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

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

Issue 37 – Drawer Two

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

What’s Next – Priscilla Green

I’m tired of climbing mountains,
swimming across rivers,
running marathons;

tired of goals,
dreams,
expectations;

tired.

Give me a moment to breathe,
to rest my head on a pillow
and sleep for the night

before you ask me,
‘what’s next?’

Let me exist,
simply
exist.

I have climbed mountains,
swum across rivers,
run marathons.

I’m
tired.

Priscilla Green is a Canadian writer of fiction and poetry. Her recent work has appeared in Spadina Literary Review and Vaughan Street Doubles. She lives in Toronto.

Heartless – Ann E Wallace

The man behind Curtain #6, in the bed next to mine, is moaning. Moaning the plaintive sound of a man who is very, very cold. The sound of a man who is burning up with fever and cannot keep the warmth within his body. A man who is so cold and so hot all at once that it hurts.

Whenever he stops moaning, he coughs. And coughs. And coughs. A deep, dry hacking cough.

In my bed, in Curtain #5, I cover my head with my jacket. The curtain between us is not thick. And I am quite sure, though I cannot see him, that the coughing man is facing me. And I am facing him. I know I should face away. But that would require a great deal of effort.

The coughing continues. I roll, slowly, from my left side onto my right. I rearrange the lines attached to me—attached to my blood pressure cuff, to the blood oxygen monitor taped onto my index finger, to the IV in the crook of my right arm. I spread my sweater and jacket over my body, pulling the soft collar of my coat over my face once more.

I am wearing a surgical mask, but I am not confident it can block out that cough, with its millions of infectious particles whirling through the air from one bed to the next to the next.

Many of the doctors and nurses here wear two masks, one on top of the other. Some wear a mask over an N95 respirator. Others have plastic shields over their faces. I feel naked in my thin paper mask.

They must feel naked even in their double or triple layers when they duck behind Curtain #6 to care for my neighbor.

He moans and coughs for ages, surely an hour or longer. I wonder how the staff does not feel the distress I feel inside of me as I listen. I cannot not listen. He is 6 feet away, maybe closer. I have no job other than to lie there and listen.

My bedside monitor beeps often, intermittently. My heartrate is 48…49…50…49. These numbers are low. So low that they set the alarm to beeping.

I wonder if my heart is trying to slow itself to a putter, so I might protect it from the man in Curtain #6 and all the other coughing men, coughing women, behind the curtains. If I could slow its rhythm down, down…down, I might lie still and know his breath, their breath, cannot touch mine.

As the monitor beeps with each dip of my heart below 50 beats per minute, I know that if I allow myself to feel anything for the man in Curtain #6, my heart would race with concern.

But my job here in this ER is to safeguard my lungs, my body, my heart, my family. And hope that there will be time to cry for the man in Curtain #6 later from the safety of my home.

Ann E. Wallace is writing at home in Jersey City, NJ while she and her daughter recover from COVID-19. Her poetry collection Counting by Sevens (2019) is available from Main Street Rag, and her published work can be found online at AnnWallacePhD.com. She is on Twitter @annwlace409.

The Quiet Abandoned Places – Anne Howkins

Rose takes herself to quiet abandoned places when no-one is looking. They de-fizz her blood, unwind the labyrinths deep in her head, slow her pulse – let her be Rose.

Trudging through the mud to a semi-derelict cattle byre hidden in a dip. A pair of March hares catch her madness. They box each other’s ears for the hell of it; bolt across the sprouting wheat when the wind carries the dismayed scent of Rose to their twitching nostrils. She squeezes under a sheet of corrugated iron which pretends to be a door, hanging broken hipped and laced around its edges. Rose perches on the old manger while she watches a spider straight-jacket a fly with silk, until all that she can see is a silver pearl trembling in the draughts. She wonders if she should free the fly, understands it’s too late. A gust catches the disturbed metal sheet, sends it twisting like a dislocated limb until it crashes into the byre.

Rose gasps herself up the hidden steps by the old railway bridge. Sleepers and tracks absent now the colliery trains are distant ghosts clacking through the night; the gravel cindered with coal grime shed from bodies long gone. Solstice butterflies leave the buddleia to flit around her head, collecting the dusty guilt and despair that gathers in her wake. Birdsong and light fading as the tunnel draws her in. A shock of feathers confetti her naked shoulders when roosting pigeons startle at the crash and splinter of a roof timber.

Rose seeks the building hidden in the dark woods. Brick growing out of grasping jewelled brambles as rosebay willow-herb floats feathery seeds in the autumn equinoctial wind. Hands stained red hauling herself up the fire-escape, setting oxide flakes drifting to earth. The final heart-wrenching pull over the top. She lies wide-eyed on a mossy bed, wondering if she could net a mackerel from the sky, bait it with confusion. The crack and crash when her weight sends tiles cascading to the floor.

Shivering her way to the mid-winter lake where the hill ponies and sheep gather in shimmering summers. They are safe in their winter paddocks, squabbling over the sweetest mouthfuls of June-scented hay. The old drove road crunchy under Rose’s feet, her eyes scrunched against the sunlight bouncing off last night’s tinkling hoar frost. She picks her way over the frozen hoof-pitted margins and slides onto the pristine ice covering the brackish water beneath her feet. Her exhaled worries shadow her as she swoops and glides over the frozen surface. The cracking and splintering behind her as the ice yields to her weight.

Rose opens her eyes. White everywhere, the walls, the sheets, the light. Her body a crumpled carapace, the hiatus in her head. Everything has aspirated away. Machines whooshing, blinking, beeping.

Murmured voices

she’s back

early days

no promises

Nails digging into flesh. Stinging salt on cheeks. The cage door closing.

A silver pearl trembling in the breeze.

A Week in the Life of a Broken Boy – Alva Holland

Monday: 09:00

This broken boy. He cowers in the corner of the locker room.

‘Kid! You wanna be a boxer? No cowering.’

He lifts his head, a bruise the size of a tennis ball on his cheek.

‘You been practisin, boy? Let’s go in the ring – do it properly.’

Tuesday: 09:00

This broken boy. He limps ahead of me. I am unseen. He drops his pants for his shorts. A large black mass spreads across his upper thigh.

‘No rogue fightin’ kid. You have to stick with my programme.’

Wednesday: 09:00

This broken boy. A no-show. I call his number. No reply. I call his house. Disconnected.

Thursday: 09:00

This broken boy. He arrives, dressed only in his shorts and flimsy t-shirt. It’s -3 outside.

He’s shivering, his bruises visible, his intense pain hidden, he thinks.

I throw him some track pants, ask him why he wasn’t here yesterday. He says nothing.

Friday: 09:00

This broken boy. He’ll be waiting. Car’s got a flat. Jesus! I call the kid. No answer.

Friday 09:42

This broken boy. He has busted the chain on the gym door. I find him crouched in the corner of the locker room.

‘Kid! This is not working.’

Then I see the blood, a constant slow drip from his head.

‘Jesus, kid, what’s going on?’

‘Not going back, never fucking going back.’

Friday 09:55

This broken boy is scared senseless by the arrival of the uniform. The kid runs, tripping, dripping.

‘For chrissakes, kid, you need help.’

I reach him, it’s not difficult to catch up with this boy.

I stand him up.

He winces under my touch. Everything about him hurts.

I send the uniform away.

Friday 22:30

This broken boy is asleep on my couch, looks younger than his years.

Friday 23:15

My wife comes back from her mother’s.

Looks at the kid.

‘WTF?’ she mouths.

She folds a blanket over the broken boy.

We go upstairs to bed.

Saturday 06:15

I hear the front door slam.

Dammit to hell, kid.

Sunday 17:56

This broken boy. Where is he today?

Doorbell rings. It’s the uniform. His eyes tell me what words need not.

Failure – me.

I have failed this broken boy, shattered now.

Donna – Carl Taylor

Donna’s life was paint by numbers. She wasn’t lonely because she had a cat and a smartphone. It also helped that Donna had no imagination, which was all right because imaginations are no longer necessary. If anything, imaginations may prove a detriment in this world. Who among us doesn’t have a friend that was felled by their own creativity? It can be a sin worse than pride because often it is a sin of pride, plus a splash of something extra.

Now imagine (or perhaps it would be better if you didn’t imagine) the monochromatic interior of Donna’s apartment. Let your mind gently peruse this space; this snapshot of orderly boredom. The sink is empty, the litterbox tidy, and there is a scent of Febreze wafting from a yellowing plug. Donna walks gingerly through her habitat. Donna is an egg, after all, and every morning she cracks herself in two and pours the yolk across the many hours. She lives in a tiny condo on the third floor, or maybe it’s the fourth. (Here, the floors and the condos all look alike.) When she feels secure, Donna likes to take the stairs rather than the elevator for the exercise. Donna doesn’t feel lacking in any way and doesn’t desire that anything change; but of course, things do change, whether that is our intention or not. Donna is thirty years old and perhaps has been for many years.

One day Donna met Pete. She didn’t mean to. She was in line at the movies when it happened—a box of unbuttered popcorn in her right hand and a ticket stub to a humorless film in her left. Donna preferred movies in the classic mold. She found the virtual reality films overly stimulating. Even the theaters designed to incorporate smells were a bit too much for Donna. The cinemas where films watched the audience were sufficiently unexciting, yet still unnerving in their complex meta-expression. Donna stuck with the 2D films.

Donna was really looking forward to being bored for two hours. That’s when Pete bumped into her while attempting to untie his shoes. When their eyes first met, Donna found herself sufficiently unimpressed with the stranger’s traditional garb of sweater and khakis. She further noted that this man who bumped into her had somber brown eyes, a casual grimace to his lip, and symmetrical (but not too symmetrical) features. In other words, she found Pete to be nearly perfect in his mediocrity. He too was slight of build. He too had a box of unbuttered popcorn and a ticket to the same humorless film.

“I suppose one shouldn’t attempt to untie their shoes while holding a giant tub of popcorn.”

“I’m not sure why one would attempt to untie their shoes at all.”

“So that one may tie them again, but tighter,” he said, and this made a certain paralytic sense to Donna.

“Are you here with anyone?” she asked.

“Just the general crowd,” he said, and he smiled in a way she found gallant, but not overly so. Certainly not dashing. In other words, his demeanor too was almost perfect, in a world as judged by Donna.

Now, when people asked how they met, they would say, “It just happened.” And Donna would say, “Love is like anything else, you can only find it when you’re not looking for it.” And Pete would add, “I was untying my shoes, and then…Donna.” Everyone agreed that the couple was cute, but not too cute; their relationship sensible in the way a modern romance should be.

Then, an eruption of their perfectly average harmony. After six months of comfortably lukewarm dating, Pete agreed to move into Donna’s condo. It was a sensible move, they both thought, one that would save them money and provide a logical next step. During this spring of their romance, they spent their days at work and their evenings on a couch, their shadows silhouetted against the blue furnace of the television screen.

“Are you happy?” Pete would ask while holding her hand.

“Yes, I think so. You?”

“I think so.”

On the weekends they would take turns burning pancakes. Weeks would pass—no, months. The television talked of revolution in the streets.

“Someone should do something,” Donna said.

“Yes. Someone should.”

The outside world changed, but Pete and Donna mostly stayed the same.

A year later Pete got promoted at the numbers factory. His superiors at the factory commended him for the way he moved numbers that year. Meanwhile, there were mass layoffs at Donna’s place of employment—everyone with below-average work output received their walking papers, and everyone who exceeded expectations preemptively left to find a new location to spend the majority of their waking lives. Donna, of course, stayed right where she was.

Donna and Pete’s relationship continued to exist. It was neither great nor terrible, and that was exactly how they wanted it to be. Needed it to be. Donna suspected that Pete would soon propose. Every time Pete dropped to his knees she became convinced that he would. Each time she was wrong, he was merely untying and then retying his shoes. Then one evening, as summer started to tickle in everyone’s ears, Donna’s sister Meghan called. Donna hadn’t heard from Meghan in years. Donna wasn’t certain how to react when Meghan said that she was in some sort of trouble. But Donna couldn’t help but agree when Meghan asked to crash at Donna’s condo for a while.

* * *

Meghan arrived at the apartment a day later, carrying nothing but a tube of toothpaste.

“What about a toothbrush?” Donna asked.

“I figured you had an extra,” Meghan said. “Don’t ya?”

“Well, yes,” Donna said.

“Good. Then I figured right.”

Meghan invited herself in and swept the room, walking in a brisk manner and picking up pictures and other knick-knacks.

“You could really use an interior decorator,” Meghan said. But then she caught herself and said, “But of course, I could use an interior period, so who am I to be so snooty?” Meghan was wearing a vintage green dress and vibrant costume jewelry. She looked misplaced in that spartan condo. Anywhere else she may have looked like a sophisticate, or even a model.

“Where’s your man?” Meghan asked. She pulled out a pinch of snuff and inserted it firmly into her lower jaw.

“Out,” Donna said.

“Out where?”

“Outside.”

“Marvelous,” Meghan said. Then, “I’m going to go spit this in the sink and redo my makeup.”

At dinner that evening, the three of them gathered around a Moroccan meal that Meghan cooked. Meghan kept repeating she had learned the recipe from an ex-lover, who was from Morocco, or who had at least spent some time in Morocco.

“It’s very flavorful,” Pete said.

“Yes,” Donna agreed. “There are many flavors.”

“We should all go to Morocco,” Meghan said. “Wouldn’t it be something? Africa.”

“That would be neat,” Pete said, staring in Meghan’s direction a bit too long. When he caught Donna’s eyes stalking him across the table he meekly said, “I suppose it would, anyway.”

Donna kicked Pete under the table.

“But probably not,” he added.

“Honey, how was work today?” Donna asked.

Pete sawed at some lamb with a butter knife. “Good,” he said. “Work was good.”

“What do you do?” Meghan asked.

Pete contemplated the question. “I suppose it depends on the time of day,” Pete said. “Right now the thing I am doing is eating supper. But at night I sleep, during the day I work—.”

Meghan laughed, a quite loud laugh. “Dear, I meant: what job do you have?” she laughed again.

“Oh,” Pete said while trying not to blush. “I move numbers.”

“Are they heavy?” Meghan asked. Then she laughed and patted Pete on his shoulder. “Just a joke, dear.”

“You know,” Donna said after she forced a swallow of the lamb. “Pete is really great at his job. He’s considered one of the top numbers movers in his company.”

Pete blushed some. “Well, I try my best,” he said.

“You know,” Meghan said. “I am actually writing a screenplay about numbers. You see, it’s about a world where everything is binary code. So, there’s only ones and zeros, and the problem is they just bloody hate one another. Of course, right. The zeros want to kill all the ones, and the ones want to kill all the zeros. There is a revolution, a war.”

Donna’s mouth falls agape. “Who wins the war?”

“Who do you think?”

“No idea.”

“Pete?”

“Well,” Pete said, swatting away a fruit fly. “Technically one is a higher number than zero. But in a binary code, they really are equals.”

Meghan smiles. “Don’t be silly, you two; neither of them wins. They both kill each other off equally. But the important thing is the moral of the story; that as long as we’re divided we may be destroyed.”

Silence. Silence until dessert. Donna chose the dessert. It was red apple slices and sugarless brownies.

“We should have had this before dinner,” Meghan said. “What a great palate cleanser.”

* * *

The next day Pete could barely concentrate at work. He moved numbers in the wrong direction—sometimes even in the incorrect order. Some numbers he mixed up so badly they were upside down, or backward. This was all right when it came to the eights because they looked the same either way, but the threes started to resemble the letter “S.” The entire factory almost shut down. It was chaos. “I’m sorry,” Pete said to his boss, Dr. Blaster. “I don’t know what’s come over me.”

Dr. Blaster gave Pete an affectionate pat on the back. “These types of days happen,” he said.

“That’s true,” Pete said. “Because it did happen.”

“Something on your mind, son?” Dr. Blaster asked.

“Yes,” Pete said. “Women troubles.”

“Yes, indeed,” Dr. Blaster said while straightening his bow-tie. “It’s never easy to be in a relationship. But they do say that one is the loneliest number.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Pete said, realizing what he had always suspected: all of life was just the moving of numbers.

* * *

That weekend Meghan invited Donna and Pete to an art show. One of her friends was making erotic sculptures of donuts.

When Donna went to the bathroom, Pete and Meghan stood observing a crème donut, only the crème was semen.

“It sure is something,” Meghan said. “Make sure you bring some extra napkins if you choose that one.”

“I suppose everything has a hole in it, waiting to be filled,” Pete said, trying to sound mystical and wise. Then he tried to hold Meghan’s hand, but Meghan batted it away.

“I will not be your Blanche DuBois!” Meghan said, pinning back her hair.

“No, no of course not,” Pete said, visibly flustered. “We don’t even watch the Golden Girls.”

Meghan laughed. Red-faced, Pete retreated to untie his shoes.

“What if I am falling for you?” he asked from near the floor. “Do I have any chance?”

“Perhaps,” Meghan whispered. “But you better convince me rather quickly. This is a short story, not a novel. You only have another thousand words or so if you hope to pull something monumental like that off.” Then Meghan ran off to her artist friend, to compliment her on the vagina-shaped cruller, and how lifelike the “menstrual-jelly donut” appeared.

* * *

An inspired yet noxious tension started to poison the formerly average condo. Donna wasn’t sure what to think, or even what to feel. (She had spent so much time trying not to engage in either activity.) And as for Meghan, well she only wrote herself into this story so she had somewhere to be. She really was meant to be in a much more exciting and dynamic story, not something so shabby as this; but things don’t always work out as planned. Perhaps the story should be retitled “Meghan,” rather than “Donna.”

Pete continued to flounder at work and was soon laid-off. Dr. Blaster commented he had never seen someone “lose it so quickly.” He took no pleasure in Pete’s troubles. Pete was even granted a generous severance, but for the first time, his future seemed to him both exciting and terrifying. Pete even stopped untying his shoes; after all, what do shoelaces matter in a world so filled with uncertainty? Then Donna’s work fell below average, leading to poor performance reviews, and finally a below-average severance.

Soon the three were unemployed together, uncomfortable every hour of the day in that plain little condo. Weeks passed in a quiet misery. But underneath the surface there were stirrings.

* * *

Pete would follow Meghan around the condo like a baby duck. Meghan would sometimes lead him on. It’s not that Meghan wanted to be mean-spirited, it’s just that she was impossibly bored. Donna started to become more possessive of Pete, and even more distant to Meghan. There were quibbles, then ugly arguments. The air itself grew tense and thick with regret and longing.

* * *

One full-moon night, during a severe thunderstorm warning, of which no rain would fall, Donna approached Pete and told him her suspicions.

“You’re in love with my sister, aren’t you?” she said.

Pete circled the room, not sure what to say. He thought about telling the truth. Instead, he dropped to untie his shoes. While on the floor, he said, “I don’t think of your sister that way. You’re imagining things.”

“No,” Donna said, realizing just how untenable the situation had become. “I don’t imagine things. That’s not me. In fact, my whole life I’ve been told I have no imagination.”

“But neither do I,” Pete insisted, but they both knew that for some reason he had grown one.

“Stand up,” Donna said. “Stop hiding on the floor like a child.”

“Donna—.”

“Stand up,” Donna repeated. “Stand up! If you’re going to lie to me, have the indecency to do it to my face.” Pete remained on the floor, tying and untying his shoes until Donna left the room.

Within a week Donna would again be alone in her condo. The sink would again be empty, the cat’s litterbox tidy, and there would be a scent of Febreze wafting from a yellowing plug. Outside there would soon be a new revolution in the streets, and Donna would again hope that somebody else would do something. But not her—Donna would again sit with her cat and her phone, and nothing of the outside world would ever trouble her again. She wouldn’t allow it.

The next morning Pete approached Meghan and asked her to run away with him.

“Think of it,” he said, while untying his shoes, “we can go anywhere, be anything, do anything. We can move more than numbers. We can travel to Morocco.”

Meghan stared down at Pete. “If we traveled to Morocco together, would you promise to wear sandals?”

“Why?”

“Never mind.”

Meghan knew she had to go somewhere else, and that she must do it quickly. But just as surely, she knew that Pete would not be the vessel of her journey. That he would not be a part of her journey at all.

Meghan sighed, why do men always have to fall in love with the unattainable? In a way, isn’t that the least imaginative notion of all?

Carl Taylor is a writer, recovered attorney, and the Editor of Oscilloscope Literary Magazine. Carl’s writing can be found at http://www.carltaylorwrites.com

Kleptomaniac – Andrew Shields

The candy in my pocket
lay beside the money
I hadn’t had to spend.

With every step, I left
the store behind and took
a step into my life.

A bus pulled up, its motor
humming more than ever.
The people getting off

and on had never talked
as loud as that before.
The air rushed into me,

rushed out to join the breeze
with just a touch of spring.
I pushed the crosswalk button,

its metal cool to touch,
then reached again to touch
the candy in my pocket.

No candy ever tasted
better for not being bought;
it’s best left in that pocket,
beside the unspent coins.

Andrew Shields lives in Basel, Switzerland. His collection of poems “Thomas Hardy Listens to Louis Armstrong” was published by Eyewear in June 2015. His band Human Shields released the album “Somebody’s Hometown” in 2015 and the EP “Défense de jouer” in 2016. Twitter: @ShieldsAndrew Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/andrewshieldspoems/

A Fair Amount Of Ghosts – Zach Murphy

He plays the trumpet brilliantly on the corner of Grand and Victoria. He doesn’t look like he’s from this era. He’s impeccably dressed, from his crisply fitting suit to his smooth fedora hat. There aren’t many folks that can pull that off. He’s cooler than the freezer aisle on a sweltering summer day. He performs the type of yearning melodies that give you the goosebumps. I’ve never seen anyone put any money into his basket.

There’s a formidable stone house that sits atop Fairmount Hill. It’s been for sale for as long as I can remember. The crooked post sinks deeper into the soil with each passing year. It isn’t a place to live in. It’s a place to dwell in. There’s a dusty rocking chair on the front porch. It’s always rocking. Always rocking. I’m not sure if the chair is occupied by an old soul or if it’s just the wind. Maybe it’s both. I guess the wind is an old soul.

This town is full of posters for Missing Cats. There’s one for a sweet, fluffy Maine Coon named “Bear.” He’s been gone for a while now. I’ve searched through every alleyway, under every porch, and inside of every bush for him. Sometimes I think I see him out of the corner of my eye. But then he’s not there. The rain has pretty much washed away the tattered posters. If he ever turns up, I worry that the posters will be missing.

I met the love of my life in Irvine Park, near the gloriously spouting water fountain, beneath the serene umbrella of oak trees. We spent a small piece of eternity there together. We talked about whether or not the world was coming to an end soon, and if all of our memories will be diminished along with it. After we said our goodbyes and she walked off into the distance, I never saw her again. So I left my heart in Irvine Park.

Zach Murphy is a Hawaii-born writer with a background in cinema. His stories have appeared in Peculiars Magazine, Ellipsis Zine, Emerge Literary Journal, The Bitchin’ Kitsch, Ghost City Review, Lotus-eater, Crêpe & Penn, WINK, Drunk Monkeys and Fat Cat Magazine. He lives with his wonderful wife Kelly in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Brat! – Joey Rodriguez

A dithering sunset of rose pink and ochre pixelated the horizon. The antsy unlucky bobbed to the monosyllabic backtrack, waiting to be selected from the herd lining the glowing boulevard. Electric traffic lights ferried the hard-topped and gull-winged down the strip, the ocean to the west lapping its murky paw onto the dead, lingering sand, prying at the sagging palm trees.

Condensation wriggled around the greasy fingerprint embossed on the exterior of the slender glass. Non-alcoholic; a paper straw. She dared not touch the bubbling cola. Her sightline afforded her an inconspicuous reconnaissance of the pulsating nightclub. A cybernetic beat swelled her heart against her ribs, refusing to harmonize with the muffled, technological track. She ignored the flapping bill and the consolation prize in the plastic pouch, both caught in the unhelpful, sweltering breeze.

The locus of control slipped the bulky helmet around her face, the reflective void of the visor concealing her eyes. Her backpack had been tightened to its zenith, the perspiration transferring from her skin to the polyester. Straddling the motorbike, she calmly initiated the engine. To the heat of the blood-red signal, her canvas sole tapping the asphalt to maintain balance. Her right wrist twisted cautiously, the weapon finally announcing its weight. A left turn signal swung her into a majestic U-turn, the stench of hairspray and cologne beaten aside by her protective caul as she slid parallel to the waiting celebrators. The barrel offered false positives, any one of them could suffer as benefactors of the trickledown.

BRRRRRRAT!

It was the bulging pectoral of the bouncer who received the inaugural salvo. The open-bolt, blowback-operated submachine gun thwacked the air, stunning the preoccupied crowd into a cautious gawk. The port windows of the entrance doors collected the backdraft: a long, viscous stream of argon-tinted excess. A stray bullet had caught his neck, the pressurized release guiding her past the screaming and fearful. Now, with their powdered webspaces covering their rotting mouths and their plastic satchels jiggling with pink and blue vitamins, they would part for her.

Her motorbike scraped the roadway as she muscled aside the swing doors. A goon prowling the coat check reached for his holster, but her throbbing, syncopated arc tattooed his uselessness along the crimson walls. Shades of helium dripped as the inebriated hostess ducked back onto the shadowed dancefloor proper.

The blinking, toxic Fresnel illumination refracted off the helmet’s visor, masking her mirrored entrance, sacrificing herself into the ocean of uncaring egos. Between sonic pulses from the towering speakers, she stomped, keeping rhythm with the mesmerizing enchantment of the robotic dance. To the rear, circumventing the stage, into the hallowed halls, her heel shoving the door inward, breaking the inquisitive nose on the opposite end.

BRRRRRRAT!

The handheld weapon spat fire until his face lifted free. There were others, the corridor flush with the childlike pop of retaliation. Not the second door on the left, but the fourth one. An indirect spray kept her upright, the plaster twirling in front of her with every near miss. The magazine had yet to reach its end, every discharge releasing fresh shades of neon, krypton, and radon-infected plasma into the blacklight void. The cacophony perpetuated a wall of distorted frequencies, shuttering her ears from stereo to mono.

The deceased formed a splayed, multi-colored stepladder, the wet mixture applied liberally to her canvas sole as she clambered. Another punch of her submachine gun loosened the gilded knob, the jamb swinging open the forbidden panel for her.

Nestled at a sprawling oak desk, business at hand, piles of blues and pinks, wads of green. The tinted veins of his eyes peeked from behind the lowering sunglasses as she lifted her reflective veil, their apertures increasing, the poison temporarily, and terrifyingly, lifted. He raised his retort from the blotter, the hammer engaged. You fucking-

BRRRRRRAT!

Little held his abdomen together, the fleshy strings tearing at the afforded, short length, unleashing a fountain of neon. The room adopted his murderous radiance, recorded indefinitely in her memory. His trajectory slammed him into the wall, a harmless, reactionary twitch pulling the trigger of his sidearm and lodging a bullet into the ceiling.

She disrobed her backpack and wrenched the zipper. The collected line of a leather leash trembled in her grip. Serenity allowed her the prize, the tiny kennel unlocked, the metal carabiner engaged around the collar. The obedient puppy led her through the carnage and into the cooling twilight. Sirens peppered the atmosphere, there would be a swift follow-through.

She righted the motorbike, parked herself onto the seat, and lifted the pup into the crook of her arm. Petting him lovingly, she assured him the strip would swallow them, protect them until the stars aligned once more. The engine grumbled, her visor slapped into place, the accelerator grip revved to ensure a streak of steaming rubber in their wake as they jettisoned into the fading melody of freedom.

Now, what to name him?

Joey Rodriguez lives in New York City with his wife, Lauren, and their Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Joon. He is the author of four novels (JQR, Below, Termination Dust, and The Final Transmissions of A Doomed Astronaut), two novellas (Raptures of the Deep, The Blood of the Cactus), and one short story collection (All Animals Are Comrades). He was recently published in “Fleas on the Dog” and “In Parentheses” literary magazines. To purchase any of his books, visit his official website: notyourplatypus.com.

The Haircut – Dreena Collins

I unboxed the new hair clippers.

Sat in his usual armchair, he cradled a can of lager. He kept his body still but flicked his eyes in my direction.

“Am I getting this bloody haircut, or not?” he asked.

“I’m just coming, sweetheart.”

He snorted, picked up the remote control, stroking the side of the tin like a kitten in his lap.

He would not want to be a guinea pig, and yet I had no time to practice. Briskly, I brushed them along my forearm: at least I should check that they worked.

The clippers purred in near silence, travelling smoothly along with a gentle vibration. I watched, fascinated, as my skin transformed. The ploughed path left behind shimmered, glowed pink as a baby mouse. Unlike any skin I’d ever seen.

“I’m waiting!” he yelled.

Confused, I swept them over my toes. If I closed my eyes, I wouldn’t even know they were there: taciturn, soft as they were. And yet as I looked down, I saw my foot transfigure into infant skin. My nails peeled away; toes sealed together in a flipper. Utterly smooth.

Extraordinary.

“Darling, there’s something odd about these –”

“Hurry up,” he interrupted.

I tripped through empty cans, the accidental origami of his discarded crisp packets on the floor. Gingerly, I started at his nape. His hair dropped down in caterpillars onto the carpet, and I saw it: his raw scalp, sparkling.

I travelled over the tattoo on the back of his neck, buffing away until the topless mermaid vanished. Next, up behind his ear, and the scar from that fight last Christmas completely disappeared.

He continued to swig, unaware.

“You’d better not balls this up,” he said.

I glanced at the clippers. Paused. Excitement prickled in my belly.

“I’ll do your moustache, too, sweetheart,” I said, leaning in towards his mouth, with determination.

Dreena Collins is a writer who also works in education. She has been listed and placed in numerous writing competitions, most recently taking first place in the Flash 500 international writing competition (May 2020). She has three published story collections and has featured in several anthologies. Twitter: @dreenac

Care – Mark Colbourne

<Sigh>

No, that’s not right, Dad. It isn’t real. Give me your phone. Give it to me. Look. It’s a scam, that’s all. This isn’t actually from an African Prince. There’s no diamond mine. There’s no landhold agreement that he requires funds to release. None of it exists. These are just people trying to con you. They’re frauds, criminals. I know. Ok – lay back. Try and relax. You’re getting worked up. Let’s just… let’s just take a breath.

Is that better?

No, you’re right: they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it. Preying on people, pretending they care when all they’re trying to do is steal your money… They rely on you being greedy or gullible, I suppose. Maybe both. You’ve just got to be on your guard, not get taken in. Well, it’s hard to stop them, Dad. They could be anywhere in the world and I don’t know how you’d track them down. I’m not really sure how that works. They can get your email address from all sorts of places. There’s lists of them out there that you can buy, I think. Sort of, yes. I do work with computers but not like that. Because it’s complicated. Right, ok: I used computers when I was at work but I’m not an expert in programming, or networking, or phishing, or whatever else. Dad? Dad? Do you want some water? There you go. You just need to catch your breath. It’ll pass. It’ll all be fine.

Don’t say that. Because you’ll just start worrying yourself again, that’s why. Well worrying isn’t going to help, is it? I’ll go back to work. Of course I will. Yes, I’ll get another job. At some point, Dad. Soon. I’m here with you now so I’ll just have to deal with that later on. The bills will get paid. The mortgage, yes. The credit cards, yes. Jesus, Dad – you don’t have to keep banging on about this. I’m not going to have the house repossessed. How? People lose their jobs all the time and survive. It happens. Sometimes things just swing against you. That’s life. So let’s stay positive, yes? That’s what we need. That’s what Mum would want. Yes, I know. I miss her too. I suppose she’d know what to do. She always knew what to do.

Are you ok like that? Why don’t we get you sat up a bit? Hold onto my shoulders. Just raise your back and I’ll slide this pillow in…. Careful, careful. There we go. Is that comfortable? I think it’s better for your chest like this. You’re tired? I know. We’re all tired.

The kids? Ha, no, they’re probably the only ones who aren’t tired. What did Mum used to call Tim when he was really little? Tornado Tim, yes… Can you remember? He used to race up and down your garden like a mad thing. It seems like a long time ago. Yes, I suppose it was a long time ago. September, that’s when he starts High School. You know that, Dad. I’ve told you this. I know: you get confused. I’ll bring him. Of course I’ll bring him. Soon. One day soon. Because he’s with Steve this week. And Anna is as well. Remember? The kids are with Steve and I’m here with you.

Yes, Dad, Steve is fine. Steve is Steve and Steve will always be fine. I don’t know if he’s seeing anyone else, no. Why would I? It’s none of my business, not anymore. Well he wouldn’t introduce them to Tim and Anna without talking to me first, would he? He may be a shit but he’s got some basic sense of right and wrong. I know you liked him, Dad. He’s a very likeable man until you have to live with him every single day. Yes, he’s a good dad to the kids. That’s true. Well, because sometimes things don’t work out, do they? It’s no one’s fault. Why does it have to be anyone’s fault? Look – you and Mum, what you had for all those years, a lot of people aren’t that lucky. We don’t all find the right one first time off. Jesus, Dad, no – that doesn’t mean I’m seeing someone new. I can blame you for asking, actually. Don’t you think I’ve got enough going on at the moment?

No, no, no… I didn’t mean it like that. You’re not a burden. That’s not what I think. I don’t want you to get any carers in. I don’t want you to go into a home either. I know you can afford it, but you don’t need to. I’m here. No! Christ alive, Dad, no! It’s not about reducing my inheritance. You actually think that?

I’m not crying.

Don’t apologise. You don’t have to apologise. That’s not what I’m doing this. I’m here because I want to be here. You know that. I’ll look after you. We don’t need people coming in and out of the home. I can do it. It’s fine. No, no – not this again, I don’t want to talk about it. Because we’ve already talked about it. Over and over. Its all sorted out. The will’s with your lawyer and everything’s in order. There’s the property and the savings and the whole bloody war chest. I know where the paperwork is: your bank books, the share certificates, the pensions… Oh, Dad, stop fretting. It doesn’t matter. Come on. I’ll be fine. The kids will be fine. James will be fine. I’ll work it out soon enough.

James called? He called you? When? Because I’ve been here for the last two days and you haven’t had a call. Are you sure? Last week then…? Ok. Are you getting mixed up again? No, he hasn’t called me. He knows I’m here. Well, he should do because I sent him a text. Oh, I don’t know, maybe he could just get in a car and come and actually see you? Maybe that would be a good idea? I don’t know what he’s doing, Dad. He’s probably mixed up with some nonsense or some woman or some scheme and that’s all that matters to him at the moment. I am allowed to speak about him like that, actually. He’s my brother and I know exactly what he’s like. He’s been the same since we were children.

Don’t get upset. You will see him. I’m not saying you won’t. It’s just… It’s just what he’s like, Dad. You know what he’s like. He doesn’t mean it. I don’t think he can help it. Yes… You’ve got a point. Nobody’s perfect.

<Ha>

Your hand feels cold. Are you warm enough? Do you want another blanket? I’m not fussing,Dad. I just want you to feel ok. God, I know, I know. It doesn’t mean that you have to suffer, though, does it? Don’t say I’m just like my mother. I’m not. I’m not at all. And anyway, Mum didn’t fuss. She… She just sorted everything out. God, maybe it’d be better if I was a little more like her. Maybe then I’d be here with the kids, here with Steve. Maybe I’d still have my job. Maybe I’d be even able to make James get his act together.

No. Don’t be. I’m just feeling sorry for myself.

Do you remember when she died? I think about it all the time. I mean, now especially. I… She was too young to go. And we had to watch her, watch her slipping away, eaten up by the cancer. I remember feeling so helpless, so small. Seeing her in all that pain, seeing her so confused and frightened. That last time I talked to her, she didn’t even know who I was. She didn’t know who the kids were, or James, or anything. Lost in the past, in whatever memories were looping through her mind. Hollow eyes and pale skin and gasping for breath. And we were sat there just waiting for the end and…

Dad?

Sorry. Were you going to sleep? No, that’s alright. Nothing. I was only thinking out loud. It doesn’t matter. Not anymore. Do you want to get some rest now? Ok. It’s time for your pills though. You take those and then you can go to sleep.

No, Dad. That’s not right. You’re getting confused.

You had your pills this morning. You haven’t had any since then. I haven’t given you any since then.

Have I? I really don’t think so, Dad.

Twice a day. No more. It’s ok. It’s hard to remember. It’s hard to keep track and everything’s starting to blur. That’s why I’ve come, Dad. That’s why I’m with you.

Here. Your pills. Have a sip of water. And swallow. I know. Your throat hurts. Everything hurts. It’s hard. But that will stop soon. I’ll look after you. I’ll do the right thing. For you, for everyone. I’ll make it better. I’ll sort it out. I’ll help you get to sleep.

Between The Mirror And The Bed – John Tustin

It’s funny how I don’t remember being in love with her,
Not really.
I can see moments in my mind like snapshots
Or scenes as if a movie I saw once two decades ago
But no memory brings even a scintilla back
Of what I once must have certainly felt.
I watch the video rewound and I see someone who looks like me
But I don’t feel any connection to him.

Long before I finally left it got to the point
I couldn’t even look at her without a wave of nausea overcoming me.
My nerves would often leave me in the bathroom off and on for hours.
“You’re such a loose-ass bastard” she was constantly saying.
She was right.

