Three Poems—Julia Retkova

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Chance Meeting

He cups a handful of my hair and looks surprised when it drips down from his hand in spirals of sea water. You’re walking far, far, beneath and 
it always burns to breath in crystallised salts. 
In the deepness born of the shock of it
you watch them unfold: the blinding light of all things primordial.
Memories breathing, blooming, nestled tight 
in the very depths of your skull.

He tells me how terror can make a home in the hollows of our collarbones,
how it settles in, shivers in time with the heartbeat,
furls further inside each pearl of concave darkness.

I wash my bedsheets in bleach,
over, and over, and over. 
The finality of it, unnoticed

Daze-Drunk

and so—prayers crushed to lips like
petals, boiled, turning sharp to rose-water.
Shivers in crushed diamonds. The smell, overpowering. Blinding.

A fumigation of all 
that is heady, thick. Foaming fumes of smoke
to choke and burn in the crackling 
of chest bones, in the roar of rose-water 
rivers. To look up from beneath all that was promised–
what do you see? To look up as the sky heaves, as it bursts 
open with the scent of burned fuchsia. It will hold the words 
tight and savage between its teeth. Open 
your mouth, darling, and the burn 
will be as promised: tongue slicing bright along the fountains of stars.

Insomnia

The fabric of the night seemed to split apart for a moment. I thought, morning is here, but when I looked out the streets were empty and dark and clocks were stuck. 
    It builds slowly:  During the day there are too many but now— now there is space, and you
                breathe in, and your very lungs tremble and shake their little fists up at the sky.

Excisions in the heavy blackness that sits in the corners of your room
A silence frozen over with ringing.

Julia is a King’s College London graduate student with two degrees in Literature and Digital Studies: she’s currently working on her dissertation while running a small literary journal. She was born in Ukraine, but grew up in the south of Spain. She loves reading in the sun and writing when everyone’s asleep.

photo by Viktor Talashuk and Jairo Alzate (via unsplash)

Pal—Hannah Rovska-Strider

Sammy told us that it stayed in the old playhouse behind his stepdad’s deer stand. His Skeletor action figure went missing because of it, and it was responsible for another kid’s stolen bike. 

No one had ever seen it, but its presence was carried through passing voices in the hallways of the Northland community schools. Most of the kids said it was some type of troll or goblin. At the high school, the theories had evolved from mischievous fantasy creatures into depressed meth addicts. Supposedly, someone had found a dog outside of the tiny blue house a few months before we arrived in town. The contrast between its delicate face and the grotesque, bite-sized chunk taken out of its torso cemented the incident in the minds of the youth of Longville for that entire summer. 

We had just moved back into the neighborhood after our dad got his old job back, me and Carrie. The other kids accepted her as if she had never left, but I still had dues to pay if I wanted to be included in whatever mayhem they got up to on the weekends. 

That Saturday, I sat on the floor of my sister’s bedroom and begged her to let me accompany her to Janet Schezzworth’s treehouse. 

“But they’re my friends too,” I screamed as Carrie shoved various juice boxes and small bags of chips into her neon-green backpack. 

“No, you’re too little. Besides, they’re only your friends when the moms yell at us for leaving you out. No one really wants you there.” She grabbed her Nikon Coolpix from its box under her bed, the focal point of most conversations since her 10th birthday, snapped a picture of me sulking on the ground, and carefully placed it in her pack as I tried to wrestle back tears. My attempts failed though, and, after a four-minute-meltdown that ended with a guest appearance from our mother, my sister relented, and we went hand-in-hand to the treehouse.

We arrived to find that a meeting between the children had already been in session for some time. We were met with shouts being exchanged between Sammy and one of his cousins, the twinless twin, over the best course of action when it came to cornering the unseen force in the playhouse. 

“It’s not going to come out for us,” said the twin. “It doesn’t matter how much crap we leave it. We’re too big. It probably gets scared as soon as we open the door.”

“Then we’ll just send someone smaller in,” yelled Sammy through gritted teeth. By that time, a few of the other children in the wooden room began to look my way. I stared back as Carrie tried to covertly position herself in front of me. Sammy and the twin noticed her movement and then everyone was looking at me. Carrie looked horrified. I was elated. “Whatchu got there, Figteeth?”

“It’s just Lizbeth. Mom said that I had to bring her with me or she’d take away my camera,” replied Carrie.

“How tall are you, Lizbeth,” asked the singular twin.

“Thirty-nine inches,” I proudly stated. From the corner of my eye, I could see Carrie shifting her weight back and forth as I spoke, but I was just happy to be acknowledged by someone who wasn’t being forced to speak to me. “I’m very small for my age. In fact, I’m the smallest in my class. Most people who see me think I should be in pre-school. I’m also very good at running, following directions, hide and seek, counting backwards, and making owl noises.”

“Perfect. Absolutely perfect. You wanna do something important, Liz,” inquired Sammy.

“It’s Lizbeth, and absolutely. I’m very good at doing important things because I’m very trustworthy. I’m also very good at spelling things and remembering big words.”

“I believe it. I bet you’re also really brave.”

