“Empty Nest,” by Jillian Jackson

Rabbit sketch

The day her youngest left for college, she came home with two cats. A boy and a girl, just like her children. Everyone understood. The nest was empty. It’s that thing. It’s only natural.

“You’re such a little peanut,” she said to one of the cats. “My little Peanut. Peanut Butter. Peanut Butt.”

“Biscuit,” she said to the other. “Bisquick. Little Bisque. Bisque-Kitten. Biscuit-Tin. Lobster Bisque. My little Lobster, sweet Lobster Claw.”

She bought them beds and toys and treats. She let them scratch her couch. She scooped their poop twice a day. She liked the crunching sounds they made when they ate their dry food with their precise little teeth. The metal tinkling of the tags on their collars, like tiny bells, joyful sounds that let her know they were close.

It wasn’t enough. While her husband was at work, she went to the pet store and bought some rabbits. The rabbits proceeded to do it like rabbits. More rabbits. Her husband helped her build hutches around the house. She fed them each their own head of lettuce. She stuck her fingers through the wire cages. They were soft, impossibly soft, so soft, eight, sixteen, twenty-four soft little feet, lucky feet.

Too many rabbits, her husband said. The nest was too full. He made her put an ad in the local paper: bunnies for sale. But then he had a heart attack, and when the house was dark and her children had left again and all the flowers had wilted and she put the cards away and there weren’t any more casseroles in the freezer, she was grateful she still had the rabbits, and it seemed to her, in fact, that she did not have enough rabbits.

Maybe it wasn’t rabbits, precisely. Maybe it was something else she needed. Hamsters. Hamsters were small. They could fit in your pocket. That could be her new thing. Now that she was not all the things she used to be, she could be the lady who did that, who went around town with a hamster in her pocket.

The hamster did not like her pocket. It did not mind its cage: the wood chips, the brightly colored tubes, sucking from the metal tip of the water bottle. The sound of its nails against the plastic, its feet scrambling through the loops, comforted her. “Silly hamster,” she said. “Hamster-Ham. You are my smoky little Ham.”

When she got the hamsters she also got two goldfish. Impulse buy at the checkout line. The same way she would sometimes buy a candy bar, or a trashy magazine. Two fish, a tank, a filter, fish flakes, pink pebbles, seaweed plants, a castle, a plastic diving man, a Jacques Costeau. She wondered what they would do if she stroked their glittering scales with the pads of her fingers.

Weeks later she was out running errands. She was buying food for herself and for the cats and the fish and the hamster and the rabbits. When she got to the dairy section, she thought, how silly. How silly to spend money when there are creatures that will give these things to you for free.

She bought a full-grown chicken and a couple of chicks. She named the chicken Pokey. “Little Poke,” she said. “Hey there, Pokey-Partner.”

She put the chicken in a coop in the yard and the chicks under heat lamps in the living room. Their yellow feathers glowed under the hot red lights. She cupped a chick in her hands and said, “What a lovely fluff. Fluffy baby.”

Then, of course: a cow for the milk. A couple horses, because, why not?

To the horses, she said: “Beautiful. Perfect,” and she ran her palm over their wet velvet noses, kissed the wide hard plane of their foreheads.

Birds: lovebirds, parrot, parakeets. She gave them their own room. “This is for the birds!” she punned. Soon, she joked to no one in particular, she would need an ark. But, she laughed, there were sometimes more and sometimes less than two of every kind.

But when she fell asleep at night, she thought: this is not what I want. How have I strayed so far from what I want?

What she really wanted was to lock herself inside a cage. For someone to feed her, bathe her, pet her, brush her. She wanted someone to make up nicknames for her, call her sweet diminutives, to hold her, tightly, so tightly she could not breathe, and tell her that she was beautiful, perfect, perfect; that she was the best thing in the whole world, the only thing, and she wanted to go limp in that warm embrace, to know nothing except the sound of a soft voice singing her praises, unintelligible words of comfort, murmurs of endless, boundless love.

About the Author:

Jillian Jackson is a graduate of the MFA program in Fiction at Boston University, where she received the Florence Engel Randall Graduate Fiction Award. She’s also the recipient of a St. Botolph Club Foundation’s Emerging Artist Grant. Her work appears in Smokelong Quarterly and Misadventures Magazine.

