Category Archives: Issue #17

Introduction by Aimee Parkison, Guest Editor

Disruptive Dualism in Flash Fiction, or Night Sky with Stars in Reverse

Flash fiction lends itself to the innovation of experiment and the compression of poetry.  When it works, it moves us, often in ways so subtle and so sudden we don’t realize what has happened until it’s over.  Brevity demands innovation.  Brevity also demands that the writer immediately grab hold of the reader and never let go.  Flash fiction must take us on a journey in the shortest of time.  That journey, though sudden, must provide the urgency and transformative quality we expect from longer travels. 

Unlike traditional narratives, flash fiction might not have all the basic elements deemed “necessary” for fiction.  There might not be a fully defined narrative arc, character arc, conflict, rising action, falling action, climax, detailed setting, and resolution.  However, flash fiction may possess some, most, or all of these elements.  Or not.  More often, flash fiction redefines fiction-writing basics through the innovation of compression by using a sort of implied narrative for world building.  In this unconventional, compressed world building, the understory of innuendo, cultural context, artful subtext, and understated clues lure the reader into unspoken concerns at the heart of the story.  What is unspoken drives the narrative, or rather the anti-narrative, of the short-short story.

In place of a traditional conflict, lurks a more subtle organic yet intangible tension.  It creates a new sort of conflict where moods and images confront each other in dynamic opposition, creating moments of humor in the somber, moments of brightness in the shadow.  Peppering brightness with sobering darkness, like a night sky with stars in reverse, it dazzles as it disorients. 

For this reason, the artistic qualities most sought after in editing this issue were delicious tinges of insight, irony, and surprise brought on by flashes of awakening in the formal relief that comes from the clashing of binary oppositions. 

The search was on for flash fiction that could show a spectrum of experience: brightness in darkness, humor in sadness, dignity in the downtrodden, ugliness in beauty, beauty in the face of ugliness, hope in despair, joy in depression, flashes of grief in happiness or sparks of happiness in the depths of grief, a sudden recognition of the familiar in the strange, horror lurking in the mundane, tenderness in violence, or violence in tenderness. 

Disruptive dualism awaits at the heart of all art alive enough to awaken us to our sleeping selves.  Sometimes dualism comes from humor, sometimes irony, but always a turn, a reversal, surprising yet necessary.  When earned through the careful crafting of language and world building, transformative opposition in flash fiction brings realistic and often shocking insight.  This insight comes from the sort of questioning that ensues when something bleak is transformed by a moment of brightness or when something seemingly mundane is suddenly revealed as earth-shattering. 

The narrative power of flash fiction evolves from a sort of dichotomy disrupted when binary oppositions of mood, category, or image are broken by dualism.  This dualism, once revealed, makes us question everything, exposing the irony of the human condition: creatures full of life, we live with the knowledge we must die.  We are death and life combined.  We are happiness and sadness, joy and terror, good and evil, male and female, old and young, violent and gentle, all in the same life.  From the realistic to the most surreal of works, if fiction is functional, it gains power through the disruption of binary thinking, a questioning that invites awareness of the spectrum of complex emotions and experience at the heart of the human condition. 

The best flash fiction accomplishes this awakening of the gray matter’s gray areas through its turns, turning on itself and sometimes against itself through irony—undercutting with verbal irony, surprising with situational irony, or unsettling with dramatic irony.  Always, where there is darkness, there must be a hint of light, and where there is brightness, some shadow play.  Without this tonal range of mood orchestration, tension and artistic effect are lost.

Like all good art, flash fiction seduces us.  It lures us into dreaming, into remembering the forgotten, into accepting the unacceptable, into admitting the shortfalls of our own private longings.  It reminds us who we are, who we used to be.  It does this by questioning what was, what might have been, what may be.  It asks us questions and then refuses to answer.  Always, the artistic gravitas lies in asking the right questions, in finding the right questions, never in offering or finding the right answers.  Questions are valuable.  Answers are not to be trusted.

Read Issue #17 now

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Aimee Parkison is the author of Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman, winner of the Fiction Collective Two Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize, published in 2017 by FC2/University of Alabama Press.  Girl Zoo, co-authored with Carol Guess, was published by FC2/University of Alabama Press in February of 2019 and has been cited by Big Other and Emerging Writers Network as one of the most highly anticipated small press fiction books of 2019.

​Her other works include the story collections Woman with Dark Horses (Starcherone 2004) andThe Innocent Party, (BOA Editions, Ltd., American Reader Series 2012).The Petals of YourEyes (Starcherone/Dzanc 2014).

