Cloud D. Cardona (she/they) is an illustrator, poet, and educator born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. Cardona received her B.A. from St. Mary’s University in English Communication Arts and her MFA in Creative Writing from Texas State University. She is the author of What Remains, winner of the 2020 Host Publications Chapbook Award. Her poems have appeared in Apogee Journal, Cosmonauts Avenue, Salt Hill Journal, and many more. Cardona co-founded Chifladazine, a zine that highlights creative work by Latinas and Latinxs, in 2013 alongside Laura Valdez. In Fall 2019, she co-founded Infrarrealista Review, a literary journal for Texan writers, with Juania Rivas Vázquez.
You, Removed | Santiago Márquez Ramos
I wake up to a pounding heart that spells out fear in the rhythm of its beats. I’m curled up beneath the blankets on my bed, clutching myself, protecting my body from what’s soon to come. My eyes flutter open, my vision focuses on the picture on my nightstand. My parents and brother and sister, smiling and laughing and posing in front of the pyramids of Teotihuacan, surrounded by the green beauty of Mexico. I want to caress it; I want to burn it. It’s the only picture from our last trip there.
I hear rustling behind me. A yawn, a stretch, a moment of silence. A sigh. I can feel her staring at me, but I don’t turn around.
“You don’t know who you’ll become,” says Luna, after a moment.
I avoid turning to face her. “I don’t know who I am now,” I say.
She shakes her head and rolls over. It was an argument that we had had many days, mornings and nights, but our relationship was struggling even before I decided to do this. Today would be the last day we would have it, one way or another.
I stare at the ceiling silently until she sighs again and leaves our bed.
When the first superhuman appeared, the world became obsessed. Here was the first person who could read and alter minds. Governments tried recruiting her. Scientists tried to study her, replicate her powers. Nerds thought they would get the first real superhero. Everyone wanted to control and direct her power. Instead, she kept the job she had always had, and the world got something very different and very much mundane: The first therapist with 100% effectiveness rate.
And anyone who tried to tell her differently found themselves forgetting why they were there.
It isn’t until I hear Luna turn on the shower that I shuffle out of bed. I get dressed. I make breakfast. I go through the motions of the everyday, silent and indifferent, the only difference today being the burning nervousness in my stomach, which I avoid. I avoid thinking too much, or feeling too much. I avoid being in my body, or seeing it in the mirror. The color of my skin, my lips, my nose; the reminders are too painful. Instead, I get ready for just another day, for the last time.
The subway is crowded on the way to work. I make myself small and avoid eye contact, feeling both seen and invisible. My fingers fidget with my jacket and I see a colorful subway ad about her. Her, the telepath, she who changed the world in the tiniest way. At some point, she realized therapy was too slow, too inefficient. That she could change minds directly, alter and cut and take the suffering away. She became a surgeon, removing painful memories like the cancerous cell they had become, rotting the person from the inside out with grief. She removed entire people from memory, and gone was the trauma that came from them, the brain replacing the gaps automatically. Soon the waitlist to see her was thousands of people long, and I lost hope that she would ever see me.
I only got in because of the strangeness of my request.
Shouting brings me back to the moment. My eyes refocus on the subway. The shouting comes from a burly man standing above a woman and her young son. Don’t speak that here, you don’t speak that here, he shouts. He slaps the metal pole after each word, spit coming out of his mouth. Fucking terrorists, he shouts. The crowd seems oblivious to what is happening. The woman and her son hold each other close, eyes wide in fear. She reminds me of my mom, the day we found out about the war. The woman’s eyes flicker towards me, noticing my skin, my lips, my nose and
I lower my eyes to the ground until I reach my stop.
Work is the blur it always is. I grab and hold and hammer and cut. The process is arduous and violent, even though we are creating something stable and beautiful; and I like using my hands for work, it takes me out of my head. Around me, my coworkers sing and laugh in hushed, forbidden whispers, hoping the sound of construction stops our language from floating into the wrong ears. The sun slowly trances its path through the sky to the rhythmic sounds of metal against metal. By the end of the day I feel exhausted and grateful.
We’re in the locker room putting our tools away when complete silence befalls the coworkers around me. The hairs on my neck stand in fear as I turn around from my locker. Their gazes are on me, their faces an ocean of emotion. My friend Carlos steps forward, his hands holding a cake with candles. My heart can’t calm down, but I smile too. Tres leches is my favorite cake.
“Before you forget it,” he says, speaking in forced English.
