The Tale of Yacaa and Chenoo – Harrison Kim

Mom and Dad bought eight year old Cody’s old crib into his room just before he became sick, he lay in his bed watching that crib, as fever sweat dropped from his temples. He wondered why they put it there, he was far too big for it now.

In the night, Cody heard his mother crying. In the evening, his Mom and Dad shouted and yelled. Cody rocked his head from side to side. Then he turned in his bed and felt a nudge.

Maybe it was his Mom come to tuck him in.

Maybe the pillow moved by itself.

He turned his head. Moonlight streamed through the window onto two wizened faces, skin so tight around the jaws the bones beneath showed transparent, yet below the chin skin sagged down, and the faces smiled.

“You must get up and go with us,” said the first face.

Cody saw a blue tongue flash from the thing’s thin wide mouth. The voice from behind its thin lips sounded low and soothing.

“I’m sick,” Cody said. “I’ve got pneumonia.”

The thing nudged him again. Cody saw long fingers extending from a glowing indigo arm.

“Your fever is lifting,” said the creature, placing its soft hand on Cody’s forehead.

“Why won’t you let me sleep?” Cody asked. He brushed away sweat drops.

The thing pointed to itself, and said in the same whispery voice. “I am Yacaa.” He gestured to his right. “This is Chenoo.”

Those are funny names,” Cody said. He rubbed the top of his head.

Yacaa’s face appeared old and also like a tiny baby, wrinkle fissures in its sunken cheeks mixed with folds of skin under its jaw.

“We’re from the ground,” Chenoo told him. “Yet also from the sky.”

“Are you here because of Mom and Dad?” Cody asked.

“Yes,” said Yacaa. “We are here because of Mom and Dad.” He made a low laughing noise. “And so are you, Cody.”

“My Mom and Dad were fighting,” Cody said. “I could hear them.”

The two wizened faces glowed in the moonlight. Cody saw deep wrinkles around and under their blue eyes. Their pupils danced like small heads in the hollow around the skull bones.

“I should tell Mom and Dad you’re here,” Cody said.

“They’re very busy,” said Yacaa. “Your Dad is planting in the back garden right now.”

He pointed to the window. Cody stood up on the bed. The room swirled for a moment. Chenoo and Yacaa’s skinny spidery legs shimmered thin as strings, then grew as Cody balanced on his mattress. The creatures’ small round bodies lifted high as Cody’s nose. Chenoo grinned across to him, showing gum, no teeth. Cody smelled the faint scent of fresh soil. He stared out along the shaft of moonlight, saw nothing outside but the heap in the middle of the garden he recognized as the compost pile. A few weeks before when he was well he’d spied a thick black snake lying on the pile, still and fat as a rubber hose.

“Should we kill it?” he asked Dad, and Dad said “No, she’s not harming us.”

“But she looks so scary,” Cody said.

“She’s more scared of us,” said Dad.

Now, in the shaft of moonlight, Cody thought of the snake and what his Dad said. He rubbed his hands over his face and examined the wizened blue eyed creatures across from him.

“You need to know what we know” said Chenoo.

He turned his head to one side and disappeared.

“Where did he go?” Cody asked. “He became so thin he went away.”

“He’s playing a game,” said Yacaa. “When he shows you his front, you see a face, and that face lives for you. When he turns to the side, he becomes who he truly is.”

The soothing voice made Cody ask “Who is he truly then?”

“Nothing to be afraid of,” said Yacaa.

Cody thought again of Mom and Dad’s loud yelling earlier in the night. He’d felt fear at their noise, and how it turned to a wailing that penetrated all the corners of his mind.

He put the covers over his head then, and rocked back and forth. Yacaa’s even tones calmed him now.

“No one can see Chenoo now, but he is there.” Yacaa continued. He chanted. “He is there, he is there.”

Cody looked into the moonlight. “I don’t see anything but the compost pile.” he said.

“Follow me outside,” Yacaa replied in his low, calm voice. “And know what is real.”

He beckoned with his bony finger, and the white bone back of Chenoo’s bald head appeared ahead in the window. “Follow us,” Yacaa said.

Cody felt himself move, then float up. He navigated out of the bedroom door, through the open window, and outside. Because of his illness he hadn’t been allowed here for days.

He peered up. Millions of stars shifted and silvered across the sky. He drifted towards them, and then, over behind the garage, he noticed his Dad, pushing down a shovel, forcing the blade into the soil.

Under the moonlight, Dad lifted one thing wrapped in a cloth, and put it in a hole. Then he bent down and picked up another thing wrapped in a cloth. He held it in his shadowed hands and It went down into the hole also.

Cody saw Yacaa and Chenoo whirling round the yard and around Dad, who took the shovel and threw dirt over the things he’d just buried.

Then he stopped working and Cody heard him breathe deep, standing still in the night silence, until a strange sound rose, a low cry from Dad’s mouth. Cody floated across towards his father, who turned and dragged the shovel behind him.

“Can I help Daddy?” asked Cody.

“No, all is done.” Yacaa whispered, and Chenoo appeared in front of Cody.

“Go no further,” Chenoo said.

The boy saw the thing’s bat like arms move up and down like tiny wings.

“Stop here and breathe in,” Chenoo continued. “Breathe in deep, and take in the moment.”

“I can’t reach Daddy,” Cody said.

“Then breathe,” said Chenoo. “Stay with us.”

And Cody did, hypnotized by the whispered voice, and the certainty of the creatures’ words. He inhaled as he floated motionless above the filled hole in the ground, and he took in the darkness and the moment with his vision and his breath. He saw waves coming towards him, and part of Chenoo poured into him, and part of Yacaa. It happened fast and deeply, so he hardly noticed, but again he caught the scent of soil and the glimpse of fluttering arms. He heard the voices of Chenoo and Yacaa calling each other from under the stars as well as from within his mind.

“Chenoo, are you there?” said Yacaa, and Chenoo answered “I am here my brother.”

“Who are you?” Cody asked. “Do you know my Daddy?”

“We are together now,” said Yacaa. “That is who we are.”

“Let us follow your Dad back into the house,” Chenoo said.

The two wizened beings passed through the front door and Cody followed, he drifted through the kitchen and glimpsed a light on in the living room. His mother sat weeping silently under the light, thin and pale in her blue nightgown.

“Why does Mom look so sad?” Cody asked.

‘She’s not crying for you,” Chenoo told him.

Cody noticed his Dad’s shadow move out of one corner, and then Father’s arms circled around Mom.

“Now you have seen what we have seen,” Yacaa said. “Your fever has broken.”

Chenoo floated on one side of Cody, and Yacaa on the other. They pushed him with their long fingers and he felt himself guided along the hallway to his room.

He saw his bed there with the covers back and he sank into the coolness.

He didn’t wake up until two in the afternoon.

“Come in for lunch, sleepyhead,” called Mom.

Cody pulled on his pants and shirt and stumbled into the kitchen. Hot ham and cheese sandwiches sat on the table, ready for eating. They smelled great. Mom and Dad sat on either side of the sandwiches. His place was the middle.

“I guess I missed breakfast,” he said, sitting down in front of the food.

“You sound much better,” his Mom answered. “Your voice doesn’t have that wheeze.”

“I feel better,” Cody said. “Are you and Dad still mad?”

Dad stood up to get some milk from the fridge. “Sorry about the noise,” he said.

“We were working something out.”

“Yes,” Mom said. “What did you hear?”

“Just yelling,” Cody said.

“Sorry,” Dad said again. “Everything’s okay.”

Cody looked out the window. Mom picked up her sandwich. Yacaa’s breath blew through his ears, and out the other side. Cody laughed out loud.

Mom shovelled a few bites of ham into her mouth.

“That’s better,” said Dad. “That will give you strength.”

Yacaa blew air again and Cody laughed a second time.

Mom said “Last night I heard you talking to yourself in your room. That worries me.”

“I’ll try not to do that any more, Mom,” Cody said. He smiled at her and saw his reflection in the window behind. He jumped. It was like he saw straight through his child face to his skull on the other side. He gave a big grin and the skin around the skull in the window pane grinned too.

“He’s only eight years old,” said Dad. “Kids make up imaginary friends.”

“Could you please pass the milk?” Cody asked.

“Drink all your milk, Cody!” said Chenoo.

Cody put his hands over his ears and Chenoo’s voice faded somewhat.

Dad stood up and the top of his head almost touched the ceiling. “You take it easy today, son,” he said. “We must try not to raise our voices,” he said to Mom. “That disturbs him.”

“Yes,” Mom said. “But he feels better today. You got up by yourself just now, didn’t you Cody?”

“I do feel better, Mom,” Cody said, and repeated what Yacaa had told him. “My fever has broken.”“

Dad stood up and the top of his head almost touched the ceiling. “You’re acting like your own doctor today,” he smiled slightly, and moved for the door.

“See you, Dad,” said Cody.

He knew he must be a good boy for his parents. He would try not to look at his reflection or listen to the wizened brothers’ voices. He would forget.

He went back to bed, and lay down a while. The harder he tried to force the voices from his mind, the more he heard Chenoo say “Breathe in deep, and take in the moment.” He visioned his Dad’s outline shadowed against the garage wall like the black snake on the compost pile, and his mother crying in the night. He saw himself again, floating over the hole filled with black loam.

“Mom and Dad only acted out of fear,” the voice of Yacaa echoed in his head. “You are better and wiser now.”

Cody rocked his head back and forth, like he once rocked back and forth in the crib that sat at the back of his bedroom. He chanted to himself “I am better and wiser now,” and the voices faded as he took up their tone. He imagined that their soft murmuring would be part of him the next day, and the next no matter how much the garden froze, and the shadows stayed underground. He had breathed in their presence, in that summer night, under the cover of his fever-broken dream.

“The Story of Yacaa and Chenoo” comes from Kim’s most vivid childhood nightmare, including aspects of the reality that entered into it. His stories have been published in Storgy, Horror Zine, Literally Stories, The Blue Nib, Bewildering Stories, Horla, Blue Lake Review, and others. https://harrisonkim1.blogspot.com

Image via Pixabay

The Talisman – Michael Bloor

The train pulled into Aberdeen station just after midnight; it was almost empty. As I walked along the carriage to the exit door, I noticed the bag lying on a seat: one of those re-usable bags that the supermarkets sell. Quite bulky – evidently something was inside. I took a look: there was something rigid, wrapped around with what I guessed to be linen cloths. The cloths were secured with gaffer tape, but I pulled open a corner…

Gold glinted in the carriage light.

I count myself an honest man, by normal standards. I do have one conviction, for criminal damage. But that happened when I was off my face with drink twenty years ago. And other customers agreed that the barman had been unnecessarily violent in ejecting me from the pub in question. Of course, on the present occasion, I should’ve turned the bag over to one of the station staff. And I’m sure that, under different circumstances, I would’ve done just that. But that night I was in a bad place.

I was coming home from a failed job interview with a shipping company in Glasgow. Seafaring is a fine job when you’re young and haven’t a family; I’m forty nine with a sick wife. Latterly, I’d been working as the mate on supply ships servicing the oil rigs in the North Sea, but as the oil was running out, so the jobs on the supply ships were running out. The job in Glasgow was an office job as a ships superintendent. Unemployed, with Dorothy sick and a mortgage to pay, I really wanted that job. Needless to say, I didn’t get it (wasn’t even close). Needless also to say, I’d had a few consoling drinks in Glasgow before I caught the late train. You might say my judgement was impaired – an explanation, not an excuse.

So I picked up the bag and headed out the station. I’m not a native Aberdonian, but in my years working on the supply boats, I’ve developed a fondness for the city. Stepping out of the station, you’re only a hundred metres from the harbour, and straight away you get a lung-full of sea air. The last buses had gone and I couldn’t afford a taxi, so I was walking home. On Union Street, the main drag, I noticed that the gates to St. Nicholas’s kirkyard had been left open: they’re usually closed at night to deter underage drinkers and courting couples.

They’ve been burying folk in the kirkyard for 900 hundred years, so there’s a lot of distinguished old bones about the place. A particular favourite of mine is buried there: John Henry Anderson (1814-74), ‘The Great Wizard of the North,’ the first of the great showmen-magicians. Indeed, he was the first magician to produce a white rabbit from a hat, to the wonder of his audience. Houdini himself paid for the upkeep of the grave when it fell into disrepair. (No doubt you’ve guessed that I’m an enthusiastic amateur magician). I was burning with curiosity about the contents of the bag, so it seemed a natural thing to do: to slip into the kirkyard and, illuminated by the streetlights, examine my find beside the mortal remains of the Great Wizard.

