On The Ridiculousness Of Gold-Plated Bathtubs – John Johnson

Sir Richard Hedgeworth the Third
Lavishly bathes in
One of his 24-karat gold plated bathtubs.

Servants meticulously replenish
the lukewarm bath water,
Maintaining a Goldilocks temperature imprecisely.

Epsom salts and lavender in proportion,
To preserve his unblemished skin,
Unspoiled by a single day of hard labor.

A tray of strawberries sits on a gold table,
Chocolate dripping down his belly as his corpulent love handles bob,
Like a meatball in minestrone soup.

But baby shampoo gets in his eyes,
Sending him screaming like a big baby.
A sight to be unseen.

A large spoiled naked man stomping through his castle.

John Johnson is a writer from the suburbs of Washington, DC.

Image via Pixabay

Artemis Waits – Kyle Brandon Lee

Once was the dream of seeking space
to cross an ocean of ether to the lunar seas beyond,
complacent now, that course
for us fades, forgotten.

Numbers of man do not believe
we walked aside the pale huntress and man may stop believing
we walked between here and
her domain among stars.

Absent is our future vision
as man only believes what is presented before his eyes
but how can he see stars
in a night choked by light.

Past mother’s blue, Artemis waits
her sisters and brothers anticipating those dreamers new
who close their eyes and dream,
undeterred, unafraid.

For R.G.N.

Image via Pixabay

Box – Robert Stone

Max was forever turning the box over between his fingers, or turning it over in his mind. An attractive object, certainly, beguiling, even. It had been given to him by his friend, Paul Dombey. Neither Paul, nor Max, had yet worked out how to open the box, not the least of its several fascinations.

He opened the top drawer of his desk, with its porcelain ink well as dry as the grave, looking for a cloth with which to clean his magnifying glass, saw the dense and irredeemable clutter that the drawer contained and closed it again, with difficulty and a sigh and began to think about Paul.

Paul had been very well aware of the literary antecedents of his name and when Max had told him that there was a Patrick Dombey in a deservedly forgotten story by Daphne du Maurier, Paul had nodded along as if he had been well aware of that too. It did not pay to admit to any ignorance in their world, even among friends. Max had not told Paul the name of the story. He knew that Paul had always been inclined to confuse the fictional and the real and thought, privately, that this had something to do with his name. There was a simple magic in it.

When Max said to himself that Paul had given him the box he knew that a considerable caveat had to be inserted. Paul had given him the box so that he could look at it, investigate it, attempt to open it. It would have cost Paul something, some chagrin at least, to admit, even to Max, that he could not do that for himself. So, Paul had emphatically not given him the box to keep. But now Paul had died. Suddenly, not unexpectedly, and it was not at all clear that anyone knew that Max had his box, Paul’s box.

Paul had said to him, Maybe it’s a puzzle box. A Chinese puzzle box. Chinese I think.

He had not been able to stop himself from grinning though. It was clear to Max that Paul had thought nothing of the sort. It gave him a queer feeling now to conjure Paul in this way, by quoting his exact words, recalling his peculiar manner of speaking when he was sparring with a colleague, in a friendly way. Building up his short sentences with little blocks of words, then taking them down again. Now and then a remark which blazed like a gong.

Max had recognised the figures with which the box was chiefly decorated and was sure that Paul had done so too. Two of them. Neatly made about three hundred years earlier in Japan, or by a Japanese, or by someone copying a Japanese. Of course, the box itself could be older than the carvings made on it. The figures were the Todai-ji Temple guardians, the Kongorikishi, carved originally by Busshei Unkei and Kaiki, in the thirteenth century. Squat, bellicose warriors with whom negotiation was implausible. The western guardian had an open mouth while the mouth of the eastern guardian was closed. Max had looked all of this up and he was sure that Paul had done so already.

The wood of the box was worm-eaten, so that it might be a box of worms. It looked friable, brittle, soft, as though it might crumble or could be squeezed or crushed by the hand of a determined man, but this was not so. Max was not quite sure that it was a box. Might it not be a solid block of wood? The idea was that the box was locked and that should pressure be applied in just the right certain places it would leap apart. One would suddenly find oneself holding the pieces of an impossible puzzle and, among them, the contents of the box. If it had contents.

Of course, if pressure were applied in the wrong places and to a crude and clumsy extent, then the box might be damaged and so locked forever. There was every likelihood that this had already happened. The box might have been beautifully constructed by an artful craftsman, or botched from the start. It had not been gummed or glued; the intricate mosaic of the box, its interlocking wedges, had been sprung tight, precisely balanced.

The box was the thing. Desirable contents were not anticipated.

It was dark and dirty. Max licked a thumb and drew it over a dingy corner. Was that a fisherman, sitting in his boat, hunched over his line, floating out of the gloom, so tiny, might have been drawn with a needle, only to be lost as Max’s spittle evaporated, as though he were enveloped by a rolling mist? The fisherman had been reflected perfectly in the still water. The box might have been upside down. Max did not know. Having put it down and picked it up again, he could not make the angler reappear. He would have to take a lesson in patience from that ephemeral figure.

It occurred to Max that the box might be an icon case, so it would contain the image of the god of the man who had made it. He turned to its closer examination.

It was cornered with clasps of yellow metal, a sour canary yellow, some poor brass alloy. These might have been meant to decorate, or to strengthen, perhaps added as a late repair. They creaked when Max squeezed. The box seemed alive, or full of living things. This wood was not everyone’s idea of beautiful. He allowed his tough long thumb-nail to drag along the zigzag grooves that were damage or design on its rugged surface. The grain of the wood texture resembled the fibre of a muscle, but frail and crisp. There was a sleekness too as the patina was shattered into the irregular diamonds of a lizard-skin, but one long dead.

Max drew out his palette of polishes and unguents to see what he could coax from that dirt. He applied a smear of pale salve and stared hard into the chalky glaze produced by it. Whorls, stars and crosses. Quartz, agate and pewter. Rhombus and ellipsis. To turn the box in this harsh illumination beneath his tired eyes was like spiralling under a rainbow. Squibs and crackerjacks. Bruised olive, ochre, vermilion. Burgundy and caramel chevrons. These sleek, soft colours.

He even smelled at the box, eager for every nuance. The musky fuzz of antique walnut. Bursting blisters of vanilla. Always that puzzling gauzy must. Always the withholding of what must be the true scent, leaving only the aniseed trail of what the box had endured.

He closed his eyes and ran his finger-tips gingerly over the plane of what might be the lid, anxious for the feel of what he could not see. Telling blemishes. The bite-marks of sharp little teeth, or the grapple of a row of hooks. A brocade of black tapestry. The craters of a suffocating sponge. These like running a shrill ribbon of leather through his hands.

Max loved this box. He knew he would never give it up. He could not be asked for it. How could it be described? This block of blond wood, fretted, sutured, gouged and faceted, now suddenly straw-coloured caught in the sunbeam breaking through a dirty window. The sun filtered through the glass and shrouded all of his curious lumber in a waxen light. He pushed the box away into the lilac shadows of his bureau with other trinkets and dainty gewgaws. A tiny glass marble in which a vast blue horizon had been captured. A fisherman’s fly made with a feather from a jay’s wing and a shimmering lure concealing an ugly steel barb. He made a wigwam of his hands, thought hard and fell asleep.

When he woke, a little less than an hour later, he was still in the pose of a man staring at his own hands. He now gave himself up, in reality, to the contemplation of his rough fingers. He looked at the unaccountably discoloured patches beneath his thumb-nails. He noted the fronds of creamy skin that stood up in thin wands beneath his other nails, all savagely bitten. He cropped this to stubble with his clippers but still it grew back or peeled away from him like an undefeatable fungus. He began to stir himself.

To stir himself for sleep. It was not so late but he was tired despite his nap, perhaps tired because of it, like a man not hungry who picks up a corner of pie out of boredom and then clears the plate, unable to stop himself. His old house, rooms of which were effectively also his shop, was a dark place. Wooden almost entirely. A copse of dead trees, strangely but not inexplicably undecayed. Its exposed beams and rafters were its ribs and brows.

He coughed vigorously, then wheezed. This was a dusty place. The dust of his house lay on his lungs and under the lids of his weary eyes. When he coughed his lungs pumped like sponges, like a housekeeper beating cushions. He had to feed his cat, Harrison. A grey, insouciant and valuable beast, increasingly absent. A nebulous curlicue inched around a corner. His food disappeared regularly and the occasional gift of a shrew or a field vole from the overgrown garden was left in tribute on the doorstep. In any dark corner he expected to see the sulky hunchback that was his cat. A green-bottle fly droned lazily around Harrison’s empty bowl. A persistently irritating creature, it would die soon, Max knew, and the relief afforded by its death would not even be noticed.

He made himself a nightcap. He poured his brandy into a square glass measure, once part of the imperial diamond set. These chores, these items of his solitary man’s routine, pricked at him like tiny splinters hidden in his flesh. All outstanding tasks. He thought again of Dombey’s box, lying unregarded in its shadowy corner, and knew that he had not really forgotten to think about it since he had put it down. It emerged now, but it was always there. One mouth opened and one mouth closed. Perhaps that was it. It would bear sleeping on.

He took one last look about him before he dimmed the soft small glow of his lamp. As always he bid his house farewell as though he were embarking on a journey. There were some bright things here. The clean white table-cloths with figures of wild strawberry plants sewn discreetly in each corner seemed to shine even after the light was gone. He ran a hand over the jagged convexities of the fruit carved into the headboard of his lonely bed.

Max woke and thought of Dombey’s box. He shut his own open mouth which had dribbled greasily onto his whiskery cheek. The open mouth and the closed. He sucked up the last slick of brandy and kicked his blankets into a curdy welter. He wanted to look at the box again. He might catch it now unawares. He had little sense of the hour. None of his many clocks told the true time, he thought, although some of them may have done so. The moonlight made a ploughed field of the floor. He pulled open the door of his zinc wardrobe. Chinese. Essential to keep one’s clothes free of mold in that dank climate. He took out his dressing gown which had once borne a bold pattern, long sunk into furry rust. He might encounter Harrison. He was anxious concerning the whereabouts of this box.

Max looked round his bedroom and found it odd, at odds with how it should be. Not that he was unused to seeing it at this unknown hour. It was as if he had drawn a straight line and considered it straight, but at the same time knew, somehow, that it was not quite vertical. Things were off kilter. He had an inkling that he was dreaming. Yes, he was all but certain that he was not awake.

His map room was a good place to orientate himself. Old maps and charts were tacked on all of the walls and rolled open on all of the tables. Many had been in this exact state for several years, browning, curling, dog-eared. Only a few displayed maps of countries which were not roughly hypothetical. Even so, Max knew these countries well. He squinted now at these sheets and could make nothing of them. He was all at sea. He could read the names of countries, rivers and oceans but these names conveyed nothing to him. He turned to a wooden globe and span it nervously. It did not appear to be his world. With a gush of some relief he suddenly thought that he knew it was a moon globe, a dry world whose many seas were pretences. He also knew that he possessed no such thing. Max looked again at his largest, newest and supposedly most reliable map of the world and saw that south was at the top. He would work himself down to the north, mining the labyrinth of his unfamiliar home. The great bulk of this house would press down upon him.

He stepped from this room and stared up at the high windows at the top of his house. Their glass was thick, aqueous and pocked with bubbles and other flaws. They let in a damp light, reluctantly, but were not for looking through. The windows were obscured and dirty. Should they ever be cleaned they would look out only on more dirt and obscurity. Moths or butterflies battled at the glass where it was most inaccessible. That or slow flakes of snow. What items here? A stuffed wading bird in a case, its throat still a dusky flush, caught forever in a posture of futile stealth. A pipe with an amber mouth-piece. A revolver. An hour-glass. A wooden marionette, naked as though flayed to a cadaver, but with a much-chipped plaster head, a dissipated expression and only one unbroken string. Max thought he might have sold these things at an inconsiderable loss long ago.

He was not tempted to pocket the probably dangerously useless gun until he noticed the door in the corner that, of course, must have always been there, but which he had never seen before. A grubby horn-yellow lozenge, its handle a worn oval metal clasp, the door a much larger aperture than it had at first appeared, the yellow doubled by a mahogany-black surround. Max opened this without difficulty or hesitation.

The door opened and closed like a fist. These were molten, fluid, folded spaces.

This room was less dream-like, more familiar, further decayed, less happy. To find the box was now a mission, a vocation, a wish.

In this cheerless room he found an old handkerchief, once a square of clean white cotton, now crumpled to a hard dry stone, to a cuttle bone. There was a saucer of milk, in the shape of a mouse, laid there to placate the demon spirits of this house. He heard a strain of a violin, a fine instrument played by an awkward hand, which became the repetitive chirp of a cricket that he knew his old ears should not be able to hear. He was beginning to be aware of the idea that he was asleep once more which meant that he could not be. He looked at the air in this room and it rocked like the sea. He was in the box. He knew he was in the box.

He stepped down a narrow stair, humped his shoulder through the passage and his shadow slipped past him like a cat. Where was Harrison?

He clicked on the numerous lamps, only some of which responded with a spurt of wan light. He was in a room of books, parchment and pictures, which reassured. A place that might be read. He stood before a sombre landscape propped in its gilt frame on a desk-top. Spires, farms, blue hills. He should know them, he felt, he might have painted them himself, but they were as alien as fondest fantasy. More pictures with and without frames, turned to face the wall. Many mirrors, badly tarnished mostly. He bowed through these a nodding shade. There was a chess board half way through a game, or perhaps set up as a problem. The position was impossible. Only desperate moves seemed likely. There was a newspaper folded at the crossword, part-completed. The books were opened or places marked with silk ribbons of green, blue, red. He picked up a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles, his own certainly, used only on occasion and now one lens cracked like a frosted spider’s web. All of the books were printed each in a different alphabet, none even guessable.

He foraged on, then thought of going back to the newspaper to check the date and then forgot about it. He found his Chinese cricket cage which had been empty for a century and still was. A buttonhook, a cut-throat razor, a metronome. He called for his cat, Harrison.

But his voice sounded muted and rebuked. He kicked an empty scabbard, unnoticed in the half-light.

