A Golden Window: The View from Inside

By Beate Sigriddaughter

She sits by her window, a candle lit beside her, as junipers and pinons and the birdbath fade into dusk. Later she will switch on her desk lamp. Often, she sits like this way into the night, reading, thinking, surfing the internet.

When she was a very young woman, she walked past windows just like this one with her schoolbooks in her shoulder bag, and she would be drawn to the soft-gold mystery inside, especially at dusk, especially when mist rose from the river and brisk early winter made her own breath visible. The golden glow of promise seeped into the air to enchant her like an aching dream. The light was so soft, surely those on the inside had to be happy to belong there, women and men caressing, cooking dinner, children with dolls and toy trains or leaning against their mother’s hip, later saying bedside prayers, small voices calling to each other, cats rubbing against legs. She wanted to touch those worlds, to be inside them somehow, but her place was always out in the mist, on the outside of the glow, hurrying forward into her future, stopping for just a moment.

Today, if a young woman like that walked by her window, she too might yearn toward its captivating square of gold, a solid world behind it somewhere, drawing attention. 

She is safely inside the gold now, dreaming back across the ribbons of her life. A husband, a child long grown and on his own, some music, some adventures, walking across favorite bridges, back and forth, many times. Paris once. She has done well for herself. And yet, the three big ones have always somehow eluded her. Money. Sex. God.

Okay, admittedly, there was always some money. Enough to get by, be fed, be sheltered. Enough for that one trip to Paris. Enough to pay for a friend’s lunch from time to time. Enough to wear her favorite clothes until threadbare. But not enough to build the artist’s retreat center she had once hoped to create. And not enough to visit her favorite waterfall or to dance tango in Buenos Aires.

And, yes, there had always been a little bit of sex as well. Otherwise, there would not have been her beautiful son, now roaming and romancing the tantalizing world on his own terms. Otherwise, she would not have held on to her husband who was now reading something or other elsewhere in the house. But sex had never really belonged to her. Somehow, it had always made her feel like a stranger to herself, doing her best with an assignment she knew she couldn’t ever ace, a faceless receptacle for male satisfaction. She remembers reading early on, with mild pity, about women who could never climax, and still, they claimed, it was pleasant enough, though nothing spectacular. And here she had become one of their ranks. Sometimes she wondered: Was she expecting too much? More than there was or could ever be? Sex had been promised in such shimmering shades, and then society delivered it with its sordid wrappings of contempt. It was hard to own up to the truth of all that, even to herself. Life had equipped her with desire. Her culture had transposed it into scorn and insults. She never got over that. With all her intelligence, she hadn’t been able to cross the bridge to ecstasy. A pity, yes. 

And it was the same with God. There was always a little bit of God everywhere. God hovered just in the periphery, in flowers, in rain squalls, in all that beautiful wind in juniper branches, in ocean waves and all the invisible stirrings of the nights. How she used to yearn for being one of God’s enraptured children. How she was instead repulsed by so much harsh ugliness committed in God’s name. A fervent friend once told her: when you find God, you’ll know. She was still looking. Furtively. Perhaps she was simply not chosen due to endless faults of her own. Though surely the God who had created her would not have simply created her in vain, a rough draft, languishing in the waste basket of the universe? 

And so, the hours of gold in her window progress with gratitude and melancholy contentment, with her safely inside. It is exquisite here. She remembers a time only a few years back when she had a crush on a young man who often passed her on a mountain path in those days. She saw him again on the trail yesterday. He looked older. They exchanged a few words.

She: Finally, summer is almost here.

He: I still have to build a fire at night.

She likes to think of him building a fire. 

                                                                      *   *   *

Beate Sigriddaughter, http://www.sigriddaughter.net, grew up in Nürnberg, Germany. Her playgrounds were a nearby castle and World War II bomb ruins. She lives in Silver City, New Mexico (Land of Enchantment), USA, where she was poet laureate from 2017 to 2019. Her latest collections are short stories Dona Nobis Pacem (Unsolicited Press, December 2021) and poetry Wild Flowers (FutureCycle Press, February 2022). 

A Recipe for Screaming Radicchio

By Dave Gregory

My wife bought the radicchio.

“It’ll add color and texture to the salad,” she said. “And spicy bitterness.”

We’d never eaten salad with radicchio but this meal was important. She’d bought expensive steaks because her ex-boyfriend, Roberto, was coming over. A dozen years back, before she and I met, she’d been office manager at his consulting firm, and had been great at it, but she left abruptly, when Roberto found a new girlfriend.

He’d been through many new lovers since then.

Anyway, his relationship status was irrelevant, my wife assured me.

She was desperate. We both were. The radio station, where she’d been payroll manager for the past decade, went off the air six months earlier. I’d been on disability twice that long, battling chronic pain – on less than half my regular salary. Our savings had evaporated. We’d sold our television, her album collection, and my grandmother’s jewelry.

Apparently, her former boss no longer dated staff and my wife wanted her old job back. It paid well. At least Roberto had always been professional and respectful. Except for the cheating part. And the power imbalance.

