Many thanks to the 450 international writers who entered this contest—and we extend our deepest gratitude to Judge Abigail Favale for offering her time and expertise to choose the top three prizewinners.
First Prize: Erin O’Loughlin, Brother Fox
Second Prize: Susan James, Home for the Holidays
Third Prize: Anne Anthony, Bathroom Break
Judge: Dr. Abigail Favale
FIRST PRIZE: Brother Fox by Erin O’Loughlin
Judge’s Comments: This piece does everything a flash fiction piece should do. A benign yet beguiling beginning, zooming out to reveal a potential tragedy unfolding in real time. I read it with a slow-dawning dread that climaxes at just the right moment, the moment of the “flash.”
By Erin O’Loughlin
Imagine the fox, the only spark of color in this bright landscape. All that endless powder white, broken only by a flash of red—there—then gone again. There is more life than you know, under all these layers and layers of snow.
Imagine how he cocks his head listening (the skill is not unique to the male of the species—vixens do it also). You can see he is straining his senses, listening for the soft scrabble under the snow. Then, ears high in the air, he dives headfirst into the snow, body flailing awkwardly as the front paws find purchase under all that cold white. And he will come back up with a limp little mouse in his jaws. So far this might be an acute sense of hearing, an expert dancer’s timing. But the strange thing is that nine times out of ten, a fox that dives to the north will catch his prey. A fox that leaps and dives to the south will lose it. Somehow a fox’s body is aligned to the magnetic north. In tune with it. If his quarry lies that way, the hunt will be good. An innate geo-location, gift of the wintry gods that govern small creatures.
The flash of red is gone. I wonder if the hunt was good today.
Behind me, my skis lie where they clicked off as I free-fell. There is no landmark I recognize, the avalanche has obscured everything—every tree, trail marker and trace of slope grooming. It has enveloped this familiar mountainside in white death, and left me alone, not knowing if she has been carried further down the mountain, or if, like me, she was rushed and tumbled just this far. I cannot know if she pulled her cord and activated the safety airbags that might keep her near the surface, or if she is buried deep.
I know I have only minutes. I must hope for a movement, a glimpse of her rucksack, or that red jacket she was wearing. I turn to face north.
Help me, brother fox. Help me to dive true.
SECOND PRIZE: Home for the Holidays by Susan James
Judge’s Comments: This story is meticulously crafted, weaving between the time after and the time before, working around the terrible event itself in a slow-burning, compelling way. This compact narrative does much in few words, opening the life and love of the main character and spilling it onto the page, capturing and evoking her emotional devastation.
Home for the Holidays
By Susan James
Amber shouldn’t have been on that flight.
‘Mum,’ she’d said, switching between snowy Manhattan sidewalks, ‘I’m on standby. If I can, I’ll be home tomorrow night.’
A miracle: to have had my youngest here for the holidays, seated around the dining room table, for the first time in three years.
‘Darling,’ I’d replied, ‘do whatever you can to get here.’
Do whatever you can to get here. Those were the last words I’d said to her.
There are only thirty-seven of us so far, but it was a full flight. The conference room on the ninth floor of the Wings Hotel has been laid out with three rows of chairs. The spares are stacked next to the water cooler. We sit separately from one another. The airline liaison is a gold-braceleted waif with a boyish haircut and pencilled eyebrows. The list with Amber’s name on is saved to a tablet between her elbow and baggy blouse.
Ours is a cruel view from the window: Terminal 1 Arrivals. Where the safely-returned and the patiently-waiting sip warm milk froth from coloured paper cups. We watch them. The thirty-seven with wide and wet eyes.
I imagine my daughter in the airport that morning, tapping the corner of her passport against the check-in counter, watching the clock.
‘I’m going home for the holidays.’ She’d have told them.
The press conference is at three, and two men from the lobby wheel in a large television on a push-along table. I watch them, and it unfurls a memory from my childhood. One I hadn’t thought of in a very long time, and I indulge it.
When the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, I was in middle-school and cross-legged in a tight row of my classmates. Our teacher rolled in a large television on thick black castors. We struggled to dial down our excitement. Our school projects were at our knees, and we counted backwards to the voice of mission control, applauded the curl of rocket smoke that blew into a bloom, and we cheered the anguished cry of engineering as the shuttle broke free and flew. We were all smiling when the shuttle arched backwards when the telecaster became anxious, afraid. How could we have known what we were seeing; we watched them die. The screen had blinked into a starless square. The teacher’s hand had been shaking. There was no more talk of space. We celebrated the solid earth beneath us. We painted meadows and mountains. The paper mache bulbs that had hung from the classroom ceiling on cotton threads disappeared. The astronauts knew the risks, but they didn’t know they were going to die. Amber knew the risks, too, but she was coming home for the holidays.
Brace! Brace! Brace! I imagine her with her forehead to her knees, her hands around her ankles. My youngest in the dark and in the fire and in those moments thinking of me.
And ‘Darling,’ I’d said to her, ‘do whatever you can to get here.’
THIRD PRIZE: Bathroom Break by Anne Anthony
Judge’s Comments: Like the second-place winner, this piece digs into the emotional and psychological repercussions of a violent event, and its power lies in the eery blend of the mundane with the horrific. The controlled storytelling and the ordinariness of the setting and heroine all lead to a haunting ending that echoes past the final line.
By Anne Anthony
Conversations drop off when I show up for meetings. The room grows quiet, and everyone’s attention shifts to their cell phones. In the aftermath, I choose a seat where my back’s to the wall. Billie Thomas routinely breaks the silence. Asks the same question like it’s been scripted.
“How’s it going, Sally?”
