Bright Flash Literary Review

Artwork courtesy Joanne Sala. All rights reserved.

Welcome to Bright Flash Literary Review, an online literary journal.

Submission guidelines: Flash fiction (50-word minimum), fiction, and memoir will be considered. 1500 word maximum for all submissions. Simultaneous submissions are permitted. Please notify us ASAP if your work is accepted elsewhere. 

Please include a brief (200 words or fewer) third-person bio. SUBMISSIONS WITHOUT BIOS (add at the end of your piece on Submittable or use Duosuma’s designated space) will be declined.

No page numbers or headers. 

Translations not accepted.

Submit only one piece at a time and wait for a response before submitting again. 

Average response time is 30 days. If you have not heard from us in more than 60 days, feel free to follow-up.

If your work is accepted, Bright Flash Literary Review obtains first Northern American rights. All rights revert back to the author upon publication. Writers are strongly advised to honor other publication’s guidelines concerning previously published work. If your piece is accepted by another journal after publication in Bright Flash Literary Review, please ask for first publication attribution to BFLR.

If your story is accepted, please wait six months before submitting again.

If your work is declined, please wait 30 days before submitting again.

Repeated violations of our guidelines may result in being blocked from our site. We accept submissions from writers 18 years of age or older.

We are a non-paying market, but also do not charge submission fees.

Submit below through Submittable or Duosuma. E-mail submissions are not accepted. New stories are posted at the beginning of each month.

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The Cold Zone

By Lori D’Angelo

The car was stuck in the snow, but the sun in the distance kept us from succumbing to the cold, before the sun set, and it would set. Temperatures during the day were chilly but bearable, but temperatures at night were a different story. 

At each checkpoint, there were pictures of the dead so those who remained could find out if their loved ones were among them. Sometimes wondering about the worst possibilities is worse than knowing them. They tried to remove the bodies. But they could only clean up so much, and those who died after dark were left to freeze. It sounds cruel, but the ice was slow to melt. 

I didn’t know if we could make it to the next checkpoint especially not with Tara’s bum leg, but the alternative was unthinkable. If we stopped, we wouldn’t survive the night. It was not just the cold but the creatures of the cold that came out at night, the only vile things that could survive those temperatures. 

Before, we thought that no living thing could brave such cold, but then we found out just how mistaken we had been. I wasn’t sure if those things were really alive in the way that you and I are alive. There was something wrong about them, maybe even something evil. We thought at least that only evil could subsist in the cold, that those temperatures were not for the living. But we weren’t sure if they were living. Sometimes we weren’t sure if we were. 

We’re not sure how global warming became global cooling. It was like the balance of the world became upset, and nature wanted us to pay. Maybe those things were nature itself lashing out at us demanding recompense. What had we done? We had done everything wrong. We had destroyed the earth. 

We deserved this fate, but yet we rebelled against it. The will to survive was strong. Stronger than we had realized. The hardest thing was seeing people dying and leaving them. If you stayed with them once they no longer had a chance, the creatures would get you too. 

Now it was just me and Tara. Once we had been a party of five, as if we had been waiting for a seat at a fancy restaurant. As if fancy restaurants still existed. Now they were the stuff of dreams and memory. 

Tim gave up hope. He asked me: Do you think there’s a heaven? Do you think they have pie there? Do you think that death is any worse than this? 

It was a question that was answerless as long as we were living. Was anything worse than this? 

Out of fear of rebellion, the government had to do something. So they established the safe zones, the checkpoints. If you could make it to the next one, you could survive. But you couldn’t stay, you had to keep going. If you could make it to the last one, you could make it out. Only we didn’t know if anyone ever made it out. There were rumors, of course, but some rumors are nothing more than repeated lies. 

The used to tell us when the temperatures were going to drop below zero. Now they didn’t even bother. The emergency radios only reported when something was truly different or new. Below zero was nothing new. 

Tim’s death though, that was something new. They said he was a hero. He had died killing a monster. There were many others still. But, in death, he had saved the rest of us. If I was honest, I wasn’t sure if I was willing to make that kind of sacrifice. Even for the promise of eternity. Even for the promise of pie. 

Tara asked me the question that was on both our minds: “What if we don’t get the car out?” 

I wanted to tell her the truth. “If we didn’t get the car out, then we are dead.” 

But instead I said: “If we don’t get the car out, then we walk.” 

Tara was shoveling frantically around the left wheel, while I manned the right. 

“Tim,” she said. “This might be enough. Get in the car and try to drive through. If it’s not, I’ll shovel some more.” 

I looked at my watch: 16:15. Sunset was fast approaching. 

What was it about death that so many people linked it to darkness? 

I got in the car and pressed the gas pedal, but there was nothing but spinning wheels. 

Tara was sweating in the cold. I saw the droplets run down her face. 

I thought about suggesting that we just stay here, huddle up in the car and take our chances. But that look of determination. 

“You shovel, I drive,” she said.  

We traded places, and I pushed against death. 

Finally, we broke through, and I got back into the car. She pressed the pedal to the floor so we could race to the checkpoint where we would find gas and food and temporary light. We might die, and it might be soon. But life held out her hand to us once again, and we grabbed on as hard as we could. We weren’t ready for death, at least not yet. 

                                                         

                                                              *   *   *

Lori D’Angelo’s work has appeared in various literary journals including including Drunken Boat, Gargoyle, Gravel, Hawaii Pacific Review, Literary Mama, the Potomac Review, and Word Riot. She is a fellow at Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences, a grant recipient from the Elizabeth George Foundation, and an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. She lives in Virginia with her dogs, cats, kids, and husband.

