February 2014
Fiction
The Magistrate
By J. Kent Allred

She was stepping into a situation where she could neither lose nor find herself, yet the void in her stomach still gave her the sensation of a free fall. It was a familiar feeling, one she had spent a lifetime trying to identify, until one day her mother told her about the moment she had been born and the delivering doctor’s pant leg had gotten tangled in the birthing stirrup whereupon he tripped, sending the newborn child air-born, only to be caught six feet across the room by a surprised medic. When she finally learned of the event in her early-adulthood, everything made sense… her divorce, her eating disorder, her fear of snakes and bare feet. The riddle of life had finally been solved.

She instantly recognized Dr. M. from the missing nail on his right index finger. She recalled the repulsion she experienced from it when it was upon her. He never shared his true identity during their encounters, but liked to be referred to as “your Magistrate.”  He bought a Japanese schoolgirl uniform for her to wear and paid for a new pair of panties each time he fulfilled his fantasy. He enjoyed placing her across his lap and spanking her vigorously (but not necessarily painfully.)  After the third time, she’d learned to retreat to the bathroom prior to the masquerade, to cut  a wedge in the side hems of the panties with her nail clippers, so when he tore them away it would not “cloth-burn” her thighs.  

She didn’t mind Dr. M., even though he was a trifle demanding, he was also a quick client, reliable, safe, predictable, and a good tipper. She learned to tolerate the repugnant hand. Take the good with the bad.

Thym was no plain-Jane, she was not elegant nor alluring, but more exotic, foreign.  Finished qualities were abundant, straight, shoulder-length, black hair, pale skin, and slightly slanted eyes that changed colors when she occasionally wore a green dress.   She was not tall, but on the other hand certainly not short by any means, slender, and did not have the traditional hourglass figure, but more lean and taut, almost lizard-like in a supine position.

“I know you,” she said upon entering his office.

“Of course you do,” he replied. “Maggie, could you give Ms. Weller and I some privacy,” he said as he dismissed his secretary who had previously introduced Thym.

“Of course, Dr. Shamin,” the secretary replied as she closed the door behind her. Thym sat in one of the plastic, hardback chairs facing his desk.

“I’m president of the school board, Dr. Bruce Shamin, and your Thym. Thym Weller,” his piercing green eyes evoking malicious intent. “I knew it was you the second I laid eyes on your resume. After all, how many “Thyms” are there in the world? It is only occurring to me at this particular moment how absurd it is that you were actually using your real name.”

While parents in Northern Maine were famous for naming their children after strong, emotional verbs, such as “Love,” “Desire,” and “Echo,” “Tyme” was a unique twist on a twisted tradition.

“Would you rather pay for Thym -- or a Wendy, or a Becky I suppose?  I was a long, long way from home. Therefore, I saw no harm in it,” she said matter-of-factly. “Yes, I remember you.” 

“’The Magistrate,’ you remember that is, not Dr. Bruce Shamin?” 

“Yes. Yes sir, Dr. M… doctor Shamin.” She was still trying to comprehend the coincidence of the encounter.

“You must be wondering how all this came about,” he swirled his hand casually adjacent to his head, as if to indicate a whirl-wind of genius was spinning just outside the vicinity of his brain. “I took the job in Presque Isle two years ago. That would explain why you have not seen me for quite some time. Portland is quite a drive, and although you know how attached I was to our encounters, 287 miles was just too much to endure. You can only imagine, I’m sure.”

“I wondered what happened to you,” she lied.

“And I wondered about you as well, Thym, I have thought about you often. We were so wonderful together; I replay our evenings over and over in my head.”

He awaited a comparable response; she did not reciprocate. There was a dead, empty, uncomfortable damper over the room. “So,” he continued, “here were are again, together at last. Did you miss me?”

She was taken aback, unsure how to approach the question… this “meet and greet” was not at all what she had expected. “Well… I… don’t know, I mean, I miss the money that is, I mean, I don’t do that anymore, um, do you understand Dr. Shamin that I am here to…”

“You may call me, Bruce, at least behind closed doors. No more of that, ‘Your Magistrate’ nonsense.  And Dr. Shamin in public, of course.”

“But do you understand?  There won’t be any closed doors, Dr. Shamin.  I’m here to teach third graders.”

“Really?  You think that is why you are here, Thym?”

“Yes… I do.  Teaching is what I do now.”

He nodded, mocking her.

She continued, “My past life is in my past. It was a way to pay for college.” She squirmed in her chair momentarily as she searched for an angle, “It was a means to an end, if you will. I have no intention of continuing down that path.  I’m here for my mother; she needs me now. Then I saw the opening and… My mother, she is not…”

“And my wife needs me, but she’s a bore.”

“So that makes me the…”

“Oh, no, no, no, no!  My dear, you are so much more to me than just that.”  He was slightly recumbent in his leather chair with an F. Buckley pose, the beastly finger rapping upon his jawbone, just beneath his ear lobe.
“But I’m here. I’m not here for that.”

He leaned towards her; the hinge of his chair released an antiquated, traumatic screech as if it had been pent up for years.  It was painful to her ears, like nails across a chalkboard. He placed his elbows on his desk and cradled his chin into his hands, “But you do want the job, don’t you?” 

J. Kent Allred has been published numerous times in local publications out of Chicago. He achieved his MA in creative writing under Stewart O'Nan and Betty Shipley. He currently teaches writing at North-West Arkansas and Crowder Colleges in Arkansas and Missouri.
 
* * * 
The Smiling Corpse
By W. Scott R. Brownlee

In the aftermath of the great battle, the sloping, once grassy fields were strewn with the bodies of the dead soldiers, from both sides. The early morning wind was silently blowing the grass gently along. Most of the field had been blown apart, charred, trampled, muddied over or was still smoldering. Smoke billowed from a burning tank near an outcropping of sheared poplar trunks. Soot sifted languidly downward in the orange amber dawn sky, tickling the sweaty cheeks of the corpsman that crawled in the midst of the carnage that was once a sea of grass. Screams were silently frozen on the faces of the dead. Melted faces bared teeth jutting awkwardly out of molten globs of skin like candle wax. Amongst the dead were a few survivors, moaning exhaustedly.

