The Bra Tree

by Erika Nichols-Frazer

With the chairlift stopped, the only sounds were the crack of branches snapping with the heft of the snow and the swoosh of sharp edges of skis and snowboards carving into the groomer’s corduroy pattern below. If it weren’t for the cold, Kristen wouldn’t mind sitting for a few minutes. Her energy had been low since the surgery. She had noticed her limitations with more concern since her diagnosis, surveying every mood and feeling in her body as potential symptoms of a greater threat.

Their legs dangled over the trail, the weight of their skis and boots pulling their feet towards the snow thirty feet below. The chairlifts swayed, out of sync. The lift fit four, but it was just the two of them, spread out on the far sides of the chair so that a gap sat between them.

Kristen had an impulse to swing the chair to see if she could touch the lift tower—it looked so close—but she knew James would not be amused. He was already acting impatient, swinging his legs back and forth. When their kids were small enough to slip under the bar, she and James would each hold one of them back with their poles. Kristen had what he called an irrational fear of them plummeting.

This would be her first run all season. They’d both bought season’s passes, like every year, perhaps optimistically, but she hasn’t been up to it. She had expected things to go differently. She hadn’t missed a season since her father taught her on the bunny hill when she was three, and she’d be damned if she was missing one now. James had been skeptical of her strength, but she’d insisted. More than anything, she wanted one more good day on the hill.

They used to compete for first tracks or skin up parts of the mountain the lift couldn’t reach, but post-mastectomy, just putting on her gear tired her out. James insists her body is still her body, that he still loves all of it, but she knows something has changed between them. He reached for her in bed last night, ran his hands up her ribcage, but when they got to her missing breasts, she pulled away.

She was only forty-nine when her body declared war on her, her breasts casualties. Her body didn’t belong to her anymore. It had become a foreign entity, enemy territory. She felt as though she were in a constant struggle against it. 

As the coffee percolated this morning, he’d asked her yet again if she was sure she was up to skiing. She hadn’t had much exercise these past few months. But she wanted to ski the trail they met on at least one last time, not sure of the condition she’d be in by next season. It’s a double-black diamond, way too steep and challenging for her right now, James said. He joked, “You could end up like I did the day we met,” which meant with a broken leg from sliding on ice into a tree. She was on ski patrol then and rolled him onto the orange sled and skied him down. She had rescued him, but he doesn’t know how to rescue her.

They were stopped by the bra tree. She could see the tree from the lift. Still a ways’ off, at the crest of the knoll before the lift’s final ascent. An aspen, she thought, decorated with at least thirty bras, some new, shiny red satin or still-white lace, others shit-speckled and worn, nearly transparent with weather and age. She could see the colors dotted through the tree’s otherwise-bare branches, a bright blur without her glasses. 

In a forest of bare trees on either side of the lift line, the lace and satin stood out, flapping in the branches. Bras waved in the breeze like flags, taunting her. The bra tree was a bold symbol of femininity that existed at every mountain she’d skied since the late 70s or early 80s, when the trend spread and stuck. At mountains all over, bras waved through tree branches, proudly announcing We were here.

The abandoned bras belonged to generations of women bold enough to shimmy out of them on the lift, toss them onto the tree, and ski down bare-breasted (or, they brought them crumpled in their pockets, but that was far less exciting). A bizarre rite of passage of the young and privileged that she never understood. 

Her daughter once casually mentioned she’d tossed a bra up there as a teenager, which she immediately followed with, ‘What? Everybody does it.’ Kristen had felt a pang of envy then, a momentary desire to be as brave as her daughter, a woman who could fling lingerie onto trees with abandon. She had never been a woman like that, even before going flat. 

“I swear, if they don’t replace this old hunk of junk lift soon…” James’ threat faded to a mumble. 

That was a habit he had developed recently. He mumbled half a sentence and let it taper off unfinished. 

“It’ll start up as soon as you stop complaining about it,” she said. 

The lift had only been stopped for about a minute, but time seemed to drag by with her legs dangling heavy in the air and the wind biting at her cheeks. She pulled her fleece neck-warmer up and tucked it under her goggles to protect her face. The fleece quickly became matted with her spit; wet tufts of pink fluff stuck to her lips and tongue. 

The cogs at the top of the tower ground slowly into gear and the lift sputtered back into action. She moved quickly. She tucked her gloves between her knees while she pulled her arms inside her jacket, sweater, and long-sleeved t-shirt, like a turtle withdrawing into its shell. James said something, but she couldn’t hear, shrugged into her jacket and sweater as she was. He might have asked what she was doing, as if it weren’t clear. 

They were almost past the tree. Her elbow got stuck for a second or two and she nearly missed her chance, but, just in time, she pulled her white cotton post-mastectomy bra out of her sleeve and tossed it into the branches with the others—inserts falling to the trail below—a white flag waving, perhaps surrendering, but to what.

