Societal progression is diminished When discourse is quelled And consumed by bias fervor,
Where to believe is to be severed, Struck down for thoughts contrary To a mass collective,
Merely a manipulated flock Stricken with agendas Solely not their own,
And derived from sweet tears Of ancestors long gone And ashen,
But there is no growth is systemic hatred, Nor no power in moral judgements Subjective, and ever contradictory,
No, there is no power in oppression, No matter ideology, No, no matter collective assumptions
Driven by skewed discourse contrived.
A R Salandy is a mixed-race poet & writer whose work tends to focus on social inequality throughout late-modern society. Anthony travels frequently and has spent most of his life in Kuwait jostling between the UK & America. Anthony’s work has been published 130 times. Anthony has 1 published chapbook titled ‘The Great Northern Journey’. Twitter/Instagram: @anthony64120 https://arsalandywriter.com/ Anthony is the Co-Eic of Fahmidan Journal.
“I am the cook. I am always the cook. I’ve cooked for Kings. Ramses The Great, Attila The Hun, and Ivan The Terrible have all sung my pies praises. I was cooking on the Mayflower and the first moon cruise ship. I cooked pork in cherries on the first fire lit by a human. Now I cook on the space station orbiting Saturn.
The uppity-ups who run the station think they are running the universe or at least this solar system. If they only knew what I knew. If they only knew what I was.
They think they are so advanced. Dear old Ramses thought so too, way back then. I’d just smile when he went on and on about all the advancements in knowledge that had come under his rule. Well, he had a point. They made some impressive leaps there that hundred years. Alas,most of it was lost when the library in Alexandria burned years later. Just poof, up in smoke, all that knowledge gone from the world thanks to bigots.
The Commander of the base, the civilian Mayor, the Vice Mayor and every Lieutenant thinks they are what keeps this station in the sky. Of course, that would be my doing too. Have you not guessed who I am yet? Yes, Yes, I am Mother Nature but I’m just the cook here. I’m making one of my favorite dishes, Baked Roots. You chop up a bunch of carrots. I like the purple ones but nobody grows those anymore, alas. Then you chop up a bunch of potatoes. Oh any kind will do, but I like the red ones. Maybe I just like bright colors. Back to the recipe, don’t peel them now, that potato peeling is nutritious and delicious. Then, ya gotta add some onions. Cutting onions even makes me cry, so I like the little bulb green onions you can throw in whole. Then, I toss all those roots in sunflower oil. Oh I know you thought I was going to say olive oil. I’m just not as thrilled with my creation of olives as I am with my creation of sunflowers. I mean they turn their little faces to the Sun God. Ya gotta love that trick. Of course, I add lots of salt. I’m pretty proud of salt too. Sea salt would be my favorite but then that sweetheart Poseidon is such a charmer. Those roots cook till they are soft and starting to burn about the edges. Those black bits are tasty. So don’t take the pan out till they start blackening.
So here I am making Baked Roots. What’s it been, three hundred thousand years or so since the first time I made them back on Earth? Anyway I’m just standing here cooking now, watching Saturn’s rings, hexagon storm, and colorful aurora out my window.”
“You’re making us one of your famous desserts aren’t ya, Cook?”
“Oh Honey, ya know I am. I hollered back to the dishwasher.
Honey, is another of my proudest accomplishments. I mean, it never goes bad, you can eat it after it’s been jarred for hundreds of years. It’s antibiotic and sweet. I’m a big fan of sweets. So I’ll make some Cherokee Honey Cornbread. That’s a grand old recipe of mine. I’m afraid the pantry here on the station doesn’t have bear fat. I’ll substitute milk, eggs, and butter. Just mix all that goodness with cornmeal, flour, whole corn, and lots of honey. Fry drops of that up in some more sunflower oil. Then drizzle them with more butter and honey. Corn cookies, who’d have thought of that? I did, of course.
So, while I’m making the Baked Roots and Cherokee Honey CornBread Cookies, I’ll tell you what the problem is before it destroys the station. I know, you think I should tell those station uppity-ups. I’m telling you, because you aren’t here. I can’t tell anyone here. I can never tell anyone here. That is the second constant. The first constant being, I’m always the cook.
So, I can tell you, we need help, here on the station. All those uppity-ups think they keep it in Saturn’s sky…but I do. Well, not exactly. That is the problem. What keeps us in Saturn’s sky, and Saturn orbiting the Sun, and him orbiting the Milky Way’s black hole center…what makes all that work is lots of magic. Yes, nowadays y’all call it science. Okay, it’s lots of science. It’s gravity, electromagnetic energy, dark matter, quantum strings, and things human’s haven’t discovered yet. I created them all eons ago but I forgot. Yes, I forgot. I’ve worked so much magic, ah… science, for so many billions of years that I can’t remember most of it.
Ya see that hexagon storm there on Saturn’s north pole? It doesn’t look right. I know to you it seems the normal mysterious swirling enigma it has been ever since humans discovered it. I don’t remember why or how but I can just tell it’s about to jerk this station outta Saturn’s sky. So I need your help.”
“Hey, Cook!” The dishwasher called across the kitchen again. “We still got that case of bacon. Can you make us some of your Bacon Wrapped Cheese Bomb Burgers tomorrow?”
“Yes, sir, I sure can.
If we are here tomorrow, I’ll make that boy the best Bacon Wrapped Cheese Bomb Burgers ever. Oh they aren’t as fancy as they sound. You just wrap ground turkey around a little hunk of swiss cheese, and pat it out into a burger patty. Then ya wrap bacon, in a basket weave pattern, to cover the whole burger. Light up your grill. Don’t make me tell you not to use a gas grill. You need some charcoal. Then slather some honey BBQ sauce over that burger and you are in love. Did I mention how proud I am of honey?
Anyway, so you gotta save us before I can cook those tomorrow. Why are you just looking at the screen? We need help. You gotta get the storm down there to stop threatening to do whatever it’s threatening to do that I forget why it is doing.
* * *
I’m not known for my patience but I’ve given ya a pause here. What do we do to save the station?
I just don’t remember. You have no idea how many things I’ve dreamed up and created all over the whole universe, not just here but for trillions of years before this star system even formed. I have been cooking up life. Life. Literally. I made life.
So I am unimaginably old. I forget things. Yes, I can recall clearly making that pork with cherries on the first fire built by one of you cute little humans. It is just fatty cuts of pork chops, grilled with pitted cherries, simple as can be.
What’s the storm recipe, you say? What was my recipe for the hexagon storm on Saturn? Well, I never thought of it like that. It wasn’t a recipe. I wasn’t cooking food then. I was doing magic…ah…science. Okay, I’ll think of it like a recipe. Let’s see. There’s the magnetic energy of the pole that’s kinda like how ya cook something over a fire …and the chemicals in the atmosphere are kinda like ingredients. That means the bubbling around the six bends is just where it’s been cooking by itself too long.
It just needs stirring! If we can get, say a comet, to swoop down and just stir through that mess a couple times, it’ll settle right down! But, how can we do that? I mean, I made the comets, I know, there are billions of them.”
“Cook, what are you looking at out there, is that casino ship docking?”
“No, keep your wallet closed, honey. It ain’t due till tomorrow.
If I can just remember how to call it, the closest comet out there should be able to zoom down here in a minute flat. Yes, yes, you are right, think of it as a recipe again.
Okay, I need its name, but I know that. It’s the one I called Purr cause it purred like a cat. I love cats. Did I mention that…oh you are right, back to the recipe. So I need to send Purr the comet down to stir up Saturn’s Hexagon Storm. Then what? Season to taste. In this case though, I need to over season it so it stirs that storm back into shape and spits out Purr. What can I over season it with? …Gluons! Yes, lots and lots of gluons should do it. Wait, watch this!
* * *
Look at me go! Did you see it? The comet? Look down there, it’s bouncing around the storm, stirring it like a big ole wooden spoon. There it goes, finished stirring, shooting back out to its proper spot in space. Look at that storm now! My perfect, beautiful, and calm hexagon storm. Nature is awesome, if I say so myself. Couldn’t have done it without ya, though. Thanks for the help. Make yourself one of my recipes as a reward.”
Ginger Strivelli is an artist and writer from North Carolina. She has written for Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, Autism Parenting Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, Green Egg Magazine, Circle Magazine, Third Flatiron, Jokes Review, The New Accelerator, and several other publications.
These days I had no time to spare. I had to be the first one in and the last one out of the office, if I was going to be promoted to a manager. And there was no way I was going to be passed over, again, for a scrawny 20-year-old, fortunate enough to be related to one of the company directors. Having my breakfast on the go became a reoccurring thing. But today I woke up earlier than usual. Meaning I had some time to enjoy my breakfast before leaving the house to catch the tube into London.
My mother injured her leg from a fall last week, and I persuaded her to stay with me till she got back on her feet again. I entered the living room with my bowl of porridge. My mother sat on a prayer mat, finishing off her morning prayer, her palms sliding across her face, reciting a quick dua. It was the usual: she prayed for a good Muslim man to knock at the door and take me away, absolving me of this shame referred to as Voluntary- Independence. My mother detested my modern feminist views. To her, a woman should start husband-hunting when she reaches 25. To her, a feminist was just a spinster in training.
