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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

“Empty Nest,” by Jillian Jackson

Rabbit sketch

The day her youngest left for college, she came home with two cats. A boy and a girl, just like her children. Everyone understood. The nest was empty. It’s that thing. It’s only natural.

“You’re such a little peanut,” she said to one of the cats. “My little Peanut. Peanut Butter. Peanut Butt.”

“Biscuit,” she said to the other. “Bisquick. Little Bisque. Bisque-Kitten. Biscuit-Tin. Lobster Bisque. My little Lobster, sweet Lobster Claw.”

She bought them beds and toys and treats. She let them scratch her couch. She scooped their poop twice a day. She liked the crunching sounds they made when they ate their dry food with their precise little teeth. The metal tinkling of the tags on their collars, like tiny bells, joyful sounds that let her know they were close.

It wasn’t enough. While her husband was at work, she went to the pet store and bought some rabbits. The rabbits proceeded to do it like rabbits. More rabbits. Her husband helped her build hutches around the house. She fed them each their own head of lettuce. She stuck her fingers through the wire cages. They were soft, impossibly soft, so soft, eight, sixteen, twenty-four soft little feet, lucky feet.

Too many rabbits, her husband said. The nest was too full. He made her put an ad in the local paper: bunnies for sale. But then he had a heart attack, and when the house was dark and her children had left again and all the flowers had wilted and she put the cards away and there weren’t any more casseroles in the freezer, she was grateful she still had the rabbits, and it seemed to her, in fact, that she did not have enough rabbits.

Maybe it wasn’t rabbits, precisely. Maybe it was something else she needed. Hamsters. Hamsters were small. They could fit in your pocket. That could be her new thing. Now that she was not all the things she used to be, she could be the lady who did that, who went around town with a hamster in her pocket.

The hamster did not like her pocket. It did not mind its cage: the wood chips, the brightly colored tubes, sucking from the metal tip of the water bottle. The sound of its nails against the plastic, its feet scrambling through the loops, comforted her. “Silly hamster,” she said. “Hamster-Ham. You are my smoky little Ham.”

When she got the hamsters she also got two goldfish. Impulse buy at the checkout line. The same way she would sometimes buy a candy bar, or a trashy magazine. Two fish, a tank, a filter, fish flakes, pink pebbles, seaweed plants, a castle, a plastic diving man, a Jacques Costeau. She wondered what they would do if she stroked their glittering scales with the pads of her fingers.

Weeks later she was out running errands. She was buying food for herself and for the cats and the fish and the hamster and the rabbits. When she got to the dairy section, she thought, how silly. How silly to spend money when there are creatures that will give these things to you for free.

She bought a full-grown chicken and a couple of chicks. She named the chicken Pokey. “Little Poke,” she said. “Hey there, Pokey-Partner.”

She put the chicken in a coop in the yard and the chicks under heat lamps in the living room. Their yellow feathers glowed under the hot red lights. She cupped a chick in her hands and said, “What a lovely fluff. Fluffy baby.”

Then, of course: a cow for the milk. A couple horses, because, why not?

To the horses, she said: “Beautiful. Perfect,” and she ran her palm over their wet velvet noses, kissed the wide hard plane of their foreheads.

Birds: lovebirds, parrot, parakeets. She gave them their own room. “This is for the birds!” she punned. Soon, she joked to no one in particular, she would need an ark. But, she laughed, there were sometimes more and sometimes less than two of every kind.

But when she fell asleep at night, she thought: this is not what I want. How have I strayed so far from what I want?

What she really wanted was to lock herself inside a cage. For someone to feed her, bathe her, pet her, brush her. She wanted someone to make up nicknames for her, call her sweet diminutives, to hold her, tightly, so tightly she could not breathe, and tell her that she was beautiful, perfect, perfect; that she was the best thing in the whole world, the only thing, and she wanted to go limp in that warm embrace, to know nothing except the sound of a soft voice singing her praises, unintelligible words of comfort, murmurs of endless, boundless love.

About the Author:

Jillian Jackson is a graduate of the MFA program in Fiction at Boston University, where she received the Florence Engel Randall Graduate Fiction Award. She’s also the recipient of a St. Botolph Club Foundation’s Emerging Artist Grant. Her work appears in Smokelong Quarterly and Misadventures Magazine.

Special Note:

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

Image Credit: © Vadim Gnidash – stock.adobe.com

“In Memoriam: Lot 69097,” by Kate Garklavs

Sweater Sketch (02)

Julie called me at work to say Kurt Cobain’s sweater was up at auction.

“The famous one?” I asked, picturing dewy midtone green with golden contrast at the hem. So collegiate. My phone’s face blinked red: angry reminder of an unattended inbound call.

“They’re all famous,” said Julie, “right? But look at the listing. I just sent it.”

Sources verified that Julien’s was a respected dealer of rock and pop-culture memorabilia, everything from Cher’s Reebok sweatband (aerobics purposes only) to Clinton’s roach clip. Fifty grand would put you in the running for the mohair sweater of Unplugged fame.

Fifty grand: Where would I get it? I wouldn’t, I knew in the pit of my gut, the locus of my rational mind. I’d just surpassed the thousand-bucks-in-savings mark. I imagined phoning exes, all of them better off now than back then, asking for smallish, interest-free loans; presenting the circumstances — straightforwardly framed — and embellishing with the florid, sexless detail of my ten-year-old-self’s dream. My parents might be good for a few thou, though the nearer retirement came, the less likely they were to indulge romantic nostalgia. Aunt Oona had never had a lover, but even she couldn’t be immune to the memory of a first rock crush, piquant as the night breeze to ocean-damp skin.

