Early

By Amy Marques

Sam was early and the irony wasn’t lost on him. 

For years, he had resented her sense of urgency, her need to control every little detail, and her fear of something going wrong. He would purposefully find excuses to pack one more thing (that wasn’t on the list) and use the toilet one more time. You don’t want me to have to stop midway through the drive, do you?

He wasn’t ever really late. He was just a few minutes past her rigid schedule. She’d plead, arguing that traffic was unpredictable, the weather might slow them down, and anything could happen. 

What she really meant was that anything bad could happen. She firmly believed that good things come to those who plan. Surprises are for amateurs and fools. 

He had once found it charming: her attention to detail and organization skills. Life was smooth sailing so long as she controlled all the variables. But it didn’t take him long to realize that she focused on all the wrong details and life cut down to her size left little room to be. He was stunted. Stifled. 

And now she was gone.

Without her there to beg him to hurry up and not be late, he had arrived at the airport in time to sit facing the arrivals and departures screen and wait for his flight to appear. He was so early, the nice lady at the counter had said they didn’t yet know which gate was his. His bag sat at his feet, his new passport tucked into his chest pocket (he’d checked four times – once more than she used to), and his tickets neatly folded in the order of his connecting flights. He even had time for coffee, but since airport coffee left a bad taste in his mouth, he sipped his water and silently watched the people.

Many things had changed since she left. He didn’t drink as much. In fact, now that he thought of it, he didn’t drink at all. He ate his vegetables. He flossed. Now that she was no longer constantly reminding him, he always paid his bills on time, the gutters were always clean, and the heater serviced before the cold season began. Emergency bags were packed and he always knew where his pills and keys were kept. He loved the list of home repairs because he made it himself, prioritizing whatever struck his fancy, even when it wasn’t the most urgent item on the list. Especially when it wasn’t the most urgent item on the list.

A young family sat across from him. The parents collapsed into the seats and took turns closing their eyes and trying to find a halfway comfortable slouch in the metal chairs. Their toddler played with the bag that was almost as big as he was: handle in, handle out, handle in, handle out. Their little girl, maybe seven or eight, sat hugging her backpack, staring at Sam.

The airport was full of people with furrowed brows and harried steps and yet, like Sam, the little girl across from him seemed content to quietly sit and wait.

He reveled in the stillness. Now there was no reminder to be careful of his bag. No comments on the impossible prices in the shops. No futile checking of the packing list to make sure nothing had been left behind. No going over the itinerary just one more time to make sure all the important spots would be seen. No rush to be the first to board. No muttering about the hand luggage that took up more than a fair share of the overhead compartments.

He didn’t miss her.

His flight and gate number popped on the screen. Sam picked up his bag and stood, nodding at the little girl as he did. She smiled, a gap where her new front teeth would soon grow, then let go of her backpack just long enough to flutter a hand in acknowledgement.

Sam waved back and turned, a spring in his step. Without the endless prompts and plans that had once boggled his days, nothing bad had happened. Nothing truly terrible, anyway. In fact, he felt that something good might be coming.

                                                             *   *   *

Amy Marques grew up between languages and cultures and learned, from an early age, the multiplicity of narratives. She penned three children’s books, barely read medical papers, and numerous letters before turning to short fiction. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in numerous journals including Star82 Review, Jellyfish Review, Flying South, and Across the Margin. You can read more of her words at https://amybookwhisperer.wordpress.com.

Rings

By Shelly Jones

She calls me just after dawn, her voice tight. I can tell already she has something to tell me, something she is hesitant to say. 

“Your tree was hit by lightning,” she begins. “Split in two. Your brother found it laying across the bridge to the pear orchard. Had to get the chainsaw.” 

The words spill from her, as if telling me quickly will ease the pain she thinks she is causing. She speaks of the willow like a living thing, a beloved pet that had to be put down, a grizzled cat euthanized before it could sneak out of the house to die in the woods on its own. 

She knows the hours I spent cradled in the willow’s bough, writing in a composition notebook, scribbling bits of poems, stories pouring from me like the nearby creek. 

“Oh,” I say, trying to hide the sorrow. I can still feel the knot of wood in my back, feel the willow’s tendrils wrapping around my index finger, smudged with ink, as I tried to think of the right word. 

“What will he do with the wood?” I ask, envisioning my brother cleaving the limbs, planing them into lumber, repurposed. 

“Nothing,” she says. “It isn’t any good.” She changes the subject to the weather, the storm, and I know better than to go back to the past. I make a mental note not to walk the back road to the pear orchard on my next visit home. 

