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.
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New stories are posted at the beginning of each month.
The baby spoke to his mother one night, kicking against her belly in morse code, sounding like bongos under water. It started with soft bumps then worked up to fierce thuds. He said he understood things but wanted to learn more. “Feed me with words,” he said, “describe things and let me see.”
“How do you know so much?” the mother wondered. Who knew watching the Puzzle channel on TV could lead to this?
So, they drove around and the mother showed him the nice parts of the city. They went to royal parks and designer shopping centres. At a farmer’s market she described the truffles and sniffed fresh basil leaves.
“Smells like rainwater,” said the baby.
“The world is a beautiful place,” said the mother.
But when she heard an argument in a car park the mother quickly searched for a more serene environment. She ended up in a secluded second-hand bookshop and she took time to thumb through pages of adventure stories she hadn’t read since she was a teen. She recited passages to the child in a dusty corner of the store and made sure to censor descriptions of threatening imagery. The need to edit reality was compulsive.
The relative calm was disturbed by the father when he confronted the mother in the kitchen one afternoon, as she sat on a low stool unloading the dishwasher.
“You’re unwell and I think you need help,” he said, “I hear you – in the laundry room, in the bedroom as you apply your makeup, as you sit in the garden. I hear you discuss the sky and the trees as if the baby can hear you, as if you’re having a conversation.”
“Tell him,” said the baby, “tell him the truth and we can all have fun.”
The mother ignored the baby. She said to the father, “You needn’t be so suspicious, I simply want to express myself. Sometimes I feel so isolated. I would never imagine the baby is talking to me.”
“Good. After all, remember what happened to aunt Marie.”
“Why are you lying to him?” said the baby to the mother. “He has a right to know, doesn’t he?”
The mother stood and unloaded cutlery into a drawer. She remained quiet as the baby’s kicks became violent. She continued to ignore him.
The father watched her as she wiped the kitchen surfaces clean and she winced from the pain in her stomach.
Later she locked the door to the bathroom and turned the shower on so she couldn’t be heard.
“Forgive your father, he just wants what is best for us.” she said.
“I don’t get it, why not tell him the truth?”
“Some things only grownups understand.”
“What happened to aunt Marie?” said the baby.
“She was unwell in the mind. She was confused.”
“Maybe you’re confused.”
“Don’t be silly, that’s not possible.”
“Then tell him about me, tell the world.”
“I’m sorry, I have to keep you a secret for now. Please try and wait until the time is right.”
That night the mother fell asleep in front of the television and woke up drenched in blood. The TV was playing news reports – bombs in the Middle East, starvation in African villages. She called to the father and he rushed her to the hospital.
On the way the baby finally spoke, saying, “What’s war? What’s poverty?”
“Oh, thank god, you’re okay,” she said, holding her stomach.
“Who are you talking to?” snapped the father.
The mother said to the father, “Listen to me, you need to talk to your child, help him through this.”
“Listen to yourself,” said the father, “you’ve lost your mind.”
“Something bad is happening,” said the baby as the mother felt contractions. “Please make it stop.”
The baby was born a few weeks premature. It refused to kick, refused to cry.
As she held the child, everything seemed distorted and unreal. The doctor said the baby was fine but as she carried him in her arms he just felt like a bundle of rocks, nothing more.
It didn’t take long for the baby’s eyes to crack open and drink in the room. There was no barrier between him and his mother now and yet the intimacy between them had gone. He would have to relate to the world, unfiltered, seeing things with an independent mind, reliant only upon himself.
* * *
Tim Frank’s short stories have been published over sixty times in journals including Able Muse, Bourbon Penn,Intrinsick, Menacing Hedge, Literally Stories, Eunoia Review, Maudlin House and The Fiction Pool. Tim Frank has been nominated for The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2020. Tim Frank is the associate fiction editor for Able Muse Literary Journal.
He shuts down his heart. He waves goodbye to his daughter, blows kisses to her, and shuts down his heart before the pain of her absence can settle its claws deep into him. Over the next eleven days he will not feel anything, not the pain of her absence, the laborious weight of it sitting heavily in his chest, a weight which seems to inflict a strain on every part of his body, nor the regret he feels at the choices which have led to her absence. And then, on the day when he sees her again, the very morning he wakes – if he has slept at all – like a child of eight just like his daughter, on Christmas morning, some of the night still remaining in the sky, he will turn his heart back on and feel only his joy at seeing her again – ignoring, somehow, how different she looks, taller, older, after just those eleven days of not seeing her – seeing her for the two and a half days out of two weeks that is his time with her, the only thing he and his ex-wife have been able to agree on in the everlasting arguments born from the ending of a marriage, cramming all those missing days, all the minutes and hours, into their time together, doing whatever she wishes to do, even if it is, as it has been of late, wanting to watch videos on her phone, barely talking to him bar to ask for food; it is enough, or as close to enough as to make little difference, to be in the same room as her, to hear her laugh, see her smile, when there are so many days when he cannot even do that.
