Fossil Fuel

by Duncan Rivers

Someday, they’ll use our remains to fuel whatever machines are moving tomorrow and we’ll all be nothing but gasoline. And these prices, if they keep rising like they are, we’ll be worth a fortune. Hell, I’ll be worth more than what I am now, a relic of the past, bound either for a Museum of Natural History or for the second pump at a Shell station.

I’m thinking of dinosaurs, not just because I’m filling up my car, but because their bones have been scattered all over my road trip through the Badlands. I’m seeing them on every poster, restaurant and cheap attraction. Phony plastic statues line the desolate side roads and the one that I assume is meant to be a triceratops across the street has eyes that feel like they’re following me. I’m so caught up in his gaze that I don’t hear the man approach me from behind.

“Excuse me,” he whispers over my shoulder. “Do you have any gas money?”

Some people are cold with folks like him, shooing them away with a grunt and a wave. It’s just getting dark, the sun setting behind the triceratops, but I don’t get a threatening impression from him.

“Gas money?” I reply, looking around the otherwise empty station. “You have a car?”

He’s flustered by my inquisition and I can tell that I’m the first one who’s engaged with him today. I watch the cogs turning in his brain, the visual manifestation of his debate over whether to tell me the truth or not, his eyes darting back and forth like that stupid triceratops across the street.

“I’ll be honest with you.” He says.

I knew it.

“I don’t have a car, but I need some cash to get somewhere. Quick.”

“I have nowhere to be.” I say. “I can give you a ride.”

Instead of grinning triumphantly after calling his bluff, I’m taken aback when he tells me that a ride would be perfect and seats himself on the passenger side of my car. I finish filling my tank, then tell the man to wait inside while I go pay. He’s still sitting there casually when I come out, so I take him on the road with me, turning right at the triceratops to get back on the empty streets.

“Where are you going?” I ask.

“Harby Motel.” He answers promptly, like speaking quicker will make the ride shorter. I notice that his legs are shaking, which at first seemed like a symptom of withdrawal, but now I can sense another source of tension. “It’s on Highway 3.”

We pass at least a dozen more statues of unintentionally disfigured Dinos, some from the Jurassic period, others from the Cretaceous, as if those who installed them had no care for historical accuracy. I laugh at the tableau of the T-Rex standing off against the Stegosaurus, telling my passenger they lived about eighty million years apart from one another, but I notice he’s gone cold on me and his eyes are glued on something ahead.

Just before our turn onto Highway 3, we see event staff putting the finishing touches on the outdoor stage off the side of the road. A big banner hangs over the stage, reading BANNON INC., and the dozens of seats are just starting to fill with shirts and ties. The balding, pale heads of aging congressmen and their unsatisfied wives will soon fill the seats. I read about this yesterday, wishing I’d postponed my trip here to avoid it, but it was too late. It’s the grand opening of the new Bannon pipeline.

“What do you think of this?” I ask my passenger.

I notice his legs stop shaking, but it’s not because he’s been put at ease. His eyes, almost desperate-looking now, scan over the crowd as we pass.

“I’ll tell you what,” I continue. “Regardless of one’s thoughts on the pipeline, it’s almost impressive what they’ve done. How one company can be so universally hated, by effectively every cultural subgroup on the planet, and yet still be the sixth richest company in the world is beyond-“

“Fourth.” He interrupts me.

I take a second to register that he’s broken his silence. “What’s that?”

“Fourth richest.” He corrects me. “Bannon is fourth richest.”

I stare at him for a moment, but his eyes still won’t meet mine. There’s a heaviness to his look and his mind looks busy, so I do my best to keep quiet for the rest of the ride.

My passenger starts crying when we get to the motel parking lot, not sobbing, but the silent kind that I don’t notice until I look over at him. I tell the part of me that wants to ask him what’s wrong to shut up and let him take his time. It’s an uncomfortable energy, but I feel responsible to give him space. I have my suspicions as to what he’s doing and who he’s meeting here, but I’m patient with my words.

“I’ve never been able to give them anything.” He finally says.

“Who?” I ask.

“My kids. I just wanna leave something behind for them. He told me he’ll make sure I do.”

“Who told you?” I try to ask, but finally he opens the door and leaves me. I watch him amble past the other cars in the lot and knock on the door of Room 11. After only a few seconds, a young man opens it and practically yanks him inside. My passenger doesn’t look back at me, he doesn’t even get the chance.

I feel my breathing growing heavier, my chest getting warmer, like no matter how high I crank the air conditioning I’ll still feel like I’m melting. I stare at the closed blinds in the window of his room, then I shut my car off and get out. I march across the lot, looking around to make sure no one is watching, and instead of going to the door, I crouch down and peer through the slats in the blinds.

It’s hard to get a good angle at first, but finally I can make out what’s what in the room. There are more folks inside than I expected, and not the clientele I had assumed. These people are young and dressed fashionably, more like the members of a Poli Sci seminar than a late night motel meetup. My passenger is standing at the edge of the bed, the same sullen look on his face as a woman with the left half of her head shaved puts her hand on his shoulder to calm him. I struggle to make any sense of the scene, knowing I must look perverse in this state, but my heart sinks into my stomach as my curiosity wins out and I see what’s on the bed.

Two young men stand over it, touching it only delicately when they have to, and my passenger’s eyes are locked on it. It’s a black vest, wires and thick white canisters lining the outside. I want to pull away and vomit on the ground, but I keep watching as the shaved-head girl puts a set of car keys in my passenger’s pocket and pats his shoulder again. Then, from the other side of the room, holding a coffee cup in hand and looking calmer than all the other patrons, comes a long-haired man to put his arm around my passenger. It’s the same man who pulled him into the room, and although I can’t hear what he asks, I see my passenger answer him and his face turn white. The long-haired man spins his head around to the window, looking me right in the eye before I have the chance to duck out of sight.

I scurry off the ground and begin to make for my car, but I only get a few paces away before the motel door opens and he calls after me.

“Hey!”

I stop in my tracks, turning slowly to face him in the doorway, looking him up and down with my heart in my throat. His tight tan dress pants are cut off just above his ankles, with his white T-Shirt tucked into them, the words This Is Stolen Land printed in bold across the front. His calm demeanor from inside has all but dissipated and he’s clutching his coffee cup so tightly that it starts to crumple. We stare at one another for a few too many weighty breaths, then, realizing he doesn’t know what to do with me, I turn and keep marching to my car, praying he won’t follow.

I get in and don’t look back, pulling out of the lot while my heart races, barely looking both ways on the highway to see that no cars are coming. I just drive for a while, back towards the dinosaur statues, passing a few but barely paying them any mind for the first time. Suddenly, I don’t find them so funny.

I’m pulled off on the side of Highway 3, about a mile before the turnoff to the Bannon pipeline opening, the sun fully out of view and the sea of stars above on full display. I find no tranquility in this place’s beauty tonight, opting instead to blast my radio and listen to the ball game. It’s all statistics, though. They tell me every player’s batting average as he steps into the box, then his slugging percentage at home, his on-base percentage against each pitcher and how many RBIs he has on his current twelve-game hitting streak. I thought the numbers might numb me, but maybe statistics aren’t the best choice at the moment.

Before my mind gets any clarity as to what action I should be taking, I see a beat-up green sedan approaching me from behind and I recognize it from the motel lot. My chest swells and I wish that I had more time, because even as it gets right up behind me, I don’t know what I should do about it. Just before it passes, I swing my door open and step out onto the highway. The tires screech and the car comes to halt only a few inches in front of me on the otherwise empty roads. My passenger is alone in the car, his eyes lit up like prey as he stares at me, his vest blinking red.

He’s clutching the wheel so carefully you’d think he was taking his driver’s test, and although I get him to stop, I can’t think of what to do next. He stares at me for a while, like the long-haired man at the motel, but like me, he realizes that I’m not going to do anything else, so he turns his wheels and drives right around me. I watch his tail lights disappear down the way, then I get back into my car and scream.

