The Use In Words – David Hayward

I’ve lost count of the winters I have seen, more than fifty, less than seventy, always longer than the summers, which seem to pass so quick as hardly to count. But, whatever the count, my fingers ache in the morning and my hips crack when I kneel. Sometimes my vision is blurred and other times I see bright lights were there should be none. More often than not, at the end of the long day’s toil, I cough and there is blood in my spit.

I can hardly remember what I ate for breakfast but my memory of my youth is as sharp as a knife. I was cursed to be the third son, a blessing to my mother, a burden to my father with his two older boys to feed and divide his land between. One winter morning, with the promise of snow in the air, my father said, “Amos, come with me in the wagon,” and bade me say farewell to my mother. At the time, I did not wonder why she wept.

For two days we traveled through the barley fields and down the stone road that runs straight as an arrow from north to south. All that time, my father barely said a word. But still I did not worry though I remembered my mother’s tears. On the third day, we climbed a path up a steep hill, past jagged rocks and thorn bushes, and through the Abbey’s iron gates.

Three monks in black tunics perched on a bench under a birch tree. My father, still silent, unloaded from the wagon ten sacks of flour and a vat of honey. The monks opened one of the sacks, sifted through the flour, and then tasted the honey. They nodded their agreement.

“Amos,” my father said, “you’re to stay here. But I will be back for you, never fear.”

Little did I know that my life had been measured in flour and honey. The monks shaved my head, gave me a novice’s tunic and taught me to pray. Days passed to weeks and then to months. Still my father did not return. Soon my sorrow turned to rage. Blackened eyes and cracked skulls were how I measured my value. I kicked and punched my way through each day until the other novices shied away from me as they would from a biting dog.

One evening, some of the other boys stole a bottle of ale. Chattering like sparrows, they drank their fill but like the fools they were they did not hide the evidence of their crime. When the Novice Master found the empty bottle, he came to each of us and demanded we tell him the truth. I did not care for my fellows but I would not betray them. I stayed silent and received a blow from the Brother’s fist as reward for my misplaced loyalty.

The Novice Master went to the next boy, Dondas, a red-haired Mercian, and asked him who had stolen the ale. The boy pointed a treacherous finger at me. “Amos, the wild one, he is the thief.”

I have fought, and I have lied but I have never been a thief. I threw myself at Dondas and punched him until his nose was smashed flat. Uncaring of his shrieks and the cudgel blows raining down on my back, I bent his arm until it snapped like a rotten stick. It took five of them to pull me off him. His arm was almost broke in two. I’m not proud of it now but then I was filled with such savage joy that I howled like a wolf.

The monks chained me up and dragged me to the punishment block. They whipped me until the wood ran wet with my blood and strips of flesh hung from my back. Sometimes now in my sleep I hear a distant screaming and when I wake I wonder if it was me or Dondas.

I don’t know how long I was unconscious but when my I opened my eyes I was lying on the stone floor of a cell with a thousand bees stinging at my back. Each morning for the first few weeks of my imprisonment, a monk shouted from the other side of the locked door, “Do you repent?” I did not answer. Growing tired of my stubbornness, they left me alone. Perhaps they thought the quiet would drive me mad. But it did not. Silence became my comfort.

Months passed before I saw or heard anyone. Then the door to my cell opened and two monks entered. One was short and fat, the other tall and thin, as if the first had been stretched on a rack. “Do you repent?” the tall one said. My choice was either to say, yes, and make of myself a liar like my father or Dondas, or say, no, and be left to moulder in my cell. So better not to speak at all. What’s the use in words if all they do is lie and cheat.

Confounded by my mute response, the monks huddled in conclave while I slumped against the wall, my legs barely strong enough to hold up my skin and bones. Perhaps they wearied of my torture or more likely they could ill-afford to feed a mouth that did not earn its keep, because they led me from the cell to the monastery garden.

Jeremiah was waiting for us at the gate. He seemed old even then with his lined face and white beard. But despite his age, he was as broad-shouldered as an ox and with his rake in one hand and scythe in the other he looked to me like some ancient spirit.

The monks explained that I was to be his responsibility and he could do with me as he wished. Jeremiah ignored them. He never had time for fools. “Will you work hard?” he said. I did not answer. “Good,” he said and that was that.

The old man started me on the simplest tasks, repairing the garden walls with the flat stones from the river and making trellises for the summer vines. He never cared that I didn’t speak as long as I could make my signs and draw with a stick in the soil. After I had proved myself, he gave me my own patch. First thing I ever had for my own.

Not a day goes by when I don’t hear Old Jeremiah’s voice in the gate’s rusty grate or a spade’s thud in the soil and think of him watching over us from his place beneath the verge. I still wonder what he saw in me. I like to think that he looked beneath my anger and saw the boy beneath who deserved so much better.

And so I became a planter of seeds, a grower of vegetables, a tiller of the soil. The years passed and the anger that had been my blood’s vigour faded until all that remained was the certainty of the seasons’ path, one to next, and the honest journey from the sowing to the scythe’s sharp reap and in the end the fire’s cold ashes.

