Gale winds and lightning push me a mile or more down the lake.
As the aluminum Grumman canoe fills with late-spring rain.
I bullied my sister, insisting on paddling alone, so she raged.
The storm wiped the smug smile from my face, added pain.
That canoe remains the symbol of love in my heart.
I cling to it in my dreams. Its nurturing hand saved
A ten-year-old that day, and inspires further pours of art:
Paddle trips for trilobites wedged in cliffs of shale.
It waited every winter, unlike others I know
We wrapped cross bars with life preservers to portage lake to creek.
We pulled ashore on Squaw Island, a long way to go,
Retracing the frightful past strengthened this belief.
Fifty years later, there you are, not a spot of rust,
We hit Canandaigua, my love, my arms, my trust.
DOUG STUBER: father, professor, abstract expressionist, Hippie-punk improv rock bassist. Twelfth volume “Chronic Observer” now available at Finishing Line Press’ online bookstore.
‘Doris!’ Came the cry from the living room. ‘Cup of tea for Baal, milk and eighteen sugars, and be quick about it woman.’
Doris gave a long sigh as she put the kettle on for the fourteenth time this morning. It had been two weeks since her husband George had accidentally uncovered a Gateway to Hell in the back garden, whilst fettling with his petunias. Since then they’d had a constant stream of uninvited demons dropping in at all hours for tea. Which one of them was it this time? She wondered. What dreadful, Hellish abomination was sat in her living room, which she’d only just this morning hoovered? Staining her upholstery with blood and charcoal and God knows what kind of filth and likely to destroy the whole house and drag her off to eternal damnation at so much as a misheard sentence. Good Lord – the tension!
‘George?’ Doris called back. ‘Could I have a quick word with you in the kitchen please?’
‘What is it woman, where’s that tea?’ George called back.
‘Just come in to the kitchen George!’
George poked his bald head round the kitchen door, ‘Well?’
‘George Mason you’ve become positively insufferable since you opened that Gateway to Hell.’
‘Me? I’m just trying to make our guest feel welcome Doris. He’s one of the seven princes of Hell for Pete’s sake woman, right hand man to Lucifer himself, if he wants a cup of tea just make him one and be quick about it!’
Doris sighed again, ‘Fine.’ She got on with making the tea. She peeked in to the living room and saw Baal sitting on her formerly cream coloured sofa, now stained with gore and viscera of all kinds not to mention dirt from the flower beds. Baal had three heads; a man, a toad and a cat all sat on top of eight hideously large spider’s legs. It was no wonder none of the neighbours wanted to attend Doris’s coffee mornings any more.
Doris could hear George in the living room, grovelling and fussing round Baal and she thought about what she wouldn’t give to have that kind of attention, any attention really from her husband. Men in their late fifties tended to go one of two ways; they either stood up and fought vigorously against the inevitable onset of old age, they bought sports cars, took up yoga or started fencing or cycling some ridiculous distance for charity. Or they simply rolled over and accepted it meekly, like a once intrepid explorer who has given up all hope and quietly lies down to welcome in the cold as it saps the life from his bones, the unbearable aching gradually giving way to the first warm lapping waves of death.
This was all rather dramatic of course, but Doris could forgive herself a little drama when she had the commander of sixty hellish legions in her living room, crunching up her best bone china in his man teeth while his other heads chattered and screeched terrifyingly. And besides, the explorer in this particular analogy, George, had never even explored anywhere. He’d most likely curl up and die on an expedition to the Co-op in slightly inclement weather.
Doris didn’t feel old. She was looking forward to retirement and to all the possibilities that it would bring. There were holidays to be taken, tennis leagues to win and – hopefully, sex to be had! The closest she’d come to anything like that recently was when Asmodeus the Lust Demon dropped in last week during an episode of Cash in the Attic and she’d had to politely (but firmly) reject his advances.
Ironically, these last two weeks had been the most alive that George had seemed for quite some time, while he had been, quite literally, staring in to the abyss. He’d been so proud of his discovery, like a child on Christmas morning. ‘It’s the entrance to Hades!’ George had exclaimed. ‘Let’s see who’s got the best garden this year you bunch of jammy sods, try and top that.’
His excitement had waned somewhat when no-one seemed that interested in his precious Gateway. He’d phoned the children straight away, Ricard and Sophie were both off living their busy lives and having adventures of their own which was what Doris wanted for them. They’d told George to, ‘WhatsApp them some pics’ which he’d managed to do after an hour’s faffing about but he never even got a response. He’d set up a Twitter account @EntranceToHades_71 but all of his tweets had been derided as being either ‘photoshopped’ or ‘fake news’.
Even Doris had to admit that she had been slightly impressed with the Gateway to begin with – an entrance to another world, a portal to another plane of existence right there in their back garden! Well it was a little bit exciting and perhaps not even all bad. Dagon, the Baker of Hell had brought up some poppyseed muffins which Doris had to admit were delicious. Doris almost caught herself thinking that the inhabitants of Hell were possibly more pleasant company than those of mortal earth to which she was currently bound. She certainly had enjoyed wiping the smile off Christine Chang’s face the other day, always talking about her Pilates and her husband’s promotion at work and the fact they were going to the Maldives for Christmas.
‘Well actually George has uncovered an entrance to the Netherworld in our back garden.’ That shut her up.
