Vessels – Arielle McManus

She stood in the shower. She’d been in there too long and the water was getting cold. Still, she didn’t move. He was working on her, trying too hard to be sexy. Moaning, groaning, writhing. Slick soap-sudsed hands moving so quickly she could barely register their trajectory. Her body was a map, and he was certainly no cartographer. Nonetheless, she did have to admit that she admired his confidence and tenacity. Diving into valleys, hiking over mountains; he had no regard for what might be around the corner. He carried on, oblivious to any reality in which there were consequences or responsibilities.

She turned her face up to the water coming from the showerhead, noticing the grout between the tiles turning pink with neglect. Hadn’t she just cleaned? Hadn’t she just paid rent? Hadn’t she just gone grocery shopping? Why was time passing without her having any recollection of how she’d filled it all?

The bathroom tile was pink, which she’d thought was charming when she first moved in. Four years later, it just looked sickly; less reminiscent of the sweet stickiness of bubblegum and more like the inflammation that accompanies an eye infection. It was grotesque, really.

They’re arguing. He’s saying it’s fine to be friends with Republicans; she’s imagining a person holding up a sign with a photo of what could have been compared to what is. She continues to bicker while he turns wordless. He inserts two fingers and she accepts them with indifference. A hairline fracture in the tile runs from eye level upwards, disappearing into the conjunction between wall and ceiling.

Men think things like this are hot because they’re taught that makeup sex is hot. Really, makeup sex isn’t all that hot; isn’t hot at all, actually, the more she thinks about it. She looks down at herself, seeing the fingers moving in and out, barely registering the feeling of it all. She looks back up at him, his eyes glazed over, the corners of his lips turned up in a smile that feels as if its aim is to mock her. Suddenly he seems even more grotesque that the molded grout and eye-infection-walls.

Get out.

What? he asks, fingers halfway in.

Get the fuck out. She’s livid, spitting in anger.

His face falls, which only angers her more. How dare he have the nerve to look confused. Get the fuck out! Get out of my house! She storms out of the shower to lock herself in her bedroom, but halfway between the two rooms, standing next to the oven, she realizes she’s sopping wet and doesn’t have a towel. She walks into the bedroom anyway, resigning herself to stay in there until she hears the sound of the front door closing. It takes a few minutes, but finally he does, and only then does she step out of the bedroom and lock the front door behind him.

She walks into the bathroom with a small bottle of bleach and a coarse-bristled brush. She starts to scrub at the tile, bleach getting under her fingernails, burning the hairs inside of her nose. The brush against the wall makes a grating sound, nails on a chalkboard, but the immediate gratification of the gleaming tiles makes it worth it. Bleach runs down her gloveless arms making her wonder if she could get even more fair-skinned than she already is. Any fairer and she might disappear into the white walls of the living room altogether.

She finishes with the bathroom, but she doesn’t feel done. No, she’s only getting started. Standing under the skylight in the living room, she takes survey of her 120 square foot kingdom. She starts with the couch – a sickly chartreuse in color, the pile of the faux-velvet on the back worn down to the toile by the cat, one of the cushions stained by a splash of cheap beaujolais – grabbing it by the right arm and dragging it down the steps and out the front door to the curb. She next lifted up the coffee table, a narrow, white rectangle made of cheap cork board that weighed almost nothing, and dragged that out too. The rocking chair in the corner – the broken one – followed. She took the paintings off the walls and sat them on the floor. They were both of her own making, both of the same design only in different color schemes. She was not much of a painter, and she often considered throwing them out, previously unable to let go of something that came of her own hands. She made them. Still she propped them up against the coffee table on the cracked cement outside. She walked over to the bookcase, gingerly taking the books out and taking them downstairs in piles of eight or ten. There was one book she considered keeping, the one about the color blue, but that, too, she let go of. Blue was a sad color, anyhow. The bookcase resumed its spot next to the couch, coffee table, and rocking chair: a living room for the outdoors. It was quite queer looking to see living room furniture sitting on the concrete like that, perfectly arranged as they had been indoors. It was almost enough to make her second-guess herself. Let them be taken by the garbage men, or the less fortunate, she willed.

