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Month: January 2021

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by James Harris

 

[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.]

 

Jake lays in bed, one foot dangling off the mattress, the sheet covering half of his body.

The moon lowers, the clouds turn a dull navy. His box fan spins rapidly, the air rushing in is stale.

His apartment faces Clinton Lake. Earlier that evening a group of teenagers swam and drank beer on the sandy shore. None of them were wearing a mask, not a single one.

Lackadaisically, Jake scrolls through Twitch, exploring new streamers. It’s part of his nightly routine, a constant in this new, lonely world. As he gets tired, he opens the app and taps on one of his favorite games. Once he taps his way to the bottom of the list, sorted by viewership count, Jake chooses a streamer that has less than five audience members. Mostly he picks the ones with zero people watching. Call him sappy, but he likes the newer streamers to know that they can gain followers if they only try hard enough.

He reaches the end of the list and sees there are three people with zero viewers.

Clicking on the first one, he kicks his sheet completely off his bed. Sweat drips freely down his forehead. He considers lighting another bowl up but decides against it. The prospect of flicking a lighter was too much of a hassle. If he didn’t move, he’d get cool.

On his cellphone screen, a young man sits in a gaming chair and stares at his webcam.

“Finally,” the streamer sighs. The room he’s in is hardly visible. Behind him are posters of anime women posed in awkward positions that accentuate their breasts. The game, which fills up the majority of the screen, displays the main menu. A figure with a hatchet stands so that it’s back is facing the player. The streamer’s gamertag is Samsa_019. Genric-ish, nothing too exciting about it.

“What the fuck?” Jake smirks. He goes to tap the back button on his Samsung when the streamer speaks again.

“I’ve been waiting a long time for someone to show up.”

Jake glances at the current viewer number and sees that it reads: 1. He is the entire audience. He looks at the number next to that, the amount of time the gamer has been streaming, and gasps. Ten hours, six minutes, and thirty seconds. Has he been alone this whole time?

The man on the other end of the screen straightens in his chair. “Okay, so you’re still there. That’s good. I-I need someone to be there, you get it?”

Jake finds himself nodding though there is no way this person can see. There is something off about this man’s tone.

Samsa_019 says, “I know this seems strange. But you, the one watching this, you are all I have.”

Jake considers backing out again but cannot.

Tears begin to roll down the streamer’s cheeks. His curly, brown hair drapes over his temples in clumps, like a dirty mop. The clothes he wears are too tight for him, his breasts protruding and his double chin reaching down to his collar. “I’ve tried for so long now. And not just today. I’ve tried my whole life.”

Jake’s heart races. He bites his lip and wonders what he should do.

“I’ve lost my mom. My dad doesn’t want to speak to me. And, well, it’s not like women are lining up to see me. Maybe that’s why you clicked on my stream? Did you feel like you could relate to me?”

“No,” Jake whispers.

“Silly,” Samsa_019 chuckles. “I’ve never had a single viewer until you came along. So you don’t know anything about me, do you? I’ve been on Twitch for a year and a half, and not a single follow, not a single subscription. Not a single God damn fucking follow.” Samsa_019 slams an open palm against his face, a loud snap thrusts his head sideways. He sobs into his hands. “I’m so sorry.”

Jake wants to type into the chat but finds that the streamer has disabled chat functions. He can’t say anything. All he can do is watch.

“I hope this isn’t too much for you. I could have just left a note or something, but, but, I didn’t want to go alone. I didn’t want-” Samsa_019 stops talking. His jaw hangs open, his teeth, crooked and yellow.

The young man stands from his chair and walks off screen. Jake cannot see him and feels his heart pumping hard against his chest. “Please, no,” he prays.

The streamer returns and it is just as Jake has feared. In his hand, the stranger holds a noose.

“My name is Carter Brooks. I am twenty- three years old and my address is 9281 Hardie avenue, Arch City, Kansas. If you could notify the police of my passing so they could let my father know, I’d really appreciate it.”

