The Smartest Human – Marisa Crane

Another morning in paradise for Wilder. The fluid cushioning him is warm, and he hasn’t got a damn thing to do if he doesn’t want. He reaches his hand out in front of his face and examines the back of it. It’s pruny from his long soak, the soothing spa session that he fears is coming to an end. Or so he’s heard, anyway. Exactly when is uncertain.

That makes it all the more terrifying.

The Outside People—his Mommy and his other Mommy—always say “soon, oh so soon” and make smooching sounds when they talk about his impending arrival. There is a man who comes round and coos at Wilder as if he’s adorable and tiny like his unfertilized neighbors. The man says things like, “Can you hear me, little one?” He acts like Wilder doesn’t understand the world, but he does, visitor man. He does. He knows that the world is shamelessly uncushioned, that it hurts when people fall down. He knows when the man is about to come over because the Mommies start to bicker. Quietly, lovingly, even, but bickering just the same.

“I don’t trust him, Jenn,” Sonya will whisper. Sonya is the one whose warm, soothing fluid Wilder resides in. The host of his all-inclusive resort. She thinks he can’t hear her if she lowers her voice.

“Alan deserves to know his child if he wants,” is what Jenn usually says.

“Our child,” is what Sonya usually counters, a bit snappy.

“Shhh, we don’t want the baby to overhear any animosity,” says Jenn. “There’s enough of it out here as it is.”

They say this all the time. That the Outside is this drab, almost never tranquil place, full of torrential people who can and do hurt each other. From what Wilder understands, he will join those people and become the hurter and the hurt. Never one or the other.

Always both.

He once tried to draw a flowchart of all the Outside people he knows with his right big toe but he misfired and wound up kicking Mommy in the ribs. I am already a hurter, he thought, feeling quite down about it, but also strangely basking in the camaraderie of the Outside People. But then he heard cries of glee erupt from Mommy’s mouth (that is something he is a bit envious of—this noise-making skill, but alas, one can’t have it all.

He will gladly remain silent if it means never having to erupt out into the world a crying, screaming, bloody mess).

“He kicked! Wilder kicked! I felt it, I swear,” Sonya said. Wilder heard footsteps then Jenn’s soft musical voice. What’s a Wilder? He’d thought, the first time he heard his name.

“Oh my god. Oh. My. God.”

“I know.”

“Also, did you just name our son?” Jenn laughed.

“I guess I did.”

Wilder could detect her embarrassment through the many layers of viscous biology separating them.

Me, I guess I’m a Wilder, the fetus thought. He’s come to grips with the name by now, but it took a while. He’d heard of these things called wild animals, like bears and wolves, and he’d wondered if the Mommies thought he would become a killing machine too. The thought made him nervous, made him grab his toes and squeeze tightly.

All of that is to say, Wilder’s dream vacation is soon coming to an end. In the early days, he’d falsely believed that his amniotic sac was all there was to existence. Rad. The temperature’s always ideal, he’s always satiated if not absolutely stuffed by the tube’s glorious deliveries. No roommates, just some single-cell neighbors whose company he tends to enjoy when they’re not sending his sky (or uterus ceiling, if you will) crashing down with catastrophic news of his eventual departure. It was about three months ago when they gave him a little biology lesson.

“You know you’re gonna have to leave this place eventually, right?” the one egg had squeaked. She’s a bit of a know-it-all, but she means well.

“What are you talking about?” Wilder had asked, placing his hands behind his squishy head, as if he were lounging in a hammock.

“You’re only in here until you’re big enough to join the Outside People.”

The others had murmured in agreement, sending a shiver through his chunky legs.

“Well, uh—when is that exactly?”

Wilder hadn’t been convinced she was telling the truth. The eggs loved to gossip since life inside the ovaries could be a bit dull. And the notion of birth was simply too bizarre to comprehend. Who would leave such a cushy, luxurious environment? He figured that some people—those who had picked the short umbilical cord for sure—lived Outside while the more fortunate ones resided Inside.

The know-it-all had turned to the other eggs and they’d whispered amongst themselves while Wilder leaned against the walls of his sac, feigning casual indifference.

