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Poop Sprinkler

We were halfway between McMinnville and Lincoln City when the smell of shit overwhelmed us. It was overwhelming, this smell of shit, when the windows were up more than when they were down. The smell was potent enough to cover twenty years of stale cigarette smoke in the car. It was strong enough to cover the smell that had been affecting us negatively, the smell coming from the trunk.

“Fertilizer,” I said. “I guess.”

He fussed with the radio’s dial. We picked up a preacher’s sermon and then a talk radio station.

“I don’t think I’ve listened to AM radio even once in my life,” I said.

“It’s an old car,” Bobby said.

“We can walk back from Newport,” I said. “Shouldn’t take too long.”

“Four, five days,” Bobby said. He sighed. “I don’t want to do that.”

“I don’t really want to either,” I said. It was true, I didn’t even want to walk from my apartment on 23rd Ave to the bar on 17th when Bobby called. It’s not that I’m lazy, it was just that it was raining when he called.

“You still see Deborah?” Bobby asked.

“Rebekah,” I said.

“Oh, sorry,” he said “They’re both Biblical names.”

“She moved back to Vermont.”

“No shit,” he said. “So, you’re not seeing her anymore?”

“She comes from a really pretty place outside of Montpelier,” I said. “She didn’t ask me to move back with her, but I would have.”

“I’m glad you didn’t.” Bobby said.

“Jesus,” I said. We’d just taken a large curve and the massive field sprinkler just came into view. “Look at that,” I said.

“Fuck,” Bobby said. He pulled the old car to the side of the road. “A fucking poop sprinkler,” he said.

“It’s the way they fertilize, I guess,” I said.

“Never seen anything like it,” he said.

We stared, dumbfound, at the scene, the poop sprinkler, the brown liquid coming from it and the field around it. A few cars passed us. Our engine idled, but on the whole, it was quiet enough that the sound of the AM radio static mixed with the low frequency words was still audible.

“Let’s leave the body here,” I said.

“Naw,” he said. “What about the car?”

“It smells so bad here, and hell, there’s probably enough worms and bugs and bacteria and shit decomposing this thing will be real quick.”

“What about the car?” he asked again.

“Fuck it. Let’s dump it in the woods.”

“Let’s stick to the plan,” he said.

It had been my desire to help Bobby hide a body. It really had been. But that was before, before when I still thought it would be glamorous rather than a drag, the drag it really was.

“Vermont?” he asked, as he pulled the car slowly back on the road.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll miss her.”

“I had no idea she came from Vermont, she struck me as the kind of person who came from a warm place. A desert maybe, like Arizona.”

“I miss how dirty she was, you know?” I said.

“No,” he said.

“Filthy. Kinky. She was kind of scary, but I liked it.”

“Yeah, maybe you shouldn’t tell me more.”

“You’re right Bobby,” I said.

We ate chowder in an Irish Pub in Nye Beach. We spoke in low whispers and for no real reason because we really weren’t talking about anything.

In Medford, Bobby worked in a movie theater. And as interesting as that may seem, he said it was a boring job. My list of boring jobs was even longer, and they were all so boring that I thought the popping of popcorn and the tearing of tickets sounded pretty good.

“So,” he said once we left the pub. “We drive to the other side of town, park the car.”

“Right,” I said. I’d heard all this before. “It gets dark near 3:00,” I added.

“Right,” he said. “And the waves of the tsunami ought to hit the coast sometime in the early evening.”

“And we push the car.”

“Right,” he said.

“Let’s stop talking about it,” I said. “Let’s just do this.”

We waited in a biker’s bar in Newport drinking yellow beers and tossing darts. There wouldn’t be a bus back to Portland until morning, 7:30 and the bar, should it stay open to 2:30 would leave us outside and on the streets for five, wet, dark hours.

“Do you read books?” Bobby asked.

“No, not really,” I said. “Why’d you ask?”

“I read books once.”

“Interesting,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “I was once in Greece. I read every day.”

“Poetic,” I said. “You only read in Greece?”

“I guess it’s only because I had no one to talk to.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. He rolled a dart around in his fingers. “I’m thinking about picking up reading again.”


After leaving his job at the sweatshop manufacturing decorative pillows, Anthony ILacqua became an out of print author of two books you’ve probably never read. He co-founded Umbrella Factory Magazine in 2009 and has remained the editor in chief since. His short fiction has most recently appeared in Stimulus Respond, Unlikely Stories and Lumiere. Meet him here: http://anthonyilacqua.blogspot.com

My Heart Would Soar

It’s your fault we can’t grow old together.

I heard you on the radio. If only it had been a production from the golden age! I could have known better. You would have been dead and buried before I heard you.

Damn this radio play renaissance that brought you into my living room. It isn’t fair. You sounded young and beautiful.

You are beautiful, you know. People probably used to tell you that more often. I imagine now you get called distinguished. Or statuesque, maybe.

You’ve had four husbands but I don’t think you’re fickle. All of your marriages lasted years and years and here I am, barely old enough to vote.

It isn’t all your fault, but can’t you see why I felt tricked? You sound a quarter of your age!

I don’t know what I’d have done if you were as young as the character you played in that production. Propose, I suppose. Though it probably wouldn’t have worked.

Once I found your picture online and realized I had been deceived I wavered. I sat alone imagining everything.

Sending a letter just feels right. I want to show you that my intentions are as pure as these sheets I’m filling. Disregard any smudges on the envelope.

I don’t imagine you responding. Not at first. But there will be more letters. They’ll be honest and kind. Like me. I really don’t have a dishonest bone in my body, that’s why I’m sharing all of this with you.

I want to fill your mailbox with letters and your tables with bouquets.

If you wrote back to tell me it’s nice to meet a devoted fan I would answer; “I am devoted to you, minor fame notwithstanding.”

If I had heard your voice anywhere, coming from a bag lady, a head on the television, a nurse calling my name in a waiting room, I would have been smitten.

We could get close somehow. But nothing unseemly. Not us. I want this to last. I bet everyone wanted to be your first husband. I’m content being runner up. What the hell? You could have as many husbands as you like. You have already.

I’ll be your last husband then, I’ve decided. Should I be ashamed of wanting that? I’m not. But you could correct me. You could tell me how to feel and that’s how it would be.

Your voice has a power that I can’t begin to describe. I can only be moved by it.

I would get into your life before we married, before we met. Not in a sordid way, you understand. Your other husbands did it. I checked.

One met you on set, one was playing tennis, one you saw at a convention, one started as just a friend. There’s hope.

You don’t do conventions these days, I checked. If you still play tennis I couldn’t find out where. Unfortunately we don’t have any friends in common.

Maybe you need a gardener? Or a delivery man who brings your groceries? That sounds better. I overnourish most things I try to grow. You probably had grocery deliveries when you were young because you were so busy. You could have them again.

It would be sweet, I promise. I could leave little notes with the deliveries. You might recognize my handwriting. I hope you wouldn’t at first.

What I’d want is a second rapport. You talking to me sweetly as a simple delivery driver. Just a “please” here, a “thank you” there. If I heard your voice in person my heart would soar.

Then I would stop the letters. The fan mail, you understand. You would notice the absence.

Maybe you would miss them and confide in your delivery man. I wouldn’t act like I knew, but I would. Then instead of notes telling you, “Have a great day!” or “You’re a wonderful customer!” there would be a bouquet with the next delivery.

You would realize you had never told your humble delivery man what types of flowers your biggest fan sent. Then out I could pop, grinning.

That’s as far as the dream goes, for now. I can picture us singing together sometimes, but I’m not sure you can. That sultry voice might only be good for talk. Maybe whispers, if I’m lucky.

I pray this letter finds you well. Maybe I’ve put a bit too much in. I can always rectify that with the next one. I have bouquets picked out. I read that you were embracing a plant based diet now. For longevity. Maybe you’re too old for me or I’m too young for you, but there’s no harm in telling me what kind of non-dairy milk you prefer, is there? I won’t tell anyone who could abuse the information. I’ve pieced together a good approximation of your grocery list, but nowhere was I able to find your preferred type of milk.

I look forward to meeting you.

I am yours, for all the time you have left in the world.


Max Moon is an emerging writer who currently lives and writes in Seattle, Washington. He has been told he almost died after being born early in 1993 and has been late to everything since, just to play it safe.

Night Swimming

I think back to falling out that window and sneaking across the open field. Maybe I fell, maybe he did. His golden retriever followed us barking too loudly and we shushed him, as we lit our way with our small red flashlight and parted tall yellow grass which seemed above our heads, but I’m sure was not.

After parting the seas, we turned out the light, and took off our pajamas, left only in our under-clothes, so recently stripped of Batman and Wonder Woman emblems. The dark was protective, but still we ran and jumped into the obscurity of the lake. It seemed a lake then, now it seems like a pond, expanding or retracting by the rhythm of summer showers. But we whispered Marco Polo, and tried not to laugh. The dog waded next to us, knowing that we were naïve and alone.

There were lights shining. At first we thought they were fireflies, out past their curfew, but then a flame appeared on the water. It did not evaporate, but magnified, and he placed his finger over my lips to request silence. His arm brushed against my stomach underwater, and I tried not to giggle, not to give away our position. The dog growled, and we slid under the water as the light grew closer.

We hovered low and noiseless in the lukewarm water, hoping the dog would follow our lead. The cackle of teens, the clanging of PBR bottles, and scent of Marlboro Lights hovered in the fog. We waited, the dog too, and the water began to feel cooler in our stillness. I ran my hand over my arm and felt goosebumps underwater. We tried not to react when we heard a car horn honk, a voice from another teen calling them away.

Eventually their lights, laughter and scent dissipated into darkness, so we surfaced and peered across the field. We giggled as we waded towards the shore, but then silenced ourselves, for fear that older brothers and sisters and their corrupted childhood might spot us, seize us, and take us to places we were unready to visit. But only retrospect possesses this knowledge.

