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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three stories – mathias svalina

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One.

A man wanted to travel to another continent, but he did not have a boat. He read about a series of holes & tunnels & caves that led to the continent to which he wanted to travel. He travelled to the beginning of the path, parked his car, & walked the mile or so to the first hole. This initial hole was filled with mud. He waded through the mud. The hole led to a tunnel of slime. He waded though the slime. The stink sickened him & he propped the neck of his shirt over his nose to try to dampen it, to no avail. The tunnel of slime led to another tunnel, which was dry & generally unremarkable. He walked through this tunnel easily. The dry tunnel led to cave in which there was a lake of fire. He could not pass this lake. Gathering many large rocks, he dropped one into the lake of fire. He stepped on this rock, then dropped another large rock in front of him. He from this second rock he dropped a third rock into the lake of fir & stepped onto that one. He dropped & stepped on another, then another, another. In this way he raveled across half the lake of fire. At this point he took a break. Carrying large rocks is very tiring. He sat on the last rock & drank some lemonade. Then he lay down & took a little nap. In his sleep he had a weird dream of falling upwards into a florescent light, buzzing & flickering. He woke with a bodily convulsion, knocking all his remaining rocks, which were to get him to the other side, into the lake of fire. The knocked-over rocks formed a small island. He tried to pull the rocks out but the heat had melted them together. This was as far as his journey would get him. He built a log cabin on the island. He grew a pleasant garden, both vegetables & flowers. He trained his hounds not to near the lake of fire. He e-lanced & paid all his bills online. On weekends he’d pack a little lunch, put a six-pack in the cooler & spend the whole day fishing on the shore. He didn’t care whether he caught anything. He had grown to love how the fire splashed & rippled when his sinker dropped, how the fire lapped at the stone shore, how little tusks of fire would sometimes pierce through the lake, only to dissipate in the air. But when he did catch a fish, if he could pull it in quickly enough, it was each time already fully cooked by the lake of fire, the flesh flaky & delicious.

Two.

My sister is a pilot. I am her co-pilot. We are preparing to fly a plane across the ocean. The plane sits on the runway as we wait for the air traffic controllers to give us our commands. A bunch of boys climb into the cockpit. They play marbles. They play kick the can. They play stickball with a rubber ball, causing the ball to bounce around the cockpit every time they hit it. One boy eats some sloppy spaghetti out of his cupped hands. He sits between me & my sister. As he eats the sloppy spaghetti, he toggles the switches. I tell him he can’t do that, but he does not listen. I offer him a bowl for his spaghetti. He ignores me. The ignition switch is covered with tomato sauce. My sister leans into the microphone & says We were cleared to take off. Her voice emerges from the speakers tinny & distorted. I flip the ignition switch on & start doing flying stuff. The plane rolls down the runway. It lifts into the air. It increases in speed, until are in full throttle. We reach cruising speed, but all this time, the plane has remained only ten feet above the ground, shaking the cars & trucks below us on the highway. I turn to my sister, the pilot. We are dead, aren’t we? I ask. This is how the dead live, isn’t it? I take my headset off & walk to the door of the cockpit, & look over the seats. Everyone in the plane is dead. All but one teenaged girl with long black hair. She is alive & seated next to my mother’s dead body. Sara, I say to the teenaged girl & tears roll down my face. I grab the boy eating spaghetti. He is a man now, his face covered by decades of dried tomato sauce. He is my husband & I am his. When I look at him again, he is old, his knuckles gone mutable & nutty with arthritis. I point to the girl with black hair, still teenaged, still the only one alive. O, I say to my husband. O, how our Sara has grown.

Three.

A woman could not tell the difference between babies & sticks. As her friends became adults & began to have babies, she became a popular party game. One friend would hold his baby in one hand & a stick in the other, then ask the woman which was which. Half the time she guessed correctly. One day the woman found herself ready to give birth to a baby. At the hospital the doctor ducked beneath the woman’s gowned knees to check on things. When the doctor stood back up, his arms had transformed into large plastic spray bottles, filled with blue glass cleaner. I do not want you to deliver my baby with spray-bottle-arms, the woman said. They will injure the baby’s pliable skull & glass cleaner will irritate the skin. Another doctor was ordered but at he did his doctor stuff, his arms turned into plastic mastodon dolls. I do not want you to deliver my baby with plastic-mastodon-arms, the woman said. They will scar my baby’s soft skin & make her afraid of the world she is entering. Again doctor was ordered. When this doctor stood up from beneath the woman’s gowned knees, one of the doctor’s arms had transformed into a good-sized stick & the other had transformed into a fresh & healthy baby, flecked with afterbirth & screaming. The woman looked back & forth from one arm to the other, trying to figure out which one was the baby. She made her decision & took that one home. She kept the one she took home in a crib & each morning she sang their favorite song as she changed their diapers & fed them formula. The song is called “Buffalo Stance” by the musician Neneh Cherry. It is a very good song.

