Kathryn Holzman

2021, Fiction

The Aquarium

Even with the classroom windows closed, Aron could still smell the smoke. Off in the distance, the Los Padres National Forest smoldered.

In front of the class, Maya was reading her essay aloud. “What I did over the summer.” Balancing on one tanned foot, she read. “In August, my family visited the Monterey Aquarium.” She didn’t look up from the hand-written page. “The jellyfish had this eerie glow. They kind of slithered through the water.” Her legs were chestnut brown, and she wore an anklet of tiny shells. Her hair, longer than it had been in the spring, was bleached blond, and she was a good foot taller than most of the sixth-grade boys. Her t-shirt, imprinted with an octopus’s tentacles, did not hide the buds of beginning breasts.

“Through the Underwater Explorers experience, I scuba-dived with a guide.” Maya spoke as if no one would believe her. “Just on the surface? It was amazing. Like a whole other world.”   

Aron, short, chubby, and resigned to always being so, studied the girl. He imagined her floating on the surface of the aquarium’s great tide pool, her maturing body gleaming like the jellyfish as it lengthened and floated over the treasures below. 

 “Thank you, Maya,” Ms. Catcher said. 

Their teacher, all the children knew, was no longer the principal’s “main squeeze.”

The mothers talked of nothing else in the supermarket. “What the hell did she expect?” Aron’s mother seemed elated when Liz Pritchard told her that the well-loved Mr. Gray “had moved on.” Aron sprouted goose pimples in the chill of the frozen foods aisle while the two women gloated. 

“What did she expect?” Mrs. Pritchard said. “Ms. Catcher never had a chance. All wide-eyed and fresh out of college. Looks only get you so far.” 

There wasn’t a thing in Mrs. Pritchard’s shopping cart that Aron wanted to eat. He was glad he had been assigned to the scorned teacher’s class, hoped that humiliation might make her more sympathetic than his fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Banks. He had hated Mr. Banks, who yelled “Man up” whenever Aron spaced out on the soccer field or ended up in tears after yet another recess session of his classmates’ taunting.

Aron was getting up the nerve to ask his dad if they could visit the aquarium. He longed to float. Leave the weight of his clunky body behind. Alone in bed at night, he imagined his breasts swelling. He avoided touching those parts of his body that felt like they belonged to someone else.

“Fifty dollars,” his father exploded when Aron asked. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” “The beach is free,” his father said, “go find your own damn fish.” His dad knew he hated fishing, the stink of the rotting bait, the long boring hours of sitting on the pier waiting for a nibble that never came. When he was younger, his father had dragged his two sons to Santa Cruz where the two boys had to sit with him on the rank pier for an entire afternoon. Aron’s brother, bored, bouncing his sneakers into the pier to the rhythm of his favorite rock song. TODAY is GONNA be the DAY that they THROW it back to YOU. Aron poked among the bait worms, letting them curl like rings around his finger. Their father stared into the gray waves without saying a word except “fuck” when fish eluded his hook.

No matter how many times Principal Adams gave his welcoming speech about new beginnings, Aron knew that some things never changed. Some people could go to the aquarium and some people could not. Some people got what they want. Others, namely him and maybe Ms. Catcher, did not.

He wrote his essay on a camping trip his family had taken to Big Sur. During the two weeks of his father’s July vacation, the family erected tents on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Their campsite abutted a large open field hidden by a stand of oak trees. His parents set up lawn chairs and spent the afternoons reading magazines and drinking beer. His brother, Dave, a high school sophomore, jogged in the morning along the beach and spent the afternoon hanging out with surfers. Every evening his father roasted hamburgers over a grill balanced on two large rocks over the open campfire. His brother would burp his satisfaction and then disappear to smoke grass with his new water-logged companions.

This was before the fire started. The blaze that broke out at the end of July and was expected to burn for several months before full containment.

Reservations, months in advance, were required to camp at the state park. Some campgrounds had bathrooms, electrical hookups, and barbecues, but of course, his dad wasn’t about to pay for anything he could get for free. “It’s about time you boys learned how to piss in the woods.” His dad was glad to show them how. A life lesson, he claimed. During their two weeks of camping, Aron’s mother disappeared several times a day into the woods with a trowel and a roll of toilet paper. She was the one who warned the boys about poison oak, showed them how to identify the leaves. She told them to be careful. The beach had a wicked undertow, but neither parent walked down the steep path to the beach to watch them swim.

In his essay, Aron didn’t describe the family’s drive through the backcountry, the search for an out-of-the-way spot. He didn’t include their walk through the woods, each of them carting a cardboard box full of supplies. He left out his mother’s silence as she carried the heavy grocery bags. His brother’s blood-shot eyes. His father’s declaration that “These redwoods have been here forever” as they tromped through the undergrowth. “They are ours as much as anybody else’s.”

He did describe their campsite, the wonder of looking at the stars at night, the roar of the waves, and the thrill of body surfing. He made it sound as if these were things they did as a family when the best part of the trip was the freedom, the days he walked the beach on his own. 

When the class took a break for lunch, Aron watched Maya take a pink lunch box decorated with stickers of mermaids from the overhead shelf. The other girls’ lunchboxes had pop stars, the unblemished faces of boy bands. The girls tittered as they headed outside. Unlike the boys, they touched each other, hugged each other in ecstatic greetings, held hands as they crossed the field. 

Aron avoided the boys who headed for the blacktop, looking for basketballs to bounce, for footballs to kick. He distanced himself from the others, walking behind the girls who paid no attention to him. At the edge of the field, large blackberries hung from the bushes. In their shade, Aron sat down and began chewing on an apple, far from the school’s brick buildings and the noise of the playground. He was thinking about Maya’s description of the aquarium. 

Maya had described jellyfish, ghostly transparent creatures that changed shape in the water as if constantly reinventing themselves. Their colors, pink, and purple, glowed like the outlines of supernatural creatures.

Even on the playground, smoke from the fires irritated his lungs. Didn’t it bother the other kids as they played? “You’re too sensitive,” his mom said, the only one in his life who said it with tenderness. He wondered if the aquarium provided snorkel equipment, how it felt to float on the surface and see an alternative world underneath. As he ate his tuna sandwich, he searched for Maya on the playground. He had so many questions.

#

“The aquarium?” Maya suggested. Ms. Catcher added the suggestion to the list of field trips on the blackboard. Maya was careful not to look at Aron after she had raised her hand. Both knew that if his classmates realized it was his suggestion, the class would vote for one of the other Monterey locales: the artichoke farm, the tide pools, the Presidio, or the even the cannery.

“Thank you, Maya,” Ms. Catcher said. In two weeks of school, Ms. Catcher had yet to determine the cause of the titters that greeted her every lesson. 

Behind her back, the boys had endless conversations about what she had done with the principal before he had “moved on.” Alan Pritchard went as far as calling her a slut, echoing his mother’s words no doubt.

 Only Maya and Aron viewed their teacher as a likely ally. Their friendship, begun the first day of class and pursued on the far side of the field and in the library after lunch, was as much about their outsider status as it was about their common passions. Maya was uncomfortable around her classmates, self-conscious about her long legs, agonized by the recent changes in her body. She told Aron, as they sat on the bench that her new height embarrassed her. He noticed that she now walked with a slouch.

Aron wanted to be like his new friend more than anything in the world. He grilled her about the aquarium until the day she promised to suggest it as a destination for the class trip. If he had not been so uncomfortable with his own betrayal of a body, he would have hugged her in gratitude.

#

Aron’s dad said the firefighters were heroes. “These guys ain’t pussies,” he said. “Hell, they put their lives at risk every day.” A bulldozer driver died when his vehicle overturned. It had been on the evening news.

“They’re just trying to help people,” Aron’s mom said.

“I heard,” his brother said, “that a group they rescued claimed they were backcountry hikers. It turned out that they were actually growers.”

“Marijuana?” Aron asked.

“No, tulips.” His brother rolled his eyes.

“Watch it,” his dad said.

The fire kept burning and burning. By September thirty-four homes had been torched. 350 families evacuated. 44,000 acres of forested destroyed.

Aron couldn’t imagine putting his life at stake. One thing he knew for sure — his dad would be the last one to risk it.

#

Ms. Catcher announced the class would go to the Presidio for the fall class trip. A cheer went up from the boys who had lobbied for the exhibit on military development in the region. 

Aron couldn’t believe that his teacher had not stood up to the boys. They didn’t even like her. They did not respect her. “What about the aquarium? Wouldn’t that be more educational?”

Alan booed. “Girly boy wants to swim with the fishes.” His posse tittered.

“Shut up,” Aron mumbled.

“Boys, enough of that,” Ms. Catcher snapped. “I’m sorry, Aron. This is a case where the majority rules.”

At lunch, Maya told him she was sorry. 

“Everybody laughs at her,” he said. 

 “They’ll get over it.”

Now, when he walked down the hallways of the school, the boys whispered, “The majority… the majority…” Still, Maya’s company was better than the alternative. At least, unlike his brother whose only advice was to “Whoop them,” she understood that he had no desire to confront the boys that taunted him.

#

On the evening news, the sheriff announced that an illegal, unattended campfire had caused the wildfires.

“Yeah, likely story,” Aron’s Dad changed the channel. “Who would be dumb enough to leave a campfire smoking in the woods?”

On the TV screen, the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond drowned out his snarled question. Raymond (who everybody loved) complained about his mother. His brother towered over him, a cop, but nevertheless a mama’s boy.

Aron’s mom said nothing at all.

Aron’s brother was out with friends, probably getting high.

The permission slip for the class trip was sitting on the kitchen counter. Aron was hoping his parents would forget to sign it. The last thing he wanted was to traipse behind Alan’s dad listening to the military history of the Presidio. Presidio was Spanish for “royal fort” Ms. Catcher had told the class. Alan acted like he was the prince.

Royal fart was more like it.

Aron wondered if anybody in his class remembered his essay. Did they recall his description of the campfire on top of the cliff, the view of the stars?  Would anybody put two and two together? Would Maya see the connection as she relaxed at home with parents who would take her anyplace she chose? Would Ms. Catcher, awake at night smarting from the daily ridicule of her students, suddenly have a revelation?

It only took a match, a spark to grow into a conflagration. No one, not even real heroes, could stop the fire once it began. Only jellyfish, floating above the ocean floor, were safe. He had no idea how he would ever get to see them.

#

Aron practiced talking like Maya.

“I think I know who started the fire?” he said, looking into his bedroom mirror, brushing his blond bangs out of his eyes. His mother had been after him to get a haircut, but he loved when the hair hung like curtains on both sides of his face. His voice was still high. It was easy to imitate the girl’s reticence. He liked the way she sounded, breathy and soft-spoken. Just speaking in her voice made him feel lighter.

“An illegal campsite?” his heart pounded. He located the site where his family had camped on a map and wrote down the longitude, mapped the latitude “There is a boy in my class? He says his father took his family camping?”

How right this felt. How easily he could become her.

The police only said that the anonymous informant was a young girl. She provided surprisingly accurate information.

#

 The day the police picked up Aron’s father for questioning, Aron was on the class trip, lagging at the end of a parade of antsy students touring the Presidio Museum. He walked side by side with Maya and amused himself by matching her step, studying her posture, and imitating the sway of her hips, the way her arms swung at her side. When she laughed, he waited for a glimpse of her pink tongue. He practiced crinkling his eyelids like she did.

Mr. Pritchard strutted in front of the class, all authority and supreme self-confidence. Behind him, Alan, a miniature officer in training. Ms. Catcher faded like a shadow at the general’s side. When the doorways were narrow, the large man stepped aside to let her pass. He took her elbow to guide her to the next exhibit, placed his hammy hand on her back. The gesture made Aron squirm. He wanted the teacher to shake off the General’s solicitous touch. 

One by one, the general ushered them into the Old Monterrey jail. “In its entire history,” he boomed, “No one ever escaped these thick granite walls.” 

