There was something comforting about handling a machine. The nature of the situation was almost always evident: understand the laws of thermodynamics, the dangers and uses of friction, the chemistry of combustion, and it was possible to handle any problems that might arise. The inexplicable could be explained, the right decision implicit in the conditions. Incorrect decisions were measurable. And if something went wrong, there would be a solution. Or at a least a clear reason for scrapping the heap.
When she couldn’t get back to sleep after Rob had left for work, Morgan sought out machines. She replaced the air filter on the furnace and cleaned the humidifier. She checked the transfer switch to the backup generator. She tossed a load of laundry into the washing machine and listened to its rhythmic churning for a few minutes, staring at Rob’s yellow shirt still hanging over the sink. She sniffed at it, but it hadn’t grown any more scent since Tuesday night. As usual, Rob had done a thorough job.
What had been on the shirt? And why did she care? Why was she so sure Rob was daring her to notice it? It could have been anything—a soil sample, some chemical from the lab. Coffee, which his doctor said he should avoid. Red wine (she’d counted the unopened bottles, though, hadn’t she?). Cigar ash? Lipstick, perfume?
She was straying too far from the world of machines. She pulled the shirt down from its hanger and tossed it in with the rest of the roiling laundry, where it was soon buried in suds. It made her feel better, but not good.
Cheryl Walsh earned her MFA in creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her novel Unequal Temperament won the Buffalo Books Fiction Prize and is forthcoming in 2023 from Buffalo Books and the University Press of Kansas. She has been awarded writing residencies with the Djerassi Resident Artist Program and Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, and her work has appeared in Short Édition, the anthology Imagination & Place: Cartography, the audio magazine The Drum, and such literary magazines as Confrontation, Cicada, and The MacGuffin, among others. Follow her on Twitter @IrishRoad.
“I round the year in myth and fable, and limn my calendar days with joy.” Maria held in her right hand an old glass bowl that was half-filled with honey and milk.
Accompanied by her group of Russian wolfhounds, she fled to the countryside. She’d resolved to spend the rest of her days a recluse at her parents’ vacation home on Canyon Lake, deep in the Texas hill country. “Hell is other people,” the old Sartre quote resounded. She could almost hear the faculty gloating: “She’s flown off to live with her deviant kin.”
Too much backtalk and duplicity. Rumors begat with malice. Maria remained a vegetarian but had never been able to shake the habit of smoking, so she smoked outside with her students. There were rumors she was sleeping with them, male and female; or with both at once. She had a grotto or coven, they propounded. A chemistry professor of no mean erudition, she’d nonetheless obtained tenure only by means of the black arts and sex, they said. Outlandish ceremonies; lurid blood-pacts; gory sacrifices. “A bruja!” There were some rituals in which she engaged, the provost claimed — and Maria remembered these words well — “with violent extravagance.”
Those yarns were bad enough, but one especially disturbed: That she had a hidden chamber that contained thirteen mannequins, and these mannequins were kept dressed as her colleagues. Upon these figures she plied her hexes. There were male mannequins among them, too, furnished with obscenely large genitalia, and she’d couple with them–an odd detail that, she guessed, was supposed to mock her reputed hypersexuality but also explain her lack of a husband – an anachronistic and unfair prejudice for these days, she thought. “This part of Texas still has its backwardness, mija,” her grandmother once warned. “But this whole ayé can be damned backwards, too.”
Maria dispatched Belva, favorite of her Russian wolfhounds, to check the inner room at the lake home. (Belva had been named after a similar-looking borzoi owned by Theda Bara; the silent film vampire was Maria’s long-time idol.) With lowered head Belva reported that all was good; things were as they’d left them. Maria switched on the light and counted the shadows of heads on the wall, delighted to find the normal thirteen. With a final ingredient added as a catalyst to the honey and milk, Maria began stirring with purpose, pestle in left hand.
“I round the year in myth and fable, and limn my calendar days with hate.”
Oliver Sheppard was born in Nashville, Tennessee and currently writes in Texas. His Thirteen Nocturnes collection of poetry was a 2020 Elgin Award Finalist and was long-listed in the 2019 Bram Stoker Awards for Superior Achievement in a Poetry Collection. In the Winter 2021 issue of Spectral Realms, Sheppard was proclaimed “a major new voice in the genre of macabre poetry.”
There is a rumble beneath the dormant kernels of wheat like hunger during the fast from humanity. Kernels of wheat germinate when the water content in the grain is about 35 to 45 percent by weight. The embryo struggles for food, pushing out the root searching for moisture.
There is a parasite in my mind, it pervades and perseveres and keeps me unique and alone, swimming in the blood of humanity, the words and thoughts that effuse from the wearers of flowered linen suits and dresses.
