The Masters Review Blog

Feb 21

Stories That Teach: “Letter to the Lady of the House” by Richard Bausch & the Power of Schmaltz

In our Stories That Teach series, we take a close look at our favorite tales to see what they can teach us about craft. We’ve examined the fictional lessons and social relevance of Susan Minot’s story “Lust,” dissected the elegant sentences in Lauren Groff’s “Ghosts and Empties,” and considered what makes Steven Barthelme’s “Heaven” so effective. In our February edition of Stories That Teach, we discuss one of our old favorites: “Letter to the Lady of the House” by Richard Bausch. Here, we question the notion that sentiment is for suckers and examine what makes this romantic—but realistic— epistolary story so moving. 

“In “Letter to the Lady of the House,” sheer sappiness bumps up against moments of ugliness. Grand proclamations about the nature of love follow descriptions of the mundane. Its sentimentality is not only excusable; it’s extremely effective.”

Listen to “Letter to the Lady of the House” here.

Discussed by Sadye Teiser

I will admit that I used to listen to Richard Bausch’s story “Letter to the Lady of the House” (as it was read on This American Life) every Valentine’s Day. And I would cry. The entire story takes the form of a letter that a husband writes to his wife the night before his seventieth birthday. She has gone to sleep after an evening of petty arguing and, after some whiskey, he decides that the best way to make his feelings known is by writing her a good, old-fashioned letter.

There is a reason why people disparage Hallmark sentimentality. After all, isn’t one of the first things that we learn in writing workshops the old adage Show Don’t Tell? It’s easy to dismiss a sentimental story as having flimsy craft. But letters encourage us to be direct. Especially when they are written to someone we love, they promote sappiness. A letter is a particularly risky form for a story to take. So, how do you write a successful story in the epistolary form? And is schmaltz really so bad for fiction?

Richard Bausch’s story “Letter to the Lady of the House” first appeared in The New Yorker way back in 1989. I will admit that it has many lines that would be at home in a Hallmark card. However, several elements save the story from falling into a pit of mushiness. First, its sentimentality is often combined with harsh, but realistic, observations on marriage. Second, although it has its abstractions: the story is rooted in the commonplace.

The letter starts out by recounting the small stuff. The husband, John, and his wife, Marie, fight about whether or not the pepper that the husband puts on his potatoes will upset his stomach. She goes to bed angry. He drinks whiskey. He watches TV. He thinks about how they have to prepare the house for their children and grandchildren’s visit tomorrow. He considers leaving: going for a walk around the block, or sleeping in a hotel for the night, or perhaps never returning at all. He makes this decidedly ungenerous proclamation:

I saw our life together now as the day to day round of petty quarreling and tension, that it’s mostly been over the past couple of years or so. And I wanted out as sincerely as I ever wanted out of anything.

Now, that is something that you would never find on a greeting card. However, it is a realistic thought for a couple in the middle of a fight, after decades of marriage. Then, of course, the tone softens. The husband stands in the bedroom doorway and looks in on his wife, asleep under the covers, and thinks only of her smallness, her vulnerability. He goes for a walk in their neighborhood. He is seized by the fleeting but strong feeling that this is his last night on this earth. Well, of course, he returns home and gets a little bit sentimental. (I usually start crying right around here:)

When I stood in the entrance of our room and looked at you again, wondering if I would make it through to the morning, I suddenly found myself trying to think what I would say to you if indeed this were the last time I would ever be able to speak to you. And I began to know I would write you this letter.

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Nov 13

Stories That Teach: “Lust” by Susan Minot – Discussed by Sadye Teiser

In our Stories That Teach series, we look at what some of our favorite works of short fiction can teach us about craft. In the past, we’ve examined the art of the sentence in Lauren Groff’s “Ghosts and Empties” and dissected the creepiness of Laura Benedict’s “When I Make Love to the Bug Man,” to name just two. Today, we examine the ineffable lessons that Susan Minot’s “Lust” can teach us about the fictional form, as well as its concrete commentary—still hauntingly relevant today—on relationships between women and men. You can read Susan Minot’s story here (you need to sign in with Narrative; it is free to register).

This story is about the—implicit and explicit—silencing of and disrespect for women that occurs in their romantic relationships with men. This is something that we certainly touched on, but did not linger over, in class discussions.

Read “Lust” here.

Discussed by Sadye Teiser

Susan Minot’s story, “Lust,” was always one of the most popular in the undergraduate creative writing courses I taught. When it came time for students to imitate the form of a story that we had read, many picked Minot’s unusual and pithy piece. “Lust” was originally published in 1989, before most of my students were born. But it teaches what is still a progressive lesson, namely: a story can take any form that it likes.

We would always discuss the story’s form and content, but the greatest lesson that I hoped “Lust” would teach my students was an ineffable one. It was a lesson I could not map on a Frye tag, assign vocabulary to, or quantify in any way. I wanted my students to realize that, though a story can take many shapes: you know a story when you read one. You know this because it feels complete.

Susan Minot’s “Lust” chronicles the relationships that its unnamed protagonist has with men while she is at boarding school. It is told in a series of stand-alone parts, from a sentence to a paragraph in length, that together form a cohesive story. They are told in first person and second person, in past and present tense.

There is a section about the protagonist’s parents, and their oblivious remarks about the boyfriends she had at boarding school. Though brief, the passage is brimming with specificity, such as the closing line: “My father was too shy to talk to them at all unless they played sports and he’d ask them about that.” There is a poignant, short section about the songs she associates with certain men. There is a sweeter, melancholy passage about a boy who dies in a car crash shortly after his tryst with the protagonist.

In one passage, she spends the night with a guy who is too shy to make a move until, as they fall asleep, he puts his arm around her—and that is the extent of it. Another passage describes a romance on a camping trip, sleeping bags zipped together. In another section, our protagonist talks, bluntly, about all the different types of penises she’s seen, remarking: “But it’s like faces; you’re never really surprised.”

Some passages are more sinister. One recounts a memory of the boys who lived next door while the protagonist was growing up. They tied her ankles together, and forced her to show them her underwear. Another recalls lines that men have yelled at the protagonist from cars. It ends with this: “So I’d go because I couldn’t think of something to say back that wouldn’t be obvious, and if you go out with them, you sort of have to do something.”

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Aug 15

Stories That Teach: “A Particular Woman” by Molly Jean Bennett – Discussed by Sadye Teiser

Our Stories That Teach series closely examines works of fiction for the lessons that they can teach us about craft. We’ve taken a look at Lauren Groff’s exquisite sentences, the creepy suspense of Laura Benedict’s “When I Make Love to the Bug Man,” and interiority in Anne Valente’s beautiful story “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart,” to name a few. Today, we dive into our own archives and discuss sentence integrity in Molly Jean Bennett’s flash story “A Particular Woman.”

“Each of these sentences is a portrait of a particular body part. They add up to form a cohesive story, but they are also complete in themselves. You could put each of them up on the wall, or on the refrigerator, and appreciate them individually.”

Read “A Particular Woman” here.

Discussed by Sadye Teiser

Every single story that we publish at The Masters Review furthers my own understanding of the craft of writing. Editing a story is, also, a wonderful opportunity for close study. In our Stories That Teach series, we focus on craft elements of our favorite works of fiction and examine why they are so effective. So, we decided that it was high time we feature a story from our own archive.

Molly Jean Bennett’s bold piece of flash fiction, “A Particular Woman,” was published in our New Voices section. It charmed us, and our readers, instantly. In this story, the parts of a woman’s body, quite literally, come alive. Her bladder is shy. Her spine is a compulsive liar. Her eyes love disco. This story is an excellent lesson in the power and integrity of the sentence. Bennett crafts sentences that are beautiful works of art in themselves, but that also function within the living, breathing body of the story.

This story is what we jokingly refer to in the office as “twitter friendly.” In other words, it had lots of sentences that we could use to promote the story on social media, which fell comfortably within the one-hundred-and-forty character limit. I’m talking about stunners like these:

“The moon, rising over the crumbling house across the street, appeared like a wound beneath a gauze bandage.”

“The kidneys scolded other people’s children.”

“The tongue was a brilliant expressionist painter living in the wrong time.”

“The elbows couldn’t break dance, but often tried to at wedding receptions.”

“The liver painted pastoral scenes on sliced almonds.”

Of course, I’m not trying to assert that twitter is the ideal place for thoughtful, nuanced dialogue. That must be made clear. But it’s important to note that you don’t need a lot of words to paint a vivid picture.

Each of these sentences is a portrait of a particular body part. They add up to form a cohesive story, but they are also complete in themselves. You could put each of them up on the wall, or on the refrigerator, and appreciate them individually.

Have a little fun: try illustrating each of the lines above. What do you get?

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Oct 12

Stories That Teach: “When I Make Love to the Bug Man” by Laura Benedict – Discussed by Adrian Van Young

Today, we present the October edition of our Stories That Teach series, in which authors discuss effective craft elements of a particular story. We are proud to feature a contribution from the venerable Adrian Van Young, who dissects Laura Benedict’s masterfully unsettling tale “When I Make Love to the Bug Man.” In Benedict’s creepy story, a woman becomes mysteriously enthralled with the exterminator hired to rid her house of a spider infestation. You won’t quite believe what happens next.

Variously sized spiders hanging from webs“The narrative world holds itself in suspense, threatening to go either way, any moment. The narrator’s voice is that world’s only constant, insisting again and again: ‘I am here.'”

