Under The Stars by Andrea Balingit

1896, Philippines

The girl stood in the middle of the sala. Everyone hushed and took their seats on the chairs that had been spread around the room, lining against the wall. The girl started to call in a low voice filled with sorrow. She raised her hands, her fingers trying to grasp the air. Her call rose, louder, sharper. Her dance became anguished and distraught, her toes tipping, her soles skipping a few inches as she tried to find someone she could no longer hold. Her face crumpled into despair when reality washed over her, and she made a gurgled cry as she vomited the pain that welled from her heart, twirling and twirling in the cacophony of emotion.

Maria tried to watch the girl, but she could only see the man across the room, who held a tray in his hand and offered refreshments to the guests. The man who chattered beside her in a hushed tone, who she vaguely remembered as a bachelor her mother had introduced to her earlier, faded from her senses. She was consumed by the man who was now slowly approaching where she sat, the voice of the girl a distant shrill against the loud drum of her heart.

Maria followed Manuel across the room, every stop, every pause, every murmur, every smile he gave that the guests didn’t return. They didn’t care.

But she did.

She never took her eyes off him, afraid that he would vanish from her sight. 

He was only three chairs before her. Two.

“No, thank you,” the man beside her waved away the tray.

Manuel offered his tray to her, “Señorita?” 

Maria started from the sudden applause around her, pulling her out from her reverie. She blinked and looked up. “Thank you,” Maria picked up a glass filled to the brim. 

Manuel smiled at her and bid her a pleasant evening. She returned the greeting in a shy whisper. If he had heard it or not, he didn’t show it and proceeded to the next chair. Maria sipped on her glass, the periphery of her vision trailing on the man.

The girl who had been performing in front disappeared into the shadows and was replaced by a sweet run of the harp. 

“May I have this dance?” The man beside her had stood up, along with everyone else in the room. His bronze hand hung in the air, open for her to take.

Maria saw her mother watching them across the room, a big smile on her face. She forced herself to smile as she took his hand, her empty glass falling into another servant’s tray. He led her to the middle of the room just as the piano joined the sweet beckon of the harp. Maria and the man bowed at each other. He pulled her in a respectful distance as he brought their clasped hands in the air. His other hand rested on her waist, and Maria laid her hand on the gentleman’s shoulder and their dance began. 

The man stared at her eyes, but she couldn’t meet his and stared at his hair, at his ear, at the blur of the audience behind him. She had learned dancing at a young age and had been told she was quite proficient, yet she felt herself stumbling along with him. She didn’t hold herself with grace and elegance like she had been taught. Her mind became occupied with the glimpses of her parents standing on the side—beaming and smiling at them, sighing in relief at someone else’s comment—as they traveled across the floor in this battle called courtship.

But it was only his battle. Everyone had approved of this man, whose name she could not remember. He was a son of a close friend of her father, perhaps a general, with a good family history befitting of her status as the eldest daughter of the town’s Gobernadorcillo. 

But he was not what her heart desired. 

She still could not meet his eyes as they made a slow turn. “You seem too silent tonight, Señorita.” 

“The night is too beautiful, Señor. I’m afraid my words would make it less.” The excuse spilled before she could even think.

They stopped turning and she Manuel over the gentleman’s shoulder. He stood nearly in the shadows, watching them.

Their eyes met. 

Maria wanted to pry herself away from her dance partner and flung herself to the man that watched them from afar. She wanted to be in his arms and wander in his eyes until she got lost.

The piano made a few steps and the dance ended. She bowed to her partner; her attention still pinned to Manuel who stood far away from them. 

But Manuel turned away and melted into the shadows.

“I must go somewhere, excuse me.” The words spilled in a rush, and she could barely get them out as she ran across the room, murmuring her excuses to the other guests, her other hand lifting her saya to keep herself from tumbling down.

She spilled onto the silence of the asotea, the candles on the pillars flickering idly. She ran across the pale tiled floor. She saw a shadow move on the wall, “Wait!”

The other parts of the house were barely lighted, but her footsteps were quick and sure, falling into the steps she had known by heart. She skipped down the stairs that led her to the zaguan where they stocked the harvests and carriages. The moon that spilled from the grilled windows guided her to the heavy double doors. She pushed them open and was welcomed by the cold night air of the garden.

She heaved his name. Manuel stood a few feet ahead of her. “Señorita, why are you here?” 

“Why didn’t you wait?” She said in between gasps.

“You must go back inside, your saya will get dirty.” She wanted to laugh; it was too late to worry about her skirt. “Your parents will be worried as well. It is inappropriate to be alone with a man without a chaperone.”

“You know my name.”

Manuel proceeded as though she had not spoken, “You must get back, Señor Hernandez will find you soon.”

“Who?”

“He was the esteemed Señor you were dancing with.”

Maria’s lips lifted into a shocked O. “I saw you watching us.”

“Yes, I apologize for abandoning my duties. It was a mi—”

“No,” Maria stepped forward. To her relief, Manuel did not move away. “No.” She didn’t know how to say that she wanted to dance with him instead of that Señor Hernandez. She didn’t know how to say she would rather have him instead of all the land, jewels, and status she would have if she married one of the principalia.  

She realized the silence had stretched between them as they gazed and drank each other in. Maria tried to form the words again, but she couldn’t. She didn’t know how, and she feared she might push him away further.

“Maria, you must go back inside.”

She saw the pain in his eyes. She saw the hesitation as he dropped the last word. She noticed little things she had never noticed from anyone before.

“Say my name again.” She had always loved the sound of her name in between his lips.

“Maria.” How sweet it was, like the ripened mangoes she had always loved. Like the coconut juice they drank fresh from the coconut husk during the summer.