Now when I catch sight of my reflection in a pail of water, I do not see the angry boy I was but Old Amos with his grey beard and wrinkled face, a garden monk who wants no more than to be buried with his seeds in a bed of soil.

The boy and I first met on a cold day in early March. When I saw him, standing just inside the garden walls, icy shivers ran through my body. It was as if my past had returned but turned the other way round so I was Jeremiah, even though he was long dead, and the boy was me, though we looked nothing alike. Where I had been barrel chested with a man’s growth of beard, he was smooth skinned and skinny as a reed.

“Who’s the youngster?” Brother Bartholomew said as he raked the soil.

“He’s one of the novices,” James replied. “An orphan. Can’t read or write so they’ve sent him to us. Give him pots to mend and wood to cut.”

With my fingers, I said no. Even then I could tell the boy was special. As I walked over to him, it was his eyes that caught me first. Two empty holes you could fall into and never find their end. When the boy spoke, his voice was so quiet I could barely hear him.

I gave him my own trowel and a bag of mustard seeds. Off he went, simple as that, and got on with it. He kept going past sunset, on his hands and knees, sowing all those tiny seeds. He wouldn’t have stopped if I hadn’t taken the bag from him and told him to go get his dinner. The next day he was in the garden earlier than any of us, planting those mustard seeds like there was nothing more important in the world, and maybe he was right about that.

The boy had a knack for the garden. None of us needed to tell him what do do. He knew what distance apart the seeds should go; how deep to bury them; how much to water them. It was plain to see that someone had taught him. But he never talked about his past and what had happened to make his eyes so empty.

It wasn’t just that he knew what to do. Everything he did turned out right. His mustard seeds grew into flowers with perfect golden petals. He knew vegetables better than me, and I’d been growing them for more than twice his life. It all came so easy to him. There was neither mildew nor canker on his plantings and where he dug his trowel there were no stones. Even the grass softened for his feet so you’d hardly know he’d walked upon it.

And the garden paid the boy back for all his work. The sun turned his face a rich dark brown. He was never going to be the biggest but his shoulders filled out so at least it looked like he wore his tunic rather than it wore him. Once or twice, when his plants first bloomed or as he watched the sun set over the garden wall, I’d see a smile ghost past his lips. It made me happy to see the boy do well. I was proud of him. That’s what it was.

I once knew a monk called Esau though his birth name was Aesir. With his blond hair and sharp features, he looked different from the rest of us though he hardly spoke about his home. One day I asked him where he was from and he told me he had been born in a far away land of ice and snow. When he was a boy, he had taken his father’s boat to fish for herring. A storm came and blew him so far out to sea that he could not find his way back. Weeks later, he landed on a foam swept beach and found that he had been blown across the grey sea.

I’ve never met anyone who talked as much as Aesir. And he was always contrarily minded. You might say to him, “Aesir, have you ever seen such a beautiful sunrise?” And he would reply, “The sun does not rise, it falls from the bottom of the earth.” And then he would argue that rise was fall and fall was rise until I scarcely knew anymore what the world was about. He’s dead now like all the friends I ever had.

Perhaps it was Aesir who sent the storm that summer’s afternoon. It came so quick we had no time to prepare. Day turned to night as tall clouds like warring giants so dark as to be near enough black covered the sun with their sack-cloth. Torrents of rain lashed our backs and thunder claps battered our ears. We dashed through the garden, slipping and sliding as we tied down the saplings and wrapped burlap around the vines.

In a flash of light, I saw the boy a few paces away from me. He was looking up at the storm. I could have sworn he saw something up there because he nodded as if greeting a friend. A fork of lightning crashed down. A giant hand picked me up and flung me back down. The world turned black. Deaf and blind as a worm, I crawled in the mud.

When the glare passed from my eyes, I saw the boy lying unmoving, his tunic singed, the rain pelting on his back. I ran to him and turned his head so he wouldn’t drown. He didn’t move. My heart stopped. I put my cheek to his mouth. There was no breath. I took his wrist. He had no pulse. I buried my face in the crook of his neck. The boy was gone.

For the first time in many years, words ripped from my throat. “Why did you take him?” I shouted at the sky. “The boy was nothing but good. Why?” I railed at the clouds. Why?” I cried at the thunder. “Why?” My whisper lost in the wind. Tears soaked the rain from my beard. The boy I wished I’d been. The son I wished I’d had. Gone. I understood then that everyone has a son but I had found mine too late. Now there was nothing left for me but old memories and dead friends.

I felt a warm glow on the back of my neck. A bright light spilled from the sky. I held the boy’s head and breathed my old life into him. An animal howled, angry and mournful, a wolf, its leg bitten through by a rusty trap, its cub wandering lost in the forest. A howl so loud it ate the dying storm and rippled through the earth, coursed up my legs and into my chest, through my lungs, and poured out of me and into him. The boy’s eyes opened, blue as the sky, filled with a deep and ancient knowing.

