“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

Join us at AWP for “Literary Friction” offsite reading

Literary Friction banner

We’re pleased to be participating in an AWP 2017 offsite reading with F(r)ictionSibling Rivalry Press, and Upper River Boot Books. The event will be at Bar Louie, located at 701 7th St NW (just a few-minute walk from the convention center). Event starts at 8:00pm. No cover charge, and the first 50 people in the door get free drink tickets. Find the event on Facebook and share it with your friends.

Readers for Conium Press are:

  • Maryse Meijer, reading from “Her Blood,” published in The Conium Review: Vol. 5.
  • Melissa Reddish, reading an excerpt from her novella-in-flashes, Girl & Flame, published by Conium Press in 2016.
  • Kate Garklavs, reading her flash fiction, “In Memoriam: Lot 69097,” winner of our 2016 Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Leesa Cross-Smith.

The Conium Review‘s outreach coordinator, Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, will also be reading from her Sibling Rivalry Press chapbook, Adventures in Property Management. Readers for the other presses include David Abrams, Amie Whittemore, Ben Janse, Joy Baglio, Michelle Lin, Kazumi Chin, Kai Carlson-Wee, Anders Carlson-Wee, and Geffrey Davis.

We hope you can make it, and stop by The Conium Review‘s AWP bookfair table: 548-T.

Editor Update: James R. Gapinski’s “Messiah Tortoise” forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks

James R. Gapinski’s chapbook-length collection, Messiah Tortoise, will be published by Red Bird Chapbooks later this year. The collection features 10 flashes and stories, each set in the same ficticious zoo.

James is managing editor of The Conium Review and associate faculty at Ashford University. Follow him on Twitter and/or visit his website for more.

“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

Emily Koon wins the Conium Press Book & Chapbook Contest!

Matt Bell has selected Emily Koon‘s We Are Still Here as the 2016 Conium Press Book & Chapbook Contest winner!

Emily Koon headshotYes, Emily Koon. The same Emily Koon who won our Innovative Short Fiction Contest in 2015, judged by Amelia Gray. As always, the judging process was 100% blind, and Matt Bell was instructed to recuse himself if he could identify the author. We’re surprised that her work anonymously bubbled to the top twice — but then again, not too surprised — she’s just a damn good writer.

The stories in We Are Still Here are an eclectic mix including fairy tales, ghosts, Lizzie Borden, and people living in a Sears. In the title story, a family visiting an amusement park flees after a fatal roller coaster accident, only to find the real horror is on the chairlifts. In “The People Who Live in the Sears,” a group of people who find the real world too painful to function in make new lives in their local Sears department store. In “The Ghosts of St. Louis,” two teenagers living in a futuristic North America attempt to make sense of a world marred by climate change. Characters in these stories wrestle with questions of death, loneliness, abandonment, and their capacity to love, be loved, and inflict pain on others.

Emily Koon is a fiction writer from North Carolina. She has work in Potomac Review, The Rumpus, The Conium Review, Portland Review, and other places. She can be found at twitter.com/thebookdress.

Emily’s manuscript will be published by Conium Press, and she will receive $1,000, ten author copies, and a copy of the judge’s latest book.

This year’s finalists are Tori BondSamantha Duncan, Claire Hopple, and Rachel Luria.

We’re grateful to all the authors who submitted, and we hope you’ll join us in congratulating Emily, singing her praise on social media, and buying/reading her kickass book when it hits shelves. We expect to release Emily’s collection in late 2017 or early 2018.

Recent Award Nominations for our Authors

It’s nomination time again! We recently sent out nods for the annual Queens Ferry Press Best Small Fictions anthology. We also nominated for the Eric Hoffer Award and the Independent Publisher Book Awards.

The nomination process is always difficult — we published so many amazing pieces in 2016 — but eventually we narrowed it down. We’re pleased to share our picks for this year, and we hope you’ll reread a few of these favorites (and check out other work from these authors).

Best Small Fictions anthology nominations:

Eric Hoffer Book Award nominations:

Independent Publisher Book Award nomination:

The Conium Review 2016 “Count”

Typically, we release our gender ratio statistics around the same time as the official VIDA count. However, we wanted to tally the numbers before the AWP Conference in Washington, DC. There’s also the small matter of today’s inauguration, wherein a serial misogynist was sworn into the nation’s highest office. It seems like a good time to remind the literary community that there are still places where women’s voices can be heard, even if those places seem increasingly under attack.

The Conium Review: Vol. 5 featured a larger percentage of women than any previous print issue of The Conium Review, and our combined print and online count held steady at 76% self-identified female authors. For those who haven’t read The Conium Review: Vol. 5 yet, there is also a distinct feminist undercurrent in many of the pieces, even more noticeably than the average issue of The Conium Review. This wasn’t a reactionary plan of any sort (the issue was finalized before the November election results). In the simplest terms, this is just where our editorial aesthetic leans — toward fiery voices that refuse to be marginalized. Given the events of today, I’m glad to see our press putting out a lit mag with stories in this vein. It seems necessary in this social climate. Keep writing. Keep submitting. Keep reading. Stay strong.

(And as always, we’d like it if you’re writing something a bit weird/surreal/bizarre too).

The Conium Review 2016 “Count”

%

Female (Total Print & Online)

%

Male (Total Print & Online)

%

Female (Print)

%

Female (Online)

%

Male (Print)

%

Male (Online)

Okay, now let’s break it all down. Our 2016 count is 76% female and 24% male. The previous year’s overall count was identical at 76% female to 24% male. The 2014 gender ratio was 64% female and 36% male.

Throughout the entire year, The Conium Review published 29 authors total, with 22 self-identified female authors and 7 self-identified male authors.

In the annual print edition, we published 9 self-identified female authors and 1 self-identified male author, for a ratio of 90% women and 10% men. Within our online arm, The Conium Review Online Compendium, we published 19 authors total, with 13 female authors and 6 male authors, with a ratio of 68% women to 32% men.

Throughout most of 2016, the editorial masthead contained 10 people, 7 of whom self-identify as female, 3 of whom self-identify as male, for a behind-the-scenes ratio of 70% women and 30% men.

Historically, we’ve tallied out “count” only for The Conium Review as a periodical. However, we launched a few books in 2016 through Conium Press. These authors are not reflected in our overall count, but the numbers don’t change much either way. We’re a boutique press with only a couple titles each year. Of the two books published this year, one was written by a self-identified female and one was written by a self-identified male. We also released two limited-run micro-chapbooks, again with a ratio of one woman and one man. If you add these Conium Press numbers to our tally, it becomes 33 authors total — with 24 women and 9 men — for a total ratio of 73% women and 27% men. Whether you crunch the numbers as 76% or 73%, we still think it’s a damn good gender ratio. With the excessive number of magazines that seem to propagate the same male voices over and over and over and over again, we’re glad to offer a counterbalance — even if it’s only partial counterbalance. Especially on today of all days.