Please enjoy all 5 nominated small fiction stories in their entirety.
Brendan Gillen "Stickup" from Issue 10
On the morning of her fiftieth birthday, Ann stepped to the bank teller and made a gun with her finger.
“Give me all my money,” she said, speaking from the side of her mouth.
“Excuse me?” the teller said. He scanned the area, for his manager, probably.
“You heard me,” Ann said. She leaned closer to the plexiglass until her nose was nearly
touching it. “I want my dough. So hand it over, or else bodies will start to drop, see?”
“Um,” the teller said. He wore one of those dress shirts with no collar. He had a very skinny neck, arrowhead Adam’s apple. “Are you a client, ma’am?”
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” Ann said. She clucked her tongue, let her hand—the pistol—fall heavily to her side. “Some imagination you have. . .”—she glanced at his gold nametag—“. . . Nelson. I suppose that’s why you ended up on the other side of the glass.”
The young man straightened his shoulders.
She’d touched a nerve.
“If you’re not here to conduct business, ma’am,” Nelson said, “I’m going to have to kindly ask you to leave.”
“Please,” Ann said. “I’ve got savings bonds back there from the Ford administration.”
Nelson blinked. “So you’d like to make a withdrawal, is that it?”
“Ding-a-dingding,” Ann said. She glanced over her shoulder at the bearded man behind her with a doughy infant strapped across his chest. She thumbed back at Nelson. “Elite intelligence.”
“Look ma’am,” Nelson said, trying to sound stern. “Would you like to make a transaction, or no?”
Ann turned back around.
“Pardon me for trying to add a little spice to your day,” she said. “Break up the monotony as we all plunge headlong into the abyss.”
“It’s a Tuesday,” he said. “I’m simply trying to do my job.”
“Oh, well excuse me, your job,” Ann said, rocking back on her heels. “If money makes the world go ‘round then you must be cranking the wheel. Fine. You win, Nelson. How about you do your job and bring me six-thousand bucks in the biggest, crispest bills you got.”
“Six-thousand dollars,” Nelson said.
“That’s the ticket. I’m making a donation to Head Start. Does that surprise you?”
“Frankly, ma’am?” Nelson said, clacking at his computer. “You don’t strike me as the giving type. Now if you’ll please enter your bank card.”
“Aye aye, cap’,” she said. She put her card in the slot, punched her code.
Nelson looked at his screen, then back at Ann with heavy, tired eyes. It wasn’t even ten in the morning. Ann felt chastened despite herself. He must have seen the expanse of her balance.
“If you’ll allow me a moment,” he said.
“Run along,” Ann said, fighting the familiar heat of guilt coursing through her blood.
“Haven’t got all day.”
Nelson clenched his jaw, turned and vanished around the corner to the depths she could not see.
Ann began to whistle to distract herself from her own mind. She looked around at the other customers conducting their business: the mother clutching the hand of a young girl sucking a sugar-free lollipop with stern concentration, the man in pinstripes who might have been a bank president himself. All of these people, all of this money. The anxiety and self-importance of it all. It made her want to vomit. On days like today she had the impulse to give it all away, start clean, get a real job out in the real world. In this way, her opening salvo wasn’t entirely a joke. She’d never married, and her parents were long dead, so what was stopping her? Food, for one. Survival. But how much did one woman really need? Her family had been wealthy for so long she hardly knew where it had begun. Her great-grandfather. Commercial real estate. Her last name was on a cornerstone smack dab in the center of town. She would never admit that this embarrassed her, that it seemed to exist in a reality entirely different from the one she navigated every day.
And yet here she stood, dressed in designer fabrics paid for by money that scarcely belonged to her any more than it did Nelson back there. She closed her eyes and craned her head back, took a deep breath to quell the shame that whirled in her gut. She opened her eyes, studied the ornate vaulted ceiling.
Why was she like this? What was she out to prove? Questions she’d been trying to avoid since she could remember.
“Ma’am?” Nelson said.