She’s Mr. Johnson’s admin and practically runs the place. I answer the same thing every time.
“Doing better. Thanks for asking.”
My neck healed months ago. I cover the thick scar with heavy makeup. This morning I felt lazy, so I went without. No one ever looks straight on, averting their eyes to the pin on my blouse or the pearl necklace my mother gave me before she died. I count the days until winter when turtlenecks come back in season.
Saul picked the first day of spring for his freak-out, attacking his boss with a switchblade in hand. I left the bathroom—my mid-morning stop—and walked between those two as Saul swiped his blade toward Mr. Johnson. I felt funny at first like I was underwater and unable to breathe. And it’s true, what they say, about traumatic events almost seeming like they happen in slow motion. The security guard knocked Saul off his feet; Mr. Johnson ran down the hall to his office, and Billie screamed to call 911 though I wasn’t sure why. When I released my hand from my throat, I felt the rush of blood. Some part of me watched its flow down my chest, down my skirt, and finally its splatter across the beige carpet at my feet. The pooling spread to the wall which I believe I fell against, but that’s as much as I remember.
I’d later learn Mr. Johnson had turned Saul down for a raise the day before. Poor man got behind in his bills after his wife lost her job. They couldn’t cover the mortgage on his salary alone. The eviction notice arrived the morning after he asked for more money and pushed Saul in a direction no one really wants to go. The attorney explained these details before I signed the waiver to hold the company harmless.
But I knew nothing of Saul’s story on the morning it happened. I kept to myself, and followed my routine.
8:30—Grab a coffee and head to my cube.
10:25—Get another cup of coffee and a cookie to tide me over until noon.
I didn’t schedule for the slitting of my throat. Never part of my plan.
Now, in the aftermath, I have no routine. I stay in my office except for meetings. I don’t drink coffee for fear I might need to pee. I bring lunch from home, the same thing every day: peanut butter and jelly on wheat bread. Something which doesn’t need refrigeration. I like to stay away from the office kitchen and all those knives.
You know, I suppose, I do have a routine. In the aftermath.
By Eileen Herbert-Goodall
The man sits alone, nursing a drink, eyes shut against the night. Far below, the inner-city street crawls with vehicles. The blast of a horn disturbs the muted rumble of traffic and he realises it’s time. Placing down his glass, the man reaches for the phone and dials home, even though he suspects his wife will be sleeping. Several elongated beeps travel down his ear canal before she answers.
‘It’s me,’ he says.
‘Jack? Is everything okay?’
He stares through the window of his hotel room; on the other side of the street, a pulsating neon sign commiserates with the darkness. For reasons he can’t pinpoint, the sight stitches a strand of sadness through his insides. ‘I need to tell you something.’
‘What is it?’
He takes a sip of whiskey. ‘I’m not coming home.’
The words hang between them, reverberating in the quiet.
‘I don’t understand—what do you mean?’
His wife’s voice hums with constraint. She has always strived to remain in control; even her efforts to conceive a child entailed a string of calculations incorporating the finest details, including her suspected time of ovulation and basal body temperature, so that their sex life had lost all spontaneity. Yet she had failed to fall pregnant—an outcome for which the man is secretly thankful.
‘We’re through, Louise.’
‘It’s over.’ He places the receiver in its cradle, leans back in his chair and allows the magnitude of the moment to sink in; it isn’t as liberating as he expected and delivers only a pint-sized measure of relief countered by the unmistakable ballast of guilt.
Finishing his drink, he closes his eyes once more. Outside, the neon sign continues to pulsate while, deep within the man’s brain, electrical charges leap across his neurons. This strange combination of stimuli contrive to remind him that he remains tethered to the world, anchored by the weight of corporeal existence and all its terrible truths.
Far above the hotel, in the deep recesses of space, stars track their way through the infinite loop of time, hurtling towards self-destruction. Compared with these blazing balls of gas, the man is no more than a miniscule speck of stardust. Yet, fastened to the centre of his private universe, he remains convinced of two things: his choices matter; and he is the master of his destiny.
But, if the stars were capable of cognisance, they would surely label his beliefs as folly.
Lucky Bunny Feet
By Claire Lawrence
Momma Bunny grazes in the spelt. Her long ears pick up the faint cries of her babies, and the ghastly death yelps of wolves. Cautiously, she returns to her burrow under the dilapidated barn, now ablaze.
With his strong hind legs, Baby Bunny has pushed and squirmed his way to the top of the nest. Momma grabs him by the scruff and carries her sweet babe to a grassy hillock, and drops him. “I’ll be back,” she says. She never comes back.
Lost, Baby Bunny bounds forward and falls down an embankment, landing uninjured in a pile of wolf scat. Momma Wolf, having given birth to her pups just a few days before, emerges from her den and smells the fire. She must move her pups.
Baby Bunny squeaks. Momma Wolf looks down and licks him.
“What are you doing out here, Sweetness?”
Momma Wolf picks up Baby Bunny and moves him and the pups to safety.
Momma Wolf has been hunting for five days, running her rout of cubs, and is exhausted. Their long shadows patch the vast green of the prairie with monstrous greys.
“Keep your ears and noses open,” she growls. Had her pack survived the fire, she could have left her brood in the common nursery.
“I can’t run anymore,” a small voice whines.
Momma stops. Through narrowed eyes, she observes this cub again, this one who is starting to smell different.
“Very well,” she says. “We’ll break until the moon rises.”
Two cubs nose for milk. Momma snaps them away.
Her smallest seems content. It hops towards a patch of Prairie Brome and nibbles at the stems.
“Sweetness, dear,” she calls to this odd whelp.
“Your brothers and sisters are hungry.”
