The Migrating Words
keit osadchuk Cocktail, Quantum Fairy Tales, Rose Red Review, and elsewhere. Illustrated by Keit Osadchuk.
The Candle Farmers
keit osadchuk Rebecca Harrison We grew candles on our farm. It was always night. I carried embers in a copper bucket and trailed behind my mother. Under the candlelight, the ground was warm. I tucked my plait down the back of my dress. We walked narrow pathways through fields of candles. The glow hurt my eyes, so I looked up at the darkness and star blink. When we reached the empty plain, we dug holes and planted the embers. I didn’t know if my fingers were black with dirt or soot. We watched the new candles creep up out of the earth. My job was to count the flames. I smelled of cinders. My dress was wax stiff. She told me when they were grown they’d be taken to the dark cities and roads. I didn’t want them to go. When I measured them, I lied to her. I wanted her to think they were smaller. My candles were ankle high. They weren’t in straight lines. I tip-toed around clusters and gazed at flame flicker. I sat with them when the harvest men came to our farm. Their wagons were sky black. I saw my mother leading them in the far fields. The candles made them look small. I crept closer. Their faces were ember red. I didn’t want them to look at me. I saw the candles fall. I tried to remember the shape of each of their flames as the wagons took the crop away. We watched the new candles creep up out of the earth. We never kept any candles for ourselves. In our home, the shadows didn’t move; our rooms were window bright with the farm’s glow. It was steady. It rested on us. I pushed my bed into the light and crept round the shade. When my mother combed wax from my hair, she told me how the harvest men carried the crops onto ships. The sails were taken down and candles crammed upon the masts. The ships lit the black seas, slow sailing with wax and wind. My candles were waist high. I hid among them. When my mother called me, my name mingled with flame smells. She showed me how to clear the wax drips from the ground to make the crop grow faster. When she wasn’t looking, I pressed them into the earth. I wanted to slow my candles down. My fingernails clogged. I picked the wax out with her comb. When she caught me, she cut down the smallest candle and made me carry it as she led me up narrow paths. She talked but I only listened to my footsteps. I tried to push my hands into the wax. On the hilltop, she pointed at the black shapes of cities. The towers and walls were edged with candlelight smudge. I didn’t want to look. The windows were like star creep. She said the dark was full of things we couldn’t see, and without our candles the cities would become just another piece of the blackness. I wanted our crop to grow over the plains and roads, the world to be farm bright. I needed to plant my candle on the hilltop. I scratched at the earth; it felt sky hard. She knelt by me and said she’d do it instead. I could hear her hands becoming sore. After we planted it, I tried to breathe in its glow to keep part of it with me. She said it might not grow tall in the hard earth. When we reached home, I looked for its glimmer in the black sweeps. I didn’t go back to the hilltop. My crop grew. I stood on the road edge as the wagons took it away. The darkness was heavy. I bit the wax off my sleeve and tried to guess which of my candles it was from. She said the dark was full of things we couldn’t see, and without our candles the cities would become just another piece of the blackness. I grew more crops. Many harvests passed. I led the harvest men while my mother watched. She stayed by the house. I put a chair in the first field so she could be warm. I sat on the ground by her and we gazed at the flames. We didn’t talk about the black stretches in the fields where the candles had gone out. I wondered if she could still see that far. I counted the dead candles, but didn’t cut them down. The harvest men came with fewer wagons. They said the crop was only for the cities now. My mother stayed inside under the window glow. I picked out the reddest embers, took them to her, and told her the dead candles were fire bright. As she turned the embers in her fingers, she said our crop would grow tall. I didn’t tell her half the farm had gone black. I slept in a chair by her bed. She held on to the embers. She told me she once saw the candle ships when she was a child. Her hands had grown old. After she’d gone, I crouched among the dead candles and remembered. I cleared the wax drips from the ground and pretended it was my first crop. The harvests shrank. All of my mother’s fields became black. They smelled of ash. When I walked them, I heard wax crumbling beneath my feet. Across the darkness, I saw a low star. I remembered the candle we planted up on the hill. My feet slipped as I climbed the slopes. When I reached the top, it was warm with faint golden light. The candle was still small. I stared out into the blackness, seeking the city shapes my mother had shown me. But there was only the dark. I cut down the last candle and carried it home. I put it in my mother’s room. I sat with it until it went out. Rebecca Harrison sneezes like Donald Duck and can be summoned by a cake signal in the sky. Her best friend is a dog who can count. Her stories can also be read at Molotov Cocktail, Quantum Fairy Tales, Rose Red Review, and elsewhere. Illustrated by Keit Osadchuk.
