Permission

Flash
Natalie Schriefer


Photo Credit: Michael Muccioli/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

I didn’t mind, at first. Answering phones. Making copies. The silence between semesters, the students on break, the professors’ doors closed. I was five dollars above minimum wage, after all. I could walk to the beach during lunch, search for sea glass, ships.

I drowned my doubts in TV. In Futurama reruns.

Eleven days after my grandfather died, I reached the bureaucrat episode. We are who are, Hermes sang, and he was a bureaucrat. I wasn’t. Fresh off bereavement leave, I knew I wasn’t a secretary, a receptionist, an administrator. I was an editor. I wanted my own business. I wanted clients and retainers and contracts. I wanted my grandfather back.

That night I lay awake, cocooned in a rainbow of blankets. Moonlight arced along the curve of the blinds. My neck ached from hunching over my desk, and in the quiet, massaging the base of my skull, I couldn’t avoid what Futurama hadn’t meant to ask: What was I waiting for?

I built a website the next day. I printed fliers. Sent emails. Set rates.

Two weeks later, I gave my notice. A month later, I was free.

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Natalie Schriefer received her MFA from Southern Connecticut State University. She started working as a freelance writer and editor in 2016, and has yet to look back. You can find her on Twitter @schriefern1. Email: schriefern[at]gmail.com

Passing on the Parcel

Flash
Terri Mullholland


Photo Credit: Flood G./Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The parcel will be the last thing he gives her. He’s been carrying it around all day in a red canvas bag and she wonders if he’ll hand it over, or whether his nerve will desert him at the last minute and he’ll decide to keep it.

She never asks for the parcels. That isn’t how it works. They must give them up of their own free will. They must choose to part with them.

She’s had clients who arrive with enormous bundles, far bigger than they can comfortably lift, who will pick them up and walk out with them at the end of the session. Sometimes they say they genuinely forgot they were carrying them.

She is already guessing about the parcel in Jonathan’s red canvas bag. She knows it will be neatly wrapped. She imagines he is a brown paper and string man. She had one client, a young woman, who had given her the most exquisitely wrapped box. Shiny gold paper, silk ribbon, Japanese washi tape to seal the ends. Often the more painful the contents, the more beautiful the wrapping.

Not always though. Some people boxed up their unwanted feelings in the bits and pieces they had by the bin ready to go out for recycling. No care was taken at all, ten years of an abusive relationship crammed into an old cereal packet. That client had sealed it well though: reams and reams of brown parcel tape. Those feelings weren’t getting out again.

She has a special confidential incinerator to burn them. She throws in the whole package, then watches as fear, shame, sadness, and every other unwanted emotion is reduced to nothing.

Sometimes they’ve been badly wrapped and she doesn’t get them to the incinerator in time. She can end up chasing angry thoughts around the house like a swarm of wasps. Once a wave of someone’s unwanted grief had leaked out of the milk carton in which it had been stored and left her crying for weeks.

Jonathan hands over the parcel at the end of their session. It is neat and tidy, as she expected. Apart from one flap that looks as if it has been lifted one too many times and now won’t quite seal. Sometimes clients do that, take one last peek at the feelings that have been part of them for so long. Say a final goodbye.

‘Is this everything?’ she asks.

Jonathan nods.

The parcel is heavier than she had expected. Even as she is showing Jonathan out of the door and watching him walk away with a new buoyancy in his step, she can feel it. The heaviness of what he has left. It is seeping out of that loose flap of brown paper, filling the room.

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Terri Mullholland is a writer and researcher living in London, UK. She has a PhD from the University of Oxford, where she has taught English Literature and Critical Theory. Her flash fiction has appeared in Litro, Flash Fiction Magazine, Every Day Fiction, Full House, Severine, and Six Sentences. Twitter: @Lesley_Cat Email: terri.mullholland[at]gmail.com

Persimony

Flash
Laura Gavin


Photo Credit: Alexandria Brooke/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Persimony liked to joke that I’d do anything for her, because I was programmed to. And of course, she was right.

I’d been programmed to clear up the children’s toys, to sweep the kitchen floor every night, to haul the damp bundle of towels into the washing machine. I couldn’t have stopped myself from trundling out to the shed every Saturday to extract the lawnmower from its tangled bodyguard of rusted hedge-clippers and old bent rakes.

