Tag Archives: flash fiction




It’s the last day of february and the last day of flash fiction february at the dictionary project. Thanks for joining us this month and please enjoy our final piece by Alison McCabe.


mezair  n.  Dressage. a movement in which the horse makes a series of short jumps forward while standing on its hind legs.

Airs Above the Ground

Mr. Moore carries his belly in front of him as he heads for Sam. His shirt swells like a young cheek around a lollipop and, if the gray beard and heavy walk didn’t make his sex so obvious, you might ask when the baby was due. He stops directly in front of Sam so the distance between them is close and Sam can smell honey-roasted peanuts on his breath.

“Negotiations in ten,” Mr. Moore says. “You’ll want to get the drip going.”

Sam nods, as always, and follows Mr. Moore across the midway into the tent.

The sword swallower wants decaf. Sam waits for the coffee to brew and looks her way. Her hair is black and the longest he has seen. Her skin is so white it is almost blue. Her fingernails are short, bubblegum pink. She licks her lips with her tongue, split down the middle; each tip is pierced, as are her eyebrows, nose, the dimples of her cheeks, and other places, Sam guesses. On her collarbone is a tiny red apple tattoo and, below it, in script, Eve. Of course it’s unsurprising. Nothing much surprises Sam anymore. They all stand out in the exact same way.

Everyone sits around the table with Mr. Moore at the head. From what Sam can tell, a thin gentleman with an uneven smile is in charge of their crew because he does most of the talking. He talks fast, like everything is dire, and not one word, not even a syllable, can wait. The others don’t seem interested in the conversation. A large woman stands in the corner opposite Sam because the chairs are too small to support the weight of her frame. She is the biggest Sam has ever seen, though he isn’t convinced that customers would be satisfied after dishing out to view such a hefty display. It’s an old act that worked back when Jumbo was just an elephant and not the go-to size for a tub of popcorn, or a corn dog/fried pickle combo. He thinks he would like to remind Mr. Moore that practically everyone is fat these days, so really it’s nothing special, but he doesn’t want to offend the man, thickset as he is. He guesses Mr. Moore can’t afford another misstep; the paint is starting to peel on the welcome sign, and one more failed investment might be enough to topple the whole thing down.

Sam walks over to where Mr. Moore sits. “I’d drive a hard bargain with this one,” Sam whispers into his knobby ear—the one part of the man that’s small, baby-like even. On the lobe are short, blonde hairs.

“I’ll have sugar with mine, Sam,” Mr. Moore says.

“What I’m saying is we need to be cautious.”

Mr. Moore swats Sam away. The back of his hand brushes Sam’s chin. “I know what I need to be,” he says. “We don’t need to be anything.” He coughs into the top of his fist, smiles at the thin man, their spokesman. “Excuse me,” Mr. Moore says. “Now how many freaks you got?”

“You mean real ones?”

Mr. Moore nods.

“We have Sparky.” The thin man puts his hand on the shoulder of the body beside him. It’s so covered with hair you’d have trouble finding the person beneath or even the creases in his face. Except for small blue shorts, the man is exposed. “Rest assured, he rides a horse too, dressage and everything. You want capriole? You got it. You want levade? Mezair? Because you know how it is nowadays putting someone like Sparky on display with no other selling point. Everybody’s gone sensitive.”

“And the others?”

“They all got selling points. We swallow swords, eat light-bulbs, read frickin’ minds.”

“I mean where are they?”

“You’re looking at them.”

“That’s it?”

“They’re outstanding, really.”

Excluding the two businessmen, there is only the sword swallower, the large woman, Sparky, and a young man with thick, black eyebrows in an orange turban. Sam brings them coffee, already poured into mugs. He makes two trips because they are too hot to cradle in his arms all at once.

“You salaried?” Mr. Moore asks.

“Work off commission.” The thin man pauses. “Barbara gets double, though. We all agreed.” He looks up at the fat lady.

“Double?” Mr. Moore widens his eyes. “Christ, what for?”

The thin man stares at Mr. Moore and shakes his head. “We decided. We all just agreed.” He takes a pen out of his shirt pocket,  scribbles something down and passes it to Mr. Moore, under the table. Sam hovers beside him. getting stomach stapled, it says. has to happen soon.

Mr. Moore crumples the napkin and glances up at Barbara. Her cheeks and neck turn red. He lowers his head and sighs. “Okay,” he says. “Thing is you haven’t got enough for an entire act. We need our ten in one.”

“Those have been dead for God knows how long. Nobody knows what to expect anymore.”

“Well, maybe five is enough, not four though.”

“You haven’t seen what these kids can do. Sparky doing dressage, I’m telling you. We’re talking capriole, we’re talking frickin’ mezair.”

“I grew up half a mile from this boardwalk,” Mr. Moore says, “in a studio above a bar, on a blowup mattress, with three women who all claimed to be my mother. And you’re telling me there’s something I haven’t seen. I’d like to know what that is.” He shakes his head and his eyes land on Sam, who’s leaning now against a filing cabinet in the corner. Mr. Moore stares at him for a moment, mouth shut tight until his lips disappear. “Be a doll, Sam” he says, “And bring us that bundt cake. Top shelf in the fridge.”







authorphotoBorn and raised in New Jersey, Alison McCabe lives and writes in Tucson. She teaches English at the University of Arizona where, in 2010, Alison received her MFA in Fiction. She is currently at work on a novel.

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crown by Cristina Cleveland


Day 30 of the 30 days, 30 words challenge.



