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Greg Letellier – Paper Heart

 Paper Heart

The heart was in bad shape when you gave it to me: a crumbly autumn leaf of a piece of paper with two gentle humps meeting neatly beneath the top. I don’t quite remember the lyrics to whichever pop song you painted on it, around the edges, spiraling into the middle. What I do remember is that those words, not your words, were dark and smudged like bruises.

Your heart had its fair share, too. You confided in me: rain smacking off my windshield, texts from our parents saying that the power’s out, and we should come home. But we didn’t leave. We lay in my tiny car, rubbing our noses together and wrapping our tongues around the abstract idea of heartbreak. You mentioned Ben, the brooding skater guy who left his heart in another zip code. You mentioned Nick: emotionally inept. The percussive patter of rain could have pulled me into sleep. I said I would never be like them. You said I know, you’re nothing like them. Then you touched my hand and said you’ve liked me for a while.

I don’t remember what I said back.

I don’t remember what I said back but I remember the way summer use to burn your skin pink. I remember saying your name, Melanie, whispering it and letting the syllables float from my tongue like smoke. Like birds. I remember the scrape of your hand as you tied bracelets around my wrist. I remember the time we sat in my apartment, and you asked if I had any food, and I said yes, we have apples. I remember picking the green skins from our teeth. Is green still your favorite color? I remember sliding our hands between each other’s legs.

But then there was the end to us. There was no fight. There was just a day, a small shop, and two cups coffee. You said it’s over. You said you felt something was wrong. I asked what, or how. You said there was nothing specifically wrong, but it didn’t feel perfect. Sometimes, you said, that was enough.

“It’s got nothing to do with you,” you said. “It’s just my life, and this is how I’m choosing to live it.”

I didn’t say anything. I drove home from the coffee shop. Huge pools of rain lay like the dead along the sidewalks.

*

One day, writing fiction, I thought about symbolism and concluded that memory is nothing like a river. Memories don’t flow. Memories are more like the tiny circles left by skipped stones. They’re pretty, but they fade.

I dug through my desk drawer, looking for the paper heart. I can’t hold anyone’s heart, not even my own. But the one you made, the one about to turn to dust? At least I could still feel it.

Then, hours later, I found it beneath my camera and about fifty seven cents. It was almost torn cleanly in two. I couldn’t read the words you painted on it, so I held it in front of my bedroom window. I still couldn’t read the words. Then I gave up and looked past the torn heart, out the window. All I could see was the hummingbird feeder my dad put in his garden. There were no birds around it.

I remember a particular conversation about the bird feeder. It was the end of spring; bright green leaves were bursting along the road. I asked my dad why he bought a hummingbird feeder. He said to watch the hummingbirds. I asked him why he would want to do that. He said why not. Then he stared out the window, waiting.

“Saw one just the other day,” he said. “I think they’re beautiful.”

“But they don’t do anything,” I said. “They just eat and then they’re gone.”

He didn’t answer; we both watched.

How sad, I thought. To move through life so quickly.

Greg Letellier

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Harold Stallworth – The Creaking Staircase

The Creaking Staircase

Justin’s basement was an open-air museum of ‘90s pop culture. Action figures, cassette tapes, professional wrestling belts, 16-bit video game consoles — it was enough to send any garden variety millennial into a euphoric tizzy. I wanted nothing more than to horse around with the sprawling collection of novelties lining the walls and bookshelf, but Justin was as stingy as he was nostalgic. We sat opposite each other, slumped in sticky polyester bean bags. I sucked down a billowing cloud of smoke, flicked a clump of ashes into a giant psychedelic conch shell, then passed the tightly-rolled joint back over to Justin. A round of aggressive thumps at the basement door interrupted the chilled silence of our smoke break.

I sprung to my feet and opened to the door. Justin’s wife, Caroline, was standing on the other side, toting a tray furnished with hoagies and cashews and beer bottles. The room service was a timely and appreciated gesture, but it was difficult to concentrate on anything other than the tracksuit clinging to her curves, which were steep and plentiful. “Lunch is served!” She announced in her usual carbonated tone. “I’m headed to the gym, but there’s some meatballs on the slow cooker if you guys get hungry later.”

