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.

NEW: 11/2021 — Due to the large number of submissions, submissions without bios (added at the end of a story is fine) 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. 

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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Postcard from Jonai

Roopa Menon

She came one winter morning with the mist. I remember the sky was the color of a smooth and glassy obsidian stone. My husband and two-year-old son were fast asleep when I rolled out of my bed and stumbled through the cold stone floor and opened the creaky wooden door that wailed like a soul trapped in an attic.

There she stood. A tiny woman with a face aged and lined like an ancient mountain and the body of an emaciated child.

“Yes?” 

The tiny woman smiled revealing a toothless mouth and grinned and uttered. “Nomoskar. Moi-Tha-haya.”

I shook my head.

“Moi-Tha-Haya,” she repeated. Her voice trembled as a cold wind cut through her sari-covered head. The veins on her hand started to bulge as she pulled the sari and wrapped it closer around her neck and shoulders.

“Oopis Bolo.” She mumbled and pointed in the direction of my husband’s office building in Jonai, which was the regional bank headquarters.

“Office? You are here to clean?” I said gesturing with my hand. I remembered that my husband had informed me that one of his staff had arranged a local cleaning lady for me. 

She nodded.

“Moi-Tha-haya.” She repeated.

I nodded. I assumed Moi-Tha-haya was her name as I led her inside. She followed me to the kitchen which was so cold that I could barely speak without emitting wisps of smoke. I looked for a bundle of twigs and leaves to kindle the hearth to make some tea, but I realized that I had run out of wood.

 “Moi-Tha-haya,” she piped and adjusted her sari and wound the free end of the sari tightly around her face like a mask, and scampered out of the kitchen door into the mist. Ten minutes later, she emerged, her face flushed like a dry prune, and a huge bundle of twigs and leaves strapped on her bent back like a knapsack. Moi-Tha-Haya crumbled enough twigs and stuck into the hearth and lit it. Then, she placed a kettle of water and took some cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger and crushed it, and put it into the kettle. A little later, she added tea leaves, cold milk stored in the icebox, and sugar and let it brew till it was creamy brown in color and smelled like rice pudding. Moi-Tha-Haya and I drank the tea and watched the sunrise over the snow fringed Himalayan peaks in the far distance.

For the next three months, Moi-Tha-Haya would make her way to my home in the milky dawn light and leave my house as the sun crept overhead. I didn’t speak Assamese and she only spoke Assamese. Despite that, we understood each other. Even my two-year-old son began to recognize Moi-Tha-Haya and greeted her with a series of garbled words and giggles every time he spotted her. Only my husband never met Moi-Tha-Haya. She would be out haggling with the vegetable and fruit sellers in the local market by the time he woke up and left for the office, and she would be gone by the time he returned home, which was when a molten gold sun hovered over the western sky. But Moi-Tha-Haya was as alive and a living and breathing person for him as she was for me.

She even made her family recipe of Aloo Bilahi Maas which was Assamese fish curry with potatoes and tomatoes for me. I still remember the day. She had returned from the market with a large fish with glistening silvery scales, pink gills and bulging eyes. Sitting on a tiny rock outside the kitchen, she skinned and chopped the fish and cleaned it until its flesh had a rosy flush. Then like a head cook presiding over a feast, she chopped the vegetables, and ground the fragrant masalas and darted around the kitchen while I remained seated on the kitchen stool. As the curry bubbled and simmered in the vessel, she would make a loud whistling noise and beam at me. The day I tried Aloo Bilahi Maas was one day I didn’t think of my home. In this tangy and mild-flavored curry prepared by Moi-Tha-Haya, I found pieces of my family, friends, and home. Those days I barely wept.

Then, one day, just after Moi-Tha-Haya had left, my husband returned home, looking disturbed. I could feel the tremble in his fingers as he handed me his briefcase. Then, he yanked at his tie and unbuttoned the first two buttons of shirt and shut the door quietly behind. 

“Be quiet. Do we have enough food to eat for the next three days and candles at our disposal?” He asked before peering through the sides of the door. 

“Yes. I believe so.  Moi-tha-haya just made a big bowl of her famous Aloo Bilaahi Maas. I know how much you love it…”

“Shhh..” he said. “Be quiet.”

“What happened?”

“A riot has broken loose in the town following the arrest of the local Maoist head. A couple of Maoists burnt down the local police station in protest. There is a curfew in the whole area.”

 “When did all this happen? I hope Moi-Tha-Haya is ok and has reached home safely.” I said.

“Well, I hope she is ok too.” He said as he reached for his packet of cigarettes. 