There was one night that I was drunk
And I went to get into bed with her –
She was sitting up watching television
And I saw her in the mirror in that halo of TV light.
It was like looking at a total stranger.
She was so beautiful.
I kept thinking that as I got into bed with her.
“If I didn’t know her. If only I didn’t know her.”
For that second between the mirror and the bed
I thought that if I didn’t know her and just saw her on the street
She would have stayed in my mind afterward for a long time.
I still didn’t remember being in love with her.
I still didn’t feel any emotion for the real her.
If only she was just someone else but she wasn’t someone else –
She was Shamseen.
Her parents gave her that name as a little girl because her temper was hotter than the sun.

Drunk and stumbling, I got into bed.
Shockingly, she wasn’t angry. She seemed happy I came to bed and didn’t mind that I had been drinking.
It was strange because her anger was perpetual
And whiter, hotter when I had been drinking and/or off in the other room
Writing or reading poetry. Everything about me incensed her.
Everything I did or didn’t do brought her disgust
But that night she wasn’t even a little bit disgusted by me.
I looked at her after I got into bed and I saw her as she truly was again.
Not a romantic or pleasant feeling lingered from my moment looking at her in the mirror.
It was all gone already and she was again the woman who spoke to and treated me the way she did.
I turned away from her and flipped the bedsheet over my head,
My last thoughts before sleep being the continuing the plot to escape.

Chang’s Gift – Jessica Evans

“My mom said it’s fragile, so don’t drop it.”

Chang’s tongue tripped over his teeth and formed a firm line at the start of the word “fragile.” His own f-clef, already searching for a grand staff: a declaration of kindergarten love on Christmas Eve.

His future-virtuoso hands offered Irina something precious pink and mid-line mauve, a forgotten blush. A pale-yellow ribbon twisted over and under: a machine-made braid. With his gift, Irina received her first adornment. Scarlet secrets formed around egg-shaped fake-mother-of-pearl. Eggs, her earliest obsession, the way they capture and contain.

Sticky elastic glue, once runny and now hardened, solid and secure. Lodged to keep the thin metal clasp in place. Irina held it close, Chang’s promise-gift. He would write, he promised.

“Every day. Or at least once a week,” his resolve lessened as minutes swallowed up air. “It’s going to be fun, you know, over there.”

Chang’s afterthought to the distance between Taiwan and America, too far to conceptualize. Irina fingered the bow. Distance is only exquisite when it seems infinite. Chang’s move became her first lesson in loss.

She clasped her pianist fingers around the plastic and the promises and let herself believe in Chang. He reached for her other hand and the two darted from her cloistered house, Irina’s out of season jacket unzipped, its thin fabric flapping like yellow jacket wings, ready for flight.

Inside Chang’s mom green Astro van, the kind of cozy warmth that Irina only knew from kids movies. Hui smiled at Irina and handed her a thermos of still warm, made from milk hot chocolate. Irina and Chang created a triangle with their heads and sipped the sweet. Hui drove, slow and careful. Irina’s mother, languid and supine by four in the afternoon, a faint smell of briny grapes and spicy oaks lingering on her breath didn’t even know she was gone. Hui’s eyes darted to the sliver rearview mirror and held Irina’s. Here, Irina was safe.

* * *

She wore that coronet only once, to her kindergarten graduation, both parents absent. Mrs. Ates helped her clip it securely to her thin braids. Chang long gone, Irina sang her school song with the rest of her classmates, falsetto and flat, fretting the entire time that her hairbow would slide and fall, smashing into puzzle pieces.

Chang wrote twice – once at her birthday over summer and then again, the following February. He sent his second letter in a red envelope, a final parting gift. The last letter, a two-sentence plead to Irina that she needed to write back.

* * *

On a dreary Wednesday afternoon over winter break, teenaged Irina crowded in her bathroom with Amy and Tori to smoke a pinner joint rolled in transparent tissue paper. It fell apart halfway, but they pretended to be stoned anyway, laughing too loudly, voicing sudden cravings for random snack foods. In Irina’s room, the almost-women began to scavenge through her memories on display. Restless and eager to be something more than who she was, Tori became vapid and snarky and made adolescent jokes that stabbed at Irina’s absent childhood.

First, Tori reached for photos of Irina in small dresses, her Friday night dinner outfits and recital whites. Here, her parents clutched her shoulders, her mother’s talon red fingers formed a claw. Irina’s face, open and scared.

“I didn’t know you played violin, Irina,” Amy said. Even semi-stoned, her face was beatific, cherub cheeks calling out for sun and wildflowers.

“Not anymore,” Irina pulled the photo from her friend and studied her child-self face. The innocence, the radiance.

“What’s going on in this one?” Tori waved a picture like an amnesty flag.

The photo is from the sea, just her and her dad, the trip they took after Susan died.

“Just a family trip,” Irina managed to say, unwilling, unable to explore that loss.

“Oh, was your mom already dead here?” Tori smirked.

“Tori, what the fuck is wrong with you?” Amy, already always prepared to defend.

“It’s fine, guys, really. Yeah, she was already dead. Can we change the subject or something though?”

Tori nodded. “Good idea. Let’s look in here,” she pointed to Irina’s steamer trunk.

Inside, Chang’s long forgotten bow resting on top of those two letters, the red of the envelope pristine and preserved. Tori stopped short when she was the little-kid script.

“What’s that about?” she asked.

“Just letters from a friend,” Irina’s fingers, ginger and soft, held the letter.

“This looks fake-fancy and random,” Tori plucked the bow and tried to clip it into her curly strands. The letters fell to the carpet as Irina snatched back her hairbow, unwilling to share the memory. Outside her room, the front door opened and closed. A clinking symphony of bottles clamored together as Judy made her way to the kitchen.

“Hi, mom,” Tori sing-songed to Judy.

“She’s not your mom,” Irina hissed.

“Well she’s not yours either,” Tori fired back.

* * *

When she leaves for college, Irina takes the trunk intact. She doesn’t look through for the gemstones of her errant adolescence. The trunk stays with her for two years before she meets Marcus and then abandons the half-hearted dream of finishing college.

Later, Irina unearths Chang’s gift when she’s looking for her mother’s ashes. Nestled amid track ribbons and debate team medals, Chang’s bow, a time-capsule innocence, her first crown.

Sometimes, Irina takes out the hairbow to trace egg-shaped pearls, and longs to clip it into her still-thin braids, never letting it slip to the floor. Her cartographic imprint, the mapping of her heart can be traced specifically to a gift undeserved and love skirted away, too fast to catch, their language too inarticulate.

Jessica Evans is a Cincinnati native who practices restarting her life every few years. Work is forthcoming in Past Ten, Tiny Molecule, and Lily Poetry Review. Find her on Twtter @jesssica__evans

Don’t I Know You? – Joy Manné

So I was in Rome airport, standing in this queue in a satellite corridor waiting to be let onto the plane. Standing there, near the front of the queue, seven or eight passengers away from the plane door. Minding my own business. Preoccupied with my own thoughts. In my own mind. A good place to be. Looking at no one. Fidgeting, mind, as the sun was shining and the glass walls of these corridors magnify heat. I was wearing a suit and tie. Going to an appointment. Meeting a colleague at the next airport. Sweating then sweltering. Wishing I was at an airport that had air conditioning in their satellite corridors like—was it Munich? Heathrow? Madrid? One of those. Or another. I’ve forgotten. This one certainly didn’t. My feet were swelling and my shoes becoming tighter by the minute, my smart Italian shoes – a mistake to travel in these.

I was impatient, feeling quarrelsome with the airport organisation, fidgeting from one foot to the other—discretely, mind. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, and then a man three people ahead craned his neck around and looked me in the eye. In the eye. I looked right back. I won’t let anyone put me down. In any case, I was the bigger man. Considerably bigger. It helps to be bigger in this world, and stronger.

So I was standing there, in this queue, getting hotter by the moment and struggling to remain calm and dignified, and it’s all made harder by the man staring at me. Staring, eyebrows up. Staring,

eyebrows together. Staring, deep furrow in between eyebrows. And then he shouted. Shouted, mind you. Shouted out loud, ‘Don’t I know you?’

I didn’t know him from Adam and I never forget a face. Never. How could I forget those slithery eyebrows and stringy and unwashed hair. I don’t know people like that. My hair is brylcreamed smooth, like my father’s always was.

‘Don’t I know you?’ the man shouted again, louder, now half-turning his body as if to approach me. ‘I’m sure we’ve met. I hope we’ve got seats together. It will be great to talk about old times.’

I didn’t have old times with this man. I muttered something unintelligible but polite-sounding. I’m a courteous man. If I’m seated next to him, I’ll move.

‘We had a drink together,’ he shouted in my direction, smack into the face of the man behind him, because now he’d turned fully around.

I turned my head to look at the glass walls of the corridor, then beyond them into the airport, and then let my eyes travel to the queue behind me and my body follow their rotation, slowly, as if it was the most natural thing to do. I didn’t want to offend him, or to have him start a fight in the narrow corridor. What if he were travelling with friends? I turned as if I had some kind of task to do.

The man increased his volume. ‘I’m sorry I’m making you uncomfortable,’ he bawled. ‘but I know we’ve met. Please don’t turn away. I’m sure I don’t owe you any money. I’m sure you don’t owe me any money. It wasn’t that sort of meeting.’

I’d got my back solidly towards him now. I was urgent to get away. My eyes met those of a woman three people further down the queue. Middle aged. Plain. Plain as can be. A man has nothing to fear from plain woman. A man can ask them anything. Time of day. Nearest subway. Best restaurant. They never intrude. Plain women are safe as houses. Built rather like houses. No curves. I like them. I feel good with them. They don’t ask a man for anything and are grateful for what one gives.

I smiled at her and mouthed, ‘Do I know you?’

She looked at me, interested, as if it were possible. Her eyes were nondescript brown, her hair too, straight, tidy. Plain women always have hair like that. She frowned. She barely had eyebrows, but thin as they were, I saw the two fine tattooed lines twitch and join. ‘Not sure,’ she mouthed back.

The man behind me was still noisy in my direction. Was he drunk? I sidled down the queue which was crushing up now with passengers impatient to get into the plane. I kept my back to the shouting man who thought he’d met me. I have a broad back. I go to the gym.

I reached the woman.

‘Do I know you,’ I asked her, now talking, not mouthing. ‘Have we met?’

She appraised me. Looked me up and down. Considered my suit, tie, well-creased trousers. My tight brown and black Italian shoes.

‘I think we have,’ she said eventually, blinking her short sparse eyelashes. ‘Yes, I think we have met. I think I remember where.’

Could I have met her and forgotten her so completely? My breathing became rapid. Oh, dear Lord, I think, will they never let us into this plane?

I needed a toilet.

I waited for her to speak.

‘I met you in Florence,’ she said.

I have been to Florence. She made a good guess. We were catching our plane in Rome Airport and Tuscany is but a short flight away, or a drive. No great distance.

‘I’m very fond of Florence,’ I said. ‘I can stand in front of the cathedral for hours. Losing myself in those Ghiberti doors. Porta del Paradiso. Gates of Paradise, they’re called. Gates of Paradise, indeed they are. All those figures. That amazing perspective…’

‘Florence, South Carolina,’ she interrupted. ‘I’m American.’

I looked into this plain woman’s face. The man behind me was still trying to get my attention.

‘I’ve never been to America,’ I lied.

‘I think you have,’ she said. ‘Because I’m sure I’ve met you there.’

And then in the dignified way plain women have, she turned away as if searching for something. Something in her handbag, on her hand-luggage, on her shoe. As if turning away was the most natural and polite thing to do. She turned with small precise movements until I could no longer see her face at all, and then suddenly, she stood up and down on her tiptoes several times, waving her left hand vigorously. She was not a tall woman. Plain women never are. In a sweet and gentle voice, she called to a woman with a small child in her arms three people behind us, ‘Don’t I know you,’

And then the mumbly microphone announcement came that our plane was now ready for boarding.

I stepped into the cabin.

The stewards and stewardesses were saying ‘Hello,’ to each and every passenger as they always do. I’d barely taken a step towards the aisle between the seats, hadn’t even turned into it, when the stewardess fixed me with her eyes and said, ‘Don’t I know you?’

I thought, this flight is jinxed. Now’s the time not to take this flight. Now’s the time to turn around and get off. Now’s the time to save myself while I still can.

And then I realised she was looking at the woman in front of me.

I’ve never sighed out so deeply in my life.

The next time I took a plane from the airport in Rome, I wore dark glasses and a hat. The satellite corridor was hot as usual, because it was summer and it still didn’t have air conditioning. I was standing in the middle of the queue, minding my own business, preoccupied with my own thoughts, in my own mind. A good place to be, and happy—oh, so happy—to be wearing comfy shoes. I’d packed my smart brown-and-black Italian pair to change into for my appointment. Just then a hard finger tapped me on my shoulder and a sharp voice spoke into my ear, ‘Don’t I know you?’

Joy Manné links flash fictions into short stories, writing in parts: solos, duets, choruses; different views of the whole experienced by different characters as the story builds, arcs and reaches its ending. She also writes classical flash. She won the 2015 Geneva Writers Group prize for Non-Fiction and was one of three finalists in the Arkansas International 2017 Emerging Writer’s Prize in Fiction. She has also published children’s books.

Full Explanation: The Shopping Trip – Sarah Mosedale

On 12th April my wife asked me to pick up a few items from the shops on my way home. She often does. She dictated a list to me over the phone. I wrote it down on a piece of paper which I placed in my right trouser pocket.

It was a very hot day and the traffic was heavy. I could not park directly outside the dry cleaners, my first port of call, because all the spaces were taken. I drove around looking for a parking space. After ten minutes or so I found one a few streets away.

When I entered the dry cleaners it was not the usual assistant behind the counter. It was a young man I did not recognise. He refused to release my wife’s dry cleaning to me without the production of a ticket. An absurd stand-off followed. The heat and smell in the shop were almost overpowering and the garments in question were in plain view. Eventually, after my wife vouched for me and described the items in eye watering detail over the phone, I was entrusted with them, paid, and left the shop.

Some time had passed but the heat seemed if anything more intense. The plastic wrappers stuck to my back unpleasantly. I removed my tie and stuffed it into my left pocket. I undid the top two buttons of my shirt. I could not remember where I had left the car.

I searched the side streets for some fifteen or twenty minutes becoming extremely hot and uncomfortable. I was worried that my migraine might recur. I knew it was important to reduce my body temperature. Fortunately my wife is not a small woman.

I placed my shirt and trousers in a green recycling bin knowing it would be relatively clean and made a careful mental note of the house number. After a little thought I added the rest of my wife’s dry cleaning in order to protect it from my perspiration. I continued to look for the car without success.

Although I felt the benefit of my change of attire – the air circulates round the body much more freely when one is wearing a dress and I appreciated my wife’s preference for natural fibres – I was still in danger of overheating and was beginning to have some concerns about dehydration. So when a young man approached and suggested a drink I felt this was the most sensible course of action in the circumstances.

He led the way to a hostelry I had never visited before. No-one commented on my appearance. It seemed a relaxed and informal venue. There was no air conditioning but the room was dark and relatively cool and I began to feel much better. I phoned my wife and told her I had been delayed. I did not want to worry her with details. I was confident I would be able to retrieve her dry cleaning and the car once I had cooled down.

I requested tonic as I knew the quinine would be beneficial. I suffer from cramp when dehydrated. I now realise it was gin and tonic but I have never been able to taste the difference. I believe many people can’t. Although I paid my share the young man insisted on fetching the drinks which I perceived as a kindness.

After some time a couple of his friends joined us. The atmosphere was convivial. One of them spent a lot of time fiddling with his phone as so many young people do nowadays. It was good to be out of the stifling heat. I remember we laughed a lot.

I know it was considerably later when we left because it was dark. I now realise I must have been quite inebriated but at the time I attributed my state of mind to relief and exhaustion. I never drink to excess so am not familiar with the sensation.

My new friend must have helped me to find the car. I remember having some concern over whether I was well enough to drive. My legs were somewhat unsteady due, I presumed, to my cramp problems. But there was none of the usual accompanying pain so I believed the quinine must have helped and was reassured that I would not be struck with debilitating muscle spasms.

I appreciate that it must have been unpleasant for my wife to be awoken in the middle of the night by the police. I am taking advice about the photographs in the Sunday papers. Some were obviously Photoshopped and all were in violation of my rights to privacy.

I feel confident that now I have fully explained what happened my wife will not wish to continue with divorce proceedings.

Sarah Mosedale: 2nd Place Flash Fiction 500 Winter 2019, published in National Flash Fiction Day Anthology 2020 (forthcoming), Ellipsis, Funny Pearls, Lunate, Flash Flood Journal, Flash Fiction Festival Three, Paragraph Planet; readings at Manchester’s Verbose and That’s What She Said @moseywriter

Home Recollected – Tom Garback

Today is Wednesday, and is night, and as we pass through tunnels of sifting time, there is no way of knowing how your sun has sank, and nor how low. I try to recall pieces, crumbs untaken by Augustinian rats, while they carry no inherent order. We are riding the Amtrak home for Trenton, sometimes least known of these passengers myself, save I glance at glass reflections and say, No, I know them no more than I know me. Though, we do live in the county north of Philadelphia. Memory slips out, loosed by physiological cosmology, Augustine’s broken philosophies, and later bites of dialogue come back. Maybe they are altered. The station there, in brotherly love’s city-center, far too crowded, the highways choked to even get my dad to swear before me, and when we haven’t been together since summer? Such hassle would be blasphemous. I can’t tell you how hard I am holding on. Families see the set of sun each day, and promise me, mom, we’ll all be happy come Thanksgiving.

When we are home, I nap. You couldn’t call it sleep because it lasts three hours, equal to my nap the night before. Today I wake for the doctor. Last time for the train to Trenton. My ride from Boston’s nearly 7 hours after delays. They are worst these times of year. Doctor needs to see the bump on my neck. I promise this, she says, it’s going to take more than some bickering to tear us apart. Of course non-cancerous, he tells Dad in the hallway.

Mom slept on the couch for hours that morning. I can’t say why. Dad makes shrimp, bleeding hearts in the window, and Don’t these lines mean there’s shit in them? but everyone ignores me, and in the fryer floating green tomato and potato wedges, and some orzo soup for lunch, and chocolate cake dessert, with icing that’s powdery because he wanted to make it himself, and You used confection sugar on this? Home makes me care more about sketching. College can’t carry the familiarities. Creativity cannot thrive in the company of strangers.

Our dog Kibbles, enthusiasm wide in the morning, and Where was this energy last night when I came in? You’d think he had forgotten me, but the opposite is true, as is most times with dogs. The possibility of a kiss, I plant inside the rafters all week, and the holiday nears, and somewhere in the streets of Boston waits my kiss for when I’ve returned. In the mirror each day, I squeeze the rolls across my waist. Mom stopped harping on my thinning front, so I may work the treadmill without shame. Kibbles makes me red beneath his bites. I told her, It bothers me when you tell me I’m not fat. They switched my mattress with theirs. Sleep is softer now, and lower, how I can’t stand, though I stand for them, with dull back aches for the alarms of a clock.

My favorite icing, buttercream. The night goes up, and Jess finally comes down from her bedroom chamber. Dad does take offense. I never see you anymore. She put an 18-hour shift in yesterday, and two of her patients were mouthy again, and can’t she lie down on her day off, wouldn’t you think she could? He’d worked so hard on dinner, and sharing this meal alone was no fulfilling habit of the overworked nurse. I understand. I don’t. Last night she walks in on me starting to sleep. I say hello. She closes her door quietly after stepping out, announces herself at the edge of the kitchen linoleum. Dad asks me if he can make something else instead, and I shame him out of care, and that makes him feel worse. Just checking to see if you were sleeping. Drop the rest of the cake off at the neighbors for me, he orders, and I think of how it’s only the women in the family who receive therapy for anxiety. She is bitter now, at the table. The men cannot admit a thing. She is bitter, standing out there in the hall. How long did you sleep? She is mocking me. So who are your friends in Boston? at the table. I’ve told her before. None of your business. Mom and I go to Philly today. That’s what pisses her off. I’m always working, you never work, you do nothing all day! We’re doing the dishes. Mom says, Jessica.

Don’t take Kibbles out of my room, before she closes my door. You wake me up. It’s like a cave in there, I say. You should open the blinds. But then you wouldn’t be able to sleep, would you? She knows what I mean. I count the number of skyscraper from the train window. She can’t help it; she works night shifts. How many are in Boston? That’s why it’s unfair for me to recollect her as lazy. I think I prefer Boston. Try putting cream on it, dad says at lunch, We’re out of ointment. Really, mom? Jess feels he’s always making fun of her. She gives me a tender squeeze. You need to stop picking at it. Get the cream. I can’t bend my neck too far for two weeks after the procedure. I made it with buttercream this time.

You don’t appreciate all I do for you, Dad says. You always pick on me, Jess says. Mom says that night, You’re picking on the four of us, dog included. You said he smells. Mom is joking. That eventually becomes anger. She storms upstairs. Dad defends her. Kibbles paces, in sync with the volume of their vocal performances. Now I’m mad! she says after its obvious, getting off the couch. Her spirits are high on the train to Philly. She values nothing like family time. Your Aunt Marie hasn’t spoken to me in years, and you two are going to carry on like this in front of me? Mom says from the staircase. Do you know how much that hurts me? It worries me, where you two will end up in 30 years. On the train, I tell her that it’s okay what she said last night, how mad she was. The joy my visit should bring is squandered tonight. I fall asleep trying to cry. Mom looks out the window to the skyline and thinks up a story about her grandmother’s quirks. For a second I think I’m crying. Philadelphia holds its promise, I think as I dream. The sounds of the softest sobs, embarrassing. How will she behave? No, it’s mom down the hall.

My sister and I never fought when we were young, Mom says at the restaurant on Walnut. Maybe you have to, to let it out. It brings you closer. I nod because, thinking of Jess, I’m unsure if I agree. I grab my book when Mom has stormed upstairs and slammed her door. I take it to the living room. An hour later, Jess is apologizing to her. If you’re not happy with your life choices, don’t them out on me, missy. As we cross Rittenhouse Square, Mom says, You have to be understanding with Jess. She hasn’t had the same opportunities. My good work in school wasn’t an opportunity, I think. When I catch the train to Boston a week later, she says that Jess is on a different path in life, and everyone has the right to their own path. But doing well in school is hardly a choice, either. The day trip is successful. We drink tea when we’re home. You lean smart, you have a chance at genius. Text your sister and ask if she wants any. You lean dumb, teachers toss you aside, especially at our rundown Catholic school. I send the message from Mom’s phone, suspicious. Dumb’s an easy word for robbed. Jess replies positively, disproving me. We’d all switched to public school by grade 5. I take it we are healed. The icing is fine, I tell dad. I say all because my dad was the school chef. Stop refusing to believe me when I say the icing is fine. He quit the night I told mom, Yes, I want to switch like Jessie did.

I am a guest in my childhood home. Fights become embarrassing. Arguments between my sister and my mother: matters that don’t involve me; failure on the part of the hostess. I try to say with eyes, I don’t see it this way. They’re trying to impress me as if I’ll rate them poorly on Tripping.com. I sit on the couch, observe old habits resurface, habits I don’t acknowledge before moving out. Will I find happiness in Boston? I fight with Jess on the last day of summer. These fights bear the freshness. I fight with Jess on the last day of Thanksgiving break.

Thanksgiving morning. Breakfast. Scrambled eggs. The yolk kept in. Sausage, bacon. White toast. Butter. Grape jelly. Early Grey. Vanilla bean cream. All three on a diet, they say. Propel in substitute for soda. I wrap Kibbles in my lap on the flat wood of the chair. He’s lazy, Jess says. Who does she mean? At dinner, You ought to be like the turkey and jump in the oven. Are there egg whites? Do you visit other campuses when you’re in Boston? Dad ignores my request. And is brunch every day? (I tell her I’m sick of her.) You don’t appreciate anything, mom says. You sat and watched me set up the Nativity by myself. She offended me. I sulked.

Don’t put the flowers on the lawn. But they’re dead, mom. Throw them in the trash. It’s natural to leave them on the grass. They’ll stink. At least I don’t feel like the guest anymore.

I think of advertisers sending holiday emails with their in-laws at the door. I think of the Schedule Send function on Gmail, and why aren’t vacuums better designed with today’s technology, but mom doesn’t want me to complain about housework, because the in-laws will soon be knocking at the door. When I’m in the shower, mom wants to argue. Through the door, over falling water. The issue is you fighting with Jess in front of me and your father. It’s impolite. Since when? But I act like I can’t hear. She’s just stressed about the in-laws.

I hate to wear well-fitting clothes around them. Maybe they’ll think me handsome, and there’s nothing more uncomfortable, and before I leave for my train to Boston mom says how much Jess resents going to community college, not getting the chance to go away. Different paths, I think, and how can one help someone with these matters, when it’s too late? Why don’t I have the right to be happy? Why must I feel guilty? Why must I counsel her in payment for my freedom? I write to Aunt Linda after breakfast. Dad puts the turkey in the oven. I tell her how good it is to be back home.

In Boston, I think of mom’s outbursts and apologies, and her cruelty. How will I show my son a proper visit home? Her embarrassment becomes mine. I hope he had a good time, and that we make him proud and that he’ll come back for the next break. Dad pulls out the turkey. The in-laws always do some cheering act around the dining table. I hug my father goodbye. They applaud, laugh. The train is coming to Platform One in a few minutes. Mom lays down the cranberries. Dad won’t have to suffer rush hour on the way back. We’re lucky that the sun comes so directly onto the plastic china. For a moment I consider telling dad to stay a few minutes. My cousin lets Kibbles onto their lap. The train comes into Back Bay Station. I look at my family around the table of food. A feeling rushes onto me. I feel as if I’ve never left.

Tom Garback is currently pursuing a BA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College, where he works as a Staff Writer, Blogger, Copy Editor, and Reader at various on-campus magazines. His fiction, poems, and essays have been featured in Blind Corner, Oddball, Polaris, Gauge, Sonder, and several others.

Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man* – Craig Snelgrove

if you think to yourself things like
Snickers are better than Mars bars,
or if you think to yourself
Ronaldo is better than Messi,
or if you think to yourself
Nike is cooler than Adidas,
or if you think to yourself
this kind of music makes me feel
more alive than that kind of music,
or if you think to yourself
this politicians’ policies
are something I can believe in,
whereas that politicians are not,
that politicians a fascist,
a communist,
a fat cat, scum bag, capitalist,
and if you think to yourself
there is some kind of meaning
to this existence,
that a god, or something, is real
and has a plan, or a design,
in place for me,
or if you think to yourself
that god is a myth,
that there’s no point to any of this,
if it all feels a bit futile
when you get up in the morning,
look in the mirror and think
man, I look so ugly today,
my hair looks so stupid,
my clothes are so boring,
just like my personality is so boring,
it’s good to be reminded then, sometimes,
that there’s always gonna be someone
who will be thinking very differently.

*quote from The Big Lebowski

Craig Snelgrove is a writer from Manchester, UK. Craig holds an MA in Creative Writing and his work has previously been published in Live from Worktown anthologies and most recently in Worktown Words https://worktownwords.uk/index.php/ed-4/16-ed-4/87-tuesday-ed4

Cup O’ Joe – Christopher A Micklos

CUP O’ JOE.

Mort stares at the sign. Is that the name of the café or the promise of what awaits inside? It doesn’t matter, really. He’s been a customer since they opened eight months ago, and he isn’t about to let all this virus nonsense change his morning routine.

Mort nudges open the door and shuffles in.

A line of sluggish patrons, all dull eyes and slack jaws, reaches from the counter to the door. Taking his place in the queue, he can’t contain a moan.

How long has it been now? Two weeks—three?—since the TV talking heads and social media morons started panicking? Through the cobwebs, Mort recalls the ominous warnings and urgent exhortations for citizens to stay indoors and keep safe. Judging by the look of this morning’s crowd, the calls for caution had gone unheeded.

Mort himself had been a skeptic from the start, mollified by assurances from top officials that the outbreak would be contained and eradicated in a matter of days…a couple of weeks, tops. It made sense to him. After all, nobody in their right mind would believe the frantic tales being spun by the fake news media to scare the populous and boost their dismal ratings.

But then he ventured out to Costco and saw it for himself: the chaos, the ransacked shelves, the half-inhuman crowd.

And now Mort can’t shake the throbbing in his head, at first a dull ache but now an intense, thundering torment. Caffeine had always helped assuage that pain in the past, so here he is at the place with the sign that says CUP O’ JOE.

Even as the line shortens in front of him, it stretches back further by the minute, out the door and down the front steps of the café. Nothing is going to stop this crowd from getting its daily dose, that’s for sure.

One of the others near the back of the line starts to impatiently push his way to the front, but he doesn’t get far. A snarl here, a sharp elbow there, and he ends up right back where he started.

At the counter, the disheveled barista pushes a brimming mug out to Mort, who recognizes the dark pockmarks and sores on her once-pretty face. He’d seen them in a mirror just that morning.

Maybe the virus actually is spreading, after all? Oh well, that’s the world now.

Unperturbed, Mort grunts and stumbles toward an open seat in the corner of the café.

Passing the others still waiting in line, he feels their green-eyed glares. He hugs the mug to his chest, shielding it with one arm while keeping the other cocked, ready to swat away any greedy hand that might reach out to steal it.

By now, every fiber aches, and Mort sits down and gazes into the mug, ready to savor the promised relief.

All around him, the other lumbering zombies moan and lurch and stagger about, their eyes bleeding and puss oozing from the familiar sores.

Ignoring them, he tears a spongy fold of gray, gooey goodness out of the bloody mess in the mug and pushes it into his mouth, munching happily.

Mort has no idea who Joe was, but his brain really hits the spot.

Christopher A. Micklos is a writer, director, and producer whose writing has appeared in numerous print and digital outlets over the past several years. His award-winning first feature film, THE NURSERY, was distributed worldwide by Uncork’d Entertainment in 2016; and his second feature, THE HEADMISTRESS, is expected to be released in 2021. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife and daughter and their monstrous mini-labradoodle, Ygor.

My Sixtieth Birthday – Henri Colt

“She’s not too young for you,” my sister joked as she took her seat at my table. “You’re too old for her.”

“Well, Jenny,” I said, forcing a grin, “I may be old, but I’m not dead.” I was embarrassed she had caught me staring at the hips of a young woman exiting the coffee shop.

“Sixty’s not so bad, is it?” She squeezed my arm tenderly, as if she knew she had put her finger on the source of my bourgeoning depression. Since my divorce, events rather than years defined my life: a tumultuous love affair with the wrong woman, my best friend dying from cancer, losing the family business after thirty-two years. I wanted female companionship, but I struggled with a loss of confidence. I didn’t have the courage to date.

“Still looking for that next adventure,” she declared.

Neither my father, nor my uncles, and surely not my little sister had prepared me for this. Maybe it was time I owned up to my sexual dysfunction. My testosterone had plummeted; my desires vanished, and even pleasuring myself had become impossible. All I saw in the mirror was a chubby, balding guy with sparse gray hair and drooping shoulders. An irreverent pout formed by permanent wrinkles at the corners of my mouth made me feel grossly unattractive. Gone were the days of my mischievous smile.

“I feel invisible,” I said, “like a ghost, you know? If it weren’t for the occasional conversation with a waitress here at the coffee shop, I’d shoot myself.”

“I hope you’re joking.” Jenny’s bitch face said it all, so I bit my tongue.

She nudged my shoulder. “Are you okay?”

I shrunk into my chair. “I’m tired of the shaming language in those commercials touting Viagra.”

“Men have andropause,” Jenny said matter of factly. “It’s inevitable.”

I dropped the conversation and asked her for an update.

“My mammogram is clean,” she said happily. “It’s been three years since the chemo.”

“Yay!” I didn’t tell her about my visit to the urologist. My PSA is high again. “An older guy at the climbing gym shot himself last week,” I said. “Rumor has it he was happy, married, kids, the whole nine yards.”

Jenny shook her head. “There’s a wave of clinical depression and suicide among older men in this country. With the opioid crisis and coronavirus, nobody talks about it anymore.”

I felt a lecture from my sister the psychologist coming.

“Andropause is real,” she said, “but men tend to crawl under a rock with denial until it’s too late.”

“I have low testosterone, and I can’t get it up.” There, I said it. Strangely, I was glad to have upped the ante of our conversation. “What have you got to say about that?”

She chuckled. “I’d say that telling someone you have low testosterone is probably not the wisest thing to share on a first date.”

“That’s not funny.”

“Have you thought about taking supplements?” she asked. “My girlfriends say testosterone gel works wonders on their husbands’ libido.

“I’ll be okay,” I shrugged.

“I’m concerned about you,” she said, putting her arm around my shoulder.

Watching women coming through the coffee shop’s doors, I felt like a dog that couldn’t bark, let alone bite. I hated myself for allowing this part of me to take over my life.

Jenny put her fingers at the corners of my mouth to pull my cheeks upwards. A forced smile formed on my lips.

“Yay,” she laughed.

I flinched. “As they say, life sucks, then you die.”

“And as you said when I got here, you’re not dead yet.”

Her words rang home like an epiphany. There was hope, faith, shit…a pretty young thing shimmied onto her chair at the far end of the patio. She crossed her suntanned legs and brushed her long, auburn hair away from her eyes. Her nimble fingers tapped across the lunch menu.

Jenny’s playful grimace snapped me back to the conversation. She had noticed the object of my distraction.

“Hemingway won a bet with a six-word story,” she said. “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.” She raised her eyebrows, obviously begging a response.

“Maybe mine should be, “instead of shooting yourself just get laid.”

Her laugh reminded me of my mother’s. “That’s seven words,” she said.

“Indeed, it is sis, indeed, it is.”

The woman at the other table wore strands of turquoise beads around her wrists. Her hair had settled wildly on her shoulders, and a pair of dragon tattoos graced the length of her forearms. I marveled at the audacity with which her generation tackled body paint, and when she smiled, I felt alive, grateful for the glorious remembrance of it all.

Henri Colt is a physician-writer and adrenaline junkie whose passions include mountaineering and tango. His short stories have appeared in Rock and Ice Magazine, Fiction on the Web, Active Muse, Potato Soup Journal, Red Fez, and others.

Home Time – Cath Holland

Potato peelings plop onto newspaper, curled shapes spelling words I can’t make out. All I know is if I cut ‘em that thick, Mum would shout.

She blinks at the clock on the wall over my head. ‘He should be home.’

My brother Liam turned feral this summer. In the mornings he scoots out on his bike. Goes for hundreds of miles or so he reckons. Boomerangs back when he’s hungry.

Dad in the doorway home from work decides ‘bloody hell, time’s getting on’. Calls the police and a policeman comes, the tallest man in the world in a black uniform with shiny buttons.

‘They do whatever they like, my kids. No matter what I say. I’ve told ‘em.’ Mum cocks her head in my direction but sounds frightened and thready.

The policeman puts Mum on the phone to ring everybody she can think and I know she’s adding up the twenty pence each time ‘cause she garbles words real fast and throws the phone down quick and hard straight after. In the end Mum runs out of numbers to call and I say about the cowboys and cattle rustlers and highwaymen in the hills. That’s where the baddies hide and plan bank robberies like in the films, Liam always says.

‘Show us.’

Mum and Dad nod in agreement, desperate now. The silence in the room, as I buckle one sandal and pick up the other, the sole of my foot slipping wetly against the leather, tells me this isn’t the time to remind them how they laugh at Liam’s stories. And that this morning he said where he’s going, over a bowl of Coco Pops, as I watched the milk go chocolatey. A head and shoulders drift past the window and the expression on the man’s face in the doorway, changes everything. Mum crumples like a tissue. Dad is horrified. At Mum on the floor making a show of us, or what the man’s saying about what’s been found in the woods?

I’m sat down next to a nice nodding lady with moist pleading eyes. ‘Be brave’ she and the tall policeman both repeat slowly like I’m thick, ‘for your mum’.

It’s dusk and the clock keeps ticking. Mum’s huddled on the couch in the front room, her spine round like a shell. My insides shrink. I wonder whether to say again about the cowboys and rustlers in the hills. Remind everybody. Maybe they forgot. I’ll tell them how Liam stands in the rec at the top of the road every night after school, satchel strap diagonal across his chest. Legs apart like John Wayne, right in between the red metal rocking horse and the swing with rubber seats and concrete floor, staring at the blank fuzzy felt green fields, miles away. When he’s grown up and there’s no home time to bother with, or school, nothing like that, he can go find the baddies. Search ‘em out. Prove it’s true. Make them sorry. No-one can stop him.

Cath Holland is a writer of fiction and fact based in Liverpool. She is published by Mslexia, National Flash Fiction Day, Dead Ink, Retreat West.

Yuri – Andrew Hart

“When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear.” (Yuri Gagarin)

I often think about Yuri Gagarin, the first man to orbit the earth; floating alone in a tiny capsule, and for almost two hours, the centre of the world. No wonder he turned to drink and craved the attention of other people, once he was back down on earth, to convince himself that he was real, or that they were. Over and over again I have watched interviews with him, as he calmly and politely is asked the same questions by presenters from London to Moscow, but behind that eager to please smile, there was the face, of a man who seemed baffled and was trying to understand what had happened to him out there in space, alone and in the dark.

“So, I don’t really exist?”

“Perhaps in theory; but when you are out teaching the piano, or going to the shops, then no, no you don’t.”

