An Army of Frogs | Mark Blickley

Image: Frog Concerto, Mark Blickley

Image: Bobbie Oliver

 “I don’t want to go to school today, Ma.  I don’t feel well.” 

            “You felt well enough to stay over Lamont’s house two hours past your curfew, playing video games.  Now get up and get ready for school.  And I mean now, Gregory John Burton!”

            The boy jumped out of bed.  He knew that when his mother called him by his full name instead of the familiar Greg, she could not be argued with and was primed for the yelling that would most certainly alert his father and bring him into the conflict.

            As he scuffed his way towards the bathroom he thought about explaining to his mother why he had distracted himself to the point of disobedience at Lamont’s last night.  They were both trying to erase the fear and anxiety of what was sure to be the most horrible day of their seven-year education the next morning.

            His father flung open the bathroom door, his waist wrapped in a purple towel as he delicately dragged a large comb through his thinning brown hair.  “It’s all yours. How’s it going, Sport?” 

            “Terrible,” answered Greg.  “This morning we’re going to cut up a frog.  Yuck.”

            His father paused his grooming to put a hand on his son’s shoulder.  “Don’t worry, Greg.  I remember not being too thrilled by the dissection my science teacher forced us to do, but he reminded us that we don’t kill the frogs, that they were already dead. And if we didn’t learn from their sacrifice, then their deaths were wasted. He also told us to pretend that we were surgeons cutting into a patient.  It turned out to be quite interesting.”

            “Yeah, well the only cutting I’d like to do is to cut class today. Dissection’s disgusting. I mean, there’s already enough violence in schools.”

            “I suppose you have a point, Greg.  I remember reading an article about that serial killer who cut up his victims and ate them.  What was his name?”

            “Jeffrey Dahmer?”

            Yeah, that’s him.  Right before the prison inmates killed him Dahmer gave an interview where he said that he became fascinated with blood and guts when his school gave him a knife and a dead animal to cut apart in biology class.”

            “Gee thanks, Dad.”  

            His father made a silly face, scooped him off the ground and tossed him into the air.  The squeals of delight coming from the boy temporarily made Greg forget about the brutal day he was about to endure until his sister Carol, hearing her brother’s screams of pleasure, trotted into the living room and demanded that her father also give her the chance to go airborne.

            Greg’s four and a half block walk to school took on the pace and enthusiasm of a killer being led down death row for a private sitting with an electrician.  As he turned the corner he saw Kostas, Selim, and Pascal climbing the steep steps leading to the school’s entrance.  When he shouted at them to wait up he thought that they, too, had a sickly look about them.  The four of them silently scuffed their way to the classroom.

            Everyone except Regina Boloff was inside and in their seat.  Greg didn’t think Regina would show up.  Every time Mrs. Worton would give a math or spelling test, Regina would wet her pants and cry.  When this happened, Mrs. Worton would send for the school nurse and Regina’s mother would come to pick her up and take her home.  The day afterwards Regina was always absent.

            As Greg settled himself behind his desk, he noticed Regina walking in.  This worried him.  Because of the terrible importance of the day, even Regina’s embarrassment couldn’t allow her to stay home, and she certainly had made a huge mess the day before during the math quiz.  But what really bothered Greg was that none of his classmates (or himself, for that matter) bothered to tease her.  The class looked as if their thoughts were a million miles away.

            Mrs. Worton strolled in and put on a big smile, even bigger than the smile she gave when the class presented her with a large, multi-colored paperweight, shaped like an egg, for Christmas.  Trumella  Austin’s father took the seven dollars and sixty-four cents the kids had raised and picked it out for the class from the stationary store he owned.  Greg thought it was a beauty.

            Behind his teacher’s smile Greg knew she was nervous too because she took roll call before the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.  Nothing was mentioned about what they had to do in a matter of hours. 

            For the first time all year the classroom hours sped by.  The clock read 10:30 when Mrs. Worton ordered them to lay down their pencils.  She then distributed  11×15 sheets of construction paper to each student and told them they were to use it to create a frog map that they would fill in as they dissected their frogs.  

     Greg raised his hand.  “What do you mean by a frog map?  I don’t understand.”

Mrs. Worton looked sternly at Greg. “Had you been turning in your homework regularly the past two weeks, Mr. Burton, you would have known that the handouts I gave out in class were to prep you for this project.”