At the end of the jail’s central corridor, a solitary beam of sunshine intruded through a window set high in the door. Aron asked Maya to look out and tell him if she could glimpse the ocean through the bars.

Standing on her tiptoes, she squinted. “I think so?”  But he knew the sea was out there. Waves crashing onto the beach in cycles of thirteen, inevitable, unstoppable.  


Kathryn Holzman’s short fiction has appeared in over twenty online literary magazines and print anthologies. She is the author of a collection of short fiction, Flatliners, Shire Press 2019. Her first novel Real Estate was published by Propertius Press in Fall, 2020.  Her second novel The Cost of Electricity will be published in 2023. You can find her online here.

Yun Wei

2021, Fiction

IT WAS A WATERMELON LOVE

Juicy, sweet and fast. Alice was fifteen that summer and in Provence with her family on their first trip to Europe, when she saw the boy at the motel pool in neon green swim trunks and black sunglasses. Gabe had offered her a slab of gum. By sunset they were kissing behind the pool shack, his hand under the strap of her tank top. When they said goodnight, he had pulled her back to leave a kiss on her collarbone.

Now, when Alice steps into the gallery, her hand covers her collarbone as if the imprint of his lips could still be visible twenty-eight years later. Fields Deconstructed is the title of Gabe’s show, and just the colors seeping through her peripheral vision – golds, twilights, lavenders – are enough to give her sunstroke.

Her eyes thread through the room. He isn’t there. Or maybe she can’t recognize him anymore. Is he shorter than she remembers? Has his hair left him? What will she look like to him? The things she lost must have left their mark.

That summer, her mother had insisted Alice wear long cotton skirts to guard against the sun, skirts that made her both shapeless and impossible to hide. She couldn’t disappear when her mother cackled in the abbey, talking loudly in Chinese about the poorly carved Virgin Mary with the double melon chest. Impossible to fade when her father chewed pens, straws, leaving behind saliva-soaked mangles at restaurants, tortured by the possibility of getting laid off even though he had dragged his family to France at the hint of an invitation by the senior partner, Mr. Oberlin. The Oberlins stayed in a hotel with rose vines in a hilltop town. The Chans stayed in a motel in the flat of the valley where the mosquitoes outnumbered the roses, and the pool was heavily dosed with chlorine.

Gabe had smelled like sunscreen and chlorine, and underneath the chemicals: something clear, like cucumber and salt. In the afternoons they would walk through the vineyards until they found a patch of shade, and laid in the grass. He would weave dandelions between her toes. They talked about the books they liked and the music they hated. He talked of being an artist, but his stepfather had gotten him an internship at a hedge fund.

Now his solo exhibit is in the East Village, and she drove five hours from Boston to see it. If it weren’t for the pamphlet of New York gallery openings left on the coffee table by a visiting friend, she never would have known. The last emails were exchanged over twenty years ago: how the blank in between grew from days into months until the last one went unanswered. Yet at the sight of his name halfway down the pamphlet, the smell of sunscreen and chlorine flooded her.

His paintings are abstract but not unrecognizable: the shapes outlined crisply with ink from uninhibited splashes of color. She stands in front of a painting of poppies set against a gray haze, and she can almost feel the pricks of weeds and dried grass against her ankles. A man in a vest blocks her view and squints at the canvas. “At least the wine is good,” he says to his date.

Wine. She heads to the back of the second room where bottles of white wine teeter in a bucket of melted ice. The first glass, finished too quickly, is refilled. She wanders to the other paintings and forces herself to sip, not gulp.

A painting with melting sunflowers makes sweat trickle down her neck. One blue splash of canvas makes vanilla ice cream appear on her tongue. By the time she has seen most of the pieces, she feels like her feet are firmly dipped in the motel pool.

A nasally voice splashes her out of it, “Do fields need to be deconstructed?”

She turns around, unable to identify the voice from the group of gallery girls who are sniggering into their wines and swaying in heels. She wants to smack one of them, or all of their faces, identically flattened by makeup. They remind her of the girls in Provence who had glided over cobblestone in their short summer dresses and jeans shorts, how they had pierced her with everything that her family wasn’t. Not draped in linen. Not sipping rosé on terraces.

Nauseous, she glances between the door and the bar. She decides to refill. If her husband were here, he would be slipping a twenty in the tip jar, worried the gallery can’t afford the free drinks while asking herself if she’s drinking so much because of the July heat. She has married an inattentive yet generous man, capable of great sacrifices. She is the one who flickers in commitment. She knows she is only considerate, offering small generosities while keeping her capacity for cruelty in check.

The gallery girls have followed her to the bar, and the tallest one with the sharpest heels says, “The poppy one looks like my period on laundry day.”

Panicked, Alice sweeps over the heads and threads through the paintings in sight. Maybe he has used too many colors. They’re undiluted, glaring. The compositions are too obvious. And with a grimace of defeat, she remembers that he had had pimples on his back, darkened by the afternoon walks they had taken in the sun.

The chatter around her grows louder, until the voices of art students, gallery girls and men in vests are a chorus of disapproval.

She turns to leave, and she sees him, coming out of the back room. He is with a bespectacled man, the curator maybe, who shoulder claps him before going to greet clients. Gabe is wearing a white linen shirt and jeans. A slight hill of a belly protrudes, but nothing alarming. His hair is the same rich brown waves, cut more intentionally. She covers her collarbone, overwhelmed by a new fear. What if none of the paintings are about her? What if the fields are just fields?

She thinks of her father who is buried back in China next to his father, and her mother who doesn’t cackle at much these days, except at winning in mahjong. She thinks of her daughters, who with every milestone – a tooth lost, a sixth grade graduation – make her feel the approach of her own mortality.

On the last night they saw each other, Gabe had stolen three fingers of his stepfather’s good scotch by pouring it into a mug and refilling the bottle with water. They had walked the mug through the apricot orchard and drank from it on the stone floor of an abandoned farmhouse. They had sex. She can’t remember much of the act itself, only that afterwards, they had lain on the floor, elbow to elbow, their faces salty wet. It must have been a watermelon love. Bright, heavy and brief.

He sees her. His face wavers between doubt and something crisper: excitement or panic. He raises a hand as if to wave, then lowers it and smiles. He crosses the room. Her hand leaves the collarbone and extends forward.


Yun Wei received her MFA in poetry from Brooklyn College and studied at Georgetown University and London School of Economics. Her awards include the Geneva Literary Prizes and Himan Brown Poetry Fellowship. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in Michigan Quarterly, Shenandoah, Summerset, Poetry Northwest, Wigleaf, Word Riot, along with several other journals. Her debut novel is represented by Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency. She works in global health in Switzerland, where she relies on chocolate and tears to survive mountain sports. Find her here.

Margaret Emma Brandl

2021, Fiction

WALKER BRENTSON

In the gym before first period, Walker Brentson appears midcourt like a dadgum miracle.

It’s been seven weeks since anyone last saw him. First we didn’t say much, just that he must be sick. It had been three days before we noticed at all. Second week, we thought he had the flu. Third week—maybe chicken pox? By the fourth week we assumed he had diseases no one knew what they were—scarlet fever, whooping cough, shingles. In the fifth week on a Tuesday Jessie McMillan became inconsolable in third-period Spanish because she believed Jesus had given her a sign that Walker was dead. That dampened the speculation, but by Wednesday the following week we were all trying to guess at how—a falling piano. A steamroller accident. A giant hole in the earth that opened up beneath his bedroom in the middle of the night. Sinkholes: they’re a real thing, mostly in Florida. Look it up.

Earlier this week, Walker Brentson was practically myth. We’d spent our mornings before the bell questioning whether he’d ever existed, if the locker between Stacy Vader’s and Hunter Boudreaux’s had ever been assigned to anyone at all. If maybe we’d just imagined his name, a collective hallucination, like the girls who all laughed so much they got burned for being witches. It’s so bad we almost don’t recognize him at all, squinting as he makes his way in the far door, straight from the car-drop-off line. But there he is, lo and behold, Walker-fudging-Brentson in all his four-foot-eleven glory, brandishing a single crutch like a butterfly net, hobbling with one foot clad only in a sock.

“Walker Brentson!” someone shouts, and at once we’re on our feet, giving him a hero’s welcome. We stomp the bleachers, hoot and holler and clap. The teachers don’t know how to stop us. Someone from pep squad invents a rhythm: “Wal-ker Wal-ker Brent-son. Wal-ker Wal-ker Brent-son.”

It’s so loud we almost miss the bell, but then the teachers are shooing us on our way. All day we call to him in the halls: “Heyyy, Walker!” or “What’s up, Walker?” or enthusiastic clapping to the rhythm we made—“Wal-ker Wal-ker Brent-son. Wal-ker Wal-ker Brent-son.” But by the time we’re all loaded onto the buses and headed home, there are whispers. Doesn’t he seem—I don’t know—smaller? Wasn’t his hair a different shade of red? It’s crazy, but does anyone else remember him as taking fourth-period math, not fifth?

We become a nuisance. Our parents’ phones won’t stop ringing. Walker Brentson used to write with his right hand. He used to be allergic to cheese. The patch of freckles on his chin used to have a different shape. By the time we’re all forced to go to bed, we’ve created a phone chain: Hunter Boudreaux to Jessie McMillan to Mallory Evans to me, to Stacy Vader to Jagger Bryan to Brittany Bloom. And it goes on, and we’ve got theories: alien abduction. Doppelganger. Evil clone. Yeah there’s a sheep, and cloning isn’t instant, but who’s to say there wasn’t another Walker all along? A different Walker, with modifications?

We’re tired of things changing, of going from one house with both parents in it to two separate apartments, different sides of town, left my math book at Dad’s, forgot my clarinet at Mom’s. Tired of trying to do math with letters instead of numbers, tired of replacing the old ways with the new ones. We’re sick and tired of taking each year the new version of the standardized test, being told next year you’ll get to skip it but never getting to that “next year.” We’ve started resenting, just a little, that our teachers change their names when they get married. We hate if one of them gets a haircut, changes her style. When second period is shortened for a surprise assembly, we’re poised to revolt. So maybe we’re wrong about Walker, but what we know is this: something has changed.

Next morning we see Walker Brentson and none of us trust him. When he sweeps into the gym, waving his crutch around like a fricking tennis player, his brow crumples at the lack of reaction. He tries to sit by Hunter Boudreaux, but Hunter disappears to the bathroom until the bell rings. In the hall after first period I see him, Walker Brentson, trying to get the attention of anyone who will listen. Then I look away—before he can see me back.


Margaret Emma Brandl is the author of the novella Tuscaloosa (Or, In April, Harpies) (Bridge Eight Press ’21). Her other writing has appeared in journals such as Gulf CoastThe Cincinnati ReviewYalobusha ReviewPithead Chapel, and CHEAP POP. She earned her PhD at Texas Tech University and her MFA at Notre Dame, and she currently teaches at Austin College.

Joe Baumann

2021, Fiction

BEFORE SOMETHING ELSE IS GONE

Clai turns off the television, where a newscaster is reporting that over fifty new cases of people waking up without left arms have been reported in Florida.  Leonard is in the shower, his clothes dripping a trail from the end of Clai’s bed to the bathroom, where hot water is sending steam curling out in a seductive mass.  He has left the door open, which Clai reads as an invitation.  Through the blur of frosted glass he can see Leonard’s smooth swimmer’s armpits as he lathers shampoo against his scalp. 

He pushes the shower door along its track.  Leonard’s eyes snap open and he smiles.  Water runs rivers down his pecs and across his lips like he’s in a commercial or a softcore porno.

“Good morning,” Leonard says.

Clai fits himself into the shower, knocking his heels against the jutted shelf where Leonard has helped himself to a squelch of Pert, the shower filled with its beachy scent.  The water is just shy of scalding.

