Month: October 2021

CNF: My Prayer

by John Van Dreal


[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 shadow grew.

The first time I saw it, I was six. It was in the eye of a blue belly lizard as its breathing became shallow. I was the reason—I and a blood-stained silver ball bearing, the projectile of my wrist rocket slingshot.

I saw it again when I was ten. This time in the eyes of dozens of birds. Again, I was the reason—I and a bombardment of small lead pellets, the projectiles of my Crossman air rifle.

Again, in the eyes of rabbits and squirrels, the victims of my adolescent rage, cloaked by my passion for hunting. All victims of my .22 rifle, 12-gauge shotgun, and small-game arrowheads.

When I was nineteen, I looked down the sight of my deer rifle, directly into the eyes of blacktail buck—coal black, fully dilated to the lids, outlined with lashes—two blinks as he looked back up my muzzle. This time, I did not see it. The eyes were wide with curiosity and poised energy. His head pivoted from side to side on its lengthy neck swivel as he made out my figure in the brush. Then he turned and walked a few feet, lowering his head to eat forbs, mast, and grass as he maintained one cautious eye on me. I was no threat at that point. I lowered the rifle and sat, considering my change of mind, my hunter’s passion surrendering to my heart.

I saw it again in the photographs of dying soldiers, shared by a South African friend, just returned from the war in Angola. I was twenty-one.

A few years later in my grandmother’s eyes, although I ignored what I saw, preferring denial. She looked panicked, trying to tell me something, pointing, explaining. The dullness of her gaze too opaque to reflect the assortment of lights within the ICU.

When I was twenty-nine, I saw it in the eyes of a ten-year-old girl taking her last breaths on an elementary school playground, her heart failing from disease.

In the years that passed, it was everywhere I looked, then nowhere. Creeping in through failed relationships, loss of faith, distrust of hope, and the angst that accompanies the responsibility of safely raising kids. Then it disappeared again as I glimpsed my fortieth year and caught my second breath.

But the shadow returned, dulling the eyes of friends, my cousin, my aunt, two cats, my son’s dog, my father-in-law.

A year ago, I saw it in the eyes of a man living under the steps of a bridge near my home. It startled me at first, then encouraged me to ask him if he was OK. I watched him stand, lower his head, and walk away, keeping one lightless eye on me. I wanted to follow, stop the shadow, or at least see if the eyes had been telling—but what would I do?

Eight months ago, I saw it on news channels, in the eyes of a black man, his neck squeezed under the knee of another man sworn to protect him. That vision, juxtaposed with images of the elderly attacked by plague and cocooned by tubes, tangled blankets, respirators, and medical machinery—their eyes emptied of light.

The shadow . . . it grows, creeping forward like my age. I carefully examine the eyes of my parents, my friends, my dog, now sick with cancer. My watch is anything but accepting or “used to it.” I’m desperate to find light instead of shadow. I consider avoiding truth—ignoring the signs. But I’m a realist, long ago having forfeited faith and promise to living in the moment.

Still, my prayers have increased with this slow, gnawing fear. For my family, my friends, the refrain is simple:

Please keep the dullness away from them. Give them a stay. Hasn’t my karma debt been reimbursed? For the lizard, the birds, the rabbits, and the slain relationships?

Please keep it from their eyes. Please keep the shadow from my dog.


A third-generation artist, John Van Dreal began painting and writing at age seven. He earned his formal education in Fine Arts at Humboldt State University and Brigham Young University and educational psychology at Brigham Young University, maintaining careers in both fields while writing. A musician and award-winning artist with work featured in collections throughout the Pacific Northwest, Van Dreal uses his creative vision and accessible writing style to explore both the darker and quirkier sides of human behavior. He resides in Salem, Oregon and is currently composing his first novel.


