A CAPPELLA ZOO ISSUE 14 · SPRING 2015
EDITOR Colin Meldrum ASSISTANT EDITOR Andrew Henderson
READERS Sonia Christensen Emma Hutson Lisa McCool-Grime Ian Sacks Sonnie Wills
A cappella Zoo (ISSN: 1945-7480): an independent publication of magic realism and slipstream stories. Founded in 2008. Published semiannually in spring and fall. Support A cappella Zoo and its contributors by sharing your favorite works with friends and colleagues. Enjoy. Copyright © 2015 All rights retained by authors/artists of respective works. Cover art by JULIAN KIMMINGS: Inappropriate Fear, mixed paints on 75x75 cm canvas. “Fear makes the wolf look bigger.” Turtle dragon logo by ANNA BRON. APOSPECIMEN AWARD WINNERS Selected as especially noteworthy contributions to this issue: Fiction: Toni’s Party, ERICA MOSLEY Poetry: The Wilds, CAITLIN THOMSON www.acappellazoo.com
They whisper into cupped hands, shake with the giggles. We glance up at Marla’s tail, alert and swaying, mistaking the motion of the train for her prompting. —Stuffed Animals
It started with the hydrangea. —The World of Her Own Making
We lived in a universe of pockets and orbs. —The Polytribes
I’m at the Southside Mall to buy a new head and find I’ve accidentally come in on the 5th floor and heads are on the 3rd. —The Head Shop Escalator Tilt-a-Whirl
When we’re gone we’ll be remembered by our holes: only those go deep enough. —Ends for the Story about Dwarves
I told Dad I wanted to find life on other planets. He wasn’t home often, and this was one of our moments, when I wanted to be super amazing for him. —Supernova
The first time Toni died she was desperately thirsty and could not speak. —Toni’s Party
The Church of Forgotten Gods
JULIE C. DAY
The World of Her Own Making POETRY
Tight Wire MARY LOU BUSCHI
21st Century JENNIFER GIVHAN
The Wilds CAITLIN THOMSON
Dec. 31, 2049 MICHAEL JONES
Little Girls ELIZABETH O’BRIEN
The Polytribes KEITH McCLEARY
A Water Can Sprays a Flower Bed City JOHN GOSSLEE
Ends for the Story about Dwarves ELIZABETH O’BRIEN
The Last Jew Celebrates the New Year with his Dead Friend, Ishaq Levin M. E. SILVERMAN
The Iguana Boys
The Spider Garden
The Bowls, the Buttons, and the Baskets
C. B. AUDER
The Head Shop Escalator Tilt-a-Whirl
MARK McKEE, JR.
A Seat on the Train JONATHAN MACK
The Church of Forgotten Gods JULIE C. DAY
ehia’s skin glowed like copper-tainted gold, the campfire re-forming her rounded face in a series of shadow masks, transforming her more completely than any Halloween mask or costume in the annual school play. To Mica, the rest of the night’s desert crowd seemed lost to the darkness, bit players on Lehia’s stage. “Finally.” Lehia said. A ragged cheer had erupted from their desert crowd at the distant rumble of a car engine, heading from the highway. Crowd was a relative term. In all, their congregation consisted of maybe twelve people. Most, like Mica, went to Gila Bend High. Most had gone to Gila Bend Elementary, as well. “Brad’ll be here soon,” Mica said, though inside he was squirming with anticipation. This night: the purple-octopus tabs of acid, the camp chairs, the indifferently tuned guitars. In the end they were all for Lehia and Brad. Didn’t matter. It was still their Church of Forgotten Gods. Lehia turned, her eyes fixed on the headlights speeding toward their campfire. “Or maybe he could be less of an asshole and get here on time.” “You know how Brad is,” Mica said, like any of this really mattered. For the last half hour, while Lehia had talked about yarn bombing and string theory and hidden dimensions and the possibility of a world “where even these fucking, middle-of-the-Arizona-desert trees are tricked out. Get it?” Mica had been listening to the fire. He’d experimented with configurations, adjusting the tilt of his head and pushing the burning wood with a nearby stick, but in the end, all he’d deciphered were the wood’s usual pops and cracks. There was a rumble of tires against hard-packed dirt, a scattering of loose rock, and then the slam of a car door. “Took you long enough,” Mica said, forestalling whatever horrible comment Lehia had in mind. “What the hell. Are you waiting for me?” Brad’s tanned face was so different from Lehia’s: chin, cheekbones. All those angles, paired with almost over-ripe lips. “You’re the Church’s God damn prophet.” “Right.” Mica grinned despite himself. “Hallelujah, dear congregant, and praise be.” “Praise be to all plasma-charged gods.” Mica felt his smile tighten as Jillian Meester emerged from the driver’s side of the Chrysler Le Baron. “Hey,” he said, but nothing more. Fucking
Brad and his fucking groupies. With his varsity jacket and his quarterback hands, half of Gila Bend already thought him a god. Brad didn’t even seem to notice as Lehia glanced at the newly arrived couple, and then quickly away. Instead, he lit a cherry cigarillo and stepped into an empty patch of hard-packed dirt. “Church time,” he howled. “Church time,” Mica repeated. He swept both arms out, encompassing the loose circle of people surrounding their fire. “Pay heed, congregants. We reside in an unsanctified wasteland, containing only the meagerest bits of plasma.” “Speak, Prophet Mica. Give us the gods’ truth.” Brad’s expression was strangely uncertain as he faced the fire, his back to their small congregation—almost demanding Mica’s attention. “Plasma is the universe’s holy conduit. Not liquid. Not solid. Not gas,” Mica said, ignoring Brad, the physical presence of him. Jillian Meester. For Christ’s sake. All that over-processed blonde hair. “It travels across the seemingly empty reaches of space, resides in the heart of every sun.” Mica paused in his recitation. What was that sound? Uaahaaaauahhh, droned a low, thready voice. Plink. Plink. Uaahaaaauahhh. Finally. Spark-songs. The desert air shifted. The scent of Brad’s cigarillo mixed with the fire’s more pungent smoke. Mica felt a creeping itch somewhere in the back of his skull. Uaahaaaauahhh. “Mica, can you stop with the fucking humming? Forget prophet. Church Burnout is your new title.” Phil Buckley’s laugh had an ugly edge, not Church-like at all. “What—?” Mica started to say, then stopped. Everyone was staring. He must have been singing with the sparks. “Shut up, Phil,” Brad said, “and give the lady a seat.” He handed Jillian his cigarillo, then wrapped her in a brief, hard kiss. “Sure you’re ready for this, honeybee?” Phil leered as Jillian settled next to him on the log bench. He thrust out his crotch. The guy was a douche when he drank. Not that that ever stopped him. “Mica, it’s time.” Lehia was scowling as she caught hold of Mica’s left hand. “The god’s of the Inter are ready to welcome us,” Brad agreed, moving to stand next to Lehia. Mica’s throat felt hot. The base of his skull itched as the spark-lights sang, Uaahaaaauahhh. He closed his eyes, trying to catch the melody, when suddenly, somewhere deep inside his brain, fiery spark-pain. Time skipped again. “…Plasma is the eternal constant,” Lehia was saying. The words were toward the end of her Acclamation of the Forgotten Gods. Minutes after his own recitation. “The holy fourth state of matter.”
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Mica wasn’t holding her hand anymore. Instead, Brad stood between them, the bonfire at their back as they faced their congregation. “It envelops most of the universe: the stars, the nebulas, even the interstellar winds, while we on earth settle for the three remaining states. The gods have turned their backs on us. Our plasma signals seem unanswered, but we must have faith.” “Mica?” Brad was looking down at him, his eyebrows creased in a halffrown. “Mica? Your turn, man. Witness it up.” Mica felt a sudden urge to lean forward and taste the smoke and cherry flavor hiding inside Brad’s mouth. “The gods of the Inter,” he said instead, “—inter-galactic, inter-stellar—all those burning, plasma gods—may have left this earth, but like deep-space pilots, they can steer their collective plasma-powered energy over vast distances. And when the conditions are right, some of their holy matter blesses the cold solidity of this our earth...” Mica paused, losing the thread. Somehow Brad’s hand was in his own. He let his weight settle against the warmth of his friend’s arm. “Miiiicaaaa,” crooned a voice from the crowd. Probably Phil. Uaahaaaauahhh, sang the sparks. Farther out, flashes of heat lightning scratched the horizon. The gods were getting closer. “Prayer time, folks.” Brad pulled a folded paper from his jacket pocket. “Fuck practical vocations,” he yelled, tossing the offending pamphlet into the fire. For a moment, Mica could see the printed image of a man in a blue work-shirt, the name Ed embroidered on the left pocket. The man seemed to be smiling at both Mica and the encircling flames as the fire took over. Then the man’s smile disappeared into a patch of fine ash. Lehia’s turn. “Fuck choices,” she cried, tossing a small cotton bag next to Brad’s offering. A shower of sparks swirled up. The bag’s contents, as usual, were Lehia’s private concern, though Mica thought he saw a crayonscrawled valentine among the smoldering contents. Mica, when his turn came, said nothing at all. He hummed, waited until the itch settled down, and then pulled out his penknife. With a quick sawing motion, he severed a length of his hair. For a long moment he stared at Lehia and Brad—love, this kind of love, there had to be a way to make it work, didn’t there?—then he tossed his hair into the flames. The strands wound into tight, ashen curls before disappearing entirely. “Christ, Mica,” Lehia muttered, ignoring the waiting crowd. “What was that?” Her eyes, smeared with day-old mascara, were red, red, red. “There is no Christ, remember?” Mica replied. “Time for some holy visions, Prophet Mica,” Phil called out. In the flickering shadows, Mica thought he caught a worried expression on Jillian Meester’s face. Meanwhile, Lehia pulled a plastic baggie from her back pocket and unfolded the tinfoil with its tiny paper squares. With thumb and forefinger, she handed a square to Brad. “The sacrament.”
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“Blessings,” Brad murmured as he slipped the tab under Mica’s tongue. Brad’s fingers tasted of sharp tobacco, salt, other things taken away too soon. Only the paper square was left behind to do its sacred work. Mica was traveling farther and farther away. Lehia or Brad? Choosing seemed almost beside the point. Once transformed none of this would matter. Not the feeling he got when Brad bent his to kiss Jillian Meester. Not the way he noticed Lehia walk off with yet another here-today-gonetomorrow guy. Soon he would no longer be in Gila Bend. Instead, he’d be somewhere pure and holy. Brad and Lehia passed out the remaining sacraments as Mica stretched out by the fire. The mesquite wood popped and hissed. The sparks rose upward, a mixture of gongs and chimes and strange whirring noises, while the glowing embers moved in shimmering pairs, their sounds synchronized. God music. An unknown amount of time slid past. Brad and Lehia were back next to the fire. Farther out, Jillian and all the rest seemed like fuzzy lines of syncopated audio-orange, their words and bodies indistinct. Mica closed his eyes. For a moment he saw a fragment of absolute darkness, heard the jingle of small bits of metal, smelled heavy, humid air. He felt black spider legs surrounding him as he stared into closed-eye darkness. His vision seemed to be framed by the moving legs of arachnids. He had the sense of a woman nearby, watching him, a woman with carapace-and-spider-leg eyes. This was new. Far more than some brain itch. You need heat, the spider goddess said, much more heat. Let me in, little lamb of gods. Meanwhile, the spark-songs continued, Uaahaaaauahhh. Mica opened his eyes wide and stared straight at the fire. The spiders and the woman were gone, at least for the moment. “Brad, Lehia, I’m not finding it,” Mica said, or perhaps just thought. “Searching though. Still searching for the plasma-god truth.” “I know, Mica,” one of them replied. Sometimes Mica skipped over entire months only to discover his life was still more of the same. “Mica, time to get up,” his mother called from the other side of the bedroom door. “Your dad’s here.” “Mica? Buddy? Grandma and Pastor Michael are waiting.” “Why can’t you just let me sleep?” Christ. Mica could feel the burn in his throat from yet another Church hangover. He buried his head under his pillow. Why couldn’t the guy just bring him guilt presents like a normal, divorced dad? Church, Pastor Michael’s version of church, was all bullshit, without even a hint of plasma. Sometimes Mica recited sections of Ginsberg’s “Howl” while standing before his desert congregation. “Ginsberg is a forgotten god,” he’d mutter
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before stumbling back to the circle of log benches and canvas chairs, halfway to passed out. Lately, though, his Church visions had been all about the woman and her spider-leg lashes. Truth, it seemed to Mica, crept up on you. Plasma-filled lightning and spark-songs were the holy signal, pointing out the open door to the waiting gods on the other side. Despite Pastor Michael’s tirades, Sundays with Dad were filled with nothing but barren, solid-state silence. You need heat, the spider goddess had said last night, much more heat. Let me in, little lamb of gods. Meanwhile the spark-songs continued to sing, Uaahaaaauahhh. The sound felt like the shattering of some sort of atomic bond, the electrons spinning off in a wave of blessed plasma energy. “Mica?” his dad repeated. Mica covered his ears and burrowed deeper into the covers. Time dragged itself forward without a single skip. Semesters of godless time. Yet another wasted night. The fire he and Lehia had lit once they reached their Church spot refused to sing. And despite ten minutes under the stars, Lehia hadn’t said a word. In fact, except for her cry of “Come on, Mica” as she pulled her car into his driveway, she’d been entirely silent. Under the blanket Lehia had draped across both of them, Mica could feel her shoulder and hip pressing against his own, not nearly close enough. Senior year was supposed to be when you sorted your future. That’s what Mica’s mom and dad kept droning on about: his future, his plans, and, as his dad liked to put it, his God-given mission. No way could he divine his true path from some bubble-sheet test. But try telling that to either of his parents. Even Brad and Lehia seemed to have fallen in line. Lehia sighed and laid her head on Mica’s shoulder. “I fucked Brad,” she said. “Only once?” Mica said, not really meaning it. “Asshole.” Lehia’s tone was reflective rather than angry. “You know I love you both.” “Differently, though. Like a brother, right?” Lehia shifted, turning toward Mica. She stared at him for a long moment and then reached up, stroking his cheek with the back of one hand, running her other hand through his dark brown hair. “Stupid, stupid asshole. Since when did that matter?” She let out a slow breath as both her hands tangled with the hair at the nape of his neck, though it was Mica who leaned forward first. Lehia tasted glorious, like a mixture of unsweetened coffee and strawberry chapstick. She smelled right, too, some Lehia mixture of sweat and lotion and soap. It was the softness of her breasts that Mica found unexpected. She had always been full of sharp angles: elbow, hip, even shoulder blades. All that hardness right at the surface. Her breasts, once she
8 | The Church of Forgotten Gods
dropped her shirt and pulled the blanket back across both of them, felt entirely different. Flesh guarding whatever lay beneath. “Sometimes I don’t know who I want more, you or Brad,” Mica said. The words slipped out before he had a chance to consider the fact that his mouth was now trailing along the underside of Lehia’s breasts. “Yeah, I know just what you mean.” She tugged his hair, half-dragging his face up to her lips. Tongue and flesh entangling, no longer able to speak. No doubt her intention. Meanwhile, his mouth, his throat, even his dick had moved from warm to molten hot. Mica could feel the pressure of Lehia’s bare thighs wrapped around his waist, holding tight. “Lehia…Lehia, this feels so damn good.” “Shh…Like that. Yes. Again. Ahhh…God!” The three of them, Mica, Lehia and Brad, would always be connected, but that didn’t mean they were fixed like this forever. The spider goddess had promised him as much. “A death pilgrimage,” Mica repeated, looking directly at Lehia and Brad. They had to understand, though, by the expressions on both their faces, maybe not. It was the August between high school and the rest of their lives. Their congregation had dispersed to college and trade school and who-the-hellknows-what. Once again, it was just the Church’s three high priests. Though these days each of the high priests seemed busy with their own concerns. This was the first time the three of them had gotten together in almost a month. “Are you fucking depressed or something?” Brad asked. Mica allowed himself an irritated “no.” “Okay, then.” “It’s just these headaches of hers,” he tried again. “She needs to give me the spark-sight so I can travel. Transform. Look, I even went to the doctor. The dude didn’t find a thing. I know I’m supposed to do this.” Lehia just sipped her beer while Brad turned to stare at the fire, his face impassive. The lack of words almost felt like a good omen. The spider woman, standing just beyond the bonfire’s circle of light, didn’t talk either. “Maybe you should lay off the mescaline for a while,” Brad said. “Peyote,” Mica replied. “No lab stuff. The plant extracts help me hear the music.” Silence, it seemed, was impossible despite the watching goddess. Brad required actual words. “Sure,” Brad replied, sounding anything but. “I’m trying to talk to ancient deities here, Brad. You know—actual gods. I can’t just layer down to beer. I’ve even stashed a bag of morning glory seeds for the actual pilgrimage. Old shaman mojo.” “What the fuck. Layer down?” “You know. You’re sliding, Brad. Losing your way. All those bars.”
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“All those bars mean I’m meeting people, like girls.” “Heyyyy.” Lehia actually sounded irritated. “Besides Lehia, of course,” Brad amended. But all three of them knew Lehia didn’t count. She wasn’t some girl you met at a bar and then texted until the new-and-shiny wore off. She was Lehia. She was one of them. Though it seemed to Mica that it was getting harder and harder to figure out exactly what being “one of them” meant. “She wants me to visit her,” Mica tried again. “That’s what the plasmavisions mean.” “The Teotihuacan spider woman?”Lehia asked, looking more worried than convinced. “Yeah.” “And where exactly would you go for this visit, Mica?” Brad said. “A black hole? Or maybe a nebula? She lives inside some sort of plasma house, right? Not many of them around here.” It seemed, despite the snark, that Brad really had been listening. “Okay.” Mica tried to remain calm. “Plasma gods are kind of scarce on earth.” “That is what you keep telling us.” “Right,” Mica continued undeterred. “But they can get here. Cooperative plasma waves and all that, basic physics. Used to be they got noticed more. Arrived more often. Something like that.” Brad cracked open yet another beer. “Man, you realize how fucked up this all is? I mean I love you and all, but this is truly messed.” “Mica, I need you to come back to us. You’ve got a life,” Lehia said, looking anywhere but actually at him. “Come on. How could you guys not get this? The coming changes: global warming and super storms. It’s like people are screaming at the gods. We make more plasma noise all the time: lightning, neon signs, fluorescent lights, even the aurora. What’s missing is the temple or something… Anyway, she needs me.” Mica’s voice trailed off. He wasn’t quite sure about all the details. Still he knew the old gods wouldn’t be returning. They were just caught, forced to power the plasma wave that connected them to the earth. “Look, Brad. Jesus. It’s a death pilgrimage because it’s about all those old, dead gods. Not my own death. I’m just going to join them.” A log shifted, sending a scattering of sparks into the sky. “So when’s this Mexican pilgrimage gonna happen?” Lehia finally asked. “Not sure on the details. Plasma-visions are kind of spotty on the practicalities.” “So…you still planning on Phoenix until you’ve got those practicalities figured?” Brad asked, still staring at the fire. “Yeah.” “Good.”
10 | The Church of Forgotten Gods
“Phoenix,” Lehia added, nodding her head, “will be better than this dump, especially with you assholes around.” Just as though they still spent most of their time together. “For a little while,” Mica said, so softly that both Lehia and Brad could pretend they hadn’t heard him. Maybe they hadn’t. Maybe he’d slipped into vision language again. Modern technology had its advantages. After Lehia’s worried, curb-side kiss and Brad’s skeptical goodbye, all Mica’s pilgrimage required was a quick walk across Phoenix airport’s terminal four, a plane ride, a six a.m. cab to Mexico City’s Del Norte bus station and a seat on the Los Piramides bus. Teotihuacan’s Avenue of the Dead was just like the map in his guidebook: the Temple of Quetzalcoatl stood across from the entrance, the Pyramid of the Sun was farther down, and at the far end loomed the Pyramid of the Moon. Only a handful of people were in the park, most of them vendors setting up for the day. All those waves of holy plasma energy traveled for light years just to end up as vacation-time entertainment. No wonder most gods couldn’t be bothered to leave their off-earth homes. The spider goddess might have been sketchy on certain details, but she was very specific about Mica’s next step. Mica needed to unearth the fire god, after which she would provide the necessary plasma. The sky shifted from early-morning blue to storm-cloud gray as Mica started toward the Pyramid of the Sun. A few raindrops fell against his face, followed by a frisson of static as lightning flashed nearby. The goddess knew he was near. In moments, Mica was at the base of the pyramid. Nearby, overlaying the modern Avenue like some sort of photographic double-exposure, sat a circle of men with stretched lobes and earplugs, snorting from a painted bowl. One of the men, gray-haired and stooped, occupied the same space as a vendor’s spread-out wares. The vendor, in his New England Patriots jacket and straw hat, seemed completely oblivious to both the spirits and the impending storm. “A good price for my first customer,” he called out. Through the shaman spirit’s semi-transparent skin, Mica could see the vendor’s crystal jewelry and, for some unknown reason, pottery elephants. “A hat, señor? For the rain?” the man continued. “The first sale of the day, it is very lucky.” The vendor was both shorter and stockier than Mica. He looked like he could wait days if necessary for that first sale. “No gracias,” Mica said. Another streak of lightning cut across the sky. Much closer this time. A pain hit Mica somewhere behind the eyes. It felt like a bursting biochemical dam, the shards cutting new channels that spread out along his brain’s neural pathways. His body shook. His eyes flinched closed, then opened again. Of course, the spider goddess didn’t care about his discomfort.