She didn’t answer, stared up at the baby blue sky and pink-rimmed clouds she’d never noticed, that had been painted there to lend a softer edge to this whole tasteless enterprise.
Nelson cleared his throat. “People are waiting, ma’am,” he said a little louder.
When Ann met his eyes, he flinched.
She stepped closer to the glass, looked at him through the perforations that allowed them to hear one another. He was young enough to be her son.
Without breaking her gaze, he counted the bills: “One, two, three, four, five, six,” and put them in an envelope. “Six-thousand.”
He slid it beneath the narrow gap in the fiberglass partition. Ann took it—six grand, barely thicker than a credit card—and put it in her purse.
“Head Start,” she said. “Give some kids in this town a fighting chance”
Nelson looked at her blankly.
“Next in line,” he said.
Ann lowered her voice, nearly to a whisper, swallowed the lump in her throat. She felt the bearded father hovering behind her, radiating impatience. “Today is my birthday, Nelson,” she said. “I have no one.”
In that moment, she thought she saw Nelson’s eyes soften.
“Well in that case?” he said. “Allow me to make your wish come true.”
Then he curled his hands into a gun, cocked back his thumb, raised his finger to the middle of Ann’s face, and fired.
Christy Tending "High Priestess of the Apocalypse" from Issue 10
If what we are dealing with is a simple rapture, then my work is straightforward. To dispose of the perishable food before it goes bad; to redistribute whatever will keep. To rehome the cats and the dogs bereft at the loss of owners who did not conceptualize a heaven that included them. And the ill-advised birds who were never going to make it there anyway. Watch the green one, she’ll take your finger right off.
In this scenario, we will become the collective executors of our earthly inheritance. It will be a drudgery and a joy to dole out homes and cars and human rights once we are left to our own devices. Door to door: Who is still here? Who had enough fun to spare them from an early leaving? Who is left to delight in corporeality? It is brevity that makes it precious.
If it is zombies, we will board up the house for as long as we can. We survive on the soup and the preserves I painstakingly made from our garden, the planter boxes they will uproot with their soggy feet. The precious fruit trees we tended with the ladder they will also mangle.
From the outside, it does not look like I am well-equipped to fend off zombies. On my surface, I have the punk-rock credibility of a blueberry muffin. But watch: I heft 16-pound sledgehammer. I fill an oil barrel to the brim with concrete; this will weigh about 380 pounds. I know the weights of things, at the very least.
I wield a nail gun to board up the windows. One, two, three, four: each thwack an injury to the frame, a gaping hole in the curb appeal that used to matter when this was a home and not a last stand.
If the end of the world is an actual political revolution to prevent the end of the world, well, you have come to the right place. This one is the one I have trained for; the one I have trained others to expect. In this one, we will join in.
I will make molotov cocktails and put them in the backpack you used to wear to school: printed with trains and trucks. I will place them gently in your mermaid insulated lunch box so you may throw them with your tiny, ineffectual, five year-old arms. At cop cars, at government buildings. I will straighten your balaclava and tell you I’m proud. When you come home, I will tousle your hair and pour water in your eyes to wash the last of the tear gas away.
This is my work: to imagine the worst possible outcomes and the ways in which I will have failed in my actual, original work. This is how we move through the beginning of the end of days. This is how we bear witness to the slow unraveling. I will hold all of it with both hands. One for soothing, one to fight. I will take your abandoned cats, I will absorb your broken dreams.
Matthew Heiti "After Dark" from Issue 11
Me and Lainey are riding against a headwind back down the river, trying to reach home before dark. Even though the day’s coming off, the heat’s holding on. The air shimmers and Lainey shimmers with it, way off in front of me. I can’t keep up. It’s her bike, that’s why. Lainey, she’s got a Marinoni Special, right from the factory. Her dad bought it on a business trip to Montreal last year, before he bought something else: the big one. Me I’m stuck with my brother’s old beater and my dad’s still around, unfortunately.