“The bravest.”

“She’s not actually brave,” interjected Carrie. “She can’t watch The Never-Ending Story without crying and she hates Scooby Doo.” 

Sammy and I both glared at her.

“Are you brave enough to go in the playhouse,” asked the twin. “The one behind Sammy’s—”

“Oh, I know which one it is,” I said. “I’ve been there before. In fact, I go there all the time.” 

“You’re lying,” Carrie hissed.

“I’m not,” I hissed back. I was.

“It doesn’t matter if she’s lying or not. If she’ll go in the playhouse then she’ll go in the playhouse,” said Sammy. He had seemingly managed to make a backpack appear out of thin air and was now filling it with a box of crayolas and a bumblebee notebook. “Hand me your camera, Figteeth.”

“Sammy, I’m not about to—” 

“Camera. Now.” My sister reluctantly handed over her most prized possession before moving to sulk in a corner. 

“Listen, Lizbeth,” said the boy as he turned to face me. “We’re going to drop you off by the playhouse, alright. You’re gonna go in there, camp out for a few minutes, and try to see if you can see the thing that’s been taking our stuff. We’re giving you a camera and a notebook. If you can, take a picture of it. If you can’t, draw it. Simple stuff. Got it?” I nodded. “Good. Let’s go.”

By the time they took me to the playhouse, it was already well past noon. Sammy and Carrie were the only two that accompanied me the entire way. The other children had formed an informal funeral procession for me that steadily diminished the further we walked into the woods. When we arrived at the playhouse, the two older children informed me that this was as far as they were going. I was to stay in the playhouse until the sun started going down. After that, I would go back to the treehouse to give them a progress report. They left and I entered the structure.

The playhouse had seen better days. Its wooden floors were rotted, its pastel paint faded. The entrance that led to the kitchen was adorned with various weeds and vines while the gingham curtains that hung from the four visible windows were spotted with holes and discoloration. A doorway that led to a bedroom was partially blocked by a once-purple cabinet that had fallen to the ground and various plastic cutlery was strewn across the floor.

 I began to walk deeper into the building when I stubbed my foot on something sharp and plastic. At my feet was the infamous model of He-Man’s greatest adversary. Waterlogged and covered in leaves and bitemarks, Skeletor had seen better days. I had picked him up and was examining the damages when something caught my attention from the corner of my eye. Standing to the right of me, right in front of the fallen cupboard was a large, gray, furry creature that nearly tripled me in size. Its white head tilted to both sides as it stared at me and twitched its long pink nose. My fingers loosened around the figure as the creature’s gray and pink tail hovered above the fallen furniture.

“Hello,” I said. Large, glassy, black eyes gawked at me as I slowly put the action figure down onto the ground and tried to rebury it with my foot.

“Hello,” the creature responded. It slowly shuffled towards me as I tried to speed up the burial process. 

“My name’s Lizbeth,” I squeaked. “I’m just here to drop some stuff off. I don’t want to bother you or anything.”

“You’re very small,” it said.

“That’s very rude.”

“I’m sorry,” said the creature. It was about two feet away from me at that point. I halted my attempt at concealing the action figure and tried to stand my ground. The creature’s matted fur resembled the carpet that my grandmother purchased for my dad’s den and smelled like sewage infused with spoiled leftovers from a creole restaurant. 

“It’s okay. I forgive you. My name is Lizbeth.”

“Yes, I heard you the first time.”

“Oh.” We stared at each other in silence for a while before I spoke again. “Do you have a name?”

“Maybe.”

“Oh.” More silence. “Do you live here?” I inquired.

“I suppose.”

“Oh.”

“Are you the one that’s been taking all of the stuff around town?”

“I could be.”

“Oh. Did you eat the dog?” I asked. 

The creature just shrugged. “I don’t know what that is.” 

I nodded and took the bumblebee notebook and a brown crayon from my backpack. The creature watched attentively as I drew nine circles and a face. When I was done, I passed the finished product to my conversation partner. I stared as its vacant, beady eyes scanned the blue-lined piece of paper for any trace of recognition. One set of fleshy fingers nervously traced the wax-based shapes as the other curled tightly around the parchment. 

“So, did you do it?”

“Maybe. I do a lot of things.” The creature handed me the notebook and walked over to the window. “Do you like living here?” Its long, fleshy fingers caressed the frayed gingham drapes before drawing them back to peek outside

“In the playhouse?”

“Do you live in the playhouse?” The creature looked alarmed. 

“No.”

“Oh. I didn’t think that you did.” Overgrown yellow toenails lightly scratched against the rotted floors as the creature nervously shuffled its feet. “I don’t remember ever seeing you before, so I would have felt bad if you had lived here the whole time and I hadn’t noticed.” I nodded and started sketching. “But do you like living here? In the woods? Or do you live somewhere else?”

“I live somewhere else. Near the woods. In a real house.” I said as I tried to compose an abridged blueprint of my home in crayola. “We have lights… and a refrigerator… and a bathtub.”

 “That’s nice.”

“It is. Do you like living here?” I was met with a shrug.