Special Note:

This story was a finalist in The Conium Review‘s 2016 Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Leesa Cross-Smith.

Image Credit: © Vadim Gnidash – stock.adobe.com

“Split-Level,” by Tessa Yang

Staircase Sketch (pylypchuk25)

The house was a three-bedroom with a square backyard, one short flight of stairs descending to the basement and a second leading to the upper floor. The living room was drafty, so she caulked along the window frames. The garage had mice, so he bought traps—the ones with the sticky paper that resulted in a slower death for the struggling rodents, but which spared him the sight of any blood. They performed these tasks with cheerful efficiency. They were goal-oriented people. “Thing-doers,” she liked to say at those first, early parties where they were the only married couple, where they spoke in triumphant first-person plurals about their home improvement projects. They were people who got things done.

He was the first one to notice the extra step, stumbling over it on his way to the kitchen one morning. His feet recognized it before his brain. He had to go back and count: four, five, six. He wondered if he was losing his mind. The past month had been stressful. Their sickly newborn had spent the first week of its life inside a lighted box at the hospital like a rare museum artifact. Then it came home, it became a he, a living creature to dote on and fret over and sometimes secretly despise as they rushed to and from his crib, dead-eyed with exhaustion.

But the staircase to the second floor continued to grow. Up to eleven steps by the time his mother visited and informed them that they did not have the baby on a schedule—the baby had them on a schedule. She didn’t mention the elongated staircase, though his wife had embraced the anomaly with enthusiasm, marching up and down the steps with a five-pound weight in either hand, determined to return to pre-baby shape in record time.

Over the years they called in experts. Carpenters, architects, structural engineers. A clairvoyant wanted to feature them on her TV show, certain they were hosting a spirit who reached out with ghostly fingers to manipulate the steps.

They stopped having friends over. It was embarrassing, trying to explain. They wanted to sell the place, but who on earth would take a house with 43 stairs? The people at her office complained when the elevator shut down, and that was only two flights.

They resolved to ignore it. It was the same strategy they offered their son when his little sister parroted his phrases. Just ignore her. She’ll get bored and go away. For a while it worked. The stairs seemed to max out. She returned to school, working toward her MBA on the company’s dime. He went part-time and learned to cook like Ina Garten—gazpacho and shrimp scampi, coconut cake on gleaming metal stands. Weekends, they rented movies, avoiding Netflix because they distrusted this growing culture of instant gratification, but also because they liked the sight of their children galloping pink-cheeked between the racks of DVDs.

Then his father died. It took something out of him. He became fussy and fearful. He obsessed over their children’s diets. On evenings she had class, she worried he wasn’t feeding them enough. She took to sneaking junk food into their backpacks. Her daughter gobbled these treats on the bus ride home each day, tonguing the traitorous cheese dust from beneath her fingernails. The packages in her son’s bag always returned unopened, yet in an act of some great cosmic injustice, he remained overweight.

The staircase began to grow again. Three, sometimes four steps a night. It curled in tight spirals. He thought of a nautilus; she, the twisted ladders of DNA. Their daughter was fond of the stairs. She had a name for each one. They could hear her greeting them as she ascended to her bedroom—“Hi Mitsy, hi Scooter, hi Phil—” her voice fading into the heights, then silenced. For their son, the stairs were the torment of gym class all over again. He begged to sleep in the first-floor study. His father worried about all the things a boy could get into. His wife told him to stop hovering and hired a team of baffled movers to maneuver her son’s bed down the 97 steps.

In the past year, she’d begun sleeping with the woman who delivered the mail. “For the free stamps,” she told her husband when asked why she’d done it. She had expected the telling to ignite something between them. Instead it only sat there like a sidestepped piece of roadkill, awaiting pick-up from the people who were paid to do that sort of thing.

They were forced to take rest stops on the journey to the second floor. Their bodies had started to protest the climb: her hips, his feet. At the midpoint, they could hear neither the stutter of video game gunfire from their son’s first-floor bedroom, nor the shrieked Japanese of their daughter’s Anime shows upstairs. There was only the house—an orchestra of shudders—and their own frail voices as they pitched ideas, the same ones every night.