Read “When I Make Love to the Bug Man” by Laura Benedict here.

I often tell my writing students, as some eminence in the past once told me, that a first-person narrator must be essential.

As opposed to third person, limited or omniscient, which gives the writer greater freedom in choosing how to tell a tale, a first-person narrator tells it directly: with her unique bias, in her unique voice, with her unique way of perceiving the world. The narrator’s voice is the sum of this work—calling consciousness out of the gibbering void, arraying it before our eyes.

Voice, in first-person narration, is story. Without it, an “I” might as well be a “she.”

When you tell a scary story with first-person narration, you’re doubling down on that notion of “voice.” You not only have to hear the voice, as you do with Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita or Celeste Price in Alissa Nutting’s Tampa, rooting through its biases to uncover some semblance of narrative “truth,” but the voice begins to function as a shadowy veil between what the narrator perceives and what’s hidden, drifting this way then that way, brightening then obscuring.

This ripple effect builds pervasive suspense.

Take, for instance, the narrator of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” who begins the tale: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” Or, “Merricat” Blackwood of Shirley Jackson’s novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle: “My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance . . . I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenent, and Amanita Phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

When I first read “When I Make Love to the Bug Man” by Laura Benedict in the process of blurbing Richard Thomas’ anthology The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, I came away ashen and wildly amused. I couldn’t have told you, at first, why this was. The story terrified me, aroused me, confused me, repulsed me, disarmed me and made me crack up.

Principally, though, it held me in suspense. This seemed especially remarkable for a story in which nothing outwardly suspenseful ever happened—for a story without even much of a plot. The delivery-method, in that case, was hidden. How had Benedict worked such a startling mix?

On the surface, Benedict’s is a kind of horror story, deeply psychological and supernatural at once. When it opens, an unnamed suburban homemaker with a “cheerful, shiny family” and a sexual uber-mensch of a husband, Robert, has shed her perfect life to serve a shadowy figure whom she refers to only as the Bug Man.

“Bug Man, Bug Man, who came to save me from the spiders,” she chants in the story’s opening passage. And then: “I am in love with the Bug Man. I cannot leave him.”

Verily, we learn that the Bug Man is just that: the narrator’s exterminator, who she has hired to take care of the panoply of spiders living in her attic (“wolf spiders, jumping spiders, daddy and granddaddy longlegs, cave cricket spiders . . . orb spiders, brown recluse spiders”). Her description of the Bug Man is glib, yet disarming: “You wouldn’t call the Bug Man handsome. Hair steely gray, push broom mustache, mature belly straining confidently against the fifth button of his tidy uniform shirt. He’s the barber, the shoe salesman, the produce guy at the grocery store. Polite. Not a professional man, but someone who knows a day’s work. His eyes are clear and dark and steady. Infinitely calm. I never act rashly, or ask for more than I need, they say. His uniform agrees: Above his neatly pressed black pants, his starched white shirt . . . bears a logo with a spider emerging from a cave. Below it is his name in machine-perfect script: Darrin.”

Though clearly the Bug Man is more than he seems.

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Jul 25

Stories That Teach: “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart” by Anne Valente – Discussed by Sadye Teiser

In our Stories That Teach series, we consider the lessons that some of our favorite stories can teach us about craft. In the past: David James Poissant has written about the elements he admires in “Heaven” by Steven Barthelme; editor Kim Winternheimer has walked us through the exquisite sentences in Lauren Groff’s “Ghosts and Empies”; and we have examined the authoritative magic in Aimee Bender’s “The Rememberer.” Today, we take a close look at interiority in Anne Valente’s beautiful story “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart.”

stories that teach_anne valente

“Interiority, when conveyed well, is an essential part of the story’s structure. It helps to propel the plot forward; it gives its physical descriptions weight.”

Read “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart” here.

Discussed by Sadye Teiser

One of the first things that I learned as a student of creative writing was the common instruction: Show Don’t Tell. Don’t tell us that your character is nervous; show her fiddling with the tab on her soda can. Don’t tell us that she is angry; describe the flush that creeps into her cheeks. While this is certainly relevant advice, and a tool that can help shape a story, I wish I had realized earlier the reverse is also true: sometimes, the very best thing a writer can do is to pry open a character’s heart and tell us exactly what is inside.

As I went on to take more writing workshops, the discussion of interiority—the access that we are given to the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and interior worlds—became commonplace. Merriam-Webster defines interiority as “psychological existence,” which is the very thing that great fiction succeeds in describing. It is a testament to my own ignorance, rather than the instruction I received, that for a long time I considered such blunt descriptions of emotion inelegant.

Interiority, when conveyed well, is an essential part of the story’s structure. It helps to propel the plot forward; it gives its physical descriptions weight. It should be said that there is no “correct” approach to this. Great stories are written with varying amounts of psychic distance: some give the reader complete access to the characters’ thoughts, others almost none. But it is useful to study how interiority is conveyed in certain stories; to unpack the mechanics that the author uses to show a character’s mind at work. I can think of no better example than Anne Valente’s fiction.

Let’s look at one story in particular: “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart,” which appeared in Memorious and was the finale to her debut collection By Light We Knew Our Names. This story brilliantly maps the interior life of a man named Walter, whose job it is to tend to one hundred baby octopuses that will eventually be used as test subjects. His boss illegally captured their mother from the ocean. Ironically, he hopes to use her babies to prove that love is simply a scientific phenomenon: a chemistry that can be mapped. Performing on octopuses without anesthesia is against the law—because the animals would feel too much pain. Still: this is what Walter’s boss plans to do, and it is Walter’s job to prepare the tiny creatures for their fate.

By the third paragraph, we know exactly how Walter feels about all this: “What they’d done was wrong. Walter felt the wrong rattle the marrow of his bones . . . ” A conflict is established, and now we are eager to watch it play out. Walter feels guilty about the wrongs that he is complicit in each day; yet, he continues to do them. The story is not coy about its character’s emotions. At the same time, it does not linger on them excessively. One blunt, well-placed sentence is enough to illuminate the prose that follows. After the admission above, we are not surprised when the mother octopus, Sedna, dies after childbirth (as all female octopuses do) and Walter takes her to the saltwater pond behind his home instead of disposing of her in the lab, as he had been instructed.

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May 27

Stories That Teach: “The Rememberer” by Aimee Bender – Discussed by Sadye Teiser

On Monday, we heard from author David James Poissant on craft elements he admires in Steven Barthelme’s story “Heaven.” On Wednesday, Masters Review editor Kim Winternheimer took us through the beautifully crafted sentences of Lauren Groff’s “Ghosts and Empties.” Today, editor Sadye Teiser talks about Aimee Bender’s story “The Rememberer” and the lessons it can teach us about writing with authority.

the rememberer

“Even for writers who strictly follow the realist tradition, “The Rememberer” is a good lesson in sticking to your guns. Writing any story involves a tacit agreement to do something crazy—to conjure a world and its characters entirely from your mind. You have to commit to it.”

Read “The Rememberer” here.

Discussed by Sadye Teiser

When I taught introduction to fiction writing classes, I always looked forward to the day when we would discuss one of my favorite stories, Aimee Bender’s “The Rememberer.” In this short and pithy tale, a woman’s lover experiences rapid “reverse evolution.” One morning, he wakes up as an ape. Eventually, he’s a sea turtle, later: a salamander.

I would use “The Rememberer” as a way into talking about magical realism, one of my favorite genres. I always worried this was a little self-indulgent: taking a day to cover a specific type of story when most of the class was devoted to the basics of fiction. But I had already covered The Freytag. We had talked about scene, point of view, showing and telling.

When we discussed “The Rememberer,” we identified the story’s inciting incident (the lover turns into an ape), plot points (for example: people call the house, asking where he is), and climax (the narrator decides to let her lover free in the ocean, before he disappears from her vision). But most of all, I wanted my students to know they could write about anything, real or unreal. I wanted to teach them that as long as they wrote with authority and had control over their own fictional worlds, there were no limits to the shapes and subjects their stories could take on.

Authority. “The Rememberer” is a lesson in writing with authority. It begins: “My lover is experiencing reverse evolution.” Bam. Bender introduces the rules of her story’s world at once, and lets the unreal premise drive the rest of the narrative. It takes great confidence to undo the course of human evolution in a six-word sentence, but Bender does it. And, because of her conviction, we follow her into the world she has created for us.

The narrator goes on to say: “I don’t know how it happened, only that one day he was my lover and the next he was some kind of ape.” Bender explains the unreal occurrence enough that it makes sense to the characters, in this context. We understand its place in the reality of the story. The narrator admits that she is “no scientist,” but she knows enough to understand that if her boyfriend continues his reverse evolution at this rate—she is going to lose him, and soon. She goes to a professor at a community college for more information on human evolution, and (for a fee) he gives her a sloppy and incorrect timeline. She tells no one what is happening. When people call the house and ask for her boyfriend, she informs them he has fallen ill. The narrator thinks that her lover is morphing into ever-simpler animal forms. Thanks to the combination of the sheer confidence that shimmers through Bender’s prose and a series of carefully placed details, we trust in the reality of the de-evolving lover within the tightly drawn world of this story.

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May 25

Stories That Teach: “Ghosts and Empties” by Lauren Groff – Discussed by Kim Winternheimer

In this craft essay, Masters Review editor Kim Winternheimer uses Lauren Groff’s “Ghosts and Empties,” to examine how success on the sentence level affects story elements.

