Archive for the ‘!Short Story Contest!’ Category

Meet the 2016 !Short Story Contest! Finalists

Saturday, June 25th, 2016

Version 2DC Diamondopolous is an award-winning short story and flash fiction writer published worldwide. DC’s short stories have appeared in online literary magazines: Antioch University’s Lunch Ticket, Fiction on the Web, Eskimo Pie, Five on the Fifth, Crab Fat Lit and many more. DC stories are also in print anthologies, Blue Crow, the Australian literary journal and Scarborough Fair, published by the University of Toronto. DC won second place in the University of Toronto’s literary Contest for 2016 for her short story, Taps, and won two Soul Making-Keats honorary mentions in 2014 for her short stories, The Bell Tower and Taps. DC lives in California.

GB in truck - URLGlenn A. Bruce has an MFA in Writing, was associate fiction editor for The Lindenwood Review, and has published seven novels as well as two collections of short stories. He wrote the movie Kickboxer, episodes ofWalker: Texas Ranger and Baywatch. He has been published in RedFez, Beat Poets of the Forever Generation, Alfie Dog, LLR, Carolina Mountain Life, Oval, Brilliant Flash Fiction (where he was also final judge for the Flash Fiction 2015 contest) and many others. He recently won top prize in the “Quick & Dirty” short story contest for Also That (which included a cash prize and some cool art!). He currently teaches Screenwriting and Acting for the Camera at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC.

chad tilla5 (5)The son of a World War Two US Marine, Chad Ehler is an avid military historian and researcher. He studied national security and military affairs at UC Berkeley and constitutional law and jurisprudence at Santa Clara University.  His latest novel set in England and France during the Battle of Britain, 1940, is set to be published in 2016 by London-based Endeavour Press, Ltd. You can find him on Twitter @ghqhomeforces or on Fidalgo Island, Washington, where he lives with his wife and daughter.

Tara Campbell_With_DinosaurTara Campbell [www.taracampbell.com] is a Washington, D.C.-based writer of crossover sci-fi. With a BA in English and an MA in German Language and Literature, she has a demonstrated aversion to money and power. Previous publication credits include stories in Lorelei Signal, Punchnel’s, the WiFiles, Silverthought Online, Toasted Cake Podcast, Litro Magazine, Luna Station Quarterly, Master’s Review and Magical: An Anthology.

Don Noel for DefenestrationismDon Noel retired after four decades’ print and broadcast journalism in Hartford CT, a career that included runner-up for a Pulitzer Prize, finalist for a White House Fellowship, an Alicia Patterson Fellowship for study in Cambodia and Romania, and a dozen or so other honors.  Turning in retirement to fiction, he took an MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University at age 81. His work has so far been chosen for publication by Calliope, Shark Reef, Drunk Monkeys, The Tau, Indian River Review, Midnight Circus, Oracle, Clare Literary Magazine and The Raven’s Perch.  He has a novel and two novellas looking for publishers.  The Albert Einstein quote on the desk reads: “If a cluttered desk signs a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

 

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In the Realms of Light and Darkness: eight letters from war: 5. Gordafarid

Friday, January 1st, 2016

5. GORDAFARID

My dearest Son,

Your uncle (whose name I cannot write here, of course) was very understanding. He left the decision up to me, he did not apply pressure. He is a good man. He explained how a woman would not arouse suspicion, as a man would, entering such a place. And he urged me to discuss it, with him, and with you and your sisters, because you are all old enough to understand. But you, my Son, are too far away and it was not something that could be discussed by letter. Even this I must leave with someone whom I know you will think of when you hear what has happened, and that person will place it where you will think to look. Your younger sister would not understand why I would do this. She has babies herself and a husband who is alive and good to her, and who cannot go to war because he cannot walk. She only feels, not thinks. She did not come to see me today. Uncle said it was best if no one entered the house today who did not enter it every day.

Your other sister remains in the hospital. Her wounds are healing but she will, I think, never again be well. She has nightmares every night about the bombing, wakens screaming, her husband tells me. Of course I have not talked to her of this. She sees people die every day and to know her mother has planned her own death would be more than she could bear. Please explain to her when she is well enough just to weep.

Uncle fears the authorities will punish the rest of the family. I fear that too, but they will claim they had no knowledge of my act. Now that I have made the decision he said it would be all right for me to write this for you to find later, but he cautioned me: Do not use anyone’s name.

I write this with both sadness and exhilaration in my heart. I have prepared myself, with uncle’s wife’s help. She too is sad but she understands things the way I do. It is the way men must understand: This is war and, in war, we all must be soldiers. There is more at stake than one woman’s life. There is what we believe, what we live for. I will leave in a little while but it is important to write to you, to be able to say these last words to you, my Son, so you will remember that what I do is done from belief in our cause, and faith, and love.

What, after all, is death but an opportunity to join God? I am fifty — that is not old, but I have lived a full life, loving and being loved by your father, giving birth to my children and watching each of you grow. You are my legacy, as you are your father’s. He will be proud that I have chosen to serve God and our people, just as I am proud of you for the service you perform in protecting our nation.

I know there is much to say that is important, yet it is the weather that impresses itself on my mind. It is a warm day, but not so warm the bindings are uncomfortable. When we put them on it felt odd, to know I was dressing for the last time, that these would be the garments in which I would say my last prayer, that the photograph uncle’s wife will take of me will show me in this unobtrusive clothing in which no one will notice me. Few people have noticed me in my life, except your father, and I have not minded. I have lived a simple life, as God has willed. This is good. I come to my death with my eyes and my heart open, in clear conscience, despite the deaths I know I will cause. I believe those, like mine, are the will of God.

It is bright outside, a beautiful day. I am grateful for God’s kindness in granting that.

Walking where I must go I hope I am not so absorbed that I fail to notice the sun, the sky, the children, even the scarred streets and buildings. There is so much beauty even amid the rubble their bombs and soldiers have left.

I recall when you were a baby, how I nestled you to my breast and you drank of it. How I loved that! My breasts are dry now but still, whenever I think of you I think of that, your lips gently suckling, your eyes closed, your tiny hands reaching out for me. It is I who reach out now, to you, to the rest, asking for your prayers. Heaven will be a lonely place if your father is not waiting for me, if you and your sisters do not join us one day.

I am not afraid. Uncle assures me there will be no pain, I will hear nothing. The passing will come too quickly for me to even notice. I will close my eyes, take a breath in which I will pray and speak your name, your sisters’ names, your father’s. Then I will press the button and go to meet God.

Goodbye, my Son. Pray for me.

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In the Realms of Light and Darkness: eight letters from war: 4. Habibah

Friday, January 1st, 2016

4. HABIBAH

My dear daughter,

I must write this sad news, though I cannot see the paper through my tears. They have knocked at our door today and told me. Ayyub is dead. Of fever, not a sword.

It was only three months ago he was here, a proud groom, standing beneath the canopy with Esther, both of them filled with laughter. What a lovely day. It seemed there could be nothing but joy, for everywhere in the world, for all life to come. The song, the hope, the laughter. There was no war, then. Only happiness. How beautiful she looked, how beautiful they both were. Children of gold, gleaming. Only the old women cried, through their smiles. And the old men held their hands and smiled as well, just as Ayyub held Esther’s and smiled at her.

