Foliate Oak May 2018

Fiction

Purple Monkey Balls
By Matthew Dexter

Smoking a Siamese spliff of Purple Monkey Balls on the roof of our garage, my
brother blew his head off with a firework mortar. Frank placed the tube—soggy dud
coagulated with vomit and urine—on his forehead. Shrapnel from Frank’s skull rained on
our family with the kaleidoscopic inertia of candy from a freshly burst piñata. The canoeing
roach landed on Grandma’s wig. Nobody thought to catch Frank’s decapitated body as it
rolled off asphalt shingles onto dying grass. Frank’s brain barbecued, hippocampus a hunk
of charcoal, a burning briquette, cerebellum melted, oozing through a smoldering crevice of
ballooning blood and cartilage.

“Holy, Jesus,” Grandma said.

Grandma’s wig was on fire. She jogged in a circle waving it above her bald skull,
smooth as a bowling ball. She hurled it onto the rusty rabbit cage we were using as an
improvised beer pong table. Ten empty plastic Solo cups fell like bowling pins.

“Damn, Mom—handsome strike,” Dad said.

“Can you spare another Natty Light?” Grandma asked.

Dad swayed away from Frank to inspect his mother’s liver-marked cranium with
grimy fingers, vigilant and anxious like a blind dipsomaniac reading braile on her embossed
squamous cell carcinoma—illuminated by a tiki torch as if searching for clues on an ancient
treasure map.

“Got a spare wig?” Grandma asked, tears rolling down her cheeks into a Solo cup
filled to the brim with Jose Cuervo.

Mom tossed Dad a can of Natty Light. He cracked it for Grandma. Foam dribbled
down her lips and camouflaged the overgrowth of ectopic sebaceous glands orbiting,
ornamenting her vermillion borders with the clandestine dignity of broken bulbs on a
desiccated Christmas tree. Frank was a bashful kid with a beautiful face. A gorgeous silent
reminder of how Fluffy Landing is the death roll of childhood torments. Jolly Bay isn’t
deep enough to hold the flotsam of my brother’s sunken secrets—the evening we skinny-
dipped together with rainbow trout, largemouth bass nibbling at our pruned toes—the night
Frank duct-taped me to the splintered wall. Nothing prepared me for what I’d learn after his
orgiastic pyrotechnic somersault into oblivion. We buried him in the graveyard where I
gave my first blowjob behind tombstones to my second cousin, Bubba the third.

“Dilly, Dilly!” Frank said for nine months whenever we were alone in the kitchen.

This innocuous phrase impregnated his spirit.

Frank guzzled Natty Lights and funneled Bud Light in the hours leading to his
destruction. Cheap American beers lubricated Frank’s soul as much as his esophagus. Frank
became boisterous. He vanished for an hour in the attic of our parents’ garage—sunburned
ears and appendages rubbing the labyrinthine pink insulation—immersed in a marathon
session of Seven Minutes in Heaven with eight inebriated adolescents hovering on the
splintered steps—waiting for Frank to collage their necks with hickeys—itching to climb to
paradise, following in the promise of swallowing spit with the most beautiful tween in
Fluffy Landing.

“Dilly, Dilly!” Frank said, waving the fluorescent lighter above his nostrils,
singeing his eyelashes.

Frank’s face flawless in the kaleidoscopic glint of Roman candles and bottle rockets
aimed at his groin, girls giggled as he squirmed and moaned high above an army of popular
tweens. I had a bad feeling in my belly. Tonic on my pierced tongue. The same sensation as
the second before Uncle Jumbo lost his leg in his homemade panga taking a piss--
chomped by the alligator on Christmas Eve—eggnog in his hand as he went overboard.
Jumbo never resurfaced.

“Don’t worry—it’s the dud from earlier!” Frank said.

Frank lost his noggin. I wonder if Frank saw his eyeballs shooting from their
sockets. If time stood still as the burning fuse evaporated into the haze of gunpowder and
Purple Monkey Balls.

“Holy shit!” I said.

After we buried Frank, Mom and Dad refused to touch anything in his bedroom. I
snorted a pyramid of flakka and fire ants after the kegger in Dead Women’s Woods and
snatched Frank’s sticky Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 from his bed. No passwords protected his
secrets—thousands of bookmarked porn pages—eternal and sacred—bulging with
bestiality: Frank riding camels, horses, pigs, roosters, zebras. I skimmed the contents of
donkeys drinking breast milk from pregnant gypsies, men gripping humongous udders,
wrestling alligators, deformed faces fuming with euphoria and quivering lips in dimly lit
bowling alleys. Frank found his voice in the cesspool beneath the dark web.

“Who am I?” I asked.

I watched Frank ejaculating onto flowers, flamingos, peacocks, llamas, ostriches,
Siamese dwarfs, tanks of tropical, ant farms, firework fuses seconds before explosions--
smoke sifting into the frame and then mortars coming to life. Frank pioneered an emerging
genre of pornography: Pyrotechnic Bestiality. Hundreds of mysteries flashed through the
brain we once shared. Where the hell did Frank procure all the fireworks and animals? Who
owned the majestic sport fishing yacht: Bob Marlin? A boat capable of entering shallow
marshes and not getting bogged down.

“Who were you, bro?” I asked.

I came across a highlight reel of Frank, professionally edited and synchronized with
smorgasbords of songs and obscenities, as if Frank were a seventh-grade baseball star
hoping to catch the eye of college scouts for an athletic scholarship.

“My GPA is 3.6 and I want to be a star,” Frank said, before mounting dozens of
exotic animals to the screams of Eminem, Tom Petty, Gloria Estefan, Jim Morrison, 2 Live
Crew, Marilyn Manson, Deborah Harry, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Frank strutted behind a
beaver. I studied my brother making love to a porcupine, a raccoon with rabies, a baby
chicken, a marlin—explaining his philosophies with soft polite words—his eyes sober and
bright. None of the animals were hogtied, caged, or restrained in any way. I figured they
were under duress but none of the animals looked harmed; none attempted to fight. Some
seemed to enjoy it. They didn’t look drugged.

“Sick, bro,” I said.

Above Frank’s head, filling the sky and the camera, fireworks floated between the
earth and ether. I caught spotlights and the moon; the sun lighting a barren beach; a sport
fishing yacht; marshes consumed by alligators; cobalt, black, and white cumulonimbus;
ominous anvil clouds shaped like baboons with raindrops where firework mortars vanished
or burst or drizzled or drooped from the sky with the majesty of sleeting rainbows. I jotted
notes with a ballpoint pen ‘til my thumb and index left crimson fingerprints on the
pillowcase. In every instance, Frank lit the fuse prior to ejaculation, snorted Flakka, smoked
a bowl of flakka, and finished a second before the mortars fired from his skull or nipples,
borne by the glory of a madman. Frank became a mystic, a magician, an aberration.

“This is nuts,” I said.

I read Frank’s emails. He drafted an empty email with the subject:
May as well blow my face off with fireworks on 4th of July. I felt Frank in my belly, under the sheets, crawling
through the hairs on the back of my neck and arms like the presence of invisible spiders
laying eggs in the mind of a fentanyl fiend battling withdrawal. I folded my nose into
Frank’s wrinkled pillow, catching residual whiffs of an ogre with the face of an angel. I
shut my eyes as animals begged for mercy in frayed cotton. I collected crisp chunks of
rheum with the foolish wisdom of a food server combing crumbs from a tainted tablecloth,
filthy fingernails inking into Jolly Bay, snorted jagged labyrinthine fragments ‘til tequila-
tinged blood gushed from hairy nostrils.

“Yippee-ki-yay,” I said as my mother swaggered into the bedroom in her tattered
bra and granny panties.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, ice cubes clanking in a chilled glass of gin
and tonic.

“Searching,” I said.

“Searching?” she asked.

“Yup,” I said.

“Oh Honey,” she said. “Your nose is bleeding.”

Mom ushered me across the gunpowder-dusted floorboards, nails beneath bare feet,
warped wood creaking in unison beneath the obstinate fungus of our putrid soles, the small
house trembling—rotting in a toxic state—bleeding, sobbing, sweating through her pink
insulation.

“Get some sleep,” Mom said.

“Can’t you hear the house bucking?” I asked.

“It’s all in your head,” Mom said.

Frank never thought he’d die. I returned in the whisky blood of dusk and curled
beneath my brother’s covers, reading the secrets of the boy dubbed “The Dumbest Dude in
Fluffy Landing” by illimitable clickbait headlines and comment sections commandeered by
pimpled imbeciles and senior citizens spewing rudeness. No commiseration existed on
those pages. I couldn’t get rid of Frank. We’d been connected at the skull for almost three
years. We shared the same brain and I felt Frank within, penetrating soft flesh and in
puckered orifices, calloused, engorged, blood gushing through familiar organs, his blushing
beautiful shadow dancing on the splintered wall. I gazed out the cracked window toward
the garage and saw bloodshot eyes cutting through cobwebbed glass of dying dawn, flayed
face licking dewy pane.

The fire curled through the house that night. It crept from the attic where Frank
connected fireworks with fuses, sitting Indian style in his tighty-whities. Nobody knew
what started the blaze but Mom swears she saw flames coming through her ceiling. The
orgiastic howl of incinerating wood, the termites roasting in their shells, Dad soaked in a
gasoline-ragged tequila stupor, oblivious, his obese body too humongous to save.

“Dilly, Dilly!” said the night manager when we walked into Live Oak Landing.

Mom shared a bed with me in the loft. It was all they had. It was all we had. Mom’s
toenails sliced my ankles, her snores so braying I was certain the people in the adjacent
room would be banging on the walls. The scent of my father’s rotting flesh clung to Mom’s
granny-panties and bra. Everything was lost in the fire. Mom borrowed a bathrobe and
some clothes from the fire-crotched black window next door. The only neighbor we had--
the one with the humongous tonsils and the addiction to Super Chunk Extra Crunchy
Peanut Butter who warned Frank never to climb the roof.

“I’m too exhausted to shower or change my underwear,” Mom said.

Mom passed out soon as her head hit the pillow. She farted like a lumberjack. The
trendy cottage filled with flatulence. The loft grew smaller. I could feel Frank flowing
through my veins. The smoke in my stomach—afraid to exhale because Dad would whip us
with his alligator belt if he knew we were stoned—and even if we weren’t. The resin of
those nights Frank crept into my bed. I imagine Dad in his death roll as the flames engulfed
his ballooning flesh. Humongous spiders bouncing from webbed corners of rotting wood,
racing for their lives—nimble, doomed. His bones spun through the rusty springs in the
mattress. His lungs filled with smoke. The room smelled of Purple Monkey Balls. The siren
from the fire truck wailed in my ears.

“Yippee-ki-yay,” I said.

I swaggered outside and walked into the RV park where meth heads were roasting
marshmallows and shrooms.

“You wanna ride kayaks?” someone asked.

I sat on a log and watched hollow faces swallowing the tangerine moon.

“Here comes a hot piece of ass,” a drunken man said.

“Fly your freak flag,” a woman said.

I sensed seven or eight irises boring into my breasts and face. Cyclical warmth
hallowed chiseled dimples. I spewed fifty-six obscenities in my mind—each filthier than
the last—three dozen personalities battling and maneuvering to emerge at the same second.

An agoraphobic girl I hadn’t seen since my father fisted me in fifth grade was weeping wet
witch-woven words. Why did Dad decide to touch me for the first time the night I shaved
my pubes and pits for the first time? How did he know? I wasted hundreds of hours and
years searching for a clandestine camera in the bathroom. I started showering with a
bikini and a pendulum around my neck—but this did little to stop Dad from coming in my
bed when Mom was passed out from the Pinot grigio he brought her from the vineyard in
Bunker Hill. I sneezed and cleared the phlegm from my throat, swallowing a loogie which
weighed more than my heart. Wizards stalked from falling clouds. I scratched an infected
pimple underneath my armpit. I pet the fresh hairs conditioned with complimentary cottage
conditioner, the visceral freedom of a fledgling red-wing blackbird flying for the first
time—beyond stubble at last, Frank’s coffin a raison melting into sinking sun. Dad said “a
hairy girl is a dead daughter—same as a snitching one.” When they lowered the chiseled
mahogany into the Earth, I swore never to shave or wax again—as if the hair would bring
me closer to being on the same molecular level as my brother again—an equal playing
field. My temples throbbed as mourners prayed to the vanishing casket.

“What a tight piece of ass,” the drunken man said.

The constitution of the campers changed as a stranger entering their mist of
Marlboros and camel toes. The air grew thick, more humid with every twig which snapped
beneath my toes. I ambled out from oak trees with Spanish moss, obstinate beams from
flashlights bouncing yards in front of my bare feet, humid cumulonimbus moonlight
making love to my shadow. My sinuses clogged from smoke, carbon dioxide, and the
obstinate cold I caught the night after Frank’s funeral when I sat on the roof of the garage in
the rain, pissing myself—puffing piff mixed with the last blunts of Purple Monkey Balls
my brother rolled.

“You hear about The Dumbest in Fluffy Landing?” asked a man with seven toes.

I munched kaleidoscopic caps and took a bump of flakka from his fist.
“That dumb dude and the rocket mortar on his head,” said a woman with a face
covered in hickeys.

I grabbed the stone, as if seeing my fingers for the first time, fisting this brain-
shaped weapon, rocking back and forth with the wisdom of a mystic on a mountaintop.
Their giggles engulfed me. I was too cute and young and innocent to harm anyone. They
gazed at my bellybutton as my arm raised my halter top perpendicular. They were stoned. I
bashed the mineral into the drunken man’s face. His friend rose and they were in top of
me—all four—curling toward the water in a death roll.

“What a hot piece of ass,” the hickey woman said.

I was naked, bloody, hogtied to a tree. I caught a whiff of myself and didn’t
recognize anything. They gagged my mouth. Their trailer was filled with flakka and cases
of Bud Light.

“Dilly, Dilly!” said the woman.

She grabbed a lacrosse stick and inserted it. They took turns all night but by dawn
they passed out and I gnawed my hands free from their duct-taped cocoons and sprinted
over their ballooned bodies straight for the hunting rifle on the wall next to the picture of
Bob Marlin and the card table with the dissected red-winged blackbird covered with
maggots and fire ants. They didn’t wake—but I was silent—lifting the firearm from its
furry mount. Frank taught me how to hunt shadows and I chased them around the trailer,
praying the gun was loaded. I aimed at the drunken man’s wounded face.

“Sweet piece of ass,” I said.

His eyes opened and six more winked in desperate unison. They rose faster than
drug addicts—as if they had done this many times before. Not rapid enough. The man’s
head blew off into the bearskin carpet of their motor home.

“Not a dud,” I said.

His friend lunged at me shredded kneecaps and a second shell entered his eye
socket—tearing into the forehead of the beautiful woman in the Britney Spears tank top.
She flopped on the bearskin rug, in the midst of a seizure, gurgling blood. Her friend
screamed yet the rifle clicking gave her confidence and she giggled at my worthless trigger
finger. She rose with the fury of a Siamese dragon stirring from hibernation in a flaming
moat—roman candles irises firing on all cylinders, bloodshot sclarae, biceps sculpted with
the layers of a humongous sandcastle in Key Largo, muscles bulging from a bloody wife-
beater.

“Dilly, Dilly!” I said.

My jaw snapped in the blink of a dying white dwarf. She was on top of me, yanking
my hair, poking my eyeballs with anvil-inertia fingers ‘til there was no more vision—only
voices and the supine warmth of sunlight on my cheeks and the cool wind on my wounds. I
gorged on their faces and necks—hair, moles, squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell
carcinoma, melanoma, everything. It was the most delicious meal of my life. I rolled over.
Free for the first time, connected at the skull, rising with the glory of a mortar shooting into
smoky sky. Coagulated blood-matted hair stinging in the acoustics of festering alligator
dawn, I walked into the dark—naked, alone, unafraid.
​​
Matthew Dexter lives in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. He is the author of The Ritalin Orgy (Perpetual Motion Machine). His second novel, Hero Custodian, will be published in 2019.

* * * 

The Mischief-Makers
By Malina Douglas

There's a feud in our house. At night I drag a heavy chair against the door. I crouch there, listening for footsteps, and when I'm sure there's nothing, I can sleep.
 
Climbing the stairs is dangerous. If I'm not quick enough I can feel little hands snatching at my ankles. Bryce waits there like a troll to jump up and grab me. I kick him and make my escape. Sometimes he demands tribute.
 
“Give me all your toffees.” His arm latches onto the banister like a vice. I pound against it. It's as solid as stone.
 
I take a few steps back and attack him with a running charge, kicking and pounding, but he wrestles me to the ground. I surrender two toffees.
 
“I'm sure you've got more than that.” He shakes me upside down until five toffees and an iridescent marble fall out. He captures the spoils.
 
There are raids. I wait until he's safely absorbed by a video game in the blue placating light of the screen downstairs. I dash up to his door. I pause, breathe deeply, and open it. The walls are puke-green. Clothes, action figures and dinosaurs lie scattered over every surface. A Lego tower rises between the piles.
 
I have a feeling I know where he keeps his horde. My heart is pounding.
 
At the head of the unmade bed, patterned with freight trains, is a chest of drawers. In one of the drawers is a box. Inside the box, cardboard and plastered with Pokémon stickers, are my toffees, a dozen foil-wrapped chocolates, two lollipops, and a pack of strawberry bubblegum. The marble is missing. Still, a good catch.
 
Once I've stuffed my pockets to brimming, I turn up the hem of my T-shirt and dump the rest in, keeping hold of it with one hand while the other replaces the box and slams the drawer. Leaping lightly over a pile of clothes, I give his Lego tower a swift kick and it topples.
I open the door a crack. All clear.
 
I dart across the hall into the nearest doorway—my parents’ bedroom. I slide on sock feet through their room—blue immaculate bed, every cushion in place—and out the door on the other side, which conveniently leads to mine.
 
Safe in my plush pink palace, I stuff a third of the spoils in the safest place I know—my own gut. The rest I conceal variously around the room—in a glittery egg, in the turret of a dollhouse, beneath a plump pillow; in a tiny fluffy purse.
 
At dinner I watch him tear up his tuna sandwiches—he strictly abstains from vegetables—with the fury of a T-rex. I suppress a grin, because he has no idea.
Then there is the dread. My dolls smile at me, as pearly-toothed as ever, but I can't help but feel a wobbly and greenish yellow feeling as if my magic carpet were just about to plunge into a storm-cloud. 
 
The banging on the door starts the very next day.
“Where—“bang—“are—“bang “my—“bang “lollies?”
I resent the intrusion to my inter-species tea party. Rapunzel drops her cup. Esmeralda's goat tries to eat it. Pegasus flutters her wings.
Bang, bang, bang.
“Go away!”
“Not until you come out with my lollies.”
“I'm not coming out!”
This is how the siege begins.
 
Parents, when they're not foisting manners on us, or enforcing strict bedtimes like tyrants, can be useful. Coming home to find Bryce blocking my door atop a fat stack of pillows, they negotiate a truce. It requires giving up his part of the horde, but not before I eat most of it. It requires giving back my marble, but Bryce claims to not know where it is.
 
“Go on,” says mum in a squishy placating voice. “Say sorry to your sister.”
Bryce brings his bushy brows together like an irate bull.
“Sorry,” he says, as quick and sharp as the stab of a lance. I know he doesn't mean it.
“Sorry,” I growl like a cornered bear.
“Good,” says mum in a sickly sweet voice.
“Now shake hands.” I shrink back in alarm.
“But he has cooties!”
“One little handshake isn't going to hurt.” Our hands meet in a brief, weak shake. I'll get you next time, say his sabre-tooth tiger-sharp eyes.
 
The rain has stopped long enough for us to fling ourselves into the garden.
“Don't forget your wellies—" Mum calls, but it's already too late.
 
My feet squish with glee over the cropped spongy grass. I pluck purple geraniums, a few curling yellow day lilies and the silent pink bells of a foxglove, which is taller than I am. Dewdrops fall from the petals as I pick them.
 
Bryce has found the mud and is engrossed in digging. He's pulling up handfuls and slapping them around the sides into the walls of a mud fort.
 
Leaving the dew-beaded flowers on the steps of the porch, I wander into the woods. I'm kicking up clumps of damp leaves, watching them fly and scatter. My foot hits something small and hard. I glimpse a flash of white. It’s the marble, its iridescent surface gleaming like a fallen moon. I rescue it from the damp leaves and wipe off a few brown bits.
 
“Bry-y-y-ce,” I call. I run up the path. He's absorbed in his sloping mud construction, propping the walls up with sticks.
“Bryce!” He looks up.
“Why'd you throw my marble in the garden?”
“I didn't.”
“Yes you did. I just found it.” The marble gleams in my palm. He draws his thick brows together, confused.
“Well that's weird cuz I put it in my room. Somewhere.”
“I don't believe you.”
“It's true!”
“Then how'd it get here?”
“I dunno.” Our eyes lock for a moment in a sullen glare. I hurl an armload of dead leaves at the mud fort and run back into the house. I have flowers to arrange.
 
Mistrust. The brief joy of finding my marble is broken like an egg all over the ground by my hammering mistrust.
Like when Bryce, groggy with sleep, dumps sugar on his cornflakes. He takes a bite and spits it out.
“Ugh!” he sputters. “It's salt! Who switched the salt and the sugar?”
Mum puts her hands on her hips. “Michaela, have you been playing tricks on your brother again?”
“I didn't do it, I swear.” They don't believe me. I feel like the enemy.
 
I reach forward to pick up a doll and a great bumpy toad jumps out from between the cushions.
“Bryce!” I shriek. I fill Bryce's shoes with mud so that when he's running around the house like a Mexican jumping bean, late for school as usual, he crams his fresh starched socks into his shoes and discovers a startling slurp.
            
I'm halfway to the school bus when I hear him roaring after me, 
“I'll get you back, Michaela.”
Once on the bus he ignores me as usual. He pretends to be too cool to talk to his little sister.
Once the bus drops us off and groans out of sight, he stops striding ahead and pauses for me to catch up.
“You know, Michaela, I didn't put that toad in your room.”
“I don't believe you,” I say stiffly.
“Well, I didn't.” Is that hurt in his voice?
“It's exactly the kind of thing you'd do.” He laughs.
“Well, yeah. It is. You know what? I wish I'd thought of it myself but someone else beat me to it.”
“Then who did it? Not mum or dad.” He chews his lip thoughtfully.
“Good question.”
 
I'm skipping in from the garden with a muddy handful of stones. A smooth one, a brown one, and a black one with white flecks, to place on my shelf of treasures. My treasures—they are scattered all over the floor. The shelf has been knocked down, and there are rotting leaves strewn across the bed.
 
“Bryce!” I roar. I pause. It is possible he didn't do it. That I can no longer blame him for everything that goes wrong. I feel confused.
“Michaela! Why did you kick down my Lego set again?”
“Why did you wreck my room?” He knots his brows like a tangle of thread.
“Something—or someone—must be lurking around the house.”
“Something sneaky.”
“Lets set a trap for it.”            
“Yeah! But how?”
“I have an idea.”
 
The trap. I take two cookies from the kitchen and conceal them. Once mum tucks me in and her soft lavender-scented form disappears, I sit up in bed to keep myself awake. A little while later, Bryce raps on the door. “They're asleep,” he whispers. He unlatches the back door. On the coffee table we set two cookies and a glass of milk. We take our places, Bryce on the stairs just above the coffee table, and me beneath a chair covered with a sheet, facing it.         
 
Waiting. Through the sheet, one dim light glows. It casts shadows in my little space.
I lie on my belly, propping my elbows under my chin.
 