A lamp was still on in the little room where one might prepare simple meals. He would not call it the kitchen. He avoided that place. He glanced through the door at its grimy coving with its skeins of webbery, its gossamer filth. It made him sneeze, once and ecstatically, just to look at it. Curry spice. Pepper at least. Where coffee black as oil was brewed. The floor was gritty, all surfaces viscous. Best not to raise your eyes above head height. He realized this room was more familiar. He was remembering it from another squalid dream, perhaps.

The linen on the tables was uncared-for here. A sign of a room in which no one had lived for a long time. The strawberry motifs had become wicked faces. He found a pool of spilt honey dried to amber. And a block of chocolate green with fur and bitter as remorse. He knew that in the next room he would find his bureau and Paul Dombey’s box. This knowing was a prophecy and a guarantee. He would still not be able to open the box. All of this was true.

He reached his hand into its corner and ran his fingers around its scalloped edge. He winced as it cut him and sucked sharply through his teeth. He smelled his own blood, heavy and resinous. He saw it russet then violet as it smeared over the box. Max had made a jelly of some of his flesh. He felt Harrison round the back of his ankles as though summoned. Max knew the box was a key. He now wondered if he might not be dead. He squeezed the butt of the revolver in his pocket. Should he succeed in opening the box now, he thought, he might be trapped forever.

He looked at his hand under the wagging lamp and noted the crumbs of sepia blood collected around his cuticles. A good sign. The dead could not be wounded.

Max was a secretive man and he admired secretiveness in others, but he wished he could know where Paul Dombey had acquired this box. Naming things tamed them. This was Deaf John’s dark house. He began to imagine what he would find next. The box felt warm clutched in his sore fingers. To a room of animals. The miasmic Harrison was close at his heels.

A vicious room this, of pelts and hides. Grisly trophies. More birds in glass cases, their dusty corpses. An owl, an eagle, a wood grouse. Their skin their own, but their eyes of jet, jade and black glass. A polar fox and the painting of an elk by a man who had never seen one. And the things that had really killed them. Powder horns, pyramids of shot, nooses, traps and snares. Pellets as fine as dust for killing kingfishers and firecrests.

Here were family photographs of a family Max did not have. A man in a soldier’s uniform looking neat but bewildered. Two little girls in starched pinafores; could be twins, at least sisters, certainly unhappy about it, enemies even. One jaunty and a daredevil. One dour but good. A group of three generations bound by obligation, desire, antipathy. The only personal photograph Max had was of himself as a pallid baby back in his real house to which he might never return. Chance had scattered four dead flies behind that picture, he had found, when last he had moved it.

Armour here, not a full set, but enough to give you the horror of a man immured, girt in, trapped in a canister. The scrollwork was lavish. Not visible to the knight, but known by him. Various small contrivances, engines and contraptions, all broken. More washed-up flotsam; collar studs, cuff-links, a tie-pin. There was a Dutch saucer full of buttons, some of a yellow bone. Coils of sticky paper depended from the ceiling thick with black flies miserably dead a summer ago.

Robert Stone was born in Wolverhampton. Stories have appeared in Stand, Panurge, Eclectica, Confingo, Punt Volat, HCE, Wraparound South, Heirlock, Decadent Review, the Nightjar chapbook series and elsewhere. Micro-stories have appeared in 5×5, Palm-Sized Press, Star 82, Ocotillo Review, deathcap. A story is included in Salt’s Best British Stories 2020.

Image via Pixabay

The Repairman – Kiera Zager

They always find a way to watch you. No matter what you do, you can’t hide for long. First, They try to spy on you the easy way, with the camera phones and webcams and the televisions with the microphones. Any device that’s got a way of seeing or hearing, you can know for sure that it’s being used as Their eyes or ears. So you smash the devices with a hammer and put them out on the curb with the trash, so all They can see is a fragmented picture of the people walking past on the curb. But the problem is that that’s not enough. You aren’t the only one who has these things; They made phones small enough for everyone to be carrying them around in public, so now They are watching you as a lady calls her husband in the dairy aisle or as a kid plays games on his mom’s phone while they wait for the checkout line. And phones aren’t the only ways that They keep tabs on you in public; every move you make is watched by a dozen hidden cameras, underneath the trash can or inside the street light or high up in a tree. The streets of Manhattan are busy, jam-packed with prying eyes, and the people who walk beside you down the street cast quick, fleeting glances at you, taking note of your speech, your clothes, your twitching eye or fidgeting fingers, and report it all back to Them. So then you decide to never leave your apartment, to wall yourself up in an enclosed space, small and empty because you’re too afraid to go to the furniture store, with no phones or computers or televisions, never speaking for fear that your words will be picked up on through the thin walls by the devices of a neighbor who doesn’t know any better, who thinks you’re paranoid or insane. Still, you have to search the apartment every morning to make sure no cameras were installed in your sleep. And even living like this isn’t safe. Because now you are a target; now They have recognized you as someone who knows the truth, as a deviant, as someone who could rebel or tell others what you know. You are awake; you are harder to watch, harder to control, and therefore you are a threat that must be either constantly monitored or eliminated.

They already know that I am onto Them. Just last week, They made an attempt to eliminate me. When I had heard the knock on the door, I started to panic. It was the police, I was sure of it, and although I hadn’t committed any crimes I knew that wouldn’t stop them from arresting me. I waited, hoping whoever it was would go away, but another knock confirmed their continued presence. Then the person outside my door called, “Pizza delivery!” I looked through the peephole and sure enough, it was not a group of police officers armed with guns, warrants, handcuffs, and a list of false accusations, but merely a teenage boy dressed in a red-and-black uniform, carrying a flat, square cardboard box. He was tall, but thin; there was no way he had the strength to break down my door, and if he attacked me, I could probably take him. He glanced around nervously with innocent green eyes, but I knew better than to trust this impression; They are clever, and besides, I hadn’t ordered a pizza anyway. I watched him through the peephole for what felt like hours but he still just stood there, waiting. I needed him to leave. If I took my eyes off him, even for a second, he would be peering through the crack between the door and the floor or fascinating a microphone to the doorknob. I would have to take my chances and confront him; I couldn’t stand a single second more of him standing right outside my door.

I only opened the door a little, and I stood in the way of the opening so he couldn’t see inside my apartment, or worse, try to come inside. He opened his mouth to speak, but I cut him off. “I didn’t order a pizza,” I said. “Please go away.”

“Are you sure? It says here that the delivery’s for…” He looked down at the receipt taped to the box and read, “Apartment 204 on 17th Street.”

I shook my head. “This isn’t 17th Street. It’s 7th Street. I didn’t order a pizza.”

“Oh, sorry. How far away is 17th Street?” His hand reached for his pocket and he started to bring something out, something small, thin, and rectangular. The small, circular camera on the cell phone flashed when the light touched it, and I slammed the door shut. “Hey, what’re—” he started to say, but I was too fast; I was already turning the lock. I watched him through the peephole. He looked at his phone, sighed, and then put it away. “Hey, listen, by the time I get to the next house this pizza will be cold, so I’m gonna have to get a new one. If you want it, it’s yours.”

“No.”

“You sure? It’s just going to go to waste otherwise, so—”

“Go away!” Normally, I’m very careful to keep my voice quiet, but in that moment, the anger and the fear overpowered my usual sense of caution. He turned and ran, taking the big cardboard box with him. I am certain that every slice inside was laced with poison.

There is another knock at the door, and my natural state of worry escalates to full-on panic. They are back. Is it the pizza boy again, or someone else? The police? An assassin? Whoever it is, they are dangerous. They will take my privacy, or even my life; I will have no power, no control. I slowly walk towards the door, trying not to make any noise that could indicate that I am home. I look through the peephole. It’s a man with a sky-blue shirt that says he works for Larry’s Heating and Air Conditioning: a repairman. He is carrying a box that is supposed to carry tools but probably carries weapons instead. I can’t open the door again. Even if I only open it a sliver, he can still shoot me or force it open further; he looks much stronger than the boy with the pizza. I have to wait him out. He knocks once again—faster, more impatiently this time. I do not dare to move. I do not even dare to breathe. He mumbles, “Well, if nobody’s home,” and I feel the closest thing I have felt to hope in weeks, but then he reaches into the pocket of his jeans and I am immediately reminded of the delivery boy—the camera. The hallway light flashes against the object he pulls out, but it is not a phone. It’s worse: it’s the landlord’s master key.

They have trapped me. I am a mouse in Their paws now: weak, powerless, and destined to lose. There is no other choice, so I open the door, but just barely, and I stand in the way of the opening again. The repairman stuffs the key back into his pocket when he sees me. “Hi, I’m just here to take a look at the AC. Apparently, some people have been complaining to your landlord about it not working, and it looks like it hasn’t been updated in a few years, so I’m going to be putting in a new one. Can I—” His mouth smiles, but his eyes don’t. “Can I come in?”

“No. My AC works just fine.”

“Well, even if it’s working fine now, I still need to update it. Like I said, it’s an old system, and it’s probably going to break down soon.”

“I don’t need it. I’m fine with the old one. You can go now.” I start to close the door.

“Wait, wait, wait. I’m sorry, buddy, but it’s not really up to you. The landlord paid me to fix all the air conditioners in this building, and I can’t just ignore a part of my job because you want me to. If the AC’s not working, then he might have to lower the price of rent, which, I know, is probably good for you, but it’s bad for him and he’s the one who hired me, so…” His voice trails off but he keeps looking at me, like he’s waiting for something—a predator, lying in wait for me. “Can I come in?”

I don’t know what to do. He has the key. If I slam the door in his face, he’ll just open it back up again with the key. They have backed me into a corner. So I open the door wide enough to allow him inside. Maybe he doesn’t know I’m onto him yet; why would he show up in the repairman costume if he didn’t think I could be tricked? It isn’t a very comforting thought, but it’s the closest thing I have, so when he asks me to lead him to the air conditioning vent, I take him into the kitchen, but I watch him like a hawk as he opens his toolbox and starts to remove the vent cover. I can see the inside of his toolbox; it just looks like a normal bunch of tools, but I know better. A screwdriver can be sharpened, a drill can cut through to the brain. But what I’m especially worried about is what he’s going to do to my air vent; the cover is perfect for concealing a camera or a microphone, and I can’t see his hand anymore after he reaches in. The smallest sleight-of-hand maneuver could place a spying device in that hand, a device that would soon be inside of my own wall.

“It looks like I’m going to have to replace the filters.” He pulls a white sheet out of his toolbox, made of thin, connected fibers. Or small wires made to look like fibers. The panic flares up again, worse than it’s ever been. Here They are, in my apartment, my own private apartment, conquering my freedom, my safety, my peace of mind. The thought of that sheet—a sheet from Them—inside my air vent is too much. If I let Them watch me here, I may as well be giving up, allowing Them complete dominion over me. I will have nothing left that is my own, truly my own—it will all be Theirs. The repairman does not look up as he places the sheet on the vent cover, or as he puts the vent cover against the wall and starts to fasten it back into place. My hands begin to shake; my foot begins to tap uncontrollably against the floor. I see an aluminum kitchen chair in my peripheral vision; I have no other choice. I can’t let Them watch me. I can’t let Them destroy me. I can’t.

I do not feel myself lifting the chair; I do not feel myself slamming it into the back of his head; I do not feel the repairman crumpling from his crouched position to the floor or the cold aluminum slipping out of my grasp. All I feel is the blood coursing through my veins, roaring in my ears, pounding on the walls of my heart to escape. For a moment that is all there is, blood and fear and the instinct to survive, until I hear the thud of the chair legs hitting the kitchen floor. The sound brings clarity, relief; I am no longer in immediate danger. They are gone, at least for now; now, I am in control. I drop to my knees and investigate the repairman. Is he dead, or merely unconscious? It doesn’t matter, not yet. All that matters now is getting rid of whatever device They were trying to install in my home; all else is secondary.

First, I search his pockets. There is the landlord’s key, a wallet containing a few dollars and a photo of a woman with two young children—his family, or fellow agents of Them acting as his family—and a wrinkled M&Ms wrapper. I dig through the toolbox; there are hammers, screwdrivers, wire strippers, pliers, extension cords, and drills, all appearing to be of average size, strength, and sharpness. I tear apart the filters, and the fibers pull apart easily. There does not appear to be any wire inside. They have hidden the camera well. It must be in the air vent. I grab a screwdriver and start turning the one half-fastened screw holding the cover to the wall towards the left.

There is a knock at the door. This one is loud, pounding, impolite. I can feel the blood drain from my face. I try to keep turning the screwdriver, but I am much slower now; my hands are shaking, and the red plastic handle slips out of my hands. I pick it back up, but I can’t get the screwdriver tip to fit back into the screw. My hands won’t do what I tell them to. I am no longer in control; They have come to reclaim power.

The knock sounds again; it is louder, angrier this time. It is accompanied by harsh shouts: “Open up!” and “We know you’re in there!” I don’t have to look through the peephole to know who is out there; it is who I have always feared would come. It is Them, it is Their police. I give up with the screwdriver and try to yank the cover off the wall. With a strong pull, the screw rolls out onto the floor and the cover comes off. I toss it aside; like the repairman, it is secondary.

There is a bang, louder than a knock. The heavy footsteps and unmuffled shouts tell me that the police have broken down the door. I glance at the repairman and I realize that They now have a crime to charge me with. They were watching, They were watching me the whole time.

The footsteps are getting louder, heavier, closer. I think they see me crouched down beside the vent. They are telling me to take my hand out of the vent and to put it above my head, but I can barely hear them. The rushing, pounding blood, pounding like the intruders’ heavy footsteps—it is too much. My hand flops around in the vent, feeling around for a device that does not belong, but my hand feels numb, useless, disconnected. I take my hand out and instead stick my head into the vent; all I see is darkness. They are grabbing me, they are dragging me away, and I cannot struggle; my arms and legs are not mine to move. All I have is my eyes, gazing into the darkness of the vent, fixed on a flashing red light in the back of the duct.

Kiera Zager is a writer from Livonia, Michigan. Her work has appeared in Phaeton Literary Magazine and Route 7 Review.

Image via Pixabay

Biscuits With Malbec – Mike Lee

I must undarken the room.

Irina opened the curtains.

