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.

No page numbers or headers. 

Translations not accepted.

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

Please include a short third-person biographical statement in the event that your work is accepted. This can be added at the end of your piece. This is very important! 

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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Heading Uptown

by Ed Friedman

Sophia wasn’t surprised to find the train was full as it pulled into 51st Street. Being an experienced subway rider, when the doors opened, she managed to position herself so that she could stand securely and hold on to the bar above her head. From where she was, Sophia had at least a partial view of where Stavros was standing. She was sure he wouldn’t recognize her. The wig, sunglasses and the crowded train took care of that. The young man sitting directly in front of her continued to read his newspaper and avoid eye contact lest he feel like he should give up his seat. Sophia had long given up the presumption that a man would give up his seat to a woman. She wondered if this was the fallout from gender equity. Rather, she assumed that the guy sitting in front of her was tired from a long day of work and just hoped that the boring ride home would go faster if he could read his newspaper. Sophia reminded herself that the exception to the lack of chivalry was when a guy gave up his seat, only to try to pick her up. It wasn’t worth it to sit down if she had to listen to someone try every lame pick up line he could think of to draw her into a conversation.

The numbers of riders in her car remained constant, with same number coming in as getting out. Stavros remained standing where he was, lost in his phone. She wondered if he was playing a game or doing business. Given how crowded the train was he could probably conduct some of his questionable business dealings with no one noticing

When the train reached 125th Street enough people got out for Sophia to get a seat. She was able to find one at the end of a row. Stavros had found a seat as well, eyes still glued to his phone.

Sophia amused herself by reading the ads plastered well above eye level. She hadn’t been on a subway in a long time and was amazed that many of the ads were the same. Vocational training, foot doctors, and exterminators. When she tired of the cheesy ads Sophia glanced around the car and sized up her fellow riders. All or at least most, heading home from work; glad to be out of the bustle of Manhattan to their less crowded life in the Bronx. Cliché notwithstanding, this was a true melting pot, representing a huge swath of ethnicities using the most democratic of transportation options-the New York City Subway.

When the train moved above ground. Sophia’s pulse quickened. She knew that she was getting close to the point where she would have to act or abandon her plan. As the train continued northbound far fewer people got on then were getting off. Typical for 7:30 on a weeknight. While she could see out the window, Sophia didn’t find much to look at. Car repair shops, tire stores, Mom and Pop shops, and fast-food places.

At the Parkchester station many people exited which left no one standing in Sophia’s car. Stavros still hadn’t looked in her direction which made her slightly uneasy. She took out her phone and mindless scrolled through it pretending to read something on it.

Westchester Square is a transportation hub, so by the time the train pulled out of the station Sophia’s car was almost empty. There were only three stops before the last one. It was smart of Stavros, she thought, to ride the subway. He could just blend in with the mass of humanity. Also, smart to find a place in the outermost reaches of the Bronx. No one would think to look for him there. Certainly not the cops. Although legally he managed to avoid being convicted, there were many people outside the law who were unhappy with him. Those were the people who reached out to Sophia.

As the train lumbered to its final destination, Pelham Bay Park, Sophia gazed admiringly at the large amount of greenery before her. She did some research before pursuing her course of action and discovered that Pelham Bay is the largest park in New York City. With the sun starting to set behind the huge expanse of trees, it looked quite beautiful, she thought.

As the train pulled to a stop, Sophia’s pulse quickened but she willed herself to be calm. She took more time than necessary pretending to look for something in her large pocketbook but in fact, was insuring she would be the last person to exit the train. This allowed her to attach the silencer. Her left hand had her pocketbook draped over it, while her right hand held the gun underneath her long, but light spring jacket. Stavros was now ten feet in front of her. With no one either behind or in front of her, she said in a loud voice “Excuse me.” As Stavros turned, Sophia placed herself so that he would be between her and the train tracks. With only three feet between them Sophia fired three times. With barely an exhale, Stavros fell into the tracks, his phone following, bouncing twice before cracking open.

Sophia turned and placed the gun back into her large bag. She continued out the door of the train station which led to an overpass that emptied into the park. Though the sun was almost setting, many people were still enjoying the lush surroundings. Picnics and volleyball games were breaking up. Darkness was approaching. She scanned beyond the recreation areas to see acres of woodlands. Plenty of places to dispose of a gun.

