The First Episode of Jorge’s Podcast

by Steve Gergley

Jorge asked me to be the guest on the first episode of his podcast. I hadn’t talked to him in over two years, and he didn’t say what his podcast was about or if anyone was listening, but I said yes anyway. I’d heard what had happened to him and I wanted to help.

Back when we stocked shelves together at Value King, me and Jorge used to talk every day about our favorite video games. We were both big gamers, and since we only worked part time, we each had enough time to play at least twenty hours of games per week. Over the course of my conversations with Jorge, I learned that he loved to play very difficult third-person action games such as Bloodborne and Dark Souls, games populated with bloodthirsty monsters, nightmarish creatures, and aggressive bosses, and set in medieval worlds filled with hidden traps, poison swamps, and haunted forests. For some reason, Jorge loved the horror and oppression of these worlds.

He often clocked into work each afternoon with a wide smile on his face, eager to tell me about the new, terrifying boss he fought for three hours the night before. One such boss was a freshly born, anthropomorphic fish-demon who wielded his hardened placenta as a weapon, and attempted, often successfully, to bludgeon the player to death with it.

As a shy, conflict-averse nineteen-year-old who had dropped out of college in the middle of my third semester due to stress and anxiety, I never understood why Jorge would willingly subject himself to such punishment. The games I played were the equivalent of colorful cartoons for children, and they were nothing more than a happy distraction from the incessant images of injury and death my anxious mind conjured up dozens of times a day for no good reason. For me, cowering in fear of everyday life was all the eldritch horror I needed.

About a year into my job at Value King, Jorge abruptly quit. True to his impulsive nature, he never said a word to me about his decision; he simply stopped coming to work one day. Through social media I learned that he had gone back to school to become an artist. Years later, I heard from a friend that Jorge had dropped out of school and moved back home due to a gaming addiction. Later still, the same friend told me that Jorge had become a shut-in and had stopped leaving his house altogether. This worried me. So when Jorge sent me a DM on Twitter and asked me to appear on his podcast, I said yes without another thought.

#

On the night of the first episode of Jorge’s podcast, we sat in his parents’ unfinished basement with two USB microphones standing on the aluminum table between us. After a few words of awkward small talk, Jorge pressed record on his laptop and nodded at me. He’d gained a good amount of weight since I last saw him, and his eyes looked like two dots of ink dripped onto the fleshy globe of his face.

“So, Ken,” Jorge said, “I asked you to be on the podcast today because there’s something I’ve been thinking about lately that I can’t get out of my head. No matter what I’m doing, and no matter how hard I try to think about something else, it always seems to come back. By now I’ve accepted the fact that this is probably just how my mind works and that I’ll have to deal with these thoughts for a very long time or maybe even the rest of my life, but I’d like to ask you about this. Call it morbid curiosity. If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m talking about death. My death, specifically, and how I’m going to die. This information came to me in a lucid dream I had six months ago. I’m not going to bore you with the details, but when I woke up from that dream, the images of my death didn’t disappear. Instead, they burned themselves into my memory. And now, every time I close my eyes, I see my death all over again, as real as if it’s happening in reality. Do you understand what I’m saying? Good. So now I’m going to ask you a question. Maybe it’ll make me feel better and maybe it won’t. I don’t know. But what I want to know is this: how do you think you’re going to die?”

I huffed a sharp exhale and stared at the microphone in front of me. My heartbeat thudded heavily in my ears.

“Wow,” I said. “That’s a lot to take in.”

“I know,” Jorge said.

I looked up and waited for him to continue, but he stayed quiet. Soon all my secret fears and anxieties came tumbling out of me, one after another. Then my mind filled with all the terrifying images I tried to ignore on a daily basis: my head smashing against the floor after a slip on slick bathroom tile; my body getting crushed under a car while running the backroads out by Miller’s farm; my Toyota getting T-boned while driving through an intersection on my way to work. As I spoke, Jorge cocked his head to the side and nodded, absorbing every word. Half an hour later, as my body twitched and trembled with anxiety, I looked at Jorge and made the “kill it” gesture at my neck so I could escape this conversation that had dragged these frightening thoughts into my mind once again. But Jorge shook his head and mouthed at me in silence.

