I DON'T KNOW WHAT TO TELL YOU — YAEL van der WOUDEN

Two months after my mother passed away my daughter woke me up to tell me she was sorry. I was half in a dream and said, "Honey it’s late go back to sleep," but she didn’t. She put her cold little hands on my face and said, “No” and tapped my cheeks until the dream dissolved and I was up. 

"What," I said. "What is it, yes, what," and my daughter said: 

“I died in the night. I’m sorry.” 

"Honey," I said, like there was more to that sentence but there wasn’t. I put my hands on her and she was solid, why wouldn’t she be. Standing in a hedgehog shirt, smelling like milk, the way kids do. I gathered her up and arranged her under the sheets and said, "Honey, why do you think you died?" and she shrugged and asked if she could have a soda, and would she have to go to school tomorrow, now that she’s dead. 

"You’re not dead," I said, quiet, and my eyes began to weep like they’d decided their own sadness had nothing to do with me. 

“I don’t know what to tell you,” my daughter said, knocking her foot against my leg. I used to say this to her. Then, “Can we turn on the tv?” 

The next day we stayed at home but the day after I said, "Now life doesn’t stop, okay?" and sent her back to school. Then school called and asked where my daughter was. I thought no and no but it turned out she’d hid in a bathroom stall because she was dead and didn’t want to go to class. "Her grandmother just passed away," I told her teacher, later, an explanation. I was tired and unwell, half an eyeliner on. One bottom lip lipsticked. 

"So what’s happening?" I asked her in the car on the way back. "What’s this? You’re a ghost? What?"

“Yes,” she said. “I’m a ghost.” Then made a long ooooh-sound that made her laugh and so I laughed too, which made her laugh more. "What do I do?" I panic-whispered on the phone that evening, talking to my sister. My daughter walked into the room with a white towel on her head.

“It’s my ghost hair,” she said, then danced to the tune of a candy commercial.  

"What can you do," my sister said, and told me she loved me, and yes you too and good night, shabat shalom, I’ll call again tomorrow. "Yes. B—What? Yes. Okay. Bye."

That night I wrapped us up in blankets and asked my daughter what her favourite colours were. She named every single one she could come up with, picking her nose. "Do you think you’ll be dead for much longer?" I asked. 

“No,” she said. “Maybe a day. Or maybe two.” 

"Okay," I said, and rested for a moment in the mess of her hair. My own breath smelled like milk, and she, wet from the shower, like every memory I’ve ever had.  


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Yael van der Wouden is a writer, editor, and a mixed-bag-diaspora child situated in Utrecht, the Netherlands. She co-founded Chaos Press, a Dutch feminist publishing house. In her off time she waters plants, walks into rooms to immediately forget why, and reviews books for Platypus Press' literary guide 'The Wilds.' Her work will soon appear in The Sun Magazine. Find more at yaelvanderwouden.com 

THE BIRD — MAX ANDREW DUBINSKY

A bird took my eye. I was just sixteen and in love and content to simply stroll down the sidewalk with a soda pop in one hand and my girl’s in the other when the bird, spooked by a certain hawk or the exhaust of a passing bus or deranged in its own way, descended from the heavens and collided with my face, its beak bursting my retina, tearing through my iris, and devouring my cornea. The bird flew away, spectators said, unharmed. Satisfied, I imagined it was, full of me while I lay there on the ground, writhing, shouting for vengeance, for my girl to still go to the Homecoming dance with me despite my hideous appearance. 

I think of that bird still today when I eat breakfast, drink my coffee, drive to work. I think of that bird when I make love, go for a jog, take a swim. I think of that bird every time I see my old flame at the Grab-N-Go Gas Mart on the corner, and make her give me change for things I don’t need: a Hershey bar, a bar of soap, a bag of skittles. I only ever carry a twenty. I think of a bird that is surely dead all these years later and its little bird children, dead now too, I suppose, if someone asks what I was like in high school. I spent my time in trees, on rooftops, and climbing telephone polls. I sat atop ladders, awnings, and rafters. Were you an acrobat, they ask, a thrill seeker? A bird watcher, I say. 