Carter stands on top of his chair and ties the noose to what Jake supposes is a ceiling fan. Slowly, Carter turns and the only part of him visible to the camera is his bottom half. He screeches. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, no.”

“No,” Jake pleads.

Carter jumps off the chair and there is a snap.

Carter struggles, clutching at his neck, his eyes bulging out of their sockets, his tongue lolling out in a deep red. His whole body is visible now, along with a length of rope strangling him.

Jake wants to look away but can’t. He watches as Carter fades into non-existence. The random jerks turn into sporadic twitches, and then, after what feels like an hour, the young man’s arms fall to his side.

“Shit,” Jake whimpers. “Shit, man. What the fuck?”

He has to call the police now. He has to let them know there is a corpse waiting for them.

He exits the app and starts to dial the non-emergency line. As the phone rings, he thinks of Carter and how at the moment, there is no one to watch his body swing.

 

James Harris is a Black, Mexican, and White writer who works as an English teacher at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. He is an MFA student at UMKC and writes mostly speculative fiction. He currently resides in Lawrence where he and his wife, Jenny, fend off two demon cats named Todd and Ladybird. Find more at jamesharrisstories.com.

 

See what happens when you click below.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “0”?

I wrote “0” on a whim. It was 1 AM and like most people without much to do in the morning thanks to the pandemic, I was in bed, my phone in hand. I’d grown bored of Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites and so I browsed Twitch, a video game streaming app, to see what the hype was all about. A lot of my friends used the website to broadcast their games and I began to wonder how they did it, day in and day out, without an audience. I thought about all of the streamers with 0 viewers and how they were practically televising themselves in the hopes that someone, anyone, would tune in.
 

Streamers keep the camera on, play their games, and talk to the world, as if someone is listening. The profoundly sad reality is that usually no one is listening and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people, speaking to an empty room.

CNF Poppy Fields

by Kendra Dobson

 

[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.]

 

I moved in with my parents temporarily over a year and a half ago in March to save money for grad school since unsuccessfully qualifying for ways to complete it for free. I also desperately needed to slow down and take care of myself. A lifestyle of working five jobs at once, sometimes three of them in one day, and working through weekends for nearly ten years had caught up to me. I needed a break. A basic 9 to 5 with health insurance and two days off in a row was my new path at 32 years young; one of those they call a “full-time job” to replace the part-times that barely covered my expenses, but satisfied nearly every dream I had growing up.

I worked at Austin City Limits, a historic TV show – the longest running music TV show in the world. Every night I got to witness stellar talent from across genres, not only for free, but I was paid to be there. I met friends who restored my faith in humanity. Maybe it’s something about working at a music venue, but I can’t think of a work environment more friendly – like family, than that of ACL. I got a chance to learn new skills as an event technician for hotels where I installed audio visual equipment for conferences, conventions, and corporate gatherings. Eventually I became a camera operator for Austin Music Live – my first camera credit for TV. All of those dream jobs were actually the day jobs that paid my bills while I mused in the world of speculative fiction that I wrote and produced as a short film, stage play, audio drama, comic book, and video game. In my 20s I had manifested all that I wanted to do and all that I wanted to be surrounded by, but I was also aware that this manifestation had an expiration date. When I felt my body break and groan for more self-care than this current situation would allow, I knew the expiration date was soon approaching. I needed more stability that would allow my body to work less – a way for abundance to grow without the horsepower of youth that propelled me thus far. I needed sleep, a more predictable schedule, less heavy lifting, and company. I mean, I still stand by my assessment that a roommate adds stress, but the last year before I decided to move, I was feeling so alone. The out-of-control politics and microaggressions from strangers didn’t help quiet the mind in a lonely apartment. I moved home to Delaware for the break, for my health, and for the company. And I told myself that hiding away from the dream life I manifested would all make sense and balance out if I spent this time saving and putting what I earned into checking off another major goal.