The contents proved to be a small painting, incorporating quite a lot of gold leaf, on a rectangular wooden board. It was a very old painting, that was evident from the state of the wood. I guessed right away that it was an icon. Years ago, I served as a mate on some Greek-owned ships: each ship had a small icon on the bridge. My icon portrayed a saint in a tiny clinker-built ship, with a single sail and an expectant, bearded crew. I knew I was looking at St. Nicholas, the patron saint of seafarers, and, moreover, I was looking at him in St Nicholas’s kirkyard.

Now, I’m not religious, but I admit it: I’m superstitious. There’s good luck and there’s bad luck. Sitting there in the saint’s kirkyard, I figured my luck had turned at last. I walked on back to the flat with a very good feeling.
I let myself into the flat quietly, hoping not to disturb Dorothy: she was halfway through the chemo course, and needed her sleep. I was planning to sleep on the couch, but she heard me in the bathroom and called me through to the bedroom. Dot knew about the the job interview fiasco; I’d called her from Glasgow. I thought the icon story might cheer her up, so I carried St Nicholas through to the bedroom.

It certainly brought her fully awake. She touched it lightly as I told the story. When I finished, she asked: ‘Why didn’t you hand it in at the station?’

As soon as she asked the question, I realised I’d behaved like a drunken idiot. Again. What on earth was I planning to do with it anyway?

Dot smiled at me: ‘It’s a bit big for a good luck charm.’ I promised to hand it in at the station in the morning and got ready for bed.

* * *

The guy at the station was surprisingly friendly, taking down my details: ‘We’ve never had an icon handed in before. You came off the late train and maybe couldn’t find anyone to hand it over to, eh? Only a skeleton staff on then.’

And that was that. ‘Til three weeks later. Dot answered the phone: it was an orthodox priest in Dunblane. The wealthy old lady who’d previously donated the icon to the Dunblane church was offering a reward for it’s return. And the picture restorer in Montrose, who’d left the icon on the train, was offering a fortnight’s holiday in his holiday home in Sutherland. It had turned out to be a talisman after all: I’d pulled a white rabbit out of a supermarket bag.

Michael Bloor now lives in Dunblane, Scotland, where he has discovered the exhilarations of short fiction, with more than fifty pieces published in The Cabinet of Heed, Everyday Fiction, The Copperfield Review, Litro Online, Firewords, The Drabble, Spelk, Moonpark Review and elsewhere.

Image via Pixabay

Origami – Rebecca Stonehill

They stand lined in precise rows on your windowsill, a riot of colour and patterned paper: cranes and standing fans, boats and masu boxes. Your fingers work deftly as you fold the origami squares, your brow furrowing in concentration in the same way as when you were a toddler, trying to decide what to eat from your plate next.

I stand back and watch as you inch your way out of childhood, your long limbs both graceful and awkward as though you don’t quite know how to map this new territory of your growing beauty. With your newly acquired thirteen years, you straddle a threshold between two worlds, giggling as you volley emoji’s back and forth with your friends, the gaggle of girls who await you at the school gates. It’s all about sleepovers now, that togetherness of shared spaces, mattresses crammed tightly together and the shrieks of laughter at your first attempts at applying mascara and blush.

‘Makeup?’ I ask blankly, trying to cast my mind back. ‘You’re trying on makeup?’

You look at me then, a hint of humour glinting in your eyes. ‘Mama,’ you sigh. ‘You really don’t have a clue, do you?’ And you’re right, I don’t have a clue. It’s not just the makeup; I confess I’m unsure how to navigate this new world of the young teenager and the places it takes you.

Headphones strapped around your ears, you stalk around the house in pyjamas, your strawberry-blond curls bouncing, sometimes breaking into a child-like little jig, sometimes reaching for your phone to connect with your friends. But then you lie, sprawled on your belly in your bedroom and take out your origami and you are lost, the clamour of friends and sleepovers pausing as you surrender to the beautiful symmetry of paper.

Rebecca Stonehill lives in Norfolk with her husband and three children. She is a historical fiction author and teaches creative writing to children. Rebecca loves playing the piano, reading, hiking and spending time in nature.

Image via Pixabay

Bad Ice – Chip Jett

The sleeping town of Deadhorse, Arkansas woke to find an Ice-N-Go ice machine in the empty lot between the Dollar General and the Shop and Save, installed and ready to serve. For $1.75, the signage said, you could fill a plastic bag with sixteen pounds of ice.

Suspicion settled on the town like a low-hanging cloud, ushering in a season of new discontent.

“Sixteen pounds of ice? Who in Deadhorse needs sixteen friggin’ pounds of ice?” Vernon Jones said the day of the machine’s discovery.

“And $1.75 dollars a bag? That’s cheap. It’s almost like they’re trying to give it away,” Bud Smith said.

Vernon and Bud were fixtures on the bench in front of the Shop and Save, weekday mornings from seven until noon, at which time Vernon had to – as he put it – tend to the old lady. Bud likewise retreated to his own abode, though his had been empty, save for himself, for going on twelve years. During those few weekday hours, however, the Deadhorse natives downed two large coffees each while solving the world’s problems. The most recent problem being the unwelcome ice machine invading their space this fine Tuesday morning.

A man wheeling a box-laden hand truck stopped in front of the nattering gentlemen.

“You fellas studying about that ice machine?” the man asked.

“Yep,” one of the old timers said.

“You figure on why they’re trying to shove their ice down our throats?”

The man was Horace Pendergrass, Pee Wee to friends and relations, and he stocked shelves at the Shop and Save. He also handled ice deliveries when they came. The new vending machine meant competition for the Shop and Save, and to the Dollar General as well.

“Our ice is a dollar more a bag,” Pee Wee said, kicking the hand truck back with a kick. “We may as well quit selling it.”

“I’ve seen ice machines like that in Panama City,” Vernon said, “but they got the beach down there.”

“And the ocean,” Bud agreed.

“Yeah,” Vernon said. “It doesn’t make sense. The only water we got around here is Lake Wedowee, and Lake Wedowee ain’t got no beach.”

“It sure as heck ain’t the ocean,” Bud said.

“I can tell you this much,” Vernon said. “I’m not buying their ice, and nobody else should, either. There’s something funny about it I don’t like.”

By 10:30 that morning, a sign adorned the front of the ice machine. Painted with Shop and Save brand paint on a sturdy piece of Shop and Save foam board were the words, in all caps, BAD ICE! It wouldn’t have taken big city investigators to figure out the sign was written in Vernon Smith’s shaky hand, but no such investigations were called.

Several restless days followed Tuesday’s events.

By Saturday, interest had grown in the stand-alone ice machine, though, to anyone’s knowledge, only one bag had been sold. The purchaser had been one Mrs. Raymond Gene Smith. Mrs. Smith had patronized the machine because, as she claimed, “The line at the Dollar General was too long, and I won’t do my business with those Liberals at the Shop and Save,” though she swore she would have otherwise never given her husband’s money to that, as she called it, mindless automaton. Though Mrs. Smith was, herself, unfamiliar with the term automaton, the reporter to whom she gave her statement had offered it as a suggestion. With not a hint of hesitation, Mrs. Smith had agreed that the word was exactly the one she needed to express herself properly.

Mrs. Smith’s statement appeared in the Monday edition of the Times Beacon. At that time, her single sixteen-pound-bag had indeed been the only purchase made at the machine, a fact agreed upon by both Vernon Smith and Bud Jones. They had been keeping a close eye on the machine, though Mrs. Smith had somehow slipped past their defences. In order to ensure no other purchases were made, Vernon and Bud relocated to the turnabout in front of the Ice-N-Go and into to a couple of lawn chairs retrieved from Bud’s garage.

“Enid’s been dead now twelve years,” Bud said. “She’ll never miss ‘em. Besides, she’d be right proud if she knew it was for the Lord’s work.”

Vernon and Bud took shifts for a few days, Vernon from seven until noon, Bud from noon until five. Sometimes the Shop and Save staff provided lunch (and restroom facilities, as needed), and sometimes locals brought them meals. When Raymond Gene Smith himself turned up with a fever, chills, and, on Wednesday morning, a Covid-19 diagnosis, an already suspicious populace became even more so.

Mrs. Smith gave a new interview to the Times Beacon Wednesday afternoon from the hospital’s lobby to discuss her husband’s situation. Thursday, Raymond Smith’s Covid diagnosis became knowledge for public consumption.

“Raymond hasn’t done anything untoward,” she told the reporter, a college student from the nearby university named Priscilla Cole who, like most people in Raymond’s neck of the woods, dreamed of something more. “He’s been to church and to the store, but he hasn’t done anything to catch that virus.”

“The only thing Raymond has done that’s any different from normal is drink some tea with that infernal ice from that infernal machine.” Here, Mrs. Smith wept into a tissue procured from inside her purse as she and said, “It’s my fault, it’s just all my fault!”

By Thursday afternoon, a rotation was agreed upon by the mass of people blocking the entrance to the roundabout at the Ice-N-Go. Their de facto leader, a man by the name of Horace Manley, local elementary school principal and four-years-and-counting champ of the Lake Wedowee Bass Rodeo, set a schedule in place.

All teams would stand watch during the time frames already in place set by Vernon and Bud, and each team would consist of no more than four individuals. After hours watch would be handled by the night shift employees at the Shop and Save who could be counted on to report any unusual activity, and a weekend watch was deemed unnecessary.

“Most everybody is at the lake on the weekends, and those who aren’t can just keep an eye out,” Horace said. “Shouldn’t be any trouble.”

An uneventful Friday passed.

On Saturday, a regular slate of rec ball games kept the town entertained.

Coach Willie Jackson, who, when not coaching, worked for the Home Depot over at Winston, wasn’t in the habit of rewarding his players for outstanding effort. The lesson contained in his motto, “One hundred percent every play, every day!” was, he felt, reward enough. His way of thinking went out the proverbial window, however, when Ronnie had taken a tumble over the centerfield fence and into the untamed brush and briars beyond. The game ended when Ronnie’s gloved hand emerged from the weeds, out number three tucked securely inside, and waved in the air to whoops and cheers from the assembled fans.

Coach Jackson felt compelled to break his own ‘no rewards’ rule.

“Here’s a dollar each,” Coach Jackson told the boys. “Ronnie’s diving catch saved the game for us, and Dave, you pitched a whale of a ballgame!”

With the games over and most families headed to the lake, Ronnie Simpson and Dave Perkins rode their bikes to the Dollar General for a handful of black liquorice whips, courtesy of Coach Willie Grimes.

The boys skidded their bikes in the gravel of the Ice-N-Go roundabout to discuss their in-game heroics. It wasn’t long, however, before the conversation turned to the mechanized ice box.

“My dad said his boss told him the sheriff said the night this thing got here, a bunch of people saw a beam of light shining all around. Like from the sky. Next thing you know, this big thing dropped out of some spaceship or something.” Ronnie’s arms waved and eyes widened in all the right places. “The sheriff says if you eat the ice it implants a tracking chip inside you.”

Dave snorted. “You really believe aliens put an ice machine here? Man, you’re an idiot, and so’s your dad!”

“Yeah?” Ronnie said. “Where’d it come from then?”

“My grandpa said he heard it was a gift from the Chinese government. You heard about that old lady’s husband that got the virus, right? How do you think he got it?”

Dave let this bit of news take hold in his friend’s heart while they dismounted their bikes and propped their kickstands. Ronnie had to admit it made more sense than aliens.

“That’s right,” Dave went on. “The ice has the Corona in it. I heard my dad talking to Coach Jackson and Principal Manley about it. They said that’s how the virus gets spread around.”

And though Ronnie needed no more persuading, he asked anyway, “Well how come nobody but the old man got sick?”

Dave rolled his eyes and swept his arm around like the lady on the gameshow his grandmother liked to watch. “Look around, Dummy. Nobody’s buying the ice!”

Ronnie took a furtive look around, and punched Dave on the arm. “Come on,” he dared. “Let’s touch it!”

Dave stood his ground but watched his friend race to the ice machine, slap it a good one on the padlocked side door, and race back to his bike. Ronnie punched Dave again on the arm, and said, “Chicken!” though his heart was racing faster than when he had made the game winning catch.

The boys resumed their ride across the street to the Shop and Save. Each took a turn almost crashing his bike on the way home trying both to steer and eat liquorice.

The following Monday, Ronnie Simpson was admitted to the hospital with a rash that spread from the back of his left calf all the way up his neck and into his hairline. The pain left him virtually immobile. Because of the number of Covid patients now flooding the hospital, Ronnie’s parents were unable to visit.

Much as Raymond Smith’s dalliance with the tainted ice had led to the Covid, Ronnie’s rash, it was said, was due to the slap he had given the side of the machine from whence the ice had come.

On Tuesday, several things happened: Raymond Smith died from Covid complications; the Dollar General had to shut down because eight out of ten of the staff tested positive for the virus; school closed for good because many teachers were sick, and a few students as well; two raccoons were killed plundering dumpsters on Happy Hollow Road, both probably rabid, and, as Pete Avery claimed, likely linked to the Corona; no ice sales were made.

A fever pitch swallowed the town. Horace Manley’s leadership was a shaky prospect at best until the Wednesday two weeks removed from the start of all the shenanigans, when Baurice Simpson decided to take charge and save his town.

Ronnie’s Uncle Baurice had some experience with explosive materials, specifically something called Tannerite. Baurice and a buddy from work, Freddie Kitchens, spent many Friday nights drunk and shooting at targets packed with the stuff. When combined with the right ingredients, Tannerite made a small, entertaining explosion; in large enough quantities, it could take down a house.

Baurice and Freddie spent all of Tuesday gathering large enough quantities.

“I’m putting an end to this madness once and for all,” Baurice said upon hearing the news of his nephew’s hospitalization.

He and Freddie took the entire day driving to nearby towns buying the necessary ingredients. No one raised an alarm because the men paid in cash. Likewise, no one questioned why they both missed work. Such was the quantity of the Tannerite concoction that they had to haul it on the back of Freddie’s truck.

Evening came and Baurice and Freddie arrived at the Ice-N-Go to execute their plan. The four citizens on watch, led by Carl Franklin, questioned them briefly but made no real attempt to put a stop to their activities.

“You boys know what you’re doing?” Carl Franklin asked as Freddie hopped out to let down the tailgate.

“Sure we do,” Baurice said. “And you might want to watch, too. This thing ends tonight.”

Carl and his companions stayed to see what would happen, and each of these called home to say they’d be home late and why. These phone calls set off a chain of calls that eventually brought out more townsfolk, young and old alike. Many parked at the Shop and Save, others at the Dollar General. By full dark, all parking spots were gone, so people parked blocks away at the church and walked. No one really knew what to expect, but everyone wanted to see justice served. Some in the crowd carried guns, some garden tools. The boys from Ronnie’s rec team all brought their bats.

By the time the Tannerite was placed, roughly two hundred people had crowded in to see. A bonfire roared on the gravel turnaround, and Pee Wee Pendergrass brought marshmallows from the Shop and Save.

“For the children,” he explained.

Baurice Simpson climbed onto the truck bed and faced the crowd. Tannerite packed the bolted door of the Ice-N-Go. To this he pointed and said, “Neighbors and friends! We have been besieged by an enemy! An enemy so vile as to infect our whole town!”

Mrs. Raymond Smith wailed at this.

“My own nephew is still in the hospital because of it!”

The crowd muttered and heads nodded approval.

“And what else?” Baurice implored. “There’s talk of microchips and government surveillance. Is it our own government? China’s? Russia’s?”

“It’s aliens!” a voice shouted. Nervous laughter rippled through the crowd at that, though a few whispers of agreement passed as well.

“Well, I don’t care what it is. Tonight, we take back our town.”

Cheers erupted.

“Tonight!” Baurice yelled over the roar. “Tonight, we are free!”

The crowd cheered. Baseball bats and garden rakes waved in the bonfire’s light. Baurice turned toward the Ice-N-Go machine and raised his pistol. It was small as pistols go – a .22 caliber – but that was all he needed to detonate the Tannerite. He squeezed the trigger.

The explosion was loud and most of those gathered looked away when it blew the door off the machine. What no one saw – at least not at first – was Freddie Kitchens.

The crowd rapt with Baurice’s words, Freddie took a moment to double check the work they had done arranging the packs of explosive. He didn’t want a disappointed crowd should the Tannerite not be strong enough to do the job.

As it turned out, it was strong enough; it not only blew the door off the machine, but it also blew a hole in the middle of Freddie Kitchens. He didn’t die instantly; as a matter of fact, he heard the crowd cheer with the explosion and wondered if they were cheering for him.

Freddie’s body landed on the hood of Baurice’s truck. The crowd fell silent. Carl Franklin walked slowly over. He dared not get too close for fear the body might somehow have contracted the virus. He craned his neck to see by the flickering light.

“It’s Freddie,” Carl said, his voice full of surprise, yet low and steady.

Then Carl turned to th

The assembled mass moved as one. Those with implements raised them into the air, those without pumped their fists. A roar like that of a crazed animal rose, the citizens attacked the Ice-N-Go machine as if their very lives depended on bringing about its destruction.

Men, women, and children banded together to defeat their common enemy. Baseball bats slammed down, rakes and shovels arced through the night, all hammering and hammering at the machine. What parts that would burn were thrown onto the bonfire, the rest scattered and beat some more.

A few of the citizenry were injured in the melee, some later seeking treatment for cuts, bruises, and burns. Dave Perkins spent the next six weeks in a cast because a teammate – Scooter Carnes – missed the side of the building and connected with Dave’s elbow instead.

In all, thirty-four participants contracted Covid at the gathering; most were certain it had been the Chinese government’s plan all along. Other’s thought maybe it was the American government’s plan, but nobody paid much attention to those on the fringe.

On Thursday, the city council authorized a construction dumpster, and a few people from the rally cleaned up the gravel turnaround. By nightfall Friday, no sign of the ice machine remained.

Peace was restored. The evil that was the Ice-N-Go lifted from the town. People even started wearing masks, just in case. Covid cases all but disappeared, and Vernon Smith and Bud Jones traded in their lawn chairs for the tried and true bench at the Shop and Save. In the end, lives returned to what they once were

Except for one.

Malcom Mitchell, lifelong resident and business entrepreneur, filed a claim with his insurance company. Because he hadn’t yet made the first payment toward his ice machine, he felt as if he might be in line to collect. And collect he did, to the tune of $450, 000. His claim stated losses not only for the machine, but also for a loss of “reasonably expected income over the life of the insured.” The insured, of course, was the recently destroyed Ice-N-Go machine. The insurance company sided with Mr. Mitchell, stating the machine had been lost due to “wanton destruction, and not by any act of God.” Malcolm Mitchell thought that last part might be awfully close to the truth.

Awfully close indeed.

Chip Jett is a teacher at a small school in Georgia. His stories have been in several magazines, including The First Line and Mystery Tribune, and in online publications as well, including Crow and Cross Keys. Find him on Facebook at Jettstories, on Instagram at chipjettthewriter, and on Twitter @chipjett_writer.

Image via Pixabay

The Photograph – Martha Higgins

The corridors of the school are the same, the grey tiled floors and white concrete walls brightened by red doors. Sally’s dreams take her here sporadically and relentlessly to watch her younger self wearing her freshly washed white shirt and blue gymslip. Her long auburn hair is swept up in a neat ponytail as she flits around the corridors in the mornings, the younger girls always attracted to the older ones who remain queenlike at their desks waiting for their audience.

The assembly bell rings and they all crowd quickly into their class places, the volume of chat quickly grinding to a halt as the principal takes the podium. There are prayers, announcements and sometimes admonishments, some of these make them feel ashamed or rebellious and other times knowing that they only apply to a few unnamed girls are deliciously scintillating.

Her second-year classroom was always her favourite, she made a new friend that year and it filled her with gladness and enhanced her feeling of belonging. Standing at the door she sees herself and her new friend sitting at adjoining tables, their hair mingling as they share a textbook having lent one to the girl who is always losing her things. There too is her English teacher who saw something in Sally and nurtured it. They take turns to read and she stands to read Mark Twain and the teacher gently admonishes her for reading too fast as she adopts the patois with aplomb and dissolves into laugher with the sheer hilarity of the text. The teacher laughs too and she realises that he knows she loves and tries to understand this story and this is like a homecoming for her and the ground steadies beneath her.

Magically this same year the saintly nun who loves books and is dispirited with the lack of reading among the girls opens a library in a tiny windowless storeroom and Sally gulps down the air in this room which smells of new paper and books and her eyes scan the titles in wonder. Only one book at a time can be taken and she wants to take them all home with her so that she is never without a book to read again in her whole life. The library only opens two days per week at break time and Sally is waiting each time with her book to return so she can take another. She knows the nun is pleased with this enthusiasm but is too imperious to pass any comment.

She inhabits the lives of favourite characters, there are so many books there to be read and joy like warm sunlight creeps around her body filling all the lonely cavities when she holds these books in her hands. She is in constant trouble for falling asleep while reading and leaving the light burning all night.

She looks out the classroom window now at her young lithe body running effortlessly onto the basketball court and jumping for the net, completely unaware of her agility.

When her concave stomach framed by sharp hips begins rounding her tears and sadness form a moat around her with no drawbridge to escape. The day she musters dignity to walk out the avenue through those big open white gates, the pain in her stomach makes her want to crawl howling on her hands and knees because she knows she won’t be back.

Now, she is near the Principal’s office, the kind woman who did nothing to rescue her or shelter her, though maybe she did and Sally doesn’t know about it, she did hear that the English teacher asked about her but very soon she is eliminated and a new page is begun.

She sees her class photograph on the wall and searches for herself, where is she? She always stood in the back row in the middle with the other tall girls. Her chest tight as a clenched fist, she scans the rows, there is her friend with her long sandy hair and big brown eyes.

She raises her right hand, and tentatively splits the back row, budging them over a bit to make room and then firmly places herself in the space beside her friend and they squeeze each other’s arms in delight. Giggling, they check their hair and face the camera, with shy eyes full of hope and expectation.

Image via Pixabay

Oscillation – Cath Barton

Inspired by the 1924 film Le Ballet Mécanique

Coming towards me. Constantly arriving. The space, and the sirens. Nothing to be done. It will go on and on. And the whiteness will be infinite and the counting, one, two to five million, pearls of wisdom, or pearls before swine, though no animal passed through the gates. Only the constant stream of the batterie de cuisine, the whisks, ah the whisks, beating the cream for the mille-feuilles of our imagination. The perfect cakes that we will never eat, though they will be for ever captured on the celluloid, and people will dance as women blink, slowly. With a perfect mouth. A moue, n’est-ce pas? But point d’expression. Is it not odd, that there was, at that time and at that distance, another kind of –? No, the word will not mark the page. There is, rather, a white triangle. And a white circle, and one will embrace the other at a point which is off screen. Very clever. I think. You think? There is very little room for thought, just the constant beat, beat, beat of, no, not a drum, but a whisk. In perfect synchronicity. Je pense. Therefore I am. Who? Moi. And are you behind the camera or in front of it? And who blinks in the (dull) light of day. I see only the dark and the flickering and it goes on. And on. Shift now, and still on. And dance, but only legs. And perhaps the yes. And a mouth. The bow of the mouth, which does not speak. Merveilleux! There is, on the cutting room floor, if we could but find it, could find the door on the street in the right city. It would be in France. Or America of course. And there, on the floor, snippings of celluloid. Sharp, shiny, many-sided, or perhaps three-sided. Or circular. Circulating. Circus. Cirque de la lune. I found her, later, on the street, and she was crying. She could not show it at the time. It would have been the same for you, under that pressure, that relentless calling out of one, two, three and the pearls. The promised pearls. Which she never saw. Malheur! How could it be. But it was. And is. And ever shall be. Sur l’écran. Ici. Là. Or somewhere else, just beyond.

Cath Barton is the author of two novellas, The Plankton Collector (2018, New Welsh Review) and In the Sweep of the Bay (2020, Louise Walters Books). https://cathbarton.com/

Image via Pixabay

The 180 Degree Rule – Michael Ellman

If you have no wounds, how do you know you’re alive. – Edward Albee

ASAP numbers flash on my beeper. The chief, Dr. Mollman, pronounced like gun-moll, definitely not mole-man, is annoyed. Except for these morning conferences, I’m supposed to be in the laboratory with Drs. Frank Brennan and Sarah Todd, and my beeper should remain silent, except, of course, for the on-call weekends we’re burdened with.

“Who is it?” Dr. Mollman asks, stopping his lecture for my scolding, “Your bookie, your inamorata?”

Not only is Dr. Mollman smart and famous, he possesses a repository of fancy words.

My fellow hematology residents snicker. But quietly.

I show him the numbers on my Motorola. It’s an inside one, it’s important, and I leave to answer it.

Prince Jaboor, known simply as Jordan, next in line for the throne, and his royal entourage are residing in our hematology unit under the care of Dr. Mollman and just about everyone else who is anybody at the university. When I checked on the prince several Sunday’s ago, interrupting the IV nurse who was botching her attempt to find venous access for his packed red blood cell transfusion, I offered to help. I can insert an intravenous line into a trout. Now, I was on the prince’s call list for just about everything.

Same age with the same appreciation of beauty, same love of arguing politics, arguing just to argue—a difference of opinion is what makes horse racing and missionaries, I tell him. “Will Rogers,” he says. We laugh—it’s a guy thing, snappy erudition and humor that lift his spirits. For me, and I think it’s the same for almost everyone; it’s intriguing to see what makes famous people tick.

I visit every day, an order carrying weight even Dr. Mollman understands—the royal family has donated millions to our institution.

It’s always the same story. The prince, a student in economics at the graduate school, and the ruler-in-waiting of his oil rich nation, visits the student health service. A sore throat—everyone gets a sore throat at one time or another—it’s not a big deal. A pat on the back, return in a week if not better, a course of an antibiotic because he’s royalty, then another course, until someone discovers lymph nodes everywhere and they aren’t so little. The world-wide news about his lymphoma shreds any semblance of the prince’s privacy.

There’s a satisfying response to therapy, per our world-wide-expert on lymphoma—Dr. Mollman. The good doctor: his descriptions of chromosomal deletions, re-arrangements, and their associations with blood cell malignancies make him this close to medicine’s Nobel Prize. His carefully written epistle to the student health service doctor labeling him a dolt for the delay in the obvious diagnosis will be a collectable someday.

The bodyguard doorman and I are on first name basis: “The prince is giving an interview with Ms. Stallings,” he whispers, and he wants your photograph sitting next to him. You’re not in the witness protection program or anything like that are you?” The bodyguard laughs and opens the door.

Diane Stallings is as attractive in person as she is on television and in magazines. It’s just her, the photographer, the hospital PR hack, the prince, the prime minister, and now me. No Dr. Mollman, and he will be pissed once more.

“It’s the youth in our countries that will make the world a better place. But slowly, very slowly, years, maybe in a decade, maybe two,” Jordan says, eyes roaming between me and the blonde curls staging Diane’s handsome face. I’m reminded of the giant coin tossed before the Super Bowl kickoff: one side and the prince is the whiny patient battling lymphoma, the other, today’s loquacious and progressive son of the stodgy ruler of his oil-blessed nation.

“Business, it’s business—your country provides protection and we provide oil. I don’t think that a country that had over one-hundred-and-fifty years of human slavery, closed their doors to refugees in the last world war, and has prisons overflowing with minorities, should lecture to us about our social structure shortcomings.”

The non-elected prime minister, suddenly alert and quick moving in-spite of his corpulence, sandwiches himself between the prince and Diane and suggests it’s time for a break. “Maybe a photograph of the prince and this young American doctor emphasizing the solid bond between our friendly countries would be a good ending to the interview.”

“Diane,” Jordan says, “before you leave—please—I want to emphasize the beautiful people working here at the university and the excellence of the medical care, especially Dr. Ted and his boss and mentor, Dr. Mole-man.” Jordan, but not his father, likes to play games with Dr. Mollman’s patience. “Dr. Ted is my spiritual American friend and he and I would—since we’re speaking about beautiful people, like to entertain you and any of your single friends for dinner and dancing, as soon as they let me out of here.”

Dr. Sarah usually answers the telephone when it rings in the laboratory. It’s her wont. I’m the newest member and I should do these menial tasks. But Sarah is Sarah, helpful, overly polite, and formal. “The phone is close to me, and who knows, maybe it’s the Peron’s, Juan or Eva or both,” she tells me. I think she’s kidding.

Sarah is an Argentinean physician studying antibody production in ill patients under Dr. Brennan’s tutelage, and by default guides my way through the complexity of the laboratory. Under the guise of practicing my Spanish, we share coffee-time in the cafeteria every late afternoon.

“Just so you know upfront,” Sarah has said to me on several occasions, always with eye contact that stirs a man’s soul: “I have a beau back home, an air force pilot, handsome, smart, and our families are close. Family ties are important to Argentineans.”

I’m skilled at ignoring trivia.

“Sarah, guys are enchanted when meeting smart, capable, and, of course, beautiful women like you. They can’t help it. It’s coded in their DNA. They love smart. My Nobel Prize speech will be in Spanish, thanks to you,” I say, as my fingers reach out for hers.

“Oh thanks, yes, you’re right—men especially like intelligent women,” she says laughing loud, enjoying herself and adjusting her chair to be out of my reach. “That’s why when they slide their hands under your blouse they’re searching for your university diploma.”

* * *

Sarah cups her hand over the telephone and mouths police and pantomimes it by shooting at me with her index finger.

Two policemen will meet me in a private room adjacent to the cafeteria in an hour, she tells me. Don’t worry, you’ll recognize them, they said, and Dr. Mollman insisted that you talk to them.

I have a standing appointment with Dr. Mollman. Actually, all of the hematology trainees do. We meet with him once every two weeks. The sessions vary from a few minutes to half a day. His wisdom, although entwined with cynicism, comes from the heart—and of course the brain. But quote some mediocre literature or a scientist he doesn’t respect and he’ll borrow a stare from a prison warden. Some people give good silence, but not Dr. Mollman.

Tall, and too good-looking for a doctor—nothing resembling corduroy, or anything argyle in his wardrobe, and shoes with laces and shine, Dr. Mollman is a poster boy for medicine. His telephone calls come from Washington, London, and other world capitals.

I think he likes my enthusiasm and my ability to flick off his barbs so easily. But then again, maybe he is relishing the year-end review when he’ll advise me to try stand-up comedy rather than laboratory research.

My quest for explaining why many patients with autoimmune diseases such as lupus have low platelet counts but seem to have strokes and not bleeds is already running into conundrums. Platelets are those little particles in blood, not blessed with nuclei that form clots and stop bleeding. Take it from me, they are not easy to handle in the laboratory, and they seem to clump and become worthless to work with even when I just yell at them.

Dr. Mollman thinks the inflammation in my patients suppresses the entire bone marrow and the antibodies directed against platelets may have little consequence.

It will be fun proving him wrong—and I think he respects that aspect of me.

Frank and Joe, names like the Hardy Boys, are not city policeman at all they tell me, but CIA agents, while quietly flipping their ID badges.

“How are your parents, Fenton and Laura Hardy?” I inquire. They don’t respond. They’ve heard it before.

Ordinary looking, like mid-level bankers, polite and smiley—maybe too smiley—I’m big and I think I could take them, but probably can’t. They stand out in the cafeteria, but I’m not sure exactly why. Maybe it’s because they appear rested.

“Get a drop bolt for your door at home,” Joe, the dark-haired one says, pointing a finger at me after his Hulk Hogan handshake. “I could enter your apartment with spit and a nail file.”

I give him a thumbs-up.

It’s about Prince Jordan, of course. It seemed that his country is close to a populist revolt and the prince might be a compromise for both sides.

“But the prince and his policies are unpredictable,” Joe says.

“As an American and patriot, you’ll want to help us.” The polysyllabic American is presented to me as a psalm or commandment.

“Invite yourself to accompany the prince when he returns home—we have Dr. Mollman’s OK.” It’s Frank talking now. I have trouble deciding who’s in charge. Probably it’s Frank; he’s the quieter one with the confident stare.

“We have to decide between offering the prince friendship or enhanced friendship, depending on how the situation at home sorts out,” Frank says. “Our country needs his loyalty and his oil. You’ll tell us about his friends and keep us informed about developments.”

“And hey, get this,” Joe says, giving me an elbow to my side, “Diane Stallings will accompany you for the first week or so. It’s a medical-political kind of news thing. She’s on our side and will work with you.”

Meeting the chief in the early evening is different than our biweekly appointments. The trappings of a doctor-scientist remain the same, no matter the time of day: journals, manuscripts and a stack of papers requiring signatures are piled up, but now, in addition, there’s a plethora of VIPs and organizations the chief needs to telephone before he can call-it-a-day, head home, sip a dry martini, and revel in normal conversation.

“Ted, I apologize for putting you in an untenable position. I had little choice. The inquiry came from Washington,” Dr. Mollman says. “I’ll support any decision you make. They, the insiders, and sorry about the use of they, mentioned no particulars to me. And if they want to expose you to danger—please decline it. Remember there’ll always be a position for you in my training program.

“Ted, one other thing, and be sure to understand it, and I suspect you do, being the prince’s friend is different than being his physician. Don’t be caught between the Hippocratic Oath and the machinations of his and our nation’s politics.”

“I definitely would be more comfortable with you around,” the prince tells me after hearing about Frank and Joe. “There are good doctors at home, but no one knows more about my treatment than you. And who else brings me back down to reality and occasionally makes me smile. But, remember, I’ll be in the limelight, and alcohol and girls will be at a premium. Still, you and I together—we’ll have fun. There will be demonstrations, but we’re not basically a violent people. On the other hand, who can predict how it will end.”

You wouldn’t think I would have difficulty making decisions. Generally I don’t. But that’s for the minor things: surgery—no surgery, start an antibiotic stat or wait for culture results, which patient to check on first in the morning. But life-altering decisions for myself, that’s another matter. I’d been on a roller-coaster ride for years. Psychiatry one month, endocrinology another, then surgery, then nephrology, and on and on—reading Dickens on a daily basis before sleep, and I’m only on page 34. An invitation from Nurse Anna to join her family picnic: “No,” I say, “I can’t. I’m sorry. I’m in the ER that day and I can’t switch with what’s-his-name because he’s ill and I owe him a favor from my cardiology month, etc., etc.”

There isn’t even time to know if I like myself.

The prince and I meet in the hospital coffee shop. In spite-of the rattling of cups and saucers and the blend of whispering and expositions, hospital coffee shops are the loneliest place in the world. Anonymity has vanished for the prince; he and I draw polite attention. People smile and look away, respecting his privacy. He’s recovering well and has a decent chance of making it; food has begun to taste good to him again and sleep now comes easily. He wears khaki-colored chinos and New Balance shoes like every other American graduate student, but his button-down shirt with sleeves rolled-up past his elbows display the needle sticks and bruises detailing his medical travails.

“You know about those planets that are thrown out of their orbit and end-up wandering willy-nilly through the universe?” the prince asks. “They’re called nomads,” he says. That’s what you’ll be if you accompany me home—a nomad—out in the open with few options to change course. Better yet, think of it this way, Ted,” the prince says, as he pats me on the shoulder.

“Travel with me and our life will be like a chain reaction leading to more and more of I don’t know exactly what.”

The prince is not settling my heart, never mind the befuddlement of my goal-oriented life.

“Let me tell you something they don’t teach in medical school,” the prince says. “It’s not part of your medical curriculum. It’s spook business.” The prince says it again: “It’s spook business. Too bad you don’t know about it because it’s something Frank and Joe may ask you to consider. They know a lot about it—it’s part of their code. Friendship and enhanced friendship, let me repeat that, friendship and enhanced friendship. Do you know the difference? Do you know what it means?

“No,” I say, shaking my head no.

The sun, sneaking through the windows, splays patches of sunlight on our faces. Our coffee has gone untouched.

“Friendship is an old English word—a sweet word,” the prince says. “It’s not so difficult to understand. It’s the verb enhanced that tickles the senses. That’s when I’m killed. That’s the enhanced part. That’s the enhanced part,” he says again, losing his concentration for a moment, stretching his neck and taking in the bustle of the room.

“It would be easy, don’t you think? Killing me. Very easy. Think about it. A little bolus of potassium or a syringe filled with air. Who would know?”

I nod my head again. There is a sense of quiet around us in-spite-of the normal hospital scurry. Even children speak with muffled voices here. This is a place and time where lives change. I’ll speak to Dr. Mollman and talk to Sarah; and my research, as its wont, has become consuming, but I think my mind is made-up.

Image via Pixabay

Silverware – B F Jones

When Julie was a child, her mum polished the silverware every other Saturday. She would do it when her Dad was out taking her brother John to football practice.

Her mum would stack all the black boxes in which laid the heavy wedding service cutlery on the dinning room table. She’d ask Julie to also bring the frames, the decorative pot, the nesting boxes and the champagne bucket and line them all on there. Then she’d slip into a pair of yellow marigolds, get a clean cloth, squirt the pale pink ointment on it and start rubbing.

She’d do the cutlery fist, always in the same order: coffee spoons, tea spoons (no, they are not the same, Julie), soup spoons, serving spoons, starter forks, regular forks, regular knives, fish knives, meat knives, cake serve and ladle.

They inherited it from a great aunt who only use it once, on her engagement night. She soon after broke it off realising her life could not be complete unless she married a doctor which she never did and subsequently died alone at the age of 87, the silverware tarnishing in the buffet.

Julie’s family never used the silverware either and occasionally Julie wondered about the necessity of the incessant buffing but was raised not to ask questions.

When it was dinner time, the kids ate first, mostly fish sticks and peas, or spaghetti hoops and hot dogs on discoloured plastic plates till they were teenagers. Their parents would eat later, quite often something roasted, and always with potatoes and salad, served on plain white china. All of them would use the metal cutlery from the top kitchen draw.

Once done with the crockery, Julie’s mum would lay them back into their little coffin, one at a time, sometimes letting Julie help, before closing the boxes and placing back at the very top of the cupboard.

Then mum would give the frames – her own wedding gift- a good rubbing, the picture of her mum and dad, the picture of Mum and John when he was 5 or 6, the picture of Mum’s goddaughter’s christening and the picture of them four, that time they went to the lake, though half of Julie’s head had been cut off in order to fit in the frame.

Occasionally Julie was entrusted with putting the pictures back on top of the commode and she would take them one by one, not trusting herself with carrying them all at once, eager to help and to please and not to be told off.

Mum would then tackle the nesting boxes, another family heirloom apparently, quite often only giving a proper polish to the outer one and a quick wipe to the 3 others. She’d finish with the champagne bucket and the pot, polishing faster, keen to make them shine, but also keen to be finished.

“There”. She would always say when it was over, satisfied at the shiny, ephemeral result. She would place the decorative and quite pointless pot back on the small table by the window. Through it, Julie could see children running around on the green, feeding ducks and eating ice cream cones.

Image via Pixabay

Love Birds – Maria A. Ioannou

A pair of glasses slapped me in the face, green, one lens half-broken. The new neighbours were arguing again. I broomed a bunch of noisy leaves to the side and told my wife this really had to stop. “Last time I almost lost an eye, I’ll turn into Cyclops!” My wife laughed; a piece of lettuce struggled to breathe between her two front teeth. “I have a plan,” I whispered. She was all ears. We spent a month practicing our arguing abilities. My wife used the word “asshole” a lot, I used the word “bitch,” one night she called me a “motherfucker,” I invented the word “fatherfucker,” I commented on her tits, too small, she told me my penis was below average, we broke cups and plates and recorded the whole thing on my Iphone, we downed six bottles of wine and twenty-four cans of beer, we even smoked a five-year-old joint stuck at the back of a drawer, she asked me if I had actually fucked that girl in Hong Kong, I said “Hell, yeah, hell, yeah,” she snatched a knife and tore two of my shirts, I stained her wedding dress with wine, I asked her if she still thought of her ex, she said she imagined the three of us naked around a fire, I screamed in ways I never screamed, she screamed in ways she always screamed, I punched the wall and kicked a chair, she scratched a door and spat on a window glass, we punched and kicked and slapped and scratched and bruised things we never thought we would punch and kick and slap and scratch and bruise, and had this whole thing play again and again and again through a speaker we had installed at our front window, but we still couldn’t sleep at night and the new neighbours continued to fight, and things, as we knew them, also started to change.

Maria A. Ioannou is a writer based in Cyprus. She studied Literature (MA, BA) and Creative Writing (PhD, Vice-Chancellor’s Excellence in Research Award 2019) in the UK. She published two short fiction collections and a children’s book in Greece (Emerging Writer State Prize 2012). Her short fiction ‘Pillars’ was a Best Small Fictions 2020 nominee. More info: http://www.maria-alpha-ioannou.com

Image via Pixabay

Thoughts Before I Am Sawed In Half – Dee Richards

This is a moment where one wonders to themselves: “How in the hell did I end up here?” It seems pretty implausible to be chained to a tree trunk, unable to move, listening to the screeching hiss of a saw blade at top speed, just below my feet. But, I guess that’s life: unpredictable.

I was bored, you know. The same four walls, day-in, day-out. I really do hate this mess I live in. After hours of meticulous cleaning, I sit in my squeaky leather armchair staring at my accomplishment, and am momentarily satisfied. My vacuumed high-pile tan carpeting (those spots are from before I’d moved in, I swear) stand at proud attention. Sunlight pours through a “streak-free shine”. Everything in its place. I hate it.

My house is always a disaster two days later anyway, so I just need to get out once in a while. I’m driving streets that I’ve known since my mom forced me to read off the Thomas Brothers Guide to her; funny to think now, limited to one final road toward a certain acuminous end, that I would become bored of these streets. Perhaps I’d like to see snowfall just once, or crunch through leaves in the fall. The endless, rolling brown hills, the fading gray freeways, the yellow lights on a smog-filled night ignite little passion. Everywhere, imprints of memory dot intersections and back alleys, and are yet sharper than the splinters in my back, even the rotating death at my feet.

It gets so tiring to live life one thousand times, as though reflections of a shitty childhood are jewels to be flashed across endless pity parties. Though I know these roads, I am at all times, running as far as the wheels of a high-mileage Nissan can carry me on $15, give or take. San Diego is my old-ball-and-chain, to whom I return whether or not she cares. If only I could meet someone new. It seems important to note that my mom and I moved 8 times between my 5th and 16th birthdays, but always within a three-mile radius. At least when I do meet my end by steel claw with weeping sap filling my nose, I will have been in one place for quite a while – even if that is tied to a tree.

So what, I deserve my fate of being sawed in half, because I am perpetually unsatisfied? I find that to be poor logic, despite how willing I am to blame myself for the circumstances of my life. How about this: a social worker once asked me why I need to be different? Is there even an answer to this? I think, therefore I am weird? Hmm, perhaps. So, I like getting away from the mess that reminds me that I am not alone, and maybe I want to stop in at a REALLY shady-looking bar off Old Highway 80 and order onion rings. Maybe I do sell my furniture on Craigslist, and give them my actual address. Is the logical conclusion an approaching saw blade? Or do I just need to be different? Unexpected?

When I was sixteen, I got punched in the head and passed out. When I woke up in the hospital, the staff called my mom who came only to tell me that I was kicked out of her house because I was too much trouble. I elevated and lowered my feet one-hundred times with the remote, while glaring out the window overlooking the 5; meanwhile, my mom took all of my life into garbage bags, and left them on my dad’s front porch. She did the same with me once I was released from the hospital – minus the trash bags. It’s funny that I was so easily cut off.

My dad never made me go back to high school after I moved in. I guess I was going against my own expectation of never getting sucker-punched in East County, or maybe my art teacher’s expectation of me going to the Art Institute. Never surrender to expectation, I say. I stole blue hair dye from Thrifty’s, and drank vodka in the Carl’s Jr. play place; so what? Was it to be contrarian, or this need to be different? If so, I should of course die tied to a log because it is the last place I would have expected to be. Still, I am unsure if this is enough of an explanation on how I got here, inching ever closer to my fate, that hot wind of destruction blowing over me.

I should say: “I drove to the forest, found myself a tree that I fell in love with, and when THE MAN came to cut it down, I chained myself to it in protest, only to find the joke’s on me!” But, that really isn’t how it happened at all. Truth be told, my city was a logging community and citrus orchard before I was born – the last in Greater San Diego. After my mom graduated high school, there were no trees left here. When I dropped out of high school, there was a giant, plaster lemon in the center of town to remind us of the trees that once were. I assume that memories can’t hurt something always changing, always in motion. So here I am, moving toward that saw-blade. I feel the slicing wind at my heel, the sound of death penetrating my fearful soul. How did I end up here really? I guess this is it; or I could just let go of the chain.

Dee Richards is a writer, parent, and LGBTQ+ feminist badass in Southern California. She/They are published in Epoch Literary Journal, The Acorn Review & Crush Zine, in association with the Toronto Bi Arts Festival.

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Wings of Desire – Lizzie Derksen

Yes, it is mayonnaise. I remember it from my first day, the construction worker and his lunch, impossible to forget. His wife put the mayonnaise, the cheese, and the salami into a blender. My orientation had covered the institution of marriage and the institution of the American sandwich, but on that morning I knew I knew nothing.

That was Philadelphia. That was some time ago. Now I am in a city called Calgary and the weather is getting cold again. Which is one of the reasons I am concerned about this woman. Her pink dress hangs from strings on her shoulders and though it floats above the asphalt, brushing her ankles, it does not seem to be keeping her warm. Also, she smells strongly of mayonnaise. I move closer. Her hair is slick with it.

This is both worrisome and exhilarating. Everything I know about this world denies the possibility that appearing on foot at the drive-through automated teller, looking and, yes, smelling like this is generally acceptable. But even as I churn in empathetic embarrassment, I am delighted again by the unexpected gift it has been to experience odour on this assignment. What is more emblematically human than the fine, fine line between stink and perfume? And yes, this woman poking her finger at the screen in the thin dress and flip-flop shoes and with the mayonnaise in her hair—which, though she must have purchased blonde hair colouring, is more of a sunset peach colour—is wearing a strong perfume!

Truth be told (and I am obligated to tell the truth), I’m surprised she has so much money in her account. One thousand fourteen dollars Canadian dollars and six Canadian cents. As I watch her, she is withdrawing eighty dollars. My experience would suggest that she is about to proceed to a bar, but it is a Tuesday. And there is the mayonnaise. Striking in all of this is the element of her preparedness.

Not only does she anticipate needing the cash. She has, sometime during the past hour or two, carried a large jar of mayonnaise into the bathroom. Did she buy it today, or is it something she keeps on hand? She set it on the toilet and used a butter knife—no, probably a large spoon, even a spatula—to scoop mayonnaise out of the jar and apply it to her head. Her hair, twisted into a knot at her neck, forms a neat and greasy cap. Surely the string-supported dress is a forethought attempt to keep a more substantial piece of clothing from being contaminated. And her footwear suggests that she can’t afford to waste any time.

She is already stuffing the bills into the top of her dress and walking off, the slap of her feet echoing against the buildings. Her receipt is there, fluttering in the slot of the teller machine. I fold it in half and push it—experimentally—down the front of my robe.

Lizzie Derksen lives and works on Treaty 6 land in Edmonton, Alberta. Her writing has appeared in Room, PRISM International, The Antigonish Review, Poetry Is Dead, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and on CBC Television.

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Meta – Francine Witte

I am watching myself. From way over here.

Look at me. Ridiculous. I’m nothing but a bad Rom Com. I would walk out if I could.

This one’s name is Harry. Whatever. I’ll have to forget it soon enough.

You take my Mom, for example. She knew a good over when she saw it. First oof of another woman on my father’s collar and she was off like bam! Left the baked beans boiling in a pot.

Harry is giving me flowers. Look at me, softening, my shoulders relaxing, my sniffer going numb. I am watching how I don’t see him pull out his phone, texting texting. Who is he texting?

My mother told me not to look in the mirror. She said I wasn’t pretty and she didn’t want me telling this to myself every day. I asked her if I looked more like her or my father. You look like a heartache is all she said.

Soon after she said that, I saw myself in a store glass. It was only an outline, but enough to see that I didn’t look like a heartache, even though I wasn’t sure what that meant. I went inside the store. I bought my mother cigarettes like she asked and went home. I was going to tell her she was wrong about the heartache thing. I wanted to tell her. I would tell her. Someday I would watch myself tell her.

Even from here, I see how bored Harry is. I see myself sensing this and so I do what I always do. I ask and ask. He says nothing and nothing. I say I made blueberry pie. It’s your favorite, right? Harry going stabby and pushing the pie around the plate and then oops! Emergency. Gotta go, he says. Harry sells paper goods. I wonder what a paper emergency would be. The me I am watching is wondering that. The me over here knows better.

My Mom knew better. Not about my dad, though. Yes, she left him, left us, as soon as she saw the other woman on his collar but there was so much before. I saw it. Saw it when he drove me over to soccer practice and he leaned in too close to our coach, Miss Williams. And another time, and the time before that. My father never seeing how I was watching.

I watched my father die in the hospital. Car crash. Texting and took his eyes off the road. I called my mother to tell her. She had given me her number for emergencies. Your father’s death, she said, is not an emergency.

Harry is gone now. I look at the space he left behind. I look at how I smell the flowers and stroke the flowers waiting for them to come alive and give me love. I watch how patient I can be. I look at those flowers even as I wash the dishes, scrub blueberry off the dessert plates. I walk by the hallway mirror, quick glance at the tracks of mascara on my cheeks. Then even closer. I am watching myself watching myself. I hear my mother in my head, don’t look, don’t look, she is saying. I turn away and grab a bottle of wine.

It’s later that night and I watch myself sleeping. I look at the empty bottle of wine by my bed. I watch how I fell asleep in my clothes, my makeup still on. I look at how I’m clutching two of the carnations from the bouquet Harry left me. I get this way about the things men give me, that their touch is still on them, that their breath is still on them and how that is the only part of them I will ever really have.

My mother was right, I do look like a heartache.

I crawl into the bed next to myself. I listen to the drunken whisper of my own sleep. I crawl back into myself through a dream. A simple one about mothers and flowers and fathers and blueberry. When I wake in the morning, I won’t check my phone to see if Harry has called, but instead I will walk myself over to the mirror. I will look at myself now through my own eyes and when I start to shy from my reflection, I will turn my face forward, and hold it there if I have to in my own invisible hands.

Francine Witte’s poetry and fiction have appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Mid-American Review, Passages North, and many others. Her latest books are Dressed All Wrong for This (Blue Light Press,) The Way of the Wind (AdHoc fiction,) and (The Theory of Flesh.) Her chapbook, The Cake, The Smoke, The Moon (flash fiction) will be published by ELJ September, 2021. She lives in NYC.

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Early Settler – Don O’Cull

My city has no streets, it moves on difficult trails
cleared in haste through a tall topography, in glimpses of red through an infection of forest.
Red called and I answered, cut my way up that first ridge and
my city festered without corners; a metaphor thick with biology.
I said the same things over and over, told fertile Earth she was safe,
like a tick doomed to the creases of a great sugar pine.

Don O’Cull’s work has appeared in Don’t Talk To Me About Love and he has been named Barnes & Nobles’ Poet of the Month. He holds a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona and an MA in English from SNHU. He currently resides in St Petersburg, Florida.

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I Heard in England… – Emma Venables

‘Four ways to say thank you,’ you say. ‘The Brandenburg Gate lit up in blue.’

You hold your hands wide as if trying to show me the size of the landmark I have witnessed in many of its iterations – bullet-holed, walled, liberated by chisels and cranes. The first time I walked through it, I rested my forehead against one of its columns. Like a madwoman, your father, said. You must have seen the photograph. He framed it and hung it above his desk. The madwoman, a source of inspiration to her only grandchild, it seems.

‘I heard in England,’ you say, your gap year lessons seeping out, ‘that when the war ended they threw their clothes on over their pyjamas and ran out into the street. They tore down their curtains and turned on their lights.’

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I heard that too.’

‘I heard in England,’ you say, picking up your bottle of water, ‘that the next day they dragged their tables through their front doors, draped bunting across windows and hedges, served cake and sandwiches, sang songs of patriotism and new days.’

I smile and nod, but perhaps I smile and nod too much these days. I smile and nod at the nurses as they lift me from my chair into the bath and back again. I smile and nod at weak coffee and the junk mail I’m handed every morning. I smile and nod at the silence that often accompanies old age.

‘Did you see the photographs of Trafalgar Square?’ you ask. ‘Teeming with people, like an ant colony,’ you say, mouth laden with water. ‘All singing and dancing and applauding. And the kissing.’ You pucker your lips as if I do not know the shape of a kiss.

I pick my cup up, so I have something to hide my smile behind.

‘My friend’s gran kissed an American GI,’ you say. Your eyes glisten with the gossip. ‘She told me he was the most beautiful man she ever saw and so eloquent.’

I nod, keep my coffee cup to my mouth.

‘Did you…?’

Ah, there’s my old companion: silence. You look at the cobwebs in the corners of the room, the slope of the ceiling as it bows to the window. You worry at the label on your water bottle. A blush descends on your cheeks and neck. You press a hand to your face. You have never asked me how the war ended for me, my family. Your family. Your default setting tells you it’s a memory best kept in my head and my head only. And besides, you have the internet to answer that kind of question, don’t you?

‘So, the weather has been kind to us,’ you say. You wave at the window, at the nodding trees and the blue sky above Charlottenburg.

I laugh. ‘I suppose it has.’

Your discomfort still spoils your cheeks and you slap your palms against your thighs as if that will change the rhythm of the room. I realise you’ve never had to be subtle, never had to slip into a basement, cramming yourself in between the beating hearts and sticky limbs of your building’s inhabitants during an air raid. You’ve never had to feel Frau Hirsch’s knees biting at your own, hear her impatience as you dare to take a millimetre she does not believe you’re entitled to. The petty squabbling of knees until it felt like bones were about to break didn’t end with the surrender, with VE Day, it didn’t even end several weeks later with Frau Hirsch’s death. She was attacked by three Soviet soldiers when on the lookout for water. She haemorrhaged blood like it was all she was made of; it took weeks for my mother and I to get the stains from our palms. Some mornings, even now, mind sleep-fogged, I catch myself scratching at my lifelines and heartlines.

I drain the dregs of coffee from my cup and rest it back on its coaster. I wonder where you will steer the conversation from here. To Brexit, perhaps. You’re livid, confused, hurt by that one. All your English friends profess to be Remainers, but I think you should tread with caution. No, not Brexit, we debate people’s morality too much when we mention that and the atmosphere doesn’t lend itself to such discussions today. Maybe you will tell me about your love life – I like hearing about the dating apps, the quirks of young men these days. I shake my head whenever you leave, can’t imagine picking a potential partner from a fingerprint smeared screen.

You bite your lip, cross and uncross your legs. The text on the bottle’s label grabs your attention and releases it sooner than expected.

‘What was the end of the war like for you, Oma?’

You lean back in your chair, indicating you have time. The bottle protests your grip. I wince at the sound it makes. I feel something within myself crinkle and crack. The odour, the texture, the vastness of Berlin in the days, weeks, months, after surrender begin to seep out and you nod and tilt your head in all the right places.

Emma Venables’ short fiction has recently featured in Mslexia, Lunate, and The Sunlight Press. She was a runner-up in the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize 2020. She can be found on Twitter: @EmmaMVenables.

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Stale Cigarettes – Jennifer Brewer

The mirror behind him, spotted and hazy, held the room of half empty tables, a few regulars, and deep shadows. Smoke danced through the dimly lit room. The bartender wiped down the bar covered in nicks and dips. He poured drinks as he moved up the bar. An old Wurlitzer 1700 jukebox blue and red shone like a prize at the center of the room. The record player swirled, picking up the next record. Paula Abdul shared her woes of an encounter with a cold-hearted snake. A small TV hung in the corner, spelling out the news.

A man with a crooked nose hunched over his glass at the end of the bar. He nodded every few seconds and then snorted. He lifted a glass. Ice clinked the sides as he clumsily shook his hand. The bartender grabbed the lower shelf whiskey and poured. The man nodded and sipped.

The front door opened with a jingle. In walked a man, no more than five foot five. His belly waved as he stomped off boots covered in mud. He offered a half toothless grin to the bartender and waddled to sit beside the man with the crooked nose at the end of the bar.

“Hi there, Jerry, can’t believe it’s been a year,” said the man with half his teeth.

“Yes, and twenty-five more before that. How you hold’n up Jacob?”

“What can I get you?” said the bartender.

“Whatever you have on tap,” said Jacob. The bartender pulled the tab and golden liquid poured from the spout. White, bubbly froth swished its way to the top of the glass. He dropped it down right in front of him, splattering the bar. Unfazed, he slapped the towel down on the bar and swished it away.

“Oh, it’s been a rough year, Jerr. I remember when we thought that money would last us forever. Stupid kids, that’s what we were.”

“We had a time of it though. I loved that cherry red Viper. I raced that car everywhere. And the women… I sure do miss the women.”

Jacob chuckled. “You always were good with the ladies. I still have my farm and that’s good’nuff for me. Got to travel a little. My truck’s still running steady, too.”

“That’s good. Never could understand why they wanted to pay us so much to take those paintings.” Jerry shrugged, then snorted. “We sure duped them.”

“Yeah, we did.” Jacob’s lumpy body shook and jiggled. A big half toothless grin spread wide between puffy flushed cheeks. He looked up to the TV. “There it is. The news report on the heist.” His plump fingers slapped the table. “Bartender, can you turn the sound on?”

“Yep. Don’t know why they keep on about it every year. Guess it gives us an excuse to get together.” He snorted into his glass as he sipped. “That old lady’s still whining. She didn’t lose her job, did she? Pretty sure she hired us anyway. Never saw her face, but that voice of hers is close.” He shrugged.

Jacob shook his head. “Nope, never did see it myself.” He slid the empty mug across the bar. It moved hand to hand with a steady cadence. “Hey Jerr, we need to talk.”

Jerry paused, his glass frozen mid-air. “Bout what, Jacob? You know what happened the last time you brought it up. I know you don’t want to lose the rest of those teeth in your mouth.” He gulped down the last of his drink, then slammed it on the bar. His arms bulged tight. His crooked nose scrunched as he hardened his hand into a fist.

Jacob slid lower in his seat and hunched his shoulders. Then sat straight and puffed up his chest. “Listen. Just listen, Jerry. Please… I’m not up for breaking that nose again. Damned if it didn’t make you look better.”

He snorted. A mouth full of straight tar stained teeth flashed.

“I… it just weighs, Jerry. Twenty-five damn years and it still weighs heavy. Every time a cop car flashes through the neighborhood I want to run. I’m tired.”

The bartender sauntered over. “Hear that boys’? That guy says he knows who did it. After all this time, that would like a miracle or someth’n,” he said. He poured another whiskey, turned and helped a lady two chairs down.

Jacob grabbed Jerry’s arm. “Do you think… you think they got us after all this time?”

Jerry shook his head. He placed a cigarette between dry cracked lips, flicked the match and watched the fire flare up, then pulled it to the tip of the cigarette. Smoke curled out of his mouth, then filled the space in front of him. “I think if they had any evidence to catch us, they would have done it twenty-five years ago.”

“But Jerr, they have that new DNA checking now. Maybe… what if—”

Jerry punched him on the shoulder.

Jacob grabbed his shoulder and rubbed. His eyes wide. “Whad’ya do that for?”

“Look.” He jumped up. His lean frame moved to the beats on the jukebox. A toe reached out and his knees wobbled, and then he spun in a circle. Bent over, rested hands to knees, he wheezed, “We’re free of it, man.”

“What are you on about?”

“They think we’re dead.”

“I… how is that possible?” He scratched his head.

Jerry sucked hard on the cigarette hanging loosely from his lips. A cloud poured out. “Hot damn, partner. It’s finally over.” He grabbed Jacob’s hand, shook it hard. “It’s been a pleasure Jacob.” He headed for the exit.

Jacob looked at the bartender, Eyes wide, a half toothless grin on his face. “Pour me a whiskey, bartender.” His body crumbled. The sigh escaped his lips as his body deflated. He shook his head and chuckled. “I’ll be damned.”

Smoke rolled through the room, swam around bodies, and danced over the waves of music before it slid through the crack in the door as it shut.

Jennifer Brewer is a writer of literary and genre short fiction and is published by Ariel Chart and Adelaide Literary Magazine. Her short story, “Into the Dark” is self-published on Amazon Kindle. She is currently working on a genre fiction novel. Follow her on Twitter: @JennJBrewer and/or visit her website: https://jenniferbrewer.work/

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The One-Woman Show – Lucy Goldring

As a toddler Lisa’s default setting was quiet. When her parents tried to play with her she would tell them, crossly, Go ‘way, I busy.

Her favourite pastime was to tip jigsaws into a pointy heap and lose herself in their reconstitution. Even back then, she was happiest alone in a room.

That was until a performance opportunity came her way. Lisa’s show-stealing turns at birthday parties were infamous. A typical act would unfold thusly: Mary had a lickle lamb lickle lamb lickle lamb with a baa baa here baa baa there twinkle twinkle lickle star how I wonder one two three four five once I…

And so on.

Although her parents found these routines endearing, they had other people to think of. All too soon, Lisa would find herself plonked back on a cushion, a consoling whisper of Pass the parcel soon! warming in her earhole.

Throughout primary school, Lisa was overlooked for lead roles and barely got picked to read. Other girls had perfect enunciation, were naturally effervescent. It was the same with Lisa’s brief spell at Stage Tots. Her small body, though loved and cared for, got used to vibrating envy.

Three decades on, Lisa – who should have been drafting the Director’s foreword to the spring report – had just realised she still craved the limelight. It was sad to admit to neediness, especially from the comfort of a warm house with a full fridge, but there it was. Aside from a selection of weary cashiers, Lisa hadn’t seen anyone to chat to in weeks, let alone owned the floor. As she sunk into her sofa, she felt she might assume its blue-grey hue before vanishing without trace.

If there was a silver lining to lockdown, it was the time and space to reflect. ‘Secret Extrovert: the adult years’ was Lisa’s current showreel. As a college boyfriend had once observed, certain environments really brought out her am drams. She’d objected at the time; had considered herself an understated and self-contained person, whose rare theatrics only accentuated her overall cool. Now she accepted it: she was an out-and-out show-off.

With acute longing, thirty-three year old Lisa realised that her main stage was Friday nights at the local. Alcohol was said to distort a personality but, trawling back through her memories, Lisa saw only the surfacing of a true self. She saw that she was blessed with friends who fed her repartee; that she’d surrounded herself with people who indulged her weird sense of humour.

If the quality of Lisa’s repertoire was variable, the self-worth that followed was not. Performance afterglow would cloak Lisa for days, power her through the worst hangovers and the least inspiring of tasks. With her inner loudmouth mothballed, life was bland. She could be anyone – or no one.

Lockdown Christmas had been particularly difficult. No Pictionary or charades. No embroidered anecdotes of festivities past. No shouting of Christmas hits round the jukebox or instigation of a round-the-pub conga. There had been a few subdued Zooms with Mum, Dad and Uncle Mike. A mulled cider over the front wall with her increasingly twitchy pal, Zac (apparently the only other person in the city not risking a family get together). As for New Year’s Eve, Lisa had just pretended it wasn’t. She’d run a comedy quiz show marathon instead. Having lost all inhibitions about talking to herself weeks’ before, Lisa had joined in with gusto. In fact, she’d teleported right into the TV, firing off zinger after zinger until her fellow panellists could hardly catch their breath for mirth.

There was no mirth to be had now. Just a gradual succumbing to nothingness. And still an hour left of cheerless work.

When, thirty-seven minutes later, the impulse came, it was a tiny demanding child; an appeal from deep within the well of her. Lisa jogged upstairs and strained on tiptoes to drag bin bags off her wardrobe. Ritzy going-out clothes of times past slopped on top of her from shredded plastic, sending dust motes whirling. She began collating outfits and assessing light levels. Rummaging around for a notebook, she considered the merits of a Wet January cocktail.

As ideas flowed from her festive-scented gel pens, Lisa was unaware she was birthing ‘The Devastatingly Spectacular Lisa Grigson Comedy Experience’. The feeling was only exhilaration, a lightness of body and mind.

Ultimately, yes, a performance required an audience but if they were located elsewhere, all the better. She could disable comments until her material took on shape. Work on her style, nurture a distinctive voice. Meanwhile, she would be content to perform to that single unblinking eye; to reconstitute herself one rough-cut piece at a time.

Turning to the window, Lisa observed that the street was deserted again. The peach-gold sun shone warm on her face and there was no one else there to block out her light.

Lucy Goldring is a Northerner hiding in South West England. She has been shortlisted by Flash 500, the National Flash Fiction Day (NFFD) and Retreat West and won Lunate Fiction’s monthly flash competition in July 2020. Lucy was nominated for Best Small Fictions 2020 by both NFFD and 100 Word Story. She is currently working on a collection exploring emotional responses to the climate crisis. Tweets @livingallover

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3499 Click – Matthew Twigg

The ring first belonged to my great-great-grandmother. A family heirloom, passed down through the women. For the last thirty years it had sat on the middle finger of Mum’s right hand. Why not her ring finger? Resized too many times to count, the band had become worn and brittle, too delicate for any further operations.

“Which of mine would it fit best?” I asked, splaying my fingers.

“Bryony, really!” said Mum, doing likewise to examine the garnet stone, its shine grown dull by time. The claws of its setting were so worn the gem might slip loose at any moment, a set of Victorian fingers clinging to their former glory. “Anybody would think you were plotting my death.”

She smiled wickedly. Impossible to ever know what was going on in her head. True of everyone, I suppose, but I felt it more keenly with Mum, as though it were a personal failing. Daughters ought to know their mothers’ minds. Share them, even.

“Too nice to be buried with,” I said. “Graves have been robbed for less.”

This raised a hackled laugh, a smoker’s laugh. “Fine,” said Mum, shimmying the ring down the length of her finger before seizing my right hand. “There. Same one. What does that tell you? I guess we both like to flip people off in style.”

She sipped her red wine and I followed. The latest act in a long line of hapless, unhealthy mimicry. In her mouth she lit a pair of cigarettes, one of which she handed to me. Odd: Mum never smoked in the house, even after Dad died and took his protests with him. The smell of it got into the upholstery, the curtains, eventually the walls. Even Mum could admit that.

“I’ll make you a deal,” she said. “Call it a game. Indulge an old lady.”

“You’re not that old, Mum,” I said. A depressing sentiment. Glancing at my hand, the ring glistened upon its rejuvenated digit. It didn’t feel right. I slipped it off and handed it back to Mum.

“Oh, shut your beautiful young face,” she said, smiling. She replaced the ring on her finger where its light dimmed once more. “Here it is, the deal: When I die, the ring is yours, but only if – you’re humouring me, remember – only if there’s an afterlife. If there’s not and I’m just worm food, you never see the ring again.”

A jet of smoke burst unbidden from my nostrils. The premise of it was absurd; the outcome in either instance was unverifiable. I stared at her, tried to divine a sense of her overall purpose. She was a closed book, my mother, always had been, revelling in the sneak peeks she afforded those most eager to read her.

“Mum …” I wasn’t sure what annoyed me more, the morbid nature of it all, or the fact that, as an atheist, Mum was essentially wagering against my inheritance. “That’s just stupid.”

She took a deep drag on her cigarette, dropped the butt into the empty bottle with an expiring hiss, then told me she was dying.

* * *

A brain tumour. Inoperable and growing aggressively. She lasted three months more. At the crematorium, I watched as the service came to a close and her casket passed through a curtain at the front of the chapel. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! The line from The Wizard of Oz popped into my head and caused me to smile.

Grief lingered, as it is wont to do. John helped where he could: cooked meals (oven food: his speciality), took up more of the slack with the housework, the legal headaches. When I spoke, he listened patiently. He tried not to tell me how to feel. Until our meeting with the solicitor, the question of the ring – it being on Mum’s finger or not – had not occurred to me. It was, after all, just a ring, not even all that pretty.

The meeting itself was uncontentious. I was the latest in a line of only children and so, barring a couple of charitable donations to local animal shelters, we would be spared any legal wrangling. Mention of the ring, however, was conspicuous by its absence. Recalling the ridiculousness of Mum’s wager, I resisted any theological conclusions. It proved nothing. But it rankled nonetheless. Had she really taken it to her grave? The notion struck me as selfish, not in the spirit of an heirloom. But then, didn’t they remove jewellery before cremation? So just where the hell was it exactly?

Six weeks after the funeral I signed for a package. “Fair warning,” said the Hermes deliveryman, “it’s heavier than it looks.”

It was a safe, small but weighty, the sort you see in hotel rooms for storing passports and, well, jewellery.

“You think it’s the ring, don’t you,” said John, walking around the coffee table where the box now sat, as though he were interrogating a suspect. Not a strong look for a landscape gardener.

“Is there any question?” There was a numbered keypad and a strip of screen – **** – waiting for a four-digit code. I picked it up and shook it side-to-side. Silence. “What is she expecting me to do?” The present tense felt foolish. Then again, there was a chance, however remote, that she was watching, chuckling at our befuddlement.

“Try some numbers,” said John. “Birthdays, anniversaries, that sort of thing. Knowing your mother, it’ll be the date she died.”

Insensitive but true. Difficult to arrange, though. 2405. A message ran across the screen: Two attempts remaining.

“Shit,” said John, summing up.

Weeks passed as we waited for further instruction, a nudge in the right direction. But none came. The safe, in situ atop the coffee table, remained untouched. Untouched, but never far from my thoughts either. Inside that impenetrable steel case was a piece of Mum that needed to get out, that couldn’t breathe. The ring, at first no more than an idea inside my skull, grew and acquired form, substance, and significance. I wanted, needed, it out.

“I have tools,” said John. “I could bust it open.”

An obvious if inelegant solution. But it was Mum we were talking about. Handle with care; she deserved that much.

We had searched Mum’s house top to bottom, excavated every cupboard, every chest, every drawer of infuriating miscellany. Pursuing some semblance of a clue. It wasn’t like Mum to frustrate for the sake of it; she was fun-loving, certainly, a joker even, but never cruel. This scheme, this game, as she’d termed it, had started to feel like cruelty.

* * *

The psychic’s house was, appropriately enough, a mid-Victorian terrace. Narrow, tall, a town-house; purple door, brass knocker and letterbox, a sign safety-pinned to the wood: No nonsense calls. I hoped, for my own sake, that the notice didn’t apply to the spirits.

What other way was there to prove the existence of an afterlife? Short of Mum’s ghost appearing to me in person – a hideous thought – I could see no alternative way forward. I had spent the previous month refusing to engage in her gameplay, but the safe had by now acquired a talismanic quality. Truly it had become a lightning rod for all my anxieties and was obstructing any useful grief taking place. No closure until the box was open. A pithy little dose of self-delusion.

I found Jane via Facebook, a local woman with “no husband but two adorable cats”, her profile stated proudly. I had warmed to her instantly, even while regarding her profession with the severest scepticism. Seems that in spiritualism, as in life, sometimes the biggest clichés are the most reassuring. She invited me in and led me through to the living room where a pot of tea and two cups stood ready. Expecting me? Yes, but then appointments are handy like that.

Sage green walls, exposed hardwood floors, a mellow fragrance of jasmine, trinkets and doodads and statuettes on every surface; the windowsill, a coffee table, the shelves of a bookcase. A framed certificate hung on the wall. Jane was certified by the British Society of Parapsychology, a fact that I found – ahem – encouraging. In one corner stood a stack of identical books: Gifted: Communing with the Other Side. At the table, I sat opposite their author.

Tall and narrow to match the house, Jane was shoeless and loosely clothed. No less elegant for it. With her hair silver and thick, there was a grace to her, the beauty of tried and tested self-confidence, hard won over many years. Her voice was soft.

“You understand, Bryony, that it’s an inexact science.” This after I had spent twenty minutes and a pot of Earl Grey telling Jane all about Mum. I didn’t regard it as cheating. I wasn’t here to test Jane, I wanted to assist her as much as possible. “Your mother might come through clear as a bell, or she might not. I don’t control it. I’m just a channel.”

Curtains drawn, candles lit, we held hands, each of Jane’s adorned in colourful, many-shaped rings of their own. Between us stood a solitary crystal, a light blue pyramid. Something to do with energy.

We sat for forty-five minutes, the spirits’ silence punctured now and then by Jane’s imploring tones. Did I grow impatient? Did my hands begin to sweat and spasm in hers? Did my scepticism threaten to morph into cynicism? Of course. But there was a sincerity to Jane that prevented me. I had read about so-called “cold reading” before making the appointment – the devious art of mining your client for information without them realising, then parroting it back to them as though it were revelation. Jane tried none of it.

Withdrawing the curtains to the daylight, she said, “I’m sorry, Bryony. Really, I am. We can book another session, but I understand if you’re not interested.”

No sign of Mum. Correct in her atheism, then; the ultimate in Pyrrhic victories. “Is it okay if I think about it and let you know?”

“Of course,” said Jane. “And today’s session is half price, as promised. Honestly, I’m as disappointed as you, Bryony, if that isn’t a terrible thing to say.”

I felt bad. Jane was evidently an honest woman. Would her faith be rocked by this failure? Or, to her, would it be the exception that proved the rule? Not that any rule has ever been proved by an exception, of course, but pliant logic is still logic, of a sort.

“How much for one of your books?” I asked.

Jane brightened. “Should be £9.99, but it’s £4.99 to you. I’ll write you a receipt, for the session and the book together. I know what you’re thinking, but you’d be amazed how many businesses come to me for help. It’s tax deductible, depending on how you phrase it.”

* * *

John thumbed the pages of my new purchase, scoffing over the passages he deigned to read. Satisfied, he tossed it onto the coffee table beside the safe.

“I wish you’d let me get my tools. We could be done with this in ten minutes.”

A look passed between us. If there was no afterlife, I didn’t get the ring. That was the deal.

“At least try guessing the code again,” he said. “You’ve got two more goes. When was her birthday? November twenty-first, right?”

He punched in the numbers: 2111. One attempt remaining.

“Stop!” I said, batting his hand out of harm’s way.

“It’s ridiculous, Bryony,” he said, huffing from the room. “I’m getting a screwdriver.”

I slumped back on the sofa, exhausted and defeated, the safe and the book now twin pillars, mocking me. I dug into my pocket and plucked the receipt. One failed séance, one volume of pseudoscientific hokum: £34.99. Good money wasted.

But as I stared at the receipt, a thought occurred to me. Or rather, four numbers did. I pulled myself upright and onto the floor, kneeling before the safe. I entered the numbers.

3499 … Click!

Matthew Twigg lives in Oxford (UK) where he works as an editor for an academic publisher. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines, including The Fiction Pool, Penny Shorts, Dream Catcher, East of the Web, Gold Dust, decomP, Scarlet Leaf Review, formercactus, The Hungry Chimera, The Big Jewel, and Hypnopomp.

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Tomorrow I Will Learn To Sing – Sarah Dale

I know now that the hill that squats behind our house is a giant heap of dark discarded rubble. As a child, I thought it was ancient rock and soil like other mountains. I never questioned why there were no trees or grass, or why we lived in permanent shade. Sometimes I hear it creaking. Scurries of loose debris bounce down. I’ve always stayed quiet and still as you taught me, without knowing why.

Over the years, I watched lorries labour up the side of the unstable mound. I never saw them coming. You said they weren’t there. I dared not yell at them as they teetered, depositing the load. There was no point shouting as they drove away. You shushed my bewildered despair.

Now, I wish I’d spoken up, turned the lorries back. I have learned to live in hindsight. I only know what I should have done or said when it’s too late. I am too frightened to climb the perilous mass to remove material from the top. I cannot shovel it from the bottom. It will kill me in the attempt.

