Space-Time ~ by Stella Lei

Now: an astronaut awakens according to London time. She has aligned her clock to those of her earthbound colleagues, even though she hurtles through space, even though the sun rises and sets in a burning blur, scarring the endless black sixteen times a day.

Then: the astronaut was just a daughter, just a girl. Watching the hospital clock tick, watching her father fade into pallor and wax. Inhaling antiseptic as he exhaled life. She scavenged the limp lines of his hands and tried to lay them over her own, like fresh cobwebs, like tattered gloves.

Now: the astronaut knows that the faster one moves in space, the slower they move in time. Each day heaves by as if through plasma and she wonders, how many seconds, minutes, has she been gifted? How many can she give away?

***

Stella Lei is a teen writer from Pennsylvania whose work is published or forthcoming in Gone Lawn, Whale Road ReviewKissing Dynamite, and elsewhere. She is an Editor in Chief for The Augment Review, she has two cats, and she tweets @stellalei04.

Two Questions for Todd Clay Stuart

We recently published Todd Clay Stuart’s mournful “Nebraska.”

Here, we ask him two questions about his story:

1) What struck me about this story was the way you bring beauty into such a horrible moment — the sister’s “brown lossless eyes,” that just sings to me. Do you think that beauty can still be found, even in something awful like this?

I go along with Baudelaire, who said, “I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no melancholy.” Of course, we don’t think about the beautiful sunset while our heart is breaking or the lovely relationship we have with someone while that person’s sliced off fingers are lost in the grass. But once the horror burns off a little, then maybe—just maybe—we can find something of beauty there: a selfless gesture, a brave act, a meaningful contrast to the awfulness of it all.

2) There are moments like this that are so hard for someone to let go. We see that the narrator, at the end, when he goes home, continues to search for his sister’s missing fingers. Why do you think that this, what is basically his sister’s loss, has stuck with him for so long?

Recurring images are something we all experience to some degree. Dreams, nightmares, replayed sequences and stills of people and events in our lives. Our mind’s own unreliable, never-ending streaming service. Some of these events may not even seem significant enough to warrant recurrence. But the reality is that we have little control over the process. Recurring images suggest that they are somehow meaningful to us, though we may not understand why. As for the narrator of “Nebraska,” maybe he never got over that day when he was ten, felt guilt over the incident his whole life, but I like to think there was more to it than that, that maybe those missing fingers brought he and sister closer, deeply and forever connecting them in ways nothing else ever could.

Nebraska ~ by Todd Clay Stuart

Nebraska in October. Autumn winds are the collective breath of a thousand withering corn fields. I think of home, I think of my older sister, her brown lossless eyes, her hair, the color of dried cornstalks, straight as a carpenter’s level. I’m ten and she’s sending me to go find her fingers, sliced straight off by the mower blade of the smallest of our John Deere tractors. She’s walking toward our farmhouse at her usual everyday pace, like she’s going out for ice cream or to get the mail. I need ice, she says. Go find my fingers. Hurry, she says. I run to the tractor. I look. I look everywhere. I get down on my hands and knees. The grass is thick and bloody. My hands and forearms are bloody too. I climb on the tractor, try to start it, try to move it, but I don’t know how. I want to scream, I want to disappear, but mostly I just want to cry. She’s my sister. My only sister. She holds her hand out to me. It’s ok. We have to go now, she says. And all these years later, when I visit the old farm, I still hunt for Beth’s fingers, along the edge of the field, left out there somewhere, alone, like a shriveled pair of cornstalks missed in the harvest.

***

Todd Clay Stuart is an emerging Midwestern writer. He studied creative writing at the University of Iowa. Recent work of his appears in New World Writing and Flash Fiction Magazine. He lives with his wife, daughter, and two loyal but increasingly untrustworthy pets. Find him on Twitter @toddclaystuart and at http://toddclaystuart.com.

Two Questions for Alexandra M. Matthews

We recently published Alexandra M. Matthew’s soaring “The Balloon Retriever.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) So. A balloon park! A balloon park! What would it be like, do you think, to visit a balloon park?

To me a balloon park sounds magical, but also a bit absurd. It would have to be much smaller than your average theme park, since I expect it would be difficult to keep so many balloons inflated for days at a time. Though with a little imagination, it might feel like you were floating through the exhibits. And I think visitors of all ages would have the overwhelming urge to pop the balloons. I know I would.

2) I like the connection here between the balloon girl and the lost baby from the Balloon Retriever’s high school pregnancy — do you think the Balloon Retriever sees the parallel herself? Or is she only looking ahead?

I do think the Balloon Retriever sees that parallel in the end. I’m not sure she’s able to unpack it just yet, but I believe the process of building—and maybe rescuing—the Balloon Girl pushed her a good deal closer.

The Balloon Retriever ~ by Alexandra M. Matthews

The Balloon Retriever builds a Balloon Girl in secret. During her lunch breaks, she works in a shed at the edge of the Balloon Park, where there’s a breeze and the mild smell of latex. Today she uses leftover balloons from the Jungle Cats exhibit to make a pair of Mary Janes.

The Park frowns upon balloon people because they tend to look more like clowns. Real people don’t enjoy seeing themselves that way, freakish and monster-like. They want to seem stronger, or kinder, or more attractive than they are. But if the Balloon Girl resembles a real one, the Head Curators might change their minds. They might bring the Balloon Retriever on for an exhibit or two. Perhaps they would stop calling her the Balloon Retriever.

            When the town began issuing fines for every balloon that escaped the park, the Balloon Retriever became a fulltime employee and was given a red pickup with balloon animal decals on the sides. It’s the first fulltime job she’s had since getting kicked out of high school for being pregnant, even though it didn’t stick. That was four years ago. Her official role is Groundskeeper, but everyone knows her as the Balloon Retriever. She doesn’t care for the nickname. It’s not as if she’s one of those alpine mountain rescuers who digs survivors out of the snow after an avalanche. Most of the time, a balloon ends up in a tree on the park grounds.

Among the permanent exhibits, there’s the Rose Garden, Jungle Cats, Antarctic Life, and Barn Animals. The newest exhibit is a fairytale-style Candy Cottage. Guests used to be able to walk through it, until one too many kids tried to eat a balloon gumdrop off the doorframe. Now the house sits empty.

The Balloon Retriever knows a thing or two about emptiness. She doesn’t plan to work at the Balloon Park forever, cleaning up after everyone else. She dreams of creating something in this life, of making her own messes.

With her shoes on, the Balloon Girl is complete. The Balloon Retriever brings her outside in the sunlight, tying one foot to the door handle for safe measure. In the wind, it looks like the girl is twirling herself around in her blue dress.

Before her next shift, the Balloon Retriever will seat the girl atop the slide next to the Candy Cottage, looking out over the park like the Balloon Retriever from her ladder.

***

Using her extendable grabber, the Balloon Retriever plucks a runaway penguin from the branches of a red oak. Following protocol, she makes small punctures just above the knots and releases the air slowly, so as not to startle the park guests.

The Head Curators were not pleased with her stunt. That was the word they used when they found the Balloon Girl. They were, however, impressed with the Balloon Girl’s likeness and granted her a trial period. If a week goes by without a single negative comment from a guest, they said, the Balloon Girl can stay, and they could discuss adding a sister. Every day this week, the Balloon Retriever has eaten her lunch on the bench across from the Candy Cottage, listening for a child’s squeal of delight at the sight of the Balloon Girl.

While she waits for the penguin to deflate, her radio beeps. A little boy tried to climb up the slide, causing the Balloon Girl to come untethered. She’s now gliding over the park toward the highway.

The Balloon Retriever cuts through the field in her pickup and barrels out the park entrance to try to head off the Balloon Girl. Swerving into the left lane, she floors it down the highway.

She is entranced by her airborne creation. She has never seen a balloon drift so impossibly far. The Balloon Girl will not survive the climb, she knows this. When the Balloon Girl gains enough altitude, the helium will expand until the pressure is so great, she pops. The prospect of losing her pains the Balloon Retriever, like watching a part of herself float away.

Yet in her final moments, the Balloon Girl will be the only balloon child to have reached such heights. A real child couldn’t do what her Balloon Girl can. A real child didn’t bring the Balloon Retriever such joy.

The Balloon Retriever collects herself and presses on. Eyes on the sky and grabber at the ready, she will recover the Balloon Girl, wherever she lands.

***

Alexandra M. Matthews is a teacher and writer living in the Hudson Valley. Her flash fiction appears in Jellyfish Review, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Barren Magazine, Atlas and Alice, and Fractured Lit.

Two Questions for Patricia Q. Bidar

We recently published Patricia Q. Bidar’s dizzying “Before the Election.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I love how seamlessly you blend the story with my favorite Hitchcock movie here! Do you see the main character as a Judy type — more to the point, do you think she sees herself that way?

I absolutely think she sees herself that way. She is older and has a longer history of being used fetishistically by men than poor Judy did. She drives to San Juan Bautista as a kind of pilgrimage. But in a time of pandemic and in year four of a truly horrifying presidential regime that wrung hope from so many, her annual visit to a puppet show at a restaurant she likes and visit to the Mission have been replaced by an empty town. 