Back upstairs, there was nothing left of the life she lived, no hint of the kind of person that lived there. The walls were a drab off-white, the color of rain clouds, or the haze of fog, or three-day-old snow. She grabbed her wallet and left for the store two short blocks and then two long blocks over. It was July, and July in Brooklyn was miserable. She was drenched in a layer of sweat in no time, could feel it sliding down the back of her neck, though all she was wearing were denim cutoffs with a one inch inseam along with a white ribbed tank top. At the store, she bought the following: one gallon of paint – which she figured would suffice, as the square footage of her apartment really wasn’t all that impressive – a paint roller, and a paint tray. One thing about her: she was never the type to use a plastic bag. She carried the roller and tray in her right hand, and the gallon of paint in her left hand, the stronger one.

Back at the apartment, she didn’t bother to lay a tarp down or to tape the crown molding or the spaces around the electrical outlets. She mixed the can of paint with a chopstick left over from a dinner ordered in long ago, poured it into the tray, admiring how it looked like custard, thick and sweet and creamy. She fought the overwhelming urge to spoon a bit of it into her mouth and she started rolling. She stood atop a small stool to reach the higher parts of the walls, and crouched like a feral cat, hurting her lower back, to get the spaces by the floors. She noted that it took much longer than she’d expected, shocked to find that four hours had passed in the time between when she’d started and the time it was now. The sun outside the one window in the room hung low in the sky, threatening to give out on her. She stepped back into the doorway between the living room and the kitchen to admire her work. On the left wall she had gone a little outside of the lines, getting some paint on the ceiling. On the back wall, there was an uneven patch, which she stepped forward to cover up. Near the right wall, on the floor, were some drips of paint from when she’d stopped being so careful about the process. What was the point in being precious about anything anymore?

The walls shown like the rising sun in the waning days of summer, an attempt to encapsulate a moment, or a feeling, in the hopes of using it as a balm. Just then, her intercom rang. On the screen, she could see him standing there with a bouquet of flowers: red roses from the bodega on the corner. She could tell based on the price sticker on the cellophane. Red roses struck her as tacky, and it dawned on her then that they were two completely different people who had nearly nothing in common. Struggling to remember even a single conversation that they’d had over the last two months, she stood there, watching him talk. The intercom had no sound, but she could see his lips moving. He was speaking so quickly, his mouth moving in so many different shapes. He looked ridiculous, she thought. Pathetic. She tried to keep up, thinking at one point she maybe saw him mouth the words “I’m sorry”, but just as he was no cartographer, she was no lip-reader. Shame, she thought, as she turned the intercom screen off.

Arielle McManus is a writer, learning as she goes and crafting one liners from a tiny, sunlit room in Brooklyn. Her writing has been published by a variety of literary publications including Passages North and Entropy Magazine. She is an assistant editor at Atlas & Alice. More of her work can be found on her site at ariellemcmanus.com

Image via Pixabay

Calorie Count – Steve Campbell

Jake passes the three mile marker of his morning run and, as he does so, the calories he’s burnt are automatically added to the weekly total collected by his fitness app. He’s relieved to have made it halfway through. It’s his second of five runs that his app has set for this week. It strongly suggested (with hourly prompts) that he should complete an additional run every evening, even offering him double credits as an incentive.

Jake plods on, one foot after the other, increasing his totals and steadily eating into the distance, despite the painkillers he’d taken earlier doing nothing for the dull ache that pounds his lower back with each stride. Ahead of him, his route is projected onto the treadmill’s heads-up display, revealing that the mass of runners he’d started with have thinned to a stream of bobbing heads that stretch off into the distance.

“Message Brad,” Jake calls out. The treadmill screens updates to display the messaging app in the bottom-right of the screen, and beeps. “Are you ready to go, Buddy? Send Message,” Jake adds.”

Brad needed to leave for school in the next few minutes or he’d miss the bus.

A moment later, a beep rings out and Brad has replied with a ‘thumbs up’ emoji.

On the trackside, a virtual marshal shouts encouragement as Jake passes by. “Come on. Dig deep. Every mile counts. You’re doing great.” The level of enthusiasm is enough to make Jake want to punch him.

Maybe it would burn a few extra calories?

