Superman Writes Down His Dreams – Robert Ford

in a surprisingly unremarkable notebook.
Being a substantial dreamer, he prefers
a spiral-bound A4 jotter, and has chewed
the end off of every biro he’s ever owned.
Tapping into a darkness deep within himself,
he dreams of the elements, of ancient dust,
the fundamental chemistry of the Universe.
He is once again Kal-El, but fully grown now,
walking the streets of Krypton before
the cataclysm that his eyes never saw
but his subconscious keeps remembering.
Sometimes there is peace, sometimes
a weakness so human it terrifies him.
He dreams of Lois and wakes abruptly,
alone in a dampened rage of longing.
On every fresh page he records those same
accusing lines, details the relentless weight
– of himself, of time, of a puzzling planet
always needing to be saved from itself;
one whose saviour dreams of emerging from
a phone booth in downtown Metropolis,
not entirely sure he’s wearing underpants.

Robert Ford’s poetry has appeared in print and online publications in the UK, US and elsewhere, including Under the Radar, Brittle Star, Dime Show Review, The Interpreter’s House and San Pedro River Review. More of his work can be found at https://wezzlehead.wordpress.com/

Image via Pixabay

The Well – Louise Mather

the dust drifts in sunlit particles
by the window
and the garden
the weeping willow
the wishes
where is the well

you say my name
but it is not my name
it is made of glue
you have forgotten to turn out
the whirring shadows in the kitchen
made from the lights if you could find
the word stumbled
halfway up the stairs
you come with us now
rooms are not rooms
anymore

I hold my hand out
for thin blades made of airless wonder
they are unsettling you
the grey stubble itching at your face
the snails have eaten away
your eyes
cloudy blue
your smile
I do not want
the house to be sold
but the boys in your head
have been making fires

to rescue
this careless disorder of time
creaking at bones shattering
do you hear bombs closing in
ear splitting blood
where do you dissolve

you drive with your hands
my mother and uncle
when they were small
safely in the back for the day
sandwiches made from napkins
in that tank barely metres away
run

dressed in the night
in your best brown trousers
packed for the train
talking in and out of sleep
you ask them to be invited round
ghosts
to play cards with
dimensions

we cannot let go of
hand-carved furniture
sentimental jewels
lay under the chambers
secrets scrawled
into crumpled letters
that have aged
and burned away

frail
a twist of light
conjured
everything made from embers
you turn to
beautiful
strawberries in hot weather
picked
from the allotment
potatoes with earth still welded
what you make us
with memories

Louise Mather is a writer and poet from England. You can find her on Twitter @lm2020uk and her work/upcoming work in Streetcake Magazine and The Cabinet of Heed.

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3499 Click – Matthew Twigg

The ring first belonged to my great-great-grandmother. A family heirloom, passed down through the women. For the last thirty years it had sat on the middle finger of Mum’s right hand. Why not her ring finger? Resized too many times to count, the band had become worn and brittle, too delicate for any further operations.

“Which of mine would it fit best?” I asked, splaying my fingers.

“Bryony, really!” said Mum, doing likewise to examine the garnet stone, its shine grown dull by time. The claws of its setting were so worn the gem might slip loose at any moment, a set of Victorian fingers clinging to their former glory. “Anybody would think you were plotting my death.”

She smiled wickedly. Impossible to ever know what was going on in her head. True of everyone, I suppose, but I felt it more keenly with Mum, as though it were a personal failing. Daughters ought to know their mothers’ minds. Share them, even.

“Too nice to be buried with,” I said. “Graves have been robbed for less.”

This raised a hackled laugh, a smoker’s laugh. “Fine,” said Mum, shimmying the ring down the length of her finger before seizing my right hand. “There. Same one. What does that tell you? I guess we both like to flip people off in style.”

She sipped her red wine and I followed. The latest act in a long line of hapless, unhealthy mimicry. In her mouth she lit a pair of cigarettes, one of which she handed to me. Odd: Mum never smoked in the house, even after Dad died and took his protests with him. The smell of it got into the upholstery, the curtains, eventually the walls. Even Mum could admit that.

“I’ll make you a deal,” she said. “Call it a game. Indulge an old lady.”

“You’re not that old, Mum,” I said. A depressing sentiment. Glancing at my hand, the ring glistened upon its rejuvenated digit. It didn’t feel right. I slipped it off and handed it back to Mum.

“Oh, shut your beautiful young face,” she said, smiling. She replaced the ring on her finger where its light dimmed once more. “Here it is, the deal: When I die, the ring is yours, but only if – you’re humouring me, remember – only if there’s an afterlife. If there’s not and I’m just worm food, you never see the ring again.”

A jet of smoke burst unbidden from my nostrils. The premise of it was absurd; the outcome in either instance was unverifiable. I stared at her, tried to divine a sense of her overall purpose. She was a closed book, my mother, always had been, revelling in the sneak peeks she afforded those most eager to read her.

“Mum …” I wasn’t sure what annoyed me more, the morbid nature of it all, or the fact that, as an atheist, Mum was essentially wagering against my inheritance. “That’s just stupid.”

She took a deep drag on her cigarette, dropped the butt into the empty bottle with an expiring hiss, then told me she was dying.

* * *

A brain tumour. Inoperable and growing aggressively. She lasted three months more. At the crematorium, I watched as the service came to a close and her casket passed through a curtain at the front of the chapel. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! The line from The Wizard of Oz popped into my head and caused me to smile.

Grief lingered, as it is wont to do. John helped where he could: cooked meals (oven food: his speciality), took up more of the slack with the housework, the legal headaches. When I spoke, he listened patiently. He tried not to tell me how to feel. Until our meeting with the solicitor, the question of the ring – it being on Mum’s finger or not – had not occurred to me. It was, after all, just a ring, not even all that pretty.

The meeting itself was uncontentious. I was the latest in a line of only children and so, barring a couple of charitable donations to local animal shelters, we would be spared any legal wrangling. Mention of the ring, however, was conspicuous by its absence. Recalling the ridiculousness of Mum’s wager, I resisted any theological conclusions. It proved nothing. But it rankled nonetheless. Had she really taken it to her grave? The notion struck me as selfish, not in the spirit of an heirloom. But then, didn’t they remove jewellery before cremation? So just where the hell was it exactly?

Six weeks after the funeral I signed for a package. “Fair warning,” said the Hermes deliveryman, “it’s heavier than it looks.”

It was a safe, small but weighty, the sort you see in hotel rooms for storing passports and, well, jewellery.

“You think it’s the ring, don’t you,” said John, walking around the coffee table where the box now sat, as though he were interrogating a suspect. Not a strong look for a landscape gardener.

“Is there any question?” There was a numbered keypad and a strip of screen – **** – waiting for a four-digit code. I picked it up and shook it side-to-side. Silence. “What is she expecting me to do?” The present tense felt foolish. Then again, there was a chance, however remote, that she was watching, chuckling at our befuddlement.

“Try some numbers,” said John. “Birthdays, anniversaries, that sort of thing. Knowing your mother, it’ll be the date she died.”

Insensitive but true. Difficult to arrange, though. 2405. A message ran across the screen: Two attempts remaining.

“Shit,” said John, summing up.

Weeks passed as we waited for further instruction, a nudge in the right direction. But none came. The safe, in situ atop the coffee table, remained untouched. Untouched, but never far from my thoughts either. Inside that impenetrable steel case was a piece of Mum that needed to get out, that couldn’t breathe. The ring, at first no more than an idea inside my skull, grew and acquired form, substance, and significance. I wanted, needed, it out.

“I have tools,” said John. “I could bust it open.”

An obvious if inelegant solution. But it was Mum we were talking about. Handle with care; she deserved that much.

We had searched Mum’s house top to bottom, excavated every cupboard, every chest, every drawer of infuriating miscellany. Pursuing some semblance of a clue. It wasn’t like Mum to frustrate for the sake of it; she was fun-loving, certainly, a joker even, but never cruel. This scheme, this game, as she’d termed it, had started to feel like cruelty.

* * *

The psychic’s house was, appropriately enough, a mid-Victorian terrace. Narrow, tall, a town-house; purple door, brass knocker and letterbox, a sign safety-pinned to the wood: No nonsense calls. I hoped, for my own sake, that the notice didn’t apply to the spirits.

What other way was there to prove the existence of an afterlife? Short of Mum’s ghost appearing to me in person – a hideous thought – I could see no alternative way forward. I had spent the previous month refusing to engage in her gameplay, but the safe had by now acquired a talismanic quality. Truly it had become a lightning rod for all my anxieties and was obstructing any useful grief taking place. No closure until the box was open. A pithy little dose of self-delusion.

I found Jane via Facebook, a local woman with “no husband but two adorable cats”, her profile stated proudly. I had warmed to her instantly, even while regarding her profession with the severest scepticism. Seems that in spiritualism, as in life, sometimes the biggest clichés are the most reassuring. She invited me in and led me through to the living room where a pot of tea and two cups stood ready. Expecting me? Yes, but then appointments are handy like that.

Sage green walls, exposed hardwood floors, a mellow fragrance of jasmine, trinkets and doodads and statuettes on every surface; the windowsill, a coffee table, the shelves of a bookcase. A framed certificate hung on the wall. Jane was certified by the British Society of Parapsychology, a fact that I found – ahem – encouraging. In one corner stood a stack of identical books: Gifted: Communing with the Other Side. At the table, I sat opposite their author.

Tall and narrow to match the house, Jane was shoeless and loosely clothed. No less elegant for it. With her hair silver and thick, there was a grace to her, the beauty of tried and tested self-confidence, hard won over many years. Her voice was soft.

“You understand, Bryony, that it’s an inexact science.” This after I had spent twenty minutes and a pot of Earl Grey telling Jane all about Mum. I didn’t regard it as cheating. I wasn’t here to test Jane, I wanted to assist her as much as possible. “Your mother might come through clear as a bell, or she might not. I don’t control it. I’m just a channel.”

Curtains drawn, candles lit, we held hands, each of Jane’s adorned in colourful, many-shaped rings of their own. Between us stood a solitary crystal, a light blue pyramid. Something to do with energy.

