Category Archives: Fiction

December 26, 2017

Song of a Flightless Bird

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Brian Koukol

Amelia lowered her husband into their double bed—his naked, cachexic body cradled in the polyester sling of their Hoyer lift. As the plush mattress accepted his feeble weight, his contracted legs splayed, exposing a mound of unkempt pubic hair and a flaccid penis, demurely tucked to one side. A musky smell of salted dairy wafted into her face, and she had to work hard to suppress a reflexive cough. Once upon a time, twenty years earlier, this area had been a source of great pleasure for her. Now it was a source of bladder infections and obligation.

When the bed had taken all of him, she cut off the descent of the lift before its cross-brace could crush his scrawny throat. She unhooked the sling, slid it out from beneath him, removed the lift.

Then began the tightrope act of rolling his body to and fro, adjusting limbs and pillows, always a millimeter away from a mistake and a full redo from the top. As she did this, he stared at the ceiling, unable to turn his head and look at her due to a lifetime of muscle wasting. He didn’t talk much out of his wheelchair, a victim of a near-catatonic loss of control. She didn’t blame him. For any of it. But that didn’t stop her from hating him.

After tucking the top sheet and matelasse coverlet over his shoulders and around his neck, she grabbed his BiPAP mask from the bedpost and slipped it over his head, careful not to mess up any of her delicate positioning from earlier. She adjusted the nasal pillows of the mask to nestle comfortably into his nostrils and tightened the strap that ran across the top of his head, then turned on the bedside ventilator.

Amelia slipped into bed beside her husband. She rolled onto her side, away from him, with her butt pressed against his hip and her bottom leg thrust back to support his legs.

It roared to life with a series of beeps and his eyes drifted shut, as they always did. She sighed. Time for bed.

Amelia slipped into bed beside her husband. She rolled onto her side, away from him, with her butt pressed against his hip and her bottom leg thrust back to support his legs. Only her bottom leg would do. They’d tried pillows, but the shape and texture conspired to put his neuropathic feet to sleep.

And then she waited, listening to the inspiration and expiration of his augmented breaths. After a few minutes, his jaw went slack and the snoring started—a horrible crackle of wet air reinforced by the power of positive pressure. Spit spewed from his mouth with every exhalation, bubbling from its corners, dripping down his cheek, his mandible, his neck; aerosolizing, perfuming the air with phlegm, dusting her hair.

The ventilator beeped, indicating insufficient pressure on account of his open mouth, insufficient oxygenation, the onset of hypercapnia. She waited some more. The beeping stopped, his breathing regulated. The snoring and misting continued, but more subdued, tolerable. He was finally, deeply, asleep.

Amelia took her leg back, slid out of bed. She walked to the wardrobe. Her cigarettes were on top, away from the edge, out of any wheelchair-based sightlines. She grabbed them. The cellophane wrapper crinkled; she left it on for that very reason—the crinkle, a call to freedom.

She opened one of the French doors to the backyard, leaned against the jamb, sniffed the tip of a cigarette. It was woodsy, inviting, like a hike on an autumn afternoon. She brought it to life with a flick of the plastic lighter tucked inside the pack and took a puff. The warm smoke, acrid and fiery, filled in the cracks of her lungs. Her shoulders sagged in sated relaxation as she exhaled, blowing the smoke outside.

A shuddering snore from her husband grabbed her attention and she turned to witness a plume of saliva spritzing from his open mouth. He was pathetic. Not the one she’d married, who’d been vital and defiant and loving despite his disease, but this one, this thing that brooded and gave up and ignored her in the face of his innumerable problems.

She glanced through the open door into the dark backyard. His anxieties wouldn’t allow her outside, wouldn’t allow her out of earshot when he was trapped in bed unable to move on his own. She couldn’t blame him.

She took a drag and stepped outside.

The guilt struck her at once, but she pushed past it, into the cool night air. She forced the smoke from her lungs, suddenly satisfied, the concrete cold against her bare feet. Another stride and she was in the grass, staring at the waxing moon, her arms spread.

She heard a distant beeping in the bedroom and ran, not toward it, but away, toward the door into the rear of the garage at the far side of yard. When she reached it, she slipped inside, hit the light, took another drag.

