As the nights grew longer, more children appeared at the swimming hole. Except they weren’t children, not anymore. Months of solitude had hardened their bodies, as if loneliness were tougher than skin. Yet inside, they softened from the relief at finding others who were lonely too. We can say they knew more than they should. But that’s only part of what came of their gathering.
I went down to the river
Before the break of dawn
I went down to the river
But now the river’s gone.
Down to the river, her phone lighting the path through the woods, Hollie wondered how many others she would find this time. Every night since the problem began, more were congregating at the water’s edge. With the town in lock-down, they had nowhere else to loosen their fear except among these dank shadows, drifting first to one cluster, then another, like moths drawn to broken flames. Distances were breached, breath expelled too close in illicit sighs from mouths unmasked. They believed the danger couldn’t follow them there. The river would keep them safe.
Beyond the trees, the half-moon hit the obsidian pool as the revelers held hands to jump from the bank above. The cold took their breath away before they rose to the surface with screams of laughter. After months of self-restraint, they craved spontaneity. They did it for kicks, just like kids had been doing for decades in this very spot, the clock turned back to a time when the biggest threat was gossip. Now, no one cared. Clenching and unclenching, they cleaved to each other in the night’s unburdening.
I jumped into the river
To the place where I was drawn
I jumped into the river
But now the river’s gone.
Hollie looked for friends but saw only unfamiliar faces. It didn’t matter. They were all here for the same thing—the ritual of water and the cleansing it could bring. Since entering the river was required, she shed shirt, jeans, phone, and shoes, bundling them at the bottom of a tree, not worrying whether they would be there when she returned.
Watching for an entrance into the current of bodies, her mind rewinds to a time when women in white were dipped backward, their unbound hair mingling with mud. As if all it took were water and prayer to cleanse a transgression. If she listens, she can hear the murmur of hymns promising salvation or heartache, with no guarantee as to which would be given.
I crossed the river
And found my way was wrong
I crossed the river
But now the river’s gone.
Hollie wades out until the water reaches her chest. She raises her arms, takes a breath, and dives. Going under, she swims away from the pack before surfacing toward the pale light.
In five days or fourteen, she will know: has the river washed it away?
Writer, farmer, teacher, and activist Kayann Short, Ph.D., is the author of A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography (Torrey House Press), a Nautilus award-winning memoir of reunion with a family’s farming past and call for local farmland preservation today. Her work appears in Midwest Review, Hawk & Handsaw, The Hopper, Pilgrimage, Dash, Genders, Mad River Review, and the anthologies Dirt: A Love Story and Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Non-Fiction. Dr. Short organizes community writing events and teaches digital storytelling and ecobiography at her own Stonebridge Farm on Colorado’s Front Range. More on her work can be found on Instagram @kayannshort and at www.kayannshort.com.
Sixty in September, autumn of your life. You think, What if I die without seeing Paris? Like that meme making the rounds some years back, a middle-aged woman in a business suit, her hand over her mouth in an expression of horror, saying “I forgot to have children!” You go to Paris. You record every sight, every step. The art, the gardens, the food. You stroll along the Seine with a pain au chocolat buttery-fresh from the oven at a corner boulangerie. Sip Beaujolais in the land where the grapes are grown. At Le Flore en L’Ile on the Ile Saint-Louis you taste your first soupe a l’oignon gratinee. Bliss in a bowl—rich bay-and thyme-scented stock, sweet-smoky-slow-cooked caramelized onions, a blanket of nutty gruyere that cascades, bubbly and crusty, over the side of the bowl, atop croutons that absorb broth from below and cheese from above. You’re a vegetarian, and that pungent base is beef stock. You feign ignorance. You’ve happily ordered vegetable entrees and fish, not tempted by cassoulet or duck a l’orange, boeuf bourguignon or coq au vin. But this is different. You sample the soup everywhere, like Goldilocks going from bowl to bowl: “This one’s a little bland,” “This one doesn’t have enough cheese,” “This one’s just right….” The first bowl remains the gold standard. Back home you resume your meatless ways. And you treasure your secret—what you do in Paris stays in Paris.
