Hush Hush, Little One

Flash
Merran Jones


Photo Credit: Daniel/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Those hands: the knuckle creases and droplet nails. Overnight, they’d changed from newborn-pink, fisted and desperate, to chubby, toddler-white. I’d observed her grow and yet hadn’t. It’s entirely possible to watch something unfold and not see it.

And our ‘Little Man,’ who hadn’t yet learned to hear or breathe… how unfair his heart should’ve beaten for only a fraction of mine.

I now have two shadows—one which stretches outward on long summer days, and one which casts inward, into the space where my children used to live.

*

“Your little girl didn’t make it, neither did the baby,” the doctors said like an afterthought as I lay in intensive care, as though my lacerations and internal bruising were the real trauma.

Nothing hurt like the pain of hearing I’d caused my children’s death.

“I can’t breathe,” I said.

“That’s the tube in your chest. You have a collapsed lung.”

“No, that’s not it.”

I’d hit a Stobie pole at full force, sustaining kidney damage; spleen and liver lacerations; pelvic, rib, and sternal fractures. I saw the car after I was extracted, crumpled into a grimace. The Stobie pole leant at an obscene angle.

Now I can drive again, I pass one after another. They all say, what if, what if, what if… The tic of guilt never leaves.

I’d felt strange the morning of the crash, as though I might have a seizure. The house kept telling me I wasn’t in it. Sounds were too big as they tried to collect in my ears.

My neurologist cautioned me: “Your epilepsy can worsen when pregnant. We may need to increase your medication.”

But I ignored the warning signs. Chloe needed nappies and I needed fresh air because she was driving me crazy.

When they pulled my belongings from the wreckage, they found the nappies in the boot, along with a packet of dummies for the baby, in anticipation of those long nights, imploring him to, “Hush hush, little one.”

He succumbed to the quiet for a different reason.

*

I beg my husband to move us away from South Australia. To a place where Stobie poles don’t dominate the landscape, a place where the cables are buried deep underground. But I can’t leave our children. Their two graves rest side by side, surrounded by other graves where the years can be counted on one hand.

“It’s alright, darling,” my husband says. “It won’t ever be the same, but it will get easier.”

I want to believe him. Maybe if I cede myself to time and age and, eventually, menopause, it won’t hurt so much when I inhale, maybe people will stop asking if we’ll try for another.

I drive to the cemetery, passing 56 Stobie poles. I place multicoloured poppies on my children’s graves. The flowers from two days prior are still fresh. I lean forward and whisper to the stones and the moss, the ashes and dust. Then I drive home again, the tic of guilt in time with my heart.

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Merran Jones’s fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Vestal Review, After the Pause, and Flash Fiction Magazine among dozens of others. She lives in Adelaide, Australia, and is a physiotherapist and mum in her spare time. See more of her work at merranjones.com. Email: merrankjones[at]gmail.com

New Chairs

Flash
Malka Herman


Photo Credit: Jin Choi/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Sometimes, she wished he would abuse her. Leora immediately felt guilty for the thought, but when she realized no one could hear her, she lovingly turned it over in her mind. She was 23; married for two years to a man she didn’t love but gave her no good reason to leave. Right now he was sitting in his favorite chair—tan corduroy with burgundy stains—reading this week’s Torah portion.

“How was your day?”

He looked up from his book in a foggy confusion, “Um… it was good. Thank God.”

“Mine was good too.” She tried to think of something that might keep his attention. “I bought a new set of chairs for our kitchen table.” She dragged one from the kitchen and made him look at it. “New furniture kind of feels like having a stranger over, doesn’t it? All out of place and wrong, and then one day, when it’s seen too much, it becomes part of the home.”

Her husband’s expression turned panicked. “Having guests over is a Mitzva, Leora.”

She felt a little bad, seeing him this uncomfortable. “Yes, you’re right.”

 

At eight o’clock they both undressed in the dark. He was an accidentally good kisser; something sensual about his lips.

“Am I hurting you?” He always asked this after he entered her. She shook her head no so he slid in and out of her briskly, reminding them both that this was an action meant to produce a baby and not physical pleasure.

Leora thought about her friends who described sex as something spiritual and satisfying; she pictured her husband’s lips all over her and fantasized about their two bodies in naked light, in the shower together, on the kitchen table. Without realizing what she was doing, Leora let out a small moan of pleasure. Her husband stopped his motions, embarrassed for her.

“Sorry.”

He pulled himself out of her and went to take a shower.

 

Leora had a nightmare that night. She sat in a field of corduroy grass while one dark, burgundy patch started at her feet, spreading outward until it covered the whole field. When she stood up she realized the burgundy patch was actually her own blood, draining flesh from the soles of her feet until all she had were stumps for legs.