Except of course he does not shut down his heart. He does not, because he cannot shut down his heart – though he has tried, through drinking to excess and working every hour available to him, with the former leaving him hungover and unable to work all the hours available to him and the latter leaving him so tired that he cannot fall asleep without the aid of alcohol – no more than he can go back in time and stop himself from sleeping with another woman, a colleague from work at the office Christmas party, one who had long complimented him on attributes, both physical and emotional, his wife had stopped noticing, a foolish mistake, fuelled by drink, which he was already regretting before the pleasure of body against body had ceased, and in doing so end his marriage of fourteen years when, again another foolish mistake, possibly not as foolish as the first, but certainly near enough, he had felt compelled to confess it all to his wife, the guilt he was feeling erasing any memory of the pleasure left untouched by regret. But he likes to pretend he can do so, that he can shut down his heart at will, and by doing this impossible thing he can stop feeling the pain he feels. It makes no difference, this pretence, and yet he feels better believing it, which perhaps does mean that it makes a difference, just one he is unable to understand, but might some distant day when he has grown accustomed – or as accustomed as possible – to this new aspect of his life as a father and not a husband.
He watches his ex-wife’s car disappear around the corner, his ex-wife taking their daughter back to the family home that is no longer his home, that is just a house with his name on it, a house which still takes money from his back account every month, a house that, he knows, will never be his home ever again. Then he turns and re-enters his apartment block where the apartment he can barely afford, even as he works all the hour he can, sits unremarkably among many other apartments, some of them housing men like him, their ghostly-bruised faces, cloudy eyes and slumped shoulders telling their tale better than any words could, while families reside in other apartments, husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, and their children with voices and laughs that, when heard through the thin walls, sound so like his daughter’s voice and laugh – high-pitched and almost musical, vibrating with life – that he feels as though a thin blade of pure heat has been taken to his lungs. He steps into the elevator, his body suddenly too tired to take the stairs, feeling all the pain and regret he feels every day, his heart throbbing with being inside his chest.
* * *
Edward Lee is an artist and writer from Ireland. His paintings and photography have been exhibited widely, while his poetry, short stories, non-fiction have been published in magazines in Ireland, England and America, including The Stinging Fly, Skylight 47, Acumen, Feral, The Blue Nib and Poetry Wales. He is currently working on two photography collections: ‘Lying Down With The Dead’ and ‘There Is A Beauty In Broken Things’. He also makes musical noise under the names Ayahuasca Collective, Orson Carroll, Lego Figures Fighting, and Pale Blond Boy.
I always wanted to be a widow. To be one of those mysterious women like Grandma, wrapped in a shawl of loss. Dark circles under hollowed-out eyes, animated by an invisible gravitas so unlike the wives and mothers I knew, chattering about their husbands’ careers, their children’s schedules. Grandma had walked along the rim of death, grasping Grandpa’s thin hand as he died. Sitting this close to death gave her an intimate knowledge of life that even my smart and capable mother did not possess.
At seventeen, I longed to skip the whole wife stage and go straight to wisdom, gazing out a window into the middle distance, holding life and death together in every breath.
When our neighbor Mr. Giddings died of a heart attack, I went with my parents to offer Mrs. Giddings condolences and a casserole. I was on a reconnaissance mission. As she opened the door, I caught a whiff of menthol cough drops. We sipped tea, trying not to look at one another each time Mrs. Giddings stopped in mid-sentence to stare at the floor.
Mr. Giddings’ death was too fresh, I told myself. Wisdom took time, I decided as Mrs. Giddings waved goodbye and shut the door.
In my twenties, I met Harvey, a man who had almost died twice. On our first date he regaled me with stories – a boating accident when he was five, a freak lightning strike in his teens. I studied his eyes for signs of insight these brushes with death had given him. But his eyes only held mischief. Within minutes I was giggling at his corny jokes about having an electric personality. Watching him walk up to the bar on our second date, I only paid attention to the way his jeans outlined a firm butt. Harvey courted me like a man thirsty for water. I was unlike the other girls he’d dated, he told me. I sought the unknown edges, explored places others ignored. We wrote haiku on each other’s bodies, planned a life together – climbing Mt. Fuji at sunrise, crossing the Sahara on a camel, building a cabin in Alaska. Six months after our first date we exchanged vows in front of Elvis at the Queen of Hearts wedding chapel in Vegas, and drove north to honeymoon on the Oregon Coast. We promised to always take the long way home, to erase the mundane.
Within a few blurred years, we produced a boy and a girl, two wild and lovely creatures unbroken by schools or convention. Seekers, risk-takers from day one, they have grown up, left home. Both live days from where I sit now, Harvey’s hospital room crowded with humorless machines beeping their certain, unerring rhythm. I wait, my coffee cooling on a tray by his bed. When our children arrive, he will stare at them blankly from behind milky clouds. Each day he breaks down a little more. Diminished, like a schoolgirl’s foolish dreams, snagged in the rise and fall of his chest. Soon I will be alone, possessing a knowledge I no longer crave. I look out from the fourteenth floor to the city below. Night is falling. Here and there lights are coming on, shimmering in the slick rain. I murmur in his ear, describing the path ahead. Mountains, fjords. A curve in the road, then deep into forest, darkness.
