O

What matters is the distance between the moon
and the throat. Or the saxophone. Or the basement
where the mice frolic. Or just
the hole in the ground. The owls usually read
memoirs of distinguished rabbits
after a late supper. It’s time again
to scream bloody murder.

Ivan Peledov lives in Colorado. His poems have appeared in Impspired, Ponder Savant, Unlikely Stories, Sonic Boom, and other publications.

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Taking Form

Mirrors just hide their favorite images
from the grass of the sky. Holy shit
is forever beyond the grasp of
the righteous and the worthy.
Take a look at a bird. How many
flaps of the wings can you bear?
How many gods has it ruined?

Ivan Peledov lives in Colorado. His poems have appeared in Impspired, Ponder Savant, Unlikely Stories, Sonic Boom, and other publications.

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Passing Through

Dust is sweet like the poetry of stray dogs in Podunk towns,
it fills the streets with the laughter of ghosts from unsung continents.
Sometimes the trees tear them apart just for fun, other times
we inhale clouds and get blissfully sick of it all.

Ivan Peledov lives in Colorado. His poems have appeared in Impspired, Ponder Savant, Unlikely Stories, Sonic Boom, and other publications.

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Flat Earth Delights

We have left our souls to dry on yesterday’s sun.
Let the flies and the monsters of the air enjoy them.
Broken wings and umbrellas contaminate the sky,
but the earth is an endless book if you know
how to turn the pages.
Ancient moons bathe in the backdoor seas
and study the language of jellyfish.
No two words should begin with the same vowel,
each clock should display its own time.
Fluted memories of decomposing driftwood
cherish ice cream maps of abandoned gardens.
An average raindrop can’t open all its mouths at once.

Ivan Peledov lives in Colorado. His poems have appeared in Impspired, Ponder Savant, Unlikely Stories, Sonic Boom, and other publications.

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Harvest

His back is used to bending
in the early morning
still picking grapes by hand
as he has always done
as the sunlight highlights them

in waves hanging low on the gnarly vines
metered out in rows, his fingers,
veined and aged, hold onto the pruning shears
that fit just right to cut a bunch of purple twirling
in the slight breeze. He hums to the grapes thinking

the melody as food or love to make them shine brighter
knowing that mechanical harvesting can never
share the same tenderness as he looks out
worried of the smoke rising in the distant hills
where wildfires burn and march their way

to the sea rummaging across the green earth.
He is not troubled by prices and sales
as his life is not big enough
for such things though his eyesight is troubled
at night when he is told that sugar composition

is different though he feels the chill
growing in him as his fingers stiffen
in the early moonlight. The young men call him
El Viejo, old man whose white mustache
and straw hat blocks light from sun or stars.

Each new year is harder than the last
as he walks carefully down the row
the same way he walked his children
when they were young to the ocean
across the border as he fills the yellow tub

with grape bunches before lifting it
with muscles aching and leathery
and carrying the 30 or 40 pounds
to a steel gondola pulled by a tractor
between the vine rows.

He repeats this so many times
during the day when the sun
burns as his tired legs run
to dump the tubs or at night
when his skin stings

that the only thing he does more
is pray or say the names
of his children as he is mesmerized
by the grape he prefers to
the cherries or pears.

When he sings, at first softly
and the women sing along,
he can smell them and sniff in
the scent of food or sweat or see
their legs under the bushes

reminding him of the cows his
grandfather would herd near
the little lopsided shack of his birth
on the hill near the sea when he had
smelled the salt air feeling clean in his heart.

His hands have slowed down
from the young rhythm of picking
just the right bunches that will
make wine sing in a glass
or make a young man dizzy.

He has done this like his father
before him crossing the border
during the season so that he could
send his children to school to become
more than his dreams could ever imagine.

He breathes harder than ever before
wearing his favorite red bandana around
his neck remembering when he was young
stomping the grapes in the wooden vat
into the night surrounded by bonfires

smoking the fields and the remaining grapes
dangling on the vines shivering and sweating
at the same time as the darkness plunges through
the rows while he circles the vat in a ritual, he was
born to live and die for.

Life lies flat on his hand designed
by lines that tell silent stories of his fingertips
colored red, the trek across the desert border
and of children that do not measure life
in the narrowness of shanty walls.

Steven Pelcman is a writer of poetry and short stories and a novelist who has been published in a number of magazines including: The Windsor Review, Innisfree Poetry Journal, The Fourth River, River Oak Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, Tulane Review, The Baltimore Review, The Warwick Review, The Greensboro Review, Iodine Journal and many others. He was nominated for the 2012 Pushcart Prize for individual poems and in 2017 for his volume of poetry titled like water to STONE (Adelaide Books), and an additional Pushcart Prize nomination for an individual poem by Evening Street Press in 2020. Steven has spent the last twenty-three years residing in Germany, where he teaches in academia and is a language communications trainer and consultant.

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The Shepherd

Outside of Jerusalem
a shepherd minding a flock
of goats, with a face

brandished and made
of the earth
tells a biblical story

that breathes desert air
and he looks at you
like the goats he herds

on shifting sand
and ancient boulders,
his lips are sunburnt

and his eyes
speak of lingering death
but when you look closer

you catch a glimpse
of something you can never be,
a life made of sand and sun

beyond the walls of Jerusalem
in the echoes of prayers
channeling across the earth’s floor

and you understand
that unlike him, we have learned
only to accept or question God

but in his face, you know
he has never cried,
has never known comfort,

has never doubted his place
among the stars that burn
in a dark silence.

Steven Pelcman is a writer of poetry and short stories and a novelist who has been published in a number of magazines including: The Windsor Review, Innisfree Poetry Journal, The Fourth River, River Oak Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, Tulane Review, The Baltimore Review, The Warwick Review, The Greensboro Review, Iodine Journal and many others. He was nominated for the 2012 Pushcart Prize for individual poems and in 2017 for his volume of poetry titled like water to STONE (Adelaide Books), and an additional Pushcart Prize nomination for an individual poem by Evening Street Press in 2020. Steven has spent the last twenty-three years residing in Germany, where he teaches in academia and is a language communications trainer and consultant.

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Nobody Likes a Pragmatist

The heatwave was getting to everyone. Film & gender studies degrees didn’t help. Katie found herself in increasing despair about an Insta-famous chow chow in Seoul or somewhere named Xiao Hong whose fur had been dyed to look like a rare type of pomegranate – &, according to one micro-influencer with dubious ties to the fracking industry, was later dissected like one. My roommates got catatonically blitzed & pretended we were slaves in São Paulo, then Jews in California, then Mormons on bicycles. But I managed to stay chill, serene even, letting the news reports cement my own sweaty madness with facts. The coroner’s office, for example, was double-stacking bodies.

Chris Vola is the author of six books, most recently I is for Illuminati: An A-Z Guide to Our Paranoid Times. A Pushcart Prize nominee, his new and forthcoming poetry appears in New Pop Lit, Anti-Heroin Chic, Horror Sleaze Trash, Failed Haiku, and The Main Street Rag. He lives in New York.

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The Disciples of Baphomet

I have yet to meet my new housekeeper. She comes highly recommended from, well, shall we say an intimate acquaintance of mine. The agency is headquartered in an anonymous building along the industrial riverfront where, if the amateur historians are to be trusted, a loose affiliation of second-rate magicians used to gather during the Depression to practice their dark arts. Like those illusionists, my housekeeper finishes her duties and vanishes with remarkable punctuality moments before I arrive home from my office at the graphic design firm.

Her schedule never changes. Every Friday afternoon, while I’m obsessing over fonts of varying blandness for a newly commissioned minimalist logo, my housekeeper attends to the dreadful messes I make during the week and puts everything back in its proper place. She sweeps up the broken glass and shattered plates and disposes of the food I leave all week on the kitchen counter. She waters the neglected aspidistra and waxes its wilting leaves. She pulls the sectional sofa away from the exposed brick walls to collect any empty bottles that may have rolled away and vacuums the dust that gathers in furry gray clumps along the baseboards. She cleans the three enormous loft windows overlooking the downtown streets, though I have no idea how she reaches the highest panels. I can only guess that, along with her brooms and dustpans, her mops and spray bottles, her soaps and disinfectants, she lugs a step ladder from apartment to apartment. I also have good reason to believe she wears a toolbelt. During hard freezes and winter storms, the big square-cut carpentry nails have a tendency to pop out of the hardwood floors, but the housekeeper hammers them back into place. In the six months she has worked for me, she has oiled squeaking hinges, repaired dripping faucets, patched and sanded small holes in the plaster, and adjusted the wobbling blades of an incorrectly calibrated ceiling fan.

