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Month: October 2020

Fall, Crash, Survive

by Helen Beer

 

[Editor’s Note: This piece is part of the “Topical” series, with each piece solely submitted to and chosen by the Final Reader Pietra Dunmore.]

 

Allison gripped the dainty handrail as she descended the steep wooden stairs, a standard precaution against wayward cats who often raced by, and through, her feet. Lately, though, the practice had felt particularly critical. The dreams of falling had come so frequently and been so vivid in detail—her flattened body at the base of the stairs, bones shattered, her screams like siren calls to her three cats.

They started soon after the call from Ben. When the landline phone rang, back in late March, Allison ignored it, assuming it was a robocall. When she heard Ben’s voice on the answering machine, she ran to grab it, but tripped over Perseus instead. As she lay unceremoniously on the parlor floor, contemplating the Berber rug’s intricate pattern, she listened intently.

“Hey, Allison. So, I’m off the ice, and back in New Zealand, but uh… looks like my flights home are all canceled due to this virus thing, and the travel folks at USAP aren’t being particularly helpful, so, yeah… it’s Plan B time. Looks like I might be staying here. Don’t know how long, but Kate and Robby have already said I can stay with them for, you know, however long this thing lasts. They’ve got a sweet place in Nelson, plenty of room, so, yeah… anyway, Al, from what I hear, things are far safer here than…”

Beep.

Allison remained splayed, staring into the eyes of Perseus; his jade-colored Bengal eyes stared back at her. “Fuck,” she said. “Five months in Antarctica, and now he’s stuck in New Zealand. That’s just great.”

The details relayed in Ben’s call were soon repeated in an e-mail, with the addition of his typical sign-off: “Love ya, Al. Ben.”

Allison decided she would wait a day to respond to Ben’s e-mail, thinking perhaps plans may have changed—that Ben might, indeed, have found a way to get home. But she was wrong. She woke up to another e-mail from Ben, received sometime in the middle of the night.

“Plan B it is. Sorry. This can’t last long. We’ll laugh about it in another month when I get home, right? I’ll stay in touch by e-mail. Calls are way too expensive. Love ya, Al. Ben.”

The walls closed in as Allison read the words, then reread them once more for good measure. As she leaned towards her laptop screen, squinting, she slipped off her balance stool, and onto the hardwood floor of her home office. “Shit,” she said, to Marcus and Gabby, the two Siamese siblings who’d come running to check out the crashing sound.

The e-mails from Ben continued, weekly, through the months of April and May, with cheerful news about New Zealand’s competent handling of the virus, the “tight bubble” he, Kate and Robby had established, and the flora and fauna encountered on his daily runs. “There’s this fat kereru that waits for me every morning. He’s my buddy!” Allison’s dreams continued, while she hunkered down within her fortress, relying on delivery services for all her needs, and the cats’.

Allison had always been something of a recluse, so this new pandemic routine wasn’t particularly foreign to her. She’d worked for the same bank, in a remote position in compliance, since college graduation. She’d lived in this narrow Charleston row house—“squashed, like a slim volume of poetry between two whopping dictionaries” was Ben’s description, with long hallways, a narrow staircase, two tiny bedrooms, an even tinier office, a parlor instead of a living room, a cramped galley kitchen, two closet-sized bathrooms, and balconies larger than any interior room—since her grandmother had left it to her, along with Perseus, Marcus and Gabby. It was as creaky as her grandmother had been in the years before she passed, but also just as solid and resilient.

Grandma had been a widow her entire adult life, having lost her young husband in “The Great War,” while pregnant with her only child, Allison’s dad. An accountant, she’d always been “militantly self-sufficient,” according to her son, and an astute businesswoman who bought and flipped houses in Charleston long before the practice was a “thing.” The row house had been her parents’, and she lived in it her entire life; she died there peacefully, surrounded by cats, Allison by her side.

There were rumors the place was haunted, and Grandma was a believer. Allison had always been a skeptic—until the dreams had begun. She began sleeping with the hall lights on, fearful she’d trip over a cat on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, even though all cats remained curled in her bed when she got up to pee.