There’s a giant, red brontosaurus across the street, watching me fall apart in my car. I do nothing but yell and struggle to pull my cell phone from my pocket for the next twenty minutes, then I hear the number two batter step up to the plate for the home team and slam a no-doubter out of the park. As the crowd erupts on my radio, I hear the faintest suggestion of a blast about a mile ahead of me on the road. After a minute, they stop commenting on the replay of the home run and I can see the smoke starting to rise in the moonlight way off in the distance. Another five minutes later and the game is tied up on a double from the clean-up hitter and the first fire truck passes me, shaking my car as it goes by. At least another ten emergency vehicles follow it in the next few minutes, and finally, just as I get the sense that the home team is going to end this game on a walk-off RBI, the broadcast cuts away.

We apologize for this interruption, but we have breaking news out of-

I switch stations before they can get any statistics out, but then the mundane arts and culture show that plays gets cut off too. I change the station over and over, hearing each one cut off one after another, only hearing snippets of the story as I flick through.

…devastating attack at the opening of Bannon’s new-

At least two state Senators were in attendance, including-

…unclear at this time what the motive is, but it seems clear that-

I finally find peace on the classical station. Chopin swells up like the smoke in the distance, and although I don’t want to keep looking, I can’t make myself stop. Soon, the moon is all but blacked out by the smoke, and I can barely see the brontosaurus across the street looking down at me, but I know he’s still there.

Exhaustion gets the better of me once I shut my car off, and not even the rush of sirens passing can keep me awake. Eventually, I figure one will pull over and ask me some questions since I’m in the vicinity. I don’t want to think about how I’ll answer just now. I just want to sleep.

I dream that I’m millions of years in the future, but not in a way that gives me any foresight as to where we’re headed. Instead, I’m buried under billions of pounds of dirt and rubble, packing me down like the rest of the human race and turning us into oil. Then, when the pressure mushes us all together, a great big rusted drill comes down and sucks us all out, pumping us into a pipeline and sending us on our way. It’s not quite hell, but it’s as far from heaven as you could imagine. And those of us they don’t use to fuel their machines get turned into plastic, molded into haunting figures of what we once were. We line their highways, watching the passers-by, praying that maybe one of them will stop and take a picture with us.

They never do. They just laugh and keep driving.

Duncan Rivers is a carpenter by day and writer by night, whose fiction is published/forthcoming in Wilderness House Literary Review. He lives in Toronto, Ontario, where he can usually be found struggling to walk his lazy dog and working on his debut novel.

Murk & Spray

by Jamie Logan Benner

Some ferriers will tell you the key to a good stroke is in the elbow—you need that sucker positioned just right for even weight distribution on the arms. They’re wrong. It’s all in the back.

I’ve been rowing cross-river for five years, and I’ve seen crews go under because the man in front wouldn’t slow his stroke. Ever since the rivers went wide and the tech corps went north, ferriers have been in high demand. We’re not abundant, not like the bargehands who slide port-to-port along the Mississippi on flat-bottomed freighters. We take on tributaries and bayous, places they can’t fathom or fit.

There are a lot of men—all muscles, no brains—who take this job. But there are boys and girls too, small or smart like me. I’m mature enough to admit I’m not the muscle. I man the rudder.

We put in where the forks of the Atchafalaya meet. We’ll end up downriver around Hurley or Crean. This is how supplies travel to waterlocked towns, shore-to-shore like it’s 1776.

We leave before sunup. Kasey’s antsy because the group before us went down.

“They left yesterday,” I say. “Rain’s washed out by now.”

All they lost was their cargo. They even kept their oars.

“It’s coming back, Beet. I can feel it in my knee.”

It’s sunny and cloud-free, but that doesn’t mean a thing.

“You should have mentioned that an hour ago,” Stain says. He jerks his oar and the guy in front of him throws a curse over his shoulder. Hurley, he’s called. I don’t know if he’s named after the town or the town’s named after his folks.

“Shut it,” I tell all three. “Sing one of your crazy old shanties if you can’t keep your stroke straight, Stain. I’ll make the others join.”

They don’t grumble so much after that.

Later, the singing starts. A confident baritone bites back choppy waves. Hurley sings, of ships and sails. Stain matches his tune until we are a chorus, and though I’ve never seen it, I find myself longing for the sea.

I always thought I’d be a dockworker in Baton Rouge when I grew up, but when things go sideways, you find your own upright. I tell the men I do this job for my sister in the city. I want to make her proud. The truth is: I lost her two years ago. She walked out and never came back, so I left too. Stacia’s the one who gave me the nickname Beetle. She never got over the way I was so many years old and still crawling like a bug. Still, when I tell people I do it for her, I don’t feel like a liar.

I like the water, the murk and spray, the line of sweat that smears my shoulders, the camaraderie of the ferry. I like Stain’s shanties and Kasey’s nerves. I even like storms, which is why I get excited when a squall appears.

“Shit,” someone says.

The sky’s a mess of purples, but this is no hurricane, just a pop-up summer storm.

“Steady,” I reassure my men. “We trained for this.”

Anyone who has ferried knows you listen to your rudderman. While the rowers get to rowing, I scan our surroundings. I note static in the air and tension in my gut. The horizon breaks open.

Rain’s not usually a problem. The supplies are sealed up tight in the hull. If we don’t take on too much water, we’re all good. But these parts are known for flash floods, the one-and-done kind of storm that beats you to a pulp before it leaves you sunning. So, I put my middlemen Hurley and Simon to work bailing rainwater.

“Pick up the pace.” Kasey says.

Hurley and Simon are newbies, but I vetted them. They have some experience, and they’re doing the best they can. They don’t know that Kasey’s brother was a rudderman once. He nearly drowned and now stays put on land.

Simon mutters something about Kasey’s mother, who I also know. She’s an awful woman, but his words would start a fight on firmer ground.

“Focus.” I thwap Kasey on the back of the head, because he’s the one I can reach.

The wind is at its worst and the current is no joke. It takes all the men have to keep moving forward. Our ferry isn’t a dinky rowboat, but it’s not a real ship either. We’re sailors, technically, but we can’t usually rely on our sail. So, I imagine us as Vikings, cutting across a deadly sea. We are fighters, and this river, she’s trying to kill us. Her water is brown and angry. We can’t see the bottom, but we feel her riptides. She’ll take it all if we let her.

My left front rower loses his oar.

“Dammit, Jake,” I say. “Take Simon’s.”

Simon hands his oar over and continues to bail. He’s soaked. We all are. Droplets coat my skin as I turn liquid. Up front, Jake pulls it together. We dip but remain afloat.

Stacia used to talk about cartoons. I never got to see one, or even a TV, but she said they were funny, like when a mouse caught a cat instead of the other way around. I imagine them sometimes, those drawings come to life. Watching men scoop water from a sinking ship while the sky laughs until it cries is the closest thing I’ve seen, so I start laughing too.

“I hate ferrying,” Stain says.

“Surely it’s not always like this,” Pierce says.

“It’s not,” Stain says. “But I always hate it.”

No one asks why, not even Kasey, who has been Stain’s crewmate for four years. Their oars are tucked between their knees. They’ve given up crossing.

Hurley’s still singing, but this time, no one joins him.

“I have a kid,” Stain says. “And a dog.”

“I’ve got one too,” Jake says.

“A kid?” Stain asks.

“A dog.”

“No one cares about your dogs,” Kasey tells them. “Those mutts will live long after the rest of us have gone.”

Jake says he doesn’t want to die.

I tell him he’s an idiot. My men can swim. My hands grip the rudder, trying to turn the boat any other way. The current overwhelms her.

Pierce confesses that he can’t swim.

I tell him he’s an idiot too.

