The Telling and Showing of Maximilian – Nigel Jarrett

Max. Which is all there was to him, really. A three-letter name. ‘It’s short for Maximilian,’ he used to say, but he was joking. So we knew something about him: that he wanted us to understand in his clever way that he was ‘five-syllable sophisticated’. We also knew that he’d probably got a girl into trouble, as they say around here, and had once been banned from driving after being found drunk at the wheel of his car following an accident. It was a long time ago, pre-breathalyser, and late teen stuff. But he was coming home.

There were six of us waiting: his mother, his sister and brother and their spouses, and me. Drink had been taken, except by the mother, a ninety-year-old lapsed Methodist, her liveliness at last muted. There were silences. And a lot of getting up and walking around. In one of them, imagination played: a car zooming up the valley (he’d long served his disqualification), its headlights full on; and those two – the roar and the full beams – becoming real in the distance as we stiffened to face what we had to face. Max. He’d kept himself to himself.

What we knew of him before he left:

Prize Day

‘And the English essay award goes to Max Fisher.’ Applause. Half-smiles and polite clapping from the staff, a semi-circle of downside-up bats (as he later described them in a magazine interview) who were not to be answered back. Max had thought Yeats over-rated. And said so. Eloquently.

Incident at Fulgoni’s

We heard it from widower Luther, the big Pools winner who lived sadly on his own with a bulldog called Bosun and kept his dead daughter’s fur coats in a wardrobe. Max had been thrown out by the waiter Flavio Gazzi, he said, for being abusive, and was screaming at passers-by. Luther didn’t know Max: some red-headed lout, he reported, who’d been ‘at the gut rot’ and was taken away by the police.

In the Matter of the Pudding Club

It could have been anybody’s, they hissed, but Janine knew it was probably Max’s. There were no ways of properly telling then, but her cousin Sue’s parents in Kircaldy had gone to court and it was all over the Fife Free Press for weeks, so she didn’t bother. Poor Sue. It turned out that the respondent was not the father. Paternity suit it was called, like something a dad might wear to a christening. Sue named her son Rory. Janine named her daughter Isobel. The bastards.

Scene at The Goose & Cuckoo

The landlord was ticked off in court for serving Max drinks when it was obvious he’d fuelled up before arrival. The locals liked Max, the lone nineteen-year-old regular with the Frogeye Sprite some garage-owner friend had let his father have for a song. ‘The Rat & Pickled Egg’, Max called the place. The tree he drove into is still there, ever waiting for all-comers. He later fictionalised the crash, describing animals which ‘came silently out of the night’ to investigate the hissing car and its driver, bloodied and asleep against the steering-wheel.

The view from here skedaddles down the slope to the valley bottom, where a vein of neon light tracks the way out. Max took it one night when his father was pick-axeing below for black gold, and hardly ever returned. It’s another world now. Winding gear has wound itself into the ground. Cataracts that were once just stifled drips thunder beneath – so they say. The invisible gas that would ping a canary off its perch like a pock-marked target at Danter’s Fair now swirls in abundance. The past down there is a space being refilled.

We could have talked about Max but we didn’t. We speculated on why. Someone said it was a long time since his novel, The Unbridled Guest, was reviewed in the Sunday papers, though not ones that most people around here bought. Cuttings would be sent by others that mentioned him in passing: at raucous parties in Switzerland and the south of France. There was a follow-up to the first book but it was a pebble cast into a fast-flowing brook: it caused no ripples, and got left behind by the glittering onward rush.

Anyway, like Max, we’ve shuffled towards the abyss, those of us who haven’t vanished already before their time. We head the queue. Behind us are the frolics we once enjoyed ourselves; the spent party-poopers and pointed hats, music’s dying fall. We are growing old, and the prodigal is coming home.

Max never wrote many letters. When humanity stopped doing it and went digital he more or less gave up communicating altogether. So the last one had come as a surprise. He’s not on Facebook or anything else. Being ‘on’ anything would probably irk him. He had his standards. He used to write to me once every couple of years and I understand his sister received the odd missive. It was all about thoughts of himself. Max’s shortcoming was his neglect. No-one had his postal address or his phone number. It was as though he didn’t want us to believe he existed any more.

The sun leaves the scene early here. Sometimes, having sought a gap in the hills, it nevertheless illuminates a high cluster of farm buildings, pointing out some New Jerusalem destined to fade. Now, it has grown dark and cold. Eventide, as our long-forgotten hymns have it, has passed.

His brother reminded us that Max was always on time. And so he was.

We gathered and stood back from the window, with just his mother’s table light on. It was an attempt at a surprise by those who had lost faith in surprises. Far from ‘roaring’ up the hillside, he came quitely, his headlights dipped, and pulled slowly into the yard in front of the house. He seemed to need help in getting out of the car; but he managed it. Dressed in a thick herring-bone overcoat and with his hair grown long and yellowing, he looked older than we expected. Half way to the front door – I’d put the outside light on – he stopped and looked up at the stars. He appeared raffish in his corduroy trousers, red shirt and orange-and-blue tie. We didn’t go out to greet him; we waited till he knocked. His overcoat seemed an encumbrance.

‘I’ll go’, I said to the others, as they clustered around his mother like nestlings.