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Carving the framework for Mica’s spark-sight was, to her, the important thing. Spits of rainwater now darkened both the ground and the ruins. Back near the park entrance Mica could see a woman running along the Avenue. She wore a bag slung diagonally across one shoulder and a broad-brimmed hat about to fall off the back of her head. Probably one of those crystalhealer, New Age types. Enough. Mica needed to reach the top of the Pyramid of the Sun and the temple of Huehueteotl, the fire god. Yes, heat, said the goddess. More heat. Mica placed his foot on the pyramid’s first step as the goddess sliced out smaller and smaller channels in his brain. His hands trembled in a frenetic, side-to-side motion. Heat. Huehueteotl, the fire god, would know how to clear out all those human thoughts. So much plasma in the universe and yet barely any touched the earth. The gods’ help had always been hard to come by. And human language didn’t help, no matter how many prayers were made. Words had nothing to do with the gods’ plasma waves of ionized electrons and magnetic fields. Nothing to do with the fundamental physical truths of this or any other universe. Still, humans had been steadily generating more plasma noise: super storms, neon, and fluorescent lights. To the gods it felt no different than a child’s never-ending whine, demanding their attention. And now they’d had enough. “Mica? God damn it, Mica?” Mica was about twenty steps up. He paused and looked down. Near the vendor stood a woman with long brown hair holding a broad-brimmed hat in both hands. Lehia. But she was back in Arizona with Brad and the rest of Mica’s old life. “Do you see that woman?” Mica called down to the straw-hatted vendor. The man frowned at Mica, but said nothing. “The woman?” Mica tried again. “What is wrong with you?!” It was Lehia. The vendor hadn’t replied, but he had turned toward Lehia when she spoke. “Wait right there,” Lehia continued. “I’m coming up.” “Can’t.” Mica turned and took another step. His headache was pushing hard. Spider-lights flashed like ricocheting fireworks inside his skull. No time left. He needed to get to the fire god’s temple. “Mica, will you just God-damn stop for a minute. I drove all this way.” Lehia with her long, brown hair.
12 | The Church of Forgotten Gods
Okay. Just a few seconds. Count them out. One second. Two seconds. Three. Mica tried to slow his breathing as the clock counted down. It hurt. “Mica?” Through the pain Mica could feel Lehia’s fingers slip into his shaking hand. She felt so warm despite the solidity of her body. Plasma gods weren’t the only ones with heat. His own body, though, felt like it was loosening, one molecule at a time. He needed to get up to the temple. “Help me,” Mica said, the words fumbling across his tongue. Something soft against his face. A cloth wiping away wetness. So he’d been crying. A pair of brown eyes peered at him, inches away from Mica’s own. “Searching,” he said. “Yeah,” Lehia replied. “Searching for the truth.” He could feel her hand squeezing his own. Flesh on flesh. The sensation a kind of miracle. Meanwhile, she’d wrapped an arm around his torso, letting him lean his weight against hers. Together they stumbled up the staircase. “You know,” Mica said, pushing out the words. “Even if I don’t remember after…it doesn’t mean I didn’t really love you and—” Mica felt the words stalling. Surely he would still love Lehia and Brad, after all this was done. “Mica, you’re not flying heavenward. Okay?! And I’m not going anywhere either.” “Brad?” Mica asked, lifting his trembling foot onto the next step. “He gave me his Le Baron,” she replied, answering Mica’s unasked question. “Almost came along. Her lips twisted into an ironic smile. “I offered him a blow job and everything. Actually, he looked kinda tempted.” And then she was laughing, really laughing, as she held onto Mica with both arms, helping Mica, sweating, shaky Mica, up the stone steps toward the ancient gods, just as though Mica wasn’t getting ready to leave her once and for all. Mica stood atop the Pyramid of the Sun’s western-most edge, Lehia’s arm around his waist. The rain fell steadily now as bolts of lightning cut across the sky. A group of people huddled at the pyramid’s northern edge. “Don’t they know we’re the ones with the invite?” Lehia’s grin looked closer to a snarl. Teotihuacan spread out before them, the real Teotihuacan, not just the fraction of the city that had been unearthed. Despite the dried grasses, the falling rain and the hard-packed earth, Mica could see water-filled canals and chinampas, the raised-beds constructed from the swampy land that used to cover the city. Closer in, across from the Temple of Quetzalcoatl at the southern end of the Avenue, was the Great Compound. The city’s main
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marketplace overflowed with farmers and craftspeople. Mothers with small children in tow bartered for food at the market stalls. The city continued miles beyond its central street; potters, obsidian carvers, and makers of shell jewelry were at work in almost every corner. The barrios felt strangely modern with their grids of streets and apartment complexes. But, Mica knew, this wasn’t New York or Houston. The people of Teotihuacan buried their dead beneath their homes. They built temples in their apartment courtyards. They harvested the bones of the newly deceased for bowls and hair combs and buttons. And, on occasion, the gods, their old gods, actually listened to their prayers. “Okay, Mica. What do we do now?” There was an edge to Lehia’s voice. “I take it that spider bitch has a plan?” Soon. The spider goddess said it would all be over very soon. Huehueteotl, the fire god, would rise and carry Mica with him. Mica pulled a paper bag from his pocket. With a rough movement, he tore open the bag and tried to down the contents. The paper was creased and his hand trembled, but enough of the morning glory seeds slipped into his mouth. “Lehia,” Mica said, holding the bag out. “We need to open the door.” “Fine. Like any of this makes any fucking sense.” Lehia grabbed the paper bag and downed the rest. “Maybe this time I’ll actually see something.” The New Agers at the northern edge were busy with their own ritual. “Cast your ethereal double from the Pyramid,” Mica heard the guru intone. “Let all the negativity float free.” One of the women threw her arms toward the sky, rain streaming down her face. After a moment two more followed suit. “Okay…you seem a lot saner all of a sudden. Heavenly Blues or Pearly Gates?” she asked after a moment of grimaced chewing. “Heavenly.” As though the variety of morning glory seeds made any difference. “Ah.” The seeds tasted bitter and dry, far bitterer than Mica had expected. Morning glories were the psychedelics of the ancient Mesoamericans. The goddess had been very specific about this particular plasma-key. Heat. Mica felt the warmth building up in his chest. His breath tightening. Uaahaaaauahhh. Spark-songs. Meanwhile, the wind pushed and tugged. Across the platform, a man’s cap flew off into the angry, cloud-black sky. The rain fell in sheets now, thunder reverberating across the Avenue. “The gods have spoken,” The New Age guru cried. “We’ll return when the sun is ready to embrace our offering.”
14 | The Church of Forgotten Gods
Lehia snickered as the tour group, clutching their hats and cameras, scurried back toward the stairs. The group didn’t even glance at Lehia or Mica. It was as though they actually didn’t see the two of them. “Stupid fuckers,” Lehia said. Her voice sounded slurred and wrong. “Mica, I feel…weird. My tongue hurts.” Her face was flushed. Her lips trembled. Mica could sense the low hum forming inside Lehia’s brain. He pointed to the tarped enclosure near the center of the dais. The excavation of Huehueteotl’s temple was somewhere below all that plastic. “So now we have to break into an archeological dig?” Lehia licked her lips. “Not feeling like much heavy lifting.” Still, she kept one arm around Mica’s waist, helping him walk the last twenty feet to Huehueteotl’s entrance. The tarp was the last barrier. Mica handed his pocketknife to Lehia, and she quickly cut along its edges as the rain soaked their hair, their clothes, ran down the edges of their lips. The sound of the wind-whipped water mixed with the spark-songs. Uaahaaaauahhh. Plink. Plink. Uaahaaaauahhh. Lehia and Mica were both humming when they finally looked into the uncovered pit. A ladder rested on the far side of the opening, but Lehia’s eyes were fixed on the spider goddess standing at the bottom. Unlike Mica, Lehia didn’t looked awed or ecstatic. Lehia looked pissed off. Why, Lehia? Mica tried to say, but the melody was pulling, filling the newly cleared channels in his brain. “Try not to think,” Lehia said. She spoke. Not thought. Rage seemed to fuel her words. Rage blocking out the goddess’s light. “That’s what you’ve been telling him. Well, he’s not yours.” Lehia, the goddess replied, the scent of the word like an ice-cream ache of need. Her spider eyes stared up, lash-legs undulating in time to the sparksong melody. She smiled, revealing a mouthful of sharp-edged teeth, lips green in the darkness of the unearthed temple. Flames. That’s what you want from my Mica? Lehia smiled as she spoke, revealed her own teeth. I’ll tell you what you can have. Mica could no longer hear what either goddess was saying. Uaahaaaauahhh, went the spark-songs. Plink. Plink. Uaahaaaauahhh. A flash of lightning and the crack of a shattering rock, then Lehia was grabbing Mica’s hand and guiding him to the top of the ladder. Away from Huehueteotl’s temple. That couldn’t be right. A boom of thunder, another plasma-flash across the sky, and Mica could no longer feel Lehia’s hands. His body sagged as he tumbled to the bottom of the hole. Now he was curled on the ground next to those glowing lips and hard-lashed eyes. Mica.
Julie C. Day | 15
Go. Leave. Mica had never heard Lehia so angry. She stood in the darkness, not running and seemingly not afraid. Her thoughts were blacklights tearing against the temple walls. The spider goddess wavered but continued to stand, her green eyes never leaving Mica’s face. She would not give up, no matter what Lehia said. Spark-lights pricked under his skin, seared his lungs. The ground itself smoldered. My little burning lamb, the goddess whispered. And Lehia was pushing, pushing. Repeating her out-loud words—“go,” “leave,” “mine”—as she let go of the ladder and lunged forward, sinking her fingers into the eyes of the goddess, her thumbs pressing down, covering over the glow. “Burn your own self, you fucking bitch,” she howled. Lehia’s body glowed with flickering plasma fire as the spark-song stuttered in and out of Mica’s hearing Uaa—aaua—h Pli— For a moment it seemed Mica could see a sharp-beaked bird hovering just behind Lehia. Gray. Golden-green. Red. The bird’s eyes were as hard and glossy-dark as a spider’s carapace. The beak knife-sharp as it slashed forward. Beak and spider-lashes tangling for one sunburst moment. Mica, the goddess cried, her voice exultant and smoky, not at all despairing. And then she was gone. A long moment of silence. Heat. So much heat. And darkness. Until finally, a spark of light. He was still lying on the temple ground. Still burning. Mica cried out as something grabbed his shoulder, forcing his body to uncurl. Lehia. He watched as she pressed her hands into the wet earth, smearing the mud across his face, his arms, his chest. And still he was burning. I’m all right, Mica thought, ashamed as soon as he thought the words. Gods, real plasma-gods didn’t speak language. “No. You’re really not.” Lehia replied. Despite the darkness of the pit, she glowed. A constellation of spark-lights covered her face and arms. Even her eyes flashed with gold. “Why do you always fall for these stupid goddess bitches?” Mica could feel Lehia’s hands against his neck. He could feel his pulse still threading its way along his veins. It’ll be okay. “It will be okay,” Lehia repeated out loud, wiping tears away with the back of one hand. Despite the tears she looked furious. “Though nothing can stop this fucked-up plasma shit now.” Why are you crying? Mica wanted to ask, but the channels of light filled the back of his throat like so much cum. Lehia had fucked that idiot Phil one drunken night just before the Church fires ended. “Grabbed my cock and fucked me,” Phil told Mica with a grin. Brad would have punched Phil, maybe more than once, then let it go. But Brad wasn’t there. Mica had just stared.
16 | The Church of Forgotten Gods
“She’s not some little princess, Mica,” Phil had said, looking suddenly uncomfortable. And it was true, Lehia wasn’t some little princess. She was golden, a goddess, fiery and raging. Sometimes, though, she still needed Mica to remind her not to jump off the cliff and free fall with assholes like Phil. I know what to do, Mica said. Lehia was still holding his hand. Lehia who deserved so much better than Phil and all the other assholes that had happened to her. Who deserved better even than the half-attention Brad had offered. Mica knew exactly what his first god-act would be: plasma-waves transforming all those assholes in south-central Arizona. And if that didn’t work, Mica would try a little spark-light castration. God fire. “We’re going to drive back and talk this out,” Lehia said, glaring down at Mica. “Don’t you try some macho bullshit. Who I fuck is my own fucking business.” I’m becoming a god, Mica thought. “So what,” she replied. “Isn’t going to let you off the hook, asshole. You’re still stuck here on earth with the rest of us.” “No,” Mica objected. “I’m supposed to go, too.” But he was using speech. And his body still felt human, solid. “Of course you’re not going. She got exactly what she wanted. Out— of—here. “What?” “They were just waiting for someone to cover all Earth’s increasingly annoying plasma cries. A home team, so they could be left alone up in the plasma heavens.” “But, I thought—” “Yeah, I know what you thought.” Lehia’s face was bitch-angry. “You were going to leave me—and Brad.” It was true. He’d expected to die, to change anyway. Become Plasma Boy or some such shit. It all felt so childish now, so high school. Didn’t matter what channels the spider goddess had carved in his brain. How the fucking spark-lights had transformed the two of them. Of course the Earth’s new plasma gods needed to stay. All those lightning storms and clashes of low and high pressure. The earth needed gods who actually paid attention. “Plasma Boy,” Mica said and raised his arm in a throwing gesture, as though tossing lightning up past the opening of the pit. “Brad is supposed to be the storm warrior, not you,” Lehia laughed. Her teeth hadn’t changed so much as doubled, superimposed. Mica could see Lehia’s usual teeth. He could also see her fangs. “Brad doesn’t give a shit about any of this,” Mica objected. Lehia’s smile gleamed fang-bright. The rain streaked down both their faces as another bolt of lightning flared across the sky. And still she laughed. “He will. We just have to drive home and show him how.”
Julie C. Day | 17
Mica tilted back his head, felt the charged clouds circling above, and, with a single cryâ€”Uaahaaaauahhhâ€”cleared away the entire mess. There was no way they were going to drive all the way back to Arizona in a rainstorm.
18 | The Church of Forgotten Gods
The World of Her Own Making STAR SPIDER
t started with the hydrangea. Pearl’s mother brought it when she last came to visit; a perfect symbol for how far apart they had grown. Pearl didn’t like the color blue or flowers with rounded edges; they were too delicate and noncommittal. The smell was maddening too, gently wafting through the house, unobtrusively scenting every corner. Pearl relegated the hydrangea to a stool by the window and tried to avoid looking at it directly but the plant stirred something in her she couldn’t ignore. Those blue-white petals like thin wafers, dark leaves like sprigs of mint. When she first plucked a petal and nibbled the edge, she felt like a foolish child. She justified herself aloud, alone in her apartment, People eat flowers all the time—they serve them on salads. It tasted bitter but felt smooth, thin slivers of flower flesh sliding down into the very center of her. Pearl laughed as she chewed, Maybe a hydrangea will grow in my stomach and burst out of my mouth. It didn’t take long until she had picked the stem clean and moved onto the leaves, then it was into the soil, down to the roots. She was on her knees, hunched over the plant like a wild animal over a fresh kill. The soil was a full, umami flavor with chemical bursts from little pebbles of pesticide that she chewed twice before gulping down. Once the whole plant was gone all that was left was the pot, a thick terracotta fudge. No Pearl no. These things are not meant to be eaten. But Pearl was so hungry. Her cupboards were full. Her fridge was full. Yet all she wanted was that pot. Her hands were coated in soil and she licked her fingers as she considered, dislodging the crescents of earth from beneath her nails. The sound of the pot breaking was a muted clatter. The pieces crunched between her teeth in heady, chalky plumes. Then it was gone. Pearl sat back and smiled, but still her stomach growled. That night Pearl’s boyfriend Max came to the door, his face obscured by wild wayward lines. A riot of birds-of-paradise, their long green necks extended, their orange beaks precisely pointed. The bouquet was a perfect symbol for how well Max knew her. Pearl loved the color orange and flowers with sharp ends; they were determined and decisive and filled her with confidence.
You look lovely, Max said as Pearl buried her face in the flowers. So do you, Pearl replied. She brought the bouquet with them to the restaurant because she couldn’t bear the thought of the flowers being alone. It was more than that though. She didn’t want to admit it, but the birds-of-paradise were more appetizing than anything Pearl could imagine eating. The memory of the hydrangea was still fresh in her mind. They ordered lobster bisque and filet mignon with tender yearling potatoes and crème brûlée for dessert. It should have been delicious, but when Max left for the washroom Pearl bowed her head low and sunk her teeth into the orange-purple flesh of the birds-of-paradise. The spicy perfume filled her mind with lively thoughts and earthy urges. She ate and ate, carefully selecting flowers from the centre of the bouquet so it wouldn’t appear diminished. When Max returned she smiled at him with orangestained teeth. It looks like you’ve had a little too much wine, Max said, smiling. Max’s mouth was all Pearl could see, twin stacks of off-white teeth nestled between thin slashes of pink lip. We should go home, Pearl said with more urgency than she intended. She was still hungry and wanted to finish off the flowers, but instead she held them tight and remembered the taste. They split the bill and walked home hand in hand. They had barely closed the apartment door when Pearl shucked off her dress and took Max into her arms. Their lovemaking was different that night, Pearl was different that night. Her mouth fragrant with remnants of soil and flower, she dove into Max with lusty abandon. Her lips left orange and purple splotches on his skin like faded bruises. Her hands kneaded his muscles, digging deep, trying to find the bone underneath. When he closed his eyes she opened hers wider to see all there was to see in the shape of his face, the contours of his pleasure. Eventually exhausted, Max slipped into sleep and Pearl snuck away to the kitchen to feast on the remaining birds-of-paradise. She chewed and swallowed whole stems at a time and there in the kitchen, in the darkness, Pearl felt something bloom inside her. Maybe there’s a garden in there, of babies and flowers and I’ll just open my mouth to let the sun shine in, Pearl whispered. Come morning Max rose early to go to work. He wore a beautiful, well-tailored suit that Pearl thought made him look dashing. He kissed her and smiled, his skin still orange and purple from the night before. Pearl didn’t want to go to work, so she called her boss Anastasia from bed. I have a garden growing inside me and I have to fertilize it, Pearl said to Anastasia by way of an explanation. Oh, Anastasia replied. When Pearl finally got up she was tired and her limbs felt heavy. Hunger drove her to the kitchen where she stood and stared at the fridge. There was nothing in there she wanted; not oranges or apples or leftover
20 | The World of Her Own Making
Pad Thai, not iced tea, or scones or salad. She didn’t want a thing in the fridge or the cupboards, but she did want the cupboards themselves. The sleek, smooth wood painted the color of an overcast day. Her brother had helped her paint them one hot summer afternoon. They had laughed and talked about their lives while their brushes licked the wood. The memory tasted of pizza and lemonade and made Pearl smile as she searched the drawers for a screwdriver and dug around in her closet for her father’s old axe, the only part of him she had left. Down on her knees again, bent over in the middle, she tore at the greycoated wood with axe, then teeth. Splinters jutted and pierced her gums and they bled and bled but Pearl didn’t mind. The paint was noxious and the stinging fumes overwhelmed her sinuses but the wood was unimaginably delicious. Juicy slabs of beige and brown, with a subtle sweet hue of untapped maple. This is for the trees, Pearl proclaimed, mouth bursting with savory splinters, eyes alight in the afternoon sun. Next came the hall mirror, smashed with a hammer, that tinkled as it broke with a remarkable harmony. The pieces were lemony and crunched like peanut brittle. This reminds me of the fair, candy apples and holding hands on the ferris wheel, Pearl said. She had moved from the country to the city when she was twenty-one and she still missed the hush of the late August crickets and the gentle sighs of the leaves in the breeze. Then her comforter, voluptuous mouthfuls of feathers and cotton. Then the coffee table, rich layers of tangy steel and clarified glass, an industrial piece Anastasia bought for Pearl’s ten year work anniversary. Cake and a card and Anastasia’s infectious laughter. The television was a bit stringy and got caught in Pearl’s teeth, synthetic strands of sooty plastic and chewy, colorful wires. Then the couch, smooth corduroy holding hints of dinners past. Long lonely nights before Max, microwave meals and endless hours of mindless sitcoms. Pearl was thirsty after all of that eating, more thirsty than she had ever been. She wrapped her lips around the tap and let it flow straight down her throat. The hum of the pipes sang as she drank. It wasn’t fast enough though because her thirst was too great, so she bit off the end of the tap and was surprised when her teeth passed right through the metal as though it was made of butter. She bit and bit and bit again until the tap was gone and a pleasing geyser rose from the base. The metal was a feast of fluoride and rust and she worked on finishing off the rest of the sink as she lapped at the endless stream. It wasn’t enough though, none of it was enough. After Pearl had chewed through the walls, gnawed through the hardwood floors, munched on the windows and dined on her cutlery, jewelry and knick knacks, she still wanted more. She cradled her belly and
Star Spider | 21
felt everything in it shift and change. She was the same size on the outside but on the inside something was growing, she was sure of it. Max will be the father of a new world, Pearl said as she ripped apart the front door and sucked on the carpet in the hall. She didn’t need the axe anymore. Her fingers were tools of destruction and her teeth were strong enough to shred diamond, like her aunt’s antique diamond brooch that had both the texture and taste of caviar. In great, heaping handfuls Pearl pulled up the carpet and inhaled it; sand and gravel mixed with the flavor of a million walks and hints of rubber sole. Next came the floors and ceilings and doors of neighboring apartments, dislodged to reveal empty rooms full of new, tantalizing morsels. I’ll never stop eating, Pearl said as she partook of her neighbor’s bed that tasted of lust and cookie crumbs and sleepless nights. Soon all that was left were the bones of the building and Pearl picked at those listlessly, unsatisfied with such a simple snack. Finally finished, she turned her back on the empty lot where her building had stood. Concrete was a brand new delicacy, soaked in a sludgy stew and teeming with odious flavor. Slabs of sidewalk crushed into a fine powder between her teeth and at last, outside on the sunny street, she was spotted. A young woman stood in the road, clearly entranced by Pearl’s insatiable hunger, cars swerving around her and laying on their horns. What are you doing? the woman asked, squinting in the brightness of the afternoon. Pearl stopped for a moment and regarded her; slim legs encased in a fine layer of muscle, cheeks lively splashes of red. The woman was wearing an orange dress and her nose was perfectly pointed, like a bird-of-paradise brimming with flowery confidence. I’m growing a new world, Pearl said, cradling her belly. It was definitely rounder than before. The woman considered Pearl; fingers red from ripping, hair a rich, wild halo around her head. Then she took one step forward, then another, then one more until they were face to face. You’ll need citizens, the woman said. She opened her arms wide in offering and Pearl hesitated only a moment before the bird-of-prey orange was too much to bear. She sunk her teeth into the woman’s arm and it broke easily. The woman didn’t cry out, she just smiled and allowed herself to be gobbled up, flesh, muscle, tendon, bone. She was juicy and salty, her skin diaphanous and tart. Pearl didn’t regret her choice, because she felt her within, the first citizen in her new world. Next came shopping malls and lakes, rain forests and highways. Then unassuming clusters of people, round and noncommittal like the hydrangea that had started it all. For every thousand hydrangea people though there was a single bird-of-paradise and Pearl could feel the change in her belly
22 | The World of Her Own Making
when she added another sharp one to the mix. There was a stir in the world, a shift to accommodate greatness and she imagined the art they would create, or the science that would drive everything forward towards perfection. Animals came next, two by two, three by three, hundred by hundred. Then her mother and brother and aunt, previous owner of the antique diamond brooch. Soon Pearl’s stomach was so large she could barely move. She swelled with the weight of a thousand nations. But still it wasn’t enough. It was never enough. Continents sank beneath her teeth, cities crunched and fields melted. The Andes gave her altitude sickness so she swallowed a coca farm in one large gulp. The Sahara made her thirsty so she drank the South Pacific. Finally, plump and full to bursting having devoured almost everything on the planet, Pearl approached Max’s office and started pulling it apart. Doors, windows, soda machines. Floors, walls, desks. Phones a sonic treat, computers a luminous delight. When Max saw Pearl he stood, always the gentlemen, and smiled. You look lovely, he said. So do you, she replied. Max looked at her belly, swollen with the promise of new life. Have you had enough? he asked. No, she replied. They had been together for two wonderful years and the taste of his skin told the tale; a chance meeting on the street, a warm cup of coffee in a filthy diner, all the movies and dinners and laughter and love. She felt his impact inside her, the father of her new world arriving on solid ground. Was that a cheer that arose in her stomach? She could still see his smile in her mind. Finished on earth, Pearl turned her attention to the stars. My people need sunlight to lie in, and moonlight to push their tides. The planets were far flung but she found her way. She dined on the solar system, feasted on the galaxy, all the starlight filled her up, all the distance pulled her taut. Finally, the universe gone, there was nowhere left to turn but to herself. Pearl’s stomach growled, gurgled and shifted, hydrangeas blooming, birdsof-paradise pointing the way. Inside was the world, outside the empty vacuum of nothing. She could feel fresh concrete being poured, new babies being born, waves dashing against shores, and Max, waiting in the countryside, in a house he had made just for her. She started with her fingers, sturdy destroyers of worlds, whole planets torn apart left dirt and grit beneath her fingernails. Then her arms and her feet up to her legs. She tasted of lemonade and flowers, grey paint and infectious laughter. Soon all of Pearl was gone but her teeth, her lips, her tongue and the glorious throbbing world in her belly. Rich with life, teeming with newness.
