Six Fingers ~ by Charles Rafferty

He had six fingers on each hand and played improvisational piano. The audience leaned in to hear his tinkling brook as it splashed around the fat stones of the double bass. The air at the club was dark and his hands were quick. Nobody noticed the extra digits. Later, at the after-party, a woman lingered beside his wine. She wouldn’t have put it this way, but she was weary of the five-fingered world. She wanted to hear herself say the chords that only his hands could form.

***

Charles Rafferty’s most recent collections of poems are The Smoke of Horses (BOA Editions, 2017) and Something an Atheist Might Bring Up at a Cocktail Party (Mayapple Press, 2018). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, O, Oprah Magazine, Prairie Schooner, and Ploughshares. His stories have appeared in The Southern Review and New World Writing, and his story collection is Saturday Night at Magellan’s (Fomite Press, 2013). He has won grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, as well as the 2016 NANO Fiction Prize. Currently, he directs the MFA program at Albertus Magnus College and teaches at the Westport Writers’ Workshop.

Two Questions for Kayleigh Shoen

We recently published Kayleigh Shoen’s stunning “Things I’m Holding (for you).”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) One of the things I love about this piece is the specificity of it. Was it hard to choose the items the narrator has held onto, or did they come easily for you?

The nature of the things has changed a lot over time. I wrote the first version of this story in Pam Painter’s flash class at Emerson College, where we were writing a full story or often multiple stories every week. So, the first draft was very rushed, really just a list of objects I was tired of carrying in my purse for my husband.

A lot of the feedback I got on that version — both in the class and in my writing groups — reflected that readers were looking for a more dramatic relationship between the people in the story. People were saying “oh she hates him,” “they’re going to get divorced,” “she’s going to kill him” which was funny because the objects were taken from real life and I’m very happily married, really!

It’s taken me many drafts — more than you might expect for such a short story — to arrive at this mix of “things.” As I’ve changed the scope of “things,” the story has moved away from a gripe to a fictional story with specific characters.

One of the important objects to me is the chapstick, which my husband doesn’t use. To me, the chapstick is like a permission slip to write whatever I want without it being about me.

2) Those last two words, “my breath,” oh, they say so much! I love how this story ends. Did you ever have a different ending in mind?

I think that ending appeared about midway through the rewrite process when I changed the action from “carrying” to “holding.” They seem like synonyms, but to me “holding” has more of a sense of burden, and it opened up more possibilities for this character – holding back, holding her tongue, holding on… Actually, I’m still not sure I picked the best option. Except I think “holding my breath” implies that she can’t wait forever, and I like that quiet, impending doom. Every story should have a hint of doom to it.

Things I’m Holding (for You) ~ by Kayleigh Shoen

Your chapstick, cash for tolls, the parking lot slip, a pack of Trident, car keys, a bouquet of daisies, a card, your best friend’s birthday, reservations, the restaurant he likes, his wife’s name, the conversation, a light tone, a glass of water when you order another cocktail, half my fries, the cup of coffee you refuse, a pleasant tone, the waiter’s eye, a smile that says “don’t worry, everything’s fine here,” another water, napkins to wipe the drink you spilled, your arm just above your fist, conciliatory words, petals from the flowers you smashed, an apologetic tone with the manager, our jackets, the passenger side door, your accusations, your tears, a pack of Kleenex, a pack of gum, your chapstick, my breath.

***

Kayleigh Shoen’s stories have appeared in [100-Word Story], Crack the Spine, Green Briar Review and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Emerson College and teaches writing in the Boston area. You can find her tweets about dogs, writing and TV at @whowantssoup or sign up for her newsletter at kayleighshoen.substack.com.

A Writer’s Guide to Fairy Tales ~ by Ellen Rhudy


Your story has a dead woman at its center. This is the first rule of storytelling. A woman in a tower, who doesn’t yet realize she’s already died. Maybe she will never realize, and maybe her years after the escape will be just as happy as if she had been alive. Maybe she will never catch the dank sweet smell of her own decaying flesh, or find in the mirror the empty space where her face belongs. You think she will be happy.

