“Ghost” by Vera Armstead

I told my sister she would haunt our house when she dies because she carved her name into the wall of our house. Thin little letters written in sloppy cursive appeared, a sort of silver against the white. She must have used the point of a pen without ink, leaning over the edge of the banister that seperated the second story of our home from the first, taking her life into her own hands.

“You’re going to haunt this house in 100 years when you die,” I remember saying matter-of-factly. It made sense to me at age 8. Branding your name on something to take claim of it, for its whole existence, forever. That’s what we learned in history class in the third grade; practically.

She stared at me with a warped facial expression that indicated confusion, but also amusement at how random her little sister, 8 years younger than her, could be. I still see it clearly in my mind. “Um…what do you mean?”

I held her larger hand in mine, leading her to her masterpiece. “See?” What couldn’t she understand? It was simple. She had to lean close to it, pressing her nose against the wall to observe the almost translucent features of her line work.

“I don’t even remember doing that.” She seemed spooked at the idea of dying, the idea of haunting. Years later, her name was covered by three thick layers of beige paint. Sometimes I return to that spot on the wall, rubbing my fingers over the area that her name lies beneath, wondering if it will ever bleed through to the surface.

Now I realize how morbid it was of me to suggest that my only sibling would die. Everything was simpler back then. Maybe I understood the circle of life. Maybe I too wholeheartedly believed in the idea of ghosts. Maybe I didn’t have the chance to contemplate the prospect of spending life after death in the midst of dirt underneath a gravestone.

At least, in my mind, there was hope of an afterlife, even if one is a ghost.

Bio: Vera Armstead is a writer aspiring to be a mental health counselor. Vera is currently pursuing a degree in Psychology with a minor in English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She is the Managing Editor of The Point News and has publications in Teen Belle Magazine, along with Her Stry, Vamp Cat Magazine, and Avatar literary magazine. You can reach Vera at @farmv8 on Twitter and Instagram.

Photo by Rowan Heuvel.

“The Annual Trashing of Summer” by M. Carrigan

At the beginning of each season, I am full of ambition. I will tackle the season like a massive house renovation. I will mold it somehow, contain it. I will save it, because perfection is worth saving, and I am terrified I’m trashing so much.

I will design the summer as effortlessly as they do these things on HGTV.  I imagine starting the mornings with French press coffee and a plate of danishes arranged like a children’s choir, each one so deserving, angelic, heavenly, buttery. We’ll see animals at the zoo, see fireworks from rooftops, take the kids hiking. They’ll have matching water bottles. We’ll eat salads frumpled up like geometrical shapes and charred alongside the slices of pineapple on the grill. We’re beautiful, we’re human, and we grill fruit.

Each day will stand alone, a smooth stone grouted onto the aquamarine backsplash that I learned how to do from HGTV. I’ll make zesty lemon wreaths, also learned, to affix to my door and welcome the season, the summer, the sun.

The reality is, I get washed away in the ocean of it. A trip to the beach, the ice cream outings, setting up the sprinkler in the backyard for the kids, the pool birthday parties, lazing in front of the TV and soaking up the air conditioning. They continuously meld together until one day, it’s late August, and school is about to start. Summer, amorphously.

I failed to contain it, yet again. It felt too good in the moment to float away into that ocean. Besides, I don’t know how to grout. I aspire to grand home renovations and end up at the thrift store, collecting back the things that others have trashed.

Bio: Alter-ego of blog The Surfing Pizza, editor grande supreme of Taco Bell Quarterly, party person, original owner of Spuds MacKenzie, enjoys staring at sun.

“Getting Off the Plane in Saudi Arabia” by Saleh Asad

As I arrived at the airport, I was caught off-guard by the rudeness of fellow Saudi airport staff. The queue was a spiral of Afghani men, who seemed too comfortable in the long line, together with White British and American nationals who were getting slipped through the front of the line for no apparent reason but the obvious one. I thought to myself “This has to be a joke”. 

There is no way, “I” as a South African Indian male, who has been through apartheid, and in the clutches of segregation, come to Saudi Arabia as a Muslim, only to find out that my skin still isn’t the right shade of human. 

I was bowled over. I was irate. I knew that the fire in my belly stirred like an angry dragon, waiting to exhale a ball of fire on also brown-skinned uniformed guards.  I waited and waited. My eyes caught a line of Ethiopian women, with long colorful garments on. Their eyes looked weary and frightened. A Saudi passport controller quickly reached for a spray bottle and filled the eye socket of a droopy Ethiopian girl who was not keeping her head upright enough for the camera. This was the second time in 30 minutes that I witnessed blatant disregard for human -rights. It was no exaggeration, because being in that moment will all those men, with no one daring to say anything meant that everyone knew, that to speak was to cause unwelcome issues. 

