“RSVP” by Michael O’Neill

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No one came to my tenth birthday party. Mother and I awoke at eight in the morning to start setting everything up. I was hardly big enough to carry a wooden picnic table, but I was able to drag it across the lawn and place it by the front walkway. Dad fumed about the tracks I left behind and how I tore up his grass. Mother draped ribbons and streamers along the tree branches and lifted a piñata over our heads. We finished prepping by 11 and waited patiently for everyone’s scheduled arrival at noon.

The Dudleys backed out last second, and Tom and Johnny from the cul-de-sac were grounded by their parents. My cousins Jane and Elisa came down ill from eating too much pizza, and thus never showed. I grew nervous and a little sad when two o’clock rolled around and still no one appeared. I mean, I never expected the Tanners or the Wilsons to show up, but I would have settled for a few neighborhood kids to come, even that big, ugly kid Ross.

By six in the evening the day had lost most of its shimmer and the sun grew more and more tired. Mother and I sat at the picnic table and had picked clean most of the cake. The two of us, together, like sad storefront owners begging for customers. We both stood and took down the piñata, unpinned the tails from the donkey, brought all the banners inside, and placed them back in a box labeled Jacob’s 11th Birthday.

 

Michael O’Neill is a fiction and poetry writer residing in Chicago. His work has appeared in Maudlin House, WhiskeyPaper, the Journal of Microliterature, Unbroken Journal and Great Lakes Review, among others.

twitter: @mt_oneill20

“Camping” by Michael O’Neill

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She had tried for months to get me to go. I’d refused because I didn’t want to head down that path. I didn’t want to do the whole couples retreat thing to save our marriage. I was already out. I had been for years.

In the end there would be a death knell, a final straw. She could tell it was coming and Wisconsin was her savior.

“I made eggs,” she said, passing me a plate.

“Ketchup?”

“No. I didn’t even think about it. I could run to the store. There’s a little place on site.”

“No.”

She had this adventure planned out by the hour. Canoeing at 11. Hiking for the afternoon. Campfire in the evening. I could tell her now and be done with it. I could wait till she goes out to the car, then wander away and make everyone believe I was lost or injured somewhere in the woods.

 

 

“Jackets! Everyone good to go? Alright, we’re gonna push off slowly, then that first current will catch us and pull us downriver,” the instructor said.

What kind of guy wears a neon life jacket for a living and enjoys spending his time with strangers from the suburbs and losers looking to escape their shitty lives? Why is he in this little boat with me and my wife?

The first couple of waves were nothing. The tail end of the canoe would swing out, the bottom taking on a little water, but we kept moving. I was expecting waterfalls or maybe falling rocks.

But no. It was just me, Jan and this guy. Every now and then I’d rock the boat a little, or try to stand up just to throw a little fear into the action. I didn’t like this guy leading the way and telling us what to do. You’re not gonna save my marriage with a wooden paddle.

Jan was having the time of her life; her face said it. She’d turn around and peak back at me to see if I was smiling or not. I’d just look away like I didn’t notice.

I could see up ahead a small channel where the river narrowed and the rocks were larger, sharper. The current was forced into an opening, breaking against the rocks. Jan went to adjust her helmet when the underside of the canoe flipped over.

10 seconds went by before I finally reemerged, my torn life jacket barely able to keep me above the surface. All I could see were three paddles floating on top of the water but no sign of Jan or the guy. The canoe rocked back and forth. The instructor was trapped underneath, his leg bent. I swam over and tried to upright the boat, but I had no traction and was swallowing water. I went under and tried to free him, tugging at his jacket, but the water had begun to flood into his nose. I couldn’t tell if he had stopped moving or not, but I left him there.

Jan, I could see, was struggling against a rock about 20 feet away. She was screaming, but I could only hear the sound of her hands slapping against the water. She was trying to hold on so she wasn’t pulled further downriver where the water deepened, blood covering half her face.

We made eye contact and it was almost effortless how we both knew.

She tried once more to call for me before she slipped and her body was dragged underneath. I waded motionless, braced on a tree branch closer to shore.

The police confirmed within an hour that both of them were gone. I asked the cops to leave me be. I would pack my things and leave in the morning, head home.

We never got to go hiking that afternoon but I still made a fire out behind the little summer house, just as Jan had planned. I tried to start it myself but I gave up after five minutes and began spraying gasoline on top of crumpled newspapers and threw a match.

It was peaceful, sitting there alone with my stick held over the fire. The flames turning green then orange then a soft yellow. I could stare into them and try to imagine a shape, her face maybe. I could try to see my future in the streaks of black smoke. I could try to bring her back. I could try these things.

And yet, seeing the fire struggle for oxygen, trying to hang on before succumbing to the night, was almost too easy. Letting her go was that easy.

I drove back to Illinois the next morning at sunrise. It wasn’t difficult. I tried to conjure up a meaning for the beautifully sunlit September day, locate some sort of metaphor for the long ride home. And I know this is where I was supposed to feel something. But I didn’t.

Many years ago, I too had died. But I did it slowly, hovering above the flatline until I was shocked awake by her absence. How final it was.

 

Michael O’Neill is a fiction and poetry writer residing in Chicago. His work has appeared in Maudlin House, WhiskeyPaper, the Journal of Microliterature, Unbroken Journal and Great Lakes Review, among others.

twitter: @mt_oneill20

“Bottleneck Effect” by Michael O’Neill

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(originally published by Bottlecap Press 2016)

I’ve only recently come to understand the Bottleneck Effect, which occurs when a segment of a population is alienated from the rest of its pack and thus lives in seclusion, creating generations and generations of offspring that begin to differ from the rest of its original species. It’s often found in marine mammals due to the violent nature of hurricanes, as evidenced by the African elephant seal, which nearly went extinct. It can sometimes be seen in large groups of sloths, which are slow to adapt to their surroundings, the runts even more so. If you’re handy with a magnifying glass and are vigilant enough to brave the dangers of the rainforest, you will notice the many different pigmentations of insects that have devolved from their original beauty, ant-sized nonetheless. Or, if you ever make your way to Fairfield, Nebraska, you can come to 621 Henderson St, into the back room on the left with the door tightly locked and examine the human boy that lives there. Notice the stale wallpaper, the dust-ridden baseboards, and the stained carpet of his habitat. Brush your hand overtop his head, touch his cheek with your gentlest finger, feel how odd he is. How strange and different he seems. Please do this. Please.

Michael O’Neill is a fiction and poetry writer residing in Chicago. His work has appeared in Maudlin House, WhiskeyPaper, the Journal of Microliterature, Unbroken Journal and Great Lakes Review, among others.

 

twitter: @mt_oneill20

“Clearing the Brush” by Michael O’Neill

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There’s a burnpile in the neighbor’s backyard, and every week we gather around the fire and throw in our deepest secrets. The whole community arrives to decant their closets, rid themselves of their bedroom shoeboxes with false labels. We take a group approach to controlled exorcisms. No one gets hurt and everybody returns home safely. At night I see hushed whispers and scribbled letters ascending like stars, the voices trapped inside glowing with violence, rattling the night sky and keeping peace over my quiet little town.

Michael O’Neill is a fiction and poetry writer residing in Chicago. His work has appeared in Maudlin House, WhiskeyPaper, the Journal of Microliterature, Unbroken Journal and Great Lakes Review, among others.

twitter: @mt_oneill20