Distracted by the marshall, Jake’s stride falters and his foot clips the edge of the treadmill, sending him stumbling forward. His arms flail wildly as he fights to regain his balance and somehow, despite over stretching, he manages to keep himself upright and grabs hold of the treadmill frame for support. When his foot hits the treadmill belt on his next stride, a sharp pain slices through his left knee. Shit. He reaches down for the joint and rubs it, doing what he can to ease the pain as he continues to run.

He doesn’t stop running.

Jake’s neighbour, Lance, had introduced him to the running app a year ago. (No doubt making some credits from the referral in the process.) Like Lance, Jake opted for the ‘deluxe’ option which meant he received the latest home treadmill and a weekly supply of health supplements when signing up. In return, all he needed to do was view a handful of short advert pop-ups as he ran. It was a no-brainer to gain access to the latest fitness tech.

Things changed two months ago when the app surpassed two billion users and shareholders began pushing for a return on their investments

The original Terms and Conditions, which Jake had never read, even though he’d clicked to confirm he had, were updated. Now, runners were required to purchase their supplements instead of receiving them for free, and the cost of the equipment needed to be recouped. The currency to pay for these items was miles, or more specifically, the energy runners generated in covering those miles.

Treadmills stopped being powered by the national grid, and began to feed it.

It’s a freemium product, Lance explained to Jake, as if he were spelling it out to a child. “It’s a standard business model.” Lance rolled his eyes. “You do know that if you’re not paying for a product, then you are the product, don’t you?”

Jake winced. The pain in his knee was getting worse. He eased his pace. It would be better to jog the rest of course and clock up the miles, rather than trying to finish quickly and risk damaging his knee any further or not finishing at all.

A flash of fluorescent yellow shoots past him.

“Keep up, slow poke,” Lance calls out.

Lance is kitted out in the latest hi-tech running gear; tight, light-weight clothing and branded trainers. They set off together this morning, which meant Lance was now a lap ahead. Jake scowls after him as he barges off through the field at a ridiculous pace.

Jake’s heads-up display alerts him of an in-coming call from Brad.

“I’m leaving now, Dad. See you later.” There’s a pause before he adds, “do you think we could get some Pepsi this week?”

An advert starts to play across the bottom of Jake’s display; a family lounging on a beach, glugging from ice-cold bottles of Pepsi. None of them are running. The cost of each bottle is listed next to the logo.

“Err, I’m not…”

“Greg’s dad gives him a can with his lunch every day.”

Jake waits for the advert to finish before swiping it away. The credits he’s earned are added to his account with a chime. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thanks, Dad. Maybe I could get me a treadmill? I could buy my own Pepsi. And there’s this new game—”

“I don’t want you worrying about treadmills,” Jake cuts in. “I’ll take care of the Pepsi. Okay?” Jake sighs and then adds, “listen, you have a good day at school and I’ll see you when you get back.”

Jake ends the call and swipes through the heads-up display to his calendar. He confirms his attendance at a week of evening runs and his online basket chimes with pending credits.

He takes a deep breath. The pain in his back throbs, and his knee joint grinds, but with each stride, his fitness app counter flicks forward, increasing its totals. Ahead of him, among the crowd of other runners, Lance’s yellow vest becomes something to aim for.

Steve Campbell’s work can be found in places such as Spelk, Fictive Dream, MoonPark Review, Molotov Cocktail, The Cabinet of Heed and Flashback Fiction. You can follow him via twitter @standondog and his website, standondog.com.

Image via Pixabay

Another Early Morning – B F Jones

It’s another early morning, 5.06. She walks down the stairs quietly, a slender silhouette in the pale blue of the early hours.

She flicks the switch on and the kitchen is bathed in orange light. She puts the kettle on, opens the cupboard on the right of the window and gets the big mug out. That’s the one she always uses. Similar gestures, day-in day out. Only the time varies. It depends on how little she sleeps. She’s been up early a lot lately. So many mornings in a row, creeping down the stairs, sometimes stopping midway to look outside the window. The view from that window is good, so few houses have windows halfway through their staircases. And then it’s the invariable routine; tea bag in, stir, tea bag out, sip whilst daydreaming, standing at the sink. And then she has eggs. Two fried eggs. Could this be bad for her? Eating fried eggs everyday isn’t healthy, she should stop it. Porridge is a better option.

