1962 – Tim Suermondt

During the Florida summer
before Cuba and missiles went hand-in-hand
the alligators were still climbing
out of the canal, sunning themselves

on one side of the lawn, my brothers and I
playing ball on the other—
a sort of Cold War treaty all our own.
When the Russians took their missiles

back to their motherland, my friends and I
ate burgers at the Woolworth’s counter
before spending most of the day
in the shabby elegance of the bijou.

We never gave a thought about Khrushchev
who was deposed soon after—
we had Kennedy and the future belonged to us,
the heroes on the screen would always have our backs.

 

Tim Suermondt is the author of five full-length collections of poems, the latest JOSEPHINE BAKER SWIMMING POOL from MadHat Press, 2019. He has published in Poetry, Ploughshares, The Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Stand Magazine, Galway Review, Bellevue Literary Review and Plume, among many others. He lives in Cambridge (MA) with his wife, the poet Pui Ying Wong.

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The Watch – E A Fowler

The man in the suit is crying. I don’t know what he’s saying, as the TV is muted and the subtitles are frozen on the words “things like this that really,” but I can see his mouth moving and the tears streaming down his face. I met him once, in a different life. He’s the branch manager of the department store that, until an hour ago, occupied the ground floor of our town’s only shopping mall. Behind him, yellow-jacketed ambulance men shamble across piles of glass, through the gaping wound where the mall used to be.

Right now I’m sitting in the back room of The Ship, about two kilometres across town. It has five tables, four yellowing lamps (three working), two faded nudes and one other customer – a man with a stained burgundy jumper and the face of a serial killer. When I arrived he’d already stacked up three empty glasses, and now there are five spread across the table, a sixth half drunk in his hand. It’s a dingy, insalubrious place to spend a Saturday afternoon, but the options are limited for solo drinkers. And even if I were allowed in the front room, it’s all pensioner lunch specials, satin peonies and screaming toddlers. I’d rather take my chances with Charles Manson here.

The bartender walks through the door to the kitchen, bearing a glass of lukewarm wine on a tray. He sets it down in front of me with a brief nod of his head and walks over to the TV, which is now flashing zigzag lines across a sombre police press conference. He pulls the plug and the TV blinks off.

I pick up my phone from the table and wave my wrist across the screen. Various feeds flash up, which I skim through with half an eye. This has happened too many times for anyone to have anything original to say, least of all the media. With every atrocity they become hungrier, gnawing at the bones of suffering to sate the appetite of an audience that has become inured to other people’s pain.

The bartender plugs the TV back in, flooding the room with sickly blue light. Now there’s a political suit on the screen – the shifty type in obligatory pink shirt – urging us to be calm, not to retaliate. Nobody has claimed responsibility yet, not that that matters; whoever did this, innocent people will pay for it.

My phone lights up again, unprompted this time. I pick it up and see Kay’s name on the screen. That’s odd. Kay knows how I feel about talking on the phone.

I swipe my wrist across the screen and say, “Hello?”

Silence echoes from the earpiece. Over the next few seconds my whole body goes cold, my mind telescopes away from the words I now know, with absolute certainty, she is about to say.

“Ashley’s missing.” Her voice is so small it’s barely recognisable. “She said she was going to Kaitlin’s, but I just spoke to Kaitlin’s mum and she’s not there.”

I say, “Kay, don’t panic,” but I don’t sound like myself either. “There are lots places they could have gone.” Already I’m compiling a list: someone’s house, the park, the high street, or the mall. There aren’t that many places.

“Her mobile’s off–it’s just going to voicemail, and the locator’s been disabled. She knows she’s not allowed to do that.”

“I’m sure she’s just being a teenager.”

“She never turns her phone off.”

Now I don’t know what to say. My eyes are drawn to the TV screen, where a blonde woman is talking to the camera. She’s clutching a toddler to her chest in one arm, while gripping the hand of a fair-haired boy who sucks at a carton of juice. His face is streaked with snot and tears. “As a mother myself,” she says, “it’s things like this that really make you appreciate how lucky you are, you know?”

No, I don’t fucking know. The next second I’m on my feet, heading to the door. “Stay where you are,” I say into the phone.

“I can’t…”

“She might come home. I’ll look for her.” After a moment I add, “I’m sure she’s fine.”

Burgundy jumper man glances up at me as I head out through the door. He doesn’t look like a serial killer anymore – just a lonely, middle-aged man, washed up in a world he no longer understands.

* * *

Ashley was never meant to exist. Kay and I had a longstanding pact that neither of us would get pregnant. By the time she did, she had no choice but to go through with it. I still believe it was an accident; single parenthood carries a stigma almost as bad as non-parenthood. To this day, I have no idea who Ashley’s father is.

I wouldn’t even be here if not for Kay. I came on a two-year contract – a demotion dressed up as a transfer – that was suddenly made permanent when my replacement’s Scottish passport came through at the last minute. I was going to turn it down, take my chances back in the city, but Kay begged me to stay.

And then, all too quickly, it was too late. There are no new jobs out there for women like me. No jobs either for women who are selfish enough to have a child without a husband to take care of them. I get by on my salary, and they survive on Kay’s pitiful government allowance, though neither of these things can be taken for granted.

Ashley was born for a better world than this, and it is inconceivable that she could die in a shopping mall in this provincial shithole, barely a week before her sixteenth birthday.

* * *

I’m two glasses of wine down, well over the permitted amount of none whatsoever, but I chance the car anyway, throwing myself into the driver’s seat and pressing my wrist against the ignition port. Within seconds, an angry red warning flashes up on the car’s internal monitor. I’m not driving anywhere.

I get out and slam the door. The autolock clicks on as I stride off down the narrow pavement. The town is small enough to cover by foot, but I’m losing precious time, and I can’t shake the feeling of being punched in the gut that I’ve had ever since I heard Kay’s voice on the phone.

Where would an almost sixteen-year-old go that she felt the need to lie to her mother about? If she’d gone off somewhere with a boy then she would have called as soon as she heard about the explosion. In my day, it would have been the pub, but the legal age is 25 now, and nowhere will let you in without the Watch. Kay always resisted getting Ashley chipped before her sixteenth birthday. Next week, it’ll become compulsory.

If she had been chipped, we’d know exactly where she was, but I can’t think about that right now. Losing her never seemed like an issue; the only ones without the Watch are children and non-citizens, neither of whom can last for more than a couple of hours without getting picked up.

* * *

I don’t remember deciding to come to the mall, but I find myself standing in the middle of a slack-jawed crowd. Are they all looking for relatives or did they just come to gawp? It’s not like anyone can get close to the bombsite. It’s sealed behind a wide cordon and crawling with emergency services who appear unimpressed at having an audience but too preoccupied to move us on.

There is no way I’m getting inside. Creative pretexts are a thing of the past, and there are far too many dogs in flak jackets to just duck under the ribbon and hope for the best. I should at least ask someone if they’ve seen her. Perhaps there’s a number I can call? I briefly consider texting Kay to see if she’s heard anything, but I can’t bear the false hope it will give her for those seconds between hearing the beep and seeing my name on the screen.

“Are you missing someone, love?” asks a woman near to me.

I nod. To my horror, my eyes start filling with tears.

“Have you tried the hospital?” someone else pitches in. “They’re asking for people to go and identify…” He stops, realising there’s no good way of finishing that sentence. “You can give blood too.”

I nod again and turn away before he realises I’m crying and tries to be sympathetic, in which case I’d be forced to punch him.

“I hope you find them,” the woman calls after my back, as I stride off down the pavement. “I’ll pray for you.”

* * *

The Royal has become a scene from a disaster movie. The main approach is closed to cars, but there is a constant stream of ambulances, a cacophony of sirens. I keep expecting to be stopped, all the way in to the main reception, but nobody even notices me.

The so-called walking wounded are staggering about in the foyer or collapsed on plastic chairs, blank-eyed and bleeding into hastily applied bandages. The rest are stretched out on beds and trolleys, screened behind flimsy curtains that are a gesture towards privacy, nothing more. There is a man dying right in front of me.

Without speaking to anyone, I turn and walk back outside, almost colliding with two men pushing a trolley. A small hand protrudes from under a white sheet. It’s too small to be Ashley’s, but I realise there’s no way I can go back inside if there’s any possibility she’s there.

It is cowardice this time, pure and simple, and I don’t know how I’m going to face Kay. I take my phone out of my bag and dial Ashley’s number. I’m not expecting an answer, but I almost start crying again when it cuts straight to the automated voice telling me that she is unavailable at the moment and I should leave her a message.

The bus station is half a kilometre from the Royal. From there I can catch a bus straight home, no changes. The better part of me knows that the bus goes directly to Kay’s house too. Perhaps the better part of me would have won, only the moment I walk into the bus station I see a girl sitting on a bench on the forecourt. She has blonde hair scraped-back like Ashley’s, and she’s sitting with her knees tucked up, the way that Ashley sits.

She looks up. It is Ashley. The wave of relief that washes over me is met by a look of abject terror, like a rabbit in a snare, poised to run, but trapped by the suffocating wire around her neck. I had no idea I could induce that look in anyone, let alone this girl I love.

“Ashley, what the hell?” I can hear the hurt in my voice.

“What are you doing here?” She glances left and right, as though expecting someone – Kay, presumably – to appear from behind me.

“Looking for you, idiot. You mum’s going out of her mind.”

“Don’t tell her where I am, OK?” She tugs the sleeves of her hoodie down over her knuckles.

“What?” This is not like her. “Are you in trouble?”

She shrugs but doesn’t answer. “Is mum OK?”

“Well, right now she thinks you’re dead, so no, she’s not OK.”

Her face crumples as the words take effect, and she wraps her arms round her middle. As always, she has underdressed for the weather, and the shivering makes her look younger and more vulnerable than she is.

“Ashley, what’s going on?”

She glances towards my wrist. “Are we being recorded?”

“No.” Then, “I don’t think so.” Intermittent random audio-surveillance is one of the conditions of the Watch, but they are supposed to give you 24 hours’ notice, unless you are suspected of a crime.

Ashley nods. “I’m leaving,” she says, quietly. “I’m getting out of here.”

So she is running away after all. “Is there a man involved?”

“No.” She pulls a face. “Well, there’s the guy who sorted me with a passport, but I won’t be seeing him again.”

“But…”

“It’s all planned. I know what I’m doing.”

She really believes she does too. After a moment I say, “Scotland?”

She shakes her head.

“Not the States?” Then, when she doesn’t reply, “Seriously, Ashley, they’re shooting people at the border now. You can’t even…”

“I’d rather not say,” she interrupts. “But of course not the States.”

I reach into my bag, get out my phone.

“What are you doing?”

“Calling your mother. Like I should have done right away.”

“No!”

I start skimming through the directory.

“OK,” she says quickly. “I’ll tell you, but you can’t tell anyone else.”

I put the phone down on the bench between us and look at her. She doesn’t speak straight away, and again I am stung by the realisation that all I am to her is an impediment.

“OK,” she says, dropping her voice to a murmur. “I’m stowing away to France and then overland into Spain.”

After a moment, I shake my head. “It won’t work. Spain has closed its borders and the entire French coastline is riddled with soldiers.” I look at her face again and smile. “But you know that. You’re not going to Spain.” I reach out for my phone.

“Please.” She puts her hand on my arm. “I can’t stay here. I can’t get that thing put in my wrist. I thought you would understand.”

