Fiction Pick of the Week: "The Stage from Behind"
Secular crises of two workers at a religious camp.
Secular crises of two workers at a religious camp.
Life problems imagined as fantasies.
A backyard wrestling match; an examination of different young lives.
A single pill could take the sting out of our memories of trauma.
Intertwined memories of institutions, family, and the creepy side of industrialization.
Magic, horror, and handmade children.
A trip to the country turns into nightmare beset by mysterious creatures and body transformations.
"When we went over to look at the creature, it was mostly flattened. It looked like a crow, except the feathers had fallen off its back. Underneath, the flesh was scaly and pink. The exposed skin was split in half by a row of translucent spikes. The spikes were moving slightly, pointing first in this direction, then in that. The smell made me wrinkle my nose. It was an oddly sweet smell to find outdoors, like an open vat of lollipop flavoring."
A convergence of sex, fears, and family drama.
"Beside the bed the baby monitor flashed, as it had been doing all night, a blue light racing up and down to accompany the sounds: breathing, snoring, faint clicking, the mewl of one or another of the cats. If Angela held it to her ear she would also hear the ticking of the mantel clock. These new monitors! So much more sophisticated than those of yore. Nineteen years ago, when last she’d tuned into one, the monitor would occasionally pick up the cell phone call of some stranger in a passing car, some weird adult voice suddenly blaring from the baby’s room."
Troubles and afflictions weigh on counselors and veterans.
"The Fort was actually just an ugly house. Eighteen rooms, two stories. A kitchen, a lavatory, a staircase. One office, one entrance, two exits, thirty-six bunks, four televisions, the mini-library, two footballs, one fútbol, a basketball, and the whole of Big Ben, the biggest backyard in Texas. It housed between twenty-one and thirty-two bodies a year. Most of them stayed a couple months. They found us through each other."
"Some of you probably think it’s a bad thing to group ourselves according to skin color—the lighter the better—in social clubs, neighborhoods, churches, sororities, even colored schools. But how else can we hold on to a little dignity?"
The inner thoughts and worries of a Bingo player.
"Phyllis didn’t need to focus when she was daubing her numbers. Her mind could wander. She could think of all of the fortune she’d had in her life, all the loving family that surrounded her, even if their visits fell few and far between. As the next BINGO was called, she ripped off her top sheet and placed it into her trash bag. She remembered when she’d started coming to play, how she’d thought what a waste it was that each player had their own plastic trash bag, but it wasn’t long before she’d blinded herself to this detail, too."
A WWI unit's fears and its devotion to a homing pigeon.
"I wish you could see Cher Ami. She always looks so patient. Her coo helps ease the stress. When you peek in at her, you feel the steadiness in her little black eyes. It says she’s ready. Just a little twitching in her neck, her legs. We feed her what we can. She always gets something. Usually breakfast biscuits and pieces of apple, some snatched abandoned beans left to dry on a wall. But sometimes these days it’s seeds we find and even the lice off our greatcoats. We always apologize when its seeds or lice, but she never seems to mind. She eats it all the same. We are always careful to feed her. You know, its like she knows we’re sorry. It’s like she gets it."
A story of childhood trouble and minor delinquency.
"None of this, of course, has stopped any of them from pulling the girls’ hair or throwing pencils or losing track of time and getting locked out of school. He looks at the younger one standing there with his hands behind him and gives him a little shove. Everyone grows alert, awaiting the silent war. The boy drops his hands and looks back at him, and then they are all shoving and wrestling (carefully, quietly, so as not to attract attention, holding in their breath) and distracting him from his thoughts. The immediacy of the situation wanes. His father does not arrive. He relaxes, the wrestling over, rolls his foot over the soccer ball. They all stop and pant for a moment. There is still that space–the one in the corner of his brain–and as long as he can see it, he’s not quite safe."
Scenes from a scary faith healing session.
"The one to be delivered shook at the apostle’s touch, recoiled from his voice. His boots stamped the floor, wrung more sweat free from his jumping body. It was darkest bluest winter and the one was dressed for the weather, had kept his coat on the whole dance. The look in his eyes, the exhaustion, the fear, his and not his. He named some of his demons at sentence length, readying his voice for story, but the apostle stopped him."
A story of assessments as the end of the world nears.
"I'm afraid to look at first, but then I get my bearings and turn in the direction where the river should be. On the other side is home and if I'm right, the towers. There's no bright, white plume of smoke on the horizon to help me, now. The towers will be quiet. Shut down and dead."
A tale of two sisters with bodies that produce feathers.