Would it recognize me now, I wonder? What remnants of that twelve year old tucked in its arms remain in this version of me? Could it crack open my bark, study the rings inside to find some lost version of me, hidden in my core? Or have those pages been ripped out, scattered to the past like wood chips, mulch for something new, something green growing in the loam?  

                                                                   

                                                                         *   *   *

Shelly Jones (she/they) is a Professor of English at SUNY Delhi, where she teaches classes in mythology, folklore, and writing. Her speculative work has previously appeared in Podcastle, New Myths, The Future Fire, and elsewhere.

All in a Good Cause

By Doug Jacquier

When Garth walked out, Kirsty had no idea what to do next. She’d left school early to marry him. And then she lost the baby. Garth continued to pay the mortgage because they couldn’t afford to sell. Not yet.

She had no real work skills. She got by on casual cleaning jobs and welfare. It turned out that most of ‘their friends’ in the far flung suburban outskirts they’d moved to were Garth’s friends and workmates. A few of Kirsty’s friends had come to visit at first but they soon made it clear that it was a major expedition for them and they did not return. Kirsty couldn’t afford to move back to her old neighborhood. Now she only had Facebook Friends.

She’d had to sell the car and the public transport that did exist was more of a sick joke than a service. The one saving grace was that she could walk to a shopping centre that had a supermarket. It also had a medical clinic. More and more often, the shopping bags she carried to the centre were a disguise for her visits to the doctor. Unable to find anything physically wrong with her, the doctor finally prescribed tablets, to ease what he assumed was her depression about Garth leaving. And losing the baby.

Kirsty took the tablets. She returned a few times to get the dosage increased, until the doctor refused to prescribe anything stronger. Kirsty eventually worked out the real problem. She was lonely, plain and simple.

Through her Facebook Friends, she knew about internet dating but she didn’t want another man that might leave her one day. She was too timid to join in any local activities and never made eye contact with her neighbors. And, besides, she felt constantly unwell. When she shared that on Facebook, no-one took much notice and many of her Friends disappeared.

Then she posted that her doctor feared it might be stomach cancer and was sending her for tests. Suddenly all her Facebook Friends re-appeared, with lots of love heart emojis and hopes for the best and promises to come and see her soon.

No-one visited, so next time she posted she said the tests had confirmed the diagnosis. The doctors would try chemotherapy first but ultimately she would probably need surgery.

Garth rang and left messages but she refused to see him. She knew that one look into her eyes would tell him the truth.

For a couple of weeks there was a constant stream of visitors bringing her lots of gentle-to-the- stomach foods and referrals to simply amazing natural therapists and healers who had achieved miracle cures. She also received lots of information about fabulous scarves and wigs.

The next day, she opened the door to an immaculately groomed woman with deep green eyes and an expensive haircut that merged her early grey into blonde. ‘I’m Gina. I’m a healer’ she said, with the deep throatiness of an ex-smoker. ‘One of your friends sent me.’

Kirsty invited her in and, after a few minutes chatting, Gina held Kirsty’s eyes and said ‘I know you’re faking.’

Kirsty’s whole story tumbled out and, at the end, she wailed ‘What am I going to do?’

‘You’re going to keep doing what you’ve been doing, only better, until you’ve got enough money to disappear and start again.’

Kirsty said ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand.’

Gina fixed her gaze on Kirsty. ‘If you confess now, you’ll be a pariah and there’ll be no coming back. Is that what you want?’

‘No, of course not but ..’

‘If you trust me, we’ll find a way. But you have to trust me and do what I say.’

Kirsty’s shoulders slumped and she nodded.

Over the following weeks, Gina took over all of Kirsty’s social media. Through a friend of Gina’s who worked on a hospital soap, pictures emerged of Kirsty in a hospital bed, clearly distressed and with lots of tubes and monitors attached, grimacing a brave smile.

Gina strung out the wait for the test results, until posting that the surgery had failed and the cancer had now spread to Kirsty’s lymph glands. Chemotherapy and radiation were her only hope. The next posts showed Kirsty bald and pale, courtesy of Gina’s clippers and make-up.

Obviously all of these treatments were expensive and the health system didn’t cover all of the costs, so Gina, as Kirsty’s closest and dearest friend, set up a HelpKirstyLive account for her. All of the funds were channeled to a new joint bank account, with Gina and Kirsty as co-signatories, one that Gina would manage on Kirsty’s behalf. 

Kirsty’s Facebook Friends donated generously rather than come to visit this grotesque caricature of the old Kirsty. A few tried but were told Kirsty was far too unwell to face visitors just now.

Soon there was $20,000 in the HelpKirstyLive account and Kirsty wanted to end it there, with a miracle remission. But Gina said, ‘Sweetheart, we’ve just begun.’