Just then Doris was stirred back to reality as Baal disappeared with a sharp crack! Sure enough leaving the sofa completely decimated in his wake. George scurried away out of sight as well and Doris began the task of stripping the covers off the sofa to take them, where? Where on God’s green earth was she going to find a dry cleaners that could do anything about this mess? She should probably just cast the sofa in to the fiery pit and be done with it. Thirty eight years, thought Doris. Thirty eight years she’d been married to George. For twenty five of those years they’d lived right here in this same house in this small suburban cul-de-sac desperately trying to ignore the metaphorical implications of their chosen locale as they became painfully obvious to anyone and everyone except George, who wouldn’t recognise a metaphor if one hog tied him to a spit and roasted him over an open fire. Maybe that’s what Hell really is; the drudgery of the mundane.
George re-entered the room slightly more crestfallen than usual, looking at his phone. ‘Still not heard back from our Sophie or our Richard.’
‘Well what do you expect George? The kids have got their own lives to lead. They’re not interested in relics like us or that stupid Gateway.’
‘The Gateway is not a relic, it’s eternal.’
‘Yes I know the feeling.’
George ignored the remark, or failed to register it. He was now fiddling with a bit of lint on his cardigan and seemed rather engrossed in it.
‘George?’ said Doris, elbow deep in a grotesque melange of sofa covers.
‘Yes my love?’
‘Do you remember my nineteenth birthday?’
‘Not really. Why?’
‘You booked the afternoon off from work and you rode your bike for ten miles to my house with a picnic basket to take me out for the afternoon.’
‘Yes that’s right. It was sunny all morning and then it absolutely hammered it down with rain all afternoon, bloody disaster.’
‘No George, it was lovely. We just sat at the kitchen table and ate pork pie and sandwiches and drank your awful home brewed cider. We played a game of draughts, which I won and we listened to the radio until it started going dark outside, and we chatted George. We just talked about nothing in particular.’
‘We still chat about nothing in particular.’
‘You chat about nothing in particular George Mason. Sometimes I don’t know whether you’re talking to me or just mumbling to yourself. I want us to share a conversation and not just about that stupid Gateway to Hell.’
‘But I thought you liked the Gateway. I thought it would be something which we could both enjoy together.’
‘Enjoy together?’ And what exactly do you enjoy about it George?’
‘Well it’s interesting isn’t it? You’re always saying how you wish we had more going on well that’s pretty interesting isn’t it? The demons can be a little on the strange side I admit and the screaming and the flames and the constant heavy metal music do seem a bit much at times but you know, I just thought you liked it.’
‘What have I ever said or done to give you that impression George Mason? I didn’t like it when you got me a microwave for Christmas, I wasn’t excited when we got the new boiler and I don’t like that ridiculous Gateway to Hell in our back garden!’
‘Well I’m trying my best Doris. I swear I don’t know what you want sometimes.’
‘I want you George. You stupid man. The kids have flown the nest, we’ll both be retired soon and I want to make the most of our lives together. I don’t want to be condemned to an eternity of suffering like those poor souls in the back garden. Just go and cover up that Gateway, you can put up a shed if you want and just spend all your time pottering about in there.’
‘Well now hang on a minute. I know I said I was going to build a shed but I could always put up a Summerhouse, that way we could enjoy the garden together. The rosebushes are almost in flower but the fire and the charcoal and the blood isn’t so good for them so perhaps you’re right. I could put up some decking as well and we could have the neighbours round for barbecues when the weather’s nice. And when it’s raining we can still sit out under the porch and have a game of draughts if you like? It’ll even have underfloor heating free of charge!’
Doris smiled in spite of herself. When she originally offered to sell her soul for a slightly more attentive husband she’d assumed the process would be slightly more expedient but never mind. The Devil takes his time and relishes his tasks but as long as the crafty old bugger got the job done one way or another who was she to argue with that?
RICK WHITE is a fiction writer from Manchester UK. Rick has previously had work published in Storgy, Soft Cartel and Vice Magazine among others. Rick is 34 years old and lives with his wife Sarah and their small furry overlord, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Harry. @ricketywhite
Never think it can’t happen to you. You are too aware. You are too smart. Things like that don’t happen to you.
Things like this happen. They happen repeatedly, and to people who thought they were just as smart as you think you are.
Do you remember how clever you thought were when you first tied your shoes? And how clever you thought you were when you first snuck candy? How clever you were when you aced the spelling test? Or, convinced your parents you were responsible enough to be left alone? Or how clever you were, later, when you secured the perfect job only to find the person who hired you primarily wanted in your pants?
We like to think we are so clever, but we can be outsmarted, and are, more frequently than we like to acknowledge. Everyone thinks they are so clever, but the ones who take advantage are the ones not thinking they are clever, but using all of their cleverness to deceive. We are only more clever than they are if whatever we are spending our time thinking about, all of our time thinking about, is how to get what we want. Those people aren’t more clever than we are in all things, but they are more clever than we are at something primary: they are very good at making us believe we made the choice to be deceived.
We made the choice. If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s ours, and they not only convince us of that, they somehow have a way of unleashing everyone’s blame on the victim.
Why didn’t you tell anyone? Why did you let that happen? I thought I raised you better. I thought you trusted me. What did you do to make that happen? Why didn’t you stop it? You could have just told someone. You could have told me.