She sits at the kitchen table and eats whilst going through the previous morning sketches. Hundreds and hundreds of sleepless mornings. Thousands and thousands of sketches. Then she reworks some, her head resting on her left hand, her body slightly curved, her face too close to the paper she draws on. Every so often she lifts the sheet of paper up, extends her arm away from her face, looks at it for a minute and puts it back down on the table. Occasionally, she crumples the paper and throws it on the kitchen floor. She has bad days. Everybody has bad days, days when nothing seems to work. One day she forgot about the eggs and the pan had caught on fire. This had been scary she could have really injured herself, or even die. She had grabbed the pan and hurled it in the sink, lifting her arms to protect her face from the splatter of burning oil and water. This is when he had come down, probably woken up by the smoke alarm he’d found her trying to turn off, standing up on a chair, her body stretched to the maximum in an attempt to reach the alarm’s reset button. He had pressed the button for her then hugged her tight, kissing the top of her head, his nose buried in the mane of untamed hair and had gone back upstairs, leaving her alone, still standing on her chair, still holding the tea towel she had used to get hold of the pan.

He’s never up early. He comes down at 7, invariably, makes a cup of coffee that he takes back upstairs with him. At weekends he sleeps late in the mornings, sometimes doesn’t make an appearance until midday. Then he turns up, his body stiff from so much sleep, his walk almost robotic, and sits, sipping at his coffee while she toasts some bread, puts the bacon in the oven. She’s too good to him. She deserves better. Someone to cherish her, be there for her all the time. Someone that never tires of her sight, someone that knows her inside out.

He always works so late, not getting home until 10 or 11. Sometimes, if he’s home early, they sit at the kitchen table and drink some beer and she shows him her drawings. She sticks them to the fridge with a magnet and comes behind him to explain what she’s been doing, she leans against him, her breast pressed against his back, her chin almost resting on his shoulder and her right hand pointing and gesticulating towards the drawing as she talks. And he nods, and nods. They don’t bother tidying on those nights, they just turn the lights off and walk up the stairs slowly, their bodies leaden by the late night and alcohol. She cleans the next day, tosses the empty cans in the recycling bin, wipes the table clean of pistachio shells and then she makes her tea, her eggs and goes back to her drawings.

They had a row the other day. One of those rows that makes you pace up and down whilst trying to make a point, one of those fights that make you gesticulate with frustration, arms flailing, hands gesturing, and tension, tension, emanating from every inch of your body. At one stage she had slammed the kitchen door behind her, using her whole upper body to draw it towards her with as much violence as possible. Then she had sat on a chair, her body so still suddenly. She had stayed there a long time, her arms around her knees, looking straight ahead until the darkness had surrounded her. He had reappeared later, held her tight in his arms, his lips on her head and they’d forgiven each other there and then on the kitchen table, forgetting to shut the blinds, oblivious of the world outside their window.

Another early morning, 5.32. She drinks her tea looking outside the window. She hasn’t had eggs in a couple of weeks. She makes toast instead, and eats big spoonfuls of blueberry jam straight from the jar while she waits by the toaster. Blueberry jam. She brought back two large pots the other day, they live on the windowsill, by the coffee pot and the cookie jar. This sudden change in her habits is unlike her.

She’s pregnant.

The sudden realisation makes him step away from the window. Short of breath, he staggers backwards and slumps into a chair. At the window the telescope flops down, now pointing towards the mint in his herb garden, magnifying the bright green leaves, some of them chewed up by parasites, some of them just the frame of a leaf with nothing inside.

Image via Pixabay

Red And Blue Plastic Balls – Tom Kelly

I noticed them gathering at the bottom of our lane, trundling back and forward, looking lonely somehow. That was it. Nothing more.

I was busy, chasing my tail or whatever I was doing, time passed as it does. Time always seems so certain. It knows where it’s going and heads off to the nearest pit-stop to clock in. Weeks and months pass, sometimes in a blur, quickly anyway.

I did not know he was sitting, well most of the time lying, in his bedroom with the window open, listening to the dog barking at anyone passing its gate, cars changing gear up the hill and all the other noises he knew intimately. There was no clock in his room and he had stopped wearing a watch. He did not see any point in knowing anything about time.

