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  • Small American FiresBy Caroline Tsai
    Years from now, she will remember the ash that followed her. The cities charred and smoldered behind her, plumes of smoke like storm clouds in the rearview. The air was dense and syrupy with car exhaust and ash, vermillion sunsets like something out of science fiction, electric and strange. Wildfire tinged each grapevine in the Sonoma vineyards, boiling the grape juice on site and disrupting the ferment. In every cabernet bottled that year, the faint edge of smoke cut through like rot. Reports of the wildfires occupied news headlines for weeks after. Atlas, Cascade, Sulphur. They named the fires like animals, a new one to report each morning. Investigations ongoing, the news anchor said gravely, the satellite images in stop-motion swirls, gray pixels dancing behind him in delayed flurries. Strong winds. Human carelessness. Carelessness, she thought. That’s all it was. Accident. But some fires started on purpose. Forests knew self-cleansing better than anyone. It was programmed into their DNA—like the way a mother knew the sound of her infant’s cry with her body. The way children thrilled to water like a second home. The day she left, highways clogged with minivans and Explorers, traffic bottlenecked and stood still for miles of the Interstate. She took local roads, navigating unpaved gravel streets that rattled the Datsun. All those empty houses of evacuated towns, like the set of a film. The kitchens in Sonoma and the living rooms in Mendocino reduced to rubble. All those places left behind. The Datsun stalled around Fairfield. Miles and miles of cars, helmed by drivers with white surgical masks, breathing their own wet breath. Stopped behind a Chevrolet, she thought of a Ford she passed back near Petaluma, a boy in the passenger seat. He stared at her not unkindly, and she was startled by the wide spotlight of his gaze. As if he’d been watching her long before she noticed. As if he’d always seen her, and everything else, all of it, from the beginning to the…
  • The Last Woman on EarthBy Kate Folk
    The Last Woman on Earth lives in Los Angeles. She’s single and in her thirties, five foot seven, 145 pounds, a Virgo. She is the world’s most famous celebrity. Her talk show has the largest viewership of any TV program, with higher ratings than the Super Bowl and reruns of old Miss Universe pageants. The Last Woman on Earth is not particularly talented or charismatic. She blinks a lot and garbles her own script from the teleprompter. Prior to the annihilation of every other woman on Earth, the Last Woman lived in Ohio and taught preschool. She didn’t ask to be the Last Woman on Earth, but she’s doing the best she can. The Last Woman on Earth’s talk show is called Afternoon Programming with the Woman. She models the show after Oprah. In the first season, men come on and sit in leather chairs and reminisce about women they used to know. Some men talk about their wives and girlfriends, but most talk about their mothers. It’s like therapy, but The Last Woman On Earth isn’t a therapist, so she just sits there and nods and utters vague, affirmative phrases like “wow” and “really?” and “that sounds tough.” The men always cry. The Last Woman On Earth gets tired of hearing about mothers and in the second season changes the focus of her show to baking. In the second season of her show, The Last Woman On Earth bakes pie after pie in the studio kitchen. She ties her hair in a kerchief and wears a white apron printed with cherries. She invites experts in various fields to come talk to her while she bakes. For forty-five minutes the expert lectures to her sweatered back while she rolls out store-bought dough, mixes fruit with cornstarch, and brushes her lattice crusts with egg wash. A split screen shows a close-up of the pie in progress alongside the face of the expert as he drones on about urban planning or carpentry or neuroscience or poetry. At the end of each episode, The Last Woman on Earth presents the finished pie to the expert. She serves him a piece and waits for him…
  • Real PersonBy Katherine Liu
    I met Qiuhai on a fall day in a harbor city—a manner fitting for her name, although I wouldn’t have said this out loud. Names were flexible and wishful like that. You could create a beautiful memory out of any name. For Qiuhai, I chose to preserve where we met and the conditions of it: how our small classroom was framed by a specific time in the year and, further away where we couldn’t notice it, the sea. I see her looking up from her textbook first, cropped gray hair pushed away from the face. Then Zhengjie sits in the desk at her right side, smiling easily and arched toward the book where the answers are, his smile moving back and forth between the other two of us in the room. I knew them together only—one unit.   “Teacher, we are very happy to meet you at this time,” Qiuhai said in a low voice after I introduced myself in misshapen, childlike Mandarin Chinese and closed the classroom door on the first day. Her husband glanced at the window beside it to make sure no one else walked down the hall. “We’ve already been called for the test.” Her mouth was a short frown, and she pushed both sides of her hair away, two hands in the same quick gesture. “The test?” “Cit-zenship interview,” she sounded out in English. Zhengjie wheeled his desk closer to mine. “Our friends”—he gestured with both hands toward the hallway—“told us it would take seven or eight months for the officials to send out the appointment notice. For those months we planned on coming here to prepare. But two months after we turned in the N-400, we already got the government notice. Her test,” he said, and at this point he whispered, palms upward on the table, “is at the end of October.” He glanced in her direction. “Then I’ll go two weeks after.” “Teacher, you will help us, correct? We only have five weeks together.” Qiuhai’s hands were pressed together earnestly, one tangled in the other’s fingers. I was a freshman in college teaching at a local community center in Chinatown for the first…