Don’t stop.

Keep going.

Talk.

* * *

Steve Gergley is a writer and runner from Warwick, New York. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Cleaver Magazine, Hobart, Pithead Chapel, After the Pause, Barren Magazine, and others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music. His fiction can be found at: https://stevegergleyauthor.wordpress.com/

A New Lease on Life (with No Escape Clause)

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by Dale Stromberg

Bellatrix Sakakino was reborn with all the memories of her previous life intact.

She solved algebra problems while still in diapers and corrected her mother’s grammar before her milk teeth were in. Toilet-trained herself as soon as physiologically possible. Didn’t merely sing along with nursery songs—sang in contrapuntal harmony. Parents and educators were astonished. They also found her disquieting.

Kindergarten was much less confusing the second time around. When Jimmy McDaniel called her ‘Smellatrix’ and blew fart noises at her, she recognized it as merely an attempt to gain approval from their peers at her expense; the giggling didn’t bother her. Being more mentally and emotionally mature than her classmates, she never made friends, and never wanted to.
Still, she erred.

One morning, she pointed out to her kindergarten teacher—a kindly fellow, though she could scarcely believe he’d finished high school—a factual error in his Safety Rules poster concerning whether pencil lead contained actual lead. All the mothers were there for observation day. Poor Mr. Bell looked like he might choke. Bella realized it would have been better to bring it up in private.

That afternoon, when Owen Adebayo, a bashful, docile child, had a strawberry Go-Gurt that Bella coveted, she convinced him to split it. She figured she knew how to handle child psychology: with enough ten-cent words and projected authority, before long she had him wanting to share. But at the end of recess, she saw Owen sobbing alone by the playground backstop. The murmur of her better nature came, as always, too late.

After school, her mother surprised her with a pricy Sylvanian doll. Bella, hoping to avoid conflict, lied sweetly and said she loved it. So her mother went out a week later and bought a whole collection of them, planning to delight her. There was so much else the money could have been spent on; Bella found herself unable to playact the requisite joy. Mommy was crestfallen.

Each time, Bellatrix felt the smart of conscience ever more sharply. And with a prior lifetime’s worth of mistakes also in memory, the weight of living grew heavier and heavier.

What a peculiar child she made.

* * *

Dale Stromberg grew up not far from Sacramento before moving to Tokyo, where he had a brief music career. Now he lives near Kuala Lumpur and makes his living as an editor and translator. His work has been published here and there

Reunion


by Ava Galbraith
The room is sterile and impersonal, no cards or flowers clash with the gleaming tiles. Against the thick, starched sheets, she is delicate, skin translucent. Monitors compete with the oxygen tank for which can make the most noise.

The door creaks. A visitor. It has been awhile since anyone has come. Fatigued from bedside vigils, her family longs for the day her will would be read.

There is a lilt to his step. The dark gloom that she had seen around him in the past is lighter and more cheerful today. It reminds her of gray storm clouds. The hard plastic chair is dragged across the floor and set beside her; the piercing noise of rubber sliding across polished tile rings in her ears. He wears dark ripped jeans paired with a black hoodie; a Yankees’ baseball cap obscures his face. She feels naked in her hospital gown. She has not seen him in a long time and, yet, as she has grown older he has not changed.

“You came.” She clears her throat three times before wheezing through a cough.

His face holds a lazy grin. “You knew I had to come.” His cold breath frosts her cheeks as he grips her hand.

The beeping slows and blood skitters away from her fingertips, desperate to keep the heart pumping.

Wintry eyes flit along the wrinkles of her face and frigid, nimble fingers dance across the overly pronounced veins in her wrist.