Under the porch light I barely recognised him.

‘Maximilian,’ I said.

‘Jan’, he answered, half-grimacing.

He brushed past me. I could smell drink, cigarettes.

Tea and cakes were brought out and we settled into muted talk of the old days. It was a while, but not that long, before he told us how many months he had left. And only much later, when his mother had gone to bed, the others had departed, and he was smoking without having asked if I minded, did I break the news that Isobel had agreed to seek treatment.

In the Matter of the Self-Harming

Just to say that it’s been happening for a while now.

‘I never knew,’ he said, leaning across but meeting some undefined obstacle. ‘Poor Izzy.’

There was a lot the all-knowing Max didn’t know, but I knew some of it; and, being one of those who’d stayed, I could comfort him with the knowledge he’d discarded and left behind, as he covered his tracks in all innocence. But we could never be an item again – not now (he’d hate the word ‘item’). We once had a brief shared history. But it had separated and each was well along its pre-determined path. At the end of his, some evidence of turmoil could already be seen, and some inner wailing, and then silence; at the end of mine? We’ll wait and see. But here he was. Back at last.

 

NIGEL JARRETT is a winner of the Rhys Davies prize for short fiction and the Templar Shorts award. He’s had two collections of short stories, a novel, and a collection of poetry published. A former daily newspaper journalist, he now reviews and writes for Wales Arts Review, Jazz Journal, Slightly Foxed and several others. He lives in Monmouthshire and swims whenever he gets the chance.


Image supplied by Nigel Jarrett

Live At Her Majesty’s – Jess Doyle

Jimmy’s face ached. They’d both laughed from the moment Tommy Cooper had appeared on the TV screen. Jimmy and his Mum with her convulsive cackles. Him fingering his toy revolver and her with a machine gun laugh. He loved that about her, how laughter would erupt from her in great juttering explosions.

Trick after trick failed for Tommy as always and the audience loved it. His futile fumbling with a set of magic rings had the audience howling. There was a small explosion amongst his props. Jimmy’s mum actually yelped.

‘Alright, who-did-it?’ Cooper asked in his rough comical bark. Jimmy had to wipe away a tear and cradle his aching belly. A blond assistant approached Cooper and helped him into a long red gown. It was the same red as his fez, the same red as the curtain behind him. For a moment Cooper merged with the curtain and Jimmy found he was staring at a sea of showbiz red. He blinked it away.

The plastic gun was still in Jimmy’s hand. His mum crowed like a semi-automatic. Jimmy raised the revolver and aimed at Tommy Cooper. He pulled the trigger. There was a hollow click. Cooper jolted. For a second he seemed to steady himself. Then he fell. He fell back against the red curtain and slumped into a seated position on the floor. The assistant threw an amused smile over her shoulder as she walked away. The audience howled with laughter. Jimmy’s mum cackled and the sound suddenly made him shudder. He gawked at the television, at the huge man slumped against the red curtain and he glanced at the gun in his hand.

Then the words ‘Live at her Majesty’s’ appeared on the screen as the red curtain was pulled around Tommy Cooper. Normality and adverts. Jimmy’s mum struggled to calm herself although she was still grinning broadly and giggling to herself as she walked into the kitchen to put the kettle on.

Jimmy stared at the gun. The gleeful ache inside him had turned to something else. Something icy and rigid. He turned the revolver over and over, saying to himself ‘I didn’t do that. Did I?’

 

JESS DOYLE is a writer from North Wales. Her stories have been published by Idle Ink, Bone and Ink Press, Hypnopomp magazine and Horror Scribes, she is a Zeroflash winner and has stories forthcoming in Coffin Bell. You can find Jess on Twitter as @jcdoyley

Image via Pixabay

Cat & Mouse – Mari Maxwell

They’d met at the O’Hara party. Over the leftovers. He nibbling delicately on the cheese plate. She, languidly enjoying the creamy salmon mousse.

They went everywhere together. Sometimes when the lights were doused, the two would snuggle by the dying fire, chatting and whispering until dawn.

It could have been forever, Raoul thought. Instead, he’d found her matted coat on his evening stroll.

“Masie,” he’d whispered.

Silence. Not a heave of a breath. Masie stared, uncomprehending, and her beautiful black and white fur couldn’t hide the crushed head.

It wasn’t supposed to be.

But it was.

A ten pin strike.

 

MARI MAXWELL’s work is forthcoming in the 2019 ROPES Literary Journal. In 2018 she read at the Strokestown International Poetry Festival; and, Irish Writers Centre International Women’s Day. Publications include: Irish Times, Bosom Pals [Doire Press] and Veils Halos & Shackles:International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women [Kasva Press].

Image via Pixabay

Charley and Pop – Jeff Binkley

Charley and Pop lived in a fully realized world, one with every detail nice and sorted, from the smell of a spring morning to the wood grain of their dining table. This was a literary world you see, a world where everything meant something and nothing amounted to anything at all.

You might say Charley and Pop lived in a dream and that wouldn’t be too far from the truth. Dreams seem so real, so vivid in the moment. There’s a magnetism about them that pulls us close, hints at something of incredible importance, then leaves us cold in the dim morning light. No meaning, no theme, just abrupt reality.