We sat for forty-five minutes, the spirits’ silence punctured now and then by Jane’s imploring tones. Did I grow impatient? Did my hands begin to sweat and spasm in hers? Did my scepticism threaten to morph into cynicism? Of course. But there was a sincerity to Jane that prevented me. I had read about so-called “cold reading” before making the appointment – the devious art of mining your client for information without them realising, then parroting it back to them as though it were revelation. Jane tried none of it.

Withdrawing the curtains to the daylight, she said, “I’m sorry, Bryony. Really, I am. We can book another session, but I understand if you’re not interested.”

No sign of Mum. Correct in her atheism, then; the ultimate in Pyrrhic victories. “Is it okay if I think about it and let you know?”

“Of course,” said Jane. “And today’s session is half price, as promised. Honestly, I’m as disappointed as you, Bryony, if that isn’t a terrible thing to say.”

I felt bad. Jane was evidently an honest woman. Would her faith be rocked by this failure? Or, to her, would it be the exception that proved the rule? Not that any rule has ever been proved by an exception, of course, but pliant logic is still logic, of a sort.

“How much for one of your books?” I asked.

Jane brightened. “Should be £9.99, but it’s £4.99 to you. I’ll write you a receipt, for the session and the book together. I know what you’re thinking, but you’d be amazed how many businesses come to me for help. It’s tax deductible, depending on how you phrase it.”

* * *

John thumbed the pages of my new purchase, scoffing over the passages he deigned to read. Satisfied, he tossed it onto the coffee table beside the safe.

“I wish you’d let me get my tools. We could be done with this in ten minutes.”

A look passed between us. If there was no afterlife, I didn’t get the ring. That was the deal.

“At least try guessing the code again,” he said. “You’ve got two more goes. When was her birthday? November twenty-first, right?”

He punched in the numbers: 2111. One attempt remaining.

“Stop!” I said, batting his hand out of harm’s way.

“It’s ridiculous, Bryony,” he said, huffing from the room. “I’m getting a screwdriver.”

I slumped back on the sofa, exhausted and defeated, the safe and the book now twin pillars, mocking me. I dug into my pocket and plucked the receipt. One failed séance, one volume of pseudoscientific hokum: £34.99. Good money wasted.

But as I stared at the receipt, a thought occurred to me. Or rather, four numbers did. I pulled myself upright and onto the floor, kneeling before the safe. I entered the numbers.

3499 … Click!

Matthew Twigg lives in Oxford (UK) where he works as an editor for an academic publisher. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines, including The Fiction Pool, Penny Shorts, Dream Catcher, East of the Web, Gold Dust, decomP, Scarlet Leaf Review, formercactus, The Hungry Chimera, The Big Jewel, and Hypnopomp.

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Tomorrow I Will Learn To Sing – Sarah Dale

I know now that the hill that squats behind our house is a giant heap of dark discarded rubble. As a child, I thought it was ancient rock and soil like other mountains. I never questioned why there were no trees or grass, or why we lived in permanent shade. Sometimes I hear it creaking. Scurries of loose debris bounce down. I’ve always stayed quiet and still as you taught me, without knowing why.

Over the years, I watched lorries labour up the side of the unstable mound. I never saw them coming. You said they weren’t there. I dared not yell at them as they teetered, depositing the load. There was no point shouting as they drove away. You shushed my bewildered despair.

Now, I wish I’d spoken up, turned the lorries back. I have learned to live in hindsight. I only know what I should have done or said when it’s too late. I am too frightened to climb the perilous mass to remove material from the top. I cannot shovel it from the bottom. It will kill me in the attempt.

My kids have moved out. I never taught them to shout, to stop lorries. My heart crushes with remorse. They are learning now, away from me. I’m glad and sad.

You still live here. I’ve done my best to build you a shelter. You wouldn’t and couldn’t move, convinced it’s a harmless hill. I leave the door open. I hope for, but don’t expect, change.

I move to a distance, shuddering with terror. It’s time. I raise my voice, broken and scared but strengthening until I am roaring, shouting, screaming. Cracks and rumbles build to thunderous collapse, the sky obscured.

I stand my ground until it is over, in shock. The dust swirls and tomorrow beckons.

Sarah Dale is a psychologist and writer living in Nottingham. She completed an MA in creative writing from Birkbeck university in 2019. She can be found on Twitter @creatingfocus

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Beginnings – Jane Snyder

This was when I was twenty-four. After the guy I was with and I had sex I would pretend to go to sleep. When he was asleep I’d get up and steal some of the change on his dresser. If there were several dollar bills I’d take a couple of them too. I was so broke then I took aluminum cans to the recycling center to pay my phone bill.

I was never sure where I stood with him. He told me I wasn’t like Susan, his ex-wife. She was successful, people fell all over themselves, giving her jobs, and he’d go back to her in an instant, if she’d have him.

Sometimes we had fun. He’d take me for drives to places he said he wanted me to see. Though, he explained, the actual purpose of the trip was the photographs he took. He liked it if I admired something, the flat green duck egg color in the sky before a storm, maybe, or the way a slant of light carved up a sand dune.

Then, and I wouldn’t see it coming, he’d be mean. What did I know, he asked when I offered an opinion without being asked, picking up cans at midnight?

I know enough not to trust you anymore, I said, because I’d told him how you don’t find enough cans on the street. If you’re going to make money, you have to check garbage cans.

He told me I couldn’t take a joke.

Our trip to Palouse Falls was the longest trip, a two hour drive each way, we’d taken up till then and I had hopes. He’d brought food I liked for lunch and didn’t complain when I asked to stop for the bathroom. The Falls, a cataract of water falling from burnished rocks, was unexpected, and he enjoyed my excitement.

On the trip back, he asked me about a book I’d just read, asked me what I thought. I said I loved it. Oh, he said. You know, he remembered when it first came out. Susan read it; she thought it was trite.

There was another hour before we got back to Spokane and I spent it thinking about what I’d say when I broke up with him.

But we didn’t break up because he started acting nicer, more like a boyfriend.

I kept stealing.

He caught me. I should have guessed it was a set up because that night he left the bills in a sloppy wad. Usually he separated the fives from the ones, put each in neat piles.

He took a more in sorrow than in anger approach and I got mad, told him he’d never satisfied me. True, but I’d never said. I’d put that wad of penis in my mouth and suck. Suck. Suck. He’d hold my head down in the beery, dried urine smell, as if he thought I might be getting other ideas. Suck. Suck. He’d pat my hair, distracting little pats, a child petting a dog. Tentatively, wanting to make friends. But he still wouldn’t come, more often than not, after I’d done everything he told me. Suck.

Don’t blame yourself, he’d say. “You did your best.”

No amount of money could make up for all the time I’d spent with your penis in my mouth, I told him. Sucking. Your problem, not mine, I said, citing my previous lovers, doubling the number. Threw his money onto the bed.

He pleaded with me as I dressed. “I shouldn’t have done it. I should have just asked if you needed help. I know you don’t have much.” He looked like a stork with his long thin legs and his barrel chest, sitting on the edge of the bed, hunched over.

“You’re pathetic,” I said, walking to the door.

He looked up at me. He was crying. I was frightened, thinking of what he could say to me.

“I’ll be different,” he said.

We married. This was how our happiness began.

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Coastal Pine – Peach Delphine

How moon came to hold you
in its tide is inscribed
on the interior curve of lightning
whelk, sturdy shell of sea, wave
rolled polished thin as sky
before blue ignites, burning
away blanketing stratus.

Owl posts boundary
of palmetto and marsh, this sponge
called ground, called dirt
called land of our bones, flowering
giants of magnolia, flowering candles
of pine, heavy with resin, palms shade
the estuaries of our eyes.

Unstitched in a hard, wave levelling wind,
as if hands could dig a hole in sea
or gulls unbolt the carapace
of moon as constellations spark
on our fingertips. We abandon
structure, every house a bone
framing of pain and sorrow.

Our tongue is wind laced with gull
and tern, thunder off the Gulf,
as mockingbird borrows song
so do we, there is no supplication
in cypress or oak, no more complete
embrace than the girdling
of lightning.

We await birds, not yet fledged,
anticipation of flight wedged
in the ribs, we are tangled in fox grape
and thorn, we contain shade, our roots
reach limestone, you pressed birdsong
to my lips, cicadas paused, the deep breath
that must be remembered.

Hand fluttering, not yet ready to stretch
into wing or the vowels that undulate
between our names, brackish waters
ebb and return, whoever falls first
in these flatwoods and bays of palmetto
will be there to cushion the other
falling, cicadas singing, fern
shrouded, subsiding into sand.

Peach Delphine is a queer poet from Tampa, Florida. Former cook infatuated with what remains of the undeveloped Gulf coast. Can be found on Twitter @PeachDelphine

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It’s All About Growing Bananas – Colin Alcock

You know how it is. Growing up, you take so many things for granted. Food on the table, new clothes, as old ones seem to shrink, trudging back and forth to school, with your Mum shoving you down the path and turning back before she meets the other mums. You don’t notice the differences, until you’re older. Like Mum always wore a headscarf, pulled tight and knotted in the nape of her neck. And I do mean always. In the house, out the house; even in bed.

I was about nine when I asked. ‘Is mum bald, Dad? I’ve never seen her hair.’ He told me no, she just likes to keep it tidied away, as if that was just perfectly normal. ‘So what colour is it?’ I asked. He said, ‘You’d probably call it fair’. Turns out later, Fairtrade would be a more apt description.

Then there was the fruit bowl. Always full of apples, pears, those little oranges and the like. Sometimes, peaches or cherries or grapes. I should have a colourful diet, Mum always told me. Eat a rainbow, with plenty of fruit to make me grow strong. But when I said I’d had a banana at school, she looked horrified.

‘Never eat those. They’ll make you sick,’ she said. But I wasn’t. ‘Your teeth will fall out.’ They already had; I was on my second set. ‘You’ll get a curved spine.’ I stood straight as a ramrod. And no pleading from me would ever get her to buy me a banana at the greengrocers.

Then came puberty and Dad took me down to his garden shed. His private space, with the threadbare old armchair, his pipe rack, a small old, Persian looking, rug and the lawnmower. And some over-thumbed magazines, stuck up high on the shelf, just under the eaves. ‘Just gardening stuff,’ he used to say, ‘you won’t be interested in those,’ as he pushed them further out of my reach. But I was. I’d been in his shed when he wasn’t there and didn’t find many pictures in those mags that were taken in a garden.