“Morning,” Clai says.  Reaching out his hands, he smooths them up each of Leonard’s well-shaped biceps.  He thinks of the people in Florida waking up without a limb.  What a shame it would be, he thinks as he touches Leonard, for the world to lose one of these arms.

*

They eat eggs over-easy along with granola and skim milk at Clai’s dining room table.  His tabby cat Methuselah bounds up in a single fluid motion from floor to chair to table top and mewls for food, bashing his snout against Clai’s chin.  Clai rubs at the cat’s throat and the backs of his ears, then scoops him up and plops him on the floor.

“Busy day today?” he says.

“Tomorrow’s worse.  Copy deadline tonight, so all I’ll have to manage today is fluttering reporters.”

“Got a good concept for this week’s crossword?”

“I’ve got the names of Greek gods arranged backward throughout the puzzle.”

Leonard, in the absence of his dreamed-of best-selling novel, works as lead copy editor for a small newspaper that has, through the support of a small but devoted and generous list of subscribers, survived the mass emigration from print to digital.  He’s also gained a certain amount of fame for the crossword puzzles he writes each week, filling them with devilishly difficult themes and patterns, his most challenging the one where every clue whose answer included ‘ie’ had to cram the two letters into a single square.  His notoriety is gossiped about on crossword puzzle blogs (“Yes,” he said when he told Clai, “they do exist”).  He spends his days waiting for error-riddled and poorly-researched articles to come across his desk, filling in his empty hours by crafting witty clues and solutions; the first time Clai tried to solve one—Leonard leaning over him like a terrifying teacher watching him fill out an exam for which he was deeply unprepared—he managed to suss out about half a dozen of the answers before throwing in the towel.

“Dinner tonight?” Clai says as he clears the plates and bowls.

 “Sure.  My place or yours?”

 “Whichever.”

 “How about here?  I think my A/C is on the fritz.”

 “Again?”

 “Again.”

 “Maybe you should move out.”

Leonard blinks at him, wiping at a crust of yolk hardening at the corner of his mouth.  “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

“I’m just saying you should maybe move out.”

“Right.”

“You’re the English major.  You’re the one who reads between lines.”

“Okay.”  Leonard kisses Clai, his mouth tight but warm.  “I’ll think about it.”

*

The first chance meeting: Leonard backing into Clai at a bar, sending Clai’s draft beer sloshing against both of their shirts.  Leonard spinning, apology already forming on his lips, Clai doing the same even though he’s committed no wrong.  A startled look on both of their faces.  Leonard breaking into a smile first, all sense of apology vanishing.  An offer to buy a new beer, instead.  Sitting together, hunched close, next to one another on rickety bar stools that provide good excuses for their shoulders to regularly crash into one another.

If not for those shoulders touching, Clai thinks.  If they were gone, what else would be?

*

Esme answers on the third ring.  Clai can hear the whir of her oven’s exhaust fan and the sizzle of bacon.

“Hello, Clai,” she says.

“How many fingers are you holding up?”

 “I’m armed with a spatula and my cell phone at the moment, so none.”

“How many could you hold up if you wanted or needed to?”

 “Ten, still.”

 “And Brian?”

“All nine.”  Esme’s husband lost a finger years ago in a hunting accident involving a bowie knife, invisible tree roots, too much bourbon, and bad luck.

“And the kids?”

“We’re a ten-arm, forty-nine-fingered household.”

“That’s good.  And you’re not worried?”

“Well, what would we do to stop it anyway?”

This is true.  No rhyme or reason or pattern has been observed by researchers studying the disappearing limbs, the cases scattered throughout Florida: a smattering in the panhandle, dots across Orlando and Tallahassee, a vaguely-seahorse-shaped pattern hustling down toward Miami. 

“How’s loverboy?” she says.

“You mean Leonard?”

“Unless there’s a new one.”

“Nope, still Leonard.”

“Then yeah, of course him.”

“Then why can’t you say, ‘How’s Leonard’?”

“Of course I can say that.”

“But that’s not what you say.  You always say loverboy.”

“Jeez, what’s cranking your chain today?  You called me, you know.”

“Sorry.  How are the kids?”

Esme sighs.  “Dylan has decided to start stripping off his PJs at night and take shits on the bed, and the girls have fast-tracked to the stage where they pretend Mommy doesn’t exist.  They keep asking Brian when Uncle Clai is coming back.”

“I made quite the impression, huh?”

“Your fifty-dollar gift cards to Hot Topic did.  Apparently they’re gold to ten-year-old girls, and they think you’re El Dorado.”

“We’ll try to come down sometime.  Maybe Christmas.  Have you talked to Brian about you going back to work?”

“We did the math.  Daycare for Dylan would be so expensive that the increased income would hardly cover the cost.”

“For your own sanity, though.”

“Are you saying I sound crazy?”

“I’m saying you sound ragged.”

“And work will fix it?”

“You could always dip into the fund, go on a trip.”  Their parents had been solid investors, and at their deaths, he and Esme shared a meaty inheritance.  Not enough, by any means, to allow them to wander off into the life of the luxuriously unemployed who spend months at a time in Aruba or the Maldives, but plenty that they can afford week-long vacations to Brussels or Cancun.  Clai took Leonard to Maui last winter, where they’d bloated themselves on Mai Tais and probably given themselves skin cancer.

“You know we’re saving for the kids’ college,” she says.

“Okay, okay.  Well, if we come, we promise to give you guys a few nights out.  Leonard’s great with kids.”

“Mmm-hmm.”  There’s a pause, followed by a soft crashing noise, and Esme begs off the phone, telling Clai she’ll call him next week.  He says okay, even though he knows she won’t.  He always does the dialing, all of the waiting.

*

While he arranges his mise en place to prepare dinner—red lentil soup with garam masala; his bag of spice is threatening to turn into a useless brown brick—Clai imagines all the things he could no longer do without his left arm: chop zucchini and bell pepper, drive fast, type, swim—which he took up at first to impress Leonard but then saw the way his body started to transform with muscle and sinew and now keeps at for himself—play the trumpet, knit or sew (not that he’s ever done either).  Dozens of other things he’s missing, he’s sure, crumply things like rolling on a condom with one hand while the other is busy elsewhere. 

He has the news on high volume in the living room so he can hear the latest updates: the first cases of lost arms have eked into Georgia, and more—another hundred overnight—have hit the Sunshine State, spreading through the Keys and Jacksonville.  Jake Tapper is interviewing a bewildered doctor from the CDC when Leonard walks in.

Clai loves the intimacy of Leonard’s entrance, his non-knock, the familiarity that invites Leonard to traipse right into the house, doffing his shoes on the doormat, unwinding a scarf and tossing it onto a high shelf in the coat closet amongst gloves and a trio of plain black knit caps.  Leonard is armed with a bottle of Syrah that he presents with a flourish, purple lizard label forward.  He sets it on the kitchen island.  Clai hands him an onion and knife and they slice and simmer in tandem, boiling water and tossing spices in by the handful. 

When they’re seated in their usual spots, bowls steaming and rich, Methuselah splayed on the other end of the table with his legs poking out like a pair of stacked pork chops, Clai says, “Have you thought about what we talked about?”

 Leonard blows on his soup and says nothing while he takes his first careful spoonful.  After he swallows, he plucks up his wine goblet.

“Well?”

“It’s a big thing to think about.”

“I know.”

“I like my space, Clai.”

“I know that, too.  We could turn the guest room into your office.”

“But there’s already your office.”

“We could each have one.”

“Who has two home offices?”

“Probably people with lots of rooms to fill.”

“You’ve only got three.”

“And I never have guests.”

“What if Esme and the kids visit?”

“Oh, please.”  Clai slurps his soup.  It needs more salt. 

“You know how I am.”

“Of course I do.”

Clai’s phone buzzes.

“It’s Esme,” he says.

“Go,” Leonard says, waving.  “I’ll still be here.”

Clai does not want to go.  He does not want to answer.  Something hard and sure tells him that if he answers, Leonard will vanish, not just one arm but all of him.  But Leonard shoos him away as he takes another spoonful of soup, so Clai shuts himself in the bedroom.  He can almost smell the warmth, the chlorinated odor that comes from the backs of Leonard’s thighs and the crook of his back.  When he answers the phone, Clai has to steady his tongue, his breath.

Esme is frantic: “Mandi’s arm vanished, Clai.  I don’t know what to do.  She’s only a kid.”

“Breathe,” Clai says. 

“Clai, she’s missing a fucking arm.”

“Did you take her to the hospital?”

“They sent us away.  They took one single fucking look and sent us away because they said they can’t help.  They don’t know what’s happening.  They wouldn’t even check her in, admit her, whatever the hell you call it.  The nurse barely looked up.  Like we were nothing.  Might as well have been sacks of flour.”

Clai pictures his niece, with her bobbing blonde hair she refuses to have cut, so it sways in tight pigtails that reach her hips.  He can hardly imagine the empty sleeve.

“Please try to calm down,” he says.

“Easy for you to say.  Your kid isn’t armless.”

“Does she seem to be in pain?”

“She’s terrified.  She’s a little girl who woke up without an arm.”

“Lots of people live really fulfilling lives without all their limbs.”

“How is that supposed to help?”  Esme is screaming now, her voice scratchy.  He can picture the purpling of her throat, the ruby color pulsing in her stretched, tight cheeks.  When they were kids and he stole her Barbies, tangling them together by the hair, she would chase him and wail, her face turning the flushed color of amaryllis. 

“I’m sorry.  I don’t know what to say.”

Esme lets out a long breath.  “Okay.  Okay.  Sorry I yelled.  I just don’t know what to do.”

“Tell Mandi it’ll be okay.  That you’ll all figure it out together.”

“I just—Clai, I don’t want to lose my arm, too.  I don’t want anyone in my family to lose anything.”

“I know.”

“We’ve lost plenty, don’t you think?”

It’s the closest they’ve come to talking about their parents aside from funeral arrangements and the closing of their accounts.  At their mother’s funeral, only four weeks after their father’s, Esme was the only one from her clan who came.  The kids, she said, weren’t ready to grieve their grandmother because they were still getting over their grandfather.  She flew home that same night, hugging Clai during the service and then once more at his house before jumping into a cab and jetting off.  Leonard steadied him through that night, saying nothing.  They didn’t kiss or fuck or talk.  Leonard was lying next to him, curled up with his knees against the backs of Clai’s legs. 

“I’m sorry to bother you with this,” Esme says.

“You’re not bothering me.”  Clai plops down on the bed, rubbing his eyes with his free hand.  “You telling me what’s happened to my niece isn’t a bother.  You know that, don’t you?”

“Yeah.”

“You don’t bother me, Esme.  Just tell me what I can do to help.”

“Just answer when I call, I guess.”

“Of course.  Any time.”

“Thanks.  Tell loverboy I said hi.”

Before he can say, Leonard.  His name is Leonard, she hangs up.

*

The dishes are dry and stacked, extra soup ladled into Tupperware containers.  Methuselah is bathing himself at the foot of the bed, one leg canted up like he’s a dancer stretching.  Leonard’s arm is threaded over Clai’s shoulder.

“We could both save money if you lived here.”

Leonard sighs, his triceps meaty against Clai’s back.  Trying to imagine that weight gone sends a tight shimmer through Clai’s chest like a dozen silver butterflies are batting at his heart.

“It’s a big commitment,” Leonard says.

“Most commitments are.”

“What if something goes wrong?”

“Nothing will go wrong.”

“I meant between us.”

“I know you did.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“I can’t be sure nothing will go wrong,” Clai says, rapping on the hard jut of Leonard’s exposed hipbone.  “But I do know that certainty is not required.”

“It helps.”

“Should I propose to you, then?”

“Maybe not with those words.”

“What would you say if I did?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Well, don’t worry.  I do.  I know how you feel about marriage.”  Clai taps Leonard’s chest with his palm.  “How about this: what’s your worst personal habit, the thing that you think would annoy me the most about living in close quarters with you?”