“I do understand,” I say. And I do. I dream of leaving every day. There are pockets of sanity left across the globe – South Asia, Scandinavia – places where it’s still possible to live the kind of life you would choose for yourself. Not for me, of course. This fingernail-sized sliver of metal would alert every authority from Dover to Newcastle if I ever tried to leave. But Ashley, I’m not sure. I would have thought it impossible, but if she’s managed to get herself a passport then she’s already done the impossible.

“What will you do for money?” I ask, eventually. Without the Watch, she has no access to a bank account.

She smiles. “Don’t fret the details. It’s covered.”

I shake my head. “I wish you’d tell me.”

“I can’t. If I tell you, you’ll tell her, and then she’ll try to find me. She’ll get both of us killed.”

“I can’t keep this from her, Ashley. She’ll never forgive me.”

“She’ll never even know she needs to.”

A bus turns into the forecourt, and she untucks her legs, stands up. “You’ll just have to forgive yourself.”

I want to grab hold of her, to delay her long enough to reconsider this terrible thing she’s asking of me. Not asking, demanding.

She smiles at me. “Just try not to drink yourself to death.” Then, without another word, she turns and skips up the steps onto the bus.

I watch as it pulls out, my phone still lying on the bench beside me. I think she isn’t going to look back, but as the bus swings round, she glances over her shoulder. She has pulled down her hood so I can’t see her face, but it both heartens and frightens me, this last minute waver; she has not yet killed every vestige of feeling. She’ll need to, if she’s going to have any chance at all.

My bus comes and goes. My phone rings three times unanswered. Only when I can no longer sit on the forecourt bench without drawing unwanted attention, I get up and walk down to the road.

Traffic creeps along the A40, orange headlights glowing in the sheen of rain that covers the tarmac. It can’t be long now until curfew. A black plume of smoke still hangs over the city. And the cars keep crawling past, on their way to nowhere.

E. A. Fowler currently lives in Edinburgh, where she enjoys reading and writing speculative fiction. She has been variously a bookseller, TEFL teacher, publishing assistant, PhD student, neuropsychology researcher and information analyst. Her work has appeared recently in Lucent Dreaming magazine.

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Is There Anybody Out There? – Kathy Lanzarotti

“Alexa,” Cindy called out to her empty kitchen. The unit sat by itself on the black granite countertop. She watched the little blue circle light up the surface. It was a relief to hear another voice, even a mechanical one. “I’m treading water in the middle of the ocean.”

The device shut itself down with a two toned beep.

“Alexa!”she shouted, panicked that the little machine had abandoned her as well, until she remembered that just like on Jeopardy! she had to phrase her thoughts in the form of a question in order to get a response. She took a deep breath and asked the same question she had been asking for at least a month. “Where did everybody go?”

It had happened on a Tuesday. Monday had been normal. Forgettable even. Everyone was off at work, clogging freeways or running errands. They ate dinner and went to bed and hopefully kissed their loved ones. And then, overnight, they were gone. Abracadabra Alakazam. Like one of those Rapture movies that were all the rage at the end of the last century.

She was alone.

Just Cindy.

In the lost colony of the Elderwood subdivision.

In response to her question the unit glowed azure, then turquoise.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” the confident friendly voice responded.

Was this a punishment? Was this hell? Cindy doubted it. Sure, maybe she drank too much on weekends (and weekdays, if she was being honest) and there was that one time with that one guy with the curls and the blue eyes and the endless stream of martinis at her last work conference. But Paul Morton in the cul-de-sac was known to slap his wife around and Lizzy Peterman one block over stole the girl scout cookie money and used it to pay for her daughter’s birthday party and they were nowhere to be found.

Besides, if it was booze and adultery that damned her, she was pretty sure the last thing she would be was alone.

The dog was the first one she noticed was missing. Arthur, her friendly Black Labrador, blinded by diabetes, his adoring eyes fogged the baby blue of a soothsayer. Cindy discovered his bed empty, the indentation of his body still warm in his memory foam mattress pad. Cindy had checked the house. Nothing. When she called outside, Arthur’s name volleyed back at her from the empty street. Back inside, it occurred to her that she hadn’t heard the usual morning sounds from her daughter or husband.

The pipes wheezing through the walls, electronic music from Meghan’s room. Upstairs all was quiet. The sheets on Meghan’s empty bed were rumpled. In her own room, Bill’s side of the California King was bare.

Cindy continued with her usual round of questions.

“Alexa, how long will the power stay on?”

“I don’t know the—“

“Alexa, how long will the water stay on?”

“I don’t know the—“

“Alexa, how long can I survive like this?”

“Sorry, I don’t know that one.”

“Alexa, what the hell do you know?”

The wall clock ticked off a few seconds.

“I know about a lot of topics,” the machine replied in a clipped tone.

“Alexa, I’m sorry.”

“No problem.” The virtual voice sounded a bit stung.

“Alexa,” Cindy said. “Play Cindy’s Playlist.”

“Playing Cindy’s Playlist,” Alexa said cheerfully. Cindy sighed, relieved that they were still on speaking terms. She couldn’t afford to lose any more friends.

As the sludgy guitar intro to Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying” started up, she pulled the cork on a California chardonnay liberated from her neighbor’s refrigerator when her own supply was running low.

Wine was probably not the best thing for her, though she certainly had been drinking a lot of it. There was her brain to consider, and her liver, of course. Plus the fact that if she should start to yellow and swell there would be no one to help her.

“I guess it’s just you and me. Right, Alexa?” she said. The machine flickered as the volume of the music lowered.

She took a sip of wine, “Hmm,” she said. “I’m getting notes of pear, butterscotch, and vanilla.“ She sipped again, and raised her forefinger at the ceiling. “Also, cirrhosis, foetor hepaticus and alcoholic dementia.”

She drank until the glass was empty.

“Alexa,” she asked as she placed it on the counter. “Would you miss me if I went away?”

“Sorry,” the voice said. “I’m not sure.”

Cindy giggled and refilled her glass. “At least you’re honest, Alexa.”

And with one loud and compressive beep most of her questions were answered as the house was covered in darkness.

Kathy Lanzarotti is co-editor of Done Darkness: A Collection of Stories, Poetry and Essays About Life Beyond Sadness. She is a Wisconsin Regional Writers’ Jade Ring Award winner for short fiction. Her stories have appeared in (b)Oinkzine, Ellipsis, Creative Wisconsin, Platform for Prose, Jokes Review and Fictive Dream.

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Harry and Me and Harry and… – Jim Meirose

Hello! Here I am to continue the story about how I rode out a massive volcanic eruption, in the Pacific Northwest, whose brand name I am not permitted to mention, because the people that run the volcano never sent in their check to buy air time here, so; here it is. I sat with Harry Truman, yes, THAT Harry Truman, in the Spirit Lake Lodge drinking cold black coffee and exchanging anecdotes with the wizened old man across the rough-hewn table he had made himself forty-four years earlier. Badly done taxidermy of various species looked on from the walls.

Quite a table, Harry. Quite a table. You made this yourself, did you?

Yes, I did—and you see this tabletop? This great big wide knotty pine thing? It’s a single slab of wood from the widest, largest tree ever carved apart by hand by one man. I called Guinness about it, you know, to get this into the Guinness World Record book, but they said they had no such category as largest tree ever felled, cut up, and made into great slabs of tabletops et al, by one man with just a Swiss Army Knife his father passed down, that he got from his father, and as a matter of fact, the history of that knife goes so far back that somehow, magically, it appears that one of my ancestors hundreds of years back must have succeeded in creating a kind of time travel machine that they used to zip forward future fast, grab the knife, and get pulled back as by spandex or a big rubber-band backward-slingshot contraption, back to their given socket in the great wall of the distant past and slammed the knife into the family vault, to be passed down the generations until it came to me, and; I swear to God, it flew right at me from out of nowhere when I was out walking the dog, and I caught it with one swipe of the hand, even before my brain knew I’d seen it! All of a sudden, I had it!

Had it? I said—great! Good catcher, huh?

Yes, very good. I just grabbed it down in a swoop, and I had it. Lucky I was on my toes, and it didn’t slice into me or the damned big dog.

Oh, yeah? You’re a dog lover, then, Harry? Where’s your dog now? Is the dog still alive? I like dogs. Where’s your dog?

Gone, said Harry. Gone of old age. Suddenly, very, very, suddenly.

Oh, that’s awful. But at least you got the cats now.

Oh, yeah, the cats are okay. Good dog is hard to find, you know. It’s usually all fatty. Not good for my Cholesterol. I settle now for cats.

Yeah, I love cats and dogs too—

Hey, don’t fib me—but dogs taste much better. I long for the taste of dog. Don’t you?

Huh? I started, jerked up, adrenaline wave tsunami; all my relaxation rushed away past the walls; out, all gone out the crumbling chinks in the rudely hewn log walls. I leaned at him, saying, What? Did you say taste? What taste? Taste of dog? How do you know the taste of dog?

Amazingly bug-eyed and red-faced, he became.

Huh? What, don’t you know? People out in the woods like me, raise all the cats and dogs to get fat, slaughter, cook, and eat. Don’t you, man? You look like a city Parish Priest, where nobody knows how to REALLY eat, but there’s something lit in your eyes when I said how I raise the dogs and cats for food. You know—

I leaned at him, hand up, saying, No, no, I don’t know. Wait—something in me says—don’t believe the cats are all for—

Listen, don’t cut me off like that. Let me say the whole thing. I was going to say that I’ve already planned the little calico on top the radiator over there for tonight. As a matter of fact, let’s cut this short. Pretty soon, I got to butcher her. Plus a couple others. She looks real good. Kitten is a delicacy. I got quite a few of ‘em in a scrap container out back. You think she looks good, Father? You can come with me get a couple more, Father. My trucker buddy Lucas Barnes brought up a whole shipping container of pups and kittens that washed up on the beach down his summer place in the sound. I mean, don’t be shocked, Father, after all, there’s no grocery stores or any place to buy food within fifty miles of this place. And even if there was, Father, my old DeSoto out back hasn’t been started in around fifteen years. And I’m afraid, actually, man to man, to try and start the damned thing. Then I’ll know for sure it’ll never run again. I don’t want to know that, Father. That would weigh too heavy. It’s better to eat the fixin’s I raise myself. After all—they don’t know what’s going to happen. They don’t know fear.

The small calico cutie sat snug, eyes half closed, the very picture of innocence and contentment, listening to the two strange big others across the table debate, and dead air surrounded us long enough that there was time for me, the all-seeing holy man, to look into my blurry globe God gave me, after all, what he was hinting at was so bad that the floor actually started to vibrate in time with a rapid series of sounds like thunderbolts, from outside the cabin, and I hoped to hell my crystal ball would still work in a thunderstorm because I knew the factory never tests them for that, but something made me check my watch—something made me check, and it read May eighteenth, nineteen eighty. See, I got that fancy watch as a Christmas gift from my parishioners; that watch could tell you anything; your height, weight, depth, speed, mood, or altitude, and lots of other stuff. So just as I saw the date and time, the big bang came, the mountain blew, and the shock waves came, and the world rattled hard; like the world was attached to the tip of the tail of a universe-sized, taken-by-surprise timber rattler.

Harry rose from the beautiful table, and I started to rise, but he waved me down and said, No, no, the mountain’s blown, but it won’t hurt us. You’ve a safe haven with Harry. A very strong haven with ten-mile-thick solid steel walls, floor, and roof all around. I see it’s coming, a big dark cloud is coming toward us, it’s about a half mile away, but it’s just clouds and a little wind is all, so sit right there, Reverend. Sit right there—and when it passes and I’ve proven no mountain can match me, we can pop a cork or two in celebration. You yes with that? What’re a few little passing gusts, anyway?