Anyway, Dad sits there, all serious like, puffing on his pipe, a slight rouge filtering over his face, starting off, ‘Well …, it’s like this, lad …’ Whereupon he tried to tell me, in stilted phrases, all the things about growing up, most of which I already knew from my school mates or worked out from his top shelf magazines. Dad was certainly more embarrassed then me. Though it was when I asked him about the itching, he really went pale.

You see, I was getting this constant itch across my scalp. It wasn’t nits. Th school nurse had checked that. It didn’t seem to be an allergy. I’d not eaten anything new or been rolling in nettles or anything like that. Nevertheless, next day, I was whisked off to the doctor by Mum. She made me wait outside, for a moment, before calling me into his surgery. I felt nervous. Had I got some dreadful disease. I had eaten another banana, without telling her.

The doctor, a young chap with a full beard and cold hands, does all the usual poking around and said I was a good, strong, healthy young teenager. Then Mum said. ‘So, is it?’ and he replied, ‘I’m afraid it is. It’s genetic.’ And Mum looked pained, as she said, ‘I’d hoped he would take after his dad.’ Leaving me totally mystified.

That’s when, for the first time ever, my Mum removed her headscarf. A full head of bananas, beneath it. I was totally dumbfounded. Shocked to the core. Speechless. Mostly ripe, but a few green ones on the turn. But definitely bananas.

Now, of course, I’ve grown quite used to it. Mum explained it was a rare unexplainable syndrome, passed down the family line, with hints of witchcraft, overindulgence and alchemy experiments thrown in. No gold there, though, just brilliant yellow. It had been passed down in my chromosomes. Her contribution obviously stronger than Dad’s.

The doctor explained that there was no cure and that over the following year I would find my luxurious dark hair would slowly fall out and be replaced with little green curls. Those curls would thicken out and eventually turn yellow, so that for the first couple of years I’d look as if I’d had a close crop and dyed it. He gave me a letter to take to school, so that I wasn’t sent home for breaking the rules on haircuts. By the time I reached twenty, however, he said I should be sprouting a full crop of healthy fruit, that required regular picking.

Now, before your imagination goes into overdrive, I’m not talking those great fat hands of bananas you see on the supermarket shelves. No, these only grow to that small size you see in packs for kiddies’ lunch boxes. Which is how Mum got away with it, under her headscarf. She told me then, that she used to pull out a few, each week and take them down to the local greengrocer’s shop and he’d pack them with the delivery to the school kitchens. That’s why she was so horrified that time I told her I had eaten a banana at school. I might have eaten part of my Mum.

It took a few days for it all to sink in and get my head around it (or should I say under it?) and I was worried what my school mates would say. Would I be bullied? But Mum fixed that when she brought me a large baker boy cap and said I was to tell them that I had a contagious head infection and I was only allowed in school as long as I kept my hat on. My mates got used to it. Called out a few names to start, but I ignored it all and after a few weeks no more was said.

The first real problem came with girls. When I’d got to that age I was interested, but they were not. Not with a boy who never took his cap off. And might have a disease they could catch. Not that they could, of course. So, I resigned myself to celibacy until I went to college. There my constant cap became quite a draw, but the closer I got to the female students, the more I worried about taking it off in a romantic encounter.

Tending mini bananas is quite a chore. You can’t let them get too wet with the sweat of exertion, or they develop a sour smelling mould. Same goes for regularly removing the ripe ones, before they go brown and blotchy and ooze a sticky mess down the back of your neck. And you have to lay them carefully in rows, after sleeping, or they stand up at all angles and you can’t get you cap on tidily.

Well the night came when I knew I’d lose my cap – more than my cap with a bit of luck – and I ignored my Mum’s caution that they would grow back bigger and thicker and shaved my head. I thought it had done the trick. I got a girl very interested in me; things were getting quite steamy and we went upstairs from the communal area in my student house and into my room. Clothes started littering the floor, until we both lay in close embrace on my single bed, she naked and me in nothing but my cap. She grasped the peak with her hand, but I clutched at her wrist and held it for a moment, before letting her rip it off.

She looked most disappointed. ‘Oh. You’re just bald. Is that all you’ve been covering up. It’s been driving me bananas thinking you might have some ghastly birthmark or lewd tattoo, you were hiding. Wait ’til I tell the other girls they’ve missed nothing.’ And then she started laughing. ‘Sorry, but my Mom said never go to bed with a bald old man unless they’ve got money. Well at least you’re not old. Hang on, where’s your loo, I’m going to wet myself.’

‘First door on left, top of the stairs, second landing,’ I automatically replied. Then, as if that wasn’t enough to take the heat out of the evening, my exposed pate began to perspire profusely. Well, you know that model glue smell that bananas give off. Well imagine it ten times as strong. So, while she had popped out the room, still not a stitch on her, I lived a little in hope, so I topped up my aftershave and mopped my head with a towel. Then I checked in the mirror to see all was well, only to find all the fluff had adhered to my scalp in haze of white. The only solution: slam the cap back on.

She came back, took one look and exclaimed, ‘Oh, no. Not with that on. You perverted or something?’ and hastily started dressing. I wanted to explain, but I don’t think she was the type to go for bananas. More a peach cocktail girl.

So that was that. The bananas came back, thick and fast and I found a backstreet food bank that happily took a couple of dozen mini bananas every now and then. No more girls, for a while. Not before I asked Mum how she and Dad got together. Apparently, he had a poor sense of smell and the only scent that really got through to him was bananas. Reminded him him of his days making model aeroplanes, from balsawood and tissue, as a boy. Happy carefree days. He said they were made for each other – and he’s been glued to her ever since.

Now, the chances of me finding a model making girl are quite slim and I certainly don’t want a glue sniffer for a partner, so I had to resign myself for a solo life for a time. I finished college and got a job in a food factory; gutting fish for frozen fish and chip suppers – so no one notices my natural odour – and it’s my excuse for dousing myself with a very pungent aftershave.

There was a girl I flirted with, quite lightly, in the tea breaks. She reminded me of Mum in a way. She always wore a headscarf, knotted tightly at the back. So, I plucked up courage and asked her, ‘Have you got any bananas under there?’ She blushed and replied, ‘Don’t be cheeky. I suppose you’ll be asking me for a date, next?’ Then she cocked her head, looked hard and long at my cap, then, brow furrowed, said ‘You’re serious, aren’t you? Is that what you’re hiding?’ I nodded my head, slowly and she smiled. ‘You can walk me home tonight, if you like. Perhaps go for a drink. I think we’ve got something in common.’

After work we strolled down towards our local, “The Bunch of Grapes”, and she confided in me she had to keep her head covered because she had “a condition”. It was a bit embarrassing, she said, she would tell me if I promised not to tell a soul. And if I’d swear on my cap to keep it a secret.

She pulled me into the shadow of a shop doorway. The deep old-fashioned type. ‘Cherries’, she said. ‘I’m a red head. They fetch a good price, out of season, down the market. Now let’s see what’s really under that cap?’ I slowly removed it, as she, in turn, unknotted her headscarf.’

That was all a good many years ago, but you may have seen us down the seaside. We’ve got an ice cream van on the promenade. Special flavours, too. Banana split and cherry pie. You’ll remember us by the oversized, bright orange, baker boy cap I wear and her tightly bound cherry red headscarf. Oh, and the blood orange twist ice lolly? That was our daughter’s idea, when she became of age.

Image via Pixabay

Tiny Particles – Denise Mills

The house was ours, not Harry’s. But every night he’d show up just the same: dirty bare feet; bruised shins; a Band-Aid on his knee covering an ever-present wound; white shirt and grey knee-length pants several sizes too small. His sandy hair stuck out all over, as though he slept on it wet, but his clear blue eyes shone more than anyone’s I had known. I was ten when we moved into that house, and even though he was only a little taller, I figured Harry was older.

At night, when I was meant to be sleeping, Harry would sit on the end of my bed and tell me stories. He told me the house was once different: the window coverings were off-white with pictures of little birds, and the kitchen bench was peachy orange rather than the splotchy grey marble. Out the back, there’d been a tyre swing hanging from the oak tree that his brother had made for him.

Harry taught me about a lot of things. He had an elaborate theory that the stars and planets we can see in the sky are just tiny particles within a much larger galaxy, and that this continued on forever, in both directions. I told my dad about this, with large, over-exaggerated hand gestures. “Did your teacher tell you that?” he asked, with a concerned look on his face that gave him a deep wrinkle between his eyebrows. “No. It was Harry!” I replied. My father smiled, reached out his hand and tousled my hair. “Ah, Harry. Of course.”

Dad seemed to like Harry, until one day he didn’t. My father was down the other end of the house when I heard him let out a high-pitched squeal, like the cartoon ladies when they see a mouse. When my mother got home, they went into their bedroom and talked loudly about a barefoot kid down the end of the hall. “It was just standing there!” Dad exclaimed. After a long pause, Mum asked: “Do you think it was it Harry?”

That night, Dad sat down on the edge of my bed and asked me what Harry looked like. When I told him his eyes grew wide and his face pale, as he fiddled nervously with his wedding band. “We are going to stay at your Aunt’s place for the next few days,” he said, patting my knee. I did not argue.

When we returned that weekend, it was already getting dark. As our car drove slowly over the gravel driveway, I saw Harry sitting on the red brick fence. He waved at me, but I knew better than to wave back, or to tell my parents. Hours later I pulled on my gumboots and snuck out to convince him to come inside, but he shook his head and said, “I can’t. They caught me.”

But he seemed happier, somehow. Maybe he was thinking about the tiny particles, as his blue eyes looked up at the moon.

Denise Mills is a writer from Central West NSW, Australia. Tweets @denisey_pooh

Image via Pixabay

Honey – Hugh Behm-Steinberg

One day when I was testing my blood sugar the number I got was way too high. Right away I jumped to the part where my eyeballs explode and the doctors have to chop off all my limbs because I’m such a shitty diabetic. But then my wife Sharon asked me if I had washed my hands before testing, and sheepishly I said no.

