Popping Pills – Tim Frank

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Photo: Joshua Coleman

Gregory was the only male in the Hadrick Women’s Mental Institute. He was a burly nurse of about six foot six, heaving several bowling balls worth of excess weight around his stomach, and in his fifteen years as a professional carer he had committed many crimes.

It was a normal day at the asylum. Gregory padded up the shiny white floors – so clean they were sticky – and he entered Gina’s room. She was in bed, duvet wrapped around her bare feet, cheek squished against an exposed mattress spring. Gregory poked her nose with his plimsoll. She sat upright and rubbed her eyes with her fists. She received the milk, the buttered toast and double the number of pills she’d been prescribed.

‘I can’t remember anything,’ Gina moaned. ‘Not even yesterday. Gregory, do me a solid, tell me what happened to me last night or, God damn it, I’ll end it all. Life’s not worth living if you can’t remember last night’s Yorkshire pudding.’

Gregory sniffed and shrugged.

‘What if I just stopped taking the pills Gregory?’’

‘That would just be stupid.’

‘Wild stupid. My vagina feels weird.’

‘I don’t… Need to…’

‘Something’s not right. Something’s been in it, I’m pretty sure. I need to know.’

‘Um? Forget about it?’

‘I’ve got a vibe, man, and I can’t let this one slide!’

Gregory decided not to indulge Gina any further and finished off the rest of his rounds. The other girls were maudlin, grey and placid. They ate the food that made them fat, and the overdose of pills that made them pliable. They didn’t struggle.

Visiting hours came, and Gina met with Jackie, someone she’d befriended in Hadrick a year ago. They sat by the expansive window, far away from reception, as Gregory was there analysing their every move, chewing on a soggy pencil rubber.

‘I broke into Gregory’s home. He has mother issues,’ Jackie whispered, ‘serious mother issues. He has shrines to her, pictures everywhere, dresses laid out on chairs and beds. He sleeps next to her ashes. He’s an acid freak too. That’s how we get him.’

An hour later, Jackie skirted around Gregory, eyes locked to the floor, and exited the building. Gregory turned his gaze to Gina, who was chugging on a cigarette in the smoking cage, peeking out of the corner of her eyes, sussing Gregory up, hatching a plan.

That night Gina felt the thick velvet fog descend upon her – the consequence of the obscene amount of pills she’d been swallowing. But tonight would be different. Jackie had slipped her some poppers and the pungent effulgent rocked her mind enough to stay alert through the night – with the added bonus of making her bowels a little more carefree.

At the strike of two in the morning Gina heard the squeaking of trainers on linoleum. In the light from the lamp by reception, Gina watched as Gregory bore down upon her singing ‘The Yellow Submarine’ and smelling of pork scratchings.

Gregory flung Gina’s duvet off her and drooled. He began to undress her.

‘Come to Matka, lovely baby boy,’ Gina said.

‘Matka?’ Gregory said, dumbstruck. ‘Mamma?’

‘Yes baby, don’t look at me, what we are about to do is shameful but nevertheless – we must. Our love shall be anointed.’’

Gregory stepped back and covered his eyes with his arm.

‘I want to mamma, so have I missed you. But I’m afraid. Can this really be true? No, it can’t be. Maybe I’m losing my mind. I am on a helluva lot of acid.’

‘If you can’t please your mother then who can you please?’

‘Please Matka, I’m very confused.’

‘Make love to me now, or may Beelzebub eat your soul!’

Gregory began to cry and, keeping his eyes shielded, stumbled out of Gina’s room.

The next day Nurse Fold gathered the girls by the sofas next to the TV and told them Gregory would be absent for a short while and she would now be in charge.

As Nurse Fold started to dole out the day’s pills, Gina made a beeline for her and smashed the tablets out of their containers causing them to scatter to the floor.

‘I dare you to pick them up,’ Gina said. ‘I dare you. From now on I’m in charge, otherwise I’ll expose you for letting Gregory get away with what he did to us.’
Days passed and the girls still refused their pills. They tuned into MTV and danced on the sofas. They smoked joints in the dining room and stubbed their roaches out in their mashed potatoes. Gina was high as hell and jumped onto her friend’s back like a footballer who’d scored a goal, and shouted, ‘You can’t stop us, we’ve got too much spunk in our veins! Knock us down, we’ll just come back for more!’

And then things turned religious. Many of the girls recited babbling scripture – making the sign of the cross after every sentence they spoke. A week off the pills and the fights broke out. Girls made weapons from toothbrushes and plastic spoons. They picked sides.

Then time stopped.

One of the girls killed a nurse. She slit her throat with a shiv. The nurse had refused to bow down to the girl who claimed to be the new messiah. In the hours that followed, before security bulldozed their way through the doors – blocked by chairs and beds -everyone, including Gina, quickly sobered and saw things clearly. They were nobodies. They had nothing, never did. Who could blame them for thinking they were gods, who could blame them for wanting to live large for once in their lives?

As Gina was tackled to the ground by security, she saw light sweeping through the hospital hallways – a kingdom of light. She’d never felt so alive and she knew life would never be so wondrous again. She was ready to go back on the pills.


Tim

Tim Frank specialises in the comic, the dark and the surreal. He has written a semi-autobiographical novel, Devil in my Veins, and is currently writing a sci-fi thriller novel.

the owls learned english a long time ago – lucy mihajlich

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Photo: Timothy Dykes

“Did you see her in the debates?”

“Oh, yeah,” said Maddy. “I made it into a drinking game. I drank every time she spoke.”

“She’s just so sexist,” said Kirby. “How can a woman be that sexist?”

“Hey,” she said. “We can do anything you can.”

We were in the Sic Bay. It was New York University’s unofficial student health center, which was preferable to the actual Student Health Center, because Kirby only charged for the weed.

Kirby was a grad student in the NYU School of Medical Technology. He was going to be a repairman for robot surgeons. “Until they learn how to repair themselves,” he always added.

He and Maddy lived in Rubin, a residence hall overcompensating with ivy so thick you could barely see the brick beneath its leaves. You could still smell it. Rubin was so infused with secondhand hops that, on a hot day, the bricks smelled more like loaves of bread. It was the cheapest housing on campus, because the antiquated structure couldn’t support central cooling. On a hot day, you were lucky if all you could smell was beer.

I lived in the Bobst Library and Computer Lab.

NYU had recently gotten caught up in a ponzi scheme. It was the Pyramide Inversée of the Madoff scandal, which no one liked to talk about, so of course, it history repeated itself. Tuition went up. So did housing. I lived en plein air for a while, but it was hard enough being homeless in New York City even before Central Parking paved over the green roof to make room for more cars.

When the Bobst Library closed in the small hours of the morning, I hid in the bathroom. The security guards never swept the stalls. They never policed their butts either, so there was always something to smoke while I waited.

I slept during the day, but it was a college library, so they were used to that. I woke up screaming, but they were used to that too.

“You should hire a bodyguard,” said Kirby. Even Maddy looked confused by the non-sequitur, and she got an A in Non-Sequiturs I.

“They don’t have that category on Craigslist,” she said.

“Not Craigslist.” He started pacing. “The dark web.”

After Campus Public Safety found out about the death threats, they did a few extra bike-bys of our building. Kirby said that was bullshit. Maddy said it was “about as useful as cupping a corpse.”

She explained the idiom, but that led to a whole new series of questions, including how long she had been Jewish, and what exactly went on when her people sat Shiva.

I raised my hand. “What’s the dark web?”

“The dark web refers to any website hosted on an anonymous network like Tor. It’s technically legal, in a read-the-fine-font sort of way, but the websites that exist on it are not. You can buy anything on the Silk Superhighway with enough digitally laundered currency. You remember that girl who sold her kidney to buy an iPhone? It’s always harvest season on the internet. People who view this item also viewed drugs, guns, and kiddie porn. You can even hire an assassin. The Unicoder will make it look like an accident for anyone who refers a friend. You’ve probably never heard of him, but he’s totally dark net famous.”

“No, Miriam,” said Maddy, without looking up from her phone. “We aren’t hiring The Unicoder. He only has two stars.”

I lowered my hand.

“I could be your bodyguard,” said Kirby. “For the right compensation.”

“Don’t be a pig,” I said.

“Would your parents pay for one?” asked Maddy.

“I doubt it.”

To be fair, of all the ways I could have disappointed my parents in college, I don’t think they had considered “starting a cult.”

The Gift started as a side hustle. Kirby designed it for me, and coded it in BASIC, despite my initial confusion and offense. He had three side hustles: App designer, Uber Driver, and sous chef, or as he put it: the real triple threat.

The Gift was an app combining witchcraft with psychology. The name was a reference to DEAR MAN GIVE, an acronym from the Dialectical Behavior Therapy module on Interpersonal Effectiveness: Describe, Express, Assert, Reinforce, Mindful, Appear confident, Negotiate. Gentle, Interested, Validate, Easy manner.

After the Gift went viral, I had to Urban Dictionary my own slogan. Apparently “Dear man, give,” was a versatile expression that could contextually mean any of the following: Yes, no, maybe, and exclamation of victory, a greeting, an insult, or a request for sexual services.