When it comes to manual labor, you see, I have no natural ability.

Ever since my husband and I divorced last summer, I’ve been renting this two-bedroom apartment in a converted warehouse not far from the lake. The building is more than one hundred years old, a relic from the sweatshop days of the early twentieth century when children as young as eight and nine were sent at dawn by their half-starving parents to work twelve-hour shifts at the looms and presses. In my dreams, I see them sometimes, the shades of those miserable little boys and girls, their faces sparkling with graphite dust, their tiny fingers darting between the spindles of those unforgiving high-speed machines. I have an 18-year-old daughter who lives with her father. Had she been around in the days before the enactment of child labor laws, she would have been a professional saboteur. Within an hour of entering the building, she would have cut every wire, jammed every gear, and snapped every lever. What’s more, an entire army of cigar-chomping overseers, their eyes scanning the floor for whimpering slackers, would have been hard-pressed to catch her in the act. She is a genuine sneak, my daughter, and an exceptionally accomplished liar.

To blame her for my divorce might sound callous but trust me when I say she made life far more stressful than it needed to be. Now, instead of living in a suburban colonial with my family, I live in a fashionable, if drafty, downtown loft for upwardly mobile young professionals with a tentative grasp of the city’s past. Well, “young” might be something of an exaggeration. I turned forty-five yesterday.

At five o’clock sharp, I crept unnoticed from my cubicle and headed home. I was actually relieved when my colleagues, who lack the usual social graces, forgot to wish me a happy birthday. Not that I cared. I was looking forward to an evening alone with my customary bottle of Chianti and carry-out from my favorite Italian restaurant. Solitude, that’s what I craved, but when I opened my apartment door, I was surprised to find dozens of gray helium balloons rolling like angry thunderheads along the tin ceiling. It was only a matter of time before the balloons popped against the rough wooden beams. My daughter, still wearing her black overcoat, looked up from her phone and sprang like a startled cat from the recliner, her engineer boots scuffing the freshly polished floor.

“Surprise?” she said with a sheepish grin.

I glanced at the kitchen counter. Evidently, the candles on the cupcakes had been burning for quite some time. Thick pools of wax had congealed on the chocolate frosting. I set my portfolio down on the coffee table and calmly explained that she wasn’t scheduled to stay with me until next weekend. I pointed to the calendar hanging on the wall where I’d circled the dates with a red highlighter.

“But Mom, you shouldn’t spend tonight alone.”

Deciding for the moment to play along with her charade, I took a seat at the kitchen counter and patiently smiled as she sang to me. My daughter has a unique voice, a sort of scratchy but pleasant baritone that resonated through the loft. It’s still hard to believe that only five years ago, she was the rising star of her middle school choir. For the annual spring concert, the music director always singled her out to perform a solo. My husband and I encouraged her to train with a professional music instructor, but our daughter had no interest in pursuing music. She liked working with her hands and playing rough with the neighborhood boys. In high school, she dropped choir altogether and enrolled in shop, but as the weeks went by, my husband and I grew uncomfortable with her morbid creations—an elaborately carved coffin keychain, a large picture frame on which she’d chiseled grinning skulls and a scythe-wielding reaper. At night, while my husband slept soundly beside me, I often heard disturbing choral music rumbling from our daughter’s bedroom in the basement. I tip-toed downstairs, and when I pressed my ear to her door, I heard her chanting a refrain in a language that sounded ancient, almost ceremonial. Latin? Sanskrit?

Now, after finishing a rushed and surprisingly flat rendition of “Happy Birthday,” she pushed the tray of cupcakes across the counter and told me to make a wish. I leaned forward, but before blowing out the candles, I thought deeply about the nature of my wish. An ordinary divorcee might, I suppose, wish for the restoration of her family, a reconciliation with those friends and neighbors who’d been forced to take sides and from whom she was now estranged, but in the year leading up to my abrupt departure from suburbia, I secretly wished for the opposite of these things and—wonder of wonders!—my wish had been granted. But granted by whom or by what? The universe? God? A legion of devils? To wish now for the invalidation of my first wish seemed like ingratitude, and from what I could tell the universe was already growing impatient with me. I decided to play it safe and wish for an uneventful conclusion to this evening’s impromptu party.

After gobbling two cupcakes and without bothering to wipe the chocolate from her fingertips, my daughter reached into her purse, a great big unwieldy thing that looked like a tool bag that had been dragged across a boiler room floor, and produced a crumpled pack of menthol cigarettes. With her unvarnished thumb, she expertly flicked open a butane lighter the size of her fist and said, “Saved up for a new flamethrower. You like it? Oh, you don’t mind if I smoke, do you? Here, I’ll crack a window, okay? They help me relax, Mom.”

My psychiatrist advised me not to make too much of my daughter’s bad habits. A cigarette was far better than some of the other substances she used to enjoy. I leaned back in my chair and asked how she’d managed to gain entry to the apartment. I hadn’t given her a key.

“Are you serious, Mom?” She looked at me in that infuriatingly cryptic way of hers and said, “Your maid let me in.”

“Oh, so you’ve seen her then?” I removed the foil liner from a cupcake and snapped off hardened bits of wax from the frosting. “Well, you should have told her that under absolutely no circumstances is she allowed to let guests, especially uninvited guests claiming to be my daughter, into this apartment. Did she at least ask to see some form of identification? A social security card? A driver’s license? Oh, wait, you had your license revoked last year and you don’t carry a photo ID.”

“Are we going start on this again? It’s your birthday.”

“I’m just making a point. And what if a few of your friends had tagged along tonight? Would she have let those shop goblins in, too, with all of their tattoos and body piercings and offensive animal odors? Have yourselves a little party in my honor?”

My daughter exhaled two jets of smoke from her nostrils and then jammed her cigarette into a cupcake where a candle should be.

“Excuse me,” she said and stomped off to the lavatory.

I had no intention of upsetting her, but I had every right to be angry. I had a mind to call the agency and lodge a formal complaint. Did the housekeeper just wave my daughter inside? Offer to take her coat? Ask if she’d care for something to drink? Did the housekeeper even know how to make a proper cocktail? Maybe while cleaning the loft, she’d gotten into the habit of fixing herself a stiff drink or two. I do not mark the bottles. Also, whenever I know my daughter is coming to see me, I lock the liquor in a storage unit in the basement, always making sure to reset the electronic code. Even someone as devious as my little girl can’t figure out how to get in there. It’s a pity when a mother can no longer trust her own daughter.

Then something even more dreadful occurred to me. What if, over the past six months, the housekeeper had allowed my ex-husband into the apartment? Or that strange woman from across the hall who keeps asking me to join her bowling team, the Bipolar Rollers? And then there’s the mysterious gentleman I met last summer at the corner cafe, Professor Baphomet. Every morning, while waiting to place our orders, we would chat. A learned man with mischievously arched eyebrows, a distinguished French fork beard, and a head of thick white hair, he struck me as a devilishly handsome older gentleman. One Friday morning, after the incompetent barista confused our orders, he shocked me by asking if I might like to join him for dinner. Enchanted by his vaguely continental accent, I accepted his offer a bit too eagerly.

That same night, at one of the city’s oldest restaurants on the river, in an isolated booth bathed in smoky red light, Professor Baphomet and I drank two bottles of Cabernet and discussed his work on secret societies and the esoteric teachings of ancient cultures. I found it all so fascinating. After finishing our meal, instead of ordering espresso or an after-dinner liqueur, we went back to my apartment to uncork a bottle of bubbly. He boldly suggested I dim the lights and put on some music. Within minutes he managed to charm his way into my bed, a clumsy and ultimately regrettable affair on my part. During an uncomfortable lull in our post-coital conversation, he cast his gaze around my bedroom and suggested I contact a housekeeping agency he knew. “It’s near the restaurant,” he said. “They’re quite professional and discreet. I’ve been quite satisfied with one housekeeper in particular. She does a thorough job. The prices are rather extravagant, but I’d be delighted to cover the cost.”

He was only trying to be helpful, but I took this as an insult. At the time, coming so soon after my separation, my new apartment was still a bit…disordered. Piles of unwashed clothes had accumulated in the corners, and the cardboard moving boxes, stacked high against the walls and windows, made the place feel claustrophobic, maze-like, purgatorial.