“Tell me to go away again.”

He looked pained, and she basked on it. She stepped forward but he didn’t move. He didn’t utter the words.

“I will go if you say it again, Manuel.” 

Another step. 

He didn’t move. He stayed still, but his eyes were screaming. Panic? Horror? 

Whatever she was doing made her feel in control, made her feel like she owned herself. She no longer followed any rules or anyone’s words. She no longer had the urge to satisfy anyone. She knew what she was doing was outrageous, she knew she was going against the etiquettes that had been ingrained in her since she was a child. But it was bliss, an explosion of freedom she had never felt before, to finally do what she wanted to do.

“Say my name, Manuel.” She stood a few inches away from him.

“Maria,” his voice came out a ragged gasp and she felt stars burst inside her. 

“Do you want me to go?”

“No.” He didn’t even hesitate. 

And her heart leaped. She wanted to do many things, things she had never experienced, things that would bring shame to her family and destroy her virtue, things that were against the image of piety and purity that girls her age and status must exude. 

Instead, she offered her hand. “Dance with me.”

“I don’t know how.”

Maria inched closer and laced her fingers around his. She pulled his other hand to rest on her waist before she laid hers on his shoulder. “Follow my voice.” She taught him how their feet should move, “Hold on tight to me.” Back, forward, back, forward, until they fell into a synchronous rhythm, sweeping across the garden. The buzz of the cicadas became their music, the full moon their light, the stars their audience. “You’re getting it.” She grinned at him, but it fell away when she met his eyes. It was darker than before, but it seemed to twinkle like the stars around them.

“You’re very beautiful tonight, Maria.”

“Thank you,” she replied with a chuckle. “And you’re dashing tonight, Señor.” She pretended they were in the sala again, dancing for everyone to see, in a world where he was not a servant and she was not an heiress, a world where she did not have to sneak glances to catch a glimpse of him every time he passed by, a world where they did not have to talk in secret. A world where she and Manuel belonged to a society that would accept them and the love they shared. 

But the stars accepted them, and they danced and danced, lost in each other’s eyes. Lost in each other’s breath, in each other’s scent that mingled with the soil and the city’s humid air. And Maria realized that was enough, as long as they were together. As long they were we and not you and I. 

“Maria—”

“Don’t,” Maria begged, desperate not to break the enchantment they have put upon themselves. 

“We ca—”

“Please,” Maria leaned closer. His face was almost a shadow in the moonlight. Her sight was consumed by his eyes. The sparkle in them had flickered out sometime, and it had become sad, hopeless. His lips quivered, ajar, and she realized how close they were. She had never been this close to any man before. 

Maria laid her forehead on his shoulder, burying herself in darkness as they slowed into a sway that could lull her to a fever dream filled with him. “I want to stay like this forever,” she murmured against him. “I want to stay with you forever, under the stars. I don’t want anyone else.”—but you. I love you.

Maria bit back a sob. She couldn’t say the words because she was afraid. A part of her still sought her parents’ approval. She will always be torn between her parents’ happiness and her own happiness. If the words would be uttered, it would give her reason to hope, to believe that it would come to fruition, when she knew—they knew—that it was not possible. 

They stilled as the spell broke. Maria felt empty. She felt as though she was a spectator watching herself alone in the garden. She fell onto the grass, gazing into the darkness, alone with the stars that were her sole witness to the dream that she fulfilled but filled her with so much pain. 


Andrea Balingit is a Filipino student and writer from the Philippines. She’s currently trying her hand in reaching both local and international audiences through her written works. Follow her on Instagram at @cheeseislyf and on Twitter at @IamBUTTiful.

If I Had, I Would by Megha Nayar

This story was first published in Variety Pack magazine, Issue II.

If I had a functional womb, I would transfer the Calendar widget to the home screen of my phone. It would be one of my go-to icons. I would use it all the time, marking dates in red, yellow and green, apportioning each month into anticipation and action. I would insert tiny notes: expected start date, ovulation period, conception window, safe days for risky romps. I would feel both normal and special, like other women. 

If I had a functional womb, I would spend unhurried hours in the Personal Hygiene section at the supermarket. I would check out different types of sanitary napkins – some embossed with butterflies and smelling of roses, others gift-wrapped in mauve and purple like birthday presents. I would want to know the difference between the regular and the XL pads, the day-time ones and the all-nighters, the cottony-net covers and the insta-absorb ones. And though my friends tell me that napkins with belts became redundant after the arrival of self-adhesive pads, I would still buy one box of each kind, just so I know how they feel against my skin. Femininity is as much about feeling as it is about being, and I have not felt much in a long time. 

If I had a functional womb, I would crib about periods like all the ladies I know. I’d join the elaborate discussions my co-workers have in our restroom. I’d complain about the heaviness, the backaches, the dreaded cramps. I would pout and make faces and go tsk tsk tsk, but unlike them, my discomfort would be superficial. Inwardly I’d be happy to be uncomfortable, ecstatic even, because menstruation is the gateway to maternity, and maternity is a grief-sized hole in my heart. 

If I had a functional womb, the sight of my sister’s children would not give me pangs. I would grow my own babies. I think the first one would be a daughter. She would start out as a basic lump but quickly take on human form, sprouting little arms and legs and miniature fingers and toes. The first time I visit the doctor, she would give me a glimpse of my little girl in three dimensions and I’d watch her, mesmerised, like a wide-eyed child on her first visit to Disneyland. The doctor would prescribe a whole new lifestyle – fresh fruit, supplements, morning walks, yoga. No cigarettes now, she would warn me. I would nod vigorously, for once unbothered by her sanctimony. On the way out of the hospital parking, I would dump my lighter in the trash can without missing a beat. For that little girl, I would willingly surrender my sins. 

