When the Photographer Falls ~ by Lillian Tsay

The bombs fall from the sky and shatter a hospital. Through his camera lens, the photographer witnesses bodies scattered with blood. On the corridor is the figure of a boy. When the photographer is close enough, he sees the face of the dead boy. The pale cheeks remind him of his young son back home. His camera cannot record the rot and stink in the corridor, but it can capture the shape of the body. Snap.

The refugees are holding one another and listening to a violinist playing in the basement. The photographer listens with his camera down. Another thing his talisman cannot do is to document the tone of Adagio in G minor. As the elegy goes on, a mother comforts her crying son. Not far away from the crowd, two soldiers are resting. In melancholy, they relax as sleep takes over them. Snap.

A dead soldier lies on the pavement. And then there are more, five of them in total. Some of their faces are already beyond recognizable. The photographer takes another shot, and it is not until then that he realizes some are enemy soldiers. Blood and dirt have mixed the original colors on the uniform. Sometimes, nobody pays attention to the living until their bodies become part of a photograph. Snap.

The sniper from nowhere shoots a woman running on the street. It hits her leg, and she falls. The sniper and the photographer both hide in the dark and shoot their targets. They respectively play their parts on this stage call the battlefield: one’s shot triggers blood, and the other’s shot captures the aftermath. The photographer adjusts his camera to zoom in on the struggling woman. They used to say that if you can capture a cinematic shot of the abyss, it will be the apex of your career. But perhaps, the photographer says to himself, he can be more than a bystander. Before then, however, he needs to finish his task. Snap.

The camera is his eye. Ruins. Dead bodies. Soldiers’ backs afar. These are what the photographer sees on the battlefield. And when the photographer eventually falls, he becomes part of the scenes he took. His body becomes the new evidence to be shot by another photographer. “Tell the world this is what they have done to them. To us.” Another photographer will say. Snap.

***

Lillian Tsay was born in upstate New York and raised in Taiwan. After she graduated from college in Taipei, she moved to Tokyo and had lived there for four years. She is currently writing a dissertation on East Asian food history at Brown University. Besides her scholarly works, her creative writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, Atticus Review, amongst others. 

Stochastic Prompt No. 9: (n) Sci-fi Worlds ~ by Taylor Card

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There is a world that trades in stories as the dominant currency. Spoken, written, acted out. New stories are highly valuable. But old stories told in the old ways are worth even more.

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Here is a world where the people harvest time from the bedrock. Digging deeper into layered lodes creates time-warping vibrations in the air. With special machines, the people capture this energy and process it into precious-stone seconds, occasionally finding a minute gem, or a diamondesque hour. Once, the whole mining crew took the year off after finding an enormous, glittering century in the depths of the Fifty-Third Time Mine.

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Once I thought of a reality where really, really, really big giants come to our world and move us around like little dolls in a doll house. It’s like the hand of god, but really it’s just the hand of Jeremy, who thinks you would look better a little bit to the left.

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Here’s one world I thought about recently: Grey rock extends around me, with me low in its belly. My feet are caught in clear, adhesive gel that leaks in veins from pustules here and there along the slopes. The green skin of these pustules swells and leaks, forming a strange not-heart beat to the land. I don’t resort to consuming it right away. Days into my utter isolation, unable to move my feet, then legs, then hips, I bend at the waist and try to ingest the velvet moss skin. The blood rushes to my head as I claw at the green bulbs around me. This world eats people like me. But I’m not willing to be the only one being consumed.

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A world that’s actually a video game. A card game. That simulation you run behind your eyes when thinking about doing something, but not actually doing it.

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In a world, I hop asteroids. Compare me to a skipper living in an archipelago. And each island is all wacky. There are carnivorous sheep creatures. Blue foods. Glowing rainclouds. A shell that screams at midnight. People who are not even one-percent cruel. Back in my ship, I wonder if all other travelers are this lonely.

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One sci-fi world I make is completely flooded, and people survive on the backs of giant birds. Did humans cause the flood? I think it’s likely.

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There’s a place that is affected by my dreams, but only on February 29th. Every four years, all that’s happening in my subconscious infects the people, the land, and the sky. The animals appear to be immune.

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A world where there are small people in all the refrigerators. They’re cold.