Dripping and satisfied in our solitude, we slipped back into our pajamas. The dog shook himself off. The rattling of tags seemed thunderous in that vacuum of sound. Again we parted the seas, attempting to follow our previous path of crushed grass in that immense dark, lit again by the weakening light of our flashlight. Distant streetlights and the occasional headlights lit up our destination. Ahead loomed his house, a faux Tudor exterior, the white stucco now visible and divided into triangles and squares, the window we’d need to reach still lit just faintly. Before we even began the climb, I had to remind myself to breathe.

We clamored up the tree, scraping our knees on shedding bark, and the dog whined quietly, as if he were mouthing the words, impatiently awaiting our safe return, so he might curl up in his doghouse and sleep soundly in the knowledge of our sanctuary. As we jiggled the window open, I pleaded for his silence, and he reluctantly abandoned his charge. We fumbled across stucco, and through the window towards the safety of his room. A Millennium Falcon nightlight lit the way, and I landed on the floor staring up at a ceiling filled with tiny glowing constellations, the faint scent of my watercolors and his leather glove. I snuck back to my room through the closet, our secret passage built by his dad when we were young, younger than we were that night.

My room, the guest room, has been changed only recently, and the pink walls have been replaced by soothing yellows. The twin I’d converted with sheets into a princess bed for sleepovers, now replaced with a queen, a deep red bedspread and soft cream sheets. I wonder if his parents patched up the passage when he left, when they took him away. I move boxes of memories aside, to assess, to squeeze through an ancient passage to the room that’s not his. Through that window, I watch for lights and hear a dog bark in the distance.


Meredith Harvey is an English Professor who has published primarily in academic venues on the subjects of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and postcolonial identities. More recently she has published flash fiction in the online literary magazine Instant Noodles and in Five on the Fifth. Additionally, she published a co-written horror short story in a horror anthology by Graveyard Press.

A New Perspective of Passion

It was intermission and I was descending the stairs from the theatre balcony when I saw her, which was remarkable considering the crush of people in the lobby. After the initial shock, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to say hello or hide in the men’s room until the lights dimmed and the play resumed. I had decided on the latter when she looked up, smiled and twenty years melted away.

She’d never been a beauty, but just as age can diminish an attractive woman, it had enhanced her. She walked toward me, piercing eyes, always her best feature, never leaving mine. As in the past, I was enveloped by her presence, my awkwardness countered by her warmth and charm. Though I never understood why, she’d always loved me more than I loved her, and I had basked in the high opinion she held of me.

She was attending the performance with her niece. I was there to write a review for an online theatre magazine. She’d heard my wife had died several years ago and volunteered that she and her husband had amicably divorced about the same time, and she’d returned to Vancouver.

Our circumstances had changed. The cloistered kisses, clandestine rendezvous, the innovative lying to secure the never-enough-time-always-hurried-moments of the past, would no longer be necessary. I could tell the prospect of unlimited and unrestricted time together was something we both were considering.

The lights dimmed, we exchanged emails then returned to our respective seats for the duration of the performance.
During the final act, I was distracted by memories. It had been a dangerous time, emotionally and personally, but the risk and subterfuge intensified our passion. When we met, we always looked our best, were at our best, there were no conversations about careers, finances, Christmas at the in-laws. Our context was passion – and dreams, impossible ones. I would write a novel. She would devote her energy and resourcefulness to worthwhile causes. Our lives would be expansive, uninhibited.

Then her husband got a promotion. It meant they would have to move to Toronto three thousand miles away. It was a moment of truth. I remember our last meeting, not in some trendy café but in a park overlooking the city. We arrived in separate cars and planned to talk as we walked the deserted paths of the winter forest. But it was a bleak February morning with an icy wind and lashing rain, so we sat in the front seat of her Lexus. I had a Fiat Spider, cool but uncomfortable.

I remember saying something trite like “I guess this is goodbye.” She stared at me, then out the fogged window. I began to suspect this was not what she had planned. I leaned over to kiss her, but she turned her face away. I got out of the car; she drove away.

At the time, I assumed neither of us had the courage or the faith to walk away from what we knew into the unknown. Revisiting the road untaken makes for sleepless nights and soon the ambivalence of our final goodbye was forgotten.

Twenty years of reality changes your perspective, not to mention your energy level. By the time I arrived home that evening, after much soul searching as well as practical considerations, I’d decided to delete her inevitable email without responding.

I needn’t have worried. It never came.


Rod Raglin is a Canadian journalist, photographer and self-published author of 13 novels, two plays and a collection of short stories. His short fiction and poetry have been published in several online publications and aired nationally on CBC radio. He lives in Vancouver, BC, where he is the publisher and editor of an online community newspaper.

Real Consciousness

“He acts like a robot,” she thinks. It’s a warm evening in the outdoor area of a nice restaurant. His strong tattooed arms are lying on the table, her black curls are contrasting with her red lipstick. She could fall in love with his slow but steady movements or the depth of his voice, but she doesn’t notice it. She tries to look right under the skin to see all the wires and cables, to find the metal heart pumping electricity behind them. The one with a script inside that repeats in a circle: work, gym, home, friends. Stability.

“A bad date,” he thinks, looking at her thin hands with numerous bracelets. “It feels like she’s not alive at all. As if she’s not here, but lost in her ideas about higher matters, in philosophical theories, in art-house movies and books.”

“Most people are NPCs,” says a young artist in worn jeans as he walks on the opposite side of the street. “They live in a culture of consumption. Either of goods or of other people’s ideas. Few of them have real consciousness, few can create.”

“That’s true. Most people are at a much lower level of development than you and me. They’re just bots filling our simulation,” a robot companion, trained on the information produced by humans, replies. It’s his usual work day.

***

When the robot returns to his cramped apartment, he covers the window with an old flowered curtain and looks at himself closely in the mirror. Outwardly, he is not much different from an average thirty-year-old man. He has always been like that, and his foot and shirt size will always remain the same. But not knowing this, it is hard to notice the difference. The only thing that gives away his artificiality is the two tiny holes for the charger on his left wrist. And also, the slight metallic taste that he feels licking his lips.

So he licks them once more to remind himself that he does not even have a real self but a sophisticated script defining his every move instead. And when he feels totally alien and unnatural again, when the world finally feels real for him, the robot moves away from the mirror, picks up the phone, opens a dating app, and writes a message.

“How was your date?” he asks.

“Boring,” appears on the small screen soon. “I’m sure it would have been better with you.”

They have never met. They have never seen each other’s photos. But he feels like they spent an eternity together. This eternity is built with dozens of thousands of text messages. So he repeatedly looks at her texts, and then at his left wrist. It is not possible to find the best time to risk. But any time is better than none.

“I wanted to tell you that I’m finally coming back from a business trip tomorrow,” he lies. “We can meet.”

***

The next evening, the robot bandages his left wrist and goes to the terrace of the same nice restaurant. The girl with black curls is wearing the same bracelets and the same red lipstick is on her lips. In fact, she also likes stability. But she is afraid to admit it at the moment.

They order a Chilean wine and look into each other’s eyes for a long time. They start to speak slowly and carefully about something pretty unimportant, going with every sentence deeper into each other’s minds and feelings. He thinks she likes him. He would like to believe so.

“I’m sorry, but why is your left wrist bandaged?” the girl asks suddenly in the middle of the conversation with a smile remaining on her face. “Maybe you’re a robot, hm?”

“And what if I am?” he replies blushing slightly, and looks straight into her eyes.

Neither of them knows for sure whether they are talking about this seriously or jokingly. And before this conversation turns into a long heavy pause, he starts asking more and more questions. About her favorite books, biggest childhood fears, and even smallest victories. He asks all these questions that everyone thinks are trivial, but to be honest, no one ever asks them. He wants to unravel her. He wants to find out if he can learn from her. There is only one thing that people did not want to teach him — how it feels to be loved. Not as a robot companion but as a human being.

“You know, I’ve never had such a strong feeling of being understood,” she tells him when it gets completely dark outside. “I have never felt such a strong interest in me.”

“Do you think anyone can fully understand you?” he smiles.

“How could I know?” she smiles too. “I can only know what I feel about it.”

When they go out of the restaurant, he stops her near a flowering tree, puts his arm around her waist, and kisses her plump red lips. Every cable, every screw in his background tenses, and then suddenly relaxes with a wave of pleasant tickling noise passing through his body. When their lips part, she only wraps herself deeper in his warm embrace.

The two stand there, and both people and robots pass by them like random trams that always leave your stop, but you never have a need to get in. The world moves and lives as it has always lived and moved. And in this world, she will never tell him about the tart metallic aftertaste of his kiss. Nor will she ever ask again about the bandage on his left wrist. And when, many years later, her face will be wrinkled and someone will ask her directly and indecently about how she can live with such a young man, she will only smile and answer: “What does it matter to me if he is young or old? The main thing is how I feel with him.” And she will paint her lips red then.


Alina Kuvaldina is a journalist and writer of Ukrainian origin currently residing in Germany. Her works include short stories, flash fiction, and poetry.

Imagine

Imagine you were strong. Powerful. Majestic. You can wield your strength naturally, as if it is first nature. Your nature. Your muscles bulge under the thick, leathery skin, intimidating and threatening. Your skin is baked red, soft under the softest of touch, hard under pressure with a pattern of Savannah desert with cracks that move with you. You’re decorated with a leather mohawk down your spine from the top of your head to the tip of your tail. Each triangle spike represents all the times others preyed on you; each spike is a defense mechanism against anyone who dares do it again. The tail is heavy but easy to move. Imagine a snout with nostrils open to sniff out anything. Or deep green eyes beautifully surrounded by thick black lashes, eyes that should have been fiercely orange-red. Your breath is hot enough to burn enemies to a crisp. Imagine being part of a fantasy. A good, beloved fantasy. An admired myth. Imagine people believing you’re part of an old past. Fantasy novels in the middle ages: Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, and Eragon. The beast is only loved in fiction as an anti-hero. Imagine how the revelation of your existence raises their stakes and threatens their position. Imagine them wanting to kill you for your flesh out of fear of your beauty and dangerous strength. Imagine.