It was the hottest summer in years and everyone complained and trains were derailed, lines were buckled or whatever happened to them. Warmth glided through his open window and the sounds in the street changed. Children played and fought in their backyards and still he lay in bed. It was weeks before he had the idea. He was becoming weaker. He asked for a mirror. He saw himself and was shocked.

I was full of hell; somebody had pulled off my cars’ wing mirror, left it broken-necked. I had a rant, without saying a word about mindless people, stopping short of the death penalty, although stoning seemed a possibility.

My headache was worse, far worse. It was too hot. Most things were wrong, the television was playing vindictive games wanting me to watch programmes I had no interest in. Someone had read the evening paper before me. Everyone was more popular. Everything was a disaster. And those bloody red and blue plastic balls. I picked one up and squeezed it and did not lose any stress or pain. I was just mauling a plastic ball. That was it.

‘Time is what you measure life with’, I have said dozens of times without knowing how important it was to him. His mother went along with all his requests, not that he had many: A particular brand of lemonade, a magazine. His friends visited but he wasn’t interested in talking to them. He was drifting away.

That’s how the doctor had described it, as if her son and his death were somehow very natural, like leaves abandoning trees, floating away on a sudden breeze. He was only fourteen. Death is always sad but this was a tragedy.

The red and blue plastic balls were something else, his mother had bought them in bulk. An untidy plastic bag flopped in the corner of his room. Each morning he had his mother open the bedroom window as wide as possible so he could launch the balls onto the black slate roof, have them wing it down the back lane. They ran after each other, he imagined, like children running down a hill.

The boy and mother lived further up the bank, I did not know everyone in the street and I was really busy. My life was hurtling by. I did not know the boy with cancer who had lost all his hair and was so gaunt. He did not have the strength to move from his bed, yet he knew time was passing him by and desperately wanted to record it with all the million other things him and his mother could have told me.

I began to collect the plastic balls. Like trophies. They see-sawed across the back of my car seat and soon were happily marooned as the boy began to drift away until one day, while his mother sat by him on the bed, his fragile body stopped as if a run-down battery.

His mother threw another set of balls that made their way down the roof, spreading their wings for her son. She sobbed on his pillow and was relieved: his pain was at an end.

I knew nothing of this. It was months later when I met his mother. She told me the boy’s story, his love of the plastic balls and long slow death, quiet bravery, and belief the plastic balls meant something. And they did. They do.

Tom Kelly’s ninth poetry collection This Small Patch has recently been published and re-printed by Red Squirrel Press who also published and re-printed his short story collection Behind the Wall. His stories have appeared in a number of UK magazines and on Radio Four https://www.redsquirrelpress.com/product-page/behind-the-wall-other-stories-tom-kelly http://www.tomkelly.org.uk

Image via Pixabay

Waiting For Mr Godot And The Americans – Cath Barton

Mr Godot was the first to arrive, but he was too early and no-one answered the door, so he assumed he’d got the wrong day. Vladimir and Estragon probably passed him on the driveway, but either they didn’t recognise him, or were looking the other way. They sat in a corner together for the whole evening, bemoaning the state of the world and juggling their turnip and carrot. Mrs Ramsay was rather cross with them, said they could have been a bit more sociable, or at least contributed their vegetables to the boeuf en daube.

‘It is a French recipe,’ she said, ‘of my grandmother’s. You’re French, aren’t you?’

But there was no talking to them.

Mrs Ramsay was relieved when Emma Bovary arrived. She at least would appreciate her efforts, knew the power of food, had thrown a wonderful banquet for her recent wedding.

‘That was a day to remember, ma chère’ she cried, embracing Emma like an old friend, though they were mere acquaintances. She lifted her hand to the younger woman’s cheek. ‘You are cold. Fear not, we are starting with oysters, they will perk you up and Mr Porter will give us a song. It’s very funny, trust me. From a musical about your compatriots. It will put everyone in a good mood and–’

She stopped. Emma was not listening. She was looking round for her husband.

‘He must have been called to a patient,’ she said. Mrs Ramsay, who was nothing if not an attentive hostess, looked up and down the table, frowning at the empty seats. She was a stickler for punctuality.

