Dear Reader by Min Straussman

Dear Reader,

I want to tell a story about myself where I am very far away or, preferably, not there at all. 

In the story, which is maybe not a story exactly, but more of a history, I arrange all of my pieces on the board just so, and they never fail to knock against one another in just the right way. (Am I playing chess or billiards?) 

In this history, which begins a very long time ago, or yesterday, or next week, I am walking (or is it running?) down a path. What is strange about the path is that I cannot see beyond where I put my foot for each step forwards, or backwards, or sideways. Far away, deep in the forest, I can see pinpricks of light, but I cannot tell where they are or what they might signify. 

Since I am not in this story, there is really just the path, and the forest–perhaps some trees, too, but I am not there, and I cannot properly say. 

My lack of presence is at times something lightly worn, and at other moments a frustration. Not being there means I walk easily, not worrying overmuch about wrong turns or dangers lurking on the road. However, not being material means I cannot move obstacles out of the way, cannot improve the situation at any point. You see my frustration.

Lately, I have been attempting spells to bring back my presence. You see, I had one once, a slight specter of a thing to be sure, but real enough. Or, at least, I think I did. It was too long ago, and I can only remember snippets of the presence. My magic is therefore lazy and haphazard. Not having a vision of a presence, I lack the will to properly bring one into existence. (Spare me the lecture, dear reader. Yes, I know how dangerous it is to go half-cocked into conjuring.)

Therefore, I am writing this epistolary plea to you. Do you remember me? Where have you seen me before? Could you describe me in great detail, starting from the top and working your way down? I would be most grateful. You see, I have forgotten how my story ends.

Sincerely,

Min is a poet, essayist, and academic. S/he is a queer Jew who writes about being queer and being a Jew. S/he has a degree in comparative literature from the Sorbonne that s/he puts to use writing about words for Dictionary.com.
S/he lives and teaches in Paris, but s/he was made in Pittsburgh and never forgets it. S/he is eternally in pursuit of a poem that feels like being next in line at the border checkpoint with expired papers from a country that no longer exists but may yet again.

Your Childhood Best Friend Gets Her Hands on Some Questionable Dope by Jasmine Sawers

That’s it. That’s the story.

Or:

She was six years old with hair the color of a summer sunset over Lake Erie the first time you saw her. She grabbed your hand and pulled you into a new world called Emriolan. She was not a princess but a knight; you were not a dragon to be slain but a dragon to be flown, to be pointed in the direction of enemy armies, to be the protector of the kingdom of her freckled body.

The two of you roved the countryside rescuing damsels and razing tyrants for many years, until she grew too old for Emriolan. Too old for adventures. Too old for a terminally uncool baby like you. 

You are twenty-nine when you receive an invitation to her Facebook memorial page. You imagine her crossing the border into Emriolan, where she can blaze, magnificent, forever. You spend a week scribbling in a notebook all the things you and she did there. When that’s full, you pull another from the shelf and begin to write. 

Sir Emily of Clan Dervishon was hiding a dragon egg. 

You save her, over and over again.

 

Jasmine Sawers is a Kundiman fellow and graduate of Indiana University’s MFA program whose fiction appears in such journals as AAWW’s The Margins, Foglifter, SmokeLong Quarterly, and more. Their work has won the Ploughshares Emerging Writers’ Contest and the NANO Prize, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions. Their debut collection, The Anchored World, is forthcoming through Rose Metal Press in fall of 2022. They serve as an associate fiction editor for Fairy Tale Review. Originally from Buffalo, Sawers now lives outside St. Louis. Learn more at jasminesawers.com and @sawers on Twitter.

good boy by travis tate

The family fair in the parking lot of the large Texas grocery store was on, rickety roller coasters and such. Misha was giving head to his boyfriend behind a large ferris wheel. When Victor came on his brown face, the whiteness of the cum shimmered—no really, glistened as the carnival lights hit here and there, a lustful contrast of white and brown. Victor helps him clean up. Then lightly slaps his face, says good boy before walking out into the bouncing lights, among the families and cotton candy. Misha felt something drip from his throat down into the pit of his stomach that wasn’t the fluid from his newly-minted boyfriend. 

Misha saw some little flags, red or maybe light red, orange even but he saw past them and walked straight into a relationship. Victor was nice enough, his arms big and his lips soft. Misha enjoyed having sex with him. A new experience for him. The good sex. No more little shame creeping in after cumming. Just a small bliss. Goodness spotted in the distance. And that was enough for Misha. 

In the car, Misha waits for Victor to say something. He doesn’t. Misha knows that Victor often doesn’t have much to say. That’s what he says anyway. He just has a blank brain, free of anxious thoughts splashing around like children. Victor says he’ll talk when he has something to say. And he doesn’t mind listening. The last thing being a kind of good thing, a thing that, though actually bad and selfish, seems like a good thing and Victor knows that, he can get his way if it appears to be in good faith. As the houses pass, the convenience stores, the big highway leading from North to South, Misha says something about how the city used to be divided from East to West, that’s why the highway’s there. Victor smiles and says well, yes, that’s because of racism. 

Then, because he truly is trying to escape Misha (or his vision is failing), Victor hits the car in front of him. Misha looks at Victor’s face and there are already tears welling close to the eye’s edge. Misha and Victor get out of the car. Misha feels a little bit of his heart, for the first time in a long time. A waving feeling that pumps blood to everywhere, parts of the body almost forgotten about. The person in the other car opens their door, out comes Misha’s therapist; Greg. Greg’s eye sparkles. He smiles and looks at Misha. And then to Victor. And there is a slightest of frowns but Greg recovers. 

Greg shakes Misha’s hand. Misha introduces the two. Victor suddenly struck with words goes Ahhh, I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about me. And Greg makes a joke of it. Though, it’s very true. Misha can’t help but spend at least thirty minutes of their sessions talking about Victor. Though he could have spent time talking about his sexual assault or his absolutely shitty relationship with his parents and sister. His therapist reminds him that he’s there to listen to whatever it is he wants to talk about. Misha hands over his credit card after every session and Greg pops it into his own credit card machine. 

