I Would Die 4 My Betta Fish by Corinne Rabbin-Birnbaum

This piece was first published in Quarto's 2018 Spring Print Edition

If a murderer broke into my apartment tonight and pointed at me and then to my betta fish and said “okay, who’s it going to be?” I would look at him like he was batshit crazy and point to myself, of course. At that time my fish would probably be fluttering around his tank hysterically, thinking the murderer was just someone new to feed him. The murderer would shoot me, and as I lay bleeding out red blood the color of the fish I lay down my life for, he might ask me, “why not the fish?”
And I’d tell him, did you know in the wild, bettas swim in seemingly endless spans of shallow rice paddies? And that they can learn to recognize the vibrations that come from someone saying their name, and the face of their owner?
Or, did you know that when my fish gets tired, he twines himself around the wire protruding from his in-tank heater? He has such a slim little body, but sometimes the weight of it overcomes him and he just needs to take a rest. But he’s not lazy, for sure. I’ve even trained him to jump and eat food from between my fingers. It’s quite remarkable, if I do say so myself. He’s a very talented fish, to be honest.
And I would describe to this murderer how every night before I go to bed, even when I am so tired and anxious that my hands are shaking, I go up to his tank and say goodnight, and he flutters over and looks up at me and opens his tiny mouth for just a moment – like he’s giving me a goodnight kiss (though he’s probably just looking for food).
But I can’t leave out the story of that time he got rot and his lovely fins started to shred and disappear, how I changed his water and gave him medication every single day, even though I could tell he hated it. And when his little body started to heal, I felt pride for the first time in so so long that I practically burst into tears.
I think then I’d tell him about the way this fish of mine sits on the bottom of the tank and watches me while I do my work at the table, and how when I wave to him from where I’m sitting he starts swimming around like crazy, almost like he’s waving back.
“But I have a question,” the murderer would say to me then, after I’ve told him all of this. “If you die, who will take care of the fish?”
And with my dying breath I would say, “but if he dies, who will take care of me?”

  Illustration by Cameron Lee

Illustration by Cameron Lee

Consciousness by Willa Cuthrell-Tuttleman

"Consciousness" by Willa Cuthrell-Tuttleman is the winner of the 2018 Thunderdome contest. View the video prompt here.

I’m playing back the tape you brought me the last time you were here. It’s the one of you. I’m trying to understand, but the longer I watch, the longer I feel like this stitched-together compilation is just a cheap, polyester attempt at capturing something that I won’t find unless I physically enter your mind. Maybe it’s a tiny step towards insight, but nothing else. It’s like watching a foreign film without subtitles.

Some of the images on the screen are pictures, some brief clips. I stare hard, looking for the parts that you had already told me about. Baseball with your older brother. Orange. Lemonade in the summer. Waiting. For the bus, for the girl to call you back, for rain. The goldfish you won at the fair. Pringles before dinner and boxed wine and arguments with your Dad. Smoking his cigarette out of your window. Long drives in the snow.

And then the things that you don’t talk about. You steal. Attempts to ease your conscience by giving to the homeless. Empty charity. You do a lot of things that way. Letting me stay because you’d feel guilty if you’d said no. Strained kisses. Wanting to be alone. Moments in your room. Indecision. You make girls cry. I’m one of them, and I see myself on the screen, hunched over on a park bench. Shit in the toilet. You set ants on fire. Some white-blue color, the color of the sun after it collapses, the color of sun through closed eyelids. Flashing underwater.

I’m starting to get nauseous. I close the computer. There are eighteen hours left of your tape, but I can’t watch anymore, because there isn’t going to be anything else in that tape that I haven’t seen before; in yours, in mine, in anyone’s.

Quokkas by Zoe Grimes

Winner of Thunderdome Flash Fiction Contest 2018: Day 3. View the video prompt here.

There is a portal to another world and it’s one of introspection.
Kalay kalay kala, quokkas say.
It means – well.
It’s hard to say.
Perhaps kalay meaning to say and kala meaning-
Here. The human in red shorts. Is she…? Or real, even? Because humans have these strict rules, which, quokka-ka, make no sense. To you. Make no sense to you. The codification of herself. You watch the codification of her self. Her phone is: large, white, rectangular and bright. She has the back of her body to the ocean and the front of her body to the forest. The back of her phone to the forest, the front of her phone to her body.
Phone, in Quokkas, is si, and a short chittering noise.
Si chitter.
She has red jean shorts, and a pink cotton shirt, and she smiles. Why do you wait for her to leave, before…?
You stand in her footprints.
Her prints are much larger than yours.
It’s hard to say if her prints were truly there, of course. The tide comes in, the tide goes out, and feet go with it. Some things remain to be seen. But some don’t.
Your phone is: small, and black, and triangular. You stand with your furback to the ocean. Your phoneback to the forest.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
You don’t have red pants, is the problem. Or a pink shirt. Is you? Is you…you?
Take the picture, embodies the command.
Take it, and be real.
Your back is to the ocean. The blue waving reflection only existing on the phone. The phone’s back is to the forest. There are leaves it can’t see.
The camera makes a chitter sound when you take the picture.
Si chitter. The ocean just says…
And it’s a hard thing to hear.