The cookies sit untouched in the light of the lamp. My eyes follow the arcs and swoops of the Turkish carpet. Before long my lids are getting heavy. Keeping them open is like swimming underwater with shoes on. My eyes glide along the contours of the carpet like a fish…
 
A flicker of movement catches the edge of my eye. I blink. Something low and brown and fast scurries across the room and under the sofa. I press my cheek as flat as I can to the floor.
 
Another swift shape streams in and runs up the back of the sofa on all fours. It pauses. It has long knobby limbs, long fingered hands and bony bare feet that curl and grip. Its skin is mottled between tawny brown and swamp green, and seems to be continuously shifting. Around its waist is clothing of woven leaves. It looks at the bowl. Its face is small and bunched and wrinkly like a squashed peach. The nose disappears into the face and flares out into wide nostrils. The ears are long and pointed, the eyes beady and rapid. It crouches like a frog and leaps. It lands lightly on the coffee table and sniffs the cookies. It grins. It circles the cookies with a jaunty skip. And in a shrill little singsong voice, it sings:
          
“Woo-hoo, he-he, I'm filled with glee
That somebody's thinking of little old me
The tricks, they worked, we turned their heads
No need to put any more leaves in their beds!”
          
From beneath the sofa an arm emerges, knobby and mottled. Then a little face, scrunched and pointed. From a moss-covered cap on its head, some stringy hair hangs. It is wrapped in a leaf dress. It crawls up to the table. Grinning, it joins hands with the other and they skip around the cookies, singing shrilly. Then they both sit, legs swinging and dangling. They gobble up the cookies and slurp up the milk and, after picking the last crumbs clean, bound off into the night.
 
I crawl quietly out from the chair. Bryce is stepping down the stairs. We look at each other.
“Don't tell anyone what we saw,” whispers Bryce.
“I won't.”
“It's our little secret.”
 
Somehow, now that we share a secret, I don't have the heart to bash down Bryce's Lego sets. And he doesn't kick me as much. Why do Bryce and I make each other miserable while the little people are delighted by so little? 
 
“Let's make a truce,” I say.
“Okay, truce.” We shake on it. I pretend for a moment that he doesn't have cooties.
 
We are building a mud fort. Scooping up handfuls of mud, slapping and shaping it into walls. I press seashells into the sides and stick yellow day lilies in the battlements. In these  moments, there is joy. 

Malina Douglas has published in Metamorphose V2, Indigo: A Western Australian Journal of Writing, Every Second Sunday: A Seoul Writers' Anthology, and the Jungle Age, a website for writers. Her most recent publications include Writing Writers and the tenth anniversary edition of Consequence Magazine.

* * * 

Shift Supervisor
By  Janet Gool

I hate working as shift supervisor, but no one wins an argument against the Director of Nursing.  On the geriatric psych ward all the players are familiar – the patients, the doctors, the nursing staff.  I am the head nurse and can handle anything.  But shift supervisor?  That means responsibility for the entire hospital, which is an enormous headache. After all, in a two-hundred-bed psychiatric hospital, unbelievable things can happen.

This Thursday evening, like most Thursday evenings, the Director twisted my arm until I agreed to fill in as shift supervisor, and spend my time in the nursing office, rather than in the comfort of my own ward.

The nursing office dominates the Judean Gardens Mental Health Center like the command center on a military base.  The hospital is a collection of old buildings from a historic Arab village.  Even though the Ministry of Health had renovated them in order to serve as wards and offices, sometimes a glimpse of a tiled floor or arched window reveals a different, earlier identity.

I arrived late for the evening shift, hoping the Director would be gone, but no such luck.  She was cloistered in her office when I arrived.  I busied myself reading the patient reports from previous shifts, calling the various wards to assure that all staff members were in place, and straightening up the jumble of pens and paper clips that lay scattered on the conference table.  Eventually the Director stuck her head into the conference room to say hello.  She didn't mention my tardiness.

"Have a good shift, Janet," she wished me.

"Don't worry," I responded.

I waited a few minutes after the door to the nursing office slammed, in case the Director came running back to retrieve a forgotten cell phone or to update me about news in the hospital.  Then I turned on the enormous television set that took up the back wall of the conference room and found the channel that played endless reruns of "Law and Order".

Some Thursdays I managed to squeeze in some creative writing, knowing that at any minute the intercom could summon me and force me to abandon my writing, mid-sentence, and rush to help with a difficult admission or settle an argument between staff members.  One Thursday evening a patient with a campus pass let the air out of all the tires in the visitors' parking lot.  I discovered him roaming around the hospital with an eye-patch over one eye.

"I sure did stop all those tanks, didn't I?" he said to me.  As soon as I arranged to have his campus pass canceled, I hurried back to the nursing office to write an outline for a story about the Moshe Dayan of Judean Gardens.

Creative writing provided an antidote for the burnout that attacked me after thirty years as a psychiatric nurse. 

My patience had waned; sometimes I snapped at one of my elderly charges or at a nurse.  The pharmacist complained that my medication order was late every month.  I sent out blood tests in the wrong tubes or with the wrong forms.  I needed to do something for myself.

Psychotherapy was not the answer – that would be like spending an extra hour each week at work.  Musical instruments were out.  I had attempted to play both the piano and clarinet as a child, but could barely master the basic chords.  A new language, perhaps?  Flamenco dancing?

Two years ago, immersed in my burnout and at loss for a solution, I discovered an advertisement in "The Jerusalem Post".  "So You Want to Be a Writer?" the advertisement asked me.  Yes, yes, yes!  I want to be a writer!  That would be the cure for these burnout blues.

Monday afternoons I joined other wannabe writers, debated the merits of different points-of-view, developed dialogue, and tried to find "my voice".  During the long commute from my home in Beit Shemesh to Jerusalem, I plotted stories in my head instead of planning fights with the Director of Nursing.  My patients, that new nursing assistant with the weird tattoo, the cook who was having an affair with the medical secretary, all became potential characters in a prize-winning story.  Instead of snapping at them, I listened to every word and followed every gesture with as much interest as a first-year nursing student.

It was not just the people at work who suddenly became interesting.  The characters created by my fellow students were as alive to me as my family and friends.  I longed to ask advice from James, the Rhodesian house-servant, and cheered on Sharon in her quest for independence.  Most of all, I was intrigued by the increasing angst of Sam Atlas.
 
This Thursday, however, I was feeling too lazy to write.  I found a container of humus in the nursing office refrigerator that had not yet passed the sell-by date, and some spicy crackers stuffed in one of the cabinets.   

With my nosh ready, I settled down to watch "Law and Order".  This was my payback for working so hard, so long.

My idyll was broken in the middle of the second episode of "Seeds", one of my favorites.  Those clever "Law and Order" lawyers are careful to put a disclaimer at the end of every episode claiming that the "events portrayed have nothing to do with reality", but I know better.  "Seeds", for example, is based on the true story of

Dr. Cecil Jacobson, a slimy ob-gyn from Virginia who used his own "seed" in order to impregnate tens of his patients.  The creep got away with it until a few of the mothers met at the playground and noticed that their children all looked alike!

Anyway, the detectives on "Law and Order" had finished their investigation and the trial was about to begin, when the intercom began to squawk.  Boris, the evening charge nurse in the admission unit, yelled:
"Stat!"  Male back up to the admission unit!  I repeat – stat!"

I flipped off the television and ran to the admission ward.  A man with curly brown hair lay face down in the middle of the day-room floor.  A birthmark resembling a thumbprint was visible on the back of his neck.  Why did that description sound familiar?  There was no time to mull over this question, however.  Boris was half sitting on the patient's back, while a nursing assistant crouched next to him, trying to hold onto the fellow's legs.  Still, the captive managed to twist and turn, yelling the entire time,

"Those damned bitches!  Sneaking around like that!"

In short time six men raced into the ward.  They half-carried, half-dragged the agitated man into the isolation room and laid him on his back on the bed.  Then they looped strong canvas bands around both his arms and legs, secured the loops to the bed, and injected him with strong medication.  The fellow closed his eyes after a few minutes and relaxed his limbs.  Boris and I left the isolation room and returned to the nursing station.  I needed some information from him in order to write up my report at the end of the shift.

"Never saw this guy before," I said to Boris, "Has he ever been hospitalized here?"

"No," answered Boris, "this is the first time we've seen him.  You won't believe what he did."

"Tried to jump off the roof?  Ran around naked through the center of town?  Kidnapped the prime minister's dog?"

"Nope.  He broke into the ritual bath, the mikvah, where his wife was dipping.  Accused his wife and the mikvah lady of having an affair.  The mikvah lady called the police, and they dragged him out and took him to the lock-up at the Russian Compound.  But when the doctor at the jail heard him shouting, he applied to the District Psychiatrist for an involuntary admission."

Now I knew why the patient's brown curly hair and thumb-shaped birthmark seemed familiar.  That was Shimshon's description of his hero, Sam Atlas.  In our last class, Shimshon had presented a new installment of his Sam Atlas stories.  The usually affable Sam revealed a darker side.  Sam had visited his rabbi and insinuated that something peculiar was going on between the rabbi's wife, who served as manager of the local mikvah, and Sam's own wife.  When one of the students commented that Sam Atlas appeared to be losing control, Shimshon said, "Just wait for the next installment.  Then Sam Atlas will really go over the edge.  Be careful, Janet.  He could even end up in your hospital."

We all laughed.

Boris offered me the one comfortable chair in the nursing station and handed me a mug of instant coffee with milk.

"What the patient's name, Boris?" I asked, after a few sips.

Boris slouched on his wooden chair.  "Atlas," he said.

"And his first name?"

"Only an initial," said Boris, replacing the papers in their plastic folder.  "S".

I walked back to the nursing office, fuming with righteous indignation and called Shimshon on the phone.

"You've got a lot of chutzpah!  All this time you've been presenting your stories as fiction, but in reality, you've been exploiting the problem of a very sick person.  You didn't even have the common decency to conceal his identity and give Sam Atlas a fictitious name."

"Whoa, Janet!  What are you talking about?  Where are you?"

"I'm at the Judean Gardens…"

"I know where you work.  And I'm at home, trying to figure out if I want to have a beer and attack the crossword puzzle or replace the faucet in the bathroom sink.  And then you call with some kind of crazy accusation…"

"Sam Atlas just arrived at Judean Gardens on an involuntary admission."

"Former Soviet republic beginning with 'A'", said Shimshon, and I heard the "glug, glug, glug," of beer being poured into a cold glass before I hung up the phone.

My evening of watching "Law and Order" and munching on crackers with humus had been ruined.  Diligently, I trudged from ward to ward around the hospital grounds, enquiring about the health of every patient who had appeared on the nursing office report over the past forty-eight hours.  I responded politely to the complaints of families, and sat in the nurses' station of every ward and gossiped with the staff.  By the time I returned to the admission ward, the shift was almost over.

Sam Atlas was out of the four-point restraints and less agitated, but still tense.  He sat at a metal table in the day room scooping up the mashed potatoes with a metal tablespoon, banging the plastic plate with such force that it almost fell off the table.

"Hello, I'm Janet Gool, the shifty act, I mean, the acting shift supervisor," I said.

"I know exactly who you are," he answered, without looking up from his plate, "and you are getting awfully tiresome with your warm-hearted stories about your kids and grandkids.  Why don't you write something that requires real imagination for once?"

"Sam, it is Sam?" I asked, "Would it be okay if I checked your pulse?"

Sam dropped his spoon and extended a plump, freckled arm.  I placed my fingers in line with his thumb and searched for the familiar "thump, thump, thump" of the human heartbeat.  Nothing.  I tried his other arm, moving my fingers from the radical to the brachial space, without finding even a faint trace of a pulse.  I glanced at Sam; his color was good, he was breathing normally.  Sam saw the puzzled expression on my face and a sudden boom hit my fingertips.  Sam grinned.

The following Friday and Saturday at home provided some much-needed rest.  My married daughter visited with her family, and my little grandchildren proved to be a powerful distraction from the puzzling situation I had encountered on Thursday.

When I returned to work on Sunday, however, the anxiety that had gripped me most of Thursday returned.  I shut myself up in my office and thought about Sam Atlas and Shimshon.

I called Shimshon.

"Listen," I told him, "Sorry about that weird call on Thursday, but someone named Sam Atlas really did arrive here."

"Janet, I don't know what to tell you," said Shimshon.  "Maybe Sam Atlas isn't really such an unusual name.  Personally, I've never met a real Sam Atlas, but that doesn't mean anything."

"This Sam Atlas looks exactly like your character – brown curly hair, even a thumb-shaped birthmark on the back of his neck."  I didn't tell Shimshon about the weird business with the pulse.

"Like I said, I just don't know what to tell you.  I wish I could help, but I'm an accountant, not really in a helping profession."

Shimshon sounded as if he were telling the truth.  If so, the unbelievable had happened.  Sam Atlas had walked of the page and into the admission ward of the Judean Gardens Mental Health Center.  My nursing school curriculum had not included a single lesson about the care and treatment of characters from stories.  I leafed through  the hospital's policy and procedure manuals, but drew a blank.  It appeared that Sam represented a new frontier in mental health care, and I was its lone pioneer.

I found the nursing reports for the admission ward on my computer and looked up Sam Atlas.  The good news was that he was calmer and cooperating with the staff.  The bad news was that the mikvah lady had filed a complaint against him with the police.  The police asked the medical director of the admission ward not to release Atlas without a psychiatric hearing, since the mikvah lady wanted a chance to testify.

During a mid-morning lull in my work, I walked down the hill to the admission ward and sat with Sam Atlas in the visitors' room.  He was grateful, but not surprised, that I had brought him his favorite sandwich, lox and cream cheese on pumpernickel from Café Aroma.

"I'm sorry I insulted you on Thursday evening," he said between bites.

"And I'm sorry that we put you in restraints," I responded.

"Look, Janet," he continued, after finishing his snack, "you need to get me out of here.  I can't take it.  The ward is so noisy.  One of the guys in my room is a Danish tourist who think he's John the Baptist.  He poured a cup of cold water over my head in the middle of the night."

I told him about the mikvah lady and the psychiatric hearing.

"Won't you testify on my behalf?"

"What could I say on your behalf in a psychiatric hearing?"

Sam balled up the sandwich wrapping and tossed it into the trashcan. 
   
"Just tell them the plain unvarnished truth.  You can't commit a character from a short story to a psychiatric ward.  It just is not logical."

"Sam," I answered, "if I walk into a psychiatric hearing and claim that you are a character from a short story, they'll decided that I've lost my mind after all those years working with psych patients and commit me."

Sam brushed a few breadcrumbs from his knees.  "Well, think of something.  You're supposed to be creative."

I returned to the geriatric psych ward but was unable to work.  Sam's appeal for help was harder to cope with than his anger, but I still could not figure out how to get a character discharged from the hospital.

The Director called me as I was sitting paralyzed at my desk, unable to find a solution.

"I have a favor to ask of you, Janet," she said.  "We ordered a new refrigerator for our house – it was supposed to be delivered this evening.  The deliveryman just called and said he would be there in fifteen minutes.  I know you don't like filling in, but could you just sit in the nursing office until the end of the shift so that I can run home?"

On my way from the geriatric ward to the nursing office I could see the patients from the admissions ward enjoying the afternoon sunshine in the yard adjacent to the building.  A few men kicked around a half-inflated football.  One young fellow in dread-locks and a large crocheted skullcap played Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" on a guitar.  Two mandatory staff members were present, but they didn't appear interested in what their charges were doing.  One was busy texting messages on his cell phone, while the second slumped, half asleep, on a plastic chaise-longue.  Sam Atlas sat alone and forlorn on a folding chair in the corner of the yard.  I waved to him, but he did not see me.

The Director stood in the doorway of the nursing office with her bag over her shoulder.  She hurried towards the exit gate as soon as she saw me, calling back,

"I've taken care of everything – written up the nursing reports, but didn't have time to print them.  That's all you have to do.  And of course, take care of any emergencies that come up."

"Don't worry," I called back, "The hospital is in capable hands."

I sat down at the computer to print out the nursing reports when it hit – the solution to Sam Atlas' problem.

Instead of printing the nursing reports, I opened a new Word document and began to type.

"The patients were all gathered in the yard, when suddenly and with unexpected agility, Sam Atlas leaped on the fence and began to climb towards the top."

The minute I typed the word "top" the hospital intercom began to squawk.

"Shift supervisor!  Shift supervisor!  Please respond!"

I did not respond, but continued to type.

"Clambering over the top he dropped, uninjured, (and here I took the time to underline the word 'uninjured') on the other side of the fence."

The nurse on the intercom sounded hassled.  "Shift supervisor!  Shift supervisor!  A patient has escaped!  I repeat – a patient has escaped!"

I typed as accurately and quickly as possible.  "Running instinctively away from the main gate, Sam headed up the hill and behind the old rehab building."

"Shift supervisor!  We have an escaped patient!  He ran up the hill…"

I needed just a few more lines.  "Finding a pile of abandoned furniture that provided a foot up, Sam heaved himself over the perimeter fence and into an empty lot in the Har Nof neighborhood.  Brushing off his clothes, he walked down the street, blending in with the residents.  Then he disappeared from the hospital, forever."

Only after typing the words, "The End" (underlined and in bold type) did I respond to the frantic pleas of the nurse on the intercom.

"This is the shift supervisor," I said in my calmest, most reassuring voice, "How can I help you?"

Janet Gool is a retired psychiatric nurse living in Beit Shemesh, Israel. Her work has been published in Madcap Review and Creative Nonfiction, and awarded an honorable mention by Glimmer Train.

* * * 

Isola Bella
By Carly Husick

The summer after college graduation Leah's parents took her on a vacation to Italy. They
flew into Rome and then traveled down the high-heeled boot of Italy to a lake city called
Stresa, stopping in Florence along the way. Leah had never been out of the country
before but her parents had made a habit of leaving the United States every time they'd
dropped Leah back at school - eight times in the last four years. Italy and England and the
British Virgin Islands and once the south of France where they'd sent Leah pictures
through slow loading emails of them sitting on a pastel colored coastline eating shellfish
off a three-tiered dish. Leah had downloaded the picture on her phone and shown it to all
her friends, her Dad's face grinning against the sherbet sunset as he pried the center of an
oyster from its shell and slid it into his mouth.

In Rome, they stayed in a narrow hotel, piled into one room, her father’s portable C-pap
machine occasionally suffocating him in his sleep so Leah would be ripped from dreams
of crashing waves and sand bars and strawberry daiquiris to the sound of her father’s
breath being sucked from his body. His chest and torso rising up underneath the thin
sheet, that was spread across his front and her mother’s back, like his lungs were being
pulled up out of his body through his skin. They ate breakfast in a cavern at the bottom of
the hotel. It was shaped like a six-pointed star, jagged edges narrowing in around their
heads where the stone had formed and stayed millions of years before. Leah ate chocolate
croissants and drank custardy-orange colored passion fruit juice while her parents talked
about the weather. When she went back into the room to use the bathroom before they
went out for the day her father’s C-pap machine had been bundled up and wrapped in its
own chords, zipped away in the case that her father hung over his shoulder and carried
through the airports like a computer bag.

They went to the old Jewish ghetto and walked through a Roman synagogue as grand as
any church Leah had ever seen. The stained-glass windows were the colors of tropical
birds, greens and blues and fuchsias and the ceilings were geometric patterns that wove in
against one another and stretched up so high that Leah had to tilt her head back as far as it
could go just to see to the top. Afterwards they walked through the ruins of the ghetto and
Leah paused in front of a covered plastic sign that gave a description of the site in both
Italian and English. Sprayed over the black words was an ugly gash of paint, dotted and
frail like it had been shakily drawn there, the spidery legs of a swastika clinging onto the
words.

No one said anything.

That evening Leah ate a fried artichoke that melted on her tongue, its muddy flavor
popping against the fizzy water that her parents insisted on drinking while abroad.
Agua con gas her father mimed to every waiter, his voice taking on a high girlish accent that
left his edges curling around his words.

In Florence, they visited a leather school at the back of a church. Leah hadn’t known that
leather working and tanning was something you could study. That people made a career
of it. Became apprentices. She spent forty minutes watching an Italian man with thick
brown hair stitch a rim around the edges of a wallet, his hands working his tools with
methodical certainty, pausing every few minutes to push a lock of hair out of his eyes. In
Florence, for the first time, she tasted wild boar in chocolate sauce and sipped a Nebbiolo
relishing the full bounce of the dry red against the succulence of the exotic meat.

In Stresa, Leah ate gnocchi by the plateful with every kind of sauce she could find on a
menu. She ate it with shredded duck and sausage. She ate it with tomato sauce that sat
tart and full on her tongue. She ate it with a cream sauce that settled on the top of her
stomach like liquid matter forming to the shape of her insides and pressing down. In the
morning, they took a ferry to Isola Bella and wandered through the halls of the castle and
the grounds without a tour guide. Leah’s feet pressed puffs of dust out of the carpet with
every step she took, like a ghost version of herself was hovering just above the dulled
blue carpet. But the real attraction of Isola Bella were the birds that roamed the stone
island, walking along the gravel paths from plush green gardens to the pink lined flower
beds on splayed feet, their tufted white crowns held high, their feathers tucked along their
backs as they waddled and swayed their heads at one another.

Leah spent the afternoon following the peacocks from one end of the island to the other.
They were unusual, these denizens of Isola Bella, white from the dandelion fuzzed tops
of their feathers to the tips of their sloped beaks and when they spread their plumes,
fanning out like a deck of cards being spread, it was like a sunrise unfurled before you,
only drained of color.

And their cries. To Leah their cries sounded like a child’s scream. Like a whooping
cough, high pitched and sonorous. Like the sound paint makes when it’s scraped off a
plastic sign after being forced into a terrible shape. Like her father’s lungs being pulled
out through his chest as he choked in his sleep, his C-pap machine slapping an invisible
hand over his own soundless beak.
​​
Carly Husick is a first year MFA student at the University of New Hampshire studying fiction. She has most recently been published in Rivercraft literary magazine.

* * * 
Expressionismus
By Daniel M. Jaffe

Germany. Bavaria. Munich.

Barer Strasse 40. Pinakothek Der Moderne art museum.

First floor.  West wing.  Classical Modernism Gallery. 

An hour before opening time.

An employee in khaki pants and white shirt enters the white-walled gallery, proceeds to measure the dozen paintings—height, width, depth—jotting numbers onto a pad as he goes.

He departs.

“There’s only one reason they measure us.” says Kirchner’s Self-Portrait As a Sick Man.  “They are preparing our coffins.”  It is the canvas as a whole expressing this opinion, not just the painting’s depressed, withered figure of Kirchner himself.  To be sure, Kirchner’s face is indisputably the eye of the painting’s quiet storm; however, this is far from its only feature.  Purple, green and black-smeared walls loom in the background:  illness as green, purple, black tinged with blue.  A window set in the far wall reveals an outerworld glimpse—mountains represented by green and red wavy horizontals split by zigzag blue.  An amorphous red mass frames ill-Kirchner’s face—a blanket, perhaps, an internal state of mind, or is this a fever creeping upon him and slowly overtaking?  

Two lit candles stand in the painted room, presumably to imply the approach of dusk (death?).  Between the far wall and the amorphous red mass stands a green-tinted yellow upright piano (headboard? dresser?), whose coloration is a shade brighter than Kirchner’s own dull green-tinted yellow hands, neck, and face that protrude from a deep blue, collarless nightshirt.  His nearly triangular black-haired head is three-quarter turned to the right, with one hand’s fingers curled on chin in a gesture implying worry, anxiety.  “We’ll be crated up and thrown onto the trash heap,” declares the canvas.  “Contemporary critics will finish what Hitler started.”

