Couch

Baker’s Pick
Jared Levy


Photo Credit: emdot/Flickr (CC-by)

My dad came home from work and sat on the the black leather couch in the living room. He always sat on the same spot. He always looked tired. Every night it went work, couch, until the couch developed a large impression where his butt landed.

Until my mom kicked him out. Then I sat in the spot. I was younger then, about eight or nine, so I fell into the spot. It was like falling into a pit. It was like wearing hand-me-downs.

When my mom asked to sit in the spot, I said, “No, it’s mine.” But my mom said I couldn’t claim the spot. She said it was a little weird for me to be fixated on the spot when there were so many places to sit. What about the place on the other end of the couch where you could put your legs up? Isn’t that more comfortable?

I ignored my mom and stayed in the spot. I came home from school and watched the same TV my dad watched: sports, ER, and any movie on TNT. When my mom got home, she said she was too tired to argue with me. Do what you want.

About a month later, my dad visited and my mom left the house. My dad walked to the living room and looked at the couch, but he didn’t sit in the spot. Instead, he sat in the place my mom talked about, the place where you could put your legs up, and I didn’t know what to do. It didn’t feel right to sit in the spot, so I sat on the floor near the couch as my dad asked me, how were classes, how was basketball, how were my friends?

I tried to answer, but I kept looking at the spot, getting more and more angry. My answers got shorter and shorter, from a sentence to word, and my dad looked more and more uncomfortable, getting quieter too, until I told him I needed to go to the bathroom. I went to my room instead, shut the door, and tried to punch a hole in the wall. The plaster cracked. My knuckles got raw and bloody.

My dad yelled, “What are you doing up there?”

I yelled, “Nothing!”

I went back downstairs to the couch and sat on my hands. Blood stained my favorite corduroys. Crimson speckled all over the bottom. I threw my pants out before laundry day.

When my mom kicked my dad out, I was sitting on the couch. He looked at me and asked, “Is it always going to be this hard?”

I said, “I don’t know.”

And when my mom came home on the day my dad visited, he stood up to say hello, but she walked past him and over to me. She put her hand on the back of my neck and asked, “How was it?”

I looked down. I said it was fine. I softened under her touch.

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Jared Levy has stories published in regional and international journals including The Quotable, Apiary Magazine, The Machinery, and The Matador Review. His most recent published story, in Cleaver Magazine, “Waiting for you in Paris”, was nominated for a 2019 Pushcart Award. He holds a BA in Philosophy from Bates College and is the recipient of support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Lacawac Artists’ Residency, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He was born in Philadelphia, PA, and currently lives there, too. He is a proud member of the Backyard Writers Workshop. Email: jaredmlevy[at]gmail.com

3 A.M. Idyll

Flash
Phebe Kirkham


Photo Credit: Bill Lane/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

My daughter wants to go for a walk after midnight through the summer streets of our neighborhood. She is restless at night, she says. I tell her she cannot go alone. She argues; I refute. After hours of boiling, down at the bottom of the pot is a single reason: she is a girl. She is furious, as she should be, all her anger directed at me, though it is not me who has made this world.

But at three a.m. when I wake as I do every night, I think of all the other women, their tide tables grown erratic in midlife, who find themselves beached on the hard sand of two or three a.m.

I imagine all of us rising from our beds, pulling on our robes and our sweatshirts and our leather jackets, adjusting our hijabs and our wigs, rearranging our side parts and our braids, slipping on sandals and loafers and sneakers and boots, gathering our soporifics—our warm milk in a mug, our tisanes, our hot water with lemon, our shots of vodka and cachaça and soju, our books and our knitting and our word searches, our decks of cards and our dominoes and our mahjong tiles.

I imagine us opening our doors and stepping down onto our stoops and out onto our corners, standing like so many pickets in a fence, while all the girls of the city come out for their walks.

We would not speak a word to the girls. We would gather around quiet but fierce games of five-card stud and go. In low voices, or with deft gestures, we would trade our hard-found remedies for flashes of heat and frozen shoulders and forgotten names.

