content warning: death

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

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.

Header photography and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

How to Stop Evaporating

Looking down upon the dangerous place where water meets rock. The image is in black and white, with a V cut through the center. Inside the V, it springs to life and color. The rocks to the right are vibrant; to the left, the water is a swirling mix of toxic aqua blue, green, and yellow.

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 drain the coffee, be grateful for the paracetamol, and evaporate into 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

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

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

The Four of Us, Girls

Looking down upon the dangerous place where water meets rock. The image is in black and white, with a V cut through the center. Inside the V, it springs to life and color. The rocks to the right are vibrant; to the left, the water is a swirling mix of toxic aqua blue, green, and yellow.

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 playing as 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

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.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

Death by Opossum

Looking down upon the dangerous place where water meets rock. The image is in black and white, with a V cut through the center. Inside the V, it springs to life and color. The rocks to the right are vibrant; to the left, the water is a swirling mix of toxic aqua blue, green, and yellow.

I schlepped all the way out to Houston to see the Oracle. Not Houston, Texas—Houston, Mississippi. In Chickasaw County. It’s not an easy journey: six hours by road from our farm if you’re lucky, then eight miles through the brush to the Oracle’s godforsaken shack, which reeks of incense and smoked pig. You get one question for her every three decades. I don’t make the rules, that’s just how her powers work. Eileen and I had recently quit our teaching jobs to start the farm we’d dreamt about for years. I was there to ask whether we’d be able to hack it, whether we’d made the best or worst decision of our lives. I needed to know even if knowing wouldn’t change a thing. So I worked up the courage to ask my question, voice breaking like a prepubescent teen. 

The Oracle went into that little trance she goes into, followed by the convulsions. At the end she stared at me, her eyes going pure white before settling back to brown. She composed herself, smoothing down her headscarf, and asked quietly if I wanted to know how I’ll die, her voice timid in comparison to her omniscience. 

I frowned. “That’s not what I came here for.”

“I understand,” she said. “But that’s what I saw.”

“Okay,” I said, figuring it’d be better to prepare for that long night rather than crash headlong into it. “Tell me.”

“You’ll be killed by roving opossums,” she said, betraying no emotion. Just stating facts.

The words didn’t quite make sense given the context. Opossums? Roving? I asked her to repeat herself, which she did. I’d heard it right.

“What does it mean to be roving?” I asked.

“From what I could tell, the opossums were transient. They didn’t have a home. Maybe that’s why they go after you,” she said. “They’re lost and scared.”

It seemed like such a random way to go. No meaning to it at all. “So, I just want to double check,” I said. “There’s nothing I can do to stop it from happening?” 

“No,” she said. “It’s fated.”


I went home to tell Eileen the bad news. 

She was horrified, worried about me, about living in fear of opossums around every corner. I suggested we plant some trees, give them a home.

“Why?” she asked. “It won’t do you any good.”

She wasn’t wrong. My death was preordained and the Oracle never flubbed a prediction.

“It just feels right,” I said. “I can’t explain it.”

Eileen sighed, perhaps more willing to deal with my whims given the revelation. “Okay,” she said, finally. “If it’ll make you feel better.”

Next morning, we brought home some oak seedlings from the farmer’s market. Oaks, I felt, were a particularly beautiful tree when fully grown. They had heavy graceful limbs that draped down shade, turning a hot day into a pleasant one. Any opossums in the area would surely appreciate these oaks—years from now. Maybe I’d even get to see them grown by the time the opossums came for me. 

In the weeks that followed, I learned more about my eventual executioners. I came to respect them. Opossums are wily creatures. When they’re down and out, they mimic the look and scent of a dead animal. They wouldn’t be hoodwinked if I tried to play dead. 

Over lunch one afternoon I asked Eileen, “Would it be macabre if we started a opossum sanctuary?”

“It would be ironic,” she said. “But I’m game.”

We made our farm as opossum-friendly as possible. Planted more oaks. Removed all the barbed wire fencing from our land. We kept an eye out for stray opossums, injured opossums caught in traps, baby opossums abandoned by their mothers, and took them back to our place. Once the opossums got here, we mostly let them be. But Eileen did have a favorite that she’d named Daisy, a rescue we’d found wandering alone down a highway a few hundred feet away from her mother’s flattened body. Eileen had sat up all night with Daisy—opossums being nocturnal—stroking her fur and feeding her blueberries until it was morning and they were both asleep. 

