The aisle offers all manner of masculine trophy / each package a beast / mounted and glaring. Each package / a sphinx speaking riddles in a language / my parents refused to teach me and / surely I’m confusing onlookers with my confusion, / so I grab one like its contraband and pay / with a wad of singles and an apology, / like it’s a crime to self-actualize / and I’m compelled to confess / to the cashier: I’m buying these boxers for myself. And she says nothing / because the trans / action is obvious.
I lock the door, blind the windows / leaving only the mirror / and my reflection as witness. / Girly boy hips wrapped in / sapphire, reserved for royalty. / I peacock ’round the privacy of my room, half-feathered / and pale as the moon. Fresh / waistband kissing the hard-earned peach fuzz / below my navel and / blush at the gesture. I make / a stage of the floor tiles, spinning / theatricals under fluorescent light buzzing / like a crowd cheering encore! / Encore! / Nobody gave me permission / to perform, I did that all myself. I wrote the role / and cast myself to act; such is / the nature of becoming.
James Ambrose is an agender poet and writer of all things weird, queer, and macabre. He is a professional college drop-out and can be found roaming the valleys of Virginia. This is his first publication, with more forthcoming. Find him on Twitter @caninebrainz.
He thought I’d look older with a drink in my hand. During the shows he leaned against the wall to my right, always watching the crowd. We passed a whole season this way. Small sips and secret glances. My father wasn’t the kind to notice I was gone.
When we met, I was too young to get into the shows by legal means, but I had a big smile and an impressive collection of band tees—a currency that ingratiated me to him early on. I found the shirts in thrift stores I wandered into by myself. Soft and loose and two sizes too big, but I liked the way they felt against my skin. We lived in a small town. Maybe some of them were his.
The night before his band left on their first summer tour, he wrote his email address on a napkin and slipped it into the pocket of my cutoffs after the show. I examined it at home, my legs dangling off the fire escape as humid night air thickened to a cocoon around me. The at sign swirled in blue ink, a whirlpool waiting.
I sent him my favorite YouTube links: grainy acoustic performances recorded in the ’90s, shimmering periwinkle glimpses of stars clutching mics and guitars. Dark dreamy chords and a piano’s soft lilt, secrets set to song—there were girl-shaped gaps in his musical education I’d decided I should fill. He sent his own music back to me, steely vocals shaping rough poetry through winding chains of mp3 files. I typed my secrets in reply, condensing my history into tiny digital missives that I cast out into the ether, hoping they’d reach him. The screen beamed out a pale electric glow that made me feel less alone.
I unearthed a creased road-trip atlas from my father’s glove box so I could track the band’s cross-country progress with a pink gel pen; I wanted to see where my messages would reach him on any given night. I imagined him folded into the backseat of a battered tour van, fitting his chin into the palm of his hand to hide his smile.
I knew what he wanted when he came back to see me in August. The band had a few days off between shows and he’d decided he couldn’t wait. I pictured the Greyhound drawing a line through the few states left between us, the miles disappearing as he moved.
When he arrived, we went to chain restaurants and record stores, drank bitter gas station coffee and watched a horror movie in the theater’s last row. We sat on the same side of the booths but never touched; I wondered what the waiters thought we were to each other. On his last night we took our shirts off on my bed in my room—just to see what it’s like, he said. Later on I’d tell myself it was a natural progression. When he left, I stripped my glossy girl-band posters from the walls, stuffed them into the trash beside the twin mattress, and stared for a long time at the bare space that remained.
His band concluded their tour at the venue where he’d once worked; their audience chain-smoked and drank beer in the almost-dark. He introduced me to his bandmates, who exchanged glances over my head they thought I couldn’t see.
As the set began, I found myself at the edge of the stage—closer than I’d ever been—and for a moment I envisioned myself moving among them, holding my own mic and winking in and out of the hazy purple light.
When their single hit big, he started calling me from the road. Weekends, holidays, the middle of the night—they were all the same to him. I was an inbox for his emotions, a sounding board for his ideas. A bare slate.
As the song climbed the charts, he confessed he felt a mounting pressure to recreate its success. He was afraid of fame but also desperately desired it, and this made him difficult to deal with. His voice crackled through the landline, a constant refrain. Tell me I’m going to be OK. I wound the overlong cord around different parts of my body: my wrist, my leg, my neck. Sometimes I cut off circulation without noticing, pulled back into focus only by a sudden sharpness. That pin-and-needle prick.
I stayed home in case he called, the phone nestled beside me on the pillow, derivative romances flickering on the screen in my bedroom. The women talked about love like a sickness, an infection. Some nights the phone never rang.
These days he’s the quiet kind of famous. Always a glowing review from the right publication when there’s a new album to promote. The band plays extended tours that routinely sell out, scalpers hawking inflated prices that his fans will always pay.
I can enter the venue without him now. I stand in the crowd, swaying among the other bodies, but still I feel separate. I spend the whole show imagining he’ll return. That he’s behind me somewhere. That he can see me clearly now.
