DIESEL MORNINGS / JOHN ABBOTT

The school bus chugging away
Leaves a cloud of exhaust
And a back window of kids
Sticking out tongues, or,
For braver ones, skinny butts
Pressed against cold glass.

He watches from the corner
Smoking a Camel, hacking blood
Into a handkerchief, killing time
Before his shift at the airport starts
And the diesel smell sticks
To his clothes once again.

And in between loading luggage
Onto the plane he stares
Up into waiting areas where people
Read magazines or check phones
Or any of the other things
People do to pretend the time

Between here and there doesn’t matter.

 

 

 

 

John Abbott is a writer, musician, and English instructor who lives with his wife and daughter in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Potomac Review, Georgetown Review, Portland Review, Redivider, Bitter Oleander, and many others. His poetry chapbook Near Harmony is available from Flutter Press, and his story collection is available from Underground Voices. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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DOLLS / EMILY F. BUTLER

It really did start off as a school project, but I haven’t been in school for over a decade. I wanted to see how people treat you if they think you’re a mother, a young, single mother. And yes, I wanted to know how it would feel to be a mother, to push my blue, sun-shielded baby carriage around town, for the bus drivers to lower their ramps for me, to hold my little bundle of plastic.

They don’t look like plastic, though, they look real. Monica, Tiffany, and Stacy. Noah and Mark. They were each manufactured with care by a company that values authenticity. They have rosy cheeks and chubby knees and you should see the way they look at me. They even close their eyes when you put them down to bed. Really they just blink if you hold them at a certain angle, but I like to imagine they’re asleep, dreaming about the day we had together.

One time a woman gave me eighty dollars. She handed me a wad of cash, said, “You need this more than I do,” and walked away. I tried to give it back but she just turned and left. I used the money to buy them clothes. I couldn’t in good conscience spend it on myself and anyways, Stacy needed a new hat.

I have five now and another on the way.

Have I shown you my pictures yet?

Oh, I see. No, I don’t want to hold you if you’re in a hurry. Maybe next time. You can meet the new little one. I don’t even know what I’ll call her yet. Or him. I don’t know the sex. I asked not to know the sex. It took a lot of arguing with the comments and complaints lady, a lot of phone calls and emails. They finally agreed to send me one at random. No checking off the boxes for eye color, hair color, you know, boy or girl. I prefer to be surprised.

 

 

Emily F. Butler is a high school librarian by day, stand-up comedian by night. She currently lives in western Massachusetts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A LITTLE POOR TASTE WARTIME HUMOR / TOM SCANLAN

“It was supposed to be a radioactive sneeze,” my wife said. “A painless moment before the Milky Way wiped us off their sleeve.”

Her flair for speaking in rhyme within profound statements, such as a euphemism for WWIII being a metaphor about snot, is why I loved Bridget. The woman was a mouse with square red glasses. A frail creature, skin always goose-bumped. Sitting at her desk in the living room, drinking tea and writing children’s stories in the vein of Shel Silverstein. I loved Bridget.

We went to the Cape house in East Sandwich when the news anchors started to screech war war war war war. Big warships sluiced through a black Atlantic and fired at one another, exploding holes in starboards and larboards, while the news cameras struggled to pan fast enough to capture the massive moving vessels in frame.

“It’s always more complicated,” I said. “We should drive in-land. The Chinese or Russians or whoever are going to attack by land from the coasts.”

“You don’t know that—”

“Keep your voice down, don’t wake Kara up.”

“You never know, Russ. They might reach shore and then launch an aerial assault in the heartland.”

“You’re overthinking it, like everything else.”

“Well, we need to think.”

“And I think we should drive in-land. The coasts are all anyone cares about.”

Bridget parted the white bedroom curtains. The warships had come farther down the eastern seaboard. I could tell she thought they would arrive any day. Probably in Provincetown. Or at the base of the Cape, on either the North or South Shore. Either way death blew in from the water.

“Another option is on the table,” she said, “if you think we both are able.”

“Can you stop rhyming?”

“It’s a nervous habit.”

