A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mango – Tim Warren

It was a brief spell in his life, one of which most people are none the wiser, one that passed largely without incident. That is if any period of time in which one lives as a mango can be described as passing largely without incident. In truth, it can’t. Not that Kermit Lansbury can be persuaded:

“No, it passed largely without incident,” he told me once, quite firmly. It was September 1977, the first time I’d heard about it — this Mango Period. I tried to argue, but each time my mouth opened so did his: “Nuh-uh,” he would say, raising an eyebrow and a forbidding finger, that mischievous gleam in his eye. But on this occasion, as has so often proved the way, argument would get me nowhere.

Kermit Lansbury, even back in ’77, was already a highly regarded artist — in fact, perhaps you recognised the name? At the very least you’d probably know some of his more famous works: Untitled #111; Untitled #40; and perhaps his best work yet Untitled #86. Or perhaps you would if he’d given them proper titles. Or even created them; at least in the conventional sense. You see, Kermit’s reputation has been founded on taking abstract conceptual art to audacious and previously unimagined new levels (new depths, say his critics): his works exist only in his imagination; only as concepts. As he puts it:

“To make the concept concrete is merely to make concrete. And what fun is concrete?”

It goes almost without saying, then, that his works are quite unusually brilliant. Indeed, Kermit himself has assured me of their brilliance on many an occasion.

“Oh, they’re brilliant!” he always tells me, rolling his eyes in apparent rapture. I wish I could somehow walk around that internal, mental gallery of yours, I tell him — that everyone could. “But that’s just it,” he enthuses, all expansive hand gestures and wide animated eyes. “There is no need. Of course my works could not possibly be more personal, yet what could be more universal than subjectivity? We all have that in common. The simultaneously personal and universal — a beautiful paradox! Already they are somewhere inside of you. Inside of everyone. People need only look!”

Nonetheless, I did once ask him: if your works are just lying around inside of everyone, waiting to be found, then what makes you so special? “Me? I just found them first!” he laughed. Perhaps, that is something that all great artists can say of their works?

But to anyone unfamiliar with the world of Kermit Lansbury no doubt this all sounds much like the Emperor and his new clothes, and his claims to have lived as a mango perhaps no more than a cultivated eccentricity. Let me describe, then, one of the pieces he once described to me; it is not something he is in the habit of doing, and took much persuasion on my part, but I’m sure he will forgive me — after all, it has already been exhibited all around the world. The piece in question is very simple, and like all Kermit’s work unnamed: it consists only of a huge black expanse and in the bottom right-hand corner a tiny white dot. It is in the interpretation that complexity arises:

“To you, a pessimist,” he told me, “it will mean optimism, perhaps, this dot. And from moment to moment you will see a different dot: smaller, larger, in a different position, maybe even sometimes no dot, according to your mood. Everyone will see it differently. Me, I see a negative of the image — I call the dot Pessimism. But, of course, I am blessed with innate optimism. Someone else may call the image Solitude; another, Hope. How to name it, then? It is much that way with all my work.”

How to name it, indeed? But even more so, as we have already touched on, how to render it? How to render any of his works? Ever changing, endlessly interpretable, so personal as to be universal: the only possible medium, the only possible gallery space for Kermit’s works, indeed the only place that would not rob them of their essential subjectivity is certainly in his head; and at the same time, perhaps, in all our heads. To commit such works to canvas would not only compromise them, it would be impossible.

Exhibiting Kermit Lansbury, needless to say, is not without its challenges.

The stunned face of the girl who first opened a gallery to Kermit’s works was itself a picture. After many weeks of assuring her not to worry, that everything would arrive in time, just go ahead with the invites, he had turned up just an hour before the opening entirely empty-handed. “But where are they?” she had asked. “Your works? We can’t open to an empty gallery!”

“Why not? It’s a perfectly lovely gallery. All the more so for the lack of clutter,” he had deadpanned. The poor woman was frantic. It was her first exhibition. A young heiress, at this stage merely dabbling in the arts, Portia Teversham had never owned a gallery before. Which is not to say that she wasn’t taking the whole thing entirely seriously.

“We have press coming! We can’t— “

“For an unknown? You have done me a great service.”

“But— “

“Don’t worry. I’m here. That’s all you need. Every one of my pieces, even some I have yet to create — they are all here,” he had smiled, tapping his temple. I remember her just staring at the madman, open-mouthed. “I was once a mango, you know,” he had then whispered in her ear, as she would tell me many years later. I don’t think he could resist.

It is to her eternal credit, then, that she finally went ahead with the event. Kermit had, of course, talked her round:

“If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then let them come and behold beauty. What need have they of artworks? Interpretation too. Is that not the critical thing? If that is of their own making — the public, the critics — then my work need not be involved.

“Don’t misunderstand me, there are, of course, artworks in my mind, many of them — I have spent countless hours over each — but how can I render them as I see them? Only in my mind are they as I see them. The instant they leave my mind they have failed. Were I instead to describe them it would be just the same.

“Nevertheless, they are undoubtedly worthy of exhibition. And so, here we are. I have my twenty works and each of the audience will be asked to leave with their twenty interpretations. Would that not also be the case if my works had simply been placed on the walls? When you think about it, where is the problem?” The poor girl hadn’t been sure, although she’d been quite sure that there was one.

But it was too late, by now — and not just to cancel the show — she had fallen for him…

More or less the same speech Kermit later gave to the assembled press and public. Some critics enthused wildly, if inaccurately, about the event as “a profound and unique comment on the impossibility of Art.” Others decried Kermit as a “charlatan” pulling a “cheap stunt.” While others were merely curious to see what he might do next. The reviews of that first show, it’s safe to say, were decidedly mixed. But there was one in particular that pleased him enormously:

“The images I saw ranged from the oddly comforting and vaguely pastoral, to ones so perverted and disturbing I can’t even begin to relate them. Whether these in fact corresponded in any way whatsoever to those that Lansbury had brought to the gallery, I have no idea. But, why not? Kermit Lansbury’s images are subjective, as were mine. And what do we all have in common? Our subjectivity. Thus, as subjective images are they not somehow universal? Frankly, I don’t know, and it’s making my head hurt. But that’s no reason to suppose that tonight I didn’t meet a genius.” It was nice, Kermit told me, that at least one person had understood.

It might seem odd to think nowadays, when Lansburys quite regularly change hands for hundreds of thousands, but Kermit was unable to sell a single piece at that first show. But bear in mind, back then his particular brand of conceptual art was unheard of; much less, widely understood. Collectors were baffled. Not that it’s ever been unusual for an audience not to be able to touch great works of art — museum guards are generally quite insistent on it — but in 1969, not even to be able to see what you were buying, it was unprecedented.

How times have changed!

We have Kermit to thank, of course. For it was he who first pointed out the obvious: many art collections already go unseen, gracing only the bank vaults of the rich. To these people, that they will never see what they have purchased is — aptly enough where Kermit’s work is concerned — entirely immaterial: all that matters is ownership; investment. To Kermit, then, his works may as well remain in his head.

Of course, widespread acceptance that a Lansbury might be no more than a deed of ownership was, as you’ll imagine, far from instantaneous. So it was perhaps a great fortune that a certain young heiress fell for my dear friend when she did (but in the career of which successful artist has luck not played a hand).

Within months of meeting, the pair had announced their engagement, unveiling to some of the richest people in Britain what may still be Kermit’s most stunning creation, even surpassing Untitled #86: Portia’s engagement ring. Quite unique, and near impossible to copy, its transparent magnificence — as you’ll doubtless imagine — left all in attendance breathless. Soon, a Lansbury was near impossible to obtain. Yes, it was a very happy union, in so many ways.

Granted, not a marriage without its difficulties — Kermit’s frequent alcoholic excesses down the years are well documented, and thus not recounted here; ditto the incident with the sturgeon and the dentist — but neither he nor Portia have regrets, and even as Kermit’s life sadly now nears its end, their devotion to each other remains as simple and tender a portrait of love as you could ever hope to see.

Yet, even in death — and may its scythe turn rusty — old Kermit will blaze a unique and distinctive trail: as perhaps the only artist who has ever taken his each and every work to the grave (how this will affect the collectors market, goodness only knows). But I say ‘perhaps’, for here a contradiction lies: are Kermit’s works not, as he has so often suggested, just waiting to be found in all our heads?

