“Storyteller” by Prisha Mehta

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Growing up, there were four boys on my street, all of us about the same age. Danny, my best friend from birth and the clown of the group, with his dimpled smile and his freckled face. He went on to be the only one of us to enroll in the army, but at the time, he was a mop of hair, haphazardly parted and falling into his eyes when he ran. There was Jacob, the youngest of us and something of a tagalong, who went on to become a famous movie critic. There was me, the quiet one. And then there was Evan, who moved into the old house at the end of our street when we were in first grade.

Evan was the storyteller of the group, to say the least. His eyes shining, he’d spin us golden tales about his grandfather, who had singlehandedly led the American Army to victory during the Great War. He’d swear on his life that old Mr. Dupont was a Russian spy, and he’d speak in low whispers about the time he’d seen a dragon on the horizon as the sun disappeared over the edge of the woods. Being seven years old and new to lies, I hung onto his every word like a precious stone.

My favorite stories were always those about his father. “He’s a pilot,” Evan would say, his back straightening and his mouth going stiff, “and he owns three planes, and he flies ‘em all day. He ain’t got no passengers, no one else with him. He’s up there all alone up in the air, jus’ like a bird. Every day.” Once, he had flown right across the Pacific and skimmed the top of Mount Everest with his wing. Another time, he had broken right out of the earth’s atmosphere and scraped against the edge of the moon. In fact, he was so busy with his planes that he was rarely home. “But I don’t mind,” Evan told us. “He’s the best Dad in the world.”

My own father was a history teacher up at Junior High; Danny and Jacob came from long lines of respectable mechanics. In those years, Evan’s father was our hero, and my heart’s deepest want was to ask him what it felt like to fly.

I often stayed up late at night to read, and every so often, I’d look out the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. I knew what I’d see, of course; it was the same every time. Exhausted after a hard day of flight, he’d stagger home under the yellow streetlamps, a green bottle clutched loosely in one hand. I figured he must’ve been half asleep, swaying from side to side as much as he did.

I’d never spoken to Evan’s father; I’d never so much as set foot inside his house. I suppose it should have stricken me as strange; I’d been to Danny’s and Jacob’s more times than I could count. But, again, I was new to lies, and I saw no reason to doubt.

It was early fall when I decided to take matters into my own hands. I remember the brown leaves crunching beneath me as I stepped off of my porch, and the wind knocking against my cheeks. Evan’s house was at the end of the street, barely visible, beaten down and tucked into the bend. The sky above was a cloudless shade of blue.

It was an empty day, the kind with too little sunlight and too much wind. I stepped up to the door and gave three sharp knocks on the wood. It swung open a crack, and Evan’s face fell when he saw me. He moved into the door frame as he opened it the rest of the way, obscuring my view of the room beyond.

“What?”

I tried to peer past him, but he moved again. I shifted from heel to toe. Starting to regret my decision, I had no choice but to see it through. “Uh…is your Dad home?”

Evan blinked. For a moment, something like confusion flashed across his face, but it was gone before I could be sure.

“No. He’s flying. Go away.”

My heart sank in my chest, but as he moved to shut the door, I caught a glimpse of the room behind him. The walls were a faded cream that I suspected had once been snowcap white, and the paint was peeling away from the plaster. Mismatched furniture was arranged haphazardly around the room: a gray couch here, two wooden chairs there, a hexagonal table tucked into the corner. A stubborn layer of dust coated it all, and the floor was littered with green glass bottles and empty cans.

On the couch lay Evan’s father. His eyes were closed, and his mouth wide open. He seemed to be asleep; his chest rose and fell steadily, and his head lolled towards his right shoulder. Saliva dripped from his lower lip down to the collar of his shirt.

I stared at him, mesmerized. So this was what he looked like after a hard day’s flying! Evan must not want to disturb him. I tried to smash down the jealousy bubbling up inside of me. Why couldn’t he be my father?

I forced a smile and looked back at Evan. “I’m going.” Slowly, I backed down the stairs and turned, running down the path.

I didn’t see much of Evan over the next few weeks. When I came out to play, he’d disappear inside; when I ran into him at school, he’d send a sharp nod my way and pass me by. At the time, I wondered if he’d realized my jealousy, but now I understand that he was confused, and embarrassed, and maybe a bit scared. While things got back to being normal between us after a while, I didn’t realize until many years later that Evan’s father wasn’t a pilot at all.

 

Prisha Mehta is a student at Millburn High School in New Jersey, and she is very passionate about her writing. She aspires to be a successful author one day, and she has won many writing awards, including a Scholastic National Gold Medal. Her work has been published in “Spaceports and Spidersilk”, “Asymmetry”, “Ginosko”, “Blue Marble Review”, Stinkwaves”, “Riggwelter”, “Drabble”, “Body Without Organs”, “Gravel”, “Spelk” and “Five on Fifth”. When she isn’t writing, she can often be found scrolling through psychology articles, sketching in her notebook, or, of course, reading.  You can find out more about her at prishamehta.com

“Last One Out Hits the Lights” by Charlie Chitty

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The reason why the virus went undetected for so long was because it was indistinguishable from the common cold.

And because of that, the human population was wiped out. Almost entirely.