World's Most Religiously Diverse Community in Small Georgia Town
Jackson Culpepper The small town of Delia, Georgia, has become the world's most religiously diverse community, containing twenty-four thousand and five religious or spiritual groups among its twenty-four thousand residents. While the exact count shifts daily, estimates place the breakdown of major belief systems as roughly representative of the world's as a whole, with about thirty percent Christian, twenty-three percent Muslim, fifteen percent Hindu, seven percent Buddhist, three percent with no religious affiliation, and two percent “other.” Such figures not only grossly generalize, but they also obscure the Venn diagram overlap between various meta-groups. The clearest such example is the messianic Sunnis, who fall toward the liberal side of Islam but revere Jesus Christ as the son of God. Another example are the pagans who claim to worship the Buddha within a Japanese red maple tree currently for sale at Woodard's Nursery. The Theravada and Tibetan Buddhists oppose such a belief, the Wiccans find it oddly specific, and the Zen Buddhists seem genuinely confused. One explanation for the panoply of religions might be the high turnover rate experienced in each. Dr. Laura Holcomb, a cultural anthropologist from Mercer University who is studying the town, initially experienced an anxiety relapse when all of her qualitative subjects changed religions—some twice—in the same week. “I still had tapes to transcribe. I had stacks of books on Mithra cults and Edgar Casey to research simply for background when—poof!—half of them came in barefoot, claiming to be Franciscans,” she said. When Dr. Holcomb recovered, she began finding patterns in the frequent migration. “It's a buffet out there,” she said. “Starting Friday night with the calls to prayer, the whole weekend is like a carnival of gods: dervishes, public recitations of Scripture, fêtes, ascetic processions, moral protests, moral counter-protests, political street-theater, ganja smoke-ins, formations of tai chi practitioners, ritual baths in the lake, baptisms of every kind, weddings of every description. To stay with only one requires either enormous dedication or a severe lack of curiosity.” When asked about her own affiliation, Dr. Holcomb shrugged, blushed, and simply said, “I'm Catholic.” In spite of the intense variation, Dr. Holcomb's findings suggest odd synchronizations across religious lines. Conversions spike in the first weeks of spring, for example, usually skewing to the pagan faiths. Alternatively, in the winter months, people change religions at only twice the normal rate of the overall United States. A fledgling study of Dr. Holcomb's study, “The Heavens Above: Charting Religious Conversion and Weather Patterns in 'Pandora's, Jesus', & Shiva's Box: Varieties of Religious Belief in Delia, Georgia,'” finds that the turnover correlates with incoming pressure fronts. In addition, an epidemiologist from UGA is working on research that suggests changes in religion follow a viral outbreak pattern; his colleague, a chaos theorist, has set out to map conversions on a Poisson distribution. Among the variables Dr. Holcomb studied was the town's violent crime rate as correlated with religious activity. “To the relief of my more religious researchers,” she said, “the average rate of violence over three years did not deviate very far from that of nearby, less religiously diverse but otherwise comparable towns. That is, except for the extremist spikes.” The spikes Dr. Holcomb refers to are instances of individual or group violence deemed “ideological in nature.” “Three a year,” she said. “In April two years of the three. Otherwise, it was random.” When asked about the nature of the perpetrators, Dr. Holcomb explained, “The violent groups, the really hateful ones, come out of nowhere and usually die out once the incident has happened, after everyone gets arrested. If they do remain, they aren't nearly as active. I bet with more data, I could even spot them before the incidents—but at that point, what could you really do about it?” Further pressed on the types of faith that produced the violent groups, Dr. Holcomb tersely explained that the uniting factors among the violent groups are a cult-like insularity and feelings of opposition to the overall society. “Groups feeling like the whole world is going to hell, I see plenty of those every day. It's when they start rejecting that world, dehumanizing the people who they feel oppose them, that's one of the warning signs,” she said. But those instances of terror fail to cloud the wonder Dr. Holcomb feels in this vibrant town. “I'm living in a dream,” she said, “where it's like all the souls of these people, their hearts, their joy and sorrow, are turned inside-out for all to see. Sometimes I remember with awe that the world is like this—it's overwhelming. I think I know what Edgar Mitchell meant when he looked back on the earth from Apollo 14, seeing it without any national map lines, just a blue and white and green marble, and he thought, 'That's home.' That's what I feel like, that somehow this is home, strange as it is.” On only one day, May 3 of last year, did more than ninety-nine percent of Delia residents convert to a single faith. Although the phenomenon was over by sundown, Delia's tiny Episcopal church experienced its biggest attendance (and offering) to date. Jackson Culpepper grew up in the South and is just fine being stuck with it. His work struggles with the contradictions of the region–pastoral beauty versus violence, community versus religiosity–to find ways that these struggles are everywhere, but only more visible in the South and its stories. He currently lives with his wife, Margaret Culpepper, two horses, and two dogs in east Tennessee. ILLUSTRATION BY KEIT OSADCHUK   keit osadchuk
Adult Daughters of Hybrid Murderesses
Jan Stinchcomb We’re all ashamed of our mothers in this place. Mine’s the one chomping on fresh crickets, which isn’t nearly as bad as the things she did when I was in middle school, like tearing the wings off Lauren Fontaine’s yellow swallowtail costume at the science fair. I was dressed as a Komodo dragon that day, thank God, and so I sank further into my papier-mâché head and tried to disappear. I got my wish: Mom took me home, piled our stuff in her beater car, and drove off to yet another desert town. If you had told me then how much worse it would get, I would have sacrificed my Komodo-self to the asphalt hell of the highway. Mom, all leather skin and cornrowed white hair, has lost her power. She is never without her oxygen tank, always slumped in her wheelchair. She chain-smokes and refuses to eat anything but insects. Nobody is afraid of her now. Her claws lie limp in her lap. Mom, all leather skin and cornrowed white hair, has lost her power. Nadia visits the State Hospital for Hybrid Murderesses on Wednesdays, like me. Her mom used to be able to turn men to stone, but they shut that down with a simple skin