Loading...

“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

“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.

Image Credit: © Morphart – stock.adobe.com

“Far Afield,” by Anthony Martin

Chicago Skyline

That creaking is the building swaying in the wind. Carpenter’s officemate gave a start when it happened on his first day. It is designed to do that, Mitchell, so I wouldn’t be concerned. The Sears Tower, you know the one in Chicago, it’s on these tremendous rollers so that even a tornado wouldn’t do it in. The creaking is just lateral give, he says, and thinks, When Rita sat where you sat she said it sounds like an old man walking up the stairs, the way the wood creaks and his ankles pop. She said skyscrapers are really just tall blades of grass.

They were like ants then, the way they marched up the blade each day, up the crease and toward the topmost point, careful not to slip on the morning dew. Now hers is in the business district of a Dutch city with a suspension bridge where the spring thaw is likely nearing its end; and his is in the same goddamn blue-green gridlocked pasture near the coast, that limited, ever-bustling field where the sun usually shines but less bright when no one is there to lie in it with. Sometimes the fog comes in and settles low under Carpenter’s window, something like a gray blanket stretched out over the city and the other blades poking through it here and there, their antennae reaching upward and begging for lightning to strike.

Oh it rains here, Mitch. Sure. Everyone asks that. Rarely lightning, though. Least I haven’t seen any yet.

Out the window, Carpenter knows his gaze will have to cross a continent and an ocean and then still a good piece after that before it reaches Rita atop her new blade of grass, fifty five stories up and three thousand miles away, night-eyed and sleepy and swaying in the wind.

About the Author:

Anthony Martin (@pen_tight) is a mutt, mixed with a little Timber Journal, Cheap Pop, WhiskeyPaper, Lunch Ticket, and Pea River Journal.

Image Credit: © canicula / Dollar Photo Club