Real People
By Michael Harper

The gymnasium is packed with most of the school. As each row of teenage meat smashes in together, an oppressive heat starts burdening the small arena. Winter coats squelch against each other, puffy and undefinable in space. The teachers shush the murmurs with varied enthusiasm. Mr. Leroy sneaks to the men’s room to drink Wild Turkey and pray to the school mascot. The students’ buzzing blends together into a unified cacophony, like a swarming hive.

Three lonely microphones stand absurdly in the middle of the basketball court. Ms. Litchum waddles out to the middle one and exhales loudly into it.

“All right. That’s enough. Quiet down.” The avalanche of noise softens to a rumble, which she seems resigned to. “We are all in for a treat because we have the honor of welcoming three great Americans today. They are here to share their remarkable stories of success and achievement. Let’s give them a warm Wildcat welcome. Astronaut Bruce Goodchild. Olympic gold medalist Rocky Bullwhip. And rocket scientist Michelle Nobel.”

They look impressive as they enter the gymnasium, waving to the crowd. Teens are great at applause. They love smacking shit; even if it is only themselves. Rocky is lucky he wore his wrestling singlet in this heat. Even if his enormous mouse knuckle jiggles distractingly. His gold medal and sculpted limbs seem to make him impervious to what others would be self-conscious of. Michelle and Bruce look incredibly stoic in their respective white lab coat and orange jumpsuit which must make it feel like they’re in a sauna. Their hair never moves and smiles never flinch. We aren’t used to this level of respectability and immediately settle down to receive their guidance. Most of our teachers smell like Cool Ranch Doritos and dried sweat. None of them wear slacks that fit. We feel an inherent obligation to act worthy in the presence of these outsiders.

“How are we doin’, Wildcats?” bellows Rocky. He looks like he’s never had a bad day. One of those people who laugh when they vomit after a wind sprint. “Let’s make some noise!” I’m not sure what we’re cheering for, but I find myself joining in the fanfare. “I’m here with my friends to talk to you about success. Because it’s easy to look at us, as finished products, and forget we were once sitting right where you are now. But through hard work and determination we were able to achieve our dreams.” He holds up his gold medal. “All I had to do was never forget what I was working for. And remember that no matter how hard the road, it would be worthwhile making my family and my country proud.”

Rocky’s words really resonate with me. I’ve been thinking about giving up my influencer dream. I can’t get my followers up, even as I turn to more and more dramatic stunts. I want to host a channel about character development in interactive role-playing games, how choice effects gameplay, but I’ve resorted to attention grabbing gimmicks. Last week I chugged a Monster every 15 minutes while playing Fallout until I vomited. I only gained 6 new followers. But listening to these people who have climbed the mountain and know the struggle reminds me that Rome wasn’t built in a day. My best work is ahead of me. Adversity breeds creativity.

The crowd is really revved up for Rocky. He’s jumping around and doing push-ups. Plus, his jostling moose knuckle raises the stakes of every movement. It feels like the fourth member of their group.

We are all cheering and following Rocky in call and response chants. It’s amazing. I feel like I could bench press a mountain. The other two keep their cools, which I respect. They are more substantive. That’s how I will be when I make it.

Suddenly, I get crazy dizzy. This happens sometimes. I stumble out the doors, through the hall and outside into the snowy air. Everything swims as I keep my head close to the ground. I try counting backwards from 1,000 but by the time I’m at 466, the three speakers bang through the door and see me dry heaving. They look amazing even from my inverted perspective. They all light cigarettes and eyeball me.

“You all right, kid?” asks Bruce.

I vomit all over Rocky’s red, white, and blue wrestling shoes. A 3-second stream of cherry slushy and Salisbury steak makes him leap like a scared cat. He’s such an athlete.

“Here, try this.” Michelle hands me a cigarette. It smells unfamiliar.

“What is this?” I ask.

“Weed. It’ll settle your stomach.”

“Did you study that as a rocket scientist?”

“I’m just an actor, kid. It’s something my roommate told me. But she’s a hypochondriac and reads WebMD a lot.”

