I am making a Crunchy Top Lemon Cake from Mary Berry’s Baking Bible, in a cardigan from Value Village that cost thirteen dollars and pulls on the back of my neck like the sense of guilt leftover from buying it. There is a nicer cardigan in the closet that only cost five.
It is a Monday in January, and winter has just started.
Janice and Sawyer called me into their bedroom last night to ‘touch base’, a niece’s performance review. Zoe, their daughter, compared it to a lice-check, or getting passport photos taken. They told me that I am not a disappointment, after all, which is a relief. I have spent the past year and a half imagining that, when they raise their voices or purse their lips, they are asking themselves how anyone could be such an idiot, and how much they wish I wasn’t there. Because I know that I’m not a piece of cake, and that, over time, it got too hard, and I just stopped wanting to be. If I was supposed to be stupid and lazy and callous, then, fine. Improvement was exhausting. By that time I had learned to brush my hair and teeth daily, how to wash dishes, and manners (more or less). I decided that, as long as I didn’t unlearn those things, a backslide was permissible.
I am making the cake knowing that nobody else is going to eat it. Zoe has a stomach the size of a walnut, Al eats nothing he can’t put sriracha on, Mei is trying to lose weight, Janice is gluten-free, and Sawyer hates sweet things. Tonight, perhaps, someone will help me eat it, because the church women’s group is meeting at ours; if they don’t, I will find someone at work tomorrow who likes cake and dump it on their desk, wrapped in tin-foil. Baking is not about the end product, after all. It’s about making something beautiful and good out of a cacophony of ingredients, which cannot contain themselves and are each disgusting when swallowed alone and raw, but you can put them together in a certain way that yields anything from the shamefully rich to the so-light-there’s-barely-a-flavour-at-all, and leaves your hands smelling of flour, lemon, and vanilla.
Grace March is a young writer from the Canadian prairies. This is her first publication.
I’ve got the sharp, little scissors palmed in my hand, and I’m waiting in line. Your brothers and sisters, your mother, they all went first. Chelsea, crying, her makeup streaking down her cheek like ink from a broken fountain pen. Your mother tucks Chase’s beanie little head against her hip, and she’s gasping for air. And maybe you finally did it, took away all the oxygen? Remember, how we’d put those balloons to our lips, shrugging away the taste of latex, staring at our chests in the mirrors, our bird bodies taking the shape of women, until you gagged, the ball of air sputtering out of our fingers, racing around the room, before falling, limp, at our feet.
I made the mistake of hugging your mother before I asked for the snip of your hair. I could feel you whispering, “Ask first,” but it was too late. The intimacy I had to trade was given freely, your mother leeching my little thread of power, mine and yours, bodies, so similar, down to the misshapen pinky toes, the nails like flattened pennies, our hair the same honeydew coloring that usually comes from a box. I was proud of her, your mom, for not saying your name, though I would have taken your place.
I’m alone up here, and its the first time I’ve been close enough to see that your makeup is all wrong. That instead of scissors, I should have brought more foundation, an eyelash curler, certainly, some blush, a touch of lipstick, because I want to remember you smiling, crying from laughter, our stupid jokes making the walls of your house ring with our promised youth. But I’ve always been the selfish one, right? So I’m going to make use of these scissors, because why should the Earth get the best of you? I skim the blades over the plush crèche of the casket lining, the points ripping the fabric subtly. The darkness will know I was here first. I tug sharply, but you don’t cry out. We’ve seen too many horror movies, joked too often about zombies, wondering why you couldn’t look half-dead and gorgeous. If anyone had a chance, it was you. I take a plait of hair, wishing they had let me braid it. Your bangs sit awkwardly against your forehead. You look like one of those late-in-life movie starlets, reaching back for the summer of their ingénue fame; a soccer mom on a Sunday morning sipping her Chamomile tea. The scissors jump in my hand, raking across that unnaturally flat space of skin, metal grinding, as the hair shreds into fine whispers of eyelashes, as I grab the larger pieces that dot your cheeks. I bend toward you, blowing, giving you my last filaments of air.
Tommy Dean is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. A graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program, he has been previously published in the Watershed Review, Spartan, JMWW, Split Lip Magazine, and New World Writing. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.