It’s not what you were wearing or how you looked or that you were prettier or more handsome or that you asked for it. It’s that everyone agreed to ignore the signs and everyone agreed to absolve the perpetrator because to see it means they aren’t so clever and it also means they are wrong, and they want to be right, even if it means blaming the innocent.
How high did you feel when you snuck the candy? Good? For how long? Did you then feel guilt? Did some of your joy over taking the candy make you feel badly later? Badly enough that you didn’t do it again?
When you tied your shoes, you were proud you could do something yourself, not proud that you deceived the shoes into letting you have your way with them.
Perpetrators don’t feel guilt about taking the candy. They want more. And it doesn’t have to be candy, either. They want the high of everyone thinking they are good, when they aren’t. They like hiding. Hiding is where they feel power. If they can stand right in front of you and you can’t see them, they have not only won, they are powerful, and they want power. They crave it. That’s why they pick those they can overpower. They can overpower you. They can overpower more people than you know, so much more than you know.
And you are especially easy to overpower if you need parents, or love, or money, or shelter, or someone to help with your kids. Money? Time? Help? They hear that word, help.
Do you have it all except you have never been told you are beautiful? No one has ever loved you for who you believe yourself to be? Someone has made you feel less than deserving. Maybe it wasn’t even your parents. Maybe you just look in the mirror and think you don’t deserve anything or aren’t good enough. You don’t see them, but they see you. They know exactly what you need, and they will give it to you, so you’ll give them what they want, until you are so ensconced that it’s like the carnival ride of funny mirrors and you feel the glass and see the other side and cannot find your way out.
The first (or last) person to say I love you, whether they do or not (because it won’t matter if they seem like they mean it because they don’t know what it is) will charm you, because they say they love you and they don’t have to. You won’t know the definition yet. That won’t matter. Those words will seduce you. And they may even be withheld until some damage is already done. You will already know you should have said something about what they wanted. You should have said something, you tell yourself. This is your fault. Not the thing, the not telling. You didn’t tell.
And now there’s this love out there, suggesting you should accept or forgive or even say thank you, thank you for loving me, even if it will take decades to know this is not love.
It isn’t love, right? Even after everything you will learn about love, you will wonder, was it love? It felt like love, even if it only felt that way once and briefly.
You were sleeping, or doing the dishes, or gardening, or just getting out of the shower. The first time you were surprised and didn’t know how to react. You froze. It happened. You didn’t scream. You knew it was wrong. But this person had never been presented as wrong. Only right. Only kind. Only sympathetic. Only generous. You didn’t say yes. You weren’t asked. You were taken. You didn’t say no. You didn’t say anything. And immediately afterward, or the next day, or week, or month, you were told you didn’t say no, so you liked it. You wanted it too, didn’t you? You know I love you, don’t you? We love each other. No one else would understand. They say it’s forbidden. It’s not. I am only like this because I love you and love makes a person do wild things. Remember the great love stories? Wild things.
And it will stop because the high will pass. The person who took you won’t want to anymore because you won’t be as afraid. You will succumb. The secrets will not be so fascinating to them anymore. They will need new secrets. More secrets. The power isn’t power when you don’t recede. It’s not power if you have a choice, any choice. You aren’t supposed to have a choice. And when everyone is so used to it, to what’s happening to you, they aren’t even watching anymore, they haven’t even noticed or questioned or paid any kind of attention in months, the one who taught you all about what love wasn’t will slither away leaving you to wonder what it was that happened and why you let it. You thought you were clever. But if it happened, and it did, then you let it, and you must have wanted it, and you are to blame.
You are to blame.
You believe them. You believe all of them. The perpetrator and all the people not looking at the perpetrator. All the people who turned their heads from you and are now looking directly at you. You say you don’t believe them. You were not to blame. But some part of you still believes them. They get their teeth in you.
If you don’t believe them, then you have to admit you were powerless. And you want some power too, not that kind of power, not the power over someone else, just the kind you felt that first time you tied your own shoelaces. You want to feel proud like that again. But you can’t.
The only really power you have is in convincing everyone else they were the ones who didn’t tell, not you. You shouldn’t have had to tell. It was so obvious if they were only looking.
Look at the perpetrator. The perpetrator is standing right over there. Look at that face, not through it. See it? See that face. It’s deceptive isn’t it? But you are clever too. You can see it if you don’t look away. Don’t look away because it’s easier. Don’t look away.
Look at me you say. See me. I want to be seen. Do you think you are clever? #metoo
DEIRDRE FAGAN is a widow, wife, and mother of two who publishes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Her poem, “Outside In,” nominated by Nine Muses, was a finalist for Best of the Net 2018. She is an associate professor and coordinator of creative writing at Ferris State University. Meet her at deirdrefagan.com
A slippery boy ran in circles around the king’s cadaver.
Under thunder clouds, where the gulls echo.
His friend yelled ballads from the sidelines.
The rain fell and the mud churned, frothing in puddles.
His Bloated Majesty ballooned and stank,
so inflated, his legs stuck out and pointed at the broken rooftops.
Sweaty men wanted the corpse and stood watching the boy.
He amused them, so arms folded.
The other boy stopped yelling and clasped his hands to his eyes,
starting to count backwards.
Laughter rose up, clear, as the men readied.
Air escaped from the king and his noisy stench blew the boy out of his circle.
The boy kept running.
Over black moss.
Over smashed poultry igloos.
His ankles hurt on the curbs.
He thought about the king’s body and how it was behind him,
threatening to explode.
