?”

Meat Bag looks at her phone during her lunch break. She looks at reviews on the Trusted Review Website, because she wants a new non-lumpy mattress, but is disappointed that their top recommendation is the lumpy mattress she already owns. On the Feed, she sees an article about another vanishing Meat Bag, also misgendered, also deadnamed. Meat Bag wants to cry, cry. These vanishings are happening every day. She wants to know why this is not national news, why no one seems to pay attention except for a few people on the Feed. Everyone only seems to care about creating a separate Meat Bag Olympics and separate Meat Bag bathrooms so all Meat Bags can cram into a single stall and pee their Meat Pants while waiting in line because Meat Bags are apparently so numerous and pervasive that they are a threat to the integrity of national bathrooms and the Olympics. The ceiling drips with greater frequency on Meat Bag, so she moves her body and puts her garbage can under the drips.

That night, Meat Bag locks her dog out of the room and masturbates to videos of other Meat Bags like her. Seeing variations of her body eroticized turns her on, although her therapist tells her that this is a bad sign, that no one will give her hormones or surgeries if her idea of being a Female Meat Bag is because she is turned on by the idea of becoming a Female Meat Bag. She thinks this is old-fashioned as she wipes up the mess on her Meat Bag body. When she lets her dog back into the room, Meat Dog jumps on Meat Bag, licks her face, and jumps in the bed. The lump has gotten bigger in the mattress and Meat Bag cannot fall asleep that night. She thinks about all the other Meat Bags who have vanished. Raptured but not in a good way. She loves them and is sad about all the passion they left behind in this world.

At work the next day, Meat Bag’s boss tells her that everyone in the office hates her and that while meat is socially acceptable, it is inhumane. After her boss leaves, Meat Bag feels the water dripping on her head, turning into a thin stream, then a deluge. Her body becomes wet. Wetter than wet. She feels dissolved. She hopes that this is the flood that will take her away. She hopes that this is her turn to vanish.

 

Hannah Gregory is a trans, queer writer from Western Massachusetts. She lives with her wife and dog. More of her work is forthcoming in Passages North and X-R-A-Y. Find her on Twitter @hannah_birds.

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.

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.