Hurley grows louder. I realize the song isn’t one I’ve heard, so I lean in. His voice becomes thunder, invoking lightning. The other men lean too. We thought we were finished, but here sits Hurley, with all the power in the world.

Man rerouted this river once, and she resents him now.

She strikes back.

We’re nowhere near the shore, but we hit something hard. We shake and topple. Next thing I know, everyone’s in the water and so are our supplies. The latch has slipped, but the ferry’s whole. From beneath the waves, I see it right itself and slip away, someone still hanging on.

A large wooden box floats toward me, and I try to grab it. My shin bangs against a rock. I realize we’re in the shallows. We’ve hit a bed of elevated sediment. My shin stings as I try to tuck my legs. I look for my men, but I don’t see them.

The water tastes like mud and feels like the inside of a machine, a washer or truck engine.

I’ve been ferrying for five years, and this is the first time I’ve gone down. I latch onto a box. I rub at my eyes and see where it’s labelled: canned goods. I try to be grateful for beans and peaches, but the truth is there’s something nice about being tossed back and forth, about having lost all control. Somewhere in the distance, Hurley’s singing still. I wonder if he’s the one who managed to hang on. I try to hang on too, to my own wooden float, but my hands are small. The river is big, and I can feel her beneath me, waiting to swallow me whole.

 


 

Jamie Logan Benner has served as Managing Editor at The Pinch, Product, and BreakBread magazines. She is pursuing a PhD at the University of Southern Mississippi and is Associate Editor for the Mississippi Review. She has work published in or forthcoming from the New Ohio Review, Barrelhouse, VIDA Review, Palette Poetry, and elsewhere.

 

The Patch

by William Andrews

The shift begins as an etiolated trickle, then gradually ebbs into the evening, when things are at least cooler. Unlike the mainland, there’s little in the way of entertainment in New Honolulu. Space is too precious for frivolous activities.

Anatole makes do with the market in the plaza off the main walkway near his tower. It’s a confusion of food smells and smoke. A handful of the vendors are old school and still hang on to their metal grills, claiming with an air of mystery they make the meat and oil taste better, even though they could easily trade the materials in for decent cash. Their sentimental attachment also invites robbers but these cooks have enough avuncular bulk to scare off casual thieves.

The market is one of the few places where you can get freshly cooked protein and Anatole’s stomach can only take so many polyshakes, frozen meals, and vitamin pills. He sits down at a bench, a bowl of saimin noodles steaming in front of him, when he feels a tug at his elbow.

The boy in the T-shirt smiles.

“Big man says come. The usual spot, he say.”

Anatole sighs.

Fearing rejection, the boy quickly adds, “Big man. Sailor.”

“Yes, yes. He couldn’t come himself?”

“Too risky, he say. He here. But couldn’t stay long, he say.”

“Alright. Lemme finish this first.”

The boy beams: job done. Then daring a rebuke or even a slap around the head, he stretches out a palm.

Anaole smirks and slips a coin into the hand.

“You born in New Honolulu?”

The boy nods.

“Your folks too?”

The boy shakes his head. “Come on big raft.”

Anatole doesn’t mind the interruption per se. What else would he do tonight? But he knows who’s waiting and how long it will take to get there.

A caravan of bikes trails past. A few scooters pooter along, polyfuel burning haphazardly. He moves through some vendors trying to push junk-laced gruel and caffeine on the unsuspecting.

The worst slums are populated solely by illegals or recently arrived reffos, practically still wet from having clung to a cargo ship hull and without a dollar to their name (and no one cares about their name), since they gave their last cash to an official to buy a temporary land permit, the most basic status of residence, anything to say they are not an illegal who can be chucked—literally—into the sea by a police patrol. In those slums, even the tram doesn’t run because the cable would be dismantled and repurposed within a day.

“Watch out.”

Someone almost jostles him but Anatole steps expertly aside. It’s not worth the risk of giving a pickpocket the opportunity. He doesn’t blame them for trying. Perhaps a reffo without a work permit or a second generationer down on their luck. Maybe even a one-time miner like himself no longer able to dig for poly because it’s all too far down for manned machines.

Edgeland scree and bazaar bric-a-brac. Attenuated urchins with shady keepers. There’s the inevitable stench of human sweat and waste—shit or piss or worse—but little actual non-bio refuse, since everything has value. Any chip of poly is cycled into fuel or food. Sure, look in a grate or peer closely at a corner, and you see pullulating roaches and rodents aplenty, maybe even the odd stray canine, but the night prowlers and their hardscrabble micropolitics keep the area clean of excess, and the smoothed-out nature of the polymer walkway prevents grime in three dimensions from accumulating.

He reaches the gate unscathed and starts the descent, taking the various elevators and walkways to wind down to the surface. It involves passing a couple of checkpoints. No problem with his citizen’s ID but he wonders how many bribes the big man paid.

It’s rare to be outside properly. The walkways are covered and the windows give only a half-real view. Poly just isn’t the same as good ol’ glass. Apparently politicians and rich folks have glass in their homes up on the mountains, facing away from the towers. Anatole spits.

“Aloha,” grins the man waiting by his polymoped at the bottom of the final steps.

“Knock it off. Why send the kid?”

“With my record, you have to be careful. Too many eyes and ears up there.”

A few stragglers wander around the rocky terrain. The ground level of New Honolulu, what’s left of it, is inhabited by different sorts: those too poor even for the slums; fishermen with boats too small for the coastguards to bother with and who don’t mind about the polluted catches; illegals too scared of the slums; back-to-nature-ists who believe the present isn’t happening; and people like Corelli, the big man.

“What’s going on?”

“Get on the bike.”

“Come on. How many years you got left? You’re thirty-five. Over halfway through your life. Who was your last girlfriend? You can’t remember, right?” Corelli teases some more. “And your sister? Where’s she these days?”

Anatole spits and takes another sip from the filtered seawater they are drinking. Stamps his foot to savor the half-remembered sensation of terra firma.

“Corelli, why are we here?”

His friend deflects the question by playing with his dreadlocks. “You’re not living. You’re passing through life.”

“Why do I feel like you’re trying to sell me something?”

Anatole speaks little and when he does, with a surgeon’s care, scalpels words and questions to his interlocutor’s joie de vivre. He knows it is a trait with a flip side that makes him unbearable to many—relatives, lovers, friends, colleagues, take your pick. But who needs TLC with a flesh-and-blood companion when you’ve got a decent elastomer vagina in a drawer at home?

“You should try it. The sea life. Real air. Freedom.”

“To drown. The species is trying to avoid the water. Didn’t you notice?”

The sun loves Corelli. He is of uncertain heritage, even to himself, and his skin boasts many shades.

Despite everything that is different between them, the two men are former school buddies. But when Anatole started working as a poly-miner, Corelli drifted in and out of the gangs in the towers, then did a stretch or two in the floating prisons, and finally took to the sea itself, falling in with the bands of pirates scratching a living from daring raids on cargo ships. They had somehow stayed in touch and even proved useful to each other over the years: when the conglomerates and state enterprises were running out of places to dig for old poly, the gangs would locate smaller sites and word would filter out to salvage teams led by the likes of Corelli, who would then recruit people like Anatole to operate the machinery.

At such reunions for jobs, Anatole had often mocked Corelli’s madcap social status, his throw-caution-to-the-wind choices, but Anatole also knows his own prudence has got him nowhere in the end.

“What would you say to a little treasure hunt?” Corelli asks.

“A what?”

“You heard me.”

“Treasure? You mean poly? Forget it, the sites are too deep and my old job is done by automated boring machines now. Or the sites are underwater.”

“Who said anything about digging?”

This makes Anatole curious. He waits for his friend to explain.

“I heard a rumor.” Seeing Anatole’s eyebrows rise, Corelli rushes on with his pitch. “A credible rumor. From a glider pilot. A section of the Patch is drifting.”