He must look like how people did when they were running from the bombs.
The sirens sang in from the outskirts,
So he took a different way, and discovered a shopping centre
that still existed.
1: Matches from his pocket.
2: An impromptu trash bag torch
He set the building to burn and ran on.
Chairman Boy sat on the dead king’s cardboard throne,
up near the beams at the back of the dark barn.
The boy ran in and stopped.
The other boys sat in a circle all around him,
“You’re late,” Chairman Boy said, “Where’s my king?”
“The lechers got him, a group of jolly meanies,
They had a giggle and all I could do was leg it.”
Chairman Boy pulled a scrunchie bag from his side,
covered schnoz and gob, and huffed a few,
’til the plastic deflated and the puff died away.
He drooped to one side before lifting a finger and pointing at the boy.
“I couldn’t do nothin’! He was ‘bout ta burst anyway.
It weren’t fair, you sending me to zoom round ‘im.
It’s no protection, I tell ya, though I tried me best.”
The other boys rattled their snuffing bags
and the boy spun around under their gloomy eyes.
“You couldna done no better. It’s trying circumstances.”
Outside, the evening weather got dank.
Some boys lit fat dirty candles and the wicks spat out their flames.
All the hay barrels and box crates stacked to make their meeting room.
Under corroded metal the heady conference began.
Chairman Boy sucked on a glow-in-the-dark oversized dummy.
“Where’s my king?” he cried, creasing his face around vacant pupils.
The boy lifted a scratched CD and checked his face in it.
His welts were growing, looking like caviar.
“How we gonna decide who is next up?” he said.
The boys tossed arguments between them into the night,
sometimes wrestling to settle minor grumbles.
“I got qualms about any of us being King Boy,” the boy said finally.
“None of us in this room is fit,” Chairman Boy said,
freshening from his glue stupor.
“As Chairman, I’m proposing we wait here until our king arrives.
Whoever next walks through the door is coronated His Majesty.”
A hush brushed the snuggly barn, the spittle of candles crackling.
Without any objection or ideas, the boys silently concurred.
Hunkered down in the early hours the boys took their waking dreamtime,
given in sleepy solvent gasps, stained plastic soothing.
One by one the candles faltered.
A gentle light left.
And the bright moonrays broke through radiation clouds,
to enter by door and by window on the waiting.
A scabby little one convulsed on the bare floor between pallet stacks.
“Leave him be,” Chairman Boy said, scraping dribble from his drained lips,
“He’s been wanting to die for ages.”
Strangulated sirens blared far off across the deserted city ruins.
The boys had heard them all their lives but still didn’t know what they were telling.
Or if they were telling or meaning anything at all.
Tiny tottering footsteps arrived at the door, a delicate outline wobbling under the moon.
The boy lifted his head in recognition of the sound.
A pair of rear back legs, the tap tap of hoof on concrete.
“Denise,” he said. He sighed.
All the boys roused and looked, snorted, and laughed.
Denise the two-legged lamb was king.
Chairman Boy stood.
“All hail Denise! Denise! Denise!”
The boys repeated, over each other and woozy:
“Hail, hail! Denise! Denise, Denise!”
The lamb trundled over to the boy and sniffed out his finger.
She’d been allowed life because the boy fed her.
She was his burden.
The boy grabbed a CD from the floor and slit the wound on his thumb with the sharp edge.
With urgent pushing, the lamb sought his digit and suckled her overdue meal.
One of the other boys said, “This ain’t gonna work.”
Chairman Boy lit a candle and stood up straight, wavering.
“The king sucks her advisor.
All hail the king! All hail our advisor!”
REBECCA GRANSDEN lives on an island and writes sometimes. She can be found on Twitter @rlgransden and online occasionally at rebeccagransden.wordpress.com
How unfortunate to be there
when the power goes out
at two separate places
at two different times
on the same day.
It was one thing, the first time,
when the supermarket overheads
and everything else
—except a few quick-witted
flickered twice and went black,
flashed a blinding warning signal
—a truly brilliant half-second delay—
before leaving the whole sad storefull
frozen in Aisle 7, startled into silence
and forced into terrifying immobility
for a scary seven minutes.
Everyone survived. Everyone
muddled through; made it out alive.
Praise the Lord.
again, hours later…
RON. LAVALETTE lives on Vermont’s Canadian border. He has been very widely published in both print and pixel forms. His first chapbook, Fallen Away, is now available from Finishing Line Press, and a reasonable sample of his work can be found at EGGS OVER TOKYO http://eggsovertokyo.blogspot.com
‘You’ll need these to break out,’ he says, passing me the silk bag. I tip the contents onto the table: a small hammer; an HB pencil, striped red and black; a mirror, round with a silver frame, the size of my palm.
‘What about the mask?’ I ask. ‘The earmuffs?’
He shakes his head. ‘You won’t be needing those anymore.’
I look again at the tools, my breathing fast and shallow.
‘Remember what you learned,’ he says. ‘Four in, seven out.’
I nod. In through the nose, four beats. Out through the mouth, counting to seven. Better.
‘Shall we have some more practice before you go?’
I nod again, grateful.
‘Lie down, close your eyes. Let’s go to the field.’