That night, I could barely enjoy the Aloo Bilahi Maas, and the deathly silence punctuated by gunshots and screams and the tapping of my husband’s cigarettes on the ashtray only added to my discomfort. The only soothing sound was of my baby’s heavy breathing and the occasional crackle of the transistor radio. The next morning, Moi-Tha-Haya didn’t come.

 “How do you expect her to come with the riot and curfew? Don’t worry, she will return as soon as things go back to normal.” My husband comforted me.

Time seemed to stretch and stretch like a sagging rubber band. And I couldn’t bring myself to stop thinking about Moi-Tha-Haya. Her scent of aged mustard oil followed me throughout the house. Was she ok? Did she reach home safely?

On the third night, my husband and I were huddled next to the dimly lit lantern, polishing off the last of the Aloo Bilahi Maas with rice, when he turned to me and asked.  

“I have always wanted to ask you. Why do you keep calling her Moi-Tha-Haya? Is that her dak name…I mean her nickname?

“No. Moi-Tha-Haya is her name,” I said as I mixed the rice and curry.

My husband shook his head. “No, it is not. Basu said her name is Anoumi.” 

“No. I don’t think so. She introduced herself as Moi-Tha-Haya. That was the first thing she told me. ‘Nomoskar. Moi- Tha-Haya.’”

My husband didn’t say anything, and he finished his meal while I enjoyed the last of the Bilahi Maas. Later, while I was washing up, he wandered into the kitchen with a cigarette in one hand and his ashtray in another. He set the ashtray on the table and blew a couple of pale blue smoke rings in the air before turning to me with a pensive look in his eyes. In the flickering moth blue candlelight, he looked otherworldly. “You know there was one more thing, Basu told me. I don’t know if I told you.  Anoumi has a lisp. She says ‘th’ for ‘s’. Did you ever notice it?”

“No, I didn’t. We barely communicated, Ram.” 

My husband grunted as he stubbed the cigarette in the ashtray. “I was just wondering, perhaps do you think– she meant to say, Moi-Sahayya, which means I can help or Can I help in Assamese?”

I dried the plates one by one and put them in the cupboard.

“Now that you say. I am wondering too. It is possible, isn’t it? God! What a fool I am.” I slumped onto the kitchen chair. 

“Well, anyway, it does make for an extraordinary story.” My husband guffawed. “Anyway, you can ask her yourself tomorrow. According to the radio, the curfew has been lifted. While you are at it, my dear Moi-Tha-Haya, do get that recipe of Aloo Bilahi Maas from her and learn to make it. It is so delicious.” 

I looked outside. The mist with its shadowy fingers had started to tiptoe in and form a curtain around our house, and I wondered if it was a sign as I walked to my room.

                                      *   *   *

Roopa Menon likes to type all her stories on her phone. When she is not busy chasing after her 7-year-old daughter or dreaming up stories, you will find her buried in her kindle, staring into space, or reading tarot cards (not necessarily in that order). Some of her short stories have been published in, Corium magazine, Tiny Molecules, Fewer than 500, and elsewhere.

 Her middle-grade fiction, Chandu and the Super Set of Parents has just been published by Fitzroy Books. She lives in Dubai, UAE.

Reckless

By Jayna Locke

On a day when the Spring sky is full of sun and promise, we visit our college friend, Marcel, at his house on an estuary near the sea. He greets us on the front porch, barefoot, in khaki shorts and a white t-shirt that flatters his tan — if it is a tan. From old pictures, I know he was born the color of a toasted almond. But he is an even darker almond now.

“Come in,” he says. “Come in!” I see in his smile a gold front tooth, which is somehow not surprising. Then we hug and he is warm the way I remember. He fist-bumps Ben, who then drapes his arm around my shoulder.

On the way to the house we pass a Dos Equis bottle and a martini glass on the steps — remnants of a rendezvous the night before.

Marcel stands back to look at me. Then Ben. He smiles and shakes his head. It has been too long.

He sweeps his arms out toward the garden-like room where we stand. “Check out the digs. What do you think, my friends?”

It is beautiful. We tell him so. Sunlight streams in through skylights overhead onto an open rotunda lined with orchids, rubber plants and philodendrons. A tropical paradise. He shows us the view window that looks west. Outside there is a sun deck with rattan loungers, palms and bougainvillea. Below that, a sandy hillside stretches down to the estuary with a dock and a dory. A white long-necked bird struts along its shore. And beyond that is the ocean. Out at sea, a steamer is moving along. The scene is so much like the backdrop for a stage play that I want to clap my hands.

Marcel offers us a drink from a tidy wet bar in an alcove. It is too early. But Ben says, “Sure. Something light. Vodka and soda?”

I nod. “I’ll have that too.”