* * *
Phebe Jewell’s flash appears in Monkeybicycle, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Spelk, Bending Genres,Fictive Dream, and other fine literary journals. A teacher at Seattle Central College, she also volunteers for the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a nonprofit providing college courses for women in prison. Read her at https://phebejewellwrites.com
The man and woman sat at a table on the hotel’s terrace overlooking the beach and the sea. The water glittered blue-green in the afternoon sun. The woman pulled her hat brim low over her eyes to block the sun’s glare. White shore birds following the thin edge of a receding wave plunged their beaks into the wet sand in search of small crustaceans then retreated up the beach as another wave rolled in.
“Do you want a drink?” the man asked. He was staring out to sea, his face shaded from the sun’s harsh reflection by the bill of his cap.
“Yes,” the woman replied. She watched the shore birds chase the edge of another receding wave.
“What do you want?”
“I don’t care. You decide.”
“I’m going to have a guaro. Do you want a guaro?”
“Yes, a guaro is all right.” The woman looked at the sea then at the shore birds probing the wet sand with their long slender beaks.
After the waiter had brought the drinks and gone away, the woman said, “Well?” She still did not look at the man.
“What are we going to do?”
“I’m going to enjoy my guaro, that’s what I’m going to do.” The man raised his glass and peered at the colorless liquid before taking a drink.
“That’s not what I meant.”
“What did you mean?”
“I mean, what are we going to do?”
“I don’t know what you are getting at. We’re here. Shouldn’t we try to enjoy ourselves?” The man finished his drink and looked around for the waiter. “I want another one.”
“You always want another one.” The woman finished her drink. “If you’re having another, I will, too.”
“Don’t you want to be here?”
“You wanted to come here.” The shore birds chattered as they scampered on thin pink legs over the dark, wet sand.
“You said you wanted to go someplace exotic, someplace tropical.”
“Yes, I said that, but I didn’t say I wanted to come to this place. You’re the one who decided we should come here. You didn’t even ask me before you bought the plane tickets. You said it would be a surprise.”
The woman felt a bead of sweat run down behind her ear and along her neck. “It’s too hot.”
“Well, we’re here now. Let’s not fight. I don’t want to fight. Let’s enjoy ourselves.”
“I don’t want to fight either. It’s no use fighting anymore.”
“Then let’s not fight.” The man smiled. “Can we do that while we’re here?”
“So, what do you want to do?”
“Why do you keep asking me that? I don’t know what to do. You planned this trip. You should know what to do.”
“We can look at the brochures in the hotel lobby, maybe go on a day trip into the rain forest.”
The woman turned her attention to a man with a tattered straw hat low over his eyes and a canvas bag slung across his chest. He walked along the beach then turned toward the terrace where the man and woman sat. He walked by them and stopped at another table where a man and a woman sat under an umbrella.
The man reached into the canvass bag and pulled something out. He held it toward the two people under the umbrella and started talking. The distance was too great for the woman to hear what was being said or see what was being shown.
“What are you looking at?” the man asked her.
“That peddler. He must be a local. I think he’s trying to sell something to those people at that table with the umbrella.”
The man turned around to look. “I hope he doesn’t bother us.”
The waiter approached and put their drinks on the table. “What is that man doing?” the woman asked.
The waiter looked at the peddler. “That is Señor Cristóbal. He is a wood carver.”
“But what is he doing? Is he trying to sell something to those people?”
“Yes, he carves the cocobolo wood. His carvings are very beautiful,” the waiter said before leaving.
Señor Cristóbal put the object in the canvas bag and turned away.
“He’s coming toward us,” the man said. “Is he going to try to sell us something? Christ, I bet he is.”
“Don’t be rude,” the woman said.
Señor Cristóbal stopped at their table, smiled at them and pulled a carving out of the canvas bag. “El tiburón, the shark,” he said and put the carving on their table. The shark balanced on its pectoral fins. Señor Cristóbal tapped the tail fin and the shark rocked up and down on the pectorals. “It is very beautiful, yes?”
The man didn’t say anything. He picked it up and rubbed his fingers along the smooth dark wood. “Do you like it?” he asked the woman.
“It’s all right.”
“Do you want it?”
“No, I don’t want it. If you want it, buy it.”
“I think I will. It will be a souvenir. How much?”
“Seventeen dollars,” Señor Cristóbal said.
“Seventeen dollars? No, that’s too much. I’ll give you seven dollars for it.”
“It is a very fine carving.”
“But it isn’t worth seventeen dollars. That’s too much money.”
“I must have seventeen dollars for it, Señor. It is worth that much.”
“Not to me, it isn’t. Seven dollars.”
“I cannot sell it for less than seventeen dollars, Señor.”
“Seven dollars is my offer. Take it or leave it.” The man put the shark on the table.
