This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Accepting applications for 2016 VERA Award (administrated in 2017)
The 2015 Vera Award Winners (the award is administered in 2016).
1st place: When the Bough Breaks By Jayne Martin Nominated by Midwestern Gothic
2nd place: The Box of Skinny Women By Ingrid Jendrzejewski Nominated by The Conium Review
Go to the VERA link on the left for more details.
Welcome to Issue 50, Winter 2016
I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of 2016. What’s to love about a year when you lose Muhammed Ali, Prince, Bowie, Leonard Cohen, and Gene Wilder? A year of creepy clowns, and creepier politicians? A year when we might as well announce all our personal data to the world, because it’s obvious that it’s already making the rounds in Russia or China, or one of those countries with a load of consonants and “stan” in their names? A divisive year, full of fake news and accusations, clashes and clangor, hateful rhetoric and even more hateful trolling, Sturm und Drang…
But wait—all is not despair:
Vestal Review hereby unveils its 50th on-line issue.
It is as beautiful and disturbing as its cover image (by the amazing Lora Vysotskaya). And its nine fascinating stories will, for a brief but poignant moment in time (they’re Flash, after all), iron out the corners of your harried mind. They will bathe you in dreams; they will slap you upside the head with art; they will stun you with the pathos, the kindness, of love and loss and, yes, death. You will be mystified, edified, glorified—
You will lift your eyes from the computer and sigh, and you will find the strength to carry your battered heart into the weed-choked unknown of 2017.
We thank Stuart Dybek for his participation.
by Stuart Dybek
When you’d returned from wherever within yourself you’d fled, and the ER nurse who’d kept asking You kids and drugs, why—though we weren’t kids—had Q-tipped the crust of blood from the nostril where they’d attempted to insert the tube to pump your stomach until I demanded they stop, and the IV was finally disconnected, and the doctor said you could get dressed and go, a bearded orderly in scrubs remained in the room. I told him thanks, we don’t need help, but he stood there officiously as if his professional rights were being violated. “We’d prefer privacy,” I had to insist. I knew he wanted a look at your breasts as you slipped from the hospital gown into your blouse—a silky, lake-blue blouse threaded with silver horizons. I’d been along when you’d bought it on sale at Saks shortly after we’d met, when shopping together felt intimate.
It was morning by then, before seven. I remembered driving through the lakeside vacation town lost, frantically searching for a hospital and noticing a Pancake House sign glowing after midnight and, aware of your love for pancakes, I thought if we get through this there’ll be a stack with maple syrup. At an all-night Shell, the attendant, a man with graying eyebrows, hightops, and a Michael Jordan shaved head tried giving me directions and when he saw they weren’t registering said, “Aw, hell, man,” and climbed into the back seat to guide us, leaving the station unattended. Wrapped in a beach towel, you leaned against the front door, breathing audibly, exhaling moans, eyes shut against the sight of ghosts. I saw them, too, emerging from the reflections of streetlights on the windshield, but was able to override and deny them in a way you couldn’t.
“She early?” our guide asked.
I didn’t say it wasn’t a baby. That on our secret weekend away you’d asked to try hashish. You were thirty-one and quipped champagne was your drug of choice, but you wanted to try something different with me while we still were young. The foil-wrapped wad I’d bought from a friend in a band, and mixed with honey, must have been laced with something.
At the red-lit Emergency entrance our guide raced into the hospital, and you mumbled, “Sorry…is this really happening?”
“It’s all right, baby, I won’t leave your side,” I told you. Then, unable to override the words, blurted, “I’ll always be with you, not just crazy for you, I love you, no matter what happens we’ll be together.”
You were unresponsive, slumped against the door, and I thought: better that you hadn’t heard what was too early between us to say. It would sound only like the drug talking, until time would prove it to be true. Twelve years later, when we were breaking up, in a letter you’d write: “Those people we were will be ghosts haunting us.” Time’s proved that to be true, too.
Orderlies rushed out rolling a wheelchair. Our guide had disappeared—I’d try, but wasn’t able to find the Shell station to thank him. We lifted you into the chair, and wheeling into ER paused momentarily when an elderly lady with a cane, her head bandaged beneath a clear shower cap, bent down to look at you and say, “My God, she’s pretty!”
