Treehouse

online magazine for short, good writing

Category: Fiction

Scientists Confirm the Physical Properties of Negative Emotions

by a contributor

Eric Howerton

Freeing himself from envy, gravity no longer held him. Below, he saw dots that used to be people. Smaller and smaller each one. Every new breath buoyed him toward space, distancing him from the world of bonds, securities and insecurities, gabled roofs, prized possessions. Gold chains. Above, the great nothing. Above, the possibility of never falling down. The clouds were his company now. And soon, the stars.


Eric Howerton is a graduate in Fiction from the University of Houston’s PhD in Creative Writing and Literature and from the Pennsylvania State University’s now-defunct MFA program. He lives and teaches in Ogden, UT where he spends his days skiing, hiking, writing, gardening, and seeking out native mushrooms. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in PANK, Revolver, The Masters Review, Driftwood Press, Foliate Oak, and others. 

See more from Eric tomorrow.

Cousin Jeff

by a contributor

Rose Wednesday

My cousin Jeff did prosthetics, and when I was a kid I remember being scared to go and visit him in his workshop in back of the house because there were body parts everywhere. Legs and arms on shelves, and hung from chains from the ceiling so they could be rotated, and held in clamps while different components solidified. There were silicone molds of hands and feet, jars of glass eyes. Posters up on the wall of cross-sectioned bodies. When I had to deliver Jeff a sandwich or a beer, I’d open the door a crack, slide in the plate or the can, and then run like hell before I saw something that would haunt me.

The day I found the box turtle with a leg chewed off down by the creek, everyone I talked to thought that it would be kindest if someone took it away from me and quietly bashed it with a rock somewhere. I could see that look in their eyes as they reached for it, and I snatched it away and ran and hid in the one place that even the adults didn’t like to go. I shut my eyes as I went in the door, which was how Jeff was able to sneak up on me and grab the turtle.

He took it over to the work bench and said, “we’ll need to stitch ‘er up.”

I opened my eyes. He had his first aid kit out, and was treating the turtle’s stump with a bottle of peroxide. The turtle had completely retreated into its shell. I stood by the table and watched.

“We’ll put a hot wheels car on ‘er here,” he said. “Or maybe two baby carriage wheels on an axle, with a pad here and a strap here.” He was already drawing in his head as he pointed at the parts of the turtle. “It’ll be the fastest turtle in the west.”

The turtle didn’t live to the prosthetic stage, but I brought him other animals, and started telling people what he could do. By the time I was twelve, we had a host of bionic animals: a cat with a pistoning paw, a very old dog whose teeth were mostly artificial, a large ornamental koi fish with a cleverly-constructed aluminum and ripstop tail.

Cousin Jeff was not supposed to be a good friend for a girl child; he chain smoked and kept girly magazines around, scattered in between his books of medical illustrations. He read them while he ate his sandwiches and smoked his unfiltered Newports. He subscribed to one that was all pictures of amputee girls in boudoir lingerie, and he’d sometimes show these pictures to his lady clients, women in wheelchairs or on crutches, or with one foreshortened arm clutched protectively to their side. Cajoling them into looking at the pictures, they were first alarmed, and then pleased by what they saw, blushing furiously.

My mother ultimately blamed Cousin Jeff and his girly magazines for making me what I was, but if anything, he made me more interested in men than I think I would otherwise have been. He was tender with animals, unapologetic in his yen for his lady clients. And while he never pressed either his cigarettes or his pornography on me, when I stole them from him he seemed proud, almost brotherly. I thought about him while I looked at the ladies in the pictures, and I stared out at his still-lit workshop when I smoked out of the window at night, with Tripod the Cat kneading my legs with a gentle hissing sound, getting piston grease all over the floral sheets.


Rose Wednesday is an MA student in fiction at the University of Maine. She has been published previously in “The Armchair Aesthete” and was the 2013 winner of Maine’s Grady Award for fiction. She writes in Maine and blogs at rosewednesday.tumblr.com.

See Rose’s list of “5 Things That Are Slowly Killing Me” in our ongoing contributors’ series on Wednesday, June 25.