Caroline was unanimously gorgeous, a delicacy to which everyone could agree. I never understood how she fell for my best friend. Justin was obnoxious, dimwitted, irreparably big-boned, and cursed with a disembodied hairline. He barely acknowledged the lunch platter and shooed his wife away like some unwelcome pest buzzing about his man cave. Caroline’s warm, inviting eyes glazed over and narrowed to a villainous squint. I accepted the tray and she marched back upstairs to pursue whatever rigorous workout routine was responsible for her celestial frame. Continue Reading »

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Lila Cecil – First Kiss

First Kiss

Outside, the wind is whirling past Twelfth Street making the Pin Oaks tremble and the branches of the Norway Maples bow. Scattering those many conduits of seed across the sidewalks. The rain has stopped and the clouds hang in the sky like cobwebs stretched between the streets.

William sits on the couch and picks at a jagged edge of purple nail polish on his pointer finger. It’s satisfying to single out a fragment of the hard polish from the existing island and eradicate it. He inspects the liberated chip between his pointer and thumb then flicks it off.

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” he says.

“Too late to back out now.” He watches his mother’s white socks walk through a pool of light on the oriental carpet.

“It’s no big deal,” he slouches further into the couch. He dislodges some strands of pink hair from behind his ear so that they close over his left eye like a curtain. He shifts his attention from his fingernail and elects a new piece of foam to be tunneled from under the tear in the vinyl of the couch.

Rubbing a piece of foam between his pointer finger and his thumb, he looks out to the garden and feels a seismic surge of distress. The garden path is almost completely gone from sight. He flicks the foam with his nail and observes it bouncing across the rug. He brings his pointer finger to his upper lip to inspect for bristles among the downy hairs. Nothing. A bird shrieks outside, one sharp loud cry and then silence but for the distant hum of traffic.

In the bathroom, William unties the gold tassels of the purple bag of cologne his mother gave him. He slips out the slight square bottle and plies the miniature cork off the top. He caps his thumb over the opening and shakes it. He tugs on the waist of his jeans and dabs the perfume in a semi-circle under his bellybutton. He looks in the mirror, at the masculine line of his jaw.

The buzzer rings. His mother greets Violet. Their voices sound like chimes knocking against each other. Violet’s footsteps are light coming up the stairs and he wonders if she is wearing her Chinese shoes, the ones with the black strap over the top of her arch. 

He hears a small knock in the middle of the door. He freezes.

“I know you’re in there William. I can hear you breathing.”

He holds his breath.

“Let me in or I’ll blow this door down.” Violet puts her mouth between the crevice of the doors and blows. Last week at the dance, they went outside and sat under the basketball hoop. She lay on the ground like someone having fallen several flights, palms up, one arm bent around her head, a leg bent at the knee, her foot in line with her hip.

“Come on. Open the door,” she says.

William slides into a sitting position using his side of the door as a backrest.

The doorknob above his head turns

“Let’s live in the moment,” she says and claws at the door with her fingernails. “Meow,” she says.

He unlocks the door and leans forward to let her in.

“Oh. Hello,” she says pushing her way past him. The florescent light flickers. She eyeballs the toilet. “Is that yours?” In the toilet bowl, toilet paper is floating like jellyfish in urine.

He glimpses her eyes and shakes his head, swiftly mute.

She flushes the toilet and props herself up on the edge of the bathtub. The space between her knees and his is a thin barely visible line, like holding your fingers as close together as you can without letting them touch.

“My mom wouldn’t want both of us to be in here,” William says.

“She won’t notice.”

He watches her breathe. Her lips part so the air can go in and out. He pulls his knees tighter into his chest, to gain a little distance. Her wet dog eyes watch him, her left eyelid drooping.

“It doesn’t bother me that it smells weird in here,” Violet says and lets her knee fall against his thigh. She smiles at him and ducks her head down towards his. He jerks his head away. Instead of contact with his lips, he feels her nose up by his temple.

Violet slaps her leg and laughs.

“I think we should try that again,” she says.

“What about our noses?”