The Rescue

By Arvilla Fee

She came out of nowhere! A shocking flash of light tan fur the second the grocery store bagger opened my car door to put my groceries inside.  I think he was as startled as I was to suddenly see a rather large dog sitting in my back seat, coated with flakes of snow that were now falling heavily from the sky. 

“Ummm, ma’am” he said, looking back at me questioningly. 

I shrugged.  “Can you get her out?”

The young man, probably no more than seventeen, looked at the dog warily.  “Uh, come on, dog. Get out.” He patted his leg and pointed in the direction of out from my car. 

Not only did the dog not go out, but she settled down in my seat and put her chin on her front paws.  The bagger, still holding onto groceries, looked at me helplessly.

“Oh, fine.” I said, making an executive decision.  “I will just take her home!”

He looked at me doubtfully but went around to the other side of my car and placed the bags on the part of the back seat not occupied by the dog. 

“Thanks, I told him.”

He waved a hand.  “Good luck!”

As I drove away, I told myself this was insane!  My on-the-rocks marriage couldn’t withstand the addition of a dog, and my kids would want to keep her.  In addition to that, I knew nothing about this dog. Did she have rabies?  Would she bite? Did she have fleas?  Where had she come from?  It was obviously from her sagging belly and still-extended milk teats that she’d given birth in the not-too-distant past. Had someone dumped her? Killed her pups?

Despite all these unanswered questions, I drove her home and let her in the house. 

Just as I’d predicted, my kids went wild when they saw her.  I had to caution them again and again not to get in her face – that I had no idea where she’d come from or if she’d bite.  I told them we’d keep her for the night then ask around to see if anyone had lost a dog near the grocery store.  Surprisingly, my husband had little to say, as he was too busy with his favorite pastime, which was wallowing in his own stew of self-pity on the couch. 

That night I gave her a little lunch meat (as I didn’t have dog food) and water, put clean towels on the floor near the washer and dryer, and placed several chairs in front of the area to keep her contained.  I didn’t want her to jump on the kids’ beds during the night. She looked up at me with huge golden eyes as I walked away, and I felt a sharp pang of sadness in my heart.

When I awoke the next morning, my feet brushed something soft on the floor, and I nearly let out a yelp before seeing the dog.  She had curled up near my side of the bed and thumped her tail as I reached down to pet her.  As days went by, and no one claimed her, I told the kids we could keep her. They were ecstatic and said we should call her Noel since I’d found her on Christmas Eve. I liked the sound of that, and she responded quickly to her new name. 

I had been right about my rocky marriage not being able to withstand the addition of a dog, but it truly wasn’t her fault. We’d derailed long before her arrival. As I learned how to navigate my new, single-mom status, while going to school full time and working three jobs, one thing remained constant – Noel. She was there to greet me at the back door every time I came home. She slept on the bed beside me.  She put her nose on my knee every time I cried because I was so exhausted, and I still had homework due the next day. I never found out where she belonged or why she’d been dumped in a parking lot on a snowy night in December, but I did know one thing – I had not only rescued her.  She had rescued me.  

                                                                 

                                                       *   *   *

Arvilla teaches English Composition for Clark State College. She has been published in numerous presses including Poetry Quarterly, Inwood Indiana, 50 Haikus, Haibun Online, and Drifting Sands Haibun. She also won the Rebecca Lard award for best poem in the Spring 2020 issue of Poetry Quarterly. What she loves most about writing is the kinetic energy– the ability to make people feel joy, sadness, connectivity, strength, resilience, or grief. For Arvilla, poetry has never been about gaining literary genius status but about being down in the trenches with ordinary people who will say, “She gets me.”

How to Handle a Hundred Degrees in London

By Sarah Archibald

Record heat in London today and here’s what you’re going to do: Go to hot yoga. Put up with the squishy floor you can’t possibly balance on and the annoying teacher who closes her eyes when she talks, the same teacher who is living proof you don’t want to be as skinny as you thought you did. Remember your mission. Scan the sweaty bodies in the room for one you find really fit and at least moderately age appropriate. Look for a man because although you are sexually attracted to women you’ve never acted on it and you’re scared to start now. Check that the man with the perfectly shaped bald head and deliciously defined, tattooed biceps is not wearing a wedding ring. Pay attention when the teacher says his name while complimenting him on his Warrior Two pose. Smile at Martin after class while you’re both glistening with sweat and ask if he fancies going for a coffee. Begin to celebrate that you’re about to get laid on your way out the door but don’t make it too obvious. Keep your voice steady as you ask, “do you want to grab a shower first? We’re just round the corner from mine.” Enjoy the hell out of the moment he agrees, because who could refuse such a forward offer from an equally fit, cinnamon-sugar-haired, American fiftysomething? Lead him home and as the cool water pulses over your naked bodies definitely don’t think about the fact that the skin on your neck has begun to sag and your fire crotch is now half ashen. Cease thinking about anything other than the sensation of your nipple in his mouth, his hand between your thighs and just how well you’re responding to this heat wave.

                                                   *   *   *

Sarah Archibald has always been a writer. She used to publish journal articles and books on education policy, in which she has a Ph.D., but she quit her job last summer to pursue her passion—creative writing—and calling: helping others heal from traumatic childhoods, especially incest. She’s currently shopping for a publisher for her memoir on the subject, WICKED LOVE ME. Sarah is also the mother of two amazing kids now in college, so she’s traveling the world and working on a novel about two women who become empty nesters and find themselves wanting each other, not their husbands.

Find her on socials: Instagram @sarahjarchie and Twitter @DrSarahArchie

It Starts With a Creak

By Lily King

A monster still lives in my closet. 