They could install an elevator.

They could move, permanently, downstairs.

They could take the financial blow and abandon the house.

But by the time they reached the second floor, aching and sweaty, it was all they could do to collapse into bed.

Lighting bolts cut through his dreams. She saw an endless snake of roller coaster tracks, writhing through a fiery sky. When the scene morphed and they found themselves teetering at the top of the stairs, it was not always clear whether they were dreaming or not—for if it was a dream, it was so lifelike that when she sprang over the railings and began to free fall, when he dove headfirst from the topmost step, there was the perfect crystallized panic, followed by the gut-swooping relief, of having relinquished oneself to an irrevocable mistake.

About the Author:

Tessa Yang is an MFA candidate at Indiana University where she serves as the Associate Editor of Indiana Review. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Clockhouse, The Writing Disorder, and Lunch Ticket. Her short story “Runners” was a finalist for The Cossack Review’s October Prize and will appear in Issue 7. When not reading and writing, Tessa enjoys playing Frisbee and counting down the remaining days until next year’s Shark Week. Follow her on Twitter: @ThePtessadactyl.

Special Note:

This story was a finalist in The Conium Review‘s 2016 Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Leesa Cross-Smith.

Image Credit: © pylypchuk25 – stock.adobe.com

“In Memoriam: Lot 69097,” by Kate Garklavs

Sweater Sketch (02)

Julie called me at work to say Kurt Cobain’s sweater was up at auction.

“The famous one?” I asked, picturing dewy midtone green with golden contrast at the hem. So collegiate. My phone’s face blinked red: angry reminder of an unattended inbound call.

“They’re all famous,” said Julie, “right? But look at the listing. I just sent it.”

Sources verified that Julien’s was a respected dealer of rock and pop-culture memorabilia, everything from Cher’s Reebok sweatband (aerobics purposes only) to Clinton’s roach clip. Fifty grand would put you in the running for the mohair sweater of Unplugged fame.

Fifty grand: Where would I get it? I wouldn’t, I knew in the pit of my gut, the locus of my rational mind. I’d just surpassed the thousand-bucks-in-savings mark. I imagined phoning exes, all of them better off now than back then, asking for smallish, interest-free loans; presenting the circumstances — straightforwardly framed — and embellishing with the florid, sexless detail of my ten-year-old-self’s dream. My parents might be good for a few thou, though the nearer retirement came, the less likely they were to indulge romantic nostalgia. Aunt Oona had never had a lover, but even she couldn’t be immune to the memory of a first rock crush, piquant as the night breeze to ocean-damp skin.

Decades back — two, in fact — I papered my walls with full-bleed spreads torn from Rolling Stone. Kurt, halo-haired, anchored the collage. Kurt in stripes, in outsized plastic shades, in tatty tees draping lushly from his slender frame. Always the same unfocused gaze to middle distance, dangled cigarette, occasional sneer to the camera and imagined watcher. Oh, how I wanted to leave my hair to snarl! To set my mouth as a pensive line, maintain an animal silence, fuck the police — anyone who wouldn’t listen or believe I knew the best next steps toward becoming myself. Instead, I brooded. Snapped my flavor-sapped Juicyfruit, the boombox’s volume hovering at 6: loud enough for clarity, quiet such that my mom wouldn’t rap on the hollow-core door and demand that I turn it down, already. Oh, who I would have maimed to see a live show, feel the reverb shuddering through my chest! To stay up past bedtime and beyond. I longed, as we all did, for any tiny modicum of freedom. There at my desk, miniblinds parceling the unctuous noontime light, I could almost feel the unvacuumed shag against my cheek as I lay on my bedroom floor, Unplugged on repeat on the Sony.

Leagues from my childhood bedroom and heady with memory, I retreated to the Xerox room — the only workplace door with a lock. Kristi’d left a big job running, and the copier’s light shuttled back and forth beneath the lowered lid, gold spilling out in warm flashes. I cleared the work table of conduct handbooks and memos and lay down to study the ceiling patterns: to recenter.