“You’re an actor?” My face turns green with rage and sickness.

“Sorry.” They all shrug. “It’s a job. We’re cheaper and easier to find than real people.”

I take a puff absentmindedly, ruffled by the recent news. It’s surprising how quickly the smoke sneaks into my lungs. I cough and cough and cough and cough. Rocky pats my back with his meaty hands.

“That stuff is going to mess up your perfect careers,” I try saying, but my words come out like barks. I’m speaking in tongues as I try not to swallow my own. It ends with more vomiting. Bruce rubs his shoes in a snowbank to get the spray off them. I sit on the ground and want to cry.

Rocky comes over, his moose knuckle completely vanished in the cold, but his nipples as sharp as a good cheddar cheese. Otherwise, he seems impervious to the environment. “Don’t worry, kid. You’re gonna do great things.”

I still want to believe him but all the rah rah has been sucker-punched out of me. They leave me there sulking, piling into a rusty grey-green Buick and sliding across the icy parking lot, leaving a streak of tire marks in the white snow.

Missing Pieces
By Joe Baumann

While he’s washing his hands, Lewis’s left thumb vanishes. When he leaves the bathroom, he scans Ryan Crosley’s basement, which smells of crappy beer and cheap vodka, and wonders who is thinking about him. Everyone is holding cans and cups, their fingers obscured, so Lewis finds an empty spot on a sofa. The girl sitting next to him hands him a beer, which sits cold in his palm. She’s wearing flip flops, and her right pinkie toe is missing; the others are painted a bright neon green. She sees him looking and smiles, waggles her other toes. Lewis takes a tentative sip of his beer; it tastes like an algae-covered pond smells at the height of summer.

He watches Ben Saroyan and Natalie Broward meet by the glass doors leading to the backyard. Natalie sheepishly turns her head to show Ben her right ear, where the lobe has vanished. He smiles, showing her his matching missing part. They thread their arms together and slip outside.

Lewis glances down: his thumb is still gone. He looks around the party and feels heat in his throat when he catches Peter Mabry, captain of the football team, staring at him. Peter averts his eyes but then they latch back onto Lewis. Peter raises his left hand, which is wrapped around a bottle of Budweiser: four fingers, no thumb. Lewis swallows more beer.

The can in Lewis’s hand is slick. He downs the rest of its chilly contents and stands. The girl pats him on the back. Peter, suddenly, looms before him, all broad shoulders and thick brown hair.

Lewis feels eyes all over him. Everyone comes to these parties for the same reason, even Lewis. He looks down at his hands. He wiggles his toes in his sneakers. His thumb is still missing, is the only thing missing. He’s never been quite sure what he wants, or who. He lets his body tell him.

Peter tilts his head toward the staircase. Lewis follows. The main floor is mostly empty and dark, furniture casting long shadows on high walls. The vaulted ceiling angles ominously like a church steeple. A grandfather clock in a corner ticks long seconds that slow the pace of Lewis’s heart. Crosley family portraits stare down at him.

“I wasn’t sure what you’d think,” Peter says, propping one hand on the puffy back of a leather sofa. “No one really knows.”

 Lewis nods.

“Is this okay?”

 “Of course,” Lewis says.

“You’re not just saying so?”

Lewis holds up his hand, still thumbless. Peter takes it with his own four fingers. The gesture is awkward, two left hands commingling, but Peter’s touch gives Lewis a jolt. The sour taste of the beer leaves his mouth. He parts his lips to speak but can think of no words to say, even though he wants to say Yes, yes. So instead he tightens his grip, letting the fingers that are there, and the one that isn’t, do the talking for him.

That’s What Friends Are For
By Danny Riordan

Theo thinks Caira and I will get married, and he told me so one night as we both lay naked in the midnight darkness trying to avoid the wet patch on the sheets.

He said it because he thinks my face lights up when I give him unsolicited updates on her life, and try/fail to relay the funny story that she told me on the phone while I rode the train over to his apartment.

“That’s what friends are for,” I reply with a shrug, “You and I are just friends here, and I am just friends with her there.”

