“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

“I Will Light Your Way,” by Joe Baumann

Lamp Sketch

When Gala and I try to leave the hardware store, we cannot find an exit.

“I swear the doors were right here,” she says after we’ve paid, pointing at a long, creamy brown wall of concrete just past the cash registers. “This is where we came in. It should be where we leave.”

We sit down on some lawn chairs on clearance, oversized price tags dangling from the wicker like flattened Christmas ornaments. Other customers start to grumble about the missing doors, their arms weighed down by straining plastic bags filled with hammers and outlet covers and watering cans. One man wields a pair of fluorescent bulbs like nunchakus. A crowd begins to mass. Carts bump into one another. A woman holding birdseed sets the bag down, letting go too early. The bag splits, a mound of pellets tumbling across the slick floor like a field of flat marbles. She begins to cry, so another woman rifles through a leather purse and hands her a travel pack of Kleenex.

Gala holds up the small clay pot we have bought. We are going to start growing our own catnip. “What about home and garden? The outdoor section?”

She says it loud enough for those around us to hear, and we start an exodus for the other side of the store, Gala leading the way. When we arrive, she slumps down on a palette of fertilizer when she sees that those doors, too, have vanished. “We’re trapped,” she says.

“There are some vending machines by the not-doors. We won’t starve,” I say. “Or go thirsty. They have Coke products.” I reach into my pocket and jingle some change. “Let’s go get a Snickers bar to share.”

“How are you so optimistic?”
I shrug and look up at the high ceiling, the far away light glimmering against the chocolate-colored walls like the edges of a runway. “Why are you so worried?”

“Because there are no doors.”

An older couple is poring over garden hoses, seemingly unaware that we are trapped. I sidle up next to them and suggest the scrunchy kind because it saves so much time on rewinding. The woman smiles and thanks me for the advice, and the man tosses one in their cart.

“We just bought a house together,” he says. His hair is white and wavy, thin on the crown so I can see his mottled scalp.

“First time for both of us.” She squeezes his slouchy bicep and smiles, the wattled skin on her neck trampolining up and down. I nod and return the smile, and they continue their shopping, heading off toward the appliances, perhaps to look for a toaster or microwave oven.

“You don’t know anything about hoses,” Gala says. “But that was nice of you.”

“They were cute,” I say. “And those hoses never kink or knot. You want that Snickers?”

Gala sighs and hops off the fertilizer bags. “I guess so.”

When we reach the vending machine, I pump in the quarters but let Gala press the buttons; she’s always mesmerized by the metal coils as they turn and release candy and chips and dehydrated fruit in wrinkly bags, pressing her forehead to the glass while the machine churns. It’s a fiery momentary panic, she says, when you wonder if you’ll be one of the unlucky ones where the machinery doesn’t work and your snack is suspended in front of you, mocking you.

But our candy bar thunks down with no problem.

We start a long, lazy counterclockwise lap around the store, passing the bored toilets and blazoned rows of lamps and ceiling fans. The flooring section is abandoned.

“I could use something salty now,” Gala says when we finish the candy bar.

“It had peanuts in it.”

“Let’s get some chips.”

Past the checkout lines where cashiers avert their eyes and count their cash drawers over and over, an assistant manager is trying to calm the crowd, whose rising panic is tangible, voices mingled in a grumbling, harsh wave. The store has grown humid and sweaty-sticky, peoples’ voices throatier and gnarled, the air tinged with the sour, rank smell of body odor and anxiety. Someone is yelling about their rights being violated.

“We’re working on it,” the manager says, his bright red shirt stained with sweat under his arms, his fuzzy army-cut blond hair matted and slick. “We’ve called the police and the fire department. They’ll get this figured out.”

“See?” I say, popping open our bag of chips and holding it out to her. She pulls out a handful of flaky crisps, shaking her head all the while.

“Shoot,” she says after she swallows. “The flower pot.” She holds out her hands, upturned palms shiny with chip oil, as if to prove that she doesn’t have it. I press mine to hers and feel the slick salt on her finger tips.

