Love, Backwards

by Francine Witte

At the end of it, he left me. Romeo left me. A pair of taillight eyes staring as he drove off into the night. This would never happen with a Hank. A Hank would never promise forever like Romeo did, his words curly and warm in my ear.

At the middle of it, I was pleading with Romeo. Red claw words all over his throat. I was saying things like give me back my heart even though you used it up and kept me from all sorts of Hanks. I said I never meant to get in deep like this, but it was all that stupid moon and lilac breeze, and me thinking this was just a stub of my heart, a bruise I thought would pass.

At the beginning of it, it was a silky night in June.

* * *

Francine Witte’s poetry and fiction have appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Mid-American Review, Passages North, and many others. Her latest books are Dressed All Wrong for This (Blue Light Press), The Way of the Wind (AdHoc fiction), and (The Theory of Flesh). Her chapbook, The Cake, The Smoke, The Moon (flash fiction) will be published by ELJ September, 2021. She lives in NYC.
 

Saved

by Don Tassone

The homes in my neighborhood were built 50 years ago. Only one of the original residents remains. His name is Bill Harper. He lives three doors down.

Bill lives alone. His wife died last year. Until recently, I hadn’t met him.

I don’t know most of my neighbors. Until the pandemic, I wasn’t home much. I’m in sales, and I used to travel four days a week. But with everyone hunkering down and hardly anyone flying, I’ve been working from home.

It’s been strange. Before, I set up appointments and called on customers in person. Now I live on Zoom.

It’s been a big adjustment. Not just the work. But where I work and even where I live. I feel like a stranger in my own house. My wife and kids are driving me crazy. They’re noisy, and they’re always interrupting me. I lock the door to my office upstairs, but they still manage to get in. Some days, I can’t get anything done.

Lately, I’ve been taking walks just to get away. It’s quiet in the neighborhood. With the pandemic, everybody’s either inside their houses or in their backyards. I like that. No need for small talk.

A few weeks ago, I went out for a walk. I was walking by Bill’s house when I heard someone call, “Good morning.”

I looked over and saw Bill sitting on his front porch. He was wearing pajamas and reading the newspaper.

“Good morning,” I said.

“Beautiful day.”

“Yes, it is.”

I smiled, gave him a little wave and kept walking. I had almost passed his driveway when he called, “Got a minute?”

I thought about ignoring him but didn’t want to be rude. So I stopped and turned toward him.

“Sure,” I said.

“I’ve got a quick question, if you don’t mind.”

Maybe I should have ignored him, I thought.

I walked up his driveway. Bill got up and laid the paper on a small table. He was tall and thin. I knew he was old. I had seen him, driving by his house, many times. Now, close up, he looked even older. His face was drawn, and his pajamas hung on him like a farmer’s clothes on a scarecrow.

As I approached, he pulled a face mask out of his pocket and slipped it on.

“Just to be safe,” he said.

“Oh, yeah,” I said, pulling a mask out of my pants pocket and slipping it on too.

We stood there looking at each other for an awkward moment, two masked strangers. I wondered what he wanted.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” he said. “Do you know how to use Zoom?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, Carol has — had — a computer, but I really don’t know how to use it. I was wondering …”

“Would you like me to show you how to use Zoom?”

“Yes. But if now’s not a good time …”

“Now is fine.”

“Oh, good. Please come in. By the way, I’m Bill Harper.”

I climbed the two steps to his porch and gave him a gentle fist bump.

“I’m Matt. Matt Jenkins. I live a few doors down.”

“It’s good to meet you, Matt. I know you’re busy. I won’t take but a minute of your time.”

He turned around and pushed open his front door. I noticed this took some effort.

“Come in,” he said.

I followed him into the foyer.

“It’s right here,” he said, shuffling to his right, into the dining room.

Near the edge of the table was a laptop, a MacBook Air. It was open. A power cord dangled from the laptop to a wall outlet. The morning sun through the windows filled the room with bright light. Looking around, I noticed a layer of dust on everything.