Star Spider | 23
She imagined the hydrangea her mother gave her, sitting on a stool by the window in the sunlight. Maybe I do like the color blue after all, she said. Then she opened her mouth wide and dove down deep into the world of her own making.
24 | The World of Her Own Making
Tight Wire MARY LOU BUSCHI
The art of maintaining balance can be done either using a balancing tool (umbrella, fan, balance pole, etc.) or “freehand,” using only one’s body to maintain balance. Other artists will take props onto the wire in order to enhance the entertainment, juggling clubs, plates, wheelbarrows with passengers, ladders, cats, and babies. Babies are best for their weight and unexpected emotion. Babies vary. Some are cherubic with long deep laughs that develop in their gullet. Others are more serious and may challenge the artist with contortionist poses. The crowds may be uproarious. Stay focused. It ’s not just your life on the line. Think of attachment, hooks that fasten, a rope and pulley, hip socket to hip, eye in its neat fold, cylinder lock to its ke y, keep walking, the line can’t last forever.
Toni’s Party ERICA MOSLEY
he first time Toni died she was desperately thirsty but could not speak. No one followed her made-up sign language. No one dipped the foam swab in water and touched it to her lips because she was already in the petri dish. She was not to be tampered with. Leigh, misjudging, left the room to wash her face; she hadn’t in three days and wanted to be fresh for whatever happened after the big moment. So the first time Toni died, she died parched and without her daughter by her side. Toni knew what she wanted the second time. She told the hospital bureaucrat she wanted to be at home, and because she had some heft now he agreed. She patched the cracks in the bedroom ceiling and painted over the water spots. She put new jersey sheets on the bed and a notepad and pen on the nightstand. When she was done she locked the door and went to the kitchen to announce that no one was allowed in until it was time. She and Rod slept on the pull-out sofa. They had fun, though; they made raunchy noises when Leigh walked by, and fell asleep to Steven Seagal movies. After all of that preparation she took a turn, earlier than expected, on the reef snorkeling trip she could finally afford to take, and she and Rod were grounded in the open-walled ward of a third-world hospital where the hallways led out into the wilderness of the night and mosquitoes buzzed in her ears. Rod called home and put Leigh on speakerphone. The three of them talked for a while before Leigh said, “I don’t know what else to say, Pop.” Rod said, “Anything, Sugarbee; she just needs to hear your voice.” So the second time, Toni died listening to her daughter read recipes over the phone and at the final moment was interrupted by an operator speaking in Spanish. It was that second time that finally convinced her about the third. She feared the hospital bureaucrat would talk her out of it—or into it—but he did not. He didn’t seem to have an opinion one way or another and was the only person she’d met who did not think of this thing as the miracle it was. “Last cold spell this year, they said,” said the hospital bureaucrat, and then he gave his no-lip smile, drummed his fingers on the desk, and shoved off in his rolling chair toward the filing cabinet. He had the strangest turquoise eyes she had ever seen. They seemed always wet. She’d thought sometimes that the hospital bureaucrat would be an interesting person to have an affair with, but she felt silly thinking that now. “Well I tell you what, there’s one thing I won’t miss. Shoveling snow.”
26 | APOSPECIMEN AWARD FOR FICTION
“Yep. Yep,” said the hospital bureaucrat, tossing papers. “You mean Rod isn’t the one who has to shovel the sidewalk?” “Yeah, well, there’s another thing I won’t miss. Nagging my husband,” Toni said. “Hahaha,” she said. “Hahaha,” the hospital bureaucrat said. Together they filled out the new forms. There were so many forms. Toni said she wished she’d gotten that rubber stamp made, back when all of this started, but of course it was too late now. “Oh well. Hahaha,” she said. “Hahaha,” he said. Wrestling the forms onto the metal prongs in Toni’s file, the hospital bureaucrat was suddenly filled with emotion he was not allowed to express. He caught her looking at him. “I’m sorry,” he said. “That’s okay.” “This is the first time I’ve had to do this. You were the first one. And now... well, you’re the first one.” She felt bad, making him the one person who had to know. This tall, bald man with his wet blue eyes. “I’d like to have you over for a barbeque or something,” Toni said and that’s when they thought of the party, she and the bureaucrat together, almost simultaneously. For the next few weeks they made conspiratorial phone calls to each other. They struggled with issues of presentation, what to call it. “People are suspicious of a party that doesn’t have a reason,” the bureaucrat said. “If somebody figures me out and wants to get weepy, well, I can’t stop them. I might ask them to leave, though,” Toni said. The hospital bureaucrat called in some favors and got permission to use the rooftop, where the helicopters no longer landed because there was no longer a sense of urgency. When he told her this, Toni closed her eyes and saw the city lights stretch out below her in the blackness and felt the rooftop gales, and in her imaginings she saw herself close her eyes and imagine that she was near a sea... “Yes, okay, good,” she whispered into the space between the phone and her hand, hung up, and rejoined her family on the couch. Rod said, “You look happy, Sugarbutt.” She was surprised. Did she? Was she? Rod and Leigh both stopped eating their macaroni, waiting for her to explain. Toni said: “I’m throwing a party.” Leigh said: “What for?” “Just because.” “No reason?” “Do we have to have a reason?” Leigh tapped her fork against her tooth. · · ·
Erica Mosley | 27
They were not as inquisitive as, perhaps, she’d hoped they would be. They were easy and obedient. Rod drove to thirteen stores looking for cat-shaped helium balloons. Leigh spooled herself with ropes of white bulb lights and crawled lithe and limber through the rooftop scaffolding, stapling them at Toni’s direction. The only thing Leigh seemed suspicious of was the hospital bureaucrat, who popped, smiling his no-lip smile, onto the roof and took her mother aside to speak softly. What was worse than their lack of curiosity, as Toni got slowly weaker, was their lack of fear. She knew she could not fault them because, twice, they’d learned fear was baseless. She was glad they were not afraid, did not want them afraid, had laid things out this way so they would not be afraid, and yet when she tried to sleep but thought only of the days ahead, she worried that they were not, against all reason, afraid. But enough of that. The day of the party she unzipped the dress, short and black and full of sequins. It reminded her, when she bought it, of a dress she had when she was young, although this one did not make her feel as dangerous when she put it on now as that one had then. She took it off. She put it on again. She put on leggings. She took them off. Put them on. Yes. She took Rod to the rooftop early. The hospital bureaucrat was already there and for a while they were the only ones. Toni took three feather boas from the box by the stairwell and demanded they wear them. She poured drinks. She turned on “Come Sail Away” and swayed at the knees while her husband and the bureaucrat sat cross-legged on the tarmac talking about the airlift layoffs and other dying industries. When the sky turned purple Toni closed her eyes and attempted her imaginings but it was too early yet. People arrived. Rod’s landscaping colleagues. The mechanic who’d let Toni use his shop for her rebuilding projects on the weekends. The nextdoor neighbors and their savant grandson. No doctors came but some of the nurses did, the ladies she’d grown close to, laughing at the antics of their teenagers while her blood pressure was taken. It was dark now and she saw fire. Rod’s leather-vested and bearded friends had arrived without commotion and were sitting on lawn chairs around a fire pit. They were always around a fire pit, in back yards, in driveways, in parks. She would have thought to wonder about how they got a fire pit onto the roof of the hospital but then she saw a face old as her own, Marly’s face, which she had not seen in a decade. They almost walked past each other like they were looking for other people. “Oh my gawd,” Marly said, and they fell onto each other and nearly toppled over. Marly reached down to pinch the hem of Toni’s dress and called her a slut. They hugged again. They said, together, “Wow.” They did not know what else to say. Toni fetched drinks.
28 | Toni’s Party
Leigh arrived with her friends. They kept to their own group, near the ledge, waiting for the fire pit men to get drunk so they could bait them with questions about the government. The hospital bureaucrat ate a hot dog. No one knew what they were celebrating but at a certain point in the evening it didn’t matter. “What’s all this for again?” the next-door neighbor asked. Toni held up her finger while she sipped her drink and then reached behind her to turn up the stereo. “I’m dying,” she said. “What?” the neighbor said. She held up her finger again and turned the stereo even louder. “I’m dying,” she said, except she didn’t say it this time; she just moved her lips. The neighbor nodded like he understood and Toni left him to the company of the mechanic and took a walk around the perimeter of the roof. “There’s my miracle girl,” Rod said, appearing from somewhere. When she spun to meet him she saw black, the black of the sky spotted with small lights from the small city far below and around them, she saw the black of the crowd on the rooftop moving in all directions but as one mass like an animal caught in a bag. The wind blew up, a wild and warm spring wind. Because there was no chill to it at all, and because Rod was coming to her now with his arms out and those tears in his eyes—the tears of too-hard laughter after the fourth beer—and because she loved every single person on that rooftop, she swelled with contentment and threw her arms around his neck and laughed and laughed. It was late and the hospital bureaucrat danced with the nurses. He caught Toni by the elbow for a sloppy waltz and said, “I really wish you’d change your mind.” Toni said she wished tequila came in gallon jugs. “Hahaha,” Toni said. “Hahaha,” the bureaucrat said. “Do you think you’ll do it?” Toni said. “Do what?” Leigh and her friends teetered on the edge of the roof, full of life, breathing in the wild air, fake-falling, catching themselves. “Careful, Littlebits,” said one of the men around the fire pit. “They can do everything but they can’t rebuild that pretty face.” Leigh looked down, smiling, and twirled in her ballet flats. An indeterminate amount of time passed and Toni found herself dangling her feet over the roof edge with Marly and another woman whose mannerisms they remembered from high school but whose name they did not. They would look it up later. They were having a contest to see who could spit their ice cubes the farthest, but past their feet it was too black to see anything and the ground was years below, so they had no way to determine who won. It didn’t matter. “I think we should go somewhere,” Toni said.
Erica Mosley | 29
“I think I’m not going to work tomorrow,” Marly said. When they had finished their drinks and flung the last ice cubes at the sky the three went down the stair hatch and into the lower wards of the hospital. Toni remembered how even in the old days a hospital was like a bookstore or a college campus; no one questioned the presence of anyone else. A person could spend days drinking free coffee and reading magazines in chair-and-end-table oases in wide hallways. It was nearly empty now but still anonymous. Toni, Marly, and the woman whose name no one could remember fell into the lobby which was big and grand as a cathedral. In the daytime, sunlight poured through the glass walls and skylights but now, dark and dead quiet, it was an observatory. They looked out at the stars and filled the dome ceiling with their echoes. They wandered the maze of skywalks and elevators that opened on two sides. On a better day Toni would have remembered her way around, but as it was they wound up in radiation oncology. They opened doors randomly. Toni stuck her head into a CT scanner. “Ello?” she said, and fell, laughing, onto the crinkled paper. The woman whose name no one knew found a jar of cotton balls and threw them at Marly, who ducked behind a desk. Maybe nothing changed; maybe it was their absence that made the air of the rooftop seem so fresh and limitless when they returned. Toni felt that if she had the strength in her legs to jump-start herself she could rocket right into the sky. The wind was so strong that even if she’d wanted to say something to someone she couldn’t have; it stole voices and breath and the rooftop was silent despite the rambling. Toni walked alone to the edge of the roof and closed her eyes. She thought of the couple of times she’d been to a real sea. She couldn’t remember what had happened where, but she remembered a late night storm just off a nameless coast that filled the clouds with purple light and the sky with streaks and webs as intricate as the phosphenes on the insides of her eyelids. It charged the air to the point of explosion, it filled her with something, she didn’t know what it was but she felt it, everyone else felt it, the barefoot bathers standing with her, watching, the creatures bobbing in the waves. It pulled at them. Toni opened her eyes. She turned to look at the people behind her. Many had left. The hospital bureaucrat slept against a crook of the ledge. Rod hunched deep in discussion over the fire pit. Leigh jumped and danced with her friends. Tiny Leigh with her short, little boy haircut. She could carry it; she had that small and luminous face that had always made Toni a little jealous. She knew they would be okay, and knowing this made her sad and happy at the same time. Toni worried while planning the party, and worried more when she arrived on the rooftop and felt the wild spring weather, that it would make her change her mind. It almost did.
