“New Tricks” by Alexandra O’ Neil

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“How long have you lived in Denver, Trish?” Felix takes a pull from the beer I hand to him, icy eyes taking my apartment in. That was what first caught my attention, those eyes.

“About five years.” I sit next to him on the couch. He pulls me closer and slides an arm around my shoulder. I inhale the smell of him, whiskey and a bit of sweat – the bar had been stuffy, it always is on Friday nights. He rubs his thumb along the bare skin of my arm.

A low whine comes from the shadows of my bedroom. I had forgotten about Bear. I must be more buzzed than I thought.

“What was that?”

“Oh, sorry. I have a dog.” I reach down and flutter my fingers. “C’mere, Bear.”

Bear slinks out, head level with his shoulders, pebbled nose twitching. His triangle ears are pricked so far forward they tremble.

“He’s beautiful. What kind of dog is he?”

“Shelter mutt. God knows what he’s got in him. Maybe some Golden.” Bear presses himself against my legs and I run my fingers through his long, brindled fur. He keeps his dark gaze on Felix.

“He’s a serious guy, isn’t he?”

“He can be nervous around strangers, sometimes.” I rub Bear’s spine. “It’s ok, buddy.”

A low growl echoes from deep in Bear’s chest. Felix laughs and puts about two feet of space between us. “Ok, I get the message.”

Bear barks and his ears slick back, hackles prickling.

Sighing, I ruffle his mane. “I think it’s best if you go.”

The smile slips from Felix’s face. “You serious?”

“Yeah. Sorry. You didn’t do anything wrong, I had fun.” This punctuated by another one of Bear’s growls. His white teeth flash between his black lips.

“Right,” Felix mutters. He thumps the beer down on the coffee table and leaves, just like that.

Cradling Bear’s skull in my hands, I smoosh his face so he squints through his wrinkles. “You’re a real downer, you know that?”

He responds with a soft woof and a wag of his feathery tail.

I take a pound of ground beef from the fridge and set it on the counter. Then I shower and climb into bed. I leave my door open so Bear can join me later.

Like clockwork, I am woken at three in the morning. The witching hour. Moans, hisses, insectoid clicking. Drips of unidentifiable greyish slime that I clean up in the morning. Rustling and thumping in the kitchen, the bathroom, the living room, around and under my bed. Wetly slurping up (not chewing) whatever raw meat I’ve left out. Occasionally a light will click on, which I leave until the next day. I have not grown used to this, don’t think it’s possible. Thankfully, he hasn’t figured out doors yet. Maybe the round knobs give him trouble.

Bear wasn’t always this way, of course. I don’t know exactly what happened to him, but I know when: on a camping trip with my old college friends two months ago. A storm came in the middle of the night and thunder-weenie Bear slipped his collar and tore off like a bat out of hell. He returned to us in the morning, shaking so badly he could barely walk, covered in what looked like tar and what was definitely blood. We couldn’t find a scratch on him. After a bath and half a dozen Milk Bones he was back to his usual self. Mostly. He became distrustful of the occasional stranger, and no longer minds storms. He also only shits once a week.

Then the nightly wanderings started. I was scared, of course, and fled the apartment in a panic the first time it happened. I returned to a normal Bear, who had (somehow) opened the fridge and ravaged its contents in my absence. I thought I’d had some sort of fever dream, until it happened again the next night and I came back to grey snotty stuff on the carpet and my leather boots eaten down to the sole. I took him to the shelter and found him at the door to my complex the next day. Dumping him out in the woods didn’t work either.

More than once, I’d considered a box of rat poison or the Old Yeller treatment. I’m glad I didn’t have the stomach to try it, because just as I had become as accustomed as possible to Bear’s evening schedule and realized that a pound or two of raw meat kept him from ransacking the apartment, I found out what happens if I let someone Bear doesn’t like stick around too long. I had been in the bathroom, thank God, didn’t see it with my own eyes. I am still afraid that the police will come knocking on my door one day, having traced Joe’s last steps to my apartment. There had been surprisingly little blood, just a lot of slime.

Another thing I don’t have the guts for is looking at Bear during these episodes. I’ve never turned on a light or even opened my eyes if I know he’s in front of me. What did he find out there in the woods? A ritual sacrifice to Satan? A meteorite? A vat of toxic waste? Is his jealousy benevolent, is it random? What would happen if I accidentally stepped on his paw? What do I breathe in as he sleeps beside me every night?

Bear is ready for bed. He jumps up onto the mattress behind me. He pants hotly in my ear, and what feels like dozens of little fingers tickle at my hair. He turns in a circle, more than four limbs pressing into the duvet, and nestles against my back. Something long and cold and smooth slides around my middle where my shirt has bunched up.

Reaching back, I scratch his very doggie rump. “Goodnight, Bear.”

His tail thumps the mattress, and the appendage around my stomach tightens.

 

 

Alexandra O’Neil writes in her spare time between her day job and procrastinating. She has a pet snake that she hides from houseguests. She has been previously published in “The Molotov Cocktail”. You can find her on Twitter (@alex_o_writes) and her website (alexwrites.ink).

“MISTAKES” by Alec Ivan Fugate

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Her picture in my wallet reminds me a lot of bedtime, of a swath of feathered pillows, happy birthday.

Stupid mistakes. Animation gigs tumble down from shaken cubes sweating through my hands into a jigger of knots and chronic vomit. Wrapped fingers polishing oak sanded to a fine point for the vampires from the crawlspace. Says I need a job. Says the doodles don’t kick my habits or buy the bread. Vomit on the carpet spewed like inkwash webs through wet-on-wet applied to paper already bled through, the stain leaked between the gash of a bundle of matted brown hairs sticking every which way like a sea anemone dried and left to rot in the summer bake.

“What’s gotten into you?” Bartender gags tosses up phlegm calls it lungbutter hacks it into a crispy handkerchief that rains little flakes of dried something out of his pocket.