Today her tears flow, as mine. There is no comfort to give or to take. We hold each other. We try to speak, but words have no power to heal. I look in the mirror and see I am not whole any more. A part of me has vanished.

He was kind, the man who came. I saw him from the window, on his horse, riding slowly up the street. It was a clear day, the sun was bright behind him and his face was lost in the light, but I knew who he was. He has come often in these times. Yesterday he stopped at Sarah and Daniel’s door. I watched him dismount, straighten his trousers and coat, remove his hat. I watched him step, silently as possible, to their door, knock, wait. When the door opened I looked away, with sorrow and relief. Today, I watched him, with fear. There are so many in our little street, so many who have sons who fight. I prayed: Adonai: Let him go past my door. Let him stop at Noam’s or Anya’s, any door that is not my door. I am ashamed to say that, but it is true. My son, my only son, Esther’s husband. I would trade his life for another’s. That is wrong, but I am a mother. I can be wrong, but love cannot be wrong.

When he knocked, I knew. Esther was in the barn, I was alone. I stood. I could not go to the door. He knocked again, a third time. Then he called, in a quiet voice: Habibah. He opened the door and stood there, looking at me. I did not look at him. Habibah, he said again, gently, and he came to me and took my hands. I am sorry, he said, but Ayyub…

I did not weep, then, nor cry out. A fever, he explained. He was brave.

Brave or a coward, sword or a fever: He is just as dead. He is just as dead. If he had not gone to fight he would not be dead.

Many soldiers have died from it, this fever, the kind man said. We have buried him, as we did the others, quickly. He asked that you have his mezuzah. And he gave it to me, put it in my hand. And he left.

I am an old woman now. I was young, this morning, now I am old.

I am sorry, my daughter. I am sorry I must tell you these things, I am sorry I must know

them. I am sorry I am old. And I am sorry for my tears. They do not help me, they cannot help

you. They are just stains on this paper. And on my heart.

I hope you will come, if you are able. Esther will need us both.

Sadly, Your mother Habibah

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And the Winners of the 2015 !Short Story Contest! are…

Monday, September 7th, 2015

A glorious Labor Day to you all.

 

What a great contest.  Our Slim Stat numbers show

over 1,760 page-views from

360 unique IP addresses.

 

And the Fan Favorites are:

 

tied at 11.6% of the Runner-up votes,

The First Time I Painted my Nails, or the Moose is Not an Ass

by Ariel Fintushel

and

The Egg Stealers by Sarena Ullibarri.

 

And with 16.8% of the Grand Prize votes:

Liarbird by Sara Kate Ellis.

 

 

 

And, drum-roll please…

by four-Judge panel plus fan voting,

 

the 2015 !Short Story Contest! Runner-ups:

The First Time I Painted my Nails, or, the Moose is Not an Ass

by Ariel Fintushel

and

The Egg Stealers by Sarena Ullibarri.

 

And the defenestrationism.net 2015 !Short Story Contest! Grand Prize Winner:

Liarbird by Sara Kate Ellis.

 

!Congratulations to our winners, and all our finalists!

 

Read the stories

view How the Judges Voted (very close, and every story got a vote!)

Meet the Finalists (photos, bios, and more)

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Winners Announced Today…

Monday, September 7th, 2015

 

The Fan Voting polls have closed,

the Judges have voted,

we are tabulating the winners as we speak…

 

Keep tuning in,

we’ll announce the winners soon.

 

 

 

!Short Story Contest!

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Last Weekend for Voting for 2015 !Short Story Contest!

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

 

Send in your final votes for the

2015 !Short Story Contest!

for Voting Closes Sunday,

September 6th,

at 7:59 Eastern Standard Time

 

 

!Short Story Contest!

Vote Here

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Through the Window

Saturday, August 15th, 2015

Through the Window
by T.C. Powell

“Men!” Saldana said, as though it needed no elaboration.  Lise and Maggie nodded in agreement.

They sat around the Denny’s table on a lazy Saturday afternoon, finishing slices of pie.  Saldana, three years removed from a five year marriage, had the most authority in these discussions.

“It’s so typical.  That’s the shame.  Sure, we expect them to cheat, but with their secretaries?  How cliché!”

“Know what he said about her?”  Lise said.  “‘She’s not a secretary, she’s an executive assistant.’  Can you believe it?”

Maggie mumbled disapproval, like she was expected to, then eased back in the booth, watching the world outside the window, not really listening to the conversation.  She didn’t have to.  She’d already heard it, every first Saturday of the month for the past two years.  Details changed — different men who found different ways of breaking their hearts — but the punchline remained the same: men were awful, evil, and from then on, eternally forsworn.

“…and I promise,” Lise was saying, “I’m never going to make that mistake again.”

“Hear, hear!”  Saldana applauded.

Outside, Maggie watched a car stranded on the far side of the road.  A pretty girl in her early twenties had a flat.  She was waiting in the car for help — probably already put in a call — when someone pulled up behind.  Not roadside assistance, just a Good Samaritan.  A guy hopped out, trim and tall with dark curly hair, and jogged up to her window.  Lucky girl.

“You can ask Maggie about David.  She dated him, too!”  Lise said.

“Huh?” Maggie said.  “Oh yeah, David.  It’s been a long time…  He was a sweet guy.”

“But didn’t it gross you out?  The way he’d belch songs when he drank beer?  I mean, first time?  Funny.  Hundred-and-first time?  Not so funny.”

“You know, we dated in high school — I don’t think he was doing that then.”

“Hmmm,” Lise said.

“Well, I’ll tell you the grossest thing I ever saw Enrico doing,” Saldana said.  “I woke up late one night and Rico wasn’t in bed.  I went to the bathroom to see if he was okay, and…”

The guy had the tire off.  He was older, maybe twenty-eight, but they would make a cute couple, both young and attractive.

Life was crazy.  You could have a flat, whole day ruined, when someone comes along to help.  But it’s not just anyone.  It’s him.  The guy with the hair and the build and the smile, and not just those things — he’s a good guy, too — you know because he stopped.

And so you say “hello” (coyly, because you don’t want to seem aggressive), but he can tell you’re interested anyways, and he knows that you’re right for him, too.  Cue the music swell.

The flat tire, that one-in-a-million quirk of fate, leads to a first date, then roses and candlelight and dancing, then bed, smiling as you wake up next to him, stretching in the sheets and feeling his warmth beside you, knowing that you won’t have to start your day like normal, cold and alone.  Then everything.

Maggie sighed.

Saldana was still talking: “…I swear, it was a week before I could use the tub again.  You can still see the stains if you know where to…”

The tire replaced, the girl started to get back into her car.  The guy was watching her, looking around, obviously trying to come to a decision.  It was so cute!  A guy like that, nervous about a girl.

He walked up and knocked on her window.

She put it down.

Here it was — the big moment.

Then, Maggie could see the girl hold something out.  Money.

The guy hesitated, took the bill, and stood back as she put the window up and started her car.

As she drove off, he watched after her, maybe to see if she would come back.  She didn’t.  Just left him standing there.

