HOME ABOUT US SUBMISSIONS PUSHCART NOMINEES MASTHEAD ARCHIVES
 
The Tree Poachers by James Zerndt

     Norwood lets the digger warm up in the backyard. He’s never taken it up the mountain, doubts whether it can handle the elevation. Still, once everything is secure the tool box padlocked, the hydraulic lines bungeed, the four spades on the back collapsed into one another like a giant steel artichoke he eases the green beast off the lawn, over the curb, each wheel an elephant foot thundering into the quiet. The client had told him, “Be as discreet as possible.” Right.

     The kid, hung-over or not, better be ready because Norwood isn’t fucking around today. Four in the morning. Too old for this shit. Four goddamn hours of sleep. Coffee and a cigarette for breakfast. When he reaches Easy’s apartment, Norwood can’t bring himself to lay on the horn. Too quiet out. The sort of quiet that makes you feel guilty even when you aren’t doing anything.   

     The client called, asked him to do a job, and that was that. Norwood isn’t exactly sure about the legal fine print and he wants to keep it that way. Easy comes to the door, same clothes as last night, holding a mug of smoking coffee, smiling like he’s going off to camp or something. Behind him there’s a girl climbing into a pair of jeans, long t-shirt on, her back to Norwood. Lucky little bastard. Probably wasn’t a word mentioned about babies last night. Nothing like his night, hearing about ticking clocks, about shitting or getting off the goddamn pot.

     “You ready?”

     “Yes, sir.”

     “My ass. Just hurry it up.”

     They make an unlikely pair, what with Norwood having said goodbye to forty a few years back and Easy just now squeaking past twenty. There’s something about the kid though. A cockiness, or optimism, maybe a combination of the two. The privileges of youth, the ability to see adventure in nothing more than the inconvenience of paying rent. Norwood waits and when Easy climbs into the cab, it’s dark except for the light coming from the dash.  

     It’s a thirty-minute ride to the mountain in a car, but in the digger it takes upwards of an hour, at least. If Norwood gets her up past forty, the washing-machine like feel of the ride turns to mechanical bull.

     “You find her at the ‘Mo?” he asks, pushing it to forty-five just to poke at Easy’s hangover.        

     “Not bad, huh,” Easy says, his face pale, swaying over a mug of coffee. “I also took twenty off of Uncle Pat. Big guy scratched on the eight.”

     “Uh-huh,” Norwood says, and pulls out a Lucky Strike.

     They play softball with Uncle Pat, who isn’t anybody’s uncle as far as Norwood knows. The Alamo is the only bar in town with a pulse, however slight. Norwood still goes about as much as Easy, though he had his last drink over nine years ago, just before he moved to Gunnison. Somewhere after that he’d let himself become a local.

     “So what’s the plan? A transplant, right?”

     Norwood’s used to this, the stacking up of questions, makes it a rule to only answer the last one asked. “Pretty much,” he says.

     “Light’ll be here soon enough,” Easy says and sits back. He’s right. The light is coming, and even if Norwood can’t see it yet, he can feel it. Like a mood coming on.

     The digger labors up winding roads, past elk masquerading as junipers, or maybe dabs of burnt umber. No radio in the truck and even if there was, Norwood wouldn’t have it on. The truck’s already loud enough with the constant symphony of gears and rust.

     “Uncle Pat actually pay you?” Norwood asks.

     “Yeah. Told him I’d send you after him if he didn’t.”

     Not many others make fun of Norwood, because of his size, his over-blown reputation which is based largely upon the time he escorted a rancher out of the Alamo by his ear after he insulted Deana. It wasn’t that big a deal, but it still went down in Gunny-lore.

     “You eat yet?” Easy asks.

     “Nope,” and for a second he thinks of asking if Easy did, but he already knows the answer to that. It’s nothing short of a miracle the kid’s awake at all. “The W after?”

     “You buyin’?”

     “We’ll see.”

     Norwood’s about to add, “If we don’t end up in jail, I’ll buy you anything you want,” but there’s no need to excite the kid.

     Ten miles to Crested Butte, the ski resort another three miles up from there, but thank Christ they don’t have to go that far.

     “We goin’ straight into crusty butt,” Easy says, a little less pasty-looking now.

     “Yep.”

     “Whose home is it?”

     “Not a home. Restaurant.”

