Conjuring Distant Planets ~ by Tommy Dean

Faith stands in the back yard, listening to the tree limbs creak, wondering what it would feel like to have one drop on her neck. She thinks she’d like to feel all the pain this world has to offer her at once. The unknown is startling, a shadow that creeps around her house, like the whispered names of the unborn brothers she’s never met. No documents. No pictures, but she can feel their presence. She finds them in the bent tip of the bladed grass, on the spectral shimmer of lighted chrome bumpers. Hot to the touch.

Since they hide and flitter, she tries conjuring up a pony, hands waving magically, lips mumbling phrases starting with Hocus Pocus and ending with divorce. The last one made her dad disappear except for every other weekend. The pony she wants more than her dad, and though this makes her feel guilty, she doesn’t give up until a pair of squirrels chase each other around the base of the tree and into the skinny arms that continue to hold up the sky.

She’s very interested in finding the seams of nature, to report the unraveling of the universe.

She waits for it to fall, for a star to settle next to their patio furniture, for one of her wishes to come true. Nature won’t bend to her will no matter how long she stares, eyes dry, until she cries, her mother’s voice a one-sided conversation with her best friend, Becky, who her father calls a drunk. But only on the weekend, only while sipping from an amber glass bottle that spins the light across the ceiling, a smoky planet she can’t reach but would love to visit.

When she tells this to her father, he talks about astronauts, the way their space ships blow up like firecrackers, how space is an idea, a way for scientists to gossip and spend his money.

Faith says she’d like to spend his money. Puts her hand out and taps her foot. Horses don’t just show up in the back yard, you know?

He holds his hand above hers, and she tries to ignore the way it shakes.

Can you feel that? he asks.

Yes and no, she wants to say, not sure which one is the key.

Some day I’ll teach you about electricity. I’ll tell you about life and disease, and the rot caused by oxygen.

Does it hurt? she says.

Only as much as you want it to, he says.

She waits, hand poised, wanting something to appear, something flashy and bright, anything but these lies aimed like streaking meteors meant to make her feel better.

***

Tommy Dean is the author of Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. His work has appeared in The Bull Magazine, The MacGuffin, New World Writing, Pithead Chapel, New Flash Fiction Review, and elsewhere. His story “You’ve Stopped” was chosen by Dan Chaon to be included in Best Microfiction 2019. It was also included in Best Small Fictions 2019. Find him @TommyDeanWriter.

Two Questions for Sudha Balagopal

We recently published Sudha Balagopal’s stunning “Peacock Feathers.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) I love that opening line, “I date a man who has wings; a man who can fly.” Do you think this trait is what drew the narrator to him, or was there something else?

Oh yes, it’s the wings!

It’s his ability to fly, it’s the places he’s been, it’s the aura of strength and beauty, it’s the breadth of his knowledge from traveling ― all of this makes for a heady combination.

It’s his very “difference” that makes him attractive.

 

2) At the end, the narrator is waiting to tell the winged lover a certain truth, “if he ever returns.” Do you think he will return, or will she have to forever keep this knowledge to herself?

He won’t come back.

It’s clear from the way he didn’t turn around, the way he didn’t pause to wonder why she isn’t with him.

Unfortunately, she may never be able to tell him what she now knows.

However, the narrator has understood from his actions that he didn’t really get her or he wouldn’t have brought her inappropriate wings. And that comprehension has immense value.

Peacock Feathers ~ by Sudha Balagopal

I date a man who has wings; a man who can fly.

“I’ll set you up with a pair and we’ll travel together,” he says. “I want to show you the world.”

Faint remnants of exotic places he’s visited cling to him. He smells of green grass and treetops, of apples and walnuts, of pinecones and snow, of ocean and sand.

When he wraps his arms around me, I hear the rattle of wings as I nestle in the cloak of feather- warmth. I listen to his heart under my ears, more rapid than mine, reassuring in its strength and pace.

He gazes into my eyes, and I’m swept into their sharp, intense brilliance.