When it was finally my turn, I made sure not to engage the Saudi that stared at me like a judgmental food critic about to devour his meat. I handed over my passport and to my already astonished and shell-shocked brain, he blatantly asked me how I am South African if I wasn’t black. I didn’t know at the time, but this would be the most asked question by Saudi people over the course of 7 years. Funnily enough, this question didn’t leave their mouths, when a white man in my company stated he was from South Africa. Maybe it was because they figured that was what White men do. They colonize places they aren’t from but it was more than that. 

The Saudi Arabian mentality was far more abstruse than that. They have been conditioned to believe that the white man was the savior of everything “this-worldly” whilst they, the inheritors of Islam were the saviors of the other life. 

The airport doors shut behind me and the reality of over 40 degrees of hot air penetrated my nostrils, as a rude Indian man directed me to his Hyundai. The car park was filled with desperate men, each vying for passengers. Passengers who didn’t know their lives of subservience would change them forever. 

Much to my disdain, I found myself in a dusty apartment with the leftover stench of a careless couple. Perhaps they left in haste. Perhaps, leaving moldy crumbs on the floor and a mattress that reeked of sweat and dust was their way of getting “Saudi” back for what they might have gone through. 

“The Slide” by Lina Lau

At the fun fair, you grin, hair strands already escaping your pony tail, wisping wildly around your small face. You pull your hand out from mine and run straight for the monstrous, orange, inflatable slide. The rainbow striped dress you insisted on wearing flails out from under your green spring jacket.

Oh no, I think. That is too high for you. My chest tightens as I shuffle after you. I adjust the weight of your baby sister on my hip. If I put her down, she will toddle off.   

You slip off your black runners, hand-me-downs from your cousin, and just as I am about to yell at you, I realize the other kids are taking their shoes off too. The sign says No Shoes Allowed, but you cannot read yet.

You place your runners neatly to the side amidst the jumble of footwear. Words stick in my throat.  You push yourself through the swarm of kids. Smaller and younger, I lose sight of the top of your head. I call your name. Again, louder. Shriller. I start towards the crowd but quickly stop, realizing I can’t get to you.

 The slide is too high. My neck muscles tense.

 You will panic. My mouth becomes dry.

 I will need to come and get you down.

I sigh, exasperated. I  call your name AGAIN. My brows furrow, my breaths quicken.

I untie my laces, slip off my shoes. I imagine you at the top, frozen, lips pulled down into a grimace, searching frantically for me. What will I do with the baby? I will have to take her up with me when I come and get you. Everyone will have to wait, and watch. Will I bring you back down the stairs? Will I have to slide down with both you and your sister? Is that even allowed?

I watch you climb up, up, up. Rhythmically, one foot in front of the other, never looking back.

I start to push my way to the front of the crowd, still lugging your sister on my hip. At the top, you turn around and barely glance at the crowd. You move quickly, plop onto your bum and push off with no hesitation. You sliiiiiide all the way down.

You run over to me, eyes wide, slightly out of breath. “I did it!” Your voice is whispered, shaking. “I’m going again.” Braver this time.

I exhale and my breaths start to even. You climb again, more confidently. You wave at me from the top. I’m grateful my fears didn’t stop you this time, from learning what you can do. I wonder about the next time. I place your squirming sister on the ground and as she starts to pull me, I follow her lead. 

Lina Lau writes creative nonfiction and lives in Toronto, Canada. Her work can be seen in Hippocampus Magazine, carte blanche, and Little Fiction Big Truths. It was also longlisted for the 2019 CNFC/Humber Literary Review creative nonfiction contest. Find her on Twitter at @LinaLau_. 

“Drive” by Scott Neuffer

Bend the clouds w/ your speed. Blown trees. Tires licking asphalt. Zoom, zoom. You’re free. Freer than you’ve been. Drink the blue sky. But don’t forget. Come back. Remember when it wasn’t you driving, when it was your parents behind the wheel? Blue Ford F-250…

You were in the back in the camper shell lying on sleeping bags. No seatbelts. Brothers whispering. Dark pines ragged through the window. Toward Montana. Toward a point when the acceleration settled in a hum. Ensconced, as if floating. You touched the bumpy ceiling, safe. 