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Imagine a world where objects inevitably evolve into beings. Some forks turn into brothers and sisters. Some diapers become small rodents. Some skateboards are later seen as gods, hovering, six-armed, and many-winged.

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If we whisper, I can tell you about the words-world. Over the pitted, barren planet, sounds given meaning – also known as words – have physical, tangible force. Saying something, anything, could literally smack someone in the face. Words obey new laws of physics, momentum and power. I say, I am here. The ground rips open and gains a new rift.

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Think about who you’d be if you lived in this world: when the sun is up, you are one person – you have one body, one life and one soul. When the sun is not visible, you inhabit a different body, possess a different soul – you’re someone else. The two people you are are unrelated to one another. I don’t know where the other goes when you are the one.

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In a world like my own, humans spawn feelings. The feelings appear soft like Jell-O. Each feeling is a different color – an embarrassment recalled at 3:47 am (which woke me up) forms as an orange-and-green. The feelings follow the person who spawned them around for the rest of that person’s life. The world is so full and crowded.

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A world where I imagine other worlds, other beings, other problems. A world that contains every thought I’ve ever had, contains as in “jails.” A world where my thoughts don’t work right, or don’t work how I imagine they could. Where thinking of the refrigerator people doesn’t make them visitable. I always dream that it should. If I imagine time as a stone, words as a gut-punch, why can’t we try that for a while?

***

Taylor Card holds an MFA in fiction writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and haunts her home in Michigan, making trending coffee beverages and wearing blue. Her fiction has been published in Button Eye Review and Digging Through the Fat. Besides writing, she enjoys making ceramic animal sculptures – you can see a few at taylorvcard.com.

Perfect ~ by Lisa Alletson

We would always stub out our candy cigarettes on the mulberry leaves in our tree house, fingers and lips stained purple from berries, watching our parents drink gin and tonics after sets of sweaty tennis. Mia’s mother with the long legs saying her daughter would soon need a nose job. Her whisky voice rising into the branches when she asked my father to join her for a shower. My mother giggling and pouring her gin to overflowing.

***

We would always track down the nearest bar no matter what continent. Mia’s huge grin getting us in even when the place was full. Waiters competing to refill her perfect martini. Refusing the men buying her drinks, she’d pull me from my chair to slow dance, her fingers smoothing my hair, holding my body tighter with each passing city and year, as we’d sway and sing Piano Man in every language we remembered from school.

***

We would always write letters; Mia’s perfect cursive detailing her affairs with married men. Her nib ripping the page when she wrote of her mother whose hatred still stained her no matter how far she travelled from home. We’d write monthly until Mia checked into a hotel room on her own in Morocco, flirted with the doorman, triple-tipped the waitress, danced on the hotel bar, her arms wrapped tight around herself, the hotel manager told me after.

***

Lisa Alletson grew up in South Africa and England, and now lives in Canada. Her writing is published or forthcoming in Crab Creek Review, New Ohio Review, Bending Genres, CLOVES, Moist Poetry Journal. You can find her on Twitter @LotusTongue.

Bull ~ by Dan Crawley

The whole town slept outside on cots set up in their yards. They had to, with houses that baked all through the stifling day and remained hot ovens throughout the night. Everyone spied on each other’s nightshirts, cracked jokes, and asked about the latest telegrams delivered about the loved ones of that neighbor or this neighbor. Those loved ones who traveled overseas. Those neighbors still shut inside their dark houses, despite the unbearable temperature. Everyone called out their good nights, their sweet dreams, their don’t let the rattlesnakes bite. When a bull escaped from his pen one night, his hoofbeats and snorts roamed the narrow dirt streets. Nowadays everyone sleeps inside, setting their cots under swamp coolers mounted to their front room windows, oblivious to what wanders the pitch black beyond. But back then, everyone sat up on their cots, alert. Everyone called out to each other, “Here he comes. Here he comes!”

***

Dan Crawley is the author of Straight Down the Road (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2019) and The Wind, It Swirls (Cowboy Jamboree Press, 2021). His writing appears or is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, Lost Balloon, JMWW, Atticus Review, and elsewhere.

Two Arms ~ by Jessica Cavero

Where’s The Love?