graft. She’s still mobile but prefers to stay in her room, choking on her outrage. Over bitter coffee Nadia and I enjoy our strange sisterhood. “Guess what I read,” she says. “You can pass on trauma in your DNA. Think about it, Rachel.” “I have. But my DNA stops here. What are you worried about? You’re not thinking of having kids, are you, Nadia?” She spits out the coffee without answering me. We both think it but don’t say it: It’s hard for girls like us to bond with others. We are statistically unlikely to find partners. I don’t care. They can keep their DNA research. I want my youth back. I want my boyfriend back. In high school I was so poor I wore the same dress every day, a delicate lace number that turned into a miniskirt the taller I grew. My grades were perfect. I was in student government. Back then I believed a stellar performance could somehow transport me out of my mother’s world. But, like Nadia said, they’re always learning more fun facts about that pesky DNA. Nadia and I leave before visiting hours are over and head to a nearby dive that serves margaritas. Sometimes I wish we lived closer to each other since there are so few people like us in the world, but I know how that would go. It doesn’t take much alcohol to get us talking about the unspeakable, and that, contrary to popular opinion, does not set you free. It is a one-way express ticket to darkness. I hate what I am made of but it’s not my fault. “Actually,” Nadia says halfway into the first pitcher, “I’m still thinking about the victims.” “The victims?” “Our mothers caused the trauma those people are now passing on to their kids. It’s so unfair.” “If they even survived. I know my mother’s . . . prey didn’t.” “Well, I can’t say the same. Some of my mom’s victims are still alive. Think about it.” “I don’t want to think about it, Nadia.” They can keep their DNA research. I want my youth back. I want my boyfriend back. I’m worried she has started to drown in something more than liquor, but then she lights up. “Hey, Rachel, look over there.” I know who she sees: a redhead, the daughter of this woman who is mostly snail. We never talk to her. I didn’t even know she came to this bar. “No! Do not call her over here. No way.” “Hell no. Of course not.” We keep drinking until Nadia breaks the silence, the unspoken vow not to disrespect others, and says, “What the hell? What was the snail-woman’s MO? Come on now. Think about it, Rachel: what did she do to her victims?” “I don’t know,” I say, copying my mother’s sassy twang, “but it must have been real slow.” We lose it. Tequila burns our noses. We laugh so hard the waitress circles back to check on us. This is a rough honkytonk but they won’t indulge certain behaviors. If we’re already ripped, they want us out of here. I wave the girl away and pinch my wrist to stop the laughter. “Did she slime them to death?” Nadia whispers. “What do snails do, anyway? Christ.” “I don’t know. Anyhow, it’s not right to laugh at the suffering of others. That kind of behavior leads to sadism and criminality. Remember?” “I remember, Doctor.” We kill our giggles and keep drinking. It is nice to have a laugh. For so many years we weren’t allowed any lightness. We were supposed to apologize for living, as if we were at fault. It is nice to have a laugh. For so many years we weren’t allowed any lightness Why did nobody see me as a victim? Spike was my boyfriend, after all. I lost someone, too, and to my own mother! But Spike’s mom didn’t see it that way. She wanted everyone to believe I had lured Spike to our apartment so that the lizard matriarch could kill him. Spike and I only had sex once. He was my first. I don’t have lizard skin on my body, not anywhere. No claws. I have surrendered my nakedness to every kind of search, as the record will state. I am not my mother. I don’t know how long I will sit here, or if I will order another pitcher. I have taken the detour to my ugly past, the worst direction for the disenfranchised. I ran away after Spike’s murder, walked out to the highway and hopped into the first truck that would take me. The driver ran his hand straight up my thigh to my crotch. Murderous rage flooded my body, and I knew I was my mother’s daughter. I understood her. The distance between us disappeared. “What’s wrong, Rachel?” Nadia asks. “Nothing.” I shrug off my DNA and lean in to kiss her. Jan Stinchcomb is the author of the novella, Find the Girl (Main Street Rag). She has ruined her life for short stories and is trying to find parking right now somewhere in Los Angeles. Find her at www.janstinchcomb.com and @janstinchcomb. Illustration by Keit Osadchuk. keit osadchuk
A Death Threat from the Hair Club for Men
keit osadchuk Michael Alessi Greetings brother, Remember the church basement, aluminum chairs, coven lighting. How some members bring baggies of what they shed in the shower basin, but most prefer the sacrifice; kneeling, we pluck eyelashes, brows, beard hairs to stitch into one lucky scalp, selected by short straw. The Sunday chimp gang huddled in our grooming circle so someone like you, bald as a disco ball, can lease a week of full, thick hair, once the rest of us admire our needlepoint skills, tugging curls just to watch them bounce in place. Of course, the after photos show us smiling in terror. We all know someone who tried to take the hair and run. Someone weak. Someone with a family they left behind when they turned up parsed in garbage bags in the trunk of their car, or someone who didn’t turn up at all. We might strike their names, but when it’s your turn, when you see the image of yourself―trimmer and tanner and bathed, somehow, in light that seems excited to touch you, the kind of light that glistens on rotisserie chickens and bodybuilders’ testicular biceps―you think of running too. We all know someone who tried to take the hair and run. You are seeing this letter, and you’ve piled all the furniture against the door of tonight’s motel room. The phone is bubbling in the toilet. What started as a volcanic eruption of surfer hair is now a crew-cut fade; the stolen curls you stuffed inside a pillow case to bury in the desert for safekeeping. Your scalp itches as if all the roots want to wriggle out at once. It might be because it’s Sunday, because as you’ve always suspected, your body is here to embarrass you; that it was foolish to hope you could grow any way but older, or that you could hold two photos of yourself and see two different people with no loss to link them. The point is, brother, when we break in through the windows, our bald heads blackened with shoe polish, our knives sharpened for the scalping, you are already kneeling. Michael Alessi received his MFA from Old Dominion University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in such literary journals as Mid-American Review, Passages North, The Pinch, the Minnesota Review, and New Delta Review, among others. Raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, he lives in Chicago. Illustration by Keit Osadchuk.
