Momma by Tristen Pasternak

 
Illustration by Gisela Levy

Illustration by Gisela Levy

 
 

Momma I’m sitting here right now on the couch thinking how soon I won't be doing this anymore. It hit me while I was washing my face actually. A wave of anxiety washed over me I’m afraid for this to end, our great meals with you sitting across from me. It has been so nice spending this time together your love is so warm and calming. Writing this I’m already missing you and I feel like I need to hold on tight I want to look you in the eyes next time I talk to you. I got to spend all of this time with you and I am so lucky I don't want to take it for granted I just want to take a moment to look at your face right here next time I see you just right at your face and take in your presence. I did the same thing on the couch before I left for France. I was reading my book and you and the dog were asleep on the other couch right next to me and I realized everything was perfect. No matter where I was or if I died in France for some reason I knew that moment was the most perfect life can be. So I made sure to save it, that at any time if I needed to come back here I would be able to. I took ten long breaths, being sure to count carefully each second of the inhale and exhale. I did this ten times, to freeze time, to breathe the moment in me so that it would always be there. When I got too drunk on New Years I went there, and I’m certain I texted you saying something about I can’t wait to be drinking tea on the couch but you couldn’t have understood how I wanted to be there but more than anything I was afraid. Each day I feel like I need to be more present. I feel this kind of urgency to make you so real to me so that you can stick in my mind. The first few days I was home I was so under water I felt like I couldn't even see you. I couldn’t reach out and touch you across this unfathomable abyss. Even though you didn’t want to cross it. But now I think I am finally present. I am finally here with you. I am afraid of going back to school and losing you all over again. Losing myself. Losing sleep and privacy and your kindness. I am so sorry please look me in the face when you talk to me.

(I don’t want time to do anything to her.)

Tristen Pasternak is a freshman at Barnard College. She is unsure of a major; she enjoys playing the trumpet and writing poetry. Tristen is from the Philadelphia area.

 

All Eyez on Me by Angelo Hernandez-Sias

 
Illustration by Charlie Blodnieks and Dora O’Neill

Illustration by Charlie Blodnieks and Dora O’Neill

 
 

This piece was first published in Quarto’s 2018 Spring Print edition. It was awarded the 2018 Best Fiction Prize by Guest Judge Rebecca Curtis.

FUCK COKE
First job I took after active duty was as a security guard at the Coca-Cola plant in Moanalua. It wasn’t what I lived for. Work had never been that for me or anyone I had known. What I lived for in those days, I thought, was college. I had just enrolled part-time at Honolulu CC. I might have been half a decade older than the kids sitting at the front of the room, and I might have been dumber than them, too—high school math in Panama isn’t what it is here, not even for you suburbanites who spend adolescence too drunk to apply for university—but every time I walked into that building, I felt as if I was getting payback against those predatory fuckheads who had recruited me on a promise that I’d be able to go to school while serving in the infantry. After I had spent eight weeks crawling in the mud and busting out of dryers which confederate grandsons had shoved me into and then turned on, I asked the fuckhead recruiters how I could start classes. And what did they say? Nothing. They were busy cackling. But that’s another story. The point is, I thought, and would tell Maria this during our late night phone calls, that I had finally found some kind of purpose. And that much was true. What wasn’t true: school wasn’t really it. Ass was.
This was nowhere clearer than in my spending. Maria’s income had been nominal, so when we split, I didn’t lose much. No dog food, more money, and even with the new cost of rent, you’d expect my standard of living, or at least the amount that I was sending home—same shit—to go up. But I swore, long distance calling cards got more and more expensive, and even when I did make time to call my mother, her complaints grew louder and more incessant. Julianita es la mejor en la clase con pies llenos de vejigas porque sus zapatos no le quedan, she’d say, or Renato está creciendo como futbolista, y como quisiera poder meterlo en una liga—both of which meant the same thing: wasn’t I going to send something their way again soon, or, if you want to go deep, I hadn’t forgotten about them, had I? And man, how I wanted to send more, how the heat hit my face every time my card bounced in line at Moanalua 99 with only eggs, spam, and rice in my cart. It hadn’t occurred to me that the money I spent at nightclubs was real. I saw no connection between my being broke and my clubbing.
Even my friendships were about ass. Some friends are brought together by music, others by drugs, and while those certainly brought us together too, they were only our ayahuasca— there to enhance our worship of the Ultimate Good. It was what we talked about, what we chased, and why we hung out: collectively, our individual stocks rose. The only dude in my friend group more sex-crazed than me was this Salvadorian guy named Yeffrey. I met him through another buddy, Tommy, who had been in my platoon and who had met Yeffrey I don’t know where. Tommy and I had been tight until I found out that Maria was fucking him, along with some other dudes in the barracks, and from that point on, even though I never brought it up to him, I kept a distance between us. Again, another story. Yeffrey, on the other hand, I drew myself to. We would work out together, hit the beach together, and, of course, club together. He was the kind of guy who would scream while he lifted and who would let his free weights crash onto the floor, the kind of guy I had always fantasized about punching in the face, but he got more ass than me, and so, for a brief while, I became his loyal, albeit hesitant follower—more witness than apprentice. I couldn’t dig the tight-fitting neon-colored t shirts he wore, and I would always refuse when he offered me the syringe that he’d jam into his ass cheek—and, except for once, I never did coke with him.
Yeffrey was the kind of guy whose compliments didn’t depend on the amount of respect you had for him. One moment, you’d be cringing at him for eating cereal in water, and the next you’d be red in the cheeks, glancing down at your biceps and flexing lightly or toying with your crucifix pendant because he had said you looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Tupac. Maria was like that too.
I think I liked hanging out with him because he was the only person I knew who appeared to feel emptier than myself.
Aside from what I could observe during our weekends out, I knew nothing about his personal life—what he actually did for a living, why he had immigrated to Hawai‘i—and I didn’t ask. I prefer to keep people out of focus.