There is a whisper slicing through the bones buried deep in the mass graves in the field. Voices of the past offer words and stories forgotten beneath propaganda. Words from the grandparents are brushed off like dandruff on a black dress in October. ‘Can’t you laugh, grandma?’ ‘Can’t you smile, grandpa?’
There is an absence of memory, of history in the mind of the parasite. The parasite repeats again, and again, and again. Latch on, devour and consume, procreate and propagate, over and over, and over. The parasite is nameless.
There is a tear rushing through the heart like a kayak rolling over rapids in spring landing on the porous neutral soil. The soil absorbs the tear of the child, the grandparent, the nation, and the world. The embryo swells, its strength derived from starch, like the starched shirt props up the fearful child who grasps the hand of an unknown aunt before laying a rose on a stained wooden box.
There is a parasite in my mind that consumes my memory, my history, my heritage. The heritage is crumpled beneath the rubble and piles of twisted rebar and concrete shards. The parasite is never satiated.
There is a coleoptile to break the surface of the soil. Coleoptiles are the armor that protects the first leaf of the seedling derived from the swollen embryo. The mustiness of spring, the dank dirt filled with rows of dilapidated boxes, shudders when the surface breaks.
There is a child with my eyes, my cheekbones, and my mouth. There is a tearless child with my face beside the crushed chaff. There is a face that doesn’t know how to smile. There is a parasite that gobbles memory over and over like a cliched bottomless pit. There is a nameless parasite in your mind that is hungry.
Carol Ann Parchewsky
Carol Ann Parchewsky is a writer based in Calgary, Alberta. She received her MFA in Fiction at Queens University of Charlotte and her Bachelor of Science, Mechanical Engineering, from the University of Saskatchewan. She is working on her first novel and a short story collection. Her fiction is published in and forthcoming in On the Run, Flash Boulevard, Drunk Monkeys, Stanchion, and The Drabble Advent Calendar.
When you’ve been following the cat around the house all day, you really can’t blame him for escaping beneath the armchair, hissing glinty-eyed as the three of you approach. And when the other girls tell you to climb onto the chair and look underneath, they know you’ll do their bidding as good friends do, so now you’re on your knees on the sunken cushion, your hair descending first, head heavy with blood as your eyes search the dark. Maybe the cat assumes a game is underway, your hair like tangled strings inviting attack, or perhaps he’s like Mother and he’s had enough. Either way it’s quick and your vision blurs, a stream too thick for water descending from your eye. The other girls run when your scream wakes Mother, when she screams even louder, why did you bother the goddamn cat? and she can’t see it’s more than blood you’re bleeding. But you won’t need to worry because here’s what will happen: the doctor will prepare you a gauzy patch and you’ll sit pirate-eyed in a sterilized room while he says a quarter inch to the right and you would have been blinded and you’re lucky the eye is the fastest-healing organ. And yes you’ll cry again to think you sidestepped a future as a girl whose single eye might draw attention, might draw anything, but really you’ll be crying about nothing again since the patch will come off in a few short days and your friends will be back in time for tea. You won’t make a sound as you pour the liquid since Mother says a person shouldn’t talk to themselves, but you’ll still exchange smiles as you sip sweet tea from dust-coated cups, as you listen to the beat of Mother’s crooked clock while the cat self-grooms from atop the chair. Tick tock, lick lick. You’ll sway to the music of childhood.
Andrea Lynn Koohi
Andrea Lynn Koohi is a writer from Ontario, Canada. Her recent work appears or is forthcoming in Pithead Chapel, The Maine Review, Sunlight Press, Lost Balloon, filling Station, trampset and others.
We had just graduated from Navy “A” School near Memphis. It was time to celebrate. Being we were all under 21, we chose Southaven, Mississippi where the drinking age was 18. There were six of us—three Marines, one Coast Guardsman, and two sailors. The sign read, “Ice Cold Beer and Music!” The place was jumping to a local band pumping out covers. All was cool until the dude with an albino snake wrapped around his neck waltzed in. This freaked-out one of the Marines. Words were exchanged and everything got quiet. That’s when the lighting flicked off and on.
“You all behave now!” It came from behind the bar. It sounded more like a ringside bell than a warning. Chairs began to fly, tables turned on their sides and pool sticks cut through the stagnant air with reckless abandon. Anybody who had a grievance with somebody was fair game. In front of the band, two women wrestled on the floor, tugging hair, bearing claws.
Once more, the lights flicked off and on.
“Law’s on the way. Anybody who shouldn’t be here might be considering viable options.”
