October 2022 | fiction
He sits up next to me in bed, well into the night, the dawn birds’ song nearing, scrolling through a Tumblr account of topless girls on his, what, first generation iPad? He’s not even touching himself or anything. He’s scrolling like he’s reading the news, like he’s reading some half-baked cultural take by a nepotism-baby journalist, his brow tense, his glasses resting too low on his nose to be of use, so what’s the point? But still he scrolls, his finger flicking up, up, up. The topless girls are faceless, too. But I see them. And I see what he’s doing. Does he see me? He makes no movement to suggest he does. He scrolls, his finger flicking up, up, up. Now the dawn birds’ wretched noise begins. And I’m grateful because I can stop pretending I can sleep in this too-hot room, in this too-hot bed that is definitely bedbug-infested, but he won’t admit to that, either, just like he won’t admit I can see him scrolling up, up, up through these girls that aren’t me. I mean, I don’t need them to be me. But he doesn’t know that. He thinks I love him. It’s a game we play called something I don’t yet have a name for. Just like the topless and faceless girls. If we sit with this stale air between us any longer I’m going to do something terrible.
Rachel Stempel is a queer Ukrainian-Jewish poet based in Binghamton, NY. She is the author of the chapbooks Interiors (Foundlings Press), BEFORE THE DESIRE TO EAT (Finishing Line Press), and Dear Abbey (Bottle Cap Press).
October 2022 | fiction
I’m waiting in line, and there’s this little girl standing behind me. She has big brown eyes and blonde hair, and I drift into her conversation the way people do sometimes.
The girl is talking to a man dressed in an old-time suit with one of those high collars. The man spins the brim of his hat in his hands. I presume the man is the girl’s father and that he has dressed-up and brought her to this.
The girl says that she just had to come because the bus driver used to drop her off special right in front of her house, even when it wasn’t raining or snowing. Not only that, but he once let her borrow his gloves, and she holds up her hands and says she has been meaning to give them back and forgot and now this. She says she was going to paste one of the gloves into her scrapbook, but she hasn’t figured out how to do it.
The rose she holds in her floppy covered hands she has dipped in wax. She says the tight, waxed spiral did not open like her teacher said it would, instead its head is all droopy and the stem is about to break.
The procession jolts ahead, then stops. Those upfront pause as if to take note of a traffic accident and to thank God they’re not participants in it.
“He couldn’t read very good either,” the girl says, ” ’cause he suffered from this letter switching disease. Sometimes STOP became POST; sometimes YIELD became YLIED.”
She says she sat in the seat behind him every day and held onto the metal bar when the bus went down the other side of the mountain. She says she feels especially bad because she didn’t say anything to him Monday morning when she got off the bus; she was too busy finishing her dreams.
We inch toward the coffin: a sturdy transport, long and bulky, immobile, ready to carry its passenger to his final stop.
“I think they should retire his bus number,” she says, “and, I’ll tell you what I hope they don’t do. I hope they don’t paint over it or change it or something.” The girl holds up her gloved hands, one on each side of her face and tries to read the scene like side mirrors, her brows knitting-up. “If they change it then when he looks down from Heaven he won’t be able to read it as his number ’cause in Heaven the letter-switching disease will be all healed.”
She drops her hands and gives me one of the gloves. “I’ve decided, I don’t want to go up there anymore. Just tell him that I sure do appreciate him letting me borrow his gloves, and tell him I’m sorry and I would have returned them but I misplaced the other one. Just tell him that, will you?”
J. Bradley Minnick
Dr. J. Bradley Minnick is a writer, public radio host and producer, and an Associate Professor of English at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Minnick has written, edited, and produced the one-minute spot “Facts About Fiction,” which celebrates influential authors and novelists with unique facts from their lives. These spots air weekly on UA Little Rock Public Radio and its affiliated stations. In 2014, Minnick began work on Arts & Letters Radio, a show celebrating modern humanities with a concentration on Arkansas cultural and intellectual work. He has produced over 95 episodes, and this work has been acknowledged by the 2016 national PRNDI 1st Place award for Long Documentary for “Sundays with TJ,” and a 2020 SPJ Arkansas Diamond Award for Long Documentary/Investigative Reporting for the two-part “They Liked My Phras’n: The Life and Music of Rose Marie McCoy. He has published numerous journal articles and fiction.
October 2022 | fiction
While her husband drove, Margaret kept her eyes closed, trying to identify each roll to the right, each jostle to the left along West Road. She had guessed the first curve was the bend around the Tudor house. The one being gutted behind a green privacy fence. “Privacy? Everyone knows what they’re doing,” she had laughed. Moments later a sharp bank had shunted her frail frame into the padded door panel, and she thought they might be at the place with the goats. Her uncertainty, though, had surprised her.
Six long years had passed since they had moved to the hills and found themselves quickly labeled “the kids from the flatlands” after the septic tank overflowed and raccoons tore through the chicken wire. Nearly every day since they had navigated this route, eyes alert to “all” potential threats. Margaret chuckled again, then promptly regretted the expended energy. In the momentary quiet she sensed her husband was staring so that the familiar pang of guilt struck. Six long summers ago she had asked him to trust her as they tracked the petite flags and glossy plastic signs along snaky one lane roads to the Open House. Six long autumns ago they had moved into their “forever” home. She tried to find it funny.
Soon enough, her contrition morphed into something warm as they descended a long, gentle slope. She knew they had reached the huge empty lot where the wild mustard grows. Where tall stalks burst out of compressed cracked earth with spectacular speed, growing taller than her in spots, revealing a radiant splendor seemingly overnight: intense yellow flowers arranged in delicate x’s atop sturdy hairy stems, their billowy ballet summoning dainty white butterflies. Margaret’s mother said that in the parable mustard represents faith. Well, here they chop it all down by May. In early spring, weed abatement notices start arriving. “Dried mustard plants? Highly combustible! Be safe and clear it out!” She chuckled for the last time. “Nothing that invasive is gone forever,” she thought. “After a fire destroys this place, the mustard will be the first thing to come back.” In her life before treatment, Margaret had jogged through the field each night, had stood rigid to hear what swaying sounds like, had heard the crunching beneath her shoes. She understood that well before the trucks and chainsaws rumble up to pull life out by the roots, wild mustard plants have already dropped much of their seed. She opened her drained eyes onto her husband. Oh, how she wished now that they had done the same.
Elizabeth Allison spent many joyful years in alternative and high school education before leaving the classroom to spend more time with her children and on her own writing. Her work has since appeared on sites such as The Huffington Post and Intrepid Times.
October 2022 | fiction
She left the ring on the table, watching the liquid pool. Wood meant five years. He’d used that excuse to buy it – a typical couple’s gift, where only one party wants it, but can’t justify buying it for themselves.
It was a thin, modern thing, sliced so fine it looked flayed. One set of legs was longer than the other, so it tilted slightly; not enough to send cutlery flying, but she couldn’t eat an orange without it rolling away. He said it was bold, artistic. She missed the old table.
Five years. He’d imported it illegally. Redwoods aren’t meant to be cut down. This one was a hundred years old, practically a child in sequoia years. She wondered where it had come from. Was there a hole in the ground now, a lacuna amongst the trees, or was there a stump left behind, its rings dating when it died?
‘They symbolise eternity,’ he’d said, polishing the varnished top. He promised he’d sand down the corners, but she still had a blue-black bruise on her thigh from walking into it over and over again.
He’d thrown out the pine table that their friends had grouped together to buy. She hadn’t wanted to put anything exorbitant on their registry and she liked the soft grain, easily pitted and dented through use. What’s more, it lived in the kitchen, where a table ought to be. The kitchen was the heart of the house, a place for kettles and chatter, singing along to the radio and consulting the diary. Dining rooms are a place for performing. The kitchen felt empty now.
She stared out of the French windows, coffee on the table, an orange under her palm. He would wince if he caught her not using a coaster, but he wasn’t here now. She watched the overflow tumble down the mug’s side. She’d taken the coaster he gave her and ripped it in half to rebalance the legs, on an even keel at last.
Five years. She peeled her orange, watching oil jettison from the broken skin, a fine mist descending. It smelled of their honeymoon in Crete. She rolled the coffee and citrus round her tongue, relishing the sweet-bitter contrast. She smiled when she saw the circle; round peg, square hole, a new ring to join the hundred making up that too-soon-slayed sequoia. She picked up the mug, the skin and the suitcase, but she left the ring on the table.
Eleanor Kowol lives and works in Oxford, England. As a philosophy graduate, she likes to play with ethical and metaphysical quandaries in her work, along with silly puns and flights of fancy. She publishes100-word stories once a week to her Instagram and Twitter, @KowolEleanor.
July 2022 | fiction
Kevin’s father stares out the window at the clouds rolling in instead of the photo album Kevin brings today, cracking it open next to his bed, thinking it would help. Plastic pages unstick from each other as he turns the frozen moments, but no one is watching. The nurse says tomorrow might be better, that he’s not having a good day. Yesterday was worse. Day-to-day is hard to predict at this point. Strangely, month-to-month is easier. The coming years, if he gets them, all but certain.