Well, here it is! We have arrived at the 30th day of the 30 days, 30 words challenge at the dictionary project. This project has been a valuable teacher. I have learned that I can make time and space—more than I would have imagined—for writing each day. I have learned to make something and then let it go. I have learned a healthy dose of humility for when I had to send pieces out that felt far from ready from public consumption, and I have experienced tremendous gratitude for those of you who have read and supported me—by reading, by commenting, by writing your own pieces over this time. Most of all, I have continued to learn something this project has already taught me, which is to value happenstance and constraints, to trust the process, to engage in inquiry and to follow curiosities. I extend my deepest gratitude for being a part of this experience.




May·pole  (ˈmā-ˌpōl),  n.  (often l.c.) a high pole, decorated with flowers and ribbons, around which revelers dance or engage in sports during May Day celebrations. [MAY + POLE]




The last thing she wanted to do was dance around a ridiculous pole with a ridiculous piece of ribbon. Seriously, she could not think of one other thing she would like to do less. Okay, maybe she could: it was to wear some sort of German bustier and skirt contraption and a flower wreath on her head while she danced around a ridiculous pole with a ridiculous piece of ribbon. Maribel had not signed up for this. She wanted to go to a normal school, you know, one where kids made out in the boiler room and ignored their teachers. The kind where being anti-social was cool and being on student council was not. The kind where this kind of community-building-spring-ritual-dealie would be a joke. But this was not that kind of school. Her classmates seemed to have emerged from some other planet—a planet where wearing wreaths made of plastic flowers from Michael’s on your head was some sort of boon and where dancing around a giant phallus with a piece of ribbon was a damn good time.


“Maribel, get over here,” Ms. Dorber called from across the lawn. She was beaming and holding out a piece of marigold ribbon in Maribel’s direction. Maribel shifted her gaze and pretended she didn’t hear. That didn’t work. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Ms. Dorber coming straight towards her. She was still smiling.


“Maribel, didn’t you hear me? It’s time for the Maypole dance.”


“Um, don’t you think I could just sit this one out? I’m not really feeling very springy today. I could just cheer everyone on.”


“Everyone participates,” Ms. Dorber said.


So Maribel followed her over to the Maypole to join her classmates. She picked the marigold ribbon up from the dewed grass.


The music began. It was some jaunty orchestral shit that she bet one of the teachers had transferred from cassette. Geezers. She had practiced for this, they all had. They had been weaving in and out and around the Maypole during gym class all this week, hardly physical education if you asked her. No one had.


Now it was time for the real deal. She tried to be as small as possible as she weaved in and around her classmates. She was not accustomed to being in the spotlight and she didn’t like it. Every time she looked up, this boy from her biology class James was looking at her. He gave her a smile that made her uncomfortable, as if the two of them shared a secret. They had never spoken. Well, once. He had asked her to borrow a pen one day.


There was no time to ask him to stop being such a creeper or to say anything at all because all the sophomores were weaving in and out and in and out with their ribbons. Every time she went around again, though, there he was, gangly frame and smirky smile. But the last time she passed him, he whispered something to her. The music had kicked up—violins and flutes and all that—and she didn’t quite catch it.


It felt like this song was going to go on forever. Spring would turn to fall and fall to winter and they would still be here, arms frozen solid, circling and circling around. The teachers looked on with the expressions of teachers who like to see young people applying themselves. Suddenly, Maribel felt her ribbon slacken and she looked up. The pole was descending quickly to the ground and suddenly it was a mess of arms and legs and torsos and heads and ribbons as people scattered, getting out of the way of the giant striped pole. And like that, it was over. The pole lay on the ground surrounded by severed flowers and tangled ribbons. Amidst the wreckage, students were strewn all over the lawn, collecting their breath. Teachers were frantic, running around to make sure everyone was okay. Maribel scanned the crowd and spotted James standing off to the corner. She caught him smiling as he looked down at the ground. It was just an instant, that slight upward turn before his face neutralized. But that instant gave her hope. Maybe she was not alone.




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Here we are, the last day of February and our last post for flash fiction february 2013. Thanks so much to Jennifer Holland, our last contributor, for her piece on breechblock. Thanks go also to the rest of our writers who joined us in writing flash fiction this month: Jennifer Rice Epstein, Michael Sheehan,  Mary Woo, and Katherine Hunt! Stay tuned for more bibliomancy and more writing and more flash fiction in 2014.



breech·block   (ˈbrēch-ˌbläk),  n.  the steel part of a breech-loading gun which when open permits loading and when closed receives the force of the combustion of the charge.


It started out as a game, where I would hide parts of my father’s rifle around the house on the nights he got drunk. The rifle was this old 1875 Martini Henry he shot off when the woodpeckers came around the roof. Most of the parts I stole were small: a split pin here, a muzzle cover there. Whatever I could manage to disassemble while he listened to his radio in the garage or argued with my mother in another room. My father was never what you would call mild-mannered, except for when he had a hangover and it was just easier to play along, lifting up sofa cushions and shaking out books while I said “Hot” or “Cold.”


By the time I reached middle school, the drinking got to a point where he didn’t get hangovers anymore. He and my mom were pretty much separated by then, though my mom still wore her wedding ring and slept on one side of the bed. My father showed up at the house occasionally, like a failed actor reprising the role that made him a star. I missed him while he was gone, but hated him when he came back. Once, he stayed away for almost two months, and I took the whole rifle apart, distributing the parts in all the places I was sure he would never think to look. I knew if I told him what I’d done he would get angry, so the next time I saw him, I had my answer all prepared. “You took it with you last time you left.” He looked at me for a very long time, searching his mind for this memory that did not exist. Finally, he just turned to the window to gaze upon my mom, who was whistling to herself as she pulled socks and hand towels from the clothesline. That was one of the last times I heard her whistle, before he stopped showing up for good.