But there were other things I had no algorithm for. The slant of her neck as she towelled her hair dry, not bothering to close the bedroom door. The tender way she set a mug of tea down in front of her elderly father when she fetched him round to see his grandchildren. The snatches of light dancing in her eyes from the window, that in one ridiculous moment, I imagined were for me.

Then she’d pat me on the arm and tell me not to look so serious, I was meant to be a Cheery Home Companion, it said so on my box.

I didn’t know what the label on my box had said. I only knew how I felt.

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Laura Gavin is based in Nottingham, UK. She works in charity communications by day and writes stories by night. She has a MSc in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh and once performed a short story at Edinburgh International Book Festival. Her (unpublished) novel was shortlisted for the Flash 500 Novel Opening competition in 2020. Email: lauradgavin[at]gmail.com

The Porcelain Doll

Flash
Carla Scarano D’Antonio


Photo Credit: Jacqueline Poggi/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

She stands near the black bedside table with its hard marble white top, just her height. Her mother lies on the huge bed; the soft blue quilt covers her shape. She is still, at one with the bed. Her eyes are closed, the profile of her head clear-cut against the pillow and the rest of the room blurring behind.

Her mother had dropped like a stone and her father, his face red, had picked her up and put her into bed. Her uncles and aunts arrived. They washed the little girl and made her wear a white dress and white shoes.

“Why doesn’t Mum move?” she says.

“She’s sleeping,” Aunt Marisa says. “Don’t worry, Lucia, she’ll wake up soon.”

Lucia runs into the corridor and one of her uncles holds her in his hands and lifts her up. She giggles; he smiles, but tears are around his eyes. She feels his grip tightening her stomach.

He puts her down and she wanders about the house looking for her toys. There is the big plastic doll with a purple sleepsuit. She had cut a hole where the navel is to free her belly. Mum told her off but Lucia thought the doll was happier with that hole. And the porcelain doll her mother gave her. It’s broken but Lucia still loves it.

Mum and Dad were shouting at each other. She grasped the doll’s blond curls and hit it on the floor harder and harder, to drown their screams. They came to rescue the doll: her legs broken, the chest cracked, the face with a cut like a scar across its nose and cheek. Her Mum had a similar one across her lips, and they were big and red. She also had dark spots on her arms and neck.

But Lucia didn’t let them take the doll away. She held it tight and caressed the breaks and holes again and again as if her fingers could magically mend them.

“Do you think she’ll wake up?” she hears one of her aunts say.

“I don’t know,” another one says. “The doctor said she is all right. It was the medication, wasn’t it?”

“He said so. Why is she taking these tablets?”

“Low blood pressure, they say. But it might have bad side effects. I’d have called an ambulance.”

“Yeah, me too. He said she hit her head falling down. Can you believe it?”

“Things happen. She’ll be all right in a few days. Oh, hello, Lucia, how are you? Your little doll has beautiful hair. What a pity her face is broken. Maybe we can buy a new one.”

Lucia shakes her head. “She’ll heal,” she says. “She’ll heal one day.”

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Carla Scarano D’Antonio lives in Surrey with her family. She has a degree in Foreign Languages and Literature and a degree in Italian Language and Literature from the University of Rome, La Sapienza. She obtained her Master of Arts in Creative Writing at Lancaster University and has published her creative work in various magazines and reviews. Alongside Keith Lander, Carla won the first prize of the Dryden Translation Competition 2016 for their translations of Eugenio Montale’s poems. Her short collection Negotiating Caponata was published in July 2020. She worked on a PhD on Margaret Atwood’s work at the University of Reading and graduated in April 2021. Twitter: @scaranocarla62 Email: scaranocarla62[at]gmail.com

Tidy Cats Bahama Sunset Litter

Flash
Shelbi Tedeschi


Photo Credit: Steven Collis/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

February 25, 2020

Purina
Office of Consumer Affairs
PO Box 340
Neenah, WI 54957

To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing to lodge a complaint with your Tidy Cats Bahama Sunset litter. It promises to get rid of litter box odor and “take your nose on a tropical vacay.” Bahama Sunset? What a scent for a cat litter. Tell me what exactly a Bahama sunset is supposed to smell like, would you?