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

Image via Pixabay

The Origins of Floodtown Museum – Ray Ball

At the beginning of March, the children splashed to school. They wore galoshes and raincoats. The parents of younger children walked them to bus stops under big umbrellas that brightened the gray sky with patches of blue and yellow and pink flamingos.

It rained without pause all month. The city government held an emergency election, and a special bond and new tax passed by a wide margin. Consultants and contractors came in and advised. Construction teams racked up the overtime hours building new adjustable height bridges, boats of a variety of sizes and capacities, and an ark-like structure to house the new consolidated school for kindergarteners to high school seniors. Nautical knots became part of the required curriculum.

May brought no flowers, just more rain. Every so often it dwindled to a drizzle or petered out entirely. Occasionally, the sun poked through for a few dazzling minutes before the deluge began again.

Over the summer most of the kids swam and swam. They rowed some boats. They pedaled others. A few steered their way to friend’s houses. By September most had powerful shoulders, strong legs, deep lung capacities. Elisa got a new contraption that could turn the wheels of her wheelchair into water skis of sorts and back.

Eventually, all this felt pretty normal – although sometimes the good citizens of the town complained about how their skin felt perpetually pruned. Kids sometimes whined about having to eat fish or algae salad for dinner again. Some less-well-endowed guys liked to gun their boat engines for the thrill of it as they navigated through town. Pet owners took their dogs to a little raised island of earth. Engineers had designed it to lift an inch or so each day. The dogs ran around the soggy fake turf and did their business. The poor puppers who hated water cringed and whimpered until they got home.

When the new school year started, to some extent the kids did pair off. Taylor with Jayden. Camilla with John. Andy with María. Mike with Tom. Elisa with Sean. At recess, the younger kids swam or practiced rowing. The high schoolers planned an under-the-sea homecoming dance. The seniors and a few juniors who were in the know did it ironically, of course. The football team had disbanded, but the swim teams were crushing it.

All was well.

One day, merpeople would visit the local history museum. They would see the artifacts – the photos, the memes, the pants from back when their ancestors had legs.

 

Ray Ball, PhD, is the author of two history books, and her creative work has recently appeared in Cirque, L’Éphémère Review, and Okay Donkey. You can find her in the classroom, the archives, or on Twitter @ProfessorBall

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

Image via Pixabay

Damn Plumage – Richard Kemp

Each morning after night shift I take a bus to the end of my street. I pull the keys from my pocket soon as I hear the hiss of the doors closing, and walk, twirling the keyring round on my finger. Once home, I fix a bowl of cereal and eat it on the front lawn, while coffee brews on the stove, waiting for the painter who drags a dead blackbird.

He always walks by before I drink the last dregs of milk straight from the bowl, the bird tied to his belt with string, his steps shuffling, him crumpled in paint-speckled overalls. We both nod as he ambles past and crosses the road to enter the alley leading to the meadow. The alley is dusty, with rocks poking out like dropped teeth. The bird occasionally gets caught on one. String tightens until the bird makes a brief return to flight before landing in the dirt. I wait until the painter is just a dot against the green grass, then I know my coffee is ready.

Once, when it was raining, he told me the bird had been cursed to spend its death dragged on the ground. Habitually dressed in a pin-stripe suit and fine shoes when alive, he sought favour with the rich and powerful. Chased objects, prizes and social standing. The other birds accused him of vanity, said he shamed them with his yearning to be counted as something more than he was. So, they cursed him. Cursed him to spend his eternal slumber chasing man as he had done in life.

Once, when it was sunny, I asked him if his curse was to pull a dead blackbird behind him for all his days, he said he hadn’t thought of it like that before.

Sometimes I think I should get a better job. More money, sociable hours, then I think of the blackbird in its suit and shoes. I think of the dreams it had and the reward it chased.

I look at the ground.

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

Image via Pixabay

Three Questions – Ann E Wallace

Hold my hands and
concentrate on three
questions to be
answered, faith placed
in cutting the deck
tripled, laid neatly,
the magic a blur,
the drawn faces a mystery,
I hold onto her words
as fate, the stories conjured,
laid out card by card
in a cross upon the table

Love, fortune, health,
what else does anyone ever
question, the intersecting
trinity of desires that only
the foolhardy or brave
dare to ask within the quiet,
knowing the answers
held in her warm palms
and soft, low voice
will not be what one
asked to hear.

Ann E. Wallace writes of life with illness, motherhood, and other everyday realities. Her work has recently appeared in a variety of journals, including The Capra Review, Juniper, The Literary Nest, Rogue Agent, as well as in Issue Ten of The Cabinet of Heed. She lives in Jersey City, NJ where she teaches English at New Jersey City University. She is online at AnnWallacePhd.com and on Twitter @annwlace409.