“Sometimes. I like when I find tiny things in the rooms under there,” it said as it motioned to the cupboard under a miniature, yellow rotted sink. It shuffled to the blue-lined doorway and ducked inside. I continued my masterpiece. 

“I have some here,” said the creature as it reappeared from the doorway, cradling a plethora of shiny baubles, single earrings, miniature cars, and sticky candies in its arms. It brought them over and laid them out on the floor before me. We quietly picked through and examined each trinket, unwrapped and tasted every candy before it spoke again. “A lot of people like you come through here just to leave these. I always mean to thank them, but they usually leave before I can get to it… I’m also very shy.”

“That’s okay. I’m shy too,” I replied through a mouth full of tootsie rolls. “I mean, I might be. I like to talk to people, but my sister says that I’m shy. I don’t know if that’s really true though. Sometimes I think that she says it so our friends won’t try to talk to me.”

“I see.”

“Are you lonely?”

“Sometimes. Not right now, but sometimes.”

“Then you should go to Mr. Leeroy’s.” I began to gently nudge at the leaf-covered Skeletor. 

“Is that one of your friends?”

“No. Well, yes. But no. It’s the toy store in town. The guy that owns it, Mr. Leeroy, he’s really nice. He always talks to you and gives you suckers when you buy stuff. And all of my friends go there, so you could go and see them and then you probably wouldn’t be lonely anymore.”

“Oh,” said the creature. “That sounds nice.”

“Yeah. You can get one of these,” I said, motioning to the half-buried action figure. “Not this one, because it’s Sammy’s, and I need to bring it back, but maybe you can find one like it.”

“I like that one,” replied the creature. It reached out towards the toy and pulled it from its hiding spot. I winced as I imagined Sammy’s reaction to my new acquaintance claiming his beloved Skeletor as its own but quickly whooshed the mental image away once I saw my conversation partner caress the piece of plastic in its hands. 

“I mean, you could probably keep this one. Carrie told me that Sammy’s dad got him a go-kart for Christmas, so he’s probably rich. I heard that we’re going to try to buy him a Beast Man toy for his birthday anyway.”

“Do you think they would like me?”

“My friends?”

“Yes.”

“Probably.”

“Then Mr. Leroy’s sounds very nice. I suppose I could come out for that.”

“I think you should,” I said. Our shadows grew bigger along the wall as we spoke for a little while longer. The conversation wasn’t particularly good, but I grew rather fond of the creature’s presence. When I noticed that it was growing dark, I informed the creature that I had to be going.

“Will you come back,” it asked.

“I will. We’re friends now, you and me. Buddies forever, pals until we die. That sorta thing.”

“That’s nice. I’ll wait to eat the rest of the stuff until you get back then. Goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” I repeated as I waved and left. When I met the others back at the treehouse, they asked me if I had seen anything. I told them that all I found was a bunch of unopened candy, but that I was sure that we would find something eventually. Sammy looked unimpressed, but Carrie was relieved to get her camera back. 

Two days later, a giant mound of gray and crimson fur was found splayed out on the road between the Shipley’s and Leeroy’s Toy Store. People would drive out of their way gawk and theorize about what it was. The adults said it was a bear. The kids said it was a werewolf. After a few weeks of rumors and speculations, the city closed the road off so that some guys in long cars could gather what was left of the carcass and take it off for examination. 

Before they took it away, Sammy held a meeting in the treehouse to plan a pilgrimage to the scene of the crime. Carrie said she would bring her camera to take pictures. I didn’t go because I didn’t want anyone to see me cry, but I still have the mangled Skeletor that Carrie brought me back as a souvenir.

Hannah Rovska-Strider (she/her/hers) is a queer fiction writer and MFA candidate at Stony Brook University. When she’s not writing about giant talking animals, she can often be seen walking the beaches of Long Island at 11pm, looking for sea glass and ruining the nights of young couples who just want to snog on the beach uninterrupted. She can be found on Instagram and Twitter at @Toadsoup_ and @Toad_soup, respectively.

photo by Chris Cooper (via unsplash)

Two Poems—Lucia Larsen

The siren call of spores

collapsing a thousand times over, on playgrounds, faking
an aneurysm for mourners, in basements, play-acting a

mummy in a sarcophagus of mould, waiting to be unearthed,
across graveyards, a mime rehearsing rigor mortis, becoming

an addict of boundaries, the kind capped in amber bottles, taken
under the tongue, smeared across mottled skin, again and again

subsumed by newly dug earth to manifest my petrification,
edging the temptation of solidity, I become a peep show

for fungi, but breaking the barrier of the one-way glass, they
gather around my clogged ears and whisper horror stories

of decay with the lilt of a worshipper, evoking detritus that 
explodes into a thousand different flavours on your tongue, 

grit that disperses into a thousand different textures across your skin,
rot that settles into a thousand different aromas under your nose, 

they summon an existence where the colours race through us, 
unlined and restless, and where our insides flicker through 

moulds, morphing through masses, they threaten me with 
decomposition, the enemy of my bottled vice, the antithesis 

to a congealed sense of self, over-powering the sweet draught
of rigor mortis, will I be anyone at all, or will I be, dare I say it, 

so much that it cannot be spoken, or tasted, or smelt, or unearthed, 
will I become too much even for myself, and will I then be reborn as 

an addict of dissolution?