The car beckoned. It was so close, so accessible. All she had to do was slip inside, drive off, leave him to rot. It was that easy. She could drive up the coast, drive forever. She’d never had that freedom. Not with her parents. Not with him. She’d gone from one to the other, with no time for herself.

She left the garage and slammed the door behind her. She couldn’t leave him. Not like this, trapped and alone. She knew the feeling and couldn’t inflict it on another. Even if the other was him.

After snuffing out the cigarette on the fence and throwing it into the neighbor’s ice plant, she slipped back into the bedroom. His mouth was bubbling, overflowing. The room stank. The snores were deafening. The ventilator returned to its beeping.

She stepped over to it, hit the power button. It asked her if she was sure. She was.

With a quick movement of her finger, it all stopped. No more bubbling. No more spritzing or snoring or beeping. Just a soft coo, the only thing his weakened diaphragm could muster.

For a second, two, ten, thirty. She wondered how she would react to it all. To him being gone. She knew she wouldn’t be able to show her joy. Not at first.

Amelia slipped back into bed beside him and waited. On top of everything else, he suffered from sleep apnea. His death, when it came, would be peaceful, unknown to him. Much better than abandoning him alive.

After a few minutes, even the cooing ceased. For a second, two, ten, thirty. She wondered how she would react to it all. To him being gone. She knew she wouldn’t be able to show her joy. Not at first. She’d have to play the broken widow for a while, soak up the sympathies and the praise for two decades of caregiving. The platitudes, the casseroles. And then her life would finally be her own. For once.

He sputtered beside her, gasped. The cooing returned.

Not tonight, it seemed.

She rose out of bed, placed the BiPAP mask back onto his face. A quick adjustment of the nasal pillows. The tightening of the strap on his head. Then she turned it on.

The ventilator roared to life, the snoring returned, the spit flew.

She slipped into bed beside him, stuffed her back leg beneath his, sniffed the lingering smoke on her collar.

They had to get up early the next morning. He had another doctor’s appointment.

Brian Koukol is a native of California. His fiction has appeared in Phantaxis Magazine, The Missing Slate, and other places. Visit him at
December 26, 2017


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Kiran Chatuvedi

The flat maroon pebble skims three times across the jheel before sinking. I had managed up to four skips with these as a child, and Malti had managed five at one time.

Malti sits next to me. The dark brown frizzy hair severely pulled back into a topknot instead of the two tight pigtails of our childhood. The companion of my younger days, my almost-sister with her baby pink fair complexion and immense dark black eyes looks only to be a slightly bigger and stronger version of her once little self. I am told I hardly bear any resemblance to the child I once was. What with my crew cut hair and naturally olive skin tanned many shades darker over the years, and my unusually lean and tall frame that make heads turn, I have gone against the ‘natural order’ as Malti puts it.

Lying on the damp soft dub grass, hidden among velvet bloomed reeds, we dreamt of finding lost treasures from the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh under the jheel, once we learnt to dive.

Neither of us has ever managed to get a stone to skip all the way across to the other shore. She does not try to test her skills today. Her gaze is faraway. She does not analyze the smooth throw I have just made, nor admire the shimmering cascade of ripples, which now stir the water of the jheel.

This is the place we both used to come to on long lazy summer afternoons of our childhood, with a load of suckling mangoes in our bags, and myriad secret plans spinning in our heads. Lying on the damp soft dub grass, hidden among velvet bloomed reeds, we dreamt of finding lost treasures from the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh under the jheel, once we learnt to dive. The Shahpur wetland lapped the northern edge of farmlands beyond the little eponymous hamlet we lived in. My parents were doctors who had chosen to live and work away from the city of Shahpur in the rural outskirts, and Malti was the daughter of our estate manager.

I was 12 when we moved to another state. I lost touch with Malti for a long time. And when I returned to Shahpur University to complete a part of my doctoral research, Malti still lived on the same farmhouse. I lived on campus and visited the jheel often for fieldwork. An exciting new movement was building up for reviving the water body and its ecosystem with the help of a local community leader, and my research was concerned with this aspect of ecosystem restoration. Malti had heard of these efforts of Baba Jeewan Singh Ji, but as a confirmed atheist she refused to have anything to do with any Baba of any sort. She spent a lot of her time following the lives of characters on the TV soaps, keeping up with trends on teleshopping broadcasts, and on her newly acquired smart phone. She had dropped out of college and was completing her degree by correspondence. Sometimes she went into town for errands and a few lectures. She didn’t have any friends that I could make out, and she looked a little bloated, and sometimes puffy. She found life at the farm boring, slow, and depressing. She said I was lucky I had left when I did. She wanted to know about the boys I had met and how far I had gone with any of them, and whether there was a marriage proposal in the wings. And whether I earned anything as a research scholar and how much would I earn once I got a job. She wondered what had made me come back to the hopeless hellhole of Shahpur.


