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Winners of the 2012 Writer Advice Flash Prose Contest are:

 

Man Missing

bakalyar

By Marcelle Soviero

Shaved head. 6 feet 2 inches. 195 pounds. Caucasion. 50 years old as of two weeks ago. Likely wearing a navy T-shirt with a pocket on the right side to hold a pack of Marlboros. Cross tattoo on left forearm. Last seen, two months ago. I can’t tell you what he will be dreaming, maybe of Mr. Guttman the man he once worked for, when he wore a tie and suit. Or maybe of his next bottle of Scotch.

No matter.

You can look for my brother behind The Artful Dodger or Canterbury Ales in Huntington village, his favorite spots. Bartender Benny loves a local drunk but even he has to put him out. He is not homeless, but he rarely finds his way home, so check too if he’s behind the Shore Theater off Main Street. He may be eating popcorn out of the dumpster. He always liked movie popcorn. Lots of butter.

He knows Huntington village. He and I grew up there. Had you been looking 40 years ago you could have seen us eating lunch at the Hamburger Choo Choo with our mother. Sitting together on one side of the booth while mom sat on the other.

“Train’s coming!” you’d hear him shout when the burgers on the toy train rounded the corner almost to our table. After lunch mother would take us to the bowling alley, she’d joined a bowling league that year. She’d set us up in the empty lane next to her. I am the toddler in pigtails and pinafore, and he is the big 10-year-old helping me lift the bowling ball.

If you find him he will be incoherent, drunk. Take care. He is a good man. Beneath the grubby looks there is a boy with a past. A boy with a collection of toy soldiers in the Spiderman box beneath his bed, the kid who wore the light blue tuxedo to his junior prom. He is the man with a graduate degree in economics.

As you search the streets you may see my 78-year-old mother driving by looking for him. She started her rides when he stopped calling her every morning before work at 7:00 to tell her the weather, back when he still had a job at the Stop and Shop. Please, you go. She will never find him. She is looking for the man she wanted him to be.

Last seen. Christmas. My house in Connecticut. He was carrying a small bag of gifts for my five children, a box of Pepperidge Farm cookies, his goddaughter’s favorite. “Hi Martie” he had said, his nickname for me, the only one who ever called me that except for my father who has since died. “My gifts could fit in a glove box,” he said, nervous, his hands shaking, and I held him in a hug, my arms meeting around his back, the thin thread of our story picking up again. I wish I had told him that day that I wanted my children to know their Uncle, not his gifts. That I knew he loved me, loved my children.

He will not know your name but he will go with you if you coax him. He is gentle. Unless you take the bottle away from him, then he can be violent. Don’t take the bottle away. My mother poured the Dewers down the stainless steel sink in his kitchen months ago and he pushed her into the coffee table. That was the last she saw him, the day the lamp fell.

And if you go there, to his apartment, the two rooms will be a mess, the orange couch burned by cigarettes, the crock put crusted with months old meat sauce. And anyway he’s not there. My cousin Lisa lives in the room above him. My great Aunt Ellen lives next door. I called; they haven’t seen him. But I believe he is still alive, Aunt Eileen said he takes her garbage out to the curb every Wednesday. Every Wednesday the can is moved. She checks. I make her check.

So stick to the streets when you look. He will be one of many, but he is the one I care about. And if you find him, my brother whose name is John, and he is asleep, let him rest. In peace.

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Marcelle Soviero is an award-winning essayist. Her work has appeared in various media including The New York Times and Salon.com. She has appeared on American Public Media’s radio show, The Story. Marcelle lives in Wilton, Connecticut with her husband and five children.

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The Tempest

tempest

By JLSchneider

“This is the last night,” the man’s voice said impatiently. “Then we’re closed. For good.”

She held the phone receiver in her hand, looking at it as if it were a piece of fruit long past ripe. She slammed it down.

She walked down the three flights of stairs to the gravel parking lot behind her boarding house. The young man—Burt? Curt?—was still leaning into the wide mouth of the Tempest. Young enough to be her son, if she had one. She stood behind him and looked at his pants. “Here,” she said, handing him the can of starting ether.

“If this doesn’t work, there isn’t much more I can do,” he said.

He sprayed the ether down the throat of the carburator. She only met him last night, and already he sickened her. It was his pants. They were probably the same size he wore in high school.

A yellow leaf fell into the engine compartment. She looked up, which she hadn’t done in months. The trees were almost bare. The slim driveway between the pair of three-story boarding houses was frost-bound with shade. A rat darted across the narrow lane leading to the street.

“I’m going to try it,” he yelled from inside the car. “Stand there and watch.”

She’d been doing little else, yet her hands were black with grime.

He turned the key. The engine turned over until it got short of breath and died. The ether rose thin and acrid into the air. —White Rain, the hairspray her mother used on Saturday nights before going out.

“Battery’s dead,” he said after he got out of the car and was looking at the engine again.

“I thought you said you knew how to fix cars.” She couldn’t look at him or the car.

“I do. But this one’s old. I don’t know what’s wrong. Could be the timing chain.”

As if she hadn’t heard him she said, “You said you could fix it. Men coming here, saying they can fix my car. And now the drive-in is closed!”

When she finished screaming at him, she was staring at a squirrel on a branch with a nut in its mouth.

“There’ll be other drive-ins,” he replied, as if they were as common as birthdays, and closed the giant hood of the Tempest.

“It was my last chance!” she yelled, and this time she looked at him. “I won’t feel like this next year. I wanted to go in this car. That’s why I bought it. I liked the big seats. I wanted to meet someone and go in this car.”

“You bought a car just because of how it would feel at a drive-in?”

She didn’t answer. She opened the driver’s side door and crawled in, rolled up the window, and sat behind the large steering wheel. She sat with her hands flat beside her on the large seat. She looked out the windshield, and it seemed that the sun visibly moved as she watched it. The last leaves shivered from yellow to orange to black outlines; the fence bent into its own shadow and disappeared. It was an autumn-quick dusk, so quick she couldn’t have said, for sure, that she had seen it when it was over.

He got in beside her. Eventually the heat from their bodies fogged the windows, encasing them in a shell of chrome, old vinyl and silence. When the darkness was all around them he asked, “Did you want to meet someone other than me?”

Nothing moved beyond the large, curved windshield. She didn’t have enough money to fix the car. Winter was coming.

She reached for his hand in the darkness and led it to the bottom of her skirt. After finding the path, his hand moved on its own. She lay back and pulled him to her. She closed her eyes, and nothing moved behind the lids. It seemed that nothing moved anywhere in the world. “Slow,” she whispered. She waited beneath his poised body, waited for him to move, waited in the darkness as if in a celluloid frame about to be cast into light.

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JLSchneider is a carpenter and an adjunct professor of English at a small community college in upstate New York.  His fiction has appeared in Snake Nation, The Newport Review, and International Quarterly, among others, and was the most recent winner of the New Millennium Writings short-short fiction contest.

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Transcontinental

transcontinental

By Madeline Stevens

He fell into a trance, laying track eight hours every day, carrying the heavy metal rails and driving in spike after spike. They were in Sierra Nevada now, far away from the sun and warmth of Sacramento. He didn’t need as much water in the cold. He didn’t know why they had chosen to start the central line in January; he couldn’t communicate with the foremen since he didn’t speak English. They must have known these mountains were here. They must have known that the dynamite would cause angry blankets of snow to spill over the hills and bury half the crew. But there was nothing he could do about the avalanches; he laid track. At least he didn’t have so much thirst in the cold.

After the foreman called for the gang to switch shifts, he bunkered down in a small tent with a few other men. They tried to keep the fires going with wood, though they sometimes had to use paper and clothing when they couldn’t get it started. The other men talked about what they would do when the line was finished—send for their wives in China, see their children who would be almost grown. They wanted to start laundries and restaurants. They wanted to own something.

He didn’t know what he would do when they reached Omaha. He didn’t want to send for his wife and he didn’t want to go back to gold panning in California. Maybe he would ride the long line of the railroad from one coast to the other, see if anywhere in this country was easy. Or maybe he would just lay one of his silver dollars on the track and see if a day’s wages could really derail the whole thing. All this work for one heavy coin a day and the construction of something so fragile that he alone might be able to destroy it.

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Madeline Stevens, originally from the small town of Boring, Oregon, currently lives in Brooklyn.  She is a MFA candidate in Fiction at Columbia University and is working on her first novel.

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Honorable Mentions – 2012

Coming Soon!

 

Winners of the 2011 Writer Advice Flash Prose Contest are:

 

HUNGRY

by Madeline Mora-Summonte

I pack my pride away as if it’s a wardrobe that no longer fits, as if all the articles of clothing belong to someone else, someone who eats regularly, easily.

Yet I still smile for my children as they head off to school, relieved they’ll get one good meal that day. I still clean and straighten the apartment we’re about to lose. I take the bus far from our neighborhood. I am washed and combed. My sign, though sloppy - my penmanship was never good - is spelled correctly.

I stand against the wall where the big bookstore meets the plus-size clothing shop. I am not in your face but I am seen. Cars drive by, their passengers ignore me, or drown me in looks of pity, or throw suspicious glances my way. They wonder, is it a scam? Yes, there are some who will scam you for change, for a few dollars. I am not one of them.

I don’t look homeless or hungry, even though my sign says so. I don’t look like a football fan, even though my sign cheers on the local team. I am homeless, I am hungry, and I am one of you.

I take a break from the sun. In front of the bookstore, my backpack at my feet, my sign carefully facing the wall, I am merely a person out running errands, a mother whose children need a book for a school project, a woman meeting a friend for coffee at the store’s café. I could be anyone.

I am anyone.

An older couple approaches me. They ask if I’m the woman from the corner. They’re not police, and I doubt they’re store owners, but still I pretend I’m waiting for a ride, for a rescue that’s not coming, before I nod.

The woman hands me a bottle of water, the man gives me a small Styrofoam container, paper napkins draped over the top.

It’s a hot sandwich, he says.

I don’t know how good it is, she says.

I thank them, then bend to my backpack to put the water away. I’ll eat the sandwich as soon as they’re gone. I won’t bring it home; it won’t keep in this heat. It’s true, and yet it’s an excuse. I am hungry, too.

The couple heads into the bookstore. The man holds the door for his wife, but before he follows her, he turns back to me.

I hesitate, the sandwich at my lips as if I’m kissing it.

He gestures to the cardboard at my feet. “Football’s finished but baseball just started. Team looks pretty good this time around.” He smiles. “Lots of fans around here.”

When I’m done eating, I write a new sign on the back of the old one. My hands shake with each stroke of the letters. The taste of mushroom and cheese lingers in my bloodstream like a drug.

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Madeline Mora-Summonte reads, writes and breathes fiction in all its forms. Her work appears online and in print. Please visit her at http://MadelineMora-Summonte.blogspot.com
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BETTER DEAD

By Alice Campbell Romano

Someone is threatening to kill me. I think she believes she can restore balance to the universe. Someone she loved died and she blames me. It really was such a long time ago and in another country. I dare not be more specific. Just accept this: it was big, nasty, and newsworthy.

In that other place, the woman tried to terrorize me by writing vile letters, unsigned. She blitzed me with typed hate on pale gray paper: by mail, by windshield wiper, by crack under my front door. I supposed it was she who poisoned my cat. But we never met. She and I never sat down together, never examined each other for the minute distinguishing characteristics, the tics, the vocal idiosyncrasies, the singular human heat only fleshly contact can communicate. I don't recall her name, I put the letters in the garbage and moved a continent away and married again, and grew much older.

Men and women from those days are beginning to show up on the obituary pages. Publically dead. It gets you to musing, if you’re alone. Succombing to bathos, I posted my musings to the internet. (I can’t say more.) The woman reacted within hours, having recognized the circumstances of my memoir. In her gloating gotcha rant, she included this confirming detail: it seems she had hunkered all night on the cold stone landing one floor above my apartment, gripping the wrought iron stair rail, listening while the cat howled in pain, yet failed to die.

Read what she told me in her post. I'm translating from her native language, of course.

You still need to be dead. You will pay with your unfeeling selfish life. Believe me you don't know terror, you cold vain bag of bones killer bitch whore with your costly clothes and marble face. I will find you and kill you.

There was more in that vein and viler. I cancelled the on-line account immediately, of course, but almost wish I had kept the current alive between us. Strangely, I envy her. I no longer have much sensory memory of the man I left, nor even of the man I left him for, but to keep the wound of her hatred so raw, and thus to stay so young, I believe my mad letter writer has mastered sorcery.

She scanned and attached a picture of me—where did she keep it all these years?— cut from a Sunday supplement covering the funeral of the man we loved and I betrayed. I was indeed extremely slender and fashionable (even in mourning); I had long sleek chestnut hair, and looked much like Natalie Wood at 19, although I was in fact 26.

I think she is saying because she has the photo she can find me and kill me. She can digitally project what I look like now. Even if she hacks her way close to finding my new name, she will have digitized a younger, richer woman, the sleek me she needs to hate.

And so, I will hide in plain sight. I will change who I am by becoming what I am. I will let myself be old. I will let my hair grow out gray. I will cut it short and get a permanent wave. My wrinkled earlobes will show. I will stop applying sunscreen and makeup. I will shop Wal-Mart for light-weight denim slacks with elastic waistbands. I will become like all old women…invisible.

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Alice Romano lived for decades in other people’s fantasies—as a translator of screenplays in Europe and on both U.S. coasts.  Now, she writes poetry in Los Angeles.  Alice is past president of IWOSC (The Independent Writers of Southern California).
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LINOLEUM AND LIGHTS

By Whitney Mackman

familycomedy

Why must such intimate moments happen under such fluorescent lights? To avoid going blind, I stare at the gross linoleum floor. I just want to be free of the buzz, the flicker, the constant too-white brightness of it all. I can’t think of anything else. I think so hard it hurts. I want desperately to find a new first memory, to prove my life didn’t start in a broom closet. Yet every time I close my eyes, linoleum and lights surround me.

I guess it is more of a broom nook, but my seven-year-old self could not care less about its official name. It’s a small cave tucked into an odd shaped corner that couldn’t be used for anything but storage. To my brother and me, it is a safe place: a place where we can imagine ourselves in another world, where hospital germs can’t touch us and where we can wrap our arms around our mother. In reality, our backs are pushed against broom handles, our butts are tingling against the unforgiving linoleum, and our young bodies are as close as they can get to Mom’s radiation. I play with waxed string and occasionally look across the hall to her room. Each time I do, I am reintroduced to phones ringing, machines beeping, doors swinging, doctors rushing, nurses consoling, lights – blinding. I keep my head down and watch ankles speed by. The fluorescent lights encircle us and reflect off everything, especially the horrible floor. The white glare makes it look like ice, and I wonder how everyone can move so fast on such a slippery surface – until I remember it’s not ice. There is no ice rink in the hospital. There is only this broom nook.

When I look into my mother’s room, I see my father crouched by her bed. He tells me her cure could kill me, or worse, deform me - so it’s best I stay inside this closet. I don’t argue, but I want to. I don’t because I’m not even sure how to argue this. Everyone in here seems just short of throwing a tantrum, but nobody is. I think about being older and not having to listen to what the grown-ups say. I think about running across the hall and jumping on Mom’s bed. Instead, I just sit, out of harms way, glancing at my mother and hoping her skin color is because of the lights. I wish I never have to see her under them again.

How often do wishes come true? By age thirteen, I am too old for a broom nook, although I wish I could find one. I am too old for waxed string, although I wish I had them. It is very early and my eyes keep spasming shut. Do fluorescent lights need to be so bright? Must we see everything?

I am waiting for my brother. I am waiting to kiss him before surgeons saw open his skull, peel back his scalp, and search for a tiny tumor tucked away in the back of his brain. I don’t want to lose him, but I’m not sure if I will be able to look at him when they wheel him by. It’s even hard to look at my parents - their faces seem so harsh under the fake ultraviolet rays. I try not to cry, so I focus on making patterns in the splotches on the floor. More hideous linoleum. I realize now that it is the perfect surface for shitty situations: nothing sticks, nothing stains, and everything can be wiped clean. I wish I had a linoleum heart.

When they finally bring him by, I manage to look and he is so pale. I can tell he’s trying to be the big brother, trying not to be scared. I tell him I love him and that he better come back so I have someone to tattle on. Mom tells us to think happy thoughts. I wonder how she can be so positive, but I know she’s been there before. Maybe she’s just trying to convince herself.

We barely have a minute with him and it is time for him to go. Nobody acts like it could be the last time we might see him alive even though it’s the only thing on our minds.

“Think happy thoughts!” Mom shouts one more time, as they push my brother down the long linoleum hallway.

He shouts back, “I am. Page twenty-five in Playboy.”

“I should ground him for that,” Mom responds, and we laugh, as he is swallowed by the lights.

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Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, Whitney Mackman gave up the everlasting sunshine for the hydrating rains of Washington. After traveling the country for work, she fell in love with New Orleans and had to live there. She enjoys the inspiration provided by everything that encompasses the Big Easy.
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FAT: A SELF-FULFILLING PROPHESY

By Janine Kovac

gotbooks

Getting weighed at San Francisco Ballet School was like a pop quiz: it happened when you least expected it. At the beginning of class, the teacher—a retired prima ballerina forty pounds overweight—would call out some names and then say, “I’d like to see you all after class.”

The anorexics drank huge quantities of milk before they were weighed—an effort to make themselves as heavy as instantaneously possible. We did the opposite: emptying our bladders and removing earrings and bobby pins and tampons. We probably would have opened a vein if we thought it would have made a difference on the scale.

After class, we were marched up to the company lounge, the secret location of the only scale in the whole building. For a moment, we shared space with them—the haloed dancers of the San Francisco Ballet. They’d be stretching or sewing shoes or soaking their feet. The chatter would stop when we entered. If it continued, it did so as a low buzz, as a show of respect for our privacy. We could see it in the way the dancers’ shoulders softened in silent nods of solidarity. As much as company members complained about the students (to be fair, we did steal their ballet shoes), when they saw us in our pink tights and black camisole leotards (sleeves might add weight), they saw themselves.

We’d step onto the scale—chins up and stomachs sucked in—like French aristocrats walking proudly to the guillotine. It was a fair punishment, one we’d brought on ourselves. But if we glanced at the lounging corps members on the couches, their eyes told us: “No, it’s not fair.”

The truth is, I don’t know if I felt fat. But I knew that I was supposed to feel fat.

We were students of San Francisco Ballet School, the crème de la crème. We weren’t lacking in confidence, especially those of us on scholarship. I don’t think we could have danced day after day unless we believed deep down that we had the potential to become the best dancers in the entire world. But we took our cues from the 3rd floor, from the dancers who really were amongst the best in the whole world. And on the 3rd floor they called themselves “fat.” Maybe their self-deprecation was just a false front for humility, as if one’s projected level of self-esteem had to be inversely proportional to her talent. Since they were our role models, we did as they did. Rather than tell my roommate that her muscles were mushy and her feet looked like claws and that I wished she’d stop throwing up and blaming it on me because it really tarnished my image, I said, “Oh, no. I’m the fat one.”

When the nutritionist came to the studio, she taped large pieces of butcher paper to the wall and made us draw outlines of ourselves. Apparently you could only have a healthy body image of yourself if you could draw it accurately. What she didn’t understand was that it wasn’t enough to be thin; we also had to pretend to think we were fat. For us, her test did not ask, “What do you think you look like?” but rather, “How big can you draw yourself?”

Under the nutritionist’s watchful eye, girl after girl underestimated the size of her thighs while the rest of us snickered at the bold show of confidence. Each girl compensated by drawing huge elbows or a fat neck. Not me. I didn’t dare let on that I thought I was thin. My drawing was pure Pillsbury doughboy, a chalk outline that sealed my fate.

I was promptly labeled as a girl with a dangerously inaccurate self-image, and given six weeks of consultations at the nutrition clinic at St. Francis Hospital. There, experts gave me charts converting carbs into calories and calories into treadmill time. They offered nuggets of dietary wisdom such as, “For breakfast, eat a bran muffin!” which I shortened to “muffin,” later adding “blueberry coffee cake” and “two.” Suddenly, I was a whole five pounds heavier. My faux modest claim, (“No, I’m the fat one”) became a belief (“Yes, you are the fat one”), cementing my identity as such in my frequent treks to the 3rd floor where I’d stand on the scale, sans earrings, awaiting judgment and inspiring pity in the hearts of my idols.

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Janine Kovac is a former ballet dancer who graduated magna cum laude from U.C. Berkeley with a degree in Cognitive Science.  She lives in Oakland with her husband and three small children.
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Honorable Mentions – 2011

We are honored to publish the stories of those who won an Honorable Mention in last year's Flash Prose Contest. We are currently accepting submissions for Writer Advice’s Sixth Annual Flash Prose Contest. Click on “Home” to read our guidelines. Click on Archives to read the writing of past winners.

SNOWFALL

by Sandy McPherson Carrubba

Snow covers the front yard, making the lawn disappear. The street remains clear as once green grass wears a new and bright coat of white. Big white turbans sit atop bushes. Schools and businesses remain open.

It is the one that I care for, my husband of more than four decades, who shuts down. After his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease, he seemed to give up on life. He grew quiet; his once loud laughter disappeared like the grass outside. But as the snow falls silently, I realize my husband is digging through the overcast in his mind and trying to find himself again. He asks me questions, “Did I ever tell you about . . . ?” And I lie when I say, “No, I never heard that story before.” I want to preserve his dignity and self image.

Watching the flakes fall quietly to their graves reminds me of what we face. Both of us suffer although I am not the one diagnosed. My husband’s thought processes become obscured, at times, like the blizzard conditions outside. He begins to tell me something, then forgets what he wanted to say. “You’ll think of it later,” I try to reassure him, but he shakes his head.

Other days clarity and lucidity prevail for him. We play cards and he wins fairly. He chuckles at silly things he does like trying to put his sweater on backwards. Each day our situation seems to remain the same, yet different. It is as if we are stuck in snow-stopped traffic and move only slightly forward.

