The crawlspace by Leanne Radojkovich

At Gran’s, the vast luminous sky made me feel as if there was nowhere to hide because even if Gran or Mum couldn’t see me behind a rock – God could.

During the day I rambled around paddocks looking for creatures so I didn’t feel so alone. I pushed over rocks and skinks squirted off. I hunted cicadas whose whir mysteriously stopped when I drew near. Once, a rabbit dance-hopped on a pocket of grass until a falcon’s shadow slipped across the ground and it froze.

That rabbit stillness stole through me when Mum and Dad argued. My heart would be bursting, but I’d appear composed on yet another crazy-angry drive from town to Gran’s. I didn’t realise how young they’d been, high school kids when I came along, cornered by Gran to do the right thing. When they yelled at one another at her house, she’d peel potatoes for tea without skipping a beat. I’d peel at her side, grateful for a job. After tea she’d sit at her special seat at the kitchen table, facing the front steps. I sat next to her overlooking a straggly mānuka that had grown backwards, almost flattened by wind whooshing across the cleared land. Gran chain-smoked Cameo Mild’s and we spent the evenings playing rounds of Scrabble and cards in silence, bar the click of tiles or whisking of cards. I’d look out the window between turns. I could have been gazing out the porthole of the spaceship in Lost in Space. The Robinson family had been marooned on a similar blank landscape.

Bored, during one especially long visit, I’d tried peeling a Barbie from a lump of wood. She ended up with stump-arms, bean-bag-body, and knob-legs – just like the Robinson family’s robot. I slipped into the sour crawlspace under the front steps where the earth was cool and soft as fur. Dug a hidey-hole with a spoon and left her there.
It wasn’t until I returned from overseas for Gran’s funeral, years later, that Mum told me about the baby. “That’s why she insisted your Dad and I make a go of it,” Mum said. “When she got pregnant at 14, her father had whacked her so hard she fell down the front steps and lost it. Buried it right there, later, to spite him.”

I remember sitting with Gran in the kitchen. Bunny grass grew through the mānuka and the morning sun made a Milky Way of their trembling tips.

Mum and Dad were in an uproar in the back room. He slammed the door on his way out – for the last time, although we didn’t know that then. There was just me and Gran pretending we didn’t hear his car roar down the driveway spitting gravel.

I told Gran about the ugly Barbie in the ground. Gran froze, then half-smiled when I told her I felt less lonely knowing she was there.


 

Leanne bio pic

 

Leanne Radojkovich’s début short story collection First fox was published by The Emma Press in 2017. In 2018 she won the Graeme Lay Short Story Competition and was a finalist in the Anton Chekhov Prize for Very Short Fiction. Most recently her stories have appeared in Landfall, takahē, and Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand. She lives in Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland, but her flash fiction street art has travelled the world. Find her online at leanneradojkovich.com.

A Change in New Glarus, Wisconsin by Jan Elman Stout

Oskar and Cole were tweaking on meth when the shit went down. Oskar’s mom had organized a private search party, fully expecting we’d find them flanked by trouble. We hunted for the boys round-the-clock for two full days before giving up. Cole’s mom said, If they wanted to be found you’da found ‘em. We knew she didn’t give a damn but she had a point.

The boys emerged from the woods a day later, clear-eyed and hungry. When they were ready to talk they said the town was going to change, although they couldn’t say how. But they’d known it as soon as they reached the heart of the grove and spotted the amber fingers on the white birches lit up a cold neon green. Foxfire fungus, we said, full of ourselves.

We interviewed them separately and they both claimed that seconds after seeing the eerie glow a rust-colored light split the sky in two and it sucked them both in. They couldn’t say how they came back to us, only that the mushroom and green apple scented wind from the rotting birches foretold change.

We were skeptical; we knew those boys’ mischief. Cole’s mom clucked and said what
we’d all told ourselves, Those boys been doin’ too much crank.

We’d been asleep at the hour the boys swore the events had transpired. But we read that it hadn’t stormed that night. And the moonless sky had produced no heat lightning.

Now the town was on edge.