Lainey pulls off the road and into the trees. I holler after her—Where you going Lainey—but she doesn’t hear me or doesn’t care to. She knows I got to be home by dark.
I drag my bike through a patch of raspberry thorn and there’s Lainey by the river, not a scratch on her, pulling off her shoes and socks.
Last one ins a picaroon, she says.
Lainey I got to be home by dark.
Ah shut it, she says but before I can get smart back she’s in the water.
Thing is, we already been in the water five times today, all the way up river and back again. It’s like she’s trying to make me late. On top of that it’s lamprey season. They come following the salmon this time of year and if they can they’ll get that sucker mouth full of teeth right on your bottom.
So I just put my feet in and wait for Lainey to come up for air.
And I wait.
When we were little kids, my mom and Lainey’s mom would take us to Mactaquac to swim in the dam. Lainey’s mom would pack the picnic because we couldn’t afford to. At my place, we either had cheese and no crackers or crackers and no cheese. Sometimes just no anything. It was safe to swim at the dam. Not like here.
This part of the river’s clear now, but for years and years they used to run logs down it. Just like the cartoon on teevee. Birling down and down white water. White water’s bad. Like today, white water’s got an edge, a fury to it.
So lampreys or no, I’m going in. Because Lainey’s my friend, I’m going in.
I go in and under and over and over but each time the river’s not where it was when she went in and Lainey’s not there. She’s not anywhere.
I pull myself back onto the shore, spitting and choking. My legs are all bruised up, but I don’t know if the beating’s from the water or from last night. There’s no way I’ll make it home by dark. There’s no way I’ll make it without Lainey.
You swim like a turd, says Lainey, flopping down beside me.
She’s a little wet, but she’s no ghost. I thought you were a goner, I say.
Don’t be stupid, stupid, she says. She’s always saying funny things like that.
She pulls a tall can of Alpine out of her packsack. Her mom wouldn’t miss it with her dad gone. It’s almost like we’re back at one of those picnics.
We watch the sun go down over the hill. Passing the beer back and forth, Lainey gets her hand around mine. We both know I got to get home. But there’s nothing Lainey can do for me once she gets me there. There’s nothing anyone can do after dark. So we hold hands for a bit longer, but it’s not like that with me and Lainey.
A.C. Koch "A Place for Losing Things" from Issue 13
The town weirdo was a dude everyone called Sammy. I don't know if that was his real name or if it was because he always wore red, white and blue, like Uncle Sam. He rode an adult-size tricycle around town with an American flag on a long pole and patriotic tassels hanging from the handlebars. A boom box strapped to the front basket blared the Star Spangled Banner on repeat, all day long.
I was six years old, and a Sammy sighting was better than Sesame Street. He was a one-man parade. I hid in bushes and pretended to shoot him with my plastic dime store cowboy rifle. And sure, he was a little scary--my dad said he wasn't right in the head--but to me he just looked like he was having fun.
I don't know if Sammy manufactured my destiny, or if he was just a tiny cog in a much larger machine.
I was a loner, by circumstance and disposition. My mom was long gone, and my dad didn't mind if I roamed the streets as long as I was home by suppertime. This was a mountain town where the streets were wide and the aspens shivered in chill breezes under sun-feathered clouds. People were more scared of bears than bad guys. Me, I was scared of Bigfoot, which was why I was a Bigfoot hunter. In fact, I was following some suspiciously large tracks through a marshy field just beyond the baseball diamond at the edge of town. The grass was so tall I couldn't see over it but I pushed my way through.
Coming through the reeds, I found Sammy crouching on the side of a sparkling creek. He was muttering as if talking to someone, but I didn't see anyone else. I was about to slip back into the grass when he spotted me. "Ooh! Mister man! Come look! Look what I got!"
This was the very definition of Stranger Danger, I knew--but I was a Bigfoot hunter, so what did I have to be afraid of?