To Kermit there is no problem here, of course, nor with any contradiction: “So both things are true,” he will always shrug. “What can I say? I didn’t create the world!”

True — but he did make it that bit more interesting.

But let us return to the beginning now, and that little documented period before his great artistic success. I recently asked him again — had it informed his work?

“How could it?” he replied. “I was a mango! I was not conscious. My work has thus been informed entirely by not being a mango.” As he was of course aware, that wasn’t really what I wanted to know. He sighed. “People buy things that exist only in my head, yet that they have problems with? OK, I will tell you what happened when I was a mango.” What? I asked, thinking finally I might get to the bottom of it. “Nothing,” he laughed, “I was a mango, of course!”

Like I said, sometimes there’s just no arguing.

Tim Warren is a writer of mostly very short things. His microfictions and flash can be found most recently in Serious Flash Fiction Anthology: Vols. 5 & 6, Paragraph Planet, Overheard, Pendemic and the VSS365 Anthology. The rest you can find on Twitter. He lives in Cornwall, UK.

Image via Pixabay

The Day After Independence Day – Thomas Elson

In the days before air conditioning when oscillating fans provided fleeting relief, and winter chills were waylaid by Franklin stoves placed in the kitchen near the stairway to warm upstairs bedrooms, Aunt Josephine, a large, smiling, accommodating woman, the first born of a family of five, stood in the town’s only grocery story with her younger sister and nephew staring at a cold, blue tube almost six inches long.

Their husbands remained in the 1953 Plymouth. “Hell, one grocery store is just like any other.”

*

They had risen at four thirty, and, while the men milked, the two women stoked the stove, visited the outhouse, prepped the Windsor oven, gathered eggs, pulled a slab of ham, sliced it, returned the remainder to the aging room, hauled milk from the milk barn, worked the small hand pump attached to a pipe that ran from the windmill into the kitchen, started the Coleman coffee percolator, laid out the men’s breakfast of ham, sausage, scrambled eggs, homemade biscuits, bread baked the day before, newly-churned butter, milk as fresh as that morning’s sun, remembered to bring the butter and jelly to the table, ate while standing, washed and dried the dishes, placed a towel over the glasses in the rack, swept the floor, rushed to the outhouse one more time, then changed into hand-sewn flour sack dresses, nylons, and the same type of shoes their grandmother wore, came downstairs, and loaded the car with the necessities for a pre-McDonald’s day trip. As long as they returned by six that evening they’d be okay. “Cows don’t milk themselves.”

*

In the refrigerated grocery store aisle. Aunt Josephine, holding the six-inch blue tube, said to her younger sister, “Pauline, look at this. What do you think?”

“It’s only ten cents.”

“For a dime I could buy-“

“Look.” She handed the cold blue tube to her younger sister.

“Just put em in the oven and in less than twenty minutes- Jeez.”

“Come over here.” Her younger sister motioned toward the frozen food section.

“What are those?”

“T.V. dinners.”

Aunt Josephine touched the rectangular package of frozen chicken, peas, a dollop of mashed potatoes, and four apple slices.

“Why?” She placed the package back in the freezer and returned to reexamine the blue tube.

*

Back home that evening, they served supper with the blue tube biscuits, said nothing, but planned to return to that grocery store. After all, cake mixes were a dime too.

Thomas Elson’s short stories, poetry, and flash fiction have been published in numerous venues such as Calliope, Pinyon, Lunaris, New Ulster, Lampeter, Selkie, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, and Adelaide Literary Magazine. He divides his time between Northern California and Western Kansas.

Image via Pixabay

Walking with Stanislavski – Mike Hickman

On the first day of the course, the tutor told us to do a Stanislavski.

This was after he’d given his movie credits. A couple of bawdy British “Confessions” movies and the film that finally killed off the British horror industry. And he seemed proud of it and I was fucking awed by him with his jumper tied round his shoulders and his indoor sunglasses and his perfect teeth. I was fucking awed by his Certainty in Himself.

And then, ten minutes into the ‘lecture’, he told us to do a Stanislavski.

Which is how I found myself out on the town with the shoppers and the baby buggies and the druggies and the meths heads and the oldies, and I thought this was going to be It. This was how we were going to Learn. This was going to change my life.

I listened to a bald bloke talking to his mate on the blower about needing a “hundred Thatchers” for something and I fell into step behind him. I imitated his walk a bit – the strut and the constricted swing of the balls in the too-tight jeans – and I wondered if I could dare try to drum up conversation with him. Just ask him the time, perhaps, but in the lingo, with the old dog and pears and whatever else I could remember from the TV. ‘cos how would he know? He wouldn’t know I’d just started at the not-quite-a-University. He wouldn’t know I was an acting student.

Apart from the long coat and the scarf and the badges, that is, but I’d turned the lapels up and out and I’d adopted the walk and I could do it, I could do it, I could do it.

The bald bloke disappeared into Ladbrokes and I was left loitering around the bus station with the dirty macs and the blue rinses and the drivers with their ghee-greased DAs. That was still good, though. That was what Peter director man had suggested we do. So I sat there on a bench for half an hour, maybe an hour, and I turned my collar up further and I adopted the posture of the ardent fag smoker, although I put the biro away after attracting more than a few funny looks. Which should have been fine. Because there were plenty like that where I’d come from. Before today. Before I’d been packed off on the train to the digs and the Uni with a six pack of crisps and the single saucepan that my mother had been able to spare.

There were plenty of the lost and alone to be seen in the town centre back home. They were in their own worlds, too. How difficult could it be? Even without the White Lightning cider and the dog on a string.

The hour passed. It might well have started to rain.

When we got back to the lecture theatre, and after Peter had got off the phone to his agent to check that, once again, the film industry had no use for him, I got to hear of some of the others’ exploits. The big girl from Stoke had gone into a gay bar at 10 in the morning and had a right old time of it playing pontoon with a couple of geezers who she swore blind were wearing chaps. The self-conscious skateboarder had found himself down by the river and fed the swans whilst reciting Keats at passers-by. And a goodly quantity of the rest of the cohort had been down to HMV for the sales.

What had we learned from this, Peter wanted to know? Putting ourselves into the shoes of others. Being out there and Taking On A Part. What had we learned about the craft of being an Actor?

And this might have been the first inkling of the first hint of the first chink in the armour of this course and its pseudo-intellectual, anti-intellectual bunch of tutor poseurs who would rather have been propping up the bar in the Ivy than speaking to unwashed poxy students like us.

Because he’d thought it was a learning experience.

I’d sat there for an hour. Maybe two.

He’d thought we’d have “got something” from Being Other People.

Which meant he’d thought we knew who the hell we were.

But what really hit me, as he let us talk and he looked at his watch and he waited to scoot us out of the seats so he could get back to exercising his own seat, was the thought that should have occurred to me from the first.

Maybe the ones who’d been to HMV had known. Or had known that it wasn’t worth the knowing.

It was Day 1 of the course. And maybe some of us knew who we were well enough to have a punt at being someone else of a drizzly Monday morning, but he sure as hell hadn’t told us who the fuck Stanivlaski was.

Mike Hickman (@MikeHic13940507) is a writer from York, England. He has written for Off the Rock Productions, the Blake-Jones Review, Bitchin’ Kitsch, Bandit Fiction, Brown Bag and the Trouvaille Review.

Image via Pixabay

Siberia – Varsha Venkatesh

Cut off your ear, you tell me. You don’t need your mouth to paint, your eyes to make music, or your ears to write. All you need is suffering. Everybody famous has committed at least one act of insanity. Would Van Gogh be half as interesting if he didn’t cut off his ear? No one likes stories about shiny, happy people, and when you’re interviewed on late-night, no one wants to hear about your pleasant childhood or balanced chequebook.

Failure would be easier to endure if I didn’t need to succeed. How else am I going to sell my novel and move to Siberia? Or paint a masterpiece and move to Siberia? And why are we moving to Siberia? The world is ending, that’s why. No potable water, disgruntled critters setting off contagions, nuclear apocalypse, world peace. There’s no shortage of cataclysms waiting to take us. It doesn’t matter because you and I will be safe in Siberia. The rest of them… well, we never liked them anyway.