“Why do we have to cut open a frog?” whined Regina.  “What’s the point?”

“The point,” said Mrs. Worton curtly, “is to satisfy national standards for sixth grade introduction to organs and organ systems.”

“I get all the info I need about organs and organ systems by sneaking on to my father’s Spice Channel website,” Hector whispered to Greg.  Both giggled.

“Hector, is there something you’d like to share with the rest of the class?” asked Mrs. Worton. 

 Hector shook his head.

“Very well, then.  As you cut away the layers of the frog’s anatomy, you will record your findings on your frog map.  Everyone draw an outline of a frog using the markers I placed on your desks before you arrived this morning.”

What followed was the greatest shock in a day already filled with much tension and apprehension.  The frogs that Mrs. Worton handed out to each student weren’t dead and pickled, but alive.

“Oh my God,” said Habib.

“Gross,” said Sophia.

“This is gonna be cool,” said Badra.

“Your frogs have all been anesthetized so they won’t feel any pain,” Mrs. Worton smiled.

“I bet,” muttered Greg.

Mrs. Worton heard Greg’s remark but chose to ignore it.   “The school paid extra so that we could observe the organ systems of a living frog,” she said rather proudly.   “Before we begin the actual cutting, please weigh your frog and measure its length from snout to vent and record this data in the lower right hand corner of your frog map.” 

Greg waved his arm. “What’s a vent?”

“Had you been studying like the rest of the class, you’d know that the vent is the cloaca.”

“The what?” shrugged Greg.

“It’s the ass, you ass,” whispered Badra. 

The moment Greg’s hand squeezed around his frog and felt it inhaling and exhaling, he wanted to run outside and set it free instead of lining up in the back of the classroom, waiting his turn to use the scale.  But he figured what would the point of freeing it be?  There aren’t any ponds around here.  It would just get squashed by a car or some punk would shove a firecracker down its throat.

After all the students measured and weighed their frogs and returned to their desks, Mrs. Worton pulled her desk to the center of the room to talk them through the surgery while slicing up her very own frog.  “Our first step will be to decapitate the frog with your special dissection scissors and then pith its spinal cord with the pithing needle on your tray.  The frog will twitch.  Pithing greatly reduces the incidence and intensity of muscle contractions, thus simplifying the dissection.”

Most of the class scrunched their faces with revulsion as they followed Mrs. Worton’s commands.  

“As you hold the frog’s head, “ continued Mrs. Worton, “squeeze it with your thumb and index finger to open its mouth for easier insertion of the scissors into the mouth.  Hold your frog against the tray with your palm as it may twitch while you are decapitating it.”

Greg did as he was told and placed the lower scissor blade inside his frog’s mouth while the outer blade rested on the back of the frog’s head.  Without applying much force, he was surprised how quickly the head was severed from the body.  His frog twitched and contorted so violently that it jerked out of his hand and fell to the floor, where it flopped about like an awkward break-dancer trying to spin into a finale.

Mrs. Worton hurried over, responding to the many shrieks of disgust surrounding Greg’s desk.  “Didn’t I tell you to pith your frog?” she asked.

Greg just stared at her as she picked up his headless frog and dropped it onto his tray.  It continued to twitch.  She handed him a pair of forceps and ordered him to lift the skin of the abdomen with them before cutting into the skin, from left to right.  Greg made an incision with his dissecting scissors into the lower abdomen and then cut along the sides of the frog to make a flap of the skin and abdominal musculature.  He then lifted the flap back and cut it off, exposing the internal organs that his teacher called the viscera. The exposed innards of the frog were such an appalling sight that it made Greg want to heave his breakfast.

“Now cut off the intestine and urine duct from the hip to free the viscera from the body,” said Mrs. Worton.  “Be careful not to touch the nerve when cutting.”

Many nerves were touched in the classroom, and most of them belonged to the students.  As he snipped through muscle fascia, hemostats, and the sciatic nerve of his frog, Greg felt terrible.  He thought about the trauma he underwent weeks earlier, the day he had to get a stupid TB test. And that was simply a prick of his skin while his frog, who was alive and breathing when he first held him, was now dead and Greg was ordered to remove its skin because Mrs. Worton said the skin represented one of the ten body systems a frog needs in order to survive. One of the ten body systems they needed to expose and explore.  She called the skin the Integumentary System, but flaying the frog proved too much for Greg.  He lay down his scalpel and put a paper towel over his torn, mutilated amphibian. 