"Up ahead a diesel semi had stopped, idling, its emergency lights flashing red in the mist, and on the wet tar and on Gale. I looked at her chest. The feathers were still growing, like a cancer. They would be as long as she was, longer. They would strangle, drown her. She ran to the cab of the truck, the door swung open far above. I couldn’t see the driver’s face."
A conversation between two truckers on a wintry Alaskan highway.
"Even at twenty-five miles an hour the snowfall looks like a TV left on through dawn. French is on the radio, letting the checkpoint know how fucked the storm is. There’s nothing we can do but watch the path of the road to not end up in a ditch, or worse, the pipeline. Of course, the checkpoint’s still timing us, that’s the rules and breaking the haul road’s speed limit is the kind of thing that’ll get you shit-canned. French hangs the mic on the dash. 'Hey, G.P.,' he says, picking up where he left off, “how’s a Green Peace turd like yourself do with the ladies?'"
A mysterious stranger in the woods; horrific escalations.
"When we were eleven Billy Jacobs told us he had seen three people standing at the edge of the woods. One was the redheaded man–or someone who from a distance resembled the redheaded man, a sicker, thinner incarnation of him. The three held big glass bottles as they waved to Billy. One let a cigarette fall from his mouth and the others shrieked with laughter. They stumbled away and were gone."
An unhappy mother yearns for a return to her creative roots.
"It seemed to her now like motherhood was a constant fall, a never-ending tumble. After she’d finished her nursery fresco and looked for surprise shapes in her sky, Marlee couldn’t find any meaning in the edges and swirls she had created."
An unsettling dialogue between a woman and her jilted lover.
"Her face is turning pale, her freckles darkening. Don’t feel bad now. Dismiss that urge to hold her, to comfort her, to make her feel safe. She is the girl you love, but not. She is the girl who will break your heart. Who broke your heart already, and will do it again."
A mother and infant interact with neighbors and strangers.
"She looked down at the baby who was still nursing and recognized in him then not the unpolluted possibilities of a life not yet led, but instead a blissful unawareness of himself, or of responsibility, which allowed him a serene acceptance of all that was around him. The baby did not feel hungry for she kept him fed, he did not feel cold for she swaddled him, he did not feel wet for she kept him clean and dry, and when he was startled or unsure, she offered him her nipple, which he held tightly in his mouth before drifting off to sleep, where she imagined he dreamt of her, because she was all that he knew, all that he wanted, endlessly and relentlessly into the future."
An early excerpt in honor of this week's publication of An Untamed State (Grove Atlantic), Gay's debut novel.
"Most of the city was asleep or laying low. I ran down a dark, unfamiliar street, my bare feet slapping against the pavement. I ran to find my way back to my happily ever after. It was dark and hot and still. I ran over shards of broken glass, felt my skin come neatly apart. I bled. My feet were slickly wet. I did not stop running. The Commander told me to run until I could not run anymore so that is what I did. My thighs burned. It felt strange to be able to move so freely, to breathe fresher air. I wanted someone to find me. I wanted to stop. I kept running. When I passed people standing in their doorways or ambling down the street, I stiffened, knew they could not be trusted, so still, I ran. I saw a cross rising into the sky, reaching up. A church would be a safe place. I hoped."
A homeless man's wanderings and moral quandaries.
"Aimless, his wandering. The recurring theme of his life. That he would never escape. The single aspect of a pointless existence. What had he accomplished? The food in the bag would sustain him for two days more, three. Would his body retain any of it? Could he eat it without tasting his own wretchedness, the abhorrence that churned now through his body? A turn and then another, then down a street, an alleyway to hunker down in, only to leave abruptly because of a passing shadow, a rustle of paper. He felt persecuted, scared, timid and small. He felt disgust. For himself, the life that had prodded him thus. It was a thing that welled inside of him, the pit of his stomach, like a ball of thorny vine that tore and snagged on his delicate insides. Hours had passed. But hadn’t it been but a moment’s time? For him, all had changed; he had crossed the river to foreign shores and the language was one he could not recognize. He could not go back, though he longed to, and tried to look to the other side, but it had disappeared. He walked."
Two teenage girls and a complicated, involved robbery; an excerpt from Landis' forthcoming novel.
"Tina stops. Rainey stops behind her. She imagines Tina stepping closer to the stoop and the man twisting her wrist so that the gun falls to the sidewalk and explodes, shooting someone in the ankle. But she wants that softly gliding cape, which she will wear to school, inciting fabulous waves of jealousy."
Horror--physical and psychological--grips a cockroach-infested Navy ship.
"I reached down and slapped his hands, sent his pals flying. The roaches were scuttling around, I was trying to step on them, when Thurman’s foot shot out. His toe-claw speared me in the leg between my calf and shinbone. I fell to one knee, gripping the wound. Thurman stood up and started shouting at me.