Maybe it’s because I told him about our marriage pact: if at 30 neither of us are married, we will just get hitched to each other. And though I despise vermin with a passion and hound him to catch that stupid mouse that skitters across his countertop, I have promised Caira that it is okay to keep a pet tarantula in the house.

Or maybe it’s because I send every nude to her before I send it to him. But the former is just covering my bases for later in life, and the latter is proofreading: ensuring the drafts look good before forwarding them to their intended audience. This is what friends are for.

… Right?

The grains, the lumps, and the glitter
By Barbara Kurzak

Most of the time in this town I feel like a Christmas casualty. Like one of those ornament glass balls shattered under the tree, burnt gingerbread cookie, or the one stubbornly broken light that your father just can’t fix. Or simply one of the dead bodies caused by the homicide risk increase during Christmas.

Right now I can see my friends through the window as they sit on the fire escape with their legs dangling off above drunk girls coming from or to a party. Maybe later when my trainwreck of thoughts gets a little too fast I’ll join them—crack a Sylvia Plath joke or say we have to get around to putting up the yellow wallpaper that has been lying in the corner of our apartment for three weeks.

I see as Amelia lifts her cigarette to her cherry-stained lips, inhales, tilts her head back, closes her eyes as if in some sort of divine ecstasy, and lets out a grey puff. I know she smokes just to look pretty—she told me that when we got drunk on red wine, cheap and sour—otherwise she would have made a switch to eco cigs a long time ago. Or maybe she wouldn’t smoke at all—who knows what we’d be without the need to be beautiful even in the ugly things.

I don’t know if it’s me, my friends, or even worse, the “times,” but lately everything feels glittery. It’s not the shiny confetti that falls in gushes of glamour on some rich New Year’s Eve party making you wonder if it’s stardust. It’s the bland store-bought glitter that didn’t stick right to a “happy birthday” card, leaving grey lumps all over the thing. The glittery friends, the glittery drunken escapades to the roof, the glittery funeral I’ve been to today.

Our talks on the fire escape, no matter if they’re post-funeral or post-party, are usually the same symphony of disillusioned and naive bitterness. Everyone here feels like a character from a movie so slow-paced it’s boring and too damn fast to follow at the same time. And me—a thing of stone, yuck, blood and black and white grain thrown and stuck to the screen. I’m angry at myself to be always writing about despair—for most of my life, it felt excruciatingly boring and ordinary in fiction when there was so much of it in reality. Sadness, for me, is the most mundane thing possible and usually doesn’t give you the closure a story can.

You Never Get a Second Chance …
By Mary Sloat

I hear people remark as they go by that the house with blue shingles looks like such a happy place. The sun shines a bit brighter through the windows each time someone stops and stares. The roof was replaced last spring and wasn’t that a headache? But it was worth it because as everyone knows, appearances matter. The grass in the backyard is brown, but the watered flowers blare their good fortune in riotous hues. I’m especially proud of the red front door, the color of a smile. Come in, sit down, cup of tea?

But red also means stop.

Beyond my front door, the echoes of accusations, shouts, and arguments have burrowed so deep into my drywall that I’m held together by pressed panels of hostility, resentment, and heaping doses of longing. The first two are his, of course. The last belongs to the woman.

She had the nerve to paint my bright yellow basement walls a softer color as if she could silence us with layers of paint. Over the years I have collected a vocabulary that rumbles through me in shivers that nothing can silence. Now, she keeps the door to the basement closed. That, too, does not work.

With her arms full of groceries, the woman pauses in the doorway, closes her eyes as I blow back her hair with an icy exhale that tornadoes through my rooms and swirls around her in a tightening circle. The bag sags in her arms and her head drops in defeat. I can be extremely persuasive.

Every night in her sleep she murmurs her fondest wish—to be free of us. He has no clue that on countless mornings she packs a bag to leave for good. Each time, I watch the driveway nervously until she returns, dries her eyes, unpacks. If we did not need her, I would let her go, but she elevates our standing in the community. Her continued presence is proof we are worthy of love, but that does not mean I have to like her.