“Hey, Mrs. Worton,” said Victor.  “What are gonna do we do with all of these frogs after we’re done?”

“Victor, do you know what you call a group of frogs?”

Victor shrugged.” What do you mean?”

Mrs. Worton smiled.  “Well, a group of fish is called a school.  A group of geese are called a gaggle.  A group of birds are called a flock.  A group of horses are called a herd.  But what do you call a group of frogs?”

“Butchered,” muttered Greg. 

Mrs. Worton once again ignored Greg’s comment.  “A group of frogs are called an army. An army of frogs.” 


Mark Blickley  is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild and PEN American Center whose most recent book is a text-based art collaboration with fine arts photographer Amy Bassin, ‘Dream Streams.’ (Clare Songbirds Publishing House).

Silence Becomes Them – Brian Byrdsong

Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash

Eddie opened his eyes and saw a pair of greyish eyes staring back at him. Amidst his sleepy stupor, he failed to immediately recognize that they were the eyes of his boyfriend, Arno. His first thought, once he realized who was staring back at him, was about the reasons Arno could have to hover over him. His second thought was wondering why Arno’s mouth was duct-taped. 

Arno gestured to Eddie, placing a single finger over his duct-taped mouth, and turned around to grab a piece of paper. He quickly whipped himself around again and held the paper up. In large letters, Eddie saw the words “Don’t Speak.” Eddie, thinking this was some sort of awkward or poorly executed prank, he yelled at Arno. 

“Why not!”

Jagged shapes materialized in front of Eddie’s mouth and flew at Arno, violently pushing him against the wall. Arno once again lifted the piece of paper and held it up. He pointed at it, reinforcing the message it contained. 

Eddie ran over to Arno and hugged him. He could not help but let out a small whisper apologizing for his mistake. Eddie immediately suffered the consequences. He felt hundreds of little shapes in his mouth, escaping slowly and burning his lips and tongue. Eddie clenched his jaw and tried to stop himself from vocalizing anymore. Eddie ran his hands all around Arno, checking for injuries and breathed in relief after he found none. 

He gestured for Arno to follow him and led him to the computer. It seemed that in his fear, Arno had not had the wherewithal to see if this strange phenomenon was happening anywhere else. He flipped the laptop open and backed away, afraid that the start-up sound may just slap him across the face. Much to his joy, it didn’t. He searched the first news site he could think of. Breaking news was highlighted and flashing in black and red at the top of the website’s homepage. It was an article. It stated that, in no uncertain terms, a global phenomenon was happening. 

All around the world, apparently, reports were sent in, in the form of videos. One of the videos showed a spectator loudly marveling at the heads carved into Mt. Rushmore. Those shapes materialized, but from this person, who Eddie assumed was yelling, the shapes were huge. They knocked off the nose of George Washington; another showed the Coliseum being crumbled by a crowd of young men who had already decided to harness their voices to cause trouble. 

Eddie couldn’t bear to continue watching the destruction and slammed the laptop closed. Arno gently rubbed Eddie’s back. Eddie could tell that Arno wanted to comfort him with his words, as he had frequently done in the past, and Eddie wanted that too. It pained him that he couldn’t hear Arno’s sweet, yet, lazy sounding voice dole out the wisdom that he needed. 

Eddie decided that all they could do was to keep living as usual, even though that was difficult to do. Neither Eddie nor Arno could go to work. If the school in which Arno worked had still been in session, Arno might have killed all the children in an attempt to teach. Eddie was a public speaker by trade. His very livelihood depended on his voice, and, if he couldn’t use it, he’d be destitute. So, they confirmed by email that all upcoming schedules were canceled and hoped that this whole thing would subside. 

But, despite their greatest hopes, the unexplainable weaponization of human sound continued. Day in and day out, Arno and Eddie kept passing notes, like schoolboys holding on to a secret that they daren’t share with anyone else, like Eddie did with his first crush. Back then, it was exhilarating. Now, it was exhausting. 

