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Editor Update: James R. Gapinski’s novella is a Montaigne Medal Finalist

Gapinski_Cover_2018James R. Gapinski, managing editor of The Conium Review, was named a 2019 Montaigne Medal finalist for his novella, Edge of the Known Bus Line (Etchings Press; University of Indianapolis, 2018).

This prize is an offshoot of the Eric Hoffer Award, which focuses on works published by small, micro, and academic presses. The Montaigne Medal, given in honor of the French philosophy Mchel de Montaigne, is specifically reserved for thought-provoking works that “either illuminate, progress, or redirect thought.”

The full list of finalists can be found on the Eric Hoffer Award website. Congrats on being named a finalist, James!

“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

“Split-Level,” by Tessa Yang

Staircase Sketch (pylypchuk25)

The house was a three-bedroom with a square backyard, one short flight of stairs descending to the basement and a second leading to the upper floor. The living room was drafty, so she caulked along the window frames. The garage had mice, so he bought traps—the ones with the sticky paper that resulted in a slower death for the struggling rodents, but which spared him the sight of any blood. They performed these tasks with cheerful efficiency. They were goal-oriented people. “Thing-doers,” she liked to say at those first, early parties where they were the only married couple, where they spoke in triumphant first-person plurals about their home improvement projects. They were people who got things done.

He was the first one to notice the extra step, stumbling over it on his way to the kitchen one morning. His feet recognized it before his brain. He had to go back and count: four, five, six. He wondered if he was losing his mind. The past month had been stressful. Their sickly newborn had spent the first week of its life inside a lighted box at the hospital like a rare museum artifact. Then it came home, it became a he, a living creature to dote on and fret over and sometimes secretly despise as they rushed to and from his crib, dead-eyed with exhaustion.

But the staircase to the second floor continued to grow. Up to eleven steps by the time his mother visited and informed them that they did not have the baby on a schedule—the baby had them on a schedule. She didn’t mention the elongated staircase, though his wife had embraced the anomaly with enthusiasm, marching up and down the steps with a five-pound weight in either hand, determined to return to pre-baby shape in record time.

Over the years they called in experts. Carpenters, architects, structural engineers. A clairvoyant wanted to feature them on her TV show, certain they were hosting a spirit who reached out with ghostly fingers to manipulate the steps.

They stopped having friends over. It was embarrassing, trying to explain. They wanted to sell the place, but who on earth would take a house with 43 stairs? The people at her office complained when the elevator shut down, and that was only two flights.

They resolved to ignore it. It was the same strategy they offered their son when his little sister parroted his phrases. Just ignore her. She’ll get bored and go away. For a while it worked. The stairs seemed to max out. She returned to school, working toward her MBA on the company’s dime. He went part-time and learned to cook like Ina Garten—gazpacho and shrimp scampi, coconut cake on gleaming metal stands. Weekends, they rented movies, avoiding Netflix because they distrusted this growing culture of instant gratification, but also because they liked the sight of their children galloping pink-cheeked between the racks of DVDs.

Then his father died. It took something out of him. He became fussy and fearful. He obsessed over their children’s diets. On evenings she had class, she worried he wasn’t feeding them enough. She took to sneaking junk food into their backpacks. Her daughter gobbled these treats on the bus ride home each day, tonguing the traitorous cheese dust from beneath her fingernails. The packages in her son’s bag always returned unopened, yet in an act of some great cosmic injustice, he remained overweight.

The staircase began to grow again. Three, sometimes four steps a night. It curled in tight spirals. He thought of a nautilus; she, the twisted ladders of DNA. Their daughter was fond of the stairs. She had a name for each one. They could hear her greeting them as she ascended to her bedroom—“Hi Mitsy, hi Scooter, hi Phil—” her voice fading into the heights, then silenced. For their son, the stairs were the torment of gym class all over again. He begged to sleep in the first-floor study. His father worried about all the things a boy could get into. His wife told him to stop hovering and hired a team of baffled movers to maneuver her son’s bed down the 97 steps.

In the past year, she’d begun sleeping with the woman who delivered the mail. “For the free stamps,” she told her husband when asked why she’d done it. She had expected the telling to ignite something between them. Instead it only sat there like a sidestepped piece of roadkill, awaiting pick-up from the people who were paid to do that sort of thing.

They were forced to take rest stops on the journey to the second floor. Their bodies had started to protest the climb: her hips, his feet. At the midpoint, they could hear neither the stutter of video game gunfire from their son’s first-floor bedroom, nor the shrieked Japanese of their daughter’s Anime shows upstairs. There was only the house—an orchestra of shudders—and their own frail voices as they pitched ideas, the same ones every night.

They could install an elevator.

They could move, permanently, downstairs.

They could take the financial blow and abandon the house.

But by the time they reached the second floor, aching and sweaty, it was all they could do to collapse into bed.

Lighting bolts cut through his dreams. She saw an endless snake of roller coaster tracks, writhing through a fiery sky. When the scene morphed and they found themselves teetering at the top of the stairs, it was not always clear whether they were dreaming or not—for if it was a dream, it was so lifelike that when she sprang over the railings and began to free fall, when he dove headfirst from the topmost step, there was the perfect crystallized panic, followed by the gut-swooping relief, of having relinquished oneself to an irrevocable mistake.

About the Author:

Tessa Yang is an MFA candidate at Indiana University where she serves as the Associate Editor of Indiana Review. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Clockhouse, The Writing Disorder, and Lunch Ticket. Her short story “Runners” was a finalist for The Cossack Review’s October Prize and will appear in Issue 7. When not reading and writing, Tessa enjoys playing Frisbee and counting down the remaining days until next year’s Shark Week. Follow her on Twitter: @ThePtessadactyl.

Special Note:

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

Image Credit: © pylypchuk25 – 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