“Go scrub,” she said.

So I did, thoroughly, with tons of soap, and when I pricked my finger again and retested my numbers were fine. Back to being a good diabetic, I promptly forgot about it and had another stupid salad for dinner.

As a newly diagnosed type 2 this happened to me a lot. I’d assume I was back in my old life until it was time to test, then I’d screw up and forget to wash my hands, get the crazy high sugar reading, freak out, and then I’d get reminded by my incredibly patient wife about the whole hand washing thing, retest and go back to eating those stupid low carb crouton free salads, taking those stupid pills that are only going to work for a little while, and continuing to live with myself in this stupid new life and its terrifying clots of numbers.

If I was telling my origin story, this would be the part where I’d mention the deep regret I felt about having survived the explosion at the experimental candy factory (you’d be surprised how many of those there happens to be), how I felt the urge to do something with the newfound super-powers I was supposed to have (Candyman!), instead of dwelling upon the mutant skin condition I actually got from the accident that made me sweat high quantities of glucose and suffer the joys of type 2 diabetes. I don’t know how anyone puts up with me.

“It’s because you’re so sweet,” Sharon said. “And not just because I get a buzz from sucking on your fingers.”

“Quit procrastinating and finish your novel.” I said.

It was spring, and lucky for us the bees were swarming around the apple trees and jasmine in our yard. There was a steady droning sound all the time, which we found comforting. We’d wonder where their hive might be, whether the bees lived around here or perhaps they were migrants, going from spot to spot, working their way up or down the coast as the seasons changed. Gradually we stopped noticing; it just became part of the background, like traffic noise from the highway nearby.

That changed when we started hearing buzzing at night, coming from somewhere in the walls of our house.

“Maybe they’ve moved in next to the wrens,” I said.

“Hopefully they’ll keep the rats away,” Sharon said, reminding me that there are worse sounds than buzzing to hear coming from the walls of your home.

“Oh yeah,” I said, and started reading all the articles I could find about bees nesting in houses. “Did you know it’s illegal now to kill bees?”

The next few days were really hot and humid; I’d go to sleep early, naked and not even using a bedsheet while Sharon worked upstairs on her novel. Sometimes I heard buzzing, sometimes I’d hear the metal softly leaking out of Sharon’s headphones, and sometimes they’d blend together so I couldn’t tell which was which.

I was dreaming I was floating on an ocean of honey, bobbing up and down in a giant, humming wave, and that I was part of something ancient and wonderful, but to truly be part of it I had to lie still and move as little as possible. “Sweetie,” I heard above me. It was the Queen! “Don’t move.” I felt something tickling me. “Don’t move don’t move don’t move.”

Hardly awake, I very slowly opened my eyes, then gritted my teeth so I wouldn’t scream. There were bees everywhere, all over me. The ones that must have been on my eyelids were fluttering around my head. Those pictures you see where someone is covered all over with bees: that was me, and all I could think of was how horrible it would feel to get stung to death. I didn’t move while Sharon ran outside and dialed 911.

The dispatchers sent over animal control, who took one look, murmured something about the endangered species act and some beekeeper they knew who might know what to do, and one of them said bees can sense fear, while my wife kept insisting someone do something, anything. Around then, mercifully, I fainted.

When I woke up, I kept my eyes squeezed shut and just listened; although the buzzing was still there, it didn’t seem as bad as it was before. I opened my eyes and started to get up. I was starving.

The buzzing roared back; thousands of bees swarmed about the room from wherever they’d been resting. The landline rang and rang and went to the answering machine.

I saw Sharon standing in front of the bedroom window talking into her phone. “Sweetie,” I heard her say on the machine. “You’re going to have to stay still for awhile. The bees aren’t going to sting if you don’t move and you leave them alone. The bee specialist says she’ll be over right away with her crew, so just wait, please?”

I tried to nod without getting stung to death; Sharon gave me the thumbs up. Meanwhile the bees kept landing on me, tickling a little, and taking off. It felt like they were feeding, and I was their all you can eat buffet. At least someone was getting their breakfast today.

Not much later I saw a van drive up and a couple of people in beekeeping suits hopped out. I could see them talking to Sharon, discussing their plans, peering into the window, going back and forth fetching supplies. Carefully, like if somebody screwed up all the bees would explode, one of them removed the screen and opened the window, slipping in a hose, which in turn pumped smoke into the room, which in turn seemed to calm things down. “Mr. Berenbaum,” the other one of them said. “It’s okay to get up and leave your bedroom. Just no sudden movements: we don’t want to spook the bees.”

I was still naked, but like a vampire in one of those silent movies climbing back into the world of the quick, I got out of bed in our smoke-filled bedroom, a cloud of groggy bees trailing behind. I made it to the bathroom before they woke up and began swarming again, but I managed to shove some towels under the door. The buzzing kept growing until it peaked, then it gradually muted as the house filled with smoke. At least I got a chance to pee.

There was a knock. “Mr. Berenbaum?”

“Yes?”

“I’m going to open the door, and I want you to stand very still. Can you do that?”

“One second!” I said, wrapping a towel around my waist and trying my best to manifest fearlessness. “Okay, you can come in!”

The beekeeper opened the door with a bunch of bees buzzing around her. She was carrying a garbage bag and one of those smoking things, and once inside she shut the door behind her and started smoking up the room. Pulling a whiskbroom and a bee suit out of the bag, she brushed me down, whisking a few persistent motherfuckers away. I zipped up the suit and for the first time in forever I felt a little bit safe. Only hours later did I realize I’d been stung in seventeen different places.

Walking out of our smoke-filled house, I watched the beekeeper’s crew lever off chunks of drywall looking for the hive. I kept wondering if my insurance would be covering this as I made my way outside, still in shock as they tore our house apart, wall by wall by wall, honey and bees oozing everywhere; I fainted again.

When I woke up I was in the hospital. Sharon was stroking my forehead, which freaked me out because I thought the bees were back. I felt sour, but at least the bee stings weren’t hurting so badly, and cautiously I relaxed while she caught me up on what happened. She told me the story of the red honey from this one set of hives that smelled like lollipops because all the bees, instead of visiting flowers like they were supposed to, were sucking off the waste pipe of an experimental candy factory. How that sort of thing happens a lot more often than gets recorded because there’s all this concentrated sugar everywhere, and bees will now ignore flowers to get at it. They’ll even fly in the dark to get it. So that was what happened to me because I was just that sweet. “When they tore out the drywall they found the hive in our living room. But you’re going to be fine,” she said, “and I have something to show you.”

Sharon pulled a honey jar out of her purse and a teaspoon. “You must try this,” she said. “It’s like super concentrated you, and there’s a little something extra in it as well.” She opened the jar and swallowed a teaspoon’s worth. She put the jar down, then proceeded to do several one arm handstands on the rail of my hospital bed. If I haven’t mentioned it before I’ll say it now: my wife has the most amazing toes. I could stare at them for days, even if I was covered from head to foot in bees.

“We’re going to have superpowers, David Berenbaum, superpowers we can pour into bottles and sell for whatever we think miracles are worth! We’re going to be so rich!” she said. “There’s only a little honey now, but they can make a lot more if we let them. It’s just bees. We can live with bees. We can learn to handle some changes, can’t we?”

She looked so happy, like she did when all the words would just flow out of her all at once into that very first novel. Maybe it was a side effect of the honey.

“Ok,” I said. I could learn how to hold very, very still if it meant we’d be happy. “But you still have to finish writing that book.”

Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s prose can be found in X-Ray, Grimoire, Joyland, Jellyfish Review, Atticus Review and Pank. His short story “Taylor Swift” won the 2015 Barthelme Prize from Gulf Coast, and his story “Goodwill” was picked as one of the Wigleaf Top Fifty Very Short Fictions of 2018. A collection of prose poems and microfiction, Animal Children, was published by Nomadic Press in January, 2020. He teaches writing and literature at California College of the Arts.

Image via Pixabay

The Innocents – Angela Russo

The little boy’s toy
green dinosaur
on the floor with its
jaws open wide
in a frozen roar,

in his sister’s bedroom,
sparkly cat ear headphones
on a purple pillow,
her ballet slippers
hanging on the door,

Her older brother’s
game console
still on waiting for
him to click to
his new solo battle,

on the kitchen counter is mom’s nurse badge,
car keys and purse,
mask and tissues are
protruding out,

in the laundry room,
a tug rope on the floor,
the full bowl of kibble,
a wooden gate to keep
the dog from jumping,

an unlocked case
sitting on a chair,
an empty torn box
of ammo rounds,
a smoking gun,

one fearful night in
a family’s home,
where children played,
the dog ate,
a mother called home,
are silenced,
no one should
be lost in isolation.

My non-fiction stories, essays and columns have appeared in several magazines; weekly and daily newspapers in Ohio as well as the Chicago Tribune. I am also a graduate student at Kent State University in Ohio.

Image via Pixabay

John Wayne & Me – Tom Kelly

The suitcase is the first step on the road back to mam and dad. I can see us sitting side-by-side. The radio crackling with, Two-Way Family Favourites as I wait for dad to open his suitcase while they sing along to Dean Martin: I am so pleased none of my friends can hear them singing, “The sweet, sweet, the memories you gave a-me, you can’t beat the memories you gave a-me…”

Dad said to me, “We’re lovely singers, aren’t we?”

Mam was aware of my face-ache. “He doesn’t like us singing. He’s more interested in your suitcase.”

Mam knew what I wanted. “Howay dad let’s have aa look. Will ye give me ya medals dad? When aa’m old, dead old, like seventeen. What’s in that wooden box?”

Mam showed her anxiety. “I wish you would get rid of it! It’ll end in tears.”

Dad said, “Don’t talk daft.”

I can see Dad holding his Green Howard’s cap badge. I have a photograph of me wearing it. I can step back to the moment it was taken. I am standing against a wall, the school photographer lining us up, the quick click and away, there were forty-odd in my class so there wouldn’t be a lot of time.

We didn’t have a camera at home, so it’s difficult, sometimes, to put yourself in time and place but this photograph allows me do that. I had cut my hair and made an inverted V at the front. And there is my dad’s Green Howards cap badge on my jacket’s lapel. I wanted to be a soldier. I would march up and down in the kitchen with dad shouting out instructions, “Stand tall. Swing your arms. Not both together. Where’s your rifle? You’ll be on a charge boy. Stand to attention.”