By June, Ben’s e-mails became infrequent, as he was spending more time trekking about the South Island. He’d always been the dreamer to her pragmatist, working seasonally in Antarctica and Greenland, urging Allison to “let loose.” Now she was reliving nightmares in some weird loop, and wrangling audits by day. But she never told him about the dreams, knowing he’d only laugh at her, dismissing her haunted house fears as “ridiculous.” The fact she couldn’t confide in him was the proverbial last straw; the recent, detached tone of his e-mails only confirmed her feelings. She was convinced he loved her for her house, squashed as it was, more than he loved her.

By July, Allison had had enough. She typed out the words, deleted them, typed them again, edited out the “fuck” and “fucking,” then finally settled on: “It’s all good. Stay in New Zealand. Go back to Antarctica, then Greenland, then wherever. But don’t come back here. I’ll send your clothes wherever you tell me to. Allison.” She’d always hated “Al.”

Ben’s response came almost immediately: “That’s cool. I’m establishing permanent residency here anyway. I was waiting for the right moment to tell you. So, thanks, Al.”

Allison had her home, her cats, her steady bank job, and her grandmother’s militant self-sufficiency. But she no longer had Ben, or the dreams.

 

Helen Beer sells for a living and writes to maintain some semblance of sanity. She is the author of numerous short stories, poems, essays, and feature screenplays, some of which have actually seen the light of day—through publication and contest honors—while some remain hidden under a rock somewhere. She shares her life with a husband, three cats, a horse, and an adventurous human son. She admits to deriving an inordinate amount of therapeutic benefit from mucking horse poop.

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Fall, Crash, Survive”?

“Fall, Crash, Survive,” in both its initial scraps and final form, was born of rejection. It was birthed in the compressed, 48-hour period from receipt of an e-mail declining another piece submitted to Matter Press.* First came Allison’s name, then the themes of falling (a very real fear of mine lately, every time I walk down stairs), separation, and loss came to the forefront, while the words “flattened” and “squashed”—and the image of walls closing in—swirled about in my head. And yes, okay, my son works seasonally in Antarctica, and was indeed stuck in New Zealand since March, before returning to Antarctica just a week ago; but he’s far too busy, and on the move, to have an Allison in his life. The title became a mantra as I typed the piece, so it stuck.

*So, thank you; your rejection was my muse.

They say if you acknowledge a problem, it becomes real

by Lucy Zhang

 

I.
According to my parents, there was no such thing as mental illness. Failed a geometry quiz? Why was I having a panic attack when they had to worry about raising a stupid, lazy child? I should be a wiz at math anyway, right? It came with the stereotype–even though I counted with “one, two, three”, not “一, 二, 三”, so all those native kids had a head start with their intuitive language scheme. My parents would go on about how they had nothing when they came to America and raised my older sister on free PB&J school meals and by the time I came around, they could afford a house and the two dollars of lunch money for me to get a carton of 2% milk, a side of over-steamed vegetables, and slice of square pizza. It was only natural that I hid things from them: I’d fake grades on exams they demanded to see; I’d sneak post-its scrawled with squiggly characters under my desk and judiciously copy them during our Saturday morning vocabulary quizzes at Chinese school.

II.
It was after bombing a bio test that I started cutting my arms in the school greenhouse, more of a storage room with one overgrown plant clinging to a PVC pipe-constructed hydroponics system. Glass covered one side of the greenhouse and you could see the entire parking lot and the swarms of seniors ditching school early. I cleared a table, pushing a lab manual and pipettes to the side, relocating a cracked beaker to the table behind me, where it stood like a glass castle fortified with shards and edges. You could find anything in the greenhouse, but rarely did people use it because it was too warm, too cluttered, so I gripped a pair of scissors between the two blades and sliced. Then I resumed reviewing the exam.

III.
Whenever I did well in something–won a math contest, aced a big exam–my parents cooked a fancy dinner. My mom made dumpling skins from scratch, although she cheated and used the bread machine to knead the dough. She folded the wrappers with a natural instinct that was all touch and no sight: the way she dipped her index finger in water and traced around the edge of the wrapper, folded it in half and pinched the midpoint as the first seal, pleating the rest of the edges by bringing the peel from bottom to top and pinching again, rounding out the finished dumpling in the form of a gouged-out waxing gibbous. When she could pull me along to help, when I wasn’t busy giving excuses to stay holed up in my head, she’d forego the bread machine and let me knead so I rolled up my sleeves and sank my fingers into the dough. When she asked where the cuts on my arm came from, I told her they were from a mishap while dissecting fetal pigs in lab. I described pinning the pig’s limbs to the pan so it lay splayed, inserting the scissors through one side of the umbilical cord until it was all flaps of skin, flaps of body, a pinned and peeled and opened abdominal cavity, dragging the scalpel across the sides of the mouth so its tiny jaw could devour my finger, and my arm got in the way. The same way long hair gets in your eyes the one time you forget your hair tie on the bathroom sink, and you slice through, cut the problem off at its root, leaving a stump unnoticeable from a distance.

