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MITHAI | Malavika Praseed


After James Thurber

Gupta the chocolatier. White hat and apron, immaculate clean despite the double boilers and piping bags. From his whisk dripped ribbons of shining chocolate, milk and white and dark. He bent his head as the ribbons fell and smiled into the camera. An advertisement. His face shining enough to glow for the masses on television. A woman’s voice breathed sensuously, Lindor.

“Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth,” came another voice from the front of the room. The yoga instructor, long, lithe, blonde, called out to her disciples. Each bent on their hands and knees, back arched, face to the sky.

“And now back to downward facing dog.”

Mr. Gupta complied and heard the cracking of each one of his bones. Knees lifted, arms trembled.

In his country it would be not chocolate, but mithai, the sound of broken pistachios like the cracking in his bones. Rendering milk low and slow into cream, then paste. Infuse the paste with ghee and sugar, shape it into pillows. The same technique, the same sponge on his tongue, none of the romance.

His hands on the mat dug into the sponge. It was his daughter’s mat, pink and a bit too narrow. It was at her urging that he came to this class that day. Mindfulness, she urged him. Better than her first thought, a neurological evaluation.

Pah. He could have been a neurologist, a neurosurgeon even. Three more marks on the entrance exam and he’d be in Jaipur as Gupta MBBS. Gray and white matter like putty in his hands. He’d revive the dead chief minister from his paralyzing stroke. Instead, the dead chief minister floated in the Ganga for all the peasants to bathe in. He could’ve saved him. After all he still had the cranial nerves memorized: olfactory, optic, oculomotor, trochlear, all the rest. How could he himself need a neurologist?

“And rise to your feet for mountain pose.”

Gupta saw the backs of all the slim white women around him and sucked in his gut, tucked the surplus flesh beneath his sweatpants. He lifted his arms and felt the air-conditioned wind on his stomach. Carpet of hair standing on end.

The colonel wouldn’t stand for such slovenliness. Look trim in your olive greens or run, he’d say to them all. You represent the nation. And he did, Gupta the cadet, firearm high and ready, ears perked, waiting for fire across the sky and for feet in motion. Ready to die in the mountain borders, defend a land that is his.

“Sir,” came a voice, and he opened his eyes. The women had returned to the floor, and he stood alone. The instructor faced his eye.

“Sorry, sorry,” he said, scrambling to his hands and knees. Just as he found his breath somewhere, there was somewhere else to be. He copied the motions around the room, curled his legs and dropped his forehead to the floor. Child’s pose. A beam of light filtered through the bottom of the studio door.

Gupta the child. He spotted a light below his door and listened to the conversation. Maldives! A year of school rewarded with a trip to the beach. White sands, blue-green water, huts all around, the murmur of fish and squawk of gulls. In a flurry he packed his suitcase and burst through the doors, ignored his mother’s hush to go to bed, and pronounced himself ready for the Maldives getaway. No, his father said. Only he would be leaving, for work. Tears fell like pearls, snot dripped into Gupta’s quivering mouth.

It was sweat, after rising out of Child’s pose and in and out of sun salutations. Sweat and tears. Who greeted the sun like this, with movement? Why not bask in its rays, lay still, and pray?

At last, rest. The instructor calls for savasana, the only pose still said in Sanskrit. The women laid on their backs and placed their hands on either side, facing up. Legs slack yet in control. Gupta followed.

“Peace,” said the instructor. “Focus on your breath. Forget all the sounds around you.”

Gupta heard no sounds. What greater peace was there than the peace of the mind? His body floated between forms, memories, imaginations.

There were a few moments of silence until a gasp interrupted. Then like camera shutters: all eyes opened and took in the light. Gupta aloft, his back flat to the air. At first a few inches, then a foot, then his head nearly grazing the ceiling. The instructor shrieked.

Strangely, none of the other women moved. Some laid with their backs still to the mat, others raised their bodies and stayed seated, nothing more. But their eyes all gazed in his direction, and Gupta reveled in their acknowledgement. These women, who bought expensive haldi milk and wore silk scarves around their ponytails and looked as his wife did in the early days. He nearly called out to them.

You have your instructor, yes, but behold your guru!

He breathed to buoy himself like a balloon, but soon his body came down. Soft, dreamlike. They all gazed, transfixed, at Gupta the Undefeated.

Malavika Praseed

Malavika Praseed is a writer, genetic counselor, and MFA candidate at Randolph College. She is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at the Twin Bill and a book reviewer at the Chicago Review of Books. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Khoreo, the Twin Bill, Defunkt, the Ear, and others.


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The In Between | Nikoletta Gjoni

The In Between

Audrey knew it was fucked up to be both scared of and intrigued by the demon. It slipped out of the shadows of her bedroom like ink spilling onto the page, the darkness following as It crept closer towards her. It, too, seemed intrigued by her, though she wasn’t sure why. Perhaps It had had enough of non-believers, of sitting and waiting to be heard—acknowledged. Recoiled from.

The corner, the night, the endless waiting—it could be suffocating for a demon, too. Boring, even.