Fog with trees and lamp post

“New writers fill their sentences with syrupy words or too many adverbs, but good writers use prose to reflect a sensibility about the world.”

Read “Ghosts and Empties” here.

Discussed by Kim Winternheimer

“Ghosts and Empties” was published in The New Yorker last July, and while I’ve always been a fan of Lauren’s work (she judged our first anthology!) this story struck me as a special iteration of her ability to craft an incredible sentence.

The story begins with the line: “I have somehow become a woman who yells, and, because I do not want to be a woman who yells, whose little children walk around with frozen, watchful faces, I have taken to lacing on my running shoes after dinner and going out into the twilit streets for a walk, leaving the undressing and sluicing and reading and singing and tucking in of the boys to my husband, a man who does not yell.”

The piece then follows the narrator on a walk through her neighborhood, as she observes the people, houses, and goings on around her. “The neighborhood goes dark as I walk, and a second neighborhood unrolls atop the daytime one.”

I love a piece that dazzles on the sentence level. New writers fill their sentences with syrupy words or too many adverbs, but good writers use prose to reflect a sensibility about the world. They find something new in an old idea. All of Lauren’s writing is like this. I mark so many lines the page fills up with checkmarks, underlines, and stars. The page is left, literally, dazzling.

I like looking at stories on the line level because it is the first filter between story and reader. When a writer can deliver information in a readable way, but access a different economy in the language, you know immediately you’re in good hands. Take the following passage: “There’s an elegant, tall woman who walks a Great Dane the color of dryer lint; I am afraid that the woman is unwell because she walks rigidly, her face pulsing as if intermittently electrified by pain. I sometimes imagine how, should I barrel around a corner to find her slumped on the ground, I would drape her over her dog, smack his withers, and watch as he, with his great dignity, carried her home.”

David James Poissant mentions concrete imagery in his craft essay on Steven Barthelme’s “Heaven,” citing the importance of delivering vivid visuals to the world of the story. “Ghosts and Empties” feels like a story dedicated entirely to this notion, with this line serving as an excellent example. We can see the woman walking her tall, gray dog. We can see them moving gingerly through the night. We can see the dog, in the narrator’s nighttime vision—and in a quick break with reality—gliding away with the woman draped across his back.

But let’s examine what else is working on the line level. Revisit the passages I mention above, and note their length. Note that while delivering concrete imagery through the use of effective language, Lauren is also architecting sentences to mimic the pace of a long and breathless walk. Brilliant! What is also interesting to me in “Ghosts and Empties,” is the narrative arc that develops—and is enhanced by—Lauren’s choices on the sentence level.

As the narrator walks and watches, she begins to know the houses, people, and animals around her. One could argue that she knows her surroundings better than most, and yet, is kept at a formal distance. She sees, she observes, but is limited in her understanding based solely on what she can infer. She is the most intimate observer in the story, but is never an insider. And thus, the prose enhances the conflict: a duality between seeing and knowing surfaces. (more…)

May 23

Stories That Teach: “Heaven” by Steven Barthelme – Discussed by David James Poissant

This week, we’ll be examining some of our favorite short stories and discussing the craft elements that make them so memorable. Today, author David James Poissant walks us through the brilliant story, “Heaven” by Steven Barthelme.

heavenother

“The story is wild, funny, fierce. It’s imaginative. But those are just adjectives. What, then, makes this story so solid, in terms of craft? I’m glad you asked.”

Read “Heaven” by Steven Barthelme here.

Discussed by David James Poissant

Writing stories is hard. That’s the second thing I tell beginning writers on the first day of workshop. The first thing I tell them is that they need to read more. Even if they already read a book a week, they could probably be reading more. Ten years ago, I felt less compelled to say this, but, now that everyone has everyone else’s Netflix, Hulu, and HBO GO passwords, I get the distinct impression that everyone, myself included, is reading less than he or she used to. And, the less we read, the less well we write. I believe that.

So, writing stories is hard. I say this, then I lead my fellow writers through a story I admire, paragraph by paragraph, talking, all the while, about what makes a great story great. Surefire winners have included Melanie Rae Thon’s “Xmas, Jamaica Plain,” Bret Anthony Johnston’s “Caiman,” Amy Hempel’s “The Harvest,” Ethan Canin’s “Emperor of the Air,” Danielle Evans’s “Virgins,” and Justin Torres’s “We Wanted More.” Any one of these serves as an ideal primer on story structure and the work that good fiction requires at the sentence level. Along with these, I’ve also had success with one of my favorite short stories: “Heaven,” by Steven Barthelme. Full disclosure: I don’t know Steven Barthelme, nor have I met the man. I just love his stories.

In “Heaven,” first published in The Atlantic Monthly, and later reprinted in the collection Hush Hush (Melville House, 2012), a deceased woman, Bo, tells us about her relationship with a lothario. The man, referred to only as “the poet,” sleeps with his students and uses people for his own aims. The narrator sums up the poet’s character nicely: “With the help of a wealthy coal widow he started The New Bituminous Review and filled it with uncanny and haunting work by the editors of other magazines. Then for three years he fearlessly walked up and down Sixth Avenue, filling out grant applications, winning nine.” He is an opportunist. He is a womanizer who “sleeps with women by the dozens.” As for his poetry, the speaker tells us, “He is thought by poetry authorities to be a good poet, but what do they know? I love him, but this does not blind me to his poetry. In the poem he wrote about me after my death, I wrote the only good line. He was quoting me, but the attribution was somewhat vague. I was dead twenty-one minutes before he got to the typewriter.” In short, the poet is not a good guy.

Bo, freshly dead, tells us her story from Heaven, which “resembles a very large Days Inn,” where Jesus and God quarrel often, and where Jesus carries a red ledger of the sins for which residents must atone. (Here, there is no Hell, an idea God and Jesus laugh about, saying, “‘Who could have known that they’d take that seriously?’”)

The story is wild, funny, fierce. It’s imaginative. But those are just adjectives. What, then, makes this story so solid, in terms of craft? I’m glad you asked. Here’s what’s working, at least for me:

1. Imagery: I can’t tell you how often I read the work of beginning writers, love the stories, but feel disappointed because I can’t see anything. There tends, in student work, to be a deficit of tangible, concrete imagery and sensory detail. Without these, the reader feels unmoored from the story. The characters seem to float in space. With “Heaven,” there is no such confusion. Here, the poet “delicately picks his nose” (a rare, fantastic use of a carefully-deployed adverb); Jesus has “beautiful, blue” eyes and, weirdly, wears a leather hat; the speaker tells us that “in heaven Scotch is blessedly harmless, and my back has finally stopped hurting,” two nice details; as for breakfast, “in the lobby in the morning an enormously long white tablecloth appears, with coffee and one lemon Danish, which renews itself endlessly”; at one point, Jesus doesn’t just hand Bo a drink, he hands her a “frigid” can of lemonade from a vending machine. All of these count as the kind of concrete, authenticating details that make a setting or character come more vividly to life for the reader. (more…)

Jun 26

“My History With Careless People, and Other Stories” by Christian Winn

Carrie was this fat chick who lived next door and whose husband I stole, sort of, for a little while, until later she stole him back. I never liked Carrie, nor she me, but her husband, Thom, this balding sporting goods salesman, I always thought he was cute. He had a charming, gap-toothed smile that reminded me of David Letterman. Back then I loved to come home after the bar, crack a bottle of red and watch Letterman. This was when Letterman first started out, when late-night TV still seemed something you felt happy to stay up for.

One day in July, Carrie got run over by a school bus on her 10-speed. She died. And like that, Thom was a widower. And like that, their little boy, Carlton, was motherless.

I was crazy busy and didn’t hear about dead Carrie for a day and a half, though it seemed everyone else had—especially my nosey Mom and my brother, Zack. They knew details, and they didn’t even live in the neighborhood anymore. It was because our small city is not full of a lot of news about local moms dying in broad daylight beneath a school bus.

And then things got blown up even more because it turned out the bus driver was a deadbeat dad and a parole violator from three states away. This intrigued people like Zack and Mom.

Me, I felt some sadness as a fellow human, but I was mostly relieved not to have Carrie staring knife eyes at me every time I saw her. I often felt hate coming off fat dead Carrie and landing on me, and I was glad she was gone from my life.

When we ended up at Carrie’s funeral that next weekend Zack told me trustworthy rumor had it Carrie was weaving her way back from The K-Club’s happy hour, had blown through a stop light and was eating a Rueben sandwich when she got run over. Though it seemed more than halfway believable, I thought maybe this was just Zack being Zack—being an idiot, standing up for my side of things. He’d often heard me talk shit about Carrie. We are loyal people, except to our father who’s gone, out there somewhere in the world, don’t matter.

We were within the warm huddle of Carrie’s funeral mourners when Zack whispered, “My friend, Mike Cunningham, he works the grill at the K, made that Rueben special for her—extra kraut, extra sauce.”

“Doesn’t mean getting mowed down was her fault,” I said.

Someone hushed me from two rows back. I held up my middle finger.

“Rueben sando ends up half-eaten on the gory cement?” Zack whispered. “Thousand Island dressing and Swiss cheese end up across her neck?”

I shrugged.

The pallbearers, including Thom, floated her coffin through the church.

