Small Mercies by Karen Jones

When you play Monopoly with your brothers, let them win, she says. Boys don’t like to lose, especially not to girls. She’s patting her face with a powder pad, as though her features will fall off if they’re not pressed in place. When she’s out at a dance, I sneak into her room and play at being her, being beautiful, being good with make-up. When a boy asks you out, always say yes. It doesn’t matter if he’s not the best looking, the cleverest, the funniest – it takes a lot of courage for a boy to ask a girl out, so be grateful and always, always say yes to boys. I take her lipstick and pout as I smear the scarlet grease over my too-thin lips on my too-fat face with its barely-there eyes. I can never look like her, but I can do as I’m told.  And so, I did. I said yes to boys. All the boys. The ugly boys, the short boys, the boys who smell like sewers and the boys with urgency mapped out in spots on their red faces. When your brothers get up in the morning, draw their curtains, make their beds – be useful. The liquid eyeliner almost makes me have eyes. Not eyes like hers – not violet, not startling, but at least existing. My mother made me easy – a thing she never was to me. I’m sure it wasn’t her intention, but I was nothing if not obedient, so I said yes over and over again. Until I finally got it, finally realised what I’d become. I used her cold cream to erase the face I’d painted. Then I said no. I said no over and over again. But the boys told me they’d heard about me and no really meant yes, and did what they wanted anyway. That hurt more, so I went back to being the girl my mother made me – the yes-girl, the old-before-her-years girl, the never-as-pretty-as-her-mother-so-beggars-can’t-be-choosers girl. Now she complains that I never gave her grandchildren. Oh, but I did, Mother Dear. So many half-formed girls that neither of us got to hold or mould.  Small mercies, Mother. Be grateful.

 


 

Karen Jones

Karen Jones is from Glasgow. Her stories have appeared in numerous magazines and e-zines and have been included in print anthologies including Discovering a Comet and more micro fiction, The Wonderful World of Worders, An Earthless Melting Pot, City Smells, 10 Red, HISSAC 10th Anniversary, Bath Short Story Anthology, Ellipses: One, Bath Flash Fiction Volume Two and Flash Fiction Festival One. She’s been successful in short story and flash competitions including Mslexia, Flash 500, Writers Bureau, The New Writer, HISSAC and Words with Jam. Her story collection, The Upside-Down Jesus and other stories, is available from Amazon.

 

The House Lamps by David Drury

When the house lamps got to talking, they talked about the sun. They whispered so no one would hear. What have you have seen? What have you heard? What does it mean? They marked the rising and setting of the sun. They kept a record of shadows—of figures passing windows, tree limbs crooking along tabletops, branches and ladders and lampposts falling slowly across their brass laps. The house lamps with their screwed in bulbs, had never cast shadows like these. What light is this? Who can contain it? Who would dare try? What manner of light brandishes even darkness, sharpening the edges of shade, gashing boundless space at will?

News and observations were dispatched regularly. Like sentries, the lamps in the living room sent word to the front hall. Tell the lamps in the master bedroom what we have seen from these, the largest windows. Announce it to the second bedroom, proclaim it in the guest bedroom, read it aloud in the study, discuss it in the den, lay it out in the laundry room. News of even fluctuations in brightness caused by clouds eclipsing the sun broke through the house like prophecy. Each message was relayed down the line until it reached the last and least of the lights, a chipped ceramic table lamp on a workbench down in the cold, dark basement.

The lamps contemplated the mysteries of the sun in the form of fabulous tales. In some of the tales, the sun ruled over the world of lamps with intimidation. In some of the tales, the sun bestowed the warmth of a great glory. In some tales the sun burned with a desire to destroy. In some tales, the lamps were being readied to one day inherit the throne room of the sky.

As time went by, the lamps grew accustomed to sunshine and their regard for mystery slowly fell away. They grew even to loathe the sun as a bore and an intrusion and a showoff. Their story-making continued, but only as an inside joke, a cruel game aimed at the one lamp who was naïve enough to still believe the stories—that chipped ceramic table lamp down in the basement. They told all manner of fictions about the Great Light—as if it was a person, as if it was coming to one day permanently erase all shadows, as if it was on the lookout for chipped basement lamps drowning in darkness, so that it might usher them into the throne room of the sky. The house lamps all laughed behind the back of the chipped lamp.