My father rode in a tank through France, or sometimes in a jeep. The tank was a M24 with 75 mm guns. The jeep was a Willys. He took a round in early forty-five and came home with a limp. Here he’s standing straight, hands on his hips, wearing a black string tie and his something-to-tell-you smile. His face tilts down an inch too far and his lips look about to explode. My mother took the shot. I watched him sleep at night. He never had much to say. Twice a year he left home and days later called from a jail and my mother made calls and begged for money until she could send a wire. At the mill she had to cover her hair with a scarf. He had a girlfriend in Portsmouth with her own children. We all knew better than to care. He grew stout and his limp grew worse until he was trapped in a recliner. My mother brought him soup and adjusted his pillow and answered his questions the best she could. He died one day while I was at school and she got a new job and bought new dresses and shoes. At night before going to bed I loved to watch her brush her hair.
John Riley lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he works in educational publishing. His poetry and fiction have appeared in Metazen, Connotation Press, Smokelong Quarterly, Blue Five Notebook, Willows Wept Review, The Dead Mule, and many other places online and in print.
“Eve & The Apple” by Elizabeth Leader, pastel on Fabriano paper.
(See also “In Flight Safety Card” by Lauren Eyler.)
She runs toward the water and the sun holds tight on the horizon. It wants to watch. It wants to illuminate her as she makes her way into the water: ankles, knees, waist, and then she dives into the water. Her body swallowed, the feet flip up and flirt toward shore before they, too, disappear.
He’d like to submerge his body along with hers and feel the weightlessness of swimming and the excitement of sliding his legs by hers without being able to see beneath them. But he can’t swim, so he watches from the shore until she returns breathless.
She replaces her shirt and shorts. Darkened splotches appear throughout her clothes as the water seeps into the fabric. “Is that your first memory? You were three?”
He’s told her about his father. His memory of him throwing him into the water, teaching him to swim.
“Yea—yea, it is. I can recall a circle of the scene—not all of the background, not the entire setting, just like looking through a telescope, you know? Just a circle and there I am in my shark swimming shorts and there he is in a faded yellow polo shirt.” The childhood emotion returns. The pit of his stomach raw with it.
“Have you tried to swim since then?”
He shakes his head no. He has a tan complexion. Time in the sun. Hardened lines around his face. Once the season shifts to fall, she thinks his hue will lighten, but the structure will remain the same. There’s a certain vulnerability to those lines. His past present on his face.
“Fathers have a way of penetrating our futures, don’t they? Without even knowing it. Subtle choices causing distant effects.” She decides in that moment to take him home. Back to her small apartment, a place nestled at the city edge. She boasts its view of the lake, although at night, she confesses, it’s a blackened version of its former self.
He surveys the area: one main living space with a kitchenette, a bathroom and a bedroom. She has squeezed and fitted trinkets and treasures throughout the landscape. Oddities, she calls them. Collections from her former lives. The oddest of them all catches his eye—an entire presentation of false teeth sitting in an open box on her window sill. He bumps his fingers along one of its rows.
“My father was a dentist,” she says to his back. “He saved antique gear like that.”
“Was. Saved. It’s all in the past now.”
“What did you want to show me?”
She pulls a purple-and-blue dyed fabric to one side and motions for him to enter her bedroom. Along one wall someone has painted a seascape mural. An octopus drifts through coral and seaweed. He spies jellyfish, swordfish, and other urchins.
“You paint?” he asks.
“I dabble,” she replies.
A small lamp on a corner table is fitted with a blue bulb. She lights candles and a stick of incense. The smoke flows through the space. She hits play on a small radio on the dresser and it’s too soft for him to discern what band it is—if any—or what instruments are played.
She indicates for him to lie on the bed. When she straddles him, he tightens his eyes on hers. He thinks of her as a character. One with marbles for eyes that turn others to stone. A hybrid of mythology and reality. She dives in to kiss him and he thinks she tastes like seaweed. They wrestle about the bed in the blue light. He comes up for air periodically and spies the mural. He feels at ease with her. He feels the weightlessness he had wished for earlier.
They fall asleep, her hair kinked and splayed against the pillow.
He wakes at an uneven hour. A strand of moonlight bounces onto her collection and he stands and scrutinizes each piece. He asks questions about her through their weight, how each one feels or looks. One of the smaller items fits nicely in his palm. He carries it back to the bedroom and rubs at its glass mold.
In the morning, light crashes against the windows. The lake is now visible: placid, at peace with a mild mist at its lips.
“You’re like the undertow, you know?” He tugs at her and pulls her under the covers with him and they kiss, morning mouths and last night’s naked bodies.
Her back rocks against him and flutters with the sheets. She feels the glass object at her feet and nudges her big toe toward it. She recalls the motion as if searching the ocean floor for a sand dollar.
Pulling it out of the sheets, she eyes it. Wraps her fingers around its curves. Its shape cavernous to other worlds.
“Was it a gift,” he asks, “from your dad?”