As It inched closer to her bed, Audrey counted the glinting teeth exposed by a conniving smile. Its tongue slipped over each sharp point like It was counting along with her. It placed a sinewy finger by Audrey’s feet and dragged it along the edge of her bed, a sharp nail leaving a hairline tear in the fitted sheet like a River Styx being carved alongside the length of her body until a tributary of torn fabric ended at the round of her shoulder.

Audrey flinched, or at least she tried to. She tried to flex her fingers, but they remained planted on the bed. She wanted to open her mouth, to ask the demon how It found her. Or better yet why. But her tongue lay limp and heavy, and she noticed for the first time just how much it filled her mouth. She felt herself gag at the weight of it.

“Auuuuuudreyyy,” It taunted her, Its face inches away, Its teeth nipping at the thin air between them, the elongated syllables of her name like the whistling air seeping out of a balloon—piercing and slow.

Audrey’s heart rate should’ve indicated fear. Instead, she felt herself grow intoxicatedly excited. This couldn’t be real, she thought to herself, so what’s the harm? Her eyes, the only thing she could control, trailed the demon’s fluid movements. It stretched across her belly and straddled her, Its knees planted firmly on either side of the mattress, caging her like a bridge over water.

She had read about night terrors. She knew of the hag that sat hunched in corners before settling on the chest like an oversized paper weight. But this demon? Tall with broad yet stooped shoulders and pointed ears? With eyes that glowed like marbles catching the streetlight outside; pupils two pinpricks of blackened sky? It wasn’t handsome, but it wasn’t menacing either. Not entirely, anyway. Audrey always had a thing for sturdy silhouettes. She thought that on a different spatial plane, It could’ve been an Olympic swimmer.

Its groin ground into her and Audrey felt herself melt into the wrinkled sheets, a pool of warmth churning inside her belly, spreading down to her legs. The medieval church would have had thoughts about this, would have enacted rituals. She would’ve been tied to a stake or thrown into a lake with a rock shackled around her ankles.

The demon flicked Its tongue towards her nose like a serpent sniffing the air and laughed. Audrey smelled sour milk.

It held one pointed nail against her throat, a tickle of a threat that It could end her. It wanted Audrey to be scared. She knew this slow burn of an approach all too well. She thought of her husband before he left her. Same stooped shoulders; same stale breath after beers with the boys, his body’s weight the same as the demon’s.

Her eyes flicked from one side of the room to the other, arms pinned to her sides, her thoughts running rogue. Much like in the waking world, she conflated hurt for passion—manipulation for cleverness. She wanted so much to move any part of her body, to show agency in the matter. She wanted so much to be disgusted by this late-night violation.

She willed the demon to make her bleed, to cut her open like It was already positioned to do. The fact that It held all the power to snuff her out but hadn’t yet intrigued Audrey all the more. She reminded herself that this management of power wasn’t admirable. The demon smiled at her, licked Its paper-thin lips as if It read her mind. It pressed Its nail deeper against her quickened pulse, testing her limits, urging her to scream. They could’ve been standing in this face-off for either minutes or the entirety of the night. Audrey wasn’t sure.

She mustered a lopsided smile and waited for the demon to prove Itself real; waited for herself to wake up, for the REM cycle to kick in, for the hallucination to fade. She focused on her toes and imagined wriggling them, put all her effort into each digit, her smile never wavering, her very real body countering the demon’s—a coagulation of her projected fears and shameful turn-ons. Daylight Audrey knew this approach to survival intimately, and she had to be in there somewhere, her consciousness buried deep inside Midnight Audrey.

When the demon squeezed at her throat, Its nails cut into the soft curves of her neck, and all she could do was take it, knowing the sky would soon lighten. But the fear of suffocation slowly dragged Audrey from the depths of the encounter. She thought of her husband pawing at her throughout so many nights, her attempts to rebuke him useless. Her eyes traced the intimidating outline of the demon and thought she saw her husband’s cowlick stand up on one side. Audrey closed her eyes and focused on the smallest parts of her body, remembering what movement felt like.

She broke a hand free from paralysis just as the demon was about to crawl inside her mouth and fill her with the oil thick darkness of stinging memories long forgotten, the stale milk smell now rancid. Audrey placed her own perfectly manicured fingers against the demon’s throat and squeezed back.

Nikoletta Gjoni

Nikoletta Gjoni is a writer living outside of Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in the 2023 Rising Stars London Independent Story Prize anthology and has been previously nominated for the PEN/Robert J. Dau prize, Best of the Net, and Best Microfiction. She is currently at work on her first novel. View Gjoni's publications at or follow her on Twitter @NikiGjoni.


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Fresh Catch | Laura Eppinger

Fresh Catch

In the quaint shore town we all know, with its pastel cafes pedaling espresso and ice cream, you must be careful what you whisper into the winds. You can’t be sure who’s listening.

You cruise by now on the last day of your two weeks’ notice, though you haven’t landed the next job. Arm dangling out the driver side window, you wonder aloud, Can’t someone just tell me what to do next?

Goosebumps crop up as the ocean seems to answer in song.

It’s the sound of the only lullaby to soothe a cranky toddler, powerful as the church hymn that brings an atheist to their knees.

Oceans don’t sing, of course. You spot a woman, out walking along a sandbar, it seems.

