Fiction

Under the Crown
Prairie Schooner

The newspaper headline didn’t do the spectacle justice, really. Daughter no longer wanted to compete in pageants. She’d made this clear to Mother by not showing up to the Miss Elegant America registration, letting Mother stand in the auditorium’s lobby alone, red-faced, wearing a rhinestone crown pendant on her Kmart-bought blazer, surrounded by “sixty-some-odd girls who actually gave a damn about their futures,” Mother said, after hunting down Daughter at the library.

“I told you after Miss American Beauty I want to focus on poli sci.”

“You can afford college without me?”

The remark landed with a blow that made Daughter’s eyes burn with tears. With no father nor siblings, only a few friends, and practically no money, Daughter’s studies were all she had. It wasn’t unusual for Mother to threaten her, but she’d always thought her education was sacred.

“Do the pageant or no more tuition payments. It’s that simple.”

Daughter forced her refusal down her throat like a scream that, when it hit her stomach, choked and died.

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Angry Slash of Blood
The Monsters We Forgot: Volume 2

Even in her liquored-up state, Shareefa didn’t believe in monsters. When the fellas at the bar had brought up “Skinned Alive” and offered the legendary beast as an explanation for the local slayings, Shareefa figured that was just the half-pint of Johnnie Walker talking. “This is Medford,” she’d argued. “The killer is probably some cracker who wandered here from the suburbs, high off smack.”

But, as she wobbled up the porch steps, stood at her front door, and held up her chain to the light of the half-moon — Which shiny piece of nickel silver was the correct damn key? — a chill crept up her neck. She swayed on those creaky wooden planks, slid the key in the lock, and waited for the goosebumps to pass.

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And We Screamed
Orca

The decision I made decades ago to stop eating animals can be traced back to the day my father shot that hog. I was nine, standing barefoot in a field of collards, just across the dirt road from my Grandma and Grandpa’s pigpen. All morning long, Daddy kept saying we were going to have ham that night, and being from Detroit and on an extended vacation in the open fields of Creekmore, Alabama, I assumed he’d meant he was going to the grocery store to purchase the ham, rolled in cling wrap or perhaps already glazed, with pineapple slices toothpicked around the top, but standing there in the July sun with my six-year-old cousin Junior, I realized that even though daddy wasn’t drunk, he was fixin’ to do something crazy.

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She by the Sea
Horror USA: California

She sat alone on the strip of sandy beach. Her shorts, men’s denim that she’d gotten from an unattended dumpster before trash day, came to her knees. Her tank top was black and pasted to her skin by sweat and salty seawater. The shore-side restaurant next door, with its glass-enclosed patio and thatched-roof bar, had closed at four because no one drove that far north on the Pacific Coast Highway for food on a Tuesday. She didn’t like the long and official name “the Pacific Coast Highway.” It didn’t feel like a highway, more like a wide road along the ocean filled with burger joints, surf shops, and drug rehabs. And, anyway, the locals called it PCH.

She captured a bass in a net and speared the spotted fish with her knife, savoring the pungent smell of fresh caught food. Thanks to Daddy’s tutelage, she had perfected the art of the fillet. Salt gathered on her flesh as she used only ocean water to clean the fish because bottled water made it taste like crap. She descaled by stripping away from her stomach and slicing along the dorsal fin from head to tail. She removed the skin and threw the fish on a makeshift fire atop some rocks, leaves, and twigs. She never used gloves.

She rinsed her fillet knife in a cut-in-half plastic milk jug filled with seawater, wiped it with a clean cloth, and wrapped it in two fresh pieces of paper towel. She then slid that inside of a gallon-sized freezer-storage sack, and tucked the pack deep inside her bag where no one could get to it easily. She moved to a spot just below a grassy cliff. She had been robbed of ones, fives, and reefer before. She’d be damned if she’d let someone get to her knives.

Mostly, no one bothered her. She typically bathed by waiting for the waves to come in, wash over, and cleanse her. That’s how she relieved her bowels and bladder, too. Earlier, she’d brushed her teeth in a Chevron station bathroom. Food was another story. She was five feet nine inches and weighed a hundred ten pounds so she traveled light, relying on faith and fate to feed her. Her protection was that switchblade — which Daddy had given her for fishing the summer before he left for good — and his fillet knife.

