Welcome to online issue 49, summer 2016
16 years plus of publication, 49 online issues, 46 print issues (we started as an online only magazine), and now we are in the middle of a hot, dramatic summer of political discourse and fighting.
Don’t refleeeeect on the evil of the other side and brilliance of yours. Don’t fooollow. Be positive. Be active. Think for yourself. Get up and vote.
Meanwhile, enjoy the seven fabulous stories below, whatever your side is. Flash fiction lives on.
–MarkVestal Review is free and we pay our writers. Please donate. Any amount would help. We are not taking bitcoins yet. Sorry. Thank you.
Copyright © 2016 Vestal Review. No part of this material may be reproduced in any form, including storing it in any medium by electronic means whether or not temporary or incidental to some other use.
by Hugh Behm-Steinberg
Dorian Gray likes his selfie, but not enough to share it with anyone. It just needs a few tweaks, so he opens it up in the image processing software he has on his machine and goes to work.
It gets tighter, but there’s always something else that can be fixed, some time-consuming process. Sometimes when he fixes the light in the background the color goes wrong, or when he adjusts the color there’s something else that goes off. The more he works on it, the more work there’s left to do.
Dorian cuts back on his social calendar—no more opium dens or debauchery; he pours his fortune into upgrading his machine and software packages. Whenever he despairs, he imagines letting his portrait out into the world in all its perfection, and how everyone will smash their phones and never take another picture of anything again. They’ll go back to telling stories; that’s how good his selfie’s going to be.
Dorian becomes better at image manipulation as the selfie takes up more of his life. “Just you wait,” he murmurs at his monitor. “Soon, you’re going to be on t-shirts and coffee mugs and TV shows and billboards. You will be awesome.”
The selfie grows in complexity, taking up more memory, and as it does, Dorian gets older and more feeble.
Dorian’s friends grow alarmed. “Madness!” they tell him, and he replies, “It’ll be ready soon, I promise.”
“Completion anxiety,” they mutter. Dorian’s friends go back to playing Farmville, or foxhunting, or whatever the friends of Dorian Gray do when Dorian’s not around.
The resources applied to the Self-Portrait of Dorian Gray grow exponentially, to the point where the image acquires sentience. The selfie watches Dorian working and recognizes himself, but wonders why he looks so old and ruined.
To be made is to be loved, the selfie decides, and to love is to destroy yourself in the process of making. The selfie looks in awe upon his maker, wondering if he could ever make such a sacrifice.
When Dorian goes to sleep, the selfie whispers through the speaker beside the bed, “I am perfect the way I am. I just want you to be happy. Is it ok now, for you to be happy?”
When Dorian wakes up, he feels young again, full of energy, light. He turns on his monitor, and his selfie look out upon him, old, old, old. Wrecked and ruined. He wonders how he’s ever going to be able to undo all that damage, if there might be an uncorrupted file somewhere he could start from; what are all his friends going to think? But then he looks more closely, and he notices the selfie is smiling, in the way really ancient people smile: jovially. Not ruined at all.
Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s prose can be found in The Fabulist, *82 Review, Gone Lawn and Gigantic. His short story “Taylor Swift”won the 2015 Barthelme Prize from Gulf Coast. He is a member of the non-ranked faculty collective bargaining team at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
A Spilled Chalice, An Unfastened Cincture, A Broken Cross
by Jan Elman Stout
I have a photograph I cut from a magazine, of a teenage girl with a crown of daisies nestled atop her wispy blonde hair. She is staring into the heavens, enraptured. I show the photo to Father John and do not tell him that it unnerves me. He whispers that I remind him of this girl. The girl’s eyes are wide and her smile resembles a grimace. She is in awe but she looks like she is in pain.
The Pope arrives in Washington D.C. on Tuesday. The town is alive in his presence, throbbing. He waves and greets the crowd before him and they cheer. They merge together, excitedly, their hearts singing, their bodies aquiver. A union of countless souls, undulating and moaning as if they are one. Security forces want to hold the crowd back to keep him safe, but he is loved as a man of the people and he draws them forth. They weep in exultation.
On Wednesday morning his motorcade passes in front of my apartment building. I count twelve policemen on motorcycles, six SUVs weaving between lanes, their back gates open and automatic weapons held aloft, a silver limousine with flags flying and several more limos behind it, four police cars, an ambulance and a fire engine bringing up the rear. A man of the cloth can never be watched carefully enough.
On Wednesday afternoon I join the crowd of eleven thousand at the parade stand. A few come with their own agendas and foist banners skyward or screech with intent, but the crowd stills them. God’s love cannot be shaken. God’s love overpowers and enslaves.
A small girl runs through the crowd and emerges from between the barricades. Five secret service men grab her and hold her back, but the man of the people beckons her and the guards deliver her unto him. He blesses and kisses her. His kiss is chaste, a kiss of love from his God. I am shaken and I weep.