 

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Mathias Svalina is the author of five books, most recently The Wine-Dark Sea from Sidebrow Books. He is a founding editor of Octopus Books & runs a Dream Delivery Service. 

Photo: Sarah Penney

falling – dakota drake

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The planes at the airport would fly over, land, and take off every day, and the sky would be full of noise. Next door to the high barbed fences surrounding the tarmac, there was a small house where a man and his dog lived. The house where the man and the dog lived would shake and shiver with the sound of planes attempting to break the sound barrier all day and all night. Despite the thunderous exclamations of flight that rattled windowpanes and made the very floorboard vibrate like a bass drum, the man, and the dog, barely noticed.

They were so surrounded in this cloud of constant noise that they both went about their business every day without really hearing the difference between silence and thrumming engines. Neither their daily routines, nor their nightly sleep was affected in the least.
Both slept well under a curtain of stars and diesel, and every day they ate small meals in each other’s company.

The man ate the small meals because he bought small bags of groceries, which was all that he could carry on his bike from the grocery store to the house. The dog ate small meals because that is what the man fed the dog. The dog looked up at the man sometimes while the man dug a very small handful of dry food out of a paper bag to put in the dog’s little bowl, watching him, wondering if today was the day that more food would be in the bowl. Sometimes. But the dog was mostly used to eating a small amount, and never whined or drooled for more.

The planes flew over all night, between the man and the dog and the edge of space. Both of the dwellers of the house slept well on their half-full stomachs and dreamt half-full dreams, and woke refreshed each day.

One day the airport shut down. All the flights were stopped. The sky was still, free of other people’s itineraries and combustion engines. And the sounds of wind, and birds, and rain, and quietude were free to return.

The change was sudden. The man noticed as soon as he came home from work. That night, no amount of rolling around the bed or flipping his pillow could allow him to get to sleep. The dog walked from room to darkened room, wondering at what was no longer there. In the daylight, when the man spoke to the dog in the newly quiet house, the words hitting the air startled them. The man took to whispering so as to not disturb them both.

The dog didn’t care for the clipping noise that his nails made against the floor and decided to live on the couch or bathroom rug. Until dinner time that is, when he forgot as soon as the kibble rang like a bell in his little bowl.

The man took to grinding his teeth in his sleep, and the dog started scratching at fleas that were not there.

“No, it’s not a strange request at all!” said the realtor.

The next house that the man and the dog quickly moved to was on a busy street. The house was filled with other people’s sounds: car doors, backfiring engines, clanging pots and pans at a nearby restaurant kitchen, children before they had learned about the power of decibels in their own lungs.

The man failed to convince himself that the bass from a nearby movie theater was actually a plane breaking the sound barrier over and over again. The aggression and suddenness in the noises was so demanding of the man’s attention that sometimes he forgot to feed the dog for an hour or two, which caused the dog to begin to whine and drool.

The dog was tired from racing from wall to wall, to the window, to the front door, to the back, in order to find the source of all the noises. When he slept, he dreamt of chasing nothing for miles and miles, through the sky. The man did not dream at all, because he was not sleeping. Neither the man nor the dog woke refreshed.

“I’m sorry, I’m having trouble hearing you. Would you mind turning down the music on your end? … Oh, oh I’m sorry, I thought it was yours.” Said the realtor.

“It will be a change of pace to be sure.” Said the realtor about the next house. The house was out in the country, where the stars were only slightly visible under a canopy of spindly pine trees.

The ancient house created its own noises, anything from the scuttle of mouse feet in the attic, to groans of centuries-old boards. Most sounds went unexplained for generations.