30 | Toni’s Party
21st Century for the women of Trans-Allegheny, whose crumbling clinic halls are papered with ghosts
He could have penned me in the brickwork asylum for asthma or novel-reading, for winning a lottery or sewing my stuffed dolls with periwinkle eyes, then loving them more than him. In a cupcake house, all at once, I ate seven flavors each with different frostings and hard-candied rosettes; he couldn’t stand watching me, stuffing myself sick with sweetness, the way I must smile and remember not to bite while he kisses my chest. There’s a dollhouse at the edge of the backyard, where I leave the disfigured ones to the elements. It’s not that I don’t care with the pity of an absent mother. I do. I watch them from my kitchen window, while I grout other cracks. They must know how I admire their bravery, their gingham-tough resolve: for many times I’ve even sicced the dog on them. What’s this? he asks at dinnertime, not horrified exactly, nor amused. Another test? He imagines I’m losing myself to them, but I’ve nowhere else to go—
The Iguana Boys NANCY HIGHTOWER
he wasn’t the kind of girl you went looking for, or were particularly glad to find. People thought her dangerous, with those hazel bedroom eyes and dark hair that fell halfway across her face. She could look straight into you, that one, with something akin to brazenness. But they were always soon to find out that she was never their kind of dangerous. Because in the South, things happen. Cypress trees weep Spanish moss. The birds speak in tongues. There’s a room in every house the family leaves alone because of the ghosts it keeps. Her mother was the kind of crazy that never showed itself in the daylight but waited until the witching hour, when the rest of the house was asleep. She would awaken to her mother standing over her bed, hair shadowing her face like a veil. Now’s the time, girl. She didn’t know what to expect the first time she was brought down to the basement, didn’t know her hands would become so cramped she could barely use them the next day. Write out all the bad creatures inside ya, her mother had said, handing her a pen and paper. Time’s come when your thoughts are turnin’, I see that light in your eyes, don’t think I don’t. Now the more ya name ‘em, the less likely they’ll be able to escape out of ya when you’re sleeping and make their mischief. We got no herd of pigs here to cast them into. This’ll do. For two hours she listed as many chimera and demons inside of her as she could think of—gorgon, basilisk, dragon, Legion—any monster who clawed their way through history under the guise of myth. She wrote until her hand cramped while creatures crawled up and down her body, shedding their scaly skin upon her eyes, mouth, and hips. Their tongues flicked the inside of her elbows, between her fingers and toes and other soft crevices until she moaned for all of it to stop. There were nights her mother would command her—hands trembling and legs shaking, small spittle foaming out the side of her mouth—to write on. Other times, she would fold the small sheets of paper and put them in a special scrapbook. Never forget what you really are, girl, she would whisper, and let her go back to bed for a few hours. Her sisters seemed to be fast asleep when she returned, but she often wondered if they woke some nights to find her bed empty. Did they sit up, calling out her name in fear or simply roll over and drift back into their dreams? You’re not the kind of girl people come looking for, she would remind herself. But you can escape into any world you want. The midnight excursions ended at 14 when her mother suddenly died, body contorted as if in the middle of a seizure. She had been the one to find
her, all twisted up in the blankets, eyes open wider than she thought was physically possible. The scrapbook gathered dust in the cellar, allowing her to sleep uninterrupted except for the occasional nightmare where something would slither up between the floorboards and whisper to her in her mother’s voice. Die before you turn, girl, it warned, not waiting for an answer. She seriously considered that advice, thought better about it, and spent her high school years buried in books on medieval menageries until she could escape to NYU for college. New York City is where the crazy people go, her sisters warned. But they didn’t know what crazy looked like, had never been taken to the basement late at night with only a flashlight and blank sheets to be filled with one’s own monstrosity. She headed north in the middle of summer, with New York suffering its worst heat wave in years. She arrived half drenched in sweat, feeling more animal than human. The pigeons twittered war cries and everyone was crammed into small apartments, but at least there were no cellars that she could speak of. The evening brought scant relief with its measly breezes, and yet she fared no better in her dreams, which kept her strapped to the bed while her mother gnawed on her for sustenance. She felt lips and teeth, heard her mother’s husky voice: Die before you turn, child, but she refused to open her eyes. It was, after all, only a dream (or was she, even now, still trapped in the basement?). By the end of her first week, bite marks littered her arms and legs. Bedbugs, her roommates cried, and they disbanded to go find other housing not plagued by vermin. But this was New York City, where if a prospective apartment hadn’t been tainted by bedbugs, it was crawling with roaches. She scoured the rental section of the newspaper, hoping she could afford a roof over her head. An ad from two brothers caught her attention: “Looking for third roommate, preferably female. Low rent, light housekeeping duties.” She didn’t mind hard work. Her mother had made her sweep, vacuum, and wash the dishes once she got home from school while her sisters went outside to play. Idle hands, she would say, with a knowing wink. The boys interviewed her the next day. They were sun-lit and golden kissed and met her gaze straight on. Light housekeeping duties included helping out the older brother, who was in a wheelchair. The rent was only $400 a month, much too low for that area of Brooklyn. “We have a small roach problem,” the younger brother finally confessed. “But the iguanas take care of it,” the older corrected, looking up at her with a smile as wide as the Cheshire cat. “And we only have three.” “For now,” the younger brother added. Iguanas be damned, she thought. She would not be scared of some silly lizards and could live with the few roaches that survived their predators. But the boys—with their amber eyes that both mocked and desired her—they were a different story. She was a small-town girl in the big city. She was the girl no one went looking for, not even her family, who had stopped writing
Nancy Hightower | 33
to see where she had moved to. But these boys saw her, perhaps saw right through her for the monster she really was. It was enough of a coin toss for her to wait a few days before accepting their offer. It was only later, as she packed up her things, that she began to wonder whether they might be monsters too. It rained nonstop the week she moved in. Drab gray skies remained dark throughout the day except to be illuminated by flashes of lightning. The thunder sounded angry, like the voice of her father after a bout of drinking. Her mother had always whispered; her father shouted. The older brother had a voice like the rain, steady and deep. “I could fly back then,” he said, looking down at his legs. “Damn tree came of nowhere and grabbed me. Those things grow arms at dusk.” She listened sympathetically, knowing how quickly recognizable things could morph into hungry creatures once darkness set in. “Doc said I damaged my spinal cord. Don’t you worry, girl,” he said, breaking into that Cheshire grin, “this little chair can’t keep a boy down. We moved here to get me walking again, among other things.” She assumed they kept the house muggy—with a humidifier running in every room despite all the rain—to help ease his breathing as well as make it a thriving environment for the iguanas. When she closed her eyes, she could almost smell home, air thick with wetness. The younger brother disappeared each morning and didn’t come home until mid-evening, dripping wet, as if he never heard of an umbrella or rain jacket. Then he would strip off his sopping clothes right there in doorway and saunter over to the bathroom. She did the only thing she imagined she was supposed to do—picked up the clothes and put them on the clothes rack to dry. She didn’t know what he did during the day to make a living or come home so thoroughly drenched, and thought it too rude, or perhaps too dangerous, to ask. She tried not to think about the glorious image she saw in the doorway—the bronze skin and dragon tattoo that lined his taut stomach and the serpent intertwined among his thigh. Such thoughts conjured up the old beasts that roamed her body as she wrote them into existence. Besides, her back was beginning to ache, deep twinges of pain that traveled up into her neck if she turned wrong. It didn’t help that the roaches came out under the cover of darkness, causing the iguanas to scuttle after them. But there were other noises she couldn’t quite place—made by neither foot nor claw. The boys forbade her to shut the doors all the way so that the lizards could have access to any room, and so she lay there, body tensing as the sounds grew stranger, as if something was being dragged across the floor. She dare not venture out and run into the naked brother— she had already accomplished that the first night, felt his skin hot and rough against hers and quickly ran back to her room with the sound of his laughter echoing in her ears. When her back threatened to seize again, she grabbed pen and paper and wrote out her secret beasties in the pitch black, lest she end up like her mother, frozen in that contorted position. She wrote for
34 | The Iguana Boys
hours until her hand cramped up like it did the very first night her mother started her writing. Funny how things come full circle. But the spasms died down even as her fingers ached. In the morning, she crunched two roaches while stepping out of bed and found an iguana snuggled in her jeans. The brothers had bought three more, doubling the number to six. She stumbled out of her room into the kitchen to see another one dart across the floor. She had fled one menagerie only to join another, but they needed her, these two, needed her more than the sisters and father who ignored her or the mother who used her. The younger brother walked in and noticed her wrist rubbing. “It’s nothing,” she argued while he grabbed her hand and gently pulled at each one of her fingers, massaging them until she was wishing she hadn’t run back to her room the other night. “Keep your door open wider and you’ll not be stepping on a roach graveyard. The iguanas like to run with their prey, not squeeze themselves through a slim crack.” “At least, not these iguanas,” the older brother said as he wheeled in. Did she just imagine a wink shared between the two? The rain had finally ended and so she and the older brother went out for a stroll once the younger brother left for work. “Don’t be scared to leave your door open wider; neither of us will enter without permission,” he promised. She wanted to tell him that doors never stopped anyone who wanted to enter. During the witching hour, all thresholds melted into imaginary lines that could easily be crossed. “What’s the noise I hear in the living room at night?” she asked, silently wondering if it was, after all, her at the bedroom door. He snorted. “That’s my brother. He drags his mattress out there to sleep, where it’s cooler. I would do the same if I could.” A sigh escaped him, and without a second thought she bent down to encircle his neck with her arms. “Anytime you want out of your room,” she whispered, “just let me know.” She lingered there a second longer, caught a whiff of honeysuckle that almost sent her spinning back into memories of lazy Southern afternoons before the witching hour became her alarm bell. She was walking between those worlds as they continued on until a rat darted across their path. She screamed and suddenly felt the weight of overheated concrete, the stifling air of the city. “Don’t you worry about all the vermin, honey,” the brother’s voice broke through her confusion. “Nature has a way of taking care of its own.” That night she left her door all the way open and merely rolled over in drowsy sleep when she heard the heavy dragging sound. But a few hours later a roach ran across her face and she jerked awake, causing her back to spasm. She waited a moment for the agony to subside; instead, stabs of pain rippled throughout her spine, causing her to twitch this way and that. Die
Nancy Hightower | 35
before you turn, her mother’s voice, inside the room. But then something slithered through the door. A hand—or perhaps a claw—covered her mouth. As long as you don’t answer her, no harm done, no dream destroyed, the older brother hissed, tongue lightly flicking along her ear. It wasn’t a human tongue. Keep your eyes closed. She wondered at the strange command. Were the brothers really only her old chimera, and she the gorgon that could turn them all to stone? Another sound of dragging, then a struggle between massive bodies, of bones breaking. A long sigh, as if something, at last, were dying. The hand withdrew, except for one long nail that traced the shape of her brow. We transgressed our own rules tonight with that killing, honey, but nature takes care of its own. Her back jerked violently, but then she felt powerful jaws clamp down on her hips, warm breath replacing pain. In an instant, she was picked up and swung off the bed. The creature carried her in its mouth as it crawled on all fours to the living room, dropped her onto the mattress that lay there. The younger brother was already there, naked, and quickly nestled against her, one hand caressing the small of her back, the other unbuttoning her pajama top. On the other side, the older brother in reptilian form nuzzled her neck. It took you long enough to get here, he chided, with a small bite. But she’s here now, the younger said. The scent of honeysuckle permeated the room. Her hands began to cramp. She knew something was wrong, but now all three of them were pressed together and entangled, no longer quite human. Scales erupted first and then the claws, as she suspected. She felt huge, her neck arching, her toenails and fingernails not nails, but talons, tail long and curled and soft only at the end. Her eyes expanded, slid to the sides of her head. Her tongue lengthened, tasting the air, exciting her hunger. The younger brother grew massive, twice her size, with golden skin. The older one licked her. You’re home. But as he said it, his voice became her mother’s voice. His eyes became her eyes. We’ll come back for you, the younger brother hissed, even as the room went from sultry hot to cellar cool. Because in the South, you can be an interstitial dragon for a night. Or a month. Time makes no difference. Dream of escaping north to freedom. You’ll always wake up again at the witching hour, still trapped in the basement, writing out your life.
36 | The Iguana Boys
The Wilds CAITLIN THOMSON
They are like owls spotted at the darkest part of dusk, or silhouetted against a moon. They are still children, they just do not belong to us. Bodies running, no fat just sinew, baby cheeks inconceivable. I never spotted my own son, I should make that clear. But I saw Katieâ€™s daughter once, from a distance, half covered by reeds, her arms brown with sun and white with scars. Sometimes when I wake after the rain, in the light mud around my tent I see footprints of various sizes. Circling a couple times, as if considering my worth, then heading off, disappearing into the forest, on the dry ground beneath the pines.
APOSPECIMEN AWARD FOR POETRY | 37
Stuffed Animals KATIE FLYNN
t’s nice to take the train, Marla in the middle. We burrow into her furry cream-colored coat, stroke her shock white hair, a line of black running the center of her scalp like a scar. There’s a family sitting across from us. Obviously they’re going to the zoo too, their stroller bulging with snacks and diapers, water and handy wipes. The mother, who already looks tired, leans over the sweaty sleeping baby in her lap to tell her two boys not to stare, but they are staring. They whisper into cupped hands, shake with the giggles. We glance up at Marla’s tail, alert and swaying, mistaking the motion of the train for her prompting. After a long stretch of giggling and shushing and whispering, Marla bears her tiny gapped teeth and hisses at the boys. “Stop that,” we tell her. “You’re not a cat.” She gives a little kick of the pelvis and her tail snaps straight. The mother pulls her boys to her chest, gives us a horrid, how dare you look, and shuffles them down the aisle, hoisting the baby onto her shoulder, dragging the stroller. No one knows except us, but Marla’s tail is a fake. She takes it off at night and brushes its fine white hair. Its responsiveness is limited and it’s not sensitive, even though Marla swears she feels pain when it gets accidentally shut in the car door or stepped on in line at the supermarket. She says gaining a limb is just like losing one. Marla wouldn’t call it a trend. She wouldn’t even use the word movement. She would say there are no words for what she is doing, that putting it into words only plunders meaning. But we searched it on the screen, and there is a name for what she wants to do to herself when she’s saved enough credit. Regress, they call it, defined as a movement to honor our animal nature through body manipulation and sculpting, surgically attached nerve-sensitive appendages, fur plugs or scaling, tongue fissuring, teeth shaved to points, fang implantation. It would take Marla years to save for those kinds of enhancements. She’s not a patient person, so she ordered a fake on the screen. We grab onto her tail and follow her off the train like her little animal babies. She swivels her hips, swishing it at us, as we see the sad unblinking sign for Columbine Springs Zoological Garden. There’s a tall metal gate, a line of graying potted palm trees wreathed in sheddings, twin stone elephants with trunks raised in salute. One of them is missing half its face, the other has been tagged across its great stone chest with some loopy
unreadable signature. Jungle sounds play over a speaker. A man in a monkey suit does a monkey dance on the sidewalk, chasing the mother with her stroller and her boys through the entrance. “This place is a dump,” we tell Marla. We beg her to take us to Benders, with its clankety whirling games and dark booths for silken kisses with near strangers. The first level had been enough for us for a while, until our eyes crawled up, taking in the tower’s towering, each tier offering a more sophisticated, more expensive pleasure than the last, the ceiling streaming a clear star-blinking sky. Finally, we suckered our creepy math tutor into taking us to the second floor where he lent us credit for a cube and insisted on coming, even chose the setting: nature-celestial. He fidgeted with the zipper of his swishy jacket, mouth-breathing on us as the door glided open, the usher ushering us in with his glowing baton. We’d thought the cubes would be tiny, that we would be crouching, caged. But when we got a look at those colossal walls coated in screen, the floors and ceilings glowing a dim expectant blue, we forgot all about our creepy math tutor. We kicked loose of shoes, the walls alight with our touch, the floors. On the ceiling bloomed a foam of clouds, growing, until they were all around us, like we were passing through them. Wind shrieked in our ears as we burst through to the blue, the clouds losing definition below us. White, only white, that is all we saw of the earth until we reached the black, the silence. The temperature of the room dropped and we shivered and stroked the walls, grasping at stars. We looked down at the earth’s curved surface, radiating a blue glow, the shapes of continents showing themselves. Shrinking, the planet was shrinking until it was gone entirely, and all that was everywhere was space, blackness, the clusters of distant stars. Our creepy math tutor slipped his arms over our shoulders, pulling us toward him, and we remembered that we were not traveling in space, but here on earth, in a rented cube, not real, not real enough. We ran and tapped, watched the screen shift. The sky was a bleak gray, snow falling the walls, the ground blanketed in white. When we walked, the snow crunched underfoot. We even left footprints. The room’s temperature dropped so low we could see our breath. Our creepy math tutor got down on the ground and made a snow angel. We tapped the walls again and we were tunneling through tall yellow grasses, the sun shining warm from the ceiling. When we reached an opening, a pair of startled cheetahs bolting across the savannah. We ran with them, tracing circles in the cube, while our creepy math tutor stood in the middle of the cube, calling, “Come on, girls. I thought we were going to hang out. Time is almost—” The cube went blue, our ten minutes up, and his shoulders slumped, his body caving in on itself with a whoosh of his swishy jacket. The door glided open and the usher ushered us back onto the elevator with his glowing baton, sweeping us down to the first floor’s clankety ancient games, their magic lost on us now.
Katie Flynn | 39
We have to get to the third floor. They have second skin there. We can’t afford it with our allowances, but we have to find a way. We want to feel too, to tunnel into Virtu’s slimy grip, nerve-endings charged and dancing. “I don’t want to hear about your misguided aspirations,” Marla says. “Girls, this place is real. Some of the exhibits will even have real animals.” “Can we touch them?” “I don’t know. It also offers,” she reads from her handheld, “the opportunity to experience the world from the animal perspective in their natural habitat. Sounds pretty great, right?” “This place is a dump,” we tell her again. Marla plants a firm hand on each of our heads, forcing our faces up at her. “This is better than any dumb Virtu savannah. This is the living thing, even if it isn’t real.” “Who cares? They’ll all be extinct soon anyway.” Marla whips her tail at us, stomps back toward the train, her tail tucked between her white icicle-thin legs. We chase her. “Okay! Okay! We love animals! We love them! Please take us in!” The truth is, we would rather be up an animal’s butt than at home with Marla draped by the pool, a piña colada in her hand, underneath the big depressing umbrella that Mom bought to protect Marla’s pale skin. She fashioned her new look after Fred, the in-bred albino mouse that she claimed to have liberated on its way to a lab. She kept him in a plastic ball by her bed, where he spun track marks into the beige carpeting. Marla is right. There will be no tunneling, no Virtu cheetahs at the zoo. There’s not even a real cheetah. Turns out they are extinct, after all. Our tour guide puts his red head down as he tells us this. His cheeks are an eruption of freckles, his hair so red he looks like a piece of produce. The rest of the tour group pops gum and fidgets with their screens while we stare at him impatiently. The richest wear lenses. You can only tell they’re screening by the fidgety way their irises dart about. The poorest palm handhelds discretely, shamefully. There are all sorts of models in the middle—wrist screens and rings and shades and temps, thin sheets of screen not meant to last. One thing we’ve learned all on our own is that you can read socioeconomic status in the sophistication of screen. We told Mom this and she admitted it was a good theory, but she won’t let us upgrade from our lame handhelds. “We do, however, have polar bears,” our guide says, smiling feebly. He leads us to a big hole in the ground with giant blocks of ice and a swimming pool. The bear’s lair, he calls it. We peer over the railing at two great white polar bears with peach colored tummies lazily lounging on ice made in a giant cooler the guide won’t let us see. He says they’re two of the last polar bears and we can see why. They’re big and boring and take up a lot of space. Virtu bears wouldn’t need a giant pit to sit in or an ice-making
40 | Stuffed Animals
machine or their own swimming pool, and they certainly wouldn’t waste our time sleeping. Handlers in powder blue short suits and matching knee-highs toss the bears ice with fruit frozen inside. The polar bears lick and gnaw at the ice, wrestle for the frozen fruit, swipe half a watermelon into the pool they have to swim in. They seem to like swimming. When they’re not lying around or fighting over frozen fruit, they’re swimming laps in their little pool. They’re pretty good swimmers, which surprises us. They pull themselves out of the pool wet, stinking, so strong we can smell them from our perch on the lip of the pit. It reminds us of the beard Dad would grow between tours, just out of the shower. We’d bury our faces in his wet gray neck hair and he would lift and lower his chin, pretending his beard was eating us. At the base of the pool is an acrylic bubble, a man’s head inside. Our guide explains that this is a unique interactive animal viewing technique. Before seals went extinct, they would pop up out of the water, like the man is now, except not in a protective bubble. With its great paws, the polar bear would attack the seal just as it emerged from under the ice for air. “That’s mean,” we tell the guide. “That’s life,” he says with a shrug of shoulder. “We all play a part in the food chain.” The polar bears stare at the man taking pictures from inside the bubble. As if coming to a silent agreement that this is just too much, they go to the door, slash at it with their great paws. The guide says that the polar bears are losing some of their natural instincts. We suggest that maybe they’ve only developed new ones. “What’s in that room?” “Nothing,” the guide says irritably and ushers us away from the bear’s lair. We go to tell Marla that the polar bears are fine, that we actually like them, but she is gone. Probably meeting him. When the man came to pick Marla up for their first date, we watched him from the basement on our sophisticated surveillance equipment. Mom had it installed when Dad died on his third tour, rolling his rover over some craggy desert cliff in some miserable foreign country. We can watch any room, even the bathroom, and the entire periphery of the house simultaneously. The man was lying on his motorbike, using the handlebars as a pillow, a flower to his chest, so still he looked dead, except for the tip of his long black tail, which hung over the side of the bike, slithering on its rear tire. He streamed a sad song on his screen, a man’s lonesome quivering voice. It was their second date, and already Marla was changing. In the kitchen, she modeled her tail, delivered that day. She fastened it on, switching her hips to make it curl over her shoulder, wave at Mom.
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“It’s a stupid trend, trying to look like animals,” Mom said, ignoring the wiggling, waving thing, stabbing letters into the crossword on her handheld. “It’s not a trend. We are animals,” Marla whined. She’s always saying that. “That old argument.” Mom smiled and we knew she’d found another word. She’s so good at crosswords, as if the words are there for her, like she’s the only one who can see them. Marla let out an awful screech like pure pain. It nearly blew the speakers on the surveillance equipment. We grabbed our ears, but our eyes never left Marla, waiting to see what she would do next. “Quiet!” Mom hissed. “The twins.” Marla frowned at the cam above the sink, tucked her skinny lips between her teeth. “I know you’re watching,” she said. Duh, we thought. Of course we’re watching. We always do. We turned the volume down on the kitchen and turned it up on the front yard. We heard his music, calling for Marla. We wished for the bike to whinny like the horse we saw once on the screen, rising up on its hind legs with such force that the cowboy it carried went flying from his saddle, disappearing in a clap of dirt. Marla came running out of the house, shaking her tail. We couldn’t tell if she was nervous or angry, but the man sat up unsmiling to meet her. We see them together, on a bridge over the shimmering synth alligators half-submerged in murky water, their bodies arced and swaying, their jaws snapping on a cycle in a lame faky way. The man is swishing his black tail back and forth, like he’s happy to see her, but his face says otherwise. He is sulky and all angles. He is pale like Marla, behind sunglasses. But we don’t get jealous – we refuse to – and anyway we have dates of our own. Marla doesn’t know that Carl and Kyle are meeting us here. Carl has blue eyes; Kyle has dry skin that flakes like a powdered donut and glows in the black light of Benders. They hacked into our screen the other day and left a message, “We’ve infected your screen with a virus. A love bug.” We could not stop giggling about it. We showed Marla, and she didn’t like it one bit. She said, “This is a violation. This language is all wrong.” But Marla lets the man bite her. We’ve seen the teeth marks. She tells us this is just what her lover does because she tastes so good. She likes to use the word lover. We bite her too, but she says ouch and swats us away. We send our energy at Marla’s lover like she taught us. Fall off the bridge, we think hard, silently, fall off. We wish the alligators back from extinction. Eat him. Eat him up. But they just go on snapping and swaying on a cycle. We’re beginning to wonder if Marla is full of shit. No, no, we assure each other. We’re just not doing it right.
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It was nearly morning when Marla rustled us out of bed, her cheeks a pink she wouldn’t approve of, Fred under her arm in his plastic ball. They’d only been going out a few weeks, but they spent nearly every night together, so many we lost count. She slipped so quickly from us to him, we hadn’t even noticed. Marla made a pitcher of piña coladas and even let us have one to share out back by the pool. “Verbal communication is a waste of time,” she told us. “We’ve got to act, to be like bats–racing through the night on instinct.” She likes that word, instinct, like its magic. “Bats eat mice,” we assured her. We’d seen it on the screen. “How do you know that?” Marla growled. We all watched Fred tunnel the grass in his plastic ball, hit the raised edge of the sidewalk, tunneling on and on without moving. Marla’s eyes drifted out over the pool. She took a sip of her piña colada and stroked her tail, thinking of him, we knew. We leaned over and bit her. We meet Carl and Kyle at the Borneo orangutan exhibit. They look bored and blonde below a tall stretch of broadleaf trees. Our guide pats the head of the monster before us, letting loose a puff of dust. “This,” he says, “is Sheldon. Sheldon is a male orangutan who has reached sexual maturity, the most solitary of all orangutans.” Sheldon is colossal, monster paws planted on the ground as if he were rooted there. His face has great gray skin wings. His orange-brown fur casts many thick ropy dreads. We can only imagine the smell. Our guide tells us that adult male orangutans’ participation in social groups is limited to fleeting sexual courtships. He says that wild orangutan fathers play no direct role in the upbringing of babies. The mother-daughter relationship lasts longer than any other relationship in an orangutan’s life. We laugh and tell everyone, “Woah. Thank God that’s not true for humans,” and they pop their gum and fidget with their screens. The guide’s arms are crossed, his face a pumpkin on fire. He points up at the baby orangutan hanging from a rope between two great broadleaf trees hinged with ladders, a handler waiting on a platform at the top of each. “Now, who’d like to climb up there and meet baby Anita?” One of the handlers gives the rope a shake and the monkey bobs and swings. Carl asks the guide, “Is that a stuffed animal?” The guide asks Carl, “Did you pay for this tour?” The guide tells us the exhibit is not about viewing the animal. “It’s about viewing the world from the animal’s perspective before that is lost to us too.” Carl and Kyle refuse to come, and we’re not surprised. They fiddle with their wrist screens as we climb the ladder and a gruff unsmiling handler fits us with harnesses.
