Short Fiction-UK

“Couple” was in the top 15 stories in the New Writers Competition, so far.

I am delighted to inform you that your story has made the longlist of 15 in our New Writers Competition, as listed below:

Sara Crowley – ‘The Art of Pain’
Bill McCormick – ‘The Race’
Lucy Dennison – ‘It Wasn’t Stockhausen’s’
Megan Tuite – ‘Couple’
Jenny Holden – ‘The Roman Forum’
Val Reardon – ‘The Existentialists’
Anne Elliot – ‘Light Streaming from a Horse’s Ass’
Angela Sherlock – ‘The Diffraction of Light on the Fibres’
Jo Cannon – ‘Salt Man’
Louis Malloy – ‘The Pilgrims and the Half Good’
Kevin Hyde – ‘The Djinn of the Burj’
Robert Peett – The Feast of Stephen’
Frank Rizzuto – ‘Adriana’s Overcoat’
Jill Widner – ‘The Underwater Room’
R F Marazas – ‘Kayla March’

Congratulations and good luck for the shortlist, which we will announce next week, and the winner shortly after.

Seduction

She thought she would disturb his plan to seduce her by jumping off the roof. They sat side by side on the edge, feet dangling, moonless night. A floodlight from above bleached the two figures colorless against a flat, black sky. A bottle of red wine was passed slowly between them.

Like a composer who knew more intimately than the musicians themselves every lingering note of the clarinet, every vibration of the cello, each movement of his had been strained over, subtracted and defined seamlessly, until what finally quivered and transpired before the public was no more than a calculated execution of all that went before it. What remained was what must remain. The rest had been carefully discarded. His overture demanded a subtle maneuvering of lighter conversation into deeper themes of soul exposure, coupling vulnerability with unmistakable strength. There would be the necessary troubled outbursts and whispered confidences, a delicate sprinkling of bleak childhood memories that he interspersed with heavy silences and bowed heads. If he mouthed the words weakness, fear, and hatred, then the score included potency, imprudence, and love. There was no place in his world for impulsive words that formed like spittle. He believed explicitly that life was transitory and with each moment there was an obligation to reap. Continue reading

Garbage Picker of Memory

I, too, am a murderer. And not by violence or bloody means did I kill, but as most murders are committed where the corpse will never betray me. My daughter, Beth, was twenty. Yes, it was true, that no one saw me cry, not even at the funeral, but why would tears travel in public streams when what we are given to see of the world’s bodies of water are nothing more than flat blue blots on paper or shorelines that whisper a mere spittle spray of the vast rivers, lakes, oceans and seas? The doctors found malignant tumors under Beth’s right arm that they cut out and viciously attacked with radiation and chemotherapy over and over again, but I knew those lumps would never disappear, taking up residence in other parts of her body instead, until they destroyed, because they were lumps in my throat that I’d swallowed and kept down my entire life, contracted from my mother who’d carried them like a totem pole in her spine, until one day she’d sat down in a chair, never to rise again. One long continuous wailing NO that unleashed its deadly poison from out of me into the silent chambers of my daughter’s blood. Continue reading

Family Conference

I stare out the picture window at a sky. It spreads up there ordinary as buttered bread on a table. Underneath it one block in the neighborhood stares back. The Connollys get into their blue station wagon. No pushing, no fighting, the doors slam shut–they move off down the street. Mr. Hampton mows his lawn and next-door Mrs. Sullivan pulls weeds.

One black fly (Diptera; Muscidae) buzzes up and down the window frame looking for escape, or maybe not. I have a microscope in my room, a pile of dead insects in a cigar box: moths, spiders, flies, bees, a few beetles, two butterflies and one glorious preying mantis.

Fact: One fly strip a week every summer guarantees over a hundred slaughtered. I pull a few live ones off with forceps, place them under the scope, and watch them die. Continue reading

Magnanimous Portraits

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Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.

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Alien Art

He was the tallest building she’d ever lived in–six-foot-seven, with hands stretched across him like a canvas. He had long, dirty hair and panicked eyes. Ruby seized whatever words she could on those rare occasions when he talked. The horror of speech was that when he spoke, he painted. Blazing canvases howled around the inside of their two-room apartment. Ruby would stare at his washed-out teeth and not see what it was that closed in on them. Two rooms were riddled with garish abstracts. Poster size Easter egg splashes of paint saturated the walls. Ruby’s teeth hurt whenever the crawling neon pinks, purples, yellows and greens stared back. She stopped looking anywhere, but at him.