When I was ten my dad thought that the Gulf War would blow up into a third World War. He became unhinged. He tried to convince my mom that they needed to spend their savings on a fallout bunker. I looked at him differently then and I was disgusted by seeing an adult, and especially my father, not in control of a situation. A father was supposed to have all the answers. Being disgusted was easier than being terrified. I didn’t want Kara to experience that.

“World War Two ended. People thought the world was over back then,” I said.

“You know as well as I do that things are different today. The problems the world has won’t just go away.”

“Children’s books are all about staying positive.”

“I think the positive thing to do, is to use your gun to kill Kara, me, and you.”

“If you rhyme one more time I’m going to let you.”

“Where is your gun?”

“Don’t be stupid.”

“Come on, Russel, be serious. The political turmoil’s been depressing enough for years. THE SKY’S BEEN FALLING FOR YEARS! It was bad enough putting up with it then. Don’t tell me you want to deal with this. We don’t have a choice.”

“What about Kara?”

“What about her? We would be doing her a favor. Do you have any understanding of what happens to women in wartime?”

“I’ll protect both of you.”

“Don’t try to be romantic about this. Or protect your ego, honey. It’s done. You can’t save us from what’s done.”

“Great, now I want to kill myself.”

“That’s the spirit. Now, do you think you could handle Kara?”

“HANDLE? You want me to kill my daughter?”

“It’d be horrible not to.”

“No.”

“She’s my daughter, too.”

“Yeah, I was there.”

Bridget had a cold streak. I’d catch her looking away from out of the bottom corner of her blue eyes when we made love. After that many years of marriage, sex was hard. But the hardest part for me was that when she went from a good start to looking off sadly, I realized that she was playing a part, and that I was an idiot for thinking otherwise. In less obvious ways than mid-sex she looked off and away too.

“Fine,” I said. “If you don’t want to give it a chance. Don’t want to just wait until our military defeats the enemy. Don’t want to wait until everything is back to normal. I’ll get the gun.”

“Thank you.”

“But I will not murder Kara.”

“Me either.”

I handed her the gun, a Sig Sauer .9mm. The chamber was empty and there was no magazine in. Bridget couldn’t tell the difference between that and a loaded gun.

Her eyes got wet holding it.

“Please don’t watch,” she said. “It’s embarrassing to have such an intimate act watched. It’s the same as when you love a song and then you play it in the car for friends and they don’t get it.”

I sat on the edge of the bed. It took up almost the whole loft bedroom. I looked at the patterns in the wood of a dresser drawer. “Love you,” I said.

“Love you, too.”

I couldn’t see, but I imagined what the gun looked like and felt like to her, as she burrowed it against her skull through her dirty blonde hair. Right above the ear. I’d thought that I’d be able to laugh at her, a suicide prank, a little poor-taste wartime humor. But it wasn’t funny.

I heard the empty plastic trigger pull. The spring went thunk. Then she pulled a second time. A third. Like she wanted nothing more than to escape.

“It’s not even loaded,” I said.

Her small body trembled. She’d taken her red glasses off, and put them on her nightstand, and without them her eyes looked swimmy and unfocused. I hugged her. Her tears wet my cheeks. Her soft cries of a death embraced and avoided vibrated in my ear.

“My God, thank you, Russ. I love you so much.”

“You see now?”

“Wyoming? What about Wyoming? I read an Annie Proulx essay on birding there once. We can probably settle on a ranch. Instead of the ocean let’s have a ranch. Let’s leave now.”

“There’s probably already been a run on gas.”

“And?”

“You might have to settle for Tennessee.”

“Okay, I’ll wake up Kara.”

 

The car ran out of gas in a pocket of the Appalachian Mountains where West Virginia, Virginia, and Kentucky met. Roanoke was twenty miles east. The famed original American colony where all of the settlers disappeared. It seemed like a lot of West Virginia folks fled up into the mountains. I let Bridget and Kara pick out the home they wanted. A brick colonial with a lush green backyard, and a turnaround driveway circling a large water fountain.

