Is There Anybody Out There? – Kathy Lanzarotti

“Alexa,” Cindy called out to her empty kitchen. The unit sat by itself on the black granite countertop. She watched the little blue circle light up the surface. It was a relief to hear another voice, even a mechanical one. “I’m treading water in the middle of the ocean.”

The device shut itself down with a two toned beep.

“Alexa!”she shouted, panicked that the little machine had abandoned her as well, until she remembered that just like on Jeopardy! she had to phrase her thoughts in the form of a question in order to get a response. She took a deep breath and asked the same question she had been asking for at least a month. “Where did everybody go?”

It had happened on a Tuesday. Monday had been normal. Forgettable even. Everyone was off at work, clogging freeways or running errands. They ate dinner and went to bed and hopefully kissed their loved ones. And then, overnight, they were gone. Abracadabra Alakazam. Like one of those Rapture movies that were all the rage at the end of the last century.

She was alone.

Just Cindy.

In the lost colony of the Elderwood subdivision.

In response to her question the unit glowed azure, then turquoise.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” the confident friendly voice responded.

Was this a punishment? Was this hell? Cindy doubted it. Sure, maybe she drank too much on weekends (and weekdays, if she was being honest) and there was that one time with that one guy with the curls and the blue eyes and the endless stream of martinis at her last work conference. But Paul Morton in the cul-de-sac was known to slap his wife around and Lizzy Peterman one block over stole the girl scout cookie money and used it to pay for her daughter’s birthday party and they were nowhere to be found.

Besides, if it was booze and adultery that damned her, she was pretty sure the last thing she would be was alone.

The dog was the first one she noticed was missing. Arthur, her friendly Black Labrador, blinded by diabetes, his adoring eyes fogged the baby blue of a soothsayer. Cindy discovered his bed empty, the indentation of his body still warm in his memory foam mattress pad. Cindy had checked the house. Nothing. When she called outside, Arthur’s name volleyed back at her from the empty street. Back inside, it occurred to her that she hadn’t heard the usual morning sounds from her daughter or husband.

The pipes wheezing through the walls, electronic music from Meghan’s room. Upstairs all was quiet. The sheets on Meghan’s empty bed were rumpled. In her own room, Bill’s side of the California King was bare.

Cindy continued with her usual round of questions.

“Alexa, how long will the power stay on?”

“I don’t know the—“

“Alexa, how long will the water stay on?”

“I don’t know the—“

“Alexa, how long can I survive like this?”

“Sorry, I don’t know that one.”

“Alexa, what the hell do you know?”

The wall clock ticked off a few seconds.

“I know about a lot of topics,” the machine replied in a clipped tone.

“Alexa, I’m sorry.”

“No problem.” The virtual voice sounded a bit stung.

“Alexa,” Cindy said. “Play Cindy’s Playlist.”

“Playing Cindy’s Playlist,” Alexa said cheerfully. Cindy sighed, relieved that they were still on speaking terms. She couldn’t afford to lose any more friends.

As the sludgy guitar intro to Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying” started up, she pulled the cork on a California chardonnay liberated from her neighbor’s refrigerator when her own supply was running low.

Wine was probably not the best thing for her, though she certainly had been drinking a lot of it. There was her brain to consider, and her liver, of course. Plus the fact that if she should start to yellow and swell there would be no one to help her.

“I guess it’s just you and me. Right, Alexa?” she said. The machine flickered as the volume of the music lowered.

She took a sip of wine, “Hmm,” she said. “I’m getting notes of pear, butterscotch, and vanilla.“ She sipped again, and raised her forefinger at the ceiling. “Also, cirrhosis, foetor hepaticus and alcoholic dementia.”

She drank until the glass was empty.

“Alexa,” she asked as she placed it on the counter. “Would you miss me if I went away?”

“Sorry,” the voice said. “I’m not sure.”

Cindy giggled and refilled her glass. “At least you’re honest, Alexa.”

And with one loud and compressive beep most of her questions were answered as the house was covered in darkness.

Kathy Lanzarotti is co-editor of Done Darkness: A Collection of Stories, Poetry and Essays About Life Beyond Sadness. She is a Wisconsin Regional Writers’ Jade Ring Award winner for short fiction. Her stories have appeared in (b)Oinkzine, Ellipsis, Creative Wisconsin, Platform for Prose, Jokes Review and Fictive Dream.

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Image via Pixabay

Harry and Me and Harry and… – Jim Meirose

Hello! Here I am to continue the story about how I rode out a massive volcanic eruption, in the Pacific Northwest, whose brand name I am not permitted to mention, because the people that run the volcano never sent in their check to buy air time here, so; here it is. I sat with Harry Truman, yes, THAT Harry Truman, in the Spirit Lake Lodge drinking cold black coffee and exchanging anecdotes with the wizened old man across the rough-hewn table he had made himself forty-four years earlier. Badly done taxidermy of various species looked on from the walls.

Quite a table, Harry. Quite a table. You made this yourself, did you?

Yes, I did—and you see this tabletop? This great big wide knotty pine thing? It’s a single slab of wood from the widest, largest tree ever carved apart by hand by one man. I called Guinness about it, you know, to get this into the Guinness World Record book, but they said they had no such category as largest tree ever felled, cut up, and made into great slabs of tabletops et al, by one man with just a Swiss Army Knife his father passed down, that he got from his father, and as a matter of fact, the history of that knife goes so far back that somehow, magically, it appears that one of my ancestors hundreds of years back must have succeeded in creating a kind of time travel machine that they used to zip forward future fast, grab the knife, and get pulled back as by spandex or a big rubber-band backward-slingshot contraption, back to their given socket in the great wall of the distant past and slammed the knife into the family vault, to be passed down the generations until it came to me, and; I swear to God, it flew right at me from out of nowhere when I was out walking the dog, and I caught it with one swipe of the hand, even before my brain knew I’d seen it! All of a sudden, I had it!

Had it? I said—great! Good catcher, huh?

Yes, very good. I just grabbed it down in a swoop, and I had it. Lucky I was on my toes, and it didn’t slice into me or the damned big dog.

Oh, yeah? You’re a dog lover, then, Harry? Where’s your dog now? Is the dog still alive? I like dogs. Where’s your dog?

Gone, said Harry. Gone of old age. Suddenly, very, very, suddenly.

Oh, that’s awful. But at least you got the cats now.

Oh, yeah, the cats are okay. Good dog is hard to find, you know. It’s usually all fatty. Not good for my Cholesterol. I settle now for cats.

Yeah, I love cats and dogs too—

Hey, don’t fib me—but dogs taste much better. I long for the taste of dog. Don’t you?

Huh? I started, jerked up, adrenaline wave tsunami; all my relaxation rushed away past the walls; out, all gone out the crumbling chinks in the rudely hewn log walls. I leaned at him, saying, What? Did you say taste? What taste? Taste of dog? How do you know the taste of dog?

Amazingly bug-eyed and red-faced, he became.