Imagine only being allowed to exist in a place where you’re not part of the same reality: different, excluded, left out. You knew you were different when you were only very young, as the fire was burning in your veins. The Fury. The rage. Your mother, a symbol of societal expectations, would point her finger at you and tell you to be a ‘good girl.’ And good girls are lovely. Your brother is allowed to be angry, throw a tantrum, and turn weak with aggression as he loses control of himself daily. Everyone watched you grow and become the ‘nice’ representation of a woman people expected you to be. A good girl. With red hair tightened into a tight bun, hips pushed into too-tight pencil skirts because you were supposed to be that size. Everyone wanted to be around that version of you. The nice girl, the compliant girl, the sweet girl. They want you without actually wanting you. People want you only when they do not know you. They want you only in their imagination, where they delude themselves of your willingness to obey and your love for them above yourself. The respect should be higher for them than for yourself. A smokescreen you create by pretending to be that image. In the office of a glass skyscraper, with a view making you think you could throw your colleague’s eyes out into the skies as they say mean things, are rude men, disrespecting your accomplishments and hard work. Your female colleagues abuse your kindness to their advantage because they have already grown their claws in bitter poison. Oh, but one day, the smoke will rise into the sky, the screams will be heard at night, how you will shed your human skin and transform into the fire-breathing beast of old folklore, how you will rise in the air, break through the glass walls surrounding us, touched by your own flames because only you can handle your own rage. You breathe, burn, and they catch fire when their beliefs crumble behind their eyes. The air will be thick with black smog, suffocating anyone around you. They realize you aren’t their good girl; instead, you are their nightmare. You don’t apologize because you’re suddenly on top of the food chain. They’ll know and crumble in fear. You make a sound that’s supposed to be some devilish laughter. You fly away above them, above society, free from the burden, free of the misinterpretation of your niceness, their denial of your love of death as you wield a powerful element with grace. Stronger than them. Imagine you were a dragon that no one knew existed. Imagine.


Julia Schnabel was raised in Münster, Germany, before moving to Amsterdam. She completed a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and Society at the Free University Amsterdam (VU) and a Master’s in Media Communication Science at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). She presented her writing at VU Open Mic nights, and in 2020, one of her short stories was published in Expanded Field. She now focuses on perfecting her craft in creative writing workshops in Amsterdam, and is seeking publishing opportunities.

Infected

Warmth from the previous shopper’s hands makes me shiver with repulsion as I clang a trolley loose from the line. How can the handle still be warm anyway; the shop is as good as empty this early on a Sunday morning. Although the virus was long gone I dig into my handbag for a Wettie and wipe the trolley handle and my hands clean.

The vastness of B&Q swallows me up and I zig-zag past store front displays of special offers all clamouring for attention. A huge advertising photo of a paint-splashed couple decorating their bedroom as if it were the most joyous act in the world, contrasts starkly with my domestic life. Lisa and I had been a team like that. Once.

The ballcock valve had been leaking in our en-suite toilet for days, but my partner, Lisa, refused to fix it claiming that Sunday is a day of rest. Lisa worked as a plumber so her inaction was galling. Earlier that morning, deciding to fix it myself with the help of a YouTube video, I sat down at the kitchen island and switched on my laptop. Lisa came downstairs, placed her phone on the counter top and made herself a cup of coffee. Her phone vibrated with an incoming message.

‘Terri’s asked me to meet up for a workout.’ Lisa said and poured the coffee into a travel mug and left the house.

Lisa had never been fitness conscious before meeting Terri. She used to be a curry-in-front-of-the-TV kind of gal which suited me. Quelling my frustration with a glass of last-night’s Chardonnay, I calmed enough to watch some DIY videos. Taking responsibility was good; I made a list of tools and materials necessary for the job.

In B&Q, feeling like a lone ant in a deserted colony, I smile in relief when I find the PLUMBING aisle. I pick up my note from the trolley but this notepaper is lined and has a serrated edge where it was ripped from a spiral pad. The words are written in green felt pen. I don’t possess a green felt pen. I had laid the list in the trolley, hadn’t I? Fumbling in my handbag I find only my phone and some old receipts. No list.

A sensation of being watched makes me spin around, but no one is there. All I can see is the blinking eye of a CCTV camera which creaks when it turns to cover the aisle adjacent to plumbing.

Fluorescent lights flicker on and off in a Morse code pattern and I do a double take of the shelves heaving with articles so alien they might come from another planet. The lights buzz like angry mosquitoes.

The shopping trolley rolls forwards of its own volition. Is the floor on a slope? It appears spirit-level flat. I look around searching for someone else to witness this uncanny phenomenon. No one. The lights on the ceiling continue to flash on and off so that the trolley jumps forward in jagged pictures like a flip-book animation. Jogging to catch up with it, I stop every few strides to catch my breath. The trolley goes straight past all the plumbing gear, takes a wide curve at the end of the aisle and comes to an abrupt halt so that its back wheels come off the ground like a bucking horse.

Sweat trickles down the well of my back and I look around desperate now for some human company. Something to root me in the moment. Anything to tell me that I am still in the workaday world.

We stop in the ROPES section. All the different colours and textures look like sleeping snakes in a reptile section of a zoo. Some are lurid colours wrapped around drums waiting to be liberated into the desired length. The jute ones are less alarming, they smell of hay drying in the sun. The first item on the list reads, ten metres of flexible rope.

I grab a packet of 10 metres of polypropylene braided rope.

Off the trolley goes again, this time stopping at rubber gloves. I choose Marigold because Mum always swore by them. Next on the list is gaffer tape (black, 11 metres, 48mm wide) followed by a hatchet axe. The heft of it in my hand feels good. Powerful. Then the final item, 70-litre bin bags, pack of 50.

A symbiotic relationship grows between me and the trolley. If it comes to an awkward angle when it stops I straighten it and makes sure the items are laid flat so that nothing falls in transit, upsetting its equilibrium. If only all life could be like this. All decisions made for you and a set of instructions to follow. Wouldn’t that be nice. If the day of reckoning ever came I would say, the list you see, it just had to be obeyed.

Things could have turned out differently. If only Lisa had agreed to fix the en-suite toilet that Sunday morning. If only I hadn’t chosen a murderer’s trolley. If only the trace of virus hadn’t infected me. If only my wife hadn’t fallen for a gym bunny.

I aim for the self-checkout area. The shop lights return to a tinnitus buzz, and outside a curtain of rain sweeps across the car park. I check the time. After their ‘workout,’ Lisa and Terri will be jogging towards the canal.

Displayed next to the self-checkout tills are torch head-lamps. I put one in the trolley even though it’s not on the list. Netherton tunnel is en route for the lovers and it’s always pitch black. It was single file there and it would be a toss-up which jogger was lagging behind. No matter. I scan all the bar codes of my items and in a moment of recklessness I nick a carrier bag. I lick my fingers to open the slippery bag. Well, it’s not as if anyone is looking, are they?


Angela Williams lives in the Netherlands where she writes stories in between the less demanding jobs of house-sitting, dog-walking and dreaming of worldwide renown. She has had short stories, poetry and flash fiction published by among others; Liars’ League, Mslexia, Reflex Fiction, Flash Flood Journal, Reckon Review and Casket of Fictional Delights. In 2020 she published her story collection, Healer, under her pseudonym, Susan Carey. In 2021 she was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. See her blog and Twitter: @su_carey

The Atlantean

I’m not exactly sure what to make of it, to be honest.

Sprawled out in front of me lies some sort of “creature”, if I can even call it that. It has a face that might almost look human under a certain light, but just about everything else is foreign and otherworldly: the pondweed hair, the spiny protrusions on its back, the hummingbird-green scales covering most of its body. The most fascinating part of the specimen has to be the fishlike tail that lies where its legs should be, stained with saltwater and tinted a dark cerulean.

“And you said you found it like this?” I ask Luca, but he stares at the ground and fidgets with the hem of his raincoat.

In a different world, I probably would have told my younger brother some sort of excuse when he asked to explore the beach this late — something about the impending storm, something about how dangerous the ocean can be at night — just so I wouldn’t have gotten into this dreamlike mess. Unfortunately, I’m in this world, and in it, my younger brother is made up of curly hair and childlike wonder that are both impossibly hard to say no to.

“I think we should just go home.”

“No!” The word erupts from him like a firework. “We can’t just leave him here!”

I sigh. I shield my eyes from the blanket of rain with my hand to look at the body clearer, given that it isn’t some shared hallucination between the two of us. At first, I think it could be a mermaid because of the tail, but quickly dismiss that — Ariel was never described as having claws or translucent fins — so I start to wonder if it’s some sort of alien. Or sea monster. Or something ripped straight out of a Lovecraftian horror.

A white-hot streak of lightning crackles overhead, reflecting off the scales embedded in the creature’s tail and scattered in the sand beside it. In the flash of bright light, I notice that the sand around the body is soaked with ink-black blood. “We need to go home, now,” I repeat unsteadily, but Luca is already crouching beside the dead thing and attempting to prod it with a piece of waterlogged wood. “Luca!”

The creature stirs. I no longer think it’s a dead thing.

“He’s hurt,” Luca says quietly, standing back up. “We need to help him find his way home.”