Yesterday the battle had raged on and on until finally settling down beneath a late summer shower; thunder claps eclipsing the sounds of machine gun fire and the eminent roar of the artillery. During the night the rain ceased and the stars shone. The night had grown strangely cold, keeping the stink of the dead, rotting flesh down. It was autumn like, crisp, cool and refreshing, numbing the pain from severed spinal columns, fractured skulls and broken limbs. Dangling intestines were still steamy and dirt speckled in the dim, early morning light.

Through the slick mud the corpsman slithered, searching for the wounded so that he could administer opium, bandages and sulfa powder. His mission was to keep their moaning down so that the reconnaissance units scurrying ahead of him could keep their nerves under control. They were to scout the enemy’s perimeter with binoculars, then radio in coordinates for the next artillery strike. Their binoculars lenses were kept immaculately clear. The corpsman crawled on top of dead, mutilated bodies, their muscles raw and exposed, piles and piles of them, cold and slimy, their dead flesh sticky from coagulated blood, their uniforms saturated with blood, mud, dew and rainfall. The corpsman slid past a dead soldier that was naked and what was left of his pale white skin was charred. Tattooed on his buttocks was a smiley face. The only sound heard upon the silent winds of the battlefield was the medic’s unexpected chuckle.  
 
 W. Scott R. Brownlee is the author of Chess. He has been published in Foliate Oak, Down in The Dirt, Mobius A Journal of Social Change, The MacGuffin and Children, Churches and Daddies. 
* * * 
That Patch of Grass
By Philip Kuan

The skinny man, kneeling on all fours, was shaking uncontrollably. His posture shattered shards of ennui across the lawn, litter beneath an oak tree so thoroughly apathetic that one would never have doubted that it was, well, just a tree. Clearly, this man needed to be raked. 

Cancerous disappointment re-stained his awkward feelings, wafting towards the house, like lazy garbage, beating intrusively against the window shutting. And as I focused upon the suds on my hands, his fleeting glances hurtled past my skin, mistimed leaps unable to latch onto wrinkles already missing from my careful, stoic expression. Clearly he wished to be breastfed, and I was the one to ignore him. 

Only when certain he’d turned back to his palms and sleeves did I look up, surrendering to that which I found so repulsive, that reek of tacit resignation from a man being stabbed by memories. I didn’t need the etchings on his face to recognize a man stranded in an ocean, misguided enough to dive for rescue from below, instead of treading water. As others would’ve done.  

“Is that where Nammy is?” The little girl stood beside the open door, and as I dried my hands, and walked over, and reluctantly shared the moment while petting her head, this man continued to pound the ground with fists in some meaningful frustration, meaningless to me. “Sweetie, let’s go talk to your daddy,” I decided.

I didn’t bother waiting as we traversed the yard. “Sir, take your daughter. And leave now.” The man, not quite getting the message, got up with a moan. Taking her hand, he started towards his car, halting only to ask if he could come again. Of course he could not, I insisted.

Walking back towards the house, I glanced at that patch of grass, and hoped to God that it was just a dog. 

Philip Kuan is an author from Cupertino, California. He has been published in CC&D Magazine, Nerve Cowboy, and The Anguilar Expression. 
* * *
In Thoughts I Walk With You
By Steve Mason

My next session with Wallace resumed exactly where we left off: with him staring intently at my coat collar. His adamant refusal to make eye contact has been a continuing motivator for his illness, but I am confident that by the end of today’s session he will look me in the eye and acknowledge the true nature of his troubles. Once that happens, it will be only a matter of time before he achieves a mental catharsis within himself.

“I was hoping we could continue our discussion about Wakefield. You had hinted that there was another way for her to kill people. Would that be all right, Wallace?”

“I’ve told you what you needed to know, Doctor. I don’t know what else I can do to convince you that she’s real.”
Strange. After five sessions, I thought Wallace was on the verge of opening himself up to me, but his attitude just now... it doesn’t make sense. I had made doubly sure that my office was arranged to be a nurturing environment for my patients. The walls had been painted with a light shade of brown and most of the space within the room is empty with the exception of my desk and the two chairs on each side. These elements should have subconsciously assured Wallace that he was in a safe place while speaking to me. Now he seems to be more agitated than when we first met.

My initial impression of Wallace had been conventional as far as the term goes for the mentally disturbed. When he voluntarily committed himself to St. Patrick’s General, he was on the verge of being dangerously underweight with black bags under his fatigued eyes. During our sessions, I learned that he was a prolific graphic novelist, enjoying great success and fame for many years. It was only when he created In Thoughts I Walk With You that the problems began.

The story contains a female antagonist known only as the Wakefield Killer. She murders male targets and leaves a flower called the Habenaria Radiata on their corpses, symbolically imparting her thoughts with her victims to take with them as they die. Wallace has claimed that this ‘Wakefield’ as we call her, given she has no real name, has found a way of entering the minds of people who have read Wallace’s graphic novel, killing them from within. Since the graphic novel was released, Wallace has lived in fear of Wakefield and is convinced that she will be the cause behind humanity’s extinction.

Typical schizophrenic delusions: that’s all Wakefield really is. Perhaps another careful dose of realism will help convince Wallace of this.

“Wallace, the purpose of these meetings is not to determine the validity of your mental illness, but to classify it. You need to accept that Wakefield is merely a symptom of an illness.”

All I got for a reply was a moan and the visual of hands concealing an expression of anguish. My point must be driven further in, but gently. I lifted myself from my chair and approached him to place a consoling hand on his shoulder.

“Admission is the first step toward recovery, Wallace. As soon as you remember that Wakefield is nothing more than ink on paper, you’ll discover that your fears were nothing but schizophrenic symptoms. Besides, even if this Wakefield were alive, she wouldn’t be able to reach anyone who hasn’t read your story. After all, you can’t please everybody.”

