tongues on fire | flash fiction

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Sundays on the Tennessee by Jonathan Kosik

Nothing good comes out of this river. Heavy steel killed this bend in the Tennessee. My father pours two bags of ice into the fish hold in the middle of the boat. He sinks a case of Coors Light into the ice, two cans at a time. We don’t keep the fish; my father throws his catch back. It’s just time in a boat, floating, pulling fish from the river next to the sagging frames of steel mills where the clouds of metal dust and slag flushed, for years, down worn, red banks and into the water. My father worked these mills, when their furnaces burned strong and bright orange throughout the night, when the glow of man-made lava poured from giant ladles and filled molds for railroad tracks. My father and I brought home fish from the river then. When we fished close to the locks, and my father told me “they pulled the stopper” when the water lowered for barges moving up river. When my father’s arms were rigid with muscle, when he first took me out in the boat and taught me to hook bait and cast close to the shore. I lost five crickets off the curve of my hook in as many minutes. My father tossed me into the current. “If you can’t learn to hook a cricket, this is the closest you’ll come to catching fish.”

My father digs into the ice and pulls two cans out. The cans drip sweat in this heat. The ssshhh-thwack slices the air behind me as he flips both tabs. He presses a cold can against the back of my arm; I jump, sending the boat rocking. “You’re going to scare the goddamn fish,” he says. He takes a drink. I keep my hat pulled low. The bandana filled with ice chips and tied around my neck steadily drips down my back. It will be dry soon. I won’t fill it with ice again. My father will be watching. He is unyielding in this kind of heat. “Must have caught the worst of his mother,” I once heard him say to Roy Hapburn as they drank beers on the back porch and cleaned fish they’d caught in Alabama.

It’s just a game. I watch my bobber. The white top rests on the surface of the water. The bobber dips and jumps to the surface. The tip of my rod bends to the water. I pray that my hook has caught a stopper on the bottom of this rusted river. My bobber is dragged under the surface, and as I fight with the reel my father springs to his feet. The weight of his steps pitches the boat side to side. Water slops against the aluminum hull. I feel his shadow cool the back of my neck. I imagine his arms around me, his hands on mine, his breath heavy with excitement. One strong tug, we could pull the stopper free from this riverbed.


About the Author
Jonathan Kosik
Born: Chattanooga, Tennessee
Now Resides: House of the Mouse (Orlando, Florida)
Bio: I teach film production classes. Writing with pencils hurts so good. My 1979 Honda CB750 is one hot lady. So is my wife. I want to be Mad Max. I write in my garage, not all the time, but a lot. I have a twin. Tennessee is beautiful. I live elsewhere, I’ve lived many elsewheres: once in a trailer on a farm in Georgia, once in San Jose, once in Lexington, Ky—we followed a preacher, you get it. I enjoy IPA’s. Chocolate chip cookies rock the Casbah. Ethiopian food is the bomb. My 68 Tele Bass has some songs in it. My P-bass has more. I still shoot film. Come hang out with me. We toss horse shoes in my back yard. This story first appeared on Clapboard House.


image by Daxius.

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The Hummingbird by Robert Hill Long

How the hummingbird got into the attic he didn’t know. All day at the desk rewriting a single foolish page, he’d mistaken that vibrato for something within—onset of tinnitus, a Cassandra vein in his temple forewarning a stroke. In the ashes of afternoon, he pictured an angel of perfection, tiny as a needle injecting the word No through the top of his skull.

The ocean outside was mantled in fog as though the sky could not stop lighting one cigarette after another in order to forget that its job was to deliver clarities blue as a god’s eye. Beneath the fog, barn swallows veered, sparrows hovered and pounced in the grass. Whatever had gone wrong with him did not spoil how the crow furled wings like an umbrella and strolled toward yesterday’s picnic crumbs, how gulls hung in the offshore wind like a long suspended chord in a Bach toccata.

The thought of Bach pushed him away from his ashtray full of crushed words: he wanted to hear that toccata and fugue—if only to deaden the vibrato wire in his skull—but it lay in the attic. In the hall, he lowered collapsible stairs (the gulls resolved into the melody line of the fugue, cascading away) and climbed: unreliable steps to a permanent cedar twilight. Here, a box of anniversaries of the dead; there, a century of moth-eaten linen. Shelves of wind-up tin toys, dolls whose porcelain heads lolled in a choral stare.

Stowed beneath the attic’s end-window, the phonograph bin echoed the placement of his desk one floor below. As he squatted to flip through the albums, an iridescence caught his eye. On the sill, outspread wings, a needle-tipped head of emerald and garnet bent away from the glass. There had been an angel; it had called out overhead. He stood briefly—to accept the silent charge against him—then knelt, to balance each rigid wing on his index fingers. Then he rose and backed toward the trapdoor where, if the world were just, he would plummet and break his neck. But he managed this backward pas de deux down the steps, the dead bird before his eyes like an iridescent chalice.