Just as the quiet snow erases more of the world before us, my husband loses more of himself. He has lost his dexterity and ability to figure out how to do even simple tasks.. In the past, whenever I couldn’t open a jar, I turned to him. Now he asks me for help. Disease tangles his brain. Nothing about our situation appears bright and fresh. Most of our days are overcast, clouded by uncertainty.

I am reminded of how treacherous winter makes the world for travelers as we stumble through this maze of illness. Snow covers the front yard but I already recognize our path is full of danger.

Buffalo, NY writer, Sandy McPherson Carrubba, has written since being in elementary school. She has won national poetry, essay and short story contests. Her children's stories are used in third grade reading curriculums. Her favorite themes are isolation and abandonment.

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FIRE FIGHT

by Patricia Ljutic

At six-years-old, my son set our home on fire. By then he had an assortment of diagnoses: attention deficit disorder, severe hyperactivity, bipolar disorder, oppositional defiance, and one I gave him: failure to understand the consequences of anything—a sense I hoped he’d develop.

The evening of the fire, I sat on my bed paying bills. George stood in his room and lit a #2 pencil on fire. As the flames consumed the pencil and heat nipped at his fingers, he panicked and dropped the burning pencil into his trash can.

Fueled by trash, the fire ignited the wooden shelves we built for George’s toys. It coiled around his tennis ball, ate his baseball glove and melted the tires on his Matchbox Monster Trucks.

George rushed into my bedroom. His eyes brimmed over with contagious terror. I leaped up shouting, “What is it?”

“My room!”

I raced across the house. The fire had swallowed George’s shelves and toys in its hungry scarlet throat. Now it had appetite for the wall and climbed like a spirit made of tongues and claws. I shoved my son outside. Then, I broke all the rules.

I didn’t dial 911, call my husband or run to the neighbors. Like someone entering a battle—determined to win—I opened wide the kitchen and bathtub faucets and collected water in my largest sauce pots. I threw potful after potful onto the fire. I told myself that if after one minute the fire didn’t die, I’d retreat.

But this was my home and nothing, not this inferno, not ADHD and not bipolar disorder, would take it from me. I didn’t stop even after the first, second, third, fourth and fifth pot of water failed to squelch the flames. When I launched the contents of the sixth pot, the two-gallon-ball of water landed on the fire like an exploding wet bomb. The fire coughed smoke.

Reentering the house, George pleaded “Mommy come!”

He didn’t understand I was battling more than fire. He didn’t know I fought for him, against his attention deficit, his hyperactivity, his impulsivity and now, this inferno. He didn’t know I’d rather die than loose—me or the fire, win or die, hope or nothing. Even when black smoke billowed around me, stung my eyes and reached a long finger down my throat and into my lungs, I didn’t stop. Not until I’d won.

After the smoke cleared, we called George’s doctors and added to his medication regime. I didn’t want to, but this was not George’s first dangerous incident. As if building a wall made of chemical bricks, we laid major tranquilizers, upon antidepressants, upon antipsychotics, upon mood stabilizers until my son took a total 2100mg of pills a day. In a sense, we sedated George’s impulses.

Eight years later we thought—prayed, hoped—that maturity would help George control those urges. We wanted to improve his quality of life and allow him come out from behind the chemical wall we’d built. Slowly, we decreased his mediations one drug, 25mg at a time, reducing the dose once every two weeks. No one predicted how he would behave.

One Sunday morning, after two dose reductions, I padded out of my bedroom. Bare-foot and in my nightgown, and I found myself surrounded by candles, each wick lit with a tiny glittering flame. George had gathered every candle in our home and lit them all.

“Look, Mom, I made it beautiful for you.”

Surrounded by tiny flames, I felt like the most frightened fairy princess ever. But George had tried to make the house magical for me. I didn’t want to scold him. I wanted to teach him.

Exhaling I said, “It’s beautiful.”

As we walked through our home, I explained that burning candles mustn’t be left unattended. Together we moved them from the dinning room and kitchen to the family room.

I talked softly and calmly to my son. George had placed each candle in a holder and set only the candles ablaze. Although he over-used it, he had used fire correctly. He’d restrained an impulse.

Sitting beside my son, I remembered his room burning: the flames clawing up the wall, the pots of water and the smoke. As I watched the dance of the candles’ glow on my son’s face, I recorded this newer, happier memory. Then, I took George’s hand in mine and told him everything he’d done right.

Patricia Ljutic’s work has appeared in national publications including Cup of Comfort and Chicken Soup for the Soul. She won second place in the 11th Annual Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition. Patricia lives with her family in Pinole, California.

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ALL THE ANGELS

by Deborah Nedelman, Ph.D.

She has rid her house of all the angels. Well, not completely, but I don’t mention the one in the picture frame over the toilet downstairs. One angel in the guest bathroom seems just about right now.

It feels oddly empty, her house without the angels everywhere, but I do feel so much more relaxed. Reminders of Amy aren’t sitting on every surface, in every nook and on the mantelpiece, the coffee table, the bookshelves. This is a good sign, I know; she is moving on. I am amazed. How do you move on after your firstborn pulls you down into hell with her and then, just as she gives you a moment of stolen hope, destroys herself with a heroin overdose? How do you put that behind you?

Knowing Joan and watching her, weeping with her, holding her hand has been an education in resiliency and given me a faith in something far more deeply rooted than any kind of god I’d known before. Knowing Joan, the mother, and loving Amy, her daughter, as we stood in the circle desperately trying to convince that slip of a 16 year-old whose long platinum hair covered her eyes, to come into the hospital, to let us help her heal, I felt an impotence I’d never known.

When she shook the hair away from her face, I saw the fierce animal reality of her and then she pulled the gun from her purse and we were lost. All of us.

In that moment I saw how thin my courage was, how frail my belief, how all the lessons I had accumulated about healing and care were just a veneer of confidence. The cycle of locked wards and prison cells began and I gave up.

But I was not her mother, only her god-mother. I had the luxury of distance. And oh, how grateful I was to be able to retreat, to pull back to my own children, not to see Amy’s anger each night when I lay down, as I knew Joan did. And I thought, time and again, how will she ever get past this? When the police called that night and she had to go to the morgue to identify her lovely, bloated daughter lying on that slab, she did that. Who can imagine how that changes you?

Then the days, the weeks, the years of collecting angels followed – they just appeared clustered on her doorstep, in her mailbox, around the garden. She stayed in bed for long periods, of course, she didn’t eat well, she walked and walked and walked. She would return to the house and find more angels; the neighbors had brought them, they’d come in the mail from friends far away, sometimes they just showed up without a name attached. It never mattered where they came from, they belonged there, in her house, then. After a while it was too strange and I found it hard to go to her house. I would call her “let’s go out for coffee, for lunch, for a walk.” I don’t know if she understood my reluctance, but eventually there were days when she came with me and we could talk about other things.

She went to a monastery for a week in silence. She stopped eating meat, drinking alcohol; she began to dress appropriately again. Then the sight of a tattoo on the shoulder of a young waitress threw her back to bed for days. It was like watching a tiny rowboat, oars unmanned waving vainly, as the sea played out the full scope of its storm-laden history. When that helpless vessel dove into a valley between enormous swells, my heart would clench and I would rediscover an impulse for prayer. Then she would rise up again, bobbing just behind the foamy break. I would scrunch my feet deeper into the sand, hold my ground tightly as the tide worked to pull me out too. But I fought to be a spot on the horizon for her, a point to hold her eyes firm against the vertiginous assault.

I don’t know if my efforts made any difference; we never talked about it, but she did reach a harbor. It may have been time alone or all the tangles of love that surrounded her, or perhaps the chords of responsibility that clung to the remnants of her old self pulled her back. And then, of course, there were all those damn angels.

Deborah Nedelman, Ph.D. is an MFA student at the Whidbey Writers Workshop. She is co-author of Still Sexy After All These Years? The 9 Unspoken Truths About Women’s Sexual Desire After 50  (Perigee/Penguin)and A Guide for Beginning Psychotherapists(Cambridge)Deborah writes fiction and poetry and facilitates writing workshops.

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THE COMMUTE

by JLSchneider

The deer lying on the side of the road when I drive to work this morning is freshly hit, but she looks comfortable, legs tucked under her like a cat. No blood. She looks at me as I drive by, following my eyes, mine hers, as if we might have met once, been lovers perhaps, but aren’t quite sure. That tone of sadness and doubt and longing in her eyes. That first loving before the bog where the loosestrife from last year stands tall and brown.

At work, the curly-haired blonde with the jean-fit thighs and ferocious face hates the dramatic/objective point of view. The rock-’n-roll mom needs the rules again. Gel-boy’s getting an F, and he’s laughing. The doe eyes behind their anger and blame—I’m asking them to see the world like children, florescent, shadowless, their eyes following mine around the classroom until I eventually have to land on the same vacuous point they do. They’re right. It’s a good day to give up…

Forget about seeing. Don’t look at the world with awe and wonder, it’s not worth it. Forget about the seduction scene and the six varieties of verb tense and that child you once were. There’s another storm coming. Stock up on water and food and confabulation. Don’t go into the basement.

Everything’s fine. There’s no need to create something new. Remember when I said it’s an honor to carry sorrow? It’s not. Remember when I said you could use your mistakes? Don’t. The Church of the Lying God was really Living God. I just misread it, that’s all. It’s not snow, only rain in another form, and that is not sadness. The Wallkill Creek is moving swiftly under the bridge, and the fields have been freshly limed. Spring is coming. It’s only an hour commute, not that far. Climbing the ridge, then down the scrub pine side, past the bog and the brown loosestrife. There’s one more minute of sunshine today than yesterday.

In fact, I’ll see her at the curve, her brown eyes looking deeply into mine, waiting for my return so she can rise to her feet. She’s only resting.

JLSchneider was a carpenter for fifteen years before becoming an adjunct professor of English at a small community college in upstate New York.  His work has appeared in Snake Nation, The MacGuffin, International Quarterly, and Whiskey Island Magazine, among others.

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THE MELON OF LODI

by J. D. Blair

Ramon Garcia, a farm worker in Lodi, California was working in a melon field when he found a melon that he claimed had the image of Christ on the rind. Elated, he crossed himself and rushed home with the melon and put it on his mantle piece, under his painting on velvet of Che Guevara. Word spread quickly throughout the small farming community that Garcia had discovered the Melon of Lodi but a skeptical scientific community had its’ doubts. A team from U.C. Berkeley was dispatched to Lodi to see for itself whether or not this was the authentic Melon of Lodi.

“This isn’t the first time,” said Blair Donavan, chief agronomist. “Remember the Salinas fiasco?”

Claims were made in 1968 that Christ’s icon had been discovered in a melon patch in Salinas but that find was discounted when researchers uncovered a ring of forgers who had planted the melon in a shipping crate. The forgery was poorly handled by using a magic marker to apply the image to the rind. Of course it immediately deteriorated into a poorly rendered image of Teddy Roosevelt.

In Lodi the investigative team wrangled for days over the iconic image of the Son of God but couldn’t reach a consensus. Some were convinced that though the rind was irregular the image certainly had the rugged outline of Christ.

“See the Christ like eye…that certainly is a sympathetic gaze,” said one.

Others, claiming that nobody really knows what Christ looked like, could not sign off on the Melon’s authenticity.

“For all we know that could be Jeffrey Hunter,” said another.

Others thought it looked like Woody Allen.

The church refused to remain silent and pooh-poohed the skeptics and claimed the melon was legitimate. Soon people from around the world were coming to Lodi to see the miracle of the melon. Believers knelt before the melon and a local cleric blessed it and made mention of it in his homilies. The faithful were convinced the melon was an omen…a sign that the second coming was near.

As the weeks passed and the melon started to soften the image began to change and the visiting hoards feared the worst. Perhaps God was angry that they were worshiping a melon but in the absence of any sign what else were they to think? Soon worshipers were flagellating and prostrating themselves before the melon in Garcia’s small house. Crying and praying at the mantle they cursed the skies and claimed that Armageddon was near, that the image was possessed by the devil, they cried out for an exorcism.

“That’s silly,” said a local priest. “How can you exorcise a melon? The church has no guidelines for exorcisms of melons.”

After a couple months the icon that was once Christ had morphed into a likeness of Elvis…not the Elvis of the fifties and early sixties but the bloated, sweating Elvis at the time of his drug induced death.

“It’s a miracle,” cried Garcia’s wife Lupe, “It’s a miracle, Elvis is in the house!”

Again the hoards flocked to Lodi this time bearing anklets, bracelets and necklaces with little guitars dangling on them. Elvis impersonators came in great numbers to compare notes and pay homage to their creator. The church choir added Elvis’ greatest hits to their hymnals. Ramon removed the painting on velvet of Che Guevara and replaced it with a painting of Elvis…on velvet.

After a long while the melon began to smell and any indications that Christ, Elvis or Woody Allen had lived in the melon were gone. The scientists from Berkeley sued to have the Melon of Lodi preserved so more extensive studies could be made.

J.D. Blair writes short fiction, one-act plays and poetry. His stories and poems have appeared in several literary magazines and a one-act play was staged in 2009. Blair lives in Walnut Creek, California.

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Winners of the 2010 Writer Advice Flash Prose Contest are:

 

HIGHWAY TO THE VALLEY

by Stephen Bakalyar

I’m heading south on Interstate 5. Tedious landscape save for an occasional cluster of gas station signs around an overpass. Reminds me of a TV documentary I saw, tube worms huddled around a deep-sea hydrothermal vent. The worms absorb energy; the stations dispense it, perversely sustaining our automobile culture. I often muse about such things while driving—the strangeness of creatures, the fate of mankind. But today mostly my mind is on the accident. They say I killed the girl.

The light was green. Pretty sure. A van came from the right, clipped my rear, spun me around. Then another car. A limousine. I saw the operating room lights, then nothing…

until a nurse’s hand adjusting the IV drip. I slid my eyes up her arm to her breasts, her slender neck, her face looking down at me. Looking down with such tenderness. She buoyed my spirits each day. We became friends. More than that, really. You could say I lived for her.

I fill up and check the receipt: 9.6 gallons…$22.31... Thank you. And at the bottom: Tell them. What the hell? I don’t like that. Don’t like anyone telling me what to do. I work for myself, fixing computers. My own boss. Don’t have to put up with George any more. Georgie boy. Wanted to be called Mr. Fredrick to remind us who was in charge. I crumple the receipt, but then smooth it out and put it in my pocket.

Another hour and I head east to Bakersfield, swing around the end of the Sierra, and go north on 395, destination Death Valley, minus 282 feet. I know this number. I’m good at numbers, anything to do with numbers. Actually, I’m kind of a math whiz. I talked to my nurse about math. And computers. She admired me for knowing about that stuff. One of the things that attracted me to her. But it was mostly her beauty. Sexiness, really. God, she was sexy.

The limousine was going fast. It must have been. Damn fast. Spun me around the other direction. I don’t remember if my air bags deployed. Probably.

At Olancha I turn east on 190 and climb into the Panamint Range. You can see both the highest and lowest points in the contiguous states at the same time. Cool. As I descend into the valley, roadcuts expose the frozen violence of deformed rocks. In some places there are large imbedded diamonds. That is strange. My nurse—her name was Alicia, did I mention her before? Alicia—wore diamond earrings. Small ones. Perfect for her fine features. Her breasts were small, but her scrubs had side ties that gave her a nice shape. Someday soon I will see her without her uniform, without anything, naked before me, looking at me with such longing, holding her arms out to me. Neither of us will speak. I will look at her, then embrace her.

The limousine’s headlights were still on, but it was late-morning. The fog had burned off. Not a factor. Pretty sure. I remember the lights bearing down on me. For some reason I wasn’t afraid.

I arrive at the valley floor, get out of the car, and gaze at the alluvial fans spreading gracefully from the mountains. This is a majestic place. I come here every year. Sometimes I wish I had become a geologist. Could spend more time outdoors, not hunched over someone’s computer. Someone I don’t know, don’t care about. There’s something strange on one of the mountains. I get my binoculars, focus in. Words are chiseled in the stone: Tell them. I take the gas receipt from my pocket. It’s still there, at the bottom: Tell them. Tell them what? For god’s sake, what? I already told them. There were two other cars. I didn’t hit the girl until I was hit. I yell out: “Goddamn it. Get off my back!”

“Mr. Roberts.”

I sense Alicia is near.

“Mr. Roberts.”

A blurry hand is on the IV pole. I see her arm.

“Mr. Roberts.”

Her face now. I’m so happy to see her. We’ve become very close, almost lovers.

“Mr. Roberts, let’s raise your bed. Time for pills. Upsy-daisy.”

Stephen Bakalyar had diverse writing careers as a chemist: In marketing he wrote brochures, newsletters, and advertising copy. In research he published papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Now he writes poetry and short stories from his home in Sonoma, California.

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THE PEOPLE NEXT DOOR

By Mary Rudy

nextdoor

Pencil Drawing by Ashley Edwards
http://nchsart.blogspot.com/

The little girl come by every day after school. Pulled off her backpack, dragged it behind her—bonk, bonk, bonk—all the way up to the fifth floor. Never took the elevator. You know how kids are. I’d stand at my peephole, watch her pop out the stairwell and skip across the hall. Pound on the old man’s door. “Grandpa, it’s me, Debbie. Let me in.”

She was a cute little thing. Freckles and wavy hair. Lanky like kids can be. I always thought she should of had a more special name but, it weren’t up to me.

Walls was thin in that building. I’d hear her go in and old man Roberts would open up a can of something and she’d snack and chatter and then straight to the piano. It was a regular routine them two had. She’d bang the keys and sing along. He’d tell her how her grandma used to play like an angel. A regular angel. “Still got all her music here…”

“I’m going to play like an angel someday, Grandpa. I promise. I’ll play Stardust for you.”

And, you know, as time went by she got so she could pick out a tune pretty good. Guess no one ever thought to get lessons for her. But I’ll be damned if she didn’t learn a song or two anyway. Nothing fancy but you could tell she had potential.

Around four the old man would tell her, “Best get to that homework now before your mama gets here.”

It’d be real quiet then till her mama arrived. She’d saunter out the elevator smoking a cigarette. Never knocked on the door. Just lifted the mat and let herself in with the hidden key.

“Come on, Debbie. Time to go. See you tomorrow, Dad.”

They’d trudge on out the door. “Debbie, put that thing on your back where it belongs. ‘Stead of pulling it around like an old dead cat.”

Debbie’d put it on her back and say, “I’ll take the stairs, Mama.”

“You’ll do no such a thing. I got better things to do than wait around for you to drag your sorry butt down five flights of stairs.”

Funny how that little gal never gave up. Every day she’d say the same thing and every day her mama’d say no and they’d get in the elevator and disappear.

Then one day it was different. Instead of saying see you tomorrow, her mama said, “Well, thanks, Dad. You can have your life back now.”

Old man Roberts said, “It ain’t no trouble. I like having her here.”

Debbie said, “I don’t want to go home after school. I want to come here.”

Debbie’s mama said, “You’re a big girl now. You can go home, get your homework done, start dinner. Stop being a burden.”

“But, Mama…”

“Don’t But, Mama me. I got better things to do than drive all the way over here after work when you’re big enough to go straight home after school and take care of yourself.”

Wasn’t long after that when he done it. Who would of guessed he had a gun in there. I’d never even heard one before. Didn’t know what it was but I knew it weren’t good. Bam. Thunk. Like a car backfiring but sure as hell there was no car in there. Called the cops right away but it was too late.

Last time I seen Debbie was a week or so later. Come by with her mama to take care of things.

“Let’s go, Debbie. Ain’t nothing here we need.”

“What about the piano, Mama? Can’t we keep the piano?”

“What do we need with an old piano?”

“I could play it.”

“You don’t know how to play and we don’t have room and I can sell it for good money.”

“But I promised Grandpa I’d learn to play.”

“Well, you shouldn’t make promises you can’t keep. Lucky for you, it don’t matter anymore.”

Debbie’s mama strutted over to the elevator and Debbie said, “I’m taking the stairs.” I couldn’t see her eyes but I could hear her voice. It weren’t a child’s voice no more. Her mama must of heard it, too.

Soon as them elevator doors closed, Debbie looked around, lifted the mat and let herself back into the old man’s apartment. When she come back out she was stuffing music books into her backpack. Put the key back under the mat. Bonk, bonk, bonk, and out the front door.

Mary Rudy lives in San Rafael, California with her husband and two dogs. Besides writing she enjoys gardening, cooking, and playing the piano. Her work has been published in Writer's Digest, Pisgah Review, Coe Review and various anthologies.

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A FAMILY COMEDY

By Denise Turner

familycomedy

Carol Burnett saves us from ourselves. She sweeps on to the stage, this red-headed queen, possessing the power to lift us from the bowels of hell. Dean kicks off his cowboy boots as soon as she comes on. He stretches out along the couch and loses himself in the skits. He forgets about the Good Book and God's wrath and all of my transgressions. He forgets that his lower back is in pain, that the bills are coming due, that some fool broke into the garage and tried to steal his air compressor. When Carol Burnett's wide blue eyes flicker across the screen, my stepfather forgets it all. He chuckles, soft at first and then open-mouthed guffaws escape, making the blubber around his waist jiggle up and down.

Carol's magic reaches all the unreachable parts of my mother. She does not drift away from us tonight. She doesn't stare into the seams of her pants, but raises her head to watch Tim Conway shuffle across the stage wearing his crazy Old Man wig. The audience roars. My mother's eyes twinkle. A smile breaks the frozen surface of her face. Tonight, just for tonight, she is back.

When the rest of the show's cast is trying to maintain composure, it's Harvey Korman who will always bust a gut. He's doing this now, biting his lip, squinting his eyes, trying to stifle his laughter over Conway, but it's too late for me. Giggles rise from my belly. The sound reminds me of a girl I used to know before Dean came along. A girl who smelled of apple-butter. A child who did cartwheels on the lawn, never knowing that her skin was drenched in sin. It's this girl I feel now. Resurrected. Her laughter bounces in my mouth. I forget who I've become. I forget which parts of me are gone. I am free and in my freedom I abandon my week-long plan to set the shed on fire.