“Bet they’ll have sore shoulders tomorrow,” Zack said, snorting.

I pinched his skinny rib hard, but he didn’t flinch.

Interestingly enough, as Zack whispered the details of fat Carrie’s demise, who I felt sorriest for was that bus driver. He was fucked—arrested and humiliated with his happy I’m-a-good-man-trying-to-make-my-life-okay-again school district ID photo all over the news. Even if killing Carrie wasn’t truly his fault, it seemed pretty obvious his life was now fractured beyond repair because of a careless person’s carelessness.

*      *      *

I could relate to this. My history with careless people went way back.

There was Dale, the blond, smooth-skinned boy I let finger me in the onion-smelling backseat of his Gran Torino one night our senior year. Dale, who proceeded to run his mouth in school about how we’d loudly fucked ‘til 3 a.m. several times that weekend, and how every time we fucked I’d screamed “Ride ride! Horsey horsey! Horsey horsey! Ride ride!”

Dale’s big fake story had traction. It made people feel clever and dirty and in-the-know. It made people laugh. Ask anyone who was at Capitol around that time. They know about the “Ride ride! Horsey, horsey!” girl. They know my name. Josephine. Jo the ho.

That was eleven years ago. I still see people I grew up with look at me with wound-up faces that confess they’ve recently laughed over that lie. I’ll bet fat Carrie got to hear that story before she bit it. I’ll bet she loved that story.

Dale got to grow up and marry a pretty lady lawyer out in San Francisco, then become some kind of politician himself. Kids, houses, smiling happy-to-be-us-and-not-you photos all over the internet. I got to stay right here and figure out how not to care so much as I used to. At least I’ve kept my looks. Dale’s all balding, with a face like a cafeteria plate. I’ll bet his wife cheats.

Then there was our dad, who had no problem whatsoever drinking several Rainier tallboys before dinner and coming to the table telling Zack how much more he loved me than him.

“Josephine, my queen. Zack, my sad sack,” Dad liked to sing. And whenever Mom made peas and carrots, our dad enjoyed lofting a few at Zack’s head. We were in middle school. Zack was pretty antisocial then and would decide not to talk for a few weeks at a time, at least not to adults. Dad would say shit, and sing shit, and toss steamed vegetables, and Zack would keep his head down, wordlessly fork food in for a while like nothing was going on, then real fast he’d stand and stride out, down the hall and out the front door into the night.

This didn’t happen all the time.

Or, maybe it only happened once.

But, it changed things, opened up new possibilities of understanding—some people are careless, some people suck, even if they’re not supposed to.

Also, there was Lydia, my boss at Eddie’s, this crap little diner, my first job when I moved out on my own. I was super-duper-duper poor. This makes people compromise. This makes people like me do things that people like me don’t do. So, maybe I was one of the careless people, too, for a little while, but there I think Lydia and poverty made that happen, and not the real me.

I don’t like to talk about this, so I won’t say much. Only that Lydia, when she told me what would happen next, had a voice like a dull serrated blade; only that Lydia’s money allowed me not to have to move back in with Mom and Dad; only that Lydia’s bruises showed dark and vivid in the white flash of her Instamatic; only that Lydia did not smell so good after Eddie got in those pictures, too; only that the girls at the Photo King kiosk at the mall looked at me super conspicuously when I’d pick up those yellow film envelopes that were always heavier than I remembered, or expected.

*      *      *

So, fat dead Carrie was dead, and I was working a lot then at Dr. Blake’s. I was his dental hygienist. That’s my degree, dental hygiene, which gave me money for partying, and mall clothes, and more savings than you’d think. And after work, I’d drink at The K-Club with Therese. We’d see Carrie and her done-up friends there pretty often—shooting tequila poppers and Sex On The Beaches—and all of us would throw shitty looks across the room at each other, like girls do. Therese and I’d sometimes get pretty lit, and I like to sleep late during summer, so that was at least partly why I didn’t hear about Carrie dying right away. Sleeping. Dispensing floss and applying Fluoride. Drinking with Therese. Repeat.

Day before Carrie’s funeral, Mom called and told me more rumors about what happened, and she wanted me to go with her and Zack to see the dead body. They’d been invited to the ceremony and reception/wake because Mom served free pizza to needy people every Wednesday at Saint Michael’s down on 8th. That’s where the services were happening—open casket—and Zack was tagging along to see what a dead person looked like up close.

I told Mom I had obligations.

Half hour later Dr. Blake called asking if I wanted to go the funeral with him. We had cleaned Carrie’s teeth at the office, filled her cavities and heard her bitch about Thom.

I once said a nice thing about Thom’s gap-toothed smile (she wanted him to get braces) when Carrie was in the chair, and she just ratcheted up her cattiness, which of course made me like her less than I had from the start when they moved in next door and she never once said hi, or what-up, or came over to let me shake her hand, or hug her, let me welcome her to the neighborhood. Thom, however, he gave me a nice handshake and smiled like a little boy at Christmas when I met him that first day. He gave me a brand new tennis racket from his shop, along with a can of orange balls, just as a thanks-for-letting-me-be-your-neighbor gift. Then he gripped my hand like he meant it.

Not that many people are sincere anymore. Somehow, it seemed like on the other side, the dead-person side, Carrie would have it figured out, might have some sincerity. She wouldn’t be self-conscious about her weight or the fact I had held onto my looks, especially my legs, which Thom gave a nice hard look at when we first met and whenever I was doing gardening things all that summer. Carrie, to my way of thinking, was in a better place dead than she was alive.

Dr. Blake drove us to the funeral in his Mercedes and it quickly became clear Dr. Blake was there for the show of it, then at the wake he really just wanted to recruit a new patient or two. I saw him consoling Thom and holding the boy, Carlton, with a very focused fake sincerity all afternoon. Thom had a different dentist at the time, but soon enough he’d be our patient. Dr. Blake knew how to sell it.

Zack brought his flask to the church ceremony. Filled with gin, which once it got warm was hard to take. We did our best to kill it, though, before the reception, or the wake, or whatever you call these things.

Zack also brought this rubberized submarine-style sandwich. I think it was a dog toy. His plan was to set it on fat dead Carrie’s chest in the open casket when no one was looking. Zack was very pleased with this idea, but I managed to talk him out of it.

After the funeral, Carrie’s brother drove a “symbolic” empty coffin all around downtown raised up in the bed of his 4X, flying a long yellow flag that said “Schools Negligence Killed My Sis—Background Checks, Anyone?”

He wanted everyone to know that something had been lost, which in many ways I can’t blame him for, though of course his focus was muddled by grief, or just stupidity. I might’ve done something foolish and angry for Zack if he ever got run over by a school bus on his 10-speed, or his motorcycle, or rollerblades, or just walking around. But, if I did such a thing I hoped I wouldn’t have looked as much a fool.

*      *      *

After driving the empty coffin around, Carrie’s brother brought it to the Bishop’s House where the wake deal was being held. He and his friends leaned it up against this old maple tree with that stupid flag over the top.

There was nostalgia all over the place. Videos and photo albums from elementary school days, bbq chicken wings and spring rolls from Chang Mai where Carrie worked for a couple years. Everything smelled like sugary meat and cilantro sprigs and those wickless cinnamony candles. A big DJ looped a bunch of her favorite songs. “California Dreamin’” especially. That was her favorite of all time. She lived there as a kid.

There were even a few of her favorite going-out cloths on display. And when her brother and friends came rolling in with their “symbolic” coffin her on-the-town friends laid the dresses and halters on top of the varnished dark wood.

*      *      *

Zack’s biggest idea, and ironically the thing that led me to getting with Thom, was to climb into the fake coffin of fat dead Carrie.

He offered me money to get in the coffin and pretend I was dead for a while, but I said no way.

“You got no sense of adventure,” he said, and held the roast-beef sandwich toy up to my mouth. I slapped it away, and he said, “Good luck dying of boringness.”

“What the fuck ever,” I said, “at least I have a soul.”

“Carrie’d take a steamy dump on your fake coffin if you got pancaked by a school bus.”

“See now, that’s right because Carrie did NOT have a soul.” I lay my hand on Zack’s skinny, warm chest, watching Thom in the near distance ease across the side lawn holding his fray-haired son in one hand and a beer in the other.

“I love you, Jo.” Zack kissed my lips, then put the sandwich in his mouth, and started pretending he was pedaling a wobbly bicycle in a wobbly circle.

I covered my mouth to cup the laughter in, but it slipped through my fingers and out among the mourners as Zack kept pedaling, pointing my way.

“I’m gonna get in that fake coffin,” Zack said.

“No you’re not.”

“I want to take something back, Jo.”

He stopped pedaling and being stupid for a few long moments, and just nodded slow and sad as we held eyes. His thin face and spotty beard looked pretty loveable to me right then, and I felt a hollow place open up in me because it seemed here was my brother doing weird self-defeating stuff like he always had, but here he was doing it for me. Zack’s eyes were sweet and glassy as he stood there wordlessly explaining the injustices—how we all die alone, how we all should get what we can when we can, explaining our father’s hateful life, our mother’s wistful ignorance, he was explaining his own hardworking poverty, my willingness to be used.

The air smelled like hot dogs and cigarettes. Bananrama sung, “Cruel Summer,” and I hummed along.

Then Zack laughed all super loud and set off pedaling again, chomping on that sandwich.

The same people stared harder, and I wished we had more gin in the flask.