The little fool!  Maybe being so young, she could believe that this kind of thing happened every day — maybe Maggie, herself, believed it once — but a day would come when she would know better.  She just left, having paid for his attentions like an escort.  He didn’t want your money, kid.

“Really,” Lise said.  “Where are you supposed to meet the good ones?  All the usual spots — bars, clubs, even the libraries now — that’s where the ‘players’ go to find their next victims.”

“You assume too much,” Saldana laughed.  “What do you mean ‘good ones’?”

“Ha ha, I’m serious.  Maggie, maybe you know.  If you wanted to find a good guy — someone real, that you could spend your life with or whatever — where would you look?”

Outside, the guy was headed back to his car, his head down.  Maggie couldn’t believe the girl had blown it.

“Everywhere I could.”

Saldana said, “Honestly, Lise, I think if you want to meet the perfect man, you have to rely on fate.  You can’t make it happen.  You just need to recognize it when it does, so you don’t let it get away.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Lise said.

The guy was back in his car.  Maggie’s stomach dropped to see him go.  Who knew where he’d go now, or whether he’d ever find anyone, himself.  Maybe he’d drift, like her, never quite finding that someone.

She saw him turn the key.  Nothing happened.  He tried again, but his car wouldn’t start.  He cursed, and she stifled a small laugh.  Suddenly it hit her, and she laughed even harder.

“Maggie?” Saldana said.  “Where are you going?  We haven’t paid.”

“I’ll be right back.  There’s something I have to do.”

Maggie scrambled out of the booth, her pumps clapping on the linoleum as she raced from the restaurant.

Through the window, Saldana and Lise watched as Maggie approached the guy’s car, just as he finally got it started.

He took down his window, they exchanged smiles, and she said, “Hello.”

 

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Liarbird

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

Liarbird
by Sara Kate Ellis

 

I wouldn’t have looked Jenny up if it hadn’t been for two things.  I had a forty-hour layover in that tin can port, and I was rich.

Not stinking, but comfortable by Jenny’s standards, and I’d been waiting years during that climb to security, the marriages — and the divorces, thank god – for a chance to show her up.  Maybe even before, when no one could foresee Jenny’s plummeting fortunes, and all I could think about was punching her in those perky tits till they were facing the opposite direction.

Here’s how I played it in my head. Jenny’d appear at the door of my suite, or I’d stroll casually down to meet her in the plush, carefully guarded portel lobby.  I’d lift my arm, curl my fingers just so like I was playing a bar of light, plinky jazz and say it.

“Oh. Hi, Jenny.”

Full stop after the Oh. Almost like I could see a stain on her jacket, but chose to keep it to myself.  I’d even practiced in the toilet on the shuttle in.  Couldn’t let the Gicks see.  After decades in their company, it was still spooky how those large, ophidian eyes could deduce every thought from a toss of the hair or chew mark on a bottom lip.  The Gicks were why the judge banished Jenny to this shithole in the first place.

I sat on the bed in my suite and slid my hand over the remote, watching as the walls melted to let in a view of the port.  Nothing devastating, not like the view of Proxima Centauri a few stops over, but pleasant just the same: Shuttles and police drones lifting off and landing, the Hub crackling up there in the dark with Jupiter rising up from behind like a wheel of cloudy pastels.  Serene enough to make me nod off, but when the COM buzzed I jumped.

“Maddy?”  The voice on the other end was arch, but warm.  “You did know they wouldn’t let me up.”

“Oh. Hi, Jenny,” I said.  I pulled my hand from the mic, got silence.

“Hello?” I said again.

“You’re in the executive suite, smart ass. I can’t get up without clearance.”

I forced a chuckle and Jenny met me halfway, her laughter vibrating through the air like something unsavory had just fluttered in through the vent.

“I’ll be right down,” I said.

I wasn’t going to apologize.  Whose fault was it that no one could trust her anymore?  Or that I’d found her ten years back with her legs wrapped around my fiancé?

#

The lobby was all fake wood and plush modular furniture, predictable comfort for a soft class of anthropod whose money didn’t put it above the worst kind of sentimentality.  In the bar, a piano trilled under the ministrations of some Gick’s gummy, attenuated claws.  It was swaying from side to side, its large eyes reflecting warm nostalgia as it crooned out a near perfect rendition of Armstrong that made all the faces in the room sag with a longing for home.

Everyone but Jenny.

She was turned away as I approached, her arm curled over the back of a half moon sofa like she had it in a headlock.
I steeled myself before meeting her eyes. Like the Gicks, Jenny was good at mimicry, at exuding warmth and charm, but she had to have some sucker to mirror first.

It was that same fiancé who’d first explained them to me, a few years after the Gicks made landing.  Stan was biologist who specialized in alien neurochemistry for the now not-so-big pharma. He was working in one of their think tanks, cooking up new drugs for a new age.

“The Gicks evolved around millions of sentient life forms,” he said.  “Their neurochemistry, hell, their entire biological makeup is primed for mirroring and mimicking, kind of like the voice box on a lyrebird, only it’s mostly,” He took off his glasses wiggled his brows. “In the eyes.”

Jenny turned, that dazzling smile had already lit across her features.  She held up a half-finished martini.  “Hope you don’t mind, but I put this on your room.”

Before I could answer, she was up, her arms flung around me in a throw back to those squealing embraces of our girlhood.

A decent act, I noted, but nothing that could work on me.  As we came together, she patted my back like she was drying her hands on a washroom towel, and I glanced warily over her shoulder, calculating the price of the gin in her glass.

“Don’t be so shocked,” she said, pulling back. Her eyes narrowed as they swept over me. “You thought I’d be living in the ducts? Maybe, mopping floors for the Gicks in this here hotel?”

It was true.  Jenny’s resolute beauty had dashed part of my hopes. Her skin shone from recent treatments, and her eyes displayed the same eerie circumspection that had always made her recklessness such a shock. She certainly didn’t look like a woman who’d been incarcerated for two years, however cushy the circumstances.

“Laying it on thick, don’t you think?” I said, my voice faltering.   The waiter, a gawky human with a rash cresting beneath his bow tie, passed me a Scotch and I nearly missed my mouth as I sipped. Less than a minute and Jenny Belveth had ruined my entrance.  Or maybe I’d just stumbled into hers.

“Sit down,” Jenny said. She took my arm and shoved me gently down on the sofa.  “We’re wasting time.”

As I expected, she gave short shrift to my career, the marriages, and that last, interminable divorce.  Our conversation hemmed safely around the old days, politely skirting her trial, the jail term, and when we ran out of past, I listened to her spew hatred at the Gicks.

“You wouldn’t believe what it’s like outside,” she said, pointing down rather than at the view.  “They are so goddamned literal.  They insist workers’ subsistence levels be based on that of most humans on earth, so much for making us richer.  They put most of the indentured into goddamned shantytowns to avoid incongruity with their ‘peasant sensibilities.”