“Must we always dredge up Hitler at every hint of doom?”  This comes from Nolde’s Dance Around the Golden Calf, a rendering of the Hebrew Bible scene—half-nude women with yellow, hot pink, and orange torsoes in frenzied dance, their legs wide-open, their knees and heels kicked up, their red and brown hair thrown back—a tableau resembling a blaze of fire flame licks.  “Why do you assume the worst?  If they intended to trash us, they’d hardly go to the trouble of measuring so as to pack us snugly.  Why not assume an adventure? Perhaps we’re being sent on temporary exhibit loan.  A chance to see the world.  Maybe somewhere amazing, like the Louvre or Prado.  One’s always dreamt of being in the company of ethereal El Greco’s.”

“Or the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg,” replies Kirchner’s Self-Portrait As a Sick Man, “where we’ll hang for eternity beside exhausted Volga boatmen, and a hundred paintings of snow.”

“Or maybe New York—can you imagine? MOMA with the jazziest of the new?”

“Or the Guggenheim where spiral-dizzy teenagers in torn leotards and black spiked hair will linger just long enough to Tweet friends that they’re ogling the Germans.”

“One loves being ogled,” Dance says. 

“Ogling is not the same as appreciating.  Oh, my poor namesake.  A good thing he didn’t live to see his work crated and shipped off heaven knows where.  All Kirchner wanted was to be appreciated for his innovative vision.  Was that too much to ask?”

“Boo hoo.  Where are Picasso’s fractured violins when one needs them?”

“But life intervened,” continues Self-Portrait As a Sick Man.   “The first World War led Kirchner to a nervous breakdown.”

“Perhaps that explains why you look the way you do.   No offense.”

“And then came the Nazis, who hung 25 of his paintings in their Degenerate Art Exhibition.  As if he were other than brilliant.  They impelled him to suicide.”

“Yes,” replies Dance Around the Golden Calf.  “Suicide often results in unwarranted fame.”

“You think Nolde was glorifying Jewish history when he painted your conglomeration of gold-worshipping whores? He later joined the Nazi party’s Danish section!”

“It just so happens that Nolde’s work was also subjected to display in the Degenerate Art Exhibition.”

“In your case, I can see Hitler’s point.”

“Enough of the sibling rivalry, you two!” interrupts Kirchner’s Two Brothers M., a painting of two young men standing beside one another in slightly overlapping planes.  “We’re all the fruit of German Expressionism, are we not?”  The young men’s similar brown and green faces, flat heads, and black hair ostensibly suggest blood relationship.  On the other hand, viewers of particular inclinations might notice the way the greener-faced man has slipped his Modigliani-long brown fingers under and around the taller one’s yellow-shirted bicep and gazes up at him through long black eyelashes.  Rather lovingly.  What’s more, the men are standing before what appears to be a pink mass (mountain? mound of snow?) amidst blue and red mountains capped in white.  Is Kirchner’s choice of pink highlight intended to imply…? Should the painting’s title--Two Brothers M.—be read as referring literally to shared genetics or metaphorically to a different sort of brotherhood?  “Maybe your mood would lift, Self-Portrait, if you were to seek some of life’s secret joys,” continues Two Brothers M.

“Maybe they’ll send you to a museum in San Francisco.”

“Do you think there’s a chance?”

With Marlene Deitrich throatiness, Kirchner’s Erna Smoking pipes in, as if apropos of something, “Anonymous sex is so over-rated.”  In contrast to Kirchner’s right-facing three-quarter-turned head in Self-Portrait, Erna’s three-quarter-turned head faces left.  It’s more distinctly angular than Self-Portrait’s, with jutting chin, sharp jawline, pointed nose.  Steel blue skin is accented by green shading and yellow lines under her slitty eyes, a yellow that nearly matches the yellow deep v-collar of her green-black dress.  Black bangs and bun are streaked with cherry red.  She appears to be seated.  Bent elbows jut akimbo at her sides, forearms lean on a white-blue table edge.  One yellow-green hand visibly curls while the other remains hidden behind a tray that bears teapot, jam jar (sugar jar?), and shapes suggesting…bread and cheese?...cake?  Up behind Erna, as if closing in, stands a green and mustard-yellow wall. 

“Did you ever notice,” asks Dance Around the Golden Calf, “that your name sounds much better in German than in the Pinakothek postcard’s English and French translations? ‘Erna Mit Zigarette’ lands more harshly on the ear than ‘Erna Smoking’ and ‘Erna Fumant,’ don’t you think?  Appropriately harsher, given your melancholy mood.”

The horizontal cigarette—the same steel blue color as her skin—remains clamped firmly between Erna’s teeth and shut lips.  Cigarette as extension of skin, body, thoughts that appear to cloud mind and face while her angled gaze focuses down somewhere beyond the table’s edge, perhaps to the floor outside the painting where tourists who pay 10 Euros each will soon come to stand and gawk as they do day after day after day.  “What matters a stranger’s ogling?” asks Erna Smoking.  “Making with the big eyes.  So? Is it the touch of soft lips? A caress from one’s beloved lost to tuberculosis? What matters whether we are looked upon at home or abroad? How do looks change our lot? Will your naked dancing ever appear less wild regardless of who gazes? And you over there, Self-Portrait, will your feverishness ever subside? And you with the brothers—will these two men ever do more than merely gaze upon one another in fraternal or whatever affection? Our lot is sealed as with varnish.  Transport us wherever.  What difference?” 

“Perk up, dear,” says Dance Around the Golden Calf.  “You and Self-Portrait should remind yourselves of the joy that tourists glean from your melancholy and despair.”

Footsteps clatter on the stairs leading up to the gallery.

The morning’s worker enters.  “Take them down gently,” he tells a companion.  “Storage will be good for them, give them a rest while we display others.”

“Paintings need rest?”

The first worker shrugs. 

“Storage?” Dance Around the Golden Calf asks the fellow paintings.  “Remove us from public view? But one exists to be seen.”

“You exist to be obscene,” says Self-Portrait As a Sick Man.

“Even in a box, the cigarette will never fall from these lips,” says Erna Smoking.

“Privacy at last,” says Two Brothers M.

“One will bide one’s time until the moment of future uncrating,” says Dance Around the Golden Calf.  “Eventual resurrection will bring renewed vibrant self-expression.”

“By the time they uncrate us, we might well have turned to dust,” says Self-Portrait As a Sick Man.

“But art is eternal,” objects Dance.

“Only in the mind of man,” says Self-Portrait.  “Unless you believe in the mind of God.”

Dance Around the Golden Calf offers no response.

The workers unhang Dance first, face it against a white wall.  They then proceed to unhang the remaining paintings.  They carefully remove each from the gallery.

By the time morning visitors arrive, the Classical Modernism Gallery is a silent display of white on white on white on white.

​​Daniel M. Jaffe is author of the new novel, Yeled Tov; the novel-in-stories, The Genealogy of Understanding; the short-story collection, Jewish Gentle and Other Stories of Gay-Jewish Living; and the novel, The Limits of Pleasure. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

* * * 

Shattered Windowpane
By Rosario Russell Licciardello

Bobby Jones’s sweat-covered shirt stuck to his body like glue. His long, mostly gray hair dangled well past his shoulders. A bright spotlight highlighted his tall, lean body as he stood center-stage. His well-worn guitar was slung over his shoulder. The band, barely visible in the dim blue stage lights, played behind him.

Bobby leaned into the microphone and sang the last lines of his Country ballad. “You shattered my heart… like a rock… through a windowpane.”

He backed away from the microphone and strummed the last chords of the song, accompanied with a cry from the steel guitar. Bobby, in his early fifties, looked much older than his years. It was easy to see that years of being on the road had taken its toll. However, he still looked like a million dollars, dressed in jeans that were heavily starched with an ironed crease down the front. Silver-tipped black Western boots matched his black long-sleeve shirt. He slowly bowed to the audience.

Bobby leaned back into the microphone and shouted to the crowd as he held his guitar high over his head. “Thank you and good night!”

The spot-light dimmed as Bobby and the band quickly made their exit. The arena lights came up on thousands of cheering fans. The audience, a mix of young and old, all wanted more, even though the band had already completed three encores. Many in attendance copied Bobby’s look of silver-tipped Western boots, jeans, and a fancy black Western shirt.

As Bobby stepped off the stage, a roadie quickly took his guitar and handed him a towel. Another handed a full Jack Daniel’s bottle. Bobby’s road manager, Steve Hicks, grabbed his arm as the two continued to walk backstage.

“Great show! You were fantastic tonight,” Steve said. Steve was of average height, thin, well-dressed, and known in the industry for running a tight ship.

Backstage chaos ensued, with a mixture of musicians, roadies, and special guests all trying to get a glimpse of the star. Bobby and Steve made their way to a dressing room door labeled “BOBBY JONES.”

On each side of the dressing room door stood bodyguards. As Steve and Bobby entered, Steve instructed the men, “No one, and I mean no one, gets in here tonight except me and Mark Gooden from ROLLING STONE!” Steve eyeballed both men. “Are we clear on that?”

The two men nodded to confirm.

Steve continued, “Did I tell you that you’re both doing a great job?” Upon receiving the compliment, both men stood a little straighter and taller.

In the center of the dressing room was a large, worn, Oriental rug, with three comfortable leather chairs positioned in a semicircle. To the far side of the room was a white-linen-covered table with a buffet of food and drinks. Bobby collapsed into one of the chairs. He took long swigs directly from the Jack Daniel’s bottle.
Steve closed the door and turned to Bobby. “Man, they are eating up the new you!”

Bobby nodded. “Thanks.”

“I need to take care of some things,” Steve said. “You relax, and Mark Gooden will be here in ten. Are you ready for this? I just found out that Rolling Stone is giving you the cover!” Steve’s whole body flinched with excitement. “Mark called me just before the show started and asked for a little bit of your time. Man, you are back on top of the world.”

Bobby replied, “Yeah, I’ll give him all the time he wants.”

Steve gave a little fist bump of approval “Great! Ok, you need anything, just ask one of the guys outside.” Steve turned and quickly left the room.

Bobby eased back in the chair, the towel draped over his head, looking like a prize fighter after a twelve-round match. Exhausted, his head dropped, his eyes closed. As he started to relax his mind began to drift.
 

 
He had been deep into the bottle, with little or no sleep. He’d spent money he did not have and recently finalized a divorce from his fourth wife. He had lost the ability to write one hit song after another. His fan base had drifted. He hadn’t had a new song or album in more years than he could count.

Bobby’s career started when he was fifteen. He quit school to play guitar in a traveling country band. Soon he was the front-man, gaining attention from the press, as his fan base rapidly grew. Life on the road was one long party. He’d picked up the habit of smoking and learned to enjoy the taste of Jack Daniel’s. His love of excess drinking gained Bobby numerous invitations to spend a night in local jail cells. Many photos floated around over the years with Bobby collapsed off-stage with his old friend Jack, or being carted off by the local authorities.
Bobby’s first love was his guitar and music.  He also had a soft spot for the pretty girls, married women, included that came to his shows.  Keeping angry husbands distracted was a full-time job for security staff, as well as keeping them out of his hotel room and off the tour bus.

Despite his wild life-style and habits, he was born with a gift to write songs. During many long bus rides, band members would challenge him by pulling little scraps of paper out of a big jar. Each piece of paper had a word written on it. From that one word, a new song was written. Many times, Bobby and the boys would be playing a new song that an hour earlier was nothing more than a word scribbled on a scrap of paper.

However, the years of over-indulging were taking their toll on Bobby. He would end shows early because he just lacked the stamina to play three hour shows. His ability to write his own material had slipped to the point that most of his new material was now penned by others. Ticket sales to his shows steadily dropped off. Over the past few months, he could see more and more empty seats at the end of each show when the stadium lights were brought up.

An old musician friend had been aware that Bobby was in a downward spiral in every aspect of his life. If Bobby didn’t do something soon, his career as an entertainer would tragically end. This friend offered Bobby the use of his cabin in the woods of Tennessee.

Bobby’s mind drifted deeper. He remembered the day he first entered the cabin. The old rustic furniture seemed to welcome him. It spoke - “Come, relax, enjoy.” The back porch had two Adirondack chairs that overlooked a large lake. It was beautiful and peaceful. Not a soul to be seen for miles.

He remembered the first time he entered the master bedroom. As he pulled the curtains back to take a look at the view, he experienced a jolt that resonated deep within his body. One of the glass windowpanes was shattered. At that moment, looking at the shattered glass, a whisper of a melody started to dance in the back of his head. The melody was not clear, more like a dull hum from behind a stage curtain that could not push its way through all of the other clutter.

He sat at a table with his Jack and a folder of new songs that had been written for him by new up-and-coming entertainers. Not happy with any of them, he slammed the folder shut, picked up his guitar, and tried to write a new song. Gone were the days when he could rattle out a hit song with ease. His hands were shaking, and when he tried to sing, the notes came out flat and off key.

That night, Bobby decided to make some real changes in his life.

He poured his booze down the kitchen sink. He then slept for a few hours, his first uninterrupted sleep in many nights. As he slept the faint melody tickled his dreams.

The next morning, after a cup of strong coffee, Bobby took a long walk through the woods. When he got back to the cabin, Bobby called Calvin, the owner of the General Store at the bottom of the road. He ordered food and supplies for a long stay. Most importantly, Bobby asked Calvin to bring him a dozen notebooks and two dozen pencils.
 

 
Each morning, Bobby started with a walk. Each day, his walks got longer. Bobby was a good cook, and he prepared all of his own meals. For the first time in many months he enjoyed the taste of real food rather than the fast food he had been surviving on. His nights were filled with writing by the light of a fire and an old kerosene lamp. When he was tired he went to bed, and fell into a long restful sleep with the bedroom window wide open.

After a couple weeks, Bobby felt stronger and more clearheaded. By the end of the first month, he added push-ups to his walking routine and started to jump rope. Through it all, the vision of the broken windowpane haunted him. In his mind, he held an image of all the details of the shattered glass. How the fractures radiated to the edges of the wooden window frame; how in between each of the primary fractures there were smaller fractures and how little shards of glass dusted the windowsill. Through the hum in his mind, Bobby knew that, deep inside, there was a song, a good song, and he was going to keep digging until he had it.

From the age of seventeen, Bobby had enjoyed the taste of Jack Daniels. From then on, he’d always had a bottle of Jack in his hand. It had become his trademark, of sorts. He hung on to it, like a baby with a security blanket. It was one habit Bobby could just not break, but he knew that he could not go through life holding on to an empty whiskey bottle.

One morning, he developed a solution that would let him hold on to his beloved bottle, without the temptation of whiskey. He boiled a pot of water and steeped ten or so tea bags, then filled the Jack Daniels bottle with tea.
That afternoon as he sat on the back porch, deep in thought, Bobby reached for the bottle at his side. He cracked a slight smile and took a long drink. Bobby had a new little secret. A secret that would allow him to drink from his bottle as much as he wanted, without the least little buzz. Sitting quietly, Bobby slid back into his thoughts.

Three months passed, when Bobby received a note from his manager, suggesting that it was time to get back to work. He was rested, strong, and sober. His notebooks were filled with a collection of new songs, songs he wanted to share with his band, his fans and the world. However, he still had one more song to write. The vision of the shattered windowpane was still an itch deep in his brain. An itch he needed to scratch.
 

 
The morning air was cool as Bobby sat on the back porch with a cup of fresh coffee and a plate of old-fashioned donuts. Calvin’s wife sent the homemade donuts along with his weekly supplies. They reminded Bobby of the ones his mother made. A heavy cake donut, fried crisp, then given a heavy sprinkle of powdered sugar. A fresh donut and a cup of strong coffee were all any man could want in life.

Just as Bobby finished his coffee, music and words started to flow clearly through his head. He stumbled across the porch into the house, grabbed his guitar, his writing pad.

Within an hour, he had the song that had haunted him from the first day. A few hours later, all of the lines, chords, and solos were in place. Bobby dropped his stub of a pencil onto the table, took a long look at the tattered notebook and knew, deep in his soul that he had written the best song of his career. Now it was time to go home.
 

 
Two months later, Bobby and his band were in the studio. They launched a new album that hit gold within a couple of weeks and platinum shortly after.

Everyone associated with Bobby’s music was in the middle of putting together a new US and World Tour.


 
A light knock on the dressing room door brought Bobby out of his deep thoughts, and Mark Gooden entered the room. Mark held his arms out to give a big hug. “Bobby! Fantastic show! What a fantastic show!” Mark looked like a bit of a nerd, with slightly unkempt hair, big dark-framed glasses and clothes that were out of fashion.
Bobby tried to get up, but did not have the strength. He pointed to one of the leather chairs and said, “Come on in. Have a seat,” and then pointed to the table, “Please, help yourself.”

Mark settled into one of the leather chairs, took a look over at the table. “No thank you, maybe later.”
Mark pulled out a pen and small notepad from his bag. “Thanks for taking time to sit with me,” he said. “Man, you look and sound better than you ever have.”

“Thanks,” Bobby replied with a big smile.

Mark took a deep breath, paused for a second, and then dove right into his interview. “Bobby, you have a new album and a hit single from the album’s title. Tell me about “Shattered Windowpane.” It’s your best song to date. What inspired you?”

Bobby leaned forward, looked Mark directly into his eyes. “I stopped drinking.” Bobby then took a long swig from his Jack Daniels bottle. He pulled the bottle away and wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt. He then broke into a loud laugh as he carefully placed the bottle down by his chair and said. “Well… it all started when...”

As Mark listened, he feverishly took notes. He had no need to ask questions. Everything Bobby said was pure gold. “You just can’t make this stuff up,” Mark thought to himself.
 

 
Two months after the interviewed with ROLLING STONE, Bobby was in New Orleans for a concert.  He eased out of on the hotel’s side doors for an early morning walk. He was rounding the corner on his way back to the hotel when he spotted a coffee shop with a little news stand just outside of the shop. At the news stand, Bobby found the newest edition of ROLLING STONE with him on the cover. Bobby purchased a copy, along with a newspaper, and headed into the coffee shop.

He took a booth towards the back of the shop, ordered a large cup of black coffee and a sugar-covered donut. The headline to his photo read, “Bobby Jones tells how he pulled his career out of the ashes!” Bobby flipped through the magazine until he reached the article. The four-page article was accompanied with many photos of him relaxing, working in the studio, on stage, and on the tour bus. None of the photos included his old friend Jack.

The article opened, “Bobby Jones sits exhausted after his opening show in Dallas and opens up about how he destroyed his life, his music, and relationships.” The article continued on how getting away from life in a cabin in the woods and how a shattered windowpane ignited the spark that allowed him to find his way back to music and provided the inspiration for his latest song, “Shattered Windowpane.”

After completing the article, Bobby placed a twenty-dollar bill on top of the check for $4.50, as well as an autographed copy of the magazine.

​Rosario Russell Licciardello was born and raised on a farm in southern New Jersey.  Recently retired, he wanted to try his hand at creative writing.  He joined a writers group at his local library.   Russell makes his home in Florida, along with his wife and dog.

* * * 

You and Her
By S. L. Percy

"Don't leave. Please."
 
You take a step towards the other girl, voice cracking as you feel your throat beginning to burn. She stops, and you can see the rise and fall of sloping shoulders under her blue pea coat as she sighs. This can't be the end. You won't let this end here. Squeezing your eyes shut, you desperately try to think of something to say to her, but all you can see behind your eyelids is her, her smile, her fingers intertwined with yours, her eyes that seem to hold more life than the stars, than anything you've ever seen. The day, no, the very moment that you first met is crystal clear in your mind, perhaps even more so than this twisted present...
 
 
Furtively ducking underneath overhanging branches, you glanced behind you, ensuring that no one had followed you; trouble would have been imminent if you were caught venturing this close to the edge. You didn't go to the clearing very often, only when you needed to be alone. Stepping to the top of the small mound, you glanced up - and instantly froze. A girl sat with her knees brought up to her chest in the middle of the clearing. She was gazing up, towards the sky, or perhaps the trees. Either way, her amber eyes were filled with wonder, and you felt the corners of your mouth twitch upwards, captivated by the flames dancing in her eyes. She brought a quiet, slender hand up to tuck a sliver of coal hair behind her ear, and you swallowed, struck by her beauty. You felt your own hand rise up, almost of its own volition, to push your own silver hair behind your ear, and, drawn to the movement, her eyes flitted to yours suddenly. You felt your heart stop. You are sure you looked every bit the deer caught in the headlights, hand dangling pathetically halfway to your ear, eyes wide and mouth open with failed speech, but the tentative smile she then gave you filled you with fluid fire, and suddenly you didn't care. The girl stood, limbs untangling and her dress like water rippling down by her side. She looked cold.
 
"Beautiful, aren't they?"
 
You took a moment to register that she had spoken, and another to wrench your eyes away from her lips (they were soft and pink and-) and notice the fireflies that had begun to light up around you. The two of you stood in silence, watching the art being created before your very eyes, taking in the sight and the smell of darkness as dusk began to settle.
 
"I want to see beautiful sights. There has to be more than this... I want to leave." She closed her eyes, and brought her hand up, tugging so you could see the bright white loop shining at her wrist; you glanced down, and sure enough, your own bonds were glowing faintly. They were only visible this close to the border, shining brighter the closer you got until they stopped short, jerking at your wrists and preventing anyone from crossing the border.
 
"I want to come with you." You heard yourself say, voice trembling but sure. You'd always dreamt of leaving. After all, isn't that why you had gone there? Your eyes met again, and she laughed, and it wasn't soft or sweet but unapologetically rough and you could feel your whole world brightening like fireflies...
 
 
"Please. You can't go, not without me."
 
You can see her fingers tremble slightly as she hesitates.
 
"Would you rather I remained trapped here with you?"
 
"You're the only bright thing in my life. If you leave I'll be alone, and so will you. You'll have no one."
 
It's manipulative and terrible and you hate yourself for it but right now you don't care. You'll be as selfish as it takes to get her to stay with you. And it seems to work, as she sighs once more and turns to face you...
 
 
She turned, face splitting into a grin as she caught sight of you. The sun fell golden across her face, dappled shadows cast by leaves. These days you came to the clearing all the time, when you didn't want to be alone. You sprawled out beside her, sinking down into the soft clover patch, closing your eyes and basking in the warmth of the second season and the lazy hum of the bees as they went about their business, filling their home with honey fragrant with thyme. A bird perched in a nearby tree, its indigo feathers iridescent with streaks of green and blue and colours yet more beautiful but invisible to humans, singing a sweet lullaby until a second bird flew to join it, and they sat exalting the joys of the world with their heads bowed together. A gentle breeze picked up, coaxing blossom from the canopy of branches so that it rained down like confetti. She laughed, tossing her head to shake the petals from her hair, then shivered as the breeze grew stronger, reminding you of what you brought with you.
 
"Here, I bought this for you," you said, carefully pulling out the blue pea coat and handing it to her, "you need a coat for when the third season comes. You'll be cold in just that flimsy dress."
 
She took it, eyes glittering. Running a careful finger over the gold buttons, she glanced up at you cheekily, ribbing: "Hey, you were wearing a sundress when we first met!"
 
"You know I can't get cold," you reminded her, tugging at your hair, "whereas you can. Just look at your eyes."
 
She laughed softly and shifted closer so her hand was resting on yours. Bringing your foreheads together, she closed her eyes.
 
"Thank you... I love you."
 
You felt your face soften and your eyes slipped shut too.
 
"Don't ever leave me."
 
She whispered back: "I would never try."
 