“I can’t afford,” shot, “anything else but this.”

“Got a kid at home.”

“Congrats.”

“No, you. Fucking sweltering idiot, you, you’re the one with the…how often you forget about him?”

“About once every mile walked if I can manage it.”

Bartender, never noticed his name never cared to learn it, leans in close to me, spreads his chapped flufflips, smacks them at me in a certain despicable kind of way. “Gotta pull it together.”

“Gotta pull it together.” I mock him. It’s easy, his brain is small and he won’t notice, he’s too dense and dumb, he is absolutely nothing.

“Have it your way,” he says. Pulls his mass body with planets and all into the back room, scratches the chafes in his ass. His pants are down and the rash, all red scabby burnt, yeah, almost burnt, runs from the tip of his crack down down down into the undersea of his grinding shorts.

“You are disgusting,” I tell him to myself shot, shot.

I draw.

There are lines carving themselves from the center of the napkin into a craggy cliff-side with an end pointed and brute with a car having been flung at it that now rests at the edge, at the corner, there are people in the car, and they are dead and he has a flask in his hand. I draw the skies. The sun is shining. There’s a tumbleweed and I don’t know where it’s going to land. I draw an X on the flask and think this is funny.

What other cliff did this car come from?

Is this the Grand Canyon?

To think I want to do this for a living.

There are other drawings too, little things on scraps of napkins from other bars or pieces of menu paper from restaurants I convinced my mom to take me to or discarded receipts found in the belly of trash cans swarming with gnats and the corpses of mice.

I remember birthing this car accident somewhere down the line, but I’ve put them out of order, drowned in the folds of my laptop bag. Remember the origins of the family in the car on the road careening toward the edge of some invisible end a mile away as they laugh in black and white, everything in my life is in black and white.

Now to flip through the drawings I so painstakingly sketched frame-by-frame is like viewing a movie through broken kaleidoscopes. Everything shudders. Everything is afraid of itself as I watch the sedan flop onto the face of the cliff and then appear back on a desert road like my own work had a bad dream.

Why am I drawing something like this?

Why?

Screaming from the corner booth of the bar someone has a birthday. Writhing in my ears the song burrows behind my eyes and grabs hold slams them down on the table rocking me back and forth on my stool, I am some clown, some sad drunk clown. I right myself and reach over to pour myself another shot from the untended handle of spiced rum. When did I start drinking spiced rum?

“You’ve already had half the bottle,” woman sitting beside me, straggler from the festivities housed under the dust light.

“Then I suppose I’ll consider this mine.”

“Think you should stop? Take a break?”

“Whose birthday is it?”

“Mine.”

I put the bottle down and stare at it, the undulating brown. Something, a smudgy excretion, rests to the bottom of the drink pale like smegma.

“Why aren’t you at your party?”

“I never really wanted one anyway. Wanted to be here alone. I told them I’d be right back, but I wanted to check on you real quick.”

“I don’t know,” shot, “you.”

“That’s okay.”

Her face is made of wine in broken glasses and her lips are pillows in a Sears catalog.

“You should go back to your party,” I beg.

“And you should go back to your house.”

She leaves and she leaks something that tastes in the air of cinnamon and pine. It’s near Christmas, the smells reminded me of that. This does not mean anything.

“HAPPY BIRTHDAAAAAYYY!”

“Happy birthday,” I whisper under my breath, curling the exhale forth from between my teeth into the waft of drafting air curdling all of our lungs I hope it reaches her, I hope she hears me. Shot.

Shot, shot.

Shot.

I’m attempting to make a new body for myself with this. My outer layer boils around my bones and organs and will soon waste off like a discarded bathrobe in the bathroom before a shower. It will soon rain and my flesh will seep off of the real me and I will let it loose in the dumpster behind a strip club to tell it exactly what it means to be free. It will hurt it will be damaged it will try to forget for years to come and then maybe one day a decade from now we’ll be sitting beside each other in this same bar exchanging horrors and romances like old friends.

We are not friends now.

I finish the series of drawings with a portrait of myself in my current state. I kill the realism that takes hold. My eyes are two empty holes and my face is nothing dimensional or with force or dignity. I draw myself as a puddle stepped on in a storm. Acne scars on my forehead now populate my cheeks my entire face myself and the craters have faces of their own that look a lot like me. I finish and shot take a second to draw around the face I’ve made a mouth of teeth. These teeth belong to my wife.

My world fades into the oak and television pouring out baseball highlights and suddenly it’s all the same I am all the same as it is the same as me shot shot shot shot shot

Shot.

I go outside with my keys in my hand and then I break down in the snow drifts yellow against streetlamps and piss. Is my son okay home alone? Am I okay out here alone?

I remember and I toss my keys aside, I remember I don’t have a car right now and I remember I walk miles and miles and never go anywhere.

 

 

Alec Ivan Fugate is some guy sitting in some swamp in some city in northeastern Indiana. His work is floating at Occulum, Burning House Press, Bending Genres, and other darker, spookier ponds

“Tenting Tonight in a Four Poster” by Walter Giersbach [Non-Fiction]

 

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[Pictured: Marion Fisk on the Chautauqua Circuit billed as “America’s Foremost Cartoonist.”]

I eagerly anticipated tales of Indian lovers and horrifying winters and camping with a horse-drawn wagon when my grandmother came to stay each summer in the early 1950s.  The rewards came when Moms let me sleep in her rope-strung, four-poster bed with the canopy that formed a tent.

I rushed to get in my PJs and pulled the comforter up to my chin while she unbraided her long gray hair and placed her false teeth in a glass of water.

Then the stories began.  My favorite was about a boy, born in New Hampshire years ago, “who would rather die than hoe beans.”

Moms said that with the boy’s talent for music, “He took a hollow reed and fashioned a flute.  His father felt that such genius should be encouraged.

“So, the boy and his sister learned to play on a pump organ.  They played everything they knew, then they made up their own songs.

