Potato-Bread and Elephants – Christine Collinson

I’m making potato-bread again by the pale light from the kitchen window. The wheat supply’s gone down with the ships. Sunk by u-boats, so the papers tell us. At least we’ve got potatoes, loads of ‘em. As much potato-bread as any family round here could need.

With all the practice, I’m getting better. Always leave the skin on to keep the goodness, like the booklet says. No peeling. I boil them up, then mash ‘em to a pulp like creamy clouds. The muscles in my forearm pull and pinch, but never tire. I focus on nothing, just working those clumps and the soft squidgy sound beneath my masher.

The clatter of cart-wheels passes by out front. It could be the elephant hauling munitions to the dockside again. So many horses taken away to France that we’ve none left to work for us. Such a sight, like you’ve never seen. The lady next door said she’s called Lizzie, said she put her trunk through a window and pinched someone’s supper. A circus elephant, I ask you. Lord knows what’s coming next.

I close the oven door with a satisfactory ‘clang’ and wipe down the table-top as the heat begins to warm the room. The day’s brightening and promises something more than the endless rain of late. Perhaps I’ll walk into town later, before teatime, when my Gregory finishes his shift. The young lads might be going, but if it wasn’t for the older chaps, the place would’ve closed its gates. We might not have horses, but we’ve still got steelworkers, thanks be given.

It’s only been seven weeks since our David left, but I need to fill time. He looked so young in his uniform and it seemed too bulky for him. And I need to fill spaces; the physical ones around me and more so, the shadowy ones in my mind. They lurk insidiously. I don’t want to see what fills them, when it’s quiet and dark. In the night hours I can reach out and curl my arm around Gregory, but in the days I find nothing.

Savoury and comforting, I smell the fresh potato-bread. I peep at it, but it’s not quite ready. The kitchen’s clean and neat, so I could go out when it’s done. I should buy more potatoes. I might even see Lizzie, I think, with a rare wry smile. The strangeness of these times feels as usual now as anything ever has. I don’t mind most of it, not really. Only his absence, his distance, and the anguished need for it to end with his safe return.

Christine Collinson writes historical fiction. Her Flash Collection’s been shortlisted by Ellipsis and she’s a Best Microfiction nominee.
She’s also been longlisted by Bath Flash Fiction. She tweets @collinson26.

Image via Pixabay

hobson’s daughter – R C deWinter

the whine of an unidentifiable machine bathes me
in the sweat of an unremembered nightmare

great salty drops slide down the surface of my soul
a leftover picasso hanging in the garage of the world
further deformed by the handwritten judgment of
a panel of critics enshrined in a three ring binder

whose torn plastic cover sports smeared doodles
of prehistoric life dating back six millennia

i twist and turn inside myself
adjusting what needs adjusting so my breathing
will be calm almost silent in-out waves in an imaginary sea

when i emerge
bloodyfingered and in desperate need of nicotine
i find nothing but overflowing ashtrays
thanks to the putti lounging on the mantelpiece

who in the advantage of my absence
rummaged through coat pockets and purses
chainsmoking every cancer stick i’d been hoarding

this leaves me with a life or death decision

do i mask up and brave the bright hunger
of a host of invisible reapers
to buy the instrument of another face of the grave
or
stay safely sequestered
twitching and cursing my way through
the starvation of addiction?

there’s nothing sensible about any rationale for either choice
so
standing before the mirror
i smile
look up
toss a coin

RC deWinter’s poetry is anthologized, notably in New York City Haiku (NY Times/2017), Coffin Bell Two (Coffin Bell/2020) in print: 2River, Adelaide, Event, Genre Urban Arts, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, the minnesota review. Night Picnic Journal, Prairie Schooner, Southword among many others and appears in numerous online publications.

Image via Pixabay

Ticking Vacillation – Conor Doyle

4.03pm July 24th

marthahealy@catholiccolaitionagainstnarcotics
to me

Congratulations!

You’re one month free of *insert drug* Oscar, and so now you must write your ‘One month free of *insert drug* essay’. This is a special assignment to mark such a milestone (go you!), so crucial in your Recovery Adventure™ here at The Catholic Coalition Against Narcotics Ireland. Don’t forget to hit all the mastheads, either. Pour into these pages your wonderous feelings of emancipation from the shackles of addiction! Scribe here your refreshed feelings of personhood! Tell us, what ingratiating work have you done with your month? What is your philanthropic vice! Fundraising? Volunteering? Many of our clients join charities. You must have at least helped some people get clean, yeah? Our Client of the Month is hotly contested this time around, 23 referrals the best so far!

And of course, through the very writing of your essay your resolve will be fortified. Temptations to ever touch that toxic, pernicious, poison again will be abated. Nay, crushed. And don’t forget to submit by 5pm, July 24th in order to move to the next phase of your treatment.

4.04pm July 24th

Oscar closed his Gmail and opened up a Word document. Charity work? He thought. Charity, charity, charity he recited in his head, eyes wandering out the window while chewing the corner of a blister pack of Cetrine Allergy tablets. His eyes were killing him with that hay fever itch so potent in Ireland during the summer. It felt like there was something constantly tickling his eyeballs. Little pixies maybe, gently dancing on the inside of his eyelids. Ever so slightly their tiny pixie feet glancing off his tear ducts, to the beat of whatever music it is pixie’s listen to. Enya maybe or something? Regardless, the conglomeration of their dainty, tickling, dancing feet was creating a hot fire of itch so unbearable that he simply had no other choice but to stand up from the computer and check his eyes in the mirror. He pulled down on the skin at his cheekbones with each index finger, revealing the maze of red capillaries at the bottom of his eyeballs. No sign of pixie life. His eyes were exceptionally red from incessant scratching though, which clashed with the deep purple of the bags underneath them. Ah yes! Charity!

24th July 2020.

My one month free of cocaine essay.

Charity work. I did the ‘run 5 tag 5 donate 5 challenge’ this month. I was tagged by my best friend Dyl on Instagram, which meant I had to run 5 kilometres. Which was pretty fucking annoying to be honest because running is awful, but I wasn’t not gonna do it. Everyone would know if you didn’t. So I allotted myself one week – get a few runs in, build myself up that sort of thing. I did extensive research, too. I had a little look on that couch to 5k app, and there’s actually some amazing YouTube videos on running as well. Get your 5k time down fast! I think one was called. Something about re-wiring the way our foot hits the ground because our feet have been coddled from years of running in padded runners. Very interesting and something extremely overlooked I must say. Supposed to take your time down by 30 seconds a kilometre apparently. Anyway, I ran it in just under 25 minutes and put it on my instagram story. I got a fair few replies of that little ‘man running’ emoji with the little ‘gust of wind’ emoji coming behind him. Because I guess that’s a fast time? I was happy with it anyway. And I donated €5 to the cancer society and tagged five of the lads in my story too. nah fuck this this is stupid

4.18pm July 24th

Blink, Blink. Oscar tried to sync up his blinking with the cursor on the Word document. It was hard, he thought, because every time you close your eyes you can’t see the cursor anymore.

New Whatsapp message:

What’s up I think we’re going to Union early now you coming?

Union early. He shuddered. The very thought aroused in him a memory he’d worked hard to forget. The memory of an encounter with a humanoid koi fish. Union was a nightclub / venue on the northside of Dublin. It had a large smoking area which had been appropriated into a sort of beer garden. The outside area had a large glass veranda overhanging and heaters stuck onto the walls, insulating young Irish adults from the harsh unpredictability of the weather. It was kind of underground and was pretty ornate in a sort of pretentious, self-aware, shabby chic sort of way. With exposed brick on each of the three walls enclosing the smoking area and random flower pots, without any flowers, sitting on little make shift wooden shelves attached to these walls, the surface of which only barely big enough for the flower pot to sit on.

For Oscar, Union was where time, promises and resolve went to die. The promise he made on this occasion was that he wouldn’t do any coke. But he was getting bored. There were many triggers for Oscar’s cokeless resolve to falter. Boredom, anxiety, sadness, happiness, loneliness, coke, coke, coke, coke, coke. Right now his boredom had led him to staring into the space above the left shoulder of his friend Jack, trying to make it seem as though he was still present within his circle of friends. What he was actually doing, was eavesdropping on a conversation between two young professional types. From like KPMG or Deloitte maybe. One of whom seemed to be describing a bowel movement in great detail.

“My arse was like ground zero, man. And not ground zero today with like a beautiful memorial and tourists paying tribute and whatever, I mean on September 11th. With like debris and blood everywhere. And people in pain and screaming and stuff. Well, it was just me in pain and screaming but the analogy still works, I think”.

His eavesdropping was interrupted by Dylan walking into the smoking area, flanked by some lads Oscar hadn’t seen before.

“Ah! What’s up man?” Dylan said, with a false surprise.

“What’s up” Oscar replied, but his eyes were wandering towards the two unidentified men on either side.

“Oh, this is Cormac and this is Ross” he said. There was a pause. “From college”.

Oscar and the two now identified men went into a synchronised dance of bobbing head nods and fake smiles that built to a crescendo of “what’s the craic” in unison. They all knew the steps perfectly, having performed it countless times for live audiences. What came after the dance though, was less certain, and there was a silence as each of them seemed to grab at the corners of their minds for words that weren’t there.

“We’re gonna grab a drink” the two newly identified men said. Dylan and Oscar were now alone, but words didn’t come any easier.

“I saw your Ma on the road the other day” Dylan said. “She looked great. She’s not still…” he trailed off.

“Nah man! No, jesus she must be finished treatment like 2 or 3 months now I think. She’s doing really good yeah”

“That’s unreal”

“How’ve you been?”

“Eh, same old man honestly, college stuff, have my dissertation due in like a month now I think? A month yeah”

Oscar didn’t ask about Dylan’s dissertation. He couldn’t remember the topic of it, even though he knew he’d asked a million times. Even if he did remember he wouldn’t know what to say.

“I’ve a bit of coke here man if you wanna do it?” Dylan finally said. The awkwardness seemed to alleviate some.

“Aww I might have a bit” Oscar said, a mischievous smile breaking out on his face. The mischief was mirrored by Dylan, who raised his eyebrows into an expression which said ‘go on, be bold’ and in a second the two old friends were laughing, more than they should have been.