There was little damage. And the men huddle close, exchanging insurance information, phones clicking away. When Victor reaches the car, he sighs heavily. Misha only notices because this is the most energy he’s expended since he came on his face. The ride home is short. They get into bed. And Victor goes to the bathroom. Where Misha can hear him jerking off. Misha barely moves, being the master of falling asleep, closes his eyes and fumbles into dreams. 

Misha dreams that he is in a very high castle, like a maiden, a princess. He looks out onto his kingdom. There is almost nothing. Smoke rising in the East. He rings a bell and a small man comes, greets him, and puts a glass of water by his bed. The glass is modern. It’s like the one Misha was drinking from earlier, in his quaint kitchen. He drinks all the water. He pulls a scroll from his mouth. He reads it. And it says nothing nothing nothing. He wakes. No revelations. No hidden psychology. Nothing changes. 

 

travis tate is a queer, Black playwright, poet, and performer living in Brooklyn. Their poetry has appeared in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Underblong, Southern Humanities Review, Vassar Review, The Broiler, and Cosmonaut Avenue, among other journals. Their debut poetry collection, MAIDEN, was published on Vegetarian Alcoholic Press in June 2020. Queen of The Night has been produced at Dorset Theatre Festival and Victory Gardens Theatre. They earned an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers. You can find more about them at travisltate.com.

The Fox by Bishop V. Navarro

On your death-bed, you smell like that night. That convenience store and how we swam in its green-sweet fluorescence to buy up cream sodas. We covered our faces against the gas fumes as I pumped and you stood staring down the quiet highway. We needed the tank full enough to get us to the edge of town where the other locals said a dog-man haunted that brambled field. We got there and hopped the thin fence hugging it. I wanted to find the dog-man and tell him everything would be okay.

Who we actually found was Jesus Christ, sweeping his palm over the ground in front of him. Light emanated. He had lost his pet fox. She must have dug under the pearly gates, snuck past St. Peter, and dove down some portal. Her name was Tabitha and she’d been gone for three days. Jesus wept.

We split up from Him to help search and after the heat sweat through my shirt, I spotted her rolling in the grass, chattering. She was okay. You carried her while we found Jesus and then passed her off to Him like she was a baby that fell asleep on the drive home. They ascended and you and I waved.

In the hospital, I hear a breeze pass from the hallway, through the door, over your body. Now you smell like red wine. You lift your arms, and then they drop.

 

Bishop V. Navarro (they/she) is a poet, fiction writer, and film critic from Tampa, Florida. They hold an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida and currently pursue a Ph.D in Communication at USF. Their creative work often seeks to transform Christian iconography for queer pasts and futures. You can follow them on twitter @vnavarrowriter.

SINGLE CAPRICORN by Abigail Swoboda

I am an infant, and I am strapped to my mother’s stomach with taut fabric. I see everything my mother sees but five inches sooner.

Right now, we are in the hardware store and she is buying clay to make a fist. I know that we will do this many more times over the next few weeks, and I think maybe she knows this too, in a way. I marvel at the drive gears and the chucks and the feed screws as we walk through the aisles, because I know what everything is for and this is pleasing.

The clay stains both the kitchen table and my mother’s hands terracotta red. A fist manifests on the kitchen table. The fist is huge and meaty and prehistoric looking. Its short finger joints are out of proportion with the flat backside of the hand, which is knotty and mottled with veins. Every part of it is the dense, terracotta red of the kitchen table and my mother’s hands.

And then we are at a yard sale and my mother is asking them if they have any clay. She clutches the classifieds in one of her red hands. Then she is reaching around my body and into her purse to find money to exchange for more clay. 

My mother makes another fist.

And then another.

And I try and talk to my baby sister through our mother’s stomach. I can feel her there in her womb, between me and my mother, but she doesn’t know how to speak my language yet. Instead, she lets me see our mother’s dreams, which I have lost touch with since being born.

The night after our mother makes her first fist, she dreams that she has her own personal mosquito, who only feeds on her. It follows her everywhere she goes, her mosquito, drinking her blood. And when she wakes up, she knows she is pregnant again.

Our mother makes more fists. The terracotta red wraps all the way around her hands so that they are only defined from the clay fists by their motion. When she holds me, the red does not transfer, and I am disappointed.

When fists hold all the pencils and stop all the doors and pot all the plants, our mother starts to replace the walls with them. Then the furniture.

Then she dreams that she is in a lighthouse whose walls are all made of stained-glass. Seagulls slam their salty bodies into the stained-glass lighthouse and make the light red with their blood. There are so many seagulls. They slide down the sides of the lighthouse making slimy pathways like snails into a pile at the tower’s base. There are so many seagulls, but they never break through the stained-glass. Our mother is safe. When she wakes up, our mother knows that my baby sister is a boy.

When the money runs out for clay, our mother trades for it—packs of playing cards, pairs of shoes, half-burnt column candles. And then the rugs and the couch and the kitchen table so that she has to make the fists on the floor now. 

And I’m getting bigger and so is my baby sister and our mother has to crouch now to make the fists on the floor, so our mother has started unwinding my fabric and placing my body apart from hers in the middle of one of the biggest fists she has made so far. I cannot hear my baby sister’s dream reports from here. I cannot feel our mother’s heartbeat. I only feel the fist, which is still warm from the work of our mother’s hands but growing colder.

And so I realize that the next dream my baby sister can relate to me will be the last.

In the last of our mother’s dreams that I will know, she dreams of goats. Our mother hates goats, which is complicated, because she is a triple Capricorn—Capricorn moon, Capricorn sun, Capricorn ascendant. But in this dream, our mother cares for a baby goat. She brushes the bugs from its hair and braids its beard and strokes its horns. The goat licks her hands and nuzzles her neck and reflects the image of our mother back at her in its sideways eyes. And when our mother wakes up, she loves goats. Our mother loves goats so much.