Last week, on our three-year anniversary, David arrived home after work with a load of groceries. I picked up cat litter, I heard him call from the back door. These were the first words between us in days, after he’d refused to adopt another kitten with me, even after I showed him the perfect orange tabby on the local shelter’s site. I kept ignoring him but peeked inside the bags he dropped in the kitchen, and that’s when I saw your Tidy Cats Bahama Sunset litter.

We have four rescue cats together—Sweet Pea, Mermaid, Tigress, and Lily—and we are an Arm & Hammer Multi-Cat Easy Clump Litter family. After all this time, how would he not know that? And you had to tempt him with the label—cat silhouettes among palm trees—promising to fulfill all our cat litter needs.

Well, let me tell you something: Bahama Sunset is not a “tropical vacay” for my nose. The sweet, perfumey scent scared Tigress and Sweet Pea away, so they left puddles on our new LifeProof Flooring from Home Depot. David said, No big deal. Look, it wipes right up—that’s why we got the LifeProof. That’s not the point, I told him. I peeled off my right sock, soaked in cat urine, and the girls ran to hide under the couch.

Toss it! I told him. No—we aren’t wasting a whole tub of cat litter, he said. They’ll get used to it. We spent the night in silence, trying not to gag while cleaning up warm piles of cat feces in the hallway, and I spent the morning after my anniversary loading up David’s Subaru with boxes. He stood on the front steps, rubbing his temples: Don’t you think this is an overreaction?

What kind of person makes such drastic life changes for a family without consulting anyone? Trust was out the window. Three years of lasagna Thursdays and vacations to Branson, Missouri be damned.

I threw in the rest of the container of Tidy Cats and slammed his back hatch shut.

All this to say, this is the worst case of false advertising I’ve ever seen. I hope you’ll remember my four—soon to be five—fatherless girls and consider discontinuing the Bahama Sunset litter for good.

Most sincerely,

Linda Call

pencilShelbi Tedeschi is currently pursuing her MA in Creative Writing at Ball State University, where she teaches first-year composition and serves as an intern for River Teeth. Email: shelbi.tedeschi[at]gmail.com

Root of Anxiety

Flash
Clara Schwarz


Photo Credit: Bill Smith/Flickr (CC-by)

Just outside the entrance, Sophia paused briefly to glide the straps of her mask over her ears. She pinched it tight on her nose, nonchalantly picked a basket, and entered the fruit and vegetables area. The basket gained the weight of tomatoes, onions, courgettes, and broccoli, when suddenly, she spotted an unknown root. She approached it curiously and read: Parsnips, Loose, £1.15/kg. Three parsnips now rolled around in her basket, as she continued past cheese and yoghurt, reaching up to grab a pint of full-fat milk. She enjoyed it this way, each gulp coating her throat and filling her tummy with comfort. Sophia was a cooking novice, keen for the comfort of following instructions and the silent repetition of chopping and slicing. Not knowing how to prepare a dish or how to chop a vegetable made her feel insufficient, but her newfound root vegetable would provide some exposure. Surely, the variety of recipes online would spark delicious manipulations of this new root. She could boil it, fry it, grill it or bake it. Mostly, she was eager to roast the parslip, parnils, parnip? The familiar heat flushed her face, as she scrolled her cooking-app trying to find an enticing recipe for the parlip, but the app won’t recognise purnip! Jaw clenched and brows furrowed, Sophia serpentined past eggs and flour, made a beeline for the nut-free muesli, briefly browsed roasted and salted nuts, and indulged in a multi-pack of dark chocolate digestives. Wrists strained and biceps struggling, she dragged herself and the basket along the self-checkout queue. Her brain buzzed and eyes rolled back as she desperately clung to the sound of the root in her ears, trying to reconstruct its name from the echo of her internal voice. The queue inched forwards, as the echo inched further away. Her basket reached its destination, and she initiated the staccato rhythm of the beep. After she moved her acquisitions one after the other into the bagging area, she carefully placed the pale carrots on the scales, and selected “root vegetables” on the screen. She skimmed carefully, past turnips and beetroot, onion and sweet potato, her forehead warm and palms sticky. Her fingers swipe across the screen and finally, calmness washed over her: Parsnips, Loose, £1.15/kg.

pencilClara Schwarz is a researcher, educator, and podcaster based in Germany. They are passionate about social justice, creative writing, and researching queer friendship. Find Clara on Twitter @clararosawelt and their podcast @bullsh_tbinary. Email: claraschwarzz[at]gmail.com

The Bittersweet Taste of Greek Honey

Flash
Gigi Papoulias


Photo Credit: Ishwar/Flickr (CC-by)

I found Mamá sitting up in her hospital bed, breakfast tray untouched, staring out the window. “Aren’t you gonna eat a little?”