“It’s always drifting. It’s a gyre.”

“Who’s the sailor here? I know. But this section, you see, it’s surprisingly close. Just two or three days’ sail. If you have the right boat.”

“Which of course you do.”

“I do.”

Anatole shakes his head, understanding. “Why me? Sounds like you need a crew of pirates or scavengers.”

“But you know poly. You can rig up a scanner.”

“If I had one.”

“I have the parts. Now I need the operator.”

Anatole’s lips trace the beginnings of eagerness, of interest. “Hand-cranked?”

“’Fraid so. But it should do the job. We need to separate at site and compact it to bring back as much as possible without burning up too much fuel.”

“If it’s fuel you’re worried about, you could just burn some of the poly.”

“True.”

“You’ll never get it all back.”

“Sure I will. With the right nets.”

“And the bandits?”

“I’m one of them! I know how they think.”

“And the navies? That place is practically a warzone.”

“Was. There’s a truce on, remember? We’re small fry.”

“So why bother?”

“Because if we do it right, it’ll be a big pay day for everyone.”

Anatole snorts.

“Come on. You won’t believe what I’ve heard. Just how much poly!”

Anatole spits.

Polymer dreams are an occupational hazard for someone in his profession. At least when Anatole dreams, he can pretend he’s still a miner. You might think he would dream he was back driving his digger, plunging deep into the soil to extract the plastic landfilled in generations past, back when the species was so profligate that it buried its poly. But it’s not mechanical thrills that his hippocampus conjures up for him: he simply dreams of the material.

A layman is blind and deaf; Anatole is a plastics synesthete. When most people sense nothing, Anatole feels a symphony of textureless textures, of variations in a key of inodorous smells. Polyethylene. Polyethylene terephthalate. Polyurethane. Styrene-acrylonitrile. Unlike ordinary people, Anatole sees the world through a filter of polymeric appellations.

Humankind was in such a hurry to develop plastics in the twentieth century, it forgot to let language catch up. By then it was too late. We were left swimming amid the quasi-science of sesquipedalian labels and catenated acronyms, but bankrupt of genuine epithets to express their qualities. Any bad poet can wax lyrical about wood and stone, yet stumbles beyond a few basic adjectives when trying to capture the unique character of plastic. Ineffable in every sense of the word.

Anatole is able to transcend this semantic gap. Vocabulary be damned, he is capable of feeling each facet of any type of poly. In this regard, he’s not so different from the rest of the populace, since everyone lives amid the same behavioral lattice of plastic. We all eat the stuff every day. But Anatole’s past work has made him so much more precise in his understanding. Back then, he hadn’t just lived with poly; he was living for it—a seeker. And this inevitably does something to your persuasion.

To touch is not enough. Anatole has to stroke, to run his fingers over the material and make contact with the molded sheen’s cortex. He even licks the poly sometimes when he’s alone. Its contours are always too straight. Its smell a perpetually fresh vacancy. Its colors too bleached, too perfect. He can’t get enough of it. He lets the monotonal purity smother him until—until he wakes each time from his dream.

Other than this appetence, what did he have? He struggles to remember the last conversation he had with his sister or even the last time he saw her.

Scratching sleep from his eyes, he tries to muster a vestige of vim to face the shift.

Cops had raided a floor above, looking for illegals, troublemakers, reffos, black marketeers, dealers in contraband poly, take your pick. Whoever it was, they put up a fight: Anatole heard gunshots and screams as the perps were dragged down the corridors. He has a decent ear, but the cops were too stampy, the perps too shouty to identify which pidgin.

Anatole lets out a bitter yawn, expelling the last gasp of sleep left in his body, and sets about making a shake. He throws in some powdered protein and ersatz milk, followed by a handful of polycarbs to keep him going. He manually cranks the blender, since mains power isn’t always reliable this time in the morning, and presses the button. Pours the sludge mix into a cup. Sips. Winces as teeth crunch. He pours the mix back for another few seconds of blending. Little worse for your jaw first thing in the day than still-solid polycarb blocks.

He puts on his uniform like a begrudged costume, on his way to meet the shift’s quota of multi-compatible cogs for fan units.

The tower seems relatively unscathed by the raid. The steps still need replacing. The walls are still warping from heat, even fracturing in places, residues of corners cut decades back. Sometimes towers in poor districts of the city would collapse because a building inspector got an envelope full of bills and didn’t care who died or how many.

Choleric commuters hie their ways to the tram. Anatole joins them.

As he walks with his hands stabbed into his back pockets, he plays his daily game of Guess the Reffo: Who’s a citizen? Who fled here and when? Of the blatant reffos or illegals—obvious from their native languages instead of pidgin—he tries to tell which bygone island they come from. Kiribati? Palau? Tahiti? Vanuatu? The alphabet soup of submerged rocks. This zone is no slum, relatively speaking, and there are fewer illegals than you might imagine. Even citizens with roots in New Honolulu going back more than a generation or two, like himself, make up a comparatively large minority.

He passes a pitifully small number of Native Hawaiians who are handing out the usual chiastic literature about not eating the food, about skin rashes caused by artificial fibers. A rag-and-bone man bestrides a cart selling bottles of cheapjack moonshine, his trusty dog keeping watch for any passing police patrols.

Anatole proceeds into the main walkway. He is fifty or sixty feet or so above sea level here—safe for now—though the walkways in the zone were higher when they were first built four decades prior. The intervening years have yellowed their polyfloors with the detritus of human settlement too crammed and too limited in places to go, just thousands of feet scuffing away at the same stretches daily.

He’s made reasonable time today; the line is only twenty deep at the stop. The cable strains and the tram pulls in, pausing just long enough for the passengers to push on, and then the weight for the pulley system miles away at the end of the tower tugs, and the funicular trundles on.

It is even more humid inside the tram, though everyone thanked their gods when the city’s mandarins finally took out the glass from the windows. Anatole stopped bothering about hair years ago, opting for a permanent buzz cut, but it has the added bonus of keeping him cooler.

The walkways are always too noisy to hear the constantly piped stream of announcements and music. On the tram, though, as it’s hauled by cable toward the next sectors of New Honolulu, Anatole can make out tunes amplified through the carriage speakers. It’s a familiar snatch of melody and lyrics, he guesses a late-twentieth-century band a hundred years or more out of copyright.

“Today’s sea level: steady at a thousand feet below Maun Kea peak,” the announcer tells him. He hears the day’s predicted temperatures for various zones of the city: Maui, Ohau, Hawaii, and so on. Anatole winces at the numbers and says a silent prayer to his nonexistent god when the speaker returns to a tune. Music is a small luxury of the daily commute from his zone.

Anatole’s face is one of the few white ones on the tram and it inevitably catches the eye of a young woman. She admires his cold, handsome features, but he ignores her, waiting instead for the moments of the commute when the tram passes through a section where they can see outside, albeit just sky and ocean. Today, he manages to spot a bird in the distance.

The tram enters the industrial sector. Most passengers get off here and Anatole doesn’t even have to push. It’s a short walk to the factory.

As a citizen and someone with poly-related skills, he’ll never be jobless, but he wouldn’t miss a beat to tell you the truth: he hates his work. He is belittled by his corpulent babooz of a supervisor who plays Napoleon. More than anything, though, Anatole hates that he has to stay in one spot all day, measuring out the hours by the clock rather than how far he has ploughed into the earth. Those days are long gone. It’s all too deep now.

“What did I tell you? There he is!” Corelli whips and crackles.

“And there she is.” Anatole points at the ship.

“Ain’t she something?”

The vessel is certainly impressive: a trimaran fitted with two large outriggers, flanking a long deck area large enough for half a dozen men to lie down. There’s a roofed part—for sleeping and resting, Corelli later explains—and a large triangular mainsail with a somewhat smaller headsail in front, the whole rig furnished with various lines, ropes, and straps of whose names Anatole knows nothing but can tell are used to control the sails and steer the vessel across the ocean.