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We shimmy out on the ropes. There’s one to stand on, one to hold overhead. The baby orangutan is swinging stiffly from the rope ahead of us. When we get up close, we realize that it is not a stuffed animal like the ones Dad used to buy for us at airports. We don’t know how we know this, but we recognize it as a dead thing. It is so small we could sleep with it. Its face is long and sweet; two black eyes look lifelessly back at us. We will it to blink, send all the energy we have, but it just hangs there dumbly. We ask the handler, “How did it die?” “Habitat eradication. Commodification. Always the same story. It’s been extinct for a long time.” We are starting to hate the word extinct. We let go, let ourselves fall from the rope. We drop through the air, imagining that we’ve been shot by a hunter and are falling to our death, to the dogs below. But there are no dogs, only Carl and Kyle fiddling with their wrist screens. The handler pulls tightly on the rope looped through our harnesses, and we stop abruptly, hanging limp above our dates. We holler at Carl and Kyle, “Look at us! Look at us!” They glance up blandly, like they don’t like us at all, at least not here, not without the clanging darkness of Benders. We wish Marla were here. She would understand. On their three-month anniversary, Marla told us she was going to marry him. She told us all sorts of things. They wanted to share a name. They wanted to taste each other’s blood. They wanted to fuse, to turn into one being, with one heart, two tails. “I’m evolving, embracing my animal nature, taking back my animal form.” She lay in bed, her tail across her chest. She’d stopped taking it off, even at night. When she scrapes together enough credit, we know she’ll have one surgically attached. Then, she won’t have to work her hips to make it move. It’ll glide and sweep with her thoughts, its own nerve impulses. “I’m going to become a mouse.” “Why a mouse? They’re so tiny and weak.” We pointed at Fred as he scrambled the wall of his bubble. “Because mice survive,” Marla said, “because they’re cuter than rats.” She stooped to open the plastic ball and place Fred on the beige carpeting. When she bent over, a cluster of bruises peeked out at us from the back of her thighs like a message from him. “Run free,” she said. Fred stood up on his hind legs, quivering, sniffing at Marla. “He’s afraid,” we told Marla. “Fred loves you.” “Don’t call him that. He doesn’t have a name.” “But you named him! It was you!” “I don’t care!” Marla picked Fred up in one angry sweep of her arm. She stomped out of the room, past Mom, asleep on the couch, the screen blinking and talking. We followed Marla down the hallway lined with
44 | Stuffed Animals
photographs. There she was as a high school cheerleader, graduating, dancing with Dad, who we understand was a very good dancer. She smiled then. We had forgotten that Marla smiled. She took Fred out the front door and over to the grass. “What are you doing?” we asked Marla. She put Fred down on the lawn and turned her back on him, told him she never wanted to see him again. He sniffed, stared at us, little red eyes like jewels. When he wouldn’t leave, Marla forced us inside, forced us away from the slider. “He’ll die!” we screeched, but she didn’t care. She swiveled her hips, switched her tail at us. Later, when Marla wasn’t looking, we went back out to get Fred. He was still there, shaky and conspicuously white in the lawn. We took him inside and put him back in his ball. But when we came to check on him later, he was gone again. Marla and the man are ahead of us on the penguin walk, his tail wrapped around hers, two pipe cleaners twisted together. Otherwise, they don’t touch or talk. As we trudge up the narrow corridor of artificial snow, we wish we had tails too, but Carl and Kyle wouldn’t go for that. Carl shows us his wrist screen. On it a baby kicks and coos. Carl says it’s his son, a project at school. We ignore him, watching the penguins waddle, their little wings or fins or wing-fins out to their sides. We sidle up next to one, but it just goes on waddling as if we’re not there. “Don’t get too close,” our guide commands. “There’s a reason penguins are still thriving. They have to overcome great obstacles to have babies. Sure, we’ve made it easier here at the zoo, but love is never easy.” We tell him, “Love is the easiest thing in the world,” and look for Marla. She has stepped off the snowy corridor, doubling back toward the bear’s lair with the man. There’s a terrible sound coming from Carl’s wrist screen. He rolls his eyes and makes like he’s holding a phantom baby in his arms, rocking it back and forth and humming until the terrible sound goes away. As he rocks, Carl says, “My baby is in need of a mother. Know anyone who’s interested?” We cringe and explode with laughter. One of the penguins makes a crazy yipping sound and keels over in a jerky fit. A purple-brown cloud collects around it like a smoke screen. “Cool!” Carl and Kyle say, angling their wrist screens and going vidmode as we run to it, stroke its slick black and white body, still now, nearly so. We expect it to be icy cold, but it’s not. It’s so hot it burns our hands. “What’s wrong with it?” we ask our guide. “Don’t be discouraged, girls. There are real penguins. We even have our very own breeding lab right here.” He sweeps an arm toward the facility attached to the bear’s lair. “We’re growing a whole flock of babies that we keep safe in a room all their own. We at Columbine Springs Zoological Garden love the penguins and want desperately for them to survive.”
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“We want to see one!” we tell the guide. “We want to see a real penguin!” “That we cannot do,” he says while two handlers throw the broken synth penguin into a bag and disappear down a manhole on the outer edge of the snowy corridor. We wish for Marla to come back. We can’t see her anymore. She’s disappeared again. We’d thought it was just talk. Marriage. It sounded like an old game show. But a few weeks after Marla’s announcement, she packed a bag and told us they were running away together, leaving for good. Marla was in the shower when he kicked loose his kickstand at the curb. We stole into Marla’s room, stole her tail, told Mom. Mom blocked the door, her arms crossed, her face tired and pinched in an ugly way. Her hair still looked great, with its clean anchor shape, the golden stripes of highlights glaring from the screen. We watched them from the basement on mute, their mouths gnawing shouts, the stomping and hair pulling and pointing of fingers. We sprawled out on the floor and pressed our eyes shut, willing the roof to rip off, for a great snowstorm to hit us, coat us in trembling cold, turn the man to ice. When we opened our eyes and sat up, he was leaning against his motorbike, ready to take Marla away. We sounded the house alarm and watched him kick loose his kickstand, high tail it. “Sometimes it’s not enough to will,” we agreed. That night, Marla came to our room, her eyes pleading, wearing her soft white robe. “His tail is real,” she said. “Someday, girls, if we’re meant to be together, I’ll need a real tail of my own. No one, not you or Mom, will be able to take that from me.” Because we couldn’t stand to see her upset, we dug Marla’s tail out from under our mattress and returned it to her. She held it to her chest like a baby, saying, “oh, thank you. Thank you.” Even then, we knew it was a mistake. But she was so happy. She modeled her tail for us, swiveling and thrusting her hips, making it dart and dance. The guide takes us to the replica garden. It’s not much of a garden, just a bunch of dead stuffed animals, like statues. Most of them we don’t recognize–strange bug-eyed creatures with dark claws, a tiny white fox fixing an icy blue stare on us, a large hairy pig in mid-snarl, showing his yellow fangs. There’s the familiar shape of a great horse whinnying. We think of the man, of what he’s doing to Marla right now. The guide tells us to go explore. “There are dozens of animals here that you won’t see anywhere else, not like this, not in the skin.” We stare at the guide because really, how lame. We don’t like the zoo anymore. We think
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it’s a cruel joke. We tell our guide as much, but he ignores us. He’s had enough of our lip. Frankly, we’ve had enough of his freckles and lies. We run over to a big brown bear pawing at the air and hide behind it. We watch the guide and Carl and Kyle and the other guests who are scanning the replica garden in vid-mode. When we know they’ve forgotten about us, we sneak our way out of the garden, scurrying away. The facility is dead, the reception area and offices empty, a toppled ergonomic chair and a lone heel lying in the hallway the only signs that someone has been here. We are starting to wonder if this whole place is fake, but we follow the sign for the Breeding Lab anyway, find the door open, creep inside. The room is massive, broken up by so many glass partitions that it’s difficult to see just how far it stretches. The baby penguins are in tiny plastic bubbles – so many bubbles – under warm humming lamps, and they’re so tiny. We want to stuff them into our shirts and take them home with us, but we are scared for them. The word extinct keeps circling our thoughts like a bad headache. There’s a door at the far end of the room, its keypad busted. The yellow sign on it says, in bold black letters, Caution: Live Animals. We hear muffled shouting, scan the bubbles of baby penguins. Past one glass partition, maybe two, we see a handler in his powder blue suit. His eyes are strained huge, his mouth covered with a band of silver. He hops about madly in his chair, his wrists bound in silver, like space bangles. That’s when we see him. He’s standing next to the handler, staring right at us, tail stalk straight. From behind him steps Marla, holding one of the penguin babies. We go to the partition and breathe heavily onto it, condensation clouding the glass. You can’t tell us what to do anymore. We send this thought to Marla, and we think, by the stony glare she gives us, that it’s finally worked. She’s finally heard us. She shakes her head and tucks the penguin under her arm like a football, coming at us fast. A frigid breeze that smells like wet beard blasts us as we pull the door to the Live Animals open and slam it shut behind us. After their big blowout, Marla promised Mom she would think it over, she wouldn’t rush into anything, and we pretended to believe her. At night she would sneak out back to meet him. He slipped his long body over the fence, and they hid behind the gray curving limbs of the old oak tree where we couldn’t see them, an annoying blind spot. Occasionally, we’d see a tail peek out from behind the tree’s thick trunk, do a writhing dance, then dart back down as if it were teasing us. Then, just last night, as Marla dangled her legs in the pool, the sun gone enough for her to venture out from the umbrella’s shadow, she told us, “If
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you want change girls, you’ve got to stop talking. Body language and will, that’s all that matters.” Mom watched the screen visor she’d recently bought for herself as she manned the BBQ with tongs, wearing Dad’s Grill Sergeant apron. We were fuming. Marla didn’t seem to care, not about the apron or the visor, which must have cost more than two wrist screens combined. Still, we wanted to make Marla happy. “Absolutely,” we told her, “absolutely, you are one hundred percent right.” Her thighs were covered in bruises, her chest, the skin there less white than purple. We touched her gingerly – her arms, her back, her smooth shoulders. We told her that we loved her, that we missed Fred. “Where did you hide him?” we asked. “Fred had his own life to lead, and I do too.” She pulled away from us, floating across the pool deck, shivering into her white robe. Marla is at the top of the polar bear pit, her tail nervously darting about. Where is the man? We cannot see him, only Marla signing to us – keep quiet! We can feel her thinking it. We tell her loudly, out loud, “Shut up! We’ve heard enough!” The polar bears are piled on top of one another in the corner, sleeping. Real animals, we snort, they look like men in suits. “We have our best guys working to get that door open, girls. Security will be here any minute with a trank gun,” our guide says as he hoists on a helmet, belts himself into the metal arm. We get close enough to see that the bears’ fur is not white, but translucent. It glows. A neat trick, we think, as Marla yells at us. “What about body language and will?” we yell back and laugh. “Stay back. Girls!” our guide shouts as he’s lowered into the pit in the clutches of the metal arm. He gestures for us to come to him. Over his shoulder, we see guards rushing to the lip of the pit, crowding Marla. It occurs to us that she’s in big trouble, that the man has left her to face it alone. We can’t help her, we tell each other, and we don’t want to anymore. “What a show!” we shout. “We know they’re fake! We know it!” We are close enough now we can see their tiny marble eyes, black and shimmering. “They are very real, girls,” our guide says, his face burning the shade of forest fire. Behind him, one of the guards struggles the feather end of a dart into his trank gun. “Stop calling us that!” we tell him. We make ice balls out of slush and pelt him with them. He gets one square in the face and yelps like an animal. We tell him to go extinct. The polar bears make a husky barking sound from their corner. “Come out of there!” we yell at them, “Show yourselves!” Their smell is so strong we can taste it.
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They shake their coats, giving us a good shower, standing, stretching so tall we back away. Huge, they are huge, much bigger than we’d thought from above. Where is the guard with his gun? It’s hard not to be scared, even if they are fake. Their great paws swipe at air and we imagine just how powerful an animal must have been. “We’re not afraid,” we say to each other. We repeat this louder, to Marla, her hands on her pale cheeks. “Watch us!” we shout, “watch us!”
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Dec. 31, 2049 MICHAEL JONES
The yearâ€™s last rays lit the dry peaks west of Poughkeepsie. The speakeasies kept off-ration water in vodka bottles. We spoke of it the way we paid for it: like booze, the best, the stuff of memories.
The Spider Garden SETH MARLIN
hey are up in the rooftop greenhouse. The woman speaks, and the girl listens. “The spiders are fond of a certain tree,” the woman says. “They build their webs in its branches. This tree only grows in a few places, and they will not build anywhere else. When your mother and I were girls, we had a whole grove of these, in the valley just below our village.” The girl says nothing. It has been a week since she came here, and two weeks since she finished the sixth grade. Her parents are taking time to figure things out, so while her friends are busy off at camp or spending time out by the pool, she has come into the city to stay with her aunt, a highpriced tailor specializing in spidersilk. This craft is a relic of their homeland, a craft known here in America as telaculture, and in their family by some other name, some older name. The girl has never been able to pronounce it. All around them, glass enclosures shelter trees with broad waxy leaves. There is a sound of running water. From the branches stretch great silver fans of silk, and there is a faint rustling, as of animals shifting in their sleep. The woman studies the enclosures, then turns back to her niece. “These should be ready in a day or so,” she says. “The key is not to feed them the first week. The dead locusts foul up the silk, so each time we move the spiders, we have to give them time to set up. Harvest their first batches, then feed and start the process over.” She smiles. Her features are lined but elegant, her dark hair woven with gray. “You’re still frightened, aren’t you?” The girl only looks at the trees. “It’s alright,” her aunt says. “It’s natural to fear a thing when we don’t understand it. Maybe even afterward. A little bit of fear helps to keep us in awe, helps to keep us respectful.” The girl says nothing. Up one arm, her aunt has a swirling tattoo. It resembles a web, though the flesh beneath it is warped, as if it had been melted. The girl asks, “Did the bite make you get that? To cover it up?” “To reveal its true beauty,” she says. “I was wrong. It isn’t the spiders you’re afraid of, is it? It’s me.” The girl lies. “I’m not afraid of anything.” “No.” Her aunt smiles. “You know, when your mother and I were girls, people used to come to our house from miles around. They sought out our mother’s garments for special occasions—weddings, funerals, christenings. It was said that the spidersilk invited good luck, but no one ever viewed our family as lucky. We lived in a shack at the edge of our village. Other
children called our mother the witch, called her the spider-lady. When the revolution happened the army came through in their trucks, destroyed our looms and every last tree in our grove. They called what our mother did superstition, called it a corrupting influence.” She frowns. “How old are you now?” “Twelve.” The girl has a sudden feeling of being unclothed. “You’re becoming a woman,” her aunt says. “Perhaps when you’re grown, you’ll know what it is to be hated for what you represent.” A strange look crosses her face. “Perhaps you already do.” That night, after her aunt has gone to sleep, the girl slips back up to the rooftop. She opens the door to the greenhouse, is frozen in the entry by what she sees. The spiders have emerged. They crouch upon their webs by the hundreds, as large as tarantulas but iridescent, shimmering in hues of blue and green and gold. She remembers then her father’s shadow in the doorway at night. Her mother’s punishing silences. She has that feeling of being naked again, that recalled sense of horror and shame and disgust, but the spiders are above such feelings. They shine like scarabs beneath the moonlight. Their many eyes are liquid and patient, unknowable. They are silent as only spiders can be silent, and the girl closes her eyes, imagines she can hear them breathing.
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Little Girls I love little girls, they make me feel so bad. –Danny Elfman
the canon is new and neon pink and sparkling the platters are overturned the little girls have arrived late for the feast the tablecloth is sullied with crumbs and something red girls everywhere spit-fingered fierce are tipping the oak on its side cheeks and chins berried and creamed they've upset all the books taken up forks Estella advances on Pip and see Capt Ahab cower as Ramona Quimby age eight gnaws his wooden leg to bits her milk teeth are sharp the carpenter’s nowhere to be found Pippi Longstocking spars Odysseus Peter Pan and lost boys at once her sword habanero red matching her hair the Bobsey twins are at odds Matilda has outwitted Encyclopedia Brown Sherlock Holmes and Stephen Daedalus they never saw it coming but where are the nursemaids? The schoolmarms? Who will tame these girls back into nighties and hairbows? EmilyElizabeth rides a fire-breathing dog that snaps and rears Alice goes enormous flooding the room pinafore frills and blood everywhere Romeo Montague Alfred Prufrock step down Claudia Kishi and Mary Lennox are circling licking their lips at you Antigone has dug down through the floorboards the hole large enough to bury all of you hogtied by the buffet Zeus can't reach his scissors as Eris lipsticks his face and confetties her invitation gentlemen leave the check keep your hands where the ladies can see them Nancy Drew and Harriet the Spy are comparing notes on you Scout Finch raises a fist the canon is new gleaming it smokes from the first shot the smoke reeks of sugar and spice
Supernova LYNDSIE MANUSOS
told Dad I wanted to find life on other planets. He wasn’t home often, and this was one of our moments, when I wanted to be super amazing for him. “I’ll help you,” he said, rubbing his hands together. He took a hanger from the coat closet and bent it. I found a roll of aluminum foil, and we wrapped a sparkling sheet around the hanger. I imagined aluminum foil as a precious metal, and the makeshift satellite looked like a giant silver coin. My brother, Bobby, said it looked like a broken mirror. We didn’t share the same interests. Bobby was more grounded, enjoyed objects and activities that he could see or touch. Dad said we needed machines to connect to the satellite, so I searched my closet and found one of the Barbie walkie-talkies and a plastic computer I used during first grade. It didn’t write papers like Dad’s laptop, but it had buttons and it had a small screen the size of a bubble gum wrapper. Dad helped me gut it. We took out the batteries in the computer and searched for places to wrap a wire. We kept the batteries in the walkie-talkie, and twirled the wire around the thick yellow antennae. Then we attached the wires from the computer and the walkie-talkie to the hanger’s hook. I hung it on the blinds of the back window in the living room. “This,” Dad said, “is really something.” “Yeah, “I said. He tugged on my ponytail. I planned that this was going to make me famous. Mom bought me a UFO book in the bargain section at Borders. There was a large, brown photo in the middle of the book, a man in uniform and the label, “Missing in Action, 1943.” Below the photo was a caption claiming aliens kidnapped him. I wanted to find him. My satellite could save him.
I tried to learn Morse code. In the end, I typed my own messages on the computer, sometimes using words, sometimes using numbers. With the walkie-talkie on loud, the static stopped every time I pressed a button. Occasionally the static stopped altogether, and there’d be silence. I’d wait, sweating, in the back of the living room while my parents watched TV. They’d ask me to turn down the volume once the static came back full blast. The static frustrated them. But they tried to be optimistic and believed creativity was important. I overheard my parents talk about the “importance of ambition.” “Any sign, yet?”
“Working hard, Peanut?” “Find any little green men yet?” (That was Bobby.) I turned up the volume during commercials. They threw up their hands and looked at me from over the couch. Dad talked about being respectful, to treat others how I wanted to be treated. My mom defined “noise pollution” out loud. Bobby left the room. He preferred to watch TV upstairs in the master bedroom, alone, stretching out his arms and legs. When Mom asked him to come down, he yelled, “I’m busy right now.” Dad was inspired, at first, but as he left on work trips more often, he was less patient at home. There were whole weekends when he stayed asleep in bed all day. At night, he locked the door to his and Mom’s bedroom because he knew I had bad dreams. He knew I liked to crawl in bed with Mom after nightmares, burying my face in her back and inhaling her hair until the bad thoughts disappeared. “You’re too old for this,” Dad said. “Bad dreams happen to everyone.” “Sleep is precious to him,” Mom always said. Dad used to lie flat on his back on the bed or couch and not move for hours. Bobby asked Mom if he was dead. But then Dad woke up, famished, and asked someone to bring him food and a large glass of water. He drank and drank. “Water is the icing on the cake after a good nap,” Dad said. “You gotta drink until you can’t breathe.” After a couple of weeks, Dad lost his temper with the static. It was a warm September evening, and I had just started the fourth grade. He was tired again from work, and he must’ve not been able to hear the evening talk show. It was already past my bedtime. But I bribed my parents with promises, begged for another hour. I promised not to complain in the morning. The walkie-talkie was on full volume. My notebooks and maps were sprawled around me. My work. I taped an old NASA Lunar Chart to the back of the couch. The static was so soothing, so familiar, that I started to doze off next to the walkie-talkie. But the static did not have the same effect on Dad. I felt his stomps on the floor and opened my eyes, still sleepy. He walked behind the couch to my little laboratory and smacked off the static. Dad screamed me awake. “Useless piece of crap. Nothing will happen.” He lifted me up under my armpits, thumbs digging in, and swung me so I belly-flopped onto the couch. I watched him kick the notebooks and maps until they were scattered over the floor. Mom sat up in her chair near the TV. “Honey,” she said. “Wait.” Dad put his foot through the foil, creating a crescent moon. I screamed. Without the static, the silence was empty and unbearable. He watched me roll from the couch and crawl to the satellite. I tried to fix the rip, make the crescent moon shape go away, but the strips of foil clawed at my fingers. The cuticle on my pinky was bleeding.