“When the man was 21 years old, he went down to Boston, purchased a horse and wagon, and a little organ and drove through the countryside giving concerts in schools and churches.

“Then the time came,” she said, “when Uncle Sam ordered, ‘Come, follow me.’  It never occurred to him to seek an excuse why he shouldn’t enter his country’s service.”

I knew who Uncle Sam was, and the air raid sirens told me we were fighting the Germans and Japanese.  But she was talking about some long-ago war and I was quiet.

“He was away the night the summons came, and all the way home the words and music to a little song kept running through his mind.  When he had reached home he took an old violin and wrote a simple little piece.

“A few days later, he went down to Concord, New Hampshire, to report for service.  He was found physically unfit and was dismissed. But there was a demand for a song by which the soldiers might march and sing in camp.  The Oliver Ditson Company advertised for such a song, and the young man sent down the simple song he had written, offering to sell it to them for fifteen dollars.

“They were disgusted because of its simplicity and refused to have it at any price.  Instead, they hired a musician of considerable note to write a song for them. But, the soldiers wouldn’t sing it.  Then, they remembered the little song they had refused, purchased and published it, and in less than six weeks it was being sung by every Southern campfire and in every Northern home.”

Moms would make sure I was still tucked in — and still awake — before she continued.

“I remember when I was a little girl, seeing an eccentric looking man come into our yard.  He was driving a brown horse hitched to a pink express wagon, and in the back was strapped a melodeon.  My father and mother — your great grandpa and great-grandma — received him with joy in the kitchen.

“I was allowed to sit up late while I listened to them talk, often about things I couldn’t understand.  But I liked to listen to his kindly voice. At last they sang songs, and he told us this story of his boyhood and sang the song he had written the night of his draft, the song that made Walter Kittredge known and loved all over our country.”  And she began to sing softly, sadly.

 

“We are tenting tonight on the old camp ground,

Give us a song to cheer,

Our weary hearts, a song of home,

And the friends we love so dear.

 

“Many are the hearts that are weary tonight,

Wishing for the war to cease,

Many are the hearts, looking for the right,

To see the dawn of Peace.

 

“Tenting tonight, tenting tonight,

Tenting on the old camp ground.”

 

Moms passed away in that bed in 1961 at the age of 86.  The bed is now in the guest bedroom of my house.

Marion Ballou Fisk — my Moms — had traveled the Chautauqua Circuit across the country week after week between 1906 and 1926 to support her family.  She was billed as America’s Foremost Lady Cartoonist when entertainment and uplifting lectures were delivered under the large tents. In small towns across America, this was the only source of culture and respite from weary, rural chores.

I finally dug through cartons of her papers and found her hand-written stories — including this one — and a photo of her as she told crowds about Walter Kittredge who wrote one of the Civil War’s most famous ballads.

I’m sure that one of the most rapt audiences Moms ever had wasn’t a real audience at all. Just a small boy sleeping under the “tent” in her four-poster bed.

 

 

Walt Giersbach’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in a score of online and print publications, including Soft Cartel.  He served for three decades as director of communications for Fortune 500 companies, helped publicize the Connecticut Film Festival, managed publicity and programs for Western Connecticut State University’s Haas Library, and now moderates a writing group in New Jersey.

 

“Listening To Voicemails” by Mike Corrao

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The answering machine sat on the end table, beside the doorway and the floor mat. There were pens and pads of paper in the drawer. A red light flickered on the face of the machine. It was pressed, the dial tone droned, and the message played:

I’m an audio-visual man. I see things and I hear things. That’s all I’ve got. It makes abstractions hard for me. I can’t fathom that ambiguous cloud in the mind that is sublime or ennui or whatever. All that is for me, is reality. There is the reality of a situation sitting in front of me. There are the things that I can hear and see, what I can put together from the environment and arrange until completion. If it’s made out of something else, a feeling of doubt, or the epiphany through religious icons, I’m damned. I can’t put it together. I’ll have a collage, but no coherency. Someone will have erased the edges, and allowed the colors to run out of the physical source. They’ll spread into the surrounding environment and blend in until I’m left with an inability to understand. It will all turn into a monotonous gray. My fear is this, in a dark pit, where there is no light, where I am for all purposes blind, my existence loses its meaning. I am not a physical being. There is no place. Places? There would be no places. I would be the floating and disembodied. I would not be. I would be separated. I would be the anti-matter in an oblivion. The total darkness wells up. I would lose awareness of my body. I would hear my mouth as it swings in the wind, carried away like ashes, circling the perimeter walls. I would remember that I have a face, and a torso, and legs, arms. I would know that my face was capable of contorting into different expressions, but I wouldn’t have the know-how to do it again. I couldn’t replicate the behaviors I knew before. I wouldn’t have a body to do them with. It would get away from me.

The light flickered again. The button was pressed again. A voice played loudly and clearly over the white noise of the room. It began to sync with it, and move at the same cadence. Both remained in the room, ever-present and droning.

Memories would resurface. I could. The tense? What tense is this? What time is it? I will. I will. In the resurfacing memories, I will build a nostalgia machine. I will understand the workings of myself through the mechanical tasks performed. A contraption of sorts, it turns its gears in a certain manner when the gears are attached to certain apparatuses. And these apparatuses will power the software that reenacts my memories. It will perfectly construct them in this oblivion. I will return to a body. Maybe not mine. I don’t care. A body. It is mine when I arrive in it. I will return. And the machine will let me live out in these memories, noting all of the specific and physical details that I remember from them. The world will be tactile, like I couldn’t be before. I will have a sense of smell, and sight, and hearing, and taste, and touch. The skylights in the living room will reflect strange shapes on the ground, bathrooms will smell like lavender soap, the television will be set to one of the music stations. Lounge music, if it’s there. But then those memories will collide. A nostalgia machine is weak. The nostalgias will begin to overlap and confuse each other. They will start to mistake themselves for different moments. The past will form a grid, overlapping and intersecting. It will overwhelm and the gears will melt. The machine will fall apart, and the oblivion will return to being an oblivion. And then I’m thinking about death. Or the way that I can’t materialize that event. I will think about death, and I won’t be able to move. And that lack of movement will create a death in my arms and legs. It will paralyze me. I won’t be able to move until I stop thinking about death, but when I start to forget and I try to move, and I can’t, I will feel another burst of complete remembrance and I will be incapable again. Oblivion will paralyze me forever. My mouth will continue to circle around the perimeter wall, my legs will be collapsed on the ground, my arms will be on the ceiling trying to crawl through the non-existent gaps, and I will remain.

