Heart / Beat / Run  ~ by Joy Guo

1. The girl tries to focus. To hold still. The more she concentrates, however, the more she drowns in tactile sensations, all the things that chafe.

2. Now, all she can think of are the self-defense instructor’s arm muscles. So many veins standing at rapt attention. The girl wishes she could run her fingers over them, trace the paths of those green-blue rivers, see where they lead.

3. The instructor tells the class about the man who once stopped her on the street and offered instructions. You look lost. Where are you going? He was wearing a navy business suit, the creases in his pants so stiff they stood along their own axis. Right hand clasping a briefcase. Kind face, kind smile, kind eyes. So why did she run? Why, after crossing three streets, putting a hot dog vendor, a FedEx deliveryman, and a cluster of nannies between them, did she finally stop to catch her breath?

4. Everyone, stand up. The girl complies. She feels unsteady on her feet. All she does is cardio. Treadmill belt unspooling under her feet. Pedaling, in a dark room, to the thunder of club music, so loud and dark she could sob without anyone hearing. She should incorporate more strength training. Swing a kettlebell over her head. Build muscles, enough to open a jar without needing to ask. Root herself to the ground. But all she can think of is how to gain distance.

5. The instructor teaches them a series of easy to remember moves. The girl forgets immediately. Was she supposed to jab the windpipe or the eyes? What is her other arm supposed to be doing? She flails. She stomps down to disable an imaginary foot and almost laughs. Who is she kidding? She is as weak as a child.  

6. Come on, the instructor snaps, squaring those magnificent shoulders. You can hit harder than that. Can I? the girl thinks and winds up again.

7. As if on cue, a man drifts over. His eyes rove and then fixate, like a dog locating the scent. He pauses at the perimeter and watches them, licking his lips.

9. Sir, hello. Hi. How are you doing? the instructor chirps. The girl and the others do what they should never ever do in these sorts of situations – freeze.

9. What you should actually do. Defuse – hi, how are ya. Divert – Hey, what’s that. Deflect – I got to go, can’t miss this appointment. The three Ds, the instructor explained. But all the girl hears is run, run, run.

10. The instructor keeps up a steady thrum of chatter. Underneath it, the girl can hear trembling. It reminds her of that time across a table, the boy had gripped her wrist so hard, he left plummy half-moons studding her skin, and still she couldn’t stop talking, hey, what’s worse than finding a worm in your apple, I don’t know, what, half a worm.

11. Distract.

12. Bored, the man eventually leaves. For the rest of class, the instructor speaks a little too breathlessly, as though her voice has sprouted legs and a ponytail switch-flicking in the wind.

13. After class, the girl buys a black plastic baton, half the length of a forearm, to attach to her key ring. She whaps it against her own arm, again and again, testing its heft and sting, until finally, the welt grows big enough to satisfy.     

14. As she is about to leave, the girl thinks to ask, why did you run?

15. The instructor blinks, then remembers. A scabbing gash along his left hand. From a cat, maybe, or a girl trying to get away.

***

Joy Guo currently lives in Manhattan with her husband. She is a white collar and regulatory defense attorney. Her work is published or forthcoming in Passages North, Pithead Chapel, CRAFT, Atticus Review, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among others. You can find her on Twitter at gojiberryandtea and www.joyguowrites.com

Two Questions for Phebe Jewell

We recently published Phebe Jewell’s gorgeous “Fence Jumpers.” Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I love the sparkling, here-and-there details in this story — one of my favorites is Mr. Li’s bag of lychees. It gives him so much personality in this small glimpse of his life. What made you choose lychees for Mr. Li to be carrying to his niece?

“Fence Jumpers” was one of those stories that took on a life of its own. It started with a free write about the scene in the church, but then somehow Mr. Li rode his bike across the page. I could see him quite clearly (probably because he’s modelled on a man I often see biking by my house, usually carrying a bag of groceries on his handlebars), so I followed him as he made his way up an extremely steep hill. I could see Mr. Li ride with purpose, a man on a mission to comfort someone with something that had weight and could be shared. That’s when I knew he was bringing his niece lychees.When I lived in Vancouver, B.C. I would go to Chinatown to get lychees for special occasions. There is something comforting in peeling their rough skin to reveal the perfumy fruit. Mr. Li wanted his niece to taste this unexpected sweetness. I wanted to make sure Mr. Li made it safely to the top of the hill, and that’s when the truck came in, allowing me to connect Mr. Li with the narrator.

2) The way this story addresses the loneliness of not quite fitting in, the way the narrator wants to be part of things — it’s so powerful and longing and, here especially, tinged with sadness. Do you think the narrator will blame themself for what happened? That they will feel that, by sneaking the communion wine, they have somehow caused George’s death?