I waited for an answer, allowing silence to stretch between us. I did my best to keep my hand from tightening its grip. My patience was soon rewarded when he lowered his hands. Though he did not gaze at me, I could see revelation dawning in his eyes.

“True,” he murmured. “You can’t.”

I couldn't help but smile as I returned to my chair.

“You’ve taken the first step, Wallace. I’m proud of you. Unless there’s anything else you wanted to mention, I think we can end today’s discussion.”

“Just one thing, doctor. I still haven’t told you Wakefield’s other method for killing people.”

My elation soured as soon as he spoke. Had all my efforts been for nothing? Should I indulge him in his madness? I needed to know if I reached him or not.

“You know, you’re absolutely right, Wallace. I completely forgot about it. What is this other method?”

“Marketing.”

I barely managed to stop myself from laughing out loud. I had expected his answer to be rooted in fear, but the way he spoke made it sound so mundane.

“Marketing?” I asked. “How does that work?”

He didn’t answer—at least not immediately. He took a few seconds to stare at the bottom of my desk before he spoke again.

“I know that not everyone will read my story, doctor. That’s not what scares me.

“What scares me is that Wakefield doesn’t need the novel anymore to reach people. My publishers have been advertising my creation throughout the world via television and the Internet. A collection of promotional images, story excerpts, reviews... that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve even overheard that a studio is planning to make a movie adaptation.

“I don’t blame you for thinking I’m crazy. This idea that Wakefield is capable of all this is probably just a symptom like you said. But then I remember the power ideas can possess throughout history and I have to wonder. What if an idea has so much power that it has a life of its own off the page? If that’s true, then Wakefield is unstoppable, because once the idea of her gets inside your head…there’s nothing you can do.”

His story finished, Wallace looked right at me. I could feel his gaze on my face, but something held me back from making eye contact. It wasn’t until the orderly took him away that I realized if I had looked into his eyes, I would have seen only cold truth in them.
Steve Mason hails from the mysterious land of Nashua, NH. His ambition is to explore the far reaches of the imagination and chronicle the wonders born there. He currently attends Full Sail University as a student in the Creative Writing in Entertainment Bachelor’s program. 
* * *
The Falling Leaf of Heaven
By Reem Rashash Shaaban

“I wonder whose leaf will fall this year,” said my mother pulling back the curtains and looking out into the garden whose trees were almost naked in the cold winter air. She pointed at a lone leaf falling to the ground. I shivered inside as I watched the brown leaf settle on the untrodden snow.

It is said that in the middle of the second holiest Muslim month, Shaaban, the leaves of the tree of heaven start falling. As I imagine them, these leaves flutter down slowly, floating in the breeze to land on the soft bed of grass or cloud below. (I like to think that Heaven lies on a bed of clouds). These leaves are not just any leaves. They  are special, for each leaf contains the name of a person that will die within the coming year. How big is this tree that it should contain the names of all the people in the world that will soon depart I wonder? I see the leaves of different colors, all falling slowly, dancing their last ballet, enjoying their last frolic before they join their final bedfellows. Do they lie on top of one another; do they wither and dry? I looked at my mother whose veil cast a shadow on her fair face.  I could not help but marvel at how beautiful she was. Unfortunately, I looked nothing like her. I had inherited my father’s dark looks, proof that my mother loved him very much.

“I hope no one we know has lost his leaf.” I said, hugging her tight.

I had already lost my father to the “unmentionable” disease the year before.

“Come Khaldoun, let us have breakfast; you must eat before you go to school.”

We walked into the warm kitchen that smelled of cooked kishk, a gravy-like mixture made of dried yoghurt and cracked wheat in which small pieces of minced meat were swimming. Tea boiled in the kettle and I could almost taste the sweet jam and pickled eggplants that decorated the small plates. I sat on the rug and proceeded to break a piece of bread, twist it, dip it into olive oil and then into the bowl of dried thyme. Its bittersweet taste filled my mouth and warmed my stomach.

"Mother,” I asked, tearing another piece of bread, "what happens when a person dies?”

She sat down,  crossed her legs and poured tea into transparent cups. I repeated my question.

“Why he goes to heaven to meet God,” she said placing a few olives in her plate.

“But how does he go up when he’s buried in the ground?”

“My son; the body is nothing. It is the soul that rises to meet its Maker.”

“But Ziad says that if you are a bad person your soul hits its head on the gravestone and cannot rise. It                   remains in darkness till judgment day. He says only good people have well-lit graves.”

“My dear,” my mother reassured me, “no one who has died has ever come back. We cannot be sure about          what happens when we die.”

She handed me my cup of tea now that it had cooled.

“But, mother—"

“Hurry up and eat or you’ll be late for school. Eat some thyme so you can become intelligent and do well.”

“I have a math test today. Pray for me mother.”

She opened her palms, looked up and called upon God, whispered a short prayer, and blew the final words into my face.

“There now; God will help you succeed.”

My mother was so wise. Everyone came to her if they had problems. She would read the grounds in their coffee cups and tell them about their futures. I looked at the clock on the wall.

“I’m late.” I shrieked, getting up.

In my haste I set my teacup on the edge of the sink. It twirled, lost its balance and fell to the tile floor, breaking into a hundred pieces. I looked up at my mother cringing, expecting her to shout at me. Instead, she tapped me on the shoulder and said,

“Do not worry, my son. The evil has broken. Spilled coffee or tea is a good omen. Go with God.”

She pulled me to her and gave me a squeeze and a kiss.

***

That afternoon, as I was walking back from school, kicking the loose pebbles into the snow at the edge of the path, I bet my cousin Ziad that I could kick my stone the farthest. He laughed and ran ahead of me. I followed. Suddenly he stopped, pointing in the direction of our house,

“Look Khaldoun; something’s wrong.”