“Stop it, just stop it!” the woman said. She reached into her purse for some bills and counted out seventeen dollars. “Here,” she said and handed the money to Señor Cristóbal. “For the shark.”
“Gracias, Señora.” Señor Cristóbal took the money and bowed slightly to the woman.
The man and the woman watched the wood carver walk away. Several minutes passed in silence. The man tapped the tail of the shark and set it rocking on its pectoral fins. He stared at the shark for a few moments then said, “Why did you do that?”
“Do what?” The woman looked at the sea and saw the color of the water had turned from blue-green to blue.
“Why did you give him seventeen dollars?”
“Please don’t ask that.” The woman picked up her glass, drained it and held it up for the waiter to see.
The man picked up the shark then put it down. “He was going to let me have it for seven dollars. I could see it in his eyes. He was going to cave. He needs the money.”
“God, you are awful.”
The waiter arrived and put two drinks on the table.
The man swiveled to face the woman. “We agreed not to fight. I thought we were not going to fight.”
“We’re not fighting.”
“Yes we are.”
“Fine. Have it your way. We’re fighting. Do you feel better now?”
“No, I don’t feel better. I don’t know what we are doing.”
“We’re deciding what to do.”
“I don’t even know what that means.”
They didn’t say anything for several minutes. The woman looked at the sea and was surprised at how quickly the water had turned from blue to gray. They sipped their drinks in silence, staring out to sea.
“I could have had this for seven dollars.” The man picked up the carving. “You paid way more than it’s worth. Seventeen dollars was too much.”
“Please, please stop.”
“Well, it was too much.” The man slumped in his seat and put the shark on the table.
The woman said, “I’m exhausted.” She stood up.
“What about the carving?”
“I don’t want it.”
“But you bought it. It’s yours.”
“I’m going to the room and lie down.”
The woman walked away.
The man caught the waiter’s attention, raised his glass and held up one finger. The man tapped the shark’s tail fin. The shark, perfectly balanced, rocked up and down. When it stopped moving the man tapped the tail again. The shark rocked up and down as the man waited for his drink to arrive.
The waiter put the drink on the table and pointed at the shark. “It is a very fine carving, Señor.”
“I didn’t want it, not for seventeen dollars.”
The waiter shrugged, turned and walked away, leaving the man alone with Señor Cristóbal’s shark.
The man tapped the shark’s tail again and watched it rock up and down. He finished his drink, put the empty glass next to the shark and stood. He tapped the shark’s tail once more then walked across the terrace toward the hotel.
The shore birds scampered over the wet sand, chasing the edge of a receding wave.
* * *
Robert P. Bishop, a former soldier and teacher, holds a Master’s in Biology and lives in Tucson, Arizona. He is the author of three novels and three short-story collections, available on Amazon. His work has appeared in Active Muse, Ariel Chart, Better ThanStarbucks, Clover and White, CommuterLit, Corner Bar Magazine, Fleas on the Dog, The Ink Pantry, Literally Stories, The Literary Hatchet, Lunate Fiction, Scarlet Leaf Review, Umbrella Factory Magazine and elsewhere.
At this time of night, there’s virtually no traffic, and I arrive from the airport quicker than expected. At my son’s building, a video intercom has replaced the doorman. The flickering screen displays my own confused face as I dial, oh, about a hundred times. No response. A nice bearded young man coming home from what smells like a terrific party lets me in. At my son’s door on the third floor, I knock softly, rap louder, and escalate to pounding the flat of my hand on the metal door until it reverberates, until my hand begins to disappear.
I’d texted him from the airport, Landed, and he’d texted back, Yay, because I’d been stuck in London, Gatwick, for twenty-four hours. My last good night’s sleep was two days prior. I’d been looking forward to sleeping on the sofa bed in his grown-up apartment. The two of us would linger over morning coffee and chat away like two intimate hens.
As I pound on his door, my fingers grow translucent, losing volume and heft, with not enough bang to wake a sleeping adult. I label him an adult because he is one, not the 4-year-old who thought my embrace could solve any problem, or the 11-year-old who wouldn’t hold my hand but slept in my arms one last time after a scary movie.
Where could he be? Had he texted from a party, not made it back, and is too embarrassed to answer my increasingly panicked messages? Had he patched things up with his girlfriend and got caught up in makeup sex? He might have staggered out of a bar drunk and pissed in an alley and gotten arrested (it had happened before). At least that would explain the phone.
At 2:15, I slump to the floor. He’s angry. I pushed him too hard: good grades, tuba lessons, an Ivy League University. With all my love, my good intentions, I failed him. The resentment is coming out in one passive-aggressive burst. He’d never just come out and yell at me. He guards his grudges. No admittance.
On the floor, I pull the trench coat over my knees and nap, propped up like a beggar against the wall, arms outstretched. I wake at three-thirty to a curious tingling in my extremities, surely exhaustion. In my periphery, the rolling suitcase is visible through the tips of my fingers. I have to be hallucinating.