It goes without saying that the vessel is unmarked and unlicensed. It flies no flag, like almost all the small ships in the Pacific these days, bargaining on being too small for the Navy patrols and coastguards to bother with. “They have their hands full maintaining this uneasy truce we are living in.”

Two women are busy checking lines and boxes of food and supplies.

“Where was she made?” Anatole is stroking an outrigger.

“At a black printworks in a cove near Lanai Zone.”

Apart from near major ports like New Waikiki, most coastal areas are bandit and pirate territory. The authorities make halfhearted efforts to patrol for smugglers and new refugees, but everyone would rather be aboveground these days. Martial law is a very imperfect state of affairs.

“It’s good stuff.” Anatole is patting the ship.

“Is it?” Corelli’s lips curl, inviting a test.

“Sure. This is polycarbonate. You couldn’t ask for a tougher choice.” He touches another part of the vessel. “Good old ABS: acrylonitrile butadiene styrene.”

Corelli laughs and claps, dances a three-second jig. “See! I told you he was the right man for the job.” The two women seem neither impressed nor interested in the qualification Anatole has offered for his role.

Corelli suddenly drops the antics and segues to introductions. “Hey, ladies, this here is Anatole. He’s a dark horse.”

The women nod. Anatole learns that the younger one is Dian, a second-generation Javanese reffo in her early twenties. The other is Ansina, Chuukese and in her mid-forties. And from the casual way Corelli’s hands reach for her waist every time he passes, Anatole knows they are lovers.

“She’s an illegal,” he later confesses. “Her family was denied permission to seek refuge in New Honolulu twenty years ago.”

“What happened to her relatives?”

He shrugs. “Scattered. Now I’m her family.”

“I didn’t figure you for the settling-down type.”

“You call this settling down?”

The ship powers through the waves with surprising grace.

Anatole can’t recall the last time he was away from New Honolulu. Surely not since his last mining job, out at one of the final former landfill sites remaining above sea level. Now there are none left, what reason would he or anyone have for leaving the city? Travel is too dangerous unless you have a Navy escort. Decades ago, they had planes to take people to and from the mainland, but now not even passenger ships bother: it would be a one-way trip; not a soul wants to self-exile in these sinking islands and the mainland anyway already has enough evacuees. The Patch and its economic potential is practically the only thing stopping the federal government from jettisoning the state from the Union.

For the denizens of New Honolulu, with the exception of marginals like Corelli, you could get everywhere worth going by traveling between zones on the raised walkways. What were once separate islands in the previous century are now simply sectors of the same network of platforms and towers.

They are a remarkable thing to observe, which Anatole cannot resist doing as the ship pulls further away. For as manically conceived and desperately rigged as it all is, the results are spectacular from this distance: a malformed skyline right in the middle of the Pacific. The last steel available to the state was used to build the city’s main towers, along with the others in the lesser cities. These first towers were soon not enough, necessitating more built of polymer materials to accommodate all the reffos pouring in from across the Pacific after the Oil Drought. The cluster of towers continued to grow, printed polybeams and polyplatforms tessellating without discipline or design. And after China collapsed into chaos, followed swiftly by the whole of East and Southeast Asia, and Australasia shutting its borders, the towers became a beacon for all the peoples fleeing from the edges of the Pacific.

Anatole imagines the look on his boss’s face this morning when he didn’t show up for his shift. He knows he has just thrown away his source of income, but it feels good. He feels in charge of himself again, even if just for this trip. When he returns, he’ll hopefully have some money from the haul and will find another position making cogs or the like.

Corelli is a man transformed: crisscrossing the trimaran to grab lines and the boom, controlling the vessel like a giant marionette. Anatole senses his decades-old envy of his former schoolmate resurface and refocus: a resentment of Corelli’s insouciance that was capable of morphing into a ballet of precise actions performed on the moving ship.

Anatole is uneasy to be helpless in the hands of others. His offers to assist are rebuffed. “Don’t worry. Your job is the poly.”

The two women speak together in a trilling pidgin Anatole barely understands, though Corelli seems fluent. They are as busy as Corelli; when not engaged in tasks with the sails, they are staring out at the sea or breeze with a preoccupied intent that Anatole dare not interrupt.

He fills his time by setting up the poly-scanner and making some finishing touches to the homemade fuel converter he has brought. If they are becalmed—Anatole prides himself on knowing at least this nautical term—or need to make themselves scarce, Corelli has a propeller motor that he can quickly fit. Fed poly, the converter would give them fuel to drive the motor. It is crude, noisy, and inefficient as hell, but a lifesaver if you’re in a fix.

Later on that first day of their voyage, during a lull after they eat—fresh fish caught right in the sea!—Dian starts singing a shanty. Anatole the landlubber understands none of the lyrics but smiles at their buoyant ooh-arr-me-hearties charm. When they sleep, Corelli or Ansina take turns piloting.

The hours of the second day pass in fits of languor and helplessness. Anatole isn’t used to this exposure, being constantly on view to his fellow crewmates and to the ruthless ubiquity of the brine and sun. He feels naked and restless. He tries to learn what the others are doing or, when that proves impossible, to watch the horizon. Once or twice he thinks he sees a vessel in the distance. He seems to catch sight of a glider or balloon somewhere in the sky, but knows these could all be tricks of the light.

He stares at the iridescent body of water all around, which is weirdly devoid of life. He had imagined dolphins or fish frolicking here or there. The creatures have apparently retreated to the benthic depths, leaving their passage unchallenged, unchaperoned.

Sometimes Corelli fiddles with a printed contraption. A sonar, he claims, hand-cranking it. “It’ll beep if there’s a patrol nearby. It can detect their radio waves.”

Anatole scoffs. “Come on. You can’t trust tech no more.” Nonetheless, he is glad that the boxy device remains stubbornly silent.

“Anyway,” Corelli continues, “the Patch is too big to patrol. It’s the size of a country, if not a small continent.”

“So why isn’t everyone doing what we’re doing?”

“Maybe they are.”

No, they were but that is all history now.

After the Oil Drought two generations prior, accompanied as it was by the flooding of coastal cities and surges inland, followed by technological collapse, the world eventually turned to plastic for the answer to its troubles. While New Honolulu was rising into the skies and refugees fled submerged isles, a peculiar wave of economic migrants swept into the Pacific—Anatole’s own father among them.

The Plastic Rush was brief, quickly descending into war among nation-states in the region for control of the Patch. The truce holds for now, threatened by further diluvial pressures and the temptation of Australia and the United States to exploit the remarkable resource. The people who came for the opportunities are stuck in New Honolulu or somewhere similar, unable to book passage to the mainland due to the risk and expense of such a long sea voyage.

They start to see it on the third day: hulking into view in the distance, a floating moraine of craggy shapes. Anatole stands, rigid with reverence. It draws the attention of the others, who dare not speak for the final miles until they reach the first stretches of poly in the water.

The Patch is a nonpareil, one of the manmade wonders of the world, up there with the Great Wall of China. It is a canyon of plastic, stretching as far as they can see.

Anatole’s awed silence is finally broken by Corelli’s laughter and clapping. “You see! Aren’t you glad you came now?” The giddy sailor begins to pull poly out of the water with glee. Anatole glances at the pieces and instantly identifies them: PMMA, PVC, PP, PC, HDPE, PET. An endless supply of acronyms.

He dips his own hand into the sea and pantingly brings up a massive hunk of conjoined PVC. He studies it with a master’s eye, yet also tenderness. He looks out at the vast sweep of poly across the water and almost swoons.

