Causality Dilemma by Sheldon Lee Compton

When the second egg hatched a week and a half ago, Henry had been ready to destroy it again. But he remembered all those nagging feelings of guilt, strange guilt, murderous guilt that had eaten away at him at all hours, and he couldn’t do it.

He became a parent, instead. Feeding the little thing, trying various items around the kitchen, food from the gas station, a lot of different options, until he realized it preferred spoiled food. Any kind of spoiled food. He fed it with a Visine bottle the first few days, filling it with spoiled milk and going five and six drips at a time, watching it outgrow the paper towels he had made for its bed. Paper towels and then an old t-shirt and then, when it started teetering around the living room, he walked it to the guest bedroom and pointed to the bed. When it only stood there pulsating with a kind of slow inner energy and swinging one arm in sort of a droopy way, he picked it up for the first time skin-to-skin and carried it to bed himself.

His guilt was real and it was powerful. The first time he had syringed his sperm into an egg, it hatched a couple of weeks later and produced a blackened, warped version of the current homunculus. Henry had squashed it with a Tupperware bowl, put on his coat, and left for work.

For several days following the birth of the new homunculus, he told no one, but it started to well up inside him so that one afternoon, just before the lunch break, he grabbed his girlfriend Carmen and pulled her close to him. He shuffled with her until they stood behind the pop machine in front of the truck garage. It was obvious to Henry that Carmen didn’t believe anything he had told her so he invited her to come over and have a look for herself.  Two days later, she knocked on his door.

He let her in and didn’t immediately answer when she asked about the smell. Instead he stood near a doorway in the living room with his head down, one hand worrying a thin patch of hair above his forehead. Finally he looked back up and offered an odd smile before taking a step sideways to let a short, slick-shiny creature step into the doorway.

The homunculus waved with its single, tube-like appendage. She saw her own hand going up for a return wave as if it was somebody else’s hand, an out-of-body reflex. She vomited hard and violently across the tops of her shoes. It dropped onto its stomach and darted quickly to where the vomit spread out onto the carpet. Henry’s eyes got wide and he jumped forward and grabbed the creature just before it started lapping at the mess. Carmen saw a small opening at the top of the homunculus, its head more or less, and something like a finger moving in and out of it. When Henry smiled at her again, her mind broke loose.

 She imagined many different scenarios in which she helped Henry raise the little creature. They dressed it for its first day of school, went to baseball games and wore matching shirts that said CREATURE’S MOM and CREATURE’S DAD, helped it perfect parallel parking, and bailed it out of jail when it was caught with pot for the first time. These came to mind like old Polaroids, family life in squared portraits. In all of them Henry had his big smile and waved to the camera with two gelatinous arms. It smiled, too—a blown out hole in the front of its head full of jagged teeth the color of weak coffee.

Henry’s mind worked, too. It didn’t break, but it worked and worked in elastic terror. He imagined his own hope as a catalyst for change. Any kind of change had the chance of being a good thing after all these years. All he had to do was keep trying. He inspected the bright red welts across his forearms, the area he had balanced the body while carrying it across the room. No pain whatsoever. But the welts, three large spots in all, had developed into blisters since yesterday morning. And now he could see a sunflower-yellow pus just under the bubbled skin. He shifted his arms and watched the pus work back and forth inside the blister the way mercury will move in a level. All he had to do was keep trying, but the homunculus had disappeared into far corners. Somewhere in the house it made a noise like his heartbeat.



Sheldon Lee Compton photo

Sheldon Lee Compton is the author of four books of fiction and one collaborative chapbook of poetry. His stories and poems have appeared in New World Writing, Pank, Unbroken Journal, Wigleaf, and others. He lives in Pikeville, Kentucky.


The Intimacy of Brushing Teeth by Jennifer Fliss

They meet in the bathroom. It is only 9 o’clock, and they are beginning their nightly routine. It will not take more than fifteen minutes, ten, five. She wants the day over already, and so, even though she is not tired, she will go to bed. Lay her messy mat of curls on her pillow and lament that she hasn’t done the wash in over a month.

He will brush his teeth with his mouth wide open, seafoam dripping, great big white horse teeth open and wide and abstract art-like sprays of toothpaste mar the mirror and the wall and the faucet.

The next night:

They meet in the bathroom. She says she needs privacy. Why do you need privacy? I want to floss. So floss here. Do it here. In front of me. No. What do you need that I can’t give you Elise? What? And here we learn her name, but not his. Not yet. Is it important to the story? Possibly.

The following night:

They meet at eight o’clock. Without saying anything, they agree that the earlier they can go to sleep, the better. Some might call it avoidance, but she has collected – printed, snipped, saved – several articles on the benefits of going to bed early, if anyone should ask.

No one has asked.

She’d wanted a double vanity, but when they were looking at houses, their budget said, nope. No double vanity. No granite. No garage, just a carport. The realtor looked at them with pity. And also, your shower will be made of plastic and you will have one bathroom in the whole house. (The real estate listing said ¾ bath, so not even a whole bathroom.) That is what you can afford and that is what you will have and that is indeed, what they ended up with. So that now, in the space of their tiny bathroom, in the fug of overripe-pear-mildew, they brush their teeth at the same time. Now, of course they could take turns, but they decided to go to bed at the same time and it had not occurred to them otherwise. Elise could say, I will now put on my pajamas, then I will brush my teeth and wash my face, etc etc etc. He could feed the cat. The cat’s name is Lars and he too joins them in the bathroom, sitting on the back of the toilet, waiting to be pet on the head or scratched behind his ears. But they arrive in the bathroom at the same time. This is the program for the evening: brush teeth, wash face, put on pajamas, feed cat, sleep.

It is Tuesday. They will have sex.

Their mouths will taste like peppermint. He likes this and she does not. In fact, she would rather not kiss at all. Just get it done with. Then she can proceed with laying her dense head on the unwashed pillowcase on the pillow stained with who knows what. She tries not to look when she changes the sheets. Does all that come from her? Her mouth? Is it her brains oozing out? Why are the stains on the pillow yellow? Really, more of a light rust color; is she rusting away? Her own saltwater turning her body into flaking metal?

Bernard is coming. See, now it is time to name him and did you not expect “Bernard?” Bernard is handsome and able to come just by thinking about a Big Mac. Bernard is younger. He was considered the catch in the relationship and Elise didn’t know about the catch and return laws, so she kept him. This was a mistake, but only now, only looking up at herself in the mirror above the dresser, only now seeing his baboon back-side as he thrust into her, only now, tasting the mint – that encroaching weed, in his mouth as he searches for her. She isn’t there. She’s in the mirror watching Bernard and the ur-Elise.


They meet in the bathroom and Elise says she has to pee. Ok. So pee, Bernard says as he spreads the toothpaste on his brush with the bristles flayed. He really needs to replace his toothbrush, Elise thinks, but doesn’t say. She’s not his mother. Elise says, never mind, I don’t have to go and with his toothbrush sticking out of the side of his mouth, Bernard pulls down his pants, and takes hold of his penis and pees. Hole in one, he says triumphantly, which Elise can’t quite make out on account of the toothbrush in his mouth, but she knows what he said. He says it every night. Has done since their honeymoon, after a long day of him out golfing and her at the spa. He spent seven out of eight days golfing while they were on the Yucatan peninsula. He regaled her of his day and how he got a hole in one with his new friends Marco and Raul, and he was peeing at the same time and the irony of that meant his joke would go on for years. Eight years now.

So in any domestic tragedy, we see ourselves. Where do you see yourself? Are you the catch? Are you the one who planned the honeymoon and did he say he didn’t care where you went as long as you were together? Do you have a bathroom with a double sink? Do you have two sinks, but live alone?

Bernard and Elise will be married for twenty two more years. He will die first. Many will attend the funeral. Elise refuses to say anything, to eulogize. Everyone thinks the sadness is too much to bear.

The night of the funeral:

Elise brushes her teeth alone. She picks up Bernard’s toothbrush – not the same one from two decades prior, but still it needs replacing, again, always. She will throw it out in the trash can under the sink. Then after she flosses, she plucks the toothbrush from the garbage and runs her fingers against the bristles. They’re still a little damp. She runs it against her cheek. It’s cool and tickles. She likes the feeling. She’s going to let it dry first, she decides. In bed, she looks at herself in the mirror. Her body takes up less than half the bed. It feels like an enormous bed, a big luxury, that she alone has such a large bed.



Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based fiction and essay writer. Her work has appeared in PANK, Hobart, The Rumpus, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website,