April 10, 2017


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Meghan Callahan

Tell it like this: she meets the wolf.

She invites the wolf out for coffee on a whim. Perhaps he is tall and broad and barrel-chested and he laughs at her bad jokes on the subway. Latte? she asks. Yes, he says, but what he means is mine.

Or maybe it starts like this: he is someone she knows, but not well, from the office or the bookstore or a night class. She’s always taking night classes—pottery, mostly—and this time he asks first. He’s got holes in his skinny jeans and she outweighs him easily, well-fed and well-mannered. He is everything gaunt and hungry.

Tell it like this: the day was bright.

It’s usually sunny on days like these, light coming through the leaves and sliding in between curtains. And who could feel afraid behind a bookshelf, a counter, a drive-through window, with mundane sounds of receipts printing and the soft hiss-hiss of tires on pavement? Make it clear that she was not expecting this. Make it clear that she should’ve been.

There’s a list, so recite it.


April 10, 2017


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Greg Mulcahy

A desultory replacement life partner. She had not had to call him that. That comment of hers did not help matters, and he told her. He said he assumed she was not trying to mean something. Do you think, she asked, there is no point in attempting to describe or illustrate nuanced, complex social relationships?

Cloudy outside and breezy hot. Inside, air conditioned.

Appearance was misleading.

Was she saying that for all his high capability he was low functioning?

Typical of her to borrow language as though she could throw an appropriate context at him.

Perhaps she could make a graph.

Narrate projected slides.

A warning implied some articulation. Some force. If only force of assertion.

Some, it was said, said it would come as a card or flier or broadside or notice or broadcast or by entrails or by live bird.

He was not endorsing this; he simply knew it to have been said.

No denying there was commentary there.

He would not attempt to define or characterize it. That was not his role.

He could make comments about things he knew or understood Complaints he could make as well. Physical, psychological, and apt for his profession.

And then what? Collapse? Or try to rise to something?

As though he and she, they, could wrap themselves in cleverness.

Or listen.

He wanted to leave himself out of it.

She had said she knew that.

He remembered when she had said it, he was standing in the front room looking at a bird that was on the lawn, the bird that flew away.

No remedy for that.

He asked her what she meant, exactly.

Or intended.

He doubted she listened.

In a way, after a while, he could not blame her. Nobody listened forever.

Or he stopped listening.

There were worse things.

Greg Mulcahy is the author of two story collections, Out of Work and Carbine, and two novels, Constellation and O’Hearn.

April 10, 2017

After Life

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Jen Michalski

Of the two of you, you were always more morose. In fact, you could never remember a time, exactly, when she complained about anything—her parents, her job, her friends. But she was delicate in a way, a lack of permanence, a lack of tenaciousness, but still tough, like the way celery is impossible to break apart because of all those fibrous strands, and it never, ever rots, ever, even though you’d buy it and it’d sit in your shared refrigerator for months, waiting for you to begin your diet, because you were always the chubby one, always sturdy, Eastern European dough girl, and she was the thin one, the one who people always asked whether she was a dancer, a ballerina, a model. You were more like the celery, and she was not food at all, maybe rice paper, which is technically a food, although transparent and lacking mostly in nutritional value.

She was so nice. And that’s what makes it so difficult for you to understand. Even when she broke up with you, she framed it in such a way that you didn’t feel so bad, that she wasn’t good enough for you, that you deserved better, that you should examine your options. And when you think about it, she was probably right, not because you are some great catch but because you never really knew her. You wondered if anyone ever did. You thought maybe she would let you in, that you would get to know her, but even at night, after you kissed her and ate her out and fisted her and licked her breasts and stroked her thighs, you asked her what she dreamed about, and it was always that she was in French club but realized she couldn’t speak French or that she missed the ferry back from the Vineyard and got fired.