“Huh,” I said, keeping my voice level.  These sob stories were nothing new.  Gicks controlled all transit, the technology to harvest the energy from stars and gas giants to power their Hubs, and they fancied themselves as cultural arbiters, so long as those cultures were versions that abetted their narrative of adulthood.  Their evolutionary quirk meant they were the only beings capable of cross species communication and authentic mutual understanding – a term I’d always laughed at — and thus the only ones capable of running the Hubs.

“What about you?” I said.  “Is that where you’re living?”

“Please.”  She brushed a strand of hair from her eyes.  “Got out of that hole in the first week.  Of course, the shanties are spotless, a goddamned theme park of poor.” She put down her drink and glanced at me cautiously. “You know, you really should see it while you’re here.”

I stared blankly into the bottom of my glass.  “I’m not really here long enough to-”

She sighed, drummed her fingers on her knee.  “Don’t tell me you’ve sold out. After all that talk about social justice back in law school?  You used to bore me so.”

We both laughed, but her remark was was more jab than tease. The idea of Jenny burning with moral opprobrium for the disenfranchised was the real joke when she couldn’t drum up enough for those closest to her. She’d done a number on Stan after I’d left, put him in therapy.  For that, I was perversely grateful.

“I guess I have.”  I kept my smile firm and made to stand.  “It’s been really good to—.”

Jenny leaned over and snatched the bill.

“You can leave that.”

She glanced up at me.  A glimmer of disbelief crossed her features.  “Oh my god.  You thought I was serious.”

“I didn’t mind.”

Jenny stood and slipped her handbag over her shoulder. “Let me get this, Maddy.”  She grinned slyly as she strolled toward the register.  “Get a cab. You must at least be hungry.”

I bristled.  I hadn’t planned to leave the hotel, much less the area.  Jenny, however, knew my fondness for discretion and she used that moment to blow it wide open.

“I know a great place,” she called across the room. She gave a meaningful nod toward the Gick pianist.  “And it sure as hell beats trying to eat with all the you-know-whats in the room.”

I felt the heat rise to my face.  Every Gick in the bar had registered her insult, along with every human most likely, but Jenny’s lack of tact had forced my decision.  While she paid the bill, I told the Gick concierge I wanted a hotel driver, Gick security preferably, and all of my contacts routed through.

As always, the thing’s eyes mirrored back my unease with alarming reassurance, and I felt a friendly loosening in my chest.  Here was the trait that allowed them to gain trust, to work their way in among so many divergent civilizations, stringing up Hubs through the galaxy like tinsel around the branches of some great suspiring tree.  It was why Jenny had volunteered for the study all those years ago, the one that shoved her out of a dull, pimply gracelessness and into a world that for a few years anyway, was unequivocally hers.

The cab waiting for us was a climber, equipped with spidery grapplers meant to usher the workers into the most hard-to-reach depths of the port. The Gick concierge had seen to that too.  It must have picked up where Jenny wanted to go, or at least the seediness of our destination.  Likely there was a tracker on the car as well, I told myself. The Gicks think of everything.

This Hub was one of the main transfer points out of Sol, and the Gicks employed thousands of workers to mine energy from Io and Jupiter.  Many came voluntarily, excited at the chance for higher wages or credit toward interstellar travel, but some, like Jenny, were sent up to serve sentences or wait out their paroles.

“I’m not sure about this,” I said.

“You called the cab,” Jenny said. She took my hand and tugged me into the warmth of the car.

“Where to, Madame?” the Gick spoke in a clipped British accent, but Jenny chattered back in fluent Gick.  I caught a whiff of irritation in her voice, and the thing raised the glass barrier between us.

“Some privacy,” she said. “Finally.”

I hiccupped as a hole opened in the surface and the cab dropped into the duct. It felt the way I imagined it might to find myself hurtling down an elevator shaft.

“This ought to help.” Jenny pulled a flask from her handbag, opened it and waved it under my nose.  She giggled as I recoiled at the strong, yet familiar scent.

“I don’t forget,” she said.

#

It was the cherry liqueur we slugged in college.  We pounded it back that night we crashed the opera. Jenny’s idea, of course, a first sign someone else was emerging from that grabby, insecure kid I’d known growing up. I chalked it up to a new pair of contacts.

“Put it on,” she said, tossing me a blouse.  It was white and downright frumpy, its coarse fabric grazing my fingers.

“I thought you said opera.”  I gestured to the strapless black gown I’d spent a fortune on, and Jenny grinned and lifted my arm, slipping it into the scratchy confines of the cloth.

“We’re ushers,” she said, “We stake out the empty seats in the first act, then right before intermission, we head off for a powder and then—”

She lifted her shirt to reveal her own sequined garment, the fabric clinging to her like a second skin.  I swallowed as I took in the glow of her skin, the red silk augmenting her hair, her eyes. The baby fat, along with the old Jenny, had simply got up and left.

By intermission we were sipping champagne in the lobby, our shirts crammed into our handbags, the hands of wealthy older men tickling our elbows as they led us to our seats.

“Fitzgerald got it wrong,” Jenny said, as we settled in for Gatsby’s fate. “Second act’s when you’re home free.”

#

     I took a swig of the liqueur and felt it burn with the memory in my chest.  “Where are we headed?”

“I’ve got to stop somewhere first,” Jenny said.

The other shoe, I thought wryly.  But the alcohol and Jenny’s nearness had dulled the impact, turned it into a foot massage.

In Jenny’s second act, she’d had a star turn as a litigator, winning billions of credits in cases for her firm.  In the third act, which none of us had anticipated, she’d gone from star to villain, an expert jury tamperer in one of the biggest doping scandals since the Olympics of 2048.  Headlines called it the Charm Offensive, and her firm went under the same year Jenny went to trial.

“Where is that?” I asked finally.

“I’ve got a guy.  He’s keeping something for me.” She lowered her eyes, and then lifted her chin to face me.  “It’s something I’d like you to see.”

“I thought you wanted me to see the ducts,” I said.

It was dismaying how fast, how smoothly her expression could shift from a lighthearted arrogance to the kind of dejection that made you want to throw your arms around her or worse, yank out your billfold.  It was my first discernable sign that evening of the change in her, the evolution, pharmaceutically triggered, that had turned her into such a charming pariah. I reminded myself that this was artifice, that Jenny could work on me like a toy surprise on a sugar-starved toddler.

“What is it?”

Jenny reached into her bag and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. She lit up and answered me through a cloud of smoke.  “I’ve been doing some consulting.”

I sighed, batted the smoke away.  “They’ll put you back
in for that.“

“I know that.”

Officially Jenny’s diagnosis was listed as a disability, an incapability “to connect on an equivalent level of human interaction,” but it was a defect that gave her an unfair advantage. Fellow human beings just couldn’t keep up.  She wasn’t allowed to practice law anymore, couldn’t work in marketing, or most types of business for that matter. It was a condition of her parole.

“What if I said it’s for a good cause?” She turned away again, her eyes traversing the shadows, the random streaks of light that flashed by as we descended into the ducts.

“You?” I laughed. Workers’ compensation and labor rights had been my niche back in law school. It was how I got myself taken seriously. Jenny, on the other hand, went straight into corporate litigation, those giant payoffs I’d been too ashamed to admit I wanted.

“The prisoners are having problems with the Gicks.  It’s a mess. You wouldn’t believe the conditions they work in, the utter lack of safety standards.”