     He can see Easy looking at him sideways, then turning away, deciding not to pursue it. Good kid. He’s learning. Let things unfold. No need to worry until you have to. And maybe not even then.

     Still dark out, like somebody hit pause on the sunrise. Norwood barely recognizes himself in the rearview. Thick and solid, not handsome, just solid, a shovel-full of brown hair tamped down under a trucker’s hat, caterpillar moustache. His arms on the steering wheel are meaty, veins like worms burrowed into clay. Strong, not scrawny like the kid. Still, he can’t keep up with the girls Easy rakes in, a different one every week, all of them young, pretty. Norwood’s only got Deana now.

     “Grab me that,” Norwood says, pointing to a scrap of paper on the floor.

     Easy turns on the dome light, picks it up, reads, “Carol’s Crepes?” intentionally pronouncing it ‘creeps’ and hands him the paper before putting them back into darkness.

     “Don’t ask me. French or something.”

     Norwood learned long ago to dumb down his vocabulary. You hear somebody use a word like ‘crepe’ in Gunnison and it’s grounds for suspicion. He once used the word ‘redolent’ when referring to the stink of the bar and got looked at funny the rest of the night.

     “I need to do anything special once we get there?” Easy says, scrunching down, putting his boots on the dash, his knees cradling his chin.

     “Watch the cables. Keep ‘em clear. Fill the hole after.”

     “That it?”

     “And keep quiet. The less people know about this the better.”

     “Why? What’s the big deal?” Easy seems interested, but not very.

     “Let’s just say I don’t think this guy exactly owns the tree.”

     “You’re shitting me?”

     Now he’s interested. If Easy were a dog his ears would be perked, his ass wagging. He likes this sort of crap. Adventure.

     “No, I’m not shitting you.”

     “So we could, like, get busted for this?”

     “Just act like you belong and we’ll be fine.”

     “Can do.” Easy hugs his knees, shivers like he’s cold though the heat is blasting. “Hey, I just work here, right?”

     “Yup.”

     “So what’s the story? Who hired us?”

     “Her husband. Or ex-husband, not sure which.”

     “We’re poaching this Carol’s tree?”

     “And planting it in her husband’s front yard.”

     “And where might that be?”

     “Outskirts. South Butt somewheres.”

     “Killer,” Easy says, and Norwood knows what’s coming next. “I get paid extra for this?”

     “Nope.”

     “Norwood.”

     “You’ll get an extra foot up your ass if you fuck it up.”

     “I don’t fuck up.”

     “Not yet you don’t,” he says, the town coming into view, something made of cardboard, a stage set maybe, held in the palm of the surrounding mountains. It’s beautiful from a distance, like all towns, cities, people. Beautiful and comical. “Sure Easy,” he adds after a bit, long enough to throw the kid off.  “There’ll be something extra.”

****

     It takes a good twenty minutes to get the digger positioned properly, Easy signaling uselessly in the morning fog behind the truck, an apparition, Christ raising his hands to the heavens, beseeching. The wheels grunt up over the curb, then lurch down, sink into the grass. It’s only once Norwood turns the engine off that the quiet begins to assert itself.

     The weight of the digger leaves two trenches half a foot deep, the grass beyond fucked. Evidence. Easy is busy clearing away the area around the base of the tree, tossing bricks somebody put in as a sort of retainer wall.

     “Stack them, will you?” Norwood says, and Easy stops tossing them in front of the restaurant, though his smirk is at full throttle. “Thank you,” Norwood says, wanting to clip him in the back of the head with a stray brick.

     There needs to be a large enough berth to work in the spades. The sidewalk’s going to suffer, no getting around that. Collateral damage, but he’s already warned the husband. And the telephone wires, that’s going to be tricky. Nothing Norwood can do but hope the branches snap before bringing the current down. He stands to the side of the digger where the controls are, yanks on the hydraulic lines dangling like tentacles from the arm of the digger, and motions Easy to stop with the bricks, to man the lines and keep them from snagging. The digger’s similar to one of those crane machines with the stuffed animals, only more intricate. Easy keeps after him to teach him, but it’s not like the kid’s going to make a career out of landscaping. Once summer’s over, he’ll be back snowboarding full-time.            