“As-Salamu Alaykum. Look who decided to eat her breakfast like a normal person,” My mother said, as she took off her Jilbaab.
“Wa-Alaykum Salam, Hooyo.”
I took an envelope out of my bag and began fanning my porridge to cool it down. And my mother started laughing. “What’s so funny?” I asked.
“You just reminded me of a story I once heard when I was younger, in Somalia. It was about a man seeking a wife. One day, a man visited his friend who had three unmarried daughters. The visitor was served a hot plate of food, and all three women sat down to meet him. He asked each woman the same question; what they would do to cool down his hot food. The first girl said, she’d fan it with a folded piece of paper. The second girl said, she’d blow at every scoop. Then the third girl said, she would leave it alone until it cooled by itself. So the man married the third girl. Do you know why?”
“No, and I don’t care to be honest.”
“Patience, she had patience, my daughter.”
I continued to fan my porridge with the envelope. “Did the third girl have a job, a mortgage, and student loans or maybe…I don’t know…a life? And why was that man solely focused on a woman’s patience? What exactly does he want the poor woman to endure?”
“Having patience might help in stopping you from rejecting men after only one date,” my mother insisted.
I couldn’t keep my laughter in, “If you keep this up, I will elope and have a registry office wedding.”
Mirvat Manal is a British -Somali, writer and poet based in Manchester. Her fiction has been published in or is forthcoming from 101 words magazine and Leon Literary Review. She has also been included in “The Best New British & Irish Poets anthology 2021. Twitter: @MirvatManal
She slams the door behind her and wedges the laundry basket under the handle. An absurd barricade, but comforting. The noise of her breath hissing through gritted teeth is deafening. She forces herself to breathe through her nose: in-out, in out, in… out.
Her hands are shaking. She puts them up to her face and only then realises she’s crying, her cheeks slippery with tears. It’s not sadness she feels, or even hurt. Just rage. She’s never known fury like it. Not even that time he borrowed her car without asking and wrapped it round a bollard at the precinct. Six hundred quid it cost to panel-beat the door. She was steaming, but he’d been so apologetic and promised to pay her back. That was still in the early days when she believed him.
Her nose is running. She reaches for the loo paper and glimpses herself in the shaving mirror. Bloody hell. Her neck is a patchwork map of the world, hot red shapes in the white sea of her skin. Under smeared mascara a neat cut dribbles a tiny ooze of blood. She fingers her cheekbone gingerly. Not broken, but she’ll have a shiner tomorrow.
Anger gives way to pain. Her wrist throbs and the skin prickles where she twisted her arm, trying to get out of his grip. She flexes her fingers. There’s a whiff of something… a peppery, acidic smell that seems out of place in a bathroom. Gravy. She looks down. Her shirt is stained brown and a squashed pea clings to her trousers. Her hipbone aches where the plate hit her.
She stands in the shower fully clothed. Water eddies at her feet, brown, red and black… then clear. Hot pins sting her face but she feels stronger. This is the last time.
She leaves her wet clothes in the bathtub and wraps herself in a warm towel. The laundry basket creaks as she moves it and steps out into the hall. There’s no other sound. Her bare feet slip slightly on the floorboards as she pads to the bedroom. His familiar barbershop smell is strong and it catapults her into a memory of laughter. For a second she thinks he’s in the room, but it’s empty, and the laughter is long gone.
She dresses quickly – yesterday’s jeans, her favourite faded hoodie, trainers – and squashes a few pairs of knickers and a clean t-shirt into her bag. Standing on the end of the bed she can reach the old tea-caddy on the top shelf. She fishes out her passport and two thick rolls of fifty pound notes. They smell faintly of Earl Grey.
At the top of the stairs she takes a deep breath, then goes down. At the bottom, she steps over him, carefully avoiding the blood pooling around his head. She takes her coat off the hook in the porch, puts on her sunglasses as the glare of the afternoon touches her face, and slams the door behind her.
Hannah Hoare is a writer and natural history television producer based in Bristol, UK. Her flash fiction has been short-listed in Retreat West competitions and published by Molotov Cocktail. She tweets as @hannahvisiontv.
Herd immunity cannot come soon enough. But when it does, I have a few, very few, regrets.
First, I regret piling up over 200 Whole Food brown paper grocery bags in my garage. After the water heater ignited them and burned the place down, I now need a new garage.
To my ex-wife Electra, I regret the grocery bag inferno that also burned up your Lexus (the one you used to sneak away for weekends with your lover Henry). Hope our insurance appraiser agrees it was an unfortunate accident. I am, however, starting a new stash of grocery bags. Just knock at my kitchen door if you need any.
Additionally, Electra, I only slightly regret telling the couples therapist that she would probably go psycho crazy too if she were cooped up with a maniac like you during a pandemic. I also very much regret saying “We both need some space, like maybe a hundred miles.” I noted how you, Electra, jumped at the chance to make that a reality. So now that I am searching for a vaccination, will you please come back?
To my brother Rolfe and my no-longer future sister-in-law Alexa, I very much regret the day, socially distanced at her meet-the-family gathering in the backyard, when I regaled you two with stories about Rolfe being a teenage superspreader of socially transmitted diseases. I honestly thought it was hilarious but Rolfe, I understand Alexa didn’t take it the same way and moved out. Rolfe please note that the restraining order issued today prevents you from coming to my house and “waxing my ass with a welding torch”, but hey, when the pandemic’s over bro, maybe we can be family again.
To my ex-boss at Flat Out Productions, I sincerely regret saying that working from home was super enjoyable because I didn’t have to smell your bacterial body odor. Then, of course, in another ill-advised move, I gave you the finger and made those flatulent noises with my armpit during the all-hands-on-deck Zoom meeting. And yes, when my mic was unmuted, I said, “Go ahead and fire my ass, you impotent eunuch.” Which you did. Now, I’d like to retract that finger. I could be back at my desk on Monday. This unemployment is shrinking my bank account.
To the staff at Wines Are Us, I regret giving a one-star Yelp rating to your Methane Hills Chardonnay and calling it swill. I was just relieving the covid boredom. You summarily kicked me out of the Jug Wine Club. So, please re-friend me and allow me back in. I’d love a case of Deepwater Horizon Merlot at your special price of five bucks a gallon.
To the thousands who sent in checks, I regret my eBay fantasy offer to sell Dr. Fauci bobblehead dolls when I really didn’t have any. I promise not to cash all the checks if you retract the crazy email threats you made about multilating various parts of my body.
I truthfully regret the 270 coffee dates I set up one boring covid night on the eCuddles dating site. I thought my clever bio about being an eco-conscious folksinger and Labradoodle whisperer who had trained as a three-star chef would do the trick. I don’t think I deserved the vitriolic onslaught from the other posters who were peeved after waiting for me to no-show at the Java Hut down the street. And no, I am not certain I know exactly where some respondents think I could shove it.
To my former dog Champ, I regret throwing you out in the snow and telling you to find yourself a new family after you chewed up my stimulus check. You were always such good company on those long, covid nights. And now, in the mornings, I have to limp out in the pelting rain to get the paper. BTW, the stitches from your bites on my legs should be healed next week.
Finally, after I spent four hours on hold, I regret my intemperate remarks to the vaccine appointment coordinator at my HMO who said I should have called earlier. I regret calling you a spawn of Satan and want you to know I was not offended when you suggested I drop dead after doing something unnatural with my phone. Now, can I get the shot?
That’s a start. I’ll do more once the shot is in the arm.
John Hewitt is a West Coast author. His latest absurdist novel Freezer Burn is the story of a nearly dead ferret who achieves music industry stardom.
It must’ve been the Harmattan, this time; I know, I know — this is Alaska, not Africa, but my Nigerian friend said it’s a “pesky” wind that bears this name, and I have to believe the suddenness with which the latest gale blew in — all its rage and paradoxical warmth tearing through town in a few hours — makes it such a force, built under pressure, kicking that sand-like dirt in our faces (as if we were characters in a billboard Queen song) leaving us with nothing but the bitter, below-zero chill, slippery roads, and an irritatingly low level of snow that would otherwise brighten these black winter nights.
I believe our good friend H, as we’ll call him, was on vacation from West Africa, but got lost on his way to Florida or California, pulled along by the current of another wind, which erred in its assumption of his desired destination, thus moving him to air his grievances with us, as if we were to blame for his unfortunate detour.
So goodbye, H — I know your true nature now, and pray we never meet again.
Caitlin M.S. Buxbaum is a writer and teacher born and raised in Alaska. She has a Master of Arts in Teaching and a B.A. in English and Japanese Studies with an emphasis in Creative Writing. She currently serves as the Mat-Su Vice President of Alaska Writers Guild. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram @caitbuxbaum
It took them three days by car before they reached the desert. Towards nightfall, in a dusty town in the high Utah plateau, they passed the Wishing Well, a store that, according to the weather-beaten sign, specialized in used and rare books. Tabby asked if they could stop, and Scott, against his better judgement, said yes. During their journey, she’d gone through three coloring books. He tried his best to ignore the strange modifications she’d made to each drawing. Sometimes, though, she tore a page from the book, thrust it in his face, and insist he praise her for her creativity.