“We think your Birthday Ceremony is in 3 months and 1 week, give or take.”

“My what? Speak sensibly,” he’d said, mildly irritated.

“The day that you are pushed by some mysterious force out of your warm sac and into the Outside. We saw it done once before, long long ago, before the Mommies knew each other.”

“What was it like?”

She’d taken a deep breath and quivered. Wilder hadn’t liked how she looked at him, her eyes uneasy and apologetic. She was usually pragmatic and matter-of-fact, a strict but fair source of knowledge and kinship.

“He screamed like I’ve never heard anyone scream before. There was a lot of blood. I don’t think he survived.” She’d paused. “I hid from the cascading sperm, those handsome fucks, for a while after that. I feared what would come if I hooked up with one of them. I didn’t want the same fate.”

Wilder hadn’t known what to say. He’d looked around at his surroundings accusingly, as if the heated sauna he’d come to call home had now been replaced by a conniving, lying betrayer. He’d now become the hurted. The Outside was somehow capable of inflicting pain from the Inside. Normally he’d consider himself to be fairly eloquent but all he’d been able to muster that day was a simple, “fuck,” then a low, ominous whistle.

“You come out of that hole,” another egg had spoken up, gesturing towards an unbelievably small tunnel.

“There?” Wilder had asked, bewildered.

“Yes, I know it seems insane, but that’s exactly what the Outside People are.”

“That must be a joke. There’s no way my head is fitting through that tiny space.”

The egg had shrugged, as if to say, That’s all I know.

Wilder hadn’t asked for this. He hadn’t asked to enter a world he’d heard so many treacherous and terrifying things about.

Out there, people were killing each other over technology and the lack of technology and breakfast and green slips of paper and love and the lack of love and bad weather and bad hair and games and houses (without lovely fluid in them) and arbitrary borders and beliefs and betrayal.

I refuse to be betrayed, Wilder had thought. When the time came for his Birthing Ceremony, he would simply refuse to come out. It would be as easy as that. He would never be ready to quit that good good and he didn’t see why he should have to.

This morning, about three months after the life-changing discovery, the morning of Wilder’s would-be birth, Sonya goes into labor and nothing happens. Her water doesn’t break, there is no crowning, the contractions don’t accomplish shit. Jenn furiously searches Google for records of this having happened elsewhere. Nada. Just some discussion boards about possible alien insemination.

The doctors, upon further examination, conclude that the baby would prefer to stay where he is for the rest of his life. They deem Wilder the smartest human being to ever exist. Out front of the hospital, they erect a statue to commemorate him. News spreads, and no one is ever born again.

The Earth is very grateful. It blooms like you’ve never fucking seen before.

 

Contents Drawer Issue 14

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Toads – Ellie Rees

I blundered
upon a troop of toads:

not a knot; not one
wore another like a rucksack –
they seemed to be quite self-contained.

Arrested, alert
they faced away from me:
their backs such a vibrant burnt-orange;
I could see their spines and the
warts on their skin;
a synchronicity on the lawn.

There must have been twenty, there might have been more.

Where were they going and
why had they stopped?

Dead leaves from the beech tree, frisked by the wind

landing upright –
an identical tilt

stalk-end half-buried in
the clumps of grass –

or maybe the worms
were pulling them down

down underground
already.

 

Contents Drawer Issue 14

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Pigeon Trouble – B F Jones

I heave myself up the narrow chimney shaft.

Finally, I will find out where all those pigeons are coming from.

Six. Six dead pigeons in 2 weeks.

This chimney is a nightmare. Who wants a dead pigeon falling on them every time they’re planning on making a fire? Not to mention the ridiculous draft that the opening creates. You open your chimney and it blows your front door open.

Kind of like the “Every time god closes a door he opens a window” stuff. Although in this case he opens a chimney, throws a rancid dead bird in your face and opens the front door with such force that the cutlery shakes on the kitchen shelves.

I wonder if it works the other way round? If you slam the front door with great power will it shut the chimney? Maybe I’ll check later. It might amuse Marcia. She’s been so cranky lately. Dreaming of pigeons, the poor sucker.