The news about the chemotherapy and radiation treatment was all bad and it now seemed the only hope was an experimental treatment available in the US, one whose early results had been spectacular. The problem was it was horrendously expensive and way beyond anything Kirsty could afford.

Gina began by hitting the cancer support groups in Australia but she knew the big bucks were in the US and that’s where she focused her energy. She built a narrative around an outback farmer’s wife who’d lost her husband to a tragic accident and was doing her best to support her three young children (never shown, to protect their privacy) and keep the farm going, despite everything, to ensure their future. The Today Show bought the story and 60 Minutes took some of the action. The HelpKirstyLive target of $100,000 was met ten times over and kept going.

Kirsty looked at the numbers in disbelief as they grew exponentially and for once her and Gina agreed it was time to pull the plug. It was only a matter of days before someone found out there was no cancer diagnosis, no treatment, no farm, no family, and no miracle cure from a non-existent medical facility.

Kirsty signed a bewildering array of forms that Gina put in front of her and then they hugged long and hard. ‘See you in the Bahamas. First rum and Coke’s on me’ laughed Gina, as she handed Kirsty her new passport and new credit cards.

At the airport, everything unraveled. The passport and credit cards were bogus. There was no trace of anyone called Gina and their joint account had been emptied.

After the trial, Kirsty went to prison. She was spat on by her fellow inmates and threatened at every turn. Until she had a visitor. 

At the appointed time, she was escorted to the cold and comfortless visitor centre. The prison officer nodded towards a table. Sitting there was a bottle blonde in her 50’s, with pillow lips and a permanently startled expression.

Kirsty sat, desperately trying to remember whether she knew this woman or not.

‘Hi, Kirsty. I’m Jo. You don’t know me but I’m here to help.’

Kirsty’s immediate thought was that this was someone who’d come to save her soul and began to push her chair back.

‘Wait, Kirsty. My plan is to get you out of here and to set you up for life.’

With a sigh, Kirsty began to stand.

‘What Gina did to you was despicable. At every level. At least hear me out.’

Having nothing better to do, Kirsty shrugged, pulled her chair in and waited.

Jo seemed to relax and made a reflex move to reach for her cigarettes, before realizing those days were gone in places like this. 

‘OK, here’s what I’m offering. I’m going to ghost write your autobiography. We’re going to show that you have been a victim all your life. We’re going to build the case that you did what you did out of desperation, brought on by depression, and that Gina manipulated you for her own personal gain’. 

Kirsty interrupted. ‘You said you were going to get me out of here.’

‘I will, said Jo. I have a lawyer who is prepared to take your case for an appeal, on the basis of diminished responsibility, and he thinks he can get you a suspended sentence. You’ll be out of here and able to make a fresh start on the royalties. And then there’s the movie rights, the TV spin-off and the cancer support foundation you’ll set up. We’re even thinking of a Kirsty Kuddle doll for Kids with Kancer. What do you think?’

Kirsty’s shoulders slumped and she nodded.

‘Great’ said Jo, flashing her immaculately capped teeth. ‘Oh, and by the way, you won’t have any more trouble from the bitches in here.’

Jo stood, gave Kirsty a quick hug and was gone.

Later, in the dining room, an inmate sat down opposite her for the first time. She was tall and sported full sleeve tattoos and a permanent scowl. She said ‘I’m your protection. But I’ll still have to rough you up a bit when the circus kicks off and the GetKirstyOut campaign starts.’

                                                            *      *     *

Doug Jacquier is an Australian flash fiction and short story writer and poet, an avid cook, a vegetable gardener and an incurable punster, as well as an occasional stand-up comedian. He’s had over 30 jobs (including rock band roadie) and has lived in many places across Australia, including regional and remote communities. Doug has travelled extensively, especially in Asia, the US and UK in his former role as a not-for-profit CEO. His aim is to surprise, challenge and amuse.

The Man Who Began to Write

By Julien Laforest 

The man sat there on the wooden chair that creaked from time to time. He had not bothered to turn on the light in many years. So the man sat there on the wooden chair that creaked from time to time enveloped in darkness. All he could think to do was wonder and maybe write those thoughts down. 

And so he spent the hours of the night writing on anything and everything he could. And he continued to do so well into the morning, past the sun’s rise and the smell of coffee brewing. He remained sitting in that wooden chair that creaked from time to time writing down his thoughts as they came, and he did so for over a hundred years. Long after his wife had grown to feel neglected and left him, taking their kids with her. Long after the mailman had stopped knocking and left the latest parcel or letter on the pile of others. And long after the last of his family had died. He spit into his ink bottle, as he often did every few years when it had run out. He then filled his pen and began to write again. He wrote of gods and god butchers, of men who died for king and country, civilizations which rose and fell below our feet, lovers that could never be, and of prophecies fulfilled. 