 

Click. Another message. The voice. The droning tone.

 

There is an image in my mind of a measuring tape. It extends from the outer wall to the center of the dark pit where I assume to be existing. The distance doesn’t matter in inches; there is no light to distinguish what the end of the tape says. Instead it acts as a means of physicality. There is a measuring tape, and if there can be a measuring tape, that means that the hole is a physical place. If it is a physical place, then it can be comprehended. This is a room in which the lights have been turned off. The world is not audio-visual. It is now only sonic. One must listen to the architecture of the room and navigate themselves through by these means. The body is not oblivion, but it no more important than a body in oblivion. Or. This is not true. When I try to walk, I can’t hear myself walking. If I can’t hear myself walking, then I am not moving. If I can’t move my feet, it must not have feet. If they could move, they would be moving. Signifiers have called for movement, and there is none. The body is not moving. The measuring tape is not measuring. I can understand now. The oblivion. Not what it is. I do not know. I understand that is the lack of my awareness. I am not here, but I am confined. The non-corporeal form. There is not a physical means to escape. Ungodly. I can feel myself aging. Wrinkles are forming. There are grooves in my skin. How old am I now? I’m floating dust. This is oblivion. I’m in the dark pit; hanging residually in the air. Nothing here is real. I can’t grab onto the sides of the wall, or carefully walk from one end to the other. There’s an air of uncertainty. I cannot visualize it, or place what it is. The pit is real and it is not real. I find myself here. It is real. But it is not a place within the boundaries of existence. It is not real. I don’t know where this places us. There is no clear hook to latch onto.

 

Click. Another message. The voice. The droning tone.

 

The beginning of this problem cannot be a dark pit. It is more than this. I realize that, inside of this reality, where-ever I am, I have been constructed. All physical forms have been constructed. The dilemma of this circumstance is that I have thought through this problem as a problem solved through language. I would like to stop thinking in language. I would like a more pure way to conduct myself, not done only through abstract means. I could mutate my thoughts into pictograms, but these are language. They are allusions to physical objects, but not the objects themselves. I would like to rid myself of language.

 

Click. Another message. The voice. The droning tone.

 

At the top of the dark pit, maybe where the opening is, a blinking red light occasionally passes by. It circles for a moment before leaving the sightline. I don’t know what it is, or whether it’s alive or artificial. Maybe it’s some fragment of the nostalgia machine. How can memories be replicated without a light source? I look back and I’m not sure how a contraption is made, or how it could be maintained. Or how one is to rid themself of language. It might start with the sounds. If I found myself communicating in these sonic patterns instead of symbolic patterns. If I said: Luh-Luh-Awl-Ah-Om-Luh-Jah. Is the pattern still symbolic? Does it become the allusion of symbolism? Does it matter? Or. I can look for something without even the possibility of symbolism. There are no symbols here: __________________. But what does that accomplish? Do I exist without the thoughts in my head? Is this to spite someone? I’m still in the pit. There is still language looming around here, even if it doesn’t come from me. I can feel myself here. Nowhere specifically, not in any singular unit of area, but present in the completeness of the space. The body feels like a relic now. Remembering corporeality feels like an act of masochism. A throbbing headache begins, and then when I forget, it subsides. A hell is a hell is a hell is a hell is a hell. _________________________________. And nothing continues. I’m not sure what to do now. I don’t know if there is anything else to do. What does one do when they can no longer move, or see, or hear? Do I accept the emptiness and choose to exist in it? Do I get to choose whether or not I exist? I want to remember the physical existence that I had, and that I lost. I want to remember how I lost it. There is a sanity in retracing your steps. It is comforting to know exactly how you got from the first location to the second location. When something goes wrong, or an unexpected turn happens, I want to be able to see where that turn happened, and what led up to it. But now, instead, I am here. I was not here, and now I am.

The answering machine went silent. The red light stopped blinking A clock ticking. A near-silent breeze. A distant plane overhead. The dial tone buzzed.

Here I am: ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

Mike Corrao is the author of Man, Oh Man (Orson’s Publishing, 2018) and Gut Text (11:11 Press, 2019). His work has been featured in publications such as Entropy, Always Crashing, and The Portland Review. He lives in Minneapolis where he earned his B.A. in film and English literature at the University of Minnesota. Learn more at www.mikecorrao.com.

“The Boy with a Void” by Nick Farriella

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Monty was born with something missing. The doctors saw it in an x-ray when he was four. What showed on the scan was a small void, next to the heart, that gave his mother an explanation for his weird behavior; he didn’t find much pleasure in anything, he mostly just sat there, silently staring off, or walking around, curious, like he was looking for something. The doctor said he hadn’t seen anything like it, that Monty was a special boy. Not knowing what it was, the doctor also said there was a chance it could grow which meant Monty could die, and the doctor told his mother to teach him that life was precious and short.

Around the age of eight, when the void had grown double in size, Monty had the idea to try to fill it with something. His dad watched a lot of baseball. Every night he was in front of the Tv yelling all sorts of stuff, but mostly cheering, smiling. He seemed happy. Monty hadn’t really known what that kind of joy felt like. He figured if baseball could keep his dad happy, maybe it could help him feel that way.