Huh? What, don’t you know? People out in the woods like me, raise all the cats and dogs to get fat, slaughter, cook, and eat. Don’t you, man? You look like a city Parish Priest, where nobody knows how to REALLY eat, but there’s something lit in your eyes when I said how I raise the dogs and cats for food. You know—

I leaned at him, hand up, saying, No, no, I don’t know. Wait—something in me says—don’t believe the cats are all for—

Listen, don’t cut me off like that. Let me say the whole thing. I was going to say that I’ve already planned the little calico on top the radiator over there for tonight. As a matter of fact, let’s cut this short. Pretty soon, I got to butcher her. Plus a couple others. She looks real good. Kitten is a delicacy. I got quite a few of ‘em in a scrap container out back. You think she looks good, Father? You can come with me get a couple more, Father. My trucker buddy Lucas Barnes brought up a whole shipping container of pups and kittens that washed up on the beach down his summer place in the sound. I mean, don’t be shocked, Father, after all, there’s no grocery stores or any place to buy food within fifty miles of this place. And even if there was, Father, my old DeSoto out back hasn’t been started in around fifteen years. And I’m afraid, actually, man to man, to try and start the damned thing. Then I’ll know for sure it’ll never run again. I don’t want to know that, Father. That would weigh too heavy. It’s better to eat the fixin’s I raise myself. After all—they don’t know what’s going to happen. They don’t know fear.

The small calico cutie sat snug, eyes half closed, the very picture of innocence and contentment, listening to the two strange big others across the table debate, and dead air surrounded us long enough that there was time for me, the all-seeing holy man, to look into my blurry globe God gave me, after all, what he was hinting at was so bad that the floor actually started to vibrate in time with a rapid series of sounds like thunderbolts, from outside the cabin, and I hoped to hell my crystal ball would still work in a thunderstorm because I knew the factory never tests them for that, but something made me check my watch—something made me check, and it read May eighteenth, nineteen eighty. See, I got that fancy watch as a Christmas gift from my parishioners; that watch could tell you anything; your height, weight, depth, speed, mood, or altitude, and lots of other stuff. So just as I saw the date and time, the big bang came, the mountain blew, and the shock waves came, and the world rattled hard; like the world was attached to the tip of the tail of a universe-sized, taken-by-surprise timber rattler.

Harry rose from the beautiful table, and I started to rise, but he waved me down and said, No, no, the mountain’s blown, but it won’t hurt us. You’ve a safe haven with Harry. A very strong haven with ten-mile-thick solid steel walls, floor, and roof all around. I see it’s coming, a big dark cloud is coming toward us, it’s about a half mile away, but it’s just clouds and a little wind is all, so sit right there, Reverend. Sit right there—and when it passes and I’ve proven no mountain can match me, we can pop a cork or two in celebration. You yes with that? What’re a few little passing gusts, anyway?

Oh yeah, yes, with that, sure, of course—but it’s getting pretty loud out there.

Loud can’t kill ya’, Reverend. Loud can only annoy, pass by, and be gone and never was—and with that word, the cloud and the roar and the heat and the ash hit the wall, and it pushed in and broke to splinters and flowed over Harry. The cats were all tossing around awakened and screaming by the whirling swirl of loud, fast, scalding heat that woke them so rudely. They had no idea that they were being saved and transformed into something unfit to eat, and the eater was dissolving too. They actually were much more angry than frightened. They were little glowing fireproof missiles bouncing around the crumbling, windy, black, flaming room without even time enough left for them to feel pain. And somehow, miraculously, I had been put by fate behind some glass wall, and I was in the front row of the theatre, in the dark but lit up too, very, very happy to be able to stay alive, watching the space where I’d just been, where Harry was disappeared under the now-flaming rubble of the blown-in wall, and I think he was really right, you know? He said, Loud can’t kill ya’, and no mountain could match him, because it hit me like a couple or three or four mortared-together bricks stuck together in one block right in the face; I am here and now talking to you, in my kitchen; Harry is long gone dead, and cannot be killed by what just blew up in the mountain while I was with him; I felt, viewers, and I feel now, that I ultimately will be canonized for what happened that day, when a man was made indestructible just long enough to survive one mighty blast that was probably just as powerful or maybe even more powerful than a big fat sneeze from God himself. So, all you viewers crushed together in the little red-eyed camera I talk to during each episode of this show, about food, all food, food like this here waving cold pizza slice all spattering around, tell me what you think of all this so far. What? I cannot hear you, no, I cannot, no—there’s too much spatter around all over, and underfoot too—and the winds are like winds of some other planet. Lord Jesus my Christ, too wild and windy and loud there on the other side!

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Image via Pixabay

Outside The Circle – Jonathan Taylor

Rachel hovers just outside the circle. “My brother said … I mean, says it’s the real shit.” She tries to sound convincing, authoritative: “And he knows his stuff.” She’s conscious of a wobble in her voice, but hopes the other girls won’t notice.

There’s a pause. Everyone looks at Aly, whose eyes are narrowed on Rachel, sussing things out.

“Okay,” says Aly, holding out her hand. “Everyone knows your bro knows his stuff. His name’s cool round here” – unlike, presumably, Rachel’s – “so yeah, hand it over and we’ll try it.”

Rachel glances around. “Here? In the … park?”

Aly stares at Rachel as if she’s stupid. “Yeah. Here. In the park. In the open.”

“Okay,” says Rachel, her voice wobbling even more. She injects confidence into it, trying to sound like Aly: “You’re on.” She takes the sachet out of her blazer pocket, and places it into Aly’s outstretched hand. Aly’s fingers close over it.

Aly looks around, and then behind her, where there’s a hedge and an orange sign: NO ALCOHOL. FINE £150. BY ORDER OF LEICESTERSHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL. “We’re in the perfect place,” says Aly to the group, motioning for them to sit down. “We’ll sit here, under this sign. It’s not like we’re drinking alcohol. Besides which, if we do get done, my old man’ll pay for us all. It’s his fucking job.”

Four girls sit on the cool grass. Aly looks up at Rachel, who’s still standing. “Sit down, for fuck’s sake,” Aly says. “You’re annoying me up there. Blocking out my sun. Suze, Beck: make room for Rach.”

Rachel tries not to beam, just nods, and takes her place between Suze and Beck.

Aly’s already hunched over, working on the spliff. She’s taken out a Maths textbook from her bag, and has carefully spread out what she needs on top of it: two Rizlas, filter, lighter, tobacco, and a bit of what Rachel has given her. Rachel watches her work – they all do, quiet now.

Aly carefully places the roach at one end of the Rizlas, then spreads out the tobacco. Next, she takes the stuff Rachel brought, and almost sprinkles it – with a delicacy Rachel wouldn’t have thought possible of her – over the tobacco. Then she starts rolling. Finally, she licks the spliff closed, twists the end, and holds it up, proudly. Behind her, Rachel hears a passerby with a dog mutter something, and carry on walking.