                                                                       *   *   *

Erika Nichols-Frazer is the author of the essay collection Feed Me (Holbrook House, 2022) and the editor of A Tether to This World (Main Street Rag, 2021), an anthology of mental health recovery stories. She has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her work has been published in Lunate, Bloodroot, Red Tree Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Vermont and can be found at http://www.nicholsfrazer.com.

In Memory of Jack Kane

by Dave Larson

Jeff looked around the wake, ‘Nice turnout.”

Kenny added, “Jack was great entertainment. Buy him two beers, and he’d tell the best stories.”

I spoke, “I loved his story of how we beat the Russkies at the battle of Little Big Horn. Or when he took out a unit of Belgium chocolatiers in Korea.”

Jeff wondered, “How many beers did people buy him over the years”?

Kenny mussed, “Who knows. The man died penniless; everybody bought him a beer.”

Jeff spoke, “Did he commit suicide? I can’t imagine someone killing him.”

I added, “My friend Arnie, the policeman, said the coroner said he died from too many sleeping pills.”

Kenny added, “That sounds like suicide to me. Why would he kill himself”?

Jeff wondered, “Who are those four women with the fur stoles”?

I told my friends, “Those are his ex-wives.”

Jeff said, “Wow, do you think one of them killed him”?

I said, “I heard there are a million reasons to kill him. Becca at the bank says he had over four million dollars.”

I continued, “Beverly, who works at the lawyer’s office, says each of those women gets a fourth of his estate.”

Kenny questioned, “Did he spawn any children. He must not if only the ex-wife’s get the money.”

“Beverly also told me there is a bastard son, one he refused to support or even acknowledge.”

Jeff pondered, “I wonder if any of these men are his son. They could have gotten him drunk and poured the bottle of pills down his throat.”

Kenny added, “I don’t know which is worse, not taking care of your child or dumping a bottle of sleeping pills down Jack’s throat.”

Jeff studied the women, “I bet one of the ex-wives did him in. Did Arnie tell you how many pills he took?”

“It was the whole bottle; he choked to death.”

Kenny gasped, “I’d say he died on his vomit.”

“No, he died with the plastic pill bottle stuck in his throat.”

Jeff questioned, “How could someone cram the whole bottle into his throat”?

I didn’t say a word. Jack wouldn’t swallow the pills, so I shoved the bottle down his throat. Do you know me now, Jack?

                                                              

                                                               *   *   *

Dave Larson is best known for his research and writing on baseball history in the early 1900s. He has been published both online and in journals. He lives in the Orlando, FL. area. 

The Roomer

by Edward Ahern

Petey never talked to our therapy group about Holly, although he was worse off after she happened to him. Before Holly, he’d been living alone except for a scrawny cat he’d called Surly, and the cat had run off.

A few years earlier, he’d been in a motorcycle accident. Not his fault, a drunk had run a light and taken him out. His right leg had been removed from the knee down, and his left leg was always in a shin high medical boot. He wasn’t comfortable talking about his legs with our group, telling me privately that he felt their focus was hijacked by his triad of cane, metal leg and bright plastic boot. 

“So the insurance company finally settled?”, I asked.

He smiled wryly. “Yeah, George, between disability, the insurance payout and eventually a half-assed pension, I can live a long, busted-up life.”

Whenever he could he sat in a tall, upright chair. Standing up if he was too low to the ground was painful to watch and, judging by his winced expression, painful to achieve. Petey infrequently shaved and had let his hair grow long, but from the knees up he was a normally okay-looking guy.

Holly was a major part of our group, grifting a little because she had to, but sympathetic to everyone’s problems. She was an alumnus of a drug rehab, divorced, living in a shelter, kids with the dad. Her clothes were Catholic charity, but her few bits of jewelry looked expensive. “I’m always afraid in the shelter,” she’d tell us, “because half of us are using and I’m offered hits all the time, and because stuff gets stolen every day. And worse.” 

One morning, Petey began a rare sharing to us all.

“Okay, I’ve got enough to live on, family house paid off, but everything I do is in slow lurches- almost an hour to gather and put out the garbage, and another hour to undress, shower and dress again.  I’m not bitching, some of us have it worse, but I remember what it was like to be better.”

I’d sat near Petey, and scanned everyone’s eyes. They were staring, not at Petey’s face, but at his cripple’s trinity. Except for Holly—she focused on Petey, broadcasting warmth. When the meeting ended, she cut across the circle of chairs to talk to him as he struggled to stand.

“You’re the odd man out, Petey. We’re screwed up inside. You’re torn up outside and in.” She paused, then put a hand on his arm, not to help him up, which she perhaps sensed he would hate, but more likely to offer emotional support. “You got to me with what you said. There’s a Starbucks just down the block, could you spare a little time and listen to me?”

Petey’s lips puckered. “I, ah, I don’t think so. I’m bad company, even for myself.”

“Please. I won’t bury you with sad stories, but we’ve got some of the same demons.”

“All right, I guess, but just a half hour.” 

They left together, and for weeks afterward they sat beside each other at therapy. Petey admitted to the group that Holly had moved in with him. “She seems to be comfortable with me,” he said. She held his hand and nodded.