Sometimes unwelcome thoughts arise―a yearning for arms with warm skin, a wish for a sharp knock on the door instead of a swooping entry through the window. I run my fingers through the rich plumage and remind myself of what attracted me in the first place.

As promised, he brings me wings. They’re in the colors of a peacock’s feathers, iridescent turquoise, blue, and navy.

“You’ll be gorgeous in the sky,” he says and takes me out to the mountaintop on a sunny day. “Come,” he says. “Fly with me.”

“How?”

He lifts and flaps the broad span of his wings. “Like this,” he says, and his feet float off the ground. “Follow me!” The words drift in the wind.

I flap and jump, flap and jump; I cannot defy gravity.

When I look up, he’s soaring in the distance, his shadow an oblong patch on the side of the mountain.

I dance, wings shimmering on my back. He won’t turn around.

If he ever returns, I can tell him what I now know—peacocks are the male of the species; they cannot fly distances.

***

Sudha Balagopal’s short fiction appears in, or is scheduled to appear in, Split Lip Magazine, Lunate Fiction, Bangor Literary Magazine, Pidgeonholes and Vestal Review among other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fiction and appears in the Wigleaf Top 50, 2019.

Two Questions for Alex Evans

We recently published Alex Evans’ delightful “Saint Egg.”

Here, we ask him two questions about his story:

 

1) I love how this story is about growing up, about having to grow up, and the way children sometimes think it should happen. The lines “We’d decided teenagers don’t like glow in the dark stars. We’d decided teenagers don’t like a lot of things.” are so true to the growing-up experience — what else do you think these kids have given up that they maybe shouldn’t have?
Being a teenager is a rough time, point black. So often, young adults are just starting to figure out what excites them, and they hit high school only to feel as though liking anything at all is not cool. I can only speak to my own experience at an all boys’ high school, but I often like having emotions at all was a liability. I think teenagers often are craving some higher level of autonomy; they want to go where they want and do what they want when they want. This urge is often completely at odds with the hyper-regimented schedule of school, extracurriculars, jobs, and familial responsibilities. As a reaction to this, teens often seem to veer towards extremes in the few areas where they do have control, which is what I was hoping to capture in this story.
2) The ending is almost a refutation of the growing-up process when the kids decide to be “irresponsible” and kill the suffering eggs. I like that this moment is almost like the fulfillment of a pact between the children and the eggs. Did you ever consider not giving the eggs a voice in this story?
The honest answer is that before writing it, I never thought about the eggs speaking, and after writing the first of their repeated lines, I could not imagine the story without their dialogue. In writing this story, I was thinking a great deal about power and desire. So often, I’m drawn to writing characters who lack any form of agency, and this story was something of an attempt to address that directly and reframe the idea of agency.
In one sense, the eggs give voice to teenagers’ urge to destroy what small things they have power over, but by locating that voice of agency in the eggs rather than the students, my hope was to focus the narrative more on the relationship all of us have with the things we have power over. If Chekhov’s rifle is an invitation for a gun shot, then an egg is an invitation for a crack. So often, teenager rebellion is framed as an unstable teen pushing back against stable people, objects, or institutions. By having the eggs invite their own destruction, my hope was to try on a reframing of this narrative. Eggs are chosen for activities like this specifically because they are breakable—there is no possible end for these eggs that isn’t breakage, either at the hands of the students or in a trashcan when the exercise is over. If the school’s actual intent was to avoid breakage, they would give students bricks or something else less breakable.

Saint Egg ~ by Alex Evans

They told us that we needed to learn responsibility. They told us this in a room where the ceiling tiles had blooming brown stains. We felt like saying, you need to learn responsibility, but we said nothing, because what is there left to say, anyway? Instead, we kicked our feet against the undersides of our desks and ran the worn-out soles of our tennis shoes against the cracked linoleum. The rumbling and swishing sounded like distant traffic.

The eggs were in enormous shrink-wrapped cartons. These were not organic, free-range, feel-good-about-yourself brown eggs from happy chickens. These were industrial, 120-per- carton eggs with paper thin white shells. We knew that they had been taken from the cafeteria, probably left over from last Thursday’s “breakfast for lunch” menu. These eggs had already lived unhappy lives, and we knew we could only disappoint them further.