The man and the dog took walks together in the forest around the house. Branches snapped out of sight. Leaves crunched underfoot. Huge crows sat in the trees above them and laughed harsh and grating. The man and the dog paused, shivered, and turned back on the path to the house, less interested in the beauty of nature than suddenly remembering that if something sinister happened to them, there was no one for miles to find out.

The dog sneezed over and over at the dust and the pine needles. The man listened to the lonely old house sway and whine and held the allergic dog close to him. The man’s heart beat as fast as when it was quiet as when he heard something.

The dog coughed too hard to sleep, and the man lay awake thinking about every book or movie he’d ever read or seen about haunted houses, from Nancy Drew to Scooby Doo. Bodies in the walls and whatnot. Haunted forests surrounding you on all sides. Families gone to ruin for generations, wandering shadowed hallways. Cobwebs. Ghosts. Scooby Snacks. Then—

Small footsteps. Clawing at the window. A hiss.

“Yes, possums are very common there.” The realtor explained, trying so hard not to laugh that tears rolled down her cheeks like rainwater off a roof. “I’ll get you someone to fix the window.”

Temporarily the man and the dog moved to another forest, into a house that had once been used for early settlers and pioneers, then forest rangers.

“Rustic!” read the listing that the realtor had hesitantly sent the man. The man and the dog looked at each other. Mostly the man looked at the dog, because the dog’s eyes were too red and watery from allergies too see much.

The man rode his bike to check out the house with the dog trotting happily beside him on a leash, his snout finally clearing a bit. The bike left wet lines on the grass when they rode around the many hikers and tourists that they shared the path with.

As the two got closer to the house, a low hissing sound could be heard. It grew louder as they neared, into a quiet rumble. It was like holding your ear to someone’s stomach, and feeling as much as hearing the unseen churning inside.

The little house was close enough to the famous waterfalls that mist had created droplets of water on the windows. They ran down the glass as though it was constantly raining on one side of the house. Once inside the humid little home, the roar of the falls was still audible, but contained.

That first night, whenever the man spoke to the dog in soothing tones between doses of allergy meds, neither felt that the sound of his voice was intrusive. The voice was softened, the edges rounded off.

One fresh and bright day, the man and the dog went out onto the trail to the falls. The muddy track climbed slowly over rough switchbacks along the cliffs to make the steep slope easier to navigate.

The man stopped in a clearing to watch a hawk glide downwards from the top of the falls slowly, close enough the see it turn its head back and forth. The breeze picked up, blowing in a mist like a veil separating the man and the dog from the rest of the world.

The dog sat in the cool mud, smelling water, and rocks, and the fish that fought the current, and the sandwiches in the backpacks of nearby hikers.

Enveloped in mist and sunlight, the man and the dog became wavelengths of sound themselves, allowing the wet air to permeate their beings. They too were the continuous noise of a burly river that had been falling off the world for as long as there had been rocks and water and had always filled the atmosphere with its laughter.

The man did not at first notice the dog stand up and walk off sharply, pulling the leash out of his hand. Above the gush of falls, he could then just hear the sound of barking.

Instantly pulled out of his reverie, he turned and called for the dog. The dog kept running and barking ahead on the path that lead down to the river near the bottom of the falls. He followed alarmed, sliding in the mud through switchbacks, running back through the forest.

He met the bank of the river at a break in the trees. He found the dog, front feet in the cold water, barking as hard as a dog could at something across the river. The man lunged and grabbed the leash, trying to pull the dog out on the bank, but the dog would not budge. Finally, the man looked up at what the dog was now howling at, and nearly dropped the leash again.

Across the river, another man was climbing up the low cliff face. Long sinewy limbs reached and stretched to find narrow holds against slippery rock.

He reached, he reached, and he slipped. And fell.

The man and the dog ran and dove into the powerful current, kicking against boulders. They tumbled in the waves and came up with nostrils burning, sinuses full of icy water.

The man found and grabbed at the climber, barely holding onto a half-submerged tree, struggling to pull himself above the tumultuous surface. The dog was tumbling past them and the man just barely managed to reach out and grab the dog by a grabbing his back leg and pulling him onto the tree. The man had the climber hold onto his back and held the dog under one arm as he swam the three of them downstream and back to the shore.

The man and the dog coughed and vomited up fishy water on the gravel bank. The climber simply rolled onto his side and passed out.

