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.

A Beginner’s Guide to Summoning Bloody Mary ~ by Audrey Hawkes

The rules of Bloody Mary are very simple when you’re a twelve-year-old girl. Just follow these five steps:

1. You must pick the darkest room with the biggest mirror — location is important. You go to the upstairs bathroom of your best friend Tara’s house and together you face the mirror. Tara switches off the light. Your reflections, gangly and wide-eyed with lingering sunburns from afternoons at the public pool, vanish as the room is plunged into darkness. For a moment you can still see your mirror selves, the impressions left on your vision. It’s like you’re the ghosts, bright leftover images looming behind your eyelids as you blink.

2. You must have the proper tools — after you summon Bloody Mary, you’ll need to light a candle to see her. A tea light candle stolen from Tara’s older sister, and the matchbook from the junk drawer in the kitchen. Tara takes other things from her sister these days too, like teen magazines with quizzes about who your future boyfriend will be. She makes you fill them out with her, and she takes the answers very seriously. Afterwards, you read all the options quietly to yourself and feel nothing. Now, in the dark, Tara takes your hand. You close your eyes; you focus on the feeling of Tara’s hand, the quiet of her breathing. The cold bathroom tile on your bare feet.

3. You must call her forth three times: Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary. There is power in the ritual of repetition. How many times have you and Tara pretended you were witches, sitting your stuffed animals in a circle and making up chants? Even if that was just make-believe, you were doing it together, and that thrilled you. You feel goosebumps rise on your arm. It’s like you’re the only two girls in the whole universe, just a vast darkness and your hands and peeling, sunburned arms touching. Tara’s palm is sweaty. Her fingernails are bitten short. You notice these details and your pulse kicks; maybe Tara’s nervousness is catching. You think if you opened your eyes and you really were in an endless black expanse, that would be okay. As long as you got to keep holding Tara’s hand.

4. You must believe, and maybe this is why you’ve had no luck so far. Because Tara is certain that when she lights the candle, she will see a blood-soaked figure in the mirror. Tara believes in Bloody Mary with the same certainty that she believes in the ability of a teen magazine to tell her future. But not you. 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. When you open your eyes, you know there will be nothing there, and Tara will let go of your hand because she won’t be afraid anymore. 5. So for now, you must keep your eyes closed. Imagine you can feel the presence of a third girl in the room with you, maybe phantom breath on your neck. And then hold Tara’s hand tight. Just a little longer. Just until you hear the match strike.

***

Audrey Hawkes is a desert rat living and writing in Arizona, and can often be found watching bad horror movies or on Twitter @audrey_hawkes. Audrey’s work has been featured in Ample Remains and Not Deer Magazine.

Sports Moms at the End of the World ~ by Jessie Lovett Allen

When all the children’s sports disappeared, the swim mom locked the bathroom door, filled the tub with warm water and a few sloshes of Clorox, and sat on the closed toilet lid to inhale the bleachy, humid air.

The golf mom snuck a sprig of wooden tees into her pocket before tossing her pants into the wash. After the clothes finished drying, she crouched on the sticky floor of the laundry room to pluck the tees out from around the lint trap.

The softball mom, her face and neck slick with sunscreen, sat in her SUV with the sunroof open. In her driveway, she listened to the classic rock station, biting sunflower seeds and spitting the shells between her legs onto the waffled all-weather floormat.

At night, the sports moms dreamt of sweaty hair, hairsprayed into tight ponytails. Handwashing socks in hotel sinks and pinching the wet fabric into rolled-up car windows. Concession-stand coffee with powdered creamer. Unintelligible shouts echoing in the cathedral ceilings of gyms, pools, rinks, and nondescript steel buildings. Once, the basketball mom dreamt herself climbing the bleachers in high heels, losing her balance for just a moment before gripping the wobbly steel handrail and gasping awake. 

Some moms could subscribe and pay to see miniature two-dimensional versions of their children doing sports. They watched on phones in parking lots, laptops on the dining room table. But these flat children with blurred faces didn’t feel like the same ones who had years ago nursed at the moms’ breasts, grasping at the moms’ necklaces as the early evening sun sliced through the blinds of a dim nursery.

So the soccer mom knifed and quartered a dozen oranges and carried them outside to the bird feeder tray. The cheer mom added a few glittery dog collars to her online shopping cart. And in the backyard at sunrise, the tennis mom wrapped herself in a microfleece blanket. Shook open a portable canvas chair. Sipped her K-cup coffee from a travel mug cradled in the mesh cupholder. Watched through the chain-link fence as the neighbor’s cat chased a dead leaf in the wind.