Short Stories
Michael Torres Look at This When I was five my best friend Ruben Cabrera showed me the gun belonging to his big brother, a guy from an up-and-coming gang in the neighborhood that was gaining notoriety for its acts of violence against older, bigger gangs. In the toolshed, with the door cracked just enough for sunlight to slide in, Ruben brought the black gun up so that it seemed to hover over my nose and behind it in the dark an excited voice fired out, Cool, huh? Playing Suicide In a short story I titled “Suicide” after a childhood game, I recounted elementary school as a fifth- and sixth-grade me who spent recess with friends on a handball court hurling and kicking a red dodgeball at the wall, waiting for it to bounce back. In the game, if you dropped the ball you had to run the gauntlet of ten- and eleven-year-old arms and legs swinging for your body. I was in college, away from home, reminiscing on my roots. I wrote as a chubby boy named Gregory I knew from those days. He was the kind of kid who, like all of us, wanted to be accepted, but kept his polo shirt tucked in because his mother sent him to school that way. In the story, he played to be one of us. I beat him before he could get to the wall so that he crawled off the court to the sound of the ball bouncing around again, while children applauded his tolerance, his boyhood-manhood. In the end he switched schools and I never saw him again. What You Gonna Do Now? I’m sixteen at the indoor swap meet and the angry vato in front of me keeps telling me who he knows, where those people he knows are from, and what they’ll do to me and my homies. I tell him we could both call all the people we know and see what happens next. It’s simple, I explain: In this town everybody knows somebody, so it doesn’t matter who you know. I’m aware of my breathing, the sweat of my palms. He walks away saying, Watch, bitch, before disappearing among parked cars. Smart Red Mouths New Year’s Eve, 2005. Me and the guys are nineteen and drunk at the Lemon Tree Motel. After our friend Laura invites some young Marine friends of hers without telling us, our friend Vela gets an idea of how to get them to leave: What are you looking at, he tells them from across the room. Then, You think I’m cute? It works, but we end up in the parking lot, Jesse swinging a mini bat, me trying to get between Danny and one of the soldiers, the rest of the guests staring from their open doors. What We’re Left With I revisited the “Suicide” piece a year later. I thought about what happened on that handball court. I wondered how things ended with me and Gregory in real life and it took me a moment to remember that he was never there, that he never played or even got close to the handball court. But I couldn’t separate him from the story. I didn’t want to. He became what happened, the story I wanted to tell. Red Ball Bounce I think about the shadows we stood in, the dark shapes we still feel hovering, those deeper voices behind us—taller, stronger—that we couldn’t say no to. How we took with us, into toolsheds, through the playgrounds where we ran in circles, and then into manhood and motel parking lots, those stories of taut limbs swinging that our brothers showed us—how we keep passing these stories down with our knuckles. Born and raised in Pomona, California, Michael Torres spent his childhood summers reading and writing book reports for his sister, and his adolescence as a graffiti artist. His work has appeared in Okey-Panky, Miramar, The Boiler, and other journals. Currently, he is an MFA candidate at Minnesota State University, Mankato, where he teaches creative writing and works on Blue Earth Review. Illustration by Keit Osadchuk. keit osadchuk
Listerine
keit osadchuk Jono Naito Grandma has been sober twelve years, we think. She says it’s ‘cause family fucks her up plenty. She says that from her seat by the window—by the action, she calls it. As police cars and packs of teens pass, she comments on them, even when she’s alone, like she is the voice in their heads. We don't listen to Grandma too much because she already is the voice in our heads, from the second we are born. It is a real something to find your consciousness in the living room every day, decomposing, complaining about the orange juice. It is a real something to find your consciousness in the living room every day, decomposing, complaining about the orange juice.   Momma, Grandma, Mildred my sister, Mikaela my other sister, Francis my brother, and cousin Wayne live in the cubbyholes of a two-story house on Spring. Momma says family is closer this way. Security. I get insecurity. When a friend comes over, I have us sit on the porch no matter the weather. I do not want them to see that my sister's room is the end of the hallway, walled off by frayed curtains. When Auntie calls me, I have to yell for her to hear me through the muffled static. She says she got evicted from her own house. Her boyfriend waved that gun of his around until the cops came and told her it was best for her to go. She has twenty-four hours, and the same cops circle the block when they are off-duty. I call up the other black sheep. Marcus, Rueben, Clara, the ones who stood at counters all day serving up food they can't afford. The food stamp gatherers. Marcus lives with his parents and kid sisters on Hudson, surrounded by parking lot. Rueben and Clara share a single room they rent from a retired hairdresser next door. That old ogre loves Rueben and Clara, and hates me, and when she wants to be rid of trash, it’s sprayed with Febreeze and left near my bedroom window because she heard I have asthma. She does it because I’m a “meddler.” The group and I pull into Auntie's driveway and come in all at once. She hugs Clara first, then Rueben, then me, then Marcus. I appreciate that I come before someone. We pack her collections of magazines and records, all quiet and listening to her boyfriend loading and unloading the gun in his room. He won't come out and kill us—he can't afford the bullets. So we start packing his silverware too, all three sets, and the pans. By the time we roll away, he is out the door, yelling after us, firing off a shot into the brown lawn. We don't hear from him again; we think the cops heard. She hugs Clara first, then Rueben, then me, then Marcus. I appreciate that I come before someone.   The community garden is getting shut down next week. I work there every day, pulling weeds. I want the block to be beautiful, for people to look at it like it isn't Mikaela snoring, hidden at the end of the hall. The town wants it turned back into a trash heap. I send them a letter by sliding it under the chained front door of town hall, saying they need trash cans for all that trash. The trash piles up on corners, it piles up in homes. We are not allowed to have trash out on the lawn for pick-up, you have to hand it over at 7 a.m. to the truckers. So we have people out on the lawns instead, all that garbage stuffed in the house with the animals and grandparents. I am in charge of Thanksgiving this year, and to make space I put all the trash in the yard and hide it under a tarp. I gather up all the vegetables in the garden; I don’t want waste. I count the chairs in the house and have one short, so I steal a chair from the hairdresser's porch. Grandma mumbles to the bright-red tomatoes, the clean lettuce, the baked potatoes right out of the earth. Auntie says she never saw food so delicious, let alone ate it. She says I should be a chef and we all laugh. Grandma takes a whole tomato and eats it raw, the blood of it soaking down her chin. Wiping her up, Marcus says it’s good to have us all in one place, without all the garbage. We are a real family, he says. Security, Momma says. But when we gonna get privacy, Mikaela says. We laugh again, and Grandma excuses herself. She sneaks Listerine in the bathroom, and remembers the first tomatoes she ever grew. Somewhere in the snowy drumlins of Syracuse University, Jono Naito is searching for their MFA and a telescope. Their work is in or forthcoming from Gravel, bluestockings, and more, as well as online at jononaito.com. Illustration by Keit Osadchuk.
