The Breakout – Tomas Marcantonio

‘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.

‘Good. Next?’

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.

‘The mirror.’

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.

‘Break it.’

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.

‘Break it!’

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.

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Image by AI Leino from Pixabay

The Man On The Train – Michael Bloor

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.

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Image by walkerud97 from Pixabay

The Outcast (Winter is Coming) – David Cook

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.

No-one noticed.

*      *      *

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.’

‘Definitely not.’.

‘Hey, me neither.’

‘What, really?’


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.

‘Not me.’

‘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.

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Image by Thorsten Frenzel from Pixabay

Practicing Non-Attachment – Ceinwen E Cariad Haydon

drift was in his blood
satisfaction out of reach
his search was on
for antidotes to boredom

domestic duties
didn’t hold a candle to
and a hundred thousand
full length prostrations

folded into mantras and mudras
on retreat
his meditations dreamt him free
of all the daily crap

meanwhile I waited
tended to his children
our youngest only three months old

I lived in hope
of happiness in his return

he presented
in his own much-resented time
talked endlessly
of tantric experiences
sat at his blesséd Teacher’s feet

he unpacked dirty laundry
handed it across to me
and remembered

he had a gift
two cheap and ugly rings
afterthoughts bought as thanks
for my chapped fingers

far from cheerful
I saw fractured writing
on my life’s climbing wall


Chenrezig, also known as Avalokitesvara, ‘One who looks with unwavering eye’ (Tibetan Buddhism)

CEINWEN E CARIAD HAYDON lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, and writes short stories and poetry. She has been widely published in web magazines and in print anthologies. She graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from Newcastle University in 2017. She believes everyone’s voice counts.

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Image by Marc Benedetti from Pixabay

Richmond Park – Vincent J S Wood

It’s that sort of perfect cold; bitter cold that sits in your bones and gnaws away at the calcium in them, that causes them to sing when you try to dissolve it in bathtubs of hot water and even then that may not be enough.

I lean my head against the window and feel the juddering of the car’s engine rattle my temples as I try to pick out anything in the sky but it remains clear of life, no cloud nor bird disturbing its claustrophobic whiteness, like the bottom of a milk pan coated in a dairy layer. It remains so perfectly devoid of anything that you know something big must be afoot.

“Y’know it’ll probably be dark by the time we get there?”

I nod. I hope not but I know this is more than likely to be the case. I want to see the deer.

The cars tail back and mesh together forming the cable-knit of a long metallic scarf with us hemmed into the middle, a row on either side of ours making sure we are locked in place, another metaphorical prison for me to tangle with in my depressed and dilapidated mind.

I must have mentioned Richmond Park months ago, before this latest bout of sunken misery, but I can’t remember it. I’ve never been but I’d seen pictures of the deer and was always intrigued how somewhere so large and filled with, ostensibly, wild animals could exist within the limits of London.

The light is starting to dim but we might just make it, might just be able to see something of it if only we could get a bit of a clear run as we edge closer. The fact that we’re crawling through Wembley makes it all the more painful that we are so near and each stab forward riles up a flutter of anxiety that settles into despondency once we come to a complete halt. Stopping still would almost be better, an acceptance of the fact that we’ll never make it in time but now I have hope and I don’t think I can bear it.

The rattle and hum of the idling motors is all that there is between us, otherwise the silence slithers in and starts to feed off the stubbornness of either one of us, neither wanting to bend to the will of the other.

Weeks I’ve been like this, in this state of suspended animation, functioning on autopilot as my brain tries to numb everything around me. Sometimes, living with another depressive can be quite helpful in terms of understanding but often it devolves into a perverse competitiveness where neither one of you wants to reach out for fear of being told it’s nothing compared to what the other is going through or having unwittingly triggered a monologue on their emotions. Frequently you feel like screaming, “I don’t want your problems, I need help!” but you never do and days can pass by with very little being said.

The silence is flexing, expanding into the space around us as the cramped vehicle starts to become more compact and the noiselessness is probing, curling up slowly and finding a throat to choke…

“I used to come this way all the time when your aunt and uncle lived in Richmond.”

“Mm? Ever go to the park?”

“I’ve driven through but never stopped and got out.”

“Something new for us both then?”

“Something new for us both.”

The clunky, whirring grind past business parks trickles into the stadium traffic, its own lugubrious arch that was supposedly a beacon of national pride like the jagged and jaded towers before it, a cog unto itself, an outstretched gear to jar against as you try to navigate your way around middling football results and staged corporate events. But we persist and soon the faltering stop-start begins to gain some semblance of uncomfortable flow about it before making way for unexpected momentum through residential streets before Kew Gardens eases by. Then, as though nothing had passed before it, we are funneling in through one of the gates on the North side and beginning to ooze along the solid grey vein that had been opened up all the way down the verdant flesh on either side of it, still alive and still full of life. There, to the left, a giant red stag lazily flicking its head, undeterred by the three or four tourists gingerly edging forward, desperate for better photos but eyeing the protruding antlers at all times.

The nonchalance of the beast is completely at odds with my quickening breath as we slide past.

“Is there anywhere we can pull over?”

“There’s parking throughout, I think, just keep an eye out.”

We creep further along, clutches of big, red deer pockmarking the green as twos, threes and fours clot together here and there but still nowhere to pull in. No layby or passing point to rock up in, just a straight line of road scything through the middle and out to the other side of the park.

The deer become fewer and fewer until it is evident we are now in dog walking country, an area where it is safer to stroll with curious canines who might spook the other quadruped residents and again I am at a loss. Nearly at the South gate and it is only here that a lot of tarmacked parkland splurges into view, scruffily containing the vehicles of wayward motorists who have coasted from one end to the other in search of prime parking for an amble in the park and are now sequestered in a corner with everyone else.

Frost stabbed lungs bleed warm vapour as each breath delivers pain. I don’t want to waste more time getting coffee from the hut on the edge of the cement square but it’s impossible to turn it down when offered, if only to give me something warm to hold onto, to help the sting subside in my chest. It remains tight though and I want to cry. Don’t cry, grown men don’t cry over deer.

Sipping froth and slipping forth we are confronted with just how little we know about the creatures we seek. Should we head to the wooded patches of the park or out into the more open regions? It seems logical that the sheltered arboreal areas might be the best bet since they would naturally abide by woodland but mum’s stick holds her back in this terrain with the temperature further affecting her creaking joints. I can’t hold it against her but it is just a further frustration of the ill-fated hunt.

The solid crunch of frost-stiffened leaves offers a satisfying reprieve but not a comfortable one as the noise continues to the growing dread that we’ll never see an animal. The shuffle and rustle makes us loud, ineffective trackers and the low light becomes further dulled the deeper we push into the trees, only adding to the foreboding air of greyed out failure.

Sensing the sting of defeat, mother takes this as a sign she can start talking inanely as if knowing there is nothing to scare off. This doesn’t ease frustration though as she tries to spot birds and offer them up as a consolation prize and I couldn’t care less. I pull two, three, four steps ahead and try to focus on my pacing. I can’t peal away completely and make a break to the other side of the park, that would be unfair. Besides, I’d never make it by now.

The nattering becomes a familiar drone. I’ve become so used to tuning it out to a low hum that I’ve learnt to grunt at the pauses but now it becomes a persistent hammering, a spitfire blitz of ratatatat in short, persistent bursts and, for once, I can’t shake it as the irksome noise bites at the base of my skull. But it’s not the words tap, tap, tapping, although they continue above the sound, and when I spin to confront the annoyance I spot it there in a tree above.

“Look, look.”

“I see it, I see it.”

A tiny, fragile thing with an exquisitely tailored velvet jacket of green and a streak of red on its head like a punk rock aristocrat. I’ve never seen a woodpecker before and didn’t realize just how small they are. It hammers and stops, hammers and stops; its intermittent workmanship creating a greater furore than its diminutive stature suggests it should be able to. It hammers and stops, hammers and stops before twitching its little head from side to side. Has it seen us? It appears not to as it hammers and stops, hammers and stops but it pauses again to bob one way then the other before flitting off, zigzagging away.

“Now wasn’t that worth it?”

Was that worth it? Was that worth it! Oh my god she thinks I’m in control. She thinks this is all for fun. She thinks this is some diversionary tactic fun day out doesn’t matter what happens pin a smile on my face I’m not screaming jolly hockey sticks try again next week AS THOUGH THIS ISN’T THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN MY LIFE FIND A CURE FOR THIS THING IN MY HEAD BEFORE I RIP IT OUT BECAUSE I JUST WANT TO SEE SOME DEER UP CLOSE IN REAL LIFE IS THAT TOO MUCH TO ASK I JUST…IJUST…I JUST. I just want. I just wanted. i just wanted to see some deer.

