The Cook – Ginger Strivelli

“I am the cook. I am always the cook. I’ve cooked for Kings. Ramses The Great, Attila The Hun, and Ivan The Terrible have all sung my pies praises. I was cooking on the Mayflower and the first moon cruise ship. I cooked pork in cherries on the first fire lit by a human. Now I cook on the space station orbiting Saturn.

The uppity-ups who run the station think they are running the universe or at least this solar system. If they only knew what I knew. If they only knew what I was.

They think they are so advanced. Dear old Ramses thought so too, way back then. I’d just smile when he went on and on about all the advancements in knowledge that had come under his rule. Well, he had a point. They made some impressive leaps there that hundred years. Alas,most of it was lost when the library in Alexandria burned years later. Just poof, up in smoke, all that knowledge gone from the world thanks to bigots.

The Commander of the base, the civilian Mayor, the Vice Mayor and every Lieutenant thinks they are what keeps this station in the sky. Of course, that would be my doing too. Have you not guessed who I am yet? Yes, Yes, I am Mother Nature but I’m just the cook here. I’m making one of my favorite dishes, Baked Roots. You chop up a bunch of carrots. I like the purple ones but nobody grows those anymore, alas. Then you chop up a bunch of potatoes. Oh any kind will do, but I like the red ones. Maybe I just like bright colors. Back to the recipe, don’t peel them now, that potato peeling is nutritious and delicious. Then, ya gotta add some onions. Cutting onions even makes me cry, so I like the little bulb green onions you can throw in whole. Then, I toss all those roots in sunflower oil. Oh I know you thought I was going to say olive oil. I’m just not as thrilled with my creation of olives as I am with my creation of sunflowers. I mean they turn their little faces to the Sun God. Ya gotta love that trick. Of course, I add lots of salt. I’m pretty proud of salt too. Sea salt would be my favorite but then that sweetheart Poseidon is such a charmer. Those roots cook till they are soft and starting to burn about the edges. Those black bits are tasty. So don’t take the pan out till they start blackening.

So here I am making Baked Roots. What’s it been, three hundred thousand years or so since the first time I made them back on Earth? Anyway I’m just standing here cooking now, watching Saturn’s rings, hexagon storm, and colorful aurora out my window.”

“You’re making us one of your famous desserts aren’t ya, Cook?”

“Oh Honey, ya know I am. I hollered back to the dishwasher.

Honey, is another of my proudest accomplishments. I mean, it never goes bad, you can eat it after it’s been jarred for hundreds of years. It’s antibiotic and sweet. I’m a big fan of sweets. So I’ll make some Cherokee Honey Cornbread. That’s a grand old recipe of mine. I’m afraid the pantry here on the station doesn’t have bear fat. I’ll substitute milk, eggs, and butter. Just mix all that goodness with cornmeal, flour, whole corn, and lots of honey. Fry drops of that up in some more sunflower oil. Then drizzle them with more butter and honey. Corn cookies, who’d have thought of that? I did, of course.

So, while I’m making the Baked Roots and Cherokee Honey CornBread Cookies, I’ll tell you what the problem is before it destroys the station. I know, you think I should tell those station uppity-ups. I’m telling you, because you aren’t here. I can’t tell anyone here. I can never tell anyone here. That is the second constant. The first constant being, I’m always the cook.

So, I can tell you, we need help, here on the station. All those uppity-ups think they keep it in Saturn’s sky…but I do. Well, not exactly. That is the problem. What keeps us in Saturn’s sky, and Saturn orbiting the Sun, and him orbiting the Milky Way’s black hole center…what makes all that work is lots of magic. Yes, nowadays y’all call it science. Okay, it’s lots of science. It’s gravity, electromagnetic energy, dark matter, quantum strings, and things human’s haven’t discovered yet. I created them all eons ago but I forgot. Yes, I forgot. I’ve worked so much magic, ah… science, for so many billions of years that I can’t remember most of it.

Ya see that hexagon storm there on Saturn’s north pole? It doesn’t look right. I know to you it seems the normal mysterious swirling enigma it has been ever since humans discovered it. I don’t remember why or how but I can just tell it’s about to jerk this station outta Saturn’s sky. So I need your help.”

“Hey, Cook!” The dishwasher called across the kitchen again. “We still got that case of bacon. Can you make us some of your Bacon Wrapped Cheese Bomb Burgers tomorrow?”

“Yes, sir, I sure can.

If we are here tomorrow, I’ll make that boy the best Bacon Wrapped Cheese Bomb Burgers ever. Oh they aren’t as fancy as they sound. You just wrap ground turkey around a little hunk of swiss cheese, and pat it out into a burger patty. Then ya wrap bacon, in a basket weave pattern, to cover the whole burger. Light up your grill. Don’t make me tell you not to use a gas grill. You need some charcoal. Then slather some honey BBQ sauce over that burger and you are in love. Did I mention how proud I am of honey?

Anyway, so you gotta save us before I can cook those tomorrow. Why are you just looking at the screen? We need help. You gotta get the storm down there to stop threatening to do whatever it’s threatening to do that I forget why it is doing.

* * *

I’m not known for my patience but I’ve given ya a pause here. What do we do to save the station?

I just don’t remember. You have no idea how many things I’ve dreamed up and created all over the whole universe, not just here but for trillions of years before this star system even formed. I have been cooking up life. Life. Literally. I made life.

So I am unimaginably old. I forget things. Yes, I can recall clearly making that pork with cherries on the first fire built by one of you cute little humans. It is just fatty cuts of pork chops, grilled with pitted cherries, simple as can be.

What’s the storm recipe, you say? What was my recipe for the hexagon storm on Saturn? Well, I never thought of it like that. It wasn’t a recipe. I wasn’t cooking food then. I was doing magic…ah…science. Okay, I’ll think of it like a recipe. Let’s see. There’s the magnetic energy of the pole that’s kinda like how ya cook something over a fire …and the chemicals in the atmosphere are kinda like ingredients. That means the bubbling around the six bends is just where it’s been cooking by itself too long.

It just needs stirring! If we can get, say a comet, to swoop down and just stir through that mess a couple times, it’ll settle right down! But, how can we do that? I mean, I made the comets, I know, there are billions of them.”

“Cook, what are you looking at out there, is that casino ship docking?”

“No, keep your wallet closed, honey. It ain’t due till tomorrow.

If I can just remember how to call it, the closest comet out there should be able to zoom down here in a minute flat. Yes, yes, you are right, think of it as a recipe again.

Okay, I need its name, but I know that. It’s the one I called Purr cause it purred like a cat. I love cats. Did I mention that…oh you are right, back to the recipe. So I need to send Purr the comet down to stir up Saturn’s Hexagon Storm. Then what? Season to taste. In this case though, I need to over season it so it stirs that storm back into shape and spits out Purr. What can I over season it with? …Gluons! Yes, lots and lots of gluons should do it. Wait, watch this!

* * *

Look at me go! Did you see it? The comet? Look down there, it’s bouncing around the storm, stirring it like a big ole wooden spoon. There it goes, finished stirring, shooting back out to its proper spot in space. Look at that storm now! My perfect, beautiful, and calm hexagon storm. Nature is awesome, if I say so myself. Couldn’t have done it without ya, though. Thanks for the help. Make yourself one of my recipes as a reward.”

Ginger Strivelli is an artist and writer from North Carolina. She has written for Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, Autism Parenting Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, Green Egg Magazine, Circle Magazine, Third Flatiron, Jokes Review, The New Accelerator, and several other publications.

Image via Pixabay

Waiting For Mr Hot Porridge – Mirvat Manal

These days I had no time to spare. I had to be the first one in and the last one out of the office, if I was going to be promoted to a manager. And there was no way I was going to be passed over, again, for a scrawny 20-year-old, fortunate enough to be related to one of the company directors. Having my breakfast on the go became a reoccurring thing. But today I woke up earlier than usual. Meaning I had some time to enjoy my breakfast before leaving the house to catch the tube into London.

My mother injured her leg from a fall last week, and I persuaded her to stay with me till she got back on her feet again. I entered the living room with my bowl of porridge. My mother sat on a prayer mat, finishing off her morning prayer, her palms sliding across her face, reciting a quick dua. It was the usual: she prayed for a good Muslim man to knock at the door and take me away, absolving me of this shame referred to as Voluntary- Independence. My mother detested my modern feminist views. To her, a woman should start husband-hunting when she reaches 25. To her, a feminist was just a spinster in training.

“As-Salamu Alaykum. Look who decided to eat her breakfast like a normal person,” My mother said, as she took off her Jilbaab.

“Wa-Alaykum Salam, Hooyo.”

I took an envelope out of my bag and began fanning my porridge to cool it down. And my mother started laughing. “What’s so funny?” I asked.

