FEBRUARY 26, 2019| ISSUE no 249
crack the spine
Patrice Boyer Claeys
David S. Osgood
One Night on the Max
short fiction by S.W. Campbell
We were on the Orange Line headed back down toward Milwaukie, Jake and me. It was late, damn soccer game didn’t start until eight. They got on one stop after us. You could tell what they were the moment they got on. He was a gaunt fella, cheap tattoos up and down his arms, kind of stooped over. She was a bigger gal, but more puffy than fat, you know, the way they get. Both had the sunk in faces. He had a backpack. She had a one of those giant hard plastic mugs, the type you buy down at the 7-11. They had a dog on a leash, just a puppy, it wasn’t a bad looking dog.
People started eyeing them the moment they got on. You know, sideways glances with the occasional blank stare broken as soon as the two of them looked over. Hell, I can’t get on no high horse, I was doing it myself and I’m pretty sure Jake was doing the same. It's a pretty normal human reaction. Old savannah instincts kicking in, at least at first, at least until it shifts into morbid curiosity and disgust. There was one girl down on the other end. Pretty girl, at least the prettiest girl on the train, which isn’t saying much on the Orange Line at 11:30 in the evening, but pretty enough I guess. She just kept staring, biting her lip and staring. None of it made me feel very comfortable, you know, having them right across from me, but what was I supposed to do? Just get up and move? You never know what’s going to antagonize such people.
The puppy started barking a little when they first got on. The puffy woman wasn’t having any of that shit.
Her voice was a gravelly stab through the air. The voice my mother used to have late in the day when she just couldn’t take our shit anymore. The guy reached down and gave the puppy a pat. He mumbled something to it that I couldn’t hear. He moved slow and his hands were shaking. It kind of looked like not all the signals were getting through. I don’t know about Jake, but I mostly concentrated on the puppy. I guess I could’ve stared at the wall or something, or the window behind them, but it's pretty hard to concentrate on nothing when you got a puppy leaping around a right there in front of you. Like I said, it didn’t look like there was anything wrong with it. They had it in a harness with an okay looking leash, and a small bell hanging around its neck that tinkled as it moved around. It acted like every other puppy I’ve ever seen. Sniffing everything and wagging its damn tail.
I don’t know if the guy was smiling, I tried to avoid looking at his face, but he at least seemed to be enjoying having the puppy there. As soon as they sat down he got out a piece of rawhide and laid it down next to the puppy. He brushed the rawhide along its face a bit, you know, to see if it wanted to play, which it did a bit, tugging at the rawhide, but not for long. Puppies have short attention spans. Then he reached in his bag again and pulled out this rubber pig, probably about a third the size of the pup. He put it on the floor and gave it a squeeze, unleashing a pretty realistic pig grunt. The puppy though didn’t seem interested in that either. The guy didn’t seem too perturbed about it. He just reached forward with his shaky hands and scratched the puppy behind the ear. It seemed to like that, it really leaned into him. When the man reached down I could see the track marks on his arm. That kind of puzzled me for a bit. I was thinking one of the other ones, but hell, I guess people can enjoy all sorts of flavors. You don’t have to pick one.
The puffy woman kept smacking her lips. Opening and closing her mouth. I did my best not to look at her either, but I could see the motions, and its just natural to look now and again. It’s just the way things are. She had these real piggy eyes, with the skin sagging around them. It made her look really tired. She opened up her giant mug. It was full of ice. She pulled some out and popped it into her mouth. The guy took some of the ice and let the puppy lick it in his hand. The woman licked her lips and smacked her mouth. The guy leaned over toward her. His voice sounded just like a little boy in church. You know, just above a whisper, with just a hint of fear that maybe even then he was talking too loud.
Her voice wasn’t quiet. Her voice raised some heads towards their direction.
“My damn mouth is dry.”
All the attention seemed to make the guy nervous. At least that’s what it looked like to me. His whole body shook for a moment. The kind of pretty gal was really staring then. God you should’ve seen her. Tight curls framing her pale face. I kept my eyes on the dog, you know, just using my peripheries. Jake kept shifting in his seat.