 

Because the Brick

by a contributor

Jason Newport

Because the Brick. Because the ice machine was acting up. Because it was still early and the place was dead, except for Leroy Jackson in his customary spot at the end of the bar. Because old Leroy would sit there with his newspaper spread out and two sips left in the bottom of his glass and tell anyone who happened to come in off the street just to set a spell and wait, because O’Malley would be back in a jiffy with a couple of bags of ice from the corner store. Because who would need a drink so bad at that hour that they couldn’t set a spell and wait a little bit for it? Because the ceiling fans and window blinds kept everything cool and shady in O’Malley’s place, that was for sure, and it was nice just to come in out of the hot sun and set yourself down at the bar for a bit, take a load off. Because you wouldn’t have to wait but a few minutes. Because it was just the ice machine acting up again. Because O’Malley wouldn’t pay to have anybody fix anything that he could usually take care of himself, like the side door that wouldn’t stop banging shut in the cross breeze, that was just as easy to prop open with a brick from the alleyway. Because who in their right mind would go so far for a few lousy dollars? Because what kind of fool couldn’t get a cash register open without smashing it all to hell? Because old Leroy couldn’t hardly swat a fly, but he might could tell what some crazy fool looked like. Because he was in his customary spot on a hot afternoon. Because the brick was at hand, and O’Malley was not. Because the newspapers couldn’t soak up all the blood.


Jason Newport received an MFA in creative writing (fiction) from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. His nonfiction has most recently appeared on Bookforum.com, and his short fiction and poetry have appeared in many fine journals. He is an English instructor in the Southwestern College Professional Studies program and a contributing editor for the Chautauqua journal.

See Jasons’s list of 5 Things You Should Read tomorrow  in our ongoing contributors’ series.

My Housemate’s Dead Cat

by a contributor

Ian Starttoday

My housemate’s cat died a few days ago. On my way out to International Relations class, I came across Zippy’s flat, lifeless body on the tan carpet in our living room. I had never before been so close to anything dead—unless you count insects and roadkill. But this animal, with its handsome, dark gray coat, was something I’d seen alive before. It was something I’d touched, and considered, and a couple times even slapped across the face for scratches it inflicted.

I bent down and pushed gingerly against the cat’s hind leg—only confirming what I had already known to be true. As far as I knew Zippy wasn’t sick, and he wasn’t particularly old. So I figured he ate something that killed him. He was always chomping down large clumps of my housemate’s wool sweaters and vomiting soon afterward.

Zippy and I might have traded blows once or twice, but Sarah, my housemate, could be pretty awful to him—leaving him in the bathroom for entire weekends for pestering her and knocking over her beauty products. I, myself, would let him out, but then she’d stick him in there again. Sometimes, she’d leave a note on my bedroom door that read something like: “he’s MY cat.”

It wasn’t long before a profound sadness came over me, and my eyes grew wet with tears. Soon I began talking to Zippy about how he was in heaven now, how he could have all of the wool his little heart desired and never get sick, how he’d never get locked in the bathroom again.

Then I called Sarah and told her the news. She fell apart, and I could hear the voices of people trying to console her on the other end.

“What happened?” she asked when she finally got back on the phone.

“I don’t know. Maybe he ate something he shouldn’t have. I was in my room having a nap, and later I opened up the door to leave for class. That’s when I saw him, and weirdly, I knew right then.”

I was actually in my room masturbating, but I didn’t think this piece of information was vital to this story.

“Oh my God. I saw him just this morning, and he looked fine. I… I can’t believe it.”

Sarah cleared her throat, and I heard her say something I couldn’t make out to someone who I assumed was beside her.

“I’m a mess, you should see me, Kel,” she continued. “Will you call Animal Control and have them take the body? You don’t mind?”

“You’re not coming home to see Zippy?” I said, a little shocked.

“I just can’t—please, Kel?” she cooed. “You’re better at dealing with these things than me.”

“Sarah, I really think you should come home,” I responded, suddenly angry. “I am already late for IR. And he is your cat.”

She took an audible breath.