Sophia sat on one of the benches opposite the tennis courts. A young couple was finishing their game and gathering their things to leave. Sophia punched a number into her pre-paid cell phone. As soon as she heard “yes”, she replied “done”, reminding herself to dispose of the phone as well.

                                                                   *   *   *

Ed’s prose has been seen in Flash Fiction Magazine, Fleas on the Dog, The Haven, Crow’s Feet, Center for Creative Writing, Submittable, Door is a Jar, and the Bronx Memoir Project Vols. I and III. His anthology Short Plays for Long Lives is published by Blue Moon Press. Ed’s plays have been staged throughout the New York metropolitan area and around the country.

                                              

In Constant Danger of Being Flung Into Space

By Marina Barakatt

It’s like I’m stuck on that ride at the fair that spins you around and sticks you against the wall – everything is going so fast and is so out of control that I just kind of stand there watching the world turn into a blur, not able to move or grab onto anything to keep me in one place. When it happens, I imagine myself with giant metal hands like backhoes that I can punch into the earth to slow things down. Then, I think to myself, I’ll have time to do everything I want to do. How am I supposed to get anything done when everything is going so fast all the time? I don’t know how anyone can keep up with it all.

Sometimes I get so overwhelmed I don’t do anything but lie in my bed. If the room is really dark and I lie still enough, it feels like the world is going at the right speed. Then I can think. Then, if the temperature is right, I can draw. Sometimes I wake up surrounded by pictures that I barely remember drawing. Those ones are always the most clear, the most representative of whatever’s going on in my head. They go into the front of my portfolio. But then I’m awake, and I have to get out of bed and get dressed and go to school and the world is still spinning at the same speed that it was yesterday. And I’m still a day older and a day closer to being dead and I still feel like I can’t breathe.

I drew my backhoe hands once. During one of those nights when everything was just right. I drew them exactly how I picture them in my head, and I got all the lines so you could tell the earth was slowing down. My professor said that it was one of my best pieces and that I should submit it to the annual exhibition. But I’m worried that if people see it, they’ll know that I’m barely hanging on, that there’s only just enough gravity to keep me from being flung into space. 

I tried to explain this to Amir once. We were in his room and we’d smoked enough that I was feeling as steady as I do when it’s the right temperature and I’m in my bed. We talk about weird stuff like that sometimes. So I tried, but he didn’t really get it. He wasn’t mean about it, he just nodded and said, “Yeah, man, like…SPACE,” which was so dumb that we laughed for a while and then turned on Futurama.

Amir is one of the only people who pays attention to me. People aren’t mean, they just kind of forget about me. Not like you see on TV, when a guy tries to talk to a pretty girl and she says something really mean and then all her friends laugh and the guy’s just standing there, humiliated. Everyone is nice enough, but I think that if I never said anything, eventually I would just disappear. Once, when Amir was gone for the weekend, I didn’t say anything for three days. I didn’t raise my hand in any classes. I just smiled at a few people who said hi to me around campus. And I just pointed at things in the cafeteria. I got a pizza delivered and I don’t think the delivery guy even noticed. It was kind of nice because I didn’t have to worry about saying the wrong thing or trying to look cool, but by the end I was worried I wouldn’t remember how to start talking again. I thought I might start becoming transparent and turn into a ghost. I didn’t, though. 

My dad says that if I ever want to talk to a therapist, he’ll pay for a good one. But they would just try to fix me, and to be honest I don’t know what I would do if I caught up to the world. I’m so used to spending all my time concentrating on not being flung into space. If I didn’t feel like that anymore, who would I be?

*   *  *

Marina is a West Coast native living in Washington, DC. She loves writing anything, from sci-fi to creative non-fiction to romance, often drawing inspiration from the frequent travel required by her day job. Her work has appeared in such literary magazines as DistrictLit and Corner Bar Magazine. When she’s not writing, you can find her hosting bar trivia, baking something involving peaches, or bothering her extremely patient dog, Daisy. You can read more of her work at marinabarakatt.com

Where I Come From

by Betsy Finesilver Haberl

Where I come from, there is a river that is brown with sediment from the paper mills and green with algae blooms from fertilizer runoff, but sometimes the sky’s reflection plays a trick to make it look clean and cool like the glacier that carved it long ago.

Where I come from, there is a small downtown with old brick buildings and a Main Street and everything looks quaint, even though most of the storefronts are empty and dusty now.