Years later, we sat out on the porch with cold glasses of water and a bowl of fresh-picked blueberries, looking out over the beautiful things we’d grown. Daisy had nestled into Eileen’s lap, having grown accustomed to daily head rubs. The weather was warm and lovely, a gentle breeze going by every so often, and the sun was just beginning to set below the trees, painting the sky an otherworldly pink and lavender. We could hear bugs chirping or humming or whatever it is they do. I put my arm around Eileen and brushed her cheek. It was wet. I think I knew why she was crying. I kissed away the tears as the opossums skittered in the trees, our lives rich with possibility, our fates assured.

Matt Goldberg

Matt Goldberg‘s fiction has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, The Normal School, Porter House Review, and Bending Genres, among others. His work has also been anthologized in Coolest American Stories 2022 and won first place for the 2021 Uncharted Magazine Sci-Fi and Fantasy Short Story Award. He earned his MFA from Temple University and lives with his partner in Philadelphia, PA. Find him on Twitter @mattmgoldberg.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

When I Wassssss Young

A cluster of barrel cacti dominated by their spiky spines. The image is split with a black V shape and the center of the V is in full color with the sides remaining in black and white.

(content warning: childhood trauma, strangulation, snakes)

When I was young, I loved minerals. My favorite corner of our local natural science museum was home to the gem vault and its glass cases full of sparkling stones. I was so small in the beginning that I had to stand on tiptoe just to catch a glimpse of them on my own. My second favorite place was the gift shop where miniature synthetic replicas were sold. Each time we visited, I was allowed to buy one, until soon I had my own collection at home in a tiny, clear plastic container. I liked the way their bright colors jumbled together. I liked the rattling sound they made when I gave the box a gentle shake.

When I was young, I had beautiful hair. At least, that’s what everyone on the playground always told me. My long locks were straight, shiny, silky, and blacker than a bottomless hole. All the popular girls, who would never acknowledge me otherwise, came up to ask whether I washed with kids’ shampoo or shared a bottle with my mother. As if those were the only two options. I told them the tangled truth, that neither theory was correct.

When I was young, my best friend tried to strangle me with her bare hands. She did so repeatedly, each time taking me to what felt like the brink of death. I didn’t understand then what I’d done to provoke her. I didn’t understand then that I was only a stand-in for monsters at home that she herself was too young to fight. Most of all, I didn’t understand then why I never even considered confronting her until her family had moved away and left me without the option. I never saw her again, though later, much later, I desperately wished I could.

When I was young, I was afraid of snakes. My father and I regularly took weekend walks down by the creek behind our house, during which we’d swap stories about our weekday lives. On one excursion, he pointed out the dark, cylindrical shapes near the water, like coil pots made of unbaked clay. “Snakes in hibernation,” he warned me. Five poisonous varieties roamed our region, so we had to stay vigilant: “Remember, by the time you hear that telltale rattle, it’s already too late.” I wasn’t afraid of their venom, though. I wasn’t afraid of their fangs. I was afraid of their entire bodies, the way they looked like they could wind themselves around my neck like a garrote, stealing both my breath and my voice in one swift movement.

When I was young, I started losing my beautiful hair. At first, I only found a few stray strands curled around my hair elastics, or little nests in the drain strainer of my bathtub. But by ninth grade, I had a bald spot the size of a half dollar on top of my head. I began parting my hair to the other side. Instead of spending weekends at birthday parties, I spent them at doctors’ offices. Everyone there told me I was perfectly healthy. They wondered aloud if maybe I was putting too much pressure on myself. “Relax, Medusa,” they said. “You are young. You have nothing to worry about.”

When I was young, we dissected earthworms in Biology class before moving on to larger, more anatomically complex animals. I tried not to think about their snake-like bodies as I ran the blade of my scalpel down their cold bellies. In that classroom, my hair continued to betray me. My lab experiments were often tainted by wayward strands. I became so notorious for this dubious feat that if the same problem befell anyone else, our teacher would call it “pulling a Medusa,” and she always watched with a crooked smile as my cheeks burned at the taunting remark.

When I was young, that same teacher informed us that she could tell whether a girl was a virgin just by looking at her fully clothed. She uttered this proclamation in front of the boys in our class, too. They spent the rest of the semester ogling us girls from each and every angle, their x-ray gazes hunting for the key that unlocked the puzzle box of our bodies. My hair only grew thinner after that. I began wrapping a scarf around my head to hide the patches of exposed scalp. No one ever called those thinning tresses beautiful anymore.