“So according to you it is only when I am here, in front of you that I am real?”

I thought about it for a moment, “yes; I know it sounds odd, but when you are not with me, then you are nowhere.”

He pinched himself, ever the clown.

“I feel real.”

“But that is because you are with me. Perhaps try it when I am not here.”

He looked at me oddly, not sure whether to take me seriously or not. We continued to walk around Warwick castle, but in silence, he a little ahead of me and clearly sulking, he painstakingly read the various notices in all the rooms and only roused himself when we had lunch at the rather expensive café. As we sat together eating and cheese tomato toasties, and he enjoyed a beer, he tried to resume the conversation.

“You are a strange one, I cannot tell when you are joking or serious.” He laughed, having got me categorised.

“That’s what all my men say.” I responded, which ensured he said nothing more for another hour or two.

That night, as he pushed himself into me, he groaned, “Am I real now? Can you feel me now? Do I exist?”

And for those few moments as he intruded himself upon me, he was there, but when I awoke the next morning to an empty bed he had faded away, as when he had come out of my body the previous night. And I lay in my bed, it became the centre of everything; my dressing table, my wardrobe, this room….

I suppose that it is egotistical to think that everything revolves around me, that I cause it to be; this man, my lover standing in front of me talking nonsense, the radio, the kitchen, the house.

Even people and objects I glimpse when I am out and about in Manchester; the woman I glance at standing by the window of her house stroking her cat, a brief, overheard conversation between two men, as they hurry past me; will they disappear as soon as I pass them by? It is difficult to believe that they will continue to have a separate existence once I have walked on; that the woman stroking the cat, will go out to do some shopping, meet a friend for lunch, that she has her own interior life; her own worries and ambitions. I see her as an actor on a stage, who has said her lines, and now heads to her dressing room, unneeded for the rest of the play?

On Friday evening, we sat and drank wine.

“All we do is drink” I told him.

“Well let’s have sex then.”

“But can’t we talk, or perhaps we could read? When was the last time you read a book?”

“But we are watching television.”

“Are we? I stopped following it ages ago, it is just background noise.”

“I’m watching it?”

“What is about then?”

He sighed and poured himself more of the wine we had bought from Aldi that afternoon. When we first met we used to drink once a week at most; Saturday evenings if we weren’t going out, or if we had a guest, but now we never have guests, and we rarely go out, and thus we drink most evenings. His pupils must smell it on him, as they turn up bleary eyed to go through the pieces that he has set them to learn.

“I am serious, we drink every evening.”

He laughed, and took my hand and then undid my blouse, and we ended up naked on the sofa. As I kissed him I could smell the alcohol on his tongue and body, and afterwards as I fell asleep wedged into the back of the settee, I felt disgusted with him certainly, but most of all disgusted with myself.

My parents saw Yuri Gagarin when he visited Manchester shortly after he returned to earth. It was a muggy July day in 1961, and later in the afternoon the heavy sun gave way to rain, but it did not stop my parents gathering to watch as Yuri Gagarin drove in an open top car smiling and wet, waving happily at the crowds who had turned out in their thousands to see him.

They had only been married about eight months, and I would be born just over a year later, I being their first and, as it turned out, only child. I imagine them waiting patiently, amidst the smell of damp and cheap perfume, for this man who had done something that nobody had ever done before; my mum looking thin and fragile, my father strong and tough, but it was him who would not survive the decade (dead of cancer shortly after his twenty-sixth birthday) but she seems just the same and still walks the same Manchester streets she did all those years ago, but her mind clouded by senility and sadness.

“He seemed very happy” my mum told me, “a smile for everyone, even though he must have been soaking wet.”

“Did he talk to you?” I had asked her, we were sitting in the kitchen, as we so often did; I must have been eleven and she a widow, in retrospect still young.

“No, we were just part of the crowd, and were only close to him for a few moments. Your father did say that he smiled at him though.”

I have seen photographs of his visit to Manchester; including one that my father had taken, when the crowd had broken slightly so he got a good picture. But by the time that mum told me all about it, Gagarin was dead in an aeroplane crash at the age of thirty-four, and my father was a couple of photographs on the sideboard, and someone my mother talked about when she was feeling lonely, and all she had was a little girl for company.

“Your boyfriend is a pianist” Martha tells me. I nod in agreement, difficult not to, as I often mentioned this to people I knew, it kept him real, and his profession reflected well on me I thought; making me seem bohemian and creative.

“We have got this concert in a couple of months, for the Samaritans, would he be able to play something for us?”

Martha is my friend; I cannot remember how we met or when; perhaps she just arrived labelled “friend.” But we often go to the theatre together or meet for lunch during the week and reminisce (about what?) over panini and cake in the Italian café/ deli in Manchester city centre, near Piccadilly.

“I can ask him.”

“It would be nothing taxing, but we could do with something a bit. If he could just play one of the classics, you know Beethoven, or one of them.”

I clearly did not meet her at anything musical.

“I will let you know” I tell her, breathing in the smell of the café; mostly tomatoes and bread, and I drank down my iced lemon drink and prepared to make my way back to work.

Sometimes I wonder if things will happen without me there to control them; it is a leap of faith expecting things to sort themselves out when I am not there. As I sat waiting in the over-heated hall for my boyfriend to play, chewing on a peppermints to ease my nerves, I wondered if he would appear, perhaps he was there already behind the scenes talking to Martha or practicing in an alcove somewhere, or maybe having a quick drink. He was to play the last piece of the first half; an Impromptu by Schubert, which I had heard him running through this morning as I ate my breakfast.

Quite often people let me down; my father dying, my mother slowly losing her mind. And as I sat there in the bleak hall, filled mostly with the young, and a few worthy looking older people, their copies of The Guardian ostentatiously visible like a rather large ticket, I began to feel dread, I had worried about this ever since Martha asked me, the possibility of being humiliated more than I could bear. I had already sat through various pieces; comic songs that me sad, sad songs that made me giggle and sketches that lasted too long. Between performances I could see Martha behind the scenes; popping out from behind the curtain at the back of the stage, to make sure the audience were still there and appeared happy. She did not seem to notice me, but then there seemed to be so many there she knew.

A rather battered looking piano was rolled out onto the stage, and sat there portentously whilst I became acutely aware of the sound of shuffling bottoms and whispered comments from all around me. I could feel sweat dripping down my spine causing me try and rub it against the back of my chair, whilst the piano sat there, waiting to be made use of.

I wondered if I could leave; grab my bag from the floor and push myself past the people next to; I began to brace myself to get up and apologise, but then it didn’t matter, as he strode onto the stage with a smile; well-dressed and confident, because of course he had done this sort of thing time and time again and he was always going to turn up and save me from embarrassment.

I exhaled deeply, having held my breath for several seconds, without realising it. I could see him look for me, and then once he caught my eye, he gave me a grin and sat down and after a moment of thought began to play. I did not really listen to his music; it could have been the Beatles or nursery rhymes for all the attention I paid it, I was just so relieved that he had turned up, but when he finished I applauded long and hard, and to my relief so did the audience around me – a couple even stood up to clap, and I heard a couple of “bravos” – and then after another swift glance in my direction he gave another smile and disappeared off stage.

I found him and Martha at the interval.

“Where did you find him” she said smilingly “he is lovely, and so talented…. You are lucky.”

We chatted for a few moments, and I felt like a normal person, real amongst other three-dimensional people, and with a boyfriend who had a separate life, and who I could be proud of. And then Martha was called away, and we decided to miss the rest of the concert and go home.

And then that night I took him inside me to thank him for turning up, for actually existing, and confirming something, although I was not sure of what. Shall I be let to sleep, now that this perpetual morning shares my bed?

“I love you” I said, and he returned my kiss; he tasted of peppermint which almost overwhelmed my mouth, and I cuddled close to him to stop him disappearing into a puff of smoke,

But as I lay there, I was remembering sitting in the church hall, the smell of deodorant and perfume choking me, knowing that he would not turn up. Watching the piano rolled on stage, the seat pulled out ready for him, and when it became clear he was not going to appear, a cross looking Martha appearing on stage, apologising and suggesting we go and have refreshments, and then giving me the most hurt of looks.

I fled, out into the rain, as wet as when Yuri Gagarin visited this city all those years ago, and soon my jacket was saturated and my hair a mess. I could not face a bus, and so walked all the way through the streets of the city until I reached my house, cold and empty, with my piano in the music room where I taught schoolchildren and bored housewives, and I sank down onto my bed and pulled my duvet over my body, that smelt of nothing but me.

And then as I slept, I was rising above it all; the bed where I lay alone, the house where I lived, the terrace of which it was a part, my home city of Manchester; and they slipped farther and farther away below me, so that I could no longer distinguish even my own country. As I continued to float upwards, I could see at my feet, planet earth; a blue globe, with swirling white clouds; a football, which I could kick, and do with as I pleased.

Opinions Get Tested – Samantha Carr

The fashion runways of Paris and Milan are as empty as the
Nightingale Hospital in London. Yet the makeshift morgues are full.
Opinions get tested as people cycle more, but you can’t lock them
down. Sing happy birthday to wash off the loneliness of eating a cake
alone. You can’t let them eat cake if there is no flour on the shelves of
socially distances supermarket queues. There are no flights out to
Benidorm, but the return flight is not cancelled. Birds are tweeting
louder, you could hitch a ride back with them. The tweets are getting
louder. Opinions get tested. The facts check themselves and find
themselves wanting more masks.

 

Cabinet Of Heed Contents Drawer 37.03Cabinet Of Heed Contents Drawer 37.01

Issue 37 – Drawer Three

image by b f jones

The Peacock – Louise Mather

The peacock lay on the bed without its feathers
the cat decided to only consume half
then take a nap
in the nook by the fire
now the light had left

The stars came in through the window
glimmering shreds of rain
saving the silence
to be slept through
the night dragging at things

In the morning
she would have to clean the carpet
doused in blood
she scrubbed at her face
as if it could be made beautiful
her knees looked as if they had never been washed
discoloured and darkened
as if they had been knelt somewhere for a very long time
trying endlessly or wishing to
rid themselves of hope and despair

The cat roused from another nap
licking its paws stretching out
contemplating the weather outside
wondering what next to undertake
perhaps taking a moment to remember
the other half of the bird
could not be saved

The Self-Revising Text – Christopher Pieterszoon Routheut

A monk-scholar was on his long way home from a monastic school. Grey and fuliginous stones, and a contrastive brilliance of glitterstone, diverted him. He ascended high steps to the jagged fragments of an old door hanging crookedly into shadows. He eyed the portal a little longer, and then crossed into the shadows.

When he gained the light raying from a hole in the ceiling, he realised that he had entered an abandoned temple. The shrine lay bare. The bare altar was stained with blood. Dents and scrapes blemished a wall, as if it had withstood much battering and pickaxing.

He wondered what was secreted behind the wall as he circumambulated the temple. Treasures scintillated in his mind’s eye, for a moment. He did not covet them. They vanished. He imagined a sacred meadow thrice the size of the temple, yet contained entirely within its meagrest-seeming chamber, rivered with pure water scholars could drink to enhance their understanding, uberous with ever-fruiting abundance holy women and holy men could feast on to prolong their lives by centuries, in order to grow centuries-wise. He imagined himself an untiring sentry, guarding the meadow against any wantwit, any wantoner, anyone who would try to ruin it.

When he circled back to the wall, it was gone. He was certain that he stood exactly where he had looked at the dents and scrapes, where he could have reached out and touched them earlier, if he had so wished. Now, there was only open air, and a glow in the darkness beyond.

He stepped slowly through the darkness. A scroll illuminated itself before him. He recognised the general styles of its characters. They were characteristic of an ancient syllabary he had come upon before, in foreign texts, but had never learnt to read.

The characters flowed on the scroll. The curved straightened. The ornate became plain. The text seemed to be revising itself whilst he examined it. Illustrations likewise changed afront his eyes.

He doubted the prudence of perusing the scroll any more, even if he could learn the syllabary and find some means of comprehending the ever-revising text. The text could be long forgotten falsehoods. Inadvertently, he could precipitate the falsehoods back into currency, back into fervid belief.

A hard clop at his back startled him. He spun fast. By the dim glow of the text, he noticed that the wall was building back up. He rushed to escape, but was too late.

He suspected that the wall would open only when he was certain that falsehoods were truth. He hoped and prayed that the wall would never open.

The Place In Which She Lives – Nick Olson

The artist is forming a panorama of the place in which she lives. She is stitching together photographs with black thread and filling in the places she cannot access with watercolor, gouache, and oil representations. She pounds pavement all day and most of the night, looking for places she has not yet captured. The people she catalogs as well as the places, and she has no qualms about duplication, so you’ll see the same jogger first here, then there, as if cloned, or else stretched in time along the same road, a stop motion flip book that can’t be flipped but can only be looked at in sequence.

Her husband, the writer, before he died, had encouraged the project. He’d sat and gone over grant opportunities with her, a mess of takeout trash spread out on the floor in front of them like a made-to-order constellation. He helped write the grant with her, and when she got it, he raised a toast of water to her health and good fortune.

She came and showed him drafts all throughout dialysis, through the pained process of not-recovery, and the moments collected in the corners of all the rooms they inhabited, the space like something they hadn’t fully reckoned with until he was dying, until they knew that this place would soon only be hers. He told her to go out, to take pictures, to paint in the gaps that the pictures couldn’t capture, that she’d only get one chance to live out her dream, but what he meant was Don’t Remember Me Like This. He prepared for himself a deep dark cave where he could spend the rest of the time he had been allotted.

She prepared dark teas in the mornings without him. Dark teas and cold breads and birdsong emptied of music–only the untranslated calls for food and mate. The project was becoming a monster.

The place in which she lives includes her neighborhood, her city, and every house and apartment in it, so she spends her days in constant work, always walking, staying in one place just long enough to document it before moving on. She gets home cold, covered in tiny dead bugs, and dehydrated. She’ll put on another of her teas and catalog what she saw that day, try not to see the nights she’d come back and show him what she’d done.

She’s flattened out every dwelling, every place and person into a photographic melange, subtracting a dimension but adding something that never was there and could only be there now because of her. Buildings become exploded diagrams laid out in film and paint, till every square inch is covered in exquisite detail, without concern for scale. Street art is given equal billing to the buildings it’s found on, and every chewed-up and stuck-on piece of gum is captured. Building tops stretch sky that’s been patched together, because everything that means something to you is made up of still smaller things that mean just as much.

She comes back home every night in the quicksand of persistent exhaustion, having spent her entire day out there, returning to a bed that’s been halved, and now she’s remembering to breathe, to properly eat, to keep hydrated, because if his voice is no longer there to remind her, then her voice will have to suffice.

She’ll come back and she’ll spread butter on a piece of bread, and let her breath hitch in her chest, and look out at the far wall of her home, this place in which she lives, where the entire spread of the project is there, so far, even after all this time still a work in progress. The buildings and streets and trees meticulously studied and cataloged, and the people, when they show up, allowed to just be within this space. And there in one of them, only the one, is her husband. He’s sitting on a simple chair on their patio, looking out and down the side of a road that to him will never look like what it right now does to her.

Nick Olson is a writer and editor from Chicagoland now living in North Carolina. He was a finalist for Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award, and he’s been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, decomP, and other fine places. When he’s not writing his own work, he’s sharing the wonderful work of others over at (mac)ro(mic). His debut novel, Here’s Waldo, will be published through Atmosphere Press, and he tweets updates at @nickolsonbooks.

The Teeth Were Sharp, The Eyes Were Wide – Rachel Abbey McCafferty

Sarah was 12 the first time she saw the monster.

Her only chore, other than keeping her room in order, was to wash the dishes after dinner. She was standing at the sink on the kitchen step stool, the small wooden one decorated with pale blue flowers. It had been her grandmother’s before it was her mother’s, and the paint was chipped and faded. All the women in the family, including Sarah, were short. If it wasn’t for the stool, Sarah wouldn’t be able to wash dishes or to see out the small window above the sink. But she had it, so she was able to do both. And it was out that small window that she spotted the monster.

It was early evening in December, and her backyard was dark as midnight. Dark, save for two chalk white circles floating near the back corner of the lawn, by the wood pile. Sarah squinted and the circles came into focus: eyes. Big white eyes with pinprick pupils. The eyes blinked out and reappeared bigger, closer.

And then, in a flash, a wide, fanged mouth, teeth glistening in the moonlight.

It had been a long time since Sarah believed in monsters, but she wasn’t one to argue with evidence. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, counting to 10. That’s what her mother had told her to do as a child when she was afraid there was something hiding in her closet at night. Nothing had ever appeared at her bedside, so if monsters were real, Sarah supposed the countdown had worked.

When she opened her eyes, the eyes in the backyard were gone. Sarah avoided the windows in her house from that day on, keeping the curtains drawn like a vampire covering mirrors, much to her mother’s consternation.

She didn’t see the monster again until the summer after her junior year of high school.

She was driving home late at night after working the closing shift at the diner downtown. The summer job kept her hands and feet busy, if not her mind, and put money into her still-small college fund. She was daydreaming about the places the money would take her, the cities with neighborhoods the size of her small town, when she saw it.

Those eyes, blinking bright from the woods beside the winding road. Her heart skipped a beat. Maybe even two. The monster had found a window she couldn’t cover.

Sarah stopped driving that very day, catching rides from her coworker Cindy with the dark eyeliner, keeping her gaze focused on her shoes or closing her eyes tight in the passenger seat.

It was another 17 years before she saw the monster again. She had gone off to college, fallen in love, gotten married, given birth to two children who looked just like her husband in miniature, all while avoiding the windows in her dorm and then her apartment and then her home with the small brick fireplace and the cracked driveway. She invested in decorative curtains. She hadn’t driven. She hadn’t traveled. She hadn’t dreamed.

Then one night, her younger child, a daughter, learning to walk, reached up and grabbed the long blue curtain covering the living room window and fell, tearing it straight away. Sarah rushed to her side, forgetting the monster beyond the walls amid her daughter’s wails of surprise. When she had dried her daughter’s tears, the girl stood and gaped at the stars she had never seen. “They’re real,” the toddler whispered. Sarah walked to the window. She saw the stars first, and then the monster, unblinking eyes wider than ever before, teeth sharper than she had remembered.

Sarah burned with rage.

She ripped the curtain from the other side of the large picture window and threw it to the floor. Then she stormed over to the dining room and tore those curtains from their rods. In the kitchen, she broke the blinds in her rush to take them down. The bedrooms received the same treatment, moonlight flooding the second floor.

Then Sarah gathered up all the curtains and stomped into the backyard. She dumped them in a pile on the concrete slab the previous owner had meant to turn into a sunroom and tossed a lit match in the center, her gaze trained on the monster.

The flames danced in its large eyes, glinted off its teeth. The monster opened its mouth as if to roar, to scream, to swallow Sarah whole.

Still Sarah stood, staring.

Its mouth stretched down to the ground and up to the sky, a cavernous void that consumed the night. It stretched until Sarah could no longer see the eyes that had so long watched her, until she could no longer see the moon or the stars or the planets orbiting the sun alongside the Earth. It stretched beyond space and time. Still Sarah stood.

Then there was a pop, a shudder in the atmosphere, and it was no more.

The addition Sarah and her husband put on the concrete slab the following summer had wall-to-wall windows. She planted a small vegetable garden in the far corner of the backyard and parked her newly purchased 2018 sedan in the cracked driveway.

Sometimes, late at night, their daughter saw eyes in the darkness. She never blinked.

Rachel Abbey McCafferty has been writing since she first learned that was a thing people could do. She’s a newspaper reporter in Ohio whose favorite questions are “what if” and “why.” Her flash fiction has appeared in journals like The Molotov Cocktail, The Ginger Collect and formercactus.

Red Dress – Carla Sarett

That winter was always ice or storms,
the weather uncertain, even windier on Houston.
I can’t say why I walked so late
when snow was falling thickly,
and promised to last till dawn.

But in this moonless haze,
this, I know, is what I saw:

A single illuminated storefront
a single dress of flaming crimson,
its skirt a perfect circle,
its neckline a perfect square.
A dress I’d always wanted
without naming my wanting
to go with my black velvet heels.

Returning home, a few blocks over,
to a man I didn’t love and never would,
I wondered how a store, however lit,
could last with one dress,
only darkness behind it.

And when snow had melted,
not that week, but the one after,
I went back to the street I’d walked alone,
in ordinary daylight, and found
nothing to tempt me.

I’ve searched for the dress, now and then,
more for the proof of it, since
I’ve lost the habit of wanting
things or people and I forget
which street I walked down
in that uncertain season.

Carla Sarett’s recent work appears or is forthcoming in Prole, The Virginia Normal, Third Wednesday and elsewhere. Her novel, A Closet Feminist, will be published in 2022.  She lives in San Francisco.

Bone Handles – Kathy Hoyle and Karen Rust

I lay the mats just right, the bone-handled knives soldier straight beside them. Their blades glint with menace against the flowered cloth. Granny says they’re not real bones, but I know different. Grandad never lies. He says they are the bones of the others… the ones who told.

Granny has her back turned, as usual. She hunches over the soup pot as she stirs and stirs. A dash here, a sprinkle there, always adding to the flavour, yet never tasting. Her lips are always tightly sealed.

She catches me staring and nods towards the open door.

‘Out you go.’

Out of sight, out of mind.

I find a spot in the dappled grass, hook out a worm with my fingernail. It squirms to be free. I crush it between my forefinger and thumb. Worms don’t have bones. They only die when each of their five hearts stop beating. I wonder if Granny has a heart at all.

The wooden gate creaks.

Grandad follows the path up toward the house. He is silhouetted against the sunlight, whistling a heavy-booted tune. He holds out his arms and calls my name. I run into them, just like I should.

Once, I hid behind the old pile of wood next to the shed. I never made that mistake again.

Grandad’s whiskered breath finds my ear, his kiss is tender.

‘Hello sweetheart,’ he says, laying a calloused palm on the back of my neck. I squirm. He pulls me tighter.

Inside, we all sit at the table. Granny serves the soup, hot and salty. I hate the taste.

‘Eat up, girl, the soup will make you big and strong,’ says Grandad.

I smile and count up all the days to ‘big and strong’ in my head.

I stroke the bone- handled knife and wonder how it will feel, buried into flesh.

Karen Rust and Kathy Hoyle met whilst studying for their MA at The University of Leicester. Karen’s short fiction has appeared in Ellipsiszine, Mookychick and Ink Pantry and Kathy has been published in a variety of litmags including Virtualzine, Lunate and Spelk. They have both thoroughly enjoyed working together on this piece.

Over The Wooden Barrel – Adam Rose

The wooden barrels were a nice touch. He would not have chosen the live horseshoe crabs in glass flower pots. The outdoor portable bathrooms actually had chandeliers dangling over the al fresco gold laden sinks. He knocked his oversized head twice and thought about complaining to the wedding planner. He wiped his hands on the back of his tuxedo pants.

Music from the band lofted over to the nearby trees. He hated being asked about his neck tattoo. It was a tattoo of a scar that was identical to the actual scar he received from falling off the jungle gym at his nephew’s 9th birthday party.

He plopped down onto one of the many neon hammocks bolted to a clump of maple trees. Sap dripped into wedding gift jugs. He swayed under the star poked velvet and patted the marijuana lollipop in his coat pocket.

His wife’s heel toe drum beat caused him to fall out of the hammock. The lollipop shattered in its wrapper, and he hoped to suck on the fragments.

She stood over him with the swaying chandelier light reflecting off the back of her blonde hair. Her eyes were hazel but looked like black dashes as she stared down on him. She said, “You are embarrassing me.”

No one was on another hammock or anywhere near the restrooms. Everyone was on the dancefloor, flopping around to The Macarena. He lifted himself upright on the hammock. He gave the empty space next to him a gentle pat and said, “Room for one more.”

She took a Ziploc bag of almonds from her purse. Earlier, he noticed she was too overwhelmed to eat. They were put at a table filled with his cousins; both preferred their hamsters back in Trenton.

An almond fell by the roots of the maple and got stuck in some of the tree’s ooze like peanut brittle.

She munched and sat down beside him. Her hand touched his knee and she sighed.

She said, “When we feel more settled and Myrtle and Hans have their litter, maybe we could graduate from hamster babies…after we sell a few to the pet store. If we wait, Myrtle might eat them, or Hans could kill them out of boredom.”

A bat flittered by. He yelled, “Bat!”

Her eyes fell through the ground in disappointment. A swarm of fireflies zooming by like streaks of yellow paused by their hammock.

A Babe With Attitude And A Heap Of Brains – Sandra Arnold

When her new classmates found out what Ophie was short for, a group of boys started following her, chanting “O-feel-ya!” Her well-practiced indifference got rid of some. And as the library wasn’t their natural habitat the rest drifted away to find other targets. Only one continued to stalk her. Bryan. Every time she came out of the library he was there, muttering, “Brainy bitch,” and spitting in her direction before loping off to rugby practice. Every time she answered a question in class she could hear him whispering, “Nerd, dork, dweeb, geek, who’s a pointy-headed freak?”

Bryan’s teacher told her she was handling Bryan brilliantly. “Always better not to overreact,” he said. “He’ll soon get bored.”

But Bryan showed no signs of getting bored. He found out that the little boy Ophie collected from primary school each day was her brother. He also knew his name, amongst other things.

“Your ma was a fuckin’ Shakespeare freak,” he whispered. “That’s why her brain exploded and she carked it.”

Ophie stared at him in silence.

He stared back. “Drop the attitude, babe!”

When she got to the gate of Cornelius’s school she found him vomiting on the ground with dog shit in his hair. “That big boy made me eat it,” he cried.

Bryan’s teacher rolled his eyes when Ophie told him. “Yeah, he can be a pain, but he’s an awesome rugby player. Works hard in the school vegetable garden too.”

Ophie picked this sentence apart while shelling walnuts at home. She tried to reassemble the words so they made sense. They didn’t. She cracked a shell in two and stared at the walnut lying inside. She wondered why she’d never noticed its resemblance to diagrams of the brain. She heard her father’s key in the lock. “We won’t tell him what Bryan did to you,” she warned Cornelius. “In case he overreacts.”

Next day, after Bryan finished rugby practice, Ophie followed him to the school’s vegetable plot. She watched him turn over the compost heaps, weed the gardens and water the vegetables. As he was heaving a large sack of horse shit from the toolshed to an empty compost bin, she slipped inside the shed. She watched him wrap his arms around the sack ready to tip the contents into the bin. Keeping her eyes on him she picked up a hammer and imagined his skull splitting in two like the walnut shell and his brain lying on the ground in one perfect piece.

It didn’t work out quite like that.

She emptied the rest of the horse shit into the bin, filled it up with compost and tied wire netting across the top. She put the empty sack and the hammer back in the shed and hosed down the entire area.

When she tucked Cornelius into bed that night he clung to her and said he was scared of Bryan.

“Don’t be,” she said. “He’s got no brains.”

Sandra Arnold lives in New Zealand. Her most recent work, a flash fiction collection, Soul Etchings (Retreat West Books, UK) and a novel, The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell (Mākaro Press, NZ) were published in 2019. Her flash fiction and short stories have been widely published and anthologised. http://www.sandraarnold.co.nz

Windmills – Fiona McPhillips

No more money, Cathy said, and she meant it. Niall had been bailing Paudie out all his life and he was never going to sort himself out as long as Niall kept doing it for him.

“Definition of insanity,” she said. “You can’t save him, just like your da and your grandad before him. It’s not your responsibility and I’m not putting up with it any more.”

Niall knew what that meant. Another extended stay at the office, sleeping on the sofa, up before shift started on the factory floor at 6am. Not to mention another couple of hundred quid down the drain. He’d talk to Paudie, tell him about the new rehab centre in Portlaoise, offer to set it all up for him.

The first snowflakes of the looming Storm Hannibal fluttered past the amber glow of the street lights. Niall blew a lungful of smoke at them as he walked down the drive, glancing up and down the road for Paudie. He’d be late of course, armed with a patter of elaborate excuses. Niall wished he could be straight for once, save them all a load of bother. It was the waiting combined with the fear of the unknown that really put the shits up him. Paudie didn’t cross town to exchange pleasantries, and on a night like this, he must be desperate.

The snow was settling, a soft veil of it on the car, silver threads gathering on the arms of Cathy’s rose bushes. Freya was first out, scooping a handful from the bonnet of the hatchback before running onto the street to find a victim. Children came laughing and shrieking from all directions, twirling in the orange beams of light, tongues out, touching and tasting and squeezing the last drops of fun from the evening before they’d be grounded by the big snow. Kian pushed past his father, bumping shoulders as he sauntered out the gate, almost the height of him now.

“Hey, watch it,” said Niall but Kian kept walking across the road, stopping only to pull up his hood. Niall clenched his fists, resisting the urge to grab his son by the arm and teach him a bit of respect. Not here, not with so many neighbours about. He stubbed his cigarette against the gate and was turning back into the drive when he saw the hunched and haggard shape of his brother in the shadows at the end of the street. Paudie moved slowly, dragging one foot in front of the other as if propelled by an intrinsic mechanism rather than free will. Niall watched him shuffle in and out of the light, arms wrapped around a purple windbreaker, a plastic bag hanging from his wrist. It’d been Christmas since he’d been round; he’d gone out for smokes at 4pm and that was the last of him. It was the New Year before Niall admitted the €200 to Cathy.

“Howiya Nialler, Cathy you’re looking only gorgeous and the size of Kian, Jaysis, I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him.” Paudie had flicked the switch as he walked up the drive, turning on the role of Paudie before heroin. “Where’s me princess, Freya?” The kids were summoned from the street and handed contraband presents – a broken watch for Kian (“It probably just needs a battery”) and a Barbie with frizzy hair for Freya (“Ma, does he know I’m nine?”).

“I have to say, the house is looking great, Cathy,” said Paudie, venturing no further than the doorstep while Niall got his coat.

“It’s Niall’s house too, Paudie,” said Cathy, head tilted and arms folded. “How’re you doing?”

“Grand, grand,” said Paudie. “You know yourself.”

She threw him a wry smile. “I’m not sure I do Paudie. Or if I want to.” She pulled Niall aside as Paudie turned back down the drive.

“No handouts.”

“I said I won’t,” said Niall.

“Yeah, but I know what an eejit you are when you’re with him.”

Niall zipped up his parka and mumbled “Fuck you” to himself as he followed Paudie out into the street.

*      *      *

“Look man, I’m sorry about before, you know, at Gallagher’s,” said Niall, putting two pints of Guinness on the table. It was ‘regulars only’ at Niall’s local and no amount of banter was going to get Paudie through the door. “The new bouncer’s a bit of a prick, throwing his weight around. Puts me right off the place.”

They had to settle for Duffy’s, a dim and dingy bar with a small table hiding in every alcove and corner, and a selection of post-punk classics that gave it an unearned charm. The whiff of spilled beer and stale smoke spelled lock-in, although that was the last thing on Niall’s mind. He’d be playing for a speedy resolution and exit and a four pack on the sofa at home later. Paudie was slouched on a stool, picking at his fingers, one knee bouncing up and down like a jackhammer, keeping poor time with the Stranglers.

“You know what they say, Nialler. I wouldn’t want to drink in any pub that’d have me as a customer.” He tried to laugh, wincing as the scab on the corner of his mouth split open. His grey, translucent skin stretched taut across high cheekbones, giving him the look of their grandad in his later, ferocious years. Niall ran his hand across his stubble as he looked away over Paudie’s shoulder, where a scut of a teenager was pleading with a bald and bemused man in a black Harrington. Cathy was wrong, Paudie wasn’t like Grandad, or Da. Paudie would never hurt him, not intentionally.

“You still up in Coolock?” asked Niall.

“Nah, staying in town now.” Paudie pulled at his knuckle until it cracked, a single splintered snap of bone against tendons. Niall shivered, trying not to look at Paudie’s hands with their ripped fingernails and protruding veins.

“Anywhere in particular?”

“Near Christchurch.” Another crack. And another, ligaments twisted and stretched to their elastic limit.

“Jesus Christ, Paudie, can you stop that?”

Paudie slammed his hands on the table. Niall reached for his pint and threw back half of it.

“Sorry, man,” said Niall. “It’s just… that sound.”

“Yeah, I know,” said Paudie. “And chewing, slurping, scraping, snoring… breathing.”

“What can I say?” said Niall. “I’m a total fuck-up.”

Paudie snorted into his pint, looking over the top of it at his older brother, as Niall let his eyes wander to the snarling lips of the man in the Harrington. The boy cowered, preparing for his punishment.

“Listen, Niall,” said Paudie, rubbing the back of his neck. “D’ye remember that summer out west, the one where I fell in the slurry pit…”

“And I had to climb in head first to drag you out?”

“Yeah.” Paudie smiled. “Sorry about that.”

“It’s ok, I’m over it now.”

“It was a good summer, yeah?”

“Apart from when Grandad was beating the shite out of us.”

“He was a vindictive fucker alright,” said Paudie, “but you always protected me.

“I tried, Paudie,” said Niall, “but I was only what – twelve, thirteen?”

“You were thirteen that summer. I was ten.”

“Ok.” Niall raised his pint to his mouth, eyes following the Harrington as the man dragged the boy out of the pub by the wrist. He fantasised about intervening but even if he had the nerve, the consequences probably wouldn’t be worth the distraction. The aul fellas at the bar knew better, keeping their heads down until the disturbance had passed into the whistling wind outside.

“D’ye ever think of that summer, Niall?” asked Paudie. “You know, jumping off the bales of hay and hiding with the dogs in the fields beside the windmills?”

“Ah Paudie, it’s a long time ago, must be 25 years now.” Niall drained his pint. “Same again?” He pointed at Paudie’s half-full glass.

“So you don’t remember?” said Paudie.

“Yes and no. I remember the windmills,” said Niall, standing up. “I’ll get you another pint.”

Niall rested his head in his hands as the Guinness settled to the sombre thump of Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’. Paudie was always hard work but Niall had got used to treading that familiar path. Tonight the conversation was veering off somewhere new and unsettling; he’d try and wrap it up before the blizzard took hold.

“Hey, man,” said Niall as he sat back down on the stool, “it’s gonna be a rough one out there tonight.”

“Yeah?” said Paudie, drumming his fingers loudly on the table.

“Ah Paudie, c’mon.” Niall had the look of a disappointed teacher.

Paudie slowed his fingers to a stop and sank back on his stool.

“Nialler, I need to borrow a few quid,” he said without looking up.

Niall shook his head slowly. “I’m sorry Paudie but I can’t.”

“I’ll pay you back this time, I swear.” Paudie’s voice was detached, mechanical, like he was reading from a script. As if the outcome was already set in stone. “Cathy doesn’t need to know.”

“It’s not just Cathy, it’s you too Paudie. How’re you ever gonna get better if I keep facilitating you?”

Paudie smirked, his cracked sore oozing yellow gunk. “Ah Nialler, it’s not like any of this is your fault, is it?”

“What d’ye mean?” asked Niall, seeking refuge in his Guinness once again.

“Just wondering if you’re having an attack o’ the aul conscience,” said Paudie. “Not like you at all, Nialler.”

“I… I’m just worried about you, Paudie. Cathy is too.”

“Uh-huh.” Paudie swilled a mouthful of Guinness, as if mulling over this brave new world. “So I can beg and plead and pull all the usual bullshit but you’re not gonna give in?”

“No, I mean it this time,” said Niall, grabbing Paudie’s early capitulation with both hands. “I’m sorry man, I want to help you but I just don’t think handing over cash is doing either of us any good. I mean, where do you think the money comes from? I work my arse off in that factory for fuck all and you want to shoot it up your arm? I’ll help you get clean, Paudie, but I can’t help you get high any more.”

“Right so,” said Paudie. “Look Nialler, I’ve come out empty handed so I’m just gonna nip out to the cash machine and then I can get the next round in, right?”

“Yeah, sure man, no worries.” Niall exhaled slowly as Paudie walked away; he knew Paudie didn’t have a bank account.

*      *      *

Niall was coming to the end of his fourth pint and eyeing the door when it swung open, howls of wind and whirls of snow foretelling the entrance of a stocky, bearded man in a puffa jacket and a sheepskin hat. He kicked his boots against the floor and threw his hat on the bar, shaking the remnants of snow from his beard. All eyes watched him sideways as he surveyed the room, orange juice in one hand, hat in the other.

“Howiya.” He raised the hat in Niall’s direction. “Niall, isn’t it?”

The four pints and an ageing memory had blurred Niall’s recall but the adrenalin rocketing through his veins convinced him that this was not an old friend.

“How’re ye doing, Niall?” asked the man, sitting down on Paudie’s stool without opening his jacket. “I’m Keith.” He held out his hand. “Pleased to meet you.”

“Who are you?” asked Niall, removing his crushed fingers from Keith’s grip.

“I’m a friend of Paudie’s.” Keith smiled, large white teeth gleaming under a substantial moustache. “You could say we work together.”

Niall tried not to think; there was no thought process that would make this easier, no unfortunate teenager over Keith’s shoulder to divert his attention. Just the steady rhythm of the Buzzcocks to regulate his breathing.

“Where’s Paudie?” he asked.

“Don’t worry, Paudie’s fine,” said Keith. “He’s at the office, helping the boss with the accounts. There’s just a small problem but I’m sure we can sort it out.” Keith took a swig of his juice, wiped his moustache with the back of his hand and put his elbows on the table. “You see, Paudie owes the boss some money and he’s sent me to find you, says you can pay it for him.”