Nothing But Monsters
keit osadchuk on Twitter @other_katie. Illustration by Keit Osadchuk.
Listless
keit osadchuk Demitri Acosta The boy awoke, listlessly, without stirring; a mere blinking of his eyes until they agreed to remain open and seeing. He lay still with his head on the pillow, his dreams drifting up and away in locks of vapor and mist. The room was dark. The pale early morning light seeped in from behind the shut blue curtains, falling in rays and shafts about the bed. The boy watched the tiny dust particles drifting lazily in the light, unconcerned with whatever his business was. The boy was sitting inside an elevated train. He was dressed for the day with a satchel atop his lap. The seats in the train were arranged in two rows, facing each other, along the sides of the car. Above the seats were square windows, which were no more than simple panes of glass, rubber-framed and un-openable. Few people were inside. A couple seats away from the boy, to his right, sat a young mother with her daughter, who drank apple juice from a sippy-cup and sat with her legs swinging over the edge of her seat, her feet dangling inches away from the floor. In the row across from the boy sat only two people: a blonde girl, to his left, of about the same age of the boy, who was deeply engaged in her phone, from which a red cord ran to a set of red headphones on her rhythmically bobbing head; and an old man, to his right, dressed in a khaki suit accompanied by a khaki fedora, who read a folded-up newspaper with a face that became ever more aggravated. The train screeched down the tracks, and the people inside rocked and swayed with the train. The boy gazed out the window beside him, watching the early afternoon city under the blue and cloudless sky; the sun was behind him, and all the buildings slipped by in a pleasant melange of tan and gray and burgundy. In a window of one of the buildings, the boy saw, for a moment—an instant—a woman. She supported her head with her left hand, the elbow of which was propped up on the open window's ledge; her right hand held a crimson mug. Her short brown hair fluttered softly in the wind. And then she was gone, for the train was turning. For a moment, they looked at each other, but he knew she did not see him. To the woman, he didn't exist—there was only the train. To the woman, he didn't exist—there was only the train. The train was turning to the left and all the cars slightly tilted and leaned on their left side. The boy felt it in his stomach, and as he was wondering what the woman's mug contained, another train came roaring up on the opposite tracks. The old man turned around and glanced at it. It's glass and metallic body filled up the windows across from the boy. He'd seen this happen many times, but never like this, while both trains were turning down a bend in the tracks. It was moving very quickly. He looked into the quick passing windows; the other train was just as meagerly populated, but the seats were differently arranged. Then, through the window, above the other train, the boy saw a thin streak of blue. Sky blue. The cars were tilting further back, the blue streak above the other train grew, and the feeling in the boy's stomach rose to his chest. The feeling was neither painful nor sickening—it was odd; it was almost like a tickle. And time slowed. The boy felt himself falling, felt them all falling. But to the woman in the window, it would be only the train falling. Gravity was loosening its grip. The boy felt his weight being lifted away into nothing. Gravity was loosening its grip. The boy felt his weight being lifted away into nothing. His satchel was beginning to hover above his lap. He looked at the girl sitting in the row of seats opposite him; her headphone cord was rising in the air, along with her blonde hair. The old man's fedora was up and off his head. The mother and child simply stared at the growing streak of blue; the apple juice was sliding up the sides of the sippy-cup and out the mouthpiece in little orbs and ribbons. And in that moment—in that instant—the boy loved them all. It was a love wholly unconditional and unbreakable. He wanted to hold all of them close, to tell them what he felt, and how they were all bound in this one moment, forever inseparable. He thought of the woman looking out the window. Though she wasn't bound to him the way the others were, though she'll never know what he felt, he loved the woman just as much. In her idleness and possible boredom, she was beautiful. He wondered what her name was. In time, the sky ripped through the metal and glass of the other train and fully bloomed, blue and wonderful, in the window opposite the boy, while they all drifted lazily in the light. Demitri Acosta is a young writer, born and raised on the north side of Chicago. He spends the majority of his time daydreaming and cleaning cat hair off his clothes with a lint roller. Illustration by Keit Osadchuk.