Plastic laminate against skin feels the same regardless of surroundings. I let the cool of the tabletop rise to meet my downturned palms and move through them, studied the pinprick scatter of the crumbling tiles above. My heartbeat slowed to match the thrum, click, return of the copier. I closed my eyes.

When the sweater arrived, it would be wrapped in royal-blue tissue, wrinkleless, encased in protective plastic. The exterior box would be nothing fancy, its plainness a deterrent to would-be thieves. Its only signifier of prestige would be the embossed gold J of the return address. I would coordinate my opening of the package with the weather, waiting for the ideal stretch of misted fog — conditions to enable maximum contrast between my body and the air. Running a knife along the box’s long edge, I’d mute my inhalation as I smoothed back the tissue.

Of course, skin-to-mohair contact would be the only way to capture whatever essence lived in those fibers: incorporate it, atom by atom, and draw its strength. Bare feet, too, the necessity of cold running from the blank tile up through my willing footsoles, the low evening light dully patching the leaves of the rubber tree, captive in its red slipcast pot. A walk around my apartment in the brittle garment would reveal a newness to the space, each thrift-store lamp and candlestick endowed with a fresh graciousness: inherent splendor made visible by the erasure of familiarity.

Outside, the mist would gather into droplets; streetlamp auras would widen and burn. The sweater would warm to a living heat and carry me from the evening into the day, day into evening, the cycle forming its own routine. I’d mask the original brown pocketside stain with coffee spills of my own, would smoke leaning from the bathroom window for the purpose of accreting cast-off ash, burn holes to circle the cuffs and climb the lengths of the sleeves, rivaling the damage done by the former wearer. I’d tug loose threads to let the weave grow wide, the humid air move in and through.

When the sweater ceased to keep its form and became instead a network of threads — more a memory of the thing than the thing itself — I would unclothe and prepare the garment for unravel. Spritz the threads with chicken stock and blot them dry, interlace the buttonholes with bacon. Lay the garment spread-armed in the courtyard, out of plain view but not hidden, and wait for my departure to signal welcome to the animals who would unthread arm from body, body from itself — a disappearance detached, unwitnessed, and feral.

About the Author:

Kate Garklavs lives and works in Portland, OR. Her work has previously appeared in Ohio Edit, Juked, Matchbook, and Tammy, among other places. She earned her MFA at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and she’s currently a reader for the Portland Review.

Special Note:

This story won The Conium Review‘s 2016 Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Leesa Cross-Smith. It will also be republished as a limited-run micro-chapbook for distribution at the 2017 AWP Conference in Washington, DC.

Image Credit: © pylypchuk25 – stock.adobe.com

“Filigree,” by E. M. Stormo

Band Aid sketch

Every friend group has the friend who everyone hits, and for us it was Tommy. He wasn’t even our smallest friend. That was Jean. But Tommy received our violent affection.

At the bar, Lisa kneed Tommy in the gut and then elbowed him in the back because she got bored waiting in line for the bathroom. Tommy held her drink and salvaged it during the attack. The bouncer wanted to break them up, but it wasn’t even the worse beating Tommy got that week. Wyatt slapped the shit out of him over Sunday brunch and afterwards, when everyone was saying their goodbyes, Bobbio did that thing where you point out a fake stain on someone’s shirt and poke their nose, except he broke Tommy’s nose with the maneuver. Jean drove us to the hospital in her minivan. The whole way there, Bobbio made fun of Tommy for his soft bones and weak cartilage. Tommy apologized to us for the inconvenience, stopping out the blood with some junk mail Jean had lying around.

I never hit Tommy in public. I liked to wait until we were alone.

He brought it on himself, according to the doctors. Tommy emitted a violence-inducing pheromone. But every doctor who treated Tommy had been rough with him, tugging his testes too hard, or pricking his veins for needless blood work. The doctor who reset Tommy’s nose had rescheduled several other patients to get right to his operation.

