“Cactus” by Foster Trecost

Cow Hit by Lightning (Cactus)
“Cow Hit by Lightning” by Pam Brodersen

I counted telephone poles and the seconds between them. The highway cut straight through the sand, and it seemed the road would never end. No curves. No hills. Just poles.

I’m not sure when she changed. After kids, I guess. She rarely smiled, joked even less. I watched her drive. Not even a blink. Just an arid stare, dry like the desert, alone like a cactus. I wanted to say something, but I knew she just wanted to drive, to hide behind the wheel, an excuse to concentrate, a reason to focus on something other than me. Maybe I had changed, too. I went back to the poles.

She once asked me to keep her young. “There’s not much I can do about aging,” I said. So she asked me to keep her youthful. “That, I can try.” And so came the days when everyone we saw became someone else. We spent hours inventing stories about people, who they were, what their lives were like. She later told me she got the idea from a Simon and Garfunkel song. “See that woman over there,” she said in a grocery store checkout line. “She’s having an affair with her tango instructor. Her husband knows it, too. But he’s sleeping with his secretary.” She looked at me, and waited for what I would say.

“Do you think they know?” I asked.

“Know what?”

“Do you think they know her tango instructor is married to his secretary?”

She kissed me, right there in the checkout line, for a long time.

I tired of the poles and wanted to turn on the radio, but figured no stations were in reach. I also figured she’d turn it off if I found one. I wanted to talk, or break something.

I must have dozed off because I don’t remember stopping. I woke to an empty car, still running, her door open. I jumped out, looked around, and found her standing in the sand some ways away. I walked to where she was, but let her speak first. She stood in front of a cactus, prickly in bloom.

“They’re spies,” she said.

I waited.

“They’re spies from another planet, sent here to watch us. See those flowers,” she said. “Those flowers aren’t really flowers.”

It was my turn. “No, they’re not. They’re communication devices used to send information back to their home planet. Information they gathered throughout the year.”

“Yes,” she said. “That’s what they are. Communication devices.”

I wanted to ask where she’d gone, but instead I kissed her for a long time.

 

 

Foster Trecost writes stories that are mostly made up. They tend to follow his attention span: sometimes short, and sometimes very short. He lives in New Orleans.

 

“Requiem XIV” by Ekweremadu Uchenna-Franklin

Birds on a Line (Requiem)
“Birds on a Line” by Pam Brodersen

Dear mother hen
I dreamt you’re now gold-plated
angel-winged
and ruby-hearted

I dreamt you’re now a nanny
in heaven’s nursery
tending cherubs
as you had done back here
as ever
there’d be no sweeter song to your soul
than the chirps of those tender lights

pray tell
did the choirmaster make it to heaven
whose fiery voice
spurred weaklings to dare death
and melted iron hearts to tears

is our rich uncle smouldering in hell
who embarned tons of grains for thankless weevils
while you and I scavenged for crumbs
as you rode down the ever-busy new road

did you pause by the crossroad
to peep down the old alleyway
now overgrown by tall grass and spider web
did you spot our famished Patriarchs
costumed in sackcloth and ash
grieving our marriage to new Gods
who brook no rival, being jealous

 

 

Ekweremadu Uchenna-Franklin writes from Kaduna, Nigeria. He was Longlisted for the Erbacce Prize For Poetry 2015; he was the First Runner-up for PEN Nigeria/Saraba Magazine Poetry Prize 2011, and made it to the Book of Winners, Castello di Duino International Poetry Competition 2010. His works have appeared in Coe Review, The Write Room, Saraba Magazine, Wilderness House Literary, A&U American AIDS Magazine, Kalahari Review and elsewhere.

 

“Robbing Pillars” by Sheryl Monks

Robbing Pillars
“Down” by Penelope Breen

Maiden Estep leads the Red Hat into Number Six at Bear Town, where the mine starts. They walk at first, back to the crawl, miles deep inside, under the town of Grundy. Already, they have cut a strip in both directions, and soon they’ll be coming back through the middle, robbing pillars it’s called, the most danger any of them have been exposed to except the old guys, the robbing line and the dynamite guys. Maiden runs the scoop, loading what they dig and blast loose onto the conveyor that carries it out through the mountain and into the yard. A couple times a night, he climbs off the scoop and crawls along the belt throwing pieces back on that have fallen over, up and down the narrow gangway.

The Red Hat’s name is Charlie Hawkins, barely out of high school. Most of the men know him already. Got a little girl pregnant his junior year. Who hadn’t gotten a little girl pregnant at some point?

The kid’s tall, six-five or six, there abouts, and carries it all through the legs, not the trunk of his body as some men do. From the knee to his hip, he is nearly as tall as the mine is deep in this section, so the crawl behind Maiden is cumbersome.

“Don’t bow your back,” Maiden warns. “4160 running overhead.”

Maiden is only a White Hat himself. This is the first time he’s been part of robbing pillars, and he is uneasy, even though the actual pillar robbing is not his job. Once they’ve humped out the vein they’re working on, the robbers will come behind and start pulling the pillars, the mountain collapsing at their heels.

There is water standing in ruts along the crawl, which dampens the knees of their work pants. Occasionally they hear a drip, but once they travel deeper inside, the floor of the shaft becomes dry again. Visibility is only possible by the dim lights of their miners’ caps, powered by wet-cell batteries. Overhead, the 4160 hums in Maiden’s ears.

The only other thing so far that has spooked him is the blasting. When the dynamite men come in, the others hunker down where they are and protect themselves as best they can. The only real thing between them and fire-in-the-hole is prayer. Not even the unbelievers chance it. “Faith can move mountains,” the miners say. “Just pray like hell it don’t have to.”