“Behold, like, the master’s work,” declares Aly, grandly. Suze and Beck giggle. Kelly, on the opposite side of the circle to Rachel, claps. Rachel smiles half-heartedly, thinking how quickly, effortlessly, almost balletically her brother used to roll a spliff in comparison. She suppresses the thought – which is in danger of ruining her mood – and joins in with Kelly’s clapping. “Now,” says Aly, sparking up, “we shall sample our new friend’s offering.”

Rachel’s smile is genuine now: she looks down at the grass in front, trying not to go red at the word “friend,” trying not to betray herself.

Aly has noticed, though: “Mate, you haven’t even fucking tried it yet, and you’re already looking stoned. We’re going to have to work on you – I can see that. Not cool. Get a grip.”

Rachel nods, and Aly takes a big drag on the spliff. She holds it for a few seconds, then coolly exhales. She doesn’t cough – just clears her throat a bit.

Suddenly, she’s shouting: “What you fucking staring at, mong? Fuck off.” For a horrible moment, Rachel thinks she’s the one being shouted at. But swivelling round, she sees a red-faced boy on a bicycle cycling away. “Twat!” Aly shouts after him. She takes another drag of the spliff, and passes it to Kelly on her left.

Kelly does her best not to cough: “Wow,” she says, after a couple of drags: “Just wow. Good one, Rach … and yeah, of course, Aly.”

Next up is Suze. She does cough, and Aly grins at her: “Mong,” she says. Suze scowls, but two or three drags smooth out the scowl, and she lies back on the grass giggling. She holds up the spliff for Rachel to take.

Rachel takes it. It’s gone out, so she reaches for Aly’s lighter with her free hand. One of Aly’s Doc Martens crushes her hand on the ground. Rachel yelps.

“That’s mine,” says Aly. “Use your own. I’m not that stoned yet.”

“Okay,” says Rachel. She prises her hand from under Aly’s boot and reaches into her rucksack. Somewhere at the bottom is one of her brother’s lighters. Aly stares at her whilst she rummages through exercise books, papers, old makeup, hairbands, pens.

“Fucking get on with it,” says Aly.

Rachel goes red again, thinks she’ll never find the lighter – until, finally, she touches something metallic, a tiny grooved wheel. She fishes it out and – on second try – manages to relight the spliff. She takes two drags, doesn’t cough and passes it on.

“Smoked like a fucking pro,” says Aly, arching an eyebrow. “Impressive for a mong.”

Rachel squints at Aly – the sun is almost directly above her – and then lowers her gaze to the grass again. “I’ve had a bit of practice,” she says. She doesn’t add: probably more than any of them.

Beck, meanwhile, has been struck down by a hacking cough. She’s taken in too much at once. She’s coughing so loudly she’s attracting attention from a few people across the park. Aly kicks out at her. “Shut the fuck up, you stupid fuck.” Even Aly’s bravado has its limits, Rachel realises with a clarity lent to her by the spliff: even Aly, openly smoking weed in a public place, doesn’t want attention from the wrong people. “Shut the fuck up,” Aly says again. Beck gets up, leaves the circle, and runs to throw up in the bushes.

“What a mong,” says Aly to Rachel, smirking, “two puffs and she’s out.”

When Beck – pale and out of breath – re-emerges from the bushes, Aly grins at her: “God, you stink, Beck. Got vom on your skirt. Fucking disgrace – can’t even handle a bit of this shit. You need to learn from pros like me and Rach here.” Rachel smiles at the grass again – until Beck, rejoining the circle, accidentally kicks her knee while sitting back down. Rachel flinches, but doesn’t say anything, just rubs the place where the tights are now torn.

Aly has been smoking all the while, ignoring Kelly’s jealous stare, which says quite clearly: pass it on, pass it on, pass it on – although she doesn’t quite dare to say it out loud. The spliff is almost finished. Aly holds up the remains in front of her, admiringly. “Well done, Rach. This was good. Very good.” She puts on a posh voice, like a connoisseur appraising a cake or wine on TV: “Yes, your brother’s reputation is well-deserved. An excellent vintage, my dear. Your brother certainly knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the real shit. You must be very proud. And you must introduce us one day, Rach, dear. I hear on the grapevine he also possesses a mighty fine c …”

Aly suddenly stops talking, and looks up, out of the circle. Rachel follows her gaze, swivels round. Everyone does.

Standing behind Suze, hands in his armpits, wearing a Ushanka hat, dirty brown fleece and combats, is a young guy – unshaven, unwashed, smelling of mulch, dead leaves.

“What the fuck you looking at?” asks Aly, back to her usual voice.

“Is that a spliff?” asks the guy.

“Who wants to know?” asks Aly.

“Me,” says the guy. “I’m … call me Jules.”

“I’m not going to call you anything, creep.”

“I just wondered …”

“What did you wonder?” asks Aly. “Can’t you see we’re fucking busy?”

“I just wondered if …”


“I wondered …”

“You just wondered if you could have a drag? Is that what you’re trying to say?”

The guy nods. He’s sweating, staring down at the smouldering end of the spliff as if mesmerised, in a trance.

Rachel thinks Aly is going to tell him to fuck off. In fact, everyone thinks she is going to tell him to fuck off – even the guy himself, who has shaken himself out of his trance, and is starting to turn away.

But she doesn’t tell him to fuck off. Instead, she says slowly: “Okay. There’s not much left. But okay, yeah, go on then, Jules. You can have a puff.”

She stands up. The whole circle of girls stands up with her, as if she’s a queen, or mistress of the house.

Aly steps across the circle, holding out the spliff, with the roach pointing towards the guy’s mouth. He licks his lips. Suze sidesteps out of the way.

Aly is now face to face with the guy. They’re almost the same height. If anything, she’s slightly taller than him, and broader in the shoulders.

She places the roach between his lips. He takes a deep drag – it’s still lit – holds it in, closes his eyes, and exhales. For a moment, everything is still.

“Like it?” asks Aly, taking the spliff out of his lips, and letting it fall. She licks her lips. The two of them are close enough to kiss.

“Lovely,” says the guy. “Best thing I’ve had for days. Fucking bliss.”

“Good,” says Aly. “Perhaps you’ll like this too.”

And she head-butts him, hard, on the bridge of his nose.

There’s a crack. He yelps, falls backwards, clutching his face with both hands. “What the fuck?”

“Fucking mong,” she says, half-laughing, half-dazed herself. “You stink. I’ll need a shower in bleach when I get home.” She kicks one of his knees with her Doc Martens. “At least I’ve got a shower to go home to.” She rubs her forehead, staggers a bit. Kelly, Suze and Beck run to hold her up. “Twat, you hurt my head.”

Suze giggles, still stoned. Kelly spits at the guy. Blood is seeping between his fingers, down his arms, onto the ground. He’s bent double, crying, trying to back away. “What the … ?”

“Fucking mong,” says Aly again. “Fuck off back to nowhere.” She turns away from him, still reeling. “Rach, make yourself useful, for fuck’s sake. Get my phone out my bag. Ring my dad. Tell him to come and get me. Tell him some fucking homeless mong hit me.”