Her onyx eyes squinted as she peered beyond the alabaster of the terrace wall. She rested her gaze at the mountain rising above the sea pines and the cumulus dotting the sky.

Irina wanted to ascend that mountain. The hike was scheduled for tomorrow. The journey was expected to be a leisurely climb lacking the surrealism of the novel Mount Analogue, a book that evoked Irina’s dreams.

The mountain brought Irina to the concept of a quest. She revisited the plan of climbing it shortly after they moved to the city. She even purchased a print of the mountain to hang it in her cubicle.

From reading Mount Analogue, Irina discovered a valuable insight: she realized that the journey is not a straight line, but circuitous.

The door to the invisible must be visible.

Yes, baby. What?

I’m quoting the book I am reading.

Oh. That novel. You’re obsessed.

She looked up from the pages.

Perhaps. The word extended from her lips with a hiss.

* * *

They arrived at this resort on their first vacation in three years. The city was a day’s drive away. This helped make it the first choice for Irina and Antonio to make a break.

Irina first encountered the mountain in childhood in an afternoon geography class during middle school. She was immediately attracted by the images when they flashed on the screen in the dark classroom.

The video was an exploration of the then-newly opened national park that encompassed the forest-covered mountains. Enraptured, Irina fell smitten, feeling a sense of belonging that was unlike anything experienced before.

The mountain became the land of her secret commonwealth, as she drew pictures of the mountain, and imaginary maps of the land surrounding the peak. She created towns and cities, roads and rail lines, all linked to magnificent futuristic cities rendered in her head.

Then sixth grade became seventh. Adolescence intervened, distracting her. It was years before Irina returned to dreaming of attaining the summit.

* * *

Antonio programmed a mix of jump blues on the sound player. Slim Gaillard Quartet’s Dunkin’ Bagel was the first song, which transformed the sedate hotel suite room into a fantasy of a halligalli.

Splash in the coffee, baby. Irina said.

Those black pools for eyes. Antonio said this when they first kissed. He repeated those words in intimate moments. A reason to love him, she thought.

* * *

They were not hungry, so they settled on ordering biscuits with butter and jam. They decided on a bit of decadence, so Antonio retrieved a bottle of Argentine Malbec from the cabinet. Its hints of blackberry could have been a breakfast all its own.

While they ate on the balcony, Irina looked toward the horizon. Clouds ringed the summit.

The weather is lovely, but the pollen in the air is rotten. But that’s me, arguing with St. Peter, again.

What else is new? What will you be arguing with him about later?

Where it was that I lost my confidence.

That. Again?

Her brow furrowed.

Antonio was in a mood, which was unfortunate. This morning, Irina found his brooding unattractive. She pictured Antonio as the gloaming of an overcast sky.

She steered the conversation elsewhere.

I am truly excited about tomorrow. The hike will be such an adventure. I feel I have already projected that when we go through the forest path that it will be memorable, and therefore I feel like now I’m going to set aside an infinite amount of time to build new memories.

Antonio looked up. I know hiking the mountain is important to you.

She read the novel at a time when she was struggling to live without judgment, to be at peace with the present, in accepting a likely future framed by traditional expectations.

Yes, you know I often experience the contortions of an obsessive mind. It is so often like the process of extracting a certain pebble–a tumor–from my brain. Formed since childhood, sometimes they pass as kidney stones; and other times blasted with explosions of epiphanies.

Antonio blinked, and breathed deeply.

I just love these buttermilk biscuits.

Irina smiled, reminded of Daumal’s statement that what is above knows what is below. That was the point, after all.

It was time to ascend, whatever Antonio’s mood. He could use the exercise.

Mike Lee is an editor, photographer and a reporter for a trade union newspaper in New York City. His fiction is published in trampset, Lunate, Bending Genres, Ghost Parachute and others. Website: http://www.mleephotoart.com

Image via Pixabay

The Inside Story – Steve Carr

The first question that almost everyone asked me was, “Why are you doing this story?”

Henley Spit suddenly appeared at the end of the coastal road as if it had been dropped there by accident. On the sign alongside the road, the population of Henley Spit was given as 1640, although the sign was rusted and riddled with bullet holes. White sandy beach lined the ocean side of the road. Dense scrub brush carpeted the land on the other side. The sky above the beach was crowded with seagulls that circled about as if caught in a storm, unable to find a safe place to land. The carcasses of dead armadillos flattened by tires littered the road. Balmy air, tinged with salt and the aroma of fish, flowed in through the car windows.

The first building on the right entering the town was the Henley Spit Grocers. Across the road from it was a stretch of beach and then the ocean. There wasn’t a parking lot in which to park, only a curb of broken cement that ran the length of the storefront. Small metal stand-alone signs advertising Coca Cola, different varieties of bread, and sun tan lotion stood in front of the plate glass windows that were lined on the inside with shelves filled with paper products and canned foods. A small post office sign hung in the window alongside a poster for the Army recruitment office in the nearest town, Hashberg Corners, fifty miles away. Even before getting out of the car I knew that I had to interview the man sitting in a lawn chair next to the Coke sign. The man looked as beaten up by time and decay as the Henley Spit sign. A large tabby cat sat in the man’s lap. Both watched me as I approached them, my notepad and sharpened pencil in hand. I introduced myself and why I had come to Henley Spit.

“You want to know about Craig Harmon? To do a story about him, what happened to him?” He stoked the cats thick fur. “I knew him from the time he was a small boy until it all happened. I was friends with his father, a strange man who told whoppers, lies about his upbringing, his entire life, with a totally straight face.” He stared out at the ocean as if seeing it for the first time. “I don’t think the boy and his father were ever very close. I knew them both, but seldom saw them together. It was his mother I saw him with a lot. They used to walk along the beach, holding hands, from the time he was a toddler. When he got older, became a teenager, they walked close together, whispering and giggling, like boyfriend and girlfriend. Looking back they were a strange pair, carrying on that way – mother and son – but I never gave it any thought. They seemed happy.”

He picked the cat up and nuzzled his nose in the cat’s fur. The cat hung limp like a sack of disjointed muscles and bones in the man’s arms. “Me? Around here they call me Ol’ Thirsty because I used to drink a lot, but that was right after the war, when I returned here to Henley Spit where I was born. I don’t drink any more.” He placed the cat on the ground at his feet. The cat lazily licked its paws. “It’s surprising, but there aren’t many of us who were born here and still live here. He waved his arm around in a half circle. “Look at this place. Why would anyone want to live anywhere else?”

The white sails of a small boat shone brightly on the bright blue water not far from the beach.

“Craig’s family wasn’t originally from here. His father, Mark, showed up one day pulling a travel trailer with a run-down truck and parked it at the far end of the spit and never left. His pretty wife, Sarah was her name, and the boy, Craig, was with him. As soon as Mark got the permits he built a large house where he first parked that trailer. I was about twenty years older than Mark. I think from the first time he met he saw me as a kinda father figure. He came to my house quite a lot and we’d sit on my front porch and look out at the ocean and he’d talk non-stop, as if he was busting at the seams just to talk about himself. He once told me his father ran whore houses in Nevada. Another time he told me his father was a fisherman who had been lost at sea.” He drew a wad of phlegm into his mouth and then spat it out. “Whoppers! I don’t think anyone knows the real truth about Mark.” He took a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped away a layer of sweat that covered his forehead. “Did I mention that his wife, Sarah, was pretty? Really pretty.”

The cat began to wander off across the road. Ol’ Thirsty stood up. “Darned cat!” He limped off after the cat. “Come back here before you get your damned head run over.”

* * *

Inside the store the blades of a fan that hung from the ceiling circled about unevenly. The entire fan wobbled. Despite the fan, the store was hot and smelled of dust and stale sea air. The gurgling of a small fish aquarium that sat on the front counter would have been the only sound if not for the monotonous humming of the clerk who stood behind the counter, leaning her heavy frame against an old cash register. She wore a pale blue dress that resembled a uniform. I had two rows of aligned silver buttons and epaulets on the shoulders. Above her right breast was a name tag on which was printed in flowery cursive lettering, Jenny. She kept her eyes glued to my notebook, following every word I wrote down.

“Yeah, I saw you out there talking to Ol’ Thirsty. The drink didn’t do his mind any good. You can’t believe a word that he says. Not that he lies, but he accidentally twists the facts around like pretzels. None of us who live here pay any attention to him. He likes to sit out there and he doesn’t do any harm.”

She took a small tin can of fish food from a drawer under the counter and sprinkled it on the water in the aquarium. Only a few of the dozen or so fish swam up to gobble down the flakes.

“If it weren’t for this store, Henley Spit would blow away just like the sand the town is built on,” she said. “I’ve worked here ever since I got out of high school.” She snickered. “I won’t tell you how many years ago that was.” She propped one elbow up on the aquarium. “Craig Harmon? Every teenage girl and a few of the boys in Henley Spit had a crush on him. My daughter, Selma, went to school with him. There weren’t many students in their class, or at the school here in Henley Spit, back then. The town and the school have grown since then. Craig Harmon didn’t do well academically, at the bottom of his class grades-wise, but everyone loved him. That boy was as near to perfection when it comes to looks as a boy can be. I think he got his looks from his mother, but his dad wasn’t bad looking either.” She turned her hand over, curled her fingers, and gazed at her bright red nail polish. “I was said to be a looker too when I was Craig’s age.”

She rested her elbow on the aquarium again.

“I liked Mark Harmon. He was a hoot to talk to when he came into the store. He had a great sense of humor. Outside of here I never talked to him, though. Why would I? I’m a happily married woman. Always have been.”

I flipped the notebook back to what Ol’ Thirsty said about Mark.

She chuckled. “I wouldn’t know for certain, but of course Ol’ Thirsty would say Mark made stuff up. That old geezer had a thing for Sarah Harmon from the moment he set eyes on her. Mark and Ol’ Thirsty nearly came to blows about it so I think there was always an undercurrent of a grudge between them.”

She sprinkled more food into the aquarium.

“That entire Harmon clan was very easy on the eyes. She was a wild one, that Sarah. I kept my distance from her.” She flicked a polished nail at a fly that landed on her name tag. “My husband and I were in Hashberg Corners when it happened, but Selma told me all about it. Selma married an attorney and has a nice house in the suburbs of Atlanta, now. She married well. Putting her fling with Craig Harmon and Henley Spit behind her was the smartest thing she could do. I knew it was a mistake when Selma started seeing the boy on a regular basis – going steady and all that. I couldn’t let it continue, now could I? I’m a mother.”

The door to the store opened and two elderly women walked in, one with her arm hooked on to the other’s.

“Selma blamed what happened on the way Craig and his family were treated like interlopers by those of us who live here, but as I said, I kept my distance from Craig’s parents so I had nothing to do with it.” She tapped on the glass of the aquarium, eliciting no reaction from the fish. “Did I mention how good looking Craig Harmon was? If I had been twenty years younger I would have had a go at him myself.”

“Good afternoon, Jenny,” the two women said in unison as the picked up a plastic basket and headed down an aisle. The looked back at me as if I was an escaped rapist.

* * *

A short distance beyond the store a few tourist shops and beach bungalows cropped up along the beach side of the main road through the left side of Henley Spit, blocking the view of the ocean. On the right, streets between the shops and bungalows led to the residential area of the spit and to the beach on the other side. Still early in the season, there were few vehicles parked along the curbs and practically no one walking on the wooden walkways built up in front of the shops. Half way down this section of what could loosely be termed Henley Spit’s downtown, sandwiched between a barber shop and a beachwear shop on the right side of the street, was The Tasty Spit, a soda fountain fashioned after the ones popular in the 1950s. I parked the car at the curb, and went in. The interior was bright with lots of pastel pinks and blues. There were several booths, a few tables, and a long counter lined with padded stools. The shop was empty of customers. Behind the counter a teenage boy dressed in a red and white striped soda jerk uniform stared at a game device he held in one hand. It wasn’t until I sat down that he noticed me. I opened my note pad and took the pencil from my pocket.

He put his game device in his pocket. “Me? I’m Kevin Durant. I’m sixteen.”

He leaned over the counter and watched as I wrote down his name and age.

“I only started here a few weeks ago, training for the tourist season. I’ll be a senior next fall. Yeah, I heard about the Craig Harmon guy. Who in Henley Spit hasn’t heard of him and his family and what happened. He was said to be a good pitcher on the school team, but my family only moved here two years ago so I didn’t know him. What happened was some time ago, I think. But still, there’s not a lot to do in this town, so people like to talk, especially about stuff like that. That Craig Harmon worked here too, but I guess you knew that.”

He took my order and fixed me a root beer float. He placed it on the counter in front of me and then leaned back against another counter behind him on which sat the mixers and shelves lined with various sizes of glasses for floats, malts and shakes, and dishes for banana splits, and crossed his arms. “Did you know there’s an old lifeguard stand on the beach on the other side of the spit that has his initials carved in it inside a heart shape that no one ever bothered to paint over.” He chuckled. “His initials are paired with what lots of other initials. The rumors that he was really popular must be true.” He lowered his voice to a near-whisper. “I heard he swung both ways.”

He walked over to a jukebox, took a quarter from his pocket, and dropped it into the coin slot. The machine whirred to life and a moment later a Fats Domino song began to play. He returned to behind the counter and stood in the same place, in the same pose, he had stood in before. “If it was true that Craig Harmon’s dad was on the run from the mafia it might explain some of it.”

The resulting expression on his face to my next question was that of someone who had just met the dumbest person on the planet.

“Some of what? All the shit that happened, of course.” He slapped his hand across his mouth. “Oh, excuse me, mister, I’m not supposed to say that word in here.”

* * *

The land that jutted out beyond the downtown area was shaped like the tip of a finger that pointed out to sea. Bungalows and small cottages dotted the landscape, sitting among hillocks and dunes. The streets fanned out like a series of connected veins. At the very end an RV park had been recently built, funded by and managed by the town of Henley Spit as a way to put money in the town’s coffers. The mayor of Henley Spit, Thomas Gilchrist, his wife and one adult child lived in a bungalow near the RV park. Without a tree in sight, the area appeared naked, stripped of flora and fauna. The mayor was one of the few people who knew I was coming and about the story I was doing research on. He and his wife were on their porch steps when I pulled into their driveway.

