Two Poems by Jeffery N. Johnson

Last Ride

My elder brother was a Godly sight
riding that Shetland pony to the end
of the pasture and back – a smiling boy
on a galloping midget. She had legs
in her youth, heft under hair, and
enough stamina to carry the day.
When I grew old enough I saddled
her and forced the bridle between
those stubborn yellow teeth, but
the old mare wouldn’t budge.
She ambled only to the four-board fence
and tried to scrape the load off her back.
With Raskolnikov watching, I cursed
and kicked my heels deep into her flank,
but she just stood there hating me, and I her.
Our relationship went on like this
until I developed a system. I walked
her into the pasture, mounted, and let her
trot back to the barn lot to scrape me off
on the four-board fence. It wasn’t everything,
but it was something – a taste.
But one day she refused even that
and while I stood there brooding
in the barren pasture I began to notice
how the passage of time had affected her:
the mud-caked mane fallen to one side,
hooves curled and cracked, everything
about her drooping on four tired legs.
So I took to her with a brush and pulled
her winter coat, watched tufts of hair and
dander sail airily over our ancestral fields.
From nose to rump I went over her, recalling
my brother and the freedom together they
had exuded, streaking across the green field
as one. Her pungent dust settled into my
hand-me-down flannel, I left her there
in the barn lot, alone with her memories.

A Jazz Moment

Billy raised his horn and blew
notes like rays of light.
A genus loci of the mind,
creating a new space and time.

Notes like rays of light
warm the girl already bright,
creating a new space and time.
This one, Billy thought, is fine.

Warm is the girl already bright
as she spread her arms to catch the light.
This one, Billy thought, is fine,
as she swayed from side-to-side in time.

Spreading her arms to catch his light,
her husband stepped between them.
They swayed from side-to-side in time,
held each other, bump and grind.

The husband wedged between them,
Billy frowned, stroked his horn,
wed together, notes sublime,
joined together like a sign.

Billy frowned, stoked his horn,
but in her place a spirit shined,
joined together like a sign,
love’s fluid fleeting residue.

Then in her place a spirit shined,
a genus loci of the mind,
love’s fluid fleeting residue.
Billy raised his horn and blew.

Jeffrey N. Johnson’s poems have appeared in Birmingham Poetry Review, Gargoyle Magazine, Red Rock Review, South Carolina Review, and Roanoke Review. He was awarded the Andrew Lytle Fiction Prize at the Sewanee Review, and his debut novel The Hunger Artist was a finalist for the Library of Virginia’s People’s Choice Award.


Two Poems by Steven Knepper

The Storytellers

They felt at ease within the speechless world
Of beasts, in long hours spent alone in fields
Or in November blinds where they became
Like stones with roving eyes and rifles in
Their laps. Even working side by side
They didn’t mind a silent stretch of time.
Much to the consternation of their wives
They’d say the grace then eat without a word,
Sit staring at a winter fire all night.
But sometimes on the steps outside of church
Or gathered round a gambreled buck, when they
Stared out across the growing rows or passed
The water jug beneath a pasture tree,
When children chirped around their knees, the words
Would come to weave again the history
That lay across their lives and land, the things
They’d seen or done or heard from those before,
Like dried out beds that unexpected rains
Fill up again, renewed geography.


A man who posts his ground should get his wish.
I don’t want hunters tramping through my woods,
And sometimes I could stand the hermit’s life
Myself. I understand the signs and gates,
But what about those dummies that he strung?
That’s taking things too far, it seems to me.
The lane back to his place was lined with them—
The rubber masks they sell at Halloween
On scarecrow bodies lashed in trees. There was
A grinning devil with its wings spread out,
A clown with bloody teeth, a werewolf creeping
Out a limb, a vampire upside down.
It was a hunting camp before, and he
Had pried the antlers off the shed and fastened
Them to masks. What do you make of that?

I know one thing—
Dumb kids were bound to take it as a dare.
It took the mom a couple days to call.
She didn’t love admitting that her sons
Trespassed to throw some corn up on his roof.
But he had shot a couple rounds off in
The dark and she was scared he’d seen their car,
Might track them down to carry on his quarrel.
She’d seen him once in town and said his eyes
Looked plenty murderous enough to her.

So I drove over there to have a talk
With him. The gate was closed and padlocked shut.
I hollered but he didn’t answer me.
Halfway up the lane on foot, those faces
Leering down at me, my neck hair was on end.
He’d turned the yard into a garden patch
But it had gone to weeds. I had to wade
Through them to reach the porch. At first I thought
It was another dummy sprawled across
The rail, but then I saw the flies. His face
Had curdled up like week-old milk gone blue,
And they were swarming on his eyes and tongue,
Just flitting in and out between his lips.
A gun was on the floor, the action open.
Christ almighty. What a sight to see.
There never was a mask that looked like that.

Steven Knepper teaches literature at Virginia Military Institute. His poems have appeared in journals such as Pembroke Magazine, The James Dickey Review, SLANT, Third Wednesday, The American Journal of Poetry, Floyd County Moonshine, and Rotary Dial.