I imagine this place at night. Women in revealing dresses, hired party bands with steel drums or mariachis. Someone dancing on the deck railing, perhaps Marcel. In school, he was always the reckless one, the one people expected to read about in the obituaries before the five year reunion. Some speculated it would be a drug overdose, some a driving accident. But here he is eight years after graduation, doing fine. I suddenly remember how he always had people swirling around him, hovering in his sphere, enjoying his vibe, but rarely too close. I’m not sure why I have never connected these two ideas of adoration and distance.

Marcel hands us our glasses and we raise them up. “To two of my best friends of all time,” he says. Our glasses clink and we tip them to our lips.

“Look at you two,” Marcel says. “Married. Just like that.” And he looks at me because I chose Ben, the steady one. Then he slaps Ben on the back, the way friends do, but hard enough so that Ben has to set his foot down to brace himself. “Ben, you lucky shit.” He looks at me again. “You too, Emma. You’re both lucky.” He smiles in his enigmatic way, as if he is harboring some amazing secret, and even as his gold tooth glints in a shaft of sunlight I recognize that I am not immune to his charms.

Ben sets his drink on a coaster. “Where did you get that? That gold tooth.”

Marcel laughs. He starts to say something, then laughs again as if the memory is too amusing to be reduced to a mere anecdote. As if you had to be there. It has always been this way.

He taps his forefinger against the tooth the way one might test a piano key for tuning. “Let’s just say that when you run a nightclub, you run some risks.” And his smile seems to say “We may not be together long, you and I, but we’re going to have a good time.”

Some odd emotion tugs at me and I turn to look at the orchids, breathing their sweet aroma. I am thinking how there are only a handful of people who leave an indelible mark on our lives. People who always remain familiar, even when time rushes by like a freight train. You come back to them, or they to you, and it’s as if no time has passed at all, but you ache because you know it has.

Marcel serves us lunch out on the sun deck. There are bowls of fruit, avocados stuffed with shrimp and lemons, oysters on the half shell, cold gazpacho soup with tiny wine crackers shaped like seahorses, and a decanter of port. Though he is the one who serves the food, I catch a glimpse of a small brown woman in the kitchen wearing an apron. For a moment, I wonder why he is hiding her from us. But then he calls out to her.

“Mariana? Más limones por favor!”

And she emerges, smiling. She nods at us as she places a small bowl of gleaming lemon slices on the glass table.

“Gracias,” I say to her.

“¡De nada!” she says, backing away politely. I try not to think about how he affords this elaborate lifestyle. Is it just the nightclub?

At UC Santa Cruz, Marcel always had money. We never knew where it came from. An inheritance, perhaps. He bought us things — experiences a poor student living in a dorm room would die for — steak dinners, nights in town, rounds of drinks, ski weekends. We thanked him, but never asked how he came by his money.

I swallow a shrimp and say, “Hey, do you remember that trip…?”

And Ben says, “The one to Lake Tahoe.” For some reason, this has become our favorite common memory.

“Near blizzard conditions,” Marcel says, shaking his head.

With an oyster shell in hand, Ben says, “You wanted one last run in spite of the turn in the weather.”

I add, “But we went back to the lodge. We could barely see the way ourselves.”

Marcel sips from his glass of port. “I went for the black diamond. Just before they shut down the lifts.”

Ben snorts. “It was an utterly reckless thing to do.”

We laugh. It is funny now, with years gone by. And yet I blink in the sunlight, warm and cold all at the same time. With my eyes on the estuary, I say, “I never expected to see you alive again.”

“And then there you were,” Ben says. “Coated in ice crystals and snow like an abominable snowman. Triumphant. Always beating the odds.”

To counter the edge in his tone, I say, “We were so relieved. So… happy.”

In the late afternoon, we drink margaritas on beach chairs at the estuary’s edge. Mariana brings them down the sandy path from the house by the pitcher. We raise our glasses and toast. To life. To friendship. To us — Ben and me. Our marriage. And a thought tugs at me. A hope that I have chosen well.

Marcel begins to sing. He sings songs in Spanish, of love and sorrow, and Ben and I get up to dance, swaying in one another’s arms. Then Marcel cuts in and holds me tight, and his warmth is pressed close to me, his heartbeat against my chest. I think of pushing him away. His breath is on my cheek, smelling of limes and sunsets and a daring life, unhampered by fear or obligation. Then his song is done and we part, and I fall laughing into my chair, and I take Ben’s hand, which is cool like the evening air.

The sun slips down toward the horizon, and Mariana brings one more pitcher of margaritas, and its aroma of fresh limes mingles with the brine smell of the dampening salt air. With the sky turning flush in the dusk and the breeze coming up, we begin to think of sweaters, of leaving. The gulls are bedding down now, and there are few sounds — only the wash wash sound of the sea.