“What do I do with radicchio?” I asked, holding this white-veined, mulberry wine-shaded thing. It made me nervous. It elevated the dull ache in my lower back to a grinding pulse.

“Peel it apart and wash the leaves in the sink, just like you would with lettuce.”

The cabbage-like shape reminded me of a doll’s head, a tiny skull: rounded at the back, flatter on top, and a curved expanse where eyes belonged.

As a young boy, I developed a notion that dolls were sinister. My mom kept four one-third-sized, creepy mannequins above the living room couch, on a shelving unit built into the wall. It was completely impractical – with the sofa in the way, everything on those long, white-painted boards was out of reach. Heavy books cluttered two lower shelves: Proust, Baudelaire, Byron, Dostoyevsky – books we never read, books my father inherited before dying of a heart attack when I was seven. The dolls had moveable limbs and could stand on their own. They wore frilly dresses, had wavy brown ringlets, and eyelids that opened and closed.

They just sat there, looking down. Scrutinizing. Planning. Waiting.

Only once did I ever play with dolls. Not my mom’s, but smaller, less-threatening ones. I was eight or nine. Twin girls, my age, lived across the hall and we were together all the time – playing hide and seek, Monopoly, or horsing around in the park. The girls had their Barbies out one day, so I joined in. They owned a Ken doll. I moved its limbs, spoke for it, and made it interact with their girl dolls.

My brother came and called me for dinner. He was two years older and believed he had to fill the “dad shoes” in our family. He saw me holding blue-scarfed Ken, burst into laughter, and called me a faggot.

From then on, at least once a week, he’d get up early, climb onto the couch, and retrieve one of Mom’s dolls. He’d stand it next to my bed. I’d awake to that invasive face and jolt in terror. Or he’d scratch the bathroom door while I was busy inside. I’d swing it open to find a thigh-high figure, arms raised, eyes piercing, her expression menacingly neutral.

But that was decades ago and this was just a radicchio, a bitter chicory for the salad we’d serve my wife’s ex-lover.

My brother and I gave away the dolls and books when we emptied the apartment following Mom’s rapid and agonizing death from colorectal cancer. I was twenty-one then. My brother was only three years away from the highway accident that would claim him one icy night.

The head felt alive. Soft as flesh, fibrous, organic, fragile enough to squeeze and burst. I pictured a tiny radicchio brain beneath that blushing purple skin. Amygdala electrified by fury.

I filled the sink and held the produce underwater until I was sure nothing could hold its breath that long. The distraction helped me forget my radiating back pain.

I lifted the vegetal skull, searched for a crinkly edge, and peeled a single layer. Two tiny slits appeared below the forehead.

They opened. Bright white scleras, and irises dark as plum, projected anger and hostility. It knew I’d attempted murder.

My knees weakened. Joints flared. 

The radicchio’s eyes watered. Rancor changed to fear and vulnerability. 

I didn’t notice the mouth until its lips parted. The blood-colored orifice gaped wider. Teeth bared, tongue flapping, breath and vibration crescendoed into a steady scream. I joined in. Our wail grew louder than the grinding gears of a rusty engine, running on life’s bitter rage.

                                                             *   *   *

Dave Gregory is a Canadian writer, a retired sailor, and editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles-based literary journal Five South. His work has most recently appeared in Orange Blossom Review, Welter & The Summerset Review. Please follow him on Twitter @CourtlandAvenue.

In Search of Good Hair Days

A Memoir by Karen Zey

I beg for weeks, fed up with my wispy straight hair. Getting a perm hurts, Mom warns. You’re too young. I plead my case. I’m ten and the oldest. I can take it. Pl-e-a-s-e. When a Toni Home Perm kit appears on the kitchen counter, my tummy goes aflutter. Mom winds tissue-wrapped strands of my hair around pink plastic rods as thin as chicken bones. The ammonia stench makes my eyes water. The egg timer tick-tick-ticks, then she rinses off the solution. Voila! In the mirror, a corona of princess-pretty curls. But after a couple of months, my hair’s gone straight with frizzy ends. I put aside fairy tales and turn to Nancy Drew, a clever girl with a smooth bob. 

***

At 19, I consider myself a serious thinker. Parted down the middle, my college hair cascades down my back. Long and straight like Joni Mitchell’s, as smooth as a love song lyric, but chestnut brown rather than Joni’s garden-gold. In my bell bottom jeans and swinging hair, I hunt for new ideas. Truth from the poets and politicians. Justice in the streets. Love in the embrace of a boy with dark shaggy locks, wire-frame glasses and big words bubbling from his mouth. I don’t remember who grows tired of whom first. My vague heartache lingers, but before commencement day, I cut my hair shoulder-length.

