The Warrior ~ by Yunya Yang

When she takes off her shoes and steps into the Dojo; when she sheds her dress, the soft shell peels off her skin; when she winds a long, white band around her breasts before slipping into the Keikogi, its wide sleeves cut at her elbows; when she pulls the Hakama up her legs, tying the night-blue belt into a butterfly, tucking the wings just under her waist; when her hands reach into the Kote, the wrinkled leather cool to the touch; when she straps the Do in front of her torso, the hard and comfortable armor hugs her body like a lover; when she puts her head inside the Men, hiding her face behind the metal cage; when she wraps her gloved hands around the Shinai, the length of the sword extends before her; when she takes her stance, right foot forward, left heel lifted, the hem of her Hakama swishing on the springwood floor; she finally feels in Power. She could be Anybody — she could be Born Here, she could be a Man, she could be White, and people would be in her Mercy, for once. 

***

Yunya Yang was born and raised in Central China and moved to the US when she was eighteen. Her work has appeared and is forthcoming in Heavy Feather Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, The Los Angeles Review, among others. She lives in Chicago with her husband Chris and cat Ichiro. Find her at www.yunyayang.com and on Twitter @YangYunya.

At The Sixth Grade Picnic Lunch, We Are the Last Girls Standing ~ by Candace Hartsuyker

We know the rules. When you’re a girl at a picnic lunch, it’s your job to stand, picnic basket in hand, feet aching, until a boy picks you. Remember: you can’t choose the boy; he chooses you. One by one, our friends are auctioned off. Crinkled dollar bills slide from the palms of grubby boys, money attached in envelopes and safety pinned to their back jean pockets by their mothers.

Before we left, we swiped our mothers’ lipstick. This made us feel grown up, like the older girls at school who were always puckering their lips in front of bathroom mirrors, then swinging their ponytails to hide the hickeys on their necks. Now we just feel like little girls. The lipstick is waxy, caked on our lips.

We try not to think about how the last girl chosen always has the plainest face or the worst food, the kind that tastes like a meal served in a nursing home. If our fathers were here, they’d try to make us feel better by saying that we are like samurai warriors, the last ones remaining in a fight. But they are not here, so we stand, eyes glimmering, teeth bared.

The boy who chooses us hands over a jangle of coins. He doesn’t stop to admire our mothers’ handiwork: the carefully folded napkins, the mouthwatering ham sandwiches with the crusts cut off, the thermos of pomegranate juice, the pomegranate carefully plucked from the tree in the backyard then juiced, staining our mothers’ hands mauve. Our stomachs growl as the boy wolfs down another sandwich. We wonder if this is why our mothers sometimes clatter the silverware drawer shut after dinner, complaining that no one ever appreciates them. The boy slurps down the juice and twists his mouth at the taste before ripping the saran wrap off the sandwich. When he softly kisses one of us on the cheek, she slaps him the same way women with sharp eyebrows and shoulders pads in old movies do. Then, she rubs a finger across reddened lips as if she’s trying to hold back a smile. He tears off a chunk of the sandwich and swallows. Hands brush crumbs off his pants. One final bite of the sandwich, and he’s gone, just a streak of boy running across the grass.

***

Candace Hartsuyker has an M.F.A in Creative Writing from McNeese State University and reads for PANK. She has been published in Cotton XenomorphHeavy Feather Review, The Hunger and elsewhere. 

Group Hug ~ by Paul Thompson

They announce it during an emergency broadcast – we can embrace once more.

I meet you outside the library where we first met. Your clothes are too big. You tell me a beard makes me look older. We do the pedestrian shuffle – step left then right, then left then right, then apologise awkwardly. Our arms waver, broken puppets, reaching and missing each other. The construct of a hug, so easily forgotten.

We hug. A boa constrictor hold. Arms so tight to bruise our backs. Tight and intertwined, an entanglement puzzle. Hours pass, unable to let go, unwilling to risk a future separation. Around us, the post-new world moves on. Birds make nests in our hair. People throw objects at us from passing cars. A billboard poster fading behind us. A performance art review in the local newspaper.