I would stand tall and proud as any soldier. I marched with a poker but it was a real gun to me and I’d kill the enemy. My heart was bursting with pride. I had to be brave, just like dad. I pressed dad about his war. “Will aa fight in aa war like you?”

Dad turned serious. “I hope to God you don’t have to. Aa saw enough for the both of us.”

Mam went to the shops and with her out of the house, dad would go on with his story and I would fill in the details: that was our routine. I had heard the stories dozens of times but I wouldn’t let him miss anything out. Dad battled on, “We were parachuted into Norway in April 1940 and ended-up in a village called…”

I dived in, “Voss!”

“That’s right son, near Stavanger…”

I jumped in again, “Aa bet it was great.”

Dad turned away from me and seemed to be looking for something in the backyard before he spoke, “War’s not glorious son. Ask your uncle Tommy, he’ll tell you it was no picnic in Burma and your uncle John ended-up in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.”

It was glorious to me. You didn’t die. You would wake up next day, go to school, play football. Death wasn’t forever. I didn’t know that as I put my dad’s medals in a line across my chest and pinned the cap badge onto my balaclava, praying mam wouldn’t come back before dad opened that wooden box.

Dad went on as I sat at his feet, “So, we were parachuted into Norway but the Germans outnumbered us, it was a hell of a battle and we had to retreat… we lost a lot of lads…”

Dad was talking slowly as I said, “What’s in your eye dad? Use me hankie, it’s nearly clean.”

Dad seemed angry as I watched his face turn stern. “It’s not like in the comics, you don’t play with bits of wood, they’re real guns and bullets and when you fall down dead you don’t get up.”

In the History of The Green Howards it says, “The Green Howards conducted an adventurous withdrawal through the mountains by train, truck and foot and on April 30th, 1940, the navy took off the ravenously hungry survivors by the light of the bombed and burning Norwegian villages. The Brigade had performed a classic withdrawal operation.”

“Classic withdrawal!” Dad was captured by the Germans. “The first words of German aa heard were Achtung. We’d been led into a trap, by a quisling. He said he’d take us to Sweden which was a neutral country. We were in a mountain hut and the Germans surrounded us and then took us ti’ Poland and had us working on farms all the way there. Me mam and dad thought aa was dead and…”

I had the newspaper cutting in my hand. “I know what happened next dad, your name was in the paper and they read out your name on the wireless…”

Dad read from the newspaper cutting: “Among the list of British prisoners broadcast from Hamburg last night….”

“It was you dad!”

Dad smiled. “Aye me mam and dad thought aa was dead until Lord Haw Haw gave out me name out on the radio.”

I wanted more of the story. “Tell us about Poland and the camps.”

Dad picked-up his war medals and spoke with heart-stopping emotion. “The Polish people treated us well, aa remember finding a loaf of bread left for me, by the farm workers, they had nowt but they still gave us. And aa remember queuing up in the camp for soup and me and me mate could see there wasn’t going to be enough, so we got a bowl of hot water and threw it in the faces of people and grabbed our share. If ye didn’t ye’d die, it was dog-eat-dog. Ah’m not proud of that but aa wouldn’t be here if aa hadn’t done it.”

Five years in a prison-of-war camp. The scars stayed with him all his life.

Mam came back from shopping and caught us by surprise. “Come on you two! Move yourselves. Aa’ve told you, get rid of that box!”

And that was the end of dad telling his war stories. I sat reading my comic but all I wanted to do was open the box in me dad’s suitcase: more than anything in the entire world. There was a time-bomb under my parents’ bed. In the coal black night under the hissing gas mantle something was burning through me but it was our night at the ‘Regal’, for our weekly ritual of worshipping the celluloid Gods on the magic screen. We walked to the pictures, our voices converging, “What’s on, mam?”

“Operation Pacific.” Was mam’s quick reply. Dad added, “How John Wayne won the war.” I said, “Dad, dad, did you know John Wayne?” Mam laughed, “After a few pints your dads met them all.”

In the pictures, war was glorious. Nobody died, they lived forever, safe and secure with their mams and dads. Just like me but then I heard me mam’s angry tight-lipped whisper, like enemy gun fire spitting out of the dark, “If you don’t get rid of it, it’ll go in the Tyne!” I wondered what was going to be thrown in the river? Next doors cat? Mam hated it. I knew it had made a mess in our house but that seemed drastic. I wondered if it was the rabbits?

We used to breed them and I would bump into one or two dancing a dead dance on the backyard clothes’ line, generally after dad had met somebody in a pub who fancied a rabbit pie. Maybe mam wanted rid of them, she had more than enough of their smell and those little brown marbles piling up in the straw.

Walking home from the pictures it hit me! The wooden box. I would never discover what was in it. The Holy Grail was so near. It was in our bedroom, under mam and dad’s bed. I felt like a proper soldier, when somebody needs saving from the jaws of death, like John Wayne winning the war, but now I had my own battle: I was at a loss as to what to do.

The only thing on my mind was the wooden box. I sat with my Eagle comic glued to my face but I wasn’t reading it. I was thinking and planning.

The next night mam pulled a funny face and said, “Can you hear squeaking?”

Dad was reading The Herald but eventually did answer, “That’ll be the mice.”

Mam screamed, “Mice!”

Dad was still reading and answered from behind the paper, “Aa see them first thing in the morning, just before aa go to work. Aa gave them aa bit breakfast. They play lovely in the hearth; they’re living in the couch.”

Mam’s voice went up several octaves, “Why didn’t ye say!?”

Dad reluctantly put down the paper. “You’re always asleep in the morning.”

Mam was red in the face. I nearly said something about her looking like a clown but didn’t as she let out a yell, “They’re underneath us!”

Dad was taking notice now, “Take it easy, the neighbour’s think aa’m murdering you.”

I thought she was really going to kill dad as she screamed, “Aa’ll kill you!”

I decided to join in. “Aa can hear them mam, squeak! squeak!”

Mam was near the door and pointed at dad, as if she was going to spear him.

She said slowly, “Get them out now!”

Dad was still sitting in his chair when he said, “Wait till after me tea.”

Mam had the door wide-open; a cold draught ran into the house. “There’ll be no tea ‘til you get rid of those mice. Aa mean it! The bairn’ll give you aa hand to take the couch into the back yard.”

Dad and me fought with the couch down the wooden stairs into the backyard, the mice were screaming but my mother was screaming even louder.

The whole street must have heard mam. “Get them out. It’s a nightmare! Mice living under us. Mice! I hate mice! Keep them out of the toilet and shut the coal house door!”

Dad, in a matter-fact way said to me, “Hand me that knife.”

I thought he was going to slice their heads off. I was preparing myself for a lot of blood. Mam screamed. Dad slit the underside of the couch; it was like killing an animal, spilling its intestines and white pink-eyed mice ran into the backyard, dozens and dozens of them squealed and squinted into the light. Mam screamed again. We attacked them, me with a shovel, dad with a hammer. They ran for the drain as we chased and battered and battered them: it was exciting.

I was killing the enemy: the mice. We gathered the mice together, scraping their dead bodies along the backyard, leaving a film of blood, half bits of legs and heads in a terrible trail. I didn’t think, I just did it. My mother watched from upstairs, standing behind the net curtain that seemed to be like a failure, a flag of truce but not for us, we had won. We had defeated them; it was John Wayne and me. I was glorious in battle. Dad shouted up to mam, standing upstairs, away from the carnage, “They’re dead, well and truly dead.”

I can see the white and pink carpet of dead mice dumped in the bottom of the dustbin. Dad put his arm around me as if we had done something great together. I felt like a hero and wanted more, much more than that cushion of white mice with blood speckled over them, like monkeys’ blood you get on ice- cream, except this was real. This blood was dead real.

I looked up to dad who was wiping the blood from his hands on the wall.

I said, “Dad, was aa good help?” He looked down at me and smiled, “You wor aa proper little soldier.”

As I washed my hands in the water bucket and started getting ready for church, after the killings, I knew I had to open the box and felt strange but excited.

The priest was on the altar with a golden cross embroidered on the back of his vestments, I was at Mass but I was in a different world. The priest would never kill mice because he was God’s messenger on Earth and he could send me to Hell. My knees were dead as I kneeled but I couldn’t pray, instead I went over the battle with the mice. No Last Post for them, no six-gun salute, no being saved by Flash Gordon, just the realness of death. I felt a shiver which had me scared and I got my handkerchief back from my dad. God was not blessing our killing. I was worried. There was a tight knot in my stomach that would not go away. As we walked home from church to the scene of our crime, the fight, battle, killings, my eight-year self was struggling to come to terms with life and death. Walking home from church I felt nervous and said, “Aa want to go to the toilet!” I began to run home.

And as I ran, I told myself, “Aa’ve got to open the box.”

I fumbled with the door key. Mam and dad were at the top of the street, I dragged the suitcase from underneath the bed and threw it open!

“Aa gun!”

My heart was drumming and beating like a terrified bird. I began to sweat and could hardly breathe. I dashed out of my room and put the gun under my pillow.

Now I knew what was in the wooden box. I needed time to compose myself and dwell on the power of the gun that would lie under my head tonight. I had killed mice and now I had a gun. I could be John Wayne. I could not stop shivering with excitement. All the time I was thinking about the weight of the gun and my stomach turned to jelly. I felt sick as I tried to think of a plan.

In the bedroom I embraced my pillow as the gun nestled and burned against my cheek and it was so heavy, I felt it in the dark. My mam came into the room.

My finger was stroking the trigger. She left the room and shut the door. I got a shock and squeezed the trigger. It was pointed at the door. Everything stood perfectly still, like a photograph, as if it wasn’t real and the loudest bang in the world rang round the bedroom. I could hear my dad scream.

Dad had kept the gun from the army and mam was always telling him to get rid of it. The ambulance and police came. All of the street stared at our house. And later there was an inquest but they could not charge a child of eight with killing his mother. A tragic accident, they said.

Tom Kelly’s ninth poetry collection This Small Patch has recently been published and re-printed by Red Squirrel Press who also published his short story collection Behind the Wall. His stories have appeared in a number of UK magazines and on Radio Four.