I was probably too harsh in ordering him from the apartment. I had an important appointment, I said, and needed to leave early in the morning. He seemed to understand and left without protest. After that, he stopped coming to the cafe, but I always hoped he might return bearing a bright bouquet and a box of chocolates. A silly thing for a woman my age to wish. Instead, the following Friday, I came home to find that someone had cleaned the apartment from top to bottom. On the coffee table, I found the agency’s business card and a note that read “Courtesy of Professor Baphomet.” How the housekeeper had gained entry to the apartment, I did not know and was too frightened to find out. Had the professor stolen a key that night while I took a scalding shower?

As I picked half-heartedly at the chocolate crumbs on my plate, I wondered why I never canceled the cleaning service or changed the locks. A lifelong procrastinator, I never seemed to get around to doing things. It was now six o’clock, the loft was glowing red with a winter sunset, and I gasped when I saw my daughter standing in the lavatory doorway, her arms crossed, a fresh cigarette jutting from the corner of her mouth. I didn’t like the way the light played on her face. She cut her hair short and refused to wear makeup, not even lipstick and eyeshadow. Four years ago, around the time she was starting to change, I voiced my concerns about her appearance. “She’s just experimenting with different expressions of identity.” That’s what my husband said, but to my ears this sounded suspiciously like ideological jargon, the kind of thing he’d picked up from listening to public radio during the morning commute.

After taking a deep drag on her cigarette, my daughter showed me a modicum of courtesy by turning her head and exhaling toward one of the windows that rattled from the icy gusts barreling across the frozen lake. I shivered, and for the tenth time that day, I dreamed of moving away from this miserable midwestern burg and relocating to a warm and exotic city.

“Why do you feel the need to mock me?” she asked.

I sensed something terrible was about to happen but calmly folded my hands in my lap.

“Mock you, dear? What are you talking about?”

She regarded me again in that strange way of hers and pointed inside the lavatory.

Curious, I strode across the room and stood in the doorway. I directed my gaze at the vanity, my reflection obscured by a line of dark red lipstick defacing the mirror. The tube was still on the counter, deliberately placed there like a votive candle before the diabolical figure now leering at us. What name did the cosmetologists give such a distasteful color? Crime Scene? Dark Fiction? Demon Lover? I’ve always been superstitious, an embarrassing vestige from my days as a Catholic school girl when the nuns, stalking up and down the rows of desks with rulers in hand, told stories I could never find in the bible. They told us how Joseph, fleeing from Herod’s wrath, brought Mary and Jesus into the land of Egypt, and there he took for himself another wife. And this wife gave birth to Jesus’s sister, a stubborn and rebellious little girl who abused her parents. She grew up to become a glutton and a drunkard, the plaything of tax collectors. From these stories, I learned that human nature is fraught with a thousand terrible impulses, the most wicked of which was a child’s lack of honor for her mother and father.

My daughter stepped into the lavatory and ashed into the sink. “Professional job, wouldn’t you say?”

I laughed. “What is that supposed to mean? Did you think I’m actually capable of drawing anything so fiendish? The lonely graphic designer with a secret flare for the occult? No, this is obviously the housekeeper’s doing. I must have done something to upset her. Maybe it’s because I haven’t tipped her since she started cleaning for me, not that I’m under any obligation to do so.”

“Remind you of anyone you know, Mom? Take a good look.”

I stepped forward, squinted, tilted my head. The image in the mirror did bear a passing resemblance to my suitor from the cafe, but his enormous buzzard wings and two majestic horns protruding from his head made him appear somewhat less desirable than I remembered. With one finger, I traced the pentagram in the middle of his goatish face and let out a sharp cry. Backing away from the mirror, I gazed with the intensity of a palm reader at my trembling hand. Why had I touched it? I felt polluted and worried I might contaminate the entire apartment with bad vibes.

“I need to call the agency right away,” I said. “The housekeeper is obviously trying to put a curse on me and my new home.”

“Would you stop it, Mom!” My daughter flicked the butt of her cigarette into the toilet. “I’ve been trying to be responsible, I really have. I’ve been trying to be good. I’ve had the same part-time job for almost a year now, cleaning apartments after school. I thought you’d be proud of me.”

“Impossible! You? Cleaning apartments?” I stumbled from the lavatory into the loft. “We both know you’re incapable of holding down a job for more than a week.”

“Mom, we’ve been over this a dozen times.”

“Besides, I never gave you a key.”

“He gave me the key months ago.”

“Who did?”

“Who do you think? I clean his place, too.”

“This is one of your jokes.”

“Professor Baphomet is a kind man, patient, charitable. He’s taught me a lot. I’ve been reading his books and practicing his…discipline. Are you okay, Mom? You don’t look well. Maybe you should lie down and rest for a while.”

She took me by the hand and led me into the master bedroom. I tried to interrogate her about her new occupation and catch her in a lie—how many apartments did she clean each day; did she find the job rewarding; did it pay well; did she ever steal anything—but the moment I saw the bed, I felt a kind of paralysis spreading from my tainted fingertip, up my arm, and through my torso. I collapsed against the pillows and shuddered. From the doorway, my daughter watched me with her big glassy eyes, and I knew then that she had raided my medicine cabinet and drugged the cupcakes.

“Where are you going?” I said. “Please don’t leave me like this.”

“I won’t be gone long. I want to clean that mirror. Try to rest.”

The moment she closed the door, I heard the distinctive click of the lock. I threatened to call the police, but when I tried to reach for the phone on the nightstand, I found that I was unable to move. Pinned to the bed, I shouted my daughter’s name. That’s when the music started, a frighteningly familiar fugue played at full volume. Since I didn’t own a stereo, I assumed she’d smuggled a portable speaker into the apartment, one with a subwoofer that made the pictures rattle against the walls. Good, I thought, let her blast that nihilistic noise. Sooner or later someone would come to my aid, the superintendent, a neighbor, a sympathetic mother on her way home to face her own little monsters. How many of us were there in the world, how many parents imprisoned in their own homes, living in mortal terror of their disobedient children?

It grew dark. After an hour had passed, I could hear other voices. Above the music, I detected bubbling bong hits, coughing, clapping, howling, peals of manic laughter, the sound of a glass shattering against the granite countertop. My room soon reeked of marijuana. I attempted to roll off the bed so I could crawl across the floor and wedge a wet towel under the door, but I couldn’t budge, couldn’t even blink.

As I stared helplessly at the ceiling, I wondered how long it would take before the bedroom door burst open and I saw a tall figure silhouetted against the smoky light. Which of my daughter’s guests would do the honors of punishing the morose birthday girl? But I already knew the answer. Not wanting to spoil the party, I would fully cooperate with my impeccably groomed inquisitor, the dashing stranger from the remote mountain village on the edge of a dark forest where the peasants still whispered the old stories and practiced forbidden ancient rites. Maybe, if there were no profanity-laced temper tantrums on my part, no more promises of self-abuse, no gleeful threats of suicide, the good professor would administer an antidote and let me join the party. Perhaps, before informing me that I had been relieved of my duties as a parent, he would raise a glass and say, “On your birthday, I propose a toast. To mothers!” I could already feel his hands caressing my face as he leaned over my bed to pour the burning libation into my mouth.

“Of course,” I heard him whisper, “under unfortunate circumstances such as these, the best thing to do is accept the fact that children are an evil spell that can never be lifted.”

After working as a boilermaker in the steel mills in Ohio, Kevin P. Keating became a professor of English and began teaching at Baldwin Wallace University and John Carroll University.

His essays, stories and reviews have appeared in over fifty literary journals, including Salon, Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer, Blue Lake Review, Red Rock Review, Whiskey Island, Juked, Inertia, Identity Theory, Exquisite Corpse, wordriver, and many others.

The Natural Order of Things, his first full-length novel, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes/First Fiction Award. The novel has garnered starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist, and praise from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler.

His second novel The Captive Condition, published as a Pantheon hardcover, was featured at the 2015 San Diego Comic-Con International.

He currently resides in Cleveland, Ohio.

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hunger

A big hat just built a train thicker than my hearing, cutting across
pipes & bronze & green.
In my dream, she punches a hole in the sky, spits gasoline at the sun.
The train hurtles on, faster than light, sound, you, me.