Her shoulders sag and her weary gaze skips along his defined face. He is exquisite. He is her favorite among close friends. She had stopped pondering why he chose to get to know her. They flirted and promised endless days of freedom, but the relationship had never truly turned physical.

“Is dying as exciting as being born?” She wants reassurance that there is an afterlife, that all those hours in church being told of Heaven and Hell were not wasted.

“You tell me? You’re dying. Is it exciting?” He has an inflection in his voice that alludes to his oodles of knowledge.

“It’s long and slow and, frankly, boring.” She looks toward the small window in the door. Nurses and doctors rush to save lives. “You know me; I’m always impatient to get to the next great adventure.”

They laugh softly, reminisce about their first meeting in which he had stumbled upon her adrenaline-crazed form lying in a ditch, her body turned at all the wrong angles.

He tilts her chin back toward him.

“There is nothing becoming about dying, I’ve told you that before.” He rubs circles on her palm. “If you’re asking if there is a beyond, I hope that the church tithes are refundable.”

Tears fall.

“I always hate that people try to convince others that there is a place that saves your soul if they only follow this religion or another.” His hearty laughs fill the space between them. “There is nothing. You exist and then you don’t.”

“I won’t see you.” She did not want to be alone in the nothingness.

“I suppose you could think of it as seeing me all the time.” He has a knack for being blunt and, today, she enjoys it.

“People are not kind to the sick.” Her hourglass on life is running low. “Do they get punished?”

“Life moves on.” Death licks his lips. His smile turns wicked.

* * *
Ava Galbraith is fascinated by unexpected turns in stories, particularly the reveal of villains. She dives deep into characters’ psyches and uses stream of consciousness to tell stories. Her work has been published in Ripples In Space podcast, The Dewdrop, Finding the Birds, San Joaquin Review, Open: Arts & Literary Magazine, and Voyage. When not developing intriguing flash fiction, she competes in equestrian show jumping and enjoys emerging herself in foreign cultures. Ava lives in Tucson, Arizona.

Something for the Children

by Stephen Haines

This wasn’t what he remembered.

Why did they remove the flowerbeds? he wondered. And why the apple tree?

Though the house had looked mostly the same from the street, a clue something had changed struck Matthew as soon as he encountered the driveway. The car that was normally parked there, the very same car that had always been parked there since the new owner had moved in, was gone, and in its place were toys and bicycles and a discarded, dirty backpack. That should’ve been enough for him to turn around, walk two blocks back to the bus stop. It should’ve been enough. But he crept around the side of that house, anyway, heading for the backyard with a gift, a brand-new trowel, tucked under his arm.

Right away, he noticed that most of his prized plants were missing. The rose bushes. Japanese maples. That lone, reliable apple tree. All of it removed. And in the place of those wonderful, gorgeous elements, the same green, disconcerting grass. Grass had been forced everywhere, plastered over everything that he had known like Astroturf, with soccer balls, baseballs, and frisbees littered everywhere about it.
Matthew dug his heels into the unfamiliar lawn.

“Excuse me?” a woman was standing on the patio, eyes fixated on him, phone in hand. Three children jostled behind her, eager to spy what had stolen their mother’s attention. Their appendages sprouted everywhere, their round, bright, puffed faces peeking out like dandelion heads. “Can I help you?”

He hadn’t been back in weeks. Months? Too long. And now Anne was gone, along with the arrangement they had made. She would buy the house that he could no longer afford, but to help him cope with the austerity of living in a cheap, gardenless apartment, Anne would allow him to visit whenever he liked. And she, a gardener herself, would maintain the grounds in just the way that Matthew had always intended to himself.

“What happened to Anne?”

“Oh,” the woman relaxed her grip on the phone. “Did you know Anne?”

“Only a little, she… I used to live here. She bought the house from me.”