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

Image via Pixabay

Fortune – Steve Campbell

Leaning on the counter, Nate selects five numbers from the sixty that are printed on the front of the slim polymer slip. The same five numbers he’s played every week for the last three years. Once his DNA and fingerprint are verified, his numbers are covered with an electric-blue cross and the Fortune slogan that spans the top of the ticket, ‘Only Winners Have Tickets’, animates to read ‘Two Credits To Play’.

“Fortune and a double caffeine,” he requests from the shop screen that covers the wall in front of him.

“Confirmation required. Age-restricted products. Insert Fortune ticket,” announces the screen. It displays his order in large, bold letters.

Nate feeds his ticket into the game slot below the screen and waits for his selected numbers and personal information to be verified. While waiting for the ticket to pop back out, he daydreams about what he’ll do with the winnings. He’ll quit his job, buy a larger apartment — one with enough rooms for the kids to stop over — and take a month-long vacation. Maybe even six months. He’ll find a beach as far away from this city (and his ex-wife) as he possibly can. He won’t even tell her he’s gone. He’ll send her an anonymous e-card with the message, “Glad you’re not here!”

He’s still smiling to himself when his ticket pops back out.

“Ticket verified. Good luck, Nate Foster,” announces the screen.

Nate takes a quick glance to ensure that his ticket now displays his chosen numbers, then stuffs it into his wallet and waves his watch over the payment reader.

“Age verified. Purchase accepted,” the screen responds as a can of coffee clunks into the collection tray.

By the time he’s made the short walk across the city to State Bank Tower, the can is empty and the caffeine is beginning to clear his head. It can’t help ease his annoyance at the number of people waiting to get through the reception, though. His shoulders slump and he skulks over to join the shortest line of workers shuffling towards the security barriers.

“Good morning, Nate,” the receptionist greets him when he reaches the barrier.

Nate doesn’t reply but uses this sliver of time, like he does every morning, to scan the receptionist’s features. It’s his daily attempt to unearth a facial twitch, a mistimed blink, or anything else that would mark her out as not being human. As usual, he finds nothing. There are rumours that all receptionists, security and cleaning staff at State Bank are substitute workers, or ‘subs’ as they are more commonly known — machines doing the work of humans — but he’s never actually uncovered one. He and his colleagues often joke that their line manager is a sub, because he has the personality shop screen. Nate’s known him for a few years now, and is aware that his awkward personality is down to poor social skills, rather than the possibility that he might actually be a machine.

Once his identity has been confirmed, the receptionist is authorised to allow Nate to pass through the barrier. She smiles at him as it opens.

“Have a productive day, Mr. Foster. The time is 42 past 8. You have less than 18 minutes to get to your workstation. State Bank advises that you undertake some light stretching to improve your posture before commencing your shift.”

* * *

The clock hanging on the office wall next to the TV screen displays 5 past 19. The TV is on but the sound has been turned down. The blinds that cover the adjacent wall of glass aren’t closed to block out any earlier evening sunlight; they are there to provide privacy. Three smartly dressed occupants — two women and a man — tap on terminal keyboards and tablets. None of them pay attention to the TV screen, until a tall man enters the room and turns up the volume. The typing stops and the three look up in unison.

“…week’s winning Fortune numbers. Good luck to everyone who took part. If you missed out, don’t forget you can play again next week and remember, ‘Only winners have tickets’. We’ll see you same time, same place, next week, but for now here are those winning numbers again…”

The screen freezes on the five numbers and, dropping the remote control onto the desk, the tall man turns his back to the screen and claps his hands together loudly.

“Okay. people. Who’s our winner this week?”

“Nate Foster. A 39-year-old divorcee,” replies one of the women.

“Details?” asks the tall man.

“He lives alone in a city-centre apartment. He has a menial desk job at State Bank with a below-average income and just over 10 thousand credits of debt.”

“The prize fund has been confirmed at 47 million,” adds the man.

“Good, good. Publicity?” asks the tall man.

“None. His ticket confirms that he’s declined publicity,” replies the woman.

“Okay. Perfect. Do we let this win go through?” asks the tall man.

“All information indicates that this win is ideal for retention,” replies the second woman.

“Excellent,” says the tall man. “Any objections?”

The three people look at one another then shake their heads. The tall man claps his hand together again, cutting through the silence. “Good, good. We know what to do. Let’s prepare the penthouse and give Mr. Foster the news.”

* * *

“What?! No. You’re joking? No. Seriously?”

The tall man smiles as he brings a finger up to his lips, mouthing shhh. He glances up and down the corridor, and without waiting to be invited in, he steps inside Nate’s apartment. He places an arm around Nate’s shoulder and guides him into the living area. They’re closely followed by a woman in a suit.

“I can assure you this isn’t a joke,” says the tall man in a smooth, calm voice as he walks Nate to the sofa. “Why don’t you take a seat and Catherine will get us all a drink?” The tall man waves the woman into the kitchen area as Nate sits down. “Tea? Coffee?” he asks.

