Coffin Shortlist – Kinneson Lalor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image via Pixabay

Tuesday Afternoon Is Almost Never Ending – Ron. Lavalette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image via Pixabay

Maurice Decided Something – Kik Lodge

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

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

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

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

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

In fact, she’d just sent him out.

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

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

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

Could be a paperclip.

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

Maybe his wife was a weight.

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

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

But instead the pigeon spoke.

“Retirement hurt?” it said.

Maurice blinked.

“Got a hobby?” it said.

The pigeon blinked.

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

The creature was just beside his boot, tilting its head

“Well find one,” it said.

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

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

Image via Pixabay

Heading To Maine – Tom Walsh

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

“Maine.”

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

“Enough!” you snap.

They stop asking when they realize you have no plan.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

“Your boy’s a thief.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All night, you toss and turn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

“We made it, dad!”

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

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

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

He shakes your hand, sits down beside you.

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

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

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

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

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Mr Andersen Will See You Now – Simon Shergold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image via Pixabay

Red Tie Car Men Equalling Nothing But Cars – Jim Meirose

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

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

We must each be nothing particular but pure salesman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brothers in Flamingtown Motors salesforce!

We are the friendless of this earth.

Every man’s hand is against us.

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

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

His father was fired for lack of great monthly numbers.

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

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

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

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

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

What did that sign mean, my sales force children?

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

So!

Let the neophytes and their teachers draw near.

Where are the hot as shit quicktalking negotiators?

Give them their clipboards sharp pencils wide desks and phones.

Give them their new model literature spec sheets and floormobiles.

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

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

Stick on your spectacles! Rise and sell!

Sell, lest you be sold yourselves!

Sell for the love of selling!

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

Sell!

Sell!

Sell!

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

Sell, sell; yah sell sell right now!

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

Approach them slow. With a classic bright smile.

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

So.

Breathe deep, eyes closed.

Sell!

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

So. Thi’ ‘s it.

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

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

http://www.jimmeirose.com

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Real Damage – Amanda Saint

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

He didn’t used to be like this.

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded without looking up.

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

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

Image via Pixabay

Dog Story – David Crook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now I’m 45 years old.

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

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

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

“She had him killed,” I said.

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

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

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

“That wouldn’t work.” She said.

“Why not?!”

“Because he wouldn’t settle.”

The woman in the blue raincoat looked worried.

“Are you OK?” She said.

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

Image via Pixabay

Blindness – Lorette C Luzajic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image via Pixabay

The Long Shadow Of The Coal Tip – Michael Bloor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘No, I didn’t.’

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

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

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

Image via Pixabay

A Helluva Long Time – L M Moore

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

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

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

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

“You seem a little off lately.”

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

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

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

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

“Misty.”

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Be right back,” I whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re free.”

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

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

Image via Pixabay

Box – Robert Stone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image via Pixabay

The Repairman – Kiera Zager

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

“No. My AC works just fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image via Pixabay

Biscuits With Malbec – Mike Lee

I must undarken the room.

Irina opened the curtains.

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

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

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

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

The door to the invisible must be visible.

Yes, baby. What?

I’m quoting the book I am reading.

Oh. That novel. You’re obsessed.

She looked up from the pages.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Splash in the coffee, baby. Irina said.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Where it was that I lost my confidence.

That. Again?

Her brow furrowed.

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

She steered the conversation elsewhere.

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

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

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

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

Antonio blinked, and breathed deeply.

I just love these buttermilk biscuits.

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

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

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

Image via Pixabay

The Inside Story – Steve Carr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

She rested her elbow on the aquarium again.

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

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

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

She sprinkled more food into the aquarium.

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mayor and his wife groaned in unison.

* * *

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

I flipped open my note pad.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

Image via Pixabay

The Break-Up – Tilly Foulkes

Like all great love stories, it started in the pub. Jonathan snaked his arm around me in a quiet corner and I stared at him like I’d die if I stopped. He told me he loved me on the bridge and he was drunk, then he told me he loved me in the form of a song, and then he really told me he loved me as he was getting dressed and going home.

Jonathan and I were always covered in bruises; my neck would sting to the touch from his midnight chewing. Little pink kisses stained all over our skin, all over his face the smugness of someone who is loved. He would tell people: it’s her! That’s my girlfriend! He’d kiss me until the bell rang and the bouncer told us it was time to go home.

My friends told me about their boyfriends, how they cheat and scorn and batter, and I comforted them, safe in my belief that I had found a love to last forever – and he was nice, too.