If I had a functional womb, I would have an altogether different life. I would need a bigger house and yard and washing machine. I would make peace with a smaller bank balance. I would use a different car: not the singleton’s hatchback but the harried mother’s pick-up truck. It would have tennis balls and school books sprawled across the backseat and a confection of used socks and candy wrappers on the floor. The insides of the car would smell of assorted kiddie fluids – sweat, phlegm, tears – instead of lemongrass and patchouli. My house would often, if not always, look ravaged. There would be 90-decibel tantrums and daily yell-fests. Food would be cooked, argued over, wasted. Toys would break, books would tear. There would be crying, sulking, reconciling. I would scold, then soothe. The days would be endless, the nights shrunken. I would be poor and cranky and exhausted. If the lives of other mothers are any indication, I would lose a lot of my former self – my hobbies buried, my friends adrift, my youth gone. 

And yet, I would relish all of it. I would pick the cacophony of motherhood over the white noise of my solitude in a heartbeat. 

If only I had a functional womb. 


Megha Nayar was longlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2020 and the New Asian Writing Short Story Prize 2020. Her work has appeared in several magazines and is forthcoming in Bending Genres, Rejection Letters and Marias at Sampaguitas, among others. She tweets at @meghasnatter.

Annabelle The Doll Takes New York by Bridget Flynn

The Voice inside her – the bad one – is in such good spirits.  

The museum in which she lives is shuttered, with a sign on the front door reading  “CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.” 

What’s begun? A plague of sorts. A sickness, the Voice purrs.  

So she and those around her are left to rot upon the shelves – at the very least, to collect  dust and argue amongst themselves. Here, in the Warren Occult Museum of Haunted Artifacts,  there are too many curses and demons and spirits now left to their own devices; There isn’t  enough room for all of them. 

This is why, she thinks, it is time to leave.  

The Voice takes over here. It animates her. It twists open the latch of her case, throws her  across the floor and, eventually, through that front door. 

But it’s she who decides where they will go. 

She is going to New York City. There is someone she’s been missing there.  

*** 

She met him on a night that, at first, felt like any other, though the dark Voice inside told  her to be vigilant, that a chance to possess and feed and maim was close –

The lights were all turned off and the door was locked after closing. It shut her and her  cohorts in musty silence. (Though she’s different from the others. She’s the only one in her own glass box that reads: DO NOT TOUCH! She has the Voice to thank for that.)

The grandfather clock that is said to weep blood chimed ten times, and the front door  opened yet again.  

Humans.  

Men. Two of them. 

Boys? No, they approach closer. Guys. Really, the Voice refers to all humans as  “playthings.” Vulnerable vessels. She’d quiet this Voice if she could.  

“Greetings, ghouls and ghosts fans,” one says, “we’ve trekked on the MTA all the way  over to Monroe, Connecticut to visit the famed Warren Occult Museum.”

He’s talking to the cameras, one strapped to his chest. Its yellow light swept the stacks of  cursed and cluttered curios, then trained, bright, on her.  

“We’re here, of course, to meet the Museum’s most notorious resident, an otherwise  unassuming child’s toy, said to be haunted by an ancient demon…the infamous Annabelle the Doll.” 

That’s her. How embarrassing.  

She was suddenly self-conscious of her stringy red hair, of the dust that’s settled in it. It  was like someone had flipped her over to check the tag on her cotton pantaloons. The Voice just  laughed darkly. 

“And Cooper here believes we’ll get footage that confirms the existence of ghosts,” the other guy said, “or, excuse me, demons, in Annabelle the doll.” 

This other guy stepped forward into the camera light. His camera was slung across one  shoulder, gear was looped around his waist. He wore a headset over his hair slick with pomade.  But it was his eyes that struck her: behind glass frames, button-black and sparkling—so like her own!

He stepped again, closer. 

“Dude, don’t touch it,” Cooper, the believer, said. His eyes were wide and mucusy with  fear. “Don’t touch that. Tony. I swear to God.” 

Tony. And his male human hand was coming towards her, radiating warmth even through  the glass that separated them. How she yearned for him to reach inside and touch her! Just a poke!  

(But even if it means his death? She and the Voice killed someone once, who tapped the glass and dared Annabelle to hurt him—and she did hurt him, or the Voice did. They did, together. She doesn’t like to remember it.) 

Cooper swatted Tony’s hand away. 

They then did what visitors normally do: recounted Annabelle’s first adoption, the stay  with nursing students that then Voice then terrorized, the many attempts to throw her in the trash,  the movie, the Hollywood bastardization of her. (A franchise, like she’s Shirley Temple or Mickey Mouse! She is really but a simple country girl, even still.) 

“You know what, I think we have to each spend a couple minutes alone in here,” Cooper said.  

“With our pal Annabelle,” Tony added. 

Pal? She hadn’t been a friend in so long, or had one. The others around her are  standoffish on their shelves, jealous of her fame.  

“I’m going to use the Spirit Box,” Cooper said, and he pulled a small device from his pants pocket.  

“Have at it,” Tony said.  

His long human legs and carried him away from her and out the front door, to wait. Alone, or seemingly alone, Cooper shuffled on his sneakers. He cleared his throat. 

“This here is the Spirit Box,” he said, “It’s a radio device that…you, or any spirit that’s in  here, can manipulate in order to communicate with me. It scans a radio dial practically every nanosecond, and you choose what it gets to say. So here we go…” 

The radio emitted a horrible screech and the Voice inside wanted to screech along, match its pitch, find something to say to this Cooper: Thou art a fool and thou shall feel our wrath and  regret this night you come to mock us, boy!

“How’s this?” Cooper says. “Anything to say, Annabelle?” 