But the thing is, our mother is not a triple Capricorn; she is not even a double Capricorn. Our mother will learn this in a few years when the Internet will tell her that she is only a single Capricorn and that her mother had lied to her about yet another thing.

But that will be then. Now, our mother loves goats. Now, our mother loves goats so much. And now, our mother stops making fists.

 

Abigail Swoboda lives in West Philly.

Temper Me to Pieces by Hale

I’m going to fuck a god. I heard if you’re good they grant wishes. I heard they make you holy. I heard they change you if you ask, bittersweet, in the afterglow. 

There’s no trail in this part of the woods. The trees swallow me up and the greens go from dappled jade to murky olive. Trunks are eaten up by vines and moss. I tear through brambles and branches with my acidic eagerness. Scratches lace my face and arms when I reach the clearing. It’s fine, I tell myself, as I suck my cut lip―I needed to bleed. 

I’m not the only one. My mother’s locket beats, cold against my neck as I approach the center. My thumbnail scrapes over the ruined engraving before I dig into the clasp to click it open, the copper edges encrusted with bloody rust. Inside there are a few liquid droplets left, red as the wound in my friend’s palm when I left her. With a shake, they spatter onto the circle of white pebbles in the center of the expanse. There’s so little―it’s anticlimactic. My blood follows, dribbling down from scratches between my clenched fingers. It disappears in the flattened grass, but it’s enough. Iron and wood rot itches up my nose. 

I try to ignore the stinging. The scratches remind me of the mortal I’ll leave behind ― all memories carried in bone marrow that cannot cross the barrier to the divine:

The look on my mother’s face when she says she loves me. 

You don’t love me.” I’m right when I say this, but she recoils like I’ve kicked her dog―no, like I’ve cannibalized some other precious child that she loves. She reminds me―again―how she gave her mother’s locket to that child. From Daughter to Daughter to Daughter, she says, with deadly enunciation. She doesn’t even know my name. “You mourn me.”

How I bit myself on the shoulder, on the arm, and the tender skin of my calf before prom. The red crescents left by my teeth, hidden underneath faux silk, and the split seams from contorting myself into a biteable shape. I am a thing that bites. Funny how the marks made me feel like less of a monster, trussed up in that gown I had spent so much on and didn’t even want to wear once.

The give of her flesh, when I sliced my best friend’s hand on purpose. 

I said it was an accident, slinging my butterfly knife ‘round my fingers while walking out to join her for our premature break, leaving our tables of diners abandoned. The knife was a gift from her. “Stay safe,” she’d said, pressing it into my palm. She hadn’t wrapped it. Maybe she knew what I’d use it for. Maybe her mouth twisted (like it does when she has to toss leftovers), thinking of me laying myself bare at the feet of our local deities when she’d picked it out. Maybe her lips would twist every time she looked at her hand now. While I bandaged her palm in soft loops, she looked at me. I remember the warp of her furrowed brows (concern, pity, disgust?)―her every word and expression distorted by this fisheye lens forged from the cruel hunger I felt in me. This is what she will remember: shoddy first-aid and the hunched shoulders of a stranger by the dumpster, discreetly wiping a bloody knife into a locket to the chirrupy bass of the diner radio. I leave and I leave behind. I can’t help it. 

I throw the knife with a viciousness that has grown with me since I was born. The handle shudders as the blade pierces the earth. 

When I look back up the divine is before me. 

Glass skin, four arms, I can see the undulating innards all in the wrong places; intestines in the forearm, a lung in the left foot, blood pooling, bubbling, and obscuring. Maybe those are the right places, maybe it’s how I’m meant to be built. On its face is a moth that reveals nothing, sapphire pseudo-eyes blinking with the beat of the furred wings. A crescendo of flutters and most of its body is hidden by a swarm of smaller moths. 

“How can I be like you?” the words swoop from my chest. Seconds later I think I should have made a greeting first―my small talk has always left a lot to be desired (and, oh, do I desire).

Stand on the shores of existence as the surf slithers in. Let it surround you, but never touching, never pulling you back into the depth with it. Be eaten by none but yourself, your tail flooding down your throat with every breath. Wash over your fate, again and again. That’s what I am. What are you? Its voice is nothing. Not a sound, not a thought, not a knowing. Only the suggestion of meaning.

“I have an evil little heart, I know it. I break thorns from roses and eat them. I’ll hope something pretty blooms in my gut as I hand you the thorns. Will you know me?” I didn’t need to practice this little speech, it’s stitched into my skin. I am made of lies.

A clear hand cups my cheek, thumb brushing a bloody scratch. It’s not cool or hard like I expected. It’s warm and gelatinous. It sucks onto my skin. I am drawn closer. My lips part and a fuzzy wing tip brushes them. 

What do you hate more? Being someone or being no one? Is your desire born of substance or oblivion? A second hand takes me by the nape of my neck, softer than silk and bandages. 

“Will you hold me?” Breathless. My fingertips tingle, they’re going numb. I’m not sure if my feet are touching the ground. I reach for it, and the moths part so I can press my palm against its chest. I think I feel it heave a sigh. The trees creak above us.

Neither then. You seek that which holds but does not restrain. A cocoon

“Yes,” the answer pushes itself from the bottom of my lungs. A crucible hotter than I could create for myself, smaller, tighter than the mortal world could make for me. Crush me into dust. Take me apart. Lay all of my bones side by side, gnawed clean. I can’t say all of it―the air is too light, or too heavy, to carry any more words―but I need this.