Behind the sales counter, enthroned in a lawn chair with faded blue webbing, the proprietor sat with his hands on the armrests and the heels of his snakeskin boots resting on a makeshift footstool of antiquated law books. A thin man in late middle age with wild white hair spilling over his shoulders and a pair of reading glasses resting on the bridge of his nose, he looked part librarian, part gunslinger, definitely drunk, and not especially happy to see anyone intruding upon the solitude and clutter of his little store—but then strangers are resented everywhere. As the screen door swung closed, he did not say hello and did not ask his customers if they were looking for anything in particular.
Scott nodded and wandered the narrow aisles, searching the cluttered shelves for books on the paranormal, UFOs, spirit animals, the mystical practices of those nomadic tribes that inhabited the Escalante Valley long ago, but the haphazardly arranged books seemed only to be about pioneer families who’d settled the Old West. On the floor, near a lopsided stack of National Geographics, he found a paperback about a prospector named Jacob Jeffries who’d lost his way in the Great Anvil Valley, about one hundred miles southwest of here. His mummified body wasn’t discovered until many years after he’d last been seen. Presumably before dying of thirst, he’d crawled under his wagon, maybe hoping the vultures wouldn’t pick his bones clean, and clutched an empty flask and well-thumbed bible to his lonesome heart. The paperback said nothing about his horse. Animals were much more resourceful than avaricious humans who overestimated their own abilities and made serious errors in judgement, but perhaps Jeffries had the compassion and good sense to cut it loose, giving the wretched beast a small chance at survival.
Out of mere politeness, Scott considered purchasing the book, but the proprietor didn’t strike him as the kind of man who would care one way or another.
Tabby was suddenly standing beside him, tugging his sleeve and showing him a coloring book that came with a box of pastel pencils.
“Can you buy this for me?”
He shuddered at the thought of what she might draw this time but said, “I suppose.”
Together they approached the sales counter.
“Where headed?” asked the proprietor without rising from his chair. “East or west?”
“South,” Scott said.
“South…” The man leaned forward and brushed a piece of grit from the toe of one boot. “Dark that way. No paved roads, no towns. Only thing you’ll find is the rim of the Black Coals Canyon and then—”
He whistled and made a hand gesture like a car flying into the abyss.
Tabby frowned. “We know what’s out there.”
The proprietor smiled. “No, sweetie, I don’t think you do.”
“Don’t call me sweetie.”
The man slapped a hand on the armrest and smiled at Scott. “Well, sir, this little girl of yours has a sharp tongue.”
Tabby crossed her arms and gave the proprietor an indignant look. “What makes you think I’m his little girl?”
The man squinted and his glassy, red-rimmed eyes became more focused.
Scott reached into his back pocket. “How much do I owe you?”
Never taking his eyes from Tabby, the man said, “Five dollars.”
Though he wanted to argue about the price, Scott tossed a crumpled bill on the counter. “We better keep moving.”
The proprietor folded the bill and placed it in his shirt pocket. “Watch for the quicksand now. We’ve had some heavy rain last few days. And the desert roads, if you can call them roads, might be washed away.” He sank back in his chair, his face once again taking on the jaundiced pallor of a defeated man deep in drink. The bottle must have been close by. Scott could smell the whiskey on his breath.
“Appreciate the advice.”
Scott led Tabby back to the van, a huge Grand Voyager with 200,00 miles on the odometer bought on a used car lot somewhere in Kansas, and looked over his shoulder to make sure the man wasn’t watching them from the doorway and jotting down the license plate number.
“Maybe we shouldn’t risk stopping again. Not until we reach our destination.”
“Yes,” Tabby agreed, “a wise idea.”
In the back seat she studied the drawings in her coloring book, trying to decide which page to color first. She rifled through crudely drawn rodeo clowns and desperados and covered wagons trundling beneath magisterial mesas and surreal hoodoos.
Scott glanced in the rearview mirror and asked, “We’ll be there soon, right?”
“Another hour.” Tabby opened the box of pencils. “Two at the most.”
“And then he’ll come for us?”
“I told you he would,” Tabby said irritably. “Just drive.”
She selected a purple pencil and said, “I think I’ll add a bird to this page. It could use a hungry little purple bird, don’t you think?”
He averted his eyes and focused on the vast landscape before him. “Whatever you think is best.” The desert was now painted in a hundred subtle shades of pink and red he’d never seen in the perpetually gray city of his birth.
As they pulled away from the Wishing Well, Tabby leaned forward and whispered in his ear, “That man didn’t know what he was talking about. There’s no quicksand where we’re going. And there hasn’t been any rain. Not around here. Not in a long time.”
Thirty minutes later the road became little more than an unmarked trail that vanished just beyond the headlights. The bookseller was right. There was nothing out here but sand and sagebrush and distant rows of slender cacti. The van dipped and swayed across the rough and rutted landscape. Scott gripped the wheel with both hands, trying to control the vehicle as it plowed through heavy clumps of red sandstone. Tabby smiled, her eyes gleaming weirdly in the green dashboard light. She couldn’t color anymore, not in the dark, and definitely not with the van jouncing like this.
“Almost empty,” Scott said. “I should have filled up at the last gas station.”
“You keep saying that.” He scratched his chin. He hadn’t shaved since leaving Ohio. “We’re heading in the right direction?”
“Keep going straight.”
“He knows we’re coming?”
“You’re scared, aren’t you?”
“Why would I be scared?”
“You sound scared. You look scared, too.”
He adjusted the rearview mirror so she couldn’t see his face.
Tabby folded her hands in her lap. “Your wife must know by now. That we’re gone, I mean. It’s been three days. Going on four.”
He shook his head. “It’s not like she ever calls to ask how I’m doing. We’ve been divorced for a year.”
“Your boss then. He must be concerned. You have a job, don’t you?”
“If you can call it a job.”
“You’re a professor, right?”
She seemed to consider this and said, “What does that mean?”
“It means I’m disposable.”
“Most people are. But for you all of that will soon change.”
“He’ll keep his promise?”
She sat with her hands folded in her lap and stared into the darkness. “He always keeps his promises. You’ll see.”
For another thirty minutes they drove through sage flats and over rough terrain made nearly impassible by deep depressions and ancient deadfalls of petrified wood. There came a frightening pop and the vehicle listed suddenly to the left. Scott killed the engine. He opened the glove box and retrieved the penlight he’d purchased yesterday to read maps at night. Outside, standing beside the driver’s side tire, he could hear the distant howls of coyotes.
Tabby crept behind him and cried, “A flat!”
He jumped and then handed her the flashlight. “Follow me.”
He marched to the back of the van and opened the rusty tailgate.
“I don’t believe it,” he whispered.
She swept the light back and forth across the empty compartment. “There’s no spare.” She pointed the penlight at him, its faltering blue beam paling his already pale face. “Guess you should have checked when you traded for it in Kansas.”
He shielded his eyes and scowled. “Get that away from me.”
She set off into the darkness, the penlight too weak to cast a beam beyond her shoes. “We’ll just have to walk from here.”
“Only a little further. Come on!”
He hurried after her, afraid she might plummet into a rimrock canyon. He wasn’t wearing the proper gear for hiking, and every few yards a sharp stone worked its way into his shoes. They trod across the fossilized bones of giant lizards millions of years dead. There had been a forest here once, and before that an inland sea. Scott looked up, astonished by the number of stars in the sky, but he could only identify a tiny fraction of constellations. He was from an old industrial city built on the banks of a polluted river and he’d never known anything but yellow streetlights blazing away from dusk until dawn. Now, for the first time in his life, he could sense the Earth spinning through the Milky Way and understood how ignorant he was about the cosmos, how small and ridiculously inconsequential he was. He wondered what intelligences existed up there in the heavens, unknown, unseen.
“Stop,” said Tabby.
“What is it?”
Scott saw nothing. The penlight had died miles back. It was terrifically cold out here, and he could barely feel his fingers anymore. For a minute he heard only the wind and the beating of his own heart. Then he detected the sound of approaching footsteps, but their irregular rhythm suggested they were produced by something other than a human. Scott briefly considered abandoning the girl in the middle of the desert and running back to the van.
Tabby put her hands at her side and gracefully bowed.
The moon broke through the clouds, and Scott saw it then, a short owl-faced figure standing beside a basalt pillar ten feet high. It stared at them with its wide-set eyes and then snorted before turning around and vanishing back into the darkness.
“He wants us to follow him,” Tabby said.
“Everything is prepared and waiting for us.”
Scott blinked. He’d barely slept during the three-day journey to the desert, and lack of sleep was beginning to take its toll on him. He followed Tabby, listening to the strange footsteps crunching against the sun-hammered earth. Ten minutes later they came upon a circular clearing where the moonlight was so intense it blotted out the stars. In the center they found a stone altar, roughly rectangular in shape and four feet in height. Just beyond the hazy ring of moonlight, dozens of inexplicably odd creatures had gathered to bear witness to the act—freakish bug-eyed creatures with bodies that struck Scott as vaguely amphibious, like newts or salamanders.
Tabby stepped forward and from the altar lifted a long glimmering blade. She handed it to Scott and said, “They want you to use it.”