A case of the nerves makes the Red Hat natter on about something or other behind Maiden. Baseball. Goose Gossage. Maiden has never watched a game of professional baseball or any other sport, on television or anywhere else, but he can’t imagine pulling for a player from New York City. He likes only westerns and war movies, though he doesn’t mention it to the Red Hat. Maiden lets him blather on, respectfully saying nothing, only occasionally issuing a calm reminder now and again about the current running overhead.

The Red Hat is having trouble, though, and somewhere deep in the pit of Maiden’s stomach he knows something’s going to happen. Something bad. It’s as if a ghost has suddenly whispered in his ear. His flesh crawls all over and he throws another piece of slab up onto the conveyor. Then he turns to look at the Red Hat, low-crawling for every penny he’s worth. Maiden thinks of learning to low-crawl himself at the boy’s age, nineteen or there abouts, in the army, basic training, under concertina wire, fake rounds fired overheard and only sporadically. Nothing nearly so dangerous at 4160. The Red Hat hasn’t thrown the first chunk of coal up onto the belt, but Maiden does not reprimand. The boy is scared. Maiden lets him prattle on.

“Got an aunt over here in Grundy,” the kid says. “Reckon we might be up under her house?”

Maiden doesn’t answer. Says only again, “Watch it there now.”

“Hard to say, I guess. Never know though. Could be we are. Right up under Jimmy’s old room. Jimmy’s gone off to Beckley. We got people there. Know anybody in Beckley? I knew this one girl from War, nearby you know, and buddy I’m telling you she was abou–.”

And then, just like that, Maiden sees things happen twice before his eyes. One version takes place quick. In an instant, he sees the Red Hat stretch forward with one arm, his head buried into the earth. Then he bows up for leverage to push off again. And just as he pitches back on one knee, he arches his spine and the wet strap of his mining belt draws too near the 4160 and sparks. “Oh, Lord!” the boy cries. “Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord!” Over and over and over while Maiden screams back down through the shaft that a man has gotten tangled up in the wire. “Kill the switch!” Maiden screams. “Cut the goddamn juice! A man’s hit! A man’s hit! Good, Jesus, a man’s hit!”

“Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord!” the Red Hat seems to say, even though he is a puddle of flesh, melting like cheese in the damp but smelling of meat. Maiden knows he’s dead, but the kid keeps talking and Maiden just lies there, waiting helplessly as he was taught to do in miners’ school. He does not extend a hand. He doesn’t rush to the boy’s side, though the urge to is overpowering and Maiden just screams his guts out and cries for God in heaven to have mercy. He’s just a kid. Nineteen. Twenty at most. A big, gangly-legged kid whose knee caps have been blown off. “Jesus! Oh, Jesus! Hurry the fuck up down there!” Maiden calls again and again before the power is thrown and the Red Hat stops chattering.

~

In the other version, Maiden had seen a ghost behind the Red Hat. Some kind of phantom. A wisp or something. It was blurry but distinct enough that Maiden had fixed his gaze upon it while the kid had talked on and on about his cousin Jimmy going off to Beckley. Maiden’s wife begs him every night to quit. Number Six is about to shut down soon anyway, she tells him. When Maiden dons his carbide light and packs his dinner bucket with water and leftovers, she resorts to threats, name-calling. Maiden, you sonofabitch! Maiden! Maiden! He lets her speak her peace. Goes on to work. Someone has to run the scoop.

Today they are coming back up the middle, robbing all the pillars. Number Six will chase them tunnel by tunnel as they pull timbers and wait for the roof to collapse one room at a time so they can mine the fall. That’s money standing there, supporting the roof, and the company wants every square inch.

The Red Hat is not the first man Maiden has known about dying, nor the only one he’s witnessed firsthand. Parmelai Cline was caught between two cars on the tipple of a breaker. Clarence Price was killed by a rush of slush when water forced it out the gangway. Julius Reed was tamping a hole when powder in the tunnel exploded. During miners’ training, Maiden heard about men suffocating when they walked into pockets of gas, being struck by frozen slags of culm or being smothered by a rush of dirt working at the culm bank. Men had been run over by loaders, crushed by cave-ins when ribs gave way. They’d been burned, mangled by machinery, and electrocuted like Charlie, the young Red Hat.

When Maiden runs the scoop back through the shaft where the boy died, he wonders about the aunt’s house in Grundy and whether or not they had indeed been somewhere under it when the kid had gotten caught up in the wire. It’s risky, thinking about the dead so soon, if old wives’ tales are to be believed. Bad luck. Better if he thinks of something else, just in case, but the Red Hat consumes his thoughts. Goose What-was-his-name? And then the boy melting like a Popsicle before him. He wonders where the boy’s aunt might’ve been standing. Had she felt something, deep in the earth, some pull on her like a dowsing stick drawn by a vein of ground water?

The robbers begin taking out a few of the timbers as Maiden waits near the other room with the scoop and watches. Those remaining start to buckle under the weight of the roof, but the process isn’t as fast as he expects. The roof does not cave in immediately in order for them to load the fallen coal onto Maiden’s scoop and send it out into the yard. The robbers go one timber at a time, striking with their hammers, prying and shoving on each one until it kicks loose from the floor and the weight of the rock above their heads is redistributed to the others still standing. It’s a game of Russian roulette, no telling when the roof will fall, so they work slowly, pulling one timber and then watching, listening as the other supports begin to splinter and crack in the dark around them. There is nervous energy between the robbers. They talk casually together, laugh loudly, estimating if they should maybe pull another one. Watching by the dim torch of his carbide light becomes unbearable for Maiden. He can feel the weight pressing down on them, inch by inch, timbers slowly splintering and buckling all around, but still the roof is content to hold.

“Son-of-a-bitch,” one of the robbers says. “She ain’t budging. Run the scoop up here, hoss, and let’s see if we can shake this bitch loose.”