Your story has a man – that is the second rule of storytelling. A man who wants good things for himself and better things for the woman who is calling him. Nothing is more appealing or appalling to him than a woman who cannot decide whether she would like to climb down to his unknown arms, a woman who doesn’t have likes or dislikes, loves or non-loves. Every day after he visits the woman who doesn’t know she’s dead, the man will wonder if there are other routes, ones to women who live and breathe. Or maybe he doesn’t, because this is a story and one of the best rules of storytelling is that the man doesn’t feel doubt, because he is there to act.

Here is the fourth rule of storytelling: the man and the woman fall in love immediately, before they speak, the moment they set eyes on one another. Love is a thing that can be created as quick as you can scratch its four letters on the page, and so when the woman climbs hand over hand down the fraying segments of her own braid, she is already in love with the man who waits for her with a broken comb and a hand swollen around a wretched brown thorn. I love you, she says, because this is what the man hopes for her to say, and because she knows it is what she must say. In some versions of the story he kisses her awake but in this version she is awake already, she kisses him first as though it is her choice, she waits for a spark, a glint, a sign of life to alight on her lips.

Over the nights to come the woman will lay beside him in bed, watching the close ceiling as he sleeps and trying to recall if sleep is a thing she knows. She will see her body crumpled at the base of her father’s tower, again and again and again. She will hear the damp breath of her children in the next room, the snores of her husband at her side, and know that that was not the place she lost herself, if indeed she has lost herself, if she was ever even a thing to lose. And because this is a story, this is where you can leave her – not out of spite or authorial negligence, but because it is the only place a woman could find herself, in this world you’ve made her. It is a place where she might be happy.
***
Ellen Rhudy lives in Philadelphia, where she works as an instructional designer. Her fiction has recently appeared in The Adroit Journal, cream city review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Necessary Fiction, and Monkeybicycle. You can find her at ellenrhudy.com, or on twitter @EllenRhudy. 

The Boys of Summer: A Playlist ~ by Barb Ristine

Patrick (Columbus, Ohio, June 1977)

Touching Once (is so hard to keep).  You were always the Boy Scout. We fumbled and made out in basements, cars, any dark corner, but we never saw each other naked. My Catholic upbringing wrapped around me more tightly that any chastity belt. Then I went away and tasted deeper desires, danced on the edge. When you came to visit, you saw how I took off my watch and laid it on the nightstand, and you knew there was someone else. When we met in the park that summer, I held out a shopping bag of all the albums I’d borrowed, even the ones you said I could keep.

 

Brian (Avalon, New Jersey, July 1981)

Don’t You Want Me? I took a job to be near you and all that summer we screwed and fought. I saved every slight, turning them in my mind, polishing them with my insecurity. I knew you were sleeping with a married woman, but I pretended I didn’t care. Late nights I called to see if you were home. That July night at the shore, we went to a bar where we danced and I had enough beer to make me free and fearless. I whispered in your ear and you led me to your car where I tried to change your mind.

 

Miguel (Brooklyn, New York, June 1983)

Making Love Out of Nothing at All. I allowed myself to forget that it was only an affair, that you weren’t supposed to matter. When you took me home to meet your family, your abuela asked if I spoke Spanish, said she’d teach me. I wished she’d taught me the word for betrayal.

 

Daniel (Chesapeake Bay, August 1989)

Nick of Time.  You said we were complete, that children would ruin us, and I believed you. But the summer after my parents died, I realized it wasn’t enough. I wanted to sing lullabies, and I had hoped you’d change your mind. That last weekend on your boat, you revealed your secret, the decision you made long ago in a cold operating room. I whispered enough before I dove into the cool murky water and swam for shore, leaving your lies behind.

***

Barbara Buckley Ristine escaped from the law years ago, but she has no regrets. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in the Mojave River Review, Flash Flood, and Bards & Scholars Quarterly, among others. She lives with her family in northern Nevada, where she is (slowly) working on a novel.

In the Dream Version, There are Baby Goats ~ by C.B. Auder

The bottle-green car rumbles through sleepy streets, chugs along the squeaky cobbles, shrieks every time my mother tries to shift it along.

“I need a cigarette,” she says. “I can’t function without a smoke.”