 

Lucy Zhang is a writer, software engineer, and anime fan. Her work has appeared in Jellyfish Review, Cheap Pop, Peach Mag, and elsewhere. She is an editor for Heavy Feather Review and assistant fiction editor for Pithead Chapel. Find her at https://kowaretasekai.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “They say if you acknowledge a problem, it becomes real”?

My dad grew up in a poor family in Shanghai, where he and his siblings fought over food and suffered harsh winters. I think, to him and many other Chinese people from his generation, mental illnesses are largely a first world problem. As soon as you’re no longer struggling to survive, you get introduced to new avenues of unhappiness. I wrote this piece in an attempt to contend with this generational and cultural gap in defining happiness and fulfillment.

CNF: Short Shorts

by Erika Eckart

 

Daisy Dukes

Half a cheek is hanging out, but if I say anything she throws her clothes at me, so I grind my teeth and repress my urge to tell her to cover up. I begrudge time as my girl’s legs elongate, her knees turn to smooth bulbs. I want to compress her long stalks in a funhouse mirror of permanent girlhood because I know the danger in her new shape. It will make her prey: men will start leering, she’ll have to hold keys between her fingers, cover her drink with her hand, speed up when she hears someone behind her; girls will attack from all directions—too pretty, not pretty enough, where are you going in that? And it will make her prey on herself, in a I’ll-destroy-it-before-you-can-kind of way. It is starting already. I watch her in the mirror pulling in her cheeks, sucking her stomach in, grabbing at the flesh on her abdomen to reveal more bone, trying to make a handle of her rib cage. Do you think I’m fat? she asks. The look on her face says she wants to collapse in, with great force like a cartoon-reenactment of the working of a black hole. I want it even now, the thing she is seeking, to collapse in on myself, to fold. Yes, to have long, angled limbs, but mostly that feeling of finger nails digging into my sides, creating a density that could cause implosion. I want to get smaller and smaller, to disappear, to be invisible, to be no bother, a wisp, a barely visible stroke with a calligraphy pen. It is an adaptation, these behaviors. It is the way we have survived in a world hostile to and hungry for our bodies. On some Polynesian Islands, birds have evolved to be flightless because of the lack of predators. Raspberry bushes there do not bother making thorns, because there is no one to eat them. What would it be to blossom in a place where there is nothing ready to devour us as soon as the first petal surfaces? Would we love our skin—grow it out—expand into available space pliant and plushy, flaunting to each other the ability of our flesh to press back at fabric, to pull it apart at its seams?

 

Erika Eckart is the author of the tyranny of heirlooms, a chapbook of interconnected prose poems, (Sundress Publications, 2018). Her writing has appeared in Double Room, Ghost Ocean, Quarter After Eight, Quick Fiction, Nano Fiction and Quiditty, and elsewhere. She is a High School English Teacher and mom in Oak Park, IL.

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Short Shorts”?

Parenting an 11 year old daughter, I’m reliving that precarious time, how excited I was to grow up, how in danger I felt when men looked at me, the guy at the 7-11 who touched my hand, a hotel clerk who lurked behind me in a hall, and how my mother and family members talked about my body, its need to be protected, kept pure, and if not violences would be inflicted on me, on everybody, and then somehow connected and simultaneous the girls: the tyranny of having the right clothes, the right hair, the right body, none of which I ever had but I got pretty close on the last one through a 1,200 calorie a day diet and the weird beauty standards of the 90’s. My shoulder blades with no cushion were like sharp wings, like a heavy metal bird, and when that happened, I earned the acclaim of my peers and adults alike, they all wanted my help putting them on diets.