Quite a few have had a go at explaining dreams, or literature, or life, but mostly they’re just explaining the little they know of themselves. Exclude yourself from conversation – go ahead, try it – is there anything left? Maybe you are all that exists. Maybe I am. Who’s to say?

Well, anyway, Charlotte Rosemary Perkins, who we called Charley because it was shorter, met my Pop some very specific time ago in a city that may or may not exist where you live. I’m sure it was nice there, a wonderful place to fall in love given the right setting and circumstance. Let’s say a grocery store on the frozen food aisle which is also the center aisle of the quaint non-denominational chapel just outside town. When they had said words that neither would remember later, the faceless assassin priest – because aren’t all assassins a tad bit religious somewhere deep down and probably in need of some legitimate income – spun them around and all of their friends from high school were there, weeping at the indescribable beauty of it all. This was a love like no other. This was a love you wish you had.

Those in the front rows tried to steal some of the beauty for themselves, which was a mistake as they had no place to put it. Their hands were filled with programs and tissues. Their tiny dresses and rented tuxedos had no pockets. Therefore, they made the unfortunate decision to swallow the beauty which quickly swelled until they burst like exploding cantaloupe and honeydew melons. Charley and Pop were showered with melon fragments as they left the chapel. It’s strange, but only if you say it out loud. Most anything can happen on a piece of paper.

Real life set in shortly after the wedding as it often does. Charley and Pop decided to delay their honeymoon because the country was in crisis, the likes of which had never been seen before. This especially took a toll on Pop who, having been the oldest of eight children, had hoped to have a large family of his own. Now he wondered, in that translucent mind of his, whether this was a world he wanted to bring children into. Thus the conflict was simultaneously external and internal.

Everything everywhere was out of balance with everything else – sun and moon, night and day, good and evil, supply and demand. As a result, news and media outlets grew rich off the peoples’ insatiable thirst for things to complain about at their meaningless jobs painting road signs for places that had never existed. There was even a news story about the complaining painters, which obviously painted them in a bad light and gave them even more to complain about. Pop saw the story, which only made him sad. Pop’s pop had died in a tragic backstorical painting accident, a memory that caused him endless trauma and probably foreshadowed thematic content throughout the entirety of the fictional re-telling of this real man’s life.

Pop took up woodworking to take his mind off things, though he mostly liked to buy supplies and materials that never really added up to anything. In the garage at Charley and Pop’s house are boxes of nails, screws, hinges, clamps, and most anything that could be used to put pieces of wood together in an interesting or utilitarian way. Next to that is the wood collection. Redwood, rosewood, cedar, ash, alder, maple, walnut, cherry, olive, buckeye burl, amboyna burl, sitka spruce, red oak, and pine. A whole lot of stuff that added up to nothing.

The one piece Pop did finish was the dining table. Pop made the table top from an improbably large slab of walnut burl, the base from solid rosewood, and he unfurled the finished product at he and Charley’s first or third anniversary. It had to be one of the two, because it was undoubtedly early on in their marriage and every even year they seemed to be financially strained so that they skipped grand gestures in favor of a night in with pizza rolls and old movies.

I may be burly and flatly utilitarian, he had said as he slapped the table top, but Charley Rose, you’re the base that keeps me afloat.

The words dissolved in tears of happiness, later in tears of pain, as well as future glasses of sweet tea, coffee, water, and cherry soda once the kids came along.

Kids, yep. Pop resolved his inner turmoil via a series of inner monologues prompted by observations of the world around him. People were like parking lots. Traffic lights were temporary. Grass was the hair on the head of the earth. Penguins.

Charley, meanwhile, wanted a say in the matter because women are people not property and like to be consulted regarding matters of carrying heavy objects around for nine months straight. She was working a fulfilling, yet underpaid, position on the city board of decisions where she impacted the lives of most everyone and could never be sufficiently replaced. Could she, in good conscience, choose the life of her own hypothetical child over the lives of the everyone in existence?

Oh, easily. Yes, especially Bob Chatway.

Her prized moment, one that she carried with her always in the recesses of her rosewood heart, was her refutation of that ridiculous Bob Chatway and his notion to implement a technology based downloadable note system which would directly deposit knowledge into the minds of the committee, thus saving on paper. Charley had cleverly argued that a thing does not exist unless it exists. Bob Chatway could not deny the logic. Therefore, Charley continued, thought, consciousness, and creativity do not exist. We are all at the whims of some writer somewhere and writers need paper.

Bob Chatway and his silly dalliances were summarily dismissed as fictional science, a fantasy of the worst kind. Before he slunk off in shame, Charley took a mental snapshot of the room. Black leather wheely chairs, thin gray carpet, knock-off abstract drip paintings on the walls, fluorescent lighting that imbued Bob Chatway’s face with an appropriately seasick pallor. There was no room for make believe in a world as firm and grounded as this.