Is she topless? You think. Hard to see through her thick hair. If she’s wearing bikini bottoms, the sight is obscured by the water. She’s standing up to her waist, comfortable with the waves roiling beneath. She bobs with them like a seal pup, playful and eager.

Wait, how do you know she’s a she? You fled that job because you’re pretty sure you’re not—a she, that is.  After four decades hunching like an imposter, you gave yourself a new name. Your husband has been cool, friends say they always knew, but those coworkers wouldn’t change how they talk to you. It confused them, that you married a man, and any attempt to explain the difference between who you love and how you feel at home in your body was met with so many glazed-over eyes.

The coworkers wouldn’t stop calling you “Missus,” though you never changed your last name. You didn’t mean to tell them you’d had a small civil ceremony, but it slipped. You begged them not to make a fuss, but the coworkers didn’t listen.

The day they stuck a sign to your office door that spelled out “BRIDE!” in glitter, you resigned. The tape stripped the paint from the wooden slab once you peeled it off. That glitter will clog our waterways for the next millennium. Something about BRIDE! chokes you still.

You came to the water to apologize. To seek guidance. To cry and breathe salt off of something bigger than yourself.

“Silence,” the woman in the waves commands when you ask if you’ve got her pronouns right. “Listen to me sing.”

In front of you, this supple, smooth-armed bathing beauty tilts her head back up as if to look at the sky. Her eyes are closed, though, as the words fall like pearls from her lips. The melody reels you in, tangles her thoughts inside your mind.

In a snap you are convinced to drown your phone as if it were an enemy. You hold the device under water, free of its protective casing, while tears of anger drip down your cheeks. No more demands, requests, or hours wasted scrolling with that thing.

Her song again. The pitch is lower, a volcano erupting, as it inspires you to make an offering.

“Do you want this?” you ask as you point to your wedding band, the flexible silicone kind.

“Never,” she hisses. “I cannot take what a man has claimed.”

That’s pretty problemat—She turns away from you before your thought is even formed.

Your biz-cas clothes billow in the surf as you stagger back to the shore.


You don’t have to leave the house when the sun rises the next day—your spouse knows you’re unemployed—but you say you want to spend a day at the beach. “Good for you,” he says.

She’s there again, and you wade out to her. She’s telling you to give up the antidepressant.

Before you can agree to make an appointment, though it’ll be harder now without a phone, she trills like a songbird, painting a picture in lyrics about the way life in the ocean syncs up one being to all beings, by the wisdom of the moon.

“I'll sense it in your water if you keep swallowing those chemicals,” she threatens.

You nod and you weep.

It’s harder to trudge back to land this time. You feel the tides tug underneath your skin hours later, still on land.


On your third visit with the lady in the water, there are no words spoken. All that passes between you is her song and its lush vision: The promise of a tail where your two legs currently hang.

You never felt right walking or standing. I will teach you to glide, smooth like silk.

In your mind a dream of your own body, that old lump of clay you normally can’t stand to look at. But when you flip and preen beneath the water’s surface, you are at peace. No mirror, no photo, has ever captured that sparkle in your eyes.

Her voice dips an octave lower for this tune: You'll know your body with the tides. This is another way we trust in the moon. You and I and everyone in our pod, sharing one cycle of blood.

But oh, you’re sad to leave him. Husband. What was his name again?

You'll see him every month, when the moon is full, she sings to you with a wink. He'll give you so many babies, while he dreams.

Your spiny little fish bones tell you: this is the truth. Beneath you, legs fuse to become one natural extension of your spine. The logical straight line, connecting you tip to tip, steady enough so you shall move the world.

“Babies,” you say, butter melting on your tongue in the sunshine. You haven’t used your singing voice, just yet.

Those born girls will swim, free and wild. The boys, with their sausage arms and puffy feet, evoke a fearsome glimmer in your new pointed teeth.

Only monsters think in binaries, you’d posted to social media a few months ago. This is truer than you’d known. But you won’t have to think anymore, once you dive deep enough into the sea.

Laura Eppinger

Laura Eppinger (she/they) knows that the Jersey Devil is real. Laura's work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize as well as Best of the Net. Learn more:

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Healing & Fissures | Madeline Anthes


My son is forcing me to do aquatic therapy and he shows up at the front desk of my assisted living community right on time. I’ve grumbled and given excuses for months — it will mess up my perm, I hate smelling like chlorine, I have a cold — but he’s so stubborn and insistent. The doctor said this could really help you heal. Don’t you want to feel better?

So, fine, we’re doing aquatic therapy. I hear myself grumble the whole way there. I don’t even know why. It’s too late, we’re on the way to the pool, but I can’t seem to help the complaints from spilling out. It’s too cold in the car. You need a haircut. Why wasn’t your baby wearing socks in that last picture you posted to Facebook? I know it just adds to the image he has of me as a crotchety old bat, but maybe that’s why I do it too.

I’ve worn my bathing suit — there’s no way I’m changing in front of these rubber band swim instructors. And then I’m in the water, bobbing up and down in the shallow end, the PT telling me Good! That’s great, Mrs. Harvey!  Three more!