The first of many others join us. Seeking warmth after so long indoors – reaching arms around us, adding to our mass. Strangers stick to our bodies. New best friends. Hundreds of them, blocking the road, interlinking arms and bodies. Our structure becomes unstable, rocking as more people join us. Motion becomes momentum. We stumble down roads. Trample across rivers. People in our path absorbed. Traffic bouncing off our perimeter. Fields churned and pylons toppled. A new force of nature.

Over a thousand people, growing exponentially to a million. Our form eclipsing the low sun at dusk. People losing their grip, trampled underfoot. Missing persons leaflets pasted onto backs. People circulating food deliveries. Factions emerging. Social classes spreading from our centre. Rumours from the perimeter – we are now many millions, we have crossed the oceans, we are visible from space, we are impacting the rotation of the planet.

You pull me tighter into our nucleus. Our epicentre under the strain of the oceans. Bodies compressed in the squeeze – mixing atoms, skin eroding, bones interlocking. Our stampede a new species, an organism sharing limbs and memories. A new name in Latin. A future fossil perplexing experts, millions of years from now. We erode ourselves, lifting our feet, carried by the infinite embrace. Hovering across the surface of the earth, invisible and fading, like the ghosts we once were.

***

Paul is from Sheffield, UK. His stories have appeared in Okay Donkey, Spelk Fiction, and was recently on the Best British & Irish Flash Fiction list for 2019-2020.

Once Tasted ~ by Caroljean Gavin

This is not a story. It is a piece of fruit. Pluck the paragraph, hold its weight in your palm. Rub it against your cheek, let it linger under your nostrils as you inhale. Inhale with your eyes closed. Inhale. It can be any fruit that you wish. It is not a strawberry from your grandfather’s garden, half-eaten by birds. It is not an apple you set down in your child’s lunch box, its tap echoing in the tunnel of your ears these twenty-something years. It is not the mango you watched your soon to be lover slurp from the peel and hold in her mouth like two tongues. It is not the hairy kiwi. It is a new fruit, the likes of which you have never seen before. Let your gaze be the knife. Slice the paragraph into sections. Fan them out across a plate. You know which plate. Perhaps the sentences are juicy. Possibly they are dried out, having lost all sweetness through evaporation. Select one sentence and slip it in your mouth, bring your teeth down into it, the words squirt up against the roof of your mouth, or they seep into the soft place under your tongue, or they do nothing, just grave there pulpy and savorless. Choose one particular flavor, one specific word. It can be any flavor you choose. It tastes like the last time your mother said goodbye, with a wave of honeysuckle, and the subtlest itch of pepper. If your eyes have closed, open them, bring your attention to the seeds, the letters of the fruit, the “r’s” and the “b’s,” the “x’s” and the “e’s” pinch them from the fruit flesh, or scoop them clean, or shake them free, this is your fruit after all. Because this is your fruit after all, do whatever you wish with the letters. Put them in the trash, release them into the yard, throw them out of your moving car, but save one. Save one. Take the letter. Maybe it is a “t’, or it could be a “q.” Set it in a pot and cover it in soil. Put it on your windowsill or put it on the nightstand. Put it wherever light shines for you. Water it however you wish. It might sprout. It might grow. It might lie dormant for seven years, and then one day, a shoot of green! It might already be dead for you. Any outcome is okay. Any outcome is perfectly fine. You are okay. You are fine. You are perfect. If your hands are sticky, let them be sticky. This is not a piece of fruit. This is a story.

***

Caroljean Gavin’s work has appeared in places such as Pithead Chapel, Tiny Molecules, Barrelhouse and Bending Genres. She’s the editor of What I Thought of Ain’t Funny, an anthology of short fiction based on the jokes of Mitch Hedberg out from Malarkey Books. She lives in North Carolina with her two rambunctious sons, one goofy husband, and her one-eyed shih tzu named Moxie.

