“The Vivisection Caravan by Rebecca Gransden” by Rebecca Gransden

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Cracked bones tinkled along the sides of the meat caravan as it drifted down a lay-by at night. Car headlights streamed through brittle tree trunks. Traffic monotonously pulsed past on the motorway beyond, as the caravan turned away from it and moved cautiously to find a shady backroad.

The caravan drove itself, untethered from any vehicle, led by the compass of biological impulse. Cartilage exterior making a scratchy progress, rotten teeth attached to dead nerves and swinging from the roof, scraping a clinking music while wheels of rubberised fat churned the septic road surface.

A sigh escaped in an oesophageal puff as it edged forwards. Worn by travel outside of timeframe, the signals of feeling had been muted by the punishment of planetary conjunction. A warning went up, and the flesh reanimated in a flurry of remembrance before sinking to a state of preparatory decline. For now, the exterior whiffed of butchery.

Deeper into the trees, the caravan swaying on uneven ground, the drone of traffic disappearing with the light too. Starlight lit the way, stroking the flexing musculature of the brackets and consumed windows. The doorway stood out for being pink and fresh, resting like a tongue ready to lick. Trees closed over the road, thicket a chaotic black, twisted stems above poking out supernovas.

A rusty metal barrel burning ahead on the track, flames whipping and rolling high, the stink of bad oxygen plumes reeking all about. Straining ducts in the barrel peepholed a torrent of seething hellfire, the metal itself sustained by the heat, which would eventually amplify and send it to destruction. Drenched in ossified smoke tubers, the caravan edged to a halting brake, rocking to a standstill. Flame illuminated the front and flickered down the facing side, the rest of the caravan lost to the shadow of the darkening road.

A leather-aproned man strode out from the black road ahead, as if the barrel was his. A valley of scars criss-crossed his face, his features mangled by tissue torn, formed to manmade geometry. The ritualistic markings traversed his body, visible as elevated tracks along his bare arms, the pale wormlike lines running to disappear into a faded wifebeater.

He held a gnarled piece of broken log in one hand; a hand oversized and fleshy with rounded muscle, like the rest of him. With a wink he lobbed the log sample into the raging barrel, causing a spiral of fiercely singed sparks to fly in a turbulent whirlwind. He spat and coughed and walked through the disturbed burning cloud until he reached near enough to the caravan.

A low moaning came from inside, faint and dreadful, like an injured animal. The man raised his sweaty arm and scraped it across his face, leaving a sooty smear.

“Knock, knock,” he said, his voice a quiet vibrato, unfitting to his face. He sniffed, taking in the night, and what was to come to him.

The door peeled away, glutinous folds the consistency of luncheon meat curling to reveal a murky hole.

A glint flickered from inside.

Its source poked forwards—a polished metal clamp attached to the exposed brain of a laboratory raised cat. The cat walked on its hind legs, its ginger and scruffy fur thinning around bald patches, some covered in a red rash, some displaying healed curved incision scars. The man fell to his knees and put his palms together, tears trickling along the trackways he’d carved in his cheeks ready for the process.

From behind the cat and out of the throbbing doorway hurried four lab rabbits, pink eyes weeping scarlet trails into their fluffed up white fur. Each rabbit held the bottom end of one of the four legs of a stool, the seat lilting badly as they struggled to balance it. They carried the stool into position, placing it a few feet away from the still flaming barrel. The cat positioned a paw onto the man’s forehead and silently imparted that he rise.

The man got to his feet and moved—hunched and methodically—to place himself onto the stool, his back to the oscillating barrel light. The bunnies scampered to the caravan and hopped inside, squeaking shrilly.

With the raggedy grace of a beleaguered soul, the cat gently climbed the hulk of a man, travelling up his body before settling on the muscly platform of his overdeveloped shoulder. Its eye twitched and its paw-pads tightened around a scalpel. The cat placed its furry front leg firmly onto the man’s face, to at once steady itself and also to obstruct the man’s vision. With great strain it lifted the sharp blade to the top of the man’s head, and forcefully sliced into the scalp a perfect square that framed his entire crown.

A bound saw the cat off the man and over to the caravan, where it leaped inside, for no more than a few seconds, reemerging with a bound, the scalpel swapped for a bonesaw. Now the cat sprang back to the shoulder, ripping the man’s scalp upwards, dislodging the square skin flap, and flinging it into bushes. The new instrument buzzed and hit bone, the man sitting up straight, conscious somehow, the cat’s forepaws busy, leaving the man’s eyes left to convulse in flexing bulges. Dark pupils displayed the spectral languor of his wife, troubled with cancerous blood, drowning in a fate of vampiric victimhood, across the land and in their bedroom and on their marital bed. Illness was draining her away, the gauze of her presence ready to dissolve.

The cat dropped the bonesaw, which sputtered to a stop on the ground. This was the cue for the reappearance of the rabbit parade, and the bunnies rushed forwards once more from out of the caravan, their eyes almost exploding with excitement, between them holding another metal clamp, an exact replica of that attached to the cat’s head, but scaled up to be large enough to fit a human skull precisely. The bunnies shuffled up to the front of the stool and communicated in soft bleeps to each other. In perfect synchronisation they united their efforts and with combined strength launched the heavy metal clamp upwards and into the waiting bloody paws of the lab cat.