Infiniti JX-35, metallic-white. Tires squealing through desert dirt. Yap, yap, kids in the back. Look. See the mountains I found you? This is Nevada warped by speed. Do the peaks free your mind? Hold on. We’re gonna take this corner fast. Do you trust me? 

Scott Neuffer—author of RANGE OF LIGHT (forthcoming) and SCARS OF THE NEW ORDER—is a writer, journalist, poet, and musician who lives in Nevada with his family. His work has appeared in Nevada Magazine, Foreword Reviews, Underground Voices, Construction Literary Magazine, Shelf Awareness, Entropy Magazine, Wilderness House Literary Review, Gone Lawn, and elsewhere. He’s also the founder and editor of the literary journal Trampset. His indie rock music is available on Apple Music and Spotify. Follow him on Twitter @scottneuffer @sneuffermusic @trampset

Photo by Eric Weber.

“Je Ne Suis Pas Jaloux” by Nuala O’Connor

Surrounding a kelly-green field is a dry-stone wall, limestones loose and snug, stacked to hold back Atlantic wind and salt. In the field there are sheep; moon-faced and trusting, they dot the grass like a scattering of rice. There is no way into this field, no gate, no opening. When farmers want to get a herd inside, or a tractor, they unmake the wall.

Before you reach this place of fortressed fields and soothing seascapes, there’s a city – small, medieval, arty. This city hurt me and so, for years, I didn’t happily travel through it to get to the beauty and balm of its hinterland – everything in the city, and beyond it, was tainted. The city itself was not my pain, of course, but people in it, specifically a married pair who set out to destroy me. Why did they do that? Fifteen years of holding my hurt to the light, of looking under and over and around it brings me always to the same conclusion: they were envious.

I’ve always liked the French word for jealousy, ‘jalousie’. They are jealous. Ils sont jaloux. Jalousie, like most things said in French, sounds less nasty, less shameful than its meaning, less parsimonious of spirit than its English counterpart; it’s a soft word and it shimmers, an iridescent gem, warm as ruby, pellucid as aquamarine. But jalousie is jealousy in any language and it’s an ugly thing.

I frequently stop to examine my own levels of envy, it’s inevitable in the world of writing – large success comes only to a rare few and some writers’ successes rankle, especially when they seem unearned, frequent, and loaded with that most elusive thing, luck. I’m an adult, nearer death than not, so I make firm attempts to quash jealousy when it wriggles through me like an unbidden infestation. I rationalise that one person’s fortune does not mean fewer good things for others. I congratulate people on all successes in life and in work and, mostly, I mean it when I say that I’m happy for them. But there are always those successes that sting, like the time a twenty-five-year old wins the under forties prize I’m being considered for. At forty years of age, it’s my last year to be eligible and the winner, clearly, has fifteen more shots. I’m properly jealous of her youth, her talent, her prize.

But, I tell myself – warn myself – that other writers’ jealousy once ruined my life; I left my job, my home and my marriage, so up-ended was I by the relentless hate campaign of that married pair which, all these years later, has not ended. The couple’s ire has been directed, too, at other writers who – in their opinion – rose too fast, too soon. But when people see themselves as king and queen fish of a small pond, they tend to thrash and splash a lot which eventually leads to less water and a lot of gasping. Luckily, you can’t gasp in a puddle and not get noticed and others, finally, have begun to see these fish for who they really are. Which means my burden is unloosening.

I’ve come to realise that by not going to that kelly-green oasis beyond the city, I’ve been cradling a spent hurt, one that needs to be released to the wind. These days, I pass through that western city more easily and allow myself the pleasure of breeze-chewing sheep; I revel in the restorative batter of salt winds on my skin; and I admire anew the art of those ancient stone walls built to keep things out as much as to keep them in.

Nuala O’Connor lives in Co. Galway, Ireland. In 2019 she won the James Joyce Quarterly competition to write the missing story from Dubliners, ‘Ulysses’. Her fourth novel, Becoming Belle, was recently published to critical acclaim in in the US, Ireland and the UK. Her forthcoming novel is about Nora Barnacle, wife and muse to James Joyce. Nuala is editor at new flash e-zine Splonkwww.nualaoconnor.com Twitter: @NualaNiC

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge.

“Cacophony” by Kaori Fujimoto

I sit at my dining table as the world awakens around me. The street was dead quiet until twenty minutes ago. Now, at 6 a.m., with my curtains still closed, I know it’s raining because car tires slap and glide over wet asphalt. These cars, trucks, and buses whiz toward Route 246, the road that leads to the central part of Tokyo.

