M

Long Gone

by Jenny Bitner

 

In the old days if something important happened, you would whisper it to the bees and they would protect you—births and deaths were all told. But nobody is telling the bees the news anymore. No woman late on her period is whispering, “I’m pregnant,” and no grieving husband announces, “Julie is gone.” What do the bees do if they aren’t filled with stories? Like a lover waiting for a text that never comes, they disappear. “My father died,” I whisper to the empty night.

 

Jenny Bitner’s fiction and poetry has been published in Mississippi Review, The Fabulist, The Sun, Fence, Corium, Fourteen Hills, Mid-American Review and PANK. Pine Press published a chapbook of her poetry entitled Mother. Her story “The Pamphleteer” was published in Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her work was also included in the anthology Writing That Risks. Her nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, To-Do List, The San Francisco Bay Guardian and Men’s Health. She earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Virginia. She is a hypnotherapist and a member of the Writers Grotto. Her novel Here Is A Game We Could Play is coming out in Spring 2021.

 

In Defense of Tweeting Even While I’m Dying

by Zainab Omaki

 

[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.]

 

Because if I don’t, people will hear that I died at the Abuja protests, shot in the back while racing away, but never know that I was a real person, an individual distinguishable from the dozens of others who bled out onto the street under a yellow sun. Because my father still tells me stories under the orange glow of candlelight when the electricity goes out—and it goes out often— about how he grew up in the glory days of this country. When he was a child, they attended school for free, ate government paid lunches finer than anything they had at home, graduated to a surplus of jobs that they were practically begged to fill. His mouth twists mournfully when he gets to the end. “You people will never know a country like that,” he says. Because, last month, my friend,Kunle, was coming back from clubbing in the middle of the night and the police stopped him on the road and beat him until his lungs collapsed in on themselves, for having orange hair, for wearing a pink crop top, for behaving in an effeminate manner when being gay is illegal. Strangers rushed him to the hospital entrance but the nurses took one look at the severity of his condition and used their bodies to block their doors. “We don’t have the equipment oh,” they shouted. “Go to St. Mary’s.” At St. Mary’s they sent him to National Hospital. By the time the car squealed to a halt in front of the Emergency room at National Hospital, he was dead. Because on Twitter there is a scrolling list of fourteen names of other people killed by the police, I have recited them so many times, they’ve developed a cadence in my head, like a song, but who wants that type of song stuck in their head? Because when I turned eighteen, four years ago, my sister cackled, “Finally old enough to vote!” And I’d hissed long and loud in our stuffy living room. Who was going to waste time voting? Politicians would just rig the elections. I’d camped out in front of the TV too many times watching counting sessions where the number of votes exceeded the number of people in a State, and the politicians would swivel to glance at each other and break into laughter, like it was some type of joke. Because on my last trip to Lagos, I couldn’t afford to go by air so I went by road. We jostled in potholes the size of our bodies and got pulled to a stop by armed robbers. They made us all stand in a line and they went from person to person collecting our belongings, roughly feeling our breasts, our crotches, anywhere something might be hidden. I was trembling, my bladder threatening to give way, thinking about all the stories I’d heard of robbers raping men and women on the side of the road, passing diseases onto them. God please, God please, looped in my head. When they let us go, no one called the authorities. We just piled back into the car and finished the journey. Because every single season, rain floods Lagos and we laugh at people in the middle of residential areas, ploughing through the water on canoes. Guffaw. Guffaw. Guffaw. But we don’t complain to Urban Planning department because we know its Minister, dubbed ‘the smiling Minister’, will flash his white teeth on TV and nothing will be done. Because a shaky video of a heavy set policeman shooting a man at point blank range at a high-end hotel in Port Harcourt somehow cut through our apathy, our belief that things would always go on this way because it has always gone on this way. Our outrage overwhelmed the internet, bringing us out in a swarm onto the streets. Because ardors will flag without a visible reminder to be pulled up and recalled, a last reminder: this is why we’re doing it. Because ‘I’m shot, I’m dying’ are a rallying cry, not sent out into a void, but into fertile soil. Four words raises a multitude of others.

