Because my traipsing through short fiction venues is designed to be one-stop, it’s necessary to note that I won’t be bothering with serialized content. I say necessary in the case of Fireside’s October 2014 issue, because the bulk of the issue seems to be devoted to Lilith Saintcrow’s serialized She Wolf And Cub, including a prologue, and then Chapter One. Which is fine because it makes this inaugural edition of The Short List a rather breezy one, consisting of just three stories to read and a short note from editor Brian J. White. That is absolutely not an indictment of She Wolf And Cub—but if I get hooked on every serialized piece I stumble across, I’ll end up doing nothing but catching up on those by the third or fourth Short List. I’m intentionally avoiding it. And that’s actually something worthwhile to note about reading short fiction publications: feel free to skip over anything that doesn’t grab you right away or that just doesn’t sound interesting. With so many other stories to choose from, there’s no sense getting stuck on one that you won’t finish or that isn’t working out for you.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years trying to improve my writing skills by focusing on short fiction. Along the way I’ve read a ton of it, both to learn from what was out there and to see what was selling as I tried to align my submissions to markets that were (more) likely to buy my work. And in the process I developed a love of short fiction.
I could easily say that liking short stories isn’t particularly a recent development. But considering how well short work scratches the reading itch without the commitment inherent in choosing a new novel, it’s kind of surprising that it took me this long and this particular circumstance to get me truly invested in it. It simply didn’t occur to me earlier to seek out short fiction—other than the occasional author collection or intriguing theme anthology. I certainly never thought about subscribing to or buying fiction magazines.
I recently had a conversation with some other writers in which it was observed that sometimes it feels like short story readers have a 1-to-1 overlap with short story writers. That basically the only people who care about literary or genre magazines which run less-than-novel-sized pieces are people who are writing in that format. Maybe that’s untrue or unfair. But what I don’t think is controversial is the idea that short stories could be getting more attention than they are from pure readers.
My hypothesis is that maybe these publications just don’t get enough non-writer-y attention. Perhaps if someone explored some of the available options with a focus on their value to readers; if there was a concerted effort to get conversations started the way they’re started about books—with the added benefit of more inclusiveness since it’s much easier to get a group of people to read a ten-page story than a 300-page book—the short fiction community might not feel so insular.
Enter The Short List. This will be an experiment. For as long as it feels fun and engaging, I’ll choose a different publication for each installment and offer mini-synopses, reviews, and essays about the selected issue. My intent is to spread the focus around: professional-paying, high-profile publications will sit alongside indie and niche collections. I want to do genre magazines and eclectic anthologies. But more than anything I’m going to focus on these selections from a reader’s perspective. What’s the value like? How fun are the stories to read? How likely is it readers will find themselves sharing their favorites with friends? I specifically won’t be talking about the publications’ submission process or pay rates. Cover price may be a factor, art design might come up. What won’t be discussed are topics like the ease of working with the editors, what kind of submissions they’re looking for, or how frequently they respond with personal feedback.
The format may change and evolve over time. I do want to consider this a somewhat critical evaluation of each selection, but I don’t really care to fixate on ripping apart stories (and authors) I don’t care for. I also don’t have much interest in carefully curating my selection of a given publication based on issue or theme. The way I see it, any reader should be able to pick up any issue and be well-rewarded for their time and money. So I won’t be cherry-picking too much.
But here’s my hope: if you love to read, I hope you’ll read along with me, at least sometimes. I want to start conversations, introduce people who love to read to stories they might not otherwise have seen, connect new fans with new favorite writers, and get people excited about short fiction publications for the joy of reading bite-sized stories.
Stay tuned for the first edition of this feature coming very soon.
The Ones is a writing blog game in which participants receive a story title, a little wrinkle to up the challenge factor and then must create a single draft story in no more than one hour from the prompt. They then trade stories and post someone else’s entry on their website. My guest is Alisia Faust.
Hello, can you hear me? Is anybody there? Please help me. I think I’m with a very bad man, and I’m afraid.
He came into my house in the middle of the night, tip-toeing on silent cat’s feet. I don’t know why the alarm didn’t go off. It should have! But it didn’t, so he pulled me from my bed and stuffed me in the back of his car. Oh, stupid, stupid, stupid! Why hadn’t I made any noise? I accidentally go off all the time! But I was confused and surprise and so scared. They took my brother too. He’s back here with me. If only I had said something, I wouldn’t be here. If only…
The car is stopping. I hear him loud and clear. It’s a one-sided conversation on the phone.
“Hey, I’m here. Yeah, around the corner from Starbucks. Where are you? Well hurry up, man! I’ve got the–Alright, alright, just hurry up.”