The sea is full of fossils, interspliced antiques dating back to the twenty-first century. Every conceivable shape has contorted itself into being here among the floating poly, forming odd wedges melded and grafted into immense candelabrum structures several times the size of their ship. Baked by the sun and bleached by the saltwater, all the dyes of the poly have faded to various hues of the same pallor. It takes the crew some moments to adjust their eyes to the molluscoid complexity of the sight, though soon they can absorb both its magnitude and detail: not only the architecture but also the life that exists alongside it, for this is a seastead with communities of seafaring, glistening creatures weave in and out of the detritus. Others hitch rides on it—anemones, barnacles, brittle stars, starfish, all treating the Patch like a mobile strand, a littoral conveyance across the ocean.

The crew drifts in the Patch for an hour or so, just content to wallow in a marine field of marvels. It is almost with regret that Corelli starts preparing the nets, as if their purpose for coming here mattered nothing compared to the majesty of the vista.

Anatole’s professionalism is automatic. He processes the poly that the others haul in, snapping the tritonic crusts apart, separating them by type, and then using the jury-rigged scanner to verify certain clusters of material. Then he works the compactor to reduce the odd shapes and forms into more efficient blocks. These are then loaded into the nets hung from the ship like strange ballasts.

He glances over at the other three, intent on their work but with a detachment: for them, it’s all just a resource. Anatole can’t help feeling an almost paternalistic pity. He knows they don’t enjoy the same connection, the same synergy with the poly.

Consumed by the task of loading the harvest, and distracted by the noise of the compactor, the crew fail to hear the gentle yet steady putter coming from the west. Corelli is the first to spot the ship.

He squints, uttering a silent prayer that it’s merely another scavenger like them. The others frown as they watch him.

“Shit!” Corelli is rushing to the nets.

“Who is it?” Anatole asks, knowing the folly of his question.

Ansina and Dian spring into action, knowing they have minutes at most to get enough of a head-start.

Anatole joins Corelli, fumbling at the nets to release their spoils back into the ocean. “Australian patrol,” mutters Corelli, sweating violently.

The sail is unfurled and the ship starts to turn, but is quickly undone by the very object of its illicit voyage, the hunks of crusted plastic preventing the trimaran from steering at its usual speed. Dian uses a pole to push beautiful crystals of poly out of the way.

The Australian ship is calling something through a speaker. They ignore it and try to push clear. The last of the nets is jettisoned and the trimaran staggers forward, unburdened at last.

The sound cracks through the air and a flash shatters across the deck. Anatole is thrown to the side, instantly airless. He then realizes he is in the water. Dian is nearby, lying on a sheet of pearl-white PVC.

The trimaran is, incredibly, now in two, ripped apart and smoking. It doesn’t sink, but seems rather to be floating among the poly, bobbing up against the existing pieces. Anatole immediately intuits what will happen: that the remains of the ship will fuse with the Patch, its poly-printed components claimed by their kin.

He hears something and looks over to see the Australian ship has somehow turned and is already departing, its ammunition spent and punishment exacted.

“Corelli!” Anatole clambers onto a raft of PPT. Dian is still out cold. Something splashes behind him and he sees Ansina surface and frantically board a wedge of poly.

“Corelli!” But then he notices the red water on the other side of the devastated trimaran and the ominous sight of a floating human back in the bloody sea.

“Ansina! Can you get to Corelli?” He feels useless asking and she confirms as much with a bitter, terrified shake of her head.

Almost on cue, some pieces shift and a dorsal fin glides through the Patch. With brutally smooth efficiency, the body is tugged away and swiftly under the water.

Ansina begins to wail.

Anatole remains in a state of shock for hours, numb to hunger and the sun. He watches the Patch continue the process of assimilating the wreck, the outriggers encouraged by eddies to float beside certain bulks, acquiring natural companions.

Ansina’s cries come and go, like a kind of tide. Dian hums to herself, resigned to their fate. Anatole eventually has to smile: to be in the midst of such wealth, to have everything a modern human could need—food, water, fuel—so close, and yet to be cast adrift in a situation so hopeless. The sea, he concludes, is a charlatan, bountiful yet treacherous.

A small box meanders among its larger cousins. Ansina abruptly ceases her crying and reaches down, recognizing it as salvage from their erstwhile vessel. Her pragmatic mindset takes over and she forages, discarding items now made obsolete by their plight, but triumphantly raising a flare above her head.

“Let’s wait until dark,” she instructs them.

In the end, they don’t have to wait long. Their flare must have been visible for miles.

There follow a few nervous minutes as they hear the ship approaching but remain unsure who it is. The vessel that pulls up noisily to them, its searchlight sweeping a merciless beam over the poly, is reassuringly marked “U.S. Navy.”

No one attempts to make conversation above the engines of the ship. A rope ladder is perfunctorily dropped over the side and the three castaways immediately swim over to scrabble up it.

Towels are draped around their shoulders like a curious marine ritual welcoming them aboard. They stand in front of a man Anatole assumes must be some sort of captain, though his uniform in the dark seems much the same as those of the other half a dozen or so members of the crew.

Anatole had spent the hours while they waited for dusk formulating a story. It had all been a misunderstanding. A mistake. A prank. A dare. But now confronted by the might of the state, all his contrivances seemed faintly ridiculous. He makes do with smiling awkwardly, knowing the jig is up.

“Aloha.” It is all he can muster. He finds himself wondering what kind of ship they are on. A patrol boat of sorts, but so far from a coast? He is almost tempted to ask.

The two women are conspicuously silent, not even venturing to express relief or gratitude for their rescue.

“We . . .”

“Don’t even bother,” the captain clucks. “We pick up your type all the time. Where’s your boat?”

Anatole points to the remains of the trimaran.

“Citizen?”

Anatole nods.

The captain’s moue takes in Dian and Ansina. “I’m guessing you two aren’t. Refugees? Illegals? Any permit at all?”

They stay silent, hedging their bets.

Anatole tries to triangulate a helpful contribution but two immense bangs get there first. He has reflexively covered his face and only belatedly notices that Dian and Ansina are gone. Even with the illumination of the Navy ship’s searchlight, he can’t see or hear them in the water.

“You’re only alive because you’re a citizen. But the Coast Guard will probably press charges.” He thinks he see the man smirk.

He is still searching the black water when the captain is called over by another sailor, who is pulling a piece of the outriggers from the sea. They are examining the markings with flashlights.

“You were hit by an Australian patrol boat?” The captain’s voice is almost giddy. “These are strikes from an Australian Navy harpoon gun.”

Anatole affirms with a movement of his head but guesses its redundancy.

The Navy sailors confer. Anatole presumes it’s about the arrangements for returning to New Honolulu. There seems to be some below-deck quarters and he wonders if he’ll have his own cabin. He yearns for privacy. He vows never to leave the city again. He wants desperately to see the poly all around; the sound of it creaking and kissing taunts him.

“You’re in luck.”

“I am?”

“Yes. We’ve got good evidence here of an attack by an Australian patrol on a United States citizen’s vessel. And the death of a citizen.”

Anatole remembers Corelli being dragged beneath the waves.

“How is that good news?”

He wonders about the right way to address the sailor. Captain? Sir? Officer?

Then he wonders how they know about Corelli.

“Good for our superiors at Pearl Harbor, who are itching for a chance to end this truce.”

Now the sailor is smiling, no doubt about it.

But Anatole is already falling, a gasp of shock expelled just as he hits the water.

With instincts that surprise even himself, he flounders quickly for a hulk of poly. But then something rudely thrusts into him and he is pushed back into the water. On the second time this happens, the implication unnerves him: the Navy sailors are deliberately trying to keep him in the water. Their pole and searchlight work effectively to hound and exhaust his efforts.

Despite his frantic movements, the water is weirdly still. He moils, yet the ocean is indifferent. Surrounded by largesse, flailing amidst an embarrassment of riches. To touch is not enough, but now he can’t even do that. Slithering, slipping, his fingers find purchase on sluiced poly prizes, only for an unseen force to push him back. Find purchase again, until they don’t and he sees the bounty above. That monotonal purity is his, all above him, but soon too far to reach, and finally seen no more. A trail of blebs escapes his lungs, stretching up to touch the poly one last time.