For weeks they lived like this. They watched reruns of the shows they liked. They watched a bunch of old movies that they never had time to view. Then, the day came that they ran out of food. Their fridge was barren. All that remained was a semi-empty jug of milk and a bottle of ketchup. They decided to make the drive to the city. The closer they got to it, the more in disbelief they became. Entire buildings were toppled. Roads had been destroyed.  But, like a canary in a coal mine, miraculously, the grocery store appeared pristine.

Walking in for them felt eerie. No one spoke. There were no pleasant ‘hellos’ or thank you’s,’ there was only the deafening silence that had plagued them for weeks. As they shopped, something stopped them in their tracks. The grocery store used to have music play as customers shopped. Now, the grocery store had replaced them with televisions, that would let its patrons know if anything urgent was being addressed. On those televisions, a vital address from the president began to roll across the screen. The president’s address outlined the mandatory changes that would sweep across the country. 

  1. ASL was now the official spoken language of the United States. 
  2. Speaking would now be considered a crime. Those who were arrested for the offense would be placed in a facility that would most likely withstand the power of their voice. 

Eddie and Arno were dumbfounded. They wondered whether there was truly no solution to this situation. The next few years would prove that thought true. Movies and TV became a thing of the past. Those who tried to record them were jailed for public endangerment. The world, or the world that Eddie knew, became a slower and more friendly place. A place in which people’s feelings could no longer be voiced immediately. It became a world of text. 

But, for any of the good that came about, there were plenty of negative aspects as well as well. Incarceration rates tripled. Protests for change could largely be ignored, and if they weren’t, more often than not, that meant that a building had been shouted down as a statement. The decrease in entertainment sales dealt a massive blow to the economy. Birth rates dropped, as no one could quite figure out how to get babies to be silent all the time. There were more newborn orphans than ever, as many children who were born had unknowingly killed their parents, or the parents simply realized there were not up to the task of risking their lives daily to raise a child.  

For Eddie and Arno, things were mostly okay. Eddie had made and saved quite a bit of money from his career. It was enough to retire on, and that’s precisely what he did. But as comfortable as they were, alone in their middle of nowhere home, Eddie wished things had remained the same. He missed speaking in front of crowds, he missed the sounds of people. He missed the person who would whistle as they walked down the street. He missed the sound of ridiculous advertisements. He missed what he now felt was the most critical part of the human experience…having a voice. 


Brian Byrdsong is a gay, black, bilingual writer living in Denver, CO. Originally from Georgia, he’s called Colorado home since 2010, when he moved there to attend the University of Northern Colorado. He has degrees in both Spanish and Communications. When he’s not writing, he enjoys playing video games with his partner and spending time with his cat, Mew. @arrythmicbyrd Instagram.com/arrythmicbyrd www.abyrdmind.com

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The Corner of 24th and San Gabriel – Robin Lanehurst

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Photo: Aaron Meacham

I sat on the curb of the laundromat, squishing ants between my fingers, checking my phone every few minutes. Heat simmered in the asphalt parking lot, tangible and sticky, rose through the curb and my cut-offs, and the still air gave no relief – but at least the air and sky made me imagine I could be free, instead of sticking to the plastic chairs inside the laundromat, the heavy air perfumed with detergent, weighing me down like Dorothy in the field just outside of the Emerald City, bewitched. The trail of ants, immune like most non-humans to human tribulations, continued to wind through the grubby building, little specks of black on the gritty tile, occasionally detoured by a hairband gathering dust, by a crumb of detergent.

Before I moved to this neighborhood, to West Campus, I had a washer and dryer in my house, on the second floor. A shelf for the detergent. White bottles of bleach and periwinkle bottles of fabric softener. I would fold my boyfriend’s underwear neatly, into a Kon-Mari square, then crinkle it into a ball and shove it into his underwear drawer. I wasted a lot of time that way.

People began to leave the church across San Gabriel, tossing themselves through the thin wooden doors. It wasn’t a real church; it wasn’t a building that was built to be a church. Groups rented it out for swing-dancing or student group meetings or birthday parties. A mom and dad holding a baby in a mauve outfit and an older couple, white-haired, holding onto each other, picked across the uneven sidewalk to wait at the crosswalk.