Stuart Dybek’s two collections of poems are Brass Knuckles (1979) and Streets in Their Own Ink (2004). His fiction includes Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, The Coast of Chicago, I Sailed With Magellan, a novel-in-stories, Paper Lantern: Love Stories, and Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories. His work has been anthologized and has appeared in magazines such as Harper’s, The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, Tin House, Ploughshares, and Triquarterly.
by Abigail Hancher
In the corner of the orchard, you sleep. I do not go to the orchard while you sleep—body cold in the shade of an apple tree—for fear I will wake you.
How it happens most nights: my restless body jostles you, and I wake to waking you, your fingers around my neck as if I were nothing more than a swallow’s bone. Your eyes wide in the darkness.
“Stop moving.” Your sleep-sour breath fans my cheek.
You turn on your side: asleep in moments.
I come to sleep uneasily: pretending to be dead, wishing to be as still.
There were days when you were kind in an aching way like a cavity deep in my jaw. On the nights when you slept and I posed corpse-like beside you, I thought of the first night at the pond. You pushed me, and I fell in the black, starless water—laughing. I peeled off my dress, let it sink below. My body glowed moon-white, the cold water wrapped around me like arms.
I called for you, and you waded out to me.
As we moved together beneath the water, I swore I felt the shadows of the apple trees reaching broken fingers across the dark hills for our bodies.
Sunday mornings I bake the apple pie that will go with dinner.
The kitchen counter: dusted in flour. I am rolling out crust under parchment paper.
My mother, and her mother before, made pies homemade. Down to the apples.
My mother would die knowing I used grocer’s apples to avoid the orchard.
She would die at a lot of what I have done. The shoebox funeral I had under the apple trees. The thing I never wanted from you. Never asked to have from you. This is all the product of loving you.
I take the knife: my fingers navigate the curves of the apple. Golden skin falls off white meat: perfect spirals.
Your fingers curl over the lapels of your Sunday coat while you sleep beneath the tree. A bee hums into the center of a flower beside your head. I did not know my hatred—my love—would breed poison in the apples you ate: but they did, and now I listen for the sound of nothing from the orchard.
The flour I spread on the table: dust on my apron now.
The spade beside the door: caked mud drying.
The pie crust beneath my rolling pin: thin; cracking under pressure.
Abigail Hancher is a writer from Pittsburgh, PA. Currently, she is preparing to defend her thesis in fiction at Eastern Washington University. She is the Assistant Managing Editor of the literary magazine Willow Springs, and the Director of the Triceratops Poetry Project.
A Flower is a Flower No Matter How Many Petals You Pull Off
by Austin Conner
Julia plucked the white orchid out from the dirt in the cracks of the sidewalks and put it under her nose. It smelt of chlorine, of long evenings of swimming in pools, sore arms and flip turns, days turning over each other like waterfalls. Her ankles ached like when she did the breaststroke, and she held the flower underneath her shirt when she rode the bus, the petals rubbing smooth against her chest.
She swayed the orchid above her head while lying in bed, watching the petals dance with the wind. Then, the top of the orchid spewed out water like a garden hose. Her whole room flooded, her poster of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club curling.
She floated through the water, watching her empty plastic bottles bob, then pass through the ceiling. Everything—her laptop, her cellphone, her empty take-out boxes—drifted up and away. She leaned back, floated in the thick water, and relaxed.
Fourteen years passed in her mind. All swimming. Caves appeared in the middle of her carpet, and she found sea turtles and algae. On other days, she was swimming between blue and yellow lane lines, hitting them with her forearm when she did the backstroke. She did that every weekday as a kid. She craved it when she left for college, the taste of chlorinated water always on the edge of her tongue. She had it back. Splintered rays of sunlight broke through her windows. Outside, there were grey pillars of buildings, throbbing lights and laughing people with clanking glasses from nightclubs, parks with leaves that shrugged with the wind.
She reached out to grab the handle, but for the first time, she felt the weight of water drag her down. The room was grimy and tight. She’d been in water for so long. Out there, where fountains spewed and rain trickled down storm drains, she saw people and faces and smiles. She saw them all blend together into a mass, walking down streets, laughing and crying and holding onto each other. Her chest ached like she’d swallowed water, choking hard, as she watched the world move on without her. The sun rose into the sky, hid behind grey clouds, then disappeared past the horizon. One face passed her window, then another, then another. They never looked at her. All she could do was watch, hands rubbing against the glass, watch the city move without her.
She was going to breathe.
She pulled the orchid out from under her shirt. She plucked one petal, and the water lowered an inch. Another, and another, until it was a stem. The water drained. She looked out at the window, at the sprinklers on the edge of the sidewalk. She stuffed the stem in her back pocket, the memories of swimming and childhood, and went out to make dry memories.