“You’ll outgrow it,” people used to say, never wondering if it would outgrow me. 

I ask my friends if their monsters still follow them. Too many say yes, and a few say they’ve never had one at all. I wonder what their closets are made of. 

I cannot ignore it and I cannot fight it. We’re bonded now. I try to make it seem human. 

I put little ribbons in the beast’s greasy, knotted fur. I find my satin blue dress and slide it over its deformed body. Maybe I can find some red lipstick so it won’t scare me when it smiles. 

It sprawls across my bed, whining in apparent defeat. Its crooked, spider limbs almost look cartoonish now. It looks so pathetic sleeping there, dressed up to meet the Sandman. I laugh. It opens its eyes. 

I throw away my blue dress. The monster’s stench is woven into the fabric. I look for a new shade to compliment my skin, but the closet only appears to me in black and white. 

The monster sits in my chair, flicking its eyes between the moon and my bed. It’s nighttime now and we haven’t slept in days. My eyelids droop but never close. 

I speak to it in poems, hoping that the venom dripping from its lips will turn to honey. My ears still burn when it screams at me. I cover them and it begins dancing in the mirror. 

I can sense the familiar signs of goodbye. It will soon grow tired of jumping on my shoulders and sticking pointed claws down my throat. I take a deep breath. 

I sit in my chair now, gazing at the moon and my empty bed. Silence fills the room and I run my hands across the satin dress I recovered from the garbage. 

The closet door creaks open.

                                                          *   *   *

Lily is a lover of all things horror. She frequently watches the sun set and rise while writing and snacking. 

Blue Marble

By Nancy McCabe

On a leisurely weekend away from children, responsibilities, obligations, my new lover and I walked all day through galleries and boutiques and along the water at Niagara-on-the-Lake. Cold bit my cheeks. He folded my gloved hand into his. His hand warmed and tethered me, and I thought maybe. 

Over a candlelit white tablecloth, I’d hoped for more intimacy. Every attempt at conversation died. I shifted into desperate teacher mode. I said something about literature, how there’s nothing that’s not about time or love or death or all of the above. 

He told me I was wrong. He said, “What if I just wrote about a perfect blue marble?”

“What would you say?” 

“It would just describe the marble,” he answered.

“How?”

“I would say that it’s blue.  And that it’s a marble.”

“That’s not even enough syllables for a haiku. Would you use any metaphors?”

“Sure.”

“Like what?”

“Well, I can’t just come up with metaphors on command.” He paused to reminisce about a metaphor he’d offered me at breakfast: “I’m lining up empty coffee creamers the way I used to line up empty shot glasses.” 

“The contrast between youth and age,” I said. “Time. Death.”

He frowned, went silent.

“So say you compared the marble to the earth seen from space,” I tried. 

“I wouldn’t do that,” he said.  “Too cliché.”

I was cut off at the pass from some comparison I hadn’t formulated yet, about how distance can render the earth so small that we become as tiny as grains of sand, specks of dust, easily blown away by the slightest breeze. The thought, however cliché, made me feel small, untethered.  Time, death.

He waved me away.  “I’ll think of something. I can’t be rushed.”

I liked the way a five o’clock shadow gave his face definition and a hint of ruggedness. The way that faint blue shadow offset the blue eyes I stared at, then thought, no, too cliché.

“Say you compare the blue marble to the milky eyeball of an old woman with cataracts,” I said instead.

“I wouldn’t do that.” He lapsed back to moody silence.

“My point is just that it’s about time and death. I’m just saying, every metaphor that engages with the world outside of the blue marble is going to relate to love or death or time.”

“I’m tired of this topic. It’s boring me.” His abruptness was like a hard kick against the edge of a blue swimming pool that propels you away fast. Time. Stung by how quickly he detached, I ate in silence.

Later, in bed, he said, “Don’t write about me.” 

And then: “The blue marble is like my blue balls.” 

“You don’t have blue balls,” I answered. I doubted that he meant to connect sex to love.  “Anyway, you can’t compare something to what it already is. A ball is like a ball?”

We laughed, punchy, then stayed up all night talking. He told me the story of every woman he’d ever been with. When it was my turn to tell my stories, he fell asleep.

As we drove home in snow, disappointment wracked me. Every bend and knob and point of twig, every pine needle and blade of grass was white, snow glinting in sunlight. I thought of a time my daughter cooked marbles on the stove, boiling them until they shattered inside, sparkling like diamonds. 

The blue weekend bubble receded as we headed back to children and work and obligations as if we had nothing left to say despite stories left untold. A few months before, my daughter and I had driven on these roads, snow falling fast, my car slipping and sliding, my panic rising. Coming back from the same competition with his own daughter, he stayed behind me the whole way, until we were home safe. That was the first time I thought maybe. Maybe in time.

And now I had that letdown feeling of fractured hope as we drove silently home. But this is not a story about him, not about loss or broken hearts or thwarted love or the realization of how little we might have settled for. It’s not a story about love or time or death. It’s just a story about a blue marble. It’s just about how the inside of a blue marble, in high enough heat, can smash into a million fragments. How those fragments might glitter like snow before the light fades, before dread and sadness cast their shadows across the bluish fields.

                                                   *   *   *

Nancy McCabe’s creative nonfiction has appeared in Salon, Prairie Schooner, Massachusetts Review, Newsweek, Michigan Quarterly Review, Fourth Genre, Los Angeles Review of Books, and others. She has received a Pushcart Prize and  eight recognitions in the notable sections of Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She’s the author of seven books, most recently Can This Marriage Be Saved? A Memoir (Missouri 2020) and the YA novel Vaulting through Time (forthcoming CamCat 2023).

 

The Clown

By Richard C. McPherson

“Why do you p-p-p-paint your face white?” The little boy was about nine and pushed his thick glasses up his nose, ignoring the giggles rippling across the classroom.

Joey’s smile was emphasized by her oversized painted red lips, and her eyes shone with affection. After a banker, bus driver, and nurse, Joey was the star of Career Day: a professional clown, invited by her nephew Nathan, beaming from the second row. “I remember asking my father that question.” Wide-eyed, she faux whispered, “He was a clown, too!”

The children gasped and laughed, but Joey was stopped by a rapid pop, pop, pop from the hallway. They say it always sounds like firecrackers. The intercom came alive: “Active shooter! Lock your classrooms!” Another pop. “Shelter in place! Police responding.” 

#

There were four generations of clowns in Joey’s family. Great-grandfather Solomon performed for Franklin Roosevelt, visiting Kansas when families in tattered Depression clothes were little better dressed than the hobo Sol played at small-town railroad stations. Two decades later, Grandpa Mick became a hit in early television when clowns and cowboys ruled Saturday mornings. Years later, her father expected to be the last clown in the Grimaldi family. He provoked gales of laughter with slapstick, fiercely battling the cynical movie trend to make clowns scary, even deadly. By the nineties the nation was richer, but people were poorer. Businesses, schools, and government got bigger, but people felt smaller. Joey’s dad, a star at Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey, did what clowns do best: mock authority and assure audiences they could get through life’s calamities. But circuses were dying. Winter quarters became graveyards for colorful rail cars, striped Big Tops, and ringmasters’ silk top hats. In 1997 the Clown College closed, ironically the very year Josephine was born.

Joey learned from her grandpa and dad, who did their old acts by the fireplace. By age twelve, she could disappear behind whiteface, her real identity irrelevant, and make people laugh. Battling a stutter and the inevitable bullying, she learned to mime. Family and neighbors were rapt by her stories, told with graceful, tender gestures, without a single word. Everyone agreed, Joey had a gift.

#

Television and newspapers across the country carried the searing, familiar images of terrified children rushed out of the school by desperate teachers, police and swat teams bristling with guns, creeping beneath windows. But one photo captured the nation’s attention: a clown in gaudy circus clothes and big shoes, whiteface paint streaked with tears, carrying a sobbing child gripping his thick, broken eyeglasses.

When Joey saw her image, she knew what she must do.

#

The next day at noon, Joey appeared outside the Guardian Firearms facility, a fortress of a building on the edge of town. She wore full clown regalia and whiteface, but her red painted smile had been replaced by a frown, and a huge blue tear was painted beneath one eye. She stood near the entrance and neither spoke nor mimed. When a surly security guard told her to move, she ostentatiously saluted and took exaggerated clown-steps to the public sidewalk. Cars slowed and a few drivers waved or tapped their horns.

Joey repeated the silent gesture for two more days, and cellphone pictures began circulating on social media.

#

On the fourth day, another clown joined Joey. This one carried an oversized, comic circus gun, a blunderbuss, and circled menacingly. Joey knew instantly what he had in mind and prepared herself. Cars halted as the “shooter” clown took aim at Joey and pulled the trigger. A loud bang issued from the blunderbuss, along with a tiny flag which said BANG.

Joey knew every possible way to fall and chose one with arms flung wide, landing flat on her back, legs kicking in the air. After scattered applause from bystanders, the two clowns left.

#

The next day three more clowns joined Joey. The shooter clown appeared, aimed at Joey, and fired the circus gun. Joey – and all four clowns – fell theatrically to the ground. The growing crowd clapped, and a man in a suit emerged from the Guardian Firearms office and told them they had to leave the area unless they had a permit.

#

The next day, permit in hand, Joey and the shooter clown appeared on the sidewalk at noon. There were almost twenty clowns, who all fell flailing to the ground when the blunderbuss went off. Television news reported clowns were beginning to be seen at other gun manufacturers and numerous gun stores around the country. Like Joey, they stood silent, faces painted with whiteface, a frown, and large tear. A picture of Joey and scores of “dead” clowns was the cover of USA Today.

Clowns appeared outside the U.S. Capitol, flanked by people with signs that read “Stop clowning around, pass gun laws.” America was watching.

Also watching was an unsmiling man who lived in Joey’s town. He had graying crew-cut hair and owned a great many guns. His pride was a military grade sniper rifle which he caressed with a soft cloth every night while he watched the news and seethed.

#

It was noon on Day 26 of the “Clown Vigil,” as cable news now called Joey’s effort. The large crowd parted with reverence as Joey walked to her place on the sidewalk. They made way for the dozens of clowns who followed her. Across the street in a small park, the crew-cut man shifted his position high among the branches of an oak tree. He adjusted the sight on his sniper rifle and slowly placed his finger on the trigger.

Bang! At the sound of the blunderbuss, all the clowns fell with ritual theatrics, arms and legs flailing. Except Joey, who stumbled backward and crumpled to the ground. Those nearby noticed a dark red stain spreading across her chest. Joey attempted to lift her head but failed. Her eyes looked at the blue sky, and she was both confused and certain. She was terribly cold. A real tear trickled down her cheek making a delicate rivulet in the whiteface. She heard applause turn to shouts and screams, then grow distant, then fade away. She could only hear the memory of her grandfather’s voice: “To touch people deeply, to really open their hearts, you must first break their hearts.” Joey curled her fingers and brought her hands together over her bleeding chest and formed a heart for the world to see.

                                                                    *   *   *

Richard McPherson’s short stories have been featured in Black Fox Literary Magazine, The Write Launch, and the 2022 Anthology “Conversations” from Unleash Press. McPherson has written for NPR and PBS stations, and taught digital communications at UCLA, Columbia, and New York University. His website is richardcmcpherson.com.

Tear It Down

By Madisen L. Ray

They walk their bicycles along the hard-packed dirt road. The carriages and carts and the hooves that pull them kick up dust into the dry air.

One of the girls looks across the street and slows her pace until she stops, staring at a half-empty lot and a smattering of market stalls.

“What is it?” her friend asks.

“This is where the city’s first high-rise is going to be built…”

“The first what? What is a ‘high… rise’?” her friend sounds out, following the girl’s stare to the lot.

“A building taller than any tree you’ve ever seen. Metal and glass…” she trails off, her eyes transfixed on empty air above the stalls.

“I don’t like this, I’m going home.” Her friend hitches up her skirt and pedals south towards home.

The girl watches as the building’s thirteen stories are framed and constructed with a spiderweb of scaffolding. The mayor cuts a big red ribbon at the front doors when it’s done. The girl isn’t a girl anymore, but a woman with a husband by her side and a baby in a stroller. The baby reaches up towards his mother. She takes his tiny hand in hers as a carriage rumbles past in a spray of dirt. She’s clutching a carrot in her bicycle basket. There is no building, not yet; she’s just a young girl. She makes her way home.

The woman is holding her baby’s hand and remembers the carrot in her basket. She smiles at her husband, resolved not to tell him of her impossible memory, of knowing this moment before it arrived. She turns to the young man at her other side, her son grown, and thinks maybe she can tell him, one day. Until then, she kisses his chubby baby cheeks and adjusts his blanket.

The woman tucks her son into his crib that evening and sings him a lullaby before reading by the fire. Her husband puffs a pipe in his study. She shivers and discovers a blanket being tucked around her legs.

“Thanks for always taking such good care of me, Mama,” her son says. Silver streaks his temples. “Let me take care of you for a little while.” She leans her face into his broad hand and closes her eyes. 

His mother safely ensconced in her blanket, the man with silver temples takes his young daughter downtown. They eat ice cream on the steps of the monument and watch people hailing cabs or tucking themselves into phone booths for a quick call. It smells like smoke—from cigarettes or fire, the girl can’t tell. She smiles at her dad and turns back to look at the building across the street. The ice cream in her hands is a cigarette, and she’s waiting for her date. The demolition site across the street has been mostly cleared of rubble, but the smell of water-dampened soot hangs in the air.

“There was a fire, Grandma,” the girl says back home, a memory of vanilla on her cheeks. She leans into her grandmother’s blanketed knees. “I watched as the inside of the building burned and burned and almost jumped the street to another building.”

“What happened to the building after?”

“They’ll tear it down and build something new.”

*

“I watched that building being built,” the woman says, her hand linked with a little boy’s. She’ll buy him ice cream if he promises to not tell Dad she’s smoking again. “There was another building there before it, and before that—” she spreads her arms wide and encourages her son to look around in wonder— “there was nothing here at all but trees and some houses.”

“What about before it was a city?” the boy asks. “Before this was a state? Or a country?”

What right, he writes in his blog, did we as settlers have to claim this land? To take it from the people who already lived here? To ply them with smallpox blankets and herd them west?

He’s at the protest on the street outside the building his mother watched being built. He watches bricks shatter glass and rubber bullets shatter eye sockets.

“What was it like, Dad?” his daughter asks as the car guides itself into a waiting parking spot.

“It was scary to be there, and to watch it happening all over the country on social media.” He hooks a cloth mask over his ear and lifts his sign higher as a row of police in riot gear march forward. “I’m not afraid of you,” he whispers.

“I know you’re not, Dad. I never would have been out there facing cops.”

“You never know until it’s happening in front of you.” He spits at an officer’s feet, stares him down. “You don’t know what you can do until you’re there.”

*

“My dad told me that story many years ago, long before your mother was born, and before you were even a thought in the world,” she tells her granddaughter. They’re sipping tea in a clean, cozy living room. Transparent screens show wreckage in the city.

“I know, Grandma,” she watches the smoke on the screens and all around her. A cheer erupts from the crowd she’s standing in. “I hope I don’t know what it’s like to be in that situation.”

“I hope you won’t either, sweetheart.” They both watch the screens. The old woman is young again, fighting for what’s right. Her granddaughter is, too. The buildings burn. They tear them down brick by brick.

Each young woman looks to her grandchild and smiles, knowing there’s more to be built. They’re watching it right now.

*  *  *

Madisen L. Ray graduated from Ball State University with a degree in English Literature. Today she works for a public relations agency in Indianapolis and craves stories told in every medium (especially video games). She was recently published in a speculative fiction anthology by Of Rust & Glass.

The Soft Guarantee

By Mike Lee

The movement of the curtains beckons symbolic chance as they slowly fluttered in the breeze blowing in from the east. 

I want to cry again. Tony is so damn ambivalent. If we were months, he is August, and I am September. August is hot and passionate, but ultimately, his heat is oppressive. I’m warm, but in the end, I turn to ice.

I stare at the curtains, trying to find hidden meaning in the languid movements of the folds. Then, finally, I read what I want, fess up, become honest with myself about Tony, and speak words from my mouth. 

But these words and sentences never come easy. I find it hard to be straight, particularly with Tony. He reads too much into every gesture and what I say, seemingly searching for subtext and subtleties in what I say and how I present it.

He is a chronic overthinker, and I feel trapped when I want to be free. So I fall back on evasions, both verbal and physical. The latest was when I got a callback about a new job. An opportunity coming from nowhere, and not from here, our hometown, and I had to decide.