I started full-fidelity Dialectical Behavior Therapy three weeks after my first panic attack. Three days into first module, my parents took me off their insurance. I didn’t qualify for the university’s health plan, because I was taking less than twenty-four credits per term.

Anyone could be a witch, but their persecution (and prosecution) had always been a feminist issue. Early witches were just women who said “no” to men.

The Salem Witch Trials were mostly the result of misogyny (and hallucinogens). Although only twenty people were executed in Salem, compared to the scores of thousands in France, Germany, and England (the Spanish Inquisition had insisted that ordinary standards of evidence be applied).

In 1967, the Yippies levitated the Pentagon. (Hallucinogens were probably involved on this occasion as well.) During the 70s, W.I.T.C.H. (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) and other feminist groups chanted slogans such as, “We are the daughters of the witches you couldn’t burn.” In 2017, a neo-W.I.T.C.H. group was formed for the Women’s March.

Historically speaking, the popularity of witchcraft tended to peak during periods of social unrest. The Cold War brought Wicca, Dianic Witchcraft, and cultural appropriation. The Orange Scare brought emoji spells, and more cultural appropriation. After they took our health insurance, it was only a matter of time.

The Gift went from seventeen downloads to seventy thousand overnight, and the hits just kept coming. Per day, I averaged fifteen autograph requests, thirty kiss requests, half a dead animal, and two marriage proposals. My death threat count had dropped to five. They were very flattering death threats too. Most of them only wanted to kill me so they could absorb my power.

I had everything I’d ever wanted, except for sleep.

“How did you do it?” Kirby asked.

I blew a smoke ring. “It must have been the deal I made on Craigslist. This guy had a listing under Mobile App Promotion, but he insisted we meet at the corner of 5th and Couch, at night. Instead of payment, all he wanted was a picture of me. What was his name? Ugh, I’m so bad with names, and he had so many.”

“Prince?”

“That was one of them.”

Maddy blew a smoke dragon. “Your strategy seems to be working, Miriam.”

“Strategy?” I repeated.

“Your strategy.” She spoke louder, as if I was deaf or Siri. “Taking a break from social media.”

“Oh, that strategy.”

“The internet is calling it your vow of silence. You’re maintaining the air of mystery around the Gift. It helps that the only thing you ever post on Twitter are pictures of cats. Of course that won’t work forever. You may have to hire a ghostposter. Try to get the one who works for the Kardashians. I think they just won a Pulitzer.”

“I have a question,” said Kirby.

“Just one?” I asked.

“Is this all psychological, or do you actually believe in magic?”

I shrugged. “You can’t believe in nothing.”

Maddy snapped her fingers. “Enigmatic. Good. I don’t think you’ll need a ghostposter.”

“Of course I can,” said Kirby. “It’s called atheism.”

“No,” I said. “I mean, you can’t believe in nothing. There’s no such thing as nothing. Even in a vacuum, there are particles and antiparticles and they are inherently unstable, which is probably what caused the Big Bang, but we don’t know. We don’t know what happened before the Planck epoch. We don’t know why there’s no such thing as nothing. We don’t know why we exist, but we do, and we’re complex enough to question the nature of that existence. That implies inherent meaning. We may not know the meaning of life, but we can’t deny it. We are not an accident.”

Maddy snorted. “Speak for yourself.”

 

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I ate dinner by the campfire light. I had started the fire all by myself. For kindling, I burned dry branches. For tinder, I burned dry leaves. And my hair, but that was an accident.

Dinner was a life hack for campfire-grilled cheese sandwiches. I didn’t understand why they were called life hacks when they were supposed to be easy. Hacking was harder than it looked. There were only two windows, one progress bar, and no time limit. And the progress bar turned out to be Kirby’s music.

Although to be fair, I almost started a forest fire.

I stayed in the Catskills until the new president took office. Then I turned around and drove west. I didn’t even stop to eat. Drive-thrus seemed safer. Of course, Taco Bell backfired since I had to stop three times after that.

I drove until we ran into water or Border Patrol. Then, like a Roomba, I did an about-face and drove in the opposite direction. Along the way, there were rest stops, supply runs, and open road. The white noise of the electric van’s fake engine. The white noise of the news.

It started small. In Texas, a woman was refused service at Starbucks because she had a pentacle on her shirt. It was Captain America’s shield.

Her case didn’t even make it to the Supremes, but it was a benchmark. Witches had separate bathrooms and water bottle filling stations. They even had their own schools, which were not as nice as Harry Potter led them to expect.

Maddy led the protests, so she was the first arrest.

The president repurposed several government facilities to serve as correctional camps. They were supposed to “provide a remedial setting for aggressive therapies,” and that was the PR version. The camps used aversion therapy, administering drugs that made people sick and then showing them tarot cards. The suicide rate was off the roof.

The Kardashians’ Pulitzer-winning ghostposter got herself sent to the camps on purpose. She managed to release some footage before “committing suicide.”

I wanted to help, but it was hard to get a Twitter account verified when you were a fugitive from justice.

 

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I patted myself down before leaving the van. Wallet, phone, keys, knife, knife, knife, knife, knife. Drive-thrus seemed safer, but sometimes you just had to enjoy the supersized things in life.

Another old man was taking the ball pit too literally. The children were crying into their french fries— as if the sodium content wasn’t high enough already.

No one noticed when the Unicoder drew his gun. It was an antique revolver. A financial statement piece. Point and click.

No wonder he only had two stars.

“I’m going to sue McDonald’s,” I said.

“You wouldn’t be the first,” said the Unicoder.

I drew my athame.  The ceremonial blade was traditional in design, double-sided and black-handled.

“You really think you’re going to do any damage with that little pigsticker?”

“Let’s find out, pig.”

He ruined the moment by laughing.

“Hey, I have a question.”

“Just one?” he asked.

“Why do you do it?”

He shrugged. “It’s a side hustle.”

“I meant Uber.”

“Oh.” The Unicoder blinked. “Easy to make it look like an accident. A lot of people refer friends. More than you might think…. Miriam?”

I had that feeling— when you knew there was something that you were supposed to be doing, but you couldn’t remember what. In this case it was breathing.

“Miriam!”

I was having a panic attack.


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Lucy Mihajlich lives in Portland, Oregon. Her first book, Interface, was chosen for the Multnomah County Library Writers Project, where it appeared on the list for Best of the Library Writer’s Project 2017.

drift – addison herron-wheeler

Matt Clifford - Photo Credit Matt Diss ALOC Media

As she opened the hatch and slid out into the starry night, she heard a scraping sound behind her. She didn’t have to turn around to know who it was.

Marika had been avoiding Dante the entire time on the ship. Ever since their breathless encounter in the ship elevator, the one Marika had pulled away from, Dante seemed to be stalking her around every corner. At night, she locked her door, waiting as quietly as possible until she heard his footsteps fade down the hall and disappear. She was constantly running.

But now, here in “the library,” their term for the spiraling vortex of levers that controlled the fuel tanks, there was nowhere to go, and Dante knew it.

He moved toward her, eyes flashing, and grabbed her arm. Even in her spacesuit, Marika felt he was seeing straight through to her naked body, then to her bones. She kicked herself away from the wall of the ship, her cord holding. Dante kicked off too, floating toward her, then grabbing both arms and pinned them to her sides.

Using all her force, Marika spun around and kicked hard, sending him flying further from the shop.

The tether broke. Immediately, the fear in his eyes turned to hopeless panic. He began waving his arms wildly, and then he started drifting soundlessly into space.

Calmly, Marika turned around and began her work on the controls. She ignored his silent screams, trapped in a pink bubble in the nebula they were floating in. She didn’t turn around to see his eyes begin to turn red or his veins bulge out, and she kept her gaze averted from the carnage that became his face as he died in space, just a few feet from their vessel.

She finished her work calmly, then floated over to his body and gave it a hard kick. It started to drift away. Her tether was extended all the way, and for a moment, she thought of following him letting her body drift soundlessly after him into the ether.

Then she slowly kicked off his body and propelled herself back into the ship. She landed soundlessly, crawled along the body of the ship, and reached over to open the hatch.


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Addison Herron-Wheeler is editor of OUT FRONT Magazine, web editor of New Noise Magazine, and an avid sci-fi and metal nerd. Her first collection of fiction, Respirator, will be out in 2020 on Spaceboy Books

 

 

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a sex toy shop – margaret reynolds

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“How’d you come up with the store’s name?” the director asks Marissa, our store manager.

Marissa and the documentary crew have set up in the BDSM corner today, their shot backdropped by feather ticklers and paddles. The other employees — Jay and Arman — and I are pretending to restock lingerie while secretly watching the interview.

“Well, we brainstormed a couple of ideas. Our first one was — A Sex Toy Shop for Misfits and Mutants. But then the sign people quoted us about a million dollars for that name,” Marissa speaks crisply. Smacks hard on her consonants. I’m guessing she’s spitting because the cameraman keeps backing away from her, only to bump into the mannequin sporting a strapon.

“Why would you call it ‘A Sex Toy Shop for Misfits and Mutants’?” the director asks.