Image via Pixabay

Him – Jimmy Broccoli

You fell asleep gently, my love
I covered you before the ambulance arrived
They took me away, too
Because I couldn’t stop screaming

Loving you was my life’s symphony

On this black occasion, your family is here
I dress in blue because it was your favorite color
I re-read your poems by the gravel and grass
And the minister…
And the Amazing Grace…
And the mother fucking coffin

Don’t leave me

Your mother’s awful dress
And the eulogy

Don’t talk about how good he was
He was bad at almost everything
But he loved me
And if he had only one stick of gum left
He handed it to me

No, shut up, I won’t buy your wreath
Or your flowers
To be draped upon his grave
They aren’t beautiful enough
If you knew him, you’d understand

You – you kicked him out at 16
Because he loved me
Applause that you came around years later
You never held his thoughts
As he crumbled into darkness

Don’t talk about him like you knew him

My sunrise was his and his sunset whispers my name

Oh my sweetheart, my darling
I bought you Yoda pajamas
Because he was your favorite
An unwrapped gift, but you would have laughed
I would have snapped a photo
And our friends on Facebook would have smiled

I lay upon your cold grave
My 98.6 degrees keeping you warm
You are my home, my heart, my everything

And I do not get up

Jimmy Broccoli is a Branch Manager of a library within the Greater Metropolitan Area of Atlanta. He enjoys playing with puppies and writing frightening verse. You can find him on Facebook.

Image via Pixabay

Highgate Station – Nick Black

They’re steep, the stairs at Highgate Station, dropping into the ground from the car park taking all weathers with them. On a wet late Autumn evening, surface street lamps battling against the gloom, those steps are lethal. Believe me.

The relentless hiss of rain. The pirouette of leaves.

Nobody uses handrails when they’re running.

Tuesdays and Thursdays we’d meet. Usually I’d wait in the car with the radio on, but that one time I decided to buy something from the little booth in the station at the top of the escalators, by the ticket machines, having read a text – “I’m starving!” – and always been eager to please. Something small to eat on the way. Tuesdays and Thursdays were when we’d go to yoga. When I had a body.

Tuesdays and Thursdays, around 6pm, wave after wave of passengers pass through me, joggingly ascendant, phones flying to faces as they approach a signal, eyes raised to the skies and umbrellas popped open, but not… Not.

Taking another route? Another exit? I wait. I hope. Vaguely aware of what feels like cobwebs being brushed through, no, fainter, dreams of them being brushed through, only I’m the cobwebs. I imagine, if they register anything at all, they’ll think it the shift from hot tunnel winds to fresh night air, but it’s me. Waiting, just in case. Nowhere else to be.

Eventually each night, the metal gates are dragged closed. The lights turned off. The hours emptied, darkened. Lengthened.

I recommend against dying foolishly.

Nick Black manages two public libraries in North London. His writing has been published in lit mags including trampset, Okay Donkey, Splonk, Spelk, Lost Balloon, Ellipsis Zine and Jellyfish Review.

Image via Pixabay

Menu of Losing Her – Nicola Ashbrook

Pasta bake with crunchy crust of cheese and seeds
And crushed up crisps,
Chicken roast
Potatoes: oiled and floured
In puffed up bowl of Yorkshire.

Fat fallen cooker, grainy pear
Bulging purple plum
Nestle together under crumble roof
Melt icy vanilla (pale yellow river)
Home grown, hand cooked, love.

Thick-set quiche, hand delivered
With skirt-frill lettuce
Christmas bauble tomato
And finely sliced
Translucent moons of cucumber

Dwindles to chocolate painted biscuit,
Pale eyed banana
In pale bellied custard,
Furrowed sea salt crisp
A kind of Communion wafer.

To sludge of sodden Weetabix:
Whole brick
Half brick
Doll-sized spoon
Nil (by mouth).

Coral knuckles of prawn float
In Earthy coconut curry
Steaming terraced lasagne
Poached egg bobs like pickled eye
In buttery onion soup

To fuel the bedside vigil;
Onlooker’s appetites
Pulling and pushing
Like the tides
Of the days –

Scrabbles for crackers and cheese
When time’s stolen by nursing
Afternoons spent preparing
Comfort food to fuel
The comforting.

Tea medicine
Chocolate medicine, for the soul
After witnessing
Injected medicine
To control

The breath
The pain
Of my life-giver
As life seep out of her
Impossible as water from a stone.

Nicola Ashbrook is fairly new to writing, having had a previous life in the NHS. She has just finished her first novel and has pieces of flash in various places online and in print. This is her first poem. She’s pretty sure it’s a poem anyway, poetry being a little baffling to her. But, sadly, it is a piece of CNF.

Image via Pixabay

tête á tête – S M Colgan

Your gaze settles on Tupac, stark against the back wall.

That you would even find yourself in a place like this. Small and cramped, too many tables all squashed into a space little bigger than your bedroom, hardly room to move without banging into someone else. How is anyone supposed to sit here in comfort when the next table is right there? Claustrophobic even half-empty, making your skin itch.

It was her suggestion, this place. Said with just the slightest edge, you’ll love it there, her voice gone all nasally.

God but you hate when her voice does that.

She knew exactly what she was doing bringing you here. The urge to curse lies heavy on your tongue. You swallow it down and inhale, let the breath out slowly through your nose, fight the pounding of your heart. Cursing her would only make her worse.

“Well?” she demands in that tone, one eyebrow quirked, and your fingers drum against the edge of the table to keep you from plugging your ears. Bad enough sitting here but having to listen to her—

“Well what?” You’re not sure why you’re even feigning ignorance. You know what she’s talking about and you have nothing to feel guilty over. But there’s an odd pleasure in it, in pretending for a few minutes. A vindictiveness that eases the tightness in your chest.

Let her think what she will.

“Aren’t you going to answer me?”

You snort and turn it into a coughing fit, gasp for breath and it eases some of that tightness. The man at the next table, some student of some description, moves away and the extra space makes it easier to sit up. You’re tempted to tell him it’s not the flu, just the cigarettes you smoked last night, but then he might come back closer.

You sip your 7Up to clear your throat. Probably not the best choice, but you doubt if they serve tea in here. You could have asked for a glass of wine even though it’s not long after noon, but you have too much respect for your liver to put it through that after last night’s gin.

God but what possessed you to drink gin? Even now the room is spinning if you move too quick though that might be the lack of air with so many bodies in so small a space. Too many people. What are they all doing out at this time of day? Surely they’re not all getting a talking to?

Damn bloody gin. You should have just gone for the rum.

Will you tell her that? Tell her that the gin was a mistake and rum would have been more sensible? You can just imagine her reaction. That nasally voice and the white of her eyes and “Sensible? Sensible! After what you did last night?” Shrill like a harpy, creating a scene. Maybe she’d get you both thrown out. Then you could go and die in a ditch like your bones demand.

Making a mockery of your situation, that painting of Tupac on the wall. Not just him, everything. The big hanging bulbs too bright, the strung little fairy lights. Who has fairy lights up in fucking February anyway? No one in their right mind, that’s who. Too miserable of a month for such things, wet and cold and threatening snow. One afternoon of bright, cool sunshine, just to trick you into thinking it’s April. What gave it the right to play with your feelings like that?

She sighs and you squeeze your lips tight, dare her to speak.

Christ but she fairly sprung at you this morning. In your face, all high and mighty, nails out, asking where you’d been and who with. She already knew, she just wanted you to say it, so she could be all righteous.

Did she rake your cheek with those talons? If it were a film she would have, great drama. She loves drama, it would suit her.

Part of you wishes she had.

A policy of saying as little as possible is clearly the best way forward. You never did figure out the nature of your association beyond a strong maybe. Not your fault if she wanted to pretend at more than that. Not as if you’re married. Doesn’t she know a body’s got needs?

True you never would have considered before last night how far those needs would stretch, but she doesn’t need to know that.

“Will you at least say something?” That nasally voice piercing your ears, trying to make them bleed the way it echoes in your brain. Say something, say something, say fucking what?

“I’d prefer to save my voice.” You try to sound dignified in spite of the itch in the back of your throat.

She snorts, and you glance at her, just for a second before you look away. Best not to look too long in case you have to answer, so you look down to your hand instead, still resting on the table beside the 7Up and the remains of your greasy chips. It might be a decent place to eat, if the chips weren’t so greasy.

Whoever decided grease was the cure to a hangover ought to be shot.

Last time you were out, a single croissant was all you could stomach the morning after. And you hadn’t even had that much. A couple of shots and one daiquiri and two pints. Though the Jägerbomb was probably a bad idea, and you suspect that’s what did the damage. Your insides feel less like paint stripper today.

Could be worse, you suppose. You still have some cash in your wallet this time. Going to the bank when you can feel your skin crawling is not something you’d recommend anyone do. Not even her.

Shit but you could do with another smoke. Would she leave you be, if you went out and bought a box? Or would she try to follow? Probably follow you like a shadow all the way to the shop. Maybe someone would think she’s your stalker and call the Gards. Could save you a good deal of trouble.

Ugh but then there’d be an investigation. A whole bloody hassle.

Your cheek itches and you scratch it, the stubble sandpaper beneath your nail. You forgot to shave this morning, but it hardly matters when you half feel like death anyway.

Tomorrow. Tomorrow will start off better. With a shave.

She sits back and tilts her head, folds her arms. Waiting, watching. Giving you space. Ah, so she has decided patience is a virtue. You’d wondered if it would occur to her sometime this year.

Maybe you should tell her. Should tell her, just to see what she thinks. There was a time the two of you could laugh over such a thing. It would be nice if she could laugh now, just a little one. Just to prove that she still can. You doubt if she would laugh now, but maybe telling her would drive her away and you could have a little peace. Could go for a sleep right here in this chair. Someone would probably think you’d died.

Mightn’t be the worst thing.

Getting buried alive sounds tempting with what you’ve been through.

A flash of last night before your eyes. Cigarette smoke curling to the sky, grey against the glowing orange streetlights. The drizzle damp on your skin. That laugh gentle in your ear, curve of a smiling mouth, warm breath tickling your neck. Those blue eyes, mildly amused, skin soft beneath your fingertips.