***

Jessie Lovett Allen is originally from western New York and currently teaches English at North Platte Community College in western Nebraska. She holds an MA in English and a PhD in Literacy Education. Jessie enjoys loitering around the MFA program at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where she irregularly takes classes.  Recent work appears or is forthcoming in Bending Genres, The Forge, and JMWW. She was recently nominated for a Pushcart. Twitter: @jesslovettallen

Setting: Everywhere and nowhere, all at once ~ by Rachel Abbey McCafferty

The first sign had been taped to the garage door of the blue house with white shutters. It was crisp at first, big black letters on white paper, but the sun soon rendered it faded and soft and yellow, tender as its message.

            The family who had once lived inside the house had gone to the ocean, seeking sand and sun and salty air, it said. No one knew how long they had been gone before someone noticed the sign. It was like they had never been there at all.

            The next sign had been taped to a large green house with a maple tree out front. They’d gone to the mountains, it said, where the air was thinner but crisper, cleaner. They’d vacationed there once when the kids were young and had never been happier. They took nothing and never returned.

            The third sign appeared soon after, taped to a small brick colonial with a fenced-in backyard. There was only one word written on it.

            The residents of the street grew bolder.

            The Norwoods headed for a small town the father had visited as a child, where the ice cream cones were the size of his head and cost a nickel. The McCauleys were going to the house where their great grandmother had grown up, which had burned in a fire fifty years prior. The Greenes had taken off for a land that could only be found in the map on the inside cover of their favorite fantasy novel.

            One by one, signs appeared, stuck tight to empty houses full of dreams.

            Word spread of this modern ghost town. People came from the next town over, the next county, the next state. They came from around the world, seeking transport to the places their hearts most desired.

            One person fled to the setting sun. Another to a gray day full of soft rain and unread books. There was a sign describing a lilac bush in bloom, a tree with a crooked trunk, and an old canoe by the pond.

            The signs multiplied. Layers upon layers of paper coated in ink, memories and daydreams that had formerly been lodged somewhere in the stomach, the throat, the chest, deep behind the lungs.

            The walls of the houses began to bow, bearing the weight of longing. But when they finally fell, they fell outward, not inward, sending the hope they housed out into the world.

***

Rachel Abbey McCafferty has been writing since she first learned that was a thing people could do. She’s a newspaper reporter in Ohio whose favorite questions are ‘what if’ and ‘why.’ Her flash fiction has appeared in journals like formercactus, (mac)ro(mic) and Emerge Literary Journal.

Minerals ~ by Mia Nakaji Monnier

1

            My family lives in a house full of mountains about to fall over. It’s not that they’re balanced perfectly on the right side of precariousness. These mountains do fall over, all the time. When they do, my mother shouts, “Avalanche!” and my brothers and father casually inflate their safety helmets. When I come over they’re raking the rubble against the wall, forming new mountains, smaller ones this time.

            After we’ve cleaned up we all sit around peering across the rolling landscape. Here are its contents: Yarns from grass-fed alpacas. Expensive books with mild water damage. Nine hundred and ninety nine cranes, their folds full of dust. In my chest, rocks begin to slip, these small golden dirt clods rolling downhill and bursting on the ground. My mother sniffs back tears. “I love this family so much,” she says.

2

            At the bakery, I order anpan and wait for the clerk to tell me how good my Japanese is, just for managing to pronounce two words.

            “Haha wa nihonjin desu,” I will say, and when she opens her eyes wide and says she can’t see it in my face, I’ll say, “Sou iwareteimasu.” So I’m told.

            I will take my red bean bun—warm, round, and filling my hand like a small creature, and leave it whole as I sit at a bench outside, reading a story about an acrobat and a rocket scientist who fall in love.

            Once, a scientist loved me too. At night, he walked into the forest looking for owls, cradling the smallest ones in his palms before clamping numbered tags on their spindly legs. In the afternoons, he brought me olive bread. I pulled it apart as we talked, and all our worries fell out, shriveled and covered in crumbs.

            In my new neighborhood, I have almost every kind of Japanese pastry I want, but I have to steel myself to buy them, wielding my rice and seaweed childhood, a soft memory pounded tough.

            When I finally bite into the glazed flesh, the black sesame seeds will graze my lips. The sweet bean paste will linger on my tongue.

3

            For parents I have an owl and a tanuki. I did not get my mother’s ability to fly, or my father’s voluminous testicles to use as a parachute. No, I live on the ground and spend my days delivering newspapers through the forest.

            Sometimes I dream about moving through the air, the wind pushing at my back, the fog opening for me like a hug. People stop me on my paper route to ask about my face: how did I get it, both beak and whiskers? They’re not sure it’s beautiful.