You don’t always make sense. Doc tells me you skip a few steps. She doesn’t think we need to write a best-selling novel or paint a masterpiece to move to Siberia, but you do, and I’m on your side — always. She wants us to live in the real world, like no one’s watch-ing. But the real world is all pretending, isn’t it? Remember when we were on that Truman Show, or at least we thought we were, and we had to be on our best behaviour. Imagine living 24/7 with that aunt — we all have one — who chastises you for not behaving like a lady. Sit with your legs together, don’t pull that face, don’t touch that, don’t gesture wildly while you talk to yourself. Behave like a lady because someone’s always watching. It was exhausting, putting on an act day and night. Do people actually live like this? I don’t know because it’s just been you and I for so long.

She tells me it’s a matter of time. Success is a matter of patience and persistence. It’s a matter of focusing on one thing and mastering it. Well, what if I focus on one thing and fail at it? I’ve got to spread my risk: something no one on Wall Street thinks to do. Put my eggs in a few baskets so that no one makes omelettes out of them. It’s not something she’ll under-stand. She’s linear, but you and I, well, we’ve got to move to Siberia, so you and I are going to have to be different. Surely, something will work, and if it doesn’t, we’ll just have to pre-tend it does. No matter how poor you are at what you do, there’s always that one guy who’s capable of selling dung as elixir. We just have to find that guy. That guy can make us presi-dent.

It used to be so much easier as a kid. The expectations were clearer; the rewards were clearer. You weren’t around then, but there was a voice before your voice. Daydreams where I was pretty and powerful. The lines I came up with: wise and witty, with just the right mix-ture of humour and pathos. I’ve never been able to do any better. Doc says that, eventually, it’ll all work out in our favour. She says that I should just do and not think of the thereafter, but how is that possible? I can’t stop thinking about what it’ll be like out there in the cold: you and I in the infinite emptiness. It’ll be quiet outside, and it’ll finally be quiet inside. Not you, dear friend, I’ll never get rid of you. I’ll just get rid of all the negative lil sourpusses who crush joy like bugs under their feet.

It’s not going well for us, friend. I don’t think we’ll get to Siberia this way. But you’ll help me, won’t you? Why can’t they be all like you? I can hear your voice in my ear — the one slated for destruction.

Don’t you worry, love. In six months, we’ll want to be the next Beethoven and forget all about this. Did you know he was deaf? Now, there’s a story for late-night. The world’s full of possibilities, even if the probabilities haven’t always worked in our favour. They have pianos in Siberia, don’t they?

Varsha Venkatesh is a scientist living in Bangalore, India. She loves writing, photography, and mystery novels.

Image via Pixabay

Movements – Tim Craig

Mozart died at 35 and thus never came to know the indignities of an old man’s bladder.

If he had, he would, Colm thought, have made his Symphony no.41 shorter, or — at least – perhaps made the second movement a little less ‘adagio’.

He twisted in the plush seat in an attempt to shift the excruciating pressure from one side of his abdomen to the other.

Were his wife still alive she would be hissing at him right now from the adjacent seat, admonishing him for ‘not going before it started’ and – especially – for the pre-concert beer to which he had treated himself in the foyer.

The simple truth was, he didn’t really enjoy classical music: he never had. He’d only ever come to these dirges to keep her company, and now she was gone it was an automatic habit which persisted in the way hair and fingernails are said to continue growing post mortem.

The pain now was unbearable. He knew he couldn’t hold on. The violins and the cellos were joined bv the bassoons and the brass. A stretto between the high and low strings leading inevitably to the coda’s five-part invertible counterpoint. He squeezed his thighs together. But there was no stopping the contrapuntal climax when it came: a tidal wave that crashed over the auditorium and burst out through the doors of the concert hall, gushing down the steps and into the surrounding streets, sending the French horns clanging into lampposts and the strings skittering down the gutters, whining like drowning cats.

The conductor raised his arms. There was a fleeting silence – a glitch – before the audience stood as one to acclaim the orchestra. All except Colm, who remained seated and who — in his spreading humiliation — wished himself not just miles away, but years.

Originally from Manchester, Tim Craig now lives in London. A winner of the Bridport Prize for Flash Fiction, he has also placed third — and been commended — in the Bath Flash Fiction Award. His teeny-tiny stories have appeared in the Best Microfiction Anthology 2019 (ed Dan Chaon), the New Flash Fiction Review and in the BIFFY50.

Image via Pixabay

Vaulting The Picket Fence – Gina Headden

Stefan’s half way up the oak tree, his 10-year-old limbs propelling him onwards. His brother, Luke, kneels on the ground below, shaping an arrow with his penknife, a bow slung over his broadening pre-teen back. Gregory, the youngest brother, feels in the pocket of his shorts for his secret treasure, folds small fingers around it.

‘Hey, Babyface!’ shouts Luke. ‘You wanna help with these arrows?’

Gregory shakes his head, runs quickly into the house.

Mom’s upstairs moving things about.

‘Anyone seen my pink slacks?’ she calls, as Gregory slips into his room.

He hears her open a window.

‘Has anyone seen my pink…’

‘No!’ chorus Stefan and Luke.

Gregory picks his way through Lego bricks, train-track, denims and t-shirts, being careful not to stand on his plaid hunting jacket, the one that looks like Dad’s. Mom loves that jacket, loves it so much she bought the same jacket for Luke and Stefan too. My Southern men she’d said, photographing them, posting them on Facebook.

From his bedroom window, Gregory watches his brothers.

‘Bow down before your king!’ commands Stefan from the treetop.

Luke looks up at Stefan.

‘Shoot me!’ Stefan dares him.

Luke charges his bow, sends an arrow skywards. Gregory’s breath catches as Stefan topples, falls like a cowboy in a Western, his arms outstretched, before smacking into dusty ground.

‘Get up, stupid!’ Luke says, laughing.

Stefan doesn’t move.

‘Stefan!’ Mom calls racing towards him from the back door.

She kneels beside Stefan, her ear to his mouth.

‘Fooled you!’ Stefan yells, pushing Mom away and rubbing his grazed elbow.

‘Bastard!’ says Luke. ‘You’re a dead man.’

‘Ha! You thought I was, you mean!’ says Stefan, getting up and vaulting the picket fence. Seconds later, Luke is after him and Mom is looking at them the way she did when they had their ‘men’s men’ photograph taken. She’ll tell Dad later and he’ll smile, talk of boys being boys, before looking at Gregory, challenge in his eyes.

Mor-ti-fi-ca-tion. The word his mother used when she spoke of the boy next door who’d had his ear pierced. Gregory says it now, likes how it sounds. He takes the treasure from his pocket, removes the lid. The pink is so pretty. If Gregory listens carefully, he swears he can hear it sing. This is the colour he’d seen on his father’s cuff that day he’d come home early from school when Mom was away. Dad had grabbed a tissue from Mom’s dressing table, pretended to blow his nose but really he’d been rubbing his mouth. When he’d turned to face Gregory, Gregory had seen black lines around his father’s eyes, like someone had circled them with a pen.

Tired Dad had said when Gregory stared at him. I’m just so tired.

Gregory puts the lid back on the lipstick, opens his wardrobe and slips the little tube in with the pink slacks beneath the box for his Nerf gun. A perfect match. He’s chosen well.

Gina Headden’s writing has been published on audio platforms and in fiction and non-fiction magazines, including, amongst others, Lightbox Originals, Ellipsis Zine, FlashBack Fiction, Longleaf Review, Sunday Herald Magazine, The Casket of Fictional Delights, Funny Pearls and NFFD’s Flash Flood. Gina lives in Scotland and tweets @gmdfreelance.

Image via Pixabay

Call Of The View – Lotte van der Krol

It was a Saturday night. The city was buzzing with excitement, flashing neon signs and speeding taxi headlights lighting up the streets, feverish music thumping through open windows and locked doors. Promise hung in the air like smoke, intoxicating people prowling the sidewalks in search of new dangers to entertain themselves with.

I could have been down there with them, finding my own way through the night, finding my own excitement between the lights, but no. I had to be on a high roof, shivering in the cold, trembling at the thought of those same sidewalks so many feet beneath me.

