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Month: October 2020

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

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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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Waiting in Line for a Picture With Santa, Late on Christmas Eve”?

“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.

 

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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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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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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 reading period for standard submissions closes June 15, 2021. Topical Thursdays’ submissions are open year-round. Submit here.

Upcoming

10/22 • Ciarán Parkes
10/24 • Jeff Ronan
10/25 • Jamie Etheridge
10/28 • Sheldon Siporin
10/30 • John Van Dreal
11/01 • Lucinda Kempe
11/02 • Carol Taylor
11/04 • Elizabeth Spragins
11/08 • Michelle Ross
11/09 • Myron Kukla
11/11 • Nanar Khamo
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