                                                                  *   *   *

Jayna Locke is a writer based in Minnesota who has had a lifelong passion for fiction. As a transplant to the Midwest, she has lived in the Northwest and the Northeast of the U.S. as well as Northern California, and loves to infuse her fiction with a sense of place. Her work has appeared in a published anthology and in Portage Magazine.

The Father

By Nancy Gerber

The sons resembled his wife, slender and fair with pale skin.  Both were athletes, attackmen on varsity lacrosse.  He watched, huge arms crossed against his chest, as Blake scored and tied the game.  The sun swept behind the clouds and he found himself thinking about his father, a bricklayer who left Naples in search of a better life.  Soft-spoken, a modest man with skin like burnt grain who never finished high school and suffered from ill health, his father passed away before the boys were born.  What would he say as they raced like stallions across the field?  Would his father be proud of him, the luxury car, the grand house he built with his own two hands and his own crew?  La famiglia prima di tutto, family before everything, his father used to say.  Reese, the younger son, scored and their team won.  A roar rose from the bleachers.  Reese kicked a clod of dirt in the other goalie’s face. “Nice game,” he mocked as he strode toward his brother.  The father turned away his head.   

*   *   *

Nancy Gerber has published short fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction in Mom Egg Review, Adanna, Forge, Exit 13, and other journals.  Her most recent book is What the Living Remember (Apprentice House, 2020), a novella inspired by the experiences of her father, a refugee from Nazi Germany.  She lives in Connecticut.    

Ephermal

A Memoir by Kandi Maxwell

This morning, a friend brought me a basket of figs. Organically grown in her backyard. Sweet and fleshy. Tender-firm, ready to eat. My husband, Lloyd, loves figs, but he is traveling and will miss the pleasure of the tree-ripened fruit. I want to save their freshness, but figs won’t wait. 

Lloyd is in Hawaii with family. Today, he is climbing a volcano. Tomorrow, kayaking down a river surrounded by lush tropical forest. Anxiety and fatigue keep me home. I will miss the adventure, but I have the figs. 

Last night, I finished reading Patrick Modiano’s novel Missing Person. The setting, Paris, during the German Occupation. Smoky bars, a restaurant terrace. The protagonist has amnesia, searches for old acquaintances in order to find himself. Names and faces have dissolved. Some have died. Stitching the holes seems impossible. 

After reading the novel, I remembered Dee, a former acquaintance. Long, dark hair, frizzy in mist. High-strung-nervous. Smoked too much. She made shirts out of tea-towels, bold-colored embroidered skirts. Handbags out of strips of cloth. A modern day Frida Kahlo who covered pain with stitches and paint. Dee lost her home in a fire. Her paintings, dresses, and years of artistic creations turned to ash. Not long after the fire, Dee committed suicide. 

For my friend who brings the figs, it is her first visit to our house. On the porch, a dust pan; a green plastic alligator serves as a handle. She notices this unique piece. “Dee made that,” I say. “Did you know her?” 

“I never met her,” she says, “but I have heard her story.” 

Did she know that Dee had given away many of her artistic works to friends just months before the fire? Like she knew what was coming. 

We walk into the cabin. I show her around. On a wall, a large, fringed shawl. Brilliant turquoise, yellows and reds. “From Dee,” I say. If I had opened the closet, she would have seen an embroidered blue dress, flowered scarves, a beaded medicine bag filled with sweet scented cedar. Dee and I weren’t close. I only knew her briefly, but I can’t part with her gifts. I need to save these strands of sweetness, so Dee won’t dissolve. 

Figs only last about a week after harvesting, so most figs are sold as dried fruit. The nectareous freshness may be lost, but when dried, figs become a power food. Fiber and mineral content increases. They’re packed with calcium, magnesium, iron. I bite into one of the ripened figs, leave the rest in the basket. Tomorrow, I will cut each fig in half, place them in the dehydrator, save them for my husband. 

                                             *   *   *

Kandi Maxwell is a creative nonfiction writer who lives in the Sierra Foothills of Northern California. She has been an English teacher, a backcountry and rock-climbing guide, a musician, a recreation therapist and a client to several psychotherapists. She is a wife, a mother and a grandmother. Her stories have been published in Hippocampus Magazine, KYSO Flash, The Door is Ajar, Raven’s Perch, The Offbeat, Wordrunner eChapbooks and in many other literary journals and print anthologies.  

Stolen from the Sea

by Shirley Dees

We fell in love in the ocean. 

“Supposed to be decent action today,” you said. Your hair glistened in the striking sun as the waves rocked us between the depths of the sea and the shallow shores. 