Bill pressed a button on the keyboard, and the screen lit up.

“I never turn it off. I’m afraid I won’t be able to turn it back on. I don’t know Carol’s password.”

“I see. Do you mind if I sit down?”

“Please,” he said. “Would you like something to drink? A coffee?”

“No, thanks,” I said, sitting down and scooting the chair in.

He pulled out a chair at the end of the table and sat down.

“I’d sit next to you, but, you know,” he said.

“I understand. Do you happen to have a Zoom account?”

“No.”

I set one up for him.

“I need to show you how to use it,” I said. “Why don’t you sit next to me? It’s okay. We’re wearing masks.”
Bill pulled out the chair beside me and sat down. He folded his hands in front of him on the table. I noticed they were trembling.

I showed him how to set up a meeting and gave him a few tips on using Zoom.

“Do you happen to know who you’ll be meeting with?” I asked.

“Yes. My children and my grandchildren, I hope. I haven’t seen them since before the pandemic.”


“Have they come to visit?”

“No. They think it’s too risky for me.”

“I’m sorry. Well, now you should be able to see them.”

“Thank you,” he said, his voice shaking.

He was staring at the computer. I noticed his eyes were moist.

“Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“No,” he said, getting up. “You’ve been most helpful.”

I followed him to the front door. I stepped ahead and pulled it open.

“I can’t thank you enough, Matt.”

“You’re very welcome, Bill. It was good to finally meet you.”

I started to give him a fist bump, but he opened his arms and embraced me loosely, patting my back. Tears were running down his cheeks.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes,” he said, wiping away his tears. “I’m very happy.”

I wished him a good day and good luck with Zoom and invited him to call me with any questions.

I walked back down his driveway and took off my mask. I decided not to continue my walk. I decided to go home.

* * *

Don Tassone is the author of four short story collections and a novel.  He lives in Loveland, Ohio.  Visit him at https://www.dontassone.com

In Spirit

by Christina Kapp

At three years old the girl has a Bible in the drawer of her nightstand. Every night she holds it and says the only prayer she knows. Now I lay me down to sleep. The syllables bubble together like milk blown through a straw. The girl thinks the book is pretty and rubs the black leather cover under her thumb like a worry stone. When she peels the cover open, her mother’s hand crosses over hers like a dark cloud. Just pray, the mother says, worrying about fragile pages and clumsy fingers. The girl closes her eyes. If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

At eight years old the girl dresses up in a puffy white dress and a veil for her first communion. She is too old to like princesses, but she waltzes around her room and raises a pinky as she sips from an imaginary teacup. When church is over, there is a fancy dinner. An enormous roast lamb. She receives gifts. A necklace with a gold cross, a small white bible with silver trim, money slipped into greeting cards. She uses a ruler to write in straight lines across her thank you notes, making the letters look round and fat-bottomed, like a line of little mice. She thinks the glue on envelope flaps glue tastes like communion wafers. She places the white bible in the drawer with the black one and aligns the edges, making a little pyramid of pages. She rubs the cross around her neck. She is special now. Anointed.

At seventeen, the girl fights with her mother over her curfew, her clothing. “Trouble,” her mother says, hooking a finger under her daughter’s spaghetti strap. The girl likes the feel of air on her skin. She likes the way older men dip their chins down to see over their glasses when she walks by, like the little nod she learned to do when she approached the altar. She daydreams about getting her first tattoo, a cross on her wrist. It is her own design, an intersection of swirls with a sun in the center. She is saving her babysitting money to pay for it, but when she shows her mother the design, her mother throws a bible at her. “It’s sacrilegious,” she yells, and the girl, defiant, picks up the bible and fans the pages with her thumb. “Show me where it says,” she says. Her mother storms out of the room. Both of them look at the ceiling and say, “God help me.”