 She tilts her head and then puts her hands on either side of his face and tilts his head so that when their lips meet it is a sideways meeting. He closes his eyes and slowly readjusts the tilt so his lips cover more territory. He moves them around, squishing his into hers. He opens an eye. The way her eyes are shut tight makes him retract. He considers stopping. Though he’s not sure how to stop. Should he just pull back his head? Violet is trying to open his mouth with her lips. She is pressing hard on his mouth and opening her own. Which is resulting in a small battle. He wants to keep his mouth closed, but she has a strong tongue and she pushes it through his lips. He backs his head away. She is pressing harder; she has risen up and is now in a kneeling position. He has to place his palm on the floor behind him in order to support himself. Her hair is brushing the sides of his face and neck. He raises his free hand to itch the spots where the hairs have tickled his skin. He stretches his head away from hers. It is oddly difficult to disentangle from her. Finally, she pulls back but so suddenly he bumps his head against the wall.

“Sorry,” she says and sits back down on the edge of the tub. “I guess I got carried away.” 

He looks at the dirty bathmat and then at the three staggered hairs around the drain of the tub. 

Violet’s lips are blushed. Her eyes flick over his. “Thanks. That was nice,” she says, rising.

William follows Violet down the hallway. She trails her hand along the wall. Her hand squeaks and halts its way across the wall from the sweat on her palms.

Outside in the garden, a seed ball from the Sweet Gum tree steadies itself against the wind on two spiked tips. Then it wobbles, rights itself again and in a sudden burst of wind, is lifted off and flung into more fertile ground.

– Lila Cecil

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Emma Rasmussen – Expensive Sex

Expensive Sex

Sex costs. First, there are the drinks. You don’t know him too well. Actually, you’re still not sure you like him, but you’d like something. You keep hoping to feel happy. Like you’d planned. Another red might help.

Then there’s the taxi. ‘We can split it,’ you say, still not knowing whether it’s sex you’re going for. He is.

You’re kissing in his kitchen, his face in your neck, his hand pushing down into your jeans. The compliments help. ‘Let’s go upstairs,’ he whispers. As you walk up behind him you remind yourself that life, after all, is for living.

He presses you down onto the bed. He pulls your bra up over your head, undresses himself with one hand. He’s shaking. He’s ready. Are you? You don’t know, but you do know you have a rule. It comes out as less of a rule, more of a question… ‘Can you put a condom on?’

‘No,’ he begs, blowing sour wine and cigarettes into your ear. ‘I want to feel you.’ And you want to be felt too. Connected. Just like him.

He’s getting soft. You’re tired. You‘ve had five glasses of wine. Dinner was a packet of crisps. Under the soft light of the bar, he identified you as an ‘over-thinker’. You thought it made you sound interesting, complex…seen.

‘Don’t worry baby,’ he says. ‘I’ll pull out.’ You’re embarrassed he thinks you’re worrying, but you like that he called you ‘baby’. Did he know you would?

‘You can do it for a bit, but—and I know this is a horribly unsexy question, but have you been tested?’

‘Yes,’ he says. He can show you the results. But this is enough for you. You decide then that you trust him. He doesn’t ask you the same question back.

He enters with a long, grateful sigh.

He’s enjoying it. He picks up pace. He pushes harder. He looks up. He looks somewhere else. He looks crippled with pleasure. He looks lost. You wish you were too. You try to relax. You try to let go. But you can’t. Who will watch the shop if you do?

He wants to turn you over now. Do it from behind. You smile, fake a moan, lift your legs up higher, try to put him off. You worry he thinks you’re a prude. You let him pound you harder, head crunched into the headboard. It’s hard to breathe.

His eyes close. His breathing gets shorter. His thrusts get faster. ‘I’m gonna cum,’ he says. ‘Oh my god, I’m gonna cum.’ You wait for him to pull out. He doesn’t. Should you say something? Should you do something? You don’t do anything. You don’t want to ruin it. You give him a few seconds more. It soon becomes a minute.

‘I’m cumming!’ He pants. ‘Oh yes, I’m cumming! Oh my God, I’m cumming! I’m cumming! I’m cumming! I’m cumming!’ he sputters, as he pulls out. Cum drips over your thighs. He falls on top of you. The life wafts out of him. You want to wash. Stand up. Swab a finger around your vagina. But you don’t. You let him stay there. Let him catch back his breath.

After a minute you ask the question. ‘Do I have anything to worry about?’