In the other direction, crossing 24th, just one block away from Lamar, from the hill that rolls down to kiss it on both sides, from the no-left-turn sign ignored by students and state workers and bikers in their tight rubber uniforms, in this direction was a corner store. It had tried to fashion itself after the corner taquerias you could find off of Rundberg or North Lamar or Stassney, but this particular iteration felt tidier and less real. Its clientele consisted of students, mostly, who lived in the new high rise building that stood over the store like a bully with his knees on your shoulders, pinning you down, making you feel like nothing and like the most important thing. I always thought college students seemed to like that feeling.

Then the light changed and the traffic on 24th slowed to a stop and the students crossed from the corner store and the churchgoers crossed from the building-that-wasn’t-a-church, and a woman on a bike in a Jimmy John’s uniform flew through the intersection, platinum-haired, bright-haired, hair wispy at the edges but thick in the middle, the kind of hair you’d like to pull, the kind of hair you’d like to wrap around your wrists, tie into knots, and she stuck her tongue out, radical, loud, unapologetic, and she cut through the laundromat parking lot to avoid the light. She never once stopped moving. She rolled through the steaming asphalt and cut back across San Gabriel, and then probably to MLK and Nueces to pick up her next delivery.

She is an anarchist, marches with Antifa, covers her face during rallies. Some of them have automatic rifles slung across their shoulders, bobbing next to their heads like scorpion tails, but she holds the pole which lifts the Trump piñata above the crowd, throws matches. I can see is her hands, soft and brown, I want to feel the tips of her manicured nails dig into my wrists, pointy and orange. She has stuffed her hair into a skullcap, but I can see it spraying out against the nape of her neck like mist from a wave, crashing on a rock.

We live in a house, one of those wild houses with five bedrooms and six roommates, the guy who sleeps on the couch and pays fifty dollars in rent, the feral cats coming to the back door to drink water and catch spiders, the fundraiser parties for top surgeries, for bail, for car repairs. Her favorite drink is gin, an angry drink. Harsh. Leaves you with a burn, a headache. Painful and sweet, going down. She wipes her wet hands on her black jeans.

My phone alarm went off and I checked my laundry: wet. I hadn’t done the wash in months. It had been too hot. I had been too tired. I had collected piles of t-shirts and bras, the black pants I had to wear to work, the polo shirts stained with spaghetti sauce and wine. The smell of the laundromat unsteadied me, the room went dizzy.

Our room in the house is the smallest one. Small – but we don’t have to share. The central air isn’t connected to this room, so we leave the fan on, we rent a window unit from the Rent-a-Center next to the HEB on Springdale. Keep the door closed, so when we come home after our shifts, peel the red and black polyester away from our wet skin, we lay naked on our bed, right in the line of fire from the air blast, and I kiss the cold, hard tips of her toes like peanuts.

I like the delivery job, more than the waitressing I used to do. I like the bike, the heat, the sunshine. I like speeding through intersections, like puzzles, my body the missing piece. I like the hill down Windsor, where it crashes into Lamar and then recoils back into a different road, into 24th, where the students start buzzing out of apartments and corner stores and pubs, I like to imagine what they must look like from the sky. Ants, crawling toward an agreed-upon ending.

There weren’t ants in my apartment, but roaches, tiny roaches creeping up through the carpet, crawling through electric sockets. I lived in a furnished apartment around the corner, down San Gabriel. I cleaned the dingy windows, but no sunlight ever came in.


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Robin Lanehurst grew up in St. Louis, MO and is currently writing from Houston, Texas where they live with their wife and a small menagerie of pets. They am white, neurodiverse, and identify as queer and gender non-binary. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Coe Review, Apricity Magazine, The Scarlet Leaf Review, Re:Fiction, and More Queer Families. 

Body Sculpt: Suffer for Beauty – Addison Herron-Wheeler

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Photo: Viktor Talashuk

She went in wanting the standard procedure, about 50 percent less body fat, no more skin on the eyelids, just lashes fluttering from the skull, and a sculpting procedure to get rid of every wrinkle, dimple, cellulite ridge, and blemish.

The red on her cheeks was washed clean, the red spots on her breasts and thighs erased. Her hairlines was brought forward so her blond bangs dangled close to the long lashes.

She also opted for the stakes driven into her heels to improve her posture and keep her spine straight. The gossamer gown they had given her, which at first clung to her every crevice and curve like a hug, now hung loose over a stick-like frame. She thought she could feel her ribs growing.

