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.

A Closed Door with a Keyhole by L Mari Harris

I turn to the woman standing in line behind me: There are two doors. Which one do you choose—left or right? She looks up from her phone, wary. What’s behind the doors?, she asks. This is a simple game to get to know one another, to see if we are compatible as friends. I stare back at her. You tell me.

My great-great aunt broke into neighbors’ houses with a bobby pin she’d pull from her big cinnamon–bun of hair. I never met her. My parents told me the stories, how once they found out what she was doing they quietly went around to the neighbors’ houses and tucked envelopes of cash in their screen doors to make up for the little things my great-great aunt was taking—a decorative hand towel, toothpicks in a little ceramic penguin, butterscotches and cocktail mints. I asked why none of the neighbors ever called the cops. Because they felt sorry for her. They said she had seen much, had basic needs that went unmet for many years, that these life experiences changed her. Bis auf die Knochen?, I asked. We didn’t understand her either, they replied.

I think of my great-great aunt in that big rambling house all by herself for all those years, living among furniture brought over from the old country, how my parents described room after room after room filled with those heavy uncomfortable pieces, how as she got older and frailer the dust collected. After she died, my parents sold off every last piece and locked the door behind them. I once told them it all sounded so romantic, living among the ghosts of the old country. It wasn’t, they said. It smelled like a terrible sadness.

My parents ask if I’ve met anyone nice when they call. This sounds like a trick question, I say. My mother huffs You know. Like a friend or maybe a special guy. I hear a muffled discussion, then my father crystal clear: We’re worried you’re all alone there. I tell them I’m surrounded by ten million people, how can I possibly be alone? Then I ask if my great-great aunt ever took any dishware, because I need a new set.

Sometimes I ride two stops past my stop so I can repeat the past on a leisurely stroll. The woman from the other day is coming out of a store and I fall in behind her. She’s carrying shopping bags in both hands. Her high-heeled boots quickly clip-clip-clip on the sidewalk, as if she has to get home because she has a million things to do before she finally gets a moment to herself. I stay half a block back, follow her to a brownstone. She pauses, tilts her face up to the door and stares before climbing the stairs. She shuts the door behind her and the stoop light goes out. The night blankets me once again, and I imagine children and a husband tugging at her as she tries not to show she’s rushing through dinner preparation and bedtime rituals. I wonder if she’d enjoy weekly dinners out, a chance to vent about children sticky with pancake syrup and snot, the husband mumbling under his breath You wanted them. I’d pick at her fries and tell her about my great-great aunt’s renegade life, how people called her spinster but they were dead wrong, how she had the ghosts of our ancestors from the old country to talk to and that suited her just fine. I’d tell her I could understand what it’s like having so many people in my life that I can’t wait to get rid of them for an hour or two.

I dream of a closed door with a keyhole. I can hear laughter, music, glasses tinkling. I look through the keyhole and see a woman, her hair twisted and pinned to the nape of her neck, her earrings catching the light when she tosses her head back to laugh at something someone is telling her. I look closer, and I’m the someone who’s making her laugh. The room is crowded, and we have carved our little spot along a wall to share our secrets. We laugh, reminiscing about how we met standing in line all those years ago, how I tapped her on the shoulder and asked her to pick the left or the right door. How she thought I was the most interesting person she’d ever met, how there was something so familiar about me.

 

L Mari Harris’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in matchbook, Ponder Review, (mac)ro(mic), Bandit Lit, Pithead Chapel, Tiny Molecules, among others. She lives in central Missouri. Follow her on Twitter @LMariHarris and read more of her work at www.lmariharris.wordpress.com.

 

Fly Fishing with God by Andrew Bertaina

In the first lonesome years after college, the man used to fly fish with God. They’d met through a friend of a friend, a mutual interest sort of thing. God didn’t have a car, and the man did. God wasn’t a freeloader. He just didn’t have an interest in learning to drive. Sometimes the man wanted to ask if God was a New Yorker, but the accent didn’t fit. 

On days they fished, the man awoke early, careful not to disturb his wife; her hair splayed across the pillow. She stayed awake late, staring into her phone, in the way of contemporary unhappily married couples. Sometimes she kept the lamp on late, read poems by a local author she’d met at the library. The man kissed her quietly and left.