Careless footsteps now, my head hung low to look at them munch up the ground, greedily champing the fallen debris of winter beneath them.

I don’t even realise when we’ve cleared the trees. I must pick up some slight change in the wind chill or light as I do raise my eyes to the horizon and notice I can actually see it now. I turn back to the tree line and see I’ve come a long way from it, but where to next? I spin trying to find something to associate with, to walk towards, but all I do is spin. I spin and I spin and I spin.

I recognise things, objects in the distance but I can’t think what they are, why they are there. I know I am here and that here is where I’m stood but I am still lost. It’s as if I can’t see the forest for the trees.

The failure sets in as though it’s carried on the back of the cold. I know I can always come back, try again another day, but I needed this now, I needed to just have something to hold onto. I’m guided in a direction, presumably of where I came from, by some physical force, like I’ve been taken by the shoulders and steered this way and that. It can’t be mum because I can still hear the ‘click, clack, clack’ of her stick.

I am numb now, numb from the cold, numb from the frustration, the collapse of plans, numb from the falling through of a day with such potential only to be greeted by the same old feelings of forever missing out on something. With the numbness comes a blindness, a cataract film of despairing thoughts that make it impossible to see past my own fuzziness, as though I am being blurred out of existence and my vision is the first thing to go.

Now it has become a certainty, I just want to get back to the car, get back and drive away from the abject misery, the shame of feeling so desolate over something trivial. So when I hear “There, on your left,” I can feel the anger rise in me. Does she not know I cannot orientate myself, the effort it would take to shake this impairing veil from my eyes? I fear I may collapse in tears of rage and anguish, drained and devoid of any energy to take one step more if I have to pool what’s left in me into clearing my head and looking up just to see another bird. I go to say something bitter…raw, a flashpoint of needling fire behind my teeth and on the tip of my tongue but she hisses at me a short, sharp “shh”. It shocks me that I have become the one being reprimanded and bitten at. The opaque bubble has been punctured and I can see her clearly now, pointing. Pointing off to my left, and I am aware of left and right, and up and down again and she stab, stab, stabs to that definite, solid left I can once again identify. I do not want to turn, I want to stay, face and fight but that force has returned and is turning me silently, dutifully.

It’s not one of the big red ones, like the magnificent beast at the gates. Its tiny size and pale and spotted colouring makes it look fragile and sickly in comparison but it’s enough, And there’s another just a few feet away, this one a grubby ghost with its dirty white coat. As I look over and above them I see more and more specked here and there grazing softly, a whole mass of them loosely together, nowhere near the trees, as people start to edge in on them around the fringes of the group.

I try to get closer to the nearest one but as I edge forward it takes a few steps away, clearly not perturbed but wary enough to keep its distance. I usher mum closer before digging into a pocket and throwing my phone to her.

“Get a photo, get a photo.”

I can feel my irritation surge up again as she struggles to work it but it does not take long before it is done. We did it and now there’s photo evidence too.

I rush off like an over eager child trying to find another spot, a better angle of the whole herd or one that will allow me nearer, each time trying to urge her on and keep pace and she plays along for a period but at the third or fourth time of asking she just stops.

“We have to go now. It’s almost dark and I presume the gates close soon.”

I nod and concede silently. I don’t want to leave but we have succeeded and I don’t want to taint that with an argument. We have to get back to the car yet and the cold has solidified her already aching joints so it’ll be no speedy dash.

The return walk is in silence but not the cagey, tense kind. One of exhaustion and satisfaction. I sigh deeply when I climb back into the vehicle.


“Yeah, I’m alright.”

We take the same road out as we came in on and just as we are about to exit I see the big, red stag still lying where it was but no longer eyeing tourists, who have seemingly all scattered to make their way home. Not a word is said between us.

It snowed today. I stand by the window clutching a hot mug of tea as I watch the laconic flakes drift and fall, settling evenly on the road outside.

“Good job we didn’t decide to go to Richmond today,” I hear from behind me.

“Mmm,” I murmur in response.

I wonder what the deer do in the snow, if they cluster under the trees where previously they could not be found? I wonder if the big red stag still lies in its favoured spot or takes shelter with the others? I suppose it doesn’t really matter now and I pull away from the window and allow my mind to think of other things now it is clear to do so.


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Image by Brigitte Werner from Pixabay

The Austringer – Emma Devlin

On Monday, I watched the van drive off with the furniture. Yesterday, I sent the bags of her clothes to the charity shops. I’ve already spotted a scarf and a pair of shoes in the shop window and had to look away. I’m waiting to see what I’ll make of someone walking around in a hat or a jacket that was hers. I had to get it out. All of it. Everyone kept asking me, “Are you sure? Are you sure?” and I told them I was.

I came back to the empty house afterwards and found myself dancing. Not for joy. I just thought to myself, here I am alone, finally done, and I can extend this arm this way, and this leg this way, and twirl, spin; unravel in the last flushes of the light like a spool of thread all through the house until the shadows under my eyes and under my arms, behind my elbows, in the arches of my feet get sharp, and I’ll leap, twist, stamp, tick, trip, hop, rond, turn – quickly and then slowly, until my body feels heavy, until my hips are ground out of me, until my lungs burn, and my heart bursts my ears, and only then will I stop. That’s what I thought, and it’s what I did, too. I haven’t danced like that since I was a young woman, leaning on Frances. That’s a keepsake better than anything else.

It was while I was swinging and flailing around so that I heard it thump against the back of the house: a clatter of wings followed by a thick, bodily slap. I stopped a minute to catch my breath, the better to hear past the roar of my own pulse, and tip-toed to the back door. It was about six o’clock at this point, nearly full dark; just a chilly, ringing, torpid kind of blue outside. I had to squint. The cars that stream past the side of our – my – house cast a sickly, yellowish light up the yard and it’s by this that I finally saw it, on its back, feebly beating its wings on the ground. I let the lights go past it a few more times. One: springing grey feathers. Two: a pair of twitching yellow feet and a heaving torso. Three: a manic, rolling head, a pair of glinting eyes, and a smudge of red. And then it shrieked. The sound rose and fell in these great swings of panic, and underneath it all a low, resounding, clutching burr from deep in the centre of its chest.

My breathing was still a bit wobbly, and I huffed for a bit there on the back step before I got closer. The gravel crunched when I walked and the bird froze, but I swear I could feel this pull and push, and pull again, of movement in it. I could see the heart, like a gigantic knot, beating – humming – in its chest.

A hawk. A massive, lunatic hawk.

Frances was good at this, I thought, Frances would have known what to do. I mean, I’ve seen hawks before, flitting over the woods where me and Frances walked. The birds flinging themselves downwards to the fields at some slight movement, some glint, in the grass. Sometimes they were just blue shapes against the band of the reservoir, or a blur of tail-feathers. Then: stately, razoring, sidewinding, making light work of the mornings. Once, Frances found a ring that must have come off a hawk, the metal so scratched and corroded that it had simply one day fallen off, the bird itself probably passed through the woods and gone forever. She stuck it in my pocket, and then I stuck it in the drawer beside the bed. Occasionally I’d run my thumb over the numbers and wonder how light the bird must feel now, with no weight to pull it down, and would it miss a weight like that?

Frances was the one for the birds, is what I’m saying.

But there was just me.

So I said, right, my girl, get stuck in. I went and got my jacket from the hallstand and crept back out to the bird, which was now thrashing on the ground. It kicked out at the sky, driving itself slowly backwards along the grass and I was worried it’d busted a wing or something. So I threw my jacket over it and scooped it up. I think I shocked it because it barely moved. For a second I actually thought, sure, bring him into the house, there’s plenty of room, and I toppled a couple of steps towards the back door under the weight of it.

Don’t you dare, I thought I heard in my head, so I didn’t: I bucked him into the shed, jacket and all.

I wonder what it thought as it lay there? I turned on the old light. It’s the kind that gets everywhere and shows up all the cracks in a room. I watched the bird push itself slowly out of the jacket, upright, alert. What kind of thoughts tripped through its head as it took in my scratched-up shed with its ragged and warped floor, and, then, the dull, dank interior, with its layers of dust? I felt bad watching it, until it alighted its big orange eyes on me. Its head turned this way and that to look at me, and there was a movement coming from the very pit of it that made me wary. One wrong move, I thought, and I’ll get a talon – the point of one, black and shiny, was caught in the jacket and eking out – in the eye or, worse, all of them gripping my scalp as it might grip a rabbit, or a finch, or a mouse.

It was just stunned, I thought, you should have left it alone.

I backed out the door.

“Well,” I said. “Goodnight.” And I flicked off the light.