The Following ~ by Lyndsie Manusos

It wasn’t long before a hole opened up and swallowed several cars on Michigan Ave. Not a sinkhole or some road collapse. Just a hole. Like Wile E. Coyote slapped one of those ACME dots into a canyon wall that the roadrunner sped through. The cars just disappeared, devoured. A wedding photographer in Millennium Park captured her clients kissing when the hole appeared beyond them. She sold the photo for thousands. 

And my grandparents and two cousins were in one of the cars. They were on their way home from one of those dinners the whole extended family knew about. An ultimatum dinner. A “What I deserve” and “Who will look after the kids?” dinner. A whole SUV just down, down, and gone. Religious sects and cults contacted my family. Alien enthusiasts emailed me. When something so inexplicable happens, it sets a fire in the chest and head like a cold, and people need to find out why, they have to know. I had nothing to give them. There was nothing to give. The government dropped lights down the hole without finding a bottom. They sent people to drill in from the sides, underneath Michigan Avenue, and they only found rock and cement; what was supposed to be there, but on the surface there was still the goddamn hole. 

More opened up all over the world, too, like the planet had become Swiss cheese. One swallowed a building that manufactured infant formula. Another one engulfed a Sequoia that was over 1,104 years old.  A slew of people willingly jumped into the holes, bypassing the security and barricades. One man wore wings strapped to his back. They called him The Angel. The public ate that shit up. The last thing people saw where the wings before the darkness ate him, too.

And I? What did I do? I couldn’t stop thinking of words I read in some book or another about being a person who spins on their own axis. Someone who could walk into darkness and not give a fuck where the lights are. I needed a nightlight growing up and God help me, I still have one now. A little lightbulb behind a single stain-glass shape of Saturn, burnt yellow and orange and white. I used to stare at it from across my bedroom. I knew Saturn is all gas but still, I imagined life there. Maybe that’s where my grandparents were, I thought, attending the funeral we planned for them. We laid empty caskets in holes in the ground, holes with bottoms, holes with an exact depth that we could measure, check, and measure again.

What a way, way down, to fall.

I’d like to think maybe they’re waiting for more of us to follow into it, be transported. Trust us, follow us, they might be yelling from the void. A few people have jumped in the hole with that very thought—to follow. There are rumors, they say, that items are beginning to appear at the lip of the holes. A wheel. A shoe. A feather. When I read in a chatroom of conspiracy theorists that a small lightbulb had allegedly been found by the hold in Chicago, I nearly wept for joy. Because maybe the darkness could give back after taking. Maybe it was confirming the lingering question. An affirmation. Follow us, see? We’ll leave breadcrumbs. We’ll leave footprints. See there, there, and there: a still-burning cigarette. A doll in mint condition. A watch. A necklace. And there, see? A light. There, a possibility. 

***

Lyndsie Manusos’ writing has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly’s 70th issue, as well as in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Hobart, and other publications. 

Blasted ~ by Beth Moulton

Photo by Beth Moulton

Day 1: We drive in silence to the place where they will aim radiation at the place where my ovaries used to be. The incision has healed but I feel concave. I don’t know how to mold myself to this loss. We hold hands. I look out the window at the leafless trees. 

Day 6: The drive is becoming a habit. We talk about the roof, which has developed a leak. We talk about the neighbors, who may or may not be splitting up. We talk about the cat, who we haven’t seen for days. We hold hands. Some of the trees have that red, fuzzy look they get right before the leaves pop out.

Day 14: The drive is becoming a burden—45 minutes each way for a 2-minute treatment where I lay under the machine like a sacrifice. I have nightmares about the machine. I have nightmares about something growing inside me. I have nightmares. We talk more about the neighbors, bless them and their craziness, they save us from a silent ride. We don’t hold hands. The trees are green now, except for the one right next to the road, the one that was probably struck by lightning. It has a gaping hollow so big I could hide myself inside. It must be dead, I think. What could survive that injury?