At twenty-six, the girl, now a woman, returns to her mother’s house to get a bible to use at her wedding. She wants to be married in a church but worries that the priest will want to know if she’s religious. She doesn’t want to lie; she is already pregnant. She already lives with a man. She feels that doing church things when she was young should get her some kind of—what was the word? Dispensation? Some kind of freebie. The two bibles are still in her old nightstand, the white one like a moon eclipsing a dark planet. She sits with them in her lap, flipping through the pages. She wants to use the reading about love being kind, love being generous, but doesn’t know where to find it. She looks at the tattoo on her wrist, a lion with its jaws open, red tongue splaying out. It different from what she had imagined as a teenager, but the only thing she knows for sure is that life never turns out how you imagined.

At forty, the woman is invited to a book club run by a local church. She’s not much of a reader, but for a divorced mother, social opportunities are rare. She will take up almost any hobby—knitting, bridge, PTA—as an excuse to spend an hour or two with adults and a glass of wine. She has to choose a book for next month’s meeting. She’s not sure if it has to be religious. She asks a local librarian for suggestions. She hands her three books. “People like these.” At home, her daughter, thirteen and angry, yells at her. “You don’t read books and you don’t go to church. You’ll embarrass yourself.” The woman calls her daughter disrespectful, a brat. The daughter slams her bedroom door. The woman puts her head between her knees, wraps her arms around her legs. She would like to cry, but her daughter is right. She’s not a reader. She remembers the two Bibles, the yin and yang of black and white, their delicate pages left unread. She wonders if they are in one of the old cardboard boxes in her storage locker, brown flaps collapsed inwards like dying flower petals. She can’t imagine why she would still have them but assumes that they’re still around. There are things you don’t give away.

At sixty, the woman’s body aches when she gets out of bed in the morning. She goes to a yoga class at the YMCA where she uses a blanket to pad her sore knees and blocks beneath her hands to reach the ground. When she closes her eyes she thinks of God, who looks like Gandalf from the movie, or the hermit from the Led Zeppelin album. An old man. Hunched, white, judgy. She pictures these God brushing the cat hair off her couch, telling her to stop eating so many Doritos. When she gets home she will raise her glass of wine to him. “The body of Christ,” she’ll say, and “may the force be with you.” She’ll laugh and think that’s close enough. In yoga class, the instructor puts her hands in prayer position and says “shanti, shanti” and “namaste.” The woman says these things too, even though she has no idea what they mean.

* * *

Christina Kapp teaches at the Writers Circle Workshops in New Jersey and her work has appeared in Passages North, Hobart, Forge Literary Magazine, The MacGuffin, PANK, Pithead Chapel and elsewhere. Her fiction has been nominated for Best of the Net awards and a Pushcart Prize. She welcomes you to follow her on Twitter @ChristinaKapp and visit her website: http://www.christinakapp.com.

Robert Daniel Crandell

by Kevin Brennan

From the annals of the impossibly improbable comes this mind-boggling tale.

Robert Daniel Crandell decided, at last, to act on his obsession. The actress must die. She had ignored him long enough, and it was time to do something about it.

Her career had taken off so fast that he was certain it was his own telepathic powers that had made the magic happen. He was responsible for her stardom. Yet she wouldn’t acknowledge his letters, his emails, the gifts he sent by messenger, and she wouldn’t buzz him through her security gate either. It had been easy to find out where she lived. Possibly too easy, people were likely to say if he succeeded in his mission.

He purchased a long gun. A .30-06 rifle suitable for deer hunting. This would cause no suspicion, he figured. He could say he was interested in hunting deer. He didn’t need the scope but he purchased one anyway. To avoid suspicion.

As he’d seen in the news, a great plan would be to dress as a FedEx or UPS man and carry the rifle in a long box up to the house.

When the actress buzzed him through the security gate, all he’d have to do was unbox it and fulfill his destiny. It would be so easy.

Perhaps too easy, people were likely to say later.