The Sea Urchin
Marci Calabretta Grandmother kept a diver’s knife strapped to her thigh. Daily, before the night could fray into dawn, she dived half a mile from shore, inhaling three minutes of air at a time. All morning she pried abalone and sea urchins from slick rock. Once, when she returned, I counted the stiff lines around her mouth, which never seemed to open but held back entire tides. On my birthday, she brought me a ball of spines in a bucket, lifted its bit of ocean into my cupped hands. The creature’s round mouth explored the cracks of my palm, tasting the salt on my skin, recoiling. An offering like the pincushions I often brought my mother, every needle threaded with a different color. Grandmother boiled garlic, soybeans, salt into broth, ladled the seaweed soup into a white bowl. She turned the urchin and broke it open, scooped out the ocher roe with a spoon, dropped it in among the kelp. How it sank like a sun into the murk, dissolved. I spooned mouthfuls at a time as she harvested the rest of the body’s cavern, a move as practiced as mending her thick black diving skins and nets. Her fingers were steady against the spines. What I remember is not the sweetness or the slickness, but the heat rising from the broth, a mouth wide enough to swallow the needles and flesh of the sea. Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello has received poetry fellowships from Kundiman and the Knight Foundation, among others. She is co-founder and managing editor for Print-Oriented Bastards. Visit her at www.marcicalabretta.com. Illustration by Keit Osadchuk. keit osadchuk
Operation Desert Storm
keit osadchuk Erin Sharkey My mother grew up in a home on a road that meandered over rolling hills, slow like early suburban developments. When she was in high school, the low long rambler, a perfect space to host cocktail parties and bridge games, became home to boys from the royal family in Kuwait. When the letter from the Foreign Students Exchange Program came, Kuwait hid from my grandpa, who had to put on his reading glasses to find on the big dusty-paged world map. . . . Kuwait hid from my grandpa, who had to put on his reading glasses to find on the big dusty-paged world map.   Fadel was the brother who stayed the longest, the one who called my grandma “Mom.” He wore strong, spicy cologne, the kind that chokes and stings, lingers long after he has left the room. My mom told me that when he lived with them, he got a brand new car every six months and threw away his undershirts after he had worn them just once. He was a good friend to my dad, Curtis, the dad who I never saw. Fadel came to visit every few years throughout my childhood, his family growing each time. He’d grab at the fat on my sides while I tried to go unnoticed. He pulled me near, through the fog of his cologne, to whisper that I was sure big, big like his friend Curtis. Fadel’s new wife, Hannan, would wait until Fadel and my grandfather had gone to look for new golf clubs and she’d pull her veil down, let me play with her hair, admire the span and angle of her arm, her thin wrists, her light smell. Her arms moved like waves. Then turned quickly stone, when she heard them return through the front door. Hannan brought with her across the ocean a bright gold pendant for me, with my name in Arabic. I could tell by the way my mother held it that I must be very gentle with this gift, must cherish it. Her arms moved like waves. Then turned quickly stone, when she heard them return through the front door.   For Christmas, two weeks after my tenth birthday, my cousin Mary gave me a book called Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. Mary and her sisters were older and held proudly the physical features of our Scandinavian heritage, while I wore the ill-fitting brown skin of a white black girl. I read the thin red book day and night, holding my breath. I had nightmares of hiding in small boats across a dangerous sea. Number the Stars made me scared to be half-Danish, scared to be an observer, to carry the duty to save, to keep secrets, to smuggle your Jewish friends in the night to safety. Fadel hadn’t called in months when grandma got a letter. He wrote that they escaped to Saudi Arabia in the night; Hannan and the children were safe with her sisters. At the video rental store he owned, looters spilled glass and video plastic in the street. Soldiers tore at Hannan’s black veil, ripped and exposed her soft, hairy arms. They stole her wedding dress; one wore it and danced around their living room. Mom quietly read the rest of the letter. She shook her head and covered her mouth. In Mrs. Fields’s class, we wrote letters to soldiers, men who I imagined were sleeping in the desert, in the sand, in wedding dresses.   In Mrs. Fields’s class, we wrote letters to soldiers, men who I imagined were sleeping in the desert, in the sand, in wedding dresses. She wrote on the board the format we should use for the letters: Dear ________, Body. Sincerely, Erin My classmates bent over the paper on their desks and earnestly did their patriotic work. So did I. A month later, in response, I received a package from a soldier. It contained: a package of stale Chiclets a small, stern-faced military portrait a petrified scorpion a letter to a little boy named Aaron a stamp for encouragement Erin Sharkey is a poet, essayist, educator, and graphic designer based in Minneapolis, MN. She is the co-founder of an artist collective called Free Black Dirt and serves as the serious personality in a classic odd couple duo as co-host for the weekly podcast Black Market Reads. Erin loves '90s R&B, cheeseburgers, and her sewing machine. Illustration by Keit Osadchuk.
Secret Message
keit osadchuk e-newsletter, and may be found at simonajacobs.blogspot.com. Illustration by Keit Osadchuk.
Inflammation
Therese Tully   Marjorie woke that day with a distinct pain in her right ear—it was someone talking about her—isn’t that what they said? Your ears ring when someone is talking about you? But this wasn’t a ringing—it was a pain, deep. It seemed to radiate from her inner ear to the back of her throat and into the small glands of her neck. Marjorie went into the restroom facilities and pulled a long white syringe out of the cabinet that hung above the sink. She looked at her coloring under the bathroom lights. Yellow, even in the bluish lights they had installed. She took the long, thin syringe to her ear and sucked out the soreness, then removed it from her ear, squirted it out into her palm, the source of her troubles. It was a green clump of cells, soft, soggy, and pulsing with life. The pressure was gone, and she could almost think clearly. The mound, about the size of a golf ball, was hot in her hands. She turned it over before depositing it into the white machine beside her sink. It was sucked in with a whoosh, and she brushed her teeth in time to the soft humming of its cycle. When it pinged, alerting her the cycle was up, she spit out her toothpaste and checked its screen. Identified: Influenza The flu—I wonder how that got there, she said aloud to no one. She depressed the machine’s “Cleaning” button and imagined