Rachel steps over to Aly’s bag, and starts fishing around for her mobile. “Yeah, Rach,” says Aly loudly, “tell my dad to come to the park in his Land Rover Discovery.” She turns to face the retreating guy one more time, pulling herself up straight: “Get that, mong? – my dad’s Land Rover Discovery. He’ll fucking run you over on the way home. Home – hear that? – we’ve got one, y’know: six fuck-off bedrooms and a Jacuzzi.” She tries to laugh, then flips him the bird: “Now you can fucking do one, Jules.”

The guy, still clutching his broken nose, whimpering, turns and stumbles away. Across the park, Rachel sees him veer off, as one of the wardens – who, like a number of people, has been watching from a distance – tries to catch him. The guy scrambles over a wall and is gone. The warden gives up, and starts striding towards the girls.

“You know what to say, don’t you?” asks Aly. All the girls in the circle nod, except for Rachel, who’s still hunting for Aly’s mobile in her bag. Aly glowers at her. “You know what to say, don’t you, Rachel?” Head bowed, Rachel nods – as if she were being told off by a teacher.

She goes back to searching for Aly’s mobile, finds it, and starts scrolling down contacts for ‘Dad’ or ‘Home.’ Aly steps over, and snatches the phone off her. “Yeah, well, we’ll leave my dad out of it after all. He’s probably, like, busy at work or some shit. Doesn’t want to be bothered with bollocks like this.”

She snaps the mobile shut. They all pick up their bags, and traipse back to college. Lunch break is over.

*      *      *

At the end of the day, Rachel runs all the way home. She bursts into the house, and takes the stairs in twos, up to her brother’s room. No-one’s there, of course, to ask her what the hell she’s doing, to tell her to get the fuck out. She pulls out the drawers of his desk, lifts up the mattress, stands on a chair to feel the top of the wardrobe, and eventually finds what she’s looking for. She shoves it in her blazer pocket, and runs back down the stairs, and out of the house again, slamming the door behind her.

Then she runs towards town – until, out of breath, she has to slow to a brisk walk. She walks through the park, and round and round the shops, not going into any. She walks round the pedestrianised market square, up and down side streets, alleyways, across carparks. She doubles back, peering into disused units in the shopping centre. She even circles the public toilets.

Eventually, she finds him, his legs in a sleeping bag, in the doorway of what was once a bookshop.

“Hello, Jules,” she says.

The guy shrinks from her, wide eyed. “Go away,” he hisses, “please.”

She squats down, so she’s on his level. “No, I won’t.”

From here, she can see his face is a mess: there’s dried blood on his stubble, and under his nostrils, and a blue and greenish bruise spread out, like a butterfly, round his nose. The nose itself is swollen, and doesn’t look straight. He sees her looking at it, and his hand jerks up to cover his face.

“Get away from me,” he says.

“No,” she says. “I want you to have this.” She fishes into her blazer pocket, and hands him one of her brother’s sachets. “It’s his last one.”

The guy looks down at it, and then at her. “Whose?”

“My brother’s.”

“Won’t he miss it? I don’t want another maniac coming after me.”

“No, he won’t miss it.”

“Why not?”

“Because he’s … he’s gone.”

“Where? Where’s he gone?” The guy seems stuck in a cycle of questions that he can’t stop asking – stupidly, automatically – about someone he doesn’t know from Adam.

“I don’t know. He left us a couple of weeks ago. Just walked out. Didn’t even leave a note or anything. My mum was doing his head in. And now, he’s probably … well, he might be outside, you know, like you.” She sits down next to the guy, and looks at the ground. “I miss him, you know.” She’s crying. The guy doesn’t know what to say or do. In the end, it’s Rachel who takes his filthy hand and holds it for a minute.

She sniffs, breathes in, lets the sobs subside: “I just wanted to say I’m sorry. I can’t say it to him, so I’m saying it to you instead. I’m sorry.”

Still in pain, still furious, still dazed from earlier, the guy finds himself saying: “It wasn’t you. It was that other girl.” He looks down at his hand in hers, puzzled why he’s feeling sorry for her, and not the other way round: “You do realise,” he’s on the verge of saying, “that I’m the one who a dog pissed on this morning. I’m the one who’s only eaten a cold cheeseburger in three days. I’m the one who just got fucking head-butted.” But he doesn’t say these things – and squeezes her hand instead.

“It was me,” she says.

“It wasn’t – it was your mate.”

“No, I mean, it was me who made him go. It was me who told him to fuck off and die the night before … the night before he actually did fuck off. Mum was out on the piss, and he called me upstairs and said he wanted to hang out with me with a bong, and I said I had to do my homework – and suddenly he was dead angry and said I was a sad loser who didn’t know how to chill, didn’t have any friends. He said I was like everyone round here. He said he was sick of it, sick of everyone and everything. He said everyone could go and fuck themselves – including me. He shoved me out of his bedroom. So I told him if he felt like that he might as well fuck off too – fuck off and die.”

She cries a bit more, then takes her hand away from his, wipes her nose on her sleeve and stands up. “Anyway, have it,” she says, nodding at the sachet. “A present to say sorry.” She pauses, shifting her weight from one leg to the other. “And perhaps,” she says, “you won’t mind if I say hello to you if I ever see you around.”

“I won’t mind,” he says, honestly.

She takes a deep breath, and turns away from him.

And there is Aly, right in front, staring wide-eyed at them both.

For a moment – a moment which replays the same stillness from earlier, just before Aly head-butted Jules – Rachel thinks Aly is going to head-butt her too. But she doesn’t flinch, doesn’t back away. Part of her thinks she deserves it.

Aly doesn’t head-butt her. Her mouth opens and shuts a couple of times, and she mumbles something – something like: “I thought … I thought …” A strange expression, like a bruise, like another ghostly self, seems to overlay her face – and Rachel wonders if she too is lonely.

But then a burly man in a suit, who’s standing a few yards behind, yells at her: something about getting her arse in gear, something about his being late for the shift, something about his daughter being a stupid bitch for wasting his time, hanging out with losers.

The ghost passes from Aly’s face as quickly as it came, and her expression hardens. She looks Rachel up and down, turns up the side of her nose, swivels on her heels and strides away.

Rachel knows Aly will never talk to her again. She also knows she doesn’t care.

Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, lecturer and critic. His books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018), and the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007). He is co-editor with Karen Stevens of the anthology High Spirits: A Round of Drinking Stories (Valley, 2018). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester in the UK. His website is and he tweets @crystalclearjt

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Crazy Jane’s Cup of Tea – Jacqueline Doyle

They say I wander the roads in search of my lost lover, but sure it’s been so many years, lass, I hardly remember him. I may have been mad with grief long ago. I wouldn’t trade my freedom for him now. You might say it’s a hard life I lead, and it’s true, some days I’m chilled and weary to the very bone, but do you know what it’s like to awaken in a haystack, nothing but green fields for miles around you? The smell of wet hay and damp earth, the freshness of the cold air, the silver drops of dew sparkling on the grass? No, you won’t get that waking in a warm bed.

