“Out West” by Andrew Bertaina, published in Bodega

Another Friday, another awesome piece of flash!

The western part of the country has always carried a certain allure to it, a mystery. Anyone who’s spent any amount of time out there can attest to this, and it shines brilliantly in Andrew Bertaina’s latest piece of flash “Out West” from Bodega Mag. The first line of the story—“I was living out west the first time I fell in love…” is one of those openings that enthralls perfectly. Bertaina captures the enigmatic beauty of the west with such knockout descriptors as “the sun was a pencil of light” and “the fish gathered beneath knuckles of roots.” 

The speaker isn’t just describing the pretty landscape, however. He’s on the move, trying his best at being a ranch hand (and failing). It will never be his life, even if it’s what he imagined. There are little hints that the speaker is bound for somewhere else, some other experiences, evident when he explains how the flank of colt resemble shapes “I’d later see in modernist paintings in New York.” 

What is just a snapshot of the protagonist’s life—a few weeks out west tending horses and doing other chores —becomes so much more than that, for the speaker is always running forward, moving towards the unknown. The detail of the protagonist “running like a bullet” from his father shows the need for escape. And the beautifully written details throughout show the yearning for adventure, for new experiences, for wild terrain. 

Perhaps that’s how he found himself out west in the first place. “Where was I going? I’m not sure I’d ever know how to answer properly” is a line that caused me to shout YES. Who hasn’t thought this way? Who among us doesn’t think this way in every situation and in each and every day on earth? 

The protagonist often goes to a small creek on the property to unwind, to hide from the disapproving eyes of the ranch owner. It’s there that he ponders his current plan, his next steps, and after he’s let go, he hops on a train. The landscape of the west gives way to the great plains, and he’s still searching for answers, still searching for the sign, when he meets a young woman going to New York. He then does what so many “young and reckless” people do. He follows her. 

Happily ever after? Maybe, maybe not. But one thing’s for sure: he’s not working on that ranch anymore. 

Read the story here.

Andrew Bertaina’s short story collection One Person Away From You (2021) won the Moon City Press Fiction Award (2020). His work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Witness Magazine, The Normal School, Orion, and The Best American Poetry. He has an MFA from American University.

Christian Gilman Whitney is a writer from Western Massachusetts, and earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College. Find him on Twitter @c_g_whitney.

Flash Friday Review: “DreamHouse” by Christine Naprava, published in Flash Frog

Flash Fridays are back! We’re kicking it off with “DreamHouse,” a new piece by Christine Naprava published at Flash Frog. Christine has been publishing some great pieces this year and her latest is no exception. Also a talented poet, a distinction which really shines in the language of this piece. 

There are a few reasons I chose this flash to highlight this week, the most obvious being that it’s told in second-person. Big fan. I know it can be polarizing, but I love it, especially when done well, as it is in this story. I love the immediacy of second-person, and Christine has pulled it off wonderfully here. She begins the story by bringing the reader into a perfect slice of Americana—a roller skating rink—and introducing us to a man that could be “your father.” 

The piece weaves through the speaker’s date at the roller-skating rink, and some of the circumstances that moved them from North Carolina to California. Naprava’s poetic skills shine in the nuanced descriptions of the piece, like the man’s toothpick (“Back in North Carolina, the toothpick left scratches on your cheek”), or her date’s vehicle (“Your date drives a Mustang, and you’re a living tragedy”). 

The use of second-person really drives home the universality of the piece. Thematically, the narrator is running from her past: from North Carolina to California, from her father to her date with the Mustang. Yet even when she makes it out, her past still haunts her. The man behind the counter, the other blondes at the rink—how do we make it out of our pasts unscathed and forge ahead to our futures? Can we ever truly make it out? A difficult question to answer, but a question that arises in great fiction. To do it masterfully is impressive, even more so in the confines of flash fiction. 

Maybe we are just outrunning our ghosts to what Naprava describes as “some far-off decade” where “you suffer alone though the world is telling you that you no longer have to.” 