The day my awe grew wings

joints crackle
jumping out in jolts

a leap of faith from marrow to
the very edge of my breadth

arms snap to attention
saluting against the slab 

of heat trickling up my spine
twisting a wiry mould out of bone

elastic woman expanding
elastic woman with eyes

open so wide it swallows me
devouring the limits of my birth

until pupils leak into iris 
get caught on the wind

an inky darkness spilling over
my outstretched and static body

pooling at my feet
rolling across the land

cradling the whole earth
saturating the soil

until the only darkness you know
are my wide eyes

and their
boundless wings

Lucia Larsen (she/her) is currently studying for her MSc in Environmental Management at the University of Stirling. Her published work can be viewed at linktr.ee/lucialarsen and she can be found on Twitter @mslucialarsen.

photo by Zhen Hu (via unsplash)

Three Poems—Olivia Hodgson

Two

At four, a shot of birds breaking the night’s 
shell. At five, your nose lifts to the gold-glint 
 
behind the curtain; a chorus of dust  
above sways in and out of existence. 
 
The morning still fresh in the craters left  
by the fox’s paw. Trade an exhaled breath 
 
for daylight hiding in fabrics, for prints 
of trees, their shadows amok on the sheets. 
 
Can a roof cave with the weight of shifting  
birds, they too bereft of touch? Imagine 
 
their figures, neat as aligned archways 
bleached verdant in the eight o’clock sun.  
 
Could you bear to place a hand on the heat  
of a shoulder doused in feather? Would you 
 
carry my elongated bones, the core  
of me scattering soot and salt to my 
 
 new chromosomes? Gather the afternoon: 
soothe the feeling of a bolt through half-sleep, 
 
the feeling of a room you have just left. 
Ease my wing, steady my beak to the sky: 

the quills on my back draft a star map,  
our bodies racing for a canopy 
 
beyond the tile and leaves and dissolving 
carmine sky. I know the feeling of eyes 
 
pressed shut against my back when we skim close 
to oceans, the core of you scattering  
 
to one before, behind, but never this –  
reluctant to our reflection, glossy 
 
in that strange water. Look, take this ancient 
warning when old tempting doors swing open: 
 
do not match the course of the sun and run.

Chime Hour

I bargain with the baby monitor
to guarantee my measure of silence.
Built with no beat in the heart, built so brazen,
folding a Friday into a suitcase
and nightmare. A berry in the lung,
stinging soft, bursting for a waking ear.
Slide the padlock open, stream through bricked,
arched snickelways, tender as hooks through meat.
I then place my fingers in your hand, small
as keys and fine as a cat’s incisor;
leak my form like oil over your bed.
No night in that fur, but tarmac; the deep
lead paint hidden in the meal of winter.
Grown from masonry, grown with an open
jaw: a place for a promise, a place numbed,
knocked and smithed for your sharpened tongue – your cry.
But when I come from that feather-green dark,
allow me some warmth, a forgiving prayer –
as the day revokes its nebulous twin
with the morning knell, think of me like lambs,
in that this shepherd will fleece and kill them.

The Curiosities of Grief: An Exhibition

Be softer here: it comes, grass-cool, unlocked 
when the intimacy of necessity demands.  
Its keys are lint from pockets dug under nails 
during the eulogy; or hair, snipped and wrapped, 
kept in an envelope creased under the pillow 
of the lover left sleeping. You’re offered tea, 
perhaps, to distract from the scalding walls 
on which, pinned, you’ll find the curiosities. 
 
It rises from the soft flesh of the garden: 
a small, sudden universe. Sometime after  
the condolences pile thin like glass on the mat; 
sometime before the memory shrinks  
to a cracked seed. This building felt your need, 
your weight, the change in pace when you 
were lifted from the bed to the pooling red of the door. 
Enter slowly, no whispers will be heard. Here: 
 
an umbilical peg, powder-blue and warmer still 
than a late-June sky. And then, bed sheets, grown 
thick with arterial blood, rising  
to a bleached, bruised smudge: reaching, 
like bubbles from a sinking man. Marvel 
at how small the bell jar is that captured a slumbering 
starless dark. Take note of the empty fingers, the flint, 
the car still heavy from the lake.  
 
Don’t be dissuaded, smaller pities will too ensure admission –  
a watch that smashed and became the scree within the wrist  
from which it wandered. The fae’s shadow you traded  
for a safer, yet lonelier, saunter home. The corner 
of the husband’s letter; the struck match that lit the hob. 
Be warned here: you too will add quiet sobrieties,  
lit by nothing but the lightbulb-burn from your bones.