Sometimes I pull on the shirts I wore when I was younger, soft band tees past their prime and full of holes. I live in the same apartment. I work at the venue where we met. I serve beer to young faces full of hope and I double-check their IDs. I’m going somewhere, their expectant eyes invariably say. They smile and wink. I run my fingers over the plastic; I hand the cards back over and over again. On nights like these I can still remember gazing up at the stage from my place in the audience, convinced I’d caught his look with my own. But the way the light shone into his eyes, he told me, it was hard to see anyone at all.
At each shift’s end I roll the windows down in my father’s truck, peering through the skylight at every stop sign. I pretend the stars are closer than they are.
Abigail Oswald is a writer whose work predominantly examines themes of celebrity, crime, and girlhood. Her writing has appeared in Catapult, Wigleaf, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, DIAGRAM, Split Lip, and elsewhere, and her short fiction was selected for Best Microfiction 2021. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, lives in Connecticut, and can be found at the movie theater in at least one parallel universe at any given time. More online at abigailwashere.com.
Wrapped in blankets that smell like soap and soft bread, my baby comes home with me. This bundle, this speck of a thing, looms so large and heavy in my arms. Right now, mountains of expectations—to do right by him—make my breath shallow, my throat dry.
The nurse says I must breastfeed, but I can only squeeze a few drops of colostrum, and I’m told that’s good—that’s something. But it’s not enough, and I’m drying up. They tell me to drink more water. I drink gallons. Still, nothing—and the baby screams for food. So, I express what I can, a few drops, a teaspoon maybe, but the milk is running out.
The nurse calls every day. She tells me to keep trying—that women who resort to other things just aren’t trying hard enough—not drinking enough water.
From my window, I see dust rise up over the mountains, entering through the tiny cracks in my house. It feels like rain, settling on my countertops, lightly coating the bathtub. I gather it in my hands and mix it with the drops I can pump, but it’s still not enough. I resort to eating the dust, mixing it with water, but nothing suffices. Water’s not the problem. It’s not the answer, either.
Each day, the dust falls thicker. It covers the floors, the windowsills, the bedsheets. The baby and I need a jacket. Not because it’s cold, but because we need shelter from the particles that keep falling. They cover our skin and make us itch, the skin flaking like more dust, our flesh raw.
Driving into town for a jacket, I see a restaurant sign that says, “Eat Big Food.” I stop in to see if more food will help because water certainly doesn’t. My tiny baby shivers and coughs while people around me shake their heads and murmur, “Poor baby. Looks like your mother doesn’t feed you.” Grease drips from their burgers while dust mounds in heaps on the floor. The plates and napkin holders on the tables are caked in it. A woman in a booth near the window chugs a carafe of water and wheezes. Two others slump at the counter, gripping empty glasses.
The wind picks up when we go outside, and the dust swirls like entire deserts set loose. I search for the horizon, but the wind and sand—all the particles of everything around me—press so hard, so compactly against my body and the one I carry. They push us, and all of the people around us, together into one tall mound, until our lungs fill with dust and each particle becomes a new cell that closes our breath. The baby crumbles. A voice in the wind whips itself around, still asking, “Did you really try?” Its hollow sound echoes, reverberating through the bones in my now-empty arms.
Cecilia Kennedy (she/her) is a writer who taught English and Spanish in Ohio for 20 years before moving to Washington state with her family. Since 2017, she has published stories in international literary magazines and anthologies. Her work has appeared in Maudlin House, Tiny Molecules, Rejection Letters, Kandisha Press, Ghost Orchid Press, and others. You can follow her on Twitter @ckennedyhola.
We were leaving the park— the weathered benches and big-kid swings and wide expanses of green-turned-yellow- turned-brown—and the kids were asleep in the back seat and their little lashes fluttered like fallen leaves resting against sun-stained cheeks and our song came on all melancholy and quiet and you smiled at me as we linked fingers over the console and we headed toward the highway signs pointing home, and I thought: let’s paint this bowl, our fruitful life. Let’s hang it on the fridge.
Mia Herman is a Jewish writer and editor living in New York. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Hofstra University and her work has appeared in over two dozen publications including Barren Magazine, Bellevue Literary Review, ELJ Editions, F(r)iction, Ghost City Press, [PANK], Stanchion, Third Coast, and Variant Lit. Awards for her writing include an Honorable Mention in the Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest, nomination for the Best of the Net, and finalist for the Frontier Poetry New Voices Fellowship. Follow her on Twitter @MiaMHerman.