But he was not really talking to her. He stared at his radio device, and looked up and down and around him. He only looked at Annabelle like a person does at a tired circus monkey, waiting for it to dance—not really looking, only disappointed. Only wanting from her. Annabelle would have squirmed if she could—fidgeted through the minutes that tick by. A bang. Cooper yelped. 

“Dude! You scared the absolute shit out of me!” 

“You get anything?”  

Tony. 

“No…but like, dude, I SWEAR I saw her feet move. Like a squirm. My eyes were  playing—” 

“Yeah, thought so. Now shoo, it’s my turn.” 

Cooper handed off the radio and left quickly. It was dark and quiet and Tony and  Annabelle were alone.  

There was a small tug at her heart’s yarn strings.  

“Lemme make sure I got my night camera on here…” Tony mumbled, fumbling with buttons on his camera. He slid his glasses up his nose.  

“I ain’t gonna use this Spirit Box thing. It’s annoying.” 

And then Tony looked right at Annabelle.  

But a lot of people look at Annabelle. They stare and wait in horror. But Tony’s dark eyes looked into hers. 

“Hey there, uh, Annabelle,” he says, “Nice place you got here.” 

Her case? There were streaky smears on the glass and that horrible sign, taped up and  tattered: DO NOT TOUCH! 

“My buddy Coop is real excited to be meeting you. And by that I mean he’s scared  shitless…” 

It is not like Cooper’s over-enunciated bravado. Tony was talking quietly…like they were in a quiet movie theater, sharing popcorn, and he must look over and whisper that she looks so beautiful, whisper or else get angry shushes from the crowd around them. (Annabelle’s never been to a movie theater, of course, but she’s heard of them, dreamed of them as only demon dolls can do.) 

“And I don’t think you look very scary, to be honest.” 

That Voice growls. It’ll show him scary—but no, no, Annabelle blushes.  

Tony talked more, an intimate mumbling: how he and Cooper came all the way from  New York City and they are filming an episode of theirs, on Youtube. 

“I don’t really know how I got roped into this…” he said, and Annabelle wished to nod, to reach the glass with her little hand and give it an understanding tap. She longed to speak—but he made her shy! 

How he looked at her so intently, completely without fear! With an emotion Annabelle couldn’t name… 

“Yeah,” he sighs, “I don’t really believe in all this stuff. Sorry.” 

It could have ripped her apart at the seams.  

It was somehow worse than all the times she’d been passed off, thrown in the trash. It is worse than the endless days of being here in the museum, ogled and yet neglected. She thought Tony could look right into her stuff and understand her.  

(Not that Tony is her first skeptic. There have been so many, ambling among the haunted rows, holding in yawns.) 

But Tony felt different, if only for those eyes. He looked right at her, and spoke to her, but he did not think she’s there at all. He had no fear because, to him, there was nothing here. The Voice laughed at her, foolish little child. 

“TIME’S UP, ANTONIO!” Cooper barged in, “Did I scare you?” 

Tony looked at Annabelle with one curious blink and then put his back to her. “Get anything?” Cooper asked. 

“Of course not,” Tony said. 

“Okay. Let’s get some B-roll and get out of here. There’s a Burger King like a mile away.” 

When they left, Tony shut the door with a creak and slam. He left Annabelle in the same old darkness—but somehow darker than before, and lonelier, too.  

*** 

The MTA Cooper the Believer had told of is a long, shining train, and Annabelle hoists herself into a seat at a window and watches the world. How big, and how fast it goes by!

She dreams of the Big Apple, and she dreams of Tony. Perhaps they will walk the city streets together, Annabelle perched high on his shoulders. They will share a pretzel or roasted nuts. They will go to the theater. They will frolic in that big famous park together and lay in the grass.  

It has been years since Annabelle existed outside of the museum, but she’s heard enough about the big city to know what to expect when she hops off the train and into a crowded station. She grabs hold of a child’s rolling suitcase, hitching a ride up onto the street.  

New York City is as large and towering as she imagined. The treads of city-goers around her are deafening and dangerous, but she knows that it is somehow less than normal. Everyone she sees is masked, the lower half of their faces covered.  

People glance at Annabelle and then glance away. She is just a poor child’s forgotten toy.  (Nobody recognizes her as the Annabelle, only because they hired a new doll to replace her in the movie, some porcelain-faced hussy!) 

There’s a feeling in the grey air she recognizes: a haunting. No one here is open to wonder. Before, it was because these city folk just didn’t have the time, or the money, but now it is something else; an impenetrable pessimism that senseless death brings. Fear keeps them closed. It’s cynicism and mistrust—she’s most familiar with it as plain “skepticism.” It takes so much bravery and heart to believe, Annabelle knows.  

The Voice only plays along on this grand adventure to find Tony. The Voice does not have a metropolitan ren-des-vous in mind. You embark on a blue train underground, called “A,”  it tells her. You travel to a land called Washington Heights. 

The Voice hungers in this land that’s ripe with death. Tony is as good a first course as any. The Voice pants inside her. 

But Annabelle prays, in a sweet little voice that is all her own: Believe in me, TonyBelieve me. 

*** 

The Voice betwitches a stray cat and Annabelle holds tight to its scrappy fur, bounding across screeching intersections, dodging between pedestrians and leaping over mounds of trash. The Voice steers the cat up perilous concrete stairs and scales a rusting fire escape. When the Voice commands they stop at an apartment window, Annabelle becomes shy. She came all this way to find Tony, and almost wishes she still hasn’t arrived. Is she ready? The is a whirring fan shoved within the window frame. Annabelle peers inside, and through the spinning blades, she spies him—Tony, Antonio, her love! 