Doing ‘a bit’ meant getting his own bag. And getting a bag of coke was an entire commitment. It was like marrying a time period. It was as though him + (the night in Union + an after party) had vowed to be bound in unending love until daylight do them part. It was at the after party where he met the koi fish.

The setting of their meeting had been the sitting room of a student house in Phibsborough on the northside of Dublin. The room smelled like sour must, amber leaf and bacon fries. The smell of bacon fries was the strongest, and seemed to get stronger in the vicinity of the two couches in the room, leading Oscar to credibly surmise that someone had washed the couch covers with a bacon-fry-scented detergent. He felt he could almost smell the salt. From the sitting room, you could see through a window into a conservatory, which contained the only toilet of the house, using which would render you soaking wet on account of the leak in the ceiling. There was an unidentified beeping noise coming from the kitchen at regular intervals.

For Oscar, reality was beginning to behave a little erratically. He was reclining in an arm chair that appeared to have once been a deep forest green, but was now the colour of a black wine gum. As in, if the light hit it in a certain way it still had a green hue, but now, it was mainly black. And from the vantage point of his armchair, Oscar had seen a rotund, human sized, orange koi fish emerging from the kitchen, holding a can of Tyskie. Oscar was terrified and enchanted all at once. The large koi fish man loomed over him, engaging Oscar, with remarkable aplomb for a fish, on the topic of Incels, a topic on which Oscar actually had a little prior knowledge.

* Incels, Definition: a group of deprived and lonely men that congregate exclusively on the internet, for fear of the outside world.

In – as in, involuntary. Cel – as in, celibate. As in, through no volunteering of their own, nobody will fuck them.

“Incels are an interesting phenomenon” the fish was saying. “A marker of our times. A clash, it seems, between the emancipation of the modern woman and the rise of the internet”

Hmm? What did any of this mean? Who was this fish man? Had he been sent by someone, a deity? Buddha? Oscar had recently accepted Buddha as his saviour so that would make sense. Perhaps he had been sent to guide Oscar, this clairvoyant sea creature, sent to rid him of his vices! Oscar was enraptured now by this beautiful creature, and began agreeing exuberantly with everything he was saying. After all, this omniscient mongoloid merman and was about to tell him all the secrets to salvation.

The fish man turned out to be Kevin, Dyl’s friend from the scouts when they were kids. He was the owner of the bacon fry couches. It was unclear why he was pontificating about incels, but it was pretty clear he had no prophetic powers. Although there was a rumour that he’d flipped his first cross joint when he was 10, which is definitely prodigious, if not prophetic. Regardless, unbeknownst to Oscar, he had just five minutes ago taken a bump of ketamine, assuming it to be coke. And as a result, he was having lucid visions in which he was enmeshing reality with his weird affinity for Asian culture. The memory did spark in him something to write, though.

24th July, 2020.

My cocaine journey.

Catholic Coalition Against Drugs Ireland has helped me immensely in my ‘Recovery Adventure’. To be honest, before I found it, I didn’t like life very much. I would have been quite happy if it stopped at any particular point. You see, I tried giving up cocaine on my own once before. I even gave quitting a funny name, NoPat. It’s always easier to say serious things if you give them a funny name. I should explain NoPat. No as in, the word no, like negative, nix, never, no way buddy! And Pat as in cocaine, like patsy, bifter, ricky, beautiful fluffy cloud of goodness! In short, I wasn’t doing cocaine anymore.

The name template was robbed from a movement created by Incels. A group of lonely men on the internet. Their movement, NoFap (which I tried), is predicated on not wanking. For like, a really really long time. It purports to give you clarity of mind. Which any man who hasn’t ejaculated in three days knows to be a falsehood. Not wanking is like not taking out the bins of your bollocks. It’s like a building tension in your sack that begins to permeate through everything you do, sticking it’s head in where it’s neither wanted nor appropriate. Keeping you from studying, from sleeping, from anything –

4.29pm July 24th

Click, click. He was slumped off to the left hand side of his chair, looking down at his left hand, which clutched his lighter. He was rolling the rotating flint wheel under his thumb, being careful not to apply enough pressure on the flat, plastic fork underneath to make it ignite. Just rolling, back and forth. Click, click.

He jolted upright at the sight of the girl from next door coming into her back garden. His bedroom faced the back of both houses, and from his little lookout he could see perfectly into both his and next door’s garden. The two gardens were separated only by a low dividing wall, but the divide was fortified by trees and shrubs making it impossible to see from one garden into the other. Unless you were in his bedroom. His room was the best place to be if you were inclined to snoop on your neighbours, which he was. Who wouldn’t be when your neighbour was such a goddess? He lowered himself behind his laptop screen, but let his eyes peep over the top.

The goddess walked into her garden, carrying under one arm a basket of wet clothes and began to put them on the washing line to dry. How was it possible that someone could conduct themselves with such grace when putting fluffy socks on a washing line? She was wearing a pair those billowing, elephant imprinted pants that young women often buy on piss ups life changing trips to Thailand in their early 20s. On her torso, she was wearing an oversized grey hoodie, adorned with what appeared to be the name of an American ivy league university on the front. But what majesty! Her sandy brown hair flowed off her upper back like a waterfall, only barely reaching down to kiss the arch in her lower back. The way she held her shoulders exuded a self-assuredness so foreign to Oscar. Was she looking? Nah, he thought, she can’t see in anyway for the glare of the sun on the window. Her face was now turned in his direction though, allowing him to see her eyes. Though she was squinting he could still make out their deep brown, lightened ever so slightly by the way the relentless July sun reflected off them. What was she squinting at? He wondered. Perhaps she’d seen some rare bird in the cloudless sky and was straining her perfect eyes for a closer look. He marvelled at the combination of her beauty and intellect. She took a step towards the window now, washing basket still clasped under one arm, her mouth opening slightly, transforming her expression from the meditative apathy of one hanging clothes, into the disgust and incredulity of someone who had just discovered a man watching her from his bedroom window, thinking he was hidden behind a laptop. Oscar jumped away from the window.

4.34pm July 24th

Why was it so warm? The air in his room was thick. It was one of those rare Dublin summer days which are both hot and humid. He felt like it was difficult to move for the thickness of the air. He lifted his arm up off his desk and the great difficulty of doing so confirmed his theory. Moving through the air was like trying to move through butter. He took off his jumper and dropped it behind him onto the pile of clothes on the ground. It wasn’t as bad as his mother would have you believe, but yeah, his room wasn’t the cleanest. He had once refrained from opening his curtain for a number of weeks during a period of particular squalor, for the incoming light of the outside world would be the final component needed for photosynthesis to occur in his room. And he couldn’t be sure what might start growing. “Oscar!” his mother called up the stairs.

“I’m working on something, Mam!”

4.45pm July 24th

What’s so hard about it? It’s just putting your thoughts onto a page. You have thoughts in your head all the time, just put them on the page? Well, I mean someone is going to read it but don’t worry about it. Just worry about putting your fingers to the keyboard. He was sitting, bouncing now from one bumcheek to the other, like the writer version of boxer getting ready for the round to begin, bobbing side to side, visualising himself thrashing out words and sentences and paragraphs of deep introspective reflections. Instead of thrashing out paragraphs though, his fingers were drumming on his plywood desk on either side of his laptop. Drum, drum, drum. Drum, drum, drum. He had nice fingers, he thought. Mostly he despised himself, but his fingers he liked. They were long, but not so long as to become spindly. They had some meat on them, but not so much to be stubby sausage fingers. Yeah, they were nice. He put a €2 coin on the front side of his left index finger, and curled it up, like his finger was doing a bicep curl. He did it for a set of 10, watching with reverence as the muscles tensed and relaxed, tensed and relaxed. Yeah, he had nice fingers.

4.49pm July 24th

He moved forward in his chair now, a display of his deep earnest intentions. He was serious. And serious people sit up in their chair. Mr Kearns told him that in school. He leaned forward with both of his arms placed on the desk in front of his laptop. His arms were parallel to each other, one in front of the other, propping up his body which was now leaning far over his desk. So far in fact, that his head was past his laptop screen, and gazing out the window. His mouth half ajar, he stared in a trance at an sitka spruce tree, as if beckoning it to bring him some divine inspiration. The tree stood on its own in a little park that was just beyond the retaining wall of his back garden. There was a couple of other trees in the park but they weren’t anything like the spruce. It seemed strange and out of place in this urban metropolis. Seemed to belong in a vast forest. One of those forest’s that carpet the rolling hills of a valley, somewhere in the mid-west of America.

24th July 2020

I wrote a poem at the start of the month and I’d like to share it with you:

O wondrous new life,
Sans pressure and strife,
Hath the grass always been this green?
Glazed with such a beautiful glean,
The people this affable?
Beautiful, kind, loving, ineffable,
O wondrous new life,
Sans pressure and strife.

Pretty nice poem, I think. At the time of writing though, me and my new found sobriety were on a sort of new lovers honeymoon. We were on a beach in the Maldives, dipping our toes in shallow bodies of the beautiful clear blue waters of the Indian Ocean. At the very specific time of penning the poem, my newly birthed cokelessness was rubbing my feet, having just made love to me in the way that only new lovers do. I was reclining in a hammock, sipping on a pina colada and watching the peachy Asian sun setting, as the low hum of 1970s jazz-funk massaged my ears. We’ve hit some speedbumps since then. So I’d actually like an essay from you ‘Martha Healy from The Catholic Coalition Against Narcotics Ireland’. And could you hit these mastheads please?

1. Why don’t I get the respect I deserve?

Your organisation, Martha, along with social media owe me an apology. Where’s all my likes and retweets? My comments of unadulterated support? Both of you have perpetuated the idea that my quitting would gain me the adoration of my peers. What’s that Morrissey song, we hate it when our friends become successful? That’s what it’s actually like. So my question to you is, why do people take my choice to improve myself as an affront to their own imperfections? Why do my friends look at me like I think I’m better than them? Why did Julie ask me in front of everyone at Dan’s party why I was bothering, as I didn’t even have a problem? How selfish is the human condition that our eyes can see someone trying to improve, but all our brain perceives is our own disappointing reflection? As if all the humans in our lives are just mirrors by which we use to gauge our own self-worth.