Maiden realizes he is being addressed, but still he hesitates. “What’s that?”

“Run the scoop this a’way and see if it don’t shake the ground just enough.”

All four of the men, including Maiden, are working on their stomachs. Whenever the roof does decide to fall, they won’t be able to run. The robbers can’t risk pulling out another timber. Maiden watches as they make their way toward him to the other room, a safe distance away from the shattering timbers. At least he has the scoop, which might be fast enough.

He wedges himself into the machine and drives forward cautiously as the robbers tell him how to proceed.

“Tap on that one right there,” says Arbury Massey. “Easy ought to do it, and then hightail it back.”

Goose Gossage was the ball player’s name, Maiden remembers. And then he is caught by a feeling of being drawn upward. He hears a low growl of thunder and looks around to see that the cap boards have begun to twist and rip. The watery contents of his stomach seem to rise like a wave in his diaphragm. But it’s not only that; the blood in his heart and veins pools at the top of his head, in both arms and legs.

The Red Hat’s aunt is standing directly over him, he realizes. Maiden closes his eyelids, lifts his face, and as the tears well in his eyes, they too are drawn up in streaks that wash the coal dust from his temples and over his forehead. The woman kneels to the floor and places her hand, just there, on his cheek. And then the earth rains down.

 

 

Sheryl Monks is the author of Monsters in Appalachia, published by Vandalia Press, an imprint of West Virginia University Press. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. Sheryl’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Electric Literature, The Butter, The Greensboro Review, storySouth, Regarding Arts and Letters, Night Train, and other journals, and in the anthologies Surreal South: Ghosts and Monsters and Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods: Contemporary West Virginia Fiction and Poetry, among others. She works for a peer-reviewed medical journal and edits the online literary magazine Change Seven. Visit her online at www.sherylmonks.com.

“Robbing Pillars” is excerpted from Monsters in Appalachia (Vandalia Press/WVU Press, 2016) and first appeared in Split Lip Magazine. It appears here, courtesy of the author.

“Controlled Delivery” by A.E. Weisgerber

Controlled Delivery
“Grassy Tracks” by Penelope Breen

Ben had to ask a favor. He needed one of Big Ed’s guys for some roll-off job, but when he stopped by Big’s, things seemed none too happy.

“He’s out in the warehouse.” The office girl’s head made tiny shakes and she kept it down in her screen. “Big’s moving boxes around.”

“Thanks, Bree.”

She swiveled to turn on the radio behind her, some droning medical show, and said to the world, “Tell him: no drums.”

When Big uses the forklift, drums wind up where crates should be. Foreman can’t locate orders for a week.

Big’s phone went straight to message. Ben followed forklift sounds and finally yelled, “Yo, Big Ed! Stop jerkin’ off!”

Big, in his bucket hat and Giants windbreaker, turned to look at Ben, then lowered the fork with a heavy sigh.

“How can you listen to that racket?”

Big stayed up in the seat looking down. He accepted a cigarette Ben offered and hit the off switch. “Thanks, Cuz.” Big took a puff and blew out smoke through his lips, his tinny voice followed it to the sodium light. “You know my nephew, that one that’s always asking for money?”

“Yeah. Nicky Cash? He was with you yesterday.”

“He didn’t show this morning. Found him dead in his apartment with a needle in his arm.” Big hooked his arm on the seatback, shrugged his shoulders, and faced Ben. “It can hook you. Coke got me.”

Ben, nothing to say, counted boxes.

Big Ed lost his nose to coke. He had a rubber one for a while, some putty-looking fabrication. Docs did that thing where they grew a new nose on his forehead. He was hard to look at for a year or two. His warehouse called him The Fucking Nose. But his sea-monkey-growing nose finally got big enough that the docs carved it out, left a hinge, and flipped it down. It’s still not right. His one leg dangled off the side of the lift. He was wearing old man Velcros. Big was quiet. Ben let him smoke in peace.

Big offered, “What’s going on?”

Ben put the favor on the back burner, put his foot up on the wheel. “I’ll tell you what’s going on,” Ben leaned forward on his arm. “It’s the doctors. Remember when I had a backache? I was up to three Tylenols for breakfast and three for lunch. Va fanacul, my back was bothering me. You remember that? Right around when you bought out Garcia. You had me keeping an eye on that new fucking guy.” Ben snapped his fingers thinking. “What was his name? Eyebrows?”

“Yeah. I remember Eyebrows.” Big closed his eyes.

“So I went to my doctor and said ‘Hey, I got a pain.’ He says, ‘Take these.’ So I took them. They were okay. I was feeling good. And then I ran out of pills and my scrip was done. I got some kinda flu. I couldn’t get out of bed. I told Lisa not to leave the house I was afraid I was dying.”

“Fucking flu,” Big Ed said.

“Here’s the thing. The fucking thing is, it wasn’t the flu. I went to the doctor and said ‘Hey, I got a flu and my back hurts again.’ He said ‘You’re addicted to those pills. When’s the last time you had one? I can give you something else to get you off the opioids.’ I said, ‘I’m addicted?’ So I jacked him up.” Big Ed opened one eye. “I grabbed him by the throat and jacked him up on the wall and said ‘Do you mean you turned me into a fucking junkie? I’m a fucking junkie now?’”

“Fucking docs,” Big Ed closed his eye.

“No more pills for me.” Ben pushed off the tire and stood up straight, offered the rest of the pack to Big Ed. “I’m sorry about Nicky. How’s your sister doing?”

“It’s a big weight. A child is a heavy thing.” He ground out the cigarette under the ball of his foot, pressed the button. The beeping resumed. Big lifted a drum.