“You should be. Run!”
Baby Bunny crouches in a hutch at the back of Grand-maman’s kitchen. He licks his injured leg.
The little girl who found him is making a bouquet garni. She chokeholds the herbs, then stuffs them into a cheesecloth. A bottle of Chablis is opened and a healthy cup emptied into simmering broth. Baby Bunny watches the seasonings being dropped into the pot.
“Do you want to stay or feed the rabbits?” asks Grand-maman.
Baby Bunny pushes his nose against the chicken wire. He hears a squeak, a scratch, and a chop. A basket fills with bloody appendages and limp ears.
He hides behind a bucket but peeks around just in time to see Grand-maman peel the fur and sluice the belly innards into a slop pail. He wiggles his nose when Grand-maman slides her hand into the furry tube and salts it.
The girl approaches the hutch and picks up Baby Bunny.
“If we win the lottery, I can set you free.”
The harsh winter is over. Grand-maman squeals at her winning ticket. She kisses a pair of lucky bunny feet and hangs them from the mirror of her car.
Aftermath: A Short Story of the Sixties
By Paul Benjamin
The tail-end of 1966 finds an exclusive gathering in full swing at a contemporary art gallery in the heart of fashionable London; the opening of an exhibition attracts a sophisticated, well-dressed, well-heeled crowd. The gallery owner has the pleasure of greeting the ubiquitous edgy photographer, the experimental psychologist (with his phenomenological perspective), Miss Amanda Jones, actress, model and socialite, the dilettante manager of a hell-raising, rabble-rousing rock group, its lead singer and bass player, a member of the World Cup-winning squad (who watched from the bench that July afternoon), the critic and of course the artist. In retrospect, this represents an unprecedented melting pot of social mobility—new wealth and old privilege mixing, the (en-)titled and the working-class mingling over canapés and cocktails. The soundtrack sees Miss Jones spinning the grooviest discs of the day: Blonde on Blonde, Revolver, Aftermath, Ascension, Pet Sounds, the newly-released A Quick One, as the urbane audience discuss art, literature, drugs, Derrida, Rosencrantz and Guilderstern. Different times and heady days, indeed.
At the close of 2016, a baneful year which saw the passing of the arthritic ex-footballer, aged gallery owner and dissipated critic, Mrs Amanda Jacobs (neé Jones) was moved to write a brief memoir in her dotage, entitled Aftermath: or, 50 years since, bridging the distance of half a century from her retirement in suburban comfort, wistfully recalling walk-on parts in Alfie and Blow-Up. Its pages survey the same old wealth and privilege, the ever-widening class divide and chart the fate of those erstwhile scourges of the Establishment, photographer and singer (while drawing a discreet veil over their brief flings) – now knighted, prone to preaching from behind the gates of their mansions. She dryly notes that the rest of the rock group are multi-millionaires, resident in tax havens from Monaco to Mauritius, except for the unfortunate bass player who succumbed to an overdose beside his pool way back in the barbiturate haze of the mid-70s, not long after the psychologist’s suicide – for hers is also a misty-eyed memorial to those fallen on hard times, lost and gone or left by the wayside.
Chief among those casualties was the artist, embittered and impoverished, his fifteen minutes of fame soon expired, an historical footnote whose work had long since ceased to sell in the ever-fickle art world; he had spent the subsequent decades fighting a losing battle against a variety of addictions, financial worries and psychological disorders, now living in obscurity, utterly defeated and unable to escape the past. The rock group’s manager was shortly deposed and down on his luck—ousted before the 60s were even out, in favour of an American with a hard-nosed approach to contractual negotiations – embroiled in his own ongoing struggles with alcoholism, anxiety and depression, obliged to pick up his pen and plug his autobiography, sharing the same anecdotes over and over again at promotional events, reduced to trading on former glories; no wonder the (wo-)man who says these are different times is always regarded as prophet and precursor.
By Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel
“Gold is bad luck,” my Tunxis grandmother always said.
Native Americans are notoriously nebulous.
In junior high, I learned about the golden Aztec Empire. “Was our tribe afraid of them?” I asked grandma. “Is that why you say gold is bad luck?”
Grandma grinned at my remembering her lesson. “Somewhat,” she said.
When my high school chemistry teacher taught us about PCB-11 and yellow dye #6 the toxic chemicals used to create yellow-gold for everything from pajamas to paper dolls, I figured I’d scored. Grandma was a nurse, a scientist. I showed her my findings on the dyes.
“This is why gold is bad luck, right?” I asked.
“Gold paint and dye can be toxic. But gold, itself, is antibiotic,” she explained.
My junior year at Cornell, I travelled to China and learned about the golden dragon symbol for Chinese power. I knew grandma grew up during the Cold War, when Chinese communism was considered evil.
I confronted her, when I came home for Christmas. “Your generation thinks everything Chinese is communist. That’s why you hate gold.”
“At least you understand that there’s a political angle,” she smirked.
After graduation, grandma and I watched a documentary about gold star mothers. Losing a kid in war is the worst kind of bad luck. I figured that I finally understood.
“This movie shows why gold is considered bad luck,” I sobbed.
“War, politics, and poison all feed the superstition,” she said. “But there are levels of bad luck.”
During my graduate work in architecture at Columbia University in New York City, I became fascinated with the work of Swanke Hayden Connell Architects, who famously designed Trump Tower.
I shared my interest with grandma, and she said. “How can you like that garish gold monstrosity?”
“I get that you don’t like the design. But how is it bad luck?” I asked.
“Maybe you should read your New York Times, more carefully. The architect who designed Trump Tower went out of business because some Russian client refused to pay.”