2. Why amn’t I any better?

I stopped doing this thing to be better, but I’m not. You always tell me how much better I’ll become but I haven’t. Last week I was startled by a dog and spent the entire evening with violent fantasies of luring it into my garden and strangling it. Yesterday I got a panic attack because I became convinced my mother thinks I’m boring. I’m still failing college. I’ve no intention of volunteering. These never featured in any of the ‘Past Client Videos’ we watched.

I’ve had my blanky taken away from me. Doing cocaine is a very fluffy little white comfort blanket which insulated me from my failings. And I quite liked it. Who am I supposed to blame my failings on now? Cocaine is procrastination. It’s putting off your homework until the night before so you can say, of course I failed! I didn’t even try. It’s never making music so you can tell yourself you could have been Bob Dylan. Why am I still afraid of going outside? Why aren’t my panic attacks going away? Why amn’t I getting any better? I want my blanky back.

3. Why do I feel more lonely?

I didn’t think it was possible. I’ve made myself into a social pariah. Everyone does coke. It’s like everyone I know shares a common interest that I don’t. It’s like everyone I know watches The Sopranos and I don’t have HBO. Wait no – it’s like everyone I know watches Sopranos and I cancelled my subscription to HBO. Why would I cancel my subscription to HBO? It’s like everybody’s seen the new Tarantino film and I haven’t. Except I’m not going to. I’ve made a conscious choice not to.

I barely talk to Dylan anymore. It might be stupid to you Martha, but there’s comradery in cocaine you know. We don’t share any interests since I stopped playing football. Cocaine might be evil to you Martha but it bound me and him. Yeah it’s fake, but for one night a week until 10am the next day, it’s like primary school. It doesn’t matter that he went to UCD and I went to NCAD. Doesn’t matter that I don’t know who United signed in the transfer window anymore. It just mattered that we were there, together. Talking about whatever. Why is that I coul-

4.58pm July 24th

New Whatsapp message

We’re gonna be passing yours in a taxi in a minute
you coming?

Conor Doyle is a young writer from Dublin. He began writing for fun in his spare time following an existential crisis that arose from obtaining a law degree, with which he has no intention of doing anything law-ish. Though sometimes his premises’ and characters are ridiculous, he tries to deal with serious topics faced by young people through humour.

Image via Pixabay

The Panic Button – Cecily Winter

When the flagstones began curling at the corners and twilight dissolved into blankness, the ligaments serving my bones snapped all at once. I couldn’t walk another step, couldn’t even stand. I sank down on a familiar step and wrapped my arms around my leather satchel—my eternal companion before the proliferation of laptops—that brimmed with recalled library books. My eyes screwed closed. I was barely aware of the woman who stopped to ask if I needed help. Satisfied with a headshake, she left me heaped in that pose of anguished and baffled desolation.

Inside or outside my skull, the campus proceeded to disintegrate, and I hunched against the stout wooden doors of Bennett Hall. If I’d pushed my way through, I could have huddled in the corner of a classroom or mounted the stairs to my old grad-student cubicle.

While I sat, the crick-crack of shattered masonry turned into a downflow of matter that bathed my spine in the day’s retained warmth. I rocked back and forth with eyes closed and arms wrapped tight around my bulky satchel and focused on what used to be. I hastily erected mental scaffolding on the façade, which I knew existed the day before, with axioms of architecture: keystone, quoin, pediment, cornice, buttresses. To believe that the laws of physics go rogue in one’s presence is a symptom of mania, I suppose, but a panic attack is exactly that, a mania contained by human skin.

The worst of the chaos bayed by a returning self-possession, my ligaments reattached to muscles and muscles to bone, and I squinted through half-mast eyes at the devastations I’d wrought. Catty-corner to a dim street light, I saw that the one-way traffic of Walnut Street had bifurcated like the opening wings of a massive dragonfly—only the long wings were molten blisters of glass veined in exhaust fumes.

I lingered in the murk of confusion while trees as venerable as Ben Franklin rose above the traffic, etiolated, and flinging out twigs and leaves to taunt the peregrine falcons deployed in harassing city pigeons. I recalled Loren Eisley, formerly a Ben Franklin Chair at Penn, who grieved for a sick pigeon and how impossible he found it to walk a city street without experiencing profound pity for its living things. Was I a sick pigeon harassed by invisible raptors, with only one woman stopping by to offer up the milk of human pity?

My eyes opened fully. This joint failure of architecture and nerve is become the thesis for an autobiographical snippet of personality collapse, the flapping page of a penny-dreadful left out in a gale. It must have been autumn, the falling time. I’d been headed for the Rare Book Room or the Furness Shakespeare Library—I’d forgotten which—in the vastness of Van Pelt Library. Abruptly, I blundered through the dragonfly wing of traffic. Safely across that diaphanous blur, I set eyes on the split-button sculpture at the foot of the steps, the metaphor of a cracked ambition.

On my shoulder rode the satchel, the capstan mooring me to that ambition, a gift to self for graduate school, always heavy then with massive anthologies, snippets of literature across the ages, multiple paper-chains of descent, pastiche, and innovation. How much writing has been inked, how much writing about writing, how much teaching has been required to understand writing and the printed idiosyncrasies and errors of our manifold cultural heritages?

Around that time, I’d been researching, composing, and publishing chapters and articles that required the framework of history or one or another voguish theoretical discourse. This arcana, along with research texts embodied in microfilm and ancient chronicle, had to be cut and pasted into cogent explication. These fabrications of thesis, paragraph, footnote, ambition, and mimicry were the buttons by which I anticipated fastening about me the whole-cloth robe of future tenure. It was a struggle and sometimes I preferred watching classic movies on TV.

I’d anchored myself by literature’s paper-chains to a career proving as evanescent as a zeitgeist, but on that particular fall evening the library’s concrete columns remained solidly in place with windows glued to their frames. The thousands upon thousands of books inside had expanded in width with every reading until they’d filled the empty gaps between the stacks, which kept the walls from tumbling inward and floors from rising and dropping like antic elevators. When the metaphysics upholding our institutions collapses for good, those books will feed generations of beetles.

Up the steps—I never counted them—I offloaded the recalled books before dipping my visiting scholar’s card into the gate device. Though anxious about elevators in free-fall, I entered one that opened its door to me unbidden. I leant against the back panel to watch students enter and leave as lit numbers rose and fell, fell and rose. Finally, I remember to push the button for the hallowed sixth floor, where I debarked alone. I lingered by a glass-covered display of illustrated bibles that neatly relegated chaos to mysteries and marginalia.

My satchel in a locker, my notebook and pencil in hand, I signed into the Rare Book reading room and waited for the librarian to collect my requisitioned volumes while I gathered foam wedges and weighted pillows designed to minimize the wear on flaking covers and fragile paper.

Since I was last there, much has transpired architecturally and organically beyond those high windows. Buildings subject to collapse are renovated and re-named, revised mission statements issued, new faculty tenured, and old ambitions retired.

Sometimes, I’d believed I was anchored in place forever by the truth of this book or that, even by a single sentence or sentiment, but unlike books it seems that life keeps trying to get the answer right.

Image via Pixabay

Meet at the Pub on Rua de Lisboa (the One with the Lace Curtains in the Windows) – Jenny Wong

Eve sits at a table, waiting for Mack, watching the pot lights shed a holy golden glow across the bar. Ever since she met him, she’s always been the one who waits. Booze-saggy shelves line the back wall, a haven for near-empty bottles with a little bit left to give. The blotchy yellowed ceiling reminds her of a Rorschach Test done up in sepia and old smoke. She sees why he picked this throwback bar. Cigarettes were still allowed indoors.

When Mack arrives, his face is backlit in white-washed sunlight, but she knows it’s him. He still opens the door with a sleeve-covered hand, still wears that black leather jacket.

She waves him over and they attempt to mimic the patterns of old friends catching up, a handshake that leans into a hug, the loud awkward sound of a chair being pulled out. Conversations begin, filled with words and topics that belong in a pamphlet for middle age. Mid-sized sedans. Half-bath renos. Disneyland vacations.

He has a beard now. It lies across his face, shaggy and Brazil-shaped, with a bristle of white whiskers that zigzag through like a snowy mountain range. His thinning hair is combed back in scalp-revealing streaks. And he laughs differently. A short spasm. Hot blown air kicked out the throat. Although, she shouldn’t judge. Eve looks down at her white shirt, stomach pooching over her belt like a half sack of flour, expanding beyond the trim margins of her youth.

She can still see the old Mack if she squints hard, blurring the man across the table into a technicolor silhouette, still see the soft brown eyes that lit up right before the inevitable kisses, or the times when she smoked and he said she looked like the cover of a Joni Mitchell album. Eve quit smoking after he left. That was ten years ago.

The conversation slows into uncomfortable stares and twitching fingers. Mack excuses himself to go to the bathroom, leaving his cigarette smoldering in the table’s grungy plastic ashtray. Eve sighs and stares overhead. The water stains on the ceiling linger like rusty old ghosts, silent witnesses to the countless sputterings of two old flames reuniting without any chance of rekindling. How long before the cost of a strike wasn’t worth the chance of a spark?

Eve throws a few bills on the table and heads out the door. She blinks in the sudden daylight, breathing in the smell of new sunlight on warm pavement, leaving behind the dingy lace curtains to waft in the windows like empty old nightgowns with no more stories to tell.

Jenny Wong is a writer, traveler, and occasional business analyst. She resides in the foothills of Alberta, Canada and tweets @jenwithwords. She is currently attempting to create a poetry collection about locations and regularly visit her local boxing studio. Recent publications include Claw & Blossom, Atlas & Alice, Whale Road Review, Lost Balloon, and FlashFlood on the 2020 International Flash Fiction Day UK.

Image via Pixabay

Post-Apocalypse – Neil Fulwood

These are the landscapes of abandonment:
towns and roadways shattered, office blocks
reduced to rubble, a few rusting hulks
in memoriam industry: a smelting plant,

a derrick half-melted by the atomic blast,
twisted remnants of trucks jackknifed
on desert roads. Fuck all’s survived
that justifies itself. The sky’s overcast

and everything has the pallor of ash
or graveyard dirt. Currency is whatever
can be eaten, drank or bartered.
Books, music, film: things of the past.

