Whale Fall – Amie Souza Reilly

Far away from shore, a whale heaves herself up and out of the water for the last time, dying with a sigh so big it could tip a ship. Her body floats on the surface, big as an island but untethered to the earth. The nosy teeth and beaks of fish and birds begin to poke and prod at her fins, her glorious tail, and the rubbery skin of her sides, searching for the blubber that used to keep her warm. With each piece they pluck from her body she sinks a little further; her wide, pale belly parallel to the ocean floor as she falls toward the place where the sun’s rays can’t reach. When her body meets the sand there might be the soft thud of a finished journey, or maybe it is silent, only a shift of silt and darkness. Maybe tiny bubbles rise up around her, millions of glittering, perfect orbs of air floating upward, then getting bigger as they get closer to the light, so swollen that when they meet the surface they float away and become stars. Far below, the whale’s body becomes a universe, a planet, a country for an invasion of species that will survive because of her death. Crustaceans scuttle across her bones, eyeless shrimp scavenge the rot, and glowing pink worms wave their streamer-like bodies in the thick current. Twelve thousand species will live for as long as fifty years on the whale fall—a length of time that is likely as long as her living-life was. An ecosystem growing because of death, an endless cycle of pushing and pulling, dividing and falling, until there is nothing left of her but gas, invisible even to those that knew her as home.

*      *      *

In a mostly vacant hotel in February’s Newport, she sits next to the boyfriend she hasn’t known very long, inhaling the beer and floor wax smell of the bowling alley that clings to her damp sweater like barnacles. Her cheeks are flushed and young, and she falls onto the dark plush of the bedspread, letting him pull off more layers of her clothing, sinking until the darkness of the blanket becomes the sky, the blue glow from the television the moon. Their bodies become a collision, a rocking of muscles pulled against bone, a flash of light across the softest skin of her neck, a breath caught on its own escape, suspended until the air returns to the chill of absence. Perhaps it is too soon to feel the silent shift inside her. Maybe the feeling beneath her skin is from the beer, carbonation rising from the pocket of her stomach, making her feel both full and weightless, the way an astronaut must feel seeing the world small. Her hips sink low into the foam of the mattress; her body becomes a black hole, a cave, a sinkhole for an invasion of multitudes. A new collision, softer but heavier, begins to divide her body into lifetimes that would stretch beyond her own, a quivering electricity desperate to latch on, to use her blood and air in inconceivable ways. Female pink-streamer worms live on the bones of long-dead whales and hold within themselves the bodies of their male partners, invisible. She never wanted to become a body with a body inside her— life inside a life is also a death inside a death, endless in the ways they call each other home.

 

 

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Sun – Jeff Hill

You can’t wait for the end to come. But you have to. There is one minute left until everything changes forever. Your palms are sweaty. Your eyes are bulging. You can’t escape this reality. You have resigned yourself to this fate.

What will they remember you for? Will they consider you a hero? Will they understand why you did the things you did? Will your daughter remember your face or your laugh or even your voice or is she too young? Will your wife remarry or move on or just be inconsolable for the rest of her years without you?

You will have to watch over them, which will be easy. That’s how this works, you think to yourself. That’s why you did this. It’s not every day you find heaven. It’s not every day you get to where you’re going early. But here you are.

Space is lonely. Space is unforgiving. But space is space, and you’re here, and they’re there. And you’ve only got about thirty more seconds left of air before it starts.

Will it hurt? Of course it will. Will it last long? Supposedly it won’t. But look at the view. Your final image will be that of the sun. Not a sunset. Not a sunrise. But of the actual honest to God sun. How can you pass that up? How can you ever explain to anyone that it was all worth it, even though you’re a goner?

The mission doesn’t matter. The results are the same. The data gathered is inconsequential. The outcome is going to be the same. Time is limited. Love is not. And if you give enough while you’re here, whether it’s five years or ten years or one hundred and three, it’s enough. You know that now, as your oxygen tank reads zero.

You look into the sun as the pain sets in. You float over to the control center and pull up the keyboard. You type in the command and push send. You tell them you’ll wait for them. You’ll see them when you see them. You tell them to move on, to live, to love. But when you get there, you’ll be okay without them. Because time is meaningless. It’s only now that you get that. Only in your last few seconds do you truly understand.

Because when you have the opportunity to see the sun in a way that no other human being has ever seen the sun before, you look away. You close your eyes. And you see them.

