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“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

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“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

“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.

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