 


William Andrews is a writer and translator. Originally from the UK, he has lived in Japan since 2004. His first book, Dissenting Japan: A History of Japanese Radicalism and Counterculture, from 1945 to Fukushima, was published in 2016. He is currently working on a biography of the filmmaker and activist Masao Adachi. https://www.williamandrewswriter.com

 

Traffic Lights

by Roxana Cazan

At night, traffic lights in the city look like miniature Christmas trees, says my two-year-old. He
has always known happiness. To me, traffic lights are the opportunity to sit with yourself for one
heavy second. The opportunity to break inside yourself. To blink and gaze with one eye toward
the heart. In the city, traffic lights sketch the space by means of time separation. They help us
move predictably, congruently despite dark intersections. Like compasses, boots, life jackets,
love letters, lap dogs, pills, or cuts. What would happen if someone came at night and took all the
traffic lights away? The city would be chaotic. Accidents would stud the highway. So many
dying on the horizon’s sour edge. Everyone would be in danger as if clutching sharp blades
against their chest. The old would spill saucers of hot tea in their laps because their hands won’t
be able to stop shaking. They would ask Why? The young would gather in abandoned parking
lots, weaving their feet’s traces together, asking Why? You’d hear your own life’s countdown.
Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Are you ready to let go? A traffic light is the certainty of your
tomorrow. A Romanian poet once wrote, I love you lighfully, and I think what they meant to say
is exactly this.


A first-generation Romanian American poet and educator, Roxana Cazan is the author of two poetry books: The Accident of Birth (Main Street Rag, 2017) and Tethered to the Unexpected (Alien Buddha Press, 2022). Recipient of the Jane Foulkes Malone Fellowship in creative writing and the Samuel Yellen Fellowship in poetry, Roxana received her MFA from Indiana University. Her poems have been featured in Poets Reading the News, Connecticut River Review, Construction Magazine, Cold Creek Review, among many others. She co-edited Voices on the Move: An Anthology by and about Refugees (Solis Press, 2020).

Boy in the Bubble

After Alec Benjamin 

by Olumide Manuel

The hip of this fellowship is red 

reclining warmth           this methanol

maims my blue anxiety like the sunset

spooning the 6:48pm to a shade of night

that shimmers down my broken face—

  wearing the sunset as an aurora           of bruises

back home                      my mother saw me and

folded me for a tendering              my glee did not

diminish                        I             love to think

about the humour of pummeling an epithelium

to red softness        —sinewing

its tightness against a blink of adrenaline—

panting with raised fist            shirts torn

bully boys doing crude violence because they know

no better—             my father who was more worried

about who carried more bloody stars

saw how well I shine with my broken nos           nodded

& it felt like I stormed through a manning-up rite already

—my head             a Jupiter with an atmosphere of ruptured

bubbles           the lesions like its many moons


Olumide Manuel, NGP IX, is a writer, a biology teacher and an environmentalist. He is a nominee of the Pushcart Prize, and the winner of Aké Climate Change Poetry Prize 2022. His works have been published on Magma Poetry, Trampset, Uncanny Magazine, Agbowó Magazine, Up The Staircase Quarterly, Frontier Poetry, and elsewhere.

Ghost Towns

by Rita Anderson

I do not remember whose idea it was
to visit Crabtree, Sandy, and Rheingold,
towns so ghosted from memory that

only longitude and latitude will find them,
but a somber air stills us when we spy
headstones through the wild grass on the hill

as we climb to enjoy a guilty beer at the table
between the old church and the schoolhouse,
where we discuss the ephemerality of our lives.

The directions say, You will pass a jackrabbit
that guards a cemetery that is as small and unfinished
as are most thoughts, and how oddly right it is

that solitude from our own pandemic drew
us here where, a century ago, cholera wiped
out these villages, but only the family who

owns the cemetery now bury their dead
in the unkept graveyard. A single gaze reveals
the depth of loss: It is an instant and understood

sadness of too many children felled
under markers that still look brand new,
but they go with no stories, only names—

and painfully-short dates. Silenced
ourselves, now, we close the gates
to everything but the lizard and the deer

that live here, the shuffle of bottlenosed
butterflies who migrate and mate this time
of year. Or end, en route, as a smear

on the windshield.


Rita Anderson is an internationally-published and an award-winning writer. She was Poetry Editor of Ellipsis (the annual literary journal of University of New Orleans), and both of her poetry books—The Entropy of Rocketman (Finishing Line Press) and Watched Pots: A Lovesong to Motherhood—have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She has an MFA Creative Writing (Poetry Emphasis) and an MA Playwriting, and her poetry has appeared in over 100 publications.

Te Quiero

by Laine Derr

My mother-in-law rarely edits: Much as Gracia pot time Bello mensaje,
tell quiet y estoy Feliz. Messages from an autocorrect god makes untangling
sentences like a grandmother struggling to fix a rough running lawn mower.
Tell quiet, I still say as a sister recounts another day – searching for
newly planted flesh, grass scented fingertips reflecting a blue-black sky.


Laine Derr holds an MFA from Northern Arizona University and has published interviews with Carl Phillips, Ross Gay, Ted Kooser, and Robert Pinsky. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming from Chapter HouseZYZZYVAPortland ReviewOxford MagazinePrairie Schooner, and elsewhere.

in the art gallery

by Jiahu Wu

the art dealer and the artist were talking about little boys with guns

one said              I never bought guns for my boys

the other said     someone gave my boy a gun when he was here

—                      you know what the boys did if no one ever bought them guns? they ate their vegemite sandwiches into the shape of guns and held them in their hands

—                      when my boy had the gun everyone around him started singing and clapping and he laid down on the ground and smiled with the gun in his hand with the gun by his side he was so happy

opposite the gallery a guy sat in front of the watchmakers and read a book on his kindle

his brown jacket and white lapels stood out against his blue jeans

                           he looked bored as hell

                           on the white chair

the rain threatened but never did wash away the dolour attached to the concept success

                           aka 'making it'

the fat tourists in grey track pants and adidas hoodies rolled their noisy suitcases down

                           the road

they disappeared behind adina hotel entrance as if they entered a portal towards a secret

                           concentration camp right here

                           in the middle of the city

through the open windows I tried to guess the occupation of each inhabitant

                           engineer

                           architect

                           lawyer

                           student

                           widow

                           window washer

no a window washer would not live here

                           the rent is too high

the dog that came in had his tail between his legs

he had clear but sad eyes

no morals came through—    the day was a riddle

the art dealer gave commands

the artist responded cordially

the poet sat on the floor and felt the cold concrete against her bum

conclusion:

girls liked puppies barbies casuarina trees and sitting on the ground

boys liked guns


Janet Jiahui Wu writes and makes art. She has published in various publications of literature and is working on her first book. She lives and works in Sydney, Gadigal country.

Drinking Coffee in Ankle-Deep Mud With Aliens

the fuzzy, pink aliens came
and indeed they had lips
thick like zucchini
and soft like the velvet belly of a puppy
all slobbery, too,
smacking together when they spoke
the aliens told us there is a god in our coffee steam
and asked what is all the fuss about?
we said we just have so many tasks!
indeed the aliens had soft-ball-sized eyes
they told us we see your task
your task is in the jelly-legged ranks of steel-toed society, kicking your swollen feet through the
sludge and hauling quarry stone with crackling finger bones – building the high-rises where
kings are buried
your task is where scabby hands pour oil into pumps that suck gunk out of drinking water –
spilling hydraulic fluid the whole time
your task is in your eyes crossed into one another – bloodshot and clotted with dying
your task is in your squishy lungs inhaling volcano sunsets and nuclear fog
your task is families collapsing on knees – shivering in the rain – hungry – praying for
horsepower and corn
your task is sinking in the sloppy earth – screaming gurgles to seismic detectors – making the
last plopping bubbles to be heard by heaven
your task is in the mud
indeed the aliens had big bellies and met us with hugs
they told us you have to try stopping
let the choir take a breath
we all grew thumbs once

Aliens Keep Hummingbirds As Pets

My mother always kept a mummified hummingbird in her china cabinet. It was tombed in a

glass box with tarnished brass corners, smaller than a deck of cards. The china cabinet’s

glass

was thin and it curved between the varnished, cherry frame. That Kentucky antique was

responsible for my family’s blood pressure, pulsing like bowling balls through a water hose

every time we moved homes.