A few months after that Petey showed up on his own, and Holly never came back. When asked about her, Petey’s usual neutral tone was replaced with short, testy responses, like “she’s fine,” and “you’ll have to ask her.” I’d felt obliged to corner him.

“All right, what’s going on with you and Holly?”

“Go pick on somebody else, George.”

“You’re my best prospect. Let’s go have a parking lot discussion.”

Once outside I resumed.

“Did Holly take off? Relapse?”

Petey hesitated. “Nah. She’s clean. She’s still living at my place. But not with me.”

“Hah?”

“It started off good. After a few days we got—close, and we only needed to wash one set of sheets. She seemed okay with my legs. But a couple months later she moved back to the spare bedroom and told me we weren’t working out. She takes care of her own food and cooking.”

“But she doesn’t do anything with you or for you?”

“Nah. It’s like I’m not there. And I think she’s been stealing some stuff and pawning it.” 

My anger surged. The manipulative bitch was abusing a friend. “Tell her to get the hell out!”

“I did, but she just ignored me.”

“Get the cops to throw her out.”

“I wish. She claims I told her she could stay as long as she needed to, that she’s a tenant. It would cost me several thousand to go through legal proceedings, and even then there’s no guarantee. She’s not mean, still talks with me a bit, just withdrew back into herself.” 

“Jesus. Do you want me to talk to her?”

“Yell at her, you mean? She’d probably just say you’d assaulted her.”

“I’m really sorry, Petey. Maybe she’ll find someone else to victimize. You’re not helpless. Make her life so miserable that she leaves. Go on line, check out other guys with similar problems. She’s less company than your bad-tempered cat was, get her out.”

His expression softened and saddened. “You may be right. She’s not much better now than Surly was. Maybe if she finds someone else, she’ll leave. But I’ve been alone for a long time, George. There’s no pleasure left in our relationship, but there’s a twisted comfort in her presence.”

“That’s a hell of a compromise,” I said. And then it struck me that maybe Holly was also paying her dues, willing to abandon our group friendships and live next to an alienated Petey to avoid the hazards of a shelter. “Let’s hope she finds someone else.”

                                                 *   *   *

Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He’s had over three hundred stories and poems published so far, and six books. Ed works the other side of writing at Bewildering Stories, where he sits on the review board and manages a posse of nine review editors. 

https://www.twitter.com/bottomstripper  

https://www.facebook.com/EdAhern73/?ref=bookmarks 

https://www.instagram.com/edwardahern1860/

Trash Picking

By Michaele Jordan

Ruth carefully toed the aluminum can on the sidewalk so that it up-ended. Sure enough, brown liquid gushed out, and she waited patiently for the can to empty before squashing it under her heel. She stooped down, more than a little bit stiffly, so she could pick it up and deposit it in the appropriate pocket. She didn’t always bother to crush the cans, but today was the day after trash day, and she expected to find a lot of cans—so many of them that she would need to conserve space.

She stood back up (even more stiffly) and saw Mrs. Carter watching her over the hedge she was trimming. Mrs. Carter raised a hand to her mouth as if to cover a cough, but actually to cover her smirk of amused contempt. Then she smiled and raised a hand in polite greeting.

Ruth smiled just as politely and waved back. She knew exactly what Mrs. Carter was thinking. How could she not? Kevin—God rest his soul—had teased her mercilessly for years. “You look like a bag lady,” he must have told her a thousand times. “All the neighbors are laughing at you. Some of the kids even say you’re a witch.” But he had always smiled when he said it, secretly pleased that she was more interested in doing the right thing than in what the neighbors thought.

So Ruth went right on patrolling the neighborhood with her little cart, picking up all the litter. Her cart had a large pocket for plastic bottles, and two smaller ones—one for aluminum ones, and another for steel cans. There was yet another for paper, not to mention the receptacle for plain old trash. There was one last pocket for the occasional item which was—by whatever astral fluke—worth keeping. She had carried home all sorts of lost treasures in that pocket: rings and necklaces, sunglasses and garden tools, and once even an iPod, that only needed a new battery to work fine. She loved that iPod; it made her feel young.

The daily walk also made her feel young. Back in the day, she’d used to have a dog, a silly looking mutt with a pug face and long, droopy ears. She’d often joked that his twice-daily walk was what kept her in shape. But the dear old thing had died when she was in her early fifties; she’d been in poor health at the time, and had not wanted to risk getting another one, for fear it might end up outliving her. So she’d started walking without the dog. Nearly twenty years later, she had to admit she could have gotten the dog, but she was more certain than ever that the walking kept her young. She had several routes, and did at least three miles a day.

Today she was checking her ‘country route,’ which took her down an old state road that had been superceded by a freeway. For years, it had been a lonely stretch, bordered only by large agricultural lots (once you were past the Carter cottage), but a couple of new subdivisions had gone in recently, and traffic was beginning to pick up. She approached the County Road 47 crossing, already looking ahead to the junction with SR 273, where all the yahoos went speeding—except during rush hour, when it was transformed into a giant, motionless traffic jam. Since it was the middle of the day, Ruth was not worried about the traffic jam.