A third hand passes through my own chest until it palms my heart, the way someone picks a ripe orange. Tremors pass through me, sweet and frightening. There’s more in me than there ever has been before. I am not seen, but I am felt. My heart is so much heavier than I thought. Its fingertips press into the flesh and despite beating faster, my heart responds like clay, at first, forming divots at the pressure points, then it begins to melt, seeping between its fingers. A cry is wrung out of me, and I cling and claw at its chest. I cannot feel the disgust that always buzzes around my ears. I cannot feel the bubbles of joy I imagined while lying on the floor of my kitchen. I am in the throes of furious hope―I spasm with it―and with its help, I strive to be sculpted into something I can bear to meet the world with. 

I push my hand further and further into its chest sinking it up to my wrist. It shudders, moth wings blinkering even as praise tumbles from my throat. It hums the song I sing in the shower to ignore my body. It recites the words I repeat to everyone who fails to name me. It imprints on itself the unwritten reply to every misaddressed email and love note. 

“I am not what I am.”

I look into the sapphire, insectile eyes and let go of everything that ties me together. As we fall apart I whisper. Then I am sure that my feet are still on the ground because the earth presses up and squirms against the soles of my shoes. Little striped caterpillars writhe out of the dirt. Hundreds of them. They wriggle up blades of grass and my shoelaces to reach me. They eat. In mouthfuls of visceral tickling, I am devoured, divided, digested amongst them. The god watches me, fingers brushing hair from my eyes when I buckle to the ground. I sink into the arms that cradle me, my skull halfway to where its humerus should be. I can’t hear my laughter, but I am wracked with it until the end―until the beginning. 

It hovers in the clearing. A butterfly knife rests, red, against its glassy fingers. Later the knife will be found on the doorstep of a diner waitress, a friend, with a bandaged palm. For now, whispering as another moth beats over, its wings still wet―holy and known. Though it shouldn’t be able, it crafts a tiny cocoon on the underside of the blade, a locket melting inside it. Above, moss-covered branches sigh and groan. A song transposed for a tiny mouth, thoroughly fucked.

 

Hale (they/he) is a queer creator of poetry, short fiction, illustrations, and interactive fiction, based in Michigan. Their work explores the monstrous, intimate, divine, transformative, and fae under a queer lens. You can find more of his work in Angel Rust, Lammergeier, and on their Itch page @skiddyhale. His Twitter is @haleandwellmet

Ratmilk by Never Angeline North

Sara laid down on the ground in the middle of her rug. I am a rat, she said. I crawl on my belly. With this she scampered under the bed.

She stayed under the bed for a few hours until there was a knock at the door. Hello, said the person at the door. I am the ratmilk man! I am here to milk all of your rats so I can give you money for their milk and sell it to all of the people in the world who love the way my ratmilk tastes.

Sara became curious and frightened. Oh no, she thought. She could not answer the door as a rat because rats do not answer doors. But if she answered the door as Sara she would not be milked.

This is a difficult situation, she thought. Oh no.

It was then that Sara got an idea. She partially stood up but did not stand up fully and sort of hobbled over to the door, crooked as can be. Hello? she answered the door looking up at the ratmilk man.

Hello, said the ratmilk man. I notice you are somewhere between standing up like an adult woman and being on your belly like a rat. Might I ask which of the two you are?

I am an adult rat woman, said Sara. Who may need to be milked.

Ah, said the ratmilk man, suppressing a smile.

Sara invited the ratmilk man inside and he lived with her and her dog for some time. They drank the milk of rats in their coffee and put it in their cereal in the morning. In the evenings the ratmilk man would milk Sara. To him her milk was the most precious of all.

Sara and her dog were floating through space and came upon seven planets orbiting a star. They went to the first planet and it was covered in a thing that looked like moss. Sara touched it and it was slightly damp. It was furry, soft and white. She whispered secrets into it. One of the secrets was about a frog she had met. I will tell you the secret now. What Sara said was, That frog made me uncomfortable, but I thought about it and I understand now that it was my problem and not his. Still it bothers me and I am not sure what to do with it. That is why I am telling you, this moss that is new to me. Thank you for listening. I’m not sure what frog she was talking about.

The second secret Sara whispered was about the ratmilk man. She said she thought she was falling in love. The third secret Sara had was about trains. She said she thought she was falling in love with trains

[INTERVIEW BETWEEN SARA AND TRAINS]

Trains: CLACKCLACKCLACKCLACKCLACK *rumblerumblerumble*

Sara (yelling): I LOVE YOU!!

Trains: CHUGCHUGCHUGCHUGCLACKCLACKCLACK

Sara (still yelling): I LOVE YOU SO MUCH, SWEET BABY

Trains: CH-CH-CH-CH-CH-CH-CLANKCLANKCLANKCLANKCLANKCLANK *rumble*

Sara’s dog explored the moss planet like a big doggie boy. He sniffed around at some moss. He peed on a tall plant that we might have called a tree because of its size, though we might have called it something else because it did not look like a tree. It was like if someone had planted one end of a caterpillar in the ground and the caterpillar had grown leaves on the lower and upper parts of its body, but in the middle had just grown bare branches. Sara’s dog was not sure if all of the plants of this kind were like this or just the ones in this particular area. Sara’s dog began to think about time, to think about how if we zoomed out we might see that things have only been the way we are seeing them for the exact amount of time we see them, and how woefully incomplete our pictures of anything at all, even things we consider ourselves to be totally familiar with, are.

Sara’s dog had all these thoughts while Sara tried eating the moss. Yuck, she thought. Why did I do that? I could have made myself very sick. That was a terrible idea.

Sara went on to the second planet while her dog further explored the first one for some reason. She had asked him and he just stared at her. It was probably about the concept of time. He was always staring at her in a way that made her pretty sure he was getting mindfucked by the concept of time.

On the second planet there were many dogs. Sara was glad that her dog had not come to this planet because she was afraid that she would lose him here and not be able to find him. She petted a bunch of the dogs. One of them peed on her and she took this as a form of communication. To her, the pee was like saying hello. She said hello back rather than peeing on the dog, though usually she tries to engage with the customs of the places she goes. No one said hello back. They were dogs.

