Category Archives: Len Kuntz

Potions by Len Kuntz

We shared a biblical kiss beneath a pomegranate tree that dripped pale, limp fruit. It felt like a kiss but I wasn’t certain. Next we hugged hard.

She said, “I would return to nothing without you.” Then she asked if I was scared.

I held her hands as if they were crystal cards. Her jagged fingernails had been chewed to nubs and they scratched my skin.

This was something we had to do, something we had always wanted for ourselves, and now that the opportunity had arrived as surprising as a rainbow during a downpour one of us was having second thoughts and it wasn’t me.

“Tell me a story first,” she said, “then we’ll do it.”

I told her about a blind magician who made lovely potions that could transform hearts. He changed warring nations into lovers bent on fine freedom for every people. The magician had a nasty facial scar but he was kind, laughed a lot, and said, “That’s a good one!” anytime someone told a joke.

This made her chuckle.

I said the magician had a pet chinchilla he’d named Abracadabra. If the dog lapped up the potion, it grew wings and flew around rescuing endangered species.

When I handed her the vial, I was surprised she took a long pull without hesitating. I did the same.

I made a large smile and told my sister the truth. “It’s supposed to work fast. In a few minutes, he won’t be able to hurt us anymore.”

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Partners by Len Kuntz

Silence is an instructor telling me now, what you’re doing and with whom. I am not so dim.

My organs sag like wilted crepes. I am suddenly jowly everywhere. I am a rain-soaked picnic while the tarp above the table sounds like a wet harpsichord about to burst its water belly.

We agreed. We promised to make our partners happy.

I know what you’re doing.

It’s happening right now, isn’t it?

I kick off the lights. I put on music. The moon is trying to call me out for a slow dance and, after a skip of hesitation, I decide to go.

I’m not as busy as you.

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Inside the Heart of the City by Len Kuntz

The youngest of us has grown fangs and claws and his licorice pupils are dry from staring. We should care more, but our own ribs are poking into our bony arms. We huddle together in somber silence. We’ve been told to stay at home—no roof games or playing with the pigeons.

Papa was a baker. He stole husks of bread before he got busted. Now he’s out hustling on the streets. Mother we haven’t seen but in an old photograph where her chin is tilted toward the moon.

Below this apartment building, the air is rotten with taxi cab car horns. Someone called it the greatest city in the world, and perhaps this is true, but we are becoming carcasses and I am running out of excuses.

Selma wants to know why we don’t go to school like other kids. Rico wants to know if magic really works. I say I don’t know to Selma and to Rico I say, “Sure it does, let me show you.”

A punch to the gut shuts him up. Little Rico thinks I’m being cruel, but I’m just finding ways to distract him from the hunger pains.

Our room is so small that I can hear Selma saying The Lord’s Prayer. We get free rent if Papa does some things for Manuel, the Super. It beats being on the street.

I saw a sign once: ‘Home is where the heart is.’ I think I know what the author meant. I hope I do.

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Traveling Mercies by Len Kuntz

My daughter enters the room with unborn child showing inside sweater like a tub and I am think, This is all wrong, my baby having baby, one just sixteen years and the other creature floating in fluid, a strange alien astronaut, same as ones I have seen in American television programs when handsome actor doctor says it’s girl or boy, “Look, right here’s the evidence.”

My baby is pawing her baby, a basketball player dribbling wrong who will be called for traveling. I know American basketball rules. Holding ball too long inside palm is named traveling, a penalty. And who should pay this penalty? My daughter has no boyfriend. Some lewd man just shoots his seed in my poor baby. He holds knife to her throat and it leaves a mark like this > from the pressure of the tip, an etching of his crime. Abortion is fine, I say, it is legal in such cases, but my daughter says, no, life is life.

I am crying, weeping hard as my daughter comes across the room. I think she will slap me. I have told her how hard it’s been to make something of ourselves in this country, and now this. It is a bad sign. The child will be evil. That’s what I said, such a cruel bastard I can be.

But now my baby walks up. She takes my tear-soaked hand, places it on the mound that is moving and jerking inside my palm, and says, “See?”

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Sightless by Len Kuntz

It begins like a migraine, with a trail of effervescent spots throbbing black across her corneas. Her left hand tingles, goes numb. A branch cracks inside her skull.

And then she’s blind.

At first she thinks it’s a power outage. She crumbles to the bathroom floor and waits for the lights to come back on, but they don’t.

So, she moves forward in life. She makes the kind of moves a newly sightless person would–ramming into coffee tables and chairs. She accidentally sticks her fingers into other people’s cupcake cream, into other people’s nostrils, into light sockets.

Her husband cackles. He says she’s turned into a funny woman, that he might be able to stand her this way. Instead of beatings, he can play pranks now, rearrange the furniture, tell Helen Keller jokes. It’s not a fair exchange, but the heart always saves itself somehow.