I almost think I’ll make it through to the end of the session. Twenty minutes in I’ve almost let myself be present, focused on the movements. But of course, I’m never fully present, never fully focused.

I look up and see my son in the bleachers, a sad, pitying, proud look on his face. He looks so much like his father, and of course, he looks so much like his brother. Would his brother have grown up looking like him – strong chin, brown eyes, sweep of curls over his forehead? Would his brother have been just as serious? Thinking he needs to be the man of the family now that his father is dead and his mom is safely tucked away in a home? And it’s the thought of them sitting together as brothers talking about me, their mom, about how slow I am and how I can’t hear, about how they miss their dad, that stops me cold. I remember his hands churning in the water, the bubbles above him going still, ripples disappearing, my legs burning as I run to get there in time but I’m too slow, too late. By the time I get to the edge of the pond, I’ve lost him, and my hands are covered in dirt and lake grime and I am pumping his chest and he is so cold and he is not breathing and I feel everything slip into the spiraling “after.”

The instructor puts a hand on my shoulder. I’ve stopped moving. I’m staring at my son and now he looks concerned. I’m fine, just lost in thought. Forgive an old lady. She looks relieved, she probably thought I had a stroke. My son exhales too and I give him a shrug like, oh you know how I get. I don’t look at him the rest of the session.


A heat wave sweeps through after the baby is born and we walk to the winery. A duo of singers plays acoustic guitars on a wooden stage in the vines, belting covers with shaky folk voices. When their set is done and the baby starts chewing his fist, you ask the singers to walk home with us. You build a fire in our backyard and pour them more wine while I feed the baby inside. Through the window I hear you telling them that we met at a car wash.

You don’t say that we were teenagers working at the KleanKar. How we got burgers at the place next door, splitting a milkshake. How we kissed at a Fourth of July parade, and it tasted like cotton candy and popsicles. How we got married at the church down the street from the car wash, how the owner of the KleanKar came to the reception and danced with your grandma.

I hear the lady-singer ask how I’m feeling after the baby. You say fine, which is my typical answer, too.  I don’t tell people how nights are so lonely. How I don’t cry anymore but I want to every time I hear the baby whimper. How I feel frantic all the time, how my days feel like marathons, how I am so so tired. How I hate that the baby looks like you. How I wonder if this is my life forever.

Later, you get in bed smelling like sour merlot and woodsmoke. You close your eyes and ask how I am. The baby is nursing and I am sweating and hungry and thirsty and all I want is to sleep on my stomach for days. Your breathing relaxes and you slip into sleep. I never answer.

Madeline Anthes

Madeline Anthes is the Assistant Editor of Lost Balloon. Her chapbook Beautiful, Violent Things is now available from Word West Press. You can find her on Twitter at @madelineanthes, and find more of her work at

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On Dressing Well | K. Malwatte

On Dressing Well

She learns about the dinner party the day before they are to leave. Her father-in-law mentions it in passing, on a phone call with her husband, about logistics of course – what time does the flight land tomorrow, unusually cold this week so pack a jacket, maybe also a scarf. The phone is on speaker, so she hears it from the other room, from where she is packing. “I didn’t know there was going to be a dinner party.” she says, when he hangs up. “Oh, yes, sorry, forgot to mention – not a big deal, just some of my parents’ friends, coming over.”

She frowns, recalling the last few times that happened.

Just a dinner party, sure, but all the ladies, all the aunties, her mother-in-law’s friends, dressed to the nines in sarees with ornate borders and fine beadwork, gold jewelry sparkling on lobes, necks, cuffs, fingers, ankles. The first time, after the surprise announcement of a dinner with several guests and her mother-in-law’s offer of a saree, she had insisted, warmly to be sure, that it was ok, she was perfectly comfortable wearing what she was already wearing, or she could change into a dress, it was just a casual weeknight gathering of family friends, an ordinary night in an ordinary suburb of New York, was it not? She’d felt out of place that evening, amidst the rich colors, the swish of fabric, the clink of stacked bangles, especially when her sister-in-law, visiting from Chicago for the long weekend, had changed into a saree for the evening festivities. Then that other time, when her mother-in-law had again offered, insisted, once again warmly to be sure, that she wear – borrow — one of her sarees and she had complied, recalling the churning discomfort of the last time and faced with the unassailable logic that all sarees were the same width and length, just a long roll of fabric really, and after all, wasn’t it all about the drape?

Sure – and her hands hadn’t forgotten the dance, the way you tuck in one end at the waist, gather the yards together in one hand, barely able to hold it together, as you pleat, pleat, pleat, mastering the unruly unspooling of the fabric before once more, tucking, turning, turning again, laying over the left shoulder and then pleating, pleating, pleating and pinning until it falls in waves towards the floor– not too long, never long enough to drag underfoot but not too short, never short enough to reveal the ankle. No – it hadn’t been the saree itself that had chafed that time, despite its floral print, too busy, too fussy, too precious, never something she’d have chosen for herself, but the blouse, also her mother-in-law’s, ill-fitting, too large for her, sliding off her shoulders, wrong, wrong, wrong, her mother would have been so embarrassed to see it, her mother who had always worn her own sarees with such panache, such refinement, such well-tailored blouses, fitting like a second skin.