Don’t let it break! Don’t let it break!

We moved every few years. My family replaced hugs with trips to the grocery store for

banana

boxes and packing tape. I can’t remember hugs from my parents. I’m sure they would have

happened, though. I think growing up was a bit like army crawling under a tissue paper

blanket

suspended eight inches above the carpet, and the world will end if the paper rips.

Oh well, humans don’t live so long, anyways. That’s how ZZZZXCHRT sees it.

Also kept in the china cabinet was an almost-complete set of yellow depression glass,

which is a

see-through, glass tableware that used to be included in food packages during The Great

Depression. Mom collected it, and was only missing the gravy boat and a sugar jar. My

Royal

Rangers trophy for winning a match car race was also there, along with some Mickey

Mouse

drinking glasses from the 70s.

ZZZZXCHRT, when they first came to Earth, was fascinated by the contents and spent

hours

examining each piece. Most of all, they loved the hummingbird. It made them cry steaming

tears

that fogged the glass.

Aliens keep hummingbirds as pets. They use our planet as an incubator and aviary.

XXKRRRKRK originally introduced hummingbird eggs to our planet about thirty-million

years

ago, as well as gnats and cardinal flowers. They did not expect creatures with moral

agency

(humans) to evolve here.

Every year, thousands of hummingbirds are abducted for the intergalactic pet trade. They

are

dying now. I sometimes try to impress my dates with how many facts I know about

hummingbirds. I’m still single.

The birds are dying. ZZZZXCHRT is here to investigate. They heard of my mom’s

hummingbird, the only-ever mummified hummingbird. That’s how we met.

They asked me if she preserved the body because it had been her pet. I said no, but when I

was a

child, Mom did keep a stillborn goat and a dead hamster in our freezer for three years. She

kept

the baby goat to bury with her mother, who, for years after the still birth, hobbled around

shedding cacao fur in the corner of her dusty pasture, distant from the other goats.

Eventually,

she leaned-leaned-leaned over dead in the dirt.

2

(As a side-note, I had another goat named Abigail get eaten by a dog. She had been very

affectionate. Her daughter, Windy, later got her head caught in a fence and broke her neck.

My

family never had so much luck with goats.)

No one knows why Mom kept the dead hamster. I feel too weird to ask. It had died of old

age

before we even had goats, but was also buried with the goat family. In my family, we could

be

reprimanded for laughing too hard or too much.

We also don’t know why she kept the hummingbird. When Mom was a small child, it died

flying

into the window of her family’s Kentucky home. She put it in a glass box, and the box turned

out

to be air-tight, so the carcass didn’t rot. Fifty years later, I think she’s just seeing how long it

will

last.

Her mother, my grammy, is breathing bleach and wandering the halls of a small-town

nursing

home. There are other people with her now, in her Alzheimer's mind, children needing her

care

and short people living in trees. Grammy keeps eating. We do not know how long she will

last.

Are humans preserved in glass? ZZZZXCHRT wants to know. No, we burn those fuckers and

turn them to ash. In fact, my dad’s parents, Grandma and Grandpa, we kept their ashes in a

closet

for eighteen months because the trip to the family graveyard in Iowa was too expensive. We

eventually got them there.

Hummingbirds are the only birds that can fly backwards. Hummingbirds weigh less than a

nickel. Pesticides are killing the hummingbirds. Hummingbirds sleep hung upside down.

House

cats are killing the hummingbirds. Hummingbirds cannot smell, walk, or hop, but they have

excellent eye-sight. Red dye is harmful to hummingbirds. Hummingbird wings flap over fifty

times per second. When hummingbirds migrate, they fly over the entire Gulf of Mexico in one

go.

That means on this trip, they flap their wings around 2.75 million times. Habitat loss is

killing the hummingbirds. Hummingbird tongues can move in and out of their beaks thirteen

times per second, potentially making them the most naturally-gifted creatures at cunnilingus, but

this has never been observed in the wild or captivity.

ZZZZXCHRT’s report on hummingbird mummies as a potential threat to their species was

inconclusive. They told me when I die, they would like to put me in a glass box, also, to

remember our time together.

 

Frozen Girl in the Butcher’s Meat Locker

by Amelia Mwale Eilertsen

I am left to wonder, do you ever feel the need to slide out of body? Slip skin over shoulders?
Expose rose-petal-delicates over butcher’s plastic? Scars mar the softness of my skin where
callous histories lay, impossible to forget, impossible to peel away. A violence all my own
grows like a graft. The widow, on the back pew, unseen by the nailed god, asking for time, she
leaves as she entered, without noise. I soak up the rage she’s too meek to lay at his feet. It’s
like antiseptic; cleansing, strong. It keeps the desire away, the need to dim, unlike the bug
zapperhung up as a tapestry, some screwed up trophy of all the beautiful things I am allowed
to collect; plucked wings and that infernal humit does not carry a note to keep the flies off
my sweet, sweet meat. The freezer isn’t cold enough either. I can smell the changes from here,
above the light, below the frost. As I pull the drawer, rime makes rattles out of ice, and I
remember there is friction to breathing, but the battered ribcage no longer dances, the
diaphragm does not fist the cavity space for oxygen, it no longer remembers to plunge up air.
It has become too easy, dimming. This fight with the body to keep the mind is a passive after-
thought. There’s a willingness now, to slide out of body, slide out of mind, to strip myself bare
for the butcher that keeps me in his meat locker, the one with holes on his palms and feet, and
a hunger for something I cannot duly satiate: mortal acquiescence, to serve as some devout
thing, satisfied by how I’m cut-up and packaged, wrapped in plastic that smells alive with rust.

 

Close

(In Memorium)

Tell me I am what is left of Choros; of green and grass and places to rest. Lay your weathered
seashells over the mounds of my dirt, hush seeds under my heft so I may yet still possess the
smiles of spring to usher in a new greenone fortuitous enough to see the comets come and
sing as the sky lights up in wreaths of pale blue flame. Tell me I am what is left and I will tell
you yet of the things still possible; of the bodies I can yield and the faces not yet sprung. The
word (the science, the religion) told you we were separate, mirrored limbs on a giant body. I
tell you we are branches of root; spanning, spanning, spanning and entwined. I am rich and
deep and, just for you, cavernous with a place to call your owna place all nice and hollowed
out without you by my side. You are my bones, my homely bones where I make music from
your silence, where I sew history to rock, instil story to seeds and sprout (next spring) a memory
almost of you. And when you claw your way down to the burrow like the rabbit or the hare or
the hunt-crazed fox with a lonely tail, seeing in my colours that I am, indeed, what is left, I will
hold you, corpse or copse or the hate I held in abandonment, as I have always held you: close.

 


Amelia Mwale Eilertsen (pronouns: she/they) is a queer, Zambian-Norwegian mixed-race writer with a BA in Creative and Professional Writing from Bangor University. Currently enrolled in an MA program at the University of Oslo, her life is a cosmic swirl of insomnia, travel, and the brief spaces between the making of a moment and watching it pass by. She has had poems published with Landlocked Journal, High Shelf Press, Passengers Journal, Temenos and Poetry Wales, among others. She can be reached at @ameliaconny on Instagram.