“You just reminded me of a story I once heard when I was younger, in Somalia. It was about a man seeking a wife. One day, a man visited his friend who had three unmarried daughters. The visitor was served a hot plate of food, and all three women sat down to meet him. He asked each woman the same question; what they would do to cool down his hot food. The first girl said, she’d fan it with a folded piece of paper. The second girl said, she’d blow at every scoop. Then the third girl said, she would leave it alone until it cooled by itself. So the man married the third girl. Do you know why?”

“No, and I don’t care to be honest.”

“Patience, she had patience, my daughter.”

I continued to fan my porridge with the envelope. “Did the third girl have a job, a mortgage, and student loans or maybe…I don’t know…a life? And why was that man solely focused on a woman’s patience? What exactly does he want the poor woman to endure?”

“Having patience might help in stopping you from rejecting men after only one date,” my mother insisted.

I couldn’t keep my laughter in, “If you keep this up, I will elope and have a registry office wedding.”

Mirvat Manal is a British -Somali, writer and poet based in Manchester. Her fiction has been published in or is forthcoming from 101 words magazine and Leon Literary Review. She has also been included in “The Best New British & Irish Poets anthology 2021. Twitter: @MirvatManal

Image via Pixabay

Cast Iron P(lan) – Hannah Hoare

She slams the door behind her and wedges the laundry basket under the handle. An absurd barricade, but comforting. The noise of her breath hissing through gritted teeth is deafening. She forces herself to breathe through her nose: in-out, in out, in… out.

Her hands are shaking. She puts them up to her face and only then realises she’s crying, her cheeks slippery with tears. It’s not sadness she feels, or even hurt. Just rage. She’s never known fury like it. Not even that time he borrowed her car without asking and wrapped it round a bollard at the precinct. Six hundred quid it cost to panel-beat the door. She was steaming, but he’d been so apologetic and promised to pay her back. That was still in the early days when she believed him.

Her nose is running. She reaches for the loo paper and glimpses herself in the shaving mirror. Bloody hell. Her neck is a patchwork map of the world, hot red shapes in the white sea of her skin. Under smeared mascara a neat cut dribbles a tiny ooze of blood. She fingers her cheekbone gingerly. Not broken, but she’ll have a shiner tomorrow.

Anger gives way to pain. Her wrist throbs and the skin prickles where she twisted her arm, trying to get out of his grip. She flexes her fingers. There’s a whiff of something… a peppery, acidic smell that seems out of place in a bathroom. Gravy. She looks down. Her shirt is stained brown and a squashed pea clings to her trousers. Her hipbone aches where the plate hit her.

She stands in the shower fully clothed. Water eddies at her feet, brown, red and black… then clear. Hot pins sting her face but she feels stronger. This is the last time.

She leaves her wet clothes in the bathtub and wraps herself in a warm towel. The laundry basket creaks as she moves it and steps out into the hall. There’s no other sound. Her bare feet slip slightly on the floorboards as she pads to the bedroom. His familiar barbershop smell is strong and it catapults her into a memory of laughter. For a second she thinks he’s in the room, but it’s empty, and the laughter is long gone.

She dresses quickly – yesterday’s jeans, her favourite faded hoodie, trainers – and squashes a few pairs of knickers and a clean t-shirt into her bag. Standing on the end of the bed she can reach the old tea-caddy on the top shelf. She fishes out her passport and two thick rolls of fifty pound notes. They smell faintly of Earl Grey.

At the top of the stairs she takes a deep breath, then goes down. At the bottom, she steps over him, carefully avoiding the blood pooling around his head. She takes her coat off the hook in the porch, puts on her sunglasses as the glare of the afternoon touches her face, and slams the door behind her.

Hannah Hoare is a writer and natural history television producer based in Bristol, UK. Her flash fiction has been short-listed in Retreat West competitions and published by Molotov Cocktail. She tweets as @hannahvisiontv.

Image via Pixabay

Now The Vaccine’s Here, I Am Issuing A Plethora Of Pandemic Regrets – John Hewitt

Herd immunity cannot come soon enough. But when it does, I have a few, very few, regrets.

First, I regret piling up over 200 Whole Food brown paper grocery bags in my garage. After the water heater ignited them and burned the place down, I now need a new garage.

To my ex-wife Electra, I regret the grocery bag inferno that also burned up your Lexus (the one you used to sneak away for weekends with your lover Henry). Hope our insurance appraiser agrees it was an unfortunate accident. I am, however, starting a new stash of grocery bags. Just knock at my kitchen door if you need any.

Additionally, Electra, I only slightly regret telling the couples therapist that she would probably go psycho crazy too if she were cooped up with a maniac like you during a pandemic. I also very much regret saying “We both need some space, like maybe a hundred miles.” I noted how you, Electra, jumped at the chance to make that a reality. So now that I am searching for a vaccination, will you please come back?

To my brother Rolfe and my no-longer future sister-in-law Alexa, I very much regret the day, socially distanced at her meet-the-family gathering in the backyard, when I regaled you two with stories about Rolfe being a teenage superspreader of socially transmitted diseases. I honestly thought it was hilarious but Rolfe, I understand Alexa didn’t take it the same way and moved out. Rolfe please note that the restraining order issued today prevents you from coming to my house and “waxing my ass with a welding torch”, but hey, when the pandemic’s over bro, maybe we can be family again. 

To my ex-boss at Flat Out Productions, I sincerely regret saying that working from home was super enjoyable because I didn’t have to smell your bacterial body odor. Then, of course, in another ill-advised move, I gave you the finger and made those flatulent noises with my armpit during the all-hands-on-deck Zoom meeting. And yes, when my mic was unmuted, I said, “Go ahead and fire my ass, you impotent eunuch.” Which you did. Now, I’d like to retract that finger. I could be back at my desk on Monday. This unemployment is shrinking my bank account.

To the staff at Wines Are Us, I regret giving a one-star Yelp rating to your Methane Hills Chardonnay and calling it swill. I was just relieving the covid boredom. You summarily kicked me out of the Jug Wine Club. So, please re-friend me and allow me back in. I’d love a case of Deepwater Horizon Merlot at your special price of five bucks a gallon.

To the thousands who sent in checks, I regret my eBay fantasy offer to sell Dr. Fauci bobblehead dolls when I really didn’t have any. I promise not to cash all the checks if you retract the crazy email threats you made about multilating various parts of my body.  

I truthfully regret the 270 coffee dates I set up one boring covid night on the eCuddles dating site. I thought my clever bio about being an eco-conscious folksinger and Labradoodle whisperer who had trained as a three-star chef would do the trick. I don’t think I deserved the vitriolic onslaught from the other posters who were peeved after waiting for me to no-show at the Java Hut down the street. And no, I am not certain I know exactly where some respondents think I could shove it.

To my former dog Champ, I regret throwing you out in the snow and telling you to find yourself a new family after you chewed up my stimulus check. You were always such good company on those long, covid nights. And now, in the mornings, I have to limp out in the pelting rain to get the paper. BTW, the stitches from your bites on my legs should be healed next week.

Finally, after I spent four hours on hold, I regret my intemperate remarks to the vaccine appointment coordinator at my HMO who said I should have called earlier. I regret calling you a spawn of Satan and want you to know I was not offended when you suggested I drop dead after doing something unnatural with my phone. Now, can I get the shot?

That’s a start. I’ll do more once the shot is in the arm.

John Hewitt is a West Coast author. His latest absurdist novel Freezer Burn is the story of a nearly dead ferret who achieves music industry stardom.

Image via Pixabay

Visitation – Kevin P Keating

It took them three days by car before they reached the desert. Towards nightfall, in a dusty town in the high Utah plateau, they passed the Wishing Well, a store that, according to the weather-beaten sign, specialized in used and rare books. Tabby asked if they could stop, and Scott, against his better judgement, said yes. During their journey, she’d gone through three coloring books. He tried his best to ignore the strange modifications she’d made to each drawing. Sometimes, though, she tore a page from the book, thrust it in his face, and insist he praise her for her creativity.

Behind the sales counter, enthroned in a lawn chair with faded blue webbing, the proprietor sat with his hands on the armrests and the heels of his snakeskin boots resting on a makeshift footstool of antiquated law books. A thin man in late middle age with wild white hair spilling over his shoulders and a pair of reading glasses resting on the bridge of his nose, he looked part librarian, part gunslinger, definitely drunk, and not especially happy to see anyone intruding upon the solitude and clutter of his little store—but then strangers are resented everywhere. As the screen door swung closed, he did not say hello and did not ask his customers if they were looking for anything in particular.