In his studio, he rotated slowly to show the hummingbird what he had done with its life: ashtray and scattered books, cheap prints on the wall. Then lowered himself to the rug, and stretched on his side, the hummingbird by his head. No Bach now, no ocean of smoke, no work to ruin, no consoling acre of birds. Only this note, repeated inside each time he blinked until the window went black. Once his arms and legs had gone to sleep, he recognized the note’s irregular signature.

It was his heart—a little faster than the last time he’d checked, more syncopated. Probably it was the cigarettes, but he hoped without being able to see a thing that the hummingbird had found its way to some nectar in the cage of his bones.


About the Author
Robert Hill Long
Born: Wilmington, NC USA
Now Resides: Eugene OR USA
Bio: Robert Hill Long’s books (1987-2010) include The Power to Die, The Work of the Bow, The Effigies, The Kilim Dreaming, and The Wire Garden. He has been recently awarded second fellowships by the NEA and the Oregon Arts Commission. Recent work appears (or soon will) in 2River View, Cirque, Dead Mule, Diagram, Gray Sparrow, In Posse, Los Angeles Review, North Carolina Literary Review, Sentence, The Other Journal, The Pedestal, The Writing Disorder, and Unsplendid. MSS. seeking publishers: Hello Hell (prose poems), The Republic of Robinson (verse bio of jazz guitarist), Aftermathematics (elegies).


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Quee by John E. Branscum

We all loved dogs. After all, a kid without a dog is like a kid without a heart. Beagles and Labradors and Cocker Spaniels, and the mutts of course — the unlikely couplings of Chihuahuas and Rottweilers, Poodles and Dobermans. Then one morning, a few days after the last day of school, we find she who belongs to no one — sleeping on the porch of the abandoned house at the end of the street. She’s golden with glossy eyes like a sick child’s. Her right front paw is wounded so that she limps — tap, tap. We approach her bent over, hands extended. She does not growl but simply watches.

“What is it?” I say to Tony. “Girl or boy?”

He pushes his hand at her and lets her sniff. When he sees that she’s accepted him, he drops to his knees and looks beneath her. “Girl. Pregnant.” He points to the pink grab of her swollen nipples.

That night, we petition our parents to add her to our respective menageries. But once we admit that she is pregnant, the answer is no, no, of course not. We do not understand the ways of the world, they say, the dangers of proliferating species. We don’t mention her again. When they ask about her, we say we found someone to take her. Secretly though, we rebel.

We take turns according to a pact that is never spoken but comes into being out of the force of its own rightness. We each donate an old blanket or pair of pants or pillow to make her a nest inside the old house. We feed her like a queen. A quarter of a package of bacon, filched cans of dog food, crackers, steak. Queen, we call her, Queenie, and sometimes, foreshortened, Quee.

She doesn’t move much when we visit except to walk circles or to pace. Her head is heavy with alien thoughts. She doesn’t show whether she is happy to see us or sad to see us go. Still, in awe of her swelling belly, we pledge our lives. There’s sightings sometimes when she limps out to explore. We deny them. Say that she is long gone. When asleep, we dream of her pale belly and each of us hanging from her nipples like bats.

The end of summer and the heat grows half-hearted. One day, we go to see her and she growls. There is yelping and wiggling from beneath her belly. A blind face pokes from the sleeve of my father’s shirt, another from the hem of Tommy’s mother’s dress. We stand back and gaze, hearts beating, mouths dry, grinning drop-jawed and nodding at each other. “Yeah! Oh Yeah!” We shout and slap each other’s back.

Three weeks later, Quee disappears. We don’t know where. The puppies are still there though, eyes newly opened, jaws goggling at the world. We look for her body. Of course, we don’t find it. We didn’t expect to. This is after all a miracle.


About the Author
John E. Branscum
Born: Indio, California, USA
Now Resides: Tusculum, Tennessee
Bio: John Branscum hails from a long line of migrant labor with semi-permeable membranes. He was once mistakenly arrested for attempting to rob a convenience store, and likes to get lost in foreign countries on purpose. He’s published work in such magazines as the North American Review and won such honors as the Ursula Leguin Award for Imaginative Fiction. He’s just finished the darkly comic redneck spiritual memoir, One in the Head, and is shopping it around, as well as trying to pimp it to Oprah. A former Cajun cook, he now joyfully toils as an Assistant Professor of English at Tusculum College.


image by ByStarrlight.