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“Look what you did to yourself,” Dad said. “Daddy, but you said.” My throat felt dry and sandy. “You said it was okay.” He breathed hard. There were dark circles under his eyes. The skin sagged around his cheeks. We stared at each other for a moment, and then I ran upstairs, slamming my bedroom door. Nobody came after me, but I heard someone turn the TV off. Voices. Mom walked around in the kitchen, circling the island counter. Mom’s footsteps were loud because of her clunky slippers. She liked to be heard. When she walked around the house, her feet were possessive. They claimed the house. The sound of her feet echoed from the kitchen all the way up to my room. Dad’s footsteps were soft whispers, socks shuffling, and I heard them hiss around the kitchen, following Mom’s feet. I fell asleep listening to them, sucking on my bleeding cuticle. Wondering where their footsteps took them downstairs created a map in my head. Spirals and zig-zags around the kitchen, the living room, the dining room. Thinking of spirals made me think of galaxies, and I listed them: Andromeda, Black Eye, Bode’s, Cartwheel, Hoag, Milky Way, Pinwheel, until I fell asleep. In the morning, there was static. I walked downstairs and found the walkietalkie was on. A new sheet of foil coated the hanger. Dad had used one of my notebooks to write, I’m so sorry, in his small, scribbled handwriting. Keep working hard. Persistence is key. He never mentioned it in person— he left on another work trip the next day. Maybe he wanted me to find life on other planets while he was gone. I looked at the Lunar Chart on the side of the couch and circled an area called Mare Imbrium. After school, I’d search there first. That week, I kept the walkie-talkie on all day while Dad was on a business trip to Philadelphia. Even while I was at school—Mom promised she wouldn’t turn it off—the static still hovered in my ears during class. I read somewhere that it was impossible to eliminate static completely, and I believed the static stayed with me. Mom encouraged me to keep it on. We listened to the static from our beds at night; I heard static in my sleep. I dreamed of a world in static, which to me looked like a grey ocean. There was the beeping sound of a message. It meant something terribly significant. I dreamed I wrote it down and sent it to NASA, and they hired me. My satellite was sold in all the stores, because everyone wanted one. After having that dream, I expected a breakthrough. I crossed off sections in blue marker on the Lunar Chart. Mare Nubium…Mare Criseum…believing I had searched those areas. My moment had come, and I was so excited I felt I might puke: Something came through. After weeks of searching. Then the walkie-talkie started
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spewing out words through the static. In English. A woman complaining in a shrill voice. “I want to wring their necks, sometimes, I really do.” Whomever she was talking to, she wasn’t giving him or her much time to talk. She started swearing in words I only heard on TV. I repeated one of them out loud, to see what it tasted like. Mom came out of the kitchen, blinking rapidly. “Excuse me?” she asked. I shook my head. Mom’s ears had turned pink, and she scratched them until they were a deep red. She did this sometimes, when she was angry in a quiet way, wondering if I’d said what I said. I crossed some sort of line. It was one of those moments, like when you sneak one piece of candy but never risk a second. I tasted the idea of it. Mom told Dad about the word on the phone. “Your father says it’s the TV’s fault,” she said after hanging up. “He’ll be home tomorrow.” Before Dad came home the next day, Mom moved the satellite into the dining room. It was colder in there, so I brought more blankets. My parents didn’t mind the campsite as long as I cleaned up if we had company. We rarely did, but they talked about it a lot. “We should host a cocktail party for your sales department,” Mom said, circling dining room sets in magazines. She showed them to Dad when he was home. “Look what we could do,” she said. “We don’t have time for that,” he said, pointing to a photo on the page. “But those placemats look awfully nice.” My cousins visited the following week so my aunt and uncle could have dinner with my parents while Dad was home. I tried to impress my cousins, typing long messages on the computer, but they waited with their hands on their hips. They wanted results, and when nothing happened after ten minutes, they called it a “stupid fail.” “What a waste,” Sophie said. “Let’s play something else,” Kathy said. “Where’s your brother?” Matthew asked. “You don’t understand,” I said. “This is important for humanity.” I thought if they just waited, they would experience something amazing. Then they would always want to come to my room. “It’s useless,” Kathy said. “You don’t show this to your friends, do you?” They asked where we kept the Legos. I slumped forward, following them into my brother’s bedroom where the fun toys were. The static was on full volume so I could hear it from down the hall. We took out bins full of Legos.
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My cousins thought I was nuts about the satellite, but they couldn’t deny how good I was at building space stations out of multicolored blocks. I grabbed every shiny Lego, every piece that looked computer-like, every antenna and moving part. I built large complexes with every type of gizmo you could think of. They always wanted their spaceships and hovercrafts to dock at my Lego stations, even though I never had enough weapons. The base was made strictly for research. It did not condone blasting away at anything and everything. Bobby’s planes were durable enough to withstand a crash. If my cousins’ creations fell even a couple of inches, they shattered. “Do you guys know the planets by heart?” I clicked a neon orange antenna to the top of my base. “Who cares,” Matthew said. “I know Pluto isn’t really a planet,” Bobby said. “Planet Uranus,” Sophie said. They all laughed. “Uranus,” I said, “is important. It has 27 moons, and it’s a gas giant.” It didn’t seem funny to me. “Uranus is a gas giant!” Bobby rolled onto his side, cackling. “I’m going to pee my pants, I know it.” I stared at them while they wiped at the tears in their eyes. They didn’t know anything. After an hour of playing, my cousins and Bobby said my stations left their ships too defenseless from invaders. I ended up becoming a private contractor and made bases on the top bunk of my brother’s bunk bed. My cousins and my brother fought their wars on the floor below. The static down the hall was comforting. I kept on building a base no ship would ever use. I heard the woman on the walkie-talkie again. She was crying. There were other bad words, but I knew not to repeat them. She said her kids drove her crazy. She said sometimes she just wanted to beat the crap out of them, her kids. But then she’d laugh and say she was just kidding. She said the word “trapped” a lot. She’d never done what she really wanted to do. Her kids held her back from everything she wanted, all her dreams. Her voice faded with each sentence, as if she was backing away into the shadows. Then I heard a click and the static came back. I crossed out a few craters on the Lunar Chart. When my Mom found me crying, I couldn’t explain why I was upset. Maybe she understood too well. Maybe this was how Dad felt. I was afraid they would tell me I had kept them from all their dreams, and here they were helping with mine. I was afraid Dad would tell me that he wanted to beat the crap out of me. I didn’t want to know whether he thought like that. The static stayed on but I began to research my parents as a side project, specifically my Dad when he was home. I snuck around the house following him. When I came home from school, I tried to use polite words
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to ask for a snack. Whenever Dad took a nap, I tip-toed around the house like I was on a balance beam. I pressed my hands against the walls to avoid stumbling. Even when my knuckles cracked, I cringed, afraid it might wake him. My mom eyed me when I tried to be extra nice. She asked me if there was something I was saving up for, if I had done anything wrong that I wanted to tell her. She asked if I was sticking up for my brother. I could have taken advantage of these moments. One time, she rubbed her hands over my cheeks and forehead to see if I had a fever. “Nothing is wrong with you?” she asked. “Are you sure?” I went into Bobby’s room to ask for advice. He was listening to music and had built a replica of the Millennium Falcon out of Legos. He’s brilliant like that. Bobby had watched Star Wars a thousand times, and he was able to make all the spaceships from scratch. There was a fleet of Lego X-Wings under his bed. “I’m busy right now,” Bobby said when I entered. “Do you think Dad’s happy?” Bobby turned down the volume, but only slightly. I couldn’t hear the static because of the music. “Huh?” He picked through the bin of Lego pieces. He found a small, flat, grey piece and clicked it on the top of the ship. “Do you think Dad’s happy?” “I dunno,” he said. “I guess so.” “How do you know?” My brother started humming along to the song. “How do you know?” He set aside the ship and put his hands in his lap. “Dad’s gone again,” he said. “Do you think Dad’s unhappy?” “I dunno.” My brother reached over to turn the volume down a little bit more. “Did you hear Mom and Dad fight or something?” he asked. “No.” I needed something to drink. My mouth was dry. “Did you?” “No.” “Oh.” “So everything’s okay.” He turned the volume back up. “Yeah, I guess so.” I started backing out of his room. “I just wanted to make sure, you know. That he’s happy. That they’re both happy. That they don’t think we kept them from their dreams or anything.” Bobby looked at me. The volume was probably too high for him to hear all of it. He looked like I was speaking in code. Everything coming out of my mouth was static. “Sure, whatever.” He turned the volume up even more, so there was nothing left to say. The song faded as I walked farther down the hall, and the static came back. Instead of checking my moon maps and my notebooks, I went into my
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room and climbed in bed. I undid the comforter and threw the pillows on the floor. Then I crawled under the sheets until I was completed covered. No light, just a warm and comforting darkness, like outer space, even though I read that space was actually freezing and boiling at the same time. A vacuum so strong, I would explode. Like a supernova. But I could never picture space as a cold place, not as an extreme. It always seemed comfortably warm to me. It held all the stars, after all; it was like a room with many fireplaces. I decided to cry. I cried really hard, forcing myself to sob until I was hiccupping and shuddering between breaths. I woke up with my mom bringing a cold glass of water and a plastic cup of children’s Motrin. “I think you might be sick, honey,” she said. “Your eyes are red. Are they burning?” “Like a supernova,” I said. “I don’t know what that means, honey.” She lifted the cup to my lips. “Drink. Your father will be home soon. He works so hard.” I turned it off. Bad dreams. Instead of a grey ocean with messages, it was a grey ocean filled with screaming Moms. I pictured Dad in a heap of them, all wet and cold. When I tried to scream, he’d only reply in little beeps and clicks. It was the like the first dream I had. I knew he was trying to tell me something important, but I couldn’t tell what it was. When I flicked the off switch on the walkie-talkie, the house dove into silence. Everyone stopped. I heard Mom turn off the TV, and I heard my brother stop playing with Legos. Dad was home. He came into the dining room and found me staring at the pink and yellow walkie-talkie. “I need a break.” I unhooked the satellite and laid it on the ground. “I’m tired of searching for life on other planets.” “I’m tired too.” He kissed the top of my head. “Let’s turn it back on. Persistence is key. That’s what my boss always says.” “Persistence sounds exhausting. I need a break.” I wanted to tell him I didn’t fail. I received messages. I wanted to tell him that success didn’t taste sweet. The bad word I said aloud after the first time I heard the woman tasted better than this. I didn’t want to look like my Dad, with bags under his eyes and sagging cheeks. With a hollow look and a hollow feel. With thick veins on his hands and nostrils raw from blowing his nose. Dad walked back into the kitchen to tell Mom. “She’s just like you,” Mom said. “What does that even mean?” Dad took out a mug from the cabinet. “What are you trying to say?” “I don’t know. You both work hard, and you both are tired.” “She doesn’t know what tired is yet.” Dinner was quiet. Mom and Bobby looked at me as if any minute I might crumble into pieces. Dad seemed unimpressed. He looked at me
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under hooded eyelids. His skin sometimes looked greyish. Maybe it was the florescent lights in the kitchen. It didn’t take long to turn it back on. Maybe a week of waiting. But it felt wrong to have the satellite in the house, so I took it outside to the fort Dad built years before, before the business trips. It was a tiny house-like structure built over a sandbox. The sand was clumped and unused. There were still toys and old Barbie dolls buried in the dunes. I hung the hanger on the small set of monkey bars jutting out from the roof. Then I climbed the ladder with the walkie-talkie and computer into the fort. The wire fit in between the wooden planks so I could listen inside. It was a cool evening, mid-October, and I huddled in my windbreaker. I turned the walkie-talkie back on and listened to the static. Hearing it again was a relief, and it warmed me. I kept the volume on low. Wasn’t overly excited. Just calm. There was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich wrapped up in plastic in my pocket, courtesy of my Mom. She was very bright and cheery to see me carrying the satellite off to be used again. “Fight the good fight,” she yelled. “Or something like that!” The wooden planks hurt my back, but I lay there anyway, waiting. I laced my fingers together and prayed. I prayed for a real message, something musical and full of beeps and clicks. Something that wasn’t in English, something in another language full of codes. Codes I could handle; I could decipher numbers and mark them on my maps. I prayed the woman wouldn’t come back. The grass smelled. I always imagined the color green smelled like grass, when it was just a little wet and dewy. I inhaled the smell while listening to the static. I touched the sandwich wrapped up in my pocket, already flat and smushed against my fingers. There was a fleeting thought that this moment was better than being a famous scientist. I was on my own trip, like Dad. Tired and working. The static crackled, then was silent. Then it shrieked, something guttural and loud. I rolled along the wooden planks clear out of the fort, landing flat on my back in the yard. It took the air right out of me, but I managed to scream. The noise was deafening, and I feared the walkie-talkie would explode from the sound. I pictured pink, yellow, and white plastic tearing through me. I rolled back and forth in the grass like I was on fire. Mom ran out of the house. “Baby, what is it?” She lifted me up and set me in her lap. Jelly from the sandwich had exploded out of my pocket, and she gasped, thinking I was bleeding. Then she was laughing, licking the jelly from her fingers and my fingers. I told her it wasn’t funny. I told her there was a message, a sign. “It happened,” I cried. “Mommy, it happened. It finally happened.” Words were coming out of my mouth so quickly I couldn’t keep track of them. I clutched my Mom’s shoulders. We needed to call the police, the
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president. They were coming to get me. Mom took my face in her hands and shushed me. “Listen,” she said. I wiped the spit from my lips and looked up at the fort. Static. “You scared yourself.” I shook my head. “No.” “Fight the good fight.” She put me on my feet and nudged me back up the ladder. I started blubbering more words but she waved me off. “Stay here while I grab some cocoa. I’ll come and sit with you for awhile.” “Don’t leave me. I want to be done,” I begged her. “I’m done now.” “Your father always said, ‘Never be a quitter.’ Persistence, remember?’” She shook her finger in front of my nose. She was smiling. I felt sick; I felt like I was going to puke, because she was smiling and she had no idea. She walked back toward the house, and I thought it was the end. I made a huge circle on my moon map, believing they were coming from there to get me. I started writing a message to my family in one of my notebooks. When Mom came back, she’d find me ripped from the earth and the fort with it. The yard would look like a crater. People would come to see it and take pictures in front of it. I planned to write the note quickly then throw it on the lawn. Good bye, everyone. I found what I was looking for. I didn’t think I had time to go into detail. I heard the back door open, and Mom walked out. I prayed they would spare her when they came. Someone had to witness it, after all. But then she reached in the fort and placed a mug of hot cocoa next to my feet. She climbed up and sat next to me, wrapping her arms around me. “The static is peaceful, isn’t it?” She kissed my cheek. “Maybe it’s better to never find an answer. Or maybe it can wait, till your father comes home.” The static clicked off again. A voice was coming through the static, soft at first. I recognized the voice and sobbed. The woman was back, full of fury. The woman’s words were clear, unmistakable. Like she was sitting next to us. Mom held me tight, and she was hugging me so close it hurt. The static was nonexistent through the woman’s shouting. Completely gone. The clarity of it was deafening. There weren’t any beeps. No complex messages. No mystery. “It’s not my fault,” the woman screamed. “Oh God, it’s not my fault. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. Please come over. Help me fix this. ” She repeated the words over and over, sometimes whimpering, sometimes screaming so ragged she sounded like she might choke. My
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Mom buried her face in my neck, and I shut my eyes. The smell of the grass was strong. I felt dizzy. “It was always for them, and for him, and for everyone else in the world. I never meant to hurt anyone. Oh for God’s sakes, can’t you just come over and help me with this?” There was a loud crash, the breaking of glass, and finally the static came back, blessedly calm. I turned around, and my mom was crying into the hood of my jacket. “Everything bad happens when your father is gone.” She wiped at her eyes, exhaling into my hair, smashing her hands against her lips. She was grunting and sobbing at the same time. The sound escaping through her mouth was all mushy. They weren’t the noises she usually made; not Momnoises. I blamed the static. “I’m so sorry, baby,” Mom said. We rocked together, back and forth, and I was crying because she was crying. Mom was crying because I was crying. The only way to feel better was to cry it out. That was another thing Mom always said: “Sometimes it’s better to cry.” The mug of hot cocoa had spilled and soaked into both our pants, but Mom didn’t even notice. I followed Mom to the garage, watched her lift the lid of the garbage can and throw everything away. The foil ripped easily. The computer and the walkie-talkie clicked together. Then Mom shut the lid, and stinky air huffed out of the garbage bin, lifting our hair. I was allowed to keep my notebooks and maps, but she stared at the papers suspiciously. She took my hand and sat me at the kitchen table. She took out Oreos and a glass of milk and said, “Have at them.” Then she made two phone calls. I overheard her talking to the police. “I think my daughter’s radio picked up a phone signal,” she said. “I don’t know how, officer, but there was a woman, and—and I think she did something terrible.” After she hung up the phone, she went upstairs. I followed her, and watched her pull back her hair into a ponytail. She put on lipstick and powdered her face. Then she went back downstairs. She sat down. I heard the strain of the couch, her shaky breaths. She called Dad. “We need to talk when you get home,” she said. When Dad pulled into the garage the next day, she met him at his car. They talked before he entered the house. I listened through the door, crunching on Oreo after Oreo. “It must’ve connected with the phone line or something.” “I called the police,” Mom said. “In case something really happened.” “I doubt it.” Dad opened the trunk and took out his suitcases. “Everything bad happens when you’re gone. Everything happens when you’re gone.” “I know,” he said. “I wish—I’m just sorry, okay?”
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· · · That night, I slept outside my parents’ door. It was locked. Dad didn’t notice, because I tiptoed, slept with one hand on the door, sensing them through the wood. I heard Dad’s snores and imagined him unmoving in the bed, looking dead-like. Dad slept through an earthquake once. He talked about it all the time, taking pride in it, that nature couldn’t wake him. I was just the opposite: I heard everything, and I was afraid the static might rise out of the trashcan and come back into the house. If the sound of the walkie-talkie washed through the house while Dad slept, he wouldn’t notice. He’d roll over in his sleep, but that’d be it. I took comfort in sleeping near him. Like a rock. Like my Dad. I wanted to become a rock too.
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The Polytribes KEITH McCLEARY
We lived in a universe of pockets and of orbs. Each room has a key and each key refracts so that the world you came from is a room and the room you entered is a world. If you feel like each tribe you meet has rules and traditions you don’t understand because you don’t have rules and traditions of your own, this is completely normal. There are systems of thought happening around you and you weren’t born with one, and the one you were born with you can’t see. Conversely, the tribes around you think your tribe has it so together. They marvel at the richness of your world, at the completeness of your room. They dress themselves in fruit paste and peacock feathers and dance around their fires. They reinforce the universe they have constructed and by extension you feel less and less that you are allowed to share. It stopped making sense to you how everything works and sometimes you are overwhelmed by the responsibility you feel to contribute. I am talking about living in a technoverse. I am talking about whether you live in the moment, or you live in the same word on a page a hundred years. We’re none of us getting out of here. One room opens into another. You try to paint a complete picture but you need a canvas that isn’t flat. You need a canvas that opens into a thousand other canvases, and each one of those a thousand more. You are only one painter and one painter has no time to paint them all. All the other painters try and this is fine. It is fine that they paint faster and better. It is fine you can’t get the paint just right or the angle just right. There is time. Believe that there is time.