I didn't see anything at first. It was a wide part of the creek, with a flat rock creating a little eddy of slowly turning water by the bank. Some sticks and an old deflated balloon circled idly in the water.
"Look at him go!" Sammy hollered, beside himself with excitement. "He's just going in circles! Round and round, Charlie, round and round!"
I was confused for a second--my name's not Charlie. As I watched, the little balloon--nearly deflated, with about a puff's worth of breath in it--bumped up against the edge of the flat rock. For a second it looked like it was going to slip around the edge and join the creek's fast-moving current.
Sammy was bursting with excitement. "There he goes! Come on, Charlie, you can do it! Do it, Charlie, do it!"
Aha, I realized. Charlie is the balloon. That made sense. As far as I could tell, there wasn't anything special about the balloon. It was white with a blue star logo from a bank downtown. They'd been giving them away last week at the Fourth of July parade.
Then Charlie edged back into the eddy and turned lazy circles again for a while. I sat down to watch.
This went on for quite a while. Charlie would edge up on the rock as if making a break for it, then swirl back into the eddy again, safe with us. Sammy kept up the color commentary like this was a baseball game. Peaks and valleys of drama and tension. It felt like hours but it may have only been a few minutes when everything happened. I don't know what changed. Maybe the water level had gone up, or the wind had shifted just right, but Charlie quivered on the edge of the rock and then bloop!--raced away downstream.
Sammy and I shot to our feet. For the first time that day, he was speechless.
"Charlie's gone," I said.
Sammy went striding through the tall grass along the creekside. I followed.
"Charlie!" he called. "Where you going, Charlie? Where you going?"
I caught a glimpse of his shiny little body slipping around a rock and floating away. "There he is!" We crashed through the weeds, getting our shoes muddy.
Sammy raised his voice. "Charlie! Don't go, Charlie! Don't go yet!"
Something had changed. All day we'd been rooting for Charlie to get past that rock, but now that he'd made it, he was leaving us behind. There was a kind of ragged emotion in Sammy's voice. "Charlie! Come back! We don't want you to go! Come back, Charlie!"
Not only could I hear Sammy's anguish, I could feel it. It was all the sadness of his own life, and it swirled into all the sadness of mine, as young as I was. It hit me like a spanking and I started to sob. I howled Charlie's name over and over, blubbering through cascades of tears and snot. Sammy froze and stared at me.
I was truly and utterly wrecked. Charlie was gone. All was lost.
It must have taken a lot of guts for Sammy to take me home. He was the town weirdo, after all, and he must have known that it wouldn't look good for him to be seen walking a bawling kid down a street of quiet houses. Still, he delivered me to my front porch where my dad came out, eyeing the situation.
"Hey, mister man," Sammy said, "he's not hurt, he's just sad 'cause Charlie abandoned us."
I remember he said the word abandoned.
Then Sammy leaned close to my dad and whispered, "Don't worry, it was just a balloon. There's lots of 'em."
I might have forgotten all about it if I hadn't drawn so many pictures. Years later, when I was packing up to go to college, I found my old notebooks in the attic. Here was Sammy in his red, white and blue outfit with suspenders, and here was a little sketch of Charlie with a blue star on his deflated bladder of a body. The creek, the sunshine, Bigfoot-hunter me with my dime store cowboy rifle. Somehow, the depth of my despair over losing Charlie was contained in my clumsy colored-pencil sketches. All those years later, it made me hitch my breath.
I got a tattoo on my left shoulder of a white balloon with a blue star. Circling the balloon it says in cursive, CHARLIE IS ALWAYS WITH ME.
In a bar in Santa Monica I met a girl named Charlotte who told me to call her Charlie. I showed her my tattoo and she got all starry eyed.
Marriage, house, kids. Divorce. We named our youngest Charlie. The day we sent him off to college, Charlotte sobbed and blubbered like six-year-old me by the side of the creek. I walked her back to her car, like Sammy had done for me. Her husband was waiting to take her home. "Don't worry," I said, touching her sleeve. "It's just a balloon."