One night Monty went into his father’s old woodshed in the backyard where his father kept a bucket of baseballs with Monty’s name sharpied on the outside.  Monty grabbed one of the balls on the top of the pile and went over to the corner of the shed where his dad wouldn’t be able to see the candlelight flicker from the living room. In the orange glow, Monty removed his shirt and tried to control his breathing. Staring at the red laces, he thought about the doctor calling him special and how life was short. Before that night, nothing really made him feel anything. He felt sort of like those laces, just woven and stitched so tightly into something, bound to unravel. Looking at the smallness of the ball and the shortness of life, Monty felt that the risk might be worth it. He gripped the ball like a fastball and jammed it into his chest. To his surprise, the baseball went right in—he felt no pain, only a warm sensation. Once Monty fit the ball into his void, he let go and slid his hand out. There was no blood or anything. He walked out of the shed not feeling complete, but smiling, for the first time in his young life.

The baseball lasted until Monty was fifteen. It got him through some hard times. Anytime he started to feel pulled towards his inner emptiness, he would just tap on his chest, knowing the ball was there all along. His dad seemed to enjoy it, too. He loved to watch Monty play; he was actually pretty good! He said Monty was going to be a New York Yankee. What his dad didn’t know was the ball was rotting inside of him. Monty felt a difference in the state of the ball, like it was no longer good enough, when he met Judith Hendricks in sophomore Biology.

Before Judith, Monty hadn’t really taken an interest in girls, but she loved all the same comics he did and wore her hair in this funny braided side ponytail that drooped over her left shoulder. She was beautiful and funny and smart and after a while he didn’t think much about baseball or anything else. The ball was dead inside of him. He could feel it. He felt sluggish and disconnected. All Monty wanted to do was sleep. Hanging out with Judith made him feel a little better, but even that seemed daunting. Monty knew that he had to take the baseball out of himself, to free up some space for Judith, to fully let her into his void.

After a school dance, Monty told Judith about the emptiness inside, that he had tried to fill it with a baseball and that it was dead. She didn’t look at him like he was crazy. She just said, okay, what do you want to do next? It was then Monty told her he loved her; not knowing what it meant or felt like, but something that he knew he should say, just so Judith would understand.

They went to the basement of her parent’s house. She propped him up against a rusty washing machine and he removed his shirt. She started to cry and told him she was scared and didn’t know what was happening. Monty told her that life was short and whatever happened was not her fault. She said okay, and he said okay.  Monty took a deep breath then jammed his hand into his chest. Judith screamed. He told her that it doesn’t hurt. Inside, he felt a mix of sharp thread and goop. He pulled out a fistful of it and opened his hand. In his palm was a clump of black tar with hints of the red laces woven throughout. Judith puked. Monty went upstairs to get her mom, told her Judith had eaten some bad chips. Later, he left and rode his bike home, weeping the entire way.

After a week with nothing in his void, Monty felt awful, like he wanted to die. It felt like the emptiness inside had fully consumed him. His mom took him to the doctors where the doctor told him the nothingness had grown so large it was starting to cover Monty’s heart. His mom had a look on her face that said she knew this day would come. The doctor prescribed him pills that made his head feel woozy, like he was watching the world from the inside of a fish tank. Later, when Monty told Judith about the growth of the void and that he thought he might kill himself, she said she had an idea.

They went back to her basement and this time she laid him down on her couch. She kissed him and said that even though life was short, he shouldn’t be the one to determine how short it was. She told Monty to close his eyes, then removed his shirt. She kissed him hard and he fell into a daze. Before he realized it, Judith had forced her hand into his chest and dropped something into the vacant space inside of him. He felt it clang around; it was something small and metal. When he asked what she put inside, she smiled and said, “my locket.”

The days got better. Between the pills and Judith, Monty started to feel whole again. The rest was a trip; from prom, to graduation, anniversary after anniversary, holiday after holiday, birthday after birthday. There were bad days sure, but each bad day was a day closer to a better day; Monty found if he could just make it to those special days, he was able to hitch a ride off the high to carry him along a little further. The years ran away like that. Judith went to college at Rutgers. Monty worked for a demolition company in New Brunswick and lived in her dorm. Their small, insignificant life was good. Monty felt happy. It seemed her locket was enough, that it was the missing piece. At night, he often stayed awake a little longer than she did, imagining growing old with her, living out the rest of his years with this little piece of Judith inside him.

When they were twenty-four, Monty had gotten Judith pregnant. Six months after leaving the clinic, they were on the stairs inside of her apartment, smoking cigarettes. She said she’s been having this dream about a void growing inside of her, too. Judith told him on most nights she dreamt of their baby standing at the foot of their bed gnawing at her toes.

“Everything is different now,” she said.

He asked what had changed despite what happened.

“It’s just that—every time I look at you, I see what we did.”

She then told Monty how sad she’s been for the past six months, how she grew distant and cold. Monty noticed, but didn’t care. He was blinded by the anxiety that maybe the locket was rotting inside of him, because, after the clinic, he started to feel a change too. The locket felt uncomfortable, as if it was lodging itself in his throat, trying to escape. Monty became self-obsessed, only worrying that his void would come back. She said that it was over.

From the bottom step, he watched as Judith went back upstairs, where she called down to him to follow her. He found her kneeling next to the couch, crying.

“I have an idea,” she said.

She told him to lie down. She unbuttoned his shirt then laid a soft hand on his chest. She said that this needs to happen, that it’s the only way she can live again. Monty said, okay. She took a deep breath then drove her fist through his skin, crushing through the sternum, into the caverns of dark matter next to his heart. Monty watched as her wrist dug into his chest and felt her small hand moving around inside him. Things squished and bones cracked. For the first time, Monty felt pain. The locket must have rooted itself to something; she was having trouble pulling it out. Finally, after a quick tug, Judith removed her hand and revealed its contents. Another pile of black tar with blue and red vines cinched around it, the locket and its chain buried deep within. He watched as she failed to insert it into her own chest, then settle for putting it around her neck.