Outside the world is turning white. The mountains have almost disappeared. The storm will seal us in; this we know. It will bury everything, steal all, choke the light from our withering world. But tonight we do not care. Because Carol Burnett is here, and tonight she is doing Mrs. Wiggins. That silly secretary doesn't understand the intercom system. Conway calls her name over and over again. Misses-Uh-Wiggins? Misses-Uh-Wiggins? But she only fans her polished nails and looks around.

And we are howling.

Doubled over.

Tears spilling out from our eyes.

Denise Turner's work has appeared The Sun, Skirt Magazine, Progenitor and elsewhere. Her short memoir, "The Dark," received the Writers Studio Award for Creative Nonfiction in 2008. She is currently working on a book-length memoir.

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THE BOOK GROUP

By Francine Garson

gotbooks

Balancing a boxed apple pie, a copy of Revolutionary Road, a tote bag filled with more books, and a way-too-heavy shoulder bag, I jab my thumb into Shelly’s doorbell.

“C’mon in,” someone calls.

I manage to turn the doorknob without dropping anything, and walk into the brightly lit foyer. Rita, the other baker for this month’s book group meeting, is carefully arranging her homemade butterscotch brownies on a glass platter in the dining room.

“Hi everyone,” I say.

I am greeted with smiles, waves, and some “Hi, Lisa’s.

“Coats are in the TV room,” says Shelly, holding a coffeepot in one hand and a fistful of spoons in the other.

I drop my bags next to one of the overstuffed chairs in the living room and with a “Sorry I’m late,” wade through the group of women congregating in the dining room. Still wearing my quilted jacket, I remove my crumb-topped, albeit store-bought, pie from its box and place it on the empty cake dish already on the table.

Slipping off my jacket, I head toward the TV room and add it to the pile of other mostly black coats covering the couch. A sure sign of late fall in New Jersey.

Making my way into the now-empty dining room, I pour myself a cup of coffee, walk into the living room, and position myself in my previously claimed chair. The loud pre-book discussion chatter that I had heard from the dining room becomes a soft buzz, then silence. A very short-lived silence.

“Omigod! Lisa, you look great. Did you lose weight? How much? How’d you do it? How long did it take?”

Five pairs of eyes stare at me. At my face, my thighs, my chest, and stomach. Five women speak. Their voices come from underwater, and I have trouble understanding them. I feel my lips protrude as I push a small gust of air from my mouth.

I force myself to smile. And to answer. “I lost fifteen pounds in about two months. I just started making better choices about what I eat. Healthier and lower calorie. That’s about it.”

“Right, you weren’t here last month. We haven’t seen you,” Rita says.

“But it has to be more than just making better choices. We all try to do that,” Audrey says, holding one of Rita’s butterscotch brownies.

“Lisa, you were never fat, or even overweight. But now you look great,” Joanne says.

“What’s your secret?” Rita asks.

“There is no secret,” I lie.

“Jenny Craig? Nutri-System?” Shelly guesses.

“No,” I answer. That’s true.

“Lipo? A lover?” Beth gets a huge laugh.

“No,” I say. True. “I’m just eating differently. And once you start, it becomes a lifestyle.” Also true.

The conversation moves to Weight Watchers, Atkins, and the Zone diet. Pilates, yoga, spin classes, and weight training. Middle age spread and menopause. Anorexia and bulimia. Rita doesn’t like her thighs, and Beth doesn’t like her belly.

“I don’t like my nose,” Audrey bursts out.

Even I laugh at that one.

Happily out of the limelight, I listen as the talk continues, punctuated with chuckles, giggles, and guffaws. I look around the room at the women I have known for ten years. Shelly, Rita, Audrey, Joanne, and Beth. A high school English teacher, a retired attorney, a college administrator, a realtor, and a stay-at-home mom. Each month we share food, stories, and our love for books. We’re not friends, but we are a group.

As the discussion finally moves to Revolutionary Road, I realize how much I will miss these women when my weekly sessions of chemotherapy begin to affect a lot more than my weight.

A former college administrator, Francine Garson has published a short memoir on worklifegroup.com.  Her fiction has received recognition from several contests. Francine lives in New Jersey with an even-tempered husband and a moody cat. Her almost grown children occasionally return home for food and clean laundry. 

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Honorable Mentions – 2010

We are honored to publish the stories of those who won an Honorable Mention in last year's Flash Prose Contest. We are currently accepting submissions for Writer Advice’s Sixth Annual Flash Prose Contest. Click on “Home” to read our guidelines. Click on Archives to read the writing of past winners.

FINAL CALL

by Lynn Mann

bakalyar

They lie in the twisted wreckage of their car, deaf, blind and dying. Random thoughts flickers and ping-pong around their minds, the last vestiges of being. The poor dog, who’s going to take care of him…. glad I remembered to take out the trash…. Guess I’ll find about god now… my brother will never forgive me for ruing his birthday party… if only I hadn’t made her come too…

They can’t hear the sirens approaching, can’t see the firemen’s frantic efforts to reach them or the medics shaking their heads. “DOA”, one says.

At the airport a few miles away the loudspeakers announce, “Final call for flight 321 to Minneapolis, all passengers please report to gate B5. Final call for flight 321.”

On the road gawkers crawl past the site, slowing to catch as much of the tragedy as possible. Some feel sympathy or horror but most allow a flicker of superiority to cross their minds. We left on time, we didn’t need to speed.

The loudspeakers call, “Attention passengers Marc and Joan Silverman, please report immediately to gate B5, passengers Marc and Joan Silverman to gate B5 please.” Travelers waiting at their assigned gates look around, wondering briefly who the missing passengers might be, then relapse into pre-flight torpor.

At B5 the gate attendants look at each other and scan the area for two running passengers. No one appears. The male attendant says, “Thirty seconds and we close.” The female nods agreement. Idiots, she thinks, buy tickets, even check in on line and still manage to miss their flight.

On the road the ambulance doors slam shut and it drives sedately away, followed by the fire engine. No lights or sirens, no need to rush now. The state troopers collect the remnants of their flares and kick as much debris as possible onto the shoulder.

At B5 the gate door slams shut, the breezeway retracts and the plane moves slowly away from the dock. Everyone aboard is in a hurry to get going. No one gives any thought to two missing passengers.

At home a sleeping dog twitches, waiting with infinite patience for his family to return.

Lynn Mann resides in Columbia, MD with three rescue cats and a supportive partner. Her writing reflects her eclectic reading, unusual education and far-flung travels. Several of Lynn’s stories have been published by on-line publications and MWA’s Pen In Hand magazine.

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WILD PINK SALMON

By Lisen Stromberg

nextdoor

I’ve always admired the tenacity of the wild salmon. Despite opposing forces-- predators, debris, the upward climb against counter currents -- they return to the place of their birth, to that moment when they were all spark and idea, back to their glittering selves.

When my son was five, he preferred his sister’s blue tutu to the cowboy suit his grandmother gave him. On his fingernails he wore pink and on his head a small white blanket he called his long blond hair. He liked diggers and trains well enough but he loved Cinderella most of all. We spent hours reenacting the moment when the slipper fit; I was always Prince Charming. You can imagine who wore the dainty shoe.

His world was one of magic and fairies. He danced all the time - hands, wrist, arms fluttering like butterfly wings, his hips twirling as on a maypole. He swore he could see people’s colors. “Mommy,” he would say, “why is that person so dark blue,” or “ooh, look at her green.” He cried in fear once when he saw a man who, he said, swirled black. I never explained to him the mystery of auras. How do you explain something you yourself can’t truly understand? 

When he started kindergarten, the teachers were concerned, “he should have grown out of this by now.” The other children teased a little boy who drew pictures of himself in ball gowns with sparkling tiaras. A few fights on the playground and soon experts were consulted.

In 1974, the term homosexual was erased from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Gays and lesbians were no longer considered crazy. But within a decade, a new mental illness was listed: Gender Identity Disorder. No longer were we telling adults what was normal, the focus now was on children, early intervention, reparative therapy. Of course, the overbearing mother was at fault.

My son didn’t need to be told what was “normal” by experts, he learned that all too quickly from the world around him. He learned boys don’t wear pink, it is better to be the beast than the beauty, and that knowing how to hit a ball, kick a ball, throw a ball is the most important thing of all.  

Now, at fifteen, he fits right in with his baggy jeans and ripped navy blue tee shirts. Gone are the days of dressing up and make believe. He’s learned to keep his wrists firm and his hips in check. He can’t even see people’s auras anymore.  But every once in awhile, I will see him lift his fingers to his face and twist his imaginary long blond hair around his ears.  And in those moments, I have faith one day this wild pink salmon will fight the current and find his way home.

Lisen Stromberg is an award winning writer currently enrolled in the MFA in Prose program at Mills College. She lives with her husband and their three glittering salmon in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH

By Ed Decker

familycomedy

A simple job: four sides, a bottom, a detachable lid. White pine. I watched my father cut the wood on his table saw in the back of the garage, cringing at the shriek of the whirring metal teeth as they bit into the line marked in pencil. The spume of sawdust fell to the floor in what seemed slow motion. A scent I remembered from my aunt’s cabin in Maine filled the air. As a young child I had thought sawdust was flour for making bread. Then I got older and learned that my father was not a baker, but a carpenter.

“This’ll save Martin plenty,” my father said as he hammered the pieces together. “Hundred for me. Easy job. Maybe I should do more of this. Some sideline, huh?” He slapped my shoulder and laughed. I was looking at the box take shape and couldn’t find a smile. The echo of pain on my shoulder took a while to fade.

We didn’t cover the box after putting it in my father’s pickup truck; the skies were clear, no rain predicted. There was no conversation during the ten-minute drive.

“Hi Dave!” Wrinkles fanned out across Mr. Martin’s face as he smiled broadly and shook my father’s hand.

“And you brought your boy along. What are you, son? Eleven? Twelve?”

“Thirteen,” I said, completing the series.

“Good, good,” Mr. Martin said. “Bring it right into the den, Dave.”

I focused on the floor as we carried the box into the house, my father in front, me at the rear. I remembered that my father had built the den too, five or so years ago.

“I’m going to use it for towels and blankets for now,” Mr. Martin said. “Should get about six months out of it.”

I stopped for a second, then hurried forward to keep up. In the den Mr. Martin’s father was sleeping in a recliner, his bifocals askew on his face, a liver-spotted hand clutching a TV Guide in his lap. Jeopardy was on the TV, but the sound was off. My mouth wouldn’t close as I looked at the old man, at the box, back at the man. And I couldn’t help myself from thinking: he should fit in there just fine.

Ed Decker is a copywriter at an advertising agency in New York City. He is coauthor with his wife, Linda Carbone, of A Little Pregnant: Our Memoir of Fertility, Infertility, and a Marriage. He is currently working on a novel.

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LAST PERFORMANCE

By Judith Groudine Finkel

gotbooks

You know what I hate about my ex-wife?

She thinks she knows me so well. And she’s always trying to prove it.

Like yesterday she called and said, “Why don’t you go to Katy’s dress rehearsal? It would break her heart if you had stomach trouble the night of the play and didn’t make it.”

You see, when I have stomach trouble, I have to stay home when I’d like to be somewhere else. The ex thinks that’s my excuse not to be seen in public after I’ve had too much to drink. But just a normal amount of drinking does it to me.

I showed her. I said, “I’ll be there for the final practice and the first performance.” After all, Katy has the starring role of Anna in her high school’s version of “The King and I.” A proud father should be at both.

Katy’s beautiful singing voice rang out at that dress rehearsal. And her acting. No movie star can play Anna better than Katy. She looked especially beautiful with her long blonde hair pinned on top of her head.

I wish I could be with her more, but the ex got custody. She spends her time telling Katy lies about me. She’s even ordered her not to ride with me if I’ve had anything to drink.

As soon as the curtain came down, Katy ran off the stage and greeted me with a hug. “Hey, everyone, this is my dad.”

I held in my stomach and stood straight to reach my full height of five nine as I accepted murmured greetings.

“I’ll take you to dinner tomorrow night before the play,” I offered.

“Sorry, Dad, I’ll have to be at school early.” She kissed me good-bye and rushed backstage.

Today’s performance day so I worked the early shift at the plant and stopped at a bar to celebrate with a few gin and tonics.

Back to the apartment where I continue the celebration with some wine.

The third bottle of wine does it. That burning – through my stomach all the way to my back.

Still got to get to the play.

Leave now. Get some coffee at the diner near the school.

Stupid car door. Finally opens. Damn key hardly fits the ignition.

Almost there.

No luck. One of those shitty sudden Houston downpours. Can’t see. Use the bright lights. Too much glare. Try the fog lights.

Where’d that stupid stop sign came from? Hit the brakes but go a little beyond it. Start up again. Turn the steering wheel to the right. Shouldn’t be on the curb. Oops, slide back off into the street.

What the hell. Car’s gone over a dog or something.

Should stop. But so much rain, and just some animal.

Need a beer. Some at the apartment.

Get soaked going from the parking lot to the door. Too tired to change. A couple beers, lie down on the couch. Can’t sleep. Damn phone keeps ringing. Throw my shoe at it. Bingo. Stops ringing.

Terrible pounding noise inside my head. No, it’s coming from the door. Damn. It’s after ten.

I missed the play.

I’ll tell Katy about my stomach trouble. She’ll understand.

I open the door. Two beefy cops, one short and one tall fill the doorway.

“What can I do for you gentlemen?”

The tall one speaks. “We’d like to come in and talk to you.”

The unsmiling face. Someone must have written down my license plate number when I hit that damn dog.

Well, before they accuse me of being a hit and run driver, I’ll prove I couldn’t have done it.

“You’re lucky you didn’t come earlier or I wouldn’t have been here.”

“That so?” the short one says.

“I was at Middlebury High School. My daughter had the lead in the ‘King and I.’ She played Anna.”

The cops don’t say anything.

So I recite the plot and even sing a verse from “Getting to Know You” the song Katy does so well. They’ll have to believe the father of the leading lady was there. “I’m so proud of my daughter. She did such a great job.”

The tall one says, “You’ll need to come with us.”

“Why?”

“There was no show tonight. Your daughter couldn’t perform. A hit and run driver killed her.”

Judith Groudine Finkel's award winning legal thriller Texas Justice is available on Amazon.com. Her shorter works have appeared in the Birmingham Arts Journal, the Cuivre River Anthology Volume III, the Houston Chronicle, Moment Magazine, This Path and Sin Fronteras Journal

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CHERYL MAJOR

By J.D. Blair

gotbooks

Darryl Silvey sent away to one of those places where you can have a star named after someone and on his wife Cheryl's 40th birthday he paid two hundred dollars to have the star Pentarious Major named after her. Over dinner he presented her with the certificate verifying that Pentarious had indeed been renamed “Cheryl Major”. Unfortunately the day after she received the gift Pentarious...or Cheryl, went supernova and turned into a black hole. From that point forward their marriage was, so to speak, sucked down the black hole.

Cheryl would not let the issue rest and on the night of her 41'st birthday as they prepared for bed she looked at Darryl and said, “Two-hundred dollars is a lot of money to spend for a piece of paper,” then rolled over and turned out the bedside lamp.

“It wasn't my fault” said Darryl “Didn't you like the Steuben Glass Statue Of Liberty I got you?”

Each year on Cheryl's birthday Darryl cursed the heavens for ruining his marriage. Finally, on her 45th birthday Darryl had a stroke of genius. He would take Cheryl to the local astronomical observatory to make her own choice of a star.

When they arrived the observatory was clamoring with excitement as astronomers took turns scanning the heavens. Darryl pulled aside one of the astronomers to find out what all the excitement was about.

“We’ve discovered a black hole that appears to be eating a galaxy.”

“Eating a galaxy,” asked Darryl?

“A black hole named “Cheryl Major” has actually sucked a portion of a nearby galaxy into its' magnetic center...amazing.”

Darryl looked at Cheryl and Cheryl looked at Darryl and said, “I hope you're happy.”

The astronomer went on to explain “Cheryl Major's” attack. “If the galaxy that was eaten had any inhabited planets similar to earth their atmospheres would be obliterated.”

He unrolled a large graph indicating where “Cheryl Major's” magnetic tentacles had invaded the neighboring galaxy. “We think that new stars will form out of any debris left behind.”

Darryl jumped on this tidbit of galactic optimism. “See Cheryl, it's not such a bad thing, more stars can be made from your...black hole.”

Cheryl turned on her heels and headed for the door, “I've heard enough.”

“Wait,” said the scientist excitedly, “you're Cheryl, the Cheryl of the black hole?” Pulling Cheryl forward he shouted to the telescope scaffolding, “Warren, this is Cheryl...Cheryl Major!”

Astronomers clamored down the rigging heaping praise on Cheryl...hugging, shaking her hand, and taking pictures with her. She was strangely pleased with all the attention.

Correspondents from all over the world wanted interviews. Cheryl's picture graced the cover of “Star Monthly” and pictures of her black hole were plastered all over the Internet.

Cheryl’s instant celebrity caused an even bigger rift in what was left of her marriage to Darryl and she divorced him on her 46th birthday and he never remarried. Darryl was a man seemingly alone in the universe.

J.D. Blair writes short fiction, one-act plays and poetry. His stories and poems have appeared in several literary magazines and a one-act play was recently staged. Blair lives in Walnut Creek, California with his wife, two cats and a dove.

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BEHIND THE BLUE LINE

By Marian Woods

gotbooks

I stand patiently behind the taped blue line on the floor, or what was once a line. Much of the masking tape has worn out thanks to countless pairs of shoes crossing and standing over it. Gummy little jagged pieces of tape are all that remain of the original marking. Doris, one of the pharmacy assistants, instructs customers that the blue line is there for us. "Stay behind the blue line. We need to respect everyone’s privacy." If there are two things that can be said about me, it’s this -- I am a rule follower and a respecter of privacy.

I’m at the pharmacy to refill my prescription for sleeping pills. My recent surgery has left me with a terrible change in sleep habits, and I realize that for the time being, I need these pills to get by. Of course, I’ve waited until the very last moment to refill my prescription and desperation has sunk in.

Doris calls out, "Next." I hand her the bottle, and she turns to the pharmacist. I don’t expect that this exchange will take long. Doris comes back to the counter and informs me, "There’s a problem." I can’t seem to register these words. I NEED my medication.

It’s at this moment that I become aware of someone standing very close to me. Glancing to my right, I see an elderly woman wearing red pants and a beige shirt. She has crossed the blue line and is now almost shoulder to shoulder with me. My mind can’t absorb both the prescription problem and the uncomfortable proximity of a stranger. It’s too much. I turn sharply to the woman and raise my voice. YOU ARE INVADING MY PERSONAL SPACE. PLEASE MOVE. The elderly woman stares at me. Uttering an "Ohhhh," she retreats back behind the blue line.

With one situation now under control, I turn to face Doris to see about my prescription problem. I expect Doris, Regulator of the Blue Line, to lean over the counter, wink at me conspiratorily, and say, "You know, Red Pants over there never listens to me, no matter how many times I tell her to stand behind the blue line. It’s customers like you who always obey the rules and expect others to do so as well that keep this pharmacy running smoothly. Thank you for helping me with my job."

No. Doris doesn’t say a word, and her brown eyes narrow slightly. Her silence throws me. The people pleaser in me starts to worry. This is not the reaction I expected. I was just trying to do what Doris always does and I did say Please. Ok, maybe my voice was a little loud and my tone somewhat brusque, but the woman had crossed that blue line. Hadn’t she? I stammer something to Doris, "I …I… don’t yell at strangers in stores. I’m sorry. It’s just that I’m a little frustrated right now. I really need my prescription." Doris doesn’t say a word; she just looks at me.

Her continued silence forces me to do a quick examination of my behavior. Would I have felt contrite if Doris hadn’t given me the silent treatment? Or, was I just upset because I got caught? Either way -- it wasn’t painting a flattering picture of me at all. I try to catch the attention of the elderly woman to apologize, but she’s just staring at the floor.

Doris’s voice brings me back to the matter at hand. She perfunctorily states that my insurance company won’t pay for the refill and quotes me a price. It’s high, but I need these pills. I’m ashamed of my behavior and just need to leave. "That’s fine," I mutter. With pills now in hand, I try once more to catch the elderly woman’s attention. I’m not successful.

A few weeks later, I’m back at the pharmacy to have another prescription refilled. I notice Doris behind the counter. Damn. My embarrassing actions regarding the sleeping pills resurface in my mind. I quickly devise a game plan as I approach the counter. 1. Hand over the prescription and avoid eye contact as much as possible. 2. Speak very little and avoid eye contact as much as possible. 3. Pay and leave. Reaching the counter, Doris shows no sign of recognition. I’m relieved. The interaction runs smoothly, and I’m almost ready to go. As Doris hands over my bag, she looks at me, smiles, and states, "You’re a little calmer today."

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Marian Wood is a high school English teacher by day and a writer by night.  A native of Washington, DC, Marian lives in Virginia where she also volunteers in a senior center helping individuals share their life stories.

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Winners of the 2009 Writer Advice Flash Prose Contest are:

 

Vital Signs
By Gabrielle Hovendon

vitalsigns

I sold my first syringe at the age

of sixteen. On the other side of the pharmacy counter, a lady with red hair looked out from dark pits that swallowed her eyes. She paid the ten cents in pennies.

         I sold my second syringe a week later, to a man who ran into the store and jogged up to the counter. He paid with a crumpled dollar bill and didn’t wait for his change.

         “It happens.” Florian pushes a bottle of pills across the counter for me to count. He had been there for the second transaction, answered my question about what to do with the extra ninety cents (“shove it in the register”). “Think of it this way – otherwise, they’d find a used one.”