The faint click of disconnection, and a string of words that would make a lady blush tumble out of his mouth. Do you need to know everything he said? I’m not comfortable repeating that last bit.
The Ones is a writing blog game in which participants receive a story title, a little wrinkle to up the challenge factor and then must create a single draft story in no more than one hour from the prompt. They then trade stories and post someone else’s entry on their website. My guest this week is Kishan Paul.
“So you feel like your husband isn’t attentive to your needs as he used to be?” I ask.
“Yes,” the woman on the speaker phone sniffles. “I think he’s having an affair,” she says as her sniffle turns into a full fledged sob.
“Elise,” I begin and stop when the pounding starts. I switch the speaker off and put the phone next to my ear. Placing my hand on the wall next to me, I feel it shake as whoever is on the other side pounds.
I scramble to the other side of apartment, the kitchen, “Elise, do you think this has anything to do with the fact it’s the busiest time…” The banging of the hammer against the wall gets louder and more incessant. I punch the breakfast table and work on keeping my voice calm and soothing. “of the year for him at work?”
The rest of our session is much the same and I pray Elise has no idea that I’m about to explode.
When Jana and I started out, pedaling away from her dad’s slumping cottage, the sky overhead was a rich blue punctuated by the white gaze of the sun. We packed plastic baggies of peanut butter sandwiches and a couple of oatmeal cookies into the basket fastened to her handlebars. The thermos of milk went into my backpack, along with a couple of towels, a patch kit, and a foot pump. Jana’s front tire had a bad habit of leaking and we planned to make it all the way to the lake with enough time to swim, eat, and work on our tans before we had to start back to beat the twilight.
The edge of town was a couple miles behind when the muggy air started cutting cold and the wispy white clouds transitioned into glowering black monstrosities like smoky demons leaping off the toasted landscape. Jana and I stopped and had a short debate about whether to press on or turn back. We settled on going ahead because that’s what Jana wanted. The sudden chill tugged tiny white goosebumps along the bare brown skin on my arms and legs, and Jana urged me faster so the exertion would keep us warm. I was just about to shout at her to stop and give up, that I wasn’t going to get in the lake anyway with it being so cold, when the hail started.
Anny’s teardrops hold a single sun each, reflecting the steel sky and the ice-crusted landscape. The cheek the salty drops traverse before falling in slow motion are cherub smooth and dark, soft the way nothing in the world save young skin can be. On the way down, one drop in particular wobbles in and out of perfect spherical roundness, taking on the details of a blue calico dress, a brown and pink parka, a pair of white tights dirty only at the knees, puffy boots.
The splash of liquid on frosted concrete curb is, to a particularly attuned ear, audible in a light blip. Touching on the thin wafer of snow, the warm tear burns through to the drab half-foot wall beneath as if it were molten. It can’t darken the already damp surface of the curb, so instead it shimmers there, a sparkle reminiscent of the evening star.
A crystal city erupts from the pit formed by the falling saltwater meteor, spires of ice and glass, slick roadways of frozen sorrow winding up and around each minute, elaborate library or factory or tenement. A glisten of cold starlight glares across the tiny landscape and from this golden glow emerges a silken horse with wings of silver fire, soaring upward. The boy on the bare back of the beast clings to a smoky mane, his tightly curled hair ruffling in the frigid air, a loose tunic snapping behind him. He flies the horse in a looping arc upward, spiraling to the highest peak of the city, glimmering hooves moving in long leaping strides as though sprinting on an invisible path. The horse strains as it rises, diamond flecks of foam sparkling against translucent hide.
I’m writing this with rain hitting the window and it reminds me of that night we got trapped in your dad’s Tahoe with the dead battery on Westlake. Do you remember? We just sat there and listened to the drops pounding against the roof, holding hands, scared of our approaching curfews and mudslides and lightning and whatever. I think about that night sometimes, the part before we moved to the back seat, and I miss that sound.
I miss a lot of things about us. I miss not fighting over R████. I miss going out and doing things. I miss everything being us against the world instead of us against us. For a long time I swore the brighter days were just around the corner. Every relationship has rough patches, okay? This was ours. If we were meant for each other the way you always say, we’d probably have a lot of rough patches over time, you know? So this was one.
The laminate coating on the steering wheel is wearing through, leaving rough patches that tug at my lycra glove. I’ll have to get that fixed. On the clock: 07:51, which gives me nine minutes; on the speedometer: 141 kph, just above the average I’ll have to maintain to clear the checkpoint on time. I peek at the side mirrors and the cyclist weaves back behind a rig, able as always to anticipate my glances, to keep me from getting any more than a glimpse of her. She’s clad in predictable black leather, lithe where I am bulky, her sleek helmet contrasting with my angular one like a robot from the future chasing a steam-powered relic. That’s not an inappropriate comparison, come to think of it.