Austin Conner grew up in the East Bay Area. He is currently an undergraduate at UC Merced, pursuing a degree in Biology as well as a minor in Creative Writing. He has had works published previously in Manawaker Studios, Dualcoast Magazine, and Five on the Fifth.
by Bruce McAllister
George Clooney was sleeping, or pretending to. He was well dressed—gabardine slacks and an Aigner summer shirt—and handsome as hell, the Alitalia flight attendant with the drink cart was telling herself. Che bell’uomo! She’d seen a face like that somewhere—lined by time, but affascinante. Where? An engraving of a poet? An old painting in a museum? (The makeup department had done a number on his face.)
The actor—posing as 45, pale as alabaster, with pitch-black hair and a haggard look—opened his eyes suddenly, and the woman’s heart stopped. He was looking at her. It wasn’t evil she saw in those steel-blue eyes (contacts—makeup’s finest)—they weren’t a killer’s eyes—but instead a quiet power, the kind that could change the world if the world would only let it. Nevertheless, her heart hammered; and, though it did, she made herself push the cart to him, asking him, eyes averted, if he wanted anything, hearing the American accent in his “No, thank you,” and moving on reluctantly to other passengers. She was from Lucca, the old walled city where people were less cynical than they were in Florence and Rome, and courtesy came easily to her. She took pride in it, in fact. She wanted to look at him again and smile back, but couldn’t; and because she couldn’t, she didn’t see what happened then.
Beside Clooney sat a woman wearing a summer dress with gaudy flowers, ready perhaps for a tour of Rome or an affair with a Roman lover, but resting now. Her arm was bare, and the mole on it, near the wrist, was nothing to worry about, she had told herself. But it was. She should have seen a doctor about it long ago, Clooney knew.
The actor’s arm, bare too because of his short sleeves, was touching the woman’s, but the woman was asleep and didn’t pull away. Had the flustered flight attendant been watching, she would have seen the mole shrink slowly, grow paler, and finally become nothing more than a freckle. Had she seen this, her heart would have thundered until the man smiled at her again and this time stilled it.
He knew from experience—the kind that could get in the way of one’s work–that when people saw the cross burnt into his chest like a small cattle brand, the one he’d received in Eastern Europe as a child, or the gaunt facial features surgery had given him six months ago (so that he might look like Christ in so many famous paintings), it often took more than a mortal smile to give them peace.
It was sad, but so human. There were things people should indeed be scared of in this world—especially now, as end times began—though he, George Clooney, was not one of them.
Bruce McAllister’s short fiction has appeared in literary magazines, national magazines and “year’s best” volumes (Best American Short Stories, and others); and won or been shortlisted for awards from the NEA, Glimmer Train, Narrative, and New Letters among others. His most recent novel is the The Village Sang To The Sea: A Memoir Of Magic.
By T. Gillmore
My daughter wanted to be a bird, and I said, “No. Please no. You’re too young to be a bird. There’s a whole life ahead of you. It will get better. After this hurdle. You’ll see. Please trust me. Don’t be a bird. Let’s do something together—shop, listen to music, anything you want.”
She didn’t answer. Her skin turned cold and hard and she tucked her head between her shoulders, eluding others but more so, avoiding me.
My daughter wanted to be one of those chickadees. The ones dancing on our windowsill. These tiny, short-necked, large-headed birds, bodies no larger than my fist, flutter their gray wings as if inviting her to come out and play. She doesn’t. She won’t. And I am glad because something inside me said, Don’t let her. So, I tried to change her mind about birds—to become something else.
“Why not be a dog or a cat?” I asked, delicately, not wanting to spook her back into her shell. She rarely peeked her head out at me. “You like dogs and cats. You can run and play. Little birds can’t run. They don’t play.”
She shook her head no and said, “Dogs and cats are stuck inside the house or chained in the yard. I want to fly.”
“But why a chickadee?” I asked. “You can be an eagle, soar the sky, and reach as high as you can. Or an owl; be strong and respectful. No one bullies an owl.”
My daughter had not answered. She stared at the window, and I wondered what was she thinking, but I didn’t ask. I was afraid of the answer. Instead, I left and cooked, sewed and sang as if time would erase all thoughts of chickadees. They said time had that power. I was counting on time.
My daughter became a bird. Overnight. Without a slight indication, she flew away. Time healed nothing. I then followed. But I am a cat. I am inside my house, safe, sitting on the windowsill. My paw pats the glass at the chickadees dancing on the outer edge. The autumn leaves swirl in the background.
