‘When I Wake, I’ll Be Different’ by James Ezra

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After he dies, he wakes as a tree.

He feels bugs burrowing into him, can feel squirrels fucking in his trunk. His branches fall and fungus disintegrates everything inside of him.

He remembers how when he was boy and not bark that he had learned that some trees lived for hundreds of years, thousands, maybe millions. He thinks he had seen that on television. Yeah; he had been sitting on the carpet, picking at scabs, squeezing a juice box.

A cursing child stabs his bark with a pocketknife repeatedly. He doesn’t feel it.

Death is sleep. He can’t remember how exactly it happens or when, but it’s exhaustion and then sudden unconsciousness.

He never makes it to a million because winter comes and he’s been so exhausted.

He wakes as the crust in the corner of someone’s mouth.

The man and woman sitting in the chairs opposite of the wheelchair he is confined to don’t say a word. They don’t even make eye contact.

They keep looking at their shoes, their laps, to the wall.

He remembers how he would lay under the sofa in the dark for hours and try to make out faces in the irregularities of the wall. The young couple ahead of him are looking at the plaster with the same kind of inquisitive gaze he remembers having.

The air conditioning blows cold. It smells of urine here. He feels awkward at the corner of the lips of a man whose brain has gone full of holes in his ninety years.

A nurse in white scrubs steps into the room. Her hair is tied up in a bun. There’s a forced smile on her face. He can hear her heartbeat as she wipes drool from the man’s chin, cheeks, the corner of his mouth.

He’s gone in a soft, cold pressure from the attentive hand of a stranger.

He wakes and he is an impacted wisdom tooth.

The flesh that holds him is swollen and tender. It feels like the wettest, darkest hug, which makes it the best he has ever experienced.

This is the closest he’s felt to being human again.

Buried under tissue and blood, he can pretend he’s a fetus deep in the womb of someone’s jaw, all bone and snuggly.

It’s getting hard to remember what arms around him feel like. He thinks his mother did at one point, wait, yes, of course she did. His father, maybe. There might have been others, surely there were others.

Remembering is hard.

There’s a scratch of steel against his top and the tingle of a sedative tickling at the twisted roots of his existence. He tries to nestle deeper, butting up against the neighboring tooth without any regard of its well being because he needs the comfort.

The chunk of flesh above him is peeled back with gloved hands and sharp tools, bloody and inquisitive. He shies away from the bright light and falls asleep in the last of the darkness.

When he wakes, he is the last hole on a mini golf course.

The fake grass around him is wet with the leaking of a nearby fountain, of which depicts an elephant spraying water from its nose. Throughout the day, game after game, it becomes wet with tears.

The end comes as a surprise to children swinging colorful putters. Their joy shatters into the deepest anguish as their golf ball is gone without warning. They fall on the ground and claw at him, tears in their eyes.

He watches as parents grab their upper arms and yank them back up to standing. A father snarls and hisses something barbed through gritted teeth. Maybe they’ve lost a lot lately, maybe that’s why they’re so upset with each other.

He thinks he remembers crying once, losing something and being punished for mourning over it.

He can’t remember.

At the end of the day, there is no prize, just an abrupt, unexpected end. A small shoe owned by a still sniffling child stomps over him and all goes dark.

He wakes and he is a dream.

He can remember being younger, but just barely. It’s all falling away from him. There are shreds of memory played out in poorly lit projections against the dark screen of nothingness. There are women in dresses holding their squirming sons and daughters. There are fathers exiting cars and waving to the neighbors.

There are boys climbing trees and breaking their arms. There are memories of watching television in dark rooms and pressing his cheek up against the glass of his window during winter. There are memories of burning sidewalks and dog bites and falling in rose bushes.

He drifts and flips and floats through a collective subconscious, each move conjuring something that is familiar and that is not, but that is still somehow him.

He has woken as so many others but he will never wake as the little boy held by his mother and father, shuffling his feet in rain puddles and riding his tricycle across gravel.

Death is like falling asleep. He can’t remember how or when it happens but he’s dreaming, always dreaming.

He falls asleep. He wakes.

James Ezra lives in Texas. Her work has been featured in Show Your Skin, Occulum and Faded Out.