What to do but try again? My palm, finally too flimsy, slides off the surface of the door, and my wedding ring falls and rolls away. Sound ceases; there’s no hope of reaching him. One by one, the freckles on my wrists vanish. Tiny hairs on my arms rise up and march away. My sweater pulses twice like a heartbeat. The sleeves empty of contents and hang down in dismay, no longer needed.
* * *
Mimi is a writer and editor whose commercial work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, Vogue magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, W magazine, Allure, Vanity Fair, and dozens of television commercials. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in THAT Literary Review, So to Speak, The Woman in the Glass, and OnTheBus. She’s currently editing for Narrative magazine and working on two novels.
I felt the sting of suspicion that there was someone else on his schedule when he postponed our plans, but he surprised me at the train station with his gift of a loaner; showroom shiny, electric blue, with moonroof and spoiler.
“The dealership felt bad about everything,” he said. “They gave me this for the weekend. Would you like to drive?”
It was tempting but I declined, content to sink into soft leather seats.
“I bet you could drive this for Uber all weekend and make some money,” I said, unable to restrain my working-class reflexes.
“If I hadn’t met you I probably would. Very smart,” he said, with the “r” almost missing. He seemed happy to see me, though I believed it was the wheels that spiked his confidence.
I felt no shame about my station in life with him, happy to share the joy of the unexpected luxury, however temporary, of the car beyond his means.
I scrolled through possible topics of conversation. I’d been trying to learn more about him, but he had no Facebook, and his Twitter was strictly work-related. LinkedIn led me to the small news channel he worked for years ago in a flyover state. In the archives I found him; younger and slimmer, with thicker hair. I imagined the women he met at county fairs and town hall meetings who thought him sophisticated.
I wanted to know more, and he might have told me, but he would have had to relive whatever career slights brought him back to the grubby periphery of Boston to write for what he called a second-rate tabloid. The streetlights began to glow as he took the exit ramp. I reached over and traced his smoothly shaved jaw with my fingertips and decided the questions could wait.
The next morning he said I could eat anything in the kitchen that wasn’t expired. I made a pot of coffee and settled on a couch patched with a sliver of duct tape. My instinct was always to watch the news, but I reconsidered since he was an underpaid, local reporter who hadn’t made it on television. I landed on a home improvement series with cheerful people installing a hardwood floor. In the next episode, the same couple stained a deck. Finally, I heard his movements from the bedroom. Most men would have just staggered out in their underwear, but he’d put on actual clothes; a respectable T-shirt and shorts he could wear in public.
He sat next to me on the arm of the couch. His hair stood up like a paintbrush.
“I was trying to be quiet.”
He stroked my cheek with his thumb.
“You’ve got a soft touch,” I said, but the soft touch was deceptive; it belied something primal and coarse.
“Don’t get me wrong,” I said. “You fuck like a champ, but I like the gentle side.”
He winced and looked away as he laughed.
“Are you trying to make me blush? Damn you’re something else.”
He didn’t scare easily.
“I haven’t met a woman who made me laugh like you. Maybe I’m too serious.”
“Maybe you had boring girlfriends.”
“Not anymore,” he said.
I watched him pour coffee and regretted how I’d been testing him.
“I would have fixed that for you, but I don’t know how you like it. I don’t know much about you at all.”
“It’s alright. I can tell you learn fast. I thought you might have looked at my place and left before I woke up.”
“Not while you still have that car,” I said.
“We should go somewhere while I have it,” he said.
I suggested Martha’s Vineyard.
He groaned at first, told me it was an overrated hornet’s nest of pretentious rich people.
“Besides, you need a boat for that.”
“And a nice car to drive to the ferry.”
We didn’t fit in there, with our cheap summer clothes, but a boat ride and a new place were always a thrill for me. At an outdoor market, I fixated on a chunk of sea glass suspended from a fragile silver chain. It looked special, even though it was just a tourist-trap money grab in a dockside kiosk. A quick swipe of plastic and it was mine. Women and jewelry; paid for by men and displayed to others as proof we’re worthy of love. Warmed by the brush of lips on cheek, I pretended I was a woman who got jewelry from men all the time.
He seemed younger as we walked the beach, shouting over the wind. I liked how his footprints were larger than mine, I enjoyed his considerable height and the impressive wingspan of his arms when he reached out for me. Always aware of my stature and long bones, I felt happily feminine beside him.
We found an outdoor café and sat next to people in their sixties; placid in retirement and refined in their surfside casual. They discussed how they were confident in their investments but disappointed in their children. Even if my parents had lived they wouldn’t have been anything like them.
“I worked here one summer,” he said. “I was maybe twenty. I thought it would be cool. Make money, meet girls”.
“Your boss was a prick who worked you to death and you never got laid.”
“We’re so stupid and stubborn when we’re young, always thinking we’ll be the exception to the rule. That was a long time ago. Look at me now.”
“A sweet loaner car and a girl from Bethlehem? You can’t do better than that”.
“No, I don’t think I can”.
I was kidding, but he sounded sincere.
