Crack the Spine - Issue 43

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Crack the Spine

Issue forty-THREE

Crack The Spine Issue Forty-Three October 16, 2012 Edited by Kerri Farrell Foley Collection copyright 2012 by Crack the Spine

Contents David S. Atkinson The Unknowable Agenda of Ursines Patricia Bruce Waiting Paula Sophia Schonauer Mechanalysis Jeffrey Park Fiber Optic Mike Berger Little Black Holes Alissa M. Fehlbaum Another Round of Bullshit Enters a Coffee Shop and Won’t Stop Talking Omar Azam Company

Cover Art “Spit944” by Eleanor Leonne Bennett Eleanor Leonne Bennett is a 16 year old internationally award winning photographer and artist who has won first places with National Geographic, The World Photography Organisation, Nature’s Best Photography, Papworth Trust, Mencap, The Woodland Trust and Postal Hertitage. Her photography has been published in the Telegraph, The Guardian, BBC News Website and on the cover of books and magazines in the United States and Canada. Her art is globally exhibited, having shown work in London, Paris, Indonesia, Los Angeles, Florida, Washington, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Canada, Spain, Germany, Japan, Australia and The Environmental Photographer of the Year Exhibition (2011) amongst many other locations. She was also the only person from the UK to have her work displayed in the National Geographic and Airbus run See the Bigger Picture global exhibition tour with the United Nations International Year of Biodiversity 2010.

David S. Atkinson The Unknowable Agenda of Ursines It wasn't like I'd never seen a bear before, but I guess things are different in the bar at a casino. Not in a cage or anything, just a bear walking in like he did it every day. I'd certainly never seen that. There was just me and the bartender in there. I'd been parked on that stool long enough, nursing beers and listening to the beeps and whistles of slot machines, that the bartender wasn't even making polite small talk anymore. She was just washing out glasses waitresses brought in from the casino and left me on my own. That was all right, though. It was payday again and I was just playing the same game I did every two weeks. Honey, I thought to the waitress, pretending to be the 'aging ex-marine,' decking yourself out in a tipgetting tube top ain't gonna get you nowhere. It's been a few years since anybody was willing to tip to see them saggy cans. For some reason, whenever I sat in that bar I kept imagining myself as a white trash retiree exmarine. Really, I wasn't even thirty yet and was more Cherokee than anything else, but I guess I felt that's who should drink at that bar. I had a decent enough gig teaching at the community college up the road, but on what it paid I'd never repay the forty grand it'd taken me to get in there. Every payday I'd get the big idea that I'd screw everything. Take my check to the casino and win enough to be free of it all. But then I'd just sit in the crappy little bar, trying to get up my nerve, until reality set in and I slunk home to pay bills. Things were about to that point again, like normal. Course, 'normally' didn't involve the bear. "Honey," I shouted at the bartender in my out-loud aging ex-marine voice, shaking my empty bottle. "I'm drier than a two dollar whore's cooch over here. Help out a hardworking American." The bartender didn't seem to care. She cracked another bottle from the cooler and slammed it down in front of me. Didn't even pick up the old empty. That's when the bear walked in. Now, I don't mean or all fours or riding a unicycle and juggling. Two legs, like the grizzly was human. Dressed in baggy denim overalls, a red Pendleton shirt, and a green seed cap. He shambled over and sat down on the stool next to me. "What'll you have?" The bartender asked, either not noticing or not caring that it was a bear. I guess they served all kinds. She put a beer in front of him when he pointed a claw at mine.