He shook his head and stumbled backward. He thought again of all the wild promises this girl had made to him, things he dared not imagine on his own for fear of losing his mind—the restoration of his family, his comfortable home, his once promising career. But why had she chosen him? Why had she shown up at his apartment door with this incredible news and persuaded him that she was speaking the truth?
“Court-ordered visitation rights,” she’d explained with a sardonic smile. “In this world the law is sacred.”
Now, moving toward the altar, Scott gazed down at the girl and reluctantly accepted the knife, its polished blade shining in the cold lunar light. She smiled up at him, her ghastly doll’s face transformed by the moon into something more recognizable, almost familiar. All around him the other creatures watched and waited. Scott hoped an angel might shout his name and stay his hand, but when he looked into the sky, he saw a giant bat-like silhouette corkscrewing across the stars. The girl climbed onto the altar, rested her arms at her side, and closed her eyes. Scott trembled. Then he raised the knife high above his head.
Hours later, when the first hints of sunlight touched the high cirrus clouds drifting above the desert plain, he pulled the collar of his flannel shirt close to his throat and walked due north. He felt invigorated, light on his feet, and could breathe without rasping. It was as though he’d never smoked a cigarette, or ten thousand of them, and had never touched a drop of whiskey. In fact, he hadn’t felt this good since his college days on the rowing team, and he almost expected to find that the stubborn layer of fat had vanished around his torso. Making his way with surprising ease across technical terrain, he hiked back to the van and the new life that surely awaited him back home. He thought not at all of last night’s unspeakable ritual.
As the morning wore on, and the desert grew warm and then unbearably hot, he removed his flannel shirt and tied it around his waist. He followed the sun as it traversed the sky but decided he’d drifted too far east and made a correction. He fully expected to see the Grand Voyager just ahead, but the desert appeared flat and empty with no vehicle in sight, and an hour later, when the barren landscape was ablaze with white light, he removed his t-shirt, filthy with dirt and sweat, and tied it loosely around his head. He hadn’t thought to bring a change of clothes with him on this trip, and for a moment he was so focused on his own foul odor that he didn’t notice the bird hopping across the ground right behind him, its feathers so black they were an iridescent purple. He hurdled a stone at it, and the bird fluttered away with a squawk.
By noon the sky was chrome-bright, and the white heat on the horizon seemed to rumble in his ears. When his shoulders began to blister, he put his flannel shirt back on and looked for a place to hide from the sun, a hill, a cave, a Joshua tree tall enough to shelter him in its slender shade. He crouched low to the cracked and blistered earth, thinking this might help for some reason, but he may as well have been crawling across the middle of a blacktop parking lot. He wondered how long he could continue like this and decided he had no options but to keep going. Tabby hadn’t led him into this waste just to let him die.
It was nearly dusk when the van finally came into view. Insane with thirst, his lips cracked and bleeding, he limped toward the vehicle and drew the keys from his pocket. The purple bird perched like a demented hood ornament on the rusted front bumper. It watched him and made strange gurgling sounds and picked at the lice buried deep in its feathers. At his approach the bird took wing and floated over to a nearby pile of rocks. By then Scott was so out of his mind that he didn’t stop to think about it—couldn’t think.
He collapsed in the front seat but found no water bottles inside. Somehow, he managed to muster the strength to put the keys in the ignition and start the engine. Hot air blasted from the vents, but after a few minutes the AC kicked in and the interior began to cool. Though he feared he was going to lose consciousness, he put the van in drive and pressed his foot on the gas. The van jerked forward, listing badly to the left, and
“Just have to take it slow, that’s all.”
Though it might take him all night, he would eventually reach civilization. All he had to do was follow his own tire tracks back to the main road. The van barely started rolling when the engine started to shudder and then stalled. The gas gage read EMPTY.
Scott laughed and then screamed. It hurt his throat to scream so he stopped. If he passed out inside the van—given his dehydration a high probability—he would run the risk of roasting alive shortly after tomorrow’s sunrise. After some careful thought, he decided to spend the night beneath the Grand Voyager. At least that way, if he did lose consciousness, he would be safe in the shade while he waited for someone to come along and rescue him.
Before exiting the vehicle, he reached over and grabbed the coloring book from the backseat. After crawling under the van, he flipped through the pages, looking at the nightmare images Tabby had drawn there. On the final page, he saw a picture of a purple bird tugging at the putrefied flesh of a hand hanging limply beside a flat tire, and just beneath the fingers, in her bold childish hand, Tabby had written the word “Daddy.”
Heritage: Exceptional quality, solid mahogany in a luxury satin finish. Cross weave interior.
There’s no way in hell we’re getting this but I wanted to shortlist it so Mum thinks we at least considered something pricey for him.
Nottingham: Elegant, hand-crafted solid Oak trimmed in triple mouldings and fully lined.
I think Mum said they went to Sherwood Forest on their honeymoon so maybe the Nottingham connection makes sense? I’m not sure the price tag is worth evoking the memory of such a shitty honeymoon. I should have gone into coffin carpentry instead of teaching. These prices are ridiculous.
Our Honest coffin: Uncomplicated. Made from simulated oak veneer. An Honest classic.
Honest, my arse. Honestly not oak. God, remember when Dad got that promotion and Mum finally got to have the kitchen renovated and she was so happy with those ugly veneer cupboards? He was in a good mood for quite a while after that. Maybe it’s true. Happy wife, happy life. We should remember this one for when Mum goes. She can be surrounded by veneer for eternity.
Seagrass: Highly renewable, woven into a beautiful, curved coffin. Natural cotton lining and rope handles.
It looks just like those bassinets Mum made for our dolls before we realised actual newborns shit so much you want everything they touch to be made of wipeable plastic. But doesn’t it sort of remind you of that day we went to the beach and Mum made up a picnic basket except it rained the whole time and we had to eat the picnic in the car and Dad flew off the handle because there was nowhere to put his elbows and you got such a fright you choked on your ham sandwich and I had to whack your back (which I probably enjoyed immensely)? I never understood why she didn’t just leave the ungrateful bastard.
Bespoke: Our picture coffins come in your choice of design, giving you the opportunity to commemorate your loved one’s passions and personality.
Think a bottle of whiskey would be appropriate? Do you know she used to water his whiskey down and save the pure stuff for her afternoon teas? I wonder if Dad went through his whole life thinking all whiskey was that dilute.
Cardboard: 100% recycled with rope handles and full natural lining.
We should get this one. It’s the cheapest and he was always a tight arse. But let’s tell mum we’re doing it for environmental reasons so she can brag about it to the ladies at golf.
Kinneson Lalor followed a PhD in Physics from the University of Cambridge with an MSt in Creative Writing from the same institution. She is Australian but has lived in the UK for over a decade. Her work has appeared in various places including The Mays and Tiny Molecules, and she writes a regular blog about sustainable gardening for edibles and wildlife.
It’s eight below zero at half-past noon, but when he goes by to check on her he finds her out on the porch in a T-shirt, smoking a cigarette and only almost coherent.
She tells him the landlord won’t let her smoke inside and, besides, there’s no air in there anyway because the music’s too loud.
He gets her inside as quickly as he can, even though she insists on a second smoke and sings a couple choruses of Lady Madonna while she inhales and exhales equal measures of smoke and crystallized air.
Inside, he tries to get her into a warm shower but discovers that, no matter how long he lets it run, there’s no hot water.
She tells him the landlord’s from Pittsburgh and doesn’t believe in hot water.
The next day, he drives out again and finds her frozen to almost death, stretched out nearly naked on her unmade bed, a towel wrapped around her head, all the windows open wide, and the turntable skipping and spinning, its blare repeating, “isten to the music playing / isten to the music playing / isten to the music playing…”
Ron. Lavalette lives on Vermont’s Canadian border. His poetry, flash fiction, and creative nonfiction has been very widely published in both print and pixel forms. His first chapbook, Fallen Away (Finishing Line Press), is now available at all standard outlets. A reasonable sample of his work can be found at EGGS OVER TOKYO.
The sun was tightly tucked behind the clouds and Maurice was watching the pigeons.
He’d been told they carried messages. Not like the ones in the olden days, during the war for example, but ones that would reveal themselves to you if you watched them long enough.
Some pigeons were by the gutter, pecking at the bars. Others were under the bench Maurice was sitting on, hopping off the flower bed that had once housed chrysanthemums. Stumps now, covered with green plastic.
Sun-hating, weed-hating plastic, Maurice thought, there to make things look tidy.
“Enough of ‘pristine’, you cow!” he’d told his wife, and she’d sent him out to look at the pigeons.
In fact, she’d just sent him out.
It was one of her doolally friends who’d told him what pigeons do when they’re observed. They form shapes.
Maurice gathered some madeleine crumbs out of his pocket and threw them at the birds. They flapped and ate.
They weren’t making any shapes he could make sense of, though. Far from an arrow, that formation. And even if it had been an arrow, pointing one way or the other, what the hell would he have done – followed it?
Could be a paperclip.
Or the pigeon cluster in the flower bed, with the few dotted around the bench and the gutter could be one of those weights you might find at the gym. Did he need to start weightlifting? He held his belly and sniffed.
Maybe his wife was a weight.