And it’s a bird I’m watching this morning as I slink closer to the edge of the roof, the soft gravel taking the shape of my foot with every creeping step. A bird. The bird. Impossibly still alive. And there, in its hideous black beak, my eye! Somehow after a wife, two children, an affair, testicular cancer and surgery, two houses, a college degree, a bad traffic accident, and a bet on black that paid off in roulette, the bird persists. I have no choice but to kill the bird now and take back what’s mine. I snatch its wiry leg midflight, dragging it down from the sky, and throttle the thing between my knees. I push a long index finger into each side of its precious neck, waiting for its final flutter until at last my eye is my own again. I remove my patch and let sunlight wash into the dark hole of my face one final time. The Gas-N-Go for a tube of cherry chapstick—that’s where I’ll go first. I stand and plummet from the roof—a false step misjudged by a depth perception I have not known in decades. In the commotion, the lifeless bird falls too. And though dead, it is not without one last act of cruelty, crashing into my face once more, its dead beak gouging through and taking my other eye.


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Max Andrew Dubinsky is the creator of the online graphic novel Dislocated. His work has also been featured on Chicago Public Radio as audio fiction, and on McSweeney's Internet Tendencies. He's the narrator and curator of the podcast The MAD Fictioncast, and his favorite animals are Godzilla, Bigfoot, and the giant squid. Follow him on twitter @maxdubinsky for more.

SHE'LL ONLY COME OUT AT NIGHT — KRISTINE LANGLEY MAHLER

Our guts churned as Kelly Tucker dared us into a game of “Who’s Got the Nerve to Hit Me” on those viscous, smothered-summer nights at the park backboning our neighborhood, our parents encased in the air-conditioned houses, watching Friday-night-family-programming beside our siblings on the couches. But we’d melted out our front doors and swiped our kickstands with our insteps and the yellow streetlight streamed off our exposed shoulder blades as we cut swathes through the swelter, merging, drawn together to the park. We didn’t underdog on the swings, pretending to be children, or climb on top of the soccer goals like the boys would; we weren’t lured by the tobacco fields on the other side of the broken wooden fence the way they’d called to us in the daylight. We met right at the front of the park, visible to anyone who had the guts to join us, anyone who might have the guts to follow our instantaneous desire to actually hit Kelly Tucker in the face when she dared us. 

We all wanted to do it, we all disliked her, disliked how mean she was, how unafraid. We disliked the natural bleach-streak in the ponytail she sleeked back to expose her sharply-featured, hawk-like face; we disliked her father whom we feared as she invoked his orders to elbow aside her absence at cotillion, invoked his pride in her for doing boyish things. We feared Kelly Tucker as she pushed us all out of the way on the basketball court, played harder, shot harder, slammed home-runs like a boy, wore gym shorts low like a boy, talked back to the teachers like a boy. She was mean but she was one of us; no one would punch her, no one would slap her, no one would say anything mean to her face. And she knew it.

So she scowled and narrowed her eyes with pleasure and we collected behind her as Kelly Tucker strode away from the park, right down the center of the darkened street, and we were pumping our fists in the air and yell-singing Kelly’s lyrical twist, SLAM, duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh, LET THE GIRLS BE GIRLS because we weren’t boys, we didn’t want to be boys, we would never have sung LET THE GIRLS BE BOYS. Who wanted to be a boy, all that visible desire poking pleats into their Duck Head shorts, sweaty and slapping tennis balls against the gym wall before school, the endless dirty rhymes they made from each other’s names? Who wanted to be a boy? We were girls, unbent, belligerent, say-it-to-my-fucking-face girls, though under the fluorescence of eighth grade we were soft, secret, clenching our right fists under the demure cover of our yin-yang-ringed left hands, low in our laps beneath the lab tables, hiss-whispering about Kelly Tucker, smelly fucker. But we would meet her at the park when the cicadas shrilled into the thick night quilt, the husks of our guts burning with the things we hadn’t done. She knew that too.


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Kristine Langley Mahler lives on the suburban prairie of Nebraska, where she is completing an erasure book on Seventeen's advice to teenage girls, a grant-funded project about immigration/inhabitation on native land through the lens of her French-Canadian ancestors, and a graduate degree in creative nonfiction. Her work received the 2016 Rafael Torch Award for Literary Nonfiction from Crab Orchard Review and has appeared/is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Quarter After Eight, Sweet, Storm Cellar, Split Lip Magazine, (b)OINK, Chautauqua, and elsewhere. Find her online here or here.

FLIGHT HELMET — KATHERINE GEHAN

She thinks about it mostly on airplanes, when the pilot deploys the landing gear and the whirring machinery vibrates her seat. Her final wishes stipulate cremation and one day her charred hip replacement socket and ball will be recycled into rivets or significant metal, wings, a rudder. She could affect directional flow. Through scratched Plexiglass and misty cirrus, the cars below are toys. She traces where the highways intertwine and kiss. Her metal fillings could become road signs and announce 106 miles to Topeka, or Children Playing.