With speedy dextrousness the cat installed the clamp, pushing it with a crunch to snugly fit the square void atop the man’s head and cover his bare brain tissue. A short funnel of metal poked erect from his crown, the central area of attachment—the previous purpose of which would’ve been to hook up the test subject to an electrode or injection device, ready for experimentation. The man blinked, trying to assess if his faculties had survived the violent process. He couldn’t tell if his giddiness was a result of the primitive surgery, or of shock and blood loss. In any case, he tried to stand, and felt steadier as a result.

The cat backed off and retreated to the caravan, tentatively keeping an eye on the man until it moved to the door and padded careful steps inside.

Alone, the man stripped himself, halfheartedly trying to wipe the blood that had cascaded his scar tracked arms, but time enough had passed for the dark liquid to turn tacky, so his rubbings were only partially successful. He turned to face the barrel and the black road beyond. High above, the fiercest stars twinkled energetically despite the brightness of the flame. The man chucked his soiled clothes into the barrel, and it again sent sparks into the air, though no smoke followed. He glanced down at his body, wearied from a life of toil, his comforts displayed as a dimpled potbelly.

After consuming the fresh fuel of his clothes the barrel began to die, and he staggered forwards, keen to find a rhythm to his walk, gradually straightening his gait as he strode into the backroad black.

He trampled along, the path familiar, and the darkness filled with enough starlight that he didn’t have to think too much about where to place his next step. At a point between thick twin tree trunks he’d passed so many times before in daytime, he turned and went off the track, and onto a grassy throughway, dipped to a path gouged into the sandy soil, created by years of feet looking for a shortcut.

In no time he emerged from weedy trees and onto an open hill, sweet meadow flowers kept low by grazing animals, every one of the beasts sent to slaughter weeks ago.

All sounds of nature ceased, as if a strange insulation had fallen. No noises from the town drifting up from below like there should be, no nocturnal chirrups to freeze the blood. Only a silence born of static, the pause of the engine building for a breaking point.

He reached the top of the hill, guided in a state not quite conscious, not quite not. A momentous crack occurred somewhere above him, dreamlike and reverberating to create a thrum in the air. A coagulation of hazy electric threads wafted overhead, glowing and tinged blue, curling wraithlike to form a hovering gaseous mass, warmly humming. It descended and he watched the far off stars, and as it touched him it enfolded his shivering skin, engulfing his exterior which slowly accepted a fluorescing pink aura. Once it had covered him, the pink extended to be haloed by an unearthly indigo surround, the hum transferring to his body, no louder than a spirit’s whisper. Like a radiating tin man he awkwardly made his way down the hillside, across the silent scrubby fields, along shadowy roads which trailed to the suburban hinterlands and then up to his own front door.

In the dark he climbed his stairs, the smell of home forcing hot tears, and he entered the bedroom he’d shared with the woman who was his wife, and had been for more years than he’d been a man. He approached the bed, disrobed this woman’s body, keeping her asleep, and  then put her back down to rest. The intense pink of him hit her pallor and reminded him of the life she had once possessed, the flush and force she’d shown him, when she could, when her blood carried her towards him and not away. He laid her out and placed himself on her bare body, caressing her, kissing his final breaths into her, until his pink dimmed and she shone an electric godly blue.

Lifeless, he tumbled from her and to the floor, his final twitches the misfiring of a desire for forgiveness entwined with deep satisfaction.

The laboratory animals of the vivisection caravan stirred, sensing that once again their sufferings had born a cure, the cure that had evaded their torturers but had risen in them, the result only experience can bring, whatever the hopes of observation. The cat, and the rabbits, the rats, and the piglets, snuggled into their nests of warm meat, to dream the sunrise and conjure another day to travel the invisible road ready to spread their special remedy to the next poor soul in line.

 

Rebecca Gransden lives on an island and writes sometimes. She can be found on Twitter @rlgransden and online occasionally at rebeccagransden.wordpress.com

“An Audience of Feathers” by Jared Povanda

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I arrange the birds in an archipelago.

They stay still for me. The sparrows. The crows. The parakeet I borrowed from Mr. Thomas in 10A. All still. All silent. I crouch, haunches bunched tight, as it begins to snow outside. Gentle, so gentle, these March snow flurries. Goosebumps raise on my arms. I try to ignore the pain from the scratches, the pecks, the long, red, meandering talon marks.

“My grandmother taught me this,” I tell the audience of feathers. “It’s for conjuring. For bringing something into the world.” A large crow cocks her head, but she doesn’t leave her position at the front of the procession.

“You should understand, crow. It’s your kind who hold funerals for their dead. It’s your kind who practice necrophilia. Stop looking at me like I’m the weird one.”

I stand, muscles raw, back sore, arms stretched to the ceiling. I’m shirtless for the effect of it, and the goosebumps trail down me, make my hair stand on end. The windows in front of me collect snow on their sills.

There is a desk to my right, and it’s piled with letters. Harvey’s letters. I almost cross the room and pick the newest one from the pile. The paper isn’t yet yellow and cracked from over-reading.