“What am I supposed to do now?” She screamed into the empty field of blood.

“Sit.” Her own voice echoed back.

Leora woke up. Her husband slept in the bed next to hers and she had never been more grateful for his presence. That weird whistling noise his nose made at night grounded her in its disgusting normalcy.

Leora went downstairs, made a cup of tea, and sat on her brand new chairs.

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Malka Herman graduated from Johns Hopkins University in May 2015. Since then she has worked for Penguin Random House, lived on a ranch in Colorado, and taught a writing course at Duke for high school students. Who knows what’s next? Email: mherma16[at]jhu.edu

The Twelve Steps to a Better Friday Night

Flash
Izabella Grace


Photo Credit: Jessica Spengler/Flickr (CC-by)

1. Admit life has become unmanageable—that you no longer wish to pin time to a bar stool and seek answers in the depths of a cloudy pint glass.

2. Believe in your power to act. Stop stealing glances at Aoife, while she tidies menus and polishes glasses. Say something. Anything. Ask how she’s keeping. See if she’s heading out tomorrow. Man up. You can chat to other girls. Why not her?

3. Decide you deserve better than to collapse into a pool of your own vomit at dawn.

4. Call Aoife over. Marvel at her sweet floral scent and how the lights spark copper in her pretty curls. When she asks, “how’re you doing?” act like a nodding dog. Fiddle with the beer mat, and ignore the way her dimpled smile makes your heart hammer.

5. Think of something clever to say. Quick. Then, when words scatter, blink until the puce-faced landlord calls away your dream girl.

6. Die. A dozen times. Blame the drink for pickling your thirty-year-old brain.

7. Stumble out into the dark, wet, pub garden for a cigarette or four. Scratch your bearded cheeks, and scan the starless sky for inspiration. Wonder if your dad’s up there, still hugging a whisky bottle and drifting on a cloud. Admit you’re turning into him. Admit you don’t have to.

8. Make a list in your head of people you’ve harmed, discounting your thieving, gobshite brother. Swear in future you’ll talk to your mam, not just grunt.

9. Shove away last Saturday night’s memory of that lanky fella’s nose crunching beneath your fist. Step out from beneath the striped awning, and let the cold rain wash away your sins.

10. Wait for Aoife to collect dirty glasses from the table beside the window. Head inside. Ruffle your drenched hair, and joke about building an ark. Then, when Aoife’s laughter warms your skin, blurt out how you’ve meant to ask for her number.

11. Follow her back to the bar, and grin like an eejit when she slips you a curled strip of paper.

12. Seek a way to celebrate. Reject alcohol. Hesitate. Then order another pint. Just one. Sure, what harm will it do?

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Izabella Grace grew up in London and now lives in rural Ireland. She writes fiction and poetry. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Cease, Cows; Black Heart Magazine; The Molotov Cocktail; Dirty Chai Magazine, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @iza8ella. Email: izabellagrace[at]outlook.com

Five Poems

Poetry
John Zedolik


Photo Credit: Nicole Yeary/Flickr (CC-by)

The Image Persistent

The El stop toward the back of the Loop,
not so far from the river, comes to me while
I read a Katherine Anne Porter short story
featuring a structure similar but in the Big Apple
set well more than half a century ago;

however, the image of the Chicago El has come to
mind repeatedly in the last thirteen years without the
obvious prompt, so

I wonder why those patterns of steel and wood hover
then dive at times to me without a connection to
current image in mind or sight. They

must push the air eternal, waiting with
wings to brush my vision at the slightest
summons, unknown to my conscious self but
apparent deep below but not deep enough to

avoid those dips from distance, staying,
not so far

 

Hot Core

She is frustrated in her student fervor,
crumpled upon her problem, a world
intent upon its mantle and core, where
writhes the heat and

magnetic pull generated of molten
iron and in turn generating aurora
australis and borealis to battle the
cosmic rays of that sun which can
sometimes

be killer—so she continues, intent upon
solution, when she can turn toward sky
and add her own beams to the display—
and the fight

 

Scent Sign

The bathroom is redolent of licorice,
a not-unpleasant sensation, on the first
floor of the career development center,
where

the job-seeker takes steps to end his
search and the unpleasantness of his
life, so takes

the sweet scent as a harbinger of coming
prosperity amid the tile and stainless steel
hard as

the world outside that must, the seeker surmises
—even so—
contain air similar.