 

Jeff Hill is a moderately reformed frat boy turned writer/teacher splitting his time between Nebraska and New York. His work has appeared in dozens of publications and his mom has a binder full of printed copies for any doubters. He is the Chief Creative Officer of ComicBooked.com and is currently pitching two novels. Jeff is a regular participant of the Sarah Lawrence College Summer Seminar for Writers and has served as a faculty member of the Writer’s Hotel since 2017. Follow him on Twitter at jeffhillwriter.

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How They Devour Her – Michael Loveday

The sunset leaks behind her head, a clot of purple. Smile. She takes the selfie five times – still not right. Happiness shouldn’t be this hard to capture. An overweight pair further along the terrace crack up and clink beers – some private joke? The mood shifts.

A surge of guests, now, arriving in navy kimonos, gliding, schmoozing, and chattering like an outdated modem. She puts on her sunglasses, orders a mojito at the bar, and taps her finger distractedly at a menu. The bar’s TV blares showbiz news – another stale, red-carpet pageant, wannabes dazzled by photographers’ lights. No one she even knows. Then some too-pretty comedian is faking her own meltdown. The noise swells on the terrace, unceasing and urgent. Her breath tightens.

She flees towards the spa suite, striding down long labyrinths of passageways. Uniformed staff pass by, buffing the floor with contraptions that hum contentedly, clearing guests’ tracks. The hotel will accept no lingering trace of her presence; soon, her recovery will shrink to a residue of memories and botched photographs. Even when anonymous in a foreign country, the shadow of her old life will not leave her.

At the margin of the spa, guests skitter to and fro through glass doors. A keg-bellied man rasps a feral snore in a Lullaby Chair. A willowy blonde towels her limbs, bending a leg against a bench as if her thighs feel compelled to confess how lithe they are. Other guests buzz with war stories of vigorous treatments. She slips inside, shunning the hive.

She chooses a footbath and slides her heels in. The water is arctic-cold. Garra rufa fish gather round her feet, nibbling skin. At her heels, her toes, mobs of them congregate – little grey hunger-machines. Their tails ripple quickly side to side, squirming in gratification, relentless as they feed off her flesh. And yet she feels no more than a tickling. How they devour her, these affable parasites!

She withdraws her feet – tender, a raw shade of pink. She pats them with a towel, walks on virgin skin through the corridors back towards her room. What craving did those creatures have for her body? For once, desire was welcome. This is surely what retreat means: reduce, peel back, until the new version emerges, delicate and sore.

But soreness is already there, breath tensed in her chest like a throat-trapped bone. The paparazzi – would they have stopped, would they have flayed her till she bled?

As the passageway tilts, something flits about her, feasting, flicking its tail in pleasure.

 

 

Michael Loveday’s novella-in-flash Three Men on the Edge (V. Press, 2018) was shortlisted for the 2019 Saboteur Award for Best Novella. He also writes poetry, with a pamphlet He Said / She Said published by HappenStance Press (2011). Website: https://michaelloveday.com/

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What Stays With Her – Gay Degani

Mama placed small bags of popcorn on the coffee table while Father set up the new-fangled television—the first in this town of 113 citizens. Five-year-old Wendy skipped around the living room, dropping napkins on every seat until she fell over the footstool and into her father, almost toppling the Motorola off its stand. He grabbed her arm, smacked the back of her legs three times, and ordered her upstairs to bed.

She didn’t go to bed, and though she wasn’t allowed in her parents’ room, she stood at their window, clutching and twisting the curtain as chattering grown-ups crowded through the front door, their kids squeezing by them, shouting until her father’s voice boomed, and everyone quieted. Lively music chimed through the floor boards, the new TV switched on.

Wendy released the crumpled window lace and tiptoed into her own dark room to creep under the blankets. For her, there would be no playmates, no popcorn, no I Love Lucy.

*      *      *

After moving to Oregon, Wendy and her folks drove back over the Rockies each August, the Dodge sweltering with windows up, ice melting in the tiny air cooler. Still, she was glad. She would be ignored in the Midwest, her father thankfully distracted by relatives and long-time friends.

Inside her grandparents’ clapboard house, she slept in the attic, read books, drew pictures, and when her folks went visiting, she spent time with her grandmother, feeding wet laundry into the washing machine ringer while they sang “Are you sleeping, Brother John.” She trailed after her grandfather through rows of vegetables, feasting on peas straight from the pod, breathing in the rich smell of soil and tomatoes and corn.