“Ready?”

The birds stare at me with their beady, bright, bounding eyes. None of them move.

I nod and take a breath. Take a breath. Take—

Latin spills from my mouth. Words with round edges and sharp curves. Words that make my tongue itch.

It’s March 15, and Caesar’s ghost has dropped through the ceiling to watch. Caesar and Brutus, friends again and grammarians. I can hear them correcting me, and I want to shout at them, they’ll scare the birds before I’m done, but if I stop, everything’ll surely go to Hell.

I have to trust. I have to take trust between my hands, cup its shape on my palms, and stroke the letters until they trust me back.

This is for Harvey. Harvey, Harvey, Harvey and his letters. Harvey and his hatred of strawberries. Harvey and that piece of hair of his that’d never stay gelled down an entire night before springing up again. Harvey, the journalist. Harvey, my best friend. Harvey who loved the ocean. The sand. Harvey, my piña colada man. My little-pink-umbrella-in-a-drink guy. Harvey and his smile. The way he stood tall, protecting me from bully-punches, a grin on his face. Harvey, the brother. The son. The prince of his family. My king.

I remind myself of this as the Latin rolls off my tongue in foam-tipped waves. I remind myself of this as the parakeet begins to shake, feathers erect, and then blinks from existence. The other birds do not move. Do not panic.

One by one, as Caesar and Brutus look on, quiet now, the archipelago implodes. The avian islands sink into the air, into nothingness, into the syllables spinning in the breeze like last autumn’s leaves.

The blood, the bones, the beaks, all for Harvey. For his long, hairy legs and his arms and broad chest and the way his nose hooked. Harvey, and his loamy eyes. I plant the spell in each iris.

His body unbends, unfolds from that same nothingness, levitating feet off the ground. The bullet’s entry wound closes. His lungs knit back together.

When we were children, who could have guessed he’d be dead at twenty-eight and I’d be building a new Harvey out of bird bodies in my living room? Who could have known the ghosts of Roman emperors would watch me, and then pick through those letters, the letters he always insisted on writing—email was too impersonal for him—when we were states apart, in college, and then after, both of us traveling separately and too often for work? Who could have known the bullet would strike him dead on impact?

Who could have known I would eventually cradle his bleeding heart to my broken one?

My mouth is dry. My lips crack from the cold of the snow. There is only the last crow now, and she goes to open her beak, goes to say something, but the world is unfair to women of every species, and my spell rewinds her into the void with all the rest before she can do it.

The Latin dies.

The ghosts look on, Brutus gripping Caesar’s shoulder, and I wonder, fleetingly, how many times Brutus has apologized to his king for what he did.

The snow is on a soft descent outside.

Harvey drifts to the ground with it. Perfect Harvey. And I smile. I smile, and I start to laugh and bounce up and down.

“You’re here! Harvey, you’re here. Open your eyes, man. Open your eyes.”

I crouch by his naked body, haunches bunched tight, hope a sky we’re both flying through. His heart beats a steady rhythm. Wing flaps of an eagle.

I wait. I wait. I wait, and the ghosts wait, peering over my shoulder, and even they smile when Harvey’s brown eyes stare back at me.

I wipe away a tear. “Harvey, god, Harvey. It’s so good to have—”

He jolts up, sudden, fast, and fast-forward, like a video of an island being born from the sea. Like a bird, launching into flight.

“CAW!” Harvey shouts. “Caw, Caw, Car—lack! Car—lack, caw! Caw!” His hands are on my shoulders, and his nails embed themselves in my skin, and I’m bleeding, but I can barely feel it through the tears.

“What? But I did everything right? I did!” I’m shouting, trying to stand. Harvey’s cawing, trying to keep me down, and we’re a tangle of messy limbs and blood and feather-bits and bits of bone and we crash into the table with his letters.

Something cracks, but I don’t really feel that, either. Papers float down all around us, all around— white, white, white, snow on the inside—and I look into his anguished face, those eyes of his, and he keeps squawking. Keeps pointing at his throat.

Caesar retracts into the ceiling, I hear him, and I understand his English.

“Every year, I tell people to beware the Ides of March, but do they ever listen? Do they? No…”     

“I’m sorry,” I coo to my Harvey. “I’m so, so sorry. But I can fix this! I can! Trust me. Trust me.”

I reach a hand out to him, praying, but he just stares at it with beady, bright, bounding eyes, uncertain and unmoving, the start of a new archipelago, maybe, but also just a man. A man who’s looking at me now as if I were his great betrayer, as if I wanted this. As if I plunged a knife deep into my king’s back on purpose.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper, sobs shaking me. “I didn’t mean for this to happen.”

Harvey tips his head up in answer, muscled arms spread wild like wings, and lets out one final, piercing cry.