The six year old’s bicycle had hooked the undercarriage of her car and threw off steering. All she heard was the scream of another pop song chorus, baby baby baby, cheery as the last. She had looked at the radio knobs so briefly. Six was too young for cavities, and the boy had been lucky, never broken a leg, no doctor had screwed metal into bone. He left behind no pieces for wing flaps, no parts to help lift her up. 


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Katherine Gehan’s writing has appeared in McSweeny’s Internet Tendency, Literary Mama, The Stockholm Review, Sundog Lit, Split Lip Magazine, People Holding, WhiskeyPaper, (b)OINK and others. She is nonfiction editor at Pithead Chapel. Say hello @StateofKate and find her work at www.kategehan.wordpress.com

BACK WHEN YOU WERE RIVER PHOENIX — JENNIFER HARVEY

You wore crop tops and flashed a peek of soft abdomen from above denim cut-offs. Rubbed the frayed edges between your finger and thumb, and listened to what all the other girls were saying. How they dreamed of him. Then, one day, you dreamed of him too.
             You were wary of Cobain, but pretended not to be, because fitting in was all that mattered. You thought maybe one day you’d try and explain this to him, just to see the frown crease his ice blue eyes. Understanding him, took a long time.
             You drew an index finger across the map and searched for Idaho, listened to the squeak of skin on paper, as the friction pulled you westward. The sound returning, unbidden in the night, as you dreamed of black bitumen, and yellow lines fading to some point in the distance. When you woke you could still feel the longing in your thighs.
             You thought becoming a man meant being this boy. This boy who stared at flowers, and let his head fall upon the shoulder of someone stronger. Someone he knew would outlive him. You thought, when you fell in love, it would be with this boy. Always this boy.
             You thought the world would evolve towards something like him. Something softer, kinder and a little slower. And as you waited for it, you pretended not to hear the hiss and spit of vipers, and the motorcycle roar of the future as it revved down the strip towards him.


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Jennifer Harvey is a Scottish writer now living in Amsterdam. Her work has appeared in various magazines and anthologies in the US and the UK. She is a Resident Reader for Carve Magazine, and when not writing can be found wandering the Amsterdam canals and dreaming up new stories. You can find her online at: www.jenharvey.net or on Twitter at @JenAnneHarvey.

SEASONS — JEFF HOARD

We pranced along fresh dirt and performed our versions of the cha-cha and foxtrot on Emma Rixington, Beloved Wife, Mother, Grandma, Aunt, August 12, 1869 - July 15, 1955, Will Be Missed By All. You smirked at the thought of her rancid and bony hand snatching my naked left foot, and I giggled about taking you with me. Our crazy dancing broke a ceramic vase settled against the gray headstone, leaving a violet to wither among the shards. I poured some lemonade on it to make it feel better. We laughed at the drenched flower as the wind picked up, cooling our sweaty bodies. Mrs. Rixington woke up, and we ran off.

*

We rustled those "flower wannabes" you always called them with every somber step surrounded by nude trees. Your grandma died a week prior, and I paid the respect you deserved. But parting came paradise in the form of inheritance, and we gabbled about your new journey after graduation while I would be stuck here fixing lemons. In a flash you pulled me to the ground, begging for a leaf angel. I obeyed, and you tossed a pile of them on my face before scurrying off. I chased after, leaving my six-second artwork that looked like a drunk had been punted out of Heaven.

*

We got hungry and fought over our new friend's nose, who you christened Snowzor the Evil Ice King. You had hoped his crooked arms and scowling expression would spook the children when it would slowly melt into the depths of Hell. Nineteen weeks was as far as we could make it, but you still kept in high spirits as I wondered what was next. A snowball smacked me back to reality as you sloshed your way around that beast. We raced back to the house, last one making hot cocoa. You grappled me, and we fell into a white poof. Snowzor would have been disgusted.

*

Raindrops dance the Viennese Waltz on Susan Burwick, December 3, 1948 - April 9, 2016, Always Loving, Always Loved. Alzheimer's grabbed tight and stripped you away piece by piece. I told you our stories every day, and tiny smirks among drool gave me hope. I scoop up some dirt, hastily plant a violet before a groundskeeper takes notice, and pour a bottle of lemonade to quench its thirst. A slight breeze ruffles my remaining white hairs, so I will stand here a little while longer, thinking maybe, just maybe you'll break through the ground, clutch my crumpled feet, and drag me with you. I promise I'll laugh all the way.