The mayor shook my hand and maintained a grip on it preventing me from pulling out my note pad. “I knew Mark Harmon, but not well, not what you would call at a friendship level.” He released my hand. “We were cordial, but I never really liked him. In my opinion he was an arrogant ass.”

His wife showed me into their bungalow. The living room was crowded with antique furniture, resembling a disheveled furniture store showroom. The sofa and chairs were overstuffed and all the same teal color. She peered at me as if examining me through a microscope. “A reporter, what a fascinating occupation.” She abruptly whirled about as if something or someone had sneaked up behind her. “I’ve made a fresh pitcher of lemonade.” She left the room, leaving me alone with the mayor.

I took out my notepad and sat in a chair across from him as he sat on the sofa. A very tall and lean man, seemingly with little agility, his movements were like a daddy long legs spider, gangly and tentative. He was 64 years old.

He cleared his throat. “The kid, Craig, wasn’t the brightest bulb in the bunch. I was teaching math at the high school when he was a senior. He counted on his fingers and still got the wrong answers. I kid you not.” He shifted his legs, crossing one over the other. The one leg hung there limply, but his foot was in constant nervous movement. “I tried to talk to his parents about it, but they didn’t seem interested. Sarah doted on the boy, but in an unhealthy way. She pampered and spoiled him. The only thing Mark cared about was sitting around drinking with Ol’ Thirsty. Oh, so you’ve met the town drunk! Don’t believe a word Ol’ Thirsty told you about not drinking anymore. He never stopped from the day he returned to Henley Spit after the war. He and Mark were thick as thieves.”

Mrs. Gilchrist came back into the room carrying a tray with three large glasses of lemonade. She placed the tray on the coffee table and then handed me a glass. The root beer float in my stomach rumbled loudly.

She handed her husband a glass and then sat on the sofa next to me. She smelled of lilac powder.

The mayor took a large gulp of his lemonade. “I don’t think anyone really knew what went on inside the Harmon house, but the sheriff had to go there a few times over the span of a few years after the boy became a teenager to break up fist fights between Craig and his father.” He took an ice cube from the glass and put it in his mouth. “I don’t know where Mark got the money to buy the land when they first arrived here or build that house and keep adding to it. He didn’t work a day in his life, at least not after arriving here. The house was a monstrosity, an eyesore. Where it stood isn’t far from here, but we didn’t build this bungalow until after I retired early from teaching and went into politics a few years ago.” He guffawed in a self-deprecating way. “Being a politician in Henley Spit carries less weight than being a street sweeper.”

Mrs. Gilchrist poked at the slice of lemon that bobbed up and down in her drink. “I don’t know why Sarah ever put up with her husband’s drunken and philandering ways. Yes, he had affairs with many women in town. He tried to kiss me once and I slapped his face.” She licked her finger. “Yes, indeed, I slapped him hard.”

Carol Gilchrist, the mayor’s daughter came into the room from the kitchen where she must have been the entire time, listening in. She was 27 and like her father, thin, almost to the point of appearing emaciated. “I don’t know if anyone has told you, but I dated Craig when we were both seniors. He even carved our initials inside a heart in the leg of a lifeguard stand.”

I flipped my notepad to Jenny’s interview at the grocery store and read the part about Selma.

“What! Selma never went steady with Craig. She followed him around like a puppy but he had nothing to do with her. Every girl in town and some of the women wanted to be with Craig, including Selma’s mother. It was disgusting, but understandable. Craig was like a movie star in Henley Spit.”

The mayor and his wife groaned in unison.

* * *

The site where the Harmon house once stood wasn’t far from the mayor’s bungalow. Just before going there I stopped at the beach near the RV park. Picnic tables, chairs and stands for beach umbrellas lined the border between the dunes and the beach. A man walking his Irish Setter was the only person there. His name was Justin Amish. He was an architect.

I flipped open my note pad.

His dog sat at his feet, its tongue hanging. “Henley Spit is only a mile wide and eight miles in length, but anything that can be built on it takes up every inch of available land, but it still feels somehow desolate. It’s what makes Henley Spit both an attractive place to live and a nightmare.” He looked out at the green ocean waters. “I moved here six years ago. Sure I’ve heard about the Harmons. Who in Henley Spit hasn’t? But I’ve heard different versions of the same story. I guess it’s human nature to change the facts, if the real facts in this case were ever really known to begin with. I guess the biggest mystery is what ever happen to the boy. Now, that will be a story if you ever get to write it.”

* * *

The bungalow that sat where the Harmon house once stood was small and surrounded by dunes on three sides, like fortification. Jim Ryder, the owner of the bungalow and the land around it, was in his front yard casting a fishing line into the dunes when I drove up. He held tightly onto the fishing pole during the brief interview.

“It’s a new pole. I have a boat at the dock over on the beach on the right side of the spit. I fish for smaller sea fish, nothing as big as a marlin.”

He was one of the town’s residents that I had planned to interview even before coming to Henley Spit. Beside his name was a notation that he had bought the property not long after the Harmon house had burned down.

“Yeah, that’s right. I got the place for a steal. No one wanted to clear away the burnt remains and rubble of the Harmon house, especially since the burned remains of the husband and wife had been discovered in the ashes a few days after the fire. I jumped at the chance to own land in this part of the spit. The dead can’t harm us, can they?” He looked me squarely in the eyes. “I’ve never told anyone this and I ask that you use a little discretion since it might get me into trouble, but I found buried in the ground where the back yard of where the Harmon house stood a small tin box. Inside it was a love letter to the boy; Craig I think his name was. The letter wasn’t signed. I never handed the letter over to the authorities and eventually burned it. Maybe Craig finally found the love he needed and he’s now with the person who wrote the letter.”

* * *

On the way out of Henley Spit I slowed down to wave at Ol’ Thirsty who was sitting in front of the store with the cat in his lap. He looked up at me and gave a casual wave in return, but there was no sign in the blank expression on his face that he recalled who I was.

Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 460 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, The Tales of Talker Knock and 50 Short Stories: The Very Best of Steve Carr, and LGBTQ: 33 Stories, and The Theory of Existence: 50 Short Stories, published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. He is the founder of Sweetycat Press. His Twitter is @carrsteven960. His website ishttps://www.stevecarr960.com / He is on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/steven.carr.35977

Image via Pixabay

The Break-Up – Tilly Foulkes

Like all great love stories, it started in the pub. Jonathan snaked his arm around me in a quiet corner and I stared at him like I’d die if I stopped. He told me he loved me on the bridge and he was drunk, then he told me he loved me in the form of a song, and then he really told me he loved me as he was getting dressed and going home.

Jonathan and I were always covered in bruises; my neck would sting to the touch from his midnight chewing. Little pink kisses stained all over our skin, all over his face the smugness of someone who is loved. He would tell people: it’s her! That’s my girlfriend! He’d kiss me until the bell rang and the bouncer told us it was time to go home.

My friends told me about their boyfriends, how they cheat and scorn and batter, and I comforted them, safe in my belief that I had found a love to last forever – and he was nice, too.

* * *

The first time, the house shook slowly at the absence of a kiss. The photo frames rattled and a picture of us landed on the floor, the glass chipped. I looked at you for a little while, and you shrugged, picked it up and put it back on the wall. Every time I walked past it, I stared at the crack. Once, I reached out and rubbed my fingertip along it. I wanted to see if I would bleed.

Sometimes it was more subtle: I was alone and all of my walls turned blank. I lost time. After four hours I heard a beep on my phone and your name, and I didn’t know what had happened. Used tissues surrounded me. My skin was pink. I had a headache and I talked to you and cried.

In your house the cat acted up, or the food burned, or the cans of cider were emptied and I was sick everywhere. You wouldn’t talk to me and you were always doing the dishes or putting the washing out. The air often felt hot, like there was something else in it. Sometimes we caught glimpses of a shadow. We ignored it.

* * *

After a year, the house was cluttered and I couldn’t breathe. Jonathan used to make fun of my claustrophobia. How I couldn’t even manage the cellar in the pub without panicking. He went in for me, bringing extra bottles of pink wine with a wink. I sneaked them into my bag and we got drunk by the football pitch.

I thought the space me and Jonathan had built for each other would always be something sacred and soft. I never expected it to close up my chest and twist my stomach. I couldn’t get out. Jonathan would swallow and ask if I wanted drugs or rum or to watch true crime on TV. His eyes would glaze over, the clear blue flickering with grey, and he’d focus on a spot above my head. I wondered if he felt what I did, but if he did, he never said.

Even when we felt the eyes in the ceiling, when the surfaces of our skin started bubbling, we would lie closer to each other and ignore it. Jonathan would tell me he loves me and that he misses me even when I’m with him, and I told him it was because it didn’t feel like I was really there.

* * *

You stopped shaving your face every other day and I stopped shaving all together. I forgot how to put on makeup, how to talk to others, how to write. When I woke up I thought about you and I thought about us, and I thought about the shadows in the corners of my eyes. The black dots hadn’t started showing yet, but I could feel the itch underneath my skin: something was always wrong. I went to the doctor over and over again, and begged them to give me blood tests and antibiotics. They told me it was fine, it was fine! And I should start taking my meds again.

It wasn’t my meds and I knew it wasn’t anything the doctor could fix. It was something inside of me. I’m still not sure if it was inside of you. I haven’t asked, and you would brush it off anyway, tell me you didn’t believe in stuff like that. I always wondered how someone so rational could love me, a person as much obsessed with the fantastic as I was with myself.

In those days I was a mess, Jonathan, I really was. My body was morphing and breaking and it all felt dizzy. I’m sorry for all the crying, and not noticing that you were fading away like a little memory. I stare at you now, this man I love and yet do not know, and I ache. All of me wants it back, but I can’t.

* * *

You start to live in the shadow of this man; this gorgeous, lovely man, who is no more than a spectre himself. You disappeared one day into a little hole and when you returned you said you’d seen it all: you knew it and it was bad and you said it was always going to keep on happening. The bricks were coming undone, the wallpaper peeling, the plates getting smashed over and over again by no one. Our heads hurt by how much we were putting them together to think of a plan and coming up with nothing.

By now we were in ruins. The black spots were covering my arms and they burnt. I spoke to no one but you, and you spoke to me and your father; a man who had hidden his own spots by drinking. I never saw the black spots on you, but I often knew it had taken over when you went vacant. I am sorry, Jonathan; I feel I ruined you by bringing you into this cursed house. You let me into your world of little wonders, and I dragged the grit and the needles and the thorns into it with me. You tell me it was always like this: long hallways of darkness and a sick feeling in your stomach. You tell me you used to be covered in black dots, all over your arms and your thighs, and they went away once you met me. I said you were just being nice. You looked slightly annoyed and upset.

* * *

What changed? I ask myself and the sky and the street cats. I carry my ghost love like a handful of pins.

* * *

“What is that?” You ask me, staring at the small black blob tussling with itself on the ground. “Is that our love?”

When we finally see it – when it finally exists, has flesh – it is smaller and uglier than we think. It is a shadow with meat and thickness, I can touch it. We look at each other and laugh, like we always have done. It is person-shaped, but the size of a small dog, and it moves like it lives without gravity; or maybe a weed blowing in the wind. It doesn’t have a face but if you look long enough you can see the outline of a mouth. I ask you if you still love me.

“I’ll always love you,” you say, holding me close.

“Then it’s not our love,” I say.

After it left my body the black dots stopped coming, but I felt drained and dead and empty and worse.

“I think it’s my loneliness.”

Image via Pixabay

Who Is Playing Me? – Dirk Van Nouhuys

He lived in an apartment near the UN, where he worked as a data analyst and lived with a woman who was an authority on the nutritional value of rice. She often traveled, but he did not. He occasionally borrowed his cousin’s old Toyota in the summer and drove to visit friends and cousins on Long Island or in New England, so driving was half familiar, but, standing in line before the Hertz counter, he began to feel as if he were in a movie. They liked movies, and they often went in the evening to a neighborhood theatre with a mind-swallowing screen and sound more real than real. Then the car itself generated images: a view of the world behind him appeared when he backed; warning images of passing cars flashed on its side-view mirrors.

He had agreed with his partner to meet at a tropical resort half way between New York and a desperate nation she was patiently counseling. The driveway to the resort swept on into what might have been a jungle if it had not been manicured. He parked and walked up to entrance, which was open to the breezes. Two-story stucco Doric columns loomed at once grandiose and unreal, like a movie set. He thought a character in a movie would need to be following a plot to enter this resort. If he were the character, what urgent goal would he be pursuing or fearful outcome avoiding? If it were to meet his partner, what would they conspire to accomplish? What dark figures would thwart them? Seeing his name on the clerk’s screen seemed like some one else’s experience. His partner’s plane was later in the day. A needlessly glamorous young woman gave him a map to guide him to his room in the labyrinthine resort, which was made up of room blocks arranged at random angles like discarded Legos. Mirrors reflected everywhere. He came out onto a curving balustrade a quarter of a mile around that held a vast swimming pool it its mouth with columns like teeth. He began to imagine where the lenses would lurk for this scene. Where the spindly rails that guided the tracking cameras? Might the director even use drones? Did directors use drones yet? When he eventually found his way to his room, putting his cloths in drawers and shelves seemed like setting aside parts of himself for use in future scenes. He went out to a balcony and watched palm trees with snaky trunks shuffling their leaves in the breeze. He felt himself for the moment in South Pacific or even something by Werner Herzog. As he lay on his bed reviewing UN data, he wondered what actor would play his partner, Isabelle Huppert perhaps. He heard her open the door. He stood to meet her. She was smiling enthusiastically and lifted her arms out to embrace him. He looked into her expectant eyes and wondered what actor she was seeing.

Image via Dirk Van Nouhuys

Mother Calling On Big Bird’s Phone – Michelle Moloney King

Carrots done. We await your orders.
Until this deer fence went up less than 10 years ago,
bees trucked in for pollination.
The purple land behind was no different from the burning foreground,
HERE the sheep are. No planting: all of the
trees naturally self-seeded a green desert full of poems
for dessert.
As they start in the praying room, oh very exciting. Clutching bottle.
Coats still on, lead us in.
Oh ye of little fate, may the best team win at the morning
charity event. I’m looking at my watch now and I don’t know,
about 15?