On the first day of infection, the host would usually complain of a sore throat and a runny nose. Unfortunately, the liquid running from the nose of the host was their own liquidised brain and the sore throat was the oesophagus hermetically sealing itself and killing the host in 80% of circumstances.

But if you were a member of the 20% of the population who managed to stop their throat from closing with a splint or a self-performed tracheotomy then you were part of the 20% who died from brain leakage.

Billions died. Absolutely everyone, completely, entirely with the exception of perhaps 0.00001% of the global population who were curiously immune.

So, seven hundred people.

Among those people: Jeff Higgs. He wasn’t a rich man. Or a celebrity. He wasn’t even married and had no children. He was a simple twenty five year old man with severe learning difficulties, and worked as a cleaner in a shopping mall.

There were two scientists, three literary scholars and even a NASCAR driver who survived among the seven hundred along with other figures. 

But there was also Jeff.

Jeff the Cleaner.

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

It started off just like a normal day. Jeff had his cornflakes with milk, packed his uniform and lunch pail and walked to work. He failed to notice the empty streets, devoid of cars or other people.

Jeff Higgs was a man who was often caught up in his own little internal world and failed to see the world around him.

Sometimes he’d be running his mop across the floor with his headphones in whilst older folk were prodding him to try and ask him where the loos were. Or just staring off into space for ten minutes at a time.

When he arrived, he was a little scared. He tried to call his parents on the mobile phone with large buttons and a simplistic interface, but the call went through. He told himself they had gone out to work, as they often did, and made a mental note to himself to call later.

He meandered through the mall, slowly making his way towards the little office cubicle located above the avenues of shops and little booths. He avoid those that were lying on the floor, whilst wondering why they’d fallen asleep.

He tripped over a dead shopper and cursed. He yelled down at the dead woman to not be so selfish and rude.

The woman didn’t reply, and remained dead.

He climbed the stairs towards the office block to sign on for the start of the janitorial day and checked his phone. He noticed he was two minutes late, and a panic started to rise up in his stomach.

The door to the central security office was wide open and Jodi Patel was lying on the floor. She coughed sputum, barely able to talk.

“Why are you lying on the floor, boss?”

The security manager and head of operations smiled up at him weakly. She’d always had a soft spot for Jeff, a diligent worker despite his learning difficulties. She also felt a little smidgen of pity for the man. After all, he was picked on and teased by skating teenagers almost daily.

“Just feeling a little run down, Jeff. Nothing to worry about.”

With a little difficulty, she pressed a shaking hand into the pocket of her denim skirt, fumbled around between her keyloop and glasses case, and she pulled out a small shining object and pressed it into his palm.

“Now Jeff, we’ve got a bit of a problem here. You might need to take charge.”

“Well gosh. I’m only used to cleaning up spills aren’t I?”

Jodi smiled. “I’m sure. But you have ambition, don’t you? You’re willing to go the distance? Then you need to take control of the-

She coughed violently, almost unable to get the words out. Her head felt as if it had been filled with acid and her throat had become the size of a pinhole.

“-the situation.”

Jeff watched as Jodi coughed again, his eyes wide with fear.

“You’re in charge now, Jeff. So you need to make sure everything keeps running smoothly. And make sure the tiles just outside of JD Sports are clean. I saw some…. stains on…. the–“

Jodi slipped away. Her lifeless doe eyes stared up at Jeff. He stared back with almost the same expression. 

“What does ambition mean?”

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

Time passed. Twenty years of time, as the world gradually healed. The seven hundred people managed to find each other. They developed agriculture, they managed to slowly develop. In twenty years, the seven hundred had become nine hundred. 

And then, miraculously, the miracle of the internet that was ultimately immune to disease allowed the remnants of humanity to connect.

To propagate the population, mild harems were obviously formed. Defences were formed against the returning wildlife. Wolves that hunted in the night as mankind slowly clambered back from the brink of extinction in strange and straggling steps.

Candles and torches. Cars and horses. E-mail and letters.

Twenty more years and the population had double to one thousand and eight hundred. Twenty more and humanity was making a slow recovery, with almost all children born immune to virus that had killed so many. Some sad cases perished, but there were thankfully few of them. 

So sixty years went by. And three thousand and six hundred people lived.

There were small sects and tribes dedicated to finding old technology and canned edibles. It was a fairly attractive option to join a tribe because of the relatively fair barter system of sexual activity, cigarettes, alcohol and clean cotton socks.

Geriatrics often proclaimed that the new civilisation without banks, debt and social convention was better than the one that had been culled, even if it did come at the expense of cable television, some creature comforts and indoor living. The youth didn’t believe them.

Pre-virus cash was more of less useless. It became toilet paper. And that was part of the argument that Chieftain Thomas-2 gave to the people of his small village over the campfire one night.

“We not need to search the mall, Mark-1.” said the chieftain. “Both Anthony-3 and John-3 agree t’would be best concentrate our efforts towards forest.”

He prodded the fire with a wooden staff, covered in ceremonial broken car key fobs. His necklace of ring pulls rattled in the cold night wind. “It all money in the old malls. No good food left, as even cans past their expiration date, yes? Fah! We will hunt fresh meat. Rabbits. Deer.”

Anthony-3 and John-3, both young lads not yet able to grow facial hair, nodded their heads sagely at the words of their chieftain.