The guy reached into his backpack and pulled out a liter bottle of Mountain Dew. He cracked the top gentle as you please and poured the whole thing into her mug. I kind of saw his face when he did it. There was a little forced smile on his lips and his eyes reminded me of my mother when I was really sick and she brought me cough syrup. He struggled to put the top back on the mug, what with his hands shaking the way they were, but he kept at it and managed it in the end. The woman watched him while he worked. When he was done she took a sip, let out a tired sigh, and leaned up against him. The train kept moving, and things got kind of quiet for a bit. The kind of pretty girl was still staring, so I stared at her until she felt uncomfortable and looked away.
We were about four or so stations in by this point, just starting to cross the bridge. I had expected them to get off by now, but maybe they were going to the east side. I don’t know why I assumed they’d be getting off before the bridge. Lots of places for people like them everywhere. Really none of my business, it wasn’t like they were bothering anybody. They were just sitting there.
The puppy was gazing up at the guy. It made a little noise in its throat. The guy smiled down at it.
“What is it buddy?”
The puppy made the sound again, pawing the ground in front of it. The guy looked a little puzzled, then his eyes brightened up. He reached into his bag and pulled out what looked to be a cold chicken finger. The puppy started panting the moment it saw what he was holding, its tail whipping back and forth at high speed. The guy tore off a chunk and fed the puppy a piece, tore off a chunk himself, and then tore off a chunk for the woman leaning against him. The puppy lifted itself up a bit on its hind feet to say thanks. The woman just chewed on the chicken without a word. Once all of it was gone he pulled out another one and repeated the process, then a third. I was beginning to wonder how many chicken fingers the guy had, but he didn’t pull anymore out after three.
The puppy started making the sound in its throat again. The guy showed it his empty hands.
The guy took the mug from the woman and drank a sip of Mountain Dew. The puppy was pawing at the floor. It started whining. A good loud whine. The guy looked sadly down at it. The woman had less sympathy.
The puppy laid down, its head between its paws, that chastened look that dogs get on its face. I looked back up the train. The kind of good looking girl had changed seats, up the aisle a bit, where all the seats face front. All you could see was the back of her curly head.
When I looked back the puppy was staring up at me, giving me the infamous puppy stare. I don’t know, something about it just twinged the right spot. I just wanted to reach out and give it a pet, but I didn’t. No reason to ask for trouble or get involved in anything I really didn’t want to get involved in. The couple were kind of not looking at anything, you know, staring at the floor, but seeing nothing. The puppy started to nose around a bit. It crossed the aisle to our side. Jake reached down and scratched it behind the ear. I reached down and patted its butt. It was really the least that we could do.
A Plague of Peacocks
At first everyone in the neighborhood thought it was an isolated incident. Or that there was something defective about the peacock that made it attack Grace Kim’s brand new black BMW. Witnesses didn’t know what to make of all the pecking and the thrack thrack his feet made as he one-two punched the panels. Cobalt head down, he circled to the other side, almost stalking the sedan. Across the pavement his vast emerald plumage dragged behind him like the trail of a ball gown before he continued the assault. As horrified as the on-lookers were, there was no denying that a peacock was the most beautiful creature in the world that could destroy your paint job.
The car was covered in long scratches before Bud Rockwell, the Kims’ next-door neighbor, chased it off with a baseball bat and a thwack to its shepherd’s crook neck. In the viral video you can see Bud in his signature tucked-in plaid shirt and corduroys shouting, “Make way!” at spectators covering their mouths in horror and amusement with one hand and taking photos with the other.
When she saw the state of her car, Grace Kim traced the scratches, muttering words no one could hear. The women crowded around her, touching her arms or standing in solidarity, all a little smug that it hadn’t happened to them. The men huddled as if to formulate a plan but discussed last night’s game instead.
For two days it seemed like Grace Kim was merely unlucky. But the collective wish for things to return to normal was squashed when Henry Fitzhugh’s Jaguar was next. All the more painful since it had just been detailed. The morning after, he carried his bagel to the car and when he saw the damage, he wept openly. His wife Priscilla observed the bagel rolling in its aluminum foil across the driveway and knew that catastrophe had struck.