***

Weddings require serious dos. Elaborate curls pinned into a chignon; a feat of elegance sprayed in place to last the ceremony. Vows spoken from the heart to a blond man with kind eyes and a beard. Til death do us part. How long do beautiful things last? A decade until an aneurysm wipes out our forever life, and my world goes dark with pain. Grief claws at my skin. Nighttime brings jagged sobs, which I smother to avoid waking my little one in his crib. I wake up groggy and stumble out of bed with racoon eyes. Tie the mess on my head into a haphazard ponytail. Love for a two-year-old with his father’s blond hair saves me. The joys of motherhood propel me onward. Slowly, slowly, I find solace in the memories of how I once loved a man deeply and was loved in return. 

***

Daycare drop-off, teaching between bells, grocery pick-up, healthy dinners, homework- bath-bedtime story. A handful of disastrous blind dates set up by well-meaning friends help me settle into almost-comfortable singlehood. I focus on cubs and skating lessons, visits with my out-of-town sisters, a job transfer to a new school. Perched in the hairdresser’s chair, I ask my guy for something low-maintenance. He cuts my hair in layers and suggests highlights. I’m not a mousy brown person at heart, and my head is soon festooned with foil. It will cost me every six to eight weeks, but at least I’m putting my best face forward—framed by the best coif I can afford. 

***

Midlife holds surprises. Romance leads to a second wedding and a happiness I thought I’d never see again. Two teachers at the supper table absorbed in school talk, two parents reining in a teenager’s high jinks, two soulmates making time for dinner dates. A busy and contented life. My highlights stay but I opt for shorter hair. A long as I don’t look like my elderly mother with her cap of permed curls. I wield different brushes, use the latest in foaming mousse—but somehow, I’ve curated her hairstyle. I like your hair short, my 85-year-old mother says. Long hair ages older women. Mom always speaks her mind. When the new century arrives, my mirror reflects the truth. I look more and more like her.

***

Retirement pushes me into new creative ventures, none of which involve changing my hair. In a youthful literary landscape, how much truth should my author photo reveal? A thinking woman can embrace going grey—or colour and style her hair in whatever way she damn well pleases. Like keeping expensive layers of garden-gold highlights. Until COVID turns the world upside down. Giving up visits to the hairdresser becomes a safety precaution, a minor loss amid the worries. My mousy brown grows out, with one silvery hank on the left, from forehead to chin. When my hair reaches my shoulders, I think about Mom and the gleam of scissors in my bathroom cabinet. After some coaxing, hubby trims my straggly ends. Here I am, an old woman fussing over her hair, yearning to be present and presentable in this vast, changing world. 

                                                                *   *   *

Karen Zey is a Canadian writer from la belle ville de Pointe-Claire, Quebec. Her CNF has appeared in Porcupine Literary, Five Minutes, Bright Flash Literary Review, (mac)ro(mic), Potato Soup Journal and other fine places. Karen leads the Circle of Life Writers workshops at her community library. You can follow her micro-musings about life and writing on Twitter @zippyzey

Snowball

By Jon Krampner

On the second floor of the old Doria Apartments at the corner of Pico and Union, Ed Fernandez was having trouble sleeping again. This had been happening since his wife Delia had died last year. As he padded through the living room on his way to the kitchen for a 2 am snack, he heard a light scratching sound at his front door.

Putting on the chain lock and cautiously peering out, he saw Snowball, the midnight-black cat owned by Monica Messina across the hall. He removed the chain lock and, out of habit, reached down to pet Snowball. But instead of her usual rising to his touch, she emitted several high-pitched meows, turned away and headed back across the hall, re-entering Monica’s apartment.

Ed and Delia knew Monica as the most indulgent and affectionate of cat owners. She played with Snowball, took her to the vet at the drop of a hat, bought her toys, and fed her the best cat food, which couldn’t have been easy on her social worker’s salary, especially since she had to take care of her own diabetes as well. An indigenous Guatemalan, she had been brought to the US by her parents as an infant in the late ’80’s after they wearied of the US-sponsored government’s endless assaults against their community.  

Ed blinked confusedly –  the cat’s edges seemed oddly indistinct, but of course he hadn’t bothered to put on his glasses for a midnight infusion of junk food. 

Monica’s door didn’t appear to be ajar, but must have been to allow Snowball back in. 

Ed stumbled across the hall to shut it.

But it was locked.

Ed was now awake enough to remember that Snowball had died three weeks ago of feline leukemia and that her ashes rested on the mantelpiece over the fireplace in Monica’s living room. But he had seen Snowball! He wondered if this was a dream, but he was just standing there in the hallway getting hungry for a Twinkie. If this was a dream, something would have happened by now. 

He knocked on Monica’s door and rang the bell several times, but was only met by the enveloping silence of the night. He went downstairs onto the Pico Avenue side of the building. Looking up, he could see the light of the TV flickering from Monica’s bedroom window.

“Miss Messina, Miss Messina, are you okay?” he called out. “It’s me, Ed Fernandez from across the hall. Are you okay, Miss Messina?”