Three Flash Fiction Stories by Kathryn M. Barber


When you finally left me for good, I didn’t know if it was for the road, someone else, yourself, or that Taylor guitar. The notes your calloused and hard fingers created as they morphed strings into sounds still linger in my skull. I came home to find the apartment half empty—you’d taken your clothes and all the instruments, including my grandfather’s banjo hanging on the living room wall, leaving our home devoid of sounds and music. You left your favorite jacket and your rifle. I don’t remember what day of the week it was, but it was one of those mornings where the sun was hot and alive but the rain forgot care, and the drops hit the sidewalk rhythmically, like they were trying to compose a melody or recreate a ballad you’d written and taken with you.

I watched the wetness weave a tapestry between me and that old water tower on the hill—you remember it, don’t you? The way it stood tall over the lights of Nashville, boastful and protective, like it was watching over you, or me, or us, or somebody. The entire apartment complex is built in a circle around that tower up on the mountain, and the night we moved in, you wanted to climb it, to sit on the railings and look over the city like God.

“What if we get arrested?” I asked you as we sat at the top, passing a bottle of gin between us.

“What if you marry me?” you said.

I didn’t answer you then, or ever, just grinned, let the gin burn the words out of my mouth. When we climbed down, I thought of the waterfall back in the sleepy town I left for you, how I used to sit underneath it in the summer time, my back to the rocks, soaking wet. I’d stare at the woods through the sheet of rain, a stampede tumbling down the mountain, thinking maybe those drops came together for the sole purpose of shielding me from something. You, maybe.

Three days after you were gone, I took your rifle out from beneath the bed, stood on the porch, faced the mountain, and aimed. I shot three times at the water tower, wishing instead I could’ve fired three shots in your guitar case, or you, or whatever it was that made you leave this time.

I stood beneath the water as it fell from the sky like the waterfall back home.

That was the closest I could get to drowning, baptizing myself in something that wasn’t you. Your jacket clung to my body, drenched. Perhaps the next time I would hear your voice, it would meet me from behind a screened speaker, a record with a thousand interrupting scratches. I longed for your music to return to my bones, your throaty, deep voice finding, creating, the words I lost, the ones I was always afraid of. I strained to hear the song in the water as it fell.

(*inspired by the Dixie Chicks’ “Let Him Fly”)

Taking My Turn on the Sin Wagon

The radio stations won’t play the Dixie Chicks. When me and Whitney called this morning, asked if they’d play “Goodbye Earl,” they told us they pulled their songs— indefinitely. Whitney’s mama told me I ought not worry about it, because my daddy would wring her neck if he knew she was letting me listen to secular music. She’s right. Daddy says if it ain’t about Jesus, that’s called secular. Anybody that’s got talent and doesn’t use it for Jesus is sinning. If we listen, that makes us helping with their sins.

Daddy caught me listening to “Sin Wagon” once. He found the CDs Whitney made for me. Whitney can get any CD she wants because her cousin borrows them from the Randall Library at her college. We labeled them wrong to be safe—Steven Curtis Chapman was really Ludacris, Ray Boltz was really Britney Spears. But he caught me once, asked me if I knew what mattress dancing even was. I said I didn’t.

“These women are saying it’s okay to sin. That’s just a slap in the face of God, Aubrey. Do you understand that?” he asked me.

“Yes, sir.”

“What did I tell you about the Dixie Chicks?” (Last year, in fifth grade, he came to pick me up and heard me singing Earl with my friends over by the tennis courts. He said singing about murder wasn’t very nice, but I told him Earl deserved it. He didn’t like that too much.)

“They’re not ladies seeking Jesus,” I answered.

“That’s right,” he said. “Don’t ever let me catch you listening to this trash again.”

But Whitney and her mama are good secret keepers. Miss Julie is the secretary at the church where my daddy preaches, so she doesn’t want him to know either. At their house, I get to watch PG-13 movies and listen to songs that aren’t about God.

“Miss Julie, why won’t they play Earl?” I ask.

“Well, because Natalie Maines went and shot her mouth off about George W last week, that’s why,” she says. “Said she’s ashamed the president is from Texas because she thinks he’s an idiot.”

Whitney asked if George W was really an idiot. Miss Julie said of course he was, everybody thought so, but just because we think something doesn’t mean it needs saying.

At dinner, Daddy asks if I heard what “my” Dixie Chicks had gone and done. He said people were running over albums in tractors. The used bookstore downtown dumped copies into street trash cans.

“What’s the big deal they don’t like the president?” I ask.

He clenches his fists. He does this when he’s preaching, too. “They got up on that stage and said they don’t believe in God, our president, or our country. They said they were ashamed to be American and ashamed of our military. And you want to fill your head with music from these unpatriotic, trashy, godless women?”

I keep calling the radio stations, asking them to play Earl.


The tide rises and falls in time with my grief: my breaths, like eighth-notes, staccato; the waves of the east coast like half notes, long, hard and sure. Behind the rain, past the line where the ocean met the sky, clouds loom blacker than the asphalt on Broadway, fuller than the swells of the river running beneath JSP Bridge and Titan stadium.

I want to drown in the Carolina sea.

The rain falls in sheets, like music. Like the sheets you scattered around our bed, the one that overlooked the main of the Gulch, your notes strung across carpet in black ink on white paper. It falls in sheets like the ones you used to drape over yourself in the morning, while the sun bathed both you and the guitar. It falls in rhythms; I can hear the iambs and dactyls banging beneath your clenched fist on the breakfast table, measuring your own words. The rain falls like it did the night God sunk the Opry below five feet of water.