I sat there, trying not to look at the bear. Didn't even drink off my beer. It seemed like I should do something, but I'd never thought of how I might respond to that kind of situation. The bear drank his beer, however he managed that without any thumbs. "So," I said, deciding to stay with the aging ex-marine, shtick "it true what they say 'bout the woods?" "Yup," he rasped. "The Pope craps there and I'm Catholic." He took a pull off his bottle. "Now cut the shit, Stan, this ain't a social call." I looked up at the bartender, but she wasn't paying any mind so I looked back at the bear. The bear that somehow knew my name. "I know you, fella?" The bear flexed his claws. I couldn't tell if he was menacing me or if he was just stretching. "Couple weeks ago. Up at the campground." I remembered, not that I had really forgotten. Heck, how could I forget? I was out for a little fresh air and some crazy bear jumped onto the back of my car. He fell off when I floored it, but my car got pretty scratched up. "That was you?" I edged away. "You'll excuse me if I didn't recognize you. " Maybe he'd come to finish me off, not that a bear carrying out a vendetta was even remotely possible. Clearly I'd lost my marbles and was hallucinating. "Yup, me." He took a pull off his beer before wiping his snout with a huge paw. "I got to thinking, how many people escape a bear attack like that? How many even have a bear jump on their car? You've got to have some amazing luck, or maybe we've got some universe-connection. Either way, I figured we had to put it to work at the tables. And then I find out you're already in a casino." Luck? How was getting attacked by a bear luck? Even if I got away…still. I finally managed to remember my beer and drank. "How'd you find that out?" The bear shrugged. "I know things." I checked to see what the bartender thought of all this, but she still wasn't paying any attention. Maybe I was just crazy. Maybe this insane conversation wasn't happening at all. Seemed like this should have piqued her interest in some way if it was real. Then I relaxed. Being crazy was safer than sitting with a bear that had already demonstrated a desire to knock a piece off me. "You want me to gamble with you? You tried to kill me." The bear waved a paw at me. "Aww, I'm done with all that. We've got other business now. However," the bear growled, displaying his claws in an unambiguously alarming fashion, "if you aren't down, we can always go back to the other."

I swallowed. I felt myself sweating even though the bar had the air up so high the drinks didn't need ice to stay cool. I might have been crazy, but it was probably better to do what the bear said—just in case. "Right then," the bear said. "Let's get to it." He downed his beer and slid off the stool, looking back at me to do the same. I took my beer with me, but other than that I tried not to anger the bear and complied. The bartender showed no concern that her only patrons were leaving. She just collected the empties before cutting some lemons. I realized as we walked off, or shambled in the case of the bear, that she hadn't even cared enough to make us pay. As I followed the bear into the actual casino itself, the clanging and dinging of the slot machines got louder. Course, the casino was just one giant warehouse sort of room, so I'm sure it all echoed a bit. The only separation was different games grouped together. Two main sections, one for slots and the other for table games. Different denominations and varieties formed little neighborhoods. Still, it was all one united gambling city. Only the bar was off in another room, a suburb. "I'm partial to roulette," I offered. The bear continued purposefully, as if he hadn't heard. Then again, maybe he hadn't. I didn't think bears were used to casinos, all the flashing lights and changing noises. Not that I was used to it either, since I usually hung out at the bar. Anyway, I thought maybe the background noise made it too hard to keep track of everything and I could slip out unnoticed. Before I acted on that, though, the bear stopped at the high-stakes blackjack table. Five hundred dollar minimum. He nodded to the empty chair in front of the uninterested dealer. "Umm‌this is a bit out of my price range." The balding fat-ass of a dealer stared across the casino as if we weren't there, not even bothering to acknowledge our presence with a glance. He obviously knew I didn't belong there. "Trust me," the bear snarled, baring some seriously yellowed fangs. He dragged a chair out with a muscled paw. "This one's just right." Needing no further threats, I quickly sat down. The bear sat as well. He seemed to slouch, but I couldn't really be sure. Maybe bears just sat like that. "Are the gentlemen aware of the minimum?" The dealer snorted, apparently not worried about bears. "Just watching," the bear grunted. "This here's your player. Place a bet, Stan." "Me?" Five hundred? That was about all I'd gotten paid that morning.

The bear put a massive paw on my shoulder. It looked friendly, but I could feel those claws. "Hey, only you can prevent forest fires." I reluctantly dropped my money on the table, relieved when the claws withdrew. The dealer snatched my money away, far too quickly for my tastes, with some little stick thing. "Changing five hundred," he muttered, shoving my money in a little slot, never to be seen again I was sure, and dropped a few chips in front of me. Obviously, he thought this would be over quick. Next, the dealer tossed me a card and dealt himself one. Mine was a nine and his was a ten. Then he tossed me another nine before dealing himself another card, facedown this time. "Hit him," the bear said. "What? I've got eighteen! You'll bust me! I'd be crazy to hit now." The bear just looked at me. "Crazy enough to fight a bear?" It seemed like his eyebrow raised, but I couldn't tell if he had eyebrows or not. "I guess not," I mumbled, nodding at the dealer. Better in the red than dead. But then the dealer tossed me a three. I stared at it as if it might start talking to me as well. It wouldn't have been any more of a surprise; I'd already come to terms with the fact that a bear was forcing me to risk all my money on blackjack. "Stay," I whispered. The dealer turned over his card—another ten. I had to remember to breathe as the dealer dealt himself another card. It was a third ten. "House busts," the dealer sneered, tossing some more chips in front of me. Somehow, some way I couldn't even grasp, it'd all worked out! I wasn't broke and I wasn't maimed! Definitely the best-case scenario. I found myself starting to hope that the bear was real and I wasn't seeing things after all. I almost snatched the chips as a matter of reflex, but I stopped myself just short. The bear hadn't said not to, but he hadn't gotten up yet either. He was just watching me. "Another hand?" I asked. "If you're smarter than the average bear," he yawned and shrugged. I'm guessing he knew I was on board by that point. "Again," I said to the dealer. "Goody." The dealer's attitude seemed to change as I won the next hand, and the next one, and the one after that. As the chip-pile got bigger, more of his comments ended with 'sir.'