God usually waited at the bus stop, smoking a cigarette and staring pensively into the middle distance, coins of light flickering on the underside of leaves, low slung clouds, pigeons bobbing about like buoys. 

The rides were strangely silent. God wasn’t much of a morning person. 

Let there be light, He said, But not so goddamn early. 

The man turned up the radio.  

Eventually, they climbed into the mountains and up an old road, which crossed, via a series of bridges, the raging torrent of the river, glittering blue green below. The sun arrived through the skinny trunks of lodgepole pines—diagonal strips of light, the sort of thing Vermeer would have really nailed. At road’s end, was a waterfall and a small pool, where they’d unload the cooler, sandwiches, beer, and gear. 

In the few months that these trips took place, the man and his wife started to fight. At first, they’d been small fights, but now they were saying unforgivable things to one another. Lately, after the fights, she’d drive her car off into the night, and he’d stand outside, watching the fireflies seemingly flicker in and out of existence.  

As they fished, he found himself wanting to ask God about heaven or what his wife thought of him. But God seemed exhausted, distant.

The mornings after fights, she’d always be there, breathing heavily in the clean linen sheets. The man loved her tenderly, as deeply as he’d thought possible.

Do you need anything, today?

She pretended to sleep.

He drank coffee in the kitchen, waited for her to wake. Squirrels dare-deviled through oaks in the yard. She was a locket, and he had lost the key. Sometimes he dreamed himself in search of the key, swimming through rivers, prying open the mouths of fish, looking for that glittering piece of metal that would free them both.

God frowned and cast again. The man felt lonely and sad, a child lost on the playground.

At least I brought the loaves, God said. I’ll make a million of them, and we can feed the ducks.

The man didn’t know whether to laugh. He was thinking of his wife, of how much she held him in disdain. The wind bent the leaves, ran through the grass. An hour passed.

Fuck all, God said, and walked across the water, feet dimpling the surface. He plunged His fist into the white rapids and pulled out a wriggling salmon. As they cooked the fish over the camp stove, neither of them mentioned the feat. God seemed embarrassed as though he’d made platypuses again.

When the man returned with fish and desperately tired, his wife would ask if the trips were worth it. He could hear the admonishment, time they weren’t spending. Sometimes he stayed awake, bleary eyed, to ask after her day. Once, he’d picked up the poems she read, mostly nonsense about old lovers reincarnated as dogs, geese, pebbles of light, train sounds in the distance. The poems were like koans who’s answer was sadness.

In this dream-like state, he thought of his father, who had been incredibly loving, so smothering in his love that the man had been desperate to leave. Now he understood that he was searching for someone like his father, now dead, a soul to love him fiercely. He thought about telling his wife, but her brow was knit tightly, foreclosing questions.

Eventually, God told him He was no longer interested in fishing. He said He wanted to work on a low crossover dribble that flowed into a step-back jumper. Like James Harden, God said, but with a longer beard. 

The man was home every Saturday now, mowing the lawn and watching college football. His wife stayed in the kitchen, reading poems, voraciously now. Sometimes, he swore he saw her slip scraps of paper into her mouth.

Late at night, when he thought she was sleeping, sometimes he’d catch her reciting the poems she’d surreptitiously eaten, scraps of lines floating in the air above them. He shook her awake.

What are you doing?

You were reciting poetry.

Don’t be silly, she answered, rolling over.

He looked at the crease where hip met thigh, longed for her. He stood at the window. The moon lay on the grass in the yard. He prayed.

* * * *

Months later, long after his wife had moved in with the writer across town, the man ran into God at the gas station. God tried hiding behind a row of candy bars. The man stood behind God in line, staring at Him intently. Finally, God turned and said, I couldn’t take all the damned silence. 

The man nodded, understanding he’d missed the opportunity to ask questions about meaning, love, the shape of the universe, time’s flow, questions that would plague him for the rest of his life. The same kinds of questions, he understood now, his wife so desperately wanted him to ask. 

At the register, a middle-aged man with a wrinkled brow rang him up and asked if he wanted anything else. The man looked up at the row of cigarettes behind the counter, the bits of amber colored whiskey. He wanted so many goddamn things he didn’t know how to ask for.