And it was unbelievably easy to purchase a uniform that looked so much like a UPS uniform that nobody would be able to tell the difference until it was too late.

Everything was in place. Robert Daniel Crandell was ready.

He decided to do it in the morning, before the actress could leave for a day of acting or rehearsing or whatever. Nine thirty seemed about right.

He pulled up to the security gate in his Toyota SUV, parked, went to the buzzer and pressed the buzzer button. When the actress’s voice—he’d know it anywhere—said “Yes?” Robert Daniel Crandell said “UPS, ma’am.”

The buzzer buzzed and the gate began to creep open.

He was nearly to the door of the beautiful Italianate house, walking with his long gun in its long box, when he heard a strange sound behind him.

He turned to find another UPS man, and this UPS man was also carrying a long box that could easily have held inside it a long gun just like Robert Daniel Crandell’s. This man had a pale, bug-eyed face that made him look like he was on something.

“What the fuck?” said Robert Daniel Crandell. “Who are you?”

“UPS,” the man said. “What are you doing here?”

The only real difference in their uniforms was that the other man was wearing brown shorts instead of long pants. But there was something odd about the logo on his shirt pocket. It didn’t look quite right. Just like Robert Daniel Crandell’s didn’t look quite right, to be honest. Not that the actress would be able to tell in the short time she’d have to react.

The two men seemed to reach the same understanding at the exact same time, and when the other man started to run toward the actress’s front door, Robert Daniel Crandell ran too. He saw the other man start to open his long box and realized that he was taking out a long gun, just like his own long gun, even if it wasn’t a .30-06.

Robert Daniel Crandell slammed into him and knocked the gun out of his grip, and just at that moment the actress opened her door and let out a bone-chilling scream. She was wearing running shorts and a pink tank top and had her hair up in a messy bun. She looked adorable.

Robert Daniel Crandell tried to get his long gun out so he could carry out his destiny, but the other man blindsided him, and they both fell into the lush ground cover and started wrestling for supremacy. It wasn’t long before they heard sirens.

It seems that the actress had some kind of panic button linked to the local police precinct. Her door was now closed tight while

Robert Daniel Crandell and the other man fought it out. In a few seconds they both heard a man’s voice shout, “FREEEEEEZE!” They stopped fighting and sat up to face their captors.

When the smoke cleared, what became obvious was that two demented men had become obsessed with the same adorable actress at the same time and had chosen the same day to carry out the same demented plan.

The human mind remains as mysterious as the cosmos itself.

This has been another mind-boggling tale from the annals of the impossibly improbable.

* * *

Kevin Brennan is the author of six novels, including Parts Unknown (William Morrow/HarperCollins), Yesterday Road, and, most recently, Eternity Began Tomorrow. His short fiction has appeared in the Berkeley Review, Mid-American Review, Every Day Fiction, and others. He’s also the editor of The Disappointed Housewife, a literary magazine for writers of offbeat and idiosyncratic fiction, poetry, and essays. Kevin lives with his wife in California’s Sierra foothills.

The River

by Yvette Naden

I thought she was a scarecrow, or possibly an olive tree. Silhouetted against the darkness, part of me thought I’d imagined her. That certainly would have made things easier.

I’d ran out of milk – two cartons, all gone. I was sure Daniel’s midnight cereal banquets were to blame. At least he hadn’t been drinking today. But I was drinking now. Drinking the darkness and the acid rain, trying to walk home through the trenches of mud which formed the path back up to the farm.

My coat threatened to tear itself from my skin, the plastic bag battering me, suddenly too heavy. Arms sagging, I paused, leaning on the stone bridge.

I should have kept walking.

She was standing in the middle of the river, the woman in rags. A wide sunhat obscured her face. How it held itself to her skull, I had no idea. The wind ravaged us, the water hugging her shins. But the woman did not move.

You there, you alright? The woman looked up, and I could finally see her face – a mass of pock-marked skin and eyes of ivory.