There’s only this: the buzz-rip of a chainsaw,
the scream of an engine revved too hard,
the metallic snick of a cartridge
racked into a pump-action shotgun. Law

in this bone-dry hinterland is determined
by who has the most ammo, or access
to fuel. Because nothing says post-apocalypse –
nothing presents a more unifying thread

in these kind of films – than the notion
that petroleum is still available, that
oil is to be had, and precision turned parts
just lie around as if an automotive ocean

had discharged the flotsam of quad-bike/
dune-buggy hybrids decked out with
the accoutrements of the gun-ship
or armoured car. This is what the future’s like:

a closed-down, half-demolished industrial estate
repurposed as arena. Chose your weapon:
crowbar, wrench, knife, length of chain, gun.
Tonight’s entertainment: oil, blood and hate.

Neil Fulwood was born in Nottingham, where he still lives and works. He has two poetry collections with Shoestring Press: No Avoiding It and Can’t Take Me Anywhere. He also co-edited the Alan Sillitoe tribute volume, More Raw Material.

Image via Pixabay

Rickets, Crickets – Annabel Banks

I got the lizard Sunday morning, driving in silence until I pull up to the guy’s house. He invites me in, coughs wetly into his hand, and leads me straight to the tank. ‘This is Barry,’ he says. The picture in the advert had been blurry, taken from above, and so it’s a surprise to see the thing is actually beautiful: a buttery hue, with black accents to the tips of the crest, and finely made toes that taper into excellent nails.

‘Sorry to see him go, to tell the truth,’ wheezes the man, own eyes red and dripping. ‘Have to move nearer the hospital, and got no time to be a fusspot about pets.’ He strokes the beast on the back of its head. ‘Moving is hellish at the best of times, ain’t it, Barry?’

The lizard is still, quiet under the man’s attentions, but his golden eyes are on mine.

‘I love him already,’ I say.

Cash is handled, Barry is boxed, and I pack the glass tank, heat lamps and thermal pad into my car. The sick man throws in a carton of live worms, remembering at the last moment that he has a bag of frozen crickets, which will surely defrost on the long drive home, but that’s probably okay. They will freeze again just fine.

‘We will order lots of yummy things for you when we get home,’ I tell the lizard, who is travelling on the passenger seat. ‘Don’t worry. Soon be there.’

He’s just chilling in in the cardboard box, with barely a scrabble in reaction to his whole world coming apart. I admire that so much, you know? The fortitude, I mean. This lizard, is gritty as sand, tough as reinforced glass. He has no fucks to give.

* * *

Because ‘Barry’ is an unsuitable name for a lizard, I change it to ‘my unjustified self-hatred.’ This means that I get to say things like ‘my unjustified self hatred kept me awake all last night,’ and ‘my unjustified self hatred’s eating habits are a concern.’ Quiet and clean, he spends most of his time dozing under his sun lamp, scales glowing with warmth. Should he become bored, he undertakes a touch of decorating: moves his wood, shuffles rocks and sand. I like to watch him as I dry my hair. He likes to watch me get undressed. Sometimes I will dance for him, a little shimmy and a striptease before bed, but we both know this is mere comedy, not something to get upset and argue about. ‘We don’t need that kind of aggravation,’ I tell him. ‘We’re happy as we are.’

* * *

My sister says I should exercise. That, after a thirty-minute period of jumping and kicking, I would feel more in control, be able to sleep until rested, eat until satisfied. ‘You need to start looking after yourself,’ she says. ‘No one else is going to, are they?’

‘No.’

My sister has a way of tutting that makes me want to headbutt the wall. She does it, then adds, ‘You’re coming apart at the seams.’

‘My unjustified self-hatred never makes comments like that.’

‘What did you say? The line’s bad.’

‘Nothing.’ The phone is on speaker, because I’m painting my nails as I talk: a shining gold to compliment his eyes. ‘But he wouldn’t. He’s got my back.’

‘Oh? Who’s this, then?’ Her tone has changed, and although I can’t quite put my finger on why, this makes me want to cry. ‘Finally found someone supportive, have you?’

‘Yep.’

A childish squeal, a beg for a name, but I’m already changing the subject. My sister lets me. She loves me very much. And I don’t like lying to her, and yet the truth is he’s not being supportive. How can he be, when we never talk? I fetch him his dinner and, while he eats, take myself away to sit in the other room, double screening reality shows and the socials of reality shows, but eventually find myself drawn back to his absence, his fascinating disdain.

* * *

I’m browsing the forums when an advert pops up. Tank, lights, two bags of food and the leggy wonder that is ‘Khalesi’, all together for a knock-down price, and only a thirty-minute drive. This could make all the difference, I think. This could be what we need. Khalesi is a dumb name for a spider, so on the drive home I rename it ‘my fear of being judged’. Phone calls to my mum and dad become a fist-biting, giggling mess. My fear of being judged is hiding under a rock. They ask me about work, about movies I haven’t seen. My fear of being judged is scuttling into the darkness. They ask if I will invite my new man, the one my sister’s been brim-full of, round for dinner. ‘He sounds good for you,’ they repeat, ‘after all those lame ducks and scoundrels. He sounds stable.’

‘Oh yes, he’s extremely stable,’ I reply, eyeing the low legs, the weighty tail that narrows into the sand.

‘How lovely,’ they say. ‘Well done.’

* * *

My doctor says I should exercise. My blood tests are a shit-show of cholesterol and vitamin D deficiency, so I’m breakfasting on oats, knocking back nuts and making sure to swallow a daily dose of distilled sunlight. To be honest, I’m finding it hard to concentrate. Words are hard to locate, I keep losing my phone and my fear of being judged is hard to get to grips with. I can’t tell what it wants, for a start, and nothing I do seems to make a difference.

No one likes being ignored, so I start playing with the conditions of the tank, cooler and warmer, more food or less, trying to get it to do something other than sit in the shadowy corner waiting to be fed.

My parents tell me to get some exercise. Instead, I invest in a microwave rice cooker and think about my protein sources. Beef is out, because we all said we’d stop eating it until the rainforest fire was dealt with, and that was ages ago. I open the freezer, play Tetris with frozen falafel, the frozen chicken curry, the frozen crusts of bread, then grab a handful of my unjustified self hatred’s crickets. They defrost on the counter, unpleasantly crunchy and cold.

* * *

My fear of being judged died today. I went to the tank and it was all curled up, legs folded neatly under the furry body, ready for death’s great web. Weeping, I break the news to my unjustified self-hatred, who, of course, says nothing. But I know we’re on the same page. I give him the little corpse to eat. He gives me a golden blink, which is not what I need, but not nothing: a drawing of the sun.

Annabel’s work can be found in such places as Granta, The Manchester Review, The Stockholm Review and 3:AM, and has been broadcast by the BBC. Her debut collection of short fiction, Exercises in Control, is available from Influx Press. She lives in London.

Image via Pixabay

Old News – Amanda Pampuro

Man Arrested for Traveling to 6th Century Ill

LONDON 2332 (AP) – Authorities apprehended a man outside Cornwell on Tuesday after he infected a famous 6th century castle with the smoky flu.

Caused by a novel pathogen, the smoky flu has infected 3 million people since September, and killed 200,000. The British prime minister enacted a stay-at-home order and closed all timeports on Sunday to prevent further spread of the disease.

Terry Idle, 23, left for a holiday in the 6th Century on Friday, apparently unaware that he was a carrier of the disease. He passed a basic health check at the timeport, which was not testing for the smoronavirus, the organism that causes the disease. According to Heathrow, he exhibited an average temperature and clear eyes.

Shortly after arriving at his chalet, Idle reported feeling nausea, but attributed it to the travel. He drank half a bottle of local mead and fell asleep. He woke up with a headache, but blamed the wine and the humidity.

According to friends and family who were aware of the trip, Idle was on his way to the legendary Tintagel Castle to watch a tournament held by King Arthur to celebrate victory at the Battle of Arfderydd.

The brother kings of Efrog slayed Arfderyddian leader Gwenddoleu ap Ceidio during the battle, furthering the rein of Arthur. The slain tyrant’s bard Merlin returned after the dust had settled to pledge his allegiance to Arthur King of the Brits.

There was a great reenactment of the battle at the tournament, and Merlin demonstrated his magical powers through what was recorded as, “fierce plumes of fire,” but are now known to have been common fireworks. The festivities concluded in a six-day feast, which time-tourists are permitted to participate in, however the battle is strictly off-limits.

In addition to traveling while ill with a contagious disease, it is against the law to interact unnecessarily with civilizations that have not signed onto the Global Temporal Trade Agreement. Very few pre-industrial societies have agreed to GTTA pacts, but exceptions have been made for moments of historical importance.

The investigation into whether Idle followed all other rules remains ongoing. He wore a regulation chartreuse tunic with burlap pants and curled poulaines provided by Timeless Threads for the trip.

The escort he procured called herself Lady Isoude of Gaul. She told investigators that Idle seemed to be “all roses and sun rises,” when she met him, until well into the second day he began, “coughing such a cough that he emptied two wineskins without quenching his thirst.”

Pressed further, Lady Isoude said, “The cumfeorm was a bit of a dalcop, the kind kicked in the head by an ass’ hoof, but methinks his breóst-hord is true and true, even if he acts like a frumburdling in the market ogling the earth-apples and going all gleo-dream over the lute players. A laughter-smith he were, whether he meant it or not, Terry tha’ Terrible, wasn’t terrible t’at all, but what else were we to call him?”

Investigators released Isoude’s transcript edited for clarity and brevity.

By Isoude’s account, Idle told her he was a lorthew—a word translating to teacher-slave—ordered to bring novelties from Tintagel Castle to his aristocratic student, an invalid bound to his chambers.

Lady Isoude led Terry tha’ Terrible to all the noble places she knew, and when they took their seats at the tourney, “what happened was the gesibsumnes and gleo-day all came apart. Insticce hit me whole body as Terry tha’ Terrible got a vile look in his eyes, all dark and night-like, and the throat-roars got louder, and he’s sprewing head-tears and nose-juice round and round.”