Climbing through this shaft is harder than I thought. It is a sweaty reminder of my age, my latest birthday having thrown me into the depth of middle age. In my shaky effort to climb up, I can feel how much gut I’ve got, spilled all over my midriff, clinging to my waist.

I shouldn’t be far now. Maybe a couple more feet. Though it is very dark still, and the battery on my mobile and only source of light has run out a mere 2 minutes into my climbing journey.

Shouldn’t the shaft be lightening, as I get closer to the top?

Six. Six bloody dead pigeons in 2 weeks. You open the chimney to make a nice romantic fire for your wife and you end up with a dead pigeon and an argument. As if it was my fault. I didn’t bring the pigeons in there, Marcia.

I’m gonna get it all sorted. I just need to finish climbing up this fucking chimney, get rid of the nest or cadavers or whatever might be up there and then I’ll have a nice fun story to tell the kids and maybe some loving from my cranky wife.

The shaft has narrowed now and there is still no sign of light, just a deepening damp smell. I reach up to gage how far I am and my hand comes into contact with cold concrete.

The chimney is sealed.

Where did all the pigeons come from?

Sudden, inexplicable fear crawls through my body, and the dampness seems now to treacle through my veins along with a palpable sense of doom. Deep breath, calm down, and climb down.

The story to the kids won’t be as fun and I’ll probably have to settle for a sexless marriage, but at least I will no longer have to experience this cold, narrow abyss.

Climb down. Slowly.

I can hear a noise echoing through the shaft. A crunching noise followed by the sharp metallic thud of car door closing.

Marcia.

She’s angry. I can tell from the clattering of her heels, and the vigorous shutting of the front door. In the kitchen, the cutlery cackles, and in the lounge the chimney hatch slams shut.

 

B F Jones is French, lives in Surrey with her husband, 3 kids and cat and works as a freelance digital consultant. She has book reviews and stories published on STORGY. She also had stories commended by the R. C. Sherriff Trust and LISP.

Contents Drawer Issue 14

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Chickpeas – Qurat

My mother once told me
that goats have to be fed carefully –
that all too often, upon finding a bucket of chickpeas,
whether dried or swollen with water
to twice their size, bloated,
they gorge themselves, eating senselessly,
until their insides burst.
Not for lack of intelligence –
maybe the opposite,
barely chewing their chickpeas
before gulping them down, even though they
scratch against their throats on the way
down,
barely breathing in between mouthfuls
anything for something,
even if it hurts –
I’ve gotten too good at the dark
too used to my serrated silences,
uninterrupted by the stream of rotating images
and sounds, which I can hardly piece together
before they’re gone (not that I would),
the chickpeas are burnt, it’s all smoke, everyone’s
killing themselves slowly (it’s the only fashionable way)
and wondering why they aren’t dead yet
and wondering why they aren’t alive
and wondering if everyone else is
wondering the same thing.
I can’t seem to get myself
to burn.

 

Qurat is an engineering student, an avid environmentalist, and an emerging author. She has work forthcoming or currently in The Evansville Review, Augur Magazine, Tenth Street Miscellany, The Temz Review, Rag Queen Periodical, Yellow Taxi Press, and KROS Magazine. Find her on Twitter: @DQur4t.

Contents Drawer Issue 14

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Keeping Up With The Joneses – Alva Holland

Banks of scarlet azaleas and cerise rhododendrons mark the driveway to the double garage of No. 7 Maple Way. Mr. Powers nurtured the shrubs from cuttings and is proud of the privacy his colourful hedges provide for his double-fronted detached residence.

Next door at No. 5, single-garage Mrs. Johnson thinks her hybrid fuchsia and cotoneaster are far superior to her neighbour’s efforts in terms of display and colour. She covets her secret source of quality fertilizer which she refuses to share with No. 7 in case his display should surpass hers in terms of admirability as people pass.