“I collect lightbulbs.”

“What?”

“I have so many lightbulbs.  When one shorts out, I just buy a new box, totally ignoring the extras.  There have to be a dozen boxes next to my extra umbrellas.”

“You have extra umbrellas?”

“See?” Leonard says.  “I’d be horrible.”  With his deft magician strength, he flops himself up and over Clai, pressing his knees between Clai’s thighs.  “You’d hate it.”

Clai threads a hand through Leonard’s thick forest of hair, the other gripping at the ripple of his back.  He curls a hand around each shoulder, warm ball bearings.

“That,” he says as Leonard leans his weight down, “I find hard to believe.”

*

Clai dreams that he is armless, his torso wriggling and writhing to reach out and grip something, anything.  He stands in a dusky, blank room where the only thing he can feel is the cold, rigid gunmetal air.  When he comes to Leonard is holding him, steadying his thrashing arms, his fingers curled around Clai’s wrists like handcuffs, warm and alive.

“I had no arms,” Clai says.

Leonard blinks at him in the dark and clears his throat.  “Okay,” he says.  “I’ll move in.”

Clai turns to look at the clock: deep in the well of four in the morning.  His eyes are blurry, but he feels a pinching clarity.  He is fully awake, his fingers and toes curling.  

“Lightbulbs and everything?” Clai says.

“Oh yes.  I’ve seen how long you go without trading them out in your own lamps.”

“See?  It’s a perfect match.”

They buzz through breakfast.  Leonard texts Clai all day, asking whether he should pack up his frying pans, if there will be room for his couch, should he plan to bring his bed.  Clai says yes, yes, yes, not worrying about space or logistics or what to do with so many extra drinking glasses and another television.  He wants his life filled up with Leonard, for his aroma of chlorine and sandalwood to seep into every corner.

The migration begins that night, when Leonard marches through the door with his first box, a tumbled collection of t-shirts and underwear.  Clai has already riffled through his own clothing and made a space in his dresser for Leonard’s things.  They stare at the half-empty drawer, standing shoulder to shoulder.  Leonard turns and kisses Clai hard.  As they fall onto the bed, Clai feels the buzz of his phone in his pocket.  He knows he should answer but he doesn’t; in this moment, he can cling only to Leonard with his two arms and ten fingers and everything else wrapped up in a neat, hearty package, because in a day, a week, a month, it could be gone.  Some or all.  None, a little, everything.

Clai shoves the phone away and touches Leonard’s cheeks.  He smiles as they kiss, lets himself be anchored to the here and now, that which he is desperate to keep forever in his grasp.


Joe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, Iron Horse Literary Review, Electric Literature, Electric Spec, On Spec, Barrelhouse, Zone 3, Hawai’i Review, Eleven Eleven, and many others.  He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks.  He possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.  He has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and was nominated for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2016 and was a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction.  He can be found here.

R.S. Powers

2021, Fiction

THE HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH

He gets down on one knee with a waxy smile. He pops an old glasses case and points at me a .22-bullet-sized inset that gleams like a blood-dark shard of church glass. I’ve seen the ring on his mom. Will you marry me? he trumpets and everyone outside Cinderella’s Castle begins to din and take videos I’ll see online for the rest of my life. I’m hearing a dirge that isn’t there—I’m outside myself murmuring: Yes. He bear-hugs my ribs and Mickey and Minnie rush over to help and I’m in the gummy jaws of coliseum lions, an entire metropolis roaring for gore. What am I doing? It’s Star Wars cosplay day—May the fourth be with you! I’m white-robe Leia, he’s fighter-jacket Han. I don’t know how to tell him we’re not getting married.

*

The only working channel in our motel is the porn one. He’s shirtless on the bed using my laptop to share proposal photos with our families. I’m on the little balcony over the parking lot, the dusk a deep bruise. I’m in my late grandma’s swimsuit with a pack of old cigarettes.

I could feed him tall boys, wait for snoring, take his car, leave my phone, but he’d get his cop brother involved. I could take my phone, taunt him when he calls, but he’d call my mom and she’d call his mom and together they’d preach about what a magnanimous angel I’ve been. This is fixable! my mom would say. Your many children will love you! his mom would say.

Get in here, he says, putting on a torn t-shirt. He wants me for a video he’s posting. I show the ring and say: Next stop Vegas! We watch and re-watch our first take. His smile is nowhere near mine. He must’ve known I would’ve said no. He needed the crowd.

*

Only a few days ago he and I were on a ragged Gulf beach watching the day die and buzzing on something cheap I’d bought at a gas station. He told me he’d likely be fired for kicking his construction job supervisor in the kidney over poker cash. He asked if we could move in together; I said we should go on a first road trip to Disney. I packed that night, thinking: We go, we return, we’re done, hallelujah. He pulled up at dawn insisting he drive all twelve hours. Almost right away, he called my mom about the rides he’d researched. You’re such sweetness! she said. Next, he called his mom: How I envy you two!

*

We nail his video on the fourth take. He shows me photos of the ask he got from passersby. You look so surprised, he says, holding the laptop to his face. Like you can’t believe it. I want to say: I can’t. I say: May the fourth—a date that will live in infamy! He holds my shoulders, says: I’m sorry I surprised you but we’ll be telling this story for the next hundred years. This is the first normal thing we’ve ever done. He drinks quickly and waits for me to bless him with forgiveness. I watch him talk Vegas chapel plans and our heading there tomorrow.

*

Everything about him once brought me an unfamiliar joy. We met a year ago in the Main Street coffeehouse where I freelance-edit technical manuals. He approached with a bag of sour worms and said he’d seen me eating them. He was weird-cute, pale with short dyed-black hair, shabbily dressed like in a bad band, dozens of little arm tattoos crisscrossed with scars. He’d been a marine, he said, in Iraq, and asked if I wanted to go see a new British aristocracy film. That afternoon we fucked in his un-swept bedroom like sad teenagers. I asked if he’d ever killed anyone—we were in our underwear, drinking boxed wine—and he said I wouldn’t believe him whether he said yes or no. When I found out he’d never been a marine, he said: I wanted you to know I could protect you, and he tried to punch through his bathroom door. He had me make a list of my passwords—social media, email, what-have-you. You’re older, my mom said on the phone. Mature him. When I met his mom, he took us for dinner at a Chinese takeout he used to work at. Afterwards, he and I were in my bed and he struck me on the fleshiest part of one of my bare buttocks. Naked, he stood over me and said he didn’t think I was strong enough to do the same: Hit me, Alice. Show me badness. Show me you. He first pretended to kill me after saying I should pay his entire electricity bill. Your deadbeat roommates should pay! I said and he shattered his cereal bowl in the sink. He grabbed my throat, shuffled me to the doorframe. You love this, he said, which was a little true. I spat in his face, raked my nails across his nipples. We belong together, he said weakly. A few weeks ago, we were in my car in an empty Walmart parking lot after he was fired from a telemarketing job. I bit his ear lobe and drew blood. He kept on sobbing: I’m nothing. I’m nothing. He’d never looked more broken. I realized then I’d only ever been devoted to how dangerous he might be. He won’t remember who we really were.

*

He falls asleep mid-sentence, something about an Area 51 honeymoon.

There’s nothing for me to pack. I take his keys.

On the little balcony the new night is alive with screams bouncing between the stucco buildings, a nearby boozy block party getting started. My USA flip-flops aren’t designed to climb down to the first-floor balcony and push through the wall of barbed bushes. I make a promise: When I remember today, I’ll remember the lacerated lines on my arms and legs. I’ll remember my midnight drive in search of revelers. The rest will have never happened.


R.S. Powers’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Sou’wester, Speculative Nonfiction, X-R-A-Y, World Literature Today, The Hunger, and other journals. He is currently a PhD candidate in creative writing at Florida State University.

Lucy Zhang

2021, Fiction

BLUEBEARD’S SISTER

Her brother leads his wives to their deaths.

It happens like clockwork: the wife–maybe willowy and tall like the tree swaying near the mansion, brushing against the windows without scratching the glass, maybe short and compact, a package of spitfire and sass, maybe soft and curved with that childlike plumpness witches like to stir in their evening stews–marries into the family with a small wedding in the back garden, under a birch arch strung with ivy, attended by more birds than people.

It happens like clockwork: her brother tells his wife I need to run an errand, here are the keys to all of the rooms in the mansion, you may open any door except for the one leading to the underground chamber, I’ll be back in a few days and hands the silly wife a ring of keys, all shiny and new besides one–the runt, the rusted, the one that smells of old pennies and whose surface seems to flake away upon touch. The wife wanders from room to room, hesitates for a moment before prying open the final door whose hinge flap and knuckles squeak, disturbing the silence. The wife descends into the underground chamber, discovers the floor is wet, screams as she counts the corpses hanging from hooks around the room–women, some dripping blood, some not, each finer than the adjacent body. It happens like clockwork: the wife drops the key in fresh blood and quickly snatches it back up, runs out of the room without cleaning her sweaty fingerprints from the doorknob or her trail of bloodied footsteps, tries to revert to a state of mind before entering the chamber.

It happens like clockwork: her brother finds out and strangles the wife in his underground lair, the silly pigeon, the dumb dove.

You aren’t like them, he tells his sister. You’re clever.

What is cleverness? she wonders as she wrings the rag dry and hands it to her brother so he can scrub down the doorknob. The stiletto of one of the hanging corpses clatters to the ground, clumps of the original wearer’s rotting skin falling with it. She reaches out to grab the shoe and balance it back on the desiccated flesh, but he places his hand on her wrist, thumb drawing a circle around her ulnar styloid, and shakes his head like she should know better, like she is a child trying to fix a fracture with hot glue.

It’ll just fall off again. Why don’t you get changed for dinner? I’m almost done here.

She nods and walks–more like glides–to her room; her feet leave no trail of blood, a ghost in the hall.

In her room, she steps out of her dress, now a puddle of white fabric and crusted splotches of brown. She inhales the metallic scent of blood like she can absorb it into her skin. She stares at her naked body, a spidery creature–all limbs and protrusions. She reaches her hand behind her neck and touches the ridges of the vertebrae down her spine and finds the scar, a small stitch in the fabric of her skin, so imperceptible she sometimes questions its existence.

When they were kids, their parents tried to marry her off to a baron whom they owned a significant debt. Originally of modest wealth, their family suffered when their main trade of furs lost business thanks to the development of cotton. At ten years old, she learned she would marry into the sixty-year-old baron’s family as his third wife when the servants led her to not her room but the guest room where the baron, a walrus of a monocle-wearing man, sat in his bathrobe, sipping wine and balancing checker pieces between his multi-gemstone, multi-ring-adorned fingers. He beckoned her forward and wrapped his hand around her waist, slipped his fingers under the back opening of her dress. His rings grazed her skin, like ice compared to his sweaty hand. Her mouth refused to open, lips pursed, fists tight, and then, like she’d been stabbed with a hot iron, she bolted. The baron’s diamond ring scraped her back–it seared, but she shut off the pain and pulled until the dress tore under his grip and she escaped the room. To her brother’s room, where he welcomed her in, patted her on the head like she was a stuffed animal, cradled her in his arms, and let her sleep in his bed. The next day, coroners deemed the baron dead due to a heart attack–that old man had always been overweight and full of clogged arteries. And if anyone asked her brother where he was that night, he smiled and said he’d been studying in the library and no, he hadn’t even known the baron was in their home.

Her brother is clever: he makes money out of broken businesses, charms investors, sabotages competitors, and look–now they are rich, protected from unwanted suitors, eating fresh fruits even when they’re out of season, wanting for nothing. He knows to leave his tie loose for his wife to tighten, a calculated act of intimacy. He knows how to pinpoint a family’s favored daughter–the one who will inherit all the one-of-a-kind antiques, the one who will leave the family in sorrow, how to emerge from a marriage proposal with a dowry valued at twice his initial goal, how to pleasure a woman one night and strangle her for her transgressions the next. 