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Chocolate Milk for Miles! by Andrew Battershill

Derek was with his friend Annabel, drinking by a river. Annabel was about knee-deep in the water. She tripped slightly and as she righted herself an expanding swirl of silt rose to the surface. Derek was sitting higher up on the hill. He had an umbrella suspended in a tree branch above him. Rain fell heavily into the river but only the occasional drop made it through the canopy of the trees.

Annabel spun her hand around at the wrist. “I had six nightmares last night, and none of them had an arc.” She stepped out of the river, almost slipping on a rock.

“I don’t remember my dreams.”

She narrowed her eyes and cocked her head to the side. “What’s the last dream you remember?”

Derek let his head droop to his chest.

“It was quite a while ago now. And in the dream I went to the fridge and there were no eggs left. That was the dream. I was out of eggs.”

“You had a fridge dream too!? That’s awesome! Three days ago I had one where I looked in the fridge and there were rows and rows of chocolate milk containers, all lined up. They filled the whole thing.”

“The only other one I remember, I bought shoes and the girl at the counter gave me my change in belt buckles. Three metal tubs full of belt-buckles.”

Annabel was putting on her shoes; she slapped her calf three times. “Chocolate milk for miles!” She laughed, bent forwards, and then moved back sharply, letting her left shoe slip out of her hand and into the water. She pulled it out before anywhere but the toe got wet.

He craned his head around the outside of the umbrella and looked up. It had stopped raining, but a drop of water fell from a leaf and hit him next to his right eye.

They climbed the bank together and when they reached the gravel path Annabel skipped ahead. She spun around to face him, lost her balance and fell into a sitting position. A strand of her bangs fell across her face, and without moving any other part of her body she blew upwards and got the hair out of her eyes.

They walked down the path and reached a house. The house was old and made of brick. Accordion music started rolling out the window, one note at a time, which was both incredible and the only way it could. He looked up at the window and saw that the accordion player had a pet crow (it was an eastern European crow, which meant that it looked like a crow, but covered in grey paint). Annabel bumped into Derek, spinning him around at the shoulder. He heard her say: “I wish each person had a different number of bones.”


About the Author
Andrew Battershill
Born: Vancouver, BC
Now resides: Victoria, BC
Bio: Andrew Battershill is the co-editor of Dragnet Magazine online. He was the winner of the 2010 Irving Layton Award for Fiction, and his winning entry will be featured in the upcoming issue of The Headlight Anthology. His work is currently appearing in issue 2 of Burner Mag.


image by nilgunkara.

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The End of a Season by Kim Connington

It’s late September, past cottage season. No whining buzz of boats on the lake, no shrieking children splashing in the shallows. The fall migration brings a cacophony of birds and waterfowl but since early this morning there has been silence. A stark contrast to the fury of the breakfast table argument. Her words were harsh, accusing, biting. I yelled back, inches from her face. Her sweeping curtain of dark hair falls forward, hiding her eyes. The same argument every day for three days, three months, three years. The lake soothes us; waves wash over her words, soften and blur the edges.

I row the flat bottom boat through shallow water in the secluded bay on the west end of the lake. Bulrushes root in sediment; their foliage stands above the surface in stiff spires. Among the yellow ochre leaves drift free-floating plants. Roots entwined in a tangled mass, they float in a dense carpet. The canopy conceals the trailing leaves and branches of submerged weeds. Anything caught in this underwater jungle would not be given up. Gliding into deeper water, I lift the oars and shake the tape grass and algae from them. I look at my hands. Man’s hands but soft and boyish. Until this morning, I hadn’t done much of anything physical.

Leaving the yellow leaves of the aspen and birch that surround the bay for the forever green of the pine trees that cling to the stony outcrops, I turn left to follow the rocky, northern shore back to the dock. I stay close to the shore to avoid the pull of the drift. The rock hangs over the lake; bulbous shapes atop sheer stone walls that disappear into the water. Here the water appears black. I don’t want to look over the side of the boat. I imagine all sorts of things beneath the surface. Body parts - limbs, torsos and skulls - rising to the surface - the black water amber against white skin. Mossy green branches and tree trunks lie half-submerged. The curve of a trunk reminds me of the curve of her hip when she lies on her side in sleep. My hands looked rugged against the taut, smooth skin of her neck.

I glance over the side. Stonewort and musk grass move under the water, slow dancing in the wind-driven current. I imagine her hair flowing, not yet tangled.


About the Author
Kim Connington
Born: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Now Resides: Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Bio: Kim has lived from coast to coast in Canada and was lucky to have spent four years living in Germany and travelling extensively throughout Europe. She is an artist, whose work has sold in Europe and Canada. This is Kim’s first publication. She is in the final editing stage of her first novel and eagerly anticipating beginning her second. She believes encounters with people and nature find their way into her work as a writer and an artist.


image by PurpleHeartIvy.