After Judith left, Monty felt more than empty, that even the darkness had depths, and he was suspended in its lowest tier. He spent some time in the hospital. The doctors said the dark matter had fully consumed all of his organs. They guessed he only had a few days to live. Monty asked if he could go for a walk.

In the woods outside of the hospital, Monty came across a section being cleared; mostly broken branches and leaves. He lay beside the mounds of brush and thought of Judith. She was doing well, he saw it on Facebook. She was into hiking and nature now. He was happy her void was only in her dreams. He didn’t want anyone to know his condition first hand. Lying there, Monty watched dark clouds scroll by and thought about how life was short. He heard Judith’s voice telling him to keep trying to find what was missing, that he owed it to himself. He knew the abyss would take him soon. It started to rain. Monty could hear his mother calling his name, but he was too tired to get up. With a last surge of energy, he reached out to grab a bundle of twigs and dirt and dry leaves and stuffed it all into his chest cavity. He still felt half empty. He leaned over for some more branches and grass, and packed his void until dirt was coming out of his mouth. Lying back, exchanging final breaths with the trees, he thought of Judith sitting in the lotus position on a rock, her hair in a side braid, and felt full again.

 

Nick Farriella’s fiction has appeared in Maudlin House, X-R-A-Y Lit Mag, Across the Margin, and elsewhere. He lives in New Jersey and works as a copywriter and is the founder of Freedom Through Literature, an organization that runs annual book drives for prisons. He has a story forthcoming in Furtive Dalliance. 

“The Quest” by Ken Poyner

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I now use electric shears.  I have a set of various sizes, bends of scissor, length of blade. All are rechargeable cordless models. I have both a home recharger and one that plugs into the car AC outlet.  The problem with the car charger is that you have to charge one set of shears at a time, and often you just cannot get all the ones you think you will need done when you need them.  You have to predict what series of shears you are most likely to use, what conditions you think you might most likely find in the wild.

But it is better than when I had to use manual clippers.  More awkward, more time consuming. I don’t know how I ever got a monkey shaved.  But I did. I got so many monkeys shaved that one day I lost count. I held one monkey nearly shaved and thought to myself, this will be … will be ….   I realized I could not remember how many had come before, could no longer fathom the simple mathematics of my conquests.

I am faster now with the power clippers, but before the upgrade I was fast, too.  The longer it would take, the more likely the monkey would squirm away, the animal would land a solid punch or bite, or I would be caught.   Speed has always been prized. I’ve heard the wardens thrashing through the brush, certain they were going to slap cuffs on me and send one more monkey shaver to be fined and his shears confiscated – but, by the time they made the clearing or game path, where the monkey hair was spread all around like the leavings of a celebration, all they would find is a newly shaved monkey.

I’ve changed my method since the electricity was introduced.  I start now at the head, work down the back. Used to, I would always use a harness to keep the animal from biting me; but now, while I use the harness with most shavings, quite a few I can whip through with dexterity alone, abandoning the harness to harvest more speed.

The object, of course, is not always the cleanest of shaves.  So what if there is a tuft left here or a tuft left there? Sometimes you get down to the skin, sometimes there is a half inch of fur left.  The wardens getting close, or even a particularly unruly monkey, can cause you to speed up, to rush the process as much as you can. Nick a monkey good and proper, and his or her resistance goes up several notches, you had better hope you had used the harness and that it holds.  I’ve nearly lost a finger to an angry monkey, been kicked so hard I thought some of my ribs had been displaced.

But it is worth it.  Worth the near misses of the wardens.  Worth the ire of an uncontrollable, incensed monkey before or after the indignity of shaving.  Worth the small injuries, the long road trips, the treks through the brush, the hubris of the jungle.  Worth learning which shear is best to use on what species of monkey, what combinations of blades are properly combined for rough and detail work, worth learning the delicate angles of restraint.

It is all for the enlightening result:  that newly shaved monkey, howling, picking at the hair left, the look of unknowing in its eyes slowly becoming the shielded look of an animal that understands that it has been mastered, utterly mastered in a way beyond its widest understanding.  Some men might capture or hunt or cage, but the animal understands that. The wardens understand that. But we monkey shavers, we ask for more out of our efforts, more out of our lives. We look for the dull disbelief, the lost connections, the rootless alienation.  In our wake, we leave both men and monkeys completely perplexed, mysteriously astounded. It gives us that precious visceral, almost sacred, understanding of our overlord achievement: a shaved monkey racing away, and our strange dominance is again for a while undeniable.

 

Ken’s collections of short fiction, “Constant Animals” and “Avenging Cartography”, and his latest collections of speculative poetry, “Victims of a Failed Civics” and “The Book of Robot”, can be obtained from Barking Moose Press, www.barkingmoosepress.com, as well as Amazon and most on-line book outlets.  He serves as bewildering eye-candy at his wife’s power lifting affairs, where she continues to set world raw powerlifting records.  His poetry lately has been sunning in “Analog”, “Asimov’s”, “Poet Lore”; and his fiction has yowled in “Spank the Carp”, “Red Truck”, “Café Irreal”.  New books annoying potential publishers:  “Gravity’s Children”, speculative poetry; “The Revenge of the House Hurlers”, brief fiction. www.kpoyner.com.

“Brad Gointer: CIA Intern” by Keith Manos

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I read the credit card-sized advertisement on the back page of the TV Guide:  “Are you looking for an exciting and challenging internship? Consider interning with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).”

The ad showed a well-dressed, dark-haired girl smiling at the camera. She looked like Mark Wahlberg’s girlfriend in the Ted movie, and we all know Wahlberg is a rich actor and can have any woman he wants, so I thought why not apply? Maybe the CIA would send me to another country, and I could finally get out of my mom’s house. Of course, I’d tell them don’t bother sending me to Mexico or New Mexico because I didn’t speak Mexican. I was okay, however, with traveling to England because I could speak Britain thanks to watching Austin Powers’ movies.