I’m slow dancing in a hurricane.

The winds push against my skin, push like the motor pushed the General Jackson down the river on our first anniversary. They push like you pressed those piano keys for days at a time. They push me from behind like they did the morning I wove my way out of Tennessee and into the Carolina mountains. They are relentless, like you.

You are a siren. I could never escape your voice.

The thunder sounds like your rasp echoing through the mountains our parents were born inside of, the ones we fled together. We exchanged gravel roads for skyscrapers and microphones, traded those hills and that river for starless skies and the rumble of the Ryman when it comes alive on a quiet fall night. You always belonged in the lightning on a stage, and I always belonged in the shadows, in the thunder of the crowd drinking in your every note. You have always been the streak of light. I have always been the thunder of applause.

I had to go. There was nothing for me there.

You were a siren, and I had to escape your song.

I scoop the sand in my palms, scatter it around me like we scattered your grandmother’s ashes that spring. I scatter the sand like the peony petals I scattered across our bedroom floor that Christmas you never came home. I scatter the sand like you scattered your cigarette ashes from the west coast, across the mountains, into the Carolina sea, and back again. There is no lighthouse drawing me home from sea. The lights of Broadway, twinkles and shooting stars of Music Row, they’re gone now. These waves drown out your memories, your humming in the corners of me. In this storm, am I finally clean.

I didn’t want to drown in your hurricane—

but you saw shapes in clouds, revelation in the rain, majesty in the mountains that trembled beneath us. My storm was your blue sky. You found stability in that stage on the corner in midtown, reassurance in the stadiums that trembled for you instead. You dreamt of playing hymns at the mother church, of planting your favorite brown boots in that wooden circle. I only dreamt of you. Tell me: while you trailed, eclipsed, shadowed your dreams—where did that leave me?

I want to drown your memory in the Carolina sea.

The curtain called you, and that was my curtain call, my final verse, my fade out. I couldn’t breathe until I was rid of you, until the water filled my lungs, until I was drowning. In the morning, the applause will die, and the spotlight streaks will fade, and Apollo will drag the sun across a brand new sky. In the morning, the hurricane will retreat back to the horizon line. I left Tennessee with your ghost following behind me. Call it wrong, call it selfish, call it running. Call it whatever you want.

I call it a reprise.

(*inspired by Miranda Lambert’s “Dead Flowers” and Brinley Addington’s “Carolina”)

Kathryn M. Barber grew up in the mountains that follow the Tennessee/Virginia state line. She earned her BA from Carson-Newman University and her MA in English Literature from Mississippi State University. Currently, she is completing her third year in UNC Wilmington’s MFA Creative Writing program as a fiction candidate. She is a former intern for Lookout Books and serves as Ecotone‘s Nonfiction Editor. Prior to Wilmington, she lived in Nashville and taught at Belmont University, where her musically talented students began to influence her writing. She is now working on a collection of short stories and flash pieces centered around musical themes. Her work has also appeared in Literary Orphans, Cape Fear Review, Palaver, the Pinch, and Adelaide. For more information, visit

Two Poems by Jake Sheff

To a Roadside Memorial

Your teddy bear has weathered well.
The plastic flowers look alive
enough to fool a hummingbird;
one just came by, but at the well
of grief, it understood: it heard
a falling leaf. A votive drive

to honor what we’ve lost is why
I’m here. Your cross and intersection
point the same direction bells
and I must go. With dates, subtraction
tells me she was seven; I
am not. And heaven knows (but tells

only the chosen) why she had
to leave so soon. A sign nearby
says Please Don’t Drink and Drive. This state
has moved to ban erecting sad
memorials; I forgive them. Fate
is not for hummingbirds to die.

Near Fort Pierce, Florida

The space shuttle Endeavor
avowed its name above
the Indian River. Viewed

by my brother and me – two
princes in the harsh
perfume red drift algae

rinses Titusville with in
spring – it too avoided
being seen and heard. To

consider brutal truces
unseats a babysitter: a
mantis shrimp crawled

in the shallows near us;
to brother him I bet
he wasn’t man enough

to pet it. Cut to a crippled
minute later: a thumb
split by feigned hubris;

a second bris. No cuter
with a rosy beard, his thumb
was flayed to seaweed

and sewed up in the ER
to become a killer shrimp
in time’s rough gloss.

Jake Sheff is a major and pediatrician in the US Air Force, married with a daughter and three pets. Currently home is the Mojave Desert. Poems of Jake’s are in Marathon Literary Review, Jet Fuel Review, The Cossack Review, and elsewhere. His chapbook is Looting Versailles (Alabaster Leaves Publishing). He considers life an impossible sit-up, but plausible.

“Poolside at the Hemingway House” by Holly Hollar

When you ask—how much is enough?—like Cecilia Malone, who reclines in the sun on a sailboat at harbor in Key West, who asks herself, how much money did I donate to the Humane Society of Greater Orlando last year? Is this particular shade of green from the Michael Kors fall collection over now? If you dare to ask that dangerous question—how much is enough—do try to find yourself in less opulent surroundings. Not a word about it on a boat. Otherwise, it’s just obnoxious.

A thirty million dollar beauty floats less than fifty yards away. It boasts a neon-lit hot tub on the second story and a seventy-inch flat screen TV she can see through the floor to ceiling windows on the main deck.