* * *

The first time, the house shook slowly at the absence of a kiss. The photo frames rattled and a picture of us landed on the floor, the glass chipped. I looked at you for a little while, and you shrugged, picked it up and put it back on the wall. Every time I walked past it, I stared at the crack. Once, I reached out and rubbed my fingertip along it. I wanted to see if I would bleed.

Sometimes it was more subtle: I was alone and all of my walls turned blank. I lost time. After four hours I heard a beep on my phone and your name, and I didn’t know what had happened. Used tissues surrounded me. My skin was pink. I had a headache and I talked to you and cried.

In your house the cat acted up, or the food burned, or the cans of cider were emptied and I was sick everywhere. You wouldn’t talk to me and you were always doing the dishes or putting the washing out. The air often felt hot, like there was something else in it. Sometimes we caught glimpses of a shadow. We ignored it.

* * *

After a year, the house was cluttered and I couldn’t breathe. Jonathan used to make fun of my claustrophobia. How I couldn’t even manage the cellar in the pub without panicking. He went in for me, bringing extra bottles of pink wine with a wink. I sneaked them into my bag and we got drunk by the football pitch.

I thought the space me and Jonathan had built for each other would always be something sacred and soft. I never expected it to close up my chest and twist my stomach. I couldn’t get out. Jonathan would swallow and ask if I wanted drugs or rum or to watch true crime on TV. His eyes would glaze over, the clear blue flickering with grey, and he’d focus on a spot above my head. I wondered if he felt what I did, but if he did, he never said.

Even when we felt the eyes in the ceiling, when the surfaces of our skin started bubbling, we would lie closer to each other and ignore it. Jonathan would tell me he loves me and that he misses me even when I’m with him, and I told him it was because it didn’t feel like I was really there.

* * *

You stopped shaving your face every other day and I stopped shaving all together. I forgot how to put on makeup, how to talk to others, how to write. When I woke up I thought about you and I thought about us, and I thought about the shadows in the corners of my eyes. The black dots hadn’t started showing yet, but I could feel the itch underneath my skin: something was always wrong. I went to the doctor over and over again, and begged them to give me blood tests and antibiotics. They told me it was fine, it was fine! And I should start taking my meds again.

It wasn’t my meds and I knew it wasn’t anything the doctor could fix. It was something inside of me. I’m still not sure if it was inside of you. I haven’t asked, and you would brush it off anyway, tell me you didn’t believe in stuff like that. I always wondered how someone so rational could love me, a person as much obsessed with the fantastic as I was with myself.

In those days I was a mess, Jonathan, I really was. My body was morphing and breaking and it all felt dizzy. I’m sorry for all the crying, and not noticing that you were fading away like a little memory. I stare at you now, this man I love and yet do not know, and I ache. All of me wants it back, but I can’t.

* * *

You start to live in the shadow of this man; this gorgeous, lovely man, who is no more than a spectre himself. You disappeared one day into a little hole and when you returned you said you’d seen it all: you knew it and it was bad and you said it was always going to keep on happening. The bricks were coming undone, the wallpaper peeling, the plates getting smashed over and over again by no one. Our heads hurt by how much we were putting them together to think of a plan and coming up with nothing.

By now we were in ruins. The black spots were covering my arms and they burnt. I spoke to no one but you, and you spoke to me and your father; a man who had hidden his own spots by drinking. I never saw the black spots on you, but I often knew it had taken over when you went vacant. I am sorry, Jonathan; I feel I ruined you by bringing you into this cursed house. You let me into your world of little wonders, and I dragged the grit and the needles and the thorns into it with me. You tell me it was always like this: long hallways of darkness and a sick feeling in your stomach. You tell me you used to be covered in black dots, all over your arms and your thighs, and they went away once you met me. I said you were just being nice. You looked slightly annoyed and upset.

* * *

What changed? I ask myself and the sky and the street cats. I carry my ghost love like a handful of pins.

* * *

“What is that?” You ask me, staring at the small black blob tussling with itself on the ground. “Is that our love?”

When we finally see it – when it finally exists, has flesh – it is smaller and uglier than we think. It is a shadow with meat and thickness, I can touch it. We look at each other and laugh, like we always have done. It is person-shaped, but the size of a small dog, and it moves like it lives without gravity; or maybe a weed blowing in the wind. It doesn’t have a face but if you look long enough you can see the outline of a mouth. I ask you if you still love me.

“I’ll always love you,” you say, holding me close.

“Then it’s not our love,” I say.

After it left my body the black dots stopped coming, but I felt drained and dead and empty and worse.