I gazed at the wall that surrounded our new house. Though it had been built by my grandfather, it stood majestic. Surrounded by the trees my grandmother had planted, it was a king in the middle of the village. Even from a distance I could see that the yard was sprinkled with people all dressed in black, an army of ants invading a picnic lunch. My heart fell. It was probably grandmother; she had high blood pressure. Maybe she was sick. Worse; maybe she had died. I ran the last hundred meters to the gate where a tall young man stopped me and lifted me up.

“Wait son, don’t go in now.”

“Let me go,” I screamed, twisting in his arms.

Who was this man who dared touch me? I had just gotten ready to bite his thick fingers when my grandmother’s face appeared between them. I closed my mouth, relieved that my grandmother was fine. The man slowly loosened his grip and lowered me to the ground.

"Ya sitti, grandmother. What’s wrong?"

I looked at my grandmother’s face and noticed that her eyes were puffed and red. I had never seen her that way. It then dawned on me that someone was missing.

“Yama, yama, mother,” I screamed, “Where are you?”

“Ya sitti, my dear grandson, slowly. I will take you to her.”

Grandmother took my hand and led me into the sitting room. There was something different about it even though very little had changed. The sofas looked darker as if they wore frowns. The sobya, or heater was off and the room was cold. I took off my shoes and tiptoed, afraid that I would awaken my mother. She was obviously sleeping in the room.

“What’s wrong? Is mama sick? Does she have one of her headaches? I won’t bother her. I just want to tell her that I did well on the test.”

The bedroom door creaked open when my grandmother pushed it and there was mother, covered in a white sheet. I felt my heart in my knees as I ran to the bed.

“Why have you covered her face? She won’t be able to breathe!”

I frantically tried to uncover her face, but the white cloth was thicker than that of her veil and it had been tied above her head.

“She’ll die!” I screamed. “She’ll die! Remove it I tell you.”

Hands pulled me away; I kicked. Tears fell; I let them. I looked up at God and wailed, banging my hands against my head. I suddenly saw my mother standing in front of the living room window pointing to a brown leaf. The leaf swung back and forth then slowly bowed to gravity and stretched on the newly fallen snow

“Yama, yama,” I screamed, “the leaf was yours.”
 
Reem Rashash-Shaaban has an M.A. in Applied Linguistics and is presently an instructor in the English Department at the American University of Beirut. She is Saudi Arabian and lives in Beirut. She writes poetry and fiction.
* * *
The Letter
By Daniel Shea

The letter arrived in a hard cracked envelope. It was dirty and stained and looked as if it had been lost for some time. A dusty envelope with black and green and brown fingerprints – fingerprints of different sizes and textures and times. It stood out against the rest. Battered and bruised against the bleached white perfection of cable bills and bank statements.

She had never before gotten a note like this in her life and her heart sank for that fact.

This letter comes once in a lifetime. And that’s only if you’re unlucky. They come bearing broken promises. The stuff of tears and wretchedness. They come in movies. A handsome young man with a soft face floating above perfectly pressed clothes delivers them to bewitched and pitiable women. Or at least he does in the movies. He sits women down and offers them consolation, carries a jar to catch their tears. She had seen this before, but where was that nice young man now? He hadn’t even knocked.

She didn’t know what to do. She recognized the handwriting but couldn’t make out exactly what it said. She wasn’t sure she wanted to. The letters all poked their heads out of a black mailbox on the wall next to the front door. The mailbox was old – from another time when letters were smaller and people were smaller, even though there was just as much to say. But now none of the correspondence fit. The black lid to the mailbox propped open like a yawning jaw.

The day was cold but bright. Despite the look of things, the weatherman had called for rain and maybe even a snowstorm overnight. She stood in the open doorway, staring blankly at the mailbox. Her eyes flickered like faulty bulbs. Sunlight warmed the lawn. It clambered up the steps and onto the porch and dove into a heaping pile at her ankles. The rest of her was shrouded in shadow. Her heart beat heavy under an Army sweatshirt and her jeans were worn down at the knees. Her face was calm and vacuous. It just stared, the large blue eyes flickering irregularly.

She looked at the clump of letters and the mailbox as if this were the first time it had seen the contraption and now she was only trying to figure out whether to call the police to file a report of some kind. It was a pretty face: plain and sweet. It was round and softened by freckles, with a tendency to redden. It did this in spite of the woman. It would flush with even the suggestion of cold or the presence of alcohol. It had been that way for weeks, even though she hadn’t been anywhere near the stuff since well before he’d gone away.

Sloppily, she rubbed her nose with the sweatshirt. A boy rode by slowly on a bike. He raised one hand in a kind of salute to shield his eyes as he looked her way. It looked like he was saluting her, she thought.

A car was parked in the driveway. It had a dinged left fender and a small crack up the windshield. Next to it, in the grass, lay the remains of a hastily discarded crimson bike. The training wheels were bent and deformed.

She breathed heavily. Just once, as if by a very conscious choice.

She took a step and then walked down the four steps off the porch and over to the bike lying motionless on the lawn. She bent to pick it up but stopped as she began to straighten herself.  She just looked at the bike and felt its cold red frame in her hands. She let the coolness of the metal seep into her skin. She absorbed it, felt it slowly progress up her arms until it gripped her chest tightly, and she threw it sharply back down and made a noise like some great pressure built up in a chamber but a gasp is all that’s able to escape. She gathered the sleeves around her hands and again wiped her small nose, this time roughly, reddening it. She looked up at the sun and became dizzy for a moment before regaining her vision with large white sundrops expanding in her eyes like rain in a pond. When the white drops cleared, she was looking at the bike again. She leaned down and picked it up and walked it back to the garage. One of the training wheels dragged and scraped along the driveway.

She went in the back door and sat at the kitchen table. There was plastic everywhere. And paper. She looked at it all like there was a personal grudge involved. Looked at it like it smacked of insult. But then she got up. In long sloppy steps she walked over to the laundry room and grabbed the vacuum. She sucked up all the excess hair and dirt. She pressed hard into the rug and crashed into walls and corners. She grabbed a bucket of cleaning supplies and wiped away all the dead skin and crumbs scattered about. Her face began to leak. Saltwater collected in droplets at the tip of her nose. It stung her eyes. She scrubbed the floors on her knees using both hands to grip the brush. She polished the windows in large sweeping strokes. The house took on a chemical smell.