“You’re right Kelly—he IS my cat, and if you please, I’d rather remember him the way he was when he was alive.”

She said this with a touch of annoyance.

“It would be too disturbing to see him the way he is now.”

“Okay,” I said after a few moments.

“Thank you, Kel.”

“You’re welcome.”

I hung up, took another look at Sarah’s dead cat, and walked out the door to go to class.


Ian Starttoday has work forthcoming or published in Apocrypha and Abstractions, Eunoia Review, Foliate Oak, and Feathertale.com. He lives in Northern California with his wife and two cats. He once entertained the idea of starting a lit magazine devoted to cat-themed fiction.

See Ian’s list of 5 Things tomorrow in our ongoing contributors’ series.

How We Solved the Problem

by a contributor

John Oliver Hodges

Tina gives up rings and reading, gives up sucking my finger. I give up biting her toenails, not wearing underwear. No longer do I smell Tina’s short feet or lick her eyeteeth. Tina stops mopping on her precious lotions, thank the Lord, her Dermetics and Soothing Aloe Relief Moisturizer. I put my camera down. Haven’t snapped for a week. My hands feel off, ants all over my body.

Instead of eating up on peanut butter and Saltine sandwiches, instead of swimming, instead of making love through hot afternoons, we take these long-ass walks, like for miles. Today we cross the Halifax. We sit on a bench facing the Royal Steak House on Main Street, and watch folks walk through the glass doors for dinner. Everybody eating at the Royal is rich. Got ties on, suits, the women in fancy dresses and hats, the cars in the lot Buicks and Cadillacs. “I want steak,” Tina says. “You got enough? I want cow, real meat soaked in blood.”

“Should I give up carrots?” I say.

“Slave,” Tina says. “The only way is to go all the way. Once we go all the way we can go back to before. You can take pictures again.”

“All the way?” I say.

She didn’t mean to say what she said, but she said what she said, is embarrassed by it.

I wonder what she misses more, my touch, or her bottle of Jergens Soft Shimmer.

“A riddle,” I say. I say, “if you eat meat your pussy will taste like crap, but if you don’t eat meat, I’ll never eat your pussy again.”

“Jesse, don’t.”

“But wait. You already are a carnivore. For a minute I forgot.”

“Jesse,” she says.

And I want to bite into her arm, taste her blood in the late afternoon sunshine. What she will feel won’t touch what I felt. I don’t touch her. I check my wallet. “All I got’s enough for McDonald’s,” I say, and we head down the strip, cross A-1A, enter McDonald’s. I order two Big Macs and a super-size of fries. It’s gross, but it’s gotta be done. We’ve decided. We take our tray to a table and, being Tina’s the meat eater, she goes first, denuding her burger with dainty fingers. Her mouth opens, even before she’s brought the thing to it. Her lips pull back around her teeth. Before the stuff enters her mouth, I see the dangling thing guarding the entrance to her throat, a little bell ringing out the music of our lives.


John Oliver Hodges lives in Brooklyn. He wrote The Love Box, a collection of short stories that won the Tartt First Fiction Award, and War of the Crazies, a novella. His writing and photography have appeared in 100 journals, and can be found here and here and here.

See John’s upcoming list of 5 Things in our ongoing contributors’ series.

Just like Lily

by a contributor

Susan Rukeyser

for Frida

The Broken Column

Every day, Lily’s kidnappers left food on the table. Today was a small stack of tamales, each wrapped and tied in corn husk, and guava nectar in a glass greased with fingerprints. Next to the food, as always, was the book. On the day she was locked in here, a note on the book said: OPEN. But she didn’t, not until today.

For the first few days of her captivity, Lily rarely left the mattress. She thought she’d been drugged. She fell into blurry sleep, then soundless black, free of memory. Surfacing at last, as if from underwater, she saw another note near the book: SPEAK.