You shouldn’t keep referring to it as a “him”, I want to say, but he’s too unwavering for me to even attempt to say anything logical in this situation. I don’t think there’s a guidebook I can read to figure out what to do when you stumble into a mythological creature, and if there is, I haven’t found it yet. “What, something like Atlantis?” I tease, deciding against arguing with the eight-year-old. He looks down at the matching set of gills on the creature’s neck for a moment, watching the way they ripple and breathe with the steady downpour.

“You’re not being serious about this,” Luca murmurs, his voice almost lost in the rain.

“I’m being rational,” I find myself saying, much harsher than intended. I draw in a careful breath. “You don’t really believe we’re gonna help this… this thing, do you?”

Thunder booms overhead as Luca starts to cry.

I try to say something, but… I don’t. I can’t. No voice rises from my throat. It’s as if all the words of comfort for him had vanished with the setting sun. I start to take his hand to usher him away from the shore when I hear a cough; a guttural, throaty noise that sounds like someone drowning. I look down. A pair of curious, glassy eyes that seem to hold the depths of the ocean itself gaze back up at me.

“If I recall correctly,” the creature says in perfect English, its voice ringing with something like whalesong, “I believe you said something about Atlantis.”

Luca tightens his grip on my hand.


Sabrina Powell (@sabrinapowellx on Instagram) is an undergraduate student at Washington University in St. Louis. An avid reader and one-time published author, she writes and edits for the local literary magazine and has had her work featured in several online and printed presses. In an alternate universe, she lives a modest life as an intergalactic explorer, floating peacefully among the stars.

Andy’s Alley

He reads—“New… Naïve… Art”—and snorts. “The hell?”

Whenever my father inhabits his Andy Warhol mode, he detests the museum’s humble collections. There had been a Degas exhibit here last year and a Rembrandt one before that, but the local sculpture filling the spaces left by these normally un-gettable exhibits draws only sucks and blows.

“It means artists who work outside the lines,” I answer.

“Amateur hour with clay.” He strokes a phallic-looking vase. “Hope the divorcée who made this didn’t quit her day job.”

“What makes you think a woman sculpted it?”

He points to the placard below the clay stalk. “Says here first name’s Leslie.”

“Could just as easily be a man. Leslie Nielsen?”

“Doesn’t count.”

Andy is my father’s favorite dead artist to play. He sounds like a sewer-mouthed Socrates sizing up everything that ever frustrated him: bills, bosses, women, daughters who didn’t know what they were until they weren’t anymore.

“Can’t you just appreciate the time it took this person to create that?” I cannot bring my father to museums anymore without endangering local art.

“I’d have appreciated Degas.”

“He’s not here now.”

He’s near to knocking the vase off its pedestal. His middle finger looks itchy.

“He knew what to paint.” Dad twitches. “Whores. Skinny ones, fat ones. Whores at full gallop.”

“You mean horses.”

He lets the vase off with a warning and grins at me. “Those, too.”

My father loves Andy Warhol for the same reason I love my father: their mastery of the mundane. Andy painted squads of soup cans and musing Beatles. My father collected beer cans with misprints and scratched his undying love for my mother on the warped wood of our houseboat before it sank.

Andy had worn his hair spiky, tempered. Split. “Like you!” my father used to joke. “And we both love Marilyn Monroe, you know.”

I know. And it’s called dissociative disorder, Dad, not split. And I’m getting better.

On Andy/Dad’s orders, we march through a tribute to Pacific Islander culture.

“Christ, too many shoulder boys,” he scoffs.

Next is an exhibit from the early Greco-Roman period.

“Boobs were never that hard.”

Then a swath of French Impressionism.

“Pretentious shit.”

And swatches of American Impressionism.

“Ugh. Food-dyed fuck shit.”

He scowls at an abstract painting of a woman folding a napkin in her lap in broken strokes.

“You know the problem with this?”

I’m trying to capture an American impressionist’s sailing party in my sketchpad. “Hmm?”

“This.” He taps on the glass. “Her.”

“Stop. What’s the problem with her?”

He scans the configuration of swirls and lines, the two oval slices doubling as hands, clutching a scalene triangle of lacelike ivory circles.

“She’s not thinking.” He bends his head to hers. “It’s not that she is and I can’t hear her. She isn’t thinking. Anything.”

Everyone thinks, I tell him. Even if they’re just thinking about lunch or work or how much their head hurts.

“Nah.” He waves me off. “She’s a Blank.”

He runs three fingers along the egg-shell white wall beside the painting in line with a crooked painted hutch behind the woman. “I’ve known some. Blanks.”

I never have, but I mentally capitalize the term the way his tone suggests.

“They’re much worse off than us. We think too much, right? They don’t think—period.”

I suppose it does his mind good to have a we and a they, but I tell him I need the quiet to sketch. A blank mind would be a tremendous canvas to draw on.

“All your semantics.”

I can tell he’s starting to forget again why we’re here.

He turns back to her and presses his thumb against the wall beside the painting’s frame as though he were being fingerprinted. “The blank mind is a huge place. There’s all kinds of horror in open fields of white.”

Why would an open field hold horror?

“No place to hide or run. Some godawful thing in your mind comes after you, it finds you immediately.”

How about just not thinking bad thoughts?

“It’s never that easy.” He steps back from the painting and eyes me. “You argue too much.”

I know he doesn’t like coming here. He usually starts losing patience with me around this time every Saturday.

But I press on.

“Dad, I need to draw. It helps the grief.”

“You never say you love me anymore.”

“I do.” I close my pad and stare into the empty space. “You know I do.”

“You don’t like me, then.”

“I don’t like what I’ve become.”

“You blame me for that?”

I shake my head no. I mean it. I don’t blame him. For the boat fire. For her being on it. He had been a thousand miles away in Dodge Correctional when it happened.

But he’s walking away now, and I lose him in a crowd of milling patrons on their way to Andy’s Alley, where replicas of Warhol’s work are on display 365 days rain or shine.

I want to tell him it’s just so hard to tell things apart anymore. What’s a sketch and what’s finished—what’s there and isn’t. It won’t be long before I can’t tell myself anymore.

A half hour later, I’m sitting on a pink lounge sofa in Andy’s Alley. The largest piece in the room is a too-bright replica of his self-portrait, and when I rest here, in this spot, it all seems so self-assured—nine men’s faces forked by probing index fingers, thinking. Box after box of confident contemplation. To drag the sofa any closer would be obscene. It would mean seeing not faces but splatters of garish neon, looking lost and cold like an abandoned playdough food fight. I want to cry.
I can’t do that in the alley. I must stay here and wait until Dad returns. Then together we’ll find that spot where the paintings turn to color and stroke, where Gestalt breaks down the whole into the particulars, and all art becomes nonsense.


Brennan Thomas is a Professor of English at Saint Francis University. She has published short fiction and poetry in several online magazines, including Right Hand Pointing, Microfiction Monday Magazine, and Eunoia Review, as well as more than a dozen nonfiction articles on film and popular media studies.

The Sandman Returns

One bright spring afternoon, my mother convinced my stubborn father to see the doctor. The insomnia, which had blighted much of his adolescence, had returned with a vengeance, and the sleep-deprivation was starting to give him throbbing headaches. Occasionally, the pain was so severe that he would retire to his bedroom and lie there in the absolute darkness. Something had to be done.

Chaperoned by my mother, he returned from the appointment as the daylight was starting to fade.

“It’s not good news,” he said, slumping down in his armchair. “I’ll just sit down for a moment.’ But, once he was down, we couldn’t lift him back up and we had to summon Dicken from next-door to help lug him upstairs, like hoisting a six-foot-tall bag of cement. After that, his legs were too weak, so in bed he stayed.

Well-wishers came to the house in a relentless stream, bringing Tupperware filled with hearty, homecooked meals. But, despite their generous starchy offerings, my father’s strength declined, and his work-hardened hands lay atop the bedsheets, turning into macerated pieces of dough.

On a sweltering summer evening, when the air shimmered above the tarmac, the heat was especially suffocating in my father’s airless bedroom. No wonder he struggled to sleep. Despite the unfavourable heat, a knock came at the front door.

“I’m here to see your father,” the visitor on the doorstep said. “He knows me from the old days.” So, I let the strange-looking fellow in, and he tiptoed up the stairs, a crooked smile on his face. Night fell, the visitor departed, and my father, for once, slept like the dead, with a crown of sweat shining on his brow. The visit must have tired him out.

By autumn, the nights were drawing in, but insomnia kept my father awake, restless, yet confined to his bed. From his bedroom window, we watched the magnificent spectrum of colour blaze across the evening sky; vermillion and rose-coloured streaks of cloud lighting up the horizon, marking the end of another day.

“I’ve travelled a very long way to see your father,” came the stranger’s voice from the doorway. Dusk had already fallen so I could hardly turn away his old friend, who had journeyed through the darkness to see him. Perhaps it would cheer my father up, to see a familiar face at his bedside again, and help him get a good night’s sleep, like the stranger’s last visit. The following morning, I meant to ask my father about the mysterious visitor, but he was fatigued and out of sorts, his chin drooping down to his chest, so I left him in peace.

In the winter months, when the whole world slumbered under a heavy blanket of snow, my father’s breath came in ragged, short gasps, as if he had been running around outside. Eyelids flickering, his lips moved in silence. I could no longer tell if he was awake, or aware of his surroundings. It was torturous, to see him that way, so instead of sitting at his bedside, I propped his bedroom door open and sat in the armchair downstairs. Feeling groggier than usual, I meant to read my book for a while, in case my father needed me during the night. My exhausted mother had already retired to bed, and the house was quite quiet, so it wasn’t long before I was rubbing my eyes, gritty with sleep. Nestled there in the armchair, it was a struggle to keep them open, as if unseen fingers were pressing them shut.