“How was your walk?” he pictured his wife saying when he arrived back at the flat.
“Fine. I’m sorry I called you a cow”, he pictured himself replying.
But instead the pigeon spoke.
“Retirement hurt?” it said.
“Got a hobby?” it said.
The pigeon blinked.
Maurice imagined his wife listening to the story about the pigeon and phoning Dr Maynard.
The creature was just beside his boot, tilting its head
“Well find one,” it said.
With that, Maurice said absolutely nothing, got up and walked home.
Kik Lodge is a British teacher/translator based in Lyon, France, where she lives with her two kids. Her work has featured in Litro, The Moth, Tiny Molecules and the Common Breath, and she is currently working on a short story collection based on the churchgoers next to her flat.
A worn ash branch 2-feet long Y-shaped the dowser whom I expected old man toothless gaps stringy hair gray unwashed beard hanging to his chest patched clothes draping off a frame lanky from cheap whiskey as thin as an eighteen-year old fashion model speaking in Appalachian accent I can’t decode not the six-foot tall fifty-year old equipment operator prosperous real estate salesman wears spotless Land’s End outdoor work gear keeps his well-drilling truck cab warm and clean auger gleams in the cold November sun most of his time on his mobile phone juggles appointments rod’s handles worn polished repeated use wanders for an hour around the forested hillside where we would build our cabin before announcing the divining rod pointing to the carpet of decaying grass and tree bark fallen oak leaves deer droppings bear scat right here this point upon my skeptical nod of assent starts up his rig bores a hole through the clay smooth rocks and boulders below rain runoff underground channels past tree roots through limestone strata at 90 feet an aquifer gives us a steady stream through flood and drought for house for barn and frost-free hydrants in fields we test the water for 500 chemicals biologics industrial pollutants no bacteria, no animal waste, no gasoline or diesel fuel, no Sulphur, no fertilizers, no contaminants at all nothing but H2O pure as if distilled we could sell it to city consumers who never taste real water or use it to produce craft vodka compensate losses from our farming
An early black and white photo of Frost dressed in dark jacket white shirt with long sleeves closed with French cuffs and links as for a session of teaching or sitting for photography looks young still already tastes success his face drawn dark alone focused sits in a wood armchair leather covered cushion against the back writes on a rough cut homemade easel end of one board raw with saw marks set across the arms an opened booklet in left hand pen held in right – a wedding ring? signs an autograph perhaps on inside cover I first see the photo in college imagine the setting is his home kitchen in Franconia. That’s the poet’s life, I learn, one summer with uncle and cousins in Jefferson a few miles from Franconia the farm land surrounding my grandparents’ cottage cows knock down the white picket fence my mother’s parents erect in a fit of picturesque as they walk through Pricilla Brook flowing past stir and muddy the water the farmer hays the field by the cottage he leaves a tuft of flowers I fancy this a tribute similarly when brush hogging first growth grass in our cattle fields I leave a plot of weed flowers uncut I walk the fields to check on calves on water levels in the stock tanks remove grass and turf dropped from the cows’ cuds Autumn blown leaves ice in the Winter I remember, of how, Frost already thirty on his grandfather’s farm in Derry treks the cow pasture clears leaves from the spring we share Platonism a useful metaphor I move to California live in Berkeley three summers I joke to no one’s amusement San Francisco gave Frost to New Hampshire New Hampshire returns the favor with me
Summers I swim in the Baker River bicycle up Highland Street hill out of town by Hatch’s dairy that delivered milk to the Plymouth Inn during the War through Smith Covered Bridge hike across Barney’s farm fields bordering the shallow river with blue clay banks Barney keeps dairy cows delivers milk in the village I and buddies transform into blue aboriginals clay covering our skin caking our hair mother shouts as I pedal away from the house “don’t get polio”
park paths silver ice childhood memory run slide face up swelling hurts
Storms triumph twilight fills with processions of black clouds white light between flashes foam churns on ships’ wakes beyond flooded grassy fields forests of wind felled trees sails of a thousand ships drop below the gray horizon of the wine dark sea
smoke of the burning city floods the sky with silence no pleas
only you alone on the shore mourn your impetuosity beat your breasts, O maidens, and rend your garments
Packing the camper in the relentless Florida heat, you finally admit it: You’re a climate refugee.
Driving north, you try to avoid the congested highways. But the backroads are worse; one in Georgia moves just 10 miles in three days. Gas is harder to find. So you stick to I-95, drive as far as you can each day, pull off, let the kids run loose, search for supplies.
You avoid talking to others; after Savannah, you don’t trust anyone. You shouldn’t have invited that guy and his kid into the camper. They stole your wallet, a bottle of whiskey, Jacob’s cell phone, and Josh’s meds.
* * *
You couldn’t stay in Florida: Amy died in June after beating the doctors’ odds for two years, then Hurricanes Roland and Tyler hit in July, and the temperature soared to record highs in August.
The news says thousands have died from the heat in the past few weeks.
“Where are we going, dad?” the kids ask every day.
“Why Maine?” they want to know. “Who do we know in Maine? Why couldn’t we stay home?”
“Enough!” you snap.
They stop asking when they realize you have no plan.
You vaguely remember vacations in Maine—a month at Sebago Lake every summer from when you were three until you turned nine. Then your dad left, you moved to Florida, and a succession of stepfathers and “uncles” passed through.
Must have cousins up north, but you’ve never been in touch.
* * *
In northern Virginia, the locals’ attitudes harden. Gas stations charge you $10 more per gallon than they do locals, and they demand cash, before you pump. Men with long guns guard shops and lonely intersections.
Outside Richmond, you witness a fight…more like a beating.
“Hey! You with the Braves hat,” yells a guy in a camo shirt toting an AK-47. A kid scurries toward a van with Georgia plates.
“Stop! Now! I’ll shoot!” the guy shouts, gun to his shoulder, freezing everyone in the parking lot.
The kid’s father comes out with his hands raised, palms out, saying, “Whoa, whoa, whoa…what’s going on?”
“Your boy’s a thief.”
The son pulls a Three Musketeers bar from his jacket, hands it to his father, who walks it to the gunman.
“We don’t want it back,” he says. “That’ll be $50.”
The dad barely gets the words “don’t be crazy” from his mouth when the butt of the rifle strikes his head, dropping him to his knees.
You back away as two others in camo trot over. One kicks the downed man in his side, then again.
“Let’s go,” you say to your kids. “Now.”
Later, camped by the James River, Jacob asks why you didn’t help.
You say there was no helping him against the guns. He starts to say more, but you cut him off. “The kid shouldn’t of stolen that candy bar. End of conversation.”
All night, you toss and turn.
The three days it takes to maneuver the DC-to-Baltimore corridor scare you. Vehicles and pedestrians pack the roads. People bang on your windows and ask for food, money, anything. Thank god you secured 30 extra gallons of gasoline.
Near Wilmington, you detour northwest to avoid Philadelphia and New York City.
You camp at a small lake in a park in upstate New York. The air is fresh, the quiet soothing, the kids laughter a balm. The heat feels like a normal summer day, not the suffocation you fled.
Josh is taking a sunfish off the hook to throw back in the lake when a sheriff’s car pulls up, lights flashing. Two deputies step out.
“You can’t stay here,” one says from behind aviator sunglasses, looking at your Florida plates.
“Isn’t it state park?” you ask, right away wishing you’d kept quiet.
The two exchange a glance and begin to move toward you.
“I caught another! It’s bigger!” Josh yells.
The deputies stop, look to Jacob. “He have a fishing license?”
“How about we just leave, like you said,” you ask quietly.
The big one nods. You call the boys, dismantle camp, and watch the deputies in the rear view. They follow you for miles.
* * *
It’s late October when you cross the New Hampshire-Maine border.
“We made it, dad!”
You don’t know what’s next. Money’s running low, winter’s coming on—Maine won’t be warm come December.
You drive through Porter, Keezar Falls, and Cornish. Autumn blazes. You stop at a familiar-looking restaurant. You tell the waitress your story. When she brings the burgers, she has the owner in tow, a white-haired man whose nose takes a sharp hook to the left, just like yours.
“You’re Laura Jordan’s boy,” the old man declares. “Haven’t seen you in ages.”
He shakes your hand, sits down beside you.
Over lunch, you tell the old man you need a place to settle.
“A lot of folks been coming through,” he says. “Some say it’s gonna get worse in the spring. I could use another body around here. Can you handle a weapon? Any concerns about firing it?”
“None at all,” you reply, and ask for another piece of pie.
Tom Walsh is a writer and editor living in northern California. He has been a newspaper reporter, editor, and wildland firefighter, and has lived throughout the US, in England, New Zealand,and Bolivia. His most recent essays and flash fiction are online or upcoming at the Dark Mountain Project, Litro, Hobart, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.
The offices of Mr Andersen were sparse, just a waiting room and a marbled mahogany door with a brass plate indicating the great man’s domain. His secretary kept guard, a stern and officious duckling with an oversized beak who commanded the room through meaningful glares over half-moon spectacles. It wasn’t as grandiose as the Grimm suites but Andersen liked it this way – kept him humble.