Michelle Moloney King is an experimental poet with an undergrad in computer science from University of Limerick post-grad in education from Hibernia College. Her interest in string theory along with her qualification in Hypnotherapy aid in her experimental poetry. She works as a primary school teacher in Co. Tipperary, is a member of Golden Vale Writers Group Her site is http://www.MichelleMoloneyKing.wordpress.com

Image via Pixabay

Panic! At The Function Room – Conor Doyle

‘Where?’ The taxi man. I’m in a taxi.

‘Fade Street.’

‘Fade Street. No problem.’ He takes a tight left turn. ‘Fade Street yeah, no bother. Fayy-haade streeeeta.’ He smacks his lips together. ‘After Mr Joseph Francis Fade no less. Banker, but not like the bankers today. Very generous individual, one of the early Irish philanthropists.’ Don’t start the fucking small talk bullshit.

‘You look very nice,’ he flicks his eyes up into the rear view mirror to get a good look at me. ‘Where you off to?’

‘My friends 21st,’ I say, searching beyond the window pane for a distraction. Oran’s 21st. With his whole family. All of whom I know long enough that they’ve each seen me naked, at some or other point over the years. So I can’t do it tonight. It would be inappropriate.

‘That’s exciting. 21st’s yeah. Always a good night I remember.’ Maria by Blondie is playing over the radio and he’s drumming his fingers off-beat on the steering wheel. ‘Mine was weird. I mean it was great, but ehm, one of my best mates Gerry, was on acid?’ He pauses to see if the word acid resonates with me. ‘Was doing all of our heads in to be honest. Talking about how the heroin epidemic was, I dunno, a coordinated effort by the ruling class to subjugate working people. I don’t think he’d ever met anyone who was working class though, so I’m not sure what he meant.’ For a blissful moment Blondie sings uninterrupted.

‘Big party?’

‘Pretty big, yeah.’ Very big, actually. The type in a function room above a pub with someone’s Ma who won’t get off the microphone. Big parties are a problem. They’re not a problem for me, per say, I quite like them. The problem is that I don’t have full control over me. My body, I mean. I mean, I’m not the only one who controls it. I’m afflicted with a very rare and peculiar condition. I have, inside me, a rebel militia.

‘Ah to be young and pretty and going to parties.’

‘Oh haha yes. Thank you.’

The militia, as militia’s do – occasionally attempt a coup. To overthrow me. Me, that is, the fearless leader of Me. They’re a pretty organised force, too. They run rallies and social media campaigns and interfere with my intrabody elections. As such, they sometimes capture pretty important strongholds. My windpipe and heart have each spent lengthy periods under rebel control. And I remember each of them – the coups, the bloody, violent affairs that they are. I can see them all as though plotted out on a graph, as if on an excel spreadsheet of the mind. I remember the date, the place, who was there, why it happened, the weather, smells.

‘What do you do, yourself?’

‘Oh, I’m in college.’

‘Nice. What do you study?’

‘Art.’

‘Oh art! And what would you do, painting?’

‘Yeah painting, drawing.’

‘What would you paint? People? Could you paint me?’ he laughs.

‘Whatever, really. Whatever comes in to my head.’

‘Yeah. That’s good. Just whatever comes in to your head. An artist as well on top of it all!’

The reason for rebellion is sometimes quite predictable. Public speaking, for example – a dead cert for violent disobedience. But it can also seem incredibly random. It once happened when I was asked my name. Momentarily forgetting – I didn’t answer for maybe five seconds. They thought it made me look like a fraud, as though impersonating an Alison. I wasn’t though, I am Alison. Regardless, violence. It once happened when I was in a small downstairs bathroom and the radiator was on. It was hot and there wasn’t a lot of air – granted, but I’m not sure it warranted an insurgency.

‘Did you happen to catch your one on Newstalk there the other day?’

‘No,’ I say, because who the fuck listens to the radio anymore.

‘She was one of these one’s going on about how there needed to be more women in the STEM subjects. Equal amounts of women she wanted. 50/50, like.’

‘Sounds good.’

‘Ah yeah, yeah, no it is. I’m sure it is. Or would be, I suppose. Just sometimes they go a bit far with the PC stuff, don’t you think? 50/50, she said. Now not to sound like a mad tricolour wearing right winger! But, a little bit I think.’

‘No, yeah, I get you.’ I’m not sure if I do.

While the reason may vary, the modus operandi of rebellion is always the same. They establish control of a body part – a throat maybe, or a voice box. Breathing becomes a little onerous. My brain, attempting to crush the hippy anarchists with the proverbial iron fist, pumps me full of adrenaline like, I dunno, some sort of skittish balloon. It’s difficult to speak under these conditions.

I’ll then excuse myself. Eventually, in the sanctity of privacy and without me fucking up in some way that’s to their distaste, the militia loses its dissident zeal. Acquiesces to my governance. Or sometimes I do that, but not tonight.

We pull through the lights at the end of Capel Street and across Grattan Bridge. Lights from the buildings that line the quays writhe on the surface of the Liffey. If I was driving, I’d have gone over O’Connell Bridge and around by College Green, but this way is grand.

‘On your own tonight?’ I meet his eyes in the rear view mirror for the first time. He’s still drumming his fingers, I don’t know the song anymore, though. He’s 35, I’d say, and completely bald.

‘Yeah.’ I’m late, so yeah.

‘Where’s your boyfriend?’ he laughs and tries catch my eye again but I don’t let him. His teeth are yellow, probably from the smoking. The car has that sickly air freshener smell that smacks of masking something.

‘Oh, I don’t have one.’

‘What? No boyfriend. That’s mad. A lone wolf. A lone wolf, untamed.’ He giggles. ‘Is that it yeah, a lone wolf? That’s gas. Hard to believe though all the same.’ We’re at the red lights halfway down Parliament street and it’s buzzing. There’s a group about my age in the front smoking area of Street 66. I love that place. One night me and Oran went, didn’t tell anyone, just went and danced. The whole night. No one can interfere when your dancing. No one can fuck it up, fuck it up by saying things, demanding things of you, asking you questions, questions like, and what will you do with art? Will you teach? Will you be a teacher? Aww god I could see you as a teacher. I don’t have to talk, just dance. Maybe I’ll just dance tonight.

‘Myself and the wife split up recently enough, actually.’ His eyes fill the rear view mirror again. ‘We’d been living in my parents attic. Couldn’t afford to move out. They let us pay cheaper rent y’know? Got tough though living in with the parents. In an attic too. Puts a lot of stress on things.’

‘Oh.’

‘And jesus man women can be cruel. You know, I guess. The little comments man. Little niggling comments y’know? I mean just say the thing, if you’re going to say it. The passive aggressive stuff, do you know what I’m talking about? She’d be like, and this is no word of a lie, but she’d be one way to me up in the attic – a fucking –’ He mouths ‘bitch’. ‘And then, she’ll go downstairs and be another way to me in front of my fucking parents? Perfect choir girl daughter in-law crap. That’s some women bullshit, men don’t do that.’

‘Maybe she was right.’ I mutter.

‘What?’

‘Nothing, sorry.’

‘Ah fuck it. Bringing you down with my fucking dumb shit! Fucking cunt I am for that. They don’t want to hear it Brian, Briiiian they don’t care! You’re doing that thing again that I hate, embarrassing me! That’s how it goes isn’t it?’ He laughs. His fingers, now drumming quite rapidly on the steering wheel, have lost any connection they may previously have had to melody. He’s still in the right hand lane as we pass Street 66. He turns right onto Dame Street, not left. He should have gone left. Left onto Dame street, then right onto Georges Street and then a short journey up to Fade Street.

‘Fade Street, yeah?’ I say.

‘Ah yeah, yeah, yeah. Fade Street. Mr Joseph Francis Fucking Fade Street.’ He floors it and takes an immediate left down the laneway by the side of City Hall. Suddenly, whatever it is, his aftershave or air freshener or whatever the fuck is too much, I feel like I’m going to get sick. He turns left at Leo Burdock’s and down into the back streets of Dublin 8.

‘What way are we going?’

‘Little detour.’ He’s driving fast. I feel my arse get shifted side to side on the leather. The bone chilling baraag of war trumpets echoes up my oesophagus – the presage of a burgeoning guerrilla warfare campaign. My breathing quickens. I grab for my pocket and feel the small bump, which settles me some. I don’t know this route or these streets. It’s like this isn’t my city anymore.

‘Busy tonight?’ I say. Well I dunno? fuck it.

‘No, no. Usual stuff.’

‘That’s good I suppose? If you wanted to chill I guess. Do you?’

‘Do I what?’

‘Like to chill?’

‘Sometimes, I suppose yeah.’

‘Me too. A lot actually. I work part time in an off licence and I’m always chilling. My boss is always ringing me, like ‘Alison I can see you on the cctv if you don’t start doing some work I’ll dock your pay!’ Or like, ‘I don’t pay you to stand around eating free Manhattan Popcorn!’ I laugh. ‘Y’know?’ He nods, I think. ‘It’s quite bad actually, I should work harder. He’s a very honest man.’

‘This’ll be my last of the night, anyway.’

‘PUMP!’ That one was my brain. The threat of domestic terrorism now so undeniable, there’s no logical choice but to release the adrenaline reserves. The skin on my chest feels stretched so tightly over my flesh it might rip.

I put my hand inside my pocket and feel the little wrap. It’s warm. I press on either side with my thumb and index finger, feeling it’s give under my pressure. The package wilts, succumbing to my press and I feel at once powerful. Funny though, these rebellions. It’s a little respite. Getting to focus on simply not dying is a nice distraction.

‘Brave girl heading out on your own aren’t you? Wouldn’t be scared, no?’

I’m not sure I can make words anymore. My autocracy is falling down around me like the last days of Rome. My lungs have surrendered – given over to a lawless free state, but my regimes forces are being pushed back through the windpipe, hence the issue with chit chat. The car is vibrating as we go over back-alley cobblestones of foreign streets but he doesn’t slow. This doesn’t make any sense. None of it makes any sense. Why wouldn’t I? I should. Why not if he’s going to do some weird shit to me? I won’t be going to the party, so why the fuck not? I take it out of my left pocket and my house keys from the other. I untie the little knot at the top of the baggy and place it in the palm of my right hand. I lift a little of the powder out with my key and put it up my nose.

‘What the fuck are you doing in my car?’ he says, but I don’t give a fuck.

‘Watch me if you like, I don’t give a fuck.’ I don’t. Fucking bastard. I feel it catch at the back of my throat for a brief second before it fuses with the blood vessels at the back of my nasal passage. The fighter pilots dispatch into my oesophagus – dropping powdery incendiary bombs over everything. Nothing is spared – foliage, townships, innocent civilians, all engulfed in white hot flames. I’m induced into a feeling that you might call fuzzy or rather warm by the muffled screams of insurgents as they’re wiped out, stronghold by stronghold. They’re terror wraps me in a loving embrace. The queen is back, baby, and she’s bringing law and order.

There’s a serenity to the aftermath of war, you know. They might not tell you in history books, but there is. A calm after the storm. No, maybe not serenity, surrealism. In the delirium of victory, time and space become a little malleable. There’s fervent celebration, too – inside of me. My brain paraded through the streets for bringing peace and prosperity back to our little land. And I’m there. He’s there. I’m in it, the parade. I have my own float and I’m waving at my people. And he’s there, driving the float. The float at once feels small and confined, yet also vast, vacuous. The sides momentarily crushing the outside of my thighs and then I’m draped across the back seat. Lazily draped across leather, fed grapes from the vine. Fed by him. In one second he’s far away, at the end of a tunnel calling my name and in another I’m on his lap. Kissing his mouth as he tries, with great care, to navigate our little float through crowds of adoring citizens. Up close there’s no masking his smell and it’s disgusting. Smoke and disappointment. In one brief second I appear to be dancing, yes – me and Oran are dancing. I can make him out in the crowd, the brass band playing the Bee Gees and we’re dancing and the next I’m stuck. Stuck in mud or quicksand. The float at once appears to be moving and also stopped, though I know it’s moving because I can see the tiny faces of my happy subjects as I pass them by.

‘Fade Street,’ someone says. ‘You’re getting out that side.’ He’s pointing me towards the left hand side of the float.

‘Uh pay, money? What is it?’ I fumble for a wallet I might have.

‘Don’t worry about it.’ He turns, facing me. ‘Mind yourself. Put that shit away before you go in anywhere though, will you?’ I get out and the cold air whips against my cheeks and I can breathe a little.

Twitter: @conor_doyle45

Image via Pixabay

Karma – Anthony Ward

Bernard had heard the local news that brought to attention the tragic events that had befallen the lives of others, often feeling a sense of resentment that it should have been him. Him who was barely able to occupy the same room as himself! Him, whose face he found staring back from the glass, consoled by the consternation of the expression, as if the image didn’t agree with him. Him who could not stomach the appetite of the mirrors that tended to gnaw at his reflection. Such was his reflection that he would ridicule it through self-loathing. Unable to accept it for what it was. Often wondering if it would benefit from some sort of disfigurement. Some kind of characteristic scar that would give it more definition, or at the very least, distract any attention from his undistinguished countenance.

Though this sentiment was not so apparent to others who would refrain from offering any semblance of a compliment through the notion that it would appear surplus to requirement, as although he was not overly handsome, he was not otherwise neither. Though he wasn’t very adept with compliments, taking them as insults, as if they were mocking him, this creating a rather neutral environment for him to gauge what others would see in him, which left him completely indifferent.

Nor was he the most popular of people either. Although he had a few friends, he would often deprive himself of their company so as not to impose himself on them. He actually enjoyed the company of others, but did not feel as if they enjoyed his, to the point where the highlight of his night was the part before he went out, when he was getting himself ready, imagining the night ahead where he would captivate people with his insightful philosophy, hold them to understand things as he understood them, win their adoration, be the man of the moment. Though despite his best intentions his nights out would often bring back home how inferior he felt.