Later that day at the hospital, the man and the dog sat in the climber’s room where it was never silent but never loud either. Machines, and nurses’ shoes on the tile, and the distant arguments of families, and the groans of the sick.

No one questioned the man about the dog. He did have to answer questions about the climber, which he was surprised to realize he knew nothing about.

That surprise was a bit of a surprise in itself. Why should he feel like he knew this man? It’s just some guy doing a stupid stunt on a cliff, of course he didn’t know anything about him. There was no reason to still feel protective after saving him, no reason to stay in the room waiting for him to awake. He never thought about leaving the room however.

When the climber awoke, the dog leapt on the bed, rubbing mud all into the sheets and his wet snout all over the climber’s beard. The man finally got a chance to ask the climber about being surprised, about being surprised at being surprised, and finally asking him his name. The climber smiled weakly, before answering. His chest hurt from the ice water and the CPR, but he wanted to talk anyway.

The climber drove them all back to the little house in the forest, stopping first at the grocery store in his car to buy food to cook for dinner, as a thank you for saving his life.

After dinner, the climber poured the dog’s food himself, a huge bowl full of goopy wet meat chunks from a can. The dog ate the food hard that his teeth hit the bottom of the bowl. Both the man and the dog’s stomachs were full for the first time in a very long time.

The climber poured a very large glass of wine for both himself and the man. The gentle cling of the glasses together sounded as right, just as their laughter with the backdrop of the roaring falls did as well.

That night, the dog climbed onto the bed to sleep in the valley of blankets between the man and the climber. There was no room there at first, both men fitting so snugly together in sleep, but the dog was determined and wedged himself in until there was a dog-shaped space for him too. He rested his snout first on the climber’s scratchy beard, then on the man’s chest. The only things that could be heard above the sound of the falls was their quiet breaths, and the warm sound of heartbeats.

 

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Dakota Drake is a woodland creature living in the desert. She does AcroYoga all the time, reads often, and sometimes makes art. Eventually she will buy a wasteland and devote her life to making it into a lush rainforest, one tree at a time.

 

Photo: Martin Adams

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

skim milk – jack orleans

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Marie met back with herself after quite a long hiatus. She was sitting in the den, reading the paper and letting tendrils of smoke vine up at her wrists. She met back with herself after she decided to take up gardening and collecting old National Geographic. She met back with herself after realizing that she wasn’t the one she needed to escape from. She met back with herself after she dumped all the pills in the toilet, and swore not to reach down and take them one-by-one, dry them off, and save them. She did that to two, swallowed one, felt half, and let the rest go.

She was reading NatGeo after stepping inside to make tea. The magazines looked like an attempt to get back to the land. In it there were glossed pictures of African women and Siberian native men, seemingly happy, seemingly without knowledge of more intimate pleasures. The most she’d seen is pictures of a few factory workers—some Soviet, some Chinese—stepping out for cigarettes, or drunk after hours. But even the cigarettes looked otherworldly. Between the fingers of people that weren’t her, and in a place she couldn’t be, the cigarettes looked healthy even. Like Chinese Coke, bitter and more bubbly, less sweet. Like Russian Kvass; healthful for fun. As for the tribal folks, the most there was a shaman taking the strange brew, which looked less like fun and more like duty.

Marie thought of what a mistake it may have been to throw out the pills. How, they swam down the pipes and tubes in a moment of peace, and how she might wish she wouldn’t when times became less easygoing. And in some ways she was right to sense that she in the future would be scolding of her in the present. That thought alone brought some tension, some punctuations in ease. She tried to lose herself from it, hiding between the glossy pages, under people who knew better, and beside them as close as possible without kidding herself. She put down the magazine to grab a beer from the fridge. The cigarette in her hand had fizzled out, but it was burnt enough to even think about relighting it. She came back to the magazine with a pint glass of stout, watching the black middle get sandwiched between two shades of foam.