“No one warned him?” I whisper to Jay.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” Marissa smiles at the director and then winks at us. Fuck, she knows we aren’t working. I hurriedly shove more knee-high stockings onto the shelf.

“Ok, I guess… What was your…” the director cuts himself off and throws his arms into the air. “Brett! Will you stop fucking moving. Our footage is going to be shaky.”

Brett, the cameraman, sulks back towards Marissa, glaring in turns at the director and the strapon mannequin.

The director sighs, “As I was saying, what other names did you come up with?”
Marissa smacks her lips again. I see Brett’s nostrils flare, but after getting a nasty side look from the director, he stays put.

“Well, we cut it to Misfits and Mutants, but then Jay said people are going to think we are literally selling misfits and mutants. Like mutant trafficking, I guess. He’s very dramatic like that,” Marissa’s shaking her head. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Arman’s eyes go wide. Probably picturing the director cutting Marissa saying “mutant trafficking, I guess” and using it for god knows what.

“I suggested just Dildos,” Marissa waves her hand across the air, like she’s presenting a Broadway play, before frowning. “But everyone said the name would be limiting. I mean, we have a fabulous dildo collection, don’t get me wrong. However, we don’t want people to think that we only sell dildos.”

“The other ideas were — Paddles for Non-Gendered Pussies, Misfit Magic ;), and Demons, Dildos, and Desire. Oh my!” Marissa counts the names off on her fingers.

“So why’d you go with Sex Toys.”

Marissa shrugs and pulls out her whiny, I’m mimicking corporate voice, “Oh, well, corporate called and said, ‘Franchises don’t get to choose their own name,’ or something dumb and uninspired liked that.”

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“So, Callie, what’s your favorite part of working at the store?” the director asks me.
Jay and I are in the breakroom, sitting across from the director. Jay’s arms are crossed.
Marissa told Jay him he had to give at least one interview for the documentary about the store. Jay told Marrissa she was essentializing trans dudes to improve the diversity of the documentary. Marissa told Jay that he was a self-centered twat, not everything was about him, and all employees were required to give at least one interview. Jay told Marissa he didn’t appreciate her using feminine-gendered insults like twat. Marissa told Jay she calls everyone a twat and then, to prove it, summoned Arman and called him a twat. Arman told Marissa he didn’t mind being called that, even though he was obviously heartbroken (his cheeks got all saggy and his lips got all sad duck). Marissa told us to go just get on with the interview for christ’s sake and then had to leave and apologize to Arman and tell him she didn’t really think he was a twat and that she actually considered him a very good employee.

So Jay and I were abandoned to the somewhat shell-shocked director.

“The support group is nice, I guess,” I respond to the director.
Director: “What support group?”

Me: “Oh, I mean there’s a couple, but the shapeshifter one is obviously helpful for me.”

Director: “What?”

Me: “I mean, the support group is like, helping me come to terms with my chameleon-ing. For so many years I felt like I had the worst power. Like when will I ever need to look like a paisley chair? Plus it just feels like the Shapeshifter Power Giving Gods, or whoever the fuck hands this shit out, gave me the most mysoginistic power they had.

Like Jay gets to change all of his body hair, and I’m stuck with blending in with my environment? Isn’t that basically underscoring the narrative that femmes should be invisible? Anyhow, I guess the Shapeshifter Power Giving Gods probs don’t really worry about gender stereotypes. But the Shapeshifter Support Group is, uh, helpful, yea. To answer your question.”

Director: “Wait, WHAT?”

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“So, welcome to the Shapeshifter Support Group!” Jay beams around the circle, gives a thumbs up to the doc crew sitting in the corner, and continues to read off the notes in front of him, “After after our discussion last week, we agreed to go with pronouns, powers, and pastries as our introduction?”

“We wanted something alliterative,” I say.

“We wanted something tasty,” Ella winks at us from across the chair circle that we set up close to the register.

“Well I’m Jay. My pronouns are he, him. I can shift my hair. All my body hair,” Jay winks at me. I roll my eyes. Done with today’s fucking winking trend. “And I like… bagels?”

“Bagels aren’t a pastry,” the new guy next to Jay mutters and folds his arms.

“What’s the definition of a pastry?” Jay makes a face at the new guy.

“Maybe it has to be sweet?” I say. A few people in the circle nod. Ella cups their chin thoughtfully. Aaron closes zir eyes. I check my watch. Aaron has never made it longer than three minutes into support group before ze disappears. Literally. We’ve made it seven minutes, so that’s exciting. I give Aaron a thumbs up, and the next second, zir chair is empty.

“Damnit,” I mutter under my breath.

“What?” Jay looks at me, and when I don’t respond, he continues, “Ok, fine, a strawberry bagel. I pick a strawberry bagel as my pastry.”

“Well…” new guy taps their cheek as they think.

“Does anybody make strawberry bagels?” Ella calls across the circle.

“So I think we should just move on to the next person. Jay, we’ll come back to you regarding the pastry part of your intro,” I sigh, staring at Aaron’s empty chair. I point at the new guy, “I think you’re next.”

“Fine. I’m Emmanuel. My pronouns are they, them. My pastry is toast,” new guy says.

Jay throws his hands into the air. His midnight skin flushes red, “You get toast?! And I can’t have a bagel?!”

“Toast with jam,” Emmanuel shrugs. “It’s sweet.”

Emmanuel glares around the circle. Ella nods supportively. Jay rolls his eyes. The air above Aaron’s chair seems to shift in a neutral way.

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The director appears one afternoon to show us some edited clips his documentary team has been working on.

“I think these clips will give you a sense of the documentary’s main mission: to humanize and normalize different sexualities, and uh, abilities,” director man says.

“To humanize and normalize dildos,” Jay smirks and lazily drapes an arm across the back of my chair.

“Could you be serious for one second?” Arman squints his eyes at Jay.

Jay squints back at Arman, “Could you be not-ugly for one second?”

Marissa squints at everyone, “I think we are losing focus here.”

“Anyway….” the director clears his throat. “I am first going to show you a clip of Callie describing an experience with your district manager, Alec.”

I swallow loudly and end up coughing on my own spit. Jay pats my back. His fingers linger on the nape of my neck, and I wish I could just enjoy the feeling of his well moisturized fingers on my skin. But no. All I can think about his Alec and his pelvis walk.

The director clicks play on the laptop he’s put on the table in front of us. It’s me, sitting in the breakroom corner, a fern close behind me. At one point, I lean back too far back, right into the fern, a leaf poking at the corners of my mouth.

In the clip, I shove the fern away before saying, “So one night, I had to close the store with Alec, the district manager. I was playing my own music, but during cleanup, Alec disappeared into the back. After a minute, a new song comes on, and the lyrics are, ‘TAPE me / TAPE me, my friend / TAPE me / TAPE me again’. It was awful. I was so freaking scared, and I can’t even report it! Because the person I would report to is Alec.”

“I didn’t realize you had such a, uh, deep voice,” Marissa raises her eyebrows at me.

The director shuffles his feet and pauses the video. Looking at a spot above my head, he says, “So we had to censor a few words, dub over them, to make it appropriate for our audience.”

Arman laughs. Doubling over his neatly crossed legs, clasping his hands on his knees, “So we can say ‘vibrator’ and ‘sex toy,’ but not ‘rape’?”

The director nods vigorously, “Yes! I’m so glad you understand. But see, if you need to say ‘rape’, you could instead just say, ‘tape’.”

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Arman tells Marissa he is “camera shy” (though, I guess not for Instagram photos?), so Marissa gives him permission to not do his interview.

“She said I just needed to provide some sort of representation of my experience working at the store,” Arman explains to me, smirking. “So I was wondering, do you know how to use a tape recorder?”

I raise my eyebrows before he hands me a series of drawings tilted, “An Illustrated Guide to Professional Clothing that Fits Over Wings: Arman’s Story.”

“Could you, like, narrate this or something? Then give it to the doc people?” he asks, converting his smirk to a smile I assume he considers sweet.

The next day, I hand him the following recording:

“Arman on Monday: Tight fitting, faux tux t-shirt with an open back.

Arman after Instagramming his outfit and reading the comments on his post for over an hour: ‘Do I have back fat?’

Arman on Tuesday: Detective cloak with two slits in the back. Fedora.

Arman after Jay looked at him: ‘What? It’s Burberry!’

Arman on Wednesday: Double suspenders over a backless button down.

Arman to me: ‘So the cloak was a knock-off, but don’t say anything to Jay…’

Arman on Thursday: Furry pink infinity scarf. No shirt.

Arman to Marissa’s raised eyebrows: ‘Is this against dress code?’”

The recording stops and Arman sighs for at least 10 seconds, rolling his eyes slowly,

“Fine, I’ll just ask Jay to do it.”

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“Callie, we got a new shipment in. I need you to do inventory,” Marissa reads off the clipboard quickly. Chomps on her gum loudly. Blows a bubble and lets it pop over her lips. She scrapes the gum off with her teeth. I’m half-asleep against a locker in the back of the workroom, and only stir because I hear my name.