Moving home gave me exactly what I thought it would. It was the break I needed for my health, but also a return to the quicksand I had escaped after leaving the area in the first place. Mentally, I prepared for a return to racially segregated social behaviors and norms and other glass ceilings I had broken and risen above long ago. And to my disappointment the preparation was necessary. I returned to coworkers gossiping about my socioeconomic class, white people saying I “act white,” projections, and racist assumptions. Falling back into a boring pattern of stability with all the predictability of good old American racism was a hard transition from five years of living in a progressive city that called itself the live music capital of the world. However, the weekends, paid vacation, health insurance, and bonuses packaged in with the undesirable baggage made the deal agreeable. I could relax at home and spend time with my family.

I’d worked in the corporate world for 7 months and by late February, 2020 I had already written my 2nd letter to HR about the toxic work environment. I had a vacation planned from March 12th to 19th and they were planning to make some changes to the office set up, so I imagined that when I returned from vacation the situation might be slightly improved. I left for Austin, Texas on March 12th thinking this pandemic might last a few weeks and clear up. I was disappointed, but mostly concerned for Austin’s economy when SXSW cancelled. When I returned home, the office had been working from home for a week.

It blows my mind when I think about my decade of work experience as an event manager, house manager, event technology specialist, usher, tour guide, box office, crowd control… I worked events for the past ten years and now all events were cancelled. Yet, I was employed in this random office job and able to continue to work and pay for school because a year earlier I took a leap of faith for my physical and mental health. I’m home with my parents. Spending more time with them in a time when we’re losing people in their age range to the virus. I would have been so worried about them in my apartment in Austin. The lonely apartment I wouldn’t have been able to afford anymore because my livelihood in events would have ended until we had a vaccine. I probably would have had to move home anyway at a time when companies are laying off and furloughing their employees, not hiring.

What perfect timing or universal lineup caused me to take shelter at home a year before the pandemic hit us? I don’t really know what will come next, but I’m not worried about it. Poppy fields might have been planted as an obstacle, but the time out has given me perspective and valuable time with the people I love. Decisions towards self-care might actually come from listening to wise whispers from a Universe pointing you in a direction that feels random until the storm.

 

Kendra Dobson is a creative writer, producer, and junior UX designer who has authored content across several mediums from staged performances to film to video games. Her goal to design, manage, and conduct research for projects that merge new technology with live entertainment comes from a desire to give audiences the agency to explore the concept of a story through interaction, and connect audiences with honest reflections of their own lived experiences. Her company, 3240 Entertainment LLC, produces such works and provides workshops for children in underserved communities who are interested in science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics (STEAM).

 

See what happens when you click below.

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

You know when you just need to tell someone this AHA! moment that you just experienced, or when you have something happen that is so stunning to you, but every time you tell it the delivery doesn’t give the moment justice? It’s kind of the same phenomena as sharing what you remember from a crazy dream. Writing the final version of Poppy Fields was satisfying for me because I was able to work out everything I had been feeling and thinking about this moment in time, resolving that feeling that I was missing something. Sharing just a few words about my thoughts here and there to friends and family was enough to give my thoughts air. But, those thoughts still kind of floated there waiting for me to ruminate on them later. I was missing something. Writing Poppy Fields was like diving into everything on my mind and devoting time to deliver the message in full, making sense of it as I wrote so to construct the final version that, for myself, felt like the message I had wanted to share.

Love Rendered

by Daniel Murphy

 

Lug lays his daughter to rest in the ground. The other settlers help him bury her. He sits at her gravesite with a stone tablet, carving a symbol into it with sharpened flint. An elder taught him how to make the shape. The elder told him it signifies what he felt in his chest when his daughter smiled or when he watched her at night with the firelight bouncing off her face. He told the elder he wants the symbol for what he feels now she is gone. The elder told him it’s the same. Holding the stone in his hand he wonders how many fathers before him have sat here with nothing to put on the stone except tears. The carving fills some need in him and he wipes away the rock-dust. The moon is out now, shining down on him and his questions. He has so many of them and no answers. Where is she now? Why did her body grow hot? What should he have done? Perhaps, one day they can carve all their questions on a stone and offer it to the sky.