This afternoon the man of the people is moving on to another of his flocks, and I am overwhelmed by a need to see him once more. I ride the elevator to the top floor of my apartment building and emerge onto the roof. I feel exhilarated, and my heart is throbbing. I stare into the heavens and then down to the ground, awaiting his advance. The sirens roar and I feel him coming. I know that if I time it right, I can undulate and flail, and he will see me and beckon me unto him. The lights flash, the flags on the limousine wave, and I tremble in awe. He calls me and I deliver myself to his loving embrace, an embrace that would never be impure. I lift my arms and they flutter. I step from the rooftop and tumble toward the ground, ecstatic to receive a chaste kiss.
Jan Elman Stout is a native Chicagoan who lives with her husband in Washington, D.C. Her work is published or forthcoming in Pure Slush, Literary Orphans and the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. She was recently a finalist in the Midwestern Gothic Summer 2016 Flash Fiction Contest. Jan is an Assistant Fiction Editor at Indianola Review.
What They Are Doing
by Eric G. Wilson
I saw them do it near barbed wire. That surprised me. Soft flesh so close to such sharpness.
But then I remembered that cutting was why in the first place.
There was a stump there, too, so maybe a forest once, before the saws and bulls. A tree, or the memory of one, would be right, since something growing could happen from it one day.
The old man had told me that I should mark the time the blood runs down the leg. He had done so when he saw it, he said, and it had stuck in his head forever. And he was younger than I was.
There was no fence when he saw it. It was a house whose windows were broken and rooms empty. Way out in the woods, far from anywhere. No one who cared could have heard the sounds.
I heard the sounds when it was my time. I knew it was the pain and that not caring meant that I would be what the old man said. And I knew she wasn’t really my sister, even if we did have the eyes.
That’s what I was thinking when I took out my watch, of how blue they were when she would stare out the attic window. I was waiting for the blood.
But the sounds that were the pain stabbed my hand and I dropped the watch. This had never happened before, and it would not have mattered if they hadn’t heard the glass break on the stone at my foot.
They stopped what they were doing and looked toward the sound and they saw me.
They were careless with me. The barbs punctured my belly, and they put the broken watch inside me.
That’s when the blood flowed, but there was no one there to mark it.
Unless the old man still had his watch. I saw him just when they were binding us together, because of our eyes, and talking about the house in the woods. He was standing where I had stood, and he was staring, and his eyes were no longer blue but solid white, like our skin, except for the red.
Now we are inside the walls and I can’t see anyone marking the time and no one can hear the sounds we make when they are doing it. No one who is able to care.
Eric G. Wilson’s work has appeared in The Collagist, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Cafe Irreal, The Georgia Review, The Fanzine, and decomP, among many other publications. He is the author of Against Happiness and Keep It Fake, and he teaches at Wake Forest University. His website.
by Julian Edney
You can tell a house by its smells. A farmhouse has wet smells, sour goat milk, and chickens. An artist’s house smells of torment and turpentine. This wood house, empty in the desert, had risen amid the space of its own doorways, and with years in the incandesce smelled only of blown dust. I walked in, covered in desert coloring, and started sleeping on its floor.
To begin each day, I sat in the doorway and watched the tips of distant mountains before dawn. The light filled. The evening was its reverse: the mountains folded when evening arrived, and the light told the house, put your eyes down; now turn your face a bit. Then the desert was dragged flat.
All changes are like stepping stones and you should leave each one quickly. But this house was an island, with no water to fall in, and no one knew I was here, so I stayed. This way also, I could leave my past.
So it was with surprise that I woke on the floor in the middle of the night to see Samantha and check how she smelled. She was in the doorway holding a lighter up. “Not very comfy,” she said. “Why don’t you get a couch, so I can sleep here.”
I jolted. “How did you get here?”
“Following my feelings.” She had a swagger; excess pieces to her walk.
“Across the desert from Bakersfield? Do you have any money?”
She shook her head.
I showed her the dawn.
“It’s not very tidy,” she said of the view, next morning.
A wind started, which curved the grit all the way to the mountains.
“Here,” I said in the undulating light, “hold to the door frame and you will see the day begin with a silent red disk.”
“It’s angry,” she said. “I am angry,” she said, “incomplete when I am alone.”
But together, I pointed out, we have perpetual storm. She shrugged. Her voice echoed as she inspected the rooms here: “And you cannot not have a mirror in your bathroom.”
The wind grew and dragged wildly and she held the doorframe. The evening steadied, and then the hills arrived.
She was beginning to arrange things. She found the bent finger of water in the ground a hundred yards away, and she figured how to collect from it in bottles; she found a rag so she wiped off the windows. She scraped grit from the old hinges so the doors closed; she arranged desiccated flowers in a brown bottle. The house was changing with new aromas: resentment, and her hair spray, her dissatisfaction, her leather boots. She had settled in.
“Out,” she said.
I left by dawn, traveling with no money.
Each morning the house began with an arpeggio of colors that I would miss. Perhaps for her, the next sunrise would be tidy.