“Just look at this view!” Noah exclaimed, “Isn’t it amazing?”

I didn’t agree. I didn’t care for this ‘view’ except in being at least nine feet away from it. I wanted to be somewhere inside with music and people. I wanted to be warm and on ground level. I wanted him to stop leaning over that fucking ledge. It made me dizzy just to look at him. I held onto the frame of the metal door that had led us here and tried to focus on my breathing.

In, and out. In. And out.

I felt sick.

Noah looked at me over his shoulder, softly illuminated by stray light from the streets below. His brown curls bobbed gently in the breeze, framing his face just so. He smiled.

God, he was beautiful.

“What’s the matter?” he teased, “Scared?”

“I’m not scared,” I protested, “I’m cold. It’s fucking freezing up here.”

In, and out. In, and out.

“C’mon,” he said, holding out a hand, wiggling his fingers, “you don’t want to miss this.”

I started to tell him that I wanted to leave, but the words died on my lips when he turned up that smile, flashing his teeth, dazzling me. I never could say no to that smile.

Fucking hell. I closed my eyes and took a step before I could change my mind. The roof felt wobbly beneath my feet. Another step. Noah’s hand grabbed mine, gently pulling me towards him and the ledge. The stone felt icy cold against my stomach. I opened my eyes.

I stared into the maw of a concrete ravine of buildings and sidewalks, the windows glittering like sharp teeth, calling for me. My body tensed, ready to spread my arms and take the leap, the world already spinning towards me, the ground getting closer and closer.

I shot back, right into Noah’s arms.

In, and out.

“You should look up, not down,” Noah whispered in my ear. I shivered. I had closed my eyes again, trying to hide, but in the dark it was still there. That endless, endless depth and falling, falling, falling.

“It’s not so scary when you’re not looking at the ground,” he said. There was that smile in his voice again. Noah gently took my chin to move my head upwards. I let him.

“Open your eyes.” I did.

Before us the city spread out like a grey, static sea. Traffic lights and neon signs reflected in windows and puddles on rooftops, greens and reds and blues flashing on and off. Living room lights shone brightly, here and there strings of Christmas lights hung from balconies. In the distance the lights of smaller towns hummed, and even the deep black sky showed a few stars. A landscape made of light and darkness.

I let out a breath.

It was beautiful.

I was still trembling, though.

Noah kissed my cheek and let go of me with a laugh. He climbed onto the ledge and stood up right, without a fear in the world, with nothing between him and the heavens, between him and the earth.

“Sometimes,” he said, spreading his arms wide, “you just have to face your fears.”

I looked up at his dark silhouette. He was right.

So, I put my hand on Noah’s leg, and pushed. He fell without a sound.

In, and out.

In.

And out.

Slowly, the trembling stopped.

Lotte van der Krol’s favorite color is the green-blue of the sky on a clear day about an hour after the sun has set. Her short fiction has appeared in Popshot Quarterly, and you can find more stories on lottevanderkrol.wordpress.com. She’s also on twitter @lottevdkrol

Image via Pixabay

The Cucumber Confrontation – David Cook

There’s a solitary cucumber lying on the ground in the supermarket car park, its shiny shrink-wrap protecting it from grime.

Is it acceptable to just take it? Is that stealing? Or should I hand it in at the store? Whoever dropped it might come looking for it.

I’m pondering the etiquette of this situation when I spot another man two or three feet away. He’s also staring at the cucumber. He looks at me. I expect to see thoughts similar to mine in his eyes, but no. There’s nothing but a steel certainty. His lips curl into a smirk. His eyes narrow. He wants this cucumber. That solidifies my resolve. I hadn’t been certain previously, but now this cucumber is the most important thing on Earth. I would walk over hot coals for this cucumber. I would eat glass for this cucumber. I would most certainly punch this doofus in the face for this cucumber. Except none of that would be for the cucumber in reality. It would be to show said doofus which of us is the real man around here. Here being a dusty supermarket car park just off the A473.

My arm twitches. So does his. He makes a ‘wanker’ gesture with his fist. I show him the middle finger. He edges towards the stranded fruit. I do the same. Suddenly we’re cowboys in an old Western, circling a loaded gun on the saloon floor, wondering who’s going to be the one to grab the prize and shoot down the other. He swivels his shoulders and suddenly takes a swing at me. It misses by miles and it’s my turn to smirk – what an amateur! – but too late I realise it’s a decoy strike, distracting me while he ducks swiftly to grab the cucumber. He clasps it in his paw. There’s a grin on his face. He’s won. He’s the man. He’s the victorious sheriff throwing the bandit out of town. He’s Johnny Big Cucumber. And I’m the loser, sprawled face-down in the dirt. I turn red. I never knew salad could leave me so emasculated.

Then the cucumber is snatched abruptly from his hand. An old lady clutches it triumphantly. ‘’Scuse me, lads, I dropped this on the way to my car,’ she tells us. She beckons at a knackered brown Mondeo. ‘Thanks for finding it for me.’ Her husband leans from the driver’s seat window, sniggering, as she returns to him, the cucumber erect in her fist. We, now each as emasculated as the other, watch them leave. She waves her prize at us as they chug away.

I look back at my former foe. Our eyes meet once more, then we stare at the ground. ‘Okay,’ he says.

‘Okay.’

‘Bye,’ he says.

‘Bye.’

We walk off in opposite directions. Then I realise I’m heading away from the supermarket and turn around. I still need to buy food.

Later, shopping complete, I run into him again in the gents toilets, but we don’t acknowledge each other.

David Cook’s stories have appeared in the National Flash Fiction Anthology, Spelk, Cabinet of Heed, Ellipsis Zine and more. He’s a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee. He lives in Bridgend, Wales, with his wife and daughter. Say hi on Twitter @davidcook100.

Image via Pixabay

Gulls – Ian O’Brien

I clock out and sit in the car, smoke a cigarette with the window down, waiting for the five o’clock wave of traffic to ease. There’s only one way out of the industrial estate and it bottlenecks every time. We’re bumper to bumper all the way to the motorway which pulls us like a slow tide; sluggishly we flow into the first lane, some try to break out into the middle, I wait, my indicator clicking in sync with the windscreen wipers as the first flecks of rain fall. The matrix sign flashes up 40 and we grimace at the irony. There must be a hundred people here, together, alone together in our worlds, eyes forward, inching slowly on. Maybe even listening to the same song, the same station, both synced and separate. It’s then that I see them, the gulls, circling high up to the East, a half mile from the barrier, above something of interest behind high walls. Probably a land fill site. They circle and caw, pull and lift, swirling like a whirlpool in the grey of the sky, it’s a scruffy kind of beauty, like scratches in tin. They are held together by something, an invisible tether, and I wonder what holds them, draws them, spins them in this cloud. Like us, inching through our own existence, alone together. Now and then the sun that has already set throws dying rays like an afterthought this way. There will be a rainbow somewhere, I should look for it in the mirrors. A red hue seeps across the clouds and now and then a yellow flash paints the underwing of the birds, gilding them, they shimmer like pearl as they spin, a shoal, and I wonder if they have ever seen the sea.

Ian O’Brien writes and teaches in Manchester, UK. His fiction can be found online and in print in magazines such as Fictive Dream, Prole, Neon, Flash Fiction Magazine and Storgy. You can find him on Twitter at @OB1Ian

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Incidents – Marc Frazier

The house stood at the top of a hill on Home Street in the sleepy little town of Whitmore. It had been apartments previously, an upstairs and a down. This was a time when children played outdoors without any worries, doors were left unlocked, and keys rested in ignitions unattended. The two children in this family were used to doing what they were told. An oppressive atmosphere reigned which was exacerbated when the father, who worked two jobs, was home.

It had an attic which could only be reached by ladder. The brother and sister sneaked into this mysterious space. It had a strange smell, and the girl seemed allergic to the insulation. Their parents had stored several boxes and other random items up there. When they all settled in for the night, an eerie silence ruled except on some nights when they could hear creaking sounds coming from somewhere above—the attic. The boy who was labeled “sensitive” by the parents imagined the sounds were made by a body swinging from a rope. The parents said it was just the old house groaning in the wind, but the boy noticed the sounds from above even when there was no wind.

His sister started sleepwalking not long after they moved in. One night she went down to the basement landing to get the bag she used on her paper route. The parents caught her with it before she headed out the door. Another time she walked halfway down the landing from upstairs to where a door led to the outside. When it had been apartments, stairs had stood on the outside of the house which the parents had torn down. If she’d gotten out that door she would have fallen into space.

These children were drawn to things unseen, defying their parents’ prohibition of occult activities like Ouija boards. They played with their friends, fascinated by the light touch it took to get answers to questions. A young girl had been kidnapped a couple of years before they’d moved to Whitmore, and their neighbors told them how all the houses were searched and how fear gripped the town where nothing like this had happened before. When the brother and sister asked the board, “Is Maria still alive?” the needle slid quickly to “No.”

As they grew older, they became very close. They could read each other’s thoughts. Often at the dinner table listening to their parents’ conversations, they gave each other knowing looks no one else could read. One Sunday morning the children heard their parents talking in hushed tones before mass. The sister hovered near their almost completely closed bedroom door and heard them say that an infant had once died in her room. How they had come upon such knowledge she had no idea. She went and immediately told her brother, and together their imaginations conjured up all sorts of things.

*

The family had a cat. The father wanted a dog, but the mother put her foot down. The girl named the cat Peter after Peter Tork of The Monkees. He was a good-natured cat and the mother loved to feel it rub against her legs when she was doing dishes or cooking. Unfortunately, the cat was no good at mousing. The mother had seen droppings around the house and had seen a mouse when doing laundry in the basement.

Actually, it was the father who had a terrible fear of these creatures and brought home rat traps with poison. The mother objected but the father was insistent. They would have to keep the cat away from the traps. So, he set a couple of them: one on the landing heading to the basement and one in the basement. Everyone was given strict orders to keep the kitchen door which led to the basement closed at all times.

A couple of days later, on a Saturday morning, a scream echoed throughout the house. Seeing the kitchen door open, the mother had gone down to the basement to investigate and found Peter curled up dead by the furnace. When the sister found out, she became a bit excited about what they were going to do with Peter. “Can we bury him in the back yard and put up a cross?” she asked a little too eagerly. “I can help dig.” The brother suspected she had left the kitchen door open, for he had heard her creeping downstairs after they had all gone to bed. The brother wondered if the spirit of the dead baby were responsible for the changes he saw occurring in his sister.

The following morning, she told him she had had visions when going to bed the previous night. As she lay awake staring at the wallpapered walls, she saw faces appear in the pattern. In a couple of them, mouths were slowly moving. She had been very scared and had put her pillow over her face. Each night now she would have trouble falling asleep. In addition, she obsessed over how she didn’t want to attend the all-girl Catholic school their father was now insisting on. The brother could sense how angry she was. He’d started feeling afraid of his sister’s thoughts. They were disturbing and violent. He struggled with whether to say something to their parents.

One night he awoke in fear thinking of his sister. She had gone down to the kitchen, gotten a butcher knife, and stealthily crept into their parents’ bedroom. She smelled her mother’s cold cream, noted her father’s pipe in its stand. The mother, a light sleeper, heard the floorboards creak, awoke to see her daughter holding a knife over the father. She screamed and shook the girl’s body to get her to drop the knife, for she knew her daughter had been sleepwalking. The “sensitive” boy stood watching from the doorway reading his sister’s real thoughts.

Marc Frazier has published poetry for decades in journals including The Spoon River Poetry Review, ACM, The Gay and Lesbian Review, Slant, Permafrost, and Poet Lore. He has memoir in Gravel, The Good Men Project, decomP, et al. His fiction appears in Flash Fiction Magazine and Autre. His three poetry collections are available online. See Marc Frazier Author page on Facebook, @marcfrazier45 on Twitter, or marcfrazier45 on Instagram.

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Taste – Jimmy Huff

Way back when art was still made (pieces of themselves which people called pictures and songs and poems and movies and so on), sometimes it was real Art, capable of healing—which is to say, once upon a time humankind felt things and vulnerability was considered a virtue, encouraged, even. If you can believe it. The trouble was, way back then, real Art was work, real hard work, and when it came to work most people were utterly artless. And so, we left the art to the artists—persons who didn’t mind getting their hands dirty, who didn’t mind a meager spiritual return—while we, ourselves, content to listen, to marvel from a distance at creation but take no part in it, began to consume the sights and sounds around us rather than hear or see them for what they were. Contentment being what it was—humans being human—we developed a tolerance. We became critics. Soon, there were more critics than there were artists, and no one could agree on anything. Everyone was a critic, especially the artists, because within everyone was a creative drive starving for inspiration.

Of all the earthly appetites, the indulgences of true Art were next to none. But it turned out we were gluttons. And we were proud. We were so very proud, taking in, giving back nothing, demanding more. In this regard, we can blame ourselves. Call it hubris. The Gods were always calling humanity out on that—a prime offense. A prime mover: we couldn’t help ourselves. Whenever real Art was made, we put it on a pedestal. We put it on display. We even pretended it was God, sometimes, not just offerings. We worshipped it. We sexualized it. We got off on it. We ate it up. We welcomed judgement.

The God who came appeared to humanity as a great big Tomato with a green toupee. It had been watching the Earth drama from on far, not unlike so many Earthlings numbing themselves with sensations all the rage. It was Biblical, the way we destroyed ourselves for want of understanding ourselves. Eden burned and everyone carried matches. And yet—from these ashes sprung the highest Art. Seeing us lust about in this way, the big Tomato grew to want a closer look. A taste. It got off on our scheming eloquence in the face of self-inflicted doom. Let it be said, this could have led only to our current state of social sobriety, now.

But, for a time, the big Tomato God grew friendly and bright, bordering on overripe, Its skin brimming sweet red, tearing as It spasmed in fruition. So long as we impressed the Tomato with our plight, all the fighting and backsliding and deceit in the world ceased. Suddenly, there was money in everybody’s pockets, and everybody went to bed at night with full bellies and a roof over their heads with clean drinking water on tap; and everybody was more tolerant and openminded and true to their word; and they chewed with their mouths closed, covered their mouths when they coughed; and people pulled up their pants, used their blinkers, bathed regularly, made sure women got theirs first; and there was general goodwill toward humankind.

But how critical, the God who came. In our defense, we had a lot less to make art about when people got along and looked out for one another instead of living lives devoted to gratifying themselves. Where was the tension? Where was the suspense? The double-cross? The sacrifice? The death?

The big Tomato grew harder and harder to please, unimpressed, peeved. It grew rotten, downright nasty! If the big Tomato had truly given, now it took away.

Life on Earth became increasingly dogmatic trying to please this great big Tomato we called God. For the sake of progress, we abandoned our Ideals. We sold out. We gave the Tomato what it wanted, never mind the cost. We rehashed old ideas; we tried to remember. We “recycled.” There were many names for what we did, all awful—and to no avail. In the end, we killed our Would-be God. We starved It, the great big Tomato that came down from the sky, for us. A bad movie was made about it, and remade, and made again, and…

Jimmy Huff is a writer and musician from the Missouri Ozarks, USA. His work has appeared in Third Flatiron Anthologies, Dirty Chai Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, and other lovely places.

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The Fire Breather – Alexa Hailey

I couldn’t count the number of times I’d seen him. Every day at lunch, if the weather was nice, I’d leave my office and sit out on a bench and eat my sandwich. It wasn’t a nice spot. It faces a busy intersection, where four lanes cross each other. But it was the only option.  

He would usually already be there by the time I sat down. He would sit by the side of the road in his black, tattered clothes. When the light at the intersection turned red, he would walk out in front of the lines of cars, with all the pretense of a performer walking on stage. He would swallow a gulp of whatever was in his clear water bottle, and spit fire high into the air, and in that moment he was always grand.  

Then the fire breather would walk between cars holding out a bag for change. If he was lucky, he’d get folded bills handed to him by drivers who never looked him in the eye.  

The day his luck turned was no different. Even now, I’m convinced he didn’t know anything had changed. He looked just as dejected as always when he arrived at the corner, yet walked out with the same bravado when the light changed to red.  

I swear, I swear he was surprised when he breathed out his fire, and instead of reaching out and then disappearing, it kept going. The ball of fire left his mouth, it grew, and changed, lengthening, shortening, moving. All while wisps of flames, tendrils of white light, swirled around its edges.  

It became a phoenix, a great bird of fire. It flew up and over the idling cars and then down, fast, and straight back into the fire breather’s mouth before the light went green.  

Of course, now, all the windows rolled down. As he strode between cars, his bag fuller than it had ever been, I saw something come over him. I assumed it was realization, but I’ll never know for sure.  

In the coming days, I bore witness to a few transformations. My corner went from a mundane intersection to a tourist attraction of sorts, a Mecca if you will. Pilgrims of all kinds flocked there, from bored gossips to religious fanatics, convinced the fire breather’s creatures were a sign of the end times.  

The fire breather traded his rags for fine designer button downs that somehow never looked quite right on him. He still had the same swagger as he approached his line of cars, but now he sent three kids out between them, and two down the sidewalk, running out with bags that gained weight so quickly the boys would struggle to bring them back.  

I myself underwent a transformation of sorts. Seeing as I was one of the original witnesses to his first creature, I went from quiet lunch breaks alone to chatting eagerly with the surrounding crowd. I have to admit I enjoyed basking in my own celebrity status, thanks to whatever this was.  

His creatures were never the same. He breathed out all manner of things. Animals, birds, reptiles. There was a lion, complete with a fiery mane moving in never-ending spirals, and once a whole flock of perfect doves. The fire even formed little white rings around their tiny necks. 

All the spectators had their theories as to how the Fire breather had come by this ability, and they all claimed that the manner of his end was proof of their hypothesis, that this could only mean that they alone were right.  

Some said he had bribed some sort of God, and then angered it. Others that he’d traded with the devil, and his debt had come due. Still others thought he was taking some kind of drug, and this was a kind of overdose.  

I don’t know about all that. All I know is that I was sitting in my usual spot, watching with everyone else, when the fire breather let out a great bull. It grew out of his mouth, its front hooves hit the ground before its back ones had time to be let out. His stomach curled in with the force of the breath it took to birth the thing. Then it ran through the street and back again. The fire breather opened his mouth to accept it, but the bull did the same. And it swallowed him whole. 

Alexa Hailey is a freelance and fiction writer from Massachusetts whose fiction work has been published in Spelk Fiction, Flash Fiction Magazine, Vamp Cat Mag, and others. Alexa tweets at @lexabobexa.

Image via Pixabay

Potato-Bread and Elephants – Christine Collinson

I’m making potato-bread again by the pale light from the kitchen window. The wheat supply’s gone down with the ships. Sunk by u-boats, so the papers tell us. At least we’ve got potatoes, loads of ‘em. As much potato-bread as any family round here could need.

With all the practice, I’m getting better. Always leave the skin on to keep the goodness, like the booklet says. No peeling. I boil them up, then mash ‘em to a pulp like creamy clouds. The muscles in my forearm pull and pinch, but never tire. I focus on nothing, just working those clumps and the soft squidgy sound beneath my masher.

The clatter of cart-wheels passes by out front. It could be the elephant hauling munitions to the dockside again. So many horses taken away to France that we’ve none left to work for us. Such a sight, like you’ve never seen. The lady next door said she’s called Lizzie, said she put her trunk through a window and pinched someone’s supper. A circus elephant, I ask you. Lord knows what’s coming next.

I close the oven door with a satisfactory ‘clang’ and wipe down the table-top as the heat begins to warm the room. The day’s brightening and promises something more than the endless rain of late. Perhaps I’ll walk into town later, before teatime, when my Gregory finishes his shift. The young lads might be going, but if it wasn’t for the older chaps, the place would’ve closed its gates. We might not have horses, but we’ve still got steelworkers, thanks be given.

It’s only been seven weeks since our David left, but I need to fill time. He looked so young in his uniform and it seemed too bulky for him. And I need to fill spaces; the physical ones around me and more so, the shadowy ones in my mind. They lurk insidiously. I don’t want to see what fills them, when it’s quiet and dark. In the night hours I can reach out and curl my arm around Gregory, but in the days I find nothing.

Savoury and comforting, I smell the fresh potato-bread. I peep at it, but it’s not quite ready. The kitchen’s clean and neat, so I could go out when it’s done. I should buy more potatoes. I might even see Lizzie, I think, with a rare wry smile. The strangeness of these times feels as usual now as anything ever has. I don’t mind most of it, not really. Only his absence, his distance, and the anguished need for it to end with his safe return.

Christine Collinson writes historical fiction. Her Flash Collection’s been shortlisted by Ellipsis and she’s a Best Microfiction nominee.
She’s also been longlisted by Bath Flash Fiction. She tweets @collinson26.

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The Panic Button – Cecily Winter

When the flagstones began curling at the corners and twilight dissolved into blankness, the ligaments serving my bones snapped all at once. I couldn’t walk another step, couldn’t even stand. I sank down on a familiar step and wrapped my arms around my leather satchel—my eternal companion before the proliferation of laptops—that brimmed with recalled library books. My eyes screwed closed. I was barely aware of the woman who stopped to ask if I needed help. Satisfied with a headshake, she left me heaped in that pose of anguished and baffled desolation.

Inside or outside my skull, the campus proceeded to disintegrate, and I hunched against the stout wooden doors of Bennett Hall. If I’d pushed my way through, I could have huddled in the corner of a classroom or mounted the stairs to my old grad-student cubicle.

While I sat, the crick-crack of shattered masonry turned into a downflow of matter that bathed my spine in the day’s retained warmth. I rocked back and forth with eyes closed and arms wrapped tight around my bulky satchel and focused on what used to be. I hastily erected mental scaffolding on the façade, which I knew existed the day before, with axioms of architecture: keystone, quoin, pediment, cornice, buttresses. To believe that the laws of physics go rogue in one’s presence is a symptom of mania, I suppose, but a panic attack is exactly that, a mania contained by human skin.

The worst of the chaos bayed by a returning self-possession, my ligaments reattached to muscles and muscles to bone, and I squinted through half-mast eyes at the devastations I’d wrought. Catty-corner to a dim street light, I saw that the one-way traffic of Walnut Street had bifurcated like the opening wings of a massive dragonfly—only the long wings were molten blisters of glass veined in exhaust fumes.

I lingered in the murk of confusion while trees as venerable as Ben Franklin rose above the traffic, etiolated, and flinging out twigs and leaves to taunt the peregrine falcons deployed in harassing city pigeons. I recalled Loren Eisley, formerly a Ben Franklin Chair at Penn, who grieved for a sick pigeon and how impossible he found it to walk a city street without experiencing profound pity for its living things. Was I a sick pigeon harassed by invisible raptors, with only one woman stopping by to offer up the milk of human pity?

My eyes opened fully. This joint failure of architecture and nerve is become the thesis for an autobiographical snippet of personality collapse, the flapping page of a penny-dreadful left out in a gale. It must have been autumn, the falling time. I’d been headed for the Rare Book Room or the Furness Shakespeare Library—I’d forgotten which—in the vastness of Van Pelt Library. Abruptly, I blundered through the dragonfly wing of traffic. Safely across that diaphanous blur, I set eyes on the split-button sculpture at the foot of the steps, the metaphor of a cracked ambition.

On my shoulder rode the satchel, the capstan mooring me to that ambition, a gift to self for graduate school, always heavy then with massive anthologies, snippets of literature across the ages, multiple paper-chains of descent, pastiche, and innovation. How much writing has been inked, how much writing about writing, how much teaching has been required to understand writing and the printed idiosyncrasies and errors of our manifold cultural heritages?

Around that time, I’d been researching, composing, and publishing chapters and articles that required the framework of history or one or another voguish theoretical discourse. This arcana, along with research texts embodied in microfilm and ancient chronicle, had to be cut and pasted into cogent explication. These fabrications of thesis, paragraph, footnote, ambition, and mimicry were the buttons by which I anticipated fastening about me the whole-cloth robe of future tenure. It was a struggle and sometimes I preferred watching classic movies on TV.