The Appalachians were close enough to touch. In the mornings the base was wreathed in fog, and at sunset blood-orange explosions hovered at the green upper limits. When we looked out as far as we could, the mountain tops dulled from green to shades of dark and then light blue shadow. Kara counted them. If I said I saw five before the horizon, she’d say six.

For weeks we scanned the AM radio on the previous family’s SUV. There was no news about the war. The one good thing I could do for my family was walk to a Home Depot and drag a generator and gasoline back on a cart. Bridget cooked non-perishable meals for us. In the evenings, in the electric light and with the hum of the generator outside, she read children’s books to Kara.

Bridget didn’t talk to me much. I thought she was embarrassed. Childishly I hoped she was just disappointed we weren’t at a romanticized ranch with land and horses and Annie Proulx’s birds in Wyoming. I tried to make love to her one night in the master bedroom we were borrowing. She turned me down. I was mad. I thought that the intimacy would help us forget our current problems. My heart raced as I swallowed back the nasty things I wanted to say to her. I wanted to hurl at her the truth that I could’ve killed her by letting her kill herself. That she should be grateful that I did her a favor. And was she really going to waste it by moping like this? After five minutes too long I asked if she was all right.

“I don’t know if it’s worth it,” she said.

“Of course it is.”

“Of course nothing, Russel. Of course nothing. You should’ve let me be. And you should’ve handled Kara. Don’t you see?”

“There’s that word again. Handle.”

“A man handles things for his family.”

“If you want to be handled so badly, go right ahead.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.” Then she cried. Two minutes later she rolled into my arms. The heat was awful. If we stayed I’d have to put in the air conditioner. “No, I want to live. I’m just nervous about the future. What if America doesn’t win?”

“America always wins.”

“I feel it in my chest that this one is different from all the rest.”

“America always wins,” I said again. I tried to think of a more clever way to reassure her. I couldn’t think of anything to say about patience, everything being okay, or me protecting her. Truth was my heart didn’t know what was true any longer. If America did live on what would become of it anyway? It wouldn’t be America. Christ, maybe she had a point about handling things. “Yeah,” I repeated. “America always wins.”

 

 

 

Tom Scanlan is a Boston-area writer. After graduating from Emerson College with a degree in creative writing, he went on to work for the Massachusetts Department of Correction as a correction officer. If he isn’t writing, he’s work-shopping with his Rhode Island-based writing group Hypergraphiacs Anonymous, watching horror movies, BBQing some meats, or cuddling with his rescue dog–a majestic red Dachshund–named Louie. He publishes short fiction while finishing his first novel. He also blogs about culture and does short story reviews on his website tomscanlan.me. He’s on Twitter @TheTomScanlan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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AFTER SCHOOL PRACTICE / NICOLE MASON

When you’re fifteen you can take off your clothes
and stand in front of a boy.

You do it because he looks like a famous person.
You do it because he has the same name as someone you’ll
love in twenty years. You do it because it’s all you
know to do right now.

Your knowledge of world politics and ethical veganism and
music and literature is shaky at best,
so you take off your clothes.

It’s hardly sexy.

You haven’t mastered pulling off your shirt in one fluid motion
and it’s midday so the light is harsh
and your skin is bad.
In time you’ll learn your angles.

This is just practice.

In three years that boy will drive himself into the river
and you’ll think of how he pushed your hair out of your eyes
and said you looked pretty in the blind-slatted light of his room
and how he looked so surprised when you
started to unbutton your jeans.

 

 

 

Nicole Mason received her MA in Literature at Northern Michigan University and currently teaches Composition and Creative Writing at Indiana University of South Bend. Sometimes she writes poems. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in SOFTBLOW, (b)OINK, Farther Stars Than These, and Cease, Cows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE DEAD DOG IN THE FIELD / NICOLE MASON

I like to tell it like it happened in July so
there can be implications of watermelons,
fireworks.

In December, though, the blood on the house and snow
are peony blooms in red and white.

But if it’s in July, there can be an image of my grandmother
leaned up against her spade,
the handle tucked up into her body,
the silver head tucked into the soil,
the top of her lip moist,
the dead dog next to her, inert.

