“Girls,” by Debbie Vance

Water Splash

The ground is sinking quicker now, quicker than ever before, and all the people know it. Some leave, drive cars down river-roads, tires spinning without moving forward. Quickly, they abandon cars and steer boats, row or motor until the bow hits dry land somewhere else. But others stay, drink cheap beer, laugh as the water rises past their calves, knees, tickles their swamp-sweaty thighs. Their houses are set on stilts, but the water rises so high they must climb stairs to the second floor, to the attic. The water does not surprise them, but that doesn’t make it any more believable.

The water can’t hurt us, the parents say, as it fills their mouths.

Three girls stand on the roof of the house where their parents drink in the attic and watch the water rise, swallow fences, chicken coops, windows. Dogs try to keep their muzzles above water, but the girls do not try to save them—the fences, the dogs, the dollhouse in the first floor bedroom below—everyone has already drowned. The doll’s paper bodies disintegrate in the kitchen. Their paper molecules absorb into the water.

Do you think it’ll ever end, one girl asks. Probably not, the other two answer. Once the land begins to sink, it has nowhere to go but down. The water teases the shingles, cold on the toes of the girls, and like eels they slide in. They swim away from what was once their town, south toward the open ocean. They keep their heads above water, their eyes shut against the bodies buried below—the dogs, the dolls, the parents—it is enough to feel the molecules of them, dissolved, brush against their legs like seaweed.

In fairy tales, girls may undergo transformation. Here, they might become speckled trout or redfish or oysters. But in some stories, other stories, they do not.

About the Author:

Debbie Vance’s fiction has appeared most recently in Flyway, The Boiler, and Alligator Juniper. She is a 2015 Pushcart Prize nominee and an MFA candidate at Colorado State University, where she teaches composition and research.

Image Credit: © cherryka – stock.adobe.com

“The Monkeys are my Favorite Exhibit,” by Melissa Reddish

Monkey Sketch

The black jaguar, which was nobody’s favorite animal but the oldest one at the zoo, has died. It was a vague reminder of the darkness that will one day consume us all as it paced back and forth and back and forth and back and forth behind the iron fence. Nobody really liked watching it, but it was a kind of obligation toward our younger, more vulnerable selves. Not everything can be monkeys dangling from ropes and throwing feces. Not everything can be a big black bear scratching itself against a rock. Sometimes you have to take in a breath and hold it as long as you can. Sometimes you have to weep openly at the terror of unyielding credit card applications in the mail. There is no part of your body that you love.

About the Author:

Melissa Reddish is the author of the forthcoming Conium Press title, Girl & Flame: A Novella. Melissa’s short story collection, My Father is an Angry Storm Cloud, was published by Tailwinds Press in 2015. Her flash fiction chapbook, The Distance Between Us, was published by Red Bird Chapbooks in 2013. Her work has appeared in decomP, Prick of the Spindle, and Northwind, among others. She teaches English and directs the Honors Program at Wor-Wic Community College.

Special Note:

This story is an excerpt from Melissa Reddish’s forthcoming novella-in-flashes, Girl & Flame, scheduled for release on August 15th, 2016 and currently available for pre-order.

Image Credit: © tomilof – stock.adobe.com

“A New Law of Nature,” by Katherine Forbes Riley

Shark Jawbone

You call yourselves the most successful animal in the ocean. At the top of the food chain for millions of years, despite your small brain. You say, who needs intellect? Or empathy, compassion—your offspring learn young all that’s for weaklings and losers. You tell them, win at any cost. You’re under no illusion that it’s nice at the top; no it’s straight up competition for all you’ve got. But you get to cruise the oceans enjoying the view and never worry about what’s coming for you.

There’s no prey shape to our posture, no surface marking to signal our lower strata. Some of us are stupid, some of us are smart. We have beauty, color, and art. Some of our bodies are wildly bizarre, others are shaped much like yours, rounded and tapered at the ends to reduce drag in the water. But underneath all our flesh is bone, while you are constructed entirely of cartilage. So you swim faster, and turn more tightly. Your jaw holds many rows of teeth that freshly regenerate every few weeks. Some of us don’t even have teeth. Some of us can’t smell or hear while you can scent a single drop of our blood from hundreds of feet and hear us coming for miles. Over millions of years we’ve evolved through every possible social organization. You evolved into the perfect killing machine.