At some point, the bear stretched and got up. "Well, hibernation calls. This old bear is tuckered out." I almost protested, but then I saw the bear's glance at a suit nearby, a guy with a wire leading to something in his ear. He being very obvious about not watching us, as very obviously as he apparently could. I took the hint. "Guess I should probably stick to the bear necessities, too," I joked, scooping the chips into an improvised sack made with the front of my shirt. "Quit while I'm ahead," The bear walked off. I had to hurry to grab all the chips and catch up. He wasn't waiting for me to follow, though. He walked right out of the casino. "Wait," I called, catching up in the gravel parking lot outside. "Let me cash these in and get you your share. There's got to be fifty thousand here at least. You deserve at least half…or more." The bear turned. "What the hell am I going to do with money? I'm a damn bear!" He snorted and shambled off towards the woods at the end of the lot. "Tell you what though," he grunted back at me, "bring some food next time you go to a campground. Some fucking sandwiches at least."

David S. Atkinson received his MFA in writing from the University of Nebraska. His writing appears or is forthcoming in Grey Sparrow Journal, Interrobang?! Magazine, The Writing Disorder, Atticus Review, and others. He is the author of a novel in short story form entitled Bones Buried in the Dirt which is soon to be published by River Otter Press. He spends his nonliterary time working as a patent attorney in Denver.

Patricia Bruce Waiting

A fleeting, tremulous glance entraps. Malice glistens across her cheeks like polite good-byes wrapped in sinful, velvet boxes. The indigo of her eyes immerse the azure of the pool; cast-off shadows obey. Sunlight is her sinewy servant and fondles her sensuous limbs to bestow Mother Nature’s glow as a salacious reward.

Sanctioned by beauty, there is no need to escape. Yet her full, sumptuous lips quiver --- waiting for the inevitable to begin

Patricia is a retired actor and turned to Bow Valley College for writing classes and a new career. She feels it is an advantage to becoming a writer in later life -- you can rely on life's teachings and experiences to provide a broader vision. Patricia's work has been published in Calliope Nerve, Poetry Quarterly, and upcoming in Caper journal.

Paula Sophia Schonauer Mechanalysis

Jonathan Payne used to work on the assembly line, attaching transmissions to engine blocks, guiding them together with long levers, lining them up hole to hole, inserting bolts. Like mechanical copulation, he used to joke. To accomplish the task, he’d reach above his head, holding his arms up for hours at a time. At first, his arms and shoulders hurt all night, hands numb, chest tight, so painful, but after a few months he’d developed a pretty good build, massive vascularity - the veins in his forearms as big as pencils. He once read about the agonizing process of crucifixion, how the poor suckers died from asphyxiation because their suspended arms compressed their lungs. Since he could hold his arms up for hours at a time, he figured it would take him days to die, and for some reason, twisted as it sounds, he was proud he could outlast Christ. He pulled his new iphone from his jacket pocket and accessed the Internet, laughing to himself. Corporate HQ had disabled the Wi-Fi because a lot of guys had been using their laptops to access porn sites, but with his new gadget he could surf the web anytime he wanted, anywhere he happened to be, that is, as long as he had a signal. Payne moved to a corner of the cafeteria, away from his co-workers, and typed the domain name of a website: He’d recently read an article about sexbots, robots that can mimic humans in every way: movements, muscles, voices, personalities. The Japanese were making life-size sexbots for men called Sugardolls, and at $7000 a pop they were a steal compared to everything a man had to go through to have sex with a woman. If you went the legitimate route, a woman could cost a man tens of thousands of dollars, even more. When you added up the cost of dates, engagements, weddings, houses, children, college… hell, millions. If you went the illegitimate route and chased prostitutes, you could spend thousands of dollars a year, and if you got caught in a john-trap, you had to contend with legal fees, not to mention the opportunity costs of jail and prison. The medical risks were daunting, life threatening: AIDS, syphilis, Hepatitis B and C. Payne wondered if he could rent a Sugardoll.