In the yard, flowers bloom with the urgency of something desperately desired. The fenced yard is a deceptive tether disguised as freedom and control. The flowers complement my blue exterior, but when she spends too much time outside nurturing their sweet scents, my sticky kitchen floor goes unmopped and the stinking dishes pile up in the sink. It becomes necessary to launch the voices from the basement, slip them under the door, bleed them through the walls. Then she does my bidding. She always does my bidding.

From upstairs the TV in the basement blares a police procedural about a person who has disappeared without a trace. We like police procedurals. He yells up at her to bring him another beer. The woman takes a can from the refrigerator, steps around the purring cat, opens the basement door and walks down the stairs as if each step is bringing her closer to something she dreads. Her shoulders curve until she is hunched, looks ten years older, yet she stands beside him like a child awaiting punishment as the history of angry words pounds the air. Good.

The couch has relinquished its shape to his form, sagging beneath his weight. Without looking up from the TV, he empties his glass and slams it on the coffee table. The beer leaves a mustache of foam on his face.

“Cat did it again. You wanted the ugly thing. Do something about it.”

His waving arms punctuate his words with the violence of movement. What would it be like to have arms instead of porches and balconies? Or hands that grip and clench.

She straightens, forcing her shoulders back and whispers, “I want to leave.”

He turns away from the TV with a look of astonishment. We have discussed this. Do not let her see our fear.

His face resettles into his usual contempt. “It smells. It’ll ruin the floor. The house won’t like that.” He shakes a scolding finger. “That’s all we’re going to say about it.”

Lately I’ve begun to wonder if he speaks for me or if I communicate through him.

He. Me. We.

The woman dashes outside gulping deep, cleansing breaths. In the yard, her pulse slows as she smells a pink lily, a miracle she has cultivated and watched unfold. Only here are her dreams boundless and free, carried out beyond the fence by the crows in the oak tree, the cool breeze, the clouds floating up and away and away.

By John Salter

Someone at the back of the crowd was holding up a baby to give it a view of the gallows over the sea of dusty hats and bonnets. The baby had a grim, dirty face. You saw it, though I hoped you wouldn’t. You said it didn’t seem right. I told you I agreed. I was pulling the noose over your head and the rope was new enough that its threads caught in your hair. “Sorry,” I said. “I don’t come natural to being a hangman.” You said you could tell. Goddamn, they were making a lot of noise, the townspeople, and it was all festive. I tightened the noose and worked the knot around until it was under your ear and snug against your neck. I wanted it quick and painless for you, not the dangly, jerky theatrics that sometimes happened when the hangman was careless or worse. And that’s when I felt you shaking, not so overt as a cold and wet dog, but more of a quiet trembling, the sort you’d find in a young girl just before her first kiss. You were convicted of killing three people and denied it, and the evidence seemed pretty light, but here we were, weren’t we? Your knees went wobbly. I thought you might go down and pressed my hand against your back. “Don’t give them that,” I said. You were scared, you told me, not so much of the hanging, but because you didn’t know what was on the other side. “Nobody knows,” I told you. “Not even the preachers. But it’ll either be better or worse than this, right? One or the other.”  You seemed to think about that. You were sweating something fierce. People who know they’re about to die, there’s a smell, and once you encounter it, you can’t outrun it, you can’t wash it off, even by the cool spray of the great Pacific where I finally settled. “Listen,” I said, “it’s fifty-fifty, it’s just a simple coin flip.” You eased a bit; I could feel it in my palm on your damp shirt. The crowd was getting impatient. I thought about how in a hundred years people wouldn’t be doing this to each other anymore. Civility had to widen, not constrict. It just had to. “Look at me now,” I told you. “Don’t look at them.” But by the time I took three steps to the lever, your eyes were blank, you were somewhere else, and I was thankful. A coin flip, yes. That’s what had gotten me this position. My pal Tucker and me in jail for drunken shenanigans, a stolen goat, of all things. Nobody in this Christian town wanted the job so we were offered freedom for taking it. I called heads and heads it was. I won. Or did I lose? It wasn’t so simple after all. I pulled the lever, the trapdoor fell, and the crowd’s cheers were still ringing in my ears as I rode west.