            Well, one of my parents flew and the other one floated, I say. They met at the top of a short tree and later they made me.

            When I tell them, people look at me as if I could fly, and I don’t correct them. I have the memory, after all. When I sleep, I’m closer to the stars.

***

Mia Nakaji Monnier is a writer in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in BuzzFeed News, Shondaland, The Rumpus, and more. Her essay “Kokoro Yasume,” published in Exposition Review, was a Longreads editors’ pick and a Pushcart Prize nominee. She is the 2021 Idyllwild Writers Week Nonfiction Fellow. You can find her on Twitter @miagabb and read more of her work at mianakajimonnier.com.

Baba Yaga ~ by Jonathan Cardew

Baba Yaga

cuts carrots in her chicken-legged shack, the weight of the world no longer on her shoulders, peers out the window on a bright morning, the birds particularly precocious and loud, intrigued by seedlings, casts a spell on an old friend in Praha, a lady who reared a log for a son (and had it coming), remembers her first love, a solemn woodsman, a poet of sorts, though he never realized the power of words, ponders how age and wisdom are not mutually exclusive, wisdom is for the birds, knowledge consumed by animals, and shat out, stands and watches a young girl approach the flock of sparrows, a girl of only 10, no more than that, a tasty morsel, from the village of disbelievers, yearns as the girl brings her hands together (in prayer? in supplication?), cuts into her own finger rather than the carrot, just to see blood, to remember what it is to be young again.

***

Jonathan Cardew’s stories appear in cream city review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Passages North, CRAFT, and others. Originally from the UK, he lives in Milwaukee, WI.

Fruit Salad ~ by Stephanie Yu

We have a slumber party where we decide, instead of fruit, to bring candy shaped like fruit to dump into a big bowl. Welch’s fruit snacks and Haribo peaches. Even Circus Peanuts had their place, we all agreed. Except for Rima, who isn’t agreeable about anything. She rolls her eyes as we dangle sour spaghetti from our teeth and press mounds shaped like strawberries n’ cream to our boobs so they look like puffy nipples. We hadn’t seen her eat food in weeks. She munched exclusively on ice chips and the occasional sugar free peppermint. When she goes to the bathroom, we all agree if we were fruit salad, Rima would be the banana Runts. 

We’re watching “A Walk to Remember.” Mandy Moore is dying and Shane West is sad because he is falling for a girl who is dying. Mandy wears a pale blue dress we all want a version of to wear to prom. We each imagine a version of Shane stabbing our left breasts with a corsage. In one scene, Mandy stands at the mic and sings a solo in front of the whole school, which makes us go quiet. The song is one we will each go home and download. Years later, we will wonder why it’s still on our iPods, until we forget about iPods all together. 

What we never forget about is Rima. She doesn’t end up going to prom. The sleepover is the last time we see her before her parents send her away to a “retreat” from which she never returns. We remember the look in Rima’s eyes, alert and darting like a feral cat’s, as she watches Mandy belting it out on the stage. We remember her hissing under her breath, “She doesn’t even look like she’s dying,” as the sugar crash hits and we fall into deep slumber, the sound of her teeth rattling together like a pack of loose Chiclets.

***

Stephanie Yu lives in Los Angeles with her partner Nate. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in BULL: Men’s FictionEclecticaHobartX-R-A-Y, and elsewhere. You can find her tweeting @stfu_stephanie.

Avon Calling You an Autumn When You Know You Are Summer ~ by Melissa Llanes Brownlee

Ah, you’re an autumn, she says as I eye the shadows and mouth the names on the lipstick tubes, buttered rum, precious pearl, amorous rose, cool peach, every word a pucker.

What’s autumn? We had to clean the house spic and span before she came over because mom didn’t want her thinking we were dirty and poor.

She is carefully unloading her samples on the glass coffee table in the special living room for company, her soft white hands, tipped in a tasteful nude, she would later tell my mom. Oh, you know, it’s fall, when the leaves fall.

Leaves fall? My mother shakes her head. Her teased and permed hair hardened by hairspray. Her eyes rimmed black. Her brows brushed and darkened. Her lips an appropriate red for her job at the bank.

Yes, off of trees when they turn red, orange or yellow.

Leaves don’t change colors here. She stops and looks at me, seeing my dark brown skin and long tangled brown hair, my favorite rainbow t-shirt and not matching shorts, my long legs, scratched and scarred from playing in the sun all year long.

I guess you are right, but still, you are an autumn, dear. She clicks her emptied case closed.