She went upstairs and undressed. Took off the sweatshirt and then the jeans. She hadn’t bothered to put on anything else when she’d gotten dressed that morning. She looked at her pale body in the mirror. It was white – almost transparent in some places. Her cheeks had flushed with the flurry of activity. Her face burned red. She turned herself around for inspection. She started with her face, rubbing the cheeks roughly with her palms. She touched the acne scars, knowing each one intimately, as if posthumously treating them. She bent close and surveyed her teeth, forced into alignment years before by thick bulging braces, and she ran her tongue along their slippery smoothness. She took down her hair and let it sit in a loose mess. Then she put the hair back up. She leaned back to get a better look at her full belly. She swept her fingers under as if to support it and moved them slowly over the warm bulge, feeling for movement. Nothing stirred. She looked reluctantly at her breasts. They were large and swollen and hung loosely. She cupped them in her hands and raised them up, only for them to drop again without support. She turned sideways and looked at the reflection of her ass in profile. It had grown too. She grabbed great handfuls and squeezed it and stretched it and loosened it in greedy bites. Her mouth hung down at the corners. She turned fully around, with her back to the mirror, and stood up on her toes to make her legs look longer and glanced back over her shoulder. Turning back around, she traced her fingers through the tight twists of brittle hair between her legs and back up to her swollen belly. They rested there for a moment until suddenly she felt flushed and hot. Her chest began to heave. Her breasts rose and sank dreadfully and she looked up at her face in the mirror. Her features had twisted. Her lips were moist and flared. Hot air steamed from her throat and she choked on the cold air that replaced it. She found it hard to breathe and her heart felt like a foreign object trying to pry its way out of her ribcage. She placed her hand over the inflamed organ as if to ensure it would not escape her. The other hand she placed on her belly for support. Her knees went loose and her nose looked broken. She sank down to the floor. Her large blue eyes melted as she finally let out a cry. Cries that came in heavy gasps and moans. They ripped her insides and stung her ears. Her body folded into a heaving pile of flesh and blood and bone. Water poured down her face in sheets and sank into the carpet. She choked so violently she thought she would drown in them. Her throat closed up. She lost herself and stopped struggling against it. She welcomed it now. Surrounded herself in misery and pain. She knew now how someone could die of grief and she knew she would be one and she would be alone by herself when it happened.

She would never see him again – she already knew that. But she would never hear his rough voice again or touch his rough skin or wake up to his rough face scratching her shoulder again or know the warmth of his smile ever again or feel him deep inside her and that rush of ecstasy or the deep warming joy that filled her soul as he swallowed up their son in his arms or even the poisoning fear of never really knowing ever again. She would never even suffer that fear. That terrible fear. Because now she knew. She knew. She’d known this.

Her stomach turned on her and she thought she would be sick but there was nothing in her to come up. Her hands clutched at the carpet and she heaved over it. Her forehead and nose dug into the floor and thick flowing drool dripped from her mouth. When it ended she gasped loudly, as someone who has been saved from drowning. She suddenly felt hollow but for her heart – that wild heart beating ferociously – and air filled her again. It felt like it filled her whole body, down to her toes. The child moved inside her. It moved violently and desperately but even that comforted her. She breathed deeper and slower and her eyes reappeared and her nose realigned and she looked beaten and abused but calm and breathing steadily again. She laid on her side and wrapped her stomach in her arms and cried softly into the floor.

After lying there a long while, she sat up and, without looking in the mirror, went into the bathroom and started a shower. She stood under the showerhead as she turned it on. The cold water shocked her and tensed her skin. Everything tightened around her. But slowly it released her again. The water gradually warmed as it streamed down over her face and body.

After getting out and drying herself, she looked at her phone. It was nearly three o’clock. Her son would be home soon. She picked up the phone and dialed a number. She stood by the bed as it rang, the towel wrapped around her bulging body. When the other line picked up, she slowly lowered herself to the edge of the bed and put both hands up to cradle the phone under her right ear.

“Hey there sweetie, how you holding up?” the other end said.

“I got a letter.”

“A letter? What kind of letter, sweetheart?”

“It’s from Jesse.”

“From Jesse?”

“Yeah – Jesse.”

“Darling, I don’t understand.”

“The letter’s from Jesse. He wrote it. At least, I think he did. It’s his handwriting on the envelope.”

There was a pause. “But – I’m not sure I’m following what you mean, babygirl. How’d he write a letter?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know. But, yeah – it looks like he did.”

“Babygirl, he’s dead. Jesse’s dead. He’s been dead six months.”

Silence. Some sniffing and moving around and clearing the throat and then silence. “Yeah – Yeah, momma, I know that. I have been made aware of that.”

Silence. “I’m sorry. You just–. I’m not sure I understand, babygirl.”

“I’m not sure I do either, momma. Maybe it got lost. I don’t know. I haven’t read it. Haven’t even touched it. It’s still in the mailbox. He must have done it sometime before he–”

“Aren’t you going to read it?”

“I don’t know, momma.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?”

“I mean I don’t know!” A pause. Quiet sniffs. “I mean, it’s the last thing of him that I’ve got. Do you know what that’s like? What’s he going to say? What if it’s not enough? How can anything be enough? How can anything make up for that – for what he did? And you think – he thinks – that some little letter’s going to make up for that?”

Silence.

“You can’t make up for that. You can’t make up for dying, momma. Not for that.”

“No, babygirl. No, I guess you can’t.”

“And this only makes it worse! I already took his death once and now I gotta take it again. I can’t have him die every couple months on me and kill myself all over again. I can’t do that! How could he do that?”

“I wish I knew, babygirl. I wish I knew.”