ride the train alone / get on the Amtrak / take a coach seat / down the aisle from the skinny bearded guy with the smoked oysters and the tiny silver fork / sit next to the boy who shows you his party videos where he drinks too much Boone’s Farm / knowing any amount of Boone’s Farm is too much Boone’s Farm / talk to the girl in the tie-dye shirt in the observation car while you sip a BuzzBallz margarita / it’s her first time on Amtrak too / no one but strangers / be whoever you want / you are from a small town in Illinois / you are from the big city / you ghost-write country songs for a living / you are an accountant / America is an oil painting slicked and sliding by in a riot of color / you are born of the wild wind / you precious beating thing
Amanda Kooser (she/they) is a writer, rocker, Aikido student, and journalist specializing in space and goofy rocks on Mars. They graduated from the University of New Mexico creative writing MFA program in 2022. Her work has appeared in Yellow Arrow Journal, Conceptions Southwest, The Twin Bill, and The Hallowzine. Amanda lives in Albuquerque where she listens for train whistles and plays a pink-sparkle guitar in indie rock band The Dawn Hotel.
We had been watching the distant hills for three days.
The first day, the smoke started as a thin plume, a persistent pale trickle slipping up into the sky.
“They better get that under control.” On the porch, Dad squinted at the vista below. “Conditions like this. This is no good time for a fire.”
I was suddenly acutely aware of my surroundings: the blonde grasses, blanched and crisp underfoot, the prickle of sweat salting the nape of my neck. The sun baking the earth, parching the pine boughs. The breeze had been nothing but billows of heat, even in the night, when the air up in Gold Creek usually cooled to a chill. It hadn’t rained in weeks.
“Should we call 911?”
“Nah.” Dad sat back and tucked a slug of chaw into his cheek. “I’m sure someone’s already doing something about it. We’re not the only ones who see it.”
I watched the curl of smoke with a morbid curiosity, the way you might gape at an accident—tragic that it was happening to someone else, but close enough to the danger for a little thrill.
“Don’t worry about it, wild man,” Dad said. “It’s a ways off.” He called me that, wild man, even though I was twelve years old and perpetually timid, at least compared to him. Dad was the one who had to charge out into the night to scare the scavenging black bears away from the truck when I forgot a granola bar in the passenger seat. This was a brave skin I could not imagine myself wearing, the adult who stomped out into the darkness, swinging the shotgun around like a baseball bat, shouting at the bears to go on, git. There hadn’t always been so many bears in our little town, I learned. In recent years, they were intruding into the populated areas more often because food in the woods was scarce, while human snacks—I had looked at the ground guiltily—were in ample supply.
While the sun baked the ruddy backs of our necks, Dad went about his business and seemed to forget about the smoke in the distance. He unloaded boxes of motor oil from the back of the truck into the shed, pausing to unzip and piss against the papery trunk of an aspen that grew along the side of our mile-long driveway. I kept shooting nervous glances through the tops of the ponderosas. I had never been close enough to a real fire to see smoke snaking up into the skies, but Dad’s movements were bored, methodical. Maybe it was immature of me to worry. Later that afternoon, as the day slipped into evening, the plume of smoke was bigger, fat and puffy as a cloud. When I brought it to his attention, he paused and looked westward again.
“Hmm,” was all he said. The creases between his brows deepened.
That night, the heat was unbearable. I yanked the windows of our cabin open, but there was no breeze, just a heavy dead swelter that sank to the bottom of the room. I tossed and turned, my lanky legs tangled in fabric, until finally I kicked the quilt and the sheets off into a heap on the floor. The moon was a luminous spotlight. The pine branches cast feathery shadows on the window glass. Everything outside was still, too still, uncomfortably still, the entire night world crouched and breathing like an animal ready to pounce. Sometime after midnight, I tugged the windows closed again. It might have actually been cooler inside, where the hot breath of the world wasn’t panting down my neck. I barely slept.
When yellow sunrise spilled through the windows and I woke, the air smelled smoky, a nostalgic smell that brought me back to campfires, cozy winter mornings. Dad’s face was somber. He refilled the coffeemaker and stared out the window, not speaking, only the sputter and crackle of the hot pad as the coffee trickled into the pot. When he stepped onto the porch with his mug, I followed, too close on his heels. I had the childish instinct to slip my hand into his paw, but I didn’t. Instead, I stood up straighter. I caught myself mirroring him: both of our thumbs thrust through our frayed belt loops. The worn planks were smooth and dusty under my bare feet. Pine needles collected in the gaps.
Dad surveyed the thick column of smoke as he sipped his coffee, sucking leftover droplets from his mustache.
“It’s still there,” I said helpfully.
“Yep. I see that.”
“Looks like it’s getting bigger.”
He said nothing, his eyes fixed on the hills below us. Finally, he sighed, tapped something into his phone, and frowned at the screen. When he pressed play on a news clip, a woman’s voice spoke.
“—on scene, just west of Gold Creek, Colorado, where crews are struggling to contain a growing blaze of almost nine hundred acres.” Nine hundred acres! My heart jumped up into my throat. I had a hard time picturing that much land, but nine hundred of anything was a massive amount.
“Dad!” The smell of the smoke was thicker now. My mouth tasted of campfire.