That morning the waiting room was filling quickly. Audition day brought an energy all of its own. Especially as Andersen liked to keep the parts on offer under wraps, announcing them to nervous candidates en masse to see their reaction and start the culling process almost immediately. This was a tough town to get a break and word soon spread if you got a reputation as difficult.
First to arrive had been Cow. The elevator was broken and the stairs had been tricky, giving her a glisten all over that betrayed her nervousness. Heaven only knows how she was going to get back down, but she had bigger things on her mind. She restlessly shuffled her résumé, a twitching hoof flicking pages back and forth. She had good experience but it had been tough to shake off being traded for a handful of beans by a foolish kid. What a Jackass. The original story had her starring throughout and slaying the giant at the end, but one improvised line from him about a ‘good deal’ and she’d only lasted three pages into the script. She hadn’t really worked since (she had three calves under 6) but she knew she could do it. She just needed a break.
Across from her sat a short man with glasses. He carried an air of superiority, as well he might. Was there another qualified doctor in the house? He thought not. As much as he tried to explain it, his was not a nickname; it was a title. Doctor of Medicine, with a PhD in Psychology on the side. Looking around the room, he could have a field day analysing this lot. Of course, he carried his own demons. Were his six co-stars ever forgotten when people compiled ‘the list’? Never. Not in a world where expertise was a stigma. So much easier to remember a childish emotion or mild affliction. The sense of inferiority shrouded him like a cloak. He thought back to the climactic scene of his only film. He’d argued vigorously for the gritty realism of a week’s course of antibiotics rather than a kiss. No one listened; not sexy enough, apparently. He shook his head and waited.
In the far corner, aggressively eating what appeared to be breadcrumbs, was the Witch. A veteran of the circuit, she was the least anxious of the group. She’d appeared in countless dramas, mostly uncredited and, therefore, largely unpaid. Recent events had altered her landscape. The diagnosis of diabetes was a blow, but not wholly unexpected when you live in a gingerbread house and suffer from compulsive snacking. The game changer was that some arsehole at the insurance company had deemed it a pre-existing condition and her insulin came with a significant co-pay charge. It didn’t help that those irritating grifter kids still came round every now and then, causing significant structural building damage. For her, this job was about more than ego; it was a matter of survival.
Closest to the door, a louche Wolf picked at his teeth and tried to look comfortable in what could only be described as a spinster’s shawl and bonnet. He’d fought against stereotyping all his professional life but society wouldn’t let him be himself. Conformity was king. He’d had the suggested surgery, reducing the size of both eyes and ears. The teeth stayed though, they were his best feature. A few years back, he’d tried to go into mainstream movies. Auditioned for a part about a guy working somewhere called Wall Street. Lost out to some young dude called Jack – apparently he was a lousy trader but they liked his gung-ho attitude. He surveyed the opposition silently, fantasising about eating all of them. His face remained a mask. He never gave anything away.
Lastly, spread across two seats, sat the Bear. It was difficult to recognise him now, twenty-five years and 200 pounds since his heyday. Like many child actors he’d lived for the moment, the next few years a hedonistic haze of porridge and blondes. Rehab had been a necessary evil, his agent said, A Cinderella Story for the tabloids (another part he’d actually missed out on). Having famous acting parents didn’t help either. When they both discovered whom exactly had been in whose bed, social media ignited, leaving him nowhere to hide. Now, he just wanted a quiet life. His trust fund was dry, he was dry, and he wanted a simple summer job to pay the rent on the cave. Not much to ask.
The buzz of Ms Duckling’s phone broke the spell. She picked it up and quacked slowly once or twice, her voice giving away nothing. She placed it back in the cradle and looked up over the half-moons. The assembled shifted uncomfortably in their seats, afraid to either hold her glare or look away. The golden handle of Mr Andersen’s door slowly rotated, then swung open to reveal a balding man with a large nose, shallow chin and dark eyes. He nodded once at the room and stepped forward.
‘Today, we will be hearing readings for the part of a mermaid. Preferably a small one’.
There was a short pause. Then, a collective cry of ‘FUCK!’ left the waiting room and drifted across town and through the open windows of Grimm PLC.
Simon Shergold is a teacher from Sutton in the UK. Having thought about writing for a long time, he is finally getting on with it. His work has appeared in Writers’ Forum, The Cabinet of Heed and Perhappened. @SShergold76
The pens the paperwork the desks the phones; the edges on top on sides and on bottom, all the same. The top edges of the partitions the worn down flat carpet, rug, or carpet, carpet, or rug version number three ha, ha the whiteshirts go to these desks, pluck up their phones, and talk to no one. They’re feigning checking with the manager to make the patrons believe the deal slapped in their faces is so in their favor, that the manager may think this hotshot young whiteshirt’s giving the farm away, but. The manager’s all, My boys, my boys, yah; do it, do it, make every deal seem to your fishes like you’re giving the farm away, because you like them; see him on the phone over there, Madge, lord. He must have this deal cut so deep in our favor, Madge, he will be in trouble at end-of-month with the top cheese of this place, cheeses, bosses, Gods or megamen, who danced this business into being, hut hut hut, into being, into being, but, look see, no; I’m told these car men even yearly gather at a top secret pep rally and get yelled all around at with suchlike like these:
We must wear the white shirt the red ties and the short hair.
We must each be nothing particular but pure salesman.
When they see us, we must be car men equaling cars.
Who dresses like this no one dresses like this ‘but Flamingtown car men equaling cars.
Way up and way down and both sides of the road this look grew this business.
This is the reason we can never look different; all likewise, as the founder directed, must wear the superdistinct non-identifiable white shirt short hair glasses and red tie car men who equal nothing but cars. That’s right; today every Flamingtown car man’s face must equal only cars. A moment’s shallow research, and a lick of God’s toetip, told the great founder a green car man’s face equals nothing but green; does not point out to this that or the other but just to itself. And a car man’s face pointing only to itself does not equal only cars.
So; I say to you today, white shirted red tied green faced man what what w-h-a-t whose faces super-exclusively equal cars.
So. The oath now, before we overspread our selling floors.
Brothers in Flamingtown Motors salesforce!
We are the friendless of this earth.
Every man’s hand is against us.
We have been kicked, spat upon—and driven back to our desks, unsealed deals in our hands, again and again, like wild things.
My father was a salesman, and he was nearly hanged.
His father was fired for lack of great monthly numbers.
And what of your kinsmen, your fathers, their fathers, and their fathers’ fathers, before them?
My brothers in sales, a new day is at hand.
I have read the specs and suggested prices for the new models, and they are good.
Three nights ago, a great sedan’s horn blared from the cloud way out, up the left.
Another answered from the cloud way out, up the right, in reply.
What did that sign mean, my sales force children?
It means that Mother Big-Auto, in her palace Detroit, with all her arms outstretched, hugs us to her bosom, welcoming us back as hot salesmen—hot salesman awakened from a sleep of another full year.
Let the neophytes and their teachers draw near.
Where are the hot as shit quicktalking negotiators?
Give them their clipboards sharp pencils wide desks and phones.
Give them their new model literature spec sheets and floormobiles.
Swear by our Mother Big-Auto up in Detroit to be thrice faithful to her and to me and to our pure-white-shirt red tie order, and to all of us.
Rise, white shirted red tie short hair in glasses Flamingtown brothers!
Stick on your spectacles! Rise and sell!
Sell, lest you be sold yourselves!
Sell for the love of selling!
Sell for the love of Big-Auto the great Mother!
By all that’s big-dawg shirt ass da monkeycut, sell-men!
Sell, sell; yah sell sell right now!
Ready, Next; this very same salesman snapped his face toward his fast nibbling fishpair. Quick quick quick, go quick; see they’re all set, all in, ‘n tight; one swat now, and we’ll net them. Swing the feet off the desk. Sit up. Pay attention. So, hey, now; now’s the time to move in.
Approach them slow. With a classic bright smile.
Heads turn, Look, Madge, look; he’s off the phone. Look, Madge, look; he’s off and he’s coming. He—he; he comes up all soothingly outchested with, Listen n’ listen t’, ah, folks. I spoke to the manager. Luckily, he’d not yet left for the day. Your deal is okayed. Nothing’s left but the paperwork. Congratulations—said while silently handshaking smiling all sparkly-eyed thinking, Yes! I knew that when we crossed the sill this’d be a live one. Yes! So; seal it now, ‘n seal it quick. Close in, close in, eh; Please be seated. Eh; Penflash. Eh; Inklines. Squirrely, but legal. Hold back, hold. Penworkingly afterthough going, gone, ack; That’s it, all done. Rising, grinning, and shaking hands. All’s done and all’s sealed; go go go, all shouting like it’s some swat-show. Stick on your spectacles! Rise and sell! The pens, the paperwork, the desks, the phones. Sell, lest you be sold yourselves! Hands up get down why do you mug? You lucky devils; congratulations again on your very wise purchase. Take delivery next week same day same time. Madge you free? Yah free. Yes, we’re good, we’ll be there.
Breathe deep, eyes closed.
Sell for the love of Selling! The edges on top on sides and on bottom all the same, are all free. Why do why else do you sell?
So. Thi’ ‘s it.