If Niall’s heart had been beating a bit slower, if he’d had a little less to drink or some more time to think, he may have been able to evaluate the situation. But under the unfortunate circumstances, all he could do was stick to the original plan.

“I don’t know anything about any money,” he said. “I hardly ever see Paudie any more.”

“We’re only talking 600 notes here, Nially,” said Keith. “For starters anyway. Sure I’ll walk you to the ATM myself.”

“No.” Out of the corner of his eye, Niall could see the sweat blistering on his nose. “I’m not bailing him out any more. He has to stand on his own two feet.”

Keith laughed and wagged his finger, as if Niall had just told a joke. “I don’t think Paudie will be standing on his own two feet if he doesn’t pay his debts.”

The fat grin on Keith’s face left Niall in no doubt that he’d use Paudie for sport if he got half a chance. There was no point in appealing to his better nature, no amount of begging or pleading that would do anyone any good. The penance was in the post, one way or another.

“I can’t pay it,” said Niall, his voice flat and vacant. “I don’t have it,”

“Are you sure about that?” asked Keith.

“Yeah.” It was the truth. Niall had less than 300 quid to last him until payday.

“Now Nially, you’re not going to make me ask Cathy for it, are you? Or maybe Kian has some pocket money stashed away, or what’s that little princess called? Freya, is it?”

Niall put his head in his hands before lifting it up to look Keith in the eye. “You’ve crossed a line. This has nothing to do with them.”

“It’s just business, Nially,” said Keith, knocking back the last of his drink and standing up. “We’ll be in touch.”

*      *      *

The wind roared around Niall, blasting snow into one ear and then the other, shooting it down his neck and up his sleeves. As far as he could see ahead of him, the street was made of snow, a single, solid entity with contours of cars and bins and bollards. It was boot-high already, folding in on his Stan Smiths, forcing him to take giant, anxious steps away from Duffy’s and towards his family. He felt like he might never get there, that the end of the world could come first.

He ploughed on down the lane to the estate, snowflakes swirling angrily between the high walls, his path lit only by the ghostly glare of the distant street lights against the snow. He may have heard the footsteps behind him but there was so much noise inside and outside his head that he couldn’t make sense of any of it until the jagged breath was upon him and with it a wailing, thrusting grunt, both intimate and remote. He was aware of pain but it was dull and distant, as if it belonged to someone else. He put his hand to his side and held it up, the blood dripping through his fingers and splattering onto the snow. Was this his punishment? He’d expected something but not so soon. Maybe it was all over now. But there was no sound of retreat behind him, no footsteps fading in the distance, only rapid breathy groans and he knew. He turned around to the shivering shape of Paudie, his phone in one hand, the bloodied flick knife hanging in the other.

“I’m sorry, Niall. I had no choice,” he whimpered. “You left me no choice.” The flash of his camera lit up the blood like ruby red merlot against the pure white of the snow. Niall stumbled backwards and slid down against the wall as Paudie delivered the evidence of his deed to the boss. “It’s just a nick,” he said, “you’ll be fine.”

“I don’t… get it, Paudie,” said Niall.

The wind circled and swooped, knocking Paudie off balance, pushing him back against the wall until he was standing over Niall.

“Yes you do,” he said. “You owe me.”

“I owe you?” said Niall. “What are you talking about? You owe me hundreds, thousands probably. And what about all the nights you’ve been completely fucked up and I let you stay in my house, with my kids there? I’ve always been there for you.”

“Not always,” said Paudie. “You know what I’m talking about.”

“I think I need an ambulance,” said Niall, his hands thick with blood.

“You were supposed to protect me. That was your job, that’s what Ma said.”

“Paudie, there’s a fuckload of blood,” said Niall, his voice cracked with panic.

“You were supposed to keep me safe from Grandad,” said Paudie. “That’s why we shared a bed.”

Niall leaned onto his torn and leaking side, trying to reach the phone that was stubbornly deep in his pocket. He yelped with pain as he yanked it out, howling as he tried and failed repeatedly to unlock it with bloody fingers.

“Remember, Niall? The day we ran away and hid in the fields next to the windmills?”

Niall wiped his shaking hand on his parka and then his jeans but his phone would not accept his tainted touch.

“And then we sneaked back into the house after it was dark, into that single bed in the spare room?”

“I need help,” shouted Niall. “Please, Paudie.”

“I need to talk about that night,” said Paudie. “When you were 13 and I was only 10.”

Niall jabbed his frozen nose at the phone’s emergency button.

“Just ten years of age, Niall.”

His head quivering and one hand steadied only by the other, Niall stuck his tongue on the screen and the ringtone finally burst into action.

“I remember everything,” said Paudie, looking down on his brother.

In the three rings it took for the emergency services to answer, Niall composed a message of love and regret for Cathy, calculated how much damage might be found on his laptop and refused to think of the night in question. He was half-resigned to an undignified exit when the operator’s voice jolted him back to life.

“I’ve been stabbed, in the side, there’s so much blood,” he shouted, high-pitched syllables punctuated with shallow sobs. “I’m in the lane to Ashtown Park, the one that goes from Claremont Road.”

“I know you remember too,” said Paudie.

“I don’t remember,” said Niall to the operator. “It all took me by surprise.”

“And I lay there afterwards,” said Paudie “and all I wanted was for you to comfort me, make it all better.”

“He’s gone now, he ran away,” said Niall. “I’ve no idea who he was.”

“I just want you to admit what you did.”

“I told you, there was no incident, I wasn’t involved in anything.”

“Please Niall, I need your help. I’m a goner without it.”

“I’m in no fit state to do anything. Please hurry, I’m bleeding out here.” The phone slid out of Niall’s frozen hand as the last of his resolve drained away. His mind flickered on and off, only the impending sense of doom keeping him lucid. Paudie stood over Niall, his sunken eyes wide and expectant.

“You need… to go,” said Niall, his voice slurred and sluggish. “There’s an… ambulance… coming. Probably the guards too.”

Paudie let rip a feral yowl before hurling himself against the wall, slamming his head into it. He collapsed, weeping, onto the ground.

“Tell me you remember,” he cried.

A siren wailed in the distance, sweeping closer with each new gust of wind.

“Paudie… I have a family.”

The snow covered Niall’s legs and had set its sights on his arms, as if he was slowly disappearing, limb by limb.

“I’m your family.”

Niall closed his eyes, surrendering himself to the snow, the sirens, the wind.

“Yeah.”

Fiona McPhillips is a journalist and author of two non-fiction books. Her work has appeared in Litro magazine, Brilliant Flash Fiction, the Galway Review, the Irish Times, the Irish Independent, the Huffington Post and other publications. She is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Dublin City University.

Scenic Direction – Patricia Walsh

In your strong, capable hands I fall,
jumping off conclusions bloodied same,
trite announcements bedevil the glossary,
celebrating nights off with an illicit part.

Hand-held meaning mourns the exactitude
the terrible conversation regales manifold,
favourably ugly through its own mothball,
not paying tax for future plans.

Kissed in a proper corner, forbidden parts,
the slaughtering rain turns its own head,
not learning anything from the theatrical piece,
venturing into the uncharted punishment is key.

Garnering favour, the better to see with,
the sale of bitter beer redeems the coloured eye,
the esteemed search for words remains beautiful,
the accents signifying nothing through hindsight.

The watched noticeboard cossetts its partners
the wired agenda sets its own roots, agaze,
dissected through the classroom’s canopy,
available to all corners, a seemly dissertation.

Mislaying one’s mind, the distant the better,
fed turgid breadcrumbs not fit for the birds,
in the pay of industries, ignorant following
a euro for thoughts caught in the doing.

Patricia Walsh was born and raised in the parish of Mourneabbey, Co Cork. Her first collection of poetry titled Continuity Errors was published in 2010, and a novel titled the Quest for Lost Éire, in 2014.

Cartilage – Jason Schwartzman

The younger tellers retreat into the crevices of the bank. Olivia hides behind a desk in her polka dot dress and buries her new engagement ring in a pocket. Tim pancakes himself under the counter with the deposit slips, muttering tough things and fingering his comb over. I open Tim’s drawer and put his flask to my mouth, warm and metallic. His midday indiscretion now mine. The robber taps his gun against the glass divider and grins, teeth all piled on top of each other.

“Slow day, huh?” he asks.

I don’t bother letting him know that in this tiny branch, they’re all slow. That the only times things pick up a bit is on my lunch break, when I hold out bread crumbs for the finches out back. They’ve even started landing on my hand, so I can see them up close in all their colorful intensity. The robber’s accomplice stands by the door looking at her watch. Her ski-mask eyeholes are self-cut scissored wounds in the stretchy black. His gun is just a BB gun, encased in a grocery bag. I almost go into my standard service routine, how may I help you, averted eyes, dead person smile. But I just sit there and he tells me to get the money. It’s less dramatic than in the movies and I can see he’s worried, like my husband Seymour before he checks his one shitty stock every morning. I try to imagine what the gun would feel like but I can’t. My hands search the drawer for the keys to our little safe, but my arthritis acts up when I rummage through the items. Thinking about the physiology of it always makes it worse, bone grinding against bone.

Seymour will have to watch alone tonight, our standing date by the television, my chair empty, the easy logic of another procedural, one more cold case solved. He says he likes when I sit next to him. But it’s all we ever do together anymore. He dismisses my hobbies, says I’m a crazy bird lady. Maybe he was never capable of appreciating a bronze crown, a ruby throat, a golden wing. Or maybe he just got old, lost something of himself. The robber is banging again, but it’s far away, like a faint touch to someone in a coma. His eyes find me and they plead, rimmed with wet, pupils fighting outward, the hot green of his irises expanded until they are just the rings of a planet. Then those gaping holes scroll away and he is yelling instructions to his accomplice while she passes her screwdriver from one hand to the other. It looks similar to the one in Seymour’s toolset, when he monkeys around the house tightening screws, even though some of the floor boards are rotting and the brick walls need repointing, bleeding out their mortar year by year. It’s hard to belief that he once built a whole deck himself, engraving our initials on the underside of a plank.

I step over the Rorschach muddle of Olivia’s polka dots, her moans predictable and annoying like an alarm clock. I move toward the safe and grip the key tight, so the pain from its little teeth distracts from the ache in my joints. Seymour says old hands are a portrait of a lived life and it’s not that I don’t believe him, I just disagree. I usually try not to look at my hands and their swollen veins, little rivulets snaking through my skin, still pumping somehow. I look back and through the dusty glass it seems like the robber is smiling at me. The key clicks in the safe and the door lurches open. I imagine the two of them, cutting along some highway, beat-up car leaking gas and guts and hope, zipping through the rest of the countryside, past the blips of all the other obsolete towns, heading for a coast, settled into a motel’s nook, tattered bedspread revived by the vivid green of the bills, straight and smooth from some other universe where people live undamaged, mint condition lives and no mistakes are made.

“Where you gonna go?” I ask as I force my hand into the safe.

“You fuckin’ kidding me lady? Just get the money!”

My calm collapses and the arthritis screws deeper into my fingers, leaving them stiff and clawed. I know I’m taking too long. I wonder if I’ll ever see Seymour again and decide so what if I don’t? Each year I have less to say to him, it’s true. I feel something, but it doesn’t seem like much, maybe a roll or two of bills. “C’mon,” says the Clyde figure, tapping on the window in erratic fits, his Bonnie pulling strands of her hair out under the mask, and damn, how does it all just slip away? I try to grasp, I try to reach, but my hands feel like cardboard, like cement that has dried and Olivia says thank Jesus and then I hear it too, the violent blast of the sirens, pulsing through the protective glass. My therapist likes to gently remind me that even ends have parts, that I still have some road to walk. I unlock the partition and hand them the money, tell them that there’s a way out through the back. They don’t say thank you, but I don’t need one, and they practically break down the door. Olivia stands and so does Tim and for some reason I relock the partition, as though to divide myself from them. The cops come and ask me to open up. I don’t know what chance those two have, but maybe this isn’t the end of the end after all. I pretend to forget which key it is and then when I grasp the right one, I go as slow as I can.

Jason Schwartzman is the senior editor at True.Ink, a revival of a heritage adventure magazine. His writing has been published in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Narrative.ly, The Rumpus, Hobart, River Teeth, Nowhere Magazine, and Human Parts, among other places. You can find him on Twitter @jdschwartzman.

Everyone is Laughing and Happy – D T Robbins

As soon as my eyes open we’re back at each other’s throats. It’s as if she was waiting for me. She’s always been awake before me but it used to be I’d find her at the table with her cup and a freshly brewed pot of coffee. “Hi, honey,” she’d say. “Good morning, hot stuff,” I’d say.

She punches me in the chest and tells me she can’t believe I humiliated her in front her whole family last night. Her cousin had brought over a bottle of 10-year bourbon and we drank until everything felt like a song. She asked me to slow down. I yelled instead.

I tell her getting drunk is the only way I can stand to be around her idiot fucking family anymore. With all their talk about politics and how the country has lost its way, there’s no use trying to get a word in edgewise. If you don’t see it how they see it, you aren’t paying any attention.

She says, “Don’t you dare fucking talk about my family like that. If it were up to them, we wouldn’t even be together.”

I say, “You think I don’t already know it? Why bother trying anymore?”

She pulls on her workout clothes and says she’s going to the gym. Her ass looks amazing in those pants and I already wish I’d just said I was sorry.

I draw a hot bath and ease in with a glass of Jack and Diet Coke. My head feels like it’s about to shatter but it’s the weekend so I decide to ride it out. There’s a candle her mom gave us that smells like candy canes. I light it, set it on the toilet and turn the lights out. The neighbors in the apartment next to ours are playing with their toddler. They’re playing monster. The kid is making all kinds of noise and screaming, the mom and dad chasing. Everyone is laughing and happy. I wonder if they know there’s a naked man with a hangover on the other side of the wall.

The steam loosens up whatever’s stuck behind my nose and I feel myself coming back around. It looks like she cleaned the tub recently. There’s no more soap scum or black marks from our feet. When she and I first moved in, we took showers together. She’d lather me up, then I’d touch her. It’s a miracle we aren’t the ones with the toddler the way we used to fuck. Sex says a lot about a relationship. If it’s good, things are promising. If it’s bad, the end is nigh. Sex in the shower told us we weren’t only good but that we made each other good. I feel myself stiffening and I start rubbing. The blood in my head pounds like someone is taking a baseball bat to my brain the more excited I get. In the reflection of the showerhead, I watch her tug on me while I kiss her neck and tell her I love her.

“Are you serious right now?” she says. The water is cold and the glass sits at the bottom. I fell asleep.

“Jesus Christ, cut me some slack. I was just relaxing.”

“We were supposed to go grocery shopping today. You should have been ready by now,” she says, blowing out the candy cane candle.

I tell her we can still go. It’s not even noon yet. Besides, it’s Saturday and I don’t know why she’s in such a damn rush to leave.

She leans over and opens the plug, tells me get out she needs to shower and get ready. Sweat pellets trickle down her back and stomach. Her pants stick to her. Her bra too. It smells like body odor and Christmas. I try to touch her as she steps into the shower but she closes the curtain.

I get dressed and wait for her on the couch. She walks out of the bathroom with a towel on her head and nothing else. Going to the gym has made her tighter in just about everywhere. This isn’t something she ever told me, even in our meanest moments, but I’ve gotten fat. Plenty of others have made fun of the weight I’ve gained, told me I should lay off the burgers and the beers. Not her. It probably didn’t happen this way but I wonder if she thought her getting in shape would count for the both of us.

I say, “I’m ready when you are.”

She says, “You can stay. Honestly, I think I just need some time to myself.”

Neither of us made the bed yet, so I crawl back in and throw the covers over my head. The sheets smell fresh. We’d bought the bed brand new and the sheets were the only thing she’d let me pick out. She told me I have terrible taste, but any idiot can pick out white sheets. Christ knows I’m an idiot when it comes to those things and others. My body feels heavy and I start drifting back to sleep, hoping she’s waiting on me when I wake up.

D.T. Robbins’ stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Hobart, Bending Genres, X-R-A-Y Lit, Trampset, Ghost City Review, and others. He’s founding editor of Rejection Letters. Follow him on Twitter at @dt_robbins or go to dtrobbins.com for more information.

Little Dearies – B F Jones

‘What do you mean you are scared? What of?’

The twin girls furnish an explanation which is half words and half squirming, and rather inconclusive.

‘It’s the dolls!’ interjects Leo. ‘The wittle babies are scared of the dollies!’

‘Tom, stop that. Girls, maybe it’s because it was our first night here. We can’t do much about the dolls, you know it Grandma and Grandad’s house and they don’t like us changing things.’

Lisa remembers the time when Tom, then three, had dragged one of the numerous couch throws onto the floor to make a bed for his teddy bear. Her mother had turned ashen and Lisa had feared she might drop dead there and then. Asking her to remove the collection of dolls, neatly aligned in a corner glassed cabinet of the children guest bedroom would end up in a diplomatic incident.

Poor kids. Wait, what? No, they only have to endure this a few days a year, this was her entire childhood. Child unfriendly furniture in an austere house, most of the conversations starting with ‘Don’t touch’ or ‘Watch out’ or ‘Why didn’t you’. Age 13, she’d broken one of the delicate porcelain ornaments from the console, misjudging the breadth of her puffer jacket and watching it with dismay being swiped by the oversize sleeve and crash onto the floor. Mum hardly spoke to her that week. Even after she told her after the bullying. No wonder she’s so damaged.

She shakes herself back to the present. She kneels and stretches her arms wide to embrace both little girls. ‘Come on girls, you’re big now, almost 7. Let’s give it another go tonight OK?’

‘Good girls’, says Ben who has been sitting quietly reading a paper across the table.

‘Everyone, how about a drink?’ He strokes Lucy’s hair as he walks past to the kitchen, winks at Aby. He brings a large glass of red for Lisa and a tumbler of whisky for himself and some Fanta and crisps for the kids.

She doesn’t generally let them have soda but when Ben is here she’s always more relaxed. She finds that her parents’ rigid awkwardness more tolerable in the company of her brother, and with him around they also seem a bit more relaxed. Apart from a slight inclination for Whisky, he seems to have grown unaffected by their parents’ lack of affection, unachievable expectations and overall dominance.

Right now, they are listening to one of Ben’s stories and their faces are transformed by rare, wide smiles. I think it’s the wine, she overhears Tom tell his baby sisters, and she laughs out loud.

The next morning Aby and Lucy both wake up moody and exhausted.

‘Are you still scared girls?’ They both nod gravely.

Lisa worries they might not sleep the entire stay. She goes into the room. She considers the dolls for a long time. That one in the middle. Its left eye only half open. Creepy. Why would her parents keep that shit? Why stick it in the kids’ room? If they’re not welcome they could just tell her, she can take it. She grabs one of the bedspreads and throws it over the cabinet. There. Problem solved. If they moan she’ll tell them it’s the only way they will be able to stay.

When she comes back downstairs, Ben has sorted the drinks again and him and Tom are playing Battleship. The girls sit across them, reading Playmobil magazines.

‘Where did you get those?’

‘Uncle Ben got them for us.’

‘I hope it’s fine, thought they’d deserve a little treat, they’re so good. Aren’t you, little dearies?’

‘That’s fine, she says. You deserve a treat too, thanks to you and your red wine I had the best night’s sleep in a very long time.’

‘Here’s to another tonight!’ He smiles, passing her a large glass, before bringing out the chicken and roast potatoes just as their parents walk in, telling the girls off for not reading novels and Tom for wearing flip-flops at the dinner table.

She feels rages slowly creeping up but Ben catches her eye and nods imperceptibly. Come on guys, let kids be kids. Wine? Aida and John both relax, don’t make any more odious comments, and go to bed early, a little tipsy.

The girls get agitated at bedtime, Aby’s eyes filling with tears. Lisa takes them up, shows them the covered cabinet, hugs them tight and whispers loving words to them. She feels relaxed, almost languid, the holiday definitely easing the tension of the past year after the bitter divorce, the endless exhaustion and low mood.

When her girls both get upset at breakfast, Lisa gets genuinely concerned. ‘Why did you not come and get me if you are still scared? Oh I’m so sorry I didn’t hear you, I must have been fast asleep. What is going on? Lucy starts talking but Aby stops her. We can’t tell. I mean. We don’t know. It’s nothing.’ Lucy babbles nervously and next to her Aby has broken into sobs.

In the kitchen, Ben has stopped whistling and his arm has paused mid-stir of the pancake batter.

Scraps – Martin McGuigan

Barney pulls into the driveway and swings her round. In the backseat is a bag from the corner shop, containing 2 white fish, cauliflower, carrots, a bag of spuds. Hullo! He says to the empty house. Chandelier and bannister look back at him like he’s stupid or something. Wonder if Mary’s gone for her nail appointment.

Spuds away, fish goes in the fridge. Kettle boiling already. Now? At the kitchen window. The bird feeders will want refilling. Barney unlocks the back door and calls for Scraps. There’s the dog, but she’s clearly in a bad way. Struggling to get up on the front legs, she points her cataract-cloudy eyes at him, but she’s wobbly on the flagstones. She drags herself forward to Barney, standing there on the back step. She’s following her sniff, but the back end won’t do what the front end is telling it. The hind paws just scrape along the flags and she can’t get up the back steps into the utility room. This dismays Barney very much; he likes the smell of the dog in the utility.

Barney fetches her bowl. No scraps for you now, Scraps. Kibbles and water (and he must make a note to get more dog food). He puts the bowl down on the patio for her, but she’s seven-eight paces away from the porch step. She whines and scoots the one paw up under herself, takes a few tries to get up now and teeters like a bad press-up. Now she’s steady with the two front legs, she drags herself to the bowl with her snout down. SNAFLHKRNCH. SLSHIKRNS. SNAFFIKRNCH. Gah, that’s nice.

Scraps, settles her way down to lie by the bowl, pawing twice before she goes down. Could almost be basking like, except for the long wheeze she gives out.

The ball. The ratty busted tennis ball she likes so much.

Scraps! C’mere girl!

Her ears prick up. Head lifts too.

C’mon!

Barney has the ball now. She grumbles, but it sounds like a farty old wheeze. He wafts it in front of her snout. She snaps for it, but Barney’s quick with the hand and draws the ball away, not letting her have it, but giving her a taste almost. Her head’s lifted, he knows she wants it. He hurls it down the lawn. She scrabbles up but can’t make her back paws do the trick. Bound forward again and she cowps on her bottom jaw. She grumbles and snorts with the sting of it, but she doesn’t bark.

Poor dug. Something’s not right with her.

Barney decides to get her basket and put it outside for her. At least she’d know the smell of her own kip. In the utility he takes the dog basket – it’s shaped a bit like a butter-bean, but with the inside carved out, like a quarry y’know – and he puts it down next to the two blue bins. Inside it is the stiff blanket covered with dog’s hair.

C’mon girl!

The dog slithers into the curl of her basket. SNFL. Then settle. She seems more content there at least. Friday: 60% chance of precipitation. Must do something about that.

Barney goes into the kitchen. Countertop – phone is ringing. Picks up the mobile, only it’s not ringing, it’s time-to-take-your-drugs alarm. He goes to the pillbox on the sill. Some days full, some days empty. Was he here at all on Tuesday? He takes Fridays set and wash them down with tapwater. Where was he again? Ah yes. The brolly. In the cloakroom there’s an old golfing brolly. Barney opens it outside and he sets the handle down on the ground, so the brolly covers Scraps’s basket.

What’s next? Will want to light the fire later. So the fills up the coal scuttle. Ah. The bird feeders will want refilling. So he goes back into the utility. Open up the cabinets and while he’s looking at the big nutballs (like stuffing) and breadcrumbs, he thinks –

Must get Nicorette for Mary.

*       *       *

Barney wakes in the middle of the night. The night is purple on the ceiling and brown on the walls. Again, Mary is not there. Where could she be? Quick. I’ll ring Frankie. He’ll know.

*       *       *

People land up at the house in one first great drove. Barney gets agitated, starts wandering around to make sure everything is in order. Frankie takes him aside, just as Martina arrives with some men in black pinstripe.

Now, he says to Barney, it’ll be a long enough day, so it will. He’s got that big bulbous, cancerous nose there, that looks so odd next to the black tie he refuses to cinch up. Big obnoxious fucker that he is. But, he goes, you just tell me if you need something.

Aye, no bother, Barney says, trying to think.

Martina comes in the kitchen and hugs him right away. Oh Daddy, she says, shaky voice on her, how are you holding up?

I’m still alive.

And Barney is out of sorts then, with the two pairs of eyes on him, intensely, as though they were trying to pin him down. It was all triangular, staged like a showdown.

He asks, Who’s yer man?

Martina takes him by the elbow. She’s had her hair dyed and straightened at the hairdressers. She’s a fine young woman when she’s dressed up in black. Good cut of a jacket on her. She’s the very picture of all things holding-it-together.

C’mon. We’ll go through and see her, she says.

They were bringing the box in.

At some point, many others start to arrive in mourning garb. His brothers, their wives, their children (?). God there was so many of them it was difficult to keep track. He doesn’t make it out much anymore. Every time a car comes up the driveway he gets up to greet them, then Martina or Frankie would sit him down and go to the door in his stead. Then the next person comes in and shakes his hand. They all say things like,

I’m sorry.

She wouldn’t want us here cryin’.

Loved by all.

One by one the people come to Barney first, shake his hand, then go into the other room for a bit. People continually pass him cups of tea, which he forgets to drink. Yet he accepts more cups of tea that pile up around him. Hubbub. Clatter of crockery. Silence strains tight as a spiderweb before someone interjects. Once or twice, Barney goes into the kitchen, where there are too many women, always in a production line of washing plates, drying plates, kettle boiling and clicking off. He’s an intruder in their domain of pottering. Such pitying looks.

Now, Mary loves the Singing Priests, and in the big lounge, Father Martin O’ Hagan is holding court.

I was in Boston, he says, when I got the call. She’s not got long, but I says I can’t get back till Monday and, well, we didn’t want to leave it that long. So I said I’ll get the chaplain on the ward to go see her. He’s a Phillipino fella like, and a good lad. He goes in there and says how’ya getting on and Father O’ Hagan sent me and whatever. She says you’re not Father Martin. And he says well Father O’ Hagan can’t be here and he’s very sorry, but he’ll come as soon as he’s back. So they chat for a while and he administers her the rites. But when he turns to go, she goes to him, It was awful nice of you to come and see me all the way from China!

All assembled have a good laugh at that.

That was her. Caustic wit, and these brief wee flashes of it, right till the end.

Barney says to Frankie, Where’s Mary?

The whole room stops at that, like it’s just stopped spinning and everyone is still clinging on for dear life. Frankie jerked his head and said, She’s in next door. Barney went through. There: pallid skin, stillness, more sleep than prayerful repose.

*       *       *

In the night, a call:

What is it Daddy?

You have to come quick. I can’t waken Mary, he says.

*       *       *

The dog isn’t touching her food. The pellets and the water had turned to mush from the rain overnight.

Poor Scraps, she’s barely eaten a mouthful.

Barney takes the bowl to the uncovered soil beneath the hedge and tosses its contents there. Going back, he pauses by the dog, and pets her. Scraps acknowledges him and lifts her muzzles into his hand. Her fur is cold and greasy. He strokes and feels the give of her flesh underneath the black hairs. Must be pink under there, though he always imagines the black hairs are the outer shell of her. Forget what you don’t see. She does a big wheeze outward and makes a whistling noise. Barney strokes her, then refills her bowl with kibbles and water, and sets it in front of her.

Go on girl.

Scraps jerks up, pushes forward on one paws and tries to get her head near the bowl. She lands with her snout just over the edge of the basket, snapping away in mid-air there. Barney gets down and tips the bowl into her and LUPPALPKRN LPPA she gets a few licks in. Ah, she’s getting some water at least. He pets her head and tries to push her towards the bowl to chew something, but she just sticks the forepaw out and pushes herself back into position. Then Barney sees a damp patch on her blanket; she must have fouled it during the night, he concludes.

Poor thing. So he gets one of the deckchairs on the patio and brings it over to the dog. He wants to be close to her. He sets it down facing the basket, goes to the cloakroom for his waterproof, and puts it on over his fleece. It’s cold, but it should stay dry. He sets himself down next to the dog. He sets himself down next to her to observe. Scraps has her own ways about her, of grumbling in her sleep, of snorting and S-shaking her head away from a smell. The tics all come out. He pets her and from sleep she responds with one forepaw over the lip of the basket, digging at the ruckled bottom of his cords. Sometimes she’ll wake and he gets a few licks on his palm, then she droops down to sleep again.

Sometimes a crow comes down and she wakes up to growl at it. She’s growling at the thing with the low, motorcycle hum of someone snoring next to you. Snoring the house down like.

It’s losing light now. The sky and all the air takes a deeper blue inside and spreads dark powder through the wash. Must go to the shops, he thinks, to get stuff for lunch. So he takes his keys, goes to the shop, and shortly thereafter comes back with a cod, two bags of spuds, two bottles of milk and a Belfast Telegraph. He goes through to check on the dog. Ah good, she’s in her basket, getting some sleep in. Now, to worry about lunch. He puts the potatoes on.

Then Frankie calls round.

In the hallway, Barney says, Right Frankie. I was just thinking about calling over to see you actually.

Oh aye, Frankie says, and they go through to the kitchen.

Frankie goes, Do you know why I’m here?

No?

You called me twelve times last night.

No I did not!

Howl on, he says. Then Frankie gets the phone out to show. Sure enough, there they are.

Oh right, says Barney.

Barney’s doing the potatoes for lunch, far too many potatoes for one man, and Frankie notices that Barney is boiling far too many potatoes. So he asks him, Who’s all that for?

He says, Ach sure they’ll keep.

And Frankie’s like, You know we have to talk about this. Seriously. But what the FUCK have you boiled all them potatoes for?

Sure, they’ll keep for dinner. With Mary like. When she’s home.

Frankie shakes his head.

Or they’ll do for Scraps, says Barney.

Here, how’s the dog? Frankie says.

Barney takes him through the utility room, out to Scraps’s basket. Frankie takes one look at her. Well…

*       *       *

Sunday morning. Wettened beige on the flagstones. Must’ve rained during the night. Barney coughs and there’s a throaty hack that sends him lurching forward. He goes inside to get an easy peeler for breakfast. Must get the fruit in.

Barney stands at the back door with the peel in one hand and the easy peeler in the other. A crow comes down and lands on the edge of Scraps’s basket.

Ey! Get out of it!

It caws and tip-toes closer to the dog. The blackened thing tries to peck at her fur, and Barney throws the scrap of orange peel to try and knock it away.

Martin McGuigan writes fiction and essays. He is from Country Armagh, Ireland and currently lives in London.

Tell Me – Nina Shevzov-Zebrun

You can tell me about a life
a life cobbled in pine
pine bowing redwood
redwood rinsing air.

You can tell me about a birth
a birth bloody with me
with me and breasts spilling river salt.

You can tell me about a song
a song mouthing sorry,
sorry you’re the blank stone in this field of rest—
sorry patriots don’t know your name.

You can tell me about a bird
a bird floating on cold
cold like the Ice Age of history
history crueler than the average human.

You can tell me about all these things—
and like a squirrel among sunflowers
I’ll pick a morsel for the future, and
simply leave the rest behind.

Nina Shevzov-Zebrun is a medical student pretending to be a writer. A summa cum laude graduate of Harvard College, she lives at the intersection of medicine and art. She also lives in NYC, and has fiction in Maudlin House, The Zodiac Review (forthcoming), and others.

The Migration of Locusts 27 – Wim Hylen

A group of locusts who had known each other as fledglings reconnected during a time of rapid vegetation growth following the heavy rains. When the serotonin bubbled in their brains, they fled westward. Many of them had spent summers in the Midwest so they were familiar with the terrain. As the plague migrated, they bred promiscuously and many tangled attachments and some serious relationships developed.

At the urging of a locust named Art, a few of the younger ones formed a collective they called “Locusts 27” after some obscure artists that had gathered in 1927 in Paris. At first it was a joke, a way to pass the time. But before long, some of them began to take it seriously. They discussed the aims of their collective as they migrated in dense insect clouds, nearly blotting out the sky near Iowa City.

“To enable the subconscious to assault consciousness,” Elf said.

“To overflow the sewers of the modern world, metaphorically,” Leonard said.

“To reattach the drain pipes of our souls to the wellspring of ancient intuition,” Art said.

They continued to discuss the topic as they flew over Dubuque. They were not like the others, they decided, massive swarms of undifferentiated Locusta Migratoria. They were unique. Rebels with wings. And serotonin percolating in their brains, like the boiling cauldron of the Weird Sisters.

They were dreading what they were about to do. Their arrival would spell doom for wherever they landed. But it was their biological destiny. They had become gregarious and migratory. There was no stopping them and they were powerless to stop themselves.

But then the murmuring began, a few whispers and innuendos.

“Does biology equal destiny?” asked Elf.

“Is free will free?”

“Mind over matter!” said Leonard.

“That’s a cliché.”

“All clichés have a kernel of truth,” said Art.

After much discussion, the plague reached a consensus. They would descend when it felt right. But they vowed that they would not swarm and would try like hell not to devour the crops.

As they approached Lincoln, Nebraska, they all felt it; a hot, tingling sensation in their thorax, a signal that the time had arrived. They swooped down into a field about 8 miles outside the city limits, alighting on stalks of corn with silent slaps of their wings. They sniffed the air, a lush mixture of sweet vegetation, dirt and sunshine. They exhaled deeply and took in their surroundings. Then without warning, a group of them began to swarm.

“Remember our plan!” the stalwarts hissed, but they might as well have been entreating a bunch of tweakers to stop sucking on the pipe. It was useless.

Although the urge to gorge, to feed off each other’s manic energy, was a craving that felt bottomless, the devotees stayed put. Despite the throbbing in their heads and abdomens, they were able to rein in their impulses. But as time passed – one minute, two, three – they despaired of being able to stuff down the ravages of instinct much longer.

“Locusts 27!” yelled Art to his compatriots, his antennae twitching with desire.

“Locusts 27!” he heard echoed back to him.

“We’re still in control” Leonard yelled.

“No instinct without responsibility!” cried Elf.

“Observe our creation!” Art croaked, feeling faint.

In a farm house within hollering distance of the field, a family sitting down to dinner heard a faint buzz that slowly grew more insistent. They put down their utensils and gazed at each other quizzically.

“What’s that sound?” the father asked, adjusting the strap of his overalls.

“Bats?” the wife posited.

“A helicopter,” Adam, the son, guessed. “Heading towards Lincoln General?”

They walked to the window and stared out at the field. What they saw puzzled them. Each cornstalk seemed to have attached to it a small, brownish-black nugget. From a distance, the dark nuggets looked like dots on the greenish-yellow corn stalks, forming an intricate mosaic set against the azure sky.

“It looks like a museum painting,” said the mother.

“Like a Seurat. Dejeuner Sur Le Mais,” said the son, who would be off to college in the fall.

“You don’t say,” the father said.

They were silent for a moment.

“I don’t know what the heck it is. But my goodness, it sure is beautiful,” the mother pronounced.

Just then, Art’s antennae twitched wildly and he tumbled from his corn perch onto the Nebraska dirt, dead.

A grievous hiss of pain arose from the field.

“Artie!” cried Elf.

“The poor son of a bitch. He was a genius,” Leonard sniffled.

“Farewell, my friend,” said another, his voice hoarse with grief.

Within seconds, the plague began to swarm, forming a hissing tornado above the doomed crops. It didn’t take them a half hour to leave the field devastated: ravaged, barren and artless.

Wim Hylen’s work has been published in Four Chambers, Café Irreal, Crack the Spine, Rivet and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among other places. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.

Team Building – Stella Turner

“I feel like ninja butterflies are throwing ninja stars in my stomach” whispered Jack. Sid looked away; Jack looked stupid in his Superman costume, why had he chosen that with his puny frame? Sid wished he hadn’t picked Leonardo; the turtle shell felt really heavy and altered his centre of balance, he’d already fallen twice on the assault course.

This team building exercise was a bad idea. He hated his workmates; this forced camaraderie would never change his mind in a million years. Why hadn’t he rung in sick and gone out with his mates Al and Jamie? They’d be watching the rugby now, swigging down the Stella and ordering a Vindaloo. He was watching Jill dressed as Wonder Woman trying to manoeuvre over the monkey bars. Everything she ate went to her hips they were enormous. He hoped she’d fall and he’d volunteer to take her to hospital then dump her at A&E and head to Al’s flat to catch the last of the game.

The buzzer sounded. Everyone cheered and clapped. Sid put his two fingers in his mouth and whistled shrilly. The high pitched sound made Jack jump. Sid laughed.

“It’s vote time”

“What we voting for?”

“The least productive member of staff, we do it every year”

My vote will be easy thought Sid it was going to be Jack with Jill a close second.

Standing in a circle each staff member volunteered a name. Sid went first “Jack” Everyone else unanimously repeated the same name, Sid. Sid shrugged. He’d soon find a new job. The ninja stars settled in Jack’s stomach. He’d been sure it was his turn. This year’s theme was ‘buried alive’. Sid’s screams and pleas were muffled each time earth was thrown into the hole by his colleagues. He must have missed that final e-mail.