A window opened, but it was Josefina Vasquez, the young woman who lived a flight up from Monica. She worked for one of those new taxi companies – was it Flyte? Ed couldn’t keep up with all the new businesses that grew out of the electronic things people carried around with them.

“Keep it down, viejecito,” Josefina cried out. “Some of us still have to work for a living!” 

And there was Ed on the sidewalk, getting goosebumps from the chill night air.

He went back upstairs. Although he didn’t like to raise a fuss, he called 911.

“What is your emergency, please?” 

“It’s my neighbor,” he said. “Something’s wrong.”

“Could you speak up a little, sir? I can barely hear you.”

“There’s something wrong with my neighbor.”

“And what might that be?”

He could say that her cat, which had run out of all its nine lives, had just knocked at his door, but was afraid the dispatcher might think it was a prank call.

“I heard a scream,” he said. “Please have the police come by to check on her.”

“Will do, sir.” 

The patrol car arrived 15 minutes later. Two officers, a stocky young black woman and a slender middle-aged Latino, knocked on his door. Ed explained the situation, minus the business with Snowball.

“What apartment is the manager in?” the black woman asked. Ed told her, and she returned with him a few minutes later. Ed followed them into Monica’s apartment. She was lying face-down on the floor next to her bed. CNN was on the TV.

The Latino officer turned her over.

“She still has a pulse,” he said, and then, into his radio, “Get an ambulance over to 1602 West Pico on the double. We may be able to pull this one out.” Ed stayed until the ambulance arrived and took her to County/USC, then made short work of  two Twinkies and went back to bed.

Early the next morning his phone rang. It was a nurse at County/USC. Monica had been skimping on her insulin and gone into insulin shock, but was going to be okay. He had saved her life.

When Monica got home a few days later, she rang Ed’s bell and gave him a gift certificate to the Numero Uno Market. He tried to graciously refuse, but she wouldn’t hear of it.

“How did you know to call for help?” she asked. “I was trying to get to the phone when the room just started spinning…”

“It was just kind of instinct,” he said.

“Instinct based on what?”

“Well…you see…Snowball came to my door…”

Monica glared at him. “What kind of joke is this?”

“She scratched at the door, just like she always did – “ he paused, trying to figure out which words would make sense.

“I’ll always be in your debt, Mr. Fernandez,” she said angrily. “But this is a cruel joke. And the police or EMTs knocked over her urn and scattered the ashes. Now I have to sweep them up and put them back in the urn.”

She seemed more upset by what had happened to Snowball’s ashes than to herself – typical, Ed thought. Oddly, he remembered, when Snowball was still alive, she loved to jump up on the mantelpiece, sometimes knocking over the souvenirs Monica had up there.

Back in her apartment, Monica thought about what good neighbors Ed and Delia had been – looking after Snowball when she had to travel for work or was in the hospital with complications from diabetes. During her first year in the building she had watched Delia go from a cheerful, welcoming woman full of tips about life in this country to a gaunt, hollow shell as her body increasingly betrayed her.

Monica called the precinct and spoke with the Latino officer who had come that night. He defensively said they hadn’t gone anywhere near the mantelpiece and suggested she call the EMT’s. 

When she spoke to the crew leader, she asked if they might have knocked over the urn on the living room mantelpiece as they wheeled her out.

“No, ma’am,” the EMT said with a nasal Upper Midwestern twang. “The first thing I saw when we entered was that the urn had been knocked over and its contents spilled. I noticed because the rest of the apartment was so neat. Could you have knocked it over when you fell?”

“I fell in the bedroom.”

“Could you have wandered into the bedroom from the living room?”

“I wasn’t in the living room all evening. I was watching the news in my – “

“Ma’am, I don’t know what to tell you. But none of my people knocked it over. We’re sorry it happened, but we’re glad you’re okay.”

“I see,” Monica said, not sure that she did. “Well, thanks again. I can’t tell you how grateful I am.”

“Sure thing, ma’am.”

As Monica got off the phone, she looked at the food, both wet and dry, which she had left out the day Snowball died, and which she still hadn’t thrown out. Maybe the light was playing tricks on her, but the dishes had been full and no longer were.

Could she have done more to save Snowball? Monica did the best she could on her social worker’s salary. The Americans supported the dictator in her country, forcing out indigenous people like herself. So now she was here, helping to take care of people whose burdens were more than they could bear, and was paid so little for it. Americans didn’t value her people, and, it seemed, they didn’t value their own, either.

Monica squinted interrogatively at the cat food, then shrugged her shoulders and decided she had put out less than she remembered. 

Just before 5 pm, her boss called.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” he said. Then, clearing his throat anxiously, he added, “Is there any chance you can come in tomorrow? We’re really short staffed.”

“It’s no problem, Mr. Gonzalez.” 

“Great,” he said. “It’ll be good to have you back.”

She went back to the living room, swept up as much of Snowball’s ashes as she could get into the urn and placed it back on the mantelpiece. It was time to throw out Snowball’s food. Then Monica set out her work clothes for tomorrow. It was going to be a long day, and she’d have to get up early.