PETITE
There was nothing special about the night I met Maria. We were at Rumours—and then we weren’t. After we’d finished, she put her hands on my waist and giggled the word petite. I got pissed and put on my clothes and left. The next day, I called and apologized. So began us.

HAND IN HAND
“You’ve got to quit that shit, man.” Yeffrey poured skim milk into two jars already filled nearly halfway with chocolate protein powder. He twisted the cap onto the carton and put it back onto the shelf in his fridge, which he had left open. When he shut the fridge, a few droplets of the protein shakes spilt onto the white countertop.
“I know,” I said. “I know.”
After tightening the lids on the jars, he shook them vigorously, as if there were stones in them that he was trying to grind to dust. “Moving on. Fucking your ex. The two don’t go hand in hand.” He offered me a shake.
“Thanks,” I said, grabbing the jar from him. I took a swig. The powder clumped at the back of my throat like small chunks of mud.
“You married too young.”
“I know.”
“You always do, don’t you?”

NEIGHBORS
I didn’t consider telling Maria that we should stop seeing each other for good until I met Mamaisa at my first AA meeting. She told the group a story about her last relapse, which had occurred a few weeks prior. She had started drinking again—in secret. She would hide in her car in the parking lot outside her apartment and get drunk while her husband, also in recovery, and eight-month-old slept through the night.
Me, I gave few details about what had brought me there.
After the meeting, I approached where she sat alone at a table on the other side of the hall. She wore a Death Row t shirt and a pair of over-the-ear headphones, and she watched the wall on the opposite side of the hall like it was a tv. When I sat down next to her, she pulled one headphone off her ear and sipped the brown liquid in her dixie cup. “What?” she said.
“Oh, I didn’t say anything,” I said to her. “You can keep listening.”
“Thanks for your permission,” she said, pulling the headphones down onto her neck, “but it’s all right. I should, er, interact with other humans.”
“I’m not human.”
“Me neither.”
“I fucking knew it.”
She smiled and set down her coffee.
“So you have a....”
“We all make mistakes.”
“Jeez,” I said. I took a bite from the stale wafer on my plate. “You’re....” I held out an mmm sound.
“Mom-eye-suh.”
“What a name.”
“Hitting on married woman at an AA meeting, are we?” she said, reaching for her headphones. When I blushed, she pulled her hands from her headphones and said, “I’m fucking with you, dude.”
I laughed sheepishly and immediately hated the sound that emanated from my throat. “I just liked your t shirt.”
She held it between her thumbs and examined it. “Have you heard Pac’s new album?”
I shook my head.
She reached for her headphones and actually put them back on. We both laughed, the noise in my throat now warm and round. The shuffle of the other members filled the hall.
“And you are?”
“Alone-so,” I said. I studied her face. “You look familiar.”
She brought her lower lip and her brow toward her nose. “So do you.”
“Really?”
“Yeah. Another guy who thinks Asian women look alike.”
I blushed again.
After laughing, she said, “Nah, you’re right. I think we’re actually neighbors.”

PARAKEET
It wasn’t until I learned that we lived in the same apartment complex that I began noticing Mamaisa—on the elevator, in the laundry facility, you know, the usual spots. That was the extent of our contact, and yet, especially given the nature of my job, which involved little more than staring at a clock for several hours a day, be it in a factory or a classroom, this was more than enough to send my mind into long bouts of fantasy. What was her life like? I only knew what little I’d learned from our conversation after that AA meeting, the first and only I had seen her at. Her mother was from Guam, her father from New York, she had graduated from the University of Hawai’i a few years back, and she worked for a nonprofit downtown. She drove away from that meeting in a run down Mazda. I pictured us rolling down the highway, her car rushing into the green mountainscape like a parakeet into a hurricane.

EATING ALONE
On workdays, I would eat small meals during lunch breaks—rice, tuna or spam, a hard boiled egg, a strip of seaweed—all heated in the microwave of the office in the facility where I worked. The office workers would give me dirty looks, so I wouldn’t eat at their table in the office kitchen. I’d take my lunch to a bench outside, where some of the factory workers would smoke cigarettes during their breaks. I’d eat silently, looking beyond the city’s skyline toward the landscape’s jagged green peaks. They were similar to the ones I’d stared at growing up during my walks home from the bus stop, though I’d learned to stop staring when one time I awoke from a daydream with a knife at my neck. I gave him the fifteen cents my mother had given me for the day and went a little hungrier than usual, which wasn’t saying much. I had always looked forward to meals, then. That might have been because they were infrequent, meager. But it also could have been because they had reminded me of the people in my life, and now they reminded me of my solitude. Now, I ate quickly and savored the skyline.