She is not clever: she doesn’t know when men want bed warmers or conversationalists, how hot her tea is until she burns her tongue, why she hears a pulse in her ear that matches her heartbeat as she spies the wife running back upstairs, dripping blood onto the hand-spun Persian carpet.

She has tea with the wives before they open the chamber door. They gossip like teenagers at a sleepover, sitting prim and proper on four-legged chairs that are more air than wood, their backs so straight a plank must have slipped into their spines, so still they could balance encyclopedias from A to C on their heads.

Use food coloring to dye hot water yellow, the wives tell her. Pretend it’s chicken broth–men like when you have an appetite, but they don’t want it to show. The wives gesture to their hourglass figure cinched with a corset.

But brother doesn’t care for that, she tells them.

The wives snort, men–they’re all the same. Going through several bottles of wine in the evening, sloshing liquid in glasses like they think they’re professional wine tasters, spilling it over the floor so the room smells like rotten pineapple the next day–all that, we have to clean up. Best thing you can get from putting up with it is money.

What will you do with all the money? she asks.

Some of the wives want to send funds back to their childhood crushes, a forbidden romance with the poor farm boy who now works in slaughterhouses, snapping heads off chickens in well-oiled factory lines. Some want to start businesses in fashion–dresses with pockets, cushioned and padded shoes. Others dream of raising children, sending them off to prestigious boarding schools, cooking organic meals for family picnics, massaging their husband’s shoulders after a stressful day at work, comparing the number of charities they’ve donated to with the neighboring wives.

What would you do? They ask her.

Like when she was a child, splitting single meals with her family, stomach growling into the night, waiting for the next day’s charitable donation of a jug of milk and maybe a few eggs, she remembers to eat once a day and only when she faints, threatens to wither away, does her brother spoon-feed her the rich meats and sauces from the kitchen. He lets her lean into his lap, tells her about the antique ruby tiara he’ll gift her once he claims ownership over his new wife’s dowry. She moves with the same overzealous caution as she did when she was a child, every motion dictated by her fear and imagination: clowns emerge from shadows, bookshelves, barely open closets, and they squeak their red noses and try to peel her skin away, leaving her nowhere to hide; so when she walks to the library, grips a book’s spine, stitches years-old dresses back together, she keeps a candle nearby. Money, money, what can money buy?

I’m happy just helping brother, she says. It doesn’t feel like a lie.

At dinner, her brother mentions finding a new wife.

Why do you need a new wife again so soon? she asks. Aren’t I enough? She attempts to stab a grape tomato with her fork; it jumps away.

He laughs. You know you’re not wife material.

It happens like clockwork: her brother marries some country girl, the youngest of a family of six, and leaves this new wife in possession of the keys, all scintillating except for one. There’s nothing interesting behind that door, she tells the new wife over earl grey tea, repeats it several times during the conversation, implores with barely masked desperation, as she has told all the previous wives. But, like clockwork, the new wife opens the door to the underground chamber, screams, trails blood back up the stairs, over the carpet, in between crevasses of floorboards that have just begun to crack.

Her brother returns before she can finish cleaning, half-heartedly hiding the evidence. But it is not so bad, she thinks when they take care of the wife’s corpse and its aftermath–one of them rinsing rags, the other scrubbing stains–doing this together, as always.


Lucy Zhang writes, codes, and watches anime. Her work has appeared in Contrary, New Delta Review, Hypertext and elsewhere. She is an editor for Heavy Feather Review and assistant fiction editor for Pithead Chapel. Find her at here or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.

Stephanie C. Trott

2021, Fiction

(NO) VACANCY

Marlene has been inside me for nearly two years. Six hundred and ninety-four days, if you’re counting, and I have been from the start. Possession isn’t something one comes into slowly but rather all at once, like jumping off the high dive at the community swimming pool. You’re just minding your own business falling through space and then all of a sudden you’re smashing through something and you can’t breathe and you don’t know which way is up. You’re held down there in the cold and the dark with no chance of escape, even though the other side is so close that sometimes you can feel the sun and see the ripple of wind at the surface. But that’s exactly where she’s bringing me now: the surface.

I was still in school when it happened, about to get my bachelor’s and spend a summer traveling alone through Europe. Cliché, I know, but c’mon: the food, the art, the sex. Who wouldn’t want to spend three months gorging themselves in every possible way? A middle-aged ghost wasn’t on the list of things I wanted to put inside me, but that’s what happened one night in the library while I was studying for finals. I walked in as one person and came out another.

No one told me what to expect when she took hold of my body. I didn’t know I’d lose my sense of taste and smell, that my hair would lack its shine. Most days I’m lucky if I get up before eleven, and I only listen to classic rock. Now I’m more scared of being alone than I am at the thought of her staying forever.

She drops the news as I’m flossing one night after dinner, right as I’m working to free a shred of spinach: “I’m leaving you.” Her words come out of my mouth as I fling a tiny green speck onto to the mirror, and blood fills the space between my bicuspids.

“You’re what?” I ask, tasting warm iron and salt. I can’t believe what I’ve just said.

“Leaving.”

“Why?”

“I’m bored. You never take me anywhere new.”

“I thought you hated anything new.”

“See, that’s the problem,” she sighs. “You don’t anticipate my needs anymore. It’s never ‘what does Marlene want,’ not like in the beginning. I need someone who’s going to challenge me. Someone who won’t be such a pushover.”

“I’m not a pushover,” I say. “I don’t let us walk naked in front of the windows anymore.”

“I know, and I hate it. We’re holding each other back. I have needs.”

“I can change.”

“You can’t. Trust me.”

On the bus ride to work the next morning, she outlines her impending departure so that I can continue coming to terms: she’ll select a worthy partner after trying out a few and will make her final move in a month.

“What if you don’t find someone?” I ask, eyeing the other passengers and imaging her inside them. The man with a bumpy nose. The woman with body odor. The child whose shoes are on the wrong feet. “Then will you stay?”

I know this is a text-book case of Stockholm syndrome, but I can’t help it. Who am I without her? Someone who secretly still needs two credits to graduate, who knows she’s a disappointment to her parents, who’s never been west of the Mississippi River—Hell, I’ve never even been out of the Northeast. I’ve let this woman consume me, change me, define me. It won’t be a relief to have her gone; it’ll be an emptiness, like a sagging mattress tossed to the curb. Without Marlene, I’ll have to face who I’ve let myself become with her, and there will be so much undoing to be done up again.

I’ve come to find myself more comfortable in her company than in that of my family and friends. I haven’t seen them in months, though they still call every so often. Mostly they say they miss me, that it’s been too long and hope I’m okay and want to get together for dinner some time. But other than social withdrawal and a bit of concern for my sudden isolation, no one who knew me before has suspected a thing. Possession isn’t always a loud and ornate expression like they make it look in the movies; as crass and obscene as she is in private, Marlene is generally quite quiet when we’re around other people. Most of my conversations with her happen in my head, like some twisted version of a conscience. Only occasionally does she act out.

“There are at least five people on this bus who would work,” she says. “Six, if you count that baby, but I don’t like the way he’s sucking his thumb. That shit makes for years of orthodontia.”

“So you want someone younger.”

“No, I want someone with more agency.”

“A baby doesn’t have agency.” We cross Myrtle Street and I press the yellow tape to signal our stop.

“No, but he’s a hell of a lot cuter than you.”

We get off the bus and I watch it pull away with her potential suitors as we head toward the bank. After I watched my friends graduate, the only job I could find (and keep) was as a teller downtown, monitoring money and handing out lollipops through the drive-up window. I didn’t go to college for this. I studied Proust. I analyzed Baudelaire. I thought my life might take place somewhere along the Seine or at the very least in Canada. Now the closest I come to that dream is exchanging dollars for euros, placed into the hands of folks who have more cash than they know what to do with. That’s how you travel: you have money, time, and a life that gets to be filled however you wish.

When Marlene arrived, I resold my plane tickets and used the rest of the money I’d saved for my trip to rent an apartment where we could be alone and get to know each other. It was difficult at first and took time to learn what foods she liked (chalupas and cheezy curls), which clothes she wanted to wear (nothing, preferably, but cutoffs and flannels were eventually permitted), when she slept (never), and where we could go (very few places).

Marlene’s idea of travel is our weekly trip to the public library, where we check out 1980s horror films. She’s frugal, and it’s one of the few things we can squarely agree on. Together we take walks down Elm Street, spend summers at Camp Crystal Lake, sleep restlessly in Amityville, and make snowmen at the Overlook Hotel. Today as we watch a pirated version of Poltergeist on my iPhone, I tell her there are other movies we could try. I could take her somewhere new without going anywhere at all. I suggest Phantom of the Opera, trying to find something a little more cultured.

“I hate music.”

Nosferatu?

“Too quiet.”

King Kong?

“I could get into bestiality,” she teases and has me eat a cherry lollipop while Carol Anne gets sucked into the void. A man in a white newsboy cap pulls up and fiddles with the plastic drive-thru canister, sending it through the tubes and into my hands. He rolls up the tinted window of his Benz so that only his eyes are visible. “Bet he’s loaded,” says Marlene.

Inside the container is a deposit slip, a check for $32,000, ten twenty-dollar bills, and a business card. He’s placed three red Xs by his telephone number, which he’s underlined. Guys do stuff like this all the time, send me little notes through the deposit system. I can see myself with this man: Eddie Almeida, Independent Real Estate Agent. His card says his office is on Bradford Avenue, across from the liquor store where there’s always a cop circling, and I’ve seen his face smeared on billboards near the highway. He has a reputation, and Marlene’s taste in men—questionable at best—has rubbed off. Before her, I never would have gone for a guy like this. Lately, though, even she is quick to find fault with them. Eddie rolls his window down again and presses the intercom button.

“That sucker looks real good,” he says. He licks his lips and winks.

“Oh, stuff it,” Marlene says aloud, wanting him to hear. “You’ve got the tiniest little dick and no clue what to do with it. Come back when you get some Viagra.”

I feel my cheeks flush as we process Eddie’s deposit, then return the receipt without making eye contact with him. He pulls away, likely as embarrassed as I am; I hate that she can read everyone’s thoughts, not just mine. I take the lollipop out of my mouth and throw it toward the trash bin beneath my desk. It misses and sticks to the rug.

“Did you ever think about using your powers for good?” I ask her.

“Did you ever think about using my powers for anything at all?”

*

Two weeks pass and Marlene is no closer to finding her next partner, or at least that’s what she’s telling me. Mostly she goes out when I’m asleep, but her return jolts me awake like a cat pouncing on my chest. There’s this deep weight and I can sense her inside me again, settling in and leaving me to acquaint myself once more with the heaviness of another being. I bet if you took a scan of my entire body, you’d see how physically messed up I am from having another person inside me for this long. My fingers have curled, my feet have bunions. Sometimes I wonder if she’s given me stomach ulcers or if it’s all the coffee she drinks. My eyesight is gone—like, completely shot. I ache all the time, but I can’t remember what it’s like not to.

There are days when I look in the mirror and see only her face, but I know that a part of me is still in there, somewhere. I see who I was in the freckle on my right pinky toe, in the scar above my upper lip that I got when I was ten. Everything else is Marlene: the way my sweat smells like cigarettes even though I’ve never smoked, how my eyebrows now thin at the ends where they once were thick tufts of blonde. Her table manners are what’s worst, the chewing and the smacking and the slapping of my lips, and the way she swallows things whole. It hurts, inside and out, when someone has taken control of you.

Marlene was a waitress in her mortal life, at the all-night diner down the street from our apartment. I never went there before she moved in, but since then I’ve become one of their regular midnight customers. Marlene takes me there when she’s restless so that she can watch the desserts spin on their chrome plates. I buy us a piece of chocolate cream pie and wait for her to settle. Tonight she wants to play AC/DC on the jukebox, but I don’t have any quarters. “We can listen to music at home for free,” I tell her.