 
Dead. Her eyes, the flame is out and they're dead; for the first time, you feel a shiver run through you and something of a chill begins to spread. She looks in your direction wearily (picture perfect apathy) and your mind is static and you can't think. You don't understand what is happening. The universe is crumbling around you. She's standing right in front of you but she's gone, she's gone and suddenly you can't breathe, you're suffocating and choking and the air is so cold and it burns in your throat and you blink hard but everything is blurry and you can't see her anymore. She looks in your direction.
 
"This was the price for my freedom. I feel nothing towards you now but I know I wouldn't have wanted this for you," she says, "so you understand why you can't come."
 
"I don't care," you plead, voice hoarse, "I love you and I always will. Stay with me, please, I beg you, or let me come with you. I'll do what it takes, I can't live without you-"
 
"Stop."
 
You notice grey at the tips of her hair.
 
"This begging, it's..."
 
She looks at you and you feel your soul shatter.
 
"Well frankly, it's just pathetic."
 
The snow crunches with the pressure of footfall, a pleasant sound, growing increasingly distant - and then there is the feeling of melting snow dissolving through the fabric at your knees. The sun surrenders to darkness, but little sparks begin to appear in the air - fireflies lighting up around you.

S. L. Percy is a young aspiring writer who enjoys creative writing in their free time. They currently attend North London Collegiate School and study English, Classical Civilizations, and Biology. They hope to pursue English to higher education. They grew up and currently live in North London.

* * * 

​​Marooned
By Isabella Mellado

The day of the accident began like any other. I woke up, picked up some coffee at the galley and went straight to the command center at the hull of the S.S. Mantis, our ship. This was where we kept our equipment to study marine life. We were at the deepest point of the Caribbean sea; the Cayman trough. Our plan was to explore the secrets inside its crevices by traveling up and down its length for a year. My personal interest, though, was studying the coronate medusa—or the spaceship jellyfish.
 
 
After setting up the equipment I took myself to the stern of the ship to oversee the crew’s first attempt to set Benji, our mini explorer, out to sea. I can still remember the smell of saltpeter and the feel of the burning sun as I exited through the hatch and onto the deck. I walk towards my crew of technicians. “Good to go?” I greet them. A lanky older gentleman with thick black glasses gestured at Benji. “She’s all systems go, ma’am.” The robot came to life, shifting its mechanical legs, adjusting its lenses and sniffing the air as if it were a sea dog. I didn't want to waste any time, so I gave the go ahead after an inspection and ran back to the hull to get inside the virtual reality equipment we designed for Benji.
 
 
At the hull, my crew helped me get inside the specially designed suit and mask, and made sure that everything was in working order. In the suit I could feel Benji’s senses come alive, the tentacles at the end of my gloves felt around the deck and through Benji’s nose I could sniff the salt in the air as if it were my own. We had done many test runs with the VR equipment before, but every time I put on that mask my head exploded with the change in perspective. I became “Benji”. That is I saw, smelled, felt, tasted and heard everything the sub sensed. I had to make it a point to mentally re- move myself from the avatar. We were ready. “Let’s do it! Every- one to your positions.” I said. They scattered across the deck and lowered me—or rather Benji—into the water. I was now in the water, and was floating along, let go of the moorings attached to my body and began sinking into the trough. I could see and sense the crack at the bottom of the ocean, and slowly approached and entered the complex system my partner and I had been waiting so long to study.
 
 
The pressure at 25,216 feet was nothing for Benji, but I felt it on all sides of my body nonetheless. The seabed was gorgeous, teeming with life. I swam in these deep waters, all my senses were sharp and attentive; now Benji was more cat than dog. I could see clearly in the dark and smelled something odd. Then I sensed something swimming around me. I still could not see it, but the hairs on the back of my neck pricked up. “Something’s out there!” I called out.
 
 
“Stella, nothing seems out of the ordinary on the data.” I lowered my head and looked from under my eyelashes so that I could see the deck through the VR mask. Ned’s bottom-of-the-bottle-glasses were near my face, his big brown eyes stared back. “Nothing, Stella, honest.” That’s when I felt the tug on my leg, as if it were ripped wide open. I fell to the ground screaming in pain—not my pain, Benji’s—yet I still felt overwhelmed as I thrashed on the floor, yelling uncontrollably. Someone had the presence of mind to disconnect me from Benji and the pain subsided. “That was not nothing!” I yelled at Ned in frustration. “Someone, drop all Benji’s senses except for visual; let’s see if we can make contact.” We did so, but it was too late; I could see nothing. Benji was gone.
 
 
We quickly ran through all the footage and data we had. We spent hours, days and weeks poring over it. Until one day we saw a quick blur in our footage at the last millisecond. “I’ve never seen anything move so fast in this habitat…” said Ned. Hundreds of spaceship like creatures swarmed around Benji, ripping our billion dollar robot to shreds in less than a second. We now knew the exact location of the attack, and I was overcome with curiosity. I couldn't let this go—and paid the price with other people’s lives. It was my decision to turn the boat’s sensors towards the general area of Benji’s demise. We were floored by what we saw—but it also saw us.
 
 
Not long afterwards we were on deck still trying to put together what we had seen. This was one of the most incredible discoveries of the century. The world had to know. Suddenly the ocean became restless, violently shaking our boat. We all held on to the railings  of the boat in anticipation; something strange was coming, and all we could do was wait in silence. The sky was still clear, it was sunset now. I worried that whatever was out here would reach us in the dark of the night. There was a splash coming from the right side of the bow and upon hearing it we turned and gasped in unison.
 
 
A 40 foot long, ten feet wide creature rose from the ocean. Its long eel-like body wiggled around excitedly behind it, and its eerie smile was pointed in our direction. “Oh… my god…” I whispered urgently, “Everyone inside!” But my crew didn't budge, they stared into the creature’s eyes, as if completely enthralled by it. “Come on!” I watched them intently, shocked. Their eyes were glued to the creature, and its eyes were glued to them. The members of my crew simultaneously grabbed the railing, and raised themselves onto it, right leg first. “DONT!” I screamed. But it was too late, as if in a trance, they jumped together into the depths of the ocean, and their bodies were caught by the creature in the water.
 
 
They were gone forever, and I was paralyzed. I wondered why I wasn't subject to the creature’s trance. But I didn't have time to think, I had to save myself. The creature quickly jolted towards the ship, and wrapped itself around the stern, poking several gaping holes through the hull in the process. I knew that it was in for the chase. Had it singled me out to end my life at leisure? Blinded by my tears, I looked around the starboard of my now sinking ship. I remembered the boats on the side of the ship, and so I made my way there as the ship became slanted with the creature’s writhing attacks. I finally made it to one of the row boats and jumped inside. At this point the creature was not focused on me; it was jovially destroying the ship, its smile was wide and it cackled as its head swayed back and forth, towering above me. I untied the ropes that hoisted the boat up and fell into the sea below.
 
 
Day 1:
 
I woke to a clear sky and an empty horizon, no land in sight. I had been knocked unconscious during my fall and somehow remained unharmed by the monster. I sat in stupor, scanning the empty ocean surrounding me and thinking back on the events that transpired the previous night. I was very aware of my isolation. My crew and partner were dead, and my life’s work was destroyed. Alone and uninhibited, I let out a painful, raspy scream; practically mute. I realized I was dehydrated. I looked around the rowboat for emergency supplies. There was a red cross aid kit below my seat, a six pack of water bottles, and saltines. No sunblock. Who decided saltines were enough sustenance for a rescue kit? I decided to save them for desperate times. The sky was an ominous matte grey; eventually it began to rain, and it went on like this throughout the day.
 
 
 
 
By the time nightfall came it was still raining. I had managed to collect some extra water using a bucket I found below my seat. The ocean was even more restless than it was this afternoon, but my boat stayed afloat. Having seen so many movies and read so many books about people being marooned at sea, I feared that a storm would come. I gripped the oars of my boat tightly in anticipation. The waves grew stronger, rocking the boat with gusto. The horizon line was now indiscernible. Waves slammed into each other violently, and the darkness that surrounded me somehow went even darker. The ocean seemed angry as ever. I feared that my boat would finally be tipped over and I would drown. In the distance the wave-peaks got taller and taller, as if god himself were pulling them up with strings. These continued to grow larger until a wave three stories high shot in my direction. I tied myself to my boat with rope, and held on screaming as the wave came at me. To my surprise, the water parted, creating a rushing pair of liquid walls.


The wave seemed to have been avoiding the direction in which my scream was projected. This was shocking, yet I knew this was my only saving grace in the face of this storm. The waves continued to grow—going from four stories to seven stories high, and I continued to scream at full force in the hopes that whatever came at me would part. Lightning struck the water, lighting up strangely shaped creatures that swam below. I held on tightly to my boat and the rope that secured me to it. Suddenly a wave crashed into the side of my boat, turning it over. The next few seconds were a blur. I couldn't breathe, and all I could do was hold on to the rope tied around my waist in the hopes that it was still attached to the boat. I looked up and saw flashes of lighting. This was the surface. I swam up, pulling on my rope until I reached my boat which thankfully was still afloat. The ocean and I were in constant battle that night.
 
 
Day 2:
 
The next morning, the water was so still it looked like oil. The sky was still gray this morning, and I hoped to god that another storm wasn't brewing, that these grey omens would migrate anywhere but here. I was lucky to be alive after the previous night. I had to focus on survival—I was starting to feel weak, as all I had eaten in the last day were saltines, and supplies were already running low. I decided it was time to find a different source of sustenance. I looked beneath the bench of my rowboat and found a rope and a knife. I ripped a dowel off the edge of the rowboat with the knife and tied the knife onto it, leaving some rope to reel my prey in with. I looked below me into the surprisingly clear water, scanning it for fish. I could make out silhouettes swimming below my boat, so I crushed my last saltine, scattered it across the water’s surface and waited for them to rise. I kept my eyes glued to the water, observing it intently. After five minutes of waiting I continued to watch the surface, leaning on the broken edge of my rowboat, makeshift harpoon in hand. Then I noticed something moving in the water—they were large fish silhouettes, evenly spaced out and wiggling rhythmically upwards. I was captivated by these masses and how they moved. They came in a variety of colors, which I could make out as they moved closer to the surface. Mouth watering, I excitedly gripped my harpoon. Then, the fish came up through the surface of the ocean, to stand upright halfway in the water. They didn't behave as fish do. They were unmoving and their eyes were bulging out of their heads, their mouths agape.


Then the half-submerged fish appeared to be quickly yanked upwards, so they would levitate just above the surface in a grid formation. Once completely above the surface, the fish gasped and wiggled as they normally would when taken out of water. I was too hungry to be phased, and quickly began to plot how I would catch myself lunch. I carefully aimed my harpoon, zeroing in on the meatiest goliath grouper I could find. Quickly, I threw my harpoon at it and as soon as it broke through the grouper’s scales began to leak a black viscous liquid, still levitating above the surface and twitching. It smelled putrid. I pulled my rope but the fish did not budge. The fish then proceeded to disappear as quickly as they came—it was as if the gravity they lacked was turned back on and they dropped into the water, splashing in unison. I lost my harpoon. The water surrounding me was sticky with the black liquid. I was overcome with rage, frustrated that I had sacrificed the last of my food for a fish I couldn't catch and puzzled that the grouper bled black. The water surrounding my boat smelled disgusting. It was now thick and tar-like, and as I rowed into nothingness it followed me.
 
 
Day 3:
 
The next day I woke up with cracked lips and weak bones, I could barely sit up on my own. I had run out of drinking water by now and had used up the last of my saltines the previous day. The water surrounding my boat was still black, and the sides of my boat were covered in the tar-like substance. I tried scrubbing some off with my nail but it wouldn't come off. It wasn't quite oil, but it seemed to have some oil-like qualities: it didn't mix with water, it simply sat on top of it. I tried to hold some between my fingers but the substance slid off them, fell onto the floorboards of my boat and slipped through the cracks. It seemed to have a life of its own, and wherever it went it left behind rot and its trademark rancid smell.
 
 
I scanned the horizon for land. In the distance I spotted a bulbous gelatinous mass. Hoping it was a raft possibly containing other people, I resolved to row towards it. I rowed determinedly, brow furrowed, gasping for air through my chapped lips and dusty throat. The tar surrounding my boat followed me there, a thick film partly painted onto the wood on my boat and skirting the surrounding water. As I approached the mass I realized it was far from what I hoped it was. Instead, I encountered that which I have been searching for my entire career as a marine biologist. To my amazement the gelatinous mass I had seen in the distance wasn't a raft, it was a gigantic coronate medusa. It was clearly in distress; when deep sea coronate medusas get defensive the tops of their caps glow a bioluminescent blue. This one was so large you could see it glow in daylight. This coronate medusa’s cap was 10 feet wide and a translucent glowing blue, with a red rim shaped like a saucer. Attached to this rim were snake like tentacles, which seemed to sense the tar like substance in the water and were wiggling frantically in response. I loosely tied my rowboat with the little rope I had left to one of the medusa’s tentacles and leaned over its glowing cap. Inside were regular sized medusas, and other creatures including a flower hat jelly, and several siphonophores— we called them deconstructed jellyfish back at the research center. These were delicate creatures that looked like a jellyfish turned inside out. They could grow to be 100 feet long, and had several caps scattered along their thin stringlike bodies. What were all these deep sea creatures doing on the surface? What were they doing inside this massive medusa? Because this siphonophore was exposed to light, its caps and tentacles were slowly coming off its stringy body, its glow was fading.
 
 
As the medusa’s light began to flicker, I realized that the tar was corroding it. I was overcome with guilt, terror and a sense of responsibility for these animals. The medusa’s glow was flickering, undulating throughout its cap. A sudden abandonment for my own safety and well being over came me. I was consumed with the urge —no, the need to help these fantastic creatures to safety. I had to somehow weigh them down so that they could go on living. In the pit of my stomach and my throat, I could feel them fighting for their lives. As if it were purely instinct, I untied the rope from the medusa’s tentacle and recklessly jumped from my rowboat onto its cap. The gelatinous cap was sturdier than I thought it would be, and with my weight the medusa began to sink lower and lower, air bubbles escaping from below it. Suddenly a sticky mass bounced off my cheek, pulling me out of my trance. I looked around, stunned. Below me I saw black clumps rising from the ocean floor. The medusa’s tentacles wrapped themselves around me and to my surprise, I heard it speak. “I have you now.” it purred, its silky voice echoing throughout the crevices in my skull. In my surprise, I took a sharp breath, and realized I could breathe normally.


Stunned, I studied the gelatinous mass below me. It spoke. “What will you do to me?” I thought tentatively. “It has been long since we have eaten anything in this desolate ocean, my companions and I have been absolutely starved.” Fear and temperature shook me as we floated down towards the seabed. “Well you know, it wouldn't hurt to play with your food a little.” I was careful to curate my thoughts, as I knew the medusa could hear every one. “You must get bored out here all alone.” the medusa’s gelatinous body shook, making a sputtering sound much like laughter. “You mock me, human, but you seem intelligent. I will give you a chance to save yourself,” the medusa snickered, glowing excitedly. “If you can solve this riddle, I will send you home. If you fail, my companions and I will eat you alive.” I maintained a stoic disposition. This creature must not sense my fear. The medusa’s cap expanded, as if it were taking in one deep breath. It’s silky voice boomed with confidence.
 
 
“Majestic, cold and slippery, immortalized only as a mystery, by causing sailors much misery”
 
 
The tentacles around me tightened expectantly. I knew the answer.
 
“You.”

Isabella Mellado is a painter and writer native to Puerto Rico. She is anticipating receiving her BFA this spring at Rhode Island School of Design. Mellado is best known for her magical realist portraiture, poetry and short stories—all of which take on issues regarding latinida.

* * * 
Amy's Essay
By Lynn Nicholas

Amy leaned back in her chair, put down her pen, and glanced around the crowded campus coffee
shop. She was out of step as usual—the only one writing with a manual device instead of
clicking away on a laptop. So what? The repetitive stroking of pen across paper soothed her. The
satisfaction of physically crossing out words and lines—scrubbing them off the page—fulfilled
some basic need to be in control. Words came to life on paper like a Netflix movie, and only
those that played out in her head in full color and stereo sound got to live.

Propped on one elbow, Amy leaned forward; her chin settled into the heel of her hand. The essay
was finally coming together, even though she couldn’t have been assigned a more unsuitable
topic. She scanned her last paragraph.

The heartland of the nuclear family—where one should feel nurtured, where one should expect
unconditional love, acceptance, and understanding—is often instead the source of our deepest
criticism, greatest pain, and cruelest betrayal. We are never prepared for it; we don’t see it
coming even when the flying brick is the size of a large shithouse. We want to believe that old
saying about blood being thicker than water and that, at the end of the proverbial day, the tie of
blood and shared DNA will hold strong, no matter what. Sadly, the more common truth is that it
is often the first tie to break, and the break is never clean. It’s an agonizing rupture with ripped
and shredded ends.

Amy blinked away fatigue. She needed coffee. More coffee would be more precise. After two
large Americanos, she should be tap dancing around the tables, but all this digging-deep stuff
drained her energy banks. Today she needed more caffeine just to hit low normal. Amy
rummaged in her jeans pocket for her credit card.

“One medium Americano, please,” Amy said. She tapped her credit card on the counter and eyed
the bakery case.

“Room for cream?” The barista was poised to ring up her order. “Anything else?” he asked.
Amy glanced up. The guy was nice looking, not too tall, with gentle eyes and a trendy man-bun.
A braided leather bracelet almost hid the tattoo on his forearm. She guessed he was close to her
in age, early thirties maybe.

“No cream. Just black, thank you...wait,” Amy said. She raised her hand. The baked goods
beckoned. She sighed. “Could you add a chocolate croissant to my order, please?”

Even to her own ears her request sounded hesitant, almost apologetic. She was self-conscious
about the extra fifteen pounds packed around her midriff. Stress eating. She glanced up,
expecting to see judgement, but the barista with the kind eyes just smiled and nodded as he took
her credit card.

“You’re at the window table, right?” he said.

“Hmmm... yes,” Amy replied, surprised he’d noticed.

I’ll bring your order over. It will just take a minute.” His left cheek dimpled when he smiled.

She sat back down and tried to concentrate on the legal-size tablet in front of her. The directive
for the assignment was to give your topic a unique slant. The instructor wanted it real. Amy bit
her upper lip. Her essay was not shaping into a work she’d want to read aloud in class. Her slant
was real enough, but.... She was uneasy about crossing the line between angry purging and
writing an honest piece of nonfiction prose? She didn’t need a revealing essay generating
questioning stares and comments. Once the words were out of her gut and committed to paper,
all she wanted for her pain was an A, not a spontaneous therapy session with a class full of well-
meaning but untested twenty-somethings. Amy shifted position and stared out the window. She
needed a momentary brain break from thinking about how to tackle such a sensitive subject.

A storm was moving in, signaling its approach with bursts of wind and distant thunder. The
strong gusts swirled leaves and discarded candy wrappers into colorful collages, blending the
creation with desert dirt before casting it aside in favor of lifting skirts and ripping notices off
posts. A boy passed by, bent into the breeze, one hand holding fast to his baseball cap. Between
the tops of the palm trees, lightning zigzagged in the distance. At least she could continue
working if the power went down. You don’t need Wi-Fi to drive a Bic pen.

“Here’s your order.” The barista placed the plated croissant and medium coffee on her table.

As Amy turned away from the window, she noticed his name tag for the first time. Ian. He spoke
with a slight, rolling lilt. Irish maybe, or Scottish?

“Thank you...Ian,” Amy said, with a hesitant smile. She settled back into her seat. Her table was
one of the smaller tables in the cafe, but being by the window was worth the trade-off in size.

She repositioned the coffee cup, placing it within reach but not spilling-close. She was prone to
knocking things over.

“What’s that you’re working on?” Ian asked, glancing at the heavily inked tablet.

“An essay. For Expository Writing 301. The assignment is to write about the nuclear family.”

“Ah. That would be a good one for me. I come from a large family. There are eleven of us.” Ian
smiled. “We’re stereotypical Irish Catholic for sure.”

“And the tattoo on your forearm? Is that pattern Celtic then?” Amy asked.

“It is. It’s a Claddagh tattoo to commemorate the passing of my oldest brother.”

“Oh. I’m sorry,” Amy said. “So, big family. And you all get along?”

“We have our share of disagreements, but we hug as much as we fight.”

“Hmmm. How on earth did your parents manage eleven children?” Amy asked.

Ian laughed. His cheek dimpled. “They called their parenting style “loving neglect.” They kept
an eye on us but let us find ways to amuse ourselves and, of course, the older ones took care of
the younger ones. And you? Are you close to your family?”

“Not exactly,” Amy said. She lowered her eyes. She wasn’t prepared to divulge details about her
dysfunctional family to this man she barely knew.

“I’ll let you get on with it then. Give me a wave if you need a refill,” Ian said.

Amy bit into the deliciousness of the perfectly baked croissant. There was a generous amount of
rich chocolate melting in the middle. Flaky bits of pastry escaped, floated onto her paper, and
sequined the front of her shirt. She swiped a napkin across her chest and picked up the tablet to
tap off crumbs. She licked her thumb. The buttery croissant was well worth the mess of eating it.

So, where to go from here? She twirled a long strand of deep-auburn hair around one finger, and
allowed her thoughts to stream directly from the recesses of memory to the page.

She recreated the co-dependent bond between her younger brother and their mother. Their
family’s dysfunction was rooted in her mother’s enabling of Kevin’s behavior. Without laying
out specifics, she extrapolated generalities from her family history to illustrate her points. She
camouflaged her emotions with borrowed terminology from one of her psychology classes—the
one that taught counseling skills for family therapy. Amy rubbed her temples. After months of
therapy to put all the angst behind her, now she had to let the feelings flow again to keep her
writing true. Her temples tightened with each memory of every lie Kevin told, and at how their
mother always took his word as gospel. When she thought of her brother, the word sociopath
crossed her mind.

Kevin could playfully tease their mother along, calling her his darling mum and pinching her
cheeks. His glib tongue and smooth-talking flattery created a smokescreen their mother refused
to see through. In fact, she ate it up. Any criticism of Kevin’s words or behavior was met with a
scowl and a swift admonition to stop being negative. He was her baby and he was a boy: the
undisputed king of the household. Over the years, their mother turned a deaf year to Kevin’s
verbal abuse of Amy’s younger sisters. Taking Amy’s lead, both girls moved out as soon as they
turned eighteen. Their father had left years earlier. Amy’s mother praised Kevin for being the
only one who really loved her and stood by her side.

Amy tapped her pen against her nose. She stared out the window. The boy had been pure trouble
since his adolescence. First it was repeated calls from Kevin’s teachers about his bullying
behavior at school and suspicions of cheating on tests. Their mother insisted that the teachers
were mistaken or were exaggerating. Then it was joy rides in stolen cars. From there he
graduated to stealing from the cash box hidden in a kitchen drawer. When confronted, he pinned
the blame on a friend who used to hang out at the house. Her brother would sell anyone out to
save his own skin but, of course, no one could convince their mother that Kevin was responsible
for the theft. At eighteen, when he was arrested for using and selling cocaine, good old mom
stood up for him in court and said ‘he was a good boy who just got in with the wrong crowd.’ It
was her version of the devil made me do it. Kevin got a few months in county jail, followed by
probation. Their mother visited him weekly and took responsibility for him when he was
released. Soon after that, their mother began her slide into dementia.

Amy drained the last dregs of coffee from her cup. Her essay was taking shape out of the ashes
of her family’s funeral pyre. She stood up, stretched, and walked to the front door of the café.

Rain was streaming off the awning. She’d been so absorbed in her thoughts she hadn’t even
noticed it was raining. She traced a design in the condensation on the wide glass door.