 

 

A.E. Weisgerber’s work has been nominated for Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, and the Pushcart Prize. Recent fiction appearing in SmokeLong QuarterlyStructo MagazineThe CollapsarFLAPPERHOUSE, and Gravel. Recent non-fiction in The Alaska StarAlternating CurrentThe Review Review, and Change Seven. She reads for Wigleaf and Pithead Chapel, and is working on an illustrated storybook called “Lives of the Saints.” Follow her @aeweisgerber, or visit  http://anneweisgerber.com.

 

“The Magic Cure” by Karin Aurino

Magic Cure
“Botanically Seen” by Penelope Breen

I had to adjust the sharp points under my ass because when I sat down next to him, they poked me in places that made me jump back up. I met him on a school hayride, a thin boy whose sweet eyes and sparse facial hair contradicted a deep voice and big hands. He was two grades older than me and I liked looking up at those tangled brown eyebrows.

It felt like a magic cure. He snuck along a plastic water bottle filled with vodka and he passed it to me. It was my first time with a drink. It was homecoming so everyone was there, taking turns on that squeaky wagon as it bounced along the dirt path behind the football field in that cold air. The leaves on the trees were changing from green to yellow and red. He jabbed his tongue in my ear and I pretended to like it. I had to resist the urge to wipe away that wet spot that got colder and colder as we rode along. I could tell he wanted my virginity, but I let him know I wasn’t eager to give it up by squeezing my knees together for that whole bumpy ride. He made sure the bottle spent most of its time in front of me, in case I changed my mind. Then I passed out.

When I came back to life, the yellow hay poked me everywhere and had weaved its way into my hair. My friend Kaitlyn shook me awake and took me to the girls locker room. The rows and rows of lockers mixed with the stench of old damp sweat made me dizzy. We passed the warped wall mirror and I looked a sight—would’ve even without the carnival image. Kaitlyn told me to stick my fingers down my throat and push. She said I would sober up.

I washed my hands first because I knew where they’d been. My hair smelled like cows or horses did their business in that hay.

At first I put one finger on my tongue but quickly realized I needed to push two in deep to get the job done. I felt better after, like magic. Kaitlyn drove me home and my parents had no idea. They didn’t notice because they’re more like grandparents who only show up for the fun stuff. My mom is 60 years old and my dad is 70 with their loose clothing and squirrely Einstein hair. They had seven kids. On purpose. Who even does that?

Kaitlyn said the thin boy with a deep voice left after he got tired of picking at the drool crusted on my face at the hayride. I went looking for him next Monday at school and in front of the science lab he kissed me right on the mouth. He had on these ripped Lucky jeans and an Adidas t-shirt, and he said, “Hay, you.”

I laughed, and we became a couple just like that. His name was Jake, but I looked at those tight jeans and started calling him Lucky, because anyone will tell you that a senior going with a sophomore just doesn’t happen. I was lucky to have him, and the tag told me so.

We went to movies or hung out at my house. He always had one of those clear water bottles so I ended up puking a lot. Two fingers instead of one. My six siblings were never home and even when they were, they didn’t notice us. When I was ten my parents decided they didn’t like us anymore, so they took off on road trips in their new convertible. I think it was gray.

The day they left my mom made dinner for us and left it on the kitchen table while we ran around the neighbor’s yard playing Ghost in the Graveyard with our friends. The kitchen—that’s where we all used to eat breakfast together.

There was a note. My older sister, Rachel, read in a chipper voice as if it were good news, “Finally taking that vacay! Be back in a few days. Lots to eat in the fridge. Love, Mom and Dad.” Though Rachel read the note cheerfully, in my head I heard a sarcastic sneer.

The food was lukewarm and covered with flies. It was in the summer so the heat was unbearable. They hadn’t shut the screen door in their haste to get away. Over the years when they had talked about that “vacay,” I thought they meant for all of us—the whole family. Not just them.

Joey is the youngest. He was nine then. I could tell he was trying not to cry and when Nick, the oldest, said, “We can’t eat this shit now,” and started to dump the food into the trash, Joey grabbed one of the plates filled with that toxic dinner and ran into the bathroom, locking the door.

Rachel pleaded with him not to eat it, “You’ll get really sick! C’mon, we’ll order a pizza with all the stuff you like.” He wouldn’t come out.

Chloe is the annoying middle sister who looked it up online and said Joey was going to get TB or typhoid or leprosy. She said house flies transmit 65 diseases to humans. So we waited for Joey to die while our parents were livin’ it up on their vacay.

I had dinner at Lucky’s house, a stiff mansion straight out of The Great Gatsby, which I’ve watched a hundred times with Kaitlyn—the Leo version. The thought of going to senior prom with him, as an underclassman, was awesome. His family of four, older sister included, wasn’t free-spirited like mine. These were proper people with manners and a Pomeranian. Before dessert, I excused myself and locked the bathroom door. It was next to the dining room and I didn’t realize they could hear me hurl. I didn’t drink that night, but the food was so good my stomach felt huge, gross and ugly. It wasn’t a big deal. But the next day Lucky came to my locker at school and said, “I know you’re bulimic and you better cut that shit out.”

I shook my head and tried to change the subject, “I saw this pretty blue prom dress in Seventeen. You can get a matching tux.” He rolled his eyes. He said his sister used to be bulimic and she knew the signs. He seemed annoyed that she told him he should help me, maybe get me started in a program called BA. Whatever.

When I was little, we used to have these big family hugs in the mornings before everyone went to school or work. After my mom sizzled sausages and my dad flipped pancakes, someone would yell, “Bring it in!” No matter where we were in the house, everyone came running into the kitchen and squeezed together, like a football team after a big win. We never knew where we would end up in the pack. I always tried to wiggle in the middle, because there was nothing to feel but the bodies of my family.