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

I’ve been working on this piece since June of ’20, when a number of things occurred that compelled me to reflect on loss of people, pets, and the strange muting that takes place in the eyes of someone or something passing as well as in the eyes of those who know it’s coming. COVID, our city’s homeless crisis, and my family’s battles with cancer were the likely catalyst, but the piece goes back years to my youth.


by Jan Cronos


[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.]


Mann-Wen hunches narrow shoulders, pushing the walker. The small wheels can get stuck in cracks so she’s careful. Still for her, it’s a magic device. But the oval path is smooth. Her aunt comes here early mornings. She told Mann-Wen how beautiful the flowers are.

Nearby, two bald men play checkers under maple trees. A boy stands entranced. As she passes, he turns and stares at Mann-Wen. His eyes are wildflowers in the blazing sun.

“Hey,” the boy’s voice quivers as he approaches. “Who are you?” he demands.

Mann-Wen straightens. Her hands clench the handlebars.

“You don’t live here,” he accuses. “I never seen you before.” A deep line forms above the boy’s nose.

“No,” Mann-Wen replies in a hoarse voice. “I just come to walk the gardens.”

“Why do you use that?” the boy blurts out, pointing to the walker.

Mann-Wen hesitates. “What you think?” she asks.

The boy’s greasy hands rub his neck. “I think you’re an alien,” he declares, poking his finger and moving back a step.

Mann-Wenn sighs.

He gestures at her. “The way you walk means your planet’s gravity is less than Earth and so your legs are weak and little. When you’re home on Venus, you move like this.”
The boy leaps and skips.

Mann-Wen wrinkles her brow.

The boy frowns. “So, you’re invading from Venus. Are you alone?”

“What,” Mann-Wen asks. The sun is glowing, and she wants to move. She licks her lips.

“Thomas,” a woman calls. Middle-aged and buxom with well-coifed brown hair, her face is stern. She beckons with a graceful hand. A bracelet dangles from her wrist. “Come here, boy, I told you not to speak to strangers.”

As Thomas runs off, Mann-Wen heads towards the fountain. She moves slowly and her feet are heavy. The fountain fascinates her. Two mallard ducks swim in the pond, their green and black feathers iridescent. The spray is cool and damp. There’s nothing like this back home. Closing her eyes, Mann-Wen inhales. The air has a fresh, floral scent but her breathing is heavy, labored.


Two policemen loom over her. The one with sergeant’s stripes gestures to where Thomas stands with his mother, who holds his elbow.

“Ma’am, kid’s mom says you scared her son, told him you’re from Venus.” The sergeant glares. “Do you live here? Where’s your I.D.?”

Mann-Wen shakes her head.

“This is private property. You’re trespassing,” he warns.

Mann-Wen gasps. She can’t breathe.

The sergeant folds his arms. “You’re from China, right? Why’d you say you’re from Venus?”

“I bet she’s illegal,” the second officer says.

“Cut it, Mike,” the sergeant snaps. “She’s nuts.” He frowns at Mann-Wen, “Sorry, M’am. If you don’t have I.D., we have to take you in.”

“No,” Mann-Wen whispers, shifting the walker.

“What do you think you’re gonna do? Run off in that thing.” Mike snickers.

Pressing down on the handlebars, Mann-Wen raises her head. As the police stand there, the walker elevates, then shoots up into the sky.

“What the hell,” yells the sergeant, shaking his head.

“Jesus,” says Mike.

Thomas pulls at his mother’s arm. “I knew she was an alien,” he says. “I knew it by her legs. There’s less gravity on Venus so the aliens got thin little legs.”

“You’re a smart boy, Thomas,” his mother says, kissing him. “But from now on don’t talk to strangers.”

Far overhead, Mann-Wen accelerates, steering towards the evening star.


Author lives and writes in New York City under the pen name Jan Cronos. Prior publications include Fabula Argentea (flash) and Andromeda Spaceways (poetry).


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

This piece was inspired as I watched an elderly woman with a walker standing by a fountain. I imagined what it would be like if the device was capable of flight, instead of simply dragging along the ground.