It is your responsibility to take these eggs with you everywhere you go for the next week.

The covers of the fluorescent lights were filled with dead insects, and their bodies cast speckled shadows on our desks. If your egg cracks, you will fail the assignment. We nodded. After you crack the egg, there is no going back.

We went up one by one and collected our identical eggs. They felt fragile in our hands, but we could not stop running our fingers across their smooth surface, pressing in slightly, searching for weaknesses. We left the room, left the building, went home, and set our collective eggs down on our collective desks. We had normal evenings. Spaghetti or chicken or tacos or toast for dinner. Not eggs. Homework. Chores. Television. We lay in our beds, and the eggs sat nearby. We tried to sleep. Maybe we succeeded. The eggs said, kill me.

We couldn’t be sure. It could have been anything. The rustling of the sheets, a garbled voice from the street, noise from the TV still playing downstairs. It could be a dream. We listened harder. Kill me , the eggs said. Kill me. We stayed still, staring at the ceiling. There was still tape residue up there from the glow in the dark stars we’d taken down last summer. We’d decided teenagers don’t like glow in the dark stars. We’d decided teenagers don’t like a lot of things.

The next day, none of us said anything. We do that a lot. None of us said anything, and therefore all of us were quiet. We had our eggs in our pockets. Some of us had wrapped them up in bubble wrap, blankets, tissues, mittens. There was a rumor of a boy with a miniature cooler filled with packing peanuts, his egg buried in the middle. We understood: his egg would be safe, but that was no way to live.

It finally happened after fifth period, right before lunch. We were all in the hallway, and we all heard it. A snapping, but wetter. A squelching, but crisper. The sound of an egg breaking. We all froze, unwilling to look, to see if it was our own egg that had broken, and in the silence, it sounded as though all of our eggs let out a sigh. When the egg was found, the buzzing lights reflected in the whites, casting a halo around the unbroken yolk. We bowed our heads.

That night, in the darkness of our bedrooms, we held our eggs in our hands, turning them over and over again, waiting to hear them speak. We thought about the first fallen egg. Its fluorescent halo. Saint Egg. Canonized. Sunnyside up. That night, our eggs were silent. We fell asleep and dreamed they were in bed with us. We rolled over them, smothered them, pressed fractured shell and sticky yolk into our bedsheets. In the morning, the eggs were whole, untouched, sitting on our nightstands.

By the week’s end, only seven eggs had broken. They told us that this was a record. “You should be proud,” they said. “You are very responsible,” they said. We nodded. They were right. We are all responsible.

We held out our eggs. The eggs said, kill me. And together, we squeezed. The shells gave way, and the shards pierced the palms of our hands. We did not speak. The yolk ran down our bare wrists and dripped onto the desks. It ran onto the floor and stuck to our shoes. The room was silent. They did not say a word.

***

Alex Evans is an English teacher and writer living in the American Midwest. His small fictions have appeared in X-R-A-Y, Soft Cartel, and Ellipsis Zine.

Two Questions for Melissa Llanes Brownlee

We recently published Melissa Llanes Brownlee’s powerful “To Ever Love One Girl.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) I love that this story feels so natural — dialect can be such a tricky thing to capture on the page, but the voice here is so real. Did you ever consider writing this piece in a more formal style?
That’s a tricky question. The format is embedded dialogue without the traditional quotation marks or even italics to separate it from the narrative. I chose this to lend a sense of urgency and immediacy to the story. I feel putting it into quotes or italics would have added additional distance to what is happening to the girls, women, daughters, nieces, and cousins. As for whether I would have written that dialogue in Standard American English, I never really considered it. Most of my work uses Hawaiian Pidgin Creole because I think it offers authenticity to the stories I set in that place and time. Also, it is basically the language I grew up with. I don’t think this story would be what it is without it.
2) The ending is so strong and so haunting. It breaks my heart! Do you think there is a chance that the narrator and her cousin and any of the girls have a chance to break out of this cycle, to cease submitting to these “little deaths”?
It breaks my heart too! It was difficult to write. I want to believe that they will break free. I want to believe that the cycle of abuse will end with them. If I were to continue this story, I would be afraid that I wouldn’t do them justice. That I wouldn’t be able to create a world where this wouldn’t continue to happen. And that really saddens me. I guess I could have lied and said sure they will but that’s not the world these women come from.