Tell my daughter I am here. Please tell her to come and visit me. Here on the windowsill. She doesn’t have to sing to me if she doesn’t want to. I will know it is she when I see her flutter her wings. A mother knows her child. I will wait.
by Gillian Walker
I used to catch frogs by the pond in my grandmother’s garden. I would pin them under my hand, legs spread wide, webbed feet poking out from under my palm. I pressed and their heartbeat reverberated through my hand. The harder I pressed the quicker the rhythm of the beat, signaling something: I am here, perhaps. I remembered those frogs, when with my hand on his chest, covering his heartbeat, my lover of many months told me he couldn’t betray his wife again. He lay unnaturally still after he spoke, his eyes searching my face for an indication of how I would behave.
In my grandmother’s garden, the frogs’ legs were sticky. I pulled them; flexed the joints that protruded from under my palm. Once, I pushed against the natural motion of the bone, harder than I should. I rolled the thigh muscle in my fingers, feeling the muscle slide about inside the skin. I did no damage. I checked. I let the frog go and watched him jump before I caught him again.
“Say something,” my lover said.
My hand had cooled on his chest. I wanted to say that it was too late to prevent betrayal if he insisted that was what this was. But instead, I remembered the feel of the foot of the frog in my hand and the tension as I pulled the muscular limb.
“Never hurt a life,” my grandmother told me during those summers when I would play in her garden. She had a way of speaking as if I wasn’t there, although she knew I was listening. “Imagine,” she said, “and take great care with your power.”
I asked, “What power?” thinking she would reveal some latent familial secret that would set me apart from other children and confirm the instinct that told me I was special.
With my grandmother in mind, I told him, “I have always known,” and I tried my best to create a reassuring tone. I replaced my desire for revenge with memories of the feel of small bony feet of captured frogs between my fingers.
I held the hind leg straight and I imagined pulling further: the slow tearing of ligament isolating bone from muscle, leaving the knee joint unprotected, then the gradual build-up of pressure and the uncontrolled pop of ball joint as it detached from the knee socket. I imagined the control necessary to contain that release and enjoy the soft slide of muscle across muscle until the second quieter snap of over-stretched skin.
“What have you always known?” my lover asked.
“That you have a wife,” I said. And just as in that late summer afternoon, in my grandmother’s garden when I released the extended hind leg of the frog, I discovered the instinct to protect. I let the animal leap onto the path and scramble away from me, darting in one direction and then another. I bent over my lover and I kissed him before getting out of bed.
Gillian Walker is a fiction writer based in the UK. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Bath Flash Fiction Award Anthology 2016, Riverfeet Press Anthology and FlashFlood Journal and has been shortlisted and longlisted for the Fish flash fiction competition. She is a fiction reader for Bartleby Snopes.
Embers Under Ash
By Lynn Mundell
The kitchen table is a still life—peeled orange, half-eaten toast. His brown cardigan hangs on the chair, as though to warm it. She thinks of Mount Vesuvius, its explosion covering Pompeii, the household tableaux perfectly preserved under 30 feet of ash.
He walks away from his home quickly, taking nothing. His father once told him to never look back at a stray, or it will think you want it. His house is an old dog he must ignore as he hurries down the tree-lined street to the idling car.
“Mom, what happened? You must have theories?”
Her son never stops asking. At 33, he’s the same age as his father when he left.
“I don’t think we’ll ever know. It’s one of the world’s great mysteries, like the Bermuda Triangle.”
She speaks lightly to hide her pain, but it’s always there, with the anger like a blaze not properly banked.
In his new town, he has a different name and an apartment with one of everything—bowl, blanket, chair. He aches for his wife and boy. Their hands in his. The nights she warmed him. He knows now he never should have come forward. But he hadn’t realized the high cost of honesty.
It always feels like people are watching her, judging. Next door, they’d heard them arguing early that morning. It’s true she has a temper like a forest fire—quick and devastating. Now a tiny flame keeps her calling the police, the hospitals. But she knows. That morning she’d said to him, “Leave. Just go.” And he had.
They’d told him that they’d watch over his family. That the people he’d implicated would want only him. He’d been instructed to leave no trace. He writes her a letter, anyway, cut into a heart shape. Closes with, “Know that I love you.”
The boy wakes, climbs easily out of his crib. Downstairs his father is in his daytime clothes, placing something on the table before leaving. Alone in the hallway, he sees it is a funny bit of paper. He puts it in his pajama pant pocket, where later it will go through the wash, the paper disintegrating like cinder.