Desire Lines

by Jamie Etheridge


[Editor’s Note: Click on the triptych below to view it at full size.]


Jamie Etheridge’s creative writing can be read in X-R-A-Y Lit, Anti-Heroin Chic, JMWW Journal, (mac)ro(mic), Bending Genres, Emerge Lit, Essay Daily and Rejection Letters, among others. She is currently working on a memoir about her fugitive father and her childhood on the road. Jamie tweets @LeScribbler and you can visit her website at LeScribbler.com.


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

In the writing of this piece, I learned that there are more than 15 possible definitions for the noun ‘line’, creating dozens of synonyms. Some of my favorites include: column, queue (cue in American English), echelon, rank, row, tier, chain, progression, sequence, array, marshal, classify, balance, lay out, alphabetize, ambit, arena, circle, demesne, kingdom, boundary, blueprint, direction and purpose. Each takes me one step closer to understanding my daughter’s impulse to create her own lines.

This Vicious Cycle

by Jeff Ronan


[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 pretend I can’t hear the question, which isn’t entirely true. I’m waiting for a drink I don’t need, debating (selfishly) how shitty a son I’ll be if I don’t take the train down tomorrow, when I feel a sharp poke in my ribs. The woman is cute but peppers her sentences with a phony-sounding laugh. She leans in and repeats: “My friend and I were wondering – ha ha – if you’re into guys or girls?”

The friend standing behind her smiles at me and downs the rest of his beer. A colorful tribal tattoo circles his bicep, which I normally find cheesy, but looks good on him. He sees me looking at it and winks. I fight the urge to lick my chapped lips.

The bartender wordlessly delivers my whiskey, and I scan the bar to see if any of my coworkers can see us. Dela is programming Honky Cat into the jukebox for the second time in an hour, while Micah, misreading the vibe of the room, tries to hand out shots of Jäger. He catches my eye, and I turn away.

I rarely join my office’s Friday happy hour, but Erika called during my lunch break. Our father had passed out while buying scratch-offs and was back in the hospital for the umpteenth time in two years. Each time this happens, the doctors repeat their cycle of tests, and Erika grows convinced that this will be the time that we’ll find a cause, if not a cure. I want to tell her that it’s pointless; that they’ll say the same thing they always do: “From what we can see, there’s nothing wrong with him.”

I turn back to the pair, their eyes expectant, and I notice the guy’s tattoo again. What I thought was some kind of tribal marking is actually a coral snake, winding around his arm and disappearing up the sleeve of his t-shirt. I imagine a version of myself finding out where the snake ends.


Somewhere, a glass shatters, followed by a smattering of sarcastic applause. I want to ask how many times they’ve used this pickup line. And if every guy has as much difficulty choosing one of the two answers they’re looking for. Instead, I reach out and gently tug on the hem of the woman’s shirt and give the answer that I can live with for tonight.


Jeff Ronan is a New York-based writer, actor, and podcaster. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Bards and Sages Quarterly, Sci Phi Journal, Dream of Shadows, City.River.Tree., and the anthology Ink. For more, visit jeffronan.com


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

I was stuck in the middle of a different short story when the idea for This Vicious Cycle came to me. It arrived in a rush, mostly over the course of a single day (would that all stories would be so kind). The title is a mashup of two different songs by the excellent band The Dear Hunter.

Try Not To Breathe

by Ciarán Parkes


[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.]


Try not to breathe
until the hug is over. Point your face
over the other person’s shoulder, gazing

into the social distance, then
step back into it. Try to make it quick
as possible. Feel the afterglow

of oxytocin flooding through your brain
from such close contact. Smile behind your mask. Wait ten days or so

in case of symptoms.
Cautiously repeat


Ciarán Parkes lives in Galway, Ireland. His poems have appeared in The Threepenny Review, Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, and other places.


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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Try Not To Breathe”?