“Photo Finish” by Paul Negri

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Klondike, Candy and Tim perched on stools facing out the big front window of the Koffee Klutch Kafé. They had been sitting for four hours and had collectively consumed six cups of coffee, two chocolate croissants, one large slice of coconut praline pie and six frosted organic oatmeal cookies. Candy had consumed more than half. Klondike rested his elbows on the narrow counter in front of him and stared out the window at cars and trucks rumbling through the wide, busy intersection. His Nikon D850 DSLR was appended to his hand with a padded wrist and grip strap that effectively made the camera an extension of his hairy arm. Candy fingered her tablet, her long nails making little click-clicks. Tim, with his big head resting sideways on the counter, made soft bovine noises in his throat.

“This is a waste of time,” said Klondike.

“It’s only been three days, K,” said Candy, not looking up from the tablet. “We’ve waited longer than that. Remember Sunrise Boulevard? 24 degrees? Ice and wind?”

Klondike smiled. “Part of my frozen ass is still on that bench.”

“Did I call that one right or did I call that one right?” Candy sipped her latte. It left a little ridge of foam on the dark hairs above her lip.

 “You called that one right, C. A double.”

“How many have I called right?” Candy nudged him with a sharp elbow. Despite her addiction to sticky sweets and three-sugared coffees, she was razor thin. Klondike thought it unnatural.

“40%. 45 maybe.”

“58.6%”

“No way,” said Klondike.

“You want to see the spreadsheet?” Candy narrowed her pinprick eyes at him, as if preparing to spring. “Not that you would recognize a spread sheet if you slept on one.”

“You’re the odds-maker, C. I’m just the camera man. Just the best fucking camera man you’ll ever have the privilege of working with.”

Candy snorted. “Odds-maker. I’m a statistician. A probabilist. Very nearly a prophet.”

“A prophet of doom,” said Klondike.

“Just doing my job.” Candy scrolled through her tablet.

“And what about T  there? What’s his job? Drooling on the counter?”

“He’s there if we need him. He knows the cops in every borough. How do you think we got so close on Sunrise Boulevard? I mean, after. And those were your best shots, right?”

“I would’ve got them anyway.”  Klondike lowered his voice to a whisper. “I don’t like T. I bet he was dirty. Why isn’t he still on the force?”

“Try old and fat. And you don’t have to whisper. He’s half deaf.”

Tim raised his head momentarily from the counter. The side of his face had a pink diagonal line running across it, the impression of a plastic coffee stirrer that had been under his cheek. He blinked and laid his head back down on the other side.

“What’s he doing?” asked Klondike.

“Turning the other cheek,” said Candy.

“I mean most of the time we’re finished before the cops get there. What’s T’s cut for doing nothing?”

Candy looked hard at Klondike and Klondike felt it. “He’s here because Dr. Z wants him to be. His cut is none of your business.”

Klondike shifted his gaze out the window. A red SUV screech-stopped at the light. “I can’t believe this stuff is not illegal,” he said.

“Even if he posted it on a public site, it wouldn’t be. Anyway, it’s all for members only. Private club. For Dr. Z and his kind. And it’s not kiddie porn, after all.”

“Still,” said Klondike.

From behind the counter, the African American man in the white cap shouted, “Another round? It’s been an hour.”

“Oh Jesus, I can’t,” said Klondike.

Candy hopped off the stool and went to the counter. “How bout I just give you a five and you give me a donut?”

“How bout you just give me a ten and I give you a donut? We ain’t no bus stop.”

Candy remounted the stool with a chocolate-drizzled pumpkin-spiced donut in her teeth, as if she’d swooped down and captured it. Klondike looked at her stumpy legs dangling from the stool and wondered if she qualified as a midget or if she came up just short.

“You should see my legit stuff,” said Klondike.

“This is legit stuff,” said Candy. “Everything’s legit for somebody.”

“You remember that pair of red-tailed hawks that nested over the façade of the Fifth Avenue luxury condo a few years ago?”

“No.”

“My shot of them made it into National Geographic.”

Candy sucked the rest of the donut into her mouth and wiped the chocolate from her lips. Tim raised his head from the counter. Klondike squinted out the window—

 

a metal screech hot and brittle in the air with a bass drum hard banged once a raincoat like bat’s wings flies up out of sight and out of mind makes reentry thud-thudding on the coffee shop sidewalk Bingo Candy off her stool Jesus Tim stumbles Klondike galumphs first one out click-click-clicking hop skip and jumping shoot-shooting from here and there and everywhere one two three—jump—four five six—jump running round in circles hot and heavy sucking wind the driver in the truck pale as paste the driver crying the old lady on her belly her face impossibly looking up at the sky a pool thick like chocolate slowly spreading from the back of her head—

 

  “Call the police,” yelled the man behind the counter.

“Give it a minute,” said Candy. She stood in the doorway watching Klondike do his work. “Face, get the face,” she called. “Enough?”

“Enough.”  Klondike dropped his camera-hand.

Candy hit 911. “Accident. Pedestrian hit. Cleveland and 4th. Looks bad.”

“A fucking masterpiece.”  Klondike was breathing hard, his eyes round as quarters.

“Did I call it right or did I call it right, K?”

Klondike stood panting. “You called it right, C. You are a fucking prophet.”

 

Paul Negri has twice won the gold medal for fiction in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Writing Competition. His stories have appeared in The Penn Review, Into the Void, Pif Magazine, Gemini Magazine, Jellyfish Review, and many other publications. He lives and writes in Clifton, New Jersey.