Years later, my mom came across an old rifle part inside a board game that smelled of decomposing cardboard. The house was up for sale and we were packing up her things. “Look,” she said, holding it up. There were many things she was already starting to forget, I didn’t think it would mean much when I said it was a breechblock. “I know,” she laughed, and I caught a sudden glimpse of little silver fillings in her teeth, glinting like buried treasure from some half-remembered world.




HollandPhotoJennifer Holland is currently a graduate student in the School of Information Resources & Library Science at the University or Arizona. She lives in Tucson.

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Train, NYC, Lisa O'Neill

Train, NYC, Lisa O’Neill


For our fourth post this flash fiction february, we are pleased to share with you this piece by writer Katherine Hunt on expediency.


ex·pe·di·en·cy   (dē-ən(t)-sē),   n.  1. the quality or state of being expedient; suitability for a given purpose; appropriateness to the conditions.  2.  the doing or consideration of what is of selfish use or advantage rather than what is right or just; self-interest.


I saw the man on the subway. I had been pregnant nearly three months and sat with my head in my hands, feeling nauseous and trying not to think about the day ahead. That week I’d started a new episode of the TV show I produced on, a documentary series on homicide investigations. I had hours of crime scene footage to watch down. But crime scenes had begun to depress me. Also, I wasn’t sure I wanted a child. Now a woman said, It’s not your private candyland. At least that’s what I thought I heard. I glanced up but I couldn’t tell who had said it.

This is when I noticed the man, a tall man in a brown suit and the kind of dress shoes that look leather but cost nineteen dollars. He stood by the doors with his back turned so I couldn’t see his face. His hands kept me looking, though. He had nice hands, by which I mean large. I stared at them, thinking, I could just walk up and ask him to fuck me. It was the kind of thought I often had in those days: I could leave my life for another. This other life existed only in my mind but was actually more my own. I could step into it in one clean movement. Erase my husband. Erase the pregnancy. I could do it now, I thought. Then the man turned toward me and I recognized him as the murder suspect from an episode I’d worked on.

It didn’t make sense. The guy, Anton James, had shot a rival drug dealer in Dallas. He’d been arrested and charged with capital murder. Yet here we were on the A train, lurching into Manhattan. I stared at his long, sad-looking face. The dark, slow eyes. The rough skin along the jawline. I’d spent hours watching that face on video monitors. He glanced at me and I felt a thrill of terror, like in a dream when the monster struggles out of the black woods or the chasm, the black, unconscious pit.

I looked away. But when he got off the train, I followed him. We walked out into a hot, bright morning. Commuters rivered the sidewalks but the man’s height made him easy to track. Within three blocks, he went into a bank. I waited for him to come out. Minutes passed. Finally, I looked inside. He stood behind the bulletproof glass, one in a line of tellers.

I went in and waited in line, feeling increasingly nauseated and anxious. When I approached his window, he nodded. I saw you on the A, he said. He had the type of voice I’d heard in the streets my whole life, a flat voice, with an edge. Was it Anton’s voice? I couldn’t be sure. His nameplate, I noticed, was blank.

I know you from Dallas, I said.

You mixing me up with someone.


What can I help you with?

Nothing, I said and tried to smile. I just thought I knew you.

He nodded again and looked down along my body. For an instant, I felt he saw inside me, through to whatever it was fighting its way along in there. If he could see the fetus, I knew he would feel nothing for it. And in that cold moment, I realized how it might be to be my own child. You could come back later, if you want, he said.

All right, I said. All right.

When I work up the courage to tell this story, people ask if I went back. They ask if I had sex with him. But that wasn’t ever really the point. Though I did go back. He wasn’t there. Another bank employee said he’d left for the day.

So what kind of hours does he work? I asked.

Oh, he’s on his way out, she said. Whatever that meant.

I hadn’t liked working on the Anton James case. The killing had been captured on surveillance video. And there was something awful about watching that video. The cold eye of the camera became my own eye. I looked down on a harshly lit parking lot, everything black or gray, like the inside of a metal can. Anton leaned against the side of the store, smoking. He waited like that for three hours. I wondered what he could be thinking about. Because as soon as his victim approached, Anton pulled the gun. It was as if he’d never questioned his original decision, the one he later voiced to detectives. I said I’d get that motherfucker. So I did.

I saw the man another time, several weeks later. I’d left work with my editor. We started toward the train in a greenish evening light and I noticed the man crossing the street ahead. That’s him, I told her, pointing. The dude that look like Anton.

He reached the end of the block and vanished around the corner.

Come on, I said. Let’s catch him up.

I ran and she clomped after me, saying, Are you crazy?

He couldn’t have been Anton James. He must have been someone else. And yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was Anton. Or that he was a dream Anton was having about his own life.

We reached the corner and I spotted him again, walking with his head up and at a comfortable pace, as if he was any other person.


MYFACE     Katherine Hunt lives in Brooklyn.

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identical twins

photo by E.J. Bellocq

photo by E.J. Bellocq


Welcome to our third installation for this year’s flash fiction february at the dictionary project. We are delighted to share with you this piece by Mary Woo, writing on twins. Enjoy!


identical twins,  a pair of twins who were developed from a single fertilized ovum: they are always of the same sex and show great similarity in physical appearance.


My sister, Coco, she likes them big. She likes an arm she can swing on. She likes stomachs that spill over waistbands like oversized ice cream cones. She likes big, broad shoulders with chunks of skin to hold onto.