All over the neighborhood, residents woke to shrieking in the night and scraped cars in the morning. Dogs barked threats. Babies screamed in protest. Dinners were brought to a halt by the sound of claws on metal. Piles and trails of shit adorned the previously well-manicured lawns. They reeked and looked like a paving error.
Everyone scrambled to move the miscellany of their lives so they could fit their cars into their garages. Three vehicle households resorted to caging the least expensive car with chicken wire. The Homeowner’s Association frowned upon it, but banged up luxury cars wasn’t the aesthetic they were going for either. They began meeting once a week to discuss solutions to the peacock problem, but it was unclear whose responsibility it was to remove them, and the HOA was toothless without a majority.
Taking a cue from Bud Rockwell, men and teenage boys began striking the peacocks with baseball bats. Ethan Kowalski received ten stitches after his swing failed to connect, and the peacock retaliated. Everyone whispered that he hadn’t made the baseball team for a reason but warned against direct action anyway.
In the chaos, Lily Weiss keyed the truck Aiden Lowell had received for his sixteenth birthday. She wanted to scratch “dillweed”, but she had to be satisfied with vertical scratches. Thin, not too deep. Maybe a stab or two for beak marks.
Accusations were thrown. It was because of Grace Kim. After all, her car was attacked first. No, no it was the Fitzhughs’ blackberries. That’s what attracted them. Well actually they were only aggressive because they were in heat. Suddenly everyone was an expert on peacocks.
As Bud Rockwell perched on his porch with his hand clutching the nozzle of a hose, he watched his neighbors cluster to gossip and blame each other for what looked like a quirk of nature. Like they had that much control. Nowadays people wanted explanations. For things to happen for a reason. When Bud grew up things just happened. What mattered was the response. And his response was sprinklers, bottled dog urine, wire mesh, brightly colored streamers and red pepper sprinkled in the flowerbeds at the front of the house. They said he was crazy. But he was the only one with an intact yard.
When the local gazette reported on the phenomenon, it was old Mrs. McCartney—the only one of them who still had a subscription—who told Priscilla Fitzhugh who told the whole community what caused the plague. A nearby farmer named James Bracken had died recently, and the peacocks escaped their enclosure, ravaging the surrounding landscape and anything shiny enough for them to see their own faces. It wasn’t the luxury cars they hated.
flash fiction by Chelsea Stickle
poetry by Trevor Pyle
The vein yielded
rivults of ink,
than a spray
of blotted birds
in the arched hollow
of the sky.
A rubber mask pressed to my mouth.
what it was that
but the words
and mishearing me
someone glanced above
and said starlings they look like starlings.
What Kind of Birds
Tara showed up with dried vomit in her hair and the most beautiful dress I had ever seen. She walked to the keg and ordered two jocks to hold her legs. She looked like an inverted umbrella hanging from two trees. From a battered green couch in a room full of sin, I lit a joint. She sat next to me after she came down from her umbrella cloud. I blew smoke into her mouth and idolized her everything. She acted like she didn’t care and it made me nervous. She touched my face and everything was okay again.
micro fiction by David S. Osgood
The summer before I leave for college, I only see my brother twice. The first time is at my graduation party. The second is a hot day in mid-July.
I show up ten minutes early, but I can see my brother already sitting at the counter. His head is framed between parts of the restaurant logo, held in the space between the words The Chatterbox and the cartoon stack of pancakes piled underneath. I chain my bicycle across the street. A gentle tinkle rings somewhere behind the counter as I pull the door open. A rush of cool air blows my bangs back, except for a few pieces that are stuck to my forehead with sweat. Matt turns on his stool, away from the waitress with long red nails who has been leaning against the countertop to chat with him, her blue blouse is cut low.
“Jake!” he says. He leans down off his stool, scooping me into a one-armed hug. I set my bike helmet on the counter next to him. I haven’t been to this diner since last summer, the last time Matt offered to tune up my bicycle.
I pull myself on the stool next to him, holding on to the countertop. Matt is swinging his foot, bumping it against the counter. His hands are wrapped around the white mug, fingers laced together through the handle. I can see the rings of the vibration in his coffee.
“I ordered us both pancakes,” Matt says. “I figured that’s what you’d want.”
“Sure,” I say. It’s still early, and the place is mostly empty. “They definitely be better than what Sherry was making this morning.”