I wander for the gray skies and changing clouds above me, the hills and far horizons around me, the firm ground under my feet, the feel of the wind blowing my hair, the fine mist of drizzle on my face. The glory of God’s creation. I swing my arms and whistle a tune, no earthly possessions to weigh me down.

When you invite me into your cottage to sit by the fire, your cup of hot tea warms my cold fingers and empty belly, a blessing. I won’t say no to a crust of bread and bowlful of soup. Mayhap I’ll smile and tell you a story of Crazy Jane when she was young like you, before she loved so unwisely, before she lost everything and took to the roads. Perhaps you’ll pity me, shake your head and wrap your shawl tighter around your shoulders. But make no mistake, I don’t envy you neither.

Jacqueline Doyle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has recent flash in The Collagist, Juked, and The Journal of Compressed Arts, and a flash chapbook (The Missing Girl) with Black Lawrence Press. Find her online at

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William Blake’s Question – Michael Bloor

First of all, it’s his voice I hear – holding forth in the next room. A shock (a nasty shock, if I’m honest) after fifty years, but instantly recognisable: if you’re going to adopt the received pronunciation of the British ruling class, you really need a deep voice to go with it – something Dr Braithwaite lacks. If it hadn’t been for the squeaky voice, I probably wouldn’t have recognised him after such a long absence: the ‘young fogey’ tweed-jacket and the brogues that had so marked him out as a posturing twit when an Oxford Don at thirty, now appear natural camouflage at eighty.

Friends and relatives, colleagues and neighbours, all have me down as easy-going, even a bit of a soft touch. That’s probably true as far as it goes, but it’s not the end of the story. The fact is that I maintain a warm regard for ninety nine percent of humanity by nurturing simultaneously a consuming hatred of a tiny minority. All the hated minority are bad apples, of course, but probably not as evil as I like to paint them. Sigmund Freud surely got a lot of stuff wrong, but he was right on the money when he wrote about ‘projection’. That’s what I’ve been doing: I’m able to forgive my acquaintances their trespasses with a gentle smile, because I’m projecting my anger, frustration and abhorrence onto a very small number of habitual offenders. I know I’m doing it, but they’re either persons I’ve never met (for example, a particularly pompous and disastrous politician), or persons from my distant past. So it has seemed to me a harmless foible, despite the murderous feelings that can sometimes take hold of me. And of all those dark eminences whose recall can provoke thoughts of blood and revenge, the darkest is my old Oxford tutor, Dr Braithwaite.

Dorothy and I have been once-a-week, volunteer guides at Castle Curdle ever since we’ve both retired. Most of the volunteers prefer the castle when it’s busy, but quiet days don’t bother me: I enjoy my solitary thoughts in the great dining room, among the portraits and the porcelain – the clutter of a futile aristocracy. When I heard Braithwaite’s voice through the open door to the library, I’d been musing over a little double-figurine in the china display cabinet: two arctic explorers, Nansen and Major Frederick Jackson, shaking hands in a million-to-one-chance meeting in the middle of the arctic wastes – the chance meeting that saved Nansen’s life.

Braithwaite is squeaking at length about the library’s eighteenth century long-case clock: he’s got the right period, but the wrong maker – a typical historian’s error. As he enters the dining room, among what I later learn to be a cluster of great-nephews and great-nieces, I turn from the display cabinet, prepared for my own arctic chance encounter. But he passes by me – a mere flunkey – without a glance.

He gestures towards the great dining table: ‘What sparkling conversations must this table have witnessed, eh? How many times must the porcelain and the cut-glass have been outshone by the wit of the diners? The subtleties of a local Jane Austin… The verities of a local Sir Robert Peel… Ah, if only I had lived in that age…’ His relatives, either dazzled or cowed, murmur their agreement. I silently recall the extracts from the butler’s account book, on display in the kitchen. They demonstrate beyond contradiction that the conversations that the table had witnessed must have routinely degenerated into the maunderings of a drunken rabble.

He turns to one of the equestrian portraits: ‘The young laird on, no doubt, his favourite horse. See how the artist has captured the sheen on the horse’s flanks, the poise of the rider in easy command of the animal? What nobility!’(In point of fact, the ‘noble’ in question had gambled away a huge fortune and racketed his way to an early death.)

Braithwaite was hobbling and leaning heavily on an odd, large, walking stick, a typically mannered choice – I imagine it’s what is termed an alpenstock. I murmur to one of the young relatives that if the old fella can’t manage the grand staircase, I can take him up in the lift. She smiles her thanks: ‘I’ll tell Great-Uncle John.’ As they move out of the dining room, I take up the rear.

Braithwaite then proceeds to hold forth to the great-nephews and nieces about the portraits lining the lower part of the grand stairwell. Years ago, I thought I’d detected the source of the animus that Braithwaite had shown towards my teenage self: I had come to Oxford from the same undistinguished grammar school in the same northern industrial town as Braithwaite – plainly, I had unwittingly reminded him of a past he had wished to bury. And that was the source of his slights and petty cruelties, and why he’d tried to get me sent down from the university. But what on earth lies behind his insane worship of eighteenth and nineteenth century aristocratic life? Surely, he’s too knowledgeable a historian not to recognise that his temple is built on a cesspit?

I stand quietly aside, waiting to perform my menial duty as bell-hop. The tiny two-person lift (wood-panelled, early twentieth century) is rather temperamental – hence the house-rule that it is only to be operated by paid or volunteer staff, not by visitors. If the button to the basement is pressed accidentally, instead of the button to the upper floor, then the occupant will be trapped down there until an engineer can be summoned – a matter of hours. I speculate, happily, about the sturdiness of Dr Braithwaite’s bladder.

My projected victim is led, still squeaking and gesturing, towards the lift. As I usher him inside, I see him squinting at my name-badge. I hesitate for a moment. And then I follow him into the lift and press the button to the upper floor. We stand eyeball to eyeball, as the lift creaks and judders upward. I see no dawning recognition in his wizened face. As he shuffles past me out of the lift, I whisper: ‘Did he who made the Lamb make thee?’ The lift doors are then closing to return me to the ground floor, and I watch him turn back, slack-jawed, to look at me. Then he is gone from my life forever.

On the drive home, Dorothy turns to me and says, ‘Why the quiet smile?’

Michael Bloor is a retired sociologist living in Dunblane, Scotland, who 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 Sea Letter, The Drabble and elsewhere.

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It Takes A Hobo – Michael Grant Smith

Human beings are communal by nature. A mumble of outside chit-chat masks the extra voices inside an individual’s head. If Last Chance’s inhabitants vanished, what would remain besides buildings, streets, critters, dust, and the shadows of ghosts? “No population” equals “no tax base.” Without revenue, how does Government eat? Ideally, the cost of civilization is borne by a vibrant, prosperous citizenry, which in Last Chance means vagrants, drifters, transients, tramps, tinkers, and especially hobos are unwelcome.