You tell yourselves you keep us in check. You say, without us their numbers would explode and then they’d all die of starvation anyway. You call it the law of nature. As if it’s the only one. But in fact it turns out that following a mathematical pattern called a power law, the speed of growth declines with size. That’s why a shrimp grows faster than a whale, and that’s why we naturally breed more slowly in places where there are a lot of us already. (Think about it, if you can, how you feel when we outnumber you. Hungry, aren’t you?)  And that’s why you do so well when there are many of you and just enough of us—an inverted pyramid top heavy with you. It seems like a paradox how you could survive unless you understand (can you?) how fast in those places everything under you cycles through, growing and dying but before we do reproducing as much as we can to survive you. You tell yourselves it’s a super-productive system, you tell yourselves it’s better for us too—all that sex, plenty of food—but you wouldn’t change it even if you knew we didn’t feel the same way as you. Your skin is an interlocking web of ridged diamonds, a structure that by its very design resists drag or attachment.

About the Author:

Katherine Forbes Riley is a computational linguist and writer in Vermont. A Dartmouth College graduate with a PhD from University of Pennsylvania, her academic writing appears in many places. Her creative writing appears in Halfway Down The Stairs, Noö, Spartan, Crack the Spine, Storyscape, Whiskey Island, Lunch Ticket, Eunoia Review, Literary Orphans, Eclectica, BlazeVOX, McNeese Review, Akashic Books, and Buffalo Almanack, from whom she received the Inkslinger’s Award.

Image Credit: © Morphart – stock.adobe.com

“The Greatest Hunters,” by Jefferson Navicky

Wolf Skull Sketch

On the island, the greatest hunters move together, as one mass. They are so great. They have killed many things such as eagles, trucks, trees, tigers and people. When the greatest hunters roam the island, people come out of their houses to yell, “Roam, roam!” This is tradition. No one knows if the cry is an admonishment to go away and roam far from here, or if it’s a banner of respect for the hunters’ peripatetic life.

This has all happened for centuries.

Don’t we all want to be the greatest? Haven’t we all been pushed too far?

The greatest hungers roll in on themselves. They don’t got no step that ain’t for themselves. They slide. Then, past a new cemetery, all dug up and mounded: “New Lots Available: 784-2948.”

Something cracks in them, then splits. Sounds inside like a nose clicking, some deep disruption sinus cavity click. Deep click that disturbs the inner throat and head peace.

They take protective and reactive measures, which include don’t look at the moon and be celibate, especially from creeps. But it’s no good, the cemetery split has seeded and gone to grown, like tapping the tiniest nail into a temple. Pain is good until it pulls asunder, and down they go, collectively. What good is a great hunter who’s scared of dying?

That’s the kind of rhetorical question that great hunters dread, because there’s only one answer. They are, in a word, fucked. Useless. Once such swelling handlers of the hunt, now staring blank into their own ever-present hanging graves.

And so, now what? Can a society survive without its great hunters? We didn’t think so. We thought we’d go hungry, as fucked as they were, but no, funny thing, we survived. On our own. We didn’t kill no elephants, but we made it by trapping song birds, whacking them and subsisting on their songs, which proved much more mentally enlivening than any strand of animal protein, if also a bit less sustaining. We went peace. And after we ate the great hunters, we decided nothing else would ever be designated as “great.” We certainly weren’t, and we knew it, even when the songbirds proved hard to trick, because they grew wary of our traps. Still, we were so far from great. Our songs were pretty, sure, but we were the only ones who heard them. They were only for ourselves.

Sometimes we think back to the days of the greatest hunters. Such thoughts are always red and fleshy. We often remember the anger inherent in meat and chase. Sometimes, we must admit, we miss the smell of it all. Such carnage smelled thick with industry. Now it’s all sound, and that sustains us. We sweat sound, now, and smile all as one song. We make our hand gestures that say, open up, and we sing it.

About the Author:

Jefferson Navicky’s work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Crossborder, Quickfiction, Stolen Island and Hobart. He works as the archivist for the Maine Women Writers Collection, teaches English at Southern Maine Community College and lives in Freeport, Maine with his partner where they watch the bluejay boss the bird feeder.