I didn’t sleep very well. The bed, you see, had been carted off with everything else.

I dreamed that I brought the bird a packet of mince and fed it piece by piece from a spoon, blood and grease dripping all over my poor jacket, until I just stood up and, quite primly, dumped the whole lot over its head.

When I woke up I thought about Frances. I just lay, in the little bed made of my coats and blankets, and thought: mince, teabags, apples, cakes. Her shopping lists. Her handwriting. I always liked her writing: ponderous, immoveable, matter-of-fact letters that were impressed so deeply into the paper it was like they were carved into stone. When I first knew Frances I found myself trying to copy her, even holding my pen the same. I couldn’t do it, of course; my hand was always too keen to jump ahead and even my most careful writing looked like chicken scratch.

It would have been nice, I suppose, to have kept something of hers for when I needed it. I’d thrown it all out because I couldn’t stand it around me. Imagine, the jumpers she’d knitted us, eaten year upon year by moths. Or her cups, her plates, still with a fingerprint here or there, gathering dust. The chairs, the tables, the paintings, the books, the TV, the radio, the sofa, the carpets: all of it was still there and she wasn’t. It made me ridiculous. The one thing I hesitated over were the boxes of things she’d picked up during our walks, but even those went. Frances would take my arm during those walks, pick out something from the ground, the hedges, the trees, and we would walk while Frances talked. We’d go out after the rain. We watched the blackbirds sunbathing, the butterflies in the weeds, the trees rustling crisply in the breeze, until we went home again for tea, apples, cake. Even then, lying in the eerie quiet of the house, I could recall those walks in the woods, with a fresh sun coming out from behind the clouds to warm our damp hair, our hands, our raincoats.

But I hadn’t kept anything.

So I got up.

I drove into town, and then past the town, and out towards the woods. I told myself that I’d park at the foot of the hill, walk for thirty minutes, sit, and come back. I repeated this to myself: drive, walk, sit, back, drive walk, sit, back, drive walk sit back, over and over again – with this weird anticipation, an anxiety, like it’d be terrible not to – until the words didn’t even mean anything anymore. Then I drove past the woods, after all, and into the next town, which I didn’t know so well.

I went around the shops, feeling sort of maladjusted, you know, until I thought about the bird. And I cheered up. I walked sprightly around this little town, this squashed, boxy little town, while I thought about that hawk back at home, brooding in the damp among the plant pots. I’ll admit that it was a lovely thing, now I could see it clearly in my mind’s eye, with its curious quartzy colours and bright, burning eyes. I kept that picture of it in my head while I walked, thinking about it so hard that in the end it felt like we were talking. I told it about Frances, about the house, about the walks, and I even sang it a song, humming to myself down the street – and every time I passed someone I smiled, because they’d never guess what I was thinking, that there was a hawk, and that I’d put it in the shed. Sometimes they’d smile back, mostly not, but I didn’t mind because here I was strolling down Main Street (narrow, spiralling, to-let signs, loading) with the voice of a bird in my head.

Poor thing, sweet thing, I heard.

We spoke while I walked up and down the streets in and out of shops, actually buying things, buying anything, picking up coats and jackets, then scarves, newspapers, jam, make-up (not that I’d be wearing it much, just to have), throwing them at the tills, swiping the card, swiping it again in the next shop as I ordered a sofa, a hat-stand, a new bed, frame and mattress and headboard and all, and a microwave (of which Frances wouldn’t have countenanced, before), and then again as I spotted tubs of ice-cream for me, packets of beef and burgers and fish for it (I’d see what it’d take, as far as the fish went), and more and more things from charity shops (ornaments, teacups, books), until finally the card got declined and I scrounged the money out of my pockets for a bottle of water and a ham sandwich, and we talked and talked through it all, as it got darker and, finally, the cold came down and caught me. I hadn’t a coat (the coat, remember, being the bed).

I was shivering, mouthing words soundlessly into my throat, picturing myself tumbling through skies and shedding feathers over the ground as I passed, pirouetting into the twilight, holding a globe in one armoured claw. Only, of course, there’d be no more actual pirouetting for a while now since I was still crackling here and there in pain from all the dancing. I was heavy with all the aches and pains in my legs, hips, back, neck, but I could still feel myself twirling in my head. So I kind of plodded-twirled my way to my car, still light even under bags, lighter still with the thought of what would be delivered in the next couple of days, and drove back home, determined to get in there and turn on all the lights, whip up all the dust, get stuck in, as I say.

I tossed the bags into the porch and fairly ran round the side of the house, expecting, I don’t know, some warm welcome, something, only the chattering in my head had stopped, the cold was in my bones now, and there was nothing from the shed. It was dark in there, between the pale, white gusts of my own breath, and still. I pressed my hand against the door. The wood was cool, slightly damp with cold, and through it I thought I felt something move, only slightly, only very slightly.

“Hello,” I said, and I felt something inside leap. It didn’t speak to me, there was just a movement, that humming I had felt before, only it was inside my head and out. It was in my hand, as true as my hand was on the door. My hand slid to the handle and I opened it a crack, peered inside. There were no lights and for a second I didn’t see anything at all, until my eyes adjusted a bit, and there it was.

It was horrible.

It was up at the roof, clutching the shelf, the hackles raised, the beak opening and closing, and yet still no call, as though its heart was in its mouth and thumping so wildly that it could not scream. It hated me, it hated my guts. Absurdly, I thought of starlings. The bunch of starlings that scythed through the sky at the reservoir. Frances told me that murmuration was the word and I repeated it to myself under my breath as we watched the birds wheel and rise and dive together in unison, like the breaking of waves, overhead, and I had never heard of anything that could be called so softly, and yet look like that. They did that when there was a hawk nearby. Could they smell it, like I could, that smell of old iron and wood, and something unmistakably, bloodily, birdlike?

How big he was, how pitiless.

“Bird?” I said.

Sweet, poor.

I managed to throw the door open behind me as he lurched downwards. If I’d been caught in his stoop then I’d have nothing to tell you – luckily he swept upwards and out, sweeping just past my head in a bolt of stony colours, and I remember reaching out for some reason at the yellow flash of his feet. He wanted out, that’s all, he wanted up. I stared at him as he soared over the top of my house and away, far away, into the woods. I stared so hard, for so long, like I thought the feathers he had shed in his flight, still caught in an updraft of air, would knit together again and he would be back where he was, feet reached out towards me.

But of course not.

I clicked on the shed light. There was an almighty mess on one whole wall of the shed, spatters on the windows, even right up to the roof. I stood there, daft, wishing to God I hadn’t thrown out the scrubbers. Then something caught my eye on the shelf where Bird had been perched and I reached into the mess for it, fumbled it in my cold hands and dropped it. I saw the smooth form of the egg fall, a flare of light, and crash on the floor. Quite empty, not a hint of yolk, as if it had been sitting there for years and rotted from the inside. Anyway, it fell and was crushed to dust on the floor, and the fragments of it were blown away by the wind through the open door, and were lost among the shadows.


I went to the porch. The plastic bags with all that stuff in them were practically luminous in the dark, the receipts for even more stuff flapping about miserably in the wind. I carried it all indoors, in a couple of trips. I was so tired. But you know, I turned on the lights and looked around me, figuring out where I’d put the stuff once it got here – you’d think I’d regret it, send it back, but, really, let’s be practical here – and as I did it I found myself getting into a rhythm, stretching this arm to point, this leg, at the places I’d put the table, the chairs, the microwave, and, then, the things I’d buy later like the bookcase, the carpet, the curtains, the colours, the textures. I’ll admit something to you. I still had a couple of photos of Frances stashed in the attic, because of course I did, and that’s what I did once I stopped dancing and got my breath back. I put them on the mantelpiece – bare but for her – and she’s watching me from it still. I’m still moving things around, just so, keeping an eye on her pale hair, her dark eyes, a hint of colour around her throat, and the littlest spotting of bird down on her shoulder.


Emma Devlin is an Irish writer of flash and short fiction based in Bangor, Northern Ireland. She has an MA from Queen’s University Belfast in Creative Writing, with publications in Blackbird: New Writing from the Seamus Heaney Centre, The Bangor Literary Journal, and Honest Ulsterman.

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Image by Gentle07 from Pixabay

Columbogey On My Tail – Lucy Goldring

Sally, who had only meant to rest her eyes, woke to the captain’s smooth-voiced warning. Revised shipping forecasts had been received too late to return to port. Passengers should now prepare for ‘extremely rough conditions’.

Within ten minutes the ferry was sloshing about like a bath toy. Bottles of spirits skidded slantwise behind the bar, clinking like drunken dinner guests. Sally was pleased to note she didn’t feel queasy but asked a passing crewmember for a baggy ‘just in case’. Despite her protestations, she was swiftly ushered to the designated vomiting zone.