She frowns again, recalling asking her husband whether any dinner parties, any gatherings of family friends, had been planned during this visit and his assurance that there was not. She knows it wasn’t malicious, not ill-intentioned, his forgetting to mention it. He was not expected to change clothes, to dress up, for guests, for family friends, and for that matter, neither was she, not really, except that maybe she was. It was hard to tell. She frowns down at her open luggage, calculating how much extra space, extra weight, whether it will all fit in her carry-on. Maybe she can just take a dress, a nice one, or borrow one of her mother-in-law’s sarees and blouses again, or maybe just take one of her own blouses and borrow a saree that is a close enough match in color? She sighs, recalling how, back home so many thousands of miles and moons away, each Sunday morning, her mother would select her own sarees for the week, matching the correct blouse to each saree, choosing a palette for each week, a judicious rainbow of sister-shades, with a new coat of nail polish to match that particular palette. No – it will not do.

So she pulls the check-in suitcase out from under the bed, unzipping the compression bags stacked flat with silks and cottons, laying out the choices, so few compared to the bounty of her mother’s almirah but too many for the life she leads now, except for these moments, when a choice must be made. It is a code, a signaling of knowledge – the casual cotton saree for work-wear, the silk heavy with hand-work for a wedding, darker tones for an evening function, lighter shades for a morning one, the white saree for funerals – but also, for weddings. She sorts through her small stash, settles on one – not too elaborate, not peacocking to draw attention, but enough to show respect, to show that she’d tried, that she understood. She sighs when she sees the creases, she knows sarees are not meant to be packed tight like this, folded and stuffed beneath a bed for months, years, instead of being draped neatly over a wooden hanger, periodically aired out in the searing sunshine and then carefully rehung, refolded in the other direction so as not to permanently mark a crease. She goes searching for an iron, knocking on the door of her neighbors, an older couple who live across the hallway, whose plants she waters when they are away on vacation, visiting the grandkids in Texas. Her husband is bemused by the ironing: “my parents have an iron,” he tells her, “and in any case, you don’t need to take a saree, I don’t think you’re expected to wear one, I’m not taking any special clothes and also, why bother ironing now, it’s only going to get creased again when you pack it.” She ignores him, continues with her ironing, letting the fabric spill over the edge of the ironing board, pool around her bare feet, cool on her side of the board, still warm from the iron’s press as it tumbles over the edge.

It is close to midnight by the time she finishes, her husband long ago headed to bed in anticipation of their early cross-country flight and a long weekend with family. She finishes ironing the blouse, goes to try it on and realizes that the fit is wrong, wrong, wrong, too tight since the last time she wore it, she can’t recall when, the fabric pulling taut under her arms, the hook-and-eye closure straining over her breasts, making it hard for her to breathe. It is already midnight, but she hunts down her sewing kit, snips the stitches at the offending seams and settles in with a sigh— in-and-out, out-and-in, goes the needle and thread, letting out and reshaping.

K. Malwatte

K. Malwatte writes flash fiction, as well as longer-form historical fiction and fantasy inspired by the folklore of the Indian subcontinent. She is a member of Page Street Writers and has presented work at the Bay Area Book Festival and Litquake.

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Very Good Dog | Zach Powers

Very Good Dog

We were in Washington DC, in the final few days that DC existed, for the Twenty-Seventh Annual Mid-Atlantic Regional DiscDog Invitational. I was there with Daisy, my Aussie-mix, and my pal Penny, whose Border Collie was also named Penni, but with an I at the end. Penni-with-an-I was a favorite to win the whole thing. My Daisy was just good enough to keep getting invited to competitions.

A week of storms had muddied the grass on the National Mall. Our dogs tore up clumps of turf with every leap. I pitied whoever was going to have to restore the surface after we left. Gray-white monuments blurred into the clouds, a city half disappeared. Lines of tourists stood at hot dog carts.

Daisy had already made her run first thing in the morning, and we’d done okay, nailing a couple of the tougher moves we often muffed. Now we watched from the sidelines. My shoes, soaked through, squelched as I shifted my weight in the muck.

On the field, Penni-with-an-I snagged each catch with a surgical nip. I swear she could strike a pose at the peak of a leap. If the DiscDog Tour were ever to adopt a new logo, her silhouette would be it. A random crowd of tourists had gathered. Usually it was just the other competitors watching, but even these amateurs recognized excellence. When Penny and Penni-with-an-I finished their routine, an honest-to-god roar of applause broke out.

At the closing ceremony, it was no surprise when Penni-with-an-I claimed the title, her fifth so far that season. The winnings, though slim, would more than cover the cost of our motel. I’d trained Daisy to make a clapping motion with her front paws, so she mimed along as the trophies were bestowed. Penny accepted a comically tall trophy, human height, a lacquer that failed to disguise the tin underneath. I wasn’t sure the trophy would fit in the minivan with the rest of our stuff.

James Ensor, a purebred Aussie, had come in second, trained by Reggie. Reggie was barely past drinking age, but he’d been on tour since his teens, so we all cared for him like a kid brother. He ran a solid business training other people to train their dogs. He drove the newest minivan out of anyone at the competition.