My belly is big, warm, can hold a thousand suns, a thousand trains
but I’m not hungry, I’m never hungry.
I watch Mr. Man sit with his half-lid eyes,
orange juice dripping from fat, green lips.
The train rattles on behind us, thundering, silent.
My terminal audience whispers that
it sounds like the end of the world.

My father kneels on the ground before him, their
hands tied up with teeth. God, or something, must have
lost a bet, lost a people. I wonder where their tears come
from. I can bite a rope open but it takes an army to screw
back someone’s mouth.

Disillusionment, they shout, it’s the word of the hour!
But sometimes my friends can’t keep vomiting blood
& cash.

My ancestors choke me with my unlearned lessons,
tell me to stop praying for mortality. I return
that forever is a moment,
finite,
of power & peace.

M. N. Lee is a student at the University of Southern California. Though she studies in LA, she’s originally from Memphis, which she will always tout as the greatest city in the world.

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Stones

The streets are dark & yellow here, a masterclass in color correction.
They’re warm, I remember, and whispering, and they guide my eyelids down in slumber.
Sometimes, the stones underneath me fall loose, crash into the waves of ambivalence.
I wonder if my grief would echo at the edge of the earth,

That’s the way it goes, mom would whisper in my hair. Like a horse
galloping across mars, fast, & beautiful, but running. I’m always
running. Not to trouble, like she says. Maybe to God, to have
words.

I want to be the bluest girl in all the land but He says no. That’s
the way love goes, mom whispers. Dad & God & Dad
again. Dad eats candy corn out of big white bowls
& sometimes I think about dying.

Mom mixes asphalt with oatmeal, spoons it to me like my first
morning – I can’t cry anymore, but I sacrifice a finger to
the cause.
In the evening, Mr. Doctor itches my brain & sends me
on my way. I’m too small, he tells me, too
three-dimensional.

I sleep in a dead man’s closet & dream about his tights.

I think about his grief echoing at the edge of the earth, the stones
falling out beneath him, my finger crunching under
his feet. I wonder if he considers
himself lucky.

M. N. Lee is a student at the University of Southern California. Though she studies in LA, she’s originally from Memphis, which she will always tout as the greatest city in the world.

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Pixel Wife

When they launched the downloadable companions, Russell laughed it off, shoveling down a forkful of the egg foo yung we were eating on the couch. You wouldn’t fuck a hologram, would you? I looked away.

I had married Russell because of his soft hair, dark blond like a Golden Retriever. He was tall and springy with a guitar on his hip and daisies in his eyes. He liked to dance and played music at a nearby basement club, opening for bands that no one had ever heard of. We smoked cigarettes in bed while the sun slid up, then had sex until the room was soaked in it. Now he has a beard that stays unbrushed, underwear that’s too small for him, a job at a burger joint where a twenty-two-year-old, pimpled redneck tells him what to do. But then again, when he married me, my boobs were perky, and my hair was hot pink.

We got my mother one for Mother’s Day. She was old and my father was dead, so we downloaded her a healthy man in his thirties to help her shower and keep up with her medications. Russell commented on the realism, the detail down to peeling cuticles and crooked front teeth. Later, I watched them laugh together while I drank a cup of coffee at my mother’s bedside.

I went away on a work trip. I represented the workplace in a blazer, then smoked miserably from the hotel balcony, ate Cheetos in bed just to wipe my fingers onto the white sheets. While I was gone, Russell called twice, his words distant as if I was interrupting something. I told him I loved him, but he didn’t seem to hear. Night, hon, he said.

My workplace fired a woman who worked in the cubicle next to mine. The next morning, a downloadable companion sat in her swivel chair, her legs crossed, in baby pink nylons and a houndstooth skirt.

Did you know they’re able to feel things? Russell said while I showered. They can actually feel you touch them. I laughed at him. Our newborn started crying.

We named the baby Madeline after my mother, who had recently passed. Her companion showed up at the funeral. He and Russell conversed like old friends.

When Maddie was three, I saw a pair of women’s underwear I’d never seen before. Russell lay back in our bed, his hands behind his head as he watched me enter. Up for it? I shook my head and climbed in to sleep. He might have cursed at me, but I had the duvet pulled over my ear.

I woke up one morning to the sound of my own voice. Downstairs, Russell sat at the kitchen island while a woman in my clothes swirled eggs in a pan. She turned, and I looked at me. Through me. Russell smiled at her. Her hair was a cotton candy cloud. Her perky boobs were clamped together in a racy, black bra. Pixels flared beneath the sun like kaleidoscoped prisms.

Shyla Jones is a black writer from Boston, MA. She is currently working on a novel. You can find more of her work at https://www.shylajones.com.

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Blue Stars and Black Holes

I dream of blue stars, even supernovas, to avoid the black holes, spiraling closer, sucking away my breath. Implosion temporarily avoided, walking alone, sun falling, my father is dead.

Past the workshop he built, concrete blocks laid, tresses hauled by old-man hands, tipping him off the ladder one day. Ground zero. The first time an accident, but not the last he endured.

Past the small island of trees he trimmed, filled now with pink blossoms, berries, and red wasps that sometimes sting, dull green leaves shuddering against beach winds, whispering his name.

Past white pea gravel driveway, crunching underfoot, where we started our long walks that grew less often with his faltering steps; now, to never again hear the crunch beneath him. I am alone.

Past the houses, all so different, cottage, shack, mansion, revealing eras and incomes divergent; grey clapboard, pink stucco, blue siding, white fences, no fences, a weathered bunny crossing sign.

Over the cracked asphalt, weathered by sand, wind, and time, once a tropical storm bearing his name passed by. Brief whiff of something salty and decaying, a seagull overhead shrieking out mournful cries.

Over the patches of sand, past sea oats dancing tan and green stalks, fluffy tops spewing seeds anew, and I recall how he loved the idea of Johnathan Livingston Seagull, flying free above all.

Over the new sidewalk main street sported, shiny spots dot the pavers like a sequined girl at a dance, trying too hard to be admired; the streetlights respond to darkening skies, first glimmer on.

To the pier once leading to the drawbridge, the clanking sound it made when rising, letting boats pass underneath, sails billowing southward, watching our watches, waiting for bridge to lower, to be on our way.

To pass an old fisherman, floppy hat, line, tackle, bucket, and a string of silver fish, dangling dinner. He nodded, language of strangers passing, smelling of tobacco, sweat, and coconut oil, mixing with fish.

To lean my hip against the new metal railing, avoiding the Pollock spots of bird droppings, even if my life seemed to go to shit. And I took a deep whiff of inlet, salt and diesel, a smell Dad no longer will have.

To watch the setting sun sink behind the horizon, leaving black silhouettes of trees. I’m paralyzed, not moving until my limbs grow numb, waiting for the starry night to fall like black silk and velvet.

I dream of blue stars, even supernovas, to avoid the black holes, spiraling closer, sucking away my breath. Implosion temporarily avoided, standing alone, moon rising, my father is dead.

Connie Marie St. Clair is an avid writer and reader of poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction and has publications in anthologies Footprints: Memories That Last a Lifetime, Journey’s End: Anthology of Poetry and Short Stories, and Best of Friends. Recently, her spoken word poetry readings include “Too Many Things Wrong”, “The Forgotten Girl”, “Soldier Girl”, “Soldier Girl in Love”, and “Consequence is a White Camaro”. She is a United States Air Force veteran, working on a cross-genre collection focusing on her experiences. Finally, she is an assistant professor at Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL, and has won numerous awards for scholarship and teaching.

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Beef Stew

I threw you up.
Each bite of your beef stew
filled me with mercury
poured from broken thermometers,
hollow shards of glass
you hid in a small grey box,
trophies, buried deep in closet black,
tucked behind the white towels
we received on our wedding day.

But in the end
I found the box
and left you
like you feared:
holding an empty bowl
with no shine
left to kill.

Connie Marie St. Clair is an avid writer and reader of poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction and has publications in anthologies Footprints: Memories That Last a Lifetime, Journey’s End: Anthology of Poetry and Short Stories, and Best of Friends. Recently, her spoken word poetry readings include “Too Many Things Wrong”, “The Forgotten Girl”, “Soldier Girl”, “Soldier Girl in Love”, and “Consequence is a White Camaro”. She is a United States Air Force veteran, working on a cross-genre collection focusing on her experiences. Finally, she is an assistant professor at Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL, and has won numerous awards for scholarship and teaching.