Parkison has taught creative writing at a number of universities, including Cornell University, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Oklahoma State University. Parkison has served as a visiting faculty member at the British Council’s International Creative Writing Summer School in Athens, Greece, and as a fiction faculty member at Chautauqua Writers’ Festival. You can find out more about Aimee Parkison here.

Jan Stinchcomb

Jan Brady

When Jan Brady slams the door, it stays closed. No class trips, no family reunions, no happy hours.

Not one happy hour in her whole life, glossy-haired Marcia complains, years later. She is not alone in this sentiment. Everyone remembers how Cindy lost her lisp at the exact moment she shot profanity at Jan. Fortunately the parents weren’t around to hear this, but Peter and Bobby hooted their approval as they welcomed a stunned Cindy into teenhood. High fives all around. Greg shook his head, afraid to articulate what he had always known, that Jan was the kind of girl he hated. If she hadn’t been his sister, he would never have noticed her. She would have been one of those mystery kids in the yearbook, a resentful phantom.

Mrs. Brady stirs her coffee as she sits with her husband at the kitchen table. Nothing has changed: the audacious orange and avocado color scheme still reigns; the stark wood paneling has taken root on the walls; the starburst clock keeps the time of a more innocent era. They will never sell this house. Carol is waiting for Mike to finish reading the local paper’s front-page story about Jan. They read the paper every day, for in this house the internet simply won’t take, no matter how many times Alice’s butcher boyfriend tries to install a router. Mike is retired, rich and jovial. He isn’t going to let the middle daughter bring him down––she’s not even his kid, a fact that has always been both obscure and obvious. Mike Brady, architect, doesn’t want to know what Jan has done now. It’s always something with that kid.

Tiger likes to steal away upstairs and sniff the seventies. He starts in the boys’ room, pressing his nose against the loneliness, until he has found the essence of Greg, Peter and Bobby. These are his boys. Of all the smells they left behind, it is AstroTurf on old Keds that pleases Tiger the most. The girls’ room forever exudes a trace of strawberry Lip Smacker, Jergens lotion and Love’s Baby Soft perfume. Boys and girls are different, but everyone has pheromones. Everyone has emotions. The Brady family lives on in Tiger’s nose.

Jan’s scent stands apart, a distillation of anger and refusal. She is the lone wolf, the person who never wanted to be here, but Tiger searches for her nevertheless.

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Jan Stinchcomb is the author of The Blood Trail (Red Bird Chapbooks) and Find the Girl (Main Street Rag). Her stories have appeared in Longleaf Review, FlashBack Fiction, jmww and Queen Mob’s Tea House, among other places. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net Anthology, was longlisted in the Wigleaf Top 50, and was featured in The Best Small Fictions 2018. Currently living in Southern California with her family, she is a story editor for Paper Darts. Find her at janstinchcomb.com or on Twitter @janstinchcomb.

Gretchen VanWormer

Homesteading

In August, Sarah said she’d begin by preserving water. A test run. She’d placed an order online: Ball Pint Jar, Regular Mouth, Set of 12; The Canning Essentials Boxed Set; I Eat Local Because I Can Apron. Three days later, the box arrived at our apartment. I was terrified. We poured sauce from a store-bought jar. Knew our Chinese delivery guy by name. And when your partner of six years, who has largely stopped fucking you, orders a new identity online, and that identity revolves around home canning, relations can’t be on the upswing.

Now, on our Formica countertops: funnel, tongs, something called a “jar lifter.”

“Do you want me to call you when the lids start to ping?” Sarah said.

I lifted the top from some kind of pot, smelled the nothing inside. “When they ping?”

“The vacuum pulls the lids down, and they ping. That’s how you know the jars are sealed.”

She tore the plastic packaging off the I Can apron, placed the loop over her head, tied the strings behind her back.

“I’m going to pretend the water is a recipe, you know? Pour the water in a few jars, close the lids, then dunk them in the water bath for ten minutes. It takes a little bit for the seal to work. But then the jars go ping, ping, ping.”

Her cheeks flushed and she looked so happy. The first honest smile I’d seen from her in months. We were trying to get pregnant. Doctors, donors.

“Yes,” I said. “Definitely call me.” I collapsed the box, took it out to the recycling. Waved hello to the little girl next door as though she were a promise, though Sarah wasn’t sure about the child, thought she was a bit strange.

An hour later, we clasped hands and listened as the water sealed itself tight inside the glass. We exhaled, relieved to have passed the test.
*

First tap water, then Roma tomatoes, then clingstone peaches from the farmer’s market with the actual farmers. Our shitty little pantry with the broken hinge slowly filled with preserves.

In September, I gave a jar of raspberry jam to a coworker, and he said, “Wow, Maureen. This looks freakin’ domestic. You two must be doing good, huh?”