Matt laughs. He punches me on the shoulder, lightly, takes another sip of coffee. He tried our stepmother’s cooking once, nearly four years ago now, on Easter. It was just after he’d moved out. Sherry served chicken so dry that we had to rip the meat from the bone with our fingers.
The waitress sets our plates down in front of us, her red nails tapping the countertop. Matt picks up his fork and I realize that I sat on the wrong side of him. He’s a lefty. We’ll be bumping elbows all morning. I shift over slightly on my stool.
“How is Sherry, anyway?” Matt asks. Small bits of pancake syrup are glistening on the tips of the stubble below his lips. He grabs a napkin from the tin on the counter, running it along his chin. I hear the napkin scratch over his face. It sounds like when he first taught me how to shave, dragging his razor over the prickly hairs.
“She’s alright,” I say. The pancakes are saturated with syrup, gooey and thick. I’m trying to talk through them. “She has her hands full.”
When I picture Sherry in my mind, she is always in motion. Her blonde hair sways around her freckled, tanned skin. She is always carrying something: a pot, a phone, a stack of papers. She is always wearing a tank top and athletic pants with a pattern down the side of her leg. She runs a yoga studio a few blocks from where we live. She isn’t the kind of woman either of us expected our father to remarry. Sherry smells like cocoa butter and talks in a voice with the same texture. She’s more flatfooted than my mother was.
This morning, as I was leaving, my step-brother tipped over his glass of milk and pulled it around the table with his fingertips. I just stared at him, thinking of the stack of dinner plates on my bedside table.
Matt shakes his head, rubbing his hands over his face. He leaves them pressed against his forehead for a moment, staring at his plate. “I honestly have no idea how Dad deals with it.”
I pick up my fork and push my pancakes around my plate. I’m not really hungry. The syrup is sticky and dry in my mouth. The pancakes are so thick and rich that when I try to swallow a bite, the clump stays in my throat instead. I think about mentioning the late-night leftovers that dad has been living on for the past few months, but swallow another clump of pancake instead.
The diner fills up around us, the chiming of the door carrying over the steady conversation. The wall behind the register is papered with black and white photographs. Matt smiles at a few other guys at a table behind us, people who work with him at Bay Street Bikes. His promotion to store manager came last year but he’s been working there since he turned sixteen. He knows the crowd pretty well. Matt doesn’t seem to be struggling with the thickness of the food, taking wedges out of the pancake stack with his fork. He chews quickly and swallows hard, bobbing his head. He leans over and bumps his shoulder against mine, smiling at me.
When we finish, Matt slaps a twenty down on the table. We make our way through the crowded tables and out onto the street with another tinkle of bells. The pavement is fuzzy, heat rising off the black asphalt. Across the street, my bike looks foggy. I blink and squint at it, droplets of sweat already gathering at the edges of my eyes. Matt rubs his face with his forearm.
“Man, it’s a scorcher,” he says. He shakes his wrist to bring his watch down toward his hand, checking the time with a glance so fast I’m almost not sure if he saw it. “I’m going to pull my truck around. We can toss your bike in the back.”
His truck is an old pickup, low to the ground, rusting at the wheelwells and along the silver back bumper. It has no air conditioning, so we roll down the windows. Matt sits back in the seat, holding the steering wheel at the bottom with his left hand, only making minor adjustments to keep the truck on the sprawling straightaway. The tuner is set between stations and we get clips of a talk show through the static, intermixed with a drumbeat from a song that breaks through occasionally.
“I’m amazed that bike still works,” Matt says.
“Outlasted your radio, too,” I say. I reach to adjust the dial. Every way I turn the knob, we end up with fuzz that shimmers through the car like the heat off the dashboard.
Matt nods. “I busted the antenna,” he says. “And look what you did, you lost the one good station we had.” The wind is pushing his dark hair back and forth around his face. I notice a spot toward the back where the curls lay flatter against his head, ringlets compressed from where he slept.
