What can we say about the month of September? From the invasion of Poland to 9/11, September has been like a vacuum, hoovering up all the pain and suffering and spitting it back out in a 30-day stretch. Is it any wonder why Green Day wanted to be awoken when it ends?
          I hear people remark how modern man has been made comfortable, and I see it all the time, how running to comfort (and thus running from suffering) has been placed at the pinnacle of our priorities. Comfort turns even the best of us into sniveling, whimpering, lethargic cowards. But is this a modern problem, or something we’ve dealt with since the dawn of time?
          What if, instead of running from pain, we turned and faced it head-on? What if we shouldered these burdens instead of slouching, what if we accepted the responsibility of life, and every heartbreaking moment that comes with it? Dr. Jordan Peterson once claimed that “to live is to suffer.”  And so I wonder: to suffer…is this what it means to be alive?
          If you’ve been with us for a while, you’ll know that every September we publish a story that touches on loss. By telling (and reading) these stories, are we not standing up straight and accepting the suffering given to us? Are we not re-examining our own souls? And what do we discover - that the givers and takers of our collective ache all share the same DNA, for when I scrape the depths of my memories dry, is it not blood that I find, hiding under my fingernails?
Danny Hankner
Danny Hankner

“Every great story begins with a snake” - Nicholas cage
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(powerful / raw / heart-breaking)
awarded Second place in our annual Short Story contest
winning story will be published later this year

There is blood under my fingernails. There is blood, and bone, and sinew, and dura mater, and cilia, and small intestine, and large intestine, and cartilage, and retina, and myelin sheath, and muscle, and hair, and a myriad other remnants of what used to be a body.
           There is blood under my fingernails, and in the cracks and crevices of my fingerprints, loops and whorls the color of dolphin underside. The light grey creates a false pattern, an impression that, it seems, I will see again if I am ever arrested, and this is the negative by which I will forever be identified.
           There is blood under my fingernails, and at the back edges of them too, right in the valley between where the nails meet up with my skin. The blood has pooled there, along with the bone fragments and the skin fragments and the hair fragments. They are all that is left of a body which once ran half-marathons, which once did the long jump, which three times survived a C-section, which traveled to Guangzhou to welcome another child into our family.
           There is blood under my fingernails, but it does not look like blood. It looks like ashes. Or perhaps moon dust. Grey, and thin, and penetrating, minuscule molecules that appear more uniform than they really are.
           So, too, do the bone, and the myelin sheath, the cuspids and bicuspids and incisors, but not the wisdom teeth (those were removed at age twenty), yet the ligaments, the pectoralis major, the gluteus maximus, the abdominus, what is left of them, they all combine into the swirling, floating, grey cloud that coats my fingers and leaves behind a residue, residual emotions and memories and lost hopes and dreams. 
           They are human remains. Cremains, actually. The burned and blended and sifted and sorted cremains of my wife. The grey dust is the combination of blood, and bone, and fleshy substances, torched in an oven 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit (982 Celsius), erasing any resemblance to that blood, that bone, that fleshy substance, and instead transforming them into this simple powder which sticks to my fingers as I take a handful and toss it into the ocean.
           Today we performed a small memorial ceremony on a beach in Hawai’i, to remember, to pass along, to release from our tortured souls the memories we had been holding on to for far too long. It’s been two and a half years since she died, two and a half years since the first ceremony back at what used to be our church, then was my church, then wasn’t anybody’s church, and today we had a ceremony that reminded me of the community that we used to belong to. The community which accepted us, which encouraged us, which supported us, and which, ultimately, did not betray us so much as to impress upon me (more than her, for she was invalid at the time and unable to participate in that community any longer) their short-sightedness and hypocrisy. But this is not about that loss or ignorance. This essay is about Jennifer’s blood under my fingernails.
For an hour after the ceremony, I am contaminating whatever I touch with little bits of my dead wife’s body everywhere I go. I conscientiously do not reach for anyone else’s hand with mine in the moments immediately after, in case I were to accidentally dust them with cremated calf muscle. I choose not to wash after I urinate, in case I might accidentally spread some charred spinal fluid into the drainage water supply. I imagine a hundred thousand bits of disintegrated liver left behind on the steering wheel of the rented Jeep Wrangler I drive to Target to purchase aloha shirts for my boys to wear to the luau tonight. 
           I did not wipe my hand on my pants after I took the single handful of grey powder, mostly finer than sand but with a few millimeter-sized chunks creating a non-homogeneity that I hadn’t noticed before, and stood where the breaking waves washed up the shore to touch my toes. When my arm came forward to toss the few ounces of granite-colored material into the water, I released. My tears had come before, when Dennis (who had never met Jen, or me, or her parents, only her brother) spoke movingly about the death of his own son. I don’t know his loss, and he doesn’t know mine. Nor do I know that of my in-laws, or my mother’s or my children’s. But I felt a kinship during that moment, a connection which brought tears to my eyes, and which I allowed to come. I did not fight it, once I realized that I was fighting, trying to hold them back. But why should I? I had lost. Perhaps I am still losing.
           It is unsettling, to be walking around coated with some of what used to be your lover. Though you tell yourself the her that was her is not really there, that “she” was a spirit inside a body and that the body was simply a vessel, it is still a bit unnerving to think that you’re carrying a bit of a dead body, even though it has been grey-washed into anonymity by the firing process. Should you? Are you being disrespectful of the dead to do this? To scatter parts at various times, and in various places? Or would it be more respectful to keep everything together, to await, as she believed would happen, the rising of the dead in Christ to meet Him on the clouds at His return?
I no longer believe as I did. And I know that creates tension for those who still do believe that way. My parents-in-law, for starters. Rob and Janice believe, and for a while I believed as they, and their daughter, my now-dead wife, did. But I don’t any longer. Which means that today’s ceremony did not resonate as strongly for me as it did for others.
           That’s fine. This ceremony was not for me. It was for them. For them who had lost someone whom they had loved for forty years. Who they had seen grow from a tiny baby into a woman, from a woman into a wife, from a wife into a mother. The same person whom they had seen descend the slope of personhood again from mother to patient, from patient to client, from client to charge, from charge to husk. This ceremony was for them, for their sense of closure, for them to pay final respects. I still owe.
           I did not get to see her body after she died and before she was cremated. I did give my final farewell a few hours before then. I said goodbye, and I held her hand encased in its paper-thin skin, and I kissed her shrunken, 70-pound frame, and I told her I loved her. But I had to go. I had to go so she could die. So she could know that I had a life to live, still, that I had to take care of her children, our children. That I had to, and that I could. That despite the trouble, despite the difficulty, despite the separation and the end of our relationship as it could have been, and despite my change of faith and despite my moving on, I did still love her.
           So I no longer love her in the same way I did. Have I moved on too quickly? Have I not grieved enough? I’m dating now. I’ve been dating for a while. Am I wrong for that?
           I look at my fingernails and feel the excess pressure underneath, where I may have bone, or a part of a ventricle, or maybe a kneecap, embedded there, and I think of her.
           I feel the thinnest-of-thin coatings on my fingertips and across their backs, too, as if I am wearing the cut-off ends of dust gloves, and I wonder just how much of her I am taking with me.
           I stare at my fingernails, and I imagine that I have now spread parts of Jennifer not just to the ocean, but to the door handle of my rented vehicle, where they’ll get passed on to the next driver and the next and the next, and a few flakes have shaken loose and fallen to the floorboards, and they’ll get sucked up into the vacuum and ejected into the air and ingested by a passing swallow or settle on a passion fruit flower and embed into that specific little arc of the cycle of life. I see it, and think of her, and then don’t.
           Have I done enough?
How we respect the dead has little to do with the dead themselves, and much to do with our own sensibilities. I hope, when I die, that my family and friends will think, “Well, it’s about time!” We’ll have had our last big party two months before, where everyone will gather, and they will give speeches, and I will give a toast to everyone in the room, and I will say to them, “Thank you for being a part of my life.” And they will say, “Hear, hear!” And we will party until the wee hours of the morning, and I will drink as much as I choose to, and I will dance with a few of my cousins who are still moving, and I will wish my children farewell, and to so many who have come to celebrate with me I will say, “Thank you.”
           What we do for the dead is really for ourselves. To ease, in some small way, our own pains. To attempt to say, once more, the things we didn’t before they died and could hear it: “I love you. I will miss you. It’s okay to go.”
           Even those things, as much as we might like to think they are for the benefit of the other, are really coming out of our mouths to comfort us. To remind us of what we are doing. To say, “Yes, I hurt. I am a selfish, small creature, and I am going to be inconvenienced by you doing this to me. I can have it no other way.”
           What we do for the dead would make a much better impression on those who have died were they around to experience it. Jennifer could not see this ceremony. She believed that her soul would be in Heaven after her body died. If her soul is there, what comfort could she get from our tears falling into the Pacific Ocean? What sadness might we be able to relieve within her soul, safe in the loving comfort of her Lord? What lack might exist, in that place where nothing is ever wrong, where all is pleasant, where joy and peace reign?
           And if that religion is not, as I now believe, the one true religion and there really is nothing after death, as I now also believe, how could this ceremony benefit her? How can a nothing observe the reverence we have exhibited here today? How can a nothing hear a song, sung sweetly and passionately by a long-time family friend? How can a nothing smell the scented petals of the leis scattered into the brine? How can a nothing both disturb and comfort us? Despite the impossibility, it somehow still does.
We scattered half of her ashes today. I took charge of a decorative box with the other portion wrapped in an undecorative plastic bag, to take with me to another Hawaiian island, to perform another ceremony there. I will do so with the kids. Perhaps we will say something. Perhaps not.
           But the half we scattered and the half we did not are not all there was of Jennifer. Remember, I kept some, unintentionally, beneath my fingernails. All of us did. Bits and pieces of various body parts, perhaps toes, perhaps an earlobe, burned up and ground down and pulverized into the fine powder that made its way onto, even into, my skin, as I absorbed one last hit of the drug of a love that I had not tasted in years.
           This time, there was no high.
           Just a low.
           Just some tears.
           And some blood, under my fingernails, there to remind me of all that had come before, and of all that is yet to be done.
About the author:
Stephan Mathys lives in and writes from Missouri, where he is roomates with several children, several pets, and several works-in-progress. His fiction, as Stephan James, has been published in Altered Reality, 101Words, and The Arcanist. He is allergic to social media, so to read more of his work visit stephanjameswrites.com.

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Literary Spotlight
David Hankins is an award-winning author who writes from the thriving cornfields of Iowa where he lives with his wife, daughter, and two dragons disguised as cats. He writes lighthearted speculative fiction because that's what he loves to read and—this is the important bit—because there's not nearly enough humor in the world. David aims to change that, one story at a time. You can find his stories and more at davidhankins.com
In 2022, David won Writers of the Future with his hilarious short story “Death and the Taxman,” which received wide critical acclaim in Writers of the Future Volume 39 (May 2023). Everybody loved David’s cheeky characters and laugh-out-loud humor. But there was more to that story than could fit in a short. So, David expanded it into a novel of the same name. Death and the Taxman (the novel) launched exclusively on Kickstarter on August 8th for a crowdfunding campaign which ends September 7th, 2023. You find the campaign by clicking HERE with available links to the first chapter of the novel and a free (almost) audio version of the short story.
When you read Death and the Taxman, remember: Never Trust A Dying Auditor
The Ghouls
Dear Story Unlikely,
     I found you through Poets & Writer's Magazine, and I was so grateful to find a magazine that was willing to publish the in-between stories: from genre and speculative fiction to straight fiction, as long as it was a good story. That was a breath of fresh air, and I and my genreless stories thank you for that!
Matthew Brandon (Whose short story The Ghouls appeared in our July issue.)

Dear Story Unlikely,
     I just finished The Ghouls by Matthew Brandon and I just wanted to say how beautiful it was. Darkly poetic, uncertain of itself in every line just as the main character appeared uncertain of his place in the world. The mention of the 'D word' and its forked meaning as both 'Divorce' and 'Death, not to mention 'Undo' was particularly good! I enjoyed it very much and look forward to the next one.
All the best,
Andrew Scott

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