He paused on his birthday, for no other reason than that his hands had started to ache. As he set the pen down, he gazed at the peeling walls, the stained ceiling, the splintering table, his thinning skin, and his cracked nails. All these covered in his frantic scrawls. Again he began to wonder of worlds and people he had yet to create. He wondered how a man could gaze at his own eyes. And then he was still. Finally, he rose from that wooden chair that creaked from time to time and walked to his bathroom to write on the only place he hadn’t. His mirror. As he gazed into that glass oculus, he saw a figure that he no longer recognized. A man both frail and torpid. Obsessed and lost in his own mind. Yet still, he continued to write. 

                                                                   *    *   *

Julien Laforest was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and moved to the United States when he was very young, about four. He soon fell in love with literature by reading the likes of Rick Riordan, Mark Twain, and J.K Rowling and continued to do so later in life by experiencing the works of H.P Lovecraft, Paulo Coelho, Franz Kafka, and many others. He proclaimed himself a writer in middle school and has been trying his best to live up to that ideal ever since.  He recently gained a love for photography. Although he claims to not fully understand all the technical components, he’s grown to respect the art a ton. He posts his pictures on his Instagram page @therealjulienlaforest. When Julien isn’t writing, you’d probably find him reading or watching anime.

Catch and Release

By William Falo

I walked past the empty playground. The rusty bars, broken swings, and pieces of trash that littered the ground made it clear no children would ever be brought here again. 

Closer to the lake, a sign showed a fish with a red circle around it and a line through the middle of it. Below was a list of toxins and dire warnings if you consumed fish from the lake. I kept walking until I saw a man fishing. Nobody fished in Strawbridge Lake anymore. 

Suddenly, he pulled the rod back and started to fight a fish. 

“No way,” I yelled out. 

He turned the reel with increasing speed. 

Whatever he caught got closer to the shore. With a few final turns, it hit the bank. It looked dark and slimy. I couldn’t believe it.

“Yes.” He held his rod over his head. 

I saw what he caught and started to laugh.

“What is it?” 

I held it up. “You caught a stick fish.” It was a long time since I laughed so hard.

“It’s not that funny.” He smiled.

“Yes. It is.” I dropped it then looked at my hands. Slime covered them.

He pulled out some rags and gave them to me. 

“Thank you. I’m sorry I laughed.”

“It’s pretty funny. I bet it’s the largest stick fish ever caught here.”

“It’s the only thing caught here anymore.” I wiped my hands off. 

“I know, but I keep trying.”

“It’s too polluted.”

“Yea. I saw some truck dumping chemicals in the lake last night. They may come back tonight. I’m going to come back and catch them. Do you want to help?”

“I don’t even know you.”

“I’m Jacob. What’s your name?”

“Mia.”

“Now you know me.”

“I can’t.” I couldn’t do it. I am not an outgoing person. The stick fish took me out of my comfort zone, but now I felt embarrassed. My arms itched, and I wanted to run away.

“I’ll be here tonight if you change your mind.” 

I left without looking back. 

At home, I sat alone in the dark. The wind picked up as a storm approached; a branch

broke off an old tree out front and hit the ground with a thud. I thought of the stick fish and

Jacob. I knew he would be at the lake, and I ran toward it.

Darkness covered everything. A truck drove past me, dragging a hose spewing dark liquid on the road. When lightning lit the sky, I saw a dark form in the lake.

I ran into the water and saw someone face down. Jacob. I dragged him to shore. He gurgled but managed to sit up. Water and slime-covered him. 

“Are you okay?”

 He nodded and coughed up water.

“What happened?’

 “They were pumping stuff into the lake.” He coughed and spit up more water. “I snapped pictures, but the flash caught their attention. They demanded my phone and threw it into the lake. I went after it.”

“You’re crazy.”

“It’s an iPhone 13.”

“What happened in the lake?”

“I tripped over something; maybe it was the stick I caught.” He laughed. “I hit my head and blacked out. I would have drowned if not for you. You saved my life. Nobody ever did

anything like that for me before.”

“Anybody else would have done the same thing.”

“No, they wouldn’t.”

“It was all for nothing since your phone is ruined.”

“No, it wasn’t. I emailed the pictures before they took my phone.” 

“That’s great.”

“Do you want to get a cup of coffee with me tomorrow?”

 “I have plans.” I lied. “Besides, you don’t want to be with me. I’m broken. I have depression, take meds, I used to cut myself and still might do it.” I don’t know why I blurted that out, but I turned and ran away. In fishing terms, it was catch and release. It was necessary to let him go.