                                       *   *   *

Jon Krampner’s short stories and flash fiction have appeared (or soon will) in Across the Margin, Eunoia Review, Between These Shores, and No Bars And a Dead Battery (Owl Canyon Press). He lives in Los Angeles and is sarcastic in three languages. 

 

 

 

Hangover

By N.T. Chambers

Drac awoke reluctantly with the New Orleans sunset, one eye at a time, his head throbbing and craving a lake, or at least a few gallons of liquid, to gulp, as long as it wasn’t red. The 1st of November was always predictably unhealthy for him. Lying in his tattered, over-stuffed coffin, he grimaced noticing that he barely fit its confines due to his seasonal bloating. 

Ah, Halloween!  So sweet, so opportunistic, so…fattening! His body ached from last night’s binging and fears of acne pirouetted in his mind, partnered with scary visions of cavity- ridden fangs. His tongue, coated with  remnants of chocolate, licorice and, remarkably, peppermint, remained thick, fuzz-encrusted and immobile. He smirked to himself, “Must’ve been something I drank,” searching desperately for anything the least bit moist to drain.

The sugar-laden and inebriated faces of the previous evening floated namelessly in his memory like so many moons in an infinity of sighs. Why did he bother? Each year that singular night was polluted with amateurs, much the same as Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day – and his pancreas, or whatever was left of it, overworked and swollen, loudly threatened him with a bout of insulin shock. It was a pity that doctors refused to make any more house calls to his neighborhood he thought, while scrubbing his fangs with his tongue.

Sitting up slowly, he congratulated himself that he never bothered with children. He found their smell and squeaky voices – well, displeasing – far too jarring for his uber-senses. But adults, with their dramatic capes and wings, armed with plastic phosphorescent fangs glowing in the dark, scurrying haphazardly from party to party like so many vermin in a neon-lit alley – that was an entirely different pot-o-platelets. He smiled, recalling the utterly surprised look they all displayed when they met the real deal. Adrenalin flowing full throttle, he could distinctly hear their hearts pushing the sucrose-saturated nectar fiercely into the jugular as he savored the softflesh and rich ambrosia.

Ages earlier he had tried to mix it up a bit. One season his menu consisted solely of elderly eastern Europeans, with garlic garlands wrapped smugly around their necks. He had such a taste for pasta back then!

Another Fall he chose old Italian priests exclusively, crucifixes trembling in hand while spilling their deviant confessions, and fear-induced urine, as he dispatched them to whatever afterlife they deserved. They all tasted just a tad too metallic for his gustatory pleasure, but for some reason he always enjoyed the fragrance of incense mingled with melting beeswax. He chuckled at the memory of it.

Eventually, the New World beckoned, with its promise of an unlimited and diverse human medley. 

It took some time, (and having nothing but, he had no concern), to acclimate himself to such an enormous array of flavors: Polish one night, Chinese the next, Italian each Wednesday, French whenever – such a smorgasbord! 

Each quaff of blood offered its own unique saltiness, but the nuances of peppers, cumin, salsa, curry, basil, soy, cardamon and all the saporous spices that flowed within were just so…well…delectable! He truly found it to be heaven – or as close as he was ever going to get to heaven. It was little wonder his Armani tux was getting just a bit too snug for his sensibilities. Somewhat sadly, he admitted to himself that even after all these years, he was still a slave to fashion.

For an old guy, his hormones still worked fairly well and he wondered if Nina had yet arisen from her own casket and if she had been pleased by the sleek black satin gown he had draped next to her sarcophagus. It was her favorite color. He dreaded the timeless question she undoubtedly would ask:

Does this make me look fat?” 

As if…He shook his head in disbelief and wondered if she were ever going to fully get it, but she was still a looker…soooooo.  He envisioned her brushing that golden hair and pinching her cheeks for some color.

No, he resigned himself to the fact that she was never going to get it. Oh well. 

With blurry vision he peered through the dreary vault’s gloom, searching in vain for his zoophagous servant, Renfield. No doubt he’d be whimpering somewhere in the shadows with his plate of fresh rats before him. He contemplated sending him out for some uncooked steaks. He’d have to be certain to spell it out for his familiar to make certain no to confuse him. S-t-e-a-k – the slave had gotten so absent-minded lately.

Had Renfield developed a taste for something new? Cats, perchance? They were certainly still in season for a few more days. He would read his mind later to discover the cause of Renfield’s recent forgetfulness, hoping that the asylum hadn’t undone his own work.

A bit later he planned that they would burn off some calories by doing a few fly-bys around the city – just to scare the locals and shake out the cobwebs from their own heads following yesterday’s gluttony.

Besides, it wouldn’t hurt to air out their dusty garments. Slightly annoyed, he decided that they really needed to cut down on their yearly dry-cleaning bills. Eternity, as it turned out, was not cheap.