“Er, coffee,” Nate replies, and adds to the woman in the kitchen, “the top cupboard. The mugs are in the top cupboard. By the sink.”

“I’m sorry that we’ve had to wake you so early. We needed to be discreet. Our records show that you’ve declined publicity in the event of a win. That is correct, isn’t it?”

Nate nods. His brow is furrowed as he watches the woman open and close his kitchen cupboards.

The tall man claps his hands together.

“Okay, Mr. Foster. Before we go on, I’ll need to see that winning ticket. We need confirmation that you are in fact Nate Foster. I’m sure you understand.”

“Oh, yes. Of course. I mean, it’s in my wallet. I’ll go and get it.”

Nate is unsteady on his feet as he heads towards the bedroom to collect his wallet. He scrubs his face with his hands to clear away the grogginess, in the hope that he can make some sense of the situation. It’s 35 past 5 and he has two immaculately dressed people in his apartment. They’ve just explained that he’s won 47 million credits on the Fortune lottery. The tall man is casually wanders around as if he owns the place, while the woman makes coffee in Nate’s kitchen. This is all far too surreal. The alarm will wake him up any minute now, he’s sure of it.

His hand shakes as he picks up his wallet from the bedside table. He pulls out the ticket and across the front, in place of his chosen numbers, is the message: ‘Please contact Fortune immediately – 555-FORTUNE.’

“This is nuts,” he mutters as he hands over his ticket to the tall man. The man gives both sides a quick scan and, appearing to be satisfied, he hands it back.

“That all seems in order. Obviously, it will need to be verified.”

“Er… of course,” replies Nate glancing over the ticket.

“I know it’s a bit of a shock, but that’s perfectly normal,” says the tall man. “It can take weeks for it to really sink in. You’re actually handling it pretty well, considering. We’ve seen all sorts of reactions from winners over the years. One woman vomited so badly that…”

The tall man stops and reaches into his pocket. “I’m sorry, where are my manners?” He pulls out a white identity card. The title Direction of Fortune Assimilation is prominent next to the tall man’s photograph. He smiles as he hands the card over to Nate.

“I’m Isaac Stewart and I’m here to change your life.”

* * *

Nate picks up the champagne flute from the edge of the bath and takes a sip. He closes his eyes and holds the alcohol in his mouth for a few seconds, savouring it before swallowing.

He has been in this penthouse for the past two days. Isaac and Catherine had him driven straight here, wherever here was, after breaking the news to him about his Fortune win. He hadn’t taken much notice of his surrounds during the journey because of the barrage of questions and information that had been thrown at him, but having looked out at the view when he arrived, landmarks and buildings suggested that he was somewhere within the financial district.

Nate nudges the tap with his toe, adding a little more hot water to his bath. The warm surge creeps up his legs to caress his back and he takes another sip of champagne to counteract the warmth. This is the life.

During the tour of the apartment, Isaac explained that if there were anything that Nate needed, anything at all, he only needed to ask. In response, Nate blurted out that he wanted a roll-top bath. He hadn’t realised he wanted one until the words came tumbling out of his mouth. Before he’d had chance to backtrack, a Fortune representative had already begun making enquiries. The bath was plumbed in within the hour and it is doing wonders for his back right now.

Alongside the luxury came an almost endless number of formalities, all of which had to be completed before any winnings could be officially transferred. Nate was reminded that this was ‘all covered in the Terms and Conditions’, which Fortune were more than happy to provide a duplicate copy of, if required.

His ticket is currently being scrutinised for signs of tampering or counterfeiting and it will be returned to him as soon as it had been cleared. Apparently, most winners like to frame their tickets as a memento of their win.

Nate had lost count of the amount of times his signature has been provided for verification; he’s written it with a pen, without a pen, and even blindfolded. He’s also taken part in numerous informal interviews. Every conceivable piece of personal information has been requested. And has been supplied. He’s confirmed his date of birth, his first school, the names of his childhood sweethearts, and parents’ places of birth. All of this information will be collated to verify his identity. Isaac and his team have taken photographs of Nate from numerous angles and checked these against his passport, driver’s license, and CCTV footage.

The Fortune team apologised for the inconvenience but explained that there had been numerous instances of people masquerading as winners. They explained that there had been hundreds of attempts by criminals to get their hands on the winnings.

As Nate had declined publicity, his whereabouts would remain a secret for the time being. He was advised not to contact anyone while everything was being prepared for his new life. The press could be very intrusive and were always hungry for a Fortune exclusive, so it was better to be safe than sorry.

Although the continuous questioning and exile within this hotel room have been inconvenient, Fortune has been extremely helpful and always on hand to answer questions or concerns. They’ve kept him updated every few hours, right up until about an hour ago, when they confirmed that the flights for his holiday had been booked. He is set to fly out tomorrow morning.