ONE WAY OR ANOTHER
Dozens of messages on my answering machine. Some of them from Maria, most of them from Yeffrey. A few times, he banged on my door and shouted, “I know you’re in there!” while I sat in the living room on the couch and held my breath and hoped he didn’t kick the door in. I wondered why he was so desperate to see me. Throughout our friendship, he had given me the impression that I was an accessory. There was a part of me that enjoyed what I wielded over him. This newfound power, inevitably, was short lived.
I got home from work one night and found him sitting on the bench outside of my apartment complex, his buff calves glowing in the yellow light of the streetlamp, the toes of his sneakers barely touching the pavement. He pulled off his sunglasses and cleaned them with his shirt and asked me where I’d been. Before I could answer, he told me to shut the fuck up, he knew where I’d been, I’d gotten a new girl, hadn’t I? Why was it that every time I got a new girl, I forgot that he existed? When was I going to learn who the real people in my life were? He might have pushed things a little too far the last time we hung, but he wouldn’t do it again. That was the difference between me and him. He learned from his mistakes. He was gonna teach me, one way or another. This Friday night. He wasn’t taking no for an answer.

LINEUP
Eventually I stopped seeing Mamaisa around the apartment building. I wondered if she had moved, or if she had started drinking again again, or if she had abandoned her family. Whatever the case, she ceased to be the subject of my fantasies. This is not to say that I stopped thinking about her. It was just that she eased into the realm of nightmare. We’d be in that mazda whizzing through the hills—only she’d be tugging on the doors and crying for help as if I had trapped her in the car. I would push on the brakes and the car would accelerate. The doors would unlock and fly open and she’d get sucked out into the gray night and skid along the concrete, smearing burgundy splotches where her body bounced. I’d pull over to the side of the road and dig through the wet brush, which basked in the blue and red lights of the police cars that had pulled up behind me. They’d arrest me and toss me in a lineup with five other suspects who were clones of myself. Through the one-way window, I’d see Mamaisa, smiling as she picked me out.

BAITING
Maria’s calls had dwindled. One morning, after a long night of dreams, I called her back and begged for forgiveness. For what, I wasn’t sure. I wanted an apology from her, and I (stupidly) expected one in return. After she forgave me, she asked me out. “Yeah,” I said, my jaw clenched, “Friday works.”

BOTTOM HEAVY
As he had done during the last night I hung with him, Yeffrey got the evening going with a couple lines of coke, snorted from my countertop through a protein shake straw. He didn’t offer me any. Those were my terms. I was to hit the club sober. I offered to drive. He refused. Yeffrey, as usual, was on some boys-come-first shit, which I found hypocritical, since his unemployed ass had every other night of the week to chase pussy. I hadn’t told him about my reconciliation with Maria, so he spent the whole pregame and the dangerous drive that followed talking about how much I needed this, a boys’ night out, to get back on my feet. I was young and soon I would learn that bitches weren’t shit, he shouted over Danny Tenaglia’s “Bottom Heavy,” which ricocheted throughout the car’s interior. Once I understood this fact, I would understand what it meant to be a man.
I half-listened and said nothing. All this talk I knew he’d forget as soon as we walked into Rumours and he locked onto a target and rode his own heat-detecting dick to her, which was no mean feat considering the magnitude of that club. A dance floor with two cylindrical cages which propped up on each side sprawled out from the heart of the club, and a waist-high wooden ledge traced the dance floor’s borders in a sad effort contain the bodies which coagulated on it. Cushioned armchairs wrapped around this ledge so that the idle could watch the dancers while they drank. The whole square—dance floor and surrounding ledge included—was insulated by several layers of tables on each side. On the half nearest to the entrance was the full bar, behind which several bartenders toiled, and in front of which the regulars clustered. I walked to the bar and quietly ordered a cape codder on the rocks.
“What was that?” the bartender asked.
The woman next to me repeated my order for me, adding, “He’s embarrassed.”
Her voice was familiar. “Mamaisa,” I said, “what are you doing here?”

OH, THE USUAL
“Wrecking myself,” she said.
“Aww, don’t say that!” I told her. When the bartender set a drink before me, I took a big gulp and then asked, “Where have you been?”
“You ask good questions.”
“And you give generous compliments,” said Yeffrey, who had somehow appeared next to me, a blonde woman by his shoulder.
Mamaisa gave an uneasy laugh, which intensified when he offered his hand to her and introduced himself. “You know Alonso?” she asked.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, rubbing his hand into my shoulder. “I know him better than he knows himself.”
My face grew hot.
“Is this the new girl you’ve been ditching me for?” he asked me, loud enough for all to hear.
Mamaisa appeared not to notice. “And who is this?” Mamaisa asked about the woman standing beside Yeffrey.
“Oh! I’m glad you asked,” Yeffrey said to Mamaisa, wiping the sweat from his forehead,
“this is, er, this is....”
“Go on, Yeffrey, introduce her,” I added.
The woman smiled a smile that said that this wasn’t the first time she’d done this, and began,
“I’m Tiff—”
“Tiffany!” Yeffrey said, though the fact that he had forgotten was already clear.
“He’s a classy one,” I said to Tiffany rather loudly, my hand cupped next to my mouth.
Immediately, I regretted what I’d said, but before I could apologize, Tiffany glanced at his crotch and said to me in another fake secret, “It’s not his money I’m after,” at which point all of us—all of us except for Yeffrey—burst into a laughter half-mortified, half-spiteful. Tiffany then said something into Yeffrey’s ear and left the three of us at the bar.
I ordered a third drink and downed it. As I set the glass back onto the countertop, I asked,
“Where’d she go, Yeffrey? The bathroom?”
“Yeah.”
“To hide until you leave?”
“Oh, fuck off,” he said, brushing off his nose and leaning onto the counter to order a shot.
“You two bicker like an old couple,” Mamaisa said. “It’s adorable. And sick.”