One time I hit Tommy and he hit me back. It felt like a baby animal attack. I laughed at him and he hit me again. I kept laughing louder the harder he punched me. Eventually, he drew blood, a little from my face but most of it from his bruised knuckles. My sides ached from laughing. I covered for him and told everyone I fell down the stairs, so he wouldn’t face any retribution. Such an incident ran the risk of someone else taking it too far, as Bobbio had on many occasions.

Inspection Week arrived after a particularly brutal season. I made sure to shower with Tommy before our full body exam. He had bruises down his back in all different colors: dark greens, blues, and deep purples, and red scars and rashes running through it.

I could make out our individual work. On his lower back, there was the burn from when Wyatt pushed him onto the grill. I called Wyatt into the showers to admire it. Wyatt slapped Tommy on the shoulder and said he’s looking abstract back there. I asked Wyatt who was responsible for a certain bruise cluster and he called Bobbio into the showers to settle the matter. Bobbio claimed authorship, his words, of the entirety of the upper back section. I drew their attention to the filigree and Wyatt switched off the showers to get a better look at it. Tommy stood their shivering. Bobbio called Lisa and Jean in to see. Lisa said those were Jean’s scratches everywhere. Jean blushed and admitted to the filigree.

Tommy beamed with pride as we examined him. Do a spin, Wyatt said and twirled him on his finger. We marveled how the front was just as complex as the back. It was a shame to add anything new to it or allow him to heal.

After passing inspections, we went out to celebrate with a drink. A kid named Carter, who was like the Tommy of another friend group, made fun of our Tommy’s black eyes and crooked nose. But Tommy was ours to abuse and if somebody from another group so much as insulted him, a fight broke out and we kicked their asses so hard they couldn’t be friends anymore. Bobbio smashed a bottle over Carter’s head and it was on, a 5 V 5 brawl. We sized up our counterparts from across the room. I told Tommy to hang back and leave it to us. Let Jean’s nails take care of it. Or Lisa’s famous knees. Wyatt can slap them into submission. Let Bobbio take things too far, kicking Carter while unconscious. Allow me to destroy the bond between them.

In our late twenties, our friend group drifted apart. Tommy was the first to be married. He now lives upstate with his wife and kids.

If I ever hear of her laying a hand on him, I’ll call up the old gang and we’ll pay them a visit, beat up the whole family.

About the Author:

E. M. Stormo is a fiction editor by day, writer by night, and a teacher and promoter of musical literacy at all times. His work has appeared in Thrice Fiction Magazine, Bartleby Snopes, Entropy Magazine, and The Airgonaut.

Image Credit: © nikiteev – stock.adobe.com

“Braidhawk,” by Sheree Shatsky

Hair sketch

Some time during the night a tendril of hair shot free from Zoyzi’s tightly plaited hair to snatch the collar off the cat. Her therapist thought perhaps a pet might calm her agitated mane, but if anything, the small black kitten served as an amusement, a play thing for her predatory protein to tease and taunt until the game proved tiresome and ended with a snap of the feline’s neck. As she untangled the hair from the collar with the tiny silver bell, the strand resisted, winding itself tight in and around the pink leather in refusal to comply. She grabbed the scissors off the nightstand and cut it quick and clean at the scalp, sealing the long lock in a sandwich bag to suffocate it. She watched it slither from the collar and struggle against the ziplock. “You had your chance,” she said and tossed it in the trash, slamming the lid closed against the frantic bell-ringing. She decided to give the cat to her therapist.

Unruly, her mother had said of her hair, a real bird’s nest particularly so the day she came home with a dead sparrow entwined about the neck. Her father called her the devil and shaved her head while her mother whisper campaigned to anyone who would listen a story of head lice being passed around at school. She wore a beanie until the new growth started making itself known by poking up through the knit, waving about, grabbing anything within reach, mostly insects. Flies were the easiest to ensnare, which never made sense, any bug with compound eyes would seem forewarned of the slightest of movements. Her parents reshaved her head and changed up the story-their beautiful daughter had cancer. Chemo had claimed her hair, leaving her scalp as smooth as a baby’s bum. Zoyzi took to wearing the fashion most associated with the disease, bandanas and scarves, double folded to squash the motion of the baby hairs squiggling beneath the fabric. Once her hair reached the tiniest bit of length, the restrictive styles became her trademark of sorts—hair knots and cornrows, gorgeous side braids and exquisitely woven plaits—any style tightly bound to contain the energy. Yet, when released for the weekly wash and comb-out, the unrestrained hair whipped out it’s fury, leashing her to the towel rack or strangling her about the throat, releasing her at the brink of unconsciousness, well aware within the fiber of their being, the relationship was indeed symbiotic. Without her there was simply no them. To avoid the conflict, Zoyzi took to wearing dreads washed as is, easily woven in every sort of style imaginable. She was the cool girl with the every changing hair who survived cancer and through her high school years, her hair remained demurely compliant.