“Hope so,” I answered. A single afternoon stolen from the onslaught of crazy days. I only wanted to surf and catch set after set, never planning to find you there and fall in love amidst the aquatic waters. We bobbed on the surface like a pair of buoys, our eternities building in the distance, rising like the initial swell, cresting and racing toward us. We caught the next wave and rode it all the way in to the sand, back to dry land and our life together.

We stole so many afternoons after that first. We filled the beach with laughter, riding the waves and taking turns. We paddled out into the vacant water just to be alone, to squeeze sunlight out of the clouds, the glare reflecting in your grey eyes. I never knew such colors could be so wonderful. When we kissed, we abandoned the swells, allowing the water to fall over our heads and baptize our love. 

We rented a one-bedroom apartment on the fourth floor; a view of the shimmering ocean from our window. We never asked each other for anything. We made love in our bed, deep in a sea of blankets. You bought me books instead of flowers, cupcakes instead of chocolates. You knew my thoughts before I spoke them, passed new bottles of soap over the shower curtain before I asked for them. You told me you loved me in a million different ways.

“Marry me,” you asked in calm waters, tracing your thumb around the space of my finger, sunscreen leaving a film on my skin. I never dreamt of what our wedding would be like. I only imagined our lives, our marriage, and our afternoons in the sea and all the times we’d get to ride the waves, together.

“Of course,” I said, straddling my board, my legs and heart caressed by the ocean and your touch simultaneously. There was no pondering in the water where everything was so certain and fit like the wet suits kissing our skin. 

Unfortunately, the reflection from the water was replaced by the fluorescent beams of surgical rooms. Sunscreen switched for lotion to ease radiation burns. The illness was so fierce, and it found its way into me, deep and puncturing. You carried so much for me, for us. 

“Please, stay with me.” Your words were filled with so much pleading. I did all I could to try. We did our best to keep life moving at a similar pace and filled our universe with the familiar joys we’ve always loved. The waxy bottoms of our surfboards, the churning shorelines and crashing waves, chicken and shrimp tossed in Alfredo sauce. Each other. But our eternity was looming, building larger on its approach, ready to swallow us up and steal all that we’d built. You doted on me, just as you had before there were doctors and pills and pictures of my insides for everyone to see. You loved me even when I began to shrink into myself and the ring you placed on my finger no longer fit. We weren’t going to make it to marriage, but we said our vows all the same. 

You hung our surfboards in the garage. “Just until the summer,” you said, claiming our temporary situation. Anything to make this a truth. 

“Of course,” I said, but I knew my time to leave was imminent. 

On my last day, you carried me out to the sand and we watched the ocean waves, rubbing granules across my legs so I could feel their earthy roughness come alive in the environment that brought us together. I want you to know I didn’t need the water. I didn’t need the waves. I had you, and I had us. I had enough.

You’re lying next to me now, asleep in the only other sanctuary we shared beside the sea. I yearn to run my fingers through your honey-hued hair and place a palm on your chest to feel the warmth of life running beneath your skin. The comforter and pillows swirl, and I dive in, sinking into the darker parts of the unknown waters. The blanket of waves crashes over our heads, the sea luring me out to its depths and pulling you to the shallow shores of life. Our final set of swells has arrived. Eternity is racing toward me. I reach for you, but I do not wake you. Moments like this, more moments with you, we will steal no more. Our goodbye will be said in silence. 

I hope you will forgive me, for leaving in such quiet. I am grateful for everything we have stolen since that first afternoon in the sea, however short, however beautiful it was. 

*   *   *

Shirley Dees received an MFA from Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional writing in Spring 2021. When not writing, Shirley is busy parenting, seeking sunshine, and sampling local craft brews. She lives in east Alabama with her husband, daughter, and geriatric pet turtle.

In the Mournful Supermarket

by William Doreski

In the mournful supermarket the meat looks stripped from auto wrecks, the milk has yellowed to sulfur, the baked goods could anchor yachts. I browse with an empty shopping cart while people around me, still panicked by the recent plague, snatch up canned beans and packages of dry pasta. I want to find something edible enough to sustain me through the threatening weather already pouting at the windows. I need rolls or buns and condiments spicy enough to disguise the taste of whatever dead creature I fry in my cast iron skillet. Rats scamper under the produce bins. Their tails dangle like earthworms on rainy sidewalks. They are the only fresh meat in sight. Behind the deli counter, the butcher snarls like a chainsaw. He wants to know why I’m disdaining his cold cuts. Pressed ham, roast beef, olive loaf, turkey, and chicken. Because they look like the plastic food you see in cheap restaurant windows. Because they ARE the plastic food you see in cheap restaurant windows. He doesn’t deny it but wonders why I think plastic food isn’t good enough for me.  I would rather buy one of those slabs of cannibal meat and cook it on the gas grill outside where the stink of death can dissipate. The butcher wraps a shapeless blob and flings it into my cart. I selected a package of stony rolls and head for the checkout line. Already some people have been waiting so long they’ve skeletonized. I wheel around their cobwebbed remains and out the door. No one calls after me, no one tries to stop me, the weather booming in the parking lot loud as an empire collapsing.