Barrymore’s day, which began with an effort to dig a survival shelter in his backyard, ended when he hit a sewer line.

“A couple of feet down is usually enough to hide the bodies,” he moaned. “I’ve shoveled bunches of holes, never none this deep.”

Barrymore was the scoundrel who made puzzle pieces disappear, a wrangler of the unexpected, yet this day’s events fluttered beyond his control. All of his muscles ached and some vital organs as well. Decline and mortality peered over his shoulder the same way puffy Councilman Everett was prone to do. Barrymore battled the chronic urge to toss some possessions into a handkerchief, sling a bedroll over his shoulder, and set out for the horizon.

He scratched his brain bucket whenever he tried to recollect the exact details of his long-ago introduction to Last Chance. Also murky: his earliest encounter with eventual three-time mayor Lowell “Fuzzy” Nelson, presumably because shots of rye were involved.

“I see inside your heart,” said Fuzzy. “It’s pure and beautiful.”

“Yours is beautiful, too,” replied Barrymore, “in a scary way — it makes me want to lock my doors except I got none.”

The future mayor’s elbow bumped against an empty rye bottle. He watched glass fragments stampede across the tavern floor.

“Who did that?” he shouted. “What game is this?”

“I didn’t see nothing,” said Barrymore, “although I’ll swear you wasn’t responsible and probably was somewhere else at the time.”

“Good answer! I aim to be mayor of Last Chance, and I reckon you could flatten a few bumps on my highway to victory. Would you become my campaign manager?”

The moon climbed over Barrymore’s hill and poked its chubby ochre face between the washing machines, wheel-less pickup trucks, and overstuffed chairs grazing in the high grass. Barrymore choked on the nostril-clogging stink of escaped sewage. He groaned; even his beard hurt. The welcome mat tripped his feet and he tumbled headlong onto the floorboards, where he lay in darkness and wept.

Non-stop barking outside roused Barrymore. Artemis, the cursed next-door neighbor, had made himself scarce again, undoubtedly prowling Last Chance’s outskirts, trafficking with tinkers. How often had Barrymore been tempted to report such vile behavior? He could complain to Constable Arlene about the noise, but most warm evenings she was at the gravel pit handing out trespasser tickets to undrowned swimmers.

Barrymore staggered to his feet and hollered though a window.

“Cease and desist with your almost continuous baying, you frightful Hounds of Hellville. My day wasn’t so good, neither!”

Minutes later and fingers a-quiver, Barrymore rummaged through the storage shed behind his living shed. He found the five-gallon bucket of well-used Thanksgiving turkey deep-fryer oil and hauled it to Artemis’s kennel. The barking reached a new plateau of hysteria. Barrymore kicked open the gate and swung an arc of pungent grease toward the two dog-demons within.

“You’re the ones what can’t shut your yap! I got you now! Just wait right here for five to ten minutes while I go look for some matches!”

The larger of the duo, a mastiff-poodle mix, let out a single yelp and went for the crotch. When Barrymore sidestepped with adrenaline-fueled agility, the well-oiled beast missed the family jewels and clamped onto thigh muscle instead.

“Wow!” Barrymore exclaimed. “Wow! Wow, wow, wow! Macaroni and Jesus, it hurts!”

Barrymore tried to punch and pull the assassin’s slippery noggin, to no avail. The berserk mastiff-poodle reeked of rancid Thanksgiving leftovers. His smaller companion, a vomit-colored terrier, shucked Barrymore’s leg as if a meat-flavored ear of corn hid within the twill.

“Bad dog!” wailed Barrymore. He slipped on grease and fell. Bright agony diffused into a numb endorphin glow. “Oh, I am not yet ready to cross the River Styx. Me, with my good looks and handy skillsets.”

He’d never finish the shelter, his favorite television shows would go unwatched, his funeral would be stained by mocking references to “death by canine.” Worst of all, Barrymore’s decades-old courtship of the Post Office lady would end unconsummated, and damn it, last week at the counter he’d nearly asked her name.

Light and pain diminished until he found himself on Heaven’s porch. His long-deceased grandmother nodded towards her beer cooler and smiled. You walked the railroad track all day, boy, set down your bundle and have a cold one with Granny. Then Barrymore heard an angel call out to him:

“Sir, is there anything I can do for you?”

Barrymore squinted open one eye, the one not pressed into fried-poultry-flavored mud, and beheld a fit young man dressed in khaki trousers and a dark blue polo shirt. Denny the insurance agent reached behind the mastiff-poodle and applied confident pressure to the monster’s boydog area.

The beast howled even louder than Barrymore had done just moments before, and released his victim. Bare yards away, a suddenly penitent terrier quivered beneath an inverted rusty barbecue grill.

“This feller’s firm handshake was what inspired me to board the ship of commerce he captains,” Barrymore muttered to himself.

Whimpers of discomfort and regret escaped his lips. Denny the insurance agent stood at a respectful distance and pretended to surveil Barrymore’s now timid assailants.

“I journeyed to the bitter brink of eternal lamentation,” Barrymore told Denny. “You yanked me back to this here world in which we all live together, you and me and others.”

“Happy to help, sir, although nigh my arrival I overheard a voice similar to yours yell something about setting domesticated animals afire…”

“Oh, them words was a private joke between the pooches and me. Nothing of importance. Or someone else was talking, I don’t remember.”

In the shack’s breakfast nook, Barrymore and Denny the insurance agent reflected on life’s ephemeral circumstances and narrow margins of victory.

“I’m sorry,” said Denny the insurance agent, “am I delaying your supper?”

“You have very recently saved my life and also my scrotum,” Barrymore replied. With kitchen scissors he snipped bloody strings of fabric. “I invite you to stay and chew as much fat as you desire.”

“I enjoy all of our appointments, sir, and yet I sense you don’t wish to discuss modifications to your insurance policies and investment portfolios.”

“You are keen beyond your years. Because you performed heroic acts, I’ll share my intentions frankly. Often I’ve daydreamed the notion of running for public office, merely to settle old scores and perhaps nibble at Last Chance’s overflowing pork barrel…”

“And yet, sir, I see in your eyes a furious blaze of something contrariwise to cutting corners and plying the odd grift. You are all lit up with purpose.”

“You bet, son, I am a furnace stoked with logs of honorable ambitions. After tonight’s escapades I see I’ve got to raise my game and give instead of get. I suspect “Fuzzy” Nelson’s taillights are well and truly faded into the distance. I’m fixing to run for mayor of Last Chance and I want your help. I will stand for goodness.”

“Assist you, I shall, sir!” Denny the insurance agent sprang from the nook. He paced the kitchen; two strides in each direction. “We’ll build you a platform of integrity, and societal progress, and folks restraining their murderous pets. A golden age of prosperity and goodwill, thanks to Mayor Barrymore yanking on the levers of power.” He paused, a bobblehead come to life. “Once and for all we’ll rid Last Chance of wanderers and vagrants and their campfires and forlorn harmonica music!”