After some considerable time, all this self-degradation took its toll upon Bernard. Often rendering him into feeling down, but also angry, with plenty to say about everyone else. Often blaming himself then blaming others after rationalising his actions in his head. For he was certainly a remarkable man who had an opinion on many things! Though it is one thing to have an opinion and quite another to have an opinion on everything. But in public he had no opinion at all. Rarely was the conversation steered in any direction for him to converge, and when it did, it happened so fast that he would miss the opportunity, so that his mind would wander off in another direction and he would have to drive himself back in order to merge back into it. Though by then his confidence would run so low that he would seize up and had to lubricate himself with more and more fuel in order to surpass those who liked the sound of their own voice. Who liked to hear their self-satisfied conclusions, that made him feel somewhat inferior, with all their personal exaggerations making him feel incompetent and impotent of sexual allure.

Of course, Bernard could not reveal his resentment for himself, since he would be ridiculed and ostracised from their company. Thinking to himself how we often compare our lives in order that we may feel bad for being down, while comparing our situations. How this stifling comparison does not embody the problem at all, but merely scales it into importance, and how we ought not to pass over problems with comparison, but approach them all with compassion.

He didn’t view society as an ongoing thing, he saw it as a set thing. Believing that the way we lived was set in stone. As if that’s the way it was. Rather like a child without any logical course just picking up all the pieces and placing them into order. It never occurred to him that it may merely have been someone’s idea. A good idea at that, but not necessarily the way it had to be. He was often so engaged in his assumptions that he never really questioned the reality being constantly drawn to assume the world he inhabited.

It was at these times, when alone, that Bernard would conjure the spite that had been brewing inside him. The bitterness that often quenched his rage, which would leave him simmering, feeling such compassion for life that he wished it would end, hearing the news report the tragic road accident that would invoke within him such sympathy that he wished it were him.

Such was this sentiment that Bernard’s wish would eventually be granted whether he had actually wanted it to be granted or not- for he couldn’t be sure. The car had careered off the road so suddenly, and without any warning, that it seemed almost intentional, either from the far heights above or the inner depths within, swerving into the barrier while another car collided with the rear, killing instantly those within.

Although Bernard could not be certain of himself, he was certain that he had never wanted to cause anybody else any harm. He had wanted so much for others to embody his soul with sympathy that he now felt himself gradually fading away to nothing.

Days would pass him by without him even knowing where they’d gone, while lying there, not at all sure at first whether he had just woken up or whether he was about to go to sleep. For what had he been doing with himself in that apartment? It seemed like he was doing nothing but decay into whatever was the matter with him. Disintegrating into the darkness. Concealed behind the curtains as if daylight would unearth him and people would see just what a wretchedly ugly person he was. He couldn’t stand the body he was in let alone the frame of mind he inhabited. He was far too tall for his own satisfaction. His physique elongated beyond any masculinity as if it hung off him like clothes that were out of fashion. He was only happy with his face from one particularly un-gratifying angle that he would often punish himself by staring out his reflection for periods at a time with plaintive self loathing, staring at himself through the opaque window at the disfigured carcasses of chrome punctuated upon the road until he became reconciled with remorse.

Bernard had not taken into account these selfish wishes before he had been involved in that car crash. Which he believed was no accident. That event that could have taken others who did not care to share the karma of his fate! And yet they had shared the fate that he had enticed upon himself by no longer wanting to be alive, since it was them that had suffered the consequences of his self pity in wishing he were no longer alive. Thus, his wish, having been granted to him, he was now living everyday in purgatory, feeling as if he were dead.

And as the days amalgamated into weeks, Bernard remained in his tomb, lost in darkness, the light having evaded his senses long ago. His memories travelling through him from such a distance as if they were from a former life, as he meandered through time and space, only being brought back into proximity as he heard a somewhat intrusive thudding resonate through the timbre of his mind, as if someone were knocking upon wood. He lay there hoping it would go away. Then there followed a pause, and he held his breath for a moment, thinking it had passed. Though it continued and continued until eventually a penitent curiosity caused him to open the door, allowing light to pour into the passage, which at first obscured the identity of the figure stood before him. It turned out to be an old friend he had not seen in a while. Not since before the incident. Although he was reluctant to invite him in, he felt compelled to do so, finding it difficult to look at him directly, in that he suspected that he would be able to see right through him.

“Hi Bernard,” said his friend, “I just thought I’d call round and see how you are.”

Bernard looked at him to see if he knew how he was before inviting him in.

“Come in Jason,” he said leading him into the living room and telling him to sit. To which Jason complied while inquiring how he was and how he had been. Bernard sat adjacent, watching him as if he were upon a stage and he was in the audience, before submitting to an overwhelming operatic climax to his torment. Releasing a great torrent of guilt upon his friend that he was sure he would throw down the spade and leave him to rot.

“Was it all my fault?” he asked, not waiting for the answer. “Was it me that caused the accident to happen? By wanting to die? Be careful what you wish for, that’s what they say. I certainly got what I wished for. I’ve been dying ever since. I can’t even remember what it was that initially made me want to die, but I certainly know now,” he said lifting his hands to his face. “But I’m not dead like those others. Those that I killed! They didn’t want to die. But they did die. They’re dead. And it’s all my fault?”

“It’s not your fault Bernard,” Jason reassured him. His compassion and sincerity catching them both by surprise. Bernard had expected him to tell him that it was his fault and that he had got what he deserved. Though Jason went on to explain that he believed we were all defined by our actions, not by our thoughts, and that he didn’t intentionally cause the car to crash. And after all, why would some benign power take the lives of innocent people just to teach him a lesson. Bernard lifted his head, his face alighted slightly after being submerged in darkness for so long.

“You know,” said Bernard, “I did read something the other day about a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii that can infect your brain and affect your behaviour. Even make you suicidal. You can catch it from cat litter trays,” he said motioning towards the cat perched upon the arm of the chair, its eyes looking disdainfully at him. “It increases the dopamine in your brain or something. Can cause psychotic episodes and all that.”

This incensed Jason somewhat, almost making him want to take back his words. But although he did resent him, and did blame him to a certain affect, and although he felt like telling him all this and sentencing him to life, he regarded his own responsibility towards him. That by reinforcing his guilt, he could cause Bernard to suffer further, which in effect may cause further harm to himself and others, while imagining the guilt that would transcend upon him if he were to chastise his friend and cause him further grief, by doing something inane.

Instead, Jason just smiled back at Bernard, like the cat before him, and reassured him that everything would be alright. For after all, he thought to himself, where would it all end?

Image via Pixabay

Soliloquy Of The Ring – S W Campbell

What foolishness has been wrought by the hand of god, none that can be foretold, for this is but an act of man, sprung forth from the heart of darkness conjured by a woman displeased by the favors offered at her door. No luck, no hearty call, can bring back what has been lost once it has been taken back, ripped from thy fingers, the warnings only clear once the movement is made. But though it is taken, it is but a one sided trade, for what thou have given cannot be given back, for though thou do not wish it returned, thou still mourns its loss and feels such actions to be a grievance for which no forgiveness can ever come.

So thou sit in squalor amidst the leaning towers which once marked the citadel of the glorious kingdom of two, slurping down sweet wines and listening to sirens screech of times of tribulation thou find comforting due to the similarities to thou own discomfort. Wretched boy, foolish wreck, watch as thou bring thyself low, wallowing amongst the pigs as another bright day materializes behind the thick protecting layers of draperies left unopened despite the lateness of the day. No rays of hope shall pierce into the darkness. No relief but thy chosen sin. Such madness thou swears has never been, nor will ever come again.

As thou take another swig, thou sees the face of beauty floating amidst the dust motes hanging in the air. It starts as it always begins. Hiking through the trees. Talking of the world. Opening the doors long held closed. But such things slip away with each swallow. Her smile, oh glorious row of pearls. Her hair, dark and lustrous as the world before the dawn. Her laugh, the tinkling of bells. Her voice, sending vibrations down thy spine. Her eyes, seeing thou and no one else. More and more is stripped away, leaving nothing but the basest of instinctual needs. The roundness of breast and hip. Thy calloused hand along the petals of the flower filled with dew. Baited breath in thy ear, urging thou to explore further.

So it is that thou rise up on loose bound knees, and stagger thou way to the room of tile to purge the vileness from thyself. Imagined hands brush along thy feverish brow and down the length of thy lust, dragging thou downward into the den of such vile specters which console with husky whispers which only echo within thy head. Thou wish it to be as it once was, in every detail no matter how minute. Thou strip down, revealing thy true self to the world. Thou open the drawer and bring from its depths the ring. Oh heavenly drug granted to us by the power of animalistic needs. It shall not last, but there are ways of lengthening the time of bliss. Oh glorious exultation, oh sacred ring, give thine gift of a longer stay in the world now gone away.

Foolish knave. The empty bottles stand in regimented rows as testament to thy sins. More than times, less than others, but too many for this darkening day. Oh glorious refuge from pain, the door does not open to thy knocks. No, the world grows unwieldy and begins to spin. Thy head grows dizzy and clouded. All falls aways and thou are left hanging in a land of dreams where none of what has transpired has come to pass. Thou feel a great pain in thine lower mind, but thou ignores it, for here in this moment she has come back to thou once again. Oh beautiful eyes, oh gracious smile, oh soft touch of a welcome hand. How thou has missed it greatly. How thou would do anything to live in such a world again. The pain in thy lower head grows greater. A terrible throb with every beat of thy broken heart. She places her hand upon thine. She leans forward to bring comfort to thy ears. But no. The pain is too great. The terrible throbbing pain.

Thou finds oneself in the room of tile once again, naked upon the porcelain throne, the ring still firmly in its place, cursing thou with vile ache. How long has it been sullen fool? How long did the former contents of the bottle lift thou into the kingdom in the clouds? Too long. Far too long, and now thou finds the tools of thy melancholy trade to be more curse than blessing. Thou stands on loosened knees. The ache is agony making its way to the heart of thou very being. The terrible mistake must be rectified. Thou remove the ring. Thou wrench it from its place. Thy blood thunders in thine ears, surging upward, cavalier in manner, ecstatic to be free. Too much. Thou falls has thou has risen. Thou catches thine head on the counter there beside thine porcelain throne. Fall great fool. Fall into complete and utter darkness.

There thou lays, twisted form in mockery of what thou had once been. Look down upon thyself, splayed across the tile, crowned by spreading crimson. In thy hand lies the ring, tool for neither good nor evil, but source of great merriment for those who find thee. Such is the twisted revelry of darkness, of this thing we call tragedy.

S.W. Campbell was born in Eastern Oregon. He currently resides in Portland where he works as an economist and lives with a house plant named Morton. He has had numerous short stories published in various literary reviews in three countries. If you’d like to read more of his writing, check out his website: http://www.shawnwcampbell.com.

Image via Pixabay

Alan Au Vin – James Jennion

It’s the family reunion dinner, but the dead naked man on the table doesn’t look too appealing. His chest hair is all matted, for one, and the drool running down his jowls is cold and gloopy.

Olympia arrives in the dining room carrying the January air on her woollen coat. She plonks her big cello case in the corner and looks at the dead man.

“He looks peaceful,” she says, “but I’m not hungry just yet.”

Olympia perches on a chair, daring to sit at the head of the table, by the head of the dead guy, for a few moments. She busies herself tapping through Instagram stories and replying to WhatsApp group chats. David is getting married, oh lovely. Lucinda’s third new job in a year?!

Out of messages to send, Olympia takes out her cello and decides to improvise a funeral tune for the dead man. The strings sound reluctant under the bow, groaning and low, wondering why they’re being made to tribute this clammy corpse they know nothing about.

With a flick of the bow Olympia coaxes some life from the strings. She looks at the man’s face and receding hairline, picturing a man who sweated a lot and found every part of being alive a bit strenuous. Finally, she settles on something jaunty, but in a minor key – the theme tune you’d expect a cartoon elephant to have.

Mother Dear enters. “Olympia, why are you serenading a corpse?”

Olympia shrugs. “I was bored and thought he’d like a send-off.”

“We don’t play music for the help.”

“Do we eat the help?”

“Oh, no. He’s not for dinner.”

Mother Dear gets what she came in for and returns to the kitchen. The sad jaunt still echoes in Olympia’s head, and she considers recording it as a voice note, but the sound is overridden by a car pulling up on the gravel driveway.

She ventures to the hallway, dragging her cello, and from the doorway spots George stepping out of his car. Olympia starts to play again. It’s a marching piece, descending chromatically, the same piece Olympia played when they were children to annoy George and make him feel like a joke.

As he enters, he shakes his head at the music.

“Olympia, you could annoy the rattle off a snake.”

She plays faster, thrashing out a juddering glissando that runs down all the notes. George ignores her and makes his way into the dining room and yelps at the man on the table.

Olympia peeks around the dining room doorway. George is hiding behind a chair, his coat still on by one sleeve.

“Mother Dear! What is this?!”

“He’s not for dinner.”

George relaxes. Olympia enters, leans her cello against the wall, and puts her hands up. George relaxes more and manages to take the rest of his coat off.

They fill some time with pleasantries. George has a job. Olympia knows this, and knows that it’s something in finance, but whenever he says his full job title her ears close up, refusing even the one or two seconds of boredom that listening would yield.

George is still talking. It must still be job related because Olympia can’t hear him. She spots a pile of folded clothes in the corner. She walks over and picks up the trousers. They’re worn and musty, holey – trousers of manual work. Her fingers tingle at the touch of the trousers and she fights the urge to throw them as far away as possible.

The man’s driving licence says Alan Mitchell. The name brings nothing to Olympia. She thinks of her own name and pictures beautiful doomed cruise ships and ancient pantheons. She thinks of George’s, and imagines great kings and statesmen. Alan Mitchell is a nothing name to her, and she feels pity.

George has moved on from work, and Olympia’s magic earplugs disappear. He’s talking about his wife now, his wife who plays in real orchestras. Olympia wills back the earplugs, but they’re gone for now, so she grabs the cello and starts wandering around a blues scale, nodding to what George says but focussing on looking absent-minded.

“Mother Dear, I can’t help but think a dead body on the dining table is a bit unhygienic,” George says, after realising Olympia is trying not to listen.

“I don’t know what else to do with him. The compost bin is full.”

“Well, I thought he was dinner for a moment.”

“No, we can’t have him. I don’t have any English wine in.”

“Alan au vin,” Olympia says. “Speaking of vin, is that Alan’s van out on the street?”

“Yes. He parked half on the hedges. That was very annoying,” Mother Dear says as she sharpens a carving knife. The edges of her nose twitch and she drops the knife. She runs back to the kitchen.