Marissa continues, “Arman, you’re on register. Jay’s re-stocking. Got it?”

Jay’s leaning back in his chair and raises his arm lazily. Barely makes a right angle.

Marissa chomps her gum louder and sneers at Jay’s hand. Probably wishes she could give him a detention for slouching. Given that the documentary people are sitting in on this team meeting, she’d told us to, “Behave like good school children,” and I think we are all embracing that direction in our own way.

“What?” she narrows her eyes at Jay. “We have to get the store open.”

“People have been asking questions about the Jesus dildo.” Jay drapes himself smugly against the back of his chair.

“What fucking Jesus dildo?” Marissa smacks her lips at each of us in turn. Arman’s eyes go wide. He stares determinately at a spider web in the corner.

I clear my throat, fully awake now, and shoot Jay a nasty look. “They came in last week. I think Alec ordered them.”

“That little…” Marissa bites her tongue and straightens her suit coat. “What questions, Jay?”

“Like why do we have a Jesus dildo? That old lady from the nursing home, who’s always coming in on her days out? She was super upset about it.” Jay’s tapping his feet and bites his lip to keep from laughing. It makes his dimples turn down in a stupid cute way. Even Arman, fucking lick Marissa’s asshole Arman, is covering his mouth as if he’s yawning.
“So what do we say to them?” Jay continues when Marissa doesn’t answer.

She slides her glasses onto her head and rubs her hand down her face.

“Just say…. Well, I guess, just say…” Marissa sighs deeply. “Say some customers feel it brings them closer to Jesus.”

Arman gawks. “Closer to Jesus? Like in a spiritual way?”

“I mean, I think it’s pretty literal. Since it’s a dildo,” Jay snickers.

“Just go open the store,” Marissa points at the door and taps her foot until we file out.

Ten minutes later, the bell rings, and a regular walks in. He’s middle-management at some corporate office across the street, and he has an impressive collection of pink polos and prostate stimulators. He does his regular loop then heads to the register.

“Why’d you start carrying a Jesus dildo?” he asks Arman.

I look up to see Arman stare at Marissa’s office, waiting for a save. When nothing comes, he shakes his head and says, “Well some customers say, it uh, brings them closer to Jesus.”

I can only see the back of Middle Management’s balding head, but I can see that he doesn’t respond. The register is having a slow day. Taking a full minute to process credit cards.

As the silence stretches out, Arman begins to sweat. Swipes his forehead. Scratches his ear. Eventually he clears his throat.

“You know. Closer to Jesus. Since you put Jesus inside yourself. Because its a didlo. So, uh, yea. Closer. To Jesus. I mean it’s kind of literal, I guess…” Arman begins to ramble.
“Got it. Thanks,” Pink Polo says quickly, grabbing his bejeweled butt plug and making a beeline for the door.

Jay hoots, looks over to where the doc crew is situated, and says directly into the camera lens, “We’re a regular fucking church! Hallelujah!”


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Margaret Reynolds is a genderqueer author and educator based in Colorado. They enjoy writing queer romance with a sprinkle of ghost. You can find their fiction in The Thought Erotic and Danse Macabre. WEBSITE | TWITTER

Cover photo: Michael Prewett

 

 

 

 

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Best of 2019

South Broadway Ghost Society’s favorite pieces of 2019.

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Hungry Ghosts :: Chris Moore

“Hungry Ghosts” by Chris Moore defies being put in any box of genre. Ranging from poetry to storytelling to essay to letters, Moore’s piece is maybe best described as the field notes of a breakup.

SOUP-BILLIEEILISH

Ten Macros From ‘The Depressed Barbie Series’ :: Alexandra Naughton

Alexandra Naughton’s meme collection range a series of borderline shower thoughts that you didn’t know you needed to hear until you read them. 

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Three Poems :: Sam Pink

In less than 100 words overall, these three poems by Sam Pink find insight in strangely mundane places, leaving you per his instruction, in his cartoon.

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Five Poems :: Lana Bella

These five poems, stationed as days of the week, show a dark sense of intimacy with captured moments.

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On Bones :: Shelby Yaffe

This poem paints a beautiful story in three parts, all of which revolve around something very dear to us, bones.

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Challenger :: Corwin Moore

“In eighth grade I became an addict,” begins Moore’s story, “I was addicted to masturbating and porno.” This beautiful memoir-esque piece goes on to explore childhood, shame and racism and other themes all alongside the story of the Challenger spacecraft.

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The Washing Machine Sang :: Jane-Rebecca Cannarella

Cannarella’s “The Washing Machine Sang” is an incredibly piece about playing pretend in other people’s lives and the stories of inanimate objects.

Related: South Broadway Ghost Society: 2018 in Review

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con job – marcelo duran

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A Young Man was walking down 17th street towards Union Station. His eyes fixed on a sign, “railroad ticket office” about a block away.

He was unbothered by the chaotic chorus of horse-drawn carriages and trolleys pulling businessmen in dapper suits and dirt-caked workers alike up and down the streets of downtown Denver.

As he got closer he saw another sign to the right of the door with an enticing advertisement, “ticket to Chicago $5,” which seemed too good to be true since it was $50 for a trip to the Windy City.

This would be good to bring up, he thought as he made his way closer to his destination and meeting with Soapy Smith.

He stepped through the plain pine door and asked for Mr. Smith. An affable gentleman with a feathery smile glanced over at the young stranger and asked, “Which Mr. Smith do you wish to see? It so happens that we have two or three Mr. Smiths in here.”

The affable gentleman behind the bar was one of Soapy’s lieutenants and tasked to size up those who came in about the tickets.

“I’m here to see whichever Mr. Smith can get me the best ticket price to Chicago,” the Young Man said. “I saw the sign out front and it piqued my interest.”

After a few minutes, the affable gentleman learned that the Young Man was looking for a ticket home to Chicago to give his father a report on mining prospects.

“Let me go get the Mr. Smith you’re looking for, but first do you want to take a chance at big money? You look like a lucky man…”

“No thank you, but maybe later after I square away a ticket for home,” the Young Man replied.

On one side of the dusty, square room, one of the games made up of a box with large envelopes, each containing varying amounts of bills where you can bet a modest amount to win big. But most of the time the suckers would be lucky to walk away with half of what they bet.

On the other side of the office was another dapper businessman. Before him on the dark wood desk sat a large ore sample from a claim up in Leadville. That was what the Young Man was really looking for. He had been warned about the gambling games in the ticket office and how they were prominently placed to more easily part a hapless man from his money.

Just like clockwork, Soapy appeared from a back room across the way.

“Young Man,” he drawled, in a voice as smooth as an oiled thunderbolt. How may I help you this fine morning?” He came from Georgia, but his voice was more than just Southern: it was the voice of a man confident in his place in the world, and intent on building it up.

For the top con man in Denver, this unassuming man’s look was more unkempt than one would expect.

He wore a homespun vest, free of any ornament, a dark, heavy cotton shirt with a cravat under the collar, and plain brown pants. His neatly-trimmed beard finished the look, which was unremarkable, unmemorable, and notably humdrum.

He looked more like one of his victims than he did the man running the biggest con in town. But maybe this was his aim. In looking like a man leading a humble life, and not the rich con artist he was, people would be quick to think, “How can anyone dressed like that pull one over on me?” And then, before you could say, Jack Robinson, this nondescript, smooth-talking fellow is taking the hard-earned gold dust you laid down moments before.

“I am inquiring about a ticket to Chicago and your sign caught my eye.”

“Oh yeah are you one of these kids that came out to Denver and heading back home because you’re flat broke” Soapy inquired.

“Not at all, I’m in a good spot and can buy a first-class ticket home, but my dad told me never spend a dollar where 50 cents would do just as well so I figured a $ticket will get me home as well as a $50 ticket.”

After a few more minutes of jostling between the two, talk about the $5 ticket faded away and replaced by talk about the piece of ore on the counter the Young Man saw earlier.

The two men wandered over to the counter with the ore with flecks of quartz, sandstone and broad gold streaks running along the sample.

The Young Man let on how he admired the sample, but Soapy refused to sell any of the stock of that mine unless the prospective buyer took home literature about the mine and promised to share it with his father.

“This will be the first thing I’ll talk about with my father when I get home,” the Young Man replied.

Soapy got up and walked to the bookshelf to pick up a few copies of the prospectus.

“What I’m about to give you is very valuable,” Soapy said as he shuffled the pieces of paper before putting them back on the shelf, “Perhaps too valuable to leave my office.”

“Maybe it would be more appropriate for your father to come out to Denver to see the mine’s value himself instead of leaving it to chance that others might learn of it first and buy up the shares.”

This awakened the Young Man’s suspicion. He stood up and walked over to Soapy near the bookshelf to make another plea for the pamphlet one more time.

“I can assure you that nothing will happen to the literature you give me, but my father will be interested with or without it.”

“It would be best if your father came out on such a big decision, but he shouldn’t take his time,” Soapy said. “Excuse me for a moment; one of my men is motioning me about something urgent.”

As Soapy stepped away, the Young Man saw that nobody was paying attention to him. Seeing his chance, he feigned a sneeze and copped a copy of the valuable prospectus.