She was looking inside when she saw a man, she presumed the owner, remove his shirt, so she fixed her aging eyes on his taut abdomen—he must be in his thirties?—and felt a familiar twinge that had been gone since her last husband, Frank, passed away two years ago. She is sixty two. The yachtsman looks at her and she glances away and eyes her phone instead, wishing her daughter would call her back, and wondering where the hell Manchi is, because he should be back by now. But most of all she thinks, people just don’t know when to stop. What else could he have done with his money, how many people might have benefited from those millions; in her smug staring she miscalculates the distance to her mouth and spills mimosa on her silk scarf. There’s such a thing as limited, acceptable indulgence, she is sure of it. Really, how much is enough for some people? But also, she is jealous. She should be on that yacht. Not Manchi’s dinky sailboat.

Manchi glommed on at a Humane Society event when Gouda, her pug, wound up in his lap. A neighbor of Cecilia’s, a rigid woman, whispered to her husband, appalled about the dog at the event. But Cecilia didn’t care because she’s the organization’s largest donor.

Cecilia had popped a bruschetta in her mouth and realized too late it was too large for a single bite. She was chewing painfully when she saw Gouda run to Manchi’s feet and Manchi bent down to pick him up and Cecilia had no choice but at least to say hello and retrieve her pet. She noticed his smile. He wanted her contact information and so she gave it to him. She decided he was not bad looking.

Gouda grunts and pants whenever Manchi rubs his belly. Manchi is wealthy and bright. He made his money with a well-placed chain of Señor Frogs along the Mayan Riviera, which allowed him to purchase the boat Cecilia now habituates, for the week at least. The boat is named Rana, Spanish for frog.

The sail from Miami to Key West made her nauseous, excited, afraid and claustrophobic, all of these feelings now exacerbated by the capacious yacht napping in her line of sight. All the more reason to get out and explore. Today they will see the Hemingway house, something she has wanted to do from the moment Manchi floated the idea of Key West over afternoon iced coffees a month ago.

The mimosa sweetens her unbrushed teeth. She curls her toes on the fiberglass floor and tucks a strand of short red hair behind her ear, annoyed with the wind for the constant tousle. The tethered boom swings from side to side. Cling clang, cling clang, metal pieces flapping metal mast. Far off, by the Cuban Coffee Queen, she sees Manchi carrying two iced coffees. He does not see her, but she sees him whirl one eighty to ogle two passing girls in bikinis. So this is what he’s like when I’m not around. She adds a tally to her growing list of “cons.”

Should she say something to Manchi about the bikini girls? No, she decides. Instead, she picks up a tube of sunscreen and rubs the lotion on her face. Maybe.

I got you a Cuban coffee.

Manchi’s aviator sunglasses are mirrors of her ghostly face as he leans in to kiss her good morning. He exchanges a cup of coffee for the tube of sunscreen and begins massaging a dollop onto his bald head.

She rubs the last of the sunscreen into her cheeks. Can we go to the Hemingway House today? I want to see it.

You’re the boss.

She hates it when he says that. She wants him to be the boss. He thinks she wants to be the boss.

I saw you checking out those girls in bikinis.

Beautiful weren’t they?

She snorts. If you’re into that sort of thing.

Every red blooded man is into that sort of thing. Sorry sweetheart.

Maybe I’ll go by myself to the Hemingway House. Maybe that’s my sort of thing. She stomps down into the main cabin.

He sighs and follows her, pausing long enough on the steps to see her rummaging through the onboard cooler.
If you’re looking for the other bottle of champagne, I drank it last night. Come here, don’t be mad. I’m crazy about you. It’s just girls in bikinis.

He pulls her into a hug.

She’s not really mad about the bikini girls. She is mad at time.

When they finally leave the boat, the morning fishing charters have returned to dock. Tarpon undulate in the water below the filet table; from time to time they thrash at skins and heads from snappers which flip into the water with the flick of the first mate’s filet knife. Silver arcs emerge from the murky water and disappear below. The water churns and froths, each fish greedier than the last. No patience, all survival. Tarpon wake slaps piling.

Cecilia holds Manchi’s hand, even though it sweats, and they stare for a while at the feeding frenzy. Cecilia, mesmerized, looks away only when Manchi motions to three skippers hauling a coffin-sized cooler down the dock. She makes way, dropping his hand. If she took one more step back and fell into the water, would the tarpon move in for the kill? And how long would it take for them to finish? And what if Manchi dove in behind her?

We should get a cab. Manchi walks to a line of pink sedans. Cecilia follows, the tarpon still twirling in her mind.

When they arrive at the Hemingway House, they are approached by a fat man in a small t shirt holding a roll of tickets. His face sweats like a cold glass of sweet tea, the droplets eventually dribble down into his beard and fall from the wiry ends onto hot cement below. The man motions for money. Cecilia reaches for her wallet slowly, glancing at Manchi. He does not move. She pulls it from her purse, making an event of the thing, spilling a compact onto the cement that erupts into fine powder on impact.

Can you just pay the man please. She fusses over the compact but keeps an eye on Manchi who is now reaching for his wallet.

She takes in the property as she crouches— yellow shutters, green hedges like a sea wall and palms casting shade on the roof. A cat curls under the porch, Cecilia spots its needy eyes as she stands again and clutches her purse under her left arm.