‘Now who am I to seat you with? We’re still waiting for Mr Godot’, she said, ‘and I can’t think what’s happened to the Americans. Henry,’ she called out to a man deep in conversation with a woman she had not recognised but had not dared to question when she arrived, so confident was

she, ‘Come and meet Madame Bovary. Just spare her your Catholic angst,’ she whispered to him when he got close. ‘She’s got enough of her own.’

‘Emma,’ she said, ‘This is Henry Greene. Writes books. Uses his middle name for them. No idea why.’

Mrs Ramsay flurried off into the kitchen.

‘And what is your middle name?’ said Emma, gazing into the man’s eyes.

‘Graham,’ he said. ‘I’d advise you–’

There was, at the moment the English novelist was about warn the bourgeois Frenchwoman not to fall in love with him, a bombilation on the gong and Marthe appeared in the open doorway with a silver platter of oysters. Behind her stood two wide-eyed children clutching snowballs, which were dripping onto the parquet floor.

‘This is the wrong house, you stupid boys, and it’s not Christmas either,’ cried Mrs Ramsay. ‘Back to Swansea with you immediately.’

The guests, who had by this time already got through five bottles of champagne between them and so had already dispensed with most of their inhibitions, fell upon the oysters. The mysterious woman (it’s Elena Ferrante, Henry Greene told Mrs Ramsay later, that’s why you didn’t recognise her) was very vociferous, insisting that it was a mistake to swallow the oysters whole.

‘Sip a little of the liquor,’ she said, ‘and then chew them to get the umami flavour.’

‘What is umami, Mr Fielding?’ Emma asked the man sitting opposite her. She had no wish to be formal but, confusingly, he had turned out to be another Henry.

‘Search me,’ he said. ‘In my day oysters were for the poor. Cheap food. Don’t know why you folk are so excited about them.’

The boeuf en daube was redolent with olives, bay leaves and wine, and the guests fell silent as they ate. The only sounds in the room were the clinking of cutlery and the small slurping noises made by the diners.

Marthe was clearing the plates after the iced dessert when the Americans arrived with fulsome apologies, more wine and expensive chocolates, so Mrs Ramsey immediately forgave them and called on Cole Porter to entertain the assembled company with the promised song.

‘You have a strange name, Mr Porter,’ said Emma, ‘but at least it’s not Henry.’ The wine had made her very giggly.

‘That’s true, ma’am,’ he said, ‘But my friend here, who is also called Porter – no relation

mind – writes under the name of O. Henry. We live in a mighty strange world, Mrs B.’

In Emma Bovary’s mind, afterwards, all the men at the party merged into one. She thought she remembered Mrs Ramsay saying that they could go to the lighthouse the next day, but that would have been such an odd thing to do; she decided the wine must have made her mishear. She was sure though, that no man called Godot had turned up. So she’d probably never know whether his first name was Henry too.

Cath Barton is the author of two novellas, The Plankton Collector (2018, New Welsh Review) and In the Sweep of the Bay (2020, Louise Walters Books). https://cathbarton.com/ @CathBarton1

Image via Pixabay

rains upon the floor – Dhwanee Goyal

You’re sitting on the edge of an afternoon with her, and you’re thinking in stoppages. At the precipice, she’s scuffing the backs of her shoes against the rock below, and you think that it must not hurt nearly enough. Her boots against sediment, digging in. You kick off your sneakers and watch them dive into nothing below, and think, now is not the time for regrets. The balls of your feet pushing into the stone, bone on stone.

No, you’re sitting on the edge of your words.

In the terrible silence there, and you grapple for something to do before you remember your feet still rubbing against the rocks. Carefully, you bend over and untwist the part holding your ankle, bringing it back up for inspection. It’s red, and when you gasp, she looks at you, finally.

“Ew,” she says. “It’s going to hurt.”

“Disgusting,” you agree, “it already is.”

She turns back towards the point she had been staring at all this while, jaw rust-stiff. She doesn’t want to talk.

You throw the foot down below, and since she’s not looking and you’re bored, you perform the whole routine again with the one that’s left: feet digging into stone bone digging into stone ankle unscrewed and then gone. You don’t feel an absence, but you expected her to say something. Anything. But she can’t see your feet, or rather the general space where they used to be, and anyway she’s staring straight ahead at the horizon, and the not-space before it.