You were looking for dirt that you could rub between your fingers, a grit that would catch under your fingernails, take days to scrub out.

She had things. She went to all the camps, French and drama and some sort of Jewish religious camp with girls who went on to become psychologists or star in cable television comedies. You always went to parties with her, ones you wouldn’t have normally been invited to because you were Polish and lower middle class and your mom signed you up for swimming lessons at the Y and the summer reading challenge at the library because there was nothing else to do in your neighborhood except get high behind the 7-11, except smoke pot and listen to hair metal bands. You’d stand by the serving spread and sample smoked trout on crackers the size of half dollars and she would be in the middle of the room, head arched back, laughing with someone she went to school with at Smith, her doubles partner from day school, god knows what she talked about and you thought these people didn’t know her either, because they were so transparent but maybe she was, too, and when you complained about them on the ride back to the apartment she’d laugh and touch your thigh and say, “they’re just friends. You’re my girlfriend.”

What privileges were bequeathed to you as girlfriend, you’re not sure. You saw her without her makeup on, sure, but was it really a terrible secret that she read Vanity Fair on the toilet? That she ate almost nothing, that jar of Nutella that she’d spoon while watching the late night talk shows, and cereal? That when she farted she laughed in apology, and it was almost too cute? There was nothing, on the surface, to suggest anything terrible, and maybe that’s why you found yourself looking through her desk, her computer, her purse, the trash, when she was on the phone or outside on the balcony, having her once-a-week cigarette. You were not looking for evidence of an affair, or bulimia, or membership to a terrorist cell, just something. You were looking for dirt that you could rub between your fingers, a grit that would catch under your fingernails, take days to scrub out. Something that would leave a mark.

She said you were too clingy, too questioning, too suspicious—not everyone had to be damaged, at least damaged in a way that rendered one non-functional. Not everyone had to be difficult or deep or mysterious. Not everyone had to be like you. But everyone had to be someone, you thought, and not like someone. Not a person on paper. A real paper, with pulp and grain, and not a Xerox. But she made you laugh, the silly songs she made up about the cat, or how her trip to the grocery store, uneventful for most, became the most-fucked-up-thing ever because she ran into that guy she used to do improv with when she graduated from college and he was buying vaginal cream for his girlfriend because she was too embarrassed and how he quizzed her on the finer points of the 3-day versus the 7-day and there was that kid in the aisle with the mom who freaked out because colon cleanses made their way into the conversation and then she left her keys, somehow, in the produce section, right by the melons, and it took her an hour to find them, isn’t that crazy, because neither of us eats fruit, right?

There was nothing to suggest she was unhappy or that she missed you.

Sometimes when she’d sleep you’d watch her, and deep in dream she would frown, or flinch, and you questioned her when she woke up but she said you were being paranoid, that she couldn’t even remember what she was dreaming about. She would then ask about your dreams and you’d had a particularly disturbing one, how you sat with your dying grandmother and she smelled, she smelled so horribly of decay, and you’d known it’d been weeks since she showered, she could barely move, but she put her head on your shoulder, and you knew she missed being touched because no one ever touched her anymore, and it wasn’t her fault, that she was so gnarled and foul-smelling and immobile, her eyes milky and weepy and you realized this woman was a child once, a girl, a woman who fucked, who loved and hated and regretted, and all she could do was put her head on her granddaughter’s shoulder while her granddaughter tried not to breathe.

She was clever that way, always turning things back to you, like a psychiatrist, and maybe you were so fucked up yourself it took you a few years to catch on, to recognize this game of deflection and to call her out on it, and why didn’t she dream, why wasn’t she ever unhappy when you could see it sometimes, in the briefest of moments when she thought you weren’t looking, the way she frowned and chewed her fingernails, then she’d freak out in the car on the way home from the birthday party because she thought she was mean to someone but she was never anything but nice to everyone, always complementing, always laughing, always caring, in such a way that no one ever thought she was fake, and if they did, they would never say it aloud because they’d look petty, a bitter sister, and it was that way, the way they felt for a minute, that you felt all the time, that she was a mirror that showed you all your faults and when you reached out for her it was your own hand coming back toward you, your own warts, your own insecurities.

You were thankful she stayed with you. It became easier—imperative—after a while, for your own sanity, to believe in her, believe she was happy, successful, beautiful—and she was beautiful and successful, of course–and that she would make you a better person by association. And you tried. You tried to iron that shit out—all your wrinkles, all your neuroses, your disappointments, your snark. You tried to be like her, but it felt like scooping everything out of yourself and tossing it into the laundry basket before you left the apartment. You felt nothing, and that didn’t make you sad, so maybe that was good. But it didn’t make you happy, either.

When she broke up with you, you took it badly. You blamed yourself. You could never rise to whatever level of Zen she had carbined herself to. You were afraid of such heights. She said you’d changed, and when you pointed out that you had, that you tried so hard to be like her, she said she liked who you had been. But you weren’t sure whether you had liked who she had been, because she’d never been anybody. And that wasn’t the point, because she dumped you, and in that equation, the dumped is always at fault.

You moved to this city, where you are now. It folded around you like your grandmother, and it was something you got used to. Its scents, its dirt. It was you. What you knew. But you stayed friends with her on Facebook, and she stayed in that city, and had those friends, that cat. There was nothing to suggest she was unhappy or that she missed you. And no one told you that she did it, you just found out because of the Facebook posts people left on her page. Hundreds of them. In hysteria, in shock. But why she did it—no one ever asked you. If they thought you were the reason why she did it, you would never know. They never spoke to you after the breakup. It wasn’t mean or spiteful; they just receded, like waves, back into their massive, glittery, transparent ocean in which you, of heft, of gravity, always flailed, always felt like you were drowning.

How could you live with her for so long—four years—and make her come, watch her sleep, buy groceries together, how could you not know she would do something like that? How could you not see she was unhappy? And if you were with her for so long, how could she not tell you? How could you not know someone at all? Why did you stop digging, weren’t you supposed to find all the poop the dog had left in the long grass in the yard, before you step in it, before someone else did?

You are not responsible. You know this. But you lie awake at night and think about the dreams in which she had forgotten how to speak French, got stranded in the fucking Vineyard—would have been out of bounds to suggest she speak to someone, take something, go on a journey of self-discovery, on such flimsy evidence? And what did she want in you—did she want to live vicariously through your faults, your moods, your failures, her head on your shoulder, with her hair that smelled like Paul Mitchell, her breath that always smelled like gum?

There are things that you keep in your apartment in your new city—they were of no great importance to your relationship, exactly, just some things you have kept after your life with her. A CD she made you of French chanteuses that she gave you after your second date. A rubber bat she hung on the mirror of your car one Halloween morning. A necklace she always wore but never told you its origin—a broken crystal in a handmade wire setting. Had someone made it for her? Had she made it herself, in summer camp? You took it thinking she would contact you, ask you if you had stolen it, demand you give it back. It was important to her, and she could not live without it. She never did. You stopped wearing it after a few weeks because the crystal dug at your breastbone, left a little red welt. The little wire scraped your flesh. You tried to remember whether it had agitated her skin like it had yours. Had she never taken it off, even to shower, to sleep? Did she move it from one side to the other, trying to find where it irritated her the least? And if it bothered her so much, and how could it not, with its impossible craftsmanship, why didn’t she take it off?

You thought about returning it after you found out what had happened, maybe sending it to her mother, her sister, even though you’d only met them once. She said she was on good terms with her family, adored them, but you never visited them, nor them you, and they never called, to your knowledge. You had always just assumed it was because they didn’t like you. You still thought it should be returned to her, wherever it was she wound up—but those details were never offered to you. A few weeks after it happened, someone deleted her Facebook and her Instagram. Or you were deleted. Does it matter which one it was?

The necklace, at least, is still yours, although it never was. It’s all you have and you can’t get rid of it. Not because you want to keep it, but because everything needs a word, an answer. When your new girlfriend moves in, it hangs in your bedroom window. You never offer its origin. Most of the time it’s just there, like a crack, a nick on the dresser, that you are aware of but somehow stop seeing. Although sometimes the sun catches the crystal, refracts the light, and spreads little rainbows on the wall. They are always changing their places. You never know, where things will be, from moment to moment.

Jen Michalski is the author of the novels The Summer She Was Under Water and The Tide King, a couplet of novellas, Could You Be with Her Now and two collections of fiction, Close Encounters and From Here. She is the host of the reading series Starts Here! and editor of the journal jmww.