It’s just like the day she was married to Frank. Nothing has changed except for the people and how they are dressed. Cecilia feels a familiar squeeze on her heart and abdomen—the clenching of grief muscles for the sucker punch of fond memories. Frank’s face on their wedding day flashes in her memory like a movie clip.

Walking tour starts in ten minutes. We close at four. Private event – a wedding. The man hands Manchi two tickets.

Cecilia wore her mother’s gown. Her mother looked severe that day, she wore a high bun, with three karat diamond earrings. Her father’s business partners smoked cigars on the lawn. She was afraid, when she hugged the man her father called Chuck, the man responsible for their fortune, that ash would fall on the fine silk of her dress and burn a hole. Her father – honey, you remember Chuck. She smiled and touched his arm. I’m so glad you could make it. Her father teared up moments before they walked down the aisle. What did he tell her? Compromise only on the little things.

And Frank was so eager to be married to her he went directly to I do before the proper time. Everyone laughed, even her mother. Later she and Frank and their friends drank beer and danced the streets to reggae. And when they made love on their wedding night, the need of their bodies was like a category five hurricane.

Cecilia, the tour is starting. Manchi places his hand on her lower back and she refocuses on his face, on the present, and follows him into the house which smells of the sea, and of old books and maps. A welcome memory.

Her mother was hungover the next morning at breakfast. So was Cecilia. Party of the year, she heard one of her father’s friends say to another.

After the breakfast they caught a ferry to Dry Tortuga. Frank’s blonde hair blew in the wind like the fronds of palms. He handed Cecilia a strawberry daiquiri. She put her free hand around his neck and drew him in for a kiss.

They camped for a night on Dry Tortuga. Frank played a ukelele on the brick walkway surrounding Fort Jefferson. The sunset looked like a cocktail of cranberry and orange juice for the imbibing darkness.

Manchi walks upstairs first, Cecilia follows, to the bedroom, and the old typewriter. Manchi looks around the room. Would you like to live in a place like this?

Frank and I were married here.

Manchi looks back blankly. In this room?

Cecilia smiles. No. On the grounds. We got married on the lawn. I hope that isn’t strange for you.

I imagine it’s rather strange for you.
Strange isn’t the word. She rifles through her purse and finds a lipstick. She uses a mirror in the nearby bathroom to apply it. Manchi observes from the doorway.

Does being here make you miss him? Are you sad?

Sad isn’t the word. Yes, of course I miss aspects of him. Being here reminds me of myself when I was younger, as much as it does of him. No matter how much time we had with each other, it would never have been enough. I probably shouldn’t talk about it with you. I’m sorry.

Then let’s not talk about it. Manchi walks down the stairs and out onto the veranda by the pool where a cluster of people stare down into the cement. A tour guide tells the group this is where they can see the infamous penny in the concrete, buried after Ernest yelled at his wife about the cost of the pool project, something about taking every last penny. The boxing ring once occupied the space in the backyard, before the pool. But Manchi can picture the bloody noses and knuckles and Manchi is only looking on an empty pool but being with Cecilia is like that. Maybe he needs it.

It’s hard to start over, she says from behind him.

I know. He takes her hand. They look at one another. His eyebrows lift and he nods toward the pool. She smiles.

They’ll kick us out. She slides her feet from her sandals and sets her purse down.

Screw ‘em. Manchi pivots toward the pool and pulls her hand. Cecilia does not protest. They splash into the pool. The sound of Cecilia’s laughter fills the courtyard and with its eruption comes a moment of lightness she didn’t know she needed. He stands still beside her, watching her mouth, his own mouth open as he exhales in bursts. Manchi hauls himself out of the pool. For a moment he resembles a frog splayed on the concrete as he pulls his knees to his chest and stands.

Let me give you a hand. He reaches down and lifts Cecilia from the water. No chiding from the staff. Only a little girl takes issue; she huffs and throws her braid over her shoulder. They wet her new shoes.

Cecilia and Manchi squish in their sandals as they walk two miles back to the pier. They stop at a bait shop selling beer cozies and frozen squid and ice cream sandwiches. Manchi buys two of the sandwiches. The white cream runs down Cecilia’s fingers as it melts. Cecilia scrapes the melty brown sandwich from her fingers with her bottom teeth. She is happy and for now that is enough.

A month after their return to Orlando she will appreciate Manchi’s patience, how he knows to calm her when she grows impetuous. She will introduce him to her daughter over lunch at the country club and her daughter will remark on how well-matched they seem. She will laugh as Gouda’s loyalty drifts so that the dog responds only to Manchi’s commands and not her own. And she will go on feeling some need has been filled. But she will still be mad at time.

Holly Hollar is a financial advisor living and working in Nashville, TN. This is her debut work of fiction. Holly received a degree in Creative Writing from Emory University and holds a Masters in Business Administration from Wake Forest University. She is originally from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. When she is not working or writing, Holly enjoys hiking and camping with her husband Aaron and their sassy boxer, Alice.

“Marriage” by James Armstrong

I have been married for six years. I have not spoken with my wife for the past five. We live together, you understand. We sleep in the same bed and eat dinner at the same table. Yet no matter how hard I try, I cannot talk to her.