“It’ll be fine, wild man. They’re on it. News says it’s twelve miles off.”
“Are you sure?”
He put a meaty hand on my shoulder. “Think of the Dickinson’s ranch, you know, with the horses? All the way out there? They’re four miles past the edge of town. So the fire’s eight miles further still. That’s a lot of distance, far as a fire’s concerned. Fire doesn’t move that fast, okay?”
I could picture the ranch and the rutted dirt road to the Dickinson’s. A trickle of a creek glittered in the sun. With manes aflutter, horses romped in a celery-green meadow, the only clearing for miles. I had seen an aerial photograph in school once: we lived in a vast, dark river of trees, the granite foothills furred over and swallowed up by pines. From the sky, Gold Creek was barely visible. Four hundred citizens was all, an old mining-era town in Colorado’s high country, every last thing constructed of weathered gray wood, splintered planks, faded hope, rusted tin. Sometimes tourists pulled through in their shiny vehicles and snapped photos of the general store or the cafe or my schoolhouse, once even of the Russell’s weatherbeaten cabin while Mr. Russell stood right there in the yard hosing down the pansies. I had overheard tourists calling us a ghost town, but that wasn’t true: four hundred of us lived here. Four hundred souls, not ghosts, not yet.
The strange, cloying heat unnerved me. It was hard to think of anything else when the air smelled like danger: acrid, almost sweet. The ponderosas’ butterscotch-scented bark, roasting. The smell drifted to the top of my consciousness, choking out any other thought. Nervously, I did my chores: I split some wood and left the ax plunged into the chopping block in the driveway, even though Dad griped at me to move it aside. I heaved the compost bucket out to the pile. Finally, heat-dizzy and drenched in sweat, I slouched in front of the TV, where I was able to forget for a bit. I don’t know how much time passed. Hours, likely, while Dad tinkered in the shed. Eventually, I got hungry and made my way, bleary-eyed, into the kitchen.
The first thing I noticed was the uncanny light. Too murky for the middle of the afternoon, an uncomfortable yellowish hue like the air was steeped in tea. My vision was still scaling down from the TV’s brightness, and I rubbed my eyes and stepped out onto the porch to be sure. My stomach plummeted. It was wrong, the whole world tense. The sky was a bitter sulfur-yellow. Flakes drifted down, dusting the driveway’s gravel, landing in my hair, mottling the bushes. Snow? I thought stupidly, although of course it wasn’t, not in this heat. I ran a fingertip across the truck’s windshield. Ash.
In the shed, Dad was flat on his back, his head and shoulders buried under the chassis of his vintage MG—his project car. A wrench tick-tick-ticked a bolt into place. Jimmy Buffet crooned from a battered radio on the tool bench.
“I think it’s getting closer.” I thumped on the MG’s metal skeleton.
Dad slid out from under the chassis. “What’s that, wild man?” He wiped his greasy, blackened palms on a rag.
“I said the fire’s getting close. There’s ash everywhere. The sky is all yellow. What do we do?”
He stuffed the grease rag into his back pocket and leaned his head through the door, then frowned at the sky and took a few more steps out into the driveway, squinting, craning his neck. Inside the shed, it smelled like fresh sawdust and motor oil, but my T-shirt reeked of smoke, a crackling and sharp scent. My nostalgia for that smell was displaced by a clench of urgency. I twisted the radio dial until I found the news channel.
“—Explosive growth of what’s being called the High Lonesome Fire, which has rapidly blown up to over eight thousand acres in just a short time. The cause of the blaze is reported to be an unattended campfire, despite county-wide fire restrictions. Immediate evacuations are in place for the following areas: High Ridge, Walkerson Pass, Gold Creek, West Park—”
I dashed out into the driveway, breathless. “I just heard on the radio! They told us to evacuate!”
Dad was peering up at the strange sky. “No need to panic.”
“I heard them say it!” I insisted. “They said evacuate! They said Gold Creek!”
“There’ve been fires up here before. Fire’s natural, alright?”
“But it’s not natural! It was a campfire. They already know.”
“Campfire? It’s ninety-four goddamn degrees out. In the shade.” Dad shook his head, stuffing a nugget of chaw into his lower lip. He pinched the tips off a nearby pine branch, which should have bent and flexed, but instead just snapped clean off, a brittle break. “Who needs a campfire now, of all times? Christ.”
“I know! It’s nuts! It’s way too hot for a campfire!” Finally, he agreed with me on something. My voice sounded manic in my own ears. “They said it’s eight thousand acres already.”
“Eight thousand? That can’t be right. Fires don’t grow that fast. That’s almost, what—ten times larger, in less than a day. You must have heard wrong.”
“They said explosive growth. They said it blew up.” It was true—I was quoting the radio verbatim—but I was beginning to feel silly for my repetition. If there was any time to panic, surely it was now. A gust of wind pushed through the pines, a hot smoky breath, and the neighbor’s wind chimes plinged. Flakes of ash caught in my eyelashes. My cheeks were probably scarlet with heat—I could feel them flushed—and I plucked at my sweaty T-shirt. My throat burned as I swallowed. My mouth tasted urgently of smoke.