“Mia, wait.” He yelled, but I kept running.

                                                                         * *

I became stuck. I couldn’t leave, where would I go, but I was afraid to stay here. I desired happiness, but it seemed so hard to find. There were some good memories, though, but they were lost under the dark clouds of the bad ones. I caught fish at Strawbridge Lake with my father before he died. I was happy then, but it seemed so long ago. Before the bullying at school, my father and mother died, and the loneliness followed.

I needed to get outside, so I walked to the lake. In the distance, a man was holding a fishing rod. Jacob.

After a few minutes, I reached his side. He looked at me and put the fishing rod down.

“You know I never caught a fish here. That stick doesn’t count.” Jacob said.

“No, it doesn’t.”

“You saved my life.”

“Sometimes, I’m impulsive.” I looked at him.

“I haven’t seen the polluters since I posted the pictures online.

“That’s good.”

“I’ve been looking for you.” 

“You may regret it.” I pulled up my sleeves, revealing scars.

“I doubt it. I’m pretty messed up too, and I’m not a fan of catch and release.” 

The bobber went underwater.

 “A fish,” I yelled and grabbed the rod.

Before I could get the fish to the shore, the line snapped. 

“It got away,” Jacob said.

“But there’s hope for the lake. It means there’s hope it can come back.” 

He fixed the line. On the other side of the lake, I saw a stick surface with a bobber and fishing line twisted around it. 

He saw me staring across the lake. “Did you see something?”

“No, nothing at all,” I said and smiled. “Do you want to go to the store? I need to buy a fishing rod of my own?” 

“Sure,” he said.

He packed up his gear, and we left together. When I looked back, I saw the stick sink below the surface, leaving behind small ripples that grew larger as they spread across the lake.

                                            

                                                     *   *   *

William Falo lives with his family, including a papillon named Dax. His work has been published in various literary journals. He can be found on Twitter @williamfalo and Instagram @william.falo

 

The Officer’s Wife

By John Abbott

She hears the squad cars wail as they speed down her street. Red and blue lights cut through gaps in the blinds. Crime. Some place out there. Far but close…close but far. Her man rides in one of the cars, badge on his chest, gun at his waist. He is in love – with the job for sure – but he says with her, too. At least once a day she begs him to quit, pleads with him; says she’ll do things he has not thought to try. The job chose me, he says. It called me. But still he thinks of her words as he eyes her pale skin through the sheer black gown she wears when it’s hot. 

She thinks of him shot by thugs or burned from a fire where he saves a child. She thinks of his grave. Would she drive to be near him that way? How long til she moved on? She knows one thing: she won’t stay here, on this street. She’ll move far from here, far from the noise, the guy downstairs who looks like he makes bombs in his spare time. 

Yes, she’ll live near trees and sweet, pure smells – and a lake or stream. She’ll dip her hand in the cold and shut her eyes, try to block out all the time she hung on for the click of his key in the lock and the crush of their chests pressed close, like two halves put back as a whole. 

                                                          *  *  *

John Abbott is a writer, musician, and English instructor who lives with his wife and daughter in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His work has appeared  in North American Review, The Potomac Review, Redivider, Portland Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, Arcadia, Two Thirds North, Midwestern Gothic, Bitter Oleander, and many others.  His short story collection is now available from Underground Voices.

SPRINGSTEEN IN THE DORM ROOM 

By Paul Germano

They sit on the thin mattress in his cluttered dorm room, their legs propped up, their backs leaning against the wall, passing a big fat blunt back and forth. His roommate, a true-blue friend, is making good on his promise to stay elsewhere for the night. They’ve got the place to themselves. 

This isn’t now; this is then. It’s a time when music is listened to on CD players and phone booths can still be found on street corners. The Internet is still kind of new, Michael Jordan reigns supreme on the court and Jerry Seinfeld is the king of Must See TV. The Clintons are in the White House and all is well with the world.

She passes the blunt back to him and starts talking about something from her class about the French Revolution that she finds especially interesting. She’s wearing tight jeans, no bra and a loose-fitting sweatshirt with the Syracuse University logo on it. She has long blonde hair, warm blue eyes and a charming habit of tucking her hair behind her ears when she talks about something that truly matters to her.

“Lucky Town,” his favorite Springsteen song, comes up on his CD player. The Boss is singing about a man with the walls closing in on him who seeks to “loose these blues I’ve found” by going down to Atlantic City.