     Norwood pulls a lever, watches as the first spade retracts. It’s loud, louder than he remembers it being. People have to be waking up, though there’s only the one light on across the street. Too bad, he thinks, deal with it. The second spade clangs, wobbles back and forth before settling itself alongside the other. Three and four follow suit, each taking an agonizingly long time. He thinks of them as fingers, fingers with long, retractable nails. It reminds him of something out of the X-men, like those steel blades of Wolverine’s.

     Once all four spades are in position, Norwood sways the giant arm toward the white birch, overshoots it, then brings it shuddering back. He pushes another lever and the hand snaps open like it’s going to tear the tree out of the ground and slash it to ribbons.

     “Grab the axe,” Norwood says. “I can watch the lines.”

     Easy stands behind the thirteen-foot birch, hands resting on top of a long-handled axe, turning his head every now and then, watching the street. He couldn’t look more suspicious.

     Norwood eases the arm forward, closes the spades around the bole of the tree, the trunk squarely in the middle. He walks over, checks to make sure things are aligned, then swings a latch shut, locking them in. He returns to the truck, paws down one of the levers and the circle of drawn spades lowers to the ground.

     “Cigarette time?” Easy says.

     “No.”

     A lot depends on the fist spade; if it slides in unhindered, the others might too. Norwood holds the lever down and it starts off decent enough, there’s that clean, damp sound that means the soil is good, the roots pliable. Easy gives him a thumbs-up, probably hoping for a good-sized root so he’ll get a chance to swing the axe. Sure enough, with the second spade, there’s the bad sound, a jigger sound where the whole arm begins to rattle like a jack hammer. Either Norwood’s hit a rock, or worse, a conduit of some sort, which could knock the electricity out for the whole town. Wouldn’t be too hard to figure out who was to blame. He pushes the lever up, eases the blade out, the black mud clinging like frosting, and walks over to see.

     “I’m on it,” Easy says. “Just say when.”

     Norwood squats, uses his Zippo to inspect the three-inch root, its skin scraped so only the white bone shows. It teems with frantic insects. Flatheads. Borers. Malignant, but treatable if sprayed with Malathion, the infected trunk wrapped in burlap. Might have a chance if they left it alone, but moving it’s a sure death sentence.

     Norwood takes the axe from Easy, notches one of the roots so Easy knows where to cut. “Got it?”

     Easy takes the axe, says, “Got it, Dad” and starts hacking away. 

     Dad. Norwood taps his shirt pocket, pulls out another Lucky, smiles when Easy gives him a dirty look. Dad. Every time he goes to the grocery store with Deana lately she stops and points out the kids’ clothes to him, the little bonnets or whatever they are, the footsies with the white rubbery soles on them that he remembers wearing as a child. Not once in a while, but every time now. “Oh, aren’t these cute!” Nod. Grunt. Get me the holy fuck out of here.

     Easy finally hacks through, the root hanging, amputated. Norwood sets the blade down again, works it in slowly this time without resistance, the smaller roots snapping like guitar strings. He maneuvers the tree by moving the arm back and forth, leaves falling, branches snapping, so that it finally loosens its grip on the soil.

     Two down, two to go. This is the tricky one. He’ll have to come down right through the cement sidewalk, get a clean break so only the one section gets messed up.

     “Want me to start it?” Easy says, hefting the axe over his shoulder. Norwood says nothing and Easy shrugs, sets the axe down, leans against the side of the restaurant to watch.

     The spade raises and lowers, stabbing at the concrete, chipping away until there’s a crack and the blade sinks through to the dirt. Minimal damage. Good. Almost home free and then they can get into the truck, turn up the heat and shrug off the creepy chill Norwood’s had since they got here. Still, it’s not as dark out now, like somebody’s been quietly unraveling a light bulb wrapped in toilet paper. A few cars are out, people emerging from their homes, zombie-like, on their way to work. Norwood nods a friendly hello to a man passing by as the last spade slices through. The tree pulls free of the earth, hangs suspended a few feet above the asteroid-sized hole they’ve created.

     “Start shovelin’. When you’re done, we’ll get.”

     “Yes’m, boss,” Easy says and swaps out the axe for a shovel.

     Norwood tosses a gunnysack into the truck. No point. The insects are already entrenched. Swaddling. That’s what burlap is for a tree. Fucking swaddling. Deana’s really gotten into his head lately. Sees it everywhere now. Other people’s babies popping out of the scenery, glowing, so that he can’t miss them. He wraps a nylon rope around the top of the tree, ties a knot, feels for a second like he’s strangling the thing, but it has to be secure.