Jenny exhaled the last of the smoke, stubbed the cigarette out on the window glass.  “Working the harvesters on Io takes crews of ten, fully armored, hundreds of thousands worth of Lead-Bismuth coolant pumped through by the minute.  Even then, they need to switch shifts every ten minutes or risk permanent damage. Only the Gicks are sending them out there in teams of five, most with substandard protection.  They’re coming back so hot their neighbors are getting nosebleeds.”

“Why don’t they report to the clinics?”

Jenny shot me a look of disbelief.  “You think they haven’t?”

She took another pull on the flask, then went on easy breezy like she was midway through a presentation.
“The problem is getting the evidence and testimony into the right hands back home. That’s where you come in.”

“Me?” I laughed and pressed my feet against the back of the front seat.  “You said it yourself, Jenny,” I said.  “I’ve already sold out.”

I was trying to appear blithe, but Jenny snatched my wrist and squeezed hard enough to hurt.

“No, Maddy.”  She said, relaxing her grip. She rubbed her thumb over my palm, tickling the skin.  “I’m the one who’s changed, remember?  You were always the bleeding heart.”

“I’d like for that not to be literal.”

“It’s just a few files,” she said.  “Harvester layouts, radiation readings, medical charts, affidavits, all on paper. No one here trusts the signal. Gicks could intercept it in a heartbeat, trace it back. I promised them I could get it to the right people.  You can do at least that, can’t you? Christ, slip it under the door of the State Department and run if you have to.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  Jenny reached up, took my chin in her hand and forced me to look at her. Once more, I felt the pressure of her fingers on my hand, and found myself dumbly squeezing back.

“Maddy,” she said.

“I can’t promise anything.”

“That’s enough. Thank you.”

She closed her eyes and slumped back into the seat in exhaustion and relief.  When she let go of my hand, I felt bereft.

#

    Neither Jenny nor Stan told me she was volunteering.  The study was confidential, but that summer before we both took the bar, I sensed something irrevocably different about her. That day she came striding through the crowd at my engagement party, there was looseness, a fluidity to her manner that made her seem less material than the others. Jenny was more flicker than flesh, applying her attention with light speed precision to whomever might need it.
And they did need it, I saw.  They craved it.  As Jenny neared, people’s bodies drew in around her, their faces brightened and their voices rose in greeting.  Everyone but Stan.  Stan was impervious, holding forth on his work: a drug synthesized from a Gick hormone.

“It targets transmitters that fire up the mirror neurons, even stimulates growth when there’s a deficit,” he said. “We’re seeing treatments for autism, depression, a whole host of personality disorders, even shyness. Our subjects are already showing progress.”

Even then I noticed she was standing a little too close to him, but Stan was still talking. He was the only one not trying to get her attention. I reminded myself that this was why I loved him. I didn’t know his indifference by this point was practiced, pulled off like a Gick.

“How do you know?”

It was Constance Turner, the kind of woman who’d compliment you for wearing a skirt instead of pants. She’d also noticed Jenny’s proximity to Stan, and was watching me smugly, waiting for my response.

“Know what?” Stan said.

Constance folded her arms.  “How do you know they’re not faking?”

Stan’s expression soured as Jenny plucked his drink from his hand.  She tossed me a playful grin as she downed the glass.

“Good question.”

#

Jenny knocked on the shade, chattering more instructions as the Gick lowered the barrier. We circled down the ramp into a sprawling vaulted chamber, cluttered with tin shacks and abandoned vehicles.  Tarps extended from the ends of abandoned sewage pipes, inside of which I could see light and movement.  A few of the human inhabitants peered back, their weary eyes locking on the Gick driver as we passed.

“Gicks don’t come to these areas much.  It’s not part of the showroom,” Jenny said. There was indignation in her voice, but underneath a twinge of haughtiness, as if the driver’s presence had boosted her status. We pulled up in front of what looked like one of those prefab construction site offices on earth.

“Here?” I said.

Jenny didn’t answer as she stepped out of the cab.  I wondered if I shouldn’t tell the Gick driver to turn tail, but the slumminess had piqued my curiosity.  The light was on inside the trailer, and music, a heavy thrum of curse and boast, vibrated the structure’s thin walls.

“Ioan?” Jenny said, strolling up the ramp.  She banged her fist on the door.  “Ioan, open up!”

The door opened and a burly man wearing a T-shirt under a suit vest glared out at us. “They’re in back.”

The inside didn’t betray my expectations.  It looked prepped for a construction crew the next day.  There was a fridge, an old desk, and one of those cheapo filing cabinets someone had dented with the toe of a cheaper shoe. On the wall hung an earth calendar from two years back, the entire month of October drooping blank beneath a girl riding a “vintage” Gick Skyskipper.  She hadn’t lied about the paper at least.

Jenny glanced around the empty disheveled room, her face betraying a whiff of anger.

“They started already?”

“They waited long enough,” Ioan said.

She pulled the fridge open and took out a beer, passed me the open bottle a little too fast.  It spewed some of its head onto my hand.

“Just a sec, ‘kay?” she said, her mouth quirking into a cynical glower, her shoulders lowering, readjusting themselves as if completing a transformation.  “These Joes are real secretive.”

I stood there, taken aback by the change in her demeanor, the downshift in her speech as I blanched at the smell coming from the bottle. It wasn’t beer, but some nasty combination of hops and molasses, maybe the only thing they could get down here.

Ioan blocked me as I tried to follow her in. Jenny turned around, cupped my cheeks as she leaned in and mouthed, “Fifteen minutes. Tops.”

I leaned in as the door closed, trying to get a glimpse of the men in the room, see those downtrodden souls she’d talked about, but these men looked nothing of the sort.

#

 It was hard to remember the Jenny from before, that endearing, pathetic shadow I’d never quite had the heart to shove away.

There was the time in fifth grade when Billy Hollis shoved through the cafeteria line, knocked the food right off of our trays.  I remember picking up my half spilled milk carton, barging through the crowd to dump the remainder down the back of his shirt.

“That was so cool,” Jenny told me, even as she handed Hollis a paper towel.

Or the summer when we were sixteen, when Jenny came to all those movies, must have been a dozen, and said she didn’t mind sitting apart while Greg Peabody and I necked in the back row.

I didn’t care how Jenny might feel, sitting there by herself, only a chewed up straw and the remnants of the crushed ice in her cup to keep her company.  I was too busy having my mind blown by the possibility of freedom, of rebellion and the feel of a boy’s hands beneath my shirt.  I’d always thought Jenny adored me, maybe up until the day I’d walked in on her and Stan, and discovered it was the other way around.

By then, it was too late. By then the Gicks had long since come and blown all our minds, and made some of them unrecognizable.

The results would take years to confirm, but there was that expert testimony at her trial, the same research trotted out in the hundreds of doping scandals that cropped up around the same time.  The outcome was clear: Years of abuse of the drug meant irreparable damage to the amygdala, a permanent deadening of empathy. The ability to charm, however, to diffuse tension and manipulate remained seamless.  Alien, yet so familiar.