“I apologize for leaving you in the lurch, but an important matter has come up that requires my attention,” Soap said in a hurried manner. “I’ll leave whatever matters you have to my able barkeep and I hope to see you and your father in my office soon.”

In addition, just like that, Soapy vanished as quickly as he appeared. And so did the bartender. The men left so quickly after realizing the Young Man was not going to be the catch of the day.

The only person left in the drafty room was an old man sweeping out dirt and debris onto the sidewalk. The Young Man felt so much like dirt and debris as he stepped outside with nothing.

The sun overhead was dipping into twilight possibly reflecting the down mood of the Young Man. However, little did anyone know, other than a few well-dressed gentlemen men in town, the Young Man walked away with the final piece of a puzzle to bring down one of the most powerful men in Denver.

The man that Soapy and his gang thought of as a lout and a waste of time was a new cub reporter for The Denver Times. Mere minutes after the uneventful meeting with Soapy he was at his desk on 15th and Lawrence scribbling down his encounter for the exposé.

The Young Man moved to Denver after receiving word that his old friend was the Managing Editor of the newspaper. This gave the Young Man a shot at writing for a daily and his arrival gave the managing editor a chance to bring to light the seamy underbelly of Denver.

“I want you to seek out the vilest men in town, get to know them, earn their trust or invisibility from their scheming eyes,” the editor told his friend. “Be watchful for their contacts in the police and city government, find out their names so we can crack the depravity of this town like a peanut.”

Therefore, he went about his work on the streets, with the look of a rube making his way through town. The reason why the Young Man had a chance at this is the story is his anonymity. There was an understood edict among the con artists not to steal from residents of the town. Denver was small enough that it was easy for them to discern a local citizen from a hayseed fresh off the train.

It really is amazing what a few ounces of whiskey will buy you from the local drunk holding down the bar at the Tivoli Tavern on 17th and Larimer. That is how he learned about the “gold mine” scheme and then planned his ploy to get his hands on a pamphlet.

The trip to the ticket office was the last piece to puzzle and a few hours later the reporter, with the pencil in hand, completed his story and turned it in.

With victory at hand, the Young Man sauntered down Larimer Street wherein front of the arcade, another man motioned to him in salutation.

It was Bat Masterson, formerly the famous marshal of Dodge City, an acquaintance of the reporter. They were talking with one another near the curb when the Young Man looked behind his back and saw, standing in the doorway with a look on his face as if he had seen a ghost, the affable man whom he had met at the ticket office earlier that day.

The Young Man immediately crossed the street, but he knew that his identity discovered. The affable man vanished. He was probably running directly to his boss to tell Soapy what he had seen.

By the time, the reporter got back to the Times office, Soapy and his entire gang were in the managing editor’s office. Soapy was reading the front page story for tomorrow’s edition, composed of the article contained their methods, their haunts, their names and even information about the heavily-guarded prospectus of the rich gold mine.

Nothing was left out; the police and government were implicated in the story. The article spelling their doom was mere hours away from being etched to ink and paper. There’s was no way the gang could stay in Denver if the jig is up. But Soapy had one more card to play before he would abdicate his throne.

“Mr. Manager,” he began in a strong, earnest tone and manner “we are all here, for I could not believe what I was told; now I have read it and I know.”

“When you publish that, these men you see,” indicating his followers sitting about “and I will not be here:”

Leaning impressively towards the editor, in a low intense voice, he offered his terms of capitulation:

“If you want anybody beat up, we’ll do it; if you want any papers destroyed or stolen, we’ll do it; do you want a force in politics, we have it. If you want a ballot-box destroyed, we’ll destroy it pronto. If you wish to dispose of anybody permanently, we shall make his disappearance absolutely final. If there is anything want to be done, we’ll do it. But not publish that story.”

The exposé about Soapy and his gang was omitted from next day’s edition of The Times. The cub reporter received it back.

We’ll never know the real reason behind the Managing Editor’s decision to suppress the story. Maybe the real con was for the Managing Editor to have the upper hand on Soapy and the covenant of a favor tucked in his pocket, and the promise of being able to cash in that valuable chip at any time.


Marcelo Duran is a former journalist, born and raised in Denver who grew up on the North Side of town before it was cool. He spends his free time scrolling through microfilm at the library researching local Denver history. His stories and knowledge about Denver history has been featured on several podcasts in and around Denver.

plasticine – susan lively

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     Ethos shuffled into the food lounge groggily, barely daring to glance at the stony faces of mother and father. He began to eat his kalaj, a type of super rice; aware he was already late for school. He peered nervously towards his dad, but could see nothing of his expression for he was buried nose deep in the electronic paper. His eyes moved restlessly to his mother; but as they did, she turned away, rushing her plate over to the sink. Then she grabbed her purse and handheld robotic assistant (HRA) from the counter and hurried out the back door, murmuring absentmindedly about errands.

     Ethos pushed away from the table roughly; young face wrinkled in disdain, making him appear older than he was. He shuffled into the bathroom, then returned to grab his backpack from where he’d tossed it on the couch Friday. His homework had lain there untouched the entire weekend. He rushed out the back door much as his mom had, neither he nor his father bothering to say a word. Their relationship was less than stellar. Ethos looked around; trying to get his mind off his parents, but what he saw only made him angrier. He hated Mars, hated every inch of it. Ever since they’d moved here when he was ten he had despised this stupid place.

     They called it the “red planet” but it was actually more of a reddish-orange hue. He thought of the many varied surfaces of this planet, marred often by huge pock marks and rust colored volcanoes. Fights and civil riots had erupted over water shortages, and strange diseases had begun to run rampant, thanks to the new earth arrivals. The place was a cursed desert, a wasteland. They had been promised an oasis from wars that had scarred and nearly destroyed their home planet, but all Mars had given them was a whole new set of problems. Here everything was fake, even the looks of contentment on people’s faces; and that’s what bothered Ethos most of all. All the “blue collar workers” were robotic, every last one. All the materials used in every building and piece of furniture were new synthetics; known to cause cancer in the very old and young. These plastics were in everything, even shampoos, facial cleansers, and medicines; worming their way insidiously into every pore of their existence, every fiber of every being.

     When Ethos closed his eyes in bed at night he could almost swear that he was tasting the plastic, way in the back of his mouth, under his tongue. It was a chemical flavor, the bitter tang of emptiness and disappointment. He could feel the synthetic material worming its way from organ to organ. One day it would reach his core and consume him whole. It was an unwelcome reminder of just where he found himself. But there was virtually no viable plant life here they could use for medicine, building, or anything else. Importing such materials was far too expensive and time consuming. They were trapped out here, destined to rot away on this scorched rock with what little resources they had left. Trapped with their disappointment, frustration, and anger.

     Every day they were closer to death and eternal boredom, Ethos thought. He barely managed to stifle a yawn as he rolled blue-gray eyes and continued towards the high school. The only thing he ever looked forward to was band practice, which was after school in the music room. Music was his saving grace, and he had been in love with it since he first heard his father’s old recordings from their home planet. Earth was a warm and distant memory that now seemed far out of reach, but he still felt a deep connection to it; a longing for better, simpler times.

     So when 3:00 pm rolled around he rushed out of his Advanced Calculus class and went to the music room. He was five minutes early, and his heart was pounding in the closest thing to excitement he’d felt in a long while. Blood rushed through his veins like wildfire and a light appeared from deep within his eyes. He removed his horn lovingly from its case as if it were a fragile living thing. He turned the instrument over in his hands, noticing how rusted it was becoming.

     He played a few notes, and they came out slowly, reluctantly; a forlorn echo of their former beauty. Gently he coaxed a somewhat eerie tune from the belly of the sleeping beast. The depth and longing of the haunted melody filled the room and bounced back at him as if they were in an echo chamber, filling his ears with song. He relaxed and let the music take over his whole being, and he began to feel content for the first time in a long while.

     The cerulean-white rust was soft like velvet in his mouth and almost powdery to the touch. This “Blue Rust”, as it had come to be known, was caused by harsh elements of Mars’ unique atmosphere that had a corrosive effect on all metal objects. The corrosion affected cars, musical instruments, and a host of other objects once deemed vital to human life. Ethos had watched with dismay as the caustic atmosphere of this most hated place slowly ate away at his deepest dreams, causing them to disappear right before his eyes.

     Just then Mr. Hendrix, came in. He was a tall, quiet and very serious instructor; known to be a stickler for rules. He nodded and smiled at different students as they began to filter slowly into the room. Then he went to a large cabinet in the far corner. Frowning silently, he opened the doors with a special touch sensor and began to pull brown velvet bags from the cabinet. He came over to the nearby wall and began to remove pastel colored objects from the bags, placing them on a row of shelves neatly.

     Several students came forward to see what was going on and some gasped audibly. Ethos jumped up and went over to the shelving system. The items appeared to be some sort of strange musical instruments. They almost looked like flutes or recorders, but the end of each instrument curled upward in a vine or flower like shape. They came in an assortment of hideously pale colors, from green to blue to yellow and pink. Ethos frowned deeply; big, stormy eyes peppering the teacher with unasked questions. The teacher returned his frown and his stare.