Sara drew up a map of the second planet. It was in her notebook. The map consisted of her writing the word dogs and then on the edges she drew ocean waves and sea-monsters, because that is traditionally what one does with parts of a map that are yet unexplored. She walked a little farther and there were waves and sea-monsters and she wasn’t sure how to fix the map. She talked to a sea-monster for a while. It said it liked her hair and she said thank you. She said she had cut it herself because she lived with her dog and a ratmilk man who did not own scissors. It said, Could you have loaned him the scissors you cut your own hair with? and Sara said, No I borrowed them. The sea-monster had another question but Sara had started wandering away looking at some weird button-like thing on the ground and wasn’t listening anymore. The sea-monster rolled its eyes and went back into the waves. The waves were the most intelligent life on the planet, but this is always true on every planet.

[INTERVIEW BETWEEN THE AUTHOR AND THE SEA MONSTER]

Author: I’m sorry I didn’t write more about you. You seem wonderful, but Sara just wasn’t really paying any attention.

Sea Monster: Oh, don’t worry about it. I’ve got better things to do than be in a book. Anyway, you already wrote a book about a sea monster.

Author: Oh gosh, did I? I guess I did, in a way. Thanks for being kind.

Sea Monster: Don’t even worry about it, sweetheart.

Author: Do you want to hang out?

Sea Monster: I’m sorry I don’t date people who don’t live on the same planet as me.

Author: Oh. I mean, I didn’t…

Sea Monster: Shhh it’s okay. It’s okay.

Author: …oh, thank you.

Sara’s dog finally arrived on the second planet. He landed in a part that didn’t have any dogs. He smelled other dogs though and got excited. Sara’s dog liked other dogs a lot. Some dogs don’t like other dogs and Sara’s dog had always thought that was sad. He thought that dogs should care about and support other dogs. Sure, just because you’re a dog doesn’t mean you are going to get along with or have anything in common with another creature just because it is a dog, but that doesn’t mean all dogs can’t be kind to each other and always assume the best. And sure, that should be a practice for every living creature, but something about seeing dogs hurt each other felt especially sad.

Sara’s dog didn’t have a name. Sara had asked him what his name was when they first met and Sara’s dog had just let out a series of particularly informational smells that said I am yours.

Sara finally ran into her dog in a part of the planet that was near the part with other dogs. She recognized him immediately but then was unsure for a second. It had been an extremely long time since Sara was unsure what her beautiful doggie looked like.

Sara and her dog went onto the third planet together. On this planet it was all weeds. Just a huge pile of weeds everywhere. Somebody’s garden is highly neglected, thought Sara.

Sara’s dog and Sara went on to the fourth planet. It was cold and covered in gas. It was an extremely large planet and if I were to show you the percentage of it that Sara and her dog saw, it would take more zeros after a decimal place than you would want to read. They saw an extremely tiny portion of this planet. It was impossible to breathe there so they didn’t stay very long. Sara’s dog was great at holding his breath, but Sara passed out while leaving the planet’s atmosphere. Sara’s dog nudged her back to the weedy planet with his snout and afterward his nose was very bruised and sore but Sara was ok. The weeds made oxygen that tumbled into her lungs like it was nothing at all. It was a big help to Sara, who was almost dead. She vomited on a weed. The vomit smelled like the gas atmosphere on that big big planet.

Sara announced that she used to be okay with space travel but that now she was kind of freaked out by it. She looked around at the weed-covered planet and decided to go with the flow and create a yard where its sole purpose was to grow weeds. She decided to try to live here because it had her favorite thing: oxygen.

Sara’s time on the weedy planet was shorter than she originally thought. She tried to build a house there, but it turns out building a house is extremely difficult and building a house on a planet you have never spent time on is guaranteed to be a wildly frustrating experience. She found a rock to use as a kind of a blade and managed to chop down something that looked like it might contain something like wood but it turns out inside it was just a sort of pudding that smelled like chemicals. When she finally found something that looked like wood and something that looked like a nail the nail started yelling out math and Sara dropped it on the ground.

[INTERVIEW BETWEEN SARA AND THE THING THAT LOOKED LIKE A NAIL]

Thing: F∆s cos θ = ∆E

Sara: Hello?

Thing: B = ρgVdisplaced

Thing: ∯B · dA = 0

Sara and her dog went back home, knowing that there were still three planets they had not explored. Sometimes it is better to leave things unexplored. Sara became increasingly concerned that her exploration was something that caused damage to the places she explored.

The ratmilk man waited at Sara and her dog’s house the whole time they were gone. They were gone for an extremely long time. The ratmilk man was unsure why he stayed. He started to wonder about his life choices. What brought him to this place? Shouldn’t he be out milking rats?

When Sara got home she was incredibly excited to see the ratmilk man. They kissed and he milked her all night long as she played ratgirl with him. She pushed her fingers into his mouth and said, Lick my rat fingers.

Sara grew distant from the ratmilk man over the months following their trip to the planets. Something in her had changed. She still loved the ratmilk man and he still loved her, but he couldn’t find her and she couldn’t seem to fully find her way back. She took her dog and went for a walk in the evenings and he asked if he could join her and she said she would prefer to walk just with her dog.

One of these days when she got back he was gone. He said in a note he went to explore the planets for himself. He left her a bottle of milk that he had milked from himself while pretending to be a rat. It had a note attached that said Drink this and think of me. I love you.

Sara met a cactus in a desert. The cactus told her that it had water inside. The sand beneath her feet said, Yes there is water inside that cactus. Sara wasn’t so sure and kept walking until the ground took a sharp turn underneath her as if it was going down a cliff, except gravity moved with it so she was still walking just fine. She didn’t even stumble.