We pull up to his house, then around to the side. Matt lifts my bike down from the truck bed, sending the back-wheel spinning until he rests it on the chain-link fence that surrounds his back yard. He lets me in through the gate, disappearing into his house to retrieve his toolkit. There are two other bikes chained up to his fence: a road bike, considerably newer than mine, and a mountain bike, speckled with mud. Matt’s house is only one story tall, the bricks a chocolate brown. There are wooden steps leading up to a small back porch with a thin, slanted roof overhead. A ladder is propped up on one of the pillars. It looks like it could be there for construction, but our old house had a ladder in a very similar spot. Matt always liked to climb on to the roof, taking the rungs two at a time.
He comes back out with his toolbox and lifts the bicycle into a stand. The bike is old, straight from the 70s, but it is still sturdy as ever. Our dad used it on his paper routes back in the day. Matt borrowed it for a little while, but he got some sort of discount at Bay Street Bikes on a fantastic new Crossfit, so it fell to me. Each one of us has added our own scratches and nicks to the golden frame. Last summer, Matt and I replaced the handlebar tape, but luckily we haven’t had to do any major repairs. Matt tells me that most of the parts on this bike have become obsolete anyway. Something about the drive shaft, substandard sizing. Once it breaks, it’s finished.
“Are you taking this to school with you this fall?” Matt asks. “Where are you going, anyway? Yale?”
I laugh, but it comes out short, more of a sniff through my nose. “Almost. Penn State.”
“Same thing,” Matt says. He crouches down beside the pedals, running his fingers along the chain. I fold my arms over my chest, holding my elbows in my palms and pressing my forearms against my stomach. I don’t want to talk about school with Matt.
“Dad doesn’t ride it anymore?” he asks.
“No,” I say. “Dad doesn’t really bike these days.”
“Not at all?” Matt asks. He’s holding on to the left pedal, spinning it with one hand while he tests the back brakes with the other.
“Not really,” I say, fidgeting with the hem of my shirt. There is a loose thread on the left side at the bottom. I run it through the pads on my fingertips, trying to tug it off. “He’s actually started going to yoga with Sherry.”
Matt looks at me over the handlebars, his eyes wide. His lips are parted so that the bottoms of his front teeth are just visible. His eyebrows are arched, his brown eyes fixed to mine. For a startling second, I see our mother in his features. I see her face for the first time in years, if only I could add some flesh to his cheeks and round off the square chin Matt got from my father.
“Who would have thought,” he says, shaking his head so that his shaggy hair falls back down around his eyes. “Jim, doing yoga.”
He pulls a wrench from the toolbox. His hands work on the wheel at the back of the bike, loosening the bolt around the brake cable, grunting with effort. He pulls a length of cable through with pliers, tightens the bolt again, and begins to turn the brake caliper clockwise, one notch at a time. With each click, he spins the wheel and tests the brakes again. He scratches his chin, leaving a grease mark under the corner of his lip.
I watch his hands. The knuckles on his fingers are hardened and raised. Those same hands once took apart our father’s watch with me, much to the amusement of our mother, who helped us find the places for all of the gears before he came home. They also built my alarm clock. Now, the backs of both of his hands are covered with small white marks, scars left over from when he first started at the shop. He always came home on the weekends with scratches from where a chain had pinched his skin, or a cable had slipped and scraped his wrist. I can still see our mother holding his hand in the palm of her own, rubbing antiseptic over the small abrasions with her long fingers. Matt started working right around the same time that my mother began wearing bandanas to cover her hair loss.
“I tried a yoga class once,” I say. I had taken Sherry’s beginner class, borrowing a purple mat from the bin in the corner and setting myself up next to the back mirror. It was harder than I expected. When I biked school the next day, my thighs had burned in protest of every pedal stroke.
“Did you?” He says. “Is that some kind of college thing?” He looks up at me with a partial smile, the kind that creases the dimple on his left cheek and pulls his lips apart, but not upward.
“No,” I say. I twist the thread around my fingers. The truth is, I don’t know how to ask him if he’s okay. I don’t know how to tell him that every step I take toward Penn State feels like another step away from him.
“I’m just teasing,” he says, holding up his hands. Grease streaks his palms like paint, gathering in the ridges of his palms. “I just hear college changes people. Sherry’s a college grad, isn’t she?”
“She’s not that bad once you get to know her,” I say. His face is still pulled into that spot that is almost, but not quite, a smile. “You should come to dinner sometime.”