If truth be told, Amy had to admit that she became as much as part of the family’s dysfunction as
her mother. That’s probably what hurt the most. She made the mistake of letting her guard down
long enough for Kevin to talk her into trusting him, and then he took advantage of that trust. Like
a fool, when their mother finally became housebound, Amy bought into Kevin’s plea to keep
their mother in her own home under his care. He said it was his way to pay her back for
everything she had done for him. He swore he had changed. Amy let herself believe him; she
wanted to believe him. She depleted her savings account to help Kevin fix up the old house, and
she set him up with a desktop computer so he could work from home. What work she still didn’t
know.

Amy shivered and wrapped her arms around her middle. The campus square was almost empty
except for a few fast-walkers carrying umbrellas. Looked like she was stuck at the café until the
storm passed. Amy retreated to her table and turned back to her notes. She reread the last few
lines she’d written.

A rupture in our belief in family is too often one we don’t initiate ourselves, but happens as a
result of the actions of others. When the bomb is detonated, we are forced, gasping for breath,
into the stratosphere to regroup and reassess. From that vantage point we can see more clearly
the singed edges and gaping holes in the fabric of what we once thought was an indestructible
safety net of trust.

She stared at the page. When she heard people talk about family and how there is nothing more
important than family, she simply couldn’t relate. Amy trusted Kevin to follow their plan to stay
in the house with mom until she would need to be placed somewhere. They would then sell the
house to have enough money to cover the cost of a good memory-care facility. Kevin repaid
Amy’s trust by getting their mother to sign a quitclaim deed on the house, which he then re-
mortgaged to give himself a nice hunk of cash. Within weeks there was a Corvette in the garage,
a pool table in the living room, and directives to his sisters that they were no longer welcome as
visitors in his home. A few months later, shortly before their mother passed away, Kevin was
arrested again for dealing drugs out of the house. Turned out he was behind on the mortgage as
well. The house was re-possessed, and their mom spent her last few weeks in a state-funded
nursing home. Amy developed migraines.

What was it her therapist said to her during one of their last sessions? Something about having
two chances at being part of a loving, strong family: the first is the family you are born into, and
the second is the family you create yourself with your own children. Amy glanced over at Ian.

He responded with a wink. She felt herself color. Maybe one day she’d find both the courage and
the optimism to put all of this behind her. She’d sit up at the bar with a coffee, and ask Ian to tell
her stories about his so-different family life. Maybe. Amy shook herself back to reality and took
a deep breath. She wrote the closing lines of her essay.

Even when repairs to the fabric of family are possible, the original strength can never be
regained. Best case: we navigate through the wreckage and keep the ship sailing. Most likely
case: we step into the nearest life boat and gun the motor. At some point, we have to just walk
away, without guilt, knowing there is no resolution. We move past the disillusionment and
disappointment, to focus on the future. We learn that falling down is part of life but getting back
up is living, so we persevere and survive. It's the nature of our species.

Lynn’s online and print publications include: Every Day Fiction, A Long Story Short, Wow! (Women on Writing), The Storyteller (annual publication - Society of Southwestern Authors), Further Stars Than These, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, and the AARP Bulletin. She just completed the draft of her first novel.

* * *

The Liberator
By Cate Pitterle

September 1864

The old man rode through town on a shaggy black horse, his knuckles white as he gripped the reins. Every step the horse took against the hard-packed street sent the man’s head bobbing, up and down like a boat on stormy seas.

The man stayed far to the right of the road, cap brim pulled over his eyes to shadow his face. The residents of
the small Southern town bustled around him, their overcoats and dresses swishing as they went. A few soldiers
crowded in front of a tavern, chatting amicably among themselves. The old man’s lips twitched as he passed
the soldiers by. Their coats, usually thunderhead-gray, were crusted with dark scarlet blood.

An officer tipped his hat to the old man as he rode by. “Good evening, sir,” the officer said. “Not from these
parts, are you? Where’re you traveling to?”

The old man peered at the officer from beneath the rim of his cap. “I’m off to Richmond,” he said in a low rasp.
“Sister sent word of my nephew’s passing. He,” his voice cracked, “he died fighting, sir, up at Petersburg. Loved him like a son, I did.” The lie slipped easily through his chapped lips by now. “Thank you for fighting, good sir. Those Federals’ll have hell for what they did. Good evening to you.”

The old man tapped his horse and rode briskly away. The officer stared after him for a second, eyebrows
wrinkled, before turning back to his men. “Poor old man. Hope he gets back safe.” The others muttered in
agreement.

A quiet breeze blew through the town as the old man rode. It carried the whispers of the soldiers away from
him, though he strained to hear. His ears, he thought, had gotten worse this winter—perhaps it was lingering
traces of the flu. He’d been lucky to survive that, poor as he was, and especially in New York. The city was
freezing and war-torn, filled with soldiers and heavy wagons.

He remembered when he became well enough to walk outside, how he’d shivered in the quiet alleyway next to
his apartment. He’d drawn his coat around his neck and, wrapping his slender arms around himself, walked
into the square.

Soldiers, as usual, had crowded the place—running in blue uniforms, wheeling carts, their shouts piercing the
air like gunshots. But it was something else that caught the old man’s attention. Something unusual. A news
boy stood in the square, a pile of fresh papers stacked at his feet. Curiosity piqued the old man like a tap on the
shoulder, and his thin legs carried him to the boy. News boys usually went home in this weather, fearful of
catching cold, but this boy saw the old man and waved. He’d handed him a newspaper--
The Liberator—and a note. And then he’d winked, and the old man had stared at him for a second, and then he unfolded the newspaper. Three bolded words took up the front page: Justice For All.

On the way home, the old man had opened the note. That night, he’d attended his first abolitionist meeting.
The next day, he’d committed to the army.

This was his second mission for the Union, and it was by far the more dangerous. He had collected a message
from Admiral Farragut in Alabama and was to pass it to a safe house in Charleston. He’d stopped in this town
after nearly a week on the road, exhausted and frozen to his bones. He was wary of the place; he knew better
than anyone the punishment if he was caught. Death. But he needed food and warmth, and his horse needed rest.

He dared a glance into his satchel, wrapping his bony fingers around a wrinkled piece of paper. It had an
address scribbled on it in black ink, directing him to an inn on the edge of town. It wasn’t Union, but it was far
from the public eye. Perfect for travelers, and even more perfect for a spy.

Tucking the message away, the old man pushed his horse into a jog. “Come on, Jack,” he said in
encouragement, but the horse only flattened his ears in annoyance. Nonetheless, he obeyed, swishing his tail
as he went. A few people looked up at the man’s quick pace, and a woman wrinkled her brow at him over a
laundry-basket. The old man tipped his hat to them and rode on, heading for the inn.

It rose up on the edge of town, a quaint building with weathered oak sides and shutters on the windows. White
paint still clung to it in a few places, but it was mostly peeling and chipped. Smoke wafted through the
chimney, and the faint scent of smoked chicken came through the open door. The old man liked the place
immediately.

His stomach rumbled as he neared it, and Jack’s large ears perked up at last. The old man rubbed his horse’s
neck and wove his fingers through his long coat. “That-a boy,” he said. “Good horse. We’ll eat well tonight,
eh?”

Suddenly a young boy raced around from the side of the inn, tangled brown hair whipping around his face. He
saw the old man and cried out to him. “Sir!”

The old man eyed the boy, suddenly aware of the gun that rested under his coat. “Who’re you, boy?”

“The innkeeper’s youngest son, sir. Are you staying the night, sir?” The young boy grinned, excitement lighting
up his hungry eyes. “We have good drink, sir, and beds. Best inn in all of Yemassee.”

“I’m staying,” said the old man, and the boy laughed with delight.

“Good thing too, sir. It’s cold out tonight. I’m James, what’s your name?”

“Thomas,” the old man said. A truth. “Good to meet you, James.” He swung off his horse and landed roughly.
“Where can I stable my horse?”

“I’ll take him for you, sir,” James said, and took the reins over the horse’s head. “Thanks again, sir. Good night.”

Thomas nodded and walked off toward the inn, drawing his overcoat tightly around himself. He shivered, and
not just from the cold.

The inn’s great wooden door was open, letting through the sounds of laughs and shouts. Thomas hurried
through the frame, eyes darting. The place was packed with people, dancing and singing and laughing
uproariously. Candles flickered on every table, and beer bottles slammed and clanked all around. As heat from
a fireplace wrapped around him, Thomas’s frozen lips melted into a smile.

The barkeep saw Thomas and hurried up to him. “How do ya do, good man? Staying the night?”

“Yes,” Thomas said. “Any chance I can get a drink?”

“Of course, of course,” said the barkeep. “Follow me.” He turned and wove his way deftly through the throng
of people. Thomas kept close behind, jostling past men and women with alcohol on their breath.

The barkeep stopped at an empty table and grabbed a jug of beer. He poured Thomas a cup and shoved it into
his hands. “Have a good one, sir,” he said with a nod, and disappeared into the crowd.

Thomas watched him go and sat down slowly, wrapping his hands around the cup. His gaze flickered from
person to person. There was no one he recognized—just patched coats and worn leather shoes, ruffled hair
and dresses held up by shoddy corsets. Thomas felt a pang in his chest at the sight. He missed his city, his
people, his protestors screaming for freedom and equality and justice. He missed his soldiers, Union soldiers,
ready to take up arms for their beliefs. The South was an alien world to Thomas. The very air seemed
oppressive, choking him and stifling him. It crept like sawdust down his throat.

“Whaddya think you’re doing?” A man’s bellow rang out like a shot two tables down. Thomas’s head whipped
up, but the shout wasn’t directed at him. Instead, the shout found a gangly boy no more than fifteen. “Some
Union do-gooder, eh? I’ll show you!”

The boy thrust his hands into the air. “No, sir, I don’t know what you’re—”

The man grabbed the boy’s arm and tore something out of his pocket. “Please,” the boy pleaded, but it was too
late.

The man thrust the paper into the air. “Look at that! Stamped with the seal of Ulysses Grant himself. ‘A mission
to collect information on the port town of Charleston.’ Think you’re some sort of freedom fighter, do ya?”

Before he knew it, Thomas found himself standing. His hand strayed to the side of his overcoat.

The boy shook his head. “No, please, I can expla—”

“More like a tyrant! Northern scum.” Even from this far away, Thomas could see the man’s lip curl in contempt.
“Well, you won’t be getting to Charleston, boy. You can meet Grant at the gates of Hell.”

Thomas started moving, his jaw set. He cut through the people—they’d assembled into a crowd now--
throwing elbows and snarling at anyone who turned his way.

The man saw him coming, his eyes widening at the fury etched on Thomas’s face. He backed away, disguising
his fear with a chuckle. “Hey, you—”

Reaching into his coat, Thomas grinned at him, yellowed teeth lighting up the room. “You should think twice
before you call my people scum, rebel.” He whipped out the gun and fired twice. The bullets smashed through
the ceiling, and people screamed as the echoes pelted the air. Thomas grabbed the boy’s wrist. “Let’s go.”

The crowd’s shock wore off quickly—too quickly. A man grabbed Thomas’s coat from behind and whirled him
around. Thomas whipped his arm up and rammed the gun into the man’s forehead. Leaping over the man’s
limp form, Thomas barreled into a young woman. She grabbed his arm and twisted with all her might, and
Thomas screamed in pain. Thomas’s grip on the boy slipped, and suddenly he was alone in the crowd.
Adrenaline kicked in, and he slammed the gun into the woman’s side. Whirling through the people, he smacked
his gun into anything that moved. But he had no more bullets, just an empty shell of a gun. The crowd
stretched on like an ocean. Thomas let loose a roar of frustration. He was trapped.

Suddenly the boy was with him. Unsheathing a glimmering sword, the boy plunged into the chaos. People dove
out of the way upon seeing the blade. Thomas leapt after him, his heart pounding like a war drum.

Then they were free. Thomas tore into open air and out the door, old lungs wheezing feverishly. He stayed so
close to the boy he almost tripped over his heels, and together they raced to the stables.

Inside, James was passed out on a bale of hay. Jack was still saddled in a stall.

The boy grabbed Jack and threw on his bridle. “I’m William,” he said. “From Massachusetts. Thank you.”

“Thomas,” the old man said, slumped against the wall as he panted. “New York.”

Suddenly a shout rang out behind them. More reached to echo it like the snarls of mad dogs.
The mob.

Thomas heaved himself up and gestured to the boy. “Get the doors open and get on. We’re going to
Charleston.”

Surprise flashed in William’s eyes. “You’re coming?”

“‘Course I am,” said the old man with a smirk. “I’m a good fighter. Or did you think I was just a tired old sot
with a hero’s complex?”

William jumped up on Jack, extending a hand to help Thomas up. “No. I just think you’re a hero who saved my
life.” He winked, and Thomas smiled. The wink took him back to frozen New York nights, a paper boy, and the
first time he learned the meaning of the word justice....

Thomas spurred Jack forward and into the night. The stars shone brightly, white threads against a black quilt.
Jack began to gallop, and the shouts from the inn faded behind them. Thomas lifted his head proudly. A hero.
“When we get to Charleston, son, tell our spies I’d like them to start winning this war. It’s about time we had
equality.”
​​
Cate Pitterle is a sophomore at Cary Academy, where she writes for both the school's literary magazine and newspaper. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Teen Ink Print, Body Without Organs, and others, and has been recognized by Scholastic Art and Writing. She has a seemingly permanent sock tan.

* * * 

Chunky Che
By Daniel Vollaro

Che Guevara slips under the chain link fence and climbs the hill to my house—the house that ice cream built. He skulks across the breadth of my riverfront estate, leaping from one long afternoon shadow to the next with bat-like stealth and then, with a single lissome hop, he is standing on the deck where I lay collapsed in my favorite Adirondack chair, eyes slit and sleepy with Stoli. He tiptoes behind me and bends down to whisper in my ear: 

“Hey, chivato, wake up.”

I startle awake to see Che smiling down at me.

“You scared the shit out of me.”

I have not seen Che in almost four years, and the sight of him makes something twist in my stomach. He would never harm me, but I’ve heard a few scary stories—the summary executions, the unflinching trigger finger.  I follow his career in the news. He has not acquiesced one percentage point towards this New World Order. He is just as violent and uncompromising at ever.

I invite him in of course. Che may be the most hunted man in the history of Capitalism, but my mother really loved him, so I feel a kind of familial loyalty to him. We shake hands, stiff and cautious, and stand surveying each other closely. Che has long ago shaved his crusted beard, shed the extra pounds, and traded in his fatigues and beret for black jeans, motorcycle boots, and a flannel shirt. He hasn’t aged a day since 1968, but I have frayed for the both of us, growing soft around the middle, slouching over more with each year from burdens I never imagined three decades ago. I have kept my beard—fiercely defended it in fact. It is long and thready with streaks of gray. My wife says it makes me look like those guys from ZZ Top, the rock musicians, or Jerry Garcia. She calls it my “look.” She says, whatever keeps me thinking young.

I first met Che in the summer of 1960, the year my mother bundled the family off to Havana for ten months to sew uniforms for the revolution. I was eight, and my sister Karen was ten, but we both recall our year in Cuba with fine-grained clarity. Che would visit the factory sometimes, and we can both recall the blush on our notoriously unsentimental mother’s face and the stammer in her normally clarion-clear voice when he walked by.

Che took a shine to me right away. I remember the first time he walked over and ran his thick fingers through my blond hair and congratulated me. “You’re a fine soldier,” he grinned.  I thought my mother would pass out from the excitement.

We were all fine socialists in those days—my mother, Karen, and me. When our mother died ten years ago, we held a memorial service (she had donated her body to science because she did not want to take up space in a cemetery) and movement people arrived from all over the country to mark her passing. My mother was a formidable socialist, but in Red-paranoid America, only the faithful know her name. They came in droves to mourn her: union organizers, former Black Panthers, a burned-out hippie poet laureate, two old Wobblies with long white beards who wore red suspenders, and Che Guevara, who showed up late disguised as a balding insurance salesman—she knew them all. It was a nice spread, fully catered; I paid for everything. They all stood around looking awkward, sipping white wine out of expensive glasses, not a real suit in the bunch. They whispered about Karen, who is married to an actual insurance salesman with grown daughters and five grandchildren. I am an even bigger scandal, with my multimillion-dollar business selling home-style ice cream in pint-sized cartons all over the world. We are not fine socialists anymore, by any stretch.

Che waited to catch me alone that evening before accusing me:

“Your mother was such a moral human being,” he shook his head “So what the hell happened to you, chivato.” Chivato is Spanish for “informer,” but it can also mean “traitor.” He says it, like all things Che, gently ribbing but also with a deadly serious barb attached. 

Che still visits me from time to time. He never calls ahead, and he never stays for long. He is always on the run, so I never ask detailed questions. Over the years,  I’ve given him food and clothes and money, but he has never once thanked me. He considers this charity to be my one small contribution to the great struggle; it is, in his mind, the very least I can do. I’m certain he shares the food with his men; they may believe he can multiply loaves and fishes, but I know better. He spends the money on the revolution; I have no doubts about this. In his own way, Che Guevara is the most moral person I have ever met.

He asks about Karen. How is her daughters? How are my kids doing in college. I ask about his asthma. We both steer clear of our work for as long as possible, but the topic is unavoidable.

“I heard about Yellowstone,” I scold him. “Killing a park ranger is not exactly a revolutionary act in my book.”

“You kill to protect your way of life,” he shoots back. “The only difference is that I pull the trigger myself. I won’t let some bomber pilot I’ve never met do my dirty work.”

He’s right of course. I do have my own air force—mighty winged jets bristling with laser-guided bombs scouring the sky overhead. They spin silent, invisible webs, linking up with my satellites, with soldiers lurking in the shadows—the best and the brightest. My jets are hunter-seekers, flushing out Marxist saints, renegade mullahs, errant dictators, and other enemies of Capital. They are the sentinels, protecting me—and all lovers of freedom, yes—but especially me.

“How’s the revolution going?” I grin. The revolution is a sore subject these days, but Che always keeps his chin high, and his eyes on the prize, like a good Marxist.

“We’re making converts all over,” he assures me.

“Where?”

“That’s like asking where all the bugs are hiding,” he winks. “You’ve got to turn the rock over first.”

The government is hunting Che and his band throughout Northern Wyoming these days. CNN claims it’s the biggest manhunt in U.S. history, and they are keeping a daily vigil—we’re on Day 24. No one is saying the “C” word in public, but the government knows who they’re up against, and they’re not taking any chances this time. The FBI and ATF are using “satellite assets” and helicopter-mounted infrared scopes. They are combing the forests with commandos and German shepherds trained to sniff out Cuban tobacco. They’ve even hired the great-great grandson of Geronimo to track him through the mountain passes. This time, they are leaving no stone unturned. They estimate Che’s band is down to a dozen men or less, but as we sit on my spacious back porch looking down on the Delaware River, Che seems nonplussed.

“You don’t believe the government, do you?” he mocks me.

“Why did you start that riot in Miami last year? Everything was going fine with race relations until you pulled that little stunt.”

“You give me a lot of credit. Maybe it was a spontaneous response to police brutality. I can’t be everywhere at once.”

“I thought you were some kind of commie saint now. Bigger than life.”

“I’m just a man,” he grins.

“Why are you bothering with the United States? We need a revolution like a hole in the head.”

My mother understood Che. For her, the economics were simple—there were haves and have nots, elites and the underclass. Revolution was merely the instrument to achieve that thing she had been denied, through no visible fault of her own, that thing someone else had grabbed because they were stronger or richer or more well connected. The evidence was piled up all around her, plain as day. But growing up in that cramped Brooklyn apartment, even I knew the revolution would never happen. I could feel, even before I had the words to describe it, her benign insanity, her stubborn refusal to acknowledge the weakness of her species, and of her neighbors and friends too. She believed that if the world was full of greed and inequality, it was because too many people were willing to accept their lot in life because their brains had been softened by that virus, religion. On my first day of school, mother sat me down in the kitchen and warned me sternly that I would be meeting kids who believed in God, but she assured me that their parents had tricked them into believing a lie.
“Remember what I said: when we die, it’s like someone turns the lights off forever. The only world that matters is this one. OK, bundle up warm now.” And she sent me on my way, stripped of every illusion but her own cockeyed dream of a bent world made straight in the great fire of socialism.

But I won’t succumb to magical thinking. I’ve been busy making ice cream for the past thirty years. My advertising people make a big deal about the Brooklyn connection—the red ice cream truck jingling on the corner with barefoot city kids chasing it down the street, pennies clenched in their fists. This is my mythology, sure, but truthfully, I am in the business of making people happy. Ice cream is one of those unsullied pleasures, like watching the sun set or taking a bubble bath or drinking a great glass of Merlot. Stalin ate ice cream. So did Marilyn Monroe and Jim Morrison and Lee Harvey Oswald. So do you. It’s not about saving the fucking the world, or advancing the revolution. It’s about flavor, the most basic of human desires.

“Did you hear, I just instituted profit sharing at my company?” I brag.

Che picks at his teeth and stares across the river. He will settle for nothing less than employee ownership.

“It was in the Wall Street Journal,” my voice trails off, and in that moment, I wonder, why do I grovel for his approval? He is pathetic, living off garbage, like a stray dog. If he were not the patron saint of world revolution, I might toss him some spare change and continue on my way, forgetting in a heartbeat that he ever existed. But with Che, forgetting is impossible. A billion t-shirts, buttons, and posters plastered to college dorm-room walls. Three-story murals all over the Third World. His face is as recognizable Jesus Christ Himself.

What right does he have to scoff at my contributions to the struggle. My workers all have flex time. I built a fully staffed day care center in my Michigan plant last year. We were completely wheelchair accessible fifteen years ago. I hire blacks, hispanics, Asians, ex-cons. . . everyone, even the people who should not be working. I’m the guy who put Stokely Carmichael's face on white fudge chunk ice cream in every store freezer in America. All of my ingredients are ethically and sustainably sourced. But no matter what I do, Che Guevara will always doubt my loyalty to the cause.

“Hey, chivato, I need a big favor.”

I felt my stomach tighten like a fist. 

“You still got an airplane?”

“Uh, yeah, I still have the airplane, but it’s not mine, Che, not technically. The company owns it.”

“I need to get my men out of the country.” He pops a melon ball between his stained teeth. “Libya or Somalia, one or the other.”

I shake my head; no way in hell would I aid and abet his crimes. Over the years, I’ve loaned—given—him perhaps $15,000, but I draw a firm boundary at cash, and always in small amounts.

The idea has been percolating for more than a year now, a way to help a family friend, and profit.

“Che, I can’t do the plane, but I have an idea . . . a way to maybe fund you—your movement—legitimately.”

He flicks an ash into the fruit salad and stares at me.

“You come in from the cold, I put your picture on a half-million pint-sized canisters of ice cream. You and me split the profits.”

He clears his throat and stares across the river again.

“No thanks.”

“Did you see my Chocolate Cesar Chavez last year?”

Che shrugs. 

“Come on, Chunky Che. It would be a great victory for you. Kids all over the country will be looking up your bio on the internet.”

“How many of them will join the cause, chivato, if their mothers and teachers all want them to be big shots.”

“Violence will convince no one.”

“Violence is always used by powerful men to coerce, to convince. The question for the poor is how well do they fight back? I say well-armed and well-equipped.”

“There are other ways to change the system, Che, from within.”

“One man wins, another loses, and you say it’s the way of the world. I say it’s the system that rewards one man for making a loser of another. You don’t change that, chivito, you tear it down and start over.”

“One concession to capitalism and you gain more goodwill than thirty years of armed struggle. Only a fool fails to compromise.”

“No!”