He punched the word Sugardoll into Google and was surprised at the numerous hits. The Sugardolls seemed to be a thriving business. He fantasized about working at a Sugardoll factory as the quality control inspector, getting paid to get laid with robots. Wow…. The iphone vibrated, and the words “Text Message” appeared onscreen. It was from his wife. Great, he thought, what now? He suspended the Internet application and switched to text mode. Can you stop and get milk on your way home? He erased the message without responding. Before Payne could switch back to the Internet, he heard a loud speaker summoning him to the main office. He knew what this was about - he was going to be assigned an employment counselor, someone hired by the union to help assess employees scheduled for termination, to take stock of their skills and advise them on the search for new employment. She sat behind a desk, glasses at the tip of her nose, reading paperwork, her name plaque displayed prominently near the front edge, Alexandra Silverstone Ph.D. She wore a high-neck blouse, but the shapely bulge of her breasts showed she was well endowed. Her hair was pulled back, a woman trying to minimize her sexiness. But no matter what she did, Dr. Silverstone was a nice, tall, hot looking drink of water. Payne imagined her legs crossed inside the desk, shapely calves, sleek ankles toned from wearing high-heeled shoes. “Mr. Payne, I’ve been contracted by the corporation to help with the re-employment program.” Payne folded his arms. She removed her glasses, held them between the thumb and index finger of her right hand. She had sculpted fingernails, red. “It’s in your interest to cooperate with the program. Otherwise we may have to let you go, early.” Payne scoffed. “Why? It’s just a waste of time. What you gonna do, find me a job at Starbucks? McDonalds? It’s not like Oklahoma City is up to the tits in well paying jobs.” Dr. Silverstone cleared her throat, replaced her glasses, but now, they were higher on her nose. Her eyes looked bigger. She had long, thick lashes. “Really, Mr. Payne, we’re trying to discern your interests and skills so we can help you find a new, suitable job, a job that matches your aptitudes.” “Will it pay me what I’m getting here at General Motors?” “That’s the goal, Mr. Payne.”

He leaned backwards, teetering on the back two legs of his chair. “Then I want to be a life guard on Bay Watch. Can you swing that?” Dr. Silverstone stood up. She handed Payne a stack of papers. “These are a battery of tests. Personality inventories, IQ tests, psychological profiles. Answer all the questions, please.” Payne took the papers, thumbed through them. It was going to take the rest of the night to finish. “You may leave.” A frumpy receptionist, a woman wearing a green corduroy skirt and a white blouse with ruffles on the bosom escorted Payne to a room with cubicles. Two other men were already busy filling in ovals on Scantron sheets. Payne heard the dry scrape of lead on paper, the grind of erasers, smelled the odor of warm rubber and nearly sneezed. When Payne set to work, he couldn’t concentrate. He hated these questionnaires, the introspection they demanded. He didn’t have to think about things like this on the assembly line. He just came to work and did his job, blanked his mind all night. He liked the routine. Nobody cares about fulfillment and pride in one’s work anymore. You just do the job. If you think about it too much, you’re in for a nervous breakdown. He opened a packet, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. The first question: Are you depressed? Yes or No? He tried to understand what depression meant. Yeah, he knew depression meant sadness, knew it was considered a mental disease, but he wanted to make sure he answered the question accurately. He didn’t want Dr. Silverstone to read into his response something he hadn’t intended. If he filled in the No space he would be showing a tendency to ignore his life situation. After all, he was going to lose what had been a lucrative, secure job. Who wouldn’t be depressed? But if he filled in the Yes space he would be admitting a psychological imbalance, something that could hurt him in the future. Oh yeah, they always promised confidentiality, but that was a bunch of bullshit. The company will use anything it can against you if it suits their needs. He looked around the room, saw a shelf of books: a dictionary, a thesaurus, a Basic English grammar book and some trade magazines. He walked over to the book shelf as the frumpy receptionist peaked in on him and the other guys. “Everything okay, boys?” she asked, all chirpy. “Do you need anything?” Payne grabbed a pocket dictionary. “Uh, just need to look up something. That’s okay, right?” The receptionist brushed back an errant bang that had been hanging in her eyes. “Yeah, sure…” “Thanks.”