Me, I like them small. I don’t like to feel threatened. I want to know that I can toss them across the room if need be.

In this way, we are compatible. She gets what she wants; I give her what I don’t want. But most of the time, we take what we get.

It’s funny. I know that you, and so many others, wonder about us, about this lifestyle and what damage could have possibly led to it. What loss. What depravity. An absent father? A crazy mother? I loved my mother very much, and never felt such shame as when she found us here. But what do you expect, raising two daughters and never teaching them anything about life? But I don’t want to talk about that.

What about the ones who come here? What about their damage, their sin? I don’t know why the giver, and not the taker, is always the wicked one.

Me, I fall in love all the time. Coco has been in love only once. He was a Parisian, just her type, smug and pretty. She saw him every day for two weeks, and then he disappeared. She cried and cried until I told her we were running out of money and there was no time for tears. What did she expect? Sometimes she is so…

Well, anyway. Of course we laugh! A lot, in fact. What, you think we got into this line of business for serious academic pursuit? We make fun of all the men who come here. They don’t know, they think we moan and groan and mean it. You’d be surprised how many different sizes and shapes—


The Parisian, he came back one fall. I was the only one here; Coco had taken a daytrip to Brussels. He waved at me through the window, held up a rose. When I finally realized who it was, I knew he was mistaking me for my sister.

I couldn’t let her go through that again.

“Coco, my love!” he said to me, cupping my cheeks, his eyes watering. He grasped me to his chest.

I took him into Coco’s room, which felt like a greater betrayal. Coco’s very particular about her stuff. She has dolls and posters and perfume bottles carefully curated from antique stores. She would be angry to know that I had been among her precious things. These are the things that belong only to her.

Don’t look at me like that, like I am some kind of monster. I was only trying to protect her. Coco’s heart has always been more fragile than mine. Even at birth, she spent two extra days in the hospital because her heart was not pumping enough blood.

The Parisian, he took me, saying over and over, “Coco, I missed you,” and in that moment I became Coco, not Anna, not the strong one, the first twin. I was weak and loved.

And then, he was gone again, just like I knew he would be, and I was pleased that I had saved Coco another lifetime of grief.

Well, it wasn’t long before I realized I was carrying the child of this man.

Yes, I’m usually very careful! But it was passionate, and we were in love. I mean, they were. Call it, getting lost in the moment. Or God’s will.

I knew I wasn’t fit to be a mother. My life revolving around someone else’s? Never. I couldn’t do it.

I had to tell Coco the truth, and we agreed Coco should raise the child as its mother.

The months passed and Coco took on more work as my stomach grew to repulsive sizes.

Was she mad? I don’t know. Coco is incapable of true anger. And with twins, well, it is so hard. Because we need each so badly, you see. Because we are parts of the same. Something changed, though. Our thoughts did not overlap as much, and our laughs were fewer.

The child was born, and in this way, Coco became a mother, and I became an aunt, and we were no longer mirrors of each other, but an ungainly triangle, feeble and diluted.

When the Parisian came back, she presented the child to him, and told him he was the father. He began sending money, and she would send him pictures. He came to visit for a few days every year, and for a few days, they were a family, whole, and I was on the outside, looking through the window of their happiness.

One day, they disappeared. Coco, child, father. She didn’t even leave a note.

Sorry, I only cry because that is the most hurtful part. No note, no word. What, did she think I would try to follow her into her ordinary, tedious life?

I suppose I am happy for her. In a way, I am with her, still. You see, we weren’t exactly identical. I’ve always had this birthmark, right here, next to my eye. And when the child was born, there it was. Same birthmark, same spot.

Every time Coco looks at the child, she will see me, and that makes me happy.

Well, there you are. What was it you asked?

I recognize you. Yes, you were here something like twenty years ago. We had a fun time, no? You were so smug back then, ordering us around, throwing dollars at us like we were circus monkeys. Now look at you. Old and gray and sad. You look like you’ve learned how life can toss things back in your face. You come here, curious. I hope that I’ve given you a good story. Not the one you were expecting, I suppose.

That is all. Now I must work. You can show yourself out, I’m sure.



pic of MaryMary Woo works as a freelance writer in Washington, DC, where she lives with her husband and dog. This story was inspired by the Fokken sisters, twins and Amsterdam’s oldest prostitutes.

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Today is our first guest post for flash fiction february, crafted by talented writer Jennifer Rice Epstein! You can check out some more about her writing at her food blog Meals, Squared.


con·tig·u·ous (kənˈtigyo͞oəs),  adj.  [L. contiguous, bordering upon  <  base of contigere, to touch upon, border upon; see CONTIGENT],  1.  in physical contact; touching  2.  near; adjoining.  –SYN. see adjacent.


The waiting room was smaller than her own small living room. There she sat, in an uncomfortable chair, her hands folded across the knitting in her lap. A hobby she’d tried, in recent months, to develop. Her husband, Jimmy, sat next to her. He’d taken the day off work to drive her here; she couldn’t figure out if he was annoyed about it.


She looked up at him, and he looked over to her and smiled. I’m nervous, she whispered. It’s just something in the air, he said. It’s the newness. She began to cough; he patted her hand and stood up, walked toward the reception desk.


Her name was Beth, and she was 21, a newlywed, a new college dropout. At night, she sat up, coughing, while her husband slept. He would be in their room, she on the sofa. Her husband slept through her coughing fits, even when they lasted several minutes, even when she was in bed with him. He slept through everything—maybe a result of his mission to Samoa, where packs of dogs roamed the street outside his house at night, hunting and howling. Maybe that was just how men slept.