George waits for Olympia to put down the cello before he starts speaking again, speaking about his wife.

“You two should spend more time together,” George says. “You could really get a lot of advice from her. A lot of inspiration.”

“I don’t need inspiration.” Olympia scowls. “I’m hungry now. Where’s dinner?”

Mother Dear returns looking mournful. “The chicken is burnt.”

George looks crestfallen. Chicken is his favourite.

“Guess we’ll be having Alan after all,” Olympia says, sitting down and picking up her knife and fork.

As she eats, Olympia wishes there were something more to this man. That way she could absorb some exciting part of his spirit, and finally write some decent music.

James Jennion is a Warringtonian living in London. He likes writing strange and grim stories about social class. Twitter: @JennionJames

Image via Pixabay

Scrunched At The Glamping Wedding – Oli Court

We bodged across the muddy plain, caked in sludge like farmyard turds, though that seemed too lofty a position for someone like me to aspire to. My job had been made clear to me – lead the way for the woman, create foot-sized divots in the ocean of watery scum, so that she would never have to face the ignominy of fishing her own legs out of a particularly boggy sinkhole. It wasn’t just any woman either. It was the most important woman of all. Marie-Claire.

We were traversing this field because Marie-Claire had been invited to a wedding ceremony, taking place somewhere over the unreachable horizon. She had brought me along because she was concerned for my welfare, after spotting me splayed halfway down the stairs out of Old Street Station, shouting to anyone who would listen that I’d forgotten what the colour green looked like, while eating a page of the Evening Standard for sustenance. It was the Wellness section. I was watching my weight at the time.

We’d gotten this far by train carriage, but like a total prick, it had dropped us off several miles from the wedding itself, so we had to make our legs go the rest of the way. It was a bad decision to have forgotten to pack footwear. There had been no room for shoes in my bag anyway, because of my being in it on the train journey. Marie-Claire had told me she was a little short on cash, and so could not afford to purchase a train ticket for me, not even a child-sized one. Instead, I became a stowaway. At least it gave me a great opportunity to catch up on being unconscious, due to experiencing breathing-related difficulties within the bag.

“This is good.” I thought to myself, as I gasped for air in the darkness. My hectic schedule had afforded me so little time to pass out recently.

At the wedding grounds, there was no church, synagogue, or Zoroastrian Fire Temple at which a union of persons could be legitimised. Instead, there were lots of tents with glowing fairy lights and power generators sticking out of them. From an indeterminate somewhere, New Age wailing wafted through the air.

A woman emerged from one of the tents, holding a mobile phone in one hand and hair straighteners in the other. She wore a wreath of flowers in her hair and was smiling like she was in a film.

Marie-Claire was stabbed with panic at the sight of the other woman. “Quick,” she said, slapping my forehead with a dandelion, “grab a wet wipe from my rucksack and get the dirt off my legs. I can’t let Athena Clung see me like this!”

I did as was commanded.

“Athena,” Marie-Claire said, as I proselytised myself before her, “is an influencer, and the bride to be.”

Working out which of these afflictions was worse and therefore what to commiserate this Athena over proved difficult. In the end, there was no time to decide, because just as the last scab of dirt flicked away from Marie-Claire’s knee, Athena and a vigorously happy man with a camera were upon us. She was leading him by the hand, looking back into the lens almost as much as she was looking where she was walking, to make sure that the world hadn’t forgotten her in the time her head was turned away from it.

When I stared up at the two of them from my squat in the mud below Marie-Claire, a horrifying vision of one thousand lost souls, all ensconced in a glowing silver prison, streamed into my eye sockets and rushed towards my mind. It made me do a yelp, and cling to Marie-Claire’s leg.

“You need to take better care of your dog, M-C.” Athena said, her hands on her hips, her head turning towards the lens twice before she had finished the sentence. “Looks like you’ve frightened the life out of the poor thing. Have you been beating him?”

Marie-Claire’s mouth hung open, searching for words that had deserted her. The enthusiastic man sputtered out a high-pitched cackle of approval.

“We don’t condone animal cruelty here on The Craft Goddess.” the back of Athena’s head said to us. “I would never harm a poor, defenseless animal like this one.”

The Goddess crouched down to meet me eye to eye, and patted me on my broken head.

“You are free now, my child.” The Goddess said. “Run, and live among your own kind.”

On all fours, I pelted myself in the direction of trees, away from Marie-Claire, as fast as I could. The Goddess had told me to do it, and no-one had told me not to do it, so it seemed like the best course of action out of all of the courses of action available to me, at that particular moment.

There were harsh brambles and branches, which etched little bits of red into my skin. My hands and feet were packed with solid mud, cold and rigid, until I stopped being able to feel anything I touched. The light of the world faded until it was as dark as my suitcase was, and my only senses were now the taste of blood rushing over my tongue, and the churn of my belly, craving a prey to engorge. The night was a rush of lust, a frenzied chase through the eternal forest, a wild and majestic hunt for my true nature.

What I’m trying to say is, I really can’t be held responsible for what happened. The good thing was that the incident proved Marie-Claire really was important to me, and that doing her bidding by defending her was my true calling in life, so make sure you remember that before you judge. For me, that’s the moral of the story. The epiphany. This epiphany came when the summer sun emerged again, high in the sky, revealing the secrets of the darkness for all to see. Revealing all the silly mistakes in the fallout of the wedding reception. Mistakes such as taking one of the bridesmaids to bed to look at an old photo album together, or glugging down too much of the frivolity juice and making a tit of yourself, or, in my case, tearing half of the bride’s neck out with my teeth.

There was no hiding it, not beneath the light of that wicked sun. The body was a dead giveaway, if you’ll pardon my pun. I didn’t mean to do a rhyme there, sorry. I just get naturally poetic when there’s a murder, and after my night of animalistic rabblerousing, I’ve decided to not hold back my true nature, and instead let my true personality shine through. That’s what Marie-Claire’s book told me to do when I read it on the train back to London. I still had to travel in the bag to dodge the fare, but Marie-Claire, benevolent as she is, had given me a wind-up torch and an air hole to breathe through, as a special treat for making the wedding just a little more bearable for her.

I like to please people. It makes them like you more. For a bit, anyway, until they figure out how useless you really are. It’s still better than nothing. That’s what I’d like to say. But sometimes, nothing is better than something, because then you don’t get your hopes up, only to have them crushed later on. My grandmother told me that. Not a lot of people turned up to her funeral.

Oli Court writes the Scrunched Disconsolately newsletter and blog, featuring short stories and reflections on art, comedy, and misery. He lives in South London.

Image via Pixabay

My Bad Choices – Holly Day

I was knuckle-deep in the governor
when the phone call came, something about a pardon
some random fluttermoth that needed to be cut free
of its cocoon. The governor muttered something
about straight razors and handkerchiefs
blood evidence and popular opinion
finished with a parable about woodchucks.
I felt the tremors begin in my hands, come up
through the floor. It was too early to give name to forgiveness.

Later that night, I dreamed
I was sleeping with the governor of the state of Indiana
and my mother had been arrested for shoplifting.
In my dream, she brought her knitting bag to her electrocution
covered her lap with a blanket and curled her feet beneath her
as if preparing to watch a nature special on TV:
something about skyscrapers and whistlepigs
two of three things that still grow in Texas.

Holly Day (hollylday.blogspot.com) has been a writing instructor at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis since 2000. Her poetry has recently appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Grain, and Harvard Review, and her newest full-length poetry collections are Into the Cracks (Golden Antelope Press), Cross Referencing a Book of Summer (Silver Bow Publishing), The Tooth is the Largest Organ in the Human Body (Anaphora Literary Press), and Book of Beasts (Weasel Press).

Image via Pixabay

There Are No Mountains In Suffolk – Phil Hurst

On Saturdays I sell curried chicken wings at a car boot in Colchester, using a top-secret recipe I stole from a cookbook.

While grilling up a batch, I see her browsing from a van selling knock-off DVDs. I rub my eyes and feel the sting of the chilli. I tear my gloves off, wash my eyes, and she’s in front of me, a blank expression on her face and an A4 piece of paper in her hand. I say nothing. She looks fantastic; the Japanese lifestyle is agreeing with her.

Siobhan McArbor holds the piece of paper out. I don’t have my glasses on, but I can see the large font at the top of the page. The Last Will and Testament of Niamh McArbor. Siobhan’s mum. The life and soul of any room. The woman who helped me when my own mother was too busy. The woman who took me to the clinic after the incident with Archie Notley.

“Oh God,” I stutter, a lump in my throat.

She shrugs. It’s old news to her. “Cancer. We need to talk.”

I close the stand, ignoring the complaints of the queue. We relocate to two old plastic chairs outside The Cup, an ancient Citroen van converted into a mobile coffee shop. We don’t order.

“She wants us to scatter her ashes on the tallest mountain in Suffolk.” Siobhan says. She points at the last paragraph on the will. I squint. I can make out my name, something that looks like Siobhan, and nothing much else. I decide to take her word for it.

“There aren’t any mountains in Suffolk,” I say. “Are there?”

“It says,” Siobhan says, “that without evidence of both of us scattering her ashes from the tallest mountain in Suffolk, the solicitors are not to release any of my inheritance.”

“I’ve lost my glasses.” I say.

Siobhan shakes her head. “They have agreed that the tallest point in Suffolk will do.”

“Why me?” But I know. This is Niamh trying to force reconciliation, a final attempt at opening a dialogue. A final gift to me.

On the plastic table between us Siobhan drops another sheet of paper, this time with a Google map printed on it. I can just about make out of those red pin things dropped in the middle of green area.

“Great Wood Hill,” she says, “outside Bury St. Edmunds.”

A third piece of paper appears on the previous two. Big type, so I can read it. A reservation for two rooms in an expensive looking hotel in Suffolk. Paid in full. I don’t need to look at the date. I can do it.

“You can keep these copies,” she stands.

“How are you doing?” I say.

There’s no response. She doesn’t owe me one, and she knows it. She walks away, squelching, leaving with no other option than to stare after her. The other car-boot patrons turn to watch her go.

* * *

I’m used to eating breakfast alone in my one-bedroom flat, a bowl of cereal propped on my knees, half-listening to the BBC news on the radio.

Today I’m in Suffolk, shuffling down an ancient stairway, on my way to meet Siobhan for breakfast. By the time I arrived last night she’d gone to bed. A message left at reception was the closest we got to catching up.

The maître-de stops me as I enter the dining room. She raises an eyebrow, not deeming me worthy of conversation but still expecting a name.

“Grace.” I say, then, “Thomas.” She traces a forefinger down the list of guests on a clipboard. She nods, taps twice on the paper, and points to a table in an alcove in the far corner of the room. Siobhan is there already, chin resting on intertwined fingers, her lips moving in a silent conversation with herself.

“Your friend has already ordered her breakfast.”

I walk over. “Can I sit with you?” I ask.

“Now she asks permission.” she says to no one.

I pull the chair opposite her away from the table. Her black hair is pinned away from her face with bright pink hairclips, the only colour I can see her wearing. Everything else is black. A touch melodramatic, maybe, but that’s Siobhan.

I tilt my head back and admire the wooden beams across the ceiling. Hair falls over my eyes, still blonde, but faded with age. I brush it back and look down at her. She was watching, but now avoids my gaze.

“Remember when you dyed my hair pink?” I ask.

Siobhan nods to the memory, hiding a grin she doesn’t want me to see. I wonder how clearly she remembers the train to Manchester, the pink dye streaking down my face, my white jeans stained pink and red. How she let me borrow her coat to wrap around my waist.

I want to ask what new memories she’s made in Japan, what new friends she’s made over there, and whether she still enjoys it. Can we catch up like nothing happened, like our friendship didn’t end?

Siobhan’s breakfast, eggs benedict, arrives, alongside a fresh cafetière of coffee. I order a sausage sandwich. Siobhan doesn’t flinch. Good. Means she’s either given up on vegetarianism or has gotten less preachy.

My ex-friend doesn’t stand on ceremony. She dives into her breakfast with the enthusiasm of a starving barbarian. I lean back in my chair, impressed. She never used to eat like that. With a gulp of coffee, she finishes her meal.

“Thank you for coming,” she says, tapping the top of her hair to ensure it is still in place.

“I’m here for your Mum,” I say.

She stands. “I’ll meet you at the front door in fifteen minutes.” There is no room for negotiation. I nod, silently, feeling like I’m sixteen again and she’s telling me to go upstairs with Archie Notley. That everything will be fine.

She leaves me again.

* * *

We’re sat in Niamh’s car. Siobhan doesn’t have one in this country and I left mine at the hotel. It smells of her. If I close my eyes I can remember lifts home from ballet, from hockey, from clubs. The cars were different, the smell the same.

“What do we do now?” I ask.

Great Wood Hill is as unremarkable as you would expect. There’s a tall telephone mast about two hundred feet tall, dotted with satellite dishes and antenna, a row of trees – hardly a Great Wood – and not much else.

We get out the car, and Siobhan collects her mum from the boot. The urn Niamh McArbor is plain, practical, dull. A million miles away from the woman she was.

“Can I hold her?” I ask.

She holds the urn and I take it from her as if it was a new-born baby.

Poor choice of metaphor.

Poor choice of urn.

“I’m sorry,” I say to the urn. Siobhan pretends not to pay attention, but when I start to cry, she looks in my direction. I expect disgust, but when I look up from the urn all I see is sadness. I look at Siobhan. “I didn’t know.”

She bites her bottom lip.

“I didn’t know either,” she says when I regain my composure. “She didn’t tell anyone.”

Siobhan reaches for her mother’s ashes and I think about withholding them, keeping her to myself, but I don’t.

“I don’t understand, Mum.” Her voice cracks. She doesn’t want to let Niamh down. I don’t want to let Niamh down.

The phone mast rises from the top of the hill and I trace it from the ground to its peak.

I return to the car.

“I’m not giving up,” Siobhan shouts at me, her voice cracking. “That’s not something I do.”

It is, but now’s not the time. The boot is still open, and I rummage through until I find a pair of gardening secateurs. Niamh loved to garden. She found solace in it. I walk to the wire fence that protects the mast. The tool makes short work of the cheap metal, and I bend it back, creating a tunnel just big enough for Siobhan to fit through.