I sure hope so. 

Read the piece here.

Christine Naprava is a writer from South Jersey. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Contrary Magazine, trampset, Kissing Dynamite, Spry Literary Journal, Overheard Lit, The Friday Poem, and Thin Air Online, among others. You can find her on Twitter @CNaprava and Instagram @cnaprava.

Christian Gilman Whitney is a writer from Western Massachusetts, and earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College. Find him on Twitter @c_g_whitney.

“Chicago” by Kathy Fish, published in Wigleaf

Chicago is a flash piece narrated from the perspective of a sixteen-year-old whose observations circle around the creepy acknowledgment in the first line: “He kissed his daughter like a lover in the dark hallway at her bedroom door.”

And then the situation: the narrator is visiting her boyfriend’s house. The couple is lying on the couch, covered by an afghan, while the narrator’s boyfriend’s fingers “were inside [her] jeans.” The mother, father, and sister are in the living room next to the couple, and they’re all watching Happy Days, though the irony of that television title is lost on them, or at least the narrator, whose family is falling apart.

But you haven’t forgotten the first line, have you? I haven’t either, and the narrator hasn’t because she returns to this detail again and again. The sheer tragedy of it; of the narrator’s boyfriend’s sister (who is fifteen) instructed to go to bed at 8:15, halfway through Happy Days, and the father kissing her in the hallway. How many fifteen-year-olds are instructed to go to bed at 8:15? Of course that’s the least of the sister’s worries. Our worries.

Still, there are other things happening: discussions about travel, backstory which features a funeral and a fist through a window. And objects (spoons) that represent an important role in this brief, powerful story.

On a personal note, I’ve never read a story that refers to the Amana Colonies, but I’ve been there, and I’ve eaten that family style dining to which the narrator refers, where they bring you massive plates of potatoes and meat, and whatever else northern Europeans chow on. But in my family, there were always too many people at the table, and even the large platters never felt like enough to satisfy our cravings.

Fortunately that’s not the case with Fish’s story. There’s plenty here, and she does us the courtesy of trusting us with just the right information. We’re in the hands of a master storyteller, and she doles out just enough detail. Not too much. Just enough.

Check it out here. And more about Kathy Fish here.

“Hill of Hell” by Laura van den Berg published in Virginia Quarterly Review

A haunting and delicately written story about family, secrets, and how quickly life passes. Check it out here: “Hill of Hell” by Laura van den Berg published in 2019.

The story starts in a rather mundane way: two friends reunite after a three year absence. The one friend, a professor, invites the narrator to give a lecture at the college where he teaches. Afterward, they drink, they converse, they ride the train together. Nothing extraordinary, except at one point we learn of the narrator’s recent pregnancy resulting in a still born birth. That, and, “Our marriage is on borrowed time,” the narrator tells her friend. A moment later, in the same conversation, we learn of the narrator’s friend’s philosophy of “the big alone” which allows us a short cut into the friend’s world view: in the end, we have no one, nothing. All the while, thoughout the train ride, we glimpse specific moments and physical details: a sweaty brow, a memory of Ikea, a dream, the conductor brandishing a photo of his child, a bottle of wine, a newspaper.

The next section moves us forward in time: “Six months after my friend and I rode the train together, I left my husband. Some years later, I remarried. My friend was invited to the wedding, but he was too ill to attend. He sent me a note of congratulations and that was the last time I heard from him before he died. In my second marriage, I was the one who lobbied for a child and when I gave birth to a daughter…”

Say what? In five brief sentences, we witness divorce, remarriage, death, and birth. Perhaps the most ambitious set of lines in all of fiction?

What follows is a rendering of two parents and their daughter and the evolution of their relationship through tears and hardships. The narrator even acknowledges: “It pains me to say that our daughter was, from the moment of her birth, a difficult human being.”

I’ve often wondered what constitutes “a difficult human.” After all, aren’t we all in our own ways difficult? Even those who attempt pleasantries at all costs have their difficulties. Perhaps they’re the most difficult of all, at least on the surface.