She tried to breathe evenly, but it ebbed and ended in a cough that masked quite a bit more. “Okay, Momma. I gotta run, you know, Brian’s going to be home in a bit and I gotta clean myself up. He can’t keep seeing me like this.”

“You do that, babygirl.”

“Bye, Momma.”

“Be strong, babygirl.”

She lowered the phone to her lap and looked at the number for a while before hanging up. Her hands shook and she looked at them for a minute, studied them as they quaked.

She walked over to the closet to pick out clothes. His clothes were still there, lined up on hangers and stuffed in drawers before her. She looked through them for a while, pulling out sleeves and pantlegs. Then she picked up the Army sweatshirt and placed it back on a shelf. She went back to her side of the closet and found a sweater she hadn’t worn in a while and maternity pants from when she’d been pregnant with Brian. She walked downstairs and opened the front door. She looked at the mailbox and grabbed what was inside. The envelope said this on the back: “Please, only read if I don’t come home. Please.” She scoffed at this and her eyes fluttered for a bit before she caught hold of herself and sat down on the steps.

The sun was lower in the sky now and it shone in over the whole of the porch, providing a warmth against the cold air. She placed the stack of letters on her lap, and then picked out Jesse’s. She felt the letter’s weight in her hands and softly traced her fingernail along the envelope’s seal. Her nail tucked under the seal at one corner and started to make its way down, moving inconsistently against the resistance from the adhesive. The nail forced its way down to the vertex but then stopped shortly after beginning its ascent. It rested there, under the pointed flap of the seal for a moment, and then slowly withdrew. She placed the letter at the bottom of the stack resting on her lap and looked up at the sky.

It was clear but for a few small storm clouds. Maybe the weather would hold off. Her son would be home soon. And when he got home she would be there waiting for him and she would take him in her arms and say, “Come on, now, babyboy. Come on in out of the cold.”

Daniel Shea is a 28-year-old writer living in Denver. He is a journalist by trade, but has found himself drawn more and more into writing fiction over the past year.
* * *
Cousin Bob And The Elk Medicine
By Jay Hansford Vest

“I’ll tell you how I got my wife,” he said to me.  Mine had just left me and I was feeling kind of low.  The story was Bob’s gift he meant to cheer me up.  I was wavering, not sure if I wanted to be reminded of a wife and marriage but Bob was upbeat and he wanted to cheer me up.

We was coming back from one of Jack’s concerts in the Midwest.  Driving hard through South Dakota, we crossed the Cheyenne and Crow Country going to Billings.  It was cold, ten below zero it was.  The heater in the old pickup was not getting it done.  We were bundled up with blankets across our legs.  Everything was frozen, so we decided to stop for coffee at Billings.

We come off the freeway to get gas and pulled around into the restaurant parking lot.  There was a car in front of the big windows with an elk tied down to the trunk.  It had a huge rack and I said to Jack, “I bet that guy still has his ivory.  Lets get them as our fathers did of old.” 

Jack says, “They can see us out here.”

“Don’t worry I says, there is a medicine that I heard old White Quiver used to make a fog.”  So I chanted, “Hey yo he hay yo” four times and soon a fog came up enveloping us.  I took out my knife and Jack found a rock to use as a hammer.  I got the jaw open and pried about the tusk with my knife, then we tapped it hard and the ivory popped out.  The other tusk was hard against the car.  I tried to turn the elk’s neck so as to get at it but it was frozen and I couldn’t twist it.  Then I had an idea, I took my knife out again and cut the rope so as to create some slack.  Jack and I worked it loose a bit and then we wrenched the torso up a little so as to tip it away from the trunk.  It was just enough and I managed to get the other tusk while Jack held it up.  We flipped the carcass back into place and pulled the ropes taught without tying them off. 

Now I had the gifts and with the money from our trip, I was going to see the old man so as to get that love medicine.  Jack was ready to go but I told him to circle around behind the restaurant where we could watch the car.  Soon enough four big guys dressed in cammies came out and they didn’t even check their load.  They pulled out and I could see the carcass was loose on the trunk.  Jack I said follow these guys.  Stay back and be careful.  Sure enough we heard a thud up ahead and the whole thing lay there on the roadway in front of us.  Those fellows didn’t even stop they just kept right on a going.  We pulled up and stopped on the shoulder.  I got out with some tobacco for an offering while singing the elk medicine song.

Afterwards we tried to pick it up from the road but my gosh that thing was too heavy for us.  There was plenty of rope so I told Jack to pull ahead and back up to it.  We managed to get the rear end up on the tailgate and I laced the rope about its hindquarters.  We had a stanchion up by the cab so that I pulled the rope around it and tied it off to a post along the road.  As Jack pulled ahead, the carcass slid right into the bed just as pretty as you please.  Taking an old tarp from behind the seat, I covered it and lashed it down.   We pulled over a rise and up ahead we could see a car coming on slowly, they were making their way back looking for that elk.

We come home to Browning with the elk in the back and the ivory in my pocket.  I called up John and later he used a power saw to quarter the carcass.  Afterwards we managed to cut and give it out to the old elders.  They made medicine and I went looking for my wife.

As Cousin Bob’s wife looked on, I noticed the two elk tusks on a choker about her throat.  She smiled and Bob grinned.  With her looking on, he reached into his pocket and brought out two more elk tusks.  Taking my hand, he opened it and place them in my palm.  Closing my hand over the ivory, he declare, “You best go find old man George and get him to make some of that love medicine for your wife.”
 
Jay Hansford Vest is a writer from North Carolina whose work was drawn from his experience among the Blackfeet Indians.
* * *
Cabrini Green
By Lorien House

1977

Note:  Cabrini Green was a housing project on the Near North side of Chicago.  In the 1970s, it housed more than 15,000 people, and was considered one of the most dangerous places to live in the city.

"You might want to duck.”

"I might want to what?”

"Get down.  Below the window.”

"What are you talking about?”

"Cabrini Green.”

"I know, I been past it a million times.”