It turned out she had looked too far ahead. Just as she reached the corner of 47, a yahoo came hurtling out of nowhere and took the corner onto Main Street way too fast, sideswiping her little cart and barely missing her. She jumped backwards in the nick of time, glaring and hissing curses, as recyclables scattered in every direction.

“Hey!” she snarled in a voice so loud and angry that the driver heard her, and turned his head to look. Did he actually see her, with her burning eyes telegraphing rage in his direction? Did he actually hear the curse, or sense the howl of retribution she called down on him? Did he perceive her will made palpable, and forged into a blade of malice aimed at his heart? There was no knowing, but then, it didn’t really matter anyway. It was done, whether he saw it or not. He turned his head and, in turning, somehow pulled the steering wheel around also. Pointing him right at the telephone pole.

She didn’t watch, or look after him. She didn’t need to. Slowly and rather painfully, she squatted down, recovered her cart and started picking up the spilled trash. Good thing she had squashed the cans; otherwise they’d have been rolling all over the place; instead most of them were still in reach. The paper, too, had not scattered far, but had fanned out smoothly like a deck of cards, which made it easy to recover.

She didn’t even look up at the shriek of the crash. It really was an awful sound, but she was getting pretty deaf, and had learned to ignore noise back when the kids were practicing to be rock stars. The plastic had been scattered widely and she had to push herself back up (which proved even harder than getting down had been) and go after it.

As she drew closer to the wreck of the car wrapped halfway around the phone pole, she heard the moan. “Help me, please,” he whimpered, and she looked at him, more than a little surprised that he was still alive, let alone conscious. She must be getting old, after all. “Please, lady.”

She stooped, so very stiffly, to pick up an apparently indestructible liter soda bottle that was rolling in a circle. “Don’t worry,” she told the wounded driver. “I’m sure there’ll be someone along to pick up the trash real soon.” She deposited the plastic bottle in the correct compartment of her cart and strolled on toward a soggy newspaper just up ahead.

                                                        

                                                            *   *   *

Michaele Jordan was born in LA, educated in New York, and lives in Cincinnati. She’s worked at a kennel, a Hebrew School and AT&T. She’s a bit odd. Now she writes, supervised by a long-suffering husband and two domineering cats.

Her first novel, Blade Light, was serialized in Jim Baen’s Universe, followed by her period occult thriller, Mirror Maze. Her stories have appeared in Buzzy Mag, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Abyss and Apex, and Perihelion. Horror fans will enjoy her ‘Blossom’, series in The Crimson Pact anthologies.

Her website – www.michaelejordan.com– is undergoing reconstruction, so wear your hard hat.

Mia in the Orchard

by Krista Jahnke

Apple trees stretch to the horizon in precise parallel lines, immuring us in greenery, when Mia swipes my phone and runs, her red hair streaking behind her. She loves to run and for me to worry about where she’s gone. During almost every outing, she scampers off, then hides and leaps at me from behind things. The truth is it scares me every time. I’m sure I’ll have to call her foster parents, sheepishly, to report her lost. Police will arrest me for child endangerment. The mentoring program will be shuttered. 

I try to calm my breathing. The best reaction is no reaction. I pluck another apple from the tree and add it to our bushel, ignoring her antics. Laughter sprouts from the rows around me as families rummage for the ripest fruits for pies, jams, crumbles. The hefty bushel digs into my forearm. Humidity hangs in the air, drips from the branches. The moment’s gone on too long. I drop the basket to the dewy grass and look up, seeking her out. 

“You can’t find me,” her voice is a singsong somewhere behind me.

“I’m not looking for you,” I lie. I yank an apple from the closest branch. “I’ll guess I have to go eat donuts alone.”

She shoots out from a few rows over, cradling apples in her shirt, which she holds out taut, exposing the lower edge of her belly, still childishly round. 

“Look,” she says. She lets them fall into the basket. “They’re ruby gems.”

“Gentle, or they’ll bruise.”

“I won’t hurt them,” she rubs her hands over their shiny red skins. She hunches over the basket like a protective mother. 

“Mia, my phone?”

She looks back to where she’d been. Guilt crosses her face. She needs only the mildest provocation to shed the typical carefree attitude of kids her age. She vacillates from silliness to fierce anger or impervious melancholy in a snap. She says nothing but races back to where she’d hidden. When I find her, she’s on her knees, examining the ground. She’s started to cry. 

“I stuck it in this tree to hold while I got apples. In that hole there.”

It’s not in the hole. Fallen apples litter the ground alongside twigs and leaves — but no phone. A boy in a maroon hoodie watches us from the next row over. I somehow know he has it. He’s got that punkish attitude in the way he stands, his smirk. What’s he even doing in an orchard with no family or friends? Mia sees him now, and as we’re both looking, he pulls my phone from his hoodie pocket, flashes it at us then runs. He streaks down the row of trees, his long legs churning.