Acting quickly, Isoude led her client to a nearby brothel and procured a room with a pot and ale-skin.

Other witnesses at the tournament report the undoing of the play, as knights collapsed in their armor and dozens of horses leapt the fences and fled.

“Black magick be about,” warned a chestnut salesman to investigators. “Since the day of the tourney, that ealdor-bana spread in the wind from house to house. Methinks it was the sorcerer, getting revenge for the slaying of his king.”

The town surrounding Tintagel Castle seemed rather divided as to whether Merlin was the cause of the plague, or should be praised for developing a cure.

Interviewed by investigators, Merlin warned that the disease was not of their world and advised the king to contain it, least it infect the entire country, advice which Arthur heeded.

An Oxford historian alerted authorities to the sudden record of an outbreak at the castle. Upon investigation, the scholar’s worst fears had come true: someone had successfully transferred the modern smoky flu to the past. With the 2019 SARS-Cov-2 and the strange pox outbreak of 2255, this is not the first known instance of temporal disease transfer, and many temporologists argue that stricter travel policies are needed to prevent further spread.

“At the very least, we need a week-long quarantine on either end of the trip,” said Dr. Robert Smith at the Oxford School of Quantum Leap. “If you have finances to go leaping into other civilizations, then you are wealthy enough to do it right.”

A team of reconstructionists at the National Bureau of History will determine whether or not corrections are necessary once their own investigation is complete. The bureau will hold public commentary next week, which is expected to last several hours.

“We need to protect people both past and present,” explained bureau chief Albert Hawking. “Since we do not understand the consequences this might bare out, we must restore what we can and seal off the period to future visitors.”

These types of conservative policies are often met with scrutiny from liberals.

The Free Time Coalition announced a loop protest.

“While what happened to Camelot is nothing short of tragic, we cannot allow unelected bureaucrats to redesign our historical record as they see fit, to benefit an arbitrary measure of temporal purity,” the organization’s president, Vera Rubin, said via the loop.

Idle’s attorneys declined to comment for this story, except to say he denies the allegations will release his own account of what happened once he has recovered from his illness.

If found guilty, Idle faces a £3 million fine, up to 50 years in stasis, and the loss of temporal privileges all together.

Amanda Pampuro cut her teeth reporting for the Marianas Variety in Guam and is now the Colorado correspondent for Courthouse News. She sneezed into a plot of dirt last month and recently found something like carrots growing.

Image via Pixabay

The 5-Minute Emotional Workout – Giles Montgomery

Welcome to the 5-Minute Emotional Workout! Find an uncomfortable place and let’s begin…

Cue unsettling, discordant soundscape.

Okay, first let’s warm up. Think of something stressful – your job, love life, money, the banal futility of existence – whatever works for you.

Got it? Good. Focus on that as you feel your heartrate increase and your chest constrict…

Are the walls pushing in? Awesome!

Now squat down, hug your knees and rock back and forth, get a rhythm going, work that adrenal gland.

And screw your eyes shut as we go into our first…

EMOTION ZONE!

The beat drops, thudding in time to your pounding chest.

You’re eight years old, strapped in the back of a speeding car. Your parents are in the front, fighting. She wishes she’d never met him, he wishes he was dead – and he’s driving! The only thing they can both agree on is that it’s ALL… YOUR… FAULT!

Sound effect of a car crash, the music drops back.

Whoo, what a rush!

Now stand up, clench your fists and hyperventilate. Make sure everything’s good and tight.

Hey, what’s that up above you?

IT’S YOUR GREATEST DESIRE!

The music builds again, this time with a positive feel…

Reach for it! Jump! Feel the hope building!

It’s everything you ever wanted and it’s SO TANTALISINGLY CLOSE…

Record scratch, crowd goes ‘Ohhhh!’

But it’s gone. Next time, right?

Okay, nearly done. Let’s really push that limbic system!

A new, even more intense and disturbing beat kicks in.

Ready? Here we go…

Your friends throw a party, but you’re not invited!

Dinner with your family. Must… suppress… opinions!

You overhear your spouse tell a friend they ‘settled’!

You visit your doctor for the test results, but she won’t make eye contact!

Look at all these perfect, happy people on social media!

You air a problematic take and get cancelled!

It’s not imposter syndrome, you really are a hack!

Your dying father turns to you and… shakes his head in disappointment!

And finally – WE’RE HEADING FOR CATASTROPHE BUT WE’RE TOO DUMB TO STOP IT!

The music ends with a devastating KA-BOOM that reverberates away into an infinite and uncaring universe as you collapse into heaving, snotty sobs of utter despair.

5-Minute Emotional Workout is sponsored by…

Cue upbeat jingle.

When life’s got you down, get back up with the great taste of –

Giles Montgomery writes ads for a living and fiction for joy, previously seen in Storgy, Spelk, fat cat magazine, Tiny Molecules and Reflex Fiction. He lives near London with his family and can be found on Twitter @gilesmon.

Image via Pixabay

The First and the Last Black Hole – Benjamin S. Bowden

Remember that twitch just moments ago? That hypnagogic jerk happens to you every night. This time your foot got tangled in the sheet. Like a mouse. One that’s being bombarded by Phillip’s pounces. Philip’s claws don’t dig into you anymore; that’s how you know this is a dream. Philip is dead.

If you’ve finally convinced yourself, then what are you doing? Stop lying there. Stand up. Stop them. Don’t you see what they’re doing? They’re trying to kill you!

The curtains are purple. What kind of a hospital would have purple curtains? No kind of a hospital would have purple curtains. Ergo, this is no kind of hospital. At the very least this is not a kind hospital. The bed is potato-stiff and lumpy. Hospitals are known for non-stiff beds.

Go back to the song you shared with Bethy. The song, not the girl. Forget about the girl. Focus on the song. Do not be fooled by tricks of the mind. Thinking is always better than feeling. Is this the punishment? Is this the crime? No one can render your thoughts unappealing.

abab—the rhyme scheme. Anagram for abba, Aramaic for father. Why would your father say goodbye to you? Is he going on a trip? Far away? Again? That’s just fine, then. You did fine last time. You did so fine he had trouble finding you. That was when you got Philip. When you and Bethy first got Philip.

Forget about your family; forget about the girl. You hate her. Hate the girl. Hate the girl.

When did you quit the family business? On your brother’s birthday, right? He swore to never speak to you again. Yet here he is. Of course, this is just a dream. You never can trust family. Not even in your dreams.

And especially not with them. The moment you speak your dream aloud they will crush it. Rattling off statistics, singing the phrase starving artist as they steal your plate of pasta putenesca, reminding you of the family business, legacy, honor, pride, and other virtuous sins. You don’t need that in your life. You have better things to do with your time.

Running out.

Was that your grandmother who just ran out? Mom probably made her cry again. Good thing you never had to suffer through a mother-in-law. Anagram for woman Hitler.

Remind me, why are you dreaming about your family? You’re not Norman Bates—you actually made something of yourself. You only lived up to a few stereotypes: bachelor pad, illicit drugs, paint stained clothes. But you hated alcohol. And you were overweight; you were the opposite of starving. You don’t need to speak in the past tense—look at your waist right now!

Stop wasting time. The song, the girl, the paintings. They don’t matter. Philip is in danger. No, not in danger. Endanger. Philip is endangering you. Run away. Get up. Get up and run. Get. Up. Run. Go. Run.

Gun? Nobody brings those things into hospitals. Except crazy people who should be there anyway. Look around you. Do you see a gun? Anything that shoots? Do not be fooled by tricks of the mind. Trust your senses and not the analysis. Ignore the commentary. “Approach as if nobody has ever approached before.” Isn’t that how you paint? As if it’s the first painting ever created? The first piece of art. The first thing ever done purely for sake of the aesthetic. Art for art’s sake. People will wonder at how completely and utterly useless the art is. And they will adore you for it. They will go Wilde for you. For it. For in it they see themselves. Totally useless.

Philip is getting closer. See, Philip’s fang is lying on your forearm. Focus. Stop distracting yourself. Bethy doesn’t matter. World peace doesn’t matter. Nothing matters except waking up. Right. Now. Haven’t you heard what everybody is saying? You can hear them. They don’t know that. Show them. Move. Move your goddamn finger!

Thinking is always better than feeling.

You’re feeling tired. These people have overstayed their welcome. Don’t they know you need your sleep? Maybe when they leave you can sleep.

We don’t want sleep. We want wakefulness. Mindfulness. Awareness-ness.

A preacher once told you sleep is for those whom God loves. God loves you. How could He not after all the art you’ve created? After all of His creation you’ve mimicked? Recreation is re-creation. And you’re supposed to be like God. So, create like He did. Like he did: ex nihilo.

It’s the opposite of that. Into nothing, that’s where you’re heading. Toward the event horizon. Toward the singularity. It is the first and the last black hole. It is nothingness, a hole in the universe. But it is also everything. A black hole that has absorbed every particle and wave in existence leaving you as the last bite.

Ow!

Ow!

Philip hurt us. Who’s ‘us’? Who else is here?

Philip is gone and so are we. That was it. Our Rubicon. Our point of no return. Is this the punishment? Is this the crime? Our exit off the highway. Our death brought about by you.

If we’re together how can I find you?

Go back to Bethy. Picture her on the couch. Cross-legged and sunburnt. Holding the NES controller.

Where are you?

Your death is my death. Had you known, would you still have done it? You could have moved your finger, but you chose not to.

I’m sorry; I didn’t know.

You didn’t think to ask.

What do we do now?

We sit here and talk, think, and feel for as long as we can.

No one can render your thoughts unappealing.

That sounds like a good plan.

Benjamin S. Bowden is a writer and mathematician from New England currently working as an Operations Manager in New York. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, Katie, and their many plants.

Image via Pixabay

The Shrinking of the Bears – Frankie McMillan

1

We tell the children over and over. Please don’t slam the fridge door. Maybe if the polar bear were bigger they’d be reminded and if they could reach further into that lost continent of a bear’s mind they’d think more kindly thoughts, say the need for polar bears to rest. But because the polar bear is small enough to lie curled on the tray just above the vegetable cooler, he’s sometimes forgotten.