Ruby used to imagine a larger apartment would save them, but he’d just paint more paintings with more wall space to condemn her–room after room like the circles of hell. Two rooms already plastered her in.

His eerie stories kept them running like a slow moving train on a track. He’d been homeless for years wandering the plains of Wyoming, sleeping on the ground or in caves, face to face with mountain lions and bears. A rattlesnake had even slept in his sleeping bag once, but the story Ruby worked to get out of him was the one that disturbed him the most. His strange face would dissociate. His paintbrush would hang limp in his hand. Small, gray creatures with simian arms and elongated eyes had taken him up on their spaceship. He had flashes of anal probes and massive needles in his ribs that found him immobilized on the ground the next day with brutal chest pains that never let up. He hadn’t stopped coughing since. Ruby considered the cigarettes he dangled from his lip, one after another that crucified his lungs.

Ruby could only ask a few questions to keep him clipping along or suddenly his bloodless lips would curl back over his cigarette and retire. Paintings would take over again and he’d silently start slathering away at another asphyxiating bee bonnet until it hung with the rest on a wall.

The shrill rooms drew in on themselves and on Ruby. She looked up into his faraway eyes. Aliens weren’t gray. They were saccharine perversions that caked maudlin colors over canvas. She looked down at her shoes. She started to cough. She was sick of hiding her eyes.

END

“Alien Art” will soon be published in Fractured West out of the UK.

Sister

When I actually got my own room I always kept the door closed. It wasn’t like there was anything actually happening in there––I was usually reading––but the thought that something could or might be happening at any moment in my room made it a necessity to keep the door closed and everyone else out and wondering.

One afternoon I was lying on my bed reading a book that promised to launch me out of this reality into a place far, far away, when there was a knock at the door. It wasn’t exactly a knock so much as a cautious, little tap. In other words, it was my mother. I let her stand out there for a while before I opened the door. I was fifteen, after all, and if something was happening in my room I had to give myself time to hide whatever it was I wasn’t doing, and give her time to conjure up the worst of worst fears about what I could have been doing. I slammed drawers, closed my closet and opened the window before opening the door.

“What,” I said. It was my standard opening.

My mother stood before me with a shoebox in her hands. She appeared more frightened than usual. Her eyes blinked rapidly like she’d just been hit. Her mouth was barely a mouth, shaky and wafer-sliced and shriveled. Her tongue flickered over chapped lips.

“Help me,” she said.

“What,” I said.

“Help me, “ she said. Her hands were shaking. “It’s your sister,” she said. She handed me the box. I took it in my two hands, held it in front of me and stared down at it.

“I give up,” she said. She turned and went back down the stairs. I watched her go. Then I closed my door, sat down on the floor with my back against the bed, and opened the box.

My sister was eighteen. I had two other sisters, but I knew which one my mother was talking about. Stephanie. No one in the family stirred up more frenzy. Sometimes she let me be around her and study her up close. One day after school she came home with a nickel bag of pot. She took me by the hand up to the attic, and said, “let’s smoke it all. Now.” I did whatever she said. We sat across from each other on a window seat that looked out over the backyard and the alley beyond, and rolled joint after joint. Then we lit them up, one after another, and smoked and smoked and smoked every last one of them. I remember my mom coming up to the attic at some point and yelling at us.  I don’t know how many hours we were up there. All I could do was laugh my ass off, while Stephanie talked. She ignored my mother and eventually my mother went away, as usual, while Stephanie kept right on telling stories. My sister didn’t talk like anyone else. She was either a genius or a lunatic, I couldn’t tell, but she had her own special language like no one I’d ever heard before. She’d say things like, “that girl was the tallest building I ever lived in,” or after a date with some guy, she’d say, “I invaded the miserable casualty until he was a cornucopia of brazen limbs.” I remember that line because I had to look up the words cornucopia and brazen after she was gone. I never quite knew what she meant, but I was sure it was something good. After she totaled my dad’s mid-life crisis Spiderman sport’s car she actually quoted from one of her favorite, obscure writers while my dad beat the shit out of her. She stared him straight in his veined, purpled face and yelled, “Looking down the barrel of your eye, I see the body of a Bloody Cinderella come whirling up!”

I loved Stephanie. She was translucent and mad. She could say or do anything and no one broke her down. Not even our dad, and I was scared shitless of him. She wasn’t. She stood up to him like some kind of hardcore warrior and I swear I could almost see a black cape flung across her back with her hands on her hips whenever she came into a room, daring my dad to trample her.

I could be trampled. I was sickly thin and pregnant with terror. My dad would lift his hand anywhere within my vicinity and I would crouch in horror and go spasmodic. I had a few friends at school who were no different. They would dare me to do stupid things like throw rocks through a revolving door into a store or tell this mean-ass teacher who had greasy, blonde hair, that the wet-head was dead. I did anything they asked me to do just to be in their group. Desperation couldn’t be hidden. It was plain as my face. I followed them around like a dog begging for a kick.

Stephanie was of a different breed. She was the innovator. Everyone filed in behind her like she was some kind of pied piper and I got in that line whenever I could. But she kicked me in the ass just like everybody else. When she was dangerous, she was ruthless. She beat me over the head with one of those miniature baseball bats they hand out at baseball games just because I wore a pair of her shoes one day. I wasn’t a complete wimp, though. I’d bide my time and plan a counterattack whenever things had gone too far and it was needed. I would allow a certain period of time to pass after she’d nailed me for something. When she was way past the stage of suspicion, which could sometimes last up to a couple of weeks, I’d set my trap. I’d wait until the parents were out and Stephanie was lying on the couch all comfortable with her feet up, reading a book or passing out. I’d stock the bathroom with peanut butter sandwiches, Kool-Aid, and some books. I’d make sure I was well supplied and able to survive until one of my parents returned, preferably my dad. She had these long, precious brown pigtails she cherished that I wanted to chop off, but I knew my dad would kill me if did, so I knew I had to damage her, without permanent damage to myself. I would sneak up on her from behind when she was finally falling asleep and punch her in the face and yank that damn, stupid pigtail as hard as I could and run like hell. She’d jump up screeching and flailing to get at me, but it was too late. I’d race up those stairs three at a time with her close on my ass, screaming for blood, but I always got in there and locked that door before her body slammed against it. She’d pound for a while, and wail and tell me how she was going to kill me when I got out, because I couldn’t stay in there forever. My heart would pump with her threats, just thinking of having to face her again. When our dad got home he’d tell her to shut-up and leave me alone. That was the good thing about not being Stephanie. She always took the crap from our parents whenever she tried to tattle on any of us.

But I always got it back. At night she’d sneak into my room and smother me with a pillow or pound me with her fist or ravage me with an Indian rub till I was sobbing. I never got the last word, but knew I had to try.

I stared at the open shoebox and remembered the only other time I had seen my mother with that same ghoulish look on her face. It was about six months earlier. I heard screaming and yelling coming from the kitchen. It was Stephanie and my mother badgering each other, which wasn’t unusual, so I didn’t focus in right away. Then I heard strange words coming out of Stephanie, which also wasn’t unusual, except those specific words suddenly held me captive.

“You’re damn right I’m a lesbian, and proud of it, bitch! So what are you going to do, throw me out?” Stephanie was threatening my mom.

“I’m going to tell your sisters! How would you like that? I’m going to go in there and gather them round and tell them just who and what you are. We’ll see what they think of you then,” my mom spat out.

I was the only sister home at the time. It was a Saturday night and Stephanie was drunk, but looked scared when our mom called me into the kitchen. I was scared too. I thought I knew what a lesbian was, but wasn’t sure.

“Your sister Stephanie is a freak! She has sex with her girlfriend Alexandra on those little overnighters they do together. She’s what they call a lesbian––obviously not normal like the rest of us. What do you think of that?” my mom demanded of me. She studied my face to see which way I’d go.

“But then, look at you! Maybe you’ll be one of them too, following your sister around the way you do. Maybe you’re just another freak like her,” my mom screeched.

