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Flash Fiction by Barbara Jacksha
  Music by Francesco Picarazzi
  Art by Kathy Braceland
'Art' (c) 2005-2006 Kathy Braceland
Solar Flares

Causality allows no simple mistakes.

Micki thinks about this after opening a jar of tomato sauce instead of tomato paste. Thick, temperate paste wouldn't have sloshed a briny pattern across her pale yellow sweater or stippled her new pair of cream-suede boots.

Spontaneous abstract art would never have appeared if she'd been wearing fuzzy red slippers and the old plaid bathrobe she stole from her ex. Even if it had, she could have laughed. She could have joked about the confluence of atmospheric pressures, solar flares, and other lesser acts of God that caused the contents of the jar to erupt in her face. But in minutes, she's meeting her future in-laws for the first time--one more event in the vortex of her month-long, whirlwind romance--so Micki wipes sauce from her cheek, rubs the ping plaguing her temple, and ponders a link between causality and the curious intentions of Fate.

A moment later, in her still-shocked state, Micki rushes to answer a knock at the door. Splattered red elicits long looks of surprise on a pair of otherwise pleasant Midwestern faces. What-looks-like-blood clashes with the sharp-pressed linens of her guests, who might bolt and recheck the address if not for the sticky bonds of politeness and the sudden appearance of their smiling son behind Micki in the entryway.

Micki makes light of it over dinner, says there should be some kind of warning--don't try new recipes, new hairstyles, or wear pastel colors during a period of solar flares. The comment causes a murmur so she pushes ahead. She talks about two nearby black holes that are creeping toward each other and how their gravitational forces will ultimately warp the space-time fabric of the galaxy. She tries a joke: The black holes won't collide for two million years, but time is relative, isn't it?

Three faces stare.

Micki apologizes, says the chicken's too dry. Her guests claim it's delicious and quickly ask for more. Her fiancé suggests that she use more tomato sauce next time. She smiles, nods, and gnashes the seeds of his unborn children with her teeth.

Solar flares zip white light through Micki's peripheral vision. Ocular migraines, the doctors call it--all flash, no pain. She could have explained this when her guests shooed her upstairs. Rest, they said. You look tired. She wonders: If she had explained, where might that have led?

Below in the kitchen, voices mingle like spices. The clank of dishes, the thud of shutting drawers waft up through the floorboards, homey like the smell of baking bread. It's comforting for a while until she realizes there are virtual strangers in her kitchen. Does her fiancé remember that the dishwasher needs a swift kick in the middle of the rinse cycle or that the disposal can be run for only five seconds at a time?

In the bathroom, Micki lies on tiles still warm from the afternoon sun. She stares up at the skylight. Through the thick plastic, the sky looks warped around the edges--the black holes already wielding their power--and though
she sees no solar flares, their white flashes continue to command her attention. She tells herself it's just jitters. She notes that today, causality has a faint, organic-tomato smell. She ponders the question: If she had changed clothes, would that act have altered anything else?

Below, the dishwasher has ebbed and flowed four times, one time too many. In a second it will start spewing water.

The dishwasher groans. Her fiancé swears.

Micki hears a loud bang--a kick of frustration, perhaps--but she knows it's already too late.

In the Neural Zone
'Art' (c) 2005-2006 Kathy Braceland

It's finally quiet. I have forty-five minutes to think before Edgar wakes up and Myrna gets home with her dogs.

Myrna is the woman living in my right ear. She sings arias all day, except for the hour between three and four when she takes her six schnauzers for a walk. I call the woman Myrna though she's strangely similar to my mother--same Catholic-cloned values, bouffant hairstyle, flash-to-the-fifties couture, and fondness for stiletto heels that click-click through my head and remind me she's always there.

I call the man in my left ear Edgar. He's an unemployed professor, harmonica aficionado, and old-can collector who spends his days trolling for tin treasure, except during the hour that Myrna is gone. He returns home promptly at three, about the time his lunchtime sugar high slips short of dinner. So he usually nods off by 3:15. Just like dear old Dad.

While Edgar sleeps, I pour a cup of tea, stare out my window at the rain, and unfurl my list of things to consider. I've been offered a new job in Beijing.

Eyes closed, I ponder point number one. Then Myrna comes home early. Her dogs don't like getting wet. Unfortunately Edgar is allergic to dogs, wet schnauzers in particular.

He wakes up coughing. He beats my eardrum with several bars of staccato, phlegm-rolled, I'll-quit-tomorrow smoker's hack. Midway through bar eight, Myrna bangs frying pans together to mask the sound.

She calls Edgar an inconsiderate ass. "Can't you see she's thinking?"

I pour my tea down the drain, draw the shades, flip on the stereo while Edgar and Myrna argue about what's best for me. My brain shudders like a flimsy tenement wall; gray matter provides little sound insulation.