Florian says that it doesn’t matter if pills fall on the ground while you’re counting them, but it does matter if you count penicillin in the automated machine without wiping it down afterward. It doesn’t matter if you handle money and then pour cough suppressants without washing your hands; it matters if you forget to write down whether the customer is waiting or coming back for their medicines. We are a processing center for human life, a small step in a long assembly line that follows doctor offices and hospitals. Hand over that pastel-colored slip of paper with the enigmatic scrawls, receive a supplement for your bones or a thinner for your blood, a reenergizer for your kidneys or a recharger for your mind. Have you ever actually let the whole bottle of tablets spill out into your palm and stared at their perfect ovalness, wondered at the marvelous alchemic processes that make you happier or healthier or more attentive or less likely to die?

         I sold my third syringe to someone who looked so young that I had to ask for proof of age. I told myself that he was a diabetic for sure; at least, he bought a Babe Ruth bar with the dime syringe.

        “It’s the same thing as cigarettes or booze, really,” calls Florian from the back room as the cash register drawer shuts with a friendly, familiar ching. “Selling them, I mean. Eventually, everyone’s going to die. Some people are just getting there faster.”

         I nod. I was becoming as used to the feel of the crinkly plastic wrapper and the smooth, light tube underneath as Florian’s voice.

         I sold my fourth syringe to a young mother with an infant strapped limply to her chest – she needed it to squirt medicine into her baby’s mouth. We took the needle out of it together, Flor and I. My fingers smelled like pennies from the cash register; his smelled like Percocet and grape Dimetapp.

         “This medicine,” says Florian, counting out tiny red-capped glass bottles after the woman leaves, “is to prevent seizures, and this one here is a pain reliever that blocks the side effects of heroin withdrawal.”

         Florian talks all through our shift, keeping me company. He is the youngest pharm technician besides me and will be going to pharmacy school next fall. He is what the pharmacists call “intense.”

         I slice open my hand unboxing pill cutters one day, and Florian is there to go running for a box of Band-Aids from the shelf. He takes the last box out from under a customer’s eyes, runs back and bandages my hand before the blood can spread to my smock or the growing pile of scripts that need to be filled. He files all the prescriptions while I am recovering.

         I sold my fifth syringe with three Band-Aids across my knuckles while Florian was in the back room, doing inventory.

         I go to the back room to see if he needs any help. He does a lot of inventory these days – “above and beyond the call of duty” the pharmacists say with an approving smile. I find him with a syringe in hand, the needle tip dug into the crook of his elbow and the plunger depressed.

         “Demerol,” he offers quietly, holding up one of those tiny glass bottles. It is the pharmacological equivalent of opium, heroin, morphine, one of the dozens of drugs he has told me about. Empty, it’s cute enough to hang on a chain as a necklace.

         I sold my sixth syringe, already used, to a boy I thought I knew.

+++
Gabrielle Hovendon is a college sophomore studying English, mathematics, and philosophy at Fordham University. A native of Northern New York, she will be pursuing her English studies far from home at Oxford University during the 2009-2010 academic year.

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Epilogue
By Lisa Shafter

vitalsigns

No matter how much I’m told to be compassionate, I still get the woollies when I see old people. Sagging skin, shrunken bodies, reedy voices, and smell of death that creeps around them— it makes me shudder. I cringe when I look at their swollen hands, gnarled beyond recognition, and the way they stutter and shuffle along like broken marionettes.

I hate nursing homes too. After I lingered in one to watch Aunt Sadie die, I had nightmares for a week and didn’t come back. Until recently. Even now, walking down the stale kiwi-green halls toward room 106, I fight panic.

A grandmother with bulbous eyes gapes at me from her doorway and groans in words I don’t understand. Her frog-like stare burns on the back of my head. I nearly trip over a hunched man in a wheelchair, hands in his lap. His loafers don’t match, and death curls about him in the scent of disinfectant spray.

Dodging him, I hurry down the hall. My throat feels strained, my hands sweat. The only real emotion I can conjure is fear. 

At last I reach the door of 106 and stare at the shiny brass numbers. What will his mood be today? Will he smile and call me Sweetie like he used to? Or will his eyes be wide and empty like a dead fish?

I try to think of any reason to turn back. There are none. I turn the knob.

The room is empty, washed in late afternoon sun. The stench of urine stings my nose, so I try to open the window. After several hard tugs, it budges and sweet autumn air rushes in. On a feeder six feet away, finches peck at birdseed. I turn, biting my lip as I gaze at the empty bed. Does the staff know that he’s gone?

“Mrs. Anderson?”

A nurse peeks in the doorway. I know the look: baggy blue uniform, clipboard in arm, hair tied back. I want to be friendly, but I’m upset that no one told me he’d left. “I can’t find him,” I say.

The nurse puts on a patronizing cherry-red smile. I hate it when nurses do that. “Mrs. Anderson, don’t you remember?”

Her expression makes the hairs on my neck prickle. “No. What?”

“Mr. Anderson died last week.”

Then I remember. Cold hands, closed wrinkled eyes, the odd angle of his head— then tears. Many tears. “Oh. That’s right.”

“Can you come with me now? I’m getting this room ready for a new guest.”

I linger by the window, watching the finches hop from perch to perch. Is my vision out of focus, or am I crying?

“Come along, Mrs. Anderson,” says the nurse, reaching for my arm. “We can’t be late for lunch.”

The cool air ruffles my hair as I pause. Then I wipe my eyes with my swollen hands, gnarled beyond recognition, and walk out of the room, stuttering and shuffling like a broken marionette.

+++
Lisa Shafter makes her living as a writing coach for the on-line program Write@Home, furtively free-lancing in her spare time. Her articles have appeared in national magazines, and several St. Louis drama troupes have performed her short plays.
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The Sea Takes Me
By Katie Flynn

vitalsigns

           Baby is asleep in his crib. I should be sleeping too but there is no moon tonight and I am scared. I close my eyes and listen. I can hear her breathing through the walls. She is at the bottom of the ocean. I sniff the air. It smells like seawater.

           My bed is a giant catcher’s mitt that I’ve grown too tall for. I don’t tell anyone.

           Next door, the wood whines as she walks around the room. Ssh, sleep, it says but she doesn’t listen. She paces like that all night, coughing, choking, drowning.

           I tried once to tell my parents that she brought the ocean with her, but they just looked at me and said, “She needs us. Someday, when we get old, we’ll need you too.” And I could tell by their tone and the secret look they shared that I shouldn’t bring it up again.

           Baby turns in his crib, and gets to crying. I know his sounds so well. My parents put him in my room, so he is mine. This cry here – the way he goes on and on – is because he woke up alone and it’s nighttime. He always wakes up alone, but it never fails to make him cry.

           I go to him. “Ssh,” I say, “Ssh.” But he is just a baby, scared of the dark. He coughs, then cries, then goes quiet to catch his breath. And in the seconds of silence before he starts to cry again, I hear her breathing, sucking in water and choking it back out, and moving along the wall.

           I take him to the window. “See? It’s just a cloudy night. The moon is out there somewhere.”

           The door to the next room aches as it opens and I put my ear to the wall to hear what she is doing. Baby’s mouth is a dark oval. He is crying so hard he chokes and I pat-pat him on the back.

           “Please, ssh, ssh,” I say. The floorboards whine again, this time in the hallway. I can hear her breathing on the other side of the door. She coughs, a loud, wet sound. I’m so scared I turn to the window, but I can’t climb out with Baby.

           The door groans open and I hold my breath, expecting a sea-swell to take us. When it doesn’t come, I turn around.

           She is standing in the doorway wearing a nightgown, her feet bare and the air machine in her arms. It is silver, the same color as her hair, and connected to her nose with plastic tubing. In the dark, the whites of her eyes glow.

           She shakes with the storm inside her, the water rising. It nearly comes out of her and takes us all, but she stops it, a hand to her mouth, a floodgate made of fingers. And when it subsides, she spits a bit of it into a tissue and places it in the pocket of her nightgown. I hug Baby to me.

           She shuffles toward us, holding the machine out. “Be a dear and take this, would you?” she croaks at me.

           Before I can say a thing, Baby is gone and in his place is the machine – cold metal and humming.

           “There, there,” she says, patting Baby’s back. She looks at me, “I used to sing to you, your father, too.” I try to picture her then, but all I can see is my own mother who will never get old, not like this.

           She walks slow circles in the room, Baby in her arms, and I follow, the machine heavy in mine.

           “Your father had the croup. Do you know what that is?” I shake my head. “The coughing. It’s the worst sound in the world.”

           After a few laps around the room, Baby goes quiet. Somehow, the moon has come out, and I can see his face, slack with sleep. She sits on the edge of the catcher’s mitt, holding him up to me, her eyes thin smiles. I tell her, “Lie here. It’s short, but it will hold you.”

           The tank is gone and back is Baby, warm and wet with sweat.

           She lies down, her legs tucked into her chest, the machine in her arms. She clears her throat and closes her eyes. Then her breathing goes steady.

           “That is the sound of sleeping,” I tell Baby but I am the only one awake.

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Katie Flynn lives in San Francisco with musician Brian B. James and their daughter Thea. Her stories have appeared in The Bellingham Review, Pindeldyboz, Quick Fiction,and other journals. She directs the Menlo College Writing Center in Atherton, California.
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The Birthday Present
By Marcia Goodall

vitalsigns

All week long Jason fantasized about the big surprise his mother planned for his birthday. She said it would change his life, so he doubted it was a Wii or Playstation 3. They were too expensive anyway. As long as it wasn’t clothes, he’d be happy.

A sudden uneasiness swept over him as he stared out the upstairs bedroom window. Today was somehow different. He felt it in his bones. Was it because he often thought he’d never live to see his thirteenth birthday?

He was about to step away from the window, when a shiny, black Cadillac pulled up to the curb. A man dressed in a white polo shirt and tan slacks climbed out of the car and walked to the front door.

Jason’s heart pounded wildly. Disappointment, then rage, settled on him. Not again. Not this time. His mother had promised. No more moving, no more living in motel rooms and no more boyfriends he was forced to call “uncle”.

His hand automatically stroked the red scar on his cheek. Winter brought intense facial pain from years of having his face used as a punching bag. But the worse pain came every time he looked into a mirror and a grotesque, disfigured reflection stared back.

No more. He’d had enough. Racing to his closet, Jason pried up a loose floorboard. This was where he kept things he didn’t want his mother to know about. Pages from a worn Playboy he dug out of his neighbor’s trash. A pocket knife found at a construction site. The gun his best friend stole for him.

“Jason, come down here. I want you to meet someone,” his mother called from the foot of the stairs.

He grabbed the gun. The steel was cold against his sweaty palm. “Be right there.”

Jason found them in the kitchen, sitting at the table, drinking coffee and eating cookies. He stood in the doorway, nervous and unsure. They didn’t seem to notice.

“Hi, honey. Come sit down. I want you to meet——”

“I know. Your new boyfriend.”

He raised the gun and aimed at the stranger.

“Jason!” his mother screamed. “Where’d you get that thing? Put it down immediately.”

“No.” His voice sounded flat and distant. “I can’t survive another boyfriend.”

He pulled the trigger. The deafening sound echoed in the tiny kitchen. One bullet zinged off the Formica table. Another splintered the wood cupboards. The third found its target.

The force blew the man over in his chair. He landed with a thud. Jason was stunned by the gaping hole in the guy’s chest. Blood oozed from the wound, the red stain a stark contrast to the white shirt.

“Don’t just stand there. Call 911!” his mother yelled.

She bent over the body, stuffed a kitchen towel into the wound and pressed hard to stem the bleeding.

“Why did you shoot Milt?” she screamed. “He was my best friend from high school.”

“So what. He’d end up beating us, just like the others. Face it mom, you attract losers.”

“Milt’s not a boyfriend.” She looked over at him in disbelief.. “He was a cosmetic surgeon. He was going to fix your face. For free. Your birthday present.”
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Marcia Goodall resides in Fresno, CA. Her short stories have appeared in True Confessions. In 2008, she won the San Luis Obispo Nightwriters contest. Her muse’s recent turn toward the dark side has left a romance novel awaiting revision.

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Honorable Mentions – 2009

We are honored to publish the stories of those who won an Honorable Mention in last year's Flash Prose Contest. We are currently accepting submissions for Writer Advice’s Fifth Annual Flash Prose Contest. Click on “Home” to read our guidelines. Click on Archives to read the writing of past winners.

 

Jared’s Secret
By Jill Pertler

secret

They sat together in the backseat, neither saying a word.

The street hadn’t changed since he was a child. Immaculate lawns groomed to perfection. Jared craned his neck to see the house up ahead. White with black shutters. Picture perfect. The lilacs were in bloom. Made the whole neighborhood reek with sweetness. He used to like the scent. Now it made his stomach churn. Hypocrites. That’s what they were.

“Up here on the right,” Jared directed the taxi driver. “Pull over to the curb, not on the driveway.”

Wouldn’t want to drip oil or brake fluid on the cobblestone. They wouldn’t like that.

What would they say? Jared had been avoiding that thought for the last hour. Hell, he’d been avoiding it for the last four years. He’d hidden his secret well through Christmas dinners and Easter brunches. He’d smiled, eaten ham and turkey off of their best china, drank wine—red with ham, white with turkey—from crystal goblets and never said a word. Lying through omission was still lying. Deceit plain and simple, and of that he was ashamed. If nothing else, they’d taught him right from wrong.

After all this time, their disappointment and disapproval terrified him. And he knew that was coming. He hadn’t grown up in the house with them as his parents not knowing about the values and core essence that made him their son.

They were not going to be happy. They’d probably throw him out and tell him to be gone from their lives forever.

Perhaps it was for the best. He had to live his life out in a way that was right for him. He had to be true to his inner self. He had that right—didn’t he? Still, when your parents raised you a certain way, taught you certain things and instilled certain values, you didn’t just turn your back on all that without thinking twice.

Jared fiddled with the seat belt, his hands shaking, and took a deep breath. “Let’s do this,” he said, opening the door and stepping out into the sunlight. His companion stepped out beside him.

Jared leaned back into the taxi before shutting the door. “Keep the meter running,” he told the driver.

“You can’t change who you are,” he rehearsed to himself as he walked up the driveway. “A person’s sexuality is not a choice.”

They walked hand in hand to the door. Just as Jared was about to ring the bell, his father stepped out from behind a lilac bush. He held pruning shears in his right hand. “What’ve we got here?” His smile flickered slightly as his gaze fell to Jared’s interlocked hand.

Before Jared could answer, the front door opened and a man wearing a pink apron stepped onto the porch. “Jared, what a nice surprise!” The exclamation came from his dad. “I was just making sandwiches.” A pause, and then, “You brought a friend.”

Jared took a deep breath, hoping he wouldn’t faint. “Dad,” he said turning to the man in the pink apron. “Father,” he directed his eyes to the man in the yard. “I have someone I’d like you to meet.” He tried to keep his voice steady. “This is Jennifer, my wife.”

+++Jill Pertler’s essays and fiction have been recognized by Writer’s Digest (Annual Competition) and Women on Writing. Mother’s Love, a short story, appears in the 2009 Talking Stick anthology. Her syndicated column, Slices of Life, is published in newspapers throughout the upper midwest.
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The Diversion
By Faye Rapoport DesPres

diversion

I remember that night like you remember a lost hope. It was a pipe dream colored in blue, green and orange-red, a rocky mountain landscape sprinkled with snow. The dark sky stretched out forever, stars glinted in millions, and the table-flat plains extended out into the horizon.

We'd seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and our heads were filled with images of noble warriors from ancient times, heroes who could fly, pastel fabrics flowing in the wind, eroticism, forbidden love. The evening was cold, but venturing out meant defiance, it was our nod to youth. We walked to the edge of town, our feet warm in worn winter boots. We made our way up a winding footpath toward towering red rocks silhouetted against the night sky, eerie like ghosts, or Easter Island faces. When we had climbed high enough, we sat on the cold ground between the rocks, huddled close to each other, protected against the bursts of wind that swirled through the mountains.

We were perched on the edge, alone.

You put your arm around me and held me close, and we sat in silence, staring out over the glimmering lights of the town. From such a height, the buildings looked like sandcastles. We were peaceful, on the edge of something solid but one step away from nothingness, our cheeks glowing red with cold and emotion.

You spoke, asking the question of yourself more than me.  "Why don't we do this every night?"

Because you have a girlfriend, I thought. And I am not her.

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Faye Rapoport DesPres is a freelance writer and an MFA student at Pine Manor College. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Animal Life, InterfaithFamily.com and other publications. She lives near Boston with her husband and five cats.

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Back Alley
By Andrea Eaker

backalley

I think of how dirty it is here. I think of the grit I am stepping on, how it squeaks and grinds between my high heels and the ground. How the larger pieces shift unpredictably, threatening to unbalance me. I think of that, not his knife.

Its point indicates the direction he wants me to go, deeper into the alley, where the streetlamps can’t penetrate. The fear should have paralyzed me, but although my movements are awkward, I am able to walk, which makes me proud. I am not as afraid as when I made the appointment. Not as afraid as when I told Paul.

He only makes me walk until the shadows outweigh the light and then says, “Here.”

His voice, just as when he showed me the knife on the sidewalk, is distracted. As if he is continually assailed by a multitude of options of what to do with me, and it’s difficult for him to choose only one.

I stop walking but do not turn.

“Your purse.” He moves behind me, either shifting impatiently or checking over his shoulder at the sidewalk.

It smells like piss here, I realize as I unloop my purse from my shoulder. Perhaps that indicates the presence of a person to help me. But my eyes are adjusting, and I can see only trash. No prone forms in fingerless gloves, ready to leap to my rescue.

I hold onto the straps, even when he tugs. Now, for the first time since I made the appointment, I truly feel fear, a tangible chilly growth within my ribcage.

He has chosen the night when my wallet contains everything: the thickest lump I’ve ever seen an ATM regurgitate. Almost everything from my bank account. This is the amount needed to fix it, the cost to make things the way they should have been, the way they would have been if not for Paul. In my purse is my only chance and if he takes that, he’s taking my future.

He pulls on my purse, but instead of letting go, I turn. And although he points the knife at my eye, opens his mouth to reveal a cruelly-broken tooth and actually hisses at me, I hold on.

“Please,” I say, and I can hear how small and pathetic the word is. A hollow sound scooped free of meaning, a proffered husk.

He uses his knife to cut the straps so my purse falls into his hand. The severed straps, when I drop them, don’t even make a sound when they reach the pavement.

I speak again, surprised at what I say, surprised at how unemotional the words are. “You’re going to take the money. Okay. I get that. But before you go, hit me.”

He looks up, eyes widening.

“In the stomach.”

His mouth opens, revealing that jagged edge of tooth. And his eyes change. A world of understanding is born there. Not sympathy. The broken thing in his mouth – not to mention his knife – prevent sympathy. But as if a minute tuning adjustment has been made and the signal suddenly pierces through the static with painful clarity: he knows. He sees that I will no longer have any paths forward when he leaves the alley with my purse. Then he looks away, checking the sidewalk again. “I want your earrings.”

They are real diamonds, a gift from my now-dead grandparents. Pawned, they might have been worth the amount in my wallet. A thought that had not occurred to me until now.

The last path, closed.

I fall, some tenacious part of me wanting to believe that I have not collapsed, but instead have simply decided to rest here on the ground in this dirty, piss-smelling alley. I feel a trickle of air on my back and realize his knife reached through my coat all the way down to my skin. The tears come hard and silent, splashing the collar of my coat. I breathe through my mouth, bypassing my stopped sinuses.

He leans down for the earrings, tucking his knife under an arm and taking the time to unscrew the backs and slide them out carefully. He puts them in my purse and then pulls something out of my wallet.

He leaves it in my lap, saying just before he turns to run: “They’ll do it for this much. Just tell them you don’t have anything else.”

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Andrea Eaker has an MA in communication from Purdue University. Her stories have appeared in publications including the journal Mota and the anthology Blink. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

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A Memory
By Ned Schuft

memory

I saw large birds in a clump, together. I saw two shiny black birds in a clump. I saw two glimmering tarry black birds entangled in a schoolyard. I saw two oily birds entangled in some dead grass and dirt at the corner of a school building.

In a coffee shop a girl touches her chest while she talks, placing her whole hand against the skin that her dress leaves exposed. Her eyes widen and she speaks in a way that her teeth seem revealed to the world for the first time, her mouth opening like a curtain. She touches her chin, slowing her speech.

I saw two black oily birds entangled in the dust and dead grass at the corner of a yellowed high school building.

The girl smiles and stares into someone’s eyes.

I saw two glimmering, dripping, oily black birds entangled, in love, inside one another, rolling in the smoky sunlight. Rolling. Dripping. Shining. Entwined. Entangled. 

I can smell her musk from where I sit. It is not perfume. It is lady’s musk. A musk that my second high school girlfriend wore, the tom-girl, the one that giggled me in love with her, the one I walked up to in the pouring rain after the game, on the field while I wore a cheerleader’s outfit and she wore a football uniform, with black smears painted under her eyes, and the rain fell, rolled, dripped slick on our faces, over our open eyes, down our light skin, off our young lips, and it felt warm and we kissed, the bleachers emptying, the field empty, the grass muddied, slowly drowning in water at our feet, and the kiss entangled, entwined, buried. All of it in total silence. Quiet, quick, holy.

As I got closer, I could see that the birds were nothing but a black plastic bag standing upside-down on its handles, floating on school property in the efforts of a breeze, tickled by the lifeless grass and untouched by the dry dusty soil.

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Ned Schuft is committed to cracking life open with creative expression and writes with the intention of surprising himself and impacting others. He produces YourPR, the people’s podcast (www.yourpr.org), and is completing his English literature graduate degree in San Francisco.

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Soup and Sandwich: A Requiem
By Richard Wile

requiem

“That day is one of weeping …”

Lacrimosa, Requiem Mass

Her voice resounds above the cacophony of voices in the college cafeteria. Her red-rimmed eyes flare. Her hands tremble. “If I didn’t have two other children, I’d have killed myself when Deryk died.”

I believe her.

She asks when my daughter died. Twelve years ago, I say. In a staccato voice she says, “I don’t know how you’ve survived.” Her intonation turns the words into an accusation and for a moment I feel guilty for living.