Nate had often wondered how winners managed to remain hidden from the public eye, and it turned out that it was due to the meticulous planning of the Assimilation Team at Fortune. Along with taking care of his day-to-day needs and concerns, their job was to provide a cover story for the first few days after his win. They contacted his employer the morning they’d arrived at his apartment and explained that there had been an unexpected death in the family. This, they said, would give him a few days of freedom and time to plan what he wanted to do next. Nate has no intention of going back to work, but at least he now has a few days grace and, more importantly, he isn’t drawing attention to himself by not being at work. The team will contact State Bank at the end of the week to officially hand in Nate’s notice due to stress. The team has reassured him that they deal with HR departments on an almost weekly basis and Nate has nothing to worry about.

Nate’s fingers and toes start to wrinkle, so he reluctantly climbs out of the bath and wraps himself in a bathrobe. Strolling through into the bedroom, he feels oddly at home in his surroundings. He turns on the TV to add background noise to the stillness of the penthouse, but immediately turns it back off. The noise is jarring. He realises that he needs this peace and quiet.

It is early evening outside — 45 past 8 — and almost curfew. Nate watches the lights flick on within city apartments while the street-level lights begin to diminish as the sun sets. He realises this is the last time he’ll see this sun setting. From now on, every day will end with a sunset free of pollution, drones, and skyscrapers.

Moving back across the room, the plush carpet pushing up between his toes, Nate sits down on the edge of the bed. The effects of the hot bath and alcohol nudge him towards sleep. He’ll dream of breathing in sea mist that rolled in across an unspoilt beach, as water laps at his feet.

* * *

The blinds are open to reveal the penthouse bedroom through the wall of one-way glass. Isaac and his team watch the bathroom door open and Nate walk into the room wrapped in a bathrobe.

Isaac looks at the tablet in his hand and swipes through several pages before asking, “Do we have any issues to report with the sub?”

“All the information suggests it has been absorbed and it is behaving perfectly. There was one minor hiccup initially. But the cover story held; his colleagues put the odd behaviour down to the bereavement,” replies the man. “There are no other problems, and it is integrating perfectly. Work productivity has been set at the same, pre-swap-out levels.”

“All transactions regarding Fortune games have been removed from Nate’s bank account and his ticket has been erased,” adds one of the women.

“Good, good. Before we do this, does anyone have any concerns?” Isaac turns to look across the faces of his team.

No one speaks.

Isaac turns back and watches Nate for a moment longer before tapping the tablet. He stands unmoved for the time it takes the room to fill with gas and leave Nate slumped on the bed.

“Vitals?” he asks over his shoulder.

“I have confirmed flatlines,” replies one of the women.

“Good, good. Let’s take a break and start the clean up when we get back.” Isaac turns his back to the windows and taps the tablet to close the blinds, hiding the penthouse from view. On the way out of the office, he picks up Nate’s ticket from his desk, which is blank apart from the Fortune slogan across the top: ‘Only winners have tickets’.

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

Image via Pixabay

The Man from Paris – Denis J Underwood

The man from Paris stood at the cliff’s edge, shielding his eyes. Bone white ships dotted the gleaming Mediterranean. His brother had brought him here to look down at the sea before the hunters guided their horses inland.

The man from Paris knew little about Algeria. He did not read books to prepare for his trip. What he did know, his younger brother had written in letters, and his brother had only written twice: once in 1932 after settling in Algeria and a year ago inviting him to visit. So, in August of 1954, the man from Paris boarded a boat in Marseille and his brother picked him up in Algiers. There he saw the crowded market, the Mauresque women with their heads covered. Aren’t they hot? he wondered. A rough road along the coast brought them to the town of Novi where their first stop was the viticulture coop.

This, the man from Paris thought was an opportunity for his brother to brag about his vineyards, his lands, his success. They drank local red wine which the man from Paris thought satisfactory, but mostly bland, and his brother introduced him to men of the village, the Pieds-noir.

After three days of enjoying the comfort of his brother’s home, the man from Paris prepared for the hunt. He lifted his rifle, submitting it to his brother for inspection.

“Will this do?” He wanted his brother to acknowledge the quality; this was a fine, expensive rifle. He had borrowed it from a friend.

“Did you clean it?”

“Yes, in Paris.”

“Clean it again.”

The man from Paris shrugged, wrapped the rifle in a cloth and then placed it in his pack.

“You ready to face a boar?” his brother asked.

“Of course.”

“Ever killed one?”

“In Provence.”

“Little, right?”

“No, big.”

His brother’s face alighted with a knowing smirk, the one he’d always flashed after detecting one of his lies.

“Babies compared to these,” his brother said.

“They all die the same.”

“Not always.”

*      *      *

The riders crossed hills covered with dried grasses and scrub brush. Ahead of the horses, dogs darted in and out of shadows. After a lunch of sliced sausage, crusty bread, dried figs, and Medjool dates, the hunters pulled rifles from their packs and trudged off, following the dogs and the Arab men with their long sticks.