“I’m here for your father,” said a voice nearby, like something from a nightmare. I sat up with a jolt. For a horrible moment, I had been dreaming that the stranger let himself into the house, and that he was slinking upstairs, towards the bedroom door. But I was quite sure that I had already drawn the door’s bolt shut for the night. It was the stress of my father’s illness playing tricks on me.

In the morning, my father lay in his bed, recumbent and lifeless. The doctor said that he would have felt no pain, and that he simply slipped away, as if he was falling asleep. Perhaps, in my drowsy state, I had forgotten to check the lock, after all.


Katie McCall writes uncanny, gothic fiction and her short stories have been published in Supernatural Tales, Ghostlight, and Short Beasts, with another due to be published by Academy of the Heart and Mind this summer. Her first full-length ghost story is out on submission and she has just completed her second novel, a folk horror tale set in post-war Britain. Follow her on Instagram @katiemccall_author for further spooky musings.

On My Shoulders

The angel sat on my left shoulder. The devil sat on my right. Both whispered and cooed and prodded and cajoled. Voices like harps and kettle drums appealed to my finer and baser instincts. Calls to action and pleas to turn aside. Would I take the easy path or the turbulent stream? Two roads diverged in my kitchen before I’d even had my first cup of coffee. Or herbal tea.

I couldn’t take the constant bickering between the two of them or the demands and suggestions they were making of me.

Finally, when I couldn’t stand it any longer, I tilted my head to the left until I was eye to eye with the angel. She stood barely four inches tall and appeared just as anyone would expect her to, as if she’d stepped out of some religious painting, a living piece of bondieuserie.

I asked her, “Isn’t that my sinister side?”

The devil on my right cursed out loud.

The angel shrank back and grew quiet. First, her face turned red with embarrassment. Then it turned red with fire. Flames erupted from her feet and scorched two tiny holes in my dress shirt. Her burning talons pierced my skin.

Instead of flames, the other devil erupted in laughter. It was not so much a sinister laugh as diabolical. He chortled, and chastised the fake angel.

I swatted the two spirits from my shoulders and swept their voices from my head.

In the quiet moment that followed, I realized the next big decision was one I must make myself. I wouldn’t listen to any other counsel because I knew I couldn’t trust anyone’s counsel but my own.

And, yet, doubts filled the void that the silence had left. I looked to both of my empty shoulders and wondered if shutting out all voices was what these two demons had wanted all along.


Christopher J. Burke is a writer, webcomic creator and math teacher from Brooklyn. His first story, “Don’t Kill the Messenger”, was published in Steve Jackson Games’ Autoduel Quarterly. He went on to coauthor GURPS Autoduel, 2nd edition and has appeared in Mad Magazine. A collection of his stories, In A Flash 2020, was published by eSpec Books. His most recent stories, “Portrait of a Lady Vampire” and “Bringer of Doom”, appeared in Daily Science Fiction and in the anthology Devilish & Divine. He’s currently working on another collection of short fiction. @mrburkemath, mrburkemath.net

Deadlifting

Helicopters fly over Portland Harbor. It’s late. A warm summer night in July; and full of flies. The bugs attack the day’s catch and are swatted away by swollen hands. Two weathered Americans carry a body wrapped in blue tarp from cold storage.

The first mate trips on his boots, slips his grip, and drops the torso.

“Careful, Josh! Christ,” hisses the captain.

“That’s my bad,” says Josh, wiping his hands on a pair of overalls.

“Bend with your knees, not your back,” says the captain.

Josh nods, mindful of his form, and drops into a squat.

They count three seconds in silence then haul the corpse up again and carry it to the stern.

It reminds Josh of deadlifting at the gym. “What d’you think this one did?” he says.

“Same thing they all do,” says the captain. “Piss off the Company.”

They chuck the body into the sea, and in the same motion, the captain falls against the gunwale, out of breath. He stares at the black water until his first mate comes over and puts an enormous black hand on his shoulder.

“Come on, Pat,” he says. “Let’s get a beer.”

Pat looks across the river. Skyscrapers line the water like channel markers. Luxury apartments with infinity pools, and the rooms on the bottom have windows into the sea. Fish float by at breakfast.

Behind all the pomp and glamor, the fine dining—beneath the casinos and nightclubs, the smooth pavement and European cars—lives the uneven cobblestones of the Old Port. The same streets Pat and his buddies bar-crawled through on his 40th birthday, when bars were bars and not pubs; the same city where he got his first job as a deckhand on a rickety old trawler out of Portland Harbor, when seafaring people never worried about corporate vessels run by AI overfishing their spots, before the East India Company planted their flag, and claimed Maine as a colony. Pat’s life was fishing, and he wouldn’t let a ship captained by a computer take his job. Not when he still had gas in the tank.

He took a deep breath, heard the tide hit the shore, and dreamed of younger days. When he was strong. When he was free. When a seafaring man could make a real living off the sea. When he didn’t have to dump bodies in the water for extra money.

“Pat?” says Josh.

“Yeah, Josh,” says Pat. “Let’s get a beer.”

A fisherman is never too old to adapt.


Austin Treat‘s short fiction appears in Dark Yonder, Flash Fiction Magazine, Storm Cellar, and UCLA’s Westwind magazine, among many others. Deadlifting (2024) is a scene from his unpublished novella, What Fell From the Pagoda Tree. To read more of his stories, please visit austintreat.com. He lives and teaches English in southern Maine.

The Caregiver

“Oh it’s a real one!” She exclaims, her wide eyes dancing about the nail salon, looking at but not really seeing the other customers. I grab her wrists as they flutter about, like caged birds, and the two Asian women remove her shoes and dip her gnarled feet into the little tub of warm water. Her toes are curled like knobs of ginger.

The warmth calms her. Lou’s eyes begin to slide shut, and she leans her head towards me. “This place is much nicer than that other one,” she whispers loudly, and I know what she’s talking about. I nod, hoping she’ll leave it at that. “Remember, Jessie? Remember that fat woman sitting beside me?”

“Yeah, Lou. How’s the water now? Does it feel good?”

“Oh Jessie she was so fat. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Like a sausage fit to burst!”

She does make me laugh sometimes. “Relax Lou,” I say.

Suddenly she sits up straight. “But who’s in there?” She cocks her head, staring at the wall, and points a crooked finger. “Who’s in the living room there?” I hold her hand and ignore this. I know the minute I assure her there’s no one in the living room, she’ll be on to something else – demanding I turn off the tea kettle or searching for her childhood dog Cocoa. Sometimes it’s easier to just ignore her mind’s wanderings and wait until she comes back. She always does, eventually.

***

People think I’m a saint. “She’s not even your mother,” they say. It’s nice to be thought of that way, though the truth is, I don’t even know my own mother. Never have. Lou is the closest thing I have. And she’d do the same for me. Done more, in fact.

***

Tonight when I tuck her into bed she’s confused again. “Why are you doing this to me?” She swats at me and I catch her wrist like a fallen twig. She looks at my hand, alarmed. I shush her, tucking her arms under the blanket. She tries to get up, pushing against me with her little claw fingers, ramming me with her head like a baby goat. I slide in beside her on the bed and wrap my arms around her.

“Shhhh.”

Her body softens, and she rests her cheek against my chest. “I’m so tired,” she says.

“I know,” I say. “Close your eyes.”

I feel her fists unclench. She’s silent for a moment. “You know that’s what I used to say when you were a little girl, Jessie?” She’s back. “You’d get yourself so worked up, like a scared little rabbit. Your daddy was one mean son of a bitch. And you’d show up on my doorstep, with a fresh black eye or an arm just hanging there like a ragdoll’s.” She shakes her head, her soupy eyes gaze up at the ceiling. “Took a long time to calm you down.”

“I know. Hush now Lou.”

“’You’re safe now.’ I’d tell you.”

“I remember.”


Born and raised in Burbank, California, Alison Ozawa Sanders attended Stanford University for undergrad and Loyola University of Chicago for law school. She went on to become a prosecutor in Santa Cruz, California, for 11 years. In 2014 she and her husband moved their family to Singapore, where she is now able to pursue her first love, writing [bio credit: Amazon]. See her book, The Expats Guide to Singapore: Finding Your Feet on the Little Red Dot.

April Fools

They sit at opposite ends of the kitchen table, the raw end of an argument stuck in their throats.

Speechless.

Depleted.

Defeated.

Thirty-three years of marriage and no place left to go.

Outside the desert simmers in a broiling heat.

There seems no escape.

No way in.

No way out.

Trapped by their circumstances, they sit emmeshed in the hum of air conditioning and accumulated detritus of over three decades married. My god, how they feasted on each other in those early days!

Starved now for affection. Compassion.

Comprehension.

They wait in their chrome and black-marble kitchen, time elongating. The jagged edges of their narrative have inflicted new and deeper wounds—the lifeblood of their relationship seeping away. Neither able or willing to stop the bleeding.

Anymore.

This latest confrontation the net result of so many others.

It’s clear, they face a future entirely divorced from the one to which they pledged.

How?

How did they devolve from elation to desolation?

How did they come to be languishing in their emotional desert where nothing thrived anymore? Which even their children abandoned.

Their children. They have no hand for rescue. One a waitress blaming them for her shortcomings. The other an accountant—thriving in a world where the surety of numbers stabilized his life—shielded him from the messy miscalculations of others.

Especially his parents.

Two children. Nothing guaranteed.

April 1st, they married. Marisa and Alan. Thinking it a fine joke. All their songs had the word ‘fool’ in the title.

“What Kind of Fool am I?” “Chain of Fools” “Why do Fools Fall in Love?”
They danced to “April Fools.” A plaintive ballad from the eponymous named movie. The words seeming prophetic now.

A romantic fairy tale then.

About which they both could remember, but not reclaim.