I do as instructed, and when I open my eyes I’m eight years old. The sun beats against my forehead, its rays painting a yellow varnish on the veins of every blade of grass. I squint through the blazing caramel light, black orbs staining the recesses of each blink. The air stinks of acrid daisies trodden into the grass and the poisonous perfume of nettles that cluster like barbed-wire mines around the base of the outer fence. I step through the crowd and hear the riotous roars of boys as they charge about the field, their violent brogues crashing against the ground like the hooves of thoroughbreds approaching the grandstand; the shrill, flowery laughs of girls that judge me with a criteria drawn up from some other plane.
‘No,’ comes the voice from the chair in the other world. ‘Not judging. Say what you see, don’t transfer your own thoughts onto them.’
I try again. The shrill, flowery laughs of girls, amused by something unknown.
‘Better. Keep going.’
I steal on, chin pointed to my leather toe-caps, arms soldier-tight by my sides. Every step is careful, immaculately planned and executed, leaving no room for error.
‘You’re wearing your mask,’ comes the voice. ‘Lose it.’
I lift my eyes to the school; the great pigskin-bricked warren of worries. Four in, seven out. I peel the mask off like a film of dried glue.
‘Take your time. Look around you.’
I glance to the left at the scattered nests of scarecrow infants rolling on the floor, grass sticking to their jumpers and hanging from their hair; a group of rose-faced girls with white hamster teeth and locked elbows; the rubber-stomached dinner ladies with beetroot cheeks, leaning up against the low wall with their sausage arms crossed. None of them is looking at me.
I turn to the right, to the battalion of lost boys, war-painted and stick-wielding, feet slamming, fists clenched. Their cheeks are blue like jellyfish, stuffed with hungry breaths. Footballs cannon through the sky, announced by battle-cries and the shaking earth of a fresh stampede. None of them is looking at me.
‘Good. Now get ready.’
Four in, seven out; I ready myself for impact. One of the cannonballs connects with the side of my head, knocking me sideways, stumbling. The air is sucked out of the field, time and sound briefly plucked from the earth and stashed away by invisible thieves. But only for a moment. Then the wolves begin to howl, their teeth gnashing in delight, the whites of their eyes rolling desperately like wild horses at the sound of a gun. Hell’s own laughter, collecting over the field like a charcoal cloud that swallows up the sky. Eyes everywhere awaken; a thousand eyes, and all of them on me.
‘What do you do first?’
Four in, seven out.
I stand up straight, try to raise my head. It’s heavier now.
‘Eye contact. Look around.’
I blink hard and look up. Left, right, ahead, meeting as many eyes as I can. I see the plum faces, the boys laughing, bodies rolling around on the floor holding their stomachs. I rub my ear. It’s hot, and my face is red.
‘How do you know?’
My cheeks are burning.
I reach into my pocket and pull the mirror out of the silk bag, hold it up in front of my face.
‘It’s not as red as you thought, is it?’
No, it’s not.
The laughter is dying away. The boys have already reclaimed the ball like hungry pups and some of them are continuing with the game. I breathe, watch the fresh charge of black shoes towards a goal made from jumper piles. No one cares. Most of them have already forgotten about it. It’s over.
I open my eyes. I’m back in the room, lying down.
‘Good. Now one more,’ he says from the chair. ‘Let’s go to the party.’
I close my eyes again.
* * *
I’m passing down the rotating throat of a kaleidoscope. The corridor walls lean in towards the ceiling, the strobe flashes throwing psychedelic diamonds across my path. I shuffle down towards the kitchen, back against the wall. There are no boys or girls; there are only armies of elbows and plastic cups of bitter gold, greasy curtains of hair stuck to the posters on the corridor wall. The tunnel is rank with the musty stench of armpits, the damp mire of vodka soaked into the carpet, and the foul manure of cigarette ash left to stew in half-crushed beer cans.
‘Eye contact,’ comes the voice from the other world. ‘Earmuffs off.’
The voice is more distant than before, the bass from the lounge speakers making a heartbeat of the floor and dictating its thump up through my ribs, drowning out the sour-breathed din of conversation and the voice from the other world. This time I ignore it; it’s easier to keep my eyes down.
I find a pocket of air in the kitchen, lean up against the fridge. I crack open a can and my thumb paddles briefly in the frothy rim spill. A trio of smokers at the back door rope me into conversation.
I take a sip of my drink and prepare to tread the boards, calling out my character from the dressing room. I smile, crack a joke, nod along, swig. I’m sweating under the arms.
‘Take off the masks. Rationalise it. Remember, what’s the worst that can happen?’
I ignore the voice again. The beer is tasteless; now it’s merely an extra-thick layer of make-up, powdered like chalk onto my smiling-clown face. The worst that can happen? I say something stupid and have it etched into my forehead forever like a botched tattoo; I fall behind the repartee like a spent greyhound after a rabbit lure; I’m left to gather mould in the corner of the kitchen, a gurning gravestone under a wind of autumn leaves. I live out my three years of university like a hermit with straw in his hair, alone in his den of stale piss and turtle soup. What’s the worst that can happen? Everything.
The smokers flick their black-tipped stubs into the sink and I ransack the recesses of my brain. There are still a few unflooded lobes somewhere in the back, and in one of them I find the clown on his unicycle, turning the cogs that keep me moving. Grimacing, the red make-up at his eyes bleeding with sweat, he churns out one last joke to see them off. The smokers head off in search of drinks, laughing at whatever witticism my cycling clown granted me. I sense the wetness under my arms, rewind through every moment of the conversation; every slow blink, every sideways crawl of every eye, every slurred, smoke-curled word.