Things Like This – David Alcock

The shelf in the riverbed was behind them and so was the roar of the rough white water. The river was now almost motionless. It was glassy and gliding and calm. Paul watched a current as it slid round a boulder and marked the river’s brim with a spinning silver stream. He saw the mirrored trees going down through the waterway, toward the blue sky beneath a mass of green leaves.

Then his daughter’s voice came shrilly from behind him. “What is it?” She pointed at the path. Paul’s head swung round from the river. His eyes squinted, came open, and he smiled. “It’s a shrew,” he said amusedly, and all four of them stepped forward to have a look.

The handful of grey fur moved deliberately across the woodland footpath. It hurried past some fallen brown oak leaves, and stopped beneath some ferns on the wayside bank. The children squatted in front of it. They watched it clean its fur in the shadows beneath the leaves.

I think it’s a vole,” whispered Angela.

“Maybe,” said Paul. “But I’ve never seen one as closely as this.”

It climbed up the bank in front of them, traversed a ledge, and disappeared down a hole. Paul straightened up and frowned. Slowly, he shook his head. “I saw one once before,” he mused, “many years ago. I spent the whole of one summer looking for it.” He paused. “I only ever saw it that once.” He turned again from the bank beside the footpath, and looked through the trees to the wide brown river. “You can spend the whole of your lifetime looking,” he said quietly, “but you won’t see anything, unless you get some good luck.” His eyes moved over to a sunbeam, which broke on a wind wave into a galaxy of stars.

Then the little boy stood up. He turned and looked searchingly at Paul. “But we are lucky, aren’t we, Dad? Aren’t we lucky? To see things like this?”

Paul turned, and his face was in shadow, but the glints sharpened in the sockets of his eyes. A ray of light had pierced the treetop above him and his family were brilliant in a yellow shaft of light. “Yes, we are,” he agreed. And he looked altered. Then he took the boy’s hand and they set out again along the path.

Dave Alcock lives in Devon, England, and writes about the ordinary people and places of the British provinces. His stories focus on psychological change and the seeing and acceptance of new things. His flashes have been published in print by Ad Hoc Fiction and can be found online at Every Day Fiction and STORGY Magazine.

My Dear Bill Bixby – Mark Keane

The gate clanged shut. Sitting up in bed, reading our comics, we could hear raised voices and hushed warnings from our old man to keep the noise down. Then, the key in the front door, clinking bottles and the thud of the coat stand against the wall. Friday night, close to midnight, The Yacht had shut its doors and the old man was bringing some of his cronies back from the pub to extend their drinking.

“Party time.” My brother looked across at me and grinned.

“Do we have to go down?” I didn’t want to get out of bed.

“Come on, Peter, you don’t want to miss the fun.”

We crept down the back stairs. The carpet in the hallway muffled our footsteps but we had to be careful. If the old man knew what we were doing we’d pay the price. The door of the front room was ajar, sounds of bottle openers at work, glasses distributed, chairs moved closer to the fireplace. Our old man’s grunts told us he was down on one knee, using the poker to revive the fire.

“The prices Tobin charges for take-outs are scandalous.”

“The man’s a chancer and as fat as a bishop on the money he’s taken from us.”

“He’s a miserable bugger, I’ve yet to see him crack a smile.”

“Tobin may be a dry shite but he runs a tight ship.”

“You mean a tight shite runs The Yacht.

The Yacht’s a decent boozer, where would we be without it?”

“Who’s in there?” I whispered.

My brother took a quick peek. “The Hanger and Axel.”

Two Friday night regulars. The Hanger’s real name was Andy Kearney. He owned a newsagent on Vernon Avenue where we often went to shoplift comics. The Hanger chain-smoked, using the glowing butt of one cigarette to light the next. Thin and bony, like a skeleton, someone once joked that his clothes hung on him like they were on a clothes-hanger. Axel was a self-employed plumber who operated from his gaff in East Wall. The dead spit of Eddie Murphy so we named him after Axel Foley from the Beverley Hills Cop films. If the real Eddie Murphy was white and had a Dublin accent, you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.

We didn’t like The Hanger and his nicotine fingers, his wheezing and smoker’s cough. Always describing people as genuine but there was nothing genuine about him. The Hanger was a sneak. We preferred Axel with his winks and nods and Eddie Murphy smile. In summer, when he came to pick up our old man, he played football with us in the back-yard. Then he’d dig his hand in his pocket and give us money.

“Get yourselves some toffees,” he’d say. “No fags mind, cause smoking is a mug’s game.”

The Hanger would never do that so we didn’t feel bad about the shoplifting.

“That’s a grand fire,” Axel said.

“Very relaxing and a great ambiance. You could turn this place into a nice little pub.” The Hanger followed this with a bout of hawking as he dredged up all manner of gunk from his lungs. There was a hiss when he spat into the fire. “That’d give Tobin something to think about.”

“A little competition never did the pub trade any harm.” Our old man was fond of saying stuff like that.

We could feel them settle in, shifting in their seats, The Hanger striking a match as he started on his first cigarette. My brother went to push the door open wider and I stopped him. Too risky, one of them might notice. The front room was off limits, the velour couch and good armchairs only for visitors. We weren’t allowed anywhere near the shiny mantel clock, the China dogs and figurines.

“There’s great heat from that coal,” Axel remarked.

It was freezing in the draughty hallway.

“Go upstairs and get our jumpers.” My brother liked giving me orders.

When I came back down, he started yawning and pointing at the door.

“A great humanitarian,” I heard the old man say and knew what that meant.

“He was a great man and a visionary,” the Hanger croaked, his throat clogged with phlegm.

“A very tall man, even without the stovepipe hat.” We could always depend on something silly from Axel.

“And from humble beginnings,” our old man spouted. “Born in a Kentucky log cabin.” “Isn’t it always the way.”

“And furthermore, the greatest orator this world has ever known.”

“You’re right there, Jim, the same gentleman knew how to deliver a speech.”

The Hanger made a point of calling the old man by his first name, something Axel never did.

“Go on, Jim, give us a recitation from the great one.”

“I will, now that you ask.”

“What’s it to be tonight?”

“His greatest speech, given in the midst of the American Civil War when he was called upon to unite the people.”

The room went quiet. The old man took his time before he started.

“Four score and seven years ago……….”

As expected, The Gettysburg Address. My brother tied an imaginary noose around his neck and yanked it upwards. I grabbed my throat with both hands and stuck out my tongue.

“……….brought forth on this continent a new nation……….”

He delivered it in his trademark Yankee twang, more or less pronounced depending on how many pints he’d had in The Yacht. The Hanger and Axel should be sick of The Gettysburg Address by now but they encouraged him and Axel called him The Lincoln Scholar. Ten years sorting letters in Post Office Station J in Manhattan meant our old man knew everything there was to know about America and we’d heard every one of his stories, over and over again.

“……….testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure……….”

We’d heard how he had to memorise a thousand zip codes and had less than ten seconds to put the right envelope in the right box.

“If you didn’t get it right,” he told us, “you were out on your ass.” We listened and never gave him back-chat because we didn’t want a beating. “A bit of discipline never did any harm,” he liked to say.

“……….we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate nor can we hallow this ground……….”

We’d heard about dangerous criminals on the Lower East Side with guns, and how he stopped a bank robber once and the Police Captain pinned a medal on his chest but he threw it in the Hudson because he was so humble. And about the millionaires he met in Oyster Bay and their big boats and big Cadillacs and how great the Kennedys were but not as great as Abraham Lincoln. Hidden behind the door, we played silent trumpets and trombones.

“……….far above our poor power to add or detract……….”

I could picture him, sitting upright in his chair, severe look on his face, so important and proud of himself. Speaking softly, then turning up the volume, demanding the full attention of The Hanger and Axel.

“……….this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom……….”

I crouched down, brandishing a tomahawk in my best Apache rain dance, careful not to make any noise. My brother pumped his fists in the air.

“……….government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

The last words of The Gettysburg Address but our old man had his own last words.

“The End. Abraham Lincoln.”

“Jaysus, that was great. You brought the house down with that, Jim.”

“Powerful performance, you should be up in the Olympia.” The way Axel said it made me think he didn’t mean it.

“He was a great humanitarian.”

“You’re right, Jim, can’t disagree with you there.”

“Sure, didn’t he free the slaves?”

My brother gave me the thumbs up; Axel was on good form tonight.

“Ah, for God’s sake,” the old man growled. “Who let go?”

Someone must have farted, a frequent occurrence on Friday nights.

“Jaysus, the smell on that is desperate.” The Hanger started coughing and spluttering.

“It’s a natural bodily function. Better out than in, I say, and Tobin’s Guinness is very gassy.” Axel laughed his Eddie Murphy laugh.

“Take yourself to the bathroom if you want to foul the air.”

My brother mouthed “the bathroom” and rolled his eyes. Our old man never called it the jacks.

“What are friends for if not for sharing?”

“The honk off your farts is spoilin’ the drink. You need to see a doctor, your insides must be clean rotten.”

“Gentlemen, a bit of decorum.” Talking about farts was beneath our old man.

They quietened down. We could hear them opening more bottles, another shovelful of coal added to the fire.

“We’re all friends here and good Irishmen.” The Hanger started up again and we had a fair idea where this was leading. “What do you make of these so-called Easter 1916 celebrations?”

“Sure, it’s only once a year, where’s the harm in recognising our history?” Axel with a question that wasn’t really a question.

“Nothing but window dressing. We have unfinished business in the North. Am I not right, Jim?”

Without waiting for an answer, The Hanger started singing.

Send the soldiers back to Britain and the MPs to Whitehall
Let Irishmen both North and South join Stormont with the Dáil
We’ve been together far too long, so let us one and all
A united Ireland, let’s heed this clarion call

When he stopped, we took our fingers out of our ears.

“You can carry a tune.” It was what the old man always said.

“Don’t forget the message, as true now as it ever was. Our day will come, an Ireland occupied can never be free. Northern Ireland is still under the control of a foreign power.”

“All the same, what good comes from conflict? We don’t want to return to the days of bombs and hunger strikes. Those were shocking times.” Axel must have shaken his head solemnly when he said this.

“All part of the struggle, my friend. There are no innocent victims in the fight for freedom.”

“I’ve never been to Belfast. Maybe I should pay a visit.”

My brother prodded me in the ribs. “Beverly Hills Cop Four; Axel takes on the baddies in the North.”

I put a finger to my lips to shush him.

“We have to be true to the principles of Connolly and Pearse,” The Hanger declared.

“What we need is somebody like Honest Abe to lead the people.”

“No chance of that,” The Hanger was dismissive, “not with the gombeens who run this country. Connolly was right, ruling by fooling is a great British art with Irish fools to practice on.”

I raised my hand in a salute while my brother took his invisible rifle and fired off some silent shots.

“He was a great humanitarian.”

“You’re right, Jim, James Connolly was indeed a great humanitarian and a great socialist.”

“Not Connolly,” irritation creeping into the old man’s voice. “Abraham Lincoln was a great humanitarian and orator.”

“No problem, Jim. Abe was a great man.”

“I don’t see any sense in killing,” Axel piped up. “How can it unite us? I suppose I’m a lover, not a fighter.”

“Listen to himself, our East Wall Casanova.” The Hanger’s laugh turned into one of his wet coughs.

“Make love not war, that’s my motto.”

“Lincoln was a great romantic,” the old man droned on. “He worshipped his Mary and she was no oil painting.”

“She’d have had to put up with terrible beard rash from playing kissy faces with Abe,” Axel joked.

“It’s a fact that Lincoln was the first bearded president in the White House.”

“Strictly speaking then, his was the First Beard.

We held our sides in pretend laughter.

“Mr. Kearney, pass us over a bottle.” Axel let out a loud belch. “The heat from the fire has me parched.”

“Heat from the fire me arse. Will you go easy, we’re running low on fuel.”

“Lincoln was a man of compassion.” Our old man raised his voice, not liking these interruptions. “As well as being a great humanitarian.”

“We’re agreed on that.”

“And not just a brilliant orator, his writing was second to none.”

“Sure, we have no shortage of writers in this city.”

“O’Casey and Joyce knew their way around a sentence.”

The Hanger must have thought that made him sound smart.

“Lincoln composed a very touching letter to a Boston widow whose five sons died in the Civil War. It’s an outstanding piece, let me give it to you.”

“Game-ball, fire away.”

“We’re all ears.”

I looked at my brother; what was this?

“My dear Mrs. Bixby, I have been shown in the files of the war department……….”

I was certain we’d heard the lot, Lyceum Address, Inaugural Address one and two and everything else but here was something different.

“……….the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle……….”

My brother started grinning. “Bixby, that’s the guy who plays The Incredible Hulk.

One of his favourite TV programmes, he never missed an episode on Saturday mornings.

“……….tendering to you the consolation……….”

He took up a boxer’s stance and started shuffling about, fists raised. “Bill Bixby,” he muttered, “The Hulk, don’t make me angry.”

“……….I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish……….”

He jabbed me in the chest. “That hurt, get off ya eejit,” I hissed.

“……….the cherished memory of the loved and lost……….”

He punched me in the arm and I pushed him away.

“……….yours, very sincerely and respectfully.”

He came back with another punch that I dodged. My swinging fist missed its mark and he rammed into me with a shoulder charge.

“The End. Abraham Lincoln.”

“Bravo! That was grand.”

“He was a great humanitarian, Jim, you’ve never said a truer word.”

I lost my balance, the impact knocked me backwards, my flailing arms pushed the door open and I landed in a heap in the front room.

“What’s that racket?”

Three heads turned to look at me. A gasp from behind the door followed by giggling and footsteps on the stairs as my brother scarpered back to our bedroom. I was on my own.

“What’s going on there?”

Turning slowly, leaning on my elbow, I could see the grim face of The Lincoln Scholar, his lips a thin line, eyes flashing with rage.

“Well hello,” Axel, smiling, “glad you could join us.”

“You young pup.” The old man struggled to keep his composure. “You and your brother acting like gurriers.” Gone was the Yankee twang, his chin flecked with spittle.

I shrugged my shoulders. That really provoked him.

“You little brat, I’ll take the rod to you.”

He reached for the poker, shoving his chair to one side. Axel stepped in front of him.

“Easy now, no need to lose the cool. It’s only high jinks. There’s no harm done, let the boy be.”

If Axel hadn’t been there our old man would have beaten me and my brother, not with the poker but with the leather strap he kept in the dresser. Six whacks each, he wouldn’t hold back, a bit of discipline never did us any harm.

The Hanger had been quiet but now he spoke. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” frowning at me but I could tell he was enjoying this.

I looked over at our old man, fists clenched at his side.

“You’re showing your father no respect.” The Hanger took another drag on his cigarette. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

There was only one thing to say, so I said it.

“I think he’s a great humanitarian.”

Mark Keane has taught for many years in universities in North America and the UK. Recent short story fiction has appeared in Horla, Into the Void (Pushcart Prize nominee 2020), Lamplit Underground, Emerging Worlds, Potato Soup, Raconteur, Rumble Fish and the Dark Lane and What Monsters Do for Love anthologies. He lives in Edinburgh (Scotland).

The Filed – Pawel Markiewicz

I am willing to archive the world lonely
or in solitude withal a fish,
To archive the finny-plaice
means extract its eternal fins.
This is an infinite dreaming shrouded in repository
about Blue written somewhere in the
chasms of soul.
Abide!, because cases of elves
filed in the land of
eternal frosts need you
without the winter like me.
Is the lyrical I a carmine cat
that feels the world
full of after glow of flames.
Mayhap I become lost
in the archive of heart,
finding the primeval crystal,
the harp of our ontology – trilogy,
which is
spatiotemporal
meek-precious.
There are in the archive
eternal wings,
which love the weird
of the cherub
of hope.

 

Cabinet Of Heed Contents Drawer 37.01Cabinet Of Heed Contents Drawer 37.02

 

Issue 37 – Drawer One

image by bart plantenga

Raking – Heather Cook

before the sun rises,
i find myself hauling insecurities
the same way
i haul leaves and debris
from my yard in the fall.

i know this because
i miss the bag many a time
and i am
shaky and weak while raking.

when i am done, gusts of wind
move them back on the lawn
and clog my fence.

i know this because
i have had fifteen personalities,
none of which are loved by me.

sometimes i rake myself hollow
to bury them inside.

this year, i want you to know,
i’ll let insecurities bounce about my yard—
let them decompose.

make a choice to

feed my leaves to earth worms.

Heather Cook studied literature and creative writing at the University at Buffalo. Her work has appeared in The Magnolia Review, East Coast Literary Review, Ghost City Review, NAME Magazine, and others. Sometimes she feels alive.

Imagine The Flies – Kathryn J Barrow

I dip my hands into suds and take a dish. I need to finish, to start watering the front garden, but dishes done first, imagine the flies. The water’s hot, it must be. No one in their right mind could dispute it, they wouldn’t, would they?

Bubbles twinkle, pink, blue and purple in today’s sunlight, shining through the window. Soon it’ll be gone when it finds its way to the front. So graceful. Would make many a ballerina envious I would think. Gliding its way behind clouds, trees. Thinking about it, no other weather’s like that, take rain, and wind, they hungrily let themselves rip, everyone’s aware of their presence. Still, I suppose the sun gets itself noticed more extravagantly.

I bet in deserts they don’t think like that. It’s much worse for them out there. It would savagely sore and burn, dry and scorch.

Then again, my plants will be thinking the same if I don’t get them watered. I remember last year. I’d not watered anything for three days. I’d come back from a retreat forgetting to ask the neighbor to pop round with a watering can. My plants were drooping, petals lying lifelessly on the beds and leaves like crispy bacon.

Shaking off the memory I dip my hands into the water. To my horror, it was cold. I’d left it recklessly. My plans for the day ruined. The sun nearly at the front. I threw the cloth in anger, I’d have to start again. It landed on the plant atop the window sill. I watched water drip onto the soil, where it soaked it up.

I knew what I needed to do. I emptied the bowls contents, picked it up and went into the front garden.

My plants would live, at least until tomorrow.

The Remaining Twilight- Connor Lucey

It was that time of year when, if the seas were calm and the city didn’t spin, the sun could set like a ball in a drainpipe, straight down between corroding skyscraper walls into the canal. People would fill the long, tree-lined parks that bordered the waterway for the spectacle, nudging up to seawall railings, setting up blankets and chairs in the grass, and filling nearby outdoor cafes. The point was to witness something beautiful together. If they were lucky, they’d be in a part of the world that was mild and comfortable. Everyone might feel the sun smoldering on their bare arms and still enjoy the sea breeze, mellower here than at city’s edge. They were lucky today.

On the terrace of one parkside cafe, at a battered wicker table with a good view of the event, sat three strangers. The first to the table was an older gentleman with thinning hair and rough hands swollen with arthritis. He had spent the morning on his usual neighborhood stroll and sat down for a coffee when the parks were empty. The second was a young woman, a university student who had skipped her afternoon class to come to the park and write. There were still chairs open by that time but no free tables, and this particular old man, she’d sensed, might let her write in peace. The third was also a woman, more toward middle-age, and was grateful for any seat. Minutes earlier, she’d convinced her partner to watch their infant son so she could step out of the apartment for a few moments’ peace.

For all three present, the golden hour was an unexpected bonus.

The new mother, eager to talk with anyone other than her husband, broke the table’s silence. “They say we passed within sight of Hawai’i this morning. Did anyone see it?”

This was a usual greeting, of course. They’d all grown up with the stories of what came before. There were the books, the videos, the archived technologies, taught in school and kept at the library. But they’d never known life as anything but this. No one in the city had. So it was common practice—fashionable, even—to fill small talk with topical thoughts and phrases about land: something no one had, and yet everyone had in common.

The man shook his head. “No, I’m afraid not.” The sun was low enough between the buildings that he had to squint to address the woman, who sat at the front of the table. “I hear it was a clear day though. The islands’ green mountains must have been wonderful.”

The student stopped scratching in her notebook but pretended not to notice the conversation.

“I heard the same thing,” the woman said, sighing. “I don’t remember the last time I saw a coastline, I’ve been so busy lately. Japan, I think, spring before last. We spotted cherry-blossoms with the field glasses.” She turned to the student. “How about you? Did you see Hawai’i?”

The young woman closed her notebook. “No, I didn’t.”

“When was your last time, then?”

“I don’t know. When I was a kid, maybe? It’s not very interesting to me.”

The old man smiled, and the woman prodded playfully, gently. “You don’t care about it at all?”

A tight smile in return. “Not really. I’m sorry if that offends you.” They both waved it away, so she continued. “The land is just something we’re taught to fawn over, I think, like it’s more than just an occasional disruption in the horizon. Why should we care if people used to live there?”

The woman nodded her head. A large group of children, all undernourished and none over the age of twelve, passed by the table. They were shouting and laughing in the light, which now reflected off the canal and seemed to buff every seam of rust and decay from the buildings overhead. Clothes dyed colors with names like “forest green” and “slate gray” hung threadbare off their bodies.

The student’s was a common way of thinking among the younger generation, as it had been with the woman’s when she was that age. The lore of town limits and road trips and earth, not water, as far as the eye could see—of a reality that didn’t shift constantly, ever so slightly, beneath one’s feet—these things were spoken of reverently by others, as religion, and imposed on them unwillingly. As far as she had been concerned, that was an ancient world, settled, spoiled and abandoned by people who had left them with nothing but a floating hunk of metal and stories of a better life long gone. Something in the woman began to change, though, as she got older. In the last few months, especially. The past didn’t seem so distant anymore.

The student shrugged. “I mean, if they said tomorrow it was safe to return, I might think differently. But you can’t live life that way. Waiting for the past.”

By then the light neared the horizon. Chatter and whistling echoed through the trees as birds from all across the Pacific prepared to roost for the night.

“I worked most of my life on the farm barge,” the man said, leaning forward, “and there wasn’t much supervision. The nights we passed close enough to some shore, if the moon was hidden, people would shove off from our loading ramps in homemade rafts. Hundreds of them over the years, paddling toward a black smudge in the distance. They knew the consequences if all of it were true. That was worth the risk, I suppose. We called them crazy then, and wrong. But these days I wonder.”

As he spoke, the sun touched into the water and sank. A hush had fallen over the crowd, soaked in ever-deepening shades of light until, at last, the source was gone. The show had ended. In the remaining twilight, everyone clapped.

Connor Lucey is a salty New Englander living in the Pacific Northwest. He received a BFA in Creative Writing from Portland State University and is editor of The Absurdist Fiction Magazine.

Hitchhikers – Jane-Rebecca Cannarella

I leave strands of my hair like fragile worms in all spots I go: a cat burglar dropping a calling card. Filaments like the fraying pith of an orange separating the skin and fruit; the threads of my body depart like little stowaways in all sections of the city and surroundings. Philly is filthy with my shedding.

The evening of January 20, 2019, felt just like a night three years earlier when I drank Espolon from under a stranger’s tongue with a cocktail straw at a club in Fishtown. He was tall and drunk with eyes so grey they reminded me of the tabs on soda cans, and when he put his arm around my waist and dared me to drink from out of him and use him as “a human cup” I decided not to pass up the chance. How often do you run into grey-eyed strangers whose mouths are red solo cups as they startle dizzy girls? I pushed my hand through the curtain of my bangs to see him better, but visions are distorted when you stand too close. He tipped a shot into the mug of the underside of his mouth.

It was a feeling that lived in a soup of alarm and erotics and disgust and excitement. That evening in January I stood in a house in the Philadelphia suburbs that wasn’t my own while pet sitting and pretended to be the sort of adult who could own that home. I welcomed the warmth of the stew of emotions that existed like cytoplasm, a mess of alive. My face was wet with the whiskey I filched from the cabinet like a little kid who wears a spaghetti sauce beard, and I sent impulsive texts begging for a boy with cheekbones that were sharp as daggers to come play grownups with me at the house that wasn’t my own. He was a stranger like the other stranger but had a mouth like the pit of a nectarine; hunger is better than thirst with his body that holds flowering flesh to eat and eat and eat. Somehow the same but totally different.

When he finally agreed, I wandered around the house unmoored and enthused like the time I took the ferry from New York to Connecticut as a little girl and marveled at all of the deep red jellyfish that sidled the side of the ship with their tentacles like noodles and sticky seaweed hairs. I remember being frightened but delighted at the proximity to such stinging. In the house in the suburbs, the shaggy dog ran between my legs sharing my excitement, we paced all the steps like captured explorers trying to pass the time as it slowed into honey. My stomach was seasick.

He arrived out of a carshare in a tempest of mussiness and shared inebriation and eyes like gallows. He threaded his hand through my bun with knuckles made from the stones of peaches while we stood at the foot of the stairs, the blonde dog at our legs. And once, when I was a teen, I had the most perfect plum while sitting cross-legged at Jones Beach with granules of the beach in its purple stretched skin, and the syrup spilled over my chin as I grinned like a clown at the sea. The whipping atmosphere pulled the flyaways around my face into the spiderweb of nectar on my cheeks.

In the pretend land of what if this house was ours in the home in a suburb I could never afford to live in, I tilted my head all the way back to look at the headboard with cracks in the wood like filigree. My face was plum-juice wet and it captured the strings of our bodies greedy but combined. I smiled like a clown against the grains of his face, rough like sand.

*      *      *

The next morning, after he left but before I got out of bed, I looked at the red-purple pillowcase with the nightcrawler shapes of my escaped brown strands swimming in the divet-ed wake. I wondered aloud to the bodies of cilia strands whether I made a mistake and thought about how nice it was that they could escape my body with its impulsive choices but I couldn’t. My sighs disturbed them in the pleats of where heavy heads rested from the night before. Fallen threads from my frame don’t second guess their choices.

On the nightstand, my phone hummed with unread messages, tiny swells. Strangers become less strange when you attach hitchhikers to their belongings, intertwining the two of you–and my body felt more familiar in the shadows of the midmorning. The messages were from the not-now-a-stranger who said that he found the fabric of my hair on his sweatshirt, played with the pieces. Followers that shared his journey back to the city; a scrapbook of our bodies linked on him.

After I read the texts, I took the bundled tresses into my fist and pulled their split edges to my lips, the warmth of emotion like breakers tunneling through me, whispered to the witch’s broom of hair, “thank you.” I held the phone close and pushed back too-long bangs to read and re-read the messages, vision distorted; a mess of being alive.

Jane-Rebecca Cannarella is a writer and editor living in Philadelphia. She is the editor of HOOT Review and Meow Meow Pow Pow Lit, as well as the author of the flash fiction collection, Better Bones, and the poetry collection, Marrow, both published by Thirty West Publishing House. Jane-Rebecca chronicles the ways she embarrasses herself at youlifeisnotsogreat.com

Prometheus On Her Rock – Sarah Michelson

He always told her that he knew the second he saw her. She was the most beautiful girl in the room, so vibrant, so fun, so full of life. He told her that he fell in love the second she caught his eye. And she smiled, and pursed her lips, and her green eyes twinkled, and she gave him a soft and delicate kiss.

They got married in the spring, in a lush garden full of peonies and roses, just the two of them and their families. She looked like she was floating in her wedding gown of silk and lace and tulle. Her mother cried and her father nodded solemnly as she walked down the aisle, bobbing and bouncing with the kind of air only love can give you.

As they lay together in bed, he ran his fingers softly across her thighs and her breasts and kissed her forehead and told her that there was no one on earth like her, no one so soft, so beautiful. He cupped her chin and patted her nose and held her so tight she thought she might meld into him, which was exactly what she wanted. Will you always wait for me? he asked. And she said Yes, yes of course, I will always wait for you.

He went to work every morning and she stayed home to paint and write and sing. She plastered canvases with acrylics and empty sheet notes with black blotches of rhythm. She danced until the sun set and her husband came home, and she would make him dinner and kiss his forehead, and they would hold each other tight again.

One evening her husband called and let her know that he’d be home late, work was intense, he said. And she nodded over the phone as much as one possibly could nod over the phone, and said she understood completely. Instead of staying home that evening to make dinner, she went out dancing with her friends, swaying her arms in the air like dandelion seeds floating in the breeze.

She got home late, so late that the darkness of the sky nearly blinked out the stars. What she expected was to see her husband lying in bed, arms open in anticipation of where she would be resting. What she saw was her husband sitting at the kitchen table, brows furrowed, fingers tapping on the cheap wood.

Where were you, he asked, and she responded truthfully— out with friends. Why didn’t you wait for me, he asked. I didn’t know when you would come home, she replied. I’m hungry, he said. I’m hungry and I got home an hour ago and there was no food for me to eat.

You have access to the same ingredients I do, she said. Why couldn’t you make yourself dinner?

He looked her dead in the eyes and simply said, It’s your job. It’s your job and you didn’t do it and I’m hungry.

So she sighed to herself, and pulled some meat and vegetables out of the refrigerator, and set about to making her husband dinner in the steady silence of the night.

The next afternoon he called to let her know that he would be home late again, that again, work was too intense for the typical hours of the day. And she said of course, and good luck, and that she loved him. And he told her that he loved her too. She decided to take a painting class in the latter hours of the afternoon— she’d always wanted to improve her hobby. She arrived back home around the time her husband would return on a typical day to start preparing dinner and opened the door to find him sitting at the table, the same pose and expression from last evening.

Where were you, he asked, and she replied truthfully that she had been taking a painting lesson. You didn’t make dinner, he said. You were going to be late, she said. You should have waited anyways, he said. So she reached into the pantry and grabbed a box of pasta and set to work preparing a meal. Her husband remained at the table, watching her carefully as she worked.

Spring turned to fall, and the couple went walking through the park on a cool, gentle evening. She had wrapped a wool scarf tight around her neck and cheeks— her skin had always been so sensitive. He held her hand as they meandered down the paved road. Your hands are starting to feel rough, he said. There are calluses on your palm, he said.

I’ve been making you dinner and painting and writing, she said. I’ve been using my hands.

They used to be softer, he said.

I’ll buy stronger lotion, she said.

They walked in silence for a while, until they finally passed a younger woman on the path. She looks like a woman who takes care of her skin, the husband said. I’m sure she does, the wife replied. The husband shot the young woman a knowing look, and she caught it in her glittering amber eyes. The wife looked away. They went home. She made him dinner. He complained that it was bland.

As they lay in bed together, he avoided her hand’s touch. He looked into her eyes and said that they seemed duller than he remembered. She said that they were still the same eyes. He turned his back and fell asleep. She got up and tried to dance in the hallway, but couldn’t summon up the energy.

Fall turned to winter and her hands began to crack in the cold. Her husband couldn’t bear to look at them. They walked through the park together. He wouldn’t hold her hand unless she put it in a mitten. They passed woman after woman, each one with gentle and soft features by her husband’s account of the matter. Look at her manicure, he said, pointing to one particularly expensive-looking young lady. That’s a girl who knows how to take care of herself. The wife sighed deeply. And that night, instead of going dancing or to her painting class, she made her husband dinner, carefully exfoliated her hands, and painted each fingernail a cool cobalt blue with painstaking detail. And that night, he didn’t hold them.

He called the next afternoon to let her know that he would be home late, because work was crazy, once again. And she nodded to herself in a way that she prayed would never translate in her tone. She started making dinner and had it nice and warm for whenever he got home, but didn’t stay to eat it with him. Instead she just went to bed as soon as the chicken left the oven. She was tired. She was so, so tired.

When she woke up, she found her husband holding her hand. Her hand looked softer than it had before. The fingernails were painted a screaming shade of red. She stretched her fingers. They moved slowly, uncomfortably. She looked around her wrist. It was full of tiny little stitches.

Her husband called her almost every day now to tell her that he was staying out late. She didn’t paint anymore— the paintbrush hurt in her hand. It was a hand that wasn’t used to grasping a paintbrush. She stopped dancing after she woke up one morning and found her foot was a full two shoe sizes smaller than it had been the night before. She lumbered awkwardly through the kitchen, trying to collect all the ingredients for the evening’s meal. She spent all afternoon on it, carefully measuring out every ingredient just so.

This is disgusting, he told her hours later. You can’t even differentiate a teaspoon from a tablespoon. Can you even fucking read?

The next morning, a new amber eye rolled around in her socket. Jammed in haphazardly by someone who just wanted to get the job done.

What are you doing to me, she screamed. You know what your problem is, he asked. Your problem is you never know when to shut your mouth. And the next morning, her lips were small and pointed and tight, like a tiny poppy stiff in the wind. One might mistake the tiny scabs of venous blood encircling them for a bit of misplaced lipstick.

Winter turned back into spring. People started staring at her in shock. She walked through the park alone— he couldn’t be seen with her, he said. Her gait was awkward, different body parts responding to different neurologic impulses at inopportune times.

When she got home, her husband was asleep. She sat at the kitchen table and stared straight ahead, one amber eye and one green eye struggling to act in unison. It was late, and he hadn’t waited for her. Her eyes rested upon one of her kitchen knives, quietly shining against the overhead light. And although it hurt, she stood up and walked towards it with a steely resolve. She grasped the knife in her hand— her fingers felt stiff— and slowly slid it into the skin just above her ribcage. She was precise. It was like carving a turkey.

He woke up the next morning to breakfast in bed. You’re so kind, he told her. Of course, she said, her green eye sparkling. The meat was juicy and sweet and cooked to a sizzling perfection.

This is delicious, he said. What is it?

She smiled, the corner of her mouth struggling to lift properly.

I’m surprised you couldn’t tell, she said. You’ve loved having it before.

Sarah Michelson is a horror writer and comedian, in no particular order. She is also a professional ghost. You can follow her on Twitter @sarah_michelson.

Featherless – Kristin Garth

Lower eyelids. Don’t dare to stare. Bear crow
talons through nightgowns, cotton threadbare. Rife
with pecks from a beak now full of hair, thrown
flesh over an avian spine, midnight
you share a communal mind. Amplitude
of bones, remainders of wings, is friendship
before you know what it means. Clouds dilute
memories of humanity. They slip
out of young pores without ceremony
from featherless flesh hiding hollow bones.
You cannot get there ever alone. The
limbs lengthening limp as you have grown
as grounded, flat as your topography—
still a featherless crow they just set free.

Kristin Garth is a Pushcart, Best of the Net & Rhysling nominated sonnet stalker. Her sonnets have stalked journals like Glass, Yes, Five:2:One, Luna Luna and more. She is the author of fifteen books of poetry including Pink Plastic House and Shut Your Eyes, Succubi (Maverick Duck Press), Crow Carriage and Candy Cigarette Womanchild Noir (The Hedgehog Poetry Press), Flutter: Southern Gothic Fever Dream (TwistiT Press) and The Meadow (APEP Publications). She is the founder of Pink Plastic House a tiny journal and co-founder of Performance Anxiety, an online poetry reading series. Follow her on Twitter: (@lolaandjolie) and her website kristingarth.com

In The Sky With Diamonds – Patience Mackarness

Someone’s already set up camp on the island, which is a downer. We pitch our tents in a circle beside the tarn instead. Everybody laughs at my solo tent. Just big enough for a dog, one of the young guys says. We hope he doesn’t mean it like that.

It was a long hard climb and we all travelled light, except for the young guys who lugged up six-packs of beer. Clearly they imagined this trip as Ibiza-at-altitude. Even the huskier one is bent like an old man. The skinnier one has brought a remote-controlled speedboat.

We slide into peat-dark water and swim out, a line of heads above their reflections. The toy boat makes elliptical loops around us. Kayleigh-Kate forges ahead, she’s training for a cross-channel swim and does multiple lengths of every lake and pool she finds.

Out come the stoves and dinners. Trail meals like dogfood, chocolate cake in a foil tin, spaghetti with meatballs. Everyone’s hungry after the climb and swim, and eyeing my sausages. I donate some to the young guys. They hand round beers. We sing, louder and dirtier than the people on the island.

We reminisce about the open-air pools and lidos we’ve swum, the rivers Wharfe and Derwent, the wave-sculpted chalk cave at Flamborough Head. The mountain tarn is our next step. Margaret, who was once a nun, says it’s like the Stations of the Cross. Trudy says, With a happier ending, I hope.

Joe and Trudy sit close together by the campfire that isn’t really a campfire but a kind of brazier Joe made from a biscuit tin. They’re in their sixties, but Joe wears a big-cat smirk, and Trudy has amazing skin, what make-up artists call the just fucked look. We all know what they say about wild swimming. We’re counting on it being true.

The stars wax as the brazier wanes. We lie flat in in a circle. I say, Magic lanterns. Kayleigh-Kate says, Harbour lights. Trudy says, Fuck the clichés, they’re diamonds. One of the young guys farts; it reverberates round the tarn. From the island someone shouts, Time for bed, Zebedee!

Lying in my miniature tent, I remember I was here before. We had clipboards and drew diagrams of how the lake formed in the age of the glaciers. The erupting spot on my chin felt bigger than Helvellyn.

At dawn it’s mountain-misty. Sheep crowd in, exploding their reputation for mildness; they seem to like the smell of sausages in the unwashed frying-pan.

The tent people come over. Four men, grizzled and spare; a mountain rescue team in training. The tattooed one’s mine.

We look up through drifting mist towards a bald-topped crag. Joe’s silhouetted, down on one knee. We can tell Trudy’s saying yes.

The two young guys straddle their boat, grown overnight to the size of a bobsled, and set off down the mountain, bouncing and whooping.

Kayleigh-Kate smashes sixteen more lengths of the tarn.

Margaret steps into the sky and soars.