‘Finale’ by Walker Storz

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The feeling of his body faltering was hard to describe.  If he tried to describe it he sounded like a hysteric–there were so many sensations that, while naggingly present, had no words to put to them.  Thus the illness that was physical was experienced also as psychosis and dissociation.  Words themselves started to feel like part of the infection.  To reach for them was like desperately trying to find the root of the illness.  He found some that were close to describing a certain sensation but that sensation would take flight too quickly for the leaden words.  My brain feels dry, too dry, like it’s screaming of thirst  he would think, and then the feeling would have changed, as if the words had put it into flight.  Sometimes he would feel a general aggressive malaise in which everything inside him felt sick, as if red and inflamed and hot, but he had no fever.  Other times it would feel like the cells themselves were bursting of this heat, like they had started to bulge of their own weight.  It seemed that nothing could be done.  These were problems for a witch, not for a doctor.  The parade of doctors started to seem like a flock of viciously healthy, normal predators.  They listened and nodded dumbly, constantly, insensate.  Each visage took on a shadow of unknowing, as if the face were composed of plasticine–as everyone knows, a material that words cannot penetrate.

One day when he was far worse than usual, he made his decision.  He had been feeling like he couldn’t breathe, even though he was breathing.  It was as if every individual cell was thirsty for air, their walls crumpling from the lack.  They were all screaming in unison, and to shut them up, he knew what he had to do.  He logged into this chat channel he sometimes frequented.  He knew he had taken up everybody’s time a little too much, and that his request was a little difficult, so the phrasing was important:

I have a request.  I really, really, really need your prayers.  I need you all to pray for me.  It’s not a joke.  I’ve been very difficult and taken up too much time in the past, so now I need to emphasize that this will be the last request I will make of you.  I know that my soul is in peril, that’s all. 

He logged off before he could read any of the responses.

He thought that that was worrying, but as vague as he could make it.  Nobody would call the cops or anything.  His heartbeat quickened as he drew a bath.  What scared him wasn’t death, but the doctrines in which suicide landed one’s soul in hell.  He could not shake this superstition, no matter how hard he tried, and it left a far more morbid stain on the events awaiting him.  They were tainted by something nastier than tragedy, from the start.

He stripped quickly and pragmatically, his breathing growing hungrier by the minute.  The screaming cells were growing louder, but now they felt almost like good company.  They would be with him until the last.

He submerged himself into the painfully hot water, thinking that this stimuli would take his mind off the pain of the cutting.  He lay back and purposefully hyperventilated deeply–he had been taught to do this before lifting weights, a way to pump himself up.  The pack of razors was on the side of the bath, already opened, along with a sharp hunting knife, as a backup.  The thing was to be done in one gesture.

Slicing open the underside of his arms was simultaneously easier and more painful than he had expected, so much so that he couldn’t suppress a loud yelp.  The yield of blood was plentiful, bursting like ambergris from a fetid stomach.   He started to relax, and felt better already, too relaxed, already high.  Words started to escape him, and his chest heaved less and less frequently.  Suddenly a tear dropped out of the corner of his eye.  All of his life now appeared in retrospect as a massive, bloated waste, which could have been salvaged, but it was too late.  Black and red spots were occluding large portions of his visual field, they shimmered and seemed to circle him like scavengers.  As words and will dissolved, as he was starting to lose himself to what was calling him, he struggled to hold onto one thought as an anchor, as if this thought could burn itself onto the wall, could make him tangible and therefore immortal.  Losing his words, he thought, was exactly the same as losing his breath.

‘Oil’ by Walker Storz

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N___ was unsure if this was a dream or a video game.  There were surefire ways to tell, but he had forgotten them.  It’s all about targets, navigation, safe exits.  Something about grounding should tell you.

All he knew was that he was evidently in a shitty neighborhood in Chicago, and with a feeling of disgust cloaking him, as if he was soiled with something that would never come off.  The houses here were old townhouses, many boarded up.  There was a feeling of sharpness in the air–not just from the cold, but a certain old-country lilt.  It felt like an easter mural in an Orthodox church–bright primary colors and ethereal song, lurking behind the drab exterior reality.

But things would dissolve and rework periodically, into other scenes, only the refrain of breathing remaining constant.

I know I’m in danger.  She told me what he did to her.  He probably knows I know, he probably beat it out of her.