“This is our home,” Dad said firmly. “We stay put.” When he looked out at the forest, I knew what he saw: the little twig cross I had tied together for our arthritic pit bull, Mick, when I was five. The rose bushes along the driveway that Mom planted before she decided she had enough of this life. Behind us, the cabin that my dad’s grandfather, my great-grandfather, built with his own two hands, during an era that glittered with promise, when men flooded the high country to sift flashes of hope from the gold-heavy creek. It was the only home I had ever known. And all of it—the forest, the cabin, even the crackled creek bed—was dry as kindling.
Ahead of us now, the heavens were darkening. I could see the unholy shape of the sun, a red hazy blot. I knew I shouldn’t stare directly at it, but I did anyway, and my eyes didn’t burn right out of my skull, like I had been cautioned. The sun’s light was too feeble through the smoke. Above us was an apocalyptic sky from a movie, not a sky I recognized. It was no longer a forest I recognized, either. This menacing new forest crackled with its own hot breath.
Some of the ash flaking down had letters printed on it. Roasted pages of a book, I realized, when I pinched a scrap between my fingers. That meant someone’s house was burning, this very instant. I was coughing now, tears welling in my smoke-burned eyes. I left Dad out there, staring up at the sky in silence, ash collecting in his arm hair as he did nothing, nothing. I grabbed the radio from the shed, ran back out, cranked the volume up.
“Did you hear that?” My voice cracked. “They said there are flames south of County Road 42! That means the Dickinson’s ranch is gone already! We have to do something!”
“Good God,” Dad muttered. “It’s not supposed to happen that fast.” He was frozen in place, gaping at the sky. In the driveway, I left the radio blaring on the hood of the Chevy. I ran inside the cabin and grabbed what I could: our photo albums from the bookshelf. The file folder Dad tucked important papers into, even though I wasn’t sure what exactly it contained. An armload of food swiped from a shelf into a canvas bag. The dented coffee can on top of the fridge where he stashed crumpled wads of cash and spare change. Scanning my bedroom, gulping: my pocket knife, the photo of Mom with the bent edge. It was very dim now, a surreal timeless dark. My throat burned. On my way out, I flicked the porch lights on, but the weak light did little to cut through the haze. Wind whipped through the trees. The forest was full of shooting stars: the ash had turned to embers streaming through the sky.
I tossed our things into the back of the Chevy. Had the sense to yank a tarp over the bed to protect our stuff from embers.
“Dad!” I shouted, even though he was only a few paces away. “I packed up. We have to leave!”
Now I could make out an amber glow through the pines that twisted my gut with an animal panic. I knew, without a doubt, that this was the end of something. The end of everything.
“Come on! Please! We have to go!” My eyes were streaming: smoke, fear. Grit and ash stuck to the wet tracks on my cheeks. I started towards him to grab his hand, but just then, an ember lanced through the air like a comet and seared into his shirt. On his shoulder, a hot firefly glow, a sizzle, a blooming ring of charred black fabric. Finally, he startled to life. He yelped and swatted the cinders from his skin. He looked at me with a terror-stricken face I will never forget.
“Let’s go, let’s go!” he roared. I was flooded with relief, but only for a moment. In his panic, he dashed towards me. But I’d left the chopping block in the way, with the ax sunk deep in the stump. It happened in slow-motion: Dad catching the ax handle with his shin, tumbling over himself, crumpling to the dirt.
I ran to his side. He grimaced, clutching his leg.
“Dad! Are you okay?”
“My leg’s hurt. I think it’s bad. I don’t know if I can—” He tried to stand and collapsed. “It might be broken. Goddammit!”
I tried not to look at the ominous glow pulsing through the trees. The heat rose around us in waves. “We have to go.” I pulled him up. “Now!”
“I know, dammit! Just help me get into the truck!” When he leaned on me, he was heavier than I was prepared for, but we managed to shuffle over to the Chevy. He hoisted himself up into the passenger seat, wincing.
“You’re going to have to get us outta here, wild man. You get to learn how to drive, right now.” He flashed a grin at me, an attempt at playfulness, but his eyes were gleaming, saucer-wide. That split second, when we stared at each other across the bench seat, I knew I wasn’t a kid anymore. I clutched the steering wheel like I was holding Dad’s very life in my grip. I didn’t want that responsibility, but there it was. Dad had left some old sweatshirts on the floor behind the passenger seat, and now I stuffed them under my butt so I could see over the steering wheel.
The salmon glow through the trees had begun to flicker and throb. We were out of time. Still, I was determined to pilot us as far as I could. When I yanked the shifter into reverse, the radio toppled from the Chevy’s hood. I backed right into the chopping stump, and I felt the bumper crumple.