     Easy pats the dirt down around the hole while Norwood goes about tilting the tree over the top of the truck so that it’s leaning out over the windshield. It’s taller than he thought; they’ll be lucky to clear the power lines on the way out. He bows it down, ties it tight to the bumper. Hard to see, but they’ll manage.

     “All set?” Norwood says, firing up the engine.

     “You see the way people are looking at us?”

     “Was hoping it was just my imagination.”

     Easy gets in, tosses his gloves on the bench seat. The digger lumbers away, Norwood craning his neck under the windshield, watching the power lines, but they make it.

     “Why do I feel like we just kidnapped somebody?” Easy says, then pats Norwood’s pocket, grabs the pack of Luckys without asking.

     Norwood’s about to answer when he spots a woman on the sidewalk, jeans and a yellow ski jacket, long brown hair, healthy. Like Deana used to look before she went all roly-poly on him. Normally he wouldn’t have looked twice at the woman, stock footage around here, but the woman stops only a few feet away from them and her face, which had probably been smiling only seconds before, is now severe, panicked almost.

     “Shit,” Norwood says. “Guess who?”

     “Mrs. Creep?”

     Norwood speeds up a little while Easy scrunches down in his seat, blows smoke out through the top of the cracked window, most of it billowing back into the cab.

     “Way to be inconspicuous,” Norwood says.

     “She’s kinda hot, huh? I wouldn’t mind giving her a taste of my baguette.” Easy smiles, lowers the window to let some of the smoke out.

     “French fry more like.”

     They pass the woman and Easy turns around in his seat, watches her.

     “It’s just a fucking tree, lady. Re-fucking-lax already,” he says.

     Norwood checks the rearview. The woman looks confused, her body cringing, clutching itself. They come to a stop sign, turn right, and head out of town.

****

     When they reach the husband’s house, four miles from the “scene of the crime” as Easy is now calling it, it’s almost seven in the morning.

     “Where is the guy?” Easy says, holding the tree upright as Norwood orchestrates the levers, begins digging the new home, grave, whatever.

     “He won’t be here.”

     “Coward mother fucker,” Easy says and spits on the ground like he’s got something to be offended about.

     “Judicious mother fucker.”

     “Huh?”

     “No point in his being here.”

     “Still think it’s lame.”

     This is the better part of the job, digging a fresh, clean hole. He told the husband that the tree, considering its age and the time of year, had about an eighty percent chance of surviving. With the flatheads, that chance has dwindled to zero. Maybe less. So much for the bonus, an extra two hundred if the tree survived. No big deal. Norwood might be gone next summer anyway. Long fucking gone. Maybe back to Texas.

     The last spade slips in and Norwood pulls the load up, dirt slipping through the digger’s fingers. He watches as Easy leans the tree against the truck, then hops into the hole, digs out the remaining chunks of dirt. 

     “All set, chief!” Easy says and hops out.

     Norwood takes the shovel and drops a few more loads of dirt in. Need to keep the tree above ground a bit so it can breathe afterward. He surveys it once more before motioning for Easy to slide the tree over. They lower it in together, let it rest on the bottom as Norwood dumps in his “loam-roids”: an organic cocktail of peat moss, leaf mulch, and decayed manure. After that, all that’s left is to kick in the left-over mound of dirt. Norwood does all the particulars, makes sure the tree is aligned correctly, stamps the dirt down until it’s solid while Easy uses the shovel to scrape the remnants in.

     “Grab the hose. Just get it damp now. Not too much.”

     Norwood cleans up, knocking the chunks of dirt off the spades, securing the shovel, locking the toolbox. The tree looks good where it’s at, but then, it looked good at the restaurant, too. Best not to stick your nose in other people’s business. No point in taking sides, who knows what she did to piss him off. Better a tree then a kid stuck in a fight this nasty. There’s that anyway. Besides, soon they’ll be back in Gunny scarfing down eggs, hasbrowns, bacon, sausage, weak coffee. Norwood will know the name of the waitress and it’ll almost feel like he belongs.

     “Hop in,” Norwood says, and climbs into the cab, knocking the mud from his boots on the runner.

     “Will do, mildew.”