That feeling of soiling was intensifying.  When he thought of Sasha’s father there was a layer of oily dark residue surrounding him–sin, yes, but not the banal kind.  What he had done to her was unmentionable.  And it wasn’t only done to her.  N___ wanted to help, but was scared.  Sasha’s father was a big man, and she had implied that he had criminal friends–low level, perhaps, but still thuggish men who would take his skinny, pale body and beat it until the face was blurred and impressionistic.

Both dreams and video-games would dissolve sometimes into a haze of phosphenes.  The cathode ray TV was a lot similar.  Stations broadcasting from anywhere, picked up from the ether, signal and noise always blurred.

With a hum and rearrangement of dots and pixels, the station changed again.  Now N___ was running through backyards, jumping fences.  He didn’t remember the last 12 hours with great clarity but had a sinking feeling that Sasha’s dad had figured out how much he knew, that he had let something slip.

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‘Irritable Bowels of Hell’ by Rupert McLintock

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The old man at the table behind me was choking on a sausage biscuit.  There was no one else in the diner. Stricken with fright, I pretended I was choking, took a sip of my drink, threw my trash in the garbage and exited the place coughing loudly and clearing my throat without paying heed to the man as he gasped and struggled to suck air.  It was raining frenziedly.

I marveled at the strange colors and patterns of the nasty oozing automobile fluid runoff in the parking lot. There came a near bursting from my colon. I dreaded the thought of having to go back in that place and use the bathroom.  As I was unlocking my truck I tried to hold it but couldn’t.  I ran through the rain and reentered the establishment.  The man was clearly dead and sat hunched over his table across the room.  Apparently none of the employees had come out of the back yet and noticed him.  I quickly ran to the restroom and struggled through a particularly rough bout of diarrhea.

There was a song playing on the radio while I was defecating.  I couldn’t really make out the lyrics but it sounded like “I’m gonna get me a whore in Mexico and hit her with a ball-pein hammer”.

I eventually finished, washed my hands and was prepared to ignore everything and run back to the truck when before I could reach the door I noticed there was a large winged monstrosity clung to the back of the dead man. It was furiously digging into his back with an enormous beak. It started to sling him around into a position in which it could more easily devour him.

The thing hurled his corpse to the floor with a disgusting thud, now relentlessly ripping into his guts with it’s huge beak and razor sharp talons. Blood and guts were being flung in all directions. As I stood there in a horrified stupor at the absolute insanity unfolding before me there came some sort of bloody organ flying out which smacked me right in the face and splatted onto the floor like a wet sack.

I woozily exited the place, ran like a drunken fool and scrambled to unlock my truck. I finally did so but the damned thing wouldn’t start. And worst of all my stomach was hurting again.

Rupert McLintock lives in the remote wilderness of southern Montana. He is a former quaker and an avid connoisseur of rare and unusual fruit jellies.

‘Machiavelli Jones’ by Steve Carr

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Machiavelli Jones had one ambition, to get out of the shit hole he lived in.

His home was no more than a square room with a bathroom attached. The room reeked of mildew mixed with the odors of sweat, urine and stale beer that wafted up from piles of unwashed clothes that laid about in mounds on an old tattered beige carpet.  Empty beer cans were stacked like pyramids in every corner. The once white refrigerator had turned gray from lack of cleaning and the hotplate that sat on a small rickety table was covered in grease and bits of dried food. A small sink next to the refrigerator was full of unwashed dishes, pot and pans. The bed was pushed against the wall below the only window which was at ground level. The stuffing in the mattress stuck out through several holes. There was also a single white wicker chair that faced an old television set with a DVD player attached to it on a metal stand. In one corner there was a dresser with four drawers and a large cracked mirror affixed to the top of it. On the floor in front of the dresser were two forty pound black dumbbells. On a small stand next to the chair was his phone.

It rang and he picked it up from its cradle and said into it in his usual gruff manner, “This is Mack. Whaddya want?”

He listened, grunted bear-like a few times, then hung up. “I gotta find a way to get out of this shit hole,” he mumbled.

After taking a long swig of beer from the can he grasped in his meaty fist, he placed the can on the floor next to the chair he was sitting in and stood up and scratched his balls. He turned and looked at himself in the mirror and inflated his well formed pectoral muscles and held his arms up and made his melon sized biceps bulge. The crack in the mirror divided his face so he moved his head and smiled at his reflection. Aside from having a missing upper front tooth, he wasn’t at all unhappy with his looks; a square jaw, thick lips, aquiline nose, dark green eyes, heavy well shaped black eyebrows. He ran his hand through his black hair and bent down and picked up his gray sleeveless button down shirt and put it on.  Unable to find clean underwear he put on his gray work pants and sat on the edge of his bed and put on his socks and work boots. Before leaving his room he turned off the porn DVD he had been watching, looked at himself again in the mirror, then walked out into the building’s storage units closing the door to his room behind him.