When I was young, I woke up one morning to the soothing sound of sibilant voices inviting me back from the depths of sleep. “It’sss almosssst noon, Medusssssa,” they hissed, in a Greek chorus of collective sighs. Earnest. Filled with expectations. I opened my eyes to find myself face-to-face-to-face-to-face-to-face with a seemingly endless parade of rattlesnake heads crowding my personal space. I thought I must be dreaming. I thought I was trapped in my worst nightmare. But I couldn’t wake up because I was already awake. I scrambled out from under the covers to escape the hotbed of slithering creatures that must have somehow invaded my pillow during the night. But when I did, they followed. Because, I quickly realized, they had sprouted from the back of my head the way my hair once had. I screamed.

When I was young, I thought this new development was a punishment. A punishment for my vanity. My fear. My ssexuality. Some cruel act of puberty. I avoided mirrorss, refussed to look at what was right in front of me. Until an amazing thing happened: I opened my lidss in the middle of Biology classss and found my teacher sstaring back. As ssoon as she made eye contact, she turned to ssstone. Gemssstone, to be exact. Not a ssstatue, but a perfectly sssmooth pebble of mottled green-and-black ssserpentine that rocked gently in the ssspot where she once ssstood. The whole classssss ssscreamed.

When I wassss older, I realized my new head of hair wassss actually a gift. Because of it, I was eventually able to overcome my fear of baldnessssssss, of ssssnakessss, of humanssss and their threatening pressssencessss. I managed to ssssusssstain fulfilling relationshipssss without face-to-face communication. But ssssometimessss I encountered people who reminded me of that teacher, thosssse boyssss, my childhood friend. When these unfortunate souls looked me in the eyessss, I wassss still richly rewarded. With ssssstunning cutsssss of authentic amber, opal, sssssapphire, aquamarine, onyx, garnet, emerald, amethyssssst, and cubic zirconia. Very sssssoon, I had to find a much bigger box for my ssssstonesssss. And the delicioussssss sssssssound they produced when agitated echoed like the ghosssssstssssss of my new friendssssss’ missssssssssssing tailssssss.

Susan L. Lin

Susan L. Lin is a Taiwanese American storyteller who hails from southeast Texas and holds an MFA in Writing from California College of the Arts. Her novella Goodbye to the Ocean won the 2022 Etchings Press novella prize and is now available to purchase at, where you can also find more of her published work. In her spare time, she enjoys sewing summer dresses, dancing to ’90s hits, reading mystery thrillers, and streaming TV.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

Another Successful Social Interaction

A cluster of barrel cacti dominated by their spiky spines. The image is split with a black V shape and the center of the V is in full color with the sides remaining in black and white.

you enter the scene and nobody gives a shit. you don’t make a big show, but you do make a little one—clear your throat as you walk in, raise your eyebrows and your hands, try to say, “Hey, what’s up? I’m here!” but the first word barely comes out, and when it does your voice cracks so it’s mostly a whisper that sounds like, “heAYyywha…”

the door’s open to everybody, but you brought an invite anyway. you grab it from your pocket and pull the host aside to show them. they barely even look at it but they’re like, “Dude, where did you even get an invite anyway? Door’s open to everybody,” so then you say something fucking stupid like, “yeah, i know, i just thought it would be funny to make one because i’m fucking stupid,” and that’s a pretty big buzz kill even though you said it like it was a joke—because it was—but your sense of humor is all Big Sad and Big Weird and everyone else’s is Just Normal, so the host pats you on the shoulder and mutters something about mingling before leaving you standing alone in the middle of the room like a weirdo.

you shove the stupid paper back into your pocket and tap your foot to the ground a few times, checking its structural integrity, and decide that right here is probably as good a spot as any to pop a squat. sitting criss-cross applesauce on the bare wood floor hurts your ass, but it’s fine because life is basically always a little uncomfortable. 

some guy who’s into weird chicks spots you. you can tell he’s into weird chicks because he’s got several buttons pinned to his denim jacket and facial hair that looks the way a piece of velcro does when you accidentally drop it on the floor and then pick it up and go, “eww there’s hair on it,” and anyway, you just heard him say to the person next to him that he’s into weird chicks before immediately turning his attention on you.