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Paradise

This is the end, so it appears. I wonder if you still dream. I imagine you do, though hopefully not of our zip lining adventure in Costa Rica. My screams were my own, I don’t apologize. A strong falsetto, that’s what my choir teacher said. And before you interrupt, I know that you know – I was never in any choir. You chided and reminded me my voice was “Cute and flat,” I think you said, “Like a law school surfer, trying to whisper in a library.” There are too many cinematic possibilities of our moments, our time together, being twisted and drained of truth to evolve or devolve into a fantasy. Let’s try to create some honesty, if we can. That’s why I’m writing all this down, for you and for me. For us.

In some strange way I’m glad it’s ended like this. When my mom died, I compartmentalized my feelings in a dangerous sequence that ultimately eviscerated all emotion. Unless I listen to a song that has those components that work on me and melt my resolve – in which case I’ll sit in bed or on the floor, lights in the room flipped off, and try to elevate those emotions of pain into something I can hold. I need this to be different. I hope I only remember the love we shared, the experiences. The maniac you created in me. That’s love, I think.

I heard someone say you mourn for half the lifetime of the relationship. That’s fucked. My dad has been in mourning for two years so far. My parents were married for over thirty. I never told you this, but when I visited him for his birthday last year he still had the grief therapy booklets lying around the house. Post-it notes slapped onto the fridge, the bathroom mirrors, the cover of the book he’d been trying to read for months. All the phone numbers written in his scratchy handwriting, of those desperate souls he became friends with, all those men and women suffering a new life without their other. According to that theory, I’ll be back on the horse, dating and sleeping around by Christmas. My dad, that poor fucker, is going to be mourning into the afterlife.

I know we joked all the time about our age difference and I appreciated how upfront you were about everything going on with you, your illness, your wild desire to turn back the clock before the clock snuffed you out. And what a time we had.

Let’s go back to the first time I saw you. I thought you’d be nothing more than a little tummy ache of longing that followed me into the silent hours. The selfish reflections we find ourselves in sometimes. Little did I know. I was traveling with the ex-girlfriend at the time. We traveled a lot, I’ll never take that away from her. Like you, she was adventurous, in a different way, so not really like you at all. She spent several hours a day reading reviews written by fellow travelers, about the places she was to go, the sights we needed to see. I’d gotten skilled at navigating her to local bookstores and cafes where she sat with her knees together, biting her lip in deep thought as she let other people’s opinions dictate our potential experiences. I took that time to take a look at the skimpy selection of English books, or drink a mango smoothie. I liked to sip my sweating drink and observe the chaos that seemed to be the norm in every country I’d ever been to outside the US and Canada. The ex-girlfriend never truly understood me at all, which is fine. You live and you learn. She had a vision of what she wanted me to be. On numerous occasions, she explained to me my lack of empathy. Whatever she meant by that, I’m not sure. I love too much is how I summed it up. She was good at rolling her eyes, which I felt was not exactly empathetic in its own right. On many occasions as I was sharing some deep and obviously profound observation, her gaze carried over me to the nearest reflective surface so she could check her hair or outfit or whatever.

The girlfriend spent our visit to the Hỏa Lò prison museum chatting up the other Americans and Canadians. “They’re relatable,” she said. I nodded. “Go see where the prisoners slept and imagine how uncomfortable it must have been. It’ll do you good.” I nodded again and wandered off. The musty smell of wartime suffering and prison life was a nice reprieve. I walked around the exterior, to see if I could conjure up the emotional energy of the past inhabitants. But really, I was just bored. My heels burned and winced from the friction caused by the lousy shoes I’d brought. I looked at a deceased senator’s military uniform. He’d been captured and held captive at this place.

And that is when I met you, that first time.

You stood beside me, sending electric waves into my nervous system. “I never liked him,” you said, and pretended to spit on the ground. You laughed. I wanted to trace my tongue along those perfect teeth. I knew then and there I’d break up with my girlfriend and follow you to the farthest reaches of space if I had to. Your gaze held mine, gravity’s pull on my eyeballs. The creases around your eyes told me stories. Your lips were violet in the light of that prison. You looked down at my raw, red ankles. “Ouch,” you said. And with your perfect smile you left me there in that dungeon.

Is that romantic at all? Maybe not yet. Am I grieving? Is this grief? I don’t know. It’s possible it’s just my mind clinging to love of you, or maybe it’s real. I don’t think you’re in pain. I want it to be painless. Or maybe I wanted you to feel pain in the transition from living to dead, to experience some kind of powerful elation? I don’t know. I never shared much with you about watching my mom die, how surreal and horrifying it was. I don’t like to think about it, but maybe I owe it to you, to us. To myself. The day she passed, I had left the house early in the morning, around five. The sun was still hidden in darkness. I sat in my car and wondered if the light would ever return. We had sat around the hospice bed, eating ice cubes in solidarity with my mother. Tubes protruded from her stomach, where they clung to her intestines, kidneys. Anything that went in came out immediately. Everything just ran straight through her and into the yellowing bags hanging out of her like a lab experiment. The meds stopped working. Her eyes darted around, manic and hopeless. Her skin was nothing more than soggy, thin paper clinging to bones. Her tongue was swollen and dry. Useless. Sometime in the middle of the night after I’d helped her shift or moved her so she could sit on her knees on the floor, anything for a brief ease of the pain, even one second of comfort was holy, I felt a huge surge of sorrow rising from the core of the earth and rush into my heart. I knew she was going to die. My mother’s last few days were hell on earth. I don’t even know who made the decision to bring her home. I guess, when you’re on your way out of this world and everyone else is making the calls, the dying person has no say, and so it falls onto what is most comfortable for everyone else. Being alive sucks too, because we sit and we watch and we can’t do anything and all our agony is our own. I sat in the hallway in the middle of the night and listened to my mother writhing and mumbling dreadful requests for comfort, the brushing of feathery light thighs wrapped in cheap sheets supplied by the hospice, the queasy moans when my sister and aunt lifted her too quickly or held her aloft too long, all the life dribbling out of her like air from a tire. I cried silently.

This is easier. I want to believe that.

Back in Vietnam. That night, after seeing you at the prison museum I had a stomachache, lovesick maybe. Three days later I sat and ate phở on a tiny chair in front of a cafe, and saw you come out of the very same cafe. Fate. That’s all we can call it, right? Can we dare to call it anything else? It wasn’t even seven in the morning yet and I know for certain I hadn’t seen you enter the cafe. You waved at me, and like an overly excited child I tried to stand up so I could wave back and knocked my bowl of soup into my lap. You laughed. I laughed and I smiled and my face hurt from the laughing and the smiling because you were so beautiful. You asked if you could sit down and I said something too chivalrous and bent at the waist, my soaked lap exposed, and extended an arm like a very fancy waiter. Your smile…my god. That’s when you told me your name. We sat there for over two hours and shared laughs and travel stories and cigarettes. My stories were not as exciting as yours. I just wanted to listen to you. You were traveling alone, enjoying Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, garnering that luxurious tan, after attending a friend’s renewal of vows in the Philippines. I was visiting Vietnam because the girlfriend at the time insisted we use her dad’s miles and take a trip. She said I never liked to go anywhere, but if you looked at our passports mine was full of stamps and visas from international excursions. Her passport had, like, seven stamps from Mexico. Cabo. But we went and stayed in some nice hotels and I stayed up late at night and woke up early, smoked cigarettes with the little geckos as they scurried about, up the walls and into the cracks, wherever they went. I drank cheap beer like it was water, ate all the street food I could find, never got sick. My steel guts impressed you. You rocked back a little in your tiny purple chair, swiping the hair above your left eye, moving a cigarette from side to side in your mouth with only your lips. I had to excuse myself, reminded you three or four times I’d be right back, begged you not to leave, while I purchased more smokes, laughing on the short walk to the store, my heart soaring. When I sat back down I handed you a cigarette and our skin made contact for the first time. Electricity. It’s cliche, but it’s true. You told me about a trip to South Korea when you were my age, eating Army Soup with some friends, the tumultuous gut rot and immediate expelling of, your exact words, “A gallon of something like hot tea in an alley behind the restaurant.” I was smitten, taken aback by your honesty, in a good way. You were blunt, held nothing back from me, a youthful man soaked in soup, sitting on a red chair designed for a preschool classroom.

A little later that morning the ex-girlfriend finally shuffled down to the cafe in hotel slippers. You politely excused yourself and she took your chair. I didn’t think I’d see you again and once more felt that pit in my stomach grow.