“Money no good.” intoned Anthony-3. “Make shit fire, yes. Wood better.”

Thomas-2 grunted in agreement.

Mark-1 stood up. He shouldered the deerskin pack next to his ankles and strode off through the woods and down the hills, away from the three men sitting around the bright orange fire, before they had a chance to speak.

He could make out the rather bland cinderblock in the distance that was the small shopping centre in what used to be one of the more popular suburban towns along with three flickering lights in a few of the neighbouring roads. A solitary person or a streetlamp that hadn’t yet burnt itself out. The rest of the houses were most likely hollow. Dead.

Moss had overgrown the sign welcoming motorists to the small town, so Mark-1 had no idea what the town had once been called. But all things considered, it didn’t really matter.

Back on the hillside, the chieftain and his two charges were passing a bong between them. The chieftain bubbled the waters and passed it along. “Mark-1 no understand. Maybe just needs walk. Probably annoyed about John-3 eating him peanut butter powerbar. You are dildoman, John-3.””

Anthony-3 choked in the middle of ripping the bong.

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

The mall was deserted. As Mark-1 walked past the abandoned storefronts, he saw a wizened old man sitting on one of the mall benches. He was wearing orange scrubs, wringing out a mop into a bucket of filthy water. Most of the cloth strands had fallen off, and so it was a pretty pitiful mop.

Jeff looked up at Mark-1 through his rheumy eyes. He grinned a toothy grin.

“Friend! Welcome!” he cried. “To the Owenstown Mall!”

He threw his arms out as if announcing Mark-1’s entry to The Garden of Eden. Somewhere above him, twelve pigeons took flight. A girder creaked and something scurried across the floor nearby.

Mark-1 was puzzled by the man, who looked as if he was hitting a hundred. Every man he’d ever met, from his generation onward, had worn green camouflage and carried a weapon.

This man, this remnant, was wearing bright orange and carrying a mop. He’d heard of mops, but he’d never seen one. 

The man gripped his hand and pulled him, vicelike, across the mall. For some reason, this old man had incredibly muscly arms. 

When Mark-1 was lead around a corner, his mouth fell open and he started to get a good idea of why his arms were so muscly.

The few shops near the end of the mall were pristine. There was a small Subway, a Jewellers and an Urban Outfitters next to a photo booth.

Jeff excitedly motioned for Mark-1 to step into the Subway and disappeared through a door off to the side. 

Mark-1 walked into the Subway. Muzak played over the speakers, the singer of some pop band from the world that was lost was crooning about riding in a car with his girl. 

Mark-1 put his hand to his belt. He didn’t know what was happening, but the almost immaculate end of the mall could only mean one thing. Habitation. People.

His hand met the grip of a sharpened pike made of wood. Mark-1 gritted his teeth and steeled himself. Clearly, this was a sick cult of cannibals that operated out of a pre-virus food joint called “Subway” and any minute now a group of raiders would-

“Italian bread! Our weekly special!” announced Jeff, with a grin. “Has been for as long as I can remember, so it must be good!” Mark-1 hadn’t heard him walk through the back entrance and move behind the counter with a crate of freshly baked ciabatta loaves and almost jumped out of his skin.

Jeff began to order the loaves in the pristine chiller and then began to lay out metal canteens filled with chicken, crab meat, sweetcorn, salad, tomatoes and pastrami slices. He beamed up at Mark-1. “What can I get for you?”

“What?”

“A sandwich?” said Jeff, suddenly unsure. “This is a sandwich shop.”

“Oh. I’ll have the, uh, chicken on the……”

Mark-1 squinted at a strange pre-virus menu. “the rye.”

Jeff the Subway guy bit his lower lip, pouting. “I’m so sorry, sir. I’m so so sorry.”

His eyes brimmed with tears.

“There’s none of the rye left. The rats got it. I can look under the skirting board and see if there’s any but it probably isn’t very hygienic.”

By the time he got halfway through his sentence, tears were already running down his face. “I’m a terrible sandwich artist.”

“No, no!” said Mark-1, trying to sound encouraging. He wanted this odd and old little man to be happy, and felt a strange sense of pity well up from deep within him. “I’ll have the… uh… Italian… Hearts…

“The Hearty Italian?!” yelled Jeff, brightening instantly. “An excellent choice, good sir!”

After Jeff prepared the sandwich with sincere love and care, squinting down at the sandwich bar and biting his gumline when oh so carefully running three fat lines of barbecue sauce across the chicken.

“That’ll be three ninety five!” said Jeff. “Would you like a drink and a cookie?”

“Yes please.” said Mark-1.

Jeff put a paper cup under a drink dispenser and pressed the button with the friendly Coca-Cola logo adorned on the front. The machine whirred and screeched as the ancient mechanisms inside the prehistoric machine went to work.

The drink machine shook violently, made a few more dying mechanical noises and dumped a wedge of dripping black congealed sludge into the cup.

Jeff cried. Mark-1 spoke up.

“Just one from the cooler would be fine.”

Jeff turned to him, his eyes shining in hope. “A-are you sure, sir? Really?”

“Yeah sure whatever.”

Jeff cheered out loud and whistled happily as he took a glass bottle and propped it on the counter. He pulled a pair of faded pink oven mitts and took out a tray of cookies from an oven next to him. 