 

“Building Bodies” by Jane-Rebecca Cannarella

 

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This morning I touched the swarm of knots at the back of my head to confirm that we had sex last night. I was glad it happened even though I drank too much to remember anything other than you explicitly asking me for my consent and how I bit your freckled shoulder.

My hand still clutched my hair as I reached for my belongings, it was a bun made from motion and when I removed my hand it stayed in its wad. I dressed and moved out of the pillared beam nakedness of your bedroom. The paint stains were the only decoration on the grainy exposed wood and it always felt like you would get a splinter just by being inside.

When I looked in the mirror before I left, I was wrinkled and too-dry. When I was younger I didn’t know that dehydrated skin looks like the creases in clothes after being pulled from a pile of laundry mountain-ing in the corner of a bedroom. But here we are. I am a body made of pleats. I let myself out; there was no one else to see me out, anyway, except your roommate’s cats and they don’t like me.

 

 

On the mud banks of the snow slush train station where I waited for my train, you sent me a text that said, “you’re out of my place, right?” and I respond back “I had to fight a robot to get out but I succeeded,” followed by a bunch of emojis to indicate that I was funny, and casual, and cute when silently I was hurt that the only question was if I was out of your home. What did you think I would do? Stay? …Because in all honesty, that’s what I did for a while. I slept late and held your pillows like they were bodies and it was okay that they didn’t hold me back. The weight of the text asking if I had vacated like a shitty tenant carried itself deep and sunken within me as I thought about how nice the insulation of your blankets had been only a handful of moments ago.

Overly blue days that are also cold are so annoying when you’re in that sort of dull emotional pain that comes with not totally being in pain, feeling feeling-less. It makes the prettiness of passing bright hours feel sharp like pieces of glassy ice against sensitive teeth. The train came as my phone buzzed, and it was you again, and you texted, “you’re such a cool girl. So easy breezy.” And those words were loaded gunmetal grey. I’m not a girl; I’m 34.

The train showed up and glinted against the big big sky. And its hollow body housed me while we both traveled through Philadelphia station after station, carrying me to my job in a paternal motion like a baby being rocked. The broken bodies of abandoned buildings were planted in huge unharvested rows. They had jagged window teeth like teenagers who needed braces and I loved them for their fawn-ish adolescent shyness, covered with ivies and with red bricks like cracked chapped lips from teeth-held bites during winter days.  In the very least, I wish I could have remembered us kissing last night. But I don’t. I don’t think we did.

The mouths of mournful building bodies, like children not holding hands while crossing the street, became multiple-night-stand mile markers, and the train and I coasted by a station three stops before my own. I played a game that I used to when I was a teen, making bets out of probability and the universe with the too too big sky a kicked off comforter from swinging legs above me. If he texts me again before the Fern Rock stop, he actually likes me. And again, if he texts me before the Jenkintown stop, he actually likes me. But you didn’t text so my phone stayed quiet, branch fingers from vulnerable trees gently clawed the windows of the train. Once more, if he texts me before the Glenside stop, he actually likes me. The train rocked forward and I got off at my stop.

 

Jane-Rebecca Cannarella is a writer living in Philadelphia, She is the editor of HOOT Review and Meow Meow Pow Pow Lit. She was a genre editor at Lunch Ticket, as well as a contributing writer at SSG Music. In her spare time, she is a candy enthusiast and cat fan. 

When not poorly playing the piano, she chronicles the many ways that she embarrasses herself at the website www.youlifeisnotsogreat.com. Her chapbooks of flash/prose-poems, Tiny Thoughts for Tiny Feelings and Unicorn Tracheotomy, were published by BA Press, 2002. Her forthcoming story collection, BETTER BONES, will be published by Thirty West Publishing House come summer 2019.

“Timeshare” by Daniel Eastman

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When I was very young about seven or eight, my family had taken a vacation to Disney World. I know I was very young because my sister was still a baby. Anyway, I guess to save some money my father had figured on attending one of those timeshare breakfasts. They give discount tickets to the parks for attending. Being very young and seeing the roadside outlets—storefronts shaped like tropical fruit, colonial ships, and mouse ears—I got a little too excited on the way to breakfast. There are kids, I mused, real kids who get to live here all the time. When was Mickey Mouse, a face around the neighborhood probably, going to jump out and greet me? When would we see the grand finale? This, place we’d arrived at, this was just a parking lot. 

“Breakfast?” I cried into the blistering blue morning, my voice echoing over the vehicular sea, “I can’t wait through breakfast! Tower of Terror!” My father’s monstrous mitts grabbed hold of my arm, a twig not yet a bicep, and the bloodshot old man stifled a throaty scream through his teeth, “the fucking baby is slee-ping!” I suppose I was being too loud. We checked on my infant sister still snoozing, soundly strapped into her car seat.