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Jeff Hoard lives north of Detroit, Michigan, with his wife and son. He graduated from Central Michigan University with a bachelor's degree in journalism and had two poems featured in The Central Review. You can find him at www.twitter.com/JeffHoard921.

HALF-LIFE — DINA L. RELLES

After the kids crush the moth on our driveway, I can see its rich red underwings more clearly. My oldest flits off to destroy an ant hole along the street’s edge. My younger son and I stay and stare at the crunched wings and legs, what’s now just a shell of a thing.

The sky’s cadaver blue and you can hear the first cracks of thunder over the hills that taunt beyond our yard. We run inside ahead of the rain.

“I’m scared,” says the littlest, who sleeps on the floor, when the storm wakes him in the middle of the night.

I think, me too, but don’t say. I sit cross-legged beside him on the carpet, my fingernails, jagged stubs, stroking his soft, hairless back. I’m scared of rain we run from. Of storms that stay at our backs. Of empty nights that fall one into the next. Scared, not of the dying, but of living half a life.

A half-life, in nuclear physics, is the time it takes for something to reduce to half its original value. 

That night, I dreamt in metaphor—a man I hardly knew placed his hands on my C-section scars. I woke and wrote in the morning: We used to chase fireflies in your front yard and now you call me ‘old friend.’ 

What I want to write is how it feels to be in the night air with someone who’s not mine. The suggestive way dew smells before sunrise. The thrill I get from driving too close to the median strip on Brookside Road. 

Sometimes I’ll undress in front of the black window, lights on, and wonder if anyone’s watching.

It’s when isotopes become unstable that they begin to decay, emitting radiation in levels that could be harmful. 

I took the express train all those years ago, after the boy in Brooklyn let me loose, watched the Raritan River pass through the plexiglass. I married the man under the mistletoe at the other end of the line. We moved out to the country. Bought a van. Sometimes we take a drive just to be anywhere other than where we’ve been.

Isotopes can lose enough of their atomic particles to turn from one element into another.

When I’m alone, I play radio music too loud and cry at the sight of cornfields and spend long afternoons on the blacktop with the children circling round.  

The term half-life can also refer to any type of decay.

And now I see the kids have crushed—sneaker to asphalt—not a moth, but a spotted lanternfly. A parasite invading where we live, threatening the fruit trees and farms. One thing always gives way to another. Not everything goes on.

What I want to say is: I’m still alive.


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Dina L. Relles lives and writes in rural Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in The AtlanticAtticus ReviewBrevity’s Blog, matchbookRiver TeethRise Up Review, and Full Grown People, among others, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is a blog editor at Proximity Magazine and slowly penning her first nonfiction collection. You can find her at www.dinarelles.com or @DinaLRelles.

SABBATICAL — AMANDA J. BERMUDEZ

She lies in the jungle for four days, fingers interlaced across her chest, like a lunatic.
             She thinks about the telling of time, ordered by a clinical calendar of due dates/thank yous/bills adjustable for 72 hours in either direction. The obsolescence of the lunar.
             She thinks about the death of Elliott Smith. She strives to recall whether his name is spelled with one T or two.
             She does not eat; she feels hunger.
             She breathes the freshest air ever breathed, damp with earth, exhaled by the leaves of impossible plants. The way fish are to other fish, each graceful and alien, she wonders how plants breathe underwater.
             She thinks of how her mother used to say “jungle,” scoffing, eschewing the left-wing “rain forest” with its delicate, non-violent precipitation drizzling through layers of benign undergrowth.
             She thinks that creation is the only thing that ever made sense, the beautiful inert, more than orgasming, more than legacy. She thinks of God resting. How God must rest.
             She hears noises, vicious and immediate, unsettling in their disembodiment. She wriggles her toes.
             She wonders if Scotch ever made her smarter. She bets it did.
             She feels a millipede crawling across her face, a thousand gentle legs cresting the bay of her right nostril. She plucks its little body, compact and curled in her fingertips. She delivers it to a patch of soil, a new continent.
             She abandons the experiment, alive and profoundly bored.
             This is no way to live, she thinks.


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Amanda J. Bermudez is a writer and director based in Los Angeles, California. Her work has been featured at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, the National Winter Playwrights Retreat, the Yale Center for British Art, and in a number of literary publications, including Concis, Sick Lit, Spider Road Press, and Iron Horse Literary Review. She is a National Merit Scholar, recipient of the Jameson Prize, a Writer’s Digest National Award Winner, nominee for the Spotlight Culture & Heritage Award, and winner of the 2017 Cinequest Film Festival screenwriting award.