Patience Mackarness lives and writes partly in an elderly VW camper van, partly in a cottage in Brittany. Her stories have been published by Lunch Ticket, Dime Show Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, The Coachella Review, Flash Frontier, and elsewhere. Her work can be read at https://patiencemackarness.wordpress.com/

Our Komodo (A Kind of Love) – Valerie Fox

Mrs. Komodo, at Home

You said you’d be right back. I await. Up a tree. All our grinning kids are gone. I don’t let the watchers get close. Four of those dirty beasts perch with their binoculars and tuna-fish sandwiches. Yum. I’m afraid. I hear scratching and tapping. Like dental or scissors. They mention you are at Disney World and laugh. I’m queasy. I miss your serrated bites. I don’t feel like hunting anymore, I’m hurting. I’ve got my soaps and trailing yarn. Maybe that’s enough. I fell hard for your handsome gait. I took care of the kids. You said a minute.

Abstract

Our lizards are shy, an island animal. Here’s a nest decoy. Our young have wrinkles all around their baby eyes. They’re used to us and their drastic teeth are changing year by year.

This juvenile one is April Jo. Still residing, at seven years, she has her own tree-view. Her waddle is fetching, her grin. As she grows up, we measure April Jo’s envenomed, gripping bite.

Many tests in hill-stations use goats. The meat attracts Varanus komodoensis. Same thing with lookalike automatic menus. Look, that’s where we put the goats. We aren’t doing that as much anymore since, honestly, our friends come to expect this meat offering and lose some of their hiding and hunting ways. You want to adapt a little or at least to try.

Check out her rotational chewing point, that vector. She has her mama’s eyes. Is anyone else here feeling lonely or sleepy?

The effort to survive airplanes is intense. That’s the second one today. Bacteria survive and colonize. Here we say “disease” without meaning positive or negative. Mortal, not moral. Bacteria stay in the mouth and on escaped prey. In the next activity we will join forces and form a grid. Later we’ll plug in our numbers.

One favorite study is like this. You approach an individual to see how long it takes the giant to react. “To react” means to turn and look, gaze. Keep your handwriting steady. You want your notes to be legible. If there’s enough time we’ll come back. You can guess what we mean by enough time.

We get enchanted by the direction of what we are gathering here, and we are going to go full on and four-footed. We are not a zoo. Let’s break for lunch. Be quiet for now, stay frozen.

Mr. Komodo, Extant for Now

I didn’t choose this side of the planet, I was drugged, awoke in this bacteria-free condo. Inhaled the refrigerator contents lickety-split and scratched the sofa-back raw. Can’t get these claws to work the buttons on things. Worst part is seeing clever you on-screen. And the kids, alert on their puffy, sun-filled bellies. A few limbs and branches were dangling from your dear mouth. As part of this new life there are too many kinds of milk substitutes and banknotes, so it gets super confusing. I think away my days. I whine at you on the elephantine TV: I am glad you’ll never see me this way. I yearn to hear the voice of someone who still has a heart.

Valerie Fox has published in Juked, Ellipsis Zine, Cleaver, Reflex, Okay Donkey, Maryland Literary Review, Across the Margin, NFFR, and other journals. Her books include Insomniatic, The Glass Book, and The Rorschach Factory. She has a story in the upcoming 2020 edition of “Best Small Fictions,” from Sonder Press.

Bear Aware – Sean Igoe

Bears are powerful and strong animals; they should always be treated with caution and respect.

“Wouldn’t it be great to see a bear?” said Eric, filled with infantile wonder. Cheryl disagreed with a curt “No” as Eric went into the inevitable bear impression. She was tempted to leave the claustrophobia of the tent, but it was getting dark.

Always use extra caution when moving around at night.

New York, L.A, Las Vegas… so many possibilities, but here they were, camping again. True, the very real threat of an ursine mauling made it considerably less tedious than the Peak District, but this was not a plus.

Bear attacks are extremely rare – a person is 67 times more likely to be killed by a dog.

Cheryl had been ready to turn back even before they reached the Rockies West Park Ranger Station and the revelation that they would be camping in Bear Country. Ranger O’Neil had assured them it was perfectly safe, as long as the appropriate precautions were taken. He had talked them carefully through the Bear Aware leaflet, as Eric made excruciating jokes about Pic-a-nic baskets.

Never leave any food scraps or garbage out.

All food must be carefully sealed. Even uncapped toothpaste could attract a bear.

Keep your odorous activity to a minimum.

“Your campsite should be upwind of your urine,” Ranger O’Neill had said, and then continued, with an admirably straight face, “Ensure there are no fluids of intimate generation unsealed in your tent.” That was not going to be a problem.

Back home, Cheryl had been thrilled when Eric had hidden the plane tickets in her birthday cake. Although it did ruin the cake. For a time, it reminded her that Eric could be exciting, impulsive, fun. America had seemed so appealing, but Eric had kept all the arrangements secret as part of her present. Eric wanted to see the real America. Disneyworld, Californian beaches and Broadway shows were apparently not the real America.

Store all food and odorous attractants in sealed bags or airtight canisters.

Sleep was impossible for Cheryl, with the sounds of the wild invariably bear-like to her ears. Was that a bear howling? A bear rustling in the trees? A bear hooting like an owl?

Daybreak, and Eric was fast asleep, snoring and grinning like an idiot baby. Cheryl removed her passport from Eric’s backpack, dressed and quietly exited the tent. She looked slowly and carefully around at all the so-called beauty of nature. Then, resolute, she squatted at the tent flap, silently performed an odorous activity and walked out of the wilderness.

Beer Head Barbie – Bart Plantenga

Barbie is my role model. She might not do anything, but she looks good doing it.
Paris Hilton

The guy they call Mír walked by. I saw he had transformed the “O” on his forehead into a peace symbol. As a true “peace symbol” artist, this was maybe his way of promoting world peace – or promoting himself in the name of profiting from peace – you do what you gotta do. Or something like that. Let me explain the “O”.

You walk into your local bar, the place where you know where to hang your truss or ironic gun belt. But already in the entranceway you sense something is amiss, awry – somebody’s tinkering with your gears. It’s as if good beer [not-quite obscene prices], good music [tending toward cliché – Dave Brubeck, Hank Williams, Pixies, Tom Waits], and good conversation, heat in winter and AC in summer were no longer enough. The bar owner is not the only one who suddenly got it into his head to install stuff: more TVs and slot machines, blinking beer signs, talking toilet seats, poker machines, trivia challenges, darts, billiards, retro-modern Scopitone machines – but this one beat them all. It was officially called “branding” by mags like New York and New York Press and “dotting the i” by adherents. To me it still looks and smells like a ritual, a rite of passage, but maybe also like a hipster trend.

They say it was concocted by an ad hoc scrum of barroom denizens in, some say, Chumley’s, others insist it was the Olde Towne or Rudy’s or Downtown Beirut or Nell’s – or some place like Ypsilanti, Michigan. No matter, at least it wasn’t some ad agency boardroom scheme. At least no one was saying it was stealth marketing. It did just seem to pop up out of nowhere, growing insanely popular as barroom activity in a matter of like the time it takes to down a shot of some brand name something or other. In some hoods, branding was now almost impossible to avoid. You simply got sucked in or went home and sulked. And if you were hovering in over Sally’s bar at just the right angle, it could almost remind you of that Russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter.

“Dotting the i” required contestants [celebrants, acolytes, dotters] to answer weird questions: What’s the melting point of skin? How many truck tires does Pooh have to pile on top of one another to reach the honey in the tree? How many Yankee baseball caps are sold worldwide annually? Name two famous assassins who shot presidents and then were shot themselves. How many glasses of milk does it take to give you a .02 blood alcohol concentration on a Breathalyzer test, enough to have your driver’s license suspended in many states? Did Magic Johnson invent the high-five hand gesture while at Michigan State? What was the name of the prostitute who fled Sam Cooke’s hotel room taking his clothes with her? Why are yawns infectious? How long can someone survive on water and toe nail clippings? There were a million more where these came from.

The ritual usually involves mass consumption of whatever beer and whatever harder stuff goes well with beer because if you answer 3 questions in a row correctly, one of the other contestants takes a bottle cap from the bar, presses it to the victor’s forehead and smashes it into his forehead with a fierce elbow or punch or it is sometimes hammered into the forehead with a beer bottle – clinkclink – embedding it in what little meat there is to be found there. The victor might follow this with a little mock Hottentot dance or something they imagined “their man” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins might do before someone removed it, revealing a bleeding, branded “O” in the middle of the forehead.

This created, as some dotters were quick to point out, a near-perfect triangle between the “O” and the victor’s two eyes. And so for months now people have been wandering around the East Village, whooping it up with this “O” brand in their foreheads. The brand eventually scabs over, leaving an indelible scar that might come in handy later in life as one’s fount of personally inscribed mythic tales as it slips down out of the main text into an illusory footnote to a not-so-exciting running narrative.

I eventually got tired of going to Sally’s or Bar Nickel Bill where I had to hear about the significance of the equilateral triangle, the number 3, the deity, the significance of 33 … It was like hanging out with new Baptist church congregants or college football fans going on about legendary fullbacks. The dotters all had their ideas about how the “O” “mapped” the mind’s eye and could go on and on about New Age Traveler [post-industrial-hippie] festivals of dotters, especially in the area outside Sedona, Arizona where they “learned” that triangles represented vigilant-third-eye angels. Some saw dotting as a corollary to the devil-Masonic, all-seeing eye on top of an Egyptian pyramid [the Great Seal of America] portrayed on the back of a dollar bill. Others pilgrimaged to Sedona’s Dotter Fest [SDF] to experience mass dottings. Dotters brought potato sacks full of SDF-approved bottle caps to sell from makeshift teepees. There were bands that sounded like the Swans or the Cocteau Twins and there were dotter workshops. The more enterprising dotters sold their own hygienic, do-it-yourself, dotter bottle cap and hammer kits from the back of a VW bus – perfect gift for the pagan who has everything. And someone – no, not Robert Anton Wilson – lectured on the significance of SDF as an acronym for “Sans Domicile Fixe” [homeless]. Some were already predicting that branding would eventually surpass tattooing in popularity. In New York, dotters were regularly being interviewed on local public access TV shows; there was a dotter convention in the Armory on Lexington Avenue where the band the Dodgy Dotters were performing when cops under order from NY’s Health Department, concerned with on-site HIV, tetanus, and hepatitis infections, busted the event.

Some dotters began openly claiming they were being unjustly barred from clubs and restaurants; others described situations involving discrimination or intimidation in the workplace. Still others announced the opening of “dotter-friendly establishments.”

The world is magic: a week earlier I had been listening to my red radio that could somehow mysteriously tune in WFMU, despite its meager proportions and despite lots of metal obstructions and concrete high-rises that had prevented mightier audio aficionados with their high-end FM loop antennas from receiving WFMU for over 25 years now. Yes, clear as a bell as I listened to Reck or Rick or Wreck interviewing the famous ex-MC of Club 57, ex-dominatrix, print media entrepreneur, and, for a time, Rites & Rituals Anthropology Professor at Masaryk University, Bikini Girl [Volta de Cleyre]. She did not want to discuss the “dotter phenomenon,” but rather Barbie and her early conversion of Barbie into a “makeshift sexual device.”

On the radio it always stops there, though, just short of where innuendo crosses over into provocation. And now here we were in the Linger Lounge, face to face, fan to crush, discussing the dynamic relationship between cocaine and fanaticism, failing body parts and complaining about dotters and the recent introduction of dotter “O” appliqués – all the rage – as we waited for our unexpurgated Barbie stories to kick in.

“It’s now like Halloween 365 days a year around here,” she noted as if we both knew that everything she uttered was instantly quotable. She had had the mighty as S&M clients and knew all their names. She could name at least 100 seminal Ohio garage bands. Her face was beautiful precisely because of its absorption of domestic pain, of milky-murky cocktails, and the ennui of the entire Midwest [Ohio]. My heart still gets hurled into an empty field like a horseshoe magnet, aorta over auricle, by a splendid face. Strange, this cosmos of beauty and how it still manages to disassemble awareness.

We discussed how she imagined Barbie must’ve felt and how her own “teen juices d’amour” had actually matted Barbie’s golden locks back and how these clandestine secretions gave Barbie’s hair a strange sheen. And how this made Barbie look punk or flapper or attitude-enhanced – or like an ICBM manufactured by Rockwell maybe in Ohio – and how all this made Bikini Girl the envy of her classmates who dreamed only of mauve boudoirs and dates with Kiss, and marrying a career military man and mistook Barbie’s mysterious sheen for Dippity Doo. Hehehe. In a silent instant our thoughts drifted to insertion.

“You asked listeners to call in with their tales of youthful dabbling in Barbie Voodoo.”

“Indeed I did,” she remembered as she sucked the last sips of Delirium Tremens from its classic stemmed snifter glass, which is perfect for heightening the mystique of this ale. Heightening a superior ale is the act that raises us out of ourselves. [Did I say that or she?]

I ultimately decided to confess how I met Barbie (cat. # T34959687) down on Orchard Street. I remember the breadth of her every skittish step circumscribed by her skirt design and anxiety. It was her first trip to NYC. Well, not her first – she’d often been chauffeured to Mattel HQ on 6th Avenue and had often dined at the Waldorf to later mingle at the Yale Club. But this had certainly been her first excursion below 14th Street, let alone Houston Street.

She did not understand why we met here. Why I gave her a bracelet of used crack vials and a necklace made of car window crystals. She did not understand my world of gallantry. Her world was filled with award ceremonies, chivalry and runway knights in perma-crease slacks. She did not understand why I thought it important that I’d broken the side window myself and had taken nothing from the vehicle. She did not understand that the GESTURE was the gift. And this was disappointing.

She did not understand why boys and girls along the parade route of her life would stick pins into her. And why others had painted crucifixes where her genitalia ought to have been. And why still other others threw pocketfuls of baby teeth at her feet of indistinguishable digits. She did not understand that the world had become a place where there was ever less to win and ever more to lose.

Barbie discussed her early days of life in Taiwan while she sipped a Blue Lagoon Margarita I’d prepared in her honor, knowing how electric blue complimented her eye shadow. And after 2 BLMs, I coaxed her into my bathtub of cheap, warm beer. OK, I hid my eyes at first.

“It’s therapeutic,” I said as I made motorboat sputters to mock her eternal affections for the trappings of wealth.

“Yea, right,” she retorted, much less naive than adventurous. She climbed in and we floated there for a long time, unburdened of all weight and doubt. I became increasingly drunk on her head – no really. Here’s how: I dipped her big coif of adjustable-length hair into the cheap, warm beer and then sucked every inebriating molecule out of her big head of hair. Over and over. She said it was OK, something she could tolerate. “I’ve been through worse.”

And this routine came to pass so that I could no longer drink beer in any other manner. This was how I got drunk. And this habit managed to keep me out of many bars where drinking was still done in more conventional ways.

bart plantenga is the author of novels Beer Mystic, Radio Activity Kills, & Ocean GroOve, short story collection Wiggling Wishbone & novella Spermatagonia: The Isle of Man and wander memoirs: Paris Scratch and NY Sin Phoney in Face Flat Minor. His books YODEL-AY-EE-OOOO: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World and Yodel in HiFi + the CD Rough Guide to Yodel have created the misunderstanding that he is the world’s foremost yodel expert. He’s also a DJ & has produced Wreck This Mess in NYC, Paris & Amsterdam since forever. He lives in Amsterdam.

2017 – D S Maolalai

was a year with weather
flipping like a coin
on a table; winter
come summer
with no pause
for a spring. I was
living in Toronto
and something
of a hedonistic life, living
on my wits between shifts
at the hospital,
where I was of course
responsible. the air all the time I remember
tasted like fresh pears
and lilac
and I had three girlfriends
and finally found
some good bars. once,
in the park, a hawk flapped down in front of me
but it didn’t get any squirrels. I took long walks
up Dundas with the past
on my back
like rocks
getting lighter.

DS Maolalai has been nominated four times for Best of the Net and three times for the Pushcart Prize. His poetry has been released in two collections, “Love is Breaking Plates in the Garden” (Encircle Press, 2016) and “Sad Havoc Among the Birds” (Turas Press, 2019)

Flood Warning – Sarah McPherson

I’m squashed up on the kitchen windowsill with my feet on the draining board. Hoping I won’t be here too long, but who knows these days. The flood defences aren’t holding up like they used to, and sometimes it takes forever to pump the water out.

It happened quick this time, I only had a moment’s warning. The sirens went off and before I could blink I saw the water coming down the street. So I hopped up on the window ledge and watched it rush by. Thought I might be ok for a minute, but no. It came in under the door and up through the floorboards, swirling over the kitchen tiles and the rest of the ground floor too. Six inches pretty fast, then slowly rising up to around the ten inch mark. It seems to have stopped for now, but there’s no guarantees.

Feels like I’ve been sat here for an age but I can’t let my guard down. If it starts rising again before they can drain it I might have to leave my current perch and make for the stairs, something I’d really rather not have to do. I mean they say brief exposure won’t do any lasting damage but I’d still have to decontaminate, and that stuff’s awful hard on your skin. It’s bad enough that I’ll have to scrub out the whole downstairs floor.

Five times this year the dams have ruptured, and we’re not even in June. I wish they’d do something about it. Dad used to tell stories about before I was born, back when things worked how they were supposed to and the floods weren’t a threat. I’m not sure I believe it to be honest. He also told me there were fairies at the bottom of the garden. As if anything could live that close to the water!

It’s lapping at the cabinets, like there’s a current flowing through here. That can’t be a good sign. If I shimmy round to the fridge before I get down it’s only a couple of metres to the door and then the stairs just outside. They’ll sound the alarm again if there’s another wave coming, and I’ll have to make a run for it. If the water ever made it up the stairs… No, the drainage hasn’t got that bad. Yet.

It’s a blessing really that I’ve only got myself to worry about. After Dad, you know, Bella didn’t stick around long. Said she’d heard the floods weren’t as bad up north. Said she’d send word when she got settled, so I’d know she was ok. That was six months ago. Folks round here look out for each other of course, but it’s not family.

This place is too big for just me, but at least it’s got space to get up high when I need to. Mr Leach at the end of the road is only a bungalow. I heard he keeps his loft hatch open and the ladder down all the time now.

I’m trying to decide if it’s better to stay near the window where I can see up the street or move round nearer the door when the siren screams again and I hear the water roar.

Sarah McPherson is a Sheffield-based writer of short fiction and poetry. Her writing has appeared in STORGY, Corvid Queen, and Atrium Poetry, among others, and has been long/short-listed in competitions including Writers’ HQ Flash Quarterly and Reflex Fiction. She tweets as @summer_moth and blogs at https://theleadedwindow.blogspot.com/

Ghosted – Wilson Koewing

When Alison saw Jacob Barnes again—after being ghosted two months prior—he appeared on the light rail in downtown Denver. She stood on 18th listening to No Doubt’s version of “It’s My Life” in her giant red headphones. He wore a fashionable overcoat and appeared to stare through her as the train slid by.

The second time, he appeared on the Megatron at Coors Field on opening day catching a homerun in his beer cup.

The third, she spotted him through strobe lights at Canopy on South Broadway dancing solo in a dense crowd surveying the room. She forced through the bodies. It wasn’t clear if he saw her, but as she moved, he moved, entered the restroom and never reemerged. She didn’t notice a back exit, but there was no other explanation for Jacob’s disappearance, leave some outlandish escape through the ceiling.

*      *      *

Alison first met Jacob at Confluence Park in downtown Denver. She’d wandered down for lunch and sat on a rock listening to her headphones and watching the rivers collide. Jacob waded knee-deep in the water. His shoes and socks abandoned on shore.

As he wandered over, Alison conjured ways to say not interested. Instead, he sat beside her as if she wasn’t there and produced a spliff. Alison took a few puffs, which was unlike her, and agreed to shrug off work and accompany him to a nearby bar.

Alison ordered a drink then went to the bathroom to message her boss and turn on her out of office. She returned to the bar and took down her fizzing drink in a single gulp.

*      *      *

A week passed without Alison spotting Jacob again. No matter how adamantly she spoke to friends and co-workers, they didn’t seem to listen.

She met her closest and least reliable friend, Lisa, for martinis at a trendy cocktail spot.

Before Alison could mention Jacob, Lisa’s attention was drawn to a scruffy man seated alone at the bar who she’d had a recent fling with.

“He’s acting like he has no idea who I am,” she said, staring at him through the window.

“Can we discuss this Jacob thing?”

“He had some weird kinks, though,” she continued. “but don’t they all.”

*      *      *

They went on one official date to the Denver Art Museum. An exhibition of late 17th century English paintings graced the walls. Jacob was enthralled, but Alison found none of the paintings interesting, save one—a portrait of a woman about her age with pale features and life-like eyes. She could have been living right there among them; she didn’t seem from another time.

Outside, they sat in an art installation; a dozen double-sided and connected metal rocking chairs that struck notes that blended together to create music when rocked. Jacob’s droned dull like a bass, but no matter how hard Alison rocked, hers made no sound.

At the end of the night, Jacob barely uttered goodbye and disappeared onto the light rail to return to his suburban enclave.

Alison went over a week later. When she arrived Jacob practically ignored her while deep cleaning his empty spare room. She made a drink from his bar. He folded clothes, setting a few stained ones aside and placed them in a garbage bag he threw away in the alley dumpster. A young woman who resembled Alison wandered by as he slammed the lid. She recognized Jacob and wanted to say something but saw Alison and continued on.

After eating takeout and watching an episode of Six Feet Under, they shared their lone intimate moment. In the glow of a bedside lamp, Alison rubbed Jacob’s back as he pleasured himself into a towel before promptly falling asleep.

*      *      *

A month passed and Alison forgot Jacob again. She went about her days, fog-like and constant drifting. One morning, she locked her bike by Union Station and walked in the opposite direction of her office, intent to try a new coffee shop a friend had touted on social media.

Alison stepped inside, shook off the cold and removed her giant red headphones. The barista turned to face her, and the barista was Jacob Barnes.

“Jacob?” she said.

His face flashed no acknowledgement.

“What can I get started?” he said.

“Jacob,” she said. “It’s me, Alison.”

“Double soy latte,” he said. “Four fifty.”

Alison turned and watched a woman dig through her purse and hand Jacob a debit card.

“That’ll be right out,” Jacob said and walked away.

Confused, Alison let her gaze drift around the coffee shop. A half dozen other women, who vaguely resembled Alison, watched Jacob’s every move. One peered over a laptop seething. Another sat blasé on a windowsill clutching a hula hoop. A third wept by a potted cactus, holding the string of a red Elitch Gardens balloon hovering over her head. A fourth cackled while scribbling feverishly in a journal. A somber fifth held a leash but on the other end there was no dog. The last sat in a booth with another woman, flailing her arms as she spoke, but the other woman wasn’t paying attention. She was reading a book.

Alison removed the giant red headphones from her neck and stared at them in her hands. Outside, she sprinted in front of Union Station, past birds that didn’t scatter and across a street of cars that didn’t slow. Reaching the park beside the river, she placed her shoes upon the shore. Her foot dangled over the rushing water. She gasped when she dipped a toe in and felt nothing.

Wilson Koewing is a writer from South Carolina. He lives in Denver, Colorado. His work is forthcoming in Ellipsis Zine, Pembroke Magazine and The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts.

The Narrow Corridor – Michael Loveday

He woke to a churn in his stomach, a heave in his throat.

He lunged out of bed, swayed, then wobbled a little. He made it only to the corridor before the contents of the evening’s drinking and dining splattered onto the floor. It was his best friend’s floor – his closest, oldest friend, the one who understood his intimate faults and secrets. He had walked this narrow corridor many times in his life. Its oak boards were splitting at the sides and had been repeatedly daubed with paint, lately a cherry-brown colour. In between the boards there were dark gaps, big enough to squeeze a little finger into but no more. He’d always wondered what lay down there.

When he’d staggered back from the bathroom with an armful of toilet roll to mop up the liquid and the gloopy, half-digested chunks of potato and carrot, he realized that a lot of his evening had fallen into those gaps. A fingertip alone could do nothing to get the remnants of it back. It had been a merry evening with his friend and it should not have ended up in the holes between floorboards, beyond his grasp.

He wondered if he should, in the morning, confess to his friend and explain that a part of their lives had disappeared out of reach in that rickety, old corridor. He thought maybe his friend would want to know. But in the end, he decided: he’d cleared up all that was visible, better to say nothing now.

The floorboards were mottled, cracked and uneven. At their ends, the cold, unpainted heads of nails sat at the surface. He reached a finger into the gap again, searching for something, though he didn’t know what.

Michael Loveday’s novella-in-flash Three Men on the Edge (V. Press, 2018) was shortlisted for the 2019 Saboteur Award for Best Novella. He also writes poetry, with a pamphlet He Said / She Said published by HappenStance Press (2011). He specialises as an editor and mentor for novellas-in-flash: https://michaelloveday.com/novella-in-flash/

Participating Merv’s – Stephen Pisani

The local Merv’s Taco Terrarium advertised its “Bankruptcy Week” a few years ago during that nebulous time between Christmas and New Year’s. I should know, because I worked there at the time. To make my current affiliations and loyalties as clear and transparent as possible, I am no longer employed by that particular franchise, or any other Merv’s. The job was supposed to be a stop gap, a bridge connecting my adolescent wandering and an adult pursuit of meaning and fulfillment. Alas, it didn’t quite work out that way. I’m not sure it ever does.

On the day I found out about the “Bankruptcy Week” gimmick, I was slumped over the counter reading the paper, careful to keep my Merv’s elf hat balanced on my head and wary of my Merv’s elf sleeves jingling their Merv’s elf bells with every flick of my wrist to turn the page. Suddenly, I stopped on an image of “Merv,” who was my boss and the owner of the franchise, and whose actual name was Chuck. The man in the picture had a halo of greasy hair surrounding a circle of baldness and a pair of the thickest glasses I’d ever seen. Surprisingly, Mr. Merv—he insisted on the formal title—looked even worse in real life. I objectively felt this way. My criticism had nothing to do with the elf ears he forced us to wear at Christmas, nor that he made us balance on a broomstick at Halloween, nor that he insisted I don a full Abe Lincoln costume during President’s week, cheek mole and all.

Mr. Merv walked through the door and barked a “Hello.” I shuffled in my green polyester suit, careful not to lose my place in the paper.

“What’s the deal with this ‘Bankruptcy Week’?” I asked sheepishly, tapping my index finger on the advertisement before Merv could get close enough to see it. I didn’t add, “This is the worst idea I’ve ever seen.”

He approached the counter and leaned over to look at the rows of coupons, raising an eyebrow like he was seeing them for the first time, like he wasn’t the one who framed them with strings of cartoonish Christmas lights and dinosaurs in Santa hats on his computer in the back office and shipped them off to the Garbonzo Gazette. I recoiled, not because Merv looked so ugly, but because his scent matched his appearance—his was the face of body odor—and also because I knew the prices in the advertisement would put us out of business.

“Gotta get people in the door,” Mr. Merv grumbled.

Okay, sure, but a hundred and thirty dollars for a chilly chameleon taco? A buck fifty-five for a boa bean burrito? One ninety-nine ninety-nine for a cold-blooded value meal: two lizard soft shells, a Komodo dragon corn tortilla, and a salamander soda pop? Ridiculous! Where else in this town could you feed a family of four for under a thousand dollars? I had half a mind to tell Mr. Merv we may as well just give the food away.

It would have been one thing if the meat was no longer fresh. You could justify selling snapping turtle at less than five hundred dollars a pound if it was some sort of prepackaged frozen knockoff. But that wasn’t the case. Merv insisted on keeping the terrariums on the counter, the snakes slipping through the fake fauna of theirs while the lizards snapped their tongues at prospective buyers from another.

“No, no, no, son,” Mr. Merv said, shaking his head at me, “we’re not really going out of business. It’s just a figure of speech.”

“Not yet,” I wanted to say. I didn’t know what to think. I could only dream of the store being a shade busier. Most days, staring at the reptiles in their glass enclosures was the only way to pass the time. I got so bored, my mind lulled itself into the believe that these animals were waiting to be adopted, rather than trying to stave off an untimely death with each day they went unclaimed. They were the only green things I ever saw; my tip jar could not have been emptier. Mr. Merv liked to bark that we don’t work for tips. “You don’t see me complaining,” he’d always say.

Business changed during “Bankruptcy Week.” Not necessarily for the better. Customers of all types flooded the place. Men, women, short, tall, children, octogenarians, bald people, people with mullets, fat people, people who looked like a stiff wind would blow them over, like they hadn’t had a good meal in weeks, and they ate like it, too.

“Let me get three of the green tree pythons,” one guy said, his finger poking the glass of the snake terrarium just to the left of the sign reading “Please Keep Fingers Off The Glass,” and two of the corn snakes, five of the cottonmouths,” and with his entire palm resting next to the sign, “let me see, yeah, one of those bright green guys hiding in the back.”

I pushed buttons on the register as he talked. The total value of his order climbed slower than the tortoises in their cage on the end of the counter. His gastronomically ambitious order could have fed a football team, all for the price of two gallons of cockroach milk. We might as well have been giving the food away.

I hit one last button and without looking up asked, “You’re sure about all those cottonmouths? They’re extra venomous, you know?” I’d never seen anyone who could handle more than two tacos stuffed with the poisonous buggers.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said, because what did he have to lose? Let’s say he didn’t like them, or the poison was indeed too much for him. So what? At a tenth of their usual price, he came out ahead as long as he ate more than fifty percent of one. And if he did eat all five, risking almost certain anaphylactic shock? Well, at that point we could offer him a glass of CroFab antivenom for—I hope you’re sitting down for this number—fifty-seven dollars, when the same amount costs us nearly fifty-eight from the manufacturer. We’d basically be paying this guy to keep him out of the hospital. You’re welcome.

Mr. Merv placed an asterisk beside our advertisement in the Gazette. It corresponded to a note at the bottom that explained, Offer Valid Only at Participating Merv’s Taco Terrariums. We had to be the only store participating. The extent of Merv’s participation was cooking up all the orders that were threatening to shut us down.

“Everything’s fine. We’re doing great,” is all Mr. Merv would say about the ill-fated sale, even as I watched a twenty-five-hundred-dollar order of tuataras leave the terrarium and then the kitchen just as quickly as they entered the store, and for half the price.

If the moniker described Mr. Merv’s hopes and dreams, “Bankruptcy Week” had its desired effect. The store’s accounting certainly wasn’t my responsibility. Even without seeing the books, I knew we were firmly in the red by week’s end.

Just before closing time on Sunday, at the end of our busiest week—Mr. Merv confirmed he’d never seen anything like it—he tiptoed around the soapy floor I worked over with a mop, whistled at the piece of paper in his hand, flicked it with his index finger, and declared, “Well, we certainly can’t afford another week like that, can we?” Before I could respond, he told me, “I wasn’t speaking to you, son,” and walked away. It was only the two of us in the restaurant. I continued to mop, and he continued to absentmindedly get in my way, cursing the “birdbrained numbskull”—his words—who conceived such a “cockamamy”—again, direct quote—idea.

On Monday, when I asked Mr. Merv about the newest ad he’d placed in the Gazette, he predicted “Trade-In Week” would dig us out of the hole where “Bankruptcy Week” had planted us.

“Gotta get people through the door,” he insisted.

I read off some of the items Mr. Merv had listed as available for swap and said, “How are we supposed to cook without this stuff?”

He waved a hand and said, “We’ll make ‘em raw if we have to. That’s all the rage in insects now, rare caterpillar and medium rare slug and seared spider; don’t see why we can’t get in on the craze.”

I had more questions, but he skulked to his office behind the kitchen. By the time I turned back around, a customer had plopped an off-white toaster on the counter between us. The appliance was riddled with all types of dinks and dents, like he’d been firing hockey pucks at it all morning.

The customer waved the ad from the Gazette like it contained the words of a higher power, first at me and then the toaster. “What will you give me for this?”

The words, “I’m sorry, we’d have no use for that thing,” were just about forming on my tongue when Mr. Merv suddenly appeared next to me with one hand extended as a greeting and the other massaging every imperfection in the toaster on the counter.

“Well, what have we got here?” he said.

“Half of it’s almost completely new,” the customer said.

“Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.” Mr. Merv placed his hand under his chin. “I can see that,” he continued.

Mr. Merv offered the customer three fryers in exchange for the toaster. He accepted three more toasters throughout the day. The dented one was in the best condition. Over the course of five or six hours, I watched the flat top, the oven, and two terrariums—full of our most expensive products—make their way out the door. He tried to part with the walk-in fridge, too, but the physical impossibility of dislodging it and getting it out the door made that sale impossible.

When closing time came and our kitchen looked like the toaster section at Kevin’s Kitchen Equipment Emporium three-quarters of the way through a clearance sale, Mr. Merv put his hands on his hips and said, “Another successful day. See you tomorrow.”

I came to work the next day to find Merv in the kitchen with his fingers shoved into a toaster slot like he’d dropped something into the crevice between the driver’s seat in his car and the center console.

“Need help?” I asked.

He wiggled his fingers with a pained expression on his face. Sweat formed a line from the top of his bald head into his eyes. The beads that managed to fall between them trickled over his nose into his mouth. I couldn’t tell whether he was actually stuck until he said, “I’m not stuck. I just can’t get this darn thing out.”

He asked me for a fork and I handed him a plastic one from underneath the counter. He dug for a couple minutes until he plucked the fork victoriously from the depths of the dented toaster. A tokay gecko burnt almost beyond recognition strained the fork’s flimsy tines. I identified the gecko by the bisecting slits in the eyes I got used to seeing on the other side of the terrarium glass when things were slow.

Mr. Merv must have noticed the look on my face. “Just a little crispy, that’s all,” he said.

He tucked the charred gecko into a corn tortilla filled with lettuce, diced tomatoes, shredded cheese, and signature Merv’s Viper Sauce.

“Try it,” Merv said when he was done, pushing the taco into my hand.

I took one bite, followed by another and another, until the taco disappeared. Much as I hated admitting it, the toaster gave the lizard a solid, crunchy bite. I gave Merv a thumbs up as I finished chewing, and as the afternoon progressed, we sold whatever kitchen equipment hadn’t moved the previous day. Eventually, the toasters were the only thing we had left. Mr. Merv didn’t say so, but he seemed reluctant to part with them. I didn’t want him to either.

The next customer who entered the store asked, “What do you have left?”

I told him about the toasters, not entirely sure of Merv’s stance on selling them.

The customer donned the classic thinking man’s pose, hand tucked under his chin. “Can I see them?” he asked.

Before I could turn around, Mr. Merv plopped every toaster, one by one, on the counter. “Pick whichever one you like,” he said with a smile, “or package them together.” Without saying anything, we both understood we had no reason to hold onto them. We had nothing left to cook in those toasters anyway.

Stephen Pisani is an MFA candidate in fiction at Adelphi University. He spends his spare time working at a golf course, where he watches people chase a little white ball around a big patch of grass.

exposed – Ceinwen E Cariad Haydon

tin foil boxes half empty
remains of last night’s take-away
cold curry stinks in his musty fridge
all that’s left of Friday night
apart from his unbrushed breath

so many months of expectation
spent longing for her touch

his chance at last wine-fuelled
rash he spoke too soon of love

she couldn’t wait to leave

white wine then red
second bottles always makes him cry

tears season her absence
her plate congealed and cold

Ceinwen E Cariad Haydon lives near Newcastle upon Tyne and writes short stories and poetry. Her first chapbook was published in 2019: ‘Cerddi Bach’ [Little Poems] by Hedgehog Press. Her first pamphlet is due to be published 2020. She is a Pushcart Prize and Forward Prize nominee (2019). She believes everyone’s voice counts.

Day 47 – Bart Van Goethem

Just look at that little mouth grinding away like a tiny cement mixer. How long can you chew on a piece of broccoli, anyway? I realise she’s only seven, but still. Her jaws go up and down, up and down, up and down. In between she opens her mouth slightly, not every time, though it feels like every time, and the sound of smacking fills my ears, fills my head, fills me.

I look at her. I look at my wife next to her. She doesn’t seem to hear the noise or at least she looks like she’s not bothered by it. I look back at my daughter. Shall I say something? Shall I tell her to stop eating like a baby? Learn some manners? Finally?

I gaze at her pinkish lips. So innocent. I shouldn’t get angry with her. I really shouldn’t. I can barely comprehend what the world is going through and where it is going to lead us, let alone a child. A noisily eating child. She doesn’t even realise it. She’s just looking in front of here, smacking absentmindedly. She doesn’t notice my hard stare. So I decide to do the wise thing and look away.

Suddenly she’s right next to me, her chomping mouth almost touching my ear. Smack smack smack smack smack. The noise ricochets in my auricle, then dives brutally in my ear canal, echoing all the way down, louder and louder. The cacophony pounds on my ear drum, ruthlessly. Smack smack smack smack smack. I start to feel disoriented and I put my fork on the table. I’m trying to breathe, to just let it pass. She is almost finished eating. We are all almost finished eating. Smack smack smack smack smack. It reverberates all through my body, making me shiver. I want to yell, STOP, STOP IT, but I’m not going to. I’m the adult, she’s the child, I’m not going to snap. I am not going to snap.

And Then There Were None – Paul Beckman

So, my mother had six sisters and a couple of brothers and there was always someone not speaking to someone else, and if the parents didn’t speak their kids didn’t either, but we didn’t know why.