Being blind teaches the woman-the wife-someone’s daughter how to listen better.

Now she doesn’t even have to use a monitor to hear the baby breathing all the way down a hall, to know that the infant is just as frightened as her.

She can hear her husband crushing peanut shells and whispering “something-something six o’clock” into his cellphone.

She hears a plane above their roof. Hears a bird pecking in the feeder at the sink window. Hears a dog’s distant yelping. Hears her mother’s voice telling her, at age ten, to be careful who you trust, that boys don’t always have the best intentions.

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Lady by Len Kuntz

She speaks in barbwire, sharp twists of metal. When she breathes, it’s through her mouth so her tongue shows ebony in a pool of oil. She sings nursery rhymes about dismembered animals, dancing corpses, bones banging bones. She dreams of another world where people might think her normal.

As a child she liked to read. Just as there are some things that shouldn’t be seen, there are those that mustn’t be read. Her brothers gave her magazines with monsters in them, men gnawing on women, women on women. They told her she could be eaten, too. They said they would show her.

In front of a mirror, she always focuses on her eyes. Off center of the black dot is a fleck which is really a door. Once upon a time it was a trapdoor, but now she imagines it opens up into the black-sheeted sky, to another galaxy with good mysteries, lacking evil.

The bus driver shakes his head when she tries to sneak behind a suit. It’s December, bitter cold. There’s a heat vent she sometimes sleeps on, but some boys found her once. They had metal bracelets around their fingers and they took turns. It was like her brothers all over. That is where the black oil came from, that is why she speaks through barbwire, her words crumbled Blue cheese.

“Yo, bag lady!” a kid screams.

He’s got that right; she’s a lady. Even now, she still is.

But just to be safe, she runs anyway.

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Good Children by Len Kuntz

I was oldest and prettiest, but he did not want me. He preferred plain things that could be uprooted and made ugly.

He took turns with my younger sisters. When they returned to our room, neither ever spoke until dawn, and then it was as if nothing had happened and we were all three good children with clean skin and flower-scented hair. We’d talk about the cute Beatle and make breakfast.

Our father did not drink. It would have been better if he had, for then it might have made some sort of sick sense. Back then, I was always trying to force logic at madness, but I only came away with soupy sounds swishing in my stomach well.

The last time I saw him was in the kitchen. He came up behind me after I had opened the refrigerator. Cold, sour air wafted over my dress front while Father’s bitter breath slaked down my neck.

I dropped three eggs.

He said, “Oops. Best clean that up.”

I waited but nothing happened. Walking past, shells stuck to my socks, the yolks like glue.

That night he had a heart attack. We had prayed for such a thing half our lives and there it was.

Now I watch my grown sisters with their husbands. I haven’t told mine.

I wear thick slippers to bed, but even so, I still feel those broken egg shells from time to time, jagged and brittle, clinging, clinging and never letting go.

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There by Len Kuntz

There is an underground attic inside of me that holds my damaged pieces.

Once, a boyfriend found the hiding place. He listened, tried to be tender. He swaddled me in soft cotton, whispering sugar into my ear. “Ashley,” he said, “it’s going to be all right.”

I wanted to believe him. I leaned close, heard my heart scudding up against his chest like a bumper car unable to find forward or reverse. But he was only a hard set of lungs, not at all pliant like I needed him to be, and so I knew. I knew he’d never understand.

You don’t expect the world to be fair, yet what a surprise to learn how evil it’s gotten, so clever and blatant, too.

We were cramped inside the transit, chins to chins. Overfilled with so many people, the bus felt sweaty, but safe. A second later, men wedged me into a corner, pressing and owning me with wire rope and a cloth gag while we rocked through the long black tunnel, strobe shadows ricocheting.

***

My father is learning to visit less. Yesterday he said, “It’s time you got out of that apartment.”

But he also didn’t believe at first. “It couldn’t have been more than two minutes,” he said. “Wasn’t there a crowd on the bus?”

I know the world is a heavy place for strong people, and so I keep lifting myself from one corner to the next. I am almost ready. Any day now, I’ll be there.

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Triplets by Len Kuntz

I’m still searching for us, for our core.

We are three that are one that will always be linked: Ron, Rex and me.

Rex is home this week for saying to a junior, “Only fags wrestle,” and then dismantling the stunned guy after practice. Rex is large and surly, and so the kid’s family is suing.

Ron is writing new songs and trying out the lyrics on his Taylor guitar. When I press my ear to the wall that separates our rooms, the words from the other side lift and break apart and the cadence catches me off guard so that I have to put a hand over my mouth in order to hide my sobbing.

I keep the lights off in my room, let the lava lamp run while watching the glowing worms reshape and seek new identities.

I was the first one of us out of the womb but I am third. I am both the fag and the girlfriend in a song. I am someone’s choke hold and a broken guitar string making the wrong music.