Yes, thank you. A real downpour isn’t it? She laughed to herself. And I’ve left the washing out on the line. What a numpty you must think me? The water rose to her thighs. Her jeans, which I imagined had once been blue, were jet black. Her arms hung by her sides.

She wore the riverweed like bracelets.

You must be cold. Here. I stepped closer to the bridge. Setting down the bag, I climbed over the stone wall, dropping to the ledge on the other side. Holding out my hand, I leaned as far as I dared out into the river. The woman didn’t blink. She smiled jovially, as if sharing a joke with God.

Grab my hand, I told her. The river wheezed and groaned. Please, take my hand. I live just up the road, it’s not far.

Oh, Home Farm. I know Home Farm. The woman pursued her lips. I don’t like what you’ve done with the garden.

That was my husband, Daniel. I lowered my head. I didn’t want to talk about Daniel.

I can see his marks on you, said the woman in the river. The water had risen to her blouse. She looked down and swore.

Dearie me. I just had this dry-cleaned.

Please, please. Just take my hand. I reach out, arms straining, knees threatening to buckle. When she looked away, I sagged and was about to climb back over the wall and phone the police, or the Fire Department, or whoever you were supposed to call for something like this, when I heard her squelching footsteps. I turned around to see her wading through the river, wading towards me, hand outstretched.

Are you happy? she said.

She took my hand, and I let her pull me under.

* * *

Yvette Naden was born in Mayenne, France, in 2002 but moved to the UK in 2006. She now lives in York where she works as an English Tutor and writes everything from poetry to political essays.

Tabatha


by S.G. Parker

Tabatha steps down the staircase of her semi-detached house, leaning against the wall for support as there’s no bannister, and because she’s uncertain in her new shoes, a pair of peach-coloured sling-backs from Primark she bought last Saturday along with a matching A-line dress. She’d considered the stilettos, but she’s out of practice with heels and feels self-conscious enough already this evening without the added fear of falling flat on her face.

The staircase, while steep, is less treacherous than the one in her former house, a two-up-two-down terrace in Ynysybwl, a Welsh mining village off the Cynon Valley where she’d lived with Trevor-the-twat (pardon her language) for twelve miserable years—ten, to tell the truth; the first two weren’t so bad, back when Trevor’s irreverence was a charm, and before he’d lost the warehouse job at Jones’s and turned his mind to serious drinking. Eventually, she’d had enough and filed for separation after finding a new position in Gloucester as a dental practice manager (no new NHS patients, sorry).

Upon reaching the terracotta-tiled hallway, she dabs at her hair, cut and coloured that afternoon at Hair Today by a new stylist at the salon, Tina, a woman at a similar stage of life as Tabatha, who didn’t do a bad job, all told, and who she half-hopes might become a proper friend.

She checks her face in the mirror whose elaborate gold-painted scrollwork is out of place amidst the other decor, a bland selection of Nordic Functional that she’d put on the credit card two years earlier and was still paying off. Yet she keeps the mirror because it’s all that remains of the furniture she’d inherited from her mother, a defiant woman who’d lost one husband to the mines (a cave-in) and another to suicide (jumped off a bridge) before herself succumbing to lung cancer ten years ago. She’d shrunk to sinew and bone and had grasped Tabatha’s hand so fiercely against the pain that her fingers had left deep indentations in her only child’s skin long after she’d let go.

Trevor had sold the rest of the furniture once Tabatha had moved out, an act of pure spite if ever she’d had seen one, and the mirror itself had only survived due to his ineptitude at trying to erase her from his life. Yet it confirmed their marriage was over, and she petitioned for divorce. Once the papers came through, for the first and only time, she was glad they hadn’t had children and need have nothing more to do with him.