It was a good night, one of the best, even if it has brought you here.

“What was his name?” her voice is faint, and your fingers twitch on the table. You clench them tight.

The name is heavy on the back of your tongue, but you swallow it down.

“It hardly matters.” And your voice is just a little rough, but that would be the sore throat. Or the lack of sleep. Or the smoking. Any of them, all of them, and nothing else.

Nothing else.

“It does matter.” Her words are so low you can hardly hear them.

The echoed murmur of his voice in your ear, I’ll unzip it, a beat, your breath, Grand.

Grand.

Such a simple word.

You said that about her too, once.

Grand.

And you see, for the first time, how the light here brings out the red in her hair. Maybe that’s why they have the fairy lights, for these little things. The thought is incongruous, but still your eyes linger on the red, the tones of it, deep in the mahogany. Her hair has always reminded you of mahogany, ridiculous as it sounds. Not brown, not black, somewhere in between. Something more.

Better.

Why would she ever come to a dump like this?

You open your mouth for to ask her, for to say it. To say the name, to tell her of him, but you swallow. And the name won’t come now, though it was there a few moments ago. All that comes is the appellation that you stuck to him when you couldn’t stand the sight of him, before—

Before.

If he came in now, you’re still not sure you could stand the sight of him. And somehow, to draw attention to that name feels like letting her win.

You sip the 7Up and it’s cold in your mouth. Cold, when his breath was warm, his tongue—

Christ but what you wouldn’t give for a chess board now. Something to do with your hands. Pieces to fiddle with, a pawn to move, just a little closer to her. Just to provoke her into doing something other than sitting there looking at you like that, as if she were disappointed. What right has she to be disappointed? Maybe if you were something more, but you’re not and she knows that.

You could have handled it if she’d hit you.

Violence has never been in her nature and you know that, you know it, knew it even as you tried to make her. Just to feel her fist connect with your cheekbone, solid and real, the crack of it, your head knocked back.

Was what why you did it? To see if you could?

Likely it was only the gin, clouding your senses. There isn’t one redeeming factor in that drink.

“I think you know who it was.” And your voice is little more than a whisper as your eyes meet hers.

You’re not sure when you last saw her so pale. Her face stiffens.

“I’m not sure I want to be right.”

“You are.” Both sure, and right. “You know you want to be. Know it’s better to be.”

She makes a noncommittal noise, her mouth twisted wry. “Better than wondering, I suppose.”

She supposes. It’s not often she supposes. You always like it when she does, and something inside you softens, slips.

When did you come to hate her? Or is hate too strong of a word? Is there any word that fits?

The table smooth beneath your fingers. “Well, it was him, so you know.”

Him, and how you kissed him beneath the lights. How you cupped his cheek and stroked that curl of hair away from his ear and kissed him, and when he backed you into the wall and went to his knees, you knew you would not regret it.

You still don’t regret it. Maybe you never will. What would the use be in regretting it? It’s in the past, and that’s that. Time to draw a line under the night and move on.

She nods as if she agrees, as if she hears your thoughts. “So what now?”

What now?

What now indeed.

Your eyes meet Tupac’s on the back wall, knowing and still. Waiting, as much as she is, for your answer.

S M Colgan (she/her) is a bi writer living somewhere in Ireland. Her work focuses on emotion, history, sexuality, and relationships, romantic and otherwise. She writes to understand people who are and have been, and to ease the yearning in her heart. Her most recent prose pieces have been published with October HIll Magazine and The Lumiere Review. Twitter: @burnpyregorse.

Image via Pixabay

Ampersand – Anthony Ward

Ampersand! She loved the sound of words, and her favourite sound was ampersand. She often lived in the coastal town Hawthorn where she would look out across the harbour waiting for him to return. She had waited for months at a time. Her eyes weathered by an emotional fog that drifted from echoing reminiscences that crashed against her mind, washing up a frenzied froth of thought and turmoil that left the flotsam of contrived moments amongst the jetsam of memories, before drifting back into the callous serenity of the doldrums.

The words she had exchanged with him ebbed through her, soaking her with sorrow.

“DNA triplets switching genes on and off.”

“Who switches the genes on and off?”

“Oh God,” he said, raising his arms like a preacher in surrender.

He bore the physique of a renaissance sculpture, ripping off his jumper in the pitch blackness, creating static sparks, like lightning in a thunder cloud. While she was very much aware of the body she was in, saddling herself with her clothes and adorning her smile as if it were a garment. She was more beautiful than he cared to admit. That half-cocked smile of hers had him leaning towards her. But all too often after the event, like a cat, he’d act like he wasn’t interested once he’d gotten what he’d craved. But she loved him no matter what. And she waited for him no matter when.

Why do the dark nights close in fast while the light nights open out so slow, she mused whilst looking out across lighted landscapes of C D Frederick. Though now it was mid-September and the Constables had become Turners.

He could be gone for months at a time. But months had become years. He wasn’t coming back. Which is why she couldn’t let him go.

She splashed her head into the clockface then lay there with a half-hearted grin upon her strangled countenance She was a piece of driftwood, the moniker of the boat. Her body contorting and gnarling before settling into serenity, insouciant in her suffering. She had become a song, singing on the ripples of timelessness.

“It’s the Sods law of things, when the natural outstands the logic,” he had said, those words whispering through the void.

“I could never understand logic. It tends to make common sense superfluous,” she had replied.”

Somewhere, travelling light waves through the infinite ocean of space, these conversations still echoed, while he was somewhere on the expanse, searching for himself in the belly of the whale.

What is real exactly? She thought staring at the ceiling through poached eyes. The sound siphoned through her lungs until she was a siren beckoning for his lamp through the oblivion, where she drifted, like Ophelia, in her blackened consciousness. Her hair all bladder wracked, her skin crawling with crustaceans, the cold washing its warmth through her as moonlight drizzled and spat, drizzled and spat, in spates of insomniac duration.

The last night she saw him he’d been kept up all night with tinnitus and toothache. He said his tooth was trying to eat into him, burrowing into his cheek like a lobster’s claw that wouldn’t let go. He wanted to tear it out with a fork.

“What is salvation when there’s nothing to salvage,” he had told her as he was about to leave.

She could still feel the tooth in her hand itching inside her as black and white mists engulfed the room inside out, black tar swabbing the walls as the foghorn hounded intermittently. The view from the window a photograph negative. Her veins stretched taut like violin strings scything. Stairs-there were stairs-spiralling upwards. A light spinning, was spinning, slowly, then speeded, slowly, then speeded, like a heartbeat, beating, beating, beaten, pulsing then pulling, pulsing, pulling. She was dermatologically an eggshell beginning to crack like fissures in an old painting hanging upon the wall. The walls crumpling like paper. Seagulls perched upon the window sill.

“Life’s a beach and we’re all at sea,” they squawked, emulating his last words that came ashore before she was swept away by the depths of drowning.

Anthony Ward tries his best not to write but he just can’t help himself. He writes in order to rid himself and lay his thoughts to rest. He has recently been published in Streetcake, Bluepepper Poetry, Shot Glass Journal and Mad Swirl after a hiatus in writing.

Image via Pixabay

We Swarmed Like Locusts – Robin Bissett

The first thing I saw when I woke up on the cold tile floor of Steven Corman’s bathroom was a moving amber object. I was unsure of the time, whether I had been curled up here for hours or years.

I sat up and cracked my spine by shifting against the doors of the wooden sink cabinet. Then, I rose slowly, breaking through the heavy layers of the humid air, like Athena splitting the skin of Zeus’s forehead, only much more shamefully. I wiped the crust from the corners of my eyes and grabbed a discarded red solo cup. As I swished lukewarm tap water around in the fuzzy lining of my mouth, the object appeared again.

It was a cockroach, scuttling from the edge of the bathtub toward the shower drain. I imagined it flaring its antennas, rearing up on its little legs, and hissing at me. Cockroaches would probably be a lot more intimidating if they behaved like horses, but they hadn’t learned how to yet.

Yeah, things could be worse, I thought.

Steven’s aging grandpa opened the bathroom door, clad in nothing but a loosely tied bathrobe. He squinted and shook his head, as if to wake himself from a strange dream. Or, a nightmare.

He bit into an Ambrosia apple while eyeing me. Amidst crunches, he asked, “We’re not related, are we?”

“Uh, no,” I said. I grabbed my shell jacket and brushed past him, emerging from the liminal space into the still, bright world.

Robin Bissett is a Teaching Artist and Writer from Central Texas. She enjoys absorbing and sharing stories and strengthening her surrounding literary communities.

Image via Pixabay

Your Last Christmas – Ceinwen E Cariad Haydon

give us a twirl you whisper
on borrowed breath
ever my Dad you smile
on Christmas morning
wink admire my festive dress
I blush bully my leaden feet
to circle unfurl fanned-out hopes
you’ll lose your pain to death
but not yet never yet always
sometime later
later arrives
before afternoon sarnies
cold ham with mustard
pearl onions
and rum mince pies
your Christmas teatime favourites
so I eat double helpings
some for me some for you
washed down with lukewarm beer
you hate your bitter chilled

Image via Unsplash

The Ache – Amber Rollinson

On edge, her teeth gritted, she calls the medical centre. It is the only medical centre for miles, but never has any appointments – too many patients, too little medicine. People might say it is a sign of the times, but she hasn’t seen people for months to be sure of this. The ache is sudden and unignorable, too much top of everything else. So, she calls the medical centre, asks for an appointment to see Dr Hangman, thinks she will be waiting a long time.

Actually, the voice says, clipped and icy, we have space later this afternoon.

The waiting room is empty, with enormous bay windows looking onto the equally empty landscape. In the bare field opposite she can see the burnt remains of a car. Beyond that, there are the leftover trunks of the large forest that used to blanket these hills in a thick sponge of pine needles, rotting down. Now the land is exposed, harder.

Dr Hangman will see you now.

Dr Hangman is a small man with tiny rat’s eyes and pink ears which match the pink of his nose, spidering with veins. He looks unhealthy and she wonders if she should go and see someone else. Surely she will not find a cure with a man who looks the way he does? Then she remembers there is nowhere else to go and takes the proffered seat, smoothing her grey skirt over her knees.