how it incinerated the infected cells within. Back in her bed, Marjorie wondered what having the flu would feel like. She tested out a cough and closed her eyes—scanning her body from top to bottom like she did in her daily meditation sessions. She didn’t feel anything else lurking so tangibly beneath her surface. She thought of her scans and popped out of bed, flicked on the overhead lights in her sleeping chamber, and grabbed the 3D x-rays from her desk. She sat back in her plastic desk chair and held them to the overhead lights. One labeled "M," the other "T." She held the "T" slide up in her left hand and saw the dual spheres of a skull with white patterns dancing inside. She had nearly memorized their symmetries, their standard irregularities. She was confident she could sketch them from memory if she tried. She held the "M" slide up in her right hand. It was foreign and yet familiar. She could not follow the wavy lines to fruition. The roads led nowhere, pot holed and crazy. These cells that weighed so heavily on her. She put the two films back into the manila envelope, fastened it gingerly, and threw it with too much force onto the clear top of her desk. Her mother would not be happy to know that she took the scans. Once she cooled, she shuffled them to the bottom of a desk drawer. Trisha had been dead for 116 days. But who was counting? All she could see was the brilliant red blood staining her center part. Blonde turning brown as she lay in the quiet wreckage of an accident. Trisha’s light, easy joy seemed uncomplicated to Marjorie, and it was so quickly wasted away. The lesser twin remained. Marjorie imagined the ocean lifting her up. She dove under the big waves, felt the salt water seeping into her skin. Cleaning—clearing—healing. She hoped the saline would swirl around her brain and ease the swelling of her sadness. Just a touch of salt water. Earth, air, water, and sky breaking and balancing the chemical compounds in her head. She saw her scans, puffy white clouds fluid and floating. No more stagnation. After they found Marjorie floating in her bathtub, blood mixed with water in a dirty pink aftermath, the medical examiner fulfilled one request for her mother. She removed a small corner of Marjorie’s brain and put it into the machine next to her sink, where she had brushed her teeth mornings and evenings. The two stood waiting for the machine to complete its cycle. Identified: Unspeakable Sadness Marjorie’s mother and the medical examiner stood quietly, not daring to breathe as the machine made its next and final click, incinerating, for good, the sadness that Marjorie could not. "Inflammation" was a finalist in our 2015 Short Fiction Contest. Therese Tully explores themes of gender, mental disorder, and familial relationships in a body of work that focuses largely on introspection and everyday life. Illustration by Keit Osadchuk. keit osadchuk
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The Lights
Alex Olson We’re on a country road, zipping by wheat and corn, horses and countryside. I’m in the back seat of the van, the very back, quiet and alone. My parents are one row up, my grandparents leagues ahead in the very front. It is getting dark, the sky is a dark blue-purple. But they don’t matter. None of us matter. Because it’s coming. I saw the briefest flicker of it maybe a mile back, but now it’s growing, like a burning fire, rising, rising higher into the sky. It’s a winking star, lying on the road like a wounded creature, flashing its death mewls, crying for help. But they don’t matter. None of us matter. Because it’s coming. There are towns in Michigan that are on patches of highway, towns that spring up around the black river of pavement like settlements used to appear around water or gold. Except now it’s a Walmart, a Meijer, a mall. These juggernauts bring an entire economy and a row of minions to pile on either side of the four-lane. And I love it. I see those lights, those bright fluorescents and a feeling burns in my chest. It fills me up, a total euphoria that is paired with a hungry longing. Taco Bell, McDonald's, GameStop, JC Penney, Gino’s Family Dining, Target, Walmart, Kmart. They come galloping out of the horizon like cowboys of old, delivering me that rush, that sense of fulfillment. I love them all equally. They’re like the action figures I line up on my bedroom floor: each one has a name and a unique ability. Spider-Man can do flips. Walmart has the clearance toy section. I see those lights, those bright fluorescents and a feeling burns in my chest. It fills me up. We’re on the verge of the spread now. The first stores are passing us and I hope, I hope that we stop somewhere. Anywhere. I want to eat cheap, greasy food that’s been fried and tossed around carelessly. I want to wander among forests of tall shelves stacked with PRODUCTS. Everything in life can be solved with tools found at Target. I love the cool tile of retail stores. I love the quartered-off portions of Happy Meals—four McNuggets and a handful of fries. Every time! Mom might ignore me and Dad might beat the fuck out of me, but I’ll always have four nuggets in my Happy Meal. I see the lights of the bigger department stores and my heart beats faster. There’s a chance, a slim one, that we’ll go in. We’ll pass through the magical automatic gates and look at all the stuff. And there will be sales and markdowns! And there’s a chance, buried deep, that I’ll get SOMETHING. It doesn’t matter what. A toy gun. A soda. A blanket. Something that I can hold and clutch and declare as mine for now and forever, or at least until Dad sets my toys on fire again. I want to eat cheap, greasy food that’s been fried and tossed around carelessly. I want to wander among forests of tall shelves stacked with PRODUCTS. The van pauses at a stoplight, but I’m moaning because we’re not in the turning lane. Is it possible that my family isn’t seeing all this? There’s Wendy’s! There’s a Bed, Bath & Beyond! How are they not pulling over, frothing at the mouth to get out? How come they don’t rush into the store with all their adult money and buy every single thing? I could get something. I could casually look at a toy and my grandmother might take pity on me and say: “You like that, do you, dear? Put it in the cart and Granny will get it for you.” This has happened before, to my great delight. But I once put something in the cart and my Dad took it out and threw it back on the shelf. Later on he hit me a lot for being greedy, which I didn’t understand because the Transformer was ON SALE. It said so in big red letters. My family isn’t stopping and we’ve passed all the big stores. Now all that’s left is a few shoe places and a store where you get wedding clothes. We’ve passed the goodness. I feel deflated. For a few blissful seconds I thought I’d be gobbled up by the shiny lights, tossed into the teeth of the great beast, masticated between blocky red letters that read: TARGET and WALMART. I had hoped to be swallowed by everything I wanted and could not have. I had hoped to be swallowed by everything I wanted and could not have. I sighed and turned my head to watch the fading lights. Soon I stopped being able to pick out individual buildings; they became a blur. Even, sadly, the bright yellow arch of McDonald's blinked out, too, as the van went down a hill. I settled back into the warm groove of my seat, determined to pout and stare out my window. There was no hope in the world, I was sure of it. We had not stopped. I would be going home to my old toys and dinner cooked on the stove. Peas and potatoes, probably. But something caught my eye. Something shiny. It’s like a fishing lure dancing in front of my face. Up ahead, maybe a mile. Another bundle of promising lights. Alex Olson is a college student from Port Huron, MI. He has been writing since he was a little kid, and communicates mainly by shrugging. Illustrated by Keit Osadchuk