We reach the outskirts, the meadows, and goats come running, stumbling, to watch us cough and sputter past. “I’ll be back to pet you soon!” I promise them in my mind, and they flop their ears, For real? and show me their crooked baby teeth.

Then Mom’s going faster and faster and we’re beyond all the pastures, zooming around Stop-sign curves. We grunt up every-last furzy hill and grind and brake back down.

If I were a goat, my eyes panoramic, I would look at everything, stare down everything, until it roared with flame–until the choices were forced to claim me, make me soft and warm.

The beach is cold, a bandage-strip of seagulls wheeling around tangled clots of debris. Sanderlings hustle like doctors and nurses: scurry and poke, scurry and poke.

Mom spreads a picnic blanket and pops champagne. She fishes her old wedding flutes from a basket and pours for two. She sticks the second glass in the sand and clinks. I am dry-mouthed, thinking about what it means to feel constantly stabbed.

The bottle spent, waves arrive–liquid ice–and Mom strips to her bra and panties. She wades in, and farther in. Her aim is clear and strong and stern as a vintage stem of glass.

When she is no longer bobbing and gasping, I rise and return to the bottle-green car. I will lock her wet-wool shawl into its old-tired trunk. I will start the motor and go.

Oh, how things never work as planned. Nothing but fun, that’s how driving always seemed. Now, the wheel is larger than a liar’s moon. The gear shift is a stubborn stork.

Mom shimmers into the back seat. I gnaw my cheeks, try to breathe. My lungs fill with knives that want to leap out and slice curses into the nearest brain. But you can’t just go full craniotomy on some person’s freshly-drowned ghost. Not after they’ve just stooped to bequeath you their shit-box bottle-green car.

Mom lights a Tareyton, rolls her window down.

She’s ignoring my presence. I’m ignoring her smog.

I think: I should heave a boulder onto the Gas. Send this crap-heap off a cliff and just hitchhike up the coast.

“Don’t be an ass,” says Mom’s ghost–but she’s not even looking at me. She’s studying an anemic fringe of mountain pine. Nestled within: a scrawny osprey on a spindly heart of sticks.

Mom stubs out her spent butt. And, miraculously, doesn’t light another. She mutters, “Let’s go pet your fucking goats.”

In the dream version, I am floored: my mother finally gets love right.

The starving osprey beats its wings. It rises, then plunges towards liquid glass.

***

C.B. Auder’s writing and art have appeared in Bending Genres, Atlas + Alice, Pidgeonholes, OCCULUM, Longleaf Review, and elsewhere. Find Aud on Twitter at @ClawAndBlossom.

Some Through The Waters ~ by Marvin Shackelford

1.

My mother flashes the headlights on and off when we see the truck headed up the drive. We bounce in our seats and wave through the windshield, though in the slow rain and the overcast gray, a little fogging on the glass, I don’t know if he could see all that anyway. But he pulls to the house instead of turning toward the barn. Mother stands in the wet, tucks her hair behind her ear and explains to him that she locked the keys in the house. His red eyes turn us over a moment. He draws on a cigarette and then hands it to my mother’s grasping fingers. She takes a single drag and relinquishes it again. He runs the zipper of his coveralls to his throat and turns up the sidewalk. From an iron deckchair he boosts himself onto the lowest part of the roof. He disappears into the attic’s shaky old window, swift and smooth like he’s done this before, he knows our home that well. We wait.

 

2.

The water eats up the pavement. Mother slows us before a lost portion of highway, a dip between two pastures where the creek, or the trees of its normal banks, lies in sight across the flooded bottomland. Her old blue Crown Vic idles around us, smokes a little in the cold summer rain. The orange pump-shaped light warning of a low tank flashes on the dash.

I can still see the road, she promises. She eases us forward into the stretched, pried, flung-open jaws of Richland Creek.

Later I tell her to drive more slowly, save the fuel so we’re sure to make it to town, but she says we’ll burn it either way.

 

3.