‘Get out your hammer.’
I stand in the corner of the kitchen, watching the crowds rotate. I sip, watch, smile at every passing glance. One song finishes and there’s a moment when everything is clear.
‘Get out your hammer.’
I put the drink down and reach into the silk bag in my pocket, feel the cold steel of the hammer head. I pull it out and weigh it in my hands. It’s light, like a toothbrush, easy to grip.
‘Describe your bubble,’ the voice says, clearer now.
I look up at the room. The colours of the kitchen have faded. I’m enclosed in glass, frosted, thick like a river frozen over for the long winter. My very own hamster ball, hard like stone, an impermeable shield between me and the world. I place a hand on its surface, feel the cold condensation on my palm, see the foggy shapes of the party on the other side.
I take a deep breath and grip the handle of the hammer with both hands. It’s bigger now, heavier, like an oil-tanker’s anchor. The steel claw drags my wrists towards the floor.
I look at the ice wall and the wild, unpredictable world on the other side, full of judgement and endless possibilities of embarrassment and failure. I see my reflection in the wall. Me. The one and only; unique, loved, with a whirlwind of fire in my eyes that deserves to be unleashed like a hurricane onto the world, mistakes and all.
With a strength ripped from somewhere deep in the sinews of my stomach, I haul the hammer above my head, and with a primal roar drive it into the glass wall. Cracks appear on the surface, and I strike at it again, and again, until the whole thing shatters around me, glass splintering over my shoes and in my hair like crystals of snow.
I’m out, free, naked to the world.
‘Go,’ says the voice.
I leave my drink on the side, step over the broken glass, crunching under my feet, and head towards the nearest rabble. I cannot even think. I must not think.
‘How do you feel?’
My heart’s racing.
‘That’s good. It means you’re alive. Fight or flight, remember, and now it’s time for you to fight. It’s your body’s natural reaction. Acknowledge it, embrace it.’
Four in, seven out. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Nothing that will extinguish this new blaze in my eyes, I tell myself.
* * *
I open my eyes. I take in the room, sit up.
‘Very good. You’ve made a lot of progress.’
‘I have,’ I admit.
He refolds his legs and crosses his fingers on his lap. ‘That fire you mentioned then. The fire in your eyes. You believe in that, don’t you?’
I think about it and nod. He smiles but doesn’t say anything; he’s good at making me talk.
‘I’ve got something,’ I say. ‘I’ve always known that I have something.’
‘Are you ready for the world to see?’ he asks. ‘What will you do when they look?’
Four in, seven out. I’ve learned that it’s okay to make people wait.
‘I’ll dance,’ I say simply.
He nods. ‘And when doubt comes?’
‘I’ll gouge out its eyes with my own fingers. Then I’ll use the same nails to claw into the mountainside of life and rip my way to the top.’
‘Yes. And fear?’
‘I will shatter it with my bare fists, tear barriers with my teeth. When my cheeks burn and my heart thunders against my chest, I’ll know that I’m alive. And when they stare, I will dance.’
He smiles, and we both stand up. He shakes my hand, opens the office door onto a thick wall of ice.
‘The outside world,’ he says. ‘Don’t forget your things.’
I put the mirror back inside the silk bag, and then I remember the pencil on the table.
‘I haven’t used this,’ I say, picking it up. ‘It’s for me?’
‘For you, yes. And for others. Use it well, and it won’t just help to bring down your own walls. There are many who have it worse.’
I consider it, nod, slip it into my pocket; I look at the wall that separates me from the world.
‘Are you ready?’ he asks.
I take up the hammer in both hands, raise it above my head. There’s a hurricane of fire in my eyes.
TOMAS MARCANTONIO is a fiction writer from Brighton, England. His work has appeared in places such as STORGY, The Fiction Pool, and Ellipsis Zine. Tomas is currently based in Busan, South Korea, where he splits his time between writing, teaching, and getting lost in neon-lit backstreets.
Very occasionally, one comes across a person of natural authority, a person who impresses without effort and without design, someone who just seems more human than the rest of us. Last week, I met just such a man on the train from Aberdeen to London Kings Cross.
The journey takes seven hours, so I’m careful about being drawn into conversations with fellow-travellers: seven hours is a long time to sustain a conversation about Jehovah’s Witnesses’ aversion to blood transfusions, or the scandalous price of houses in Inverurie. So I gently rebuffed the elderly lady seated beside me when she tried to get me talking. In response to each of her conversational sallies (on the weather, the surprisingly crowded carriage, the scandalous price of tickets), I replied courteously but briefly, and returned to reading my book. Thus thwarted, she turned to the massively built, grizzled, elderly black man sitting across the table from us. More civil than myself, he answered all her inquisitive questions with grave dignity, in a rich, bass voice. The old lady quickly established that our companion was from Sierra Leone and was returning there after visiting to his son, gravely ill in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary with severe burns, sustained in a fire aboard a Peterhead fishing boat.
At Montrose, the old lady left us and the train, with a parting comment on the scandalous price of Montrose taxis. My remaining companion and I exchanged complicit smiles. He then surprised me. He leant across the table, gestured towards my book, and said:
‘I see you’re reading about Emanuel Swedenborg. A great man, I believe. And one who led a fascinating life. May I ask what your interest is in Swedenborg?’