Olivia Hodgson completed her MA in Creative Writing at Birmingham City University where she won The Mercian Prize for Poetry. She was shortlisted for the Wolverhampton Literature Festival Poetry Prize 2021 and was included in Secret Chords: The Best of The Folklore Prize anthology. Her poetry and short fiction have been published in The Coffin Bell, Dreich (forthcoming), The Honest Ulsterman, Littoral Press Magazine, The Lyrical Aye, Strix and Wild Court. Her first collection of poetry, The Calls, is forthcoming from Blue Diode Press.  

photo by Ömürden Cengiz (via unsplash)

The Serials of Rasmont Road—Lena Kinder

“What do you think, Wendy?” Laura asked as she twirled her pencil eraser in her mouth and wrinkled her forehead. “‘Rots slow’ and its got seven letters.” 

Wendy rubbed against the entryway before lifting her leg and licking her butt. Coffee burst from the tiny nozzle, and the smell of fresh caffeine filled the air. The telephone rang. And Laura ignored its chime. 

“Yeah, you’re right.” Laura tossed the newspaper and dropped five spoonfuls of sugar into her mid-morning coffee. “It’s probably something stupid, anyway. Like bananas or animals or—now don’t give me that look!” 

Wendy stretched with slanted eyes before strutting out of sight. 

“Shit,” Laura sighed. “I didn’t mean it like that, and you know it.” 

She held her cup to her lips and felt the steam opening her pores. She wondered how many blackheads she had and if this counted as a facial. She took a sip and heard a bubbling croak. Laura searched the kitchen table, pushing past piles of newspapers and looking in half-empty coffee mugs. 

“Hello there,” Laura said, lifting a cup with webbed fingers gripping its edge. “Let me guess, a fluffy dame kidnapped you, didn’t she?”

The frog croaked. 

“Thought so. Well, don’t you worry. I’ve got an escape route right here.” She opened the kitchen window, setting him on the ledge. “Now, if I were you, I wouldn’t come around here anymore. Reptiles, amphibians, rodents—you all just don’t last. Not around here anyway. You get what I’m saying?” 

The frog’s black eyes watched her for a moment, then he leapt away, vanishing in green blades. Laura heard knocks on the front door. She just knew it was her neighbor—Faye—who was unquestionably the culprit of the ten o’clock phone call. Laura turned on the kitchen faucet, pretending not to hear, washing the frog’s cup one, two, and three times. Still, the knocking grew louder. 

“Excuse me,” Faye yelled. “Ms. Villers, your cat did it again!” 

Laura turned off the water. 

“What did she do, Faye?” Laura called. 

“You know what she did, and if she does it again, I’ll have the Association take care of it.” 

“Will you?” Laura walked to the door and held her hand on the knob. “What would they do, do you think? Like they have any competency to begin with.” She could feel Faye twisting the copper handle. 

“I – I don’t want to call them,” Faye said, the knob twisting faster as she spoke. “But I will. Carcasses on doorsteps? There are children in this neighborhood. What if one of them saw? What would their parents think? What would the schools think? Do you know what kind of neighborhood this could turn us into?” 

“Carcass!” Laura opened the door, and Faye nearly fell inside. 

“What?” Faye stumbled back, and she straightened her Sunday hat. A large, frilly thing. Laura never went to church. But if she did, she knew she’d find Faye sitting in the front row, obstructing followers from some sort of salvation. 

“Don’t be. I think you just solved fifty-four down.” Faye gawked at Laura for a few very long moments, then finally, she shook her head. 

“Look at what your cat did.” Faye violently pointed down. Laura followed: a frog lying belly up, bled out on her cement step. 

“My vet says it’s a present,” Laura said, lifting the frog—by what she figured was its toe—and held the green body between them. “I’m not so sure, though. We’ve hit a bit of a rough patch, spats, and such. You understand, I’m sure.”

“I always knew there was something wrong with you—but this! I mean, do you think this is funny?” Faye asked, her thin lips pressed together until they reddened. “Dead things out where everyone can see them?” 

“Oh, of course not.” Laura smiled and tossed the frog into the yard. 

“Oh my God,” Faye said, mouth gaping. With protruding eyes, she watched the grass where the ‘dead thing’s’ leg poked out. 

“Don’t worry,” Laura continued before her neighbor could collect herself. “The kids will probably think it’s a blade of grass, and by next week I’ll have the yard cut! It’ll be gone—in a way—by then.”      

Nearly breaking her neck, Faye snapped back, and with a little wave, Laura shut the door.

The next morning Laura stirred her coffee and scribbled on her notepad, marking out old words and writing down new possibilities as she continued her crossword puzzle. Right as thirty-nine across tip-toed in her mind, several thuds came from her front door. 

“Oh, Wendy! What did you do this time?” Laura said, her concentration broken. “Just a moment, Faye!”

The house became silent. Laura scratched her brow, her eraser now gone, and squinted her eyes at the newspaper. “A way to say goodbye,” she pondered aloud. “Seven again.”

The front door thumped.

“One more second!” Several loud thuds followed, and Laura threw her pencil. “I said wait,” she yelled as she wrenched open the door. 

No one was there. Well, not no one, not quite. Countless frogs hopped across her lawn and crowded around the green body, which lay rotting in the grass. 

“Excuse me, ma’am,” a croak came from below her. Laura peeled her eyes away from the commotion and looked down. A toad stood on its hind legs, holding a tiny golden badge in her direction. “I’m Agent Fowler, from the Bureau of Investigations. We’re sorry to bother you this morning, but there seems to have been a terrible incident.” The toad’s arm gestured towards the dried blood on the stoop.

 “Now, I’m certain you had nothing to do with this,” Agent Fowler said. 

Laura felt the toad didn’t look so certain. 

“But I felt it was my responsibility to ask, considering the situation.” 

“Situation?” Laura said.

“Yes, ma’am. There has been a string of homicides these past few months. Have you not heard?” Agent Fowler seemed stunned in disbelief. 

“I might have,” she began but trailed off at the sight of fluffy hair sticking out of Faye’s azalea bushes just across the street. “My neighbor mentioned something yesterday, but I haven’t seen a thing.” 

“Well,” the toad continued. “I’m glad to see someone is keeping you informed. However, it seems that murder has reached your front door, and I must ask—” cries wailed from behind him. 

“What’s happening over there,” Laura asked, as she peered in the direction of the dead frog. A small group of frogs dabbed their eyes as another shoveled dirt. Agent Fowler’s mouth dropped, and his long tongue rolled out in shock. “I mean – I mean, will they be okay?” 

“They’re burying a loved one.” The toad’s words came in slurs as he grabbed his tongue and rolled it back up into his mouth.

“Funeral.” Laura grinned, realizing the answer to number thirty-nine across.

“Yes,” Agent Fowler nodded uneasily; his beady black eyes watched her with intent. Laura could have sworn she heard a hint of accusation in his tone. “Well, I was hoping you could tell me if you saw anything unusual.” 

“Oh,” Laura knew she had to choose her words carefully. “Not at all. Of course, if I do, I’ll let you know. We wouldn’t want our neighborhood to be a dangerous place for kids to grow up. What would happen to the schools? Oh no – what would happen to our community?”   

The toad croaked happily and gave a kind “ah-ha!” and “right you are” at that. As he did, Laura watched Wendy sprint across the road and jump through the cracked living room window. Still, the felines reptilian diet had left her less agile in recent days. The window slammed shut just as tabby colored fur vanished.  

“What was that?” The agent asked. His long legs sent him flying through the air. “It nearly sounded like a gun-shot!”

“No guns here,” said Laura. “Just a faulty window.” 

“Ah, well, you might want to have that looked at,” the toad eyed her again, cleared his throat, and continued. “Is there a mister of the house?” 

“Oh, no.” Laura watched as the group of frogs lined up one-by-one in front of a tiny casket. A ribbiting eulogy began. “No men needed here.” 

“Let me take a look at it for you,” he perused. “And for payment, we could further discuss neighborhood safety over din—”     

“To tell you the truth,” Laura interrupted. “Something about the case just popped into my mind. There’s a Labrador who lives down the road, in a cul-de-sac, I believe. He’s keen on retrieving turtles. God only knows what he does with them. Although, I’ve seen several brown patches in the owner’s yard.” 

“Brown patches?” Asked the agent, scribbling down notes as he listened. 

“Yes, brown patches. The kind you see when the ground has been dug up, you know?” 

“I know the very kind,” the toad croaked. “I’ve seen pictures during training but never thought I’d come across them in the field. But why would a retriever leave his prey out in the open? I’ve never heard of a canine leaving behind his victims.”

“I wish I could be of more help to you,” Laura said. “I’m not a dog person myself.”  

“Well, thank you for your time,” he said, flicking his notebook shut. “I’ll have to follow this lead, so we will have to take a raincheck on dinner.” 

“Such a shame.”

“I hope the Bureau can catch the killer before they strike again. For the safety of the neighborhood,” he said, turning towards the crying group of frogs as the undertaker buried the casket two-feet down. “And for the families of the victims.” 

Laura gave a nod in reply; she wondered if it was time for another cup of coffee.

“Well, it’s been a pleasure. I only wish we could have met under different circumstances, Ms—”

“Villers,” Laura answered with a smile. “I wish you the best of luck with your investigation and take your time with the funeral.” Laura shut the door with this and found Wendy lying on the couch, her tail flicking in the sun. “Now,” Laura began. “What am I going to do with you? Are baths called for in matters of murder?” 

The telephone rang.  

“You’d better answer that,” Wendy replied. 

Laura held the phone, imagining her neighbor—dressed in a nightgown, twirling a long seafoam-green telephone cord between her fingers. The image was always the same. 

“Faye,” Laura said, picking up the receiver, glad to have had the first word. 

“I told you so!”    

Lena Kinder is a writer, recently graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi. She hails from the suburban wilderness of Eagle River, Alaska, discovering her craft under the midnight sun. She is an enthusiast of the strange and meets her characters in the oddest of places. Her other works can be found in Prometheus Dreaming and Quest Log. Forthcoming tales will appear in the Sucarnochee Review.

photo by Thomas Oxford (via unsplash)

most fairy tales are pretty grim but they still ride us—Jane Ayres

sky / knucklebone thick / twisting
clouds / mellow-matted / skimming
skinning / bronzed sun / coppering 

henna-draped ravens / cloaking 
flayed crows / rows of stitched jelly
fish / pale eyelids / cracking 
red rock / chalky pinks / narrowing
the dull weight / expansive surrender

second thoughts / flayed / harvested
mimicking / ruptured silence 

playing with unformed ghosts is unwise 

spectral fisting / mulching the bitter kiss
meeting the fractured eye / unwedded bliss 

UK based neurodivergent writer Jane Ayres completed a Creative Writing MA at the University of Kent in 2019 aged 57. She enjoys Open Mic events, is fascinated by hybrid poetry/prose experimental forms and her work has appeared in Postscript, Dissonance, Ink Drinkers Poetry, Not Deer Magazine, Lighthouse, Viscaria, The Sock Drawer, Streetcake, The North, The Poetry Village, Door is a Jar, Marble, Agapanthus, Kissing Dynamite and The Forge.

photo by Kirill Pershin and Elia Pellegrini (via unsplash)

A Boy Called Strawberry—Emilia Joan Hamra

Teeming with tender electricity, his scalp became a playground for her bitten nails. That’s when he told her about the ceremony. He’d learned it from a bearded man with a gospel name, who’d learned it from a boy called Strawberry. 

The first step was confession—not of sin but of the weight of sin. The weight of dream. We’re all afraid of the tongue we dream in. But that tongue is our only tool. So they’d start out by talking, talking truth. Language to ruin language. Then he’d have something to show her. Something that would change everything. Something to spread like petals of stolen white roses, something to spread like rebellion. Something to suck clean the cowboy horizon, to burn up our tyrants with alien bullets of starlight. Something unveiled and apocalyptically pretty. 

The ceremony. She wished he would explain it more. But how can you explain an abyss without color regulation? How can you explain the dream at the base of your spine?

Emilia Joan Hamra lives and teaches in Philadelphia. She studied Creative Writing at Arizona State University, has worked as a copy-editor for Four Way Books, and was the recipient of the national Norman Mailer College Poetry Award. Her work is published in Occulum, giallo lit, Recenter Press, Santa Ana River Review, the tiny, and others.

photo by Vincent Ledvina (via unsplash)

One For Sorrow, But Sorrow Sleeps—Hadassah Shiradski

The magpie wouldn’t go away, no matter how many times Baudelaire glared at it, or asked nicely. Baudelaire could only assume that it had found its way in by using the oak opposite her – the tree that had been old when Baudelaire had arrived was still living. Its branches arched over the entire forgotten courtyard and annually coated all in a shower: first of acorns, then fallen leaves. The snow would always follow, blanketing the paving stones, Baudelaire and bench in a stifling smother. 

Baudelaire saw them sometimes, the mice and corvids alike, and preferred both over the magpie that had shown up in an ungainly flutter and refused to leave. Instead of being sensible, like a raven or crow, it just hopped closer and closer on the bench, trying to provoke a reaction.

Go on, I dare you. I dare you, little girl.

It wanted the coins in the bowl that it – or was it she – kept at her feet. That much was obvious; magpies were thieves, and her skin had long since tarnished to the point of no longer being attractive to pesky birds. A relief; it had taken ages to remove droppings from her head, shoulders, and arms. The only shiny things were the thirteen coins, glinting in the snow that had collected in her bowl. The coins had been a present from her last visitor; she wanted to treasure them for their full value. That magpie was getting none of them, no matter what it thought. 

There hadn’t been many visitors lately; a shame, but not unexpected. In winter, her garden was too cold, too unwelcoming. Not many people knew of this place, and even fewer found the wherewithal to attempt entry through the twisted iron gate at the far end. She treasured every gift.

Baudelaire knew that one magpie meant incoming sorrow, but she didn’t want it to be hers. 

One for sorrow, two for mirth, three for – 

She didn’t know what three stood for; the inscription had become unreadable, and lowering her head to decipher the rest of it would take effort that she wanted to save, not to mention distract her from the one magpie that was sneaking closer and closer and closer. Clawed talons left twiggy imprints in the snow; in her peripheral vision, she saw the mist of displaced snowflakes drifting down between the bench slats.

You can’t prevent me from taking those coins. The snow’s slowed you, but I’m just fine. You couldn’t catch me if you tried. I dare you.

It was partially right, but she’d never admit that the arrival of winter had been to her detriment. The snow that had settled over her form would have been comforting in its softness, but this blanket sapped her latent strength and replaced it with an insidious lethargy that wound deep in her statuary, forcing her into slow slumber.

That blasted bird hopped yet closer and closer, cocking its head insolently, and jumped, flapping its sleek wings and swirling up a flurry of settled snow until it was perched on her frozen arm.

Not gonna stop me? Oh wait, you can’t. Or rather, you don’t dare.

With that, it slipped down to the book in her lap and strolled across the pages to squat on the far edge, ignoring the scratch of talons on sculpted brass. It waited there for a moment and Baudelaire fought to act now, through the seeping stillness, but –

Too slow! Ha, too slow!

It teetered and fell from the open book just in time, spiralling down like a sycamore leaf. She felt feathers brush against her shins and heard the infuriating scrape of claws against metal, the thump of snow falling onto more snow. It had reached the bowl, then.

A fresh bout of snow began to drift down from the grey skies above; adding another layer of down to her blanket, dusting the exposed rim of a newer coin with frosted, frozen white.

The bowl at her feet was half-hidden by the furthermost edge of her open tome, but she could still see some of what laid there.

The black beak poked and prodded at the gifts, impudently tossing the snow into puffs of frozen cloud. Two oak leaves, brown and long-dead, cracked and split under the talons, the fragments scattered, the mouse skeleton underneath gaining a new comforter of snowflakes. A warning and an offering wrapped up in one tiny, curled frame, ignored in favour of the closest coin. 

An irritated chik-chik, a frustrated ruffle-snap of wings, and the magpie shuffled a bit to try again, yanking fruitlessly on the coin that had adhered to the brass when the ice had come. That beak was sharp enough to chip away the ice, but to Baudelaire’s delight, it instead leaped up her lap to screech in her face and stamp its stupid feet, opting to harangue and berate instead of persist with stealing the coin.

Unfair, girl! A dare’s a dare and you weren’t playing properly. Cheat –

The brass book slammed shut with a screech of metal. Cut off in the middle of a self-righteous, scurrilous stretch, a black-and-white flight feather drifted down from the dust of the magpie’s wing-tip to join the carcass and the coins.

Baudelaire did dare, magpie. She’d been trying to call your bluff the entire time you taunted her – you’d been too slow to spot her sanguinity.

Too slow. She creaked her book open again. The only sign of the magpie was a mound of crushed bone, quickly freezing in the spine of the book, and a third tally mark near where her right-hand thumb rested on the page.

One for sorrow, two for mirth, and the third made… 

Well, the snow was falling thicker now. She had no hope of reading the rest, even if she hadn’t just spent her reserves on that magpie. Maybe another visitor would come along soon, and read the rest of the poem to her.

She was so very tired.

Hadassah Shiradski (she/her) is a bisexual horror writer from Hertfordshire, UK, who graduated in 2020 with a BA (Hons) in Creative Writing and Philosophy. She has a love of gothic fantasy, quiet horror, and folklore, and tends to fixate on horror puzzle games. Her ramblings can be found on her twitter, @DassaWrites.

photo by Natasha Miller (via unsplash)

a place—Vic Nogay

a place by the canal sells frozen custard.
you sit in an old canoe,
washed ashore decades before,
and lick your drips
while cicadas sing
and fireflies hang in the humidity—
a summer snow globe.

you’ve heard the stories of the kids who’ve fallen in,
and you’re careful not to be reckless,
but some days you inch down
the concrete wall to find them.
you shed your shoes and rest
just the soles of your bare feet
on the surface of the water,
and call,
like magnets,
the pieces of their bodies logged in water’s memory
to you.

when someone asks you cheekily: do you believe in ghosts?
you flinch because you do.

Vic Nogay is a proud Ohioan, writing to explore her traumas and misremembrances. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Lost Balloon, Emerge Literary Journal, perhappened, Versification, Ellipsis Zine, and others. She tweets @vicnogay. Read more: linktr.ee/vicnogay.

photo by Chris de Tempe (via unsplash)

Secrets of the Mole People—Jennifer Crow

Never look directly at above-ground folk—
they carry light with them, light that burns
the eye and sears the soul. Never wander
too close to their deep, clattering machines
and their shouting mystics. They dangle
little boxes of magic as bait, and drag our kin
screaming into the aching glow of day.

Beware the rat swarms, hungry and sharp-edged
as a knife stolen from an unwatched bag.
they teach us the dangers of a unified will
unfettered by heart-debt, a lesson learned
in bloodied tooth and whipping tail. Respect
the rat, carrier of disease and wisdom,
as you respect the ancients of our own people.
watch how they move, patterns of fear
and reckless need, and make their dance your own.

Follow scent where no light reaches, dark passages
carved out of the world’s bones, redolent
of sewage and old cooking oil, bodies living
and dead, fungi and crumbling basements.
Scurry into the deepest shadows, listen for whispers
falling through storm drain and grating
like the chant of a wizard calling down dark fire
on the homes of the unwary. 

Our shamans and wise women, dressed in soft
layers, wizened and unwelcoming, eye each child
in turn and tell them some unwanted truth. 
The sun seeks to burn us—best to prepare early, harden
skin and soul, contemplate all threats bright
and beautiful, ruby gems falling from the wound
in the earth where we have hidden ourselves.

Shy and nocturnal, Jennifer Crow has rarely been photographed in the wild. It’s rumored that she lives near a waterfall in western New York. You can find her poetry on several websites and in various print magazines including Asimov’s Science Fiction, Uncanny Magazine, Liminality and Kaleidotrope. She’s always happy to connect with readers on her Facebook author page or on twitter (@writerjencrow).

photo by Clarence Ominus (via unsplash)