Charley took a victory sip from her stainless steel coffee tumbler. The locally roasted South American blend was smooth. It reminded her of Guatemala and a man she had once known, maybe even loved, named Ernesto Chavez. She had been so young then, her hair so long, flowing down her back in lustrous flaxen waves. As she ran behind Ernesto in the Guatemalan fields, Bob Chatway slammed the door shut behind him. The door was walnut. Charley instantly thought of her husband waiting for her at home, burly and full of grain. That was Pop. He loved bread and no one made bread better than his daughter Jelly Bean Jean. She was round and sweet and died many times in different ways throughout her lifetime.

Jelly Bean first died when she was two and ate most of Charley’s beauty products. If memory serves, the ones tested on animals were especially cruel, as were the fluorocarbons, the ground mammoth tusk, powdered horse hoof, and purified medical waste.

I believe this is the moment Charley set aside her disbelief and began to make room for the supernatural. Now it was personal, emotional. Now it affected her precious little Jelly Bean. How could she condemn Jelly Bean Jean to die over mistakes she had made?

Pop concurred and together they decided to bring Jelly Bean back to life. Turns out it wasn’t all that difficult. A flick of the wrist, a turn of the pen. She died again a year later when a strain of virulent, unvaccinated flu made the rounds.

Jelly Bean eventually reached the age of adolescent agency, in which she was allowed to think and act and make mistakes all her own, injecting Charley and Pop’s lives with brand new batches of yet unmined conflict. But somewhere along the line, Jelly Bean learned to bake bread which mostly made up for the difficulties of raising a daughter who dies often and insists on making decisions.

Charley and Pop lived through it all, learning lessons sometimes, but mostly describing the details of their surroundings. Plywood bookshelves lined the walls of the living room and sagged in the middle as if the books themselves were the only things staving off collapse. A brown leather belt with newly cut holes toward the end lay on top of one of the bookshelves. Dust and cobwebs collected in corners of a living room that has only been written about and never lived in.

And then, one Thursday, Jelly Bean grew up. She moved to Paris at twenty, London at twenty-six. Of course Charley and Pop followed, worried that Jelly Bean would never survive without them. True or not, they enjoyed the time together, soaking up all that Europe had to offer. They also met Sir Lawrence Dashwood of Kirtlington, who proposed to Jelly Bean a month later.

The happy couple married and the following year, Jelly Bean Jean Dashwood had her first child – me. I don’t recall Charley’s reaction, but I know that Pop hoisted me up and tossed me like a pizza dough. He laughed like a giant of a man, then set me down, kissed my wrinkly forehead, and walked away. The room was mortified, but I knew then that I’d turn out just fine. After all, the secret ingredient in any decent pizza is a well executed hand-toss.

It is indeed a magical life. I have known these characters through many lives, good lives that I’d like to explore in further detail. But now I am much too tired to continue so I’m off to bed.

*      *      *

Mom,

You asked for my thoughts, so here goes. You’re a good writer, I guess, but I have no idea what I just read. I mean, stories are supposed to have a point, right? What was the point of all that? Why write about the family if you’re going to jumble it all up? It was all backwards and hardly anything in there was true. Can I just say, for starters, I wish you wouldn’t call me Jelly Bean, at least not in public. I’m twenty-six now, and certainly not “round and sweet.” Also, I never died. Also also, Charley and Pop are my cats, so … I don’t know, I wonder sometimes. And I know you like Kirt, I like him too, but going to Duke doesn’t make someone a duke, and I’d really appreciate it if you slowed down on the whole marriage and kids fantasy. About London, I was thinking maybe me and you should plan a trip soon. How does that sound? We’ve both wanted to go since forever. I’ll look into it and let you know what I find out at Second Sunday Dinner. And yes, I got the hint. I’ll bake some bread. Okay, see you soon. Thanks for the strange story, I guess.

Love,

JB

P.S. – I’m glad you decided to have me, you know, in the beginning, even though you guys had some doubts.

P.P.S. – I miss Dad, too.

 

JEFF BINKLEY is a musician, educator, and author from Huntsville, AL. He enjoys time alone to think and pursue creative projects, but not as much as he enjoys a good cup of coffee with his wife, Amy.

Image via Pixabay

Their Untimely Lives – Roppotucha Greenberg

Ellie brought out the thrift-shop coat on weekends or when the sleet and the urge both got so bad that she just had to drag her feet towards the church. By mid-term exams, she could pass for an old lady even without the make-up. The secret was in the head-wobble and the bent back.

Felix’s condition was severe: his mind was nearly a week ahead. By Tuesday, his mind was already deep in the rain of the following Monday. He often bumped into people and had given up on umbrellas.

‘So do you, like, never get nervous ahead of exams?’ she asked.

It was their first date, but thinking it was their second he told her personal stuff, like, how he’d be sitting on the grass having a coffee, and his mind would be in the exam hall it would get dark and sweaty with the walls falling around him. But there were advantages.

Ellie, giggled and didn’t tell him about her condition. They ordered tiramisu, which is the funniest desert in the world and has a layer of lady’s fingers. She wondered what would happen if he chased his mind all the way through the future weeks. Would he know if they would always order tiramisu and pretend-fight over it?

That Saturday, anyway, everything worked out: Ellie had the house to herself and the heating broke down, so they tried three different strategies to keep warm. And if that mirrored whatever the next week held, that was all just fine. He was in perfect synch with her time-line.