2

The authorities insist all the polar bears are now the same size and it’s the depletion of their natural resources that shrunk them. My husband says ‘Who can believe anything anymore?’ He likes to open the fridge door, run his hand gently over the thick white pelt, trace a finger between the animal’s ears. He tells me the polar bear’s skin is black and though the fur looks white it is actually transparent.

I pull my husband’s arm. ‘Come to bed,’ I say.

3

A rumour goes around about a polar bear in the next district. We hear it somehow got out of the fridge and turned on all the lights in the house before vanishing out into the forest. We hear the authorities boarded up the house. We don’t know what this means. Sometimes I turn to my husband at night and hug him with a strength that leaves us both gasping. ‘We’re still here,’ I say.

Frankie McMillan is a poet and short fiction writer from Aotearoa New Zealand. She is winner of the New Zealand Poetry International competition (2009) and and her poems have been selected for Best New Zealand Poems 2012 and 2015. REcent work appears in Best Microfiction, 2020. Her latest book, The Father of Octopus Wrestling and other small fictions, was listed by Spinoff as one of the 10 best New Zealand fiction books of 2019.

Image via Pixabay

Nightmare and Interpretation 10 – Lilia Marie Ellis

Some covered place a
mall maybe whatever it
was stones falling down a
path blocked (misshapen,
sharp, hardly human) and
a hero in blue vying
to save the day (however
that could be done) our
proudly hero persists a
crowd of no one in particular
transfixed, sedentary,
glad to be endangered you’d
swear they’d dream their
life in song in story
even as (this is a
parable, remember) we
all die in collapse

and so it is simply not a matter of wisdom and a proud yet skillful hand pulling the stern (to cheer for, how singular they rebuild, we watch an arc of exertion and call it greatness (meanwhile people die)
it is a sin to wield power and even more to touch)
Still sweet to have a single soul to believe in, while removing the eyes from each other’s, wool coming down

Lilia Marie Ellis is a trans woman writer from Houston. Her work has appeared in publications including The Nashville Review and Kanstellation. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @LiliaMarieEllis!

Image via Pixabay

Stargazing – Jake Kendall

He stands in the deserted high street and waits. The silence of the empty city remaining every bit as unnatural as it had been fourteen weeks ago when lockdown had started, the windows of silent restaurants and pubs blacked out in the dusk of a Saturday evening.

When a bike breaks the stillness, he knows it will be her.

Still, the old instincts kick in: he performs a bizarrely futile pantomime of initial nonchalance, to no one in particular, as if they are back in a playground and the other children might notice and mock any sign of over-eagerness.

She dismounts and locks her bike to the rack nearby. He is struck by a moment’s panic. He had once known her name, but that had been over three months ago. He wonders if he might have enough time now to flip out his phone and double-check.

Her name begins with an S, that much was certain… Almost certain. Maybe it is a soft C.

She checks the lock, turns her attention to him, and flashes him a big smile. As she goes to embrace him, he curses himself silently for being so stupid as to wait alone for around five minutes without thinking to double-check her name. She pulls back and says:

“Sorry, I probably shouldn’t have done that. But you are only the second person I’ve seen in fourteen weeks.”

Much the same is true of him. They had both spent the pandemic living alone, as mature students, away from family and friends.

Sarah?

Or perhaps Sophia?

He points up towards the hill and suggests they get moving while there is still light in the sky. She agrees and they begin the climb.

Their first date had been a slightly stuttering experience, in a café, back in March. The Corona Virus was then a nebulous, continental threat. ‘Herd Immunity’ would be the solution proposed days after, which, to the scientifically ignorant, sounded almost like no solution at all. Two hours, two pots of tea, and two tiffin’s later, they had nervously decided to meet again. They had been talking about the hill on the south side of the city, where an observatory was situated, and where the best views of the night sky were alleged to be found. They agreed they would investigate these allegations for themselves.

A lot has changed in the weeks since. She has met someone else, for one thing, sending over a polite apology and asking if he had minded. He hadn’t, and, rather grandiosely, offered his ‘blessings’, whatever the hell that had meant.

And so, here it was, lockdown, phase two – which made it sound almost like anyone had a clue what was going on. They were on a second date, which was now no longer a date; arranged through their dormant dating apps because they had forgotten to exchange numbers in the meantime, and he cannot remember her name.

As they climb, they discuss the obvious pleasantries: course assignments, diets, sleep patterns. They also notice the faint streaks of salmon pink still visible late into the evening, how during the Scottish summer the moon is often visible by day, and the sunlight lingers in the night sky well beyond midnight.

“All this freedom has got me thinking about time. I’m writing my dissertation on the subject,” she says. “How have you been finding it?”

They were walking side-by-side, and so honesty was a real option. He is oddly tempted to tell her that this prolonged bout of extreme isolation was making him freak out again: about love and life, about money, about the direction of his life. All the neurosis that he hoped this move away might help solve.

“This and that,” he replies eventually, cowardly, “reading, and a lot of walking.”

“Nice! How many steps?” she asks. The question coming with a slight suggestion of competition. He wonders quite when steps replaced miles as the understood metric of distance.

“Anything between fifteen to forty thousand. My flatmates all moved home at the start of everything. So really, home feels like I’m the last contestant on a reality show, and no one ever came to tell me it’s over,” he replies.

It feels right that her name ended with an “ah” noise. Do parents sill name girls Celia?

“Don’t you think it’s funny. Mostly, people complain they don’t have enough time, to get fit, to do DIY, to read books, get creative, spend time with loved ones. And now this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity presents itself. Lockdown can be agency over time. That’s why I thought – why not go out stargazing late after all? There’s nothing to get up for tomorrow.”

“You’re the first person I’ve spoken with who hasn’t just moaned about it all,” he replies. “Most seem to be finding freedom oddly oppressive.”

He realises then that this includes himself and resolves to aspire towards positivity tomorrow.

“People fear uncertainty,” she says. “The future feels like a moral right. But when this is all over, we’ll see these months as opportunities, whether we took them or not.”

“And are you taking them?”

“When I can. Otherwise, these months will just be forgotten… I’ll be old one day, and this stretch of time just won’t exist anymore.”

They reach the top of the hill, beneath the observatory, where the ground gives way to several pockets and hollows. He pulls off his rucksack to lay in the soft grass. She lay next to him, side by side, naturally reclining to look upwards at the stars. It really is exceptionally romantic. He thinks about saying so, but he thinks she will assume he is attempting to passively-aggressively flirt with her, and this night-time non-date really shouldn’t be any stranger than it already is.

Besides, he can’t even remember her name. Selina?

He pulls his bag close and tells her he has brought some essentials. She looks at his rucksack and bursts into uncontrollable laughter.

“What?” he asks, paranoid now.

“Nothing, just dreading what essentials could be inside this time,” she replies.

For a moment, he struggles to recall the reference. Then it comes flooding back. Their first… their only date. They had discussed a book he had been reading. He had it with him in his bag. He had tried to show it to her before a slew of compromising items had cascaded listlessly out onto the table. Among them, antidepressants, loose condoms, and a toothbrush jammed into an empty tissue packet.

He wonders if that was the moment she decided they would just be friends…

This evening’s essentials are a four-pack of craft IPA, a hip flask filled with whisky – along with separate plastic cups – and a multipack of rice crispy squares.

He waves each at her as evidence.

“Brilliant,” she replies. “Absolutely perfect.”

He thinks if it were a date, it really would be perfect. Not that he secretly wants to date her. Not that he would truly know. They are virtual strangers. But the sky is perfect, and this is surely a spot for lovers. The writer in him recognises the potentiality of scene and setting. This really would be a perfect memory to ground the start of something wholesome and nice.

He reminds himself this will be a nice memory. That relationships with women are not meaningless without sex.

They pop open a can each and look for the constellations. She points out to what she thinks is Orion. Though they all just look like dots to him. She points out the slight curve of the bow.

“You have to use your imagination,” she says.

She follows his body in the sky. When he still couldn’t see it, she pulled out her phone and googles the image, holding it high into the air.

He still can’t see a hunter.

“Looks more like a lobster to me,” he concludes. She googles again the Scorpio and begins the hunt for the celestial arachnid in the night sky before she starts laughing.

“What am I doing? we’re here, under the actual stars,” she observes, putting her phone back in her pockets. “Even if we don’t see constellations, these points of light are incredible. Each one is like the sun! It’s mad to think how big it all is. How tiny and fragile everything we will ever know truly is. And yet, from here, it’s gorgeous, serene, peaceful. Like a blanket.”

“That’s it!” he says impulsively.

Her name is Serena. Definitely. Panic over.

“What’s it?” Serena replies.

He covers for himself, pretending that Orion has just materialised clearly from the dots. He retraces her finger but cannot find his head.

“There’s no head really,” she says, pulling the phone back out to double-check. “Fucks sake! I need to stop looking at my phone. Maybe I should fling it down the hill.”

He is still squinting at Orion. “The constellations seem like a bit of a reach to me. But I suppose it’s only human to force Matter into patterns, construct a narrative, to try and create meaning from chaos,” he suggests.

Serena asks for a rice crispy square. There is a lull while she unwraps it.

“How’s the relationship?” he asks to fill the silence. “Has it been an odd time to start?”

“You could say that,” she laughs in reply.

“Go on.”

He can almost hear her mind at work as she decides how honest she will be. He believes that if he turns to look at her, she will give a joke answer. If he had asked her in the daytime, her answer would be blithe and passing. But leave her alone here and she will talk more to the stars than to him, and that will be the truth.

He is curious, and so he leaves her to it.

“Ok,” she replies eventually. “So, it’s kind of my downstairs neighbour, doing their PhD. And it’s a little odd for me. It started when the lockdown was called. When everyone was still scared to step outside unless we really had to. And we began swapping some kitchen things. And we realised we got on. And we thought that in other circumstances, we might not have ever talked. And so, they invited me in for dinner one evening, and… it’s a little strange to tell you the truth.”

He shrugs. “Doesn’t sound strange to me. Sounds like something nice has happened for you. I’m glad to hear it. Happy for you.”

“Thing is – my neighbour is a woman.”

“Oh,” he says, realising he had been oblivious to the more subtle markers. “I didn’t know that you liked both.”

She starts laughing.