When Hanson sang where’s the love, I was in her room, the two of us sewing doll-sized sleeping bags in ivory wool. We collected beanie babies and boy band lyrics, imagined our future loves with hair as long as ours, watched the stick-on stars on her ceiling glow. In her dollhouse, each pink room was furnished with couches and tables, a blue glass spiral staircase that shot straight through to heaven. We had dinner on the first floor. Passed around porcelain dishes of warm meatloaf and spaghetti and I felt like one part of a sitcom family where everyone was loved.

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When she moved out of state, I played freeze tag with white kids in the Catholic school parking lot. I adapted to this new logic, understood that to be touched meant to stop all motion and speech, to tell your heart be still, tell your body be still, to vanish and hope someone would undo what had been done.

That was the summer of my retreat, where I listened to girls retell the worst years of their childhoods. How did they get through it? Some of them shared poems they had written. Some of them shared music. Crossfade, Foo Fighters. One of them brought pieces of shell and cut glass she had found on a beach, each one tucked into a velvet-lined box and separated by tiny compartments. One of the fragments was smooth and curled, like a baby’s finger.

We all sat in a circle after that, dropped notes we had written into a black velvet sack that was passed around. I don’t remember what the counselor told us to write. If it was something I wanted to let go of or hold onto. Maybe both.

Spring Days

Fourteen years later, I made my first attempt. In recovery, I slept. In the summer, I looked for music to wrap around me like two arms. I searched videos in bed. Watched seven boys dance in perfect synchrony and sing of childhood, of first loves and coffee shops, of running and running and all I know how to do is love you. They held my hand through the night. They did. And they sang while I took pictures around my neighborhood like a tourist: sunflower stalks, rabbits, little gnome statues in conversation with each other.

I couldn’t stop eating onigiri in those days. I had everything I needed. Koshihikari and Kewpie mayo and nori and tuna. I would click-click-click my phone until I found BTS and the recipe I bookmarked. Sometimes I think this is all I know how to do, cultivate devotion in small, tender acts so I try to do it well: cup the rice and mold it into a ball, feel the warmth of my own hands and god I swear it’s like holding myself.

***

Jessica Cavero is a writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Barren Magazine, Jellyfish Review, Wigleaf and elsewhere. Her short story “Toguro” won the 2017 Katherine Anne Porter Prize from Nimrod International Journal. You can find more of her work at fightfayre.net.

The Invisible Woman ~ by Rachel O’Cleary

The invisible woman likes to perch in people’s windows. She likes to sit on the other side of a pane of glass and watch the visible men and the visible women eating dinner with their visible children. She likes to listen to the muffled chatter, the pinging of cutlery against plates, the low rumble of the radio. She likes to press her nose to the cold glass and watch the visible fog formed by her invisible breath.

When there is a cat on the other side of a window, it inevitably meets the invisible woman’s gaze. Its sharp eyes narrow, its back ripples into a towering hump, and it shows its needle-sharp teeth. As she sulks away from its silent hisses, the invisible woman thinks that she can almost remember what it felt like, to be seen.

Sometimes the invisible woman sits in the picture window of the big red house on the corner. She presses her back to the brick frame, stretches her arms above her head until her fingertips graze the lintel, and points her feet into perfect arches. She feels every muscle in her body, taut and primed, and she imagines the thick coils of rippling fiber, the unseen landscape of herself.

Inside the big red house lives a couple with two teenaged children: a girl and a boy. Recently, the invisible woman has noticed that the girl is flickering. Every morning, the girl stands in front of her full-length mirror and runs her hands over the curves of her breasts, her hips, her thighs, as they waver in and out of clarity. The invisible woman watches, breath held painfully tight in her chest, afraid to exhale until the girl settles once again into solidity.

The invisible woman begins waking up early so she can follow the girl out of the big red house. She trails the girl down busy pavements, whispering encouraging words into her dark hair as it flutters in the invisible woman’s face. She tells the girl that she is stronger than she knows. She tells her that the world is a lonely place for an invisible woman. She tells her to be brave. These are all the things the invisible woman wishes someone had told her.

The invisible woman thinks it’s working. The girl’s footsteps are growing firmer, louder. She looks people in the eye as she passes them, and they look back. Not up or down, but straight back. Sometimes the invisible woman makes believe that these people are looking at her, too. Sometimes, she thinks they really are. Sometimes, she looks down at the place where her hand should be, and she’s sure she can see it, quivering in and out of her field of vision.