She slept in little squirts of dreams, and every time she woke up, she hugged him. In the yellow light from the window, her coat was an old woman hanging on the wardrobe. With every dream, the woman got stronger, until she left her place and came very close, and that was also fine.

If only Ellie could just skip all the layers of time, go unseen past all the crocodiles, and arrive to the end where no threats could reach.

They dated throughout her treatment, and past the summer exams. They never fought: you can’t fight with a semi-future person. Then one night something bad happened: Felix’s body writhed under the sheet, his eyes bulged, the bed was drenched with his sweat, was the sea, was huge, and as she grabbed onto him, she cried for extra-arms, powers from the future, the strength of an octopus. ‘It’s OK’, he shouted through gritted teeth from the bottom of the ocean. ‘It’s OK’. And then silence, and then slowly, as he opened his eyes: ‘I think I’ve been hit by a bus.’ ‘Are you crazy?’ and she hit him with her hair-brush, and threw stuff, and screamed like a banshee. And Felix was too exhausted to explain that as his mind died in the week that was still to come, he didn’t … it wasn’t … he wasn’t quite sure, and the only word that occurred to him was OK, which doesn’t really explain anything at all.

And Ellie, who had mastered her disguise to cheat time, now faced the possibility of horrible grief. He said he couldn’t feel next Wednesday. He was worryingly fully present. They decided to stay in all week, which was difficult. She still lived with her parents, and his was a mould-infested place two miles outside the city. How would they get enough food? How would she feel at night when she had to leave?

But they managed. They fed themselves on beans and pot noodles, watched a few documentaries, revelled in Dutch Gold. A week passed, and another one He became a proper TV addict during that time, said he’d never been able to enjoy it before. She put all her talent into co-watching: how they make bolts, how they drive trucks, how they ice-fish—portents of the unknown they were, scattered atoms of his near-dead being. At night, she thought if she could properly focus, she could keep him safe, and then she grew frightened at the thought. So instead, she learned to stop trying and to match her rhythm to the world around her. And no death bus came. They waited another week and decided they were almost safe.

By Christmas exams, they were both cured. The imagined accident, if that is what it was, grounded him in the present. He stopped bumping into people. As old woman’s clothes stopped working for her, she invested in a lipstick, and a fancy top.

Several years after, Ellie still wonders why they broke up.

Sometimes, on a Thursday, when goes out with her new friends, she suspects that she loved that other guy more, the dead one from that Wednesday that didn’t happen. Or was it just the pressure of that week? There was so much death, TV, worry, and cheap food. He was no longer her guide into a safer future. A small part of her, the Ellie that adored tiramisu and that he loved best of all, wrapped herself in the old woman’s coat and waddled off. Yes, that could explain it. These thoughts make her cry, slurp her beer, and realise that none of them are quite the whole truth. The truth, like the dead guy from Wednesday, and her small part, was elsewhere, for her to hunt down in giant leaps, hurriedly, into the next Friday, and beyond, through a parallel world, the end of life, and time, and the end of all worry.

 

ROPPOTUCHA GREENBERG writes micro-fiction on Twitter (@Roppotucha)
Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Ad Hoc Fiction (winners’ section). The Evening Theatre, Elephants Never, 101 Fiction, Former Cactus, TSS Publishing (The BIFFY50 micro-fiction competition runner up), Ellipsis Zine, Twist in Time, The Mojave Heart Review, Enchanted Zine, and The Forge Literary Magazine. She lives in Ireland.

Image via Pixabay

My Mummy is… by Dan Brotzel

GENTLE GIRAFFE BOOKS — PARENTS AT WORK SERIES, No 17

My mummy is…
A SENIOR SEO CONTENT PRODUCER

Hello! My name is Kyle and I am nine years old.
Today I’m going to tell you about my mummy’s work.

My mummy is a senior seo content producer.
She works in an office with lots of other people.
She writes lots of things. It’s very busy work.
Mummy has to drink a lot of coffee to keep herself going.
Mummy has three stress balls.

Mummy works on the Internet.
The Internet is like a giant library.
But the Internet is not a library in a building. It’s in everyone’s computer.
Mummy helps to make it easier for people to find things on the Internet.
She says this is what seo means.
It stands for search engine optimisation.

To search for things on the Internet, mummy says, people use a thing called Google.
Google is a search engine. A search engine is different to a fire engine.
Google is like a big computer inside the Internet that helps people find things.
You type in ‘underwater train’, and Google gives you a list of videos of trains going underwater. You just click on the one you like.
My mummy doesn’t make underwater train videos. She doesn’t make train videos at all.
She says she works more in the e-commerce, professional services and b2b tech space.

Mummy says Google is like a big race.
Everyone wants to see their things come top of the list.
But not everyone can come top of the list.
Mummy says some naughty people try and cheat their way to the top.
Mummy says these naughty people are called black-hats. I think this is because they wear black hats.
Mummy says she never does these naughty things. Not unless there is a compelling business case for pushing the best-practice envelope.

Mummy thinks a lot about something called keywords.
Keywords are things that people search for a lot.
Some keywords are ‘cat videos’ and ‘Taylor Swift’ and ‘anti-wrinkle cream’ and ‘payday loans’ and ‘pornhub’.
Mummy says keywords help her understand what people are looking for.
Then she tries to make things that have these keywords in.
But it is very hard work, says mummy, because different people like different things.
She says that’s why no one clicked on her white paper about new developments in cloud-based e-procurement software.