He wears those same glasses over his warm black eyes. He sprawls on a sofa. He’s watching television. 

Annabelle is eager to wait. The Voice bides its time, too. Tony sits in front of the TV. He looks at the small phone in his hand each time it chimes. At one moment, he leaves and returns quickly with a plastic bag. He eats from orange-stained containers. Night falls. Tony disappears into another room. It’s here that the Voice loses patience.  

Enter! The voice cries. Cross this threshold! Strike fear into the hearts of humans!  Remind them of the real potential of death and suffering!  

The Voice is too theatrical, sometimes.  

Annabelle jimmies the fan aside and tumbles softly onto a rugged floor. From a dark, open doorway she hears slow, rumbling breaths. 

It’s a bedroom. Annabelle spies a long lump in the bed up high. It gives a gentle rise and fall.

Kill, kill, kill, the Voice says.  

Annabelle climbs to the top of the small table at Tony’s bedside. 

Kill! The voice commands, press your hands against his throat and smite him!! The horrible urge comes to her blunt limbs, a flame burns in her worn cheeks. Leaving the museum was a stupid idea. How could this guy ever love her? How could he ever even accept and understand her? 

But how innocent Tony looks now, as he sleeps. His cheeks are soft, his mouth slightly downturned. His forehead is smooth. How impressionable and innocent he looks, like he is having a pleasant dream. Maybe Tony dreams of sailing boats. Or of driving. He doesn’t dream of ghosts or ghouls—why would he? He doesn’t believe in Annabelle. 

Tony, Tony. It’s her and the Voice speaking in a discordant harmony. If she breathed, she’d be holding her breath. 

Tony’s eyes squint open. He lifts his head and his hair pokes out at sharp angles. He reaches for his glasses and his hand brushes her felt-black shoe!  

He slips his glasses over his nose, and he looks at Annabelle. 

“Huh,” he says.  

Her sugar-plum intentions could drown out the Voice (smite, kill, smite, kill), if she tries  hard enough. This doesn’t have to end in death and fear, not if she is strong enough, if Tony—

“Funny,” Tony says, “I saw on Twitter you escaped.”  

She doesn’t know what that means. She can hardly process it as he picks her up from  around her belly. 

She braces herself. Believing means fear, too, sometimes. He could toss her across the room, scream, light her on fire. 

Tony props her onto a pillow. 

“You’re a far way from home, aren’t ya?” 

She’s never really had one. But there is comfort here and it is filling her like so much cotton stuffing; This must be what having a home feels like. The Voice is muffled and she knows it is retching at the sweetness, retreating in order to lick its wounds. It leaves Annabelle and Tony alone. 

“This is funny,” Tony says.  

When he begins to snore again, Annabelle cuddles to his chest. She will pretend that his sleeping body has only jostled her inanimate one, towards him, come morning.


Bridget Flynn holds a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing from SUNY Purchase College. She can be found on Twitter @Bmkflynn.

That In-Between Time of the Evening by Collin McFadyen

It had been winter dark for a few hours, so it seemed later than it was. It was that in-between time of the evening, when you could just go home or maybe stay for a few more drinks and see what happens. The dyke bar wasn’t busy yet, a few older butches leaned around the pool table talking about work and women just like any other place. I was the youngest in the room, sitting at the bar with my fake ID hot in my pocket, but the old woman behind it hadn’t asked when I ordered a Rainier. It wasn’t really fake, just stolen. I’d swiped it from the hutch at work where the servers stashed their cigarettes and car keys. I felt a little bad about it because the girl I’d taken it from had pinned a sweet, genuinely friendly note to the corkboard in the break room, asking had anyone seen it?

I sipped my beer and worked on the halfway finished crossword I’d picked out of the pile of newspapers next to the door. The daytime bartender sat a couple stools down from me at the end of the bar, his shift drink in front of him while he counted out his tips and settled up his till. Eventually he pulled his wallet from his back pocket and tucked the bills inside, then knocked back the rest of his whiskey and walked behind the bar and put the zippered bank bag of cash somewhere underneath. He was slim and not much older than me, his faded Levis worn thin in the crotch and butt. A big Western belt buckle peeked out from underneath the hem of his tight black Tina Turner concert tee. He poured himself another whiskey and came back around to his seat and smiled at me and said Oh Lord what a long day and then we just started chatting like people do in bars; about not much but friendly enough. He had the old lady bartender pour him another, and he bought me a beer too. I went ahead and bought myself a whiskey to go with it because it was too early to check into the shelter anyway. We talked about Tina Turner and how it was the best concert he’d ever seen, even though it was in the Tacoma Dome. He was from Ellensburg, originally, he said, but aside from the cowboys who came for the Fourth of July Rodeo, there was no reason for him to stay, so he’d come to Seattle. Like Dorothy goin’ to Oz he said, and I wondered what he meant by that.

He was a nice enough guy, at least nice enough to be working in a dyke bar, so when he told me his dog had puppies, five of them, I agreed to go with him and see them. His apartment was above the bar, two stories up. We walked out the back door of the bar and then went right back in through the alley door that led upstairs. Inside, the air felt slightly moldy, and smelled like cigarettes and bleach and tv dinners. I followed him down a narrow hall on a stringy trail of carpet until he stopped and took out his keys. The door was white once but now it was greyed with years of ghostlike handprints, and the tin room number 24 was nailed on a little crooked. When he put his key in the lock, he had to jiggle the worn doorknob a certain way before it turned.

Inside, a person could tell it had been an SRO, a bum hotel, with a tiny sink and a small shelf under a mirror on one wall. The other side of the room was a makeshift kitchen; a two burner electric hotplate and a small dorm room sized fridge sat on a rough wooden counter that looked like it was found in the alley and would have to do. The Murphy bed was down, and neatly made, but it felt weird to sit there so I just stood where I was. The only window looked towards the Space Needle; a reminder I was far from home.