Jimmy returned with a glass of water. She took it gratefully. He stood beside her. I need some fresh air, he said. I’ll come right back. I’ll be waiting right here when you get out. He walked away, and she wondered where to look. An old man sitting across from her caught her eye and smiled. She looked at the half-knit blanket in her lap.


She was 21 and lived in a suburb at the edge of Chicago suburbs. Behind their little house was a cornfield, but they were not farmers. Her husband worked at the Chicago Board of Trade. He liked to say he looked no further than his own window to see what his day at work would be like. He joked, but she knew his job was difficult, though she knew not, exactly, what he did.


Her husband thought the cough was allergies. At first, they both thought the cough was from allergies, something in the Midwestern air, something in the house. It had started just a few weeks after they’d moved in. At first, she was only a little put off by it, but he was very worried. They found a doctor in town, who said she was allergic to dust. The doctor’s confirmation put her husband at ease. Now, it was her turn to worry. The cough persisted, no matter how much she cleaned, whether she opened or closed windows, whether she did her shopping or stayed home. Contrary to her imagined married self, the coughing fits kept her from being a gracious host or charming guest. At parties, she sipped water and tried to speak as little as possible. In sacrament, she sat next to the door and, more often than not, missed part of the service.


In the waiting room, another Bethany was called, a woman in every way her opposite—older, darker, happier, pregnant. Perhaps she’d be that Bethany soon enough. She coughed into a handkerchief dotted with blood. This was new; it was the blood that prompted her to seek a second opinion. She was grateful in that moment that Jimmy had gone outside; he didn’t know. It was probably dust, allergies, the air. She’d probably strained something with her coughing.


She was a newlywed 2,000 miles from home. It was October; she had been out of school for five months. Jimmy was her high school sweetheart, a boy she met at a church dance, an Eagle Scout, descended from pioneers. She was still in high school when he left for his mission. Time stood still the first summer he was gone, but then she started her college studies, and that, with church, kept her mind occupied. In her sophomore year, he proposed by mail from Samoa. She remembered opening the letter, postmarked before Christmas, in February. This was his Christmas present to her and his requested gift from her. That’s what the letter said. She had waited several days to answer him, so that her reply would be postmarked on Valentine’s Day. It had all been very romantic. When Jimmy came home and got the job offer at CBOT, they decided to be married right away. She had a year of college left in Reno, but they did not want to be apart another year. At the time, she hadn’t minded the thought of moving. Illinois was just another adventure.


The nurse called her to the back and weighed and measured her. She took her temperature and sent her to the bathroom for a urine sample. When Beth returned to the examination room, it was empty. She sat on the chair, then on the examination table. She wasn’t sure where to sit.


The temple closest to their home had been in Salt Lake, seven hours from Reno by car, but they made the drive for their wedding. She remembered arriving at Temple Square, her own Vatican City, dress and hat and sensible shoes, feeling reverent and sophisticated. The families went sight-seeing, and, as she and Jimmy strode arm-in-arm past bronze statues of Joseph Smith and the Handcart Pioneers, she felt a wash of well-being. Everything here made sense. The day after they arrived, they married and were sealed. The reception was a luncheon with their families, and the next day she said good-bye to her parents. Their honeymoon was the drive to Chicago, where her husband had already leased the house.


It was hard to be so far away from her mother and sister in this cold, flat place that was making her sick. But she had Jimmy. She began to cough and reached for her handbag, but it wasn’t there. She’d left it, along with her coat, on a chair in the waiting room. She coughed, searching the room for a tissue. She found, instead, the faucet and drank from it eagerly, hoping it could soothe her throat. She drank and thought about her impeccably clean house, her husband’s letters, her fine, clear wedding day, and her hastily abandoned belongings safe on the chair, waiting for her. It was nearly enough to calm her.


jenriceepsteinJennifer Rice Epstein lives with her husband and two young sons in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @jriceepstein.

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flash fiction february


IMG_8758 IMG_9594 IMG_6820


Well, it’s February. Month of groundhogs. Month of valentines. Month of Mardi Gras. Month of celebrating Black History. Month of (for those who don’t happen to live in the Southwest) bitter cold subzero temperatures. Apparently today, in addition to what would be the 100th birthday of the amazing Rosa Parks, is “Create a Vacuum Day” and “Thank a Mailman Day.”


And by now, you should know what February means at the dictionary project:


Flash. Fiction. February.


All month, we will be featuring original flash fiction pieces inspired by bibliomanced dictionary project words and composed by guest writers of the fiction persuasion.


Stay tuned!

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con·vex·o-con·cave (kuhn-vek-soh-kon-keyv), adj.  1. having one convex side and one concave side.  2. in optics, designating a lens whose convex face has a greater degree of curvature than its concave face, so that the lens is thickest in the middle.

Writer Rae Pilarski concludes this  flash fiction february with her flash fiction piece on con·vex·o-con·cave. Thanks to all our writers and all you readers for participating. Keep posted for more happenings here at the dictionary project.



He remembers his daughter when she was young. She looked like her mother then, so serious. When she came home with her first spider, big as the fist it was clenched in, legs sticking out between pink fingers, she brought it to him like an offering, setting it on the dirty knee of his jeans. As she got older, she spent her small weekly allowance on Mason jars in which to place her growing collection.  He built shelves to house them and helped her poke holes in the lids after she opened her finger with a paring knife. He remembers she hadn’t cried, just watched the drops of blood bloom at her feet. He is still amazed at how smoothly the phrase subesophageal ganglion passed through her preadolescent lips. When she was about ten, he told her about ants and magnifying glasses. He had described the way ants smell as they burn under the concentrated spot of sunlight. She had run away from him then, slamming the door to her bedroom behind her hard enough to set the jars along the wall rattling. He wonders now if he should have detected a pattern much earlier.