“Now,” I say, “the ladder.”

Siobhan nods. She crouches through the gap in the fence then, with the urn tucked under her chin, starts to climb the mast’s service ladder.

I start taking pictures. I hope the lawyers will understand. I hope it will be enough.

Siobhan reaches the top of the ladder. I see her take the lid off the urn and flick it in the direction the wind is blowing. Niamh’s ashes swirl, twisting and waving at two lost friends, before vanishing into the breeze

I don’t know if Niamh’s final gift to me will come true. I don’t know if what I did is forgivable. I don’t know if Siobhan will talk to me when she gets back to the ground.

It doesn’t matter.

We have created the mountain the old woman deserved.

Phil Hurst is a graduate of the Queen’s University Belfast Creative Writing MA. His work can be found on his personal website, writewithphil.com. He lives in Colchester, England with his wife and little girl.

Image via Pixabay

Skins – K Anderson

She waited for him in their wedding chamber, trembling, her eyes skipping from the tub of lye, to the tub of milk, to the switches. The witch’s words lingered in the back of her head: skin the beast.

Two before her had come to this chamber and met their last breaths, with no corpse nor bones to return to their families. She wondered about them, now. Had they shaken in terror? Had they thought to fight to their last breath? Had they waited, quietly, with dignity, for this certain fate?

She heard him, then, on the stairwell. A scraping, dragging noise like some thousands of dried flower petals bagged and hauled away, now coming closer. Dread settled in her chest; a tight burning knot that made breathing difficult. Her heart thudded painfully in her breast as she curled her legs beneath nine snow-white shifts, wondering if it would be enough.

What a terrible thing, to skin something alive.

His breath was upon the door. Even and steady, deep, huffing, like the animal breathing of a horse or boar. She felt the small hairs on the back of her neck rise. Her body curled tight against the bed’s headboard.

The window was open, and it cast a slice of moon across the ground, bathing the door to the wedding chamber in an eerie blue light. She stared at the crack in the door so hard and long she imagined it creaking open several times, blinking the vision away in panic. Could he hear her scattered breathing? Did he take delight in the way her terror must have filled the room like a living thing?

“Maiden…” His voice betrayed his mouth; she could see it now, stretched wide—cracked and bloody—teeth gleaming in the near-dark.

She swallowed and looked to the switches. Skin the beast.

There was a moment where she could have sworn she heard the latch of the door click, but the handle did not move, and her newlywed husband did not attempt to make it. Was she expected to cross the room and open it for him, welcome him into the room as any wife would? And what then? Lay before him, duty-bound, and wait?

“I know you are there.”

She had not known he could speak before he’d said, “I do.” She had been arrested quite totally by the sight of him; tall and serpent like, whiter than bone. His scales, dry and fluttering like thousands of moths’ wings. Eyes ruby and piercing. A creature, not a man.

“Lindworm prince,” she greeted him. Her voice did not tremble, and she sat up taller in pride of her own bravery. “If that is what I am to call you.”

“You would call me husband,” he replied. “Do you wait for me?”

Again to the lye, the milk. She imagined herself following the witch’s words. Skinning him, bathing him, holding his naked form ‘til first light. She was the daughter of a gardener. She had never known destruction, and it ate at her.

She had waited too long to reply. The creature spoke once more. “Maiden,” said he. And then, “Wife.”

“Have you come to devour me?” The floor was cold against her bare feet when she rose from the sheets. She held tightly to the polished wood of the bedpost, staring at the door. She heard the hinges creek, wood groaning in protest as the beast put his weight against it.

“That,” came his rattling voice, “Is for you to decide.”

She moved past the tubs, past the switches. She laid a hand on the latch of the door, the metal cool and slick to the touch. She pushed gently against the door and it swung open, revealing a large, blood-red eye.

One slit pupil settled upon the tools for his undoing.

She knew she would not use them. “Come,” she said and stepped away from the door. “Husband.”

So great was his size, he moved about the room to house himself within, coiling like a great snake. The claws of his arms dug shallow crescents into the floor, and the sound of his belly dragging about the chamber was dizzying loud in the still of night. Finally, he encircled her completely, feathered tail striking the door closed. His eyes appraised her with cunning and curiosity alike.

Skin the beast, the witch said. But a husband, no, she had not mentioned.

“Maiden,” he rumbled. “Shed a shift for me.”

“Lindworm prince,” she said and felt that beneath those many skins there was a man, waiting. The spell broke. “Shed your skin. For me.”

K. Anderson is a small town writer originally from Beulah, CO. Anderson enjoys a variety of homely hobbies such as baking, sewing, and other artistic avenues. Anderson is currently earning a BFA at Full Sail University and hopes to continue writing flash fiction in years to come.

Image via Pixabay

All The World (A Stage) – Avra Margariti

His name means Black Eyes, and his eyes hold a saltwater sheen when he sees her for the first time in years. “Old friend,” Karagiozis tells the Clown King, “we meet again.”

When she hugs him, she feels how skinny he is under all his rags and swagger. His right arm, thrice as long as the left one, wraps around her waist like a moon tenderly orbiting its planet.

“What brings you to my humble abode?”

The Clown King swallows her bitter guilt for seeking a reprieve from her troupe of harlequins, pierrots, and mimes, no matter how brief. Swallows the leftover scent of rotten carnival apples and sharp seaside salt, too. “I thought it was time for a change.”

What she doesn’t say is, My paper crown was getting too heavy for my head. My head too heavy for my shoulders.

Karagiozis laughs as he leads her inside his rickety hut, engulfed in the shadow cast by the Sarayi, the Vizier’s palace. He knows a thing or two about feeling trapped.

There are more children inside than the last time she visited. They are hungry, and they are crying, baby birds stretching small necks, not enough earthworms to go around. She wishes she came bearing better gifts than the hard candy and limp balloons inside the pockets of her baggiest şalvar.

The Clown King holds a baby on her lap, light enough as to be made of shadow. A slip of a thing. A silhouette. “What have you been up to?” she asks as Karagiozis brews fine-grained coffee over the fire. He knows how to soothe a weary soul. Will even read her fortune in the brown dregs, if she asks him to.

“This and that,” he says, cross-legged on his patchwork quilt atop the dirt floor. The children tumble over him, a flock, a litter. The Clown King thinks of collective nouns. Of her troupe back at the seaside carnival of funhouse mirrors, and her heart squeezes with longing. “Their mother’s left me again. Will you take care of the little ones while I work tonight?”

His courtesan robes are dyed like a starling’s plumage, while his red-painted lips peek through a glimmering veil. She’s known him long enough to remember that he’s circled through most known occupations (teacher, doctor, hunter, gatherer) and some that have yet to be invented (hacker, influencer, roboticist). Last time she visited, he was a minor opium den celebrity, sat on tasseled gold cushions. People left him wine offerings in exchange for touching his right hand, covered in henna, penning poems or prophecies.

Now, it seems he’s gone back to basics. The Clown King claps as Karagiozis twirls before her, black eyes rimmed with blacker kohl, sheer chemise displaying his hair-dusted chest, his belly-dancer’s abs. His knees and elbows, wrists and ankles, are so knobbly they resemble pins, articulating his patchwork body. He leaves for the Sarayi in a cloud of agarwood perfume, and she sets to lullabying his children. They snuffle and mumble in their sleep, curled up together. Again, she thinks about her troupe. She left them so she could remember who she is without them, but all she knows now is that she’s lonely. Bereft. A small fist squeezes her finger. She lets it even when the pressure begins to hurt.

When Karagiozis returns, the night has grown diluted, the sky like milk through black coffee. His magpie eyes twinkle as he whispers, “Have a smoke with me.”

Behind the hut, by the meagre herb garden, he opens his robes to reveal imported cigars and local rosewater-and-almond lukums. They’re not the only revelation. Bruises on his neck, deep and brazen. The Clown King’s fingers hover but don’t touch. When he smiles, she presses her lips to the spot between his eyes, tastes his grit and hope, sweat-salty like the inside of a mollusk. Not a pearl yet, but made of iridescent nacre nonetheless.

“I am a thing that goes goosebumping in the night,” Karagiozis says and laughs himself silly.

He lights their cigars with his long, long arm–he could always do plenty of fun things with it–and exhales toward the stars. She raises her head too, reassured by the knowledge that her troupe, her people, are also seeing the same stars wheel and wink above.

“Go back to them, little king,” he says without looking at her. “I’ll be alright. We always are, eventually. Resilient stuff, our lot.”

“I know,” she replies, but she worries anyway. Always.

They reminisce some more about their shared history. Remember when we bedded Fatme, the Ottoman princess? When we ran afterward to escape her father the Vizier’s wrath? Remember that show we put on, swallowing flames and vanishing coins, clowns and shadows clinging together? How my latest get-rich-quick scheme backfired most spectacularly and you were there to collect the pieces?

Eventually they go back inside, cigars extinguished, sweet lukums saved for the children’s breakfast. Karagiozis and the Clown King lie face to face in the dark, stroking each other’s goosebumped skin. She touches his hunchback, which carries uncomplainingly all his people’s hopes.

“Sometimes,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like a shadow, an articulated puppet made to dance against a scrim.”

She nods because she, too, knows a thing or two about feeling trapped. “It takes some courage to snap your rods and become your own puppeteer.”

Karagiozis’ eyes reflect the afterimages of stars. The Clown King counts them, and speaks the name of each constellation, and each of her troupe members. In her sleep she’s dancing with them across the sky, articulated shadows bathed in stardust.

Avra Margariti is a queer Social Work undergrad from Greece. She enjoys storytelling in all its forms and writes about diverse identities and experiences. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, The Forge Literary, Baltimore Review, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and other venues. You can find her on twitter @avramargariti.

Image via Pixabay

A Voice Through The Glen – Christine Collinson

My pores ooze moisture beneath the supple leather covering my face. The flowing brown hair, concealing my own, tickles the nape of my neck. I look upon the world though eyeholes like visor-slits. My mask though, has no metal, and shields my identity, not my flesh.

Through the mouth-space my words carry across the glen to the keen ears of hundreds. Gathered before me they listen as they always do, in all weathers, in all adversity. As I stand high upon an outcrop, I lift my chin and speak clearly, ‘…no mortal man shall lead our church, no tyrannous king…’

As I’m nearing my sermon’s close, a startled cry rings out from the fringes of the congregation. “The king’s soldiers!’

I discern an approach; hoof-beats and the rattle of metal reach through the settling mist. Beneath the false locks, my own neck hair tingles.

The crowd disperses, leaping away through the heather. I move with them; my once nimble limbs now jarring on rocks, my breath sucking through the mask-holes.

Mist thickens around us, aiding our retreat as the soldiers reach the abandoned site. I sense their presence behind me; hear bridles jangling, whinnying, forceful shouts.

As I near the cave, my left knee twists. I almost collapse; lurch onwards through the pain. The mist is thinner here and the low-lying entrance just visible. Relief overwhelms me as I scramble down the slope.

I cast the mask down on the earthen floor, now nothing more than a misshapen lump in the gloom. No light in its eyes, no movement in its mouth, no breath through its nose.

Another escape lies upon my aged shoulders. My bones ache, my stiff hands curl. As I slump against the rock-wall, my head begins to loll. My last sense before sleep is of a soft wind seeping into the cave, stirring the hair of the mask, bringing it to life just a little.

Image via Pixabay

Carrion Town – Mark Wilson

I found a dead antelope in a strip mall parking lot in Northern Indiana, which isn’t an uncommon occurrence for tainted asphalt bloated with aimless consumerism. But unlike most deceased game, that are shoveled into the furnace that heats the crumbling shops, this one wore a peculiar wound that became an obsession of sorts for me and several other shoppers. We stared at the impossibly deep laceration instead of fulfilling our destiny of buying a shrimp deveiner for an in-law we despised.

We weren’t unfamiliar with the uncanny, someone was once kidnapped from this very strip mall only to return with their eyes replaced by hard boiled eggs. But something about this particular gaping wound transcended the misfortune of a single person. It destroyed lives, saved marriages, brought salvation and forced confrontation with the insignificance in which we all lived.

The longer we stared, the more obsessed we became, sending texts to friends and family members to be baptized in the glory of the hole.

Two pear-shaped custodians eventually sulked into the large circle that had formed in worship of the deceased. They began the routine shaving of the corpse as the smell of burning flesh was one thing, but the smell of burning hair was something entirely else, a downright unpleasant stench to soundtrack the empty purchasing of unnecessary conveniences.

The razor stopped right above the unsightly crevice that held the attention of us all, that sunk abruptly as though it were retreating from the razor itself, as though it were depressed pins on a three dimensional needle toy. The impression that remained wasn’t the hand of a curious child however, but instead a perfectly carved replica of our piece of shit town, which rested unassumingly within the mangled stomach.

The blood and entrails gently rose and collapsed in unison with our settlement, inheriting it’s beauty and blemishes.

Every intricacy of our city existed within those sagging muscles. Flesh buildings and tendon roads, telephone lines strung together by snapping nerves, organs erected and painstakingly manipulated to appear like the disintegrating infrastructure of bridges and buildings. Residents of the town were even designated by tiny white puss sacks that inhabitaed every nuance, fissure and knot in the web of veins that held the entire mess together. The custodians immediately used the public address system to offer a vague and ominous warning about the entire town being contained in an antelope corpse.

More and more families arrived at the swollen carcass over the next few days, observing the wound from afar. They stared at it from sun up to sun down, admiring the place they hated but endured, refusing to consider the logistics or reason behind the frayed tissue replica.

Eventually, the body began to decompose, and flies began to gnaw at the city, greedily consuming the walls of every building and the yellowing discharge of every resident. It occurred to several of us to do something to preserve the imitation town, but we listlessly observed the systematic dismantling instead, incapable of decision.

Before long, only bones remained and we returned to our lives and shopping, but sometimes I still thought of the flies and the ease at which they destroyed everything I knew.

Mark Wilson is a Chicago based author/visual artist driven by the same crippling monotony experienced while watching a piss soaked snow mound melt into oblivion in an abandoned parking lot. He is the creator of a popular absurdist culture blog https://onetie-alltie.com/blog/

Image via Pixabay

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