“Forget it,” Dad said. “Keep going. Just go.” He leaned over and flicked on the windshield wipers to clear the scrim of ash. The sky ahead of us was sinister. We tore down the driveway, the shape of the familiar ruts cupping the tires. The truck bucked and swayed in my unskilled hands. Scraggly juniper arms clawed the side of the truck, squealing down our metal flank. I turned the headlights on to pierce the smoke.
“Go faster. You need to go faster.”
I rammed the gas pedal down. Thankfully the truck was an automatic. Just before I reached the mouth of the driveway, I was met with flame. Fire leapt through the scrub oak to my right, scrabbled up the tree trunks. Embers and ash flew towards us like charred butterflies.
“Keep going. Keep going!”
“I know! I am!” I stomped the gas pedal down with the tip of my toe, jarring us over the spot fires blazing in the road. Sparks streamed down upon us. Now the woods on all sides of us were ablaze. The forest floor was singed black, glittering with terrible cinders. Flames lapped greedily through the canopy above. I saw the trunk of a pine tree that crackled and glowed like hell.
At the main gravel road I turned left, instead of right toward Gold Creek. The fire had come from that direction. If it was already here at the mouth of our driveway, then nobody needed to tell me our town was gone. The sky was darker now. Flames raced through the undergrowth. I managed to keep the truck on the road, but I jostled us around wildly. Dad grimaced and clutched his leg with every jolt.
Then finally, ahead of us, the thing I feared most: a wall of leaping flame, two stories tall. The road consumed. The smoke billowing and churning. Tongues of flame that writhed and whipped and spun.
“What do I do?”
“We’re all out of options.” Dad’s voice was desperate. “Just keep going. It’s up to you.”
I swallowed hard. I stomped the gas pedal down. I tried not to squeeze my eyes closed as the Chevy leapt through a tunnel of flame. I wanted to shut it all out—the heat welling up inside the truck, the smell of burning rubber that choked my throat, the terrifying whoosh and crackle outside—but I knew I had to keep my eyes on the road. So as I drove us into the heart of the inferno, I saw it all: the searing flames, the cavern of heat. In the passenger seat, Dad’s eyes were tightly closed. His mouth moved as he mumbled, or prayed. It was unfair, I thought, in a flash of anger. He should have to face this, too.
And then we punched through. On the other side, spot fires crackled in the underbrush, but we were finally ahead of the wall of flame. Veils of smoke drifted apart and dissolved into haze. Ahead, the sky darkened to indigo, the color itself a visceral relief, like deep water. The temperature inside the cab cooled in moments, but I could still only smell smoke. I tried to swallow, but my throat was baked dry. My mouth bloomed with iron, where I had bit my lip.
“Sweet Jesus Christ.” Dad cracked his eyes open. Past the fiery underworld, it was dusk, the final remnants of day sinking into darkness, the moon’s beacon rising. We said nothing. We just sat there as I drove on, trembling, shell-shocked, nerves flayed and buzzing but numb with relief, everything marinated in the stench of smoke and burnt rubber. I would smell it on my hair for days, no matter how much cheap shampoo I scrubbed with at the evacuation center. The phantom smell of smoke would wake me every night for weeks.
Even once we were well past the fire, I kept driving, resolute. I did not look back over my shoulder, but every so often a flash of terrible saffron gleamed at me from the rearview mirror. I tried not to think about the quilt Mom had made me, still crumpled on the floor near my unmade bed. The silky manes of the Dickinson’s horses tossing in the sunlight, when I had still been a child. The forest where I had run barefoot and wild, learned to shoot arrows, carved my initials into an aspen near the driveway with the tip of my pocket knife.
We rumbled through the forest, down the granite cliffs of Deer Canyon, up and over the next hill where the road curved again through a clearing. When I had put some distance between us and the fire front, Dad thumped the dash with his palm. “Pull over for a second. Tarp’s loose in the back.” Sure enough, in my side mirror, the soft flapping of a nylon wing.
I steered the Chevy to a halt.
“Put it in park,” Dad reminded me, although I had already clunked the shifter into P. He kneaded his leg as I hopped down from the driver’s seat. The cool night air hit me in a rush, fresh as running water. I breathed deeply.
I had a view of the foothills behind us. The sky was a deep cobalt, darkening, the mountains a black silhouette. Stars glimmered above like shattered glass. Peach smoke churned above the ridge. The fire had consumed my childhood, just like it had consumed the Douglas firs and the squirrels, the speckled fawns and the bluebells, every other gentle thing I couldn’t let myself dwell on. I could still see throbbing flames, which from a distance, looked like a handful of strewn embers on the hills. The coal-dark heavens glittered above, the scorched earth glittered below.
I re-tied the tarp, this time with a proper bowline instead of a hasty square knot. Back in the truck, Dad looked drowsy enough to fall asleep, and when he leaned his head against the window and fluttered his eyelids shut, I let him. It was miles of dirt road, still, winding and rugged terrain, until we would reach the city. But I could get us there. I knew the way.