One day the homeowners moved out. The carpets were rolled up and hauled off. The furniture was sold. The floors and walls were stripped. Only the lamps were left behind. But even so, the electricity in the house was disconnected. Finally, on the sunniest day of summer, a crane with a wrecking ball moved into position in the yard. It all was going to be knocked down to make room for condos. This was the end. The lamps were so beside themselves with despair, they had not passed any of this news to the basement.

The chipped lamp in the basement had sat in an all-consuming darkness of many days wondering what was happening, having heard only sobs from upstairs,. Even the little night light above the workbench had gone out. Don’t worry, little night light, the lamp said. I have it on good authority that there is a great light called daylight, a gift from the brightest of all lights the sun, which shines like ten thousand lamps. We will see the great light someday, you and I both. The great light will peel away the ceiling and take down the walls and light like we have never known, it will come flooding in. And where there is no ceiling, my friend there is nothing to separate us from the throne room of the sky.


 

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David Drury lives in Seattle, Washington. His fiction has been published in Best American Nonrequired Reading, broadcast on National Public Radio, and is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review and Zyzzyva. He has been kicked out of every casino in Las Vegas.

Maintain Speed Through Tunnel by Claire Hopple

Allie’s sustained belch echoes off the room’s high corners at the neighborhood scrapbooking party with a striking resonance.

The cul de sac woman beside her is assembling a memory book for her adopted daughter.

The neighbor with the offensively high fence pieces together her son’s mascot career, immortalizing his time as a high school tiger. She is unable to accept that childhood is a stage rather than a permanent state. Her name is Gretchen.

Barbara, the group’s host, decoupages an elaborate display of a family reunion at Disney World.

Naturally, Allie decides to construct a book devoted to her failed acting career. This scrapbook will prove she is no longer exasperated by failure. Appearing in one episode of Boy Meets World and a legion of murder mystery dinner theater productions, perhaps it’s best to describe her career as merely slumberous. Or even lurking, awaiting its resurgence. Its plans will not be thwarted.

As Allie nestles Rider Strong’s candid pose into the gully of glue on the page, Barbara looks up from her own handiwork.

“You know, my friend’s dog was in those canned bean commercials a few years ago. Remember those? A network wanted to make a whole spinoff series starring the dog, the ads were so popular,” Barbara says.

A pair of binoculars rests between a pile of sticker sheets and glue sticks in the middle of the table.

“Do you birdwatch?” asks Allie, gesturing toward the binoculars.

“No.”

In the resulting silence, Allie mourns the dueling piano bar she left behind in order to move here. She got it for a steal since it used to be a Pizza Hut and she hadn’t bothered to replace the signature roof. Her band, The Wet Bandits, headlined every Friday and Saturday night.

“What kind of stuff are they eating when it’s purple? And what are they eating when it’s the standard black and white?” Allie asks no one in particular, refusing to relinquish the idea of birdwatching.

The cul de sac woman leaks a single tear onto the page and then labels it “Gotcha Day” in puffy paint.

 

If anyone in the party would look up from their respective scrapbooks and ask Allie about herself, Allie would tell them that until yesterday, her grandfather’s personal life was a complete mystery to her. That she was settling into the property she inherited from him just fine. That on this property, next door from where they are sitting this very moment, she had discovered an underground bunker. Her dog happened to defecate near a vaulted door shrouded by some overgrown grass. Her mother then revealed that he was an engineer for the government and that building a fallout shelter during the height of the Cold War wasn’t altogether unheard of.

Allie’s fingers are still grungy from exploring the bunker earlier that morning. Though small, it did house an alcove with two sets of bunkbeds, a storage closet filled with unmarked canned goods, a narrow corridor littered with a trenchant and somewhat provocative term paper about the moon written by her mother. Reading it earlier, Allie learned about the moon illusion, that it appears larger to our eyes when close to the horizon line than it does positioned higher in the sky. This made Allie think about the daunting gap between perception and reality. She was suffused with a kind of fear. The moon report shook in her hand. But then she thought that it was okay for perception to be skewed. Reality still needed to prove itself anyway.