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A Design for Life by Emma Jones

Raining again. I can’t remember the last time I left my umbrella at home. Never mind, I’m spending most of my day indoors and have much more pressing worries at the hospital. The traffic light turns green. So many decisions, so many varieties of perfection. Like a kid in a candy store…

I want blonde hair, not too light, but more of a caramel colour with a slight wave that will drizzle itself over slim shoulders. Some blue eyes would match beautifully. My mother had blue eyes and almost jet black hair, very striking indeed, although a bit too cold for my liking.

A pedestrian crosses my path and I can’t help but notice her lips. No sign of collagen there. I prefer a much more prominent top lip but I very much like the natural colouring of hers, almost a purple-red, reminds me of beetroot. A great colour against her fair skin.

She strolls past my window and I glimpse her side profile. That nose is just too big for me. I want a petite one, perhaps with an ever-so-slight turn at the end. I’ll look at examples but I’m thinking along the lines of Julia Roberts’ shape. Apparently she has the traits and proportions of a perfect face. I must admit, she has aged very well, maybe I should enquire about wrinkle prevention. I’d be quite disappointed with crows feet at the age of forty. I’m already cursed with frown lines and have no interest in aging gracefully.

If my breasts slump any further they’ll be trailing the floor like the knuckles of a bloody orangutang. I want them smaller. A pert, palm-sized B, or C at the most. They would look ideal on a tall, slender frame. Not too tall though, that’s what stilettos are for; 5’6” to 5’9” would be ideal, so long as we can keep the feet dainty.

I pull into the car park of the fertility department. A perfect parking manoeuvre. I’ll keep that attribute thank you.

I walk towards the entrance as the clouds begin to part and the rain takes a coffee break. I think I’m finally prepared and decided on everything. Well… everything but a name for her.


About the Author
Emma Jones
Born: Pontypridd, Wales, UK
Now Resides: Melbourne, Australia
Bio: Emma Jones graduated in Law and is currently travelling the world with her backpack. Thanks to the ample amount of free time spent at airports, Emma is able to pursue her two favourite passions - writing and buying duty free goods. This story was first published in the Winter 2010-2011 issue of Adventures for the Average Woman.


image by LonelyPierot.

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On Parmenter St. by Lenea Grace

“Where’s the parade, boys?” Jimmy’s scooping up the slush, as usual. I tell him nobody wants a goddamn slushie on a cloudy day, but he don’t listen. As usual.

“Haw. Haw. Joker.”

Fat Morty thinks Jimmy is a regular comedian. This guy. I tell you. It’s been fifty years of this and Morty’s still snorting when he laughs. This guy. If he weren’t my cousin, he’d be yours.

So we sit and take in the goddamn parade of every day goings on here on Parmenter St. Not because we want to, but because we have to. Because if we didn’t, Jimmy’d have no one to talk to. That’s what I tell my wife after breakfast. She don’t care, anyway, except she thinks I’m wasting away my golden years. Her words, not mine. She’s always wringing her hands on that ratty red and white apron. I tell her go buy yourself a new apron. I don’t need a new apron, she says, why don’t ya take me to Florida? And there’s that little dance she does, kind of like she’s tap-dancing, only she’s in bare feet and the floor is linoleum. I could kiss her.

But we’re not going to Florida. Not this year. She’s busy with the girls and the church, and I got Polcari’s. Always spend my mornings at Polcari’s before lunch at home. Sometimes she makes me a salami sandwich, or tuna fish. Or I’ll microwave the leftovers for both of us. And if I’ve been a real good boy, sometimes she makes me a man. Haw haw.

Nothing doing today on the street. Used to be there were kids, our kids, playing all the time. Sucking down those slushies on the sidewalks, in the alleys. Lots of young mothers, blurs of shopping bags and high heels. Not so much anymore. The neighborhood’s changing, my wife says. Why don’t we go to Florida? Now we watch the slick cars speed by with Fast Eddies behind the wheel. It’s the cocaine. Morty saw it on the TV.

So we change, we change, so what. Between Morty and my wife, you’d think the world was going to hell in a hand basket. But me, I keep drinking my coffee. I wave to the Fast Eddies. I smile at the girl that shakes her tooshie on the corner. And when Morty gives her crap about how this used to be a nice street, a family street, I just tell her,

“Honey, it’s 1982. Let it all hang out.”


About the Author
Lenea Grace
Born: Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Now Resides: New York, New York, USA
Bio: Lenea Grace is a Canadian writer and avid kitchen-dancer. An MFA candidate at The New School, she resides in NYC. Her work has appeared in Grain, Event, ditch, and Gulper Eel magazines.


image by SAMLIM.