Living on my own during Covid meant long periods without any human contact. I remember reading how-to guides to safe hugging online, and wondering how all that oxytocin would feel like. The poem wrote itself very quickly.

A Little Airshow

by Kim Chinquee


On my fourth date with the banker, I wait at the table. He arrives talking on his phone, in his suit and tie. He’s some minutes late, as he said he would be. I was a minute late, so I’m relieved that finally this time, he didn’t arrive before me. We’re at Angelo’s, a place he’s never been. He asked me to pick a place near me. The place is Italian and not as fancy as the one down the street he’s been to many times.

When he gets to the table, I stand, we hug. We kiss. I say, “I already ordered wine.” I haven’t sipped it yet though. I ordered a sparkling and like to watch the bubbles.

He’s tall. His hair is white and clean-cut. His eyes are blue. He has dimples, white teeth and clear skin. I keep forgetting his age, but I think that he is sixty. I teach art. I should be better about numbers. I’m just over fifty. We met on Match. The inventory, at least for me, and what I’m looking for, is pretty slim there.

Our last time together was at my house, after he had dinner with his mother. It was my first time seeing him wearing something casual. Shirt and jeans. I gave him a tour of my garden, and though it was starting to get late, the moonlight glowed on the roses, the bellflowers, and he said he loved the scent. We hugged there in the back and he kissed my neck. My dogs wagged their tails. The singing birds gave us a little airshow.

He stayed the night. He gave me backrubs. After sex, he held me in his arms, and said it was my job to stay there. He fell asleep and started snoring. I stayed locked into his arms. I tried to relax. I told myself to relax. I told myself, enjoy this. After a while, I just told myself to take in all the senses. I took in his smell. The texture of his skin. The sound of him. I studied his face and even watched him breathe. I finally fell asleep there.

He’s regional president and manages 34 banks. Or maybe 43? He gets up at five am and does yoga every morning. My first time at his apartment, we woke early and had another round of touching. He lives downtown in a renovated apartment with high ceilings. His unit is the highest. He made me coffee. I wasn’t sure I’d see him again.

I can miss the bus on some things.

This is my first spring/summer in my new home. New things bloom each day. Today it was the hollyhock. Yesterday, daylilies spouted up. And the trumpet vine! Every morning, after breakfast, I visit the raspberry bushes, and eat every ripe thing I see. Every one’s a gift. Every one’s delicious!

I drive to the lakeshore, where I swim with fellow athletes. We wear nylons under wetsuits to help us get them on right. Through goggles, we see rocks and fish. We rotate our arms and legs, our bodies, moving through the waves. Loons are quiet trumpets on the water. I cycle with my friends, and we ride for miles with hydration systems, disc brakes, electronic shifting, carbon wheels. We go down hills at high speeds. Sometimes we have to traverse to get up them.

After Angelo’s, the banker comes to my place.

We go up to my bedroom.

We remove our clothes and we wait for the roar.


Kim Chinquee is the author of seven collections, most recently SNOWDOG (Ravenna Press). Her next collection PIPETTE is forthcoming with Ravenna Press, along with her novel-in-flashes BATTLE DRESS (Orphan + Widow House). She’s the recipient of two Pushcart Prizes, senior editor of NEW WORLD WRITING, chief editor of ELM LEAVES JOURNAL, and she co-directs the writing major at SUNY-Buffalo State.


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

“A Little Airshow” was crafted using prompt words and a prompt sentence: airshow, inter-tube, lakeshore, loon, trumpet, Wait for the roar. I chose these prompts for my writing group while doing an open water swim in Lake Erie with my triathlon friends, and there were spectators all around waiting for an air show. I was curious about that. I guess that was the stem of this piece.


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.


Poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction/prose poetry submissions are now closed. The reading period for standard submissions opens again March 15, 2023. Submit here.


02/26 • D Angelo
03/04 • Steve Cushman
03/11 • Rita Taryan
03/18 • Jessica Purdy
03/25 • TBD