He checked a label and ditched half the batch into the bin.

Mark-1 almost screamed out loud, but managed to control himself. Food had always been scarce in the post-virus world and here was an old dithery man ditching almost an entire pan of cookies into the bin? Still, there had to be a rational explanation.

“Rotten?” asked Mark-1.

Jeff shook his head sadly. “They go stale at midday. Company policy.”

He took of his apron and disappeared into the backroom.

Mark-1 chewed his sandwich and sipped his coke. He’d heard about coke, but never had the chance to try it. Sealed cans and bottles were hard to come by after all the major drinks factories were raided. They were pretty useful as rations. Full of energy, and they never seemed to go out of date, despite the warnings on them.

It was the most delicious lunch of his life. And the cookie? Moist, warm and with tiny melting chips? Heavenly.

“Next stop, Jewellers!”

Mark-1 span around and saw Jeff grinning in his orange coveralls and propped up on his own mop.

“PLEASE stop doing that.”

Jeff only laughed and beckoned for Mark-1 to follow. By the time Mark-1 had left Subway, Jeff was already out of sight. But the lights on The Jewellers had brightened and there was activity in the window.

As Mark-1 walked in, a man in a tuxedo and wearing a monocle stepped behind the counter.

“Well good day, mister. Would you like to peruse our jewellery?”

“Why are you doing this? Why is this tour happening?”

Jeff merely coughed, holding his hands in an overly debonaire and sophisticated way. The way that he supposed the worker of a high end jewellers would hold his hands.

“Rings or necklaces, good sir?”

“Rings, I guess.”

Jeff put on a pair of blue rubber gloves and took out a diamond ring from a display case in front of him. It shone radiantly, as it had been dusted daily by Jeff the Cleaner, along with the other eight hundred and sixty-seven pieces of jewellery in the shop.

“This one is a very fascinating specimen, wouldn’t you say? It comes from an African Mine and-

“Yeah, I’ll take it.”

Jeff the Jeweller scoffed. “Sir, I doubt you can afford this piece. It is priceless! At least two thousand for this one!”

Mark-1 didn’t bother to correct Jeff on how you couldn’t have a diamond ring that was both “priceless” and “for sale”  and instead put a charred and dirty wad of cash on the counter.

“Here’s three thousand.”

“Ah, thank you good sir. I see my sales pitch has persuaded you!” He raised his eyebrows in smug satisfaction. “I have been trained in advanced sales techniques.”

“Money is useless.”

“Here is your change.”

Jeff handed back a fifty dollar note from the pile on the counter and stuffed the rest into the pockets of his tuxedo before disappearing again.

Mark-1 turned around, already bracing himself. And there was Jeff the Cleaner, already running happily along to the clothing store like an excited child trapped inside the body of a geriatric. Mark-1 followed, already knowing the next few steps and sighing heavily.

At least he had a story to tell his future children, Mark-2 and Mark-3, if he came across a woman in any neighbouring county. He hadn’t so far. In part, he was annoyed at having left his father and mother. He wondered idly if Mark and Shelly still thought of him from time to time.

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

Mark-1 left Urban Outfitters wearing clothes that didn’t fit at all, but would still be warm during the winter months. He was briefly surprised when Jeff smiled sadly, pulling on his orange coveralls for the last time and told him that that was the end of the tour.

They stopped briefly at the photo booth, but it didn’t work and Jeff was beginning to get agitated. Especially when Mark-01 walked near a section of tiles outside JD Sports that were so pristine that they were gleaming.

He waved goodbye to Mark-1 at the far exit of the mall and gave him a sheet of paper. He watched, trembling, as Mark-1 filled out the Customer Survey Questionnaire and handed it back.

Jeff watched Mark-01 walk away through the sliding glass doors and looked down at the sheet.

All five’s. Five out of five in every category.

He mopped his brow before digging one hand into his pocket. He pulled out the faded “Site Manager” badge that Jodi had entrusted him with all those years ago.

“See.”

His voice cracked. 

“I didn’t let you down. Just what you always talked about, boss. One hundred percent customer satisfaction. Everyone’s happy.”

He smiled through the tears, so joyful. So joyful.

A shaking hand pulled out the mobile phone from his other pocket, a dusty relic with a cracked screen and batteries that had stopped working decades ago.

He held it to his ear and began to happily tell his mother about his day, hoping that somewhere she could hear.

Charlie Chitty is a writer from Cheltenham, UK, who has had five stories published over at Terror House Magazine and has a website over at charliechitty.com 

https://ko-fi.com/charliechitty

“Time as a Sort of Enemy” by Tyler Dempsey

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Who has not asked himself at some time or other:  am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?

Clarice Lispector

 

Voice of turmoil—arguing, suggesting. Reading, the voice isn’t mine. I’d tire. Who is it? Who the hell is it?

 

Time: wandering.

 

Past—winds lap granite. You arcing forward. Denuded islands preach violent history.

Few things as appetizing to man.

 

Misread.

 

“Look. Changing with my help.”

“Bending you.”

 

Emotions, the ocean. Your essence, currents. Pluck you from them.

Who controls water?

 

Doubt be feathers; voice, wings.

 

 

I pursue—

Scraps of journal, pencil, erasure. Failures: horse I ride.