***

Rachel O’Cleary studied creative writing at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, and lives with her husband and three children in Ireland, squeezing her obsession for flash fiction into the spaces between school runs. You can find a list of her published work at https://rachelocleary.wordpress.com, and she occasionally tweets @RachelOCleary1.

We Worry For Cats ~ by Eric Scot Tryon

The scream of the alarms can be heard for two city blocks. So we flee our apartments, those boxes that stack atop one another like Legos. Eleven stories in total. We flee our apartments grumbling about testing the system on a Monday morning, a heads up would have been nice, an email, a note on the doors. Some of us still in pajamas, a rogue Cheerio stuck to our chin, others with wet hair and mis-matched socks, no shoes, all flooded out like roaches from behind toasters, microwaves and forgotten loaves of bread. We sit scattered about, under trees, on benches and cement stairs. Keeping our distance from neighbor-strangers, the men we smile at in elevators, the women we nod to in the mail room.

The scream of the alarms can be heard for two city blocks. They don’t stop after a minute like we expect. Or five or ten. We sit scattered about, under trees, on benches and cement stairs. Noses buried in cell phones. We watch our battery percentages like ticking time bombs, picturing chargers on nightstands, kitchen counters, plugged into laptops. Oh how we long for them. Noses buried deep in cell phones. We play Candy Crush, we text our mothers, we punch emails to bosses with trained thumbs.

The scream of the alarms can be heard for two city blocks. Some of us try to call management. This is unacceptable. We have Zoom meetings to attend, we have scared cats under beds, we have lives to live in those boxes that stack atop one another like Legos. Eleven stories in total. We watch our battery percentages like ticking time bombs. The numbers dropping fast, counting down like it’s goddamn Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. What do we do with that last percentage? Who do we text? Which feed do we scroll? Which photo do we like? When the screens go black we look around and wonder which of these neighbor-strangers is the one we hear fighting on the other side of the kitchen, saying things to his wife we have only heard in movies. We look around and wonder which of these neighbor-strangers is the one crying at night above our bed. As we lay, scrolling ourselves to sleep, the sound of their sobs becomes the white noise that finally puts us under. We look around and try to match unknown faces to the lives we hear on the other sides of walls.

The scream of the alarms can be heard for two city blocks. We long for chargers, we worry for cats, we wonder for neighbor-strangers. And then we see it. Smoke twirling its way up from the rooftop like an angry ghost. This is not a test. We grab madly for our dead phones to snap photos, to Tweet in all caps, to text our friend in Boston.

***

Eric Scot Tryon is a writer from San Francisco. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Willow Springs, Pithead Chapel, Los Angeles Review, Pidgeonholes, Monkeybicycle, Cease, Cows, Longleaf Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, and elsewhere. Eric is also the Founding Editor of Flash Frog. Find more information at www.ericscottryon.com or on Twitter @EricScotTryon. 

Rock ~ by Kik Lodge

Five boyfriends ago and I’m out in the backyard with my big sister, my beautiful big sister, Annie, and we’re shouting far into the night in our nighties, to hell with home, to hell with Dad, and we say hey you, clumps of blazing rock, bear witness to our words, never will we be anyone’s woman, we’ll be the dancing dead before we’re anyone’s woman, got it? and Annie whenever you are, I’m whispering this now, Doug’s upstairs, his fist in bentonite clay, he has a hole where his soul should be, I swear, and I’m out here, torn like Mama, and get this stars, I am enough on my own, I’m yelling that now, Annie, even if life’s a haze and the night is biting into me, I’m yelling that now in my nightgown.

***

Kik Lodge writes short fiction in France. Her work has featured in The Moth, Tiny Molecules, The Cabinet of Heed, Reflex Fiction Ellipsis Zine, Splonk, Bending Genres, Janus Literary and Litro. She likes cats and trumpets.

Made in Her Image ~ by Lori Sambol Brody

My Golem daughter packs for college. She packs her sweater sets, her sensible black boots, her button-down shirts. She never wears crop-tops or low necklines. She packs her jeans. She does not write on her jeans with a ballpoint pen, drawing hearts and lines from her favorite songs, the lyrics she knows make me blush. She does not worry holes in the fabric with her fingers. Her bed is always made military-tight, fairy lights strung over it in a bell curve, photos clipped on the wires spaced exactly three inches apart. My Golem daughter never sits in boys’ cars in front of our house, windows dripping with tears.