ALL EYEZ ON ME

Live the life of a dog nigga
Till the day I die
Live the life of a boss player
The future’s in my eyes

I sang with the voice that emanated from Mamaisa’s sound system. She looked at me, tossed her head toward the wheel, and laughed. “That’s not how it goes, dude,” she said. “Fuck you,” I said, “talk to me when you know another language.”
Buenu,” she said.
I stared out the window at the black mountainscape. It inched against the star-speckled sky as we drove along the highway. In the window, the lights of the city blurred into the white and red reflections of the speedometer and the blue light of the stereo control panel. “What is it, then?” I asked her. She sang along with the next chorus:

Live the life of a thug nigga
Till the day I die
Live the life of a boss playa
We been gettin' high

Then she said, “I like your version.”
I felt something open up inside of me. I wondered how she could fail to hear questions like are you drinking again? and where have you been for the past month? yet distinguish dog and thug in the uncertain and accented English in which I rapped. I didn’t ask. Part of me didn’t want to know. I was staring my fantasy right in her face. I could touch her, smell her, let her laughter ring in my ears. I didn’t want to know. She was perfectly out of focus.
“Of course,” I had said when she asked if we could go back to my place. It wasn’t until we entered the apartment and found Maria twiddling my pager between her thumbs at the kitchen table that I remembered that I had made Maria the same promise only a few days earlier.

OUCH
“What are you doing here?” I asked Maria.
“Who is she?” Maria asked me.
“I should go,” said Mamaisa.
I grabbed her by the shoulder. “No, no, stay, please. This isn’t what it looks like. I can take care of this, I—”
“Alonso, who is she?”
“How did you get in here?”
Maria dangled a key in front of her face.
“I really should go,” Mamaisa said, and tried to pull away from my grip, but I held on tighter. “Ouch,” she said, “let me go.”
I didn’t. “Mamaisa,” I said, “please, just give me a second, this isn’t—”
“It’s exactly what it looks like,” Maria said to her, “and you’re right. You should go.”
A piece of Mamaisa’s dress tore when she finally tugged hard enough to escape my grip.
“I’m so sorr—” I began.
But she had opened the door and there on the other side stood Yeffrey, his chest rising and falling with his heaves, his eyes completely open and as red as his face.

GET YOUR ASS OVER HERE
Mamaisa didn’t dare squeeze past Yeffrey, whose body filled the whole door frame. She retreated into the apartment on her tiptoes, as though he were approaching her. But he didn’t notice her. He only noticed me. Indeed, everyone seemed to be watching me, waiting—for what, I don’t know.
“No,” I said, unsuccessfully suppressing the quiver in my voice, “You come here.”
Yeffrey didn’t hide his quiver. “I’m not going to ask you again,” he said, “you ungrateful fuck....You don’t get it, do you? You and me, we’re the same. No matter how many fucking books you read. You are me. And I ain’t shit. Now, get your ass over here so I can show you.”
My eyeballs swelled. “No,” I said. “You come here.”
“Ah,” he said, “who am I kidding.” And then he unballed his fists and left the doorway.
I made eye contact with Mamaisa and laughed nervously. She didn’t crack a smile. It was as if I had become invisible, as if she were looking through me at some grotesque occurence—a conquistador throwing an infant to canines. She shook her head, then left.
There was only me, Maria, and a heat so heavy that it seemed to make the floors sag.
“Baby,” she said, “It’s not your—”
“Go,” I said.

EPIPHANY
A few months later, during my first visit home since I had come to the U.S., I finally understood Yeffrey. I pulled my face out from the gap between the wall and the bedframe where I had been retching and wiped my mouth off with the covers. My high school best friend’s older sister lay in bed half-naked beside me. Let’s keep it, I said.
She smiled in her sleep.