“I’m doing it for you, Jo,” he said, then walked off into the crowd.

*       *      *

I wandered the wake in a glowing drunk muddle for a time. I thought of finding Thom and telling him, well, something that might help with all this. Then I saw Thom was leaning against the end of the outdoor bar, listening to some kind of grandpa-looking dude offer sincere condolences. Thom held his head low and still, his smooth bald spot shimmering. It made me feel good in my legs and middle, but it made me nervous, too, like what would our relationship be now? Especially when he looked up at me staring from twelve feet away and kind of half-smiled, which made a lot of things feel better and a few other things feel worse.

There was a line waiting for Thom’s ear, so I just waved and walked away and found Dr. Blake standing near the beer tub.

Dr. Blake was telling a short, pretty blonde the story about the seizured-out guy on the plane to Vegas he “saved” on our way to the annual dentist convention. Put a wallet in his mouth. Said some comforting words. Knelt in the aisle and held this guy’s hand. Gave him his card when we got to Vegas.

He uses this story to get things he wants—like the blonde. I can’t blame him for this. I’ve used it before, too, but put myself in that aisle, saving a man. We take what we feel we can, and usually we deserve at least something—like with Zack, I guess.

Dr. Blake touched the blonde’s shoulder. “That dying man’s name was Jenkins. Legally, owes me pretty much everything.” Dr. Blake winked as he saw me walking over.

The blonde nodded, and leaned closer to Dr. Blake. The DJ started up some Neal Diamond, and the blonde made a little awkward dance move.

Dr. Blake took a dance step, too, and turned the blonde my direction. “Josephine here saw me save the man’s life.”

“You’re a hero,” I said. “A dentist saint.”

“You really are,” the blonde said in this squeaky, sincere voice. “Total life saver.”

Dr. Blake introduced me as his favorite woman he has never kissed, which is at least partly true. I covered my lips and shook my head, but the blonde didn’t smile at all.

“Maybe I’ll let Jenkins buy me a beer one day,” Dr. Blake said. “Or let him save my life.”

“Okay, Christ-dentist, you may need to help me with Zack, then,” I said. “He’s gonna get his ass kicked.”

He looked at me, confused.

“My brother?” I pointed across the lawn where the fake coffin leaned against the tree. “Told me he’s getting in that coffin. Pranking the funeral.”

Dr. Blake squinted and nodded. “Seems a tad morbid, no?”

The blonde nodded.

“I might need your help,” I said, “if shit goes sideways.”

“I’m here for you,” Dr. Blake said, and squeezed my arm tight.

*       *      *

Fat dead Carrie’s brother had a special speech planned for after the buffet and slide show and poetry recitation. He was a tall and broad man with a darkening shadow of stubble. He loped through the crowd, swaying, his beer spilling.

He eventually made it to his dead fat sister’s fake coffin and gave it a try with the wireless mic the DJ had offered up.

He breathed loudly into the mic several times, trying to muster words.

“Carrie, Carrie, you were so . . . loved.” He looked skyward. “You were my sister . . .” Then he bowed his head, and heaved a little high-pitched sob, then a bigger one. It was sad, even for me right then, but kind of embarrassing, too. “You were my sister and you were loved.”

This was repeated several times, as he pointed to the sky. And right when one of Carrie’s friends came up to take the mic from him, this is when Zack threw open the coffin door and screamed like a howler monkey as he stepped out and ran in place holding the sandwich above his head.

The friend dropped the mic, which started to screech, too. Several women screamed, as did a couple of men.

“What d’ya think of me now!” Zack yelled, taking off through the crowd and toward the side parking lot.

That’s when I broke from Dr. Blake’s side and took off for my brother. Shouts of shock and homicide began to rise, but I got to him fast. And when I got to land the first punch I knew I had saved my brother. And I knew I had saved something of me in the process.

I caught Zack from behind at the edge of the lawn, spun him by the shoulder. I swung, and caught him across the nose and cheek.

Zack’s head rolled left, and my knuckles bloomed pain as he cupped his nose with both hands.

“Jo?” he said, quieter than I would have thought. “What the fuck?”

I swung again and punched him in the neck, then came in close, whispering, “These people hate you. You’re gonna get killed.”

He growled and shook his head. Pushed me back hard, his face a pale oval of doubt and fear. “I thought you were on my side, here. They already hated me, and they’re gonna hate me tomorrow. Always. Always.” He dropped his hands to catch the treads of blood unspooling from both nostrils.

My heart fell into a dark bell in my ribs.

A line of people stood watching now. Fat dead Carrie’s brother laughed, saying some shit about one bitch beating the shit out of another. Zack lifted his shirt up and off, exposing pale freckled shoulders and tufts of hair at his chest and down the route of his treasure trail. He held the shirt to his nose, and flipped off the crowd.

Fat dead Carrie’s brother, yelled, “That’s it, bitch!” And he and a couple of his friends started for us. This is when I pushed Zack and took another swing, grazing the side of his head as he ducked and turned for the parking lot.

I turned. “My brother’s a borderline retard, yes. But, you gotta leave him to me! Family’s important today, right? We have our loyalties.” I pointed to my brother. “He’s mine.”

They stopped. Zack stepped further toward the parking lot. I held my hands up like seriously I am in control here. Dr. Blake stepped to the edge of the crowd, the blonde at his side. “I wouldn’t fuck with Jo, boys.” One of the friends flipped him off, and the blonde returned the gesture.

I said, “This is your sister’s funeral, let’s not forget Carrie in this juvenile way, shall we? She was a strong woman, a wonderful mother.” I was still just trying to save Zack’s ass, but it sounded even to me like I meant every word.

Thom stepped up, his boy still in his arms. Thom nodded to me, a kind smile of thanks lifting across his face. “Josephine’s right,” he said steady and real. “Come on, assholes, let’s leave this be, and remember my wife today—your sister, your friend.”

This stopped things for good. Just a few more insults and crass words got chucked around, then I went to find Zack in the lot.

He sat on the hood of Dr. Blake’s Mercedes, and when I stepped up to him to wrap my brother in a hug he flinched and leaned away.

“Easy,” I said. “Easy, Zack. I did this for you. I mean, I think I did. I mean, I’m sorry.”

“Fuck, Jo. I never seen you hit someone like that. I just . . . Carrie was such a bitch to you, and people like her . . . I just wanted something back.”

I smelled beer and blood and gin as I wrapped an arm around my brother, and said, “I love you.”

Zack looked back at the waning crowd. “I know. Mom still here?”

“Shit,” I looked back across the lawn, too. “She’s gonna punch you in the neck, too, asshole.” I smiled.

My brother smiled.

*      *      *

I gave Zack twenty-two dollars for a cab back to his place and went to get Mom so she could taxi home now, too. She was pretty drunk and hadn’t even seen the almost-fight go down. I didn’t feel like I could explain it right. I was tired. My knuckles and wrist hurt. I probably had Zack’s skin and blood mooshed into mine. I got her to the cab, and let Zack start explaining as they left.

I decided to stay and go find Thom. I had a deep impulse to talk with him, say sorry and thanks at once.

He was alone now, without Carlton or old relatives and friends looking to drop kind words on him. He was just smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer out by the tree line, staring down the western slope toward our little downtown.

“Hi, Thom,” I said in an easy voice. “I just wanted to say sorry about my brother being such a lame-ass.”

“Hey, Jo,” he said, smiling that Letterman smile—silly and earnest and sad.

“Also about Carrie,” I said. “I’m also really sorry about her.”

He handed me his tall cup of beer. “It’s okay, I think. I have a feeling now that it’s okay, that it’s going to be at least.”

He had glassy, tired eyes, but he held them on me, and I felt warm.

“Carlton doing okay?” I drank a big swallow of beer.

“He doesn’t really know how to think this up, even.” Thom came in close as he took the beer back. “All that’ll come later.”

“You’ll be a good dad through this,” I said. “I know you will.”

“You two,” Thom said, laughing a little. “Carrie and you. I know you hated each other.”

I looked away down the slope, too. “That’s true. I’m sor—”

“She could be mean,” he said. “I saw that a lot in her. But just know, she was good deep down, she had a good heart.”

I gave Thom a wry smile that was meant to show him I was okay with him believing, knowing, Carrie was good, but me, I’m sorry, I could never be okay with that thought.

“I understand,” he said. “Let’s go get you a drink and talk about stuff, anything really.”

“That sounds like a fine idea, Thom, it really does.”

Then he reached to hug me with both arms, hard, and I did the same back. He was warm and real and I could feel the ropey muscles along his flank. It was a long hug, and it felt perfect and good the whole time. It was the nicest hug I’ve ever had.

*      *      *

A lot of times I’ve wanted it back, that hug, that series of moments, because there was a lot that would happen between Thom and me that we did not yet know would happen, and that hug was what was before all that.

I would marry Thom five months later, much to the dismay of about everyone we knew, except for Zack who ended up really liking Thom. Go figure. My guess is that it was a way for my brother to keep apologizing to me, to Thom, to himself, to the wide world he felt he’d let down.

With Thom, it would be a version of lust and companionship I was after. I would have a boy and a man to take care of. I would hold a certain meaning that Thom convinced me I was worthy of, a meaning that Thom intimated I had never really had before. Or, maybe I convinced myself of this. Regardless, it was a real feeling, if not lasting.