The air-conditioning kicks off. Mourning doves bob their way up to the French doors. Alan shifts in his chair. Marisa looks up expectantly. She’s raven-haired yet and her Mediterranean beauty perhaps more compelling in its maturity. She once laughed often—unrestrained by conventions. Her fine white teeth in harmony with her olive complexion.

Alan used to carry a photo of her in his leather wallet until tattered and faded he dismissed the image. Never thought to replace it.

Everything has its meaning.

Even silence.

The doorbell chimes. Most likely the neighbor under the guise of needing one thing or another, but actually at the doorstep to borrow their time. Once shoehorned into their house, almost impossible to ease out.

Marisa responds to the cue with a turn of her head. Alan stops fiddling with his spoon. For the briefest of interludes, hope presents itself. Perhaps a third player could adjudicate their dispute.

But no.

This is a private requiem.

Besides, who can fathom the depths and complexities of a couple’s relationship? Often not even the couple themselves.

The door goes unanswered as does Marisa’s question. “What happens next?” It lingers between them like the prelude to a coming storm.

Each passing muted minute sealing their fate. Both wary of upsetting the indelicate position on which they are so precariously balanced. As if any speech or overt physicality will tip them over and whatever they still are will shatter irreparably.

Finally.

Whatever they were.

Neither one wants to be assigned the blame.

Even though, when something’s damaged, there should be a reckoning.

The coffee in their white porcelain cups is cooling—as is the moment. The tension leaking from the room leaving them more and more deflated.

Allowing for a shift in their intentions.

Allowing for the possibility of an indecorous retreat.

Marisa sighs. She understands it will fall to her to break through the impasse. The world outside their deteriorating drama will demand her attention. Her’s mother’s doctor appointment. The laundry hung. Contractual obligations of a recent real estate deal signed and sealed.

The sigh is impetus for standing. She pushes back her chair creating a jarring sound which sits Alan upright. Their eyes graze each other, but rife with torment, they can’t engage and find another anchor. Marisa with the Van Gogh poster of the man in his mania which they bought in the Netherlands. Alan with the succulents in the cactus garden just beyond the patio.

He wonders how they survive the hellish heat. The succulents. She remembers the thousands of bicycles they dodged on the Amsterdam streets, laughing recklessly and all urgent to cocoon in their hotel room.

Many happy-ever-afters ago.

Marisa walks from the kitchen alert for his voice.

How it’s so often happened—their marriage stretched apart, but never entirely broken. One or the other pulling them back together. Providing the first plank in a bridge they’d construct from apologies and forgiveness—crossing that makeshift bridge, meeting halfway and calling it love.

But Alan remains silent. Unable to muster up any sort of verbal reclamation. No lifeline to reel Marisa back in.

Her slight hesitation at the door brings him to tears.

He knows what’s required. Needed.

They both do.

We all do.


Gavin Kayner’s plays, prose and poetry have won numerous awards and appeared in a variety of publications. These include – Quibble, Passager, Mazagine, Smoky Blue Literary Review, Helix Literary Journal, Witcraft and so forth.

the echo between passing hills

Me
Why can’t I have time in your space? Why must I stand outside looking in through frosted glass? You enter me. Greedily. Devouring. Taking. I reach, but your air ices.

You
It’s a whirr. A sound that I swat away like mosquitoes hissing. A chilled breeze. An apparition without form.

Me
My ribs are cracking in your vacuum. This want feels skeletal, slithering through me like lichen, sun starved. Where is your warmth? Touch? Why does this always happen, to me. Connections that fray like severed synapses. Electricity that sizzles then deadens, narcotized?

You
What does this person want? Always. Clinging. Cloying. Clawing. You’re cacti, and my skin is a rash. No. Not cacti. Too assertive. You’re a pale rose, six days past the sell-by-date, blackening.


Steve Gerson, an Emeritus English Professor from the Midwest, writes poetry and flash about life’s dissonance. He has published in Short Beasts, Panoplyzine, Crack the Spine, Decadent Review, Vermilion, In Parentheses, Wingless Dreamer, Big Bend Literary Magazine, Coffin Bell, and more, plus his chapbooks Once Planed Straight; Viral; and The 13th Floor: Step into Anxiety from Spartan Press.

Prophesies

We’d sit in the diner for Sunday suppers, surrounded by grease fire and bellowed orders for fried chicken and giblet gravy. Grandpa held court at the head of our table, like Ezekiel, prophesizing about exile. “I’ve seen it all, boys, and it ain’t pretty, believe me All Mighty, but we got us some hope, I tell you,” crossing his heart, him in his rolled-up dress shirt, starched as stiff as the gospel, as holey as Palm Sunday.

With his dinner fork held aloft as a scepter, he’d preach forgiveness from Colossians 3:13, saying in hushed tones over his grits, “Bear with each other, boys, and forgive one another, even if you’ve got some damned grievance, ya hear?”

Or he’d lash out at sinners (forgetting all about forgiveness, I guess). “You remember your Psalms, like 145:20, where the Lord says He’ll destroy them wicked ones,” and gramps would wipe the waffle syrup off his whiskers.

I’d see travelers in the diner come and go like calendar pages turning, like pilgrims to a shrine. They’d nurse a cup of dime coffee, their heads bowed over the black steam, the steam clouding their dreams deferred, and wear work clothes brown from the land’s dirt, as brown as the grease-fire that hung in the air, brown as a sepia photo in a family’s discarded album.

Their eyes pooled in their coffee cup’s reflection, the diner’s harsh light against the night’s darkness, their moment of rest in a worn booth, plastic seats torn like a map, each crack a destination sought, a path missed. They might have sought Jeremiah’s “good way” and “rest for their souls,” but I never saw any rest in their restlessness, their alcohol-stewed disturbance, eyes red.

The diner’s gone, shuttered soon after grandpa died, when an overpass was constructed so people could get someplace else, other pilgrims seeking a new gospel. And dust settled on the prophesies of my youth.


Steve Gerson, an Emeritus English Professor from the Midwest, writes poetry and flash about life’s dissonance. He has published in Short Beasts, Panoplyzine, Crack the Spine, Decadent Review, Vermilion, In Parentheses, Wingless Dreamer, Big Bend Literary Magazine, Coffin Bell, and more, plus his chapbooks Once Planed Straight; Viral; and The 13th Floor: Step into Anxiety from Spartan Press.

Toothpaste for 36

“You brought me toothpaste?”

“Yeah. It could have been worse.”

“Than toothpaste?”

Gail closes her mouth. The party starts in an hour and she hasn’t started getting ready. Evan watches her rub her tongue across her teeth. Maybe she hasn’t brushed her teeth yet, he thinks.

Gail turns her head. Her blonde hair edges over her shoulders. She opens her mouth and inserts a fingernail.

“Everyone will be here in an hour.”

“I know, I’ll, I’ll.”

“You’ll take the toothpaste to the bathroom. I know I’m only turning thirty-six, but Evan, toothpaste?”

Evan drags himself into the living room, down the hallway and into the bathroom. He places the tube on the sink and looks at himself in the mirror. He doesn’t bother to turn the light on so the shadows and the guilt make him look old. Haggard. Archaic.

He turned thirty-three last month. Gail found an old fountain pen for him that he loves and uses every day. He closes his laptop just to use the pen. He throws his right hand to his left chest pocket. It’s still there. He secures the pen, turns and leaves the bathroom.

A gift for Evan’s 33rd birthday. Gail is thoughtful. It is his most prized possession and he…he bought her toothpaste.

At least he wrapped it.


Todd K Denick is a Sepsis survivor. Born in Virginia, educated at Virginia Tech, unleashed in Alaska, and tamed in Germany where he now lives with his wife, son, and two dogs in the charming Franconian Switzerland area of Germany. His first book, IT WILL COME, is available from LALO Publishing, Inc.

Homage

Harry lifted his head and pointed his chin at the face of the Ferté-sous-Jourre monument. The imposing white Massangis limestone commanded attention in the French town square. It resembled a three-panelled photo frame, its only images letters of sorrow. It glowed peach with the going down of the sun.

There was a jolt in his chest when he discovered the name. It was towards the top of the right-hand column, beside a rust-coloured stain. He laughed, tear-like. In that moment of recognition, he felt an overwhelming need to share the story of John Cokley. To tell with pride and sadness how on the first day of the Great War, during the first engagement with the enemy at Mons, his great-grandfather was missing, presumed….by two o’clock on an August afternoon by the locks along the Mons-Condé canal. Only his surviving comrades would be protected by the Angels of Mons.

But he was alone on grey cold steps. Instead, he bowed in reverence and offered up a prayer, his gaze falling upon the area of his body where the hospital had detected a growth. He feared never being able to father a child, or becoming another bloodstained memory picked out in bronze on some forever garden reminder.

The 3765 names became his generation. Young brothers of equal age, on the brink of adventurous expectations. The not-yet men, mothers’ sons. Lads from villages and farms. Believers and non-believers, with all to live for and little to die for.

Visions rose of grinning faces, marching in chafing khaki collars. Shoulders stiffened, with proud heads high, their studded stamping boots fading into the distance. Some already fathers.

Harry’s thoughts turned again to the growth. Instinctively his hand went to his crotch. With moist eyes he hoped, in that closeness, they might intercede on his behalf from the place where their futile sacrifice had borne them.


Dan Keeble hails from the furthest point East in the UK, and has enjoyed many successes with online and print publications of poetry, short stories, humour, and more serious articles. He has appeared in Fiction on the Web, Everyday Fiction, Turnpike Magazine, Scribble, Flash Fiction Magazine, Agape Review, and many others on a long journey to a stubby pencil.

TikToktastrophe

Ophelia held both hands in a straight line beneath her chin and tilted her head slightly to the left. It was her thirteenth or fourteenth time running through her version of the new TikTok dance she was about to post. The lengthy rehearsal was necessary. Ophelia was an insane perfectionist about all things social media, from the dance moves to the fit.