Her blood was thinned, her saliva replaced with perfume. Her ears were made smaller; her nose was removed. They cut off the tips of her fingers to make them proportional to her feet.

When it was all done, she put on a black, velvet robe and looked in the mirror. “You have to suffer for beauty” she mouthed, her thin lips pursed, her skin glowing neon blue.

She felt her ribs heaving as though they wanted to escape her body. She smiled, batting her eyelids, feeling the velvet on her tight skin. “You have to suffer.”


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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

Diaries of a Lost Pregnancy – Amanda E.K.

 

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Photo by Hello I’m Nik 🎞

 

Diaries of a Lost Pregnancy

5.18.17

Yes, Doctor, I will take a pregnancy test. I’ve been nauseous since last Thursday.

I’m in pain. I’m three days late.

5.24.17

Pelvic ultrasound to try and figure out this pain. Still haven’t heard back from the doctor.

5.30.17

I bought a stick on my way home from work. Called doctor again and they still won’t release my results. This all feels a bit dystopian and surreal.

A little too Twin Peaks: The Return.

My pain is invalidated by the people who can help me.

I’ve been nauseous and I’m never nauseous and my boobs hurt as though gripped in a vice.

Oh kill this thing inside me if it does indeed exist! 

Drinking wine and eating Twinkies that I bought along with the store brand stick. 

My husband is out of the country. I’m scared and alone.

5.31.17 

6:30 am: 

The test is positive

11:59 pm:

I wonder if it would be a boy or a girl. I stretch my face in the mirror, imagining the combination of our features. Not that I want it. It’s only thought-play.

I don’t go to bed. I go for a walk after dark, to Observatory Park, walking in shadows, spinning on playground spinners, stumbling up a tree, swinging as high as I can go for as long as Radiohead’s “Ful Stop” plays on headphones.

I need to be higher, or lower, and since I don’t have any digging tools, up I go.

Sometimes the traffic outside my window sounds like music.

I scheduled an abortion outside an elementary school.

6.1.17

Started miscarrying during my preschool students’ graduation.

Started crying in front of the families, saying how much their children have meant to me. Several moms teared up and gave me hugs. 

My student Mariah asked me: Ms. Amanda, why are you crying? Me: I have a tummy ache. 

Crying after coming back from the bathroom, finding blood, not knowing what was happening to my body, my co-teacher asking if I’m okay and I shake my head, dissolve into tears.

I translated a message into Arabic for Elyas’s mom about how he’s been one of my favorite students and I’ll miss him. She teared up and hugged me and I felt such love for her. Translated a message into Spanish for Ricardo’s mom. I will miss the daily diversity of being a classroom teacher.

I will miss my beautiful little family.


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Amanda E.K. is the editor-in-chief of Denver’s Suspect Press. She’s also a writing instructor and a longstanding member of the Knife Brothers writing group. Her work has been featured on the Denver Orbit podcast and on Mortified Live. She has work in Suspect Press, Birdy, Jersey Devil Press, the 2018 Punch Drunk Press Poetry anthology, and Green Briar Review. She’s currently working on a memoir about her sexual development while growing up in evangelical purity culture, and she is co-writing a television series. FB: /AmandaEK  Twitter: @AmandaEKwriter  Insta: @amanda.ek.writer

Temple of Christ – Amanda E.K.

 

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Photo by Bianca Berg

 

 

Temple of Christ

In the dressing room, pre-photoshoot, the others start to strip down and change into their costumes. I stand frozen, clothes in my arms that I planned to change into in the bathroom, but now that everyone’s changing out in the open I feel prudish for seeking privacy.

 

I’m taken back to middle school, high school locker rooms—to changing rooms at the pool, and to sleepovers where I was the only one who seemed to be anxious about showing my body. The only one who seemed to think that bodies weren’t for flaunting, or even for being comfortable letting other people see. 

 

I hear that old voice tell me: “This isn’t allowed for you, even if it’s allowed for others.” It’s the voice that tells me to lessen myself, to withdraw, to separate. (Be in the world, not of it.) It’s a childlike feeling, like when adults tell you to plug your ears and close your eyes because you’re not old enough to know what they know.