Looking down, he wonders how long it took his people to agree on this particular symbol. He imagines the first suggestion of it being scrawled in the sand. An elder dragging the stick behind him, tongue lolling in concentration, eyes straying in and out of focus from the image in his head to the image in the sand. And then a discussion perhaps, about how suitable the shape is for the feeling, for the words they use. How do you draw a sound? Are those lines too broad for a feeling so acute? Should they close that arch to show its fullness?

He thinks of the peoples they have met in their migrations. Strange-looking people speaking languages he can’t understand. Do they have this symbol? Perhaps, another one? Do those people feel this when their daughters smile? How does their symbol for this sound? How does it look?

He isn’t aware of all the unborn sounds struggling to get out, kicking their heels from inside thousands of throats and itching their way into fingers. He can’t see what the moon sees: the cosmic surge, the billion watts of brain-electricity; a global impetus, rendered solid into stone and papyrus and bamboo. What he has written doesn’t encompass the many moon cycles he watched her grow, or her wide eyes when he showed her the heart of a rabbit and placed her hand on her own chest. One character cannot capture all this, he thinks, but it’s all he has.

 

Daniel Murphy is a teacher living in Dublin, currently working on a book of short stories in his spare time. His work explores the borders where humans and their technologies intersect but he finds that he has too many ideas and not enough time.

 

See what happens when you click below.

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

This piece is really just about a process that fascinates me; that process being the fact that humans have put sounds on feelings and emotions and have decided on characters to represent those sounds. These characters alone are arbitrary squiggles on a page but when we attach significance to them and then, as a society, agree on what they mean, they become powerful tools. So, I can’t fathom how this all came to be but this piece is just trying to get snapshot of it, and specifically focusing on the cathartic function that writing may have had for early humans. As for the drafting, I was quite lucky with this piece in that I had a very concrete idea in mind and it pretty much came out the way that I ended up submitting it. As all writers know that’s pretty unusual.

Nostalgic

by Victoria Jean Ella

 

[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.]

 

It was Christopher I was enamored by for so long, though he’d probably never known the full extent of my admiration for him. Even when we’d talked well into our 20s, there was no use in admitting this to him, in an offhand way, even though he himself had once alluded to having liked me “a long time ago.” And yet, one afternoon, I found myself riding an intense wave of nostalgia upon seeing our old messages. I wanted desperately to reach out to him and thank him for being around when he had been, but the rules change when someone gets married and you’d lost touch before the marriage. Suddenly there’s no acceptable way to have the same kind of conversations, or any kind of conversation, for that matter.

He’d said to me, 10 years ago, “Anything new on the love side of life? I don’t recall knowing that you ever liked anyone.” And I’d blushed because it was always him, time and again.

“No, there’s no one. None at all,” I said.

“You’re gonna die alone at this rate, Aly, with 99 cats.”

“A hundred would be better,” I fired back.

Some time after that, when we’d both started working, he graced my screen on my birthday, saying mine was one of the few he remembered from childhood.

“Talking to you is always nostalgic. Maybe that’s what people from the past are for. To remind us of where we were, how far we’ve grown. It’s an amazing feeling, like our lives are going somewhere,” he told me.

I’m not sure what I’d thought of that at the time, but he always had, what seemed to me, like a more mature perspective about things. Maybe it was because he lived on his own much earlier than I did, or because he read all the books that made one think that way. In any case, he embodied the sensitive, philosophical spirit I’d always been weak for. And there weren’t many like him. Not many at all.

We never would have made sense as a couple, because for all our indulgent conversations about siblings, school, his ex-lovers, art, and the future, and for all his brilliance, in my eyes, he was just that: perfect, but for someone else.

