033. A Shanghai Elevator. Joseph Corey

I closed the old door to my cube on the eighteenth floor – late for work. A shuffle echoed down the otherwise empty hall while I paced to the elevator. A kuài dì stumbled onto the floor by the lift waiting area, landing on his face. His blue helmet clanked on the floor. But the kuài dì, or express delivery man, managed to hold his arms straight forward, careful not to spill the warm contents of the plastic bag he held.

I pressed the down button. He stood up, then paced around in circles while we waited for the slow machine to heave itself up 18 stories. “Nǐ zài nǎli?” he yelled, not to me, but into his earpiece. Where are you?

“Eh?” The kuài dì turned to me. “Zhè shì sān hào lóu ma?”

“Bùshì. Zhè shì èr hào lóu.” This is tower two, not three.

“Ah!” He spoke into the phone, too fast for me to grasp, then stood silent. 12.

14. I asked what was in the bag. He glanced at me, then muttered, “jī ròu hàn bǎo.” Chicken hamburger. I made some sort of sound of interest, then stared at the elevator doors. 17. 18. Ding.

In the elevator, he stood on the left side by the LED ad screen that ran a loop of commercials. The smeared floor reeked of metallic mud and sweat, but the stink blended with the chicken hamburger, which by now was probably a bit soggy in its paper box, yet my empty stomach ravened for it anyway. No time to eat breakfast.

The lift stopped at 13. The kuài dì checked the time on his phone, leg jittering, sending vibrations into the elevator floor and up my feet. A humming lady came in holding her white, puffy poodle which had dark red stains around the eyes. I always wondered where the rusty stains came from.

Another pause at eight, but no one there. The kuài dì jammed the close button about seven times. The poodle lady glanced at him, then at the advert on the screen in front of him – some pretty Chinese actress eating a yogurt on a rooftop.

“Wéi?” He spoke again in his earpiece. He talked rapidly, too much for my rather low Mandarin level. But I knew. His voice raised. He pleaded, he begged, but he was too late with the chicken hamburger. He cried and smacked a hand on the LED screen, right in the smiling face of some basketball player promoting an English school. My English school.

The man let out a single sob down toward his feet. The poodle growled. The man then faced the elevator doors, quiet, like nothing happened. We must all save face.

I almost gave the man a hug. I wanted to, I half-lifted an arm up toward him, but the doors opened, and he stepped into the lobby.

I did the same; I was late for work.

032. Cannot Touch. Julia Gerhardt

The sheets have to be bleached, that’s for certain. 

I watch him from the end of my bed staring at his fingernails, knuckles at his nose. “Need a manicure?” I joke, naked. I pull the sheet to my chest.

He shrugs and lets his arms hang in surrender to my impending inspection.

I slide toward him on my stomach like a seal.

* * *

I swam every day at the Santa Monica pool, lap after lap after lap, attempting to get to know my body better.  My friends told me the best whole-body work outs were yoga, pole dancing, and swimming, so I chose the least sexual of the three. I started swimming after college and continued for two years until the incident.

Like usual, when I had tired, I stopped in the center of my lane and curled myself into a fetal position, floating in the water. The residual energy of my butterfly strokes carried me with a lull and bob of kinetic motion.

* * *

Under his nails are thick lines of brown and red. I feel an instant ball of guilt. I place his hand down and stare up at the ceiling and it makes me feel worse, gazing at something so unaffected. I look back to his nails, ashamed for having marked him with streaks of something so earthy and hidden. I thought it was my lighter day, but the evidence is damning. 

* * *

Under the water, I pretended the heartbeat in my ears was a rhythm, pitter-pattering across the surface.  In my stomach, I felt a small eddy of nausea expanding and tugs from cramps.  I squeezed my legs to my chest, tighter.

* * *

I put my hand down over his and close my eyes. It’s not just the desire for sex that weighs on me, but the longing for it during a time where I feel my body is operating without me. A leaking faucet with no handles. How often do I exist with so little control? 

* * *

I exhaled what little breath I had left from my nose. Through blurry vision, the obscured bubbles rose to the surface as I sunk, my knees gently hitting the bottom of the pool. I longed for my body to stay there, but from the corner of my eye, I saw it: a thin, red rivulet, rising.  My feet kicked the floor and I burst up out of the water, my mouth and nostrils wipe and open, inhaling.   

* * *

He moves his hand out from under mine and brushes my hair back.

I curl my knees to my ribs and slide back until my head rests against his chest. “I’m okay,” I whisper to the hairs around his nipple.

“You are,” he says.

 I place my head over his heart and listen to the pumping of blood I cannot touch.

031. Eating Her Words. Diane Arrelle

Jack ran for his life.

Without missing a step, he looked back at the bean stalk reaching into clouds.  He clenched the golden harp in his hand and listened to the golden eggs bumping each other in his knapsack.

Finally, he stopped running to catch his breath, amazed that he’d made it down the stalk so far ahead of the giant.  He stood, panting, the sweat soaking his clothes, and he heard the mocking voice of his mother echoing in his mind. “You traded the cow for beans! I must have turned a trick with an idiot the night you were conceived.”

He remembered how she had thrown the beans out the window and how she’d told him that he was dumber than dirt, how he’d never amount to anything, how she should’ve seen that specialist at the edge of the woods the moment she found out she was with child. 

Well, she’d eat those words now, he thought as the gold harp gleamed red in the sunset. Oh, yeah, he remembered, she’d never eat anything… ever again. He thought about her body back in the shack they’d lived in and the axe he had used to shut her up.

The axe! He started running again until he reached home.  Avoiding the largest coagulating puddles on the warped wooden floor, he grabbed the axe and ignored her crumpled form.  He was no dummy, he thought with grim satisfaction. He’d showed her.

He ran back outside and looked up at the giant ass and legs descending the huge swaying stalk. Swinging the axe, he chopped at that oversized vine making it vibrate wildly with each stroke. Then he stood there and watched as the giant lost his grip and plummeted down, realizing too late, he should have moved out of the way.

Jack woke. He was stark naked on a plate of sliced vegetables as a huge fork shoved him from side to side. An incredibly loud voice bounced off the surrounding stone walls. “Stop playing with your food, you moron. I’ve told you a million times, humans spoil if they die. Now, stop playing, you dumb lout and eat your dinner. It’s bad enough you fell off that stalk and split your pants, too bad it wasn’t your head. Are you listening to me?”

Jack started to shake, until he looked up into the tear filled eyes of a preteen-aged giant. As their gaze met, the voice continued to berate the gigantic youth.  Jack whispered, “Wanna shut her up. Wanna make her eat her words?”

“Oh, God, yes!” the bigger boy sobbed.

Jack pointed to the poker next to the fireplace and smiled.  “I made my momma eat her words!”

“… and you’ll never amount to anything worthwhile, I swear you’re worse than your father!” the mother giant droned on.

Jack’s new giant friend put down his fork, nodded, and smiled back. 

When his mother turned her back to him, the young giant got up and headed for the fireplace.

030. Howler Monkeys. Jennifer Loring

I know you were worried about this trip, but don’t be. I’m doing great—doing everything I ever wanted to do. Everyone is happy here, and it’s so beautiful. Remember the time we went on vacation to Acadia National Forest, and we found that lake? The water was so clear that it mirrored the sky, and you couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began. That’s what the sky is like here.

(The world was not ready to let us live.)

We’ve built a real paradise here. There’s no racism, no hatred. Okay, it was a little weird at first, being in the jungle. Used to hearing traffic at night and instead huddling in our houses because of the horrible growls emanating from the darkness, as though we were surrounded by monsters. We learned later that they were howler monkeys. Once they quiet down, you hear the chirping of thousands of insects, bigger than anything you’ve ever seen at home. They get into our huts, like the cockroaches do back in the city.

(This is the last day of our lives.)

We work hard—grow our own food, build every part of our little commune. Well, not so little anymore! There’s over a thousand of us now. When the sun sets and work is over, we laugh and sing, and praise Father for everything he’s given us.

 (There is quiet as we leave this world. The sky is gray.)

Sure, I’m tired. Sometimes a little hungry. But I’ve never felt like I had a purpose before. Like I mattered before. We just want to live in peace. Please don’t believe the lies they’re telling about us—we’re here because we want to be. You should think about joining us; I bet you’d really like it here.

I love you, Mom. I’ll talk to you soon.

(I am ready to die now. Darkness settles over Jonestown on its last day on earth.)

029. Today's Project. Koji A. Dae

Today’s project is a potholder. Something simple. Easy. The constant cleaning and cooking and shouting not to hit or pinch has exhausted me. I need a win. The only thought a potholder requires is counting a chain of forty. Even that’s forgiving, and after the chain my hands can work without thought. Single stitch until the row twists over on itself and becomes a square. A simple magic of shape.

“Mom! I want milk.” Tanya’s shriek pulls my attention away from the yarn.

I stifle a groan and set my work down, the metal hook clinking against the wooden table. In the kitchen I pour her a glass of milk, reminding myself I’m at thirty-four stitches.

The teal yarn is mostly wool, and it scratches as it passes through my curved palm and over my index finger. I finish the chain and relax. My shoulders sink back against the pillows on the couch. They could stand to be fluffed and cleaned. The room, vacuumed. There are dishes in the sink. Always more to do. But not now.

A high-pitched scream sounds from the bedroom.

I pause in the middle of a stitch. Listen, breath held.

The scream shatters into breathless giggles.

The stitch slips, half a length shorter than those around it. I run my thumb over the imperfection and continue. There was a time when I would have pulled it out. Gone backwards.

“Mom, there was a puppet theater in school today!” Kason speaks in hesitations, struggling to find the right words, the first hints of a stutter forming.

I train my gaze on his messy hair and bright eyes as he relates the latest installment of the clever fox. The pattern becomes loose. Free. Each stitch takes up more space but has less substance. My tension fails as I try to grasp the threads of his story.

“Sounds like a fun show,” I say when Kason finishes. “Why don’t you go put together your puzzle?”

I turn my attention back to the potholder. Two rows of uneven, sloppy stitches. Just five years ago, I would have pulled them out. No. I wouldn’t have gotten distracted. Wouldn’t have made a mistake.

The evening stretches on with interruptions to play, to serve, to love. Each time I set down my project and tend to the children. Sometimes with irritation, other times with amusement.

By the time the alarm lets off the crystal chime, signaling the children to pick up their toys and me to draw their bath, the potholder is done.

I turn the square over. It’s not pretty. I couldn’t sell it. But I don’t want to. It’s a gift. I go to the nursery and lift the lid to Tanya’s hope chest.

“Oh, mommy, pretty.” Tanya lays her chubby fingers on the potholder. “Is it for me?”

“Yes, my dear.” I kiss her forehead and place the potholder in the cedar chest. It nestles in among snagged blankets and tablecloths with uneven embroidery—our story, told in imperfections.