Scott nodded and wandered the narrow aisles, searching the cluttered shelves for books on the paranormal, UFOs, spirit animals, the mystical practices of those nomadic tribes that inhabited the Escalante Valley long ago, but the haphazardly arranged books seemed only to be about pioneer families who’d settled the Old West. On the floor, near a lopsided stack of National Geographics, he found a paperback about a prospector named Jacob Jeffries who’d lost his way in the Great Anvil Valley, about one hundred miles southwest of here. His mummified body wasn’t discovered until many years after he’d last been seen. Presumably before dying of thirst, he’d crawled under his wagon, maybe hoping the vultures wouldn’t pick his bones clean, and clutched an empty flask and well-thumbed bible to his lonesome heart. The paperback said nothing about his horse. Animals were much more resourceful than avaricious humans who overestimated their own abilities and made serious errors in judgement, but perhaps Jeffries had the compassion and good sense to cut it loose, giving the wretched beast a small chance at survival.

Out of mere politeness, Scott considered purchasing the book, but the proprietor didn’t strike him as the kind of man who would care one way or another.

Tabby was suddenly standing beside him, tugging his sleeve and showing him a coloring book that came with a box of pastel pencils.

“Can you buy this for me?”

He shuddered at the thought of what she might draw this time but said, “I suppose.”

Together they approached the sales counter.

“Where headed?” asked the proprietor without rising from his chair. “East or west?”

“South,” Scott said.

“South…” The man leaned forward and brushed a piece of grit from the toe of one boot. “Dark that way. No paved roads, no towns. Only thing you’ll find is the rim of the Black Coals Canyon and then—”

He whistled and made a hand gesture like a car flying into the abyss.

Tabby frowned. “We know what’s out there.”

The proprietor smiled. “No, sweetie, I don’t think you do.”

“Don’t call me sweetie.”

The man slapped a hand on the armrest and smiled at Scott. “Well, sir, this little girl of yours has a sharp tongue.”

Tabby crossed her arms and gave the proprietor an indignant look. “What makes you think I’m his little girl?”

The man squinted and his glassy, red-rimmed eyes became more focused.

Scott reached into his back pocket. “How much do I owe you?”

Never taking his eyes from Tabby, the man said, “Five dollars.”

Though he wanted to argue about the price, Scott tossed a crumpled bill on the counter. “We better keep moving.”

The proprietor folded the bill and placed it in his shirt pocket. “Watch for the quicksand now. We’ve had some heavy rain last few days. And the desert roads, if you can call them roads, might be washed away.” He sank back in his chair, his face once again taking on the jaundiced pallor of a defeated man deep in drink. The bottle must have been close by. Scott could smell the whiskey on his breath.

“Appreciate the advice.”

Scott led Tabby back to the van, a huge Grand Voyager with 200,00 miles on the odometer bought on a used car lot somewhere in Kansas, and looked over his shoulder to make sure the man wasn’t watching them from the doorway and jotting down the license plate number.

“Maybe we shouldn’t risk stopping again. Not until we reach our destination.”

“Yes,” Tabby agreed, “a wise idea.”

In the back seat she studied the drawings in her coloring book, trying to decide which page to color first. She rifled through crudely drawn rodeo clowns and desperados and covered wagons trundling beneath magisterial mesas and surreal hoodoos.

Scott glanced in the rearview mirror and asked, “We’ll be there soon, right?”

“Another hour.” Tabby opened the box of pencils. “Two at the most.”

“And then he’ll come for us?”

“I told you he would,” Tabby said irritably. “Just drive.”

“Okay, okay.”

She selected a purple pencil and said, “I think I’ll add a bird to this page. It could use a hungry little purple bird, don’t you think?”

He averted his eyes and focused on the vast landscape before him. “Whatever you think is best.” The desert was now painted in a hundred subtle shades of pink and red he’d never seen in the perpetually gray city of his birth.

As they pulled away from the Wishing Well, Tabby leaned forward and whispered in his ear, “That man didn’t know what he was talking about. There’s no quicksand where we’re going. And there hasn’t been any rain. Not around here. Not in a long time.”


Thirty minutes later the road became little more than an unmarked trail that vanished just beyond the headlights. The bookseller was right. There was nothing out here but sand and sagebrush and distant rows of slender cacti. The van dipped and swayed across the rough and rutted landscape. Scott gripped the wheel with both hands, trying to control the vehicle as it plowed through heavy clumps of red sandstone. Tabby smiled, her eyes gleaming weirdly in the green dashboard light. She couldn’t color anymore, not in the dark, and definitely not with the van jouncing like this.

“Almost empty,” Scott said. “I should have filled up at the last gas station.”

“We’re fine.”

“You keep saying that.” He scratched his chin. He hadn’t shaved since leaving Ohio. “We’re heading in the right direction?”

“Keep going straight.”

“He knows we’re coming?”

“You’re scared, aren’t you?”

“Why would I be scared?”

“You sound scared. You look scared, too.”

He adjusted the rearview mirror so she couldn’t see his face.

Tabby folded her hands in her lap. “Your wife must know by now. That we’re gone, I mean. It’s been three days. Going on four.”

He shook his head. “It’s not like she ever calls to ask how I’m doing. We’ve been divorced for a year.”

“Your boss then. He must be concerned. You have a job, don’t you?”

“If you can call it a job.”

“You’re a professor, right?”

“Adjunct.”

She seemed to consider this and said, “What does that mean?”

“It means I’m disposable.”

“Most people are. But for you all of that will soon change.”

“He’ll keep his promise?”

She sat with her hands folded in her lap and stared into the darkness. “He always keeps his promises. You’ll see.”


For another thirty minutes they drove through sage flats and over rough terrain made nearly impassible by deep depressions and ancient deadfalls of petrified wood. There came a frightening pop and the vehicle listed suddenly to the left. Scott killed the engine. He opened the glove box and retrieved the penlight he’d purchased yesterday to read maps at night. Outside, standing beside the driver’s side tire, he could hear the distant howls of coyotes.

Tabby crept behind him and cried, “A flat!”

He jumped and then handed her the flashlight. “Follow me.”

He marched to the back of the van and opened the rusty tailgate.

“I don’t believe it,” he whispered.

She swept the light back and forth across the empty compartment. “There’s no spare.” She pointed the penlight at him, its faltering blue beam paling his already pale face. “Guess you should have checked when you traded for it in Kansas.”

He shielded his eyes and scowled. “Get that away from me.”

She set off into the darkness, the penlight too weak to cast a beam beyond her shoes. “We’ll just have to walk from here.”

“Walk?”

“Only a little further. Come on!”

He hurried after her, afraid she might plummet into a rimrock canyon. He wasn’t wearing the proper gear for hiking, and every few yards a sharp stone worked its way into his shoes. They trod across the fossilized bones of giant lizards millions of years dead. There had been a forest here once, and before that an inland sea. Scott looked up, astonished by the number of stars in the sky, but he could only identify a tiny fraction of constellations. He was from an old industrial city built on the banks of a polluted river and he’d never known anything but yellow streetlights blazing away from dusk until dawn. Now, for the first time in his life, he could sense the Earth spinning through the Milky Way and understood how ignorant he was about the cosmos, how small and ridiculously inconsequential he was. He wondered what intelligences existed up there in the heavens, unknown, unseen.

“Stop,” said Tabby.

“What is it?”

“Look!”

Scott saw nothing. The penlight had died miles back. It was terrifically cold out here, and he could barely feel his fingers anymore. For a minute he heard only the wind and the beating of his own heart. Then he detected the sound of approaching footsteps, but their irregular rhythm suggested they were produced by something other than a human. Scott briefly considered abandoning the girl in the middle of the desert and running back to the van.

Tabby put her hands at her side and gracefully bowed.

The moon broke through the clouds, and Scott saw it then, a short owl-faced figure standing beside a basalt pillar ten feet high. It stared at them with its wide-set eyes and then snorted before turning around and vanishing back into the darkness.

“He wants us to follow him,” Tabby said.

“He does?”

“Everything is prepared and waiting for us.”

Scott blinked. He’d barely slept during the three-day journey to the desert, and lack of sleep was beginning to take its toll on him. He followed Tabby, listening to the strange footsteps crunching against the sun-hammered earth. Ten minutes later they came upon a circular clearing where the moonlight was so intense it blotted out the stars. In the center they found a stone altar, roughly rectangular in shape and four feet in height. Just beyond the hazy ring of moonlight, dozens of inexplicably odd creatures had gathered to bear witness to the act—freakish bug-eyed creatures with bodies that struck Scott as vaguely amphibious, like newts or salamanders.

Tabby stepped forward and from the altar lifted a long glimmering blade. She handed it to Scott and said, “They want you to use it.”