he stands stupid close with his knees near your eyeballs, hands you a drink, then looks down at you and says, “We’re sitting indian style, huh?” so you take the drink and look back up at him and say, “no, we’re not,” because we are not doing anything and you are very clearly sitting criss-cross applesauce, so then the two of you just look at each other for too long. way too long. so long that you have time to wonder if he thinks you’re as a strange as everyone else does or if bitchy women get him off; then you’re imagining that he’s imagining falling in love with you, and you’re getting grossed out by the way you’re imagining him imagining your life, and your marriage, and your old wrinkled hand cupping his sagging balls 40 years from now, and now so much time has passed since you first started this staring contest that you think you should probably just get up and leave but your ass has fallen asleep, and anyway, you were here first, so you decide to commit to the power move and not move. the situation diffuses when he spots some other weird chick doing weird chick shit and goes to see if maybe she’ll let him smell her armpits. 

you pull the handmade invite from your pocket and try not to look at your name scrawled across the front like it even has any business being there in the first place. you fold it into a little origami canoe because that’s the only origami you ever learned how to make, then you flip it upside down and wear it like a hat. the host catches your eye from across the room, probably wondering why you’re sitting on the floor in the middle of the party wearing a paper hat, so you tip it gingerly in their direction before moving your eyes to literally anything else. sipping from your solo cup, you think: in another life, that boat could have been folded up itsy-bitsy-teeny-tiny into an even smaller version of itself and been placed right inside that cup; it could float on that liquid and ride your next sip into the cavern of your mouth, crashing against the great and gnarled rocks of your teeth before dropping down the waterfall of your esophagus and into the vat of toxic acid at the bottom to be digested and dissolved. but today, it’s a hat.

Sara Watkins

Sara Watkins (she/her) is an editor, author, UCTD-haver, and editor-in-chief of Spoonie Press (, which is devoted to publishing work by chronically ill, disabled, and neurodivergent creators. She is the winner of the 2022 MASKS Literary Magazine Story Award. Recent publications include work in Wordgathering, Unlikely Stories Mark V, and Bitchin’ Kitsch. Contact: or @saranadebooks on Twitter and Instagram.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson


A cluster of barrel cacti dominated by their spiky spines. The image is split with a black V shape and the center of the V is in full color with the sides remaining in black and white.

I like confessing things that aren’t completely true. Like the other day, a friend of mine asked where I’d been the last few months. I said, “You’ll never believe it but…” He waited for me to finish, and what I meant to say was, “Mason and I aren’t together anymore,” which was true, but halfway through, I chose this instead: “…Mason met another guy.” 

My buddy groaned. “Shit, really?”

Yeah, really. Mason met another guy. 

But the truth was I’d met one first.

When I saw Mason, weeks after we broke up, he was arm in arm with a man I’d seen a few times—okay, a thousand—at the grocery store, the gym, the park with his little dog, everywhere. Our town was hardly more than a few hundred people and a pizza parlor, so it was hard not to see him if you tied your curtains back.

Honestly, it didn’t feel great when I saw them spending a day together, but I couldn’t let them know that. So we smiled and said, “How are you?” and of all the things to lie about, I thought, that’s the biggest of them all, smiling when a tiny piece of you is dying inside.

“Man,” my friend said, “weren’t you guys engaged?”

Kind of—Mason and I bought each other ring pops at a movie theater and drunkenly posted, “Engaged!!!!!!” with six exclamation points and it was easier to click “like” on every phony comment than to let the world in on our joke. 

“That’s what makes it so hard.”

My buddy sighed. “He tell you why or anything?”

I thought about what I’d told Mason. “He just said—sometimes you find someone else who fits you better.”


“It doesn’t mean they always will. It’s just about where you are right now.”


“I know,” I said.

When I’d said these words to Mason, he cried. I’d never heard him cry before. We’d been together for two years, left Philly to find some place smaller, slower, where we could “lay down our roots” as if we couldn’t find a crack in the city streets to grow together. We drove an hour out and started looking, had our things packed into the back of his father’s pickup, found a one-road-town where the storefronts needed paint and unloaded our shit on the front step of a duplex that faced the main drag and called it “home.” 

For months, we shared our little two-bedroom half-house, unbothered by the things we hadn’t known till then—like how the sink miraculously clogged each time he shaved or the way he slurped his soup when it was just the two of us—among smaller things we pretended not to see, like the unmatched socks he left on his bureau for so long he must have known any hope of reuniting the pairs was gone, dead, finito, and I wondered how anyone got along—I mean, to the point they could actually live together—unless they closed one eye and covered one ear and pinched a goddamned nostril shut because the sad, lonely truth of it all was no one needs to be seen completely, and to this day I wonder what kind of tears I’d have gotten if I told him this instead.