“I think it’s my loneliness.”

Image via Pixabay

Who Is Playing Me? – Dirk Van Nouhuys

He lived in an apartment near the UN, where he worked as a data analyst and lived with a woman who was an authority on the nutritional value of rice. She often traveled, but he did not. He occasionally borrowed his cousin’s old Toyota in the summer and drove to visit friends and cousins on Long Island or in New England, so driving was half familiar, but, standing in line before the Hertz counter, he began to feel as if he were in a movie. They liked movies, and they often went in the evening to a neighborhood theatre with a mind-swallowing screen and sound more real than real. Then the car itself generated images: a view of the world behind him appeared when he backed; warning images of passing cars flashed on its side-view mirrors.

He had agreed with his partner to meet at a tropical resort half way between New York and a desperate nation she was patiently counseling. The driveway to the resort swept on into what might have been a jungle if it had not been manicured. He parked and walked up to entrance, which was open to the breezes. Two-story stucco Doric columns loomed at once grandiose and unreal, like a movie set. He thought a character in a movie would need to be following a plot to enter this resort. If he were the character, what urgent goal would he be pursuing or fearful outcome avoiding? If it were to meet his partner, what would they conspire to accomplish? What dark figures would thwart them? Seeing his name on the clerk’s screen seemed like some one else’s experience. His partner’s plane was later in the day. A needlessly glamorous young woman gave him a map to guide him to his room in the labyrinthine resort, which was made up of room blocks arranged at random angles like discarded Legos. Mirrors reflected everywhere. He came out onto a curving balustrade a quarter of a mile around that held a vast swimming pool it its mouth with columns like teeth. He began to imagine where the lenses would lurk for this scene. Where the spindly rails that guided the tracking cameras? Might the director even use drones? Did directors use drones yet? When he eventually found his way to his room, putting his cloths in drawers and shelves seemed like setting aside parts of himself for use in future scenes. He went out to a balcony and watched palm trees with snaky trunks shuffling their leaves in the breeze. He felt himself for the moment in South Pacific or even something by Werner Herzog. As he lay on his bed reviewing UN data, he wondered what actor would play his partner, Isabelle Huppert perhaps. He heard her open the door. He stood to meet her. She was smiling enthusiastically and lifted her arms out to embrace him. He looked into her expectant eyes and wondered what actor she was seeing.

Image via Dirk Van Nouhuys

Panic! At The Function Room – Conor Doyle

‘Where?’ The taxi man. I’m in a taxi.

‘Fade Street.’

‘Fade Street. No problem.’ He takes a tight left turn. ‘Fade Street yeah, no bother. Fayy-haade streeeeta.’ He smacks his lips together. ‘After Mr Joseph Francis Fade no less. Banker, but not like the bankers today. Very generous individual, one of the early Irish philanthropists.’ Don’t start the fucking small talk bullshit.

‘You look very nice,’ he flicks his eyes up into the rear view mirror to get a good look at me. ‘Where you off to?’

‘My friends 21st,’ I say, searching beyond the window pane for a distraction. Oran’s 21st. With his whole family. All of whom I know long enough that they’ve each seen me naked, at some or other point over the years. So I can’t do it tonight. It would be inappropriate.

‘That’s exciting. 21st’s yeah. Always a good night I remember.’ Maria by Blondie is playing over the radio and he’s drumming his fingers off-beat on the steering wheel. ‘Mine was weird. I mean it was great, but ehm, one of my best mates Gerry, was on acid?’ He pauses to see if the word acid resonates with me. ‘Was doing all of our heads in to be honest. Talking about how the heroin epidemic was, I dunno, a coordinated effort by the ruling class to subjugate working people. I don’t think he’d ever met anyone who was working class though, so I’m not sure what he meant.’ For a blissful moment Blondie sings uninterrupted.

‘Big party?’

‘Pretty big, yeah.’ Very big, actually. The type in a function room above a pub with someone’s Ma who won’t get off the microphone. Big parties are a problem. They’re not a problem for me, per say, I quite like them. The problem is that I don’t have full control over me. My body, I mean. I mean, I’m not the only one who controls it. I’m afflicted with a very rare and peculiar condition. I have, inside me, a rebel militia.

‘Ah to be young and pretty and going to parties.’

‘Oh haha yes. Thank you.’

The militia, as militia’s do – occasionally attempt a coup. To overthrow me. Me, that is, the fearless leader of Me. They’re a pretty organised force, too. They run rallies and social media campaigns and interfere with my intrabody elections. As such, they sometimes capture pretty important strongholds. My windpipe and heart have each spent lengthy periods under rebel control. And I remember each of them – the coups, the bloody, violent affairs that they are. I can see them all as though plotted out on a graph, as if on an excel spreadsheet of the mind. I remember the date, the place, who was there, why it happened, the weather, smells.