I filled out the online application and gave my name and birth date. It also asked about sex, and I wrote, “Hopefully with Mary Sue Allen or that girl in the Crest commercial.” Regarding the question about my weight, I wrote “How long?” I’m not making this up; the CIA really asked those questions.

Three years out of high school and I was still working part-time at Subway waiting for Justin to quit so I could become the assistant manager. He kept saying he hated working there because the owner was a Republican, but he liked eating a free sandwich every day in the little office in the back. Actually, I ate free sandwiches too, but the job sucked. A hundred times a day: “Do you want cheese with that? . . . Do you want it toasted?” It got so annoying I stopped washing my hands after I used the bathroom.

Two weeks later after submitting my application, two men in brown suits and striped ties stomped down the steps into my mom’s basement where I was watching television reruns – Rocky and Bullwinkle to be exact. I thought at first that Mom had stolen the neighbors’ lawn chairs again, and these guys had a search warrant. Instead, they showed me their CIA identification badges and glanced around the basement like they were looking for hidden cameras. I raised the volume on the set and pointed at the screen. “Tell me,” I challenged them, figuring worldly guys like them would know this. “Tell me that it’s not a dude doing the voice of Natasha Fatale. C’mon, what broad talks like that?”

They exchanged a look, and then the taller one said, “Is your name Brad Gointer?” His voice sounded like a television news guy.

I nodded.

“Then pack a bag.”

I stood up and clicked off the television. “Where am I going?” This was going to be awesome – I imagined shaking hands with the Vice-President, shooting a gun, and being given a cool spy name like Daxx Domino. Mom couldn’t complain anymore that I watched too much television or peed on the backyard lawn instead of using the upstairs bathroom. Like these guys who just walked into my house, I would be able to do anything.

They glanced quickly at each other again and then back at me. “You’ll go with us now and then to a foreign country,” the shorter one said. “Your internship begins today, Brad.” Neither smiled.

I knew they were serious. “It’s not Mexico, is it?”

The shorter one – with his stocky frame and bruised ears, he looked like he used to wrestle – shook his head. “No, you’re not going to Mexico. By the way, how many pushups can you do?”

I shrugged and got on hands and toes on the cold basement floor. I did about a hundred although the shorter one only counted out loud to fourteen. I kinda felt bad for him. He must have gone to a public high school like the one I attended.

“Good enough,” he said and patted my back after I collapsed breathless on the floor. Next to him, the taller agent peered up the stairs, listening. Mom, however, was probably gone. Today was Tuesday. She had to meet with her parole officer.

I sat up. “Do you want me to do anything else?”

The taller dude turned his head back to me. “Just pack a bag and don’t leave any note.”

So I did, and I didn’t.

In the black Lincoln Navigator, the shorter agent sat next to me in the back while the taller one drove. The former wrestler reached into a small, navy blue gym bag that rested on a clipboard on the seat between us. He pulled out a pistol and showed it to me.  “Do you know how to use one of these?”

“I think so,” I said. I was confident because I’d seen 21 Jump Street, a documentary about police work, and last year I’d won a stuffed dog at the county fair shooting water into a clown’s mouth.

He turned the pistol so the barrel was directed away from me and pointed at the trigger. “Well, it’s pretty simple. Just pull this with your finger.” Then he handed me the pistol.

I held the gun and felt its weight – like maybe it weighed as much as can of soup, the chunky kind. I pointed it straight ahead. In the front seat, the taller guy ducked away, causing the car to swerve. “Don’t point that at me, you idiot.”

As ordered, I lowered the pistol into my lap. “Then where should I point it?”

The wrestler leaned into me, winked, and whispered. “At foreigners.”

Who?”

He sighed. “Anyone who doesn’t look like an American.”

I remembered 8th grade world history. “Even the Greeks?”

The shorter one grimaced. “Well, yes, you . . ..” He paused to check a chart on the clipboard. “Wait, no.” His finger slid down a column of names. “The Greeks, they’re okay. Don’t shoot them.” He peered again at the chart to be sure and then glanced at me. “You do want to work for the CIA, don’t you, Brad?” He raised an eyebrow.

My packed bag was in the trunk. I had a pistol. I was finally done working at Subway. “For sure.” But I wasn’t a fool. In fact, I was pretty certain I had some leverage here. “But do I still have to pay taxes? I’m thinking that now since I’m working for the government, it’s like I’m paying my own salary, right? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“You have . . . We all have to. Wait . . ..” The wrestler reached into his pocket, pulled out a clipped paper – a paystub, I think – and studied it. He tapped the right shoulder of the tall guy driving. “How much federal tax do they take out of yours?”

The tall guy turned a corner and accelerated. “What? I don’t know. My wife handles all of that.” He took one hand off the steering wheel and extended a pamphlet to me. “Maybe all of that is explained in here.”

Inside it said, “In the CIA, you’ll find a supportive environment to help you grow and excel both professionally and personally. And a culture that expects you to do your personal best every day. Explore our world and imagine yourself working for the nation, in the center of intelligence.” But that was it.

“I still don’t think I should have to pay any taxes,” I told them. I was still thinking leverage. “Plus, I want a CIA badge like what you guys have so I can show it to my old high school principal. You know what that turd told me at graduation?” I didn’t wait for them to respond. “He said that the next time he saw me, he expected the conversation to end with him telling me to add fries to his order. Then I told him the whole school knew he was having sex with that Croatian lunch lady in the cafeteria after school. That’s against the law isn’t it? I want to scare the shit out of him.”

“Just keep the gun pointed down,” the wrestler said and zipped up the gym bag.

I couldn’t let it go, the memories still strong in my mind. “All that bullshit we were told, like you can do anything you put your mind to. A science teacher told us we could grow up to be like Lance Armstrong and walk on the moon. My social studies teacher said that maybe one of us could be President and end the cold war between Alaska and Russia. I watch the news, you know, and neither Alaska nor Russia are any warmer.” I spent the rest of the trip staring out the passenger window.