 

Song scattered. Surf, choppy. Ocean, ocean.

Judgement, four seasons. Salt, wave-back.

 

Over and over.

“Are we characters?”

 

 

Surround you. Sharks circle. Sunburned, screaming.

“Where were you?”

“Kona. Toulouse. Salt Lake. Melbourne.”

“Who were you—Phoebe?”

 

Nature: wandering.

 

Night city. Eat; dark ointment. The spell, blamelessness.

 

Call you names better lost. Inwardly you rejoice—a new part of me.

 

“What’s wrong?”

“You said.”

“I didn’t.”

“You did.”

 

“You’re no fucking man.”

 

 

The sea

erupted.

Lavender, steel.

 

 

Think of you. Your heart: horizon consumed by light.

 

“Who I’m searching for.”

“I want to be Him.”

“I’ll show you.”

 

Tyler Dempsey was a finalist in Glimmer Train and New Millennium Writings competitions. His work is forthcoming in Soft Cartel and appears in X—R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Five:2:One Magazine, Buck Off Magazine, Wilderness House Literary Review, and The 3288 Review, amongst others.

Find him on Twitter @tylercdempsey or at:http://tylerdempseywriting.com.

“Toteming” by Tyler Dempsey

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“My partner—Eric?”

Tightwad Eric?”

“He’s sick of my shit.”

“He said it?”

“He said, I despise people like this. Meaning, assholes. I made him cruel.”

“Rob says that.”

“Moves—knees, elbows not bending. Afraid he’ll explode. He’s in front of a glass of water wanting a drink. Elbows humming from straightness.”

“Dramatic.”

“After sex I went, Why are we together? Was not the thing to ask. He screamed, Did talking work before? I’d asked that same question 6 minutes earlier. He’d timed it, and showed me, the bastard.”

“Prick.”

“Said, Can’t you treat me like our friends? Or coworkers?”

“Men—if we weren’t irrational, we’d bottle shit up and get on with it. He tried listening?”

“He claims to, around the beginning.”

“Jesus.”

“I was ditching him, then he stretched around my cat like the feeble bastard he is, snot-stalactite swinging. Cat’s bug-eyed ripping forehead layers.”

“You’re hard on yourself. Get tough. State the business, stick to it.”

“In my head—I’m stern, soft and hard, extinguish stalactite on sleeve, slam door. But there, my tone’s wrong, bonkers like mom’s. What if he’s right? With Susan, I talk investing. Susan’s immensely reptilian, eats crickets, stray children. I woo her. Say, Compounding’s interesting, wish Eric . . .”

“Emily, you know my business, and I don’t want to doctor/patient you too much but have you tried toteming?”

“Toteming?”

“I have this lacey see-through shit in the closet, for instance. Had it since high school.”

“Bitch.”

“Robert goes gimp. Talking—Pulp Fiction, leather, apple-in-hog’s-mouth gag-thing.”

Gross!

“I thought so, too. It’s amazing. I’m another person. Rob does anything I want. Think of what scares Eric. Make it your totem.”

 

 

The Craigslist guy said, Pit vipers aren’t ordinary snakes. Not, pets. It struck the tank. Cars in the opposite lane Emily imagined crashing across the road.

It went on the table—forgetting Eric, she did an eighth of coke, smoked weed, and read Infinite Jest cover-to-cover. The snake struck over and over. Droplets of venom clung to glass that reflected the table. This is crazy.

She tossed her phone behind the couch. Squatting she opened the cabinet under the sink; the mouse froze—chest shiny, eyes wet. Emily’s cupped hands circled and glanced its cool trembling body. The snake hissed. Her cell rattled tile.

 

Tyler Dempsey was a finalist in Glimmer Train and New Millennium Writings competitions. His work is forthcoming in Soft Cartel and appears in X—R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Five:2:One Magazine, Buck Off Magazine, Wilderness House Literary Review, and The 3288 Review, amongst others.

Find him on Twitter @tylercdempsey

or at:http://tylerdempseywriting.com.

“I Tightened the Fishing Wire” by Jenny Fried

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(Art: ‘My Oh My’ by Astrid Albert)

 

 

In January I shoveled snow off my grandfather in his rocking chair. I made sure I kept his hair dry, swept the salt out of his shoes onto the garden below. He coughed while I worked, little puffs of pride escaping from his scarf.

“Let’s go in now,” I said, and he shook his head.

“I’m keeping watch,” he said.

I wrapped him extra tight before the sun went down, burned table legs inside and left him my blanket. I dreamt as I had before: a deer with the tongue of a snake, his fork a lover’s hand beneath my chin.

“I shouldn’t be this way,” I said, and the deer pulled me closer.

In the morning there was wind. Hoof prints in the snow.

“The devil wants to give me his coat,” said my grandfather.

 

In February I shoveled snow off my grandfather in his rocking chair, stuck tilting, mid rock. His beard had grown long, a sleeping scarf coiled around his neck.  

“Please come in,” I said.

“Stay in the house,” he said.

I gave him my coat, burned paper inside, spit on words and breathed in smoke. I slipped fishing wire through the piercing in my tongue, tied it tight to stay awake. My eyes fluttered when the sun rose. I locked the door and pulled it tighter.

