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“Rehearsal,” by Thomas Michael Duncan

Realistic reel of film, doodle style

Turns out there’s always work for a corpse. I’m talking movies, TV, emopunk music videos, texting-and-driving commercials, crime scene reenactments, all that jazz. If you’ve turned on your cable box in the last month, you’ve seen me dead. Most of my appearances are in the first two minutes of police dramas. Sometimes the script calls for me to be naked, washed up on a beach with seaweed in my hair. Sometimes I play a woman corpse; they position me facedown, shave my back, and put a red curly wig on my head. Open casket scenes are best because I wear a clean suit and coffins are lined with satin. More often I’m discovered in a dumpster, bloody with shackle bruises on my ankles and wrists, or bunched up and stuffed into a front loader at an abandoned laundromat. I get really into my parts. I can keep my eyes open for almost an hour without blinking. I can breathe for a whole day without expanding my chest cavity. When I’m dead, I think dead people thoughts, like what year is it? and where am I buried? and how many ounces in a pint? I block out my surroundings so well that I don’t always come back to life when the scene ends. If this happens, the production assistant dumps a glass of water over my head. That usually does the trick. Last fall I costarred with Dwayne Johnson. It was during his Dwayne Johnson phase. I played his dead brother. DJ cradled me in his gorilla arms and cried and shook like a paint can mixer at Home Depot. I acted dead. DJ didn’t stop crying until after lunch. My agent says I’m the most convincing corpse he’s ever seen, and he’s seen actual corpses. Auditions can be tough—the competition is stiff. Sorry. That’s an industry joke. But really, casting is uncomfortable. The directors shout at me, kick me, call me names, eat plates of linguine off my back. But I am dead as a dinosaur. They usually apologize after. My girlfriend decided we should try role playing, but she always wanted me to play the same part. We broke up. It was mutual. Now I have the apartment to myself so I can rehearse whenever I like. I play loud music and leave all the widows open and door unlocked and shower running in hopes that someone will discover me. That’s my one fantasy. It would be the absolute height of my career to be mistaken for a corpse by a pedestrian. I imagine being declared dead, fooling even the coroner. I would remain in character until the first shovel of dirt hit the mahogany.

About the Author:

Thomas Michael Duncan writes fact, fiction, and the occasional bit of nonsense. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina.

Special Note:

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

Image Credit: © Handini_Atmodiwiryo – 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

“Carotene,” by Hsien Chong Tan

Eyeball Sketch

I know a woman with orange hands. Orange hands and the thickest glasses. Everyone says carrots are good for the eyes, no one wants to catch scurvy, so for the last eight months, she has been living on carrot sticks and orange juice. Sometimes, for variety, the carrots go in the juicer. Sometimes, for fiber, she cuts the oranges into sections instead of squeezing them, six half-moons in a circle.

The woman I know has one of those eye charts in her bedroom. Once a month, she stands with her back straight against the opposite wall: E, F, P, T, O, Z. The rest of the time, she scrupulously avoids looking in that corner. I think: she could just cover it. But she is testing her mind as well as her body. Someday, her patience will be rewarded. Someday she’ll find out what comes after Z.

I do some reading of my own. Carotenosis: Pigment in the blood from excessive consumption of carrots and similar fruits and vegetables. Pumpkins. Papayas. Collard greens.

*

I know a woman with an orange nose. At first I didn’t notice, but now it’s hard not to stare. It is spreading, and I wonder what will be next. Her cheeks. Her lips. The roots of her hair. I wonder if she knows. Her vision is fine with those glasses on; she is short-sighted, not color blind. But there are different kinds of not seeing.

Maybe “spectacles” is a better word – the lenses are high-density plastic. With her myopia, actual glass would be too heavy, those frames wouldn’t stay on her nose. Her orange nose. It is a terrible thing when she catches me staring. Refracted in those transparent blocks, her gray eyes blink, seeking mine out from a great distance.

*

I know a woman with orange feet. I cradle them in my hands, two halves of some strange fruit, and she laughs and thinks that I am the strange one. Her glasses go on the dresser when we make love, and her eyes seem unfocused, or not focused on me, which is not the same thing. Without them, her face is another face, unknown and involved in unfamiliar contortions as it moves in the shade of my body. This distracts me; sometimes I finish without finishing.

*

Her silhouette dwindles, the eye tests prove nothing – carrots and oranges are water and paint. Is this all out of vanity? Maybe contact lenses hurt her eyes – it would explain those afternoons locked in the bathroom, the red-rimmed eyes (the whites still white). Surely there are alternatives, things to do with knives and lasers. But there are different kinds of pain, and they are not equal.

Some days, I think of taking down her chart and replacing it with letters of my own. Notes of endearment, sweet nothings, a reminder that we’re out of toothpaste. This is just to say, I’ve eaten the oranges that were in the ice box.

Other days I wonder how far things have gone. Surely it begins on the inside. It is on the surface now, what would I find if I started to peel her, how would I begin? Move in a circle, counter-clockwise, paring vertical strips down the sides? Or would I dig in with fingers, white new-moon scars in the flesh, me under her skin, her under my nails?

I am familiar with the center of an orange, the bitter pith, the pips slippery like teardrops. Carrots, too, have secrets, sliced on the bias: an inner circle, a paler star.

*

I know a woman with orange blood. Carotenaemia – there is a word for everything.

Talk to a doctor.

Consult a nutritionist.

Avoid peaches, eggs and sweet potatoes.

The stain itself is harmless, pigment, not poison.

There is nothing wrong with you.

Take salsa classes.

Take a vacation.

Take your medication.

There is nothing wrong with you.

Take your time. Seven weeks should restore normal color,

Cheeks flushed pink, hands clenched white.

Roses are red,

Violets are blue,

Orange you glad?

That there is nothing wrong with you.

*

I’ll do it tonight, when there is a full moon; a cycle is ending, a cycle begins. I see her, weeks from now, back straight against the wall. She presses her orange palms flat against the white surface, her feet too, soles flat on the floor, doing all she can to avoid rushing forward, glasses pressed to her nose, to finally read the writing on the wall, to find out what comes after G, O, O, D, B, Y.

***

E          F          P

T          O

Z

About the Author:

Hsien Chong Tan is a recent MFA graduate from the New Writers Project at UT Austin. He lives in Wisconsin with his wife and two cats.

Special Note:

This story was a finalist in The Conium Review‘s 2014 Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Ashley Farmer.

Image Credit: © Kreatiw / Dollar Photo Club