Barrymore tied the last bandage, sighed, and shifted his weight from one ham to the other. His ravaged leg hurt like wasp stings dipped in tabasco pepper sauce. The kitchen’s sole lightbulb, usually puny, tonight shone bright as sunshine on spilled beans.

“The world could use a whole lot less negativity and a bunch more of them optimisms,” said Barrymore afore his voice dropped low. “There’s just one fly in the margarine, and you mustn’t tell nobody: I aim to serve my constituents, and pledge to execute the will of Last Chance, even though I myself was born a hobo.”

Outside Barrymore’s shed, the sound of dogs not barking threatened to cleave the night’s moist, turgid air.

Money and secrets are sometimes earned, sometimes inherited. Bury them as deep as you wish (mind the sewer pipes) and yet they still get found. We covet whatever is concealed by others, and hoard our own privacy. Last Chance is a bank, if you will, where social business is transacted. The occasional rascal jacks our ledger or pulls a broad-daylight heist, but mischief faces consequences! Criminality notwithstanding, courage and a sense of go-getterism are admired in Last Chance, and more oft than not those qualities can get you elected to the corridors of power. First you must roll up your cheap past and wrap a C-note around the deception.

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Arm(s) – Francine Witte

I liked Morey, but he had an extra arm. Radioactive thing, he said.

I tried as hard as I could to ignore it. Looked up at the ceiling a lot.

We never made it to sex. I would take a look at his extra arm stuffed in his sleeve along with his real arm. I knew this was not going to work.

When I tried to break up with him, his anger was electric, like I flipped on a switch I hadn’t noticed before.

He said it was his extra arm and he knew it and don’t try to lie. I asked him if he had thought about plastic surgery. He looked a little upset, then said, “I guess.”

“Let’s take your arms out,” I said, ripping his sleeve. The real arm, the one that belonged there shook with sudden freedom. The extra arm reached out for me. It was a tenderness Morey hadn’t shown me before.

“Sorry,” Morey said. “It likes to do that.”

“Don’t be,” I assured him. The extra arm now stroking my hair.

Meanwhile, the real arm was busy now, dealing a hand of canasta.

“This is where it get’s tricky,” Morey said, looking this way, then that, as if trying to decide which arm to follow.

Francine Witte’s latest publications are a full-length poetry collection, Theory of Flesh from Kelsay Books and the Blue Light Press First Prize Winner, Dressed All Wrong for This. Her flash fiction has appeared in numerous journals, anthologized in the most recent New Micro (W.W. Norton) and her novella-in-flash, The Way of the Wind is forthcoming from Ad Hoc Fiction. She lives in New York City.

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Home Alone – Martha Higgins

Sometimes she forgets about it for a while and then she feels those wet blubbery lips on hers and she wants to scream until she can get that image out of her head and the sensation away from her body. She prays fervently that this horrible repulsive memory will leave her and she dreams of replacing it with a sweet kiss from a boy she likes at school.

Jane doesn’t like being alone in the house. but she has no language to tell her mother what she fears. When she said she didn’t like him her mother said he was a good neighbour and to stop with her nonsense. The front door is wide open as always, it is closed only when darkness falls and only locked at bedtime. In a strange way she would feel more frightened inside a locked house by herself, this would be a blatant admission of her fear.

All morning she listens carefully for his car. Despite this, she sees him only when he is almost at the front door. She instinctively runs out, so she won’t be trapped inside. He grabs her and pushes her into the porch. She gasps in shock at his strength. He tries to kiss her as she struggles and wriggles and screams for their neighbour. “Maggie! Maggie!” Everyone knows she can hear the grass growing.

“Ah, what are you roaring for, it’s only a bit of fun, an auld kiss,” he backs off and laughs cockily as he strides off down the path in his big wellingtons and over the road to his car as Maggie comes running across the meadow with the pitchfork.

“I’ll stab the bastard!” Maggie is gasping, the cigarettes have claimed her lungs. She knows she can save Jane provided she is around but can’t prevent him grabbing her again or any other young girl either. Who pays any attention to an unmarried woman who has no property or money and is dependent on her brother for a living when they are plenty of respected men around who laugh at her mad warnings.

“Come on,” she says gruffly, resigned to the reality. “Come on up to the house with me.”

“No, I better wait here for Mammy to come home,” Jane is afraid to leave the house and go up with Maggie, her mother would be annoyed if she locked up the house in the middle of the day to go up to Maggie.

“Alright so, I’ll sit down for a while and wait to see your mother.”

They chat about lots of things except what has just happened until her mother comes home. Jane is grateful. Later she will try to process it by herself and rid herself of that horrible sensation of attempted wet, slobbery, revolting kisses.

Later her mother asked Jane curiously, “What brought Maggie down in the middle of the day”?

“I don’t know, I think she was just checking on the cows and called in, she must have thought you were here.”

Jane can’t think of any way she can tell her mother about what has happened. Her mother thinks that man is great fun and a good neighbour. And it continues, until she leaves home, living in terror of him, hiding behind ditches on the road if she hears his car and watching, watching all the time.

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Sunday Morning – Emma Venables

Katja rubs a finger across her lips, testing the fastness of her lipstick. She tucks her hair behind her ears and listens for the knock on the front door. The rap of knuckles on wood usually comes at exactly this time of morning, but when it does not come, she busies herself: straightening the knife and fork on the table, wiping the plate and cup she has set out, brushing the creases out of the newspaper she has placed next to the cup. She shrugs. Christian will arrive soon enough, folding the newspaper at right angles as usual, so there is no point fretting over the creases now. She stops, tilts her head towards the door. Nothing.

Just days before, Katja and Christian were discussing apartments with more intensity than usual. In the West, of course. A balcony, hopefully. Bullet holes in the façade will not bother them too much, but they definitely want a view of a park, or at the very least trees, from their living room window. Christian wants to keep his keys on a brown leather fob for which he will hammer a nail into the wall. Katja will keep hers in the zipped compartment of her handbag at all times, so she does not become one of those women who has to loiter in the hallway of her apartment building until the caretaker or her husband comes to her rescue. She wants fresh flowers on windowsills; he wants hardwood floors that shine when the sunlight hits in the early afternoon. She wants advanced Western appliances on her countertops; he wants to unbox his grandmother’s crockery, which miraculously survived the wartime bombing raids, unlike his grandmother, and fill the cupboards.

Katja opens the window, leans out, and surveys the street below. Left to right. Right to left. Children running in circles, skipping ropes and footballs. A dog cocking its leg against a lamppost. The elderly gentleman from the apartment building across the street props up his equally elderly wife as they take their early morning stroll. Katja waves at them, but they do not see her. The woman dabs a handkerchief to her eyes. The man pats her arm. Katja frowns at the unusualness of the woman’s tears: the elderly couple often exchange pleasantries with everyone they pass. Sometimes Christian crosses paths with them and they stop for a minute, ask him if he enjoys the warmer weather as much as they do.