Oh yeah, yes, with that, sure, of course—but it’s getting pretty loud out there.

Loud can’t kill ya’, Reverend. Loud can only annoy, pass by, and be gone and never was—and with that word, the cloud and the roar and the heat and the ash hit the wall, and it pushed in and broke to splinters and flowed over Harry. The cats were all tossing around awakened and screaming by the whirling swirl of loud, fast, scalding heat that woke them so rudely. They had no idea that they were being saved and transformed into something unfit to eat, and the eater was dissolving too. They actually were much more angry than frightened. They were little glowing fireproof missiles bouncing around the crumbling, windy, black, flaming room without even time enough left for them to feel pain. And somehow, miraculously, I had been put by fate behind some glass wall, and I was in the front row of the theatre, in the dark but lit up too, very, very happy to be able to stay alive, watching the space where I’d just been, where Harry was disappeared under the now-flaming rubble of the blown-in wall, and I think he was really right, you know? He said, Loud can’t kill ya’, and no mountain could match him, because it hit me like a couple or three or four mortared-together bricks stuck together in one block right in the face; I am here and now talking to you, in my kitchen; Harry is long gone dead, and cannot be killed by what just blew up in the mountain while I was with him; I felt, viewers, and I feel now, that I ultimately will be canonized for what happened that day, when a man was made indestructible just long enough to survive one mighty blast that was probably just as powerful or maybe even more powerful than a big fat sneeze from God himself. So, all you viewers crushed together in the little red-eyed camera I talk to during each episode of this show, about food, all food, food like this here waving cold pizza slice all spattering around, tell me what you think of all this so far. What? I cannot hear you, no, I cannot, no—there’s too much spatter around all over, and underfoot too—and the winds are like winds of some other planet. Lord Jesus my Christ, too wild and windy and loud there on the other side!

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Salient Solstice – Jamie Graham

The pointlessness of the short distance drunk,
serenading lamp post lovers,
vermilion-eyed, devouring lamb’s death.
Shredded iceberg tumbling
like jilted confetti unkempt.

A famished fox barks harrowing verse,
blue lights pursue raucous exhausts.
Medical scrawl he can’t stomach to summon,
neat Scotch –
a willing recourse.

Ethanol breath sparks
out-of-sync sunlight,
dogshit daydreams stuck on repeat.
Chilling emptiness etched into Mike’s stubble,
seagull hangover bobs on the breeze.

Vacuumed Macallan illusions,
scant crumbs of comfort
semi-conscious, detergent-stenched dread.
Convulsing on tenement steps as the solstice
blinks through the skylight undressed.

Liz wakes under the duck egg ceiling,
frayed bluebottle curtains in song.
Ancient Ketamine cocktail excuses,
now extinguished spit
from his poor overcome pallid tongue.

Jamie Graham is a Scottish writer on the wrong side of 40. Find him at jamiegraham.co.uk

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Outside The Circle – Jonathan Taylor

Rachel hovers just outside the circle. “My brother said … I mean, says it’s the real shit.” She tries to sound convincing, authoritative: “And he knows his stuff.” She’s conscious of a wobble in her voice, but hopes the other girls won’t notice.

There’s a pause. Everyone looks at Aly, whose eyes are narrowed on Rachel, sussing things out.

“Okay,” says Aly, holding out her hand. “Everyone knows your bro knows his stuff. His name’s cool round here” – unlike, presumably, Rachel’s – “so yeah, hand it over and we’ll try it.”

Rachel glances around. “Here? In the … park?”

Aly stares at Rachel as if she’s stupid. “Yeah. Here. In the park. In the open.”

“Okay,” says Rachel, her voice wobbling even more. She injects confidence into it, trying to sound like Aly: “You’re on.” She takes the sachet out of her blazer pocket, and places it into Aly’s outstretched hand. Aly’s fingers close over it.

Aly looks around, and then behind her, where there’s a hedge and an orange sign: NO ALCOHOL. FINE £150. BY ORDER OF LEICESTERSHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL. “We’re in the perfect place,” says Aly to the group, motioning for them to sit down. “We’ll sit here, under this sign. It’s not like we’re drinking alcohol. Besides which, if we do get done, my old man’ll pay for us all. It’s his fucking job.”

Four girls sit on the cool grass. Aly looks up at Rachel, who’s still standing. “Sit down, for fuck’s sake,” Aly says. “You’re annoying me up there. Blocking out my sun. Suze, Beck: make room for Rach.”

Rachel tries not to beam, just nods, and takes her place between Suze and Beck.

Aly’s already hunched over, working on the spliff. She’s taken out a Maths textbook from her bag, and has carefully spread out what she needs on top of it: two Rizlas, filter, lighter, tobacco, and a bit of what Rachel has given her. Rachel watches her work – they all do, quiet now.

Aly carefully places the roach at one end of the Rizlas, then spreads out the tobacco. Next, she takes the stuff Rachel brought, and almost sprinkles it – with a delicacy Rachel wouldn’t have thought possible of her – over the tobacco. Then she starts rolling. Finally, she licks the spliff closed, twists the end, and holds it up, proudly. Behind her, Rachel hears a passerby with a dog mutter something, and carry on walking.

“Behold, like, the master’s work,” declares Aly, grandly. Suze and Beck giggle. Kelly, on the opposite side of the circle to Rachel, claps. Rachel smiles half-heartedly, thinking how quickly, effortlessly, almost balletically her brother used to roll a spliff in comparison. She suppresses the thought – which is in danger of ruining her mood – and joins in with Kelly’s clapping. “Now,” says Aly, sparking up, “we shall sample our new friend’s offering.”

Rachel’s smile is genuine now: she looks down at the grass in front, trying not to go red at the word “friend,” trying not to betray herself.

Aly has noticed, though: “Mate, you haven’t even fucking tried it yet, and you’re already looking stoned. We’re going to have to work on you – I can see that. Not cool. Get a grip.”

Rachel nods, and Aly takes a big drag on the spliff. She holds it for a few seconds, then coolly exhales. She doesn’t cough – just clears her throat a bit.

Suddenly, she’s shouting: “What you fucking staring at, mong? Fuck off.” For a horrible moment, Rachel thinks she’s the one being shouted at. But swivelling round, she sees a red-faced boy on a bicycle cycling away. “Twat!” Aly shouts after him. She takes another drag of the spliff, and passes it to Kelly on her left.

Kelly does her best not to cough: “Wow,” she says, after a couple of drags: “Just wow. Good one, Rach … and yeah, of course, Aly.”

Next up is Suze. She does cough, and Aly grins at her: “Mong,” she says. Suze scowls, but two or three drags smooth out the scowl, and she lies back on the grass giggling. She holds up the spliff for Rachel to take.

Rachel takes it. It’s gone out, so she reaches for Aly’s lighter with her free hand. One of Aly’s Doc Martens crushes her hand on the ground. Rachel yelps.

“That’s mine,” says Aly. “Use your own. I’m not that stoned yet.”

“Okay,” says Rachel. She prises her hand from under Aly’s boot and reaches into her rucksack. Somewhere at the bottom is one of her brother’s lighters. Aly stares at her whilst she rummages through exercise books, papers, old makeup, hairbands, pens.

“Fucking get on with it,” says Aly.

Rachel goes red again, thinks she’ll never find the lighter – until, finally, she touches something metallic, a tiny grooved wheel. She fishes it out and – on second try – manages to relight the spliff. She takes two drags, doesn’t cough and passes it on.

“Smoked like a fucking pro,” says Aly, arching an eyebrow. “Impressive for a mong.”

Rachel squints at Aly – the sun is almost directly above her – and then lowers her gaze to the grass again. “I’ve had a bit of practice,” she says. She doesn’t add: probably more than any of them.

Beck, meanwhile, has been struck down by a hacking cough. She’s taken in too much at once. She’s coughing so loudly she’s attracting attention from a few people across the park. Aly kicks out at her. “Shut the fuck up, you stupid fuck.” Even Aly’s bravado has its limits, Rachel realises with a clarity lent to her by the spliff: even Aly, openly smoking weed in a public place, doesn’t want attention from the wrong people. “Shut the fuck up,” Aly says again. Beck gets up, leaves the circle, and runs to throw up in the bushes.

“What a mong,” says Aly to Rachel, smirking, “two puffs and she’s out.”

When Beck – pale and out of breath – re-emerges from the bushes, Aly grins at her: “God, you stink, Beck. Got vom on your skirt. Fucking disgrace – can’t even handle a bit of this shit. You need to learn from pros like me and Rach here.” Rachel smiles at the grass again – until Beck, rejoining the circle, accidentally kicks her knee while sitting back down. Rachel flinches, but doesn’t say anything, just rubs the place where the tights are now torn.

Aly has been smoking all the while, ignoring Kelly’s jealous stare, which says quite clearly: pass it on, pass it on, pass it on – although she doesn’t quite dare to say it out loud. The spliff is almost finished. Aly holds up the remains in front of her, admiringly. “Well done, Rach. This was good. Very good.” She puts on a posh voice, like a connoisseur appraising a cake or wine on TV: “Yes, your brother’s reputation is well-deserved. An excellent vintage, my dear. Your brother certainly knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the real shit. You must be very proud. And you must introduce us one day, Rach, dear. I hear on the grapevine he also possesses a mighty fine c …”

Aly suddenly stops talking, and looks up, out of the circle. Rachel follows her gaze, swivels round. Everyone does.

Standing behind Suze, hands in his armpits, wearing a Ushanka hat, dirty brown fleece and combats, is a young guy – unshaven, unwashed, smelling of mulch, dead leaves.

“What the fuck you looking at?” asks Aly, back to her usual voice.

“Is that a spliff?” asks the guy.

“Who wants to know?” asks Aly.

“Me,” says the guy. “I’m … call me Jules.”

“I’m not going to call you anything, creep.”

“I just wondered …”

“What did you wonder?” asks Aly. “Can’t you see we’re fucking busy?”

“I just wondered if …”

“What?”

“I wondered …”

“You just wondered if you could have a drag? Is that what you’re trying to say?”

The guy nods. He’s sweating, staring down at the smouldering end of the spliff as if mesmerised, in a trance.

Rachel thinks Aly is going to tell him to fuck off. In fact, everyone thinks she is going to tell him to fuck off – even the guy himself, who has shaken himself out of his trance, and is starting to turn away.

But she doesn’t tell him to fuck off. Instead, she says slowly: “Okay. There’s not much left. But okay, yeah, go on then, Jules. You can have a puff.”

She stands up. The whole circle of girls stands up with her, as if she’s a queen, or mistress of the house.

Aly steps across the circle, holding out the spliff, with the roach pointing towards the guy’s mouth. He licks his lips. Suze sidesteps out of the way.

Aly is now face to face with the guy. They’re almost the same height. If anything, she’s slightly taller than him, and broader in the shoulders.

She places the roach between his lips. He takes a deep drag – it’s still lit – holds it in, closes his eyes, and exhales. For a moment, everything is still.

“Like it?” asks Aly, taking the spliff out of his lips, and letting it fall. She licks her lips. The two of them are close enough to kiss.

“Lovely,” says the guy. “Best thing I’ve had for days. Fucking bliss.”

“Good,” says Aly. “Perhaps you’ll like this too.”

And she head-butts him, hard, on the bridge of his nose.

There’s a crack. He yelps, falls backwards, clutching his face with both hands. “What the fuck?”