He found this someone a year ago, and now there’s only silence. I think to myself, maybe there’s no use in holding on to the memories. What good are they now, anyway?

Once when we were young, we knew each other. We’re leagues away from that now, and I never realized it would happen eventually. You never think that of some friendships. You think they’ll go on forever, because you’ve been friends for the longest time. But when they do collapse, your world is more barren and soulless, and you are all the more lonesome for it.

He used to tell me, over and over again, “You’re never alone!”

I wish he would say it to me now.

 

Victoria Jean Ella is a Filipino writer who lived in the US for three years until she was 9 years old. She holds a degree in Development Communication from the University of the Philippines Los Baños, where she once taught English and scientific writing.

 

See what happens when you click below.

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

The first paragraph of “Nostalgic” was originally part of another work of fiction that kept evolving until Christopher’s story had no place in the work anymore. In fact, it seemed to want to exist on its own. I felt I had more to say about the character, but that I couldn’t do it within the original story, so I took the paragraph out—that’s really all that existed of it then—and was inspired by a time when I did feel nostalgic. It’s a curious and powerful feeling, and we’ve all been under its spell. At times, it can even be hard to shake off.

The New Math Test (Especially for Women)

by Linda McMullen

 

  1. If Samantha, a sensible young woman not prone to dramatizing her relationships on social media, finally gets up the courage to change her relationship status from ‘It’s Complicated’ to ‘Single’ on Facebook during prime time on a standard weekday, indicating that her relationship with Paul – at the one-year ‘make or break’ point – has imploded like Chevy Chase’s career, how many contacts will WhatsApp her before midnight on the pretense of comforting her, but actually to mine the rubble of the relationship for gossip-worthy gems? Among her genuine friends, how many will admit relief?
  2.  

  3. Write equations to describe the a) number of hours Samantha will spend, and b) number of appearance-altering haircuts Samantha will consider, on Pinterest, before ultimately deciding to just dye her hair blue. Extra credit: Develop a model for assessing Samantha’s angst due to her failure to bleach her hair first, resulting in a hair tint that manages to appear both dirty and dated. Don’t forget to add the cost of a visit to a budget salon to minimize the damage.
  4.  

  5. Project at what number of views Paul’s viral YouTube video on “How to Purge Your Ex-Girlfriend From Your Life” – which showcases him systematically ribboning Samantha’s old band t-shirts, trashing her toiletries, and launching exhaustive and largely untrue personal attacks against her character – will a) impinge on Samantha’s awareness; b) reach her conservative parents, who were unaware that the two of them were living together; c) affect her job prospects; and d) elicit commentary not protected by the First Amendment.
  6.  

  7. Estimate Samantha’s prospects of signing a new lease in light of her irate parents’ refusal to lend her money for a deposit, and her need to apply for a new job after Paul started “showing up” at the old one. Assess how many times Samantha will need to lower her price range and her standards on rent.com. Show your work.
  8.  

  9. Evaluate how Samantha can communicate enough on her LinkedIn profile to attract interest from local recruiters, but not enough to give anyone clues to her new location. Bonus points: approximate how many interview requests Samantha will lose after Paul uploads intimate pictures of her to Instagram.
  10.  

  11. When Paul revenge-retweets his video in response to Samantha blocking him on Twitter, how many of Paul’s 1732 followers will suggest that rape is an appropriate punishment for a woman cutting a controlling ex-boyfriend out of her life? How many of them will escalate by doxxing her and broadcasting her painstakingly acquired new address?

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “The New Math Test (Especially for Women)”?

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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 CLOSED. The next reading period for standard submissions opens March 15, 2021. Topical Thursdays’ submissions are open year-round. Submit here.

Upcoming

12/31 • Sean Cho A.
01/04 • Linda McMullen
01/07 • Victoria Jean Ella
01/11 • Daniel Murphy
01/14 • Kendra Dobson
01/21 • James Harris
01/25 • Richard Kostelanetz
01/28 • Andrew Love
02/01 • Kristin Burcham