“Well,” said my buddy, clearly having done enough consoling for one night, “you need anything, you let me know.”

“Of course,” I said. And alone on my couch, I thought of the man I’d left Mason for. The one I’d seen at the bar, when I drove the hour back to Philly. He was on his second Manhattan, so I asked, “A Manhattan in Philly?” not knowing if this was funny. It wasn’t.

“Hey—” I leaned in toward him. “You think I’d like the total you?”

“The what?” he asked.

“If we moved in together. And I had to step over your smelly clothes and listen to you laugh at inane comedies and watch you bite your nails when you’ve got nothing to even stress about—you think I’d like you then?”

The man shrugged coolly. “I don’t do any of that.”

“Tell me then. What do you do?”

He considered it a moment, squinting at the row of TVs. “Sometimes I drive with one knee.”

“You mean if the traffic’s slow?”

He shook his head. “On the highway.”

“That would literally fucking kill me.”

The man searched my eyes, so I shut one.

“What about you?”

I shrugged.

“Come on. Name one thing that would drive me nuts.”

I didn’t know where to begin. So I started in as good a place as any: “When I get to know somebody, I run.” 

“Is that it?”

“Or when someone gets to know me. I’m running from a man right now. He doesn’t even know it. But when I tell him, he’ll wonder who the hell I am. And for a moment, I’ll love him again. I’ll love him when he thinks about the signs he missed. I’ll love him when he wonders if we knew each other. I’ll love him when he passes our old house and—for the very first time—sees how the windows slope north, how the red brick fades by the roof.”

Matt Barrett

Matt Barrett holds an MFA in Fiction from UNC-Greensboro, and his stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Sun, Best Microfiction 2022, SmokeLong Quarterly, River Teeth, The Minnesota Review, Pithead Chapel, The Forge, Contrary, and Wigleaf, among others. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and their two sons and teaches creative writing at his undergraduate alma mater, Gettysburg College.

Header photography and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

A Zoo Marriage

A cluster of barrel cacti dominated by their spiky spines. The image is split with a black V shape and the center of the V is in full color with the sides remaining in black and white.

I don’t mind the gawkers, but my ex-wife Sheryl hated the attention. She’d say the type of person who comes to the zoo is the same type of person who slows down to rubberneck a car wreck. Whenever I reminded her that was the whole point, that we were supposed to entertain and educate guests about the ins and outs of a loving, married human couple, she’d always retort: “I don’t remember agreeing to love anyone.”

She was right. She hadn’t.

I was sentenced here for selling an ounce of weed. For a while, the exhibit was called The Life of a Pious Bachelor. I’d spend all day raising and donating fake money to real churches. I guess the courts figure if we imitate who they want us to be for long enough, we’ll keep on imitating this made-up person forever.

Sheryl showed up around a year ago, and they renamed the exhibit The Idyllic Life of Married Americans. For authenticity, the zookeepers forced us to tie the knot for real. Each guided tour was the same. We’d begin in the kitchen, Sheryl cooking breakfast while I read a months-old newspaper. We’d exchanged pre-written lines like: “How did I get so lucky?” We’d finish eating, and Sheryl would kiss my cheek goodbye. I’d go to the dummy office attached to our pseudo-studio-set home and pretend to answer calls and check emails. Sheryl would pretend to vacuum and wash dishes. We’d end in bed talking about our days like stars from some cheesy 1980s sitcom.

Last Saturday, we got divorced.

The day started normally. I’d gotten up late; I tend to oversleep. I have nothing to wake up for, no one waiting for me at the zoo’s gate. I’ve never done anything worthwhile to miss. Sheryl had a life to get back to, had friends who’d sneak her snacks and trinkets. When I slid the half-Windsor to my Adam’s apple, she was already in her dress. She glanced at the clock next to the cots behind our mock house and mumbled something. I didn’t blame her for being pissed. If we weren’t ready by the time the zookeepers arrived, they’d threaten to tack on years.

I finished threading my arms through my state-issued blazer just as the zookeepers appeared behind the plexiglass. They all look the same. Same gray polo with the zoo’s logo, a giraffe with the scales of justice pinched between its teeth. Same short crew cut. Same cattle prod dangling at their waists.