‘What do you do, yourself?’

‘Oh, I’m in college.’

‘Nice. What do you study?’

‘Art.’

‘Oh art! And what would you do, painting?’

‘Yeah painting, drawing.’

‘What would you paint? People? Could you paint me?’ he laughs.

‘Whatever, really. Whatever comes in to my head.’

‘Yeah. That’s good. Just whatever comes in to your head. An artist as well on top of it all!’

The reason for rebellion is sometimes quite predictable. Public speaking, for example – a dead cert for violent disobedience. But it can also seem incredibly random. It once happened when I was asked my name. Momentarily forgetting – I didn’t answer for maybe five seconds. They thought it made me look like a fraud, as though impersonating an Alison. I wasn’t though, I am Alison. Regardless, violence. It once happened when I was in a small downstairs bathroom and the radiator was on. It was hot and there wasn’t a lot of air – granted, but I’m not sure it warranted an insurgency.

‘Did you happen to catch your one on Newstalk there the other day?’

‘No,’ I say, because who the fuck listens to the radio anymore.

‘She was one of these one’s going on about how there needed to be more women in the STEM subjects. Equal amounts of women she wanted. 50/50, like.’

‘Sounds good.’

‘Ah yeah, yeah, no it is. I’m sure it is. Or would be, I suppose. Just sometimes they go a bit far with the PC stuff, don’t you think? 50/50, she said. Now not to sound like a mad tricolour wearing right winger! But, a little bit I think.’

‘No, yeah, I get you.’ I’m not sure if I do.

While the reason may vary, the modus operandi of rebellion is always the same. They establish control of a body part – a throat maybe, or a voice box. Breathing becomes a little onerous. My brain, attempting to crush the hippy anarchists with the proverbial iron fist, pumps me full of adrenaline like, I dunno, some sort of skittish balloon. It’s difficult to speak under these conditions.

I’ll then excuse myself. Eventually, in the sanctity of privacy and without me fucking up in some way that’s to their distaste, the militia loses its dissident zeal. Acquiesces to my governance. Or sometimes I do that, but not tonight.

We pull through the lights at the end of Capel Street and across Grattan Bridge. Lights from the buildings that line the quays writhe on the surface of the Liffey. If I was driving, I’d have gone over O’Connell Bridge and around by College Green, but this way is grand.

‘On your own tonight?’ I meet his eyes in the rear view mirror for the first time. He’s still drumming his fingers, I don’t know the song anymore, though. He’s 35, I’d say, and completely bald.

‘Yeah.’ I’m late, so yeah.

‘Where’s your boyfriend?’ he laughs and tries catch my eye again but I don’t let him. His teeth are yellow, probably from the smoking. The car has that sickly air freshener smell that smacks of masking something.

‘Oh, I don’t have one.’

‘What? No boyfriend. That’s mad. A lone wolf. A lone wolf, untamed.’ He giggles. ‘Is that it yeah, a lone wolf? That’s gas. Hard to believe though all the same.’ We’re at the red lights halfway down Parliament street and it’s buzzing. There’s a group about my age in the front smoking area of Street 66. I love that place. One night me and Oran went, didn’t tell anyone, just went and danced. The whole night. No one can interfere when your dancing. No one can fuck it up, fuck it up by saying things, demanding things of you, asking you questions, questions like, and what will you do with art? Will you teach? Will you be a teacher? Aww god I could see you as a teacher. I don’t have to talk, just dance. Maybe I’ll just dance tonight.

‘Myself and the wife split up recently enough, actually.’ His eyes fill the rear view mirror again. ‘We’d been living in my parents attic. Couldn’t afford to move out. They let us pay cheaper rent y’know? Got tough though living in with the parents. In an attic too. Puts a lot of stress on things.’

‘Oh.’

‘And jesus man women can be cruel. You know, I guess. The little comments man. Little niggling comments y’know? I mean just say the thing, if you’re going to say it. The passive aggressive stuff, do you know what I’m talking about? She’d be like, and this is no word of a lie, but she’d be one way to me up in the attic – a fucking –’ He mouths ‘bitch’. ‘And then, she’ll go downstairs and be another way to me in front of my fucking parents? Perfect choir girl daughter in-law crap. That’s some women bullshit, men don’t do that.’

‘Maybe she was right.’ I mutter.