“That’s okay,” I say. “Let’s go find it.”
“What if the lights go out?”

“Why would that happen?”

“Why would the doors disappear?”

“Well, we can just get another one. Or maybe we could get a gardening hose. I could find those again, I bet, even in the dark.”

“Or maybe none of it will matter because we’re going to die in here.”

“We can always eat potting soil,” I say. “Or worms from the fishing department.”

“You’re disgusting,” Gala says, but she gives my hand a squeeze, and we march back to the home and garden section, the sounds of shouting, scared customers fading into a burble like a far off waterfall. I grab a cart that someone has abandoned in the paint supply aisle, filled with a pack of lightbulbs and a screwdriver and a brass bedside lamp. I wonder where its owner has gone, and what they had planned. Given enough time, I think to myself, I could use these things to turn that lamp on, push back the darkness, and brighten up our path, light our way.

About the Author:

Joe Baumann possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His work has appeared in many journals, including Jelly Bucket, Cleaver Magazine, Tulane Review, Hawai’i Review, and others. He is the editor-in-chief of The Gateway Review.

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: © Perysty – stock.adobe.com

“Burnout,” by Kellie Karbach

Sneakers sketch

I plunged a spoonful of oatmeal into my mouth with one hand and cupped my hipbone with the other.

Prior to, my mother locked her hands around my arms. Her middle finger and thumb met with a keratin click. She sighed. I promised not to fall backwards.

Prior to, I towed my body down two miles of asphalt to the apartment stairwell.

Prior to, at mile eight, my left knee surrendered with a snap. A red Toyota swerved onto the leafy median with a rubber yelp.

Prior to, I imagined solar liposuction, melting adipose, how it’d smell like burnt oil, maybe sweeter, maybe more sour, if it’d dissolve my inner thighs first, or the pouch in my lower belly. I adjusted the mile goal on my app from eight to ten.

Prior to, the number 115 flashed scarlet on the screen. I glued a new piece of Velcro to my armband but it still slid to my elbow.

Prior to, I triple-knotted my shoes. The sun and the neighborhood and my mother hid their eyes under warm blankets.

About the Author:

Kellie Karbach is a highly-caffeinated writer and amateur photographer based in Southwest Florida. She curates and edits a travel and lifestyle website entitled Venturing East. Her work has appeared in Little Patuxent Review and Iron Gall Press. In the past, she has served as a freelance contributor to West & Grand, and as a baseball beat writer for The Claw Digest and MiracleBaseball.com.

Image Credit: © Akhilesh Sharma – stock.adobe.com

“A Partial List of Things Lost in the Fire,” by Melissa Reddish

House Fire Sketch (large BW)

Taking out the trash; taking out the recycling; rolling the trash to the curb on Sunday night; the leaking dishwasher; the water spots on the glasses; the mismatched pull chains on the bedroom fan; all the burned-out light bulbs; all the used paper towels; all the socks with holes in them; the four broken glasses and the tiny shards of leftover glass beneath the fridge; the empty ice-cube tray that no one remembered to fill; the hum-dinga-ding of the dryer when it was finished; the broken front step; the broken back step; the fallen branches from last night’s storm; the leaves in the gutter; the leaves on the lawn; the leaf inexplicably in my bed; The Land Before Time on video cassette; my mother’s gold wedding ring; the dusty blinds; the family photos leading up the staircase; my father’s favorite coffee mug; the broom in the hall closet; the bottles of Clorox, Bam!, and Windex, mostly full; the twenty-eight pairs of shoes; the thirty-one pairs of pants; the eighteen neckties; the single pair of cufflinks, never worn; the upstairs hamper (for shirts, pants, and other outerwear); the downstairs hamper (for underwear, socks, and towels); the set of Nutcracker decorations passed down from my grandmother; the set of nice cloth placemats for company; the dress I wore to Junior prom; my mother’s jewelry box; my brother’s stack of Maxims; the chipped clay pot from middle school used to collect coins; the box of extra cords nobody properly understood but kept out of a misguided sense of propriety; the alarm clock; the blue and yellow and pink sheets from each bed; what was on the sheets from each bed; the answering machine asking you to leave a message after the—

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: © WavebreakmediaMicro – stock.adobe.com

“5AM Vampire,” by Andrea Arnold

doodle blood bag

The lab technician said it was his first day on the job. He was joking, of course, as he drew vials of my blood. The needle poked in my vein. The red oozed through a long, plastic tube and filled the glass. He sealed and labeled each vile with a sticker drenched in black numbers. My blood surprised me; it looked strong. It made me confident. Like I can do this. I can live. I can survive. I can have a baby.