They both sing along. He knows the lyrics, word for word. She knows some and hums through the lines she’s unsure of. They sway back and forth and he turns sideways for a good look at her. She is his Springsteen love; Rosalita, Crazy Janey, Sherry Darling, Sandy, Candy, Bobby Jean and Mary Queen of Arkansas, all rolled into one. A broad smile stretches across his lean face and she flinches when she realizes how intense his stare is. “What?’ she asks, slightly laughing. “Nothing,” he says. He inhales a deep puff of smoke and hands her the blunt. Before she can bring it to her lips, he leans in for a quick kiss. “I don’t see eye to eye with Bruce on this one,” he tells her. “Huh? What do you mean?” she asks, raising a curious eyebrow. “That opening line, ‘House got too crowded, clothes got too tight.’ It’s all about feeling trapped, confined and um.” He pauses, licks at his lips. “I can’t relate to that line, not now anyways, See, there’s no place else I’d rather be, than right here, just me and you and these four walls.” She twists her lips into a smile and glides her slender hand across his jawline. “You’re so sweet,” she says, handing him the blunt. They kiss. He unbuttons his shirt and sheds all of his clothes in a hurry. She shimmies out of her tight jeans and he helps her lift off her sweatshirt. They hug and slowly slide down into the bed. From the CD player on the shelf in the corner, Bruce Springsteen continues to serenade them.

They remain a happy campus couple for what’s left of their senior year. On Graduation Day, they brace themselves for an emotional farewell to Syracuse University, sitting side by side in their caps and gowns and playing with each other’s tassels. They make a promise that they’ll stay in touch, forever. They don’t. He goes back home to New Jersey and she goes back home to Ohio. 

He gets on with his life. He gets a good job at a public relations firm and joins a gym. He makes both sides of his family proud by regularly attending Italian and German cultural events. During a weekend getaway to the Jersey Shore, he stops in at a beachside bar and meets an amber-haired dental hygienist with bright white teeth and alcoholic tendencies. She is, by her own definition, “a good Catholic girl with a bit of the devil inside.” They date for a while and eventually wed in a Catholic Church jam-packed with their families and friends thanks to their strategic choice of a church that’s in between both of their Jersey hometowns. They rent a small apartment and talk about starting a family. But her love for alcohol and his love for weed, get in the way. They divorce and rent apartments at opposite ends of the city. Without kids in the mix, they have no ties that bind, yet they promise they’ll remain friends. They don’t. 

He gets restless with his job and switches to a different public relations firm that offers him more money. The new job is in the same city, so there’s no need to uproot. But he’s got more cash to play with now, so he rents a better apartment and buys a new car. At the grocery store, he starts buying more expensive cuts of beef and skips over the store-brands in favor of name-brand soda, coffee and canned goods. He finds love, here, there and elsewhere, but no one quite gets to his heart. 

Tonight, he sits in the dark in his fine apartment with its hardwood floors and exposed brick walls, somewhere in the comforts of Jersey. He sips at his name-brand coffee; Maxwell House, French Roast, black, no sugar; letting the petty annoyances of a rough workday drift away from his mind. He thinks about taking a ride down to Atlantic City and trying his luck at a few games. It wouldn’t be the first time.

“Alexa, play ‘Lucky Town’ by Bruce Springsteen,” he says. Alexa is only too happy to deliver the goods. Springsteen comes on in full force with his seen-it-all gravel voice. He sips at his strong cup of joe and thinks about his sweet college love from so long ago, the one with those warm blue eyes. He pictures her, tucking her hair behind her ears. He clears his throat and takes another sip of his coffee. A broad smile stretches across his lean face; it’s a slightly sad smile, but a smile none the less.

                                                          *   *   *

 

Paul Germano lives in Syracuse, NY, with his dog April, a charming and strong Pit Bull mix. Germano’s fiction has been published in roughly 40 print and online magazines including *Boston Literary Magazine, The Drabble, The Fictional Café, Microfiction Monday Magazine, Sledgehammer Literary Journal, Voices in Italian Americana* and *Word City Literary Journal.* His flash, “Bourbon on the Rocks,” appears in *Bright Flash Literary Review’s* August 2021 issue. In his nonfiction adventures, Germano has worked as an editor/writer for Le Moyne College, Syracuse University and *The Catholic Sun* and as a freelance writer for *Syracuse New Times, The Post-Standard* and *Stars Magazine.*

 

 

The Gem

 By Andrea Watson-Canning

“This is the last one, I promise.” 

I groaned. We had been touring open houses all morning, bouncing from one sterile neighborhood to the next like pinballs pinging around playfield bumpers. My stomach rumbled. 

Mellie parked the car across the street from a house with a grubby “For Sale” sign perched on a rickety post. The house was a mid-century split level—brown low-slung roof, pop-out living room window framed in dark wood, rough-hewn stone facade. The lawn was bedraggled and weedy. I could already tell the ceilings would be be low, the flooring linoleum and shag. A gut reno.