‘What?’

‘Nothing, sorry.’

‘Ah fuck it. Bringing you down with my fucking dumb shit! Fucking cunt I am for that. They don’t want to hear it Brian, Briiiian they don’t care! You’re doing that thing again that I hate, embarrassing me! That’s how it goes isn’t it?’ He laughs. His fingers, now drumming quite rapidly on the steering wheel, have lost any connection they may previously have had to melody. He’s still in the right hand lane as we pass Street 66. He turns right onto Dame Street, not left. He should have gone left. Left onto Dame street, then right onto Georges Street and then a short journey up to Fade Street.

‘Fade Street, yeah?’ I say.

‘Ah yeah, yeah, yeah. Fade Street. Mr Joseph Francis Fucking Fade Street.’ He floors it and takes an immediate left down the laneway by the side of City Hall. Suddenly, whatever it is, his aftershave or air freshener or whatever the fuck is too much, I feel like I’m going to get sick. He turns left at Leo Burdock’s and down into the back streets of Dublin 8.

‘What way are we going?’

‘Little detour.’ He’s driving fast. I feel my arse get shifted side to side on the leather. The bone chilling baraag of war trumpets echoes up my oesophagus – the presage of a burgeoning guerrilla warfare campaign. My breathing quickens. I grab for my pocket and feel the small bump, which settles me some. I don’t know this route or these streets. It’s like this isn’t my city anymore.

‘Busy tonight?’ I say. Well I dunno? fuck it.

‘No, no. Usual stuff.’

‘That’s good I suppose? If you wanted to chill I guess. Do you?’

‘Do I what?’

‘Like to chill?’

‘Sometimes, I suppose yeah.’

‘Me too. A lot actually. I work part time in an off licence and I’m always chilling. My boss is always ringing me, like ‘Alison I can see you on the cctv if you don’t start doing some work I’ll dock your pay!’ Or like, ‘I don’t pay you to stand around eating free Manhattan Popcorn!’ I laugh. ‘Y’know?’ He nods, I think. ‘It’s quite bad actually, I should work harder. He’s a very honest man.’

‘This’ll be my last of the night, anyway.’

‘PUMP!’ That one was my brain. The threat of domestic terrorism now so undeniable, there’s no logical choice but to release the adrenaline reserves. The skin on my chest feels stretched so tightly over my flesh it might rip.

I put my hand inside my pocket and feel the little wrap. It’s warm. I press on either side with my thumb and index finger, feeling it’s give under my pressure. The package wilts, succumbing to my press and I feel at once powerful. Funny though, these rebellions. It’s a little respite. Getting to focus on simply not dying is a nice distraction.

‘Brave girl heading out on your own aren’t you? Wouldn’t be scared, no?’

I’m not sure I can make words anymore. My autocracy is falling down around me like the last days of Rome. My lungs have surrendered – given over to a lawless free state, but my regimes forces are being pushed back through the windpipe, hence the issue with chit chat. The car is vibrating as we go over back-alley cobblestones of foreign streets but he doesn’t slow. This doesn’t make any sense. None of it makes any sense. Why wouldn’t I? I should. Why not if he’s going to do some weird shit to me? I won’t be going to the party, so why the fuck not? I take it out of my left pocket and my house keys from the other. I untie the little knot at the top of the baggy and place it in the palm of my right hand. I lift a little of the powder out with my key and put it up my nose.

‘What the fuck are you doing in my car?’ he says, but I don’t give a fuck.

‘Watch me if you like, I don’t give a fuck.’ I don’t. Fucking bastard. I feel it catch at the back of my throat for a brief second before it fuses with the blood vessels at the back of my nasal passage. The fighter pilots dispatch into my oesophagus – dropping powdery incendiary bombs over everything. Nothing is spared – foliage, townships, innocent civilians, all engulfed in white hot flames. I’m induced into a feeling that you might call fuzzy or rather warm by the muffled screams of insurgents as they’re wiped out, stronghold by stronghold. They’re terror wraps me in a loving embrace. The queen is back, baby, and she’s bringing law and order.