Bad luck, indeed.
After earning my architecture degree in June of 2016, I joined a New York City firm and saw grandma a lot less. I was excited to reconnect at Thanksgiving.
I entered my house in Connecticut and found everyone yapping about the Standing Rock Sioux’s efforts to stop the Dakota Access pipeline. My brother just returned from there.
“Hey sis,” he broke away from kissing some mystery woman. “This is Paula. She’s Lakota. Man, does she have some tales about ole Yellow Hair.”
“Yellow hair?” I ask.
Paula winks at me. “That’s what we call Custer,” she explains.
“Her people may be known as peaceful water protectors now, but they sure whipped that golden boy,” my brother squeezes her.
I eyeball grandma, mockingly. “So gold was good luck for the Natives who defeated Custer.”
Grandma snaps, “Gold is always bad luck! War, poison, power, politics, greed. You’ll all understand much better after January twentieth!”
OF AN AFTERMATH
By Raji Ayodele
And if – she thought – moving towards the church entrance; if he should say he’s fed up, then it’s all good. It’s all good, because he’s just a boy, no different than the rest.
And it’s not even so hard a lesson to learn, she thought, in this world, this era; this century. It’s not so hard a lesson to learn, it’s everywhere; writers write about it, poets too, movies show it all the time, and the musicians – they won’t stop talking about it: boys are trash; love lasts only as long as it’s new.
But forget all that, she knows. It was osmotic how she learnt it, she couldn’t say from this definite source, or from that. But she knows, that capriciousness is an inexorable human attribute, and what’s more? it even has its own charm.
One should praise a human-being that transcends mere humanity, but one should not chastise the one who doesn’t (Lord knows humanity has its own perks).
So when he took her to his mother’s grave, beneath the palm tree at Molete, and he said Look, look, this is what my father did, I’ll never do the same, she thought he transcended the capriciousness of his age and race.
But if she should open the door, and see him, head bent and eyes ominous, and he should pause for a while, and say he’s fed up – it’s still all good.
It’s all good, she concluded, because she has the knowledge, that if one suspects a fellow human-being of transcendence, but at last finds out he/she isn’t, one shouldn’t even chastise; in fact if anyone should be chastised it is oneself. No one owes anyone transcendence, and if, at any rate, there’s a debt in life, then it is the one one owes to oneself, of knowledge of humanity, and the perks of having it.
And she has learnt – she doesn’t know where – but she has learnt that boys must be boys; even those who take you to their mother’s grave and say: Look, look, this is what my father did, I won’t do the same. And what if he really wouldn’t? after all we’re not the sum of what our fathers did.
And then immediately one loses one’s words, and thinks: perhaps he transcends the capriciousness of his age and race, he gets on his knees, and brings out the damn thing. Will you marry me?
But if one day she should open the door, and see him, head bent and all, and he should say he’s fed up – it’s all good. For one must live with the aftermath of one’s decisions. And what if we’re the sum of what our fathers did? well at least she understands.
Getting to the church entrance she saw them all inside, her own mother and father, the guests, and him, head bent and all, and it’s all good, she thought, holding her dress by the hem, running towards and from the unknown, it’s all good.
LOST: SIGNIFIER, SIGNIFIED
By Dan Leach
At a hotel outside of Omaha, you, for no reason in particular, remove your wedding ring before getting into a hot-tub, carefully placing it, as if it were a chess-piece, on the slick dimpled concrete, before easing your tired body into the water.
You were driving through St. Louis, hands at ten and two, when she noticed it was gone.
“We can get another one,” you tell her and resist the urge to tell her to stop crying—something you learned about years ago.
“No,” she says. “We can’t.”
“It’s just a piece of metal,” you say. “A symbol.”
And, in an attempt to punctuate this thought, to provide her with a real and tangible evidence of your love, you reach over, grab her hand, and bring it to your lips. You kiss her knuckles and whisper “I will love you until forever” through her fingers. You believe—why wouldn’t you?—that this will be sufficient.
She pulls her hand back and says something you can’t now remember, something along the lines of “I don’t think you understand.”
Back home, several weeks pass before she brings it up again. You are in bed, on a Saturday morning, all limbs and blankets and fingers quiet and intertwined.
“I hate that,” she says, tracing the band of white flesh where your ring used to be.
You pull her on top of you, hold her in your arms, and say “Let’s get a new one. We’ll go today.”
An hour later, you walk out of a shopping mall wearing a small piece of metal that will not leave your body for the next seven years, a titanium ring designed to signify your devotion as long as you both shall live.
You meet her at work and your first time together, she asks you to take it off, says, in fact, that it would feel wrong to keep it on. When you say nothing in response, she takes your finger in her mouth, runs her tongue around the ring, and slides it off without any trouble. She laughs and drags her fingers through your hair.
It is true that she is younger and, in the traditional sense, probably prettier too. But that is not the reason why. For you, the pull was hardly physical. Laughter, conversation, the feeling of being understood if not admired—these were reasons why, such tiny rays of light that, once inside you, flooded certain dim corners of your heart, places you had forgotten all about. Her presence reminds you of the man you once wanted to be, the man, sometimes, you still hope to grow into.
Afterwards, as she presses her ear against your chest and mumbles something about your heartbeat, you play with her hair and stare at the ring on the bedside table. You remember the time in Omaha. Funny, you think and almost shake your head—something big as that, so small and unremarkable, so easily forgotten.
The Domino Effect
By Abha Iyengar
Jake always scoffed at the idea of falling sick. At 50, he was strong and healthy as a horse. Despite being an accountant with a desk job, he did an hour of yoga and an hour of walking everyday. He ate his vitamins, and his calcium and iron tablets. His regular blood tests showed everything was under control.
So when he had the viral attack and had to lie in bed despite his trying to will it otherwise, he couldn’t understand it. The doctor told him that the infection was in the air and it could happen to anyone. He still failed to understand how he, who claimed to be as strong as a horse, could have the infection. “You should be as strong as an ox, next time,” the doctor quipped, a twinkle in his eye. Jake did not enjoy the joke and thought it in bad taste.
His wife Sally, and the twins, hovered around him, asking about his health. He shouted at them, “Leave me alone, I’ll be fine.” So they tiptoed around the house, hushing and shushing each other, thinking he was asleep and resting. He could not sleep for the fever and pain would not let him, despite the medicines he had to take. His agitated mind made things worse.
But as he lay in bed, he slowly began to change. The medicines made him weak, and he did not want to get up from bed anymore. Even when the dosage stopped and he could have pushed himself out of bed, slowly and surely, building his strength up with meat broth and vegetables Sally served him, he found he did not want to.
After the illness, things began to change within him. He no longer wanted to make the effort required to keep himself going or keep himself on top of things. He had begun to enjoy being in bed, being waited upon.
A month later, since he had not recovered, so he said, he took voluntary retirement. Sally worked as a teacher, and they could live on her salary. The children were moved to a public school and eventually, they downsized to a smaller house. He told Sally, “The children will leave the nest, give them a few years, and then this house will be enough for us.” Sally nodded, keeping her thoughts to herself.
Five years later, the twins, aged eighteen, left home, saying a quick goodbye.
That day, Jake was propped up against his pillows, reading a book. He gave his wife a cursory look. “Now you can give me all your attention. Isn’t that great? Some soup, Sally, please.”
She walked in with his soup, and he noticed that she was dressed rather well.
“Haven’t you taken leave from work for today?” he asked, surprised.
“Yes, I have. And I am taking leave from working for you forever. Isn’t that great?” she said, walking out, suitcase in hand, looking as strong and healthy as an ox.
By Serena Molloy
I can see the hockey pitch from my desk, hair and skirts wild in the November wind, small sail boats on an angry ocean. I like sitting at the window, because that way I’m not really here, I’m somewhere else. Somewhere out there, walking along a road, sitting in a car, living a life.
Any sort of life.
Anywhere but here.
Anyone but me.
She’s noticed I’m not listening so I pretend I’m trying to think, chew my pen, roll my eyes a bit, then scribble a line in my foolscap. She’s happy with that and her gaze moves on.
The match outside has started, red bibs and blue bibs flapping in the gale. Mrs Kay moves greyhound-like about the pitch. I know the comments she is making, Can’t you go faster, girl? What’s wrong with your legs, half-pint? You’ll never be your sister, that’s for sure! Not enough to cause complaint. Enough to sting.
Then I feel it, the achy coldness in my belly, below my belly, like a fist of ice squeezing me. Sticky-warm dampness in my pants, a relief – of sorts. I raise my hand and try to keep my face blank, free of lies, free of all I have done
She lets me out.
But it’s worse once I’m in the corridor, and I stop for a moment and hold the wall, or it holds me. I lock the cubicle door, it hurts more now, the fist clawing at me, pulling something away. When I look down, the blood is thick and smeared between my legs. White stained red. I try to wipe it off with toilet paper. It’s hard and cheap. Useless. My pants are soaked. Treacle-blood runs down my leg and settles in a little pool on my grey sock. Something is moving through me. A rod of pain. Instinctively, I sit down. It passes out of my body, a plop into the toilet bowl clogged with paper. I don’t want to look. I think about not looking, just flushing it way. That would be easiest; making it gone, making it never to have been there. But I do look. I have to. The clotted knot sits there, a part of me—apart. I want to pick it up. Do something. It seems wrong, to leave it there, to press the handle. Why couldn’t the paper have been softer? I feel so hot. Unsure. I lift my hand. Bright-blue water swirls and takes it away, leaving the bowl clean, disinfected, as if it had always been that way.
I rinse the blood in the sink, as best I can, and hold the stained cotton to the hand-dryer, praying no one comes in. No one does. The pink dots and silky bow are now an ugly, rusty brown. I put the damp pants back on, with a towel from the machine. I hope that will be enough to soak it up.
‘Was there a queue?’ she asks, as I sit back down.
By Ben Johnston
The buck stood in the tree line, the valley spread out before it. From the tree stand it was a brown, horned smudge. Steve handed Dave a beer; he needed it. The two men sat in silence, rifles draped across their laps, a worn, blue cooler in between them. Dave peered through the spotting scope, removed the beer from his lips and said, “Six pointer.” He sat back and the two men drank their beer in silence.
Steve didn’t say anything about how Dave had gone to surprise Karen at the office and found her bent over the boss’s desk. He didn’t say anything about how when he told the kids, they suddenly stopped talking to him and moved in with Karen. He didn’t mention the fact that Dave smelled like he had been drinking beer well before Steve had picked him up at dawn.
A chilling wind moved all the waist high grass in the valley with a single caress, the tree stand creaking loudly in retaliation to the two men’s combined weight. The tree stood mighty and alone in the middle of this valley; a renegade seedling that had fought its way through the underbrush and meadow grasses to stand 45 feet tall. Stripped of its leaves, it appeared as a skeletal hand breaching the surface of an undulating green sea.
“I lost my job.”
Dave caught Steve by surprise, the words seemed like they had been conjured up in the wind and left in the stand between them.
“I stopped showing up, so they fired me. John said something about ‘needing to get my act together with Karen gone’. Can you believe that? Fifteen years, and they can me for a few PTO days.”