Today Lily sat at the table and considered the blue walls. They reminded her of the view from her childhood bedroom, its glimpse of the Long Island Sound. Those were noisy years, her parents’ arguments drowning out all else. Some weekends, Lily was put on a Manhattan-bound train to stay with the grandmother who took her to the Met and bought her things from the gift shop, like The World in Art and a set of colored pencils. While her parents raged downstairs, Lily kept her eyes on the blue she knew was the Sound. She held up pencils to compare: Cerulean? Cornflower? If she could get that right, maybe everything else.

Remembering, Lily’s chest went tight.

The day she met Jon was almost Halloween, but the skies were sunny and blue. Lily was on her lunch break from her job at the hospital, where she dispatched janitors from a basement cubicle. She walked past several restaurants with tables on the sidewalk. Jon sat with friends outside an Italian place, all of them wearing coats. As Lily passed, Jon said, “Trick or Treat?” Lily stopped, unsure if he was addressing her or someone else. She held his gaze long enough that he took her to be flirting back. There were misunderstandings between them from the beginning.

When Lily recalled that day, she thought of the Edward Hoppers in The World in Art. Those lonely figures, eyes averted. Those shadows. Jon would say that’s just like Lily, to take a good memory and sour it.

Maybe Lily’s kidnappers knew Jon. Maybe they wanted to teach her a lesson because she broke Jon’s heart. Or, wasted his time. But was she to blame that Jon mistook confusion for flirtation, and Lily for someone she wasn’t?

Things were okay, their first and only winter together, when they didn’t know each other well. Most nights they were a tangle of limbs in search of something they couldn’t explain and didn’t find. They rented the top half of a house by the Stamford train station, above an old hamburger joint. Lily played with pastels and charcoal, dabbled in oils, but her hands never said what she meant. All day and into the night, trains rattled past, to and from New York City. A meaty stench filled the building.

Jon worked the floor at Best Buy. He liked to say, “Tell people what they want, they don’t know.” He suggested Lily make stuff she could sell, so she tried woodwork. Hunched over a little table on their porch off the back, she made dollhouse furniture. She did enjoy that, building households, everything contained. She asked Jon once, had he ever dreamed he was a god, a world in his control? He asked if she was drunk.

By spring, they sold her furniture at weekend flea markets. Lily arranged the displays but Jon did the talking. He said Lily needed to try harder with people. He was practical, and she needed that. Didn’t she?

Lily was happiest alone, on the porch, deeply focused on carving the tiniest objects, like the fruit she glued into walnut-shell bowls: bananas, pears, Red Delicious apples. Painted and placed on screens to dry, the apples resembled drops of blood. Lily wanted to illustrate that, somehow, the connection between blood and apples. She remembered a page from The World in Art: Masaccio’s mortified Eve, stumbling from Eden. Suddenly ashamed, knowing the blood to come, the suffering ahead for every daughter. Adam was beside her, but it was Eve’s fault. Lily turned to this page so often it was ruined by fingerprints. She imagined the taste of apple still on Eve’s tongue. But to express her feelings about apples and blame and blood and punishment, to even understand them, Lily would need time to sketch, and think. Jon didn’t like it when she retreated into herself, what he called “daydreams.” Oh, frustration. How swiftly it became rage.

Lily and Jon began to argue about her reluctance to engage potential customers or hang out with his friends. To make conversation, be normal. He said, “Why are you so weird? So quiet?” Lily realized he didn’t know her. Or like her, much.

When Jon ended it, as he rubbed on sunscreen before heading to a Memorial Day BBQ, he said, “You’re a miserable girl. No, worse: angry.”

Mostly, Lily felt relief.

Lily hadn’t seen her kidnappers or heard their voices. She assumed they were women. She felt them watching, through the mirror Lily suspected was one-way glass. There were microphones in here, and cameras, she was sure.

She felt their disappointment, each day she didn’t open the book.

Today, she did. It looked a lot like The World in Art. Lily paged through, leaving fingerprints. She came to a halt at Frida Kahlo. Lily hadn’t suffered a devastating traffic accident, but she felt that broken column-spine. That fractured support. Lily knew Frida’s brace like a cage. She knew that closed mouth.