Molly Seeling is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker based in rural Colorado. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Landing Zone Magazine, Spry Literary Journal, and Unfortunately, Literary Magazine.
The day my shoes spoke to me was the day that I put aside my winter coat and brushed the lint from my eyes. My shoes were tired of being trodden on, a sentiment I could relate to. They demanded early retirement and presented their resignation in a formal letter attached to one heel with a wad of chewed-up gum. I had no choice but to acquiesce. I set them free, free to join the other shoes at the bottom of my linen closet where they all chain smoke and complain that their leather is cracking. My leather is cracking too, so I oil my skin with primrose and lavender, ponder my own early retirement, unlike my father, rotted away before his time.
Ly Faulk has loved reading and writing for as long as they could read and write. They still believe in the power of the written word to save lives.
Wake up alone in a bed that isn’t yours with your eyeliner melted down your cheek and one false eyelash fluttering by your left ear.
Smooth the silky covers over your frizzled head. Realise you lost your sequinned dress and found some boxer shorts. Boil with embarrassment. Hope you dressed yourself.
Smell the coffee by the bed, know it’s exactly the way you take it, feel for the fizzy water and paracetamol that will be there, and drink them. Remember the time you put a fingernail through the crimson paper lampshade hanging from the ceiling.
Make it to your feet and aim for the wardrobe that’s new to you, searching for any item of your clothing. Open a drawer full of expensive lace. Under a red satin teddy, see a photo of a delicate-featured woman. Find one of your stockings from last night laddered from heel to toe.
Know you’re supposed to drainthe coffee, be grateful for the paracetamol, and evaporateinto a taxi until your ex-boyfriend wants to ignore his engagement again, kiss you in an anonymous nightclub and dissolve your reclaimed self-respect.
Instead, this time, solidify your resolve. Leave your stocking in the pristine underwear drawer, grab your coat and shoes from the hallway.
Stomp down the road waving to all the neighbours you can spot, and wish, wish wish this time he won’t be able to wash you away.
Anita Goveas is British-Asian, London-based, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, most recently by Fractured Lit. She’s on the editorial team at Flashback Fiction, an editor at Mythic Picnic’s Twitter zine, and tweets erratically @coffeeandpaneer. Her debut flash collection, Families and Other Natural Disasters, is available from Reflex Press, and links to her stories are at https://coffeeandpaneer.wordpress.com
I did most of the driving, from New Jersey to Niagara and on to Ontario; Nora in the passenger seat shuffling MapQuest printouts; Amy in the back, kicking her feet, Harrah to her right, rolling her window up and down.
“Stop farting,” Harrah told Amy, who kept farting, probably because she wanted to, not because she had to, probably because she liked making Harrah wrinkle her nose. That’s how Amy was back then, how they both were. They were still getting used to one another. I was trying to keep the car straight on the shiny, wet roads.
Nora kept forgetting to give directions, kept fiddling with the CD player instead. We listened to “Two Step” by Dave Matthews Band probably 36 times. It was playingas we crossed the border. And Canada must have hated it, hated us, I think, because the second my car rolled in, so did this cold front. Frost creeping up the windows, rain turning to sleet, and this wind, loud and strong. I thought, for sure, we’d go over a guard rail.
But there was a pirate ship. I mean, there couldn’t have been, but, yeah, there was. This tourist attraction or something. Nora remembers it, too. A giant pirate ship: four thick masts and a candy-colored hull. Dark but pillowed sails. I figured, well, OK, fuck the wind and the sleet (and the black ice), because if the car flipped over, we’d probably just land, unscathed, on that ship’s bow. So, Nora turned down the music and Harrah rolled up the windows and Amy, well, she kept on kicking, and I sped up and we got through the windstorm.
And then, yeah, we were in Toronto. And we did some stuff. Shivered on top of a space needle and thawed out (kind of) at an aquarium. Went to bars that served us beer, even though we were only 19. But Nora and I had miscalculated, because, sure, we wanted to drink on Spring Break (hence, Canada). We just hadn’t expected Toronto to be so damn cold. Hadn’t expected Amy would keep farting. Hadn’t expected Harrah wouldn’t un-wrinkle her now runny and red nose.
“What did you invite her for?” Harrah kept whispering to Nora, even though she knew that’s how Nora was. (That’s how Nora still is.) Always giving out invitations she assumed people would turn down.
And that’s how the trip was. Icy, I mean, right until that last night when we were too hungover to do anything other than hang out in the chain restaurant next to our hotel. And there were these dudes there, these older men. They were around 30 or 40 or something. And these guys, they kept sending over shots and pointing at their whiskey glasses, like that would make us drink up, like drinking up meant we should talk to them.