I struggled to answer. I explained that, since I’d retired a couple of years ago, I’d enrolled in a literature course at the Open University and I was planning to submit a student project on Swedenborg’s influence on the work of the poet, William Blake. What I really wanted to do was ask what interest an elderly man from Sierra Leone could have in an eighteenth-century Swedish mystic. I might have found a courteous way to frame that rather insulting question, had I not already been witness to the relentless grilling my companion had already received on the Montrose leg of our journey. As it happened, John (that was his name) volunteered an answer to my unspoken question:
‘In my church in Freetown, back in Sierra Leone, we have studied some of Swedenborg’s writings. I am an elder in the Freetown Christadelphian Church. We are bible Christians and, like Swedenborg, we are Unitarians.’
I wanted to avoid a theological discussion on the biblical justification, or otherwise, of a belief in the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. So I asked John about his son: I’d seen the story of the fishing boat fire in the Aberdeen Press and Journal.
‘The hospital is wonderful. I am very grateful for his care. But Andrew is very ill. Very ill. That’s why my fellow elders in the Church found the money for me to visit.’ He paused and then continued in the same slow, deep voice: ‘It has been a particular grief to me. Because I too have lived the nightmare of a fire at sea. Indeed, a fire ON the sea too. Some twenty years ago, I jumped from the fiery deck of a tanker full of gasoline into a fiery sea full of gasoline.’
I gasped. ‘You were on that tanker, the Derwent, off the Belgian coast back in 1993. You survived the collision and the fire.’
It was now John’s turn to be surprised. Mysteriously, over the last thirty years or so, Britain has somehow ceased to be a maritime nation and tragedies like that of the Derwent are no longer well known or remembered. But I used to work as a ships agent and I remembered it very well. In thick fog, the Eastern Supreme, a bulk carrier steaming far too fast, with no look-out, and with no-one manning the radar, smashed into the Derwent, newly laden with a cargo of gasoline, which spilled out of the ruptured tanks and ignited. The Derwent was swept with flames before the lifeboat could be launched, and so the crew had to leap into the burning sea. Nine men died, two of them from Sierra Leone. I explained about my old job as a ships agent and asked John whether there had been any legal proceedings afterwards.
He shook his head: ‘A Belgian court did eventually summon the Korean master of the Eastern Supreme on charges of manslaughter, but he failed to appear.’
He spoke without emotion, and such miscarriages of natural justice are unfortunately commonplace in the shipping industry, but I felt this was too painful a topic for a conversation between strangers. I asked John if he’d gone back to sea after the Derwent fire.
He shook his head again: ‘No, though I had a family to feed. And besides, I am one of the Krumen. For two hundred years, my tribe has supplied the crews for British ships. That is how we got our name. My great-great-grandfather and my great-grandfather crewed the anti-slavery patrols of the British navy. We have always gone to sea. And we have always crewed for the British. It was more than a job: it was my birth-right. But after the Derwent, I found a job at the docks.’
Smiling at old memories, he told me how, as a boy, he started out as a messman: serving in the merchant officers’ mess, with the starched white table cloths and the picture of the Queen and Prince Philip. How, on shore-leave, he used to go to Anfield to watch Liverpool FC in the days of their pomp: he recalled in particular Big Ron Yeats, Liverpool’s mountainous, Scottish centre-half. He recalled how, when he switched to working on tankers, they used to play deck-cricket on the helicopter landing deck. Grinning now, he explained the elaborate rules of the game: ‘You British, you always have plenty of rules.’
‘Did you enjoy the cricket, John?’
‘Not really. We used to play on Sundays – a rest day, except for the watch-keepers and emergencies. We Sierra Leonians would have preferred to rest. But the British officers – they wanted us to play. You could say that a bargain had been struck. The British needed us and we needed them. The work was hard; the hours were long; the pay was poor. But we needed the jobs and the families needed our pay. So we played cricket. The British made the rules and we abided by them – for the food in our mouths.’
‘After independence, things deteriorated at home in Freetown. And there were fewer British ships: we would wait at home longer and longer between contracts. But once we were back on board, things were just the same – the starched white tablecloths and the deck-cricket. There was a strange comfort in that.’
‘You know, crew changes for the tankers often took place in Singapore. That used to be a British colony too, of course. We used to stare at the skyscrapers, the shops and the clean streets. We could see that Singapore had prospered after independence. But independence hadn’t worked for us. We used to talk among ourselves about how it would be better if the British would come back to run Sierra Leone.’
‘You used to talk about that, John, about the British coming back. But not anymore?’
‘Sometimes, I still hear old men talking that way. But not me. After the bulk carrier smashed into the Derwent, after those nine men died in the burning sea, I realised that the British weren’t making the rules anymore.’
MICHAEL BLOOR is a retired sociologist living in Dunblane, Scotland, who has discovered the exhilarations of short fiction. Recent publications include The Fiction Pool, The Cabinet of Heed, Fictive Dream, Idle Ink, Litro Online, Spelk, Scribble, Ink Sweat & Tears, The Copperfield Review, Dodging the Rain, Everyday Fiction, Firewords, and The Drabble.
Outside, snow began to fall. Inside, a group huddled around a window table, watching the flurry as it descended.
‘Winter is coming,’ remarked one. Everyone laughed. Well, everyone except Charlie, who said, ‘And it’s only September.’