The pong suggested car-warmed bananas and microwaved train food. Sally took one of two remaining seats at the edge of the alcove, angled her body into the aisle and mouth-breathed carefully. Every pitch of the boat elicited a chorus of groaning and heaving, whilst a bronzed attendant minced back and forth with sick-bags pinched in latexed fingers.

When Columbogey was deposited in the opposite chair, she laughed out loud in astonishment. But Columbogey – riding a tsunami of nausea and dimly aware of keeping his cover – stared hard at the floor, his pasty brow beading with sweat.

Sally had first clocked the private detective two weeks’ earlier on her way home. He’d stalled at the lights on Alpine Road, then over-revved his engine in panic. Even from her rear-view mirror, she’d noticed his twitchy movements and intense stare. When Sally had picked out a meandering route – creatively interpreting the city’s variable speed limits as she did – Columbogey had followed at a uniform distance. That night she’d padded down the landing of the house she’d shared with her husband for over two decades and read his emails. The agency promised ‘unparalleled expertise in clandestine surveillance’.

Sally hadn’t expected to be tailed to her sister’s in Guernsey though. Clearly Pat was more invested in their marriage than she’d thought. (When she’d confessed last year’s office flirtation, she may as well have been talking to the understairs cupboard.)

Sally experienced a pleasant liquidy sensation spreading out from her chest, as if a secret reservoir of affection had been unstoppered. She smiled at Columbogey so long and so meaningfully that he had to meet her gaze.

‘I know who you are,’ she stage-whispered. Columbogey raised his eyebrows whilst continuing to spit drool from his lips. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Danny,’ he managed, before puking up his marmite on toast. He couldn’t be much older than the girls.

‘I won’t say anything,’ said Sally, after a respectful amount of time. Columbogey nodded gratefully. ‘But, just so you know, I’m far too knackered for an affair. Pat can be a pain in the backside at times but… we’re a team – of sorts.’

As the ferry came into Saint Peter Port, they enjoyed the cool of Sally’s mint imperials in their mouths; the comforting clack against the backs of their teeth. Columbogey – abruptly attractive having regained his olivey complexion – was the most stimulating thing to happen to Sally in years. She thought of Pat, installed on the sofa for a weekend of golf-watching and ‘fine ale’, and hoped to God he felt the same.


LUCY GOLDRING is based in Bristol and writes short and shorter fiction (along with developing her comedy writing). She has been shortlisted for Flash 500 and for the National Flash Fiction Day micro competition (2018 and 2019). Lucy has a story forthcoming in this year’s National Flash Fiction Day anthology and online publications with Ellipsis Zine, Reflex Fiction and 100 Word Story. You can follow her on Twitter at

Cabinet Of Heed Contents Link 21

Image by Helmut Jungclaus from Pixabay

The next train to arrive on Platform Two will be the 1300 to Manchester Piccadilly – Hannah Storm

‘I’ve left my mate with the masking tape’,
Your parting shot, and you’re off to stop
His sellotape shadow unravelling,
Not me.
‘Goodbye darling.’

A starling throws itself from the platform to the track,
I try to shout ‘stop’ but you both disappear.
Breath held instead, until the bird returns,
Beak bearing gifts for its young.
Not you.

You’re gone before I can say, ‘Listen, it’s me that has to leave.’
‘The next train to arrive on platform two will be the 1300 to Manchester Piccadilly,
Calling at…’
It’s still too far away to see the new arrival, blurred by sun light high.

I squint, shadows split the station’s eaves,
Me beneath.
Platformed between light and shade,
An Atlas holding up the sky.

Cabinet Of Heed Contents Link 21

Image by Michael Gaida from Pixabay

27 Takes – Jim Snowden

Ginny knew her harness was way too thick. Maybe if she were wearing a winter sweater it wouldn’t show, but she was in a paisley linen blouse whose top two buttons were open because Howard wanted cleavage for this scene. The camera couldn’t help but pick up the edges of the harness that was now chafing the underside of her breasts. “Howard, I think we need a different harness.”

Howard, chatting with Gus, the DP, paid Ginny no mind.


Still nothing.


“Ginny, I’ve told you before I’m not used to being shouted at,” Howard said. “What do you need, honey?”

Honey? God, you’re an ass, Howard. The only reason I’ll let you get away with it is that it’s 7:30 in the morning and it’s already 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit out here and the sooner we start the sooner we’re done. “This harness isn’t going to work.”


“It’ll show.”

Howard turned to Gus, “What do you think, Gus?”

“Now that she mentions it…”

“I think it’ll be fine.” Howard said.

In Ginny’s imagination, Gus’s handlebar mustache straightened at both ends. “Howard, I was about to say…”

“No. It looks fine. It’ll work. Let’s get onto something important. We’ll call places in about half an hour, okay?”

“Fine, Howard.” Ginny said. “Whatever you say.” Ginny returned to the folding chair her purse was hanging on and sat. Normally, at moments like this, she’d bury herself in the script, but there was no reason to that. She had one line, and they’d be dubbing that in post. All she had to do was scream and mouth her line when she saw HighMar holding the ray gun on her. The stagehand would yank her backward, she’d fall into a pit, and that was it. Just the sort of thing she had to spend two years training at the The Actor’s Studio to learn how to do. She picked up her Thermos, detached the cup, and poured some coffee. She had stronger stuff in her bag, but coffee would do for starters.

After leaping from his makeup chair in a single bound, Frankie jaunted over, wearing that stupid red and silver v-neck Martian uniform costume that made him look like he sang falsetto with The Lettermen From Outer Space. “Get a load of my ray gun.” He held up this bright red plastic toy.

“I’ve seen those at JJ Newberry’s.” Ginny said.

“Yeah. They sanded the label off.”

“So that’s the instrument of my death, is it?”

“That it be.”

“I’ve been shot 19 times in my career. That’s the silliest looking thing I’ve ever been shot with.”

“Any tips on making it look less dumb?”

“Hold it as if it weighs something. If it looks like you believe it’s solid and lethal, the audience might go with it.”

“Hold it like it weighs something. Got it. Cool. Thanks. I’ve never really acted before, you know.”

“Don’t start. It’s a very disreputable occupation. That’s what my mother says, anyway. What do you do normally?”

“I’ve got a band. It’s called ‘Head’.”

“Like the Monkees movie?”

“The Monkees made a movie?”


“Oh. Anyway, that’s not the name of our band for this movie. We’re called Frankie DeWolf and the Sensations.”

“Why the change?”

“We’re a psychedelic band, and the message of this movie doesn’t fit our image, so we made something else up when Howard’s check cleared.”

“Smart. Listen, you’re in a psychedelic band. You have some experience with LSD, right?”

“I dropped acid a couple of times, but I’m not that into it. Too unpredictable. Why?”

Ginny reached into her purse and, keeping her body between it any prying eyes, pulled out a small bag of mushrooms. “These are a gift from my daughter Judy.”

“Your daughter gave you peyote?”

Ginny whispered, “I don’t have enough for the crew. Cool it.”

Frank whispered, “Your daughter gave you peyote? Seriously?”

“We have an unusual relationship.”

“Yeah. I guess you do. I have a daughter. She’s seven. I can’t imagine…”

“Yeah. well.”

“How old’s your daughter? Fourteen? Fifteen?”

“Judy’s twenty-three.”

“Wow. I’m not trying to be fresh or anything, but you don’t seem old enough…”

“Math is not the subject I need your advice on, Frank. I’m experienced with grass, but peyote is new for me. And I figured since one of the few advantages of being in this stupid movie is coming up here where the view is nice, maybe I could drop some after we finish killing me. Since I need someone to keep an eye on me through the trip, I was wondering if you would, you know, keep an eye on me.”

Frankie scratched his ear with the barrel of his ray gun. Ginny caught a whiff of Howard’s rotting-funeral-wreath-soaked-in-jet-fuel scented cologne, which meant he was coming over to tell them to come to places. Frankie said, “On two conditions.”

“Which are?”

“First, share.”

“That’s a given. And second?”

“Don’t do it until we’ve played the joke on Howard.”

“What joke on Howard?”

“I’ll tell you later. If it works it’s going to be really funny.”

“Okay. I’ll hold off until after.”

Ginny stashed her baggie and sipped the last of her cup of coffee. She reminded herself that she’d been in good movies and TV shows—well, pretty good movies and TV shows—and set out in search of her mark. She figured it was on the south edge of the pit they’d dug on the top of this mesa, but when she got there she didn’t see anything except dust at the pit’s lip. As a stagehand pulled the back of her blouse up to attach the cable to her harness, Ginny yelled at Gus, “Where’s my mark?”