Out here in the flats where the lanes are generous and the traffic is moderate I can open up a bit, maybe give myself some cushion. The current stereo track is a shifting tempo experimental number so I tap the Next button and a steady bass line tingles along my thighs. Throttles were made to be opened; my sense of acceleration spreads from my spine depressing the seat back and the decrease of strict control over the wheel from whisper to growl. I draft my way past a courier van, using the slingshot effect to clear one-ninety for just a second or two and make a tight weave between two carpoolers.
I wish I could believe the cyclist is stymied, roadblocked perhaps or forced to downshift out of self-preservation, but I know better. A kilometer and a half of clear space opens before the switchbacks start which isn’t much time to burn but I do it anyway, boosting with a tug on the release valve that flattens me: breasts to armpits, stomach to tailbone, cheeks to ears. Timing the valve screw to lower the boost can be tricky. At these speeds your eyes are unreliable, human depth perception and distance estimation, even decision making, not evolved to compensate for speeds up around 300 kph. On an open stretch, during a land speed test for example, it doesn’t matter. Here, my window and margin of error is measured in meters which translates into seconds and I know the risk of miscalculation is far beyond that of a grisly death. This is a company car, after all.
The park across the street from the pharmacy was one of those forced development deals; some EconDev deputy’s idea of a compromise. They worked with city planners in some kind of baseball card version of SimCity: I’ll trade you one tiny strip of grass and anemic tree line for six strip malls and a parking structure in our historic downtown, that kind of thing. Ken sat on his bench in the miserable little park and stared at the building, sneering at the painted facade the color of vomited hot dogs, and counted customers.
The padding of his buttocks had worn thin, like a pair of pants he couldn’t bear to throw out and so had weathered away any once-held utility. The bones of his hips ground against the painted slats—green, of course—and he hated everything. His tricycle was parked nearby underneath a shadeless tree, too newly planted to even stand on its own without the support of wooden crutches and rubber lashes. There were no leaves to keep the chrome handlebars from heating in the glare, there was no security provided by the flimsy chain lock (manufacturer’s provided combination: 1-2-3-4). The vehicle was plodding and uncomfortable to ride but beloved for its single provision: freedom.
Ken settled a curving pipe between his long mustaches and lit it with a match. His customer count reached 75 and he checked his watch while the hot summer wind threatened the light of his pipe. Eight forty-nine and Tim’s Discount Pharmacy had been open for under an hour, currently averaging more than one customer per minute.
There came a clarity with old age, a stripping down of mental tartar, revealing the inconsequentiality of sports, politics, news cycles, social engagement, and leisure. It rendered each of them vaporous and easily waved away with a gnarled hand. What remained was the fleeting bliss of family, the inevitability of oblivion, and the sweet allure of perceived injustice. It was this last that brought Ken to the park each day for the past two months, counting customers, tabulating data and biding time.
I met my husband on my eighth wedding anniversary. He likes to tease me that I even procrastinated on my seven year itch. David, my ex, had taken me down to Florida for a few days of alone time, not a full week. He could never stand to be away from the office very long.
When I first saw Gregory, we were crowded into a tiny Italian restaurant with about six tables total. Greg was there with a date and you could tell right away that the date wasn’t going well; most of what I remember about her are the four cocktails she drank before they got a table. David and Greg struck up a conversation. David was always good at breaking the ice, getting to know people everywhere he went. He was awful at maintaining friendships, but he could make like he was best buddies with a guy he’d run into ten minutes earlier.
Greg was from The City, down to visit family who had arranged his ill-fated date, and we lived in Jersey at the time. It was coincidental but not uncommon to run into a fellow New Yorker this far south, but it got a little funny when Greg mentioned he was staying at the same Hilton we were, just a floor down from us.
I didn’t get much of an impression of Greg then. David did the majority of the talking, converting me into a conversational barnacle, just along for the ride. He had a way of talking for me, saying things like, “Did you watch the game on Sunday? We did. We just about lost it when Folk missed that field goal!” He’d say “we” like I had been right alongside him, wearing my team jersey and spilling beernuts in agitation when the team lost. David’s narrative excluded how I spent the afternoon doing laundry upstairs, looking up recipes on the computer, and fixing the kids a snack. Game time was always David Time, and I tried to play the doting wife, coming down every thirty minutes or so to bring him a fresh beer and see if he wanted any chips. He’d smile and pinch my butt in a distracted but affectionate way. Everything he ever did carried the implied suffix, “little lady.”