“Fucking mong,” she says, half-laughing, half-dazed herself. “You stink. I’ll need a shower in bleach when I get home.” She kicks one of his knees with her Doc Martens. “At least I’ve got a shower to go home to.” She rubs her forehead, staggers a bit. Kelly, Suze and Beck run to hold her up. “Twat, you hurt my head.”

Suze giggles, still stoned. Kelly spits at the guy. Blood is seeping between his fingers, down his arms, onto the ground. He’s bent double, crying, trying to back away. “What the … ?”

“Fucking mong,” says Aly again. “Fuck off back to nowhere.” She turns away from him, still reeling. “Rach, make yourself useful, for fuck’s sake. Get my phone out my bag. Ring my dad. Tell him to come and get me. Tell him some fucking homeless mong hit me.”

Rachel steps over to Aly’s bag, and starts fishing around for her mobile. “Yeah, Rach,” says Aly loudly, “tell my dad to come to the park in his Land Rover Discovery.” She turns to face the retreating guy one more time, pulling herself up straight: “Get that, mong? – my dad’s Land Rover Discovery. He’ll fucking run you over on the way home. Home – hear that? – we’ve got one, y’know: six fuck-off bedrooms and a Jacuzzi.” She tries to laugh, then flips him the bird: “Now you can fucking do one, Jules.”

The guy, still clutching his broken nose, whimpering, turns and stumbles away. Across the park, Rachel sees him veer off, as one of the wardens – who, like a number of people, has been watching from a distance – tries to catch him. The guy scrambles over a wall and is gone. The warden gives up, and starts striding towards the girls.

“You know what to say, don’t you?” asks Aly. All the girls in the circle nod, except for Rachel, who’s still hunting for Aly’s mobile in her bag. Aly glowers at her. “You know what to say, don’t you, Rachel?” Head bowed, Rachel nods – as if she were being told off by a teacher.

She goes back to searching for Aly’s mobile, finds it, and starts scrolling down contacts for ‘Dad’ or ‘Home.’ Aly steps over, and snatches the phone off her. “Yeah, well, we’ll leave my dad out of it after all. He’s probably, like, busy at work or some shit. Doesn’t want to be bothered with bollocks like this.”

She snaps the mobile shut. They all pick up their bags, and traipse back to college. Lunch break is over.

*      *      *

At the end of the day, Rachel runs all the way home. She bursts into the house, and takes the stairs in twos, up to her brother’s room. No-one’s there, of course, to ask her what the hell she’s doing, to tell her to get the fuck out. She pulls out the drawers of his desk, lifts up the mattress, stands on a chair to feel the top of the wardrobe, and eventually finds what she’s looking for. She shoves it in her blazer pocket, and runs back down the stairs, and out of the house again, slamming the door behind her.

Then she runs towards town – until, out of breath, she has to slow to a brisk walk. She walks through the park, and round and round the shops, not going into any. She walks round the pedestrianised market square, up and down side streets, alleyways, across carparks. She doubles back, peering into disused units in the shopping centre. She even circles the public toilets.

Eventually, she finds him, his legs in a sleeping bag, in the doorway of what was once a bookshop.

“Hello, Jules,” she says.

The guy shrinks from her, wide eyed. “Go away,” he hisses, “please.”

She squats down, so she’s on his level. “No, I won’t.”

From here, she can see his face is a mess: there’s dried blood on his stubble, and under his nostrils, and a blue and greenish bruise spread out, like a butterfly, round his nose. The nose itself is swollen, and doesn’t look straight. He sees her looking at it, and his hand jerks up to cover his face.

“Get away from me,” he says.

“No,” she says. “I want you to have this.” She fishes into her blazer pocket, and hands him one of her brother’s sachets. “It’s his last one.”

The guy looks down at it, and then at her. “Whose?”

“My brother’s.”

“Won’t he miss it? I don’t want another maniac coming after me.”

“No, he won’t miss it.”

“Why not?”

“Because he’s … he’s gone.”

“Where? Where’s he gone?” The guy seems stuck in a cycle of questions that he can’t stop asking – stupidly, automatically – about someone he doesn’t know from Adam.

“I don’t know. He left us a couple of weeks ago. Just walked out. Didn’t even leave a note or anything. My mum was doing his head in. And now, he’s probably … well, he might be outside, you know, like you.” She sits down next to the guy, and looks at the ground. “I miss him, you know.” She’s crying. The guy doesn’t know what to say or do. In the end, it’s Rachel who takes his filthy hand and holds it for a minute.

She sniffs, breathes in, lets the sobs subside: “I just wanted to say I’m sorry. I can’t say it to him, so I’m saying it to you instead. I’m sorry.”

Still in pain, still furious, still dazed from earlier, the guy finds himself saying: “It wasn’t you. It was that other girl.” He looks down at his hand in hers, puzzled why he’s feeling sorry for her, and not the other way round: “You do realise,” he’s on the verge of saying, “that I’m the one who a dog pissed on this morning. I’m the one who’s only eaten a cold cheeseburger in three days. I’m the one who just got fucking head-butted.” But he doesn’t say these things – and squeezes her hand instead.

“It was me,” she says.

“It wasn’t – it was your mate.”

“No, I mean, it was me who made him go. It was me who told him to fuck off and die the night before … the night before he actually did fuck off. Mum was out on the piss, and he called me upstairs and said he wanted to hang out with me with a bong, and I said I had to do my homework – and suddenly he was dead angry and said I was a sad loser who didn’t know how to chill, didn’t have any friends. He said I was like everyone round here. He said he was sick of it, sick of everyone and everything. He said everyone could go and fuck themselves – including me. He shoved me out of his bedroom. So I told him if he felt like that he might as well fuck off too – fuck off and die.”

She cries a bit more, then takes her hand away from his, wipes her nose on her sleeve and stands up. “Anyway, have it,” she says, nodding at the sachet. “A present to say sorry.” She pauses, shifting her weight from one leg to the other. “And perhaps,” she says, “you won’t mind if I say hello to you if I ever see you around.”

“I won’t mind,” he says, honestly.

She takes a deep breath, and turns away from him.

And there is Aly, right in front, staring wide-eyed at them both.

For a moment – a moment which replays the same stillness from earlier, just before Aly head-butted Jules – Rachel thinks Aly is going to head-butt her too. But she doesn’t flinch, doesn’t back away. Part of her thinks she deserves it.

Aly doesn’t head-butt her. Her mouth opens and shuts a couple of times, and she mumbles something – something like: “I thought … I thought …” A strange expression, like a bruise, like another ghostly self, seems to overlay her face – and Rachel wonders if she too is lonely.

But then a burly man in a suit, who’s standing a few yards behind, yells at her: something about getting her arse in gear, something about his being late for the shift, something about his daughter being a stupid bitch for wasting his time, hanging out with losers.

The ghost passes from Aly’s face as quickly as it came, and her expression hardens. She looks Rachel up and down, turns up the side of her nose, swivels on her heels and strides away.

Rachel knows Aly will never talk to her again. She also knows she doesn’t care.

Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, lecturer and critic. His books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018), and the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007). He is co-editor with Karen Stevens of the anthology High Spirits: A Round of Drinking Stories (Valley, 2018). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester in the UK. His website is http://www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk and he tweets @crystalclearjt

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Crazy Jane’s Cup of Tea – Jacqueline Doyle

They say I wander the roads in search of my lost lover, but sure it’s been so many years, lass, I hardly remember him. I may have been mad with grief long ago. I wouldn’t trade my freedom for him now. You might say it’s a hard life I lead, and it’s true, some days I’m chilled and weary to the very bone, but do you know what it’s like to awaken in a haystack, nothing but green fields for miles around you? The smell of wet hay and damp earth, the freshness of the cold air, the silver drops of dew sparkling on the grass? No, you won’t get that waking in a warm bed.

I wander for the gray skies and changing clouds above me, the hills and far horizons around me, the firm ground under my feet, the feel of the wind blowing my hair, the fine mist of drizzle on my face. The glory of God’s creation. I swing my arms and whistle a tune, no earthly possessions to weigh me down.

When you invite me into your cottage to sit by the fire, your cup of hot tea warms my cold fingers and empty belly, a blessing. I won’t say no to a crust of bread and bowlful of soup. Mayhap I’ll smile and tell you a story of Crazy Jane when she was young like you, before she loved so unwisely, before she lost everything and took to the roads. Perhaps you’ll pity me, shake your head and wrap your shawl tighter around your shoulders. But make no mistake, I don’t envy you neither.

Jacqueline Doyle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has recent flash in The Collagist, Juked, and The Journal of Compressed Arts, and a flash chapbook (The Missing Girl) with Black Lawrence Press. Find her online at http://www.jacquelinedoyle.com

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William Blake’s Question – Michael Bloor

First of all, it’s his voice I hear – holding forth in the next room. A shock (a nasty shock, if I’m honest) after fifty years, but instantly recognisable: if you’re going to adopt the received pronunciation of the British ruling class, you really need a deep voice to go with it – something Dr Braithwaite lacks. If it hadn’t been for the squeaky voice, I probably wouldn’t have recognised him after such a long absence: the ‘young fogey’ tweed-jacket and the brogues that had so marked him out as a posturing twit when an Oxford Don at thirty, now appear natural camouflage at eighty.

Friends and relatives, colleagues and neighbours, all have me down as easy-going, even a bit of a soft touch. That’s probably true as far as it goes, but it’s not the end of the story. The fact is that I maintain a warm regard for ninety nine percent of humanity by nurturing simultaneously a consuming hatred of a tiny minority. All the hated minority are bad apples, of course, but probably not as evil as I like to paint them. Sigmund Freud surely got a lot of stuff wrong, but he was right on the money when he wrote about ‘projection’. That’s what I’ve been doing: I’m able to forgive my acquaintances their trespasses with a gentle smile, because I’m projecting my anger, frustration and abhorrence onto a very small number of habitual offenders. I know I’m doing it, but they’re either persons I’ve never met (for example, a particularly pompous and disastrous politician), or persons from my distant past. So it has seemed to me a harmless foible, despite the murderous feelings that can sometimes take hold of me. And of all those dark eminences whose recall can provoke thoughts of blood and revenge, the darkest is my old Oxford tutor, Dr Braithwaite.

Dorothy and I have been once-a-week, volunteer guides at Castle Curdle ever since we’ve both retired. Most of the volunteers prefer the castle when it’s busy, but quiet days don’t bother me: I enjoy my solitary thoughts in the great dining room, among the portraits and the porcelain – the clutter of a futile aristocracy. When I heard Braithwaite’s voice through the open door to the library, I’d been musing over a little double-figurine in the china display cabinet: two arctic explorers, Nansen and Major Frederick Jackson, shaking hands in a million-to-one-chance meeting in the middle of the arctic wastes – the chance meeting that saved Nansen’s life.

Braithwaite is squeaking at length about the library’s eighteenth century long-case clock: he’s got the right period, but the wrong maker – a typical historian’s error. As he enters the dining room, among what I later learn to be a cluster of great-nephews and great-nieces, I turn from the display cabinet, prepared for my own arctic chance encounter. But he passes by me – a mere flunkey – without a glance.

He gestures towards the great dining table: ‘What sparkling conversations must this table have witnessed, eh? How many times must the porcelain and the cut-glass have been outshone by the wit of the diners? The subtleties of a local Jane Austin… The verities of a local Sir Robert Peel… Ah, if only I had lived in that age…’ His relatives, either dazzled or cowed, murmur their agreement. I silently recall the extracts from the butler’s account book, on display in the kitchen. They demonstrate beyond contradiction that the conversations that the table had witnessed must have routinely degenerated into the maunderings of a drunken rabble.

