April 2022 | fiction
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.
January 2022 | fiction
He watched his bride of fifty years as she read Science magazine while nibbling a liverwurst and onion sandwich. He carefully avoided looking at the liverwurst. He wondered how two such incompatible people could stay married for fifty years.
He peeked at the article. Something about mitochondria or whatever. She never bothered with the astronomy or quantum stuff. Who would do that? How could two such incompatible…
He should let her be, but something else was nagging at him. “How come I never make you laugh?”
Irritated, she answered without looking up. “With, or at?”
Now she looked directly at him. “You tell everybody you don’t know how to tell a joke or even remember an entire joke, and you ask me that?”
“I can’t remember ever making you split your gut, wet your panties, fall off your chair –”
“No thank you.”
“OK, how come you never make me laugh?”
“Baby, you laugh all the time. I hear you chuckling in the shower. Sometimes I hear you giggling when you claim to be ‘working.’ You are an infinite source of self-amusement. If you could cook, you wouldn’t need me for anything.” She turned back to her article.
That made him think. His favorite long joke of all time was the “European Heaven/European Hell” joke. He loved it, but he could never get it straight (“… and the Swiss… umm…”), so he carried a crumpled copy in his billfold. Looking back, he guessed nobody would be thrilled to hear some guy say “You wanna hear a great joke?” then see him pull something out of his wallet.
Then he remembered what she’d said about his dragging that joke out of his back pocket: “You just can’t keep it in your pants.” He laughed out loud and thought, Sometimes she’s wicked funny.
She turned another page, shaking her head. There you go again.
Thomas Reed Willemain
Dr. Thomas Reed Willemain is former academic who is swapping working with numbers for playing with words. His flash fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Granfalloon, Burningword Literary Journal, Hobart, The Medley, and elsewhere. A native of western Massachusetts, he lives near the Mohawk River in upstate New York.
January 2022 | fiction
A full moon turned the tops of the coastal dunes blue and shone silver off the Pacific. Alex sat next to Sophia, not touching, silent. They stared into the bonfire fueled by creosote bush and sage. Its smoke filled the air with a musky, earthy scent. Sophia’s shoulders shook. With her head bowed, her long blonde hair hid her face.
Alex turned, reached out and raised her chin. He leaned forward and lightly kissed each tear-filled eye, tasting the salt. Her trembling lips felt as soft as he remembered from months before.
“I’ve gotta go,” he said.
“It’ll get easier.”
“Easier for whom?”
Alex dropped her hand and struggled to his feet in the deep sand. “Goodbye, Sophia . . . sorry.”
He moved along the trail and into the nearby trees, using his cell phone light to guide the way. The eucalyptus rustled in the onshore breeze, their scimitar leaves rattling. Don’t look back. Whatever you do, don’t look back. Don’t look.
But he did.
Sophia sat cross-legged before the fire, still close enough for Alex to hear her sobs. She beat her legs with her fists and rocked back and forth. A night heron called. Alex stared at his cell phone screen.
With trembling fingers he texted, “Sophia, are you all right?”
Her cell buzzed and she dug into her purse and retrieved the phone. She stared at it for a long time before answering, “No.”
Alex’s cell buzzed when he received her reply. Sophia turned and stared toward the trees where he hid. She struggled to her feet, the curve of her belly mirroring the curve of the moon. She faced him across the darkness, a ghostly silhouette rimmed in soft blue. Alex felt that exquisite pain, that internal compression that can bend iron. He took a step back into the trees and breathed in their fragrance. The eucalyptus rattled even louder.
He moved forward, toward the fire and Sophia.
Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and two plump cats (his in-house critics). He writes full-time, producing short stories, essays, and novels. His short stories have been accepted more than 440 times by journals, magazines, and anthologies including The Potomac Review, The Bryant Literary Review, and Shenandoah. He was nominated twice for Pushcart Prizes and once for inclusion in Best of the Net anthology. Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist – who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.
January 2022 | fiction
My plane descended from the white-hot sky as slowly as the soufflé I had baked for the dinner at which I planned to celebrate my engagement to Ross. He canceled, calling to say we should date other people, and hung up without a goodbye, good luck, or farewell kiss. After several hours, I stopped phoning and texting. I had my pride.
I tried hanging myself, but the heating pipe did not support my weight. My life savings went to my landlord and his thieving plumber and carpenter. Drinking myself to death failed as I passed out before my blood alcohol achieved a fatal level. I turned to jaywalking, first city streets, then Interstates, but survived every crossing. God had chosen me to live long and suffer.
Now, under a white sun, my mouth filled with sucking candies to guarantee an ample supply of saliva, I prepared to spit on the white pine coffin mocking me from the bottom of Ross’s grave. Mourners shunned me as if they knew I was one of the damned. I did not try to hide it.
“I’m Ross’s mom.” A woman, veiled and wreathed in black, offered a gloved hand.
I steeled myself against syrupy reminiscences. She would expect some in return and I had none to offer.
“You must be Tomãs,” she said. “Ross found out the afternoon he called. He did not want to ruin a second life.” She lowered her eyes and returned to the arms of her surviving children.
The heat-sealed my tear ducts and cottoned my mouth. The sun fired my hair. Shame burned away my skin, exposing my soul to the solar wind. I hurled myself onto Ross’s coffin, clinging to it with such ferocity it took all eight pallbearers to break my death grip and wrestle my lifeless body from his grave.
Liss’s first novel was published in July 2020 and second novel will be published in May 2022. He’s a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee, a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Prize, the St. Lawrence Book Award, and the Bakeless Prize. He’s published over 55 short stories in, inter alia, The Saturday Evening Post, The South Dakota Review, The South Carolina Review, H.O.W. Literary Journal, Two Bridges Review, Hunger Mountain, The Florida Review, Carve Magazine, and Fifth Wednesday Journal. He earned an MFA from Emerson College, Boston, MA, and leads a fiction workshop at the St. Botolph Club, Boston, MA. Visit his website at www.sfredericliss.com for more information.
January 2022 | fiction, nonfiction
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.
January 2022 | fiction
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.