Mia and I watch him grow further away. When Mia lets herself go, she is also fast; she flies, unafraid to put distance between herself and whatever adult with her. She tells me stories of her past, and I understand. She whispers of a broken nose, of sleeping concealed under a backyard tree to circumvent a stepfather’s rage, of being left to tend to her brother when he was only eight weeks old. Mia carries too much; so, she runs, and sometimes she hides. But now, she stays by my side. We look at one another and both seem to think of our basket. She reaches in first, but I’m the first to throw. I heave the fruit into the air like Tom Brady. It pierces the ribboned sunlight farther above the canopy than I could have predicted. We chuck apple after apple after the boy, whom we can’t see, hidden he is by the thicket. We throw anyway, until the basket is empty and our arms throb. The families around us grow quiet and stop picking; some try to intervene. One busybody calls someone, reporting us or him, I can’t tell. If we hit the thief, he doesn’t stop. He’s gone, and so is my phone. 

Mia sits and pulls her legs in to her chest, hugging her knees. I do the same; I fold myself up like a child.

“He got away,” she says. “I’m in big trouble.”

Maybe she should be. Her recklessness is partly why my phone is gone. But I think of her stories, the things she’s seen. I see her protecting the apples with that matriarchal intensity, though no one has done the same for her. I hear her call them gems, appreciating their innate beauty. 

I can’t be stern with her. I vacillate, too. 

“I’ll get a new phone somehow. Come on.”

We help each other up. We pass through the trees, apples weighing down the branches, many drooping so low they almost brush the earth. Some of the fruit is surely bruised. Rotten even. As we walk past, there’s no way to discern which is which. We each grab a piece and bite down hard, waiting to see what’s inside.

                                                            *   *   *

Krista Jahnke is a writer from Huntington Woods, Mich. Formerly a journalist, her writing has appeared in the Detroit Free Press, USA Today and other newspapers across the country. She works in the nonprofit sector, and you can find her on Twitter @KristaJahnke. 

From Home

by Natalie Harris-Spencer

Now that I’m working from home, he doesn’t leave me alone.

Most mornings, right before my alarm shrieks, he slips under with me. His cue is my unconscious shift to the fetal position, my crunch beneath the comforter. I pat the pillow and he comes, rests his denty little chin on my forearm. 

To touch he’s soft and hard, a world of internal organs and skeleton beneath. I trail my fingers to feel his xylophone spine, counting bone by bone. He vibrates like the fur of a bee, animal heart kicking. He exhales, opens a rosebud mouth filled with milky teeth, makes a sound like ih. His fur smells of the comfort of clean linen, and faintly sweet, of sweat. We doze like that until the third snooze button. 

He follows me into the bathroom, hovers by the cold tap. He’s somewhat of a sloppy drinker: pearls of water drip from his mouth, cling to his whiskers like condensation on grass. I kick him out while I shower. He wails for twenty human minutes, wanting in, craving nearness. Then, to spite me, he hides. 

I make coffee, turn on my laptop, move my mouse a bit. He stalks downstairs – no rush – just to check I’ve topped his biscuits, sniffing, slow blinks into the cool morning. 

He follows the sun around the house.

Internet superstar that he is, he brushes across my work video meetings, tail following in an open parenthesis. It sweeps my face, like you might swish a red feather across a lover’s cheek. I scoop him, two handed, and drape him over my shoulder as if to burp a baby.

“Excuse this little guy,” I say, apologetic. But I shouldn’t apologize, because look how cute?

Sometimes, I wave his paw at the screen. Say hi. Arrogance, or maybe irritation at being paraded, makes him scramble down my back like it’s a humpback bridge. He meanders off in disgust. It’s at times like these I think we’d both prefer me back at the office.

When he’s not sleeping like a cinderblock in one of his usual spots, I’ve trained him to nutmeg: that neat little soccer trick. He careens between my legs in exchange for Shrimpy Shrimp Temptations. Our record is 24 nutmegs in a row. Champion, he bathes in glory on the rug, making himself extra-long, his white tummy visible, rolling. 

His ears are always cooler than the rest of him. They feel like petals between padded thumbs. Whenever my hands approach, he’ll take a cheeky lick, seeking remnants of his favorites: perfume, mayonnaise, hairspray.

At 3pm, he moved to the window by my desk. He bleats at birds while I’m emailing. He yowls as he bounds downstairs at the sound of a car alarm. I keep the camera on him if I’m forced to leave the house, required surveillance, and my app shows me that he cries. It’s nothing human, but there’s a sob in its timbre. The worst sound he’s ever made was two years ago, when he fell behind the bookcase and lodged his sparrow ribs against the bricks. The sound was ghastly, far too loud, like a siren passing too close.

“Are you OK? Are you going to be OK?” I demand that he tells me.

Sometimes, he gets really mad at me. He leaves a dirty protest to one side of his litter tray. I ask him what’s wrong, scratch his neck. He jerks away, suddenly shy, ashamed of the stains he’s left behind. 

He’s an exhibitionist, legs erect like sticks, licks without giving two shits. He’s performing to me: his audience of one. A dead theater. 