In March I swept flurries from my grandfather’s blue skin, swallowed the blood of my newly forked tongue. I chipped at the ice in his eyes with the back of my toothbrush, piled his lap with sand and rock salt. A deer smiled at me from the edge of the woods.

“He doesn’t have to be this way,” he said.

“I need him,” I said.

I piled my dresses beneath my grandfather’s chair, cut my hair with his pocketknife and wove it into a match.  The deer spit red, and I curled around my grandfather’s feet, sucked warmth from my burning clothes. I spent the night holding my tongue to a battery, left fork on the positive, right on the negative, the shock rolling through my mouth like gargled water. In the morning, the deer kissed me on the cheek and gave me his hooves.

 

I spent April in hooves and my grandfather’s blazer. I spent April with hair on my face. I thought of my grandfather often. He was water now, but at least he would be proud.

 

Jenny Fried is a writer living in California. Her work has appeared previously in Cheap Pop, Milk Candy Review,  X-R-A-Y, and elsewhere. Find her on twitter @jenny_fried

“Boston” by Mike Lee

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The ocean is in my blood. I think often about this whenever I am at the shore, particularly while the waves lick my feet.

I wade into the breakers and just let myself go, moving further and deeper and allow my body to be pulled into the sea’s embrace.

My ancestors were seafarers. My great-great grandfather John sailed on clippers, then moved the family from Brooklyn to Iowa, and toiled as a Mississippi River pilot. For reasons lost to time, after only three years they returned to New York, settling in Port Jefferson in Long Island.

At a semi-abandoned cemetery near the bay I visited the graves of his wife, his daughter and her husband.

Yet John is not buried there. Instead, his grave lies in Boston. The story was he died while his ship was anchored in the harbor.

At the time John served as the navigator on a whaling ship. Perhaps this is why I have a fascination with maps. While he never returned home, being a sailor, John likely never left. It is because like me, the ocean flowed through his veins.

The breakers wait for my arrival, the winds buffeting the shore beckon, grasping my shoulders, and tousling my hair. I imagine that on the horizon, sails rise toward the sky as they cross northeast toward Nova Scotia and beyond.

As always, I step back to the shore. I stand on firm ground, in the desert that is the beach. When I gather my things and walk to the boardwalk I occasionally glance behind me to watch the sails sink behind the horizon.

I feel sad, but I get over it.

 

Mike Lee is an editor, photographer and reporter for a trade union newspaper in New York City. His fiction is published in Soft Cartel, Ghost Parachute, Reservoir, The Alexandria Quarterly and others. Website: www.mleephotoart.com. He also blogs for the photography website Focus on the Story.

“ARE YOU CALLING TERENCE TRENT D’ARBY A LIAR?” by Chris Drabick

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After a few sad weeks alone, cheering myself with wine and weed and Wolf Parade, I started to try and program my dreams. I’d read about it once, or seen a TV program, I don’t know, it’s not all that important. Songwriters who’d found a way to write songs when they sleep. Terence Trent D’Arby, I think. He dreamed Marvin Gaye gave him a song. I wasn’t looking for anything so grandiose.

I’d go to bed and just think; that’s the easiest way to put it. But I’d try and train my thoughts, keep them focused on what I wanted to dream about, which was, you know, her. I wanted to see her in my dreams. She wouldn’t see me in waking life, I’d see her in dreams. Maybe that’s violating her in some way? I don’t know. It’s not really her. It’s just, like, a projection of her. What we don’t know can’t hurt us and all that. It’s not as though I was going to tell her.

The Terence Trent D’Arby song I was referring to is called “To Know Someone Deeply is to Know Someone Softly.” I don’t think it sounds very much like Marvin Gaye, for whatever that’s worth.

I had to try for many, many nights. But I was patient. I didn’t really have anything else to do, and sleep was what held peace for me. It felt good to fall asleep, and it felt good to fall asleep thinking of her. I missed her. I missed her face. I fell asleep looking at her face, stroking her hair. It was nice.

I had an ex who dreamed all the time of babies. She spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars on pregnancy tests and eventually stopped sleeping with me altogether. I found out later that dreaming of babies means you regard yourself as immature.

There was nothing special about the night that it first worked, apart from the dream itself. Which was amazing. The dream. I felt everything, not just physical. When I woke, I felt loved. I walked around with the sensation of a full heart for days. When that left me, I was sad, but not because it wasn’t real. It was real. Even a projection is something real.

Isn’t “To Know Someone Deeply is to Know Someone Softly” real?

I had to try many, many more nights for it to work again, but I was patient. It had felt so wonderful when it happened that I was willing to work to make it happen again. And when it did, when it did happen, it was slightly different than before. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was different, but it was different. I still felt it, the physical and the love and the full heart, but it was just so slightly different. Diminished, yes. But also just, well, different.

Terence Trent D’Arby changed his name. He’s now called Sananda Maitreya.

The very next night, I fell asleep quickly, with no time to just think, before I had the opportunity to train my thoughts and keep them focused on what I wanted to dream about. Still she came to me. But in dreams, there are those moments in which we think it’s like this but really it’s like that, while talking to the person their identity changes, you’re in your house but it’s not your house, the memory shifts from happening in your teens to happening in your twenties.

Her name was Sue. In the dream. It was her, but she said her name was Sue. And I didn’t feel it, the physical, nor the love. My heart was empty.

He sang, “The larger picture will come with time.” But he was wrong. He was wrong when he sang that.

Chris Drabick is a former rock music journalist whose fiction has appeared in Cease, Cows, Midwestern Gothic, After the Pause and Great Lakes Review, and non-fiction in BULL and Stoneboat, among others. His first novel, “The Way We Get By”, is due from Unsolicited Press in November 2019. He teaches English at the University of Akron in Ohio, where he lives with his wife Alison and their sons, Augie and Elliott.

“THE FURTHER I GET FROM THE THINGS THAT I CARE ABOUT, THE LESS I CARE ABOUT HOW MUCH FURTHER AWAY I GET” by Chris Drabick

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I saw my ghost again this morning.

I was rinsing my face after shaving, letting the warm water soothe the nicks, when I pulled my head up and saw him in the mirror. I don’t know what else to call him. It’s clearly me, although also not me, in the way people are and aren’t themselves sometimes in dreams. And as soon as I see him, as quickly as it registers that he’s there but before I can touch and vouch for his corporeality, he’s gone. No whiff of smoke, no lights, no magic. Just gone.

I’d have so many questions for him. Still assuming it’s actually me.

Are you dead? How’d you die? Is your favorite book still Remains of the Day, or did something supplant it between now, my now, and your death? My death. What happened to our house? Did you stay in it until you died? I died? Will I stay in my house until I’m dead? Or do I spend some years in some awful old folks’ home?

Did she ever come back? Did she ever say she was sorry?

The last time I saw him was in a rest stop on the Turnpike, a few months after she’d left. My friends told me a trip would be good. Get out of town for a few days, go someplace new, maybe put some sand in between your toes. I didn’t have any ideas of my own, so I went. The Atlantic Ocean. It was cold and it rained and the sand was too packed to even get in between my toes.

On the drive back, I couldn’t stop the anxiety. I even bought a pack of cigarettes, the first I’d smoked in years. Nothing seemed to help. I pulled the car into a rest area, got out and put my face into a sink full of cold water. When I looked up, there he was. In the mirror. The glass was old, worn with the dirty air of thousands of weary travelers. Truckers. Heartsick, like me. But I could still see him. It was clearly me, although also not me. And as soon as I saw him, as quickly as it registered that he was there but before I could touch and vouch for his corporeality, he was gone. No whiff of smoke, no lights, no magic. Just gone.

I’d have had so many different questions for him that time. Still assuming it’s actually me.

Am I dead? I’ve been feeling a little dead. Or, the want of death, I guess. Hence, the cigarettes. Do I start smoking again? Is that what happens? Lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema? I’m driving toward nothing right now, on this road, this stupid fucking road, and I’m afraid.

Is she going to come back? Is she sorry?

The first time I saw him was in that bar. It was ten days after she’d gone. I’d barely slept, but had been drinking a lot. Gin. Rocks. Letting it burn. It was the bar she and I used to go to sometimes, close to home, walking distance. It was late. There was a mirror over the back bar, large and hung low, still covered in nicotine dust even though there’d been no smoking in the place for seven years. Yellow-brown, worn, weary with the faces of all the lost souls who’d tried in vain to avoid their own reflection. “I never go around mirrors,” the man sang, “I can’t stand to see me without you by my side.”

Before I could grasp the lyric, before the tune had finished playing in my head, there he stood. I was drunk. I was down. I was so tight that I had to cover one eye to focus, but I could still see him. It was clearly me, although also not me. And as soon as I saw him, as quickly as it registered that he was there but before I could touch and vouch for his corporeality, he was gone. No whiff of smoke, no lights, no magic. Just gone.

I didn’t want to ask any questions. I didn’t want to know. But I forgot to remember to forget.

Who’s the next woman I’ll fuck? Is she in this place tonight? Do I already know her? How will I feel, after I cum? In that brief moment after the pleasure is shattered by the loneliness, and it hurts worse than it feels good, the balance shifted to sadness. Will I embarrass myself? Cry? Something else? Act out in anger? I don’t want to fuck anyone. I don’t want to. Why did I leave the house? Do you know? Why are you here? You want to help me or hurt me? I know I’m going to die. I’m already fucking dead.

Where is she tonight? Is she sorry? Is she sorry that I’m dead?

Chris Drabick is a former rock music journalist whose fiction has appeared in Cease, Cows, Midwestern Gothic, After the Pause and Great Lakes Review, and non-fiction in BULL and Stoneboat, among others. His first novel, “The Way We Get By”, is due from Unsolicited Press in November 2019. He teaches English at the University of Akron in Ohio, where he lives with his wife Alison and their sons, Augie and Elliott.

“Esmerelda” by John Goodie

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Esmerelda’s tears flowed down her cheeks making clean lines down her ashen dirty face as she rocked her head from side to side with a low miserable moan. Her nasty feet, black from the soot of the ash bucket, folded under her skirts on a torn mottled blanket. She had three more light shawls layered over her shoulders and covering her bare feet and legs. The veil she wore halfway, clasped on one side, so her face, in all its hideousness, was profitably exposed for all to see.