Mummy doesn’t make things for herself.
She makes them for her special friends.
Her special friends are called clients.
She says some of the clients are like me.
Are they nine? I ask. You would think so sometimes, she says.
The clients give mummy money to thank her for making things for them.
Mummy uses the money to buy food and clothes and toys for me and my sister.
I tell mummy to be really nice to her special friends. I like toys.

Sometimes mummy makes things for Facebook and Instagram and things like that.
They are places where people can chat with each other even when they are far apart.
Mummy puts videos and pictures on Facebook that she pretends her special friends made.
Her special friends want people to click on their things.
But often no one clicks on the things mummy makes for them. That makes mummy and her special friends very sad.
Are you making cool stuff like underwater train videos? I ask.
No darling! laughs mummy.
Well, you should, I say. Remember, we need the money.

Mummy is a manager.
Managers look after a team of other people who help her do the work.
But mummy also has a manager of her own. She calls him My Boss.
Mummy’s boss must be a ghost, I think, because mummy says he’s not all there.
I want to meet the people in mummy’s team one day.
I want to play with them, because they sound really funny.
Mummy say they are all jokers and muppets.

A very special part of mummy’s work is landing pages.
Landings pages are like runways. People land on them when they click on something in the Google list.
Mummy says she has to give landing pages a lot of extra care and attention.
What about me, mummy? I say. Do I get extra care and attention?
Of course you do! she laughs. You mean the world to me! But I don’t have to worry about optimising your conversion rates.

Sometimes mummy has to use special words I don’t understand.
She talks about featured snippets and influencer marketing and rinsing the competition’s PPC budget.
She says I would make a good seo content producer one day because of my strong ideation skills.
What are ideation skills? I ask.
Coming up with lots of new ideas, says mummy.
Like when I tried to explain broadband with pasta tubes? I ask.
That could work, she says, writing it down.

You need lots of special qualities to do a job like Mummy’s.
You need to be a good writer.
You need to be a fast typer.
You need to be good at understanding things called spreadsheets.
Mummy says that a spreadsheet is a big piece of paper full of numbers that no one understands.
But how can you do your job if you don’t understand? I ask.
I pretend it’s a game, she says.

I’m very proud of my mummy.
She does a very important job.
But mummy says that her job is only work.
She says her real job is being my mummy.
She says it is the best job in the world.
When I grow up, I want to be a senior seo content producer like you, I tell her.
I pray that day never comes, says mummy.
Why? I ask.
Mummy sighs and says nothing.
Why? I ask again.
Because you are so clever, you could do something you actually want to do.
Like what, mummy? I ask.
Like… an underwater train driver, she says.

Image via Pixabay

 

What You Don’t Know Can’t Hurt You – Helen Laycock

Mother’s face blanches as the lightning cracks.

Raindrops are hurled like handfuls of tiny stones, the plate glass stopping them short of assaulting her face. Her eyes are as dead as lizards’.

‘Rain,’ she says.

My back is to the window. I know the rain. How it turns a flimsy shirt to second skin, sagging and pinching, twisting and chafing. Clasping the cold.

I know the garden hedge, too – that hollow, where, hunched in the dark, eagles’ talons gripped my shoulders and bats became entangled in my hair. I know the dank smell of drenched earth, which wheedled its way into my nostrils like burrowing worms, and I know the clag of wet socks over crimped skin.

‘Yes, rain,’ I say, hearing the arrhythmic percussion, that familiar coded warning.

I insert the spoon into her gaping mouth and clamp it shut.

Her tongue kneads the potato which oozes like toothpaste from a damaged tube; it lands in an island on her dress.

She jumps at a bellow of thunder, and settles immediately like a billowed sheet.

I turn to open the French doors and watch her staring reflection flip away, replaced by dark space.

She takes the brunt of the lashing rain as I push her wheelchair out into the garden.

I run quickly into the warmth and shut the door, watching as her skull appears through strings of white hair, and her dress becomes dark.

‘That’s what happens to naughty girls who spill their food,’ I say.

 

HELEN LAYCOCK’s short stories, flash and poetry appear in a variety of anthologies and magazines. She has been a lead writer at Visual Verse, has featured in several editions of The Best of CafeLit and recent work has appeared in Popshot, The Caterpillar, Poems for Grenfell and Full Moon and Foxglove. She also writes children’s books.

Image via Pixabay

Wishing Well – Rickey Rivers Jr

Sabrina T. Age: 9

She wishes for school not to be so difficult, for her mommy, daddy and pug-pug to be happy. She wishes for her friends at school to be happy too. Pug-pug is her dog. She got him last year. He’s described as being cute.

*

Katrina V. Age 22

She wishes for an apartment. She’s been working at the same job since high school. She’s saving up her money. She also wishes for a boyfriend.

*

Barry Q. Age 26

He wishes for fewer hours on his job and a raise. He says “Who doesn’t want a raise?”

*

Patty J. Age 65

She wishes for her husband to be in a better place. He died two years ago. She wishes that she could gain the strength to carry on.