He’s constantly in search of my lap, and wonders where it goes when I get up. He sits and watches me from afar while I eat dinner, eager for scraps, but what he really wants is for me to move the bean tray from my knees so he can nuzzle in for Netflix. 

“Time to go up,” I say, aloud, and he understands, not the words, or language, but the fact that I’m the person saying the words, and language, and I head up to bed, and he always, always, follows. 

He might not be a person, but that doesn’t make him any less living.

                                                         *   *   *

Natalie Harris-Spencer is an English writer, digital editor, and blogger living in America. Her work has appeared in the Archipelago Fiction Anthology, CultureCult, The Dark City, The Satirist, the Stonecoast Review, and more. She was selected by Oyster River Pages as one of their Emerging Fiction Voices, and she is the winner of the Hummingbird Flash Fiction Prize. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Stonecoast, University of Southern Maine, and is the Editor-in-Chief of Aspiring Author. She is currently working on her second novel. Natalie enjoys surprise in fiction. And tea.

Intact

by Nancy Fagan

Four chambers filled with blood that rushes and pools in brief lakes until the liquid is thrust forward in waves. Electricity zooms from a to v and zaps most of the nodes. Except when it doesn’t. Then there is a dying of cells, a regression, a wisp of smoke and they’re gone, like your first boyfriend, the pair of prescription sunglasses the ocean claimed, or your dead mother. The current runs back and loops up and down again, useless, pathetic, flaccid. A full life becomes a three-quarter life. Unequal, it does not matter which part is bigger, or who tries harder anymore. Every side needs to kick in. Inferior, superior, the others. Juddering and pulsating together. 

                                                        *   *   *

Nancy J. Fagan’s recent work can be found in Breath & Shadow, You and Me Medical Magazine, and Abilities, Canada. She is a registered nurse, holds a BA in English from Mount Holyoke College and is a candidate for an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in western Massachusetts with her husband and two ridiculous cats.

The Cigarette

by Emily McNally

“Hey,” he said, his eyes drifting from her face to the lit cigarette in her hand. 

She ignored the cigarette for a moment, letting it dangle loosely in her hand by her side, like she could play it off as something she was holding for someone else or like it accidentally appeared in her hand through some kind of miracle nicotine deliverance system.

“Oh, my gosh, hi, how have you been?” She kept her voice bright. She took two awkward steps back towards the brick wall behind her. She hadn’t been hiding exactly. She was only a few paces off Main Street, after all. But, with fog rising in a cold twilight, she’d felt somehow encased in her lonely rebellion, invisible in a cloud of toxic smoke. Some people ate their feelings, she smoked hers. Or rather, she had. For many comforting years. This was her first cigarette in… how long? She tried to think. Then she took a deep drag and blew it out, wondering at the beauty of smoke traveling through throat to lungs, lighting up areas of her brain she hadn’t felt in years.

“Sorry about this,” She said with a shrug. Why had she apologized? He wasn’t her husband or child or mother. He wasn’t invested in her survival. Their paths sometimes crossed at school pick ups, but their kids were in different grades. She’d worked with him on the environmental committee. They’d gotten the cafeteria to stop using plastic straws and start using compostable silverware. These were the slender victories of her life lately. 

“How are the girls?” His tone was neutral. Was he going to ignore the haze of cigarette smoke all around them? Her liking for him swelled. Though he’d always been likable. He was tall and barrel chested, like he’d been athletic once and the muscle structure still existed under the dad bod. His face was strong-featured and roughly handsome. Then there was his warmth and a quick humor that lit his face. Though neither were particularly present now. Instead he looked concerned, assessing. 

“Good. Busy. You know.” She blew a plume of smoke into the mist rising around them. Everyone was busy. Music lessons, tutoring, soccer practice, play dates, birthday parties and clubs. The hum of activity that kept life thrumming along. She’d dedicated herself to it. She was a “homemaker,” a “stay-at-home-mom,” whatever you want to call it. The work of raising sane, kind, well-intentioned people had felt like a noble enough task for a long time. She’d shaken off so many anxieties and wonderings about who she might have been, what she may have accomplished. 

It had been easy. Easyish. The occasional cold sweat panic, the odd sleepless night here and there, a restlessness on Friday evenings that rose with nightfall. But, somehow, without quite realizing how, the sometimes discontent had grown to a more regular thing. A pervasive thing. An uncontainable thing. A cresting rage sometimes took hold of her and she had to close the bathroom door with the fan on until calm returned. A wave of grief shook her while she unloaded the dishwasher or prepped supplies for dinner. 

“I used to smoke.” He said. He gave her a shy smile. Then he moved his body a little more in front of hers, shielding her from the view of cars driving down Main Street. “Your reputation.” He said it simply, with a flash of the same small smile.

She almost laughed out loud. The scandal! Did you see Helen Scott smoking by the sandwich shop? What about her kids? Do you think she’s drinking too much? Maybe pills? It wasn’t a joke. In this small town at their small school, that kind of gossip could fly for months. It wasn’t a very interesting town. Or school. 