To Ever Love One Girl ~ by Melissa Llanes Brownlee

Cousin got whipped with the watering hose in the backyard so the neighbors couldn’t see. Uncle when catch her kissing one girl in town. He looped the hose and beat her over and over, slower than the sun beating her ehu hair into a matted mess on her scalp. I no get one lesbian for one daughter. You neva goin see that girl again. You goin to church. You goin for pray. Each sentence a looped mark on her naked skin as he pulled her pants down and she tried to cover herself, crying and pleading. No please. I not one lesbian. I neva like kiss her. The heavy smack of that green snake shimmering in the sun, empty of water and engorged with hate, filled the yard as we cousins and sisters watched Uncle, his red browned skin and salty peppery hair, his fisherman’s arms, teach us that it’s better to lie and to not be beaten and to suffer the drowning beneath the waves of beer and cigarette breathed fathers and uncles and cousins and brothers, our flesh torn by coral lined rocks as we tumble and toss, submitting to their little deaths, than to ever love one girl.

***

Melissa Llanes Brownlee is a Native Hawaiian writer. She received her MFA in Fiction from UNLV. Her work has appeared in Booth: A Journal, The Notre Dame Review, Pleiades, The Citron Review and elsewhere. She was a finalist for the 2018 New American Fiction Prize and the 2019 Brighthorse Prize.

Two Questions for Madeline Hanley

We recently published Madeline Hanley’s unique “Sometime in the Middle of a Long Summer.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) What really drew me to this story was that it is both strange and mundane at the same time — it is strange to have swimming practice in a wading pool, but it is so mundane for someone to become isolated like that. How do you balance these two, almost, extremes so well?

I try to write things I would want to read and read things I find relatable. I don’t always need to see myself in a piece of writing, but I want to know what it is like to feel what a character feels. There is something very relatable and human about experiences that are both strange and mundane at the same time.  The two blend together to create a world that is somehow familiar – a backyard on a long summer’s day – even if the details are from an experience outside of your own. The youngest boy’s feeling of isolation is universal despite the strangeness of his circumstances. I found myself asking: why write about an ordinary swim team when I can just as easily write about one that has disbanded under unusual circumstances? I want my realism tempered with the unexpected. This often comes in the form of precise details, or mundane moments made infinitely more interesting by the manner in which they are presented. I think if that is done well, it can be hard to separate what is strange and what is mundane in a single story.

 

2) The youngest boy is such a great character; he feels like a real child. Was this character inspired by any children you know, or did he spring fully formed from your own imagination?

I don’t find that writing child characters comes naturally to me. I am inclined to characterize them as precocious, with interiority that suggests maturity and experience beyond their years. I often struggle to determine what actions are appropriate to attribute to a child of a certain age.  But in my real life experience with children, I know they can be a roller-coaster grab-bag of hilarity and strange behavior. The youngest boy in this story is an amalgamation of many different children I’ve known. It was my intent to capture, above all, the weirdness of a child. They don’t always understand nuance. They may divide the world between goodies and baddies. They may try to emulate the family cat. They may be silly and stubborn and flat out refuse to act in a way that adults would deem reasonable. Adults, like the woman in this story, don’t always know why kids act the way they do, and they are so often too tired and worn down by adulthood to begin to find out. There is so much to explore in the gap between a children’s action and an adult’s reaction and I tried to write this story with that in mind.

Sometime in the Middle of a Long Summer ~ by Madeline Hanley

It is the kind of morning where I pour the day’s coffee into the remainder of yesterday’s coffee and then hold the cup for a long time before I begin to drink.