Esmerelda hardly noticed the five-hundred Euro note placed in her cup by the banker. She knew him by sight as he passed her daily. Her spot was in the shade of the huge concrete, marble-pillared structure he worked in, in the center of Rome. Her spot was decided by her Papa, who controlled that whole block and all its beggars.

It took a great deal of effort for that banker to give her that much money, especially since he had seen her there literally hundreds of times and simply chose to ignore her as he was not normally a charitable soul. But that day, seeing her with her nose sliced completely off, hog-like snout, bloody and dried with no salve, his heart was touched. She had been one of God’s prettiest creatures on this earth with a natural beauty: olive complexion, green eyes to match her name, long flowing black hair, full red lips, a curvy figure who walked with a natural grace.

But Esmerelda had been sold as a child to an Italian gypsy, some call Romani, or travelers, who lived off the trade of begging, stealing, and conning. She ended up in the hands of a grizzled old Romani task master she called Papa on a corner in Rome. She felt like his daughter as she had been handed over to him and Mama as a baby. She thought of them as her own and she as theirs.

Sadly, Esmerelda’s sole purpose was to beg for money from tourists, workers, the citizens of Rome and anybody who might toss a coin her way for her to bring home to Papa. She had been doing this as a child with Mama. There was no schooling for Esmerelda other than the street. When she turned sixteen, a few days before the banker filled her cup, Papa, fearing her great beauty and the fact that she thought well too, being blessed by God with a superior intelligence in addition to her physical attributes, decided to fix Esmerelda. He taught her to use a prothesis, so they cut a fake nose from a rubber mask and she learned to put it on with her makeup to blend in with her olive complexion. And they dabbed red nail polish atop the frayed ends to make it look like a real sliced nose.

Her devious trick was working splendidly, as evidenced by the reaction of the banker. So, she would be able to gain more pity from the masses and contribute a lot more to the family than usual.

Shortly after that, though, a raven appeared next to Esmerelda. He croaked and he shrilled. Then he grabbed her begging cup with his beak and flew off with it about thirty feet.

‘Hey, you,” Esmerelda yelled at the bird as she jumped up off her blanket and chased it. It did not run. She got her cup back. But at that instant, an Italian sports car, out of control, came flying down the hill of the perpendicular street and smashed headlong into the pillar where Esmerelda had been laying. Her blanket was under the tires of the Fiat. Nobody was hurt but the driver, who had evidently had a heart attack before losing control.

In Greek mythology, ravens are associated with Apollo, the god of prophecy. They are said to be the god’s messengers in the mortal world. And they are also said to be a symbol of bad luck. But for Esmerelda, the raven was good luck. This was not the first time a raven had intervened in her life. His timing was perfect to save her from being killed by the out-of-control Fiat.

“THE COLD PART” by Chris Drabick

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The bar was crowded, but someone had played the whole of The Moon & Antarctica on the jukebox and that made it feel lonely.

I knew the signals. I’d learned about them in the college class I took on the Psychology of Human Sexuality. Gazing, smiling, parading. I checked them off the list. Gazing, smiling, parading.

I sat next to her. I didn’t know what to say. I never know what to say. I told her—I like things.

She smiled and laughed. She asked me—What kinds of things do you like?

“And in the faces you meet you’ll see the place where you’ll die.”

I lifted my pint glass. I told her—I like beer.

She shook her head slightly. She told me—All men like beer. Try again.

I didn’t know what to say. I never know what to say. I asked her—How old do you think you’ll be when you die?

Her expression was muted. She didn’t recoil, although she had that right. She said—Which death?

I raised an eyebrow. It was my only party trick. Now I’d already used it. I told her—I don’t understand what you mean.

She sighed. It didn’t seem an exasperated sigh. Her hair was brown, a light brown, sandy, whatever the fuck you call it. Long, tight curls. She liked me. Gazing, smiling, parading. She told me—We all die three deaths.

I’m not religious. I told her—I’m not religious.

She looked at me over her glasses. She told me—I know you’re not religious. Three deaths. I’m not religious. First your heart stops beating.

I told her—That’s one. But that’s all. Then you’re dead. Your heart stops beating. You’re dead.

She shook her head. She smiled. She told me—Your brain. Your brain dies next.

I nodded. Yes. The brain. I told her—The brain. That’s two.

She gazed at me.

I waited for her to speak.

“Our hearts pump dust and our hair’s all gray.”

She breathed. Deep. She told me—Your name.

I told her—My name is _____.

She shook her head. She looked at me. She smiled. She told me—Your name is the third death. The last time a living human speaks your name aloud. That’s the third.

I raised an eyebrow. It wasn’t a trick that time. I told her—That made me a little happy and a little sad.

She told me–____ , you like beer.

I took a sip. I remembered something else from the Psychology of Human Sexuality. I told her—The French call orgasms “la petite mort.”

“I’m gonna remember to remember to forget you forgot me.”

She told me—I’m already dead.

 

Chris Drabick is a former rock music journalist whose fiction has appeared in Cease, Cows, Midwestern Gothic, After the Pause and Great Lakes Review, and non-fiction in BULL and Stoneboat, among others. His first novel, “The Way We Get By”, is due from Unsolicited Press in November 2019. He teaches English at the University of Akron in Ohio, where he lives with his wife Alison and their sons, Augie and Elliott.