     “Please turn in your instruments. They have been commissioned for research by the Technology Institute of Earth Majora. Please pile them in the corner near the cabinet. Thank you,” Mr. Hendrix mumbled, looking rather disgruntled.

     “These are our new instruments. All made of plasticine, as you can tell. This is the newest version of the plastic hybrid, rumored to be stronger than steel,” the teacher added; but his tone was bored, expression unconvinced. He sighed and turned away, scurrying over to his desk like an unhappy rat; shoulders slumped in defeat.

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     That night Ethos tossed and turned. Sleep was an elusive thing he simply could not catch. He thought with disgust of the new plastic instruments, and his hands itched to hold his old metal horn and hear its forbidden magic one last time. Just then he thought he heard a creaking sound. He ran a hand through silvery hair with a sigh and got up. He opened his bedroom door, but heard nothing. He looked around the room, noting how chaotic it looked, right down to the cracks in the wall and smelly piles of rumpled clothes. He heard the sound again, only louder this time. His eyes widened slightly in surprise. The small crack in the wall over his bathroom door looked different, somehow larger. He strained to see into the crack, but all his eyes found were impenetrable darkness.

     Then he heard the creaking sound again, three times in rapid succession. The tiny parallel crack in the wall appeared to be widening right before his eyes! He cautiously approached the closed bathroom door, opening it and peering inside, but seeing nothing. He went in and turned the light on. There was another crack in the bathroom wall above the corner of the door frame. This line ran nearly horizontal and then angled upwards. Ethos was shocked to see it too had grown slightly.

     Then he heard a terrific groaning, as if the earth were contorting in tremendous pain. Suddenly the walls began to shake violently, sending everything on the counter and shelves onto the ground. Ethos tried to dart out of the way of falling objects but had no time to respond, grimacing as a can of shaving cream slammed into his shin. His eyes widened with horror as he watched the crack in the wall transform into a huge rift. Then the groaning noise grew, followed by a deafeningly loud tearing sound, as if the fabric of time and space were being ripped apart.

     Suddenly the floor shifted beneath him and disappeared, leaving him falling through empty air, black as night. He closed his eyes in fright and tried to scream; but was so stunned nothing escaped but a child’s whimper. The sensation of falling was horrifying, as if he were trapped on an out of control roller coaster. His stomach dropped and then rose again; he felt cold air rushing past him as his descent continued. Never seeming to reach the bottom, his fear rose exponentially.

     When Ethos opened his eyes he was stationary. He blinked in shocked when he recognized his surroundings. He was in his house, in the food lounge. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. He shook his head in a daze, running his fingers around his hairline and temple, checking for blood or bumps. But there was nothing; only a slight stain of sweat on his upper lip and the thundering of his racing heart in his ears.

      He felt frantic and disoriented. He went through the whole house looking for his parents and younger sibling, but they were nowhere to be found. He returned to his bedroom, and the crack in the wall was gone, as if it had never existed! He raced outside, and as he did he was startled but how unnaturally bright it was for late afternoon. His limbs moved reluctantly, woodenly. He felt strange all over, heavy and light at the same time. Ethos looked down and was startled to see his legs pumping as he ran down the middle of the road; in the middle of their small neighborhood, where all houses looked the same. He began calling out his family members names, but there was no response.

     The place had turned into a ghost town. There was not a soul to be seen, Ethos noticed with dawning trepidation. Then he realized that not only were there no people, there were no rusted, broken down cars, motorcycles, bikes, or trams. He came across a gold jetpack that was still running, lying on its side in the middle of the deserted road with a huge chip in it. He hesitated for a moment as he considered picking up the pack, but then decided not to. It was as if all the people and their vehicles had simply vanished. A strange, heavy silence filled the chilled air; blanketing and smothering the town like smog, muting its quaint, tired charm.

     Ethos felt alarmed, yet somehow disconnected from everything. His lower limbs seemed impossibly far away; they looked smaller than before, and oddly shiny. They did not want to respond to his commands, nearly tripping him in their cumbersome flight. Something was very wrong. Ethos was overwhelmed by the urge to see himself reflected in a mirror. He had to know if this was real, or if there was something wrong with him. He struggled with a series of thoughts, each outcome more horrible than the next. By the time he burst into the nearest grocery store, he was wondering if he might be dead or unconscious.

     The store was all lit up and eerily quiet. There was no one in sight, not a single worker or customer. Ethos froze, feeling queasy, heart beating in triple time now. Then he slowly made his way across the store to the public restroom; footfalls echoing noisily through quiet gloom of fluorescent lights and one day sales promotions.  Ethos opened the door cautiously, eyes wide with fear. As he entered the restroom the smell of stale flesh, blood, and urine assaulted him.

     Ethos frowned, face darkening perceptibly. He hated public restrooms. Hated weirdoes staring at him when he was trying to take a leak; and he hated cell phones being used in the restroom. But most of all he hated the smell. He reached up to pinch his nose shut with his right hand and was immediately puzzled. It seemed to take an hour for his hand to reach his face, as if he were in a dream. He watched the appendage approaching slowly like a landing plane, the shadow of his palm and fingers splashing across his face, obscuring vision.

     He pinched the tip of his nose to block the scent, or at least he thought he had. His face felt numb. He could barely feel the cool pressure of his fingertips as they blocked off his nasal passages. He removed his hand, watching it slowly descend through the air in a blurry haze. He saw sinks all lined up neatly in a row; shapes distorted as if reflected in a funhouse mirror. Their dirt and grime was formidable; and the tall, oval mirrors were saturated with fingerprints and soap scum. They were so dirty it was as if a fog consumed them, giving them a grayish cast.

     Ethos shuffled towards the first mirror and sink. The mirror began to contort itself to better capture and reflect his form. He felt cold, almost like a zombie. He snorted in derision at the thought, but no sound came out. Again he frowned, throat tightening until he could barely swallow. He came within full sight of the mirror just as it finished its shaping process, and instantly froze in shock.

     He looked like himself and yet somehow different, far different. He reached out to touch the mirror. He tried to gasp but it was as if his face no longer worked. His hand touched the image in the mirror and began to rub at the reflection frantically, as if trying to erase it. He felt cold all over, colder than he had ever felt before. He felt seamless, shiny and new; yet empty and meaningless at the same time.

     He reached up to touch his handsome young face and at last a sound emerged, a gasp that sounded garbled and distant. Slowly, with disbelief, the hard caress of his fingers found the cool rise of his cheek and traced its plastic curves slowly, lovingly. His hand froze in mid-stroke as his besieged mind struggled with disbelief. Finally Ethos opened his mouth wide to scream and the blue-black wail of a silver trumpet slowly emerged; echoing mournfully.

Susan “Spit-Fire” Lively is a poet, spoken word artist, producer, model, photographer, educator, and activist from Belleville, IL. Co-organizer of “100,000 Poets & Musicians for Change – St. Louis” (since its inception in 2011); Susan also produces the series’ “Women For Peace” (promoting gender violence awareness) and co-produces the “Dia de los Muertos Fiesta” (proceeds go to St. Louis Homeless Winter Outreach). In 2016 she became an Officer of Urb Arts’ Executive Board. In January of 2017 Susan produced the St. Louis leg of the international event “Poets & Musicians Against Trump”. In 2018 she returned to the modeling world and began painting again.
Lively’s been featured on “Literature For The Halibut”, “The Arts with Nancy Kranzberg” and PBS’ “Living St. Louis”. She has taught spoken word and creative writing at Confluence Academy, Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition, and for the Nine Network and St. Louis Fringe. Susan’s visual art has been displayed at Urb Arts, Thomas Dunn Learning Center, Yeyo Arts, Mokabe’s and Seven. Her literary work has been published in “Static Movement”, “Postcard Shorts”, “Head To Hand”, “The East St. Louis Monitor”, “The PEN”, “Chance Operations”, the “She Chronicles”, “Drumvoices Revue 20th Anniversary Edition”, “SIUE News”, “Arts Today”, “Big Bridge”, “Bad Jacket”, No Vacancy,” and “Crossing the Divide”. Her poetry also appears in the new critically acclaimed environmental and social justice anthology “Extreme” (Vagabond Books). For booking information, contact Susan at lostnation2009@gmail.com. To purchase her paintings and photography in a variety of formats, please visit: https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/
Photo by Marek Okon on Unsplash

acheron – robert boucheron

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At five o’clock, Arthur Lothbury put on a gray felt fedora, inserted a fresh white handkerchief in the breast pocket of his jacket, and stepped out the front door for his daily stroll.

The town was a cluster of brick and frame dwellings of the 1800s. Located in a hollow, on a railroad line that was no longer active, it had three churches, a dozen shops, a post office, a school repurposed as a senior center, and a white-columned filling station with a porte cochère. At the center, where two main streets crossed, the town hall boasted a mansard roof and a clock tower. The tallest structure in town, with a face on all four sides, the clock tower rose above the trees like a sentinel.