                                                                *   *   *

William Doreski lives in Peterborough, New Hampshire. His most recent book of poetry is The Absence of Marie (2021). He has published three critical studies, including Robert Lowells Shifting Colors.  His essays, poetry, fiction, and reviews have appeared in many journals. Website at williamdoreski.blogspot.com.

 

The Neighborhood

by Deborah Diemont

Mitch brought over a Ziplock of his wife Joanne’s homemade lemon bars to say thanks for the jar of pesto I’d left on their doorstep to say thanks for when Mitch mowed our lawn when my husband Raúl’s back went out. 

Raúl set an aloe vera plant on Mitch and Joanne’s front porch to say thanks for the treats. 

Winston left a bottle of pinot noir outside my door to say thanks for the tomatoes and cucumbers from our garden. I took him some zucchini and a pumpkin to say thanks for the wine. Winston left an unused gift card he got for Christmas in my mailbox. 

Margot sent me one of her hand-painted cards to say thanks for the soup I brought her mother when she was sick. Her mom’s in remission now. I got my brother Robert to send them some daffodils from his flower shop. 

Carrie left me an old-fashioned, “Rosebud”-type sled she found at Goodwill because it made her think of me. I took over a bag of my younger daughter Tori’s gently used jeans and T-shirts for Carrie’s youngest, Beth. Carrie brought three bags of her older daughter Shiloh’s gently used jeans, T-shirts, pajamas and dresses for Tori. I hauled the clothes to the attic, knowing that if I took them to Goodwill, Carrie would see them there. 

Winston brought me a sky-blue sunhat and some crystal earrings that dangle, emitting rainbows. He saw them at a craft show and said they made him think of me. 

Sometimes Winston leaves me cigarettes, which I smoke while the kids are at school.

To say thanks for the sunhat, the earrings and the gift card, I made Winston chocolate-chip brownies. I consumed the whole batch with his wine. 

                                                            *   *   *

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Deborah Diemont grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and Fort Worth, Texas. She has three books of poetry with Dos Madres Press: Wanderer (2009), Diverting Angels (2012) and The Charmed House (2020). Her poetry, flash and translations have appeared in a variety of journals including CAIRN, Literary Bohemian, Nimrod International Journal, Oleander Review and Like Water Burning. She lives in Syracuse, New York.

Tranquility Room

by Don Tassone

Bill Armstrong looked down at his ringing cell phone.  Spam.  He got up and turned off the TV, then sat back down and opened his laptop.  The email icon at the bottom of the screen showed 43 new messages.

“Damn!” he said.

“Sorry, I’m having trouble understanding you right now.  Please try a little later,” said Alexa.

Bill grumbled, hoping Alexa wouldn’t hear, and logged on for his next Zoom meeting.  He could hear his wife on a Zoom call in the next room and his kids in school online in their bedrooms.

The doorbell rang.  Charley, his dog, barked madly at the front door.  Bill looked out the window and saw an Amazon truck pulling away.

This is my life, he thought.  There has got to be a better way.

#

“I feel like I’m being bombarded,” Bill told his wife Janice that evening after the kids were in bed.

“Bombarded?” she said.  “By what?”

“Bad news.  Non-stop emails and texts.  Social media.  I think all the noise is making me crazy.”

“Why don’t you try to unplug?”

“I’ve tried that,” he said.  “Easier said than done.  The world isn’t going to stop just because I turn off the TV.”

“Well, you’re right.  But you’ve got to find a way to give yourself some peace.”

“I know.”

She came over, sat down beside him on the sofa and put her arms around him.

“I worry about you, Bill.  You seem down lately.”

“I feel worn down,” he said.  “I feel worn down by all the noise.  I need a break.”

“Maybe we should go away for a long weekend,” she said.

He thought about it for a moment.  But he knew with the pandemic raging, their options were limited.  Besides, no matter where they went, the bad news on TV, the vitriol of social media and the incessant barrage of texts and emails would follow them.

“Maybe,” he said.  “We’ll figure something out.”

“I love you,” she said, kissing him on the cheek.

“I love you too,” he said, his phone dinging with the receipt of another text message.

#

One morning, when the kids and Janice were online, Bill went down to his basement simply to get away from the busyness and noise in his house.

The only time he went into his basement was to watch TV, usually a big game.  He hadn’t been down there in a while.