One of the zookeepers shoved a box into the compartment they used to deliver our meals. I retrieved the box and opened it. Inside was one of those dolls whose eyes close when you tilt it downward. “Congratulations,” another zookeeper said. “You’ve just had a baby.”

On the stove, speakers emitted the sound of sizzling bacon. Sheryl cracked a fake egg and dripped the counterfeit protein into a skillet. I flipped to the Sports Section. Across the table, our plastic child sat in a highchair. Savory smells blasted through the air vents to make our guests’ mouths water for their own slice of marital bliss.

“Breakfast is almost ready,” Sheryl said. “I hope you’re hungry.”

Field-tripping students pawed at the plexiglass. Their teachers hovered like vultures. A zookeeper spouted fabricated details about how Sheryl and I met: high school sweethearts who waited until marriage.

“I’m starved, dear.”

Sheryl carried over our plates. I folded the newspaper. As we mimed eating, a zookeeper informed the crowd about how through hard work I’d been promoted to assistant manager, about how Sheryl took pride in her home.

“Well, dig in…”

Sheryl turned away. At first, I thought she was glaring at the kid up front who was giving us the finger. Then I noticed she was looking behind the little punks at a man packed into a navy suit. The man smiled at Sheryl like he knew her. He was leaning against the back wall, one hand relaxed on his hip, the other holding the arm of a stuffed animal version of our next-door neighbor, Milo the Mountain Lion.

Sheryl touched her arm. A zookeeper banged on the plexiglass, and she jerked her hand away like she hadn’t realized what she was doing.

“I refuse to be your stuffed animal anymore,” Sheryl said.

“Stick to the approved material,” a zookeeper piped into the exhibit.

Sheryl grabbed my plate and displayed the fake calories. She lifted our son out of his highchair and popped off one of his arms, revealing his hollow insides. Then she pointed at me like I was standing in a police lineup.

“I don’t know him, and he doesn’t know me,” Sheryl said.

Two zookeepers stormed the back entrance. Lightning jumped from their cattle prods. Kids screamed. Sheryl darted back and forth as the zookeepers attempted to herd her into a corner. She was right. I didn’t know her, at least not how two people in love are supposed to know each other. I pushed one of the zookeepers to the ground. The other went to zap Sheryl, but I stepped in front of the cattle prod, sending ants crawling through my veins.

Sheryl shrank and shrank until she was just a black dot.

They’ve renamed the exhibit The Life of the Regretful Divorcee. I now spend all day crying and apologizing for being a bad husband. I don’t know what happened to Sheryl, if she escaped, if she got to stop pretending. I do know the zoo is getting an elephant today. Apparently, this elephant killed a group of poachers. They’d sedated her and were sawing off her ivory when she woke up and gored them all to death.

Will Musgrove

Will Musgrove is a writer and journalist from Northwest Iowa. He received an MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in TIMBER, Cleaver Magazine, Oyez Review, Tampa Review, Vestal Review, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Will_Musgrove.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

We Splash

The side of a building with many fire escapes. The photo appears in black and white with a V-shaped center section in bright, comic-book style color, the building vibrant orange-red.

We love The Plunge. The promise of swimming on a hot summer day is the only reason we get up early and clean breakfast dishes without being told. We hurry-brush our teeth, wash our lagañas, and slip on our new swimsuits. Tia bought them at Mervyns. All the same size but each a different color. Joanna’s green one, of course, fits perfect. Elisa complains that the purple shoulder straps dig into her skin. The back of Delia’s blue one goes up her crack a little, so she puts on a pair of jean shorts to cover her nalgas. Maribel’s orange one is stretched so thin it looks almost see-through and goes low in the front so it’s good she doesn’t have chi-chis yet. She throws on a long T-shirt. Larissa’s is loose all over, the red fabric bunched on the sides and her straps slide off her shoulders. We get a big safety pin from Junior’s diapers and fasten the straps together in the back.

We help each other with hair. French braid for Delia that only Joanna can do tight enough. Larissa uses a lot of gel and slicks her curls back tight against her head, makes the hair ballies wrap twice. It’s so tight her puff ball in the back looks like a second tiny head. But we don’t tell her that. Maribel gets two braids that capture all the feathered hair around her face. Elisa’s hair is short enough to leave loose and Joanna likes hers in one skinny ponytail.

We pack our bag with five towels, our new sunglasses that match our suits, baby oil, and five oranges for snack later. Delia stuffs her book in the bag too.

“Why’d you do that?” Maribel asks.