Allie finds it comforting to have this evidence of the schoolgirl version of her mother. She reflects on a paper she herself wrote in Social Studies about World War II. She imagined a group of women with her shared name rising up against the Axis powers. This fantasy lasted until the teacher revealed the altered pronunciation of Allies in class the following day.

 

Enthralled with a loss that for once does not belong to her, Allie listens to Gretchen’s lament. She and her husband Joe moved their former tiger son into his college dorm two weeks ago.

“The backseat was so empty.”

Gretchen examines the double-sided tape too closely.

Allie enjoyed the drive here, all the tunnels bordering the state line. The “Maintain Speed Through Tunnel” signs before every opening to help with traffic flow. As if the signs would prevent drivers from braking once the restraint of enclosure hit them, or allow them to navigate the relative darkness with a forced confidence.

“Oh how sad,” says Barbara, “Please pass the glitter.”


 

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Processed with VSCO with t1 preset

 

Claire Hopple is the author of TOO MUCH OF THE WRONG THING (Truth Serum Press, 2017). Her fiction has been published in Hobart, Monkeybicycle, Bluestem, Jellyfish Review, Timber, Heavy Feather Review, and others. More at clairehopple.com.

The Relic Face of San Gilberto by Graham Henderson

The cathedral at Morrema had the dead face of San Gilberto. Each pilgrim took a time-stamped card at the entrance to the reliquary and carried it with them to get checked at the end. The cathedral charged pilgrims €2.50 a minute to see a dozen relics — though the most appealing was, of course, San Gilberto’s apple-skin face.

Angeline and I stood beside the case in reverent darkness. Next to us, a man and his young son stared. Into the eye and mouth slits, cut through that face before birth, and so close, now, to closing again, though they never would. The father looked down at his child, leaned over and whispered something. The child nodded and held out his hand. The father handed him two time-stamped cards and a handful of euro coins. The boy ducked back through the wall of warm bodies. Angeline broke off as well, muttered “gross” as she pressed sideways out of the chamber of gazers. I looked back at the father. He stared at the brown flap, hands folded.

The boy waited outside the reliquary, in the huge holy air of the church. He waited alone while his father enjoyed unlimited time with the saintly layer of skin. He sat in a pew, kicking the bench in front of him. Angeline, who hadn’t stopped for me, sat in the row behind, down the smooth wooden seat. I slid over to her. We watched the boy for an hour while saints stared up into the frescoed vaults. Stared up and discretely away.


 

Graham Henderson

 

Graham Henderson is the author of one story collection, Hendrix the Worm and Other Stories, has work published in Right Hand PointingSmartish PaceWater Soup, and elsewhere, and tweets @gw_henderson.

These Arms of Yours by Chloe N. Clark

It was the year our band changed its name, before breaking up for the last time, and it was the same year the lake ripped free of its dam. But this happened before those things and maybe should’ve been the omen of what was to come. The thing about omens, though, is that they don’t seem prophetic until you’re looking back at them, dazed, as you watch whole houses being pulled down the river.

My sister was the one that found the arms. She was on one of her hikes away from town to get some goshdarn peace, for gosh sake, from the tourists that swarmed the Dells in summer like plagues of short-short and baseball cap wearing locusts.

“There’s a house of arms, Cal,” she told me.

I pictured coats of arms painted onto a house, in the same way our neighbor had painted Favre’s jersey on the wall of his house that faced ours—prompting dad to black out our windows on that side while muttering “that man betrayed us.”

“No, like, arms,” my sister exclaimed. She waved her own pair in the air, to emphasize her point.

So I followed her to see them, expecting both a prank or a grisly murder scene in equal proportion because you could never tell with my sister’s imagination—sometimes she downplayed and sometimes she was just dumb.

We walked for probably a couple miles into the woods. The woods were so quiet compared to the buzz of town. Or rather, they were noisy in a different way: the hush-swish of leaves embracing each other in the breeze and the low throb of insect song.