 

Andrew Bertaina received his MFA in creative writing from American University. His work has appeared in many publications including:  The ThreePenny Review, Witness Magazine, Redivider, Orion, and The Best American Poetry 2018. More of his work is available on his website at www.andrewbertaina.com.

Casey Who Exorcises People by Eric Rasmussen

Casey performs exorcisms at the desk he rents in the corner, and that’s not even weirdest part about him. The bathroom in the middle of the shared workspace doesn’t lock, so he yells “occupado” whenever he’s in there and he hears us walk past. He surrounded his workspace with heavy velour drapes, mostly green, some burgundy, hung from the industrial girders overhead. Every time he enters or leaves it’s a full-on can’t-find-the-edge-of-the-curtain comedy routine. And he reminds us constantly that, even though he conducts exorcisms in there, he’s not an exorcist. He would need a license to be an exorcist.

Mostly, though, he’s gentle and sweet. He arranged a holiday potluck and gift exchange for the whole floor, and he remembers the names of our family members. Sometimes he stands a little close when he talks, and he’ll refer to our appearances more than he should, but here’s all you need to know about Casey: he eats a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, every day.

One morning, Casey shows up with a guy who looks exactly like him, except twenty-five years older, like a mugshot artificially aged by computers. We guess it’s his dad, and the old man stops at our desks to confirm it.

“Hey there,” says the guy. “I’m Casey’s father. Please allow me to apologize for my kook of a son.” He pauses so we can laugh. “What a weird-o, right? Just imagine trying to live with him.” In that moment we do, and it isn’t so bad, because Casey probably picks up after himself and keeps a lot of interesting books around the apartment. “I’m kidding,” says Casey’s dad. “But once again, here I am. Good old dad to the rescue.”

Casey comes up behind and says, “Is this senior citizen bothering you?” He smiles, but his eye also twitches, which tells us that Casey loves his father but is dying a slow death by a thousand tiny cuts from his old man. It explains a lot.

While Casey’s dad gets coffee from the kitchen alcove, we look him up. He used to be a licensed exorcist, until an incident twenty years earlier when he tried to extract the ghost of serial killer from some famous debutante. The procedure failed, and the girl went on to murder fifteen people, mostly library volunteers and crossing guards. Big deal, lots of press. Now, instead of being an exorcist, he exorcises people. Just like Casey.

“Dad’s here because I need help,” Casey announces to the office, the same way he does when he asks us to quiet down for his sessions or informs us the kitchen is out of paper towels: hands on his hips, eyes pointed at the ceiling, speaking to no one in particular. “Tough case,” he says. “Not sure what to do.”

The “tough case” arrives ten minutes later. A woman, barely five feet tall, with dark hair and skin. Old, but not that old. Big handbag, tan shoes. She shuffles across the floor with her head down. We don’t actually look at her; Casey says it’s weird enough for his clients to get exorcised in a co-op office space without random writers and programmers and graphic designers staring at them. As always, we remain as pieces of furniture, working on our computers.

Casey and his dad gesture the woman back towards the curtains in the corner, then both men bumble around to find an opening (hilarious). They enter, the drapes waft shut, and we hear the murmur of the exorcism. The fabric absorbs their actual words, but only for a little while. Casey and Casey’s dad raise their voices as they try to out-exorcise each other.

“The spirt of the almighty lord compels you to leave this woman.”

“Actually, the unknowable power of the father, son, and holy ghost command that you vacate this mortal host.”

We stay focused on our screens, even though it’s hard.

“Leave this earth forever, evil spirit.”

“Or, plunge forever into a bottomless pit of suffering as punishment for the sins you’ve brought to this earthly plane.”

That’s when things really start to get weird.

The curtains billow, and rays of light escape between the gaps. A low, rumbling voice speaks in some language we don’t understand. Our translation apps don’t recognize it either. Then thuds, thumps, and the sound of furniture dragging across the floor. We start an office email thread: “That’s some exorcism.” “It’s not an exorcism, remember—neither of them has a license.” “Should we be doing something?”

“The love of god will smite you forever.”