 

Zainab A. Omaki has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia where she was the recipient of the Miles Morland African Writer’s scholarship. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Passages North, Transition Magazine, The Rumpus, TSS Publishing and other spaces. She is currently a Reader in Residence at Smokelong Quarterly

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “In Defense of Tweeting Even While I’m Dying”?

It was inspired by a tweet during the recent #ENDSARS protests and the debate swirling online about sharing personal moments of grief. My initial thoughts had been that certain moments are to be inhabited not shared but then I began to turn it around in my head and see arguments for why that might not necessarily be the case.

A Slight Change in Tonight’s Performance

by Annie Berke

 

Management: Circle the one that applies—

The role of the Wife and Mother will be played by an illustrious Juilliard graduate.

The role of the Wife and Mother will be played by your husband’s sexiest ex-girlfriend.

The role of the Wife and Mother will be played by a housecat who is a touch psychic.

The role of the Wife and Mother will be played by a rickety broomstick.

The role of the Wife and Mother will be played by a broken mood ring.

*

Ladies and gentlemen, we ask you to bear with us as we make this delicate but necessary transition. The Wife and Mother will endure her replacement with tact – and, we suspect, no small amount of relief. She will slip wordlessly out the stage door, the performance being already in progress.

 

Annie Berke is a scholar of film and television, a freelance writer, and the Film Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. She lives in Maryland.

 

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After my son threw down his sippy cup for the 400th time, the milk splattered on the floor and spelled out the words of this micro-fiction. I am but a humble scribe.

20:10:20 Massacre (an anonymous order)

by Kelvin Kellman

 

[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.]

 

Between heaven and earth, lagoon and dry land,
no greater sting had I grieved before today, when
Lagos, soaked up in blood, wept for her young.
It began with demands. For rights, for space, air;
for living in one’s country without dread.
A fear of a lie, a fear of bullets, a fear of death,
in the hands of folks saddled with the duty of protecting.
In lieu however, they besieged us with guns and bullets.
And that mantra, spewed out of their crooked tongues:
I will kill you and nothing will happen! We assembled with
requests, to be heard, asking to live as humans and not game.
But we forget, the general in his labyrinth recognizes nothing
in the least human, only cattle. Before the soldiers, they cut off
the lights, cut off the cameras, and then killed the billboard.
And in a trice, men in olive green jumped out of trucks and opened fire.
Over 60 people perished today. Lucy died with half her head missing for
asking a better country. Men: fathers, brothers, with chests and guts
blown open, laid shoulder to shoulder singing the national anthem
until they expired. The Governor pleads innocence.
The command, he says, are forces beyond his direct control.
The army snatched away bodies but denies complicity.
The president, still silent, received an emir in his province
with fanfare. Leaving us asking: who gave the order?

 

Kelvin Kellman writes from Nigeria. He’s had works featured or forthcoming in Green Briar Review, The Blue Mountain Review, Hawaii Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Solstice Literary Magazine, and elsewhere.

 

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On the 20th of October, 2020, youths in Nigeria who have never seen a country work, as the country has an enduring history of corruption, bad governance, mortal extortion and arrogation of power by a rogue element of the police, took to the streets in peaceful protest demanding better governance and police reform. The government in response, sent soldiers to open fire on the protesters. Scores of youths had their lives snuffed out and many were left lethally injured.

Being part of the protesters, to say that I am livid does not about cover how I feel on account of the unsavoury turn of events; how the degenerate civilian government led by a former general to whom dialogue is alien, responded with bullets to youths demanding accountability. More so, I had comrades lose their lives in the most gruesome manner. It could have easily been me who got hit that night. It is my hope that with this poem, which I wrote that very night and edited the following day, I’ll find some form of closure, and that the departed wherever their spirits lead, know that they did not die in vain. I hope also that this poem expresses the wanton devilry exhibited by the current Nigerian government. Because even now, days after that bloodbath, the president has refused to address the shooting.

