Archive for the ‘featured fiction’ Category

Featured Fiction: “Last Bridge Burned” by Ron Rash

Today, it is our honor to publish an original story by the esteemed Ron Rash in our Featured Fiction section, in which we publish work by established authors. In “Last Bridge Burned,” a man is closing up his gas station late at night when a woman in need of help knocks on the door. This story dives into the best and worst sides of human nature, and is a dose of good medicine for these times.

“A muddy heart, that’s what his second wife Teresa told him once. She’d actually said moody, Carlyle realized later, but muddy seemed right and the last eight years had been an attempt to settle that sediment inside him.”

When the woman knocked on the locked glass door a few minutes after midnight, Carlyle was startled because no car or truck lights had swept across the storefront. He’d taken the .38 from its place behind the counter. He did not go to the door but sidled to the window behind the register. The woman was barefoot and a scrape above her left eye seeped blood, her right forearm scraped and bleeding also. Though it was October, she wore only frayed jeans and an oversized black t-shirt. The clothes looked slept in. One day you’ll learn trouble finds a man easy enough without you inviting it in. Carlyle was sixteen when his exasperated father told him that. By the time he’d finally followed the advice, Carlyle had lost three jobs and two wives. This woman at the door had trouble written all over her. He searched the shadows near the exit ramp for accomplices. The woman knocked again, softly, and Carlyle stepped around the counter, the .38 tucked in the back of his jeans. He stepped in front of the door and pointed at the “Closed” sign.

The outside lights and gas pumps were turned off, the register emptied, but Carlyle still needed to sweep. He kept the gun tucked in his jeans and picked up the broom, worked his way around the shelves and did not look up. In the ten or so minutes it took, there were no more knocks on the door. He set the broom back in the closet. All that was left to do was turn off the radio and inside light. Then, as he did every night after closing, Carlyle could sit in the dark on the store’s back porch before going home. He’d smoke a cigarette and watch headlights pass below on the interstate. After a day of dealing with people, their soft yellow glow soothed him, as did the sound of the vehicles themselves, a sound like approaching rain.

But now, as the words of the song on the radio reminded him, he had glanced at the door and seen that the woman was still there.

On a late-night east of Nashville

My last bridge burned, my money gone

The kindness of a stranger

Showed me a way to go on.

That night when he’d gone to the door and pointed again at the “Closed” sign, she did not raise a middle finger or curse him, as even regular customers often did when he pointed to the sign. The woman wasn’t even looking at him, chin down and arms clutched to her chest. She looked abandoned, like the dogs that appeared from time to time, dropped off by city folks who’d tired of them. Cats too were abandoned, but they always seemed to find a way to survive, but the dogs stayed close to the exit ramp. They simply waited.

“What do you want?” he’d asked after unlocking the door.

“I don’t know,” the woman finally answered.

Her long hair was stringy and disheveled, the eyes red-veined and glassy. Drunk or drugged, Carlyle knew. She reeked of cigarette smoke, amid it a whiff of perfume. Younger than he’d thought too, thirty at most, but a hard-lived thirty. She was shivering.

“You don’t know?” he asked.

“I was with some people, in a car and they pushed me out of the car,” she said, raising her eyes.

“Why’d they do that?”

“I think we were having some kind of argument,” she said, looking toward the exit ramp. “What state am I in?”

A damn sorry one, Carlyle thought, then told her North Carolina.

To read the rest of “Last Bridge Burned” click here.

Featured Fiction: “The Visitor” by Lydia Davis

Thank you to everyone who submitted to our first ever Flash Fiction Contest. Today, we are honored to bring you an original piece from one of the masters of the short short form: Lydia Davis. We have been loyal fans of Lydia Davis’s short and potent stories for ages, and we cannot even tell you what a thrill it is to publish a tale of hers on the blog today. We are pleased to present “The Visitor.”

Sometime in the early summer, a stranger will come and take up residence in our house.  Although we have not met him, we know he will be bald, incontinent, speechless, and nearly completely unable to help himself.  We don’t know exactly how long he will stay, relying entirely on us for food, clothing, and shelter.