And more importantly, your ancient evil will never sully mankind again.”

Ten minutes later the session ends, and the woman exits the curtains. She looks beat up but happy, like she survived an intense massage. A few minutes after that, Casey’s dad departs as well.

“A demon of the old world,” he says. “Those are tough ones. Here’s hoping it doesn’t take up residence in your microwave.” We look toward the kitchen alcove. ”Just teasing.” He laughs. “They don’t actually do that.”

After his father leaves, Casey comes out with his head in his hands.

“How’d it go?” we ask.

He tells the whole story as if we hadn’t heard it ourselves. When he’s done, he tries to smile, but he fails. “And I’m sorry about my dad. He can be awkward sometimes.”

Poor Casey. We try to help. “It sounded like you could have handled it on your own. You probably didn’t even need him.”

“Probably.”

Casey’s such a good guy. Does anyone ever tell him that? “You’ve clearly got what it takes to be an exorcist,” we say. “You should get your license.”

“Maybe.” Casey shrugs. “Alright. Back to it.” He fumbles with the curtains again. The microwave makes a strange groaning noise. We wonder if it’s time to start working from home.

 

Eric Rasmussen serves as fiction editor for Sundog Lit, as well as editor for the regional literary journal Barstow & Grand. He has placed short fiction in Fugue, Gulf Stream, Pithead Chapel, and South Carolina Review, among others. Find him online at theotherericrasmussen.com

How to Wear White to a Wedding by May Hathaway

1.  Open the invitation on a Tuesday, two weeks after it’s landed in your cramped mailbox. You are curled on the couch, stretching your feet out of the tight ugly brown shoes you wear every day and sorting through the credit card statements you’ve been avoiding and Sears catalogs gathered on your coffee table when you see this envelope, large and cream-colored. The paper is so thick it feels like you’re rubbing powder off of it. Your sorority sister Sarah, the invitation says, is getting married. Would you like to attend?

2.  You don’t recognize the name of Sarah’s fiancé. Back in college, she had dated a guy on the crew team. You consider checking “declines regretfully” on the RSVP card; there are better ways to spend a weekend, like organizing your bookshelf by color or feeding pigeons in the park. Calculate the costs: you’ll need to buy a wedding gift, reserve a hotel room, and book a bus ticket; there’s no way you’ll be able to afford airfare, especially at this time of year. It’s okay, though. You’ll do anything for your sorority sisters. You promised them that much when you pledged.

3.  Email your boss to let him know that you’ll have to take off a day or two next month, hoping that the abundance of exclamation points will soothe his frustration. You’re not a particularly good employee, and you know that; you’re lucky he hasn’t replaced you. Still, sometimes when you sit down at your desk and plaster on your customer service smile, you feel a surge of rage. You did everything right—you applied to college, did okay in your classes, made friends. You told men in suits about yourself and described challenging life experiences in rooms with glossy oak furniture. You went on dates with your cousin’s friend and that guy from Tinder and your colleague’s dog-walker’s brother—even if the whole career thing didn’t work out, you could learn how to be a good wife. And still, look at where you are now: you are a receptionist for a dermatology practice and Sarah is a bride-to-be. Can you believe it? She probably hasn’t sent half as many emails in her lifetime.

4.  Sarah’s wedding registry is neat and colorful and expensive; she seems to have gained a taste for silverware. Somebody has already bought a panini press and a food processor. You duly scan the list of available items. You decide to purchase a tablecloth and placemats so that she’ll remember you at every meal. Maybe she and her husband will talk about you over plates of quinoa and invite you to dinner parties, where you’ll brush hands with business executives and women who wear Tiffany wristlets, real ones, and you’ll make casual conversation over cheese platters. You can only hope.

5.  The wedding is in the Adirondacks, which makes your stomach churn. You grew up in upstate New York; you know the lakes and mountains there better than the back of your hand. Sarah grew up in Alabama or Arkansas or Georgia, somewhere decidedly dry and full of non-hikers. And you don’t own the mountains, obviously, and you’re not going to gatekeep a whole territory, but Sarah? The Adirondacks? Really?