 

I was told my body was a temple of Christ, and though I’m no longer a Christian I’m alarmed to realize I still believe this. Not that my body belongs to Jesus like a temporary gift to take care of—but that it’s something to earn. I still believe the sight of my naked body must be earned. That I shouldn’t reveal it to just anyone, and that the people who do see me and touch me should feel privileged to do so.

 

Where is the line between vanity and self-respect?

 

The Church made me believe my body is nothing but sexual.

 

Standing in the corner of the room, awkward and quiet, I’m surprised and frustrated to realize I still have these inclinations toward body-shyness (especially since I spend most of my time at home in the nude). 

 

It feels wrong to see the other women’s naked breasts, their butts. I try not to look, but can’t avoid it. But for them it seems like nothing, completely natural. 

 

I think: Should I be just as comfortable? Is that really okay?

 

So I take off my shirt (facing the wall). I feel silly for my discomfort. (It’s no big deal, after all.) Maybe I’m worried I’ll be aroused, and that arousal is inappropriate. But it’s not that. It’s hard to reframe messages instilled when you are young. But now that I’m aware I can start.


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Amanda E.K. is the editor-in-chief of Denver’s Suspect Press. She’s also a writing instructor and a longstanding member of the Knife Brothers writing group. Her work has been featured on the Denver Orbit podcast and on Mortified Live. She has work in Suspect Press, Birdy, Jersey Devil Press, the 2018 Punch Drunk Press Poetry anthology, and Green Briar Review. She’s currently working on a memoir about her sexual development while growing up in evangelical purity culture, and she is co-writing a television series. FB: /AmandaEK  Twitter: @AmandaEKwriter  Insta: @amanda.ek.writer

Fate – Epiphany Ferrell

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Photo: Johannes Plenio

Fate arrives in her mailbox. And with its arrival, a decision. Fate is a red matte lipstick, a special order that arrived for Nicole Masterton, the person who lived in 12A before Allie. Allie has lived in 12A for five months, and she still receives Nicole Masterton’s mail. Sometimes Allie takes the mail to the post office and leaves it. Sometimes she throws it away. The magazines and catalogs she keeps. She guesses Nicole must be a fashionable young woman with a formidable shoe collection.

She doesn’t generally open Nicole’s mail, except for she did open the heavy envelope, embossed, that turned out to be a wedding invitation. Allie doesn’t get invited to many weddings. The fancy envelope has been sitting on her end table for three weeks, the gilded RSVP card askew as if the person who opened the invitation to the nuptials of Sarah Jane Laux and Jeffrey George Bolingbroke couldn’t be bothered to hurry an answer.

Allie imagines Nicole waiting for a wedding invitation, wondering if she had been forgotten, if she should call and inquire, if she should just show up as if the invitation had arrived as expected. Or if she should be hurt, or angry. Allie has considered bundling it all back into the torn envelope – why hadn’t she used a letter opener? surely such an envelope warranted a letter opener? – and taking it to the post office with a murmured apology. Instead, the envelope sits there, silver-foiled and pretty.

And now Fate has arrived. Allie doesn’t think of herself as a red lipstick type of girl. But when Fate is delivered to your door, oughtn’t you to accept it? The lipstick is a good match for Allie. It complements her complexion. She wonders what Nicole looks like, if Fate looks as good on her.

Allie wears Fate on her lips and goes to Nordstrom’s. She walks through the women’s section, aimlessly trailing her fingers over the sale racks and she sees it, a dress red as Fate. A dress in her size, on sale so ridiculously low she’d be a fool not to buy it.

For two days the dress lays over the back of a chair, waiting, like the wedding invitation. But Allie has known since she held Fate in her hand that she was going to the wedding. She wants to see it, to see this wedding announced with such an elaborate invitation, sent to a woman with a chilly name like Nicole Masterton who buys a lipstick called Fate.

Inside the church it’s all flowers and tulle and crystal and candles. Extravagent. Allie doesn’t sit all the way in the back as she’d planned. Women with Fate on their smiles don’t sit all the way in the back. She sits on the groom’s side, looking on the bride’s side for someone who might be Nicole Masterton who surely came, who isn’t at home sad and angry, whose friends told Sarah Jane Laux about the lost invitation and she surely was sent another.