Alice Lowe’s flash fiction and nonfiction have been or will be published this year in Hobart, JMWW, Door Is a Jar, Anti-Heroin Chic, and Sleet. Her essays have been cited in the Best American Essays and nominated for Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net. She writes about life and literature, food and family in San Diego, California and posts her work at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.
Grace has a bedroom that we admire. Lotions and potions and when Grace comes out of her bedroom she looks like one of those girls who is a majorette. We hate Grace because of her pink bedroom. Pink covers, pink chair and pink sheets. We hate pink. We hate Grace for her pink bedroom.
Grace is medium height like us, but we don’t have pink bedrooms. She has a good figure just like us, but we have a better ass.
Grace goes to school just like us. We ignore her, we hate her. She’s too pretty for us to like her. She gets good grades like us, but we are better at math than she is. We might become a mathematician or a chemical engineer. Who knows what we will become. One of us is related to Grace, which makes one of us dislike her intensely.
Grace takes pills. We don’t. We are free to dislike Grace. Maybe Grace is Anne? We don’t know. One of us asks her parents. They say her name is Grace Anne. We hate that name. We hate everything about Grace because she has a pink bedroom with lotions and potions.
We get married but Grace doesn’t get married. She has become a teacher at a private school. We go to the private school and mock Grace. The kids mock her too. She is now heavy and we are thin.
We are so thin our men can’t see us. We run and we bike, we walk so our bodies are thin. Grace doesn’t do anything but teach and eat. We hate Grace for teaching and eating.
When we get older, we lose track of Grace. We may be dead. Or married. Or single. Who knows? Grace Anne is our cousin. We hate our cousin. We hate Grace.
Sue Powers’ fictions have appeared in numerous publications, including Saturday Evening Post, New Millenniums Writings, Blue Earth Review, Micro Monday, R-KV-R-Y, Funny in Five Hundred, Blue Lake Magazine, Adanna Literary, Dying Dahlia Review, Off the Rocks, and others. The News was on stage at a Chicago Theater. She was a recipient of a fellowship and grant from the Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Prose, and two of stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. A book of her stories was published by Atmosphere Press.
The first time she was touched was in the dark. At a school assembly, the lights in the auditorium off so that they could see the video about drunk driving play on the projector screen above the stage. A hand was on her thigh and then between her legs. She tensed but didn’t dare look at the boy the hand belonged to. She concentrated on the girl crying in the video, mascara running down her face, saying she wished she could take it back. Make it better again.
She’d only spoken to the boy in class. They had English and Bio together. Now, his hand crept up her thigh so slowly it was barely moving. She didn’t flinch. His fingers followed the inside seam of her jeans. His knuckles pressed hard.
There, in squeaky seats, she chewed her lip until it stung, the hurt of it. She wanted him to press harder, harder. They didn’t look at each other. A mother cried on screen, asked why, why, why. Mascara ran down her puffy face. His thumb dug in and she sucked in air. She could hear the whole school breathing, in and out. Something unfamiliar stirred in her. Someone whispered and a teacher shushed them.
Erika Nichols-Frazer has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She won Noir Nation’s 2020 Golden Fedora Fiction Prize and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her stories, essays, and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Red Tree Review, HuffPost, Lunate, Literary Orphans, Noir Nation, OC87 Recovery Diaries, and elsewhere. You can find her work and blog at nicholsfrazer.com.
Circa 1980, back from college on break, I took my 53 year old mother to the midnight Rocky Horror Picture Show in my hometown. In the car she flashed me her lacy bra peeking from her unbuttoned plus size floral tunic, shimmying her bosom and smirking at the look on my face before buttoning up again.