We reached a building they called HQ, and they led me inside to an empty room with a wrestling mat. When the shorter one with the banged up ears took off his coat and shirt, I saw a body resembling a fire hydrant plopped on top of two legs – yeah, he was a wrestler. He pointed at the navy blue mat. “C’mon, Gointer. Let me show you some things.”

The taller one left, and Mr. Fire Hydrant squeezed my head until I thought it would look like one big ear. Then he wrenched my shoulders so hard from now on I thought I would have to hear through my armpits. He showed me moves like the groin pull and barrel cruncher and lectured me, “Don’t ever let them barrel crunch you, or you won’t be able to shit for a week.”

The rest of the training wasn’t that tough. I had to read the pamphlet again, do more push ups, swim laps in a pool, and interpret ink blots of insects, a woman’s vagina, and the Eiffel Tower. I said they made me think of potato salad and the time two years ago when an old girlfriend handed me a STD pamphlet as she broke up with me. Plus, they made me study pictures of about a couple hundred bad men and women, one of whom I think was my third grade teacher Mrs. Anderson. Figures she was a communist, all the time talking about union rights with the other teachers in the hallway.

A week later I was on my first mission to Istanbul. Alone. I still had the pistol.

My assignment was to find out if the Turks were getting friendly with the Russians. Were the Turks our friends or our enemies? Plus, the CIA really wanted to know why the Turks sweated so much and if Noah’s Ark was on Mt. Ararat. We were a Christian nation and wanted it.

I began right away. I asked people at the airport what they thought of Russia, but after eating dinner with a group of them I found out they weren’t Turks. They were Dutch! I had gotten confused because they didn’t wear wooden shoes and they had a lot of nose hair, even the women. When I asked, they told me they considered Russia to be a nation of pornographers.

In Istanbul I did see a lot of sweaty men kissing each other on both cheeks, but I didn’t know for sure if one was Turkish and the other was Russian. I kept my gun inside my jacket and remained ready to shoot anyone who wasn’t a Greek. I did see a sailboat on a trailer but not the ark.

My second day in Istanbul a Turkish woman who looked like Pee Wee Herman’s older sister approached me while I was smoking dope in a hookah tavern. “Are you an American?” she asked, smiling warmly.

Finally! Someone who could tell me if the Turks liked the Russians. But then I thought for a moment. Maybe this was a trick, and she would try to seduce me into revealing classified secrets. Moreover, I didn’t want to blow my cover. I was travelling as Looney Ward, a volleyball and kneepads salesman. So I gave a half-smile and answered, “I’m not an American. I’m an Ohioan.”

She gently squeezed the top of my hand. “Come with me.” She turned, and her long, black hair fell down the back of her red spandex top. I didn’t get up right away because I’d been warned during my training to remain cautious about women who were beautiful – they’d shown me almost all the James Bond movies. Not the George Lazenby one, however. According to the CIA, he was a pussy.

Nevertheless, I was on a mission so I left the hookah bar with the woman and followed her down a narrow brick road into an alleyway. Mostly I followed her exotic scent, its warm fragrance a strong contrast to the fish gut incense my mother burned at home on Sundays so she could still get religion but not have to go to church. The Turkish woman looked back every few seconds to be sure I was following her, always giving me that same smile I saw in the hookah tavern.

At a steel door she stopped abruptly, turned, and faced me. “You here for fun, yes?”

I remembered my training: You ask the questions. Complete the mission. “I can’t tell you that. By the way, are you friendly with the Russians?”

“If he’s a man, I am friendly with him.” Actually she said, “Ef heez man, I am frenly weeth hem.” Then she waved a slender arm, prompting me to follow her, and opened the door. I liked being a CIA intern, but I pondered if I should shoot her because she wasn’t an American. She sorta did speak American, however, so I remain conflicted and kept the gun inside my jacket.

We walked into a room that had a weird purple light, and I stuck close to her because I could hardly see. In fact, I bumped into a chair without armrests, and she told me to sit.

Then she hovered over me, her knees straddling one of my legs. “Do you have money?” Her perfume washed over me. She caressed my cheek.

I had a hundred dollars in my jeans pocket, but I remembered my training: Spend wisely. Keep your receipts. “I only have ten dollars,” I answered.

Her hand went from my cheek to my shoulder. She sighed. “That is only enough for mouth.”

“I already have a mouth.”

She knelt in front of me. “What are you talking about?”

I remembered my training: Turn the tables whenever you can. “What are you talking about?”

She began unzipping my pants. “Okay, ten dollars,” she groaned and lowered her face into my groin.

I tried to get my bearings and recalled I represented the United States, the greatest nation on the planet. With my jeans at my ankles, I felt linked to other great American patriots like Clint Eastwood, Hulk Hogan, and James T. Kirk.

She abruptly stopped. “Is something wrong?” Which sounded like, “Eeez sumtheenk wronk?”

I took my hand off the top of her head. “Wrong?”

“Is it okay?” She pointed at my groin.

Then I understood. “No, it doesn’t get any bigger. That’s it.”

She looked up and smiled sympathetically. “Like a peanut with two peas.”

“At least it’s American,” I announced proudly and pushed her head down.

When I got back to CIA headquarters at the end of the week I told them I still wasn’t sure if the Turks did or did not like the Russians. They liked Americans however. A lot! The CIA guys were pissed, though, that I didn’t have a receipt for the ten-dollar expenditure.

Keith Manos has published ten books to date, including his debut novel My Last Year of Life (in School),which was published by Black Rose Writing in October 2015.  Other books include Writing Smarter(1998, Prentice Hall) and 101 Ways to Motivate Athletes (2006, Coaches Choice). His fiction has appeared in national print and online in magazines such as The Mill, Visions, Attic Door Press, Hicall, Lutheran Journal, and Storgy. He was recognized as one of Ohio’s top writing teachers by Ohio Teachers Write magazine.