The Dream Work
Jane Blunschi Seven months before your fortieth birthday, decide that you want to have a baby. Tell your wife. She is optimistic and spontaneous, ten years older than you, and very healthy. She goes to therapy and acupuncture and takes care of her body by running twenty miles a week. She loves the idea. Tell your gynecologist what you’re thinking of doing. He asks about your periods and reminds you that you are almost forty years old, as if you need reminding. You mostly want to know if you have enough eggs and if they are any good. He sends you to an obstetrician who won’t care that you are gay. You live in Arkansas. The obstetrician is a lesbian too, or at least you think she is.“You’re almost forty,” she says while she examines the paperwork you filled out in the waiting room. “Have you been trying to get pregnant?” Tell her that your husband is a lady and that you’ve been trying a lot, with no luck. The doctor calls you at work three days later and says that the blood tests she ordered show that you have a decent amount of eggs left. Ask her, on a scale from A to F, how your eggs rate. B+, she says. “Have you been trying to get pregnant?” Tell her that your husband is a lady and that you’ve been trying a lot, with no luck. Stop taking antidepressants. Tell yourself that you feel fine for the first two weeks. After that, privately admit that most things feel hard: taking a shower, putting gas in your car, ordering food at a restaurant. Remind yourself that you’re only doing this for a little while, and that you can start taking the pills again after the baby is born. You want to nurse the baby for as long as possible, so you can take antidepressants again in three years. Console yourself with the fantasy that the pregnancy hormones cascading through your serotonin-starved brain and the little baby you will be responsible for looking after will fix your depression. Push away the fear that you will feel even worse than you do now: needy and hungry and sluggish. Buy three thick books about pregnancy and breastfeeding and put them on your nightstand. Plan to read them cover-to-cover once you know that you are pregnant. Call upon every bit of spiritual and magical juju you know. This will keep your fears at bay. Your fears: having a miscarriage, getting postpartum depression, failing at breast-feeding, having a baby with Down Syndrome because you’re over forty, having a baby who never sleeps, having a child who turns out to be a holy terror. And on and on and on. Call upon every bit of spiritual and magical juju you know. This will keep your fears at bay. Pay a woman in San Francisco two hundred dollars to read your astrological chart to you over the phone. She says that the alignment of planets in your chart indicates that you are a person who needs a lot of sleep, and that this need conflicts with parenthood. Agree with her. Yes, you need a lot of sleep. Call the Carmelites. Get some energy work. Pay a woman in your hometown two hundred dollars to press your feet and shoulders and hips and forehead while she chants in what sounds like a made-up language. Get excited when she says that she can feel someone, that someone is right there. Your baby. Your baby is right there. Look for sperm. Hurry. Your just-okay eggs aren’t getting any younger. Ask three other lesbian couples who have children where they got their sperm. They name a cryobank in California and you and your wife spend hours paging through possible donors. Choose a theater professor with a squeaky-clean bill of health and none of the red flags that exist in your own family history: addiction, obesity, depression. Ignore the unease you feel about having a stranger’s baby. Look for sperm. Hurry. Your just-okay eggs aren’t getting any younger. Plan the artificial insemination so that the baby arrives at a convenient time for you and your wife. December is the best time for the baby to be born; you will both be off work for part of December. You are positive you will get pregnant on the first try. Agonize over what to wear to get pregnant. Decide on Levi’s and a black T-shirt with a cowgirl printed on the front. Put on a cardigan and some makeup and a pair of moccasins. Imprint these choices in your mind. They will be part of the story you’ll tell your child about this day. The insemination is simple. A long tube attached to a syringe full of sperm is threaded through your cervix into your uterus. As the cool fluid rushes in, look at the doctor at the foot of the table and make a weak joke about how many women it takes to get a lesbian pregnant. Don’t roll your eyes when she says, “Hey, teamwork makes the dream work.” Close them and think baby-making thoughts. Lie on the table with your hips elevated for twenty minutes. In two weeks you will know if you are pregnant. Your wife holds your hand and distracts you with conversation about what she will make for dinner. Spaghetti. Promise to pick up a couple bell peppers on your way home. Agonize over what to wear to get pregnant. Decide on Levi’s and a black T-shirt with a cowgirl printed on the front. Assume that you are pregnant. Your body is still puffy from fertility drugs and hormones, and you are sleepy all the time and grouchier than ever. In two weeks, your period starts and it is brutal: great, cramping avalanches of thin, bright red blood mixed in with some brownish sludge you haven’t seen before. The muddy discharge is proof of the conception’s failure, the literal dregs of the party that tentatively lined your uterus. Try again right away. Promise yourself that you will be a model of restraint and drink zero cups of coffee a day instead of two and raise your voice never. You will avoid standing in front of the microwave when you use it for leftovers or water for tea. On second thought, you won’t use it at all. Or drink tea. The caffeine. Jane V. Blunschi holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Arkansas. Her Pushcart-nominated work has appeared in Cactus Heart Literary Magazine, and Gaslight, an anthology of writing by Lambda Literary Fellows. Originally from Lafayette, Louisiana, Jane lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Illustrated by Keit Osadchuk
Meeting Sebastian
, and their partner in crime. Learn more serious things about them at jononaito.com. Illustrated by Keit Osadchuk.
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