*

Victor G. Age 32

He wishes for a promotion. He says he needs it. Says Christmas is coming up and birthdays too. He whispers “promotion” and yells “come on!”

*

Bridget C. Age: 40

She wishes to meet a nice man, also for the quick recovery of Minxy, her cat, one of five. Minxy is described as being all black with white paws and a white stomach. Minxy was a stray like the others. She says Minxy ate something that didn’t agree with her and she’s been sick ever since.

*

Calvin E. Age 46

He wishes for a bite to eat. He says he’s been up and down the streets for way too long. Says that sometimes he can find food from restaurant dumpers because they throw out so much but recently they’ve begun to place locks on the dumpsters.

*

Vikki W. Age: 18

She wishes for a new car. Says she’s graduating soon and she hopes her parents get her one. She hopes the car will be either pink or light blue. Says either is fine but nothing brown or grey. She says her friend has a jeep but it’s all black. It’s cool looking but she doesn’t like jeeps. She says she’s definitely not jealous.

*

Quentin F. Age: 20

He wishes for a girlfriend. Says he thinks Veronica likes him but he really doesn’t know for sure. He wishes he wasn’t so awkward around girls. Says that would make life easier.

*

Lacey P. Age: 24

She wishes for a bigger chest. She laughs about this. Says she’s always hated how they’ve looked. She wonders why she was cursed with a flat chest. Says at least let her come into some money then she could save for an upgrade.

*

Brittany A. Age 12

She wishes to see a movie at the theater with her friends. She says her dad said he would take them but he might not. Says for some reason Jasmine’s mom doesn’t like her dad. She says her dad told her that. She says her dad said that Jasmine’s mom said something that bothered him. She wishes for them to get along. She asks if she could have two wishes.

*

Warren O. Age: 54

He wishes the pain in his side would leave. He says he thought it was cancer but read online that it may be less serious.

*

Sammy H. Age: 47

He wishes the stupid kids next door would stop playing loud music. He says these are the types of people he wishes didn’t move into the neighborhood. He wishes they would leave. He

says the kids aren’t really bad just annoying but all kids are annoying so whatever. He says his wife says he’s too harsh on them but she doesn’t like the noise either. He says she’s just nicer about it.

*

Kevin C. Age: 29

He wishes for his moms’ recovery. He says she smokes and has had a bad cough for a long time. It put her in the hospital. He says if his mom doesn’t make it he doesn’t know what he’d do. He pauses, and says please let her be okay.

*

Bianca E. Age: 24

She wishes she didn’t have to do what her boss wanted. Says she wants to make it. Says she’s a good worker. Says she hopes there’s another way.

*

Naomi S. Age: 16

She wishes she could forget. She says she feels numb around him now. She just wants to forget.

*

Eric V. Age: 11

She wishes her mom and dad would stop fighting. She says Dad broke a glass today. Mom screamed and left. She wishes they would just make up.

*

Patricia F. Age: 36

She wishes for her sons’ safety. Says please keep him out of the streets. Says there’s nothing there for him. Says please protect him. Says let my son come back safe and sound, says a prayer.

*

Christina R. Age: 17

She wishes for a healthy child. Says her parents don’t know yet but she hopes when she tells them they don’t freak out. She pauses. Even if they do, she says, I’m keeping it. She just doesn’t want them to hate her.

*

Devin J. Age: 27

He wishes his parents would accept him. He hasn’t told them yet.

*

Irene D. Age: 26

She wishes for a better tomorrow. She works at the club. She’s a dancer. She says its fine but not what she wants. She likes photography but it doesn’t pay the bills. She says she’s sick of the club. She wishes for a way out.

*

These coins float within me. They are my dreams.

 

RICKEY RIVERS JR was born and raised in Alabama. He is a writer and cancer survivor. His poetry has appeared in various publications and is forthcoming in a Twist in Time Magazine, Dodging the Rain, Elephants Never (among other publications). Twitter.com/storiesyoumight / https://storiesyoumightlike.wordpress.com/

Image via Pixabay

Baby and Bucky – Michael Grant Smith

The town of Last Chance will substitute for Heaven until the day we walk or float or whatever through those Bedazzlered gates. Sure, our semi-utopian municipality endures the occasional heatwave or crime spree, but those two dilemmas are caused by outside actors beyond our control. No matter how tight you close your eyes, it seems solar rays and ramblers both find a way in.

“Why do they call it late afternoon?” Leonard “Bucky” Sawtooth asked his common-law wife, Doreen “Baby” Shaker. “It’s here at the same time every day, more or less.”

The self-storage units’ flat rooftops could grill spareribs to perfection if someone climbed up there to turn the meat. A curtain of fine blonde steel wool permanently screened Baby’s right eye.

“You’re the mighty oak that shades my babbling brook, King Dynamite,” she said with a yellowish smile. “I dream constantly of your stout trunk and overspreading limbs.”

“We’re the cream of the unwashable masses,” said Bucky. “The top of the food channel. Folks such as us, we eat what we want. Few if any creatures can eat us in return, what with our mastery of weapons and metaphors and all.”

“Your mind is a fine stainless steel colander, my Hunky Man-Tree. The big thoughts stay put.”