His new name grows old with him but never fits. He searches for them on the Internet. She’s stayed in the house. Their son has married. One day he learns the last of those he accused is dead. Then he finds a birth announcement. He is a grandfather. He packs his bags.
The newborn starts crying in answer to the knock. She thinks it’s another gift delivery. At the door is a man who looks like her husband, only shrunken, ashen. He smiles joyfully, like a child. Inside her something shakes and explodes.
This is how the boy who is now a man discovers them. They will burn in his memory just like this. Clinging to one another—two miraculous survivors unearthed long after the disaster is over.
Lynn Mundell’s work has been published in The Sun, Five Points, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Eclectica, Tin House online, and elsewhere. She lives in Northern California, where she co-edits 100 Word Story.
by Avital Gad-Cykman
She lies down the whole day. At night, she raises her head just a little, to maintain her energy, and her mouth fills up. She hasn’t eaten anything in a week except dew and manna. After years of hearing mumbled reading in the neighboring house, she recognizes the food. Of course she’s been listening. Of course, she knows it by heart.
Someone in a purple woolen hat and a white puffy coat caresses her with wings. They are soft, the wings, but not as soft as hands. For these she’d wait forever. She won’t let go of another breath, and will open her mouth for her share of dew and manna.
The hands appear again with the right pressure and the good scent of water colors and yogurt, sweat and plastic buttons. They spring from the one who’s hers, who’s so right and good she doesn’t even open her eyes, to save her energy, to rejoice.
Energy is essential. She’d like to chase after cars. The angel stands on the road at the best positions from which she could have leaped. You can do it, the angel says with a waving of the semi-soft wings. Come and run barking. You’ve done it forever. Come, come on now.
Food has lost its taste, the hands don’t stay long enough, and the angel is calling. Exciting cars pass one by one. Soon, soon, the hands. The voice too. The scent. She gets up because a fast car has passed. She limps. Her instincts are shot, someone says. The angel.
It’s night again, time for dew and manna. She’ll have her one last go at cars. Then, she’ll coil within the arms and the hands and will have everything forever.
Never Let Go; Goodbye
by Clarence Chapin
The weary soldier held on. His palm was slick with perspiration even though his comrade’s touch was cold.
Let go, said his comrade, from below the ledge.
He knew it was futile. He didn’t have the strength to save his friend, and he didn’t have the strength to let him fall.
You can’t hold on to me forever.
I’m going to try.
You can’t help me. Eventually I’ll slip away.
You’re going to live. Somehow.
I’m dead weight and you know it. Forget about me. Save yourself.
I don’t need saving.
You have a wife.
You have a child.
He needs his father.
You also needed me.
He’s just a child.
So were you.
You can’t live in the past.
The past is all I have.
You’d have so much more if you just let go.
It’s time to say goodbye.
It’s not goodbye, said the soldier.
I’ll pull you down with me.
Sometimes I wish—
I’ll pull you down with me.
If our situations were reversed—
But if they were—
I would let you fall.
You’d pull me up.
I would let you fall.
You always pulled me up, always. I wasn’t strong enough.
You were stronger than most.
I let you fall.
You’re holding on to me now.
I wish I were with you.
You have to move on.
I can’t move on when you’re beneath me.
You lived. I didn’t.
I wish I’d gone with you.
It’s better there.
Here there is pain—
But there is also life.
And there is silence. And there is loneliness. There is emptiness here. The others don’t understand. They don’t know what it was like for us.
That’s our gift to them.
What will I do now? What should I do?
You’ll move on. You’ll move on, but also remember. That’s why I had to die.
So I’d remember?
So there would be something worth remembering.
The soldier unclenched his fist, and released the dirt from his comrade’s grave. He released him, and let him rest in peace. Because he was the reason.
He was the reason that peace was possible.
Clarence Chapin was born and raised in Ohio. He graduated from Cleveland State University with his MA in English, and currently resides in Florida. He teaches English Composition at the high school and college levels, and writes creatively on the side. Although Chapin has experimented with writing in many genres, this is his first short story to be published in a literary magazine.
The illustrator’s bio:
Lora Vysotskaya resides in Dnepr, Ukraine. Married, two children. She’s been performing image manipulations on her iPad, using only a single finger, for 2.5 years. This hobby is an important part of her; bringing creative ideas to life brings her joy. She dreams of a good computer with Photoshop installed that would give her unlimited creative potential.