The dog lay on a pile of pillows covered with a flowered quilt. She was brown and medium and no particular kind of dog at all. She looked up at the bartender and waggled her stumpy tail, then went back to mothering her puppies, licking them and arranging them with her nose while they nursed. Their little bodies, plump with milk, looked more like baby manatees than puppies.

He said Hi Mama Girl, and stroked her head and ears, then reached into the pile of pups and pulled one out for me to see. Her worried brown eyes watched him rise and she nudged the others closer together into the warm curve of her belly.

He passed me the puppy, it’s body so loose and boneless that it almost slid through my hands. I held him up to my face and looked at him closely, close enough to smell his earthy puppy breath. Little drops of foamy milk clung to the tiny whiskers sprouting from his chin and lips, and his nose was pink and damp. He was perfectly still, and I stared into his cloudy blue eyes for a long minute until my own eyes felt hot and sharp and I turned away. Mama Girl watched him hanging above her in a stranger’s hands, and shuffled a little on the quilt, maybe considering saving him but afraid to leave the others. I closed my eyes and rubbed the pup’s smooth fur against my cheek and breathed his smell, then gave him back to the bartender who put him down with the rest. Mama Girl tongued him clean while he searched for a nipple and went back to suckling like nothing ever happened.

The bartender asked if I wanted to go back downstairs and have another drink, and I said sure, and as we left the apartment I noticed that the door hadn’t fully closed and I could see Mama Girl through the open crack. I followed him down the hall to the stairs and as he descended ahead of me, I changed my mind. I told him I wasn’t feeling well, and thanks for showing me the puppies, but I was going to go home. We said goodbye and he walked down the stairs and I heard the music get loud as he went in the back door to the bar.

I turned around and walked back to the apartment, my chest tight and so full of mad and sad that it felt like my heart was pumping nothing but tears. Quietly, I pushed open the door. Mama Girl looked up from the litter, suspicious, but didn’t get up. I looked at the puppies and thought about taking mine with me, but he was snuggled warm and safe in with the others and I knew he was better off where he was. I stood quietly and looked around the room. On a small table next to the bed sat a bracelet made of cheap silver, probably from the market, the kind that turns your skin green. It looked like it was supposed to be Indian, and had tiny little bells that tinkled quietly when I picked it up. Mama Girl watched me with her sad dark eyes while I slipped it inside my bag. I left the apartment, careful to close the paint-chipped door all the way and turn the knob until I heard the latch click. Outside in the night, I could smell the puppy on my hands as I warmed them with my breath. It seemed later than it was, I thought, and I turned quickly down the alley, hoping to make it to the shelter before they locked the doors.


Collin McFadyen is a Queer writer living in North Portland with their wife, two sons, and a wicked cute terrier. They have been published at Subjectiv, Tealight Press, Kissing Dynamite, and others. Follow them on Twitter @crayonsdontrun and on their website.

IT’S ALL RIGHT, REALLY by Hannah Beairsto

It’s ok, really. It is fine, no, honestly, I should have reminded you we were meeting for coffee. I know you’re busy as the ant who found half of a donut in the puddle behind the coffee shop. No, no, I wasn’t waiting long. I just ordered a latte, then crossed my legs in a table by the window so I could see the street and see you coming through the droplets in the glass. 

It’s all right, don’t apologize, I ordered a pastry when I’d finished the coffee, but after  five hours they kicked me out. I knew before then you weren’t coming, but it was raining outside, the pavement slick beneath cars that weren’t yours, my empty coffee cup clammy in my hand and I knew if I unglued myself from that seat to head out in the downpour I would ruin my dress and my makeup and I would start crying. And I’d keep crying and the tears and the rain  would runoff my skirt and dissolve together into the water cycle, streaked with eyeliner for contrast. I’d forgotten my umbrella. 

See, I forget things all the time, so it’s ok, it’s fine, we’ll get coffee next week. I know you’re busy with the husband and kids and that 401k while I couldn’t justify wasting money on a second cup of coffee so I could keep my seat longer, because I knew that wasn’t how it worked. No matter how much I sacrificed to the coffee shop, no matter how long I waited, or how hard I  cried in the parking lot rain, you weren’t going to come. 

I sat dripping in my car, watching that ant try to pick up the donut, crumbs melting away into the puddle. Since when do ants gather alone? 

It’s all right. Really. I had towels in the backseat. 


Hannah Beairsto hails from the Poconos in Northeast Pennsylvania, home of ski resorts, waterfalls, and family fun. She has no pets, spouses, or children to brag about, and would like everyone to remember her first name is a palindrome. Follow her on Twitter at @thepalindrome12 and Instagram at @beairstohannah.

NOT JUST ANY LOVE SPELL by Alyson Tait

Marina stood in front of the chapel with a wooden box in her hands.  She watched a scrawny teenager close the heavy doors.  

He wore a tux an inch too short; bribed at the last minute by someone in the groom’s family to be an usher, she was sure. 

The doors closing were a sign that the bride was ready to make her entrance, that the clock had struck noon. 

Pews were full.

The wedding was about to start.  

The time she’d allotted for her ritual was slim. 

Marina hustled to the top of the steps and sat down,  legs folded under her — the small box set on the cement.  

Marina opened the lid, doors in her peripheral. If they opened too soon, she would be exposed.  The entire plan would be ruined if she was forced off the leyline to the altar. 

Quickly she removed a square of fabric: silky white with a patch of lace and a single pearlescent button in the middle.  Next, she grabbed a pair of scissors with large black handles and freshly sharpened blades.

 She whispered as she cut into the square, lips moving at warp speed. 

Banish the imposter. 

Protect the lover.  

Shield the innocent.

The scrap fell to the ground in two pieces as she swapped the scissors for other contents — a bundle of herbs and a lighter.  She deftly lit the sage and stored the lighter,  thick smoke curling into the air. 

A scraping sound flitted underneath the doors. 

With urgency, Marina closed the box, tucked it under her arm, and stepped around the corner of the building. Her lips moved again as she waved her smoking bundle through the air. 

She didn’t hear the doors open, but it felt like perfection when she heard a high-pitched scream coming from the spot she’d stood just moments prior. Through a satisfied smile, she repeated her chant. 

Marina finished her sweep of the chapel’s perimeter, legs aching but stable when she reached the front doors again. They stood open, and the inside of the building looked dark as far as she could see.  

A mess of flowers littered the entry, and the two halves of the fabric she had destroyed trailed into the building. 

She doubted the pastor had left with the doors wide open, and very few clergies appreciated her cleansing their buildings; however, badly, she wanted to. 

She’d be in trouble if she entered, even though bad proposals rippled into the spirit realm, and churches were no exception. Not even the veil hid that Heather was never meant for that ceremony, and Marina had felt the dark cloud over the groom’s head. 

With no other options, she shrugged and turned away. She may not be able to change the damage done inside, but still, she was happy.  A doomed relationship had been destroyed, and as an added benefit, she had another chance to court Heather now that she wasn’t in the chapel with that prick. 

My spell worked just as planned, She thought, that or the note I left in her bouquet.


Alyson lives in Maryland where she got married, had her daughter, and began her writing journey. She has appeared in Altered Reality Magazine and (mac)ro(mic). You can find her on twitter @rudexvirus1.

FEATS OF STRENGTH by Brittney Uecker

Content warning: the following short story contains gore and references to bodily injuries.

This is unbearable pain. This is death. This is what it is like to die, and this is how I will die, pinned beneath this tree. I’m not even a naturey guy. This isn’t even my element. I had only ventured out on this path out of desperation, a crazed impulse. This is what it is to die alone, of my own stupidity or shitty fate, my guts squishing out of me like jelly from a donut.

Anica had finally done it—she had finally pulled the plug on our dying relationship. I knew she had been tossing around the idea for some time, dabbling in the fantasy of living untethered, no longer burdened by my unpredictable mental states, shit that she didn’t ask for. I knew her eyes had been peeled for a reason to leave. I guessed she had been waiting to fuck all the other guys in our apartment building. When the studio unit opened up downstairs, she jumped at the opportunity, a perfect excuse to bail on me while veiling it in, “Oh, Chris, I just need some space. I need to focus on my work. I need to know what it’s like to live alone.” 

So yesterday, she gathered a bunch of her burliest, manliest friends to come over to what was now only my apartment and help her move her things three floors and two halls down to her new, pretty studio. I watched in emasculated humiliation as their pumping muscles lifted her furniture, heaved her boxes and emptied her closets. Our life divided with surgical precision—half the silverware left in the drawer, a single plate and one pillow. She left the Xbox but took the TV—undue cruelty. I waited for one of the Incredible Hulks to pull out a saw and slice the sofa down the middle. 

 “I’ll only be downstairs,” she assured me half-heartedly once all her things had been cleared out, as if that would assuage the sting that was more like a gaping bullet hole, as if that would erase the pain. I’d never felt emotional pain manifest physically in quite the way that I did then, an overwhelming wave of nausea, vertigo like I had been punched in the ear, a cold sweat like a bucket of water being emptied over my head. I leaned over and vomited on the cheap linoleum of what used to be our kitchen floor. The sharp splat was followed by her groan of annoyance and the click of the door shutting behind her. Downstairs might as well be a different building, another continent, another planet, another dimension.

I thought that was pain.

When I woke this morning—”woke” a generous term, considering I hadn’t slept a wink—mania was starting to eclipse depression, my moroseness morphing into a sort of blacked-out desperation, true insanity. I need to get out, I told myself. I just need some sunshine. I need to get my blood pumping. I need to be outside. The rapid fire thoughts. I got in my car and drove to the state park on the edge of town. It was still sunrise, on a Wednesday no less, so the trail was empty and quiet. A healthy person would have called it serene. I walked the path and tried to clear my head, tried to empty my brain of the images of Anica’s molars when she laughed out loud, the condescending air of her reassurance, the barrel-chests of the men moving her shit. 

I didn’t know how long I’d been walking or in what direction. I could be on another coast at this point, on the fucking moon maybe. My legs were moving on their own accord, no cerebral involvement. I was so focused on forgetting, I didn’t notice the tree until it was on top of me. Maybe it was beetle rot or divine intervention or the cosmic bad luck of stepping on the wrong leaf at the wrong time, real butterfly-effect shit, but I almost missed the echoing snap, the whoosh of air, the sudden pressure like God holding my body in a vise. 

I felt a warm wetness dribble out of my ear and down my neck—blood. The rest of the pain was so complete and systemic that it all morphed into a single feeling. I couldn’t pick out any individual sensations—my powderized ribs, my pelvis in cracked ceramic chunks like pottery sherds, the slick squelch of my organs being pierced and penetrated. Only the warmth of life leaving my body.

I tried to will my arms to move, to summon some superhuman, panic-induced strength to lift the tree off of myself, but any conscious intentions were severed from the rest of my body. I thought of the men in the apartment, the ease with which they lifted all of Anica’s shit, their faces as calm as Hindu cows as they carried our life away. I wondered which one of them she would fuck first. I wondered which one of them she already had. 

I should have thought of her in that moment, of how much I loved her, tried to send a message of apology or devotion or desperation through the ether in my last dying moments. I thought of our empty apartment and how long it would be before anyone knew I was dead. I couldn’t move my arms, but in my last thoughts, I wrapped them around the trunk of the tree stacked on top of me, whose deadly power was not its fault, and forgave it. I thanked it. I kissed the bark and closed my eyes.


Brittney Uecker is a librarian and writer living in rural Montana who writes all lengths of fiction and dabbles in poetry. Her work is published/forthcoming by Waste Division, Stone of Madness Press, Second Chance Lit, and Pages Penned in a Pandemic. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @bonesandbeer.

WHERE I WAS GOING VERUS WHERE I AM by Lars Banquo

Content warning: this story is not safe for work / NSFW.

. . .

    My classmates look like they’re having a great time. 

    I can’t see their faces too well, but I know the one closest to the camera, on the left side, is Eugene. I know this because Eugene wears a big fat helmet to school every day. Well, it’s a face shield that goes all the way around, but that, combined with the black mask he’s got on? Looks like a space helmet to me. I can’t see his eyes. The camera doesn’t get that close. I can hear him laughing, though.  

    Someone made a joke, so they’re all laughing. I smile, as if I’m in on it, but then I let my face fall blank again. This is partially because I didn’t really hear the joke; it was all muffled and sounded like ugly radio sounds on my end, and partially because I’m still not sure how many of my classmates can see my face clearly on the computer monitor in the front of the room. I’m not sure about the geography yet. The geography of any of this.  

If any of them can see me as well as I can see their pixelated, warped faces, then that’s still too clear for my liking. I feel the zits on my forehead pulsating like something angry and a hellish red. I’m suddenly very aware of how dark my room is. Every blink, every eyebrow twitch, every ugly thought in my head—I feel like they can see it all. I’m on TV. I’m always on TV.

    But who cares. At this point, aren’t you all strangers? 

    Plus—who is even watching? They barely know I’m here. I know nobody. Nobody’s checked on me. They’ve fallen in love with each other, with their festive masks, with their Pandemic Chic bullshit. I’m like Tyler Evans, the kid who died from The Virus at the end of last year. But not really. At least they miss him. 

    Moments pass. Mindless droning. I don’t know who’s talking. The camera faces the room head-on, but I miss a lot of the sides. From where I’m sitting, there are, like seven people in there. Faces melting. Sounds all blending into one and it’s awful. 

    Another joke, another laugh. But this time, I know it was James. James is my best friend, and every time he cracks up the room, he brushes his long brown hair back behind his shoulders like a centaur might. He thinks he’s pretty cool, and honestly, he is. James’ parents let him go to school. They’re not like my mom. They don’t think The Virus is dwelling in every crevice of the town. They let James go to summer camp and finger girls this summer. 

    But hey. 

    Hey. That’s James. I’m me. I didn’t go outside. I got fat.  

    He broke the murmur, like always, and now he’s brushing his hair back. I wish I heard the joke. I’ll bet it was good. 

    “Alright, people,” says my perfect history teacher. Her legs are like cream cascading down out of that black skirt. I stare at them as she talks.  

    Fuck.  

    I’m the only one on the screen, the only one not there. My room is dark and it’s like I’m watching the world happen from a strange warm coffin stuck in the middle of time, unmoving, unwavering, just me looking through a portal into a world that looks familiar, but is no longer mine. It hasn’t been mine in a long time. 

    I turn off my camera and touch myself under my sweatpants. I think it’s okay because it’s so dark. My mother is sleeping. My mother is always sleeping.  

    Why am I thinking about that?  

    “Oliver?” 

    My perfect, gorgeous history teacher speaks like honey and lollipops taste. My cock is hard in my unclean hand. She’s so pretty. Brown hair and a pixelated face and blurry eyes against the grey ugliness of the World on Film. 

    Her skin looks warm in the best way. She’s the prettiest girl I’ve ever talked to. She’s not real. I’ve never met her. She’s just the hottest character on this show I always watch: my third period World History class. My name comes from her mouth like butterflies and songs in church. 

    I turn on my mic. I’ve still got The Grip. I want to smile. I haven’t showered in, like, three days. 

    For a moment, we just stare. 

    Everyone’s quiet. They want to hear the freak speak. 

    “Yes?”

    I’m a star. My dick is hard as fuck. 

    “You’ve got to keep your camera on during class, okay? So I know what you’re up to.” 

    I blush. No one can see. I unhand myself and flip the camera on. She thinks she’s looking into the camera, but she’s just staring into the monitor. All the teachers do this. They don’t know what they’re doing. 

    My hand is back below the frame. Swimming in night. 

    The camera is a few feet away, and it gives off the impression she’s talking to someone directly next to me, someone I could reach out and grab in the dark. I imagine her flesh in my hand. Hair between my fingers. My tongue poking her eye. Weird shit. 

    “Okay.” 
    “Don’t you want to turn a light on?” 

    Even with this shitty camera, I can tell she regrets it once she says it. A chuckle rolls over the class like cold waves. She looks into the camera this time and mouths sorry.  

    And it’s the sorry that does it. I smile. Everything is hot and then cold and my eyes twinkle a bit. I feel them do it. It pours out of me, the Goo. It’s hot in my hands. 

    “That’s okay.” 

    They laugh again. I can’t tell if it’s with me or at me. And that’s fine. At least I get the joke this time. But it’s more than that.  

    I have something they don’t. And it’s in my hand. I’m laughing along, mouth open, teeth glistening with moss and blinding white light from the screen, fluorescents from fifteen miles away touching me like heavenly fingertips. 


Lars Banquo writes unpublishable novels and poetry. He lives in Connecticut.