After tonight, I’ll be the first one gone from this world and I’ll leave it up to them to decide whether that makes them twins then.

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What Happened to all the Readers by Len Kuntz

They’d become such a minority that the world’s remaining readers were set up in communes on a crumb of land the size of Delaware.

This being the future, space was at a premium, and as their numbers continued to diminish, the readers were relocated to an abandoned estate belonging to someone’s deceased, millionaire aunt.

In less than a few years, weary governmental officials shuttled the dwindling bibliophiles to a split level home in Hackensack, where angry neighborhood dogs nipped at cyclone fencing and nightly air raid drills produced unmanageable migraines.

Months later, the further shrinking squad was shipped off to a one bedroom utility that doubled as a pantry for discarded, but well-used, kitty litter.

After a short shedding of weeks, the few readers that remained were dropped into a root cellar which had once hid Prohibition rumrunners.

But even this earthy hole was a waste of space, too roomy, with its hollow nooks left unfilled.

So, alas, the final surviving readers were stuffed inside a box.

Years later a young child stumbled upon the box by accident. Finding a smattering of bones at the bottom and, thinking them exotic drumsticks, the child began to beat the sides of the crate, until, tuckered out from so much physical activity, she went back to her multiscreen lap pad, playing video games, exchanging Facebook gossip while texting, streaming reality television and using Skype, busy but bored all at once.

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A Conventional Woman by Len Kuntz

She was known as a conventional woman, but shocked people by marrying a blind man named Eugene.

Before their union, she’d met Eugene on a dare, he being a palm reader at the county fair. He smoothed her hand as if it were a sovereign flag and, wearing a straight face, declared that she would wed him within the year.

Initially, Eugene’s audacity repulsed her, but as days passed she found herself picturing him tracing his fingers over her face, Eugene’s fingers like paint brushes across her body, eager to fill in her open spaces with bright, hopefulness.

They wed on a remote island, and when Eugene fell ill, the dutiful new wife went in search of stomach medicine but found instead a small house-front offering tarot and palmistry readings.

The discovery of the place in an exotic land just hours following their matrimony seemed a good omen, so she strode confidently through the rope of beads hanging in the doorway.

Cowbells clattered. A man, stooped but handsome, appeared and told her to sit.

She slipped off the wedding ring, feeling her pulse rippling where bone would be.

His fingers felt hot and certain on her skin. Sure enough, within minutes, he did it—he claimed they would be wed by the following summer.

She screamed, “No!”

“It’s true,” he said. “Either that or your death.”

She put her ring and ran out the door, into the busy street, not seeing the careening tourist bus that would run her down.

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A Fair Exchange by Len Kuntz

To make it work, she borrowed babies–blue ones with bloated cheeks and the rheumy eyes of old men. In the dressing rooms she crawled beneath the stall slits while customers examined themselves in mirrors, verbose salesclerks lurching over shoulders like bleach-blonde jack o’ lanterns.

The junk people carried around astonished her. She’d been taught to ignore it, just grab cash, but still their oddity had a perverse attraction, like the strong pull of pornography, and so she kept some items: a gold-plated nail file, an old-fashioned opal broach with a rusted clip, day glow condoms, a paring knife, one lone shotgun shell.

She always brought the babies back by dusk. The exchange was not dissimilar to summers when she’d unload gunny sacks of potatoes from her Uncle Ernie’s truck. Uncle Ernie with his Polish jokes, his ratchet laugh and carrot-thick fingers busy up inside her.

Now, one of the infants follows her movements as if it wants to be hypnotized.

“He likes you,” the mother or relative or whomever says.

The other babies blink and bawl at the sound of an adult voice somewhat happy.

“He don’t like me,” she says, angry now. “He’s starving. Don’t you ever feed these kids?”

The babies go still.

She takes the baggy filled with bindles. She can’t tell by their weight if it’s a fair exchange. Later when it’s cooked up and boiling in her veins, she’ll know for sure.

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Revelation by Len Kuntz

Since the apocalypse, we are all in search of new skins.

People troll dark places. Shadows are temporary havens where we tread in foul clouds. Withered forests roil underfoot, eager to pull us down.

The youngest amongst our group are the most vicious–toddlers who don’t know how to play gentle. We watch them wild-eyed, this new breed of evil gnomes, shredding each other with their claws and fang teeth grown unwieldy.

We’ve had all the time in the world to make sense of our destruction, yet the experts’ answers have kept us confused. Some say we had the wrong world leaders, that we gagged the environment, that we were greedy or not greedy enough.
We’re told about cycles.

We’re told there is a way out if we are reasonable.

There are abundant solutions but no one has the right password. The world is too gray to see, its people forever distracted.

So, our old dermis shrinks more each day, pain and pressure squeezing our skulls. We scurry and scratch, searching in panic for new skins.