“You don’t have anything I like.”

“We can find something on YouTube. There’s a ton of B-sides on there. Or I can reserve some Slayer CDs from the library. Whatever you want.”

“No. Just knowing you’d rather listen to ‘Coat of Many Colors’ puts me in a mood.”

“Everyone loves Dolly Parton.”

“I do not love Dolly Parton,” she growls.

We sit in silence as she becomes transfixed with a bowl of rotating JELL-O and I finish the pie knowing I fucked up. The waitress comes over and says it’s nice to see me again. I smile and Marlene licks the graham cracker crumbs off our fork. I joke with the waitress and tell her I’m practically part of the furniture now. She places the receipt face down in front of me, as if I don’t already know it’s $4.73, that it’s the sixth piece of pie I’ve eaten since Tuesday, that my pants are ripped beneath the crotch from where my thighs can’t stop rubbing together. I’ll need to get a gym membership when Marlene leaves. Shit.

The waitress smiles big and leans over the counter. Her breasts rest on the sugar shaker.

“Anything else I can get you, hon?” she asks.

I feel my eye start to twitch, and I quickly slap five bucks on the counter. Whenever Marlene’s about the act up, my left eyelid quivers and then it’s only a matter of moments before she’s flipping a table or calling someone the C word. It doesn’t happen often, and when it does I mostly black out.

“Thanks for the pie, bitch,” I hear Marlene slur as we trip toward the glass doors and spill into the night. She finds my keys as we’re walking toward a yellow Camaro, their metal edges poking out from my hand like Freddy’s jagged nails. Tunnel-visioned, I watch as she scratches three deep lines from tail to front and bangs my fists on the hood, barely making a dent.

“Dumb blonde,” she says, and walks my jelly legs back to my Toyota.

Inside I come-to slowly. My foot hurts and the skin between my fingers is bleeding. I fumble for one of my brother’s old Black Sabbath tapes and play it as I drive us home. It has taken so long to learn how to please Marlene that I have lost the things that please me: Édith Piaf’s “Padam Padam,” the taste of fresh strawberries, sunrises, the feeling of my dog, Arlo, sleeping against me. I had to rehome him early in our relationship when Marlene jokingly tried to kick him, and I haven’t seen him since.

“What was that about?” I ask calmly, not wanting to upset her more.

 “She’s the one.”

“What? How?”

“She’s perfect.”

“But you just mangled her car. You don’t even know her.”

“I’ve been watching her for a long time. Doesn’t give a damn about other people, lives in a shitty apartment across town and only cares about her next paycheck. She’s got no savings, just that car, and she reminds me of myself when I was alive. She’ll get those scratches fixed in no time, and then I’ll have something nice to ride around in once I get her to actually drive it right.”

“I think the Camry’s pretty nice.”

“It might be nice for you!” she roars, and we swerve into the empty bike lane. The car rumbles and then quiets as I get us back in the road. Marlene sighs. “You heard how she smirked at us. She thinks she’s better than you.”

“So?”

“So she needs to be taught a lesson. I never had anyone do that for me, okay?”

We’re silent for a few songs until the tape clicks over. This savior complex is a new side of her, one I don’t understand. Am I not worth her staying to help me clean up this mess? Why does she have to fix someone else when she’s broken me? She waits until the intro of “Turn Up the Night” finishes before she speaks again.

“Don’t come back to the diner when I’m gone. Go to Europe, like you were going to. I hear Paris is nice.”

“What would I do in Paris?”

“I don’t know. Drink wine. Meet someone new.”

“But I have you.”

“We each need to find ourselves again.”

“Please, Leen, I don’t know what else to do. I’ll miss you too much.”

“Shut up. You won’t.”

“We could go together, before you leave? One last hurrah. I’ll sublet the apartment and show you the Mona Lisa. We can ride through Montmartre on a Vespa.”

“Those things are ridiculous.”

“Yeah. I know.”

*

Marlene leaves me on a Tuesday just after three A.M. We’re watching The Exorcist, the part where Reagan’s head spins all the way around, and I’m waiting for Marlene to laugh like she always does. “Demons don’t have to obey the limits of anatomy,” she told me the first time we watched it together. “It’s different with ghosts. You go and snap your neck, and I’m stuck living in a cold house until the Rapture swings by to pick me up.” It’s never stopped me from thinking about it, especially when I thought she might be off with someone else. But we both knew I’d never jump. If I died, she’d have no one to come home to, and neither would I.

Reagan’s head begins to turn, and I feel a rumble in the pit of my stomach, like green slime might come out of my mouth if I’m not careful. Instead it’s Marlene, loud and deep and rolling out of me in waves. I feel her next in my chest, then in my throat and on my tongue. Finally she’s everywhere, her voice and mine filling the room as we laugh at someone else’s misfortune, someone else’s undoing. She keeps going and I can’t stop it, the sound of her leaving, the sound of me coming back. I laugh for what feels like forever, until Father Karras dies and the credits roll and roll and I’m not laughing anymore. I’m crying, alone. Lying in my bed with my sweat and my stench and my own body. Mine. Not hers. Not ours.

I gasp in air and feel it reach the bottom of my lungs, welcoming oxygen to touch the parts of my body I’d forgotten were meant for just me. I piss myself, the sheets soaked with a deep, aching relief. I was a bed-wetter as a kid, and the feeling is familiar, safe. But as it cools and the warmth dissipates, I’m swept by the quiet realization that it’s happened: she’s gone. I’m alone. And Paris is so far away.


Stephanie C. Trott lives and writes in southeastern Massachusetts. She is a fiction editor at Longleaf Review and the 2021 guest editor for Emerging Voices in Fiction at Oyster River Pages. Her fiction additionally appears in Prairie SchoonerBlood Orange Review, and New South.

Colleen Mayo

2021, Fiction

WITH SUSANNA

Susanna and I sit like queens outside her restaurant on South Congress. She’s ordered us oysters, ham, and plates of tiny salted pickles that cost more than a pack of cigarettes. The windowsills are lined with baskets of cacti.

We’re different now. Grown, although acting like teenagers as we flirt with Paul, one of her waiters. Paul’s a coy Texas boy from Lubbock. Everyone around here, Susanna tells me, calls him Buddy after Buddy Holly. She hired him six weeks back. She says he knows his wine and how to charm the wives of all the fancy couples who frequent her restaurant.

Susanna winks at me while Paul gets us another bottle of champagne.

“You know those east coast wenches,” she says. “They can’t get over a cowboy smile.”

I wink back and remember how, fifteen years ago, Susanna was loud and thick-wasted. I made fun of her for all the words she mispronounced. But if I needed a dollar, Susanna had five. If I needed a drink, Susanna had Lone Stars and water bottles full of liquor. If I needed a ride, she had a black Toyota with weed in the console and a glove box stashed with condoms for safety. We used to joke about the condoms because we never used them. Instead, she’d drive her Toyota around Austin and we’d find roads shaded with live oaks to kiss one another under. It still excites me to remember first lying against her long stomach, how much difference there was to discover between our bodies—two shapes that, before Susanna, I’d assumed would be too similar to ever make sense as a set.

It’s eleven at night. Heel after heel clicks down South Congress. The women around us have skinny legs and handbags smooth as butter. Paul arrives to refill our champagne flutes and we toast to Susanna’s success. She bought this place out from an organic grocery store. Before that, the space was a bakery. Fifteen years ago, it was a metal shack that sold the best greasy hamburgers in town.  

Now she leans back with her fingers woven together on the table.

“You’re a businesswoman,” I tell her. “A total boss.” 

Susanna takes my hand and squeezes it three times. 

I want to say a corny line—let’s get out of here or follow me—then grab the champagne and lead her down an alleyway out back to light cigarettes and pass the bottle. I want Susanna to drink it all before getting closer. I want her to say, “now this feels good.” 

And then I want us to find some Lone Star. I want a plastic water bottle of liquor. I want to be sixteen and stoned in the back of Susanna’s Toyota. She’s left a handful of condoms in the glovebox for safety, knowing full well that’s not what we’re after at all. 

“It feels good to have you here,” she says. 


Colleen Mayo’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Crazyhorse, The Sun Magazine, The Rumpus, Hobart, The Chattahoochee Review, and elsewhere. Colleen lives in Denton, Texas where she is a PhD student in Creative Writing at The University of North Texas.

Anne Carney

2020, Fiction

BARBIE DEATH STAR

Sometimes Joan thinks she sees her daughter Shannon–just a flash of her as the light shifts through the sheer curtains. Sometimes the feeling almost seems to solidify beside her on the couch or behind her elbow, as she butters toast in the kitchen–just waiting to snatch one of the pieces from Joan’s plate. “Get your own!” Joan had snapped last week, and when she realized she was talking to the shadows from the clouds drifting over the skylight, she felt it all over again. It was a little like banging a toe into a sharp corner. She can’t get into the habit of being alone. Her body isn’t attuned to it yet.

Joan writes the addresses of promising sales in a neat column. Because she is left-handed, she crabs her fingers around her sentences, as if protecting her words. Sheltering them. She rinses her coffee mug and leaves it in the sink. Laces up Shannon’s Converse All Stars. They are white, and covered with lettering in blue inkpen. Also, there is a phone number scrawled across the tongue. “Buy tampons!” is written on the rubber strip by the toe. Joan wonders if Shannon really needed the tampons, or if it was a line of subversive feminist poetry.

She takes an empty storage tote from the stack in the garage, and puts it into the back of the minivan. One tote-full of Barbie dolls, packed well. Then her weekend mission will be complete. Barbies in any condition are fine. Any iteration of Barbie in any state of dress or undress. Bald or braided or stippled with the tiny pockmarks of cat teeth–it doesn’t matter. Sometimes, it takes her a day. Sometimes, all weekend and into the next week, making it necessary to scour eBay and place ads on the internet. Joan likes to get clever with the ads. “Desperately seeking Barbie . . .”

Barbie should be stacked like wood–face pressed against tiny pointed feet. Layer one–bosoms up. Layer two–bosoms down. And so on. It’s slow going. Spring cleaning is over. Summer vacation cash grab, over. Now, it’s people with pill habits. They’ve already picked the attics and basements clean of anything worthwhile. Then, the tool sheds and garages. Now, they’re desperate: Frayed sweaters, mismatched dishes, formula-stained baby clothes, Christian devotionals with handwritten supplications and dogged underlinings. By four o’clock, Joan has only two full rows, and barely more than half of the third.

She’s tired. A sad day without the gleeful texts from Shannon with pictures of her newly captured plunder. A sad day, with the cagey eyes of old women following her movements as she picks up vases and melamine bowls, and sets them back down. “I’m looking for Barbie,” she phrases her statement as a question, to which all but a few shake their heads. “No. No Barbie.” They’d had boys, or their girls had grown up years ago, or they didn’t believe in Barbie, as one woman told her. Didn’t believe in Barbie?

Back at home, Joan pulls the staircase down to Shannon’s workroom over the garage. It’s getting colder out. This is the time of year when the electric goes way up because of the space heater Shannon lavishly employs. Employed. The quick, sharp realization stabs at Joan, but she moves through it. Breathes through it. She hasn’t been up here since before. Her studio, she’d called it.

Joan sets the tote of Barbies at the top of the stairs and turns the worklight on. The old dining room table is pushed against the wall. There are apothecary jars full of barbie parts for easy access. One has hands. One has heads. Another is filled with tiny plastic high-heeled shoes. So delicate, Barbie’s forced arch. Joan dips her fingers into the jar of hands. They move around choppily, stabbing into her skin. “Deceptively strong,” Joan says to herself. She feels like Shannon is watching her. Approving of her comment.