If it’s in July, there can be flies,
swarms of flies,
covering the opened up parts of my dog
so that I can’t see the insides.

I can have my grandmother rest
for a bit over the hole and say:
the foxglove ain’t comin up this year.
Although, there’s never been any foxglove
and all I can imagine are thick leaves
and milk oozing from its anonymous roots
to saturate the soil.

In December, we find her still-alive and the neighbor across
the stumped over corn field sews her bits back together.

If it’s in July, she can stoop down to grasp a leg,
to chuck my dog into the hole.
It can be under the willow tree,
and I can crouch on my hams to peer over the side before
my grandmother begins to throw the dirt back in.

In December, my father goes out at night to find the
dogs that attacked her.
When he finds them,
he shoots them and throws their
bodies on their owner’s porch.
 
If it’s in July I can feel the sun on my head.
Grandmother pats the last of the dirt with her hands
and asks me if I want some potato salad.
 
In December, my dog lives and I feed her small pieces of old pizza
while she rests on a blanket in the basement.

 

 

Nicole Mason received her MA in Literature at Northern Michigan University and currently teaches Composition and Creative Writing at Indiana University of South Bend. Sometimes she writes poems. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in SOFTBLOW, (b)OINK, Farther Stars Than These, and Cease, Cows.

MISS / KAMAL E. KIMBALL

The morning is silver with birdsong.
Clapboard chapel sides

thunk down in the grass
as nude pews shudder.

The priest is sick.
His coughing will curse

both houses. The rings will roll
off the knuckles that don’t exist.

Crinoline waits, a virgin
in the dress shop, untouched

by the woman’s fingers.
It wants to be cut, trembles

for scissors. There will never be
a dress handmade from the shades

of the morning for the woman,
never specked with silver

sequins like finches pipping,
she vows. A bell’s throat

won’t clang and the hands
won’t clap after the kiss, after

the giving away
everyone wants, she fears.

 

 

 

Kamal E. Kimball is a poet currently living in the Ohio River Valley. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Zetetic, Literati Magazine, Indolent Books, Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal and elsewhere. She is a member of the Cincinnati DIY Writers and founder of Fresh Darlings, an online writing community. She works as a grant writer and journalist. More at kamalkimball.com 

A PHOENIX / ALICIA ROBINSON

It is hot – so hot. The sort of heat that seeps through your clothes to your skin, drips down your scalp, and makes you want to scratch, an itch that won’t stop. I wipe the back of my hand on my face and stare at the beads of sweat stuck there.

“It’s hot,” he says and takes a long drag of his smoke.

The smoke chafes my nose, my throat. I try not to cough. He said he would quit. He has said that quite a few times. I watch a bird soar through the sky, its blue fringe glints in the sun. It banks, lands on a tree on the other side of the street, pecks at the bark, gives up – flies off.

“I wish I was a bird,” I say. In my mind I mime a pair of wings. They would stir up a brisk breeze, a balm for this stale day. I would fly through the drab, dank sky; the wind in my wings would drift down, would coat the earth with hues of red and rose and gold – the shades of my soul.

He puts his hand on my thigh – a mute plea to bring me back to him. Does he wish for wings too? Wings that would take him to someplace else, someplace new?

“I had a bird when I was a kid,” he says. “A finch. It died.”

I stare at his face, his deep-set eyes, his thin mouth, the small sad line of his lips.

“It’s no use,” I say. He nods.

The hard lump in my throat chokes me. My eyes feel tight. I stand up.

“I love you,” I say. He starts to reach for me, stops, drops his hand, nods.

“I know,” he says.

I get in my car, drive down the street. I should stay, should pack my bags. But if I do, I might change my mind. There is a stop sign in front of me; I slam on the brakes. I can’t move, can’t drive, can’t go back. I can’t see through the tears. Why can’t love just be enough? Some birds mate for life. So why can’t I give up my wings? If I could, would they fall to earth black and burnt? Would they rise out of the ash, gold and rose and red and brand new? There is a sharp knock on my door. He stands there.

“Please?” he says.