 “Do I get a Hello Kitty Band Aid?” I said, trying to be funny too, like him, grateful he didn’t spill my blood on the floor. Just then I heard myself and remembered I’m a blueprint for how not to raise a child. Where do I begin?

It had been ten years since anyone had taken blood from me. It never occurred to me to take care of myself. Blood tests weren’t on my radar. My gynecologist had insisted. She was pissed, even. How could anyone let me go this long and who was my general practitioner and what was she thinking?

“I’m from the Philippines, not Japan,” the guy tells me, but he’d already explained where he was from, how he came here young, joined the marines, and that his time as a combat medic prepared him for a career as a “5AM vampire.” Another joke, of course. “Men with no legs, from bombs. It was gross.” The word came out sloppy, like he had soup in his mouth. “Now I get here at five in the morning and suck blood,” he said, filled and sealed another vile.

My arm began to ache. I felt the bruising. “It hurts.”

“Are you having surgery?”

I shook my head. “Why? Should I?”

“This much blood. Why not?”

This morning all I could think about were my ovaries and whether my husband’s sperms were making ground, like good soldiers, charging up the fallopian tube and busting through the shell. In my mind the vampire could fly. He had wings. He could hunt and kill in the moonlight, under a bridge; he’d lay down his prey and drain the body until it was stiff and cold. He’d stay young forever.

But we are worriers, not warriors. My husband swears he will rip in half the day he hears his baby cry.

I don’t march or charge or win. I play. I drink moon juice and leap from star to star. This is the most real thing I’ve ever done. Now I feel old, but I take it as a sign of strength. I can read it in my blood. It’s regenerating.

The lab technician assures me this was easy, everything was easy, in comparison to what he’s seen. He points to the wound, how it’s already closed, and I reach up and pull apart a cloud.

About the Author:

Andrea Arnold’s writing has appeared in places like Electric Literature, The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown and as scripts on Travel Channel. She also edited The Craft: Essays on Writing from the Yale Writers’ Conference Faculty for Elephant Rock Books. She’s currently busy with edits on her novel. She has an MFA from USC, a JD from Chicago-Kent, and a BA in English from GWU. She lives and surfs in Santa Monica, CA. For more info please visit www.andrea-arnold.com.

Image Credit: © dule964 – stock.adobe.com

“Rescue and Conquer,” by Jan Stinchcomb

Wolf Howling

I serve beer down at the Rescue and Conquer. Woodsmen and wolves come to us in droves. It’s odd to see them getting along, nuzzling and stroking each other, sitting at the same tables, filling the tavern with their laughter. Paying for drinks.

It’s as if they were never enemies.

I’m standing at the counter waiting for a tray and arranging my cleavage when Cassandra touches my shoulder. “Come on. You’ve got a wolf in Room 7.”

I know who this is. At least I’ll have a break from serving.

Room 7 is cool and dark, lavish in red silk. An enormous silver wolf is lying on the bed, pointing his gaping wound right at me. “Again?” I ask, faking surprise.

“You know it, my sweet.”

“You must be addicted.”

“And you should remember that the customer is always right. Now stitch me up.” He taps me with his heavy tail as he orders me around. I know he paid three pieces of gold for this. It’s flattering to be his regular maid.

The sewing kit is sterilized and ready for use. I choose a long, sharp needle and our best silver thread. “Do you want to talk about it?” I ask. Sometimes they want to talk, and other times they go into a kind of trance that won’t let women in. They’re so damn proud of their wounds.

“I’d rather hear you talk about it, my dear.”

That is the one thing I did not want to hear. Now I wonder if he paid double. I take a deep breath and will myself to be interested in this very old story. “Let me see,” I begin. “She was young and blond.”

“Raven-haired.”

“Yes, a brunette. And all alone.”

“With her mother—no, her grandmother.”

“Indeed. Twice the female flesh. You could not resist. Did you talk to her this time?”

“I get tired of talking to them. I shouldn’t have to ask for what I need.”

All at once I hate this wolf. I tie a knot in the thread and wonder if I can get out of this, or somehow get through it quickly. “Of course not. You should not have to ask. She should read your mind.”

“Watch it, pretty maid. I can request someone else, you know.”

I almost call his bluff. I have my favorites too. There’s one woodsman I truly connect with. I know he loves me. We could leave this tavern and move into our own pretty cottage.

But we never do. Something stops us every time.

“All right, my vicious one. You didn’t talk to her. You didn’t want to know what was in her basket, or where she was going. Let’s say, for instance, that she was already safe inside her grandmother’s cottage, at night. They were sewing together by the light of a single candle or perhaps they were in bed already. The girl was dark-haired and as docile as a frightened doe. Hers was a life of perfect obedience.”

“Give her some spirit!”

“And she had fire inside.”

“That’s more like it.” The big silver wolf purrs like an enormous cat. His breathing grows faster and faster. He is at his most vulnerable.

(Cassandra always says that now would be the time to kill one of them if you’re ever going to do it.)

I drive the needle into his flesh—that first piercing sensation makes even the biggest of them wince—and begin stitching. “You knocked down the front door. The two women screamed, clutching each other. Their fear was so great it could have killed them. The sweet girl offered herself as a sacrifice to save her grandmother. She dropped her gown and gave you all her red, wet parts. You consumed her whole. Still, you were not satisfied. You took her grandmother, too, in one enormous gulp.”

The wolf’s breath is moist and warm and smells of death. It wraps around me as I stitch. He grins and nods.

“And then, in the moments before your own demise, you did a funny thing. You baked yourself some little cakes in their kitchen even though you were full. It’s your own special way of completing the kill, so that you can taste a bit of their life. Then you stretched out by the fire.”

The wolf wraps his arms around me as I complete the final stitches, but I stop him: “That, sir, will cost you extra. Besides, I need to finish the story. The woodsman burst inside, ax-proud and ready for victory. He split your belly with the blade before you could blink. The girl and her grandmother emerged unscathed. And you were defeated, gushing red, split open.”

The wolf is healed, save for the stitches on his belly. He gets up on all fours and howls so that the windows shake. I take a step back. The merchant on duty opens the door and points a rifle at the restored beast.

On his way to the back door the wolf stops and turns. He comes close and whispers in my ear, “You’re a good girl, Sally. How did you know about the baking?”

My face burns. The merchant pokes the wolf with the rifle. “Get out, you.”

Back at the counter I ask Cassandra why we put up with his type. She raises one eyebrow at me. “How is he any different from your fair-weather woodsman?”

“He’s completely different. He’s violent, for starters.”

“But do either of them really do anything for you? Be honest now. Besides, where else would you work? What other safe place pays room and board?”

I have no answer. Then I remember the baking fetish. That kind of detail can make a girl feel powerful, and I want to brag about it to Cassandra. I reach for her arm but she is already gone.

Another tray is waiting for me.

About the Author:

Jan Stinchcomb’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Strange Little Girls, A cappella Zoo, Happily Never After, Bohemia, Rose Red Review, Luna Station Quarterly, The Red Penny Papers, and PANK (online), among other places. She reviews fairy tale-inspired works for Luna Station Quarterly. Her novella, Find the Girl, is now available from Main Street Rag. She lives in Southern California with her husband and daughters. You can find her at www.janstinchcomb.com.

Special Note:

This story was a finalist in The Conium Review‘s 2015 Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Laura Ellen Joyce.

Image Credit: © doublebubble_rus / Dollar Photo Club