Against the wishes of her parents and probably because of so, she attended college out of state in a city heavy with alternative students. She looked like them and they like her and she walked among them undetected. For the first time since Zoyzi could remember, she felt, at least figuratively, she could let her hair down. She worked as a server at a coffee shop off the city park and after her shift, walked home past the fountain to toss in a penny for continued luck from the hair gods. The locals warned her the park wasn’t safe after sundown, but she continued unafraid, armed with her quiver of hair.

As she approached the spouting luminous swans, a single blonde wisp escaped her serpentine braidhawk to brush the nape of her neck. She reached to tuck it back, but it darted about, pointed and furious and liberated, stabbing her fingertip when she came too close. Her scalp tingled with the awakening of the others and she pulled her hoodie over her head to curtail the explosion should her hair work itself loose. Veering off the manicured sidewalk leading to the magnificent fountain, she stuck to the shadows leading the way home where once inside, she would grab her scissors and trash bags and shave her head close as did so many of the girls in this city. Why she had not thought of it before, she couldn’t say, but all Zoyzi knew was the time had come to cut herself free from her unraveling.

Her hoodie was alive with slivering tresses when she sighted the group by the gate leading out of the park. Zoyzi slipped back against the fence and watched two boys and a girl the age of high school students arguing with two men. The girl turned to run, but the flash caught her and dropped her to the ground. One boy ran to her while the other charged both attackers in grotesque uneven match and upon his pummeling, her hair detonated into a raving mass of madness. What the hell, she thought, her hair lengthening into sinewy rivulets, extending across the sweet Georgia grass to upsweep the thugs, twist their heads until their eyes jettisoned and impale both to the sharp finials of the wrought iron fence.

The whirling keratin hovered above the corpses and she used the lapse to whip them back in subdued dissension and slinking retreat to cling close to her scalp. Zoyzi could hear the wail of approaching sirens or perhaps the siren was she, an ephemeral vision for the young man cradling the dead girl, her stroke of his boyish hair a soothe to his grief as she ran past and out of the park, soon to be close-cropped and free.

About the Author:

Sheree Shatsky writes short fiction believing much can be conveyed with a few simple words. Her most recent work appeared in Sick Lit Magazine. Read more by Ms. Shatsky at www.shereeshatsky.com

Image Credit: © pylypchuk25 – stock.adobe.com

“New Hampshire Girl, 11, Vanishes,” by William Reichard

Magic Wand Sketch

It couldn’t literally happen like that, but language is imprecise, so the girl disappears in a flash, the way a magician’s assistant disappears, then rematerializes, on the other side of the auditorium. Or the girl disappears under supernatural circumstances, vanishes in real time before our very eyes, out of this dimension. Because energy never ceases to exist, she must be someplace, another world, an alternate plane, a space of which we don’t yet possess an adequate understanding. The New Hampshire girl’s family lives in willful disbelief. Despite what the police say, they won’t give up. Why should they? Isn’t hope better than knowledge?

My sister, who is terminally ill, was selected from the audience by a famous illusionist for a part in his act. He caused her to vanish from one box and brought her back in another. He made her promise never to reveal the secrets of his trick. So far, she has not. One day, she’ll disappear again, and we’ll know, despite our grief, that she’ll never return. They never do. She won’t give up her secret, but we’ll refuse that silence, go on looking.

About the Author:

William Reichard is a writer, editor, and educator. He’s published five poetry collections. He lives in Saint Paul, MN.

Image Credit: © Kreatiw – stock.adobe.com