She walks around the space in a slow circle. Shannon had been an art teacher at a small private school. She had an MFA from an expensive college. Her father had refused to pay for it, but she’d been able to get some sort of funding. Joan didn’t understand it. For her final project, she’d made a large, puffy chaise lounge in the shape of a vagina. She’d said it was her “shesis.” This same chaise lounge was set under the dormers and backlit by pink fairy lights. Joan switches them on. The chaise beckons to her.

She toes off Shannon’s Converse and sits on the chaise. She jumps a little as the soft flaps form themselves around her like a warm hug. There’s some kind of gel-like foam in it. It conforms to Joan. She settles her head back, but jerks it away as she realizes that the pillow is a plump, pink clitoris. Laughing, she snuggles down deep. The lights sparkle around her.

When she wakes, full dark has fallen. Joan thrashes about to escape the vagina and sets her feet against the cold floorboards. Rubbing her face, she slips the shoes back on. She delays the trip downstairs to eat her solitary supper. Walking around the room, she tries to see Shannon’s projects with a new perspective. Art. She had avoided calling it art before. It seemed like an insult to the paintings in museums–lifeless and static–placed against white walls, needing the silent breath and echoing footsteps of false reverence. Shannon’s art is quite different.

Joan is surprised at the religiosity of the pieces. Each one, made entirely from Barbie dolls. Joan sees a large crucifix, maybe six feet tall, made of tiny Barbie hands, as if supporting the tortured form of Christ. He is affixed to the apparatus with Barbie’s earrings, bright drops of nail polish blood spiral down his tortured form. His arms are made from Barbie arms, corded muscles are suggested by the mass of glued appendages. Some darker. Some lighter. Joan reaches out to touch him. His legs are made of legs. His feet are made of feet, overlapping like fish scales. He’s a stocky Jesus, not serpentine or elongated. He looks more peasantlike, this thick Jesus. He has a low center of gravity. His face, a distorted cubist sculpture. The smooth, plastic Barbie flesh is removed of its overt sexualization, and become something else. Joan doesn’t understand.

There is something blue in the corner. Joan snorts a little because she knows what it is. Last Christmas, someone had stolen the Mary figure from the light-up nativity set at the Nazarene church. Mary is big. Four and a half feet tall. Joan wonders how she missed her. There had been quite a scandal, and Joan can’t believe that she’s even surprised that it was Shannon who had taken her. Who else? Kids, the police had speculated, in the pages of the small weekly newspaper. Joan sighs. “I should have known,” she says softly. She thinks for a second that she can hear Shannon laughing.

Now Joan must go downstairs and illuminate the darkened, empty house. She has a freezer-full of casseroles from the funeral, but she is tired of starchy, heavy food. There is a broccoli salad in the fridge that she made this morning. She wants to watch the news while she eats it. The voices make her feel less alone.

Dragging Mary out of the corner, Joan notices a stack of her best Tupperware stacked under the eaves. She’d asked Shannon if she knew what had happened to that Tupperware, and Shannon had looked her right, straight in her face and told her she didn’t know. Everything with Shannon had to be a fight. She’d taken up so much energy, not caring that Joan worried relentlessly about her.

When Murphy came to the door that night, what was it? Two months ago? Already? He’d taken off his police hat, and was holding it in his large hands. She’d known it was Shannon.

“What is it, Murph,” she’d asked him.

He did not answer immediately, and she did not invite him inside although he was her friend and had been there many times. Instead of pressing him–instead of letting the urgency within her swarm around the both of them–she leaned against the doorframe and cherished that small sweet space between knowing and not knowing.

Meghan had promised Joan that she wasn’t going out to work on her guerrilla art installments, as she called them. She said she was only going out with friends that evening, but she’d fallen off the old stone railway bridge just south of town where she’d been suspending a creation made entirely of Barbie heads. They’d been attached to lengths of fishing line, an undulation of Barbie heads meant to sway in the wake of cars driving through the tunnel.

The installation had been successfully affixed to one end of the tunnel and fed through to be attached at the other end. Twelve feet by four. Joan had done the math. There were twelve hundred Barbie heads in the installation, their hair braided together in a tattered net. Shannon’s head had broken against the road when she fell, the blacktop perhaps still releasing exhausted waves of late August heat. All but one corner of the Barbie net was attached. A pertly macabre carpet of upturned Barbie faces witnessing the death of her only child.

Shannon would see it as romantic, dying for her art. Dying, perhaps, in a silly way. Yes, Shannon would have put her hands on her knees and dissolved into peals of giggles. She looked like an elf–lithe and little, her features often contorted with the dime-flash contrast of mirth and anger.

Joan goes downstairs, dragging Mary with her, the plastic from thunking emptily on each step. The Nazarenes had been so righteously outraged over the theft, but there wasn’t much to her anyway. A plastic, light-up Mary? Cheap and tacky. Joan’s fingers follow the placid, plastic contours of Mary’s face. She wishes Shannon had stolen a more substantial product, like maybe from the Catholics. They had a lovely nativity, hand-carved and painted in Italy.

Joan puts Mary in the corner of her bedroom, then she gets the broccoli salad from the fridge. The directions say to leave it overnight, to allow the bacon and onion flavors to meld together, but Joan will eat it now. She turns the news on. Someone has set fire to the odd concrete house on the outskirts of town. A giant fantastical concrete orb, constructed in the 70s and meant to withstand any number of natural disasters, yet it had succumbed to fire. The rubbish inside had collapsed and had likely fueled the fire until it fissured the concrete, causing it to crumble.

Nobody had ever lived in the house. It had sat there for generations; bait for horny teenagers and You-Tubers until one group or the other had likely tossed a still glowing cigarette into the sphere. There is footage before the collapse, flames leaping out of the windows. It was a gorgeous image. Shannon would have been delighted.

The orb had stood by the side of the highway for most of Joan’s life. She remembers when it was clean and new, and people expected that it would one day be finished. By the time Shannon was born, hopes of its completion had been long since given up. The owners had tried and failed to sell it many times. The windows had been broken, the doors smashed. Brush grew up around it, prickled and scraggly. Now Shannon is gone, and so is that damn house. It seems wrong to Joan, maybe because each–in their own unlikely way–should have been indestructible.

Joan turns off the television. She doesn’t mind as much, watching the current events that take place elsewhere. She feels insulated, if not by privilege, at least by geographic removal. But this, this house. This landmark. She can’t. So she takes the broccoli salad and goes back up to Shannon’s studio. She sits at the work table and forks the broccoli into her mouth while she turns the pages of Shannon’s sketchbook.

She sees the plans for the Barbie crucifix. Sees that it is meant to be suspended somewhere. But where? She sees a plan for a Last Supper diorama, made all of barbie parts. Blasphemous. Joan shakes her head. The crucifix doesn’t bother her like this does. Maybe it’s because she’s seen the crucifix. It’s real to her. She catches her breath. Here is the drawing of the heads attached to the fishing line.

Joan turns the page quickly. Takes another bite, and tries to swallow the bloom of grief rising up her neck. There is a drawing of a rounded scaffold of barbie limbs, interlocking in a chain design. It rises up and up like a spiral with appendages randomly jutting off of it. This one is in color. Shannon’s notes specify that melted crayons are to be dribbled over the structure. It is quite lovely. It reminds Joan of birds, drifting on air currents. Shannon’s attention to detail really was superb. She had talent, Joan acknowledges. She’d often wished Shannon would use it for something less creepy and weird. There are no heads in this design. Joan supposes that the heads had been used already in the installation that had killed Shannon. These were the leftover parts.

Joan opens one of the large totes under the table. Legs. In another one, she finds arms. Taking a generous handful of each, she begins to wire them together bending them into a gentle coil as the chain grows. She feels sloppy and awkward. The whole thing slips apart. She needs glue. She begins again. By the time she is done, she has one loop of Barbie limbs the size of a hula hoop. She imagines Shannon surveying her progress, hands on slim hips.

“You never even cared about my work before,” she says.

“I spent every weekend looking for these damn things for you,” answers Joan. “I still do.”

But Joan knows that invisible Shannon is right. She only went Barbie hunting to humor Shannon, and because it was a way to spend the weekend connected to her daughter, however tenuously.

“What’s with all the Catholic stuff?” Joan asks.

“Catholicism is like herpes,” Shannon grins. “You can’t get rid of it, and sometimes, it festers.”

Joan rolls her eyes. Even in her imagination, Shannon is a blasphemous smartass. But she does wonder about the religious nature of the work. She’d given her a biography of Dorothy Day shortly before she died, hoping that Day’s subversive, radical brand of Catholicism might bring Shannon back around. She remembers being flattered that Shannon had taken Joan as her confirmation name, but she’d told her mother that it was because Joan of Arc was a cross-dresser, and obviously gay.

Joan is somehow transformed by the work in Shannon’s studio. She stays in, day after day, gluing and wiring and bending. Talking to Shannon. She eats all the food in the house. The broccoli salad. The rest of the frozen funeral casseroles, starting to get frostbitten, but still hearty. She runs out of toilet paper and uses Kleenex. Runs out of Kleenex and uses paper napkins. She runs out of food and eats the rest of the Halloween candy from last year.

The project has begun to resemble the sketch in Shannon’s book.

“Not bad,” says Shannon. “Did you eat my candy?”

Joan’s hair is auburn, once vivid as autumn but now faded into pink, like milk stirred into tomato soup. It clumps against her head, unwashed. The seat of her sweatpants is saggy. She vacates the studio space only for her bed with the sheets gone sour, and the protection of her Mother Mary with her forty-watt circle of yellow light. After a month of this–or maybe longer–Murphy starts to knock on the door. Joan doesn’t answer. He leaves a bucket of chicken one day. She kneels on the tiled floor of the entry and eats it in large bites, pulling clean bones from her mouth with greasy fingers.

The third time Murphy comes, he doesn’t leave. He sits in the bentwood rocker on the covered front porch. Joan sees him through the sidelights of the front door. The rocker–which was intended to be ornamental–sags under his weight. His plaid shirt is fastened over the curve of his belly, the buttons almost straining apart, but not quite. Joan ignores him. He reaches into a shopping bag and pulls out a covered dish. Joan is hungry. The chicken was how long ago? Two days? A week?

Joan opens the door. Murphy sets the casserole on the entry table and takes Joan by the hand. He leads her into the master bathroom and kneels by the tub. Opens the taps and stirs the water with his arm. Then he takes one of the good towels off the bar. It is only for decoration. It is stiff with sizing and embroidered with glossy thread. He places the towel gently in Joan’s hands. He closes the door behind him, but Joan opens it. Now that he is here, she can’t be alone. He turns his back while she removes her clothes and steps into the tub. She tucks her knees under her chin and rests her head on them. Murphy washes her back. She cries.

After dressing, Joan eats. Murphy has brought shepherd’s pie, his own recipe in which every usual ingredient of shepherd’s pie has been replaced with something Murphy likes better. Instead of peas and carrots, there is buttered corn. Instead of mashed potatoes there is a layer of cheese-infused tater tots. He also has brought Miller Lite and after one, Joan’s head is buzzing. She hasn’t drank since the glass of wine she had that night, right before Murphy came to the door to tell her about Shannon. They don’t speak much.

“So, did Shannon take that Mary from the Nazarenes?”

“I like her. She helps me sleep,” says Joan. “I’m finishing her work.”

Murphy follows her up to the studio. He laughs when he sees the vagina couch. Joan tells him it’s comfortable and invites him to try it out.

“Did you see about the round house?” he asks her. “I always loved that thing.”

“Murphy,” Joan says. “Will you help me?”

Murphy has been a cop for twenty years, and still works the second shift. In the morning, he comes to Joan’s house and helps her. He brings donuts and bottles of Bailey’s and 64-ct. boxes of Crayola crayons, the kind with the sharpener built in.

“They have boxes now with 152 crayons,” says Murphy. “It’s excessive. I think that’s the problem with the millenials.”

