Winners of our monthly Flash Fiction Contest
Each month Prime Number Magazine holds a contest for flash fiction (up to 751 words) with a small entry fee of $7 (a prime number) and a first prize of $251 (also a prime number)
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We of the Water-Chambers
All of us, traveling through esophageal underground water-chambers, for a thousand years.
Some of us disappearing from one spot and teleporting to another, fifty feet west, but with blond hair, and mysterious dirt under our fingernails.
Or wading straight along the wall, until it curved, then curving with one hand along it, eyes closed, feeling minnows dart across our ankles, our fingers sliding over tiny holes in the walls. When we stopped to plug our fingers in the holes we felt them going on and on, micro-tunnels with little streams inside, dripping into the chamber.
Or some of us wide-eyed taking pictures—all the light jetting down from above—unclear whether it was sunlight or something wholly else.
Or looking at each other’s faces, the shimmering water-light reflected across them, so many of us changed by now, some changed many times. One of us was surrounded by prickly rubbery orbs which clung to her face and helped her navigate by sending out painful electric charges when a wrong step was made.
Or one of us leading a dog on a leash, and stumbling and tripping face down in the water, and getting out unrecognizable, blue and black lightning singes streaking the skin, lips hanging loose, the leash let go of—and the dog getting free. The dog turning back, looking at us, whimper-growling for a second, then lunging, snapping its jaws at our face.
Some of us, a few times, finding the roving tunnel that curved back to the surface, climbed out—but all who did, for their own individual reasons, always chose to come back.
And once, a girl stumbled down here, the first outsider in a few hundred years—and we heard her family calling for her, in the world above—we saw them as we walked under one of the spots of light: them above us as if standing on glass, them standing in a pool of water, searching the water, combing it with their bare hands. And we asked her—her in the center of the light, looking up—if she wanted to go back. She said yes.
But then, years later, when a group of us found the way, faces blue and fronded—the girl stood there, at the entrance to the tunnel leading up and out—saying, I want to leave, but shaking her head, holding herself back, arms wrapped around her sides, attacking anyone who tried to nudge her forward, until she ripped apart and the dust filled the chamber and half of it left the caves and went back up to the surface. We imagined it flooding the sunlight looking for those who would remember her but would not recognize her.
Rainie Oet (formerly Jacob) is a nonbinary writer. They are the author of the chapbooks No Mark Spiral (CutBank Books, 2018) and With Porcupine (winner of the 2015 Ruby Irene Prize from Arcadia Press). Their work appears in The Adroit Journal, Poetry Review, jubilat, Colorado Review, and Sycamore Review, among other publications. They are an MFA candidate in Poetry at Syracuse University, where they were awarded the Shirley Jackson Prize in Fiction. Say hi at rainieoet.com.
Judged by the Press 53/Prime Number Magazine editorial team
First Prize $251
Followed by Bio
Jabbering my words in front of Lefty, the oxen-shouldered lifeguard. But maybe I wouldn’t jabber if he wasn't constantly fingering the whistle looped around his neck.
Lefty, I say, any drownings? Do you mind if I smoke?
Don't annoy me, Winthrop. Just go about your business, whatever that is.
Maybe I’ll go off the high dive.
Lefty's vacuum cleaner lips suck up all the air, and I want to tell him to save some for the rest of us. There is no high dive, just a low dive.
I flit along the concrete deck, the blue on my left. There’s other things. I must find Parker to tell him of my discovery. A bullet is a bullet. If I didn't have this one in my head I could walk around much straighter. It’s this bullet making me flit. But here’s a kind horizontal lady, heavy legs you can count on.
Did you see the way I walk?
She looks up from her magazine, shading her eyes or saluting.
I walk funny, I can’t help it.
Winthrop! Lefty calls, coming over. Is he bothering you, Ms. Swift?
Am I bothering you, Ms. Swift?
Not at all.
Under the car. Oil work. Strut work. Springs.
Well, just don’t bother the guests, Lefty says, and goes away.
I’m sorry you had to see that, I tell the kind lady. Besides legs, there’s shoulders, but not like Lefty’s. And also a speck of salad. Just east of her lips, hopeful-looking in the corner. Name’s Ronald, I say, taking a seat on the edge of the next lounge over. I’m a regular. I have a bullet in my head. That’s why I walk like that.
I once had a bullet in my head, Ms. Swift says. She smiles, the kind of smile you find in kind ladies. I don’t know how it got in there, but I couldn’t walk right for days.
Go on, I say, hoping like crazy.
I was much younger, I’d say about your age.
Kind ladies in lines or next to you at the movies or at the shopping places with Parker. My hope is to get one of our own. Our Lady of Constant Kindness, we could call her. A picture comes into my head of the three of us, me, Parker, and Ms. Swift, all living together in a big house. With Lefty as the mean neighbor.
Parker’s this guy, I say. Came down from Pittsburgh to look after me.