Our situation reminds me that a leathery-skinned old Indian gentleman once spent several months with my sister in London.  At first he slept in a tent in her back yard. Then he moved into the house.  Here he made it his project to rearrange the many books in the house, which were in no particular order.  He decided upon categoriesmystery, history, fictionand surrounded himself with clouds of smoke from his cigarettes as he worked.  He explained his system in correct but halting English to anyone who came into the room.  Several years later he died suddenly and painfully in a London hospital.  For religious reasons, he had refused all treatment.

Read the rest of “The Visitor” here.

Featured Fiction: “Creation Story” by Katie Chase

We’re so pleased to present the first piece of fiction for Short Story Month, “Creation Story” by Portland, Oregon, author Katie Chase. Chase’s work has been called brilliant, nuanced, fraught, and mysterious, and this piece, which appears in her debut collection from A Strange Object out May 10th, is each of these things. A city burns every year the night before Halloween, a girl walks a dead mall with her friends, and a sister comes to understand her brother.

“All his life, my brother must have felt that same flickering heat of a city set aflame inside him.”

An orange flame burning the roof of a little paper house

The last time the city burned, my brother didn’t stay for cake. Soon as we finished dinner, he pushed his chair out from the table and came back smelling of cologne. “I’m going out,” he announced.

Dad glanced at Mom, who tried to keep her face from falling. She’d already pushed the candles in. Black cake showed in rings where each had plunged through the vanilla, like soil under snow. I’d been playing with the plastic lighter, but now Dad took it, tossed it down beside the stack of paper plates. “Out where?” he demanded.

Out.” Daniel scowled and drew his hood over his head, his parting gesture anytime he left the house. Dark fuzz lay like a shadow between his nose and lip. Around his neck a gold chain glinted. He’d told Mom it wasn’t real, but I knew where he’d gotten it: at a pawnshop. The TV was on in the next room, and on the screen a news reporter wearing puffy gloves stood before a bungalow where flames licked out boarded windows. They cut to a helicopter shot of black smoke billowing from a forsaken factory I remembered seeing from the freeway.

Every birthday of my brother’s life, the city burned and our parents bade us stay in. When we were little, we made masks out of cardboard, painted to look tribal and fierce, and wore them watching from the window for suspicious activity. Specifically: people on foot, people with no business being here, darting stealthily between trees, carrying battered cans of gasoline. Our house was in a suburb seven miles from the city limits, and though we’d kept the cordless with us on the carpet, a girlish twin to Daniel’s bat, we’d never had to dial 911. The next night we could celebrate; the next night was Halloween, and we’d be giddy, the neighborhood ours again. We roved the streets as rowdy bands of shiny, store-bought superheroes, clutching clean pillowcases full of loot.

This was what I thought of as tradition, but how long had it been like this? There was a gap between us of five years, a space that could have accommodated the birth of other siblings. In recent years Daniel sat sulking in the living room, sneaking out for surreptitious smokes, and I watched the street alone. Now he was sixteen, one step closer to adult. Looped in his thumb was a clinking new set of keys.

“Don’t go anywhere stupid,” Dad said, meaning south, into the city.

“There’s only stupid places to go,” Daniel muttered and banged out the door.

As Mom got up to watch the car back out of the driveway, I swiped a swoop of frosting from the cake. That afternoon I’d helped her bake it, piped the border on myself. More for us, then, I thought. By the time Mom returned, bolting the lock, Dad had punched the volume up and turned his chair.

Without looking at Mom or me, he said, “We should never have gotten him that car.”

“Can I light them?” I asked.

To read the rest of “Creation Story,” click here.

Cover-3-name“Creation Story” is excerpted from Katie Chase’s recent story collection Man & Wife, out May 10th from Austin publisher, A Strange Object. To learn more about Katie’s collection or to order a copy, click here

“The Restorative Unit” by Julia Elliott

We’re so pleased to conclude our October Issue with a story by Julia Elliott. Elliott’s novel, The New and Improved Romie Futch, debuted earlier this month through Tin House, and follows a drunk, recently divorced, Internet-porn surfing taxidermist who decides — in hopes of improving his life — to enroll as a research subject at the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience. We fell in love with Elliott’s stories through her collection The Wilds, a body of work filled with gothic tales and strange transformations. Here in “The Restorative Unit,” an aging actress travels to an exclusive medical spa for treatments via a metal box the pumps restorative liquid into her veins. It’s the perfect story to wrap up October, and a wonderful showcase from one of our favorite writers. Enjoy!