He turns to one of the equestrian portraits: ‘The young laird on, no doubt, his favourite horse. See how the artist has captured the sheen on the horse’s flanks, the poise of the rider in easy command of the animal? What nobility!’(In point of fact, the ‘noble’ in question had gambled away a huge fortune and racketed his way to an early death.)

Braithwaite was hobbling and leaning heavily on an odd, large, walking stick, a typically mannered choice – I imagine it’s what is termed an alpenstock. I murmur to one of the young relatives that if the old fella can’t manage the grand staircase, I can take him up in the lift. She smiles her thanks: ‘I’ll tell Great-Uncle John.’ As they move out of the dining room, I take up the rear.

Braithwaite then proceeds to hold forth to the great-nephews and nieces about the portraits lining the lower part of the grand stairwell. Years ago, I thought I’d detected the source of the animus that Braithwaite had shown towards my teenage self: I had come to Oxford from the same undistinguished grammar school in the same northern industrial town as Braithwaite – plainly, I had unwittingly reminded him of a past he had wished to bury. And that was the source of his slights and petty cruelties, and why he’d tried to get me sent down from the university. But what on earth lies behind his insane worship of eighteenth and nineteenth century aristocratic life? Surely, he’s too knowledgeable a historian not to recognise that his temple is built on a cesspit?

I stand quietly aside, waiting to perform my menial duty as bell-hop. The tiny two-person lift (wood-panelled, early twentieth century) is rather temperamental – hence the house-rule that it is only to be operated by paid or volunteer staff, not by visitors. If the button to the basement is pressed accidentally, instead of the button to the upper floor, then the occupant will be trapped down there until an engineer can be summoned – a matter of hours. I speculate, happily, about the sturdiness of Dr Braithwaite’s bladder.

My projected victim is led, still squeaking and gesturing, towards the lift. As I usher him inside, I see him squinting at my name-badge. I hesitate for a moment. And then I follow him into the lift and press the button to the upper floor. We stand eyeball to eyeball, as the lift creaks and judders upward. I see no dawning recognition in his wizened face. As he shuffles past me out of the lift, I whisper: ‘Did he who made the Lamb make thee?’ The lift doors are then closing to return me to the ground floor, and I watch him turn back, slack-jawed, to look at me. Then he is gone from my life forever.

On the drive home, Dorothy turns to me and says, ‘Why the quiet smile?’

Michael Bloor is a retired sociologist living in Dunblane, Scotland, who has discovered the exhilarations of short fiction, with more than fifty pieces published in The Cabinet of Heed, Everyday Fiction, The Copperfield Review, Litro Online, Firewords, The Sea Letter, The Drabble and elsewhere.

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Those Ghosts – John Short

You can’t seal up death
despite the rituals,
it abides in tobacco
pouches and old armchairs
and abandoned shoes
worn once to tread
the winding alleys
of this town.

In sleek black cars
and creaking wardrobes
with their mothball smells,
in distant excursions
recalled on paper scraps
that fall by chance
from picture frames.

You can’t bury the past
its ghosts haunt
the edges of today,
persist in shadows
that linger a moment
too long when you drift
into that room with
your thoughts elsewhere.

 

John Short lives in Liverpool again after years in Europe. He’s a member of Liver Bards and reads at venues around Liverpool and beyond. Widely published over the last few years, most recently in Blue Nib, Envoi, Stepaway, Picaroon and forthcoming in South Bank Poetry, Sarasvati and The High Window.

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It Takes A Hobo – Michael Grant Smith

Human beings are communal by nature. A mumble of outside chit-chat masks the extra voices inside an individual’s head. If Last Chance’s inhabitants vanished, what would remain besides buildings, streets, critters, dust, and the shadows of ghosts? “No population” equals “no tax base.” Without revenue, how does Government eat? Ideally, the cost of civilization is borne by a vibrant, prosperous citizenry, which in Last Chance means vagrants, drifters, transients, tramps, tinkers, and especially hobos are unwelcome.

Barrymore’s day, which began with an effort to dig a survival shelter in his backyard, ended when he hit a sewer line.

“A couple of feet down is usually enough to hide the bodies,” he moaned. “I’ve shoveled bunches of holes, never none this deep.”

Barrymore was the scoundrel who made puzzle pieces disappear, a wrangler of the unexpected, yet this day’s events fluttered beyond his control. All of his muscles ached and some vital organs as well. Decline and mortality peered over his shoulder the same way puffy Councilman Everett was prone to do. Barrymore battled the chronic urge to toss some possessions into a handkerchief, sling a bedroll over his shoulder, and set out for the horizon.

He scratched his brain bucket whenever he tried to recollect the exact details of his long-ago introduction to Last Chance. Also murky: his earliest encounter with eventual three-time mayor Lowell “Fuzzy” Nelson, presumably because shots of rye were involved.

“I see inside your heart,” said Fuzzy. “It’s pure and beautiful.”

“Yours is beautiful, too,” replied Barrymore, “in a scary way — it makes me want to lock my doors except I got none.”

The future mayor’s elbow bumped against an empty rye bottle. He watched glass fragments stampede across the tavern floor.

“Who did that?” he shouted. “What game is this?”

“I didn’t see nothing,” said Barrymore, “although I’ll swear you wasn’t responsible and probably was somewhere else at the time.”

“Good answer! I aim to be mayor of Last Chance, and I reckon you could flatten a few bumps on my highway to victory. Would you become my campaign manager?”

The moon climbed over Barrymore’s hill and poked its chubby ochre face between the washing machines, wheel-less pickup trucks, and overstuffed chairs grazing in the high grass. Barrymore choked on the nostril-clogging stink of escaped sewage. He groaned; even his beard hurt. The welcome mat tripped his feet and he tumbled headlong onto the floorboards, where he lay in darkness and wept.

Non-stop barking outside roused Barrymore. Artemis, the cursed next-door neighbor, had made himself scarce again, undoubtedly prowling Last Chance’s outskirts, trafficking with tinkers. How often had Barrymore been tempted to report such vile behavior? He could complain to Constable Arlene about the noise, but most warm evenings she was at the gravel pit handing out trespasser tickets to undrowned swimmers.

Barrymore staggered to his feet and hollered though a window.

“Cease and desist with your almost continuous baying, you frightful Hounds of Hellville. My day wasn’t so good, neither!”

Minutes later and fingers a-quiver, Barrymore rummaged through the storage shed behind his living shed. He found the five-gallon bucket of well-used Thanksgiving turkey deep-fryer oil and hauled it to Artemis’s kennel. The barking reached a new plateau of hysteria. Barrymore kicked open the gate and swung an arc of pungent grease toward the two dog-demons within.

“You’re the ones what can’t shut your yap! I got you now! Just wait right here for five to ten minutes while I go look for some matches!”

The larger of the duo, a mastiff-poodle mix, let out a single yelp and went for the crotch. When Barrymore sidestepped with adrenaline-fueled agility, the well-oiled beast missed the family jewels and clamped onto thigh muscle instead.

“Wow!” Barrymore exclaimed. “Wow! Wow, wow, wow! Macaroni and Jesus, it hurts!”

Barrymore tried to punch and pull the assassin’s slippery noggin, to no avail. The berserk mastiff-poodle reeked of rancid Thanksgiving leftovers. His smaller companion, a vomit-colored terrier, shucked Barrymore’s leg as if a meat-flavored ear of corn hid within the twill.

“Bad dog!” wailed Barrymore. He slipped on grease and fell. Bright agony diffused into a numb endorphin glow. “Oh, I am not yet ready to cross the River Styx. Me, with my good looks and handy skillsets.”

He’d never finish the shelter, his favorite television shows would go unwatched, his funeral would be stained by mocking references to “death by canine.” Worst of all, Barrymore’s decades-old courtship of the Post Office lady would end unconsummated, and damn it, last week at the counter he’d nearly asked her name.

Light and pain diminished until he found himself on Heaven’s porch. His long-deceased grandmother nodded towards her beer cooler and smiled. You walked the railroad track all day, boy, set down your bundle and have a cold one with Granny. Then Barrymore heard an angel call out to him:

“Sir, is there anything I can do for you?”

Barrymore squinted open one eye, the one not pressed into fried-poultry-flavored mud, and beheld a fit young man dressed in khaki trousers and a dark blue polo shirt. Denny the insurance agent reached behind the mastiff-poodle and applied confident pressure to the monster’s boydog area.

The beast howled even louder than Barrymore had done just moments before, and released his victim. Bare yards away, a suddenly penitent terrier quivered beneath an inverted rusty barbecue grill.

“This feller’s firm handshake was what inspired me to board the ship of commerce he captains,” Barrymore muttered to himself.

Whimpers of discomfort and regret escaped his lips. Denny the insurance agent stood at a respectful distance and pretended to surveil Barrymore’s now timid assailants.

“I journeyed to the bitter brink of eternal lamentation,” Barrymore told Denny. “You yanked me back to this here world in which we all live together, you and me and others.”

“Happy to help, sir, although nigh my arrival I overheard a voice similar to yours yell something about setting domesticated animals afire…”

“Oh, them words was a private joke between the pooches and me. Nothing of importance. Or someone else was talking, I don’t remember.”

In the shack’s breakfast nook, Barrymore and Denny the insurance agent reflected on life’s ephemeral circumstances and narrow margins of victory.

“I’m sorry,” said Denny the insurance agent, “am I delaying your supper?”

“You have very recently saved my life and also my scrotum,” Barrymore replied. With kitchen scissors he snipped bloody strings of fabric. “I invite you to stay and chew as much fat as you desire.”

“I enjoy all of our appointments, sir, and yet I sense you don’t wish to discuss modifications to your insurance policies and investment portfolios.”

“You are keen beyond your years. Because you performed heroic acts, I’ll share my intentions frankly. Often I’ve daydreamed the notion of running for public office, merely to settle old scores and perhaps nibble at Last Chance’s overflowing pork barrel…”

“And yet, sir, I see in your eyes a furious blaze of something contrariwise to cutting corners and plying the odd grift. You are all lit up with purpose.”

“You bet, son, I am a furnace stoked with logs of honorable ambitions. After tonight’s escapades I see I’ve got to raise my game and give instead of get. I suspect “Fuzzy” Nelson’s taillights are well and truly faded into the distance. I’m fixing to run for mayor of Last Chance and I want your help. I will stand for goodness.”

“Assist you, I shall, sir!” Denny the insurance agent sprang from the nook. He paced the kitchen; two strides in each direction. “We’ll build you a platform of integrity, and societal progress, and folks restraining their murderous pets. A golden age of prosperity and goodwill, thanks to Mayor Barrymore yanking on the levers of power.” He paused, a bobblehead come to life. “Once and for all we’ll rid Last Chance of wanderers and vagrants and their campfires and forlorn harmonica music!”

Barrymore tied the last bandage, sighed, and shifted his weight from one ham to the other. His ravaged leg hurt like wasp stings dipped in tabasco pepper sauce. The kitchen’s sole lightbulb, usually puny, tonight shone bright as sunshine on spilled beans.

“The world could use a whole lot less negativity and a bunch more of them optimisms,” said Barrymore afore his voice dropped low. “There’s just one fly in the margarine, and you mustn’t tell nobody: I aim to serve my constituents, and pledge to execute the will of Last Chance, even though I myself was born a hobo.”

Outside Barrymore’s shed, the sound of dogs not barking threatened to cleave the night’s moist, turgid air.