Pittsburgh’s a fine town, Ms. Swift says.
Because of all the things.
You know, things.
Right, got it, she says. You don’t have to tell me. I know about things.
The speck just east of her lips looks lucky since it's green like Ireland. She throws her legs over, her feet onto the deck. The magazine slides off her lap. The pages messed up. My eyes starting up. Always they start up. Start-ups, Parker calls the tears. Crying business, he calls the drops. Ever since Mom, things I can't say about. But Ms. Swift knows.
It’s okay, she says, beginning to pack up, the magazine also. Cry all you want. I don’t mind.
The bullet came right out of the TV, got me right between the eyes.
And that’s how? What a fine young man you are! Ms. Swift announces it like on the news. Maybe you shouldn’t watch so much television, though. And don’t worry about that lifeguard.
Where are you going?
I must be leaving.
You really have to go? Her feet enter the sandals. She stands, wraps a skirt. What if I start up again? How will I know where to find you?
It’s easy, she says. Just close your eyes and say Ms. Swift. And I’ll be there.
Later in the day, about three o'clock, I try it. Ms. Swift, I say. I open my eyes. There’s Parker, right over me. What’re you looking at? You better be behaving yourself. Not bothering Lefty too much.
This lady told me not to worry about Lefty.
She had salad for lunch.
What is it now? Parker wants to know. It’s the drops again, ever after. Time to go, Ronald, he says. And knock off the business already.
She said we could all live together in a big house, I tell him. A bathtub in every room. She promised. Go ask her yourself if you don’t believe me. Her name is Ms. Swift. All you have to do is close your eyes.
Luke Tennis is an award-winning fiction writer. The author of Bernardo the Daredevil, he has received two fiction writing grants from the Maryland Arts Council as well as first place in different writing contests. His short stories have most recently appeared online in The Forge Literary Magazine and in Free State. He lives with his wife and two children in Baltimore and may be contacted at email@example.com
Judged by the Press 53/Prime Number Magazine editorial team
First Prize $251
Followed by bio
The One Thing That Contains Everything
Every few months Allen would relapse and Lindsay would have to drive up to Terrible’s, a casino on a little spit of water just off I-35 in southern Iowa, before he maxed out their lives on some new system—craps, blackjack, roulette, it didn’t matter, he was convinced he’d beat the house someday.
She wandered the gaming tables, dodged the senior citizens in the beeping neon aisles of slot machines, walked the wax figures exhibit—a woman had her face burrowed in Michael Jackson’s neck—then sat down to rest at a blackjack table.
“Are you playing,” the dealer asked.
Lindsay laid a twenty on the table, her last bill.
“Changing twenty,” the dealer said.
“Hard to believe we do this,” she said to the man beside her. “We all know what the odds are.”
The man shrugged. “You know what the odds are against gravity being just right for life in the universe?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Odds’re an archer hitting a pie plate,” he said, “if the plate’s on the other side of the galaxy. And the archer’s blindfolded.”
“What are the odds that I’d run across my own name scratched into the wood on death row in Gonzalez, Texas?” He shrugged again. “Not only does God play dice, he sometimes throws’em where they can’t be seen.”
What were the odds they had any money left?
“Why is there a bird at the table?”
“This is Fellini’s parrot,” he said as he stroked its red and yellow head.
He nodded. “She testified in a murder trial today so I thought I’d reward her with a night out.”
“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom,” the bird said.
“That’s Kierkegaard,” Lindsay said. “Stupid bird.”
“Could you choose one thing and make it the reason for your existence?” Fellini’s bird asked. “The one thing that contains everything, because your dedication to it makes it infinite?”
“I don’t know,” Lindsay said.
They were dealt their cards. Each of hers had a devil. The man’s had a hanged man and a moon.
“I don’t know how to play,” she said.
“You don’t know how to play blackjack?”
“What are these cards?
“Tarot,” he replied.
“Put the gun down,” the bird said.
He shook his head. “Gets stuck sometimes. That was from earlier.”
She was dealt a card with the country upon it. Somewhere on there, she thought, was their little house in Leon. And Allen, Allen was somewhere in the picture too. Maybe dead broke and drunk, walking the moonlit hills and fields of Iowa, as cattle circled their young and coyotes called, but the figures in the stars, bodies of lights, would answer no one.
Loss, she realized, was what drove him. Or the promise of loss—a renunciation of sorts. An embrace of lack. And that was what drove her as well—she was a pilgrim of his absence. That was her need.
You always have a choice, she thought, and doubled down.
Mark Wagenaar is the author of three award-winning poetry books, including the Saltman Prize-winning Southern Tongues Leave Us Shining, which was just released by Red Hen Press. His poetry and fiction have appeared widely, including in The New Yorker, Tin House, the Southern Review, River Styx, the Cincinnati Review, and Gulf Coast. He is an assistant professor at Valparaiso University.