But once in a while, her father insisted she go visiting with them. One of the families had a simple wood-frame swing set in the backyard, two plank seats on long chains. The kids challenged each other to see who could swing highest. Wendy took her turn against one of the boys. He was bigger, stronger, so she pumped with all her might, the breeze cooling her face, the chains beginning to jerk. The others cheered “higher, higher” until Wendy felt grass rushing toward her, the kids yelling “jump, jump.” She leapt off just as the wooden contraption tipped to the ground. The boy broke his arm. Her father blamed Wendy, his anger hurting more than the pulsing pain in her sprained ankle. Her mother sat silent.

*      *      *

Even in the kitchen, on the opposite side of the old Victorian from where her father slept, Wendy and her mother spoke in hushed tones about Wendy’s community college classes, her newly-made friends. Wendy washed the breakfast dishes, her mother dried, until a skillet slipped and clanged onto the tile floor. They froze, eyes locked.

He didn’t always wake to noise, but still, they held their breath until they heard him shuffling down the hallway. Wendy turned back to the sink, splashing water. Mama nudged glasses in the cupboard into precise rows.

“What the hell!” He was in his underwear, big hand swiping his bed-lined face, barking, “Can’t you two shut up?”

“I’m sorry. Clumsy me.” Mama gave a flustered laugh, then asked if he wanted coffee or a grilled cheese sandwich since he’d slept through breakfast.

His mouth twisted with disgust. “You pinheads are useless,” he said and scuffed back to bed.

Mama silently closed the cupboard door. Wendy drained the sink. They no longer talked.

*      *      *

Stalled on a railroad track, her parents were killed by a train, leaving Wendy alone in the thick forests of coastal Oregon where fog and cold seeped into their drafty Victorian.

Her father’s sister called from the Midwest after the funeral to see if Wendy wanted a box of her father’s memorabilia. “You know, pictures, diplomas, that kind of thing.”

Wendy surprised herself and said, “I have vacation time. What if I come for a visit?”

“That would be lovely.” Aunt Dinah was pleased.

“But I don’t want his stuff.”

In Indianapolis, in the small tract house where her aunt now lived, they reminisced about the farm, egg collecting, hiding in the hayloft, riding cows with her cousins.

“It was my favorite place,” said Wendy. “I always felt so free there.” They were sitting at the old oak table brought from the farmhouse.

Aunt Dinah reached out and took Wendy’s hand.

“I’m sorry we couldn’t go to the funeral,” she said. “My broken hip—”

“That’s okay,” said Wendy. “I didn’t expect you to come.”

The aunt leaned closer. “I loved your mother, you know. And I know how hard your father was on the two of you.”

Wendy felt her eyes prickle and asked a question she didn’t know she would ask. “Why was he so mean?”

Aunt Dina leaned back against the chair. Sighed. “He was always like that. He didn’t get along with me or your Aunt Eunice. I guess it was because he was the youngest and the only boy.”

“So, they doted on my father? Spoiled him?”

Aunt Dinah looked surprised. “No. Not that. It was the opposite. Your grandfather beat him every day of his life.”

Wendy frowned. “Beat him?” Her grandfather has always been so kind to her, she never suspected him of doing anything mean. She stared at her aunt. “Every day?”

The older woman shook her head. “Maybe not, but it felt that way. He never touched me, but he’d get drunk and pound on your dad.”

The sun streamed into the kitchen, a car horn honked on the street, and Wendy squeezed her aunt’s hand. “He never hit us, my mother or me.”

“There’s that, at least.”

“That’s a lot when you think about it.” Wendy studied the grain in the table, its dark and light golden swirls. Something was loosening. She glanced at Aunt Dinah and said, “Can we look at that box? The one with my father’s stuff?”

 

Gay Degani has a chapbook, Pomegranate, a full-length collection, Rattle of Want, and a suspense novel, What Came Before. Most of her publications have be published in online journals including Atticus Review, Smokelong Quarterly, 3 A.M., Yellow Mama, Gone Lawn, and Fictive Dream.

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Institutionalised – Rebecca Field

Week 1

Keith is woken by the bleeping of monitors. He must have nodded off for a second. Why do they make these rooms so stiflingly hot? For a second his brain fails to recognise where he is, then it all comes back with a gut punch: The ambulance, the blood, the bustle of people pushing him aside. The complex mixture of emotions; guilt that he wasn’t there, worry that it will be too late, the sheer helplessness of having no option but to give up his wife to a roomful of strangers. Kathleen’s still sleeping face is half covered beneath an oxygen mask. Keith hopes her brain has shut down into something like a low power mode. Conserving its energies for essential functions. He squeezes her hand. ‘Breathe,’ he whispers.