My voice drops down to a whisper. “Gracias,” I say. It would’ve felt wrong to say it any other way.
We eat cake and joke and laugh, until it’s time to say goodbye, my pounding heart leading every step of the way. Good luck, everyone says as we walk out. See you tomorrow, says Carlos with sad eyes.
I walk the sunset lit path towards the clinic. Heavy clouds decorate the horizon, making it seem like mountains made of orange and purple cotton candy watching over me. I feel a pang of nostalgia and guilt, remembering the mountains that looked over me back home. Knowing I would soon forget. My phone buzzes in my pocket, startling me. My shaky hand grabs it and raises it to my ear.
“Miguel,” my mom says.
“Ma,” I say. I press my lips against each other, knowing what’s coming next.
“I love you,” she says instead. Not trying to undo my decision since the first time I made it.
I break down. “Me too,” I cry.
I know she wants to say that she is heartbroken too, that there are other ways to deal with it. I know it. Instead, she says, “We’ll wait for you at home with Luna, your dad and siblings and I.”
“Okay,” I say. “See you soon.” It’s all I could manage to say without breaking down even more.
I hang up as the clinic looms in front of me. Two lines of people, ones begging to go in, ones begging for it to stop, line the sides of the steel and glass building. I look at my feet and walk in, ignoring them. The assistant nods me by and I guide myself through the maze of sterile white hallways, walking to the cadence of my jagged breaths. I stand in front of the last doorway, willing my hand to stop shaking.
I open the door.
She sits behind her desk, her eyes closed. I feel naked, stripped of everything that protects me as she enters my mind. It feels like being touched gently by cold hands.
“Welcome,” she says in my head, opening her eyes and nodding to the empty chair.
I nod and sit. I wring my hands out. I want to pull my hair out. I want to scream. I want to run away. I want to get it over with. I want to not be me.
She knows all of this already.
She nods and smiles in understanding. “I’ve never removed an entire country before,” she says. “It might take a while. Your mind will fill in the gaps though, there is nothing to worry about. The memories and pain will be gone.”
Memories flood my brain. The victorious election and the hope that came with it. The resentment of a divided country, used as a weapon. The anger, the hate, the scapegoat. The scapegoat. Us. The coup. The promises made on blood. The war, the fear. Fleeing, because we were lucky. The bomb. Everything I had known, destroyed.
She sees all of this. She holds it in herself, sharing it with me.
“Are you sure you want to do it?” she asks, out loud, taking me out of my thoughts.
I close my eyes and wonder how my brain will replace the gaps left behind an entire cultural identity, an entire country, removed.
Santiago is a therapist mainly working with Latinx immigrants in New York City. Originally from Mexico, he is passionate about weaving culture and identity, mental health, and social justice into all his stories; as well as Spanish, his native language. He lives in the intersection of magic realism, existential wonder, and whimsical self-reflection; but you can also find him running between coffee shops while battling the second draft of a novel, or writing poetry for strangers at Central Park. His work has been published in Litro Magazine USA, Literally Stories, and is forthcoming in Stray Books’s Pulp Kings Series, and was longlisted for Voyage Young Adult Literary Journal’s 2020 short story award.
The Reception | Joel Hans
I duck out from the reception—the dancing too surreal, the band too alive, the newly-married too happy, the margaritas too soft. I take a path to a hummock to a stream where I find a duck I recognize from a story my mother once told. A duck that carries people to the other side. I tell her I should get back, pointing toward the reception that’s gone quiet and feels a lifetime ago, and now she’s large enough to carry me. She lowers her head, asking me to climb aboard. To where—not across this timid stream, not across this land where the mosquito is the most common bird. I do. Over what. To where. She’s warmer than the stories had warned. Her wings steady as heartbeat. When she glides, the world around us goes silent as for the dead.
Joel Hans has published prose in West Branch, No Tokens, Puerto del Sol, The Masters Review, and others. He received his MFA from the University of Arizona and continues to live in Tucson, Arizona with his family. He can occasionally be found on Twitter @joelhans
three a.m. texts | Kate Rowberry
Kate Rowberry is a young writer whose work has appeared in Paper Crane Journal and The Global Youth Review and has been recognized by the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers and Bow Seat. She also enjoys reading, but she is somewhat guilty of tsundoku. That TBR list must end somewhere, right?