"Well, we're going in it, to pick up Sedgewick.”

"He lives in Cabrini?”

"Yeah, your little crush lives in Cabrini.”

"Oh.  Wow.

"What, you thought he was some Bougie-black?”

"No.  I don't know.  I'm white.”

"No shit.  That's why you should duck.”

"Because I'm white?”

"Because you're white.  People see a white face in Cabrini, they be tempted to shoot at it.”

"Oh come on.”

"Just get down.  You're not in suburbia anymore, Lacie.  Kennelwack or Fox Trot or whatever that place is called.”

"Palatine.”

"Yeah.  Well you ain't there anymore.”

"Oh come on.”

"Just GET DOWN.”

"Jeez, Louise.  All right.  Damn, do you ever clean this frikkin car?”

"You want you can clean it anytime.”

"I'll pass.  (pause)  You see Sedgy?”

"No.  But I see some folks I'd rather not deal with right now.”

"Can I come up?”

"No! (pause). Shit.”

"What? What?  I can't see.  I'm coming up.”

"No! Jesus.  It's a bunch of folks coming towards the car.  Ima get going.”

"What about Sedgy?”

"It's his hood.  He can deal with these gang bangers better than me, especially when I've got a white suburban princess in my damn car.”

"Oh it's my fault.  They didn't even see me.”

"Ima turn here, get out of Cabrini, circle around, come back through another way.”

"You know where you're going?”

"Hell no, I never been here in my life, and wouldn't set foot either if I wasn't in a car.”

"Who's Bougie now?”

"I'm not Bougie, just smart and I value my life.  This ain't fun and games out here.  Not like Palestine.”

"Palatine.”

"Whatever.  White people and picket fences.”

"Palatine's mostly apartments.”

"Thats worse!  White people stacked one on top of the other, blasting “Sweet Home Alabama” and hanging confederate flags out the window.”

"Oh come on.  We're not like that.”

"You can come up.  We're on Rush Street so now I actually need a white face next to me.”

"JeeZUS.  (gets up).  I said, my family's not racist.”

"Whatever.”

"They're not.”

"Have you ever introduced me to them?  Or Wanda? Or Sedgie for that matter?”

"No because they never come into town.”

"And I've known you how long? Close to a year. I rest my case.”

"Right.  All white people in Illinois are racist.  La la la la, on and on.”

"Uh huh.  And I wouldn't even say Illinois.  I'd say the entire USA.  It's in the blood.”

"Jeez Louise.  Paranoid.”

"No, it is.  Hold on, we're going back into Cabrini.”

"So I guess I'd better get back down.”

"Yeah.  Or put on a hat.  It's the blonde hair.  Drives these black men crazy.”

"Will you stop with the race shit?”

"I do not want to be responsible for dragging Miss Palestine into interracial peril.”

"Palatine!  Interracial peril?  JeeZUS.  Listen to you.”

"Just duck.  Oh there's Sedgewick, looking at his watch and tapping his foot, like he has any call to complain.”

Don opened the door.  “Get your black ass in here.  Making us hang around this wolf pit.”

"Hey Don, hey Lacie.  You took your sweet time.  Lacie, why you on the floor?”

"Don thinks my white face will attract either bullets or rape.  He can't make up his mind which.”

Sedgewick closed the door, hunched over the front seat.  “Rape, more likely,” he said.

"You see?” said Don.

"Oh come on.  Christ.”  Lacie sat up.

"Put on a hat,” said Don.
Louise House is a poet whose work has appeared magazines including Pirene's Fountain and Chantarelle's Notebook. She has lived in Chicago, New York City and Albuquerque, NM. She is a former dancer turned lawyer.
* * *
Poetry
Poetry by George Freek
 
On Meeting an Old Friend (After Ou Yang Hsiu)
When he and I were young
we would stare at the stars,
and question God’s existence,
thinking our answers made sense.
When he played the piano his fingers
would glide over the keyboard
like swans across a lake,
though the sounds weren’t so great.
He no longer plays at all now.
His fingers are crippled with arthritis.
Sparse hair sits atop of his head
like an empty robin’s nest.
His teeth are crooked, those that remain.
Looking at me, I’m sure
his thoughts are the same.
Now I watch the sun as it sets
like a flag being lowered.
Well, today I wrote this poem.
That thought must cheer me.
And there is a bit of light  
from a sliver of moon,
but it won’t keep out the gloom.
 
On Waking In Early Morning (After Tu Fu)
The flowers drop their petals.
I’ve watched autumn come, now
I watch it depart. The robins
Which nested in my tree,
Leave early to fly south.
My wife of forty years is in the ground.
Tonight, even her nagging
Would be a welcome sound.
Everything has abandoned me.
All I have left is self-pity.
Drunken memories are useless.
I’m afraid to drink wine.
At least we had no children
to mar our old age. Alone,
I stare at a pale moon.
I can hardly see it.
It barely lights the sky.

Monet's World
He colors in the sky.
He sees it as blue.
He colors the river.
He sees that blue, too.
And those leaves will
never fall on ground
where bones are hidden
in black shrouds.
Where death is not,
it cannot be proud.
The truth lies in my mind,
Claude claims. He works
in the cold, in the rain.
At night he sits on a balcony
to stare at the stars.
They gleam like the eyes
of gods,
he knows are not there.
George Freek is a poet/playwright living in Belvidere, IL. His poetry has recently appeared in The Missing Slate; Bone Parade; Hamilton Stone Review; The Oklahoma Review; The Poydras Review; and The Empirical Review. His plays are published by Playscripts, Inc.; Havescripts; and Lazy Bee Scripts (UK).
* * *
Poems by Lauren Schmidt
Inheritance
Invariably,
when we left the house
on family trips

to the grocery store,
or vacations at the Jersey shore,

my mother would turn to my father
in the front seat of the car, ask:

Did I leave the coffee pot on?

Invariably,
she didn’t.

And because I don’t
drink coffee,

I worry about my toaster.