     The digger backs out of the front yard, the tread marks not half as bad as at the restaurant. That’s when Norwood spots her. She’s driving something like a Geo Metro, some white little bug that stops on the gravel drive about half way up.

     “You’re kidding me,” Norwood says as they creep toward the car, stop a few feet in front of her. He reaches for his pack of cigarettes, changes his mind and rolls down his window. Norwood gives the woman a meek wave, but can’t see her face behind the glare off her windshield.    

     “I got it,” Easy says, and opens his door to get out.

     “Eric.”

     “Norwood,” the kid says back, mimicking the sternness in Norwood’s voice. “Relax Dad, I can handle it.” Easy jumps down from the truck, heads for the car.

     The kid places one hand on the hood, leans down so that he can talk to the woman. He looks like a cop, like he’s going to write her a ticket. Easy’s smiling now, that’s good, the kid’s got a good smile. Good heart too, when he wants or cares to use it. No telling what line of bull he’s feeding her, motioning toward the digger, toward Norwood, his arm extended, palm up, the little con-artist blaming it on him probably. Just as well, make her feel better. Good cop, bad cop.

     What would happen if he just floored it? Would the digger climb up over the car like in those monster-truck shows, or would he end up pushing her out into the road? The tires aren’t big enough, not monster enough. God that would be fun, with the woman safely out of the car of course, maybe resting against the tree, eating an apple or something. He drums his fingers on the steering wheel. It’s wrapped in one of those rubber covers, all Nascar-like. Deana got it for him. Norwood notices his belly pushing toward the wheel. Hell, he’s getting roly-poly, too. She’d be a good mother. He knows that much.

     The kid is squatting down now, both hands resting on the door frame where the window’s been rolled down. He looks like he’s going to take her order. Would you like a coke with that? Maybe a shake? Maybe you’d like to move your fucking car so we can get some breakfast?

     Easy is laughing, his face crinkling up like it’s being vacuumed sealed. The woman hands him something and Easy pats the roof of her car, heads back to the truck. The woman’s white arm extends, gives a wave as the car backs down the drive, but Norwood doesn’t wave back.

     When Easy climbs into the truck, still smiling, pleased with himself, Norwood says, “Why do you keep calling me Dad?”

     “Why do I what?”

     “Call me Dad.”

     “You called me Eric.”

     “I didn’t know what you were going to do.”

     “Me neither, but it turns out hubby had an affair with one of the waitresses. Took the tree because she’s divorcing him.”

     “Huh.”

     “Here, she gave me this to give to you.”

     Easy hands him a business card with pink roses all over it.

     “What am I supposed to do with this?”

     “She wants you to call her. Wants you to plant another tree for her. She called it a ‘Fuck You’ tree. Something to get back at her old man.”

     Norwood tucks the card into his shirt pocket, says nothing.

     “Hey, I, um, wouldn’t mind setting up the appointment if…”

     “No dice.”

     “C’mon man, didn’t you see that? She was all over me.”

     “That tree’s going to die.”

     Norwood pulls the digger out onto the main road, brings the speed up to fifty, which is a waste of gas, but there’s comfort in the laboring of the engine, the bucking  of the cab. It also makes conversation impossible. Sure, he’ll plant her a tree, and then he’ll plant another, and another. The kid doesn’t understand anything yet, thinks it’s all a game, doesn’t understand the way things take root, how sometimes a thing can be too fragile to be moved.

 



About the Author: James Zerndt recently won Honorable Mention in The Atlantic's 2009 student fiction contest for the short story 'Would You Rather.' His poetry has appeared in The Oregonian Newspaper and The Sow's Ear Poetry Review. He teaches ESL at Lower Columbia College and lives in Portland, Oregon where he rarely talks about himself in the third person.     


Home     About Us    Submissions    Pushcart Nominees     Masthead     Archives



Recent Stories

Like Everyone Else
by Tara Laskowski
It had been less than five minutes since he'd picked her up for their date, and already Samantha was regretting her decision to go out with Harry...

Indian Trail
by Elizabeth Genovise
I’m kneeling in my pathetic excuse for a garden— a patch of dirt that isn’t even mine, really, in the lot behind my apartment complex—when my phone starts chirping in my pocket. It’s Hans, my boyfriend of the last two years, but he’s barely started talking when the call waiting chime starts up. I tell him I have to go.