He shook his head and stumbled backward. He thought again of all the wild promises this girl had made to him, things he dared not imagine on his own for fear of losing his mind—the restoration of his family, his comfortable home, his once promising career. But why had she chosen him? Why had she shown up at his apartment door with this incredible news and persuaded him that she was speaking the truth?

“Court-ordered visitation rights,” she’d explained with a sardonic smile. “In this world the law is sacred.”

Now, moving toward the altar, Scott gazed down at the girl and reluctantly accepted the knife, its polished blade shining in the cold lunar light. She smiled up at him, her ghastly doll’s face transformed by the moon into something more recognizable, almost familiar. All around him the other creatures watched and waited. Scott hoped an angel might shout his name and stay his hand, but when he looked into the sky, he saw a giant bat-like silhouette corkscrewing across the stars. The girl climbed onto the altar, rested her arms at her side, and closed her eyes. Scott trembled. Then he raised the knife high above his head.


Hours later, when the first hints of sunlight touched the high cirrus clouds drifting above the desert plain, he pulled the collar of his flannel shirt close to his throat and walked due north. He felt invigorated, light on his feet, and could breathe without rasping. It was as though he’d never smoked a cigarette, or ten thousand of them, and had never touched a drop of whiskey. In fact, he hadn’t felt this good since his college days on the rowing team, and he almost expected to find that the stubborn layer of fat had vanished around his torso. Making his way with surprising ease across technical terrain, he hiked back to the van and the new life that surely awaited him back home. He thought not at all of last night’s unspeakable ritual.

As the morning wore on, and the desert grew warm and then unbearably hot, he removed his flannel shirt and tied it around his waist. He followed the sun as it traversed the sky but decided he’d drifted too far east and made a correction. He fully expected to see the Grand Voyager just ahead, but the desert appeared flat and empty with no vehicle in sight, and an hour later, when the barren landscape was ablaze with white light, he removed his t-shirt, filthy with dirt and sweat, and tied it loosely around his head. He hadn’t thought to bring a change of clothes with him on this trip, and for a moment he was so focused on his own foul odor that he didn’t notice the bird hopping across the ground right behind him, its feathers so black they were an iridescent purple. He hurdled a stone at it, and the bird fluttered away with a squawk.

By noon the sky was chrome-bright, and the white heat on the horizon seemed to rumble in his ears. When his shoulders began to blister, he put his flannel shirt back on and looked for a place to hide from the sun, a hill, a cave, a Joshua tree tall enough to shelter him in its slender shade. He crouched low to the cracked and blistered earth, thinking this might help for some reason, but he may as well have been crawling across the middle of a blacktop parking lot. He wondered how long he could continue like this and decided he had no options but to keep going. Tabby hadn’t led him into this waste just to let him die.


It was nearly dusk when the van finally came into view. Insane with thirst, his lips cracked and bleeding, he limped toward the vehicle and drew the keys from his pocket. The purple bird perched like a demented hood ornament on the rusted front bumper. It watched him and made strange gurgling sounds and picked at the lice buried deep in its feathers. At his approach the bird took wing and floated over to a nearby pile of rocks. By then Scott was so out of his mind that he didn’t stop to think about it—couldn’t think.

He collapsed in the front seat but found no water bottles inside. Somehow, he managed to muster the strength to put the keys in the ignition and start the engine. Hot air blasted from the vents, but after a few minutes the AC kicked in and the interior began to cool. Though he feared he was going to lose consciousness, he put the van in drive and pressed his foot on the gas. The van jerked forward, listing badly to the left, and

“Just have to take it slow, that’s all.”

Though it might take him all night, he would eventually reach civilization. All he had to do was follow his own tire tracks back to the main road. The van barely started rolling when the engine started to shudder and then stalled. The gas gage read EMPTY.

Scott laughed and then screamed. It hurt his throat to scream so he stopped. If he passed out inside the van—given his dehydration a high probability—he would run the risk of roasting alive shortly after tomorrow’s sunrise. After some careful thought, he decided to spend the night beneath the Grand Voyager. At least that way, if he did lose consciousness, he would be safe in the shade while he waited for someone to come along and rescue him.

Before exiting the vehicle, he reached over and grabbed the coloring book from the backseat. After crawling under the van, he flipped through the pages, looking at the nightmare images Tabby had drawn there. On the final page, he saw a picture of a purple bird tugging at the putrefied flesh of a hand hanging limply beside a flat tire, and just beneath the fingers, in her bold childish hand, Tabby had written the word “Daddy.”

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Coffin Shortlist – Kinneson Lalor

Heritage: Exceptional quality, solid mahogany in a luxury satin finish. Cross weave interior.

There’s no way in hell we’re getting this but I wanted to shortlist it so Mum thinks we at least considered something pricey for him.

Nottingham: Elegant, hand-crafted solid Oak trimmed in triple mouldings and fully lined.

I think Mum said they went to Sherwood Forest on their honeymoon so maybe the Nottingham connection makes sense? I’m not sure the price tag is worth evoking the memory of such a shitty honeymoon. I should have gone into coffin carpentry instead of teaching. These prices are ridiculous.

Our Honest coffin: Uncomplicated. Made from simulated oak veneer. An Honest classic.

Honest, my arse. Honestly not oak. God, remember when Dad got that promotion and Mum finally got to have the kitchen renovated and she was so happy with those ugly veneer cupboards? He was in a good mood for quite a while after that. Maybe it’s true. Happy wife, happy life. We should remember this one for when Mum goes. She can be surrounded by veneer for eternity.

Seagrass: Highly renewable, woven into a beautiful, curved coffin. Natural cotton lining and rope handles.

It looks just like those bassinets Mum made for our dolls before we realised actual newborns shit so much you want everything they touch to be made of wipeable plastic. But doesn’t it sort of remind you of that day we went to the beach and Mum made up a picnic basket except it rained the whole time and we had to eat the picnic in the car and Dad flew off the handle because there was nowhere to put his elbows and you got such a fright you choked on your ham sandwich and I had to whack your back (which I probably enjoyed immensely)? I never understood why she didn’t just leave the ungrateful bastard.

Bespoke: Our picture coffins come in your choice of design, giving you the opportunity to commemorate your loved one’s passions and personality.

Think a bottle of whiskey would be appropriate? Do you know she used to water his whiskey down and save the pure stuff for her afternoon teas? I wonder if Dad went through his whole life thinking all whiskey was that dilute.

Cardboard: 100% recycled with rope handles and full natural lining.

We should get this one. It’s the cheapest and he was always a tight arse. But let’s tell mum we’re doing it for environmental reasons so she can brag about it to the ladies at golf.

Kinneson Lalor followed a PhD in Physics from the University of Cambridge with an MSt in Creative Writing from the same institution. She is Australian but has lived in the UK for over a decade. Her work has appeared in various places including The Mays and Tiny Molecules, and she writes a regular blog about sustainable gardening for edibles and wildlife.

Image via Pixabay

Tuesday Afternoon Is Almost Never Ending – Ron. Lavalette

It’s eight below zero at half-past noon, but when he goes by to check on her he finds her out on the porch in a T-shirt, smoking a cigarette and only almost coherent.

She tells him the landlord won’t let her smoke inside and, besides, there’s no air in there anyway because the music’s too loud.

He gets her inside as quickly as he can, even though she insists on a second smoke and sings a couple choruses of Lady Madonna while she inhales and exhales equal measures of smoke and crystallized air.

Inside, he tries to get her into a warm shower but discovers that, no matter how long he lets it run, there’s no hot water.

She tells him the landlord’s from Pittsburgh and doesn’t believe in hot water.

The next day, he drives out again and finds her frozen to almost death, stretched out nearly naked on her unmade bed, a towel wrapped around her head, all the windows open wide, and the turntable skipping and spinning, its blare repeating, “isten to the music playing / isten to the music playing / isten to the music playing…”

Ron. Lavalette lives on Vermont’s Canadian border. His poetry, flash fiction, and creative nonfiction has been very widely published in both print and pixel forms. His first chapbook, Fallen Away (Finishing Line Press), is now available at all standard outlets. A reasonable sample of his work can be found at EGGS OVER TOKYO.

Image via Pixabay

Maurice Decided Something – Kik Lodge

The sun was tightly tucked behind the clouds and Maurice was watching the pigeons.

He’d been told they carried messages. Not like the ones in the olden days, during the war for example, but ones that would reveal themselves to you if you watched them long enough.

Some pigeons were by the gutter, pecking at the bars. Others were under the bench Maurice was sitting on, hopping off the flower bed that had once housed chrysanthemums. Stumps now, covered with green plastic.

Sun-hating, weed-hating plastic, Maurice thought, there to make things look tidy.