She walked a ways farther and came upon a rocky cloud. She kissed each rock she found there on its forehead as she sang a wordless, gentle tune. The rocks all fell asleep. It was so warm.

Sara went from there on to a monster’s house. The monster who lived in the house was there with two other monsters. Their bodies were covered with shaggy fur of different colors. One of the monsters had black fur and weighed maybe 800 lbs and was 6 feet tall and said her name was Car Crash. One of the other monsters who called themself Spackle had brown fur with rainbow spots and was very small, maybe the size of Sara’s hand, and the other one’s fur looked brown but when you got close you saw that each hair was a completely unique bright colour from every other hair in the fur. It was maybe 9 feet tall and had a big black tongue and was named Jehu. They all greeted Sara and invited her to be their fourth for bridge. Sara’s partner was Car Crash and Sara could not stop staring at her eyes.

Car Crash was the high bidder every round and so Sara played the dummy, watching Car Crash win hand after hand while she sat doing nothing. It was really impressive. One time Car Crash lost and looked really sad and so Sara walked around the table and took Car Crash’s hand in her hand and stroked the back of it as she looked in her eyes saying, You did so good. Thank you for being my bridge partner.

Jehu served them all coffee.

The ratmilk man returned from space and it was, for a time, like the beginning of old things again. He milked Sara and she showed him the places she had found rats and he showed her how to milk them. He showed Sara’s dog a rat and Sara’s dog tried to eat it and he took the rat back and said No, no.

One day the ratmilk man came to Sara and said, I received a letter in the mail.

What did the letter say? asked Sara.

The letter was from an electric building in the north somewhere, said the ratmilk man. It said that if I do not journey to sheol then the small tigers under my skin will become larger and use their teeth to rip out of the places where they lay asleep in their small blisters in my skin. It said that I could soon end up with ripped holes in my skin and many hungry tigers.

Why did you put tigers there? asked Sara.

I don’t remember, frowned the ratmilk man. There was much about his past that was mysterious to Sara.

And so Sara and her dog said their teary goodbyes to the ratmilk man, who hiked his orange pack with gray straps up on his shoulder and walked off into the early evening light.

Afterward Sara realized he left the letter, but when she tried to read it, it felt as if cold metal was being inserted into the back of her throat. She coughed and tried again and it was as if bees were stinging her perineum. She burned the letter and used the ashes to write a series of single words on the wall.

Milkingless, she wrote.


Polymer
, she wrote next. Arboretum. Guinevere.

 

Never Angeline North is the author of the books Sea-Witch (Inside the Castle, 2020), Careful Mountain (CCM, 2016), and Sara or the Existence of Fire (Horse Less Press, 2014), among others. She lives in Olympia, WA where she runs an edgy t-shirt company and is going to be in a gay shrek play this summer. You can find her online at never.horse.

(De) Composition by Kit Lascher

CN: disturbing themes, references to violence, body horror

        Okay. Here’s a skeleton. Is it human? I’m sorry. Do you think  

        she 

        he 

        they 

        is 

        are  

        human? 

        Humor me. Your lips are chapped. You should try this new lip stuff I just bought. I guess  they’re trying to get influencers to post about it so they made the container…I don’t know. A  sculpture. So I didn’t want to buy it. I don’t care about aesthetics. I know, I know. But I was  desperate and … it really works.  

       Back to the skeleton. The skin is scraped away. Lips, sure. But more than that. Layers.  Not as many layers as you’d think.  

       Am I grossing you out?  

       Step back for a second.  

       Not literally. 

       No, please stay where you are. 

       Ha!  

       Think about it. The body is anatomy. A textbook. Unobtrusive, dull even. Picture clean  precision, the professor with … not with a murderer’s knife. A scalpel. Sleek and hygienic. Not  that there’s too much risk of infection, given the anatomy subject isn’t alive. But still. It’s good  to know the whole procedure is clean and professional. The form on the table, at the mercy of the  professor’s educated hands, is still a person, and should be treated as such. 

       Imagine: you look down at the body, you realize you knew who that person was before  she died. Yes, I’m going with she. The final girl. Every podcast you’ve ever heard. She was  alone. She opened the door. Don’t you know women should never open doors? 

        You see her with half a face and you still say, “That’s her. She’s dead now, but it’s her.” But what if you hadn’t met her before?  

        “Dead body.”  

        “I found a body.”  

        “The body.” 

        “I thought it was a mannequin.”  

        “I thought it was a statue.”  

        I want to know you, body and context. I want to learn the stories behind each of your  scars, marks, and bruises. Tell me in chronological order, or logical order, or in order of  strongest to weakest associations. Whatever order makes you want to keep speaking. You can  relax now. I’m drawing you, not your body. I want to sink into your story. Make this world  unreal by telling me about a world infinitely more fascinating. It’s not that I want to escape here,  I just want to travel someplace new, someplace like the inner thoughts you craft into a landscape  as real as this room. I painted these walls with matte white meant to evoke 

        canvases 

        empty space 

        waiting.  

        It’s waiting for you to fill it with stories. The first story I want is the story of your body. 

        I have this theory about your left eyebrow. It’s different from the right. The right has a  delightful, almost wry shape. Perfect. It is the picture of an eyebrow. But the left? It has a gash  cleaving the hairs, leaving a thin line of flesh peeking out above your eye. This isn’t a flaw. I  don’t think anything perfect is ever actually beautiful.  

       How can I truly understand your body when I have no way to dissect you?  

       I have drawn you so many times. I know the precise shape of your throat, how your skin  pools into two delicate collarbones. I know all of this with my eyes closed. I can place my finger  in the dip, thumb the bone, that breathtaking place where I can feel how your body comes  together. But I need to know more.

        I need to see and touch and know your insides. I need to touch a part of you that isn’t  soft. That’s how we learn about anatomy: we dissect in order to understand. I dissected your  words. But there’s more for me to learn. 

        So where would you like to begin?  