No. 3’s triple-garage, vintage car owner, Mr. Bailey doesn’t like flowers but has a lawn fit for a Queen. Mrs. Johnson watches him vacuuming the leaves, almost reverently, each Saturday morning. She secretly envies his gleaming edge-cutters – a thing of shining beauty, glimmering in the summer sun as he creates the perfect right angle to his precious carpet where it meets the driveway leading to the polished doors containing his venerable collection.

No. 1’s granny-flat-instead-of-a-garage Mrs. Jameson is a container gardener, with terracotta pots full of brightly coloured bedding plants spilling over onto lustrous grey pebbles and glorious hanging baskets adorning the fascia board. Young widow Mrs. J and her elderly mother tend the baskets and pots in a prayer-like fashion.

Maple House sits at the end of the road. The house doesn’t have a number because it used to be the only house in the area before the wealthy owners died leaving it to a good-for-nothing son who wasted his inheritance. The estate ended up being sold to a hungry developer who converted the sweeping driveway to a wide two-lane road, split the estate into lots and sold them off to the Powers, Johnsons, Baileys, Jamesons and their like.

The competitive street befits the Jones family who’ve recently taken possession of Maple House. A sweeping renovation has commenced. The neighbours will spend the next year striving to keep up.

Winter arrives.

The Neighbourhood Watch man patrols.

A heavy snowfall blankets the estate in anonymity.

Every house now looks the same.

 

Alva Holland is an Irish writer from Dublin. First published by Ireland’s Own Winning Writers Annual 2015. Three times a winner of Ad Hoc Fiction’s flash competition, her stories feature in The People’s Friend, Ellipsis Zine, Train Lit Mag, Stories for Homes, Brilliant Flash Fiction, The Cabinet of Heed and Jellyfish Review.
Twitter: @Alva1206

Contents Drawer Issue 14

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Worm Season – Traci Mullins

I’ve hated worms since I was seven, when Billy Gentry hid one in my unsuspecting sneaker and I threw up. The riskiest worm season was during the spring rains, when they’d creep out in droves from wherever they lived and slime their way across the sidewalks. They were repulsive, plump from yeasty new soil, and wiggly, like they had a new lease on life. I coped with them by pretending I was a frog, keeping my eyes on the pavement and playing worm hopscotch. Only once did one get the better of me, squishing underneath my new pink Mary Janes and setting off a fit of ew, ew, ew, ew! I heard the neighbor guy snicker and gave him a killer scowl.

I still hate worms. You’d think I could spot one from 100 yards, but no. When Alex crept into the hollow place my absent father left inside me, I didn’t even notice. He lured me with his bedroom eyes and seduced me into forgetfulness. I thought I’d learned my lesson from the chain of fools who’d come before him, but no. Alex scrubbed my memory with soapy charm and slithered in unnoticed, like a worm vanishing into the grass.

The first time he punched me, he looked stunned. He said it was the first time he’d hit a woman. I should have demanded proof, but no, I took his word for it. He was on his best behavior for months before he struck again, this time by hurling a saucer-shaped iron weight at the bridge of my nose. He stumbled toward me, crying, begging my forgiveness. I screamed at him to not lay a finger on me and drove myself to the hospital, my blood gushing like worm guts. The x-ray revealed the chips of bone, but not the daddy-shaped hole I let Alex crawl back into one last time.

The next time he detonated, I was ready. The knife sliced through his center and I cut him in half. I spit him out and vowed to be done with worms, finally plump within myself.

 

Traci Mullins writes short fiction and has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine, Dime Show Review, Spelk, Ellipsis Zine, Palm-Sized Press, Fantasia Divinity, CafeLit, CommuterLit, and others. She was named a Highly Recommended Writer in the London Independent Story Prize competition.

Contents Drawer Issue 14

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Meet In The Middle – Chloe Smith

The dew from our coffee cups
Soaks into the oak, a temporary tattoo –
We were here, it says, as the remnants dry
And you lift it to your quivering lips.

I nudge mine, just slightly, with my thumb,
The way you used to tap me, gently,
To bring me out of a restless sleep.

It was always a relief, to have you there –
Now you just leave me be, let me wake up, moist with a cool sweat,
With those nightmares staining the fringes of my mind as I reach out into the empty space –

You haven’t touched me in months.