I’d anchored myself by literature’s paper-chains to a career proving as evanescent as a zeitgeist, but on that particular fall evening the library’s concrete columns remained solidly in place with windows glued to their frames. The thousands upon thousands of books inside had expanded in width with every reading until they’d filled the empty gaps between the stacks, which kept the walls from tumbling inward and floors from rising and dropping like antic elevators. When the metaphysics upholding our institutions collapses for good, those books will feed generations of beetles.

Up the steps—I never counted them—I offloaded the recalled books before dipping my visiting scholar’s card into the gate device. Though anxious about elevators in free-fall, I entered one that opened its door to me unbidden. I leant against the back panel to watch students enter and leave as lit numbers rose and fell, fell and rose. Finally, I remember to push the button for the hallowed sixth floor, where I debarked alone. I lingered by a glass-covered display of illustrated bibles that neatly relegated chaos to mysteries and marginalia.

My satchel in a locker, my notebook and pencil in hand, I signed into the Rare Book reading room and waited for the librarian to collect my requisitioned volumes while I gathered foam wedges and weighted pillows designed to minimize the wear on flaking covers and fragile paper.

Since I was last there, much has transpired architecturally and organically beyond those high windows. Buildings subject to collapse are renovated and re-named, revised mission statements issued, new faculty tenured, and old ambitions retired.

Sometimes, I’d believed I was anchored in place forever by the truth of this book or that, even by a single sentence or sentiment, but unlike books it seems that life keeps trying to get the answer right.

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Meet at the Pub on Rua de Lisboa (the One with the Lace Curtains in the Windows) – Jenny Wong

Eve sits at a table, waiting for Mack, watching the pot lights shed a holy golden glow across the bar. Ever since she met him, she’s always been the one who waits. Booze-saggy shelves line the back wall, a haven for near-empty bottles with a little bit left to give. The blotchy yellowed ceiling reminds her of a Rorschach Test done up in sepia and old smoke. She sees why he picked this throwback bar. Cigarettes were still allowed indoors.

When Mack arrives, his face is backlit in white-washed sunlight, but she knows it’s him. He still opens the door with a sleeve-covered hand, still wears that black leather jacket.

She waves him over and they attempt to mimic the patterns of old friends catching up, a handshake that leans into a hug, the loud awkward sound of a chair being pulled out. Conversations begin, filled with words and topics that belong in a pamphlet for middle age. Mid-sized sedans. Half-bath renos. Disneyland vacations.

He has a beard now. It lies across his face, shaggy and Brazil-shaped, with a bristle of white whiskers that zigzag through like a snowy mountain range. His thinning hair is combed back in scalp-revealing streaks. And he laughs differently. A short spasm. Hot blown air kicked out the throat. Although, she shouldn’t judge. Eve looks down at her white shirt, stomach pooching over her belt like a half sack of flour, expanding beyond the trim margins of her youth.

She can still see the old Mack if she squints hard, blurring the man across the table into a technicolor silhouette, still see the soft brown eyes that lit up right before the inevitable kisses, or the times when she smoked and he said she looked like the cover of a Joni Mitchell album. Eve quit smoking after he left. That was ten years ago.

The conversation slows into uncomfortable stares and twitching fingers. Mack excuses himself to go to the bathroom, leaving his cigarette smoldering in the table’s grungy plastic ashtray. Eve sighs and stares overhead. The water stains on the ceiling linger like rusty old ghosts, silent witnesses to the countless sputterings of two old flames reuniting without any chance of rekindling. How long before the cost of a strike wasn’t worth the chance of a spark?

Eve throws a few bills on the table and heads out the door. She blinks in the sudden daylight, breathing in the smell of new sunlight on warm pavement, leaving behind the dingy lace curtains to waft in the windows like empty old nightgowns with no more stories to tell.

Jenny Wong is a writer, traveler, and occasional business analyst. She resides in the foothills of Alberta, Canada and tweets @jenwithwords. She is currently attempting to create a poetry collection about locations and regularly visit her local boxing studio. Recent publications include Claw & Blossom, Atlas & Alice, Whale Road Review, Lost Balloon, and FlashFlood on the 2020 International Flash Fiction Day UK.

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The 5-Minute Emotional Workout – Giles Montgomery

Welcome to the 5-Minute Emotional Workout! Find an uncomfortable place and let’s begin…

Cue unsettling, discordant soundscape.

Okay, first let’s warm up. Think of something stressful – your job, love life, money, the banal futility of existence – whatever works for you.

Got it? Good. Focus on that as you feel your heartrate increase and your chest constrict…

Are the walls pushing in? Awesome!

Now squat down, hug your knees and rock back and forth, get a rhythm going, work that adrenal gland.

And screw your eyes shut as we go into our first…

EMOTION ZONE!

The beat drops, thudding in time to your pounding chest.

You’re eight years old, strapped in the back of a speeding car. Your parents are in the front, fighting. She wishes she’d never met him, he wishes he was dead – and he’s driving! The only thing they can both agree on is that it’s ALL… YOUR… FAULT!

Sound effect of a car crash, the music drops back.

Whoo, what a rush!

Now stand up, clench your fists and hyperventilate. Make sure everything’s good and tight.

Hey, what’s that up above you?

IT’S YOUR GREATEST DESIRE!

The music builds again, this time with a positive feel…

Reach for it! Jump! Feel the hope building!

It’s everything you ever wanted and it’s SO TANTALISINGLY CLOSE…

Record scratch, crowd goes ‘Ohhhh!’

But it’s gone. Next time, right?

Okay, nearly done. Let’s really push that limbic system!

A new, even more intense and disturbing beat kicks in.

Ready? Here we go…

Your friends throw a party, but you’re not invited!

Dinner with your family. Must… suppress… opinions!

You overhear your spouse tell a friend they ‘settled’!

You visit your doctor for the test results, but she won’t make eye contact!

Look at all these perfect, happy people on social media!

You air a problematic take and get cancelled!

It’s not imposter syndrome, you really are a hack!

Your dying father turns to you and… shakes his head in disappointment!

And finally – WE’RE HEADING FOR CATASTROPHE BUT WE’RE TOO DUMB TO STOP IT!

The music ends with a devastating KA-BOOM that reverberates away into an infinite and uncaring universe as you collapse into heaving, snotty sobs of utter despair.

5-Minute Emotional Workout is sponsored by…

Cue upbeat jingle.

When life’s got you down, get back up with the great taste of –

Giles Montgomery writes ads for a living and fiction for joy, previously seen in Storgy, Spelk, fat cat magazine, Tiny Molecules and Reflex Fiction. He lives near London with his family and can be found on Twitter @gilesmon.

Image via Pixabay

The First and the Last Black Hole – Benjamin S. Bowden

Remember that twitch just moments ago? That hypnagogic jerk happens to you every night. This time your foot got tangled in the sheet. Like a mouse. One that’s being bombarded by Phillip’s pounces. Philip’s claws don’t dig into you anymore; that’s how you know this is a dream. Philip is dead.

If you’ve finally convinced yourself, then what are you doing? Stop lying there. Stand up. Stop them. Don’t you see what they’re doing? They’re trying to kill you!

The curtains are purple. What kind of a hospital would have purple curtains? No kind of a hospital would have purple curtains. Ergo, this is no kind of hospital. At the very least this is not a kind hospital. The bed is potato-stiff and lumpy. Hospitals are known for non-stiff beds.

Go back to the song you shared with Bethy. The song, not the girl. Forget about the girl. Focus on the song. Do not be fooled by tricks of the mind. Thinking is always better than feeling. Is this the punishment? Is this the crime? No one can render your thoughts unappealing.

abab—the rhyme scheme. Anagram for abba, Aramaic for father. Why would your father say goodbye to you? Is he going on a trip? Far away? Again? That’s just fine, then. You did fine last time. You did so fine he had trouble finding you. That was when you got Philip. When you and Bethy first got Philip.

Forget about your family; forget about the girl. You hate her. Hate the girl. Hate the girl.

When did you quit the family business? On your brother’s birthday, right? He swore to never speak to you again. Yet here he is. Of course, this is just a dream. You never can trust family. Not even in your dreams.

And especially not with them. The moment you speak your dream aloud they will crush it. Rattling off statistics, singing the phrase starving artist as they steal your plate of pasta putenesca, reminding you of the family business, legacy, honor, pride, and other virtuous sins. You don’t need that in your life. You have better things to do with your time.

Running out.

Was that your grandmother who just ran out? Mom probably made her cry again. Good thing you never had to suffer through a mother-in-law. Anagram for woman Hitler.

Remind me, why are you dreaming about your family? You’re not Norman Bates—you actually made something of yourself. You only lived up to a few stereotypes: bachelor pad, illicit drugs, paint stained clothes. But you hated alcohol. And you were overweight; you were the opposite of starving. You don’t need to speak in the past tense—look at your waist right now!

Stop wasting time. The song, the girl, the paintings. They don’t matter. Philip is in danger. No, not in danger. Endanger. Philip is endangering you. Run away. Get up. Get up and run. Get. Up. Run. Go. Run.

Gun? Nobody brings those things into hospitals. Except crazy people who should be there anyway. Look around you. Do you see a gun? Anything that shoots? Do not be fooled by tricks of the mind. Trust your senses and not the analysis. Ignore the commentary. “Approach as if nobody has ever approached before.” Isn’t that how you paint? As if it’s the first painting ever created? The first piece of art. The first thing ever done purely for sake of the aesthetic. Art for art’s sake. People will wonder at how completely and utterly useless the art is. And they will adore you for it. They will go Wilde for you. For it. For in it they see themselves. Totally useless.

Philip is getting closer. See, Philip’s fang is lying on your forearm. Focus. Stop distracting yourself. Bethy doesn’t matter. World peace doesn’t matter. Nothing matters except waking up. Right. Now. Haven’t you heard what everybody is saying? You can hear them. They don’t know that. Show them. Move. Move your goddamn finger!

Thinking is always better than feeling.

You’re feeling tired. These people have overstayed their welcome. Don’t they know you need your sleep? Maybe when they leave you can sleep.

We don’t want sleep. We want wakefulness. Mindfulness. Awareness-ness.

A preacher once told you sleep is for those whom God loves. God loves you. How could He not after all the art you’ve created? After all of His creation you’ve mimicked? Recreation is re-creation. And you’re supposed to be like God. So, create like He did. Like he did: ex nihilo.

It’s the opposite of that. Into nothing, that’s where you’re heading. Toward the event horizon. Toward the singularity. It is the first and the last black hole. It is nothingness, a hole in the universe. But it is also everything. A black hole that has absorbed every particle and wave in existence leaving you as the last bite.

Ow!

Ow!

Philip hurt us. Who’s ‘us’? Who else is here?

Philip is gone and so are we. That was it. Our Rubicon. Our point of no return. Is this the punishment? Is this the crime? Our exit off the highway. Our death brought about by you.

If we’re together how can I find you?

Go back to Bethy. Picture her on the couch. Cross-legged and sunburnt. Holding the NES controller.

Where are you?

Your death is my death. Had you known, would you still have done it? You could have moved your finger, but you chose not to.

I’m sorry; I didn’t know.

You didn’t think to ask.

What do we do now?

We sit here and talk, think, and feel for as long as we can.

No one can render your thoughts unappealing.

That sounds like a good plan.

Benjamin S. Bowden is a writer and mathematician from New England currently working as an Operations Manager in New York. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, Katie, and their many plants.

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The Shrinking of the Bears – Frankie McMillan

1

We tell the children over and over. Please don’t slam the fridge door. Maybe if the polar bear were bigger they’d be reminded and if they could reach further into that lost continent of a bear’s mind they’d think more kindly thoughts, say the need for polar bears to rest. But because the polar bear is small enough to lie curled on the tray just above the vegetable cooler, he’s sometimes forgotten.

2

The authorities insist all the polar bears are now the same size and it’s the depletion of their natural resources that shrunk them. My husband says ‘Who can believe anything anymore?’ He likes to open the fridge door, run his hand gently over the thick white pelt, trace a finger between the animal’s ears. He tells me the polar bear’s skin is black and though the fur looks white it is actually transparent.

I pull my husband’s arm. ‘Come to bed,’ I say.

3

A rumour goes around about a polar bear in the next district. We hear it somehow got out of the fridge and turned on all the lights in the house before vanishing out into the forest. We hear the authorities boarded up the house. We don’t know what this means. Sometimes I turn to my husband at night and hug him with a strength that leaves us both gasping. ‘We’re still here,’ I say.

Frankie McMillan is a poet and short fiction writer from Aotearoa New Zealand. She is winner of the New Zealand Poetry International competition (2009) and and her poems have been selected for Best New Zealand Poems 2012 and 2015. REcent work appears in Best Microfiction, 2020. Her latest book, The Father of Octopus Wrestling and other small fictions, was listed by Spinoff as one of the 10 best New Zealand fiction books of 2019.

Image via Pixabay

In The Woman’s Head – Francine Witte

In the woman’s head

She is holding the cat, the cat is all she has in the gone-ness of love. Another man was clapped off the stage and went on to something other in his life. The woman has time now. She is too sad to work. She is makeup-free, stiletto-free. She can bake and eat and sleep too late. She has the cat to fill up her arms. She tempts the cat with a shatter of cat treats.

The cat is night-colored, eyes like white planets. After some time, the woman forgets to drop the treats, forgets to stroke the cat, but yanks the cat into her now fleshy arms. She squeezes the cat like a lemon, waiting for something to come out of the cat that the cat doesn’t have.

She puts the cat down and tells the cat she’s sorry. She isn’t sorry, but says it anyway. The woman hasn’t said real words in a very long time. She likes the sound of them, the full round shape of them. They float and drift in the air, the cat circling the floor underneath.

In the cat’s head

He is holding the woman. He in her arms, but he is in charge. The cat has cat-things to do, but the woman lures the cat into her arms with treats and the cat likes that. The woman seems to need something. The cat doesn’t know exactly what.

The woman is beach-colored and empty. Her eyes liquid and puffed up like waterholes. The woman used to come and go and come and go, but doesn’t anymore.

Before all this, there was a man. And when the man was there, the woman left the cat alone. Didn’t try to hold the cat in her arms that were wiry and muscled. Didn’t bother with treats, and words were tinny and constant.

Sometimes now, the woman forgets the treats, and the cat thinks that maybe this is what drove the man away. The cat would tell her that if he had words. He hasn’t heard the woman’s words in quite some time. So long a time, in fact, he isn’t really sure what they are, and as the words start to fall to the floor, he circles and stalks the way he would if it were a bird about to fall from the sky, and him getting back to his own feral self.

Francine Witte is the author of four poetry chapbooks and two full-length collections, Café Crazy and The Theory of Flesh from Kelsay Books. Her flash fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologized in the most recent New Micro (W.W. Norton) Her novella-in-flash, The Way of the Wind has just been published by Ad Hoc Fiction, and her full-length collection of flash fiction, Dressed All Wrong for This was recently published by Blue Light Press. She lives in New York City.

Image via Pixabay

Brian, At The Water – Ken Poyner

The voice spread out like ocean drain in a shoe box, “Brian!” It was coming from all sides, emerging from the tributaries with its shields of clamshell, scuttling from the beaches like horseshoe crabs wondrously intact. Yelling for a child, something commonplace, something the dead would do if they had not died. Who is this Brian? What is he being called to do? Have his dinner? Come to go to the store? Apologize for the thump he applied to his sister? Or perhaps he is older, not the child, but the husband. The voice sloshes about, wiping the jetty clean, eating stray pollen. Perhaps the lawnmower awaits. The clothesline has come unstuck from the backyard again. The office, so sorry, briefly needs him. Or the in-laws have left, the house is dark and moist, as alone as oysters in a reef: this will be the name of the one we should now in a carnal rage make. And so the voice rocks and rages and reaches like a blue crab claw searching for the rim of the pot as the water begins to boil. I want to be Brian, the conception or the completion. I want to drown that humiliating voice.

Two of Ken Poyner’s poetry collections and four of his short fiction collections are widely available. He lives with his power-lifter wife, various cats and betta fish in the southeastern corner of Virginia. He spent thirty-three years in information security, moonlighting as a writer. Now, he writes dangerously full-time.

Image via Pixabay

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