This Week in Short Fiction


This week, a story at Smokelong Quarterly instructs us on how to become a new person. The title of Rebecca Bernard’s story, “How to Be Another Person in Five Days,” plays humorously with the trope of familiar self-help programs and fad diets that promise a “new you” in x amount of time, but the story itself is anything but light and fluffy.

You will begin by letting go. Lie down and open your mouth. Can you feel them? The air particles are moving in and out, alighting on your tongue and residing in your being. The secret is in the kind of particles. If you taste yellow, stand up. This yellow is sweet like the melancholy you felt as a small child on Sunday afternoons. If you can’t taste yellow, stand up. Move toward the nearest forest. Move toward it slowly. Make sure your legs aren’t moving faster than your heart or the time will escape you.

Bernard’s haunting imperative voice immediately immerses the reader into an emotional landscape that is dense and heavy with meaning. These instructions are not of the surface-level “purge your wardrobe” or “get a new haircut” variety. Rather, this story is about deep work. Each of the five days submerges us in the interior world of transformation, with its setbacks and confusions and grasping attempts at temporary solace, the painful and lonesome process of true change. In Bernard’s hands, even moments of humor and/or banality (“Notice the air around you, its lack of color and its odor of commerce. You have found your way to the Gap.”) are laden with metaphor, association, desperation:

You have found your way to the Gap. Do you like the way the button-down shirts feel when you rub them between your fingers? Do they remind you of your father? Your sister? A teacher who betrayed you? Take the things that have been done to you and write them in grease on the walls of the food court. They are ugly, as they are saturated in such cruelty. See how the walls are smeared with much pain. Not all of it is yours. Notice this.

Bernard’s imagery is evocative and surreal, with teal waves “flecked with the whites of eyes,” descriptions that operate on a level of synesthesia, and lines that land in your gut and stay there long after you’re done reading (“All of the blood that has ever leaked has made the earth alive”). The prose here functions on an evocative intuitive plane, creating an impressionistic world of emotion and sensation more metaphysical than physical. Bernard skillfully renders the sense of being in the liminal space that opens during big changes, after loss or heartbreak or another of the groundswells in life when what we thought we knew, or who we thought we were, shifts. “How to be Another Person in Five Days” acquaints us with the destruction that must of necessity precede rebirth. It instructs us on the hard work of becoming ourselves. And it gives a few practical bits of take-home wisdom, besides:

…return home and find a cane-backed chair. Sit until you feel the bones in your body. They have been there this whole time. They form the outline of your being. Now, you may rest.


Logo art by Max Winter.

Claire Burgess’s short fiction has appeared in Third Coast, Hunger Mountain, and PANK online, among others. Her stories have received special mentions in the Pushcart Prize and Best American anthologies, but haven’t actually made it into one yet. She’s a graduate of the Vanderbilt University MFA program, where she co-founded Nashville Review. She lives in Pittsburgh by way of the deep South and says things on Twitter @Clairabou_. More from this author →