Payne looked up the word depression: a psychoneurotic or psychotic disorder marked by sadness, inactivity, difficulty in thinking and concentration and feelings of dejection. Disorder? Payne didn’t feel disordered. He didn’t feel dejected. He didn’t have difficulty thinking, and he definitely didn’t feel like a psychotic. He filled in the No space. The next several questions seemed more relevant. Would you like the work of a carpenter? Yes. Would you like the work of a florist? No. True or False, I feel satisfied after a hard day’s work. Satisfied? If he admitted he was satisfied about his life’s work, they might read that as a sign of complacency, but if he revealed his dissatisfaction with the assembly line, revealed that he really wanted to go to college when he was a kid, play football and study criminal justice, heck, maybe become a lawyer, they might decide he’s been ungrateful for the opportunity to work at General Motors and give him a bad recommendation. He looked up the word satisfied. The first definition said, to carry out terms (as in a contract) to meet a financial obligation. The secondary definitions spoke of happiness, gratification. He wasn’t sure if he felt gratified or happy about a day’s work, but he did feel like he fulfilled his obligation. He filled in the Yes space. Another question seemed obvious, at first. True of False, I wish I’d been born a girl (or if born a girl, I am happy to be a girl). Why did they ask this question? How did this have any relevance to skill assessment? He left it blank. He encountered questions about attitudes. Do you like to be the center of attention? No. True or False, I like giving speeches. False. I am attractive to the opposite sex, Yes or No. He thought about it for a minute. When he took the kids to the pool, he often noticed women gawking at his lean build, his sinewy biceps, triceps and pecs. He proudly filled in the Yes space. After awhile he noticed the same questions over and over again, just rephrased. Proud he’d noticed a trap, he began reviewing his earlier answers to make sure he was being consistent. Then, he encountered the question about whether or not he loved his mother. If he filled in the No space, what would that say about him? If he answered Yes, would they say he had an Oedipus complex? Because he had the dictionary in hand, he decided to look up the word, love. It wasn’t that he couldn’t comprehend the meaning and importance of love, but he was suddenly curious about the official definition of what had become a very ambiguous word for him.

Love: (1) strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties < maternal for child > (2) attraction based on sexual desire: affection and tenderness felt by lovers (3) affection based on admiration, benevolence, warm attachment, enthusiasm, devotion. Payne certainly felt a sense of attachment to his mother, a great deal of obligation, but he didn’t feel enthusiasm about their relationship or a sense of strong affection for her. Truth be known, she was mostly annoying, especially since the death of his father. She’d put on this perpetual face of mourning, this poor-pitiful-me attitude. Everything, every aspect of the day reminded her of his absent father, but he’d been dead for seven years. Payne wondered when his mother would get on with her life, get over it. He ended up filling in the Yes space, though. Hell, even Death Row inmates love their mothers. After three hours, Payne had managed to answer almost three hundred questions, and, feeling like he’d made good progress, he took a break. He closed his booklet and wandered down to the cafeteria, bought a coffee from a vending machine and a packet of chocolate frosted donuts. When he got back to the office, Dr. Silverstone had his paperwork in hand, frowning. “Why do you insist on playing games, Mr. Payne?” “What?” She showed him his answer sheet, not quite halfway done. The test booklet had over seven hundred questions. “You’re not supposed to take so long on this test, just answer the questions as quickly as possible, go by your first whim. If you think about the questions too much, you’ll skew the results.” Her advice went against everything he’d been taught about taking tests. You were supposed to evaluate questions, deliberate the answers to catch the tricks. Who ever heard about giving answers based on your first whim? “Did you read the instructions, Mr. Payne?” “No, I didn’t,” he admitted. “But what’s this got to do with finding a new job?” “I need to know your disposition so I can find a good fit for you, either in a new job or in a retraining program. GM doesn’t want to waste their time, Mr. Payne.” After nearly twenty years, General Motors wanted to know what he wanted to do with his life. They had never cared before. They’d told him to do this or that, and he did this or that. He got a paycheck with deductions for retirement, healthcare, union dues, taxes and payments to the credit union for loans on his truck and motorcycle, the jet-ski and bass boat. Now, the company was pulling the plug and his life was going to change. If they really cared, they’d keep the plant open, let him work another fifteen years or so until he could pay down his debts and retire.