After the awards, we mingled for a while with the judges and other competitors, chatting as if we hadn’t seen them just the week before at another competition and also the week before that.

Natalie, who we sometimes joked dressed more like a horse girl than a dog trainer, led over her Jack Russell, Swifty. Nat had married into money, but before that she sometimes stayed in motels with us, sharing a bed with Penny. That meant all three dogs would curl up on the other side of my bed. Daisy scampered over to Nat and bowed her head for pets. Swifty tapped his front paws in place, a happy little dance.

The gathering thinned. The judges disassembled the podium. Daisy nipped my pants leg and tugged. Time to go.

I gave Penny a side hug on the walk to the van.

“Congrats,” I said.

“Wasn’t me,” she said.

As if Penni-with-an-I could have thrown and caught the frisbee both.

I strapped the trophy to the luggage rack. We drove to Alexandria for a late lunch and walked the dogs around Old Town, row houses and posh shops. On the drive out to I-95 and eventually New York, we noted the cars streaming into the parking lots at the Pentagon. The dogs bristled, pacing the back seat until the building was out of sight.


*     *     *


That night we splurged and got a decent hotel in Manhattan. It was the national championships, after all. Since we always shared a room on tour, a woman and a man, both suburban thirty-somethings, most people assumed Penny and I were a couple. But we’d vowed to never sleep together. Close friends, only, we’d decided made the most sense. Two queen beds in every room.

Penny stirred all night. Was it the bustle of the city or nerves before the biggest event of her dog-training life? I could’ve asked her, but I feigned sleep. What comfort could I offer? In the morning, Penny took twice as long as normal in the shower. Penni-with-an-I almost had to push her out the door.

The National DiscDog Championships were in Central Park, using the softball fields near the carousel. Penny and I had both gotten draws later in the day, so all we had to do in the morning was watch.

We didn’t realize it yet that our hotel, along with the entire south end of Manhattan, had already been zapped to nothingness. Not to mention DC and Philly, too.

Wally Beatty, a perpetually stoned guy who lived fulltime in the half-sized RV he drove to competitions, was up in the MicroDog competition with his Yorkie, Galactus. Beatty was a goof, but a solid trainer. He’d win a lot more often if he spent any time at all practicing with the disc himself. He can pitch a decent backhand—who can’t?—but the rest of his throws almost always leave Galactus scrambling. That’s the opposite of me. I can throw a disc all day, but I lack the patience to train Daisy the hours required for her to be a top-notch competitor. We have a good time, though, and we do well enough.

Beyond the end of the park, a neon glow grew in the sky. Electric sizzles started faint and amplified, bursts of purple light, then the new Central Park Tower flickered like a character getting electrocuted in a cartoon, the steel beams inside an x-rayed skeleton, and the building was gone. No tumble, no rubble, no smoke.

All the dogs made agitated laps around their trainers’ feet. Dogs that never growled, growled.

The growls and the sizzles were the only sounds. The relative quiet upset my expectations for a disaster. Action movies had prepared me for explosions, panicked masses. This was something different. I simply watched, as if no noise meant no threat. As if I couldn’t possibly be on hand to witness the end of the world.

Beatty was so focused on his routine that he failed to notice the disappearing buildings. Galactus, at least, snatched glances between tricks and emitted worried yips, but he kept his head in the game. The judges, too, the same three from the previous competition, stayed intent on their duties, ignorant to the distance. The crowd on the other side of the field from us, facing away from the city, cheered a leap by Galactus.

From behind where the buildings had been, the sky churned. I thought it was a host of sparrows, but the motions were too angular. Not a single swoop. A small group of the dots headed toward the park while the rest split off to either side. More buildings flashed and vanished. Car tires screeched and horns honked. Then…nothing.

Penny grabbed my shoulder. Her touch made the absurdity real.

“What should we do?” I asked.

“What do you do in the face of that?” She swept her free hand to indicate the swarming sky.

Panic erupted at the end of the park. The little hovering dots pelted the earth with purple rays. Where the rays found people, the people disappeared. One shrill scream finally caught Beatty’s attention and he glanced up. Galactus, running full speed for a trick, jumped right into his face. Blood poured from Beatty’s nostrils. Galactus seemed unfazed.

The dots in the sky were close enough now to have shapes. Flying saucers, obvious to anyone who’s ever watched a science fiction flick, thin and spinning and unearthly silver. But something was off. The depth was wrong, the saucers too close. They were far smaller than the old movies had predicted. These were no more than hubcaps or plates or, dare I say it, frisbees.

The judges were the first of our friends to die. Atop a dais, surrounded by a snare of audio cables and power cords, they were nothing if not targets. Penny’s hand slipped from my shoulder. The judges had all been good, dog-loving people. I thought of their own poor dogs at home, and how the dogs would wait and wait and never stop waiting.

These same three judges had served at competitions around the country. Their notes, given in scribbled scrawl after the awards had been presented, always cited my hesitancy. After one competition, the judges approached me as one, a three-faced tribunal, and observed that all my commands emerged like apologies. I’d scoffed then, but they were right, of course. I apologized now under my breath.