Myrna flicks a nerve. She says, "The chicken that never sticks out its neck lives to lay another egg."

Edgar snorts, sputters vodka. "When opportunity comes, you better knock."

Edgar cites the reasons I should move to China; his narrative, a three-fold argument, links geo-political internationalism, blips in the economic cycle, and Myrna's naïve, substandard expectations for my life. Myrna says nothing good has ever come from China. Except chopsticks.

To illustrate her point, Myrna spears a chopstick through my eardrum. I stifle a scream--no one likes a whiny landlord. Fresh air blows into my brain and suddenly, I don't care what either Myrna or Edgar thinks.

Myrna's hummingbird-green eye presses against the hole. She peers through the void. On the other side, above his tighty-whities, Edgar tries to balance a six-pack atop ballooning abs.

I tell them they're both ridiculous.

"Aye," Myrna shouts to Edgar. "Now look what you've done."

I hear harmonica music. Myrna tries to plug the chopstick hole with towels, but the schnauzers pull them down. One dog leaps through the hole. Edgar's tin cans crash. Harmonica music stops. Then missiles fly at Myrna. Stodgy sausages, one after the other. The schnauzers leap for them, snap them up.
I smell borscht.

I turn up my stereo. Notes of Shania Twain twirl through the air. Edgar and Myrna wail, pound the walls--offbeat I might add--before the sound spins them to the floor. For a moment it's quiet, then Edgar, pillows pressed over his ears, threatens Myrna with a custody battle.

He tells me, "I'll go with you. We'll live anywhere you want."

Myrna, fanning herself on the floor, offers, "You wouldn't do that, would you sweetheart? Not my little girl?"

While they cajole and fan, my blood cells scuttle into their apartments. They report that Myrna has doubled her number of schnauzers and plastered her walls with highly detailed surveillance notes about my activities. They tell me Edgar has sublet to a growing family of Russians, who speak in sign language and tiptoe around in slippered feet. I wonder how many of the paunchy, harmonica-playing children hum with Edgar's DNA.

My eviction orders blare.

Within an hour, Edgar and the Russians, Myrna and the dogs, all slink away.

Within a day, I accept the promotion, clip on “For Lease” earrings, and hum to the happy silence in my ears.

Within a month, I move to Beijing. Each night, while I sip my tea, I enjoy the murmur of new, carefully screened tenants. In my left ear, a pair of yogic acrobats who tumble to the drone of dreamy affirmation tapes. In my right ear, a soft-spoken, ex-pat cowboy partial to independent women and Shania Twain.

'Art' (c) 2005-2006 Kathy Braceland
Way to a Man's Heart

She helps you lean back across the restaurant table. She says it's no big deal, this is your third date after all. You look around and think she must be right; the other diners don't seem alarmed. Before you can change your mind, she climbs up and straddles your waist. She unbuttons your shirt. You take comfort in her apparent expertise. Then she positions the scalpel over your chest.

She says it's like getting grazed by a shark--the teeth are so sharp that victims rarely feel any pain. But she slices a thin, straight line that feels like a paper cut cauterized by a butylene torch.

She opens you from collarbone to belly. Birds fly out, pigeons freed from their nest.

"A good sign," she says. "Proof of life."

Without meaning to, you say, "Proof I'm full of crap."

She frowns. She doesn't get the joke. She's too busy slipping a cold metal device into your chest. Your ribs spread, arch like wings. And there it is, your pumping heart. The perfect tick-tocker. You feel rather proud until she leans in close and you feel the worst kind of naked. You have no control. The heart beats faster, louder, and when she gives it a poke, the poke is a whip that sends the heart racing like a thoroughbred toward the finish.

You try to read the furrow between her brows. Does she like the heart's shape, the pumped-up arteries and veins, the snappy rhythm kicked out by the valves? Or is the outer husk too puckered, too coated with fat, the blood
running too fast or too slow?

When she slips her hands inside, you panic. Then you realize her hands fit perfectly, like water filling an empty cavern. Her pulse causes ripples. Liquid-hot fingers cup your heart, which suddenly feels like a chunk of ice. You think you would have noticed that before, but it doesn't matter because your heart is melting in her palms. You lick your lips knowing that hers will taste like strawberry no matter what she has to eat or drink; you know you've never tasted strawberry like hers; you know that even after a lifetime, her essence would still tingle on your tongue.

Then she pulls back, leaving a gaping hole for wind to wheeze through. Her blood-covered hands look like twin strawberries, twin hearts. She wipes them on a napkin.

She shakes her head. "I'd hoped it was bigger."

She pulls the metal from your chest, snaps your ribs shut, and stitches you up with a description of all the things she's looking for in a man. The words sting and pull tight. You ask if they'll leave marks.

She says, "Baby, there's always a scar."

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