We know that the girls have things to settle within themselves. We remember that to do this work, they must believe they walk unseen in the sweet, thick night.

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Phebe Kirkham teaches writing and literature at York College, CUNY. She holds an MFA from Brooklyn College and lives in Queens with her husband and daughter. Her twitter handle is @7thPhebe. Email: phebekirkham[at]gmail.com

Warm Milk

Flash
Shani Naylor


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

The first time Sylvia travelled through time, it caught her by surprise.

She’d been sitting at the table eating a sandwich when she found herself tottering around a garden with rose bushes towering over her. At first she thought she was drunk then a spaniel bounded up and rubbed his head against her hand. “Jessie,” she said tentatively, recalling the dog she had when she was a girl.

The second time she was pulled back was also confusing. This time she lay on a blanket on the ground and tried to call out, but no words came. She looked down to see she was wearing red rompers with an embroidered yellow duck. The surprise made her lightheaded and she spun back to her bathroom, where she’d been brushing her teeth.

She tried telling her daughter Meg, a lawyer at a big city legal firm. Meg nodded with pursed lips and started discussing the merits of local rest homes, so Sylvia closed her eyes and willed herself back to her parents’ home.

She found herself enveloped by warm bare arms and being held securely. A milky smell wafted around; she leaned forward, nuzzling, looking for its source. Her eyes stayed closed and she felt at peace. She wanted to stay in these arms forever. She filled her tummy with milk and softly fell asleep.

She woke up at midnight; Meg had gone and she was in bed.

Sylvia decided to go back. There was nothing in the present to keep her. Nothing in her house or her small town. Meg didn’t need her. She wanted to be back with Mummy and Daddy. With Jessie and her brother Alfie.

She lay in bed and willed herself to travel back again.

This time she wouldn’t be returning.

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Shani Naylor lives in New Zealand and has had stories published in the Top of the Morning Book of Incredibly Short Stories and Flash Frontier. Email: shani.naylor[at]gmail.com

Streaming

Flash
Ona Gritz


Photo Credit: DeeAshley/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

It’s the summer before my son leaves for college, the season, friends with older kids warn me, he’s likely to rail, accuse, anything to cause a rift large enough to walk through to his new life. Mostly he’s just quieter than usual, internal, except the times when, knowing I’m at my writing desk, he tosses a deflated soccer ball against the living room wall.

“Sorry, I forgot,” he responds when I call to him to stop, a claim so outrageous I wonder if he does this less to rankle than to hear his own name spoken—loudly, firmly—to assure himself that we’re still us, he’s still here.

One evening we watch Friday Night Lights: the pilot, the second episode, and, though I’ve got a stack of dishes waiting, he’s supposed to walk the dog, and I don’t actually care for football, we can’t help but allow ourselves one more.

From then on, this is what we do, night after night, worry together about the star quarterback turned paraplegic; the bookish boy briefly loved by a troubled girl; the addict’s son whose body is brilliant at sports. At dinner, we talk about these Texans as though they’re our neighbors here in New Jersey. We gossip, predict, offer advice only the two of us hear.

Too soon, we finish the series and, for days, we’re both doleful, aimless, grieving this loss in place of the one we rarely mention, though of course it’s streaming toward us, mere weeks away.

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Ona Gritz’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Utne Reader, MORE magazine, and elsewhere. “It’s Time,” which appeared in The Rumpus, was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays, 2016. Her books include the memoir On the Whole: A Story of Mothering and Disability, and the poetry collections Geode and Border Songs: A Conversation in Poems, written with Daniel Simpson. Email: onafawn[at]gmail.com

Dim Sum

Flash
Alicia Zhang


Photo Credit: Meng He/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The shrimp dumplings called to her.

For days, she had dreamt about those little packets of joy, teaspoons of savory shrimp wrapped in translucent skins. Although the closest dim sum restaurant was an hour away, John had agreed to drive, parrying her excitement with amused patience as they sped down the freeway.