“So I can read while I dry off.”

“Think that’ll make you look smarter?” Elisa always gets straight As.

“I think if I read ten of these this summer, I get a free personal pan pizza.”

The rest of us scramble back to the room for our own books.

At half past nine, we slip on our new yellow flip flops—Tia found them on clearance, all size 6—and pile into Tio’s blue Chevy Astro van. It’s brand new, doesn’t smell like baby butt or big brother feet like the old van did. We name her Bettina and tell Tio the boys should have to walk everywhere so they don’t mess her up. Maribel and Larissa get in the way back seat. Joanna and Delia sit on the middle bench, and Elisa, because she’s the oldest—12 in September—gets to sit in front. We each get a window so everything is fair.

On our way, Tio stops at the Circle K for cigarettes. He buys us each our own slushie and lets us pick our favorite candy. “Shhh,” he says, “don’t tell Tia.”

We can’t get chocolate because it’ll melt in five seconds. Larissa gets Now and Laters, which will pull a filling out of her molar the next day. Joanna gets Jolly Ranchers, “Because we have the same initials.” Elisa picks Nerds proudly and Delia gets Everlasting Gobstoppers. Maribel takes forever to decide, wanders up and down the candy aisle so long Tio yells that he’s gonna be late for work. 


The rest of us groan. “You did that so you don’t have to share,” we say. 

“I’ll share.” She smirks, knows the rest of us don’t like it.

So later, when a few small bits are stuck in her teeth and she smiles at the boys walking by, we don’t tell her. Just let them laugh. Until her eyes fill with tears. Then we surround her. Delia gets a napkin from the bag to clean Maribel’s teeth. We make her eat an orange to chase away the gross licorice smell. Joanna throws the rest of the licorice away.

But we don’t share our candy with Maribel. “Next time,” we say, “make a better choice.”

Larissa makes a different bad choice. One we pray Tias and Tios don’t find out about or we’ll never get to go back to The Plunge. Maybe because Larissa is the youngest—just turned 11 in May—she doesn’t understand why Joanna’s classmates, the ones who think they’re all that and dissed Joanna because she lives on the east side of town, sit in the spot near the deep end where all the boys jackknife off the high dive and cannon ball from the side.

Lifeguards yell, “Hey!” and “Stop that!” but no one listens. Those girly girls squeal and twist their bodies to avoid splashed water on their faces. We think some of them are wearing makeup. At the pool? How dumb! None of them have hair that’s ready for the water either. We know better. 

Maybe Larissa wants them to see how it feels to not be all perfect. She slips away while the rest of us are reading, runs the length of the pool on the slippery cement to the corner closest to those giggly girls. The rest of us look up when the lifeguard’s whistle blows and he yells, “Walk!”

Larissa combos a jackknife cannonball at this crazy angle and a wave of water the girls can’t twist away from arcs over them, drenches their whole pretty selves. Joanna is horrified, so the rest of us stifle our laughs. The wet girls sputter and screech. The guys clap and hoot at Larissa’s performance. She swims to the opposite side and boosts herself out. 

The noises change to cackles and oohs. Only then do the rest of us see that Junior’s diaper pin didn’t hold and the straps of Larissa’s too-loose suit have failed, the top half folds down at her waist.  She smiles over at us until she feels her nakedness. Her barely budding chi-chis chill in the air. She freezes and embarrassment creeps up her cheeks. The hoots and laughs get louder. The pointing and staring keep Larissa super still.

Maribel grabs a towel and sprints toward Larissa, jumps over two toddlers and twirls by the lifeguard who yells “Walk!” again and reaches out to grab her. The rest of us follow behind with the bag and Larissa’s flip flops. 

We surround her and head to the baño. Maribel gives Larissa her long t-shirt. Delia gives Larissa her jean shorts. Joanna undoes Larissa’s hair bally. It whacks Joanna’s fingers but she holds in her ouch and uses some baby oil to calm Larissa’s frizz.

When Larissa finally speaks, she says, “You see how I splashed those sangronas?”

Tisha Marie Reichle-Aguilera

Chicana Feminist and former Rodeo Queen, Tisha Marie Reichle-Aguilera (she/her) writes so the desert landscape of her childhood can be heard as loudly as the urban chaos of her adulthood. She is obsessed with food. A former high school teacher, she earned an MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles and is an Annenberg Fellow at University of Southern California. She is a Macondista and works for literary equity through Women Who Submit. You can read her other stories and essays at

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

Dead Shopping Mall

The side of a building with many fire escapes. The photo appears in black and white with a V-shaped center section in bright, comic-book style color, the building vibrant orange-red.