My kids have moved out. I never taught them to shout, to stop lorries. My heart crushes with remorse. They are learning now, away from me. I’m glad and sad.

You still live here. I’ve done my best to build you a shelter. You wouldn’t and couldn’t move, convinced it’s a harmless hill. I leave the door open. I hope for, but don’t expect, change.

I move to a distance, shuddering with terror. It’s time. I raise my voice, broken and scared but strengthening until I am roaring, shouting, screaming. Cracks and rumbles build to thunderous collapse, the sky obscured.

I stand my ground until it is over, in shock. The dust swirls and tomorrow beckons.

Sarah Dale is a psychologist and writer living in Nottingham. She completed an MA in creative writing from Birkbeck university in 2019. She can be found on Twitter @creatingfocus

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Beginnings – Jane Snyder

This was when I was twenty-four. After the guy I was with and I had sex I would pretend to go to sleep. When he was asleep I’d get up and steal some of the change on his dresser. If there were several dollar bills I’d take a couple of them too. I was so broke then I took aluminum cans to the recycling center to pay my phone bill.

I was never sure where I stood with him. He told me I wasn’t like Susan, his ex-wife. She was successful, people fell all over themselves, giving her jobs, and he’d go back to her in an instant, if she’d have him.

Sometimes we had fun. He’d take me for drives to places he said he wanted me to see. Though, he explained, the actual purpose of the trip was the photographs he took. He liked it if I admired something, the flat green duck egg color in the sky before a storm, maybe, or the way a slant of light carved up a sand dune.

Then, and I wouldn’t see it coming, he’d be mean. What did I know, he asked when I offered an opinion without being asked, picking up cans at midnight?

I know enough not to trust you anymore, I said, because I’d told him how you don’t find enough cans on the street. If you’re going to make money, you have to check garbage cans.

He told me I couldn’t take a joke.

Our trip to Palouse Falls was the longest trip, a two hour drive each way, we’d taken up till then and I had hopes. He’d brought food I liked for lunch and didn’t complain when I asked to stop for the bathroom. The Falls, a cataract of water falling from burnished rocks, was unexpected, and he enjoyed my excitement.

On the trip back, he asked me about a book I’d just read, asked me what I thought. I said I loved it. Oh, he said. You know, he remembered when it first came out. Susan read it; she thought it was trite.

There was another hour before we got back to Spokane and I spent it thinking about what I’d say when I broke up with him.

But we didn’t break up because he started acting nicer, more like a boyfriend.

I kept stealing.

He caught me. I should have guessed it was a set up because that night he left the bills in a sloppy wad. Usually he separated the fives from the ones, put each in neat piles.

He took a more in sorrow than in anger approach and I got mad, told him he’d never satisfied me. True, but I’d never said. I’d put that wad of penis in my mouth and suck. Suck. Suck. He’d hold my head down in the beery, dried urine smell, as if he thought I might be getting other ideas. Suck. Suck. He’d pat my hair, distracting little pats, a child petting a dog. Tentatively, wanting to make friends. But he still wouldn’t come, more often than not, after I’d done everything he told me. Suck.

Don’t blame yourself, he’d say. “You did your best.”

No amount of money could make up for all the time I’d spent with your penis in my mouth, I told him. Sucking. Your problem, not mine, I said, citing my previous lovers, doubling the number. Threw his money onto the bed.

He pleaded with me as I dressed. “I shouldn’t have done it. I should have just asked if you needed help. I know you don’t have much.” He looked like a stork with his long thin legs and his barrel chest, sitting on the edge of the bed, hunched over.

“You’re pathetic,” I said, walking to the door.

He looked up at me. He was crying. I was frightened, thinking of what he could say to me.

“I’ll be different,” he said.

We married. This was how our happiness began.

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It’s All About Growing Bananas – Colin Alcock

You know how it is. Growing up, you take so many things for granted. Food on the table, new clothes, as old ones seem to shrink, trudging back and forth to school, with your Mum shoving you down the path and turning back before she meets the other mums. You don’t notice the differences, until you’re older. Like Mum always wore a headscarf, pulled tight and knotted in the nape of her neck. And I do mean always. In the house, out the house; even in bed.

I was about nine when I asked. ‘Is mum bald, Dad? I’ve never seen her hair.’ He told me no, she just likes to keep it tidied away, as if that was just perfectly normal. ‘So what colour is it?’ I asked. He said, ‘You’d probably call it fair’. Turns out later, Fairtrade would be a more apt description.

Then there was the fruit bowl. Always full of apples, pears, those little oranges and the like. Sometimes, peaches or cherries or grapes. I should have a colourful diet, Mum always told me. Eat a rainbow, with plenty of fruit to make me grow strong. But when I said I’d had a banana at school, she looked horrified.

‘Never eat those. They’ll make you sick,’ she said. But I wasn’t. ‘Your teeth will fall out.’ They already had; I was on my second set. ‘You’ll get a curved spine.’ I stood straight as a ramrod. And no pleading from me would ever get her to buy me a banana at the greengrocers.

Then came puberty and Dad took me down to his garden shed. His private space, with the threadbare old armchair, his pipe rack, a small old, Persian looking, rug and the lawnmower. And some over-thumbed magazines, stuck up high on the shelf, just under the eaves. ‘Just gardening stuff,’ he used to say, ‘you won’t be interested in those,’ as he pushed them further out of my reach. But I was. I’d been in his shed when he wasn’t there and didn’t find many pictures in those mags that were taken in a garden.

Anyway, Dad sits there, all serious like, puffing on his pipe, a slight rouge filtering over his face, starting off, ‘Well …, it’s like this, lad …’ Whereupon he tried to tell me, in stilted phrases, all the things about growing up, most of which I already knew from my school mates or worked out from his top shelf magazines. Dad was certainly more embarrassed then me. Though it was when I asked him about the itching, he really went pale.

You see, I was getting this constant itch across my scalp. It wasn’t nits. Th school nurse had checked that. It didn’t seem to be an allergy. I’d not eaten anything new or been rolling in nettles or anything like that. Nevertheless, next day, I was whisked off to the doctor by Mum. She made me wait outside, for a moment, before calling me into his surgery. I felt nervous. Had I got some dreadful disease. I had eaten another banana, without telling her.

The doctor, a young chap with a full beard and cold hands, does all the usual poking around and said I was a good, strong, healthy young teenager. Then Mum said. ‘So, is it?’ and he replied, ‘I’m afraid it is. It’s genetic.’ And Mum looked pained, as she said, ‘I’d hoped he would take after his dad.’ Leaving me totally mystified.

That’s when, for the first time ever, my Mum removed her headscarf. A full head of bananas, beneath it. I was totally dumbfounded. Shocked to the core. Speechless. Mostly ripe, but a few green ones on the turn. But definitely bananas.

Now, of course, I’ve grown quite used to it. Mum explained it was a rare unexplainable syndrome, passed down the family line, with hints of witchcraft, overindulgence and alchemy experiments thrown in. No gold there, though, just brilliant yellow. It had been passed down in my chromosomes. Her contribution obviously stronger than Dad’s.

The doctor explained that there was no cure and that over the following year I would find my luxurious dark hair would slowly fall out and be replaced with little green curls. Those curls would thicken out and eventually turn yellow, so that for the first couple of years I’d look as if I’d had a close crop and dyed it. He gave me a letter to take to school, so that I wasn’t sent home for breaking the rules on haircuts. By the time I reached twenty, however, he said I should be sprouting a full crop of healthy fruit, that required regular picking.

Now, before your imagination goes into overdrive, I’m not talking those great fat hands of bananas you see on the supermarket shelves. No, these only grow to that small size you see in packs for kiddies’ lunch boxes. Which is how Mum got away with it, under her headscarf. She told me then, that she used to pull out a few, each week and take them down to the local greengrocer’s shop and he’d pack them with the delivery to the school kitchens. That’s why she was so horrified that time I told her I had eaten a banana at school. I might have eaten part of my Mum.

It took a few days for it all to sink in and get my head around it (or should I say under it?) and I was worried what my school mates would say. Would I be bullied? But Mum fixed that when she brought me a large baker boy cap and said I was to tell them that I had a contagious head infection and I was only allowed in school as long as I kept my hat on. My mates got used to it. Called out a few names to start, but I ignored it all and after a few weeks no more was said.

The first real problem came with girls. When I’d got to that age I was interested, but they were not. Not with a boy who never took his cap off. And might have a disease they could catch. Not that they could, of course. So, I resigned myself to celibacy until I went to college. There my constant cap became quite a draw, but the closer I got to the female students, the more I worried about taking it off in a romantic encounter.

Tending mini bananas is quite a chore. You can’t let them get too wet with the sweat of exertion, or they develop a sour smelling mould. Same goes for regularly removing the ripe ones, before they go brown and blotchy and ooze a sticky mess down the back of your neck. And you have to lay them carefully in rows, after sleeping, or they stand up at all angles and you can’t get you cap on tidily.

Well the night came when I knew I’d lose my cap – more than my cap with a bit of luck – and I ignored my Mum’s caution that they would grow back bigger and thicker and shaved my head. I thought it had done the trick. I got a girl very interested in me; things were getting quite steamy and we went upstairs from the communal area in my student house and into my room. Clothes started littering the floor, until we both lay in close embrace on my single bed, she naked and me in nothing but my cap. She grasped the peak with her hand, but I clutched at her wrist and held it for a moment, before letting her rip it off.

She looked most disappointed. ‘Oh. You’re just bald. Is that all you’ve been covering up. It’s been driving me bananas thinking you might have some ghastly birthmark or lewd tattoo, you were hiding. Wait ’til I tell the other girls they’ve missed nothing.’ And then she started laughing. ‘Sorry, but my Mom said never go to bed with a bald old man unless they’ve got money. Well at least you’re not old. Hang on, where’s your loo, I’m going to wet myself.’

‘First door on left, top of the stairs, second landing,’ I automatically replied. Then, as if that wasn’t enough to take the heat out of the evening, my exposed pate began to perspire profusely. Well, you know that model glue smell that bananas give off. Well imagine it ten times as strong. So, while she had popped out the room, still not a stitch on her, I lived a little in hope, so I topped up my aftershave and mopped my head with a towel. Then I checked in the mirror to see all was well, only to find all the fluff had adhered to my scalp in haze of white. The only solution: slam the cap back on.

She came back, took one look and exclaimed, ‘Oh, no. Not with that on. You perverted or something?’ and hastily started dressing. I wanted to explain, but I don’t think she was the type to go for bananas. More a peach cocktail girl.

So that was that. The bananas came back, thick and fast and I found a backstreet food bank that happily took a couple of dozen mini bananas every now and then. No more girls, for a while. Not before I asked Mum how she and Dad got together. Apparently, he had a poor sense of smell and the only scent that really got through to him was bananas. Reminded him him of his days making model aeroplanes, from balsawood and tissue, as a boy. Happy carefree days. He said they were made for each other – and he’s been glued to her ever since.

Now, the chances of me finding a model making girl are quite slim and I certainly don’t want a glue sniffer for a partner, so I had to resign myself for a solo life for a time. I finished college and got a job in a food factory; gutting fish for frozen fish and chip suppers – so no one notices my natural odour – and it’s my excuse for dousing myself with a very pungent aftershave.

There was a girl I flirted with, quite lightly, in the tea breaks. She reminded me of Mum in a way. She always wore a headscarf, knotted tightly at the back. So, I plucked up courage and asked her, ‘Have you got any bananas under there?’ She blushed and replied, ‘Don’t be cheeky. I suppose you’ll be asking me for a date, next?’ Then she cocked her head, looked hard and long at my cap, then, brow furrowed, said ‘You’re serious, aren’t you? Is that what you’re hiding?’ I nodded my head, slowly and she smiled. ‘You can walk me home tonight, if you like. Perhaps go for a drink. I think we’ve got something in common.’

After work we strolled down towards our local, “The Bunch of Grapes”, and she confided in me she had to keep her head covered because she had “a condition”. It was a bit embarrassing, she said, she would tell me if I promised not to tell a soul. And if I’d swear on my cap to keep it a secret.

She pulled me into the shadow of a shop doorway. The deep old-fashioned type. ‘Cherries’, she said. ‘I’m a red head. They fetch a good price, out of season, down the market. Now let’s see what’s really under that cap?’ I slowly removed it, as she, in turn, unknotted her headscarf.’

That was all a good many years ago, but you may have seen us down the seaside. We’ve got an ice cream van on the promenade. Special flavours, too. Banana split and cherry pie. You’ll remember us by the oversized, bright orange, baker boy cap I wear and her tightly bound cherry red headscarf. Oh, and the blood orange twist ice lolly? That was our daughter’s idea, when she became of age.

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