The Riverhead SARENA ULIBARRI
he last time we saw the Riverhead’s son, he was leaving for war. Of course, we didn’t call her the Riverhead back then. She had a normal name like all of us, like all the other mothers watching their sons don a foreign uniform and swear allegiance to a cause we knew very little about. The Messenger had told us that two cities in the foothills had grown so large that they encroached on each other. Boundaries and ideologies were in dispute. Occasionally we saw smoke rising from the distant mountains, but it was not our desert land that was being fought over. We had no crops, no metals, no resources worth plundering. No water, even, just one muddy well that barely kept us and a few thin sheep alive. Then one day the soldiers came and found that we did have something they wanted. We had sons. At the deployment ceremony we sang and danced our local songs and listened to the soldiers play foreign trumpets. We wove dolls from the clippings of our sons’ hair. We wept when they walked one by one to swear their oath. It rained that day, but as usual the rain never reached us, just pulled streaks of cloud into strings like a ragged beard. We decided the Sky God was crying too. The Riverhead did not weep when she kissed her son goodbye. She pressed his face between her hands as if he were a baby and left marks on his forehead with her kisses. She wrapped her shawl around her shoulders, her face bright with a smile. “He’ll come back a General,” she told us. We watched the soldiers march into the desert, heading toward lands none of us had ever seen. Long after the sounds of their trumpets faded, we could still see them shrinking in the distance. The Riverhead’s son didn’t come back a General. He didn’t come back at all. The Messenger returned with a list of names. More dead than left alive. He explained the politics, the dynamics of the battle, but we were too anguished to listen. The Riverhead pushed her way through the crowd. She stepped on our toes. Her shawl caught on our coats. She demanded the list from the Messenger, crumpling the edges of it in her fists. She found her son’s name and dropped the paper, held her finger to her lips. The Messenger bent to retrieve it. She pushed her way back through the crowd. We watched her run up the hill to her home and throw aside the cloth door.
Then the whole village heard the bursting of her grief. It echoed off the walls of the temple. Caused us to spill our buckets at the well. Interrupted school lessons. Stirred the graveyard dust. We left our own grief for a moment to marvel at the magnitude of hers. Several days later we noticed the water leaking from under her door. Two of the other grieving mothers went to check on her. They found her still weeping, the floor of her home soaked. They wept with her for awhile, then tried to console her, tried to bring her out of the house. She refused. When they left, the women had to leave their shoes in the sun to dry. Some children brought her food. She ate it gratefully, each morsel soaked in her own tears by the time it reached her mouth. The children told jokes. They tried to play games with her. They offered to leave their families and become her adopted children. Nothing worked. When the children left, one boy lost his footing in the torrent of water and slid all the way to the bottom of the hill, landing in waist-deep mud. Everyone in the village took their turn at the Riverhead’s home. We brought her gifts of art. We showed her our new babies and kittens. The Messenger came again and told her news of the war, proclaimed great victories that had been achieved because of her son’s sacrifice. Nothing worked. By the time the summer sun began to deepen the brown of our skin, a small creek had formed through the center of the village. Children built mud-men and tracked dirty footprints into their houses. A swarm of mosquitoes hatched from the marsh. When winter came again, the water had cut itself a shallow ravine. A flock of yellow birds paddled in the water and ate worms from the shore. One of the boys, who had not been old enough to go when the soldiers came, shot the biggest yellow bird with an arrow. His mother cooked it for their solstice meal. Rumors of the delicacy spread through the town, and that first year we slaughtered hundreds of the yellow birds. More flew in from the north. They landed in the river, laid their eggs in nests on the bank. In the spring the first twig of a tree appeared on the shore. That was when we started to leave offerings at the Riverhead’s door, suspended from a hook. There had never been a tree in the village before. We built our houses from stone and the rusted metal our ancestors had brought with them. The tree grew. Others joined it. The river widened and deepened so much that an old woman washing her laundry was swept into the current and drowned. We didn’t have a word for that. The Messenger had to tell us what to call it. Young people swam in the river. We asked the Messenger to bring us seeds and when he did, we became farmers. Our offerings to the Riverhead were no longer just peppers and flatbread. Now they were rich fruits and muffins.
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For the first few years our new-found prosperity stayed local. We ate well. The school got new wooden desks. We made new fabrics and created styles that would have shocked our grandparents. Young women sewed yellow feathers onto their shawls. Old men dyed their hair green with plant juices. Everyone stopped wearing shoes since the ground was no longer sharp and hot. Fruit was the first thing we traded. The Messenger brought merchants, and they brought other merchants. Soon we had things we had never known. Glass and cotton and non-rusted metal. The merchants taught us songs from their land and they became our songs. They brought us new foods and they became our foods. Talk began of a railroad that would connect us to the foothills. All the while, the Riverhead grieved. We left the new foods as offerings to her, but usually found them discarded. She preferred the traditional foods, spiced with the hottest peppers. A well-meaning woman once left a silver necklace for the Riverhead, but she discovered it later that day caught in some grass on the riverbank. Once a year, a crew was assembled to scrape the mold from the outer walls of her house. We had started sneezing, sniffling, and the healers had traced our suffering to that oozing fungus. The Riverhead became incorporated into our prayers at the temple, where some claimed she was the daughter of the Sky God, even though we had known her father, had buried him next to our fathers in the graveyard to the west. Some of the children didn’t believe she was real. It became a rite of passage to sneak up and peer in her window. It was a spring day when the young woman who had married one of the village’s wealthiest farmers took her weekly offering to the Riverhead and found something was different. She noticed first that the banks were narrower, that she didn’t have to lean nearly as far to hook her basket on the Riverhead’s door. And when she did, she heard not the normal sounds of grief, but something cheerful. The Riverhead was humming. The Farmer’s Wife peered in the window. The Riverhead sat in her normal chair, but she rocked back and forth, knitting. She spotted the Farmer’s Wife and waved to her. The Farmer’s Wife returned to the front door, removed her offering and then held onto the hook for stability as she waded into the water and pushed through the cloth door. Inside, the Riverhead rocked in her chair, oblivious to the shin-deep water filling her house. She smiled. The Farmer’s Wife held the basket out to her. “Oh, how lovely. Those are my favorite. Put it by the sink, will you dear?” The sink was covered in green slime mold. The Farmer’s Wife looked for something to clear a section of the counter, a knife or spatula to scrape
68 | The Riverhead
the mess away, but she found that the mold had grown over the drawers too, sealing them shut. She set the basket on top of the mold. It sank halfway to the rim. “How are you feeling?” she asked. The Riverhead lowered her knitting and gazed at the window, considering the question seriously. “Better,” she said. “My son is gone, and every day I will feel his absence, but I can’t waste my life in tears.” “That’s good,” the Farmer’s Wife said, and in the same moment realized it was not. “Excuse me,” she said. She splashed toward the door. “It was so nice to have a visitor, after all these years. Do tell everyone I’m feeling better and I’d like to see more of them.” And she did tell us. She ran through the village proclaiming a state of emergency. We dropped our baskets. Raced out of our homes. Stopped our sales. Paused our plows. We stared dumbfounded at each other. Then someone struck an ax into that first tree that had grown by the bank, which had grown so big that no one had ever climbed to the top. We joined in. The tree fell and we dragged it south of the village to capture as much of the remaining water as we could. We dug and packed around the tree to make a dam. For three whole days and nights we worked to dig out a reservoir and put some smaller dams upstream to slow the river. When it was done, we celebrated. The Riverhead’s hill was dry, but the water pooled south of the village. We lit a bonfire and danced on the new reservoir banks. By the end of summer, though, the reservoir was nearly empty. Each bucketful we took to our crops lowered the level. Each scorching day sucked more into the dry air. What water was left turned brown. The mosquitoes returned, and other foul bugs thrived in the muck. Our fruits grew smaller, more sour. Railroad plans were put on indefinite hiatus. A town meeting was called. We gathered outside the temple, and after traditional prayers to the Sky God and the Riverhead, we turned to the practical question of what we were going to do. The Riverhead did not attend the meeting. We had seen her out in the village a few times. Her eyes had grown old and her body thin. She walked with a curved spine, but she smiled at us. She attempted conversation, but found that she had missed so much she no longer knew people’s names or relations. On one trip out, she bought a puppy from one of the traveling merchants, a white dog with floppy ears and a tail like a paint brush. Sometimes we would see her on the hill teaching the puppy tricks or watching it chase bugs in the dry grass. At the meeting, practical solutions were put forth, but no one could agree on a course of action. We talked of building the railroad and shipping water in from the mountains. We talked of digging a deeper well, of elaborate rain rituals, of rationing the remaining water. Then someone said what we all wanted to say. “We have to make her cry again.”
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The Messenger went first. He climbed the hill and found her scraping the last bits of mold from her kitchen floor. He told her of the war, how after all these years battles were still being fought—though they were not— how men were dying every day, how soldiers lived in misery and never had the chance to visit their families. She shook her head. “So much pain,” she said, “for these games of power.” He thought he had succeeded, and he raised his arms to brace for the torrent, but she pushed him toward the door instead. “Don’t bother me with these troubles,” she said. “I’ve moved on.” Next, a young mother took her toddler to see the Riverhead. The child had been born frail, and no healer had been able to cure him. She displayed the child to the Riverhead, watched him crawl across the floor though he should have been old enough to walk. She lamented the only possibilities of her life: to watch the child wither and die before he reached school age, or to watch him grow into his deformities, forever at a disadvantage in the world. The Riverhead nodded, frowned. The child crawled on the floor, the dog bouncing around him. Then the Riverhead scooped the child from the floor, held him in a tight hug and laughed, said he was a blessing. She made the mother promise to bring the darling to see her weekly. We staged a funeral and convinced her the priest had died, but even at the graveyard her eyes stayed dry. The children performed a tragic play in which lovers were torn apart, kings lost their power and mothers watched their children slain in front of them. She applauded with the rest of us, congratulating the children’s parents on their talented offspring. We tried bursting into tears ourselves whenever she was around. We tried ignoring her, bumping into her rudely in the market, teasing her about her age and appearance. None of it seemed to bother her. If anything, she looked happy all the time, lost in dreamy thoughts. She apologized to us when we bumped her, waved a hand and smiled when we insulted her, as if we’d given her an embarrassing compliment. The Pepper Farmer picked the hottest peppers on his farm, the ones even he couldn’t eat without water pouring from his eyes. He took them to the Riverhead and insisted on staying for lunch. The Riverhead bit the pepper. Her face flushed. She fanned herself. The Pepper Farmer sat on the edge of his seat, watching the glistening in the Riverhead’s eyes. She sat back in her rocking chair. “Oh my, that was a hot one.” The Pepper Farmer promised the others were not so, and convinced her to try another. She coughed when she swallowed the second one. A tear formed on her lower eyelashes. He held his breath. The Riverhead stood, wiping the drop away from her eye before it formed into a full tear. “That’s quite enough for now,” she said. “I believe I’ll save the rest of these for another day.”
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And before he could object, the Riverhead had taken the plate and hidden it away. All this time, the reservoir kept shrinking. Nobody knows who killed the dog. At least, none of us would confess to it. But we were desperate at that point. Any of us might have had the idea. We heard the sound through the whole village, just as we had before. But this wasn’t a sound of grief. It was anger. It rattled our walls. Scared birds. Made our cats run off into the desert. We came out of our homes and gathered at the bottom of the hill. The hill was completely dry now, only a depression in the dirt to indicate a river had once run there. The dog hadn’t just been killed. It had been filleted open and nailed to the new wooden door she’d just had installed. Blood dripped from its exposed muscles. Its tongue hung from the side of its mouth. She glared at us. Pointed a finger and then balled it into a fist. Clenched her face until the folds of her cheeks nearly covered her eyes. “Who did this?” she yelled. We looked away. Hid our faces, shook our heads. We were horrified, not just at the grotesque animal on her door, but at her reaction. We worried she might burst into flames and burn the whole village to embers. “You all did this,” she said. “You’ve all been out to get me for years.” We protested. Fell at her feet, declared our love. She kicked dirt in our faces, then opened the defiled door. She slammed it, ragged edges of dog flesh shaking with the force. We cleaned the dog’s corpse from her door and held a special funeral for it at the graveyard, but she didn’t attend. The priest did a ritual blessing on her door. At the next town meeting, we agreed to cease any efforts to make the Riverhead cry. We discussed new methods for preserving what was left of the reservoir. Some of us agreed to follow the Messenger and learn what we could from other villages and cities. The merchants stopped coming. But one day a man came with a stack of papers. They featured colorful drawings of houses and landscapes, and listed facts that sounded too good to be true. He made us offers for our land and homes, and we slammed our doors in his face. But not the Riverhead. She showed up at the town hall with the Land Buyer to draw up a contract for her hill. “I’m moving to the beach,” she told the clerk. She showed him the brochure the Land Buyer had given her. Sketched water lapped at an expansive porch covered in vines and flowers. “Isn’t it beautiful?” The Land Buyer grinned and signed his name to the contract. We said, “She’s sure to grieve before she dies. At the beach that water will flow into the sea and go to waste!” We said, “It’s a nasty trick. That merchant is taking her for his own use.” We said, “If she leaves, that’s the end of hope.”
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She packed her belongings into two large bags and carried the rest down to the old marketplace in a borrowed wagon. All her son’s things were there. His clothes, his stone toys, his tools. We tried to keep our sons away from her, but they slipped through our legs and snatched the toys she held out to them. One by one we went to her and begged her not to leave. “I’ve made up my mind,” she said, every time, then showed us the bathing suit she had sewn out of her old shawl. We do know who stole her bags, and who broke the wheels on the Land Buyer’s wagon. But we’re not telling who. She found the bags two days later by the reservoir, which had by then shrunk to a puddle. No one helped the Land Buyer fix his wheel, and after four days he left on foot, promising the Riverhead he would return for her within the week. But he didn’t, and while he was gone, she fell ill. She stayed in bed. Her voice turned raspy, her limbs grew weaker. The healers tried herbs and tonics. They drained her glands and infused her blood. The priest performed rituals and appealed to the Sky God. Nothing worked. When the Riverhead died, we all wept. But all our tears together amounted to nothing more than a few salt stains on our shirts. We buried her next to her dog and erected a stone marker for them both. Her house stayed empty, and the Land Buyer never returned to claim it. The Messenger stopped visiting us, and those who had left with him stayed in the foothills. Those of us who had been children when the Riverhead’s son left for war were old ourselves by then, and we stayed, and tried to remember how we had lived before her. We brought the log from that first tree to the temple, and someone carved into it the face of a woman we all knew. We leave offerings of flatbread and peppers, and beg forgiveness for the dog and the wagon and everything else. And every now and then it rains, and water pours across the wooden face as though she is crying.
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A Water Can Sprays a Flower Bed City JOHN GOSSLEE
outside of the train station it rains like god is ringing out a towel the ticket holders bloom umbrellas drops of water splash into little corsages I inhale and float up as if a balloon mismatched flowers pivot on their stems to see my empty boots fill with cold soup as I ascend someoneâ€™s jacket snickers against my pants a woman yells, you canâ€™t do that! she lunges to pluck me down and catches air
The Bowls, the Buttons, and the Baskets C. B. AUDER
nce upon a time, there was a golden bowl filled thick with noodles. It sat on a work table, steaming into the night. A man entered, surging with hunger. He cupped the bowl with wellworn hands, brought it to his lips and drank at the rim, until the noodles and broth became part of him and he of them—until he was rubbing his belly as though it were a sleepy cat. “No time for thoughts of cats,” the man grunted. “Too many buttons to mold.” As the basket spoke, its wicker quivered. “Oh dear,” it said. “I will never be able to fit all of those buttons into my poor area that holds things.” “You can do anything you put your mind to,” muttered the woman. “You’re the Handbasket that Can.” “Can I really?” The basket crackled with astonishment as the woman carried it to the button table. “Goodness,” it said. “That sounds wonderful—” “It’s not our job to wonder about goodness.” The basket pondered this. It didn’t seem very wise. “But—” “Can’t you see I have a billion things to sew?” The woman filled the basket’s mouth with buttons. “Not to mention a headache like you wouldn’t believe.” The button felt ashamed. All night it had repeated a silent mantra: I will fling myself from this table and do something. Instead, the button had watched a woman hunch and groan over her work. For hours and hours she had grabbed button after button and, with needle and thread, had poked them in all of their eyes. Just as the button had decided to spring into action, the woman grabbed it with bony fingers and squeezed it tight. The button squeaked and popped itself free. As it sailed through the air, it grew worried. Would it be crushed beneath the wheel of a nearby cart? Would it disappear into that dark drain? Perhaps it would be gnawed to pieces by a starving rat. No, the button lay beneath a table, dusty and neglected for nearly a week.
· · · The man entered, hungrier than ever, but found his bowl only half-full. He drank his soup, then studied the bowl in bewilderment. “Can this be the same bowl? The gold seems less shiny.” He thundered to the woman in the other room, “Have you been fiddling with my dinner?” One night, the woman smacked the button around with a broom. The button gathered up all of its momentum, then flew and skidded out the door. It bounced off of a streetlamp and ended up in a grumbling garbage jostler. Then it journeyed beneath the stars on a bed of torn fabric. At dawn the button slid into an ocean of new shoe buckles and shiny party balloons and plastic chandeliers and polyester jock straps and bald tires and used condoms and cracked sauce jars and stained pillowcases and unused twist ties and unwanted silverware and limp vegetables and empty wart medications and cheap toilet seats and gobs of cat fur and soggy cigarette butts and a raft of crunching water bottles filled with sparkling emerald slime. The button was overwhelmed. It wept from all four of its eyes. So many new friends, it thought. So much sunshine! The man entered, late. He hurried to the work table. The bowl that awaited him was empty—and white as the mask of a ghost. The man blinked in confusion. “Where is my golden bowl?” “Right in front of you,” hollered the woman from the next room. “Where it always is.” “This is not the same bowl,” the man huffed. “Surely this bowl has nothing whatsoever to do with me.” But it was the same bowl. The gold had flaked off and been swept away. It had become a bowl of perfect bone. The clock struck eleven. The man cursed. He wished he had time to find his old bowl. He had grown very hungry indeed. But there were always new buttons to make and new clothes to sew and sell. The woman winced. Poked. Winced. Poked. “I understand!” cried the basket suddenly. “Judas Prawn!” The woman startled. “I am just like you!” said the basket. The woman sucked her bleeding finger. “I fail to see how.” She gave the basket a good thwack. The man licked his cracked lips. He caressed the empty bone bowl as though rubbing an ivory lamp for answers. The bowl tried to stay perfectly still, but in time it grew like magic to the man’s insistent touch. It grew faster and faster. It grew until it nearly
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reached the ceiling—until it was big and dry enough to anger a starving god. The man felt strangely dizzy. He wiped his forehead. The bowl seemed to have grown very hot. He wrenched his clothes free, flung them to the four corners of the room. He stood beneath the harsh work light, panting like an animal. He had always felt so strong, but now he seemed scrawny and pale. He saw that he was molded of soft, wrinkled skin held aloft by blades of bone. The man scratched his head, puzzled. “I look like a huge, hairy lizard.” The basket did not give up. It shook with revelation now. “I thought that I was me,” it cried, “but I am clearly defined by my actions!” “Listen, bub.” The woman mashed a temple with a thimbled thumb. “I’ll make you a deal: if you can’t shut your trap, I’ll kick you right in the wicker.” The man sat, out of breath. He had followed in his elders’ footsteps: he had made a lifetime’s worth of wares. “I can hear you resting,” said the woman. “Hop to it. I’m almost out of buttons.” But the man’s attention was on a broken window. Through the pane came the clumps and groans of creaky new bargains. The world was getting organized for another day of trade. The man looked at his surroundings for the first time in ages. The room had always seemed mysterious when it was kept in the dark. He could see all four walls now. They weren’t nearly as far away as he had been led to believe. He shook his head, perplexed. “Where is the great room I thought I’d been working in, all my life?” Just then, dawn peeked through a rafter window and lit the giant bowl. The man sagged with awe. The bowl looked like a brittle ivory lantern. Or a glowing bone blowfish. He was too tired to decide anything anymore. “Of course.” He smacked his forehead. “The answers must be within.” Sunshine hit the button’s face. The button opened three drowsy eyes. Seagulls squawked and rummaged on the horizon. A cat approached, dinner wriggling in the clamp of its jaw. The button sighed. It was good to feel safe at home. As the cat padded past, the plastic piles shifted and the button tipped forward in casual greeting. The cat leaped into a broken handbasket and disappeared. The button leaned back. It dozed to the rhythmic crunch of a tiny skull. · · ·
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The man heaved himself up. The table quaked and groaned as though to collapse. The inside of his bowl was empty and smooth and hard as an apology. The man touched his forehead and palms to its cool surface, felt it quiver in response. His world had grown concave. It had turned entirely to cool bone. The man shivered. A knock echoed around him, like the thud of heaven’s broom handle on a castle door. His mind fluttered with fatigue, fizzled with the sparks of wisdom that always arrive too late. “I know you’re in there,” said the woman. “I need a new basket.” “Tomorrow,” mumbled the man to himself alone. “Tomorrow...” “Get a plastic one this time. I think I broke a toe.” The man lay down. The bowl cradled him in its ivory curve. The man curled around his memories for warmth. He rubbed his belly with care, spoke to its grumbles in dreamy tones. His words streamed out in an invisible whisper, as though he dared not wake a sleeping priest. A million shining rains came and went. The world was no longer a confusing place—the man and woman were long gone. But all of their toil had been transformed, into brightly-colored oceans of plastic, scattered throughout the land. The button and its many friends never had to work another day in their lives.