Decades back — two, in fact — I papered my walls with full-bleed spreads torn from Rolling Stone. Kurt, halo-haired, anchored the collage. Kurt in stripes, in outsized plastic shades, in tatty tees draping lushly from his slender frame. Always the same unfocused gaze to middle distance, dangled cigarette, occasional sneer to the camera and imagined watcher. Oh, how I wanted to leave my hair to snarl! To set my mouth as a pensive line, maintain an animal silence, fuck the police — anyone who wouldn’t listen or believe I knew the best next steps toward becoming myself. Instead, I brooded. Snapped my flavor-sapped Juicyfruit, the boombox’s volume hovering at 6: loud enough for clarity, quiet such that my mom wouldn’t rap on the hollow-core door and demand that I turn it down, already. Oh, who I would have maimed to see a live show, feel the reverb shuddering through my chest! To stay up past bedtime and beyond. I longed, as we all did, for any tiny modicum of freedom. There at my desk, miniblinds parceling the unctuous noontime light, I could almost feel the unvacuumed shag against my cheek as I lay on my bedroom floor, Unplugged on repeat on the Sony.

Leagues from my childhood bedroom and heady with memory, I retreated to the Xerox room — the only workplace door with a lock. Kristi’d left a big job running, and the copier’s light shuttled back and forth beneath the lowered lid, gold spilling out in warm flashes. I cleared the work table of conduct handbooks and memos and lay down to study the ceiling patterns: to recenter.

Plastic laminate against skin feels the same regardless of surroundings. I let the cool of the tabletop rise to meet my downturned palms and move through them, studied the pinprick scatter of the crumbling tiles above. My heartbeat slowed to match the thrum, click, return of the copier. I closed my eyes.

When the sweater arrived, it would be wrapped in royal-blue tissue, wrinkleless, encased in protective plastic. The exterior box would be nothing fancy, its plainness a deterrent to would-be thieves. Its only signifier of prestige would be the embossed gold J of the return address. I would coordinate my opening of the package with the weather, waiting for the ideal stretch of misted fog — conditions to enable maximum contrast between my body and the air. Running a knife along the box’s long edge, I’d mute my inhalation as I smoothed back the tissue.

Of course, skin-to-mohair contact would be the only way to capture whatever essence lived in those fibers: incorporate it, atom by atom, and draw its strength. Bare feet, too, the necessity of cold running from the blank tile up through my willing footsoles, the low evening light dully patching the leaves of the rubber tree, captive in its red slipcast pot. A walk around my apartment in the brittle garment would reveal a newness to the space, each thrift-store lamp and candlestick endowed with a fresh graciousness: inherent splendor made visible by the erasure of familiarity.

Outside, the mist would gather into droplets; streetlamp auras would widen and burn. The sweater would warm to a living heat and carry me from the evening into the day, day into evening, the cycle forming its own routine. I’d mask the original brown pocketside stain with coffee spills of my own, would smoke leaning from the bathroom window for the purpose of accreting cast-off ash, burn holes to circle the cuffs and climb the lengths of the sleeves, rivaling the damage done by the former wearer. I’d tug loose threads to let the weave grow wide, the humid air move in and through.

When the sweater ceased to keep its form and became instead a network of threads — more a memory of the thing than the thing itself — I would unclothe and prepare the garment for unravel. Spritz the threads with chicken stock and blot them dry, interlace the buttonholes with bacon. Lay the garment spread-armed in the courtyard, out of plain view but not hidden, and wait for my departure to signal welcome to the animals who would unthread arm from body, body from itself — a disappearance detached, unwitnessed, and feral.

About the Author:

Kate Garklavs lives and works in Portland, OR. Her work has previously appeared in Ohio Edit, Juked, Matchbook, and Tammy, among other places. She earned her MFA at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and she’s currently a reader for the Portland Review.

Special Note:

This story won The Conium Review‘s 2016 Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Leesa Cross-Smith. It will also be republished as a limited-run micro-chapbook for distribution at the 2017 AWP Conference in Washington, DC.

Image Credit: © pylypchuk25 – stock.adobe.com

The 2016 Flash Fiction Contest winner is Kate Garklavs!

Kate G headshotLeesa Cross-Smith has finished deliberating, and she has selected Kate Garklavs‘s “In Memoriam: Lot 69097″ as the 2016 Flash Fiction Contest winner.

Kate Garklavs lives and works in Portland, OR. Her work has previously appeared in Ohio Edit, Juked, Matchbook, and Tammy, among other places. She earned her MFA at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and she’s currently a reader for the Portland Review.

This year’s finalists are Thomas Duncan, Melissa Goode, Jillian Jackson, Ingrid Jendrzejewski, Meghan Phillips, and Tessa Yang. Here’s what Leesa had to say about Kate Garklavs’s winning story:

The language of this story is surprising and so, so pretty. ‘piquant as the night breeze to ocean-damp skin’ and ‘the copier’s light shuttled back and forth beneath the lowered lid, gold spilling out in warm flashes.’ ‘My heartbeat slowed to match the thrum, click, return of the copier.’ I loved reading this story, but even more than that, I loved rereading this story. It’s funny and sweet and pretty much everything I look for in my flash fiction. Nostalgia and romance, a bit of ridiculousness, a whole lot of heart.”

—Leesa Cross-Smith, contest judge and author of Every Kiss a War

Kate’s winning piece will be published on The Conium Review Online Compendium, and it will be made into a limited-run micro-chapbook for distribution at the 2017 AWP Conference in Washington, DC. She will receive a $300 prize and a copy of the judge’s latest book.

There were tons of amazing submissions, and we can’t wait to see what you’ll send us next year. The general submission queue opens on January 1st. Additionally, we’ll be announcing the 2017 Flash Fiction Contest judge shortly. Sign up for our newsletter to stay informed about these calls for submissions and news from The Conium Review and Conium Press.