“It’s not there?”

“If it were there, I’d be looking at it right now.”

Bounding out from behind the camera, Gus looked down at the lip of the pit, frowning in a professional-looking manner before saying, “I guess we didn’t leave one. Could you stand there? We’ve got to do the lighting test over again.”

“Sure, why not. It’s just another hour of my life I won’t get back.” Ginny said.

“There’s no need to say unkind things.”

A flurry of comebacks flashed through Ginny’s head, but she lent none of them voice, mainly because a fight would just mean a longer delay. So she stood there for an hour and a half while they fiddled around with reflectors and camera angles until they finally had the look they thought they wanted. By the time they’d finished, Ginny had sweated out her makeup, so it was time for a new cleanse and coat. Another half hour gone. Then another re-harnessing and another stand at the lip of the pit. The coffee buzz was wearing off, and the time was creeping toward noon and the lunch break, not that Howard ever paid attention to lunch breaks. Ginny would make him pay attention. Little did Howard know that, last year, shortly after she wrapped her role as Carol the Pornographer in Howard’s The Baleful Yen, she’d been elected a SAG shop steward.

Finally, at little after 11am, Take One. Frankie took his position. Ginny summoned the emotional recall of begging her mother not to set her stuffed animals on fire for flunking 7th grade math, the same punishment dear old Mom would visit on Judy sixteen years later. Goddamn it, now Ginny was pissed instead of scared.

Dope Dealers From Outer Space, Scene 46, Take One.”


Ginny bent her knees in supplication and screamed, “Please, no. HighMar! Please no!”

“Die, Earth whore!”

With a mighty yank, the stagehand pulled Ginny backwards and off her feet. Into the pit she fell. On impact with the mat, pain rocketed through her back. “Motherfucker!” In seconds, concerned faces were looking down on her from the surface world. Ginny groaned and rolled over. Lifting up the mat, she found a pointy rock underneath. “Look at this! Nobody saw this? What the fuck is this?”

Frankie jumped in, “Are you all right?”

Ginny got up, rubbing her lower back. “I guess so. I’ll have a bruise the size of Texas, but I think I’m okay. This stupid harness is probably why I still have a kidney. Fuck!”

Howard looked accusingly at the crew, “Which one of you screwed this up? Which one of you useless assholes screwed this up?”

No one replied.

“You pieces of shit,” Howard went on, face the color of the Krypton sun, “You could have killed her. I could have been sued. I—“

“Blow it out your ass, Howard!” Ginny said. “You could’ve checked, but you didn’t. You never check on anything. You just make sure that someone else has to clean it up when you blow it. Now somebody help me out of this pit.”

One of the stagehands, with one pull of his beefy arm, raised Ginny back to the Earth’s surface. “Now,” Ginny said, “Pull up the mats, remove the stones. rake the area down, maybe pour some of the sand back in that you took out to dig this pit, then lay the mats back down and let’s start again. Okay?”

“You’re not the director of this film, Ginny.” Howard snapped. “You back off.”

“I’m taking lunch now. Back in an hour. Frankie, want to come with?”

“Right with you.” Frankie clambered up and started following Ginny back to the craft services cooler, where Howard kept the bologna sandwiches. As they walked away, Ginny heard Howard shout, “Pull up the mats and get those stones out of there, and someone bring in some of that sand to pad the floor of this pit. Right now!”


Ginny and Frankie choked down their bologna sandwiches and RC colas. As they waited for the lunch meat and sugar burps to subside, Frankie asked how Ginny ended up in Howard’s films.

“Howard got a crush on me in ’57. I was the love interest in this western, Death Rides To Laredo or something, for Universal, which Howard saw 34 times, or so he claims. And when he sold his half of his family’s heavy harvester business to his brother and got into making movies, someone told him that he could get good actors for bit parts if he found ones who had a only few days left on their contracts at the end of the year. A lot of actors do. Three days, four days, sometimes a week or two left over from the year’s allotment. So anyway, he checked through the player’s directory until he found out I’d moved from Universal to Paramount, and whenever he was making a picture he made sure to do it before the fiscal year was up so he could claim my days. He buys up my scrap days, Paramount makes its money, and I kill myself falling into pits.”



“How do you know he has a crush on you?”

“Because the first time he cast me, in The Caveman Watusi, he tried to make the leap from crush to couch. I brushed him off and told him to go back to his wife. I don’t know why I said that last bit. I don’t hate his wife. So, to change the subject, tell me about this joke you guys are—”

When Frank opened his mouth to reply, Howard called them back to work. As Ginny passed near Howard, Howard grabbed her arm, “You and me are going to talk.”

Pulling Ginny back toward the coolers, Howard leaned in close and said, “You don’t make me look bad in front of the crew.”

“Get your damned hand off me, Howard.”

It took a moment, but Howard gave Ginny her arm back.

Ginny rubbed her bicep. “You look bad on the set without me, Howard. Besides, what are you going to do? Fire me?”

“Paramount would be upset.”

“Oh, do not try to pull the ‘you’ll never work in this town again’ shit. When Paramount tells me I have to go work for you, they’re always apologetic. If you tried to mess me up with them, it’d backfire. They like me. They think you’re a zero. Now I’m here to act for you because my contract says I have to. So let’s punch in and do our jobs, shall we?”

“Paramount Pictures Incorporated, A Gulf and Western Company thinks I’m a zero? Are you sick in the head or something? I make huge films. My films make huge money. Just the other day a major paper compared me to Orson Welles. What do you think of that?”

Ginny wasn’t sure what to make of it. Sarcasm? The reporter fell down and hit his head on something hard? The stringer for the Redlands High School Picayune was hard up for a metaphor? Howard made it up just now? The list of possible interpretations was endless. “I don’t make anything out of it.”

Howard sniffed a couple of times and puffed his chest out. “Well, you should. Because I don’t do anything better than I do this, believe me.”

“I believe you.”

“I mean, you’re not bad looking, but you’re dumb, Ginny. Really dumb.”

Ginny’s shoulders bunched up. Hatred set her veins and arteries on fire, and she shuddered as if she were primed to unleash great forces upon Howard. But she counted to ten and let it abate. “Let’s go to work, Howard.”

“Mr. Zez.”


Ginny found the grip and had him help her don her harness. “Am I going to break my back next take?”

“No. We saw to it. You’ll be okay. We swear.”

“All right. I’m not puncturing a lung for this picture.”

“You won’t, honest injun.”

That’s great, Hopalong Cassidy. What are you? Twelve? “Fine.” Ginny took her mark. She felt the line tense behind her. Frankie took his mark. Howard farted around for a minute or two, then called for places. Take 2. “Action.” The cord yanked Ginny into the pit. She hit the mat, let out a little puff. But it was all right. Ginny rolled forward, got to her feet, and peeked over the edge of the pit. “Did we get it?”

“No.” Howard said. “There was a problem with the camera. It didn’t start off right. Let’s go again.”

The stagehands helped Ginny out. Back on her mark. “Places everyone”. Speed. Take 3. “Action.” Yank. Oof. Up.

“Aw, shit. What now?” Howard said. “Sorry. We need to go again. These cheap cameras. Why doesn’t the studio send us better equipment?”

Because you don’t pay for it, you putz. Ginny clambers out again. The costumer comes over with a brush and starts dusting her off. “Howard, this isn’t a tracking shot with a thousand extras. Can we get this done?”

“I’m doing the best I can.” Howard said. “Please be patient.”

Oh, Good. You’re doing the best you can. Why can’t you aspire instead to do the worst that a competent person can do? It’d be better by a factor of ten. Okay, Ginny, hold on. How many more of these can there possibly be?

Take four. Oof. Take five. Oof. Take six. Oof. Take seven. Cable broke. No spares, so the stagehand had to run into town to get a new one. On the stagehand’s way down, Frankie gave the him a dime and phone number to call to tell the bass player of Frankie DeWolf and the Sensations that he won’t be able to rehearse tonight. Short break. Coffee. Stares into the middle distance alternate with long looks at the bag of mushrooms. Oh, great. He’s back. Take eight. Howard: “Maybe this is the wrong angle. Let’s move over this way.” More lighting tests. Fresh makeup. More brushing of clothes. Getting hungry. Take nine. Oof. Take ten. Oof. Take eleven. Tarantula! Right by Ginny’s face, looking right at her! Jesus Fucking Christ!

Ginny scrambled out of the pit. The skin over her ribs felt like frying hamburger. Her back ached. Her costume was now wearing a mask of sand. “Get the fucking spider out of there. As long as it’s in. I’m fucking out.”

Howard bounded over, smiling, “You should know things are going great.”