On Route 208
a stretch of high-end cars
screeched to a stop
for a happy trail of ducks.
A near accident or two,
some flinging middle fingers
and angry late-day faces,
folks hurtling home
after eight hours
of coffee and telephones.

It pleased me to be
on that slice of highway
in the Garden State
that stopped
for the happy trail
because I think,
too often, we tend
to crush our ducks. 

Brittany's Tatoo
           The Haven House for Homeless Women and Children, Monmouth County, New Jersey

           Her tattoo is no stone-cold Lady Justice--
tattered blindfold, sword, scales in balance--

           just the ink-black cursive word
Justice cuts over the upward

           thrust of her jugular:
throat to the jugband

                       of her heart to the
ovation of her brain, blue tether.

                       Because

           when Brittany needs to believe the word’s
wine-red truth, she presses the wormy

           vein to feel blood thunder
beneath her fingers.
 
Lauren Schmidt is the author of three collections of poetry.  Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as North American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Rattle, Nimrod, Fifth Wednesday Journal, New York Quarterly, Bellevue Literary Review and The Progressive.
* * *
Creative Nonfiction
 
Pucker Up
By Kiley Walsh

There’s nothing you can do to prepare for the feeling of being kissed. Don’t kiss your hand or look in the mirror puckering your lips. You just can’t physically prepare, but you can be ready and smart. It’s going to be awkward because it’s totally different. No one has ever gone to your face—eyes in front of eyes, nose touching nose—and tried to kiss you. Sure, parents and relatives have pecked you on the cheek countless times by now, but it’s not the same feeling of closeness.

Therefore, if the other person is used to kissing, let him or her do all the work. Seriously, if you have never kissed someone, do not try and take control of this extremely uncomfortable situation. And boys, it would be more demeaning of your masculinity to screw up kissing her chin than to let her kiss you first.

For girls, you can’t have expectations. You’ve grown up with movies that make you think first kisses should be in front of great, colorful fountains that spit hearts above your heads. Or it should be pouring rain and he desperately runs to your house when he’s forbidden, making your first kiss dangerous and flooded with endorphins.

It’s not going to be like that.

And if it is, you win.

But if you’re in junior high and beginning to see boys as more than germs (later you’ll realize they still are gross), it is most likely known through text or friends that a kiss is going down after school on a Friday at the high school football game. Just absorb the cheesiness of that whole situation. You’re sporting the one sweatshirt you own of your future high school and your parents are directly above you in the bleachers. How can you beat this romance? But when you really like someone, the humor of it all is actually pretty fun.

Now, it’s going to be hard, but don’t create a group of girls that has one messenger being sent to a group of boys where your future-first-kiss hunk is standing.

“Johnny says if you go over there, he’ll kiss you.”

“Well, if Johnny wants to kiss me, he can come here.”

It’s all obnoxious and comes off more like a business deal, but you only have one first kiss. We can all agree that finally facing that person is terrifying, but you’ve got to relax and stop shaking. When you’re near his face, your mouth might even quiver. You are okay! Remember that. People kiss all the time. (You’ll see in high school—unfortunately, passing period make-out sessions are real.)

Your first kiss is weird, but it won’t even be that incredible. Also, being in a public place, the kiss isn’t going to last longer than one or two seconds. But do not be fooled. Regardless of this quickness, you will remember it all—the way your arms were deep in your front pocket and how awkwardly they pressed against him. You’ll remember his definite lack of chapstick, but how warm another pair of lips felt.

But once you kiss him, try and play cool. Don’t immediately walk away. Don’t refuse to look at him until late that night when you text him about how amazing the kiss was. At the same time, don’t confess your love to him on the spot. Don’t propose the name for your third daughter together. And when you finally walk back to your friends and they are grabbing your hands, pulling you into a tight circle to get all the details about how to kiss a boy, play it cool.

Because you, my friend, just got your first kiss.
 
Kiley Walsh is a senior at Prospect High School in Mount Prospect, IL. She has always had a passion for writing and writes for her school's newspaper, The Prospector. Kiley's first kiss experience was not the greatest, to say the least.
* * *
Artwork
Artwork by Sally Deskins & Laura Wiseman
Sally Deskins is an Artist and writer, focusing on women and feminist writers and artist, including herself. Her art has been exhibited nationally; and published in publications such as Certain Circuits, Weave Magazine, Her Kind, Vagina, CLAP and Whitefish Review.
 
Laura Wiseman is the author of ten collections of poetry. She is the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her Collaborations with artists and designers include broadsides, postcards, exhibits, and shows.
 
Photography by Sarah Kayss
Sarah Kayss is an author and photographer whose work has appeared in literary magazines, journals and anthologies in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the United Kingdom, Italy, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States. Sarah is a recipient of the Austrian-VKSÖ Prize (2012) and winner of the manuscript-award of the German Writers Association (2013).
Photography by Keith Moul
Keith Moul is the author of The Grammar of Mind from Blue & Yellow Dog; Beautiful Agitation from Red Ochre Press; and Reconsidered Light, a collection of my poems written to accompany his photography, from Broken Publications.
Sunset at Clearwater Beach, Florida
By Richard Ong
Richard Ong is a writer and photographer whose has appeared in several issues of bewilderingstories.com, yesterdaysmagazette.com and The Blotter Magazine. One of these stories has been republished in print as part of an anthology titled, Toys Remembered. He is also an executive producer of a promotional movie short nominated for Best Guerilla Film Short at the 2013 Action on Film Festival at Monrovia, California.
Modernist Impressionism Series
By William Paul Plumlee
William Paul Plumlee Is an Artist and writer from California currently producing work and raising funds for his new bliss (an organic dairy farm and cattle breeding operation in Oregon) in North Texas. His work has appeared in RFD Magazine, Gravel Magazine, and Wilde Magazine summer 2014.
Making Pasta
By Cynthia Staples
Cynthia Staples is a writer and photographer living in Somerville, MA. Most people consider her a nature photographer but, of late, food has been a great inspiration.

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