So, here they were, surrounded by rickety carts piled high with rice, sesame, and tradition. She breathed in deeply, relishing the umami air. As a child, she had spent countless Sunday brunches at restaurants like these, fighting with her brother over the last dumpling and spilling tea on ratty white linens.

But it wasn’t quite the same as before. John’s mop of blonde hair shone in the sea of black, just as his English broke through the murmurs of Mandarin and Cantonese. No matter—she brushed off the sideways glances and plucked her chopsticks from their paper blanket, motioning for John to do the same.

A cart rolled up to their table and John’s eyes widened as he took in the miscellany of bamboo steamers and stainless steel pots. She began explaining the intricacies of each dish, drawing an exasperated sigh from the waiter.

“You order,” John said with a smile.

She hesitated, then asked for the classics: spring rolls, pork buns, and of course, shrimp dumplings. Briefly, she considered ordering the turnip cake, but decided that the strong flavors of dried shrimp and fatty sausage might confuse him. Maybe later.

As the cart began to pull away, John pointed at a plate. “What’s that?” he asked.

She looked suspiciously at the fried brown sticks glimmering in a sticky sauce. “Want to try it?”

A few exchanges in Chinese later, the plate rested on their table. John picked up a stick and nibbled at it, his eyebrows furrowed in puzzlement.

“It’s chicken feet,” she said. A pause. “Do you like it?”

A kaleidoscope of scenes flashed through her mind: her ex-boyfriend mocking her for eating pasta with chopsticks; her elementary school friends wrinkling their noses at her lunch of short ribs and bok choy; her own hands throwing away the tofu that was out of place in her dorm room refrigerator. While her mother had always emphasized the importance of food in Chinese culture, all she knew was that the entrees she savored at home had to be hidden in public.

She watched him closely.

John swallowed. “Not bad,” he said, reaching for another.

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Alicia Zhang is a college student studying Applied Mathematics. She sometimes questions whether or not she chose the right major, but consoles herself by writing fiction and political journalism in her free time. Email: zhang.alicia.a[at]gmail.com

Lake Champlain, Essex, New York

Flash
Amie E. Reilly


Photo Credit: Nicholas Erwin/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Paul’s parents love his sister more than him. She has waterfall hair and cerebral palsy, but Paul hears it called “Cee-Pee,” which makes sense to him because her shirt is always soaked from her drooling.

His mother brushes his sister’s hair three times a day. When he runs away, he goes to the dock to watch the ferry slide over the lake monster living inside the murk.

I could be a fisherman and live inside a lighthouse. I will be a scientist and live inside a cave. I will go home, pack my things, and say goodbye forever.

On the table, the scissors look like a bird, all eyes and beak and instinct. His sister’s asleep in her chair. Their parents whisper at the television.

Why do lakes have waves? Every fisherman in a kayak is a monster until the binoculars are focused.

He cuts off her hair and runs.

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Amie E. Reilly teaches in the English departments at Norwalk Community College and Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and ten-year-old son. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in The New Engagement, Entropy, The Ekphrastic Review, and Pigeonholes. Email: amie.reilly[at]gmail.com

Self Possession

Flash
Mike Dillon


Photo Credit: Vlad Podvorny/Flickr (CC-by)

I saw the rare bird of self-possession once. I saw it from where I stood in a banquet room bristling with billboard nametags and dentured smiles. Never mind my reason for being in that room: my reason was thin. What matters is I looked over the shoulder of the one talking at me to see her standing alone in a corner.

I watched her quietly watching that atonal crowd with the amused Mona Lisa smile of someone remembering a beloved childhood landscape. I suppose, at first, I took stock of her in the way careless people, at police headquarters, would describe someone gone missing: Tall. Early thirties. Green eyes, probably. Soft, green eyes. Dark hair, pony-tailed. Kind of pretty.

