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Debarking

A divorcee attempts to get back on his feet.

"Ira had been a married man for fifteen years, a father for eight (poor little Bekka, now rudely transported between houses in a speedy, ritualistic manner resembling a hostage drop-off), only to find himself punished for an idle little nothing, nothing, nothing flirtation with a colleague, punished with his wife’s full-blown affair and false business trips (credit-union conventions that never took place) and finally a petition for divorce mailed from a motel. Observing others go through them, he used to admire midlife crises, the courage and shamelessness and existential daring of them, but after he’d watched his own wife produce and star in a fabulous one of her own he found the sufferers of such crises not only self-indulgent but greedy and demented, and he wished them all weird unnatural deaths with various contraptions easily found in garages."

Still Life

A man, a woman, and a child negotiate their uneasy triangle in the days and weeks following 9/11.

"His briefcase sat beside the table like something yanked out of a landfill. He said there was a shirt coming down out of the sky."

Still Life

A Japanese photographer examines the scene of the St. Valentine's Day massacre; a story from the author of The Black Hour.

"Was it the worst I’d seen? I turned to the camera, viewing the scene anew. Four men lay in a row, as though they had been tucked into a large bed. One slept at their feet, face down. The last hunched on his knees at a round-backed wooden chair. Blood ran toward the center of the room. Later that day when I returned to the newsroom, I would release the image from the machine in my hands, like a dragon from a cage. The city would see the blood, black, and no one would remember that someone—call him Togo or call him Fujita, the name will not be printed—had stood in the dust of men’s bones to face the dragon so that they did not have to."

Roy Spivey

A chance encounter with a movie star on an airplane.

"Roy Spivey shifted in his seat, waking. I quickly shut my own eyes, and then slowly opened them, as if I, too, had been sleeping. Oh, but he hadn’t quite opened his yet. I shut mine again and right away opened them, slowly, and he opened his, slowly, and our eyes met, and it seemed as if we had woken from a single sleep, from the dream of our entire lives. Me, a tall but otherwise undistinguished woman; he a distinguished spy, but not really, just an actor, but not really, just a man, maybe even just a boy."

Dial Tone

An unsettling story of murder and telemarketing; originally published in 2007 and recently anthologized in The New Black, edited by Richard Thomas.

"There is a noise—the noise teeth might make biting hurriedly into melon—punctuated by a series of screams. It makes me want to tear the headset away from my ear. And then I realize I am not alone. Someone is listening. I don't know how—a certain displacement of sound as the phone rises from the floor to an ear—but I can sense it."

Michael Jordan, in general

A brief history of the world and the late 1990s Chicago Bulls.

"This is the version of him that has no future or past. No ex-wife or kids, no off-court life. He lives in the United Center. He doesn't fuss with food or water. There are whole months in the air, between the floor and the rim. This moment of quiet and loud gets stuck on repeat. Michael Jordan shoots, swishes, but a lot of times he just stands, lit. An occasional swivel. Rotates like a figurine. Television size. He could dribble his basketball in the palm of your hand."

Between Here and the Yellow Sea

A former student and high school coach travel to California to kidnap the coach's daughter, an adult film actress.

"I would watch her green eyes, the smile that always closed them. I remember her face lit by a Bunsen burner's quivering flame, laughter bursting from her like confetti. Once, I saw her slap Junior Wendell's hand away from her skirt, and I felt the confinement of a teenage girl. The way her mind was full of longings—a knot of emotions constantly rising to the surface, washing over her, carrying her through a harrowed suburban field, past the shopping mall and long acres of bluestem grass, into the back seats of cars, truckbeds."

Our Father in The Belly of The Fish

Sons and fathers, fish and mud.

"Us brothers, we each of us take turns fingering that word father so that our father might see it, so that he might rise up towards, a river-bottom fish swimming up towards the light of the moon: a fish leaping up, breaking through the sky of the river, opening up its fish mouth to take a bite of the moon."

All That

A child's difficult obsession with a toy cement mixer.

It was a simple toy—no batteries. It had a colored rope, with a yellow handle, and you held the handle and walked pulling the cement mixer behind you—rather like a wagon, although it was nowhere near the size of a wagon. For Christmas, I'm positive it was. It was when I was the age where you can, as they say, 'hear voices' without worrying that something is wrong with you. I 'heard voices' all the time as a small child. I was either five or six, I believe. (I’m not very good with numbers.)

The Daughters Of the Moon

Women are swayed by the moon's pull in a world dominated by consumerism.

"It was a depressing sight. We went out in the crowds, our arms laden with parcels, coming and going from the big department stores that were open day and night, and while we were scanning the neon signs that climbed higher and higher up the skyscrapers and notified us constantly of new products that had been launched, we’d suddenly see it advancing, pale amid those dazzling lights, slow and sick, and we could not get it out of our heads that every new thing, each product that we had just bought, could similarly wear out, deteriorate, fade away, and we would lose our enthusiasm for running around buying things and working like crazy—a loss that was not without consequences for industry and commerce."

Intramuros

Childhood memories of occupied Manila, 1944.

"My new school was a brick building on a once-busy street of banks and offices about a mile outside Intramuros. Like everything else, the school was overseen by the Japanese. We wore uniforms: khaki shorts, white shirts, white sneakers. Each morning we lined up in the schoolyard, a small fenced-in square of concrete, and while exercise instructions blared from speakers propped in an open window above us, we followed: first bowing to the east, toward the Land of the Rising Sun, next stretching, then running and jumping in place. "

Haunting Olivia

In this 2005 story from MacArthur winner Karen Russell, two brothers search for the ghost of their drowned sister.

"Olivia disappeared on a new-moon night. It was exactly two years, or twenty-four new moons, ago. Wallow says that means that tonight is Olivia’s unbirthday, the anniversary of her death. It’s weird: our grief is cyclical, synched with the lunar cycles. It accordions out as the moon slivers away. On new-moon nights, it rises with the tide."

The Cafeteria in the Evening and a Pool in the Rain

A woman encounters a strange pair of missionaries.

"'Are you suffering some anguish?' the man asked abruptly. When I heard this, I realized that he was probably a member of some sort of cult. Proselytizers from these groups often pick days when the weather is bad, and they often bring children with them—which never fails to throw me. Still, there was something about these two that felt different from those I had encountered before. In fact, there was something that set them apart from anyone else who had ever come to my door."

Catskin

A poisoned witch sets forth a lavish plan for revenge and renewal.

"The inside of the catsuit is soft and a little sticky against Small’s skin. When he puts the hood over his head, the world disappears. He can see only the vivid corners of it through the eyeholes—grass, gold, the cat who sits cross-legged, stitching up her sack of skins—and air seeps in, down at the loosely sewn seam, where the skin droops and sags over his chest and around the gaping buttons. Small holds his tails in his clumsy fingerless paw, like a handful of eels, and swings them back and forth to hear them ring. The sound of the bells and the sooty, cooked smell of the air, the warm stickiness of the suit, the feel of his new fur against the ground: he falls asleep and dreams that hundreds of ants come and lift him and gently carry him off to bed."

The Last Words on Earth

Leo Gursky, author and former locksmith, reflects on mortality and the past.

"When they were ten, he asked her to marry him. When they were eleven, he kissed her for the first time. When they were thirteen, they got into a fight and for three terrible weeks they didn’t talk. When they were fifteen, she showed him the scar on her left breast. Their love was a secret they told no one. He promised her he would never love another girl as long as he lived. 'What if I die?' she asked. 'Even then,' he said. For her sixteenth birthday, he gave her a Polish-English dictionary and together they studied the words. 'What’s this?' he’d ask, tracing his index finger around her ankle, and she’d look it up. 'And this?' he’d ask, kissing her elbow. ''Elbow'! What kind of word is that?' And then he’d lick it, making her giggle. When they were seventeen, they made love for the first time, on a bed of straw in a shed. Later—when things had happened that they never could have imagined—she wrote him a letter that said, 'When will you learn that there isn’t a word for everything?'"

Birds In Fall [Prologue]

An ornithologist and a cellist converse desperately while trapped in a crashing plane.

Somewhere over the Bay of Fundy the cabin lights began to flicker. The video monitors went dead (they’d been showing a map of the Atlantic, with our speed, altitude, and outside temperature). The cellist looked up for a moment, her lips still moving with the sheet music. Then the cabin fell entirely dark, and a strange silvery light poured into the plane through each oval portal and lathed the aisles in a luminous, oddly peaceful glow.

Goodbye Hills, Hello Night

A complex look at an act of small town violence.

"There wasn’t time to think about it, though, because Jim had already opened his car door and was running up the concrete incline toward where the two men were sleeping, and there was two of them and one of him, so I kicked off my slides in the floorboard and grabbed hold of my blackjack and run up the hill after him."

Super-Frog Saves Tokyo

A giant talking frog enlists the help of a timid Japanese man in saving Toyko from a massive earthquake.

"I'm an absolutely ordinary guy. Less than ordinary. I'm going bald, I'm getting a potbelly, I turned 40 last month. My feet are flat. The doctor told me recently that I have diabetic tendencies. It's been three months or more since I last slept with a woman—and I had to pay for it. I do get some recognition within the division for my ability to collect on loans, but no real respect. I don't have a single person who likes me, either at work or in my private life. I don't know how to talk to people, and I'm bad with strangers, so I never make friends. I have no athletic ability, I'm tone-deaf, short, phimotic, nearsighted—and astigmatic. I live a horrible life. All I do is eat, s1eep and shit. I don't know why I'm even living. Why should a person like me have to be the one to save Tokyo?"

Emperor Jones

An aging wrestler reflects as he prepares to wrestle an old nemesis: a black bear.

"Emperor Jones Number Two vs. Dave 'Warthog' Ferrari in 'The War 2 Settle The Score' was the main event of that evening's Wrestling Road Show. It was the only match on the card that featured any animals. Times were changing, Friar had told me. The draw at the gate had been better than Friar expected; he'd sold more than a hundred tickets in advance and there were now twice that many people crammed into the small gymnasium. When commissioning the gym, the Legionnaires decided to have a stage built at one end, for medal ceremonies or other such honors. That was where Friar had his ring set up. Normally you work in the round, but this set up had it's advantages for a promotion like Friar's. It was easy to bring animals in and out and people wouldn't get too nervous seeing how they had to be wrangled from their cages when it was done behind a curtain."

Good Neighbors

The opening of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom; the complexities and relationships of a wholly American couple.

"For all queries, Patty Berglund was a resource, a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen, an affable bee. She was one of the few stay-at-home moms in Ramsey Hill and was famously averse to speaking well of herself or ill of anybody else. She said that she expected to be 'beheaded' someday by one of the windows whose sash chains she’d replaced. Her children were 'probably' dying of trichinosis from pork she’d undercooked. She wondered if her 'addiction' to paint-stripper fumes might be related to her “never” reading books anymore. She confided that she’d been 'forbidden' to fertilize Walter’s flowers after what had happened 'last time.'"

Mirrorball

After a one night stand, a musican unknowingly takes a piece of a woman's soul.

"The girl tried to feel contempt for the boy, too, but it is hard to have contempt for a person who’s made off with part of your soul. She went about her life—her job at a used-clothing store, her once-a-week volunteer stint at the Outreach Center for homeless youth, her evenings out with friends. Outwardly, she did not appear much changed by the misalignment; the first layer of her thoughts was more or less the same, logical and competent enough to get her through the day.

The Unlovable Virus

A woman views a breakup through the lens of a condition.

"She would be asked to do interviews with local news channels and it would become known that she was crying because of her virus. There would be marathons and benefits for finding the cure to the unlovable virus, which she would become a spokeswoman for, and many other people would speak out about being UNL-positive. There would be ribbons on cars. There would be t-shirts. There would be pins. There would be a lot of people, everywhere, saying to their friends, 'I’m sorry you’re unlovable and that I can’t love you in the way you want, the way that would cure you.'"

The Mud Man

After a gardening mishap, a meticulous, harried family man finds himself being replaced by a grotesque clone; from the author of Red Moon.

"He, the mud man, stands in the middle of a shallow crater. His joints issue a series of blistery pops like pitch pockets boiling out of a log thrown on a fire. Clods of dirt fall off him and patter the garden, freckling the daffodils and hostas. He has all the calm of a tree, the breeze rushing around him, bending the loose vines and leaves hanging off him like hair, carrying a smell like worms washed across a sidewalk after a hard rain. The mud man seems to be staring at Thomas, though it is hard to tell as his eyes are hollows with black scribbles in them, like the insides of a rotten walnut."

The Watcher

A potential assassin observes a wave of Zimbabwean refugees.

"They plunge into the Limpopo, sometimes drowning, and, if they survive, rise like mists from the water to cut holes in the border fence into his country. Then they plough through the jungle, and then eventually onto this very road that runs in front of his house. Headed to Jo’burg. What puzzles him, what he would really like to find out, is how they leave no footprints on the earth, make no mark, and drop nothing. And how it is that when they walk, like whispering, they do not cast shadows on the earth."

Saturn Return

A young bartender attempts to make sense of where his life is going.

"A lot of people proclaim a need for independence, for space. And while I could attest to that, more than anything, I was a tiger dying amongst the sprawling jungle. I longed for a cage of my own. My apartment, a two bedroom overlooking the gentrification of Philadelphia, had a décor of my design. I picked out the furniture, including the Ikea futon I dubbed “death trap,” and gave every trinket and knick-knack their designated spots: high school diploma and Bachelor’s degree over my black computer desk, novelty shot-glasses along the top of my bookcase and various Buddha figurines, from flea markets in South Jersey, on my dresser and nightstands. And of course, my vinyl collection, a two hundred piece of my heart that took me to the dustiest, most allergenic music stores on the East Coast."