Sunday Focus: Hope

Photo by Meg Boscov

[Editor’s Note: This ongoing Sunday feature pairs photographs from Meg Boscov with a thought (or two) from the managing editor.]

 

“Your opponents would love you to believe that it’s hopeless, that you have no power, that there’s no reason to act, that you can’t win. Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away.” — Rebecca Solnit “Most psychologists define hope as a yearning for something possible but not certain—such as a better future—and a belief that you have some power to make it happen,” writes Elizabeth Bernstein in the WSJ. “And they believe it has two crucial components: Agency, or the motivation, to achieve the desired goal. And a strategy, or pathway, to do that. This is how it differs from optimism, which is the belief the future will work out no matter what you do.”

“You can think of hope as a PPE—a Personal Protective Emotion.” — Anthony Scioli. Here’s to hope, to 2021, to everyone who did more than just believe: who strategized and acted. Thank you.

Meg Boscov is a photographer who lives and works outside of Philadelphia where she continues to pursue her careers in animal-assisted education and dog training. She can be reached at her website or on instagram at megboscov. Check out her photo-essay coffee-table book HAND IN HAND here.

The Road a Scripture

by Marsha McSpadden

 

[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.]

 

The Road a Scripture

Granny says Jesus works quiet and curious but mama leaving with the UPS man weren’t no great mystery. Says if mama took an interest in her salvation like she did fornicating, well then. Her mouth pinches, wrinkly and sour, and she putters off, muttering how we are two jars of spilt milk.

Granny’s big on Jesus and washing regular and combing through life looking for signs. Says it isn’t everybody can study their toast and see the Savior staring right back at them.

She’s got Scooter and me searching for them too but she don’t like the ones we find. Says we’ve been living sinful so long it’s twisted our vision.

 

There’s a sickness roaming out there but granny don’t like to talk about it. She thinks mama’s got a different kind of sickness though she don’t say what exactly. Only that Jesus will keep us safe from germs and all the things we can’t see so long as we turn loose of our wicked ways, say our prayers, and stop tracking dirt into her house.

Filth, granny says, is what brung that sickness around to begin with.

 

The sickness is like water, is like soap, washing the wicked from this world.

 

School let out to save people from it but there’s only one kind of person who can really save you. You Know Who.

Even if there was school, granny wouldn’t let us go. She’s teaching us the old ways. How to witch for water and read clouds. Which flowers to take for a bellyache and how to skin a squirrel. Mama let us grow soft by letting us pick whatever we wanted off the grocery shelves. It’s alright I guess but I miss cheez ums and my best friend Amanda and the dog next door. Scooter just misses mama. Sometimes he cries about it in his sleep. But we try not to dwell because granny will snatch our tongues out.

 

Granny says Jesus knows where you lay your head and all the thoughts inside it. He whispers to her in the night about the end times drawing near. But it’s the devil you gotta watch out for. When he gets lonely he goes ear to ear hawking all the mischief he’s got planned.

Granny says that’s what happened to mama. She took the devil up on his offer.

We’d only been there a couple of days when they said sit tight, stop talking to strangers. But mama don’t care for rules much. That road out front, a scripture only she could read. That truck her one chance at salvation.

 

Water or road. It don’t matter how you go.

 

So, we’re living with granny, I guess, where the trees have teeth and the crows sit on the roof talking to one another. There’s great big prayer spiders that weave words into their webs that only granny understands. You don’t want to find your name in their thread.

Scooter likes to lay down in the front yard, ear flat to dirt, listening for the grind of the gravel, hoping that truck will deliver mama back to us. He’s too young to know any better.

When we’re riding granny’s patience, she shoos us off to play in the woods where vines drape the trees like they’re wearing ghosts for clothes. Out where the creek sings and red mud blooms. I try and talk the creek into rising so it can float me far far away. Scooter hunts for feathers so he can make his own set of wings. Just like mama, we are looking for ways outta here.

 

The calendar keeps flipping and the sickness keeps growing. Soon it’s Easter even though it don’t feel right without mama.

The sickness swiped the service but granny makes us dress up anyway. Two frilly outfits that smell like attic. We sit like sticks in the special room where the furniture creaks and the busted springs poke our bones.