Nice, Clean Margins | Joseph Lezza
Joseph Lezza is a writer in New York, NY. Holding an MFA in creative writing from The University of Texas at El Paso, his work has been featured in, among others, Variant Literature, The Hopper, Stoneboat Literary Journal, West Trade Review, and Santa Fe Writers Project. His debut memoir in essays, “I’m Never Fine,” is due out February 2023 from Vine Leaves Press. When he’s not writing, he spends his time worrying about why he’s not writing. His website is http://www.josephlezza.com and you can find him on the socials @lezzdoothis.
Shrieking Human Tumbleweed | Maureen O’Leary
The Witch Who Eats Children
The waistband of my pantyhose are digging into my stomach which is too full really because I overdo things. I can’t say no to what I like. The principal calls me into the office and I can tell from her skirt’s sausage-like fit that she is wearing Spanx as well and I want to lick her neck and tell her everything I am feeling but I don’t. Instead I smile and shake her hand, grateful that I brushed my teeth before this and hoping she can’t hear the screams calling from my throat. She wants to know my experience, my philosophy of education, my theory of classroom management.
I want to share that my mortgage is coming due. My credit card is exhausted. Can she relate? Robbing Peter to pay Paul is a no win situation for a witch without an income. The principal asks if I have questions and my thighs burn where they rub together and I think, I will release myself in a ripping apart of these tights, this straight skirt, these high heel shoes. I think, I will run through the forest naked, I will dance around a fire, I will pull flesh between my teeth and blow through tiny fingerbones as if they were whistles. Instead I ask, what is the pay scale, what are the benefits, what are the options for a 401 k?
I want to act like a tough cookie with the applicant for the first grade teaching position. I make a steeple with my hands and I think, Tough Cookie. The red nail polish on my right middle finger is chipped. I am light-headed from intermittent fasting. My neck is hot, turning red I bet. The current first grade teacher is quitting in the middle of the school year for a job in tech data management. The teacher shortage you’ve heard about is real. There is no one else applying and I want this woman. Her eyes are brown as warm chocolate chips and I wipe my hands on my skirt and think, Cookie.
My thighs flex under the desk and the office fills with the scent of spruce and bay leaves and to hide my confusion I suggest a walk through the school and tell Nancy in the front office to hold my calls. In the hallway our heels echo. My voice is a bird flapping against the windows as I say competitive salary scale and pension plan. The applicant makes a noise in her throat like thunder and though we are indoors a gust of wind rushes through our hair.
A student looks up from her worksheet as we clack clack past the classroom door. Her eyes are wide, her hair lovingly pulled into braids. She’ll never be fifty-two years old facing over a decade of a job she doesn’t hate and doesn’t love. She’ll never have to settle for lattes with women she met online whose faces she can’t remember five minutes after leaving the coffee shop and this makes me glad. The applicant stands at the doorway, her back straight as a dancer’s. She is not noticing me. She is staring at the child.
There was a witch that came to school today. She wanted to eat me.
Nancy In The Front Office
In training we learned what to do if we hear screaming in a school. Run toward the crisis. Throw a stapler at the attacker’s head. You probably won’t survive but you may cause a distraction and save a child.
When I heard the screaming I did not run toward. God forgive me. I ran away.
The Current First Grade Teacher
From my students’ names you would think I work at an old folks’ home. Margaret. Katherine. Thomas. Ethel. It’s Ethel the woman has by the arm. By has I mean biting. By biting I mean as if the child’s forearm is a barbecued rib. Ethel screams. I throw a stapler at the woman’s head and smell woodsmoke and pine trees. The principal grabs the woman from behind and it must be the stress from this toxic work environment because for a split second the two women are naked. For a split second the two of them seem to be dancing out of the room.
Ethel rubs her arm and cries. There is no blood. There is no broken skin.
The Carpool Driver
They got in a car together but I didn’t see where they were headed. I was at the scene because getting to the pick-up line twenty minutes early is the only way to get everybody to soccer practice on time on Thursdays. I listen to audio books while I wait, whatever. It’s fine. So, I saw two naked ladies run out of the school building together. And when I say run I mean kind of barrel out in a jumble of arms and legs. I’m just telling you what I saw. It was a shrieking human tumbleweed.
The Principal (Again)
If this were an audiobook: The snap of elastic when torn asunder. The rip of polyester blend when shredded and kicked away. The clack of the applicant’s teeth as I pull her away from the child. My own feathered voice rising: Pay attention to me, to my blood, the rushing of my heart, the pulse between my legs, the pulse between you and me. Break my skin, my love. My darling. Break my skin.