In the sun we cast our lines out over the choppy lake and pull them back empty again and again. Once I snag a stick and loose it to the surface, panic and drop my pole thinking it’s a snake. I flee to the green, stilted house just back from the water. Everyone promises it’s nothing more than the lost limbs of a tree. They untangle the line and set me back to pulling the floater aimlessly along the bank. It happens again, another gnarled branch, and I’m just as scared. Someone shouts at me to cut it out. He leans over me, I can see his breath but not his face, and out beyond us somewhere geese and thunder call to each other across the breeze. There’s not a goddamn thing in this world to be scared of, he says, and with a jerk he rips my line free again.

 

4.

We drive down the Interstate and pull in at the rest area just across the state line. A tall rocket points skyward, and we haul a basket of food from the car to eat in its shadow. We’re not the only ones to have this idea—other families lie scattered around us. Most of them have sacks of fast-food hamburgers, buckets of fried chicken, plastic containers packed with salad or pasta. We have sandwiches wrapped in thin, slick paper and a glass dish filled with cookies. There’s almost nothing to clean up after.

We’re still between cities, but we’re closer now to Huntsville and the Arsenal and the secrets buried in their deep governmental halls. The archaic, decommissioned space missile arching overhead, painted the flat colors of an old cartoon, feels cosmopolitan. I imagine a world of them lined side-by-side, walking between them and passing in and out of them. Traveling. Nearby there’s the hulking frame of a World War II jet, but it doesn’t move me. Mother insists on a Polaroid snapshot of me in front of it after we’ve eaten.

Before we leave we walk through the Welcome Center, use the bathroom and poke at the screen of the boxy, blue-lighted computer map showing highways across the state of Alabama. While she stands comparing its digital readout against the paper map glass-mounted on the wall, I pull a thick stack of glossy brochures from their stands nearby: space and rockets, cotton, catfish, the river, civil rights, colleges, a battleship, the sea. There’s so much of the world so close it’s hard to believe. I carry it all to the door and watch out over the dimming light of the emptying lot. The wind picks up, and a few drops of water land on the windows. She checks her watch and says give it just a little longer.

***

Marvin Shackelford is author of a collection of poems, Endless Building, and a forthcoming story collection. His work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Wigleaf, Hobart and elsewhere. He resides in Southern Middle Tennessee and has no clue what he’s doing with his life, honestly.

Mirror, ca. 1550 – 1350 B.C. ~ by Jennifer Fliss

The item was cast in bronze in two pieces: the handle and the disk, the latter held the mirror. The item has been broken apart. (As if the subject of the reflection and the hand that held it are now separate.) Presumably there had been a rivet holding the two pieces, but it has eroded to a small nub. The disk is more oval than circular; there are imperfections in the shape which indicate the artifact was hand-formed. The mirror itself has been abraded to no longer reflect. It is simply something that is held up in front of one’s face. (As if to hide.) On the back of the disk, hieroglyphics are too worn down and is indecipherable. (Perhaps once a name.) The handle is in the form of a stylized papyrus plant. Research has found this represents creative female power in Egyptian mythology.

It was found in a small coffin, as if for a child.

 

She closes down the museum’s website, pushes her laptop away, stands. She wants to see it. But the catalog says it is not on view. She goes to the mirror in the hallway. Tucks an errant hair behind her ear, smiles the way she would to a child, to her child. She will be the only one to see this smile, the way she tilts her head and her eyes scrunch along the edges. Wonders if she can do it again, handle it again, wonders where and how she can pack away this mirror that has caught a mother in its reflection.

***

Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based writer whose writing has appeared in PANK, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. She is the 2018/2019 Pen Parentis Fellow and a 2019 recipient of a Grant for Artist Project award from Artist’s Trust. Recently, her story, Hineni, was selected for inclusion in the Best Small Fictions 2019 anthology. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com.

Sky and/or Body, Unzipped ~ by Anna Gates Ha

When the meteor falls, I am watching Oona breathe. Mama hasn’t said it, but I know it is my job. To watch for earthquakes inside my little sister. To catch them, to read the fault lines of her sleep twitches.

I have a washcloth, twisted and readied in my fist. I’ve seen Mama do it before, but I worry I won’t be quick enough, that something will get bitten off. That I’ll fall asleep and miss the whole thing: eyes gone in search of something behind themselves, tongue left bloody.