                                                                     *   *   *

N.T. Chambers has led an interesting life on the way to becoming a writer. Among many jobs held were: cab driver, bus mechanic, sales drone, pizza deliverer, wine merchant, improv actor, editor, educator, professional counselor, and, of course, every writer’s “go to” job – bartender. Each and every position helped to stockpile a wealth of experiences from which to cull ideas and characters for both poems and stories. A native of Chicago, the author has traveled extensively throughout the U.S. and currently resides and writes in the high desert of Arizona, accompanied by an elderly English bulldog named Shep.

 

Fibonnaci’s Wife Figures Out Love

By Hilary Ayshford

Me.

You. 

We two. 

Together as one. 

Till death us do part. 

Or until one of us has had enough.

Or perhaps we will be the lucky ones who grow together, not apart.

But only if we can learn to tolerate each other’s faults and accept that neither of us is anything like perfect.

So I will not complain when you leave your dirty shirts and socks on the bedroom floor, or put empty bottles back in the fridge, or pick drink-fueled fights over absolutely nothing at all.

And in return you will come to accept that, even though we are a couple, I am not an extension of you; that I am my own person capable of thinking and reasoning for myself and therefore will not always agree with you or take your side if I think you are in the wrong. 

People say that they love each other to the moon and back, but I want to measure our love in parsecs, to feel it streaming out past planets and stars and galaxies, through nebulae, spiraling out to the point where everything began in darkness and emptiness; but wait, no, I don’t want blackness and silence – I want sound and fury, fiery arguments, blinding battles, dazzling displays of reconciliation, and if we are going to implode, let it be with a bang that shakes the universe to its core.

                                                                       *   *   *

Hilary Ayshford is a former science journalist and editor living in rural Kent in the UK. She loves all short forms of fiction, and her work has been published by Retreat West, Funny Pearls, Syncopation Literary Journal and Trembling with Fear, among others. She is currently working on a novella-in-flash.

Coughing Fits

By Andrew Martin

Do not cough. Do not think about the tickling little wisp of cotton fluttering in the back of your throat. Do not breathe deeply, because oxygen gives life to the spark. Do not roll over, even though your back is sweaty and your sheet is wrapped so tightly around your foot it’s like a tourniquet. If you cough, you will hear Dad’s voice like a Mastiff bark from downstairs. If you cough, you will hear creaking floorboards as Dad rounds the base of the stairs. Imagine instead orange medicine, tucked in a wooden kitchen cabinet, down the stairs, away from this cramped room you share with your brother, with lines spiderwebbing across the cracked plaster ceiling overhead like lightning bolts. If you imagine the smooth, citrusy elixir gliding over the back of your raw throat, maybe you won’t have to climb down from this whining, box spring mattress and step down those creaking, fragile stairs. Maybe you won’t have to wake Dad, who has a hairpin trigger on sleep. When the tickling builds to a crescendo though, you do cough, and you do hear a rising groan from downstairs, like a dozing guard dog growling at the sound of an intruder.

Do not fidget, no matter how much it tickles when the razor trims the hair on the back of your neck. Do not squirm. The hairdresser warned you that she will snip your little ear off if you wiggle again. You’re ok. Mom is right there, next to the other moms in this JC Penney hair salon that smells like red Starbursts. She is reading USA Today and waving away the clouds of hairspray that are currently tickling your nostrils and esophagus and chest. 

Focus on the springy plastic of the bus seat rumbling beneath you. If you cough or shiver or think about how soaked your armpits have become, the teacher will turn this bus around and you will not be allowed to come on the field trip to the Children’s Museum. Think about the cavernous IMAX theater that awaits you, and the greasy slices of cheese pizza on paper plates, and the water clock, tall as a skyscraper, that is filled with bubbling, colorful liquid. Think about the T-Rex skeleton. Think about how your mom’s station wagon could fit in her chest cavity. It is spacious and clean in there.

Shawn is sleeping. He stayed up until 3 a.m. playing Dota on a PC he built himself. You do not know him well yet, and though he leaves piles of clothes like cow pies across your small IKEA carpet, and his Jimmy Johns sandwich is unwrapped and currently attracting fruit flies on his desk, he is all you have in this new place, where meeting people feels like learning a new language. Climb quietly down your loft ladder and pour yourself a teaspoon of orange nectar. Sip it. Feel it tranquilize your jumpy neurons, scrub the grimy folds of your anxious mind clean and pink. Examine the droplets on the plastic cup, lit by the misty morning light coming through your dorm window. Cough once. Hear Shawn stir. Cough again. See him pull his pillow over his head.

You’re going to disrupt the ceremony. You can cough in Jamaica, on the beach, next to Cora, the woman who is now your wife. The first time you met, she said she heard your cough from across the bar, and that it sounded like an exotic bird squawking in the jungle, and you snorted so hard into your rum and Coke that it sprayed little red droplets across the bar counter, and she literally fell off her stool laughing.

The baby’s finally asleep.