I sob. He holds out his arms and I get out of the car. He smells of smoke and pine. We stand there, in the bare street.

“Let’s talk,” he says. I shake my head. I watch a flock of geese, a crisp black V in the gray sky.

“Just give me one more chance. I can be a bird too,” he says.

I turn to look at him. He holds out his hand.

 

 

Alicia Robinson received her B.A. in Anthropology from Oregon State University. In addition to Anthropology, she studied Archeology, Prehistory, and Creative Writing. She is currently applying for graduate school to study Biological Anthropology. Alicia lives in Oregon with her partner David, their two Siberian Huskies Nova and Whiskey, and their cat Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. She is constantly working on new short stories and takes inspiration from her own life and her beautiful home in the Pacific Northwest.

ANNABELLE / R. E HENGSTERMAN

“How do I look?”
“You look fine, honey.”
“Is it fine or beautiful?”
“You look like a mom,” he said.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I’m sure.”

Lillian Ratcliff fluttered about the nursery as if a butterfly had taken possession of her body. Moving unopened diapers from shelf to shelf. She went to the crib, adjusted the mobile and cracked the window because of the faint odor of fresh paint.

“What if they don’t approve us?” She said, rearranging the stuffed animals in the crib into a neat row.

“We’ll be fine.”
“How’s our credit?

“Lil, we’ve done the best we can. Our references are solid. Our credit is sufficient. We have money in savings. The Hooper’s got their baby last year, and they don’t look near as good as us on paper. And remember Cassie Ingram, Judith Lloyd’s cousin. She got a beautiful baby boy last year, and she’s not even married.”

Lillian wore a path from the crib to the dresser. Animal silhouettes cut into the yellow wallpaper back-dropped the crib. In the corner, an oversized luxury glider, upholstered in white and wrapped in plastic.

“I don’t know,” she said, giving the room a second and third re-organization.

“Do you have the medical records?”
“Yes, dear.”
“And the tax returns?”
“Yes, dear.”
“Okay.”
“We’re good people Lil, and we will make great parents.”

Lillian nipped at the fuzz on her cashmere sweater and adjusted the hemline of her skirt as her husband drove.
“Have you thought about how our life will change? How different things will be?”
“I have,” he said, his eyes never leaving the road. “Lillian we’ve gone over this a million times. You need to relax.”
She wrenched the skin on her hands into an angry shade of red.

It was a twenty-minute drive from the house to the three-story concrete and brick building with Italian cornices. Lillian and her husband walked the granite steps leading to the elaborate, recessed entry, hands interlocked. A garden of white trumpet lilies encircled the building.

Inside the main lobby, cast stone walls met pink marble wainscoting. Centered on the coffered decorative ceiling was an enormous octagonal bronze and glass pendant light fixture.

“This place looks more like a museum,” Lillian said. He squeezed her hand.

“It will be okay,” he said as they rode the elevator.

The waiting room walls were ornamental plaster and held a dozen women who looked much the same as Lillian. An attendant offered fresh water with cucumber. They waited a sharp seven minutes.

“Dr. Gideon will see you now,” a well-proportioned blonde said.

Inside his office were two chairs, a single computer, and a centered plaque with his name.

“Good afternoon,” he said. “We have decisions to make today. Are we excited?”

Dr. Gideon looked no older than thirty, coifed hair, perfect teeth and a well-tested smile.

“Yes, we’re excited,” Lillian said, cleaving the dryness in her throat with a sip of cucumber water.

“We have our records,” the husband said as he passed their folders across the desk. Dr. Gideon took the paperwork and tapped the corners until each page aligned.

“Well,” he said. “Let’s get started.”

“Boy or girl?”

“Girl,” Lillian giggled. Her husband smiled.

“Yes, girl, perfect,” Dr. Gideon said. Typing as he spoke.

“Eyes?”
“Blue.”
“Hair?”
“Blonde.”
“Height?”
“Five foot ten.”

Dr. Gideon perched himself on the edge of his seat, “now for the nuanced traits.” He said, picking up the folder marked medical records.

Lillian shifted, matching Dr. Gideon.