Your throat is dry, and you’re thinking, why do I live like this when she speaks again, eyes closed and head lolled back, “If you were the only person left in the whole world, what would you do and where would you go?”

You had finished the last of your water moments ago, and your throat is sandpaper. You don’t have an answer to that question and you don’t want to reply to her anyway so clearing your throat: you ask, “What— what’re you thinking about?”

She doesn’t answer, just grins and raises her hand as if to fist-bump you. You try to meet her there halfway, but now she’s sneering, and you’re going to ask why except that you can’t, and it’s a burning physical feeling you won’t be able to stow away this time.

“About time to deal with your problems, isn’t it?”

And then you see it: something like a long, exhaustible plastic tube, except it isn’t really plastic, it’s live flesh, and you would scream except now you have no throat so this empty sound inside your mouth withers into loud gasps. But she’s your friend, your very best friend, so you smile at her and decide that you will deal with said problem later that day. Or maybe tomorrow. Maybe never.

So you sit there, a little lighter than you were when you started out, and you want to reach over to her. You slowly extend a hand and rest it upon hers, feather-light, and you keep it there for a while. Around this time, she has no voice. You give and you give, and she takes, soundless. You bask in the coldness of her silence for a little bit. You wait.

Long ago, she’d told you that girls like her burn away their life. Sickly flesh upon smoky tendrils upon fisted palms. She said that strangers get caught in the nets of these girls like dead leaves, like paper, and there’s not much that can be done then, except take some time out and wait for them to dissolve.

“Am I a stranger, then,” you had asked, heart dipping into your stomach and hands locked behind your back, spine straight. Schoolgirl posture.

“Not even remotely!” she had replied, distracted by a message on her phone. “You’re so much more than a dead leaf.”

Now, she trades in distractions and minutes, but you have nothing to give her.

Suddenly, she intertwines her fingers with yours, and speaks carefully. “I have been dreaming about you for a while now, you know.”

“Oh?”

“Us, more like, actually.” Things could never be whole if she wasn’t a part of them. “It’s a regular school day, and we hang out in the back a little longer, talking about everything and nothing at all,” she says, looking at me. “I told you that I loved you.”

Loved. It was in a dream that she loved you, somewhere you loved her too. Loved, as in past. Loved, as in I don’t fully know you yet, but I see you and I like that oh so much.

You wait for her to say something, perhaps a dramatic follow-up as in perhaps she does really love you in this not-dream like scenario perhaps she didn’t mean to say anything in the first place and you wonder if she expects you to say it back to her even though she didn’t really say anything to you in the first place.

She’s made of needles and endings, and it’s like you’re perpetually stuck in her awning, where you’re a shadow in the cage. She’s made of needles and she punctures this moment by getting up from the edge and giving you a hand like, come on we have to go. She grins then, a wide rictus, eyes flitting towards your not-legs.

You do not love her.

She sits back down, nudges your shoulder gently. “Come on, I was just kidding.”

You turn away. “It was not funny.”

You consider giving everything you have to her until you yourself do not exist, and wonder which of you deserves it more: you, for revelling in each second you spend with her, or she, for being with you all along with her inappropriate jokes and silent thoughts and so much she doesn’t tell you. You consider throwing it all away, to nobody in particular.

Then she’s reaching inside you, hand bloody and features blanked clean. The other hand envelopes your mouth. You’re bleeding heavily and then you’re not breathing at all, and somewhere this has gone so horribly wrong, and when she holds out your heart in her hand, you do not even react.

She slams that heart right there between you and it bounces right back as though it were made of plastic not blood and tissue and such beautifully articulated veins. You register that this must hurt, but it does not. You give your hands to her, willingly. There isn’t much else left, but she takes it all: your mouth, ears, nose, hair, skin, chest, your stumps of arms, torso.

She’s gone then, and you can only hit yourself at the fact that you have just your eyes left now, and how they are burning so much. But they were gone so irredeemably beyond so long ago, so you try staring into the distance as she was before, committed to her even when you aren’t physical anymore. You don’t see anything except barren, empty land.

Dhwanee Goyal (she/her) is a fifteen-year-old student from Maharashtra, India. Pretty buildings make her heart beat fast, and she likes puns, double-sided blankets, sentences that trail off and… Her work can be found in Blackbox Manifold and Eunoia Review, amongst others. She hopes you found some brightness to your day. Her twitter handle is @pparallell.