She took small bird-like sips of it, now cautious of anything that feels good. A substitution couldn’t be on its way already. Anything that feels good; enemy. But she kept sipping it and tumbling through the rest of the pages, looking for an answer after having found the camaraderie. She put the issue away and grabbed another from the magazine holster beside the armchair she sat in. This time, the ‘67 issue. It felt heavy, and a bit too holy to not have a few more sips of beer and a cigarette beforehand. She wanted to read it, but wanted to enjoy herself, so she huffed the cigarette until the ember was longer than the ash and took one huge chug of stout. She took a deep breath and opened to the contents. In it was an article: Skim Milk. The title reeked of incredulity. Invitation by title alone compared to the others that started with ‘how’ or ‘when.’ It described the end of the Civil War one-hundred years later.

When soldiers returned from battle, they also returned with morphine addiction. Those who’d survived survived with a slow illness, rather than quick ones. Even if they’d not been killed or severely maimed, they still returned for carvings for the good stuff. To which, they were either put in asylums, or slowly died from the addiction. A doctor treating them had grown infamous for his advice: “to treat morphine dependence, the afflicted should make in their regimen a cup or two daily of skim milk.” Meanwhile, people who went to him still had the disease. The skim milk didn’t save anyone. In fact, drinking skim milk doesn’t even cure calcium deficiency. But they drank the skim milk, still used morphine until death or cold-turkey.

She looked through the myriad of pictures of soldiers trying to stand still. They did a good job, but the slump rest just beneath their eyes. Their pupils were the size of pin-pricks, and for good reason. Eyes like that make the light dim. They maintained their rowdiness in candid shots. Gathering around a small table playing dice, drinking, smoking on pipes. They were distant, unseen, clouded in sepia and scuff marks on the thin glass panes that served as film. They looked like they did, everything normal, just with the weight of morphine resting on them. Everything they did or could do, they would have done. But they hunched over, going about the day-to-day, but weighed.
They didn’t stop drinking skim milk. Even though it didn’t do anything, they didn’t stop drinking the skim milk. They may have died from overdose or stress, but earlier that day they most likely drank a heaping cupful of skim milk. And they didn’t ask themselves why. It didn’t help, but it didn’t hurt. Her interest grew into it, looking glued to the article. She finished her cigarette so she could read more, and the beer was making her woozy. So she clasped the magazine in both hands and tried to dive in.

She couldn’t understand how a doctor—someone who’s in the business of help—could suggest something so bizarre. She couldn’t understand the logic. It wasn’t perfect but they had methods for every other thing. It wasn’t perfect but it was better than years before. It can’t be perfect but it’s always better. She thought that that sort of advice would’ve been outgrown by then, after the war, after most of history. She couldn’t understand it, but also didn’t mind going for a glass of skim milk.

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Jack Orleans is a Denver writer whose work has been featured in Birdy Magazine (‘Nobody Leaves,’), SUNY Hopewell’s literary journal, The Finger (‘Edward III’), and Suspect Press (‘Orchid’). He has also published a photo-essay in Stain’d Magazine (‘Paris Syndrome’), and an essay is forthcoming in Litro. Jack can’t seem to fall asleep. He takes the bus late to have coffee. While taking the bus, he’s happy until someone fucks up on the bus. After, he’s happy but with caveats. He knows that he’d be awake regardless of having had coffee. He prefers to be awake and alert over awake and tired. He just doesn’t know what he wants, but it better involve lots of undeserved perks or skymiles. 

Photo/Ceramics: Tom Crew

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.

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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

over the flood – terence hannum

flood

Black water and a reaper over the flood. Emery’s drone glides above the shallow layer of floodwater, past the towering hulls of the collapsed harvesters rusting in the shallow mire and over the collapsed barns with their decrepit rusted silos. Flying over tens of thousands of acres of what would be soybean or durum along this new contaminated shallow. Over the submerged stele erected to mark the passing of generations. Flying adjacent to the electrical poles, whose bases gleam obsidian and silver in the encroaching formation of salt and bitumen.

Standing on the island she built, watching the machine vanish out over the brine in Emery’s daily routine of assessment she monitors the cracked LCD screen in her crusted white hands. On the screen the fields of black water over the hectares of fallow flooded fields, broken only by horizontal glitches, lead out to the lines of pipelines that carve the outer reaches of the ancestral land, where a crew of workers swarm over the busted lines. Bakken, Enbridge, Plains, all were lines she approved continuing her father’s initial infringement on the massive farm land.

She calls the drone back over the acres to her house, her father’s house, which sits marooned behind a sand bag fortification in the middle of a new noxious sea. The drone lands in the dry ditch between the rampart and her home. In the cracks of the sand bags the black salt water forms ashen crystals like hell shadow.