You eye it, the steaming mug,
A smoke signal, communicating,
More than we’ve done in a while –

I don’t know what the white wisps are trying to say, as they rise, weakly –
But it doesn’t seem like enough.

I pick it up, and notice a pattern in front of us –

A light Venn Diagram, etched almost artfully,
The ghost of our drinks, our last-ditch meeting –

On one side, you, and your soft hand, your fingers almost skirting the outside line,
But still hanging on. Just by a hair, by a nail.

And on the other, me, not even a part of it –

I steady myself
And then let a contender enter the ring

My slight hand, shaking slightly, just edging into the middle
The ring gleaming in the light –

You keep watching me.
I don’t know what you’re thinking,
Maybe of that piece of advice we got given on our wedding day –
I don’t think we were really listening…

Your finger twitches, almost beckons me,
But I was. I laughed it off, at the time.
How would that work?

My bliss was a firework –
Bright and joyous, but not everlasting.
The smoke always lingers, finds you eventually.

We just need to cough it out,
Let it leave our tired lungs…

But now –
Now you need to –

And you do.

In a quick swift movement,
Your hand reaches out, slots into mine,
Like it’s meant to –

Out rings shine together, the sky lighting up
With stars instead.

But in that quick swift movement,
Your elbow
You were always clumsy –

Knocks into our cups, which we’d hurriedly placed down,
Our hands too busy with other things,

And they fall, each in turn, like dominoes,
Like chips –

They paint the faded table a glistening brown,
Rewriting our game with lukewarm enthusiasm.

Somehow it avoids our laps,
And while we let go,
To clean up –

You beam at me,
Match my warmth.
The gleam on our hands reflecting in our faces.

I know we’ll be okay,
That knowledge tickles me as it lights up
The edge of my mind,
As we parrot hurried apologies to the waitress, and wipe each other’s hands.

After all, we have a blank page, now,
We can always play again –
Find each other as easy as breathing, as falling pleasantly asleep,
Now we are here.

 

Chloe Smith is a disabled writer and poet from the UK. She is a Foyle Young Poet of the Year 2015, and her poetry has been published in Rose Quartz Journal and Cauldron Anthology, with more forthcoming in TERSE. Journal. Her website: https://chloesmithwrites.wordpress.com/. Her Twitter: @ch1oewrites

Contents Drawer Issue 14

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Constructive Criticism – Jeanna Skinner

Brenda:
Since starting a romance writing course, I’ve noticed lots of ways I can apply the brilliant feedback to all aspects of my life. Okay, so the cashier in Waitrose looked at me funny when I suggested she was lacking in agency, and I’m not sure my boss appreciated it when I said she needs to stop telling me what to do, but show me instead.

But my sex life – it’s never been better. The other night, emboldened by half a bottle of chardonnay and wise words from my copy of ‘Romance Writing For Beginners’ imprinted upon my heart, I drummed up the courage to talk to Geoffrey about his serious pacing issues. Yes, he was a little shocked at first, but he’s improved so much since. Now he’s hitting all the right beats with every headboard-rattling, toe-curling thrust, and the final denouement is oh-so satisfying. And just this morning, he surprised me when he seemed to acquiesce to my idea of taking our story in a romantic, new direction.
It feels great to be able to pass on what I’ve learnt and help others.

Geoffrey:
Look. I get it. Maybe I didn’t pay her enough attention before, but since Brenda joined that ruddy creative writing course up at the college last month, it’s all she’s carped on about. I wouldn’t mind, but she’s become rather erm, unreliable around ‘ere – and some folks might say, unlikable too. It’s great she’s found her voice, but I do wish it wasn’t quite so snarky.
Anyway, I’ve been reading that ruddy book she keeps leaving lyin’ around, and I can’t make head nor tail of most of it. But there’s this one part that gave me an idea – and Brenda’s all ’bout ideas lately.

So I’ve arranged a surprise for her tonight; I hope she likes it. I’ll try anything to give her the happy ever after of her dreams. Even if it means “your protagonist sometimes has to share the page with well-developed, yet sympathetic, secondary characters”.