But really our story was only beginning.

As fate would have it, I ran into you again, in the smoking area at the airport. You waved and removed your sunglasses. Things blurred in my mind at this point, stricken with something almost like panic, an anxiety so strong it caused a mental break. I took your hand and rushed to the taxi stand. You were strangely quiet, and not until we were in the backseat of the taxi and I had said the only intersection I could remember to the driver, did you ask where we were going. I said that it didn’t matter, that I’d left the girlfriend at the airport and she’d fly home without me, probably. You squinted and smiled and then you said, “I’m going to die this year.” I didn’t know what to say. You said, “I’ve got cancer and I’m done with treatment. I’ve accepted it.” I said nothing. You said, “You’re sweet and maybe a little crazy. Do you want to be my date to the end of my life?”

When did I realize you were, and I mean this in the sweetest possible terms, completely berserk? Probably the night we returned to the States and visited your apartment. That was how long ago? Nine months and fourteen days. Los Angeles, a city with which I had very limited familiarity. I liked the warm nights, the broad streets. You told the taxi driver to drop us off and we hopped out of the cab. The driver popped the trunk and I walked to retrieve our bags. I was nervous the ex-girlfriend had somehow tracked me and would come to end me like the Terminator, seeing her face on the strangers in passing cars, on the sleepy homeless junkies crowded under overpasses. You took my arm in yours before I could get our bags and you said, “Leave them.” You pulled me by the hand and we ran from the cab, like guilty schoolchildren. The adrenaline filled my heart with blood and the smile on my face must have appeared ghoulish. We rounded a corner and entered the first door we saw, a laundromat. We ducked behind a washing machine and laughed. It felt silly in a good way. You said, “It’s illegal to jaywalk in California. But I don’t know about leaving your bags in a taxi.” I said it was probably not illegal, but maybe caused annoyance to the drivers if they felt inclined to follow the procedure of returning the bags to their rightful owner. It was in the middle of this moronic commentary you leaned in and silenced me with a kiss. That night at your apartment we slept next to one another on the floor. The space was mostly empty, like no one had ever moved in. I furrowed my brow in confusion and admiration when you told me you’d made a habit of leaving your apartment door unlocked and open whenever you weren’t home, a note for your neighbors that they could come in and take what they wanted. When I mentioned it seemed dangerous to do that, you said, “I’m already dead, silly.” We shared a toothbrush you purchased at a convenience store, rinsed with a bottle of Fiji. We curled up on a yoga mat you told me your neighbor gave you in exchange for your flatscreen TV and listened to the whooshing of cars outside on the wide boulevards. You thought it was really cute that I held off from sex on that first night. The honest to God truth was I felt scared. Looking back I can identify what my fear was. I was scared if I got too close physically then the strange dream I’d found myself in would pop and I’d be in Los Angeles alone with no direction home. I fell asleep with a palpable anxiety humming throughout my chest, that lingering kiss in the laundromat flickering behind my eyelids.

I guess I’ll never know the you before this you, the one that wasn’t aware of the coming plummet down the waterfall of the End. It’s been a surreal journey. The immediate shift from the girlfriend to you was like stepping out of a sterile hallway onto the moon, the lack of gravity and the bounce and sway of your energy was wholly unheard of to me. You spoke in riddles and usually laughed off my worries and wonders, sometimes with a kiss or a motherly fluffing of my hair. You woke me up on the first Saturday of our strange new life together and we ate cold Chinese food from the boxes with chopsticks, like some ridiculous romantic comedy. You readied me for a “Big Day.” You dressed me in a rented suit, tied my tie. We hopped in a cab and attended an afternoon of high school graduation ceremonies. Only later I learned you didn’t know any of the people. All day you had been inventing names and relationships and excuses for not saying hellos. And still, we emoted deeply, my eyes constantly misting, tears of admiration dripping down my cheeks, for these young people starting “The beginning of the rest of their lives.” In the cab on the way back to your apartment you tucked my head into the nook of your shoulder and head. I didn’t know if what I was sensing was salvation, or death, or both. You took my hand in yours and said, “I knew the first time I saw you that you’d find me again.”

I’d never broken into cars before I met you. Even as a teen, it never crossed my mind as something to do. We had a nice dinner at a smoky African restaurant, a live jazz band in the corner of the small room. They played at a volume fit for a stadium. I watched you take bites of the spongy bread you’d dipped in some sloppy, fragrant substance. Your eyes raised up to mine and you winked. However detached from myself I became, wandering deep into the mystery of you, those eyes of yours brought me back to center. And the process reset, my fragmented self floating out to sea.

Under the black sky, the hideous orange glow from the streetlights made us into oblong shadows, thieving caricatures, I watched you sneak between cars, slinking like a cat and checking door handles. The way you slid into the front seat of an unlocked car and moved things about, your pockets fat with fresh twenties, so you could leave them in the console, tucked in the straw of a Starbucks Frappuccino or gently placed in front of the speedometer. Craziness, and yet somehow wholesome. These actions appeared curious and gentle, not like the invasions of privacy they were. It didn’t matter. I took a twenty and opened the door of a big SUV and was blasted by the alarm. You told me to drop the twenty on the seat and then you threw another crisp bill for good measure. And we ran. We ran until my lungs burned and you were shiny with sweat.

At a cemetery overlooking some part of LA we held each other and you asked me to smell you, and you asked me how close to death I thought you were. I said, “I don’t see you dying anytime soon.” You laughed and tugged me through a hole in the cemetery gate. I scratched my back and you tore a hole in your sweatshirt. We walked around and you looked at the headstones, searching silently for something. I didn’t ask what. Finally we found a spot in the dry, bristly grass on top of a dead man’s home and we made love for the only time. It was powerful in a way I can barely describe. The sensations in my body were more like a psilocybin-induced grief session than sex, and somehow so visceral and animalistic in its physical need. I finished inside you, at your insistence, and looked into your eyes and saw the moon and the stars reflected there. We gathered our clothes in silence, sharing our intimacy without words, only our shallow breaths. I looked at the tombstone and read the name—well, I don’t remember the name, but he died at fifty-seven, which makes him the same age as you.

The weeks and months passed in a blur. Time is so strange that way. All the mornings I watched you sleep in some new place, stitched every breath of reality like its own eternity. The sun setting and rising, the different denominations of currency piled on the side table. The warming sky, bringing light unto the world. I never knew what each new day would bring, what you had in store. Sometimes as I lay anxious beside you I’d forget where I was, which continent, what country? A gift hurled from the endless expanse of the universe. This particular morning, our last together, we drank coffee and readied for the day. You tugged on boots for a hike along the Nā Pali coast. I was dousing my neck and forehead in suntan lotion, a needed distraction. You caught me staring at your breasts, free in the loose tank top you wore. You told me why you stopped wearing a bra. You said it didn’t matter. You said it made you feel sexy. I said you had great tits for your age, and I blushed. It always made me self-conscious when I spoke of our age gap, especially on this morning. You laughed in that way you do, the twist of your mouth, the color explosion in your eyes. You strapped the laces tight and snatched the lotion from my hand, squirted a thick dollop in your palm and snaked your hands down the front of my swim trunks. Looking back now, I think these moments were like a certain therapy for you. I was incapable of any rational thought, my mind wiped clean by your sensual touch. But I sensed a purpose for you, like a show of power. Defying mortality with our most base of human actions. If you had picked up the lamp on the side table and smashed me over the head and used the broken shards to slice through my carotid artery, I wouldn’t have judged you for it. In my soul I knew from the get-go I’d have exchanged my life for yours. Maybe in those last moments of my existence on earth I would have drawn a heart in blood on your cheek.

That hike broke my heart. Here we were at the end of the world, our feet walking atop one of God’s most perfect works. Not even a mile in and you were regularly yards ahead of me. My breathing was labored. Like the day I met you in Vietnam, my ankles and heels were sore, blistered from heat and friction. You moved pure of force, a living thing meant to be. Your tan legs guided me, the strength in your thighs with each flexing bounce along the trail helping me accept this fate, out here, in the hot, sweet-smelling tropics. In this paradise. You rounded a corner and disappeared from sight. I stopped on the trail and listened to the breeze, the birds, the ocean. The silent roar of endlessness. This was the moment I accepted I was losing you. I tried to find peace in that simple fact, and it nearly came. But I’m too childish. My mind’s eye drew pictures of a future where you were gone. I was nothing more than a dot millions of miles away. I watched myself sitting on a park bench as an old man, alone and withdrawn from the world. So boring. I took several deep breaths and continued, suddenly ravenous with anxiety and fear that I was missing out on even one second of my life with you.