Day 21: We argue on the way to the place. He wants to make plans for summer, maybe near the ocean, he says, but laying half-dressed under the sun reminds me of the machine. I crave shade and soft clothing. The hollowed-out tree is still naked. He doesn’t speak at all on the ride back, until he does. That tree is a hazard, he says. It’s dead. They should chop it down. 

Day 25: I drive myself to the place; he says it’s too much for him. Squinting at the wounded tree, I see a red haze around the tips of the branches. On the way back I pull over and walk up to her, because I know the tree is a her, and rub my hands over her bark and look inside where she is empty. I climb in. The great bulk of her drowns out the noise of the traffic. There is a slow breathing, but is it her or me? Maybe it’s both of us. I stay a long time, nestled inside her, until I finally climb out of the blasted place and drive home. 

***

Beth Moulton earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College, in Rosemont, PA, where she was fiction editor for the Rathalla Review. Her work has appeared in Affinity CoLab, The Drabble, Milk Candy Review, and other journals. She lives near Valley Forge, PA with her cats, Lucy and Ethel.

The Caretaker’s Confession ~ by L.P. Melling

The caretaker of St. Mary’s church likes sweeping up the confetti most. He collects the colourful piles and imagines the travels of the missing pieces, how they end up around the world and nestle under lapels and in shallow pockets for years until they are brought back to life at another wedding.

He also likes to stand in front of the stained glass, closing his eyes, trying to guess what colour his face is bathed in, testing if it feels different in sea blue, or pasture green, or heaven white-gold.

When no one is looking, he scoops out a Princess Diana cupful of holy water from the baptismal font. And he pours a thumbful over the soil of the lichen-marked graves that are too old to have visitors.

He hopes someone will do the same for him one day, knowing his time as caretaker is nearly over.

The caretaker sits in the church’s quiet that is like no other. In the musky, partitioned box, he confesses to the silence the things he probably shouldn’t do with confetti, holy water, and stained glass. And as the last of it tumbles from his lips, he feels at peace.

When he leaves the church for the final time as its caretaker, he thanks it for taking care of him all those days, and he hopes he gave as much as he took from doing his work. He returns each year to pay his respects and visits for the last time a decade later in a modest pine casket. And when the funeral has finished, when the church and its grounds return to the peaceful quiet he always loved, the breeze catches a piece of confetti and sweeps it past his wreath-marked grave to a part of the cemetery only a caretaker visits.

***

L. P. Melling currently writes from the East of England after academia and a legal career took him around the UK. His fiction has appeared in such places as TypehouseARTPOSTFrozen Wavelets, and is forthcoming elsewhere. When not writing, he works in London for a legal charity that advises and supports victims of crime. 

Girl As Music Box Ballerina ~ by L Mari Harris

This girl writes with glitter pens, draws little glitter hearts next to her name, adds XOXO. Doesn’t pick at her food and ask to be excused. Sings along to the radio, drums her fingers on the dashboard, catches her mother’s smile and blows her a kiss. Wears her sleeves pulled down to her fingertips, doesn’t look in the mirror when she undresses at night. Says “I don’t know what I was thinking” when her mother stares at her too long. Smiles at her teachers when tests are handed back, raises her hand when questions are asked. Draws little daggers in her notebook. Smiles smiles smiles. Thrashes at night, grinds her teeth, digs her nails into her stomach, her thighs, her upper arms, screams in her dreams. This girl dances when she’s opened. Spins until the lid is closed and she’s folded back into the beautiful dark.

***

L Mari Harris’s most recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in matchbook, Ponder Review, (mac)ro(mic), CRAFT, Flash Frog, among others. She works in the tech industry and lives in the Ozarks. Follow her on Twitter @LMariHarris and read more of her work at www.lmariharris.wordpress.com.

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.

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.