The man from Paris started next to his brother, the two slowly drifting apart. The other hunters fanned out. Soon, he was on his own, advancing toward the ridge where he would wait for boar chased toward his station. At the crest, he stopped and surveyed the land, his canvas hunting jacket wet with sweat. Soon he heard barking coming from the valley below.

The barking steadily became louder and then a boar shot out of the tall grass beneath some trees.

Could something so big really move so fast?

The boar rushed up the slope toward him, its snout plunging through the thick underbrush.

The baying dogs were not far behind.

The man from Paris shouldered his rifle, leaned forward and aimed. He sighted the boar slightly above the head. The rifle barrel jerked up and down with each of his breaths.
He fired and the shot went high. The boar was almost to him. He pulled the trigger again and the rifle jammed.

He had once been a wonderful hunter of birds. But birds were very different than this. More of a sweeping motion with the weapon and if you missed, it really didn’t matter.

That had been long ago, before he’d moved to Paris. He braced himself holding the hot rifle barrel with both hands. He tried to time it right, swinging the butt down. He missed, and the boar slammed into him, its massive head and neck lifting him off his feet.

When he came to, he felt as if he were submerged in warm water. Two men were with him. He could hear his brother shouting. One man tore off the man from Paris’ blood soaked pants. The other man pressed his hands into the crease between his leg and groin. Blood spurted in long strings from between the man’s fingers. There were other wounds but those were nothing compared to the mess between his legs.

The men continued to press the wound. One told him not to worry, “Ça va, c’est rien!”

Then he overheard them whispering about how a tourniquet wouldn’t work.

“We’ll make it to the village,” his brother said. The man from Paris knew better. They had ridden over two hours. The tusk hit his artery. He was thinking so clearly now.

“Don’t leave me here,” he said.

“Of course we won’t leave you.”

*      *      *

They hefted him, belly down, onto his horse. The man from Paris’ head bounced off the horse’s side as it went. One man jogged along, propping him up. The horse’s flank, slick with blood, glistened in the sun.

The man from Paris’ whole body felt heavy. He strained to lift his head and look out across the land. He felt the horse’s power and it seemed limitless compared to his own waning strength. His brother came alongside to talk in his ear.

“Take me back to France,” the man from Paris said. “Promise.”

His brother nodded, acknowledging he understood what was expected.

When the man from Paris could no longer lift his head, he watched the trail beneath him. The long, dried grasses flicked back and forth and the dust whorled away from the horse’s hooves. He watched this as long as he could, waiting for the sea.

 

Denis J. Underwood’s stories have appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Identity Theory, Gravel Magazine, The First Line, and elsewhere. His chapbook, Carolina, was published by Wind River Press. Grave Matters, a feature film he co-wrote and co-produced, has been in post-production a few years too many. The project was featured on the Sundance Channel’s 24 Frames News.

 

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

Image: Denis J Underwood

Adonis Blue – Debbie Taggio

Brilliant sapphire-blue wings beat in eight motion, tinkling against the glass, instinct searching for escape. Leo slipped an old envelope under the rim, and placed the butterfly on an evergreen that shivered in the breeze. Flitting, fluttering, kissing a buttercup with a quiver of air, brushing a four-leaf clover with the fringes of its wings, never settling, always on the move – onto the next thing.

Leo promised himself it would be different this time, he wouldn’t allow the rust of routine to corrode his heart or wrap its oxidised arms around his windpipe. Screams and laughter of children on lunchtime break carried on the wind, sharp little daggers of sound piercing his ear drums. He’d never wanted children, never wanted to be caught in the Venus fly trap of parenthood, told Sarah as much, now he’d become the butterfly in the glass, knocking against the sides of his own cell.

The butterfly skitted across the yard, pursuing its mate, relentless in the chase. Leo recalled the first time he’d seen Sarah, burrowed in a corner of the working men’s club, the wide-eyed rabbit hiding in her hole. He was drawn to the quiet ones, they were such a contrast to the pawing and pinching he was used to. Leo peered around the curtain, assessing that night’s crowd, he spotted her sheltering amongst the usual assortment of thick-waisted bodies, wearing too-tight clothes, their flesh bulging like splitting sausages, and brides’ up for a last hurrah before years of disappointment and comfort eating morphed them into their mothers.

Leo’s mother had been disappointed; by love and life. His father married his mother in a whirlwind of suppressed passion, took her virginity, and left four months later, the morning after she’d given him the happy news. Leo recalled the venom with which she’d told him the story of his father’s adored three outside children; she spat out words like sharp little arrows, to sting and wound.

She no longer remembered a son, calling Leo by his father’s name, he fended off her amorous advances like a child fighting a frisky dog. Leo’s deftness in batting off horny women deserted him when dealing with his own mother, embarrassment erupted into shame, shame and anger, ending with her pleading, don’t leave me, please, stay, stay, and nurses running into the room to calm her with soothing baby talk; soft voices comforting a hard voiced woman.

