Best of ATM 2017, Fiction

As 2017 comes to its close, Across the Margin takes a look back at some of its most treasured moments in Fiction…

Throughout this final week of 2017, Across the Margin will be seasoning the air with thanks for all those who have spent time within our pages while sharing our picks for the “Best of Across the Margin, 2017.” Our best-of compilations begins with a look at our choices for the finest Fiction stories of the year, and an excerpt from each to wet your whistle…


“Ice Eyes of the Turquoise Passage” by Rekha Valliappan

A window into the mind’s eye of an artist as she crafts, where a blusterous mountain painting ripens amid slithering engines of instantaneous death…

“First I could see nothing. Then I was hypnotized by the old sandstone quarry merging with the flaming sky. This was my third attempt, carrying with it ghosts from my last visit. I had reached my breaking point. Five days had passed, and my primed medium-size canvas was as dry as a bone. The entire situation was uncanny. I had come to these grassy meadows in search of a vision. But it had eluded me.

Guided by instinct, I picked up my easel and brushes and moved to the hillock, by the green foliage and purple heather. The air had surprisingly gotten cooler, although golden sunlight gashed the skies, parting the fluffy cloud cover. I hugged my light cardigan tighter as I made my way, the breeze whipping across my pale cheeks.”


“Sweet Oblivion” by Steven Bryan Bieler

A tech manager’s journey to take his mind off lost love, and confront the fears that lie buried deep inside, begins with an axe and ends on a rooftop, listening to Pink Floyd as the sun slowly sets…

“It was Friday morning, hours away from the Memorial Day weekend, and Jason didn’t know what he was going to do for the next three days, except stand in front of the sink, eating dinner with a spoon from a carton of coffee ice cream. Or play Doom. Or join the other guys without a life and go into work. He could hitch a ride from somebody, sleep in the hammock under his desk, shower next door at the 24H, and get takeout from the Chinese place or the Greek drive-thru.

If my life was a novel, I’d take it back to the library.

But Jason could cut down the trees. There were two. They were called Hawthorns. They were related to roses even though they were trees and twelve feet tall. They stood in the wide strip of grass between the street and the sidewalk in front of their one-story, blue-and-white house with the covered porch. He and Jenn had sat on the porch when it rained. They watched the rain and listened to the Mariners or played music. No, no, no. No more rain-watching. Jenn was gone. Her choice.”


“Subterranean” by Paul Albano

“Everyone was in a state of suspension, living in small voids sequestered from time.”Hold on tight for a night on the town with “The Chapters”…

“It was just past two thirty, so there was a cover to get into Subterranean. We paid the bouncer, a lithe bearded man with a blue tie knotted around his forehead, and slid in through the entranceway. Like all early morning bars it teemed with people. Conny couldn’t walk so we carried him in behind a young muscular guy in a Croatian soccer jersey seated on stool. We stood there until the muscular guy was guilted into giving up his seat and we propped Conny up. Conny tried to order an absinthe fountain but we vetoed it and instead ordered him a water, which we made him finish, and then a beer. Kemper chose something Spanish, Pete Clifton another whisky, and I stuck with the vodka and soda.

My lucidity flitted in and out and I had trouble keeping my balance until I found a second wind, a regeneration, what great athletes and new mothers always seem to find in moments of extreme peril. I drank more. Jason, Chapter Nineteen, and the clown oddly all showed up. The clown stood cartoonishly tall and I was fairly certain he was an ex-professional wrestler, one of the really tall ones. He asked if Conny should be drinking and I said that’s mighty grand coming from an eight foot clown. The clown looked surprised and said he’s capable of human empathy like anybody else.”


“The Color of Her Name” by Laure Van Rensburg

“I trap the memory in my skin, an invisible tattoo of our encounter, so if I die on a field or in a trench I can do so with her arms around me once again, one last time.” A passionate affair burdened by the promise of a life that can never be…

“I slip out of bed with slow, considerate gestures my sturdy body is not accustomed to. The darkness enveloping her bedroom recedes until the dark shape of a chair emerges. I lift my shirt and trousers from it, and carefully dress, leaving the silence of daybreak undisturbed, so as not to wake her. She rests on her side, the cotton sheet hugging the lines of her body. My eyes follow them up to the delicate curve of her neck that calls me for a kiss, but I resist its siren song.