Katja leans back, allowing her arms to hang out of the window. She closes her eye and listens to the buzz of television sets and wirelesses from the apartments above and below. Her mother likes her Sunday mornings in silence and refuses to have the radio on before ten o’clock; although her mother has gone out to visit her friend today, Katja upholds the silence, enjoys it, knows she will implement this rule in her own apartment, with her own children. They do not own a television set; her mother does not trust them. If we can see them, surely they can see us, she says. When Christian first heard this he had laughed so hard that coffee had spurted from his mouth. Television’s the future, he had said when Katja had mopped up the liquid from the table and he had wiped his face. Katja had shrugged; she was not sure if she would allow a television set in their apartment but did not want to cause a fuss by mentioning it.

Katja looks up at the clock, and sighs. Nine. Christian usually arrives at half past eight on the dot. Perhaps he woke up late or stopped by a friend’s house on the way. Perhaps his mother needed him to run an errand, to repair a shelf or a cupboard door, or his father wanted him to poke his head under the car bonnet and diagnose the trouble with his limited knowledge of mechanics, but such occurrences have never stopped him before. He likes punctuality, jots notes on the calendar so he never misses a trick, hands her Christmas presents a week early, knows coffee will be brewing and never likes the thought of precious grounds going to waste.

Katja walks over to the kitchen counter, opens the cupboard and selects a cup, and then pours herself a coffee. She will make another pot when Christian arrives. She sits down, pushes the empty plate out of the way, and pulls the newspaper towards her. She taps her finger twice on the advertisement she has circled in pencil, of course, because she always writes in pencil. Every Sunday, she lays the newspaper out before him, taps her finger on the advertisements she wants him to look at, and potters around her mother’s kitchen. Sometimes she turns, looks at him: the half-smoked cigarette hanging out of the right-hand corner of his mouth, the sunglasses he never seems to take off, how he sits like he will have to jump up and into some form of action at a moment’s notice. He has a habit of tapping out popular tunes on her mother’s dining table, and sometimes she turns it into a guessing game. Wild guesses. Singers’ names she has made up on the spot. He often stops and frowns, lying his palm flat on the well-polished surface, and she often watches the muscles in his hands clench, poised to tap more, watches his jaw set as if his entire body is behind his efforts to stop his absent-minded habit.

Katja stands up again, cup in hand, and returns to the window. A child cries over his punctured bicycle tyre. A dog barks. She notices two women, about her age, chatting on the corner. One has her fist pressed against her mouth. The other removes her apron, shakes her head, and makes towards the building across the street. Catching the arm of the crying boy on her way, she says something indecipherable in a tone that seems altogether angry and sad. Katja looks at the sky. No clouds. She hopes the weather will perform a repeat feat when she marries Christian in a few weeks’ time, but then her mother often says that rain on a wedding day does not necessarily equate to bad luck.

Katja sips her coffee, eyes still on the street below. When Christian arrives, she will suggest they go for a walk after they have eaten. She will save the newspaper, the advertisement with the double circle, until the shade of the trees. A Western apartment. Two bedrooms. A balcony. Third floor. Elevator for tired legs of an evening, and for unsure feet on Friday nights. She has a good feeling about this one. The other evening she walked along the street, and looked up at the unlit apartment. Perfect. It was quiet, so she stepped back into the middle of the road, to put the apartment into perspective. Not too far into the West. Christian would still be able to get to his parents in the East of the city, to tend to their odd-jobs, and she would still be able to visit her mother. Just around the corner from Christian’s office, and a short walk from the school where she teaches English. Near a U-bahn station, too.

A man runs up the street. Katja watches as he gets closer, watches as his features become discernible. It is not Christian. She rests her cup on the windowsill and crosses her arms. She looks left to right with that half-hearted hope one gets when waiting for something or someone to appear. She taps her fingertips on the windowpane. Perhaps Christian has been injured? Could he have been knocked over by a car, an overzealous cyclist? She smiles at the thought of Christian’s reaction upon hearing these frets. He will scold, kiss her forehead, sit down and tap out a few bars of some popular tune on the table. He will reassure her that he looks both ways before crossing the road, every time, and is agile enough to dodge bicycles at a moment’s notice. She will laugh and place her hands over his. You have stressed me out enough without that racket, she will say.

Her stomach rumbles. She considers cooking breakfast, eating alone. She could keep Christian’s food warm in the oven until he arrives, but by then the eggs might taste like rubber and the sausages might be burnt. She decides to cut herself a slice of bread. She picks up her cup, turns from the window, walks over to the kitchen. She places her cup on the side and opens the cupboard where her mother keeps the bread.

As Katja places the bread on the countertop, the front door opens. Christian does not have a key, but she wonders if he crossed paths with her mother on his way here. You’re running late, Christian, she imagines her mother saying. Not like you. Here, take my key. Let yourself in. Apologise profusely. Christian would have squeezed the key in his palm, kissed her mother’s blushing cheek, and briskly walked on. Her mother would have shaken her head and continued on her way to her friend’s house.

Katja closes the cupboard door, turns and folds her arms. The shriek of feet on linoleum makes her smile; she knows Christian will be wiping sweat from his face when she finally sets eyes on him. She awaits fragments of sentences: car wouldn’t start; dad stressing himself out; cupboard door’s hinges bust; mum faffing; dropped screws; bicycle nearly knocked me over; your mother scolding me; dropped key narrowly missed drain; here now; hello and sorry. But it is her mother who appears in the doorway, breath laboured and cheeks flushed.

‘Katja,’ she says. ‘There’s barbed wire everywhere.’

Katja frowns as her mother comes towards her. She observes the tremor in her mother’s hand and wonders if she has had a fall or been struck by an object on her wanderings. Katja tilts her head, briefly examines her mother’s face for signs of blood or bruising, but her mother’s skin appears unblemished.

‘What do you mean? Barbed wire everywhere?’

‘Katja, they’re building a wall. Christian won’t be able to get here.’

Katja watches her mother retrieve a handkerchief from the pocket of her dress, wipe her eyes, scrunch the cotton between her fists.

‘But he only lives fifteen minutes away. What do you mean he won’t be able to get here?’ Katja asks.

Her mother raises her hands in frustration before moving to the opposite corner of the room. She turns the dial on the wireless, wipes her eyes again, and looks at Katja. Katja moves closer, listens to the words the newsreader says. Border closed. Barbed wire. Divided city.

Katja shakes her head, reaches for the newspaper on the dining table. She traces her index finger around the apartment advertisement. The ink smudges. Her pencilled circle fades. She stops, presses her finger against the newspaper until her skin turns white. Her mother grabs her hand.

Emma Venables’ short fiction has recently featured in Mslexia, The Nottingham Review and The Copperfield Review . Her first novel, The Duties of Women, will be published by Stirling Publishing in 2020. She can be found on Twitter: @EmmaMVenables.

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