Bucky tugged the stringy, salt-and-pepper moss that adorned his weak chin. He ruminated on how life was a rich and bountiful banquet served buffet-style. Having reached a cul-de-sac in his career path, Bucky had accepted a position as the live-in manager of the Last Chance Stor-Yor-Stuf on Dixie Highway where the gas stations and burger joints end and the long gravel driveways begin.

“I’m a nomadic camel jockey of the faraway desert badlands,” Bucky said. “To roam is my destiny.”

“If you were a pack of Camels, Love Widget,” Baby cooed, “I’d smoke you down to the butt.”

The times Bucky had doubted her devotion was a number less than zero. He pulled his cap lower and squinted at Baby.

“Keep it up if you don’t believe I’m ready to party,” said Bucky, “or are perhaps unsure.”

“Unit 26, let’s go,” Baby hissed. “He stopped paying and I cut the padlock just this morning. You are carrying the kitchen match that must light my stove of ardor.”

They shut the gate and hung the “Closed” sign on the office hut’s window. The abandoned 7 x 10 was one row away. Bucky hushed up when they drew near.

“What’s on your large mind, you Gladiator of Pleasure?” said Baby, who spied Bucky’s sudden hesitation. “Is it the unseasonable heat? Has the mood flown away as if it were an un-lusty bird? I’ve got special plans for you and your Undercover Investigator.”

Bucky stood, feet planted wide, hands in back pockets, belly pointed toward the object of his woolgathering, which was Baby’s bolt cutters leaning against the rollup door. It was then that Baby smelled a plan afoot.

“I’m as determined as a stuck pickle jar lid to transport you to a carnival of delight,” said Bucky, “but another idea line-jumped itself into my brain bucket. Namely, if we’ve cut yon lock in order to sacrifice our flesh on altars of pleasure, why not use similar door-opening schemes to enrich ourselves fiscally alongside the opportunity to bump uglies?”

Baby’s teeth lined up like fire-roasted corn-on-the-cob.

“You’re suggesting maybe it’s time we cash out and move on to greenest pastures new?” she asked.

“Let it be so,” he replied. “One big score and we’re off to life’s next adventure.”

The next two hours passed as quickly as a dose of mineral oil. Baby and Bucky collected their belongings from the converted storage unit that had been their one-room domicile this past month. Bucky hitched his pickup to a flatbed trailer that did not belong to him, and idled it to the first row of doors. He and Baby, slick with sweat, took turns clipping padlocks until blisters dappled their fingers. Contraband soon overflowed the truck and trailer. The sun began to slide behind the office hut.

“Last one,” Bucky said as he hefted his now-dulled box cutter. “It’s time to go. To my way of thinking, we’ve scored today in ways what professional sports organizations cannot begin to ponder.

“To my way of thinking, my Burglar of Amour,” said Baby, “you’ve missed out on scoring in the most important championship of all. Your criminal tendencies have left me moist and breathless with mischievous contemplations.”

Baby’s bare feet were the same color as the concrete floor. Her toe ring gleamed in the fading sunlight. This tableau, and visions of their haul, made Bucky itchy with passion.

“I’m going to bone you like a chicken,” Bucky said, and paused. “Likewise, you understand I’m not a chicken boning you — you will be the chicken what’s boned. Except your actual bones will not be removed.”

He paused again. “I was using words to paint a colorful, erotic picture.”

“Honey Bottle, you go ahead and say or do anything to me your heart desires,” Baby murmured. “I’ll just lie here quietly until you’re finished or one of us falls asleep.”

“I love you so much.”

“I love you bunches.”

Bucky smelled of motor oil, Altoids, and microwave burritos. Nicotine and Orange Crush stained Baby’s fingers. Bucky lowered his life partner onto a bower of shipping blankets and boxed household goods.

“Your stretch marks are a road map what leads me to my carnal destination,” Bucky rasped into Baby’s navel. “I enjoy all of your points of interest.”

“Please hurry, and don’t stop to ask for directions,” Baby said. “You know every inch of my horny terrain, you Red Hot Sex Scavenger.”

“Follow me,” Bucky whispered to Baby. “Follow me.”

By the fourth incoming phone call the next morning, Constable Arlene knew she had no choice but to visit the unexpectedly-closed Stor-Yor-Stuf. Folks complained because that’s what folks did; yesterday she’d grown weary of replying she wasn’t authorized to “just shoot that damned sun.” But the last call came from puffy Councilman Everett, who was adamant his intent to retrieve unspecified private items from said facility was not to be jacked with.

Constable Arlene arrived with the mayor’s key ring, him being the business’s owner — an entanglement hidden behind a wall of blind trusts and denials. Last Chance’s sole and most heroic law enforcement officer unlocked the Stor-Yor-Stuf’s gate and found Bucky’s truck along with its precious cargo of evidence. Constable Arlene would have unholstered her firearm if she’d ever been issued one.

She approached an open unit in which she discovered two disrobed suspects intertwined in the drowsy aftereffects of physical congress. Look at this, people getting along for a change, Arlene said to herself, and she didn’t awaken the couple until well into filling out the crime scene report.

 

Image via Pixabay

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