You can still hear the voices from before. The way you and your dad rigged up the old PA system, got the music playing again, sat and let the notes carry through the dead shopping mall. The broken skylight, sun coming in, vines snaking and low enough for you to take a running start, jump, grab and swing when it was a long day and low on food and you and Mom and Dad could use a little light entertainment.

Dad found an old bike in a woodchip park nearby, and though it was mostly rusted—tire rubber burnt and flayed on the rim, and you couldn’t see how it’d ever function again—Dad only saw his own bike from the beforetimes, the gleaming metal of the frame, and the cards he said they’d clip just so for the spokes to hit and give the illusion of a motor. And the tricks they’d pull, he said, and the scars he could show you when the tricks didn’t go so well.

So you scavenged for parts, and Mom painted all the walls in the whole shopping mall, put down record of all the living things that had ever existed and even some that hadn’t, the menagerie of life, before the glow set in and made the world you now know.

Dad made you an automaton friend. Nothing too advanced but enough to stand in for the friends you weren’t able to make, something you could teach to walk alongside your bike, then run when it got the coordination down. You collected knee scrapes and bloody elbows on bike falls as your metal friend scuffed paint and dented aluminum trying to keep up with you, to catch you when you’d fall.

The shopping malls are all dead now, and it isn’t like they weren’t before, but there’s no Mom around to breathe life back into them. They’re just walls and a ceiling, windows and a floor. You can almost see the way the night fire would light up the paintings back then, and the stories Dad would tell, the ones he could speak but could never write down, and when the glow was low you could see the stars peeking past the smoke as it wisped up and out the broken skylight, and Dad said one day he’d build you all a rocket ship. It wouldn’t be much, not like the stalled starliners of the beforetimes, but it’d work just the same, and he’d take you all out of here, away from the glow and the loneliness and the broken everything and you’d find a new home up there, one day, somewhere warm and cozy where you could start over, and it got so the coldest, hungriest nights were filled with the tallest of tales, but those nights you could count on dreams of a makeshift rocket blasting up and through the mall’s skylight, out and past the glow, past the sky, shooting true and into the stars. Those dreams were the best, even if you woke from them with an empty stomach and numb toes, ears red and nearly frostbit.

Your automaton friend took to patrolling just outside the mall’s walls most nights, standing guard for your family, but especially for you. There wasn’t much he could do if there was danger besides wake you. But he insisted that he stand guard, that he repay you and Dad for the life you’d given him. So you left him to it.

You were nine years old when you saw your friend broken to bits and left to twitch on the ground, frost gathering on metal in the early morning cold. When you yelled, it was a sound that came outside of you, and Dad ran over, Mom too. Your friend’s metal head was nearly severed from the body, hanging by a ribbon cable and a couple of wires. Some scavver had made off with most of the body, arms and legs removed, vital components in the chest yanked out. Whoever they were, something had at least kept them from stealing the still-blinking head.

You cried during the entire operation that followed, and even though your friend told you it was okay, that he wouldn’t need a body as long as he had you, you couldn’t help but feel like it was all your fault.

The salvage successful, you asked your dad to add a basket to the front of your old bike. If your friend couldn’t run alongside you, he could at least ride along.

You’re back now, twenty years to the day since you left, with your pack out in front of you, and the glow is low today, mercifully so. Mom and Dad are just a burning memory, but this dead shopping mall still stands. You reach into the pack, find what you’re looking for. Who you’re looking for. The primary colors of youth are gone, but you can almost remember them as your old friend opens his eyes and looks out at his birthplace: the building where so much was taken from both of you, the building where everything was given. You try to frame it in a broken skylight in your mind, to keep its bigness small: so much smoke trailing away out and to the stars. Sometimes you wonder if the world’s so small, or if it’s so big you can’t stand it. You can’t decide which, but you don’t need to make up your mind just yet.

Nick Olson

Nick Olson (he/they) is the author of the novels Here’s Waldo and The Brother We Share and is the Editor-in-Chief of (mac)ro(mic). His third novel, Afterglow, will release in June of 2022. A Best Small Fictions nominee, finalist for Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award, and 2021 Wigleaf longlister in and from Chicagoland, he’s been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, Fiction Southeast, and other fine places. Find him online at or on Twitter @nickolsonbooks.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson