the best reasons by Tracey Slaughter
They make the very best decision, standing under the trees. They come to it together, trading the words in sad, rational sentences. It is a hot day, and while he is speaking she watches the neck of his blue shirt convert the words to sweat. He undoes two buttons to clear the right things from his throat. They list the givens, the necessities, so later they can’t pick out whose final decision it is. Her heartbeat feels uphill. Her guilt agrees, mutual. He stares at the sandals that quarter her feet. She can’t make her hands do anything definitive, but he can’t reach out to take one – it’s a touch he won’t be able to stop. He tests a quick joke – they can catchup next at one of their funerals – but it’s bitter, and their eyes can’t meet, their skin on the brink. And when she writes about it later, she will think about putting in a scene where they can watch X or Y – the detail of a child howling at the topple of their icecream to the concrete, the leftover cone poised stupidly near their scream like a fragile tooth-marked megaphone, a lone gull limping round a black mesh rubbish bin dragging the gouge of a fishing-lined wing, an old couple spreading a moss-coloured blanket over the spongy park-bench slats, the doddery ritual of their stainless-steel thermos, so tepid, and requited. But she won’t be able to. She won’t be able to take her eyes from the two of them, withheld, under all those trees. The leaves underfoot are a dark trance. She will listen to the names of his children. Recite the good points of her husband. Then they will turn and walk apart. They are reaching the best decision. The birds vote from the branches.
from the hot-off-the-press collection, Devil’s Trumpet, launched 15 April in Hamilton.
Blades of Grass by Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar
Which bed will you take? Carl asks as we enter the hotel room I’ve booked at The Smoky Falls, a seven-hour drive from home. The gray-and-blue streaked carpet between the two queen beds cleaves my heart. How did I miss the check the box for one king bed while making the reservation?
Ten months cloistered inside the house. Ten months of bodies plopped on furniture. He, at the kitchen table, starting Zoom meetings with Hey, how is everyone doing? – ask me too, I want to say. And, I, at my desk, trying to write, coaxing words that don’t come. He, on the sleeper sofa, binge watching Netflix to sleep. And, I, diagonal on the island of our California king mattress, a bunch of books beside me, a shawl wrapped around my feet.
A change in scenery helps rekindle the flame, a friend said on the phone. And The Smoky Falls is beautiful in its frozen, winter glory. I snorted at her use of clichés but the idea lodged itself in my mind like caramel in molars.
I wipe down the knobs and surfaces of the hotel room with a disinfectant. The car conversation today – about Breaking Bad that he’s watching for the second time – has been the longest in ten months. Before, he used to kiss me on returning from work, used to talk about futile meetings or a colleague’s new car or the Thai place he tried for lunch. We watched news. I showed him my poems. There was a structure to our days.
Not this contiguous block of weekdays punctuated by weekends which are more of the same. For ten months, I haven’t flipped the calendar tacked to the pantry door.
Carl opens the window blinds. Wow, a Monro Auto Service across the street with a $19.99 oil change! He slips his feet back into the shoes.
But we have a Monro beside the Whole Foods at our place.
It’s miles away, you know. Besides, didn’t you notice the engine noise towards the end of the drive? He steps out, then, pauses to say, I’ll grab something for dinner.
I take a shower, spritz myself with lavender mist, and look in the mirror. The home workouts are showing results – my belly’s concave, my waist about two inches smaller, my hips muscular – but my husband hasn’t noticed.
The glare of the Open sign at Monro Auto Service spikes my eyes. There, he’ll be chatting with mechanics about valves and pipes and fluids and brake pads, drinking insipid coffee in Styrofoam cups. I close the blinds and draw the curtains.
A gossip magazine and silence lull me to sleep. Exhaustion from the journey courses through my veins and I don’t wake up until morning. Carl’s snoring in the other bed, the white damask comforter pulled over his head. A stale smell pervades the air. There’s an open Donato’s box with two slices of pepperoni pizza on the table. My stomach acids roil but I can’t have cold pepperoni.
I slip into my jeans and boots, grab the car keys, and head out for a to-go breakfast followed by a morning – or a day – with myself at The Smoky Falls.
Outside, snow falls. Light and persistent. From my car, I watch it accumulate over the tarmac, covering it inch by inch. But the blades of grass along the sidewalk peek out – defiant little hopes – refusing to be buried.
By the Time You Read This by Donna Abraham Tijo
Mr. Arvind Kumar’s wife will have signed off paperwork. She will peep through the glass on the hospital’s swing door when Mr. Kumar will be placed on the stretcher. She will hurry along the hallways as the stretcher will be pushed through the hospital’s alleys and look on when Mr. Kumar will be elevated onto the ambulance. Within herself, she will plead with the Gods, again and again.
His office’s HR Manager will call repeatedly on the mobile phone informing Mrs. Asha Kumar of the various details that she will require to handover at the Dubai International Airport. An executive from the HR team will help Asha into a car, which will follow the ambulance to the airport. At the airport, the HR Manager will be standing in wait in a blue hazmat suit. He will rush to Asha with additional documents required for Mr. Kumar’s transfer to Delhi where Mr. Kumar’s and Asha’s relatives had managed to find a liver for replacement, after nearly a month of futile search.
Mr. Kumar hadn’t taken ill after the meeting with the client at the lobby of the Hilton. The client had tested positive and Tweeted a warning. Then, the next weekend Mr. Kumar tested positive. But the virus had gone ahead and proliferated and Mr. Kumar had had to be admitted to the ICU by the end of the week that followed. Another month of deteriorating vitals were accompanied by a frantic search for donors, which had thankfully amounted to something.
The client had recovered after the fever and a sore throat.
At the airport, Asha will run to the ambulance when the hospital staff will step out in hazmat suits and roll down the stretcher. Asha will want to hold onto Arvind’s hand, but the staff in hazmat will not permit the contact.
From a distance, Asha will see Arvind’s fingers turn up, as if calling out to her. But Asha will not move from her spot owing to propriety or an underlying hope that devastating moments happen to others; she won’t know which.
90% are asymptomatic, Arvind had touted back when the swab results had come back positive. Wear a mask, sanitize always, is all that’s needed, he had said moments before stepping out for that important meeting that pleasant evening in February.
At the airport, Mr. Kumar’s fingers will fall back onto the stretcher. And, he will lie strapped to the stretcher, the oxygen mask and bags and tubes dangling off his being.
At Dusk by Andrew Hughes
Dusk was falling and it hadn’t rained in a month. The pretty boy on the weather channel, the one with the jagged chin and the floral ties, said it would come today, and even though clouds bubbled on the outskirts of the sky, rain did not fall. It was getting dark now, and Jenkins still sat on the park bench, watching birds flock and twirl in great curling funnels. A feather had drifted down from the mass, a single black plume meant for parchment. Jenkins had picked it up and twirled it in his fingers, how a child might play with a blade of grass.
He didn’t want to go home, felt he really couldn’t go home, not after the debacle last night, not after Brad had hurled the beer glass across the table, bounced it off the dart board, and shattered the tv. It’d been the second outburst this month. Why had he thought it was a good idea to move in with him? He’d only known him for six weeks, not long enough to make a judgement like that. But, that’s what time in the homes did to you – pushed you into corners, made you dart for scraps, made you take chances that no normal person ever would.
So, he couldn’t go home, not yet. Not before Brad left for the night. There was talk of a party, the promise of booze and easy women, but Jenkins had shrugged it off. He’d known it’d been a peace offering, but he didn’t have it in him.
Minutes passed and the sky grew darker. Brad would probably be gone by now.
With the feather tucked in his shirt pocket, Jenkins took to the sidewalk and felt the thick wind curl around him.
Maybe the weatherman was right, he thought. Maybe there would be rain tonight. Lord knows they could use it.
A clump of clay lay on the walk ahead. He batted it with his feet as marble-sized chunks broke away and became dust.
Two years he’d been on his own, two years he’d been living this meandering, contemplative life. No closer to college, no closer to finding his parents. Maybe that was okay though. If they had given him away when he was a child with potential, how would they feel now that he was a grown failure?
Maybe they’d always known.
Jenkins kicked the clay hard and it burst into a hundred rolling pieces. He sighed, took the feather from his pocket, and waited for the rain.
Beacon by Christopher Locke
Lisa’s surgery was awful; the doctor cut an artery and the subsequent, unexpected repair was debilitating. Even now, a week out, she suffers trying to stand to go to the bathroom, cries out when rolling over in bed in hope some light from the window finds her face.
Managing her pain has also been hard. Blue post-it notes run the length of a poetry journal like a crude message board detailing all the times she’s due one med or another: is it Dilaudid now? No, no, wait, it’s Ativan first. then Zofran. I check and recheck the times, afraid I’ll overdose her.
Our house, which is over 140 years old, has become a beacon of suffering lately; a kind of lighthouse vibrating to anyone who might understand what it means to feel such pain.
Tonight, I woke up at 3:15. Lisa woke too. I figured she was just ready for her next dose, rising through the hard edges that narcotics otherwise soften.
I turned on the light and checked my meds list. I opened and rattled bottles and handed her several different shaped pills. She took them while I held the glass of water. I turned off the light and lied back down next to her.
Everything was dark and quiet.
But something was off; I felt strangely scared, filled with a big scaredness I couldn’t name or understand. I kept staring at the ceiling but had this awful sensation I was somewhere else, like waking between death and heaven. A place the lost inhabit when they don’t know they’re waiting to transition somewhere better. Or perhaps worse.
Come on, settle down, I thought. You’re tired and sleep has been spotty this week, Relax. Go back to sleep. Close your eyes.
I closed my eyes.
“I’m scared,” Lisa said.
“I don’t know. Something is wrong and I can’t stop dreaming. I keep dreaming but something is wrong.”
She found my hand and held it loosely.
“It’s okay,” I said.
I felt I was about to panic. True panic. That I had to suddenly get up and leave this house. Run down the road and not look back.
“Do you see those people,” Lisa whispered.
“There’s a man and little boy standing in the doorway.” Lisa’s voice was like a child’s.
I wanted to scream. Or cry. But I knew I had to look. In all that darkness, I had to look. What choice did I have?
But then I thought, what if I see them too?
Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar is an Indian American writer. She was born in a middle-class family in India and is indebted to her parents for educating her beyond their means. She is a Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee; her work has been published in Fictive Dream, PidgeonHoles, MoonPark Review, and other journals. Her website is saraspunyfingers.com. She can be reached on twitter @PunyFingers.
Andrew Hughes has been writing and publishing short stories for the past decade. One of these, The Crab Catcher, was recently reprinted in Brilliant Flash Fiction’s Best Of anthology. He currently lives in Arizona, working as a criminologist, and taking care of the world’s most adorable white husky.
Christopher Locke’s poems, fiction, criticism, and essays have appeared in, among others, The North American Review, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, Another Chicago Magazine, Poetry East, SmokeLong Quarterly, Verse Daily, Southwest Review, Slice, Gargoyle, ARC (Canada), The Literary Review, The Sun, Contemporary Verse 2 (Canada), West Branch, Rattle, Agenda (England), 32 Poems, Rhino, Saranac Review, The Stinging Fly (Ireland), The Southeast Review, Barrelhouse, Whiskey Island, The Adirondack Review, and NPR’s Morning Edition and Ireland’s Radio One. He won the 2018 Black River Chapbook Award (Black Lawrence Press—2020) for his collection of short stories 25 Trumbulls Road, and his latest poetry collection, Music For Ghosts, is forthcoming with NYQ Books in 2022. Locke received the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Award, grants in poetry from Fundacion Valparaiso (Spain), and PARMA (Mexico), and state grants in poetry from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts. He has been nominated for Best of the Net and The Pushcart Prize many times. Chris lives in the Adirondacks where he teaches English at North Country Community College.
Donna Abraham Tijo is the author of Or Forever Hold Your Peace (AuthorsUpfront, 2014). Her short stories have been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul, Indian College Students (westland ltd, 2011) and Escape Velocity (Write&Beyond, 2018). Online, her stories have been published at KITAAB, Vilage Square and Readomania.