 

hello childhood best friend by Teresa Deely

Overall winner of the 2018-2019 Thunderdome contest. View the video prompt here.

who am i you vomit you are single now your existentialism feels cheap

you text your childhood best friend she is a rewind a second chance you were so happy you loved you believed you stopped time feels lost so do you

who am i who are my friends what is my life these questions are difficult now they always were no yes you just think more now and you think until it hurts and now you think it just hurts it hurts

childhood best friend hello i have dreams about you sometimes i hope that is not weird i am alone now doesn’t this feel sincere i became what i thought someone wanted me to be i was happy until i realized i wasn’t hello childhood best friend i am an adult now i do not know how to make friends what is your favorite color let’s be friends hello childhood best friend i am very alone now you seem happy we didn’t fight we grew apart you still live five minutes away what chasm i don’t see one hello childhood best friend let’s be friends again i don’t have many of them these days hello childhood best friend my life was my partner was my best friend was me now i am alone again hello childhood best friend please respond are you there there you are not where hello i am alone did you change your phone number what about facebook

hello childhood best friend you told me you would always be there for me i am waiting there now please hurry let me know when you get there childhood best friend see you there childhood best friend my subconscious will keep you warm in my dreams for now childhood best friend childhood childhood childhood

Nesting by Will Cagle

Winner of Thunderdome 2018-2019: Day 4. See the prompt here.

Open a human up, and there’s just another one inside. Like dolls on a shelf in a shop you wandered into by chance, in a place where your tongue is not spoken, and thus hardly seems real.
The first layer is the mask—constructed, a work of art, a work of fiction. It declares to the world: I am me.
But you are not you.
Inside is a second you, a realer you. This one the self might recognize, though the world would not. This one’s in charge, or so it tells itself. It watches through the eye-blanks of the mask, and thinks itself very wise.
Peel it away. It is arrogant, and unneeded. Go deeper.
The third you is a mess. It is all things at once and yet it is nothing. A taxonomy of selves. Different flavors of blood to pour into the veins. Today, I think I’ll try man. Tomorrow it may not suit me.
The fourth is foundational, and unrecognizable. A house is more than just the wooden frame, though the whole project may collapse without it. Maybe these are bones, or something far older.
Discard them.
The fifth you is smaller and wispier than a ghost. When exposed to harsh light, it may fall away to ash, so you must protect it. This one has been with us from the very beginning, and with a voice lighter than mist, it reminds you of your impermanence.
You could root around for a soul, but you won’t find one. If there is a soul, it is untouchable.
Now to put it all back together. What, have you forgotten where the pieces go? A terrible scientist, this—who can dissect and not mend. Your patient is waiting.
Dolls stacked within dolls. It’s as hopeless as that.

Security Camera by Patrick Ronan

Winner of Thunderdome 2018-2019: Day 3. See the prompt here.

A place to be. There is a woman from the Southwest kicking her heels at the bar; a young man in a sleeveless hoodie, finding as many occasions as possible to casually place his toned arms in such and such position as to catch the light just right; a boy with a patchy neckbeard; “what you see before you die is”; a toilet struggling to flush; a curly haired, black-rimmed glasses kid talking to a Jainist vegan who is explaining to him the extreme pacifist ideology behind Jainism and, to his glazey-eyed nods, how some of the more serious Jainists back in the day would wear masks lacking mouth holes in order to prevent the accidental swallowing of tiny bugs, and how no, the only masks she wears are for facial cleansing, but yes, she does practice her own form of extreme pacifism; a bald man in a black beret; a woman who looks like Adam Driver; strands of hair falling like pine needles onto the wet bar floor; “It was the YouTube algorithm that ruined my relationship with my liberal girlfriend”; jowled men at each corner trying to talk themselves out of buying that girl right there a drink; women fearing frostbite passing margaritas from left to right; elbows and butts and raincoats on pool tables stacked like sober jenga towers; “Christ on a tow truck!”; the desire to be liked nipping at the flesh under jaws; puffy jacketed freshmen turning back for their friend with the bad fake; a tired bartender whose son needs to be picked up from hockey practice; several doughy stomachs; the car crash of conversations something to close your eyes to. And me, a little black bump in the ceiling like a polished mole, always watching.

It Still Is by Parth Chhabra

Winner of Thunderdome 2018-2019: Day 2. Check out the prompt here.

This book is an insult. But that should not shock you.

How could it say anything of worth? How could it abandon a symbol so important to our writing, how could it banish so many words, so many things, and still say anything I should know?

Think of what is lost!

Lost: animals with trunks and tusks, big and smart. Lost: big plants with trunks of wood. Lost: bonds amongst humans that surpass companionship. Lost: companions. Lost: imaginations that allow us to hurt from what that human across from us is hurting from. Lost: conjugations of “is”. Lost: that famous bit from that old play about living and dying. How will that inquiry form in our mouths?

But it is good. I can’t stand it but it is good. For all its cutting and chopping and slicing, it still astounds. Astounds for though it abandons so many things, burns things without thought, it still is. Still is.

Frank and She by Alena Zhang

Winner of Thunderdome 2018-2019: Day 1. View the prompt here.

In the beginning of the world, you know, there was a fish. She didn’t mean to exist, but she tolerated her physical dimensionality with good old-fashioned patience. On a Tuesday, God came into existence. He declared two things: that there would be light and that it was a
Monday. So the fish tossed away her old calendars and accepted her spirituality without fuss.

A couple days later the fish found herself dropped into something very small and wet. It was the ocean. What she thought was that she been dropped serendipitously into a new dimension of existence. Whether it had existed all along, bold and blazing in the eternal void, or if it had come like beams from God’s fingers, love had entered her little life and blew it up. What I mean to say is that Frank was a gray lampetra fluviatilis. He had no jaw but she loved him, and by the grace of all that was holy, they were married on a Sunday.