        The things people are saying about my work! You would laugh. Or, maybe you wouldn’t  laugh, but your chapped lips would betray how funny you found everything. 

        It goes against every fiber of my belief system to pick a favorite color, but recent  experience has given me a preference for red. Sold-sticker red.  

        Yes, the paintings all sold. But only one was worth the attention it got. All the reviews  focus on it, view it as a triumph. I have to say, I can’t pretend to be modest about the piece. My  personal favorite comment in a review: “The collection’s standout piece, (De)composition,  makes you wonder if the painter fell in love with his subject. The face isn’t all there, the exposed  muscle shimmers. Red. Rendered with such exquisite attention and (dare I say it?) desire.” 

        Something happened when I painted you. A flicker or a flash. The clench of muscles in  your mouth. I don’t know how to explain it. But I’ll try: I saw something that I can’t explain. 

        The opening. Not your mouth. The show. The room was well-lit and the hors d’oeuvres  were placed on plates that matched the paintings’ frames. I love details. A woman came up to  me:  

        “All these paintings. Faces ripped off. It’s disgusting. But not as disgusting as it should  be.” 

        She took a gulp from her stainless steel cocktail glass and said, “I don’t understand how  something this macabre can be so sensual.” 

        “It makes you nervous,” I said. “Doesn’t it?” 

        “Well,” she said. “I suppose art’s supposed to get under your skin.”

Kit Lascher is a multifaceted creature from Trash Wonderland. She dropped out of the same theatre school as James Dean and has worked hard not to burn out as quickly. Her work has been produced in LA, NYC, and Seattle. She takes a corvidian approach to artmaking (collects anything shiny, believes in setting fire to genres and many other constructs, and always remembers even when she’s gluing fragments together). Favorite artistic projects include creating and producing Recover: A Cabaret by and for People with Mental Illness, publishing zines with WolfShark Press, writing ½ a Crayon which was produced by Reboot Theatre Company, performing interdisciplinary drag for thousands of people at Pride and for handfuls of people in bars, helping others realize their artistic projects through script support/directing/jam sessions, and writing and performing pieces about angels, androids, and everything in between and outside. You can follow her on Instagram @kit_stitches.

cool air by Edward Wells

This work uses Percival Everett’s American Desert and text generated using one of Hugging Face’s GPT language models as source text.

One.

Its head was placed under its left arm, the fingers of its hand falling over its mouth which was frozen partly open, and the cool vinyl bag was zipped from bottom to top. The ride in the coroner’s wagon to the morgue was protracted, the medical examiner’s assistant stopping at a fast-food restaurant, his mother’s house, where he was given a small white plastic box in which to stay overnight. The matter, however, rang with an air of incompleteness, as it was the case that the body was never identified, only the head and isn’t that what is always required? That the body be identified? This is the problem with the present state of the human world. The most probable scenario is that the body was the product of the sexual union between the two persons.

The question is: is this a reason to avoid the question?

 

Two.

The trucker wore suspenders, which he called “braces,” and seersucker suits no matter how cool the weather turned. He was wearing a heat-crumpled seersucker when he rose and walked from the third row to the altar. When he was done, he said, ” I don’t have to go to work any more.” At the tram ticket office, It began to feel antsy, nervous and it attributed it to its long-standing fear of heights, as they were about to be suspended high in the air on a thin cable. The kids even tried to tease it about the last time they had gone up, telling it that the jagged rocks were really a lot closer than they looked, assuring it the cars hardly ever fell. But, to its credit, it managed to get back to the station without much trouble. The day was sunny and warm, and it felt as if it might be a good time to get down and enjoy it.

It would have been great fun if it hadn’t been for the fact that the tram was moving faster than it could keep up with and that when it finally stopped at the station, it was a little more than a block away from the building,

Ms. Trucker, steely Ms. Trucker, cool Ms. Trucker, eyebrow-licking Ms. Trucker, shed a single tear which appeared at once as the most controlled emission It had ever seen from a human body and as a flood of terrifying uncontrolled emotion. “I’ve fallen in love with you, It,” she said. “You are mine. You have no right to be anywhere else.” She hasn’t said so on the air, but that’s what she said to that makeup guy. You can see it in the video. She said she never said that. She said that if she ‘d ever had to make a choice between the two, she would choose the one that felt most “real.”

The truth is, as the saying goes, the truth is seldom as beautiful as the lie.

 

Three.

“Let’s just stay cool,” It said. In fact, it was cool—cooler than it had ever been. Perhaps it was simply that without a pulse, there was nothing to race, but it knew that it was more than that. It seemed it was not entirely the same as it had ever been, perhaps, but it was still very much there. Martha, however, began with a wide-eyed stare at her father, not so much of surprise but of rage and anger, a fiery anger which found air with a screaming fit and a dash up the stairs to her bedroom. She was a year old then, and she had not yet learned to fear what her little mouth would say. And the little things like that had not come easily for her.

Her father was a man of few words.

“I’m hot. Have somebody fetch a pail of water so Ms. Trucker can wash my feet.” The trucker looked at It. “Nothing cools you down like cool water on your feet.” It did call Channel 5 and in short order it was on the air live with Ms. Trucker. The woman’s voice was excited and thin, not quite a whine, but it grated on Its dead nerves, like a scratching across the sutures which held fast its head. For a few seconds her voice did not carry over, then it did. “Well it’s cold and the cold has a tendency to make you a little more aggressive.”

Her voice was a little more subdued than before.

Martha stepped in front of them and pulled open the doors, releasing musty but cool air. The smell of ozone wafted around them and it was hard to make out what was going on, they were surrounded by what looked like a city or town, a large bridge spanning the lake, the sky above was a pale blue as the water below, and they were in the middle of a large park. “We’ve got to do something,” the director said. “They’re dying trying to fill air at the studio.” But it wasn’t long before he realized that what was going to work was to go back and create an entire new world and take his time creating a world from scratch, then make his own world and then build that world into a new environment. He had an idea of what to do.