Granny fiddles around with the radio trying to act like it’s as shiny as church but she huffs and puffs about her rights being thieved. The preacher gets his feathers raised about how the end is inching nearer every day, and granny perks right up. When they start singing about blood, she jumps up, swaying side to side, waving to Jesus like he’s sitting right there. Scooter stares so hard he forgets to blink.

 

And then there’s a great clapping only it ain’t coming from Scooter or me. It’s coming from outside. And it’s not clapping but thunder where the clouds have stolen the sun. Scooter’s eyes get as big as biscuits. The radio makes a horrible racket and then the weatherman takes over, saying we gotta hightail it to our safe spot.

A test, granny says, hopping around trying to scare us out the backdoor. Bigger than eating poke weed. Bigger than juggling snakes. Says that great big storm’s coming to see if we’re filled with as much evil as she reckons.

 

It’s beautiful, that storm. The light’s gone green and the lighting pops purple straight to the ground. But it makes Scooter stutter.

Granny says, Go on child, don’t be afraid.

She pushes me out into the yard where the wind is busy bending trees, blowing the new green down the road, like it wants to clean every little thing.

Her voice turns weird, the words tripping off her tongue. The only thing I can shake out: try and catch the lightning.

So, I do. I run out into the yard and stretch my hand out. Thinking once I snag that lightning, I’ll tuck it in my pocket.

The rain splashes against my feet until there ain’t a stitch of me dry. I see that cloud coming down like a hand from heaven and I think maybe granny is right—it’s come to scrape the meanness from my insides and that’s the kind of clean that just might bring mama back.

 

Marsha McSpadden lives and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Other small fictions have appeared in Shenandoah, SmokeLong, and matchbook, among others. Come say hi on Twitter @marshamacsays or at marshamcspadden.com.

 

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In the spring, when lockdowns were beginning to take shape, tornado season was also starting for us. In fact, our weatherman and public health officials had to put out statements: seek shelter first, social distance if possible. A batch of bad storms were predicted for Easter Sunday. Most churches were closed, but some were going to open in defiance of lockdown. That was the first I remember thinking not everyone was viewing the pandemic in the same way that I was. That some folks might see these events as rapturous. I jotted all of this down as an idea but didn’t really do anything else with it. And then a couple of months later, I was walking my dog and the first line just came to me as if dropped from a cloud. I had the threads, I just needed to stitch them together

Waiting in Line for a Picture With Santa, Late on Christmas Eve

by Diane D. Gillette

 

A damp warmth spreads under my hand as Lila’s diaper gives out. The dark stain conquers the red and green striped tights of the elf outfit my mother-in-law Geraldine gifted us: a contract for peace mere months after Lila’s arrival into this world. One I’ve ignored for too long.

We’re almost there. Only three more families to go. The woman in front of me curls her nose before pressing her loosely curled fist to her face and looking around for the offending smell. I want to put Lila back in her stroller, make my apologies, and escape. But tomorrow will be too late for pictures with an authentic department store Santa. I must hold out. I reach one-handed into the diaper bag for a blanket to wrap Lila in. She coos and grips a corner of the blanket and tries to stuff her whole fist in her mouth. She seems dazzled by the flashing lights and holiday music that has taken over the mall.

The teenager dressed as a sexy Mrs. Claus has a manic smile that doesn’t waver for one second as a group of man-boys hoot in her direction. Santa looks ready for a stiff drink. I consider inviting him to meet me at a bar after. Surely his day must’ve been harder than mine. I imagine trying to explain to my husband Michael why getting a picture with Santa took so long. I then imagine telling him if he really wanted to know, he should have been with me instead of working on Christmas Eve—work that was more than likely drinks with clients, possibly pretty, unattached ones. Both scenarios end in a fight with Geraldine butting in—because somehow she’s always there—and telling me how ungrateful I am for everything Michael has worked so hard to provide for me and Lila.