She remembered Daddy’s voice, and the way it dropped when he told her about the monster in the sea. Her distant memory was pretty good, and she could mostly remember things that happened last week, last month, and last year, but that recent memory was weak and at risk of fleeing with a bottle of whiskey or a hit of smack. She figured she’d been near the sea for a while, though she couldn’t remember how she’d come to live near the waves.

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Beebaw’s Endless Pocket
Literary Orphans

Beebaw always smelled of brisket, so the envelope he sent to my hospital bed brought to mind the scent forcefully enough that I sniffed the paper for the aroma of meat. The odor was not present, but the message, which had arrived by courier the morning after I delivered my daughter, was addressed to me: For Relinka, my Puddinghead. The package felt like sorcery in my hands, as if he’d written to me directly from his grave.

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Mannequin Model
Glass Mountain

I answered Nguyen-Nwagwu’s classified ad requesting “gorgeous dolls” to work as mannequins for one reason — I was broke and lived in Manhattan. Back home, Grandmother had taken a tumble down the basement stairs forcing her to shut down the blind pig that she operated out of her house. With no cash coming in from that after-hours liquor and gambling business, money was tight. It was 1993. And cleaning plates at the old folks’ home — as sweet as many of the sickly ones were — was only bringing in sixty dollars a week. If I didn’t find cash fast, I was going to have to leave the university because I was hungry all of the time and unable to keep up with the student tuition contribution that I owed. Quitting school and ending up back at Grandmother’s blind pig was not an option. Well, it was, but not for me.

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The Bats
Typhon: A Monster Anthology, Volume 2

The envelope from the public health department had been sitting on Steve’s kitchen counter for a week, buried beneath a heap of unopened bills and shut-off notices. In search of his bottle opener, only two millimeters thick so it could fit in his back pocket, Steve scratched his straggly beard and rooted around the stack of papers in search of the nickel-plated steel he was certain lay underneath. He only wanted one thing — to drink the lager sweating through the bottle in his hand. To feel the cold, numbing liquid ease into him, dissolving his growing headache, making him forget everything that came before this day, this moment when he’d found himself sober and standing in an apartment that smelled of leftover mac and cheese and boiled bologna. But a notice on the bottom of the pile distracted him with its red capital letters across the front — “OPEN IMMEDIATELY.”

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The Devil Be Here in a Minute
The Matador Review

Quinlan showed up to Shiloh’s Twelfth Annual Smokin’ Barbecue Fest because his big sister Fawna had promised him two things. First, that he’d find out what she did on Saturday afternoons after her shift at Doddie’s Diner. He figured her free time had something to do with her hickey, which Ma had grounded her for the previous week, but, when he had a question, he liked cold hard facts and not speculation, so his “figuring” would never suffice. Second, he’d been promised a Shiloh Cone with two scoops of butter pecan ice cream. The dessert he could almost taste on his tongue.

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Man of Text
Black Heart Magazine

The hospital’s outer walls crumble. Outside the window, red flecks of brick float past the glass. His ragged breath escapes his body with a whistle. In the leather chair, he shifts his skinny frame. His end is near, he suspects, but he waits for the good doctor to come and tell him how long.

A knock at the door. He turns his head and the needles of bad circulation prick his neck. The knob twists, and in walks the doctor, wearing her stethoscope over a pale blue collared shirt and carrying a stack of papers against her bosom. The doctor mostly keeps her eyes on the cracked tile floor. More bad news is coming.

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Dumpster Diver
HUIZACHE 

The “Odessa-Goes-Missing” day begins like every Monday. I awake, slump down the seventeen stairs of my childhood home, and arrive in the den to check on Ma, who is sitting in her recliner laughing at the blank television screen. She has lined the walls with aluminum foil.

I peel a scrap of the foil down and see that she has used something green for paste. Beside the wooden elephant sculptures she made in art therapy, twelve open jars of pesto line the curio as if she has placed them on display as well.

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Eight Minutes
Flash Fiction Magazine

Her phone rests atop the bluff. Her left hand conceals the item she found in the attic three days ago. Her naked foot toes the edge. Her regrets are legion.

She’s in the same pencil skirt that she wore to her appointment that Friday. There are no pasta sauce smudges or ketchup stains near the buttons on her blouse because she hasn’t eaten.

Her pulse slows.

Life’s a round-trip ticket, she tells herself. This is just her return flight.

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