She tells me that her son had just begun to put his life together. He’d done drugs, lost jobs, been married and divorced. Her voice rises in a crescendo of pain. “He was clean, he had a good job at the mill, he’d found Cindy, and then ….” Her face contorts. Her arms flail the air before she wraps them around herself. Her voice falls: “It’s not fair, damn it.”

She sobs into a napkin and I stare at my soup.

“I thought I was beginning to get over it, but last week would have been Deryk’s twenty-fourth birthday.” She wipes her eyes, pinches off a corner of her sandwich and drops it on her plate as she looks at me. “I couldn’t even get out of bed, let alone come to work,” she says quietly. “I just lay in bed all day and cried.”

She tells me the story in a monotone that somehow makes it more awful. Fourteen months ago, she was driving home from work when she saw flames and smoke billowing from the apartment house in which her son and his fiancée lived. “I remember stopping the car and running towards the burning building, but nothing after that,” she says.

I imagine sirens splitting the air, the open door to her car, the heat of the flames shooting into the winter sky, the smell of wood and tar and God knows what else.

Her glassy eyes gaze over my shoulder. “Later, my husband told me that it took two firemen to keep me from running into the flames. I guess I screamed the whole time.”

She worries most about her youngest daughter, who’s now hanging with a wild crowd, and whose grades have plummeted. Her older daughter seems OK, except for being unable to forgive her brother for leaving them.

She feels less sympathy for her husband, who is not Deryk’s father. Although he suffers from a heart condition, he eats all the wrong food, works the night shift at the mill, and since Deryk’s death, spends the rest of his time sleeping and watching TV.

“He’ll pay for the way he lives,” she says, wearily, “it’s just a question of when.”

She apologizes for missing the talk I gave last week on my spiritual journey as a grieving parent. “I finally called this woman I know—I guess you’d call her a medium,” she says, once more wrapping her arms around herself. Her body rocks back and forth to some internal rhythm. “I’ve made an appointment for this afternoon.” She wipes away more tears. “I have to know if Deryk’s all right.”

“Don’t talk to me about religion.” Her eyes flash. “Do you know that our Catholic priest showed up drunk at my house the day after Deryk died?” Her right hand churns the air. “And a week later, he showed up again and he was still drunk!”

Her voice ascends over the lunch crowd din: “But it’s not just the Catholics. Christ, some Protestant minister showed up that week, too, asking if I’d been saved. I just looked at him and said, ‘Get the fuck off my doorstep!’”

Her voice and her hands drop. She looks exhausted: “What’s wrong with these people?”

We agree to meet again, and walk out of the cafeteria into a wind-driven February day. We don’t talk. All I want is to withdraw into my own painful memories. We hug. I watch her labor along the icy sidewalk across the quad. Under a granite sky, icicles hanging from the eaves of brick buildings weep and the wind moans.

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Richard Wile has published essays and book reviews in numerous publications and works as a Learning Associate at Bates College. A native of Maine, he lives with his wife Mary Lee in Yarmouth.


Winners of the 2008 Writer Advice Flash Prose Contest are:

My Dad Was a Man
By Paul Maxfield

crayons

“So,” said Mom. Just one word, and an edge that dropped away into an abyss.

They were sitting at the kitchen table, staring aggressively at each other, as if they were deeply involved in a game of

battleship. The table was bare, though, except for a square inch blue wrapper lying by Mom’s hand. I thought maybe it was one of those wet-naps that she seemed to carry an infinite supply of in her purse.

Dad was silent, which was all you could do when mom said ‘So’ like that. You knew that anything you say could and would be used against you. He looked the way my brother David did when mom caught him peeing in the garden because he didn’t want to come inside from playing. She had been angry then, but a week later she told Mrs. Baron, and they were both laughing about it.

“Don’t worry, Dad,” I said, trying to let him know that it would be all right. She might be vengeful now, but she was also forgiving after awhile.

“Go play with your brother, Tom,” Mom said with the cold softness of fresh snow, “We’re having a grown up talk now.”

I looked to Dad.

“Go on, Tom,” he said.

I grabbed my glass of fruit punch and resigned myself to being exiled to the living room where David was happily scribbling away in his Transformers colouring book. I found another of the books,

this one GI Joe. I was too good at colouring for it to really be much fun, but at least this way I could still hear what they said.

“So,” Mom started again, “Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

“No,” Dad said.

“Look Frank, you’re in a lot of trouble here,” Mom warned, “So don’t give me that attitude. You know I found it in the car. And I sure as hell didn’t use it.”

“Gina, please, the kids.”

“The kids,” Mom repeated calmly. She never yelled, even when she was furious. Instead, all of the emotion went out of her voice. “Were you thinking of the kids when you were out playing with your little friend?”

I didn’t know what was so wrong with Dad having a new friend, or what we had to do with it. They were always telling me to go out and make friends. Maybe he was a bad guy. Maybe he stole things. I used to have a friend, Tyler, who stole the remote control for our television once. His parents made him bring it back, and Mom wouldn’t let me play with him anymore.

“What’s her name?” Mom demanded to know.

Her name? Dad was playing with girls? I wondered why anyone would want to play with girls. They were so boring and stupid. Only nancy-boys played with girls, and they always got picked on at school. I didn’t think dad was a nancy-boy. I always thought of him like a man, like GI Joe. I pictured him having a tea party with one of the Francis girls down the street, and giggled to myself.

“What’s so funny?” David asked me, looking at me with his little brother curiosity. I was seven and he was only five-and-a-half.

“Nothing,” I said. I put my finger to my lips. David returned his attention to trying to remember what colour Optimus Prime was. He picked up an orange crayon.

“It’s no one you know,” Dad explained.

“Just tell me her name,” Mom insisted.

“What does it matter?” Dad said. He was getting angry now too. He didn’t want to say, but I knew Mom would win. She always had ways of getting information out of you. I didn’t know how she did it, though. It was some secret Mom power of hers.

“It doesn’t matter. So just tell me what her name is.” Mom’s voice was like glass polished so clean you couldn’t even tell it was there.

There was silence for a minute. I imagined they were having a staring contest in there. But instead of laughing, like either David or I did when we looked into each other’s eyes too long, Dad burst out, “Kevin! His name is Kevin, Okay?”

Mom was silent.

I felt relieved that my Dad didn’t play with girls after all. I knew he wasn’t a nancy-boy. He was a Man. I picked up an olive green and began to shade GI Joe’s helmet
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Paul Maxfield was born in Toronto, Canada. He received his Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the University of Windsor in Ontario. Currently, he is pursuing an MFA degree from the University of Memphis.

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First Sight
By Ginger B. Collins

fist

She remembers exactly. It was love at first sight. He was very tall—a head above the rest of the crowd. She locked onto his mane of silver hair and homed in. While navigating through the sea of dancers she smoothed down her skin-tight skirt, and just before snugging up to his side, she rubbed her wrists to release the last gasp of the morning’s perfume.

“This seat taken?” She did her sales job with an alluring gaze, locking her browns onto eyes as rich a blue as his denim shirt.

He pulled out the barstool with his left hand. She saw the wedding ring, a thick gold band well suited to his wide, weathered paws. She ignored it.

From chance meetings at the gas station to random appearances at his favorite diner, she began to turn up, offering a stolen afternoon or a quick morning wrestle between his satin sheets. She was one degree away from stalking, but he was caught up in the tangle of smooth skin and hungry willingness and didn’t notice. It took three years of dogged pursuit and unwavering patience to chase him out of his marriage and permanently into her bed.

When his memory started to slip, he laughed. “You’ve got that effect on me, darlin’. Being married to you makes me forget who I am and what day it is.” Time passed and proved it was more than just the relationship.

Now every sighting is a first for him, seen through faded orbs that are a pale nod to their former brilliance. Now she’s the one who is caught.

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Ginger B. Collins publishes sailing tales and travel stories in Cruising World, Living Aboard, and The Cincinnati Inquirer. Her short fiction has appeared in LunchHour Stories and SilverBoomer Anthology. The essay, “Reason To Believe” appears in Voices of Alcoholism published by LaChance.

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On-Air Stripper
By Linda Weiford

volcano

My senior year in college, I worked as a news intern for a small television station in northern Idaho. I wrote fluff stories. One featured an elderly couple’s cat that fetched newspapers from their driveway. Another was about a car-sized rock resembling Elvis’ face.  I yearned for greater challenges. When the weatherman needed a night off and my boss asked me to fill in, I said yes, absolutely yes.

The day of my debut, Mount St. Helens began rumbling and spewing smoke. I was assigned to monitor volcano updates in the newsroom. I scurried back and forth between my cubbyhole and the news director’s office, slapping notes on his desk.  At 3:30, the mountain was still percolating. At 4:30, I panicked. When do I rehearse my weathercast?  A secretary agreed to take over my volcano-monitoring duties and I darted into the studio.

Thirty minutes until news time.

I scuttled to the weather set and started memorizing my lines. A cameraman entered the room. “You’re too short,” he said, peering through his viewfinder. “You need to stand on a box so I can fit you and the weather map into one shot.” He fetched a milk-carton crate and set it upside down. I stood on it and we did a practice shot.  The crate wobbled slightly but I tried to ignore it.

Three minutes to airtime.

Technicians scrambled on the studio floor. An anchorman plopped down and speed-read his news copy out loud.  Then he faced a camera, said “Good evening,” and the newscast was underway.  He talked about the still-rumbling volcano. Then the camera lights switched off and we went to a commercial.

Up next, the weather.

My palms were sweaty, my heart hammering in my chest. I walked to the weather map, forgot about the milk crate and tripped over it. As I caught my balance, by notes scattered to the floor.  I gathered them with shaking hands; there was no time to put them back in order. I stepped onto the crate and the cameraman raised his hand. He showed five fingers, four fingers, three, two, one. He pointed at me and the light on the studio camera flashed red.

Airtime, folks.

I blathered about sunshine in the Northwest and rain in the South. The cameraman was acting bizarre, looking at me all wide-eyed and frantically pointing to his shirt. A cold draft grazed my chest. Lowering my head, I saw my dress zipper was down. The wire on the microphone clipped to my collar yanked it when I tripped.  In all the commotion, I hadn’t noticed. 

Thousands of viewers could see my hot-pink bra. Though it was cool in the studio, heat seared my cheeks, which, a viewer told me later, were the same color as my bra.  I covered my chest by holding my arm across it while pointing to the weather map. Even so, I was so rattled that I forget my lines and called cities by wrong names. Pointing to Las Vegas, I called it Los Angeles. I rested my index finger on Spokane but called it Seattle. I considered walking off the set but feared I’d be blacklisted from journalism for life. Worse, I’d trip again.

Without my dress zipped, my notes organized, or my memory intact, I couldn’t continue.  I gazed out at the bright lights, struggling to say something.  I drew in a deep, shaky breath.

“Oh, shit.”

From the control room, I heard the technical director shout, “Fade to black! Fade to black, NOW!” Then he ordered a series of unscheduled commercials. My boss entered the studio and marched toward me, fist in the air. “You can’t fucking swear on the air!” Tears streaked down my cheeks. He sent me home.

That night, I didn’t sleep. I’m fired, I thought. They hate me!

The next morning, I showed up at work early and cowered at my boss’s desk. “I’ll resign if you want me to,” I said.

“Are you kidding? Viewers saw that your zipper was down. They felt sorry for you. Our phones haven’t stopped ringing.”

He asked me to do the weather that night.

"Um, OK," was all I could muster.

At lunch I drove to my apartment to change my clothes.

I put on a turtleneck.

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Freelance writer Linda Weiford is living proof that one can screw up and still find success. She is an award-winning newspaper journalist and also published a major investigative story in Redbook. She is pursuing her master’s degree in writing and completing a memoir.


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The Downer
By J.D. Blair

cowinmeadow

The heifer went down on its knees, bellowing. Foam ringed her muzzle, she shuddered, her hind quarters collapsed and she rolled onto her side. Her bowels let go and she heaved twice and sent a final, hallow belch of breath into the ryegrass. She was now a corpse alone on eight acres, baking in a three-digit heat wave in July. Two days passed before she was found when the ranch foreman skirted the small pasture in his pickup and spotted the cow's imprint dark against the tawny landscape, its' remains melting into the soil. Not much to do. The foreman made an entry in a battered notebook he kept in the glove box..."Downer, heifer, east pasture"...and the date.

Several days passed and twice the foreman and another man stopped by the carcass but didn't get out of the truck. They just looked at it and drove on. The rest of the herd moved on to another pasture and was feeding on high grass and drinking constantly in the scorching heat. The heifer’s hide was shrinking and as time passed the framework of her once plump body began to show through, signs of carrion eaters too. One eye was gone and her flank was torn. The sum and substance of what was once the cow was discoloring the surrounding grass, enlarging her space on the earth.

Days later a young girl toyed with barbed wire along the fence line separating the pasture and the road. Her mother picked wild berries and her father changed a flat tire. The heifer was just a shadow on the landscape about fifty yards or so from the fence and large birds were feeding. The girl pointed to where the cow was down.

"It's a dead deer," said the mother, explaining to the child that the "deer" probably died of old age and didn't suffer and was certainly feeding at that very moment on the green pastures of heaven. Meanwhile, the carrion eaters were sharpening their beaks on the hooves of the downed heifer.

One cool morning as daylight broke over the hill and threw a shaft of hot sunlight over the diminished carcass of the dead heifer a coyote's yap echoed across the pasture. What the elements did not take and the birds had not savaged, the coyote had stripped in the pre-dawn. The bitch had a full belly and loped over the ridge toward her den of pups. Throughout the morning and afternoon the shadows shortened and the spot where the heifer fell was now little more than a dark depression in the parched grass.

Toward the end of September the herd moved again and roamed along the crest of the hill and down to the pasture floor where the heifer's skull remained, partially hidden by new grass. The cattle ate around it.

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J.D. Blair writes short fiction and poetry. His story “Charlotta’s Wake” appeared in Homestead Review. A poem “One More Day” won the Fog City Writers competition. His poem “The Sap” appeared recently in Writer’s Journal. Blair lives in Walnut Creek.

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Honorable Mentions – 2008

We are honored to publish the stories of those who won an Honorable Mention in last year's Flash Prose Contest. We are currently accepting submissions for Writer Advice’s Fourth Annual Flash Prose Contest. Click on “Home” to read our guidelines. Click on Archives to read the writing of past winners.

THE OLD MAN
By Wayne Scheer

My wife and I waited in silence for someone to give us a tour of the Evergreen Pines Assisted Living Center. As we waited, I stared blankly at the gaudy paintings of fruits and flowers on the walls. She squeezed my hand as if she knew what I was thinking: what kind of a man would even consider putting his father in a place like this? There was nothing wrong with the facility. It was clean, the staff seemed friendly, but I was trembling.

We stood in the overheated lobby surrounded by people I guessed to be about twenty years older than myself. An old man caught my eye, probably because his white beard resembled mine. He sat on the edge of a hardback chair, leaning on his cane. He wore a clean, light blue dress shirt with dark slacks. His shoes were polished to a military luster, but his expression said he'd rather be anywhere but where he was. Two women about his age, heavily made-up, sat on a nearby couch. Other people, many sitting in wheelchairs or leaning on walkers, hovered nearby.  

A smiling African-American woman came in from the dining area and announced, "We're ready to start serving." Everyone moved slowly in her direction. Although I tried not to think of the Pied Piper, I couldn't help myself. I whispered my observation to my wife, and she hit me on the shoulder.

"Shh. You'll be old soon enough."

"I know. That's why I laugh now."

I watched the women push themselves off the couch. It took one of them two tries. The man remained seated.

"Do you need help, Sam?" one of the women asked in a voice loud enough so that most of the people stopped their trek to the dining area and turned to look.

He shook his head. "Go. Go. Your food will get cold."

As the two women walked to the dining room, the old man shifted both of his hands to the top of the cane and tried pushing himself to his feet. Turning red, he collapsed back onto his chair. I went to him and offered help.

"Ahh," he grunted, while holding out a hand. I was shocked at how cold it was. His skin had the texture of parchment. Remembering to bend my knees, I pulled him up until he balanced on his cane. "Don't ever get old, young feller," he said, as he hobbled to the dining room.

"See," I said to my wife. "I'm still a young fellow."

"How's your back?" she asked, unimpressed.

We were at Evergreen Pines to determine if this would be a good place for my father. It was a short distance from our home in Atlanta, a lot closer than his current Florida residence. 

Throughout my father's life, and especially since my mother's death, he had been adamant about two things: my mother was the only person who made a decent pot roast and he would never live with us. I felt like I was betraying a trust even considering bringing him this close to my family.

At first, after my mother died, he managed nicely on his own. He played poker most evenings and bocce in the afternoons. He even met a woman he had dinner with twice a week. "I pay one night, she pays the other. We keep it on the up and up." He told me she invited him to her home for dinner one night. "Ah!" he said, waving his arm in a familiar gesture of disgust. "Better to go to a restaurant."

But she had a stroke and her family in New York made her move in with them. "She's miserable, she writes me. Miserable!" I wondered if he was talking about her or himself, as he'd grow more animated with each telling. "No car. She has to depend on her children for everything. What kind of life is that?" 

Then he began experiencing a series of falls. One time, he admitted, he had to call the fire department to pick him up. He crawled on his belly to the phone, pulled it down to the floor, and dialed for help. He told us about it a couple of days later. We spoke to his doctor and found out he was experiencing "silent heart attacks," caused by his diabetes. The doctor advised against his living alone. 

"Doctors," my father said. "They only know about the sick. What do they know about the living?" 

He had been active his whole life, owning a produce section of a grocery store -- a Superette, they called it -- until the A&P moved nearby and put him out of business. I remember him carrying a seventy-five pound sack of potatoes on his shoulder while kibitzing with his customers. 

I worried if putting him in a place like this would make a mockery of his life.

Our tour guide finally arrived. She began by showing us the dining area. "Our guests choose from a menu for each meal," she told us, proudly. She turned to the man with the white beard I had helped earlier. "Mr. Burnbaum," she shouted into his left ear. "The food is good. Yes?"

He closed his eyes and nodded. I wanted to cry.

As he bent over his soup, I thought how much the bald spot on the top of his head resembled that of my own.
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After teaching writing and literature in college for twenty-five years, Wayne Scheer retired to follow his own advice and write. He's been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net.  Wayne lives in Atlanta with his wife and can be contacted at wvscheer@aol.com.

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A NIGHT IN
By Lynn Mann

Ron slid off the hotel bed and opened the door. The woman was stunning, long dark hair, subtle make up and a lithe body that spent hours in the gym.

"Wow," he breathed, then swallowed and said "C'mon in, I'm Ron."

"Hello, Ron," she smiled, gliding into the room. "I'm Tonya."

She sat in the only chair, surveying him.

Ron knew what she saw, he saw it every day in the mirror. Middle-aged, spreading midsection, thinning hair, slightly jowly face. But it was an open, honest face, with good teeth. Overall, he thought, not so bad. She, however, was stunning. Good thing he'd specified a night in, he couldn't have taken this woman anywhere without looking like someone who had obviously rented his date.

"Want anything? I've got beer, and there's some of those little bottles..." his voice trailed off.

"No, thank you," she said in a husky, musical voice. "But help yourself if you wish."

"Um, no, I'm all right."

He sat on the bed, waiting for her.

She studied him, as relaxed as he was tense. "So, Ron, what do you do?"

"I'm, um, I own a coupla video stores back home. Make pretty good money, I'm here for the convention."

"Where's back home?"

"Philly, ever been there?"

"No, maybe some day."

Another awkward pause.

"So, um, should we, you know, get started?" he asked, not meeting her beautiful brown eyes.

"Of course, I brought everything we might need," indicating her tote bag. "What did you have in mind?"

Ron struggled to answer. "Ah, why don't you tell me?"

Smiling sweetly, Tonya began removing items from her bag. "Let's see, now, I have Parcheesi, chess, backgammon -"

"No, no," he said impatiently, "you know what I mean, your, um, services."

She looked up, innocently bewildered. "Services? You said you wanted a nice evening in, with our best girl."

"Yes, but those," he indicated the games, "weren't what I meant. You know, services."

Comprehension dawned. "Ron," she exclaimed, shocked as his own mother might have been. "If you're suggesting what I think you are, well, all I can say is that you have the wrong girl and the wrong escort service, too. If that's what you have in mind then I'll be on my way." She tossed the games back into her tote.

"No, please don't go. My buddy said you were the best town. The things he told me, well, I just wanted to have night like that, too. Just tell me how much you want, and I'll pay it, all cash, no one will ever know."

Tonya radiated affront. "I would know, and God would know. You should be ashamed."

Miserably he held the door open as she regally swept out. On the threshold she handed him a folded note, then sashayed down the hall, paradise lost.

Ron read the note twice, then burst out laughing. That Tonya was a class act, all the way.

She had written: "Next time don't wear your cop shoes."
+++

Lynn Mann has written two short novels as well as numerous essays and short stories. She lives in Maryland, and when not writing works full time, raises orchids, gardens and sails. Some of her work can be found on www.bewilderingstories.com.

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EVEN ANGELS
By Randall Brown

On the roof of the library in Medford Mass, staring at Boston as if it were made of Lite Brite, I remember Sara who couldn't love me no matter what I did, like Diana of arrow and bows. Somewhere there's Cupid, an arrow made of stars, pierced by light.

I go back there a lot. Too much. And instead of waiting to ask, I say, "Sara. Do you think you'll ever love me?" I'm probably high, because I sold drugs in college and ecstasy was legal and praised in Newsweek. Our own Summer of Love chasing that Other summer, the Real One, before we were born.

My jaw grinds. Nothing has a clear edge. Sara will sleep in my bed and cuddle, but once I started kissing her because I couldn't help myself, tiny butterfly kisses around her eyes, seeking corners, and she rolled away and made me promise never to do that again. And I promised. Anything to bring her back.

"I don't know," she says. "It's better this way."

"Better for you." I am brave and speak my heart when I go back to this roof with Sara. I wonder if I'm shallow. She's so pretty.

Cupid hangs in the blinking sky. Cupid draws his bow, aims it at Sara's heart. Maybe I'm talking to the wrong person. Maybe I should direct my efforts to the sky rather than earth.

"Jeezum crow," Sara says. "I knew it. I knew you'd be just like the others. You--you were supposed to--oh I don't know. Everything gets ruined."

She's selfish. My desire ruins everything. She's my mother. She's afraid of the Real. I don't know anything.

Cupid. Buddy. Shoot her. Please. Pierce her. Penetrate. Draw blood. Make her feel. Anything. Cupid winks. He shoots arrows into dorm windows.

We sit on the edge of the roof, dangling, legs intertwined. She rubs her finger through a tear I don't know I am shedding. She kisses it on her fingertip.

"When we're, let's say, thirty-five. We'll come back here. And then, if we haven't found anyone. Then." She speaks this to the empty space above and below us. Two years later I'll fall in love with someone else, and I won't say the love until it's almost too late because I want to wait for Sara. I'm the weak one. The fearful one. All aquiver.

"Why?" I ask her. That's what I came here for. I get so sidetracked. "Why can't you fall in love now?"

The fall from sky to earth is the fall from Eden to desire, innocence to experience.

"I don't want to," Sara says. She's like an angel in this memory. Sometimes wings appear. Sometimes she hovers. Sometimes her voice hums. Sometimes her deep brown eyes swirl.

Sometimes she can read minds. "Even angels have a choice," she says. "And I don't want forever. Not yet. Not now."

One year after I find Lucy, Sara chooses forever. With an optometrist from Syracuse. He looks like my twin. I find myself almost sending emails. Did he frame you? Finally, you can see? Stupid things that hide what I really want.

I chose the earth—"the right place for love"—yet every night, I dream this dream. Every night I find myself asking Sara why and every night she answers not now. And every night I wake Lucy from sleep, yelling, "Fire!" as if a star fell upon the house, only it's Cupid, holding tight to this forever drawn arrow, as if it were possible to let it go.
+++

Randall Brown holds an MFA from Vermont College. Work has appeared in Hunger MountainConnecticut ReviewSaint Ann's ReviewEvansville ReviewDalhousie Review, upstreet, and others. He is the author of the award-winning collection Mad to Live (Flume Press, 2008).

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IRON
By Maureen Buchanan Jones

 “Maggie, you’re awfully good with your hands.” Phil lay on his back, his eyes closed.

She rolled his blunt-headed sex on the palm of her hand. She liked what it weighed. She liked the idea of it, of how it might drive something home to her, make her something else even just for a few seconds.

She had found a large rust-blown bolt once and she’d kept it for similar reasons. She liked the heft in her hand. She didn’t want it attached to anything, and she didn’t really want to complete the action. The threads at the base were sharp, even, flecked with orange and peeled shiny silver. As the threads moved up the shaft, they rounded, flattened together, became less distinct.

She let his penis roll on her open palm. ‘This could be enough,’ she thought. The round head of the bolt was a place for her anger. She could imagine taking a very large sledge hammer, pounding. But it was the other way around too. She wanted to use the bolt on Phil, or she just wanted to close her eyes and let all the iron molecules settle right at the center of her palm, right where her heart line and life line crossed, right where the knob of any job she had to do put its focus. She wanted to direct the bolt and send it home.

She looked up and Phil was staring at her.  “What the fuck, Maggie?” He pulled her down on top of him and there was heat and motion and even, for a second, a shortness of breath.

But after, after Phil had kissed her and told her she was always good for it, her mind went back to the bolt. She never got tired of pondering its disembodied suggestion.
+++

Maureen Buchanan Jones leads creative writing workshops in Northampton, Massachusetts.. Her poetry has appeared in Woman in Natural Resources, 13th Moon, Peregrine, North Dakota Quarterly and Letters from Daughters to Fathers. She holds a Ph.D. in English Literature.

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SWEET TEA
By Valerie DeLaCruz

Sweet.

Tall.

Free refills.

I am addicted to sweet tea.

That nectar of the south, a secret weapon to draw unwitting visitors into its fold. 

My sister moved to a little town in Georgia last year from the heart of America, Minnesota. On my first visit to her new home, we went out shopping for accessories to complete her décor. We hadn’t gone far when she veered into a parking lot and lined up in the drive-through of Chick-fil-A, a fast food restaurant specializing in (what else?) fried chicken. 

“You’ve got to try this sweet tea, Valerie, it’s delicious!” 

“Sweet tea?”

“Yeah, that’s what they call iced tea here.”

I didn’t notice her over-eagerness as she ordered up two large cups. Perhaps she had the shakes, I’m not sure. After she handed me one of them, I took a sip and almost gagged.

“Yikes, this is sickeningly sweet!” I cried. I dumped out half of it and added water from my Aquafina bottle. 

Here in the north, we have our regional beverages, too. There’s warm apple cider in the fall and eggnog that comes once a year at holiday time. Something to anticipate, recalling changing seasons and scarves and mittens. But this basic quaff of the Dixie states is available year round, as common as a deer tick on a coon hound (see, it does something to you!)

I never got this way about Kool-Aid or Tang or even Bosco. Maybe it’s the caffeine. Not being a coffee drinker I thought I was immune from the daily morning habit of everyone around me. 

Nah, it must be the sugar. That shocking blast of overstimulation that we attempt to keep from our children with a good-mom snack of carrot sticks instead of Oreos.

Days passed and my trip was almost over. We stopped for some sweet tea on another one of our jaunts and I ordered mine “half and half:” half unsweetened and half sweetened. That was better. I thought I could get used to it. Little did I know….

Safely home up in Yankee territory, I indulged in Diet Coke and the occasional chai tea latte at Starbucks. Sweet tea never entered my mind.

Then I bought a condo on the Georgia coast.

I started monthly trips there to furnish it and visit my sister. Wandering around like a catfish out of water and testing out y’alls all over town, I had the inevitable southern beverage of choice: sweet tea (half and half) with almost every meal. 

At first it was innocuous, a regular 12 ounce cup with a sandwich. Gradually, I found myself taking advantage of free refills, and adding less of the unsweetened tea, the proportion careening toward the full monty. Finally, I just gave in. I knew I had it bad when I started anticipating which drive-through was closest to the airport while I was on the plane about to land in Savannah.

Now I just accept it. 

I surrender.

The war between the states’ brews is over for me.

“I’ll have the extra large sweet tea, please, and hurry!”

Did I mention the biscuits?

+++

Valerie DeLaCruz is an essayist who has been featured in the Times Union newspaper and on National Public Radio’s program 50 Percent and the Round Table.  She is an award-winning singer-songwriter and resides in upstate New York and the Georgia coast.


Winners of the 2007 Writer Advice Flash Prose Contest are:

First Place

 

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A Late Summer Chore
By Daniel F. Rousseau

bella2

“Get rid of that damned dog once and for all,” my father swore, smashing his fist against my cheekbone. I stumbled backwards, away from the breakfast table. Tears burned my eyes as I turned and snatched the Stevens .22 from the gun rack, stuffing a box of Winchester hollow-points into my jeans pocket as I descended the back steps. The screen door slammed behind me. I’d catch hell for it later, but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except getting this dreaded chore done.

I whistled softly for Lady Bayou. She whimpered from where she lay beside the porch. Her moist brown eyes were reduced to two pools of agony and she didn’t leap to greet me anymore. There was no royal thrust of her proud head, no long bugling challenges from the ruby throat of a hound excited by the fresh scent of a new hunt. Instead, she rolled over, dragging herself up, barely sitting, half lying, using toenails of her hind paws to frantically attack a new seizure of itching. Red mange had stripped her once-beautiful black and tan coat until only raw blood and scabs remained. She reeked of the greasy mix of crankcase oil and yellow sulfur I had slathered on her. It was supposed to cure, but every night she cried those wailing cries that nearly broke my heart.

“C’mon, girl,” I coaxed, kneeling and extending a free hand. “Want some milk?” She bellied across the dirt towards the tip of the rifle barrel. Sniffed it. Then, trotted at my heels down the path between rows of scraggly purple and red zinnias.

At the milk house she sat scratching herself while I shooed away a tangle of cats and borrowed a small pail. I filled it with fresh warm milk, pouring some on the concrete floor so the cats wouldn’t tag along. Then I whistled for Lady Bayou to follow as I opened the corral gate to the pastures beyond.

She trotted along behind, paying no attention to the orange cheddar sun rising above the palmetto hammocks to the east. Her bare, floppy-eared head swung side-to-side, her sagging jowls drooling and her nose chuffing across the grass, skimming the silver dew-diamonds of moisture for scent of rabbits or coons or whatever else may have passed this way.

I led her along the cow paths through the pines to the barbed wire fence at the end of our five-thousand acres. There I stopped. To the west lay the Slough, stretching to the horizon in a maze of cabbage-palm thickets and marshy flats, and bordered on the north by the sluggish and winding Loxahatchee River. There, in the early morning heat, nearly out of earshot of the ranch house and barn, I placed the pail of milk on the ground. Lady Bayou began to drink. Her tongue made those same soft lapping sounds that made me laugh when she was a puppy.

I raised the rifle tightly against my shoulder, squinting down the barrel, aligning the front-sight bead with the V-sight and placing it squarely on the imaginary X in the middle of her forehead. The familiar click of the cocked hammer caused her head to rise. She paused a moment, then resumed drinking.

“Get rid of that damned dog once and for all” still rang in my ears as sweat and new tears stung my eyes. The August morning burned like a blister on my heart. Somewhere in the silence a cardinal began to sing, “pretty-girl, pretty-girl.” I squeezed the trigger. And on that morning, on the spot where the late summer chore took place, where the only two sounds were the gentle lapping of a hound’s tongue in a pail of milk, and the cardinal’s cheerful call, only the cardinal was startled by the sudden spit-crack report of the rifle.    
++++

Daniel Rousseau , a fifth-generation Floridian, is currently working on a young adult novel, THE BROWN PONY, a father/son conflict set against the prairies and sloughs of south Florida.  In 2006, he won first-place essay at the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Workshop.

Second Place

 

 

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OMNIA
By WC Vasquez

amina

I cannot stare at a night sky splashed with fireworks without remembering my summer of metamorphosis. During that red, white, and blue Bicentennial, I lost thirty-one pounds and grew six inches. I grew to six feet because my father was a tall man, and I shrank to 160 pounds because my father was also a man of rage.

Early one June morning, he entered my bedroom without knocking and broke my jaw after discovering something he couldn’t bear. How easily I was changed by that one fist: with my jaw wired shut, I survived on orange Gatorade and Campbell’s tomato soup sipped through a straw. No more chocolate cupcakes, potato chips, or deep-fried burritos--the emotional mortar that had held me together during middle school. 

As my father hunched forward in his chair watching Arthur Fiedler conduct the Boston Pops on TV, I lay on the couch trying to time my half-notes of breath with Fiedler’s slashing baton. My birthday was also July 4 th but unlike the sparkler-spinning kids in the rest of the country, I had nothing to celebrate.

Summer ended. My jaw healed. I began high school as Thin Benjamin.

Like every freshman at Moss Creek High, I was required to take a class called Omnia. This hybrid of literature, art, and music was supposed to expand our sensibilities beyond “Welcome Back Kotter” and KC and the Sunshine Band.

On that first day of Omnia, I plopped myself in a front row desk. I chose that seat because every sticky booger flicked into my brown hair and every pink eraser hurled against my ear would be visible to the teacher. I didn’t need a savior; I only needed a referee who would mutter “Enough” when the sharpened pencil spears aimed at my neck littered the floor like a yellow splinter storm.

“Hey, Donut Dick, what happened to you?” James Tierney said as he walked past me. I had no answer for him or anyone else who pestered me with questions and taunts.

Behind me I heard someone whisper, “Maybe he’s dying.”

Mr. McCauley was the last person to enter our classroom. He was either a young 30 or an old 25. Iíve never been good with ages. I was only 15 but already I felt old and hollow.

“I am Mr. McCauley and this is Omnia,” he said, wiping a long blond curl from his eye. “Omnia is the Latin word for all, everything.” He stretched out his arms and jumped toward the cottage cheese ceiling tiles, embracing the air. “Those of you in Senora Baxter’s Spanish class should know what nada means. Never, under any circumstances, confuse nada with omnia.”

People began to snicker and groan, but I sat up straighter in my desk.

After taking roll, he walked to the blackboard and wrote three words in a loopy style that covered the entire surface. His gold wedding band scraped the blackboard as he wrote. He was left-handed, like me. Before he spoke again, he looked at all twenty of us. I shivered when he looked at me--and then said, “So much of our lives is based on these three words. Can anyone read them?”

Mandy Lewis, a red-headed girl who always had a snake of pink gum hanging from her mouth, tilted her head and said, “One Live Jew? Is that it?”

Greg Foster snarfled a glob of mucus before saying, “Oh yeah. We learned about the Nazis last year. They were really mean and stuff.”

Mr. McCauley closed his eyes and repeated Greg’s words aloud, as if he were trying to decide if he had just heard the most profound or most banal sentence ever pronounced in the history of mankind.

“Good try, but not quite,” he said to both of them. 

The faceless voices behind me took turns trying to read his scrawl of words--they were all wrong. He hadn’t written “On Lucky Joe” or “J. Lobe Yowl.”

I stared into Mr. McCauley’s blue eyes and ignored the subtle ache in my jaw. For just a moment I saw my father standing in my bedroom doorway three months earlier as he discovered me masturbating to a magazine picture of teen idol Vince Van Patten. My boyhood crush.  

Inhaling everything in the room--the fear and giddiness of the unknown--I opened my mouth widely and said in a clear voice, “I Love You.”

Mr. McCauley bowed to me and said: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.’
++++

Without stopping, WC Vasquez can run from the bottom step of the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse to the very top step...as all writers would do.

 

Third Place

 

 

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Say Hello
By Kay Jordan

hello

During his month of observation Hal learned that Cyndi worked at First State Bank and attended yoga classes twice a week. She collected vegetarian cookbooks, kept a stash of chocolate in a shoebox at the back of her closet and used panty liners with wings. What Hal did not know was whether Cyndi would live or die.  That depended on the first woman he met on the street where Cyndi lived. If the woman said hello, Cyndi would live. If not, she would die.   

Asking strangers to decide the fates of his victims might seem cruel, but Hal knew everyone is a hostage to the actions of others. 

If his mother hadn’t said hello, she would have never married Rory Dickerson, who with a wink and a smile, told six-year-old Hal he needed a boy to pull roots. But the roots hadn’t been in a garden. They’d belonged to Rory’s friends, and in addition to pulling, they’d asked him to suck. They’d bent him ass up over sofas and chairs. Each time Rory introduced a new friend, his mother had scolded, “Be polite, Hal. Say hello.”

As he rounded the corner onto Cyndi’s street, Hal stopped so abruptly the hem of his overcoat flapped against his lime-green high tops. A woman—dressed in proper black, Hal noted—strolled down the steep hill. Cyndi’s fate was already approaching. 

Hal tugged at the gray stocking cap that hid his blond hair and adjusted the wide round glasses that kept sliding down his nose. Two day’s whiskers and a military overcoat completed his disguise. No one would connect this street person with the fashionable young man who sold cell phone accessories from a kiosk in the mall. 

Hal took two unsteady steps and then stopped. He inhaled deeply, trying to calm himself. If he looked drunk or high, if he appeared too odd or threatening, the test wouldn’t be fair. And Hal played fair. No. More than fair. He righted past wrongs. He brought perfection to an imperfect world. Words had repeatedly doomed him, but being polite and saying hello should be rewarded, not punished. Hello, hi, good afternoon, even hey, would save his victims.  That was as it should be. In a perfect world.

Hal started up the street, and the woman turned her head and peered at a nearby yard. She might pretend that autumn asters had caught her eye, but Hal knew she craned around so she didn’t have to notice him. He almost felt sorry for Cyndi. She would die because a stranger couldn’t face him, not even from a block away. 

Unexpectedly the woman looked at Hal, not staring but letting him know she knew he was there. She broke off her gaze and checked her purse. Hal waited for the woman to open it. She would search for something: keys, a list of errands, sunglasses. Any item would do as long as it provided an excuse for keeping her eyes down. While she fumbled with whatever she retrieved, she could pretend she wasn’t rude. She was preoccupied and in her preoccupation could ignore Hal.

A car shifted gears on the steep incline. The woman glanced at it and then across the street. Would she jaywalk? Pretend to look for a particular address? Glance at her watch as if she were late? As if she’d crossed the street for any reason other than avoiding Hal.

He climbed the hill, faster now, each stride more assured than the one before.  As he drew closer to the woman, he saw strands of gray in her dark hair. She was old enough to be Cyndi’s mother. The irony. One of his victims had been condemned by a neighbor, another by a cousin. Never had a mother doomed her own daughter. 

The woman’s gaze slid to the sidewalk. Hal let out a long breath. Cyndi’s fate had been sealed. The woman would not meet his eye, would not mumble the faintest greeting. Cyndi would die. 

The woman raised her head and smiled, not a twitch of the lips but a wide warm grin. Maybe she believed a smile was enough, Hal thought. She didn’t know she had to speak.  That was the rule.

“Hi,” the woman said. “I like your shoes.” 

Stunned, Hal stared down at his high tops.  

A stranger liked his lime-green shoes. Said hi. 

Saved Cyndi. 

Brief perfection.

++++
Kay Jordan has been published by The Christian Science Monitor, Notre Dame Magazine, Arizona Highways, and numerous anthologies. Currently she's querying agents about The Girl and the Gumshoe Ghost, a tale of love and murder narrated by a shy ghost.

 

Fourth Place

 

 

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Crouching Tiger
By Suzanne LaFetra

tiger

He read the note, folded it, and edged it into the gutter with his boot. There was no way a tiger was loose in Sunnyslope. He didn’t care what Curtis had written, that mother fucker had flipped since they’d come home. Poor bastard, with his freakish stump leg.

Marlow raked his dirty hand through his matted hair, then pulled the wool cap back down, low, nearly to his eyes. He blew out a long breath of steam. Damn, it would be cold tonight. He looked past the swings and basketball court to his clump of boxwoods, the fiery orange teardrops of the cottonwoods. The park was glowing, trees like embers. The Japanese maples were already blood red, and it wasn’t even November yet. They weren’t natural, not native to Southern

California . But he liked them anyway.

Marlow spun around when he heard the crunch, his heart pounding. Just a couple of kids clowning around by the jungle gym. Tiger. Bullshit.

He walked over to the drinking fountain, twisted the knob until a long arc of water curved high over the silver bowl. A scarlet leaf and a beige blob of gum clotted the basin. Marlow wiped his mouth with the back of his hand streaked with grime. Christ, he was a mess, he knew it. He curled his hands, glancing at his claw nails, black with outdoor filth.

He arched his neck backward then, way back, took in the slice of blue sky, so blue. God damn it, it was so pure and perfect, that blue. He knew he stunk. Even though he was wrapped in a sweater and his army field coat, the funk came through; almost as bad as that first month in the desert.

But in Iraq, after a week or so, your body didn’t stink anymore. It was just a meaty, human smell, and it didn’t matter. Shit, who had time to worry about a bath, anyway when everyone’s soul was rotting.

He walked back over to the sidewalk and sat down, picked up Curtis’s note again. Beware the tiger. He prowls in darkness. Poor bastard.

Marlow stood up, squashed the note deep into the pocket of his fatigues. His back was hurting. He dipped to the side, rubbing his hip. Jesus H, he used to whine to his girlfriend about his sciatica while he lay in a Tempur-fucking-pedic mattress, and a hot bath steamy and waiting. Nothing like eight months on a shitty military cot to destroy you.

He hunted the entire park, and finally found Curtis crouched behind a massive oak, tiny sharp leaves surrounding the broken man. Curtis’s hands were balled in fists, the ragged empty pant leg striped with mud.

“Hey, man,” he squatted down and reached his hand toward the man’s shoulder. “It’s okay. There aren’t any tigers, dude. You’re just freaking.”

Curtis’s eyes narrowed to slits. “You don’t know, man.” His voice was low and purring. “The horror,” he said, baring his filthy, sharp teeth. ++++

Suzanne LaFetra's work has appeared in many publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, Brevity, Literary Mama, Rosebud, and fourteen anthologies.

Honorable Mentions are
Alan Witchey for “White Rainbow”
Will Walker for “ Christ In All His Distressing Disguises”
John Gourhan for “Easy As”
Richard Weingart for “Incident on an Overpass”
Florence Kraut for “ It’s Him I Hate”
J.D. Blair for “Empties”

Three are archived here and the other three will appear in 2008.

Editor’s Note: We had a wonderful collection of strong entries. The range of ideas, experiences, and voices was amazing. When I passed the final judging on to last year’s winners, they confirmed that contests are incredibly subjective. Look at what did and did not appeal in “What Works And What Doesn’t.” Click on “Writing Advice” (hotlink) to find the article.

Honorable Mentions – 2007

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Empties
By J.D. Blair

         At the intersection of Birmingham and Lincoln a clump of the city's homeless milled about the corner. They were circling a kid, hounding him for a paper bag he was carrying. It was a sidewalk ballet that quickly turned ugly when the kid pulled a buck knife from his sports jacket and sliced some fingers off the hand of one old wino that was grabbing at the bag. The severed fingers hit the pavement still clutching at air. The kid nonchalantly kicked the fingers off the sidewalk and into the gutter as the stunned wino sat down in the middle of the circle and held his mutilated hand watching blood pump from the stumps of his fingers. Another old guy slipped in the bloody mess on the sidewalk and fell hard on his ass. The kid skewered the fleshy underarm of a third guy who grabbed the bag and ripped it open. A dozen empty glass bottles hit the sidewalk and shattered, becoming just one more part of the mix of old men, body parts and blood. The kid kicked at the torn bag at his feet, muttered something in Spanish, then took off down the street and disappeared into a maze of stacked pallets, boxes and debris.

The next day Roland Endorain sat slumped in a back booth at Nick's bar cradling his bandaged hand across his chest. He lost the battle over the bag of empty bottles and two fingers on his left hand were gone down to the second knuckle, a third lost the tip.

         A warm breeze pushed through the door of the bar and Rollo, as he was known on the street, hugged the shadows spreading across the wall in a mottled mosaic and ducked a shaft of late afternoon sunlight kicking up dust particles over his left shoulder. He was in pain and the brandy wasn't helping.

         “Rollo, you want another?” Nick leaned over the bar trying to get the old guy's attention. “Hey Rollo, Rollo, another drink?”

         Rollo turned his ruddy face toward Nick but said nothing. Nick took that as a “yes” and poured another and nodded to the fat barmaid Bea to deliver it. Drinks marked the passage of time for the old man and four empties were lined up at his undamaged right hand. Bea brought the drink and stood by as Rollo took it all with a quick swallow. He turned toward Bea, his face etched in pain, and raised the injured hand, “Why Bea?”

         “No reason to it Rollo, no reason.”

         “I needed the empties,” Rollo picked at the bandaged hand. “I got more need of them than him.”

         “It ain't a question of need, I guess,” said Bea. “I think it's whose got'em first.” Bea moved on leaving the old man to his pain.

         Rollo left his life in the hands of fate years ago and lived day to day on the street. He came to the bar every day except Sunday. On Sundays, in his penance, he faced the reality of his loneliness without liquor. His Sabbath ritual was a combination of penance and self-pity, spent in a silent remembrance of his family. A mother, father, three younger brothers and a sister were all gone. The brothers, killed in the campaigns of the Spanish Revolution. His sister was born prematurely aboard ship on the family's escape to the states. She died soon after arriving, too fragile to survive the depression. His parents died of broken spirits and unfulfilled dreams. Rollo's valued possessions were six yellowing photographs of the family and a worn strand of rosary beads.

“You don't want to look into his eyes,” warned Nick, popping a stale peanut into his mouth.

         “The old guy's sort of spooky,” said Bea.

         “It's guilt”

         “Guilt, what's he got to be guilty about?”

         Nick caught another peanut, “Over being alive.”

         Rollo heard their conversation but ignored them and continued to stare at the wall as he rocked back and forth counting each painful throb that shot into his mutilated hand.

         As the afternoon moved into evening the Saturday night regulars began to arrive, young, boisterous types blowing off a weeks worth of frustration. They all knew Rollo but never bothered to pay him much attention. This evening things were different, word was around the old guy had a run-in with some punk over empties and was hurting.

         ”Hey old man, you need a bodyguard?” Shouted a guy in a hard hat.

         “Rollo, how's it goin’ man?” asked another, patting the old man's shoulder as he passed the booth.

         A couple of guys sat down across from Rollo, ordering up brandy for him and making small talk.

         Throughout the evening nearly everyone touched the old man. Rollo, bewildered by the attention, spoke very little and as the evening wore on everyone left empty bottles on his table. When someone stopped to say hello another empty was added to the dozen or so already crowding the table.

         The Saturday night crowd partied around the old man into the following day. At two-thirty in the morning on Sunday the bar had emptied. Bea was gone and only the whir of a ventilator fan cut the silence as Nick prepared to close up. In the crush of business he had forgotten about Rollo and in making a final check of the bar he noticed the old man in his booth surrounded by empties. There must have been a hundred or so...beer bottles, shot glasses and mugs. Rollo was slumped over the table face down with his bandaged hand held behind his head with the rosary dangling from his swollen thumb.

         Nick tried to wake the old guy but when he couldn't he realized he had served him for the last time.

         “I guess he just gave up,” Nick said to the ambulance attendants.

         Rollo’s Sunday family reunion would take place as usual.    
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J.D. Blair writes for radio, television and print. His current projects center on short fiction, poetry and essays.  He lives in Walnut Creek, California with his wife, two cats and a dove.

 

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White Rainbow
By Alan Witchey

         Harriett thought she had turned the light off. It shined under the door piercing the darkness in a sharp arc across the ceiling. She wouldn’t be able to sleep with it on. She lay relaxed under the brown and green comforter that she bought after the robbery. The thieves came while she was at school, taking the frayed towels in the bathroom, the sunflower painting in the kitchen, and the dirty shoes she used when working in the garden. The house was a shell. Even boxes of old pictures stacked in her father’s closet were gone. The dining room echoed with her voice when she sang in the morning, and although her father was away on business, upon his return he would contact the insurance agency, and they would get all new belongings.
         The wooden floor squeaked. Harriett could hear her heart pound. The squeak came again. She had lived in this house her entire life and knew that sound came only when her father crept down to check on her. Someone was in the hallway.
         She was sleeping on the floor, with only the brown and green comforter. Along the wall, in the shadows, Harriett could see three small piles of clothes she had bought at the Goodwill. She had never shopped there before and was surprised that the air smelled of mold and dust and the other patrons of sweat. The young brunette woman who worked the register had welcomed her like she was an old friend, “Let me know if you need help” and “I just love this blanket,” when she saw the brown and green comforter. Harriett wanted to tell her there was a difference between a blanket and a comforter, but she said a meager, “Thank you,” and handed the woman a few dollars she found in her pocket. Now, laying in the darkness, she wished she could hear that woman’s voice again.
         Harriett remembered her Father telling her that a burglar often came back to the same house after his first robbery. Once the family had replaced their valuables, he would steal them again. That must be what’s happening, she thought, but I haven’t replaced anything yet. He would realize that and leave.
         She heard voices—more than one. What would they do when they found her? Flee? Murder her? Anything but rape. She fumbled, trying to find something to use as a weapon, but there were only her clothes and the comforter. Harriett was a small woman, but she was tough and swift.
         The footsteps stopped outside her door making two long shadowed holes in the light strip. Grabbing the comforter, she slid next to the door. She would throw it over the head of the first person, shove him, and in the confusion, sprint out the front door and onto the lawn screaming for help.
         The door slid open silently. Light poured in, and her eyes grew blurry with the brightness. She couldn’t focus, but she could make out three dark figures. She stretched high, trying to cover the first shadow’s head in the comforter, but she was far shorter than him and missed. The cloth fell limp to the ground. She decided to run for the closet hoping she might hold the door shut long enough to scream and wake her neighbors. Her foot slipped on the comforter, and she fell to the floor.
         “She’s here,” said a man. “I knew she would come back to the old house.”
         “Mom, relax,” said a female voice. “She looks like she hasn’t eaten in weeks.” 
         A man bent over her. She couldn’t make out the details of his face because her eyes were still adjusting to the light, but she could see he was wearing green, her favorite color. He told her she would be okay and that it was all over.
         “I have her medication,” said another male. His voice was young.
         “Not yet,” said the woman who called her Mom. “Mom, it’s Lindsey.”
            Harriett heard the voice, but she didn’t have a daughter. She wasn’t even married yet. Who were these strangers barging into her home making ridiculous claims? She would call the police and have them taken away. She tried to stand but found she didn’t have the strength. The male figure again said, “It’s okay.” Does he think I’m dying, she wondered. She let her body go limp and was surprised at how tired she was. She decided to sleep and hope they didn’t rape her.
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Alan Witchey earned his MFA from Antioch University. His stories have appeared in Small Town Shorts and Gertrude. He currently resides in Irvine, CA.

 

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It’s Him I Hate
By Florence Kraut

      It’s him I hate, and he knows it too. His body, slim and muscular, lies beside me; he reaches out a toe and slides it up and down my calf. I shrink from him when he sleeps. He curls toward me and breathes stale air from deep within. I cannot help but turn my back. If he feels me turn away he spoons me from behind and moves his hands along my swollen belly and over my breasts, cupping them, teasing the nipples. He blows his hot breath into my ear. I clench my teeth. If his hand slides down between my legs I press my thighs together. 
      Oh, he knows, but we never speak of it. I know the day he stopped being the sweet lover I tumbled with in tangled bed sheets. He had always been flirtatious, cocky. My insides collapsed, my vagina clutched if he even brushed my neck with his fingers.  I knew he tried his charms on others. Waitresses, my best friend’s sister at a back yard barbeque, my cousin Marian. But I didn’t care. I was the one he went home with at night. 
      The day it changed was a Sunday. Half asleep, I lay inert beside him while he moved within me. It was the beginning of my pregnancy. He didn’t like me too active anyway. Then we dressed and went, as always, to his parents for dinner. The boisterous family gathered in his childhood dining room for roast chicken. People spilled into the living room afterwards, sprawled on the sofas, messed the lace armrests. The boys put
their feet on the tables and when told not to, got up and went for catch in the backyard. The girls went too, some to play with dolls, some out to watch their brothers. He disappeared as well.  
 I wasn’t feeling well. I went upstairs, to lie down. What possessed me to choose the only closed bedroom door? To push it open with stealth instead of making noise? There they were. He lay on his side, his pants down at his ankles, his sturdy prick rubbing, rubbing against the tender backside of his four year old niece. She lay, still as stone, her breath rising and falling. Blonde wisps framed her face and her eyes remained closed, but little flickers of her lids told me she was awake. Her cotton panties, I remember, were covered with pink hearts.
      He didn’t hear me, so absorbed was he in his own body. I told myself he wasn’t really hurting her, didn’t penetrate her.   I backed carefully out of the room, retreating to the bathroom where I knelt and retched into the toilet bowl. He found me there moments later and blamed my sickness on the pregnancy. And now, it’s him I hate, and he knows it even though he doesn’t know why.
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Florence Kraut lives in Rye, New York.  Her stories have appeared in confession and children's magazines  and are upcoming in The Rambler and Boston Literary Magazine.  She is a social worker and former Executive Director of a family service agency.

 

First Place Winner in Writer Advice’s Flash Fiction Contest -- 2006:

139

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Romany
By Lyn Halper

It isn't something he usually does, this married man, stopping for a drink on the way home. But he sees her through the window of the Nuevo Cubano Bar and is drawn towards her. They talk, laugh, and a couple of scotches later he is at her place in the darker part of town. The poorness of her room surprises him with its metal bed, lop-sided dresser, a couple of suitcases stacked in the corner. Nothing to show the place is hers except for a snarl of cosmetics on a corner table. She makes them black coffee and they drink it silently. Then they are tangled in the bed sheets; her face caught in a sliver of moonlight. Cubano? he asks. No, Romany. Gypsy girl. The idea strikes him as quaint, romantic, as coming from a fever of impulses beyond identity or reason. He sighs and buries his face in her neck, burrows deeper as though to lose himself in the blackness of her hair. When he leaves, nothing is said; she gazes at him through sleepy eyes.

One night she tells him they are going out and takes him to her people. It is some kind of festivity: a mash of people spilling into an apartment on the sixth floor and spewing out again. Talking. Laughter. The odor of sweat, alcohol, cigars, and in his imagination, caravans, campfire smoke, sun and blood. The place is a maze of small rooms like an intricately carved box. He thinks the doorways should have beads clicking and clacking; a kitten trembles in the corner. The men glance at him, they snicker, he hears the word, gadje, outsider. The one called Basio, with thick black mustache, grips his shoulder and shoves a mug in his hand; he swallows and it is a rough kind of beer. You are what? …a banker? That is good! We can use a banker! Yes, for loans, and…well…who knows. No one whispers, and yet everything about the way they talk, and stand, and bend toward each other, suggests wild schemes and secrets. They play cards. He loses. They are cheating, even as they tell him he must go with them to the back mountains regions. Yes, they have a cabin there, and blankets, and the fireplace is good for roasting meat, and the guitars twang and sing all night, and in the morning there is wild boar to hunt. "Come with us, and I will call you 'brother.'" Basio laughs and he laughs with him. The women have banded together in the kitchen and their voices crescendo and ebb, and erupt, now and again, into high-pitched cackling. He thinks they are gossiping about the sexual prowess, or lack of it, in their men. His eyes search the room for Gisella. He remembers his wife and wishes to summon guilt, but finds he cannot. Gisella is walking toward him. Her eyes are searing his flesh.

It is six months later. Gisella is gone. There are memories of pushing open the door to her apartment to see nothing but the husk of a room, the farrago of bottles on the table top is gone. He corners the landlady, "Oh, that one. She's no more." She had taken up with an old lover who killed her in a drunken rage. He feels faint. He shivers. For weeks he walks about in a daze. When the numbness wears off and his senses return, he is, oh, so well aware that her death is his salvation. She has gone to her maker - vanished like a fugitive into the mist, and so is he lifted from her spell. His life is returned to him. His life is, once again, his own. He seizes that life: works hard at the office, tends his garden on weekends, clings to his wife, promises they will have the baby she has been wanting. He imagines himself holding the child, kissing its soft forehead, stroking its hair. It is old enough to walk and he grasps the small hand in his own. He gives the child a bath, tucks him into bed…and well, all right…just one more story before the light is out. This is the vision floating in his mind's eye as he enters the elevator, pushes the button, and takes the long slow ride to Basio's door.

Lyn Halper’s fiction and poetry has appeared in national magazines and literary journals, and in 2004 she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Fiction International. She is formerly professor of Religious Studies for Rockland Community College of SUNY, and has taught creative writing in The Writing Mews in NY.
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Second Place Winner in the Flash Fiction Contest:

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AMERICAN HISTORY
By Jennifer Hurley

128

And he saw, as he entered the lecture hall, that it was Ms. Brachhausen who stood at the blackboard, her hair smoothed into a ponytail, her feet in hiking sandals, her crisp light blue suit so professional that Jesse felt himself begin to sweat.

Ms. Brachhausen knew his mother; the two women both shopped at the organic food store, and every once in a while, Ms. B and his mother would sit in the sunroom, drinking herbal tea or blueberry juice, depending on the weather, and discussing superfoods.

Jesse had resented his mother’s health food obsession until he met Ms. Brachhausen. Surveying her lean figure, her long, long legs, the blush in her cheeks, how her eyes opened wide with excitement whenever she spoke, he finally understood the purpose of all this healthiness. Now he sometimes visited the local vegetarian restaurant and forced down a plateful of brown rice and squash, hoping he might run into her.

Before the class, he’d only had one conversation with her. She’d asked him how old he was—19—and what he wanted to study in school—computers, he’d said, and at that he detected a slight wrinkling of her nose. He wanted to ask her what she taught at the college, but he already knew, and any other question seemed too personal. And then there was the way his mother was looking at him, with an amused expression, as though she might tell a joke on him when he left the room.

Ms. B acknowledged him with a half-nod, then launched into a lecture, something about the Indians. Jesse smoothed out a clean sheet in his notebook, but all he could concentrate on was Ms. Brachhausen’s face, expressively pronouncing the words “barbaric” and “ravage.”

On his first exam, she had marked a giant red “D,” and below it the scribble “Please see me.” Jesse pondered the meaning of her words as he rode his bike home.

Ms. Brachhausen was sitting behind a desk, eating from a baggie of carrots and clicking away at a computer.

“Hey, Ms. B,” he said.

“Jesse!” She popped up and moved a pile of papers from a chair.

“How’s your mother?”

“Uh, fine.” He never really thought about how his mother was, whether she was fine or not.

“You’re here to discuss the exam?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I guess I was hoping for at least a B-.”

“Jesse.” She was crossing and uncrossing her legs. “Tell me—how did religion play a role in the whites’ oppression of the Native Americans? That’s what I want to know.”

During the long pause that followed, Jesse could hear faint piano music. He sighed. “I guess I don’t know.”

“Hmm...” Ms. B wrenched her mouth to one side. “Are you reading the text, Jesse?”

He had attempted to read the text, but when, reclined on his bed at 3 am, he’d opened the tome, the words had looked impossibly tiny.

“I guess not,” he admitted. “I just can’t relate to all of this history—I mean, who really cares about things that happened so long ago?” His eyes were on the floor, but he could feel her scrutinizing him. “I mean, it’s not that I don’t care, but—”

Finally, he looked up at her. Her face was furrowed; she stared right into his eyes. He could see the thin vertical lines in her blue irises.

“Do you know what I see right now, Jesse?”

His heart started beating faster. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

“I see a human, descended from other humans. Do you know who your great grandparents are, Jesse? Do you know who your great, great, grandparents were, where they lived, what they labored at, who they loved—or maybe, who they hated, who they killed?”

The word “killed” hung in the air between them. A piece of hair had come loose from her ponytail and was hanging over one eye.

“Because, Jesse, I’m from Germany, and do you know what my grandparents did in World War II? I’d suggest Chapter 16 of your textbook.”

Jesse swallowed. The hard voice she used wasn’t the voice that he imagined when he thought about her at night, curled up underneath his comforter, headphones blaring Radiohead, praying that his mother wouldn’t burst in.

His face was red; he could feel that. His hands, gripping his exam paper, were shaking.

Now she was smiling. “Thanks for stopping by. Come back again, Jesse, will you?”

Jennifer Hurley is an assistant professor of English at Ohlone College. Her short fiction has appeared in The Mississippi Review, Peeks & Valleys, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, and WriterAdvice.com. She holds a B.A. in Literature/Writing from UC San Diego and an M.A. in Creative Writing from Boston University.
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Third Place Winner in the Flash Fiction Contest:

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THE CRASH
By Mary Vallo

dscn0122

“Get the mom out of here” someone is hollering and it makes me mad. I am the mom.

It is 2 o’clock in the morning and my son’s car is sitting at an odd angle in a ditch in the brush on the other side of a fence.

I am standing, studying the car through the fence. The windshield is still there, but the other windows have disappeared. Did he climb out through the gaping window? Is he walking?

The snaking road is blocked off by two police cars with flashing lights, their high beams casting arcs of artificial brightness into black.

There’s the fence. This I can’t understand. It is intact with just the tip bent only slightly, in the direction of the crashed car. Which is quite obviously on the wrong side. How did the car get on the other side?

“Which direction was it headed?” I ask a cop.

“It wasn’t on this road,” he answers carefully. “It was on that road.” He points overhead, to the overpass I had not considered until just now. He is pointing to a road at least 30 feet above us.

That’s when I know for the first time. This is bad. Really, really bad.

I turn to my husband. We are clutching each other, facing directly. His eyes are saying something his mouth won’t. But I don’t meet them.

“He’s out there and he needs us,” I hiss.

Cold, dark fear fills my chest.

My husband is holding his cell phone. He is trying to make it work. I can’t help. My hands are shaking. He speed dials our son’s cell. We hear it ring in the hollow car.

I can’t find an opening in the chain-link fence, so I climb it. Adrenaline doesn’t help. The first leg goes over but the other drags down, scraping and gouging. I. Don’t. Feel. Anything.

The police and now fire rescue (just arrived) are yelling to each other: “Get the mom out of there.” One is walking toward an opening in the fence I had not seen.

They have gained my husband’s complicity. “Hon,” he is calling, arms outstretched.

“Don’t hold this against him,” an alternative me, the one now standing outside my body, is thinking. It is also thinking of the other two, at home asleep, still unaware that their lives have changed. “They will have a lot of trouble with this,” the alternative me thinks.

But I am too busy to ponder this, or anything, except my son. My eldest. My firstborn. My baby. He is out here somewhere. In the brush? In the field? Behind a tree? Behind a rock? Somewhere I can’t see him. And he can’t call out. And he needs me. He needs me.

Bumblebee,” I call. My voice is strong and steady. “Mommy’s here.”

Mary Vallois editor of the regional magazine, The Parent Paper, West Paterson, NJ and a writer and mother of three, from Pearl River, NY.
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Fourth Place Winner in the Flash Fiction Contest:


138

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CINDERELLA MANEUVERS
By Kirsten Beachy

You were deceived by the way he played the Steinway in the airport atrium: "Fur Elise," "I Wonder as I Wander." You imagined him passionate, talkative, flinging himself into the world like the notes of "Eine Kleine Nachtmusique" that hurtled up Concourse C, and sauntered over in your Hesse-Valias to drop a twenty in his jar. But you finally accept it. He is a selfish man, tenacious when you try to break it off—his silence damning, worse even than the time you tried to throw out his Reeboks and he intercepted you on the way to the trash chute, clutched the rescued sneakers to his breast, and locked himself in the bedroom. Explode in Conché's corner market; watch him stalk away down the bread and beer aisle, forever.

Later: decide to contact him. It's not closure you're looking for--it's your chartreuse Hesse-Valia sandal, the one with low-slung heels and straps that criss-cross your ankle. The right sandal languishes alone on the eye-level shelf of your closet organizer, too exclusive to be bundled into the twenty-five cubbies of the shoe rack below.

He didn't care about closet organizers. His closets housed slumping mounds of clothes. A few shirts clung to their hangers by a shoulder or a sleeve, but most succumbed to the magnetism of the pile below. Clean? Dirty? You never asked.

He doesn't return your phone call.

You wore the shoes with your pale yellow sundress, on the coast, after a dinner of Lazy Man's Lobster. You walked together out on the tidebreak, carrying the shoes so the heels wouldn't scuff in the rock crevices. He tried to carry you, but wrenched his back.

You even have a matching purse.

You must have left the shoe at his house with the other things--your Dirt Devil, the egg-beater, that beige-spotted Teddy. Poor left sandal, alone with his flap-soled Reeboks.

He doesn't return any of your calls.

You paid $429 for that pair of shoes. The left one alone cost $214.50—plus sentimental value. Maybe you should sue.

Page him for the eighteenth time. The number has been disconnected.

Drive past his building at odd hours. See him in the window. Go up, knock. Feet shuffle to the door—sneakers on carpet. Plug the spyhole with your finger so he can't peer through it at you. Tell him you want to come in and talk about it like adults.

He doesn't let you in this time, or the next.

Or the next.

That night on the tidebreak, he got sick from the lobster, retched it up on the rocks. You washed your feet in the bay. Lucky you carried the shoes.

Maybe he still hides an extra key above the door frame.

Stake out the apartment from a café across the street. In the afternoon he goes out. See through your binoculars he's wearing loafers—he must have a gig; otherwise, he'd be in his Reeboks. You'll have time.

You'll need it. The apartment is worse than ever. Did he once clean for you? Root through the mounds in his bedroom, rummage under the bathroom sink. Hours pass. Narrow your search to the kitchen; grow desperate. The cupboards and pantry are jammed; the fridge, reeking.