Week 2

Keith has moved out of the family accommodation. Their new home is on Fraser Ward; a bright bay down the far end of a mint-green corridor with six beds, each with a semi-conscious occupant. The nurses in their plastic aprons and bright blue tunics swish to and fro like damselflies, never alighting for long in any one spot. Kathleen sleeps most of the time, seemingly oblivious to Keith and her surroundings. Keith prefers this place; the pace here is more restful, less frantic than the cacophony of the ICU. There are visiting hours that must be observed, mealtimes and drug rounds that occur with reassuring regularity. Keith feels his shoulders relaxing, Kathleen has survived the stage of immediate danger, he reasons. If she was going to die she would have done it by now he reasons.

Week 3

Keith pulls into his parking spot opposite the yellow Mini. He has found it easiest to go straight to the furthest car park from the main building rather than spend time circling for a space. The walk allows him some exercise on his daily trip to Fraser ward. If ever there is another car occupying his space, an irrational sense of outrage sweeps over him. The yellow Mini is always there before him and acts as a landmark on his return journey. He has never seen the owner of this car. He wonders if maybe its former occupant parked up one day feeling unwell, went into the hospital and never came back out again. It would be easy to get lost in there, to follow the arrows down the windowless green tunnels, through doors and down stairwells, before collapsing exhausted into a side room labelled ‘sluice’.

Week 4

Keith eats on the move now. Evening meals are whatever packaged sandwiches are left in the shop. Lunches are Kathleen’s leftover sponge puddings, washed down with tea the colour of brick dust. The puddings come in lidded steel dishes, four varieties served in rotation: syrup, marmalade, chocolate and spotted dick. The lunch supervisors give one to Keith, knowing that Kathleen won’t eat hers. He knows them all by name now. His favourite is Jenna with the blue hair, her unconventional colours add some much needed gaiety to the surroundings. These are the things he notices now. He does not notice how his trousers hang from his frame, how his face has become drawn and tired. There is no one to remind him to visit the barber or to change his slowly greying shirt. If he looks into a mirror at all, it is only to reverse his car.

Week 8

Keith’s birthday has come and gone, unmarked. He does not take account of dates anymore. He registers the days of the week, but not how many have passed. He doesn’t notice that the car is beginning to smell like a bin that hasn’t been emptied in a while. The back footwells are filling with sandwich packets, coffee cups and parking tickets. A warning light flashes on the dashboard. Keith knows only that it is Wednesday. The library trolley comes through Fraser Ward on Wednesdays, usually pushed by Sheila who wears her glasses on a purple chain around her neck. Keith has been reading the latest Maeve Binchy to Kathleen, although she has slept through most of it. Lately he has taken to staying on the ward until 10pm, an hour past visiting hours, but nobody has commented.

Week 10

The nurses have started talking to Keith about moving on. This feels like a personal affront, like he has been caught busking outside the town hall, though they are quick to assure him this is not the case. There are visits from social workers and therapists, ‘assessments of needs’, and talk of placements, facilities, specialist rehabilitation. Keith does not know what to say to these people. His mind feels like it has been filled with expandable foam – it cannot process this new vocabulary. His heart beats faster when they approach with their folders. He nods and smiles in what he hopes are the right places, hoping they will see that neither of them are in a fit state to move anywhere.

Week 12

A new doctor visits Fraser Ward. She pulls up a high-backed chair and searches out Keith’s eye. She makes sure Keith has a cup of brick-dust tea when Cheryl comes by with the trolley. Keith cannot remember the words she uses, just that the irises of her blue eyes were ringed with a golden brown, like the colour of the tobacco he used to smoke before Kathleen decided he should stop. The doctor asks Keith to sign some papers about not resuscitating Kathleen in the case of cardiac arrest. There didn’t seem to be an option not to sign them.

Keith holds Kathleen’s cool hand on top on the bed sheet. There is an angry red bruise covering most of it where a new cannula was inserted yesterday. There were no sponge puddings today, but Keith found he didn’t have an appetite anyway.

Week 13

Mick the gay porter delivers a new patient to Fraser Ward only an hour after Nigel the surly porter took the previous occupant elsewhere. He says hello to Keith who raises a limp hand in response. The nurses and their assistants come and go. Barb comes round offering newspapers and snacks. Keith shakes his head. He wonders if anyone will notice if he does not go home tonight. After the last visitors leave for the day, he leans back in his chair, slips off his shoes, and closes his eyes. The bleeping of the monitors is strangely comforting.