So the origin of this poem is my desire to bend culture, to bend time, to keep my daughter from the experiences that shaped my coming of age, to free her from them, because alas she seems to be going down some of the same holes, like she found my map; it’s written in her bones, and there is no escape. I’m trying to re-write the code or at least to call it out.

I teach high school and we have an amazing Spoken Word teacher who leads a poetry unit that gives me an opportunity to read my work to my class, and while this was in development I read it to a room of 14 year olds, and the eyes of the girls and their solid minute of quiet after told me I was on to something, that they too felt held captive by this and had an interest in hearing it articulated and in some small way neutered with words, brought to the light.

Modern Ideology in Miniature

by Luke Buffini

[Editor’s Note: This piece is part of the “Topical” series, with each piece solely submitted to and chosen by the Final Reader Pietra Dunmore.]

 

“Hello,” said the representative of historical hierarchical white male heterosexual privilege.

“Hi,” said the apex of historical hierarchical black oppression and victimisation.

“Where are you from?” said the climax of centuries of oppressive western patriarchal culture developed purely to benefit white men and oppress and exploit all others.

“I’m from here. The UK,” said the embodiment of incalculable repression and victimisation, clearly offended, robbed of her identity and possibly victimised (though she would have to decide later somewhere in a Twitter thread).

The symbol of all injustice, inequality and power laughed, and said: “Oh. Yeah. No. I meant: where are you from in the UK. I assumed you weren’t from Birmingham because who goes to Uni in their own city? Like: I’m from London.”

“Oh,” said the girl, “right. Sorry. No, I’m from London too.”

“Oh cool! Where in London? I’m Conor, by the way.”

“I’m Aurora. Like, South London? Do you know Tooting?”

 

Luke was born in Hammersmith, London, in 1992. He grew up in a suburb called Hillingdon and now lives in Highgate, North London. In recent years he has worked as a postman, a football coach, a legal recruiter and a tutor. Luke has an upcoming publication in Short Fiction, and has previously been published in Earth Island Journal, the Hillingdon Literary Festival Anthology and The Decadent Review.

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Modern Ideology in Miniature”?

I experienced a very similar misunderstanding years ago at a bar in my University town. That gave me the hint of an idea. Then recently, I’d been thinking a lot about some of the contesting narratives and ideologies we have in the world right now (Jordan Peterson did a lot for me on this). In order to make some of these narratives fit, you need to conceptualise other people in quite a strange way. The idea of someone doing that at all times struck me as absurd. Framed in the kind of mundane setting I’ve put in the piece, all ideologies look a bit silly. That’s what I wanted to show.

Get Out

by Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri

 

Once, it was so easy to say welcome. Welcome, a soft, simple word.

Now, with the virus, it’s easier to say get out.

Get out of my sister.

Get out, to cavalcades of license plates rolling in, get out, with more statistics on the rise. Get out tourists, invaders with starched smiles.

Get out to guilt, get out to a dictatorial streak that’s not mine.

Somewhere, the virus laughs. My sister gasps.

Now there’s only a raw wonderland.

I watch a burial through a Zoom screen.

I can’t say get out. I can’t say welcome.

What do I say now?

 

Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri is a graduate of Colorado State University’s MFA program in fiction. His story, “Soon,” was nominated for a Pushcart. Mir-Yashar has also had work nominated for The Best Small Fictions and Best of the Net. A native of Idaho, Mir-Yashar’s work is forthcoming or has been published in WestWard Quarterly, Café Lit, and Ariel Chart, among others.

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Get Out”?

The story is rooted in my ruminating about the term “get out,” a term that’s become even sharper and relevant in light of the coronavirus and the present acrimonious political debates. I came to the conclusion that “get out” was a term too easy to utter, while “welcome” took a backseat. I specifically drew on all-too-evident divisions over travel in the era of coronavirus, namely the notion of visitors as “invaders.” One of the most interesting things about writing the story was the lyrical quality that unfurled with the repetition of “get out.” I find it darkly ironic.