I’ve built an empire on  saying “yes” to the right opportunities and convincing others to say it to me. Che has build his on “no.”He refuses. He stymies. And worse, he dynamites, he tears down. Che and me stand on opposite shores of a raging, swollen river—on my side, condominiums, cell towers, car dealerships, a billion square miles of pavement, and tomahawk missiles; and on his side, just Che and his damnable red banners fluttering in the wind. ​

Daniel Vollaro is an assistant professor of English at Georgia Gwinnett College, where he teaches professional writing and occasionally literature. His short fiction and essays have been published in Boomer Cafe, Blue Moon Review, Crania, Creo, Fairfield Review, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, Paperplates, and Timber Creek Review.

* * * 
Poetry

Head on a Swivel
By Demond Blake

watch out for
anyone who
says you
understand
them
 
watch out for
anyone who
says they
love you
 
watch out
because you
might stub
your toe
 
watch out for
anyone who wants to
know your sign
they might claim
you're their
soul mate
 
watch out for
loners, they're
only looking
for someone
to latch
onto
 
watch out for
poets they'll
want your
opinion
about their
poetry
 
watch out for
voters they'll
hate you when
they find
out you
don't
 
watch out
for buddha
he's under a
tree waiting
to trip you
 
watch out for
the rich, they'll
bore you with
their discontent
just like the
poor
 
watch out for
quiet types
they'll talk
your ear off
if they get
you alone
 
watch out for
the hangman
he's tightening
the noose
for you

Demond J Blake is a warehouse associate who has traveled the country working odd jobs, meeting and writing about various artists, musicians and nonconformists living life on the fringes of society. He lives in Colton, CA with his wife and teenage son. Demond is currently seeking publication for 'Slackass' his first novel.

* * * 

Two Poems by Rich Boucher

On Witnessing An Instance of Magick Being Practiced
In a Walmart Parking Lot in Providence, Rhode Island
And Wondering If It Is Up To Me To Decide
What Means Something And What Means Nothing

​​
I was coming out of the Walmart
when I spied a real and skinny young man
with a very old and full long beard
wearing a dirty, navy-blue Adidas hoodie
(the kind with the many white zippers)
seeming to be praying or yelling by himself,
or maybe he was yelling prayers,
right next to the cart corral
where I was bringing my cart
after my prolonged bout of shopping.
Worried that his mentalness was a danger to me,
I slowed down and looked all around me,
scanning my surroundings for another corral
but the next nearest one was full,
and as I turned again towards where
the young man was busy shrieking to the sky
I noticed it sounded like he was invoking
a long serious of powerful-sounding names,
none of which to me seemed especially English.
His voice rose and I saw other people staring.
One heavy lady stared at me like this whole thing
was all my fault and we glared at each other hard
for a few tense moments, neither of us making a move.
The yelling man had spit flying out of his shouting mouth
and then I thought I heard the word invisible
and he suddenly disappeared from view.
He vanished right in front of us all, everybody,
but we knew he was still there
because he was now laughing as well as shouting.
So weird to hear laughter but not see anybody, right?
A Mexican woman near me fell to her knees in tears and
started praying loudly to God while sobbing obnoxiously.
Lots of the word Dios over and over again and then
I heard the sound of several men shouting with their afraid voices
and someone right behind me screamed where’s your phone?!
and I thought a late afternoon in August was a bit too early
for midnight on October 31st to already be here.

Why couldn’t I move at all.

My ice cream was melting in the bag
and I couldn’t move at all for what felt like
a terrifying, eternal half hour.


After Giovanni Bellini’s Christ Blessing,
c. 1500


In this painting of the Christ, committed
by Giovanni Bellini onto oil and canvas
in one of the very first centuries of history,
we can see clearly the conclusion to all the
cruel punishments and unspeakable agony
that the foretold torturers laid down on the Jesus,
the symbols of divine aspect after the crucifixion
that caused him to lose an awful lot of weight
while at the same time keeping a real tight
and fit tone, with his pale, alabaster white
skin softly reflecting the golds and baby blues
of an early morning Galilee farmland sunrise;
note the sunshine-ray-shaped brass halo
around the head looking all 70’s surfer-like;
we can see also Bellini’s studious attention
to the details in the soft, gathered fabric
of the purple dress or toga or sarong
or whatever that is that Christ has on
that wraps and covers his slender waist
and shoulders while at the same time
tastefully yet clearly displaying the wounds
and six-pack of the Christ as well as
the stigmata in the palm of his right hand,
rendered in a muted wine colour to effect;
also note the bruises where the soldiers
got him good with a hubcap or something.
We notice that the world around Christ
seems at once sanctified and yet unchanged,
with farmers in the background making their way
through a pasture while in the foreground
we see two little rabbits of two different colours
at furious play as though there wasn’t anything
especially marvelous about what is happening
in this moment in time - we also must take note
of the countenance of Christ; a careful observer
will undoubtedly remark on what is plainly visible,
what appears to be a state of high heavenly irritation,
like what the hell did you do to me, you asswipes
in the dull pallor behind his blankly staring
and yet really ticked-off brown eyes.
While we can’t know what Bellini intended
by this expression on the face of the Christ,
we can guess; we do know that once you’ve forgiven the 77th
sin against you, you’ve done all that anyone
can really ask of you, and at that point
you can basically just have at it and go to town
as far as revenge goes.

Rich Boucher resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Rich’s poems have appeared in Gargoyle, The Nervous Breakdown, Apeiron Review, Menacing Hedge, Cultural Weekly and Tinderbox Poetry Journal, among others, and he has work forthcoming in Street Poet Review. For more, check out his website here. He loves his life with his love Leann.

* * * 

Not Normal
By C. Daniel Bush

The constant rocking and swaying of
a boat crossing the ocean
becomes bedrock
to the sailors who live on it.
The thundering of
the waterfall by
the quaint village
becomes droning
to the farmers who live in it.

What is not constant
can be made constant.

The freezing temperatures
of the northern mountains
becomes distant tingling
when you focus on it.
The burning pain
of those claws
raked across your arm
becomes dull throbbing
when you focus on it.

Why does it hurt so much
to focus on you?

It should be normal
when you destroy a mind
that was needed,
but you thought you knew better.
It should be normal
when you say
that all that needs be done
is swap out the lens
and everything’s just fine and dandy.

Instead you give a half-smile
and I shudder.

C. Daniel Bush is a Christian writer who enjoys thinking and socializing in equal measures. He plays in two Dungeons and Dragons games every week and runs a third. While that would exhaust most, it’s what he needs to get through the week.

* * * 

A Lament to Butters, the Dog, for his Ravaging of the Amaryllis
By Melissa Erskine

Rare and ravishing
Strong and soaring
 
Boom,
Crash,
Bang,
 
SNAP!
 
Broken and battered,
the resplendent resilience is ruined.
The bombardment of the bulbous bloom is beastly.
….a year of yearning…
My patience was poised for the presentation of the poetic perennial at the point of its prime.
Then the thwack thwarted the thrilling thrust of the thing.
Seasons of suffering must again be sustained in suspense of the spectacle.
The lupus has lunged upon my lonesome lycoris.
 
The alliterations abound for the annihilation of my Amaryllis.

Melissa Erskine originates from Canonsburg, PA, where much of her family still lives. She has a BA in English Literature from Bryn Mawr College, and a MA in Comparative Literature from Texas A&M University. In 2009, she began teaching English and German at Blinn College in Brenham, TX.

* * *

Daffodils
By Michael Glassman

At night, in the hills and valleys of Kandahar
White specks scatter like wild sheep
Unaware they appear as blips
Visible only by infra-red
In the crosshairs of Apache gunships
 
Lush valleys and sloping hills
Some with clusters of daffodils
Now transformed into primordial soup
Called into play by a beleaguered troop

Michael Glassman is a retired high school teacher who has been writing poetry, one act plays, short stories, (fiction and non-fiction) for almost ten years. He attends local writing workshops and reads his work at open mic nights.

* * *

 
Nothing Short of the Rolls Royce of Bemused Expressions
By Christopher Keaveney 


                         I                                                                                            For Mark
I knew frangipani by another name
at another point in my life
by the smoke of the earthen oven
on Sunday mornings
along a gravel road
where the cemetery conveniently
gave way to Spirit Mountain,
a place where elegies
emerged fully formed and bones
were prone to be lazy.
 
We have been encouraged to get over the loss
of the unaccented line,
to just plumb ignore the badgering
of blue jays
from the overgrown holly
evoking the magpies
that ruled Galway’s boggy fields,
their pied sweep
along stone walls
that Mark drew our attention to
on the family trip back to the ancestral farm,
the summer before we lost him
on an unseasonably warm spring day,
a day designed for the driving range,
for reviving the barbecue,
my nephew's swim goggles clutched
in his hand when they found
him on the carpet
a few feet from the bedroom door.
How quickly the rustle of leaves presages
hyperventilation in the waiting room,
the slow fade to montage reeled
as reverie.
 
 
              II
It seemed unseemly
to question the choice of the sand wedge say
as tribute
or the efficacy of the bagpipes
in the parking lot,
as benedictine as the threat
of rain on the morning we
said our good-byes.
What we know about carrying on
we later agree over bourbon
could fit in a thimble
and yet we master the stoic look,
nail it in fact
just as the magpie studies the gray
of a Connemara morning,
just as we come to realize
that faith like the river
never fails to carve
its own course.

Christopher T. Keaveney teaches Japanese and Asian Cultural Studies at Linfield College in Oregon. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Spoon River Poetry Review, Columbia Review, Cardiff Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Stolen Island, Faultline and elsewhere, and he has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is the author of the collection Your Eureka Not Mined (Broadstone Books, 2017).

* * *

The Cow That Makes Cream
By R. J. Keeler


                                                                              After
                                                                              The Emperor of Ice-Cream
                                                                              —W. Stevens

Call the artificial inseminator,
the long-armed vet, and chance him thrust
into her livid womb waggling worms.
Make the stable hands clean up the mess
as they are used to buffalo chips. Let girls
cool her fervor with languorous songs.
Let bees be flattened on screen.
The only cow is the cow that makes cream.
Take the three-legged stool that stoops,
lacks balance, and squeaks, has nicks
where she broke clean my left leg once.
Place it close alongside her udders.
If my hands are cold or damp, they serve
to less misdirect the flow and not swerve.
Let the milk commence its gleam.
The only cow is the cow that makes cream.
​​
R. J. Keeler. Born St. Paul, Minnesota. Lived in jungles of Colombia, S.A., up to age twelve. BS Mathematics, MS Computer Science, MBA, Certificate in Poetry. Honorman, U.S. Naval Submarine School. “SS” qualified. Vietnam Service Medal. Honorable Discharge. Whiting Foundation Experimental Grant. Formerly, P&W's Directory of Poets and Writers. Member IEEE, AAAS. The Boeing Company.

* * * 

Muted Memories
By Pratibha Kelapure

Other mothers always had the look of pity
When my friends took me to their homes
As if their daughter had brought a home a stray
I didn’t know it then
 
I never knew when to leave
Was never in a hurry to return
Home that sometimes might be dark and lonely
Other times filled with uncles and neighbors
 
“Smile,” an uncle would say and pinch my nose
Tobacco stains on his teeth – blood on my skirt
The curse of an eleven-year-old girl
I would wish for a moment to ache in private
 
A mother should’ve known
But she always handed me a chore
A run to the grocery store or
To soothe a crying baby
 
I would cringe and oblige
The hidden stains on my clothes
Blood clotting inside my brain
Draining the free will away
 
But, that was her life too
A motherless child weighed down
With obligations, passing on the torch
The burden she never learned to unload
 
Guilt she handed down.​

Pratibha Kelapure is a poet from California. She was born in Mumbai, India and has made California her home for the last forty years. Her poems appear in The Lake, miller’s pond poetry, Akitsu Quarterly, One Sentence Poems, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, Letters to the World: Poems from the Wom-Po Listserv, and other literary magazines.

* * *

#SHARING IS CARING
by J H Martin 

A beautiful day
By a sunlit swimming pool
 
There's only two of us here
But with that phone in her hand
It feels like the world
 
'Look'
She says
But I can't be bothered
 
I'm not interested
In reading
What other people say
 
I know how good she looks
In that bright orange bikini
 
I took the photograph
And I'm the one sitting here
Talking to no one but myself
 
'Suit yourself'
She huffs
And of course I will
 
Closing my eyes
I am going to listen to the water lap
And the cool breeze in the trees
As her fingers tap out
Thankyous and hearts
To friends she has never once met
 
Yes
She can share all this with them
And I truly do hope that
It brings her some kind of happiness
Because – believe me –
This is the last time we'll meet
 
From now on
I would much rather
Stay in
And enjoy the moment

J H Martin is from London, England but has no fixed abode. His writing has appeared in a number of places in Asia, Europe and the Americas. 

* * * 

Stains
By Makenzie Nokes

I no longer wear white pants to work.
 
I learn this while riding home in a rickshaw.
Notice a girl with a bandage on her head
to cover up a wound she can’t stop touching.
Lines of blood
crawl down her face like paint
or the bottle of red wine I knocked over the other night,
a faint maroon now in permanent drips
on the dining room wall.
 
She speaks in Hindi,
Marathi, maybe,
so it is easy for me to pretend
I cannot understand
what she could possibly need
by grabbing my leg with one hand
and holding out the other,
cupped
bloody
empty.
 
I concentrate on calling the painter when I get home.
The landlord will be upset if he finds out I have been so careless.
I know the red from where she touched
will stain
no matter how much I scrub.
The ride home
damp
like when someone else’s baby
slobbers through your clothes
but you don’t want to make the parents uncomfortable.
 
When I get home from work,
I forget to call the painter,
throw the pants away,
tell myself,
it’s not worth the bleach.

Makenzie Nokes is a middle school English teacher at an international school in Mumbai, India. She mostly writes creative non-fiction and is glad her writing will finally be appreciated by someone other than middle schoolers.

* * *
Dear Editor
By Carl "Papa" Palmer

I received a cookie cutter form letter of rejection from the editor for someone else's poem in my SASE.
That someone else sent me the acceptance letter she received for my poem in her SASE.        
 
My poetic response: this seventeen syllable "precursory curse" villanelle
 
 
Dear Editor,                                        
 
I appreciate the time you took to send this rejection letter
about your decision not to publish me or put my work in print,
but I think indeed, you really need to do your rejections better.
 
With your fine job title I felt you'd be the writing standard setter
‘til you rejected me in an SASE someone else had sent.
Should I appreciate the time you took on this rejection letter?
 
My intent’s not meant to anger or put my future chance in fetter
nor is the matter of this patter solely to chastise you or vent,
yet I think indeed, you really need to make your rejections better.
 
Some of my best saved rejections have never fed a paper shredder,
that's how I detect, in retrospect, rhyme and reason to circumvent
the monumental task you took to construct this rejection letter.
 
Try to get the right writer’s name in your rejection letter header
or you may wonder where the submissions for your next edition went.
So I think indeed, you really need to sort your rejections better.
 
In closing, I’ll just make this point I surely hope you will consider:
Always remember you cannot edit what we writers never sent.
Though I appreciate the time you took on your rejection letter,
still I think indeed, you really need to check your rejections better.
 
 
Yours Truly,
Carl “Papa” Palmer ~ writer
​​
Carl "Papa" Palmer of Old Mill Road in Ridgeway, VA now lives in University Place, WA. 
He is retired military, retired FAA, now just plain retired enjoying life as Papa to his grand descendants. Carl, Hospice volunteer, is a former Pushcart Prize and Micro Award nominee. 
MOTTO: Long Weekends Forever


* * * 

Another Spring and Calcium
By Donna Pucciani

Another Spring
 
I have lived to see
another spring, its naked branches
sprouting miniscule buds, proud
shoots of daffodils pushing up
far too early after a snowless winter.
 
I heard birdsong this morning on waking,
and realized only then how welcome was
the tiny winged voice in the bushes
under my window, bathed in the lassitude
of melting hoarfrost.
 
Many are denied these observations --
the noisy flap of wings from the robin’s new nest,
the white sky promising blue, the happy onslaught
of a new season, open to wind, weather,
and the music of all living things.
 
If this were my last spring,
I would taste it fully, with its fleeting verdure
and blossom, hailstorms and thunder,
and rabbits arriving uninvited
at the bed of almost-crimson tulips.

Calcium
 
Years ago in math class, my daily misery was
to watch numbers chalked on the blackboard,
a frenzy under the hand of a genius nun,
a map of indisputable facts and incomprehensible
figures. I chose the desperate daydream of
 
the white cliffs of Dover or Albion’s
horse running in pure syllables of light
on the green of the South Downs
pictured in the geography book,
felt in my very bones, or
 
the purest form of calcium carbonate,
Michelangelo’s marble, carried in blocks
from Tuscany’s rolling landscape
to carve David’s muscled form
for all of history to love its purity.
 
Centuries later, Hepworth’s translucent white
organic forms rise in the neutral
space of tactile desire, also from Carrara’s
store of excavated wonder,
saved in museums long after math class
has drifted from my memory. Of course,
 
I admired my brilliant classmates
who understood the maze of numeric equations,
who could transfer them into cosmic theories
bounding through space like a pack of spaniels
on a beach, who gathered scholarships to prestigious
universities to study astronomical concepts
or engineering applications for useful objects, to make
meaning from the chalked figures of our youth.
 
I spent my days chalking words, not numbers,
on a blackboard, the noisy hiss and clack
comforting, familiar. Then blackboards
disappeared from schoolrooms as the furniture
of wood and inkwells became plastic, and books
became hand-held computers.
 
Sometimes in my long and grateful life,
the pale hues of dawn light up the day’s snowfall
with a whiteness of impossible sums, or at the museum
I pass a Hepworth polished with unquantifiable love.

Donna Pucciani, a Chicago-based writer, has published poetry globally in such diverse journals as Shi Chao Poetry, Agenda, Gradiva, and The Pedestal. Her most recent book of poems is EDGES.

* * * 

I Was a Fat Little Girl 
By Diana Sher 

I was a fat little girl.
Even in fifth grade
I remember
Being called to the nurse’s office
With ten year old, Bob Follansbee
Who had a big pot belly.
We were both weighed
And the nurse sent home a note
With the horrible number.
 
By high school
We were the only family I ever knew
Who had locks on the kitchen cupboards.
My parents panicked
What could be worse than a fat daughter?
My mother assured me no one would marry me
Or even hire me for a job.
My dad sometimes lost his temper
And called me a fat pig.
 
Sixty years have passed since the nurse’s office
I’m still fat
But they were wrong about everything else.

Diana Sher is retired from the English Department of Metropolitan State University of Denver. She is published in over 75 literary journals including Concho River Review, New Delta Review, and Cold Mountain Review. Her chapbook, After I Cut the Cord, was released by Finishing Line Press in 2003.

* * * 
 

3 Poems by Colette Tennant


Dactyllic
 
Some of my fingers
are more secular than others.
 
My thumb is woody
as a fifties Chevy station wagon.
 
My pinky bends and genuflects,
almost an anchorite.
 
My pointer smirks at guilt, a little
flesh-clad summoner of delicate bone.
 
The tallest stretches nearest to heaven
but is first to rub my lifeline raw.
 
My ring finger carries
the circle of absolution,
 
my dear ring finger –
a slender vial of salt.

                                                             
 

A Woman Gave Birth to a Mouse
 
after being frightened by one,
an early Protestant Reformer claimed.
Female imagination gone awry
could be a terrible thing.

 

  1. Their Instructions

 
Doctors warned women not to
look at wild beasts when pregnant,
believed their fancies so strong
they could change the sex or form of their baby.
 
Put knives under a pregnant woman’s bed.
Never let her go to a funeral.
Don’t let her eat too many carrots,
or the baby’s nose will grow strange.
 
Eclipses can affect pregnancies.
For protection, expectant mothers should carry a key.
Never baptize a baby girl before a baby boy,
or she will grow a beard.

 

  1. My Predictions

 
If before three days old,
a newborn sees a raven,
she will be an
extravagant cook.
 
If a newborn clings to his mother’s hair,
his cry will be wild as wolves.
If a newborn’s cheeks are the color of morning,
she will never forget anybody’s name.
 
If a baby boy takes his first steps on a bridge,
           he will be prone to wander.
If a baby girl sees the moon before the sun,
           her face will be wondrous.
 
 

 
Rose Lore
 
Roses can be tricky.
Good some days. Bad others.
Never pick up a dead rose you find on the road,
even if it shines like the back of your grandmother’s hands,
even if you hear it singing like your first love.
 
Plant an odd number of roses near the graves of the dead,
red roses near lovers and white for virgins.
Leave them all there.
Remember this –
white roses will muddle your brain if you lean too close.
 
And don’t forget the leaves, oh no,
don’t forget them.
Engrave a lover’s name on each one
and toss them into the wind.
The wind will know.
It’s tricky, roses can be tricky,
But the wind will know. 


Colette Tennant’s first book of poetry, Commotion of Wings, was published by Main Street Rag in 2010 as an Editor’s Choice. Her poetry was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2014. Her second poetry book, Eden and After, was published by Tebot Bach July, 2015. She has had poems published in various journals, including Southern Poetry Review, Dos Passos Review, and the most recently in Prairie Schooner. She lives in Salem, Oregon. This is her twenty-third year as an English Professor at Corban University where she teaches poetry writing, creative writing, and many literature classes.

* * * 

Our Lady of Orange Sailboats
By Taunja Thomson

On her knees in a Byzantine dress
with brown elastic lace
at tense shoulders   crook of arms   waist
she kneels   head bent under ceiling fan
hands clasped as if in prayer
is surrounded
by apricot walls and cantaloupe
curtains   tidbits of domesticity.
Only the deep orange carpet--
shining like satin (from a distance
at least) and carrying slightly paler
sailboats (a fleet made
by the vacuum cleaner)--
soothes her.


~inspired by a photo on the Facebook page, Gallery of the Absurd

A three-time nominee for the Pushcart Award, Taunja Thomson co-authored a chapbook entitled Frame and Mount the Sky (2017), her chapbook Strum and Lull was a semi-finalist in Golden Walkman’s chapbook competition (2017), and her chapbook The Profusion will be published in 2018. 

* * * 

Gold Days 
By Guinotte Wise

Panning for gold in the icy Yuba
I talked to trout in their clear pools
they finned the water running in place
then shot away if my shadow fell

the sun shone gold on the cold and
bright, the water ran fast and numbed
the calves, washing the pebbles and
slick rock footing, made a sound

like bacon frying in the places it
parted for boulders that would wear
down in time if the snow keeps up
for a thousand years and flows down

as melt from the high Sierras clear
and cold dislodging nuggets a long
time after I am gone, but maybe
today, I move upstream from where

the waters foam and the melody is
softer Dvorak to Brahms or more
like Pat Metheny's fusion jazz and
I can hear Days Are Numbers by

Alan Parsons one day you'll know
where you are that day perhaps is
here, my legs are numb, I sit on the
bank, sun, breeze washing warm

I feel the fragment I found, in my
back pocket, a piece of exploded
boilerplate from a mine near here
rust and rivets blast's confusion

men running, shouting, long since
gone, I hear them when I feel the
shrapnel piece, but now it's quiet
that mine is lichen covered hush.

A Pushcart nominee, Guinotte Wise is a sculptor and author of two fiction collections, a novel and a poetry collection. His fiction collection Night Train Cold Beer won the H. Palmer Hall Award and his poetry and fiction have appeared in numerous journals including Santa Fe Writers Project, Atticus, The MacGuffin and American Journal of Poetry. 

* * * 

Three Poems by Sally Zakariya

Arctic Fever
Melting Arctic Permafrost Could Release Tons of
Toxic Mercury – National Geographic, February 2018
 
An arctic fever melts the permafrost,
warps the ground, wakens ancient microbes
from their frozen slumber, reveals the icy
carcasses of man and beast.
 