I can’t recall now when the bruise formed, this warped watercolor of yellows and blues. Sometimes I think about it. Now that I’m grown I do things I’m ashamed of and there’s a mark, a totem I guess, keeping me on guard. And that thing seems to always be there. Little things. Following me. Staring. Look at me, my empty finger might say when I lose my wedding band. Look at me, my wide eyes say after briefly nodding off at the wheel. I’m not going away, the shame says even after I’m once again wearing the band. Even after I’m shrieked awake by steel guardrail. I’m always looking out, spinning the titanium band on my finger or looking in the rearview. When you’re a child you don’t realize all these secret items people carry with them. I wonder what symbol of shame my father carried around that park all week, as it followed him, holding his hand, what he felt when I stepped before that ginormous silver globe and raised my glowing arm to the azure sky.

Anyway, he bought that timeshare after all.

 

Daniel Eastman is a writer residing in Allentown. His work has been featured in Stone Canoe, The Write Launch, and Sink Hollow Literary Journal. He was awarded the 2019 S.I. Newhouse School Prize for Creative Nonfiction.

“I Am Not My Skin” by Karen Heslo

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I’m bench pressing a personal record of 75 lbs when the hunger hits me. My skin is wet, clammy and itchy all at once. I lower the bar slowly and glance around the gym at the sparse late night crowd. As soon as I wipe away the sweat careening down my face, my pores weep anew. It’s my own fault for not keeping track of my scheduled quarterly feeding. I pray to the gods it is not too late to leave and forage through the homeless people around the corner. Even one of those meandering dogs would do.

I rise slowly but the ground becomes a swirling sinkhole beneath my feet nonetheless. It’s too late to leave the gym, I realize.

“Are you alright?” a gravelly voice asks.

I will my eyes to focus on the man whose hand is resting on my shoulder. His skin is a lighter shade of caramel than mine and I can see silver-grey eyes through my blurred vision. Pain burns through my body as quickly and as violently as an uncontrolled blaze. The nausea will set in soon, forcing the remnants of my last meal out of my mouth and possibly my nose.

“I…I need the restroom please.”

He places his hand behind me for support and allows me to rest my head against his shoulder. His warmth and the rhythmic pulsing of blood through his veins provide comfort but also causes saliva to pool in my dry mouth. Our clumsy tandem walk ends and he is hesitating before the large white door with WOMEN ONLY engraved in its centre. The letters jumble before my eyes and I grab a handful of his sweat soaked shirt while swallowing rapidly.

“Please…” I beg.

He mumbles something I don’t hear and pushes the door. Thankfully the room is empty and he leads me to one of the benches. As soon as I sit, nausea lances my stomach and vomit launches from my throat unto his shirt. He looks at me with equal parts of concern and disgust.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” I mutter.

“It’s okay,” he says with a sigh and removes his shirt.

He is quick to forgive because he does not know the depth of my malfeasance. He is rinsing his shirt in the sink while casting furtive glances at the door when I sidle up behind him. There is a faint click as my jaws unhinge, a slight creaking as my body stretches to get close to my true height. His eyes widen in the mirror but I suck his head into my mouth so quickly his scream is reduced to a wet gurgling sound inside my throat.

I walk backwards slowly, dragging his body with me into a large cubicle and reach around his bulk awkwardly to close the latch. My throat expands further and its internal suckers pull the body down at a steady, even pace. The sharp teeth on my insides move back and forth, cutting the flesh into pieces my stomach can easily digest.

The restroom’s door squeaks open and my heart sputters. The stranger’s feet are upright and sticking out of my mouth like twin pillars. I pull on the feet frantically, stuffing the body down my throat faster than the suckers will allow and though I gag a little, there is no reaction from the person outside. I know this sound is not an unusual one in the restrooms of this realm.

My body starts to digest the body and he is a stranger no more. The brain is the most delectable and heart rending organ of a human being. As I savour Emerson’s intricate flavours, his memories flow into my mind. I see his smiling voluptuous wife with her kind eyes and infectious laugh, who I have now widowed. I see his now fatherless athletic twin boys who bring Emerson endless pride and joy. For the first time in a long while, I am consuming a blameless man. The memories will fade in a week but that does not stop guilt from twisting my heart. The last bit of Emerson makes it into my stomach and I am reaching for the latch when I hear it. It sounds like the slow opening of a Velcro closure.

“Oh no. Oh no. Oh…”

I know it is natural but still my chest clenches with unbearable anxiety. It reminds me of my realm of Carphantia and I hate to remember. I hate to remember my kind being hunted, imprisoned and bred for the consumption of my fellow Carphantians. When a member of the guerilla forces offered me the opportunity to escape before capture, I took it.

Fortunately the supply of my kind is so secure I am not worth the energy of combing through thousands of alternate realms.

I remove my clothes quickly and run my hands along the split skin at my sides. The gaps widen along an invisible seam and sensitive nerve endings disconnect before there is significant pain. I place my fingernails under the old skin and carefully pull it outwards. There is a slick, sucking sound as it comes away.

Soon I am holding the sheath that once held my body. Once detached, the skin’s camouflage disappears and I hold the iridescent scales of my kind, shimmering and soft as silk in my hands.

This skin is all I am to the hunters in my realm but here I am so much more. Here, I am Mayana – a valued woman in a profession where my opinions matter to those I see daily. There, I am nameless – a wearer of the skin eaten to boost the immunity of soldiers fighting a seemingly endless war. Sometimes they would wait for us to shed the skin, sometimes they would not.