Lucky said, “You embarrassed me in front of everybody. Don’t do it again.”

I suppose I had been throwing up a lot. It had been six months since the hayride and it was happening almost every day. I knew I had to do something because I still had my virginity and Lucky was losing patience. Senior prom was still weeks away. The idea of going with him felt important, as if proving to the world I was loved.

After my parents started their road trips, I used to wish I had cancer. I thought that would keep them home. I imagined them hovering above my sterile hospital bed with gifts and sympathetic smiles. I guess if I told them I had an eating disorder they would just tell me to stop. After all, I was doing it on purpose, wasn’t I? You can’t get cancer on purpose.

I didn’t want to lose my boyfriend. Kaitlyn suggested, “Stop drinking, then you have no reason to yuke.” It sounded so simple. So easy. So I tried. But Lucky was good at sneaking that vodka into the library at school and he liked to share it with me. Then we’d make out and I would let him feel me up in the Student Life Center. But after, I would always heave, and then at home I would heave again after frozen food night, which was all the time since Mom and Dad left.

Then we got caught at the football field under the aluminum bleachers by the vice principal with Lucky’s hand down my pants and grass stains on my cotton shirt. She grabbed his water bottle and smelled. Lucky smirked, so she stuck her finger in and put a drop on her tongue. Then she smirked. Detention for a week. Detention and community service for Lucky.

My parents happened to be in town and they actually showed up while I sat and waited in the VP’s office. On the car ride home they said the sex part didn’t bother them and my dad, no lie, pulled out a package of condoms. I said I wasn’t there yet and could he please put them away. Gross. They seemed relieved but they wanted to talk about the alcohol. Then they wanted to talk about the throwing up. They said Chloe knew.

Later that night the whole family came together in the kitchen, even the oldest ones who had moved out. All nine of us were there. They had organized an intervention, and they wanted to help me. There weren’t any gifts, but there were eight sympathetic smiles.

At first it was awkward. No one knew what to say. Then Chloe spoke up, “You don’t have to make yourself sick.” She liked to get right to the point. “You could die from doing that.”

My mother asked why and I said I didn’t know. But when my dad reached over and held my hand, words came spilling out as if I had put my fingers down my throat and threw them up. I told my parents they’d abandoned me. I told my siblings they’d forgotten me. I said we didn’t do things together anymore and no one was ever home. I said I didn’t understand how we could have such a big family, yet I felt so alone.

My mother cried. Rachel and Joey rubbed my back. Chloe was already on her computer. Nick punched me in the arm, and I pinched him back. When I asked if we could have some fresh food once in a while, like we used to, Mom grabbed a pad and pen and we all put a grocery list together. She wrote down things like vegetables and fruit, flour and sausage. Nick said he would come by and drive me to Eating Disorders Anonymous meetings on Saturdays. And according to Chloe it was called EDA or ABA for Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous—not BA. Or AA.

Then my dad asked what they could do to help make us feel like a family again. What would make me feel better, less lonely. They all wanted to know.

My parents said they were done with road trips for a while. Then I asked for that big family hug we used to do, and my dad said, “Bring it in!” I got to be in the middle without even trying. My heart blew open, and as I peeked through the cracks between our bodies, I saw our reflection in the kitchen window and there we were. A family.

 

 

Karin Aurino is an American writer of essays, short fiction, and a first novel, which draws on her former career as a fashion model. She worked in the entertainment industry for ICM, Paragon Ent., and was a Longform and Series Television Producer with Alexander/Enright. She is the recipient of residencies at Hedgebrook and Bread Loaf, and her fiction has received recognition from Glimmer Train. She is a member of The Woolf Pack, founded by the Humanitas Prize Foundation—empowering and nurturing writers. Karin lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children. You can follow Karin on Instagram and Twitter @KarinAurino

Read an interview with Karin here.

 

“Hunting” by Leland Seese

Hunting
“Ellis Island #5” by Penelope Breen

 

The one-time Eagle Scout spent the drive up to the mountains texting with his husband in their condo back in town. At the lodge the busker lit a fire in the woodstove with a single match and half a paper sack. A junkie in recovery started up a coffee pot to flow both day and night. We brought three pounds of French roast for the weekend to fortify the twelve of us. No beer. No scotch. No vodka. No cigars. Nothing that might tempt a single one to sacrifice sobriety. Throughout the weekend, scents of boyhood hunting trips, summer fishing expeditions, wood smoke, pine, and skunk cabbage, and memories. This one learned to field dress a deer from men who later passed out drunk in camp. Another told why God the Father isn’t comforting for those whose fathers beat them with a belt. Two call-ups to Afghanistan left a third one screaming in his bunk bed in the middle of the night. No one brought a shotgun or a rod and reel. Were we the first guests in this lodge to mourn the harm we’d done, or pray for opportunities to make amends, or fill the pot with meatless stew? And though we peppered conversation with our shits and fucks as men up in the mountains do, we shook our fists at all the ways the world had wounded us. Lying on our backs beneath the Milky Way, we trusted myriads of stars to understand as we drew out fears like little demons from the shadows near the dying fire, and let forgiveness stalk us, wild and unpredictable through the forest night.

 

 

Leland Seese’s poems have appeared in The Christian Century, The Nassau Review, The East Bay Review, and many other journals. He lives in Seattle, where he and his wife are foster-adoptive-biological parents of six children. Much of his work as a pastor involves work with homeless and immigrant communities.

 

“Glass Splinters” by Tyler Anne Whichard

Glass Splinters
Black Hand” by Penelope Breen

When his mother died, he didn’t cry. I guess he couldn’t find it in him. His eyes that teared up in every argument we ever had were dry at the wake, at the Sunday service, at the graveside, and for three months after that, too. Some people are just like that: all the mourning happens on the inside, and that’s fine. If anything, it’s worse for the people watching. My eyes followed him at the wake, at the Sunday service, at the graveside, and for three months after that. I felt like Noah building his arc even when everyone told him it wouldn’t rain. I had heard the same voice he had; we both knew a flood was coming.