For weeks we watched both boys closely. We had to admit they seemed changed. The sores on their bodies cleared. They weren’t so pale. Their eyes weren’t moving a mile a minute. They smelled of fresh cut grass. Oskar’s mom cooked them schnitzel and sauerkraut and buttered noodles. They ate every morsel and asked for more.

Cole borrowed the community push mower and went door-to-door offering to trim our lawns for free. Oskar applied for a paper route and got the job. Every week around dawn we heard the thwack of the New Glarus Post Messenger Recorder hitting our front doors. Cole’s mom whispered, Wait a month or so, we’ll see.

We searched for signs the boys were taking drugs again but there were none. After six months they were still clean and hard-working. They weren’t doing meth or any drugs. But aside from their behavior, as far as we could tell, the town hadn’t changed.

A year after the boys emerged from the woods a gusty wind encircled the town, the air braided with the pungence of mushrooms and green apples. We followed its path and hiked ten miles northwest to Mount Hebron, where we stumbled upon an old water storage tank flipped on its side. A corroded section had crumpled and created an entrance. One at a time we climbed inside. We knew at once it was the boys’ refuge though to us it felt stifling.

Small plastic bags were strewn around the bottom. It stank of rust and sweet smoke. A
waterlogged H. P. Lovecraft poetry collection was open to the poem, “The Ancient Track.” Scrawled in permanent ink along one wall of the hideout were the words, Please make it stop.

We climbed from the tank without disturbing the contents. We didn’t know if the boys might return and we didn’t want them to learn we’d uncovered their lair; we wanted to protect them.

We followed the winged seeds of the rotting white birches as they were carried on the wind toward New Glarus. As we rested beneath the moonless sky we smelled the intensifying earthy, sweet air. And we’d wait, wondering what would happen to the boys when the town changed.


 

Jan_Elman_Stout

Jan Elman Stout writes short stories and flash fiction. Her work has appeared in Literary Orphans, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Jellyfish Review, Pithead Chapel, 100 Word Story, and elsewhere. Her flash has been nominated for the Best Small Fictions anthology in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Jan is Submissions Editor for SmokeLong Quarterly. She is currently working on a flash collection. Jan can be reached on Twitter at @janelmanstout.

Famous is Always Better Than Dead by Tommy Dean

On those days that neither of us felt like living, we bought candy cigarettes and Twinkies, drank soda until our eyes swam rheumy, feet dangling over the wooden bridge edge, promising each other we’d be the first to jump, that the one left high above would watch the other until we no longer struggled against the mild current. “Look for the air bubbles,” you said, hands pulling out your ponytail for the eighth time that morning. Thirteen, but so small, I knew you’d never even make a splash, a dragonfly finally landing, coasting down the river, the fallen queen of a Coors light box. I played along because I’d let you get away with anything, even death.

I promised I wouldn’t follow, that I’d have to stay alive, because the people would demand a witness. Sure, they’d blame me, but you thought I was strong enough to take it. The accusations, the threats, the whispers and the stares, the way adults would look at me sideways, wondering. “You’ll be famous, Gavin. Famous is always better than dead.”

I promised I wouldn’t love you either, that I wouldn’t keep the strings of hair I cut away the time we got lost in the woods, the ratty strands caught on a gasping tree limb, the one we thought had come alive for those frightful five seconds. You hugging yourself, elbows rubbed raw from cutting our own trail, you swearing the river road was just around the next hill. The little dot of blood on your cheek, a dollop of frosting I couldn’t resist.

“If you’re gonna kiss me, you better do it now. I can’t escape or nothing.”

“Let me just get my knife,” I said, because even though your words said yes, I knew you really meant no.

“We agreed it had to be the river.”

“I’m just cutting you loose, Candy,” I said. Maybe even then I knew, goosebumps and that waving in and out feeling creeping over my back, the way you feel when a VCR tape ended and the screen went all scrambly like you were the last person on Earth.