Bread and Butter
By Abha Iyengar

Anant sat looking out of the window from the 14th floor of his apartment in Andheri West. This had been a surprisingly cold Mumbai winter. The light streamed in, warming his back, and his legs, covered with the blanket he had picked up a couple of years ago when trekking the Himalayas.

At the time he had not thought he would have any use for it in Mumbai, but had been unable to resist the soft promise of warmth it held, its bright maroon colour, and the look of delight on the face of the old lady of the mountains when he asked the price of it. He could not forget her face, and when she appeared before his eyes as he thought of her, his face crinkled into a smile. She had packed the blanket in newspaper and tied it with an orange coloured twine, her wrinkled hands with their tattoos creating a strange pattern over the paper as they moved. He had photographed her hands, after asking for her permission.

He stroked the blanket lying across his legs and thought of how the old lady had offered him tea. She had called him inside into her small room. Anant had been unable to refuse; something more than the request in her eyes had pulled him within. He watched her brew the liqueur as the sunlight played tricks to catch the grey in her hair and the aluminium of her saucepan, turning both to silver. The tea was sweeter than he had ever had. The buttered bread she offered with it reminded him of his days with his father at his teashop.

They had lived in a one bedroom in a chawl, where the toilet was shared by the four families who lived on the same floor. He went with his father early every morning at 4:30 to start the teashop. These walks down deserted streets with his father, at that quiet time of almost dawn, were the ones he cherished the most. When they reached the shop, his father would make the morning tea for them and give him two toasts roasted on the griddle, thickly buttered, to go with it. His father had two salted jeera biscuits with his own tea before opening the shop up for the early morning customers. Anant thought of his father’s face, lean and sharp like his own, his white kurta and pyjamas turned rough with the frequent washes and the rubber slippers on his long, well-formed feet. And so their day would start, with Anant leaving for school after helping his father in the morning. He carried with him to school a regular lunch of buttered bread.

Filled with ambition, Anant studied hard. When his dream of becoming a lecturer in the same college outside which his father had his teashop was realized, his father beamed with pride. He did not stop talking about it to those who frequented his teashop. “My beta,” he would say, “my son, you know, he teaches in this college …”

Anant looked around the flat and felt a sudden gnawing emptiness in the pit of his stomach. How he had saved to move out of the chawl with its crowding and limiting existence. He had quietly paid the last instalment for the flat in Andheri, dreaming of walking his father into a home of their own. But as the last touches to the interior were being done, his father had suddenly passed away.

Heartbroken, Anant took extended leave from his teaching and left to trek the mountains. He had to get away and somehow, the mountains had called out to him. The majestic beauty of the Himalayas—the huge rocks, narrow valleys, mountain streams and waterfalls held him in awe and soothed his mind and body. On his last day there, he meandered onto a narrow dirt path and it had led him to the blanket and the old lady. Returning to Mumbai, on an impulse, he submitted the photograph he had taken of her hands to an international photography competition. It fetched him an award. Without any qualms, he had given up his job as a lecturer to begin his professional journey as a photographer.

He stroked the blanket and did not feel so alone. Once home from the trek, he had also unwound the orange twine from the newspaper covered blanket. He had not thrown it away but tied it around his left wrist like a blessing. The blanket he put away. He never knew when he would use it, but that did not bother him. And today, he had brought it out, since a chilling wind blew in December in Mumbai, despite the bright sunshine.

He walked to the kitchen, glad the cook had not come to work that day and he had it to himself. He wanted to make for himself a cup of special masala chai, carefully, as his father had taught him. As he pounded fresh ginger with a stone pestle, he imagined his father’s hands over his, guiding him. The air, suffused with the aroma of cinnamon and cardamom, quickened his heartbeat and he began to hum an old Indian melody. He put the griddle on for the toasts to go with his tea and watched with delight as the hot butter melted and sizzled on the bread. The orange twine on his wrist shone in the light filtering through the kitchen slats.