Ginny got up on one knee, looked up at Howard, and saw in his smug expression all the evidence she needed that none of these takes had been necessary. He was just fucking with her now, showing her just how far he could push her contractual obligation. A day meant a day. 24 little hours of as many takes as he wanted. By the time he got the angle and lighting and take, Howard would turn Ginny into a bruise with legs. “Howard, how many more?”

“I need to make sure we have what we need, Ginny. It’s what professional filmmakers do. You want to work with a professional, don’t you, Ginny?”

Excuse me, Howard. I’m going to the State Legislature to lobby for the repeal of the laws against murdering your boss because I think those laws are wrong. “That spider needs to be out of there.”

“Sure. Get some water and get brushed off. We’ll handle it.”

Limping slightly because in the scramble she must have pulled something, Ginny grabbed a glass of water from the catering table, sat in her chair, and put the glass to what were now chapped lips. She didn’t like to think of herself as suffering. Surely, there were victims of floods and famines and brutal tyrants who would gladly trade places with her, for at least six takes. Were any of them available? She’d split her per diem.

Some man by the pit screamed, “Get it off me! Get it off!” Ginny guessed they got the spider. Though it could have been something else. Maybe a roc was dragging him off to its nest to feed its children. Why couldn’t that be me?

Ginny stretched her neck, got a few satisfying pops for her trouble, then looked down at her bag.

She’d known actors who’d gone on drunk or high. They’d always say they’d done great, but that was mostly because their fellow cast members had done a great job of covering their fuck-ups. Still, what was there to fuck up on this job? Look scared, beg a little, cable gets pulled, the end. It doesn’t take extraordinary powers of memory to handle that. Besides, if Howard could mess with her, she could mess with him. Fair was fair. Was Ginny right, or was Ginny right? Ginny reached into her bag, pulled out the baggie of shrooms, and chewed as many as her daughter’d recommended.

Ginny passed by Frankie on her way back to her mark, “Keep an eye on me.” She said. “I may get a little weird.” She found her spot and watched the sand at her feet. These little swirls started, well, swirling, in shapes that made the desert floor look like the carpet her friend Susan had put in, so many little squares, but with rounded corners, turning and turning like parts of some great machine. A warm wave washed over Ginny just as the stagehand attached the cable to her back. A cool, prickly feeling danced across her goose pimpled skin as the world poured the words “Take Twelve” into her ear. And she laughed and said, “Take twelve what?”


And Ginny looked up at Frankie. She saw he was aiming a gun at her, but out of it were coming these blue and white swirls, like See’s peppermint sticks. So she kept laughing, pointing at Frankie until finally the stagehand yanked her. Ground streaked into sky which streaked into Earth, from which they make loam which would eventually stop up a beer barrel. When she hit the mats, the sound of her breath forced from her body seemed to echo from someplace deeper than the center of the Earth. All this was one, wasn’t it? Sky, sand, cable, Ginny, Frankie, even Howard. Well, that last one was a pity, but still…

Frankie came. Reluctantly, Ginny took his hand and let him launch her from the pit.

Howard was standing there, also looking like he was made out of Susan’s swirling carpet. Judy you are the best. You get that from me. Howard said, “That was an interesting choice, laughing like that.”

“I thought so.” Ginny said.

“Let’s stick with that. It makes you look extra-crazy. I think it might be good.”

“I think it is.” Ginny said.

“Let’s go again.”


By the time the next take was set up, Ginny saw little wizards dancing around Frankie, which made laughing really easy. They were all dressed like Mickey in Fantasia, all grinning and pirouetting and briséing all over the place. Ginny’s ribs hurt from the tickling this gave her, and when she got yanked back, she cackled all the way down. More takes followed. Ginny lost count of how many there were. But when they stopped, and she was lying on her back in the pit, she looked up and saw this great, pulsating light. The Great Atom, come to visit, hovered in the sky over her, blue and red, with tendrils of parti-colored light radiating from it in all directions. It seemed like the key to everything in the universe, the thing that really ruled over all she saw and heard and touched. And yet it didn’t judge. It didn’t tell her she should feel guilty, or bad, or ashamed of her life or career. It just was. Above her, as she was below.


She closed her eyes, then opened them. It was there.

She closed and opened her eyes again. It was still there.

She closed and opened her eyes yet again. And it was gone. Above her were stars. So many millions of stars. Ginny never saw these in the city. From not too far away, she heard a familiar voice shouting, “What the what? WHAT?”

Ginny sat up. She couldn’t see the walls of the pit she was in, but she felt dirt and dust and smelled grass pollen. She got out of the pit and saw they’d struck all the equipment, except the mat she’d been lying on, which she now supposed she’d have to strike. The voice was coming from below somewhere. It was Howard’s voice. Ginny ran to the edge of the bluff and looked down, but she couldn’t see anything except a few lanterns. One of the lanterns looked like it was bouncing fast along the desert floor. “IT’S THE GHOST!” Howard shouted “IT’S THE GHOST!”

Goddamn it. I missed the joke. They’re making Howard look like the idiot he is, and I’m missing it. Now somebody will have to explain the gag, and I’ll think it’s a little funny, but I’m missing the best part, the “if you could’ve seen the look on your face” part. And what other joys can I have on this worthless job?

The Great Atom whispered in Ginny’s ear, “Am I nothing?”

Ginny got a good laugh out of that. No, she thought as she walked back to the pit to retrieve the pad, you’re not nothing.


JIM SNOWDEN has placed fiction in Pulphouse, Mind In Motion, The Seattle Review, The King’s English, and MAKE. Dismantle the Sun and Summer of Long Knives, his first two novels, were published by Booktrope in 2012 and 2014, respectively. Jim’s novella, Escape Velocities, was named a notable story by the editors of StorySouth. His one-act play, Dr. Kritzinger’s 12 O’Clock won the Bill and Peggy Hunt Playwright’s Festival in 2015.

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Image via Pixabay

The Star Collector – Damon Garn

Mama told me we came from the stars, and I believed her. She probably meant it in a more symbolic way than I had understood it at the time, but I believed her nonetheless. I don’t think this dismal ball of rock and ice could have spawned something so glorious as Mama on its own. We were from another world, another time perhaps.

The viruses, the radiation, the contaminated water made us sick all the time. You could taste the sickness in your mouth like the residue of vomit. You could smell it oozing out of yourself. It was part of life. I didn’t realize when she became ill again that it would be for the last time. That first night she was sick, she’d tossed and turned, fevered but not really burning up, then cold but without body wrenching shivers. She’d eaten the small dinner I’d fixed her – gritty bread and chunky milk – so I didn’t worry.

The second day was much worse. She’d moaned and talked, describing sunsets she’d seen as a little girl and oceans she’d swum in on her honeymoon. She didn’t recognize me at all that day. She’d whispered to herself, sometimes giggling gleefully. Her body took her through emotions and sensations, breaking her mind slowly. It scared me, making me feel small and vulnerable. Mama was my whole world.

The third day she was much better. Her eyes lost their fevered light and her sweaty body seemed to regain some strength. She ate all I fed her, including my own meager meal for the day. She looked ashamed when she realized that, but I was so relieved that I hardly noticed the hunger pangs.

“You are my star, child, do you know that?” It was something she said to me all the time. Like I was some magical thing for her. She sighed. “You are my star. They are all stars out there now – your Daddy, grandma and grandpa, Boxer…” her voice trailed off and she stared through the ceiling into a galaxy only she could see.

Boxer had been my dog. He’d died protecting me from rabirs – fierce predators that roamed this part of the world. I’d snuck away from the house, just as I’d been told not to do, and he’d faithfully followed me. When the rabir pack came after me, he held them back as I fled through the icy ravines toward home. We found what was left of his mutilated body in the snow the next day.

Now he was dead. And apparently he was a star.

When Mama slept that night, I stepped out of the front door and looked up through the darkness toward the sky. So many little lights out there. Were those dead people? Children and dogs and parents and grandparents? Is that what Mama meant when she said they were all stars now? It was kind of creepy and I shivered with more than just the bitter cold. I didn’t understand her spirituality any more than I understood the science she tried to teach me.

“No no no!” she’d say in exasperation as we peered at an old astronomy textbook. “The stars are huge. They are on fire.”

“But they’re not huge, Mama. Look at them at night – they are tiny. They don’t look like fire.”

She would sigh and continue trying to teach me. She sketched starships and cities and medicines and something called a restaurant where you could ask for as much food as you wanted. She called all this “civilization” and tried to help me imagine it. Mostly it made me feel angry and very lonely.

But at night, as she tucked me into my small bed, she would say “Goodnight. You are my star, child, do you know that?” and kiss me gently.

I was so confused.