I laughed. “Guess so!”

But still no baby, and I wondered what might be next. An old sewing machine on the kitchen table, yards of gray wool, a dress pattern draped across the curved back of a chair. Blocks of paraffin wax and a double boiler on the stove. Oils and lye in the bathtub.

Who or what were we trying to seduce?

Nights, I lay in bed and listened to the ping, ping, ping, waited for Sarah to come to bed smelling like apricots, hands sticky.
*

In October, the little girl who lived next door knocked at 8 p.m., asked if she could have a jar for show-and-tell.

“Okay,” Sarah said. “Would you like to come in and pick one? We have plum, blueberry—”

“I want an empty one,” she said. “I’m going to fill it up with a secret.”

I grabbed a pair of jars and lids from the kitchen, put them in a paper bag, handed the bag to the girl. “Bring us some of whatever you’re getting.”

Sarah looked at me like, Do you know what you’re doing? Do you know what mess you could be inviting into this home?

But the child was already off, down the steps, out the door.

I lifted the shade in the living room, watched as the little girl unscrewed the lid from one jar, then the other, pulled them slowly through the air as though they were moving through honey.

“Sarah,” I said. “Come see this.”

She came and stood beside me, leaned her cheek on my shoulder. Her skin felt feverish. We watched as the little girl placed the two-piece lids on each jar, screwed the tops, dropped the jars into the paper bag.

When the little girl came bounding up the steps, we went to our own door as though we were trick-or-treating. We knocked and waited.

The child opened the door, reached into the bag, shrugged.

“Yours got too full, I guess.”

The bottom of one jar had broken clean off; the lid was still screwed tight. Sarah took the jar in silence. I said goodnight to the little girl, watched her disappear behind her own door.

Sarah walked to the lifted shade, tipped the jar back and forth. Let moonlight run off the edges of the broken glass like milk.

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Gretchen VanWormer grew up in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of a chapbook of essays, How I See The Humans (CutBank Books), and her essays and short fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, The Journal, miCRo: The Cincinnati Review, The Laurel Review, and elsewhere. She lives and teaches in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Joanna Ruocco

Good Mood

I am in a good mood, but birds are in a bad mood. What’s up, birds? This morning I did the stretches I never do, the hamstring stretches. I made peace—goddammit!—with my hamstrings, but I could see through the picture window birds out there between the daisies tugging up hamstrings—cutting them up! My good mood was such that I responded with pure non-violent locomotion. I went out for a run, a nice long run, in one place. Beside the Quietness rose, I ran my personal best. The Quietness rose, the color of a stillborn foal, did not depress me. Goddammit, I was in a good mood, running, loudly running, huffing and puffing, yelling, punching the air. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. Check out this ponytail, birds! Afterwards, I napped with my daughter. I rolled over her on purpose and mangled her a little, which made me love her more. Someday, she’ll move away, my daughter, and I’ll call her. I’ll call her day and night. I’ll call my daughter, and she’ll pick up the phone. She’ll say, What’s up, Mother? It’s a beautiful day or night! When my mother calls me, I pick up the phone. That’s love, birds! Today my mother called during my nap with my daughter. “You should watch the show I’m watching,” said my mother. “The actress is sexual as a horse. She looks just like Naomi. Do you hear from Naomi?” “Not since kindergarten, Mother,” I said. “It must be Naomi,” said my mother. “Do you remember—I’d put you in the tub, then I’d get in the tub. I’d jump in the tub. I’d splash in the warm, sudsy water. I’d make believe I was giving birth, giving birth to Naomi! It felt goddamn good!” I left my daughter a little mangled in the bed. I used my computer to put on that show, a hospital show. I did the dishes, whistling, with the show in the background. Glass, blood, moan, glass, blood, moan. It was an emergency, goddammit! Now I’m on the front porch. The good mood I’m in fits me like a fingerless glove. I’m so free, birds! My mother calls and I pick up the phone. “What’s up, Mother?” “I’ve still got it,” says my mother. “Listen.” My mother does her patterned breathing. “Who. Hee. Puh. Ha. Who. Hee. Puh. Ha.” “Mother, I love you!” Birds fly into the picture window and die. I can tell they feel bad. Why, birds? I don’t feel bad knocking my head. I don’t feel bad being dead on a porch, in the summer. It feels sexual but nice. It feels like girls mixing paste in my milk because those girls know I like paste. It feels like kissing someone and my lips stick to that someone forever. It feels like the best mood, my personal best! Birds are laying posthumous eggs on the porch. Every minute, new birds are hatching with wet wings, stiff legs, these tiny frowning beaks that prove you don’t get it, birds! My ponytail stirs in the wind. The Quietness rose flutters its lashes. Inside the house, my daughter is napping, perfectly still, her hoof in her mouth.