Image via Pixabay

In Repose – Tara Van De Mark

Her arrival was ungraceful. Flailing green wings and long limbs. She landed on the cuff of my pink sheer shirt. Her spines pinched my wrist, holding me prisoner. I tried to reach for the wine, desperate, but her antenna flickered with my movement. So I returned to a seat position and she stilled. My captor turned her triangle head outward and stared.

Aaron was supposed to be home two hours ago. 5pm is when His Father’s bi-monthly weekend custody arrangement ends. But His Father is late, again. His Father is not “stuck in traffic” late or “forgot the suitcase” late. No, His Father is, “Aaron will arrive home distressed and crying so hard he will be unable to eat dinner and fall asleep in his clothes” late.

Divining my fate, I grabbed a bottle of white, a bag of Cheetos and headed to the patio. The patio would give this sad meal the ambiance of civility. Plus, unlike last time, I will not be waiting on the front steps. Unlike last time, I will not run at His Father’s car while it’s still moving and pull Aaron out screaming “You selfish asshole! You will never see your son again.” Unlike last time, I will not kick His Father’s bumper so hard that I break my pinky toe. Unlike last time, I will not be “belligerent, her actions harmed Aaron both physically and emotionally.” The plan was to take a sobering breath as I walked from the patio to the front door, wipe the orange dust off my face and welcome my son home.

But here I am, trapped on the patio, watching her, the praying mantis. She is watching the air, poised. Her stillness is a mask, giving the appearance of rest, disguising the impending ambush. She moves faster than my senses can acknowledge. I see her still and then she has a stinkbug clasped in her maniples, it’s legs kicking air as she eats it.

His Father did, once, bring Aaron home at the agreed upon time. His Father left him on the sidewalk clutching the crumbs of a cookie. Ice cream was dripping from his chin. Aaron started to pull his suitcase up the stairs to our house. Then, just as His Father disappeared from sight, Aaron threw-up. It was not a “little lollipop for the drive” amount or “a cookie to end a great weekend together” amount. No it was a, “Aaron had to be taken to the Emergency Room this evening with severe stomach pains. Doctor’s estimate that he consumed over a gallon of ice cream and a half dozen cookies.” amount.

I hear His Father’s car pull up, the gravel crunching under the tires. It’s 8pm, past Aaron’s bedtime. The car door slams closed and muted voices can be heard. The front door bell rings. But this time I am sitting here, still. His Father can let them in, he has a key.

Tara Van De Mark is a recovering attorney now writer based in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, Flash Fiction Magazine, Tiny Molecules, Crepe & Penn and the Closed Eye Open. She can be found at http://www.taravandemark.com

Image via Pixabay

The Cook – Ginger Strivelli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir, I sure can.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

Image via Pixabay

Waiting For Mr Hot Porridge – Mirvat Manal

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

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

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

“Wa-Alaykum Salam, Hooyo.”

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

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

“No, and I don’t care to be honest.”

“Patience, she had patience, my daughter.”

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

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

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

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

Image via Pixabay

Cast Iron P(lan) – Hannah Hoare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image via Pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image via Pixabay

Visitation – Kevin P Keating

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you buy this for me?”

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

Together they approached the sales counter.

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

“South,” Scott said.

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

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

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

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

“Don’t call me sweetie.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Appreciate the advice.”

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

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

“Yes,” Tabby agreed, “a wise idea.”

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

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

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

“And then he’ll come for us?”

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

“Okay, okay.”

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

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

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


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

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

“We’re fine.”

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

“Keep going straight.”

“He knows we’re coming?”

“You’re scared, aren’t you?”

“Why would I be scared?”

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

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

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

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

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

“If you can call it a job.”

“You’re a professor, right?”

“Adjunct.”

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

“It means I’m disposable.”

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

“He’ll keep his promise?”

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


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

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

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

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

“I don’t believe it,” he whispered.

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

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

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

“Walk?”

“Only a little further. Come on!”

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

“Stop,” said Tabby.

“What is it?”

“Look!”

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

Tabby put her hands at her side and gracefully bowed.

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

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

“He does?”

“Everything is prepared and waiting for us.”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Image via Pixabay

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

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