When she died the next morning, I understood perfectly. I felt her, far above me in the empty sky. A beautiful twinkle of light that assured me she was still there, still part of me, still part of my future. She was a star now.

And I didn’t want her to be.

She was Mama, strong and smart and beautiful. I was skinny and little, the illness should have taken me instead. I could have been a real star for Mama. Didn’t she always tell me I was her star anyway?

I refused to accept her death. There had to be something I could do. Some way I could make it better. Those stars up there – weren’t they always giving us their light? If Mama was up there, couldn’t her light come back to me? I thought about this in my bed that first night I was alone.

I found our toolbox and I took our old dented flashlight and I worked all day. I used tape and gum and science and religion and I built the Star Collector. It was a wonderful device, made of love and fear and hope and tears. I didn’t have any blueprints, just my own grief-ignited imagination.

That night I dragged Mama’s light empty body on our sled to an open space between the cliffs and laid her in the snow. Boxer was buried there, so I had always associated this place with him, and with how much I’d loved him.

I placed the Star Collector on Mama’s chest and turned it on.

And it worked.

A cone of star light seeped from the sky into my Star Collector. The bright light was kindled into a single point at the center of the lens. It pulsed like a struggling heart a few times before the Collector became full and turned off.

Mama opened her eyes to the stars.


DAMON GARN lives in Colorado Springs, CO with his wife and two children. He enjoys hiking, writing and annoying his neighbors with mediocre guitar playing. He writes in the fantasy/sci-fi realm experimenting in flash fiction, short stories and a novel. Follow on Twitter: dmgwrites or at

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Image by Jonatan Pie on Unsplash

The Church on the Hill – Debz Butler

You cannot see the church on the hill from the valley today. The wind causes the snowflakes to roar round the stone walls. Some manage to escape the tireless race of the storm and settle on graves that surround the building. The graves are covered in thorned weeds and thick, creeping brambles. There are no loved ones left to clear the graves and plant fresh flowers in remembrance. Only the path lies clear, even the brambles recoiling from where he treads.

His car is a mile away now. It speeds round the bends, never hesitating with caution. Even with dark falling, he does not switch on the headlights. He knows the road well, he has travelled it for many years.

Inside the church, leaves pile against the wall. Blown in through the broken windows, the give off the smell of damp and rot. The stone floor is cracked in places, moss creeping through the splits. The pews still rest in the space they did before. Grey with thick dust, rather than the brown wood that was polished every week with bodies dress in their Sunday best. The kneelers, which once supported the devout as they prayed for absolution, lay abandoned on the floor. The thick embroidery has long since been chews through by cold, pregnant mice. If art once adorned the walls, there is no sign of it now. Just cold, bleak stone.

His car reaches the end of the path and the engine turns off. The church feels his stare upon it and the groan of the wind amplifies. He climbs out of the car. The snow melts where his boots fall on the path, the hiss of steam lost in the sound of the screaming storm. He reaches the heavy wooden doors, they seem to shrink before his hands but when he turns the knocker they open easily. He steps inside.

His bleached, blue eyes have no need to adjust to the darkness. They have known darker than this. He walks to the end of the centre aisle and stares at the broken alter ahead of him. Above it, the last remaining stained-glass window, Mary the Virgin cradling her child. Once beautiful and revered, the colour is now drained. Cracks have formed with some small panes missing.

He raises his gaunt face so he can take it in, although he knows every inch by memory. After a moment, the corners of his mouth twitch. A sound begins, quiet a first, the sound of glass scraping glass. He stands frozen, his eyes do not leave the window. His smile widens. His eyes blaze, the pupils engulfed by the blue, no space for light to enter. The screaming of glass grows louder, now unbearable for anyone but him. This is what fuels him, causes his spine to fizz, he feels sparks in his fingers.

Finally, he grins. No longer the screaming of glass, now the desperate final scream of a mother. A scream of fear and agony, of futility. Deafening and piercing.

Another pane in the stained-glass cracks. For a moment, silence.

His face returns to neutral. Black blooms in his eyes once again. He turns and leaves the church. Once outside he closes the door and feels in his pocket for the cold, iron key. The lock turns, sealing the doors for another day. He walks to his car, he will be back in the morning to open up. Just in case.


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Image via Pixabay

Holy, Holy – Marisa Silva-Dunbar


My friends tell me, find someone else who feels like home.


I’m trying to consecrate myself—
divinity used to rest in me, I can still make
sparks in the palms of my hands;
the Saints still know my name.
My house is still sacred—
find sanctuary here and heal.
I cannot go back to yours,
until it is saged and sanitized.
Throw out the towel she used—
she has defiled it. The sign of the cross
can’t save her—no demons or angels
want to answer her call. The spirits
were never entertained by excreta.


I want your prayers burned onto my skin
She’s already gone. She won’t be here
ever again. I want to draw blood from
you as you whisper these into the night.
Make sacrifices so you can be sanctified—
I have the oils to anoint you.


I leave a circle of bite marks around your heart
so she knows who you always belonged to.


MARISA SILVA-DUNBAR is a Latina poet. Her work has been published in work to a calm, Chanterelle’s Notebook, and Marias At Sampaguitas. Marisa is a contributing writer at Pussy Magic. Her work is forthcoming in Dark Marrow, The Charles River Journal, and Dear Reader. She is the EIC of Neon Mariposa Magazine.

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Image via Pixabay

The Post Office Delivers A Shock – Michael Grant Smith

Our town of Last Chance gets heavy snow every fifty years or so, but we elect a mayor every four. Many who win are candidates to join a damn Homeric Hero Hall of Fame, truly they deserve it, but other mayors, not so much. You could say we’re blessed with an honest, competent public servant as often as we warn our kids to bundle up before they go sledding.

A ways back in 1993 the aforementioned rare snow fell and nearly made Last Chance disappear. Two or three discontented residents

applauded the change, declared it an improvement. Constable Arlene was dispatched to visit each complainant in their home, where she said people had a right to speak their mind but if they had so much pep why couldn’t they attend to these code violations, and these ones over here. The blizzard abated nigh the dawn of Monday business. Honey Sweet, our postmistress, flipped her sign to “Open.” Christmas loomed a week hence.

The post office door’s bell tinkled and a slight but dapper fellow entered. A silvery goatee embellished his ruddy man-in-the-moon face. Honey had shoveled and salted the sidewalk, but the gentleman brushed non-existent snowflakes from his camelhair overcoat and stomped his spotless wingtips upon the doormat. He marched thusly for quite a while.

“Good morning, Mayor Nelson,” said Honey. “May I help you?”

Mayor Lowell “Fuzzy” Nelson thumped once more, approached the counter, and set on it a shoebox-sized parcel. With a flourish, he removed his porkpie hat. He attempted a smile but it ended up a grimace, not the train-coming-at-you grin that got him elected mayor three terms and off scot-free from at least two intervening indictments.

“I wish to mail something valuable to myself,” His Honor shouted. “Its cost far exceeded what I could afford, yet its worth is vastly less than what I deserve!”

Honey peered over her eyeglasses and took one step backwards.

“Sir, you aim to mail it to yourself?”

Because the eight o’clock hour had barely passed, Honey and the mayor were alone. Tammy, Honey’s subordinate and best friend, was not scheduled to arrive until ten, and Charlotte’s Salon & Barber upstairs opened at noon — the staff worked late evenings in order to provide “Premium Bath and Spa Services” to Last Chance’s elite.

“To myself, yes, you are correct,” the mayor boomed. “I will receive it with grace and good humor!”

“Well, then,” said Honey. She blinked. “It’s your choice. Ain’t no law says, don’t send yourself Christmas gifts.”

“Christmas gift! A Christmas gift? Nonsense!”

Ice crystals gleamed within Mayor Nelson’s eyeballs. His chin whiskers bristled like a bed of nails.

“Let the great feats I have accomplished be my legacy,” he bellowed. “I will live forever in the public consciousness as a monument to talent and tenacity! My package relates to those noble precepts, not Christmas!”

Honey wrote out a postage receipt and then forgot she had just written one, so she made another. She scribbled on the receipt and deleted the duplicate charges. Her hands jerked around as if a puppeteer pulled strings.

“Fine, sir, fine,” Honey said, looking away from the mayor’s face. “We’ll send your package right away.”

She kept her attention stuck on the counter. Her long-ago training had finally found a home. Troubled, violent patrons are less likely to kill you if they believe you can’t ID them. Would an elected official commit murder? Even if the victim had voted for the murderer? Her best hope was that Constable Arlene might respond within the hour.

“I don’t think you are aware of my identity,” said Mayor Nelson. He waved his hat for emphasis or to swat invisible insects. “Maybe you live in isolation or are in another way unable to recognize me. Do you suffer from impaired vision or an untreated cognitive disorder?”