There’s a serenity to the aftermath of war, you know. They might not tell you in history books, but there is. A calm after the storm. No, maybe not serenity, surrealism. In the delirium of victory, time and space become a little malleable. There’s fervent celebration, too – inside of me. My brain paraded through the streets for bringing peace and prosperity back to our little land. And I’m there. He’s there. I’m in it, the parade. I have my own float and I’m waving at my people. And he’s there, driving the float. The float at once feels small and confined, yet also vast, vacuous. The sides momentarily crushing the outside of my thighs and then I’m draped across the back seat. Lazily draped across leather, fed grapes from the vine. Fed by him. In one second he’s far away, at the end of a tunnel calling my name and in another I’m on his lap. Kissing his mouth as he tries, with great care, to navigate our little float through crowds of adoring citizens. Up close there’s no masking his smell and it’s disgusting. Smoke and disappointment. In one brief second I appear to be dancing, yes – me and Oran are dancing. I can make him out in the crowd, the brass band playing the Bee Gees and we’re dancing and the next I’m stuck. Stuck in mud or quicksand. The float at once appears to be moving and also stopped, though I know it’s moving because I can see the tiny faces of my happy subjects as I pass them by.

‘Fade Street,’ someone says. ‘You’re getting out that side.’ He’s pointing me towards the left hand side of the float.

‘Uh pay, money? What is it?’ I fumble for a wallet I might have.

‘Don’t worry about it.’ He turns, facing me. ‘Mind yourself. Put that shit away before you go in anywhere though, will you?’ I get out and the cold air whips against my cheeks and I can breathe a little.

Twitter: @conor_doyle45

Image via Pixabay

Karma – Anthony Ward

Bernard had heard the local news that brought to attention the tragic events that had befallen the lives of others, often feeling a sense of resentment that it should have been him. Him who was barely able to occupy the same room as himself! Him, whose face he found staring back from the glass, consoled by the consternation of the expression, as if the image didn’t agree with him. Him who could not stomach the appetite of the mirrors that tended to gnaw at his reflection. Such was his reflection that he would ridicule it through self-loathing. Unable to accept it for what it was. Often wondering if it would benefit from some sort of disfigurement. Some kind of characteristic scar that would give it more definition, or at the very least, distract any attention from his undistinguished countenance.

Though this sentiment was not so apparent to others who would refrain from offering any semblance of a compliment through the notion that it would appear surplus to requirement, as although he was not overly handsome, he was not otherwise neither. Though he wasn’t very adept with compliments, taking them as insults, as if they were mocking him, this creating a rather neutral environment for him to gauge what others would see in him, which left him completely indifferent.

Nor was he the most popular of people either. Although he had a few friends, he would often deprive himself of their company so as not to impose himself on them. He actually enjoyed the company of others, but did not feel as if they enjoyed his, to the point where the highlight of his night was the part before he went out, when he was getting himself ready, imagining the night ahead where he would captivate people with his insightful philosophy, hold them to understand things as he understood them, win their adoration, be the man of the moment. Though despite his best intentions his nights out would often bring back home how inferior he felt.

After some considerable time, all this self-degradation took its toll upon Bernard. Often rendering him into feeling down, but also angry, with plenty to say about everyone else. Often blaming himself then blaming others after rationalising his actions in his head. For he was certainly a remarkable man who had an opinion on many things! Though it is one thing to have an opinion and quite another to have an opinion on everything. But in public he had no opinion at all. Rarely was the conversation steered in any direction for him to converge, and when it did, it happened so fast that he would miss the opportunity, so that his mind would wander off in another direction and he would have to drive himself back in order to merge back into it. Though by then his confidence would run so low that he would seize up and had to lubricate himself with more and more fuel in order to surpass those who liked the sound of their own voice. Who liked to hear their self-satisfied conclusions, that made him feel somewhat inferior, with all their personal exaggerations making him feel incompetent and impotent of sexual allure.

Of course, Bernard could not reveal his resentment for himself, since he would be ridiculed and ostracised from their company. Thinking to himself how we often compare our lives in order that we may feel bad for being down, while comparing our situations. How this stifling comparison does not embody the problem at all, but merely scales it into importance, and how we ought not to pass over problems with comparison, but approach them all with compassion.

He didn’t view society as an ongoing thing, he saw it as a set thing. Believing that the way we lived was set in stone. As if that’s the way it was. Rather like a child without any logical course just picking up all the pieces and placing them into order. It never occurred to him that it may merely have been someone’s idea. A good idea at that, but not necessarily the way it had to be. He was often so engaged in his assumptions that he never really questioned the reality being constantly drawn to assume the world he inhabited.

It was at these times, when alone, that Bernard would conjure the spite that had been brewing inside him. The bitterness that often quenched his rage, which would leave him simmering, feeling such compassion for life that he wished it would end, hearing the news report the tragic road accident that would invoke within him such sympathy that he wished it were him.