The day it happened, the day you didn’t float, the day you didn’t wait for me, the sheriff showed up at my door. I’ll admit, for once, I wasn’t thinking about you. Your crooked smile with those bucky rabbit teeth, the way your knees turned in toward one another, how your breath always smelled like a Jolly Rancher baking in the sun. No, I was playing Sonic, battling my way into the Metropolis level, thumbs aching from pressing so hard on the controller, caught up in the blur of colors, collecting rings.

They sat me down in the living room, my mother wadding up her robe in her hands, not even apologizing for the state of our house, the fact that she hadn’t gotten dressed yet, the bowls of half-eaten cereal, the milk gray and warming.

After the sheriff cleared his throat for about the tenth time, I said, “I was supposed to be there.”

“Where, son?”

“At the river. That’s what this is about, right? Tell me Candy sent you. Tell me it’s a joke.” My voice cracked, and I remembered the way she used to mock me, her own voice going higher and higher until I laughed, pushing her shoulder away, because I couldn’t handle being so close.

“Honey, there’s been an accident,” my mother said.

“You can do better than that, Mom,” I said, bouncing up, feet pointed toward the kitchen.

“Gavin,” the man said, chewing on my name like a popcorn kernel stuck in his teeth. “We need to talk about Candy.”

“If you’d just go get her,” I started, but my mom’s hand was on the back of my neck, and the sheriff looked away.

“I should hit you,” I whispered, but the man didn’t move, didn’t reach for his gun, wouldn’t even look at my face.

If it had been a joke, you would have begged him for more flair. He would have waved you away, citing regulations about unholstering his gun. His resolve though wouldn’t have lasted more than a minute. Your tilted eyebrows would have said it all. I know you’ve already fallen in love with me, so do this one thing for me.

But love never guaranteed breathing or floating or safety or pride in being alive or the last second remembrance of your voice, all gone like the last drop of water circling the rim of a drain. Your name mentioned every night after supper, my children innocently asking for a little reward for eating a third of their food. Candy, they whisper, or laugh or rage, or shout. And a little of your fame flames up in a story my wife has forbidden me to tell.


TOMMY

 

Tommy Dean lives in Indiana with his wife and two children. He is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. He is the Flash Fiction Section Editor at Craft Literary. He has been previously published in BULL Magazine, The MacGuffin, The Lascaux Review, Pithead Chapel, and New Flash Fiction Review. His story “You’ve Stopped” was chosen by Dan Chaon to be included in Best Microfiction 2019. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.

Something from Home by Kathryn Kulpa

Her caseworker has decided Gran needs to be in a potato-free zone. No potatoes, no tomatoes, no eggplant. Gran was never mad for eggplant, and tomatoes she only liked if they were the big drippy summer ones, not the bloodless things they put in salads here, but how can you keep an Irish girl from her potatoes?

They’re all nightshades, the caseworker says. Cause inflammation. You watch, she’ll be walking again.

I looked up nightshades and something came up saying deadly nightshade, so who knows? Then I fell into a Google hole of tomatoes being love apples and how people thought one bite would kill you, like Snow White, and how strange that they would mix love with poison, but then I thought about Josh and it didn’t seem strange after all.

But I don’t think Gran’s arthritic because she likes potatoes, nightshades or no. She’s 97 years old. She outlived two sons. She’s Gran to everyone, me and Mom and Nana, but she’s my great-grandmother and she’ll have a great-great grandchild soon, if my brother’s girlfriend doesn’t change her mind. Gran lived on her own until her fall, still cooking on her old double oven. Now she’s in this bland, eggshell-colored room, fragile as an egg herself.

We’ve tried to cheer it up with cushy pillows and flowers. There’s an old photo of Gran we keep on the particle-board dresser so the aides know she was a woman to be reckoned with once. It’s my favorite picture of her. She lies in tall grass, her face holding every mystery. Bedroom eyes. She’s looking up at someone. Is it Grandpa? Or her dog, watching over her? A good man is hard to find, but a good dog is everything. The field she’s in is spiky, unmowed, but there she is in a skirt, not a bit itchy or bothered. Her stripes lay flat, as mine never do. She lived in a time when people ironed. My surprise when I opened the fridge to find her skirt in it, damp and smelling like pie crust. Skirts were sprinkled. Shirts starched. Nana had given her an iron that did all that, but Gran said gadgets couldn’t make proper pleats. Grandpa was a sharp dresser, she told me once, approvingly. As if that was all I needed to know about him. His plane was lost in the war, so that really is all I know. Gran was good in a crisis: two in diapers and a bun in the oven but she carried on as postmistress, air raid warden, all the things that people needed desperately once. Can she remember any of it?