I work at home, and sounds from the street whirl in the room while I stare at the computer. Ambulances and fire engines race past, sirens blaring. Police cruisers call out to stop traffic offenders. Garbage collectors blast music to urge people to take out their trash. Preschoolers utter excited shrieks during their daily stroll while their teachers warn, “Don’t step off the sidewalk!”

I live amid cacophony, though these noises are not always as annoying as they seem. I can’t afford to mind these sounds as I type, email, read replies from clients and groan, do the laundry, cook and eat, and sporadically vacuum my modest residence.

Yet sometimes, the din stops for a moment to let me hear the rain falling onto leaves, or sparrows chirping as they play, squawking as they fight, and calling out to each other to stay close. My hands forget whatever it is they’re doing, and my ears listen to these sounds—or for something beyond these sounds, something that speaks to me in whispers when the wind rustles tall grass in a vast field, or a brook bubbles in the woods.

Whatever human activities take place in an urban setting, nature continues its life in the background. And, in a moment like this, it reminds me that I’m cradled in its arms.

Kaori Fujimoto is an essay writer and freelance translator based in the Tokyo area. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, Brevity Nonfiction Blog, South Loop Review, Easy Street, Punctuate, Wanderlust Journal, and other publications and anthologies.

Photo by Ryoji Iwata.

“Daughter” by Hauwa Shaffi Nuhu

It is that age where the sky is blue because we live in a giant blue eye, and brisket bone is biscuit bone. My hair is a thick wild bush and I cry every time I have to make it. That day, my friends from the neighborhood gather around me until I have finished washing my socks and am now free to leave the house and go with them to play. I am 5.

That day, we do not go out. We stay in my house, playing around with appliances until finally, I break something. I do not remember what it was I broke, but I do remember that it was something my father treasured, and that the sound of it breaking was so loud my mother heard it from her room and rushed to the living room to see what it was. There I was, standing and trembling like a leaf, wide eyed and terrified at what I had done, my friends around me, equally wide eyed but in place of the terror that rushed through me in gushes of tremors, were gradually getting excited at the prospect of the impending beating I would get. I was that girl whose father never spanked her. Whose father took her wherever he went and bought her whatever she wanted. But now, I had crossed the line and they would be there to witness the breaking of a law when my father returned. This was a historic day.

My mother stands over me, fuming. Still clad in the clothes she wore to work earlier. I am trembling so hard and my eyes are full. She asks rhetorically, “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE!” and the only thing stopping me from crying at this stage is that the terror going through my small body does not give room for tears.

“Wait until your daddy returns. You will get the beating of your life”, she goes back inside her room.

There is silence in the living room as I slowly go to sit on the couch, my legs hanging in the air, not reaching the ground. My friends are sitting on the couch too. Each clutching their dolls and waiting for my father to return from work. We look like cups lined on a counter. Memory can be tricky, but still, I recall it to be the longest wait of my life.

When finally he returns, my mother has come to sit in the living room too, expressing over and over again her horror at what I have done. Assuring me that though she cannot bring herself to hit me, my father would definitely do it and I had better be prepared.

When we hear him drive into the compound, my internal body begins to riot. I will recognize it years later as my first contact with something that resembled a panic attack. The moment he comes in, my mother sits up and begins to inform him of what “this child of his has done”. My head is bowed, my fingers tangled in each other, and my shoulders trembling when I feel him grasp them. Now whimpering violently, I lift my head to look at him, ready to begin to wail.

Wordlessly, he scoops me up from where I am sitting and lifts me high up until his face is leveled with mine. He kisses my forehead and rests my head on his shoulder as he proceeds to his room.

This is when I begin to cry.

Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu is a Nigerian poet and essayist whose work has appeared on Popula, Ake Review, After The Pause journal, Brittle Paper, and elsewhere. She is a 2018 fellow of Ebedi Writers Residency. She writes from Nigeria where she is currently rounding up a law degree.

“Crossing the Border” by Ethan Warren

Long before graduation, and jobs, and more school and more graduation, before wives, and kids, and moving away from each other and back and away again and then back for good—long before all of it, John and I were just two cocky teenagers realizing they were in trouble, and that it was too late to switch lanes.

We were returning to New England from a weekend of drinking in Canada, and as we listened to the bottle of schnapps—too precious to leave behind as we’d dumped the remaining cans of shitty beer down the sink that morning—rattling around the glove compartment of John’s car, we realized we’d picked the slow lane at border control, the one with a guard on a mission.

We should move over, John told me, but the words tumbled from his mouth a heartbeat too late. The cement barriers had appeared. Before we’d had the chance to understand what was happening, fate had drawn us into the lane with consequences.