And then there was fish sex, and fish babies, and little bubbling sounds of fishy pillow-talk, but really she and Frank were not bothered with all these lower-order concerns. What they could find they would eat; what they could digest they would eat; what they could not digest they would eat anyway. None of that mattered. The couple hovered against the tides like seaborne hummingbirds and contemplated theology, philosophy, and art; painted lovely pictures and wrote many lovely songs.

It was on a Thursday—I think—I tend to lose track of these things—that God created man. And you know the rest. He fumbled with a tree until he had a pole, fumbled with some rocks until he had a spear, and thrust it into the great big body of water until he had a meal.

I Would Die 4 My Betta Fish by Corinne Rabbin-Birnbaum

This piece was first published in Quarto's 2018 Spring Print Edition

If a murderer broke into my apartment tonight and pointed at me and then to my betta fish and said “okay, who’s it going to be?” I would look at him like he was batshit crazy and point to myself, of course. At that time my fish would probably be fluttering around his tank hysterically, thinking the murderer was just someone new to feed him. The murderer would shoot me, and as I lay bleeding out red blood the color of the fish I lay down my life for, he might ask me, “why not the fish?”
And I’d tell him, did you know in the wild, bettas swim in seemingly endless spans of shallow rice paddies? And that they can learn to recognize the vibrations that come from someone saying their name, and the face of their owner?
Or, did you know that when my fish gets tired, he twines himself around the wire protruding from his in-tank heater? He has such a slim little body, but sometimes the weight of it overcomes him and he just needs to take a rest. But he’s not lazy, for sure. I’ve even trained him to jump and eat food from between my fingers. It’s quite remarkable, if I do say so myself. He’s a very talented fish, to be honest.
And I would describe to this murderer how every night before I go to bed, even when I am so tired and anxious that my hands are shaking, I go up to his tank and say goodnight, and he flutters over and looks up at me and opens his tiny mouth for just a moment – like he’s giving me a goodnight kiss (though he’s probably just looking for food).
But I can’t leave out the story of that time he got rot and his lovely fins started to shred and disappear, how I changed his water and gave him medication every single day, even though I could tell he hated it. And when his little body started to heal, I felt pride for the first time in so so long that I practically burst into tears.
I think then I’d tell him about the way this fish of mine sits on the bottom of the tank and watches me while I do my work at the table, and how when I wave to him from where I’m sitting he starts swimming around like crazy, almost like he’s waving back.
“But I have a question,” the murderer would say to me then, after I’ve told him all of this. “If you die, who will take care of the fish?”
And with my dying breath I would say, “but if he dies, who will take care of me?”

Illustration by Cameron Lee

Illustration by Cameron Lee

Consciousness by Willa Cuthrell-Tuttleman

"Consciousness" by Willa Cuthrell-Tuttleman is the winner of the 2018 Thunderdome contest. View the video prompt here.

I’m playing back the tape you brought me the last time you were here. It’s the one of you. I’m trying to understand, but the longer I watch, the longer I feel like this stitched-together compilation is just a cheap, polyester attempt at capturing something that I won’t find unless I physically enter your mind. Maybe it’s a tiny step towards insight, but nothing else. It’s like watching a foreign film without subtitles.

Some of the images on the screen are pictures, some brief clips. I stare hard, looking for the parts that you had already told me about. Baseball with your older brother. Orange. Lemonade in the summer. Waiting. For the bus, for the girl to call you back, for rain. The goldfish you won at the fair. Pringles before dinner and boxed wine and arguments with your Dad. Smoking his cigarette out of your window. Long drives in the snow.

And then the things that you don’t talk about. You steal. Attempts to ease your conscience by giving to the homeless. Empty charity. You do a lot of things that way. Letting me stay because you’d feel guilty if you’d said no. Strained kisses. Wanting to be alone. Moments in your room. Indecision. You make girls cry. I’m one of them, and I see myself on the screen, hunched over on a park bench. Shit in the toilet. You set ants on fire. Some white-blue color, the color of the sun after it collapses, the color of sun through closed eyelids. Flashing underwater.

I’m starting to get nauseous. I close the computer. There are eighteen hours left of your tape, but I can’t watch anymore, because there isn’t going to be anything else in that tape that I haven’t seen before; in yours, in mine, in anyone’s.

Quokkas by Zoe Grimes

Winner of Thunderdome Flash Fiction Contest 2018: Day 3. View the video prompt here.