Money and secrets are sometimes earned, sometimes inherited. Bury them as deep as you wish (mind the sewer pipes) and yet they still get found. We covet whatever is concealed by others, and hoard our own privacy. Last Chance is a bank, if you will, where social business is transacted. The occasional rascal jacks our ledger or pulls a broad-daylight heist, but mischief faces consequences! Criminality notwithstanding, courage and a sense of go-getterism are admired in Last Chance, and more oft than not those qualities can get you elected to the corridors of power. First you must roll up your cheap past and wrap a C-note around the deception.

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Arm(s) – Francine Witte

I liked Morey, but he had an extra arm. Radioactive thing, he said.

I tried as hard as I could to ignore it. Looked up at the ceiling a lot.

We never made it to sex. I would take a look at his extra arm stuffed in his sleeve along with his real arm. I knew this was not going to work.

When I tried to break up with him, his anger was electric, like I flipped on a switch I hadn’t noticed before.

He said it was his extra arm and he knew it and don’t try to lie. I asked him if he had thought about plastic surgery. He looked a little upset, then said, “I guess.”

“Let’s take your arms out,” I said, ripping his sleeve. The real arm, the one that belonged there shook with sudden freedom. The extra arm reached out for me. It was a tenderness Morey hadn’t shown me before.

“Sorry,” Morey said. “It likes to do that.”

“Don’t be,” I assured him. The extra arm now stroking my hair.

Meanwhile, the real arm was busy now, dealing a hand of canasta.

“This is where it get’s tricky,” Morey said, looking this way, then that, as if trying to decide which arm to follow.

Francine Witte’s latest publications are a full-length poetry collection, Theory of Flesh from Kelsay Books and the Blue Light Press First Prize Winner, Dressed All Wrong for This. Her flash fiction has appeared in numerous journals, anthologized in the most recent New Micro (W.W. Norton) and her novella-in-flash, The Way of the Wind is forthcoming from Ad Hoc Fiction. She lives in New York City.

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Home Alone – Martha Higgins

Sometimes she forgets about it for a while and then she feels those wet blubbery lips on hers and she wants to scream until she can get that image out of her head and the sensation away from her body. She prays fervently that this horrible repulsive memory will leave her and she dreams of replacing it with a sweet kiss from a boy she likes at school.

Jane doesn’t like being alone in the house. but she has no language to tell her mother what she fears. When she said she didn’t like him her mother said he was a good neighbour and to stop with her nonsense. The front door is wide open as always, it is closed only when darkness falls and only locked at bedtime. In a strange way she would feel more frightened inside a locked house by herself, this would be a blatant admission of her fear.

All morning she listens carefully for his car. Despite this, she sees him only when he is almost at the front door. She instinctively runs out, so she won’t be trapped inside. He grabs her and pushes her into the porch. She gasps in shock at his strength. He tries to kiss her as she struggles and wriggles and screams for their neighbour. “Maggie! Maggie!” Everyone knows she can hear the grass growing.

“Ah, what are you roaring for, it’s only a bit of fun, an auld kiss,” he backs off and laughs cockily as he strides off down the path in his big wellingtons and over the road to his car as Maggie comes running across the meadow with the pitchfork.

“I’ll stab the bastard!” Maggie is gasping, the cigarettes have claimed her lungs. She knows she can save Jane provided she is around but can’t prevent him grabbing her again or any other young girl either. Who pays any attention to an unmarried woman who has no property or money and is dependent on her brother for a living when they are plenty of respected men around who laugh at her mad warnings.

“Come on,” she says gruffly, resigned to the reality. “Come on up to the house with me.”

“No, I better wait here for Mammy to come home,” Jane is afraid to leave the house and go up with Maggie, her mother would be annoyed if she locked up the house in the middle of the day to go up to Maggie.

“Alright so, I’ll sit down for a while and wait to see your mother.”

They chat about lots of things except what has just happened until her mother comes home. Jane is grateful. Later she will try to process it by herself and rid herself of that horrible sensation of attempted wet, slobbery, revolting kisses.

Later her mother asked Jane curiously, “What brought Maggie down in the middle of the day”?

“I don’t know, I think she was just checking on the cows and called in, she must have thought you were here.”

Jane can’t think of any way she can tell her mother about what has happened. Her mother thinks that man is great fun and a good neighbour. And it continues, until she leaves home, living in terror of him, hiding behind ditches on the road if she hears his car and watching, watching all the time.

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Vanilla – Steven John

I found three bottles of vanilla essence in the kitchen cupboard
two of them out of date and one unopened
their dainty golden lids like the buttons on the dress you never liked.

Vanilla is the only useful member of the orchid family
the rest is compost, unless you count the flowers as having some ornamental value
It’s the second most expensive spice.

The vanilla bean is not a bean, it’s an elongate and fleshy pod
that stands phallically erect from the stem.
The pod ripens, aromatic and dehiscent, which means it splits and spills its seed.

I never made anything memorable with vanilla
The word ‘vanilla’ comes from the Spanish ‘vaina’ which translates as ‘sheath or pod’.
If ‘vaina’ had a letter ‘g’ you’d probably say it had its moments.

Vanilla flowers are pollinated by a species of sting-less bee, or hummingbirds
which makes it sound like a loving, non-invasive experience.
The flower opens in the morning sun and closes late in the afternoon
never to re-open.

Steven John’s writing has appeared in Burningword, Bending Genres, Spelk, Fictive Dream, EllipsisZine, Ghost Parachute and Best Microfiction 2019. He’s won Bath Ad Hoc Fiction a record seven times and has been nominated for BIFFY 2019. He lives in The Cotswolds, England. Steven is Fiction & Special Features Editor at New Flash Fiction Review. Twitter: @StevenJohnWrite Website: http://www.stevenjohnwriter.com

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Sunday Morning – Emma Venables

Katja rubs a finger across her lips, testing the fastness of her lipstick. She tucks her hair behind her ears and listens for the knock on the front door. The rap of knuckles on wood usually comes at exactly this time of morning, but when it does not come, she busies herself: straightening the knife and fork on the table, wiping the plate and cup she has set out, brushing the creases out of the newspaper she has placed next to the cup. She shrugs. Christian will arrive soon enough, folding the newspaper at right angles as usual, so there is no point fretting over the creases now. She stops, tilts her head towards the door. Nothing.

Just days before, Katja and Christian were discussing apartments with more intensity than usual. In the West, of course. A balcony, hopefully. Bullet holes in the façade will not bother them too much, but they definitely want a view of a park, or at the very least trees, from their living room window. Christian wants to keep his keys on a brown leather fob for which he will hammer a nail into the wall. Katja will keep hers in the zipped compartment of her handbag at all times, so she does not become one of those women who has to loiter in the hallway of her apartment building until the caretaker or her husband comes to her rescue. She wants fresh flowers on windowsills; he wants hardwood floors that shine when the sunlight hits in the early afternoon. She wants advanced Western appliances on her countertops; he wants to unbox his grandmother’s crockery, which miraculously survived the wartime bombing raids, unlike his grandmother, and fill the cupboards.

Katja opens the window, leans out, and surveys the street below. Left to right. Right to left. Children running in circles, skipping ropes and footballs. A dog cocking its leg against a lamppost. The elderly gentleman from the apartment building across the street props up his equally elderly wife as they take their early morning stroll. Katja waves at them, but they do not see her. The woman dabs a handkerchief to her eyes. The man pats her arm. Katja frowns at the unusualness of the woman’s tears: the elderly couple often exchange pleasantries with everyone they pass. Sometimes Christian crosses paths with them and they stop for a minute, ask him if he enjoys the warmer weather as much as they do.

Katja leans back, allowing her arms to hang out of the window. She closes her eye and listens to the buzz of television sets and wirelesses from the apartments above and below. Her mother likes her Sunday mornings in silence and refuses to have the radio on before ten o’clock; although her mother has gone out to visit her friend today, Katja upholds the silence, enjoys it, knows she will implement this rule in her own apartment, with her own children. They do not own a television set; her mother does not trust them. If we can see them, surely they can see us, she says. When Christian first heard this he had laughed so hard that coffee had spurted from his mouth. Television’s the future, he had said when Katja had mopped up the liquid from the table and he had wiped his face. Katja had shrugged; she was not sure if she would allow a television set in their apartment but did not want to cause a fuss by mentioning it.

Katja looks up at the clock, and sighs. Nine. Christian usually arrives at half past eight on the dot. Perhaps he woke up late or stopped by a friend’s house on the way. Perhaps his mother needed him to run an errand, to repair a shelf or a cupboard door, or his father wanted him to poke his head under the car bonnet and diagnose the trouble with his limited knowledge of mechanics, but such occurrences have never stopped him before. He likes punctuality, jots notes on the calendar so he never misses a trick, hands her Christmas presents a week early, knows coffee will be brewing and never likes the thought of precious grounds going to waste.

Katja walks over to the kitchen counter, opens the cupboard and selects a cup, and then pours herself a coffee. She will make another pot when Christian arrives. She sits down, pushes the empty plate out of the way, and pulls the newspaper towards her. She taps her finger twice on the advertisement she has circled in pencil, of course, because she always writes in pencil. Every Sunday, she lays the newspaper out before him, taps her finger on the advertisements she wants him to look at, and potters around her mother’s kitchen. Sometimes she turns, looks at him: the half-smoked cigarette hanging out of the right-hand corner of his mouth, the sunglasses he never seems to take off, how he sits like he will have to jump up and into some form of action at a moment’s notice. He has a habit of tapping out popular tunes on her mother’s dining table, and sometimes she turns it into a guessing game. Wild guesses. Singers’ names she has made up on the spot. He often stops and frowns, lying his palm flat on the well-polished surface, and she often watches the muscles in his hands clench, poised to tap more, watches his jaw set as if his entire body is behind his efforts to stop his absent-minded habit.

Katja stands up again, cup in hand, and returns to the window. A child cries over his punctured bicycle tyre. A dog barks. She notices two women, about her age, chatting on the corner. One has her fist pressed against her mouth. The other removes her apron, shakes her head, and makes towards the building across the street. Catching the arm of the crying boy on her way, she says something indecipherable in a tone that seems altogether angry and sad. Katja looks at the sky. No clouds. She hopes the weather will perform a repeat feat when she marries Christian in a few weeks’ time, but then her mother often says that rain on a wedding day does not necessarily equate to bad luck.

Katja sips her coffee, eyes still on the street below. When Christian arrives, she will suggest they go for a walk after they have eaten. She will save the newspaper, the advertisement with the double circle, until the shade of the trees. A Western apartment. Two bedrooms. A balcony. Third floor. Elevator for tired legs of an evening, and for unsure feet on Friday nights. She has a good feeling about this one. The other evening she walked along the street, and looked up at the unlit apartment. Perfect. It was quiet, so she stepped back into the middle of the road, to put the apartment into perspective. Not too far into the West. Christian would still be able to get to his parents in the East of the city, to tend to their odd-jobs, and she would still be able to visit her mother. Just around the corner from Christian’s office, and a short walk from the school where she teaches English. Near a U-bahn station, too.

A man runs up the street. Katja watches as he gets closer, watches as his features become discernible. It is not Christian. She rests her cup on the windowsill and crosses her arms. She looks left to right with that half-hearted hope one gets when waiting for something or someone to appear. She taps her fingertips on the windowpane. Perhaps Christian has been injured? Could he have been knocked over by a car, an overzealous cyclist? She smiles at the thought of Christian’s reaction upon hearing these frets. He will scold, kiss her forehead, sit down and tap out a few bars of some popular tune on the table. He will reassure her that he looks both ways before crossing the road, every time, and is agile enough to dodge bicycles at a moment’s notice. She will laugh and place her hands over his. You have stressed me out enough without that racket, she will say.