Week 14

It is Monday morning and Staff Nurse Andrew is doing her last observations of the night shift. She reaches the last bay of Fraser Ward and checks her watch; her shift finishes in ten minutes. Kathleen Harris is sleeping. Nurse Andrew checks the drip and notes the observations on her chart. She registers that something is missing from this cubicle but cannot think what it is. But there is something extra that wasn’t there before. Next to the vinyl covered high-backed chair, is another chair; a dirty grey colour, the upholstery is worn and smells faintly of hospital dinners. Next to it is a pair of man’s shoes. Nurse Andrew wonders where the chair could have come from and makes a mental note to bring it out on the next hospital ‘dump the junk day’. She touches the forehead of Kathleen Harris and moves on to her final patient.

 

Rebecca Field lives and writes in Derbyshire. She has been published online by Riggwelter Press, Spelk fiction, The Cabinet of Heed and Ellipsis Zine among others. Rebecca has work in the 2018 and 2019 UK National Flash Fiction Day Anthologies and tweets at @RebeccaFwrites

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Descent – Gail Anderson

It is one hundred steps from the spine of the hill down to the big house, and the view is east. Out over the deer park’s remains, out across the Republic. Over the ocean to unambiguous England. To Italy, where your husband’s grandfather found inspiration for this garden.

Seven terraces, graduating to sea. A lapsed geometry: yew hedges, wild strawberries bursting terracotta pots. Father-in-law planted rhododendrons; now the garden is feral. You salt the walks, tread the weeds. Move down, one step at a time.

From the ruined stable block you see mussel fishermen, hoisting barrel floats. The smaller shells are cut adrift to pepper the seabed. The bigger shells, constrained in mesh, swing like tuberous legs. They are sent back into the water to kick their heels until harvest. The symmetry of grey plastic floats reminds you of graveyards.

On the final terrace, four cannon are aimed west. Out over Fastnet, Ireland’s teardrop. Long ago, French frigates came here to shrug off the English. Pity no one thought to tell the locals, who hid their cattle, fled into the hills. One frigate sunk, the rest blown out of the bay by a freak wind. Independence might have come so much earlier, but for a wind.

Turnstones surge the shoreline. Brother-in-law tells you that their recorded food includes human corpses and coconut. In a country where one is never more than five miles from a site of human massacre, the corpses are understandable, even ecological, the turnstones doing their bit. It is the coconuts, the notion of exotic incomers bobbing into this bay, that stays with you. Today a local woman stands in knee-deep water, scooping jellyfish with her bare hands, hurling them to a desiccating death on the shore.

Your mother once asked: when the tide is out, do you forget the sea? Wind forces salt-tipped hair into your mouth.

Your husband’s family gave the locals away to the governors for generations – yet they were permitted to live, their big house to stand undisturbed. You can’t think why. The house is decaying now, open during the season to paying tourists.

Sinking. Turnstones. But for a wind.

When your husband dies, you move down the hill to the gatehouse. Its exterior walls are overspread with tiny maidenhair ferns. They would grow in your eyes if you stood still long enough.

 

Gail Anderson won the 2019 Scottish Arts Trust Story Awards, placed in the top three in the Fish Publishing Flash Fiction competitions for both 2018 and 2019, was shortlisted for the 2018 Bridport Prize (Flash), and won the 2018 Winchester Writers’ Festival Poetry and Memoir Prizes. In 2019, her work has been published in Ambit, Crannog, Strix, the Fish Anthology, the Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual, The Southampton Review and elsewhere. Weekdays she does communications for the University of Oxford; weekends she can be found in her boat on the River Thames.

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Two Years Ago – Ruth Brandt

Frank can’t quite believe it was two years ago. Really? Two years? As ever with these things he does a double take, tries to relate the whole incident to some other event. Definitely after Harrison and Annie married. Had to be, since he met Klara at their wedding. So ok, when was that? Ah bollocks. Two? Really? He checks Klara’s expression. She’s looking at him like he should have ticked off the hours since what she has just now started referring to as ‘last year’s catastrophe’.

“Then show me.” Klara reaches out for his hands clasped behind his back.

His mouth is clammed as tightly shut as his hands are held behind him.

“I insist,” she says.

Yeah, right. Like when was she promoted to a position of being allowed to insist?

“Oh joy,” she says. “I’m dealing with a two-year-old.”

Definitely before Christmas, Frank decides, the one just after Harrison and Annie’s wedding, which, hey, must be over two years ago because they now had a puppy.

“After all,” Klara has this snaky quality to her right in this moment, almost cobra like, “you did get me one, didn’t you?”

Frank’s head nods. Oh yes indeedy, he has got whatever is clutched behind him for her. Must have since today is the grand anniversary of ‘last year’s catastrophe’ so how could he have his hands clenched any purpose other than holding something for her. Something that will definitely fix ‘last year’s catastrophe’.