But then my real self would kick in, for her and for me: a book reader, I’d say. Or, a nineteenth-century romantic heroine. At which point I would be dismissed, no doubt, and told to take my irrelevancy elsewhere, but not before I declared she was the calm salient in a white-capped sea of inanity where everyone smiled in order not to drown. By this time a strong hand would have clamped my elbow directing me out the door but not before I would shout: one last thing!

Here’s how to pick her out in any crowd. I only need one minute to tell a little story about myself in the suburbs a year or so ago. Never mind my reason for being there: it was thin. What matters is I slipped into a scrap of woods where surveyor’s pink ribbons fluttered from the branches. I followed an overgrown path until it ended. I saw a place of sunlit moss beyond the brambles. I pushed my way in. I kneeled to three white trillium and muddy deer tracks. I felt a cool updraft from the earth and saw a black hole nearly covered by vines and rotted wood—an abandoned well exhaling earth’s cool breath.

As a robin caroled its sweet liquid carol overhead I found a white pebble and dropped it into the dark. And heard a splash sweet as the spot where ball meets bat for a stand-up triple—except I imagined a lovely trout down there as trout once thrived in the holy wells of Ireland.

That’s what I would tell the police, if she were missing, if they wanted to find her in a crowd. So much depends that they get my meaning: Think of the condemned woods, I’d say, and the well, the trout, and you will know her. All else is mere description.

I, for one, won’t forget her. She who never looked over to me or knows that I exist. Which is also to her credit.

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Mike Dillon lives in Indianola, Washington, a small town on Puget Sound northwest of Seattle. He is the author of four books of poetry and three books of haiku. Several of his haiku were included in Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, from W.W. Norton (2013). Departures, a book of poetry and prose about the forced removal of Bainbridge Island’s Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor will be published by Unsolicited Press in April 2019. Email: miked7003[at]gmail.com

Matchbox

Flash
Olga Dermott-Bond


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

Before I light the match I take out the air freshener. It’s shaped like a pine tree and smells of damp toilet paper. Dull ridges dig into my palms as I watch from the rocks. The water’s edge is lit up, and sand’s shadows lick and flicker. I perch, shifting in my clammy jeans, so the damp doesn’t spread too quickly. Revenge is made of petrol fumes. Heat in front. Chill behind.

You were older. Navy jumper. Chain smoker. I heard jazz music, played on a muffled mistuned piano when you handed me your crooked smile. I was swayed by you. You were my imagined space between a new country and a cliff edge.

I push the empty can between my feet, a rhythmic hollow thud. I look up—the night sky is rancid milk. Scorched. Acrid. Stuck. I believed them, you see. The nicest words that anyone had ever said to me. Spoken to me inside that orange Ford Escort. On this beach. Windows fogged up with clichés.

I realised too late that your words were acrylic, stitched clumsily into your mouth, like the name labels inside my school socks that my mum had sewn in so carefully. Since then, you have seeped into everything I could have been. Stained the car seats, turned love into an itchy, sweaty memory of guilt and self-loathing, the opposite of fresh air.

My cardboard heart.

Huge plumes of black smoke are curling in waves from your car, being pushed down by the cold, then fighting back.

They look like my anger now.

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Olga is originally from Northern Ireland and lives in England. A former Warwick Poet Laureate, she has had poetry and flash fiction published in a range of magazines including Rattle Magazine, Magma, Paper Swans Press, Reflex Fiction, Dodging the Rain, Fictive Dream and The Fiction Pool. In 2017, she was commended in the Winchester Poetry Prize and was recently commended in the British Army’s Writing Armistice Competition. Email: olgadermott[at]btinternet.com

Beautiful, Ordinary

Baker’s Pick
Kimberly Lee


Photo Credit: Angelune des Lauriers/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Maddie wandered through the house, pausing intermittently to give high scrutiny to some benign object, as she would in a museum. Well, it was a museum… now. The Madeleine and Albus Museum of a Beautiful Ordinary Life. MAMBOL. She smirked briefly at her own inventiveness, then felt the muscles of her upturned lips slacken, gradually pulling her mouth back down to its normal, flatline position. No one would implore her not to touch anything here, like the cabinets he’d just done up with shellac, darkly stained, as she wished. Or caution her not to walk anywhere over there, like on the hardwood floors he’d just refinished. He’d picked her up by the waist that day, locking her in an awkward, elevated hug, her head above his, maneuvering them both over a patch of the wet, gleaming floors as she shook with silent laughter.