 

Benign Business

We siblings called
the hollowed-out,
irregular pit

around the telephone pole
at the edge of the yard
“the factory,” for what reason

I cannot recall but do remember
the small, rounded stones we
scooped and manipulated

even when they were wet
with water from some unknown
source that I do believe

was relatively clean since I
don’t recall any ill effects,
as would have occurred

in say, seventeenth-century
London, wiping us all out
as a result of our play,

not making particularly
anything but piles of
innocence in that

imaginary manufacturing concern

 

Ever Ripe

The banana card came back even though it was the
best birthday card because it was about getting spotted
but getting tastier as it and you aged—

because you had no more use for it in your new state
where you will not receive any cards or cake but we will
celebrate the date anyway, and I will keep the

banana card, the fruit curving as if gesturing “tah-tah” to time
or turned on its side smiling in whimsy,
in all its yellow glory ripening and preserving
your presence in time even as yours has been over

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John Zedolik’s iPhone is now his primary poetry notebook, and he hopes his use of technology in regard to this ancient art form continues to be fruitful. Email: principium14[at]gmail.com

Grandfather’s Fingers

Poetry
Sarah Valeika


Photo Credit: Brandon Fick/Flickr (CC-by)

There were cracks along the ceiling,
And one of them looked like a middle finger.
Like my grandfather’s middle finger,
spindly and dwindling flesh, knobby and grotesquely twisted—
thin.
By the time he used his finger like that,
meant it like that,
it was thin thin thin

He showed it to me once,
when I laughed at him for his potty chair
And his smile smirked but that finger
oh that middle finger was thin thin
just like a crack in my ceiling—
long, just like the crack in my ceiling

And just like a crack in a ceiling,
its very there-ness meant
a beginning of an endpencil

Sarah Valeika is an Illinois poet who, when not writing, performs in theatrical productions (preferably period pieces!) and in small orchestral ensembles, playing her viola. Email: sarahavaleika[at]gmail.com

Five Poems

Poetry
Simon Perchik


Photo Credit: Brian Goodwin/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

*

These gravestones left stranded
warped from sunrises and drift
—they need paint, tides, a hull

that goes mouth to mouth
the way seagulls come by
just to nest and preen

though death is not like that
it likes to stand and lean
scattering its brilliant feathers

—look up when you open the can
let it wobble, flow into you
till wave after powerful wave

circles as face to face
and your own loses itself
already beginning to harden.

 

*

You need more, two sinks
stretching out as constant handfuls
though each arm is lowered

by the darkness you keep at the bottom
—a single cup suddenly harmless
not moving—this rattle you hear

is every child’s first toy
already filled with side to side
that’s not the sound a small stone makes

trying to let go the other, stake out
a cry all its own, fill it
on your forehead without her.

 

*

You collect grass the way each star
Eats from your hand, trusts you
To become a nest for the afternoons

Not yet at home in the air, named for nights
That circle down, want to be night again
Take root in your chest as the ripples

From the long stone fallen into the water
Teaching it to darken, to stay
Then smell from dirt then shadows

—side by side you dead pull the ground closer
—with both arms need these whispers warm
already the place to ask about you.

 

*

And though this stone is small
it has more than the usual interest
in the dead, waits among tall grasses

and water holes, smells the way dirt
still warms the afternoons
that no longer have a place to stay

—you leave a nothing in the open
letting it darken to remember
where you buried the Earth

as if the sun could not be trusted
to take back in its light
and by yourself turn away.

 

*

You read out loud the way this bed
listens for the makeshift seam
loosening each night down the middle

and though there is no sun
you peel off page after page
as if underneath what you hear

are her eyes closing—word by word
louder and louder—you think it’s air
that’s falling—everything in your hands

is too heavy, becomes a shadow, covers her
with a single finger pointed at the ceiling light
what’s no where on the pillow or closer.

pencilSimon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, Forge, Poetry, Osiris, The New Yorker and elsewhere. His most recent collection is The Osiris Poems published by box of chalk, 2017. For more information, including free e-books, his essay titled “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities” please visit his website. Email: simon[at]hamptons.com

Dear Kelsey

Poetry
Matthew Heston


Photo Credit: Nevenka Mazic / Flickr (CC-by-nc)

By the end of the night, I’d looked into
your eyes for so long, I had forgotten they were

attached to you—like when you repeat a word
so many times it starts to lose

all its meaning, or when you stare at a
Seurat and forget each dot means something

larger than itself. Sometimes, our eyes
play tricks on us, like the kid who knows magic

that no one invited to this party, but he
still showed up, and he brought his deck of cards.