‘Game of Thrones, pal,’ said Fred from accounts.
‘Oh,’ said Charlie. ‘I don’t watch that.’
Everyone fell silent and looked at Charlie. He began to go red. He stared at his drink and pretended to see something very interesting in the bottom of his glass.
People began to talk about someone or something called ‘Stark’. Charlie slipped away from the table.
* * *
Two evenings later, Charlie had a date. This was rare. He’d summoned up the courage to ask Kirsty from the fish counter at the supermarket out for dinner and had nearly fallen over when she’d said yes.
He’d taken her to a fish restaurant which, he reflected as they arrived and he saw her face, was probably a bad move. Still, things were going okay until Kirsty said: ‘So did you watch the season finale last night?’
He blinked. ‘Sorry? Of what?’
‘Game of Thrones, of course.’
‘Oh,’ said Charlie again. ‘I don’t watch that.’
Kirsty’s face fell. She dropped her head and paid very close attention to her halibut. Charlie opened his mouth to speak, then shut it.
The date limped to an end. Charlie would never go back to that supermarket..
* * *
The following day, Charlie took the bus into town and came home with a box set of Game of Thrones DVDs and a huge bag of popcorn. He would watch the first few episodes now and see what the fuss was about.
He spent the next three hours of his life feeling somehow nauseated and bored simultaneously. He didn’t like gore. He didn’t care about dragons. And he couldn’t remember anyone’s name. What did everyone see in the damn show?
He turned the television off and bit down on popcorn, chipping a tooth in the process.
* * *
On Twitter the next evening, Charlie wrote, ‘Am I the only one who doesn’t like Game of Thrones? #GoT’
His follower count immediately dropped from the low hundreds to single figures to zero, while anonymous people with avatars of lizards began to send him abuse.
He deactivated his account.
* * *
His Mum called. ‘I’ve just been watching this Game of Thrones show. My friend Winnie told me about it at the hairdresser, everyone’s talking about it. Have you seen it?’
Charlie said that he had.
‘Isn’t it just awful—‘
‘Yes!’ almost shouted Charlie with relief. ‘It’s long and tedious and unpleasant. I’ll stick to my nature documentaries, thank you very much.’
He smiled. At least he wasn’t totally alone. Then he noticed the silence from the other end of the phone.
‘I was going to say “awfully good”, actually.’
‘I think it’s brilliant.’
There was a click as she ended the call.
* * *
Isolated and friendless, Charlie jacked in his job and went travelling. Surely he could escape the Game Of Thrones obsession in another country.
‘Ert þú að horfa á Game Of Thrones?’ asked a girl in a bar in Reykjavik.
‘Mae Game Of Thrones mor dda!’ said a hotelier on the coast of West Wales.
‘Ang Cersei Lannister ang modelo ng aking papel,’ commented a waitress in a restaurant in the Philippines.
‘If you don’t watch Game Of Thrones, you’re a flamin’ Galah,’ said a man on a beach in Sydney, fiddling with his boomerang in a way Charlie found unnerving.
He tore up his travel plans.
* * *
So Charlie came home again, far more multilingual than when he left but equally as depressed. He dumped his bag, then fell over the pile of Game of Thrones DVDs he’d left on the floor. Losing his temper, he sat where he landed and hurled the offending plastic boxes around the room. As the final one arced into the wall with a satisfying thud, there was a knock at the door.
Cursing under his breath, he hauled himself to his feet and hurled the door open. On the other side was a woman he’d never seen before.
‘Hello?’ he said.
‘Oh, hi. I just moved into the flat next door. My name’s Yasmin and…’ she stopped, and looked over his shoulder at the mess of DVDs. ‘Is this a bad time?’
‘No…’ Charlie took a deep breath. ‘No, it’s fine.’
‘You’re a Game of Thrones fan, I see.’
‘Hey, me neither.’
His mouth fell open. He realised this wasn’t a good look and shut it again. Yasmin carried on without seeming to notice.
‘I just don’t get what’s so good about it,’ she said. ‘All this mythical stuff leaves me cold. And it goes on forever. But everyone loves it.
‘Nor me. You’re the first person I’ve met that doesn’t like it.’
Their eyes locked. Yasmin smiled. Charlie smiled. He felt his heart rise in his chest. Time seemed to stop.
‘I’m Charlie, by the way,’ he said, eventually. ‘Would you like to come in? I’ll just clean up this mess.’
They beamed at each other as Yasmin stepped inside and Charlie closed the door behind her.
‘No, I much prefer Stranger Things,’ Yasmin continued as she sat down. ‘It’s just so cool. Best show ever. Do you watch it?’
Charlie had seen Stranger Things. Charlie had hated Stranger Things. His heart seemed to notice how high it had climbed. It panicked, wobbled momentarily, then plummeted back down, landing with a squelch in the basement of his ribcage. He tried to force a smile, but didn’t manage it. ‘Do you like nature documentaries?’ he asked.
Yasmin shrugged. ‘Not really,’ she replied.
Cersei Lannister looked on from a discarded DVD box, the glimmer of a grin on the edges of her lips. Charlie glanced out of the window and noticed it was snowing once more.
DAVID COOK’s stories have been published in print and online in a few different places. He lives in Bridgend, Wales, with his wife and daughter. Say hello on Twitter @davidcook100. If that Icelandic, Welsh and/or Filipino is incorrect, please direct your complaints to Google Translate.