Kid Dynamite
by Heather Frese
My husband is not the first man to disappoint me.  That honor goes to Mike Tyson, who I met the summer I was nine, the summer I left Hatteras Island to stay in Ohio for two weeks with my Ohio friend, Charlotte...

Fracture
by Bryan Walpert
Where is Thumbkin? Here I am. Where is Pinkie? We’ve just met. We sit on the couch with her parents and older sister between us. Very old-fashioned...

The Man Who Shot Henry McCarty
by Jay Todd
During the third day of a late October rain, I stood on the saturated riverbank and watched my two dumb deputies, the brothers Aaron and Abram, try to bring the body on shore. My instinct had been to ignore the story of a body in the river, to leave whatever it was alone and hope it went away on its own. Then I remembered I was sheriff...

Support Our Troops
by Robyn Bradley
Koty, you could talk the balls off a brass monkey. When Wayne first said these words to me, they were wrapped in a chuckle and a whole lot of warmth, pillow talk after making love back when I'd barely graduated into womanhood. I'd giggle and go right on talking, even though I didn't have a clue what a brass monkey was...

Leaving No Place Special
by Emily Alford
She is driving a stretch of road named only by a number, the faded grey asphalt nearly buried on both sides by pin oaks and scrub pines. They are the trees of her childhood, the trees that enclose her parents’ crumbling dogtrot on three sides, marking the perimeter of the property...

Hiding Places
by E.K. Cormier
They were supposed to meet in the coffee shop of the bookstore. It was a safe place; Gloria knew it well. She got there first, on purpose. She had two bad knees and didn’t want him to see her wobbling up to the store’s coffee shop. Better for him to see her sitting. First impressions and all...

The Horse Chrysalis
by Carter Meland
Custer saw all his possible deaths converging.  Every one of them coming his way.  Arrows, volleys of bullets, warclubs.  Indians swarming below the ridge.  Cavalry sabres wrested from the already dead used on the soon to be...

The Ad
by Jessica Dainty Johns
The first time he saw the ad, he thought it was a joke. A black and white photo of a woman from shoulders to knees took up the entire right side. She wore short cut-offs and a shirt showing her stomach...

Straight to the Lake
by Steven Wingate
Go ahead and do it, Bobby. Drive off the same pier you used to jump off when you were six and eleven and seventeen. Close the windows tight before you hit the gas. Cuff your hand to the steering wheel so you can’t chicken out at the bottom, can’t fill your lungs with air and slip out the window. Only eight feet to the surface, Bobby. But that’s forever when you’re cuffed to the wheel...

Not a Busybody
by Carver Waters
I’m not one of those old women always poking her nose into everybody else’s business because she doesn’t have nothing to do. I’m no busybody. I keep an eye out because I used to be the president of our Neighborhood Watch Association. If I wasn’t disabled by this arthritis, I’d be out and about as much as anybody else. Meantime I keep watch, like on that couple living catty-corner across my back fence...

Here for You
by Art Taylor
Do you mind if I stop by?” Lila asked him on the phone early one Sunday evening, and from the noise of traffic in the background, Randolph knew she was calling from her car. His ex-wife, never ex- enough. “I’m just around the corner. I have something I need to ask you. I’ll only be a few minutes...

Jeanette Leaves Her Recipes
by Ann Claycomb
The scent of tarragon-mushroom soup drives her from the kitchen.  It is her own recipe, honed over the course of several months one winter when her children were little, and the mingled fragrances it emits as it cooks—of sharp green leaves and the damp earth they grow in—recalls her to that first tiny kitchen.  She chopped and stirred and tasted while the children colored on pads of paper in the middle of the floor.  They were always underfoot, but she never once let either of them get burned...

A Pattern of Chaos
by Christopher Lowe
The ducks had come to eat his grass again, but this time Barrow was ready.  Squat little things, all brown, they made loud retching noises when their brown beaks weren’t filled with tufts of his perfect Malaysian Summer Grass...

Gods for Sale
by Patricia O'Donnell
They took the early flight on a hazy Sunday morning from Cape Town to Jo’burg, then on to Nelspruit, where they were to drive a rental car to Kruger Park.  Americans, their eyes wide, still dazed after two days in Cape Town from hurtling to the other side of the world, from being upside down.  Everything was both more familiar and more strange than Elizabeth could have imagined...