“Enough of ‘pristine’, you cow!” he’d told his wife, and she’d sent him out to look at the pigeons.

In fact, she’d just sent him out.

It was one of her doolally friends who’d told him what pigeons do when they’re observed. They form shapes.

Maurice gathered some madeleine crumbs out of his pocket and threw them at the birds. They flapped and ate.

They weren’t making any shapes he could make sense of, though. Far from an arrow, that formation. And even if it had been an arrow, pointing one way or the other, what the hell would he have done – followed it?

Could be a paperclip.

Or the pigeon cluster in the flower bed, with the few dotted around the bench and the gutter could be one of those weights you might find at the gym. Did he need to start weightlifting? He held his belly and sniffed.

Maybe his wife was a weight.

“How was your walk?” he pictured his wife saying when he arrived back at the flat.

“Fine. I’m sorry I called you a cow”, he pictured himself replying.

But instead the pigeon spoke.

“Retirement hurt?” it said.

Maurice blinked.

“Got a hobby?” it said.

The pigeon blinked.

Maurice imagined his wife listening to the story about the pigeon and phoning Dr Maynard.

The creature was just beside his boot, tilting its head

“Well find one,” it said.

With that, Maurice said absolutely nothing, got up and walked home.

Kik Lodge is a British teacher/translator based in Lyon, France, where she lives with her two kids. Her work has featured in Litro, The Moth, Tiny Molecules and the Common Breath, and she is currently working on a short story collection based on the churchgoers next to her flat.

Image via Pixabay

Heading To Maine – Tom Walsh

Packing the camper in the relentless Florida heat, you finally admit it: You’re a climate refugee.

Driving north, you try to avoid the congested highways. But the backroads are worse; one in Georgia moves just 10 miles in three days. Gas is harder to find. So you stick to I-95, drive as far as you can each day, pull off, let the kids run loose, search for supplies.

You avoid talking to others; after Savannah, you don’t trust anyone. You shouldn’t have invited that guy and his kid into the camper. They stole your wallet, a bottle of whiskey, Jacob’s cell phone, and Josh’s meds.

* * *

You couldn’t stay in Florida: Amy died in June after beating the doctors’ odds for two years, then Hurricanes Roland and Tyler hit in July, and the temperature soared to record highs in August.

The news says thousands have died from the heat in the past few weeks.

“Where are we going, dad?” the kids ask every day.

“Maine.”

“Why Maine?” they want to know. “Who do we know in Maine? Why couldn’t we stay home?”

“Enough!” you snap.

They stop asking when they realize you have no plan.

You vaguely remember vacations in Maine—a month at Sebago Lake every summer from when you were three until you turned nine. Then your dad left, you moved to Florida, and a succession of stepfathers and “uncles” passed through.

Must have cousins up north, but you’ve never been in touch.

* * *

In northern Virginia, the locals’ attitudes harden. Gas stations charge you $10 more per gallon than they do locals, and they demand cash, before you pump. Men with long guns guard shops and lonely intersections.

Outside Richmond, you witness a fight…more like a beating.

“Hey! You with the Braves hat,” yells a guy in a camo shirt toting an AK-47. A kid scurries toward a van with Georgia plates.

“Stop! Now! I’ll shoot!” the guy shouts, gun to his shoulder, freezing everyone in the parking lot.

The kid’s father comes out with his hands raised, palms out, saying, “Whoa, whoa, whoa…what’s going on?”

“Your boy’s a thief.”

The son pulls a Three Musketeers bar from his jacket, hands it to his father, who walks it to the gunman.

“We don’t want it back,” he says. “That’ll be $50.”

The dad barely gets the words “don’t be crazy” from his mouth when the butt of the rifle strikes his head, dropping him to his knees.

You back away as two others in camo trot over. One kicks the downed man in his side, then again.

“Let’s go,” you say to your kids. “Now.”

Later, camped by the James River, Jacob asks why you didn’t help.

You say there was no helping him against the guns. He starts to say more, but you cut him off. “The kid shouldn’t of stolen that candy bar. End of conversation.”

All night, you toss and turn.

The three days it takes to maneuver the DC-to-Baltimore corridor scare you. Vehicles and pedestrians pack the roads. People bang on your windows and ask for food, money, anything. Thank god you secured 30 extra gallons of gasoline.

Near Wilmington, you detour northwest to avoid Philadelphia and New York City.

You camp at a small lake in a park in upstate New York. The air is fresh, the quiet soothing, the kids laughter a balm. The heat feels like a normal summer day, not the suffocation you fled.

Josh is taking a sunfish off the hook to throw back in the lake when a sheriff’s car pulls up, lights flashing. Two deputies step out.

“You can’t stay here,” one says from behind aviator sunglasses, looking at your Florida plates.

“Isn’t it state park?” you ask, right away wishing you’d kept quiet.

The two exchange a glance and begin to move toward you.

“I caught another! It’s bigger!” Josh yells.

The deputies stop, look to Jacob. “He have a fishing license?”

“How about we just leave, like you said,” you ask quietly.

The big one nods. You call the boys, dismantle camp, and watch the deputies in the rear view. They follow you for miles.

* * *

It’s late October when you cross the New Hampshire-Maine border.

“We made it, dad!”

You don’t know what’s next. Money’s running low, winter’s coming on—Maine won’t be warm come December.

You drive through Porter, Keezar Falls, and Cornish. Autumn blazes. You stop at a familiar-looking restaurant. You tell the waitress your story. When she brings the burgers, she has the owner in tow, a white-haired man whose nose takes a sharp hook to the left, just like yours.

“You’re Laura Jordan’s boy,” the old man declares. “Haven’t seen you in ages.”

He shakes your hand, sits down beside you.

Over lunch, you tell the old man you need a place to settle.

“A lot of folks been coming through,” he says. “Some say it’s gonna get worse in the spring. I could use another body around here. Can you handle a weapon? Any concerns about firing it?”

“None at all,” you reply, and ask for another piece of pie.

Tom Walsh is a writer and editor living in northern California. He has been a newspaper reporter, editor, and wildland firefighter, and has lived throughout the US, in England, New Zealand,and Bolivia. His most recent essays and flash fiction are online or upcoming at the Dark Mountain Project, Litro, Hobart, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.

Image via Pixabay

Mr Andersen Will See You Now – Simon Shergold

The offices of Mr Andersen were sparse, just a waiting room and a marbled mahogany door with a brass plate indicating the great man’s domain. His secretary kept guard, a stern and officious duckling with an oversized beak who commanded the room through meaningful glares over half-moon spectacles. It wasn’t as grandiose as the Grimm suites but Andersen liked it this way – kept him humble.

That morning the waiting room was filling quickly. Audition day brought an energy all of its own. Especially as Andersen liked to keep the parts on offer under wraps, announcing them to nervous candidates en masse to see their reaction and start the culling process almost immediately. This was a tough town to get a break and word soon spread if you got a reputation as difficult.

First to arrive had been Cow. The elevator was broken and the stairs had been tricky, giving her a glisten all over that betrayed her nervousness. Heaven only knows how she was going to get back down, but she had bigger things on her mind. She restlessly shuffled her résumé, a twitching hoof flicking pages back and forth. She had good experience but it had been tough to shake off being traded for a handful of beans by a foolish kid. What a Jackass. The original story had her starring throughout and slaying the giant at the end, but one improvised line from him about a ‘good deal’ and she’d only lasted three pages into the script. She hadn’t really worked since (she had three calves under 6) but she knew she could do it. She just needed a break.

Across from her sat a short man with glasses. He carried an air of superiority, as well he might. Was there another qualified doctor in the house? He thought not. As much as he tried to explain it, his was not a nickname; it was a title. Doctor of Medicine, with a PhD in Psychology on the side. Looking around the room, he could have a field day analysing this lot. Of course, he carried his own demons. Were his six co-stars ever forgotten when people compiled ‘the list’? Never. Not in a world where expertise was a stigma. So much easier to remember a childish emotion or mild affliction. The sense of inferiority shrouded him like a cloak. He thought back to the climactic scene of his only film. He’d argued vigorously for the gritty realism of a week’s course of antibiotics rather than a kiss. No one listened; not sexy enough, apparently. He shook his head and waited.

In the far corner, aggressively eating what appeared to be breadcrumbs, was the Witch. A veteran of the circuit, she was the least anxious of the group. She’d appeared in countless dramas, mostly uncredited and, therefore, largely unpaid. Recent events had altered her landscape. The diagnosis of diabetes was a blow, but not wholly unexpected when you live in a gingerbread house and suffer from compulsive snacking. The game changer was that some arsehole at the insurance company had deemed it a pre-existing condition and her insulin came with a significant co-pay charge. It didn’t help that those irritating grifter kids still came round every now and then, causing significant structural building damage. For her, this job was about more than ego; it was a matter of survival.