~

One night, I found him alone in his room and he held his arms out to me with a look that reminded me of the glass his friend Eric shattered three parties before; I’m sure if someone looked hard enough, they could still find splinters of it in the corners of the room, under the lip of the lower cabinets.

The pretty girl he danced with went home and everyone who couldn’t drive fell asleep in random places throughout his house. I kept him on his side the entire night in case he got sick from all the alcohol and came to terms with the fact that I would be picking the splinters of him out of me for a very long time. He fell asleep and I wondered if he found what he was looking for there.

~

On the last night of a summer trip we went on, he sat outside in a little rocking chair; it was balanced against the wall so no one could tell it was broken at first glance. If it was sat in the right way, it didn’t give way beneath you. It was around two o’clock in the morning when I woke up and found him there, crying silently. He never spoke about his mother, but I knew who the tears were for.

“You’re always the one to find me,” he said with a breathy, not-funny sort of laugh.

“I’m always looking for you,” I said – only, come to think of it, I can’t remember if we ever said anything like that out loud. If we didn’t, I don’t know why. I remember I wrapped my arms around him as he buried his nose in the silent place between my collarbones.

The rocking chair didn’t give out – I guess it knew a thing or two about timing.

~

At the last party I ever attended at his place, I stayed up on the couch talking to one of his friends, confusing them as my own for a night. I didn’t go up to his room.

At one point, one of his little brothers came over to me and told me he hoped things worked out because I was the best thing for his older brother, even if he didn’t know it. I guess I’m the type of person people are meant to stay with, only no one does, and I don’t really know what that says about me. I didn’t go up to his room after hearing that, even though I wanted to. I knew who was up there with him, and he knew I knew.

I hope she kept him sleeping on his side. He wasn’t one to lose his alcohol, but it was best to play it safe and he snored on his back, anyway.

I drove myself home and slept for two days.

 

 

Tyler Anne Whichard is a 21-year-old aspiring writer working toward her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. The r.k.v.r.y quarterly literary journal is the first official publication of her work. Her hobbies include staring at blank Word documents, binge-watching Korean dramas, and pouring too much creamer in her coffee in the morning.

 

“When We Could See But Did Not Know” by Heather Adams

When We Could See
“Foggy Bridge” by Penelope Breen

Mark was six- or maybe seven-years-old when he started climbing on the fences. He walked along the top railing with his arms spread out and looked down at his feet, smiling. I can picture just how his smile was and his shoes were muddy from where he’d been running in the field.

“You’ll fall,” we told him, his father Clive and I. “Watch out.”

“Watch this, Mama,” he said, hopping from one foot to the other on top of the fence, like the ground was a hot and burning thing he didn’t want to touch.

In the distance, a chainsaw whined and buzzed and close by squirrels skittered on a branch and acorns fell. The wooden fence creaked under the weight of him, but he kept going. And we didn’t know how soon we would start losing him.

The older Mark got, the more he was two different people. Some days he wanted everything and talked all the time and needed to be moving every minute. And other days he was emptied out and didn’t see the point in anything. Still, a losing like that doesn’t come all at once. It comes at you in little pieces. You’re asking don’t you want to get up and go outside and you’re saying settle down, just settle down. The whole time looking for the middle, settling-in place he needed.

The last time I talked to him he was twenty-three and about to be married. I went to see him out at the lumberyard where he was working because I knew something was wrong, but he wouldn’t tell me what it was. He was moving slow that morning like he was underwater.

Later that afternoon, the phone rang at the house and I took the call and got to the bridge as fast as I could. A girl stood there, crying and screaming and biting her hand. She wasn’t his fiancé. I’d never laid eyes on her before and I didn’t know what kind of trouble Mark was in. He wasn’t around anywhere, not that I could see. I looked out over the bridge and past the trees and the rocks. Either the girl stopped her crying or I stopped hearing it because everything turned quiet when I saw him. Mark was way down at the bottom of the gorge, blurry and far away and not moving.

When he was part of the air, I wasn’t there to see him. By the time I showed up, he had become part of the ground with the dirt wrapped around his shoulders like a coat and I looked away without seeing the rest. But I could picture what he must have looked like before, when he was part of the air, his arms spread out and him not wanting anything except to fly, the ground a hot and burning thing he didn’t want to touch.

 

 

Heather Adams, winner of the 2016 James Still Fiction Prize, has published short fiction in The Thomas Wolfe Review, Clapboard House, Deep South Magazine, Broad River Review, and elsewhere. This story is based on her first novel, Maranatha Road, which is forthcoming this fall from West Virginia University Press.

This flash fiction first appeared in Pembroke Magazine (Vol. 47, 2015)

Read more about the inspiration for Heather’s story here.

“Pest Control Methods” by Beverly Lucey

Pest Control Methods
“Encountered Humans” by Penelope Breen

“…Treatment and prevention:… relies first on an accurate identification of the pest species. Only then can an effective strategy be tailored…”
~advert SimplyOneCall Pest Service in Northern Ireland

Inside Dee’s head, a wasp buzzed. The mic looked like a hive. Every time she adjusted the violin under her chin, drew the bow, and pulled it toward her for a solo spot of Yidl Mitn Fidl, the apiarian tone echoed in the back of her skull. Everything felt very wrong. This audition was not going well, either. Only a few Klezmer Bands existed in Idaho. Maybe it’s more surprising that there was one, rather than more than one. But its name, Meshuggah, described how Dee felt of late. Crazy.