To Play Hockey, One-on-One
by Joseph Michael Rein
Barry knew he would pay for this in the morning. He missed a loop on his brown single-blade skates and had to pull the laces out completely to start over. When he got them in right he stood; his right wobbled a little, but his left felt altogether too tight...

A String Around a Sandwich
by Evelyn Haselden
Under the sienna brown umbrella, Kitty Wolfe read her magazine.  Even under the umbrella, she wore a large brown sun hat with a brim as wide as her shoulders.  Her strapless bathing suit was a matching auburn with white polka dots the size of quarters.  There had been a time when she’d savored the scorch of the sun, spreading oil over her thin body and baking in the heat like toast... 

Under the Milo Bin
by Ande Davis
The mouse at my feet is tiny and brown, its paws and face stuck in the pus-colored swaths of glue smeared on the cardstock, a few nuggets of its own shit strewn behind. A shovel in my hands, I watch it jerk back and forth trying to free itself.

Susanna Buys a Vowel
by E.K. Cormier
Hershel Bishop loved only three things in life: Susanna Rogers, his cat Abraham, and Wheel of Fortune...

Eclipsing Cannon Street
by Anya Groner
“What’ll it be boy?” Keisha is inches from her older brother Desmond’s face, her scowl bathed in his sweet, ripe breath. “I don’t have all day.”  Her skinny arm forms a triangle against her hip. This evening she is master of ceremonies, nuking marshmallows and dishing out S’mores on plastic plates to her big brother’s neighborhood friends, a pack of rabble rousers twice her age who tear up curbs with their bikes and stick lit matches in their mouths to impress each other.

The Nocturnal Habits of American White People, Case Study #31
by Michael Knight

What Custer A. wanted more than anything was to put this night out of its misery, but his blind date had lost her keys. She emptied her purse, not once but twice, on the sidewalk outside her building. The second time, she left a mateless earring on the ground. Custer pinched it up and passed it back and his blind date accepted it without meeting his eyes.


Liquidation
by Emily Alford
Carly and her older sister, Laurel, had been shopping for couches all day. They were in their fifth store, Marta’s Place, and Carly could smell incense burning somewhere in the softly lit showroom. She wasn’t sure what the scent was, but she thought it might be patchouli. Whatever it was, it was heavy, a scent that she could feel in her nose and on her skin. It made her eyes itch; she wanted to run outside for fresh air.

The Ten O'Clock News
by Jason Christopher
He spent god knows how long in some mental institution in Westmorland County, until yesterday, when he finally found a way out. None of the doctors or nurses know how he did it, but he got into a staff changing room and traded his gown for a suit, shirt, shoes, and wallet. Then, he walked out the front door in broad daylight...

A Hillbilly Song
by G.S. Gulliksen
Al Toon and his twin daughters moved to Loveland, Colorado, from outside of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The children (and parents) in our small but growing Garden Park neighborhood thought the Toons were as close as you could get, in Loveland anyway, to what you call "white trash."

When the Rain Comes
by Charles Heiner

The spears are sharp. I made them good. I cut them pointy with the knife. The stomach is soft. The guts are in the stomach. I’ll rip their guts out...


Just Neighbors
by David Fitzpatrick
My neighbor Jade makes high-pitched yodeling sounds when she’s having sex – it’s a combination of screaming, guttural squeals, and some sort of spastic vocal cord reaction. Sometimes it happens so rapidly that you’re not really sure if you’ve heard it in the first place. Her apartment sits directly across from the elevator and, because she’s in a wheelchair, has an eye hole forty-two inches off the ground...

Damaged Goods

by Ryan Crider
Kale took the Department of Corrections up on its offer of one month’s stay in a St. Louis treatment center, an alternative to sixty days in jail for violating his probation...

One Tough Cookie

by Emily Spreng Lowery

“This is your final warning,” Aunt Bethany told my mother. “Next time I find a stranger passed out on your bed, naked as a jaybird, Cory’s moving in with me. And that’s that.”


Things of All Sizes

by Max Fisher-Cohen
I live with my mother.  My older brother is here too, but only since Thanksgiving, which was about three weeks ago. He was supposed to head back to D.C. a few days after the funeral. Mom won’t stop talking about how he should have gone back, he’s going to lose his job, on and on...