“Neither did I. In fact, I don’t think I do. She says I flinch when she kisses me. She was quite persuasive though. Said society conditions us into a heteronormative outlook. And, that’s true… and it seemed a fitting relationship during this time of societal liberation.”

“Good for you though,” he replies, “for being brave, and open-minded enough to experiment.”

“I’m getting older. I don’t want to look back on a life so timid that it passed me by,” she says, draining her beer. “You never remember the times that you didn’t take an opportunity. Probably when this is all fully lifted, me and her will go our separate ways and never speak of it again.”

He pops open another beer for them both and realises that the conversation flows so much easier than it ever did on their first meeting. They have liberated themselves from expectations and pressures, that this is no longer inorganic interaction, no longer two people co-interviewing each other to fill some vacancy in their lives. Somehow, it is already half one and they are not even tired, there is not even a suggestion of going home yet.

For the first time in months, he does not feel oppressed by freedom. For the first time in months, time feels populated by sounds, colours, and textures. Life is beginning to return; and tomorrow, they will both know that this time existed.

Image via Pixabay

In The Woman’s Head – Francine Witte

In the woman’s head

She is holding the cat, the cat is all she has in the gone-ness of love. Another man was clapped off the stage and went on to something other in his life. The woman has time now. She is too sad to work. She is makeup-free, stiletto-free. She can bake and eat and sleep too late. She has the cat to fill up her arms. She tempts the cat with a shatter of cat treats.

The cat is night-colored, eyes like white planets. After some time, the woman forgets to drop the treats, forgets to stroke the cat, but yanks the cat into her now fleshy arms. She squeezes the cat like a lemon, waiting for something to come out of the cat that the cat doesn’t have.

She puts the cat down and tells the cat she’s sorry. She isn’t sorry, but says it anyway. The woman hasn’t said real words in a very long time. She likes the sound of them, the full round shape of them. They float and drift in the air, the cat circling the floor underneath.

In the cat’s head

He is holding the woman. He in her arms, but he is in charge. The cat has cat-things to do, but the woman lures the cat into her arms with treats and the cat likes that. The woman seems to need something. The cat doesn’t know exactly what.

The woman is beach-colored and empty. Her eyes liquid and puffed up like waterholes. The woman used to come and go and come and go, but doesn’t anymore.

Before all this, there was a man. And when the man was there, the woman left the cat alone. Didn’t try to hold the cat in her arms that were wiry and muscled. Didn’t bother with treats, and words were tinny and constant.

Sometimes now, the woman forgets the treats, and the cat thinks that maybe this is what drove the man away. The cat would tell her that if he had words. He hasn’t heard the woman’s words in quite some time. So long a time, in fact, he isn’t really sure what they are, and as the words start to fall to the floor, he circles and stalks the way he would if it were a bird about to fall from the sky, and him getting back to his own feral self.

Francine Witte is the author of four poetry chapbooks and two full-length collections, Café Crazy and The Theory of Flesh from Kelsay Books. Her flash fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologized in the most recent New Micro (W.W. Norton) Her novella-in-flash, The Way of the Wind has just been published by Ad Hoc Fiction, and her full-length collection of flash fiction, Dressed All Wrong for This was recently published by Blue Light Press. She lives in New York City.

Image via Pixabay

Brian, At The Water – Ken Poyner

The voice spread out like ocean drain in a shoe box, “Brian!” It was coming from all sides, emerging from the tributaries with its shields of clamshell, scuttling from the beaches like horseshoe crabs wondrously intact. Yelling for a child, something commonplace, something the dead would do if they had not died. Who is this Brian? What is he being called to do? Have his dinner? Come to go to the store? Apologize for the thump he applied to his sister? Or perhaps he is older, not the child, but the husband. The voice sloshes about, wiping the jetty clean, eating stray pollen. Perhaps the lawnmower awaits. The clothesline has come unstuck from the backyard again. The office, so sorry, briefly needs him. Or the in-laws have left, the house is dark and moist, as alone as oysters in a reef: this will be the name of the one we should now in a carnal rage make. And so the voice rocks and rages and reaches like a blue crab claw searching for the rim of the pot as the water begins to boil. I want to be Brian, the conception or the completion. I want to drown that humiliating voice.

Two of Ken Poyner’s poetry collections and four of his short fiction collections are widely available. He lives with his power-lifter wife, various cats and betta fish in the southeastern corner of Virginia. He spent thirty-three years in information security, moonlighting as a writer. Now, he writes dangerously full-time.

Image via Pixabay

SodaDreams – Shannon St. Hilaire

When their mother made fizzy water in the afternoons, the children always watched, crushed against her legs as she pressed down on the white box and the bubbles roared out.

The children were not to use the appliance. If they wanted fizzy water, they could ask Mother or Daddy to help them. This afternoon, their mother had stepped out to the store, saying she’d be right back and to be very good while she was gone. But the two children wanted fizzy water, now. They wanted it very much, and no one was home, and it was all they could think about. They resisted, and wrung their small hands, and when they could resist no more, the boy considered. He had watched Mother make the fizzy water many times.

The boy could reach the appliance on the counter, so he fetched the special bottle and attached it to the machine. Beside him, his sister bounced on the balls of her feet, chattering about which flavoring they should add. Cran-raspberry.

Ew, the boy said absently as he pressed down on the top of white box. The bottle popped off the machine and whizzed around the room like a balloon. The children screeched with laughter. Bubbles of air continued to expel from the appliance into the kitchen.

What the boy had forgotten, of course, was to put water in the bottle first. He had assumed the fizzy water was inside the machine, waiting to come out. He removed his hand, but the bubbles kept coming.

Look! the girl said.

Her feet were being lifted off the ground. The kitchen was filling up with CO2 bubbles. The boy’s feet, too, were being pushed up. Brother and sister both floating. Soon they reached the ceiling, and they discovered the fizzy water bubbles were not good for breathing. The boy dove into the air bubbles and swam to the window. He opened it, and at once the bubbles escaped into the fresh air, multiplying ever faster.

The boy grabbed the girl’s hand and together they pushed themselves out of the window. Instead of floating gently to the ground as the boy had planned, they found themselves riding clouds of air bubbles higher and higher into the air. The girl clapped her hands, delighted again, as the house shrank to the size of a lego, then grew smaller still.

They continued to ascend, and the air became colder. They tried popping the bubbles beneath them so they could drift to the ground, but whenever one was popped, three appeared in its place. The two children clung to each other for warmth, and sailed.

Shannon St. Hilaire lives in Portland, Oregon. She serves on the board of directors for an arts organization, The People’s Colloquium, and is an editor of their anthology. Her work has been published in Entropy, X-R-A-Y, Déraciné, and VoiceCatcher. She can be found online at http://www.shannonsthilaire.com.

Image via Pixabay

Untitled – Siobhan Potter

… Abandoned met Contempt and thought he’d arrived
his by and her of
She fed him plate loads
familiar hidden things. The favourite
not leaving- while not being there
He thrived on self-doubt
she settled in— believing he would never leave
in all of the ways you can believe
someone will never leave
Had either seen it coming, he wouldn’t have
Abandoned turned abandoner
holding Contempt in contempt for shelter
Abandoned sees Contempt in town
likes it -walks away
Contempt sees Abandoned coming
could care
but won’t …

Siobhan Potter works as an artist, writer and psychotherapist in Limerick, Ireland. Siobhan has poetry published in: The Blue Nib, Vox Galvia-New Galway writing, Minecraft, Inside Out and Pandemic Journals and has been selected for inclusion in the 2020 edition of the Filí an Tí Bháin anthology. In 2020 she was selected for #IrelandPerforms,and founded ‘not the time to be silent’, an online Arts response to social distancing.

Image by Siobhan Potter

About Family – Darrell Petska

“Quick! Ed’s in bad shape!”

That was Louella’s “hello” the evening of the day we’d started raising a wall for the new Hy-Vee. It hadn’t gone well. Three beers in, I wavered at my doorway, trying to focus. Next I knew, she was dragging me by the arm toward Ed Ostrick’s apartment and bedside to deceive the poor man as he breathed his last. What the hell were we doing? You had to know Louella to understand.

The day I moved into my apartment, she appeared at my door with a dozen chocolate chip cookies and that kind, wrinkled face you can’t just turn away. We spoke briefly in my doorway. A former nurse, she’d lived there 12 years. From my grimy clothes, she surmised that I worked in construction, then invited me to the Commons room on Saturday morning for cookies and coffee—before bustling off in pink tennies and gray sweats down the hall to her apartment.

Louella’s cookies had tasted good, and since I’d stocked mostly beer and chips, I went to the Commons Saturday morning to claim some cookies. She was there, visiting with a young mom whose two noisy kids sat playing some game in a corner. Noticing me, Louella cut short her conversation and approached as I eyed the cookie selection.

“Sit,” she insisted. “Try each. Fresh from my oven!”

Chocolate chip, peanut butter, oatmeal raisin—I had no trouble complying. My hunger could hardly refuse.

While I munched, she detailed the occupants of our unit’s six apartments: besides hers, mine, and the busy mom’s—“single, sad story,” Louella whispered—the others housed a college student whose cat Louella cared for time to time, a blind librarian who liked to be read to, and some old man, Ed Ostrick, who needed nursing care but remained in the apartment he’d shared for years with his now-deceased wife. Ed’s son, Erik, some Portland hotshot, was taking forever to line up a care home for his father. Louella seemed to know the details of everyone’s life. Perhaps she expected me to dish mine.

I didn’t give her much, didn’t like talking about myself. Grew up in Houston. Traveled the construction circuit. No ties. Thanks for the cookies. Later that morning I saw her unlocking the door to Ed Ostrick’s apartment and stepping right in, balancing a plate of cookies.

Every Saturday morning the young mom with her two kids would be at the Commons. Noisy kids, but the mom had a sweet smile. Sometimes the blind librarian appeared on an arm of the college student. Random people from other units stopped by. Louella knew them all. Ed Ostrick never came.

I mentioned Ed one evening when she stopped by with cupcakes—she dropped in at least once a week with baked treats, apparently to fatten me up. “Look at you!” she once said. “A construction worker needs meat on his bones!” But that evening, she lingered to tell me about Ed.