Featured Fiction

The actress gazes out at an ocean the color of Berry Blue Kool-Aid. The sea is thirty yards away, beyond the sprawl of a sugar-white beach. Everything looks cartoonish, saturated with artificial color—clouds, sky, sea, sand. Is it the procedure, she wonders, filling her with vibrancy already, restoring her eyesight, making her hardened lenses flexible again, strengthening her iris muscles? Will her eyes glint with beautiful fury again? Will they tear up with passion as a beautiful rogue sweeps her into a savage embrace?

This morning, she felt strong enough to rise from bed, and her nurse wheeled her out to the veranda—a slab of modernist concrete tricked out with cable rails. The female nurses wear 1950s uniforms, a retro touch that matches the architecture: starched white dresses with Peter Pan collars, ivory patent-leather T-strap shoes, old-fashioned crown-like hats emblazoned with blood-red crosses. The male assistants, handsome with delicious tans, wear ecru chinos and snowy polos. The building is white-washed. Though the staff represents an array of ethnicities and skin colors, the doctor has flawless alabaster skin.

The actress inspects the long veranda, counting patients: seven this morning—three men, four women, including herself, each one in a wheelchair equipped with a side car containing what the doctor and staff refer to as the “restorative unit,” a two-foot-long contraption connected to each patient by a thick, supple black tube. The unit, sheathed in a ribbed aluminum shell, half robotic, half bioengineered, filters the blood and slowly restores youth, taking five-to-seven years off per session, or so they claim. Each session lasts a month, so the actress has time for just one, and then she must begin her stint as a matriarch on a second-rate history mini-series. Or perhaps she’ll be fired for looking too young? Perhaps they’ll recast her, not as an ingénue, but as a ripe sexy woman with power and pawns, a queenly sort with a harem of young studs.

The actress is skeptical—she’s always skeptical—but that didn’t stop her from taking a pamphlet from her cosmetic dermatologist after yet another round of injectable dermal fillers.

“I’ll Google them immediately,” the actress had said.

“They’re not on the internet,” whispered her dermatologist. “They’re that exclusive. Please be discreet.”

So the actress called the number. She spoke with an agent, who answered all of her medical questions in an aloof, scholarly voice. The agent did not push her to purchase a “spa-cation” package. The agent sat in silence as the actress studied her iPhone calendar. After the actress read out her Visa number, the agent explained that they would book her flight to the San Juan International Airport and email the details. A small plane would fetch her from the airport. She should wait in Concourse C and listen for her name to be called. The flight to the island would not be listed on her official itinerary.

To read the rest of the story, click here.

“The Lady Winchester Deciphers Her Labyrinth” by Adrian Van Young

Sarah Winchester began plans for the famous Winchester House in San Jose, California, in 1884. Construction continued 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year, resulting in a house filled with mysterious windows, doors, and staircases, many of which lead nowhere. In “The Lady Winchester Deciphers Her Labyrinth,” author Adrian Van Young constructs his own version of the enigmatic Sarah Winchester, and the events surrounding the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. A mysterious mansion, a city-wide fire, and a mentally ill heiress. Thank you, Adrian for this wonderful and haunting story.

The Winchester Mystery House - the house number 525 on Winchester Boulevard in San Jose, California, USA, is now an extravagant tourist attraction.

Featured Fiction

Before the great earthquake of 1906, twenty-three hours before it exactly, a quake which will, when it has passed, enact such a chaos of structural damage upon a house in San Jose that the house might as well not be standing at all, shattering ten of the seventeen chimneys, juddering three Tudor turrets to bricks, uprooting a wing of New England-style porches, shaking loose the plasterwork, collapsing asunder the third and fourth stories, buckling the seven-tier tower to bits—before any of this, while the house is still standing, while the house is still pumping with uncanny blood, Sarah Winchester, the woman who owns it, proceeds through its windings with Tommie her gardener, counting the number of windows that are.

Rooms in the house: 160.

48 fireplaces. 17 chimneys. 3 elevators. 2 basements. 2 ballrooms. 10,000, counting, panes of glass.

Only some of these windows look out on the gardens where Tommie, cadaverous and elegant, walks. While other windows in the house look sideways at walls or look upwards on ceilings. They are curious windows, interior windows; rather than leading outside, they lead inward. A couple look through dim woodwork upon still other windows and through these the gardens. Between the windows lies a shaft with no architecture above or below it, an extra dimension of vertical space encasing the house like some strange second skin.

Every glass pane counts as 1 discrete window. The heiress has made sure of this.

Even the stained glass surmounting the staircase which was 1000 dollars, two weeks to install, goes down in Tommie’s book as 1—one mark among a legion like it. The glass has an inscription on it from Richard II, Act V, Scene V: These same thoughts people this little world.

She is an heiress but also a widow. Her daughter is four decades dead, her husband three; she is alone. The heiress’ fortune comes to her from rifles—the Winchester model, named after her husband, who carries the name of his father in turn.

But she is the primary shareholder now. She owns the house and never leaves it.

Every two weeks she goes hobbling through it, calculating what she’s built.

She and Tommie come into the house’s ballroom where she turns in a circle; the dust motes turn with her. All the curtains are drawn in this cavernous space.

Daylight filters through the cracks.

“Seven thousand four hundred and twenty-six, Tommie.”

Tommie marks inside his book. “Are we counting the panes in the greenhouse today?”

“Of course, Tommie, yes,” says the heiress, distracted, ticking off panes with her right pointer finger. Chronic arthritis sets fire to her hands, bringing her back to the moment—his question. She turns and arranges her face into sternness: “Of course we are, Tommie. When have we not?”

She stiffens in the dim ballroom, ready to turn on a dime and go out.

To reach the right staircase that leads to the top, they’ll have to double back again down the hall that led here, then the hall at the branching, then a series of shorter halls still off of that—a kinked-up maze of passages that leads to the alcove that houses the stairs. There are many staircases all through the great house, though few of them lead to the places they should. Like the windows, the stairways melt up into ceilings or end mid-ascent in bizarre, floating platforms. They have a purpose in the world that they’ve been divested of here in the house.

“Tomorrow is Wednesday,” says Tommie.

“Which means?”

“A good day for a holiday.”

“If you like, you may take the day off,” says the heiress. “Spend it with Ito. Your pretty young wife.”

“It’s not on my behalf…” He stops. “It’s not on my behalf I ask.”

“That’s lovely, Tommie,” says the heiress.

His diction, she thinks to herself, can she place it? Anne Radcliff perhaps—Polidori—Flaubert. She has given him so many books in the past, stacked them outside his quarters, not insisting he read them.

He is vague through the haze of the heiress’ veil. It is crepe and it gusts with the air of her motion, approaching him, passing him, leaving the room. She only removes it whenever she bathes and when she is in bed asleep, and even though Tommie has seen her without it, she still prefers to keep it drawn.

Beneath it is not even something macabre: the necrotic grand dame with the straggling hair.

It is only the face of an elderly woman who cannot fully chew her food.

When they reach the staircase she begins to climb first. She calls back down the stairs to Tommie: “I will finish this count at my leisure,” she says, “and bring you my findings so you may record them.”

When Tommie’s face begins to shake the heiress turns her own away.

To read the rest of the story, click here.

Featured Fiction: “Lookout” by Kelly Luce

We first discovered, and fell in love with, Kelly Luce’s writing when we read Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, her award-winning short story collection. When she agreed to write a piece for our Featured Fiction section, we were thrilled. In “Lookout,” a young man runs away with his brother’s new wife after the wedding ceremony. “Lookout” is about escape, but it’s also about acknowledging the things we want from life and how, despite our best efforts, happiness can so easily slip through our fingers. Enjoy this wonderful piece from a fantastic writer.

Lookout_luce with words

Sherina harvested the cash from the cards. She had a way of sliding her finger along the seam of an envelope and finding the weak spot where there was no glue. He liked watching her.

“I can’t tell if I’m depressed or if this is the happiest day of my life,” she said. She was wearing a Tang t-shirt, running shorts, and her veil.

He’d started stealing things when he was eight years old. Underwear from his aunt’s dresser. A dead lighter off the floor of his friend’s dad’s car. His second cousin’s motorcycle. His favorite part was not feeling guilty later, the way thieves did in books. The time with the underwear was when he first realized that no one could see what was going on inside his head.

The stack of checks was growing.

“We’d better cash those a-sap,” he said. “On the way to the airport tomorrow.”

She shucked another card. “Who’s Dave-dog and Diane?”

“Friends of our parents.”

“They didn’t give anything.”

“No thank-you note for them, then.”

This made her laugh.

“What are you looking forward to most?” he asked. They’d been meeting in secret for six weeks. When he’d proposed a post-ceremony getaway he was only half-joking, and when she agreed without a hint of a smile, he saw how his desperate surge of feeling toward his brother’s fiancée, and her need to escape, made a perfect couple. Sometimes life reminded you how little you had; how easy it would be to start fresh someplace else.

“Not having to worry. You?”

“The chicks, of course.”

“Ha. Will you miss anything?” The card in her hand said With This Card, I Thee Congratulate. She plucked the hundred-dollar bill from inside and tossed the card into the recycling bin.

“I focus on what I have.” He gave her a look and she blushed.

“Fall color,” she said. “Deep-dish.”

He put his arm around her. “This is a no-guilt zone. Guilt is a form of egotism. You’re not really feeling bad, are you?”

“Only when I think of you guys’ mother.”

Lookout quote<< To read the rest of “Lookout” click here >>

Featured Fiction: Our Secret Life in the Movies – by Michael McGriff and JM Tyree

San Francisco film buffs Michael McGriff and JM Tyree set out to watch all 800 + films in the Criterion Collection in a single year. After each film, the writers penned a short story loosely inspired by the movie, which became Our Secret Life in the Movies, a collection produced by Austin publisher A Strange Object. We were so taken with the work, and are such big fans of A Strange Object, we approached the team about republishing some of the book’s sketches. Here, we give you the stories inspired by filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, a wonderful look at the stunning prose and unique structure of this highly original and beautifully written collection.


\ After Solaris by Andrei Tarkovsky \

I thought I had woken up. Going out into the hall, I noticed that the front door was open. This was unnerving because I was living alone again after the divorce. The last time I had used the door was early the previous evening when I came home from work. Then I heard someone in the house, fussing around in the kitchen.

It was you in your running clothes. You looked hale and flushed, your breath heaving a little, like it did when you first started jogging. I had made fun of you then, thinking it wouldn’t last, but it was actually one of those minor changes, like listening to new music or suddenly acquiring a hobby like knitting, that heralds a breakup. What was strange about this situation was that the breakup had already occurred, we had agreed not to call or see each other, the old phrases like “space” and “needs” had been dealt and played, and you had no reason to return to our house. You didn’t even have keys anymore.

“Hello,” you said, more nonchalantly than was comfortable.

“What on earth are you doing here?” I said.

“How do you mean?” you said, looking hurt in that way that always annoyed me so much. You gestured to the walls around you in the kitchen as if you were indicating ownership, or at least familiarity.

Then I had my big idea:

“You’re not you,” I said.

“What?” you said, using your don’t be foolish face that came out during social occasions.

“I just realized,” I said. “You’re not you.”

“I don’t understand,” you said.

“What I mean,” I said, “is maybe you’re not who you think you are.”

I was trying to give you a hint or clue to the situation we had found ourselves in.

“But I wonder,” I added, “if you are also having this same dream right now.”

“Oh,” you said. “I see what you mean.”


\ After Solaris by Andrei Tarkovsky \

My first real girlfriend used to pick me up from my shift at the cannery and drive us to the lighthouse overlook on the Old Coast Highway before she took us back to my apartment. She was convinced she could read my thoughts. I loved riding in her Corvair. Its rear engine and orange factory paint.

I always suspected she was a pathological liar and a hustler.

But there was something so tender about her oddities, the way she moved in with me the same afternoon I met her in the mini-mart at the Cheap-O gas station, the way she had hot-glued green plastic army soldiers across her dashboard, the inside of the windshield, and upside down from the bare metal roof. When reading my thoughts, she would say, “Your mind is like a watercress.” The truth is, I liked the way she talked about my past lives, the way we sat with our backs to the dead town I’d grown up in, facing the salty black ink of the Pacific. She entered the rooms of my mind and described in detail how warm or cool they were, how they smelled, how the floors creaked as they settled into the night, how I looked sitting at the desk in the very last and smallest room, how she touched the scar on the back of my head and said she could tell I was thinking about how beautiful she looked. I was happy to give her all I had.

To read the rest of the Tarkovsky sketches, and more from McGriff and Tyree, click here.