 

Resting the rusted barrel on the top of a sandbag, Emery places the scope of the rifle up to her eye and aims towards the declivity of the highway. A black Ford F350 rests by the side of the road, where men from VTB Bank tumble down from the highway with a johnboat.

The flat bottom aluminum craft glints in the grey sun as they paddle towards her, disturbing the coagulated surface of the black water. Guns aimed away, like a hunting party.

In her scope a bag of money sits on the transom.

A man waves. She doesn’t wave back.

A large drone flies overhead surveying the waste for one of the companies.

“Emery.” The man shouts as she crouches in the pit of the hardened bags, not hiding, aiming the Mossberg at them, “We have the payment.” He says holding up the bag.

She pushes a small black raft attached to a tether out towards the visitors. The man places the money bag on the raft, steadying it with his hands to keep it from capsizing. He goes to push it back to her.

“No,” she says, muffled in her strange voice, standing up, brushing off flakes. The man jumps back slightly in the boat while the other men behind him look away from her, their guns across their chests in the johnboat. She gently pulls the tether, encrusted with fine salt crystals, towards the sand bag fortification.

Watching the men leave in the wide bruise of the afternoon, the bag of cash feels like lead in Emery’s hand.

The darkness inside the home is further reflected on every surface. Emery steps over these growing formations, her reflection bouncing off of the flat facets. Towards the center of the home, yawning where the broken tiles give way through the floor, through the ground, is a pit. Deep inside the hole, encrusted with the sinister sheen of bromide deposits flecked with the fading white of salt octahedrons Emery lowers the bag on a long oil stained tether with her leprous hands. Letting the bag rest on top of another bag of money.

 

Standing outside the home before the crystal wall, Emery holds the remote for the harvesters that loom as gray shadows in the rising mist. With the remote she tries to restart them, they light up blue logos like halos in the fog, but the light sputters off. The useless behemoths fall deeper lowering their idle threshers further below the flood. She curses herself before her grandfather’s home, and his father’s home, she feels failure seep into her like poison.

Out in the fields there are no more pea shoots, no more red-rising wheat, just the harvest of black connate brine rising at its own pace clinging to electrical poles, harvesters, anything and building sinister lattices of calcium and lithium. The spillage will never stop, the wastewater from each pipeline surges and presses against the island she carved out of this dead black lake solidifying with glints of radium in the mineral crystals.

Another black drone glides overhead.

 

Up on the highway Greystone surveyors take test samples, their heads dotted bright red with construction helmets. Emery thinks back to her studies in Agricultural Science at North Dakota State, and how ill-prepared she was for these intrusions her father started with the first exploratory ventures to strike oil that failed but brought the companies to their door with their money to let their conduits cross the land. How, after her father’s funeral she saw the first discolored vegetation brown and dead. Greystone brought her a cistern, they always had a solution in the aftermath of destruction.

 

Back inside the home, she thinks of making a meal but stands before the corroded mirror by the door. The mirror is a marled silver that still displays the growing white lesions that contort her face. She runs her dry crusted palms over the hard growths and raised silver spikes that cover her face and encrust her hairline with white mutations. She does not cry at her own appearance. She can see its progress, enveloping her left eye in a dull prismatic vesicle that spawns new pieces across her spectral face.

She goes to her bed and lays amidst the salt powder and inching crystals on the sheets. She tries to sleep as the night crushes down around the house, envisioning a time when the tide will subside, absorbed into the ruined earth when she can dig her own grave next to those before her.

It is not a dream, because she does not sleep.

 

Later, Emery goes out in the darkness, no more teams haunt the dark highway, no drones streak the sky. There is just the lamentable silence of the black expanse, glinting soft green iridescence below the surface.

She watches over it all, a lonely watcher over the flood.

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Terence Hannum is a Baltimore, MD based artist, musician and writer. His novella Beneath the Remains was published by Anathemata Editions, his novella All Internal was published this year by Dynatox Ministries, and his novelette The Final Days will be published in 2019 by Unnerving. His short stories have appeared in Burrow Press, Terraform, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Lamplight, Turn to Ash, SickLit and the SciPhi Journal.  (www.terencehannum.com)

Photo: Danny G

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