I was in my early twenties, home on leave from the service when I dropped in to see a couple of cousins and they told me our mothers weren’t speaking. I asked why, and they shrugged and told me I had to leave. How about a glass of water first I asked, and they brought me a glass of tap water and I took a sip and spilled the rest on one cousin’s head and spit the sip I was holding in my mouth at his sister.

I still had three good friends from high school I spoke with but no one left in my family that I talked to and that included siblings.

I forgot about a poker game I promised to play in the next night and two of the three friends that had been speaking to me stopped because I didn’t show and they couldn’t play without me. The last guy, Billy, still spoke to me. He was easy going and never liked the idea of not talking.

He saw me sitting alone in the coffee shop and sat with me and asked if I was lonesome not having anyone to talk to and I told him no, that my friends were like my family—all stupid and annoying.

How was I to know he’d take that personally?

Paul Beckman’s latest flash collection, Kiss Kiss (Truth Serum Press) was a finalist for the 2019/2020 Indie Book Awards. Some of his stories appeared in Spelk, Necessary Fiction, Litro, Pank, Playboy, Jellyfish Review, and The Lost Balloon.

Amoeba Pete – Kimm Brockett Stammen

Pete lived in a small house on Sycamore Street. Pale and flaccid, his hands flapped when he spoke, and he had a way of edging sideways when walking, as if to present the thinnest aspect of himself first and thereby reduce the size of the target he made. He had no knowledge of the name the neighborhood children had given him.

Pete lived with his aunt, a lump, housebound by edema. She wiped crumbs off counters, stacked newspapers in corners. Her wheelchair whacked against walls; the chair was wide, the house, like Pete, wasn’t.

Pete cleaned schools, including the one that the children of his block attended. Three evenings a week he edged into EastWest Public Elementary by its side door. There were mops, the big flopping kind, and buckets that, no matter how much hot water or how much soap Pete dumped in them, always smelled rancid and old.

On a Tuesday evening in spring Pete left his house, also by the side door. The front door was for his aunt, because of the ramp, although she rarely went out. He walked along to the back alley, where children were running in circles next to his car. They were yelling, they shoved each other. Pete remembered, as if in a long brown haze, a childhood with loud voices and games of running and falling and graveled knees. He didn’t know why, but when he thought back on it his childhood seemed flat. A plain dirt plane which existed merely to be traversed, and had no other function, even in memory.

“Yaaaaa!” the children scattered like crows when they saw him. To a modest distance, then watched to see when it might be safe to come back.

“Do you like cake?” Pete called into the alley. He didn’t know why he said it. The last of the cake had disappeared into his aunt’s maw that morning.

The children edged closer, turned their bodies incrementally to face him. Like sunflowers to the sun, are children to cake.

“I’ll be back!” Pete slammed the door of his dusty Mazda.

He mopped the school’s tile bathrooms, vacuumed the taupe-carpeted hallways. He’s seen a photo once of the Amazon: muddy, endless, matte, and doubtless concealing danger. As usual, there was leftover cake in the staff room.

No one had ever said he could take leftover cake, but it was so frequently there, from birthdays, retirements, teacher appreciation weeks, that if he didn’t take it it drew flies. Filching cake seemed part of his duties, and besides, his aunt enjoyed it. Why he had suddenly promised it to the children who scavenged his neighborhood, Pete had no clue.

He drove home at three a.m., and parked his car in its usual spot. He set the cake, wrapped clumsily in tin foil, on the hood. A pre-dawn crow–a smarter and more curious crow than the others–hopped along the dusty alley towards him. Or perhaps this crow, thought Pete, was also just coming home after working through the night, cleaning up others’ messes.

The crow hopped onto the hood of the car and cocked its head at him. A scrap of moonlight glinted in its bead eye. The crow would tear apart the tinfoil and eat cake the instant his back was turned. Pete took the prize into the house, found a large Tupperware, stained, came back outside and set the container over the cake on the top of his car, giving the crow a wise look. Then he went to bed.

*      *      *

Amoeba Pete’s a total weirdo, what a geek, how freakish, said the kids, boys and smudged girls, their mouths full of cake. It was morning, they fought over the carcass. Don’t stick your fingers in. You got more. A girl called Pricilla–a name she hated and vowed to avenge herself on her parents for–pushed a boy whose nose was streaked with blue frosting. He pushed back, someone ripped the tinfoil, the rest of the dessert spilled on the ground. There was more yelling and pushing, and somehow Pricilla’s foot landed smack on the cake.

“You kids shut the fuck up!” yelled a neighbor. The kids ran; they were in any case late for the bus.

When he rose at noon, Pete found the Tupperware squatting upright on his car’s hood, empty as if it were begging.

That Thursday there were scattered papers, moldy coffee mugs, crumb constellations on the battered particleboard table of the EastWest school’s staff room, but there was no cake. Pete opened the fridge, discerned a large container of cream, half a pizza, a smell. When his work was done he took the first two home and set them in the Tupperware on top of his car. He didn’t remember his own elementary school, but there seemed to him some kind of vague justice in what he was doing.

He turned and saw that his aunt watched him from her window. She was not really his aunt. She was the mother of his wife who had died. But he didn’t like to think about that, about the thin body angled on the bed, or how long ago it was, or the brief time they were married, when life had felt three-dimensional and he had strode through it, proud, straight, with her on his arm.

*      *      *

The children left notes in the empty Tupperware:

We like cake better.

You have funny flapping hands.

Then there were no more notes. Pete took colored paper and markers from a box labeled Staff Room Only, and put them in the Tupperware along with his offerings. After that the messages came back with regularity:

Cake with sprinkles.

Your aunt sucks eggs.

That last note was not nice but Brice isn’t.

Brice is not his real name.

We have a name for you. It is also not your real name.

The holidays came and the staffroom filled with cookies and things on shiny red paper plates. Cellophane, ribbon, crumbs under chairs. After the EastWest Season’s Greetings Concert, Pete stayed long hours cleaning up frosting-smeared doorknobs and punch-chocolate-fruit-snot-encrusted carpet. When he finally left it was with two full Tupperware containers. He set one on the hood of his car and brought the other inside for his aunt, who had taken a fall from her chair and broken her collarbone, and could not go out even to see her physiotherapist because the ten visits allotted by the insurance company had been used up long since. She, like everyone, was waiting for a new year.

After that the school was closed for two weeks.

Without school to go to, Pete–strangely–dreamed about school.

School was a river, non-reflective, never giving up its secrets but hiding them in a stealthy current of silt. His dreams smelled of liquid sewage and squalor, the stench of them stung his nostrils in the night and caused him to wake coughing, angry, wanting his wife. His yells clanged off the black window panes and flung themselves back at him, as if he were being thrashed, and he wondered: why? He asked himself: why? And the knowledge came to him that this was what was meant; he was meant to be single. A single-celled animal, catching food, floating, doing his work by extending fingerlike projections of protoplasm.

*      *      *

On the first morning of the first day of school in the new year Pete took out his garbage. They were there, the children, surrounding him warily. But like crows that have been fed, they were bold, and came closer.

“Your name’s Pete,” said one.

Pete stood sideways to the children.

“Amoeba Pete!” said another.

“That’s rude!” said Pricilla. “We don’t call you that anymore.”

“I don’t mind it.” said Pete. “Are you Pricilla?”

“No!” yelled Pricilla.

“She hates that name,” said a boy. “Can’t call her that.”

Pete so rarely spoke to people about things that mattered. He spoke to the cashier about the weather, to his employer about the job, the cleaning agents, the hours. He spoke to his aunt about the television, about cake and her collar bone. He had worked for years in a school but had never spoken to children.

He asked Priscilla, “What would you like to be called?”

She glared at him. She was a child, and she knew everything about him and had no patience for it. “Why do you cry in the night?”

Pete turned and ran. Or, as he stood there, a smear of immobility, he remembered the feeling of running. Down the hall of a school, slipping on the brown tile floor, running, out of breath, while crowds of bullies chased after him. Out the double doors, into the playground, under the swings, zigzagging through children. Barreling into walls, narrowly averting forehead-smashing poles. So many poles in elementary school, claggy with peeling tan paint. Back in to the building again, hiding, panting until the bell rang or until they found him again, the big boys and the mean girls and the ones who just didn’t like how he smelled, the way his hands flapped when he talked, the way he thought, or he grew, or the simplicity of his conception of self.

“I,” he said, and as he said it he faced them, and at the same time felt his shape shimmer and alter like light through water, felt the sun like the memory of his wife on his flesh. The crows lit, their beady eyes cocked, drawn to the nebulous edge.

Kimm Brockett Stammen’s writings have appeared or are forthcoming in Oyster River Pages, Pembroke Magazine, Cirque Journal, Rosebud, Atticus Review, Ponder Review and others. She was the 2nd Place winner in Typehouse Magazine’s 2019 short fiction contest, and was shortlisted for the 2019 Eyelands International Short Story Prize. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University in Louisville, KY.

Crowned Virus – Aldas Kruminis

The world had to stop
to guide us to the poison
inside our veins, to find
the foundation of our flaws.

Exposed of binary borders
and self sketched walls,
the multi-nation world
through death became one.

All the shields and tanks, containers
of archaic thoughts,
now dust underground
as we gasp for air. Within

the old world was buried, guarded
now by guns and bullets
conquered by a crowned
virus, the death that

collected our last breaths
as our voices prayed for love.
Humbled by the power, we bowed
and sheltered from the force

that suffocated our lives. Obsolete
became weapons, former rulers,
their triggers and buttons
locked and cocked in the past.

Still, the loss of sanity is severe,
the murder of truth and facts
goes unpunished, the ignorance
rides free without a mask

and spreads division
in the world dying for unity.
Clowns dressed in suits
shout misguided blabber

and blind the world,
already holding its breath,
from choosing the righteous well.
In times of struggle we turn to wisdom

to find the universal truths:
you can lead a donkey to the water,
but it still needs to choose
whether to drink or spit.

Aldas Kruminis is a writer from Dublin, Ireland. He holds and MA in Creative Writing and dreams of a career as full-time writer. His work has been published in Iceberg Tales, Terrene, Idle Ink and elsewhere. His website: http://aldaskruminis.com/

Cabinet Of Heed Contents Drawer 37.02Cabinet Of Heed Contents Drawer 37.03

Green – Dawn Corrigan

I awoke in heaven. It was a real Roman Catholic heaven, too. I saw Mary and Jesus, and they were just like human-sized, mobile statuary from church. A man—I don’t know who—was with me.

Mary was just about to speak when I decided to leave. I started walking back to earth. Someone else was walking in the distance ahead of me. I kept pace without letting the space between us grow or shrink.

I left because I missed the color green. There was no green in heaven, and I walked back to earth so I could see green again.

Eventually I was back on earth, and I continued walking around, still following someone, and the person who’d been in heaven with me—we’d sort of been paired together up there—came with me, too. I was following someone, and he was following me. And the trees tossed in the breeze, and we were happy.

 

Cabinet Of Heed Contents Link 36

Image via Pixabay

Song Lyric Prompt

Song Lyric Banner1

From Jumbo by Curved Air (written by Darryl Richard Way/Sonia Kristina Linwood)

A Short Sequence of Strange Events – Nora Nadjarian

On my walk this morning, I saw a soldier’s uniform hanging on somebody’s balcony. Together with a pair of silver boots. Why hang up boots? Why silver?

It rained hard last night and I had a box of books out. And they got soaked. I hung them out to dry today. A passer-by might ask: Why books?

An old man was looking at his feet as I walked past. It died, he said, and I had no idea what he meant. A small white dog next to him was wagging its tail. An old man and a young dog have things to say to each other.

During the meeting, someone called i-Phone had his face muted. He could be the faceless man who sent me a friend request on Facebook. A ladder was visible behind the speaker. He wants to escape, it’s obvious.

Go all the way to the end of your mind, and back again. Dust off your memories and sweep the strangest bits into a little shovel.

The sky is a masterpiece this afternoon but I don’t know how to re-create it using blue curtains. I’m still learning to create masterpieces out of rubbish.

Nora Nadjarian is an award-winning Cypriot poet and writer. She has had poetry and short fiction published in international journals and anthologies.

Birthday Cake – Sara Magdy Amin

It was my 120th birthday. Yes, my birth-day. I was the last of my generation to have been “birthed” out of my biological mother. She made the call on the 9th of May of the year 2120 – some of you surely remember – it made headlines, went viral on the Cloud. Back then, traditional conception was still elective, still out there on the table. Current research has found this “an absurd choice in the face of scientifically recognised alternatives”. Ectogenesis is now the safest (and the only) way to populate our species.

You could say that my mother was very much a technophobe. I mean, she did try to keep up appearances. She did have her first grain implanted at the age of 16 (the legal age for consent before it was made compulsory), we had droids at home that helped out with the cleaning and the gardening and the dreary housework. She even went as far as buying some of the more senseless devices. But I wasn’t fooled when I heard her cursing under her breath, when I saw her scoffing at the promise of (some new device) “augmenting our lives” and becoming “a thing indispensable to the modern world”. I knew, as she violated the “Act of Unity” when she was caught in possession of a cross, that she unequivocally and absolutely detested it all.

She died when I was 18. Poisoned. A grain imploded under her skin on account of some faulty design, or as I always speculated, “attempted self-removal”. She died by the very thing she deplored. I sometimes think she died for being too earnest. You simply could not live in our time and carry yourself with such conviction. I would, however, on occasion, find myself rationalising her ways. The things she showed me, on the Cloud, about how it was over there in her world; I came to the conclusion that growing up, at the time of my mother, must have been a little bit strange.

In the few hours following my birth, the Chiefs announced that foetus farms where now fully functional. They demonstrated that they could replace the entire female experience of pregnancy with tubing, one biobag and a nourishing broth. Incubated and immersed in these artificial wombs, these foetuses grew, over the years, with the help of gene editing, to a genderless, raceless offspring with superhuman strengths. Greatness was the new normal. They were able to do what previous generations couldn’t, be who they could never become; one singular, unified species. I am told, on the other hand, that I am a man, though I’m not entirely sure what that means.

Still. I was haunted by my mother and her will to live in the past.

“Xen.” I called into my Agility Series 5X arm enhancement. “Disable functions.”

It was always her tradition, on my birthday, to bake me a cake. A simple white cake. 1 cup of white sugar, half a cup of butter, two eggs, two teaspoons of vanilla extract, one and a half cups of flour, one and three-quarter teaspoons of baking powder, half a cup of milk and her bare hands. I made a promise to keep up with that tradition.

I sat opposite the cake, took one long deep breath and blew out the candles.

Love the Most and Act the Worst – Mike Hickman

“Don’t you piss on your chips, son,” the old geezer said, but – from the state of the kid’s hands, the result of the nappy dangling from his behind – it wasn’t piss that he needed to worry about.

There were chips, though. Paul’s were served up on a paper plate and he said thank you and then waited for Matthew to be given his. He watched his schoolmate. He was already wrinkling his nose at the cousin with the mucky hands. He was bound to disapprove of the fat chips from the fryer. Paul had seen him notice the lard. But he didn’t wrinkle his nose. He just mumbled “thank you” somewhere into his lap and his grandfather smiled his nicotine-stained, gap-toothed smile, and then turned to the others round the table, stopping another cousin flicking spit wads at his sister and telling his wife to get a move on and dig in. Which she did, slapping spit wad cousin round the head on her way to the table.

“Happy days,” she said, cracking a Special Brew, and indicating the spread. “Knock yourself out.”

“You’re going round his?” Joanna had asked Paul at last break on Friday.

“He invited me,” Paul had told her, “and it’s not his. It’s his grandparents.”

“Same difference.”

“He doesn’t think so.”

“Got a cob on, ‘ave you?” the old geezer was saying.

Matthew looked up, worried that it was addressed at him, but it was spit wad cousin again.

“What is it with you lot? Getting lairy the whole time. Giving me gyp. You should be more like him.” The old geezer’s teeth fair rattled when he talked. They didn’t fit. He waved a chip fork at Matthew as his wife poured HP on her chips like it was gravy.

“Yeah,” spit wad cousin said, ‘why not be more like him? Scrimshaw.” He said the name like it was a swear word, but if he’d meant to swear, he’d have sworn, and he’d have got away with it, too. Matthew’s mother’s side were the Scrimshaws, he’d explained to Paul. But he didn’t get to go to theirs anymore. Not now he was with his dad.

“Why’s he want you to go?” Joanna had asked.

Paul had shrugged, but she’d had the answer anyway.

“He’s going to show off. Posh boy. Hey, you get to see how posh boy lives. Take photos.”

Paul watched Matthew as they cleared the lard chips and they caned it through the Vienetta and they talked of Chav Nav and Sheila down the road with her cob on and how she’d get her upcommence one day. He watched Matthew smile into his lap and never once meet their eyes.

“So?” Joanna asked on Monday morning, “how was it? Did he take you to the theatre or summing?”

Paul shook his head.

“So what’s his lot like, then?” Paul looked over at Matthew in the corner of the playground, with his Harry Potter.

“No different than you’d expect,” he told her.

Mike Hickman is a former academic and (very much current!) writer from York, England. He has written for Off the Rock Productions (stage and audio) and has recently been published in the Blake-Jones Review and the Cabinet of Heed.

New Beginnings – Simon Shergold

Eric walked past the familiar building, the one he knew so well, and turned the corner. Facing him were black iron gates and the stream of maroon jacketed children seemed to pick him up and carry him with their momentum, until he was standing in what could only be described as a non-playground. No climbing frame, no raised beds with vegetables … and no coloured markings on the floor to tell him where to stand. As his brain adjusted to this new world, a blur of tangled limbs wheeled past, spinning him around and landing him on his not so insubstantial backside.

‘Fuck’, he exhaled.

He knew two things about this word. One, he wasn’t supposed to use it. Two, it was the word his mum used when she watched Arsenal on the telly and his dad used when he saw their neighbour, Mrs Otterby, walking up the driveway. Experience told him the word was a sign of bad things – and so was entirely appropriate for him to use now.

‘Fuck’. It came again, indicating the seriousness of the situation.

He felt a tug at his arm and he looked up to see his best friend, Joe, staring down at him. Suddenly bells rang, loud and insistent, and the throng of children started to disperse in all directions, weaving around Eric like water round a rock. Joey hauled him up and guided him to the nearest building and up a flight of stairs. There were already 20 or so boys lined up outside the room – and in the doorway was a grey man with wispy hair and a crooked tie.

Eric looked at him with some confusion. He didn’t seem the sort of man who would play the tambourine in the class song first thing in the morning. He also didn’t appear to be dressed entirely appropriately for the days’ events with paint, water and sand. Eric’s sense of unease only deepened as the class filed in. He took his coat off and looked for his peg. The one with his name on and the panda above the hook. Nothing. Not a panda in sight. Just a row of green metal pegs, most of which were being hijacked by the mob now pushing past Eric.

Finally, he hung his coat and turned to find his seat on Giraffe Table. He’d been king of Giraffe Table for five years or so now and was hoping that –

The tables were in rows. All facing the front. No group setup. No early morning chatter. There was only one seat left, right in front of the grey man. Eric hurried over and stood behind his chair in silence, like all the other boys.

‘Abbot?’ The teacher barked, looking down at his big book. The absence of ‘Yes, Sir’ hovered in the room. Funny, thought Eric. Someone has my second name as his first name.

‘Abbot?’, ‘ABBOT?’ ‘Eric Abbot???’

Suddenly the truth dawned on Eric as eyes turned to him.

‘Fuck’, he answered.

Our Hollowed-Out Past – Mark Sadler

“I feel absolutely no connection to it,” complains Agnes Carr, two decades after her death in the bedroom a few feet from where she now perches, atop a small downward step. She stares into the short, sunlit corridor of the new extension, where she cannot go.

Brian Currie lost his entire right hand after he put it through the wall, into a first-floor room that did not exist when he was alive, pushing some unread books off a shelf in the process.

‘Good thing I didn’t put my head through,’ he says to himself as he stares down at the stump, amused by the thought. He wonders what’s become of his hand; whether it was erased from existence, or if it’s still there on the other side.

Adrian Foyle came down from the attic after they laid floorboards, emerging into the ebbing familiarity of his former home. He found a dust-grimed fragment of old wallpaper clinging to the tanned plaster, behind a vertical pipe, in one of the landing cupboards. He holds onto its curling edge like a security blanket, while the renovators advance through the house, eating up the interior landmarks of his past, leaving its shell intact.

Lin Cozens said “sod it” after they closed the ice cream factory and converted the old building into luxury flats. She went on into the clouded opacity of a light that glimmered a reluctant welcome.

Anthony Crab used to flick his percussion cloth at the drum kit of his old jazz quartet, to the irritation of his replacement. The group has long ago disbanded, its members drifting apart into continents of old age.

“What about the clutch of poisoners that used to be buried under the mistletoe, in the yard at Morleystone prison?” says the Reverend Mary Tomlin. “Don’t think for one moment they were grateful when they were mixed in with the hoi polloi in that choleric sunspot.”

The metal diamond lattice of the round patio table is projected as shadow onto her bare legs, making it look like she is wearing fishnet stockings; a hybrid of vicar and tart.

Mary brooks no argument in her exorcisms. She shoos the dead outside with her cardigan.

“The bishop of Canterbury once told me to do something useful with the shin-bone fragment of St Edward,” I remark. “He said that, if I planted it upright in the vicarage garden, it would banish every ghost within fifty miles.”

“If you did that, it would certainly save me a lot of bother.”

“What do I do when a member of the public turns up wanting to view our holy relic?”

Mary ponders my dilemma for a few moments.

“Buy some spare ribs from the supermarket. Whittle down one of the bones, then stain it with some tea. I doubt anyone will be the wiser.”

Inside, my housekeeper opens the front door to fetch the milk off the step.

A few feet away from me, the back door slams shut.

Ou konn kouri, ou pa konn kache* – Hannah Storm

I knew Haiti I told my editor when I heard about the earthquake. I knew Haiti I told myself boarding the plane, hiring the car to cross the border, passing hillsides stripped of trees and people stripped of everything.

I knew Haiti, I thought as I eked stories from this land where tales transfer between generations and few write down the words.

A decade taught me I did not.

How can anyone know somewhere when the ground is pulled from beneath its people? How can anyone know a place to which they have no legitimate connection but the perverse promise of returning to make amends?

I had visited Haiti twice before in 2004. The first time was with the Brazilian football team, playing a ‘peace match’ against the Haitian side: a fawning display of foreign muscle where Brazil led the peacekeeping mission without keeping peace. The lone female, I rode with other journalists in an armoured personnel carrier. Infront, the world’s most famous players sliced the sewage strewn streets and lifted the golden World Cup. Men, women and children clung from skeletal trees, stood in festering trash, climbed on corrugated roofs for a glimpse. In the greens and yellows of their heroes’ kit, they chanted and waved Brazilian flags with the misnomer ‘Ordem e Progreso’ [Order and Progress]. My mini disc recorded the magic, while I played back the previous evening in our fancy Dominican hotel, across the border. I’d stepped from the lift, and a man in Brazilian kit had pinned me to a wall. My memories are blurry. But I remember studying each player during the match, wondering was it him? Meanwhile the wealthy sat and the poor waited in the heat and filth for their heroes.

I couldn’t get over the disparity. I silenced the noise of my trauma in pursuit of the story of a place long abused by others.

Months later in my hotel high above the Caribbean, Barbancourt burnt my throat. My eyes watered, but I didn’t cry. No rum could negate the roar of gunfire or my guilt. As I drank, white men swaggered, arms tightening the tiny waists of local girls tottering like new born animals. I watched them talk, laugh and disappear into the shadows. I tried to navigate the story of something so normalised in this castle of privilege against a backdrop of pain. But I was scared.

By day, I paid a man with a golden capped smile to drive me to the slum Cite Soleil. In this place that meant Sunshine City, night meant no power and militias who raped women under cover of darkness. I wanted to tell these stories, but couldn’t find the words. I promised to return, but years past.

I knew Haiti, I told myself back in 2010, as I heard the hilltop hotel had collapsed, stealing lives. I knew Haiti I told myself when I returned home, wrecked and ragged.

A decade on, I know I was wrong. I had no right to suppose I knew this place – but with time, I have finally found a way to say I know myself.

(*Haitian proverb meaning: you know how to run, but you don’t know how to hide)

Blue Lagoon – Lou Adderline

Her new friend had called this monstrosity a ‘Blue Lagoon’. But she’d been to an actual lagoon, on holiday in Bali, and nothing there even approached the vivid shade of blue in the martini glass she’d just been presented with.

When she’d been told that moving to university would bring with it a whole swathe of new experiences, encountering new shades of blue was not what she’d thought they meant.

This particular radioactive looking drink must have been put in an inappropriate glass. A ‘Blue Lagoon’ wasn’t a martini. Granted she was not the most avid fan of the James Bond films but she would have remembered if one of 007’s defining features was a tongue the colour of a child’s after too many raspberry sweets. So, wrong type of glass, which didn’t bode well for the quality of the bar she’d been taken to.

In fairness though, visiting a bar was, in itself, a ‘new experience’. Bars had never been her thing. There was a pub at the end of her road where she’d sometimes found herself for family events, christening receptions, non-significant birthdays. That pub had always been familiar enough to be unthreatening, possibly because it had the same trodden paisley carpet as the church function room, as well as the same people.

She must have been eyeing the glass with suspicion for too long because her new friend ventured, “Not like the look of it?”

“I -,” she wasn’t sure what to say. It wasn’t as straight forward as liking or not liking it. Rather, she was just overwhelmed by everything. University was a new stage of her life, she’d moved to a new town, into a new room. She’d spent the last three days meeting a constant stream of new people. They’d asked if she wanted to go to ‘the bar’. A whole new setting. New settings had different rules, rituals, ways to be interacted with that she was having to learn on the fly. It was so loud. Crammed into a booth with the latest set of strangers having conversations in every direction. Her senses were at capacity. Brimming with anxiety that was threatening to spill over the rim if, on top of it all, she now had to interact with this whole new shade of blue.

Her new friend smiled gently from across the table, “You don’t have to drink, you know. You can stick with water.”

“It’s loud.” She replied. Then kicked herself for the non sequitur.

“Wanna go outside for a bit?”

They made their way out of the back entrance into an alley. There were a few sparse huddles of people smoking, the smell mingling with that of the open bins – but overall it was a significant reduction in sensory input.

They stood for a moment in the warm night breeze. She was still gripping the stem of her glass.

“You know – I’m sure those,” her new friend nodded towards the Blue Lagoon, “are meant to come in those big, wavy glasses. I mean, its vodka, it’s not a martini.”

She blinked, “That’s – exactly what I thought.”

She almost didn’t notice herself relax enough to take an absent-minded sip.

Lou Adderline is a recently lapsed academic currently trying to ‘write more’. This is the first piece of fiction she has submitted to a publication. She’s on Twitter @loufuchsia

FROM THE CORONA POEMS – Kathryn de Lyon

VIII. THEY SAID, “THINGS OVER THERE MIGHT BE A LITTLE BIT STRANGE.” (THE ALIENS)

Like the stars we have just travelled through
they are multicoloured and scattered.
So much space between them.
No clusters, no groups,
rarely more than two of them together.

They move away from each other
like planets with strange orbits.
No gravity pulls them together.

A multitude of silent buildings
stand stiff and ignored
like boxes wrapped and waiting
for hands that will never open them.

Countless roads are running everywhere,
endless scratches
with few motorised vehicles
moving over them.

They said things over here
might be a little bit strange.

Indeed, strange creatures,
solitary,
unfriendly,
uncaring.

Perhaps we should not care
either.

Song Lyric Banner2

From Tango Till They’re Sore by Tom Waits (written by Tom Waits)

Chequered – Mike Hickman

One profile photo and two weeks’ worth of texts about what he wanted, what he needed, and every one of them some kind of true, led him there. The Mark in the photograph became a different person. A truer person. The kind who’d respond to ‘stickers’ and ‘likes’ and ‘flirts’. The kind who would then be rewarded, this one (Mark told himself) not-to-be-repeated night, with an invitation first for pre-drinks at her house and then for the kind of night out on the town that the version of him in the photo had never previously had.

That much was also true. He’d told Sylvie that, just as he’d explained what he’d have been doing if he hadn’t accepted her offer.

The third or fourth pub was a micro-brewery – Chequers – and they were packed in too tight, with no chance of the necessary distance he thought he’d need for the one lie he had to tell.

Just the one, to slide underneath all the truth he’d so far presented in plain, easy-to-read, 12 pt. font.

The truth he continued to use against himself, right there, in that Brexity bar with the stippled, rippled bald heads and checked shirts all around. Checked shirts – chequers. Yeah, he’d been amused by that, and told her, too. Possibly within earshot of the bald heads, and she’d been faux scandalised, but it was just the sort of thing that a man like him would say out loud, not thinking of the risk of a bunch of fives in the cake hole.

Sylvie liked him for his inexperience. And all it had taken was the truth. They stood back-to-back against the pillar, and he’d told her the first LP he’d ever bought (Abba – mortifying) and the first film he’d ever seen at the cinema (Young Einstein – worse) and she’d laughed and she’d twinkled and he’d twinkled and he’d thought how easy it was when all he had to do was Tell The Truth.

He was a sensitive soul – every one of his truths had supported that – and so Sylvie took her time working up to the question. It was nearing midnight and now they were in the window of the bar where she’d suggested they might most successfully scandalise the street.

‘Where is she now, then?’ she’d asked.

And he hadn’t needed the lie. Just the truth she expected to hear.

‘Where is she now, then?’ she asks.

Mark looks across the faded consulting room, checks the clock behind the woman’s head, realises that there’s a good ten minutes of the session to go and remembers what she had said about this being the one place where he needs most of all to be honest. Not with her. With himself.

But he had told the truth that night that led to every night – until every night had led to none. It had been plain, simple, easy-to-read, not chequered.

He uses the same words he had used that night.

‘She’s gone to her mother’s,’ he says.

Mike Hickman is a former academic and (very much current!) writer from York, England. He has written for Off the Rock Productions (stage and audio) and has recently been published in the Blake-Jones Review and the Cabinet of Heed.

Confessions of a Moon Child – Nicola Lennon

Once a month or so, the girl would fall
from grace. They took her
by the hand, reciting the way
to ask for forgiveness, rosary beads trailing,
Our Fathers falling
away.

Her father left her in the box. She saw
how he washed away his sins,
filling the font. She waded
through spilt beads until she found
it wasn’t him. It was the moon that took her
home.

She was careful, after that. Good.
She told the priest a tale, reciting
how she pushed a boy. Later,
the moon would shine through stained-
glass sky, and she prayed for a boy
to push.

On her final visit, she confessed
the lie. She brandished it
with a sharpened smile and, there,
she said it. The truth left her tongue like fallen
communion in its full moon
disgrace.

Cabinet Of Heed SOC Stay Safe

Photo Prompts

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Image by MabelAmber via Pixabay

Summer Holidays – Sarah O’Connor

It’s still there. Draped aloft on the wall by the tram stop to attract attention, by some kindly passerby who recognised it as a precious object. Worn but cared for, loose wool strands carefully stitched back in over the years. I pass it twice a week, crossing the bridge on my way to the Co-op for milk or bread or other essentials. Only essentials now of course. And yes, those bottles of wine down the bottom of my basket are essential. Maybe the volume is a bit much for someone living alone but… People said to be kind to myself and a nice Valpolicella is my treat. Nothing cheap obviously. I’ll keep my standards if nothing else.

The thick wool looks increasingly incongruous. It was March back then, and still cold, on the Thursday evening he last came back from the office with winter carried on the breeze. Laden with laptop and office files and a stack of panic buys from Waterstones to keep himself occupied for what he could see coming, he hadn’t noticed it fall from one of his many overstuffed bags for life. Now people pass it in flip-flops and shorts or linen sundresses and despite the cheerful colours calling out, its weight is like a relic from another time. A different world within touching distance – both millimetres and universes away from us. Before the coughs and breathlessness. The lethargy and pain.

I could just claim it of course. Take it from the wall, bury my nose deep within familiar fibres and carry it home to join the rest of his wardrobe. But I can’t. The scarf sits there like graffiti marking his last journey in the world. Before the fever hit and we stayed within our walls. I only spotted it about a month ago when I started doing my own shopping again. And by then it already felt part of the landscape. A shrine to his existence in this place and time. I keep wondering if someone will recognise it. Will they pick it up and return it to me as a symbolic offering? But no-one here knows us. On this anonymous street where even distinctive flourishes like his Tom Baker scarf go unremarked. Of course Sharon next door knows – she saw the parade of official vehicles that morning. Whenever she sees me over the fence, she straightens a spine crooked from years and gardening to give me a serious, sympathetic half-smile. I will let her know if there’s anything she can do, thanks. But there won’t be. We both know that, and perhaps the offer comes from knowing that. I sit and stare at the grass growing tall – it’s past my knees now for lack of his skills with the half-broken lawn mower. I put down the unread tome from his reading pile, take a sip of my chilled Chenin Blanc, and watch some ants as they scurry around my feet.

Monster Maze – Thomas Roberts

Alice was wearing only her nightie which wasn’t nearly enough, all things considered. She was standing on a cold, dark road which was flanked by two grey brick walls. She was alone in the maze – his maze. And there he was, in front of her, semi-transparent and chuckling. The ugly Troll Prince.

‘You’ he said, ‘Ha Ha! You will not find your way through my maze. You will not reach my Castle. You will not earn the right to become my Queen.’ He pointed at her. He wore several large rings with shining stones which looked like they should snap his shrivelled little fingers. Ugh, and his nails were long and brown with filth.

‘When I get to you, I’m gonna…’ she reached out to throttle him, but her hands just passed through.

‘Oh, fair maiden, I am a gentle Troll. We cannot have you freeze to death as you try. No, Ha Ha! Good luck, my dear, in the – Ha! – in my Monster Maze’. He stepped back, and blurred away into non-existence, leaving only a striped scarf in its place.

Marry him? She was going to bloody well kill him.

She kicked gently at the scarf with the end of her toe. It seemed to be just a normal scarf. She picked it up and, satisfied that it wasn’t going to strangle her, put it on. She took a deep breath and set off. She would find the way to his Castle.

On that first day in the maze she saw several small creatures which looked like rodents, though they had very long ears with fluffy whiskers at the end, and they were bright bubble-gum blue. That evening, as the sun fell, an incredible darkness fell between the cold brick walls. Exhausted, she found a corner and fell asleep quickly.

Someone was tugging at her scarf. She opened her eyes in a panic – it was one of the blue creatures sitting cross-legged beside her, pulling it. She reached out and snapped its neck. She hadn’t eaten in a day, and at least now there would be breakfast in the morning.

Days and weeks passed.

The blue vermin had disappeared, she had probably eaten them all – they tasted like mint and had been easy to catch – one day she came across a pair of identical yellow birds and caught one, though the other managed to escape, flying away. It stayed far from her now, and sang a beautiful lament for its dead partner every sunset.

Months passed.

She was so hungry now that she couldn’t move. She couldn’t even bring herself to lick at the moss and morning dew on the walls. She just lay there.

She died there.

She decayed there.

The scarf gradually worked free, finally breaking through her mouldy neck and flying up into the sky, riding the wind for a short while, before finally settling atop one of the grey walls not that far away; right beside the exit of the maze, where there was a gaggle of the small blue creatures and the lonely yellow bird. They were all glad to see the scarf for they understood that the awful monster was now dead. One of the blue critters held a small paw and took the yellow bird’s wing.

“Now we can go home” it said, and they all walked back into the maze together.

Cosplay – Mike Hickman

In 12 foot multi-coloured scarf, cigar-scented maroon velvet jacket and 1970s Bernard Manning comedy club clip-on bow tie, the boy was many things – he was certainly called them, too – but what he was most of all was a collision of Doctors. A provocation of Doctors, if not a deliberate, panama hat topped frustration of Doctors. No Class 10 child from Derby Road Junior was meant to look like he looked. No child in town had perhaps ever tried to look like he looked, not on a Saturday afternoon, not on any afternoon, and certainly not in Fleming Park, amongst the jumpers for goalposts and the dog walkers and the winos. Although, in truth, he wasn’t meant to look like this. Hadn’t even perhaps intended to.

But it was his birthday.

Now, with the internet and the relaxation in mandatory anti-Anorak prejudice, it is possible to get the knitting pattern online. You’ll need size 4 knitting needles and 26 25gm balls of wool in various colours (purple, camel, bronze, mustard, rust, grey, and greenish brown, if you want to get it exactly right). Cast on 60 stitches and then begin – 8 purple rows, 52 camel, 16 bronze, and on and on exactly as Begonia Pope had – you can look her up too; that’s a real name – when James Acheson had given her the wool, told her to knit the scarf, not told her when to stop. The boy had heard the story then and he accepted it as funny. It’s almost certain he would have wanted stories of his own. The costume – they call it ‘cosplay’ now – might have helped, he thought. If he’d had chance to think.

It was a present. Along with the jacket and the bow-tie his father had worn once in 1977 to a do that may or may not have involved naked ladies.

Someone must have said he would like it. A scarf, you know, like that “Doctor ‘oo” off the telly. That bloody thing he talks about all the time, when he’s not reading about it. He wants to look like him. He’s got the hair, too. He won’t have it cut. Looks like a bloody circus clown. Why not knit him the scarf? That’ll keep him happy.