The Grinch is playing on TV, and Cora is playing blocks with Elle on the clean carpet of your new home, and this recliner is molded like marshmallow around your tired body. And here, if you need to cough, you can do it, because to Cora and Elle your cough sounds as natural as a bird in a tree. Protected by these walls, cluttered with family photos and posters of places the three of you have visited – Zion, Yellowstone, the Space Needle – your coughing is both loud and silent. Your coughing here is both warmly welcomed and beautifully ignored.

Here. Imagine the looks on the faces of everyone in the paper goods aisle of this Ralph’s Grocery if you were to cough right now. Coughing is an admission of guilt. It always has been. You should not be in public if you have a tickle in the back of your throat. That is what Dr. Fauci says every evening on the television. But Dr. Fauci doesn’t understand that your wife can’t drink coffee without creamer and your daughter won’t eat hot dogs without ranch, even if it is a once-in-a-generation pandemic. Plus, you want some Mini Powdered Donettes. So grab some hand sanitizer, even if they only have the stuff that smells like vanilla schnapps. Then grab a container of orange cough medicine, the brand your mom used to keep in the wooden cabinet in her tiny, cluttered kitchen. Shake it, listen to it slosh. Then get back home and cough all you want. Cough, cough, cough. Cough in the place where you feel whole and free.

                                                                

                                                                *   *   *

Andrew Martin is a writer living in Indianapolis, Indiana. His work has appeared or been shortlisted in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Craft Literary, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and elsewhere.

Golem

 

 By Anna Stolley Persky

A girl has disappeared in the woods behind our house, that is a fact. I can guess what happened to her. 

The police officer stands solid at the screen door, asking my mom and me if we have any insight into the girl’s disappearance. He stares especially at me, probably because I am a teenager and, as a teenager, always suspected of doing something wrong. And my hair is longer than he likely thinks it should be, and I cast a rebel shadow over his feet flat law-enforcement stance. Maybe he thinks I’m hiding something. The truth is I am. 

Teri Lynn’s been gone since early this morning, off to play in the woods, maybe dip her fingers in the stream, like she’d probably done before, but maybe not on her own. She’s only eight years old.

The neighbors are flocking out of their split foyer homes. They call out her name, “Teri Lynn, Teri Lynn,” their flashlights dancing light across the sky. They gather in the middle of the street, gearing up to charge into the dark brush, onto the dirt path that snakes from our neighborhood to the next, and then the next. 

I think she’s gone. I think she’s been eaten, limb-by-limb. I think I know who did it.

#

It’s been six years since the rainy afternoon I created Golem. I wanted a protector from all the bad things in my life. My parents’ divorce. The kids that called me names and shoved me down at the playground. Deep in the woods, I formed Golem from desperation and dripping soil because that’s how magic works. I molded a round stomach, stump legs, holes for eyes, bulky arms, and closed fists for punching, but only if necessary for defense, of course. I gave him a gaping mouth, which meant he always looks surprised, maybe aghast at the world in which he was born. The truth is, though, he never protected me from anything. 

For almost a year, I hid him in the skunk cabbage and checked on him every afternoon, as he grew larger and larger, until he towered over me, although he could shrink down when he didn’t want to be seen. But he started talking, as magic creatures do, asking questions I couldn’t answer. 

Golem got hungrier and more resentful, and I shouted at him one day, repulsed, as a struggling baby fox dangled from his mouth.

“Put the baby down,” I said.

Golem kept chewing through a chunk of fur.

The next day Golem told me: “I have learned all I can from you. It’s time for you to leave my kingdom.”

“How can you do this to me? If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t be alive.”

“You think you created me?” Golem laughed. “I created you.” 

#

“Why don’t we go with them and help, Adam?” my mom says, as the officer turns from us and strides towards the search party, which is looking more like an angry mob. Mr. Wallace is saying, “It’s those damn immigrants that took her,” and someone else is saying, “Hell yeah,” and I am thinking about what Golem can hear and what, if anything, he will do when the crowd descends upon his territory, his kingdom. Even though I haven’t seen him in years, I have always felt him out there, lurking.

I wonder if Golem ate Teri Lynn in one slurpy gulp and then spat out her bones close to the path. Maybe her body parts will be strewn on the banks of the stream or in a sloppy pile by an ironwood tree. Maybe Golem swallowed her whole, a secret forever obscured by his belly. 

“Nah,” I say. “I’ll stay here. Maybe you should too. Who knows what’s out there?” I don’t really want my mom and Golem to meet, because if Golem is now taking to consuming humans, he might find her a tasty option. 

My mom looks at me with a frown pulling her wrinkles deeper around her lips. 

“I’m going,” she says. I can see she is in her own way as suspicious of me as the police officer was, and maybe it is worse, because she knows me at least a little better than he does. I let her go.

#

The searchers spend all night in the woods. They find nothing, no Golem, no Teri Lynn. The police comb the area the following day, and the day after that, until they are sure there is no trace of her, no DNA, no abandoned shoe. The prevailing theory is that a stranger from elsewhere lured Teri Lynn from the path and into a car, but the police check all the cameras and come up empty. 