Where I come from, there are suburban neighborhoods with vinyl-sided homes and rec rooms in half-finished basements, and the swing sets in the yards rust before the children outgrow them.

Where I come from, there are corn fields and dairy farms stretching for miles, and the smell of manure and compost stretches even farther than that.

Where I come from, county roads slice between the farms with an occasional church, and their steeples are a reminder to feel guilty about all you’ve done out there at night.

Where I come from, also on the county roads are a handful of roadside bars, and they are far enough away that you cannot get home any way except by driving. 

Where I come from, people sometimes die in their cars and the alcohol on their breath fades before the ambulances come screaming down the dark county roads.

Where I come from, Homecoming has the standard lackluster parade, football game, and a marching band in itchy wool uniforms. But where I come from, homecoming also means that groups of boys prowl the suburban neighborhoods, the cul-de-sacs, the sidewalks, the grassy yards, until they find a girl, bind her to a tree with duct tape, cover her mouth, rub Nair in her hair, then walk away feeling gratified with the town and its traditions.

Where I come from, boys will be boys, and the people just slowly shake their heads while they say it.

Where I come from, the girl from the tree came to school and clumps of her hair fell out on my desk, and when I cringed, she grabbed the hair and hissed It could have been you, you know.

Where I come from, it could have been me and it could have been worse, and sometimes it was worse. Sometimes we were lucky, and sometimes we weren’t, because the boy were just boys.

But also where I come from, girls will be girls.

Where I come from, there is one mall with one Victoria’s Secret and a manufactured floral smell so strong it hangs in the air all the way down at the food court. We were drawn in by the siren scent and marveled at all the lace trim and thin straps, imagining ourselves with bodies like the mannequins. But we used our babysitting money to buy cheap, oily lipstick with color names like Randy Sandy and Carpet Burn.

Where I come from, I put on the lipstick in the food court, pursed lips in a handheld mirror, and asked Why’s it called Carpet Burn? And another girl said You don’t get it? while eyeing the boys at the next table over, who were leaning back on their chairs and trying to knock each other over, because even eating greasy pizza had to have some threat of violence. And I said Oh, yeah, I do, but I didn’t understand at all, not yet.

Where I come from, a girl slept with a teacher and everyone hated her for it because he was young and popular, although now that I think about it so was she before everyone found out. They showed up at the Pizza Hut where she worked, glared at her, and knocked those brown plastic soda cups on the floor so she’d have to clean it up.

Where I come from, they tried to make up for things at school. Well, they sort of tried, and they brought in someone to teach self-defense to the girls during gym class. But the only thing I remember is the man telling us to not wear bikinis while we rode bikes to the pool, so we stopped doing that, even though it didn’t change anything.

Where I come from, girls are teases or sluts or virgins or whores and sometimes dykes but nothing in between, no matter if they have boyfriends or no boyfriends or if they took their shirt off in the backseat of a car on a dark county road or they didn’t.

Where I come from, boys and girls drink stolen shitty beer around bonfires on farmland. But one night there was wind and the fire spread through the dry corn field to a barn and there were animals in there, and I still think about the sheep and pigs who couldn’t escape. I wonder if they were calm about their deaths because they knew there was no way out or if they kicked and screamed and whined until the very end. I wish I could say we stopped the fires and drinking then but of course where I come from, we didn’t.

Where I come from, those of us that stay get married to others that stay, usually when we’re young and before we even feel like adults.

Where I come from, those of us that stay and get married, buy houses, replace the vinyl siding, add a bigger TV to the rec room, and have babies that grow up in the same place where I come from, and those babies do the same things, too.

But also where I come from, there are some of us who leave and never come back, sort of like the sheep and pigs in the barn, who in the end actually did find a way out, a real way out, when you really think about it, because nothing burns unless someone starts the fire, and sometimes the fire is big enough that all the dirty river water in town cannot put it out.

                                                                     *    *    *

Betsy Finesilver Haberl’s recent fiction has appeared in Jet Fuel Review, Barnstorm Journal, and Hypertext Review. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Northwestern University. She is also a curator for Sunday Salon Chicago, one of the city’s longest-running literary reading series. She lives in Evanston, Illinois, with her family.

Thirtieth Birthday

By Beate Sigriddaughter

Dear Daughter,

I saw your pinched lips at church today. It made me want to laugh. And it made me want to cry. Yes, I am one hundred percent human that way. I don’t know yet if I will give you this letter before you leave. I do know we will not mention the issue again in person. It is too difficult. We’ve never talked much, not since you were a fierce and disapproving teenager to your mildly despised and equally disapproving mother. 

I remember my own thirtieth birthday, years before you were born. He adored me then. The photo he took of me picking daisies in a field—you can see how much he cherished me. I’m looking at the photo from time to time as I write this. He was fresh home from the war and couldn’t get enough of me, my unblemished, soft feminine being after all those months side by side with his comrades. A young woman picking flowers. 

I wish you could have had a thirtieth birthday like that, filled with love, daisies, and admiration. For you it is winter instead, and your girlfriend has just broken up with you, thrown you out in fact and left you temporarily homeless, and you are bewildered by the world and came to visit us for comfort. Not that we can provide all that much.

It is evening now, but I can still see your tight lips in church. I can still feel the heat, the pungent smell of anger from you. You didn’t even sing any of the hymns. You have such a beautiful clear soprano. You sounded so strong when you declared yesterday how, beginning with today, your thirtieth birthday, you wouldn’t go to church anymore. You were an adult now and entitled to self-determination. You have to go, I informed you. It will hurt your father if you don’t. When you’re in your beloved San Francisco, you can do what you want, but when you visit us and it’s a Sunday or a holiday, you are coming to church with us.

I remember how you used to scream at me when you were sixteen. What do you want me to be—a subservient housewife like you? I never did have as many choices as you did. And, in my defense, I did try to give you wings.

I know this hurts you today, obediently trekking to church with us as always. I wish I could take the pain away from you. You’re probably convinced I’m choosing him over you. In this big competition for love that we all seem to live in, maybe I am indeed for the moment proclaiming him more important than you.

No, I don’t care much for church either. I don’t know what you do to endure when you finally sit there in the pew beside us. I go off into a different world, especially when the music happens to be good, when the organist is on her game. I go because church is his life now, his obsession, if you will. And, yes, I do have to live with him day in and day out. I don’t have the kind of wings I have tried to give you. Sometimes I wish I could fly along into wide, unfettered skies.

All I am grateful for is that today Pastor Bader didn’t go into a diatribe against women, as he regretfully sometimes does. The organist was flawless, as were the white lilies on the altar. Fly, daughter, fly. I wish I could go with you, but what wings I have are weak. I tell myself I go for the music, for the beautiful light in the stained-glass windows.

I could still feel your fury at dinner. It radiates from you like a fever. I know you did it for me, even as we both claim it is all for him. Thank you for that.

See, I have been trained for obedience. I think I have raised you for obedience and rebellion both. That can’t be easy, and for that, forgive me. Fly away. For me it’s way too late. I am too old, too tired, and besides I am used to him and his autocratic ways. I cannot change now, and neither can he. Besides, I kind of like him. 

                                                          *   *   *

Beate Sigriddaughter, www.sigriddaughter.net, grew up in Nürnberg, Germany, near the castle and World War II bomb ruins. She lives in Silver City, New Mexico (Land of Enchantment), where she was poet laureate from 2017 to 2019. Her work is widely published in online and print magazines. Her latest collection of prose poems is Kaleidoscope (Cholla Needles, May 2021) and a short story collection Dona Nobis Pacem is forthcoming (Unsolicited Press, December 2021).

the ghosts at gardoussel

By Kyung Peggy Kim

i could not be telling you this story if i were alive as my brain had lost its capacities its complex networks having crashed as a result of touching the infectious protein of creutzfeldt-jakob disease from the instruments i used for surgery on a patient’s brain;

and that minuscule contact with the defective prion wreaked havoc on my senses my language my cognition creating total misalignment of every physical and mental process; 

yes it was horrible but also propitious for as the protein punched holes in the brain it blunted the cruelties of reality like what i bore at the hands of fellow humans hired by my common-law wife to drag me from our bed and dump me in a faraway barren field on a cold november evening under a crystalline sky reminding me of my youth when i gazed at hanul from atop south mountain and at the lights of my occupied city nightdreaming my infinite possibilities; 

and of van gogh’s starry night painted during his year at the asylum of saint-paul de mausole along with 150 other paintings even while anguish pushed him to suicidal attempts by ingesting paints and paraffin; 

i wonder how he met the night sky between the iron bars of his bedroom window and how he clung tightly to its image even in his sleep so he could paint the phantom in his studio when the night ended; 

and i wonder how the magnificent soul of the sky could be understood by one so ill and how his painting could soothe like balm the countless masses who stared at its infinite glorious heaven the ceiling covering our house of earth where horrific sufferings abound everywhere including the field where two men kicked me like a soccer ball swearing their wishes of death upon me before they left me to die; 

but i didn’t because a drunken villager saw me as he stumbled across the field and had the police take me to a homeless shelter packed with other unwell people muttering their confused stories with words incomprehensible not unlike the shouts and terrible howls as of animals in a menagerie heard by vincent; 

and i joined my fellow sufferers in the chorus of the lost even resorting to german japanese and english but no language could salvage a single thread to reconnect me to the once-familiar fabric of life; 

so the days passed until someone recognized my face from a missing person poster and after a telephone call an ambulance came to retrieve me; 

but as the ambulance sped upon dirt roads and asphalt highways – its sirens singing clear the road let us get by – the fists of the men dressed in white punched my ears over and over turning my spongy brain into an amorphous blob;

yet in the last picosecond of my life or the first picosecond of my death clarity snowed upon me like manna as i saw my beloveds standing in a gapless circle around me; 

thus i died and a coroner wrote unknown for the cause of my death; 

soon thereafter my youngest daughter in the states begged please do not bury him before i can see him and she and her two sisters dressed in white hanboks stayed with me to mourn; 

and while i was being washed and dressed in hemp my youngest scolded her weeping sisters don’t let your tears touch father believing this would keep me in bardo a place betwixt and between and preventing my complete freedom; 

but her own eyes welled up and one tear fell upon my chest piercing my non-beating heart; 

so i was buried under a perfect mound under a perfect sky for fourteen years as most of my attachments – ambition judgment passion and more – withered away before the auspicious year when the dead could be moved;

and i was unburied burned urned and buried once more with my (true) wife in a sweet new england town; 

but there i did not rest but roamed among the stars upon the wings of butterflies into the dreams and thoughts of my youngest daughter and into the air of her boston home where she whispered now and then dad? dad? and finally to a remote place called gardoussel tucked in the cevennes mountains of france (not far from van gogh’s asylum) where she went on retreat with women seeking some answer or another and sleeping in a gite with a window overlooking a meadow of donkeys hens and a rooster – an opening through which i would peer each night at the sleeping once-upon-a-child woman with an assembly of our ancestors who smiled invisible but true smiles and muttered without sound how lovely is this child of ours whose sufferings have been too much and her time in the wilderness too long aigo aigo oh dear before returning to the dimming stars as the sun prepared to rise; 

and on the final night we followed her and her fellow travelers to the field of sleepy donkeys and a gurgling brook under the glistening sky with a bloated blue moon and as their music grew louder their dance became faster and my daughter looked up at us among the clouds and marveled aloud van gogh dad van gogh and the revelation rippled the air while her feet pounded the earth as she stretched wide her arms spinning like a dervish to shake off her death cloths that dropped to her feet casting shadows darker than the night and joy bubbled from the recesses of her being and her laughter became fresh; 

and seeing my daughter returning toward freedom my own mantle of melancholy melted into the clouds;  and in unison with the stars the moon and the earth we pushed our descendant onwards with roars of OLEOLEOLE until my last tangle with the world – the thread of love – vanished and nothing of me was left over.

                                                                  *    *    *

Kyung is an emerging writer of color who has returned to creative writing after a long lapse – this time with an interest in diminishing demarcations that separate polarities such as life and death, past and present, and loss and redemption. In the process she is developing a voice being loosed from the constraints of both the East and the West.

She is a grandmother, a Korean immigrant, and a fictive New Englander living in the Boston area. In 2020 she completed an MA in Mindfulness Studies, some 45 years after her last graduate degree.

The Indefatigable Feeney

By Sheila E. Murphy

She arrived once a year with her machinery, materials, and authority to clean the carpets. Not only did she draw all known substances from the wool in a single day, she delivered gratis lectures on a wide variety of topics, never by request.

Chez nous, all productive hours were canceled in the wake of this human beehive. The whole house, upside down and doors wide open. As mild compensation, our store of knowledge on science, atmosphere, and physics steadily increased throughout the day to match improvement in air quality.

I recommended her to an acquaintance whose carpets needed help. Her competence, I thought, would make it worth his loss of quiet time. Au contraire: he made it clear he would prefer a filthy carpet to her constant dissertating.

This same friend has since experienced bronchial troubles that started with a fit of coughing. I have wondered yet remind myself of the difference between causation and correlation.

                                                             *   *   *

Sheila E. Murphy. In 2020, Luna Bisonte Prods released Golden Milk. Murphy’s book titled Reporting Live from You Know Where (2018) won the Hay(na)Ku Poetry Book Prize Competition from Meritage Press (U.S.A.) and xPress(ed) (Finland). Murphy is the recipient of the Gertrude Stein Award for her book Letters to Unfinished J. (Green Integer Press, 2003). Her wikipedia page is: 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheila_Murphy

Silver Screen

By Ash Kingery

Kora sits and watches movies in her dorm instead of doing homework. She does the homework eventually, about an hour before the deadline. She checks the course shell two days later and sees she’s gotten full marks. It’s not like she’s not doing the work.

Some of her classes are more participation-focused, and she doesn’t really… participate. She hates seminars. Hates talking to other people. Hates having to form opinions on the reading she skimmed at best. None of the reading interests her. Her participation grades are awful, but her essays are always so good that she gets decent grades anyway. She’d rather be watching movies. 

She sits on her bed with her laptop across her legs, only moving it when it starts to burn her. Not like it hurts that much. Every day, she watches a movie, or at least half of one. Usually it’s more than one.

She does have a roommate, but they don’t talk. Their schedules aren’t aligned. When they are home at the same time, they don’t talk anyway. Kora goes to bed late and wakes up just barely in time for class, while Maria is all ‘early to bed, early to rise.’ Kora wears headphones, but she can sense Maria’s irritation at the blue light that poisons the room at 1 in the morning (the most unholy of hours). Maria’s too nice (or just too shy) to say anything, but more and more, she’s been spending the night at her boyfriend’s place. He has an actual apartment, not a dumpy dorm. That’s fine with Kora. She can stay up as late as she wants now, watching movies.

Tonight, she’s watching an action movie marathon when her mom calls unexpectedly. Reluctantly, she pauses the movie and answers.

“How are you, sweetie?” Good. “Are you enjoying your classes?” Yes. “How is your roommate?” Fine. “What’s her name again?” Maria. “Is she nice?” Sure. “Are you eating enough?” Yeah. “How are your grades?” Fine. “Are you doing your homework?” Yes. “Are you… doing alright?” Yeah. “Do you want to talk about anything?” No. “You sure?” Yes. “Okay. Feel free to call any time. Love you, sweetie.” Love you too.

There’s a hesitation on her mom’s end before she hangs up. Kora puts the phone down, puts her headphones back on, and unpauses the movie.

She hopes her voice was chipper enough, even if her responses were short. Her mom doesn’t need to know about the movies. There’s a lot she doesn’t have to know about: the pathetic excuses for meals, the crushing lack of friends, the gnawing terror that’s kept her indoors except to go to class (and even that’s a stretch), the hollow pit in her stomach. But when she watches a movie, that hollow feeling goes away. For two hours, she gets to feel happy, or sad, or angry, or anything else she ought to be feeling. So she watches them until the sun comes up, and she prays that the vague half-smile she pastes onto her face during class is enough to dissuade questions.

Part of her wants to shower. It’s been a couple days. But she can’t. The movie is still going.

                                                       *   *   *

Ash Kingery is a college student who types too fast and thinks about comics too much. When she’s not writing essays for class, she’s trying to write down everything else that comes into her head. She lives in the American Southwest.

The Calmness Institute

By James Fowler

Contact with the stressful outside world is forbidden. Cell phones must be surrendered upon registration. Anyone caught with a prohibited device is quietly but firmly escorted from the premises. Guests liken the place to a monastery, or a correctional facility that actually corrects.

To assist detachment from the 24-hour cycle, guests are taught to approach the day’s headlines as they would old news, or to see themselves as visitors to a foreign country, in it but not of it. Home is elsewhere.  

The futility of worry is emphasized. If/then thinking should replace it. If dreaded x does happen, then y might be done in response. Guests list their anxieties on one page, then contingent plans to address them on another. The first page is burned to ash. Then, since only thirty percent or so of fears materialize, most of the second page is torched. 

With no television, radio, or books, there are few distractions from the business of re-centering on the biome’s respiratory cycle. Located in Sun Valley, Nevada, a semi-arid zone, the Institute features gardens of colorful succulents in pea-gravel beds, helpful companions as guests learn to breathe with their surroundings. Thin streams trickle through the beds, soothing, symbolic.

Before this stage, however, de-stressing must occur. Various treatments are available.

The anxiety peel, though it sounds depilatory, does not involve sticky strips or caustic chemicals. Rather, it gently removes layers of worry through sensory laving. Indigenous flutes speak of the earth’s deep healing powers. Teenaged children aspiring only to become online celebrities blend into the encompassing aroma of sandalwood. Eagle feathers open vistas beyond the common grind. It seems possible, just possible, that all manner of things shall be well after all.

The Institute does not go in for crystal nonsense or astrological claptrap. It does, however, serve endorphin shakes, cytokine bars, and oxytocin tapas.

In Human-Bloom class, guests wear leotards across the color spectrum and form group designs under the guidance of an award-winning choreographer. Like a choir director who can coax impressive choral effects from average singers, she works wonders with all body types. “Remember always you are part of a larger pattern,” she instructs.

For those in need of more dire unburdening, there is the cryogenic soak, simulating the effects of a near-death experience. Guests report floating out of themselves, looking down on the exquisite human-bloom shapes, and being met by their best friend from childhood, who has brought along their favorite pet. Upon returning, they shed cold tears of joy.

Nesh-Nesh the baby elephant is a formally trained massage therapist, able to work out the hardest knots from necks, shoulders, and backs. Further, she can squeeze all the toxic air from obstructed lungs without collapsing them. Guests find her a worthy successor to Lola the rolfing bear.

Hardcore neurotics must place a dollar token in the worry jar every time they are caught fretting. The money goes toward treats for Nesh-Nesh.

Trails among ponderosa pine and scrub on the ridges flanking the valley seem more remote than they are. Warm breezes do that soughing thing through the branches as vestiges of tension waft off strolling bodies in nearly visible wisps.

After several nights guests marvel how sound and unbroken their sleep is. Have their bladders been disciplined by the prebiotic/probiotic regimen? Or has a neural purge been effected, so that their formerly troubled brains no longer feel compelled to wake them for a 3 a.m. chat?

“Not just a day spa,” the Institute declares, “but a path to a new day.” During advanced Into-the-Blue sessions, participants learn how to clear-sky their un-clouding minds.   

At departure each guest receives a palm-sized river stone that fits snugly in a pocket and can be rubbed at the first sign of agitation. Its power is simply natural. The river is everywhere. 

                                                            *   *   *

 

James Fowler teaches literature at the University of Central Arkansas. He is author of the poetry collection The Pain Trader (Golden Antelope Press, 2020). His literary essays have appeared in ANQ, Children’s Literature, POMPA, and The Classical Outlook; his personal essays in Southern Cultures, Cadillac Cicatrix, Quirk, and Under the Sun; his short fiction in such journals as Red Planet Magazine, Rathalla Review, the Southern Review, Chiron Review, and Elder Mountain; and his poems in such publications as The Poetry of Capital, Futures Trading Magazine, Transference, Fleas on the Dog, Aji Magazine, Evening Street Review, Dash, and Cave Region Review. 

 

Having Shed My Stripy Larvel Pajamas

By Karen Walker

I’m meeting William at The Milkweed Cafe in a little black dress and new bra. 

My daughter, hoping I’d fly again after divorce, chose him. His pic—posing among lesser wildflowers, a country manor in the distance—oozed confidence. He’s a bloomin’ gentleman! Perfect for you, Mum.

Her advice: Only tell him your username—Butterfly. Otherwise, he’ll pin you as desperate.

My antennae go up. That’s him. If a bit wilted. Weedier and more grey than the profile.

Rooted to the floor, William fiddles with his flowery tie. Hello. Call me Bill.  

Gulp. Flit. I alight beside him. I’m Daphne.

                                                                      *   *   *

Karen writes short fiction and flash fiction in a basement in Ontario, Canada. Her work is in Reflex FictionRetreat WestDefenestrationFunny PearlsUnstamaticThe Disappointed Housewife, Blank SpacesBandit FictionSledgehammer, Five Minute Lit, Sundial Magazine, and others. 

Déjà Vu

By Kelli Short Borges 

Wheels screech to a stop, metal hissing in complaint as the train doors open with a thud. Nina, sitting left of the door, chokes on the exhaust now permeating the compartment. 

The perfume of the city, she thinks, wondering how many years of her life will be cut short due to her stubborn insistence upon staying in this place, despite her mother’s pleading for Nina to move home, closer to family. Where she had been cocooned as tightly as an unwilling caterpillar, struggling to escape the suffocating silk bindings of her childhood. Never again.

The exhaust is a small debt for the freedom she feels now, the glorious spreading of her wings, the breaking free. Like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, Nina’s life is finally unfolding, its endless possibilities as exhilarating as she had imagined. Her mother’s repeated warnings of lurking danger went largely unheeded and ignored. 

Still, this morning, as she sees a dark-haired man with a jaw as chiseled as a knife’s blade pushing his way through the metal doors, a primal twist of fear lodges itself deep within her gut. Nostrils flaring, the man sits heavily in the seat across from Nina. 

Something about the man nags at Nina, feels familiar. The familiarity isn’t the comforting kind. It’s nestled beside a sense of foreboding. But, why? Where has she seen him before? The thought persists, sitting in the back of her mind like a pesky insect intent upon drawing blood. 

Nina, brain still foggy at this ungodly hour, attempts to brush away this inexplicable worry, writing it off to exhaustion. She takes a slug of much-needed coffee, extra hot, from the mug she cradles in her lap, just as the compartment jolts unexpectedly forward. 

Scalding coffee arcs from her cup, splashing across the white silk blouse she carefully ironed this morning. 

“Shit!” Nina yelps, jumping from her seat.

Shaking, she attempts to wipe off the stain which has already begun to settle into the fabric. 

“Get a grip,” she mutters under her breath, glancing once again at the man, who is now staring straight at her, his sharp, bright blue eyes framed by a cobweb of fine lines.  

Nina’s chest constricts. Her breath becomes as thin as skim milk. In that instant, she knows. Knows why it’s all so familiar. The choking smell of exhaust, the scorching coffee, the man. His face appears before her, exactly as it appeared last night. 

In the dream.

White knuckled, Nina grips the arm of her seat and turns toward the man, who is now pinning her with his eyes like an insect to a board. At his feet, as in the dream, sits a large black backpack, the edges of the straps frayed and worn. 

A faint sound is coming from inside the pack. Like a muffled version of the grandfather clock in Nina’s childhood home, the “tick, tick” is barely audible, almost completely obscured by the normal creaks and groans of the train. 

The man’s thick fingers grasp what Nina now knows they hold—a small electronic device. A button lies just under his thumb, the faded blue color barely visible from Nina’s seat. 

Nina’s head squeezes like a vise, the pounding of her pulse accelerating with such rapidity she wonders if everyone in the compartment hears its frantic drumming. Her eyes are wild, shooting through the car as quickly as silver orbs in a pinball game. No one else is paying attention. Nobody sees. 

Flashes from the dream, from what comes next, play out in her brain like a movie reel from hell: the pressing of his thumb, the blinding white flash, the deafening crack and pop of the explosion, the sucker punch of heat, the spray of metal a gruesome firework. Afterward, the sparks, the fallout. The moans. Everything coated a slick, crimson red. 

Gasping for breath, Nina realizes it’s up to her to stop him. She stands, panting, legs taking flight as she launches herself at the man, frantically grabbing for the device, the man’s mouth curling in a feral snarl as he twists and holds the button high, beyond her reach. 

His thumb presses down.

Darkness.

Nina opens her eyes, head throbbing. Squinting in confusion, she tries to place herself. Her eyes slowly adjust as a shaft of light brings everything to focus. 

Her bedroom. 

She’s in bed. It’s morning, 6 a.m. Time to get ready for work. If she doesn’t get up soon, she’ll miss the train. Looking over at her dresser, she sees the blouse she set out for work today. The white one. It just needs to be ironed. 

As she pulls herself up wearily, her roommate knocks softly, peers through the door.  

“Nina? Good morning. I brought you your coffee. Extra hot.

                                                       *   *  *

Kelli Short Borges is a former reading specialist and forever reading enthusiast. Her work has been published or is forthcoming at Across the Margin, Flash Fiction Magazine, Drunk Monkeys Literature + Film, and Pure Slush, amongst other journals. Kelli also enjoys hiking the Arizona foothills, photography and traveling the world in search of adventure. You can find her on Twitter @KelliBorges2.