‘No.’ He says, eyes closed, face in a cat’s smile…

All you do, however, is worry.

He rolls off. You get up slowly. Pick your clothes up off the floor. He’s ready to sleep. You want to ask the question again. Instead you try to make breezy conversation. Pulling up your jeans, you perch on the edge of his bed and he strokes your arm. He wants to see you again. He says.

You get a taxi home. You lie in bed, awake, working out which part of your cycle you’re in. You are your most fertile. It’s probably fine, you tell yourself. Get some sleep.

Twenty minutes later you’re on Google typing in ‘pregnancy and the withdrawal method’. You read the words ‘pre-cum’. You think back to what you felt. Nothing. You think. You were wet. That’s all. Wait a few days and get a pregnancy test. You’re being silly. It’s probably fine.

But what if it’s not fine? Would you tell him? What would he say? Would he see you again? Would he believe you? What would you even do? Should you get the morning after-pill? It’s expensive. But less so then an abortion and you certainly can’t afford a baby. When was the last time you took it? Six months? Or was it more like four? What will the pharmacist think when you ask for it again? He told you it wasn’t to be treated as a contraceptive. Would that have been a Saturday? Yes. Should you wait till Sunday, for a different person? What if he works the weekend? The longer you leave it, the less effective it can be. You want to enjoy the rest of your weekend. You have plans. Is that the reason you are taking it? Is that good enough? What about the side-effects? Do you really need it? How could you tell?

Four hours later, you get a train to another branch. You hand over twenty-five pounds and an apology. Outside the shop, you swallow the pill. You finally relax. You get the train home. You eat breakfast and then the nausea starts. Three hours later you vomit. Does it mean the pill might not work? You go to consult the packaging. You threw it away. You ask Google instead. You get many opinions. It’s probably fine.

You lie down. You call your friend. You tell her what happened. She understands. You tell her you won’t be able to make her birthday. Again, she says, she understands. You feel like a crap person.

You wait for his text. It never comes. You decide you are a crap person.

You make a rule. 

Emma Rasmussen
 
* This piece was originally published by The Quotable 

 

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David Bracke – The Last Can

The Last Can

The man parted the bushes and limped out onto the road. A chunky wind of dirt and sand blew across his face, mixing with the faint plume of his breath.  He pulled his scarf up over his mouth and nose and adjusted his goggles.  He looked both ways; the desolation seemed to stretch on forever. He took out his old pistol and held it ready before crossing the street.  The convenient store was nothing more than a burned-out wooden frame with broken windows. Weeds were growing in the open doorway and he crushed them down with his boot.  A skinny rat scurried along the wall and disappeared behind the counter where the clerk would have sat.

With his pistol still raised he started inspecting each shelf for food.  Something must have been overlooked on the already barren shelves.  He was careful not to step on any trash wrappers in the aisle.  Someone could have been listening. It wasn’t until the last aisle when he saw the glimmer.  It was tucked back in a corner covered in ash.  He took it down and couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen anything so beautiful.  He brushed off the dust and cobwebs trying to find a clue of what was inside, but the previous label had been burned off.  His mouth watered as he imagined the possibilities, and, for that brief moment he was at peace.  Just then a sharp blow to his temple collapsed his fantasy and he fell to the ground.   Then everything went black.

The boy dropped the two by four and picked the can up off the ground.  He could see his reflection in the scratched surface.  He hadn’t seen his reflection in a long time.  There was dried blood on his forehead, and he recalled the fall he had taken the other day.  His eyes were deathly sunken and his face was thin and emaciated.  He picked up a rock and started slamming the top of the can but only made a few small dents.  He used his teeth and gnawed on the corner trying to get just a drop of what was inside. He heard a car coming down the road and ran to the door.  It was the first car the boy had seen in over a year.  He ran into the middle of the road and waved it down.  It was an old Ford covered in dust.

“Do you have a can opener?” said the boy

In the driver ‘s seat was a young woman.  Her face was dusty and she was wearing red lipstick. 

“I will share this can of food with you,” said the boy.  

At the sight of the can her eyes lit up like diamonds.

“It’s a fake,” said the woman.

“It’s real,” said the boy.

“Yes, I have a can opener, but let me see,” said the woman.