I came out of the bamboo to a wide expanse of beach. The sun glistened along the shore. The Pacific Ocean washed away and clung to the horizon. I walked toward you and saw you were topless, smiling like a child. We were alone. The only two people here in this untouched heaven. You looked at me and you saw through to the truth. You hugged me and kissed me on my sweaty, lotion-drenched forehead. “I know,” you said. “I know.” We embraced for a long time, my mind somersaulting so wildly, coming up with non-existent math for the seconds becoming the days and warping into years, unable to calculate lost time and time yet lived – in hopes it would make it okay, losing you.

When we separated, I looked deep into your eyes and smiled. The radiance there forced it, like a magic trick, an illusion. It’s always been impossible to stare at you and not feel a smile come over my lips, wrinkle my eyes. “Watch this,” you said. From your small pack, you removed a granola bar. “Watch.” You opened a small corner of the wrapper. You put your lips to your mouth, telling me to listen, be quiet. I stared at the blue expanse of the Pacific. You turned me by the shoulders and together we watched a stampede of kittens come from the trees and gallop toward us. I laughed, an uncontrollable vibration seeping out of me. We spent an hour feeding the kittens. We laughed and hooted, our minds and bodies undone. An improbable mass gathering of kittens on a secluded beach in paradise. When the kittens had had their fill, realized we were dry and had nothing more to offer, they disappeared. Looking back, a miraculously absurd ending. You unlaced your boots and set them beside you. You slipped out of your shorts. You untied your bathing suit. The sunlight clung to your skin like some ancient Greek myth. You lifted my chin to inspect my face. You said, “Look at me.” I did, and my face firmly in your grasp, you licked each of my eyeballs. We laughed until I was crying. The tide washed in, lapped first our toes, then our legs with its warm perfection. You held me in your arms, a big, stupid man baby. You grazed your fingers along my collar bones, down my shoulder and biceps. Your fingers traced invisible lines along my legs. You looked at my damaged heels and removed my shoes. “You’re going to be just fine, you know. But please, for me, get some better shoes.”

Anthony Statham is a creative writer and visual artist from Portland, OR.

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The Daily Knot

Underneath the blanket I am reminded
when warmth was enough to cast as the
remedy for the frostbites of daily wear and tear

for daily-ness is
busy being worn with laces and knots tied
including those knots that bind the song that
was once a lullaby now cast as an unforgiving
reminder of repetition once more

for daily-ness is
string the puppet glides through
aware and unchanging
of the knots worn and washed
to be bunny knotted once more

for daily-ness is
repetition that becomes a comfort
within the inferno of the mind as the mind
wanders to the blanket stitched to the wall
now a souvenir symbol of when warmth
was found beyond the summer sun

Underneath the blanket I am reminded
of the wish for flames of the past to reside
as slippery shadows that follow with shoelaces as a guide
for at least moldy days would have some burnt edges

Sarah Gorban received a B.S in Neuroscience and is completing a PharmD at the University of North Carolina. She has been published through Trinity University, Dissonance Magazine, Global Poemic, and Orange Blush Zine, and is forthcoming at Polemical Zine, Trouvaille Review and in an anthology at Rudderless Mariner Poetry. Sarah can be found usually on adventures and searching to experience moments more subjectively.

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Games

Tweenage boys in floral dresses (jasmine and magnolia: heraldry of the dream-hennaed night) bludgeon frogs with grandfather clocks. But their arms, pale and slender as birches, cannot bear Time’s over(t)weening weight, and they stumble and tumble onto the tiles, checkered red and white in wistful geometry, like raspberry jam and butter. The winner, the first to make three croak, will be entitled to a pizza party in the Home Depot of his choice—the scent of nails and wood a festive preparation for the gym teacher’s crucifixion.

Elijah Giuliano. Suburbs, suburbs, no donkeys.

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Without Loss of Generality

They slept beneath a heavily-discounted Patagonia fleece of still grey water. We came in the night, letting down a long slender ladder. A few of us made small talk while dethawing the strawberry milkshakes. I just watched their climbing bodies like the tears of luminous warehouses. Then it was haircut time, though Angelica kept whining after a tusk eviscerated her lower lip, as if her lovely teeth were not now lovelier flaming Cheeto swans; we had to lock her in the washing machine, big thumping like ogre feet—mommy and daddy could hardly wait for the bedtime story to end. Tufts of fur filled the floors with tort liability, shriveling like flowers of instant ramen shrimp. Their cold odorous eyes repeated in waves as I waved adieu and you ate their hair.

Elijah Giuliano. Suburbs, suburbs, no donkeys.

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Shivering

I followed your laughter up a tower without stairs. When I texted, your phone glowed like many green bugs. In a pink sweater, you laughed, and I wanted to take the raindrops home in a doggie bag. We waited underwater without speaking; we waited for the train to Gary, whose headlight shone at the far end of the pool. It was as if we kissed donkeys, their hot breath covering our words in the heavy blankets of a cold winter night.

Elijah Giuliano. Suburbs, suburbs, no donkeys.

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Seams

I burn like a winter rain that blossoms in the fire of headlight-lit water. Emboss me with jewels of a Gatorade commercial dissembled: seams bloodily unsewn. The many windows of the train station are fragrant with the dense sensual darkness of a coat closet. I hear them sound and resound, the alarm clock ocean of time unattained.

Elijah Giuliano. Suburbs, suburbs, no donkeys.

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9A

put the
lights up
all on my
own
even though
they
would change
later
and
i
could see
forever
through my
window
but i
slept in
my car
that night
even though
it
was
winter
because
my room
was
definitely
haunted

cigarettes
that
felt like
sucking
a
boulder
through
a straw
because
she
wouldn’t like
that i
started
again
but they
burned
slowly
and i
hid them
in
a drawer

right
down the
hall
from me
and
you
showered
at my
place
once
and i
sat on
my couch
thinking
about it
but i
was a
much
different
person
back then
and
thank god
for that

wet hair
is
so
honest

you
may
as well
be
naked

a
slow burn
i
told
myself
but
slow burns
die
as
slowly
as they
ignite
and
before
i knew it
i was
him
and he
was i
but
you
were still
you and
thank god
for that

the
slow burn
is only
good
for
cigarette burns
now

g. watson is a poet and composer living in Miami, Florida. He enjoys French wine and Italian horror movies.

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From Diego’s Mouth

Today, Grandmother says, you’re going to witness an atrocity. And you won’t be able to do a thing about it. You understand?

I nod. She sits in front of a large cross and an image of the Virgin Mary and a worn, black and white photograph of her late husband. Moments ago, before I interrupted, she had been praying. She now stands, straightening herself. A long floral dress hangs off her body. The flowers are soft shades of emerald green and nude floating in chestnut space. She is adorned with gold earrings, a gold necklace, and her fingers are covered in gold too. Her hand, with faint elegant liver spots, firmly holds a brown-leathered clutch. She is resplendent.

There’s a faint smell of talcum powder, too. Growing up, Grandmother kept a large brush on her vanity. As a kid, I would often go into her room and brush the fine powder on myself; I found the smell addictive. One day, she caught me. She was horrified. She had to explain to me that she uses that specific brush to powder her privates. It is odd now, carrying this intimacy with me as I embrace the air around her. But I don’t think she minds that I remember, that I am aware of where exactly the talcum odor comes from. She smiles, knowing very well how I still find the smell of talcum enchanting after all.

Underneath the talcum stands another scent, also faint. It is her Agua de Florida, I know. The sweet citrus, bursts of orange and lemon, with a hint of a spicier undertone, is dizzying. I feel momentarily ashamed for the scents I carry: Old Spice sloppily painted over with the aroma of scalp still hovering underneath. Depression smell, the scent of one who cannot be bothered with a shower. I am embarrassed. I want to be emptied of it, my odor turned vacuous—I do not wish to overpower Grandmother’s perfected spell. Then, she adjusts her necklace, shoots me a smile, and says, Vamonos.
 

We come out into the warm, bright sunshine, with loose jacaranda petals spritzing the air. Everyone we pass on the street greets Grandmother, and she returns the greetings warmly, quietly, and with a smile in her eyes.