There is a portal to another world and it’s one of introspection.
Kalay kalay kala, quokkas say.
It means – well.
It’s hard to say.
Perhaps kalay meaning to say and kala meaning-
Here. The human in red shorts. Is she…? Or real, even? Because humans have these strict rules, which, quokka-ka, make no sense. To you. Make no sense to you. The codification of herself. You watch the codification of her self. Her phone is: large, white, rectangular and bright. She has the back of her body to the ocean and the front of her body to the forest. The back of her phone to the forest, the front of her phone to her body.
Phone, in Quokkas, is si, and a short chittering noise.
Si chitter.
She has red jean shorts, and a pink cotton shirt, and she smiles. Why do you wait for her to leave, before…?
You stand in her footprints.
Her prints are much larger than yours.
It’s hard to say if her prints were truly there, of course. The tide comes in, the tide goes out, and feet go with it. Some things remain to be seen. But some don’t.
Your phone is: small, and black, and triangular. You stand with your furback to the ocean. Your phoneback to the forest.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
You don’t have red pants, is the problem. Or a pink shirt. Is you? Is you…you?
Take the picture, embodies the command.
Take it, and be real.
Re-alized.
Your back is to the ocean. The blue waving reflection only existing on the phone. The phone’s back is to the forest. There are leaves it can’t see.
The camera makes a chitter sound when you take the picture.
Si chitter. The ocean just says…
Whoosh.
And it’s a hard thing to hear.

Crowded Silence by Dejavis Bosket

Winner of Thunderdome Flash Fiction Contest 2018: Day 2. View the video prompt here.

F minus three hours and forty-two minutes. Berthe shifts around in the wicker chair next to mine. The dust on our porch alights into the expectant air as she slides her bare feet over the
boards.
“What are you reading?” I ask, looking not at her, but at the dripping honeysuckle moon.
“Gone with the Wind,” she replies brusquely, annoyed that she has had to snatch her cigarette out of her mouth.
I turn. The cherry at the end of her Parliament is as pink and smoldering as the moon tonight.

F minus twenty seconds. The damp hug of the sheets wakes me up, so I slither onto Berthe’s cool and untouched side of the bed. The clock calmly warns of impending sunrise. I can
see pale yellow light splashing up the stairwell, and I open my ears wide to the crowded silence
of the house.
I hear some clanging before the screen door suddenly opens and slams shut. Berthe is speaking, and then she is shouting. Her interlocutor stops whispering, growls hotly, then finally bellows with moaning vehemence while she leaves them behind and comes to me upstairs, unsurprised to find me awake. An alarm screams as we rush past our uninvited guest, who flicks and flails limbs that promise the warmest embrace.

F plus thirteen months. It’s my last day in New York. Her only relations have done their best to somberly console me: lung cancer was always lurking, they said. They took most of her personal hospital effects, save for her final book now on my hotel dresser. I walk outside and I’m cold again (looking forward to Australia), flowing along with this totem gripped tightly. There’s a bookstore  on this corner and I set the thing, heavy with secret memories, on one of the carts outside.

The Climb of the Ancient Mariner by Ainsley Katz

Winner of Thunderdome Flash Fiction Contest 2018: Day 1. View the video prompt here.

The Climb of the Ancient Mariner:
        an odyssey from water bottle to potted plant,
        
or, there and back again by Mr. Carbuncle the Second

Mr. Carbuncle had a lousy day. And by lousy day I mean there wasn’t a single fish to be caught. The ocean was oddly empty and perfectly transparent. Instead of bearing fruits, it upchucked seafoam like a young apprentice after a night on the town.

Eventually Mr. Carbuncle washed up onto some plot of earth, sea-sprayed and righteously salty. His crooked grimace — as if he’d suspended a clothes hanger of heavy garments from his lip — told all there was to tell.

He pulled the water from his whiskers. Pluck, prim, tic-tac-toe.

The old man had a dismal disposition and just loathed being heaved onto terra incognita. It was truly a nuisance. On such days he'd miss the misanthropic glee he felt when, shuffling back to his fisherman’s cottage, townspeople all along the way dispersed as if he were Moses parting the Red Sea.

This particular no woman’s land was sparser than the hair on his head. A single tree was centered upon an infinite plane of dirt. He could no longer even see the sea, so far had it receded.

Because Mr. Carbuncle was too portly and stout to hitch a ride on a seagull — or (as he told himself now) because there were no gulls this far from the ocean— the only way out was down.

Out from his galoshes Mr. Carbuncle retrieved a spade. Fixing his pipe in his clothes-hanger lip, he dug and dug till his arms felt like jelly without the peanut butter glue.

As he dug, he delved into his hole until, suddenly, he found he was digging up rather than down. Out he popped from beneath the surface, to find another single-tree, soil wasteland. Exhausted and enraged he lapsed into a fitful rest, waking to the hands of a giant.

Notice of Eviction by Rosalie Jean Wetzel

"Notice of Eviction" was first published in Quarto's 2017 Print Edition.

Illustration by Dora O'Neill and Lily Ha

Illustration by Dora O'Neill and Lily Ha

My first memory is of California. My uncle opens the car door to welcome me and I vomit on him. I watch his smile dissipate. My sister splits her knee open on the pavement while running to see my aunt.

I have a lot of very early memories and I have tried, on several occasions, to revisit my timeline and rearrange them, hoping earnestly that somehow something else will surface first. But still, it is this arrival (I remember nothing else of that trip) and my parents’ apologies, my uncle’s patient reassurance, my sisters screams.

After they had removed the sutures from my sister’s knee, they found the wound dotted with small black flecks, where the gravel had lodged itself so deeply into her flesh that the surgeons thought it more harmful to remove them. For some time after our visit to California, I watched her turn translucent next to me in the bathtub and coax the gravel out from her knees. I wanted very badly to collect the tiny fragments, to tuck them neatly under my fingernails and wait for them to hatch into my own precious galaxies but instead I closed my eyes as my father poured water from a cup over my head.

Physicians started using sutures to close wounds four thousand years ago. They say that before they had sutures of the variety we use today, ancient Indian doctors affixed beetles to the edges of wounds, let them sink their pincers in before cutting off their bodies and leaving just their heads to hold the skin closed.

Last night I dreamt I held a gaping hole in my midsection between my teeth in a sort of urgent maternal panic stimulated by the sense of my cells spilling out million by million in streams of everything I had swallowed — him, her, hurt, violet, rose petals, pills. But the real nightmare is: what happens when the skin accidentally fastens itself around something that does not belong? Gravel, for example, or worse — something that cannot be soaked out in Loreal Just for Kids bubble bath. Like you.

Consider this a kind of plea.

I was fourteen the first time I got my heart broken. The next morning, just before the sun rose, I slipped into bed between my parents and felt the space between my cells throb with a kind of hot and percussive vacancy.

Isn’t it funny how there is nothing so dense and opaque as that particular strain of emptiness? Loneliness is when you realize that “vacant” doesn't mean what you once thought it did.

Isn’t it equally funny that there is no sensation to bleeding? You can taste the blood, watch it seep through your sleeves, but there is no precise feeling to the state of bleeding. Your hand goes to the wound, not your consciousness. Only when your child eyes are met directly with reddened fingers do you know that your body is leaking.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if the heart were similarly impaired? I was fourteen for the other first time. He was eighteen. When it was over, right after he reminded me not to tell anyone what we had just done, he tried to discard the condom but it slipped between his fingers and its contents spilled all over his exposed torso, pooling in the divots between his collarbone and his shoulders. Horrified, I looked in the other direction and pretended not to notice.

That year I started weighing myself.

Here is a brief interruption for a fun fact which reads: in the summer of 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed in the Apollo 11 on the surface of the moon. When the two men came home, they alone had left over 100 items on its surface, including a cast golden olive branch, five American flags, two golf balls, a silicon disk with goodwill messages from 73 world leaders, and 96 bags of urine, feces and vomit.

Yes, there are 96 bags of piss and shit on the moon.

Dad drops me off at the Institute of Living in his work clothes. A few hours later I am caught hiding my hummus beneath my lettuce. Dad would be disappointed. I am handed an Ensure. Cory looks up and tells the dietician: “You sure better let her go to the bathroom after giving her

all that.” Dad would be proud I’ve made a friend already, though he would say I need to self-advocate. I stop sipping immediately. “Does Ensure make you shit?” I have just learned that we are not allowed to flush without a staff member checking the toilet first and I cannot imagine anything so undignified — maybe cleaning your own jizz out of your clavicle, but this is a close second. “No,” Cory says, “I just mean you’ll have to piss after drinking all that.” She’s quiet for a second. “But, if it’s anything like SlimFast, yeah it makes you shit.” I mumble, “It’s nothing like SlimFast” as the dietician politely reminds Cory that we don’t use the word “slim” in the dining room.

Cory wants to be a phlebotomist when she gets out of here, which is interesting for a number of reasons.

There are two scars on my right hand, two pale little dots like tadpole eyes or distant moons at the base of my first and third fingers where my knuckles used to scrape my teeth on their way down my throat. But no matter the carrots shooting out my nose or the flecks of blood on the water and saliva on my chin, something festered between my ribs.

Bloodletting goes back at least three thousand years and has only been has only been abrogated as a primary treatment for illness in the last century and a half. I guess it’s natural to replicate the process when your body won’t do it naturally. Do not forget that we still have our autonomous but equally ugly leeching processes.

A leech’s body is made up of 34 segments. It has suckers on both ends of its body and has 32 brains. Because of nervous system similarities, or perhaps the wealth of subject material, they are often used in research on human brain disorders.

Maybe they consumed our disorders and passed them all down through thousands of generations (the longest life span of a leech is ten years) to spit them back up in the laboratory for our studies. Would this be considered self-preservation?

All evening I lay in bed, listening to the distinct silence of my toes making shadows on the wall. In color, these shapes are somewhere between whale song and hunger and imprecise longing and the figures are angular, nebulous sprawled across the armoir. I think how there might be more inside. Angular, nebulous and the color of the word “damp.” Like memory. I want to ask them what about that moment in California was big enough to decide to begin preserving the things flashing before my baby eyes?

Imagine, if you will, a telescope in this room, poised right in front of my window. The shadows shift over it from time to time as it collects dust and stares out at the moon orbiting around me and my toe shadows, with its 96 bags of piss and shit and vomit.

Since today is trash day, this morning I walked the garbage to the end of the driveway and the steam from my coffee rose and tangled with my breath and right there, suspended in the bitterness, was a delicate miniature milky way, and the familiar way it smoldered for an instant before dissolving made me think that maybe you were somewhere in there, dozing between the molecules. Maybe, I have finally breathed you out.

Ginny by Stacey Yu

"He walked with a stutter, like the way Ginny talked. He looked at her sad, small, wary eyes and sat next to her -- not entirely by choice, for the desk beside hers was one of the few vacant ones. Their classmates snickered. He smiled. She shrank."

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