Penny pulled me by the arm to the cover of a tree and whistled for Daisy and Penni-with-an-I to follow. The saucers didn’t seem to be attacking people under trees. Could it be a faulty sensor? Did the saucers see people near trees as part of the trees themselves?

From there, I watched the attack, witnessed more victims vanish. The cleanness of their deaths, the quickness of their disappearance, the iota before they were gone when I could literally see the insides of them flash translucent, bones and organs, this all made me more curious than sad. Sadness would come later. But I saw something else, too. The saucers targeted our dogs as often as people, but those shots never found their mark. The dogs scampered in random patterns that flummoxed the saucers’ aim. I thought back to the people who had been killed as they ran away. All of them had fled in slow, straight lines.

I stepped from under the tree and shouted, “Don’t run straight! Bob and weave! Get to a tree if you can!”

Not everyone heard me, and not everyone heeded what I’d said. But those who did started surviving. They ran in zig-zags alongside the dogs as the death rays left singed polka dots in the grass around them. More and more people pressed their backs to the trunks of trees.

Years before, after another competition, Penny and I had taken the dogs to a park on the marshy shore of a Georgia barrier island. We found a whole tree washed up in the mud, the driftwood surface marbled and smooth. We crawled among the bare, crooked branches, posing for selfies. We climbed onto the trunk and leaned into each other, watching the dogs romp through the mud, chasing fiddler crabs. I remember feeling warm and safe, but also scared of the feeling. I pulled away from Penny and hopped off the tree and joined the dogs. There are still stains on the backseat of Penny’s van from the mud we tracked back in.

A saucer zipped toward me, buzzing like a broken oboe. I dove to the side just in time, a death ray landing where I’d been, the air suddenly hot and dry, tinged with a scent like fresh popcorn. I scrambled back under the tree. Beatty and Galactus had joined us, three people, three dogs. The saucer jerked to a stop, only a slight waver to show that time hadn’t stopped with it.

How long could it wait? Versus how long could we wait? Beatty’s nose had stopped bleeding, but a burgundy stain fanned down the front of his T-shirt. He looked woozy, though to be fair he was always a little bit out of it. Penny crouched by Penni-with-an-I’s side. Our dogs whimpered.

I reached into my backpack and drew out a frisbee. It was Daisy’s favorite, a vibrant purple, brighter even than the death rays that still fell throughout the park and obliterated the buildings of Manhattan around us. I didn’t think about what I was doing. I simply followed the instinct that told me to make my dog happy when she was sad.

I gripped the disc, too tightly for good form, but my backhand flew quick and true, and it hit the hovering saucer square.

The saucer sputtered in place and began to descend. Such a tiny thing, really. Lower and lower. Daisy dashed out. I called after her to stay, but she didn’t listen, the only time she’d ever ignored a command since she was a puppy. She leapt and chomped the saucer and landed and shook her head side to side. The saucer sparked from the holes her teeth had made. She yipped and dropped it. The saucer didn’t rise again.

All around us, the other saucers stopped, too, dangling like ornaments in the sky. The weird buzzing faded.

Saucers that had been attacking the city proper pincered in from either side of the park. Their motion was slower than before, hesitant, but their flight triggered a new sense of unease. You throw enough frisbees and you come to recognize how a disc flies, even when that disc is a spaceship and moves like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Or maybe I just sensed the danger to Daisy. She was the epicenter of the saucers’ approach. She was the threat the aliens had identified.

I stepped from the tree again and called out, “Your discs! Use every disc you’ve got!”

Others repeated my command, the order passing from tree to tree. Seeing a little dog in danger, my sweet, sweet Daisy, chased away our fear. There were a thousand saucers, at least. Far fewer of us. But we had something no alien could ever hope to understand. We had something dear to protect.

The first wave of saucers arrived, and we met them with discs of our own. The saucers moved too rigidly, too predictably. We knocked them from the sky, one after the other. Our dogs darted forward and finished the job. Then the next wave, and the next. The air resounded with zaps and growls. The snapping shut of jaws.

Penny moved deeper into the field, far from the safety of the trees. She made a quick hand gesture and fell to her hands and knees. Penni-with-an-I jumped onto her back and sprung into the sky, a stunning arc, the kind of jump that won her competition after competition, peaking at the height of a saucer. Penni-with-an-I landed and slung the defeated saucer aside.

Beatty had lost a shoe somewhere along the way. He loped around, retrieving discs and giving them to trainers who could throw better than him.

Little Galactus had gotten one of the saucers in his mouth, but the saucer still managed to fly, spinning Galactus like the blade of a lopsided ceiling fan. The saucer swerved side to side before finally pitching slantwise and sinking to the turf, defeated. Galactus scampered away.

I’d like to say there was no more sadness, but we lost friends. Nat was the first trainer who fell. Swifty sprinted through the field searching for her, his barks turning frantic.

Reggie was surrounded by three saucers and couldn’t escape. His beloved dog, always-cheerful James Ensor, howled, channeling every wolf ancestor for a thousand generations. The rest of our dogs howled in unison, a sound that seemed to come from above, a divine decree. For the first time since we destroyed the first saucer, the aliens hesitated. The little ships quivered in place. Our dogs didn’t wait for the saucers to start moving again.