#

I checked my phone.  Twenty minutes minutes gone, almost an hour since we’d left the portel. I got up.  Ioan stood up.

“Can I help you with something?”

“You got anything better?” I said, nodding to the drink on the table.

Ioan snorted, gave me a little bow as he stepped over to the fridge and I snuck another glance out at the cab.  Good Gick, I thought.  I wasn’t going to wait much longer. Give Jenny maybe five more minutes.  I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. The number was from work, a signal bounced all the way from the nearest company station. A signal delay of 19 minutes registered at the bottom of the screen.

“Ms. Foley?” said an automated voice. “This is Daniella from accounts. We’re calling regarding charge made to your account at the Io-Onyx Suites at 38:01. Please confirm.”

I ran a sweaty hand through my hair. I guess Jenny hadn’t picked up the tab at after all.  She’d likely been sitting there for hours guzzling up bottles of Grand Cru.

“Amount?” I said.

“40,000 credits,” the voice continued chirpily.

40,000.  The phone nearly slipped from my hand. That’s what all the nonsense had been about at the bar, Jenny feigning poverty and then making a big show of wounded pride as she magnanimously took the check. It was the perfect in to wheedle, somehow, just enough information from the tab, from that waste duct of waiter to access my expense account.

My teeth were grinding something fierce.  I felt the ping of an untended cavity and stopped.

“Decline it,” I spat.

“OK.  Transaction declined. Your confirmation number is-“

The phone was halfway in my pocket as I hung up.

Ioan was still rooting in the refrigerator, most likely having difficulty reading the labels on the bottles, and I stood, and crept cautiously toward the backroom. When he turned, I made a run for it. The door gave easily and I found myself falling into the room.

Jenny was at the center of a rickety table, hunched over it in a perfect mimicry of her slouching companions who presided over an enormous pile of currency: paper cash from various countries and Hubs, account slips and Gick transport credits. There was even a stack of gold coins, piled high and shiny like an illustration in a kids’ adventure book.

I felt Ioan’s knobby hand on the back of my arm, and tried to shove him away, but he held fast, squeezing hard enough to make me buckle.

“Don’t!” Jenny said.  “It’s okay.”

“What’s okay?” I said.  “You just…” I stopped myself.  Why give her a chance to argue? I’d lose, had lost already. Slowly, Jenny rose from her seat, raised her palms in a placating gesture.

“Maddy,” she said.  Her eyes were shining with warmth and understanding, as if I’d been the one caught in a lie.  “Everything is going to be okay. Really.”

“Don’t,” I said, breathing hard.  The smell of that god-awful drink still was on my hands, my clothes even, and the silence that passed between us was loud enough to drown out the music. “Just don’t.”

The other men, I realized, weren’t looking at me.  Their eyes were on the spread of hands circling the table, and Jenny’s, a royal flush.

“Well, that was fun,” she said, stretching her arms in a yawn before reaching down to sweep up her winnings.  “I hope Mr. Gick is still out there. I’m knackered.”

So that had been part of it too. Jenny had banked on my trepidation; she knew I would ask for a Gick driver as protection. For myself.  These men wouldn’t dare touch her now.

She shoved a wad of bills into her pocket, another into her bag. “I hope you’re not too upset, Maddy.  The charge was just collateral.  Otherwise they wouldn’t have let me into the game.  I knew they wouldn’t really let it through.” She winked. “You’re too much of a big shot for that these days.  “Of course you get a cut. I really appreciate you—”

“I don’t want anything,” I said.

“Don’t you?”

I don’t know what it was that made me do it. Maybe it was the way she tilted her head, her chin jutting out slightly in a mode of provocation. Or maybe it was the hopeless, stammering need to respond all the while knowing she’d hit right back with something sharper.  I saw myself reaching out, taking Jenny by the arms and pulling her to me, heard the cheap cat calls and whistles of Ioan and the others as I pressed my lips to hers, and felt silence.

If Jenny responded at all, it was to relax and play along. But I knew it was all wrong because for the first time since those early years of college, Jenny Belveth seemed awkward, her arms limp, her mouth slack and half open, just enough for me to taste the cherry liqueur that still clung to her breath.  And when I pulled back, I knew just how badly I had blown it.  The blue in Jenny’s irises grew darker, her pupils dilating to form a great sucking whorl in which I felt drawn, powerless. Not powerless so much as meaningless.  She looked away, plucked up a stack of gold coins, and hands trembling, slipped them into mine.

“Well,” she said, taking a step back.  “I suppose we should get going.  You’ve got a transfer to make in the morning.”

“Jenny,” I said.

She glanced up at me, her expression demure, yet mildly patronizing.  “We sure had some fun tonight though, didn’t we?”

I felt the weight of the coins in my hand, gripped them hard enough for it to hurt. I wanted to bend them, to squeeze them into pulp and let all of Jenny’s assumptions about me, the calculations and extrapolations she’d pulled from my voice and behavior, ooze through my fingers like shit.

I loosened my grip, let the coins drop soundlessly to the carpet. Then I lifted my foot and kicked the table, or tried to, but my heel only set it to wobbling. Jenny threw back her head and laughed.

“Oh, come on!” she called after me as I stumbled out the door and down the unsteady ramp toward the cab. “We’re still okay, aren’t we? We can call it even!”

The driver stood ready, holding the door of the vehicle, and as I approached I caught myself in the empathic shimmer of its gaze, saw my confusion and shame, the desires unsung and unrewarded. No one could be that transparent, I thought.  Then I stopped, stepped back into the light seeping from the open door and waited for Jenny.

#####

 

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The Egg Stealers

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

The Egg Stealers
by Sarena Ulibarri
Illustrations by Allison Lawhon

 

Oviraptor

EggStealersOviraptorThe egg-stealing dinosaur was framed.  Bones overlaid fossilized eggs, and what else could it mean except that this long-necked monster, this curve-clawed degenerate of an unevolved bird was swept into death at the very apex of his crime against innocent eggs?  Time stripped him of skin or scales or feathers, leaving only teeth the shape of evil aimed at the shell of an egg, petrified in a death rattle of predation.

But the egg stealing dinosaur was framed.  His thin arms reached to embrace the eggs, because they were his own.  Because he saw death in the sky.  He did the only thing he could: martyred his body to protect the fragile spheres.  The overlaying bones weren’t quite enough to protect this treasured offspring from annihilation, but the creature tried.  He tried.

 

Veronica’s dad waited for her in front of the school.  She spotted him on her way to the bus.

“You don’t want to ride that thing, do you?”

She didn’t.  A fifth grader sat next to her every day.  Veronica was intimidated by the older girl’s size, her two extra years in the world.  If Veronica tried to ignore her, the fifth grader would pinch her arm, and by now the bruise had turned yellow around the edges.

Veronica’s dad drove her to the mall, and over food court milkshakes she told him all about the science fair he had missed.  Her project had been about prehistoric animals, and her dad leaned forward as she chattered about Pterodactyls and T. Rex, listening as if he’d never heard of them before.  They browsed the mall and he told her to pick out new jeans and dresses.

She walked out of a dressing room in thin-legged jeans.

“Did you get taller?” he asked.

He whistled a cat call when she came out in a flower-print dress.

He shook his head at some purple leggings, but didn’t tell her to put them back.

They left with a bag half as tall as she was, and Veronica picked off the tags on the ride home.  She looked up to see a police car waiting in her driveway.

“Christ,” her dad said.

He tapped his thumbs against the steering wheel and exhaled through flared nostrils before he took off his seat belt.

Veronica carried the bag in front of her, hitting her knees against it with each step.  Her mom opened the screen door and the yelling started.

The police officer took Veronica into the living room and asked her where they’d been?  If he had told her bad things would happen if she didn’t go with him?  If he had touched her in any inappropriate places?

“He bought me clothes,” Veronica said.

 

If the Oviraptor didn’t steal eggs, then what did he do?

What did any dinosaur do?

He existed.  He ate fern leaves and clam shells.  He struggled to survive, to pass on his genes so another generation of Oviraptors could struggle to survive.  He displayed his tail feathers to female Oviraptors and knocked heads with other males.  Sometimes he didn’t survive, got torn apart by spine-crushing fangs and dissolved by digestive acids.  Became fuel for something else to survive.

 

Months ago — ages! eons! to an eight-year-old— when her parents still shared a roof, if not always a bed, Veronica’s dad fell off a ladder while trying to fix the garage door.  The cast covered his right arm to the middle of the bicep, an immutable bend at the elbow.

In his time off work he turned the couch into a fortress of blankets and pillows.  He played one-handed video games with Veronica and watched talk shows and crime drama.  He refused to leave the couch if Veronica’s mom was home.

“Bring me a beer?”

“It’s not your legs that are broken.”

“But I’ll miss the commercials.”

“Here.”

“No, that’s cool, I can open it with my teeth.”

“God.”

“Go get my pills.”

“You’re not even supposed to be drinking when you’re on those.”

“Are you my doctor?  Just bring them over here.”

When she asked what he wanted for dinner, he quoted TV characters instead of answering her.  She stopped waiting on him, so he tasked Veronica instead.

“Hey L.S., hand me the remote.”

“Which one?”

“How about the right one?”

“Here, there’s all of them.”

“L.S., go make me a sandwich.”

“Why do you keep calling me ‘L.S.’?”

“It stands for ‘Little Slave.'”

The broken garage door had remained broken, the door stuck three quarters of the way closed.  Just enough space for a thin eight-year-old to crawl under.  She started avoiding the living room.  If she needed to get from her room to the kitchen, she would crawl out of the garage and walk around the house to go in the back door.

 

Steropodon

EggStealersSteropodonSteropodon was the ultimate traitor.  She had the soft body and milk glands of a mammal, but rather than nurture a growing fetus inside the warmth and safety of her womb, she wrapped it in a hard egg shell and sent it vulnerable into the world.  She incubated her own nest, then snuck into other nests to steal their eggs for dinner.  An egg-layer who was also an egg-stealer.

 

The box had a quarter-sized hole in one of the flaps, cut into it as part of the box’s design.  Veronica packed board games and stuffed animals.

Grandpa came into the room to check her progress.  He was her mother’s father, and he had always seemed ancient to Veronica.  A walking skeleton, someone who owed every heartbeat to some strained deal with the devil.

He bent over the box and stuck his middle finger into the quarter-sized hole.

“This box isn’t full,” he said.

He pulled his finger out and kept it extended to show how much space was left in the box.  Veronica stared at the obscene digit, wondering if the insult was directed toward her or toward the box.  He pulled the box open.  Whatever was nearby, he stuffed in.  Veronica protested.  He sent her to the kitchen to wrap dishes with her mom.

When it was time to leave, Veronica pictured herself holding tight to the door frame, Mom and Grandpa failing to pry her off of it.  In reality, she touched the frame, lingered there a moment, and her mom almost smashed her fingers in the door.

Veronica was sent to ride in the moving truck with Grandpa.  She thought as she climbed into the truck that it would be a short time before she forgot the address, the phone number, the color of the paint.

She watched the house roll away.  When she wanted to cry what she did instead was extend her middle finger to the window, feeling the unfamiliar stretch in the webbing between index and ring.  If Grandpa saw, he didn’t say anything.

 

Steropodon never ventured far from home.  A strip of shore that eventually became an Australian beach.  That’s it.  She stayed in her outback habitat as it broke away from Antarctica and headed north.  She thinned her fur to adapt to the new warmth.

Over time, Steropodon morphed into the platypus.  She lost her teeth and swallowed shrimp instead of cracking eggs.  Claws softened into webbed feet.  Lacking the normal defense of teeth and claws, she grew a secret claw on the back of her foot, and in her progeny it collected venom.  Became an unexpected stinger.

 

Veronica waited in the dining room of Stephanie’s house.  Stephanie was in her room.  Veronica hoped she was crying, but she suspected she was playing dolls, giving them stupid voices, bouncing their pointed feet across the carpet.  She stared at a plant in the windowsill, the blossoms of once soft flowers crinkled and hardened into brown clumps.

“Your mom should be here any minute,” Stephanie’s mom said.

She sat across the table, using knitting needles to loop together a glove.  Veronica kicked the chair legs and wondered if the brown clumps of flower would break off if she stared hard enough.

She and Stephanie had been separated because of a game of House gone bad.

“You be the mom and I’ll be the dad,” Stephanie said.

Stephanie’s dad character came “home from work” and Veronica’s mom character started in.

“Where have you been, you always come home late.”

“Aren’t you going to help with the dishes?  You know, I have a job too, I don’t just sit around all day like some housewife.”

“You had lunch with that girl again, didn’t you?  I can smell her perfume.”

“I’m going out with the girls because you never take me anywhere.  You can make your own dinner.”

Then Stephanie pushed and Veronica pushed back, toppling the cardboard walls of their makeshift playhouse. Stephanie landed hard on a knee, her leg stuck through the playhouse window. So Stephanie’s mom called Veronica’s mom.

This wasn’t the first time Veronica’s mom had been called.  It wasn’t even the first time this week.  At school she’d been called because Veronica wouldn’t stop talking in an Australian accent.  Monday, the teacher asked her not to.  Tuesday, the teacher kept her a few minutes after and explained that it was distracting to the class and disrespectful to Australian people.  Wednesday, Veronica sat in lunch detention, drawing kangaroos on the back of her vocabulary notebook.  Thursday, the teacher called her mom at the morning recess, and she spent the rest of the day sitting in a corner of her mom’s clinic office where she couldn’t say a word, in any accent.  Friday, she was back to her boring American rhythms.

When she arrived at Stephanie’s, it was clear that Veronica’s mom had been crying.  Her eyes were swollen and a rogue streak of dark makeup stretched onto her temple.  She didn’t yell at Veronica for getting in a fight with her friend.  She just took her home and then went to bed.

 

Didelphodon

EggStealersDidelphedonDidelphodon was the queen of prehistoric mammals, roaming the Cretaceous woods of North America, crushing pine needles and moss under her whole four pounds.  It was still a dinosaur’s world back then, and Didelphodon grew as big as she could, restricted as she was to her underground burrows.  Emerging at night when the solar-powered dinosaurs slept, Didelphodon slunk into untended nests.  Firm jaws made shards of firm shells.  When dinosaur eggs weren’t easy to come by, those jaws could destroy soft turtle eggs, or crack the shells of turtles who had already escaped their ovoid prisons.  Small victories for mammals in a world that was not ready for them to rule.