She steps towards him and breathes against his neck, her hair grazing his cheek, her scent doing that thing that it does. His scrotum tightens.

“Hmm?” she says.

The thing that is surely behind his back is a mere grab away now. He shoots his hands up high. She giggles.

“I knew you wouldn’t forget,” she says.

Their shagiversary? How he would like to protest that no way could he ever forget that momentous event, at least not two years in a row. Their shagiversary, for God’s sake! Since when was that a thing?

Klara tugs. It’s no good. Frank is forced to lower his cupped hands.

“This,” he opens his empty palms, “is all my love.”

Klara’s a little bit stunned, a little bit suspicious. She tries to check behind his back in case whatever gift she has imagined is appropriate for such an occasion has been left there.

“I give it all to you.” He places his hands against her heart.

“Fuck,” she says and swallows. “Why do you always do this, you bastard?” Then she smiles, then she’s crying and laughing. “You totally lovable bastard.”

Why is everything so complicated? Frank finds taking care of Frank hard enough, let alone holding in his head a clock with all the alarms set in unison with Klara’s. And now he’s got to try to prevent next year from being a catastrophe huger than ‘the year before last’s catastrophe’. He’ll simply have to remember today’s date. Just has to. Whatever it is.

 

Ruth Brandt’s short fiction has appeared in publications including the Bridport Prize Anthology 2018, Neon and Litro. She won the Kingston University MFA Creative Writing Prize 2016 and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions. She lives in Surrey with her husband and has two sons.

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When Eli Came To Town – Sara Dobbie

I’m not exactly sure when I developed the obsession with the man on the porch across the street, but it was sometime after the incident with the bicycle. Admittedly, I’ve got a lot of time on my hands due to the fact that my boss considered my job to be redundant, and decided to downsize. My wife wants me to embrace the empty hours as a period of self-growth, and I am trying. I wake up early to go for a run by the river. I spend the afternoons drinking coffee, searching the internet for job opportunities, staring at my resume wondering how to improve my appeal to prospective employers.

The bicycle, a bad idea as it turned out, had been stored in my garage for ages. With all this time to kill while Sheila worked, I thought cycling might be a pleasant distraction. I dragged it out from behind a stack of rubber totes and parked it on the driveway. Like a kid on summer vacation I soaped it up, hosed it down, polished it until it shone. Hoisted my leg over the seat and took it for a test drive. Rode around the block, enjoying the feel of the breeze on my face, gaining enough confidence to sit up straight and let go of the handle bars. When I curved around the corner, expecting to glide smoothly into my driveway, the front tire hit a rock, the back tire flew up, and I pitched forward in a heap. I landed hard, legs on the road, arms splayed on the lawn. I quickly stood up and scanned the area to make sure there were no witnesses, and that was when I saw him.

He sat in a plastic garden chair, one long, denim clad leg elegantly crossed over the other. The pointed toe of his black boot dangled, a lit cigarette wafted smoky fumes from between the index and middle finger of his hand. His combed back hair was dark, sideburns extending down over the side of his gaunt cheekbones. He wore mirrored aviators and one of those thin plaid shirts with the pearl snaps, like a country and western lounge singer straight from Vegas.

Our houses are corner lots, facing each other like two opponents. Mine, a low bungalow built in the sixties, is fairly well maintained. The one across the street resembles a misshapen farm house, sort of rambling with its wooden siding and mismatched windows. In recent years it’s become increasingly dilapidated, neglected by various renters. The street numbers sprawled in red spray paint over the mailbox, which hung crookedly by one screw. The overgrown gardens mingled into the unmowed lawn. The place had been vacant for a few months, so when I noticed the man on the porch, curiosity overtook me.

The porch was not much of a porch really, more a small concrete pad on the left side of the house with an iron railing and two steps down to the sidewalk. And yet, when he appeared there, it was as though the whole place took on a different personality, an aura of assuredness. Embarrassed because of my fall and also because of my baggy track pants and too small t-shirt, I grabbed the bike, hauled it back into the garage, and disappeared inside to peer out the front window through the blinds.

The morning after the bicycle episode, I skulked around inside the house, reluctant to show my face to the man on the porch. I stood, coffee in one hand, the sheer fabric of the curtains clutched in the other, watching. He was there again, but now there was also a girl. A woman, maybe. Both of them sitting on those plastic chairs, him smoking, her scrolling through her phone. She wore a summer dress, her hair was long and shining black. From my perspective she could have been anywhere from eighteen to thirty. And for that matter, the man himself seemed similarly ageless. He might be forty, or even fifty. My mind pored over the implications of these ages. Was the beautiful girl his daughter? His wife? His sister? It was, I told myself, none of my business.