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Joanna Ruocco is the author of several books, including, most recently, The Week (The Elephants of British Columbia), Field Glass (Sidebrow Books), written with Joanna Howard, and Dan (Dorothy, a publishing project). Her novel, Another Governess / The Least Blacksmith: A Diptych won the FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize. She also works pseudonymously. Under her current nome de plume, Joanna Lowell, she published Dark Season, a Gothic romance. She is an associate professor in the English Department at Wake Forest University and chair of the board of directors of the independent, author-run press FC2

Sarah Blackman

Downwinders


Inside the body the baby is coiling, flexed, not on the way to becoming but already become. Mother is having a picnic with father and brother and sis. The baby has no name for these things. Mother is the body that is her body and the blood. FatherBrotherSis are sounds that come and go, sometimes a thrust into the blood and body which makes a dent the baby thursts back at. The baby is not a baby. Not yet. She is herself, body and blood. She is the warm light and the way she can move up toward warmth and down toward warmth. She is the way all her parts touch each other and what is around her is also her.

For a second, less than a second, there is far too much light.

Inside the body of the baby the eggs are millions and in each a tiny prick of light waiting to grow. Eggs are patient. Eggs are contained. Inside the body that is the body which contains the baby are other eggs which have not yet become a place where light will grow. They are waiting. They are patient. Left behind by BrotherSis are loops and chains and knots and little rubbly ladders in the warm, soft, red everything they too once touched. Long ago what BrotherSis left behind became part of motherbody and babybody; maybe they were always part. Motherbody eats a bite of egg sandwich. She has packed thermoses of tea. They are on vacation, an American road trip to a great American gash in the ground which lulls babybody to sleep with the sway of the car. They have stopped in the desert to eat on the ridge with other bodies from the nearby towns. An event is taking place. They are just in time.

“Here, pin this to your shirt,” says a young woman with coiled blond hair in loops and rings and tempting hollows. She wears a pin with the image of galactic whirls and in the center the nucleus waiting to shed its light. Atoms are patient. Atoms wait. “We’ll collect them after the event and check the levels,” says the young woman inside whom are millioneggs and all their light. “It’s for science.”

“For science!” yelps Brother.

“Shut up, Virg,” says Sis.

Oh, motherbody, oh oh, eat another bite of the sandwich, sip another sip of the tea. Babybody kicks for joy of kicking, moving part of body away from the body, but inside the body still. It is soft. It is warm. There is light coming through the shape of babybody’s fingers like the blood that comes through the cord in babybody’s belly. Soft and warm. Joyful

For a second, less than a second, the sky is white as if emptied of blue.

As if an eye blinded by too much light.

As if the body made x-ray.

As if arrows traveling past and through.

“Lookit that” says Father.

“Fred,” says Mother, verycalm, “feel her move.”

Oh cartwheel! Oh free flowing fish! The body waits for the body to spill its light. Inside all the eggs open up, a chorus of tiny mouths, and eat what comes to them from the air and the soil, the water and the wind. All around the familybodies, sitting each on their individual blankets, clap.

“It does look just like a mushroom,” says Father, chewing. “Truth in advertising, I guess.”

When the motherbody walks back down the hill she is happy. Babybody can feel happy. It makes her rise and arch, release the water inside her into the water outside her (both waters that are her) and swallow it down again. Around motherbody float FatherBrotherSis, unclipping their badges from their collars and hems and waistbands of skirts. Brother is excited and shouts. Sis is mean and presses into motherbody to make sure she is felt. They put their badges in a basket held by young coiled hair. For science. The film inside the badges will be developed. The numbers will be recorded somewhere, analyzed somewhere, abandoned somewhere, repeated somewhere. Inside motherbody, babybody sings. Motherbody’s waiting eggs sing. Babybody’s waiting eggs sing. Young woman with the coiled blonde hair’s eggs open up to light and sing. A bigger light than them sings, seeping outward, raining down. A light made out of many tiny lights. The center of the atom opens up to light and sings.

This is all perfectly normal.

This is all perfectly safe.

This is all in the name of science.

This is all in the past.

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Sarah Blackmanis the Director of Creative Writing at the Fine Arts Center, a public magnet high school for the arts. She is the author of Mother Box andHex, both from FC2, and the co-fiction editor of DIAGRAM. She lives in Greenville, South Carolina with her partner, the poet John Pursley, III, and their two daughters. Every day she visits the future and comes back home to the past.