Closest to the door, a louche Wolf picked at his teeth and tried to look comfortable in what could only be described as a spinster’s shawl and bonnet. He’d fought against stereotyping all his professional life but society wouldn’t let him be himself. Conformity was king. He’d had the suggested surgery, reducing the size of both eyes and ears. The teeth stayed though, they were his best feature. A few years back, he’d tried to go into mainstream movies. Auditioned for a part about a guy working somewhere called Wall Street. Lost out to some young dude called Jack – apparently he was a lousy trader but they liked his gung-ho attitude. He surveyed the opposition silently, fantasising about eating all of them. His face remained a mask. He never gave anything away.

Lastly, spread across two seats, sat the Bear. It was difficult to recognise him now, twenty-five years and 200 pounds since his heyday. Like many child actors he’d lived for the moment, the next few years a hedonistic haze of porridge and blondes. Rehab had been a necessary evil, his agent said, A Cinderella Story for the tabloids (another part he’d actually missed out on). Having famous acting parents didn’t help either. When they both discovered whom exactly had been in whose bed, social media ignited, leaving him nowhere to hide. Now, he just wanted a quiet life. His trust fund was dry, he was dry, and he wanted a simple summer job to pay the rent on the cave. Not much to ask.

The buzz of Ms Duckling’s phone broke the spell. She picked it up and quacked slowly once or twice, her voice giving away nothing. She placed it back in the cradle and looked up over the half-moons. The assembled shifted uncomfortably in their seats, afraid to either hold her glare or look away. The golden handle of Mr Andersen’s door slowly rotated, then swung open to reveal a balding man with a large nose, shallow chin and dark eyes. He nodded once at the room and stepped forward.

‘Today, we will be hearing readings for the part of a mermaid. Preferably a small one’.

There was a short pause. Then, a collective cry of ‘FUCK!’ left the waiting room and drifted across town and through the open windows of Grimm PLC.

Simon Shergold is a teacher from Sutton in the UK. Having thought about writing for a long time, he is finally getting on with it. His work has appeared in Writers’ Forum, The Cabinet of Heed and Perhappened. @SShergold76

Image via Pixabay

Red Tie Car Men Equalling Nothing But Cars – Jim Meirose

The pens the paperwork the desks the phones; the edges on top on sides and on bottom, all the same. The top edges of the partitions the worn down flat carpet, rug, or carpet, carpet, or rug version number three ha, ha the whiteshirts go to these desks, pluck up their phones, and talk to no one. They’re feigning checking with the manager to make the patrons believe the deal slapped in their faces is so in their favor, that the manager may think this hotshot young whiteshirt’s giving the farm away, but. The manager’s all, My boys, my boys, yah; do it, do it, make every deal seem to your fishes like you’re giving the farm away, because you like them; see him on the phone over there, Madge, lord. He must have this deal cut so deep in our favor, Madge, he will be in trouble at end-of-month with the top cheese of this place, cheeses, bosses, Gods or megamen, who danced this business into being, hut hut hut, into being, into being, but, look see, no; I’m told these car men even yearly gather at a top secret pep rally and get yelled all around at with suchlike like these:

We must wear the white shirt the red ties and the short hair.

We must each be nothing particular but pure salesman.

When they see us, we must be car men equaling cars.

Who dresses like this no one dresses like this ‘but Flamingtown car men equaling cars.

Way up and way down and both sides of the road this look grew this business.

This is the reason we can never look different; all likewise, as the founder directed, must wear the superdistinct non-identifiable white shirt short hair glasses and red tie car men who equal nothing but cars. That’s right; today every Flamingtown car man’s face must equal only cars. A moment’s shallow research, and a lick of God’s toetip, told the great founder a green car man’s face equals nothing but green; does not point out to this that or the other but just to itself. And a car man’s face pointing only to itself does not equal only cars.

So; I say to you today, white shirted red tied green faced man what what w-h-a-t whose faces super-exclusively equal cars.

So. The oath now, before we overspread our selling floors.

Brothers in Flamingtown Motors salesforce!

We are the friendless of this earth.

Every man’s hand is against us.

We have been kicked, spat upon—and driven back to our desks, unsealed deals in our hands, again and again, like wild things.

My father was a salesman, and he was nearly hanged.

His father was fired for lack of great monthly numbers.

And what of your kinsmen, your fathers, their fathers, and their fathers’ fathers, before them?

My brothers in sales, a new day is at hand.

I have read the specs and suggested prices for the new models, and they are good.

Three nights ago, a great sedan’s horn blared from the cloud way out, up the left.

Another answered from the cloud way out, up the right, in reply.

What did that sign mean, my sales force children?

It means that Mother Big-Auto, in her palace Detroit, with all her arms outstretched, hugs us to her bosom, welcoming us back as hot salesmen—hot salesman awakened from a sleep of another full year.

So!

Let the neophytes and their teachers draw near.

Where are the hot as shit quicktalking negotiators?

Give them their clipboards sharp pencils wide desks and phones.

Give them their new model literature spec sheets and floormobiles.

Swear by our Mother Big-Auto up in Detroit to be thrice faithful to her and to me and to our pure-white-shirt red tie order, and to all of us.

Rise, white shirted red tie short hair in glasses Flamingtown brothers!

Stick on your spectacles! Rise and sell!

Sell, lest you be sold yourselves!

Sell for the love of selling!

Sell for the love of Big-Auto the great Mother!

Sell!

Sell!

Sell!

By all that’s big-dawg shirt ass da monkeycut, sell-men!

Sell, sell; yah sell sell right now!

Ready, Next; this very same salesman snapped his face toward his fast nibbling fishpair. Quick quick quick, go quick; see they’re all set, all in, ‘n tight; one swat now, and we’ll net them. Swing the feet off the desk. Sit up. Pay attention. So, hey, now; now’s the time to move in.

Approach them slow. With a classic bright smile.

Heads turn, Look, Madge, look; he’s off the phone. Look, Madge, look; he’s off and he’s coming. He—he; he comes up all soothingly outchested with, Listen n’ listen t’, ah, folks. I spoke to the manager. Luckily, he’d not yet left for the day. Your deal is okayed. Nothing’s left but the paperwork. Congratulations—said while silently handshaking smiling all sparkly-eyed thinking, Yes! I knew that when we crossed the sill this’d be a live one. Yes! So; seal it now, ‘n seal it quick. Close in, close in, eh; Please be seated. Eh; Penflash. Eh; Inklines. Squirrely, but legal. Hold back, hold. Penworkingly afterthough going, gone, ack; That’s it, all done. Rising, grinning, and shaking hands. All’s done and all’s sealed; go go go, all shouting like it’s some swat-show. Stick on your spectacles! Rise and sell! The pens, the paperwork, the desks, the phones. Sell, lest you be sold yourselves! Hands up get down why do you mug? You lucky devils; congratulations again on your very wise purchase. Take delivery next week same day same time. Madge you free? Yah free. Yes, we’re good, we’ll be there.

So.

Breathe deep, eyes closed.

Sell!

Sell for the love of Selling! The edges on top on sides and on bottom all the same, are all free. Why do why else do you sell?

So. Thi’ ‘s it.

Sell for the love of Big-Auto the great Mother; and for the sake of them plucky-chickens chicken-scratching at the worn down super-seedy flat dealership’s carpet, rug, or carpet. See you then, thanks again bye bye carpet or rug version number three; Sell! Yes! Then carpet or rug version number four; Sell! Yes! Carpet or rug version number five; Sell! Number six, Sell!

Number s’ seven, Sell! Left eight, Sell! Right nine, Sell! Ten—aha—good work, she will tell me. Yes, me pat yo’ head, yah yo’ head, she will say. And we’ll all go home in one piece tonight, atopitall, yes we will; said the each to their others; said every single greenfaced whiteshirt later on, when finally left. F’ the day.

http://www.jimmeirose.com

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Real Damage – Amanda Saint

When she spotted his red football shirt glowing down the road, she was tempted to lock the shop door, pull down the blinds and hide. He might only be ten, but his meaty hands could do real damage. She’d seen them punching and poking, shoving and strangling the other boys. Crushing bags of crisps to dust when he couldn’t afford to pay and she wouldn’t give them away. Gripping her arm so hard that the bruises lasted for weeks.

He didn’t used to be like this.

His beefy paws flung the door open. She stepped out from behind the counter, her arms held out as if she was going to hug him.

‘Now, I want no trouble. You hear? The next time you start that’ll be it. I’ll call the police and you’ll not be allowed in here again. Ever.’

She waited for the eruption. But it was if her words punctured the balloon of him. His bottom lip shook before he bit down on it to keep it still. Tears couldn’t be blinked back fast enough so rolled down his doleful cheeks.