Crowded Silence by Dejavis Bosket

Winner of Thunderdome Flash Fiction Contest 2018: Day 2. View the video prompt here.

F minus three hours and forty-two minutes. Berthe shifts around in the wicker chair next to mine. The dust on our porch alights into the expectant air as she slides her bare feet over the
“What are you reading?” I ask, looking not at her, but at the dripping honeysuckle moon.
“Gone with the Wind,” she replies brusquely, annoyed that she has had to snatch her cigarette out of her mouth.
I turn. The cherry at the end of her Parliament is as pink and smoldering as the moon tonight.

F minus twenty seconds. The damp hug of the sheets wakes me up, so I slither onto Berthe’s cool and untouched side of the bed. The clock calmly warns of impending sunrise. I can
see pale yellow light splashing up the stairwell, and I open my ears wide to the crowded silence
of the house.
I hear some clanging before the screen door suddenly opens and slams shut. Berthe is speaking, and then she is shouting. Her interlocutor stops whispering, growls hotly, then finally bellows with moaning vehemence while she leaves them behind and comes to me upstairs, unsurprised to find me awake. An alarm screams as we rush past our uninvited guest, who flicks and flails limbs that promise the warmest embrace.

F plus thirteen months. It’s my last day in New York. Her only relations have done their best to somberly console me: lung cancer was always lurking, they said. They took most of her personal hospital effects, save for her final book now on my hotel dresser. I walk outside and I’m cold again (looking forward to Australia), flowing along with this totem gripped tightly. There’s a bookstore  on this corner and I set the thing, heavy with secret memories, on one of the carts outside.

The Climb of the Ancient Mariner by Ainsley Katz

Winner of Thunderdome Flash Fiction Contest 2018: Day 1. View the video prompt here.

The Climb of the Ancient Mariner:
        an odyssey from water bottle to potted plant,
or, there and back again by Mr. Carbuncle the Second

Mr. Carbuncle had a lousy day. And by lousy day I mean there wasn’t a single fish to be caught. The ocean was oddly empty and perfectly transparent. Instead of bearing fruits, it upchucked seafoam like a young apprentice after a night on the town.

Eventually Mr. Carbuncle washed up onto some plot of earth, sea-sprayed and righteously salty. His crooked grimace — as if he’d suspended a clothes hanger of heavy garments from his lip — told all there was to tell.

He pulled the water from his whiskers. Pluck, prim, tic-tac-toe.

The old man had a dismal disposition and just loathed being heaved onto terra incognita. It was truly a nuisance. On such days he'd miss the misanthropic glee he felt when, shuffling back to his fisherman’s cottage, townspeople all along the way dispersed as if he were Moses parting the Red Sea.

This particular no woman’s land was sparser than the hair on his head. A single tree was centered upon an infinite plane of dirt. He could no longer even see the sea, so far had it receded.

Because Mr. Carbuncle was too portly and stout to hitch a ride on a seagull — or (as he told himself now) because there were no gulls this far from the ocean— the only way out was down.

Out from his galoshes Mr. Carbuncle retrieved a spade. Fixing his pipe in his clothes-hanger lip, he dug and dug till his arms felt like jelly without the peanut butter glue.

As he dug, he delved into his hole until, suddenly, he found he was digging up rather than down. Out he popped from beneath the surface, to find another single-tree, soil wasteland. Exhausted and enraged he lapsed into a fitful rest, waking to the hands of a giant.

Notice of Eviction by Rosalie Jean Wetzel

"Notice of Eviction" was first published in Quarto's 2017 Print Edition.

  Illustration by Dora O'Neill and Lily Ha

Illustration by Dora O'Neill and Lily Ha

My first memory is of California. My uncle opens the car door to welcome me and I vomit on him. I watch his smile dissipate. My sister splits her knee open on the pavement while running to see my aunt.

I have a lot of very early memories and I have tried, on several occasions, to revisit my timeline and rearrange them, hoping earnestly that somehow something else will surface first. But still, it is this arrival (I remember nothing else of that trip) and my parents’ apologies, my uncle’s patient reassurance, my sisters screams.

After they had removed the sutures from my sister’s knee, they found the wound dotted with small black flecks, where the gravel had lodged itself so deeply into her flesh that the surgeons thought it more harmful to remove them. For some time after our visit to California, I watched her turn translucent next to me in the bathtub and coax the gravel out from her knees. I wanted very badly to collect the tiny fragments, to tuck them neatly under my fingernails and wait for them to hatch into my own precious galaxies but instead I closed my eyes as my father poured water from a cup over my head.

Physicians started using sutures to close wounds four thousand years ago. They say that before they had sutures of the variety we use today, ancient Indian doctors affixed beetles to the edges of wounds, let them sink their pincers in before cutting off their bodies and leaving just their heads to hold the skin closed.