“Maybe. Sometime,” he says. He stands, his knees cracking. He wipes his hands on his khakis, leaving lines of black slightly thinner than his fingers. He turns the pedals again as he stands, flipping through the gears on the bike, watching the back derailleur move the chain across the cogs.
I can’t watch him anymore. I tell him I’m headed to the bathroom, make way up the porch steps and under his ladder. His backdoor doesn’t open when I turn the handle. I have to hit it with my hip to get inside. It rattles.
His house is only slightly cooler than outside. His kitchen smells like old lettuce. Boxes of microwavable dinners are stacked in the recycling bin next to the trash. Dishes are piled high in the sink. The countertops are off white, or maybe yellow, stained with old coffee that has also begun to run down the fronts of the cabinets below. The appliances look beaten down and far older than the few years Matt has been living here. I pick my way around his small table, down the dark hall to the bathroom.
A tug at the chain overhead turns the bathroom light on. I turn the cool water on, but change my mind. I like the way my hands feel right now, coated in a layer of grit. I look at myself in the mirror, my face red and splotched from the heat. I press my forehead against the cool glass, breathing in deeply, closing my eyes and listening to the water splashing on the white basin. When I pull away, there is a damp oval on the mirror. I try to wipe it off with a ball of toilet paper but it smears around instead, so I click the light off. I don’t think he’ll realize, anyway.
The door to Matt’s bedroom is on my left. He’s left it ajar so I push it open. His clothing lies in piles on the floor. It’s mostly sorted, but he’s only folded a shirt here, a pair of pants there. In his closet are a few button-downs. Most are wrinkled. He has a television on his dresser. The remote control rests on his bedstand, next to an empty cup and a radio alarm clock that I recognize from his room back home. I can see where he sleeps, the sheets pulled back on his half of the bed. An indentation in his mattress where he stretches out every night, the pillow still holding the oval shape of his head. The other half of the bed, though, looks completely untouched. The sheets on that side are still tucked in, carefully wrapped around the bottom of the mattress. A green pillow is placed carefully on top of the comforter, and a quilt is folded at the bottom. It looks intentionally untouched, as though Matt is only ever comfortable occupying half of his bed.
Matt is in the kitchen when I come back out, bent at the waist to look in fridge. It’s started raining. I can see the dark droplets on his shirt, hear it plink on the kitchen window.
“Can I get you anything?” he asks. I shake my head. He pulls out a soda, cracks the top, and slurps a long drink. Something catches my eye though. From this angle, I can see a glint of metal through a cracked cabinet below the sink. I cross to it and pull the door open.
“Is this mom’s mixer?” I ask.
Matt laughs behind me. He reaches up and lifts it down from the shelf with a grunt. “Yeah, you recognize it?”
The aluminum bowl almost falls off the old Kitchen-Aid as he sets it on the countertop. I pick it up, looking at my distorted reflection on the side. I run my fingertips around the rim of the bowl, set it down, lock it in place, tip the top of the mixer over it. Our mother had it before I was born. It might even be older than Matt. It still has the original beater attached. I can almost taste the metal on my tongue from the times she handed it to me, or to Matt, to lick off, every time she was cooking something.
“I can’t believe you took it,” I say.
“Of course,” he says. “Even if Dad hadn’t moved it, I wasn’t going to leave it for Sherry.” His cheek twitches, his dimple appearing momentarily. “I’m not sure she’d even know how to use it.”
I hold the bowl between my palms, looking at the smooth, rounded bottom. My fingertips are pressed on the cool metal, but there is blood pulsing through them. The bowl has a dent in the side from one of the times my mother dropped it and it bounced off the countertop. I can see the distortion along the edge.
I can hear the whirring of the machine in my ears. I can almost taste my mother’s mashed potatoes. Not the kind of mashed potatoes that Sherry makes, the kind that are on sale at Wal-Mart. The kind that advertise that all you need to do is add water. The kind that my stepbrother consumes in a matter of minutes. Those are usually grainy, leaving grits in my teeth. The truth is, they never end up looking like the picture on the box. No, mom used to make real mashed potatoes in this thing.