The affair only lasted three days, but she will never know how much it all meant to me. How much she means to me. That’s why I don’t wake her. If I do my courage will leave and I will stay, and the train is waiting for me and after that a plane. The Pacific — my final destination — awaits. And there, a war. My time with her resembled the promise of a life I’ll never have, but to her I was just a passing adventure.”


“Desert Stars” by Cameron Kirk

Two disparate lives, that of a pilot and a nomad, intersect under the vast, glimmering skies of the desert….

“The night sky resembled dusted diamonds twinkling in eternity. They shone and sparkled, some near and some unimaginably distant, creating a god-like depth to the heavens.

Through the thickset was a star blazing brighter than any, moving across their glowing background, leaving them stationary in its wake. With screaming engines aflame, twisted metal cooling even as it melted, a machine made Earthfall in a slow, arching plummet.

When the smoking machine had fully embraced the desert sand, and the twisting, uncomfortable union was complete, silence once again echoed across the desert landscape. There had been no one to witness the end of the machine, no one to see it spiral through the night sky to its cold, undulating grave.

No one except a nomad draped in white robes.”


“Stint At A Phone Bank In California” by Ian Driscoll

A story, surreal as it may be, that acts as a warning of the grievous price there exists for complacency…

“Half-reclined in my chair, I surveyed the scene. Mild-mannered lumps of non-threatening flesh surrounded me. Black, white and brown, they all possessed the same doe-eyed look of passivity and compliance. They were trained animals who no longer allowed themselves to wish for freedom. Their lives were governed by a ticking timepiece, by the anticipation of fifteen minutes of fresh air here and there, and by the awful creepy crawl of the seconds on the big, yellowed clock that hung on the back wall, presiding dictatorially over all of us. They didn’t seem to notice it. They seemed unaffected, unaware. They seemed downright pleasant.

Was I the only one to sense the approaching doom, the stillness in the air that presaged this cataclysm of biblical proportions? Could I possibly be the only one feeling the life draining steadily out of my fingertips and the individual hairs on my head graying and shriveling with the passing of every aching moment? Was I the only one to see the yawning of some insatiable, spectral maw, hovering just at the periphery of our waking existence, waiting to lock its jaws around all of our necks and feast upon our remains until nothing remained save ash and pencil nubs? And if I was the only one who was aware, was it my duty to warn them? Perhaps. Perhaps what was necessary was a rousing cry and an impassioned speech to shake them all from their stupor and propel them out the doors and into new life.”


“The Hotel Room” by T.E. Cowell

This week we feature a double dose of the introspective, melancholy, and always relatable work of T.E. Cowell, On this occasion, Cowell ushers us into one man’s penthouse sanctuary where calming respite is offered from the incessant and pervasive noise of the world below…

“The hotel was massive. Its footprint took up an entire city block lengthwise and widthwise. His first night there, Paul had a room with a view of a large city square. Through the windows he saw old church buildings, impressive for their size if not their age. He saw pigeons going about their business and people standing or crossing the square, some in groups, others alone. He saw someone dressed as the grim reaper in the square and then watched someone walk up to him—or could it have been a her?—to get their picture taken with the grim reaper’s arm around them.

It wasn’t a bad view, Paul decided, but there was something about it that bothered him. He was on a top floor and the people and the square beneath him felt so far away. He felt excluded from it all. It almost felt like he was in a castle. But instead of feeling like a king, Paul felt small and alone.”