Near the bank, we slow down and approach an older man wearing a straw hat, a tank top, and a face that says he has seen better days. He fans himself using the day’s newspaper on the sidewalk. This time, Grandmother greets him first, coolly. The man looks up. Their movements remain charged, and neither of them loosens to the interaction.

Then, movement in the man’s mouth. He leans back, swaying almost, opens his mouth, and sprays Grandmother in spit. She was braced for this, however. Her eyes are closed, her face still, frozen and twisted in disgust. The man returns to fanning himself.

Grandmother retrieves her handkerchief, swipes it across her face, and returns to the road. We walk to the bank in silence.

There, everyone again greets Grandmother, and she greets them back, using their first names. The security guards, bank tellers, managers. They all speak to her warmly, with respect. They smile at me amiably as well. I simply stand behind her, like her bodyguard, and they do not question my presence. The town is so small, perhaps they even knew who I am already, the unplanned visit of her American grandson, the victim of a nervous breakdown. And in the warmth of the bank, it is as if the events of before hadn’t even occurred in the first place. That is, until a bank teller asks, Viste a Diego?

Before Grandmother responds, the teller is patting the side of her face with tissue paper.

There, all done, she says.
 

We walk back home, again in silence, watching the dust of the horizon settle. The sky is no longer naked, but strips of cloud inch across, and the air remains warm and still. Grandmother stops at a food cart, and buys a bag packed with a green fruit, and salt and lemon that is drizzled over. She eats one with vigor, and her face flushes with pleasure. She gives me one and I am less impressed.

I know what they are. Semillas de paterna. Men, often drunks, are paid to chew into these large fruits in order to get to the heart, which is what I am eating. They are paid the way apple pickers are paid, but instead of picking they are chewing. These have been in someone’s mouth already, I consider. Though, I also know the seed is then placed in boiling water for hours, until it is soft enough to eat.

Does that happen every day, I finally ask her.

Once a week, she says. When I go to the bank.

Why do you let him, I ask.

He’s family, she says. What am I supposed to do?

Then: It’s just spit, she says. Her eyes focus on the green fruit, and I nod my head.

It’s just spit, I repeat. We round the corner of Grandmother’s house and the same tree shoots jacaranda petals, showering us in its pink mist. Beyond the tree, the sky also carries a pink blush, with reds that will soon be bleeding through.

That was probably in Diego’s mouth, too, she now says. Beyond what I send him every month, I am not so sure how else he would make money.

He’s family, I repeat.

One day, he’ll forgive me, she says.

For what?

For faring better in life, she says.

Josh Vigil is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in blush, Expat Press, Full Stop, Neutral Spaces, Rejection Letters, and elsewhere.

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Dive

He looks like he’s missing an eye, Carla says, as spumes in the water twirl, laughing at what has occurred. We are sprawled on the shore of a beach, and there’s been an accident.

The first scream is not unlike the screams of the seagulls yanking each other across the air, and is followed by a moment of immense silence. The second and third screams are sonorous, marked by a shift, an understanding of what has happened. It is from a boat anchored near the edge of the bay, where the ocean meets the inlet. Two men jump off the boat, which rocks, trapped between the roughness of the sea and the tranquility of the inlet. They vanish, leaving behind a bracelet of foam where their bodies evanesced.

We are on a crescent-shaped stretch of sand. Several dozens of groups are scattered across the strip, and a few small boats are anchored off the shore, though it does not feel crowded. Beyond the inlet, the choppy waters of the open ocean. We are beside a large shack-turned-restaurant, which is covered by a roof made of crisp palm fronds, with chairs made of the same material. There is no kitchen, just a counter in which two people work on raw seafoods, and beers in an old ice cooler to the side. Carla and I are sharing one beach towel. When we first arrived, Carla pushed the granules under the towel around to transform the space into a mold that would better fit her body. Behind us, rolling hills of sand with pocks of dying green bushes, which slide smoothly into more hills of sand with more dying bushes.

Then, the men reappear with a third person, hung between the two as they drag him towards the boat. The water sparkles sadistically behind them, as if in contempt. This third person is streaked with blood. He is limp.

He’s dead, Carla says. He dove into the water. Pendejos. Que lastima.

I want to ask her why, what’s wrong with diving into the water, but we’ve only just met. Though Carla is my cousin, it is my first time in El Salvador, and she was given babysitting duties—what she did to deserve that punishment, I do not know.

They’re not from around here, she says.

Aiming her finger behind the boat, Carla says: You see that, the spot where the two meet, where the boat gets pushed around a bit? We know not to swim around there, where the current is strong. We know especially not to dive in there. Sharp, jagged rocks line the border, she explains.

Then, again matter-of-factly, she repeats, He looks like he is missing an eye. She pulls from her beer, and adjusts her pink hat, allowing a braid of hair to escape from the back, then she reclines. Her skin, slick with tanning oil, blinks under the sun.

We had a cousin die that way, she says from below. Then, the luster of her hazel orbs is gone—her eyes are shut. The cooks too, I see, have gone back to preparing ceviche and oysters. The people on the shore keep flapping arms, swimming, and beach balls again smack the azure sky. Small Fanta-orange crabs hobble idly across the sand as the volcanic sun attempts to gently bake them. They look like little cans that had been squished down, then given Barbie limbs as an afterthought. The boat disappears, the accident leaving the blanket of the beach. I now dip my fingers into the soft ground and pull out a small shell, then another, and another. I collect the shells in my palm, and slowly small creatures crawl out of their homes. They do this in unison, as if dancers on a stage, and I wonder at how the well-choreographed creatures are so unafraid of me. I tip them back into the sand, where they disappear as quickly as they appeared, their performance suddenly over, not unlike the accident. Before I rest my eyes, I take a swig of beer.

Josh Vigil is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in blush, Expat Press, Full Stop, Neutral Spaces, Rejection Letters, and elsewhere.

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your name is a crown of vowels

settling for beauty isn’t
my strong suit. the earth
swells, exhales breath
like a purple cape unfurling,
and i am still searching
for a safe place to land.

i collect afterlife from the
clouds before it rains, try to
pack heaven inside my bones.
salvation is a jar of silver coins
unearthed by harvest; or a
garnet bird shining like blood
within an impenetrable tangle
of snow-covered bramble.

months, seasons, a codex
of ghost stories. your name
a crown of vowels, my mouth
a phantom moon stumbling
on the syllables. when my voice
returns, i’ll speak it. for now,
it will rest beneath my tongue.

J Matthew Porter lives and works in Birmingham, Alabama. He is previously published in Eunoia Review and The Iconoclast.

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shenandoah

three nights in, a pack of thru-hikers
emerged from one of many mouths

along the appalachian, and peeled
socks from their aching bodies

to drape over rocks alongside our
dinner fire: just add water

pad thai. which way told me
her name came from never knowing

where to go
or when to leave

and scout got his after getting clean,
but before he realized he’d been walking

for over a year. he’d probably
walk forever

he said, I wondered
what my name could be, or if

I’d ever need one, while trail
magic floated freely between fingers;

a canned beer, a joint, a candy bar
from the nearest town, I knew

I shouldn’t take or leave anything,
but I couldn’t help

myself, so I plucked
a smoke ring from the heavy

black sky, to wrap in wax paper,
I’d give it back once they made it

to bear mountain. that night, I pressed it
to my chest, in my sleeping bag,

wondering
what my name could be,

knowing
they’d be gone

by morning.

Aubri Kaufman is a writer and a mental health clinician from New Jersey. A handful of her work has been published in various literary magazines, including Punk Noir Magazine, Pink Plastic House, and Close To The Bone. She can be found on Twitter at @aubrirose.

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The Corner Grocery

Charleston, Illinois, 1968

Rail thin, grey flyaway hair,
she arranges change precisely.

Quarters form semi-perfect stacks
beside her register.

Her stained fingers fidget with the coins
as her constant Camel ashes.

The tiny bell that rings above her door
brings a wry smile to her face.

Leaning against the wooden counter,
she waits for regular customers to die.

Nick Dager was born and raised in Ohio and graduated high school and college in Illinois. As a result, his writing, especially his poetry, retains a Midwestern sensibility. After college, he worked for years as a journalist for a suburban Chicago daily newspaper before attending New York University’s Graduate School of Film & Television.

His poetry and short stories have appeared in such literary journals as Coe Review, Ab Intra and Karamu.

Today, he lives in Connecticut and is the editor and publisher of Digital Cinema Report, a website that chronicles motion picture business and technology.

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