The clarinetist/leader shook his head. “Sorry. You’ve got a hesitation there, like you’re listening to something else other than us. Anybody ever mention that to you before?”

“What? I didn’t quite get that. There’s a background sound. You don’t hear it?”

Good thing her day job at the museum was a quiet one. She wondered if stinging insects slept until dusk.

“We need focus. You don’t have it. Thanks though. Wish it worked out. Sorry.”

Sorry. Now that’s a song she’s heard before: sorries from a local dinner theater, a couple of Coeur d’Alene quartets who did weddings, and Tag.

First time it happened, Dee thought a mosquito had woken her up. Instead, it was Tag whispering, “I got a job in Branson. Don’t get up. Wish it worked out. Sorry.” Dee pulled the striped pillow over her head like a lid so she wouldn’t let even one minor protest escape. She figured four months must be the life cycle of a sax player. Just the natural order of things.

Relationships have lives of their own. People said that. Easy for someone else to say, but at thirty-four, her cycles were getting mired and sticky. Tag left, but the tone in her head stayed to remind and annoy, like a monotonous drone, the way early TV stations near Mobile, AL sounded after sign off. TV broadcasts had a cycle of their own, back then. Dee’s mother slept to it on the living room couch for over ten years, after Dee’s father left. Dee would find her there and turn off the set, just as the birds started singing.

The urge of her women friends to live alone, bewildered Dee. Her one marriage, a decade ago to Jimmy Musca, lasted three whole years. A stand up bass player was less likely to roam. Harder to bum a ride to the next gig.

After Jimmy, Arjun moved in. At least he built Dee cabinets before he disappeared. When Hervé left, he took her pannini maker with him. Men went like that. Mostly musicians, a few writers, an engineer. Then Tag. Taggert “The Bullfrog” Radoscz. Gone. Only the buzz remained.

Sometimes it sounded like Tag just noodling with the mouthpiece late at night. He’d said, “By blowing the mouthpiece and reed, the reed will tremble very fast. Such a reed does tremble some hundreds of times in a minute. Can you hear it? Feel it?” Back then it was sexy. Now it’s a maddening haint.

When Dee looked up, the Meshuggah guys were just standing there. Had something happened? Oh, right. She hadn’t left. She’d been dismissed, but hadn’t managed to put her instrument back in the case. Dee thunked the side of her head a couple of times, as if to dislodge seawater in her ear. This time, instead of quieting down the sound, she got zapped from the inside. Her inner ear felt hot and stabbed. Bumbling with the clips on her case, she tried not to cry. They would think that she really was disappointed not to be able to play Jewish jazz at temple single mixers across the Northwest. She merely wanted nights full of music instead of a dial tone in her head.

“You OK?” the accordian player said. “You remember what door you came in?”

“Sizz, hisss, thrummmmm,” Dee said, as if clearing her throat. She rubbed hard at her eyeballs, impressing an image onto her lids like a rubber stamp. A picture of her brain dangled in front of her face. It looked like the mic, or maybe a sponge. Within the porous mass of interlacing horny fibers she could see little winged things crawling in and out of the colony. Busy, busy. Taking over.

“I think I’ve been stung,” Dee said. “Did you see anything? Sssssss. It hurts.”

The trumpet player said, “I’m a doctor. Do you have allergies? An epi kit?”

“I’ve got anti-itch gel,” said the drummer.

“I’ll walk you to your car. I’ve got to get back to the lab anyway, ” said the piano player, slamming the lid down over the keys. The crashing distracted Dee just enough so that she could look him straight in the eyes. He had nice warm honey eyes.

“Maybe I was wrong. Never mind. I don’t feel it now.” Her head was quiet for a change.

Their cars were parked next to one another in the lot. “I was just sitting in tonight,” he was saying. “I’m not the real piano player. No time. Sorry if you didn’t get it. If you wanted it, that is. It was hard to tell.”

“What’s your name?” Dee’s brain cells were behaving.

“Cooper. I’m tenure track at the university three months now. It’s a nicer place than Chicago.”

“What are you?”

“Entomologist.”

“Perfect. Tell me what you know about wasps, sometime, will you?”

“Funny you should ask. I’ve got a grant working with paper wasps. No drones. No queens. No workers, as such.”

“No?”

“Nope. They’re sort of hippie insects. Just males and females working together, raising their young. It’s cool.”

“Cool.” She felt a breeze on her face from the lake working like a balm on her brain.

“You sure you’re all right?” He put a soothing hand on her shoulder.

“I’m better.”

“Could I call you?”

“Yeah, sure. Give me a buzz.” As Dee wrote her number on the back of Cooper’s hand, she couldn’t help but picture making him breakfast: oatmeal, honey, and her very special jam.

 

 

Beverly Lucey has had work appear in Zoetrope All Story Extra, Vestal Review,  Absinthe Revival, and Feathered Flounder. She was the winner of the Fiction Contest for Estonian Public Broadcasting  (2013) Print anthology:  Friend. Follow. Text.  #storiesFromLivingOnline  (fall 2013 release) “Voice Mail for the Living” in the anthology Up, Do Flash Fiction by Women Writers, (spring 2014). Landmarks: 2015 National Flash-Fiction Day Anthology (UK).

 

“Harbor Lights” by Susan Cole

Harbor Lights
“Emotional Landscapes” by Penelope Breen

John bought the red sweatshirt, fleece-lined and hooded, from L.L. Bean three-and-a-half years into his Stage 4 lung cancer. We lived in Florida then, staying with his sister Pat in her retirement community near Orlando where he got treatment. John could never warm up enough. Chemo and radiation had weakened his muscles. He napped a lot. Even when wearing the sweatshirt, he sometimes shivered with cold.