Growing up, her astringency seeped into his pores, dissolving his flesh like acid. She gorged on the bitter taste of life, reopening old wounds, picking over bones as he tried to recycle his broken pieces. You’ll never amount to anything, you’re just like your father – her cultish mantra only stopping when she’d forgotten who he was, forgotten who she was.

Mantra turned prophecy.

Leo had no perceptible talents, he was a late-twenties slacker hopping from low-paid job to low-paid job, so when he saw an advert pasted to a wall above the urinals in the working mens’ club promising, all the money and women you could ever want, he applied. He welcomed hot wine breath tickling his ears and sardine women jostling to get their hands on his be-thonged body. Gyrating, grinding hips, blink-of-an-eye flashes teased, enticed, enthralled, and fingertips slid between the furrows of his baby-oiled chest. The women intoxicated by a heady mix of twofer offers on jugs of Sangria and Leo’s brooding intensity felt it in their hearts, and felt it in their parts.

The butterfly passed over the clover as Leo nipped its stem between thumb and forefinger, his mother would’ve called it a shamrock and crossed herself for good measure. He wished he’d had a buttercup childhood of golden reflected light, of well-done stars and head ruffles, but his metamorphosis from boy to man had created a cold blooded butterfly, tasting with his feet before walking away.

Leo stuck a post-it to the dining room table, I’m sorry, he wrote, and as the corner curled towards the light, it revealed a carbon-copy apology etched into the soft teak wood where he placed the four-leaf clover.

 

Debbie Taggio has had pieces of flash fiction published in The Drabble and as part of National Flash Fiction Day and is a finalist in The Edinburgh International Flash Fiction Awards, the winner of which will be announced at an awards dinner on 29th September 2018. Debbie has also started an MA in creative writing at Birmingham City University.

 

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

Image via Pixabay

Who throws a shoe? Who? – Olivia Fitzsimons

The child’s rubbery raggedy black trainer that lies in the middle of the country road and we all drive around to avoid. Why do we do that? Swerving out of the way like the imprint of the tiny body it belonged to is still attached. I want to stop and pick it up and put it in the car. Find its match. Cradle it.

Or the brown battered boot left on the motorway, beached in an almost step out of the way move – did they describe the owner on the news that I don’t listen to, now that I have children of a certain age, who soak up information, and ask the uncomfortable questions,

“Why did they jump?”

“Where are their parents?”

“Is that boy dead on the beach?”

Then there’s a slipper in town, that reminds me of someone who got chased, lost in mid-scarper. Or maybe it was just popped-out-to-get-milk-hung-over and there’s the ex with the new girlfriend looking like a magazine cover, love island contoured and everything. Just my luck.

The black high heel, patent, sitting fragile perfect. Crows strut around it studying their shimmering reflection as they circle in and out in a vindictive dance. What would you say to the one that got away? Why do you never come back for your shoes? Are you all Cinderella’s, glass slippers left behind in the rush back. Did the dappled gravel road knock you off balance as you ran away?

In New Orleans I once saw a perfect pair of Mary Jane’s set against a lamp post, waiting to be reclaimed, while water still sat in the levies. Discarded sofas floated away between buildings, above people huddled inside hiding, unable to forget the wrath of the waves. I hope you swam away like a mermaid. I hope you smiled despite the debris settled soft on your city. You placed your shoes at a street altar. I hope when I return they are gone, and your shoeless feet still dance on the sidewalk, prayers answered, hearts raised and all that was lost recovered.

 

OLIVIA FITZSIMONS lives in County Wicklow, Ireland. Her flash fiction has appeared/forthcoming in the Honest Ulsterman, Crannog, Boyne Berries, Cabinet of Heed, Solidalgo, Cease Cows, FlashBack Fiction and Deracine. Shortlisted for the Sunday Business Post/ Penguin Short Story Prize 2017. Long listed for the Fish Short Story Prize 2018. Shortlisted for the Retreat West Flash Fiction Prize in 2017. She was selected as a mentee for the WORDS Ireland/Wicklow Co Co National Mentoring Programme 2018. @oneflawediris

 

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

Image via Pixabay

Streakers – Barry Peters

Maybe I should have stripped
with my friends in the midnight
moonlight on the 12th fairway
of that public golf course,

tossed aside cut-offs and doobie
brothers t-shirt, unpeeled striped
tube socks, chucked high-top
converse and – debauchery! —

bound down the bermuda
barefoot, naked in the garden,
in sober joy, one final romp
before the dawn of adulthood.

Instead, I remained in the sand
trap fully dressed, enmeshed
in envy, watching their white
backs and bottoms, alabaster

in the mythical night.
Decades later, translucence:
if I could have unwedged
myself from that bunker,

maybe now I’d be the kind
of man who could find courage,
somewhere, even in the safety
of the righteous mob.

 

Barry Peters is a writer and teacher in Durham, NC, USA. Recent/forthcoming: Best New Poets 2018, Baltimore Review, Connecticut River Review, Miramar, Rattle, The Southampton Review, Sport Literate.

 

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

Image via Pixabay

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: