As I walk home, I see the back of a picture frame by one of the windows on the second floor. I imagine a lifetime kept in a couple of drawers, someone’s slippers carefully placed under the bed, the folded duvet — I can’t think of the colour. We never know how far far is until we are there. I walk home carrying my backpack and a shopping bag. I have just popped into the supermarket after dropping my son at school. Inside this backpack which I carry with me everywhere, I keep my wallet, the house keys, a pocket kite, and an emergency umbrella.
Most days I’ll buy a treat on my way to pick him up — you know the way children are always ravenous after school. This week it will be a gingerbread man. I am walking home, and this small town has become my ‘hometown’ now, no matter how far it feels. The years, the ocean, it all contributes to this inconclusive equation. It’s my own private epic, this invisible saga where all I have is what’s in me, not what I carry. And what I hold in my arms and tend to on a daily basis is an extension of my seeking; it’s the reward for not staying. It is a strange set up to be born to leave, but that’s how I see it now, our birth being the first departure.
When I was younger I often though of Laika. But it was only when I finally moved to this country at the age of twenty-two that I felt an even deeper connection to her journey; the bewildering clash between innocence and adventure. It became some sort of amusing allegory during my early days as a foreigner, back when I was unfazed by the distance.
I am home now writing this. There’s a pile of laundry on top of the drying rack, waiting. This morning there were doves by the empty bird feeder, waiting. And then some time after that, my son stood by the door with his raincoat on, holding his water bottle and book bag, waiting. We rushed past the puddles born out of the rain that fell overnight, and he ran towards the falling leaves, trying to catch them.
On the way back as I walked past the nursing home. I noticed the picture frame with its back to the road, and next to it, a glass vase with artificial flowers.
He was sat on a bench as she clutched her bag. They were strangers then. She asked him if he knew the time, he said it did not matter, “this is where we are now”. His name is John and her name is Mary. Years later, a week or so before their daughter’s wedding, John finally tells Mary that that was a lie, that it does matter. Mary does not understand what he means, and so she hugs him, thinking this is about their little girl being all grown up now; about the young couple’s big move abroad.
Mary offers John a coffee but he says nothing. He stands by the window, looking into the distance. “What is there?”, Mary jokes as she hands him the coffee anyway, the steam rising from the cup like a lone feather. And John says, “all these years and I never wanted to think of this, of how this time would come, and how we would find ourselves alone again, almost like strangers.” Mary immediately stops in her tracks as she handed out the cup which John did not see. She begrudges the sign: no one could ever cling to a feather. For a moment Mary considers telling John about the broken pane, and how that particular window is long overdue to be replaced. And the tree which they both can see from where they stand should have been trimmed last autumn, and so they’ll have to wait until November, after the first hard frost. Yes, deadheading and pruning should take place every year after the first frost.
She gathers enough strength to ask him, “how do you mean, ‘almost strangers’?”. John says he wants to book a ticket, he does not know where to; and that he would like to travel and see how far he could go before he came back again. Back again. Mary grabs hold of his words almost the same way she had clutched her handbag all those years ago, when she first laid eyes on him, and asked him the time. She brings the cup to her lips and takes a sip of John’s sugarless coffee, fallen leaves look a lot like feathers, she thought.
Luciana Francis is a Brazilian-born, UK-based writer of poetry and fiction. She holds a BA (Hons) degree in Anthropology and Media from Goldsmiths, University of London. Her work appears in various publications in Brazil, the UK, and the US, including Popshot Magazine, Literary Mama, Minerva Rising, amongst others; her poetry is forthcoming in two anthologies as well as in the print issue of Confingo Magazine. More recently her micro-fiction has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize and Best Short Fiction Awards.
The men’s hands are coated with a perpetual skim of black. Dirt from the fields, grease from the tractors, dust from the animals. The men’s hands are large and sturdy. Steady. Their hands smell like sweet hay, manure, curdled milk.
The cows in the barn have their favorite sets of hands. Lettie will stand still for Tom but will kick like a devil if Vincent tries to get near her. Mabel flicks her tail at Andrew every morning in a come-hither motion, batting those huge black eyes as the farmer’s oldest son limps his way into the barn. Goldberry won’t tolerate anyone but Vincent, whose hands, still young, are not yet two solid calluses.
And Estella. That cranky old bitch. Lost her last calf but the milk keeps coming. She shrieks when the men reach for the udder. Her big eyes roll. She stamps in her stall, enormous hooves smooshing into piles of her own shit. Her milk is cloudy gray and useless.
One morning Tom tells Andrew to get the rifle. Tells Vincent to get the shovel. The Leavitts are having an auction next week; they can buy another cow. A better milker. Vincent says they shouldn’t all have to watch. Why not just Tom alone. Tom says it’s a man’s job, and it’s time Vincent learn to be a man. Andrew doesn’t say a word. His younger brother’s weakness annoys him, but he also thinks their father’s a bitter old bastard, part of a world that should’ve stopped existing long ago.
Out in the field, Estella screeching and shaking between them, Tom tells Vincent to take the rifle from the Andrew. It’s time he learn. Stop being a little pussy. Nothing in this life is fair; nothing in this life is pretty. It’s late spring, chilly. Glue-white sky hanging low. By noon it’ll be raining. By noon the cows in the barn will be milked and content, udders greased with the bag balm Tom is always so careful to apply.
The rifle is heavy. The echo of the shot breaks the morning, brings hot, panicky tears to Vincent’s eyes. The blood is everywhere. Andrew says nothing. Tom takes the gun from Vincent and lays one huge, warm hand on the back of Vincent’s neck. Holds him there a moment. It’s a sonofabitch, he says. Then the farmer tells his sons to go inside, rustle up some breakfast. Flapjacks would be good. Maybe some of that sausage.
At the edge of the field, Vincent stops and looks back. His father kneels beside Estella, leans toward her empty eyes, says something no one else will ever hear. Then his father takes the green tin of bag balm from his jacket pocket. Dips his big, cracked fingers into the yellow grease. Strokes those fingers along the dead girl’s udders. Carefully. Lovingly.
Shannon L. Bowring
Shannon L. Bowring’s work has appeared in numerous journals, has been nominated for a Pushcart and a Best of the Net, and was selected for Best Small Fictions 2021. She is a Finalist for the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance Maine Literary Awards. Shannon earned her MFA at Stonecoast, where she served as Editor-in-Chief for the Stonecoast Review. She lives in Maine, where she works for a public library.
“You know, Jay Foxx, if Studdbecker had intercepted that pass before the half, the result might have been completely different.”
“Perhaps, Marv, the fans would have demonstrated so long and so loud that the game would have been suspended. Called perhaps. Perhaps even the half-game show would have been canceled. And we might have had to fill a couple of hours of dead network air.”
“And, Jay, it was the Birds’ air attack—”
“Perhaps an unforeseen eclipse would have suddenly darkened the field so that, even under lights, the teams would have turned terrified their eyes to the skies.
“Or perhaps, Marv, sunspot activity would have so interfered with radio waves that the coaches would have failed to rouse their eyes in the skies. Our own broadcast might have failed.
“You have to think about it, Marv: If a football falls and there’s no video to record it, does it ever fall really?”
“Jay, I don’t think–”
“For all we know, if Studdbecker had intercepted, the idea of football would have ceased to exist. If it had ever existed at all. At that point. You’re right, Marv, the result might have been completely different. Completely different.”
“And speaking of something different, Jay—”
“On the other hand, Studdbecker might have scored… ”
“That’s what I meant in the first place, Jay, because then—”
“… with the resulting overconfidence among Studdbecker’s teammates at the hat (debilitating the Blues’ efforts to assemble any offense in the second half even as the Birds would have rallied to score touchdown after touchdown.)”
“Forget it, Jay. Will you please just forget it? Studdbecker did not — he did not — get the I-N-T.”
“No. But even if he had, Marv, the Blues might have fumbled it back to the Birds on the next play allowing them to score so that the result might have been the same although arrived at slightly differently, right?”
“I as well.”
“And so the Birds won the game.”
“Let’s send it back to New York then.”
“Yes. Let’s try.”
A native New Yorker, James Penha has lived for the past three decades in Indonesia. Nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and poetry, his work is widely published in journals and anthologies. His newest chapbook of poems, American Daguerreotypes, is available for Kindle. His essays have appeared in The New York Daily News and The New York Times. Penha edits The New Verse News, an online journal of current-events poetry. Twitter: @JamesPenha
“These are the facts of life,” our camp bunk counselor Peggy would say, minutes before any camp social, glancing at her watch ticking away as if we were connected to the time bomb that each boy contained behind his jeans fly.
“The average teenage male’s brain is soaked in sex,” she told us, and I thought of a towel dropped in a bathtub, too heavy with water to wring.
As for the fourteen-year-old girls who were in her charge, we were no different than the boys. Maybe even more dangerous, our eggs all revved up and ready to go, like a souped-up Mustang in a drag race.
Peggy was from Arkansas – a state none of us had ever heard and could have been as distant as Mars. Every morning she brushed her long bone-colored hair eighty strokes a minute
and then massaged Vaseline into her scalp. She had lost her left eye to a stray golf ball and in the empty pocket she could see miracles of light, bursts of purple, green and gold, a constellation of the Lord’s color. A large gold crucifix flapped against her concave chest as Peggy shouted out directions for lifesaving as we swam in the cold Maine lake. She could teach us not to sink if our sailboats capsized but when it came to boys, we were all hell bent on drowning.
She prayed quietly in the middle of our cabin, her words competing with the
buzzing mosquitoes and The Archie’s Sugar, Sugar. We traded lipsticks, practiced kissing our Bobby Sherman posters, tongues licking the crinkled paper that tasted like Cutter repellant. We, the girls of Cabin Nine, were all lost causes.
“Please stop,” Peggy begged as we stuffed our bras with Kleenex.
Peggy also had the gift for predicting the future. One night, during a thunderstorm, she made us sit in a circle and announced our names: Cindy, Diana, Helen, Jill, Karen, Sylvia and Rachel. I wondered why I, Rachel, was the last on her list. Cindy, who wore thick rimmed-glasses and had braces, would be a film star. Diana, who was already a tennis star at the camp, would one day play at stadiums around the world. Helen would be a nurse, although we had seen Helen once faint at the sight of blood when she scraped her knee. Jill, the only girl who had divorced parents, would never be married but find happiness in a place filled with deserts and camels. Karen would have six children with three different men. As she spoke, her face would be lit up by the streaks of lightening outside. She never predicted anyone else’s future because the lightning went out and we all screamed. “Now that’s enough,” she told us, leaving the cabin to inspect if there was damage outside our cabin because of the storm. Later that week I begged her to tell me what would happen to me, but she only took a deep breath and exhaled so deeply that I could feel her breath across my face.
That Sunday, the bus that took Peggy to church overturned and bounced down the mountain like a “yellow rubber ball,” according to one witness. We did not know how to grieve and just read our Tiger Beat magazines.
Our new counselor was named Summer, a beautiful California hippie who had been to Altamont and told us how she had seen the Hells Angels beat up people. Summer was the opposite of Peggy, and several of the girls sprayed lemon juice on their scalps so they could have her same butter blonde hair color.
Yet Peggy still hovered us, her warnings hot against our skin like a sunburn that wouldn’t heal. We couldn’t explain to Summer why none of wanted to attend that last camp social.
Instead, we sat in a circle outside our cabin, staring at the stars in the night sky, each girl holding each other’s hands. This was our own memorial service. It was as if Peggy sacrificed herself for our collective virginity, our eggs safely nestled inside us mute and idle like dead car batteries.
Penny Jackson is an award-winning writer who lives in New York City. Her books include BECOMING THE BUTLERS (Bantam Books) and a short story collection L.A. CHILD and other stories (Untried Reads.) She has won a Pushcart Prize for her short fiction and was a McDowell Colony Fellow. Penny is also a playwright with plays produced in New York, Los Angeles, Edinburgh, and Dublin. www.pennybrandtjackson.com.
Striving to inject some wonder and whimsy into people’s humdrum days, an older man with a sense of humor installed a plaque in front of his stately home reading: “Queenston Heritage, Frederick John Wimple, 1812-1896, Inventor of Time Travel, Lived here in 2065.” The installation was done discreetly, such that no one really knows when it occurred.
Recently, a local doctoral student decided to covertly document the amount of time that tourists and passersby spent looking at the numerous heritage and historic plaques dotting the quaint village which 19th century Mr. Wimple had called home in the late 21st century. The researcher’s results were made public in the form of an article published in a local paper.
Having great pride in the relatively large role their home has played in the forming of a now great nation, townspeople were dismayed to learn that on average most people spent twice as long reading the plaque pertaining to Frederick John Wimple. Given that the dozen or so other plaques detailed in the study typically contained ten times the amount of information as the Wimple marker, this was seen as evidence of an apathetic populace and confirmation that we’re living in a post-truth era.
Looking to draw evermore visitor traffic to benefit the local business community, it recently leaked that the village council was furtively formulating plans to install several other fictional “contemplative plaques.” Additionally, the grand Victorian home at the purported site of Mr. Wimple’s past residence of the future was recently sold off-market for an exorbitant amount of money to a mysterious theoretical physics think tank based overseas.
Scott G. Harvey
SCOTT G. HARVEY teaches psychology at SUNY Buffalo State and resides in the Niagara Region of Ontario with an ever-changing mixture of humans, cats, dogs, and chickens. He is the author of Savagely Noble: A Young Man’s Journey from Ignorance, Through Illusion, To Identity. His short fiction has appeared in Short Story Avenue.
The mangos were rotting—that’s how I knew she was going to die.
Doria Day was a simple woman—some people are just like that. She would get up in the morning and walk her three miniature poodles, shower, and drink coffee while she read the newspaper. Doria Day still read the newspaper.
When she’d moved into town, there was already a mango tree in her backyard, right in the view from my window. I’d lived there my whole life, and there had never been mangos. The day after she moved in, there were plenty. She would pick them, placing them delicately into wicker baskets—but there were always mangos.
My grandmother had taught me about the trees when I was young. She’d said they just wait for the right person, like a soulmate. That’s why some people called them Soul Trees—my grandmother had called them Trees of Life. These Trees of Life say a lot about a person—what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling. They droop when the person is sick, and they flourish when they are well and happy. Everyone has one, somewhere—we had one for me in the front yard, but it was apples. Bright, shiny red apples, growing since the day I was born.
Doria Day’s mangos were rotting. The leaves were still fine, implying she was in good health—an accident then? Supposedly, they could tell the future like that.
I made plans to see her—we agreed I would take her to do her weekend shopping, after she walked her three miniature poodles, showered, drank her coffee, and read the newspaper. She insisted on reading the newspaper.
That day, I put on shoes and a light jacket to protect against the morning chill, and stepped out of my front door, stopping only to take in the presence of my own tree—sometimes, it just felt comforting to see my thoughts and feelings, my health and wellbeing, reflected in the tangible world, something to remind me that I was doing okay. Reaching up into the branches, I plucked fruit from between the leaves, taking a bite; I’ve always loved the taste of apples—it was like the taste of existing. I’d been so busy with school and work lately, it was a relief to finally stop and savor the sweet fruit for the first time in over a week. Delicious juice dripped down my chin; I licked my lips clean as I stepped away from the tree, tantalizing flavor bleeding over my tongue as I chewed.
Thoughts turning to the day ahead, my foot caught something soft and unnatural. I swallowed the fruit in my mouth, and looked under my shoe to see a rotting apple, oozing into the grass, brown and rancid.
KJ Angelo is a queer Latinx writer, editor, and translator living in Portland, Oregon; KJ is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from the Rainier Writing Workshop.