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The Head Shop Escalator Tilt-a-Whirl MARK McKEE
’m at the Southside Mall to buy a new head and find I’ve accidentally come in on the 5th floor and heads are on the 3rd. (Fifth floor is women’s lingerie.) Ray’s Noggins is 5-star, grade-A, primo shit. I bought a head at Stan’s Cranium Emporium last year and that bastard ripped me off. Fuckin ears have never worked on this head. And have you seen the new rhinoceros heads; the ones w/ the diamond horns, standard? Man, that’s what I’m talkin about. Fuckin bling. So anyway, yeah, I’ve gotta get downstairs cause this shitshack closes in five, and there’s this bigass horse-lady in front of me, fuckin blockin my way. I’m talkin, her ass is saggin down to her knobby knees. Hey, lay off the feed: am I right? She smells, too. Like she’s got thrush. I’m thinkin bout hopping the rails of the escalator when Thrush-Lady, she gets stuck between the sides and starts doing this spinning number, like a fuckin top. Round and round. And she’s got this grasshopper head and I keep thinkin those buggy eyes are gonna bug out even more, like on stalks or some shit. You know, like a snail. But she’s spinning faster, and I can tell she’s gonna lose her balance, and I’m thinkin, shit, what if she starts to yack, and here I’m wantin to turn in my head for credit and she’s gonna get hay-spew all over it. So I reach out, try to right her balance, but instead she grabs my shirt sleeve (my best one too, fuckin Alvadorus Bromstadt. You heard of im? Righteous threads) and we both start whirling around and my arms are windmilling and Thrush-Lady’s stomach is undulatin like a fuckin wave at the beach, these rolls and rolls of jelly, man, and this cop sees us and thinks I’m tryin to steal her bag (and I’m thinkin, man, I don’t eat hay, ya know?) and he starts screamin, “Halt, halt,” and I’m like, dude you stop us and I’ll fuckin give you this head, and Thrush-Lady starts gaggin and her throat is stickin out like she’s got a fork stuck inside it and cop dude is like, “Stop bro, like, in the name of the law,” and I realize it’s The Bradinzki who I haven’t talked to in forfuckinever and he’s like Samiam, that you, and I’m like, this lady’s fixin to yack, man, and he’s like, I’ve got it, and he hits the button at the top of the escalator and Thrush-Lady and I immediately stop spinnin and then we’re in free-fall and I think, uh oh, ya know, cause we’re only four steps from the top and it’s at least 20 more to the bottom and it’s gonna hurt like fuckin hell and I dunno, somethin makes my left hand reach out and grab the rubber railin and I’m still, but Thrush-Lady
she’s like still teeterin on the brink ya know and without really thinkin about it I reach out and grab her Thrush-Lady moo-moo and I’m thinkin, horses don’t wear moo-moos, that’s like for fuckin cows and shit and then I think everything is cool and the fuckin moo-moo starts rippin out of my grasp so I get a tight hold on the scarp of fabric in my hand and give this righteous tug and Thrush-Lady goes sailin over my head and lands on The Bradinzki and he breaks her fall and I almost think he’s dead but then I hear him say, “are you alright, ma’am,” and I wonder what it’s like to have all five hundred pounds of that sitting on top of you, but really I’m just wantin to climb down the rest of the stairs and get my rhino head before they’re all sold out because it takes them a fuckin year to get the newest models back in, but then I hear Thrush-Lady scream, “My hero!!” and she waddles up and comes runnin at me screaming it over and over, “My hero!! My hero!!” and she’s windmillin her arms and smackin her Thrush-Lady lips and she picks me up and squeezes me and I’m sayin, “Fuck lady, I just wanna get my head,” but she doesn’t hear and keeps makin smackin sounds w/ her flappin lips and sayin, “My hero! My hero!” and I can’t get out of her Thrush-Lady grip and then I hear the lady on the intercom say, “Ladies and gentleman, please make your final selections. The Mall will be closing in exactly one minute,” and a countdown begins and I feel the weight of the Thrush-Lady who’s now eruptin in to sobs, “You saved me, you saved me,” she says, and then the manager of the Mall comes runnin up to see what’s happened and he says, “Name your price, young man, name your price,” and that second time he puts a space in between each of the words and I’m like, “I just want my fuckin rhinoceros head and I’ll be on my way,” and he’s like, “On the house, my good man. And we can’t thank you enough,” and Thrush-Lady erupts in a fresh round of happy sobs sayin, “You saved me, you sweetheart, you saved me.” So yeah, I think this rhinoceros head looks hella cool, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve gotta go back there next Monday. Fuckin ears don’t work on this one either.
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Ends for the Story about Dwarves ELIZABETH O’BRIEN
When we’re gone we’ll be remembered by our holes: only those go deep enough. Our stories don’t say much at the end—what happens to the dwarves when the girl goes? They scrub their own duds, brew their own grub. They pick grit from their black-fingered lips; from their hides, biting nits. At flatulent dawn, worn to paste by the swing of the pick, the pluck of the bright bevels them down to knuckle and jaw shined at the bones, their eyes deep as holes. Pressing air diamonds carbon; it shrivels grown men small. And the girl: lot after lot, rending what’s cheap from the company store. Sacks of flour, apples, beans, she makes bread, cider, stew. If what’s sweet is sharp it’ll keep in the dark. Boom and bust, poor men, they go into the black Mariah, loaded in and buried away, unmarked at the end and sinking in shallow holes. That foreman, he was a sonofabitch: mean, and no prince. But he had stamp books and a smile wicked like snow. So she went. They were married. It made a good story. We don’t always remember the holes, how what is made will burn. Down to the end the miners wield their razzers, their chisels and shears.
Their lanterns glow canary and smoke greasy as uncut gems, while what they leave is pillared but airless. Cored like an apple.
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The Last Jew Celebrates the New Year with his Dead Friend, Ishaq Levin M. E. SILVERMAN
After seven years, he digs him up for the High Holy Holidays, brings him home to the space they once shared, & slaps him down in a borrowed rocker in the empty cafĂŠ. Levin1, quite dead, sways under the fan, notices the vacancy, says little. Zablon, the last Jew, thinks it fitting they should be the last customers before the place goes bust. The sun snaps shut like a casket over Flower Street. By the open door, a table is set for two. Levin remains silent, still holds a grudge, jealous that Zablon outlived him but more concerned with his hands tied to the chair with the tzitzit2 from his old tallit3. He sits wide-eyed, surprised, slightly displeased, even more thin skinned
than before, but with broken-tile teeth & a sense of Sabbath ease, a calm easterly wind that is laughter echoing. Even when Zablon’s head begins to bounce to his chest, heavy from prayer, ready for sleep, his kappa 4 falling leaf-slow into the hollow of his lap, everything stills, just for a minute like in Western movies to focus the audience on an important scene, something so easily missed if the director had not made us stop & see. Tonight, Zablon seems close to understanding this world. ·
The gray mop in the gray bucket falls over, splashing gray water on the gray stone floor. The whole place smells of smoked meat. A chipped ceramic bowl filled with honey rests in the middle of a plate of apples, sliced, skin-peeled, just the way they like it. In the sad kitchen, the tea shrills & Zablon brings two cups boiling golden green tea. Levin, with his jaw unhinged, refuses to drink.
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Zeblon has not yet awakened. Everything hurts. The dream is long, a never-ending song. The night worms its way in.
Levin was the 2nd to last Jew in Afghanistan, and after his death in 2005 Zablon Simitov became the last Jew. 2
Tzitzet (Hebrew noun tzitzit) is the name for specially knotted ritual fringes, or tassels, worn in antiquity by Israelites and today by observant Jews and Samaritans. Tzitzit are attached to the four corners of the tallit (prayer shawl) and tallit katan (everyday undergarment). 3
Tallit is a Jewish prayer shawl. The tallit is worn over the outer clothes during the morning prayers (Shacharit) and worn during all prayers on Yom Kippur, and sometimes during other occasions where prayer is involved. 4
Kappa (the more common spelling is kippah (also kipah, kipa, kippa, plural kippot; Yiddish: yarmlke, yarmulke, yarmulka, yarmelke; English: skullcap) is a thin, usually slightly-rounded cloth cap worn by observant Jews (usually men, but not always). It symbolizes the humbling relationship between man and God.
84 | The Last Jew Celebrates the New Year with his Dead Friend, Ishaqâ€Ś
A Seat on the Train for Skip, Aruna, and Giaccomo
he young woman had perhaps slept past her stop. She got up suddenly and hurried from the train and, because Takashi was standing right there, in front of the seat she had left, he sat down. He sat and was aware of the young woman’s lingering warmth, which floated up, from his thighs to his chest and his neck, all the way to his ears. A seat on the train: a small and significant pleasure. He rode the same rush hour train six days a week—he could not remember the last time he’d gotten a seat. Not just any seat. This was, in Takashi’s opinion, the very best seat on the train. At the very end of the car, across from the seats reserved for the elderly, disabled, and pregnant, with a six inch wide ledge on one side where you could rest your arm, a small space which, it seemed to Takashi, made all the difference between feeling comfortable or cramped. Glancing at the digital screen above the door, he saw that Nagatacho was next—his stop. He was surprised. It seemed to him the train had just passed Meguro. He’d thought he might have four or five stops left. But no, his stop was next—just two or three minutes away. Still, he did not complain, but resolved to enjoy the time as much as he could, because he almost never got a seat, and work would last ten hours at least, and also because he’d been reading a book on Zen, translated from English, written by a Japanese who’d run away to California, and this book claimed it was possible to enjoy your life just five seconds at a time. The book also said you should not compare yourself to other people. Takashi often wondered if he was happier than other people, or less happy. He sometimes considered himself a dissatisfied person, even a little depressed, but then he thought about how we tend to hide our sorrows from each other and nearly always appear more cheerful and competent than we feel—as if we have endorsed life when really we’ve just shown up for it. It was even possible that he was somewhat more cheerful than most people— poor Tokyo! In this way, Takashi fell into comparisons and forgot to enjoy the small and significant pleasure of getting a seat on a rush hour train. When the train doors opened at Nagatacho, Takashi discovered that he could not move. He’d never even had to think about it before. Every day the doors opened at 7:23 and out he went, to Exit #5 and up the steps to work.
But now the train doors had opened and Takashi did not move. Open, still open: there he sat. It seemed to him that the train doors stayed open an extra second, as if surprised. Then they closed and the train began to move. Takashi felt ever so slightly astonished. Here, then, was another small malfunction—just as he’d recently found that he needed to get up at night to pee. Still, it was not a problem—he could get off the train at the next stop, at Yotsuya. He wouldn’t even need to catch the train back—he could walk. He did not get off at Yotsuya however, nor Ichigaya or Iidashbashi— which was as far as he could reasonably walk. He just sat, as if glued to his seat, and the further the train went, the harder it was to give up his seat because the crowd was gradually dispersing and it seemed to him that, for the first time in years, he had space and could breathe. He was surprised. Not quite disapproving. Just surprised, as he was whenever he made discoveries about his co-workers after years of working with them. Like when he realized that Mr. Tanaka kept a jar of shochu in his desk, or that Mr. Sato was almost certainly a homosexual, or that Miss Endo—who seemed so sedate—was in fact addicted to gambling. He discovered that, despite years of being reliable, he was actually the kind of man who suddenly does not turn up for work—the kind of man who does not even call in. He wondered if he was suffering from a mental breakdown, if he was not actually such a trustworthy or even moral person. To his further surprise, he found that all these possibilities were acceptable—as long as he did not have to give up his seat, get on another train, and go to work. He rested on the industrial velveteen seat and watched the tunnel pass outside the darkened window. The passenger to his right was gone—now he had room for both arms. The train arrived at Oji. And still he did not get off. He really was a reprobate, apparently. The train stations went past, all alike. The Namboku line merged and continued as the Saitama Rapid. Why, he wondered, was it necessary to tile every inch of every station as if it were a public toilet? If the economy depended on government projects—why couldn’t the government employ 13,000 muralists? Takashi had been entertaining thoughts like this for some time. Anyone could have seen he was bound to be a troublemaker. He looked around him. A few seats had opened up, but mostly it was still businessmen in suits and middle-aged women with bags. There were young people too, peering into their phones. They all looked as if they hadn’t used their faces for a long time, almost as if they had suffered a stroke. But this was normal, yes, it was very normal. Their faces would work when they needed them next. Their recovery would be almost complete. Outside of a hospital, refugee camp, or prison—were there people anywhere who looked as unhappy as on the train in Tokyo? And this was
86 | A Seat on the Train
the Namboku/Saitama line, which passed through the very best neighborhoods: these people were doing well. Takashi experimented with putting a smile on his face. Just a little smile. The Japanese Zen master who ran away to California had suggested this. Takashi tried it. He did not wish to alarm anyone. It was an extremely small smile. Still, the smile stayed on his face. He felt pleasantly subversive. There were fewer people on the train. It was no longer a crowd. Then a few more stations passed and Takashi found that there was less of him as well. How could it be? How could he be less or more? He was either here or he was not. Still, it seemed to him that there was less of him than there had been before, at Oji, or Iidabashi or Nagatacho. He saw his reflection in the glass across the way: it seemed his face had lost the bit of curve it had had, the last bit of youth it had held until now. His teeth were loosening as well, he was sure. Whatever it was he’d meant to do with his life—he hadn’t gotten around to it. As the Saitama Rapid Line progressed, he found himself silently diminishing. Not shrinking, but amalgamating with the space he felt around him and within him now, a space he had not felt for years. He thought he ought to be upset. A man, diminishing, should be upset. But he was not upset. A coolness had overtaken him, as if he’d sunk to the bottom of a swimming pool. It was not all sad, though it was all loss. As the train continued on, Takashi felt his family rise up off of him, like ghosts. They went up in the sky along with their narrow house and the laundry line and the persimmon tree in the yard. His grandparents first, then his siblings, followed by his mother. Finally even his poisonous father peeled off. Takashi had missed his station. He’d missed his chance. It was somewhere, far in the past. He missed his goal. He forgot why it mattered. He forgot what it was. Takashi forgot his job, his co-workers, his girlfriends, his schoolmates. Takashi forgot the people who loved him. The next thing that happened was even more amazing: he forgot the people who didn’t love him. He was alone in the world. He forgot he was alone in the world. The train continued through the tunnel, the announcements went on and on. There was no one left but an almost middle-aged businessman, sitting upright in the corner at the end of the car. This man, and a forgotten umbrella, left hanging on a bar. How astonishing—the thought came—that he had once entertained the notion that it was possible to get off of the train. This was an optical illusion apparently, based on an entirely false understanding. He moved smoothly through space now, with no impediments. He felt he’d lost so much that needed desperately to be lost. If someone could have
Jonathan Mack | 87
found him then, and asked him if he was happy or sad, he could not have answered. But if he had been found, and someone had asked, “Are you having a good time?” He would have said, “Yes.” Though at that point, it’s true, he would have said “Yes” to everything. He looked across the way to the window, to his reflection, to the tunnel. There was only an unemployed man riding the train all the way to the terminal. And then there was only the tunnel, and the umbrella left behind.
88 | A Seat on the Train
CONTRIBUTORS C. B. Auder (“The Bowls, the Buttons, and the Baskets”) ponders the state of the world from central New England. Mary Lou Buschi’s (“Tight Wire”) poems have appeared in many journals such as FIELD, Willow Springs, Indiana Review, Four Way Review, Thrush, Radar, and Tar River Poetry. Her chapbook, The Spell of Coming (or Going) was published by Patasola Press (2013). Ukiyo-e, her second chapbook was published by Dancing Girl Press (2014). Her full manuscript, Awful Baby, will be published by Red Paint Hill in 2015. Julie C. Day’s (“The Church of Forgotten Gods”) fiction has appeared in such magazines as Interzone, Electric Velocipede, and A cappella Zoo’s best-of. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from USM's Stonecoast program and an M.S. in Microbiology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Some of her favorite things include gummy candies, loose teas, and standing desks. You can find Julie on Twitter @thisjulieday or through her website: www.stillwingingit.com. Katie Flynn’s (“Stuffed Animals”) stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Barrelhouse, The Bellingham Review, Fugue, Quick Fiction, and Temenos, among other publications. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and holds an MFA from the University of San Francisco. Recently, she completed her first novel, set in the Nevada desert at the height of the War on Terror. Jennifer Givhan (“21st Century”) was a PEN Emerging Voices Fellow and a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. She won the 2013 DASH Poetry Prize, and was a finalist for the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize and the Prairie Schooner Book Prize for her collection Karaoke Night at the Asylum. She earned her MFA from Warren Wilson College, and her work has appeared in over seventy literary journals and anthologies, including Best New Poets 2013. jennifergivhan.com John Gosslee (“A Water Can Sprays a Flower Bed City”) will die in the next 60 years. At his desk in the green-painted brick room where he works and sleeps, in the scope of a thousand years, he decides it doesn’t matter yet. johngosslee.com Nancy Hightower’s (“The Iguana Boys”) work has appeared in storySouth, Word Riot, Gargoyle, Red Fez, Prick of the Spindle, Prime Number Magazine, and is forthcoming in Sundog Lit. Her short story collection Kinds of Leaving, was shortlisted for the Flann O’Brien Award for Innovative Fiction, and Port Yonder press will publish her collection of poetry, The Acolyte in 2015. She currently reviews science fiction and fantasy for The Washington Post. Michael Jones (“Dec. 31, 2049”) teaches at Oakland High School in Oakland, CA. His work has appeared in many places, including A cappella Zoo, Atlanta Review, and Beloit Poetry Journal. Julian Kimmings (“Inappropriate Fear,” cover art) is a UK based artist and illustrator. He uses an amalgamation of acrylic, spray paint, ink, and oil. His unique, often graphic style has captured the attention and imagination of collectors across
the globe and has gained acclaim from his peers in fine art, street art, and graffiti circles. His work has been exhibited at the Institute for Contemporary Arts, London. Julian says, “I like to work quickly to capture the original spark of emotion that I feel at the moment of inspiration before it fades to memory. Like waking from a vivid dream and wanting to record it before it is lost.” www.kimmings.co.uk Jonathan Mack (“A Seat on the Train”) was raised on a family farm in New Hampshire but has spent most of his adult life in India and Japan. Stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Green Mountains Review, Gargoyle, Epiphany, Eleven Eleven, Zymbol, Quarter After Eight, Mary, Jonathan, Quick Fiction, Hippocampus, The Tokyo Advocate, Japanzine, and elsewhere. Lyndsie Manusos (“Supernova”) is a recent graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s MFA in Writing program. Her fiction has appeared in Luna Station Quarterly, and her poetry has appeared in the Columbia College Literary Review and The Cortland Review. She lives in Chicago. Seth Marlin (“The Spider Garden”) holds an MFA in Fiction from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers. His stories and poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Knockout, Railtown Almanac, Spark, and Silk Road Review, among others. He is a 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee for Poetry. He currently resides in Spokane, WA. Keith McCleary (“The Polytribes”) is the author of the graphic novels Killing Tree Quarterly and Top of the Heap (Terminal Press), the audio novella The Gothickers with Sophia Starmack (CCLaP), and is co-editor of the horror anthology States of Terror (Ayahuasca Publishing). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Heavy Metal, New Dead Families, theNewerYork, and Pseudopod. He writes the comic series Curves & Bullets with Rodolfo Ledesma, and holds an MFA from UC San Diego. Mark McKee (“The Head Shop Escalator Tilt-a-Whirl”) is from the American South. In his spare time he collects nervous breakdowns. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in theNewerYork, decomP, and others. markmckeejr.tumblr.com. Erica Mosley (“Toni’s Party”) lives in the Missouri Ozarks. Her work is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @ericamaymosley. Elizabeth O’Brien (“Ends for the Story about Dwarves” & “Little Girls”) lives in Minneapolis, MN. Her work—poetry and prose—has appeared in more than 30 literary journals, including New England Review, Diagram, Sixth Finch, Whiskey Island, decomP, PANK, CutBank, Ampersand Review, Swink, and Versal. Her interests include typography, linguistics, birds, the bottom of the sea, hysteria, jokes, roller coasters, motorcycles, candy, and lists. M. E. Silverman (“The Last Jew Celebrates the New Year with his Dead Friend, Ishaq Levin”) is founding editor of Blue Lyra Review and Review Editor of Museum of Americana. He is on the board of 32 Poems and is a reader for Spark Wheel
Press. His chapbook, The Breath before Birds Fly (2013), is available from ELJ Press. His poems have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, The Southern Poetry Anthology, and over 75 other journals. He recently edited Bloomsbury’s Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry with Deborah Ager and is working on Voices from Salvaged Words: An Anthology of Contemporary Holocaust Poetry and another based on poems about the body. http://www.mesilverman.com Star Spider (“The World of Her Own Making”) is a writer from Canada where she lives with her awesome husband Ben Badger. Star is in the process of seeking publication for her novels. Her work can be found in many places, including Empty Mirror, Flyleaf Journal, Gone Lawn, Bitterzoet, Apeiron Review, and Klipspringer Magazine. starspider.ca Caitlin Thomson (“The Wilds”) resides in the Chuckanut Mountains. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous places, including The Literary Review of Canada, The Alarmist, and the anthology Killer Verse. Her second chapbook Incident Reports was recently released by Hyacinth Girl Press. You can learn more about her writing at www.caitlinthomson.com. Sarena Ulibarri (“The Riverhead”) earned an MFA from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and attended the Clarion Fantasy and Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop at UCSD in 2014. Her fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, NewMyths.com, The Colored Lens, Monkeybicycle and elsewhere. She currently lives in the beautiful desert of New Mexico. Find more at sarenaulibarri.com.