Like Miss D’Meanour, the dominatrix from next door.

 

Contents Drawer Issue 14

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Offerings – M Stone

With a razor blade, Jake made a small incision in his mother’s shoulder. She sucked air through her teeth as he pressed a gloved finger against the dark object embedded beneath her skin and guided it toward the opening he’d created, where it emerged effortlessly.

“Got it,” Jake said, studying the bloody thing in his palm. It was black and hard as a stone, about the size of a deer tick. “Mama, you have to see a doctor.”

She snorted. “As if a doctor around here could make sense of it.”

“These… growths seem to form when you’re stressed. Are you worried about something?”

“I’m worried about that creek rising.”

To reach their house, Jake and his mother had to cross a wooden bridge spanning Willow Creek. On his walk home from the bus stop that afternoon, he’d seen the water running high and fast as a result of the day’s heavy rain.

“You got another letter from a college,” Jake’s mother said as he swabbed her wound with an alcohol wipe and applied a bandage. Their gazes met in the bathroom mirror, and he noticed a worry line appear between her eyebrows.

“Mama, that’s just a brochure I sent off for. I won’t even start applying till next year.”

Before she could respond, the phone rang. “I’ll get it,” she said, pulling on her shirt as she left the room. Jake washed his hands and the object he’d extracted.She had no idea he saved each one. Over the past several months, he’d collected at least a dozen in a small jar.

Jake heard his mother’s voice rise in alarm, and he hurried to the living room where she stood at the window, holding the phone’s receiver to her ear. “We can’t just leave,” she said.

He drew closer and could make out their neighbor Mr. Winslow’s voice. “Addie, I’m telling you the creek has jumped its banks, and I’m heading out before it covers the road. You and your boy need to do the same.”

“But it’s never reached the house before!” She tugged at her long braid, the way she did when she was anxious.

“There’s a first time for everything.”

Jake joined her at the window. Rain fell in a blurry curtain, obstructing his view of the bridge, but he could see water edging into the yard.

“Thanks for letting us know, but we’re going to stay put for now,” she said, then hung up the phone before Mr. Winslow could protest.

“Mama, he’s right,” Jake said.

She stared out at the encroaching creek. “We can’t just let our house get flooded.”

“How do you think we’re going to stop it?” His voice was sharper than he intended, and she winced. “I’m sorry, but we should leave.”

She gave her braid a vicious yank, and Jake spotted another dark lump beneath the skin of her forearm. He grazed it with his fingertip, and when she saw the new growth, her eyes widened. “Jake, you have to get it out.”

He led her to the bathroom, trying to ignore the rain slapping the window pane and pounding the roof. As he worked the object from her skin, the power went out.

His mother swore and grabbed his hand, causing him to drop the razor blade. “Promise you won’t leave me,” she said.

“Mama, I’m not going anywhere. If you want to stay, we’ll stay.”

“That’s not what I meant!” Her words betrayed the panic that had lurked beneath her calm surface for months, taking the shape of black seed pearls he couldn’t crush between his fingers.

Jake squeezed her hand until she cried out and struggled free of his grip. “I promise.”

That night he sat on the porch and watched the deluge surround their car in the driveway, splashing the tires as it inched closer to the house. When it lapped at the bottom porch step, he almost called for his mother, but the rain slacked off and then ended minutes later. He went back inside and found her curled on the sofa, her breathing even and deep with sleep.

After Willow Creek retreated to its banks the following morning, Jake made his way to the bridge and stared down at the raging water. Mr. Winslow’s truck approached and halted alongside him. “It’s a miracle you and Addie didn’t drown last night,” the man called.

“Yeah,” Jake said, “a miracle.” He opened his fist and tossed the offerings from his mother’s body into the creek.

 

M. Stone is a bookworm, birdwatcher, and stargazer living in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in San Pedro River Review, UCity Review, formercactus, and numerous other journals. Find her on Twitter @writermstone and at writermstone.wordpress.com

Contents Drawer Issue 14

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