Last night I dreamt I held a gaping hole in my midsection between my teeth in a sort of urgent maternal panic stimulated by the sense of my cells spilling out million by million in streams of everything I had swallowed — him, her, hurt, violet, rose petals, pills. But the real nightmare is: what happens when the skin accidentally fastens itself around something that does not belong? Gravel, for example, or worse — something that cannot be soaked out in Loreal Just for Kids bubble bath. Like you.

Consider this a kind of plea.

I was fourteen the first time I got my heart broken. The next morning, just before the sun rose, I slipped into bed between my parents and felt the space between my cells throb with a kind of hot and percussive vacancy.

Isn’t it funny how there is nothing so dense and opaque as that particular strain of emptiness? Loneliness is when you realize that “vacant” doesn't mean what you once thought it did.

Isn’t it equally funny that there is no sensation to bleeding? You can taste the blood, watch it seep through your sleeves, but there is no precise feeling to the state of bleeding. Your hand goes to the wound, not your consciousness. Only when your child eyes are met directly with reddened fingers do you know that your body is leaking.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if the heart were similarly impaired? I was fourteen for the other first time. He was eighteen. When it was over, right after he reminded me not to tell anyone what we had just done, he tried to discard the condom but it slipped between his fingers and its contents spilled all over his exposed torso, pooling in the divots between his collarbone and his shoulders. Horrified, I looked in the other direction and pretended not to notice.

That year I started weighing myself.

Here is a brief interruption for a fun fact which reads: in the summer of 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed in the Apollo 11 on the surface of the moon. When the two men came home, they alone had left over 100 items on its surface, including a cast golden olive branch, five American flags, two golf balls, a silicon disk with goodwill messages from 73 world leaders, and 96 bags of urine, feces and vomit.

Yes, there are 96 bags of piss and shit on the moon.

Dad drops me off at the Institute of Living in his work clothes. A few hours later I am caught hiding my hummus beneath my lettuce. Dad would be disappointed. I am handed an Ensure. Cory looks up and tells the dietician: “You sure better let her go to the bathroom after giving her

all that.” Dad would be proud I’ve made a friend already, though he would say I need to self-advocate. I stop sipping immediately. “Does Ensure make you shit?” I have just learned that we are not allowed to flush without a staff member checking the toilet first and I cannot imagine anything so undignified — maybe cleaning your own jizz out of your clavicle, but this is a close second. “No,” Cory says, “I just mean you’ll have to piss after drinking all that.” She’s quiet for a second. “But, if it’s anything like SlimFast, yeah it makes you shit.” I mumble, “It’s nothing like SlimFast” as the dietician politely reminds Cory that we don’t use the word “slim” in the dining room.

Cory wants to be a phlebotomist when she gets out of here, which is interesting for a number of reasons.

There are two scars on my right hand, two pale little dots like tadpole eyes or distant moons at the base of my first and third fingers where my knuckles used to scrape my teeth on their way down my throat. But no matter the carrots shooting out my nose or the flecks of blood on the water and saliva on my chin, something festered between my ribs.

Bloodletting goes back at least three thousand years and has only been has only been abrogated as a primary treatment for illness in the last century and a half. I guess it’s natural to replicate the process when your body won’t do it naturally. Do not forget that we still have our autonomous but equally ugly leeching processes.

A leech’s body is made up of 34 segments. It has suckers on both ends of its body and has 32 brains. Because of nervous system similarities, or perhaps the wealth of subject material, they are often used in research on human brain disorders.

Maybe they consumed our disorders and passed them all down through thousands of generations (the longest life span of a leech is ten years) to spit them back up in the laboratory for our studies. Would this be considered self-preservation?

All evening I lay in bed, listening to the distinct silence of my toes making shadows on the wall. In color, these shapes are somewhere between whale song and hunger and imprecise longing and the figures are angular, nebulous sprawled across the armoir. I think how there might be more inside. Angular, nebulous and the color of the word “damp.” Like memory. I want to ask them what about that moment in California was big enough to decide to begin preserving the things flashing before my baby eyes?

Imagine, if you will, a telescope in this room, poised right in front of my window. The shadows shift over it from time to time as it collects dust and stares out at the moon orbiting around me and my toe shadows, with its 96 bags of piss and shit and vomit.

Since today is trash day, this morning I walked the garbage to the end of the driveway and the steam from my coffee rose and tangled with my breath and right there, suspended in the bitterness, was a delicate miniature milky way, and the familiar way it smoldered for an instant before dissolving made me think that maybe you were somewhere in there, dozing between the molecules. Maybe, I have finally breathed you out.

Ginny by Stacey Yu

"He walked with a stutter, like the way Ginny talked. He looked at her sad, small, wary eyes and sat next to her -- not entirely by choice, for the desk beside hers was one of the few vacant ones. Their classmates snickered. He smiled. She shrank."

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