Not that any day now is anywhere near good. The forgetting is getting worse. Good days, Kevin knows, are just quieter, pass faster. Bad days feel endless, are full of outbursts and fits—tantrums from a grown man stuck in a present he no longer feels welcome in. It’s not his fault. Kevin knows this. It’s not anyone’s fault. Kevin thinks to himself It is what it is and hates it less than when others say it, though he can’t recall if anyone has said it about his father. It’s after visiting hours now, and he needs to come back another time. He isn’t sure what the hours are, when he can, or if he wants to just yet.
A mist begins to fall as he walks to the car. He stops, remembers the forgotten album on the check-in desk left on his way out, looks back and sighs—the nurse already holding it up, blurred through the wet window next to the revolving door. She’s waving. If time froze, it would look like saying hello or goodbye, though it’s really neither—the same with these visits.
Back home across the couch, bathed in the TV’s bright-then-dim splashes he isn’t watching, Kevin calls his dog’s name. The dog lifts her head in the dull glow, meets his eyes, waits to see what happens next. But Kevin has nothing more to say, is tired, is out of words and ideas. He can’t remember when she last went out and it worries him. He can’t remember how many things he’s forgotten recently. It’s a cold and steady rain outside anyway, and he doesn’t know if he wants to walk her just yet. He hopes it’ll blow over or clear up soon.
In the silence that lingers, the dog lays her head back down between her paws, lets out a sigh. For now, something left in Kevin’s life remembers its own name. On the TV, the weather forecast drones. It predicts the rain will freeze to ice overnight and into the morning. A green, blue, and purple shape slides over the state line getting closer as it grows across the screen—a widening bruise blotting out what’s waiting below. It is, he knows, what it is.
Kevin sighs too and tries, for a moment, to forget what tonight or what tomorrow—or what any future—might bring.
Aaron Sandberg will remember memento mori later. He’s appeared or is forthcoming in Asimov’s, No Contact, I-70 Review, Alien Magazine, The Shore, Plainsongs, West Trade Review, The Offing, Sporklet, Right Hand Pointing, Halfway Down the Stairs, and elsewhere. A Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee, you can see him—and his writing posts—on Instagram @aarondsandberg
July 2022 | fiction
- Digital butterfly
His hands are rough, like sex, and when he touches me it is delirium and fever and ecstasy, but he is only reading my palms. Butterfly, he says, digital butterfly and traces his fingers along the fate line. Social media influencer, I remind myself, that’s who you are. It makes sense. He has long hair, black, melanin, falling against his shoulders as he dances his pointer finger and then his middle towards the heart line. Yes, there is rage and loss and obsession. Yes, there is desire. Jacaranda, he says and I understand. The petals would fall on Los Angeles sidewalks.
Yes, I remember.
He traces further, white t-shirt, black silk. He feels like cool sands at midnight, like quiet beaches with prescient waves. His fingertips move along my palm and I wonder if I’ve ever been known and then he stops, looks up, his eyes grey but also charcoal. You like wine? He asks. Don’t you know? I think, but he pours a glass and it is dry and friendly.
I drink and my skin grows warm and buzzes. From his couch I can see into the kitchen and there are hand towels printed with small black butterflies.
Don’t you wanna hold me down? Touch me? I ask.
He’s sitting on the bed, Motel 6. I’m standing in front of him, florescent pink lace and long legs. Glitter on my eyes. I put my hands in his hair, hair the color of the dark pavement in the parking lot when it rains, the darkest. I run my hands through that black silk, run them down white t-shirt, chest, abdomen, thighs.
No, he says, I only want to touch your hands. His eyes empty beaches late at night, early into the morning before the sun rises.
I place my hands over his face, cradle him, and his lips run along my palms as I bring them down in front of him to hold. He takes the right and then the left. This is the heart line, he says. This is the fate line. On his arm beneath his shoulder is a tattoo of the yin-yang symbol, thick black. The color green, he says and I think of the heels I wore last night, plastic against metal. Philosophy major, and I think UCLA. Dancer, and that is now, how I make my money, how I got here, this motel room. He moves his thumbs along every line.
Beneath his skin I feel electricity like a gentle hum, wings, beating.
Elle Reed is a writer from California. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bombfire, Bullshit Lit, Misery Tourism, White Wall Review, Metonym, and others. She is currently finishing her first novel, about the desert, longing, and friendship.
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