It was then she noticed the smart black trousers and shoes, the jacket over the football shirt. Eyes swollen from crying long and hard. The photo clutched in his hand. A glimpse of long blonde hair and a laughing mouth.

For a moment she had no clue what to do. Then she grabbed a bag of crisps and a chocolate bar, pressed them into his other hand. ‘Go on now. Everything will be okay,’ she gently squeezed his shoulders as she turned him to the door. ‘You come back whenever you like.’

He nodded without looking up.

She watched him drop the crisps and chocolate unopened on the bench. The photo crumpling in his tiny hand as he walked away.

Amanda Saint is the author of two novels, As If I Were A River (2016) and Remember Tomorrow (2019). Her short fiction collection, Flashes Of Colour, is coming in 2020. Amanda founded and runs Retreat West, providing writing competitions, courses and retreats, and Retreat West Books indie press, which publishes short fiction, novels and memoirs.

Image via Pixabay

Dog Story – David Crook

We had managed to buy Freddy cheap because he’d been sent back from his first owner in disgrace. They’d locked him in the shed to keep an eye on the budgie. I’m not sure what went wrong, but I think it may have involved some loud complaints on his part, and liquid protests. It may also not have helped that Freddy tended to round off a meal with something that wasn’t on the menu: a shoe or a cushion, for example.

When we took him home I was allowed to hold him on my lap in the car. He slept soundly; with a passion, you could say. It was as though he knew he’d found his destiny. From that day on he always slept on my bed.

Freddy was a dopey, affectionate dog, and though whippets are hunters, he seemed not to understand this. In the country, if a rabbit appeared in the distance, I would run down the field to show him that speeding after rabbits was what dogs like him were supposed to do. He would bound along behind me, enjoying the fun, impressed at my new-found speed. But he was not interested in the idea of pursuing a fellow creature.

He was not a wimp, however. He could be brave. Once, my cousin Amy took him for a run in the Surrey Hills. He loved to sweep across wild expanses, and that’s what he did for a few minutes. Then Amy called to say he’d run into a wood and disappeared! She was panicky. It turned out Freddy had run through the wood to the open fields. He’d then managed to cross the M25 Motorway, with its eight lanes of speeding cars, and pass through several miles of London streets to make it back to me. After that, Freddy became not just my dog, but my hero and my world. After my Mum had left home I’d lived with my Dad. After three years my Dad offloaded me back to my Mum. But Freddy was not like that. He was reliable. I poured my affection into him. He discovered a hidden reservoir of love somewhere inside me I never knew I had.

One summer I went on holiday to stay with my aunt, near Barnstaple. She wasn’t allowed pets in her flat, so Freddy stayed home. I’m sure my aunt’s shoes would have breathed a sigh of relief, if shoes could sigh, but for me that meant the hours passed slowly. I begged to be allowed to return home early, and after a couple of days they let me. I arrived back in the evening, and walked down our street looking towards our house. My mother was standing outside, and as I approached, I could make out her face. It seemed to have turned grey. She had something bad to tell me, and I immediately knew what it was. It was what I somehow always knew would happen.

I approached her and said: “It’s Freddy isn’t it?” No reply. “He’s dead, isn’t he?” She said nothing. But I knew.

Finally, she spoke: “He went into my bedroom when I was out and chewed the top off my bottle of sleeping pills − you know what he was like. There was no pain. He just went to sleep.”

And now I’m 45 years old.

And yesterday, late in the evening, I was walking up Regent Street towards the tube on my journey back from work when I reached Oxford Street. As I stood waiting at the kerb, I was thinking about what was on TV that evening when my mind strayed onto those long-past events. It suddenly occurred to me:

“Of course he didn’t chew the top off the bottle of pills.”

I must have spoken out loud, because the tall woman in a smart blue raincoat standing next to me looked round.

“She had him killed,” I said.

It had taken me 35 years to figure it out, but I was sure this was the truth. I remembered my mother had said it was not practical to keep a dog in the house all day while she was at work and I was at school.

“And he’s so naughty.” She’d say. “He’s trouble. He has to go. It would be the best thing − for him as well as us. It wouldn’t hurt him.”

I had protested, of course: “I would rather anything than that. Anything!” I said. “He can even go to another home!”

“That wouldn’t work.” She said.

“Why not?!”

“Because he wouldn’t settle.”

The woman in the blue raincoat looked worried.

“Are you OK?” She said.

David Crook does not believe in astrology but he’s such a true Libran it worries him. He works in investment and writes for the theatre. His latest play, ‘In the Bear’s Jaws’ will open at the BITEF theatre in Belgrade, Serbia, in May, and then tour.

Image via Pixabay

Blindness – Lorette C Luzajic

Matthew Matthews always wore a suit and tie to class. None of the other teachers did. Laura sat at the back, close to the exit, but she watched him carefully when he wasn’t looking. There was something effete about him, so tailored and manicured and lean, but even so, something else, potent and powerful. It made her restless.

Canadian history had always been boring, but when Matt was talking about Quebec or the fur traders or the Loyalists or the Red River Rebellion, she sat on the edge of her seat. He also taught psychology, and had written a few books on the subject, so he naturally focused on the characters and their motivations, not on dusty dates and statistics or documents that no one would remember past the exams.

Laura ditched chess and joined the camera club when she found out Matt was the guide. She wasn’t particularly interested at first, preferring to paint or write, but he had a way of making the work of photography artists come alive through their life stories. He made her see things she would have missed entirely, small details about how the world was knit together. She loved listening to him talk to his camera, cajole it to cooperate and catch something magic. Sometimes she imagined he would want to take pictures of her. She would be colourful one moment, then melancholy. She would be interesting.

Sometimes she would be naked in the pictures. No one had ever seen her naked, and she liked the idea that Mr. Matthews would be the first one.

Laura didn’t get into a lot of trouble at school. She was quite skilled at hiding all the things that were wrong, expertly keeping them under the surface. But in the last year of high school, she was caught wandering and acting erratic. She said she didn’t know where she was. Someone took her down to the guidance office. Mr. Matthews was on duty. He didn’t chastise her or lecture her about getting high. He gave her recordings about Buddhism and some books on Carl Jung, told her that altered consciousness was something to take seriously and not frivolously. She imagined going into that wonder world with him, about how soothing his voice would be during her journey.

Matt told her to come to the office anytime that he was on duty, so she did. She told him things she never told anyone, things about her mother’s dissociative episodes, things about how kids at school tormented her because her bestie was gay.

One day she showed him some photos she’d taken that she was especially proud of, a slippery rainbow of minnows at the edge of the lake, the purple asters growing in his backyard.

She felt provocative and confident in that moment, but in the next, it all fell apart. Matt had a strange look on his face and he was holding the pictures as if they were poisoned or dangerous. Everything started to echo and feel far away. His voice was thin and brittle. When were you at my house? he asked her.

She thought of his enchanted gardens, of the old swing covered in vines, of the ancient church bench and all the birdhouses. She liked to sit on that bench and think about him looking out the window, imagine him waving from inside, pulling the curtain to one side and calling her to join him. She imagined him in jeans, barefoot, reading Leonard Cohen poetry and drinking dark wine in a big round glass.

Which time? she asked back. I have lots of pictures of your house.

He must have seen her there, she’d thought, hoped, talking to petals and swallows, coaxing her camera to capture something beautiful just the way he taught her. But from the way he is frozen and furious, she knows now that he hadn’t. He didn’t see her at all.

Lorette C. Luzajic is an artist, writer, and editor living in Toronto, Canada. Her prose poetry and flash fiction are widely published, recently in Brilliant Flash Fiction, Bright Flash Review, and Gyroscope Review.

Image via Pixabay

The Long Shadow Of The Coal Tip – Michael Bloor

There was no phone signal in that narrow valley. Three days of heavy rain had caused the river to burst its banks and flood the road, just above the bridge. The flood swept the car half off the road and into the hedge. I’m not as nimble as I used to be, but I managed to get out with nothing worse than a soaking. Fortunately, I’d remembered the torch in the glove compartment; the night was black as pitch.

Downstream, the valley broadened and there was the chance of a phone signal, but I didn’t dare to cross the old humpbacked bridge, already flooded except at its apex, and with part of its parapet swept away. Instead, I chose to struggle back up the valley road, battling against the flood, even though I couldn’t recall any houses this high up the valley.

A tree had been uprooted and had fallen obliquely across the road (it must’ve happened very soon after I’d driven past). As I struggled over it, I caught sight of a light, up above the road to the right. It was a steep climb up the bank; I broke off a dead branch to help propel me upward.