In any case, we move from the scene on the train to an overview of the narrator’s daughter who has lived a life mostly away from her parents, in part due to her substance abuse. The daughter has kept a cool distance all these years until she is forced into a situation otherwise. And the parents will eventually learn more about their daughter through the interactions with their daughter’s friends and acquaintances. What they learn about her isn’t all terrible or painful.

Note here, I haven’t mentioned a word about how this piece ends. This is intentional.

Instead, let me say this: at its core, perhaps this is a story about the secrets we keep, and how those secrets inform decisions for which others might not understand, not least the people from whom we’ve shielded this precious information. Perhaps this is also a story about how the most essential or influential parts of our past lives, however tightly we might attempt to hold or suppress, will always find a way to surface.

Laura van den Berg is the author of the novels Find Me (FSG, 2016) and The Third Hotel (FSG, 2018). She is also the author of two story collections, The Isle of Youth (FSG, 2013) and I Hold a Wolf by the Ears (FSG, 2021).

Review of “Heat Dome” by Kaitlyn Teer, published in Electric Lit

A gripping and haunting story about parenting, climate change, and community.

I was at first amused by the heat of this story. Right now, I can look out any window of my house, garage, barn, office building, grocery store, and see nothing but snow. True, it is warming up, but the sun here pales in comparison to the unrelenting heat pumped out of this story. What started off as amusement instantly turned to torture (not the story itself — which is great — just the heat. Oh my, the heat!).

The story is told in a collective “we” or first person plural, which is mightily attractive to a person who admires everything he can’t do himself. I appreciate this POV on so many levels not least for the inclusive burden of suffering each of these women is having to deal with — for some reason it makes it all the more brutal when the sun is slowly burning away any ounce of sanity held by any of these women. Even so, they’re trying: “slicing fruit,” “[wiping] the backs of our necks with dishtowels,” “[buying] popsicles.” All while trying to calm themselves and their families.

“Meteorologists call it a once-in-a-millennia heat wave.” This reminds me of when my hometown of Cedar Rapids had something like three “hundred-year floods” in a matter of twenty years. Did I mention I just watched the film “Don’t Look Up”? If people don’t listen to the science, then maybe a screaming scientist like Jack Dawson or Katniss Everdeen? Maybe Hollywood’s the answer, though I have my doubts.

The heat and its effects in “Heat Dome” are simply unrelenting. This story is a crash course in applying pressure to a character or characters until they break and something happens. The only reprieve arrives in beautiful descriptions of the landscape: “…the old two-lane highway down the coast…. curves along sandstone cliffs that slope to the shore.” Later, “we descend a trail through red cedar, fir, and madrona.” If nature isn’t your thing, the narrator offers a more communal answer to the suffering: “We are sweaty, but together.”

At least we’re sipping wine and dining together, they acknowledge at the end of “Don’t Look Up.” Never mind the comet. It might not even be real.

Or maybe I shouldn’t be so flippant about this communal suffering (at least we’re in it together!). The first person plural, after all, is a collection of mothers or mothers-to-be who find solace in these together-moments. The heat and misery of dealing with themselves and their families literally drives them to the ocean for a reprieve. They can’t handle it anymore. They have to leave. They lament that this is “their new normal.” And since there’s not much else to do, besides float in the ocean (and wait for the comet to hit Earth!), they decide to do so with a sense of togetherness. Of “[holding] hands to keep from drifting apart.” Because if we’re all going to hell, we may as well enter the flames together.

Check out the story here.

Kaitlyn Teer’s lyric essays have received prizes from Fourth Genre and Prairie Schooner. Her essay “Drawing A Breath” was a notable for the 2017 Best American Essays anthology and was anthologized in Beautiful Flesh: A Body of Essays (CSU Center for Literary Publishing, 2017). Other work has appeared in Entropy, Redivider, Sweet, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. She is a regular contributor to the Ploughshares blog and is at work on a flash collection about parenting and the climate crisis.