We were the first to take his advice. Near U.S. 51, two cop cars passed us going in the opposite direction with lights and sirens. Fifteen minutes later those same cop cars had us cornered in a gas station parking lot.
“You all just leave that club up the road?”
“No sir,” I said. One of the cops was checking out the Marine’s ripped shirt.
They drove us several miles until we saw the sign, “Welcome to Tennessee.”
“How far is Memphis?” asked the Coast Guardsman.
“Don’t matter. Start walking.”
We walked about five miles before taking a break across from a mansion with four huge columns. At the entrance were gates with music cleft notes on the front. We sat waiting for a taxi, or dawn—whatever appeared on the horizon first.
A couple of hours later, we heard the gates energize and creep open. Out popped a beefy-looking guy with red hair on a golf cart wheeling towards us. When he reached us, he thrust two boxes our way. Gibson’s Donuts was written on the top box.
“How you boys doin’?”
“Better now,” I said.
He pointed to a second-floor window at the mansion.
“Courtesy of Elvis.”
I looked in the direction of the mansion. The silhouette of a lone figure stood between the open curtains gazing at us. I gave him a thumbs up and saluted. He nodded his head coolly and returned the salute. He had a donut in his hand.
We tore into the contents of the top box. To this day, it’s the best chocolate-covered donut with color sprinkles I’ve ever eaten.
Breakfast with the King.
Stuart Baker Hawk
Stuart Baker Hawk is a resident of Portugal via Washington state with an MFA in creative writing from Mississippi University for Women. He has worked as a pizza cook, punch press operator, instrument technician, union leader, construction electrician, OSHA administrator, adjunct professor and risk manager. He has also climbed some of this country’s most difficult mountains, worked briefly as a white-water rafting guide in Tennessee, and rappelled from the cliffs of Red River Gorge in Kentucky. In short, he has lived a life well and good. He has been published in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, new media and photography.
Mia blows gently on the bus shelter window. Her warm breath crystallizes on the cold glass, distorting the glare of the red and white lights of passing cars. Isobel watches as her daughter rounds her finger over a central point, drawing endless circles in the mist.
Isobel looks down the road as the sixty-five approaches. She follows her daughter past the driver’s cab and up the narrow staircase to the front seat. They settle in, bags on the floor, warm breath blowing onto cold hands as the driver below shouts for a straggler to hurry.
The bus bows a little under the weight of its newest passenger. Doors hiss as they close behind him, a sneer at his tardiness. And then she hears him speak: a rich baritone that filters through the bus. He speaks in short, staccato sentences, answering the tin rattle of another voice muddled by the noise of the engine. As he speaks, a familiar melody pours through Isobel’s memory: a flush trill sonata that flutters in time with the beating of her heart. His distinct tone grows louder, accompanied by the measured timpani of footsteps climbing the stairs. A chorus of strings are set to symphony as the brakes are released and the bus jolts into motion.
His voice is so like another that has etched its mark on Isobel’s heart, but she will not look back. She will not turn to him and smile, as she once did on a summer’s day, when a boy with blonde hair and thick, evening stubble returned a playful grin as he moved to sit next to her. She will not look back to that first kiss shared outside the off-licence, to the bristle of his rough cheek against her thigh, to the weight of his body on hers. To intertwined fingers held up to block the morning sunlight. To gentle arms that held her close when two pink lines appeared on a white stick. To the tear he quickly wiped away when a white spot hovered in a black cave, its centre pumping rhythmically, like a metronome setting the beat. She will not look back to the shattered glass on the roadside, to red and blue flashing lights illuminating his bloodied, motionless hand. To Mia’s first wails as she was pulled from the womb, her cry full of sorrow, as though she already knew, was already mourning.
As the symphony reaches its climax, Isobel chances a glance to the window. She sees the reflection of a tall figure with black hair. He descends down the narrow staircase, his phone held tight against his ear. The weight of the bus lifts as he steps out onto the pavement. The closing doors hiss again, and Isobel allows herself to breathe.
Mia blows gently on the window. Her warm breath crystallizes on the cold glass. Isobel watches as her daughter rounds her finger over a central point, drawing endless circles in the mist.
Natasha O’Brien grew up in the United States but returned to her native England in 2012 and has been pursuing her academic and creative writing ambitions since. She is currently studying for an MA in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of Suffolk, and in 2020 obtained a MA in Medieval and Early Modern Textual Culture from the University of East Anglia. Her creative work has appeared in the online literary magazine “The Write Launch”, and she was longlisted for the 2022 Student New Angle Prize. She is currently working on her first novel, a historical fiction set in the 17th century. Natasha lives with her husband, daughter, and two dogs near the Suffolk coast.