Bound up in the frost, a wealth of mercury
awaits release, awaits fleet-footed quicksilver
rolling down the globe, a lethal liquid metal.
 
Spreading on the seas, the toxic tide
contaminates the waters, taints fish and food,
and turns us all mad as hatters.
 
What sublime alchemy can make this right,
turn mercury not into gold but cool, clean air?
 
Or must the old god Mercury escort
us all to a poisoned afterlife?

 
Still With Us
 
My son, just learning to talk,
told me he saw Granny
in her wheelchair
not a month after
the funeral
 
He’s grown now, and she
has finally begun to fade
here in our house, her
house that was
 
I felt her most when
we took up the musty
green carpet and painted
the walls, when we sold
the walnut table
 
Not my house then – she
was still here, questioning
the furniture I chose, the meals
I cooked, how we raised
our son
 
I wondered why my father
was so quiet a presence
in the house, though he
was longer gone and maybe
more at rest
 
I say gone but where
I couldn’t say – they are all
still with us somehow,
a continuum in the mist,
in dreams – they
are with us and we
with them
 
 
Bathtub Buddha
 
Watching the water swirl down
            the drain
I think of Australia –
does it really circle the other way
in the southern hemisphere
left hand one way, right hand
the other?
 
Do the gyres cancel each other out
when they collide at the equator
clogging the drain
           bathwater rising
a flood of soap and bubbles
bathing the earth?
 
No it can’t be – the world
is too steeped in dirt and grime
to be cleansed so easily.
Even the rain that showers down
           from Heaven
can’t wash the stains clean
without help from our tears.
 
Sally Zakariya's Pushcart Prize-nominated poetry has appeared in 70 print and online journals. She is the author of When You Escape (Five Oaks Press, 2016), Insectomania (2013) and Arithmetic (2011), and the editor of Joys of the Table (2015). Her chapbook Personal Astronomy is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. 

* * * 

 
Creative Nonfiction

A Field Guide to Animals of the Montana Plains
By Daniel Ramirez

Using this Guide
The purpose of this guide is to assist you in the identification of animals inhabiting the plains of eastern Montana. It is not intended to be an exhaustive compilation of all animals there, but it is intended to recount an exhausting experience. And to provide historical context for ecological change the region has undergone, with some personal change thrown in too.
 
Montana
“The Treasure State”

Population: A smidgen over 1 million

Size: 147,040 sq. mi.

Capital: Helena

​Most Populous City: I’m stationed in Billings where, moving eastward, the Great Plains burst open all the way until the woodlands of the Mississippi. Even though it is Montana’s largest “city” with just over 100,000 people, it’s probably the least interesting, a regional hub for petroleum processing. That’s ok, though, because I’m not here for any kind of urbanity. Quite the opposite - I’m here for outdoor adventure as a Youth Crew Leader for the Montana Conservation Corps. Billings is only my base, where I shower and drink beer (often simultaneously) after a long week of hard labor and even harder adolescent guidance. Still, only one public library!?

Terrain: Mountains - the whole basis of its name. That’s why I was highly disappointed when I found out I’d be spending a week on the eastern plains. Before starting my term, I had visions of bouldered streams and white-topped peaks. I wanted my grass to be interspersed in a high meadow of neon red paintbrushes and easter purple lupines. Instead, it would stretch forever around me in the flat, dry eastern portion of the state. It’s just one week, I pep-talk myself. Beyond are trips to the state’s mountain paradises, where I assume is the only place that wilderness resides. You know what they say about those who assume, though.

American Bison
(Not Buffalo!)
Bison bison

Family: Bovidae

Status: Once native, reintroduced (with impurities)

Distribution: Well, we all know how that turned out. Images of bison skull pyramids dwarfing buck-skinned hunters emblaze the American psyche. Those guys and their rifles were mere nails in the coffin, though. It was the demand for leather belts for machinery in eastern factories that actually drove extermination. How do you think the Comanche got so powerful?

Thanks to a few remnant populations on the Yellowstone Plateau, just south of Flathead Lake where the present day National Bison Range now sits, and maybe a scattered locale or two, the species avoided extinction. Thanks to a captive breeding program championed by Teddy Roosevelt at the Bronx Zoo, you can now eat bison in burger form, with some cattle genes marbled in.

Age: The sizable herd mostly sticks together, even as some adult males stand aloof from the core. There seems to be a good mix of ages, which I’m told is an indication of population health. Ruddy calves flit around mom, making frequent stops to suckle. We view all this from our rig as we drive out to the work site. Since it’s the first day on the job and we hadn’t necessarily expected to see them, it’s an auspicious sign. A little motivation for what is anticipated to be a dullard of a day.

Size: Immense. Titanic. Gargantuan. I can’t help but wonder how something that eats salad all day can grow so large. Even from afar, their black specks create black holes for the eye. Up close, their girth simultaneously intimidates and inspires. Of course, you’d never want to be so close that such girth, when combined with bestial aggression, could be directed at you (Cough, Yellowstone tourists, cough). Their necks, especially adult males, rival the thickness of old growth timber. All of this is supported on stilt-like legs. It’s no wonder, then, that when their hooves trod the prairie ground, they pierce it, creating divots of aeration. That is one aspect of their ecology we’ve lost.

Habitat: It’s the whole reason my crew is here. In addition to an avaricious leather market, over a century of the farmer’s plow and rancher’s fence have altered the Plains in both aspect and ecosystem. There are groups seeking to change that: to restore the vast Plains back to an earlier splendor of diverse herds feasting on jungles of grass. To recreate the American Serengeti. It seems quixotic, but many ambitions are.

One such group has created the American Prairie Reserve along a dammed-up stretch of the Missouri River in eastern Montana. It’s to be the incubation point from which prairie life will expand outward onto the Northern American Plains. The bison is their mechanism. They’ve reintroduced a herd from elsewhere onto the preserve.

Their method is fence removal. And that’s where my crew comes in. We’re here, along with another adult MCC crew out of Helena, to manually remove meddlesome barbed wire fencing. True, bison can jump fences, we’re told by our host, but a free range uncomplicates things and gives the place a wild character. I’m inclined to agree. Besides, it’s good for other Plains wildlife like the pronghorn who lose in jumping ability what they gain in speed (almost 60 mph!). Thus our objective is to remove as much barbed-wire fencing as possible in the next four days. Never mind that our supply of work gloves cannot keep up with the prickly demands of the job. Duct tape will come in very handy this week. Pun intended.

Diet: Herbivorous. As a ruminant, bison have a specialized anatomy to deal with the excess cellulose of a leaf-based diet. This involves a stomach with four separate compartments to break down the fibrous vegetation. On the mechanical side, they regurgitate food from their rumen in order to rechew this “cud”. Their microbiome, chock full of bacteria, protozoa, and fungi, attacks the meal once fully ensconced. In the process, their system extracts proteins to build a massive musculature.

Sign: We awake one morning to a palpable aura. While we were asleep, the herd passed through our campsite. It seems impossible that they could have trod so lightly as to allow us hard-earned slumber, but two things confirm it. One, a pair from the adult crew rose before daylight to prepare breakfast and saw stragglers. Another, the bison left behind unequivocal evidence: patties the circumference of pizza and the thickness of meringue pie. During historic times, such bois du vache would have served as a valuable source of fuel, when dry, in the treeless landscape. It also certainly would have provided valuable fertilizer for a field that had just been mowed by countless blades of ungulate teeth.

Burrowing Owl (et al.)
Athene cunicularia hypugaea (et al.)

Family: Strigidae

Status: Native

Description: Long yellow legs scurry across the ground. Scurry - not a word typically used for owls. Really, being both diurnal and terrestrial, burrowing owls contradict everything we associate with owls.
They camouflage well with their brown-and-white speckled plumage. Instead, it is the deep yellow flickering eyes that I catch upon the dirt mound. I’d like to stare at this exotic creature, but I have work to do.

Distribution: The broader A. cunicularia species dwells throughout most of North and South America. The northern (or western) variety A. c. hypugaea dwells from the Great Plains of North America down into Central America.

Habitat: It just so happens that our work takes us to a prairie dog town. As in, the fence we’re pulling literally crosses over one. Naturally, our presence arouses their suspicions, and they release an anxious chorus of squeals and yips. (I wonder if I can get my crew to communicate so well.) The burrows near our feet are vacant, but in the distance they teem, darting from hole to hole.

Prairie dogs are what’s known as a keystone species. That is, as a population they alter the land on a large scale creating unique habitat for a wide variety of species (much like beaver dams create ponds for myriad wetland species). Amongst their network of tunnels live many animals, including snakes and their most fearsome foe - the black footed ferret. Well, the ferret used to occupy these towns until the double whammy of disease and rancher extermination of prairie dogs, their main food source, brought them to the brink of extinction.

The burrowing owl is one creature that takes advantage of the underground chambers without threatening prairie dogs’ existence. It’s small and so is its prey - insects and smaller rodents. They’ll even use animal dung as bait for dung beetles.

Other projects have taken us to prairie dog towns before, but this is the first time I’ve witnessed other animals taking up residence in one. In fact, this is probably the first time I’ve seen an owl in the wild. So it’s not the hoo-hoo sort; I can finally check it off my list.

Coyote
Canis latrans

Family: Canidae

Status: Native?

Distribution: It’s both intriguing and telling that the name of this animal has entered the English language from the Nahuatl - coyotl, meaning “barking dog”. We have a few words from Nahuatl like tomato and chocolate, but coyote is the only animal representative. We could (and should, in my opinion) be calling the mockingbird sinsonte, the possum tlacuache, or, my personal favorite, the turkey guajolote. Scientific debate over coyotes’ origins provides a clue. Some scientists believe they began further south on the continent and have gradually extended their range northward. Exploiting the habitat change that occurred with the extirpation of wolves and the fragmentation of prairie, they think, they’ve now become widespread in the U.S. and Canada.

The historical data for this spread is hazy. You can read many a journal from early Plains travelers, including Meriwether Lewis’s own, to see numerous instances of the “prairie wolf”, often described as a smaller version of the wolf. Without images or thorough description, however, we cannot conclusively say that it is, in fact, the coyote. Some are convinced it is. If that is the case, though, somewhere along the way that verbiage lost favor for a word straight from the mouths of Aztecs, whose legacy has been almost completely obliterated from our continent.

Reproduction: Gestation period lasts approximately 63 days. Average litter size is six.

Size: I’m unsure because I do not see them. We’ve gone into our tents for the night, and it’s just as I pull off my pants for my nightly tick check (one, but it hasn’t embedded itself yet, thank God) that I hear them. Right outside our tents, they serenade us with their yips and barks. Such proximity prompts one of the youths to ask with a shaky voice, “Are those KY-otes?” My co-leader and I attest to their harmlessness. To us, at least. How often do you get to experience a primal call practically coming from inside your eardrums, I want to say. I don’t though because, as a leader, I’m supposed to be above being patronizing. 

Grizzly Bear
Ursus arctos horribilis

Family: Ursidae

Status: Native, non-existent

Distribution: They do not dwell on the Plains. Not anymore. This creature of evergreen trees and leaping salmon, though, once reigned over this landscape. The record, both written and painted, abounds in encounters with the beast on the Plains. Plains Indians treated it with great, and necessary, deference. To wear a necklace of its claws endowed potent medicine to warriors in combat. In fact, Hugh Glass, made famous by the movie The Revenant, suffered his unfortunate grizzly attack smack dab in the middle of what is now South Dakota.

Both setting cattle loose and allowing the existence of a ferocious predator were not compatible in ranchers’ mind. (See: the wolf) Yet, a rancher’s bounty does not provide the same market incentive as an industrialist’s demand, and this animal did not quite go the way of the bison. Its current range has shrunk significantly from its historical one, but its adaptability to mountain retreats ensured its survival. If this project turns out successful, if this large swath of land is returned to its original splendor, imagine how powerful it would be to see the grizzly running free amongst the beastly menagerie. From a safe distance, of course.

Size: This species experiences sexual dimorphism, meaning one of the sexes grows markedly larger than the other. Females grow from 270-400 pounds while males start at 400 and can grow up to 800 pounds. Males use the larger size to vie for females. Size also helps distinguish between a grizzly bear and the smaller black bear (topping out at about 500 lbs), since color is an unreliable indicator as black bears can often be reddish-brown.

Diet: There is a journal entry from one early Plains traveler that reveals the Plains grizzly’s seasonal eating habits and, thus, its niche in Plains ecology. The traveler describes coming upon some bison that had gotten stuck in the ice of a frozen river and froze to death. The Plains icebox preserved them there until the onset of the spring thaw. As the traveler approached the corpses, a grizzly head popped up from behind a bison haunch. Red spittle dangling its jowls confirmed the post-hibernatory treat.

Although prodigiously equipped to kill, the grizzly is the ultimate scavenger. Thanks to a nose that can detect scents up to 8 miles away when the wind is generous, the grizz thrives on downed meat. And once upon a time the Plains were a buffet of bison, antelope, elk, sheep, and deer carrion.

Human
Homo sapiens sapiens
subspecies: American teenager

Family: Hominidae

Status: Non-native, awkward

Diet: Breakfast for dinner is a treat. We cook it as a celebratory meal for our last night there. I don’t recall the whole menu but it involves pancakes and bacon. We realize bacon isn’t a great idea in a backcountry setting. Our ad-hoc solution for grease disposal is to pour it into empty tin cans.

One youth on the evening’s clean-up crew expresses apprehension over the burbling grease, but we don’t give in easily. We urge him to figure it out. He’s the youngest and definitely the neediest. He needs to build his confidence, we think. Adult intervention won’t help.

With the pan and the can split between two hands, he begins to pour. Just as the grease flows out of the pan do I realize how bad an idea this is. That comes too late. The searing grease spills onto his hand. Immediately, he yelps and drops the can.

He groans in pain, and we have him soak his hand in the melted ice-water of our cooler. He continues groaning, and we get burn relief ointment out of our first-aid kits and bandage it up. He groans yet more, and we realize the gravity of the situation.

Our next ad-hoc solution is to drive to the nearest town to look for a more potent medical intervention, unsure yet of what form that may take. Malta is about an hour’s drive from our campsite on unmarked dirt roads. No one stays behind. When we get there, we buy him a large tube of burn relief ointment and a fresh bag of ice from a pharmacy. It acts as a sufficient placebo for now.

The late round-trip complicates our plans, but there is a silver-lining. Two, in fact. First, the crew rallies in a time of crisis after spending much of the week in a petulant state. People remain calm, pitch in, and reassure the ailing with kind words. This will be short-lived but provides my co-leader and me hope that improvement can happen. Second, on the drive back to camp, we’re provided a thunderstorm spectacle. It’s not something we worry about since it’s dozens of miles away on the horizon. Jagged light rips apart the slate sky. Flashes dance across our weary eyeballs. Yet it’s never bigger than a quarter held out at arm’s length. The flat of the plains distorts distances. We both drive and see forever.

Adaptations (or lack thereof): Have I mentioned the heat yet? Although Montana is in the far northern latitudes of our country, this eastern section experiences summer extremes. It’s easily in the triple digits as we work, and the Plains provide zero shade trees. The crew members are negligent with their water bottles. They just leave them lying on the ground as they continue down the line. Their lack of foresight is infuriating - we’re going in a straight line; the fence doesn’t loop its way back here! Of course they get heat exhaustion. For a couple of the crew members, we drive our rig to them so that they can rest under cover, with open doors and plenty of water. They’re done for the day. This coupling of exertion and unequal hydration impair my own mental faculties. I want to be the motivating, positive leader, but I’m just ornery. Stop making such stupid choices. Carry your bottle with you. Get to work.   

Behavior: Pesky.

Allow me to qualify this a bit. This summer season is divided into two terms. I’m currently with the first term. We’ve attempted gender equality and got basically the exact opposite: 5 boys and 1 girl. The girl is hard-working, mature, quiet, and tired of putting up with the boys’ bullshit. The 5 boys, all of them, are diagnosed with some form of ADHD, evidenced by the huge bag of medications we compile at the beginning of each work week. Some of them have more of a problem with the AD and others with the H. Thankfully for them, I’m a patient person. Thankfully for me, my co-leader isn’t. She the enforcer, me the push-over. (Seriously - Shout out, Bri!)

So far, this week has been full of the typical malingering, sugary snack sneaking, petty bickering, lack of preparing for extreme conditions, and perhaps most maddeningly, port-a-potty breaking due to port-a-potty fucking around. For that, they will write an apology letter.

The crew we acquire later will have much less behavioral issues. There’ll be exact gender equity. Attitudes will be positive and work ethics solid. They won’t be perfect (once again, the boys!), but they won’t be maddening like the previous crew. Still, we’ll like them a little less. They’ll be beautiful kids, yes, but they’ll lack the personality that being a rascal imparts.

On second thought, it’s not necessarily that we’ll like them less but that this current crew will display more growth. By the end of the five week term, they’ll push themselves to carve out trail despite sweltering temperatures. They’ll finally contribute to camp chores without being nagged. They’ll endure getting lost on a backpacking trip in Yellowstone (oops, my bad) and sort of enjoy it. Don’t give up, I tell myself. They’re learning.

Witnessing such strides in personal growth - both theirs and my own - will inspire me. I’ll realize that living and working outdoors is transformative for youth misunderstood. That in these stripped-down, far-out locales, there’s no choice but to be oneself. That to do a job well requires selfless contribution to the group. That resilience is the only way to get through these tough days. That a sense of accomplishment is the best medicine for low self-esteem. Out here, there’s no such thing as ADHD.

Afterword

The Future of the Plains (and Youth)
Adolescence is a ripe time. The self separates from its immediate reality to wonder about its larger place in the world - the whole search for identity thing. As such, it’s a time of great formation. The people in adolescents’ lives, then, can play a vital role in guiding that self-realization. Much of that depends on the messages we provide them.

Perhaps our biggest message is empathy and respect for others. Why can’t we see that respect for Homo sapiens includes respect for the landscape in which it dwells? Animals and plants in abundance and diversity indicate a healthy ecosystem. A well-functioning ecosystem, in turn, provides us essential services like filtering and storing rain, building and retaining soil, buffering floods, storing carbon, and recycling nutrients, to name a few. The American Prairie Reserve touches the Missouri River, the longest on our continent. With its more famous confluence, the Mississippi, their waters drain almost half our lower 48. In the process, they end up on our crops, our lawns, our mouths.

Yet what makes us human is not material. Our big brain lets us solve, debate, dream, and love. It yearns for a sense of wonder. I was fortunate to sense wonder during my week on the Montana plains. That was in a place considered deficient still. Imagine, then, the wonder that can be achieved if we bring the Plains - part of it, at least - back to their previous splendor. An incipient bison herd morphs into a shifting mosaic of shapes and colors unto the yellowed horizon. Spotted amongst these elk, deer, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep are predators hunting their next meal. The wolves and mountain lions send their victory songs into the night sky. Grizzlies growl scrappy coyotes off the remaining kill. Raptors swoop air in search of things scooting and slithering. Toads croak, fowl honk, and dragonflies dart the ephemeral ponds that pockmark the spring Plains. In the end, it’s this wonder that will inspire upcoming generations to finish the task that my crew of rascals started.

​​Daniel Ramirez's work has appeared in Google Drive and is forthcoming in
c:\Documents\ShortStories\2018\rejected. It’s been acclaimed by his mother and sophomore English teacher. His magnum opus is the grocery store application the HR person told him was "the most creative application I've ever seen." He didn't get that job. He does have a job teaching kids near Austin, Texas though.

* * *
Flash

The Angel's Death Knell
By Lisa Fox 

Twilight crept over a weary sky, beckoning the night to awaken. Death had gone missing in the graveyard, and Charmeine was tasked with finding him.
 
She tapped long, alabaster fingers atop the cold granite crypt, thinking. Paschar was last seen kicking tumbleweed through the field of crumbling, nameless headstones, dragging his scythe, leaving singed grass behind him. But why would he be here? He was the only Death Angel in his ranks with an aversion to cemeteries (rotting wastelands, he called them, recycling centers for bones). And why now?
 
Charmeine scanned the landscape, awash with overgrowth and marble and wilting roses. Decaying leaves blanketed the monuments of those who had moved beyond – many of whom had taken their last steps, their first steps, guided by Paschar’s loving hand.
 
Under Paschar’s watch, no one ever languished in wait for death. He stood waiting to catch the final, icy breath of his charges, to infuse them with warmth from the moment of their transition. His cloak was a hearth, his scent like June rain, his blue eyes a beacon. A good concierge, Paschar accommodated all their final whims – daffodils sprouting in the snow, butterflies fluttering with a goodbye kiss, blustery windstorms to announce the start of a journey onward.
 
A scrawny rat scurried across Charmeine’s feet. She recoiled. Wasteland indeed. How she wished Paschar would materialize! As a Death Angel, he was everywhere and nowhere, proximal and distant –  like a lone snowflake pushing through a blizzard. Which is what made his absence so palpable.
 
Merciful Death, he would never forsake the souls assigned to his care. Of that, Charmeine was certain.
 
She paced, her mauve satin cape fluttering in the autumn breeze, brittle fallen leaves crackling around her. Owls hooted in the distance in unison with a howling coyote, its mournful cry heralding the rising moon and, Charmeine thought, perhaps something more.
 
She floated across the decaying terrain toward the creatures’ siren and found the missing angel slumped against a mausoleum wall, ivy falling over him like a shroud. A spider scurried across his shoulder, stumbling over the folds of his royal blue cloak. Elbows resting upon his knees, he peeled the bark from twigs and snapped them in succession, tossing the jagged wood to the side. His scythe lay discarded, like the toy of a fickle child.
 
“Paschar.” Peel. Snap. Toss. “Why are you here?”
 
Paschar pulled his cloak around him tight, settling deeper into his cocoon. He closed his eyes, ignoring both Charmeine’s question and the luminosity she cast over the shadows.
 
She inhaled deeply, repeating her query.
 
Silence.
 
Charmeine regarded the scythe laying in the dust. “What’s this?” she asked, extending her hand toward Death’s unwanted tool. The blade glimmered under her gaze, as if awakening, and the scythe floated toward her. She tapped Paschar’s shoulder with the pointed end; his body jerked as a blue arc flashed between Death and his abandoned weapon.
 
The angel lifted his head. Paschar’s gaze attempted defiance, almost shielding his evident sadness.
 
Charmeine crouched down, her cloak blanketing the crunchy grass as she allowed the scythe to fall on her lap. “Paschar,” she whispered, her voice velvet. “What’s happened to you?”
 
Paschar winced, his expression waffling between a smile and a frown. “Don’t you find it amusing,” he said, chuckling softly. “An Angel of Mercy delivering a death knell to an Angel of Death?”
 
“The Master is worried about you, Paschar. I’m worried. This,” she waved her hand in disdain, “is not you. You don’t belong here.”
 
“I am an Angel of Death. Perhaps this is where I should be.” Paschar sighed, his shoulders dropping. Charmeine noticed hints of grey faulting his chestnut hair, tiny lines etching the corners of his eyes. The Angel of Death had aged.
 
“The journey’s changed, Charmeine.” He retrieved another twig from the ground, bending it until it snapped. “Death has changed. Perhaps I have, too.”
 
Paschar tossed the broken pieces. “I walked away – I came here – after my last charge forced me to use that.” He gestured toward the sickle resting across Charmeine’s lap. “I hadn’t touched it since my fledgling days.”
 
“Oh, Paschar …”
 
“His soul was cold, Charmeine. Colder than hell. I offered him mercy and warmth; he countered with chaos and pain.”
 