The house proved to be an old farmhouse, converted into a holiday home. As I hit the door-knocker, soaked through and shivering uncontrollably, I was conscious that I wasn’t looking my best.

The householder was a cautious, elderly party, about my age. I felt I was at my last extremity: I shouted my pleas through the closed door. It seemed an age before the door was opened, but it was probably only a minute or so. Once I was in his porch, my saviour was most apologetic, explaining (curiously) that it was the storm that concerned him, rather than the visitor. He parked me in front of the kitchen range, fetched me a towel and a whisky, and then we made plans. Owen, as he was called, had a Land Rover and offered to run me home, after the storm had blown over. We’d have to go the long way round, on the Heads of the Valleys road, because of the fallen tree.

I learned that he was a ships engineer by training, but in the 1980s he’d struck out on his own and set up an engineering workshop manufacturing components for the new Liquefied Natural Gas carriers. He’d prospered and his company now had more than a hundred employees at two sites in the South Wales Valleys. But now he was semi-retired and spent quite a bit of his time working for the local charitable trust he’d established with the company profits.
I’d been involved in the shipping industry myself and we bonded (as old men do) over the unfortunate turn of past events. In this case, it was the sad shrinkage of the once enormous British mercantile marine over the last forty years. Emboldened by Owen’s kindliness and his whisky, I wondered how, considering his fear of storms, he ever could have gone to sea.

Owen fell silent and I felt that I had abused his hospitality. I apologised, and Owen smiled and shook his head. ‘No, no. That fear only crept up on me gradually as I got older. It’s post-traumatic shock syndrome. You see, I’m an Aberfan survivor. Like some of the other school children who survived the disaster, I only began to suffer flash-backs and panic attacks as I got older.’

Startled out of the state of numb stupefaction that I’d settled into, huddled beside Owen’s warm kitchen range, I was taken back to those dolorous black-and-white TV images from 1966. The sight of the miners from Merthyr Vale Colliery toiling away in the ruins of Pantglas Junior School, looking for the bodies of 109 of their own children. Children that were suffocated and crushed by countless tons of black slurry, when the spoil tip above the valley was swept down onto the school by torrential rains. I remembered my shock at witnessing my big, strong father’s silent tears as he listened to a Welsh Baptist minister speaking on the TV at the end of the same news item.

I saw Owen with new eyes. ‘You know, that surely makes your achievements in life all the greater… To have come through all that, built up your business, set up your trust…’

Owen shook his head again and threw a couple more lumps of birchwood into the range. ‘Did you know that Elvis had a still-born twin?’

‘No, I didn’t.’

‘Yeah. Elvis reckoned that he was living for his twin, as well as himself. He was driven.’ Owen pushed at the logs with a poker. ‘Well, that’s sort-of how I feel. I’m living for those dead children too. I need to do my best for them. That’s how I justify being a survivor.’

He walked to the window and looked out; the porch light shone in the yard. ‘The rain’s almost off. We’ll give it a couple of hours and then get you home. Meantime, how about poached eggs on toast.’

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

Image via Pixabay

A Helluva Long Time – L M Moore

Cooper was in a visible funk. I had noticed him staring across the street at the neighbors’ Spanish-style split level with its rosebush hedges, his chubby pug body inert on the back of the couch. He’d been quieter than usual too, and his curly tail barely twitched when I came home from work at night.

One Sunday it came to a head. I noticed him pushing the canned dog out of his metal dish onto the kitchen floor. I scolded him, pointing to the greasy mess, but he ignored me.

“Okay, Coop,” I said. “What’s going on?”

He nudged the glistening globs of turkey and beef across the linoleum with his nose.

“You seem a little off lately.”

He looked up, his tiny underbite quivering. He hesitated to speak.

“Come on, man. Whatever it is, you can tell me.”

“I think I’m having some sort of crisis.” He exhaled.

“Oh boy,” I said. I crouched down by his bowl. “What’s the problem?”

“Misty.”

“What?”

“Misty, the Knutsons’ dog. Across the street. I can’t get over her.”

“Huh. I’ve never noticed their dog.” I realized then that he’d been shaping the dog food into a capital letter “M” on the floor.

“We had a bit of a serious thing for a while. I should’ve known better. She’s a poodle. We’re from different worlds.”

“What? When? Didn’t they just move in, like, six months ago?”

“Six months is a helluva long time to a dog, Geoff!” His voice took on an injured tone. The miserable look in his eyes made my chest burn. I stood back up.

“But she said I was ‘too serious’. Now she’s with some fucking Schnauzer. I can’t even think about it.”

He sat silent for a moment. His eyelids slid down over his bulging eyes.

“They keep her chained out in the front yard all the damned time. I can’t concentrate on anything,” He said. “She talked about running away. She hates being tied up like that.”

“That’s tough, man.” I opened a beer and leaned against the counter. I felt a wave of guilt go through my body. I should have talked to him sooner. I went to offer him some of my beer but stopped. Come on, Geoff. I thought to myself. Get it together.

I put him out in the backyard. Our back neighbors had a big old tabby cat. Newly aware of his social sensitivities, I checked in with Cooper. He assured me that he was “fine” and that the cat was “actually an okay guy”. I closed the living room blinds and called Dr. Andrews, Coop’s cute veterinarian with freckles and long red hair, but she wasn’t in on the weekend. “Bummer,” I said to her assistant, who sighed and rattled off a quick stream of advice: he shouldn’t be left alone for long periods of time; I wasn’t to introduce him to new dogs right away until he’s had time to “sort out his own issues” and under no circumstances was I to encourage him to drink alcohol. Ah, I thought. My instincts on this are correct.

I usually have a “no dogs on the bed” rule, but that night I let Cooper rest on top of the covers at my feet. My own sleep was elusive. I was haunted by the image of Cooper’s face staring out the front window at the Knutsons’ house. I turned on my bedside lamp and watched him sleeping, his breath leaving his body in short sighs. I swear I felt his little heart struggling to mend itself inside his chest.

I had to do something. I got out of bed and put my robe on over my boxer shorts. Cooper woke up and looked at me, exhausted and then flopped his head back down on the bed.

“Be right back,” I whispered.

I left the house and crossed the street, walking in the dark patches of asphalt between the streetlamps. As I approached the Knutsons’ rosebush hedges, I heard a high, hoarse bark from somewhere deep in their front yard. I froze. Another bark. My heart raced. But the windows in the house stayed dark. I waited for a beat and walked up to the wrought iron gate and let myself in.

Then I saw her in the corner of the yard, on a short chain next to a wooden dog house. Coop’s Misty. I used the light from my phone to get a better look. She was a shaky little poodle, with curly grey fur, maybe dirty white. She growled and I shushed her. I looked up into the dark windows above us, but they stayed empty.

“Come here, girl.” I reached down and put my hand on her skull. She was tinier than I had imagined, maybe five or six pounds: too small to account for the magnitude of Cooper’s heartbreak. Her round black eyes stared into mine. Her body trembled. I was cold too. It was damp and cool that night as summer turned to fall. She shouldn’t have been out all night like that. Coop had a point about the Knutsons.

“You are a sweet thing, Misty.” I petted her delicate back, her vertebrae rubbing against my palm. “I get it.”

I lifted my hand from her fur and she licked me.

“What are we going to do with you?” I unclipped the chain from her collar and turned my phone light off. I walked backward out of the yard, leaving the gate open between the rose bushes.

“Come on, girl.” I stood on the sidewalk. I thought about Cooper, asleep at the end of my bed. Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea. But I was doing it for him. For my buddy.

“You’re free.”

But Misty just stood next to her doghouse, shivering in the dark.

L M Moore is a Canadian writer and health care provider. Her work has appeared in The Cold Mountain Review, The Daily Drunk, Dream Journal and Dribble Drabble Review.

Image via Pixabay

Box – Robert Stone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image via Pixabay

The Repairman – Kiera Zager

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

“No. My AC works just fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image via Pixabay

Biscuits With Malbec – Mike Lee

I must undarken the room.

Irina opened the curtains.

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

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

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

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

The door to the invisible must be visible.

Yes, baby. What?

I’m quoting the book I am reading.

Oh. That novel. You’re obsessed.

She looked up from the pages.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Splash in the coffee, baby. Irina said.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Where it was that I lost my confidence.

That. Again?

Her brow furrowed.

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

She steered the conversation elsewhere.

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

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

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

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

Antonio blinked, and breathed deeply.

I just love these buttermilk biscuits.

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

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

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

Image via Pixabay

The Inside Story – Steve Carr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

She rested her elbow on the aquarium again.

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

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

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

She sprinkled more food into the aquarium.

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mayor and his wife groaned in unison.

* * *

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

I flipped open my note pad.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

Image via Pixabay

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