She cleared her throat. Gathering her whole voice, so her captors would hear without difficulty, she said: “YES, I’m angry. Sometimes miserable. I’ll figure out how to say it.” Cradling the book against her chest, Lily rose and moved to the door. She wasn’t surprised to find it unlocked.


Susan Rukeyser writes stories because she can’t stop. Believe it, she’s tried. Her work appears in or is forthcoming from MonkeybicyleSmokeLong QuarterlyPANKThe View from Hereand WhiskeyPaper, among others. She has one novel out for consideration and another in a drawer. Find her here: www.susanrukeyser.com

See Susan’s list of 5 Things You Should Read tomorrow in our ongoing contributors’ series.

There in the Countryside Many Miles Away

by a contributor

Anthony Martin

When I found the postcard from Remy beneath my bed I immediately wrote him at the return address. Mama immediately questioned my judgment.

“He doesn’t live in Paris,” she said as she reached for her coffee from behind her morning read. “He might still be out on the ranch, there in the hills.”

“Yes, near Bordeaux,” I replied. “That’s where he wrote the postcards from.” My mother lowered her book to the table and looked me in the eye.

“That was nearly ten years ago, Andre. Since before your father passed. He won’t recognize you even if you do manage to track him down.”

“Papa loved him,” I reasoned. “So do you, ma. Remy is blood.” But she wasn’t looking at me anymore. Her gaze was elsewhere, unfocused and lost outside the kitchen window. We were quiet for a while after that.

I left for France the next day.

~

I tried to picture my uncle as the airplane lurched into Charles de Gaulle. Remy. I was still too young to make sense of everything when we last visited him, back when Papa was still youthful and Mama could still smile. She says he was my father’s rock after the war, the one he talked about most after coming back stateside. Remy the brother, Remy the sly lady-killer and Remy the antihero were all characters in so many of the stories I was told as a young one, stories Mama will still romanticize today after a bottle or two of Italian table wine. “Out bullshit any bullshitter,” she’ll say. “Sweet talk high-society out of its drawers.”

I hitched from the airport to Gare du Nord and made it with a few hours to kill before the train to Bordeaux. From the shadows of a little commuter café I could see out into the station where the neat rows of tracks stretched out toward daylight, each occupied by an idle train waiting to wind out of Paris and off into Europe: Amsterdam via Brussels; Vienna via Munich; London straightaway.The pigeons came and went more frequently than the trains, descending from the rafters to flap their clumsy wings and skirmish over the scraps that the day’s many travelers had left behind on the concrete platforms. I nearly stepped on a few when I finally boarded for Bordeaux.

~

Daylight was waning by the time my train reached the origin of Remy’s correspondence and the destination of my own. It was one of those listless places with a long name that starts in the back of the throat and ends beautifully; a place where you always seem to arrive late in the move from afternoon to evening, the streetlamps flickering on and the thunderstorm creeping in.

They’re funny those moments when your mother’s wisdom comes full circle and slaps you upside the head but you’re too far away to let her know—those moments when you’re standing at a nondescript train station in a place where everybody knows everybody but you and the few francs in your pocket have you reflecting on whatever the hell you were thinking when you chose to hop a plane and a train and venture to this corner of the world. I would have liked to tell Mama right then that she was right, that I was dreaming when I got the idea to reconnect what was left of our stateside kindred with what was left of Remy and his after all those years that had passed since the writing I found under my bed was postmarked.

I shouldered my bag and walked into the station hoping to find a bus into town or a word about lodging. I made it as far as the café there, its tables empty save for a lone man sitting at the window in front of a bottle of beer, tilting his paper toward the window for light to read by. When I took a seat not far away the man put down his paper and looked at me cockeyed. “Avez-vous écrit cette lettre, mon ami?” I didn’t follow. I looked for a waiter. I wanted a drink. The man stood up and walked to my table. “Andre?” he said with a gesture toward the paper in his hand. I looked at my handwriting there in his hand, then back to him. “Come,” he said. “You look just like your mother.”


Anthony Martin (@pen_tight) studies professional writing at San Diego State University, writes computer mumbo jumbo for the layman, and remains a hopeless, mixed-breed Slavophile.