Her stomach rumbles. She considers cooking breakfast, eating alone. She could keep Christian’s food warm in the oven until he arrives, but by then the eggs might taste like rubber and the sausages might be burnt. She decides to cut herself a slice of bread. She picks up her cup, turns from the window, walks over to the kitchen. She places her cup on the side and opens the cupboard where her mother keeps the bread.

As Katja places the bread on the countertop, the front door opens. Christian does not have a key, but she wonders if he crossed paths with her mother on his way here. You’re running late, Christian, she imagines her mother saying. Not like you. Here, take my key. Let yourself in. Apologise profusely. Christian would have squeezed the key in his palm, kissed her mother’s blushing cheek, and briskly walked on. Her mother would have shaken her head and continued on her way to her friend’s house.

Katja closes the cupboard door, turns and folds her arms. The shriek of feet on linoleum makes her smile; she knows Christian will be wiping sweat from his face when she finally sets eyes on him. She awaits fragments of sentences: car wouldn’t start; dad stressing himself out; cupboard door’s hinges bust; mum faffing; dropped screws; bicycle nearly knocked me over; your mother scolding me; dropped key narrowly missed drain; here now; hello and sorry. But it is her mother who appears in the doorway, breath laboured and cheeks flushed.

‘Katja,’ she says. ‘There’s barbed wire everywhere.’

Katja frowns as her mother comes towards her. She observes the tremor in her mother’s hand and wonders if she has had a fall or been struck by an object on her wanderings. Katja tilts her head, briefly examines her mother’s face for signs of blood or bruising, but her mother’s skin appears unblemished.

‘What do you mean? Barbed wire everywhere?’

‘Katja, they’re building a wall. Christian won’t be able to get here.’

Katja watches her mother retrieve a handkerchief from the pocket of her dress, wipe her eyes, scrunch the cotton between her fists.

‘But he only lives fifteen minutes away. What do you mean he won’t be able to get here?’ Katja asks.

Her mother raises her hands in frustration before moving to the opposite corner of the room. She turns the dial on the wireless, wipes her eyes again, and looks at Katja. Katja moves closer, listens to the words the newsreader says. Border closed. Barbed wire. Divided city.

Katja shakes her head, reaches for the newspaper on the dining table. She traces her index finger around the apartment advertisement. The ink smudges. Her pencilled circle fades. She stops, presses her finger against the newspaper until her skin turns white. Her mother grabs her hand.

Emma Venables’ short fiction has recently featured in Mslexia, The Nottingham Review and The Copperfield Review . Her first novel, The Duties of Women, will be published by Stirling Publishing in 2020. She can be found on Twitter: @EmmaMVenables.

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Hotter Than July – Robert Libbey

The stock room guys at the Crazy Eddie’s store call Paz “the human calculator.”

“You should be in that book of records.” Paz shrugs it off; laughs good naturedly. At least they’ve stopped staring at his hands. He tries to imagine the entry, his name, his picture, but then he worries they’ll place him next to the Elephant Man or a bearded lady.

All Paz has to do is scan the shelves and the number rises in his mind: a perfect count of inventory. But he’s learned (the hard way) not to show off; to fly under the radar. When he got the perfect score that got him into the Bronx High School of Science the Daily News wanted to do a feature story: come out to the house; talk to his family; take pictures. It took a lot to get out of it. Now he’s super careful.

Luckily, most of the guys don’t like to hang out back cause it’s so stuffy—they’d rather cruise the aisles and harass the ladies. Paz contents himself to thinking about his brother, Ya, and smiles. Ya, too, has special powers.

Paz says, in his head, “I’m thinking up a number…” Ya blinks four times. Paz nods and raises all four fingers on his right hand, as if to say: Ya, you’re right!

Paz’ shift on Sunday ends at three, so he heads-up to the Paradise Theater on the Grand Concourse. The poster for Ordinary People’s not his taste, so he ambles over to Poe Park.

Even in the cold weather Paz likes to linger at Poe’s Cottage. The house juts out of the ground at an odd angle. He imagines Edgar Allen by candle light writing his stories about disembodied hearts still beating underneath floorboards and death-bed patients hypnotized to keep their brains alive after their bodies die.

A beer bottle shatters in the playground, snapping Paz out of his trance. Once the sun sets, the drug dealers move in: so, he foots it home; fast.

His mother’s chopping the makings of a salad. The cutting knife looks like a cleaver in her tiny hand. Without a word Paz rinses the greens in a colander.

His father had called her his little doll. She said his heart had failed.

A rap on the door is Dr. Bag, an Indian doctor who lives in the building. “How’s our little miracle?” he asks, meaning Ya.

“You’ve got to keep him warm,” the doc advises, his eyes unable to hide a hint of pity. The cheapskate landlord’s chintzy with the heat so it’s pointless. His mother’s eyes are vacant; she’s lost all steam.

Ya’s legs gave out this fall. Bed bound, he hasn’t walked since.

If we can make it to spring the warm weather might loosen his legs; maybe we can make another summer. Paz imagines crazy things: Ok like in the story, the movie where they shrink the guys to go in and fix the scientist’s brain. So, I’ll get some gadgets from work, use the lab at school…I’ll put Ya in my pocket, let him get fresh air, take him to the Paradise—I’ve already digested the stares—I don’t care…

It’s a race against the clock…

Ya smiles as Paz sits next to him on his bed. Twins, Ya can read Paz’ thoughts and Paz feels Ya.

Ya knows how to make Paz feel better. “Put the album on,” Ya says to Paz in his head. Their favorite, the new one, by Stevie Wonder.

“As If You Read My Mind” ends. Ya tells Paz: “Master Blaster (Jammin’)!”

Paz lines the tone arm to the cut and lets it drop.

From the speakers come the rhythm.

Barely bigger than a baby, Ya dances with his arms: rising into the vision.

Taken up into the music, Paz meets him in a place of warmth.

Robert Libbey lives in East Northport, NY. He has work upcoming, or recently in: Ligeia, Spelk, Hoot, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Brilliant Flash Fiction + other places.

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A Pilgrim of This Earth – Dan Brotzel

He phones her at work but of course she can’t speak and even if she could, what could he tell her? Or she him? He could, he supposes, tell her about the hotel room they’ve put him in, with the lorries from the depot rattling the windows all night and the woman on reception who speaks Spanish too fast for him to understand. He could tell her about the man who broke drunkenly into his room in the early hours, guffawed anecdotally, then stage-whispered loudly with his mates outside for hours.

He could tell her about the woman he exchanged long, unsmiling glances with on the plane over, or the busking guitarist in the Cathedral Square who never gets to the end of his song. But he cannot tell that he still goes on wanting what he cannot have, or that every woman’s face here begins as an image of hers. He cannot tell her that this trumped-up trip to her birthplace was really only an excuse to get her to meet him again. Or that now she isn’t returning his calls, he doesn’t even know what he is for any more.

* * *

Once, back in the early days, we met a well-dressed vagrant in the High Street who kissed your hand and sang in the street for you. But the twinkle of his well-rehearsed routine was cover for a great sadness. He had been jilted by his fiancée 20 years before, he told us, and still knew her letter of rejection by pedantic heart: “Though you are the kindest and gentlest of men” – hesitant comma, an “and” crossed out, long space – “I have to tell you that I do not love you…” semi-colon, open brackets, “(though I have tried and tried to deserve you)” …close brackets, three words crossed out, one of them probably “please”…

On and on he went, punctuating the text of his despair. We saw him another time in the street, you and I, but avoided him in the absorption of our infatuation – a happiness to be used with care, we gloated, since it was potent enough to make others miserable.

* * *

In the roads beyond the centre he watches the dusty pilgrims approach their final destination, weeks together yet still smiling, wholesome, expectant. In Santiago de Compostela, third holiest site in Christendom, faith seeps with the moss through the warm granite walls and swarms through the crowds with their staves decked with gourds and scallop shells.

‘SILENCE: SACRED GROUND’, says the sign outside the Cathedral in four languages. Shrunken grey old women in clothes of perpetual mourning push past him to place their hands into the fingermarks worn into the marble Rod of Jesse by centuries of supplicants, and to rest their heads against Maestro Mateo’s, wiping their hands over the architect’s stone face and smearing the residue of his unofficial sanctity on theirs.

He does not object to their queue-jumping. There is remission on time in Purgatory for those who believe, and again he shudders at the craven self-interest of his own pilgrimage. These people have walked hundreds of miles, from Le Puy and beyond, to venerate a fiction they have made real by their faith. He has flown in from Heathrow to stalk a real person who doesn’t even return his calls. ‘Tis grim, to be such a pill.

* * *

The worse time was at the airport. I’d been to a wedding of an old college friend, and was flying home via your new city. Though we’d been separated almost a year by then, I’d managed to convince you to meet me for an hour at Barajas. You were half an hour late; ordering coffees took another 10 minutes. We talked of mutual friends, you shared news of the family I’d never met. When you went to the loo – another 4 minutes lost! – I decided to scribble on a serviette: “I will always love you”.

A little later, as you got up to leave, I went to drop my secret message into your bag. In my mind the gesture would be romantic, seamless, powerful. But you put up a fierce arm; and there was a moment’s awkward tangle. After we parted, I doubled back and watched you pull out the note, glance unsmiling at the words, stuff it in a coat pocket.

I’d forgotten how protective you were about your handbag.

* * *

In spite of himself, he is drawn back again and again to wander the squares and passageways around the Cathedral. Stare oafishly at the twin towers of the legendary façade for long enough, he reasons, and even I may be able to seize his glory. (Another call goes to voicemail.) And besides, even if she is not with him there is one thing he really must do, and one thing he really does want to see.

He has read that you cannot say you have been to Santiago de Compostela until you have climbed the stairs at the back of the altar to hug the statue of St James and kiss his jewelled cape, collected your Compostela certificate, then file downstairs to inspect the saint’s remains. It takes 30 minutes just to find the end of the line.

The one thing he really wants to see, however, he has already given up on. Somewhere in his mental lumber-room there is a faint Catholic race memory of a vast smoking orb describing a spectacular arc, back and forth in a haze of silent holiness. He does not know why it does this, or where he first saw it, only that the sight holds something momentous, a glimpse of the forbidden.

Now he realises that the source of this vision is Santiago’s giant incense-burner, the botafumeiro. He has seen the pulley system on which it swings, and once even caught a glimpse of its pendular movement from the square outside, far off across the crowd through a side door. But the botafumeiro flies to its own mysterious schedule, bestowed with random grace on its privileged witnesses. It is indeed only right and fitting that he should miss out.

* * *

In the disappointment of waking (another voicemail), memory arches its back to a moment of warmth and trembling, of mouths chasing each other across a hectare of pure white bed. I remembered how your face above me had once been perfectly framed by the luminous circle of a full moon. So I’d said, anyway.

My hold on you always felt so precarious, I always needed the reassurance of sex. (‘Just hold me!’ you’d snap.) How you must have grown to hate the neediness of my lust. How… unsexy it must have been.

Just now I tried to write you a letter on the hotel’s grandly headed paper. In your own language I groped and griped, turning rejection into melodrama and hurt into blame. I never understood the bitter paranoia of these impulses, how my so-called love for you had so little to do with wishing you well.