It’s true there’s probably a logical explanation for
every ghost story you’ve ever heard, but that doesn’t

make them any less spooky—it’s worse
knowing that the truth is out there, but still

made itself invisible. Whether we like it
or not, a lie told enough times to enough people

becomes a truth. But the opposite is true, too:
a truth repeated for long enough becomes

common sense, and that’s the easiest sense
to destroy, because you forget why

you believed it in the first place, or if you
ever really believed in it at all.

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Matthew Heston lives in Chicago, Illinois, where he is a graduate student at Northwestern University. Email: matthewheston[at]gmail.com

Two Poems

Poetry
Miki Byrne


Photo Credit: Mark Robinson/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

In the Shadow of Sand Point
Somerset, U.K.

The coast is not bitten into bay-curves,
chewed away by tides to leave a flat spread of sand
but is a backwashed muddy curve
nestled close to the Point.
Shadows of rearing rocks darken salt-streaked debris.
Dried, hooked by every rocky nook and finger.
Even ubiquitous plastics of civilisation are faded,
scoured, scraped,
where sea’s abrasion scrubs them raw.
Until even they take on a seared beauty,
all lumps and labels rubbed salt-clean,
or scratched milky-opaque by the sea’s glass-paper rub.
Sea-kale ties its ribbons into knots, grasses root in mud
that crusts in summer, oozes in damp.
At the horizon, clouds show.
Sun-caught, limned and illustrated, as if an artist
has lined them with a silver pen.
An expanse of tide-cleared mud, rippled like a dog’s palate,
runs toward the sea.
Sharp indents of seabirds lay patterns of their progress.

 

Angels

There are no angels in Tewkesbury.
Once they glided in loop-the-loops
over the Bloody Meadow.
Shuffled bones of old soldiers beneath the sod.
Exploited their interest in archaeology,
where battles once melee’d.
Or they played ‘skim the river’ along the Severn
till one caught a wing against a bridge
and broke bones.
They once danced waltzes at night
through the old flour mill,
flushed rats from their holes with celestial singing
but local kids freaked at the whiteness of them
when they wandered outside,
toes barely skimming the grass
and rolled balls of starlight along Back of Avon.
Sometimes they were seen on The Ham,
floating ghostly and serene through meadow grass,
only visible from waist up
and made wildflower circlets for their heads.
I’m told that they left overnight.
Offered neither notice or reason,
left the town in a state of sad puzzlement.
Others say one still lives in the Abbey belfry,
weaves love into wedding-hymn words
and surreptitiously dabbles his fingers
in the font at christenings,
to bring blessings on the child.
He accepts bells tolling, as it is always
for a good purpose and in the name of God.
I’ve never seen an angel.
Though I did find a fine, white feather
by the abbey’s great door.
I looked up in hope but it was only
the passing swoop of a bright and sunlit swan.

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Website: mikibyrnepoetry.com Email: mikiandharry[at]yahoo.com

Save Today

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Stephanie “Baker” Lenz


Steve Trevor: I can’t let you do this.

Diana Prince: What I do is not up to you.

Cover letters to Toasted Cheese have recently included sentiments like these*:

My life isn’t exceptional.

You probably won’t publish this.

And these:

I have a unique vision.

I write more than I study.

Most of the cover letters we receive from female** writers are simple, clear, well-written introductions of the author and/or the work and do not include any self-effacing language. That said, when we do get a cover letter with something like “I’m not good enough” or “you won’t like this,” the author is almost always a woman. That’s not to say we haven’t read similar sentiments from male writers but percentage-wise, it’s overwhelmingly found in cover letters from women.

Speaking of percentages, we’re more likely to read a cover letter where the author sets us up for disappointment from emerging writers than from established writers. We’ve always said—and you may have read it in our “what we’re looking for” at any given site, including our own—that we’re less impressed with your credits than with the submission you’re sending. We’ve rejected submissions from agented writers with books (plural) published with major houses. We’ve accepted many pieces with a cover letter that included “this is my first submission.”

This fact of women submitting work to TC while including statements downplaying their experiences or abilities is something we’ve noticed since our beginning. We’ve tried to encourage women writers to take pride in their work, their talent, and themselves but unfortunately lines like these in cover letters continue to come in and, unfortunately, are noticeably on the upswing.

What does any of that have to do with Wonder Woman? I’m glad you read that question.

I’ve been a Wonder Woman fan all my life. I mean all my life. The first episode of the Lynda Carter TV show debuted when I was 3 years old. The second episode aired when I was 4. I had 14 episodes of Wonder Woman under my belt before Princess Leia entered my life (see my previous Snark Zone). In the new film, young Diana imitates the Amazon warriors she sees by punching the air, kicking imaginary villains, and spinning with athletic grace. I leaned over and told my 13-year-old daughter that that was how I spent 1978. I still remember jumping off our front steps and twisting an ankle upon landing. Amazons like me never twisted their ankles. I refused to believe in the pain as I walked away. Oh, it was still there but I couldn’t fight off invisible baddies with a hobbled right foot.