Payne understood Dr. Silverstone as a gesture, a meager acknowledgement that the company’s business decisions had drastic consequences for its employees. “They are wasting their time,” he said. “They’re just going through the motions, so why not let me go through the motions, let me collect my check until this place closes for good.” “Mr. Payne, I really want to help you.” “Yeah, that’s what the government says.” He went back to the cafeteria, activating an application on his iphone, losing himself in a game of Tetris. He liked fitting things into place, spinning the shapes until he found where they fit - like the parts of cars, engines and transmissions, camshafts, crankshafts, pistons, valves and lifters. When things were put together properly, they worked. As it was, he sat in the cafeteria like any piece of the corporate machinery warehoused until the day designated for demolition. When he got home from work, Payne noticed the dark windows of his house. It looked empty and forbidding, nothing like a home. The lawn needed mowed, and the ivy his wife had planted several years before had swarmed over the front and had begun to loosen the mortar between bricks. He’d cut the ivy down several times, but it kept growing back. Now, it had reached beyond the top of the bricks and was starting to slither into the eaves, loosening the planks of wood. The aluminum gutter at the edge of the roof had been filled with debris for months, sprouting little plants. The highway nearby was relatively quiet, not the continuous rush of traffic heard all through the day time hours, but a relative whisper occasionally interrupted by the bellow of a semi shifting gears. Several dogs barked in the neighborhood, and a far off siren wound its way through the night, urgency diminished in the distance. The living room was a mess, pizza boxes stacked on the coffee table, a TV tray with an opened algebra book, a slew of papers. Payne’s son had been watching television and doing his homework at the same time. He examined the penciled calculations on a piece of paper, discerned that his son had trouble factoring quadratics. He often skipped steps and didn’t check his work, and he didn’t seem to understand the meaning of a constant term and the process of figuring products. Payne found a pamphlet from his daughter’s school, another fundraiser. This time they were selling useless kitsch, things like paperweights with University of Oklahoma insignia, day planners, can openers and overly ornate potholders, all of it overpriced. They were trying to raise money for some new playground equipment. Too much playtime, he thought, not enough work.

The kitchen had a stack of dishes in the sink. The dishwasher was open, filled with clean dishes, the counter cluttered with glasses and coffee mugs, a half empty bottle of beer. Payne checked the microwave. They’d saved him four pieces of pizza, two pepperoni and two hamburger or sausage with mushroom. They didn’t even have the consideration to order his favorite kind: supreme with anchovies. When he checked the refrigerator he found they were out of beer. Back in the day, his wife used to wait up for him, had a hot meal ready for him when he got home from work: hamburgers and French fries, steak and baked potatoes, spaghetti. He used to have it good, but now he was just an afterthought, the unseen, underappreciated breadwinner. When he walked into the dining room, he surveyed the accumulation of accomplishment honors hung on the wall. His son had several academic achievement plaques from grade school, and his daughter had a few dance trophies. Most of the honors, though, belonged to his wife: salesperson of the year awards, “Big Earner” awards. When the plant shuts its doors for good, she was going to be the breadwinner, but he’d be damned if he was going to be a stay-at-home dad, clean house and take the kids to school. Nothing could be more demeaning. Payne sat down at the computer desk that had supplanted the family table in the dining room. It sat in the dark far corner, surrounded by book shelves, the kind mounted with brackets that had been screwed into the walls. He turned on the computer and waited as the machine came to life, listened to the hard drive grind through the activation process. Computers were the next step in evolution, and robots were the way of the future. After a few moments he found the sexbot site. Feeling a growing erection, he undid his pants, stroked his underwear. He laughed at himself. At least there was still one cheap, easy and safe way to have sex. Payne found the page featuring those Japanese Sugardolls. They weren’t as life-like as he’d imagined, but they were surprisingly appealing. One particular model was an Oriental female with a delicate face. Her mouth gaped open like it was surprised but without the emotion. No facial contours, no laugh-lines, no creases around the eyes. She seemed alien at first, but the lack of expectation in the vacant stare of her phony eyes grabbed his attention. Mesmerized, he leaned forward, staring at the face. He got lost in the pixels, the layers of contrasting colors, the myriad of tiles, like the cells of a living being. Payne was almost there, on the verge of climax, when he heard a toilet flush, feet padding across the hallway carpet. He sat up, fumbled with his pants trying to get them fastened, the belt tightened and