Steve’s mouth reflexively bent into a sour frown. His teeth were clenched behind his sagging lips; it took everything not to shake Dave by his shoulders like a lost sailor pulled blue-limbed from the sea after a wreck. How could Dave have not seen any of this coming? He barely spent any time with Karen and the kids; he had always been a jerk off at his job, and still he was somehow always surprised when things blew up in his face. Shit, Steve had had to turn down obvious advances from Karen on one too many occasions himself. Yet, none of it was Dave’s fault and it never would be.
The two sat in silence, the sloshing of the beer in their cans the only sound that interrupted the stillness of the stand under a gray November sky. Dave leveled his rifle up to his shoulder. Cheek on the stock, he looked down the scope toward the buck standing in the tree line.
Steve pressed his face up to the spotting scope, “About … 95, 100 yards.” A few quiet clicks on a knob and Dave looked back down the scope. Their empty beers sat hollowly on the cooler. The shot rang out crisply through the valley’s tall grass.
The In-Tray, Five Thousand and Nine.
By Nod Ghosh
One. Christy leaves his car and takes the first step. He shifts his weight to the other foot. Two. He finds he has to keep counting these days. Seventeen, the left foot. Keep counting. There’s a gull, picking at road kill. Thirty-two. He looks down at his feet, right foot dominant. A storm’s coming. Fifty-six. Ruth slips into spaces between his thoughts.
That gull again. It could be a mollyhawk. One-hundred-and-forty-five. Beneath Christy’s feet, dust and cigarette tabs, one-hundred-and-ninety-nine. He measures his life with the obstinacy of numbers. Two-hundred-and-twenty-nine. He had opportunity with Ruth, optimism. Two-hundred-and-seventy, the promise of love, two-hundred-and-eighty-one. Doors have closed now, three-hundred-and-two. His life is less than it could have been, three-hundred-and-fifty. Should have been. Step four-hundred-and-nine.
The envelope is in his pocket. The wind picks up. He thinks of the tenacity of pathogens, five-hundred-and-twenty-one. An unwanted gift, the letter arrived soon after Ruth left. Six-hundred-and-forty-seven, left foot. Line-dancing clouds wash the pavement with the promise of a downpour, seven-hundred-and-one. Ruth’s departure was inevitable as feet and inches. Eight-hundred-and-twenty-two. If only he’d known. The magnetic air is littered with the blackness of birds. Nine-hundred-and-two.
Chewing gum on the pavement. Nine-hundred-and-four. Ruth’s mysterious absences in the months before she left. Nine-hundred-and-forty-seven. Christy rattles change in his pocket, and thinks of the change in his life. He didn’t feel her slipping. Nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine, on the left.
When he reaches the sexual health clinic, it isn’t there.
Rain laces the gap between the derelict clinic and the block next to it. Christy checks the envelope. They moved since he last came. Step one-thousand-and-five, backwards, one-thousand-and-four, forward again one-thousand-and-five.
Coins slip against fingers in Christy’s pocket. He scratches through the lining of his pants, edging his fingers towards the structure of his scrotum. Scratch, step forwards, one-thousand-and-six, backwards twice, one-thousand-and-four, scrape, and forward again, one-thousand-and-five. Can’t. Quite. Reach. The. Part. That. Itches. He shuffles like a Morris Dancer.
Ruth has gone. But her gift hasn’t. One-thousand-and-seven.
The clinic’s new address is too far to walk to, too close to shy away from. If he could only reach the spot that screams to him. But some irritations cannot be soothed. But. But Ruth has gone. If only he’d known. How to keep her. Christy fingers the envelope. Urgently chosen words. May need antibiotics. Refrain from activity.
The building is destined for demolition. Boarded-up ground-floor windows. The clang of metal on metal. Upstairs curtains blow out through broken glass. Christy sees an in-tray against the cracked panes. There are piles of paperwork, forgotten, unclaimed. He wonders what unfinished stories they tell. Who infected whom?
Christy walks away. One-thousand-five-hundred-and-forty-eight. His steps mark time, separating numbers in his head. Two-thousand-eight-hundred-and-forty. Two-thousand-eight-hundred-and-forty-two. Ruth gasping in bed. Two-thousand-eight-hundred-and-forty-six. Did she scream fuck me like that to the others? How many others? She’s gone.
Afterwards, Christy lets himself into the flat, takes his five-thousand-and-ninth step, and stops. He swallows the pills, and regrets the chance of seeing a better tomorrow.
Pocket Poetry Book Boy
By Gabby Vachon
Dear Pocket Poetry Book Boy,
You taste like the wax in a Bath and Body Works candle; something that in theory should be pleasant, but its artificial coloring would probably put me on bed rest for a week.
The origami flower you made for me still stands on my desk, though I rearranged it into a dove. A little less on the nose, don’t you think?
You wrote me a song once; do you remember that? I told you it was good, you cried because it wasn’t great, even though your mother promised you it was, in fact, a modern piece of Art.
The book of poetry you keep in your pocket at all times, along with your Etsy pocket watch, is always by some unknown Sri Lankan modern artist whose work consists of ripping pages in half willy nilly. I get it; modern art is edgy, it’s different. But trust me, you are not.
You bought us a typewriter for our anniversary, like the two of “us” would sit on a bench together in a park and write each other sonnets. Were you somehow under the impression that this typewriter was all I ever wanted? I’m an environmental biology major.
I feel like by dating you I’m breaking some sort of age-of-consent law. Though I’m 18 and you’re 19, I feel like a strappy-heeled cougar sleeping with her son’s college roommate; legal, but highly inappropriate.
You love cooking, because you love telling people about it. I love cooking because food is fucking delicious, what is wrong with you?
I feel the need to burn the bowtie you wear to every single one of your poetry open-mic nights. It’s not like you’re performing, but that bowtie sure screams “I WISH I WAS”.
You only drink French-pressed coffee, and despise American football. If I didn’t know you have a weird woman’s foot fetish I’d think you were gay.
But most importantly, Pocket Poetry Book Boy, I want to wish you well as I end this relationship. We had a good run, much longer than most of my friends predicted, but much shorter than yours did. I hope to see you again one day when you’re a famous writer and I am married to the opposite of you.
PS: Is anyone reading this interested in a typewriter? I got a great one, never used.
By Subhankar Biswas
Words. That was all they had.
Until the night she came into his bedroom naked and slipped under the covers. They made love in silence, the only language their bodies speaking the primitive Braille of desire. Afterwards, they lay in each other’s arms, spent and satisfied. Neither uttered a word.
Yet it was the most eloquent they’d ever been with each other.
They’d met four years ago. David, fresh out of Oxford, was backpacking across Ireland, seeking to hear ‘the deep heart’s core’. What he heard instead was Siobhan’s shy laughter—which had the same effect. The Galway lass had reasons even more vague.
But really, explanations aren’t necessary, because that thing they say happens ‘at first sight’? It did. Wary, exploratory feelers turned into mildly flirtatious verbal sparring as they discovered that ‘star-crossed’ wasn’t a fairytale fancy.
However, being young and foolish, they fell prey to a more pervasive and perverse poetic pretension: a morbid, masochistic myth maintained since ancient Greek times, that unconsummated love is greater than ‘happily ever after’.
It compelled this bibliophilic pair to follow the exalted path extolled by their idols: they wrote elegant letters filled with pithy prose and meaningful musings. Their correspondence was a perfect duet, an exquisite verbal symphony…that never reached a climax. Because, trapped in the seductive weave of sophisticated verbiage, neither mustered the courage to say plainly what both felt.
Words, like sleepers between railway tracks, kept them inseparably attached and insuperably apart.
What mysterious force guides a woman’s heart? We don’t know, and perhaps never will. What matters is that it did.
One sunny morning, David received a call from Siobhan. She was at Paddington station, would he like to meet? Surprised–and hiding his feverish anticipation under immaculate English poise, he went.
It was a disaster. Instead of a euphoric reunion between long-parted soulmates, they felt like strangers meeting for the first time. And worse, without the benefit of previous anonymity.
Fumbled greetings were followed by awkward explanations that, having left home abruptly and unprepared, with no arrangements, she’d spent the night in the waiting room. David broke through the barrier of her protestations—and his own reserve—to make her agree to stay at his apartment until her return the next day. During the excruciatingly long day, both made clumsy attempts to recover the magic they’d lost. And failed.
It was a revelation, therefore, when they found at day’s end, that their longing, far from dwindling, had intensified, filling the void left by their silence. The urgency of her impending departure helped.
And that night, they met each other naked, shorn of all artifice, and discovered a language more honest, more natural.
The following morning, they stood on the platform, making small talk, like regular people. The public address called all passengers to board. She turned to go. He grasped her hand. She turned around. He struggled to speak, his eyes desperate. He opened his mouth. She put her fingers over his lips and said:
Corrie Adams, The Last Time
Pat Aitcheson, After the Storm
Hedva Anbar, BRIDGE GAME
Maliyah Armstrong, Looney
T K Asunali, AFTERMATH
Samantha Averine, A Eulogy
Tony Awori, The Dark Victors
Abrianne Baca, Aftermath; Transformation
Amy Ballard, Little Things
Greg Beatty, Rescuing Grandma
Paul Beckman, Murray Needs a Hobby
Maria Bertolone, EARTHQUAKE
Amy Biddle, Noble Abandonment
RK Biswas, 2004, A Christmas Promise
Faiza Bokhari, Neelum
Katya Bozukova, Aftermath
Jennifer Bracken, Meta-for-Death
Jane Bradley, Flyer
Grant Bremner, Making the Bridge
Jared Brandon Brewer, The Lake
Dianne Bown-Wilson, Endurance
Gillian Cabral, Aftermath
Ella Carmichael, Fun Run
AB Carp, Death and Forgiveness
Heather Child, The Side Effects of Dreaming
Diane Cockburn, Aftermoth
Corshay Collins, The Lady in the Elevator
Patsy Collins, He Used to Bring Me Roses
Steve Colori, A Certain Type of Weird
Susan Cornford, Aftermath
Maia Cornish, The Great Flood of London
Tim Dadswell, The Stain of Scandal
Sean Daly, Tree
Meghashri Dalvi, The Old Board
Lucia Damacela, At My Funeral
Charles DiFalco, The Prince
Kim M Dodd, The Living Room
James Dorr, A Down-Home Thanksgiving
Jane Dougherty, He Told Her It Was Over …
Elizabeth Duncan, The Lucky Ones
Joely Dutton, Beltane
Hannah Edington, Out of the Drought and Into the Dust
Mladena Edwards, Aftermath
Elizabeth Eidlitz, Long Division
Riley Ellis, Angels
S.A. Enloe, Our Job
Sarah Evans, All at Sea
Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto, How Much We Have Become
Blaze Farrar, Until the Lightning
Alyson Faye, MISPER
MFC Feeley, The Last Real Thing
Emerson Fortier, The Ring
James Freeze, Don’t Pet the Bunny Rabbit
Lily Fremaux, Streets
Blake Fugler, Winter and Other Seasons
Zora Gandhi, The aftermath of the car crash
Janelle Garcia, Carved into the Water
Oliver Gaywood, Pink River
Eric Ghelfi, On Charity
Joe Giordano, Aftermath
Mel Goldberg, A Bowl of Stew
Clare Goldfarb, AFTERMATH
James Gonda, DISMISSED
Elizabeth Grace, The Weight of Two Words
Julia Graves, The Morning After
Paul Gray, Yes, We Have No Obamas
Jarod Green, THE PEARS
Sarah Green, Seeing Red
Ozzie Green, POTG
Kj Hannah Greenberg, Aftermath
Norma Gregson, AFTERMATH
Elliot Greiner, China Bridge
Dianne Hendricks, One Tuesday in 1975
Adam Herbert, Aftermath and Ashes
A. Elizabeth Herting, After the Storm
Rebecca Hide, Final Payment
Alyson Hilbourne, Earth to Earth, Dust to Dust
Josey Hill, The Morning After
Arianne Hirsch, Aftermath
Erika Hoffman, Aftermaths
Liam Hogan, Remember
Alva Holland, Death or Refuge
Jolynn Hong, Aftermath
Justin Hoo, Reflection Day
Nureni Ibrahim, BEASTS IN THE FARMSTEAD
Innocent Chizaram Ilo, SO(U)L(E) WANDERER
Agboola Israel, A Short History of the Positronic Brain
Abha Iyengar, The Domino Effect
Susan James, Home for the Holidays
Camillus John, Oscar Mild Goes Wild
Joan Johnson, Picture This
Deborah Johnstone, Trepedation and Trancendence
Reynold Junker, A Night of Music, Dreams and Crystal
Elizabeth Kay, The Turning of Amelia Spencer
Lauren Kemper, At Peace Before Renewal
Kate Kim, An Ode to Death
Teddy Kimathi, The Great Flood
E.E. King, The Final Solution
John King, Beyond Aftermath
Kate Larsen, Unconditional
Andrew Lee, If You Leap Awake
Josh Lefkowitz, Ice Floes
Debra S. Levy, O Holy Night
Myra Litton, Woman in a Dressing Gown
Michaila Long, The Aftermath of Suicide
Alan Lush, AFTERMATH
Chad Lutz, You Only Get Nine
Lisbeth L. McCarty, When Progress Backfires
Jack McColl, Hanging on the Edge
Rachael McGill, Islands
Kaylee McIntosh, Regret
Julia McKinnell, In the Aftermath of Googling Yvonne
Gwenda Major, Casualties
Pooja Makker, End Task
Marina Manoukian, cut blades; blades cut
Israela Margalit, Dynamite
Jacqueline Materne, Binge
Anita Mokwenyei, I Am But a Child
Conor Montague, Sacred Streams
J.L. Montavon, Food for the Gods
Rachel Moore, A Bus Ride
Leslie Muzingo, The Square Root of Joy
Ben Nein, Post Climax
Kerrin O’Sullivan, Shipwrecked, Vanuatu
Susan Oke, Too Sweet
Stephen Oram, Alone
Uche Osita, She
William Overall & Angeline J. McBride, Solid Walnut
Kenny Palmer, The Day After
Noelle Palmer, HOUSEMATES
Sasha A. Palmer, HE
Eneida Patricia, Aftermath
Okello Peters, RED FOR BLOOD
Petar Petrov, The Aftermath
Adeyemi Philemon, The Haze
Anne Picken, New Life
Jake Plante, The Train
Christina Pompper, Generations Together
Martin Porter, Aphrodite of Milos
Sowmya Ramkumar, Aftermath
Bill Randall, The Breakthrough
Pat Randall, Under Par
Susan Ray, No Longer the Other
Midge Raymond, After the Circus
ML Roberts, The Final Return
A.R. Robins, Late
Angela Robinson, Alternate Ending
Mark Antony Rossi, Mother Meth
Daniel Rousseau, The Denim Shirt
Howard Sage, Behemoth
Tammie Saiki, Survival
Tricia Saiki, The Steam Powered Rickshaw Driver’s Malfunction
Sasha Sawh, Disappointment
Max Scratchmann, Aftermath
V.C. Sharma, Life Skills
Sydney Sheridan, Sarah
Maria Simeou, The Second Body
Garth Simmons, The Brown Air
Nicole Simonsen, Land of Little Rain
Nicole J. Simms, Her Revenge
Carol Smallwood, The Perfect Crime
Claude Smith, Cosmic Love
Holly Smith, LemEdwards Road
Steve Smith, Baby Dushane
James L Spaulding, GUILT
Valerie Stark, Crystallization
Phillip Sterling, Landscape Maintenance
Rachel Stevenson, Play Dead
Ryan Sullivan, The Hades Touch
Lynn Sunday, Where Babies Come From
Mafaz Syrus, Largely Forgotten
Alfonso Tafoya, Beatrice Graves Takes a Walk in the Clouds
Cameron Tau, Forever and Always
M.A. Toothill, I Am the Aftermath
Beth Turley, The Ride
Steve Ullom, After the Fence
Laura Valeri, Liabilities of a Love Misguided
Sandra Vets, The Lake
Jerry Vilhotti, Who Knows
Sherry Virden, Cycle
Anusha VR, Blue
Jan Walmsley, Jailed
Rory Warwick, No Foreign Shores
Colin Watts, Last of the Petrol Heads
Kyle Wierks, TWENTY YEARS
Lance Wilcox, A Whimsy of Sweden
Anna Williams, The Portal
Juliet Wilson, Alien Watch
David J. Wing, It Never Ends
McKenzie Zalopany, Boogers
Ann Zimmerman, The Coroner