He picked up his bright red tool box that he kept by the elevator, and pushed the button to bring the elevator down to him. When it arrived he pushed the lattice collapsible gate aside and stepped in and pushed the button for the fourth floor. He closed the gate and the elevator slowly rose. The sound of the mechanisms that lifted the elevator reverberated in the shaft. At the fourth floor he had to yank hard to open the gate. He stepped out into the dimly lit hallway and saw Mrs. Garner standing in her doorway waiting for him.

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‘The Bastard Died on Me’ by William L. Spencer

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(In a major key)

Say you’re a writer, some kind of writer, and you come up with the perfect title for this thing you’ve been working on, and the next thing you know, someone steals it.

Well, of course they don’t steal it because no one but you knows what it is, and you can’t steal titles and ideas anyway because you can’t copyright them. If you could copyright ideas Homer’s descendants would be suing Clint Eastwood over Iwo Jima.

(Have you ever considered what a peculiar combination of sounds that is: Iwo Jima? You hear it, you see it, but not until you type it do you realize that it’s just damn weird. You know it’s some kind of a small jima—anything iwo has to be tiny tiny—but what’s a jima? Do you think, possibly, it might be a penis?)

That’s the kind of thing that bastard thought was really funny, stuff that was totally off the wall.

Anyway, I had hit on the title. It was just what I wanted. It spoke directly to my market, the twenty and thirty-somethings sitting around Starbucks with earbuds dangling down unplugged. The earbuds are out because this target demo of mine is listening to that particular music they play in Starbucks that, for me, characterizes their subculture. It usually features a female vocalist, mellow and creamy, no crescendo, no diminuendo, the melody a relaxed, featureless glissando. It’s kind of mesmerizing, it’s pleasant and it’s often beguiling. It’s what your psych prof might call affective flattening.

(Modulate to the minor)

I was putting together a book, not mine, pieces written by that bastard who’d died on me. I’d flown up to Seattle to talk to some people and when the gathering broke up coming on midnight I realized I hadn’t bothered with reservations. Rather than ask for a ride somewhere, I’d walked down the street to one of those aging fringe-of-the-inner-city cracked linoleum motels. The sheets were clean, not so clean and crisp they were stiff, like the ones you get at the Mandarin in Hong Kong or the Plaza in New York, but clean, I’m basically a blue collar type and that’s all I ask.

It wasn’t the sort of place where you sleep in, phone down to room service and spend a lazy morning sitting near a sunny window with a pot of coffee and the New York Times. I was back on the street at six and the only place open was the Starbucks on the next block (there’s a Starbucks on every next block in Seattle, I think it’s an ordinance or something).

I sat there with coffee and a bagel, making line edits to a manuscript that had been written by musician and composer I had admired, a person I had loved like a brother, who knew when he wrote it that he was dying. But you can’t hold all that in your mind and get much done. I sat in Starbucks and listened to the music, looking up from time to time, watching them come in for coffee, wondering.

Absence of affect. Was it a choice favoring simplicity versus the ornate, plainness rather than embellishment? Was it because they toked a bit the night before and now they wanted everything velvety and uninvolving? Or maybe if everything is everything and it’s all neither this nor that, you won’t be disappointed, because after all, what’s this is pretty much the same as what’s that over there, and, ho-hum, whatever.

(Transition back to the dominant)

It took a while before I hit on that title for the thing of mine I’d been writing, just right for a first-person narrative for those kids at Starbucks—simple, flat, blunted affect.

Then a few weeks later, waiting for the start of Woody Allen’s latest, the previews of coming attractions came up and there was my title, hijacked by Hollywood.

(Finish on a flatted fifth)

He died on me and left me here and I’m still pissed off about it. Now who’s around to make fun of me when I start feeling sorry for myself about something stupid, like that dumb title?