Sheila and I went away that weekend, and returned Sunday evening to the sight of a new fence complete with privacy lattice along the side yard of our neighbors’ property. Someone had scrubbed off the spray paint and placed a quaint number plate beside the straightened mailbox. Potted plants stood on either side of the step. “Wow, what an improvement,” Sheila said, “I knew that house had potential. Have you seen the new people yet?”

I blushed, inexplicably. “I have.”

“The other day,” Sheila continued, “I was talking to Mrs. Romano about that skunk that’s been prowling around our street, the one that sprayed her dog. She told me she met the girl, said her name is Rosanna.”

Mrs. Romano was a retired school teacher and always aware of everything that occurred on our street. “Oh really?” I asked, trying to sound casual, like I had never given these people a second thought. ” And the guy?”

“I think she said his name is Eli.”

“Eli” I repeated, trying out the sound of it, to see if the name suited the man in my mind. “Anyway”, I said, “I can’t figure them out.”

Sheila arched an eyebrow. “What’s to figure out?”

“I mean, I don’t know what their relationship to each other is.”

She huffed. “I don’t think you need to worry about it. You should be more concerned about finding work, or at least getting rid of that skunk.”

The days bled into each other and still I couldn’t get a job. Only so much time could be spent drafting cover letters, and invariably my mind would wander to the mystery of the house across the street. A shiny, expensive looking red pick-up truck had appeared in the driveway. How could Eli afford something like that? The front door, freshly painted, glistened while he sat and smoked the afternoons away. Where did he get the money for all these repairs, and who was doing them? Not once had I seen him coming or going, in or out of the house, or leaving the property. I certainly hadn’t seen him doing any work. The repairs all seemed to happen when I wasn’t looking, like magic. The woman, Rosanna, sat perpetually, serenely swiping through her phone. Toddlers tore across the front yard, seemingly more of them each day. Once I even saw a baby, bouncing in a jolly jumper in the doorway. To whom did these children belong? Eli didn’t discipline them, and Rosanna barely lifted her face up from that screen.

There is an old carriage lane behind those houses across the street that runs from our part of town straight down to the coal docks. I took to walking there late in the evenings after dinner on nights that Sheila went to yoga class. The lane, sort of gravelly and overgrown with wild flowers, provides a back entry to those yards. Many places have wooden gates, a few have installed new wrought iron ones. From that vantage point, when I reached Eli’s house, I could catch a glimpse through the bushes into his back yard. His new fence remained unfinished, the back edge of his property still lined with old chain link, the gate broken and leaning inward. This gave me a clear sightline to casually observe, to glean information about my new friend, as Sheila referred to him.

“Your friend Eli fixed those broken shutters on the second story”, she might say, or “looks like Rosanna likes lilacs, your friend put in a lovely new bush.” This teasing irked me, but I ignored her. I didn’t want her to know how fixated I had become, how unanswered questions woke me in the middle of the night. I mean, how did Eli make a living? And when? I never saw him lift a finger. How old was he, really? Was he retired? Independently wealthy? Were those his little kids scampering around the property, or his grandkids? Were they some kind of cult? I pictured him stretched out on a sagging mattress, all pale skin and thin limbs, Rosanna’s cheek resting on his chest. They share a cigarette, he blows smoke rings and she laughs, slides on top of him, long raven hair spilling over her breasts. I mean, what did this guy have that made him so special?

Tonight is Thursday, which means Sheila goes for drinks with her yoga friends. A perfect opportunity for one of my carriage lane reconnaissance missions. I stroll in the twilight, past familiar backyards, wave to Mrs. Romano who is lounging on a patio recliner reading a magazine. I approach the back of Eli’s property, slowing my step. The scent of marijuana wafts towards me on a cool breeze, Eli must be smoking weed in his back yard. I peer through the branches of a large bush and sure enough, he is there. Standing on the discolored patio blocks, inhaling deeply on a fat joint, aviators pushed up onto the top of his head, plaid shirt unbuttoned. He is lit up in profile by rays of moonlight, as though about to perform a soliloquy. The yard is deep, and there’s a potting shed between us; I don’t think he can see me. He turns, stubs out the joint with his boot, heads into the screened-in back room of the house. A light in the upstairs window comes on, and Rosanna is illuminated, brushing her hair. Overcome, I step through the broken gate, insert myself through leaves and branches, burrowing further until I’m actually standing behind the potting shed. Peeking around the corner, staring at Rosanna as she moves through the upstairs room.