 

The youngest boy asks, “When’s swim team practice?” Nobody told him the group disbanded because only one kid at a time could fit in the pool. “Don’t worry,” I say, “It’s more of a solo sport anyway.”

 

The cat has been sunbathing in the flowerbed, getting yellow pollen stuck on the end of his whiskers. He’s got yellow around his mouth, as if he were a cartoon cat that just ate a yellow bird. The youngest boy has been eating flowers too. He says it’s not because he wants to be like the cat, but because he likes the taste.

 

The cat smells like litter and sweaty paws and dirt from the tomato garden that didn’t produce any tomatoes this year. The youngest boy still has that sweet little kid smell. I sometimes wonder if the flowers make him smell sweeter.

 

Last night, the youngest boy grabbed a slingshot and told me he was heading to the park to take down some baddies. I suspected there were no baddies, only a field of dandelions with heads to pop off with rocks. When he got back he was covered in pollen so we threw him in the kiddie pool. We threw the cat in too. We scrubbed both their pollen mouths until all our limbs were covered in criss-crossed red lines.

 

My coffee is cold. The youngest boy must be cold too. He’s been sitting in the pool all night, picking at the scratches that have not yet formed into scabs, the lower lip of his clean mouth sticking out. He tells me he doesn’t care what I say. He’s going to wait for the rest of the team to show up.

***

Madeline Hanley lives and writes in Raleigh North Carolina. She received her MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pithead Chapel and Cease, Cows.

Two Questions for Rick White

We recently published Rick White’s elegant “Eric the Astronomer.”

Here, we ask him two questions about his story:

 

1) This piece was inspired by a photo, and the thing I especially love about that is … there doesn’t seem to be a tower in the photo. What made you create a tower from this inspiration?

The inspiration for “Eric the Astronomer”

Recently I’ve been going through my photos a lot, just remembering all of the good times back when we could go out and be with other people. I’ve got a bit of an obsession with time and the idea of ageing, not in terms of vanity but rather, it just freaks me out how quickly time goes by. I often think of myself, maybe thirty years from now looking back on my photos and wonder where I’ll be and if I’ll even recognise myself. That particular photo really struck me for that reason. It’s got a certain ‘old-timey’ feel to it anyway with the jetty and the wooden boats but what I really like about it is that although the weather is miserable, my wife Sarah and I are clearly very happy and enjoying ourselves. So I wanted to write about it in the context of a character looking back at one very specific, very happy memory (I’m getting to the tower…). We decided to decorate our bedroom, so we moved everything out of it and put it all in to the spare bedroom. It’s amazing how much you accumulate without even realising it and so while we were painting our bedroom, the spare room was absolutely full of stuff. Loads of books all piled up on the floor, a couple of guitars and amps, lots of picture frames, ornaments, candles, even an old typewriter. And I loved the room like that! That’s how the idea of the Tower came to mind. Just an old guy, sitting amongst a pile of things that other people might call ‘crap’ that makes him really happy. That became Eric and his tower of memories.

 

2) This story is so heavy with loss, but also with love and hope. Do you think Eric will ever reach the heaven he is nearing, or is it enough that he sees it from where he is?

This is such a great question, and so difficult to answer! Even though the story has to do with loss and isolation, I didn’t want it to be sad. I don’t think Eric is sad and I don’t think he would want us to feel sorry for him. I think that Eric is happy and proud of the life that he has lived. He’s spent his life accumulating all these wonderful memories which he rightly cherishes and enjoys. I think in this story ‘Heaven’ is simply the end of Eric’s journey, I don’t think he’s expecting anything else. But before the curtain comes down he’s just having a little fun taking inventory of the life that he has lived. All of us will experience loss in our lives and if you live long enough then you will reach a point where you’ve got more good days behind you than in front, which is quite a heavy thing to think about. I’m not religious at all but I do believe that the people we love are never really gone because they leave a mark on us and on our lives. We are more than just a physical presence, we’re something more ethereal and so in that sense, Eric is not alone.