(Here he thinks about the first boy she brought home at fifteen, who eyed her as if already masturbating to her memory. Should he have known then?)

What he had always found most interesting about his daughter’s spiders was the fact that most were somehow able to spin their webs in their new habitats, unhindered by the smooth curve of the glass. One in particular spent most of its time clinging to the underside of the lid so that he had to turn the jar over in order to catch a glimpse of it. After his daughter left a second time, he had shaken that jar until the spider dropped to the bottom, its long legs curling into itself.

He can only remember his daughter when she was young. He falls into his easy chair. He opens another beer. He turns on the news. He searches for her mother’s face.



Rae Pilarski currently lives in downtown Tucson and attends the University of Arizona.

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en·force (enˈfôrs), v.t.  [ENFORCED, ENFORCING], [ME, enforcen;  OFr. enforcer, enforcier; LL. Infortiare < L. in, in + fortis, strong], 1. to give force to; urge: as, he enforced his argument by analogies. 2. to force; compel. 3. to impose by force as, don’t enforce your will on the child. 4. to compel observance (of a law, etc.).

For enforce, the third word of flash fiction february, we have guest flash fiction pieces by writers Beth Alvarado and Julia Gordon (respectively). Read on and enjoy.


And maybe you were told not to raise your voice, as in don’t raise your voice to me, young lady. You were sitting in the classroom looking out the basement window.  You could see the shoes and pants and bare legs of others walking by on their way to lunch.  You could smell them sneaking cigarettes and the smoke smelled a little like grilled cheese sandwiches and made you hungry.  Don’t tell me you wrote this yourself, and she handed you the sheet of notebook paper with an F circled in red at the top.  Her fingernails were also red.  And maybe you thought red, the color of shame, as in the Scarlet Letter, you supposed, that made sense, but it wasn’t your shame. You crumpled up the piece of paper with the red F and then left it behind in the wastebasket.  You walked out of the room.  There, you thought, keep it, the evidence of your own small mind.

Maybe later you were told you didn’t have a voice, as in this writing is too feminine, too flowery, it will never have any power. You were sitting in his small office in the university, again in a basement.  You were wearing a yellow dress, you were barefoot because it was the 1970’s, and he was smoking, his fingers stained with nicotine, which is another kind of yellow. There is, you thought, no evidence, and so you went home and wrote about yellow, which is when you remembered fear:  the older neighbor boy:  the round aluminum trailer.  You were six, then, when he tried to undress you and fear flooded up from your gut into your mind, making you lightheaded.  But what you remember most is rising up out of your body and speaking, the slap of the trailer door as you left that place behind.

Much later, when you were a mother, you wanted your daughter’s voice to rise up out of her body.  When she was an infant and you held her over your shoulder, walking her up and down the hall, your bare feet on the cold tile floor, her body warm and damp from sleep, you sang to her and she sang back, a breathy humming in your ear. When she was in kindergarten, you bought her a red dress with tiny yellow giraffes; she wore it with her brother’s old cowboy boots.  She put too many barrettes in her hair.  When strangers talked to her, she hid behind you.  She is shy, you explained, but it seemed wrong, as if to blame her for their transgression, and so you learned to say what felt more true: she has been taught not to speak to strangers.  Still, you wanted her to find her own voice, you did, and so when she grew up, as daughters do, and wanted to kiss boys and to talk back to you, you had to listen, just listen, even when the words were knocking around in your own chest and catching in your throat.



Beth Alvarado’s Anthropologies, A Family Memoir, is part of the Sightline Series in Literary Nonfiction from the University of Iowa Press (2011).  Her story collection, Not a Matter of Love, won the Many Voices Prize, which honors work that has “a strong sense of place and speaks to our troubled times with empathy and aesthetic courage.”  Other recent work has appeared in Nimrod, Sonora Review, and Western Humanities Review. She is the fiction editor of Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts and teaches at the University of Arizona.






Hug, Hug


Once, Lara had the most awkward hug in the world.  Other people have had awkward hugs.  You have had awkward hugs.  Surely Lara’s awkward hug wasn’t the most awkward hug in the world.  But it was.  Lara’s hug was with Kevin, who found the hug to be uncomfortable too, even if he didn’t think, at the time, that it was the most awkward hug in the world (which it was). Later he would realize it was, but he would not wonder why.  It was just one of those things.  Many things were just one of those things.

Lara wondered why.  Lara wondered how, of all the hugs in the world, did she manage to have the most awkward one? Lara thought and thought about that hug. She wondered if it was because the hug was on the corner, and there were people watching, but Lara had had lots of corner-hugs and none of them were the most awkward hug in the world – except her corner hug with Kevin. She wondered if it was because Kevin’s elbow had touched the side of her breast at the start of the hug, but Lara had had that happen many times before, ever since she got breasts, and none of those breast-touch hugs were the most awkward hug in the world – except her breast-touch hug with Kevin.  She wondered if it was because she had a belly full of food, but that wasn’t it, either.

It was not the most awkward hug because she had two drinks.

It was not because it was 2 o’clock in the afternoon.

It was not because it did not end in a kiss.

It was not because it was Wednesday.

It was not because her hat was ugly.

It was not because her thumbs ached.