She’d always been waiting, anticipating the big, exciting thing. She had no real sense of what that thing would be or what it would entail, couldn’t visualize or imagine it. It was abstract, amorphous, but would bring with it a feeling of weightlessness, a sustained buoyancy that would place them on a higher frequency, a more colorful, flavored existence. The tasks, the routine, the day-to-day, she did these cheerfully. They were a prelude. Scraping the soft, grey lint off the dryer’s lift-out screen after washing sweatshirts, left damp with perspiration from their Sunday morning hikes. Running warm soapy water over the teapot that sat on the stovetop, left coated with grease splatter from the afternoons he played hooky and surprised her with pan-fried pork chops and sautéed greens. Settling in on a rainy Friday night with two movie selections—agreed upon only after a stimulating debate that could’ve won the approval of Roger & Ebert—and a deep dish pepperoni pizza.

She grabbed at the mismatched stack of blankets, kept in the den, on hand for warmth, cuddling. She took one by its corner, felt the weight of it as its bulk opened and cascaded to the floor. She put it up to her nose and inhaled once, then again, trying to pull his scent out of the fabric. She wrapped the blanket around her as he had on many nights. Those times, that feeling, that was the big, exciting thing. She hadn’t realized it as it had happened, as the minutes and moments of beautiful had ticked by. And then they had stopped. All she could do now was wait, pray, hope, somewhere down the line, for another chance at ordinary.

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Kimberly Lee is a former criminal defense attorney who happily left the practice of law to focus on motherhood, community work, and creative pursuits. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Literary Mama, Thread, Calliope, and The Prompt. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three children, and is currently at work on her first novel. Email: kimberlyylee[at]icloud.com

Luminary

Flash
Becca Yenser


Photo Credit: greenheron47/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I found out this morning my old friend had killed herself. The last time I’d seen her was when my boyfriend and I asked her to get us some coke, and then we took most of it and turned her down for a threesome. “You guys are so mean,” she said from behind our locked door, as we let our pupils spread black until I had tiny blue rings and T.J. had brown. We laughed and fucked and moved from the bed to the bathroom floor. She left the house to go to a bar down the street.

It’s the new year. I listen to Bruce Springsteen on repeat. There is nothing to do here, in Albuquerque. I drive through streets that are coming down hard from a sorbet sunset. The Hispanic Center has a piñata exhibit. I pay eight bucks and photograph the poop emoji. The poop emoji is the number one selling piñata with little girls, the placard reads. I am the only person in the museum but I talk to the ticket lady twice, asking her questions, because I love the way she says piñata.

When I leave, it’s almost dark and everyone has set out luminaries. I drive up the hill, away from the sunset, up a street named Coal. There is something weird with my heart lately. My chest burns. The human heart beats 42,048,000 times in a year, which seems like too much. I remember how shitty that cocaine was. It tasted like baby powder running down the back of my throat. Girard, Yale, Bryn Mawr, turn. She probably shot herself, but I’m not sure, and no one will say.

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Becca Yenser is the author of Too High and Too Blue in New Mexico (poetry, forthcoming, Dancing Girl Press). Her writing appears in: Pom Pom Lit, Dostoyevsky Wannabe, The Nervous Breakdown, CHEAP POP, Paper Darts, Metazen, 1001 Editors, Fanzine, Eclectica Magazine, decomP, HOOT, Entropy, and Filter Literary Journal. She is a first-year MFA candidate in Fiction at Wichita State University, where she is an editor for Mikrokosmos Journal. Email: becindow[at]gmail.com