A year earlier, we sold our catamaran Smooch on which we had lived in Fort Lauderdale, and we moved to Merida, Yucatan. Although not strong enough to sail anymore, John was still robust, and we didn’t want to hang around a furnished Florida apartment waiting for the next CT scan. Merida with its gorgeous colonial architecture, lively mercados, friendly locals, active ex-pat community and economical lifestyle appealed to us. From Merida, John flew to Florida once a month for chemo. He treated the excursions like overnight business trips.

One day in Merida before he was set to go to Orlando for chemo, he woke up feeling extremely dizzy. He could barely walk straight. A doctor in Merida prescribed “dizzy pills” for 100 pesos. I booked a flight to Orlando so I could accompany him for his treatment.

John’s oncologist in Florida ordered an MRI, and we soon found ourselves sitting across from Dr. R., John’s neuro-radiologist. A few small brain tumors had popped up in the past, and Dr. R. had demolished them with gamma-knife radiosurgery. Now, on this trip, Dr. R. brought up the latest MRI on his computer.

White blobs of all sizes glowed like misshapen stars from the dark recesses of John’s brain. He would need two weeks of whole brain radiation. Dr. R. asked John not to fly to Merida until the MRI results of the radiation arrived in two months.

Dr. R. said, “The next two months will be a delicate time for the brain, a little dicey.“

John’s interpretation: “Your brain will explode if you fly.”

Dr. R. was confident that he could keep John’s brain clear of tumors for six months or longer, and if new ones cropped up, he could again perform gamma ray surgery. He wanted to begin immediately.

I reeled from the term “whole brain radiation.” I imagined John becoming a vegetable. Dr. R. assured us that would not happen.

As we stood up to leave, Dr. R. shook John’s hand and said, “We’ve had a good run.”

The handshake reeked of finality. Shaken, John called his oncologist who reassured him that the last scans showed no spread of the lung cancer within the lung. We held onto the hope that Dr. R. would perform his magic: John would come through this awful turn of events intact, a little the worse for wear.

John took the brain radiation well: a little unsteady on his feet but his brain remained sharp. He wore the sweatshirt in the house, loose and unzipped, warming his hands in the pockets. He kept it on even in the 95˚ midday heat of the screened porch. From my air-conditioned spot on a stool at the kitchen counter, I would turn around to check on him—the back of his sweatshirt a stark red against the bright glow of his computer screen through the sliding doors.

We met in our twenties in Connecticut and, once we became a couple, had always lived on or around boats. John had sailed since he was four. Now, as I stared at the back of the sweatshirt, I remembered John’s tanned back and broad shoulders as he trimmed sails, tightened turnbuckles and captured loose halyards on our sailboats. He would haul heavy sail bags from below deck or grab the thick end of the boom on his shoulders to lift it. He’d expect me to hold up the other end. My family did not prize physical prowess and I had disdained team sports. But I loved the physicality of sailing with John.

Before we knew about the cancer, we would set out on Smooch in the soft middle-of-the-night darkness from Biscayne Bay to sail across the Florida Straits to the Bahamas. The alarm would go off and we would bolt awake, nerves jangling. I would brew coffee while John did a final check of the engine and deck, making sure everything was tied down tight. While the engine warmed up, we sat quietly in the cockpit sipping coffee, adjusting to the darkness and taking our bearings-–boats anchored around us, sand glowing on the nearby beach, navigation lights leading out to the channel. John steered from the cockpit while I raised anchor and then ran back to the nav station below to guide us out.

Once we had turned into Biscayne Channel, I would join John on deck. He steered us between the red and green lights towards the open sea, black and alive with uncertainty. The winking harbor lights comforted me as we plunged into the unknown.

Now, as the weeks dragged on at John’s sister’s house while we waited for the MRI, the red sweatshirt, softened and stretched from washings, was worn and supple. Almost imperceptibly, it began to hang more loosely around John’s thinning shoulders. The sweatshirt engulfed my formerly tanned, broad-shouldered sailor who not so long ago had raced headlong across the deck in choppy seas to tame a loose jib sheet.

I missed that sailor. At times, I regarded the shopworn sweatshirt as though it were a flimsy hospital gown–flaps loose, revealing John’s pale legs and back, and exuding the chemical smell of his illness.

After he got sicker—the brain radiation was successful, but the lung cancer spread–I came across a photo I had snapped just a few weeks earlier of John and his sister Pat, with whom we had stayed five months by then, instead of the originally planned three days. In the picture, John was seated at her dining table. She leaned into him, one arm around his shoulder, a hand resting on his chest. Cheeks pressed together, John and Pat shook with laughter. You couldn’t mistake the family resemblance: wide smiles, twinkling eyes nearly crinkled shut, strong jaws.

Pat, six years older, had taught John to smoke when he was eight. She had chanted “loony, loony” when he talked to himself as a kid while playing with his toys. The siblings’ dark humor had always attracted me. In the photo, they could have been laughing about John’s shrunken shoulders or his last cough. The photo lifted my spirits in a way that well-meaning platitudes people tossed my way –“hold strong,” “you can beat this”–did not.

They were laughing at the blackness, the void ahead. John’s faded red sweatshirt took up much of the frame, warming me like the winking harbor lights when we headed to sea at night.

 

 

Susan Cole recently completed a memoir about a three-year sailing voyage she took with her husband and daughter from Connecticut to the Bahamas, Cuba, Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. Essays about her family’s sailing adventure have appeared in Daily Palette, Mary, and Living Aboard. She has attended the Iowa Summer Writing Festival every year since 2007. In between sails, she earned a B.A. from Barnard College, an M.A in Psychology from Columbia University, and for many years, ran a successful new-product marketing research firm. She currently lives in New Orleans, enjoying a new land-bound adventure.

Read an interview with Susan here.