I wrap the sheath around my chest and pull my clothes back on before leaving the cubicle. I stare in the mirror at my now unlined skin. I will now need a daily ritual to create the lines and wrinkles of a 45-year old face. Soon I will also need to add grey streaks to my ebony tresses. I know I must be careful as while human beings are not as ruthless as Carphantians, they are still suspicious of that which is unlike them. Even more so of a creature that must feed on other living beings every few months to survive.

I have many sheddings left in a lifetime which surpasses the oldest living human by a century. I am hopeful my entire life will not be a lie. I am hopeful there will be a time when I do not have to hide who I am. I wish to end my life being true to my inner self and being more than the skin that encases me.

 

Karen Heslop writes from Kingston, Jamaica. Her stories can be found in The Future Fire, Apparition Lit Mag and The Defiant Scribe among others. She tweets @kheslopwrites.

“Hatchlings” by Jerome Spencer

 

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This is all Mitchie’s fault. Or, more specifically, this is all the bugs-that-live-in-Mitchie’s-asshole’s fault. We wouldn’t be here, dealing with these pissed off cops and these inquisitive glares if Mitchie could have afforded to go to a doctor when the bugs first started nesting, though. So maybe it’s the government’s fault. I don’t know much about politics or healthcare, but I know that if a man has bugs colonizing his anus he should be able to see a professional without worrying about how he’s going to pay for it. When Mitchie first told me about the bugs I didn’t believe him. I didn’t even see the bites.

“You don’t see them?!” he screamed, stripped down to his boxers and clawing at his chest and stomach, “how the fuck can you not see them? They’re everywhere and I’m not fucking crazy.”

I thought Mitchie was crazy, though. Especially when he explained to me that some type of bug had obviously nested in his asshole and that the hatchlings were feasting on his skin while he slept. Bed bugs, right? Obviously, I was thinking my roommate had brought bed bugs into our apartment. But Mitchie didn’t have any actual bites. The only markings on his skin were the scratch marks from his incessant itching of the imaginary bite marks. I’m not a psychiatrist, but it seemed to me that it was all in his head. I just had to convince him of that so that he could think more logically about this dilemma. Mitchie had never done anything crazy before so I figured I could just reason with him. I never finished that book Catch-22, but I think the premise is that you can’t be crazy if you know you’re crazy. I just had to show Mitchie that he was crazy.

So I googled “bugs that live in assholes” and got nothing relevant. There was a rare case in Australia in which a fly laid eggs in a man’s ass and then he had maggots coming out of it, but that’s Australia. Crazy shit goes down in Australia. I told Mitchie what I didn’t find in my google search when he came down the hall from his fourth steaming-hot bath of the day. His skin was bright red from practically boiling himself in the tub. Here’s the problem with the internet: you can find anything you want on there. So when Mitchie searched “bugs that live in assholes” he found plenty of cases of just that. And, naturally, all of the symptoms matched his. This only confirmed his suspicions and now he had pictures, on the actual internet, to corroborate his claims. Now Mitchie KNEW he wasn’t crazy.

So I guess this is the internet’s fault.

For the first few weeks, it wasn’t too bad. In an attempt to get rid of the critters, Mitchie had become a bit of a clean freak. There was never a dirty dish in the house and the floors and upholstered furniture were vacuumed at least once daily. I had seen a carpet beetle or two, but nothing alarming. I didn’t mind the obsessively clean surfaces, though. Our neighbors complained about the hours he chose to vacuum once, but all we got was a stern text from the landlord. The toilet, obviously, was always spotless and the whole bathroom was bleached regularly. The water and electric bills were astronomical though, due to his compulsive bathing and vacuuming.  We were going through toilet paper way too fast for two men in their thirties, but it was nice to have a clean apartment. There was the flashlight, also. Mitchie had one of those super bright LED flashlights and he would creep around the apartment with and look in the corners or into the carpet fibers. I don’t know what he would’ve done if he had caught one of those little bugs, but he was determined to find one. He wore purple latex gloves and everything. It became commonplace to find Mitchie skulking around the apartment shining his light into all the cracks and crevices and getting in between me and the tv.

Mitchie noticed he didn’t itch quite as much at work and that’s when the problems became unmanageable. He was convinced that our living situation contributed to the survival of the seemingly microscopic culprits.  It started with things like throw pillows and spare blankets going missing. His bedroom quickly became stark and Mitchie replaced his bed with a Walmart air mattress and those special sheets for kids that wet the bed. He just tossed his perfectly good bed out. He wanted to burn it, but he didn’t have a truck to haul it from our apartment complex so he smashed it with a hammer until he could fit the pieces into our dumpster. This was fine with me until he started getting rid of items from our common areas. After the living room drapes vanished I had to start locking all of my personal belongings in my room so Mitchie didn’t send them to a landfill. I was constantly worried he was going to rip our carpet up and I don’t think that’s covered on the security deposit.

