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“Seashell,” by Will Walawender

Water DropSketch (BW)

In one month I will cast myself into the sea. There is an ocean growing inside me, and it pours out at night. Out of my eyes like tears, yes, but out of my ears, my nose, my mouth as well. Some nights my ocean swells and it leaks from my pores. Melissa tastes salt water when she kisses my neck in the dark. She says, “Erica, I’m worried. What is the matter?” I don’t want to concern her. I whisper that I am warm, too hot, I am sweating, I have been eating too much sodium lately. She can feel the chill of me like a breeze when she wraps her arms around me though. Of this I am sure.

I visit my doctor in the morning and she still doesn’t know what to do. She takes samples of my blood and it comes out clear. It’s foamy like a wave. We meet every few weeks. She has my samples lined up along her shelves. I sit in her office, staring at the vials in front of her books. They are dark, almost black, at the farthest left. Their color filters out, making red, pink, until they turn green to the right. My doctor shakes the greenest one and says that I don’t have much time. “I see maybe a half a year, maybe a bit less.” She kneels in front of my chair to take my hand, flips it over to run a finger across my palm. Her nails tread across my flesh, making ripples all the way up my wrist and forearm. She flips my hand again and kisses my knuckles. I don’t know how to react. Her lipstick washes away in my flesh. She says, “I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to do.” She says, “Come back in a few weeks, please. Maybe I can help then.”

I return to Melissa’s home, more damp than ever. I can feel the bubbles of fish in my stomach when I tell her. “An ocean?” she asks. Yes, an ocean. It’s growing. It’s like I’m made of ice and I’m melting. We are sitting across from one another on top of the blankets of her bed. When I stand up, I will leave a puddle where her foot will rest later tonight. See, I say, holding out my arm as if to hold her hand. I flick a finger across my skin and splash water on her face. It drips down on her lip.

“Maybe,” she says, “I can keep you in the tub. Or I can fill all my empty beer bottles with you. I can keep you forever.”

That’s sweet, I tell her, but I can’t.

I don’t say so, but I fear her anger. Getting mad at me for changing this way. She could lash out and drink me. Laugh as she pisses me out the next day and flushes me down the toilet.

I tell her that I can’t see her anymore. I’m sorry, I can’t leave this burden on you. You’re too sweet, too kind, but how can you bottle this much salt water?

I leave her then, apologizing for the wet trail of myself as I walk out the door.

I begin to spend my time walking the streets in the rain. I sit in the bleachers at the county pool watching college students do laps. I drink two gallons of water a day to sustain myself.

There has always been an ocean in me. It’s deep. If you fall all the way in, I’m sure you couldn’t get out. Fish bobble up to the surface, and predators wait down in the depths.

My one month is up. I take a long walk down to the beach.

I call my father and take my time as my feet sink and mix into the sand. For one long second, I listen to his breathing on the other end, long and raspy. It sounds like a beached whale’s cry.

When we talk, our voices trail off at the end of our sentences. My father gulps and exhales in a slow, tragic kind of way. He asks me about Melissa between gasps of breath. We don’t talk about his divorce. I tell him about my brother’s new adventure overseas and he coughs in excitement. He tells me how beautiful his nurses are.

The tide is rising as I talk to him. Seagulls call out and fight over fish in the slosh. My ocean is seeping out of me. I’m dripping into the receiver of the phone. Drip, drip, drip. If my father can hear it, he doesn’t say anything.

I remember once he told me, “You will find a nice boy soon. Your ocean will calm and smooth over like glass and all will be well.”

Of course I got angry. I said, You know, maybe it’s good that I am dissolving into my ocean. Maybe lots of people have done this before and that’s why the Atlantic is so damn big. Each wave is another sad girl like me. Can you imagine swimming across that many people?

I listen to the sound of his snores, his breath, his sobs, his I don’t know what again at full volume pressed to my ear.

For a minute, neither of us says anything. Then he says that he can hear the ocean on my side of the phone. “It sounds so beautiful, I wish I could see.”

The tide is kissing at my toes in the sand. My father and I are listening to each other’s breathing through the phone.

I take one cautious step into the water and press the phone tighter to my ear.

I want to really hear what my father is saying in his exhale. On the other end, the cave of his throat sounds empty, but I know otherwise.

If I concentrate hard enough, I might be able to hear.

About the Author:

Will Walawender is a student at Sarah Lawrence College pursuing his MFA in Fiction Writing. He has taught Creative Writing at Exploration Summer Programs at Yale and Baccalaureate School for Global Education. His fiction has previously been published in The Bookends Review and is forthcoming in NANO Fiction.

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

“This Is Great But You Don’t Need It,” by John Englehardt

Maze Sketch

You find happiness beside a food truck on Pike and Broadway, while you are waiting for the tacos you just ordered. It’s an illogical type of happiness, the kind that has no object, as if a net that smothered your thoughts has been chewed away, and now your attention spills outward. So you decide not to go home. You carry your tacos to the park to eat them with yourself—which, you decide, is not the same thing as eating them alone.

So you walk, and you keep finding what the happiness is. You think: it is the plum blossoms. It is the dogs carrying leashes in their own mouths. It is how your blood feels powerfully sober. It is a group of people at a bus stop who all stand on their toes, lean over the curb, together catching sight of their bus, which is just now coming down a hill.

So the next morning, you are in line for coffee when a nanny for some rich Microsoft family walks in. She’s holding hands with a toddler. A few minutes later, she offers him banana chips and he swings his entire arm in a Frankenstein-like fashion across the table, scattering the chips across the floor. The girl doesn’t seem to care. She gathers her hair across a front shoulder and sips the brimming foam from her latte. And when she straightens and smiles at you with her whole face, you decide to ask her out on a date.

That night, you both walk through snow flurries, to a bar that has transformed with the weather, feels like a ski lodge. The girl orders whiskey. When her hair dries out, it looks iridescent from the bar lights, like a frizzy halo. She gets drunk with you and tells you about writing suicide notes to her parents when she was only six years old, about an ex-boyfriend who had to take all his clothes off anytime he took a shit. You think: this is fun. You think: I am learning.

One of your friends throws a brunch party. His house is a big faded triangle with bicycles and damp people oozing from the doors. You eat waffles late into the afternoon. Then a strange guy with hair braided into pigtails—someone’s co-worker, probably—interrupts a group conversation. He says, “Man, I don’t believe in power. All power is just inferiority, anyways.” No one responds. The whole room is silent, and one friend is holding a pillow to her chest and smiling at the ceiling. You decide that all of you, together, are making the world a better place with that silence.

These days, you rarely check your email. You are not signing onto Facebook to look at pictures of “Ashley and Justin’s rustic barn wedding.” You are not wishing for the things people always do. You are not jealous of the couples wearing sweat pants in Trader Joes, buying falafel mix for dinner on a Friday. You do not even want a volatile lover inconsistent with your own nature. And when you look in the mirror, you do so only long enough to decide that you are balding with dignity, though just a few years ago you would not have considered that to be possible.

The Microsoft nanny asks you out to lunch, to a restaurant that only serves Pho and cream puffs. After squirting plum sauce into her “medium veggie,” she tells you she has contracted a skin disease that, while treatable, is painful and semi-contagious. It will be two years before she can be sexually active. You’ve only been on one date, so you can’t be sad. She takes you into the bathroom and pulls down her pants to show you the red dots spreading around her thighs and torso. Molluscum Contagiosum. She got it from swimming in a hotel pool. You walk her home, and saying goodbye feels like practice for the other times you’ll have to leave someone else, for when it will be much more difficult.

So you walk alone until dinnertime, and by then all the brick apartment buildings and Victorian mansions have their lights on. Tenants are painting at their kitchen tables. They are putting everything in drawers. They are smoking too much weed and spending hours reading about the Illuminati. They are poised on living room rugs, performing stretches that will help with sciatic nerve pain. They are not the type of people who think that, at age 26, if they haven’t found someone to “be with,” that they might end up alone. They do not pretend that there can be a plot for their happiness. They know how feelings that never change are lies.

It ends while you are asleep. Your mind discovers that there is no reason for your happiness. It’s not that your subconscious reviles that emotion—it’s just that, from a certain angle, happiness looks like something you don’t need anymore. So it gets released, and in the morning you sit in bed, laptop on thighs, staring at previously read emails. You get ready, but the longer you look in the mirror, the more you have to stand in front of it. And on your walk to work, all the blinds are closed. Attractive strangers are smug. You want to care about the plum blossoms, but you don’t. You try to see them falling around you like pink TV snow. You try to see them as they were. But what you are doing is this: you are reaching out into the world to find happiness again, but it’s one of those things that wouldn’t be real if you could touch it, that wouldn’t be worth much if it could be chased after leaving.

About the Author:

John Englehardt’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Sycamore Review, The Stranger, Monkeybicycle, The Monarch Review, and Furlough Magazine. He won the 2014 Wabash Prize in Fiction, as well as The Stranger‘s A&P fiction contest. He’s a recent graduate of University of Arkansas’ MFA program, and now lives and works in Seattle.

Special Notes:

This story won The Conium Review‘s 2014 Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Ashley Farmer.  It was also made into a micro-chap and distributed at the 2015 AWP Conference in Minneapolis, MN.

This story is one of The Conium Review‘s nominations for the Sundress Publications anthology, Best of the Net 2015.

This story was nominated and listed as a semifinalist for the Queen’s Ferry Press anthology, Best Small Fictions 2016, guest edited by Stuart Dybek.

Image Credit: © carlacastagno / Dollar Photo Club