Honey, who had greeted the mayor by name bare minutes ago, shook her head and nodded simultaneously. Her customer inhaled a hogshead of air and wobbled with indignation.

“I have left an indelible mark on human history,” he roared. “My great triumph shall remain mine always, singularly my very own!”

Honey affixed a postage label to the box and slid it off her scale.

“Comes to twelve dollars and seventy-five cents, sir.”

He reached into his overcoat. Honey squeezed out a sob, but the mayor produced only an exquisitely finished leather billfold, counted out thirteen one-dollar bills, and pushed them across the counter. Honey gave him his change, receipt, and a fake smile. Pocketing his quarter, the mayor squared his shoulders and proclaimed:

“A postmark’s timestamp will flout the test of eternity and enshrine my notoriety. In furtherance of this objective, the package’s contents shall remain forever a mystery to me and everyone else.”

“Okay, thank you, have a blessed day,” Honey said in a cracked whisper. “Please enjoy your not-a-present unknown thing.”

“I’ll never know if I will or will not enjoy it,” thundered the mayor. “I mustn’t open the package or molest it in any way. Do you not understand?”

Mayor Lowell “Fuzzy” Nelson donned his hat, turned, and was gone, his exit punctuated by the door’s jingle-jangle. Honey idled in neutral for a bit; pondered how bells and etcetera ran her life. She drew a fresh address label from the stack.

Tammy arrived at half-past ten. Upon her lips died an excuse about how the blankety-blank weather messed up her whole morning and the roads were almost too evil for her military-surplus jeep.

“Why do you gaze at yon box, Honey?” said Tammy. “One might believe it’s the first you ever seen.”

Honey dragged her stare from the mayor’s parcel. Tammy noticed the red eyes and jittery lip of a moral dilemma, having witnessed a few in connection with her irregular employment upstairs at Miss Charlotte’s.

“Thirty-two years I upheld my swore oath,” said Honey. “Thirty-two years. No matter what, I never felt no temptation to monkey with The Rules. Until this day.”

“Are you fixing to confess badness, girl? I mention it because you got a look about you, of admitting stuff. What is it you done or are ciphering about doing?”

“I’m already going to burn, so don’t fuss with trying to stop me.” Honey held up Mayor Nelson’s box so her friend could read the address label.

Even without her half-glasses, Tammy made out the destination just fine. She’d been there so often to sit on the porch and sip shot glasses of beer, and the familiar handwriting left no doubt.

“Miss Honey Sweet, why’re you showing me a box you’re mailing to your own place?”

The best part of getting snow every half-century or thereabouts is you can hope it doesn’t reoccur for a plenty long while. Some of Last Chance’s citizens behave similarly, in regard to their indiscretions and lapses and whatnot. Unexplainable no-good behavior will happen when it wants, which is what makes it impossible to explain. The rule applied to Mayor Lowell “Fuzzy” Nelson’s stubbornly consistent bad habits and mental flat tires, but don’t get all encouraged and assume it’s the same for regular folks.


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Image via Pixabay

The Colour Of Us – Patricia Sandberg

I hold the postcard in my hand. Pots of pigment in a South American market array on a worn blanket spread on hard ground. Vessels of intensity.

And I think of you, how I might paint who we were.

Carmine, the red of crushed cochineal insects. Yellow, like purree, the pigment made from urine of India’s cattle starved on mango leaves. Lapis lazuli blue, a mineral inlaid into Tutankhamun’s funeral mask. White of powdered chalk, a void of colour. Black of charcoal, burned matter.

Pigment cupped for protection or to prevent escape.

*      *      *

I see us as the painting begins, take up a pencil, its sides rough against my fingers, its point blunt.

Emerald burns with jealousy. Gold turns to sulphur. Ruby catches fire. Essences lose distinction when blended, fade when diluted and bleed when they run. Canvas is a material for display or cover.

I sketch, rough and hurried with lines crossing yet unconnected – the edges of us are yet to be determined. We can’t get enough of one another. Flesh is electric. Lightning and storm. A thicker brush mixes the paint, creates tone. This is for the underpainting. The part that lies beneath what comes next. We move in together.

Calm. An image. The beach, water sky blue. My head is resting on the warmth of your belly, feeling it rise with your breath. The sun is like the hands of a healer over us. I am your life, you say. And your life is mine.

The painting evolves. I lay a wash of yellow’s harmony over the canvas but the rushed lines of us push through, jar against the soft glow, against my hand that directs the brush to fill in the lines and round out edges. I try to paint a memory of comfort in our world but elements unbidden emerge and interject into the scene I am creating. Darker hues insert themselves. Lines thicken and harden. Edges fall down cliffs.

Random script, a cacography that’s hard to read, appears in the corners of the canvas. Questions. Small things. What time did you come home from the office? Who did you eat lunch with? Where are you going? At first, bright – jokey, like your face.

You code your words but I’m learning.

I want us to be together more, you say.

Dove becomes cloud, and silver, slate. Your shape reveals in small distinct strokes of the brush while mine begins to dissolve.

You’re finally home. Slow bus?

I pretend it is jest though your eyes don’t laugh. Your words de-cipher.

Don’t dress like that. Don’t act like that. Don’t be you.

I protest and you storm out. I wait for hours in the dark for the door to open so I can apologize. No dress is worth fighting over. I become beige.

Graffiti scrawls across the painting. Lavender and lilac yield to the bruise of mahogany.

Who was that calling?

You don’t believe it was my friend, my mother, work. I try rearranging your colours, examining the painting through your eyes but find myself sinking into your pot of pigment.

Don’t you fucking look at me that way.

I adopt shadow, look away.

Coral and watermelon convert to garnet and brick, and my pot has a rim that prevents flight.

*      *      *

A postcard is something you send from a distance.

I push aside the pots of paint. Lift a broader brush. Swish its bristles in a cup of water, start at the centre of the canvas and work outwards in slow, swimming strokes unwinding the vortex that drew me in.

And flush away the harsh colour, the bully lines of you.


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Image by Patricia Sandberg

In The Attic of the Holiday Home by the Sea – B F Jones

The landlady had been clear, her stiff tone definite. No attic visit.

And ever since, she had wondered what was up there. She’d miss out on the delights of a week of crisp sea air and grilled fish, consumed by her assumptions – Gold? Ghosts? Unspeakable war paraphernalia? – and her childish curiosity.

She could hear noises during her sleepless nights, remote rhythmical clanking – the boiler? And a soft, occasional fife her husband attributed to wildlife. There was sometimes the ineffable feeling of another presence that she didn’t like thinking about.

On the sixth night she finally caved, and climbed up the wonky ladder, exhilaration and terror leaping in her throat.

The attic was warm and brightly lit. The old man didn’t see her. He exhaled two sharp blows of the wooden whistle, and the small green locomotive slowly started again its eternal 8-shaped journey.


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Image via Pixabay

Why I Pierced My Nose – Cinthia Ritchie

Because in junior high
a girl with banana-colored hair
stuck a pin through my ear,
yanked a thread, blood dripping,
it felt holy, Christ
on the cross, Moses wandering
the desert,
my ears crusted with pus
until I smelled infection
across my pillow
animal odors, comforting,

Because few years later a boy
with dark hair and green eyes,
led me to his bed,
another type of piercing
but Jesus, how he moved,
cat eyes blurring,
I licked the blood from the sheet,
tasted myself.
When I walked I could feel
a hole between my legs
gasping and hungry for breath,

Because the years smeared
together and suddenly I had a son
with beautiful teeth,
a job at a newspaper,
poems published in magazines no one
read. Every Sunday I blew a copy editor
in the supply closet, printer cartridges praying
my knees as outside the door reporters’ keyboards
sang the news.
After he left, I paid a man to tattoo
a dolphin over my arm, blood mixing
with ink, I loved the pain, the permanence.
Some things should never stop hurting.

But they do and soon you forget,
which is why years later,
no longer young,
I had my nose pierced,
pain blaring hot-rock shout,
eyes watering, it was almost unbearable,
Mary searching the temple for Jesus,
Abraham ready to slit his own son’s throat,
and then, just as suddenly,
it was over, a small pink stone
embedded in my right nostril,
a gift, a song,
a reminder not so much of pain
but of the relief, the welcoming
stillness, that follows.


CINTHIA RITCHIE is an Alaska writer and ultra-runner who spends her time running mountain trails with a dog named Seriously. Find her work in New York Times Magazine, Evening Street Review, Sport Literate, Best American Sports Writing, Bosque Literary Journal, Clementine Unbound, Deaf Poets Society, Into the Void, Gyroscope Review and more.

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Image via Pixabay

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