I think so. Like many children, the narrator makes sense of the adult world by connecting details and events that may or may not be related. The narrator, for all their bravado about sneaking the wine and being a badass, carries the weight of new knowledge that not everyone survives breaking the rules. 

Fence Jumpers ~ by Phebe Jewell

The day you sneak communion wine at Saint Mary’s, an overloaded truck barreling downhill brakes so it won’t hit Mr. Li biking uphill, a bag of lychees swinging from the handlebars, a gift for his niece after losing her job. The truck skids and seesaws all over the road to avoid flattening Mr. Li, hurtling with the kind of gravity you might recognize only after it breaks your nose or flays your kneecap, an inevitable trainwreck of weight leaving you with a badass scar to flaunt, proof you escaped another death. Some days you understand the indifferent stealth of a cat with nine lives, slipping between bars just as a guard dog snaps, jaws catching air. But when you drink red wine now you taste rubbery diesel, swallow truck treads leading to a side of the road, where a minute before your hound George squeezed through the gate, tracking fresh cat while you sipped Father Peter’s wine, tired of being the only non-Catholic at Saint Mary’s School, filing into chapel for Mass behind the others, your arms criss-crossed over your chest so everyone knows you want the priest’s blessing even though you can’t drink the Blood of Christ because you don’t belong like you do when you get home and Dad tells you George is dead and isn’t coming back.

***

Phebe Jewell’s work appears in various journals, including Monkeybicycle, MoonPark Review, SpelkNew Flash Fiction Review, Bending Genres, and The Cabinet of Heed. Her story “¿Cómo Está Tu Madre?” was chosen for wigleaf‘s 2021 Top 50 for (very) short fiction. A teacher at Seattle Central College, she also volunteers for the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a nonprofit providing college courses for incarcerated women, trans-identified and gender nonconforming people in Washington State. Read her at https://phebejewellwrites.com.

Two Questions for Tom Weller

We recently published Tom Weller’s shattering “Bottles.”

Here, we ask him two questions about his story:

1) I think all of us, if we haven’t done it ourselves, know some boys who have gone out breaking bottles for kicks. I remember my brother and his friends used to love throwing them out their car windows as they drove along the highway; they thought it was such great fun. What I love about this story, and about the Scrap Boys series in general, is what this represents — it’s more than just mindless destruction. There is purpose, for them, reason. So my question (after this long winded opening!) is: Do you think the Scrap Boys understand fully what this moment means for them now? Or is this an awareness they will come to later?

I think at this point, the Scrap Boys are largely id driven. There is some joy in the quest to gather the bottles, but that joy is mostly derived from anticipating the forthcoming destruction. There is probably some sense of loss as the pile of bottles diminishes, but that mostly comes from recognizing the impending end of the destruction and is quickly tamped down in favor of living in the moment of the destruction. I think, for now, this moment for the Scrap Boys is about the thrill of feeling transgressive, the visceral rush of destruction, and also about control, though they wouldn’t be able recognize or articulate the control element. They are alone in their environment and building and destroying as they please, almost godlike, and I don’t think the Scrap Boys have to many other outlets where they get a chance to feel godlike.


2) I love this description of the Scrap Boys: ” Scrap Boy 1, Scrap Boy 2, Scrap Boy 3, three backyard haircuts, three necks slick with grime and sweat….” My dad still gives himself his own backyard haircuts! How do you picture this kind of haircut on the Scrap Boys?

The Scrap Boys haircuts are ¼ inch buzz cuts, clippers bought at Walmart and a heavy-duty orange extension cord running out the backdoor into the backyard. I imagine at first a parent did the barbering, and the Scrap Boys felt some embarrassment about their hair, so over the years they have overcompensated for that embarrassment and now wear those haircuts like some kind of hypermasculine crown. They are also old enough now that parents our out of the picture. They buzz each other’s hair now, something to do on lazy weekend afternoons. I anticipate a mohawk phase coming up pretty soon.  

Bottles ~ by Tom Weller

One hundred bottles, some green, some clear, some brown, some dug out of barroom dumpsters, some pulled from alley trashcans, but most just found, found resting against curbs, found on the street grates that carry the heavy rains away, found in the high weeds in Deadman’s woods, in the high weeds that border Griffin Park, in the high weeds in front of the vacant houses, in the high weeds behind the occupied houses, bottles all over like they were put there just so they could be found by the Scrap Boys, bottles like Easter eggs to be hunted, like this was all meant to be.

Scrap Boy 1, Scrap Boy 2, Scrap Boy 3, three backyard haircuts, three necks slick with grime and sweat, three right arms aching to feel the heft of an empty glass bottle, one shared heart. Neighbors by chance, brothers by choice, where one Scrap Boy goes, the other two follow, sure as heat follows the birth of a flame.