Arthur kept the clock tower in view, though he was unlikely to get lost in the town where he was born. He generally walked for exercise, but this afternoon he dawdled. His gaze wandered left and right. It was early spring, still bleak but mild. Buds swelled on the trees. Cold weather had delayed them. Slanting rays of the sun lit the quiet streets. No one else was about, which was odd for the end of a weekday.

He stopped to examine a flowering shrub that overhung a picket fence, as though eager to escape. The yard was unkempt, in a town that was proud of its gardens. How could such a thing happen? Who lived in this house? He knew many neighbors, but not all. In retirement, he was losing track of changes in the population.

This house must have a tenant, someone who did not care for the place. A deflated ball and a broken toy lay on the weedy lawn. Rolled newspapers littered the porch, dusty and yellowed. Maybe no one lived here.

Arthur moved on. It was an effort to put one foot in front of the other. Yet the day had passed in idleness—light housekeeping, some reading, an hour at his desk paying bills, a letter to a relative. What had he done to be worn out?

A single man with many friends and few responsibilities, he ought to enjoy this stage of life, an endless stretch of leisure. But contentment was elusive. He urged himself to walk faster. Chin up and eyes peeled! At any moment, a friend or stranger was likely to cross his path. He would need to say something cheerful, a word of greeting. But the town was deserted, as if Arthur had missed an order to evacuate. He looked straight ahead and spurred his flank. But his feet dragged.

Coming to an alley, he stopped to peer down its length. He seldom walked in this part of town. He knew it like the back of his hand but not this alley. It bordered the railroad track—that was the trouble. The sun trembled on the horizon. The alley was already in shade. Lined by sheds and fences, it promised things of interest—an old wagon, a gnarled tree, a forgotten bicycle like a sketch of lines and circles.

Arthur strolled down the middle, over gravel and grass. The alley was long—he could not see the end—and growing dark. He tried not to scuff his shoes. He hoped he would not step in a puddle. Not a living creature met his eye, not so much as a sparrow. Then a small shape shifted. A cat crouched a few feet ahead.

Cats lurked all over town. Some allowed him to pet them, some rolled at his feet, and some fled. This one stared coldly. Whoever said that cats were curious? Another step, and the cat disappeared, perhaps through a hole in a fence.

Dusk came on. Was it so late? Arthur looked around and did not see the clock tower. How long had he been walking? He had left his watch at home. Was this a blind alley? To turn around would be an admission of defeat. Despite fatigue, he pressed on.

The alley ended at last in a building with a passage through its ground floor. It was now night. At the far end of the unlit passage was a gate, with open space visible through the bars. Should he enter? What if the gate was locked? He was too tired to retrace his steps. Go forward and hope for the best.

The passage was empty. Beyond the gate was a street. He grasped the gate and pulled. In the hollow space of the vaulted passage, the rusty hinges groaned. Arthur flinched at what sounded like a voice, the drawn-out syllable “woe.” Arthur stepped through the arch, and the gate clicked shut. On impulse, he tried it. Locked.

The street was built up on one side. The other was open to the railroad. Arthur had not been here for years. Shops were closed or boarded up. The pavement was cracked and littered. He wanted to sit, but where? A short distance away stood the old train station, abandoned. A light burned inside, the only light in this gloomy wasteland. He trudged toward it.

A low rumble made itself known. The earth shook. The rumble grew and grew to a roar, until it was unmistakable. A train! Arthur reached the platform as the train arrived. In a stupor of exhaustion, he watched it slow. It looked like an excursion train from the century before, an antique restored to service for a single run. It screeched to a stop, a door opened, and a stair dropped at his feet. Where was the conductor? The side of the coach bore a name: “Acheron.”

Was that the destination? Arthur grasped the metal railing and climbed aboard.

hourglass

Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, New York. He worked as an architect in New York and Charlottesville, Virginia, where he has lived since 1987. His short stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, Porridge Magazine, Saturday Evening Post, and other magazines.

Photo: Adam Bixby

RATTY or the errands end – meredith counts

counts

An homage to Edward Gorey.

Their dad was running errands in town and insisted that the kids come along. They had been to the dry cleaner to drop off Wraddey’s dragon suit to see what could be done about the ink stains. They’d been to the butcher for sausage, the hardware for tacks, and the place that sold glow-in-the-dark soda. It wasn’t that their dad wanted their company, Wraddey thought, so much as that he remembered what a mess they’d made last time they’d stayed home unattended. Weeks later their father complained he still found marshmallow in crevices about the house, and he wasn’t happy that Wraddey had pasted over every reachable inch of her room with the funnies.

In the backseat of the station wagon, Wraddey felt so bored that she might disappear into the seat, that’s how sick of things she was. Her big brother Egor elbowed her to get her attention. As she reeled back to sock him for touching her she saw the stranger wading through the high piles of snow. Wraddey liked to fight her brother, but it had been a long and relentlessly dull winter. Both children were so hungry for something out of the ordinary to happen that the fight melted away.

“Do you see…?” Wraddey started to say.

“But who…?” Egor asked.

Wraddey shushed him.

Teetering through the dirty snow on the side of the road, whoever-it-was wasn’t wearing a coat or boots, but was cocooned in yards and yards of fabric. Every bit of the person was wrapped up, and except for a purplish brown velvet, most of the wrappings were clashing patterns. No nose or wrist or eyeball, no feature to be seen. As the car passed, the kids turned to keep looking.

“Huh,” Egor said.

“Wow,” Wraddey said.

“Huh?” said their father from the driver’s seat.

The person grew smaller through their wide rear window. Then they turned into a parking lot and the strange person was out of sight.

Their dad ran in to check on a watch he was having fixed. The kids waited in the car, admiring the neon line drawings of jewels in the window of the tiny shop, and listened to the radio. From her seat in the back, Wraddey put her feet up on the center console. Egor kicked Wraddey’s boot and started to scold her.

“Dad wouldn’t let you–“

“Shut up. Look!.”

“I’ll tell him you’re putting your – “

“Shut up and look, Eeg. Who is that?”

The stiff figure crossed the jeweler’s parking lot. Wraddey wondered out loud if they were walking backwards, the way she did when it was windy at the bus stop. Maybe that’s why they were going so slowly, why their knees didn’t bend.

She waved but the figure didn’t respond. It wasn’t possible for Wraddey to tell if she was unseen or being ignored. But you know how being ignored can stoke your interest.
Their dad returned, satisfied and whistling. He was old-fashioned even as far as fathers went – he wore a watch, their car didn’t drive itself, he whistled to an actual FM radio station. Then he whistled a song that wasn’t the song on the radio, then he whistled through the people asking for donations to the radio station. At one point Egor started whistling, then Wraddey tried too though she’d never quite got the knack of whistling (she was only eight) and their father told them to cut out all that racket.

They passed the strange person up ahead one last time. Even from a distance, the scraps and scarves and sheets covering the covered up person didn’t look homeless. From elsewhere, maybe, but not weathered.

Then their always steady, never-impulsive father was in such a good mood that he impulsively swerved over to the side of the road, rolled down the window, and offered that fascinating bundled-up person a lift.

The person was tall, and bent sideways to peer into the open window. The head, scarves on top and scarves on bottom sandwiching huge blue blocker sunglasses in between, seemed to nod. Their father leaned across the passenger seat, opening the door from the inside so the person could climb in.

They lived near a prison and never picked up hitchhikers, let alone wobbly mysterious persons wrapped up like fragile treasure with no single centimeter of skin to be seen.
The figure sat tall in the passenger seat, head skimming the roof, looking forward. Winter air flooded the car, for the person hadn’t closed the door after climbing in. Dad stared at the person. The person stared ahead, making no moves toward the door or otherwise.

“Um, allow me, I guess,” their father said, exiting and going around to close the door.
Wraddey giggled. Her brother belted her for it, but their father’s guest didn’t seem to notice.

The car filled up with the smell of an apple orchard past its season and also of mothballs like at their aunts’ house and wet wool and something like cheap warm cheese.
Dad asked “So where can we drop you off?” but the person only looked forward, so Dad filled the car with chit chat.

“Cold enough for ya?”

“Been a hell of a winter.”

It was a chattering sort of aimless talk, their dad was filling silence and gaining no answers. The children kept a very close eye on the stranger, but they offered no response. Not a word.

“Yes, sir-ee.”

“Where’d you say you’re headed?”

Nothing.

Their father was unsettled. He couldn’t tell if the person was stupid or deaf or dangerous, or scariest of all – silently judging him to be not worth a response.

“Are we, uh, headed in the right direction for ya?”

From the backseat, Wraddey thought she heard a faint scratching sound.

“Well, uh, say, we’re close to home. We can drop you off there, or, uh…” He paused for a moment, then finally said “Would you like to come in and warm up?”

The person’s head fell violently downward. The one harsh nod sent a puff of that rotten apple smell into the cold air of the backseat.

Impressive! Wraddey thought. By ignoring their father, the stranger had bullied him into an invitation inside. They hardly ever had a visitor. If someone did come over, it was in sensible parkas and those visitors had faces.

In the driveway the person sat stone still again, so that father told Egor to go around and open the passenger side door and let “their friend” out.

