Parts of my Mother ~ by Tim Craig

1.

Once, in a department store, I pulled on my mother’s arm and it came off, like she was one of the mannequins. This was an early introduction to the idea that parts of my mother were destined to come off without warning.

2.

I was only a little older when both her legs came off at a summer garden party where she had been drinking wine for some hours. “Your mother has had a bit too much sun,” my father explained to us, as he carried her inside like a rag doll, with shiny buttons for eyes.

3,

The next thing to go was her heart. She lost it to Mike, the husband of her colleague at the school where she taught. There was a lot of shouting in our house that week and, soon after, she left for Canada with Mike.

4.

Over the years, postcards would arrive with pictures of grizzly bears and Mounties, telling us things we didn’t want to know, like Mike found a job, and Mike built a treehouse for their new kids and Mike saw a grizzly bear in the garden.

5.

One day a postcard arrived telling us the doctors had found something and they were going to remove some more parts from her, and then the postcards stopped.

6.

A couple of months back I googled her number and called it. It was her voice that answered, but it wasn’t her and she didn’t know who I was. An older male voice came on.

‘You’ll have to leave it there, Sport,’ it said. ‘Too much gone.’

7.

The next postcard was in unfamiliar writing and said she had died. It gave the date of the funeral, which had already passed. On the front was a picture of a grizzly bear rearing up on two legs, and for a moment I wondered if it was the one Mike saw.

***

Tim Craig lives in London. His short-short stories have appeared in many fine litmags and also the annual Best Microfiction Anthology. He is a previous winner of the Bridport Prize for Flash Fiction and has been placed or commended four times in the Bath Flash Fiction Award. @timkcraig

The Grandmothers ~ by Lindy Biller

After “Other Babies” by Meredith Alling 

Some of the grandmothers swim laps in bathrobes and flower petal swim caps. Their lungs are full of fish. They point at each goldfish in its plastic bag pond and name it, Linda, Anoush, Isabel, one for each grandchild. Other grandmothers never learned how to swim. They lay on the bank like moss-covered stones until their legs fuse back into tails. Some grandmothers unfold their bodies like tents in the shade of an apricot tree. They have trained their whole lives for this. Other grandmothers are the tree, and mostly this feels good to them—the leaves always whispering, so that they’re never lonely, the smooth turquoise eggs tucked in carefully-arranged nests. Sometimes the nests fall and the eggs crack like crème brulee and then the grandmothers would rather not be trees, would rather have limbs that move, fingers, soft hands, like the other grandmothers, but it’s not up to them. Some grandmothers are full of magma. The magma boils and bubbles in the mantle of their stomachs until their insides are nothing, only fire. When these grandmothers erupt, entire villages die. Some grandmothers have never felt heat. They are always cold, cold, cold, fingers blue, joints scraping like crochet needles. Some grandmothers are in the kitchen, slicing the heads off figs, pinching dough lifeboats around orphaned lambs, praying that blood is thicker, after all. Other grandmothers are the kitchen and all their cupboard doors have been left open and fruit is rotting on the counters. Some of the grandmothers are too scared to move. Their ears twitch like rabbit ears. They know the shadow of the hawk when it moves over them. Other grandmothers are the hawk. They gulp down rabbits like butter mints. They have barcode veins, so they can be returned to the store if damaged or broken. They count babies like old pennies, tilting them out of a milk bottle and dropping them back in one at a time, each one a wish, knowing how easy it is to lose things. How hard it is to keep them. 

***

Lindy Biller is a writer based in the Midwest. Her fiction has recently appeared at Reservoir Road, Cheap Pop, Flyover Country, and Nurture Literary. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram @lindymbiller. 

This could be a story about people ~ by Maria A. Ioannou

But it’s a story about leaves. How they chase one another with noise, discreet noise, or no noise, a delirious crunchiness, twisty, hard, soft, wrinkled, leaves like dysmorphic kids in a minefield, with squashed greenish veins, how leaves fall, how leaves fall all the time, it’s ok to fall, leaves do that every day and nothing terrible happens, nothing monstrous. This is a story about leaves that are still leaves, no matter what, flying, shaking, lingering, whipping window glass, committing suicide while chasing rainbows, hurricanes, the burning sun, reaching out, touching other leaves, sliding on frowned, happy or in-between faces, escaping from roofs or mother trees, snatched on roofs or mother trees, benches, garbage bins, piling up on moth-covered graves, mourning like leaves mourn, by changing colour, by flapping on cold marble, leeched on broken flower pots, not letting go, squeezed in the corners of yards, transported in large groups, naked bodies in containers, mask-wearing sardines in the subway, pushed and pushed by rusty shovels and brooms, suffocating, screaming “Why are you doing this? I’m just a leaf, I’m supposed to fall, I’m supposed to stain your yard, this is what I do for a living.” This is a story about leaves aching, aching by the power of metal and sole and rain and wind and wheels and foot and boot and tank and rank, leaves, big, small, green, orange, yellow-white, broken, stepped on, migrating leaves, baby leaves, floating, falling like tired snowflakes, tangled in thin air, in thin dehydrated hair, sucked in high-tech vacuums and laughing mouths, leaves standing still for a moment, pulsating on the wet ground, dying, like leaves die, leaving tiny traces on a perfectly mowed grass, sinking in perfectly heated pools, leaves, leaves, slowly deteriorating, waiting for spring.