Special Note:

This piece was selected as part of the “Dis/appearances” theme, guest edited by Matt Tompkins, author of Souvenirs and Other Stories and Studies in Hybrid Morphology.

Image Credit: © bekkersara – stock.adobe.com

“Heritage House,” by Emily McKay

Ladybug sketch

The bodies of ladybugs are scattered throughout the house, withering into wings that still shine through coats of dust, like drops of rusty old blood allowed to dry exactly as they fell. No one has been here to grind them into paprika or bury them under the many overlapping rugs, or build any tombs. No one has broken Rutledge’s curse or admitted to believing in it. The house is in-the-family but the nearest neighbor is a wolf sanctuary on the next Appalachian ridge.

I lost my job in October and no one minded that I came here because no one was here. You can always fall back on family, especially if they’re away. I wouldn’t be long though, just needed a rent-free space while I looked for the next thing.

I perch my empty suitcase on the spiral stack of old suitcases at the foot of the spiral stair. None of them look like mine, they are dusty, they are cracked, they are crocodile, they are unrelatable and unrepeatable, they are shades of green and yellow that nobody wants anymore.

Some ladybug wings lie single and apart and glow when the window brightens, then dim in unison like gaslight.

As I turn in bed the first night, the corner of the blanket sweeps the floor and they snag their way up and across the wooly fibers, and by morning the dotted shards suspend themselves in my jungely bob of hair. There must have been an infestation once, it could have been a decade ago, could have been last week.

There’s no hot water except what I can boil on the stove, so I keep still to never sweat, never bathe. There is no one to speak to, report to, no one to impress. The stillness feels like the only way to be, the only way to ever have been, and it was just a fluke that I ever worked and smiled forty hours a week. Forty hours is too vast a period for the human brain to comprehend. I fold myself into the blanket on the overstuffed yellow armchair in the corner of the living room. Century-old chairs and couches line the walls, and footstools crowd the middle of the room like the black eye of a susan. No one can walk between them anymore. Great Uncle Rutledge—or my great great, or plain uncle braided into the family yarn? He said everything he put here has to stay here, always, and after he died, the family still listened. They even seemed to add more—I could swear that leather ottoman is new. Great Uncle Barlow thought this was bullshit and he died of a heart attack while throwing boxes of lavender soap out the barn window.

I don’t go into the barn. It’s full of blacksnakes, and even if they’re all hibernating deep in the barn by now, their paper lanterns of shed skin hover everywhere with clear eyes. Between the endless stuffed trunks and planks and piles of muted copper kettles are intractable flashes of the story my father told me as a kid, so casually it was almost involuntarily: a barn beam, barn beam somewhere, broke under the weight of his homestrung noose when he was eight years old, after the news of his father’s boozy suicide in an empty field, field emptied somewhere in New York. I wouldn’t know where, I wouldn’t go there, and I don’t go into the barn.

From my yellow chair I see a pinprick of red wriggling in a spider’s web in the fireplace, though the spider is dead.

From my orange chair I see three huddled ladybugs painted into the pale green wall. The paint is chipping and the wood underneath is damp, liver-purple.

From my green chair I see under my yellow chair, inching ecosystem of dust and contracted legs.

I sleep a few hours and wake with only the aim of sleeping a few hours.

I sleep a few hours and listen to the house for a few hours. I think I can hear it sinking for a few hours, for a few hours I can hear the waxing asymmetricality.

I sleep a few hours and I spring out of bed, pointing a flashlight around the house, peering inside the suitcases, inside the trinket boxes, inside the doll houses and the old wine crates. I open all the tiny doors and I open all the drawers in all the cabinets and bureaus and pantries. Rust and mahoghany, burgundy and vivid living beating tip-toe red. Is it an infestation if it never stops, if this is its home city?

I find a bottle of whisky from the seventies. Excellent. Finally. Sometimes I give up drinking, for up to nine days at a time, and it’s incredibly easy. I sleep well and lose weight and feel purposeful and energetic, and I wonder why I don’t do this all the time. Not-drinking is my superpower. And then I drink, and drinking is my superpower, and I sleep a few hours.