“Their problem is they have too many crayons?” Joan says.

“No. It’s more that they have too many choices, but they don’t lead anywhere, maybe. I think it stresses them out. They worry too much if they’ll make the right one,” says Murphy. “I’d tell them not to worry so much, you know? If I had kids, I wouldn’t let them worry. It’s all so arbirtrary.”

“Yeah,” says Joan. “Hold this.” She hands him a butane culinary torch, and rips open a fresh pack of Crayolas.

“As far as I’m concerned, anything more than the 64-pack is just vulgar. How many colors can our eyes even see? This isn’t Heaven,” she says. “It’s like the grocery store. The last time I went, I tried to buy toothpaste but there were too many kinds. I couldn’t get any. Maybe it’s because it was the first new tube since Shannon.”

“Or shampoo,” said Murphy. “Why so many kinds?”

The floor of the studio is covered with wax dribbles in 64 colors.

“They brought in new colors and took some away,” Murphy says. “Why did they take out lemon yellow?

“That was so light, you couldn’t see it,” says Joan. “It was too thin as a color.” She surveys their progress. “It kind of reminds me of those wine bottle candles that hippies used to have. Remember? My mother had one. Wax dribbled all down it.”

“We can’t do the rest of it up here,” says Murphy. “We won’t be able to get it out.”

So they load up Joan’s van on Wednesday afternoon, because Wednesday is Murphy’s Saturday. They’d cleared out the totes with the arms and legs. They’d used the contents of the apothecary jars, and Joan’s good Tupperware. They’d melted thousands of crayons, making vivid confetti of the paper coverings. Murphy gets a ladder from the rafters and puts it in the van. Before they drive off, he gets a piece of paper from his truck.

“What’s that?” asks Joan.

“Temporary permit,” he says. “For a memorial service on city property.”

They drive to the round house grounds, the place where the concrete orb had burned. Heaps of rubble still remain, but there is nothing left that resembles the former structure. They lay the base of the installation, but the ladder isn’t tall enough for the rest of it, so Murphy calls in the city tree people, and from the plastic bucket of their truck, they finish it.

“Is this legal?” asks Joan.

“No,” says Murphy. “But I play poker with these guys.” Joan doesn’t question. Murphy is a simple man of few words, but a good one. Something about him just feels right. Comfortable.

The men in the truck turns the headlights on, and they stand and look at the thing. Joan doesn’t know what to call it. The installation? The art? She supposes it doesn’t matter.

“It looks like a mangled Death Star,” says Joan.

“I’d tell you not to quit your day job if you had one,” says Murphy. “We could put that giant Jesus cross in the middle if you want to.”

“No. I want that.” she says. “I feel like it needs something else. Do you think it needs something?”

“I don’t know. If you mess with it too much, you’ll ruin it. Just let it be done.”

Joan leans against Murphy. They wave to the tree men as they drive off, taking their light. The wax surface of the installation glimmers in the partial light of the moon. Joan feels Shannon beside her.

“It’s lopsided,” she says to her. “I’m sorry I fudged your last project.”

“No,” says Shannon. “It’s perfect.”


Anne Carney holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University. This is her first published story.

K-Ming Chang

2020, Fiction

SWALLOWER

We brought the woman our hands to swallow. She stood at the intersection where ghosts were known to knit themselves into gloves, sheathing the hands of drivers and misdirecting them into telephone poles and duplexes and each other. The woman called us her daughters and claimed she could swallow anything if we paid her. In her hands, a baseball cap purpled with sweat and jingling half-full of nickels. One time she was featured in the World Journal, the only street performer to ever make the bottom-right-hand corner of the front page, and tourists drove in from all over the city with dollar bills in their fists and backseats full of things they dared her to swallow. She was tall and so thin her fingers had more knuckles than ours and her veins surfaced like snakes when she swallowed, her mouth unhinging wide enough to cleave open the sun and suck out the squirm of its seed. When she walked, her shadow preceded her into any room, a dark that rotted our teeth to seeds and repainted the walls wherever she went. She spoke in an accent none of us could name, each of her vowels spat to the sidewalk and split like scabs.

One time, one of us brought her a sparrow to swallow, a sparrow that had been living in the wall of our duplex for weeks, along with the rotting carcass of a raccoon and an assembly of squirrels. It was only after we hammered holes in the walls, the way we saw men in nature shows tapping trees for sap, that we freed the sparrows fortressed inside. The woman plucked the sparrow by one wing from our palms, tipped her head back, and balled the bird into her mouth as if it were a document she needed to smuggle through her bowels, and there were rumors of that too, that she was a former spy, that her one and only skill was to swallow evidence of what was stolen.

Her throat was translucent as the core of a pear, incandescent, and we saw the sparrow dive into her belly beak-first, its black wings bound by sound. For months, we heard the bird flying around inside her, carving a sky inside her belly, and when she opened her mouth it was to chirp. We thought maybe the sparrow had mated with whatever else she had eaten, and now there was a family perched inside her. We threw handfuls of birdseed onto the sidewalk and watched her kneel to lick them up, her tongue studded with shells. We took turns being in love with her. First we were in love with the butcher at Ranch 99, the one who could slice a lung thin enough to drape over a lamp. There were rumors that his wife was a knife and that is how he learned to be precise. Even in the way he spoke: he could sharpen any sound narrow-tipped enough to enter any part of your body. Our love for him was a like a tendon, elastic, easily snipped, and sometimes we didn’t love him at all and sometimes we were willing to hang from hooks if it meant he would touch us, treat us with the tenderness of a stampede.

The swallower we loved differently, more from a distance, her face like the surface of a planet, one of those planets with an atmosphere so toxic your skin dissolve on contact. That was until the day we brought her our hands to swallow. For tips, we’d seen her swallow a golf club, a lit candle, a flashlight, a drawerful of socks, a cell-phone, a pen knife, a whole fish, but we had never seen her swallow a fist. We believed our hands would finally defeat the gravity of her belly, and when we lifted them to her, the way we saw illustrated flames reach up to a woman tied to a stake, she gathered our hands as if plucking dandelion heads from the sidewalk and tugged the bouquet to her mouth. That was the day we touched the pit of her, our arms sleeved inside her dark, our fingers combing the carpet at the bottom of her belly, the place where all things return to before they’re reborn. She gagged our hands back up again, pulled us out glistening like roots, and we knew we would never know her. There was an art to swallowing, she said: consumption without destruction. It was an inherited skill, learned from her father who mastered swallowing an entire pistol. He smuggled ammunition past Japanese troops, swallowed gold bars and set off airport metal detectors, shoplifted a live hen in his stomach. When he died years later of pneumonia, she said, tears came out of his ears. He’d been in a coma for three weeks, and to smuggle water into his body, she drilled a straw into the base of his throat and sponged water down it. Hearing is the last thing to go, she said. The last thing the dead know is the sound of our voices, the chorus of hornets in our lungs, and the dead keep listening even after they’re buried. The ears take the longest to decompose, and sometimes they reincarnate into butterflies. This is why it is important to announce ourselves to the dead. To enter every room voice-first, asking our ghosts if we can wear them.

The day she swallowed and regurgitated our hands, the woman sat down on the curb and stretched out her legs, their shadows bright as sails. She said her father never taught her how to swallow because daughters do not inherit, but she learned in a dream how to mimic the sea’s plumbing, how to be a body of water wide enough to drown anything. We reached out our hands as she told this story, all of us hoping to remain in her like a thorn, to make of her skin something holy. Each of us planned to reconvene in our dreams that night, to see if we too might learn to swallow in our sleep, the only place where we did not have bodies, where our legs were the length of our lives. But the woman warned us against dreaming, said that it was possible to get lost inside one, to sever the tether back to your body and be set loose like a sparrow in a house of glass, everywhere a false sky to fly into.

There was a girl she knew once, a girl who got locked out of her body because she wandered off in a dream and did not return. For three weeks she was asleep in her mother’s bed, and each of her sisters had to take turns wiping her ass and flipping her over so that sores would not scuttle all over her body like roaches. It was only later, when we repeated this story to our mothers, that we learned the girl was not asleep for weeks because she wandered off in her dream but because her brother knocked her head against the side of a duplex. We often saw our mothers slapping a fish’s head against a flat stone, the best way to stun it bloodlessly before severing the head, and we wondered if the girl was like that, laid out on the bed so that her vacated head could be cut off cleanly and painlessly. There were ways to wake up, but the woman did not tell us, and she did not tell us how it was possible to maintain a mouth inside a dream, when we ourselves were mouthless in ours, always waking inside of cities didn’t know their own names.

We tried swallowing too, we practiced on doorknobs, our razor blades, on kitchen sponges, on spoons, we tried swallowing our own fists, clouds punctured by our tongues, CDs broken in half, we tried colors, swallowing our shadows, we tried wind, parts of cars, aquariums, live fish, a gerbil, roadkill, we tried knives, fish bones, a leash, a puddle, we swallowed our mothers’ necklaces, earrings that dangled in our throats and lit us from the inside like chandeliers, lightbulbs, a clothes-hanger, a struck match, a flame. But everything cancelled out in our mouths, unstitched into steam, and we always swallowed nothing.

We returned to her and asked how to drown things in our bodies. The way you do it, we said, and she said we had to be gifted the way she was, gifted by ghosts: if you feed a starving dog in this life, she said, the dog will reincarnate and come back to you and save you. She said: My dog lives curled in my belly like smoke. My dog is the dog that returned in this life to bite me – I was just six years old then – and my teeth turned to sweetcream and I vomited out my tongue but when the fever lifted like a flag in a fallen country I was cured and my mouth was the entrance to a freeway. After hearing this, we tried to find a dog in the neighborhood to feed, but none of them were starving. None of them were strays, all were tame, and we couldn’t find a single one to save. One of us finally stole a pitbull out of someone’s side-yard, gnawing the leash with her own teeth, and we starved it over many weeks, feeding it only leaves, nips of our sleeves. Then when the dog was so skinny its breath played its ribs like an accordion, when it was so starved it began to levitate, floating away from its feet, we fed it. Raw patty meat, stolen lung slices, bread-crusts: it ate so much we thought its stomach was a snake’s, the kind that can swallow its prey and digest it over a lifetime, the kind of creature with a hunger elongated across history. Then the dog lifted its head from our palms and rolled its eyes back and died and we cried because now the dog would not return to us in its next life and save us or teach us to swallow. The dog would return only for revenge and bite us and fill our mouths with clouds, and we might as well leash ourselves now, we might as well forfeit our mouths.

When we told the woman what we’d done, how we failed, she laughed and said we were haunted now, that the dog would return as our husbands and we would soon give birth to litters of six at a time. She knew a woman who once gave birth to sextuplets, naming each one after a different month, and halfway through the year she tore her voice and never spoke again. We wore scarves now, trying to protect the tender sides of our necks, until the woman said a ghost would snag the ends of our scarves and suffocate us. We were tired of the woman and her stories and her reincarnations, tired now that we knew we would never as full as her, symphonic with discarded objects, so we swallowed her. It was the Sunday before rain was invented. It was night and the woman looked up at the moon as if she might swallow that too, as if every light was located inside her, every light was another of her lives.

We took her the way we took the dog, by striking her between the eyes with a flashlight, and then we each held a limb and began to swallow and swallow until our mouths met in the middle of her and she was gone, divvied up between us, siphoned into us as smog. Inside us, she took root in our bellies, hinged us to our knees. She was submerged like a radish before it surfaces and is skinned bright as a knuckle, and we waddled now instead of walking, sharing the weight of her, building our breaths into rungs for her to climb out of us, heaving our pregnant bellies, hearing her beg every day to be born breech, the way we all should be, legs-first and running from our lives.


K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and the winner of a 2019 Pushcart Prize in poetry. Her debut novel is forthcoming from One World/Random House in September 2020.