* * *
Dara Cunningham lives year-round on the fringes of Atlantic City, New Jersey. Her non-fiction essays have been published by the Press of Atlantic City, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and works of fiction have been featured by online journals Page & Spine, Fiction 365, and Punchnels.
I nearly lost my head, literally. Let me go back. I was touring a factory, looking over equipment as the plant manager showed me around (this was a new job), when suddenly a piece of equipment snagged my head (more specifically my piece). I felt my head begin to pull upwards until what held my hair in place broke and a breeze was felt. It was then I realized I lost my hair (and this was confirmed by my now airborne hair being carried away!). I panicked…at first; then I looked around at employees laughing, and the nearby manager trying not to laugh but failing miserably.
After many hours of struggling to get it free of the machine it was released. I went to a nearby bathroom, looked in a mirror, and felt horribly embarrassed until I looked at my head and realized how much better I appeared without hair up there. From then on I shaved what was left up there and went bald. At first I was teased by other co-workers, and many had a good laugh about it for a while, and then they realized there was more to me than the hair that wasn’t up there; it was funny though (the more I think of it now).
* * *
Matthew Berg is a renaissance man: follower of Jesus, husband, father and working writer from the Midwest now living in the South.
Your watch says half past ten as you look out to the Arabian Sea thinking of a different sunny seashore on the other side of the world, nursing your second gin and tonic at this Mumbai dive bar you overheard a tour guide suggest because it was famous for kebabs, spotting Bollywood stars score cocaine, and meeting one-night stands, when you realize yours is a no-show and you stand to leave but the music starts up and Rihanna swears she found love in a hopeless place and you smile as you light a cigarette because you know the DJ who’s been eyeing you all night played the song just for you, then he makes his way over to your table and you smile at him as he grabs your waist and the two of you dance all hot, sweaty, delicious and you just want more, more dancing, more drinks, and later as you lie in the hotel room, DJ tells you he has never left this city, that his whole life is encompassed within one neighborhood, that his biggest fear is to die here without seeing the world, which is probably why he likes to fuck tourists, you realize, then he tells you he comes from a family of god makers, people who make tiny fat Ganesh figures that you’ve seen hawked on city streets and at crowded intersections all over town, give me your address and I’ll mail you one, he says, but all you want to do is tell him you don’t have a permanent address, that you have to leave before morning because here the sunrise has a way of emptying everything inside of you.
* * *
Author of Out of the Blue, (Big Table Publishing, 2017) and The Face I Desire (Nixes Mate, 2019), Renuka Raghavan writes short-form prose and poetry. She serves as the fiction book reviewer at Červená Barva Press and is a co-founder of the Poetry Sisters Collective. For a complete list of her previous publications, visit her at www(dot)renukaraghavan(dot)com.
My body casts absurd shadows on my bedroom walls as I stretch, squat, reach, lunge and roll. It hurts. I’m told it’s supposed to. If it’s not hurting, it’s not working, and if it doesn’t work, I’ll hurt more. So I make it hurt. I push the pain from bone to bone, muscle to muscle, my body resisting, draining me. I do the exercises again at lunchtime and after dinner, in the same order, for the same amount of time, and I go to bed with a glass of water and a pill and pray that I’ll wake up tomorrow and the pain will be gone.
I didn’t do them before. Youthful stupidity, I guess. Doctors, physios, podiatrists—I’d seen them all by the time I was fifteen. They had different ideas about what the problem really was or how bad it could get, but they agreed on one thing. My body would get worse, unless I fought it. Unless I did the exercises.
But I didn’t. I didn’t think about them at all. I didn’t think about pain.
Then there was a party. Years ago now. For a while I ate and I drank and I was one of them, the same, part of something else, and I didn’t give it a thought. Then the sun went down and my friends became shapes on the dance floor, twisting and writhing around each other, against each other, holding each other, and without notice the long-promised pain was there. It had been lingering, biding its time. It grew as I watched them, and I sat alone with it in the dark.
It matured after that night, it swelled, came of age. Now it’s inside me, in my bones, and it wants every part of me. It takes its place with me on the sofa, walks to the corner shop and calls with my mother. It demands pills or ice or pinches or twists. There are moments, blissful moments, when I feel nothing. Some days when I wake up the sun streams between the shutters and the radio comes on. I look down at my body, stripes of shadow and bright light cast across it. Perhaps it’s gone, I think.
Perhaps the exercises are working. I feel light, nostalgic, and I don’t dare move. But then it starts, somewhere, perhaps in a knee or hamstring. It’s small and delicate at first but seeps outwards like ink on blotting paper, and it’s all I can think of.
No, it’s not gone. It’s just playing with me, taunting me; hiding before its day really begins. So I get up in the morning, have a glass of water and a pill, and try to fight it, I do my exercises. I do them again and again.
I’ve found something, I think. I’m getting stronger now. The work, the months and years of pitting pain against pain, of solitude, it could be coming to something. I’ve stood up to it. It’s still there, but I’m thinking more about what it would be like if I could contain it, if I could take something back, if I could win.