“I mean, it’s not heroin.” She gave him a small shrug. “Or prostitution or drunk driving.” Or divorce. She didn’t say that out loud. She was trying at this very moment not to say it in her own head. Like the word had magical properties. Like if she said it by a brick wall (earth) with mist (air) wavering in like old ghosts and a lit cigarette (fire) in her hand, down the street from the ocean (water), perhaps she would summon the precipice she feared.  

He laughed softly. “But, you know…” He let his voice just drift off while he kept his eyes on her. She knew all about petty small town gossip, but it was surprising he knew. Men were somehow exempt from the perfection stakes run by the Range Rover driving, placid faced blondes of the PTA. He gestured for the cigarette. For a moment she was confused and she imagined him snatching it and throwing it into the street. Then she realized he was requesting a drag. She handed him the cigarette and watched, fascinated, as he brought it to his mouth. A David Attenborough voice started in her head. Observe the odd and potentially deadly behavior of the adult humans. They actually take the smoke into their lungs, allowing the harmful chemicals to circulate first the cardiovascular system before targeting the brain itself. She’d almost said it out loud. She wondered if he would laugh. Her husband would laugh. Well, not about the smoking, but he would appreciate the joke, her feeble attempt at the accent.

As she watched him blow out smoke, she could almost feel inside his body. The surprise as the old, dead neural passageways relit themselves, like a highway coming to life at dusk, headlights suddenly brightening the darkened paths of asphalt, turning it’s blank black to wavering silver. And suddenly she could feel the way she could use him to blow up her life. His cold mouth opening as her lips met his. The feel of his chest through his t-shirt. His hand sliding, cold and tentative, under her sweatshirt. it would take little effort, small steps. She could feel loneliness radiating off of him, mingling with her own, tangled up with smoke and fog. 

She met his eyes as he handed her back the cigarette. 

“I am forgetting why I gave it up.” His expression was bereft, like he’d finally accepted god didn’t exist, or if it did, it was packed with nicotine into small pieces of paper and you had to smoke him to know him. “Shit, that all came back so easily.”

“It’s like riding a bike.” She said seriously. Then they both laughed.

` Like old muscles flexing she could feel the moment open up around them. She watched his face grow serious and still. Her heart skittered like an animal seeking shelter. But some other part of her remained cool, watching.

 I am your true friend. That’s what her husband had said as she’d flown out of the house with her sweatshirt on half of her body, her purse clutched in her hand, stopping her just at the door. His face had been angry, but the words, spoken quietly, were anguished. She felt like a volcano, long dormant, with grassy meadows growing on top, a place where families could picnic. But her solid center had found heat again and the rock had turned to roiling liquid. She didn’t know how to stop it. She didn’t know how to keep her molten center from spilling out of her, destroying everything. 

Street Lights flickered on like faltering torches in the fog dense street. He looked lost suddenly, hands hanging at his side, his eyes tracking her. She could have him, she realized in a flash, but she’d incinerate him and leave nothing behind but ash. She dropped her eyes from his to the sidewalk, cracked and broken under her feet. A little shock of purple wildflowers were pushing themselves up through the scarred concrete. She knelt and stubbed the cigarette out on the sidewalk. 

                                                               *   *   *

Emily McNally has written about parenting for Red Typewriter Magazine, life on the Bay Area Coast for PUNCH (Spirit of the Peninsula), and had creative non-fiction or personal essays published in Herstry Blog, Sunlight Press and Salon. Her middle grade novel, The Rabbits of Tumbledown Field, is currently out for consideration. She lives in Half Moon Bay, CA with her husband and two daughters.

Tick

by Jimmy Lis

Pandemonium precedes understanding. I know the voices of my own family, and yet, in the melee I can’t tell who shouts, “What is that?” or “There’s something on him!” My son’s cries arrive down the stairs before he does. He holds his towel in one hand, too distracted to notice it doesn’t cover his bare body.

The choir of chaos comes closer. My oldest son provides the bass, and my wife the alto. My youngest son, the soprano, yells, “I don’t want to die!”

The other children flee, either for fear of the monster half submerged in his chest or of the full-frontal nudity.

Head tilted to the heavens, my wife yells loud enough that God may hear her and descend to save her baby.

A tick hangs from my son’s chest, embedded above his right nipple. It is trying to burrow deeper, like our dog seeking shelter under the couch during a thunderstorm.

My wife’s quivering hand presses buttons on her phone. Who in our life does she consult for impromptu tick management? Is there a preexisting list, broken down by category of hazard that may befall us and the best contact? Is “tick” its own category? 

I lock away doubt to be processed later. I need to soothe the boy. 

I recall hearing about burning ticks, so I head to the kitchen for the long lighter we use on birthday candles. I rush back to my trembling, wailing son. My wife is screaming again: “You’re going to burn my baby!” She hangs up her phone call. Was she finished? Or does she feel the need for a sudden intervention?