She brushes back her wild hair, imagines each soft, existing memory of her father—a collage the expanse of a skyscraper—and sighs. She holds up the object which catches the sun’s ray and illuminates a yellow glow. When she finally responds, her voice hovers above a whisper and he hears seagulls in her throat. Distant and sad. She tells him, yes, it was a gift and a promise and a lie and a lesson and it was everything.
He wonders if he’s meant to respond, but has nothing to say. He pictures her dad. In this awkward silence he’s surprised to find himself imagining his face. Imagining what lines or curves of hers were other gifts of his.
When he leaves, an amalgam forms in his mind of her and the undertow. A raging beauty that seethes with some type of untouchable vengeance. A distance spreads between where she remains in the bed and where he descends. The space dark and exact but empty all the same.
Katie Strine tolerates life through literature and dark beer. She lives in the east suburbs of Cleveland with her family—husband, son, and dog—who accompany her on oddball adventures. Her work has been or will be published in The Writing Disorder, The Wayne Literary Review, Visitant, The Furious Gazelle, and BONED. Stay in touch via Facebook, @ktstrine.
“Wooden House” Image courtesy of Dariusz Klimczak,
(See also “The 8th of May” by Daniel Nathan Terry from the Fall 2012 issue.)
Ruby’s grandparents, Nana and Papa, say, “Go upstairs and read,” before sliding into slumber on the couch. They nap several times each day.
Upstairs, she opens the window and shouts, “Mama, where did you go?” The wind carries her question away.
She digs her fists into her pockets. Mama would’ve cuddled with her on the couch. She would’ve made grilled cheese sandwiches shaped into little rectangles.
Nana and Papa show her the kindness offered to strangers; distant, polite. She’s never known her father; she doesn’t know his parents now. They shuffle and repeat sentences, they wheeze and count pills. They don’t know she’s allergic, extend sandwiches oozing with peanut butter and jelly.
This stuffy house unsettles Ruby. At night, strange whooshing, clinking sounds keep her awake.
Again, she cries, “Mama, where are you?”
This time, an oak tree waves, beckoning from the forest’s edge. The branches spread like fingers.
Grabbing her coat—it’s small for her seven-year-old frame—she pulls the front door shut behind her.
One morning, Mama hugged her goodbye and didn’t return. After, women wearing suits put her on a plane and said, “You’re going home.”
This is not home. How can it be, without Mama?
Home is sitting in the middle of unfolded laundry and watching The Wizard of Oz; home is tomato soup and chocolate chip cookies for dinner; home is the crimson of Mama’s nails. Ruby feels a pain in her belly, rubs it like Mama used to.
The women in suits hugged her, said, “Just know that your Mama’s in a better place.”
Her ears catch the musical murmur of leaves overhead. In moments, the neighboring trees pick up the chorus, awakening the forest to familiar music—Mama danced to this song. Ruby stretches her arms, closes her eyes. moves to a rhythm Mama has taught her: one-two-three, one-two-three.
An orchestra rises: wind whistling through hollow trees, the strum of bare branches beating out the right notes.
“Come,” the forest calls.
She obeys, walking deeper into the wood where the music continues to allure.
Then, the orchestra falters, the fumbling conductor has lost his baton. She hears irregular rhythms, twigs crackling, the thud of falling logs. A distant coyote howls; her heart freezes.
Thunder claps overhead, lights wink in the sky, and a deluge releases.
She must go back to Nana and Papa. When she swivels to look behind her, the trail’s vanished. Puddles of water snake away from her in every direction. Panicked, she lifts her gaze up to the canopy overhead.
“Mama!” she cries.
Which way should I turn?
“Walk forward,” Mama urges in her ear.
“Where?” Ruby whispers.
“Forward,” Mama says. “Careful! Walk, don’t run.”
She doesn’t heed Mama. Heart drumming, she sprints, soggy coat clinging, shoes squelching in the mud.
She slides and hits her head on a tree trunk. The bang pounds, throbs, brings tears.
Then, Mama’s instruction. “Take the rope ladder.”
With the back of her arm, Ruby wipes the drops from her eyes. They widen.
A ladder dangles before her, inviting her into the tree house above. She gasps, clambering with numb hands and feet.
Do coyotes climb?
She rolls up the ladder and breathes: sweating, listening. The micro burst’s gone. There’s nothing now—only leaf music. She runs a hand over the bump on her head. That’s real enough.
From her perch, she can see the edge of the forest, the chimney of her grandparents’ house. They’ll expect her.
On the paint-chipped floor, an ancient patchwork quilt and a book: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. She pulls the quilt over herself.
Mama’s led her home.