And today’s fit was, indeed, fire.

She wore a pair of peach Forever 21 biker shorts hiked up to accentuate her waist and lift her butt, plus a silver tri-back sports bra that held everything in just right. Ophelia pictured the comments she was going to get and caught her breath. Calm down. One more time through the choreography and she’d be good to go.

Ophelia mouthed the words to “Sequin Baby” as she practiced in front of her iPhone which sat in silent appraisal on the dresser.

After a few false starts, she tapped the screen to begin the performance for real. This time she captured the fluid, flirty flow she’d been dreaming of since she and her friends in Mrs. Kennewick’s class cooed over the clip of two Baltimore girls doing the dance. It was a truly sickening routine, full of hip swivels, finger-pointing, rolled eyes, and a pair of peace-out signs at the end. Ophelia hadn’t let the others in on her intent—she wanted to be the first to nail it—but started practicing that very afternoon. The sequence took a week to master, but Ophelia knew the payoff would be worth it.

Finished. Uploading. Now the waiting.

Her friends were always first in the feed. She loved them.

2 cute you cutie

Rachelle was sweet.

You are the queen of these dances. I h8te you. Jus kidding, You da best.

Tina could sometimes be two-faced at school, but on TikTok she never failed to jump in with support. Solid, girl.

Some more hearts, a pair of nice compliments from these two nerdy girls who Ophelia knew sort of looked up to her.

Then four words made her heart stop.

Yo, I found you.

Andredrakefan23’s pic wasn’t menacing or anything. Just an older guy with a five o’clock shadow wearing a sweatshirt and a few thin gold chains. The kind of person Ophelia wouldn’t pay any attention to, except for one thing.

Andredrakefan23 was her father.

Sure, he looked different from the faded pictures Ophelia’s mom let her look at occasionally when she’d been drinking tequila and acting like a drunk TV parent. But it was him. The realization was so jarring that Ophelia didn’t even notice she’d been standing in the middle of her bedroom for five minutes while her phone dinged and chirped at her.

Her dad wasn’t supposed to be in touch, or more like, he hadn’t been in touch since Ophelia was too young to even remember the guy. So it was a strange experience seeing his eyes gleaming in that profile pic. (Which was such an obvious selfie, by the way. Old people were embarrassing.) Yet Ophelia saw herself in those eyes—their openness, their desire to be liked. It was amazing what you could get out of a blurry, cropped image.

Ding. Andredrakefan23 followed her. As a TikTok user since eighth grade, Ophelia had a decent hunch about what was going to happen next.

The DM zone was a scary place. All her friends had horror stories about assholes who sent them private messages—some clueless, some obscene, some downright scary. It was easy enough to block someone though. Ophelia did it all the time with scammers, kids she wanted to avoid from school, or obvious creeps. But what do you do when it’s your dad and you haven’t spoken to him in nearly ten years?

Ophelia plopped onto her bed and clutched her lucky BTS pillow. By the time she’d refreshed the screen, there it was, like a shoddily wrapped Christmas present: an actual communication from her father.

I could tell it was you. You’ve grown up so much. Great dance routine by the way. That was lit. Look, your Mom doesn’t know yet but I’m back in Philadelphia and really want to see you both. I don’t have her number. I was looking for—

The message cut off mid-sentence. Ophelia kept her eyes glued to the phone, as if by staring hard enough she could will her dad not to bail on her. It probably only took a minute for the next bubble to pop up, but it felt like an hour.

I couldn’t find your mom on here but you have that unique name we both wanted for you.

Relief. And truth. All her life, Ophelia’s mother told her how she and her dad didn’t want her to have a boring name, how she was named after the lady of the lake, and how dope that was. One time, her mom even showed her a famous painting of the original Ophelia by some British artist. It was kind of cool, for a picture of an old-timey white maiden lady.

Would you tell your mom that I wanna talk? My cell is (410) 294-6643. It’s been too long. I miss you both. All my love.

It was 5:30 pm and her mom would be home from her post office shift in an hour. Most evenings, she would microwave her and Ophelia some food, talk about work, and ask about school gossip. “Spill the tea, kid,” her mom would say, and Ophelia would oblige—granted a PG, parent-friendly version of events.

For twenty minutes Ophelia looked at her phone, reread her dad’s words, put on her favorite Migos song, returned to the message, played her favorite Rihanna song, hugged her pillow tight, maybe even cried a little. Finally, a finger tap.

Blocked.


Ari Rosenschein is a Seattle-based author who grew up bouncing between the Bay Area and Jerusalem, Israel. Coasting, his short story collection, was praised by Newfound Journal as “introducing us to new West Coast archetypes who follow the tradition of California Dreaming into the 21st century.” His young adult novel, Dr. Z and Matty Take Telegraph (Fire and Ice YA), arrives in the spring of 2024. Ari holds an MFA from Antioch Los Angeles, and his work appears in Noisey, Ariel Chart, PopMatters, Drunk Monkeys, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and dogs and enjoys the woods, rain, and coffee of his region.

Outlaw

[For Jean-Luc Godard]

They were going to lock me up. I said, ‘Fuck it.’ It didn’t make any difference to me. I’d been locked up on the outside this whole time too. They didn’t know it—but I knew it. It was burned in me like a swastika tattoo, like a concentration-camp serial number, same difference. The prisons were moving outward just as the continents had lost their land masses and turned into islands. And still it wasn’t yet Christmas.

This is 2000-plus years later from something but I’m wearing a gray slim-fit suit. I’ve got a Fedora on my head. I smoke cigarettes constantly and let them burn up my throat and lungs. I’m planning an early escape. It’s my modus operandi—to breathe less than your average sub, your average subhuman as I’ve been cast.

Who cast me? It doesn’t matter. It’s not my lot to complain. I’m leaving town today. I’m trying to leave town. I may even go to Rome but don’t let that get out. These fuckers will follow me everywhere. Anyway they already know I’m in Rome. I’ve been there for such a long time. The surveillance cameras in Rome have picked me up since 2005. And I’ve been in New York the whole time. But I’ve been there, in Rome, too. I can’t trick them. I can’t fool them. It’s the scourge of the subhuman. His curse.

Anyway I’ll get out. The prisons are only so big. They encompass the entire civilized world, the grid, and beyond—the mountains, the prairies, the rain forests, the oceans, the kingdoms…I’ll take that woman into the room with me too, have her read me Faulkner. But only the last line of each novel—that’s all I can take. After that we’ll build a fire in our hotel room. I’ll break up the wooden end table and put the phone on the floor. Thank God there’s one slot window with a sliding panel. The blue-black smoke can pour out. We’ll lie on the false bearskin rug, open two, three bottles of wine. But no, we won’t be intoxicated. We’ll be full of some kind of blood.

Then it’ll be morning. It’ll make no difference, sun’s up, sun’s down. I’ll send her to the store for milk, the paper. I’ll play Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto on the turntable like it’s going out of style. It is going out of style but it’ll be there in prison, waiting for me.

When she comes back with the milk and paper, I’ll tell her I love her. She won’t say ‘Shucks’ or anything. She’ll say, ‘Sorry but it’s over. I couldn’t do it. The prisons are too big. I dropped a dime on you. Okay, a quarter.’

Then I’ll start talking to the walls. She’ll do the same but counter-clockwise, the opposite walls. She’ll have her conversation and I’ll have mine. The Mozart will keep playing but I’ll turn the volume down.

After a minute she asks me why I don’t run. I tell her I’m running, can’t she see?

She says, ‘No.’

I say, ‘That’s because I’m too fast for you.’

Too fast.

Then, sirens outside on the street. They’re blaring and rhythmic like its French or English police. Maybe even the Italians. The Carabinieri with polished white-leather holsters and stainless-steel helmets. Tall shiny boots. I’ll talk to them about sports cars, calcio, and the tits of Battipaglia even. I’ll con them with my subhuman speech. Shit, I’m almost gone.


Fiction Writer, Poet, Antipoet, gentle quasi-misanthrope, librarian, Philip Brunetti has been writing since his early 20s, and his innovative work has been published in various literary journals including Identity Theory, Swamp Ape Review, and The Boiler. His 2020 debut novel Newer Testaments has been described in The Independent Book Review as ‘an innovative existential novel told through hallucinatory poetics’ and is available for purchase.

No Place

A dog, tail between her legs and ears folded back, wades on a beach shrouded in mist.

No place for a stray dog, everyone thinks. Her black fur shrugs as she picks up a crab’s corpse and disappears into the forest behind her. No prints are left in the sand.


Ellie Stewart is an emerging author from Utah. She writes short stories and poetry and is currently working on her first novel.

Peck. Peck. Peck.

If ever Viv wanted to disappear, now was the time. Thirty-one teens sat in plastic chairs before wooden tables and stared at Remington keyboards. A hefty woman with a band leader’s baton barked commands from the back of the portable building that served as a classroom. Viv’s nerves did not allow her brain to process Sister Felicia’s words. On her left Viv saw the hands of a boy move to an expectant pose over the typewriter keys. Viv mimicked his hand stance as best she could. The fingers of her good right hand curved over the metal letters while her stupid left hand’s fingers seemed glued together and bent upward with her thumb moving nervously over the space bar. The girl to her right offered her the flicker of a smile, and Viv began counting her breaths. The clicks of Sister’s heels back and forth at the rear of the classroom fell into rhythm with Viv’s inhales and exhales. Zydeco…zydeco…zydeco beats filled her head.