Who would have drunk the first quarter-bottle, who was here? There’s an old bottle of gin too, but it’s left a grimy line around its middle, so I put that one back. Two ladybugs sneak out between the panels over to the silverware drawer. I uncap and sniff the whisky as the label flakes in my hand: sweet, and a little buttery, potent. Probably fine.

How beautiful is the closed door of the heritage house, from the inside. The front door is the most beautiful door, I find, closing them all again, to be sure. Yes, it is the only door I can really rest my face on, and sort of hug.

I do not have and do not require any concept of what today was, or what yesterday. Today dies now in these no longer memorable spirits, today just another tired rabbit out of the magic hat.

For you too, ceiling, I feel so much affection. When you finally burst out from under your layers of mold and old rain, I will stare into a dimmer, further ceiling.

And all the magic rabbits scatter as you descend, become wild through the empty door and windowframes, even the hexagons in the wallpaper untessellate like beetles, shaking loose toward the moon.

I should be more hurt, and we should all be more hurt, always, holding our blood knuckle-white until it lets us go.

In the morning the windows frost on both sides and I wrap myself in a fringed Mexican blanket and I am heavy and slow. I wrap myself in an ivy-patterned blanket and I am heavier and slower. I wrap myself in a purple quilt and I am heavy, heavier, slow, slow, slow. There are more and more blankets, with crucially distinct textures and sizes and patterns and histories and social functions and psychological effects, I need them all and I have them, and I do not need to be any shape anymore, under here.

About the Author:

Emily McKay is a Creative Writing MLitt graduate of the University of St Andrews in Scotland, where she studied and then worked as a cheesemonger for seven years. Her short memoir, fiction, and poetry have been published in Glimmer Train (Issue 95), Shenandoah (Vol. 63, No. 1), and Welsh poetry journal Zarf (Issue 2), respectively. She has recently moved to Tallahassee, FL, where she works at a veterinarian’s office and focuses on poetry and short fiction.

Special Note:

This piece was selected as part of the “Dis/appearances” theme, guest edited by Matt Tompkins, author of Souvenirs and Other Stories and Studies in Hybrid Morphology.

Image Credit: © cat_arch_angel – stock.adobe.com

“A Bird Before His Time,” by Phillip Sterling

Single Feather Sketch

When he arrived at the edge, it was nothing like anyone had predicted. The surface was ochre, sandstone-ish, worn to—as they say—“a dull sheen,” perhaps by eons of reluctant feet. Where the sheen leveled, a woman sat on one of two delicately scrolled iron chairs that flanked a small, round iron table. It was the type of furniture his mother had once called “ice cream” and repainted with Rustoleum in shades of Antique White.

The woman wore white as well. Chiffon, he’d have said, if he’d had any recollection of chiffon, which was before his time. She’d arrived before him, predictably. She was young and lovely, the grandmother he’d never met. She seemed to be waiting.

The sun behind him hung in the haze with the dull orange blur of a moth’s cocoon. Ahead of him, beyond the table (under which the woman’s shapely ankles crossed left over right), the sky appeared to be a soft gray hat—a felt hat, if he’d ever seen one—with a single white feather, reminiscent of a bird he could not recall the name of, a bird before his time. He took the seat opposite.

Have you brought the rain? she asked.

No, he said. I thought you were waiting for me.

For the rain, she said, her voice the sound of moisture.

I have brought no rain, he said. No rain is expected.

I have been waiting a long time, she said, without rain. I thought you would be rain.

I am not rain, he said. But I am tired from my journey, so I will rest and wait with you.

Thank you, she said, and turned to face the edge. His eyes followed, closed.

It is not what you expected, she said.

No, he would have said, it is not what I expected, but his voice made no sound, his mouth without wings.

About the Author:

Phillip Sterling is the author of In Which Brief Stories Are Told. His story “kidnappingtax.blogspot.gov” won the 2015 Monstrosities of the Midway contest.

Special Note:

This piece was selected as part of the “Dis/appearances” theme, guest edited by Matt Tompkins, author of Souvenirs and Other Stories and Studies in Hybrid Morphology.

Image Credit: © cat_arch_angel – stock.adobe.com