Now he walked past his widescreen TV and came to the door to a small room Janice used for crafts.  He hadn’t been in it in years.

He opened the door and flipped on the light.  The room was cluttered with colored paper, paints, brushes, markers, glue sticks, scissors, paper cups, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, cardboard boxes and plastic bins.  The only furniture was a small table, a lamp and a wooden chair with a loose seat cushion.

The room had one small window.  Sunlight streamed in.  As Bill looked around, he was struck by the stillness.

He stepped over to the table, pulled out the chair and sat down.  Aside from occasional soft footsteps upstairs, there was no sound at all.  

Something outside, through the window, caught his eye.  It was a large maple tree in his backyard whose bare branches were swaying in the wind.  He hadn’t paid much attention to that tree before.  Now it looked as if it were beckoning him.

Bill got up, turned off the lamp and sat back down.  He thought of a class Janice had taken in meditation when they were first married.  She had talked him into going once.  Bill had found the experience awkward.  

He had tried hard to clear his mind, even though the instructor had said, “When your mind wanders, simply return your attention to your breath as an anchor to the present.”

Bill had been unable to do that.  Now, desperate for some peace in his life, he decided to try again.

He closed his eyes, put his feet flat on the floor and sat up straight.  He rested his palms on his thighs.  He took a deep breath.  

He thought about the Zoom call he would have in an hour.

But he remembered what the instructor had said and brought his mind back to his breathing.

He thought about the spike in new Covid cases being reported that morning.

Again, he brought his mind back to his breathing.

He thought about the latest violence in Portland.

Then, once again, he brought his mind back to his breathing.

His mind kept wandering, but he kept returning his attention to his breath.

After about 15 minutes of this, Bill opened his eyes and went upstairs.

#

“Sure,” Janice said later that morning.  “I don’t use it much anymore.  Just keep all my stuff together in the storage room.”

That afternoon Bill went back downstairs and cleared out Janice’s crafts room, leaving only the table and chair.  He even took out the lamp because the sunlight through the window was sufficient.

The following morning, Bill went down to the room he’d cleared out and tried again to meditate.  His mind kept wandering.  But each time it did, Bill returned to his breath.

He did this morning after morning.  Over a period of months, he began to learn not to try to clear his mind but to train it to notice when he was lost in thought and then shift his awareness to the present.

He was able to do this in a room free of electronic devices, away from social media and all the trappings of his everyday life.  Bill called it his tranquility room.

Of course, every time he went back upstairs, the noise was still there.  Covid was still killing people, the “talking heads” on TV were still screaming and the news was still bad.  

But Bill began to accept the fact that this noise would always be there.  He knew he couldn’t stop it.  But he realized he could stop listening to it, if only for a short time.

Day by day, Bill began to recover a sense of peace he thought was no longer possible.  He began to let go of the things that had been bombarding him.  And his heart began to feel open again.

As the pandemic subsided and people got back together, Bill was different, and the world seemed different too.  

Life seemed a little slower.  Bill listened more closely to his friends and loved ones, and he shared himself more openly with them.  He was more present in whatever he was doing.  

That year, through the window in his tranquility room, Bill watched the big maple tree in his backyard bud, bloom and leaf out.  Then he watched its leaves change colors and let go.  He had nearly forgotten this is what life is.

                                                                  *   *   *

Don Tassone is the author of two novels and five short story collections.  He lives in Loveland, Ohio.  Visit him at https://www.dontassone.com.

In My Mind

by Tim Frank

“Walking down a pathway beside a canal at night, I saw a red moon reflected in the water. In a clearing, tramps stood around a bonfire and the smell of piss and burnt rubber made me gag.

Then on the train I sat opposite a gang of chanting football fans with alcohol on their breath. I fidgeted and blushed as they all pointed and laughed at me, singing in my face.

Near home, I walked through an underpass, the sound of footsteps steadily approaching like a Hitchcock movie.”

“And this sense of unease is a result of childhood trauma?” you say, with a nonchalant flick of your wrist. “The darkness that needs to be exposed to the light.”

I can’t believe I pay you two hundred pounds a session for you to toy with my febrile mind. I spill my guts and confess my sordid secrets but I get more insight from my three-year-old niece who’s obsessed with flying ants and recites Old McDonald like a mantra.

I wonder who you really are with your matte lipstick and sparse mascara that screams, ‘I’m a professional’ but drains the life from your face, making you look like Glenn Close. Do you even believe in the doctrine you spout? Jung? The duality of man? Please.

Maybe the leather-bound books on your mantle are really empty shells? And what do you really think of me? Are you as snarky and bitchy as all the rest, plotting to keep me in a pill-induced, suicidal fog – to lay a blanket gently over my mind?