Maureen O’Leary lives in California. Her work appears most recently in Train Poetry Journal, Live Nude Poems, Hush Lit, Coffin Bell Journal, Black Spot Books’ Under Her Skin, The Esopus Reader, Passengers Journal, Punk Noir Magazine, Tiny Frights Magazine, Reckon Review, Patchwork Folklore Journal, and Feral Poetry Journal. She is a graduate of Ashland MFA.
anonymous quagga | Jodi Bosin
Jodi is a Philadelphia based writer and social worker with poetry published in Always Crashing, Peach Mag, and HAD. Find her on the front porch and on Instagram @jodi_bosin.
Salt Lore | Bryana Lorenzo
In the marshes, the mud and mulch sucked up to the rim of our boots like leeches sucking blood lollipops. Flies and lightning bugs and coiling, hissing snakes buzzed or led or stalked between our feet, between our limbs, our skin. As did the air, the fog, the mist of the bog. The mists that colored the world slate and the tall reeds a brackish green.
“One wrong step,” my brother claimed, “and you’ll slip on the bodies I’ve buried and become one yourself.”
Whenever he said that, he’d often try and trip me with his foot, sending me tumbling into the soft dirt, cackling as I pushed myself out of the grime, pushed away stray limbs newly buried that wouldn’t last long in the ravenous mulch. But tripping over bodies that weren’t buried an hour ago or less was a ridiculous notion, because those bodies already belonged to the bog, to the never ending marshes of salt that consumed all that lived but oh-so especially loved the dead, the limp, the never-moving, the never-escaping. By the next day after the bodies were buried, they were already gone, digested, the soil purring like a well-fed house cat.
And yet, life thrived on the marsh: me, my brother, a tiny, impoverished, plague-ridden town made of crumbling wooden cabins and a graying white chapel. And in said chapel, everybody prayed, prayed for relief from illness and the darkness of the marsh. Whispers in the town surrounded by the marsh spoke of a witch in the reeds, a wicked one who could control the mud and mosquitoes and illnesses that crept in with them.
“I heard the girl in the good doctor’s house has a third eye in the back of her head,” whispered the milkmaid.
“I heard she feeds dogs and pigs and goats to the marsh,” gossiped a spinster.
And on the edge of the mulch, where muddy soil met water and became river, lay our manor—the only well-kept building besides the chapel—strangled in vines and moss and imported kudzu. Inside, the walls were lined with shelves, the shelves lined with books, the books filled with lore of medicine through the ages, of ancient and modern law, of herbs and their uses, of the marshes, of salt lore. And upstairs lay our bedrooms, separated by thin walls, so thin I couldn’t hardly whisper to myself in my own bedroom without him listening, hearing my curses and bitter murmers. And up in the attic were the patients, the plague carriers, the victims, the dead.
These outsiders—the orphaned, the bastards, the supposedly sinful—those whom the town never notice are missing, those whom they’d prefer dead. Those were the souls whom my brother never healed, whom he infected with plauge and spirits them away, playing with their bodies like ragdolls made of human flesh, poking and prodding to see what makes them tick and eventually croak. Those were the souls forever lost, forever locked away in a dark attic of rotting wood, dead rats, cobwebs, and human bones. Scant light hardly crossed the unholy threshold through the one and only window covered by thick grey drapes. And overseeing the window was a bloody cross, slightly tilted, the wood scarred. In the night, the still-living prayed to it for mercy.
And so, in the night, I awoke.
My brother once claimed that the mulch bled sin from the ground, stole away the sinful, and led them astray to the Devil. It’s why he buried the bodies in the mud, between the unclean, sticky, sickly grass, the bodies covered in plague puss. But really, the mulch took any and all dead, gorging itself on the sacrifices my brother gave it. Not even the Devil himself dared mess with the marsh’s offerings. According to the salt lore, the marsh always hungered for a sacrifice. Otherwise, it would grow weak, weary, starved. Then it would do more than suck at the rims of our boots.
But when it was full, it acted as a guide. The marsh was full of treasures if one knew where to look. Comfrey, meadowsweet, bee balm. Each herb was a grace to the sickly in the attic. Each soothed. Each healed.
And each day, my brother bemoaned their bettering.
“The sinful deserve sickness,” my brother said. “No mercy from the marsh should save them.”
“What makes you worthy of deciding who is and isn’t sinful?” I asked.
My brother cackled. “Sinners see sinners.”