I sniff the top of Lila’s head. Even the soiled diaper can’t hide the way she reminds me of ginger cookies and icing. I think that maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe if I hold her and just stand next to Santa, I won’t have to duck out of line and change her into the back-up outfit that was not hand-picked by my mother-in-law. I convince myself that maybe I won’t have to give up my spot, even as I hear the criticisms Geraldine will surely use to slice apart any picture I present where Lila is not firmly on Santa’s lap. I think if Michael was here, he could have, at the very least, served as a warm body to save our spot.

I consider pretending nothing is wrong. Just marching up when it’s my turn and plopping Lila onto Santa’s lap without making direct eye contact. I could be that person who ruins it for everyone else. It’d be easier than coming home without Santa pictures. I sigh, heavy with the certainty that this moment of hell is eternal.

I remember two Christmases ago when I went to Mexico alone and drank on the beach. I swam with dolphins. I decided that when I got back home, I’d make Micheal finally leave his wife. That way, I’d finally have everything I’d ever wanted. Michael was younger than my previous conquests. More successful. Sexier. Better in bed. While I lay on that beach sipping my margarita, I imagined how much better it would be to be his wife instead of his mistress.

Lila’s face is flushing and her nose is doing that little crinkle that means she’s about to scream bloody murder. I close my eyes and remember the dolphins.

 

Diane D. Gillette lives, writes, and teaches in Chicago. Her work has appeared in over 60 literary venues including the Saturday Evening Post, Blackbird, Hobart, and the Maine Review. She’s a founding member of the Chicago Literary Writers. You can find more of her published work at www.digillette.com.

 

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“Late on Christmas Eve” was born in a holiday-themed flash fiction workshop I took as a birthday gift to myself last December. The prompt was to write a story about a character trying to do a typical holiday activity while experiencing some kind of conflict. The mall during the holidays always feels ripe with conflict, especially on Christmas Eve, so naturally, I took my character to the mall to meet Santa! All I knew when I started was that the diaper was going to give out. The narrator revealed more and more about herself and her situation as the story unfolded, and I enjoyed teasing that out through later drafts.

An Evening Walk

by Donald A. Ranard

 

[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.]

 

“C’mon,” he said. “It’ll be interesting.”

They’d been taking their walks at night, when the streets were empty, but today he suggested they go out in early evening, while it was still light.

“Long as we social distance and wear masks,” she said.

They walked up Culpeper and turned left on Beauregard, a normally quiet street that now, with no traffic, was busy with kids racing about on bikes and scooters. People who usually preferred the privacy of backyard patios and decks had gathered on front porches; others sat in their front yards on lawn chairs carrying on conversations with neighbors across the street.

As they walked along the tree-lined street, they waved and shouted greetings to people they’d never met.

“I feel like we’ve wandered into a Norman Rockwell painting,” she said.

Ahead, two pre-teen boys approached, deep in conversation. One wore a mask, the other didn’t.

“Vectors at twelve o’clock,” he said, and she laughed.

Before they could cross to the other side of the street, the masked boy suddenly noticed them and veered off sharply to the left. The other boy followed him across the street.

“Is that for them or us?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“I read in the community newsletter that parents are telling their kids to steer clear of the elderly—you know, because they’re more vulnerable.”

“I don’t know if I’m impressed that our neighbors are so responsible or depressed that I’m now considered elderly.”

At the end of the block, they came to a Cape Cod with a wheelchair ramp. The house belonged to an old Chinese couple from Hong Kong. They’d never met the housebound husband, but they’d become friendly with the woman. She took long, slow walks in the morning and would sometimes stop and chat if one of them was in the garden working when she passed by.

“I just realized we haven’t seen Rose lately,” she said. “Hope she’s okay.”

“With all the anti-Asian attacks in the news, maybe she’s afraid to go out.”

“In our neighborhood?”

As they turned the corner onto Dinwiddie, a gray pick-up truck sped toward them, flags flying: One was a Confederate flag; the other showed a skull wrapped in the American flag under the motto “Live Free or Die.”

“Yep,” he said, “in our neighborhood.”