Matt gives me a small punch on the shoulder with just the tips of his knuckles. They are the only part of his hands not covered in grease. I set the bowl back down, trying to lock it in place. My hand slips. Matt reaches forward to steady the bowl, twisting it into place. He snatches a rag off the kitchen countertop to wipe the greasy fingerprints, cupping the rag in his palm and scooping them off the silver surface. I wonder when Matt took the mixer out of our old house, where he stored it until he moved out on his own. I can still feel the cool surface of the aluminum bowl on my fingertips.
“Do you ever use it?” I ask. The light from the window over the sink has grown dim, catching on the aluminum and throwing a silver crescent on the wall. Rain slips down the glass. Next to me, standing just close enough that I can feel it, Matt shakes his head.
“It’s ancient, isn’t it?” He says. “It just feels good to have it, you know?”
He sits down at the table, setting his soda on the edge, looking at me. I lean back against the counter.
“Do you want it?” Matt asks. “You could take it to college with you.”
I shake my head.
“So, you’re really leaving?”
“In a few weeks.”
Matt runs his fingers around the top of the can in circles, around and around. I watch them. He’s staring somewhere around my knees, but his eyes are unfocused, staring beyond me. I look at him, then out the window, then at his shoes, which are red and worn.
“Let’s get you home,” he says. “I’ll drive you. I’ll bring your bike back in a few days. I want to replace some cables and get that chain greased.”
I nod. He nods. He stands up heavily.
When he drops me off, I go down to the basement and sit in Matt’s old room, on the futon that doubled as his bed before he moved out. I can hear Sherry’s footsteps overhead as she moves around the kitchen. She walks heavy, rattling the picture frame on his wall. The photo in the frame is still his high school girlfriend, a girl named Amy who he hasn’t talked to in years.
Most of Matt’s belongings are still down there. His television is coated in a layer of dust. I wipe a small circle on the upper left corner with the bottom of my shirt. It leaves small tufts of gray fluff. It looks like dryer lint. I lay down on the futon, listening to the rain between the punches of Sherry’s footsteps.
A few days later, my bike is chained to the front porch, a new coat of golden paint glinting in the sunlight.
short fiction by Katy Mullins
A Vintage Bordeaux, bought on holiday, the same day I sucked your toes on the public beach. We were saving it to mark a special occasion: twenty years ago, my first taste of you. Now open, it stands, breathes; this object we picked together lives. It has outlived us.
Your first words, under neon light, on a crowded dance-floor: ‘We’re alike. I can tell.’ My head was heavy with shyness; my shirt, one of Dad’s, buttoned to the collar. You lifted my chin with a fingertip and our tongues touched. Sharpness, like sherbet, shocked me to life; bristles of stubble burned my mouth. Afterwards, half-laughs half-gasps as I nibbled your earlobes, your neck, and stripped you to the tender parts below.
Photos pepper our home. Paris, Tokyo, Havana. Fragments of time, slices of space, frozen and preserved. But the essence of us, the sense that bound us, is fading. Life without you is as bland and tasteless as water.
Last night, alone in bed, I licked the back of both hands, again and again, until my tongue was dry and thick and fuzzy. Sour sweat and salt stirred my body for the first time since. Still, it wasn’t the same: you were older; you had matured into something more.
So tonight, candles flicker, glasses twinkle, the best cutlery shines. Our Christmas sherry laces the gravy, cutting through the grease. Your skin, gently dotted with cloves, crisped up perfectly; your succulent flesh, rested and thickly carved, shimmers. Seduces.
I raise a toast: to us.
And then I tuck in. Delicious. You always were.
flash fiction by Danny Beusch
--after Molly McCully Brown
This month the money is so short she rakes her nails on the car floor
for dimes and quarters bent cigarettes
on the job on her feet cheap shoes blown from circling tables
every pair of stretch pants snagged by sharp sprung corners
too quiet just the TV’s fake laugh bouncing off the tile floors
too noisy sometimes delivery guys rushing the register phones
insisting she get it right toppings drink size expiration date
the endless such-and-such of nothing
and him on her all the time nice of you to come in today without
two black eyes don’t use that pen, idiot can’t you do anything right
She’s not to blame for his mother’s dying and that the woman raised
an asshole for a son
She’s got a son and hungry animals unpaid tickets and a court date
slashed tires on her boyfriend’s car and a crappy cellphone the junk
that passes for a life
it’s enough to make her turn to smoke the kind that washes her
Life at 25
poetry by Patrice Boyer Claeys
Midterms are this week. Classes are more crowded, but also more quiet, than normal. Concentration can make a place seem empty.