Such was this sentiment that Bernard’s wish would eventually be granted whether he had actually wanted it to be granted or not- for he couldn’t be sure. The car had careered off the road so suddenly, and without any warning, that it seemed almost intentional, either from the far heights above or the inner depths within, swerving into the barrier while another car collided with the rear, killing instantly those within.

Although Bernard could not be certain of himself, he was certain that he had never wanted to cause anybody else any harm. He had wanted so much for others to embody his soul with sympathy that he now felt himself gradually fading away to nothing.

Days would pass him by without him even knowing where they’d gone, while lying there, not at all sure at first whether he had just woken up or whether he was about to go to sleep. For what had he been doing with himself in that apartment? It seemed like he was doing nothing but decay into whatever was the matter with him. Disintegrating into the darkness. Concealed behind the curtains as if daylight would unearth him and people would see just what a wretchedly ugly person he was. He couldn’t stand the body he was in let alone the frame of mind he inhabited. He was far too tall for his own satisfaction. His physique elongated beyond any masculinity as if it hung off him like clothes that were out of fashion. He was only happy with his face from one particularly un-gratifying angle that he would often punish himself by staring out his reflection for periods at a time with plaintive self loathing, staring at himself through the opaque window at the disfigured carcasses of chrome punctuated upon the road until he became reconciled with remorse.

Bernard had not taken into account these selfish wishes before he had been involved in that car crash. Which he believed was no accident. That event that could have taken others who did not care to share the karma of his fate! And yet they had shared the fate that he had enticed upon himself by no longer wanting to be alive, since it was them that had suffered the consequences of his self pity in wishing he were no longer alive. Thus, his wish, having been granted to him, he was now living everyday in purgatory, feeling as if he were dead.

And as the days amalgamated into weeks, Bernard remained in his tomb, lost in darkness, the light having evaded his senses long ago. His memories travelling through him from such a distance as if they were from a former life, as he meandered through time and space, only being brought back into proximity as he heard a somewhat intrusive thudding resonate through the timbre of his mind, as if someone were knocking upon wood. He lay there hoping it would go away. Then there followed a pause, and he held his breath for a moment, thinking it had passed. Though it continued and continued until eventually a penitent curiosity caused him to open the door, allowing light to pour into the passage, which at first obscured the identity of the figure stood before him. It turned out to be an old friend he had not seen in a while. Not since before the incident. Although he was reluctant to invite him in, he felt compelled to do so, finding it difficult to look at him directly, in that he suspected that he would be able to see right through him.

“Hi Bernard,” said his friend, “I just thought I’d call round and see how you are.”

Bernard looked at him to see if he knew how he was before inviting him in.

“Come in Jason,” he said leading him into the living room and telling him to sit. To which Jason complied while inquiring how he was and how he had been. Bernard sat adjacent, watching him as if he were upon a stage and he was in the audience, before submitting to an overwhelming operatic climax to his torment. Releasing a great torrent of guilt upon his friend that he was sure he would throw down the spade and leave him to rot.

“Was it all my fault?” he asked, not waiting for the answer. “Was it me that caused the accident to happen? By wanting to die? Be careful what you wish for, that’s what they say. I certainly got what I wished for. I’ve been dying ever since. I can’t even remember what it was that initially made me want to die, but I certainly know now,” he said lifting his hands to his face. “But I’m not dead like those others. Those that I killed! They didn’t want to die. But they did die. They’re dead. And it’s all my fault?”

“It’s not your fault Bernard,” Jason reassured him. His compassion and sincerity catching them both by surprise. Bernard had expected him to tell him that it was his fault and that he had got what he deserved. Though Jason went on to explain that he believed we were all defined by our actions, not by our thoughts, and that he didn’t intentionally cause the car to crash. And after all, why would some benign power take the lives of innocent people just to teach him a lesson. Bernard lifted his head, his face alighted slightly after being submerged in darkness for so long.

“You know,” said Bernard, “I did read something the other day about a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii that can infect your brain and affect your behaviour. Even make you suicidal. You can catch it from cat litter trays,” he said motioning towards the cat perched upon the arm of the chair, its eyes looking disdainfully at him. “It increases the dopamine in your brain or something. Can cause psychotic episodes and all that.”

This incensed Jason somewhat, almost making him want to take back his words. But although he did resent him, and did blame him to a certain affect, and although he felt like telling him all this and sentencing him to life, he regarded his own responsibility towards him. That by reinforcing his guilt, he could cause Bernard to suffer further, which in effect may cause further harm to himself and others, while imagining the guilt that would transcend upon him if he were to chastise his friend and cause him further grief, by doing something inane.