* * *

He has been creeping with the crowd down the nave for a couple of hours just to get in sight of the altar, when suddenly there is a fidget of flashbulbs. Stuck behind a pillar, he cannot see what is happening until the crowd presses forward. Like bell-ringers, eight men are holding on to a rope that rises to the rood before descending over a wheel to an enormous, smoking, silver thurifer. The men count and heave. The botafumeiro is aloft.

With both hands, a man in a red cassock launches the censer into space. The men heave again and now the holy sputnik is hurtling through the air, its great mass lurching over the silent crowd. With each coordinated tug it climbs higher, until he is convinced it must collide with the ceiling. The flame flares as it swoops down the transept. How many would it take out if it fell? Panicked and exhilarated, he stares with everyone else.

Slowly now, the wonder subsides. The man in the red cassock looks at the eight men, timing his move, then grabs the side of the censer and spins with it in a disco flourish. The botafumeiro is still once more.

When a man at the microphone suggests we applaud, everyone waves their two hands in the air. He finds he is in the middle of a Mass for the deaf. He thinks: I should be weeping.

* * *

All things pass. In time, only the dreams will be left, anxious murkscapes in which I follow an exhausting trail of clues to your whereabouts across a city of labyrinthine grids and twittens, only to discover that you are in a city of the exact same name and layout… but on another continent.

* * *

Outside in the vast Plaza Obradorio, past the stolid maniac churning out endless hours of synthesised Bolero, a hot air balloon marking the visit of a deputation from Asturias is roaring to full tumescence. Behind him in the teeming cathedral, as Mass approaches its Elevation, the balloon of faith is swelling too, on its invisible supports.

He phones her one last time, but her sister says she is sleeping.

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To Have And To Hold – Rachel Tanner

If my cats could walk me down the aisle at my wedding,
I’d let them. Can you imagine?
Picture this:
I’m in my poofy wedding dress and my two cats
are in little cat dresses (not as pretty as mine, of course).
The rest of the wedding party has already walked,
so it’s our turn. My cats stand up on their hind legs somehow
to walk on their two back feet. We can’t
link arms because they’re too short so instead
each cat grabs a part of my dress,
one on either side of me.
The cats walk me down the aisle and hand me off
to my spouse-to-be, tears welling up in their eyes.
I hug them and tell them how much I love them.
They meow back, their voices cracking with
the bittersweet happiness that comes from
letting someone go.

Rachel Tanner is a queer, disabled writer whose work has recently appeared in Moonchild Magazine, Barren Magazine, Peach Mag, and elsewhere. She tweets @rickit.

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When We Lived In The Mall – Mary Grimm

My aunt lived in the jewelry store. We ate lunch on the glass cases, admiring the gleam of diamonds while I picked the celery from my egg salad. Every afternoon, we visited Mom, who was sewing a tent, which every woman will want when the world falls apart.

The restrooms were much cleaner than you’d think, although we dreamed of hot baths.

When we lived in the mall we gave up buying things: whenever we wanted to crisp a piece of bread we had only to go to the toaster aisle. For entertainment, there was the wall of TVs at the electronics store, fifty screens with a confusing game of soccer or the giant head of a man trying to sell us a set of knives.

The sound system played nothing but Carly Simon, which my sister and I deplored. But my cousin felt that Carly had helped her through hard times in her life and that even in the mall she might need to hear “You’re So Vain” at any moment. My daughter did Tarot readings in the old JC Penneys, sitting professionally behind the defunct register. The cards foretold the past as accurately as you might imagine. She offered a receipt if needed for taxes.

My mother and my aunt thought most often about the old times. They kept these memories to themselves but we knew when they were remembering things like backyards and mailboxes. I admitted to missing the sky, but would go no further.

We thought at times that an official history should be written, complete with fold-out maps and a CD, but no one wanted to do the research.

My sister and I had our own place in the bookstore, for books are insulating, as everyone knows. At night, sheltered by our page-thickened walls, we read in the glow of a flashlight, our heads pillowed on paperbacks, the book roof protecting us from the pale struts and panels of the dropped and deadly ceiling.

Mary Grimm has had two books published, Left to Themselves (novel) and Stealing Time (story collection) – both by Random House. Currently, she is working on a dystopian novel about oldsters. She teaches fiction writing at Case Western Reserve University.

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Thin Wall – Mehreen Ahmed

Forget-me-not dear father. Please do not look at me blankly or ask who I am. For I know, I shall mope for days on end, when you do that to one of your own. Your own loving daughter, you raised with so much love and affection. This affliction hits you, now. It tears me from within. It tears me apart, dear father. Lump in my throat, you not around to mend.

I think of you and my mother. How beautiful she looks? Her skin, fair, soft in the moonlight glow, a midnight of cascading hair. You sitting by her side, holding each other in the clear, dazzling light, propped up by stars of a night; listening to Andrea Bocelli, singing, reciting Tagore and Nazrul Islam’s poetry. Tonight, you’re a different person, sensitive, caring and romantic, playing chess, laughing at silly, odd jokes, talking vibrantly, being the perceptive mind that you are.

Bocelli’s voice, smooth like an aluminium sheet over a placid sea. The blind seer, who saw how he could conquer; his vision peerless in his understanding of the world. But father, your mind, to the contrary, was not, hence your visions blurry. Dear father, did you not see it coming?

Alas! You just called my mother, your mother. Mother knows not that one day, you’ll not remember the distant past, and forget the formidable immediate. Mother knows not until this day, that you would be looking at the world through your netted mind. You, who made so many sacrifices, once. Your charities saved lives. Your readings, misgivings, your writings, musings, your first class brain, a full life.

Who now holds Shakespeare’s complete works in his hands and pretends to read it. You, who knows enough to hold the book, although the words may fall through the holes of your once whole brain. Words melt away, Words writ in water. But you did that much, at least. Hold the book closely enough, salient like salinity to an ocean, faithful to your art; hold your pen upright, to your diary. I often watched you, a little girl in awe, how you cut and pasted, sentences with scissors, in those days, without computers. How you edited, You knew your words so well, in your meaningful hay day.

You took me to see a circus once, you caged me within your arms, dear father, so no one would brush past me, or hurt me inadvertently in the crowd-filled circus-park. I have not forgotten anything father. But you have. Your memory has lapsed. You go out for random walks, beyond the rail tracts, and forget your home, the little blue house. These long walks back, not wilfully wayward, but to ensure safety, I had to lock you in the house, so you would not lose your way, back to us.

Your brilliant mind, the much lauded works, the published newspaper pieces, bear testimony to that. Now, you forget people’s names, friend’s names, your children’s names. Oh! Forget-me-not, dear father. I cannot endure this. But if it’s in your genes, then you cannot help it. How helpless people are when they cannot remember, forget the next word. How overwhelmingly, helpless it must be, when you can’t even recognise your own beloved wife, let alone the names of great writers of all times, Iris Murdoch. Today you have shared the same fate. Iris Murdoch, who knew so much, then knew not what words to put in a sentence string.

What sort of morbidity is this within your mind? How do you interpret when you see faces? This blinding world of nothingness, yet, nearly, not half as blind as the world of Andrea Bocelli of notes, rhythm, tunes and modulation. Every chord, he feels. Every spice on his palate, explodes in celebration of this world, which has thus far distanced itself from you, and rendered it off limits, that you descend into this chaotic place of discordant beats of no taste, certainly no musical vibrations. In severe cold, you forget to put your black coat on. And you forget to select shoes from your wardrobe of hundred pair collection.

You decline sharply, to a merciless, dull spot of muteness. Living in this speechless world, is perhaps much braver than we’re willing to give it credit. Out of bare ignorance, it must feel like blackhole, which no light can ever penetrate. This life of forgetfulness, forgetting, and to forget at a frightening pace. All things, present, near past and then distant past, information lost in this fretful deep well, things, names, places, and babbles.

Forget-me-not, dear father. For I’m your loving daughter, who may one day follow your footsteps, like many demented others. How rapidly this disease grows, accelerates to invade the most private thoughts and not so private. The most cherished ideals, blighted in the brain, just as vices of every deplorable sin, leaving no room for confessions, amendments, let alone forgiveness. To become blank slate, a vacuum without any traces of vices, or virtues, records of ever praying at evensong. A flat line, father, is all you display, mere shadow of yourself without smiles, breathing expressionless and wordless, statued on the sofa or lying stiff on bed. Mother by your side, as ever; we around, but a faceless number to you. Your books, your writing desk stares at you, dear father. Even the inanimate speaks volumes.

Why though, father dear, my sorrows, vapid, unbound. I miss you. I miss you. I get claustrophobic, thinking of you. I know not, how you feel in your mind, claustrophobia of a kind? Indescribable that you will never be able to express. No more, no less, it is you though, who ultimately carries the burden of wealth in that paradoxical net of your brain, knitting this wealth of knowledge of all the lights, the world cannot see. Nor reach new heights. Knowledge of this ugly barred condition, eludes wisdom and sanity, the world waits to garner more brain as much brawn.

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Naval Gaze – Nina Fosati

Pisatello’s Pizzeria has cheap wings and draft pulls for a buck. They got booths that look like someone bent their kitchen counters, all rounded space triangles and gold flecks. My cousin Randy likes to spread his arms along the shoulders of the curved benches and listen.

I get a kick out of the way he talks, all fancy like. He’s kind of a squirt for a guy though. Ma says we’re all God’s children, and I gotta protect him after what he’s been through.

Tonight, two ladies sit in the booth behind us. One of them starts grinching about how being late is disrespectful and she goes to “extra-ordinary,” that’s how she says it, “extra-ordinary lengths to be on time.” Her super strict father mashed punctuality into her and friendships are hard ’cause she’s always judging people. Then she raves about how helpful her weekly navel gaze sessions are.

Randy’s face turns from pink to red and his eyes get buggy. He keeps punching his thigh and making jazz hands at the side of his head, murmuring, “What an effing idiot,” then he shoves out of the booth.

“Dang, Randy. We haven’t even got our wings yet.” I swig my beer and stand up too, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand.

Randy stomps over and grabs the Formica counter with both hands. Leaning in he barks, “Listen Naval Gaze, it’s great that you’ve diagnosed yourself with time sensitivity disorder. It’s glorious that therapy helps, but over here, in “military fathers who fucked us up land” that disorder is laughably mundane and so bizarrely common it’s barely worth mentioning.”

She stares at him, then her mouth snaps shut and goes thin. She crosses her arms, all who the hell are you, which only makes him madder.

“You blabble on and on, subjecting those around you to your insipid nattering. It’s wonderful that your teeny neurosis is calmed by regular applications of psychoanalysis but it’s time to shut up and move over honey cause I got some real scars to show you.”

Randy steps back, begins to unzip his jeans. I pick him up and bundle him outside, his legs frog kicking the air behind. I drag him out to the sidewalk, spread my hand across his forehead, and keep him an arm’s length away as he flails the empty air.

“Dude, calm down. It’s OK.” And just like that he stops. He steps out from under my hand, tugs his jacket straight. “Randy, what’s up with you man? Why d’you go off on that lady like that?”

He crosses his arms. “Her anemic affirmation grated my neanderthalic knuckles,” he says, then puffs his bangs off his face.

I put my hand on his arm. “You good?” Randy nods. “Wanna go see a movie or something?”

He shrugs, flattens his hands deep in the front pockets of his jeans, jerks his chin uptown. Randy turns and I follow. It’s a good thing I’m twice his size.

NINA FOSATI loves portraiture and historic clothing. Beguiled, she regularly holds forth on her favorites @NinaFosati. Recent work has or will soon appear in the Disabled Voices Anthology, Persephone’s Daughters, Pen 2 Paper TX, and L’Éphémère Review.

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