It happens while I grade my students’ vignettes. Fiction, we had decided weeks ago. But the creation on these pages were conceived in more than imagination; my students also used the inspiration of their own realities.
When she sets silence aflame, I am at my desk, identifying, again and again, my students in the stories of their protagonists. Their same questions, struggles, trauma. Resilience.
Until a siren, it seems, severs everyone’s agendas. Somewhere down the hall, she sounds like the worst news someone could hear. Because the school is as quiet as a secret otherwise, her wail becomes the one sound we know.
From classrooms and offices, a number of us emerge. It seems impossible that we will reach her before whatever has wounded her starts to blister.
Even amidst this urgency, I wonder what sort of vignette she would write.
I wonder to whom she has told her story.
I worry it might not be anyone.
creative non-fiction by Kerry Graham
Danny Beusch is a writer from the UK. His work appears in Ellipsis Zine, Reflex Fiction, and The Cabinet of Heed. Follow him on twitter: @OhDannyBoyShhh
S.W. Campbell was born in Eastern Oregon. He currently resides in Portland where he works as an economist and lives with a house plant named Morton. He has had numerous short stories published in various literary reviews. His first novel, The Uncanny Valley, and first short story collection, An Unsated Thirst, are available for purchase at his website, www.shawnwcampbell.com.
Patrice Boyer Claeys
Patrice Boyer Claeys revved up her creative writing at the University of Chicago’s Writer’s Studio after 15 years in publishing and PR. She joined Plumb Line Poets, of Evanston, Illinois, and completed her first book, “Lovely Daughter of the Shattering,” which will be published in 2019 by Kelsay Books. Recent publications: Clementine Unbound, Postcard Poems and Prose, Beech Street Review, Bird’s Thumb and Light: A Journal of Photography & Poetry, where she was featured artist. Patrice reads for and contributes to the Mom Egg Review and has been nominated for Best of the Net.
Kerry Graham lives, teaches, writes and runs in Baltimore, Maryland. Her work has appeared in The Three Quarter Review, Gravel Literary Journal, The Citron Review, A Quiet Courage and Role Reboot, among others.
Julia Hadrich is an aspiring photographer living in Peoria, AZ. Majoring in photography and a minor in photo-editing, she received an Associate in Arts from Rio Salado College. From camera obscura to the immensely challenging world of digital, Julia has been emerged herself in the history of photography. Not only does Julia continue to learn different techniques, she challenges her photography skill by entering online photography sites such as; Viewbug but also, in local art competitions. In February 2012, during the Arizona Centennial, her photographs were displayed at the Phoenix Art Museum.
Katy Mullins’ writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Bayou Magazine, South Dakota Review, Fiction Southeast, and Typehouse Literary Magazine, among others. She received her Bachelors in English Writing from the University of Pittsburgh, where she also studied education, music, and children’s literature. She currently lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she is on the editorial board of Nimrod International Journal, and teaches high school.
David S. Osgood
David S. Osgood is a short story writer. He resides in Holly Springs, North Carolina, where rural and suburban collide among crepe myrtles. David has a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing from the University of Southern California and a Master’s from Babson College. He is unpublished, for now.
Trevor Pyle is a poet and short-story writer. He lives north of Seattle.
Chelsea Stickle writes flash fiction that appears or is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, Five on the Fifth, formercactus, Hypnopomp and Occulum. “A Plague of Peacocks” was shortlisted for the Masters Review Summer Flash Fiction Contest. She’s a reader for Cease, Cows and lives in Annapolis, MD. Find her on Twitter @Chelsea_Stickle.
Short Fiction Editors
Laura Huey Chamberlain
Creative Non-Fiction Editor
Kerri Farrell Foley
Flash Fiction Editor
Preston Taylor Stone
Crack the Spine Staff
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