Before leaving, he had touched the old woman’s feet and called her ‘Ma’, and she had been surprised. Then she placed her hands—those wrinkled, tattooed hands—on his head. He had stepped outside and gazed at the path that lay in front of him with eyes that were clear and bright. He thought he had meandered, lost his way, but he knew now he had been led there for a purpose— to find his way home.

By Karthik G. Nambiar

“No one crosses this road after sunset. Whoever tries, never reaches the other end of this two-kilometer stretch,” the food cart owner told us. He continued, “No one believed us, initially. Then one day, the forest department decided to investigate.”

I stared at the road ahead. It was completely dark, surrounded by trees on both sides. Not a single headlight or brake light to be seen. A warning board read, “Do not proceed on this route after sunset.”

“They sent a jeep down the road and within a few minutes, they lost radio contact with the jeep and the team at the end of the road waited till six in the morning for the jeep to arrive. It never arrived. That was three months ago.”

Roy took down notes of whatever the vendor said. Shekhar and Peter had already finished their tea and were doing a final check on the equipment before our journey onward.

The owner said in a sinister tone, “No vehicles or bodies have ever been found nearby. And sirs, I suggest you don’t go further tonight, either.”

Roy smiled at him.

“How are we supposed to make a living if we don’t go further?” I chuckled and handed him 200 rupees.

We headed back to our SUV.

“All set, boys?” I asked them.

“Good to go, boss.”

“Let’s investigate the hell out of this.”

Money is more important than life, the food cart owner must’ve thought as he glanced at the SUV one last time.

We proceeded into the forest. Gradually, the food cart disappeared from the rear-view mirror, and then it was pitch dark. A few meters down the road the SUV began to slow down. Its headlights started flickering. After going a few more meters, it came to a halt.

“Peter, keep the emergency lights on standby. Shekhar, camera ready?”

“Yup, boss,” Shekhar replied.

I could see a vague object a little further. I zoomed through my camera. “It’s the forest department jeep,” I announced. “And it’s moving.”

“How is that possible?” Roy was bewildered.

The jeep disappeared as abruptly as I had spotted it.

Perhaps out of curiosity, the SUV sprang into action. We started following the jeep.

Gradually, the food cart disappeared from the rear-view mirror, and then it was pitch dark. I felt we were not actually moving but ignored the intuition. Suddenly, the SUV began to slow down, headlights flickering. After going a few more meters, it came to a halt.

“Peter, keep the emergency lights on standby. Shekhar, camera ready?”

“Yup, boss,” Shekhar replied.

I could see a vague object a little further. I zoomed through my camera. “The forest department jeep,” I announced. “And it’s moving.”

“How is that possible?” Roy was bewildered.

The jeep disappeared as abruptly as I had spotted it.

Again, the SUV sprang into action. We started following the jeep.

Gradually, the food cart disappeared from the rear-view mirror and then, it was pitch dark.

By Emma Louise Gill

It is Saturday night at the end-of-year dance. Misha tucks a stray strand of Giselle’s hair behind her golden-hooped ear, fingers sparking, eyes full of the cliché move and loving it. He leans into the motion, hand falling lightly to her shoulder, smiling in that gorgeously self-deprecating way he has, and Giselle decides she’ll let him have this win. Besides, she’s been falling for his star-bright presence since he first stepped into the science lab four years, twelve days and seven hours ago.

She rises on tiptoes to accept his kiss, unaware this event causes multiple universes to explode around them like bubbles from a child’s wand in a strong wind. Misha’s lips meet hers, cells commingling. In twelve years, the broken-down particles that make up Misha’s spit are there in the amniotic fluid cushioning their child, bursting from its mother’s body as it breathes in the world, caught by Misha, grinning through his cultivated moustache, Giselle crying and laughing, spent. In another ’verse those cells leave quickly, ejected for the junk they are like Misha’s declarations before his adultery; in another, they’re in the blood that soaks the sheet on their first night together; or they’re particles that hide a virus Misha won’t discover he’s carrying for twenty more years; or they’re the fundamental building blocks of their child’s eyes, whose birthing wail echoes, leaping backwards across time, a tickle on the skin, a tingle on the lips of its parents as they first touch.