When we find loaves in a shed, a happy wailing goes up.

As we eat, one wise person points to the faded wall sketch—a portrait, a seven, a series of numbers. We’ve seen it before, years ago, in a dream or book, heard it recited from someone’s animated lips, but now another of us finds a great cache of soup cans, so we wail again, we hoot, we set about making fire.

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Consummation by Len Kuntz

In the dream, she runs. Miles pile up like layers, like safe things, fireplaces, quilted blankets and locked doors, a soft ballad sung by her favorite singer, while in the distance the apartment building resembles nothing frightening at all, just a sad black pimple.

When her alarm rings, she blinks away the night. The sun is so stark, so bright that it makes her eyes water.

At the window, she counts how many stories up she is. She knows, but she counts anyway.

If she squints, she can see his sedan sulking near the complex dumpster where people put their trash, their bloody blouses and scar tissue. It is a long ways down, yet not far enough for her.

He will knock any minute, so she pries open the window. She remembers as a little girl believing that she could fly. She never told anyone her secret. She hadn’t needed to then. Her favorite color was still tangerine.

She fingers the fresh bruises, their color so much like mishandled fruit.

She steps out. The wind is unsteady and cool, tousling her hair the way an enamored paramour might. She makes the air her groom, lets him lead. She pictures him carrying her over a threshold, as light as gauze, and into another room.

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Rich by Len Kuntz

Riming the volcano of garbage are vultures—fifty or more, their black plumage inky in the smoldering sun. Big as toddlers, they cock their crocked necks as if they know my thoughts, but they do not, no one does.

Last week my son fought one of these evil birds. Marco had discovered an uneaten sandwich in the heap when the creature swooped down. Thank God Marco had the bent-up umbrella he always carries, sometimes using it as a bat (“Look, Papa, I’m A Rod!”), a dancing cane, (“I’m smooth like your favorite, Gene Kelly!”), a golf club (“Now I’m Chi Chi Rodriguez. How do you like those apples, Papa?”) I watched him beat the bird, heard their tangled screaming. We were in the middle of sorting recyclables from other’s people’s discarded waste. My wife implored me to intervene, but I knew that would only make Marco soft, and soft does not survive here.

We used to live inside the dump, among the maggots and rats, until the missionaries came. Now we have rows of tin boxes to make our homes. Still, a narrow, dirt road is all that separates our make-shift town from the dump.

Miles below sits Puerto Vallarta. At night, she shimmers, a bejeweled gown. A cruise ship glows with its windows white as America teeth.

When I was young like Marco, I often plotted an escape. Now that I am wiser, I watch my family sleeping and feel embarrassed to be this rich.

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Lionel Richie Runs Things by Len Kuntz

In the same way gang leaders run cartels from prison, my wife’s cat ordered our lives from the dust mote space beneath our bed.

We called him Lionel Richie. When I’d say, “Here, Lionel Richie, here,” it hissed. Lionel Richie hated the name Lionel Richie. He also loathed me.

Once, I just asked my wife outright. “If it came down to me or LR, who would you pick?” She feigned an immediate case of stomach cramps, gritting her teeth as if passing a kidney stone, and so I thought, there’s my answer.

I tried to convince myself that killing an animal was different than actual murder. Cats didn’t have souls or driver’s licenses. They didn’t pay alimony.

Still, Lionel Richie was a crafty critter.

He foiled every plot I had—sniffing out poison in the whipped cream, the bowl of milk; not following me out to the deck to look at pigeons twenty stories below; not coming into the bathroom where I’d filled the tub and was waiting with rope and anvil.

I got the dart gun from a taxidermist who said the sedative was “hardcore.”

When I raised the rifle, Lionel Richie yawned. I told him I wasn’t kidding. I said, “I’m going to burn you in a smelter.”

As I squinted down the sight, the beast flew at me, gun blasting off.

Now I’m without one eye.

While I’ve been recuperating, though, Lionel Richie keeps me company. I hear him hum beneath our bed.

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Related by Len Kuntz

The man at the door was missing an arm, part of his jaw, and he smelled like a brewery.

He claimed we were related.

My wife had left me, my son was in college, so I let the man in.

When he asked if I had any alcohol, I brought out port. He said it tasted like goat urine, but polished off the bottle anyway.

He told me that, while in Iraq, an IED had ripped his vehicle into confetti. “It took my arm, half my face. I’m lucky to be breathing.”
We drank more. Finally, I asked, “So, exactly how are we related?”

“I’m Uncle Buck!” he said, slapping his thigh.

“Seriously? You’re my father’s brother?”

“Why would I lie?”

I requested stories about Dad.

He said my father’s horrible insecurities were what made him career-obsessed, eventually turning him into an alcoholic. He said Dad felt guilty for working so much, for not ever being present as I grew up. He said Dad loved me more than life.