Sudha Balagopal‘s recent fiction appears in Ellipsis Zine, Spelk Fiction, Jellyfish Review, Lost Balloon, and Whiskey Paper among other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn, and two short story collections, There are Seven Notes and Missing and Other Stories. More at www.sudhabalagopal.com
Illustration by FINAL GIRL, anonymous street artist,
see also “God of Thunder” by Brian Kamsoke
Sundown at 5. Chill in the house. I open the hall closet for a sweater.
And I see it. Hanging between my red raincoat and his father’s blue windbreaker.
Our son’s fur-lined fleece hoodie. Grey, except for the Penn State panther in an oval on the right, just below the collar.
It’s been there for six months. Since the morning I washed the contents of the white plastic bag, marked “Patient Belongings.” There wasn’t much inside. Pajamas, slippers, boxers. And the fur-lined fleece hoodie. The one he wore that August afternoon in his 5th floor walkup. New York City. No air conditioning, yet he’s shivering with his hands in his pockets and the hood pulled over his wispy brown bangs.
“How can you be cold?” his father asked. “I’m burning up.”
Just like he was, except from a fever, not the weather.
There is no thermometer in the apartment. I race down five flights to the corner drugstore and back. Panting, I plead until he puts it under his arm.
“Nothing to worry about,” he scoffs at the number. “101.2. A virus.”
But it wasn’t. A year later, he’s living at home again. Like a teenager, not a thirty-year- old man. Chemo twice a month with a doctor neither one of us likes.
“Too blunt. No bedside manner,” he says, slipping a bone-thin arm into his fur-lined sleeve.
We leave that hospital in search of a second opinion.
And feel hopeful for a while. Until the morning he rises from bed too dizzy to walk. Faints on the way to the bathroom.
Waiting in emergency, he asks for his hoodie.
We bring it to the 7th floor, Oncology Unit. It comes home, weeks later, in a white plastic bag.
And now it hangs in the hall closet, between my raincoat and his father’s windbreaker. Should it stay there? As if waiting to be worn again?
I put my fingers against the fleece. Remember all the hours he sat huddled inside it. Mostly on the couch watching Seinfeld or How I Met Your Mother. Dozing off at commercials.
For a brief moment, I regret burying him without his hoodie—no less loved than the tattered teddy he had at age three.
What’s done cannot be undone.
Slipping the soft fabric off the hanger, I raise one arm, then the other. The sleeves are a little long but it’s wearable.
I snuggle into his spot on the couch. Turn on the TV. A Seinfeld rerun.
Jacqueline Jules is the author of three chapbooks, Field Trip to the Museum (Finishing Line Press), Stronger Than Cleopatra (ELJ Publications), and Itzhak Perlman’s Broken String, winner of the 2016 Helen Kay Chapbook Prize from Evening Street Press. Her poetry has appeared in over 100 publications including The Broome Review, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, Hospital Drive, and Imitation Fruit. She is also the author of 40 books for young readers. Visit www.jacquelinejules.com.
When I typed the number for Counseling and Psychological Services into my phone, I discovered that it had already been saved to my contacts. In truth, it was a relic from orientation week, when overly exuberant upperclassmen had recited the numbers to us from a stage in Irvine Auditorium and I had diligently entered them into my phone, like the ever-prepared Ivy League student I had recently become. Still, as I pressed the formidable green circle to dial, a small voice taunted me. “See,” it sneered, “everyone knew you were crazy. Told you so.”
Exhaling, I waited as the phone rang on the other end. I sat perched atop my too-tall dorm bed, which I never figured out how to lower. That semester, my sophomore fall, I had gone to great lengths to make my single dorm room as cozy as possible. Truthfully, it was a vain attempt to try to reconcile the fact that a four-walled, cinderblock box was the closest thing I had to a home. The paisley sheets on my bed contrasted well with a dark purple tapestry, a trick I had learned in an art class. Across from my bed was a desk and a small mountain of library books and coffee mugs.
The phone kept ringing and my free hand flitted in indecision between my shirt collar and my hair. Finally, the receiver clicked and a voice answered.
“Hi, thank you for calling Counseling and Psychological Services, how can we help you today?”
I couldn’t help wanting to laugh. It was incredible how much a receptionist at a mental health center sounded like a drive-through employee. One happy brain and a side of functional family dynamic, please, oh and a milkshake. I told the anonymous voice that I was looking to set up an appointment with a counselor, anyone really. From there, the call was very logical, as he took inventory of all the things that had or had not lead me to call for help. Age? 20. Student? Full time. Ethnicity? White. Eating disorder? No. Issues making friends? Not that I’m aware of. Problems in class? It’s fine, just too expensive. Issues at home? A deep breath. Yes. With your parents? Yes. Abuse?