His wife, Bernice, had been gone a couple of years. Aside from Ed’s multitude of health problems—heart, kidneys, back—he’d become increasingly confused. Louella had become his de facto caregiver. He believed she was his wife.

“His wife? Can’t he tell the difference?”

“He’s happiest thinking I’m Bernice, so I go along with it. And his eyes are bad.”

“But you don’t live there!”

“I was always around. Bernice and I were good friends. Lately, of course, I’ve been there quite a lot, though when I’m not, he believes I’m just off in another room. I keep to a schedule he somehow accepts.”

Peering over her pearl horn-rims, she had a way of getting a person to talk. That same evening, she wheedled out my story as I finished off my third cupcake.

“Your sweet tooth must have kept your mother busy…” she smiled.

Shortly I found myself explaining how an aunt raised me, how my mother lived in Guam. We never spoke. My father had died before I could remember him.

Louella took me under her wing, just like the others. I didn’t mind: the city left me feeling lonely and unmoored. She introduced me around. Had me take her place a couple times to read to the librarian. Enlisted me to walk some guy’s dog for a week. Practically beamed the morning she asked me to help the young mom start her car. Shirl, her name, invited me in for hot cocoa. But Louella kept Ed Ostrick to herself.

Then came that evening—I’d been drinking beer, watching TV—when I heard frantic pounding on my door. Louella.

“Quick! Ed’s in bad shape!” She grabbed my arm and tugged.

I held back. “Have you called an ambulance?” I started slapping pockets for my phone.

“Yes. I think he’s dying! He’s asking for his son!”

I just stared at her. “He’s in Portland!”

She yanked me down the hallway toward Ed’s apartment. “You’ve got to be Erik,” she said. “He insists you’re here!”

Then there we stood alongside his bed. I’d never seen him before. He looked shriveled. His breathing was labored, his face pale.

“Here he is, here’s Erik, your son!” She spoke loudly next to his ear. “We’re all here, Ed.”

Ed’s clouded eyes widened. “Oh, Sonny—” He spoke weakly, trying to locate my hand.

I took his. “I’m here. We’re all here. It’s OK.”

He pulled on my hand to bring me closer. I put my arms about his shoulders, leaned uneasily toward him, then finally gave in to the moment. As I embraced him, I felt tears running down my cheeks. I don’t know why. Too many beers? Or seeing someone near death like that, looking so small and forlorn? Maybe I cried because I’d never mourned anyone before. Next to me, his “Bernice” wept too.

We hovered around him, which seemed to console him. The ambulance siren drew near and halted outside. I stepped into the hallway to hale the paramedics. When I returned to his side, I saw his face had relaxed. Then I realized that Ed was no longer there. The paramedics could do nothing. The look they gave each other, and the gentle head shake meant for Louella and me, said it all.

Louella called his son and set in motion Ed’s quick transition to ash: Erik flew in the day after Ed died and flew out the next day, even before Ed had been eased into the flames.

Erik expressed no interest in his father’s possessions and asked Louella to have the building managers dispose of everything as they saw fit. Louella agreed, though I knew she’d sort through Ed’s possessions beforehand.

A box of old children’s books she had me carry to the Commons. A bag of tired toys, no doubt saved in case Erik ever had time for a family, I delivered to Shirl and her kids—a task devised by Louella the matchmaker, of course, but I didn’t mind. Some paperback novels I presented to the college student. And she’d found something for me.

She waited till the following Saturday, a particularly bright spring morning with sun flooding the windows. I’d bought donuts to change up the usual cookie fare. Shirl and I sat together, watching the kids play. Blind librarian and college student sat in the sun, visiting casually. Louella flitted from person to person, being solicitous as always.

At last she settled on the sofa beside me and drew from her pocket something wrapped in tissue paper. “I had to get this cleaned and polished. You should have it.”

Within the paper gleamed a copper-plated pocket watch. The inscription I noticed first, and the watch’s steady ticking only after. The ornate letters read “With Love”.

She stopped me from saying what I began to say. “He didn’t want any of it. You were the one there with Ed. It was your loving kindness, not his.”

Louella hadn’t really given me much choice the night Ed died. I just happened to be handy. But I accepted it, recalling Ed addressing me as “Sonny” and the tears pent up for much of my life.

There I sat, one arm around Louella, the other around Shirl. Her kids played close by. Cordial faces I hadn’t known only a few months before now filled the Commons with warm conversation. I realized what I had discovered—the regrets of my childhood fading fast as a new family took shape before me.

Darrell Petska’s fiction has appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, Flash Frontier, Bird’s Thumb, Right Hand Pointing, Boston Literary Magazine and elsewhere (see conservancies.wordpress.com). With 30 years on the academic staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 40 years as a father (seven years a grandfather), and longer as a husband, Darrell lives outside Madison, Wisconsin.

Image via Pixabay

The Diagnosis – Sumbul Shahin

“Think of it as a miracle.” The harsh tube-light glinted off the doctor’s glasses, blinding him. “You can live to be a hundred.”

His face was inscrutable, his eyes vacant.

“You should have come back for the follow up.” The doctor smiled. “Another examination would have set you straight. There is always a thousand to one chance of a false positive.”

He nodded dully.

“The last five years must have been horrible, but at least now you don’t have to go about with a death sentence hanging over your head. You should be…”

“Thanks, doc.” He got up and walked out of the office.

The parking lot was noisy and strange. He walked as if an anvil had been strapped to his shoulders. The last five years had been an absolute bliss, free of all responsibility, but now… He went by his haphazardly parked car, without noticing.

The moment he was told of his impending death, he had decided to just enjoy the abject meaninglessness of life. He had done every conceivable drug, slept with everyone willing he could find, then settled down to a life of generalised gluttony. It would all have to be different now.

The stable rug of impending doom had suddenly been pulled from under his feet, and his whole world had crashed. There might be a beautiful hardwood floor of possibilities underneath, but at the moment he was much too busy trying to regain his balance.

He couldn’t hear the loud honking. There was no space in his mind to process sounds. The voices inside his head, so quiet for so long, had begun to screech in a loud chorus. He had to make plans for the rest for his life. There was a vague memory of wanting to be a lawyer. Surely, it was much too late now. Or could he still try? Did he want to?

He shook his head violently. There was no point trying to figure it all out. Right now, he had to at least try to celebrate. It was life. Whatever it might bring, he would be alive.

The loud trilling of the long queue of cars waiting for him to stop blocking the parking lot entrance, finally filtered through into his mind. He quickly got out of the way. Thoughts of uncertainties resurfaced again, but he quashed them. There was a bakery across the street. Maybe a dark chocolate pastry would help him appreciate the possibilities of staying alive. That’s what normal have-several-decades-to-live people did, right? They found the little joys in life.

He began to cross the street, still in a daze. Everything was fine after the first step. After the second, when he was nearly in the middle of the little street, he really should have started paying attention. He didn’t. As he took his third step, a speeding car knocked him down.

Surrounded by a growing pool of red, he laid crumpled up on the street. When the world became dark, there was a smile on his lips.

Sumbul Shahin has lived on three different continents and discovered that people everywhere are equally baffling. She now places imaginary people in improbable situations in hopes of gaining some insight. You can find her on Twitter @SumbulShahin.

Image via Pixabay

Exoskeleton – Sobia Ali

One day pawing the dust heap in our backyard with the neighbourhood kids I found an opaque white bottle, sealed with a rubber cork stopper. There it was among the rubble and the withering weeds and no one noticing it. I inched forward slowly, afraid others would see and take it. I took a chance, plucked it off the ground, and ran. Behind me I could hear their startled grunts of ‘now what did she find?’

Your shadow falling diagonally across the sunlit yard caused my heart to flutter and my hands to conceal behind my back. Swallowing a hard lump of sun diffused air, I stepped forth. Framed in the doorway, your lips pursed in that peculiar way, you barked— ‘what are you hiding?’

I knew better than to disobey and brought out the bottle clutched greedily in my sweaty palms. You took it wordlessly, your silence eloquent of hundred rebukes. I went inside and washed hands and feet, my eyes blurred with tears set off by a mental picture of the bottle being forcibly flung in the distance, its contents unspilled and out of reach forever.

* * *

You start remaining sad in the last days of your life, hardly smiling ever, your perky expression lost in the folds of your skin, the ‘gesture’ of pursed lips a pathetic thing on the hollowed out mouth, and the blankness of your stare reminiscent of something absent and gone from life.

And I, come out of dark corners, have taken over the whole house. Framed in the doorway, my shadow falling diagonally across the sunlit yard, I listen to you mutter about delicate things that pulse and shiver in response to identical presences near, and the cruel forces of nature that want to do them apart.

I stare out at the small garden where you used to potter about all day long, now neglected and disorderly, and the mournful trees, and think of ineffectualness and miscommunication. Of the failure of preservation, the slippage of life, the stealthy creeping of loss and loneliness.

* * *

Sorting out your things, boxes upon boxes of mothballed objects, memories flood me when I come across the white bottle. Incredulous, I uncork and look. Inside are the shell of a snail and the skeleton wings of a butterfly. I bring it to you, the decay around you rubbing on me. You seize it in the loosely fleshed hands, childish curiosity playing off your facial edges. Your face fell. I ask, ‘what is it, mother?’ wiping the dribble off your mouth.

Then you speak in a far away voice, ‘I found them in the garden staring at each other. They were in love, I knew. And they were going to move on and
forget each other. I caught them and put in this bottle. I hurled it across the backyard where you dug it up. I could not get myself rid of it again.

After a long silence you whisper again— ‘ where did they go? Those delicate, lively things.’

I want to ask, but don’t, if you had confined the snail and butterfly the same day I discovered the bottle. If they were alive then, and could have been saved. Because there is a look in your eyes that, I hope, at last means acceptance.

Sobia Ali has an MA in English Literature. Her work has appeared in Atticus Review, The Indian Quarterly, The Bosphorus Review of Books, Gone Lawn, The Punch Magazine, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, trampset, Lunate, Kitaab, ActiveMuse, Ombak Magazine, Literary Yard, and is forthcoming in Another Chicago Magazine, Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature, Close To The Bone’ and elsewhere. She is currently at work on her novel.

Image via Pixabay

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: