049. One Last Kiss of Sun. Jeff Ronan

Ten

Every day I dream of the sun.

Nine

Sometimes, I’m on a cool, endless plain suspended in air, the bloody fingernail peeking over, flooding me with heat. Other times, I’m buried within the wet earth then push-push-push, slowly sprouting towards her light. Or I’m forever falling, suspended between planet and star, spinning – whirling – faster and faster as the flames lick my bleached bones clean. Always different. Always wonderfully, deliciously final.

Eight

Pollution…fallout…conspiracy…

Whichever you blame, no one has seen her through the dead leaf sky in over a century. Most people have never seen her at all, except in pictures and videos. But I, of course, am not most people.

Seven

The first time I worked up the courage, I forced myself to wait until noon. I crept out of my cave, papery flesh stretching and snapping back with each step. A gaunt nightmare of muscle and tendon. How long did I death march through the shade before I finally realized she was gone, the sky replaced by a muddy canvas, stretched taut? How long had I stood there, translucent eyelids blinking dumbly? How long had she been gone, without me even noticing that she’d left?

Six

I’ve drowned.

I’ve starved.

Even self-immolated, the closest I’d felt to her in ages.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve not died.

Five

When you don’t need to breathe, you’d be amazed at the places you can hide. Twenty identical containers, nestled together like fat robins under a rain-swept awning. I didn’t worry when they cracked mine open. I knew they couldn’t see me, buried deep within the grain.

Four

I remained frozen, even after we were loaded onto the ship. How long had I waited? Decades? Centuries? I could wait a bit longer. Ten months until we reach the colony. Ten months until I could feel her again, one last time.

Three

The last time I saw her, walking back home to my cottage against the setting sun, I’d shielded my eyes from her glare. Soon I would welcome her like the old friend she is, inviting her embrace to devour me whole.

Two

Everything starts shaking, and I can hear a booming voice begin the countdown. I slide within the grain as the world reverberates through me.

One

See you soon, old friend.

Blastoff.

048. Below the East River. Karen Schauber

We submerge below the East River in a deep dive connecting Brooklyn with Manhattan, the subway car agitating like a front-load washer. En route, I hold my breath trying for the full three miles—a test of my endurance and prowess. My lungs ballooning a little more each trip. I imagine I’m a brilliant artist inflating a polychloroprene poodle, yesterday it was a two-headed giraffe, tomorrow is still a surprise. It helps to pass the time, eccentric, maybe, but I’d rather conjure an interior circus mêlée then confront the crazies that travel this route. It’s jam-packed when the glass doors slide open and she sashays in. I inhale sharp, my heart pounding like pistons. Squeezing my eyes narrow, I effect a chiaroscuro haze. She is awash in dreamy grey tones of a Chinese watercolour landscape, her body curving like a willow. The connective tissue between morning and afternoon, now and then, her world and mine, almost tethered. I suck in deeper, holding my pose like Polykleitos’ Doryphoros, my hand going alabaster white as it grips the centre pole. She inches nearer as the car lurches forward and sideways in its tracks. We stand close like barnacles. I can smell hints of pink iris, white peony, fluffy musk, and jacaranda wood. Her fingertips lightly brush soft fallen bangs from across her eyes. We almost touch—every little thing she does is magic— every little thing is more than I deserve. She’s traveling without her guard dogs; the boys in skinny jeans, bare ankles and burgundy loafers. It’s my moment. I wonder if she sees me—artist extraordinaire, auburn corkscrew hair, clad in biodegradable Qualatex. I start to mouth hi except my lips cave like Xylocaine from full-on dental work. I’ve tried before to tell her of my feelings, but I lose my nerve as I have right from the start; my menagerie of inflatables taking up all the precious space between us. It’s mile two, and the time in between the seconds is shrinking. My breath is on the edge of collapse, ocular veins bulging from lack of 𝑂2. Mid-town coming up fast, and my stomach screams fail as I watch her slip away —and all I do is e-x-h-a-l-e; my veneer collapsing into a dysmorphic Francis Bacon portraiture.

047. A Gift for His Beloved, Post-Apocalypse. Wendy Nikel

YEAR ONE: PAPER

It was hard to find paper after the apocalypse. It burns so easily, you see. So when he discovered the single spiral-bound notebook in the abandoned factory, he tucked it into his pack before the other scavengers could see. He hid it for three months until their anniversary arrived, and when she opened it and saw its uncharred pages, she cried.

#

YEAR TWO: COTTON

She used to iron her blouses each day as she watched the morning news. Though she never complained about the stained sleeves or lost buttons that came with their new life, he searched every boarded-up department store until he found something in her size. It wasn’t until she buttoned it up that he realized how thin she’d become.

#

YEAR THREE: LEATHER

The city was no longer a haven, and on the road, they’d both have to fight. It was fitting, then, to give her gloves. They’d keep her hands from bleeding when they sparred. She sewed some broken bits of metal onto them and soon was a better scrapper than he was.

#

YEAR FOUR: LINEN

He’d thought it’d been difficult to find paper. Linen was practically impossible. In the end, he’d settled for a scratchy, burlap sack that smelled of mold and a promise to replace it with something nicer as soon as he was able.

#

YEAR FIVE: WOOD

He returned with two wooden boards slung across his back and an apology for the still-missing linen. When the boards were nailed into a cross and her initials carved, he wedged it into the cold earth and whispered his love… till next year.

046. Silver. Mark Rankin

Pinballs. The good ones; with real time flippers. What is it about this lost drunken art? The flair and exhilaration of persuading and caressing without tilting. Screaming symbols; tangible authenticity. The abandonment of ideals and aspirations beyond the violent satisfaction of meeting a careening and forceful object with a deft and timely retort.

And I knew an artist. Her name was Gregoria.

She had long black hair and pale Celtic skin. She had dragons, roses, and Mexican skull tattoos all over that pliable canvass; starting at her neck under her chin, they followed a languid spiral through her breasts, around to the small of her back, across her stomach, and then down the outside of her thigh to her calf. She took me dancing. I’ve never been a dancer. But she took me anyway. 

We would meet, consume equanimity, and then make a dollar last all day amongst the bells and lights. I would smoke while she racked up the credits, and ensure that the glass of vodka and tonic she placed on the drink board behind the machine never went dry. I once asked her ‘why never gin?’ She replied, ‘because there is vodka.’ When she beckoned me, I would take her place at the machine.

She would turn and smile, jaded green eyes glistening, and take a step back from the chrome, opening her palms towards the flashing metallic insignia of the backglass. I wasn’t great, but I understood the basics, and I was enthusiastic; the perfect foot soldier. I don’t really know what part I played, but I think it must have been of some import. As I would step up to the machine, she would brush by me, squeezing my hand or stroking my forearm, and then she would walk the length of the arcade, the coloured lights ablaze on her exposed skin, stopping along the way amongst the silver ball freaks, offering advice. And sustenance. Always with her red leather satchel; even when playing, slung over her shoulder. Whenever I held it for her it intrigued me how something so light could be so essential. Then she would be back. With her bag. ‘Let’s go dancing’ she would say, and I would always reply ‘but I’m not a dancer’. And then I was.

045. Merrybrook. Simone Schreiber

“Next stop, Merrybrook.”

The voice behind the announcement sounded forcefully cheerful, a harsh contrast to the sulking commuters stacked into the train like sardines in a can.

Edward’s heart fluttered in eager expectation. Merrybrook was his stop and the favorite part of his morning commute.

Helen felt a knot form in her stomach at the announcement. She feared Merrybrook station every day on her way to work.

He jumped off his seat like a love-struck teenager, not like the middle-aged businessman who resembled his worn-out leather briefcase.

She tried to sink further into her seat, hiding behind the book she had brought with her for this specific reason.

Edward pushed his way past row after row of seats, carefully shuffling past passengers he did not even take a second glance at. He tried to appear casual, slowly making his way to the door, while scanning each car for one specific person.

Helen had tried different things every day. Sitting by the doors, sitting far away from the doors, sitting with people, not sitting with people, standing, leaning, crouching, taking an earlier train, a later train—he always found her. Today she had picked the very last car on the train, hoping to avoid him that way.

When he saw her, his heart was hammering in his chest. She was sitting at the very end of the train, her nose deep in a book. Edward leaned against the doors a few steps away and took a good look at her: She was the same stunning image he harboured of her in his mind.

She had spent over an hour in front of the wardrobe this morning, trying to pick out something to wear. Was her bra showing under this blouse? Did this skirt reveal too much of her legs? Was there anything she could do to stand out less, to make herself invisible to him?

He loved how her white toes protruded out of her filigree leather sandals, how her nail polish matched her lip gloss, and how strands of her auburn hair fell over her porcelain neck where they had escaped the firm bun. He knew he was staring. He couldn’t help it—she was too beautiful.

Helen felt him staring at her before she saw him, a shiver running down her spine. The cold sweat on her neck felt frozen, like tiny shards of ice. She tried her best to focus on her book, reading the same paragraph over and over again, desperate to avoid eye contact, a nod, a smile, anything that might encourage him. Her stalker.

The train stopped. The doors opened. He got off. Edward stole one last glance at her from the platform, sculpting her image into the marble of his mind. He could not wait until tomorrow when he would see her again.

He finally got off the train, and Helen dared to breathe again. With shaking hands, she dialed the number of the police.