Today, I’m meeting a doctor to see how far I’ve come. I’ve had some x-rays and I’m in his surgery. He has pinned the series of strange, black sheets to a wall of light. I see the pale shapes; their curves, translucency and blurred edges, and feel like I’m peering inside myself. His fingers dance gracefully and deliberately up there. They show me my fibula and tibia, the bones that roll inwards and the bones that roll outwards, the pinched nerves and the stretched ligaments, and where my withered Achilles starts and where it ends.
“When did you break your metatarsal?” he says. “Metatarsal?” I say. I’ve heard of them. He raps a stick on a trace of black. “Yes. Two of them actually, and a while ago. Here and here.”
On the black sheets I see a version of myself I’ve never seen before. It’s luminous but somehow deeper, higher resolution, more vivid. I see it has been hiding something from me. There’s something else, the doctor says. He tells me the bones in my feet are not bones. They’re one bone, one mess of white fused together. He couldn’t be sure, he says, but he’d bet they always had been. And with them like that, I’d had no chance. I could do the exercises, and they might help, but my legs would always rock and roll and get worse and I’d always have to deal with pain. He tells me to take another type of pill, and to take them morning and evening with a glass of water.
My legs walk me out of the surgery, over the grass and onto the street, past the pharmacy and across the road. They take me through the park, past a woman walking a dog and a man pushing his son in a pram. I watch them and wonder who they are, what they want and where they’re going, but they disappear as I’m led onto a bridge, over the railway and down by the canal. As we go I can see my bones, pale against the darkness, and I can feel every flex and contraction of muscle and sinew around them. My bones are in charge, my body is in charge. It takes me where it wants to go, it makes me feel what it wants me to feel. I now know it has its own plan. I want things, it wants things, and what’s the difference. I do as it does. I’m its servant, and it takes me home.
* * *
Russell Saunders is a writer camped out in the wilds of south London. He left the world of marketing and a 15 year career behind to pursue the dream of writing words for people other than clients, bosses and other assorted middlemen – that and take a Grand Tour around Italy, build a patio and look after his son. He’s currently writing a collection of short fiction and a novella.
Einar dreamt of snow sifting like flour through his evergreens—until a pounding at his door jolted him awake. His old joints objecting, he groped his nightstand for glasses and a flashlight and padded barefoot across his cold cabin floor.
He let in a young woman, breathless and shivering from the falling snow.
“Call the police! Hurry! I need help!”
“Here now,” he said, flicking on a light switch. Late teens. Hair and shoulders covered with snow. No coat—
“No! Shut it off! Your yard light, too, or he’ll guess I’m here!”
Switching off the lights, Einar guided her to the sofa with his flashlight and wrapped her in his old throw blanket. “Who will? What’s happened?”
“This guy—Cameron. He locked me in his basement and I couldn’t leave. You have to call the police!”
“I’m afraid there’s no phone service back here in the woods.”
“We need to get help!” She choked on her words. “He hurts me.”
Her distress left him no doubts. “My pickup is in the quonset. I’ll warm it up and drive you into town.”
She clutched his arm. “He’ll figure it out! He went somewhere, but he’s never gone long. Your yard light showed through the woods—”
Einar drew the blanket around her knees. “Don’t worry. I’ll be right back.”
He pulled on a parka over his pajamas, slipped into some boots, then took his keys from a hook and opened the cabin door.
Headlights veering into his driveway turned Einar around. He shut the door and flipped the lock. “What does he drive?”
“A pickup. Black.”
Peering past the curtain of his living room window, Einar watched a pickup draw near the cabin, then stop. Its driver remained in the vehicle and left the lights on.
“We’ll move to the bedroom. If that’s him, maybe he’ll just go away.”
Her breathing grew ragged. “He won’t. He’s got guns.”
Einar helped her to a seat on his bed, then crossed to his closet where he withdrew an old, double-barrel shotgun and a couple rounds of birdshot. “Just in case,” he said, dropping heavily beside her.
“Let’s wait and see.”
The pickup’s headlights illuminated the cabin’s front. Einar listened closely for any sounds. The pickup door slammed. Steps crossed the wooden porch.
Einar rose stiffly from the bed and took a position just inside the bedroom door.
Brusque knocking followed, then a harsh voice: “Hello? Anyone there?”
Einar glanced toward the bed. She was no longer on it. He searched the shadowy room until he spotted her, curled in a corner on the floor.
The front doorknob rattled. “I’m a police officer. Open the door.”
“Don’t! That’s him!” she whispered loudly. “He’ll kill us!”
A heavy weight struck the front door—a foot? And again.
Einar could stay quiet no longer. “Go away! Please! I’ve got a gun.”
The man didn’t respond, but kicked once more at the door.
Einar drew a deep breath, cocked his shotgun and leveled it at the living room window. Its blast reverberated through the cabin, and the battering at the door ceased.
The bedroom’s one window could be a vulnerability, Einar realized, so he gathered the young woman from the corner and led her to his closet. “You’ll be safer in here.”