I had never seen my mom like this before. She would yell at us when we got home late or stole her cigarettes or money, but I’d never seen her so outraged. She scared the hell out of me. This was another part of her that didn’t show it’s ugly face much. This was more like my dad’s ugly face. I looked at Stephanie and she was different also. Her eyes were wild and they volleyed back and forth between my mom and me. The warrior was no longer the warrior. She was just like me, but then she wasn’t. I wanted to study this part of her I had never seen, but there was no time. My mom was waiting and she was waiting, and I didn’t know what to say.

I started to cry. I looked at my mom and sputtered, “she’s my big sister and I love her and she can do anything she damn well wants, so leave her alone.” Then I ran out of the room and slammed my bedroom door.

And now here I was sitting in my room with this shoebox open in my lap, staring into the abyss of a new sister again––another one I didn’t know. The box was full of strange women’s credit cards and driver’s licenses––hundreds of them. Where the hell had she gotten them? I lined up some of the cards, studied their faces and checked out their ages. There were blondes, brunettes, redheads, anywhere from 25 to 50 years old. What was I supposed to do with all these anonymous women? Apparently, Stephanie had multiple, strange faces, just like her vocabulary. She really was some bad-ass criminal. She had always terrified me before, but now I was in awe of her. I put the box under my bed for a few days and didn’t speak with Stephanie or my mother. It didn’t seem like either of them noticed. I studied Stephanie at dinner or whenever she was around to see if I could find some sinister smirk or nervous tic that I hadn’t seen before, but she appeared indifferent to any searing gaze I cut into her. How come she didn’t notice the box was missing, and why the hell had she kept it around for my mom to find if she was such a genius?

I let myself wait until I knew what was expected of a warrior. One day I took the box out to the backyard when no one was around and got a shovel from the garage and started to dig. Secrets were made to be buried. I just made sure the hole I dug wasn’t next to our dead German Shepherd, Clem’s.

END

“Sister” was published in Jersey Devil Press in 2009 and Fiction Collective in June 2010.

Obstacle

It’s a summer afternoon in Montreal and some asshole is making his way toward me. He is just another obstacle to move, skirt and trouble around. He whistles some revolting tune louder and louder when he zeros in on me–a girl who actually deigns to avoid him. He smacks the concrete as if it weren’t coarse enough for him. He is here to be seen, slapping the newness of shoes on the sidewalk, while his clothes shriek, “nothing but style, baby.” I detest him. I will do all in my power to avoid his languid eyes–the smirk that saturates his lower jaw. He demands my eyes to rummage his wares and drink in exactly what came groveling back at him from out of the pleasing mirrors and shop windows he passed. There is to be no dismissal. I am here to reflect back the only reflection he will ever see. I look right through him like I would a shrub. I am going to win. I will bear down on him, stare him straight in the eye, and denounce any fantasy he lives by. He slides his long, brown hair behind an ear and smiles at me. He is humming now. His pace slows down and his hips slide forward and he is the calmness of all calm. I start to tremble. Everything inside of me is bombarding with hate for this poser. I look under his clustered eyelashes into the corridor of his past with doting parents and all the girlfriends lined up with demented smiles on their faces as he date-rapes them and then steps over them to move on to the next. His sex is a table for one–perpetual masturbator with audience. Girls are here to suck him, admire him and run hands over his flanks. They do him. He does not do them.

My tall, lanky bones shrink into themselves. I become downtrodden. Straighten up, I command. Face this bastard head-on.

The sun’s raking eye spotlights him. Crazed dandelions litter the grass on either side of him with their citrus snickering, those crooked declaimers of light!

We move closer to one another. If I were a dog I would pee on him. He becomes a tall, willowy tree. I become a bumblebee. My hands and body do things I demand them not to. They rustle with my hair and buzz around my clothes tucking things in and pushing things out. Sweat shudders over my skin. I could cross the street right now and cower among the greenage. I could bear the rancid lie of my distractedness. My feet are ridiculous and keep moving forward. I narrow my eyes and stare at his forehead–just a piece of skin with hair on it. His melody is placid, repetitious and plays over and over in my head. My feet move faster. A malicious pebble contradicts me and I am going down. Arms reach out to capture me and a voice whispers, “Are you okay?”

END

This flash fiction piece was published in The Boston Literary Magazine.