***

Maria A. Ioannou is a writer based in Cyprus. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing (University of Winchester, UK) and in 2019, she received the Vice-Chancellor’s Excellence in Research Award. She has published two short fiction collections and a fairytale in Greece (Emerging Writer State Award 2012 / shortlisted for the 2016 Young Writer Award by the Greek magazine Klepsydra. Her short fiction “Pillars” was nominated to be included in the anthology Best Small Fictions. Her work was longlisted in the Smokelong Quarterly Grand Micro Contest 2021 and the Bath Flash Fiction Award 2021 and has been published in SAND, The Hong Kong Review, Tiny Molecules, The Cabinet of Heed, Asymptote, Litro, The Daily Drunk, FlashFlood 2021, and elsewhere. More info: www.maria-alpha-ioannou.com.

Sleep Diet: A Fable ~ by Gary Fincke

“You used to be so thin,” he said. “Like a ballet dancer.”

“Or a girl who’s sick?” she answered.

“Not fat,” he said. “Not exactly, but definitely different than you were.”

Her next meal was salad and the memory of bread. She held her sugar-loving tongue. By the third day, when she finished her meals, she moved through the smorgasbord of her house, inhaled each candle-scented room, swallowing the idea of pies made from their apple, cherry, and peach.

He told her how eating late-afternoon dinner helps the body cool earlier in the evening, preparing for deep sleep sooner. How extending that kind of sleep lessens the opportunity for calories. How the absence of light is an asset. How a warm shower tricks the body’s thermometer.

Like Beauty, she pricked herself with darkness. She rose to the mirror to ask the questions about waist and thighs. When it answered, mouthing the drab adjectives for size, she understood the anger of queens.

Once, after midnight, she woke and saw him sitting up and gazing at her in the night light’s glow. His watching brought a rush of desire. The sheet he’d drawn up to her throat for warmth was bunched by her side. She lay in a negligee so sheer the near darkness felt like a tongue upon her skin. It tasted the spaces between her ribs and the stubborn mound of her stomach before settling on her rising and falling breasts. He said, “Go back to sleep.” 

He warned that she shouldn’t wake so easily. The sounder, the better, he said, and gave her pajamas to wear to keep her warmer. When, days later, she woke to him standing and staring, the sheet to the side again, she caught her breath and stiffened. “You scared me,” she said.

“Why?” he answered, smiling, she thought, in a way designed to make her doubt herself. He said he was in love with her sleep, the way it lessened her. Her closed eyes and steady breathing were time travel. When he watched, he imagined her retreating until she retrieved her childish shape, her princess body. “Give it time,” he said, and more weeks went by, so long that she believed he desired a stranger. So long that she imagined herself gone.

At last, when she opened her eyes, the sheet at her feet, he was standing on her side of the bed, his body so close that she couldn’t see his face until she rolled onto her back and looked straight up. “Oh yes,” he said. “Perfect.” But when he reached for her, she curled and faded like a long- forgotten photograph.

***

Gary Fincke’s flash stories have appeared recently in WigLeaf, Craft, Vestal Review, Atticus Review, Pithead Chapel, and Best Small Fictions 2020.

Gulls fly fastest when they’re diving ~ by Melissa Saggerer

Kira heard seagull eyes have an extra cone, they can see UV light, they see under the banana boat slather– see bruises, sun spots, your skin– peeling like a mask. She wanted to hug a seagull. She wanted the seagull to spread its wings wide, hug her back. She wanted to feel its grey-tipped feathers touch her scapulas. She wanted her own wings to sprout, growing quickly. She wanted to fly away with the seagull. She would name him Wallace. Wallace would give her a seagull name. She would learn seagull language. Kira heard the red spot on their beaks is a target; for their chicks to tap and make them spit up their food– remember to feed them. She wanted to eat dropped sandwiches, raw eggs, fish. The Kira-gull would dive through the sky, dropping towards the earth, plummeting till inches from a mass of water, knowing she could glide along at any moment, free. 

***

Melissa Saggerer puts strawberries on pizza. She has flash in Coffin Bell, Barren, Tiny Molecules, and elsewhere. Follow her on twitter @MelissaSaggerer.