William L. Spencer has published fiction and non-fiction in the San Diego Reader and
West Coast Review (Simon Fraser University). His short story “In the System” (pen
name Carlos Dunning) was published by Uprising Review in 2017, and his short “What I
Done” is scheduled for the Spring 2018 issue of Furtive Dalliance Literary Review. He is
a winner of First Place for Fiction (twice) and First Place for Non-Fiction from the San
Diego Writers and Editors Guild, and winner of the Ursus Press Short Story Contest. He
edited “Across This Silent Canvas” by Hubbard Miller. On Scribophile.com he’s Carlos
Dunning.

‘Heel’ by Trace Fleeman Garcia

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Hard leather moccasins pressed into the powder, and the slender, serpentine form of a white-faced canine weaved in and out of the hunter’s path, following a trail that led through the underbrush and into the virgin forest that stood domineering over snow. The trail was the thick, wide, overbearing scent of game that burned the hound’s nostrils — and the smell was familiar to him. Familiar, yet with an unmistakable mask of wild fierceness — the strong, untame odor that could only be of wolves.

The hunter struggled to follow with the agile, brown-speckled dog on flat ground — let alone on the eastern slopes that led deep into the heart of a harsh valley. And so he lost control of his hound — and no amount of shrill whistling managed to call the dog back to his master.

In those days, a hunting dog was property. Valuable property, at that — a hunter’s livelihood hinged on a strong, well-bred pedigree, and the village relied on the hunter for sustenance, especially in the biting winter when the herds thinned, and the fearsome nations in the far-south waged their wars over precious stones like jade and nephrite, and could not trade their grain to the northern nomads that roamed an untilled earth and followed elk and antelope across frozen icescapes. And so it followed in a sort of cruel irony, that the hunter now tracked his own — through a frigid gorge, no less.

The sun was just beginning to sink below the ice-peaked mountains in the west, and the tangerine sunlight cut through the gaps in the evergreens, and illuminated the facing incline in a golden shimmer that contrasted sharply with the hard-white snow.

The ambience was one of silence, eerily quiet, only the soft crying of blackbirds in the treetops. But now, as dusk fell, the bird’s songs trailed off, and yet still, he could not hear the soft sound of padded feet packing snow, nor the high-pitched bark reverberating on the walls of the ravine. Only in the distance could he hear the droning of howls, and the chaotic snarls of a hunting pack.

It was unlikely, the hunter thought, that the wolves would move past slopes of the valley, because his people had encampments along the perimeter of it, and he knew the wolves feared his people. So he kept trudging deeper into the wilderness, tracing the path of an ancient river that carved gap millennia before humans had ever set foot in that territory. But the wolves — the wolves had been there, and their ancestors drank the cool water at the banks of the stream, and stalked the megafauna in the woods, without fear of the strange, naked, bipedal animals that chased them with stone-tipped spears, and trapped them with leaf-covered pits, and wore their skins and carved their bones. In that age they roamed wildly, and their packs roamed freely, and the elk and the lynx and the muskrat were plentiful. But in generations-past, Man came, with his traitorous bastard-wolf, and encroached on their territory and hunted until the elk left and the lone, packless coyote came.

And now there was a lone hunter, deep in foreign dominion, without his bastard, and the wolves watched him cautiously from the ridge, obscured by the thick forest that filled the valley. It was not unlike humans to use tactics like this to lure the pack into a corner they could not back out of, and they would be killed, their den raided, and their pups murdered. But sometimes, when the moon was but a thin, grey sliver and the night was inky black, they could manage to fell one of the strange beasts, and the hunt would halt, and the old men would sings songs and spread herbs over the corpse.

The hunter did not notice that the howling had stopped.

As he continued his journey, he felt his legs and arms grow heavy with fatigue, and his breath get slower and heavier, and he pulled his pelt closer to his body. It was night now, and he was without the warm communal fires of his tribe’s camp, and the frozen air nipped at him through his raw leather tunic. Yet still he he marched through the soft snow, until he reached the mouth of a huge clearing, and could march no more.

And as he collapsed onto his knees, the wolves descended into the clearing, and grouped together along the edge and in the shadows. Only their eyes could be seen as they reflected what little moonlight pierced through the clouds.

And then, a familiar form stepped away from the pack. White-faced, with a brown-speckled coat that covered the back of the slender creature. Now he growled at him, his ears back, his head low. The fur stood straight behind his neck, and the flesh around his snout bunched up, and he presented his long pale teeth.

Trace Fleeman Garcia is a performance poet, writer, and community organizer from Tulare, California.