Once, after nurturing the sick in the attic, I grew infected with plague, and my brother made me sleep out in the middle of the marsh so as to not sicken the manor. Exposed to the elements, my skin sagged, clothes grew damp, plague puss burst as my body seeped into the dirt. My brother warned me not to ever stay still, lest the marsh smell my sin and take my still-body for a corpse, slowly chewing me away. He must have thought that I’d slowly waste away, but instead the muddy mulch slowly healed me, nursed my wounds like a midwife nursed a sickly newborn.
Then one night, he came to check on me and I pretended to be dead, and in the darkness he tripped over my body. The mud left red rashes on his skin, scarred any open wounds, filled his nostrils and lungs. Even though he got up as quickly as he fell, it took him three weeks to recover from the attach, particularly because I refused to nurse him, as I was attending to the sick in the attic after all. My brother claimed the marsh loved the sinful, and it clearly loved the taste of his skin. And what other creature was more of a devil than the good doctor of the marsh?
I saw no sin in the marsh, though I didn’t see virtue either. I heard the whispers of the breeze between the leaves, the rumbling hunger of the twisting mulch beneath me. Grass caressed me, parted itself to guide me. The salt told stories and I listened. Listen to the salt lore and wealth comes thy way. Listen to the tall grasses and the reeds. Others watch me do such, watch in fear and in awe. But they only saw illness in the reeds, illness in me.
But they never saw the fleas that infested their dogs and cattle, never heard the rats and roaches and their cupboards, never felt mosquitoes on their exposed skins. And they never saw my brother after dark, up in his attic, keeping the ill as ill as can be without killing them. Until finally they drop, a colony of flies in a jar out of oxygen. Then they’re given to the marsh.
Because the marsh is always hungry.
The townsfolk believe that the witch and the Devil danced in death, but the salt lore tells another tale. They danced in life, and dueled for blood, for who felt the tip of steel in their gut first. The marsh waited for one or the other, waited ravenously for their power to stuff their gull. But the Devil and the witch kept dancing, for neither could make a move without risking their own neck. But still, the marsh demanded a sacrifice. The marsh was always hungry. The marsh was always watching, always waiting.
The night was a welcome time for nightshade tea, which was not a concoction common in the marsh. Perfect to drink above a bony body, fed to the marsh. Of course, my brother never knew what he drank had nightshade. He merely thought it was his ordinary lemon tea. My brother once said that death tasted of sin, and yet never noticed the taste of sickly sweet poison. Though then again, sin begot sin, and the marsh wasn’t one to keep waiting, for it sought to satiate its hunger. The marsh always needed a sacrifice, and that night it sought the Devil. Come morning, a lily would bloom where my brother once lay. The bog was full for now.
Pushcart Prize nominee Bryana Lorenzo is a Junior at Boone High School in Orlando, Florida, a Junior Editor at Polyphony Lit, and a storyteller at An Insipid Board of Ideas—a storytelling blog and nonprofit dedicated to spreading awareness of social issues through short stories. Her fiction has been featured in Outlander Zine, The Graveyard Zine, Rhodora Magazine, Le Château Magazine, The Literary Canteen, Pile Press, Agapanthus Collective, Block Party Magazine, Novus Literary Arts Journal, io Lit, and The Talon Review, and is forthcoming in White Wall Review. You can find her on Instagram at @bryanastarwrites, or on Tumblr at bryanastar.tumblr.com
i don’t believe in eras; i believe in just one time | Sienna Liu
Sienna Liu is a writer of prose and poetry based in London. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cotton Xenomorph, A Velvet Giant, HAD and Lit 202. Her debut poetry chapbook ‘Square’ was recently published by Black Sunflowers Poetry Press. She sometimes tweets @siennaxliu.
Testimony | Tara Propper
The truth of her is not
perennial. The orderlies
maintain her with tools
and un-love. There is no need.
The trees care for none
of this, bending toward light.
And the nursing birds, tending
their stories, sink toward sun.
Everything’s gone from me, now
The bed-sheets scroll sickness
And the holy roses need
something new to keep.
Tara Propper has earned her MFA in poetry and PhD in English. As a poet and scholar, she is interested in the poetic dimension of inhabitation and embodiment, particularly the ways in which physical spaces erupt, interrupt, and disrupt private interiority and vice versa. Her poetry has appeared in the Southampton Review, Long Island Sounds, Literature Today, and is forthcoming in Moveable Type and P – Queue. Her chapbook, Lessons in Nomadism, is under contract with dancing girl press. Her scholarly work has been published in Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, Feminist Rhetorical Connections: From the Suffragists to the Cyberfeminists, and Composition Forum. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Instruction in the Department of Literature and Languages at the University of Texas at Tyler.