What seems to be the problem?

There’s this ache. It won’t go away.

Is it high or low?

He tuts irritably when she doesn’t understand.

A high note or a low note. Sharp or more general?

General, she says at last. All over.

He types something into his computer, fingers moving in a burst of furious speed. She cannot see what he has observed about her because the screen is turned away. Waiting for his pronouncement, she inspects the room, its magnolia walls, the plastic skeleton in the corner, jaw hanging open in a deranged smile.

Right. Stand up.

She stands.

Hmm. Yes. Sit down.

She sits, wondering what his thoughts are, the ache spreading, beginning to grow claws.

I have some medicine for you. Just go back to the waiting room, wait a minute, then come back.

But why?

Just one minute, he says. Is that all right?

Thinking about it, she can’t come up with any reason why it isn’t all right. She will go out there, return in one minute, and then he will give her medicine. If that is all she has to do, it is not so much to ask for a pain free life.

She goes. Returns. On the desk there is an orange vial with a single white pill inside.

That’s enough? She asks.

Oh, for now. For now. Dr Hangman says, nose twitching, confirming her impression of him as distinctly rat-like. As he stands to show her out, she almost expects to see a scaled tail swishing behind him, but there is nothing.

Come back and see me if the ache doesn’t go.

In her car, she dry-swallows the pill, desperate for the ache to go. And it does. For a few days, she lives a pain free existence, goes running, sneaks to the brow of the hill to look down at the village lights. But the following week, the ache returns, and she phones the medical centre for another appointment.

Dr Hangman doesn’t have any appointments available.

How about next week?

No, the icy voice responds.

No?

Dr Hangman doesn’t have any appointments left at all.

How can that be? What am I supposed to do?

She sighs and asks her to hold, returns five minutes later sounding more irritable than ever.

I’ve spoken to Dr Hangman and he’ll see you, but he’s not convinced you are doing enough to get the ache to go away yourself.

Like what? What am I supposed to do?

Well, are you exercising for example?

I run a lot, I go walking.

Okay. How about sleep?

She considers this and sighs. No, actually, I sleep rather poorly at the moment. It’s the worry. Everything seems so difficult.

Right well that will be it, she says sharply. His advice is to try sleeping in different places. It will trick your mind.

Is that true?

He’s a doctor. I’ll book you in for an appointment next week, but you must try sleeping in different places. Okay?

She agrees to do as she is told and hangs up the phone, wincing as the movement jars her spine, which twinges her hips, which pangs deep in her ankles and her hands. All over, she aches, cramps up, coils stiff and tight like old metal. She shifts her neck from side to side.

That night, she pulls a blanket onto the sofa and curls up into a ball trying not to think of the ache. Her jaw is clenched so she wiggles it, turns over. The wind rattles the windows, she sees a light and goes to investigate but there is nothing. Returning to the sofa, she rolls over, throws the blanket off because she is too hot, pulls it back on because she grows cold, her fingers ice, her breath misting. She turns the heating on, but the sound of the boiler disturbs her.

In the morning she phones the medical centre again.

I tried to sleep in a new place, but I just couldn’t get comfortable and there were all these new noises. It won’t work – tell Dr Hangman I just need one of those pills again and I’ll be fine.

The receptionist is silent for a moment, then says Dr Hangman expected this. He expected you would get back in touch. Let me put you on hold and see if he’s available to talk.

The song that is the hold tone is a pop song people used to sing back in the village years ago. She remembers going to art classes where they would all fill each other in on their latest ailments, their colds and fevers, their brittle bones and misshapen feet. One of the ladies had a cracked spine because her husband hugged her. You’re like porcelain, they exclaimed, how sad!

But we all, don’t we, do damage to each other? We’re innately damaging creatures, doing damage to the environment as well. It’s our nature, I mean, look at the forest, that is half the size it was when I was a girl.

At this, they fell silent. The woman was an environmentalist, and her political comments were consistently grating when they just wanted to draw flowers and hilltops.

She, for one, found this woman a piece of work and wanted to tell her so. Always, just as she was about to come out with it, blurt her vindictive feelings, the teacher would arrive, and they would stop chatting. Back then, she had been working on an oil painting of a cathedral, green and ivy-sprawled, open to the sky; a green cathedral, a sacred parcel of land, broken open.

Yes, this is Dr Hangman?

He answers like he doesn’t know who will be on the line, even though – so she said – the receptionist just went to check if he was free.

I came in about my ache?

Ah.

You recommended sleeping in new places.

I can’t prescribe any more medicine until I know you’ve tried all the alternatives. There’s no point taking pills to cover up the pain when that won’t solve the root of the issue.

I have tried. I can’t sleep wherever I sleep.

How many places have you tried?

One other.

Well exactly. If it’s noises bothering you, why not try outside? I find that very soothing.

She pictures him as an outdoorsy kind of person, with diamond-shaped calves and arms like knotted rope, wearing hiking boots and technical fabric fleeces, backpack on, trail mix in his pocket, surveying the blank land, the scraggled, wind-beaten place they live in with his sunken, rat’s eyes. He might have once been able to name all the flowers, hear birds and identify them just by their song.

Now bin bags and fluttering polythene are the new petals, and he can name those too; he can hear car engines and guess their make and manufacturer.

Trust me, go and try.

That evening, she sets off, woollen blanket in hand, thick-socked, to the forest. It is one of those nights where the moon is the white of an eye, unblinking, near-daylight in its brightness. She finds a spot by a large oak tree, spilling a green tongue of moss into the surrounding ferns, serrated copper. Amongst them, bottles and cans stud the grass like mushrooms, appearing in the night.

She sleeps fitfully, becomes cold, decides to scrape out a hole like she has seen people do in arctic conditions on the television. It is difficult – time passes – her hands turn brown and mud-caked. But at last, the soft earth like a duvet over her, she sleeps.

And in the morning, the ache is gone.

She goes home, eats a can of baked beans to warm herself up. Fresh food is hard to find these days. She looks out of the window and sees where she has come from, sees the forest flicker before her eyes in the wind. All of a sudden, the pain returns. Stabs her, grinds her to dust. She picks up the phone.

The pill is smooth and white, perfectly formed, delicate, bitter in her mouth. She swallows it and thanks him.

Dr Hangman frowns.

It’s my job. You don’t need to thank me.

According to the doctor, is it time to forget the sleep problem and focus on diet. You are what you eat, after all, he says.

You are a can stamped flat, a plastic bottle, a handful of nuts.

Obviously, fresh vegetables and fruit are out of the question these days. I’ve prepared a diet sheet for you. All of it should be fairly self-explanatory.

At home she fills her bowl with mud from the garden, tests a half-spoonful on her tongue, finds it sharp and bitter, swallows. She cannot make it through more than a few mouthfuls, and the ache in the small of her back pangs as she rushes to the bathroom to be sick.

Out with the darkness that is inside you, he will say. Out with it. You are suffering greatly.

He withholds the pill for the whole of the next appointment. She is salivating nearly, is clenching her fists to hide her sweaty palms. Hunched over, she watches him, brow cold, knees twinging.

Ah, I almost forgot. He reaches over and for some reason she opens her mouth, allows him to place it on her tongue himself as if he is giving her communion. She swallows it dry, too desperate to wait for water in a tiny plastic cup.

The pain fades but doesn’t go completely. Each time, the pill has become less and less effective. She is terrified of the day when it will do nothing at all.

The diet is working, Dr Hangman says, as per my expectations.

She doesn’t know how to respond, and the ache eats her words, so she sits back, exhausted.

There is this plant you could try which has been known to help in cases such as these, he says. I’ll draw you a picture.

He is an artist too, creative, ink-stained fingered, paint-splattered plates by the sink, brushes on the draining board. She leans over to see it; a sketch that seems to be real, to move and flutter in invisible wind, to be touchable, edible. She hasn’t seen many plants in her time but the trees of the receding forest, and those seem grey, haggard; not alive like this one.

This is what you need.

On her plate she arranges the leaves. She is on the edge of the forest, nestled beside a mattress with springs escaping like teeth, a car wheel thrown from the road, a disposable barbecue and foil trays. There is no light coming from the moon tonight, she could be the only one left in the world. The hemlock tastes like a hello from a stranger, deadly, delightful. They are handsome, with mud-dark eyes.

Like water streaming from her body, the ache leaves her. Already she is lighter, could run for miles, climb a mountain. Tonight though, she is tired.

There is a time for everything, Dr Hangman might say.

Yawning, she burrows down, pulls the soil over her head for warmth, sleeps.

Amber Rollinson is currently studying for the MSt Creative Writing at Oxford. She writes fiction and poetry and has been featured in Epoque Press’s e-zine, Channel Magazine (forthcoming), and The Common Breath (forthcoming). She is also a cyanotype artist and has had artwork featured by Epoque Press, Streetcake, Aeonion, and Neon.

Image via Pixabay

Stockholm Syndrome For Birdwatchers – Amanda McLeod

It just seemed to start happening more and more. I think I began to notice when they appeared in places and numbers that seemed…odd. I mean, an owl in your barn is totally normal. Thirty-seven of them lined up on your back fence is not. Owls in the homewares department of Target is not normal. Real ones, I mean, not ones embroidered on cushions. Ones that watched me. That followed.

Those amber eyes, so many sets of them, unblinking in the night. I had to keep the blinds closed so I could sleep. I tried to explain them away. Once you start feeding them, they follow you everywhere. I could just pretend I was eccentric until they started perching on the top of my computer monitor at work. After two weeks, my boss suggested I work from home for a while. The relief was a warm bath.

They were there day and night, unnatural for nocturnes, closer and closer. There were feathers in my bed, and dessicated piles of small bones appeared in the corners of rooms. The owls were settling in. Their eyes became comforting, their hoots a reassurance. I slept easier in their presence. We know, they seemed to say. We’ve always known.

Amanda McLeod is slowly learning to say yes to less in Canberra, Australia. She’s usually covered in ink or paint and enjoys crafting art and words, which you can find in places like The Canberra Tales and Stone of Madness Press. Her debut flash collection Animal Behaviour is available now from Chaffinch Press, and you can read more at amandamcleodwrites.com

Image via Pixabay

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