2) The meeting between these two characters is such a powerful moment — they’re both in this place for such different reasons, but they feel somehow alike. Where do you think they go, after this moment?

I think that for both, a hopeful future has been dashed. The older gentleman has lost everything. He doesn’t even have fingernails! In the main character’s case, a place she knows and which has provided her with comfort has become strange and possibly dangerous. They come together in this location where a tragic scene in a Hitchcock film took place. Looming much larger over Mission San Juan Bautista are the ghosts of the Amah Mutsun people, who were forcibly removed from their villages, separated from their children, and enslaved. I don’t think these two will leave together, although she may very well end up staying.

Before the Election ~ by Patricia Q. Bidar

Like Judy in the movie, you are a fallen woman. At home, men follow you in their cars. They form and change you. They see themselves as rescuers. When the rescue attempts fail you are left for the next one to dress and paint you.

On Third Street, in front of Doña Esther’s, you exit the car, pulling the back of your skirt away from sweaty flesh. Discarded pandemic masks are banked against the doors of the businesses, all closed.

An old man blocks the door of Doña Esther’s. He is stooped and skinny. He wears a battered t-shirt that reads “The First African American President of the United States.” Once he and you shared a feeling: excitement that Barak Obama had been elected president. President of the United States. But he is not the president now. He will not be the president again. The man regards your damp dress, your white go-go boots.

“What do you think you’re doing?” There is no seduction in this question. But there is no disapproval, either.

“I’m here for … the banquet. The one with the Halloween puppets.”  Afterward, you usually visit the mission to pay your respects to the Amah Mutsun buried there. Then you cool off and catch your breath in the red velvet sanctuary, under the gazes of wooden saints.

Jimmy Stewart has vertigo because of his guilty conscience. A policeman died because of him. He throws himself into the annihilation of height. A dreamed grave. The spiral hairdo of a woman whose personality he erases. A woman who startles at the sight of a nun, and plummets to her death.

The Vertigo Effect is achieved by zooming in fast, while pulling the camera back at the same time. You also get this feeling when you’re old, when looking up can throw you off kilter. Or when you observe an old man resting his hand on his hip-sheathed knife. A leather sheath, stamped with poppies. Like those barrettes and hard purses you used to see in the seventies.

The door to Doña Esther’s is locked. Earlier, you called. You chalked the unanswered phone to a busy lunch hour, and set off. Inside, you see the arched interior doorways. Long shadows streak the dining room’s red walls. You register the smell of something burning. Something that isn’t food.

“What do you want?” you ask him.

“My teeth. My work. My family,” he answers. “This restaurant was supposed to be a polling place.” This is a man who has felt pride. Who once stood tall, with a strong and lively skeleton inside him. Worked. Sired children. Are they safe now, these children?

Behind the man are the three chickens. They scratch and murmur. Far below, your boots are dulled with dust. The man is not as old as you first thought. He has no fingernails, you notice, zooming out and zooming in. He smells of sweat and lilac. His t-shirt is stained with a red sauce.

***

Patricia Q. Bidar is a native of San Pedro, California with family roots in New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona. Her stories have appeared in Wigleaf, The Pinch, SmokeLong Quarterly, Sou’wester, Little Patuxent Review, and Pithead Chapel, among other places. Apart from fiction, Patricia ghostwrites for progressive nonprofit organizations. She lives with her DJ husband and unusual dog in the San Francisco Bay Area and tweets at @patriciabidar. Visit Patricia at www.patriciaqbidar.com.

Two Questions for Derek Heckman

We recently published Derek Heckman’s charming “Hibernation.”

Here, we ask him two questions about his story:

1) I love, love, love that this story starts with a meme, a joke, and then suddenly everyone realizes: Hey, this wouldn’t be so bad! and they just go for it. To me, that kind of makes me think of your writing process — you’ve said a lot of your stories start off as jokes. Do you think there are more jokes we should, perhaps, take seriously?

Could be! Humor is a great release for anger or frustration or the feeling that you’re losing your mind. It can be a way to cope with a lot of unpleasant emotions, especially when the things causing those emotions are out of your control. We laugh to keep from screaming, but who knows? Especially in these times, maybe we should all be screaming more.


2) There’s so many great moments in this piece, but I especially love that line, as everyone is falling into sleep: “We listened to the creaking of the universe.” There’s something so peaceful and ancient about this imagery. Was it something that just came to you? Or did you have to go looking for the right image to take this story into its end?