Instead, Jason just smiled back at Bernard, like the cat before him, and reassured him that everything would be alright. For after all, he thought to himself, where would it all end?

Image via Pixabay

Soliloquy Of The Ring – S W Campbell

What foolishness has been wrought by the hand of god, none that can be foretold, for this is but an act of man, sprung forth from the heart of darkness conjured by a woman displeased by the favors offered at her door. No luck, no hearty call, can bring back what has been lost once it has been taken back, ripped from thy fingers, the warnings only clear once the movement is made. But though it is taken, it is but a one sided trade, for what thou have given cannot be given back, for though thou do not wish it returned, thou still mourns its loss and feels such actions to be a grievance for which no forgiveness can ever come.

So thou sit in squalor amidst the leaning towers which once marked the citadel of the glorious kingdom of two, slurping down sweet wines and listening to sirens screech of times of tribulation thou find comforting due to the similarities to thou own discomfort. Wretched boy, foolish wreck, watch as thou bring thyself low, wallowing amongst the pigs as another bright day materializes behind the thick protecting layers of draperies left unopened despite the lateness of the day. No rays of hope shall pierce into the darkness. No relief but thy chosen sin. Such madness thou swears has never been, nor will ever come again.

As thou take another swig, thou sees the face of beauty floating amidst the dust motes hanging in the air. It starts as it always begins. Hiking through the trees. Talking of the world. Opening the doors long held closed. But such things slip away with each swallow. Her smile, oh glorious row of pearls. Her hair, dark and lustrous as the world before the dawn. Her laugh, the tinkling of bells. Her voice, sending vibrations down thy spine. Her eyes, seeing thou and no one else. More and more is stripped away, leaving nothing but the basest of instinctual needs. The roundness of breast and hip. Thy calloused hand along the petals of the flower filled with dew. Baited breath in thy ear, urging thou to explore further.

So it is that thou rise up on loose bound knees, and stagger thou way to the room of tile to purge the vileness from thyself. Imagined hands brush along thy feverish brow and down the length of thy lust, dragging thou downward into the den of such vile specters which console with husky whispers which only echo within thy head. Thou wish it to be as it once was, in every detail no matter how minute. Thou strip down, revealing thy true self to the world. Thou open the drawer and bring from its depths the ring. Oh heavenly drug granted to us by the power of animalistic needs. It shall not last, but there are ways of lengthening the time of bliss. Oh glorious exultation, oh sacred ring, give thine gift of a longer stay in the world now gone away.

Foolish knave. The empty bottles stand in regimented rows as testament to thy sins. More than times, less than others, but too many for this darkening day. Oh glorious refuge from pain, the door does not open to thy knocks. No, the world grows unwieldy and begins to spin. Thy head grows dizzy and clouded. All falls aways and thou are left hanging in a land of dreams where none of what has transpired has come to pass. Thou feel a great pain in thine lower mind, but thou ignores it, for here in this moment she has come back to thou once again. Oh beautiful eyes, oh gracious smile, oh soft touch of a welcome hand. How thou has missed it greatly. How thou would do anything to live in such a world again. The pain in thy lower head grows greater. A terrible throb with every beat of thy broken heart. She places her hand upon thine. She leans forward to bring comfort to thy ears. But no. The pain is too great. The terrible throbbing pain.

Thou finds oneself in the room of tile once again, naked upon the porcelain throne, the ring still firmly in its place, cursing thou with vile ache. How long has it been sullen fool? How long did the former contents of the bottle lift thou into the kingdom in the clouds? Too long. Far too long, and now thou finds the tools of thy melancholy trade to be more curse than blessing. Thou stands on loosened knees. The ache is agony making its way to the heart of thou very being. The terrible mistake must be rectified. Thou remove the ring. Thou wrench it from its place. Thy blood thunders in thine ears, surging upward, cavalier in manner, ecstatic to be free. Too much. Thou falls has thou has risen. Thou catches thine head on the counter there beside thine porcelain throne. Fall great fool. Fall into complete and utter darkness.

There thou lays, twisted form in mockery of what thou had once been. Look down upon thyself, splayed across the tile, crowned by spreading crimson. In thy hand lies the ring, tool for neither good nor evil, but source of great merriment for those who find thee. Such is the twisted revelry of darkness, of this thing we call tragedy.

S.W. Campbell was born in Eastern Oregon. He currently resides in Portland where he works as an economist and lives with a house plant named Morton. He has had numerous short stories published in various literary reviews in three countries. If you’d like to read more of his writing, check out his website: http://www.shawnwcampbell.com.

Image via Pixabay

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