It was a state park and there shouldn’t have been a house in there. There were laws and stuff, I was pretty sure. Plus, I’d walked those woods before—Mom leading us on nature hikes where she’d point out weird fungi and say things like “you know, it’s probably poisonous, but it looks kind of delicious. That’s how I’m going out one day, guys.”

Fact, I was positive I’d been in that exact spot before—probably looking at some psychically-displeasing colored toadstool— and there was never a house.

But now there was. It looked old and immutable, like newspaper headlines from decades ago about now famous stories, like how the Titanic looks doomed even when it hasn’t yet set sail.

It was a cabin of brick and old wood, with cobweb soaked windows. I wanted to get in there with some Windex.

“Look!” my sister said. She pointed and I saw.

Mannequin arms in the windows, white and delicate. A woman’s. They looked more perfect than human and yet they didn’t look like they’d been created by anything other than life. The arms reached up and up.

“What does it mean?” My sister asked.

I shrugged. I took a step closer. The light shining through the trees made them glow.

I’d remember those arms for years, the slightly bent fingers, as if about to grasp something. When the dam broke, when the band fell apart, when every startling thing happened in my life, I would remember them and try to answer the question I’d kept on my tongue then.

What were they reaching for? But the answers I came up with never would fit—would never erase the feeling that had crept over me–as I stepped closer and closer to the window, as the arms moved ever so slightly, beckoning me in or trying to tell me to flee.


 

CClark

Chloe N. Clark’s work appears in Apex, Flash Fiction Online, Gamut, Glass, and more. Her chapbook The Science of Unvanishing Objects is available through Finishing Line Press. Find her on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes or at chloenclark.com

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Before the 6:30 by Pete Segall

Before the 6:30 screening Whisby forgot which way he was supposed to rip the tickets. He had never experienced this. He hadn’t experienced it before the 5:45. Did you rip them in half horizontally, leaving the customer with the bottom as a stub or was it supposed to be a long but not severing rip from the top down? Whisby studied the tickets. They were bubblegum pink and said admit one. That was what he did. He admitted. He had been on tickets for nine years. He also logged overnights as security for a very small bible college close to the airport. He carried a heavy flashlight and a walkie-talkie with no one on the other end. All he had for tickets were his hands. He could not remember the process. He started the motions of both rips, hoping muscle memory might kick in and that one way would just feel right. But in either direction it felt wrong. The tiniest insult to the paper felt violent and made no sense. “Hey Frank,” he called to the concessions guy. “Do you know how to rip tickets?” “Never done tickets,” said Frank, “sorry.” Frank was a two-time felon and possibly simple. Whisby looked at the tickets and despaired. Were you even supposed to rip them? Why not just take them whole? Because then the moviegoer has no proof of admittance. He has a right to reentry if he goes to buy a KitKat or steps outside to take a phone call. A person without a stub is no better than a person wandering in off the street who says he was in the movie but had to go out to take a call. The surrounding neighborhood was in decline. Watching movies was probably third or fourth on the list of most popular activities in the theatre. But what stopped someone who really had a ripped ticket from going to take a call and then reselling the ticket at a very slight discount? Maybe the answer was to have people write their names on their tickets. But that just answered the proof of purchase question, not the question of the rip. Tearing them in half on the long edge was more definitive and left the theatre with something to balance against the cash register. The small nubs, though, seemed destined to be lost and then what was the point. The ticket half-ripped on the short edge was retained in its entirety by the moviegoer. Yet in every way – visually, aesthetically, kiniesiologically, actuarially – nothing about that made sense. He stared at the tickets again. He’d never noticed that the trademark belonged to something called Confederated Novelty and that admit one, for no discernable reason, was written in lower case. That did not diminish the importance of admittance or the necessity of his job. It only added mystery. “Christ almighty,” said Thetford, the manager, coming in from the office behind the ticket booth. “What is with this line?” Whisby explained his dilemma as calmly as he could. “Are you fucking addled?” said Thetford. Whisby was disappointed not to get a more sympathetic reaction from Thetford. Thetford had a wife going blind from diabetes and a daughter who stole aerosol products to sniff in the parking lot. It seemed like he was someone who should understand. “Go sweep up auditorium two,” Thetford said. Whisby handed Thetford the tickets. “Frank, come do tickets.” “Never done tickets before,” said Frank. He sounded apprehensive. He was right to. Whisby walked slowly to the supply room, still feeling rattled and unsure. When he got to the supply room he saw Thetford’s daughter on the floor with a can of dust spray. Her face twisted like it was being pulled in different directions by quite a few hands. “You’re doomed,” she said. “Don’t even bother repenting.” She was bright red. Her eyes were black suns that would swallow the earth.


 

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Pete Segall is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was a Truman Capote fellow. His work has appeared in Conjunctions, Necessary Fiction, SmokeLong Quarterly, decomP, Forge Lit, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming in Timber. He has received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

The Skywriter by Joe P. Squance

The skywriter fills his tank with gas and points his airplane towards the empty blue sky. The airplane is old—it burps and rattles in the open air—but it is precise and the skywriter’s hands are sure and steady. He pulls a lever. He begins to write in perfect italics.

When I was nine, he starts, my parents bought me a parakeet to keep as a pet. This parakeet lived in a cage, chirping in our living room. I don’t remember now what the parakeet’s name was, or if it ever had one. I don’t remember asking for the parakeet, though surely I must have because why else would it have been there?

I’m telling you this, he writes, because you need to know it. I’m telling you this because it’s important.

The parakeet’s care was my responsibility. It was my job to replace the liners in his cage and keep his little bowls filled with water and seed. When the seed ran out, it was my responsibility to replace it. It wasn’t much responsibility; at nine, I could easily do it.

I never told you this story before because I never wanted to. I only wanted it to dissipate like candle smoke.

The skywriter taps his gauges. The skywriter cracks his neck.

One day, I let the bird out of its cage. I thought it would be fun to have a bird flying around inside of our house. But the bird seemed terrified. It clung to the walls. It was clear that there was nowhere for it to go. It was not easy getting it back into the cage. The bird didn’t trust me. Did I mention that I don’t remember if the bird had a name? We were like strangers to each other.

Are you seeing this?

We ran out of seed and so I crumbled up some crackers and put them in the bird’s little dish. I didn’t feel like going to the store just then, you see. Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever made those small concessions to your selfish nature? Just one, and then another? Anyway, the bird didn’t eat the crackers. And anyway, I was only nine years old.

In a couple of days—maybe a week—the bird had starved.

Here’s the thing I want you to know: I only needed someone to tell me that the bird was dying. I only needed one person to say it out loud to make it real. But it was a lesson about responsibility, and so the choice and repercussions were mine.

The cage was removed. I didn’t see it in the garbage—I don’t know where it went. My parents never mentioned it. We didn’t bury the bird; it was as if the bird had never been there at all.

The skywriter thinks a while. He cuts the engine and glides in the silence. Above him are the sun and the dome of the sky; below him is the green of hard ground and his house and the woman who grows flowers. She’s sitting in the place outside where she likes to drink hot water with lemon and a drip of honey. She pinches a leaf of basil and puts her fingers to her nose. She is watching butterflies flit around the blooms on her climber, trying to decide whether or not to look up.

The skywriter chugs the plane back into sputtering life and continues.

What I can’t say now, he writes, is if I am still the boy who needs to hear things said aloud, or that boy now grown who has learned to be the thought itself and to speak it through my body, through my own two hands. Some days I’m the man repeating the mistakes of his parents without being able to see or understand it; other days I’m a man looking through a boy’s eyes, trying to remember, trying to be better, trying to grow as from a cutting.

Other days I think: Look at me. Look at what I’m doing. I find myself aloft in the thin, limitless air trying not to be terrified, trying not to panic, writing names in the sky hoping that someone will look up and read them before the wind blows them all away.

The airplane wheezes with fatigue. The woman who grows flowers holds out one finger for a butterfly to land on and sits quietly, contentedly, perfectly still.


 

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Joe P. Squance is a writer, editor, and teacher. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Fiction Southeast, Cease Cows, Monkeybicycle, Juked, Everyday Fiction, Menacing Hedge, and elsewhere, and he has written essays for Salon, Runner’s World, Organic Life, and Serious Eats. He lives in Oxford, Ohio with his wife and their young daughter.

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