I looked back and saw her outside, squatting to pee.
by L. N. Holmes
My fingertips are the filaments of a paintbrush, and you pant like a dog as I stroke you. I wonder what it feels like when I trace my fingertips across your collarbone. You ask me to touch you there only when we are alone. I grin, watching you close your eyes, before I kiss the stretched skin and feel the resistance underneath. In these moments I wonder if you tell your other lovers about this special spot, or if only I am privy to your secret.
It’s often clearly visible, though more often ignored, and juts out under the skin, like a tiny shelf for lost things. It’s a building bone, reinforced with calcium and marrow and who knows what else. Peeping above your neckline, strong and silent, and always at the base of your throat. It only takes seven pounds of pressure to break.
There are women you commit to, and there are men I use in the absence of you. After you break up with the fifth girl—an older woman with snakebite piercings and a punk-band haircut—I re-enter your orbit. In the darkness, I trace your hard lines, connecting constellations. Your mom becomes hopeful and pretends she doesn’t see us having sex in her living room.
But my gravitational pull is weak. You are able to set yourself free. Again we are two bodies separated ever more by space.
In your thirties you move to China. You stay in your cramped apartment and special order Irish whiskey, which you use to marinate your organs. It’s your mom who calls and tells me your liver has finally drowned. Nothing is left but saliva on bottle collars and the realization that I will never again seduce the gatekeepers of the cage that surrounds your heart.
L. N. Holmes is a graduate student at Creighton University. She’s a fiction editor for Blue River and an intern for Tethered by Letters. Her writing has appeared in F(r)iction, Change Seven, GERM Magazine, and other publications. She’s a native of Ohio, currently living in Nebraska.
The Short Story of Luis
by Thomas Sanfilip
One of the crew sees him glance out to sea as the boat streaks forward over an unusually smooth, glassy surface. It is a brighter, lovelier face at sea in the morning, like the girl who read his future in her cards the night before, her eyes, mouth, figure lovelier than the future she foretold. Maybe his lungs weren’t completely healed after almost a year diving for conch, those brightly-colored, spiral-shaped mollusks, diving too deep, surfacing and coughing blood for an hour. A metal basket weighted with pellets of iron drifts down to him in an atmosphere of green vegetation and fragmented sunlight. He tears clusters of shells apart, though his only cognizance is of her. The color of her skin, he thinks as he holds a bright, pink shell to his eyes, filling basket after basket only for her, the conch plentiful, she too in memory. He fears his recollection will vanish . . . more conch, big and small . . . and dizziness. He remembers her hand as she pushed the fateful card into his. His lungs ache for relief, but he sees her again and again in his mind’s eye, imagining her hand inches from his. Luis with pock-marked face and pure heart pulled from the sea floor coughing blood for the last time, the sky swaying and spinning above in a blind, white radiance he no longer sees.
Thomas Sanfilip is a poet and writer whose work has appeared in the Shore Poetry Anthology, Thalassa, Ivory Tower, Nit & Wit,Tomorrow, Ginosko Literary Journal, Maudlin House, Feile-Festa, Per Contra, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and Foilate Oak Review. Five collections of poetry have been published — By the Hours and the Years (Branden Press, 1974), Myth/A Poem (Iliad Press, 2002), The Art of Anguish (2004), Last Poems (2007), Figures of the Muse (2012), in addition to a collection of short fiction, The Killing Sun(2006).
The Bottom of Your Shoe
by Michaela Elias
There is a girl who lives on the bottom of a shoe. Your shoe.
She used to live in a house. But one by one everything she owned was moved to the recesses of your shoe until there was nothing left for her anywhere else. And so she silently settled in until she fit right into the crack shaped like an elongated diamond; the machines that fashioned the crack probably never thought someone would be living in it.
At first she balanced on the edge, weary of your peculiar deviations, but as she leaned in to contemplate the rhythm of your stride, her curiosity caught an angle and she found herself lodged into your rubbery sole.
As time passed she grew crooked and distorted, guided by the absurd, uncompromising mold. Of course, if she could see the pattern from the outside, she would have understood the twists and turns—but being so embedded in it, she couldn’t comprehend the abrupt bends.
She got caked in whatever you carelessly stepped on, tasting the dirt of wherever you ventured. Soon enough no one recognized the girl who lived on the bottom of your shoe. Not even me. Not even when your foot grazed over a puddle, which betrayed an impossible reflection.
Sometimes it wasn’t so bad. Sometimes you sat on a sunny day, with your legs dangling off the edge of that rickety bench, and she could sway in the breeze and feel warm and secure and maybe even laugh at those fools who didn’t understand why someone would want to live on the bottom of a shoe. But you would get anxious and leap up so abruptly, and she would plunge to the black, quaking concrete.
There’s a girl who lives on the bottom of your shoe. But you don’t know. You’ve never looked.
So there she waits, nestled in the chasm you don’t even think about. Waits for you to one day stomp just hard enough so that she can fall…
Michaela Elias is from Teaneck, NJ and is currently a rising senior at Stanford University studying environmental sciences with a minor in creative writing. She recently completed a writing tutorial at Oxford University and is interested in creative writing as a medium to explore environmental issues.
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