She wipes away a stray smudge of pink lipstick, similar to the shade her mother always wore, even for her funeral, and one which Tabatha had previously sworn blind she’d never use. However, she doesn’t want Peter thinking she’s a slut (at least not on their first date). To avoid appearing too prim and proper, she retrieves a cropped, black pleather jacket from the coat hook to add a touch of rebellion to her outfit. She spies her keys by the red of the ladybug rape alarm lying on top of the bookcase in the living room, which contains dog-eared copies of You Can Heal Your Heart and Year of Yes alongside Tarot for Beginners, the Backyard Gardener, and an ex-library copy of Great Expectations. She drops the keys into her peach-coloured clutch as a horn beeps outside the front door.

With a frown, she crosses the room and leans over the armchair to part the curtain. Through the rain-spattered window, she sees a white saloon car with its engine running. She checks the time on her cracked-screen phone.

8:40pm.

A flutter of anxiety tickles her bladder. It’s followed by a flash of indignation—the taxi is too early; she ordered it for ten-to. Peter has booked the table for 9pm. If she leaves now, she’ll get there before him. She’ll appear desperate; a pitiful old divorcee sitting in a restaurant alone, staring longingly at the door. And what if he doesn’t show? The staff will laugh at her behind their hands. Worse, what if she sees someone she knows, and the people at work find out she was stood up? She’ll never live it down.

CANCEL. Don’t show up. Ghost him. Ignore his messages if he tries to contact her, not that he will, once he realises how pathetic and risible she is.

Her lip trembles. Her eyes moisten. She hangs her head as a sense of exhaustion descends upon her. Why is she putting herself through all this again?—the awkwardness (Ouch!—no, not like that), the uncertainty (have I done something wrong?), and the risk she’ll be disappointed (are you open to trying for children?). Even if things go well, conflict will inevitably follow (how many times must I ask?), resentments will fester (you always do this!) until outright rage erupts (stop nagging at me, you stupid bitch!). Her life wasn’t meant to have turned out this way; she should be worrying about childcare and school choices, not whether to ask him in for coffee.

After pulling out a tissue from the box on the sideboard, she returns to the mirror to dab away the tears while the crow’s feet, faint beneath her foundation, taunt her in the reflection. She has her mother’s eyes, or so she’s been told, and for the first time she recognises their likeness. She recalls her mother’s voice, defiant until the end, telling the naysayers to go and get stuffed.

Outside, the taxi beeps, probably for the last time.

She takes a deep breath and firms her jaw. Drawing herself up, she smooths down her dress, turns, and opens the door.

* * *

S.G. Parker is a writer and historical archaeologist based in Doha, Qatar, where he has lived since 2014. He is currently writing his third novel. His writing can be found at http://www.greigparker.com.

Best Smile

by Margaret LaFleur

She straightens the stapler so it lines up with the Post-It notes. She unwinds the cord of the phone so it lays neatly between the receiver and the base. She pushes the computer screen to the close edge of the desk so it is mostly tilted inward. It can be seen by those passing on their way back towards their desks, but not on their way to the bathrooms. That’s lucky. She works in short bursts, however long it takes a co-worker to do their business.

When they pass by her again she is looking at an email, clicking through a spreadsheet, checking something off her to-do list (“How do you stay organized?” the temp agency had asked her).

On their way in she offers a grin, quickly and reflexively minimizing the windows where her real work takes place: the work of Facebook and Twitter and hate reading the successful blog of that girl from her undergrad Comp Lit class—the one who married rich, even though she has never admitted as much, the one who quit her job the moment her stomach got round.

She takes a pad of paper to the late morning meeting so she can perform the act of writing down notes. Really, all she needs to do is nod.

“Ok, can we email that to you?” Nod.

“When we get confirmation from the vendor you’ll add that to the budget?” Nod.

It will be a five minute job to find the line, insert the value, and add it to her list in order to check it off.

He’s standing at her desk when she returns. Leaning, actually. Smirking. She would have to squeeze past him to get to her chair, so she stops instead.

“I didn’t want to miss that shining face of yours,” he says.

“Oh, you know me,” she tries, “I’m never gone for long.”