***

Melissa Llanes Brownlee is a native Hawaiian writer who lives in Japan. She received her MFA from UNLV and has fiction recently published and forthcoming in The Citron Review, Waxwing, Claw & Blossom, The Lumiere Review, (mac)ro(mic), Micro Podcast, Bending Genres, 3Elements and elsewhere. She tweets @lumchanmfa and talks story at www.melissallanesbrownlee.com.

I Think I Love the Small Woman Who Lives in My Hair ~ by Veronica Klash

She swings from strand to strand often landing to sit on my left ear. At the grocery store, she waves to the cashier and asks about his day. His response is polite but disinterested. Later she’ll tell me that she thinks he’s sad. I’ll say that maybe he was just having a bad day.

When I’m at work, typing with my back curved, a spiral staircase to nowhere, she’ll remind me to sit up straight before taking a nap nestled beside my bangs. I’ll pull my shoulders back and feel the space open under my ribs.

At night, after dinner, when the neighborhood lights come on and the grass in the park across the street looks purple instead of green, she’ll make gasping sounds and tsk tsks while we read the next chapter of a cozy thriller. As my fingers shift to the top of the page and grab hold of the corner her voice stops me, Wait, wait, I’m not ready. At the end of the book she always announces, I knew that the weird woman did it. I could tell from the very beginning.

Sometimes when I drink coffee she’ll stroll along the rim of the mug, closing her eyes and inhaling the steam. She’ll say, It makes your breath stink but it smells so good when it’s still in the mug. I know the smallest poke from my finger would send her flying into the dark roasted lagoon she’s circling. I don’t tell her that. I resist the urge.

Hours after I’ve turned off the lamp in the bedroom and settled under flannel sheets, my eyes won’t close. More than a hundred sheep have bounded over a low wooden gate to the soundtrack of her deep and even breathing. Still, my eyes won’t close. I let my hand slip down my body, between elastic and warm skin. I think about the cashier from the grocery store. The sandpaper stubble on his jawline against my thigh. My fingers fly and I moan. She stirs, rustling in my hair. I stop. She pats my head, and before going back to sleep says, Go on I know you need this. I finish what I started, but the last thing I remember before falling asleep is not the cashier. The last thing I remember is a dainty finger dipping into a honey sample cup at the farmer’s market, and her voice, as she licks the golden drops, This is perfection.  

***

Veronica Klash loves living in Las Vegas and writing in her living room. Her work has appeared in Cheap Pop, Ellipsis Zine, and X-Ray Lit, among others. You can find her on Twitter @veronicaklash.

Advanced Math for the Sleepless ~ by Laila Amado

There are 8.399 million people living in New York City. Of these, 47% are male. If 53% of these men are currently single, 26% prefer latte over cappuccino, 10% can tell a difference between a Leica and a Fuji, 7% are remotely attractive, and 3% can find you attractive with makeup running down your face, please calculate the probability of meeting the love of your life on a rainy Tuesday in April, outside of Dashwood Books, after you have forgotten your umbrella on the subway.

#

The wedding band is a circle of metal around emptiness. To calculate the radius of a circle by using the circumference, take the circumference of the circle and divide it by 2 times π. Without using any measurement instruments, estimate the correct size of the wedding band for a person whose hand you’ve been clutching on a roller coaster ride you shouldn’t have gone to in the first place.

#

Add up the 6.5 lbs of a newborn girl and the combined 10.8 lbs of the twins that came two years later, subtract 2.25 hours a day spent cooking and cleaning, multiply by the number of times the spouses quarreled and then made up, legs intertwined, divide by the number of Lego parts found in unexpected places and, finally, take a square root out of every difficult conversation to find a formula of a perfect marriage.

#

Imagine that Car A leaves from point X and Car B departs from point Y. Car A travels at 55 mph, in line with the maximum posted speed limit. Car B travels at 65mph for the first two hours of its journey and then speeds up to 90 mph for the last 22 minutes. Calculate the force of their collision at intersection Z.

#

There are 206 bones in the human body. The femur is the strongest and the trapezium bone in the left wrist, injured in the skating incident at the age of nine, is the weakest. Calculate how many bones will break when the side impact airbag doesn’t deploy. For extra points, estimate which one of them will break first.

#

The average life expectancy of a man is 77 years and the average life expectancy of a woman is 81. Calculate how many times she will stand outside Dashwood Books alone after her husband dies in a car crash two days before her 36th birthday.

***

Laila Amado spends her days teaching, writing, never quite catching up on her own research agenda, and trying to get a teenage kid through a global pandemic. In her free time, she can be found staring at the Mediterranean Sea. Occasionally, the sea stares back. She is on Twitter @onbonbon7.