“Really?”

“Oh, man,” he said.

There were more stories, each enthralling and semi-accurate, but then he had to go.

At the door, I asked, “Did you know Dad’s dead?”

“Figured.”

I hugged him hard. “Come back soon, Uncle Buck.”

He winced. “I’m not really your uncle.”

“I know.”

“Everything I said about your dad, I was just describing myself.”

“Figured.”

“So–you and I–we’re not, like, well, even related.”

I patted his good arm and said, “Maybe not directly.”

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Settle by Len Kuntz

After the plane crash, Keith was forced to live with his uncle.

“It’ll be a good change,” the therapist said. “Country living can settle a person.”

On the way out, Keith kicked over a lampstand.

***

The farm backed into tree-stuffed woods. Sometimes, if it was windy, Keith thought he could hear his mother’s voice swirling through the clash of limbs and leaves. She had been a songbird, off pitch, but always happy.

He discovered a brook. The water tasted crisp, almost effervescent. It reminded him of the time his father let Keith have a sip of beer.

A fish leapt, slamming down between a pair of rocks. He watched it writhe, its gills meaty-pink.

Overhead, a hawk circled. Two squirrels skittered after an invisible foe. Sunlight streaked through branches in planks of bright radiance. Near the shore, two deer regarded him for a stiff moment, then carried on.

A cone of gnats swirled over the trapped fish.

Keith saw its big eye go even wider as it sucked air.

It flapped in his hands, slick and rough at the same time.

He thought about the fish, how it could represent his parents’ accidental death, or even his own anger.

He gave it a short toss. The fish floated, glinting silver scales in the sun. After some moments, the fish squirmed, leapt and swam again.

Keith watched it disappear. He felt the sun sting his face and, for the first time in weeks, he sighed, letting himself smile.

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Written in Fire by Len Kuntz

We watched the monks burn, one after another.

Awash in fire, they sat so still that I thought they were fake. Flames rippled off their heads like molten hair. Each explosion caught me unaware, and I’d jerk my beer can. The grainy, black-and-white crowds on screen didn’t seem scared or surprised one bit.

“Why would anybody do something like that?”

My roommate laughed. He’d found the clips online while researching for a term paper.

“They were protesting the Vietnamese regime back in the ‘60’s.”

When I stood, the room swiveled.

“Don’t go. The best one’s coming up.”

I barely made it. I retched hard. When I was done, I started packing.

***

After that, my paintings were all infernos or burnt-out pits of ash.

My fiancé got nervous and ended us.

I lost friends.

My father came to see me. He said, “It’s obvious you have issues. I mean, all these strange paintings. And look at you. You’re about to explode.”

That was the point, of course.

I’d led a privileged life, with slick cars and cashmere socks.

I’d had so much, but nothing I cared about.

That night I took a gas can with me. I sat in the middle of the outdoor mall, ready to make myself explode. But first I tried to tell them.

I’d made a sign denouncing war. I gripped the wood handle and squeezed till my eyes bled.

People passed by. Some giggled, some tossed coins.

It took flames to get their attention.

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Turbulence by Len Kuntz

On our descent to Seattle, the sound of screaming woke me.
Outside, the sky crackled with streaks of lava. When I looked closer, I saw that it was actually jagged branches of lightning.

Then turbulence struck. Like a bomb.

Our plane leapt and bounced and veered.

Children squealed. Someone yelled, “Terrorist!” Latches ripped off their hinges and sundry kits flew down the aisles like cannonballs.

The woman next to me looked oddly unafraid. I figured she’d gone into a form of shock, so I took her hand and shouted, “We’ll be all right!”

She pressed her other hand to her lips, peaceful, kissing the trinket from her necklace.

Then, just as sudden as the turbulence had hit, it ended. We flattened out, the plane continuing its descent, finding the runway with little-to-no wheel skid.

It reeked of vomit. I stank, as well, my shirt dripping sweat, pants soaked with urine.

I tried to cover myself with a napkin.

On a pad of paper the woman wrote, “Are you okay?”

“Huh?”

When she tapped the paper, I realized she was deaf.

“I’m fine,” I said. “And you?”

She smiled, stood up, walked down the aisle and out.

A boyfriend met her at baggage. They kissed, then signed. She made bumping motions and laughed. Across her neck, the silver cross jangled.

My heart felt small, but it beat hard, filled with so many questions I’d never ask: what it was like to be deaf, brave, to be so certain.

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The Pride by Len Kuntz

She watched the carnage through parted fingers. The first lion caught the gazelle’s hind quarter, the next its neck.

Even on the television, she could hear the cracking bones.

In the next scene, half a dozen lions gathered around the corpse, taking turns tearing off hunks of bloody meat.
“Compared with other animals,” the announcer voice said, “lions are very social creatures. A Lion’s Pride is made up of related females and their offspring.”

She sleeps poorly. In her nightmares she runs through vines and jungles as the cats snarl and claw.

When she wakes, her husband has breakfast made. He’s been a stay-at-home dad for a year now. Her job as an attorney is lucrative enough, and David has no ego.

She watches him do something with his fingers, tracing in the air. Their daughter giggles and draws loops with her thumbs. “What are you doing?” she asks. David explains that they’ve invented their own sign language. “Sign, I love you, Mommy.” But she won’t. The girl’s become stubborn and shy now.

She always passes by the bus stop on her way to work. The moms from their track mansions wear Gucci sweats and Jimmy Choo heels, even in winter. Four of the women circle David, laughing. Their daughter is off to the side.

David drops his grin as she rounds the corner, revving the motor. They all gape. They scream and leap.

So, this is how a lioness feels, she thinks, going in for the kill.

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Thrum by Len Kuntz

At first he saw clouds, pale blue blemishes, and then his sight left him completely.

He phoned his daughter. He thought he might die at any moment. He was an old man, had lived a rugged but fair life.

She drove out that night. He sat on the porch, listening to the crickets bleating. When his wife was alive, after a long day of hard work on the farm, they’d sit in the rocking swing, holding hands but staying quiet, surrounded by green silence.

His daughter said, “You’ll have to live with me now,” and the old man almost vomited because he knew she was right.

***

The condo overlooked Elliot Bay. “It smells like glass cleaner,” he said. “And pigeon crap!”

He wanted to go back, die on the farm. His daughter kept talking about new beginnings, second chances. He thought she might be nuts.

She preferred windows open for fresh air. The street noise below made his ears bleed.

One Saturday she took him to Pike Place Market. He smelled fish and lavender and berries. He heard the fish hawkers and squealing children, birds cooing, a guitar.

His heart thrummed. It felt like a bomb inside his chest, and he liked it. He felt different, alive.

His daughter put his hand on what she said was a statue of a giant pig. “For luck.”

He laughed at that, the irony, how he had traded a live sow for a fake, how small the world really was.

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The Infection by Len Kuntz

The blade was rusted, but it was sharp and drew a jagged line of blood.

When I jerked my palm away, wincing, Mickey grinned.

He sliced his own next, slowly, smirking, his eyes a pair of red hornets.

When he was done, Mickey held his hand up, as if ready to be sworn in. I did the same. Then we mashed our bloody wounds together. “It’s official,” he said. “We’re brothers for life.”

At the airport the next day, Mom said to shake hands goodbye, but when I did, Mickey squeezed so hard that the gash ripped free of its scab, my palm screaming murder.

“Blood Brothers for life,” Mickey whispered. “You’d better not forget.”

I hardly slept that night. My hand throbbed. Past events kept flashing in front of me—Mickey stealing my Dad’s meds, his liquor, Mickey rifling through my sister’s underwear drawer and stuffing pairs in his pocket. The worst, though, was the fire he’d set. The old Lederman place was abandoned, sure, but Mickey knew about the kittens inside. We’d both heard them mewling before he struck the match.

When I woke, my palm was swollen and discolored, with wide pockets of pus.

In the garage I saw the vise, tightened it around my wrist. I said a quick prayer, hoping this would rid me of any allegiance to Mickey.

I used my shoe for balance, and pulled the ripcord. The chainsaw rattled, angry and eager. I brought it down fast. I pictured fire.

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Postage by Len Kuntz

The man on the bus looked familiar, like the monster she tried to outrun in nightmares.

At each stop, he took a new seat, edging closer. Within ten minutes, he was sitting right behind her, his garlic breath bouncing off the window.

Her hands shook so hard it was difficult to write. Andre’s name looked like the jagged line on a polygraph. She’d intended to invite Andre to the states. A postcard would limit how much she could say. The girl had the habit of scaring men off by being clingy or paranoid. Her last boyfriend had even called her psychotic. Not Andre–although distance and him being French might have accounted for his tolerance.

She gasped.

The man was pawing her hair.

When she jumped to her feet, he said, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

A kid on a bike dodged across their lane, and to miss him, the bus swerved sharply, sending the girl airborne.

***

When she came to, she was strapped to a stretcher in the back of an ambulance. “What’s going on?”

A uniformed man got in and locked the door.

Her throat caught. It was the man from the bus.

“You slammed your head pretty hard. Concussion.”

“But, but, you’re—“

“Sometimes people go into shock.”

“No, you’re him.”

He grinned.

Then she saw the postcard sticking out of his shirt pocket.

She pointed.

“Oh, that? Don’t worry,” he said. “I filled it out for you. Just needs a stamp.”

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Lips, Mouth, Heart by Len Kuntz

Instead of piano, my daughter takes lip-reading lessons. She says that way she’ll know what the other kids are whispering about her.

“That’s stupid,” her brother says. “They can just cover up their mouth with a book or their hand or something.”

My daughter screams, overturns her dinner plate, and runs off.

“It’s okay,” my son says, “she never eats anyway.”

***

A month later, my daughter looks happy, determined. She’s seated in a chair on the opposite side of the room with me on the couch.

“Just say what you’d normally say, except don’t speak out loud.”

I cock my head, imitating, Sherman Alexie, our often befuddled Labrador.

“Just mouth the words.”

I mouth, This is really weird.

She tells me to do it slower.

I mouth, I wish your mother was here.

She crinkles her head and tells me she’s not anorexic, even though that’s not what I said, even though we both know that’s a lie.

I mouth, Your mother fell in love with my best friend, but at least she left me with you two.

My daughter says, “Not so many words at once.”

I mouth, It’s not even funny how much I love you.

She says, “I know just the trick,” goes to the kitchen and returns with Pepto-Bismol. “This should help your stomach ache.”

I mouth, It’s not my stomach, it’s my heart.

She breaks out laughing, busting a gut. She says, “Sometimes you really crack me up.”

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Bad Connection by Len Kuntz

It started with other things—snow globes smashed through windows, dead birds tucked behind the chocolate milk—but it was her hair the rest of the world noticed.

In a sixteen month span—the entire time our uncle lived with us—my sister’s mane went from cobalt to burgundy to inkblot-black, then bald.

Kids were ruthless, worse than before, but really, she was sort of asking for it.

By the end of school, her hair had grown out and still there were tufts missing in random places. Boys passing in the hall made electrical buzzing sounds, mimicking barber shearers. Girls shouted out, “Nice patches!” then giggled, thinking themselves clever.

On graduation day, we sat next to each other because the event was arranged alphabetically, by last name. While the principal spoke about our looming futures and the importance of finding something you loved, my sister yanked fistfuls of hair from her head.

***

Years later, I flew to out to see her because the disease was in a hurry.

The woman who answered the door forced a smile and let me in.

My sister wore a hanky around her head. She pointed, and said, “Nothing to pluck now.”

Her friend kept petting my sister’s arm, touching her sallow cheek, watching with such keen attention that my heart buckled.

Before getting on the plane, I called home. When my wife asked, “Well, is she still a freak?” I feigned a bad connection, clicked off, and grabbed a fistful.

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Birthmark by Len Kuntz

My sister wrote words on her skin using colored markers that streaked like blood. Her penmanship was a tiny scrawl, almost Asian-looking, and to be able to read it you had to get very close, with her permission, and she’d have to stop squirming.

It was hard not to shudder the first time I visited. I thought places like that were supposed to help the addicted, but my sister looked gaunt and ghoulish. When I inquired about the writing, she pulled her sleeves down and started crossing and uncrossing her arms until I glanced away. “It’s better than needles,” she said. Then she added, “You probably don’t even believe it anymore.”

“What’s that?”

“You and I being twins.”

We’d begun the same, then turned opposite corners with dull edges. The sharp edges had just come recently. Before, she was light and I was dark. I had a habit of destroying things: television sets, furniture, other people’s self-esteem. My sis sang sweet choir songs. She wore dresses while my parents glowed, making me no more than a birthmark, a shadow, some gutted placenta.

It was cruel the way I set her up with Devon. He always gave the first gram free, but I paid cash so she’d have five. By the fourth, she was circling Jupiter and I was washing up.

Now it does hurt a little to see what I’ve created, but I figure Sis will toughen up, sober up eventually. She might even sing again.

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Castaways by Len Kuntz

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Our neighbor’s basement was filled with them, dozens and dozens of the gray stones, tall as toddlers, stacked like a macabre museum for the dead.

My brother dated the girl’s father, and on a lost dare, I had to take the creaking wooden steps down there by myself. I was twelve at the time. I’d just started to sprout a few pubic hairs and I felt them bristle inside my pants with each stair I took.

The girl’s father had died several weeks before, but her mother hadn’t started sorting through his possessions, let alone dealing with the shop.

The girl explained that these were the castaways, the mistakes—names spelled incorrectly, dates written down wrong. A few of the tombstones had lightning-shaped cracks cutting across them. They were all grey, some with slick, shiny fronts, others gruff and unvarnished. A chisel and hammer lay askew on the work bench as if dropped there, and, of course, I wondered if the man had had his heart attack here.

Just as I braved to touch one of the tombstones, the room went black.

I felt the musty air swirl around me. Then something brushed my shoulder. I thought I would collapse. I told myself not to panic, but I reached out in the darkness anyway. I felt around on the bench. Found the hammer. Swung hard.

When the lights flicked on, the girl screamed. But it was all too late. My brother’s life was gone, and mine was changed forever.

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Free by Len Kuntz

They were giving away babies. The war had ended decades ago, but its wicked curse still shone in the glazed faces of limbless beggars and bone-thin children.

We were tourists on our last afternoon. Phnom Penh hyperventilated like a slain animal. A million mopeds jammed the streets, sputtering black exhaust. Here, inside the market, hawkers shouted urgent orders in their native Khmer. We were ambushed by a troupe of ragged salespeople, some no older than seven or eight, and now, to get out, we were forced into a line that slogged past booths filled with all kinds of wares: jewelry and counterfeit handbags, shoes and hats.

We’d been warned to avoid their eyes, but a girl caught me staring. She grabbed my hand and pulled me from the crowd, beyond her makeshift tent, through a sheet serving as a door.

There must have been a dozen of them, all swaddled and stuffed inside wicker baskets. At first I thought they were dolls. But one squalled, and then another.

“I’m out of money,” I said.

“Free, Mistah. Free child for you!”

When I protested some more, the girl’s grandmother came forth and thrust a baby at me, the woman’s eyes wet, pulsing and pleading.

I fought my way back outside. I was happy to see the line. I got lost inside it. I pressed forward, but kept my head down, staring at my shoes, seeing the image that would haunt me my whole life, hearing their wail.

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Black Magic by Len Kuntz

My neighbor had a potato-shaped head and saggy skin beneath his eyes, showing way too much white. Rashes of angry acne rimmed his jaw and forehead. If you saw him in the dark you’d probably get shivers, but in daylight he was just ugly and odd.

I watched his father turn the water hose on him once. Another time, his dad tossed stones at him because he wasn’t weeding the garden fast enough.

At school it was just as bad, the taunting and bullying. A pack of juniors jabbed and kicked and pushed.

One day I was bored, walking in the woods behind our two houses, when I ran into him. He said he knew a cool place, perched high above a cliff.

It made me dizzy, we were up so high.

He had a rabbit foot on a chain and asked if I believed in magic. He said he wanted to hypnotize me.

I let him. I pretended to be unconscious. When he snapped his fingers, I asked what had happened.

“Who’s your best friend?” he asked.

I didn’t hesitate. “You are.”

He flashed a crazy grin, lips dripping milky saliva.

I said, “Nah, just kidding.”

He looked stunned.

When I turned to go, he grabbed my arm. I hardly remember jerking.

I only see him falling now, in daydreams and nightmares. But I always tell myself it was an accident, his fault as much as mine, that he wouldn’t have had much of a life anyway.

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Black Magic by Len Kuntz

My neighbor had a potato-shaped head and saggy skin beneath his eyes, showing way too much white. Rashes of angry acne rimmed his jaw and forehead. If you saw him in the dark you’d probably get shivers, but in daylight he was just ugly and odd.

I watched his father turn the water hose on him once. Another time, his dad tossed stones at him because he wasn’t weeding the garden fast enough.

At school it was just as bad, the taunting and bullying. A pack of juniors jabbed and kicked and pushed.

One day I was bored, walking in the woods behind our two houses, when I ran into him. He said he knew a cool place, perched high above a cliff.

It made me dizzy, we were up so high.

He had a rabbit foot on a chain and asked if I believed in magic. He said he wanted to hypnotize me.

I let him. I pretended to be unconscious. When he snapped his fingers, I asked what had happened.

“Who’s your best friend?” he asked.

I didn’t hesitate. “You are.”

He flashed a crazy grin, lips dripping milky saliva.

I said, “Nah, just kidding.”

He looked stunned.

When I turned to go, he grabbed my arm. I hardly remember jerking.

I only see him falling now, in daydreams and nightmares. But I always tell myself it was an accident, his fault as much as mine, that he wouldn’t have had much of a life anyway.

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Wicked Water by Len Kuntz

I wanted a way to kill water.

The river ran like a gray scar, screaming in certain sections where it got caught up by boulders. Birds fluttered in the tree tops. A deer poked through a clearing on the other side and cocked its head at me.

It should have beautiful, but it took my breath away for all the wrong reason.

Ironic, I thought, that Ann had been a swimming sensation in college. Before we’d married, I loved watching her in the pool, so fluid and controlled, each stroke like glass. The last time I’d seen her she was surrounded by water, too. I thought she’d fallen asleep in the tub. The jets were on, the water churning what must have been gallons of her blood.

Our son never learned to swim. He came to this river with Jared, who turned out to be his lover. Jared said they liked to raft to the other side. It was safe, he assured me, so long as two people paddled. But then they’d gotten into a fight, my son angry because Jared wouldn’t come out publicly, wouldn’t let them be like any other couple.

When he dove in, Jared told my son to stop screwing around, to grab the oar, but the current had already caught him.

It would have happened right there, where I’m headed now.

The water bites my skin. Its liquid limbs tug hard.

I don’t resist at all. I let rage do the work.

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