Lara started to wonder if it was the most awkward hug in the world because of a person in the hug. Lara started to wonder if it was because Kevin was in the hug.  Lara thought that might be it.  She started to wonder why that would be. Kevin was the man who said “sit, sit,” and Lara sat. Kevin was the man who said “write, write,” and Lara wrote.  Kevin was the man who said “drink, drink,” and Lara drank. Kevin was the man who said “suck, suck” and Lara sucked. Kevin was the man who said “snort, snort” and Lara snorted. Kevin was the man who said “cry, cry” and Lara cried.  But Lara was the one who said “hug, hug.” And that was why.



Julia R. Gordon is a writer with over ten years of experience in the non-profit sector as well as a background in government and political media, fundraising, and message development. Since 1998 she has worked as a writing consultant; currently Julia works at the University of Arizona and Raise the Bar LLC, and serves on the Board of Directors for Casa Libre en la Solana, a Tucson, AZ-based literary arts organization. She also writes for The Skein, an online blog she created to explore politics, government, society, and interpersonal relationships through language and the written word. Julia was born and raised in downstate New York, and made her home in Brooklyn for a decade, prior to relocating to Tucson in 2009.  She is a graduate of Cornell University.

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cells in dish replicate schizophrenic brain


schiz·o·phre·ni·a (skitsəˈfrēnēə), n. [Mod. L. < schizo- + Gr. Phren, the mind] a mental disorder characterized by indifference, withdrawal, hallucinations, and delusions of persecution and omnipotence, often with unimpaired intelligence: a more inclusive term than demtnia praecox, avoiding the implications of age and deterioration.

For the second word this flash fiction february, we are honored to have pieces authored by two writers: Elizabeth Frankie Rollins (first) and Rebecca Iosca (second).



(In French, “aliéné” Means Mad)

Eloise couldn’t say.  The teachers asked.  The classrooms felt immense.  The teachers and the students seemed like giants moving around her.  In her French class, Eloise stared at a worksheet in front of her and the accents on the words looked like eyebrows.  She couldn’t read one French word, although she knew she used to be able to read some of them.  Now they looked like simple black marks.  She could barely fit the French words the teacher spoke into her head.  They were too big.  She wanted to put her hands over her ears, but she didn’t.  This would make them ask her more questions.

She didn’t want to think about it.

At lunch, she received her tray of macaroni, red jello square, and paper milk container, but she couldn’t remember where she usually sat.  She chose a table with girls.  As soon as she sat, as soon as they began ignoring her, she remembered that this wasn’t her usual table.  She’d only been gone a couple of weeks, but couldn’t remember things.  Even the air felt too big.  It hurt her ears.

There had been a lot of screaming.  But no, she didn’t want to think about it.

In science, they stood over plastic tubes and looked at liquids.  Her paper, where she was supposed to fill in the blanks with numbers, remained blank.  She didn’t even look at other students’ papers to fill hers in.  She stood at the table and stared at what they did, but she couldn’t put anything in the white blanks on her paper.

There had been a lot of messes. She hadn’t cleaned them up.  No one had.  Everything got sticky.

The Vice Principal came to check on her in the homeroom at the end of the day.  The Vice Principal’s first name was Barbara.  Eloise read this on the nametag, but she couldn’t pay attention to the last name.  Barbara the Vice Principal crouched in front of Eloise and spoke.  Her breath smelled like coffee and bologna.  Eloise was sick of breath.

There had been a lot of strong breath: whiskey breath, wine breath, stale breath, weeping breath, smoking breath, screaming breath.

Barbara the Vice Principal said something about Eloise’s mother.   Eloise stared at her.  She felt the air swallow her up, as if she was shrinking, as if her head was folding down on itself.  She stared at Barbara the Vice Principal, who said, “I can understand if you aren’t ready to talk about your mother yet, but I want you to know if you want to talk about it with me, any time, you can.”

There had been a lot of talk about things Eloise didn’t understand.  Real estate, avocado growers, pantyhose, poisoned water, why people should learn French, why no one should have telephones, what good girls did, who was a really great singer, and people out to get you.

When Barbara the Vice Principal asked, “Eloise, are you listening?”  Eloise couldn’t say.

The dinner table at the Gershens was set with plastic tablemats picturing strawberries with legs.  Folded paper napkins sat on the mats, and forks and knives on top of the napkins.  It was only Eloise and Mr. Gershen and Mrs. Gershen at the table.  They didn’t have children. There was meatloaf and orange macaroni and cheese and a very big piece of broccoli on Eloise’s plate. Eloise ate some of everything. She knew that you had to plan meatloaf.  You had to cook it in the oven.  She knew it wasn’t easy, she knew that cooking wasn’t easy.  She understood that some things weren’t easy and you shouldn’t ask for them.  But she hadn’t asked for this and she liked it.

There had been food, but usually it was “craving” food.  Craving food came in greasy paper wrappers or sticky sweet cellophane.  In cardboard boxes or styrofoam bowls.  If you didn’t eat it fast, you weren’t really craving it, and you shouldn’t take it from the people who were craving it.

There had been a lot of smoking and the ashtrays got really full and spilled onto the table or counter.  There were a lot of ashes on the floor, too, from cigarettes being waved around.  Eloise washed her feet sometimes, when they turned black on the bottoms.

There had been crying and apologies and yelling and then the longest silence.  It was the longest silence that sent Eloise to the neighbors and then the police came, and an ambulance, and Eloise had not even gotten to say “good morning,” or “good bye” and now she was living at the Gershens and she’d gone back to school as if nothing had happened but everything had happened and she hadn’t even said “good bye” and now she had to go to French class where nothing made any sense at all, though everyone else pretended like it did.

Eloise took the clean dishtowel with smiling kettles and teacups and wiped the plates that Mrs. Gershen handed her.  She wiped them dry, around and around and around.  Mrs. Gershen took them from her and placed them neatly in the cabinet.  Click. Click.

Mrs. Gershen turned and looked down at her and said that there had been a call from the hospital where they were keeping her mother for observation, but Eloise had not even said “good morning” or “good bye,” so she stared hard at the framed needlepoint on the wall which said Gershen in fancy letters, circled by mice and cheese and mustard pots.   The mustard pots were white with red stripes around the rims.  She nodded when Mrs. Gershen stopped talking and handed back the kettle towel.

When Mrs. Gershen asked, “Eloise, we all want to help you, you know that, don’t you?”  Eloise couldn’t say.



Elizabeth Frankie Rollins has published work in Conjunctions, Green Mountains Review, Trickhouse, The New England Review, and The Cincinnati Review, among others.  An excerpt from her novel, Origin, will soon appear in Drunken Boat. Author of The Sin Eater, Corvid Press, she’s previously received a New Jersey Prose Fellowship and a Special Mention in the Pushcart Prize Anthology. She teaches writing at Pima Community College and the University of Arizona Poetry Center.  Installments of Origin and short fiction can be found here:  www.madamekaramazov.com



cells in dish replicate schizophrenic brain

Rosemary, in LA I became you. Some memory of the way you rode the bus away from home, from your father really, who scared you so badly you hid under the table. The first time they thought something was wrong it wasn’t because you were scared (they both knew he could be scary even though they never admitted it to you), but because you were meowing, quietly at first and then with more feeling, crouched under the table.  You were twelve. Did he tell you then to become an actress because you were being so dramatic?  I don’t know if he ever hit you, but I know you tried to snap a woman’s neck once and almost succeeded.  You walked like you were still 300 pounds, but you’d lost weight and all of your teeth.  Or maybe it’s more true to say that when you’d lost most of them, the rest were pulled. It was the only service covered by your dental plan by then.

No wonder you were angry.  The side effects of how you had to live would be enough to make me angry, but to think directly of the main axes of truth in your life. Or if not truth, some version of mundane reality.  Locked up in a building that smelled of far-gone yesterdays and surrounded by paint shades too dark to catch the little northwestern light that landed in your room.  The one chair out on the smoke-porch that was the only one you understood. You got in fights about it because nobody could understand you having a chair that was the only one you understood. Your mother sent you things you might need at logical intervals, but there were no cards, no little gifts, no Christmas presents even though you still counted down the days gleefully every year. What you called “giving birth,” the rest of the world called “having an accident in the middle of the night.” Your baby, then, a yellow stain that no one wanted to manage.  In the morning after so many of my arrivals, plastic gloves, biohazard bags, and a trip to the laundry room. But not after you told me her name. It was usually the same each time: “little glow.” Years later, I learn of the Spanish phrase “to give a light” for birth, and I think of the landscapes you won’t ever see.

By the time you were 18, you’d hopped a bus to Hollywood, but your chart said nothing else.  You spoke of acting, and I can imagine a time when catching a break in Hollywood seemed plausible or at least possible.  I would have believed you were a model. In your face, a deep beauty and in your movements an unswerving confidence.  But you told me you were on that cruise the year before I met you, when you had already lost your teeth, already lost so much more than your teeth.  You looked so happy recounting the places you’d visited, and I wondered then about whether it wasn’t something of a blessing to remember a history that is not your own. A kind of imagination-in-reverse function. If your days are spent smoking cigarettes until your fingers yellow and finding your only real comfort is a stuffed horse who sits on your narrow bed in your narrow, urine-soaked room, how obliging of your mind to take you on a cruise, show you the beauty of the world, reflect your beauty to you in the eyes of off-stage admirers? How obliging of your mind to give you a baby every morning instead of a mess to clean up and the knowledge that your body is past being able to carry one.

I was not in Hollywood, but in LA I saw trees like prehistoric towers lining the streets and watched a film in 3-D about Pina Bausch.  In the theater I became you, for a moment, seeing the world in front of me in blurry multiple, edge over edge, until I put on glasses that made the multiplicity three-dimensional and single. I want to say singular, and it was that too.  I felt, suddenly, your frustration at trying to explain that the world is round and alive and moving quickly toward you when everyone else could see only blurry flatness taken for the extent of what was there to be seen. It’s a wonder you never gave up trying to explain what was there for you, in stereo, in stereoscopic 3-D, as we unfocused our vision, trying to make the world as we knew it more clear or at least contiguous.  And who would have believed you anyway, if you’d somehow managed to fashion paper spectacles with blue and red lenses, and shouted triumphantly that finally we might see your reality?  You probably would have been written up, the glasses discarded as a quaint craft project or some other artifact of delusion.

When people say “schizophrenic,” so often what is heard is “split,” “broken,” or “out of touch with reality.” Your diagnosis was based on the concept of emotions split from thought, but who can say what emotions are called for anyway, or who is more colonized by perplexing delusions than anyone else?  And who is to say what of reality there is to touch, and what edges, what whole planes in fact, we might be missing in our smug perceptions?  Can empiricism explain the way you spoke of my father, but never my mother, except to say, at times, that you were my mother?  Can scientific inquiry measure the chances that of all the names you could have taken on once you were sent away to the state hospital, you chose my mother’s and called for me like I was your daughter?



Rebecca Iosca feels grateful to have become friends with Lisa, the resident logophile of The Dictionary Project, through the University of Arizona’s MFA program, and has worked with a number of amazing people who happen to be diagnosed with schizophrenia.

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