 

All the third grade girls liked Zack.  They passed notes containing hand-holding stick figures, gendering the skinny drawings with black bow-ties and pink veils.  On the playground they whispered while they watched him play basketball or hang from the monkey bars that were almost too short for him.  They giggled when they got matched up with him in MASH.

Veronica giggled too because she thought she should.  Zack was a game.  She didn’t want to be left out.

She pieced together the dirty playground jokes with what she’d seen on TV, and constructed something far more interesting than what the girls talked about.

She imagined it, though the boy she picked wasn’t Zack, or any of the other third grade boys.  He was a blank male figure about her size, nothing more than the shape and density of a boy.

She thought about where she and this boy could go, and knew she wouldn’t want him to come to her house.  He probably had a house, but she couldn’t picture it.  She decided the tubes of the rolled up wrestling mats would be the best place.  The mats were routinely rolled to one side to turn the gym into an assembly hall, and she imagined meeting this boy at some kind of school party, crawling inside one of these cushioned cylinders.  Hiding from the adult voices and shrieks of playing children outside the tube.

 

Didelphodon was a marsupial.  Her miniature uterus could only hold an embryo for a few days before ejecting it into a pouch.  Into limbo.  Little more than a mass of cells the shape of arms and mouth, the fetus climbed through a wilderness of hair follicles, searching for that bump of flesh that would keep it alive.  If it found the nipple, it latched, sucked, grew.  If not, another embryo was only a few days away.

The marsupial method is a defense mechanism.  An adaptation for survival, like any biological system.  Mother Didelphodon could be taken home for lunch by an Albertosaurus and there was still a chance, however slight, that the premature joey could climb out and enjoy its own life.  The slit of the pouch could be a door to freedom.  A child did not have to be stuck on the wrong side of the birth canal.

The school bus drove them out of the city until buildings were replaced by long stretches of wheat or corn.  The only thing that connected this emptiness to the city was the string of telephone poles.  If she got stranded out here, at least she could follow the wires and eventually they would lead her back to the city.

When the bus turned off the highway and the poles disappeared in the distance, Veronica felt panic flutter in her chest.  She pressed her forehead to the vinyl bus seat.  Trapped.  This wheeled metal cage was in control of her life now.

The bus rumbled over a cattle grate and bumped down a dirt road.  They filed off the bus into the barnyard smells.  An old woman led them through pens, explaining sheep shearing and goat milking and horse feeding.  She seemed as old as Veronica’s Grandpa.  Older, maybe.  Her upper back was rounded, loose gray hair tangled on the collar of her jean jacket.  Veronica wondered if she would ever grow that old.  That gray, that withered.  It seemed impossible.

The old woman let the children into the hen house three at a time.  It was cramped and dusty.  Hens spread their bodies over their nests, stuffed into shelves.  Veronica held her nose and listened to the old woman explain the business of egg stealing.  Mighty dinosaurs shrunken down to mindless birds, penned by mammals.  Egg stealing no longer surreptitious, but regulated.

The old woman picked up a hen from the shelf, exposing three eggs.  The hen let herself be picked up, legs dangling, brainless eyes blinking.  When she tried to replace the hen on her nest, the hen flapped and squawked.  The old woman dropped her and she strutted out of the hen house, leaving the eggs exposed in the dirty nest.

Stephanie was still mad at her, so Veronica ate lunch by herself at the base of a tree.  Moisture from the grass seeped through the fabric of her pants.  A blob of jelly escaped from her sandwich and trailed down her shirt.  The other girls near the tree were talking about Zack again.

Veronica watched the jelly land in the dirt.  Beside it, the crushed blue remnants of a robin’s egg stabbed the earth.  Another whole one lay caught in some grass blades.  She looked up.  A mass of twigs revealed the nest halfway up the tree.

She left her sandwich in the grass and seized the egg.  It was so small she had to hold it between two fingers.

She slid it into her mouth.

Her shoes scraped bark from the tree trunk, and it took her three tries to get up to that first branch.  The girls stopped talking about Zack and pointed at her.  She negotiated through uneven limbs.  The teacher ran to the base of the tree.

Her legs hung on either side of the limb.  She scooted closer to the nest until she could see into it.  Empty.  The egg was still on her tongue and she spit it into her hand.  Gently, she placed it in the center.

It never occurred to her that it might be too late.  That the bird inside might be nothing but a dry skeleton.  Nothing but an uncooked omelet.  All that mattered was that it was back where it belonged.

Veronica kicked off her tennis shoes.  She shifted her feet onto the branch, perching like a bird.  Down below, a dozen mammals barked at her to come down.  She looked up at the sky and wondered if it was too early to attempt flight.

 

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The First Time I Painted My Nails or The Moose is Not an Ass

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

The First Time I Painted My Nails or
The Moose is Not an Ass

by Ariel Fintushel

 

This is the story of how I became a goddess on the same day I learned to paint my nails.  One becomes a goddess when the truth is revealed.  The truth is the lotus grows out from mud.  The truth is the frog humps around, knocking on doors until one opens.

It was the holiday season, and Papa was not in the room.  Mama and I were painting our nails, and Papa was painting his card table or writing a story about a woman who falls in love with a moose.

There were only a few colors to choose from, or there was just one: a dark, holiday red, a maroon tinged red, a purpley red, and I chose the one that Mama chose, since there was no other choice, or because I wanted ours to be the same.

That night, we were going to Jane’s.  To become a goddess, one must leave home forever, or destroy home, or screw up one’s eyes until home is strange and stuffed with prickly pears and lice and weevil.

Papa wore the wool sweater Mama bought, then sat in front with Mama and drove us to Jane’s, or Papa hunched over a card table eating handfuls of peanuts while Mama drove me to Jane’s, and I looked out the window at the trees which were dripping paint into Papa’s hands which were far away because a goddess always knows what’s missing.

Mama set her nails on her lap to look at them.  The goddess pauses.  Her chest rises and falls.  She isn’t always moving forward; the moose is not an ass.  That I’d never seen her with painted nails, that there was a space around the two of us in which our living room grew tall, that even when our nails were done, red as poinsettias or Brandy, as Santa’s velvet hat, that something, some holiday incandescence was missing, makes me think, the first time I painted my nails, my parents were divorced.  The goddess takes a knee, pops open a bag of chips.

“Voila,” Mama said.  We thrust our hands into the light.  “Voila,” I said.

Because my father lived somewhere else, there was no man in the house, and the house was full of women.  I looked at my mother’s hands, which were my own.  The goddess loves loss.  The goddess feels pain–she draws the ten of swords and is the man on his belly with swords from ass to jaw.

Next, the goddess changes form.  As Mama drove to Jane’s, I watched the trees out the window.  I watched hills rise and houses disappear, counted telephone poles and mailboxes.  The goddess knows nothing can be recovered.  Then, her ankles become Redwoods.  Her hair lengthens into silver noodles.

 

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