It would be a courthouse wedding and I would move next door into Thom’s house. At first I’d keep working for Dr. Blake, and along with the sporting goods commissions and base pay and the raise Dr. Blake gave me after that day at the wake when I punched my brother two-and-a-half times just to save Zack’s life Thom and I had good money—for Carlton, for ourselves. Plus, there ended up being some insurance and a payout from the school district.

This was the closest I’d ever come to stability, to a home and family and the idea of permanence.

We’d have sex often. Dead Carrie would rarely be mentioned. I’d make meatloaf every Tuesday, and Thom would make Crockpot roast most weekends. We’d have Thursday “date nights” scheduled a month out. I’d still go out with Therese and get a nice buzz on sometimes. For a while Thom would even like to come out with us.

Then, a few months into it, Thom would ask me if I’d go half time at Dr. Blake’s so I could take care of Carlton and save us money on daycare, save his mom from having to watch him a lot, too. I did this. Then, he asked me to quit entirely. I did this also, though Dr. Blake left it open for me to come back any time. Thom said I was needed at home, and I was happy to be needed.

After I’d start being at home all the time certain things got noticed a lot more, like the photos of fat dead Carrie and Thom and Carlton still hanging in the hallway and rec room, like the drawer of her jewelry still in the armoire, like the several wide-backed dresses still hanging on Thom’s side of the closet, like the bag of hair dead Carrie was going to donate to Locks of Love.

I would ask Thom if we could maybe, you know, get rid of these things. He would hem and haw. He would say these things meant something to Carlton. I would say, well fuck, what about me? He would say yes, okay, then they’ll go.

These dead Carrie items would remain. I would ask him again. And I would ask him a third time, on a bright spring morning as we lay in each other’s arms atop the sheets. Yes, I promise, he would say.

These items, they never were going to leave. I came to realize this. I realized fat dead Carrie would never be dead at all.

The sex would dissipate. The sense of being needed would shift into the sense of being used. All that stability crap, it walked right out of my life almost as quickly as it walked in.

Oh well.

We change without knowing we’ve even changed sometimes.

Soon enough, I would change again.

As I think of it now, I wouldn’t call Thom, or all that time, a mistake. Though there have been many times I’ve named it that. Obviously, I can get mean about shit.

But really, it can’t ever truly be a mistake because, fuck, we were there hugging, holding each other in this one moment, or this ridiculous series of moments on this one dumb day before the rest happened.

And it was a grace, a gift, the best it would ever be with Thom, with anyone maybe.

He was holding me. He was whispering my name, his name, Carrie’s name.

I was forgiving myself for calling fat dead Carrie fat dead Carrie.

I was forgiving myself for letting people ever take advantage of me, and for me encouraging it with my selfishness.

Zack had not yet moved to Galveston to work oil rigs and drowned riding out a hurricane.

I was still talking to my mother.

The world seemed a place that even Carrie could only pretend to hate.

In the near distance the DJ had Bon Jovi lighting up the late afternoon with “Wanted Dead or Alive.” The sad laughter of mourners drifted down from the waning blue. Thom cried into my neck, but laughed, too, some of it whistling through that tooth-gap as his boyish spirit seeped into me.

He smelled like sugar and malt and I wanted to give him happiness. I squeezed him.

He said, “Thank you,” in a manner beyond honesty.

We should never have tried to make a life out of the ruins, maybe. But we did. And that’s the fucking best part. We took the pieces and made a new thing for a while.

Unstable and doomed? Yes.

Kind of fucked up when you looked at it from a certain angle? Yes.

But still. There we were.

Everything was okay. Everything was okay.


Christian Winn, the 2016-2019 Idaho Writer in Residence, is a fiction writer, poet, and teacher of creative writing. His fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, TriQuarterly, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Greensboro Review, Gulf Coast, Chattahoochee Review, The Pinch, Santa Monica Review, and elsewhere. His story collections NAKED ME and WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU IS WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME are recently out from Dock Street Press. He teaches fiction and poetry with The Cabin, is the founder of the Writers Write Fiction Workshop Series, co-founder and director of Storyfort, and curator of Modern Campfire Stories and the Couch Surfer Artist Series. He lives and writes in Boise, Idaho.

May 8

“Birth Stories” by Sarah Harris Wallman

By the time the EMTs arrived, Clea was propped on her ruined towels with the baby on her chest, the pulsing purple cord still running between them. She didn’t want to cut it. She’d read studies, not that she could quote them just then, but she snarled at the EMTs like a feral raccoon and they agreed to wrap mother and child up together and carry them out on one stretcher. When she got the bill for two ambulance rides (really!), Clea used the fact of live cord to dispute the charge. We were one, she hissed into her phone at the customer service rep, head turned toward the shoulder that did not hold a sleeping Amaryllis, she was plugged in like a damn cell phone.

We all like Clea.

*     *     *

Monica hosted the potlucks at her apartment, once a month or more. They were a godsend. You can’t imagine how we longed for one another’s company, even though motherhood had rusted our conversational mechanism to the point where it was not unpleasant just to compare methods of combatting diaper rash. Most of us had advanced degrees. This was New Haven.

Monica was on her third child, and she knew best of all what we needed. She put out wine and plastic tumblers, a large bowl of rotini in oily walnut pesto. We all brought what we had time to grab: store-bought pies, cheeses, a half bag of clementines. The events of the day were discussed, of course, but some configuration of the women always ended up on the second-floor porch that overlooked the neighborhood, telling birth stories.

*     *     *

Jill had the hospital play the theme from Rocky in the delivery room. The nurse gave her a high-five moments before Easton emerged.

*     *     *

Weston was stubbornly breech, and Paula would swim to the bottom of the pool at the JCC and hold onto the grate for as long as she could, hoping to convince him that down was up. The silence of the deep end was a roar, and she found herself praying, though she had never been to church.

*     *     *

When Paula told us about the underwater prayers we snuck a look at Casey, the downstairs neighbor Monica had gathered into the fold. She seemed so young to be married. Her husband was in a graduate program and her days seemed whimsically open. She’d taken on some babysitting around the neighborhood, was reportedly great with Monica’s small wild things.

When Casey went to the kitchen for more pie, Monica lowered her voice reverentially and announced that Casey had “pulled the goalie,” that she was trying. We all expressed approval: motherhood was the gravitational center of this group. But most of us were not imagining children when we were her age. Perhaps she was religious. Perhaps she would like Paula best. Casey had that kind of beauty that made you long for her friendship, the kind of maddening niceness that made you hope she would choose you.

*     *     *

Lisa got teary after a tumbler of wine: I feel like I didn’t have my baby. And she hadn’t. They had put up a curtain to hide her body from her, sliced her open, set aside her guts, and pulled the baby out themselves.

Worse: her husband had peeked around the curtain and seen her guts.

*     *     *

I hadn’t told them much about how I had Philip. I was saving it, polishing it really, because I fancied myself a writer. I wanted to prove that something profound had happened to me as I’d waited for this baby, my only but not my first. I wanted it to mean as much to the others as it did to me. I’d tried to put the experience in a poem but it wasn’t there yet.

*     *     *

It’s like that at the widow group, said my grandmother, I sit through all these stories of men I don’t care about. Then I get to talk about Henry.

It’s not like that at all, I said. When I held baby Victoria, I lifted her head to my nose as if inhaling my own daughter. We were all in this together.

*     *     *

Violet had been so inspired by the birth of Victoria that she quit volunteering in galleries and declared herself a doula. She had a surprising number of clients. This meant she had the most stories. They were all the same story really: the doctor was being ridiculous and she stood up for the mother. This is her birth, she would say, and we are doing it her way. On the walk home, my husband said, Technically, isn’t it the baby’s birth? Smiling for him felt treacherous.

*     *     *

We weren’t always a unit, not like a sitcom where six friends combine in predictable pairings. Monica and Violet’s families went camping together, just them. Clea had yoga friends we never met. A couple of times a year, Jill and I would go for a martini (two at the very most) and rip everyone apart like a couple momsy Dorothy Parkers. But the potlucks were undeniably our core. We were far from the places and people that raised us. We needed structure and ritual. We needed to understand the dislocations we’d experienced.

*     *     *

When Casey was seven or eight months along, Monica hosted a women-only potluck, an embarrassment of sweets: homemade fudge, ice cream from the best place. A sack of gummy worms.

Casey lay on Monica’s vast estate-sale table, naked belly at the center where the Thanksgiving turkey would go. As we recited the things we had learned, we lay strips of paper-mache over her convexity. A neighborhood tradition: we all had a cast of our fecund bellies hanging somewhere in our homes. Some included the breasts.

Casey was so beautiful with her golden hair fanned out around her glowing face. Unflappable. And some of us were trying to flap her a bit with our stories: the pain, the indignity of Yale being a teaching hospital, the uncontrollable emptying of the bowel (but how casual the nurse was as she changed the paper mat beneath you—Let’s get a fresh one, hon, as though it hardly mattered). Casey closed her eyes and smiled. It was this peace she brought to babysitting Monica’s children, who were wilder every year: we dreaded them in our homes even as we complimented her on their feisty spirits.

Your heart on the outside, we said.

Blood and feces and vomit, we said.

But baby effusions, they were really just slightly processed milk. Like ricotta.

Hold still until it dries. And she held very still. At one point she may have drifted off to sleep on the haze of our happy horror stories. But a child, I was sure, could destroy even this level of peace. This destruction, we hope, is the start of something new.

*     *     *

In the background, there was a mechanical sucking sound: wuh-whirr, wuh-whirr. This was Francois. Under her sweater she was harnessed to a pump. Her Micah was adopted and she hoped to bring in milk for him (It! Is! Possible! According to The League). So far it was only her eyes that leaked. She listened to our stories so earnestly, the only girl at the lunch table not invited to the slumber party, the one who thinks that being herself will get their attention.

*     *     *

We had the names down to Dahlia and Cedar and Amaryllis, Clea told us. Had to be something from the natural world: she was conceived on a hike. Sometimes I feel like Dahlia and Cedar are still out there, waiting for me to summon them. But I never seem to want sex. Or hiking.

Few of us could resist giving a full exegesis of our carefully chosen names. We liked literary and historical resonance. We dreaded the commonplace. We theorized what high school bullies would do with the raw material of these names; we imagined what they’d sound like in a history book, a profile in the Times, an obituary. These names would survive us when we weren’t around to tell the story of their birth. These names were the portion of destiny we got to choose.

*     *     *

Skin to skin was the big thing, we said. We were painting Casey’s cast now: suns and stars and a tree growing from a heart. You had to make sure the doctor knew you wanted skin to skin, we said. Put that slimy baby right on my chest. Oh, they usually wiped it off first. Weighed it. Made sure it was breathing. You couldn’t blame them for that. But you did. Precious seconds were lost and by the time you could reconnect with the baby it had already been given a score.

*     *     *

We laughed at how it was in movies. An actress with a basketball suddenly leaking water, screaming a few expletives, and boom: an actor baby, several months old and smeared with strawberry jam. It’s never fast. Once labor starts, time stretches, stops, doubles back. Refuses to align into the five-minute intervals you promised your doctor you’d wait for before you called.

The most useful thing the midwife said was not to shut our eyes at the height of the contraction. You’ll only close yourself in with the pain.

When Leticia’s contractions hit, she looked wildly around the room for something to read: labels, signs, the spines of medical texts. Then she read them backwards because it required more focus. Gave herself a kind of post-partum dyslexia, she told us, laughing. Couldn’t anymore see “alert” without thinking “trela.” When she saw an EXIT sign she almost heard a voice whisper: “tixe” It rhymed with pixie.

*     *     *

Monica gave Casey a baby necklace of magic stones to relieve teething pain. Some of us would roll our eyes together later, but remained solemn as the homeopathic properties were described.

*     *     *

Everyone was doing things wrong with birth and babies. But our friends were the ones doing the fewest wrong things.

*     *     *

Cora (easily confused with Clea, but you mustn’t) was angry they forgot to offer her the mirror. We’d all been offered the mirror when the crowning began. Hell yeah, I wanted the mirror. The freaking interns get the show and not me?

*     *     *

Casey still had a month to go, six weeks by some calculations, when she abandoned a mug of tea on the porch rail and drove herself to the hospital. Violet got the first text and rushed to meet her. Clea watched Violet’s kids. Casey’s husband was too deep in the stacks for cell phone reception, so it was Violet who rushed in bearing love, who was pushed from the bedside by an aggressive neonatologist, was hissed at by the expert’s pet nurses like rival geese. Violet expected to relay all this to us later; this was how her stories usually went right before their happy ending. Instead, she sent us erratic texts from that one corridor of the hospital that has reception. Monica was the one who called me with the real news: Casey’s baby would not come home to the apartment downstairs with its borrowed bassinet. Was cold. Was blue. Was maybe already incinerated into a pile of ashes with no clear place to rest.

What is there to say? It’s the kind of thing that makes empathy seem like a morbid little game.

*     *     *

Casey stayed in bed for a week or so. Monica linked us all to an app that assigned meals. It was both embarrassing and reassuring to deliver these vats of pasta, because she had to leave her bed to meet us at the door. She stood there in her nightgown and offered us tea. Her face was like raw dough. Still, she managed a colorless smile for our feeble jokes.

It wasn’t long before she was back tending our children. We all had gaps. We all needed coverage. Monica’s little ones couldn’t be stopped from running downstairs and demanding Casey’s attention for one of their dance routines. She came to the potlucks and never made us feel bad by looking unhappy or longing. She had the same pleasant way about her, the old easy laugh. She’s from the Midwest, we said.

Of course, none of us was from New Haven. But we were all enthusiastic adopters of East Coast mores.

Except the Californians. You’d see them in the produce aisle, the avocado pyramid, squeezing one rock-hard fruit after another with impotent disbelief.

Except the Southerners, who still painted their toenails and wore heels.

The Caribbeans complained of cold and bland food.

The Canadians complained of healthcare and litter.

Mariana from Colombia cringed when people said Columbia.

So we all had our things. Time passed. We shared potluck and grew together. When the election came, we all had the same signs in our yards

*     *     *

When he was five weeks old I had a vision of his little fat hand in the juicer. My mouth and throat felt how the juice would be. Like a pulpy V-8.

Not all the stories were happy.

But I got help. I told the doctor.

Did they make you take the test?

Oh, of course. I got the high score!

We laughed. A lot of us had had to take the test: do you have this thought and that? The questions measured our potential for lasting harm vs. the run-of-the-mill ruination of a child’s first months. Your duty was to accept that your life had been ruined. Sometimes this required pills.

Honestly, we were proud of these less flattering stories. We had accepted the destruction of our selves, but we did not have to pretend that nothing had been lost.

*     *     *

Francois never did lactate. But she learned to accept her imperfection. This is how fairy tales really end: someone must admit that she has come to the end of the tale. It’s like claiming a seat in musical chairs. You can still have a moral, but the moral of all stories is compromise. Despite the door the doctors had already put in her belly, Lisa tried to push her second baby out the traditional canal. It didn’t work. But this time she didn’t cry and say, I didn’t have my baby. She was learning an insomniac stupor that passed for Zen.

*     *     *

The neighborhood children multiplied. They stood up and ran different directions. With their burgeoning personalities came alliances that did not always align with parental ones. The time between potlucks stretched. Still, Monica always had a gathering on Election Day and this year was no exception.

There were American flag cookies, and the bolder children ran immediately to the table and snatched them up before anyone could remind them of their manners. There were tears from the smaller children and from Mariana, who’d spent a lot of time pulling clumpy icing into thin red stripes.

My son did not get a cookie. I saw his eyes level with the tabletop, searching through the crumbs, and I felt a peevishness with other people’s parenting that I was disinclined to rise above.

Yet. The evening promised history. We were there to celebrate. There were the usual bottles of price-club reds on the buffet table, but behind the desserts waited real champagne, or at least sparkling wine with a double-digit price point. We eyed it greedily, but…manners, restraint. Keeping cart and horse in proper order, if just barely. There will be other cookies, I told Philip.

So good! Who made this? Heaven! Our mouths were full and our heads already spinning. Children ran everywhere, laughing and crying and catching each other. Their mouths were purpled with frosting.

I can’t eat until we get more results.

I can’t eat at all. This from Casey. We were surprised to find her with us in the kitchen, not off charming our children and steering them away from fatal games. Though the apartment was overheated, she wore her coat. Her face was flushed.

Nervous?

No, said Casey. I believe in Ohio. Where she was from.

     *      *      *

Usually, the potlucks were unbeautiful. We professed not to care whether you brought a three-tier pavlova or a plate of brown apple slices carved with a blunt knife. But this party had inspired a frenzy of domestic arts, ironic I suppose, though the goods were as sweet as any produced by unironic bakers on the other side.

We ate stripes of roast pepper, stars cut from eggplant. Brownies appeared and we seized them two at a time. Our nerves were starving.

Monica passed the time learning to knit. She poured her attainable-goddess energy into an expanding square on her lap, clickety-click. I’ll have to go forever, she told us, I haven’t learned to bind off. If I stop it’ll all unravel. Imagine the neighborhood asleep beneath a giant child’s blanket.

We poured more price-club red. No one was holding back that night. We spread the known facts of the election before us and it was not difficult to arrange them into a story we could believe. These twinkling facts formed a picture far more legible than constellations, so why did we need to read our stars again and again? We’d been doing this for months. How long it had been since we told a birth story.

I feel unwell, said Casey, her face twisted. She just managed a smile before she went out for air, no, fine, nothing, but I longed to follow her out. I was thinking of Monica’s fine balcony, high in the air over the neighborhood with its matching signs.   A perfect place to survey the world before it changed.

Before I could move a shock ran through the room. We turned to the television. They were calling Florida. Cora was from Orlando, and this was when she began to cry. Melodramatic, I thought. I filled my cup and made my way toward the door. I have always loved a balcony. The child I did not have was called Juliet.

On my way past the couch, they called Wisconsin and someone’s sudden hand gesture upset my drink. I looked away from the TV to the stricken faces. Letitia’s eyes moved frantically back and forth; having found no sense in the words as they were arranged on the screen, she was reading them backwards.

I grabbed her arm. Do you remember when Philip was born? And you brought me those cookies with brewer’s yeast, and we had a whole conversation when I didn’t know my breasts were out?

Her voice was vague: You had a C-section.

I certainly did not, heat in my cheeks, I pushed for five hours. After I’d been in labor for forty-eight. The first time I went to the hospital they sent me home. Trust me, the doctor said, it gets a lot worse. I wanted to punch him. Then I get home and I’m on the birthing ball, and I want something stupid to watch, you know? Sometimes you just want something stupid in front of you, like a famous person or a dog. Only the morning show was taken up with news: people shot in a movie theater…and I thought, I’m bringing a kid into this world…

She wasn’t even fucking listening.

My God, said Leticia, Iowa. Tears spilled.

On the porch, Casey was curled up on a lawn chair. Her coat was off. Her belly…it was like we’d gone back in time to that other night.

I’m pregnant, she whispered. Then quickly sucked in air, her eyes shutting her in with the pain. They say you’re not supposed to close your eyes.

I’m sorry, she said, when it had subsided. I didn’t want to tell you guys.

I’ll call the hospital, I said. Your midwife? Who should I call?

No, she hissed. It’s Braxton-Hicks.

Like hell, I said, Let me at least get Violet.

She opened her eyes then: Let me be clear: no.

Where is Todd?

Conference.

All of her features suddenly rushed to the middle of her face, compressing her nose. This pain had come far too quickly after the last one.

I need you to look, said Casey. I realized she was hiking up her skirt. And tell me nothing’s there.

The top of the head between her legs.

Oh, I said. When it was me, I had refused the mirror.

There was a pop of a champagne cork released inside the apartment and then a fuss: It’s all that’s left to drink and I want to get drunk!

Bad luck, said someone.

Our luck’s already gone.

We would be fighting about that bottle of champagne for a long time. The outrage of and at the opener refused to die. The unlucky pop hung over every potluck thereafter, even after Monica taught the rest of us to knit. Even after we learned to find a measure of solace in the final stitch of a hat. We gorged on cookies but the chocolaty cud could not choke out a voice you didn’t want to admit was one of your own, your lesser self hissing: you hate their blowhard husbands and feral brats. You would close your eyes and Dorothy-Gale back to your own past if it hadn’t been blown away. If there were any place to feel peace, you would leave them behind.

*     *     *

On the porch that night, Casey shouted a single expletive and propelled the head into the night air. I caught it. Her. She was wet and tethered, but breathing. There was an eternal stillness, lasting perhaps three or four seconds. I don’t know what Casey suffered then, in the seconds before she summoned the courage to look. Those seconds were the first of a year when my own feelings incinerated any phrase in which I tried to contain them.

I think I said: She’s perfect, but she’ll freeze out here. Maybe the communication was telepathic. Somehow we got the baby to Casey’s chest, skin to skin, put the coat over them. My breath came in clouds but I could not speak. I couldn’t run inside to tell the others.

I don’t know your name, Casey said to the tiny alien. I’m so sorry I don’t know your name.


Sarah Harris Wallman is from Nashville, TN, but now lives in New Haven where she co-directs the MFA in Writing at Albertus Magnus College.  Her writing has been recognized by Prada and the Tucson Festival of Books. Other stories can be read online at storySouth and Hobart. She has an MFA and two children.

Oct 28

Five Micro Ghost Stories

We asked our readers to send us their ghost stories of 250 words or less, and we were honored by how many people answered the call. Thank you to everyone who submitted their spooky, subversive, and haunting tales. We had a great time reading them, and they sent a tingle up our spines. Here, we present five of the most unique submissions we encountered, all of which play with traditional ghost story tropes. They are sure to get you in the October spirit. We kick things off with the winner of our $50 prize, “Kittens” by Tasha Coryell.


“Kittens”

BY TASHA CORYELL

There were kittens living in her walls. Josette had never seen the kittens, only heard their yowling and scratching. She told herself that they needed the warmth of her pipes to stay alive as they banged around the borders of the bathtub while she showered.

Along with the kittens came the fleas. It wasn’t common for fleas to stick to people, preferring instead a nest of animal fur. Josette had fleas though, little things that bounced around and bit her skin. She sprayed and she picked and she scratched and the fleas wouldn’t leave.

When the cockroaches started appearing, she assumed it was the cold weather that was ushering them in. She sprayed the borders of her walls and in the morning she would wake up and find them there, dead.

When the noises stopped, Josette hoped and wished that it was because the kittens had found a new home. One with a food and water bowl and a litter box. Then the ceiling started caving in, first in flakes and then in giant chucks until the wood was exposed.

Josette called a plumber. She thought it was water damage, something ordinary and expensive. She wasn’t prepared for the plumber to find a man. An emaciated body with long fingernails and toenails and a giant beard. A man who wormed his way through the crevices of her house. Who banged against the wall as she showered, his fists saying, “Please come closer to me.”


Tasha Coryell lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and hopes that the things living in her walls really are kittens. More work from Tasha can be found at tashacoryell.com


“After the War”

BY SARAH BEAUDETTE

I had polished the floors, repainted, and installed new copper pipe, but the tenants began to complain within weeks of moving in.

The husband would walk in to find his books rearrangedat first gently alphabetical and later boldly, by theme or the color of their jackets, as I had sorted our books as a child.

I wondered if my mother was haunting the place, but the tenants said it was only in the library. My mother was never much of a reader.

It couldn’t be me. I had a baby named Annalise. I had a closet full of dresses, not pretty ones, but a closet full. I had rouge, and a wooden table covered in flour from dumpling dough. I had soup that scalded my throat and a husband who understood my silences. There was nothing left of me to haunt my childhood home.

One day I went to look in on the tenants, and they’d gone. The place sat empty and clean.

As I turned to leave, something moved. The house flickered, showing me the red rug I’d played on before we had to stop laughing for fear of being heard, the yellow walls pockmarked with glaring white squares, soft light from the green lamp before we all hid in the dark.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, for I understood then.

We all remade ourselves to survive the war, and the house haunted itselfbecause someone had to remember.


Sarah Beaudette is a nomadic writer, currently living in Mexico. Her fiction appears in Necessary Fiction and Trigger Warnings, and she can be found online at http://theluxpats.com and on twitter @sarahbeaudette.


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May 13

Five Apocalyptic Stories

“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.” — REM

“It’s always the end of the world.” — Jess Walter

aridShort Story Month continues! As part of our showcase, we’re looking at the end of the world and the many ways it is depicted in fiction. We solicited stories from some of science fiction and fantasy’s best writers and opened a call for submissions to our readership in order to publish a group of stories about the apocalypse based on the above two quotes. The following stories from writers Nancy Kress, Emily Devenport, Allison Augustyn, Joan Childs, and Shane R. Collins interpret the end of the world in 25 – 250 words. “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.” Enjoy!


“It’s Always The End of The World”

 by Nancy Kress

A huge, parched, windswept plain. Nothing moved except dust, blowing ceaselessly. Nothing lived except Potter, trudging toward a rickety structure that had once been a barn, on what had once been a farm, in what had once been the fertile Midwest. He fell—

“John, John, wake up! You’re having a nightmare!”

Linda’s arm shaking him, her face looming over his, the huge curve of her belly bumping gently against his chest.

“I…yes…it…” He wrapped his arms around her.

“A nightmare? About your mother?”

“No.” In a little while, he slept again.

The asteroid came closer, closer, until it smashed into Asia, the shock felt in quakes even as far away as Iowa. In the time illogic of dreams, immediately came the tsunamis, the dust dark as night, the storms and die-offs of species after species, the terrible—

This time he woke himself, shaking and sweating. Linda slept on. John rose, made himself warm milk, went back to bed.

The weapons arced out of the sky, bringing searing light, deadly mushroom clouds, flames and horror. John’s eyeballs seared. His skin sloughed off—

Morning. Linda came out of the bathroom, her cell in her hand. “Sweetie, that was your sister. Your mother’s gone, I’m so sorry…”

John reached for his wife, buried his face in the bulge of her warmth.

“Nothing will be the same without her,” Linda said. “It’s like…the end of the world.”

John said, before he knew he would speak, “It’s always the end of the world.”

The child kicked from inside its secret, temporary sea.

And the beginning.


Nancy Kress is the author of thirty-two books, including twenty-five novels, four collections of short stories, and three books on writing. Her work has won five Nebulas, two Hugos, a Sturgeon, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Most recent works are the Nebula-nominated Yesterday’s Kin (Tachyon, 2014) and the forthcoming Best of Nancy Kress (Subterranean, September, 2015). In addition to writing, Kress often teaches at various venues around the country and abroad; in 2008 she was the Picador visiting lecturer at the University of Leipzig. Kress lives in Seattle with her husband, writer Jack Skillingstead, and Cosette, the world’s most spoiled toy poodle.


“Apocalyptic Spring”

by Shane R. Collins

Kayla spotted the pansy three blocks away, the purple petals a stark contrast to the grays of concrete rubble, rebar, and broken glass. The flower grew tentatively from a crack in the asphalt, hunched beneath a crumpled beer can like a small mammal emerging from its hole on the first warm day of spring.

Reaching down to pluck the flower, Kayla imagined putting it in her greasy hair, or maybe holding it as she walked, bringing it to her lips to inhale every time she saw another body. Her fingers brushed across the petals but she couldn’t do it, couldn’t kill this green, living plant, the first beautiful thing she’d seen in months. Gently, Kayla lifted the beer can from the pansy and walked away, smiling.


Shane R. Collins recently graduated from the Stonecoast MFA program. His work has been published in The Masters Review Volume III, 2 Bridges Review, and The Sand Canyon Review. Another one of his stories was a finalist for Best New Writing 2015. He’s currently seeking representation for a novel. Collins lives and writes from a homestead in rural Vermont.


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