She forgets my name sometimes. Calls me Gertie, one of those names no one has anymore, and I can’t think of any aunt or cousin with that name, so maybe she was a friend. Someone Gran shared secrets with, before she was Gran. Maybe Gertie was a mess of a girl like me, stripes never lying flat, lipstick too red, no better than she ought to be, as they said in the day. Whoever Gertie was, she’s the kind of friend who never forgets the potatoes. When I visit, Gran’s already reaching for the insulated bag.

“Baked tonight?”

“Mash. Extra butter and cream.”

“Ah, you’re a good egg, Gert.”

And if that caseworker gives me the stink eye, I just stare right back in her face. There’s a certain point at which people shouldn’t have anything else taken away from them. When Josh blocked my number I cried and Gran said, Don’t be an idiot, girl: I’ve lost more than you ever will.


 

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Kathryn Kulpa is a flash fiction editor at Cleaver magazine. She was a winner of the Vella Chapbook Contest for her flash collection Girls on Film. Her work is published or forthcoming in Pidgeonholes, Smokelong Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, and Milk Candy Review.

This Story Probably Won’t Mean What You Think It Will by L Mari Harris

Requiem

My father and I dream in sync one night. A woman in a black cloak, hooded, is chasing each of us down a dirt hill. There are crows and a full moon in the dream. The crows fly out of the cloaked woman’s mouth and scatter. The next morning over oatmeal, we talk over each other, each trying to tell my mother about the dream. My father says he doesn’t remember the crows and the moon. I tell him he must not have been paying attention, because they were there.

Gun Shy

My husband pulls up one day with a black dog leaning against him in the cab. That’s the spot where I normally sit, one hand resting on my husband’s leg, ticking off the stops we have to make—Orscheln’s for chicken feed, Dr. Grismann’s to get my stitches out (another story for another day), Country Mart for milk and shoulder pork on sale for $1.99/pound. This big black dog looks like she’s always sat next to my husband. She is sweet, gentle, eager to please. He says he’s going to take her out, test her, see if she’s gun shy. She sleeps between us every night, kicking out in her dreams, retrieving felled pheasants and doves.

8mm Home Movie From The Eighties

Fade in: Another girl’s red and gold cowboy boots. What she looks like doesn’t matter, so keep that camera on her feet. Cut to Scene: I tackle her after school, pinning her to the gravel with my knees. Unzip those boots thisfast and zip them up over my own chubby calves thisfast.  Take off into the bean field behind the school licketysplit. Maybe then she’ll want to be my friend and invite me for sleep-overs. Dissolve to Scene: We’ll make Totino’s Pizza Rolls. Pretend we don’t listen at the door as we each use the bathroom at bedtime. Pinky swear we’ll walk those high school halls together every day until we either graduate or one of us gets a boyfriend. Zoom! Fade out. Cue credits.

Look Me In The Eye

My father tells me I need to toughen up, that we’re going deer hunting. We follow a creek bed that opens up into a small field of bluestem. We are downwind from a doe he spots. I have already been warned the shot will be loud. I am ready for it, braced to the dirt, toilet paper stuffed in my ears earlier when he wasn’t looking. The doe looks up. We lock eyes. I don’t want her to leave me. I scream, still rooted to the dirt. My father startles, firing into the air. I scream louder. The doe pivots and disappears up and over a hill. He looks down at me, hand half raised in the November cold. “Jesus Christ, you’re worthless.”

Little Bear, Fierce Bear

My mother draws the curtains closed. “Stay away from that window. Bad storm’s comin’.” I throw a blanket over my head, clutching it under my chin, and tell myself stories. I am a frontier woman. A grieving widow in black lace. A flushed-cheek baby, face tucked under my hoodie, squinting against the gales. The house creaks on its foundation. The cottonwood beyond the front porch sways, throwing tentacles across the walls. The tentacles grow faces, growling, grabbing at my arms and legs, grasping at my blanket. I will myself into a bear, a huge bear, a fierce and snarling grizzly, and rip that tree limb by limb.

Genesis

Blue. Blue buildings, blue sidewalks, blue potted trees on each street corner. A blue giraffe with a paisley scarf wrapped around and around and around its neck waits next to me at a crosswalk. It stares straight ahead, waiting for the light to change. I’m already guessing the light will be blue, but maybe a softer shade, like a pale cornflower or a duck egg. Once, I dreamed a shadowy figure was chasing me down a hill. A human, though. Not this giraffe. This giraffe seems like it would be jovial, doing shots off its own belly, if we were at a party together. A doctor tells me my headaches are from the boy growing inside of me.


 

L_Mari_Harris_bio_photo

 

L Mari Harris lives in Nebraska, where she works as a copywriter. Follow her on Twitter @LMariHarris and read more of her work at http://www.lmariharris.wordpress.com.

My Dada Is A Bird by Adam Trodd

Ice crunch. Teeth tingle. Mama says it will crack enamel. Mama says lots of rules. You’re like a human rocking chair. Haw haw I rock more. She haw haws too and holds me warm, her arms across my belly like a soft belt and we rock rock rock together our shadow two shapes and one loving on the summer wall. Lemonade cutting our tongues when we sip it ooh not enough sugar. Yellow taste still alive when I lick my lips later. There is everywhere colours. Frank is lavender and helps me sleep cos of his songs in a gentle river voice. He’s not my Dada no cos Dada flew away that time. I love Frank. His palm on my forehead is a cool stone. Conor is charcoal that is dark but still orange on the inside like a hot stove. Conor burns and bellows so like a bull sometimes I think my ears will split. He says I should stay in respite and never come home again, retard. Words hissing and soft falling like grey ash on me while Mama and Frank are busy. I draw pictures of Dada who is free with the wings of a dove, the sun behind the whiteness of him and sky the colour of his old Ford Escort around him. Dada had to be free Mama says and Frank just nods before walking away. When I am in bed Conor whispers to me Dada jumped off the balcony because he couldn’t stand having a girl like me. But I don’t believe him because when I shut my eyes my Dada is flying so free in the light of a million lemon suns and he gives me a crown that shimmers like the sea.


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Adam Trodd’s fiction and poetry have appeared in publications such as The Irish Times, The Incubator Journal, Crannóg, Banshee, The Molotov Cocktail, Ellipsis, The Launchpad and The Caterpillar, as well as the Bath Flash Fiction and National Flash Fiction Day anthologies. He won the inaugural Benedict Kiely Short Story Competition and the Book of Kells Creative Writing Competition as well as being one of the selected poets for Ireland’s first Poetry Jukebox installation in Belfast. He was a Best Small Fictions 2018 nominee and is part of the XBorders:Accord project with the Irish Writers Centre. He lives and works in Dublin.

And No More Shall We Part by Sutton Strother

Not in our home, Joe and Katherine agreed, but there’d been some debate about accommodations. Joe wanted luxury while Katherine argued any old rattrap would do. Eventually they compromised – they’d long ago perfected the art – on a deluxe room in mid-priced chain halfway between the city and the airport.

They checked into their room at two and hung the Do Not Disturb sign on the knob before locking the door behind them. Katherine opened the window and tossed out their plastic key card.

“Gimme your phone.”

Joe nodded. “Hadn’t thought of that.”

Out went both phones, cracked dead rectangles now on the sidewalk below.

“What about the room phone?”

“We might want room service.”

They chuckled at the idea, faces hot with tenderness for one another.

Joe disconnected the phone line then settled onto the bed nearer the window. Katherine glanced at its twin, but her eyes stung at the thought of lying too far from her husband. When she turned back to him, he smiled and patted the spot beside him. Katherine climbed in, snuggling into the soft corduroy of his favorite jacket.

“How do you feel?” he whispered.

“Happy.”

Joe flipped channels on the TV until he found a sitcom rerun. They’d missed the first ten minutes, but Katherine had seen it before. When the episode was over, another started up. Halfway through, Katherine’s hands began to tremble. A heat was building deep in her belly, and then it rose like mercury in a thermometer up the back of her throat.

“It’s here.”

She leapt from the bed and raced into the bathroom. She retched four times into the toilet bowl, until she was emptied out, then fell back against the cool tile.

Joe looked on from the doorway, his body filling the frame almost completely. So sturdy, Joe. Those broad shoulders. She remembered nibbling the skin on his left shoulder after they’d made love for the first time, raking her little fingers through the cloud of hair on his chest. She’d laughed that night at the contrast of their bodies, delighted that two specimens of the same species could look so different from one another.

“Feel better?”

“If only.”

“It starts quicker in women. Ends quicker for men, though.”

“Don’t,” said Katherine.

“It’s okay. It’s true. And you won’t be far behind.”

Joe stepped into the room and flushed away her mess. His big hands took hold of her beneath the shoulders, guiding her to her feet.

It went on like that until around midnight. At the end, Katherine felt so much lighter, nothing left to heave up but acrid air.

“I think I have a fever,” she said with mild surprise.

It came for Joe soon after. He didn’t bother with the toilet, spilled his guts into the room’s little trash can instead.
“Sleep,” he urged Katherine when the first wave had passed.

“I should look after you,” she protested, but her body gave her no choice.

She woke to sunlight and stiff joints, a nest of her own black hair on the pillow case. When she ran a hand along her scalp, more strands slip free. Beside her, Joe slept, one arm encircling the trash can half-filled with his vomit. Vicious little lesions – bright red, seeping – speckled his chest and jawline. Katherine’s fingers skimmed along her own skin and found the same raw marks on the back of her arms. She gave one a curious prod and hissed. At the sound, Joe stirred but didn’t wake. Katherine gathered her hair from the pillow, braided it into a wreath and laid it over her husband’s chest, a talisman to ward off further harm.

That evening, they discovered they could pluck their fingernails loose, easy as flower petals. They arranged them into a garden on the bathroom counter, and within a few hours they’d encircled the garden with a fence built from their broken teeth. Blood dribbled from their mouths as they reminisced about the tulips they’d seen on a trip to Holland years before. Their words were gummy and would’ve been unintelligible to anyone else. They talked until their hearing went then made their eyes say the words instead. Ready, said Joe’s eyes, and Katherine’s answered, Wait. They repeated the words until shapes began to blur and the light in the room grew dim then, blind, dragged themselves back to bed.

There was no way for Katherine to know what time it was when the pain in her ankles woke her. The tendons there had snapped like two guitar strings. A scream clawed its way out of her, shaking the bed with its force. Behind her, Joe quickened, but whether it was her pain or some pain all his own that startled him, Katherine couldn’t know. He buried his face into her neck and kissed her over and over, spilling hot tears into what was left of her hair.

After that, Katherine didn’t sleep again. She pinched Joe’s arm once every few minutes, waited for him to pinch back. She did this until he stopped pinching.

It took Katherine half an hour to strip away their clothes, another hour still to roll Joe into the bathroom and lay him in the tub. He’d been breathing shallowly when she’d begun. By the time she flung herself over the rim, her fall broken by his soft body, he’d stopped breathing altogether.

Her foot inched up the wall, and she toed the faucet handle until the showerhead emitted its lukewarm spray. Water streamed over her face, her belly. It trickled between her legs. Eventually it sought the spaces where her skin met Joe’s, filled those spaces then dissolved them, melding their bodies together until there was no Katherine, no Joe, only one silent mass of bone and flesh and, minutes later, only white bone. In time, the bones dissolved, too, and the whole mess was carried down the drain in a neat little stream, and the water ran clear again.


 

SStrother

Sutton Strother is a writer and educator based in New York. Her work appears or is forthcoming at Pithead Chapel, Jellyfish Review, Longleaf Review, Atticus Review, CHEAP POP, and elsewhere. She Tweets at @suttonstrother.