I called an exterminator out to ease Mitchie’s mind. I thought if a professional could tell him that there were no bugs that he would be able to accept it. Worst case scenario: they would really find bugs and we could get rid of them. I found an exterminator online called Kill ‘Em All and their logo was a replica of the Metallica album of the same name, but with a bug. I thought that was pretty clever and they were affordable so I had them check out the apartment. When the guy came out he didn’t seem to have anything scientific or moderately professional with him; just a flashlight like Mitchie’s except it was clipped to his hat. He just walked around the apartment, shining his light around the beds and baseboards and asking a few questions. He took off his hat, scratched his scruffy head and told me he didn’t find anything. The way he emphasized the word anything gave me the impression that we were more than just bug-free. He had turned it into a five syllable word to really get his point across. It seemed to imply that Mitchie had transformed our apartment into a negative zone for anything that crawls; an insect black hole. Mitchie just said that the guy was a hack and stoned out of his mind. I couldn’t disagree on the stoned part, but what can you expect from a heavy metal-themed exterminator?

It was the day I pulled in our parking lot and saw the remnants of our sofa – an unmistakable pale yellow and maroon plaid – that I decided I had to do something. I stormed through our now cavernous apartment and barged into the bathroom without knocking. It was like a shameful Russian bathhouse in there and I had to wait until some of the steam escaped the door I had just busted through before I could see Mitchie in the tub. He reminded me of the scene where Bugs Bunny is being boiled alive by some natives and he’s just in there, scrubbing his back while they season him and cut up carrots and whatnot. Mitchie didn’t even look startled.
“Look, Mitchie,” I said, “we’ve got to go to the ER right now. These bugs have got to go.”

Mitchie just nodded and reached for a towel, one he would throw away after one use. He had recently become the proud owner of a bulk box of hotel-grade towels; I’m not even sure how he found something like that. I was pacing our empty living room waiting for him to get ready when I felt it. I can’t really explain it, but it was kind of like a little tickle in my butt, like something moving or burrowing. First a tinge or two, but it quickly became constant. In not even two minutes my thighs started itching. But not just a regular itch. It was as if hungry fire ants had consumed my lower half. I couldn’t scratch enough. I couldn’t get to the right spots and it was moving up to my stomach as well. Mitchie came in the room and saw me there, writhing around and scratching and poking my hard to reach places and he smiled. This sunuvabitch smiled at his vindication.
“We gotta go!” I said, “We gotta go right now.”

I get why the intake nurse called the cops. I’m sure Mitchie and I looked pretty terrifying running into the hospital emergency room, both shirtless and ranting about invisible bugs while we aggressively tried to reach our own anal cavities. I would have called the cops, too. I would think that in our frantic state a doctor would have rushed out to see what the commotion was, but no medical professionals came to our aid. Not even a nurse or medical student. Everyone else in the ER just pretended they weren’t glaring at us while they glared at us, howling like banshees and demanding that we get to a doctor right away. The lady at the desk was pretty calm, too. She kept asking us to fill out paperwork and calm down, acting as if she hadn’t already called the authorities. She simply glanced at us when the two officers came in and they quietly escorted us outside. She felt pity and I appreciated that in the moment, I really did.

It was cold as fuck, but the brisk air calmed the itch. I immediately wondered why the fuck Mitchie was taking hot baths. I would have been in an ice bath every fucking moment of my life if I could. What if I had different anal bugs than Mitchie? It suddenly occurred to me that it probably wasn’t a contagious thing. There are probably dozens of different species of assbugs creeping all over the country and no-one has notified the CDC yet. This really freaked me out; that the majority of the population – like me just hours ago – didn’t or wouldn’t believe in these insidious little insects until it was too late. This is how full-scale invasions start. Disbelief is a weapon.

The cop was a husky guy with a fresh face, probably right out of academy and he was being exceptionally nice to me. Mitchie was with a tall, older cop that seemed a bit more frustrated, but I overheard him asking Mitchie the same thing I was being asked:
“Did you two take anything tonight?”
We kept reassuring them that we weren’t on drugs and I could see on their faces that that was the wrong answer. They would have known what to say or do if only we were on drugs. I’m sure there’s nothing in the police handbook on how to handle two irrational grown men attempting to get anal invaders out of their bodies.

That’s when it occurred to me that I was standing there, in mid-January winter without a shirt and trying to convince a cop that bugs had moved into my asshole and were feasting on my flesh. It was like an out-of-body experience; hovering there and watching myself talk my way into the basement of a psych ward. I was crazy and knew it. My eyes were darting wildly; my voice was rising, my words coming out too fast and frantic.  If I could have just lied to this cop and told him I was on meth or bath-salts or whatever, I could just take whatever kind of misdemeanor charges they have for that and slept it off. But I couldn’t. I needed them to know about these bugs because they had to stop them before the entire city, state and country’s assholes became nests for these devious little invaders. I needed them to know so we could burn all of those things Mitchie put in the dumpster to destroy the colony. I needed them to know so I could get back the apartment and get rid of my bed and all of the other things these bugs could be hiding in. I had to warn my neighbors and anyone else that could be in danger. I needed them to know I wasn’t crazy even though I knew I was crazy. As soon as I saw that look in that young cop’s eyes, though, it was too late.

I never finished that book, but it must end with everyone being crazy. Because there is no catch-22.