The ceremony is beautiful, of course. The bride could grace the pages of Vogue and maybe she does. Allie dabs her eyes, caught up in the couple’s first married kiss. She finds herself in the receiving line, and she hugs the bride, who glows with happiness, and she hugs the groom who says, “It’s so good to see you again, it’s been so long.” It has, she agrees, but he doesn’t really know her. She leaves a touch of Fate on his cheek. It’s ok, she brought Fate with her in the tiny purse she dug out of her closet from prom years ago (from prom! seriously!) and she’ll keep Fate with her all night.

Because of course she attends the reception. The tables are set with name holders. There are two tables for those who have not RSVP’d. Allie wonders if she’ll be seated near Nicole Masterton. She doesn’t catch all the names as introductions are made, but Nicole is not one of them. She gives her own name as Tiffany Smith and hopes she remembers it later, if necessary. When she’s asked how she knows the bride, she says she knows the groom, but it’s been a very long time, not since they were quite young and the blush that warms her cheeks at the lie makes her wonder if people will assume they were lovers. She imagines what it would be like to have been his first love. Someone clinks a glass and the happy couple kiss. Allie smiles with her Fate lips. The table she is at is far from the wedding table, this table reserved for those without reservations.

Allie leaves a mark of Fate on the cloth napkin, reapplies in the Ladies where every moment she expects to run into Nicole Masterton, whose invitation she usurped. Allie smiles at the mirror. Fate looks good on her. So does the dress of the same hue, the only one like it she owns.

She watches the couple’s first dance. She leaves traces of Fate on more than one champagne glass. It’s past 11 when she decides to leave. The reception shows no sign of slowing down, and Allie wonders if it will end at midnight or continue until the sun rises.

Allie walks past the cloak room, past the bathrooms on her way out the door. The groom emerges from the men’s room. “Wait,” he says to her. “Don’t leave yet. I’ve wanted to talk to you all night.”

Allie turns, smiling with Fate on her lips.


Epiphany_ Ferrell

Epiphany Ferrell lives and writes on the edge of the Shawnee Forest in Southern Illinois. Her stories appear in New Flash Fiction Review, Third Point Press, Newfound and other places. She recently received a Pushcart nomination, and has a story forthcoming in Best Microfiction 2020. She blogs intermittently for Ghost Parachute and is a fiction reader for Mojave River Review. 

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.

talking in bed – margaret erhart

Matt Clifford - Photo Credit Matt Diss ALOC Media

When we were kids we’d climb aboard my parents’ bed and sail around the world, our faces to an imaginary wind and on the lookout for danger. Slippers were sharks and piles of clothing were shoals. We took turns being captain and sometimes, if a whale was spotted, we’d lower a whaleboat made of pillows. Among the five of us, I was the best harpoonist.

The great ship of our parents’ bed adventured less and less as each of us left home, until finally my mother and father were alone on it and their journeys–if they ever left port at all–were unknown to us. When we came home from our other lives, the bed seemed an ordinary bed, though larger than it appeared in childhood. Was it possible it had grown? My father read the paper lying on the bed. My mother talked on the telephone lying on the bed. Beloved dogs roamed the bed and circled down to sleep on it at night. It became the docking station for my parents’ lives, and ours as well. Somehow if we lost them we expected they would always be found. On the bed.

When my father went into the hospital this past Christmas Eve, I didn’t understand that he might never come out. All I understood was that his side of the bed that night was empty. And the next night, and the next. The room he shared with my mother looked lopsided and wrong. It was clear what needed to be done and I did it, and every night since then I’ve slept in the bed where my father used to sleep. My mother sometimes wakes up in the dark and starts talking. We don’t talk of him, we talk about what time the dog needs to go out, and what we can put together for the next meal, and how much snow the city might get, and sometimes she’ll tell me a dream. In the morning she’ll say, “Don’t get up yet, it’s dark out,” or, “You snore just like your father,” and I wait for her to go back to sleep, then I set my feet down in the shark-infested waters around that great ship of a bed, and the day begins.


Margaret Erhart_Author Photo Headshot

Margaret Erhart’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, and The Best American Spiritual Writing 2005. Her commentaries have aired on NPR. She won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize and was a finalist for an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. She lives and works in Flagstaff, Arizona. You can find her at www.margareterhart.com

Cover Photo: Bastian Pudill

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