A pit in my stomach opened. I knew I shouldn’t pick a fight. “I don’t know what’s wrong with our place. It’s exactly where we want to be.” I sullenly heaved my body out of the car. 

Mellie pointedly looked at my belly. “We need more space with the baby coming. Why won’t you just consider it?” Her tone softened. “Just a quick peek and then a bite at Chuck’s.” Mellie took my hand and smiled in truce. 

“Ok—this last house and then lunch.” My stomach gurgled.

“And try not to make a scene this time.”

I opened my mouth but shut it abruptly. She was right. 

We followed the scrubby pathway to the front door and pushed it open. Just as I suspected, the small entry was lined with linoleum. Looking into the house, a murky sea of green shag. Dust motes floated in the dim sun seeping through full-length curtains. The pit in my stomach dropped to my feet.

Suddenly, a plastic accordion door slapped open, and a man stepped through. Dark hair with sideburns and a mustache. A navy blazer over a light blue shirt. Gray slacks. Suede loafers. His nametag read “Steve.” 

“Glad you could make it to the open house! I’m the listing agent, Steve. And you are?”

Mellie held out her hand which Steve shook vigorously. “Melinda, nice to meet you.” She gestured to me. “And this is Jaymie.” Steve grabbed my hand and pumped. 

“Let me grab you a flyer! This house has everything you’re looking for!” He disappeared behind the accordion doors. I stepped onto the shag carpet. My head suddenly snapped around.

“What IS that smell?” 

I wrinkled my nose in distaste. Top notes of garlic. Followed by onion, maybe? Then ending with…cumin? My stomach churned and I felt weak-kneed. “I can’t breathe.” I turned toward the front door. 

“Jay! We haven’t even seen this house—you promised!” Mellie was sharp, but I didn’t care. I turned the knob just as Steve sprang from behind the accordion door. 

“Already finished? You haven’t seen the kitchen. A gem! Here’s the flyer.” He handed me a leaflet. 

“Sorry,” I was mouth breathing. “I just got a whiff of something, and I’m sensitive to odors and…”

Steve plowed ahead. “Don’t you just love open concept? You haven’t even seen the bedrooms—four and all good size! Plenty of room for a new family!” He winked and took me by the elbow, steering me deeper into the house. The smell was overpowering.

“Ooh—I like that fireplace. The stone? Honey? There’s a lot of space! I like the flow…” Mellie’s running commentary followed behind.

Steve’s grip was a vise. “Let’s look at the backyard!” He guided me across the shag, past a lemon and avocado kitchen, towards a grimy slider. Clicking the door unlocked, he heaved it open. “That’s a quality door—solid!” 

We stepped into the yard. The air was fresher, but the funk from the house lingered. I desperately gulped air.

“This yard is a gem—plenty of room for entertaining. And look at the hot tub! Can’t you just see a nice long soak with friends?” Steve sighed contentedly. “Let’s go back inside.”

The smell was stronger. I gagged and leaned on the kitchen counter under stained yellow cupboards. Sweat prickled my skin. I looked at the scratched and cigarette-stained counters. I prodded a loose edge of the floor. I looked at Mellie, desperate. “Can’t you smell it?!?” I blanched green and headed towards the front door, abandoning her in the kitchen. 

Steve stepped between me and the door. “I know the house may need some work, but I promise there’s no lead paint, no radon, no asbestos insulation. Our schools are A+ rated. There’s a tennis and swim club. This house is rough, but a real gem.” 

My face was a sick shade of green. “Please…” I managed before vomiting over Steve’s suede shoes. I burst out the door and down the cracked walkway. 

Mellie came out ten minutes later. She stared at me as I leaned on the car catching my breath. “I helped Steve clean up.”

“Thank you.”

Mellie sighed in exasperation. “I don’t get it. We need the space.” 

I thought about sunlight streaming through Mellie’s hair as she read in our bed. I thought about the holiday dinners we made in our tiny kitchen for our friends—our family. How we crowded around the overfilled table and spilled onto the balcony. I reached for her hand. “I just want more time.” Mellie let me pull her closer to me.

I leaned in to kiss her, but Mellie pulled away. “Oof, Jay! Your breath!” She unlocked the car and moved to the driver’s side. “Let’s get you a water. We’ll go home and you can put your feet up.”

I angled myself gently into the car and closed the door. As Mellie pulled away, I looked back at the house. The For Sale sign creaked slowly in the breeze. The pit in my stomach began to ease.

                                                                 *   *   *

Andrea Watson-Canning received her MFA in Dramaturgy from UC San Diego, worked in the theater for a while, and then somehow became a teacher. Her work has been published in The Dillydoun Review and Capsule Stories. She lives in Florida with her partner Bill, daughter Fiona, and some dogs and cats to keep it interesting.