From the closet Einar pocketed more shotgun shells, then returned to the bedroom doorway, which commanded views of the bedroom window as well as those in the cabin’s main room.
A clanking arose from the pickup, then footsteps upon the front porch. Moments later, gasoline fumes wafted through the shot-out window. Einar’s heart pounded, realizing the fellow’s intentions.
Just beyond the front door, their assailant shouted, “I know you’re in there. Burn in hell!”
Einar felt they had nothing to loose. He pointed the shotgun at the front door, drew a full breath—and fired. Following the gun’s discharge, the headlights from the man’s pickup filtered through the shattered door. Shortly after, the flicker of flames sprang up across the porch.
Einar rushed back to the closet. “We’ve got to get outside.”
They moved together through the dark to the bedroom window. Einar opened it and pushed out the screen.
“I’ll go first, then help you out,” Einar said, having her stand ready with his shotgun. His arthritic hips prevented him from hoisting a leg over the windowsill, however, so he fetched a footstool from the closet. Using that, he managed to slide a leg outside, but the rest of his body tumbled along after it. He fell in a heap onto the snow.
She reached down toward him. “Are you OK?”
Einar wasn’t sure. The leg and hip he’d fallen on ached, also his shoulder, but feeling no great increase of pain, he slowly dragged himself to his feet.
The young woman handed Einar the shotgun and climbed out the window on her own, clutching the blanket. Einar ushered her through drifted snow to a dilapidated tool shed, tugged open the door, and eased the young woman inside. He remained outside, standing watch in the snow as flames infiltrated his cabin.
The sky about them began to glow in reds and yellows, the falling snow disappearing as it descended toward the fire. Feeling almost sick to his stomach, Einar grieved at the sight, less for the cabin and his possessions but more for the labor of years the fire so easily erased.
The heat intensified, causing Einar to back away against the shed. The cabin roof sagged, and the walls began to lean inward. Slowly, sections of the roof gave way, sending sparks in all directions.
Eerie creaks and hisses accompanied the crackle of flames, punctuated by a series of loud pops—the remaining shotgun shells in his closet. When he could stand to watch no longer, he squeezed inside the shed as well.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, lightly touching his shoulder.
Once the roof fully collapsed and the walls fell inward, the flames quickly reduced the remaining structure. Einar lost track of time as his mind wandered through a forest of memories associated with his corner of the woods.
He dared not linger too long with his memories, however. He gazed across the burning mass of wood, trying to spot the man’s pickup. Stiff from the confined space, Einar hefted his shotgun and emerged to the snow. Cautiously circling the glowing rubble of his house, he saw the man’s pickup had gone.
Feeling too weary to traipse back to the shed, Einar called, “All clear. Let’s get my pickup.”
She hurried to his side, pausing with Einar over some drops of blood nearly obscured by snow. “He must have caught some of my birdshot!”
He slid open the quonset door, helped the young woman into his pickup, then crawled behind the wheel, keeping the shotgun beside him.
His old pickup sputtered, then roared to life. Slowly Einar drove into the snowy night, following the other pickup’s tracks along the wooded drive. As they reached the county road, Einar saw red taillights jutting from the opposite road ditch.
She tensed. “It’s his.”
The pickup’s motor was still running, steam pluming from its tailpipe, but its cab was almost on its nose in the ditch. Einar pulled onto the county road, pausing for a glance at the wrecked vehicle. The driver-side door hung open. The man lay face up in the snowy ditch. He wasn’t moving. His shirt was bloodied.
Conflicting emotions swept over Einar. That his shotgun must have led to the man’s apparent demise bothered him less than the knowledge that such evil had taken place so close to Einar—without his even knowing. Einar’s aged body ached, and he had suffered a great loss, yet seated beside this young woman, he felt curiously excited, as if events had given him an opportunity to rethink his life going forward.
As he drove, she turned to him and touched his shoulder again. “Thank you…I don’t even know your name!”
“It’s Einar. Norwegian.” He smiled a little.
“I’m Layni—Laynis, actually. I’m so sorry about your house.”
He took awhile to answer, imagining what she must have endured.
“We’ll get through this. Right?”
Still wrapped in his old blanket even though the pickup’s heater was on high, she turned to him again.
“What will you do now?”
“After the police are finished with us? I’ll get a motel room and sleep.”
“And then…I’ll want to know that you’re OK.”
She began to say something, but stopped, instead leaning her head lightly against his shoulder.
Einar drove slowly, carefully, down the snow-covered road.
“Once tonight is over,” he said to console her, “things are bound to brighten up. It can’t snow forever.”
She breathed quietly, evenly. She had fallen asleep.
* * *
Darrell Petska‘s fiction has appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, Loch Raven Review, Right Hand Pointing, Potato Soup Journal, Boston Literary Magazine, Nixes Mate and elsewhere (see conservancies.wordpress.com). With 30 years on the academic staff, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 40 years as a father (eight years a grandfather), and longer as a husband, Darrell lives outside Madison, Wisconsin.