That image sort of came from the same place the story did. I read a lot about depression and other mood disorders, and there’s a theory out there that these diseases can come from a lack of connection with the rhythms of the natural world. Long ago, it may have been biologically useful for us to have periods where we didn’t actually do that much, where we slept more and moved slower. Now, we have electric lights. We have heating systems. We don’t have to stop working because it’s too cold or too dark, but (the theory goes) maybe that’s what we’re supposed to do. I’m not really sure what I think of that one way or the other, but I do think about it, and in part I wrote this story because of it.

Hibernation ~ by Derek Heckman

Like most things now, it began as a meme.

Ashleigh Weingarten (@ashashbaby) posted a photo of herself biting a cheat-day cheeseburger and branded it with the caption Getting Ready for Hibernation.

In that way particular to memes and saints (right person, right place, right time, right witness) Ashleigh’s joke caught fire online and the format began spreading around the internet like rumor. People started posting larger and larger meals—nachos and steaks and great tureens of paella—and labeling them with hashtags like HibernationHereWeCome! Mukbang stars took up the challenge with gusto, calling out their friends and trying to top each other back and forth. A sorority in California filled the vases in their common room with foil-wrapped bouquets of burritos, while a broker’s office in Tokyo outlined an entire parking lot with baskets of steaming dumplings.

For hibernation we all laughed! and then suddenly realized we were serious.

The food, after all, was all being eaten. The jokes, after posting, were consumed. Veggie stir fries, and avocado bowls and plate after plate of full English breakfasts were being scarfed down continuously all around the world. Nuns and rabbis and frat boys doing service hours met up in parks to cook barrels full of soup, serving whole warm vats to the needy along with claymore-sized baguettes. Neighborhoods swelled and homes crisscrossed as families began inviting each other for potluck feasting every night.

If bears did it, if trees did it, if we—before the building of cities, before the coming of Henry Ford—had moved more with the seasons, had slept when it got dark, then why not now?

At what point, we asked ourselves, had we decided this was a bad idea? 

We became obsessed with all things fatty and deliciously protein-packed, with building the store of calories we’d take with us into the dark. Weight-loss content became entirely the opposite: Hollywood-gorgeous men and women telling their followers how to pack on the pounds.

When the first snow fell, we sighed to each other happily, knowing it was time. It felt good to finally be doing this, to give into the pull of the earth and nature, to reject caffeine and the drive to produce, to finally lay down for a while and at long last take a rest.  

The 1% wasn’t especially happy. Gone was their work force, off to bed for the next five months. They yelled about the economy, the stock market, Atlas Shrugged. We hung signs on the factories and slapped each other warmly on the back. We left them out there, yelling, the snow piling, the sky growing black.

We pulled the blinds and burrowed in, put on podcasts and YouTube videos, 4000 hours of rain sounds. We all breathed out together, warm and safe, some already snoring.  

We listened to the creaking of the universe.

We slept.

We dreamed of spring.

***

Derek Heckman was born in Peoria, Illinois, and holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Montana. His work has been published in Embark Journal, Ellipsis Zine, The Collapsar, and Wigleaf, and was also featured in the anthology “Teacher Voice” from Malarkey Books. He currently lives in Boston, Massachusetts, and you can find him on Twitter as @herekdeckman.

Two Questions for Ashley Hutson

We recently published Ashley Hutson’s sharp “How to Become Fictional.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) This story starts with such a simple thing, a gurgling drain, and ends with the reader doubting the reality this woman’s husband has created for her. I love that you just went all out with that ending — did you ever consider stopping sooner? Or did this story always need to go to this extreme?

Oh, it needed to go that far. No other ending was possible. This piece speaks to the escalating absurdity of marriage when the bullshit is neck deep and no one has a shovel. I gotta say, the whole thing gives me a chuckle. It’s so bitter. I love it.

2) There is so much going on with the relationship here. On the one hand, we have a husband who refuses to accept his wife’s truth (that the drain is gurgling). On the other, we have a wife wanting to believe she lives in a palace “filled with sunlight and love and clean corners.” Could this pair ever come together in a way where they have both the gurgling drain and the sunlight and love? Or is the wife always doomed to end up senseless, on the moon?

The sunlight and love part isn’t her wish, though, it’s the lie the husband tells her to shut her up. He needs to exile her from reality so he can avoid anything that requires his effort or his concession that things aren’t peachy keen. And she knows it’s a lie, and he knows she knows it’s a lie, but he’s committed to the lie because it works. It’s attrition warfare. Consider the movie cliché where the newly dead scream at the living to try and get their attention, and when no one sees them, no one hears them, or when they are met with dismissal, with disbelief, the ghosts finally realize their predicament. Not being seen or heard or acknowledged is tantamount to not existing.

As long as she’s with him, she’s doomed. It’s the moon for her.