At month ten of advanced, incurable, gastric adenocarcinoma, eating or not, how much of a difference would it really make? Deep down, we both knew this, but said nothing.

“Just get me some tea.” She looked at me. “I’m OK,” she added.

*

It was Sunday morning. My cousin and I sat at the table, waiting for our pancakes, which our mothers had agreed to make, even though we were running late. Mamá was by the stove, stacking pancakes on a plate. My aunt, Thía Maria, put a jar of honey on the table. It came from their village in Greece.

“You’ll see, it’s sweeter than maple syrup,” Mamá told us. “It’s better for you. Now eat, we can’t be late for church.”

She placed the heap of pancakes on the table and Thía Maria said to her, “Remember when we saw what was inside the church?”

They had grown up during the war, and would sometimes mention a childhood memory. In this sudden recollection, they told us that when they were kids, after a deadly ambush on the outskirts of the village, they had slipped out and sneaked into the church—which served as a temporary morgue.

“Yeah, they were stacked one on top of another,” Mamá said matter-of-factly, while Thía Maria poured thick honey over the pancakes.

I sunk my fork into the fluffy stack. My cousin licked honey from his fingers.

Mamá shot Thía Maria a look and said to us, “Anyway, hurry now, eat.”

We ate in silence. I remember finishing the last pancake. It had absorbed all the honey and rested on my tongue just enough for me to savor the sweetness before I swallowed and it sunk into my bloated belly like a stone.

“Mmm, good,” I said as I stood up. But the heaviness inside made me feel like I was moving in slow motion.

*

I returned with two cups of tea. Noticing my red, swollen eyes, Mamá demanded, “What’s the matter with you?”

“Nothing.”

I put the tea on her breakfast tray. “You need to eat these pancakes, too.”

I placed the napkin on her lap. “Here, this will make it sweeter.” I took out a jar of Greek honey, poured some over her pancakes and swirled a spoonful into her tea.

“No honey for your tea?” Her dull eyes scanned the small amber jar.

“I never really liked the taste of honey. Or pancakes, actually.”

“But you loved pancakes and honey when you were little.” Her bony hand gripped the paper cup.

“Mamá, the doctor will be in soon, to discuss hospice care.”

She sipped her tea and swallowed hard. “Mmm, good,” she croaked, “I feel better now.”

I moved the tray closer to her, the thin pancakes drowning in a pool of honey. We looked at each other. Mamá reached for the fork and I nodded.

pencilGigi Papoulias was raised in Boston, a daughter of Greek immigrants. She lives in Athens and continues to coexist within two cultures, realizing it is mostly a privilege and sometimes a curse. A deserter of the corporate world, she enjoys writing stories and translating. Her fiction has appeared in Your Dream Journal, Literally Stories and in an anthology by Kingston University Press, London. Twitter: @manyfacesofATH Email: gigipapoulias[at]yahoo.com

When Deer Shed Antlers

Flash
Josephine Greenland


Photo Credit: Noodlefish/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Contractions hurt like twenty bones fracturing simultaneously.

Fear twists inside me, more alive than the child wanting out of my womb. I bite down on the antler velvet, feel sinewy, vascular skin, raw and bloody against my tongue.

Taste the deer’s spirit, they say. Shed your fear like the deer sheds its antlers. Become the deer.

I close my eyes. Rub antlers against legs, velvet peeling off like old paint from a wall.

I stand tall, let the pain bleed out.

Birth is re-birth.

Afterwards, I remove the milky vernix and see my fear transformed in the newborn’s eyes.

Courage.

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Josephine Greenland is a Swedish-English author living in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Birmingham. Her debut novel Embers is forthcoming with Unbound in March 2021. She was a finalist in the 2020 Literary Taxidermy Competition, won the 2019 Bumble Bee Flash Fiction competition by Pulp Literature and the 2017 Fantastic Female Fables competition by Fantastic Books Publishing. Her work has been published in twelve online and print magazines. She works as an English teacher and enjoys playing the violin and hiking in the mountains. You can follow her on Twitter @greenland_jm. Email: jm.greenland[at]telia.com

Bruises

Flash
Ala Fox


Photo Credit: Abby/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Once he observed a bruise on my arm and he pressed it—softly. Softly he said: “I like how this looks on you,” and he kissed me.

I pressed it too—gently. Gently I kissed him, and I smiled.

*

Once, Perry saw the bruises on my arms and he frowned. He observed their pattern and thought he read a story there.

“Did somebody do this to you?” he asked.

I said nothing, but my heart skipped. Perry thumbed my bruise and pressed down.

“Tell me his name,” he said.

I met his eyes but said nothing. I wanted him to say more; I wanted to see everything there. If he keeps speaking, perhaps I won’t have to. And I don’t want to lie to him and I want to lie to him.

“You don’t have to tell me,” —Perry.

Then, abruptly: “It’s fine if you like it.” He says this offhand, as he drops my arms and looks away.

“But if you don’t, you should tell me.”

Now he is staring at me. He grabs my wrist and holds it firmly. His grip tightens as I begin to squirm. “Who was it?” he demands. I can feel his fingers on my bone; tomorrow there will be a bruise.

*

Later, I observe the small purple knot blossoming on my forearm.

Was this love? My heart skips, falters, trips, jumps again.

I hold the picture of his face, angry and confused, as he’d clamped down on my wrist. I remember the neat fingernails, boring crescent moons on my skin, and bite my teeth against the hopeful smile that escapes.

Was this love?

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Ala is a Muslim-American daughter of Chinese immigrants. She writes in English, Python, Arabic, and Javascript. When not programming, she contemplates on life and love in her essays. She is passionate about racial equity and Oakland. Twitter: @alalafox Email: fox[at]origin-of.com

Poof the Sheep

Flash
Lucy Zhang


Photo Credit: S I/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Poof the sheep didn’t stare when you pulled the lid off your plastic container of rice mixed with egg and ground pork—a yellow-grey mush catalyzing questions you’d rather not answer: the girls asking what is that, the boys trying to toss tater tots into each other’s mouths. Poof didn’t laugh at your new haircut, the pink bobbles once tied around your pigtails now gathering dust in the corner of the bathroom counter, the frayed strands of hair above your ears, leaving your neck exposed to the morning cold. The guy who would drop out of high school in a few years, who sat across from you on the school bus, laughed and said you looked like a boy as the vehicle swerved into the neighborhood ghetto where both of you lived. Poof didn’t follow you, a twenty-something-year-old with long, thick hair past your shoulders, around at two a.m. while you navigated to an Airbnb, the apartments too closely stacked, Google Maps in a kerfuffle. Poof didn’t offer car rides to directionally-challenged foreigners and expect affectionate pets and nuzzles and kisses in return.

Poof did offer a warm body covered in wool for you to lean on after you’d attempted to gift the stranger who drove you to the sliding doors of the Airbnb a 3D-printed, bright orange ornament held together by interweaving stripes of ABS plastic, a product of your hours spent extruding shapes, chamfering corners, sweeping polygons along lines, but the driver said no thank you and instead asked for just a kiss on the cheek to which you declined, except you’re not sure you ever really learned how to say no so if it’ll get the driver to leave—even if a kiss on the cheek becomes a kiss on the lips and a hand between your legs and eventually the driver who found you leaves you to your own devices, unpacking your toothbrush and phone charger from your suitcase, lying on a futon mattress on a tatami mat, thinking about tomorrow and the izakayas you’ll visit, the underground book stores you’ll discover, because the jetlag refuses to let you sleep. Shush brain shush shut up; you’re counting sheep now—just one sheep, just Poof grazing on grass, untrimmed wool like cumulonimbus clouds, stopping sporadically to chew its cud and stare.

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Lucy Zhang is a writer masquerading around as a software engineer. She watches anime and sleeps in on weekends like a normal human being. Her work has appeared in Atlas & Alice, Okay Donkey, Jellyfish Review, Columbia Journal, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter @Dango_Ramen. Email: lucy.7a11[at]gmail.com