As the truck roared by, the driver stuck his head, bearded, bald, and unmasked, out the window.

“Sheeple!”

“Live free and die, asshole,” he muttered, then whirled around, middle finger raised.

She yanked his arm down, a look of alarm on her face. “What’re you doing?!”

They walked for a moment in silence.

“That wasn’t smart,” she said. “Suppose he had a gun.”

“I’m thinking of getting one.”

She stopped and stared at him in disbelief. “Are you serious?”

“What, a Democrat can’t own a gun?”

***

In the gathering dusk, a tall black man wearing a dark mask walked toward them. As he came closer, they crossed to the other side of the street, waving and shouting loud greetings to the man in unison. He looked at them but said nothing.

“I wonder if he thinks we’re racist,” she said.

“More likely he’s wondering why we’re knocking ourselves out to be so friendly to someone we don’t know,” he said.

There was a pop-pop-pop. They stopped, looked at each other and then at the man. He looked back at them, but behind the mask his expression was unreadable.

“What do you think he thinks now?” she said. “Talk about unconscious bias.”

“Well, at least we have something to talk about tomorrow.” For the past month they’d been zooming with friends, and last week, after running out of things to talk about, someone had suggested the idea of topics. Tomorrow’s topic was racism and white privilege.

Another series of pops. She looked at him. “Those are firecrackers, right?”

“I think so. I hope so.”

“Why now?”

“You’d know if you still did Facebook. It’s a sting operation by the police. Or it’s rival groups of young people. Or it’s an antifa operation to erode respect for the police. Or it’s a police psyop against black and brown people to get them used to the sound of artillery fire that will come in Phase Two. Or it’s—”

“Oh my God! Stop! That’s exactly why I don’t do Facebook anymore. How about bored kids with nothing to do?”

He made a face. “That won’t get any likes.”

***

On their right, two houses, side-by-side, displayed Black Lives Matter signs.

“I didn’t realize our neighborhood was so woke,” she said.

“Woke! Listen to you! I didn’t realize you were so—”

“Woke?”

He laughed.

“Get with it, old man.”

“What’s the opposite of woke?” he said.

“I don’t know. . . unwoke? Why?”

He pointed across the street. In front of a brick rambler was an All Lives Matter sign on one side of the manicured lawn and on the other side a sign with a message so long they had to stop to read it:

I will not be masked, tested,

tracked, poisoned, or chipped

to support this orchestrated lie

This is NOT my new normal

I AM AN AMERICAN!

# I DO NOT CONSENT

***

Afterwards they sat on their back deck, surrounded by trees, and watched fireflies under a star-lit sky.

“Our refuge,” she said. “We’re so lucky to have this.”

“I haven’t seen so many fireflies since I was a kid. I wonder if it’s because of Covid.”

“How so?”

“Less pollution.”

They sat in silence for a moment. “It may not all be terrible, this pandemic,” she said. “I mean, we’ve never been closer to Sam.” It was true: Pre-pandemic, they’d hear from their daughter once or twice a month; now they talked to her every other day.

In the distance, the rat-a-tat-tat of small explosions ended with a loud boom.

She looked at him. “Were those firecrackers?”

He shrugged. Can you buy a gun online? he wondered.

 

Donald A. Ranard’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlantic, Vestal Review, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, 100 Word Story, War, Literature & the Arts, and elsewhere. His essay “The Accidental Hotel” is anthologized in The Best Travel Writing 2005. A resident of Arlington, VA, he has lived in a dozen countries in Asia, Europe, and Latin America.

 

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My story is an imaginative reworking of the evening walks in our neighborhood that my wife and I have been taking since the pandemic began. The neighborhood, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., is heavily blue but with pockets of red. The story began as a playful piece, full of banter, about the deeply weird, paradoxical moment we find ourselves in, but dark, unfunny observations kept creeping in. While some of the humor remains—because life is funny, even, sometimes, when it’s not—a simple evening walk in a quiet suburban neighborhood is spooked by omens of violence and social collapse.

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.

 

See what happens when you click below.

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.

 

See what happens when you click below.

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.

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