The screen door slams and boot heels click on the patio blocks. I freeze, the realization that I am trespassing on private property causing my heart to accelerate until it pounds in my chest. I hear the brisk cracking sound of a can opening, and Eli sips on a cold one while I press myself flat against the back of his shed. I inch myself back, closer to the bushes, wedge my way into the patch of darkness between two tall Catalpa trees. A low whistling sounds across the lawn, and a shadow extends itself, lengthening, coming in my direction. Oh god I think, what am I doing? I watch as Eli slips past the shed and turns to face it, his back to me. I distinctly hear the sound of a zipper, and then a light trickling as he takes a piss. I am mortified. If I stay very still he won’t notice me, won’t catch me, won’t beat the shit out of me. Eli, I imagine, is skilled in the art of the fist fight. He would pull back one slender arm, slow and graceful, then clock me. I would spin out, dazed, while he took another sip of his beer and smiled rakishly.

Instead, he continues to whistle as he hitches up his pants, then opens the door of the shed and steps inside. I see this as an opportunity to escape, but just as I’m about to retreat to the carriage lane, I hear the snapping of twigs very near to me, and there, ambling out from under the leaves of an elephant ear hosta , is Mrs. Romano’s notorious skunk. It’s a big one, very round, with only a thin white stripe. When it’s about a foot away from the toe of my sneaker, I am on the brink of making a dash back to safety, but then Eli strides out of the shed with a bag of garbage. He grabs the metal lid of the bin and tosses the bag inside, thud.

The thudding sound coupled with the clank of the lid being put back in place agitates the skunk. It lets out a low growl and begins to stomp its feet, the tail straightens and points upward. I stand, rooted to the ground with the trees surrounding me. Eli leans forward slowly, cautiously takes a few steps in our direction. “Shoo” he warns, “go on now, get lost.” This is the first time I’ve heard his voice, soft and low, alluring, in spite of everything. He clicks his tongue and takes one more step. “There’s nothing here for you,” he calls gently into the shadows. I’m not sure who he’s talking to, me or the skunk, but I turn tail and run as the pungent odor of skunk spray fills the carriage lane behind me, and permeates my skin.

 

Sara Dobbie is a fiction writer living in Southern Ontario, Canada. Her work has appeared in Re-Side, The Spadina Literary Review, and is forthcoming in Ellipsis Zine, Crab Fat Magazine and Read More. Follow her on Twitter @sbdobbie.

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 28 Contents Link

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Spring Heel – Mark Stewart

London was different then: the streets narrower, the alleyways darker, the lamps dimmer. The houses shabbier, the slums seedier. The clatter of horse and carriage over cobbled roads, a sound loud enough to mask a scream. Not a place to linger after dark, not even in the more gentrified quarters. The air thick with smoke and mist, most of it drifting up the Thames, the sea-cold fumes and the rolling soupers like galleons of the dead. Ideal cover for a Spring Heel. For the phantom we had all come to dread.

The constabulary was out in force that night (goaded on by a mutinous citizenry) and I was one of their number. Almost younger now than I can remember. Too young for what lay ahead.

Already primed for the hue and cry, I heard the whistles as soon as they pierced the air, strange sounds for a dockyard city, and started to converge on the alarm. Not again. Not another one. Terrified of what I would find, hoping I wouldn’t be the first one on the scene. But I was.

To my shame it wasn’t the body on the ground that caught my eye, terrible though that was, an essay in mutilation written on a butcher’s block. It was the tall figure that was already turning to leave, already half-hidden by the white vaporous air, that brought me to a halt. The Penny Dreadfuls had got it right: a real gent, top hat and cloak, as if on a night about the town, which (god help us all) he had been. A man in black, save for the silver red lining of the short cape.

The eyes I shall never forget, as black as the grave, and the glint of light on the well-used blade. And the moment when time seemed to stop and we looked at each other, eye to eye, no more than twenty feet apart. The fog took him before I could even shout. I gave chase as soon as I had the wits to follow, but he was already gone, back into the Whitechapel maze he knew so well.

I know I saw Jack that day. To the best of my knowledge, I am the only one who ever did.

And lived to tell the tale.

 

Mark Stewart is very much a champion of the short story in all its forms, including micro and flash fiction. His other literary passion is the essay, and many of these overlap with themes covered in his short stories. The themes include nature and the environment, history and speculative fiction. His website can be found here: https://markdestewart.wixsite.com/thescreamingplanet

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 28 Contents Link

Image via Pixabay

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