We never ran out of things to say while we were dating. We had similar interests—we both liked to cook, and we watched the same TV shows. She was relaxed and easy-going, which was exactly what I was looking for. By degrees, I suppose, I began to fall in love with her.

I had always known I wanted to get married, and right away I began asking myself if Lynn might be the one. I’m not sure I know what that means anymore, but back then I thought I did, and I was sure Lynn was it—true love, or at least something close enough. I proposed to her after dinner one night at a fancy French restaurant, and she accepted.

On our wedding day, I could hardly dress—I was so nervous—but I knew there was no one else I wanted to spend my life with. When I kissed her at the altar, I don’t think I had ever felt happier in my life.

For the first several months, things went well. We fought occasionally, but we always made up. Afterward, we would laugh at the absurdity of the things we’d argue over, the proper way to scrub a toilet or who had made coffee the last time.

After a while, Lynn started having to work more at the office. They were cutting back, and she was doing the jobs of two people. It wasn’t fair, but if she didn’t want to get sacked in the next round of layoffs, we were just going to have to deal.

Then Lynn’s uncle died. She had never been close to her father, who had abandoned them when Lynn was a teenager. Uncle Mark was the closest thing to a father she had. She mourned him for quite some time, and made it clear she needed to be alone in her grief.

After that, she started having problems with her gallbladder—at least that’s what the doctors thought it was. The whole thing cleared itself up after a while, so it could have been something else. The pain was intense for a couple of months, though, and she didn’t want to do anything—even talk.

In all this time, we would wake up together, have our morning coffee, swap out parts of the newspaper, go our separate ways to work, come home, have dinner, spend a couple hours watching TV, and go to sleep at each other’s sides. It was an orderly routine and didn’t call for us to say much of anything. Everything was understood.

That’s why I can’t tell you the precise day on which Lynn and I stopped talking. We had grown used to saying little, and soon we were saying nothing at all. The breakfast table was silent. Nothing was said over the course of dinner. We would sit on the sofa staring at the TV, and it would do the talking for us.

The worst, I think, was in bed. I would lie there next to her, wanting to say something, but I couldn’t. We had grown distant in every sense of the word except the literal one, and that hurt more than anything.

Days and weeks passed, months, and we said nothing. Lynn seemed remarkably calm about the whole situation. She would shower and dress in the morning as if nothing were wrong. She would get home and start sorting through the mail without a word, or even a look. It was as if nothing had changed, but everything had changed. My wife had stopped speaking to me, and I didn’t even know why.

Was she mad at me? Had I committed some unspeakable offense? I tried to think of what it might be. Something I had said? Not said? I began scowling at her when she walked into a room, and she would roll her eyes at me and leave.

At last, I decided I needed to be the bigger person and break the silence. I still couldn’t speak to her, however, so I wrote a note:

“Dear Lynn,” it said, “I can’t stand what has happened to us. Why don’t we ever talk anymore? If I have done something, I honestly don’t know what it was, but I am sorry. I never intended to hurt you or cause you pain. I love you, Lynn. I love you, and I want things to be the way they were before. Will you come back to me? Please? Yours Forever, Bobby.”

I left the note on the kitchen table where she would be sure to see it, then went into the bedroom and waited for her to get home. I heard the sound of her car pulling up and of its motor going still. The car door slammed. The front door to the house opened and closed, and footsteps went off into the kitchen.

I listened for a long time and heard nothing. I wanted to cry out, but I held my peace. Eventually, I heard footsteps again, and then the front door opening and closing.

I went out into the kitchen. Lynn had left me a note:

“Dear Bobby,” it said, “Went to gym. Be back later. Would you mind going to store while I’m out? I’d go myself, but it’s the opposite direction. We need milk, eggs, salad, tomatoes, and green beans. Also, if the mac & cheese is still on sale, pick up a couple boxes. Love Always, Lynn.

“P.S. Got your note. Thanks.”

I read it three or four times, still not knowing what to think. “Love Always, Lynn?” What did she mean by that? I pour my heart out to her, and she asks me to go to the grocery store?

Yet it was the postscript that was strangest of all. The note would have made sense if she hadn’t read what I’d written, but she clearly had. She had read my note, acknowledged it, but acted as if I had given her directions to the gas station.

I went to the store and got milk, eggs, salad, tomatoes, green beans, and three boxes of macaroni and cheese. When Lynn got back from the gym, I fixed green beans and mac and cheese and warmed up some eggplant we had left over in the fridge. We ate in silence then went into the living room and watched TV.

The next day, I left another note:

“Dear Lynn,” it said, “What is going on? I’m confused. Do you still love me? If so, how come we can’t talk together anymore? I feel like I’m living with a stranger, only it’s a stranger I already know. Does this make any sense to you? Help me. Please. I don’t know what to do. Desperately Yours, Bobby.”

I got another note in response:

“Dear Bobby,” it said, “Garbage collector didn’t pick up the trash for some reason. Did we put it out too late? Maybe it’s some crazy govm’t holiday. Anyway, I put it in the garage so it wouldn’t block the curb. Went to the store to pick something up for Mom’s birthday. See you when I get back. Love Always, Lynn.

“P.S. The note was sweet. Thnx.”

I wanted to pull my hair out. I drove to the shore and looked into the ocean. I wondered what it would be like to drown. I’ve always been afraid of the water, and I figured that must be about the worst death there is—to drown in the ocean.