My mom joins up with a neighborhood watch, cruises the streets to keep them safe from murderers. I start driving lessons with an old woman who chain smokes, throws her cigarette butts in the street while I am at the wheel. I don’t tell her to stop because I need her to like me, give me good marks so I can get my license.

On the morning of my final lesson, I open up the garage. There, in front of our Subaru, is a neat stack of thin bones and a child’s skull.

I don’t know if it’s a warning, a present or a reminder of something I don’t quite understand yet. I know the bones are impossibly white, licked clean.

*   *   *

Anna Stolley Persky, a lawyer and award-winning journalist, lives in Northern Virginia. She’s pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at George Mason University. Her fiction has been published in Mystery Tribune, The Satirist, Five on the Fifth, The Write Launch, VOIS, and The Plentitudes. Her poetry has been published in the Sad Girls Club Literary Blog, You Might Need to Hear This, Washington Writers’ Publishing House, and The Closed Eye Open. Her creative nonfiction has been published in The Washington Post.

Weeds and Roots

Creative nonfiction

By Amy Wilson

After my husband yanked our newborn son from my arms in a fit of rage and subsequently hurled his Bud Lite bottle toward my head, and after he tried to kick my head during my game of solitaire on our living room floor, the thought crossed my mind that if I didn’t start appropriately using my head, then it would likely soon be smashed in. 

In consequence, I gathered my engorged breasts, several diapers, and one bag of animal cookies, and my son and I traveled to West Virginia, the place of my childhood. Since I found myself faced with the responsibility of establishing, from scratch, a safe and solid foundation on which to build our new life, it made sense to begin with the obvious, with what was familiar. 

That is how I ended up in the Bellview Cemetery, pulling weeds from among the long forgotten grave markers and spreading them, with the loosed dirt from their roots, underneath my bare feet. Weeds choke out the good, and it was good to pull them up and put them to use. The dead among the weeds, buried under the weeds, would not miss them. If the dead could talk – and likely they were that day – they might actually have thanked me for such a kindness. I did not hear them because this moment was for myself, and the seriousness of the weed project merited silent concentration, except for a distant lawn mower sputtering intermittently on Highland Avenue, which could not be helped.

“They are nothing but a nuisance,” sweet old Ruby Wise declared regarding the weeds, approving of my effort here in the cemetery, which happened to be situated against the property of the house she lived in when she was alive, the house where she served me coffee in a white Corelle mug trimmed in green after Sunday School. She would be 115 years old now.

Another corpse, anonymous, agreed. “They choke the grass, and the grass gives me pleasure.”

Another chimed in, critically, “What kind of messed up girl would want weeds to spread under her feet? Why not daisies or mums or petals from a rose? Why not Spanish Moss? Or bright purple Morning Glories?” This one was a poet at heart, back in his day.

Another pointed out, “Morning Glories are just as bad as weeds, so don’t even get me started.”

Then someone who once knew me as a child said, “That girl who is pulling them up from the earth – she is trying to fix her mess. She is trying to deal with the death and debris of the terror. She must start here, among the dead, pulling up what is left that still has a root to offer.”

Spanish Moss certainly would have looked better than the weeds I found, but that was no matter. I spread the weeds, the shaken-loose soil, and the roots of the weeds beneath me, and I stood straight and tall, my feet not moving as I absorbed the new earth I had created below me. Then, eventually, I sprouted, my own roots joining with the weeds, spreading and thickening, like the bold blue Interstate 79 line on the map, stretching up and down through West Virginia, up through Pennsylvania, and through the  of grave sites of my Grandma Greta, Aunt Ruth, and Molly, a local artist renowned for her silhouettes of kindergarteners, her laughter like a Miracle Gro, inspiring the proliferation of joy.

“Hand me my son,” I announced to no one in particular, feeling strong, my arms outstretched like the roots themselves, my fingers tingling, a Live Oak, building and growing and becoming green and budding with the possibility of a flower. It was Spring time, after all, and even though I strived for a bright orange hibiscus (unlikely in the West Virginia climate) I would settle for even a dandelion, any sort of proof of progress. I waited as the orange sun set, bright as the hibiscus I wanted to be that glowed neon against the backdrop of Waimea Falls where my son was conceived. It set over and over again, many evenings on end, my profile a silhouette that Molly drew from the ashes in her urn.

My baby attached himself to me. Who brought him? Brother Chapman from the New Life Worship Center? Jesus? The voices from the earth? Or, ostensibly, he swam to me through a canal of room temperature Chardonnay. Or was it vitamin B- infused amniotic fluid? Or blood? – and as he fed from me, he, too, began to sprout, developing roots and strength, and through my milk I imparted hope. 

Then, somehow, we survived.

                                           *   *   *

Amy Wilson is a mother, educator, and crisis hotline worker for her local domestic violence shelter. Her analyses of attachment and loneliness in the contemporary vampire story have been presented at academic and pop culture conferences throughout the United States. She is a sucker for love and banana peppers and writes for clarity.