Sell for the love of Big-Auto the great Mother; and for the sake of them plucky-chickens chicken-scratching at the worn down super-seedy flat dealership’s carpet, rug, or carpet. See you then, thanks again bye bye carpet or rug version number three; Sell! Yes! Then carpet or rug version number four; Sell! Yes! Carpet or rug version number five; Sell! Number six, Sell!
Number s’ seven, Sell! Left eight, Sell! Right nine, Sell! Ten—aha—good work, she will tell me. Yes, me pat yo’ head, yah yo’ head, she will say. And we’ll all go home in one piece tonight, atopitall, yes we will; said the each to their others; said every single greenfaced whiteshirt later on, when finally left. F’ the day.
When she spotted his red football shirt glowing down the road, she was tempted to lock the shop door, pull down the blinds and hide. He might only be ten, but his meaty hands could do real damage. She’d seen them punching and poking, shoving and strangling the other boys. Crushing bags of crisps to dust when he couldn’t afford to pay and she wouldn’t give them away. Gripping her arm so hard that the bruises lasted for weeks.
He didn’t used to be like this.
His beefy paws flung the door open. She stepped out from behind the counter, her arms held out as if she was going to hug him.
‘Now, I want no trouble. You hear? The next time you start that’ll be it. I’ll call the police and you’ll not be allowed in here again. Ever.’
She waited for the eruption. But it was if her words punctured the balloon of him. His bottom lip shook before he bit down on it to keep it still. Tears couldn’t be blinked back fast enough so rolled down his doleful cheeks.
It was then she noticed the smart black trousers and shoes, the jacket over the football shirt. Eyes swollen from crying long and hard. The photo clutched in his hand. A glimpse of long blonde hair and a laughing mouth.
For a moment she had no clue what to do. Then she grabbed a bag of crisps and a chocolate bar, pressed them into his other hand. ‘Go on now. Everything will be okay,’ she gently squeezed his shoulders as she turned him to the door. ‘You come back whenever you like.’
He nodded without looking up.
She watched him drop the crisps and chocolate unopened on the bench. The photo crumpling in his tiny hand as he walked away.
Amanda Saint is the author of two novels, As If I Were A River (2016) and Remember Tomorrow (2019). Her short fiction collection, Flashes Of Colour, is coming in 2020. Amanda founded and runs Retreat West, providing writing competitions, courses and retreats, and Retreat West Books indie press, which publishes short fiction, novels and memoirs.
i’ve bitten mine so many times i’m practically as magic as mary
sarah winifred but rather than possessing the ability to sew my
lover’s lips with a hindering spell- crafted stitch, the bastard sealed
mine shut up tight with his hexing
and while outside my home i’m known for letting this same tongue of mine
roam about unleashed with defenses for the meek and am oftenly referred
to as a toil and trouble type of bitch, never letting evil banter slither past
unchecked — within the walls of mine own home i so often stand so soundly
silenced, subsisting through his slashings — my tongue bitten to batch of bits which roll
around inside my mouth until it’s safe to spit without the risk of conjuring up his peak
i often choose to choke. ‘tis less tormenting.
Oakley Ayden (she/her) is an autistic, queer writer and social justice activist with North Carolina roots. She currently lives and works in California’s San Bernardino National Forest with her two daughters.
We had managed to buy Freddy cheap because he’d been sent back from his first owner in disgrace. They’d locked him in the shed to keep an eye on the budgie. I’m not sure what went wrong, but I think it may have involved some loud complaints on his part, and liquid protests. It may also not have helped that Freddy tended to round off a meal with something that wasn’t on the menu: a shoe or a cushion, for example.
When we took him home I was allowed to hold him on my lap in the car. He slept soundly; with a passion, you could say. It was as though he knew he’d found his destiny. From that day on he always slept on my bed.
Freddy was a dopey, affectionate dog, and though whippets are hunters, he seemed not to understand this. In the country, if a rabbit appeared in the distance, I would run down the field to show him that speeding after rabbits was what dogs like him were supposed to do. He would bound along behind me, enjoying the fun, impressed at my new-found speed. But he was not interested in the idea of pursuing a fellow creature.
He was not a wimp, however. He could be brave. Once, my cousin Amy took him for a run in the Surrey Hills. He loved to sweep across wild expanses, and that’s what he did for a few minutes. Then Amy called to say he’d run into a wood and disappeared! She was panicky. It turned out Freddy had run through the wood to the open fields. He’d then managed to cross the M25 Motorway, with its eight lanes of speeding cars, and pass through several miles of London streets to make it back to me. After that, Freddy became not just my dog, but my hero and my world. After my Mum had left home I’d lived with my Dad. After three years my Dad offloaded me back to my Mum. But Freddy was not like that. He was reliable. I poured my affection into him. He discovered a hidden reservoir of love somewhere inside me I never knew I had.
One summer I went on holiday to stay with my aunt, near Barnstaple. She wasn’t allowed pets in her flat, so Freddy stayed home. I’m sure my aunt’s shoes would have breathed a sigh of relief, if shoes could sigh, but for me that meant the hours passed slowly. I begged to be allowed to return home early, and after a couple of days they let me. I arrived back in the evening, and walked down our street looking towards our house. My mother was standing outside, and as I approached, I could make out her face. It seemed to have turned grey. She had something bad to tell me, and I immediately knew what it was. It was what I somehow always knew would happen.
I approached her and said: “It’s Freddy isn’t it?” No reply. “He’s dead, isn’t he?” She said nothing. But I knew.
Finally, she spoke: “He went into my bedroom when I was out and chewed the top off my bottle of sleeping pills − you know what he was like. There was no pain. He just went to sleep.”
And now I’m 45 years old.
And yesterday, late in the evening, I was walking up Regent Street towards the tube on my journey back from work when I reached Oxford Street. As I stood waiting at the kerb, I was thinking about what was on TV that evening when my mind strayed onto those long-past events. It suddenly occurred to me:
“Of course he didn’t chew the top off the bottle of pills.”
I must have spoken out loud, because the tall woman in a smart blue raincoat standing next to me looked round.
“She had him killed,” I said.
It had taken me 35 years to figure it out, but I was sure this was the truth. I remembered my mother had said it was not practical to keep a dog in the house all day while she was at work and I was at school.
“And he’s so naughty.” She’d say. “He’s trouble. He has to go. It would be the best thing − for him as well as us. It wouldn’t hurt him.”
I had protested, of course: “I would rather anything than that. Anything!” I said. “He can even go to another home!”
“That wouldn’t work.” She said.
“Because he wouldn’t settle.”
The woman in the blue raincoat looked worried.
“Are you OK?” She said.
David Crook does not believe in astrology but he’s such a true Libran it worries him. He works in investment and writes for the theatre. His latest play, ‘In the Bear’s Jaws’ will open at the BITEF theatre in Belgrade, Serbia, in May, and then tour.
Matthew Matthews always wore a suit and tie to class. None of the other teachers did. Laura sat at the back, close to the exit, but she watched him carefully when he wasn’t looking. There was something effete about him, so tailored and manicured and lean, but even so, something else, potent and powerful. It made her restless.
Canadian history had always been boring, but when Matt was talking about Quebec or the fur traders or the Loyalists or the Red River Rebellion, she sat on the edge of her seat. He also taught psychology, and had written a few books on the subject, so he naturally focused on the characters and their motivations, not on dusty dates and statistics or documents that no one would remember past the exams.
Laura ditched chess and joined the camera club when she found out Matt was the guide. She wasn’t particularly interested at first, preferring to paint or write, but he had a way of making the work of photography artists come alive through their life stories. He made her see things she would have missed entirely, small details about how the world was knit together. She loved listening to him talk to his camera, cajole it to cooperate and catch something magic. Sometimes she imagined he would want to take pictures of her. She would be colourful one moment, then melancholy. She would be interesting.
Sometimes she would be naked in the pictures. No one had ever seen her naked, and she liked the idea that Mr. Matthews would be the first one.
Laura didn’t get into a lot of trouble at school. She was quite skilled at hiding all the things that were wrong, expertly keeping them under the surface. But in the last year of high school, she was caught wandering and acting erratic. She said she didn’t know where she was. Someone took her down to the guidance office. Mr. Matthews was on duty. He didn’t chastise her or lecture her about getting high. He gave her recordings about Buddhism and some books on Carl Jung, told her that altered consciousness was something to take seriously and not frivolously. She imagined going into that wonder world with him, about how soothing his voice would be during her journey.
Matt told her to come to the office anytime that he was on duty, so she did. She told him things she never told anyone, things about her mother’s dissociative episodes, things about how kids at school tormented her because her bestie was gay.
One day she showed him some photos she’d taken that she was especially proud of, a slippery rainbow of minnows at the edge of the lake, the purple asters growing in his backyard.
She felt provocative and confident in that moment, but in the next, it all fell apart. Matt had a strange look on his face and he was holding the pictures as if they were poisoned or dangerous. Everything started to echo and feel far away. His voice was thin and brittle. When were you at my house? he asked her.
She thought of his enchanted gardens, of the old swing covered in vines, of the ancient church bench and all the birdhouses. She liked to sit on that bench and think about him looking out the window, imagine him waving from inside, pulling the curtain to one side and calling her to join him. She imagined him in jeans, barefoot, reading Leonard Cohen poetry and drinking dark wine in a big round glass.