So when the sky cracks open, I think it is Oona, rattling the windows, shoving a boom through my insides. As if earthquakes could escape bodies, walk into other bodies.

 

Mama says they may never leave her. Mama puts little drops under Oona’s tongue, little pills down her throat, little wires in her veins.

Mama says they’re not catching, but I wish they were. The way a sneeze comes out of you like a thousand dandelion seeds, settling and sprouting and making snot-rivers in other noses, while you get better.

Mama says Oona’s earthquakes don’t work like that.

 

When the sky splits open, so do Oona’s eyes. I am ready with the washcloth, but she just sits there, looking down at her hands, her body, which are still.  Not me, she says, running her fingers over quiet limbs.

 

The field outside our window is on fire. Oona sees it first, places her palms on the pane. It is nothing big. Smaller than the campfire Mama built for us last summer. I remember the way she cradled a lichen nest, the way her breath gave life to orange light, the way she wouldn’t let us get too close.

 

We should wake up Mama, but we don’t.

We hold our breath, unlock the back door, slide it open. I follow Oona, all shadow, toward the small flames. The grass is tall enough to hide her feet, and for a moment, I am convinced that she is flying. That she is something else. That the earthquakes have left her and in their place is a wildness I do not recognize.

 

We stand above it like witches. The lit grasses burn in little curls at our toes, and the tail of the thing lingers in the sky. I throw water from a bowl, and the thing hisses. Steam licks the air.

I think about dinosaurs and craters and ash-covered skies. Choking to death. But the thing in the field is no bigger than my heart.

Oona crouches. Picks it up. It must be burning—all that friction, all that falling—but she brings it to her chest like she were its mama, like it were a part of her once, and even in the dark, I can see the pink growing on her chest, dotted and splotched, like a galaxy unzipped.

***

Anna Gates Ha earned her MFA in fiction at Saint Mary’s College of California. Her writing, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, has appeared in Harpur Palate, Watershed Review, and Literary Mama, among others.

Going, All Along ~ by Kate Finegan

Just the right one swelled and grew; the other turned inward and sank, deeper and deeper, a mole’s nose, pink point digging its way into her chest. Other girls stuffed their bras with socks; she wondered if what they meant was this. The process wasn’t painful, thumbs pressed into wet clay, but she worried for her heart. She awoke to wings against her sweaty sheet, bass thrumming, whole body a subwoofer, her heart a drum inside a singing bowl, ba-buh-ba-buh-ba-buh-ba-buh. She ran to the toilet, hung her pounding head but nothing came. Cold tile kissed her knees, night’s breeze against a humid morning. The house hummed around her; the lawnmower and the weedwhacker—her parents were outside so early. Ba-buh-ba-buh-ba-buh. A drumbeat into battle, an auditory talisman, I-am-I-am-I-am. Back in her room, she undressed completely, lay atop her sheets, and felt summer air swirl within her basin. No more socks, no more pretending. Her mother sent her to a doctor and sent her to a shrink, but the girl wouldn’t think of changing, and besides, there was no pill for this. The bowl became a burrow, bored straight through, front to back. So her mother shut the blinds, pulled curtains tight, begged her to stop, please these topless days in the backyard, running fast to feel the rush of wind, falling, exhausted, on the teeming grass; she slept outside that summer, would forget to find her bed. While her parents were at church on Sunday, she dozed in late-morning sunlight until a bird cheeped from her chest. With tucked chin, she saw its bubblegum-pink beak, looked into its dark, dark eyes and knew it wouldn’t scratch her. She pulled up handfuls of grass, scattered them across her stomach, ran her fingers through her hair and offered up shed strands. The bird built its nest, settled down on the solid ground beneath her body, cozied up against her heartbeat. When a male nearby called bob-o-link-bob-o-link, there was a stirring in her chest, a rustling of feathers. She breathed deep, willed her bobolink to stay—I, just wear my Wings—and gave thanks to feel it settle.

***

Kate Finegan lives in Toronto. Her fiction chapbook The Size of Texas is available from Penrose Press. She is assistant fiction editor of Longleaf Review. Find her at katefinegan.ink or on Twitter @kehfinegan.