And Giselle’s tongue meets Misha’s, lives entangling on a quantum level, souls aligning in the beauteous mathematics of the physical universe—or so says Misha, six months later, as they lie together on the back of his flatbed truck. Giselle knows she loves him most for these pretty, incomprehensible words that fall from his mouth. “It’s a lot to think about,” she whispers. “The entire universe in a grain of rice.” “It’s sand,” Misha corrects, but she shushes him until he agrees, because sand is silicon is stardust anyway, and light is a particle is a wave, is the feeling rushing through them in their sweet shared ecstasy.

The hormonal rush echoes across space and time, separated yet paired. It is there in the suckle of a new babe at her mother’s breast. It is in the rapture of an ‘I do’ beside tumbling waves. It is in Misha’s first crush on some American TV star, the one who kept his dreams company until YouTube, and porn, then later Giselle, take their place. It is in Giselle’s party high at college, where cares are thrown aside and chemicals soar synapses to new heights. It is in the drugs she takes at middle age, staving off menopause, and in her periods of depression, when hormones are better and worse than chocolate, than love, than sex or children’s hugs or sunrises on holiday beaches, golden and flawed and gone too soon.

It is in the pounding of their ears, hearts racing offbeat to the music, as Misha and Giselle collide. In one universe, he forgot to take his gum out; Giselle chokes on it, the moment ruined. In another, she shies away from his inelegant touch, from his sheen of sweat produced from dancing and the build-up of courage. They kiss, and in one universe Giselle never practiced with peaches, and Misha can tell, and though they’re both too embarrassed to admit it the failure of inexperience delays their relationship too long.


In this universe they kiss, and the spark is perfect, and their universe is set on a trajectory of time, unravelling before them like an inevitable film roll, end yet unseen but known, down on the cutting floor, edited to the perfect final termination—

—It is Saturday night at the end-of-year dance. And the universe holds its breath.

Fish Woman Sea
By CJ Erick



The great fish, whose name is a melody days long, broods in the depths. The frigid current chills his pain. All the creatures marvel at his song, and weep.


The fish follows the sailing ships of the land walkers. He drives away any of his kind who seek to breach the ships’ hulls. They sense regret clinging to him like remora.


The fish nudges the woman’s body. Her golden hair billows about her head. Her skin is pale like moonlight and swells from her bones. The sea has rinsed the color from her face. Her eyes stare without sight, and her lips part without words. The fish mourns.


The woman stands on the beach, gazing out over the sea. She does not play. The shaggy four-legs prods her feet. The fish watches and is terrified. After many days, she walks into the water. The fish has grown too great to swim over the reef to push her back to the shore.


The fish finds the copper-haired man among debris from the ship. His coverings drag his body into the depths. The fish fears for the one he loves.


The land walkers sail to hunt the tuna, the mackerel, the hake, all those creatures the great fish and his kind must eat. He feels anger at their intrusion and the hunger of his kind, and attacks their ship. The men fall into the sea, dragged downward by their heavy coverings. The fish feels unease, but this puzzles him.


The woman and a man with copper hair play on the beach. They throw sticks to shaggy four-legs, splash water at each other, chase seagulls away. She chooses seashells, and he washes them in the surf. Later, their bodies lie together in the sand. The fish watches them and feels joy.


The fish hunts cuttlefish in the tidal pools. He grows.


The fish watches the woman play on the beach. She throws sticks to a shaggy four-legs, chases seagulls into the sky, gathers seashells and washes them in the surf. She sits by the water, dragging a stick through the sand. She gazes out over the water with her eyes far away. The fish loves her.


The tiny fish flees a cuttlefish with angry dark stripes and waving tentacles. He is foolish for swimming in the shallow pool, so close to shore. Just as the beast strikes, a woman with golden hair plucks him from its grasp. She holds him in her palm and speaks to him:

“Oh, you are a fine fellow. Do not fear, little one. You will grow to be great and mighty, and all the creatures of the sea will harken to your song and marvel.”

The fish feels wonder, and believes.