75 Ways to Lose Yourself

By Traci Mullins

  1. Work a 12-hour shift.
  2. Talk to your new lover on the phone until dawn. (Mostly listen.)
  3. Work a 12-hour shift.
  4. Dream sexy dreams.
  5. Shiver when he makes your heart race.
  6. Make him your mom’s famous beef stew. (Buy plenty of red wine.)
  7. Listen to the story of his sad childhood.
  8. Feel sorry for him and promise you’ll never hurt him.
  9. Work a 12-hour shift.
  10. Spend a long weekend at the beach. (Don’t forget the ultra-ribbed condoms.)
  11. Compliment him on his skills in bed.
  12. Buy new lingerie when you get home.
  13. Work a 12-hour shift.
  14. Tell him you need to go to bed early.
  15. Change your mind when he says he’s had a bad day. 
  16. Spend two hours listening until he feels better. 
  17. Agree that his boss is an asshole.
  18. Don’t mention his bad attitude. 
  19. Work a 12-hour shift.
  20. Don’t say anything when you notice he’s drinking too much.
  21. Be grateful you have a relationship in the first place.
  22. Give him pep talks so he doesn’t drink so much.
  23. Remind yourself that he had a sad childhood.
  24. Work a 12-hour shift.
  25. Agree that he just needs to quit that lousy job.
  26. Stop making such a big deal about his drinking.
  27. Invite him to move in with you.
  28. Don’t mention his volatile moods.
  29. Walk on eggshells.
  30. Work a 12-hour shift.
  31. Suggest a change of scenery.
  32. Don’t take it personally when he passes out at 7. 
  33. Figure you’re too tired for sex anyway.
  34. Make him your mother’s lamb curry. (Not too spicy.)
  35. Work a 12-hour shift.
  36. Wait for the right time to bring up his drinking.
  37. Count his drinks so you have hard evidence.
  38. Don’t remind him that he’s still unemployed.
  39. Work a 12-hour shift.
  40. Convince yourself he’ll drink less if you try harder.
  41. Go to therapy to find out what you’re doing wrong.
  42. Make him your grandmother’s apple cobbler. (Serve a la mode.)
  43. Start taking an antidepressant.
  44. Go back to yoga.
  45. Work a 12-hour shift.
  46. Talk to all your friends about how unhappy you are.
  47. Repeat the above until they run dry on sympathy.
  48. Feel sorry for yourself.
  49. Reminisce about the good old days.
  50. Resent your friends when they tell you that ship has sailed.
  51. Work a 12-hour shift.
  52. Give him ultimatums. 
  53. Cry a lot so he can see what he’s doing to you.
  54. Beg.
  55. Walk on eggshells.
  56. Work a 12-hour shift.
  57. Lecture him.
  58. Yell.
  59. Wonder what it’s going to take. 
  60. Leave and come back.
  61. Wonder if you’re going crazy.
  62. Work a 12-hour shift.
  63. Tell yourself that no one understands what you’re going through.
  64. Call in sick.
  65. Don’t get out of your pajamas for two days.
  66. Give him the silent treatment.
  67. Work a 12-hour shift.
  68. Tell him you won’t watch him kill himself.
  69. Doubt that you mean it.
  70. Hate him.
  71. Hate yourself.
  72. Lament your lost friendships.
  73. Listen to sad songs.
  74. Quit yoga.
  75. Work a 12-hour shift.

                                                                            *   *   *

Traci Mullins, a non-fiction book editor by day, has been writing flash fiction since 2017. Her stories have been published in three anthologies, Panoply, Fictive Dream, Bending Genres, Flash Fiction Magazine, Flash Boulevard, Cabinet of Heed, Potato Soup Journal, (mac)ro(mic), Blink-Ink, Ellipsis Zine, and many others. She was a two-time finalist in the London Independent Story Prize competition.

Fight (Or Long Distance Love) 

By Amy Colter

We yelled at each other in the car, but stopped for gas and made up at the soda machine. 

Thank you for your letter, a real letter. I sat by a garden, near the post office, reading it and laughing. A zucchini plant shook as I laughed. An ant crawled up my leg; I wish it had been you instead.

                                                              *   *   *

Amy Cotler was a leader in the farm-to-table movement, and a food forum host for the NY Times. After her career as a food writer and cookbook author, she turned to creative writing. Her short pieces have appeared in various publications, including Guesthouse and Hinterland. Cotler lives in central Mexico, with her husband, an artist, and their rescue standard poodle, Remy. For more, visit: amycotler.com.