6.  You’re taking the Greyhound bus to the wedding when disaster strikes. You’ve left work early, much to the chagrin of your boss and the guy with severe adult acne who keeps trying to flirt with you while scheduling appointments, and you’re beginning to regret it; you get nauseous on buses easily. Your favorite purple minidress doesn’t really fit anymore—it’s loose around the waist and tight at the armpits—but you still went to the effort of getting it dry-cleaned. Everyone looks miserable here, yourself included. When the bus grinds to a halt, you stand up and feel the granola bar you ate for breakfast rising towards your throat. Outside, you spit a few times as people shuffle towards their luggage, trying to get the sour out of your mouth. By the time you’re done wiping your lips, only the driver is left. When you duck under the bus to grab your things, you see a single suitcase left—the duffle bag with your dress is gone. Shit.

7.  You hate the Adirondacks. You hate this venue. They have a small store, like you knew they would, and the dresses are all sold at exorbitant prices, like you knew they would be. The unexpected part is that almost all of their dresses are sold out; more than one guest, it seems, has been forgetful. The only dress they have left in your size is a lacy ivory sheath, and you swipe your credit card without hesitation. It occurs to you to let Sarah know about your new outfit, but you’re so tired after a long bus ride, and it’s definitely not a big deal; she’s probably at the rehearsal dinner right now. Besides, as much as it pains you to admit it, you hate Sarah.

8.  When you wake up in the morning and slip into the dress, you do not feel the expected guilt. You coat your eyelashes in mascara and rub blush onto your cheeks and wait for a pit to form in your stomach, but you’re surprisingly calm. You eat eggs from the hotel breakfast bar and observe how easily they break apart into little nubs. On the way to the venue, you think about all the times you could’ve gotten married, even if it was just to the guy who smiled at you in the parking lot once, and touch up your concealer.

9.  You are in the Adirondacks wearing white to a wedding. Everyone is staring at you. Everyone hates you. Everyone includes yourself, but more importantly, everyone includes Sarah, whose face is blotchy despite her heavy layers of makeup. She is screaming, you think. Specifically, she is screaming at you; the words are coming in chains of how could you wear that and how are you so stupid and you’re jealous of me, I’ve known since college and today is my day, mine. From her latest stream of vitriol, you have learned that her fiancé’s name is Mark. You wonder if he’s going to calm her down, but he stands there, useless, like most men. Sarah, you think, is having some sort of psychotic break. She is unwell. She needs help. It is not until Mark takes a step towards you instead of towards Sarah and places a hand on your arm, firm in an entirely uncaring way, that you realize that you are screaming too.

10.  In one of the most humiliating moments of your life to date, call your mom from your hotel bathroom. You called an Uber from the venue after Mark hauled you onto the grass, where you stumbled in your heels—it seemed like an appropriate time to splurge. When she picks up, you are crying too hard to get the words out. For a good minute, you are gasping for air while your mom asks you what’s wrong over and over again; each inhale feels like your chest is cracking open. Stop blubbering, she says, and you steady your lower lip long enough to tell her that you need money to book a ticket back home. She starts yelling, just like Sarah did, and snot leaks onto your white dress. I didn’t even do anything, you say quietly between sobs. I didn’t even do anything. After hanging up, you crawl onto starchy sheets of the hotel bed and think about how difficult it is to be loved. The deposit lands in your bank account three hours later.

 

May Hathaway is a writer from New York City. Her work is published or forthcoming in Hobart After DarkPANK, and Vagabond City Lit and has been recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and the National YoungArts Foundation. An alumna of the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program and the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, she will attend the University of Pennsylvania in the fall.

You’re Still You by Anna Vangala Jones

My earlobes were the first thing I touched after waking from the brief coma caused by the accident. I was glad I could rub them between my fingers, unharmed and unbloodied, so different from the rest of what remained of my face. It was comforting and cozy to pinch and pull on them like saltwater taffy when surrounded by the doctors discussing me and my case each morning during rounds. I could hear with my ears and also escape into the texture of them.

Reconstruction makes you as unrecognizable to yourself as anyone else. They wanted to prepare me for what that first look in the mirror would be like after the surgery. They didn’t believe I was excited. You should be proud, I told them, not afraid to reveal your intricate and elaborate work. I joked to the attending that I would be like Frankenstein’s monster when they were done.