“Can you come by my office later?”

She wants to know how much later, he’s never specific, he’ll just IM her, but she is supposed to be done at 5pm and she won’t be if he pings her at 4:46pm like yesterday.

“Ok.”

“I’ll let you know when I’m free.”

While he is in the bathroom she fixes the stapler, the Post-Its, the cup of pens he nudged out of place. She is replying to an email from his boss (“Ok! I’ll get to that right away.”) when he passes back but it doesn’t stop him from reaching out to squeeze her shoulder, doesn’t stop him from whispering, “Keep up the good work!” doesn’t stop him from hesitating there while her hands are poised over the keyboard so his fat thumb can flick her bra strap just enough to claim plausible deniability.

At lunch she sits in the break room and eats leftovers, scrolling, scrolling, letting herself sink into the pleasure of her own tiny private screen until she returns to her desk.

Of course she doesn’t reach the end of all human knowledge or even the end of a comment section, but by 3pm it seems like she is scraping the bottom of the barrel. She’s done it again. There is nothing left. The internet is empty.

She pulls her phone from her purse. (Fuck it, so what if someone sees her for a moment?) But there’s nothing on that internet, either.

Finally, the whistle: come on by! xx

She waits five minutes, but only five. It is 4:34pm. She reaches for a notepad, then thinks better of it and reaches for a legal pad. It’s an unwieldy but larger shield. She is hugging it when she walks in and his eyes settle there automatically as he gestures for her to close the door and sit down. All day the air conditioning has been raising goosebumps along her skin and she’s aware, now, of how he can see that, realizes her mistake, the forgotten cardigan in her cubicle.

He says he has a couple things he is working on, he could use her eye. She is a designer, after all? There’s that tick of hope, a lift that surprises her. Ok. There are proofs on his desk and that is his department, after all. Take a look, he says, wanting her to come around to look at his computer screen and so she does (does she have a choice?) and he lets her stand there as he toggles back and forth between the options, he asks about contrast and pushes his chair closer to her, but that could be her imagination, come on, and he beams at her when she says she likes his favorite, too, and he says she does have a good eye, which is just a nice thing to say, she reminds herself, even as she can tell in his tone that’s not what he means, it’s just nice, it’s just nice, she thinks right up until she feels his hand there, sliding just up her skirt, his fat thumb pressing again at a new inch of flesh, at which point she stops thinking at all.

She composes texts to her best friends in her head as she leaves the building. (Angry emoji, barf emoji, is there a paralyzed emoji?)

Outside the heat of the day presses down against her skin. Immediately she begins to sweat, as if in relief. She stops on the sidewalk, careful to stand off to the edge. There’s a moment, but only one, where she thinks she will be able to breath, to stand anonymously on the street, one moment when she thinks it’s ok, maybe, to just exist and nothing more. A bus wheezes to a stop next to her. A man swings down, casts his gaze in her direction.

“Hey honey, it’s a beautiful day!” he says. “Smile!”

* * *

Margaret LaFleur lives, teaches, and writes in Saint Paul, Minnesota. You can find her at margaretlafleur.com or at 280 characters @margosita.

And May It Never be Paid Off

DJ Pileggi

San Francisco 2010, my father and my brothers came to visit and we dined at a restaurant with fancy things like charcuterie, and we all ordered cocktails because we all drank then and before the end of the meal I snuck off and paid the $500 bill with my student loans, and my dad seemed pissed, and my brothers said “Thanks,” and it’s 2021, and my dad’s dead and my loans aren’t paid off, so I’m paying 6.5% interest on our dinner like it never ended and he never died and we’re all still there adding to the bill, laughing.

* * *

DJ Pileggi is a father and a writer in recovery. He has been paid both to dose antibiotics for septic shock, as well as install cast iron plumbing at Harvard University, in that order. He grew up outside of Chicago, has lived on both coasts, and currently resides in Massachusetts.

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