“Yes,” the woman told the kids behind her to quiet down. She stepped out onto the patio, and she closed the door behind her. The kids pushed their faces against the glass until the glass was so foggy that their faces disappeared. “I’m so sorry. She passed away. Can I call someone for you? I think I have a number for a granddaughter, or…”

“No. Thank you,” Matthew scurried back around the side of the house, toward the street, leaving the woman to stare with confusion after him.

As he reached the driveway, he could think of nothing better to do with the trowel, and so he dropped it there, by the other toys, hoping that one of the kids would find some new use for it. Something that he would have never thought of.

* * *

Stephen Haines is an MFA student at Western Washington University and the Managing Editor of Bellingham Review in Bellingham, WA where he lives with his partner, Kelli. His work has been shortlisted at Epoch Press and has appeared in Creative Colloquy and in the Scholar’s Week showcase at WWU.

No Room for Error

by Marah Reinoso Vega

I have to get my job done. I have a very important job. I am a Pediatric Spine Doctor. People put the lives of their children in my hands. They trust me with the lives of their children. They trust me, and they don’t. Today, I am scheduled to perform a major surgery at 3:00 p.m. A child’s ability to walk depends entirely on my ability to complete the surgery successfully. I must be precise. I must be one with the scalpel. I must be aligned with his spine. I must breathe when he breathes, there is no room for error. I have to get my job done.

It is 12:07 p.m. I am scheduled to be at the hospital at 1:00 p.m. to meet with my team. If I want to make it on time, I must leave my house at 12:25 p.m. If I want to leave at 12:25 p.m., I must start getting ready at 12:10 p.m. Precision is important. It is 12:07 p.m. and I have been standing in front of the mirror for forty-seven minutes. I am looking at my brown hair —my brown hair which has been overpowered by long, wavy, white hairs. I am looking at my eyebrows —my eyebrows that I used to pluck because they grew too fast too many, and now seemed to have gone on strike, refusing to grow. I used to complain to my husband about my ever-growing eyebrows.

My husband is gone now, he said I worked too much. He said the sound of my pager kept him up at night. I never complained about the sound of his snoring, it sounded like a drill, a drill drilling a hole in my bedroom walls. This mirror is my enemy. It is 12:08 p.m. and I am looking at my breasts. My barren breasts. A hot flash. Is it too late now? Is 46 a cursed number? If I want to leave at 12:25 p.m. I must start getting ready in two minutes. Why are my breasts so lifeless? Are my bedroom walls grey? My bedroom walls were blue. I remember choosing the color with my husband, we laughed at the brochure called One Thousand Shades of Blue. We chose the first blue from the first page. Blue gives me peace. Another hot flash. Are my hands steady? My hands are steady. I am the best Pediatric Spine doctor in the city. Parents trust me with the lives of their children. They trust me, and they don’t. It is 12:10 p.m. Another hot flash. It is Thursday, I must wear my Thursday outfit. Having a planned outfit saves time—what if I wear my Monday outfit? The child’s name is V. He wants to be a soccer player. He is seven years old.

“Doctor S, after my surgery, when I can walk straight, I’m going to play soccer at school. I’ve never kicked a ball before. I’m going to kick that ball so far one day I’ll be on TV, and I’m going to invite you to a big game, and you can have all the popcorn you want.

Are you going to watch me play?”

“I will not miss it for the world.”

I am one with the scalpel. I should have had lunch instead of staring at myself in the mirror. I cannot be one with my spine if my stomach is hollow. I have my Thursday outfit on. I will eat a banana in the car. I will eat two bananas. Bananas are rich in sugar and potassium. Make a left at 67th Ave., turn right at 62nd St. —what if I turn right at 60th St.? Each traffic light is an extra one hundred and twenty minutes. I am turning right at 62nd St. There is no room for error.