Scheherazade Tells the Tale of the Northern Shrike ~ by Katie DePasquale

The Northern shrike population is in decline, she says, her voice a tongue on his ear. They are solitary and wary, maybe that’s why. They can’t even trust each other.

It’s the males who sing: as defense, to protect their nesting territory, sometimes to attract a mate. She eyes him out of the slashes she’s blackened on her lids. They pretend they are other birds until their imitation of reality becomes the new reality.

Their dead, all those amphibians and rodents, are placed on thorns, to be eaten later. She laughs, her mouth a wet red flame. It isn’t a beautiful bird because power is better than beauty. No, don’t try to tell me they’re the same.

Look, there it sits, alone in the open field, on a scrubby little tree. She points with the tip of her knife and says, watch it watching, perched as still as dirt, as the tree’s skin. You’ll see, it can wait for hours. It can wait for as long as it takes.

***

Katie DePasquale enjoys telling a good story and making sure it’s correctly punctuated. Her writing has appeared in The Worcester Review, Atticus Review, and Tin House online, among other publications, and is forthcoming in Grist Online. A Pushcart Prize nominee for fiction, she has an M.A. in writing and publishing from Emerson College and works as an editor at Berklee College of Music.

Blank Page ~ by Sarah R. Clayville

The girl’s mother named her Cousin, so people would love her from the start.

Her mother worried no one would take to the homely, wild girl otherwise. Babies were supposed to be pink and beautiful, not ruddy and coarse. Besides, her mother knew how painful love was to catch. Pins beneath nails. Gravel ground into knees. Smoke singed into palms.

The problem was, with a name like Cousin, everyone believed the little girl belonged to them. Her name simmered in people’s mouths the way apples turn soft under their skin in the heat of the skillet. And Cousin was trained to melt too quickly when people called for her. She learned to sit and wait. She believed she belonged to those people, too. The name was a curse.

The girl grew into a young woman the way she was supposed to. Her rough red braids smoothed out into soft curls. Freckles paled against bronze skin. She still waited for her name to be called, but now she passed the time with books. Fairy tales of frozen girls, trapped girls, patient girls who won their freedom through submission. Cousin secretly hoped better stories existed beyond the shelves her mother carefully curated in the study.

In the summer Cousin met a man immune to her mother’s spell. He refused to say her name right. His voice rested on the sin. His hands rested on her thighs.She gently corrected him, moving his hands, moving his tongue. She supposed all this time she’d been saying her own name wrong, leaning into his pronunciation. Curses can never be broken. But they can be sold. Her mother liked the man. That was all that mattered.

Cousin, now rebranded, felt herself change bone by bone. At first, she reveled in a world her mother didn’t create. She adopted the man’s long strides, his taste for foreign spices. Cousin read the man her fairy tales at night. Once he fell asleep, she deftly searched his apartment for new books, disappointed that beneath their exteriors he and her mother were identical.   

The man broke her heart on a starless Thursday night, with a letter written on crumpled paper. Scraps of other words were erased. At first, she thought maybe he’d had second thoughts. Tried to convince himself to stay. Instead, she made out the names of other lost girls he’d collected then disposed of like the decaying autumn leaves. She felt herself disintegrating as she read his words.

Her eyes drifted to the margins. The places where he’d never written, untouched, unworried. She pressed the paper to her mouth, then wrote Cousin in blood from her bitten lip. It was the first time she’d ever written her own name in a space that neither her mother or the man owned. It was the kiss that woke her. Curses can’t be broken, but they can be owned. She felt her heart stitching itself back together, and she realized it was time for a new name.

***

Sarah Clayville is a high school teacher and author who works from a small town in central Pennsylvania where she has lived forever. She holds a special place in heart for short fiction that stops people in their tracks. Find more of her work at SarahSaysWrite.com.

Swamp Thing Watches a Whale Make a Life Decision ~ by Jack B. Bedell

I know I need to move along. Shouldn’t be out in the open on the coast like this, but it’s not every day I get to see a sperm whale in Sister Lake. Not any day, actually. You have to wonder what would draw an animal like this into these shallows so close to marshland, its dorsal fin loafing back and forth along the mudflats like it’s trying to decide whether the water’s gotten too hot or too full of plastic to make all the swimming worth it. Maybe it just wants to belly up on the shore and watch the tops of those trees sway in the distance along the horizon until its own weight squeezes all the air out of its lungs. Maybe a day always comes when moving along isn’t the prettiest choice.

***

Jack B. Bedell is Professor of English and Coordinator of Creative Writing at Southeastern Louisiana University where he also edits Louisiana Literature and directs the Louisiana Literature Press. Jack’s work has appeared in HADPidgeonholes, Heavy FeatherOkay DonkeyEcoTheoMoonParkTerrain, and other journals. His latest collection is Color All Maps New (Mercer University Press, spring 2021). He served as Louisiana Poet Laureate 2017-2019. 

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

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.