hooked, but before he could finish, his wife peaked around the corner. She had a groggy smile, messed hair hanging down in front of her eyes. She wore a low cut nightgown, a red satin number that hung just below her panties, revealing shapely thighs. “Did you build that for me?” Payne glanced around. “What?” “What?” she mocked. She moved closer, massaged his shoulders, moved her fingers up and down the back of his neck. It felt good, really good. His tight muscles started to relax. She moved around to his front, sat in his lap, placed her hand on his crotch. “This… Did you build this for me?” Payne nodded, groaning. He stole another peek at the computer monitor, gazed at the Sugardoll. She flicked the switch on the CPU tower. The image blinked off, replaced by a blank field of blue. “What’d you do that for?” “Come on, boy scout,” she crooned. “I need something from you, now.” She took his hand, tugged on him. Surprised, Payne followed. The dark hallway was all the more dark since he’d been staring at a computer monitor for almost an hour. The world had a cyberspace quality, seemingly real but without the sharp edges of detail. The surrounding darkness contained images of pixilated tiles, shifting on and off as he walked. He liked it. A streetlight glowed outside the bedroom window. Payne saw the bed, the dressers, familiar yet foreign. The gloom kept things down to their basic shapes, spare but good enough for him. She removed her nightgown, sat down on the bed and made a sweeping motion with her right arm, an invitation. He undressed, kicked off his shoes, dropped his jeans and flung his shirt to the floor. When he slid into bed, his wife recoiled slightly, making room for him to lie down. They embraced each other but did not kiss. Payne tried to maneuver himself to the top position. She resisted, arms wrapped around his shoulders, her body taut against his. The struggle lasted only a moment until a spasm seized his back. He groaned with pain, rolled over to sooth the ache. She cooed soothingly, straddled his thighs, leaned forward to massage his pecs, twisting his nipples. The pleasure made him arch his back, and, remarkably, the pain diminished. She mounted him, maintaining an upright position, bouncing up and down. He didn’t have to do anything but relax.

He reached out, felt her body, her firm waist. She was thin, nimble and soft. His hands moved past her belly, surprisingly fit; she’d been working out. He kneaded her breasts, tweaked her nipples between his fingers. She moaned, bent forward and brushed his face with her long hair. Her rhythmic bouncing made him think of efficiency in movement, mechanical ease and precision. They fit together like tooled parts, like a piston in a shaft. He thought about his old job, fitting engines and transmissions. A car won’t move if either system is malfunctioning, and he started thinking of himself as the engine supplying the power to the unit. His wife was the transmission, allocating resources where needed to maximize power, to gain speed. He realized, perhaps for the first time, that he and his wife were complimentary systems, dependent on each other. But when the plant closes for good, what’s going to happen? Will they have enough fuel? Without enough fuel, the machine stops. “Oh… sugar,” he breathed, “sugardoll.” She kept bouncing. “Oh sweetie,” she sang. When she climaxed she screamed, collapsed on top of him. She wrapped her arms around his chest, held him in a savage grip. He heard the grind of her skin against his stubble as she nuzzled close, face to face. He felt her hot breath panting near his ear, smelled mint with a tinge of morning mouth underneath. “I-I love…you,” she said. “I love you…?” The declaration sounded like a question, something demanding a response. Payne’s mind started to whir like a hard drive grinding for an answer. “Love, strong affection for another arising out of kinship,” he said. “Personal ties…” She squirmed away from his grasp. “… attraction based on sexual desire…” She stood up, wrapped a robe around her naked body, and stomped down the hall. Payne turned over, grabbed a pillow and curled himself around it, shutting down for the night.

Paula Sophia Schonauer is a graduate from the MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of Central Oklahoma and a twenty year veteran with the Oklahoma City Police Department, the agency's first openly transgender officer. Her work has appeared in The Molotov Cocktail, Red Fez, scissors and spackly, and many others. Etopia Press published her first novel "Shadowboxer" in December 2011.