Tweezers in hand, she quickly wipes away her tears. We both exhale like a couple about to exit a corn maze, ready to put on a happy face for the world and pretend that we had not yelled our way through, like lunatics attempting echolocation. 

“Pluck, burn, flush” she says with feigned confidence. I nod. She yanks on the resistant tick, like prying a toddler’s desperate hands from the jungle gym, and finally pulls it out. I apply flame, but it won’t die. Its legs flail like a windup toy desperately seeking traction, as it falls into the whooshing flush of the toilet.

We will spend the rest of our evening searching each other’s bodies for ticks. I will spend the rest of my life scratching phantom itches.

                                                                     *   *   *

When he is not selling sugar, Xanthan gum, and yellow #5 by day, or challenging his kids to Pokémon battles by night, Jimmy is writing feverishly in the hours before and after, attempting to make up for lost time. He graduated from Colgate University with a degree in International Relations and Asian Studies too many years ago to count. He now resides in Grand Rapids, MI, with his lovely family, about a 4-iron away from his childhood home.

Thief

~ A Work of Fiction ~

by Christina Holbrook

Summer began, and Anna followed the campus walkway that led past the lake and through immense flowering rhododendron bushes, entering by 8:45 a.m. into the silent and dimly lit sanctuary of the university’s Rare Book Library. Here, as a student summer employee, she dusted books or collected them in stacks to be treated in the Vacudyne machine for the prevention of mold. 

June passed, and the weeks of July crept by. Anna became restless. As each day of diligent cleaning and cataloguing blended into the next, loneliness and boredom weighed down on her. To her dismay, the row-upon-row, shelf-upon-shelf of mute, lifeless volumes hemmed her in and oppressed her. During the drawn-out afternoons, imagining other students with summer clerkships in busy offices, or positions on boisterous teams engaged in field research deepened her despondency. 

“I’m putting my trust in you, Anna, to hold down the fort for a few days,” the head librarian informed her on a Thursday afternoon in early August. “I’ll be out next week at the annual Rare Book Librarian’s conference.”

Anna sighed. “I don’t imagine the books will misbehave in your absence.” 

“I dare say,” remarked the prim librarian. 

The following Tuesday, alone in the hushed library and fending off an urge to doze, Anna began to catalogue a newly donated collection of correspondence. Her eyes widened with interest as she realized that the fragile notes were missives exchanged by two 19th century English poets. Every letter, folding in upon itself to become its own envelope, so very small! And with careful fingers she opened one, and then the next. Each contained just a bare line or two.

They were love letters. 

‘How surprised I was to learn of your visit, and saddened to have been away and missed you!’

‘Indeed! I had hoped to tell you in person what now I must pen in dry words — how much I admire your latest poem – and – you.’

‘Won’t you call again?’

Anna began to read the letters aloud, in the solemn quiet of the Rare Book Library: “Tell me when! And I will be at your door.”

“I beg thee, return!” Anna whispered, “Whether it be day or night!”

The desire exposed so incautiously swept Anna into the afternoon and evening. She held each precious artifact in her hands, amazed. Any one of the letters was small enough in size to fit into a pocket or handbag. So tiny! And yet every plaintiff question, every breathless reply, kindled before her eyes into a bonfire of passion. Her heart raced and her palms grew moist. Her imagination spun in a dizzy whirl of vicarious longing. 

She no longer cared to be an intern in a busy office, Anna realized. Nor one of a team of field researchers. What she wanted had to do with these letters. How did one come to experience such extravagant feelings? What was it like, to be the object of such devotion? Seated in the cool silence of antiquated books and letters, Anna woke up. She wanted more than anything else in the world to know, to possess, and to be possessed. 

                                                                         * 

Many years later, a student scrolled through the digitized collection of love letters. ‘Beloved Thief!’ she read, ‘Thou hast stolen my heart, abducted my soul! If I forsake all for thee—family, fortune, my good name—wilt thou come for me?’

The student scratched her head, and asked, “But … what did he write to her, in reply?” There was no other letter.

Now a professor of English at the university, Anna expressed surprise. Among the voluminous correspondence, Anna queried her student, one letter had been discovered missing? “A tantalizing literary mystery!” she pronounced, of the poet’s absent response. 

‘Wilt thou come for me?’ The long-dead letter writer and her lover would certainly have known the answer. And Anna knew too. 

That evening, as a path through rhododendrons to a quiet sanctuary of rare books and correspondence rose vividly in her mind, Anna crossed her study to a bookcase and pulled down a college collection of poetry. There, a single letter lay inserted among the pages, a faded sheet folded in upon itself to form an envelope. Small enough to fit into a pocket or handbag. 

                                                          *   *   *

Christina Holbrook lives in Breckenridge, Colorado. Many years ago, she spent a summer working in the Special Collections Library at Wellesley College, the repository of one of the two largest collections of letters between Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. When not writing, Christina is probably out hiking with her dog Luke and trying to avoid surprise moose encounters. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Blue Lake Review, Bombfire, City.River.Tree and others. She posts on Instagram @christinaholbrookwrites.