The drawer under the stove, however, is clean and empty. He must not know it's there. Plan to tell him sometime, perhaps in an anonymous letter.

The freezer. Open it because you're opening everything. A single bag of frozen peas droops on the door. And there, suspended on the single glass shelf: a collection, like bodies laid out on a mortuary slab, five left shoes.

Cherry colored tweed Martinez Valero with peekaboo toes; size ten. Patent leather Anne Klein black-buttoned pump; size six and a half. Custom decoupage ankle-boot made from nineteen thirties newspaper clippings; size eight. Rose lamé Stuart Weitzman halter-heeled sandal; size five. On the end, yours: chartreuse Hesse-Valia sandal, criss-cross ankle strap, size seven and a half. Left shoe.

Hope it hasn't gone through too many defrost cycles.

Take it quickly. Lock the door behind you, return the key, dash down the steps and around the building to the alley.

Stop. Sneak back up to the apartment, into his bedroom. The Sneakers. Vintage nineteen ninety eight Reeboks, size ten and a half. Take the right one. Run.

t home, change your number. Find a new hiding place for the key. Wait.

Kirsten Beachy holds an MFA in Fiction from West Virginia University. Her nonfiction appears in Dreamseeker, and she writes and edits for eightyone in Harrisonburg, VA. Her inspirations are her husband Jason and four backyard chickens.
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PEARL IN A FOUL OYSTER WORLD
By Phylis Warady

"You found it, Kevin?" Doubtful eyes combed the gold stingray bicycle. "Where?"

"At school."

"Take it back right away!"

Kevin squinted up at her from where he rested on his haunches, while he worked to loosen a bolt with his grandfather's wrench. "You've got it all wrong, Mom. Nobody wants it. If they did, they wouldn't have left it laying around the school ground for days."

"You may be right," she conceded. "Just the same, I want you to take it back. Immediately."

"Gee, Mom, do I have to? After all the work I've done?"

"Bikes are expensive, son. It has to belong to someone."

"You think that because it's beginning to look like something. You didn't see it when it was all wrecked out. Seat hanging off. Sissy bars loose. Please, Mom, can't I keep it?"

"The fact remains, it's not your property. Don't you see, taking what

doesn't belong to you is stealing."

"Stealing?" Angry tears squeezed from the corners of large smoke-grey eyes. "But Mom, I didn't steal it. I found it!"

His lips set in a grim, determined line. Everything about her sturdy son struck her as stubborn. Even his hair. It grew in clumps that kept popping up every whichway--no matter how often it was brushed into a smooth line.

"Kevin, you'll have to make an honest effort to find out who that bike belongs to."

Renewed hope flickered in her son's eyes. "You mean if I turn this bike into lost and found and nobody claims it, I get to keep it?"

"If it works out that way, yes."

"Oh boy!" The grin he cast her was the epitome of jaunty exuberance.

Kevin whistled confidently as he wheeled the bike off toward the school. Her heart went out to him. He truly believed the owner of the bike wouldn't claim it. But she knew better.

A few nights later, Kevin sought her out.

"Um," she said, "you smell like soap."

"Course I do. Just took a shower." He frowned. "You know, Mom, I've been thinking."

"About the bike?" It had been reclaimed soon after Kevin turned it in.

"Yes, but about other things, too."

"Oh? What other things?"

"That bathmat beside the tub. The one you took from the motel where we stayed last summer. I've been thinking over what you said the other day, Mom, and I don't think it was such a good idea." Kevin spoke hesitantly, watching her facial expression with trepidation as though he were walking a tightrope and one false step would send him tumbling.

"What I mean is, in a way, it's like me taking the bike."

Stunned, she stared at her son fresh and clean, his stubborn mop of hair still damp from his shower. She choked back a startled laugh.

He's only a kid. How dare he presume to judge her? His mother. Everyone collected souvenirs, didn't they? In all likelihood the motel hadn't missed the bathmat. Or if they had, they'd deducted it from their income taxes.

A searing light pierced her flabby defense. Did she consider herself an exception to the values she was trying to instill in Kevin?

"I'll bet," he continued, in a tone of kindly understanding, "you never thought taking that bathmat was stealing, did you, Mom? Just like I didn't think bringing home a wrecked-out bike was either."

Because he took such infinite care not to hurt her anymore than

necessary for her own good, she forgave the trace of triumph in her small son's voice.

"You're right," she admitted, once she had managed to swallow a painful obstruction at the base of her throat. "I should never have taken that bathmat. It wasn't my property. Guess I talked myself into it like you did that bike."

Kevin's face reflected profound relief, as though at last he had it all

sorted out. "That's what I thought, Mom."

She reached down and gave him a quick hug, acutely conscious that the day would soon come when Kevin would feel too grownup to allow it.
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Phylis Warady’s recent short stories have been published by 1st Northwoods Anthology; Dan River Anthology; Penumbra (CSU, Stanislaus); Tickled by Thunder; 7 hills Review; Northwoods Journal, and Grandmother Earth Xll. She has also published five Traditional Regencies.

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REGRETS
By Elizabeth Elliot

In all his 39 years, Jonas had never been this cold. He’d been caught out in bad storms before but this was a doozy. Walking back from feeding the cows, he’d lost sight of the house. It couldn’t be more than a dozen yards, but icy snow blinded him, made it impossible to see. Freezing chunks of snow clung to his pants, weighing him down, making it hard to breathe. The cold pierced him, cutting through muscle and bone. Ice pellets pricked and stung his eyes.

“God, don’t cry about it, “ his father would say. “What the hell, a little bit of snow and you start crying. Jesus. If I had a nickel for every time I got caught short in a blizzard.”

His father had been dead for 10 years now. Lucky bastard wasn’t out doing chores in the middle of January. Jonas shivered. Wind shoved him from behind, tore icy holes through his back.

“Must get to the house,” he muttered. “Must get to the house.”

What in Sam Hill was he doing here anyway? Shoulda sold this place years ago. Hell, he shoulda run away to California when he had his chance. He thought for the millionth time of a girl named Ruby, remembered her smell like fresh cinnamon and flowers. Her curly red hair tangled in his fingers when he kissed her.

“Come to California, with me,” she’d begged. “We’ll find a house with palm trees and a pool. We’ll never have to see snow again.”

But no, he was afraid of making a mistake, of looking foolish. Damned idiot.

18 years of busting his hump. For what?

He could see his house in California in perfect architectural detail. He knew where the windows were for each of the five bedrooms, could feel the warmth of the flagstones lining the pool. He saw his beautiful blond daughter who, when he presented her with a convertible on her 16th birthday, hugged him and said, “Oh, Daddy, you’re the best.”

He’d have his own convertible too. Red with custom wheels. He saw himself in sunglasses, talking on his car phone as he cruised to work.

Every night he’d crawl into warm sheets and make love to Ruby, her hair spilling over his chest, her creamy skin dotted with freckles.

Damn, it was cold. He must have made some progress now, but he still couldn’t see anything.

Maybe he was lost, wandering in circles, or even headed back towards the barn. He couldn’t see his own boots as he stumbled on.

Suddenly, miraculously Jonas began to warm. He still couldn’t see anything, but the cold was easing and a hot exhaustion worked its way through his toes and fingertips to his arms and legs then his heart and cheeks. He was alarmed. Was he having a heart attack? They’d find his body frozen after the storm. Have to wait until spring to bury him now.

He heard voices, thank god! He must be close to the house! Relief poured through him and he broke into a sweat. He’d be ok now.

“Joe, sit up. C’mon I brought you some toast and coffee. Wake up.” The woman’s voice was irritable.

Dazed, Jonas moved his hands and felt the heavy, wet sheets around him. “I’m not going to die,” he whispered.

“Die? I hardly think so. You had a little fever and it’s blasted cold in here.” He heard the woman strike a lighter and suck in on a cigarette.

“Damned landlord won’t fix the furnace. Doesn’t answer his phone. I guess it doesn’t help that we haven’t paid December’s rent yet.”

She sucked in on the cigarette again. “Listen, Joe, when you’re feeling better you gotta get out and look for another job. Ok? LA hasn’t gotten any cheaper, you know? Even this rat hole costs too much.

“By the way, your ex called. Said to tell you your son got kicked out of school and she hopes you’re happy. Not that I think it’s your fault. Whattya gonna do with kids? I mean, look at my little angels…”

The voice went on but Jonas had drifted far away. He was walking in a wheat field on a warm summer night. He saw the full, harvest moon and inhaled the dry, earth scent of a girl named Maggie. “Stay here with me,” she’d begged.

But he was stubborn. Had to run off to the big city.
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Liz Elliott lives outside of Seattle with her husband and teenage daughter. She is currently tending her garden as well as working on her first novel and a collection of short stories.

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SIDE SALADS
By Elaine St. Anne

It was Ellen’s turn for bridge. The Queen of Hearts bridge group required every member to host the club at least once a year. Tomorrow was Ellen’s turn.

She had tried to weasel out of it. “Can anyone take my turn at Bridge? I need to: get ready for the wedding, go out of town, paint the dining room?”

Each excuse worked-once. Now, she was out of excuses, out of time, out on a limb. 

“It really is no big deal,” Laura Anne told her. “You don’t even fix lunch. We all bring a sandwich. You serve coffee, soft drinks. Oh, and you need side salads. You know to go with the sandwiches.”

Ah, the side salads. They got you on the side salads. Of course, the house had to be spotless. You needed to use the best china and crystal. You needed to HAVEthe best china and crystal. Your decorating, or lack there of, was noted. But the side salads made or broke you.

The side salad war started small. Laura Ann began by picking up an unusual relish at the Kudzu Bakery in Georgetown. Marilyn escalated by finding a superb vegetable salad at the Tyme Out Deli on Front Street. Barbara traveled to Charleston to find a Moroccan rice dish. Where was there left to go?

Sandra moved to a new level by preparing a special curried potato salad. Kathy used her own homegrown vegetables in a marinated tomato and green pepper salad. Patty’s son, who was a chef at Frank’s, prepared something that didn’t even have a name yet. There was nowhere left to go.

Ellen stood like a stature in the aisle of the Food Lion, her hand griping the handle of the empty cart. None of the ladies ever visited Food Lion. They went to Harris Teeter or even drove the hour to Charleston. There, armed with a cooler, they harvested the very best that Papa John’s Gourmet Food Provider offered.

The display of limp vegetables and unripe fruit didn’t beckon. The frozen food case offered no hope. The refrigerated dairy section stood barren. Time was running out. Bridge day loomed ahead, yet she found nothing exotic, nothing rare.

Her own kitchen contained little that would surprise or tantalize.  As a vegetarian, she prepared simple, wholesome meals. She used good bean coffee and liked fresh fruits and vegetables. 

Ellen felt defeated as she drove home. Bags of snacks and goodies filled the back seat. There was plenty of ice, plenty of soft drinks, plenty of everything, but no side salads.

At home, she unloaded her spoils and sighed with resignation. She took a glass of wine out on the terrace, put her feet up and surveyed the pond behind the house. The sky was so crystal blue that it almost hurt her eyes. A white Egret stood quietly in the reeds at the water’s edge. He came every day and stood patiently waiting to spear his dinner. He harbored no thoughts of variety or elegance. His diet was truly simple: fish for breakfast, fish for lunch, fish for dinner. His main concern was to get fish.

Ellen decided that she could withdraw from the side salad competition. She would put out the things she usually ate: the firm ripe cheddar, the tangy pickles, the buttery crackers, the things she always kept in her kitchen. She lifted her glass in a silent toast of gratitude to the big white bird.
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Elaine St. Anne lives in Charlotte, NC. with her little dog, Maggie. She writes travel articles, personal histories, essays and stories. Her work has appeared in Today’s Charlotte Woman , The Charlotte Observer, and other publications.
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RED AND THE BLUE ROOM
By Linda R. Cook

Straight up two o’clock and the thermometer pulsed steady at 90 for the third day in a row. August 1955 was heading for a record breaker, and the sweat trickling between my breasts and soaking my bra was testimony to that. From my shady spot on the porch I looked left and watched the logging trucks as they geared down, crawling off the mountain like giant colored caterpillars. Air brakes hissed and the stench of scorched rubber mingled with diesel fumes. Billows of black exhaust shimmered in the heat waves. To my right, I saw the front of the General Store, Slim’s Café, and the door to the Blue Room.

I hadn’t seen Red since breakfast.

The loggers and mill hands knocked off work early on Saturdays. Frank and Tony’s trucks were pulling in next to the store. Rudy’s big black diesel rig was parked right in front of the Blue Room. Rudy didn’t let much interfere with his Saturday beer. Some things never changed. Howls of laughter mixed with the honky-tonk music blaring from the Juke Box. My toes tapped the beat to Hank William’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”

Rudy, Frank, and Tony were diehard Blue Room regulars. Everyone knew to walk on past the first three bar stools. I’d seen more than one foolish fellow learn that the hard way. Jimbo, the bartender, started pouring Lucky Lager’s and Hamm’s for that trio as soon as they cleared the door.

Loggers were hardworking men. Nothing wrong with them stopping off now and then to grab a cold beer before heading home. If I’d been wading knee deep in dust and falling timber in boiling temperatures, I’d have lined up for beer too. The boys deserved a chance to unwind and toss back a cool one. What I didn’t like was when they dragged Red into the Blue Room. No matter how many times I’d told Red to stay home, he’d sneak out soon as my back was turned. Rudy got a kick out of knowing Red was hanging out at the Blue Room with him instead of me.

The truth of it was, Red could sniff out a free drink without any help from Rudy, Frank, or Tony. If they weren’t around, someone else would set him up. He’d manage to brown-nose his way in no matter who was there. He was smart that way.

I fell in love with Red right off. He was friendly, chocolate brown eyes, and silky red hair. I was a sucker for red heads. Red was easy to please. He’d eat anything I set in front of him and he cleaned up pretty good. He never caused me trouble until he got a belly full of beer. Then, he’d stagger toward home and get sidetracked by any female around, especially one of those bitches that hung around Slim’s. He’d forget all about where home was, much less his loyalty to me, until the next morning. He’d slip in and give me his sheepish hangdog look. Next thing you know, he’d be trying to butter me up, nuzzling, and squeezing in real close.

Today, Red was drunk again.

I could see his gleaming red hair as he wobbled up the road. I watched him take a step or two, stop, shake his head as if to clear his beer-soaked brain, and then totter and stumble again, searching for home.

I thought I’d figured out the path to happiness when I divorced that drunkard husband, Rudy. All I wanted was a safe, faithful, and sober companion. I was sure I’d struck gold when I hooked up with Red. Someone should have warned me dogs could develop a taste for beer.

I’ve learned to put up with Red’s cheating and beer-drinking ways and so far, we’ve stuck it out for nine years. I’m not about to divorce my Irish setter. In spite of his faults, he keeps the other side of the bed toasty warm in winter and never hogs the covers. And now? I won’t hear a snarl or a growl out of him when I march him to the river for a thorough dousing to sober him up.

It’ll do us both good to cool off.
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Linda R. Cook lives and writes from Redwood Country in California. Her work has been recognized by Byline, LSS, and ALIVE! A Magazine for Vibrant Christians. Her husband, sons, and a writer’s group have provided inspiration, encouragement, and support.
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LUCKY
By Robin Ringler

When Rose and John arrived at Carrie's house, five out of the seven children were there. The kitchen was decorated with streamers and balloons. A birthday cake sat in the middle of the table. It said, "Happy Birthday Grandma." Two number candles--seven and five--stood up from the cake.

Carrie handed her mother an envelope containing a handmade card, signed by all the kids, and five scratch-offs. After Rose and Carrie scrounged coins out of their pocketbooks, the children set about scratching off the circles. When Janie's ticket lost, she let out a soft groan.

At almost the same moment, Tommy shrieked, "Grandma, you won!"

"Oh my Gosh, Ma--$500 dollars!"

"Oh my Gosh, oh my Gosh, oh my Gosh!" The children and Carrie and Sam and Rose and John all screamed and laughed.

Rose collected her winnings at the Seven-Eleven the next day, then took them all out for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She gave the rest of the money to Carrie for the kids.

During the drive home, John stopped at Mobil for gas.

"I'm going to the ladies' room," said Rose.

Instead, she went to the cash register and purchased more scratch-offs. Then, she went to the ladies' room to see if she won.

The next morning, she went out to buy milk. She also bought three more scratch-offs that didn't win. That afternoon, she told John she was going out to buy magazines. She bought five more scratch-offs and, this time, added two Lotto tickets.

By the end of the week, she was playing seven different types of lottery, often using combinations of her grandchildren's birthdays. Later, she added the projected birthday of the great-grandchild on the way.

The following month, John gave her $2,143 in cash to pay their real estate taxes. On the way to the tax collector's office, she stopped at Quick Check and spent it all on lottery tickets.

That August, a distant cousin called Carrie to tell her he had seen a notice in the local upstate newspaper. Carrie's parents were facing foreclosure on their home for failure to pay taxes. Carrie insisted that her husband Sam pay her parents' debts.

"But, Sarah's tuition is due," he said.

"But, my parents will be out on the street," she said.

Sam paid his in-laws' taxes but, after that, whenever he worked weekends or overtime, he felt resentful. Was he working his ass off to pay for his mother-in-law's lottery habit or his kids' tuition? How the hell was he supposed to put anything away for retirement?

By January, the IRS had attached part of John and Rose's social security check. Rose and John began to argue. Carrie and Sam argued, too. This year, on Rose's birthday, Sam stayed away working overtime. Carrie and the kids did not tack up streamers or balloons. They sang "Happy Birthday," then retreated to the couch to watch the television--which was hard to hear because of Rose's new personality.

Rose talked constantly--a fast, attention-commanding banter that never ceased--while John sat in the corner, stone-faced, an occasional tear drifting from his eye. During visits, Carrie became exhausted and couldn't wait for her parents to leave. But, her house was no longer peaceful, even when her parents were gone.

One day, Sam exploded over the restaurant charges on the credit card bill.

Carrie tried to explain it was a tradition to take co-workers out to lunch on their birthdays--that the girls had done it for her just weeks earlier.

"You can't control your spending," Sam said. "You are just like your mother."

For the first time in their 24-year marriage, Carrie pulled out a suitcase and packed.

She drove an hour to Rose and John's house. On the lawn sat a sign she had never seen before. Her throat constricted as her brain registered its meaning. In the left-hand corner was a picture of a tanned man with an open collar, smiling with teeth that were too white. Underneath him, was the name of a real estate agency.

The sign in front of her childhood home said, "HOUSE FOR SALE."
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Robyn Ringler has published articles in the Albany Times Union, Newark Star-Ledger, and Nursing Spectrum and she contributes essays to Northeast Public Radio. In 2005, her "Letter to Al Pacino" was published in Women's Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present. ++++

 

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THE MORNING AFTER
By Marilyn Lott

The woman stirred in slumber and slowly awakened to unfamiliar surroundings, breathing in the musty, dirty smell of a motel room. The pungent odor of disinfectant burned her nostrils.

The dead weight of a heavy arm was flung across her stomach. A man’s arm. She turned her aching head and looked at the young, possibly twenty-five year old stranger who lies beside her. His face, covered with a day old growth of beard, was handsome, almost innocent in repose.

She felt panic rise as she disengaged the masculine arm from her naked body and sat trembling on the edge of the bed. Reaching to the dirty carpet, she pulled on a tight pair of blue jeans that were lying in a heap then standing to slip them over her weakened legs. A pullover shirt was also nearby which she slipped over her head, the effort nearly sapped what little strength she had.

Her reluctant gaze took in the faded bedspread and drapes of a beige color and the peeling green walls, as she tried desperately to rearrange the previous night in her mind. Who was he and where had they met? Vaguely, a flash of memory reacquainted her with the night before. A tavern . . . a man holding her tightly, their bodies swaying to sensuous Country Western music.

As the woman walked unsteadily into the small, spatter-stained bathroom, her stomach churned sickly. Barely making it to the old-fashioned, chipped porcelain sink, she retched until there was nothing left in her stomach to lose. Her eyes were wet and her throat sore from the bitter bile. The odor churned her stomach again, but she ran cold water and splashed her face, forcing herself to bring her body under control.

Looking sickly at the grubby towel hanging on a peeling silver rod, she went back into the bedroom for her handbag. Inside she found a small packet of Kleenex tissue to dry her face and hands.

The contents of her bag brought back another place . . . another lifetime. She fumbled for her wallet, relieved to find money still in tact. She wasn’t always so lucky. A picture of a handsome man and two beautiful girls with long flowing blond hair smiled back at her from their plastic pocket. They had nothing to do with this . . . her gaze swept around the room . . . this filth, this ugliness. Oh, dear God, what was she doing here? But she already knew the answer.

While shoving the wallet back into her bag, something fell out and as she bent to pick it up, a pain tore viciously through her head. A card. It was an appointment card with the orthodontist for next week. These were bits and pieces of a sane world, a world completely apart from now. Her rational mind sorted out and painfully separated the two as she desperately clung to those bits of sanity like a drowning person clings to a fragile tree branch.

She pulled out a comb and lipstick and took them back into the grimy bathroom, reluctantly looking into the mirror at the thirty-five year old face that looked, at this moment, at least ten years older. After making herself as presentable as possible, she grabbed her bag, and without a backward glance, left the motel room, her eyes squinting painfully at the unaccustomed sunlight.

She walked until coming to a phone booth. With shaky hands she found a number in the phone book, dropped in a quarter and waited. Her fingers were white from gripping the receiver so tightly and her face was wet with tears.

A pleasant male voice at the other end replied, “Hello.”

The woman closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Hello,” she replied softly, “My name is Rebecca.” There was a long pause, but the person at the other end waited patiently for her to continue. “I . . ... I think I have a drinking problem.”
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Marilyn Lott has written many novels and short stories and writes poetry for John McCornack’s web pages. She lives in Chehalis, Washington with her husband, Randy. They enjoy traveling around our beautiful country. ++++

 

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