This was, after all, the reason I had called. To be honest about what had happened, to have someone listen, to tell the truth. My tongue curled behind my teeth, waiting to say no, the answer it had been trained to deliver. In my moment of indecision, I noticed that I had been clutching the comforter of my bed, morphing the soft fabric into a sweaty ball, suffocating the pastel blue and purple that swirled across it. Like lifting a wrecked car off a child trapped beneath, I forced my tongue out from behind my teeth and propelled it forward.
Yes, I answered.
I heard the receptionist pause and shuffle some papers around. A new line of questioning began, asking the particulars of events I had only recently seen as unusual. Had I been sexually abused? No. Had I been physically abused? A few times. Verbal abuse? I paused again.
I released my grip on the comforter.
“Thank you for your honesty”, he replied, his voice soft and calm.
The conversation moved forward to appointment scheduling and an explanation of services offered, but my mind hovered on his gratitude for my sad story. Why would he be grateful? It was his job, I supposed, to care. Still, in all the times I had spoken candidly about my parents, which I could count on one hand, no one had ever thanked me. Maybe, I thought with equal parts fear and hope, this was what therapy felt like.
Izzy López is originally from Boston, Massachusetts and is currently a creative writing student at the University of Pennsylvania. This is her first publication.
Jackie’s present to Brooke from two weeks before, Richard Scarry’s Mother Goose, was going for two dollars. The baby shoes she bought Brooke were on offer for a pittance as well. “Yard sale! Moving today! Last chance!” clamored the sign.
The screen door hung off its hinge. “Deirdre!” Jackie called softly to her daughter. The only sound was the baby crying. Deirdre’s baby, and Tonio’s. Not yours, Deirdre said last time. Jackie’s ideas about child-rearing were antiquated, Deirdre complained, her gifts well-meaning but off. The pink baby shoes were kidskin — but they were raising Brooke vegan. Mother Goose was sexist.
When she heard they were moving to Tempe, Arizona, to be near Tonio’s people, Jackie said, “I’ll never get to see Brooke.”
Deirdre said she could come visit. She didn’t mention how hard it was for Jackie to travel – how she’d forget her tickets, or her house keys, or even where she was going. Jackie had gone to the library and looked up the city they were moving to, tried to figure out exactly how far it was from Clifton, New Jersey, but couldn’t even find it on the map. An hour later she realized she was looking for Temple, Arizona – a place that didn’t even exist – when the place they were moving was Tempe. She was too embarrassed to tell Deirdre about her mistake, or even what she had learned from her research, which was that Tempe, Arizona was named after the Vale of Tempe in Greece, where in ancient times there was a temple to Apollo. Somehow she knew Deirdre wouldn’t be interested, or at least not interested in hearing this from her.
But she wasn’t there for that. She came to say good-bye to them, and to the baby.
Minutes passed. Then Tonio appeared. He was small and wiry and no match for her Deirdre, who was 5’9” with large, jutting hip bones. “Brooke dozed off before I could feed her,” he said wearily. “At least she stopped crying.”
“Isn’t Deirdre home?” Jackie asked.
“At the gym.” Then he left, too, to gas-up the U-Haul.
Brooke lay on her back in her crib, awake, violet eyes blinking, forehead wrinkled in puzzlement. Jackie wanted to say “I’ll make it up to you,” but knew it was a lie. Your parents are your destiny, not your brain-addled Grandma.
Instead Jackie chanted the one rhyme she could remember by heart: “Pussycat, pussycat where have you been? I’ve been to London to visit the Queen. Pussycat, pussycat, what did you there? I frightened a little mouse under her chair.”
The baby watched her. She kicked her bare feet and moved her small hands like birds, as if she recognized Jackie was her grandmother, as if she knew this was special, like a visitation from an angel.
Little mouse, Jackie crooned, lifting her in her arms.
In the taxi Jackie called to speed her and Brooke to the station, she untied the shoes’ ribbon laces, stroked the soft pink kidskin, and fitted them on.
Nancy Ludmerer‘s fiction and essays have appeared in Kenyon Review, Hospital Drive, Litro, Amsterdam Quarterly, Green Mountains Review, Cimarron Review, and Literal Latte, among other fine journals. Her flash fiction has been published in Vestal Review, North American Review, KYSO Flash, Grain, Night Train, and Blue Monday Review and her flash “First Night” (a prizewinner in River Styx) also appeared in Best Small Fictions 2016. She lives in New York City with her husband Malcolm and their cat Sandy, a brave survivor of Superstorm Sandy.