He had to go back.

 

Four.

The steps were concrete and lights were already burning inside, perhaps triggered by the opening of the doors, like a refrigerator—and like a refrigerator, because it was underground, the shelter was cool. It was not inside Ms Trucker’s head, it was not the dashboard of the automobile, it was not the air around her, but it was there. It was there in much the same way it’d often felt it was throughout its life—unweighted, uncentered—but at least in this scene from this sad woman’s life it understood what was going on. As one of the last things she said, before she had to jump back to the hotel, was: “They’re going to leave.” And the lights went out.

There was this really cool guy talking all about helping people. Was Ms. Trucker really sick the day it sat with her twenty years ago, on-air? How often do you lie to yourself? I’m sure she’s as sick now as I am. I hope the same happens to the person or persons responsible for this lie.

I know the story is told in various versions, but it is my contention that the story, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, is always as important as the falsehood, even if it doesn’t get the same credit.

It thought Martha was cool and it was sitting next to her. There was this stuff on Martha’s plate. It was a piece of meat, a piece of lettuce, and a piece of something that was shaped like an ice cream cone. The room was painfully silent and the dead air was just that, but no one was dashing to resuscitate it. Ms. Trucker called upon her years in the business, her professionalism, her steely control and said, “You’re mean,” and dipped her face into her hands and cried. Then her voice rose to the full cry. “Martha,” she said, “You have to go.”

Then she turned and left.

“It’s a bit cool.” She said and looked over at the fish and then back at the food. The trucker served, hitting the ball high into the air. The ball went higher and higher until it was just a speck against the sky. The ball bounced off the end of the truck and came to rest on the ground just in front of him. His face was all smiles, even though he had no idea what he did to make it so.

The ball hit the trucker right in the heart.

 

Edward Wells is a writer from the United States of America. They hold an MFA in Creative Writing and are an adjunct instructor of writing and literature. They are enamored of the possibility of connection and the cool air that descends into a desert with sunset. Their critical article, Exploring a Framework of Unreadability in Narrative Fiction,” recently appeared in The Text, and their poetry manuscript, meyond, is available through Alien Buddha Press.

some stories never #lyft you up by Addie Tsai

The night is blacker than black, the kind of black that shouldn’t happen in a city this size. Every time you step into a Lyft when it is either very early in the morning or very late at night, a number of scenarios roll through your mind. You do this as a way of preparing, as you imagine many vulnerable people—trans people, non-binary people, women—must do. We almost never speak of it, but we look at each other with knowing. Now, you know better than to leave those preparations only in your mind. You text a friend your destination. You share a location with that friend on your phone. You set a reminder to let your friend know when there’s no more need for danger. 

You would have never picked a flight this early, even though you have no trouble waking up early. Your love made all the decisions—which airline (Spirit), what time (6 am). The only thing he managed to get right was the location. New York City. But that was easy, because he’d seen you travel there twice a year for too long. Funny thing when a loved one’s way of making up a wrong is to take you farther away from him. You felt the irony of the choice. But you didn’t say a word.

The driver, at first, seemed innocuous enough. A South Asian man in his mid-50s, you’re guessing. Harmless enough. You hoped he’d leave you alone to your phone, your book, your sleepy dissociative state in the obsidian dark. But. Of course not.

Are you married? Yes. Do you have kids? Not yet! You should have kids. Don’t worry if it takes some tries. I had to get a surgery to have my daughter and she means everything to me. What do you do? I teach at [redacted]. Oh, do you know Shirley Wong? No, I don’t think so. 

Then he launches into a long story that you didn’t ask to hear, from a man who will mean nothing to you, or at least he *could* have meant nothing, but that was before. Shirley Wong, a young woman from Taiwan that he took a class with twenty years ago, before he met his wife, before he had his surgery, before he had his child. They were in love, he told you. And then she got pregnant. And he didn’t handle it well, and he begged her to get an abortion. Shirley was supposed to go to Chinatown to get an abortion. In some alley. And then he went to Dallas, and then she wouldn’t answer his calls. But, what if she never had an abortion? What if my child is just out there, never having known of me? 

You nod, you mm, mmhmm, wow. You keep moving your attention back to the glowing screen of your phone, not because you are interested in scrolling through your socials or reading an email, but because you want him to take the hint that you have no interest in this story. But, nothing works. It never does. You could become stern with him, but to move through the forty-five minute ride with the awkwardness that could ensue, or the constant badgering about why you won’t even think about whether or not you might have seen this woman in one of your classes (even though she stopped taking classes two decades before you became a teacher), or have passed by her among the throngs of people that make their way through Chinatown, or that some Asian people (even when he is one) just will collide like that, it could happen. 

What you want to do is be away from the noise of this man’s stories, and shed them like a cloak covered in the pus of someone’s life you didn’t ask to hold. But, you’ve been here before. You know that you can’t. There is, now, a little piece of him that has attached itself to his story in you, your brain, your skin, and it will never fully let you go.

 

Addie Tsai (any/all) is a queer nonbinary artist and writer of color, who teaches and lives in Houston, Texas. She also teaches in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program and Regis University’s Mile-High MFA program. They collaborated with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater on Victor Frankenstein and Camille Claudel, among others. Addie holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and a PhD in Dance from Texas Woman’s University. Addie is the author of the young adult novel Dear Twin and Unwieldy Creatures, their queer biracial genderswapped retelling of Frankenstein, is forthcoming from Jaded Ibis Press Fall 2022. Their writing has been published in Foglifter, VIDA Lit, Banango Street, beestung, The Offing, The Collagist, The Feminist Wire, Nat. Brut., and elsewhere. She is Fiction co-Editor and editor of Features & Reviews at ANMLY, contributing staff writer at Spectrum South, and Founding Editor & Editor in Chief at just femme & dandy.