The Channel 7 news team was at the theater, and Mom intoned, mock-voice-over, “Fans of all ages flocked to the contemporary cult classic…” But no one else there looked over 25; the generations didn’t mix it up as much back then. Gray perm and shelf hips notwithstanding—even back in grade school kids always thought she was my grandmother– she was the perfect audience, probably the only one who understood all the allusions. After all, Lily St. Cyr was born way back in 1918.
Neither of us jumped into the aisle to do the Time Warp, but I could tell she wanted to. She had a way of laughing that was like how some people cry—with her whole body. Everyone always smiled when my mother laughed, which was a lot of the time.
As we walked to the car she took umbrage with the critics who dismissed one young Susan Sarandon’s performance. “Her eyes are very expressive. She’s gonna go places.”
She went on to compare the male characters with guys I liked in high school. The many Brads, the one Frank and two Rockies were obvious. We clashed over Eddie—I said there were no Eddies in my history; she said there were at least three. “I heard Ninja Star Nun-chuks is in jail right now,” she said. “And Skateboard Steve definitely shoplifted you that mood ring. And Pig-Pen…”– who had once left indelible dusty handprints all over my white French cut T-shirt–“…wasn’t he busted for …”
“Why must you remind me?” I was newly engaged, and smug. I thought only, and constantly, about my perfect fiancé, how much in love I was, how perfectly he smoothed over my ruffled past.
“Just trying to keep you humble,” she said.
I scratched my nose—she always made it itch when she annoyed me.
She caught me. “Aha—I see I still have the power.”
I deflected. “Well, what about the criminologist-narrator? I never dated him.” Ha-ha: he was old and irrelevant. As I said it I realized that he, the foil, a disembodied, judgmental scientific explainer, reminded me of someone…my father-in-law-to-be. Then I realized he also reminded me, just the tiniest bit, of my father-in law’s son, my own fiancé.
I held my breath, discreetly dragging my hand across my nose.
She paused. “He was quite the know-it-all,” she finally said.
I suddenly remembered her saying of one of the Eddies, (Skateboard Steve?) that one day I needed to match up with someone (even) smarter than I was. I’d said she’d sounded sexist and she’d said no, her advice was specific to me.
As I exhaled, she added, “How ‘bout them guns on that Rocky?”
And then she laughed and I smiled.
Julie Benesh has been published in Tin House Magazine, Bestial Noise: A Tin House Fiction Reader, Crab Orchard Review, Florida Review, Gulf Stream, Berkeley Fiction Review, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Bridge, Green Briar Review, and other places. Her work has earned an Illinois Arts Council Grant and a Pushcart nomination. Julie has an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College, lives in Chicago with two cats and a lot of books, and works a day job as a professor and at a school of psychology.
It had happened before.
The first time, she was ten. It was an accident, riding her bike. She didn’t remember the hurt of it, not
even in dreams. Only the sticky cream
of blood on her chest. The limbo aftermath of being road-killed. The sound of a child, hospital bound,
crying in an endless, sputtering, roar.
God, it was
strange. The second time, at twenty, she meant to do it. It was easy enough with a handful of pills and a
locked bathroom door.
The chemicals diffused in her arteries like incense. A ceremony. At peace.
Until consequence shattered it all.
She awoke to the whispering. The stares. No one trusted her unguarded, alone. But couldn’t they see
the danger was over? She’d come back, like a cat with nine lives. Self-vaccinated, for another
decade. Brick by brick, word by word
by dinner and diaper and bridal concern,
she’d built herself back. But this self she had built–she wanted a new one. Not this wilted age, white
flower turned brown at the edge.
Her birthday was in June. This third time was due soon.
And she looked forward to it.
Samantha Pilecki’s work has appeared in Five 2 One, Kansas City Voices, New Lit Salon Press, Timberline Review (forthcoming), Yemassee, and other publications. She’s the winner of the Haunted Waters Press short story competition, the Writing District’s monthly contest, and was a finalist in both the New Millennium Writings Contest and the Writer’s Digest short story contest.