The Hardest Science
 by Michelle Reed
I met Drew at an art show I catered for the students he taught at the university.  He asked me out, and I said yes because he seemed grounded, which I assumed made him a terrible artist, and because it had been a long time between offers.  I said yes because I was over thirty in a town that recycled 19-year-olds...

Gavin & Gwen
by Theo Patterson
If the baby's a boy, I think I'll name him Gavin. It's kind of lame since I never heard that name before I listened to Bush. They're a band. The lead singer's name is Gavin, Gavin Rosedale...

Memorial Day

by Michael Bible
A girl in a yellow dress twirled a small baton then blew her whistle and the parade began. Two black fire trucks followed the girl, sirens moaning. Next, on horseback rode twelve men with curling waxed mustaches dressed in stiff crimson robes and blue powdered wigs. Arabian satin with silver tassels draped the men's calico horses.

The Long Answer 

by Josh Canipe  
I pulled that trigger on principle.  And that’s what I’ve been trying to tell everybody, but they don’t want to hear it.  Even Alyssa and Cynthia look at me with their eyebrows all arched, that heart-breaking look in their eyes, when I try to explain this.  Still, it’s true: sometimes a man has to fight to keep things from creeping into his life, from pecking at it until it’s nothing, even if those things are his neighbor’s chickens, which were trespassing on his property, and even if the cops show up twenty minutes later, guns drawn and bodies safely behind the doors of their cars, to confiscate his rifle...

Where There is Rain   

by  Anne Valente
A light rain pelts the bar-room windows, the glassy panes reflecting pairs of headlights as they cut through the evening fog outside.  The bar is dank, near-deserted save for two guys shooting pool in the corner, their FedEx uniforms still on after a long day of work...

The Cigarette

by Ajani Burrell

 A cloud blotted out the full moon.  Across the courtyard the neighbor’s apartment one floor lower glowed like the crimson eye of a hearth oven.  The pervasive damp-earth scent of Frankfurt in spring had disappeared.  I was sure I could smell violets from the adjacent garden, vaguely resembling her perfume.  She moved from room to room, long ebony hair dancing in her wake. I took a deep breath...


The Bad Thing That Happens to Good People by Ellen Herbert

It was the summer of the red eye pulsing from my dashboard. Whenever it appeared I had two minutes to pick up the long tube attached to the ignition, put its end in my mouth, and blow. Hard...

The Evolution of Tulips

 by Lauren Yaffe
I start walking and my mind is blank, calm.  Suddenly I'm furious.  I remember an incident:  a woman holding the door as I entered a museum.  As I passed through and thanked her, she hissed, "I wasn't holding the door for you!" 

Not Sally

by Jen Gann

Before we could begin the drive south to Dan’s mother’s funeral, before I mixed three homemade gin and tonics for myself, before I jutted my hips alone, in my dorm room, and packed, red-faced and frenzied, for a week of mourning with a family that wasn’t mine, Dan took his Greek exam. 

Present Imperfect

by Suzanne Samples

Even though I knew how badly she had wanted to go, contacting the universities is not the most difficult of my duties. Using the past perfect tense is more difficult, especially because our past was far from perfect...


Monsters & Virgins
by Chris Kammerud
Bobby felt sure if Cindy caught him staring again that there’d be no going back, that she’d forever see him as a kind of mutant.  A giant, mucus-covered eyeball stuffed into a jacket and jeans, absurdly trying to pass himself off as a thirteen year-old boy...

Skin Fold

by Alex Myers
They never rested during rest hour.  Naps were for the junior campers, the little girls who cried with homesickness, who wore frilly pink suits to swim lessons, who adorned their arms with the lumpy macramé bracelets they made in arts and crafts...

When I Saw Jimmy Coulston
by Joseph Scott Celizic
Before Anne and I broke up, before we took a thirty day break to pray about our future, and before I dreaded her phone calls that flowed like rain runoff into a gutter, her father got us tickets to a boxing match...

Cool White

by Robert Dall
In the beginning all I wanted was a normal life. Not that I had any experience in this matter. The only kind of life I knew how to lead was the twitchy, angst-ridden life of the overeducated. I'd had a revelation of sorts: the revelation that another year of sifting through art-history arcana, prowling the library archives and living on vending-machine food, would vault me straight past twitchy and into spasmodic...