“I can do it!” Wraddey yelled.

She was closest, but moreover she wanted to be the one to do it.

While father went ahead with the dry cleaning bags to unlock the door, Wraddey opened the passenger side door to let the stranger out. Both feet swung out together like the tines of a tuning fork, then they found purchase on the snowy drive and the whole body lurched up and out. Wraddey said “follow them,” pointing to the guys, followed, watching closely. Wraddey followed the tiny footprints in the snow that looked more like a deer’s than a person’s.

In the house, the stranger clomped over to the davenport and sat, imperiously, down.

“Make yourself at home,” father said with some sarcasm.

The stranger didn’t even look at him.

“Maybe I’ll, uh, put a snack together then?”

The figure nodded that violent nod.

Feeling he was being had, the children’s father disappeared into the kitchen, searching for some unstale crackers for their silent guest. Wraddey thought that she was going to try the stranger’s approach the next time she wanted something.

Egor stood shuffling by the door in his thick winter socks.

Wraddey sat down on the couch next to their guest.

“Hello,” she said, in her soft voice.

It was only when she reached out and laid a hand on its leg that the figure jerked around and pointed its head at her. When it raised its arm, Egor knew it was going to pull his sister’s brain out through her nose, but the arm stopped short. It didn’t strike Wraddey but hung in front of her, inviting a shake.

She accepted, taking the end of the arm in her own hand. Around where a wrist should be, she felt a tassel. She felt it between her thumb and forefinger. She couldn’t help it. She pulled.

It was the end of a scarf, which came off the stranger’s arm in a great spiral, like the curly paper wrapper of a China marker. Under the scarf was a folded blanket, which Wraddey unfolded, the stranger oddly kicking one leg out but not moving the rest of its body at all as its arm was revealed to be not an arm really but two thumb-thick sticks stabbed into a withered apple where an elbow would be. When Wraddey peeled off another layer, leading to the abdomen, the smell of rotten apple grew stronger.
Then when she pulled a hank of Pendleton plaid from under the collarbones, two shocking things happened. First, the head, still pointed at her, tipped clean off and landed on the floor with a thump. At the neck was a pair of broken sticks, and when she wrenched one out it uncovered the chest.

There sat a large rat, in a wicker sort of ribcage, concentrating hard and pulling at the levers of its failing body with all four feet and tail.

“Oh!” Egor yelled in disgust, for he was becoming adult enough to be wary of rats.

“Oh!” Wraddey repeated, in a different way, because she was a lover of animals and it wasn’t the ugliest rat ever, not really, and it was so clever.

“Oh?” Their father said, coming from the kitchen with a platter of finger foods. Then he bellowed, and dropped his cargo, dehydrated apricots and wheels of sliced summer sausage bouncing on the heirloom carpet.

“Tssss!” Shrieked the rat, pointing his ratty face this way and that.

Then it leaped out of its seat in the rib cage, neatly landing on its hind legs.
Another ancient apple fell out of the body, landing with a muffled plop in the piles of shed fabrics.

The rat looked directly into Wraddey’s eyes. It cocked its pointy head toward the door, and Wraddey nodded.

Wraddey took the rat by the paw, helping it out of its wrecked body. She slipped her feet into her boots, grabbed her coat, opened the door and vanished with him out into the cold bright day.

Her family watched from the big picture window, the girl and the large rat, running through the high snow, past the station wagon, down the driveway, down the road, never to return. Over their years together Wraddey and the Rat travelled and saw amazing things. They rebuilt it’s human body better than ever, using common kitchen implements Wraddey was able to produce a more convincing gait and her fingers could tie much sturdier knots that an animal could. What the rat lacked in terms of getting its protegee into college it made up for with adventure. With it’s keen sense of smell the two never went hungry, and after a year of trust building the rat would give up its wrappings on cold nights so that Wraddey could use the fabric as blankets and the rat would cozy up into her chest, it’s fast rodent heart beating twice for every single beat of hers.

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Meredith Counts has an MFA from the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago. Now she’s studying archives at the University of Michigan. She’s had work in Traverse, Portage Magazine and Quail Bell Magazine. Her story on poet Jim Gustafson and Detroit Tigers baseball, originally published in the Detroit Metro Times, was named notable by Best American Sports Writing 2018. She’s always loved Edward Gorey.

Artwork: also by Meredith Counts

struck horse – ron burch

Struck Horse

Coal-black mare. Solitary in the darkened field, its crooked, broad teeth grasping green strands. Gray clouds heaped upon one another, a thunder inside, one strike, two strikes, the mare on its front knees, slow-motioning as it tilted on its side, thick muscles shaking as the large body smacked the wet earth, mouth open, singed, a thin drift of smoke rising from the trembling haunches, tongue out, eyes wide.

A lone farmer ran through the field toward it, yelling its name. His green hat flew off in the rushing wind that embraced him with arms of rain.

The farmer dropped knees-down, wrapping his long arms around the mare’s head, its eyes all white. Spittle dribbled out of its agonized mouth.

“Please,” he pleaded, “don’t die.”

The horse rested in his arms, breaths like unanswered questions. The eyes returned to their normal state, the eyes of the mare meeting the eyes of the farmer, firmer breaths as the farmer’s hands stroked the dark horse head, until the mare asked, “What the hell just happened?”

The farmer, astonished, stuttering, “You, you, you were struck by lightning.”

The horse, whose name was Mare, leaned back its large head, the nostrils flaring, “Did you just talk to me?’

The farmer, more astonished, “You talked to me first.”

“Holy fuck,” replied Mare. “I guess I did.”

Once the miraculous had been accepted by the farmer, his immediate thought was, naturally, commerce. With this in mind, the farmer approached the mare who declined his offer of public performance.

“I wouldn’t like that at all,” she said.

“It’s no different than the conversation we’re having now,” the farmer protested. “You just have it with other people.”

The mare neighed in response, saying, “Other people may not be as kind as the farmer.” The farmer laughed.

“Nonsense,” he said, “I’ll be with you the whole time.”

Using his phone, the farmer recorded a short video of he and the mare discussing the weather while standing in the farmer’s north pasture. The video lasted less than 30 seconds and the mare completed three complete sentences and expounded on what she believed tomorrow’s weather was going to be like – crappy again. The uploaded video went viral, making the major social media sites, with ongoing arguments from the viewing community as to whether it was really a talking horse or not.

To confirm, the farmer and the mare were invited to one of the national televised morning shows, followed the same day by visits to two late-night shows. One of the late-night shows had on what they were calling a “Talking Horse Expert,” some guy dressed like a country rube with a straw hat and a pitchfork, a joke until Mare unmasked the man as someone knowing nothing about contemporary farming. The actor dropped his pitchfork realizing that the horse was actually talking.

Mare’s fame exploded. Her likeness was put on coffee mugs, t-shirts, plates, and hundreds of other trinkets. Even her own calendar. Crowds greeted her at the events she attended whether it be the opening of the local county fair to television shows. She was even asked to do the play-by-play for the national horse-racing derby, which she turned down, citing that she believed that humans racing horses for money was wrong. The derby representative, a stern, pasty old man who was a local politician, complained to the farmer, who apologized but felt the same way.

She didn’t understand why she had to do a dog-food commercial. “I don’t even eat dog food,” she said. “Do you?”

The farmer shook his head and said that it was just for the money. Mare complained that too many humans only cared about money. The guy holding the boom said she didn’t know any better because she was only a stupid horse. Mare cantered over to the boom operator, backing him up against the wall and said that if it wasn’t for humans and their slaughter of innocent animals to feed their overweight, smelly bodies, that this world would be a much better place.

You could hear the hum of the background lights.

They finished the shoot but the atmosphere was tense. As the farmer led out the mare, she said to him, “I’m only telling the truth.”

The farmer nodded his head. “I know.”

Later, that night, someone leaked a shaky video of Mare’s comments from the commercial. The comments were excoriating, and the farmer didn’t see the need to tell the mare about it. This was bad press and perhaps, the farmer considered, that they had made enough money to live happily for a number of years.

In the living room of the farm house, where Mare was now living, he told her it’s time to retire.

“Thank god,” she replied and nuzzled his neck as she once did when she was much smaller.

They still had one more talk show to do and decided together that it would a great way to say goodbye. The farmer would say that the mare woke up silent again, and she would merely stand there while the camera pushed in on her face.

Minutes before she was to go on live television, the farmer couldn’t find her in her assigned dressing room. He asked a couple of the people backstage if they’d seen a horse but nothing. He heard a shot – he knew it was a shot – he was a hunter, he knew. He ran toward the direction and out an emergency exit. A white car pulled away. She was on the ground behind the building, crumpled across two parking spaces, her body broken on the cement dividers, her mouth bound with white rope, her blood, from a gunshot, pooled around her mane. He held her still head in his arms and even as the grief broke across him, he refused it, so it would feed him for a long time, never letting him forget.

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Ron Burch’s fiction has been published in numerous literary journals including Mississippi Review, New World Writing, PANK, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His novel, Bliss Inc., was published by BlazeVOX Books. He lives in Los Angeles. 

Photo: Erin Dolson