Today the Scrap Boys feel their shared heart swollen and buoyant as a hot-air balloon. The Scrap Boys told each other they were going to do it, and they did it. It took weeks, but they did it. One hundred bottles gathered and brought to the best shady spot on the ridge that runs above the railroad tracks, one hundred bottles waiting to be chucked.

Questions bloom in the Scrap Boys shared heart: How to start? When? At what cost? The questions weigh on the Scrap Boys, settle in their shoulders so it’s difficult to lift their arms. So they just stare at the pile. And this feels good. The Scrap Boys don’t know why it feels good, don’t know the way the light and shadows dappling the pile speak to them, tell ancient tales of creation, where there was once just sun parched grass and shadows, now there is this, tales of power and agency, you made this Scrap Boys, you and you alone, your six hands, your own damn selves.

The anticipation is building. This will feed the Scrap Boys. Give them the strength to shake the questions off their shoulders. They will move in unison, as they always do. One right hand, two right hands, three grabbing one bottle, one bottle, one bottle each. Those first bottles will be launched, arc through space catching the sun like prisms, carving light into rainbows as they whistle across pale blue sky and then drop, drop, drop, rush to kiss the gravel along the tracks where they will burst and bloom like fireworks, shattered and brilliant and gone.

Second bottles, then thirds, and fourths, faster and faster, five will leave their hands before four even kisses the ground. A barrage of bottles, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, and still so many more to go. Bottles kisskisskissing the dirt and gravel, the steel of the rails, the creosote rich wood of the ties.

And with each kiss there will be the sound, shattering bottles speaking with the voices of the Scrap Boys future lovers, their future children, demanding voices, insistent, look here, look here, look at the destruction you have wrought.

***

Tom Weller is a former factory worker, Peace Corps volunteer, Planned Parenthood sexuality educator, and college writing instructor. His fiction has appeared recently in Pidgeonholes, Barrelhouse, Booth, and X-Ray Lit, among others. His fiction collection And There Came Forth a Great Fish is forthcoming from Gateway Literary Press. He lives in Victoria, Texas.

Two Questions for Didi Wood

We recently published Didi Wood’s charming “The Child Catcher in Retirement.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) This story is inspired by Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a movie I’ve never seen! Yet you don’t need the background of the movie to fall in love with this lovely piece. What was it like, imagining this character in his (how do they say it?) twilight years?

I don’t think you’re missing much … it’s rather a mess, with one good song (“Doll on a Music Box”) and one fascinating character. The Child Catcher, played by Australian ballet dancer Sir Robert Helpmann, is simultaneously tantalizing and terrifying, graceful and grotesque. He turns up regularly on lists of the scariest characters in children’s films. I wrote another story about him first but, concerned with his possibly problematic provenance (reportedly he was created for the screenplay by Roald Dahl and can be viewed as anti-Semitic, although director Ken Hughes claimed it was he and not Dahl who created the character), put it aside. He was still on my mind, though, and when the first phrases of this story came to me, I jumped at the chance to give him a properly ignoble ending.

2) I love the joy in this piece — there are so many moments that made me smile: the imagery, the use of language, the dialogue. Did you have a lot of fun writing this story?

Thank you! I had a blast writing this, and I’m so glad that comes through. I wanted it to be both playful and grim, like the Child Catcher himself. My writing style tends towards the spare and quiet and subtle. This story is deliberately ornate and lyrical, perhaps even over the top, which seems right for this larger-than-life character.

The Child Catcher in Retirement ~ by Didi Wood

Gone are the nets, the cages, the paraphernalia of pursuit; the call, the swoop, the gasp, the clank, the clink of silver (rarely gold); and then, later, the glug in the glass, again and again, tonic against the persistent stench: popcorn and pizza, graham crackers, Goldfish. But what did you do with them? People want to know, or think they do. His job was the catching, first with the nose and then with the net, the catching and that was all.

Now the fabled proboscis detects clotted gravy on boiled beef, scorched coffee, treacly pineapple upside-down cake: lunch. Now the only calls are to Shake those hips! because Motion is lotion! (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings at 9 on the west lawn), and, on Thursday evenings, sequences of letters and numbers punctuated by screeches of Bingo! while the cage rattles on.

Only on weekends, sometimes, does he catch a whiff of something that pricks his memory: sugar and snips and spice and snails, and tails, none of it nice. He’s not permitted in the lobby during visiting hours, not since the incident with Peggy Price’s granddaughter, but he has the net still, they had to buy a new one for the fish tank. Oh, let him have it, they chuckle, it doesn’t matter, what can he do? He clutches it, alone in his room with the rain streaming in bars down the window. Is she here now, Peggy’s pernicious progeny, in her tattered princess frock and filthy trainers, with her preternaturally penetrating gaze? Is there still a mark on her cheek from where the net struck when he swung? Is she blathering through a mouthful of brownie, pointing and pestering someone else – the shivering specter in black-and-white fur, the briny witch with the siren warble, the hook-handed blowhard in gleaming Crocs – But what did you do? What did you do?