The guard was a small man, grizzled and hunched, and we stewed as he prowled John’s car tapping every hollow and popping every latch. Our coiled guts began to loosen as he seemed ready to grudgingly wave us through, but then he turned back.

The schnapps rolled out like an arcade prize, and for a moment there was a sort of serenity as all eyes surveyed the exposed truth. But finally, that grizzled gaze turned our way, and he offered five words that fell on us like sandbags: It’s all downhill from here.

Inside, we stood silent and small as a customs officer ran us through the system. And when he’d finished, he asked the cold, simple question: why’d you do it? John began spinning a rationale off half-truths and obfuscation, but I couldn’t bear it. I shot from hip with the cold, simple truth: we thought we could get away with it.

John fired me a look of shock and rage, but the officer just nodded and then led my oldest friend outside to pour our contraband down a storm drain. And when they returned, he told us one more simple truth: I could call my buddies at the state police. I could make this all a lot worse. But I won’t. Because at least you were honest.

We were damned by the cavalier belief that there would be no consequences, but that same ignorance became our salvation. We were Icarus, kept aloft by the absurd belief that our wings could never melt. This is what I think about so often. We thought we could get away with it. And we were right.

And we’ve been right every time since. Through crisis and triumph, achievement and loss, joy and pain and both entwined so tightly it’s hard to tell where one begins and the other ends, if either even does.

But we creep inexorably towards that moment when we can get away with it no longer, and I feel the slope steepening just a bit more each day. But until the day comes when it all finally does go downhill at last, I have no choice but to wait, and wonder if it’s too late to shift lanes, and whether it would do any good even if we could.

Ethan Warren is a senior editor at the online film journal Bright Wall/Dark Room, as well as the writer/director of the independent feature film “West of Her.” A graduate of the MFA program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, his writing has been featured in New Limestone Review, New Plains Review, and the Stage-It! 10-minute play anthology. To learn more about his work, please visit http://www.ethanrawarren.com or find him on twitter @EthanRAWarren

“0.00” by Grace Campbell

Ray makes bail at one-thirteen p.m. and overhead, the game show blasts the defcon-one siren and the red lights start to swirl and I have less than zero point zero-zero time to gather up as much shit as I can into the trunk of the car that runs on the roulette of bad luck. I lay into the key, into the ignition, into the metastatic chug of the beater old enough to have voted in the Carter administration. I make that ramshackle prayer that it’s not broke, broke like Ray’s supposed to be. Only Ray fisted forward the three hundo to make bail which came from nowhere and everywhere, exactly like Ray might do now, down my slumbering side street with one last reminder of his love, fully loaded, the safety clicked off.

In the days before Ray hit send on his millionsomethingish messages to my phone, my gmail, my facebook, my actual, physical mailbox, I used to watch that game show where ladies got to hoard their grocery carts with as much processed shit as they could hurtle in under zero point zero-zero seconds. Which was heaps of funny, which was what I called stress back then, sloughing the skin off my knuckles with my teeth, wondering who would win the cash prize. But now, it’s not Benjamins falling from the studio ceiling but the sky falling from the sky itself, a thing that happens every day ending in a Y when you’re the woman who has rejected the man.

So now I get the consolation prize for not being straight up dead: an endless syndicate of reassurances I offer every seasonally-concerned friend that I won’t be outlined in chalk the next morning. A script whose entire summary fits between ten and two on the wheel, a script old enough to have voted in any administration, one that works every time, until Ray doesn’t care if he makes bail any more.

Maybe I’m on the side streets with the engine needle lowkey flirting with the letter E on the gauge, or maybe I’m burning some pretend force field around my house while I stare at the box-font of the digitized numerals on the disposable clock clicking through the wee hours because, sleep: nice try.

Maybe I’m the next contestant on that frighteningly successful game show with no cash prize. I try to break through the hex of male entitlement by pushing a cart to some finish line that will never be crossed, the audience knows this already. I was too effin’ good at filling it full of crap in the first place.

Grace Campbell is the fiction editor at 5×5 and a founding editor at Black River Press. She is the author of the chapbook Girlie Shorts and was awarded a 2018 June Dodge fellowship at The Mineral School. Her work has been selected for inclusion in Best Small Fictions 2019 (Sonder Press) and has appeared widely, in such journals as Brevity, Joyland, Foliate Oak, New Flash Fiction Review, Spry and Jellyfish. She lives and works and hoards tinted lip balm in Olympia, Washington