Which time? she asked back. I have lots of pictures of your house.
He must have seen her there, she’d thought, hoped, talking to petals and swallows, coaxing her camera to capture something beautiful just the way he taught her. But from the way he is frozen and furious, she knows now that he hadn’t. He didn’t see her at all.
Lorette C. Luzajic is an artist, writer, and editor living in Toronto, Canada. Her prose poetry and flash fiction are widely published, recently in Brilliant Flash Fiction, Bright Flash Review, and Gyroscope Review.
There was no phone signal in that narrow valley. Three days of heavy rain had caused the river to burst its banks and flood the road, just above the bridge. The flood swept the car half off the road and into the hedge. I’m not as nimble as I used to be, but I managed to get out with nothing worse than a soaking. Fortunately, I’d remembered the torch in the glove compartment; the night was black as pitch.
Downstream, the valley broadened and there was the chance of a phone signal, but I didn’t dare to cross the old humpbacked bridge, already flooded except at its apex, and with part of its parapet swept away. Instead, I chose to struggle back up the valley road, battling against the flood, even though I couldn’t recall any houses this high up the valley.
A tree had been uprooted and had fallen obliquely across the road (it must’ve happened very soon after I’d driven past). As I struggled over it, I caught sight of a light, up above the road to the right. It was a steep climb up the bank; I broke off a dead branch to help propel me upward.
The house proved to be an old farmhouse, converted into a holiday home. As I hit the door-knocker, soaked through and shivering uncontrollably, I was conscious that I wasn’t looking my best.
The householder was a cautious, elderly party, about my age. I felt I was at my last extremity: I shouted my pleas through the closed door. It seemed an age before the door was opened, but it was probably only a minute or so. Once I was in his porch, my saviour was most apologetic, explaining (curiously) that it was the storm that concerned him, rather than the visitor. He parked me in front of the kitchen range, fetched me a towel and a whisky, and then we made plans. Owen, as he was called, had a Land Rover and offered to run me home, after the storm had blown over. We’d have to go the long way round, on the Heads of the Valleys road, because of the fallen tree.
I learned that he was a ships engineer by training, but in the 1980s he’d struck out on his own and set up an engineering workshop manufacturing components for the new Liquefied Natural Gas carriers. He’d prospered and his company now had more than a hundred employees at two sites in the South Wales Valleys. But now he was semi-retired and spent quite a bit of his time working for the local charitable trust he’d established with the company profits. I’d been involved in the shipping industry myself and we bonded (as old men do) over the unfortunate turn of past events. In this case, it was the sad shrinkage of the once enormous British mercantile marine over the last forty years. Emboldened by Owen’s kindliness and his whisky, I wondered how, considering his fear of storms, he ever could have gone to sea.
Owen fell silent and I felt that I had abused his hospitality. I apologised, and Owen smiled and shook his head. ‘No, no. That fear only crept up on me gradually as I got older. It’s post-traumatic shock syndrome. You see, I’m an Aberfan survivor. Like some of the other school children who survived the disaster, I only began to suffer flash-backs and panic attacks as I got older.’
Startled out of the state of numb stupefaction that I’d settled into, huddled beside Owen’s warm kitchen range, I was taken back to those dolorous black-and-white TV images from 1966. The sight of the miners from Merthyr Vale Colliery toiling away in the ruins of Pantglas Junior School, looking for the bodies of 109 of their own children. Children that were suffocated and crushed by countless tons of black slurry, when the spoil tip above the valley was swept down onto the school by torrential rains. I remembered my shock at witnessing my big, strong father’s silent tears as he listened to a Welsh Baptist minister speaking on the TV at the end of the same news item.
I saw Owen with new eyes. ‘You know, that surely makes your achievements in life all the greater… To have come through all that, built up your business, set up your trust…’
Owen shook his head again and threw a couple more lumps of birchwood into the range. ‘Did you know that Elvis had a still-born twin?’
‘No, I didn’t.’
‘Yeah. Elvis reckoned that he was living for his twin, as well as himself. He was driven.’ Owen pushed at the logs with a poker. ‘Well, that’s sort-of how I feel. I’m living for those dead children too. I need to do my best for them. That’s how I justify being a survivor.’
He walked to the window and looked out; the porch light shone in the yard. ‘The rain’s almost off. We’ll give it a couple of hours and then get you home. Meantime, how about poached eggs on toast.’
Michael Bloor lives in Dunblane, Scotland, where he 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 Drabble, Spelk, Moonpark Review and elsewhere.
Cooper was in a visible funk. I had noticed him staring across the street at the neighbors’ Spanish-style split level with its rosebush hedges, his chubby pug body inert on the back of the couch. He’d been quieter than usual too, and his curly tail barely twitched when I came home from work at night.
One Sunday it came to a head. I noticed him pushing the canned dog out of his metal dish onto the kitchen floor. I scolded him, pointing to the greasy mess, but he ignored me.
“Okay, Coop,” I said. “What’s going on?”
He nudged the glistening globs of turkey and beef across the linoleum with his nose.
“You seem a little off lately.”
He looked up, his tiny underbite quivering. He hesitated to speak.
“Come on, man. Whatever it is, you can tell me.”
“I think I’m having some sort of crisis.” He exhaled.
“Oh boy,” I said. I crouched down by his bowl. “What’s the problem?”
“Misty, the Knutsons’ dog. Across the street. I can’t get over her.”
“Huh. I’ve never noticed their dog.” I realized then that he’d been shaping the dog food into a capital letter “M” on the floor.
“We had a bit of a serious thing for a while. I should’ve known better. She’s a poodle. We’re from different worlds.”
“What? When? Didn’t they just move in, like, six months ago?”
“Six months is a helluva long time to a dog, Geoff!” His voice took on an injured tone. The miserable look in his eyes made my chest burn. I stood back up.
“But she said I was ‘too serious’. Now she’s with some fucking Schnauzer. I can’t even think about it.”
He sat silent for a moment. His eyelids slid down over his bulging eyes.
“They keep her chained out in the front yard all the damned time. I can’t concentrate on anything,” He said. “She talked about running away. She hates being tied up like that.”
“That’s tough, man.” I opened a beer and leaned against the counter. I felt a wave of guilt go through my body. I should have talked to him sooner. I went to offer him some of my beer but stopped. Come on, Geoff. I thought to myself. Get it together.
I put him out in the backyard. Our back neighbors had a big old tabby cat. Newly aware of his social sensitivities, I checked in with Cooper. He assured me that he was “fine” and that the cat was “actually an okay guy”. I closed the living room blinds and called Dr. Andrews, Coop’s cute veterinarian with freckles and long red hair, but she wasn’t in on the weekend. “Bummer,” I said to her assistant, who sighed and rattled off a quick stream of advice: he shouldn’t be left alone for long periods of time; I wasn’t to introduce him to new dogs right away until he’s had time to “sort out his own issues” and under no circumstances was I to encourage him to drink alcohol. Ah, I thought. My instincts on this are correct.
I usually have a “no dogs on the bed” rule, but that night I let Cooper rest on top of the covers at my feet. My own sleep was elusive. I was haunted by the image of Cooper’s face staring out the front window at the Knutsons’ house. I turned on my bedside lamp and watched him sleeping, his breath leaving his body in short sighs. I swear I felt his little heart struggling to mend itself inside his chest.
I had to do something. I got out of bed and put my robe on over my boxer shorts. Cooper woke up and looked at me, exhausted and then flopped his head back down on the bed.
“Be right back,” I whispered.
I left the house and crossed the street, walking in the dark patches of asphalt between the streetlamps. As I approached the Knutsons’ rosebush hedges, I heard a high, hoarse bark from somewhere deep in their front yard. I froze. Another bark. My heart raced. But the windows in the house stayed dark. I waited for a beat and walked up to the wrought iron gate and let myself in.
Then I saw her in the corner of the yard, on a short chain next to a wooden dog house. Coop’s Misty. I used the light from my phone to get a better look. She was a shaky little poodle, with curly grey fur, maybe dirty white. She growled and I shushed her. I looked up into the dark windows above us, but they stayed empty.
“Come here, girl.” I reached down and put my hand on her skull. She was tinier than I had imagined, maybe five or six pounds: too small to account for the magnitude of Cooper’s heartbreak. Her round black eyes stared into mine. Her body trembled. I was cold too. It was damp and cool that night as summer turned to fall. She shouldn’t have been out all night like that. Coop had a point about the Knutsons.
“You are a sweet thing, Misty.” I petted her delicate back, her vertebrae rubbing against my palm. “I get it.”
I lifted my hand from her fur and she licked me.
“What are we going to do with you?” I unclipped the chain from her collar and turned my phone light off. I walked backward out of the yard, leaving the gate open between the rose bushes.
“Come on, girl.” I stood on the sidewalk. I thought about Cooper, asleep at the end of my bed. Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea. But I was doing it for him. For my buddy.
But Misty just stood next to her doghouse, shivering in the dark.
L M Moore is a Canadian writer and health care provider. Her work has appeared in The Cold Mountain Review, The Daily Drunk, Dream Journal and Dribble Drabble Review.