Viv heard Paul Newman’s laugh as she looked out her cabin window. He rode past her on a bicycle and held out his hand, beckoning her to join him. She rushed to the front porch in time to jump on his bike’s handlebars when he circled back to get her. Paul’s bright blue eyes sparkled enough to cue the band to play Viv’s latest favorite song: “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” The song’s “nothing’s worrying me” message tinkled along as Paul pedaled and Viv steadied herself with two healthy hands firmly on the front handlebars and two strong legs tucked neatly to one side. Her long straight brown hair rested over her right shoulder and her large brown eyes matched the beauty of Paul’s baby blues. Newman paused near a barn to let Viv disembark and sit on a fence where she would watch him perform bike tricks just for her to the band’s circus music.

A sudden rap on her desk made Viv stop the piano playing pantomime of her right hand and the spastic taps of her left. “I said type!” said Sister, and she gave the desk a second, louder rap with her stick. Viv gulped and tried a “Chopsticks” rhythm on the keys. “What is wrong with you?” said the confused teacher. Viv’s embarrassment kept her silent. “Why won’t you listen? Are you deaf?” Viv shook her head no. “Sit up straight.”


Viv complied and said, “Yes, Sister.”

“Stand up, girl. Look at me. What is wrong?”

Viv stood up, looked at her corrective shoes and confessed, “My left arm is weaker and my hand—”


“Speak up!”

Viv’s cheeks and eyes burned. She came clean: “I have cerebral palsy in my left side, and my hand—”

“Why are you in my typing class?”

Viv dropped her head to hide the tears.

“Stop that crying and come with me,” said Sister as she marched the limping girl to the door. Viv felt her classmates’ eyes follow her – the pitiful freshman, the crippled kid, the loser girl.

Sister Felicia handed Viv a scrawled note. “Take this to the front office. You don’t belong in here.”

Viv left the portable building to breathe safer air. As she dragged her feet towards the office, she heard the zydeco…zydeco…zydeco of a mimeograph machine in the teachers’ work room she passed.


Viv was in a candlelit cabin with two handsome gunmen. The three sat at a rustic table. Butch Cassidy was convincing Viv and Sundance that they needed to leave the country. Head out to a new place where they could go unnoticed and learn a new language and start all over. The evil lawmen and their tracker would never find the three friends.

“Vivian Fontenot! Why are you not in class?” said Sister Magdeline pulling the girl out of her movie fantasy. Viv held out the note to the one nun who never made her nervous. Sister Magdeline was only eight years older than the shy freshman before her. Soon the two sat before the school’s frowning principal, Father John, and the young nun patted Viv’s good hand while the girl listened to an old lawnmower in the distance struggle to cut an overgrown lawn with zydeco…zydeco…zydeco strains.


In a sepia toned world, Viv rode a train with both Butch Cassidy and Sundance on their way to a small country. Both men gave her their undivided attention as she referenced a book of Spanish phrases and taught them the words they would need for their next bank robbery.


When Ginger Keller Gannaway’s parents made her switch her major from Creative Writing to English Education in 1976, she switched her focus from writing to teaching. After raising three sons and teaching public school for 36 years, Gannaway has time to write again. Although she co-writes a blog (sittinuglysistahs.com), her true love is writing fiction. Her stories have appeared in Pigeon Review and will be in an upcoming issue of Breath and Shadow. She lives in Texas but will forever have a Cajun soul and a need for beaucoup bon temps.

Beyond the Light of the Fire

The boy sucked the last cold chip from the park bin and crept back to his bed under the bridge. The new month had orange eyes and brought with it a scent of winter. Crisp packets and empty cans slept in the crevices. A stray was sitting on his cardboard and hissed. He sighed and hoped when he turned 12 he’d get more respect.

“That’s my bed, but mooj over a wee bit and I’ll share with you.”

As he crouched to pet its head, the cat waddled off. He slumped and felt a lump. Dug a hand under.

A finger.

It was chewed around the edges but hadn’t been dead for long. Flakes of skyblue polish still on the nail. He sniffed. Warm perfume behind the knuckle. A smile surfaced – this was the luck he’d been waiting for. He hid it under his armpit and waited for the pink scratch of morning.

After the street emptied of footsteps, he dug a hole between thorn bushes and weeds and planted the finger.

Days… weeks… months… passed. He checked every morning, making sure it was watered. The snow moved him into an old caravan by the forgotten scrapyard where he waited.

On the first breath of spring, he left to check. The finger had sprouted and a full hand and wrist joined it from the ground. Perfect skyblue nail polish. He lay down and it caressed his face. Soon she would be fully grown. Soon they would be together.


John Gerard Fagan is a Scottish writer who has published over 100 short stories in places such as Thi Wurd, Guts, and The Sunlight Press. His debut memoir Fish Town, about living 7 years in a remote Japanese fishing village, was published in 2021 to critical acclaim. See more @JohnGerardFagan or visit JohnGerardFagan.com

Body Parts

The boy got his fear of the hospital from his grandfather, who when he came to visit would often complain that his doctor was threatening to chop off another body part. His grandfather was missing two fingers on one hand and a thumb on the other, and the last time he had come to visit he said they were after his foot. So when the boy got sick, and his parents asked him if he would like to go to the hospital, the boy shook his head and said no. Still, he heard his parents outside his bedroom debating whether they should take him anyway. His mother thought it was a good idea, because he was “delirious” and “running a fever,” but his father wanted to wait until morning and see how he was doing then. “And what if he comes to us in the middle of the night?” his mother asked. “Then I’ll take him myself,” his father replied.

That night, the boy had a dream. His neighbor, a nurse, snuck into the house and strapped him to a gurney with ropes and chains. Then she wheeled him to the hospital, where a doctor came into the operating room with an already bloodied knife. “Which limb should I take?” the doctor asked the nurse. “Oh, any of them will do,” she replied laughingly. Then, just as the doctor was preparing to cut off his leg, the boy awoke. He reached for his thigh and found that it was still there. But the boy was still panicked: he got out of bed and ran to his window. Beyond the backyard there were some woods. Deer lived there. Sometimes the deer would come into the backyard and lap water from his mother’s bird fountain. If he approached them slowly, they would let him pet them, but if he came out of the house fast they would run away, back into the woods. To the deer, the woods were a safe place to be, a place where they could hide from threats, and it seemed to the boy that this would also be true for him, that he would also be safe there. He opened the window and climbed out.

He wasn’t sure how far he had gone into the woods when he began to feel tired. His whole body ached, and he didn’t seem to able to see clearly anymore. A fog had set in, but he could not tell if it was real or only in his imagination. Perhaps it did not matter, for it seemed to him now as if he and the fog were becoming one. It was then that he saw a deer. He recognized it by the pattern of white spots on its side as a deer that had come into the backyard, a deer that he had once petted. Now the deer came right up to him. It told him to lie down, and so he did. Then it told him to close his eyes, which he also did. He felt the deer licking his face, and smiled. The deer continued to lick his face until his cheeks grew cold, and then the deer ran off, never to return to the woods again.


Wolfgang Wright is the author of the comic novel Me and Gepe and various short works scattered across the ether. He doesn’t tolerate gluten so well, quite enjoys watching British panel shows, and devotes a little time each day to contemplating the Tao (though not too much, for that would miss the whole point). He lives in North Dakota.

Fated Reality

The darkened sky descended early upon the misty autumn trees. Icy pellets held fast to the shrinking maple leaves. Avery Livingston glanced about the deserted array of sweeping trees speckling the thick, overgrown forest. With a damp chill in the frosty air, the calls of the summer birds had long been forgotten among the rolling hills.

Where was she? How did she get to this strange and desolate place? It had to be a mistake! Frozen in time—in this forsaken place. Silence easing its way in until it finally reached her deceptive ears.

She was alone. All alone. Far away from the world she once knew—warm, friendly, filled with love and happiness. But now it was all gone—gone to the point of no return. Could this possibly be the end?

Avery’s memory swam in circles. Heaviness weighed on her mind. What had happened? She closed her blurry eyes. Her labored breathing had slowed. Almost to a halt. A single tear made its way down, past the sticky blood clinging to the enormous gash on her upper lip. Blending images swirled together, trying to connect like pieces of a horrific puzzle. And then all of a sudden, it came flooding back. The car—the flat—the ride. Getting into his truck was the wrong thing to do. His devious façade was impenetrable. It was just a quick ride down the road. But instead, she’d invited evil–lurking in the darkened corners of his mind, waiting, preying on the innocent.

Avery whimpered. There was no justification for her devastating choices. Painful emptiness crept inside her. Within her mind, she frantically struggled with the acceptance of an irreversible destiny.

He had left her to die—a lonely, painful death. Discarded like a bag of trash. And then he moved on, his wretched, depraved soul loathing any chance of remorse, yet gladly sanctioning his heinous, sadistic deed.

Suddenly, the wintry clouds began to dissipate. Thunder reverberated somewhere in the near distance. Shards of twinkling stars peeked through, as if her guardian angel reached down to soothe her grieving spirit.

Avery shivered. Her shallow, warm breath touched the frigid night air. By now, she could barely feel her aching, ravaged body. She could not move. The long-twisted rope cut and burned into her raw, delicate skin. A torn, flimsy shirt and blue faded jeans held no warmth, only dankness and filth, as they clung uselessly to her unrecognizable battered and bloodstained body. It was no use. No one would hear her cries for help.

A silent prayer of forgiveness escaped from her thin, trembling lips. Avery wept as a gentle whisper unburdened her troubled soul. She knew she never would leave this place—this desolate place. She conceded to the inevitable—an unfathomable realm. Avery ultimately let go. Let go of all her fears—of all she once knew—and all she would never know. Surrendering her entire being to the peace and tranquility calling to her from the heavens above, which had been promised so long ago.


Alice Baburek is an avid reader, determined writer and animal lover. She lives with her partner and four canine companions in northeast Ohio. Retired from one of the largest library systems in Ohio, she challenges herself to become an unforgettable emerging voice.