She reached out to him. “This is not your fault. Some souls struggle to separate the wheat from the chaff at the end, you know that from your training….”
 
“In his eyes, I was simply a thief, robbing him of the life he knew. And he attacked me for it.” Paschar wrung his hands together, his brow crinkling. “I took this job to bring peace and comfort to those embarking on the most amazing journey of their existence. But, I can’t do that without their trust. I’m not sure I belong here anymore.”
 
Charmeine sighed and laid her hand upon Paschar’s shoulder. “You are an old soul, my friend. You’re white-glove service. Handwritten love letters. Lemonade on the front porch. Dressing for church on Sundays. An emissary to simpler times.”
 
“Better times.”
 
Charmeine shook her head. “Different times. But it is your obligation to carry the charges assigned to you into the afterlife, as wild and manic as they might be. You cannot choose them.” She took his hand. “Just as I have no choice over the fallen angels assigned to my watch.”
 
Paschar nodded, his jaw tightening.
 
Charmeine moved the scythe from her lap and leaned in, breathing the sweet summer storm that was Paschar. She brushed her lips across his forehead.
 
“On behalf of the Maker,” she murmured, “I relieve you of your duty.” She retrieved the scythe, tracing a circle in the air above Paschar’s head. The tip of the blade sliced a hole in the night and a halo rose through, crowning Paschar in celestial light.
 
Paschar smiled. He faded in a beam of bursting radiance that bathed the cemetery in the warmth of a summer sunrise.
 
“Go in peace,” Charmeine whispered.

Lisa Fox is a pharmaceutical market researcher by day and writer by night. Her short fiction has appeared here. Lisa resides in northern New Jersey with her husband, two sons, and over-sized dog, and relishes the chaos of everyday suburban life.

* * *

Heliotrope
By Karin Gall

I was polishing and cleaning my gun in the living room when it happened. The 9-millimeter
Glock sat disassembled on the pine coffee table in front of me. Cotton cleaning patches lay on
the couch to the right of me and a bottle of cleaning fluid on the left. The bottle was open, and I
was careful not to shift my weight.

“Darby, what are you doing? That’s my new couch!”

“It’s to use isn’t it?”

My wife swished further into the room in a scarlet dress. I eyed her appreciatively and then went
back to my work. She looked pretty good for an old broad.

“Now, don’t bitch at me. I’m almost done. I’ll clean it up.”

“What about dinner?”

“What about it?”

“I thought we were celebrating our anniversary tonight.”

“We will. There’s no hurry.”

I put the pieces of the gun together, popped in a magazine, and racked the slide so the first round
loaded into the chamber. I placed it into my right hand hefting its weight.

“Don’t move,” she said. “That bottle’s about to spill.”

She rushed forward and tried to grab it. Her leg bumped against the cushion, and the fluid spilled
across the purple velour of the couch.

“My beautiful couch. Just once I’d like to have something you haven’t ruined.”

“Really?” I looked at her again. Her face turned bright red, its smooth features twisted into a
snarl.

With a huff, she grabbed at the gun.

“Give me that. I’m going to donate it to the police auction.”

“Leave it alone.”

I pushed her away with my left hand and tried to twist out of her reach. As I
raised myself from the couch, my right knee gave away. Shards of pain radiated throughout the
area. Damn thing. Grown men shouldn’t play football with the guys.

“Now look, you’ve hurt me,” I said.

My wife grabbed the barrel levering it upward toward her. My hand scrabbled for a better grip on
the gun. As I landed backward on the couch my finger pulled against the trigger. The gun fired,
and a bullet lodged into her midsection. Her sapphire eyes widened as she slumped to the floor.

“Damn it, Mavis. I told you not to touch the gun.”

***

When the police arrived, I babbled an explanation of how it happened.
“It was an accident. I have the gun for protection. It’s registered.”

The officers gave me a long look, and when I showed them the stain on the cushion, they nodded
and stared. The older officer, a pock-faced guy, called the station and within the hour two
detectives and two forensic technicians arrived. One of the techs took pictures of my wife’s body
and everything else in the room.

“But why did you take the safety off the gun?” asked the second detective, a scrub-faced
youngster who looked to be new to the force.

“Glocks don’t have safeties that switch off. And besides, I was going to practice shooting in the
garage.”

I showed them the practice target I had set up in the detached barn that we used to park our cars.
After we walked back to the house, my wife was officially declared dead, and her body was
loaded into an ambulance to be transported to the morgue.The detectives shuffled toward the front door.

“We’ll have more questions in the morning. We’re sorry for your loss.”

I swallowed and whispered, “Thank you.”

After they left, I put away the cleaning supplies. The detectives had taken the gun with them for
testing or so they claimed. I eyed the couch cushion, shuddered, and wondered if I should try to
clean it. In the end, I decided to turn it over.

“See Mavis,” I said, “the couch looks good as new. But we’re going to need another area rug.”

A dark red stain covered the lilac roses where her body had fallen.

“For once it wasn’t me that made the mess on the floor. What do you say to that, Mavis? Mavis,
can you hear me?”

Silence. Only the smell of copper answered.

Karin Gall is a writer based in the Midwestern area of the United States. Her recent work has been published in "Page and Spine," "Arkana," "Brilliant Flash Fiction," and has been included in anthologies. She was a finalist in the U.K.’s Creative Writing Ink Journal Competition in 2016.

* * * 

Everyone's Favorite Couple
By Jeff H.

“I love you my honey.”

“I love you my bunny.”

This is what James and Della said every night as they got ready for bed. Then, instead of
counting sheep, they listed all the times they’d made each other smile throughout the day. Each
happy moment was accompanied by an “aww” and a kiss.

It was enough to make the normal person vomit.

On Valentine’s Day, James performed a ballad for Della that he’d written himself. It was a great
surprise, because she didn’t know he’d been taking mandolin lessons. For Valentine’s Day, Della
gave James a portrait—life-sized—which she painted herself. If you looked closely you could
see the brush strokes were actually words, recounting their first twenty dates, in size-three font.

James wallpapered the entire house on Della’s birthday, with a design taken from Della’s
“Hearts and Flowers” sketchbook. Della used gold leaf on James’ birthday to emboss all of the
books in his library. For Christmas, James got Della a beautiful comb, which he whittled and
lacquered himself. For the same, Della gave James a beautiful watch fob, which she hand-cast,
and when finished she destroyed the die so that the gift was completely unique.

No one ever spent time with James and Della; they made other couples feel insecure. James and
Della didn’t mind being solitary though—each was all the other needed.

One of the rare times they were social came when Della’s cousin Sydney had a wedding. “James
and Della?” Sydney asked her fiancé as they were making the guest list.

“Yeah, I guess we have to,” came the reply. “Though they make me sick.”

But it’s a good thing they invited the pair. The reception was outdoors, and for most of it James
and Della were alone, on top on a nearby hill. James had his head on Della’s lap and for hours
they identified clouds that reminded them of their favorite love songs.

Until a young niece ran up. “Aunt Porter needs you!” the girl cried.

“What’s wrong?” James asked.

“Is she OK?” Della inquired.

“Just come quickly!” the girl yelled, and she ran back to the gathering crowd below.

What had happened was little William had grabbed a toxic berry from a bush and swallowed it.
The wedding party called poison control, and were advised to make William throw up as soon as
possible. The party didn’t tell James and Della though—they just met the couple at the base of
the hill, and as William’s mother bounced her son nervously she asked James and Della to
recount the moment they each knew the other was the one.

“I thought you didn’t like that story,” James said.

“And tell it now? When little William looks so pale?” Della asked.

“Please!” William’s mother implored. “It’s, um, a wonderful story!” The surrounding crowd of
relatives murmured and nodded their heads frantically.

James and Della exchanged glances, then Della began. “I knew he was the one—”

“And I knew she was the one—”

“—from the very first time we saw each other,” they recited together. “It was at a bicycle shop in
Paris, and we both wanted to tour the city on a tandem. But neither of us had anyone to ride with!
That was, however, until we noticed that we were each wearing matching berets, and then our
eyes met...”

Five minutes into the story little William evacuated his stomach, and quickly after the color
returned to his cheeks. Ten minutes later he was playing as if nothing had happened, and with
sighs of relief the crowd dispersed. James and Della were left telling their story to no one, but
they didn’t notice. They kept recounting until the sun set, whereupon they went inside and gave
each other foot rubs while making a list of names for future children, of which they would have
sixteen, God willing.

Jeff H. is a high school English teacher. He’s working on making short fiction and runs a website with his wife, which can be found here. They write about cooking, writing, and everything else. Hopefully, they are nothing like the couple in this story.

* * *
Kissing Days
By Hannah Lackoff 

On the night before my wedding we played a game.
 
“I dare you,” said Mara, “to kiss whomever you want.”  She held an empty wine bottle but didn’t spin it.
 
“Okay,” I said.  I blushed.  I was what my parents had called, when they thought I couldn’t hear them, a late bloomer.  I had only kissed a handful of other people before I met my about-to-be husband.  My kissing days were over.
 
Tom was next to me and I turned to him, pursed my lips like a cartoon, the way they kissed on The Simpsons, the way we thought everyone kissed when we were kids.
 
“Uh-uh,” said Mara.  She twirled the bottle by its neck.  “You didn’t let me finish.  Kiss whomever you want except your fiance.”  She said it like it was a dirty word.
 
Tom groaned, I sighed.  Mara was my bad friend, a hanger on from my college freshman dorm who liked to tell everyone what a bad influence she had been on me and anyone else who lived on our hall.  She supplied everyone with alcohol and condoms whether they were going to use them or not, and proclaimed herself edgy and wild.  She was invited only because I felt guilty, because I knew she was really very lonely.
 
“Wooo!” Shouted Mara.  Tom’s sister, who had only met her the day before, cringed away from the sound and rolled her eyes at me.
 
“I pick Katie,” I said, and Tom looked visibly relieved as his sister stood up.
 
“No,” Mara was still talking.  “It has to be another boy.  It can’t be Tom and it can’t be a girl.  Don’t you know how this works?”
 
I did not.  As far as I could tell she was making the whole thing up as she went along.
 
“All right,” said Tom, “That’s enough.  I think it’s time we were turning in anyway.  Tomorrow’s a big day.”
 
The girl on Mara’s other side snorted into her palm.  Her name was Andrea but-I-only-answer-to-Dre, and she was Mara’s uninvited plus one.  She claimed to remember me from freshman year, but as far as I could tell she had not gone to our school and I had never seen her before.
 
“Come on,” said Mara, “You didn’t invite me to your bachelorette.  You owe me.”
 
“This is exactly why she didn’t invite you,” said Becca.  “Because she knew you’d pull some shit like this.”
 
My bachelorette had consisted of Becca and I and four other women hiking through the woods to a rustic cabin with no electricity or running water and spending the night drinking beer and roasting marshmallows.  There were no strippers, no penis balloons, no glitter.  No Mara.
 
“Sow your wild oats!” Cried Mara.  She planted a sloppy kiss on Dre, and I wondered if they were a couple.  It was hard to tell.  She began to sing All The Single Ladies and she and Dre twisted their hands to show their non rings.
 
“We’re going to sing this til you choose someone!”  She called out between verses.  Tom's cousin and his wife got up and left the circle, making excuses.  I wanted to join them.
 
“Okay,” said Tom and Mara and Dre cheered.
 
“Okay?”  I said.
 
“Just make it stop,” said Tom, looking at me in that way, "Please."
 
Mara and Dre started singing again.  Tom put his head in his hands.  I sipped my cheap champagne.
 
“Tom,” I said, “Who will offend you the least?”  He didn’t answer or uncover his eyes.
 
I looked around the circle of all our nearests and dearests and Maras.  There weren’t many.  I decided to rule out the non single men- boys– no need to bring anyone else into Mara’s drama.  I ruled out family members, and that only left Chuck, Stevie, and Raj.  No one made eye contact with me.  No one wanted to kiss the bride.
 
I stood up.  My new silk dress clung to the back of my thighs.  Stevie was twelve.  I was not choosing him.
 
I knelt before Raj, in my green pre wedding dress.  A man who I would not be kissing tomorrow at our makeshift altar in the woods of my childhood home.  I held his face and closed my eyes.  I could feel stubble under his chin that he had missed shaving.  The water here was cold and hard, he probably had done a hurried job.  I pressed my lips against his, gently, like I was kissing a butterfly.  His breath sped up and he swallowed under my thumbs.  Mara and Dre screamed like wild animals behind me and before we let go our tongues touched, once, then again, and his hands on my ribcage pushed me softly back.
 
Tom pulled me to my feet.  My head spun. 
 
“Okay,” he said, to me, to the circle, “Goodnight.”
 
He led me to our cabin, kissed me at the entrance.  My mouth tasted of Raj, of the beer he’d drunk, of the aftershave beside his mouth, of all the people I would never kiss, all the people who were not Tom.

Hannah Lackoff has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice and the storySouth Million Writers Award and has been seen in Flapperhouse, Spark, Psychopomp, Bourbon Penn and more.  Look for her short story collection "After the World Ended" and visit her here.

* * *

Hemp Milk
By Savannah Slone

The morning after, her parents were sitting at the dining room table eating breakfast. A plate of eggs, hash browns, and toast sat at her assigned placemat.
 
“There’s coffee made.” Her mom pointed toward the coffee machine. 
 
Eleanor looked out through the slots between the blinds of the kitchen window. They were nearly shut, but she could still see their green grass being watered by the sprinkler. There was no reason for them to be watering the grass when it had already rained earlier. Eleanor didn’t question their careless spending. Her parents had grown up in very poor families in Brazil before gaining citizenship in the U.S. and getting the education that their parents had never received. Elaine began tapping her fingers, one at a time, beginning with her pinky and ending with her pointer. The tapping drew Eleanor back to them. She poured herself a cup of coffee before returning to the table. Her dad cleared his throat.
 
“We need to talk about what happened last night,” he said, matter-of-factly.
 
“Yes, we’re both very confused, honey,” her mom chimed in. “We’re worried about you.”
 
The evening before, Eleanor bit the insides of her cheek raw, as she continued clutching the too-hot mug that was burning her palms.
 
“Is your chai organic?” Asked the next customer in line. His blonde dreadlocks were pulled back in a man bun. One lock lay loose against his tan hoodie, which read “I Don’t Eat My Friends” in kale green ink.
 
“Um, let me check,” Eleanor responded. The line outside of the coffee stand grew longer by the minute as she picked up the box of Oregon Chai. She rolled her eyes and exhaled irritably as she read the box. She scanned the ingredients for a word that indicated its naturalness. His continued talking blurred into a hum. She found the word she was searching for. “Yes, it is organic!”
 
“Great! Now, what are your alternative milk options?” He rotated his head around in search of a milk list. Eleanor pointed down, the only place he hadn’t looked, where a miniature poster was tacked up, listing the 12 non-dairy selections. He rubbed his chin, where a slight goatee dwelled.
 
“I’ll have a 12-ounce chai tea latte with hemp milk.”
 
She laughed, “We call those Cheech and Chong chais.”

He exhaled a hefty chuckle. “I love that.”
 
She got to work on his drink while taking the order of the next person in line.
 
He lifted his cup to take a sip of his chai while she retrieved his change from the cash register. She looked out the window and noticed that the sun had set, at last, accompanied by a light sprinkling. It transformed from summer day to dreary night in minutes. “This was made with hemp milk, right?”
 
In a hurry to help the others in the long line, Eleanor responded, “Yep, you had the Cheech and Chong chai!” She couldn’t remember whether or not she had used the hemp milk or the whole milk that she had out for the other drinks. Had I used hemp or whole milk? Was this guy a health nut? So what if he didn’t have his politically correct drink just this once? He took a large gulp as she handed him his dimes and pennies. The change cascaded from her hand into his. As the final penny dropped slowly into his palm, the coughing began. His drink slipped through his hand and splattered across the concrete. His face grew scarlet as he struggled for breath. A hefty man with a backward-facing baseball cap shouted something about “anaphylaxis”. A 30-something woman with a blonde ponytail reached around in his pockets, in search of an EpiPen, without luck. One customer called 9-1-1, while the backward-baseball-cap wearer attempted CPR.
 
“Why are you just standing there?” Shouted another man in line at Eleanor. She rolled her eyes and picked up the phone, waving it at him sarcastically. She dialed her boss’s number and let him know that a customer was having an allergic reaction and that he should probably come. The blonde woman searched through the unconscious man’s car and returned with an EpiPen that she found in his glove compartment. The man in the backward baseball cap looked up at her and trembled, “He’s gone.”
 
Eleanor replied coolly, “It’s okay, sir. The nearest hospital is 30 minutes away. He wouldn’t have made it anyway.” The ambulance arrived and hauled his body away. Its flashing red lights faded into the distance, as the rain grew heavier. Eleanor was cleaning up the espresso machine as a mother comforted her two sobbing children under the coffee stand’s attached awning.
 
“Sorry about that, everyone. Who’s next?” She plastered on a phony smile, just as she always did when taking someone’s order. The few remaining looked up at her, simultaneously, with horror-stricken looks across their faces. She raised her eyebrows as they all went to their cars.
 
The woman who had found the EpiPen grimaced at her as she left. “What is wrong with you?” She asked.
 
Eleanor didn’t expect her antisocial behavior disorder to affect her job performance, but that woman looked at her like the emotionless monster everyone always saw her as. She wished she hadn’t responded to her childhood trauma in the anesthetized way that she did.
 
Eleanor didn’t remember driving home from Dr. Righe’s office the afternoon she received her diagnosis. She didn’t remember the piercing shrieks she expelled as she ripped a photo off of the hallway wall and tossed it onto the floor. She didn’t remember her mom gluing the framed photo of her and her brother back together. She didn’t remember telling her parents about the years of familial rape that took place in their home, prior to their son’s tragic car accident. Now a man died right at her feet and she couldn’t even bat an eye. 

Savannah Slone is a queer writer who is completing her M.F.A. in the Pacific Northwest. Her work has appeared in or will soon appear in Heavy Feather Review, Boston Accent Lit, The Airgonaut, Ghost City Press, decomP magazine, Maudlin House, FIVE:2:ONE, and elsewhere.

* * * 

Waiting Line
By Ana Vidosavljevic

Waiting in a line...dozens of people in front of her. They were sweating. Someone had even
farted. Samantha thought that it was a sign to give up and come some other day. Or maybe the
universe was testing her how long she could stand this waiting.
“Are these lines the last few weeks some kind of reminder to that awful life I led once?”
This thought crossed her mind.


Samantha thought about that dirty little street she had lived on for few years. She
remembered muddy ponds and stray dogs and how she and many other homeless children had
played there. And those waiting lines...


Whenever some nice people who brought food came in a van full of beef and beans cans,
biscuits, bread, candies, juices, all the children formed a line in front of it. Their hungry eyes were
devouring everything that came out of that van. The saliva was coming out from their mouths and
their skinny bodies were shaking in excitement that they would have a feast soon.


She remembered that after getting the food, she would hurry to open almost everything she
had had and start eating impatiently whatever she had grabbed. She would open a beef can and
biscuits at the same time and hurriedly grab a few scoops of meat. And before swallowing the meat
she would start eating greedily those biscuits which had tasted heavenly.


Samantha tried those same biscuits many years after. While walking along the Oak Tree
street, somewhere between the Block 77 and the Art Museum, she spotted a tiny store and those
same biscuits on its shelves. She bought a packet of biscuits, walked to the park nearby, sat on a
bench and opened the packet. First, she was scared to try those biscuits. She was scared to be
reminded to those ghastly years on the street. At the same time, something pushed her to eat the
biscuits and remember their heavenly taste. But after the first bite she got disappointed. The biscuits
were pretty blunt and tasteless. After the first biscuit, she tried one more hoping that the second
biscuit would taste better. But it didn't. She stood up, went to the garbage bin and threw away the
rest of the biscuits. Later, while walking down the Nikola Tesla's street, she thought that maybe the
biscuits had tasted the same way as they had so many years ago. Maybe she had just unconsciously
buried their heavenly taste somewhere deep inside and didn't want it to come back again. The same
way, she didn't like remembering the years on the street. She wanted to forget them.


And again waiting lines. They often appeared. She waited in a line to get her ID card,
passport, driving license, birth certificate and now bank account. But these lines were different. No
muddy ponds and stray dogs. No hungry children's mouths and dribbling saliva. She was not on the
street but inside a building which marble floor was so clean that she could see her reflection. Yes,
the people in the line were sweating and farting but what was it comparing to the lines formed by
famished children?


She decided. No giving up on this line. Even if it takes few more hours.

Ana Vidosavljevic is from Serbia and is currently living in Indonesia. She has her work published or forthcoming in Down in the Dirt (Scar Publications), Literary Yard, RYL (Refresh Your Life), The Caterpillar, The Curlew, Eskimo Pie, Coldnoon, The Raven Chronicles, Perspectives, Indiana Voice Journal, Setu Bilingual Journal. She worked on a GIEE 2011 project: Gender and Interdisciplinary Education for Engineers 2011 as a memeber of the Intitute Mihailo Pupin team. She also attended the International Conference “Bullying and Abuse of Power” in November, 2010, in Prague, Czech Republic, where she presented her paper: “Cultural intolerance”.

* * *
Art

Shapes by Norma Alonzo

Norma Alonzo has always taken her painting life seriously, albeit privately. An extraordinarily accomplished artist, she has been painting for over 25 years. Beginning as a landscape painter, she quickly transitioned to an immersion in all genres to experiment and learn. Prestigious global exhibitions include: International Museum of Art, Texas; The Royal Institute of Oil Painters, London; The Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art, Wisconsin; Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, CA and a U.S. Embassy residence in Windhoek, Namibia.









 
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Illusion by Julia Forrest

Julia Forrest is a Brooklyn based artist. She works strictly in film and prints in a darkroom she built within her apartment. Her own art has always been her top priority in life and in this digital world, she will continue to work with old processing. Anything can simply be done in photoshop, she prefers to take the camera, a tool of showing reality, and experiment with what she can do in front of the lens.



















 
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Spring by Bette Ridgeway

Over four decades Bette Ridgeway has exhibited globally with 80+ prestigious venues, including: Palais Royale, Paris and Embassy of Madagascar. Awards include Top 60 Contemporary Masters and Leonardo DaVinci Prize. Mayo Clinic and Federal Reserve Bank top Ridgeway’s permanent collections. Books include: International Contemporary Masters and 100 Famous Contemporary Artists.






 
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Passages and Landscapes by Catherine Eaton Skinner

Catherine Eaton Skinner grew up in the Pacific Northwest surrounded by the fresh and salt waters, majestic mountains, and old growth forests. She received her BA in Biology from Stanford University while simultaneously studying painting with Bay Area Figurative painters Nathan Oliveira and Frank Lobdell. Working 20 years as a biological illustrator, Skinner specialized in the ecological integration of marine invertebrates and algae of the Pacific Coast. She presently divides her time between her studios in Seattle and Santa Fe, working as a multidisciplinary artist: painting, encaustic, photography, printmaking and sculpture.
















 
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Polaroids by Roi Tamkin

Roi J Tamkin is a writer and photographer living in Atlanta, GA. His photography has been published in such literary magazines as Folio, New Letters and Nimrod. He was recently published in RiverSedge. His photos are also exhibited at galleries across the country. He writes articles about different world cultures for Skipping Stones Magazine and essays and music reviews. 















 
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6 collages by Bill Wolak

Bill Wolak has just published his fifteenth book of poetry entitled The Nakedness Defense with Ekstasis Editions. His collages have appeared recently in Naked in New Hope 2017, The 2017 Seattle Erotic Art Festival, Poetic Illusion, The Riverside Gallery, Hackensack, NJ, and the 2018 Dirty Show in Detroit.










 
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