“You’re still you, Jane,” one of the residents called out. I remember staring at her, that young and eager doctor in training, long after she’d finished interrupting. I wanted to catch the soft flesh of her earlobe in my teeth, feel the tickle of that light peach fuzz on each bud of my tongue.

My nurse then said that my parents and brother were waiting to see me and could they come in now? But I told her I was tired, so maybe later.

Now the surgery is over and I am awake, looking at a face in the mirror they say is mine.

After waiting for my sobs to fill the room, the doctors leave upon seeing my anticlimactic reaction. I say, thank you but I would just like to sleep.

My beautiful resident closes the door and stays inside. “You don’t have to pretend to be so strong.”

“I’m not pretending. I don’t mind. I wasn’t attached to the old face.” I sound sure and therefore I probably am.

She makes her way to my bedside. “Does it look very different?” She looks so sorry.

“Yes.” I don’t hesitate or dress the truth up prettier than it is.

“We do our best, but when the damage—” She talks in that sweet honey singsong I’ve enjoyed so much, even as it’s made her colleagues roll their eyes when she speaks with confident authority. I stop her though I like to listen to her. The music of her.

“You don’t need to do that. I know. I’m not upset with you.”

 “It’s my fault,” she says, but I sense the words before I hear them. “I’m new at getting to assist during the procedures. And my hand—I got so nervous, it shook, and I’m so sorry.”

She’s breathing too fast for language to keep up and I place my hand on hers, the one she indicated had been the guilty party during my surgery. I can feel it tremble now beneath mine. I reach for her arm, to pull her closer to me, until I feel the rigid tension in her small frame start to lessen and then she’s seated on my bed as I want.

“It’s the only way you baby doctors can learn,” I tell her with a smile I mean genuinely even if it looks false, like a stranger’s. “Besides, they wouldn’t have let you do anything too important.”

She laughs with tears in the notes. “You’re not the one supposed to be comforting me.”

“Maybe. But you’re upset and I’m not. So this way makes sense for now, right?”

“What are you, a saint?” She notices the fixation of my eyes on her earlobes and the mood in the room shifts. I know she’ll probably leave any minute now and I’ll let her. Then it’ll just be me and the mirror. Alone.

“Sad that being understanding and decent qualifies one for sainthood now,” I say, but I keep my tone light and playful as I release her hand and readjust my body against the pillows behind me. I’m not looking at her anymore and I think she knows she’d better go. She stands and I focus on the wrinkles and creases of her turquoise scrubs, so I can unmemorize her face.

“You’re very nice to make me feel better, but I am still sorry,” she says.

“You’re forgiven.”

She seems to be going and is almost gone. But then she turns around and leans back against the door and nods at me. Something in her expression reminds me of the warmth intermingled with pity I could read in the faces of all my loved ones the first time they saw me after it happened. It was maybe not as painful as it would be if they’d physically recoiled, but somehow it felt like they had anyway. I haven’t let any of them come back inside my room since before the surgery. I’m told they took turns showing up just in case for a while, only to be rejected outside my door. Each day, my nurses would remind me that they were there, in the waiting room, poised and ready for when I’d change my mind. Until I didn’t and the nurses stopped saying they were there. I can’t ask now even though I wonder and need to know. Because what if they’re not anymore? I hate my doctor for staying.

“Don’t look at me.”

She stares out the window instead. Then she waits until I start to cry. Once I do finally begin, it’s hard to stop. I rub and scratch at my left earlobe so fiercely and savagely that my nails nearly draw blood. I don’t know why I seek to destroy my own pacifier, but I want to claw my earlobes until they resemble the pulp of a blood orange, like I imagine my whole face did in the back of the ambulance that night. When she wrestles my hands away from my ears and hugs me, I almost ask—did any of them wait for me? Are they still here?

 

Anna Vangala Jones is the author of the forthcoming short story collection Turmeric & Sugar (Thirty West Publishing, May 2021). Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult, Wigleaf, HAD, and AAWW’s The Margins, among others. Find her online at annavangalajones.com and on Twitter @anniejo_17.