I like Wonder Woman because she pairs vulnerability with strength, both physical and emotional (again, see also: Princess Leia). Diana believes in herself and in others. So do I. Every time we get a cover letter where an author cuts herself off at the knees before I’ve even gotten to the story or poem, I want to write back and tell the author that I believe in her and she should, too.

Sometimes, when it comes from a student, female or not, I get why “this isn’t what you’re looking for” might be in the submission. A teacher has suggested Toasted Cheese as a place to submit and, ready or not, you need to submit by this date. Maybe it’s a way of creating a wall against rejection, another commonality of writers at every level of experience. We’ve written before about writing for publication and accepting criticism and how hard that can be. It’s harder still when criticism of the work is extended to be criticism of the author and nearly insurmountable when an artist expects to be shot down out of the gate.

Worst case scenario: someone outside your head is telling you that you and the things you do are worthless. This can come through in subtle ways too, with phrases like “wasting your time” or “real writer” (another reason I reject the phrase “real book” as a substitute for physical books that aren’t e-books but that’s another editorial). Internalizing those criticisms is common, especially among artists. Know that you’re not alone. It’s easy to say “respect yourself” and “love your work” but difficult for us to put into action. Hopefully at least one writer reading this will back-type over “you’ll reject this” in favor of a sentiment of something at least as mild as “I hope you like this.” Small steps move you forward just as well as leaps do.

In Wonder Woman, Diana experiences the pleasure of eating an ice cream cone, something she didn’t even know existed. She lingers over her first taste and declares it “wonderful.” Although she’s been laser-focused on her personal goals on her mind since entering the world of men, she stops her forward progress to savor the moment and say, “You should be very proud.” The ice cream moment comes from The New 52 comic book series, where Diana tells an ice cream vendor that he should be proud of his achievement. In Justice League: War, she does the same, only putting the vendor at the tip of her sword.

In the film, it’s a big audience laugh and even Steve, her guide to our world and ways, echoes her words. But Gal Gadot doesn’t play her line for laughs (nor does any other incarnation of Wonder Woman in her ice cream vendor exchange). Diana is earnest, supportive, optimistic, and encouraging of others, whether it’s fighting techniques, pub singing, or frozen confections. Not only is strength in her but she enacts it in others like the wind fills a sail (hat tip Marge Piercy).

I’m not sure how we can quell the “I’m not enough” attitude we see in each other, as women, as writers, or both. Maybe we’re drawn to writing to express how we feel about not being enough. But like Diana with the vendor, when I read a submission, I want to say the author: You’re ahead of so many people because you’ve written and you’ve submitted. That’s more than most people ever do. You’re already enough. Your writing might not be ready for us to publish but let us decide. If we pass, it doesn’t mean it can never be enough. Revisions of previously submitted work, particularly after enough time has passed that we know it’s been truly revised, are welcome at TC. Keep writing. You should be proud.


*these lines are paraphrased or amalgamated based on multiple, similar cover letters

**Because Toasted Cheese asks for third-person biographies, we identify writers as male or female based in the pronouns used by the writers. Since third-person bios using “they” (or no pronoun) are rare, these bios didn’t factor into our observations. TC welcomes submissions by authors of all genders and actively seeks work by queer and gender non-conforming authors.

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Email: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

On Vacation

Candle-Ends: Reviews
TC Editors


Photo Credit: Michael Matti/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Our reviews editor is taking a well-deserved vacation this issue. While she’s on break, here’s a reminder of our book review guidelines.

*

Candle-Ends focuses on reviews of books by authors with a connection to Toasted Cheese. Examples include: an author published in TC, an author who has written for Absolute Blank or been the subject of an Absolute Blank article, and/or an author who has been an active forum member or host.

*

We welcome submissions of reviews of published work by authors with an existing connection to Toasted Cheese. There is no restriction on the number of reviews you may submit.

If you are interested in writing a review but are not set on a particular book, contact our reviews editor and she can match you with a request.

To request a review, contact our reviews editor with the pertinent details about your book, your connection to Toasted Cheese, and your willingness to provide the reviewer with a review copy (print or electronic).

If you request a review, please consider helping out our reviews editor by volunteering to write one as well.

If you have a book you would like reviewed and you do not have an existing connection to TC, you can establish one by writing a review in exchange.

*

The complete book review guidelines can be found here.

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Request or submit a review: reviews[at]toasted-cheese.com