She folds her clothes in her suitcases as if she were the one who worked at Brandy Melville. She packs her two sets of extra-long sheets. She packs the new shower caddy she’ll bring to the dorm showers to haul her Pantene conditioner for dry hair, her Jergens Extra-Dry Healing lotion, the hair gel she uses so her bangs will lie just so. She packs she packs she packs.

My Golem daughter is always focused.

Her eyes are now on her suitcase, her bangs covering the word I wrote on her forehead, אמת, truth. The truth is: I can destroy her, erase the letter aleph, א, to change the word truth to death, מת. The truth is: for my Golem daughter, I hold her life in my hands. How easy it would be. I watch from the doorway to her room, examine the soft pad of my thumb: I can rub aleph off with a light touch and she will turn back to what she’s made of. I thrill at that power, I wonder if. I’ve had only two years with her.

I bring her a set of towels, because she will need those too. Thanks Mom, she says, and her voice sounds like running water, like dirt and magic and crawling things. I shiver; I love the way she calls me Mom. Are you sure you want to go away? I ask. She knows that she’s the first Golem to go to college. An Ivy League, no less. It will not be easy: will my daughter’s roommate notice the truth inscribed on her forehead, will she seek to brush the letters away, will there be an aura of uncanniness that repels her? Or will they stay up all night whispering in the dark under her Ikea duvet, talking of classes and dreams and boys? Oh, Mom, she says, and she shakes her head, high ponytail swinging.

That night they found her, I knelt on the banks of the creek. The water ran winter-fast and the wet earth smelled of decay. I howled and even the coyotes were afraid. I formed my Golem daughter with tears. I formed her with clay and algae and foam. Mud crusted under my nails. The police found no DNA under hers. I lumbered from the creek bed and my Golem daughter followed me, naked and solid. Her flesh like my flesh, transformed from mud. In the bedroom, I pointed to her canopied bed, to her desk. This is your room. I slipped a dress over her head, zipped the back, tied the belt. Her hands up as if she were still a toddler. You are my daughter.

My Golem daughter does not bleed and she cannot break. She tells me, I will always love you. I grip her tight with hands that formed her from fistfuls of mud and magic. Hands that made her stay.

***

Lori Sambol Brody lives in the mountains of Southern California. Her short fiction has been published in Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Craft, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her stories have been chosen for the Best Small Fictions and Best Microfiction anthologies, Wigleaf Top 50, and the Longform fiction pick of the week. She can be found on Twitter at @LoriSambolBrody and her website is lorisambolbrody.wordpress.com.

Pre-Ghosting ~ by Todd Clay Stuart

The ash in the backyard is dying. My wife and I could see it from our second-floor window, could hear the groan of its hollow limbs as they cracked and swayed in the cold March winds. Widow makers, the limbs are called. The branches of the tree once held waxy, green parades of leaves, but are now weighed down full of silent space left in the wake of the slow march of death. It could be said the tree is more of a wooden sculpture of a tree than anything else. Yet, still it stands, as a monument to things I won’t let go. Water, air, fire, they take on the form of our bodies, like shadows, like mirrors, anything made of light, your hands, your face, translucent in repose, the light moving through you like the opposite of a storm, the reverse of a hurricane, everything made of light, the accoutrements of the illusionists. The bedroom window is new and arched to better frame the night stars since we discovered our favorite constellations were out of view just above the top of our old window. About the stars: we forget they are still there during the day. We just can’t see them because the arrogant sun demands our full attention. My wife’s hair went gray, then white in a matter of seconds. I want to believe she prematurely made herself look like her future ghost, so I would more easily recognize her spirit after she died, so I would be less startled if one day her ghost appeared beside me and hooked her arm through mine during a funeral or a parade or the opening of the first tender buds of spring.

***

Todd Clay Stuart is an emerging Midwestern writer and poet. He studied creative writing at the University of Iowa. His work  appears or is forthcoming in X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, FRiGG, Milk Candy Review, New World Writing, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife, daughter, and two loyal but increasingly untrustworthy pets. Find him on Twitter @toddclaystuart and at http://toddclaystuart.com.