Then I thought I would rather drown in the ocean than in a pool. At least in the ocean, you’re swallowed up by something immense, something so big you can scarcely imagine it. How much worse to drown in a pool—to drown in a bathtub—to drown in a glass of water.

I came back and found Lynn already in bed. I lied down next to her and started to cry. I wept until my tears were gone and there was nothing left inside of me. She never woke up.

The next day we had breakfast together as if nothing had happened. We went to work, came home, had dinner, and watched television. I found the monotony of our life laughable, but I didn’t know how to change it.

I wanted to ask Lynn if she’d like to do something different. Perhaps we could go out dancing, though truth be told, I can’t dance, and I only wanted to do that because I thought it was something you were supposed to do if you were a couple. Besides, who could hear each other with all that music—and what I really wanted to do was talk.

Perhaps the next weekend we could get away somewhere. The mountains maybe. I had never been to the mountains, and I had no idea how to get there, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. At least it would be different than sitting in that house—that tiny house—and not knowing what to do.

I never took her dancing, and we never went to the mountains. I hated the situation, but how could I change it when I couldn’t even talk to her?

So I decided to make tacos. I had never made tacos before, so at least it was something different. I bought tortillas and salsa and lettuce and sour cream and refried beans. We would make tacos, and life would be better.

Lynn’s a vegetarian, so that’s why there was no meat. She scooped extra large spoonfuls of beans into her taco and covered them with lettuce and tomato and sour cream and shredded cheddar cheese. She had four bean tacos, then took a spoon and scraped the last of the beans onto her plate with a little cheese and sour cream. She ate it all then left me with the dishes and went out into the living room to watch her favorite show.

After doing the dishes, I went out and sat beside Lynn on the sofa. The TV had one of those sitcoms that used to make her laugh so hard I was afraid she might fall off the couch. It was a rerun, though, and we had both seen it before. She had the volume turned up really high, and the laugh track ran every time there was a joke. Neither of us laughed.

A commercial came on, and it was louder than the show, as commercials always are. What was more, it was one of those really awful commercials from a local car dealership. Could it get any worse than that?

And there, sitting next to Lynn on the sofa, watching a bad television show break for an even worse commercial, there came a huge, low-pitched, unmistakable sound. It drowned out even the TV. From right beside me came the most enormous fart I had ever heard in my life.

And it reeked. There could be no mistaking this for moving furniture. After eating four tacos and a small mountain of refried beans, Lynn had let rip the most foul-smelling odor imaginable. I wondered if we would ever be able to let people into the house again.

Lynn and I looked at each other. And we began to laugh. It was the first time I could remember either of us laughing in a very long while. We laughed louder and louder, until tears started coming down, and we threw our arms around each other’s necks and kissed each other gently on the cheeks. I lifted her up off the sofa and took her back to the bedroom where we made love and fell asleep and woke up in the morning and said nothing.

Marriage is like that sometimes.

James Armstrong has had stories appear in The Long Story, Birmingham Arts Journal, Concho River Review, The Chaffey Review, and other publications. His plays have been published in Arts & Letters, Canyon Voices, The Louisville Review, Yemassee, and The Best American Short Plays: 2012-2013.

“Breaking the Surface” by Jeannette Brown

She has always been the Good Girl, but here she is, breaking all the rules. She wonders why she hasn’t done it before. And why she is doing it now.

She has recently received her punishment, so now she can commit crimes.

The first rule she is breaking is “Don’t go swimming until two months after the baby comes or when you quit bleeding, whichever comes first.” Or maybe second, she’s a little fuzzy on the details of her research. After reading seven or 20 websites filled with conflicting advice, the results all ran together.

She has not quit bleeding, so she’s wearing a tampon and it hasn’t yet been six weeks. Another rule broken.

It has only been three and a half weeks, yet here she is, in the humid, muggy, perhaps haunted basement of the YWCA, about to swim. Breaking another rule: No Swimming Without a Lifeguard. She’s becoming a regular scofflaw.

The air in the basement is damp and dank, fetid. It is ripe for growing fungi and other sordid parasites, but everyone knows the Y washes down the pool and the walkways, the bleachers and probably the walls with chlorine. Nothing can survive chlorine.

She approaches the ladder, turns, and backs down, slowly placing a bare foot solidly on each rung so as not to slip into the deep. She knows better than to dive or jump in. She eases into the familiarity of the water as she assumed she would ease into motherhood.

By wearing her “new mother” underwear—cotton panties and a nursing bra—she’s breaking another rule: Swimsuits Only. Still inhabiting her swollen postpartum body, she did not want to wrestle it into a restrictive, faux-fabric body suit. Her cotton undies float close to her skin. She opens both flaps of the nursing bra, allowing the water to caress her buoyant, lactating, useless breasts.

The fluidity of the water is a loving caress. She lets go of the ladder and pushes off gently, floating on her back. This is probably what being in the womb feels like, surrounded by softness, as soundless, gentle waves bring slow body bounces. The slightest ripples carry the water away before it returns. She imagines a baby curled fetally, smiling with the pleasure of merely being, floating in silence except for the occasional orchestral music or the murmur of parental voices cajoling, cooing for it to come out and join the two who have chosen its name so carefully, so specifically for this particular baby.