The bigger dogs, the leapers, surged forward and claimed saucers from the sky. Smaller dogs darted onto the battlefield to retrieve discs for trainers, and eventually started bringing back felled saucers, too, which flew almost as well. We launched volley after volley as fast as we could throw them. More friends gone. Silas, Miranda, Ahmed. An echo of their dogs’ whimpers still sometimes wakes me in the night.

I’d been on the competition circuit for several years when my first dog, Doxy, died. She went into the vet for a simple surgery but had a stroke during the operation. She woke up, but her mind was gone. She spent her last day keening. I never knew sadness had a sound before that.

But here it was again.

Daisy dashed about so quickly amid the ruckus that I sometimes lost sight of her. In those moments dread welled up inside me, but then her tail would fan into view, a proud banner. She was fierce and beautiful and striving.

Penny, too, operated from the center of the fray. She aided other trainers. She urged dogs to safer positions. She directed barrages, wiping clear whole swathes of sky. A general among dog trainers.

Penny had been there when the vet put Doxy to sleep. She was there for the lonely six months when for the first time as an adult I didn’t have a dog in the house. She was there when I went to the pet rescue. Penny was the one who pointed out the shy little mutt puppy and recognized the intelligent depth in Daisy’s eyes. When the kennel door opened, Daisy ran to Penny first, but Penny gestured to me, and Daisy came right over. That was the second hardest I ever cried, second only to the day Doxy died. Once for losing love, once for re-finding it.

The remaining saucers regrouped into a phalanx for a last assault. They descended straight from above. Our discs rose up to meet them. Our dogs followed right behind. Sparks showered down, a weeping willow of light. Only a dozen saucers remained. Then five. Then one.

To that final alien’s credit, they stayed to fight even after their comrades had been decimated. If aliens have a concept of bravery, this was it. But bravery makes fools of any species, from any planet. This fool had one final mistake left to make.

The saucer targeted Daisy, diving at her, firing a continuous death ray in her direction, scorching a line in the grass. Maybe not bravery, then, but vengeance, targeting the first earthling who dared to resist. A scream ravaged my throat, and I ran for my little dog, my best friend. Penny was at my side, the other trainers behind us. But it was over before we got close.

Daisy sidestepped the attack and then leapt, higher than I’d ever seen, a single leap that would have won her this or any competition. She seized the saucer, alighting with perfect grace. I wished the judges had still been alive to score her.

“Leave it!” I shouted at Daisy. It was too harsh a command. I never scolded her. But she looked at me, and I swear she nodded. She got it, even as Beatty came over and asked me what the hell I was thinking.

“Let the saucer go back to wherever it came from,” I said. “Let the aliens know that Earth has an army bred for ten-thousand years just to defeat them. Let them know to fear us. They won’t come back again.”

I crouched beside Daisy and petted her, deep emotion welling up, pride and love and exhaustion all swirled together. “Good girl,” I said. “Good girl.”

She released the little saucer with an upward flip of her snout. The saucer sputtered higher and higher into the sky. It aimed for a small cloud and passed through. A burst of chartreuse light and the cloud dispersed in an instant. A glowing streak trailed away from where the saucer had been.

A teenager came up next to me, dressed in black, thick eyeliner smeared around her eyes, not one of the trainers, just a random person from the park, a local. She held up a middle finger in the direction of the saucer’s wake. I joined her in the gesture, and then Penny and Beatty, and then all the trainers and other survivors. We stood there, sweaty and panting and flipping off the sky. Our dogs stood with us.

A photographer who’d been covering the competition snapped a photo of the scene and a close-up of Daisy. Those two photos would run on the front page of every newspaper in the world, the top of every news website. Daisy would gain fifty million Instagram followers before the next morning.

I took Penny’s hand, lacing my fingers through hers. Daisy nuzzled at my leg. I felt something light in my chest, a sensation I still feel whenever I see an empty sky.

The photographer came up and asked my dog’s name. I told him.

“Daisy,” he said. “Yeah, Daisy.”

My name was never mentioned, just another face among all those in the park. But that’s the life of a trainer, isn’t it? Or a parent or an artist. The thing we create more famous than the creator. The thing we create proof that we acted and it mattered.

Today, in that spot where we all once shared a one-fingered salute, at the edge of the softball fields, there’s a statue, huger than life, metal gleaming, erected even before the rebuilding of Manhattan could begin. It’s a decent likeness of Daisy, proudly mid-leap, reaching for a suspended disc, maybe a frisbee, maybe a saucer. The plaque at the base bears her name and an inscription: “Many were lost, but many more were saved, thanks to a very good dog.”

Zach Powers

Zach Powers is the author of the forthcoming novel The Migraine Diaries (JackLeg Press 2026), the novel First Cosmic Velocity (Putnam 2019) and the story collection Gravity Changes (BOA Editions 2017). His writing has been featured by American Short FictionLit Hub, Tin House Online, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. He serves as Artistic Director for The Writer’s Center and Poet Lore, America's oldest poetry magazine. Originally from Savannah, Georgia, he now lives in Arlington, Virginia. Get to know him at

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