He’s not coming with me. I just can’t even.

When we first got together, I told him there’s no guarantee in forever. It’s an abstract concept. Promises are soft, you see, pliable, and subject to change. He seemed unconvinced when I told him that–usually once a week, sometimes more.

I start crying. There is no painless way to extricate from this mess without me being an asshole. I have a saying that there is no such thing as an unsolvable problem. This situation, however, is not the case. So I am about to hurt Tony.

Several hours later, Tony comes in for breakfast before his shift at the coffee house.

I tell him about the job.

Starts in a month, and I have to move to a new city. Though where I would be going isn’t as tragically hip and fabulous as here, the work offers an opportunity to advance my career rather than staying here failing to launch.

He sits on the couch, his mouth open, shaking his head.

“You have derailed my positivity.”

He isn’t happy, and rightly so.

Blame oversharing, brought on by anxiety, lack of sleep, and a need to get this over with.

Also, the freedom to move upward and forward is more important than constantly responding to someone else’s fears of abandonment.

So here I am abandoning.

“How did I derail your positivity, Tony?”

Tony picks up on that right away, as is his wont.

His fingers curl, grasping at air. Its significance is clear. Searching for the words to stuff in his mouth, flittering like flies, beyond his reach.

Finally, he speaks.

“How could you do this to me? We worked so hard on this relationship. Th-th-th-this is so strikingly impulsive.”

He pauses, wanting to say more, wrap me with words attempting to tie me up and reel me back.

I have no immediate answer. Usually, Tony’s different. His understated pose is borne from a calculation of understated minimalism. He seems thoughtless, though I know better. Tony thinks way too much for his own good, but what did it matter now? It is way too late to make a change.

“I love you unconditionally.”

He says that a lot. This annoys me.

“I call bullshit.”

“What?”

I press my point. “The concept of “unconditional love” in how you are using this on me is total bullshit, Tony. This codependent enabler gives agency and license for abuse and other bad behavior. So what are you going to say next? That you love me because I am nonjudgmental? Oh wait, you did already. Stop.”

As Tony sits motionless, I continue. “In the real world, we establish boundaries, set expectations, and work together to achieve results. “

This personal catharsis in trying to pull pieces out of Tony’s chaos is only by telling him the truth.

But we live amid a chaotic environment, a time where it is so easy to be lost in a world of constant changes, so much coming so quickly that emotionally we have to snap and try to rewire our brains to the point frustration kicks in, and we just want to stop, stop, stop.

Stop thinking, mulling, brooding, and instead go out and take action. When everything changes, you must move quickly. Evolving is too slow.

I add, “This isn’t going to work out.”

With resignation, he says, “I’m sorry.”

Then, “I’m sorry, too.”

Well, no. Not really. I am leaving Tony as I found him. Always searching for why but never crossing the boundary that marks the line between ego and logic.

I walk into the kitchen. Absently, I set up the French press. Three scoops. 

I fill the kettle with water from the fountain behind me. Set it to boil.

I turn to him and ask if he would like a cup.

I already envision him gone from the couch. The front door is open. He’s getting in his car. 

Instead, Tony sits with his elbows on his knees, his face in his hands.

The kettle begins to whistle.

I pour the water into the French press and pull two cups from the cupboard.

                                                    *   *   *

Mike Lee is a writer and editor at a trade union in New York City and the chief blogger for Focus on the Story. His work appears in or is forthcoming in Bright Flash Literary Review, The Quarantine Review, Pigeon Review, and many others. In addition, his story collection, The Northern Line, is available on Amazon and other online bookselling outlets. He was also recently nominated for Best Microfiction by Ghost Parachute.

Pencil Line

A Memoir 

By Mary Zelinka

When I look at the watercolor that for over 40 years has lived every place I have, I don’t necessarily see greenish-brown fields, a line of scraggly trees, overlapping mountains in shades of blue and grey – the same scene I witness nearly every day.  I see the apprehension and exhilaration of starting a new life in Oregon. 

After James, the artist, cooked me dinner (cheap chow yuk – which was basically the same thing my mother had called grocery store special), he wrote Fall light, afternoon / Coast hills from Willamette Valley / October ’81 in pencil on the painting’s back and sent it home with me.  

That may have been the last time I saw him.  I had known him barely two years.  

Gabrielle said if it was a cold rainy day, you could warm your hands over James.  That he was like a crackling fireplace.  I thought he was more of a wood stove, the kind you would imagine in a farmhouse kitchen.  

 

Say you met James for a sack lunch in his office at the college and you mention how you wake up in a cold sweat every single night and can’t get back to sleep because your heart pounds so hard and you’re afraid but you don’t know why and you’re just so damn sad all the time.  He listens until you run out of words.  Then you take a walk together, a short walk because you have to get back to work and he has a class to teach.  Before you leave, he says, “I have a book I think you might find interesting,” and pulls from his jumbled desk drawer a ratty old copy of some weird mythology book.  As you take it, you think, I will never read this.  But you do read it that night because he suggested it.  And all the while you read, you are thinking I have no idea what this is even about.  When you finally finish in the first light of the morning, you realize this book, which you still don’t understand or remember much of even though you just read it, has everything to do with what you talked about the afternoon before and everything you didn’t because you don’t have enough words for it yet.  

 

There were five of us:  James, Gabrielle who was a sculptor, Joan an artists’ model, Gin a graphic artist.  I was the only “ordinary” person.  Gin and I met when I moved to Oregon after I left my husband and she introduced me to the others.  Gabrielle said I had the heart of an artist which made me feel special even though I didn’t know what that meant exactly.  

James, quite a bit older than any of us, taught art history and watercolor at the college.  When he wasn’t teaching, he was off in his beat-up VW bus loaded down with paints and brushes and canvasses and easels and bee sting kit to plein-air paint.  He exhibited his work at a number of galleries.  

None of us were in love with him, and he wasn’t in love with any of us.  (Although now I think we had all been a little infatuated with Gabrielle.)  I did make love with James once, a few months after I met him.  I would have again – it had been such a nice way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon.  It just never seemed as pressing as checking out a new art exhibit, discussing a book, collecting leaves, hunting for oddly-shaped pinecones, or throwing rocks in the river rushing under the bridge.    

Gabrielle said when James’s teenage son, his only child, had been killed in an automobile accident, James, a devout Catholic, turned his back on God.  He left his wife of over twenty years, though he didn’t divorce.  

I knew lots of people who didn’t believe in God, but turning your back on God was a whole other thing.  It meant you had a deep personal relationship that you were now rejecting.  It was Biblical.  Absolute.  I believed in God, but had never expected much, so when I was left on my own to deal with my husband’s cruelty, I didn’t feel forsaken.     

After James turned his back on God, he moved into a two-room basement apartment, shared bathroom down the hall, in a run-down blue three-story building in the run-down section of town.  He had been living there for seven years when I met him.  

 

Whenever James sold a painting, which was often, he seemed ashamed – like he didn’t deserve it.    

 

Frequently when I came out to my van after work, I would find one of James’s cartoons taped to my side mirror.  A man with crazy hair waving his hand saying, “Howdy!”  A man covering his ears shouting, “Turn down that Janis Joplin, Lady!”  Or an invitation:  “Walk after work?”  

 

Once James said my voice went deeper when I talked about something close to the bone.  I had just started alluding to my ex-husband’s violence.  Though a few more years would pass before I spoke about it outright.    

James said his real art was his poetry.  Whenever he read his work to me, his voice went deeper.

 

Gabrielle discovered our favorite picnic place – an old cemetery on top of a hill in rural Linn County.  Weeds covered the graves.  Wind stirred the pines.  Birds, caterpillars.  Our blanket spread in the midst of the tombstones.  We liked Dead Mary’s best:  tall and narrow, a hand with the index finger pointed skyward beneath the words, “Gone Home.”  Wife of Uriah Blanchet – died August 20, 1884.  Age 31.  My age, my name.  Not even “beloved wife.”  Just wife.  Property.  

We stabbed James’s pocketknife into blocks of cheese.  Tore off hunks of baguette.  Drank wine.  Smoked pot.  Watched fuzzy caterpillars inch over our fingers.  Asked:  What is art?  Is it still art if no one other than the artist ever sees it?  Debated quotes like Marilyn French’s from The Women’s Room:  “Our important decisions are made instantly, and all the talk is simply later rationalization.”

Once I fell asleep on top of Dead Mary and when I woke up, my friends had covered me with flowers.  

 

The dominant color in all James’s paintings was grey.  Like he was sinking into the same abyss I was clawing my way out of.   

Now I can see that he must have been trying to make sense of a world without God.  After all the violence of my marriage I was searching for something I could depend on and trust – which may have been the same thing as the God James turned his back on.  

 

Not long before the night James and I ate Cheap Chow Yuk together and he gave me my watercolor, Gabrielle moved to an artists’ community in Santa Fe.  She bequeathed her hilltop cemetery to me.  Gin had joined Corporate America, designing packaging or something for a software company.  Joan left for Portland.  I had already begun advocacy work with domestic violence survivors.  

It’s possible that when our little group scattered, James decided it was time for him to move on too.  Or maybe he would have anyway, and we had nothing to do with his leaving.  Gin was the one who told me.  He had left the college and his two-room basement apartment.  I was never able to learn where he went.    

 

Recently, I took James’s painting to Allen’s Frame Shop downtown to get reframed.  Allen tenderly removed the painting and left it on the counter while he went to the back room for his mat color samples.   

Alone with the painting, now naked and vulnerable without its frame, I noticed for the first time the faint pencil line outlining the coastal range.  

For a moment I forgot to breathe.  

I hadn’t been much more than a pencil line myself when I met James, I realized.  My ex-husband’s violence had erased me somehow.  I had been filling myself back in, not unlike the way James created landscapes with watercolors.  Maybe he recognized something in me the way he saw a painting in a blank canvas.   

And I wondered how it was that someone who had given up on hope had helped me resurrect my own.    

                                                     *   *   *

Mary Zelinka lives in Albany, Oregon and has worked at the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence for over thirty years.  Her writing has appeared in The Sun Magazine, Brevity, Eclectica, Memoir Magazine and others.

Where’s Norman?

By Dave Larson

The name on the door is Cliff Clamor, Celebrity Chef Agent. I didn’t bother to change the name as I hoped budding chefs would bring me food. If you must know, my name is Ken Uckles. I’m a Private Eye and bored. I haven’t had a case in weeks. I needed to make some money so I could hire a secretary. Her name should be Corgi. 

My rent is due, but I have a plan to keep the landlord out of my office. If he catches me today, I’ll tell him that a couple of rats died in the wall, and he needs to get the stink out. Of course, he won’t do that, but he’ll find out for how long dead rats stink. Then he’ll come back. My door opened, and Aluminum Al entered. 

“Twiddle, it smells of dead rats in here; don’t you bathe.”

 I don’t believe his real name is Aluminum. And to think about it, I’m not sure if Al is his last name. His job is to collect cans and take them to the recycling center for money. 

“Al, I can’t give you the key to the bathroom. When they walk in on you, the other tenants complain about you eating macaroni and cheese in the sink. I have a question; there’s no microwave in the restroom; how do you heat it”?

“Twiddle, I can show you how if you take off your shoes.”

“Al, please call Ken. I’m not a Twiddle. And I will not take off my shoes. What do you want, and no, I won’t swap underwear with you again.”

“You look like a Twiddle, so that’s what I’m going to call you. I have a job for you. My friend Norman is missing, and I want you to find him.”

“Al, I have expenses like rent, insurance, a car that needs gas. Plus, I can’t pay my secretary Corgi without money.”

“I overlooked her when I came in. Is she cute”?

“Cute is in the eyes of the beholder. And I like to hold her. But without money, I can’t hire her. Now, why are you eating the leaves of my fern? They are plastic and will clog you up.”

“Plastic? It’s no wonder it didn’t object when I asked to eat one of its fronds. Can you find Norman? The gang in my community misses his ukulele playing. We were even going to buy him one.”

“What do you mean your community”?

“Oh, I understand. You’re thinking about moving in with me. I’m sorry, but my box is only for one. This is nothing personal, but you smell funny. Kind of like mango with sage, sandalwood, and some beans.”

“Where is this community”?

“It’s behind the furniture store. They give us new rooms almost every day. I had to stop drawing Muriel on the walls as my box would disappear. But they give me a new one in its place.”

“Is Muriel your girlfriend”?

“Hell no, Muriel smells like spoiled hummus. The Muriel I’m talking about is one of those wall drawings with people, animals, and trees. I’m not good yet; that’s why the furniture people keep throwing it away. But practice makes perfect. I’ll be displayed in that loo in Paris one day.”

“You know a loo is what the English call a toilet.”

“I’m willing to be displayed there also.”

“Al, I can find Norman, but I need money to do so. I can’t work for less than $100 a day.”

“I’ve got money. I had planned on using it for something else, but we all miss Norman.”

“Can you pay me $100 a day”?

“Cheesy chocolate. That’s a lot of money. I only have $700.14, and I need some more to buy a tire.”

“Do you have a car”?

“No, I want to give the gang a tire swing. We don’t have a lot of entertainment at night.”

“How did you make that much money? You said the most you made in a day is $14.14.”

“I’ve been buying wholesale and selling retail. You’d be surprised at the profit margin on used cans.”

“With that kind of money, you could rent a room at a budget motel and pay your secretary. What’s her name”?

 “Twiddle, I hope you aren’t planning on stealing her away from me, but she quit. Her name was Ursula. She has curly black hair and a butt you can set a sandwich on. Not one of those Dagwood sandwiches, one of those finger sandwiches. She did these cartwheels, which would flip the sandwich right into her mouth. I had to fire her. Let’s talk about Norman.”

“Okay, I’ll take $100 and search for Norman for one day. I’d prefer cash, thank you.”

“Oh, I don’t have the money. Norman has it. He’ll pay you when you find him. He’s my banker.”

“That means, if I don’t find him, I’ve been working all day for nothing.”

“How’s that different than what you do all day now? I guess it also means you aren’t a capable detective.”

“You made your point. What else can you tell me about Norman? Does he have a surname? What does he look like? How tall is he”?

“His name is Norman the Nomad. He’s white and brown. Let me show you his size. It’s in my pocket.”

“I don’t think Nomad is a real name. What do you mean by white and brown? Be careful with what you bring out of your pocket.”

“I’m confident Nomad is his name. That’s what he calls himself. His arms and face are brown; the rest is white except for the bald spot on his head. It’s red from when he forgets to wear his cap. Oh yeah, he wears a baseball cap from our softball team. The cap is blue with a large N on the front. The N is for Nomad.”

Al took a piece of elastic from his pocket, stretching out between his arms. “This is how I measured Norman one day.”

“Al, that’s a piece of elastic. When you measured Norman, did you stretch it as wide as your hands can go, or did you hold your hands closer”?

“You’re the detective. You tell me.”

 “Al, if Corgi were here, I’d have her usher you out.”

“Corgi? Does she have short legs and a pointy nose? And isn’t Corgi the name of some little dog? You usually hire hot secretaries. Or at least you say you do. I’ve never seen one.”

“She’s cute, and her legs go to the floor. And when her pink tongue licks the chocolate sauce off your face, you feel important. Her mother’s name was Cora, and her dad was a Frenchman named Guy. Guy in French is Ghee. Cora and Ghee, Corgi. Do you understand”?

“No. Are you going to find Norman? And why are you called Twiddle”?

“Let me know if I have this right. He is a white man with a tanned face and hands. He has a ball cap with the letter N. He may be tall or short; we aren’t sure. Do you have a picture of him? And my name is not Twiddle.”

“No picture, but I can tell you he looks like me.”

“Al, you are wearing a ball cap with the letter N on the front. Would you let me have that piece of elastic”?

“Okay, but you can’t keep it. I need it for badminton practice.”

“Al, step on this end while I stretch it out.”

“Should I take my socks off first? I like how it tickles.”

“No, just put your foot on this end while I stretch it upward. That’s excellent. You want to know something interesting, Al”?

“What’s that Twiddle”?

“This elastic is the same height as you. Is your real name Norman?”

“Damn, you’re good. You found Norman already. Can I have a discount since you didn’t work the whole day”?

“Al or I guess Norman, no charge today. I want to use your names as being satisfied customers on my Yelp page.”

“Yes, can use my name. Just have Corgi give me a receipt for my taxes.”

                                          *   *   *

Dave Larson is best known for his research and writing on baseball history in the early 1900s. His work has been published both online and in journals. Recently, he had several comedic stories accepted by ezines.