That snapped her out of it. “Still with that damn story, huh?"
I rubbed my shoulder. "He’s always right here.” At least she gave that a smile, but it was a complicated one, full of disappointment and anger and what-ifs and whys. But you and I know the truth: this world is just a place for losing things, one by one, until there’s nothing left.
Dawn Tasaka Steffler "Unmentionables" from Issue 13
When you’re old enough to know that four fingers is your age, Mom drives for so long that you fall asleep in the back seat. You wake because the car isn’t moving anymore and outside your window is a white house you don’t recognize and a large woman peering in at you. “This is your Grandma. You’re going to stay here for a few days.” You cry and struggle in Grandma’s arms when Mom's car disappears down the driveway. When you finally give up and collapse against her shoulder, Grandma pulls a golden disc of butterscotch from a pocket and slips it into your unsuspecting mouth. Grandma hangs her laundry on a clothesline, unmentionables sandwiched between the sheets. Dangling, sugar cookie-colored bras. Big, billowy panties that you slip over your head and wear like a strange, lopsided dress. She serves sweet tea and cold egg-salad sandwiches for lunch. She plugs in a nightlight because the nights are dark and full of insect noises. One day when the leaves are turning red, orange, and yellow, Mom returns. You whisper in Grandma's ear that you don't want to leave, and she lovingly corrects you, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
On the first day of middle school, the P.E. teacher warns, “No one is allowed to change in the bathroom stalls.” You side-eye the pretty girls with their flat stomachs and boobs that mound like a dinner roll. They have the prettiest bras you’ve ever seen: lace, satin, push-up, plunge. Your bras are from Walmart, and they’re dingy because Mom doesn’t care about sorting the laundry by colors like Grandma does. You turn your face into your locker while you change, trying to hide your pale, fleshy belly. If you can’t see them, they can’t see you, right? The next time you and Mom go to Grandma's for monthly Sunday dinner, your stomach gurgles as soon as you walk through the front door and smell your favorite: pot roast and gravy. Grandma makes you a heaping plate, but Mom intercepts it, scrapes half the food into the garbage can, "What are you trying to do, make her fat?” You feel bad for Grandma, but you also wonder if Mom is right? Mom is skinny and Grandma isn’t. You’re not sure who to trust.
You’re surprised at the amount of people who show up for Grandma’s funeral. You hold up the viewing line because once you’re in front of her casket, you can’t stop the flood of silent apologies, as if you are a busted dam. On the ride home Mom shoots you nasty looks. Because earlier, when all the usual poisons were pouring out of her mouth, you had yelled, “Grandma’s gone! Can you shut your mouth for just one day?" She’s not talking to you right now, but you know she'll lay into you soon, double vicious. She can’t help herself. But you don’t care. You graduate soon and then you’ll move out, get a job. And you’re fine leaving earlier if you have to. You imagine telling her to fuck off. You stare out the window, daring her to push you.
You walk back to your car as casually as you can, but your heart is hammering. Once the car doors are locked, you pull up your skirt, and wedged between your thick thighs is the most beautiful lace bra. While you’re looking at the price tag and feeling a thrill — because this is the most expensive thing you’ve ever stolen — your phone buzzes. Again. Mom has finally given up and left a text message: I know you’re there. Thought you’d want to know someone finally broke in through that window with the broken lock. You fight the urge to whip up a petty reply; it’s what she wants. Suddenly your stomach growls, and you cold-turkey any thoughts of Mom, her tossed apartment, her broken window. You decide to celebrate with McDonald’s on the way home. Because you're starving! And a criminal! And a horrible daughter! Poor Grandma is probably rolling over in her grave, so you offer up a quick “Sorry, Grammy.” You start up the engine and the stereo comes on at full blast because that’s how loud it was when you drove over. When you exit the garage, you notice the sky is the most perfect shade of blue. You put on some cheap sunnies that you stole from Target, roll down the windows, and let the wind blow your hair around like a fucking tornado.