***

Didi Wood has always found Lady Elaine (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) far more terrifying than the Child Catcher. Her work appears or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, WigleafJellyfish Review, and elsewhere. “Rattle & Rue,” originally published in Cotton Xenomorph, was chosen for the Wigleaf Top 50 in 2019. Find her on Twitter @DidiWood and read more stories at didiwood.com.

Two Questions for Christina Pan

We recently published Christina Pan’s brilliant “Dead Writer’s Desk.” Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) Is there a significance to the “forty-six pages” found on the writer’s desk — not in the pages themselves, of course, but in the number of them?

When I first started building the writer’s desk, I thought I would start with something quantifiable, so I chose page numbers as an analog version of word count. I think word count is something writers check on as a guarantee of some sort, since it’s one of the only objective measures in a process that is so subjective. As for the number forty-six, I included a specific number just to have a clear quantifiable amount in a way that feels like the writer is trying to stay in total control, and yet at the same time is precariously leaning on the edge of letting loose to new discoveries.


2) That imagery at the end! Oh, it gives me the shivers: “the body floating upwards, the words floating upwards, trails into the air, wisps of cigarette smoke, barely there, nothing really, and the rain falling, and the soft jacket.” Do you think the writer had a sense of what was coming for her? Or is this all just a remarkable coincidence?

I originally started this story in a much more direct manner where the first sentence involves a newspaper headline announcing the death of a well-known crime novelist. Later I adjusted the premise of the story to make the mystery unfold a little more gradually. I have to say that I’ve always been interested in the lives of writers, especially those of mystery writers where it feels like they could always disappear one day, appear dead to the world, then come back in all their glory a couple months later. So, yes, I think the writer in this story followed a certain plan systematically, much like how a detective in a mystery novel would solve a case. What’s left on her desk, then, is all her readers have to go off of. 

Dead Writer’s Desk ~ by Christina Pan

Forty-six handwritten pages, unbound but stacked carefully in the corner; a candelabra, wick molten down to the last centimeter; two fountain and three ballpoint pens, scattered over a dried-up bottle of ink; a matchbox shaped like a mousetrap; five fat cigarettes, wide as a thumb; a wax seal stamp; a watch with a faux silver strap; coke cans with soda left without the sizzle—that’s what the papers said the police found on her desk after she died. The forty-six pages turned out to be part of an unfinished story titled “Succession,” written in the author’s own hand, of which a single page was blurrily photographed and passed onto the morning paper. Not her best work, a critic wrote, but her last, abstract and almost incomprehensible, written in a private coded language with the repetition of rain and gray belladonnas, remarkable for both its impeccable penmanship and almost total disregard for its readership, as if its intended audience was of a population that was no longer human—but still significant, especially significant because of a certain passage sixteen pages in that describes a scene where a woman closely resembling the author herself is found dead on the road, rain slowly falling on her soft jacket, which was pretty much how they found her, the author, dead on the road, rain slowly falling. Script of angels, a reader mumbles during his lunch break, squinting with the newspaper in one hand and a soda in the other. His friend nods but ignores him. Not her best work, certainly, but fascinating: a long, winding road, gray belladonnas, the body floating upwards, the words floating upwards, trails into the air, wisps of cigarette smoke, barely there, nothing really, and the rain falling, and the soft jacket. 

***

Christina Pan is a student from NYC with work published/forthcoming in Vagabond City Lit, FEED, and Interstellar Lit.

Two Questions for Audrey Hawkes

We recently published Audrey Hawkes’ haunting “A Beginner’s Guide to Summoning Bloody Mary.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I love that line about belief — ” You don’t think a magazine can make you love a boy and you don’t think a chant will make a ghost appear in a mirror.” It had me holding my breath for the narrator as they hold Tara’s hand. They are so young here — do you think they will ever be able to tell Tara how they feel?

Thank you, that’s one of my favorite moments as well! A lot of the emotions the narrator is processing were based on my own experience of being a tween and trying to understand all the strong, new emotions and those first inklings of romantic feelings… it can feel very overwhelming and scary when you’re 12! Especially when you think you’re not feeling them the “right” way. But I’d like to imagine that someday when they’re both a little older, things will work out for them, and they will tell Tara how they feel.



2) Bloody Mary has been around forever, it seems, but the way to summon her seems to change from generation to generation. Except, of course, that triple repetition of her name: “Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary.” Have you ever tried to summon her?

I’ve definitely been coerced into trying to summon Bloody Mary by friends and family when I was younger, but it always terrified me! Even now as an adult, I rationally know it’s not real, but there’s still that tiny part of me that gets nervous about it. That’s the feeling I wanted to capture with this story, as well — walking that line between what you know to be real and what you hope (or fear) might be real.