The nurses shall take the child from his mother at 2:30 p.m.. The child shall be prepped for surgery before I walk into the operating room. I shall change into my scrubs and sit alone in the quiet dark before I walk into the operating room. Once I am face-to-face with the child, I shall smile my it is going to be alright smile, then I shall tell my joke, the same one every time, the one I know makes them laugh. P shall administer the anesthesia, only, after I get the child to smile. Once the anesthesia is administered, I shall ask this child to tell me how many black pentagons are there, on a soccer ball.

My white hairs are brown again, my breasts do not exist, only my breathing and his breathing. These walls are a pale green. My hands are not my hands. Something else is in me. My hand is swift and the scalpel, precise. The incision is so elegant that at first no one sees the cut—then the blood. What a beautiful spine —I whisper. All I have to do is remove the tumor that hugs it. A hot flash. Remove the tumor without damaging the spine, that is all I have to do today.

It is 7:33 p.m. I’m exhausted. I shall make sure there is no blood on me when I speak to the mother —A successful surgery.
The hot flash starts and makes its way to my neck and face. I shall not sweat in front of others. They might think I am nervous. I am not nervous. I am a god with a scalpel.

I shall move to the left lane when I get close to 62nd St. A car is coming down fast. I will not make it to the left lane on time. A green, glowing sign appears in front of me: 60th St NEXT SIGNAL. What if I turn right on 60th instead of 62nd? What a strange thought —I whisper. What if I keep driving?

* * *

Marah Reinoso Vega is a Creative Writing student at Florida International University. She was born and raised in Cuba, spent most of her adult life in the United Arab Emirates, and now resides in Miami, Florida. She writes short fiction stories, and non-fiction essays about travel, education, and women’s empowerment.

The Art Lesson

David K. Slay, 1954

The Author’s Inspiration, 1954


by David K. Slay

At some point the paintings would seem finished, and I could find nothing more to add. Standing beside me, my teacher would quietly regard my work, and then ask, “May I?” Taking my brush in his hand, he would add a few strokes to the picture, darken a shadow perhaps, or add a highlight here or there. I always was surprised, and a little disappointed, when he showed me how much had been missing. But I was young, and more than happy to have the painting completed, and I quietly knew only my name would be in the corner.

* * *

After retiring from full-time work, David K. Slay participated for two years in the UCLA Writers’ Program. His short fiction can be found in a number of diverse literary journals, including Gold Man Review, Calliope, ImageOutWrite, wards, The Magnolia Review, Toho Journal Online, and others. Nonfiction craft articles are in CRAFT and Submittable’s “Content for Creatives.” He currently is a submissions reader for CRAFT and has served as a guest editor for Vestal Review.

Curved Bones

By Jess Golden

Fish are brought here from wobbling boats draped with nets and hooks and salt in the black hours of morning. Now they lie heaped on table after table. People examine them, mill around, call out to friends. Someone is breaking a swordfish’s backbone with a saw. Someone else is serving steaks from its body.

Alain waits for customers behind his own table with its stacks of creatures wrapped in slick scales. A tourist steps forward and chooses a mackerel. She and her friends wince, close thickly painted eyes when Alain runs a slit through the fish, lets it sag and spill open. He scoops out the parts they don’t want, drops them onto his table in a wet slap.

He sells a large turbot to Father Christophe and a few rockfish to a woman with falling leaves in her voice. He waits for Marguerite to show up. When she does, neither says much. Both smile. He wraps his best red mullet in paper and she watches his thick forearms move.

Later in her empty flat she will undress the fish of its scales, otherwise leaving it whole. Alain likes to imagine what her hands will look like. Her fingertips will glisten with olive oil. Herbs will cling to the whorls and arches. She will slide the mullet onto a plate just as its skin begins to crackle and break open with heat.

Marguerite would never wince at the body before her. She honors the dead in her own way, with lemon and garlic. She tastes the lingering memory of saltwater in each bite and sees poetry in the curved bones left on her plate.

* * *

Jess Golden used to work odd jobs around the world. Now she lives in California with her partner. Previous work has appeared in Lunate, Cotton Xenomorph, and Gingerbread House.