“Aunt with dementia,” he said, looking toward Lillian.

To the husband, “father with cardiovascular disease, brother with colon cancer, sister with breast cancer and psychiatric disease.”

Lillian peered at her husband as Dr. Gideon set the folder on the desk and reclined.

“We can use Crispr to edit the genome of your embryo with unprecedented precision and efficiency. But we may need to make a few compromises.”

Unseen, Lillian dug her heels into the carpet. “What does that mean?”

With your deposit and financials we can either cover aesthetics or disease polymorphisms. There won’t be enough money to cover everything you want.”

There was a lengthy pause. “We can make this work, Lil. We can have a healthy baby.”

Lillian grew as her husband shrank.

“I’m not leaving my baby’s appearance up to chance,” she said. “My mother told me not to marry someone with flawed genetics. I knew better.”

Her husband was about to speak, but Dr. Gideon, sensing the divide, interjected.

“We can mix and match. Eye color, or hair and disease polymorphisms,” he said.

“See, Lil? We can do both.”

Lillian jumped up, “I’m not compromising.”

“Maybe I should give you both a minute to discuss your options,” Dr. Gideon said. Lillian’s back was to the desk, arms tight to her torso and folded.

“You know Lil… we can always have a baby the old-fashioned way. We can use the money for something else.

“Why would I ever leave my child’s genetics to chance? What would our friends and family think? We’d be the laughingstock of the neighborhood. That’s ridiculous.”

“Maybe we need some time to think, Lil. A little time. That’s all.”

Lillian charged from the office before either her husband or Dr. Gideon could respond.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry for my wife’s behavior. We’ve been saving for this for almost five years.”

Dr. Gideon nodded, “I understand.”

Her husband moved toward the open door.

“Before you leave, can I ask you a question,” Dr. Gideon said.

“Yes.”

“What would you name her?”

“Annabelle.” He said.

“Beautiful,” Dr. Gideon said. “Beautiful.”

 

 

R. E Hengsterman is a writer and film photographer who deconstructs the human experience through photographic images and the written word. He is a 2016 Pushcart Prize nominee, proponent of self-flagellation and a  flawed human who writes under the beautiful Carolina sky. You can see more of his work at http://www.ReHengsterman.com and find him on Twitter at @rehengsterman.

STAINED / KELLY WEBER

Across the old woman’s ceiling, the stain
spreads its puckered areola,
water hooping frayed ripples in the plaster
where something broke, leaked
in the apartment upstairs, where naked
lights shine cold-clear as through windows
cobalted with Madonna and child.
This godforsaken place.
Why doesn’t the landlord
fix the pipes, clean those drains?

It’s the young single mother, blonde
as fuel in a match, who tells
what she’s heard about the woman upstairs:
thirty-four. Barmaid at the green
of the local golf course.
Boyfriend. Breakup. Back pains
and stomach. A mistake.
An accident. Hadn’t told
the doctor. Something gone wrong,
spilled out, half-formed and rather
than call for help, admit on the phone,
she tried to flush it
down the drain. The half-forgotten
sleeping thing, flipped sideways,
its face a doll’s face,
its ear a doll’s ear
not quite ready to hear the world
clogged and overflowed the pipe.

A delicate matter for delicate people,
this is not told widely among the tenants
but the old woman sees how the stain is sponged
after the upstairs lady moves away
and she has had time to chew over
how many times she bruised her own son’s face,
the teacher who never speaks of her ex
and the secrets women keep, burning
white rings in ceilings above their heads.

 

 

 

Kelly Weber is the author of the chapbook All My Valentine’s Days Are Weird from Pseudo Poseur Press. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in several publications, including The Midwest Quarterly, Triggerfish, and Clade Song, along with such anthologies as Nebraska Poetry: A Sesquicentennial Anthology and The Flat Water Stirs: An Anthology of Emerging Nebraska Poets. She has taught composition and poetry at Wayne State College, where she received her BA of English Writing and Literature and her MSE in English Education. She is currently working toward her MFA in poetry at Colorado State University. More of her work can be found at kellymweber.com.