The boy hesitated.

“I need to feel the weight,” she said.

The boy gave her the can and she made faces of contemplation; rolling her eyes and flexing her chin.  In the back seat the boy could see a pile of junk; old tools and pieces of metal.  Then it was all a blur to the boy.  She hit the gas and took off leaving him in cloud of gray dust.  She threw the can in the back seat with the rest of her supplies and flipped on the radio.  The frequency was static and she smiled. 

She had driven no more than ten miles when there was an explosion.  Her car flipped over and she was crushed instantly. The can rolled out onto the street, then off to the side of the road, and into a polluted stream of acid rain and small animal carcasses.  There, it sunk, displacing the mud at the bottom.  The new seasons came and went and the can was washed down stream until it was deposited into a larger river.  It floated around for a long time until a painted hand scooped it up.

– David Bracke

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Dan Morey – Little Skulls

Little Skulls

Eight old men are dying behind a curtain in Brendan’s hospital ward.  What they’re dying of I can’t say.  But they’re dying.  You can smell it.  Sometimes I go over and talk to them, but they never say anything back.  I go anyway, because I can’t just sit here and stare at Brendan all day.  It’s too boring.

Right now I’m on Brendan’s side of the curtain.  Like the song that says whose suicide are you on?  I’m on Brendan’s.  And he is a suicide.  Well, almost a suicide.  The doctor told us he took a very bad beating and drank a lot of Drano and that he’s going to be comatose for a while.  He doesn’t know if Brendan got beat up and then drank the Drano, or if he drank the Drano and then got beat up.  I’m pretty sure I know the guy who did the beating, and I wouldn’t put it past him to wail on a suicided body.  But there’s no proof, and Brendan isn’t likely to tell us, since the only noise he can make is a fart.

Brendan really does look like hell, with his bruised face and purple eye sockets and breathing tubes and IVs.  The nurse shaved off his mohawk so they could drill a hole in his head and relieve the brain swelling, and now you can see all these old tattoos where his hair used to be.  They look like a five-year-old drew them—little skulls and stars and a heart that’s cracked in half. Continue Reading »

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Heather M. Browne – Her War Ghosts

Her War Ghosts

The ghosts she did not know
 Tinged her days, sepia shaded longing
Sadness touching upon celebrations

 Cooling the edges, chilling
 her laughter

The ghosts she did not know
  Painted her moments, washing her walls
 Their shadowy silhouettes hanging
 Among family portraits
 Photos of before or now lined the walls, never then 

She looked into the eyes of her grandmother
Grandfather, uncle, aunts

 Days, years, months before, lightness, light
 Family she’d never meet
 Or know
 She looked at their mouths, soft
 Their hands, open
 Their bellies, full
 Her parents never spoke of what happened
 Only these three photos remained, hung
 Silent

Walking the hall she struggled to capture their voices
 Their words, alert to prick their whisperings
 She could sense their muffled background rumblings

Standing before their faces she could feel the rise
 Their anger stirring, her hatred mounting, stomach rolling
 Her family had been taken
 Ripped from all they’d known, stripped
 Down to nothing, nothing but flesh and bones
 Their bodies burned
 The dust of their debris covering everything, falling
 Still 

She moved to Papa and Mama’s portrait, young then, before
A spring dance, lace, chiffon

 Laughter filling their faces, spilling easily into gentle bodies
 Ghosts she did not know
 She smiled, a bit
 Mama’s hand gently touched Papa’s clean-shaven cheek
 Her wrist soft, clean
 Their numbers inked
 Embedded into flesh
 Stained
 Always covered now, her body shook, on guard with prickling
 Her covering would slip in moments, exposed
 Fear and shame contorting Mama’s face, always fear now
 She longed to touch their mark 

She turned to Grandmother’s portrait
She he had her Grandmother’s eyes

 Spoken, this brought stinging to Mama
 She looked deeply, her eyes
 She pressed her nose upon the glass, cold
 Dust stirred
 The barrier between then and now
 How could they share eyes
 When she’d never seen the horrors?
 Her reflection mirrored back in the aged glass
 Her eyes overlapping Grandmother’s
 Blending and reflecting
 Revealing
 Her ghost

– Heather M. Browne

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