Water movement reflects light off the blue walls and dapples the ceiling, giving the effect of surround movement, being in a bubble. A womb bubble.

But as of three weeks ago, she has not spoken the name, will never speak it again. There is no baby. No baby that screamed in anger at being taken from its mother’s warm body bath and jettisoned into the cold antiseptic, fluorescent-lit birth station to the latex-gloved hands of the doctor.

No, she only birthed the silent baby, blue not because of the fluorescent lights but because it had been dead for over 24 hours. The doctors could not explain why or what. Just because. Maybe it couldn’t catch its breath. Maybe it needed gills. Maybe it didn’t want to be a baby.

Maybe she should be swimming in the ocean. Salt water is buoyant. Salt water heals wounds. But it only heals the kind of wounds that bleed, not the real ones. On the other hand, blood draws sharks, so maybe the ocean is a bad idea.

Floating in the warm water of the pool, she imagines being the baby, imagines that it lives and comes into the world screaming and kicking like all real babies do, so she imagines that she hears the baby screaming. She’s floating in the tepid, body-temperature water, her chin resting on the surface so that the motion of her dog-paddling hands sends tiny waves of water across her lips and into her nose when she inhales.

But after she lets the dream baby float away into the air, it continues to cry. Perhaps she’s losing her mind. According to her internet research, women like her often end up in the psych ward. They just cannot accept a stillborn baby. They lose their shit. She imagines seeking refuge away from her well-meaning friends and relatives. Even from her husband who thinks he is being so supportive but only reminds her of her failure. Her punishment for who-knows-what crime.

But still the baby cries. It wails, screams, demands to be comforted. Slowly, she realizes that the screams come not from within her mind but from the south side of the pool area, the bleachers where in all her years of water aerobics class, she has never seen an audience except for the young, inattentive lifeguard studying her homework, certain that no one in the class would distract her by drowning.

The woman gains the ladder and crawls from the water, wondering if she is hallucinating, destined for the psych ward with all the other crazy mothers and almost mothers. She finds her towel and wipes her eyes, pats her arms, and dries her hair a bit just in case the hallucination would like the opportunity to disappear. But no, when she looks toward the bleachers, she sees a plastic carrier. And a pink blanket. And the round squinting face of a baby so furious it has lost its voice.

Instinctively, she reaches for the baby, lifts it out of the carrier and cuddles it, crooning “ Sweet baby, you’ll be fine, sweet baby.” She holds it close enough to inhale its sweet scent of sour milk and burp and poo, its baby newness. The baby smiles at her with unfocused eyes.

She returns the baby to the carrier in case its mother finds her and assumes the wrong thing. Any real Mother would. Any Mother who had delivered a real live baby. She backs away, looking around, wondering when and how the Mother came and went without being noticed. She looks at the floor, searching for footprints to find a direction for the Mother, but all is wet.

She drapes her towel around her body so the Mother won’t be alarmed when she comes upon a woman standing in wet panties and unflapped bra instead of a swimsuit.

Now she’s confused because the baby is crying again and she wants to hold it but that would be awkward when the real Mother comes back, so she squats beside the baby and pats its stomach, cooing, “Sweet baby, don’t cry. Mommy’s on her way.” The baby quiets. She pats and coos for a while longer.

Where is the real Mother? Who would leave their baby alone for so long? The woman pats the baby one last time and goes to search the dressing rooms and showers. She is alone. She’s even checked the tiny men’s dressing room that she’s never seen anyone use. She’s begun to bleed past her tampon, so she lowers herself to the edge of the pool and slips back in. The red stain floats away from her like an aura, and then dissolves.

She can’t be totally psycho because she does understand that the baby doesn’t belong in the basement of a YWCA. But yes. It does. She’s seen the signs outside and in the lobby a hundred times without really seeing them: “Safe Place.” A safe place to drop off a baby that you can’t take care of, that is inconvenient, that isn’t what you thought a baby would be like.

She weighs her loss against this Mother’s gain. For this baby has a Mother and she did gain a child. But now she, too has lost her child. But why the basement, the dank pool basement? Why not leave the baby in the lobby?

Maybe the Mother was afraid of being seen, being traced. Or maybe she, too, knows the pool is the closest thing to the womb.

Here is a baby. A free baby that looks to be about a month old. Just like her baby would be if her baby had continued to be a baby instead of drifting off into the next world, nameless.

A Mother-less baby. A baby-less mother. The equation is impossibly perfect. She wonders whether the baby has a name, or whether the Mother thought that naming the baby would weigh too heavily on them both. Actually, “Baby” isn’t a bad name for the first few months, until you get a feel for the personality. At least that’s what she’s heard.

She understands the rules. If you find a baby, you turn said baby over to the authorities. She knows what a Good Girl would do. But the rules do not apply in this instance. This baby is out of bounds. This baby is beyond the laws of nature or decorum.

This Good Girl has choices.

Jeannette Brown writes poetry and fiction. Her work has been published in Bellevue Literary Review, Southwestern American Literature, New Millennium Writings, Texas Observer, ArtSpace, Mother Earth, Breathing the Same Air–An East Tennessee Anthology, Suddenly IV, Knoxville Bound, and other publications. She is the co-editor of Literary Lunch, a food anthology. She has enjoyed residencies at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Rivendell Writers’ Colony.