Jeffrey Park Fiber Optic The trainer told us the important thing, when working with optical fiber cable, was that you must never, ever, under no circumstances whatsoever, touch your fingers to your eyes – those tiny shards can slide so easily through the cornea, will never show up on any x-ray, guaranteeing a lifetime of torment and impaired vision. The liars. The mean, selfish bastards. Hoarding the secret to themselves. But I foiled them, stuck my fiber-coated index finger right into my orb and opened myself up to a world of rainbow colors and spectra you couldn’t even begin to imagine. With a broadband connection to eternity, I close my physical eyes and let the data strut its stuff along the coiled length of my super-attenuated optic nerves.

Baltimore native Jeffrey Park currently lives in Munich, Germany, where he works at a private secondary school and teaches business English to adults. His latest poems have appeared in Requiem, Deep Tissue, Danse Macabre, Mad Swirl, Right Hand Pointing and elsewhere, and his digital chapbook, Inorganic, has just been published online by White Knuckle Press.

Mike Berger Little Black Holes Voracious! They gobble up everything in sight. They are invisible to the naked eye. They are out there but little black holes can't be seen. This variety is miniscule; the tiniest of a tiny sub atomic events. At last science has discovered a answer to a variety of of perplexing problems. Little black holes answers the questions, where are my car keys or I took the sox from the dryer and one of them is gone. Where did they go? We now understand what happened to Johnny’s homework that never made it to school. When these problems arise, you can stop looking. They are gone forever; little black holes ate them for lunch.

Mike Berger is an MFA, PhD. He writes poetry and short stories full time. He has been writing poetry for less than four years. His work appear in seventy-one journals. He has published two books of short stories and eight poetry chapbooks .The winner of several poetry contests, he has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He is a member of The Academy of American Poets.

Alissa M. Fehlbaum Another Round of Bullshit Enters a Crowded Room and Won’t Stop Talking

Let’s play Truth or Dare. I have never been very good with names but you should play along, anyway, because I am so very desperate to answer your questions. I will answer honestly, but only when you’re looking me in the eyes. My teeth are pearly white with the residue of my purest intentions and my nails have been polished to hide all the shit that lies beneath them. I promise not to tell you any of this. Maybe next year will offer a good season for reason. The only luck I’ve found so far was buried deep beneath a dead oak tree, but then I’ve always thought hunting to be stupid. I will apply antiseptic to the scratches on my arms before I start blaming you for taking us so far off this conversation’s path, and you, you will chug that chalky liquid until I am able to diagnose all the causes of your heart ache. The bruising on your wrists will fade over time, I imagine. And I imagine you a lot. I will blow my smoke in your face and you won’t bat an eyelash. I will hand you drinks that you will chug down without asking what’s in it. It was imperative that I got here before anywhere else and you are very lucky I have arrived so quickly and in such dizzying speeds, my fantastic prowess trailing behind me and, no, no, I didn’t hear what you were saying but don’t bother repeating it. I apologize, I am barely passing for polite around this time every day and you’re overrunning any levels of tolerance I’d stored away and really, you should just pass me over for the attention of someone else, someone much more understanding and interesting than I can be, even when I’m here right now in front of you, radiating at my best. I don’t mind, not at all, not from the likes of you, not in the very least.

Alissa M. Fehlbaum is working on her MFA at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she also teaches creative writing. She was raised in Mabank, Texas, and received her BA from the University of North Texas. Her work is forthcoming in Collective Fallout and has been featured in Postcard Shorts and Thunderdome Magazine.

Omar Azam Company

With a deep puddle of blind, laughing strangers; With a life lasting only as long as they remember me; With these, I am expected to solve a problem no one can even define... I can pronounce the Evil in Cohesion, the Chaos in Consolidation, The End in Empire. But to fight these giants, We must become a giant, betray our thesis. Shall we sabotage in small numbers? No, not today Not when small meddlings can be crushed by a singular explosion... Does evil lie in the provincial, does salvation come through unity?

Yes, we confess, as we crumble like a tower of sand. To be collapsible like an iris, Or bound by steel, a towering mass growing stronger with each girder. To be something phenomenal, as a poem, as a word, as a secret.

Omar Azam has lived his entire life in or near Chicago. His lineage includes Pakistani and Indian roots, and he looks to the American beat and modernist poets for inspiration in dealing with identity problems that most are too distracted to address. His poetry and fiction have appeared in Breadcrumb Scabs, Ditch, Damazine, Unlikely 2.0, and The Missing Slate. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2012.

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