Beyond the Villa of Ørmen

by Joshua Jones

 

None of us stop the Major as he bursts into Leon’s pharmacy, his aging Kalashnikov slung across his shoulder. Leon says, OK OK OK, and takes the sterile pads and iodine and cigarettes and stacks them all in a paper bag along with the bottles and bottles of morphine, Oxycodone, Vicodin. None of us blame the Major. We all saw what he saw, the sky streaked with ribbons of jet fuel. Here, at the top of the world, we hear all the radio chatter, the reports of the fires, the entire atmosphere awash in flame. Cities we will never visit, gone. We sit outside the pharmacy with our boxes of diapers, our sticks of venison jerky, bar after bar of chocolate. Someone passes a bottle. The Major stands at the edge of the village, his eyes to the sky. We follow his gaze, see another cluster of metal stars scarring the night. When we look down, the Major is gone. Let him go, Leon tells us. He doesn’t bother locking up behind him.

***

Leon clangs the bunker’s door shut and descends into the musty space of our breath. We learn to inventory the cans of mackerel by feel, run our hands along the dust-rimed lids. Enough until spring, Leon says, and then… We don’t ask what comes after. We use a hand crank to power a radio. After the third day, all we hear is a whorl of static. After a month, we stop trying. We stop counting the days long before the food runs out and Leon says, It’s time. He climbs the ladder, presses his ear to the door, then opens it to a howl of wind. The sky is empty, he calls. The sky is empty! And we emerge, one by one, squinting, shielding our eyes. Then we see it: the sun is black.

***

It is brighter at night. The light comes at us from all sides. Phosphorescent bands of the aurora borealis net the sky. The village is gone. Blown away on the breath of giants. Ashy snow covers the remains. Leon leads us through the ruined shapes that were once houses, the pharmacy, the train station. He follows a trail of hoof prints leading to the wilderness. It’s all wilderness now. Wolfish eyes bob along the horizon, wink open and closed like those glowing creatures of the blackest oceans. We walk on, past stands of pine, past skeletal remains of electrical towers. We smell the herd before we see them. They’re all about us, curious and unafraid. Astride the largest reindeer sits the Major with a beard down to his chest. He’s shirtless, his skin dotted with luminous tattoos—circles and runes from some earlier time. He nods toward us, eyes shining. A primordial light. One by one we mount the reindeer. Leon takes off his hat, his gloves, unbuttons his coat and lets it flap open. The heat from the herd wraps about us, and we leave the world behind.

 

Joshua Jones lives in Maryland, and his writing has appeared in The Best Microfictions 2020, The Best Small Fictions 2019, The Cincinnati Review, CRAFT, Juked, matchbook, Paper Darts, SmokeLong Quarterly, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @jnjoneswriter or visit his website: https://jnjoneswriter.wordpress.com/.

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Beyond the Villa of Ørmen”?

This piece had its origins in a 2018 Fast Flash reunion using a prompt to write a story based on three songs from three different decades. I chose three David Bowie songs: “Blackstar” (where the titular Villa of Ørmen comes from), “Leon Takes Us Outside” (the opening track of the first Bowie album I ever owned: Outside), and “Scary Monsters.” I wrote the piece quickly, then set it aside. I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that I decided to revisit such an apocalyptic piece while in the midst of a global pandemic. So much of my writing has taken on an apocalyptic tinge recently.

Get Out

by Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri

 

Once, it was so easy to say welcome. Welcome, a soft, simple word.

Now, with the virus, it’s easier to say get out.

Get out of my sister.

Get out, to cavalcades of license plates rolling in, get out, with more statistics on the rise. Get out tourists, invaders with starched smiles.

Get out to guilt, get out to a dictatorial streak that’s not mine.

Somewhere, the virus laughs. My sister gasps.

Now there’s only a raw wonderland.

I watch a burial through a Zoom screen.

I can’t say get out. I can’t say welcome.

What do I say now?

 

Bio

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Poster”?

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News

Check out the write-up of the journal in The Writer.

Matter Press recently released titles from Meg Boscov, Abby Frucht, Robert McBrearty, Tori Bond, Kathy Fish, and Christopher Allen. Click here.

Matter Press is now offering private flash fiction workshops and critiques of flash fiction collections here.

Submissions

Poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction/prose poetry submissions are now OPEN. The submission period closes June 15, 2020; submit here.

Upcoming

10/19 • Lucy Zhang
10/20 • Helen Beer
10/22 • Donald Ranard
10/26 • Diane Gillette
10/29 • Marsha McSpadden