Nora and I hid our faces behind some laminated dessert menus, so those creepers couldn’t see us smile, couldn’t see us laugh. Because it was funny, I guess. It was weird, too. It felt weirder later. Like, I don’t know, that pirate ship, so big, so bright, so blunt, a port in the storm. For a while, it was mostly funny, at least until, four whiskeys later, the oldest guy came over, put his hand on the small of Harrah’s back and said, “I sell bonds. Does that mean anything to you?”
And Amy stood up, made like she was going to throw her hands. “You see this fist?” She said to the guy. And Harrah, who liked decorum almost as much as a reason to break it, stood up, too, held out an elbow and threatened to ram its point into the fleshy part of that guy’s temple. Told him if she did, she’d feel so gratified.
And the guy started swearing and his friends were still leering, so Nora stopped laughing, started gathering our coats, and I paid the bill, because it felt like something was about to come due. And I was scared, until we tumbled outside—me grabbing Harrah, Nora grabbing Amy, Harrah and Amy linking arms—because it was cold, so cold that no one followed us, so cold that no one could be bothered to bother us, so cold that we could trick ourselves into feeling safe and warm.
Jeanine Skowronski is a writer based in N.J. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lost Balloon, Janus Literary, X-R-A-Y Lit, Tiny Molecules, Five on the Fifth, (mac)ro(mic), Complete Sentence, Crow & Cross Keys, Fewer Than 500 and more. She placed 2nd in Reflex Fiction’s 2021 Winter Flash Fiction competition.
You move into the neighborhood and now all we hear are clown horns and foot slaps. Go-karts race down Yale Avenue, hit chuckholes and spit you up against concrete curbs. Just when we think we have you all counted, you multiply. Ragamuffins, Dad calls you. We think that’s your last name until our oldest brother, Eddie, yells out—Hey Ragamuffins!—from his GTO, and now you glare at him with cap-gun eyes.
You come over to play with us. We can’t help but stare at the scabs you have for kneecaps, your scarecrow hair. You are our fascination and you know it.
Where’s the creek? you ask, and you lead us there even though this is supposed to be our neighborhood. We are not allowed to go as far as Darby Creek without permission, but you herd us—the seven or nine or more of you—your soiled limbs waving in the August sun.
Darby Creek is a letdown. Can’t even float a stick in it! you scream, and then you are a pack of soldiers—you smear mud on your faces and whoop war cries across the water. Your troop plans its attack on ours. Get the Charlies! You crest the bank and splash through the creek, sticks raised like swords.
We stand frozen on the grass and observe you as if we’re watching the NBC nightly news broadcast from Vietnam. Eddie’s scared of Vietnam. You don’t know about his low lottery number; how Dad looked like a sponge cake when the draft man on TV pulled number 26 from the plastic capsule. You don’t see us sitting around the dinner table every night watching soldiers in the thick jungle, choppers landing on dirt pads. You don’t hear how we can barely breathe as our nightmare unfolds halfway across the world on the tiny screen of our tea cart television. You don’t notice our camouflaged tears. Instead, you point sticks at our heads.
Fight! Coward! You bang your chests as if there are centipedes trapped inside of your ratty tees.
We want to protest, but we know it won’t matter. You crave bloodshed. You skip over lumpy rocks in Darby Creek, bodies of the dead and missing. You approach; we feel the warmth roll down our legs. Your crooked teeth grin wide as you trip us, grind pinkies into our Good-Humor-truck bellies. We watch as our choker beads spill into the clover. We pray for Darby Creek to grow angry, leap the bank, wash you back to where you came from, though we have better things to pray for in 1972, and then the dinner bell rings and you surrender your weapons.
We retreat to the kitchen table. NBC’s cameras fly over mangroves and rice patties; we want to tell Eddie we survived the war of the Ragamuffins, but men are face down in the waterlogged field and somehow that seems more important. Mom spies the creek mud underneath our fingernails, and we are sent to the bathroom sink to scrub and scrub.
Back at the kitchen table, Eddie’s gone and no one’s talking. The newscaster flatly lists Vietnam’s daily count—37 dead, 81 missing—almost as if he’s reporting sports scores. Dad reaches over, switches off the TV. Finish your dinner, Mom commands, and we don’t dare mention the hunk of steak and full mountain of mashed potatoes still on Eddie’s plate. We slide green beans into our mouths, but they are cold, slimy water moccasins.
Outside, wheels rumble and scrape across pavement. We imagine sparks flinging down Yale Avenue, your helmetless heads free and loose, hands and feet stretched outside your go-karts, tongues flapping. We chew cold steak while listening to your wild shouts and laughter, the roar of your escape.
Michele Finn Johnson’s short fiction collection, Development Times Vary, was the winner of the 2021 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award and is forthcoming in 2022. Her work has appeared in A Public Space, Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, DIAGRAM, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her work was selected for the 2019 Best Small Fictions anthology, won an AWP Intro Journals Award in nonfiction, and has been nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best Microfiction. Michele lives in Tucson and serves as contributing editor at Split Lip Magazine.