I see you three times a week and we began our sessions two years ago. I try to scour my insides like an X-ray to see if there is any evidence of change, of progress, but all I can focus on is that strange green portrait nailed above your head. And yet as I stare at the painting’s anaemic color and its almost bestial outline, my mind gradually becomes quiet. I feel mindful for a moment, almost hypnotized. Then my thoughts race off again into jolting, untamed spurts.

What I really need is to get some sleep. My night time rambles through the Black Forest with the howling foxes and the rustling breeze aren’t enough to silence my inner dialogue. I haven’t slept in days and at night I stream videos of snow-capped mountaintops, filmed by drones soaring over Switzerland, to feel like I’m anyone but me.

But as if you’ve read my mind, you say, “And yet all being said, I still don’t think you realize the progress you’ve made, the tiny breakthroughs we’ve achieved every week.”

Before I can shut you down you continue, “Tomorrow I want you to try this exercise: march home along the canal with confident strides, upright, breathing deeply; stare directly at commuters on the train, truly engaging; and then walk through the dimly lit streets knowing only you can harm yourself.

Finally, as you sink into bed stare at a spot in the distance and let yourself fall into a deep sleep and dream wonderful dreams.”

These words shake me, strike me to the core, and suddenly for some reason I can picture all the pieces of the puzzle falling into place. Then I imagine calling you to say I’m quitting, once and for all, because I know I can finally make it alone, and that all the elements I need to transform myself are lying dormant, just below the surface of my mind.

                                                                *   *  *

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.

455 Damon Street

by Jeffrey Marshall

What kind of house can you buy for $5,000? I was about to find out.

The house sat forlorn – though that’s probably the wrong word, if that implies isolation. It was one among perhaps twenty in an ordered row on a straight street, all roughly the same size. Most were clapboard; a few were brick. Had the street seen better days? They couldn’t conceivably have been worse. The section of neighborhood my house was located in was an imploded disaster of decay; more than a few homes were ostensibly vacant, with siding askew, windows broken, shingles piled in untidy heaps on weed-choked lawns, shrubs shriveled and brown from neglect. It was dystopian, a scene from a movie about a future that had been laid low by some lethal disease.

I took it in with a mounting sense of shock and dismay. Still, here and there, where cars were parked on the cracked pavement, the homes shone brighter, with decorations on the stoops, window boxes with marigolds or impatiens, lawns that bore signs of mowing. They were the survivors, yet it was clear they lacked the means to escape, I thought, for who wouldn’t?

This was the neighborhood I had “bought” into in Fort Payne, Indiana, sight unseen and 1,500 miles from my home in Dallas. I’d been lured by the ad on BuyCheap.com, which was pushing houses around the country for incredibly little money. The notion of owning a home, any home, was like a canteen to a man dying of thirst, and I grabbed for it.

I looked at the house again. There could be no mistake: the number 455, rendered in black metal with a touch of Italic script, was fully intact. The house, less so – it appeared to have been empty for years. The black-shingled roof had a sizable hole to the right of the door, an open portal to rain or snow or whatever else the atmosphere could deliver. The crude concrete steps in front were cracked, and several chunks were missing. 

The black iron railing was short several uprights, as if they had been plundered to bolster another entrance somewhere down the street. To the left, I saw that the one-car garage was missing two windows, and the garage front seemed bowed in, as if it had absorbed a giant’s punch. There was nothing positive, let alone prepossessing; it was the kind of house that advertised neglect in capital letters. And now it was mine.

I walked slowly up the concrete slabs leading from the driveway, several of them skewed at odd angles, and approached the front door. Taking the key that had been overnighted to me a few days earlier, I put it in the lock and turned it to the left and pushed. Nothing happened, so I turned it to the right. Now, I felt the door give, but it seemed stuck, and I leaned my shoulder into it until it gave. I was in.

That’s when I saw the dark stain on the hallway floor, a ragged circle maybe 20 feet in, close to what appeared to be the kitchen. I’d been an Army medic in Afghanistan, and the sight brought back memories I try to suppress. I craned over to look more closely, and I sucked in my breath. There could be no confusion. It was dried blood.

                                                                  *   *   *

Jeffrey Marshall is a retired journalist and the author of four books, including the novels Undetected and Little Miss Sure Shot. He has been published in more than two dozen newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, High Country News and New Jersey Monthly, and was at various times a reporter, editor, feature writer, columnist and book reviewer.

Marshall is also the author of a book of collected poems, River Ice, and his poetry has appeared in newspapers, anthologies and online magazines. He lives in Scottsdale, AZ, with his wife, Judy, and two dogs, Maggie and Blaze.