“The Cull” by R. E Hengsterman

“Amongst all the ruin there were rumors of salvation, people searching, desperate, scared and broken. I’d sought the same redemption.” The reckoning is upon us…

“I increased my pace, fearing abandonment. Over my shoulder there was a lagging procession of humans, three dozen souls lined up single file. Their heads bobbed slowly, fighting exhaustion and hunger. Their faces, shielded from the sun and the poisoned air with jury-rigged turbans, plastic visors, surgical masks, bandanas, and tattered baseball caps, were seldom visible. The looters, the vandals and the malcontent torched the county. What survived, the landscape, the fragments of civilization that remained, and the weather-beaten people, bore a tenacious black residue. It wasn’t long before everything above the height of a man became a smoldering pile of scorched earth.

Exhausted from days upon days of migration, I had nothing but time to rewind my life. I’d heard of men and their deathbed regrets, and I became such a man, full of laments, and of slow death, wishing I had been true to myself, wishing I’d cared for someone other than myself. Until now, I’d been able to dehumanize the collapse. But the last few days I’d had trouble resolving the current state of my existence. The wasteland I now crossed, against my past life, was the ordinary life of a failed man. Was this my punishment? Was this retribution for our past actions?”


“Funeral” by John S Alty

An offering of flash fiction where a tortured man confronts true evil, and bids it a final — and welcome — farewell…

“When the priest started his eulogy of Adam, a man he couldn’t possibly have known, Michael left the church. With his hands pushed deep into the pockets of his raincoat, he strolled between the weathered tombstones adjacent to the church. Random gusts of wind sent leaves skittering around his legs, and a grim-colored sky hung low overhead threatening rain. Adam always did have a sense of occasion, Michael thought, this is a fitting day for a funeral. A freshly dug hole gaped dark and bottomless and the apparatus of burial was ready. Michael walked solemnly to a copse of trees from where he could watch the proceedings unrecognized. Crows screamed their indignation at his intrusion and clattered loudly as they took to the sky.

Handfuls of soil rattled onto the coffin, flowers were dropped, words were ripped away on the wind and then it was over. Black clad figures drifted away towards the cars as Michael stood alone staring into the the freshly dug hole. Few men can be described as truly evil, but this was one; he’d cut a swath through life leaving a trail of misery and pain behind.”


“Devolution” by Frederick Foote

Laboring to become as thin, as weightless, and as quiet as a shadow, to help guide into the world that what must endure…

“Watch the meadow. The meadow with its green, bright, sun-burnished bushes and flowering brambles running along the creek. There are flower colonies and colorful outposts on the meadow’s floor with blooms and blossoms in a dizzying array of pastels, irradiance, and primary colors.

I slouch in the woods bordering the meadow. In the cool shadows, I’m a shadow in training, laboring to become as thin, as weightless, and as quiet as true shadows. Just you wait and watch. I’m the shadowy sentry of patience.

She approaches, entering the meadow smiling and prancing, shoulders back, head held high, breast proud, in a short blue skirt and a sparkling white top. Ahh, the swish, swish of the skirt fabric on her tan thighs, the bounce of her bonnie, brown curls. I almost betray myself with a sigh, a smile, and a tingling between my own thighs. How unshadow-like of me. I’m a shadow. I’m a shadow, I remind myself.”


And last but not least, because of the fact that ATM Publishing’s latest release began as a standard submission to Across the Margin, we are happy to include Interstitial Burn Boy Blues by Trevor James Zaple as part of 2017 Best of Fiction list!

“Stuart watched the kid shake and mutter to himself in the seat across the aisle. His skin looked waxy in the dingy interior bus lights, and Stuart was sure that if he reached across and caressed the kid’s forehead with the back of his hand that skin would be near to scalding. He ran his tongue along the back of his teeth and watched the kid carefully. No one else in the general vicinity seemed to be concerned. Stuart noticed an old man dozing in the seat behind the kid, and a young couple murmuring to each other beneath a blanket in the seat ahead of him.

“Scourge of the panhandle,” the kid muttered, and Stuart looked away. He stared out of the window into the emptiness of the night. There was absolutely nothing to see; there was no moon in the sky and nothing to illuminate beyond the arid brush and gravel that lay on either side of the road to Flagstaff. Blackness rushed by like a hurricane wind and only the occasional light shining wanly from far off allowed for the recognition of motion.”


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