It didn’t. Not then. And none of it went. If he’d joined the kids jeering and throwing spit wads, he’d have said it was all Wrong, all of it. Not just the length of the scarf and the colours, but you couldn’t have the Pertwee jacket and the McCoy hat together in the same place. It was all Wrong. As wrong as the boy on the mound in Fleming Park, as if put there for Obloquy’s sake. And still there years later, too.

But. He had been a collision and a provocation of Doctors out there in front of them that day. He had worn the scarf. He had looped it round that moment and he had pulled himself out and over.

He would wear it again.

All Was Left A Scarf – Fred McKenney

So what do we have now
I see it from the window
the neighbor’s daughter
must have gotten out again
poor thing, she walks
and doesn’t know yet
what happens when you
step outside your depth
we have walls now
and fears, with phantom
images at play in our front lawns,
– simulated hopscotch
and I’ll pretend the children’s
laughter is all I miss,
but that girl, she’s gone too
(dissolved like all the others)
and the unkempt yard
overrun with ghosts.

The Edge of Tomorrow – Geraldine Renton

We danced.
We sang.
We drank.
We fell in love with strangers.
We drank some more.
The night became close to dawn as we strolled through the uninhabited streets of Galway.
We ambled past the Spanish Arch as the sun rose over the old long walk.
We wandered towards the Claddagh and sat with our legs dangling over the water’s edge.
Swans began to make their way toward us, despite us repeatedly telling them we had nothing for them only vodka.
We sat side by side and watched them seamlessly float along the still water, ever hopeful.
We didn’t speak.
Maybe, we each knew that this was the end; right here, right now.
We broke the silence only to recall drunken snippets of the night before.
We felt, for now, time had stood still,just for us.
We sat for another while longer, we were in no rush.
We laughed about the things we did over the years and marvelled aloud about what was yet to come.
“Are we doing anything today?” I glanced down our line of four.
“Don’t think so. I’ve to go home and pack,” she shaded her eyes from the heightening sun.
“Yeah me too”, “Yep me in all” echoed the final voice.
Deflated, I peered down at the water and watched the swans veering closer to our feet.
Slowly I bobbed my head up and down.
We drained the last of the vodka before getting up.
“Halloween, so?” I inquired.
“Ah hello?! Halloween!” They traded glances before adding “We will do our best! But definitely Christmas”
“Well, that will be some night then, eh?” I grinned.
“Yep, for sure” they all agreed.
I yanked my scarf up off the ground, shaking the final pieces of grass loose.
They began to chuckle -“What are we going to do without you, the one who always brings something for us to sit on?!”
“My dad assumed I was telling him that I was gay when he saw it.”
We all cracked up.
“In fairness, I’m impressed your dad knows it’s a pride scarf!”
I contemplated Would I ever have friends like this again?
“Well, it’s actually just a multicoloured scarf, but it could be used for pride, I suppose” I studied my scarf.
“Here take it, sure wouldn’t it be grand in the big smoke for ya” I passed it to her.
She held it, “You sure?”
“Absofuckinglutely…plus it guarantees at least YOU will come back, it’s not for keeps though, my dad likes it too” I winked.
“He might be trying to tell you something!”
We all laughed.
“We will be back soon, promise” we hugged for a moment.
I’d miss them more than they would miss me, I knew that much was true.
We walked through the awakening city, arm in arm, before getting into four separate taxis.

 

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Image by sasint via Pixabay

Sanctuary – Judy Darley

Mo wasn’t in the mood for the tourists this morning. Tata could see that from the rigidity of her ears and the way she tried to swish the stump that was all that remained of her tail. While visitors rushed to feed other elephants, he shielded Mo from them, clucking to her softly.

“Elephants have moods like we do,” he told a white-blonde child who crept close. “Mama Mo tired so we her give space.”

Mo was the old grandma of the group. She’d spent her youth carrying tourists before that was frowned upon.

Given the choice, he knew Mo would be alone with her thoughts, remembering the family she’d lost, the men who’d taken her, and the one who’d cruelly severed her tail. When she arrived at the sanctuary two decades ago, she’d held a calf in her belly; he remembered it shifting beneath his palm in the vastness of her womb.

“Touch firm, so she knows it’s you,” he recalled his father teaching him. “Otherwise you’re like a mosquito, not much anything good.”

He watched as the child withdrew to stand a short distance away. Her quietness contrasted sharply with the youngsters shrieking, waving food and retreating from searching trunks. At first, he wondered if she was afraid, but the look she and the elephant shared was one of curiosity, of trust. It had taken him months to earn Mo’s confidence that soundly.

She held a small cucumber in her hand but made no move to offer it to Mo.

“You want to feed her?” he asked.

The child didn’t respond.

Mo’s trunk swayed outwards, exploring the scents in the air.

“You tease Mo,” he warned. “She smell cucumber and don’t know why you don’t give it her.”

He left Mo’s side and walked to the child. She blinked at him as he gently lifted her arm. “Come closer,” he said, but it was Mo who stepped forward, not the child.

He showed the girl how to hold the cucumber where Mo could grasp it, her trunk tip as sensitive as human fingers. The child’s eyes widened as Mo’s breath huffed over her and the trunk curled upwards, coiling the cucumber onto her fleshy tongue. The girl’s laughter was almost noiseless, punctuated by small gasps. She glanced from Mo to Tata and returned his beam, clapping small hands with a patter like rain on banana leaves.

Tata and Mo watched as the child ran to her waiting parents, who’d been observing throughout, Tata realised now. Her fingers danced in the air, painting a story of courage, wonder and joy. The parents signed back, and the mother mouthed a thank you to Tata across the sanctuary.

When the other elephants marched to the pool where tourists would cloak them in mud, Tata allowed Mo to lead him to the spot where she liked to stand and gaze. He rubbed her shoulder, as high as he could reach, feeling the thick skin move beneath his hand.

Judy Darley is a British writer who can’t stop writing about the fallibilities of the human mind. Her fiction has been published in the UK, New Zealand, India, US and Canada, and performed in Hong Kong. Judy’s short story collection Sky Light Rain is out now. Find Judy at http://www.SkyLightRain.com and https://twitter.com/JudyDarley.

 

Where Buddha meets Bambi – Bayveen O’Connell

When you visit Nara, Japan’s first capital, you will most likely be frisked by Bambi or one of his cohort. Roaming Nara Park freely, resting, and grazing, these deer are considered to be a National Treasure. So if one trots over all spindly legged, with perfect eyelashes and candelabra antlers but you don’t have any of the coveted shika senbei (specially made deer crackers available from park vendors), this deer is wont to stick its muzzle in your pocket and chew up your map or tissues. Don’t fear though, these rather tame Sika aren’t all pushy. Although I did see one young woman yelping and zig-zagging down the road being chased by a cheeky one; it would be unfair to think of the deer as pests due to the fact that they are constantly being pursued by tourists with selfie sticks seeking the perfect Insta snap. The locals don’t bat an eyelid if a deer is sniffing around outside a 7 Eleven convenience store, and look on amused while the Sika and the visitors negotiate their own, often comical, symbiosis.

You were wondering what’s so special about these animals and why they have the run of the park and city? Legend has it that the Shinto god of thunder, Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto, rode into Nara on a white deer over a millennium ago. Takemikazuchi and three other gods became absorbed into the Kasuga Taisha Shrine, leaving the Sika as their messengers and protectors of the city.

Some tourists go to Nara just to hang out with the deer, others for its second biggest attraction: the Daibutsu or 15m bronze Buddha statue housed in one of the world’s largest wooden buildings, Todai-ji Temple. The Daibutsu, which was my main draw, is a vast sight to behold and well worth running the gauntlet of curious Sika. I stood in front of the Buddha and craned my neck to take in the whole tableau of the gargantuan sitting deity lit up from behind by a golden halo of smaller buddhas. After traversing the temple in an anti-clockwise flow, noting the warrior protectors that flanked the Daibutsu on both sides, I took one last stare at him, marvelling at this feat of art and engineering dating back to the 700s. Given that this was the busiest of all the temples I’d visited in Japan, I didn’t feel any calmness or inner peace but that was restored on the long walk back out of the park. And there was a deer waiting for me just beyond the Nandai gate as evening was starting to fall.

A world away from the Celtic horned god Cernunnos, the elusive herbivores of The Phoenix Park, and carrots I left out for Rudolph in my formative years, I strolled the way I came passing more posing Sika, some of them bowing for a biscuit. The souvenirs I’d passed earlier near the train station suddenly made sense: little laughing bald guys with horns. Of course, nothing marries Nara more than a horny Buddha.

 

One Evergreen Autumn – Mark Sadler

I was a crater wirer during the early years of the second great war. I am neither proud, nor ashamed of it. I knew my way around explosives so that’s what I did. We operated in teams of three, wiring the shell craters with booby traps. It was battlefield terrorism. Getting your enemies into a mindset where they were wary of taking cover.

Burma was an entirely different kettle of fish. It was jungle warfare. The enemy could strike at you from any direction. The only trenches were the natural ones that had been dug out by the forest elephants. I suppose that it made it easier for them to move around between the trees. It made it somewhat easier for us to move supplies around too, although there were risks attached.

We were camped where the beak of the savannah penetrated the forest. Nearby there was a church run by evangelical missionaries. When I returned to Burma, thirty years later, the only remnant of the Christian faith in the area were the hallelujah apes. They were descendants of the gibbons who had learned to crudely mimic the hymns that were sung by the revivalist congregation. They could never get to grips with the melodies, but they had the rhythmic structure down pat. They’re a tourist attraction now. Hearing them again; it brought back bad memories.

Buddhism always seemed a better fit for the country. During the war, you would sometimes spot the monks, in their saffron robes, wandering through the trees while the fighting was going on, as if everything was normal. They would sit cross-legged in the jungle trenches meditating. Every elephant who ambled past would very-gently lay down a single green leaf at their feet, as if they were bestowing a blessing.

One of the local guides told me: “The elephants are on a journey. They recognise the monks as travellers on the same path.”

“If they carry on much further south-west they’ll hit the Bay of Bengal,” I replied.

“Maybe these elephants no longer wish to inhabit the land,” he said. “They are making the long journey back to the water.”

Then he put his hand on my arm and said: “Who is wiser?”

Our patrols were being routinely ambushed. There was a feeling that somebody was leaking information. Suspicion fell on the monks.

One morning, we were moving heavy supplies through the jungle trench network. There was a young man mediating in the middle of the path, blocking our way. After he repeatedly failed to acknowledge our requests for him to move, I shot him in the head. Nobody told me to do it. We’d lost a few men the night before. Him sitting there in a trance, like none of it mattered, was the final straw for me.

When we came back later, there was a fresh pile of green leaves where the body had been.

In the trees, the gibbons hooted a discordant chorus of All Things Bright and Beautiful.

 

Expiation – Mike Hickman

Do I give this to you because I want you to take it, or because you want to take it from me? Is this some kind of need, on your part as well as mine? Is it dependency if you are just there and I do not ask before weighing you down? And where does ‘just’ come into it when I don’t question how you come to find me here in this place? When we don’t so much as exchange a look before the offering – when I do not need to explain what I am handing to you as you reach to take it? As I assume so very readily that you can.

You know, of course, that I cannot explain what it contains – that much is unspoken. And yet you come, from how far away I won’t ask, and you don’t mind. You sit, seeming content, and I trust to the contentment without needing to see it because I have seen it before. Somewhen. Before I realised – did I? – what you were content to take. Realised what you could bear.

I feel you’d prefer not to tell me why you would so willingly accept the offering. Is this some kind of symbiosis? Is that the word? Or is it a form of desire? You look like you’d know – your eyes, they tell me that you’d know. Simpatico, perhaps? Is that what we could one day have again, even if I’m not sure we had it before?

Do I give this to you because you need to receive it from me? Because you’ve waited for this? Because our past, I’ve learned – is it learning? – was without the sharing that would have confirmed that there was properly something between us?

Did I realise – did you tell me? – how one-sided it had all been, that I wouldn’t ‘open up’? I remember those words, even if not who said them. It has to be two-way, this sort of thing. Whatever this sort of thing happens to be.

Did you tell me that?

It has to be two-way. But in order to receive, I first have to give. I have to commit to give. I have to know that you can bear what I am carrying.

So is this expiation? Do I give this to you because I’ve realised – or you’ve told me – that it will stand as expiation for the hitherto unshared and the half of us that wasn’t? And if you sit and you wait and you take it from me on those terms, can I be happy with that? Can I be happy with it being more about the recognition that you can receive – that I have been wrong in the past to assume that you can’t – and that the contents of the container matter less than this one act of recognition as it passes from me to you. As you are there, as you have always been, to take it?

Is that what this is? As ever, I pass.

 

Cabinet Of Heed SOC Stay Safe

One Word Prompts

Soup Banner

Soup – Taiwo Patrick Akanbi

the hollow-settler
always sizzling with joy
with bubbling stares while
its ironclad house is seated on fire

finger-licking tongue-biting suasion
cheek-activating mouth-watering sensation
the no-eye-swallow escort
and full-eye-baring-grain transporter

the style-trender
garnished with varying seasonings
for supping times, all seasons borne
at its nap-hour, it makes-up with spreading oil

with enough spicy-pepper
hot-to-the-taste, and tongue rending
a delicious soup speaks to the eye
devouring it, is its savouring

Minestrone – Mike Hickman

57 varieties, twenty thousand genes, forty-six chromosomes, 45p.

Diploid cells contain all forty-six chromosomes. Chromosomes contain DNA.

The can contained Minestrone. The cheap kind. It looked like something you’d find on the pavement on a Saturday morning.

DNA is the blueprint, its bases arranged in pairs. There are six billion base pairs and their sequences result in proteins – proteins that can be mutated; mutations that then result in hair colour, height, behaviour.

They don’t have to be fatal.

The cupboard was all cans. Some of them had labels. The Minestrone didn’t. It was a “surprise”. We liked those. We were told we did. The first three out of the cupboard had been Ambrosia Devon Custard. She liked Ambrosia Devon Custard. They were decanted into a bowl and put in the fridge with the single block of Cheddar and the single two finger Kit-Kat. There was no need to account for those. They’d last her a week, easy.

I reached in for a fourth can. The fourth can was the Minestrone.

45p.

Promoters and Inhibitors result from alterations to the genetic code. Promoters and Inhibitors control neurotransmitters. Dopamine. Serotonin. The gas and brake pedals of the brain, so the books say. Too much of one and you’ve got depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, panic attacks. Psychopathy. Too much of the other and things happen.

Things happen.

The frontal cortex goes offline and, before you know it, you don’t need to know it. You’ve done it.

So the books say.

There was no label on the tin and no knowledge of the contents until the lid was removed.

Watery, brackish, rust-coloured, thin.

45p.

“You opened it,” she said, “you eat it.”

Neurotransmitters. Dopamine and Serotonin. Just how much they affect you depends on your genetic make-up. Depends, too, on enzymes such as MAO-A, to break them down when they’ve done their thing; to stop them signalling. And from this breakdown – or not – comes further behaviour – or not. Emotion, aggression, sexuality. Everyone different. More than 57 varieties.

I’d opened it so I’d eat it. She’d said so. The lid said 45p. I had 45p.

I went over to the hob – for some reason, they were all watching, so perhaps they knew this was coming – and I went to turn the dial – it came off in my hand, I remember that. No-one laughed.

Given the sheer number of combinations of genes – the role of glutamate and amino acids and more besides – there are thousands of different “normal” frontal cortices, and millions of different ways in which neurotransmitters can be pulled out of the synapses. Can be terminated.

“You’ve paid me for the soup,” she said, “but you’ll take the electricity without thinking, won’t you?”

She’d been working up to it. No matter which one of the cans I’d pulled out of the cupboard, it was all leading here. She was waiting on my response. She’d got the others there to see me shame myself. Again.

The shame I struggle to understand in the soup of Me.

Me and Gran – Simon Shergold

It turns out that Oxtail is the best soup if you are going to poison someone. Something to do with the rich beefy stock and the tangy, smoky aftertaste that defies better description. The depth of flavour hides the bitterness of rat poison apparently. Who knew? Not me. I went with minestrone, thinking that ‘variety of flavours’ would do the trick. How wrong I was and, now, here I am.

Me and gran would share a bowl of soup every day for lunch. Routine was our watchword, ever since she’d taken me in when my relationship with my parents became too angry. She’d always seen the good in me, unlike others, and forgiven my outbursts with a smile and a cuddle. I loved her. And I loved her house – I mean, really loved it. I loved the garden, with its willow tree dangling in the breeze, the branches and leaves creating a natural tent for me to feel safe in when things got too much. My room was at the top of the stairs, overlooking my haven, and the smell of gran’s cooking – full English, roast dinner, whatever I fancied – would waft under the door and call me downstairs. Which is why it might seem strange that I decided to poison her.

I think it started when she gently enquired as to when I might look for a job. ‘’Bout time I think, love’ she said, (over a bowl of pea and ham). I nodded assent and thought that would be the end of it. But, as the days went on, she became more persistent;

‘I need some help with the rent, love’ (Cream of chicken).

‘A chance to meet people your own age, love’ (Mulligatawny).

‘Little bit of independence, love’ (Tomato and Basil).

Each bowl and each conversation chipped away at that thing in my head that caused all the trouble with my parents. By the time we reached ‘You’ll have your own money. Maybe get some driving lessons, love’ (Oxtail – missed opportunity), I’d resolved that, drastic as it was, gran had to go.

I was careful with the rat poison, didn’t want to go overboard. I told her I’d make lunch for us. Went to the bakers to get our crusty rolls – gran likes them with seeds, I prefer them plain – and picked up the minestrone from the corner shop. I remember standing over the stove, the saucepan bubbling the little pieces of veg and pasta against the burnt orange of the broth. I remember ladling it out and I remember gran starting to eat; no slurping, she was a soup specialist.

‘Warren’ barks a voice. Not a nice voice like the doctors who work here but a nasty one.

‘Visitor’. Just two words, two commands.

I enter the white room, tables and chairs spread out. And there she is. Gran. I take a seat opposite and she reaches out a hand.

‘Hello, love’, she says.

‘Hi gran’, I answer.

‘Love you’.

‘Love you too’, I reply.

Even if the pencil fades – Colin Alcock

It was right at the bottom of her shopping bag. The one she still clutched tightly after the bomb; a crumpled heap under the rubble. Leatherette, black and maroon, scuffed and scarred, with long use and broken bricks; one handle crudely repaired after the time she tripped on the kerb and sent her meagre haul of groceries rolling down the gutter; her day’s prize, a small roll of brisket splayed beyond use, under the wheels of a bus.

So many years since then. But I kept the bag. Though I never delved deep, until today. Now in my hand, her last thoughts, perhaps. Written down on a small, feint ruled page, torn from the little blue, spiral bound pocketbook she kept, with a pencil, on the kitchen windowsill. ‘Can’t trust my memory these days,’ she’d say. ‘I have to write it down, as soon as I think of it.’ It brings back memories, as I read.

Bread
She used to make her own. Beautiful, sharp crusted loaves, so soft inside, some served warm with butter bought straight from the farm, brought around by pony and trap. Then we had to move into the town. Dad’s job. Three years later the war.

Rice
Creamy puddings turned to sloppy milky ones, to make the rice go further. And oft times semolina instead.

Sugar
Not wasted in tea, anymore. Rationing. Used sparingly. Sometimes for sandwiches to give us energy for school. If there was no jam. Occasionally, condensed milk.

Bovril
Not just for gravy; as a warming drink against winter’s cold or mixed with the sparse mince and oatmeal for cottage pie. Dad had the largest portion, until an exploding shell took him from us. At the munitions factory.

Soup
She must have been saving points. Tinned stuff was extra to ordinary rations. A luxury for her, after boiling up meat bones and vegetable scraps to make a greasy broth. I never told her it made me feel sick. Especially when we had no bread. Or it was mostly cabbage.

Butcher’s
No longer her own choice. That would be leg of pork, slow roasted to fall away, as it was carved; roast potatoes, cabbage and baby carrots (all grown in our back garden, before we lost Dad); lashings of real gravy and an apple sauce. Now, only a dream. Now, only what the butcher can find for her allowed fourteen pence. Old pence. Nothing, if you don’t get there early.

Butter
She’d normally buy this alternate weeks, 4 oz at a time. Reckoned just 2 oz would melt away by the time she got home.

Potatoes
The staple diet, next to bread, and like most vegetables, not rationed. Just scarce. Unless you grew your own.

And there it ends. A crumpled list. A mirror on her life. Even if the pencil fades, the memories never will.

Colin Alcock is a septuagenarian storymaker, mainly of shorter works, who has published two collections and three novels. Swopped to fiction from copywriting, in retirement, and writes simply for the love of words and the images they can create.
Website: http://colinalcock.co.uk Twitter: https://twitter.com/ColinAlcock

The Rules of Contagion – Judy Darley

Ms Elba tells us we’re doing an experiment to consider how germs spread. I wonder how it compares to the ‘blue eyes, brown eyes’ test my big brother did last year. He wanted to do it with me when he came home, but got cross because my eyes are green.

The Rules of Contagion is different. Our class is down to twelve kids with parents who are key workers; the rest are being homeschooled. Ms Elba designates four of us germ carriers. “You have germs on your hands,” she tells us. “Some will transfer to anything you touch.”

I can feel miniscule monsters wiping their dirty feet all over my palms.

Lisa Marwell goes to the art sink. “Happy birthday to you,” she sings as she scrubs, going through the song twice. “Happy birthday dear Cornona, happy birthday to yooou.”

When the four of us sit down, an invisible circle opens around us. It’s like ‘blue eyes, brown eyes’, only worse.

Everyone’s making paper rainbows to thank the NHS and other key workers. I ask Liam Gibbs for the classroom scissors. He pretends not to hear. I snatch them from his hands and he screams like I stabbed him.

Ms Elba sends me to the corner.

My nose is running, but I’m scared to wipe it in case the germs get inside, so I let my nose-juice drip onto the wall.

The scissors lie on the table where I dropped them.

When I’m allowed to my seat, I crayon a big black cloud instead of a rainbow and tear it a grumpy mouth.

One germ-carrier has an asthma attack and goes to the nurse.

In the playground, another gets sent to the headteacher after punching a classmate.

Lisa sits atop the climbing frame, fake-coughing whenever anyone approaches.

I stare at my hands. Maybe I can teach the germs tricks, like a flea circus.

Maybe I’ve washed them off already.

At 3pm, Ms Elba waves goodbye and encourages us to stick rainbows in our windows.

I show her my raincloud with its torn-out mouth. Her eyes widen, but she tells me expressing feelings is important, especially sad and angry ones.

Mum collects me at the gate and we walk the long way home.

“Tell me something funny,” I beg, swinging my bag.

“Oh.” She thinks. “A patient on my ward says lockdown is the best time of his life. He feels part of something again.”

I don’t get why that’s funny. “Anything else?”

“Um, someone I know is using their time to whittle spoons.”

“Didn’t they have any?”

“They had plenty. Another person I know is spending whole days digging up cauliflower, cabbage and spinach to simmer into soup.”

“Your soup-maker sounds lonely,” I say. “So does the spoon-whittler. You should introduce them.”

“I should, shouldn’t I?” Mum beams. We reach a hopscotch some homeschooled kids have chalked and take turns to hop, skip, and jump – arms in the air in a silent, unending cheer.

Judy Darley is a British writer who can’t stop writing about the fallibilities of the human mind. Her fiction has been published in the UK, New Zealand, India, US and Canada, and performed in Hong Kong. Judy’s short story collection Sky Light Rain is out now. Find Judy at http://www.SkyLightRain.com and https://twitter.com/JudyDarley.

All the things you cannot buy – Cath Barton

It was in another country, another world, time stolen out of time. I remember the ferry, the warmth of the night air and of you behind me at the rail of the boat, your mouth on my neck. Cut now to the two of us standing by the side of the road – for what I remember as hours, but memory plays tricks – until finally a car stopped, a man who recognised us for what we were, said he knew a place.

It was no more than a roadside bar, and Madame ne parlait pas anglais, mais oui, une chambre. Yes, they had a room. She winked at me, or I imagine now that she would have done. A young girl and an older man. Oh là là. They really do say that in France, though in this case it would have been behind the closed door of the kitchen, after she had left us alone in the little room with the iron bedstead and a sink in the corner.

They were – I don’t think memory deceives me here – delighted, this Madame and Monsieur. He cooked, she served. There might have been the odd local drinking at the bar. Or there might have been just the two of us. We were hungry for everything there was, in those few days – the sun, the château down the road, the wood where we lay together. And, bien sûr, the food.

I think this was on the second night. Soup, bright green in colour and sharp in taste.

‘Qu’est-ce que c’est, s’il vous plaît, ce potage?’

‘C’est de l’oseille, Mademoiselle.’ She stood there, smiling.

All we could do was smile back and laugh and say it was good, très bon. We had no idea what ‘oseille’ meant. I thought I knew French, hadn’t taken a dictionary.

I remember nothing of the journey home, just the bleakness of the aftermath, and dark blue sheets on my single bed where I hugged my memories close. Later I dragged out my big French dictionary and looked up ‘oseille.’ Sorrel, it said. But it turned out that, along with everything else I really wanted, I couldn’t buy it. It would, I thought, have to just be one of those memories which time would erode and tarnish.

But it has followed me through my life, that elusive herb, the sorrel that makes the best soup. I found it growing in the first garden I could call my own, a patch of South London earth. And I discovered how to recreate the soup, or at least an approximation of the memory. The tang of it. By some quirk that I cannot explain, the plant has turned up in every garden I’ve had since. The memory is rekindled each time as I fry onions and boil up potatoes. The soup looks unremarkable, unassuming. Until I take it off the heat, add the herb and whizz it up. The green is shocking. It is the colour of my life. And the taste of my hope.

Perils of Staying Safe – G J Hart

Day 1

Why now the rumble
of history’s
stone and sappless
fields and dusty
skies beckoning me
lay down
your blanket.

Day 3

And why now
Your call – decades
late, tongue mad
as a hugged
cat as storms roared
and pain out-paced
the hit.

Day 9

And strange the world
now mirrors me – exactly
how collapse
looks in a quiet
room – the walls
folding in on
my creases.

Day 15

And wastes
Of coffee, tundras
of news, peeling
each day like battered
soup – knowing
on Mars our minds
still drill
rock.

Day 28

Is this a stage darling?
I couldn’t be angrier –
no habit, no ritual, best
to stand strong – punch
till your eyes
droop.
You can do it.

Day 90

Land, land –
a mistake the sea
never make and my body
cups no breeze,
my belly broken
ice – portents poor
sailor – you boat
bears it’s own
rock.

Soup – Basila Hasnain

Soup- we call it curry here, the soup as you know it. But there are Soup stalls you’d know nothing about: the semi-solid broths served under the names of Asli* Chinese Soup, or American Choupsy Soup or more presumptuous one, World’s Best English Soup. Of course, these, you see, are seasonal stalls that appear around Model town roundabout, Moon market outskirts and township bazar.

The boys standing at the stalls waiting for a car to pace down, slow just a bit so that they could just leap onto it’s windshield ,waving the menu card with oil marks and grease-coat , thrusting it forward hampering the hasty drivers heedless of horns. There’s urgency in their wish to sell. A daily wager’s urgency to make it through the day with at least a hundred rupee including tips if it’s their luckiest day. It’s an anxious urgency of a con, who knows it’s not exactly soup, they don’t even know half of the ingredients that go into making a soup. They better sell while the pots are hot and weather, chill. It’s the rush of a local Lahori who knows it’s only through the short period of December to January and maybe half of February too.

This year winter was long, this year they had better chances too, this year the stalls have added an extra few pots meaning making extra rounds of soup bowls too. But this year with winter virus came along. An alien diction, a strange commotion everywhere, an unprecedented silence- there were no business for street food sellers, no whizzing cars, no customers- The stalls were brought to stand still inside the borrowed garages and places. The hungry sales boys, mostly preteens, fired. There was no business. Everyone said so. They said we are all going to suffer, the rich, the poor- daily wagers and billionaires together? This’d be an amusing conceit of conditions, if it was believable by any measure. You don’t see them dying for basic needs, you don’t see them choosing between health or hunger. But they say, it’s all the same, everywhere. The poor are, globally, in more trouble. This’d appease the misery of their struggles if it was to be over in some foreseeable future. This now seemed like an endless tunnel of morbid blackness and despondence. There’s no refuge from now and no promises of quantum leaps in coming days after the pandemic’s termination. The resulting hunger, poverty and hopelessness seems like a tedious dénouement to the current conditions. What else could you expect when the pessimists are mute, and the optimists are hoping for a day of judgement?

Basila Hasnain is an inspiring Pakistani writer, currently working as a faculty member in LCWU, Lahore since 2016. Recently, two of her papers were published and presented in Research Journal Of Language And Literature (RJLL) and 1st National Conference on Linguistic Challenges in Regional Integration and Globalization.

Fuel Banner

Upward, like flowing silk – Mark Sadler

“Safety!” declared Michael Sams.

Across the table, the new boy lifted his mug a few inches above the drying arc of a fresh tea stain.

“To safety,” he replied, quietly.

“It completely ruined the sport,” continued Michael.

Scattered laughter. The boy got up and made a slow retreat into the oily gloom of the garage, where he leaned against the lip of the counter, with his back to the sink. A grease strain on the cement floor pooled around his feet like a bruised shadow.

“You’ve embarrassed the lad,” said Brian Miles. “If he’d wanted to be insulted he could have stayed in Cambridge and had it done by qualified experts.”

Michael glanced across his shoulder towards the kitchenette.

“Don’t be like that,” he said.

The boy rejoined the table in a different chair, making steady eye contact with his tormentor.

“We used to cook our own fuel,” said Michael. “You refined the basic product until you arrived at something that would move you rapidly through the gears, like flowing silk. Every team had a recipe.

“I worked for Boughton, when it was on the bones of its arse. They was based at a country house in Suffolk. Their neighbours were giving them grief over the engine testing. Said that it was frightening their dairy cows. I was staying in one of the groundskeepers cottages. I used to clay-pigeon shoot everyday before breakfast.

“There was an American team called Skeete. They were paying over the odds for talent so I made the jump. I got the call to go down to Edden Speedway. I walked into the garage. Matt Skeete was there with two of his engineers. Germans lads. I used to called them Bill and Ben. They was perched on wooden footstools, peering over the sides of a massive vat of fuel. On a trestle table there was what looked liked someone’s weekly shop. Fruit and vegetables. Loads of this skin-lightening cream you can only buy in the Gulf States. They began adding it to the mixture.

“Matt looks up at me and he says: ‘How’d you like to help us win the World Championship, next year?”

The boy smiled without emotion:

“I know how this story ends.”

“I thought we’d replicate the recipe,” replied Michael, indignantly.

He dragged a handwritten list from his pocket.

“Why don’t you go into town and pick this lot up?”

A flicker of hurt registered in the boy’s eyes. He pursed his lips like he wanted to say something. Instead settled for swinging his jacket violently over his shoulder as he exited.

“Not a mark on him,” said Michael.

Alan Busby rocked on the bent pin of his chair leg.

“Future of the sport, isn’t it,” he mused.

“What was really on that list?” asked Brian.

“A few things the missus asked me to pick up.”

Outside there was the roar of an over-revving engine and the screech of tires.

The Collection – Amanda van Niekerk

Gary was taken aback; aggrieved even. It showed on his face.

Come on Bru, he said. It’s lockdown. You’ve got plenty here to see you through. More than enough. Please Man, just one.

Dawid laughed– the sound filling the 2 metres of sacred space between them. He took a small step back. Tension can cause contraction– he needs to maintain the distance.

Well, we don’t know that for sure, he said.

The bottle in his hand was dusty, the label faded. This one says 1992, he said. It’s all down to pot luck now. I just don’t know what I’m going to get. Some of these are probably not even ok for cooking with. He laughed again— a short laugh. He slid the bottle back into its slot in the crate, its slim, dark neck pointing outward alongside other necks of other bottles.

Gary’s face hardened– a tightening at the jaw, a frown pulling at his eyebrows. Oh come on. You’ve got like ten bottles there. And they’re probably all fine. Please Man, I’m asking you. Just one to keep me going. Don’t make me beg Man, it’s embarrassing. Come on, you owe me that favour, you know you do.

Dawid was holding his breath now, his cheeks puffed up. Tension hummed in the silence. He exhaled loudly.

Sorry Gaz– extreme circumstances. Not a good time to be discussing favours. Seriously, I need to hang onto these babies. God only knows when these restrictions will be lifted. Sorry Man, but I’m taking no chances here.

Again he laughed. Tentative.

Hey, maybe you should have been better prepared. We were warned remember? We all knew.

The space between them shimmered. Sunlight entered the gaps, striking the dark glass of the necks of bottles.

Fucking ridiculous. Gary was pulling his jacket from the back of the chair, heading towards the door in the same stride.

So much for friendship, huh? He paused, turning, his movement abrupt, one finger raised and pointed at Derek– at his chest. You like to see me sweat, don’t you? To see me run. Well I won’t be forgetting this.

The phone call from the security company next morning was brief: Sorry to hear that Mr Scheepers. There’s been a spike in petty crime in the area since lockdown. The guys on the other side are getting restless, you know?

Dawid waited.

Yup, he said.

So what exactly is missing, Mr Scheepers? Anything of value?

Dawid paused, his breath was puffed up in his cheeks. He exhaled loudly.

Not much. Around three hundred bucks in cash, and some change. And a bottle of red wine.

Mr Celery – Lou Adderline

The man’s hand curls around the base of my stem and hauls me upside down. He turns on the tap and the water gushes over me. Streaming down my green body, splitting at the delta of my leaves and finally reaching the sea of the sink drain. He thumbs the grooves that dirt sank in when I grew inside the soil.

I’m clean now. I’m ready for the machine. The silver bullet centrifuge that will tear me. Fibre from fibre. Until I’m something he thinks he needs me to be.

This is a strange and desperate development. We have been cultivated since antiquity. Our stalks and leaves and salts and stems and seeds. We’ve been useful. Perhaps too useful. Perhaps these unmeetable expectations are of our own doing.

I am a vegetable – perhaps I cannot conceptualise immortality. But I know I cannot make this man immortal. Every morning, he performs this same ritual on his kitchen counter. He’ begging. He thinks I can save him. I have no means to verbalise that I cannot save him. I have no vocal chords. If I had, I should scream it.

He plugs in the cable and flicks a switch. The machine begins to hum, soft but anticipatory. He throws us inside. A blinding, deafening buzz whirls me around and I become something changed. A neon green liquid in a pint glass – highlighter fluid with the coarse stench of salted earth.

Every morning, he cleanses us and liquidates us and drinks us to cleanse himself. Now, all that’s left is waiting. So, we sit in the glass and wait. Fibres floating to the top as our entwined molecules attempt to reverse entropy. It’s ill-fated. He will stir up before he drinks.

Our mission isn’t clear. I am food. Food is fuel? I can follow the metaphor. Becoming caloric intake comes naturally. A calorie is not an arcane thing. No one had told us what a toxin is though. I do not understand how to fight them. What is it I am meant to fight?

He reaches for the glass and tips it into his mouth. Nose pinched. Gulping and guzzling and gagging at the taste. He is trying to brew the elixir of life. There was no philosopher’s stone, there was no fountain of youth. You cannot convert mercury to gold and if you try it will poison you. His kitchen counter alchemy will fail and, as he swallows, I am so sorry.

Lou Adderline has spent most of her life in a village in the North of England. She is on Twitter @LouFuchsia. This is her first time writing from the point of view of a vegetable.

Soup Banner

Stirring – Meagan Lucas

I stand with my back to the shrieking, the tossing of throw pillows and Nintendo controllers, and the tantrums rumbling through the floor. I ignore my husband as he shouts through his closed office door, directing me to quiet the wildebeests. His ‘please’ strangled. With my hip pressed into the stove front, the pressure – almost pain – is a relief. I stir the soup.

The soup we bought, horded, for when the virus came for us and we needed something easy and comforting, to spoon past our fevered lips. But it hasn’t come, not the way we expected with lungs full of pus, but by shrinking the house: the constant narrowing of halls and a squeezing of rooms pressing us into each other. I’m 5’2 and I walk bent over, turn my shoulders and suck in my belly when I squeeze through a door. At first, I suck up their cuddles with a straw and hold them tight, I ask sweetly him to move his elbow so I can scratch my calf, but now the skin of politeness worn off, and their sweaty skin chafes me, and I just push him away instead. At least the danger outside has a name; we can wear masks, we can stay in. But the peril inside is ripping me limb from limb.

No one wants soup, not even me, though I keep stirring. I only want pretzels and jellybeans eaten in the car parked in the dark garage, alone. They talk longingly of the homemade sourdough, biscuits, and sticky buns in their feeds. But the kitchen becomes a haven because no one wants to help with dinner. ‘What about pizza delivery,’ they say when I complain I’m too sad to cook. I can’t even shit without someone knocking on the door, yelling through the wooden panel, needing me. And so it’s only here, damp in the split pea steam, where the heat can hide the flush of my cheeks, that I can grip the spoon and think of you. You’re a vacation, a warm hug, a cocktail on a crowded rooftop deck, and this is simultaneously a punishment and a reward.

I used to think the idea of quarantine was sexy. Oh no, I’m trapped in this small space with this attractive person, who knows what will happen? Sweatpants. That’s what happens. Homeschooling during conference calls, and grey roots, stress pimples, carb-loading and passive aggressive channel switching. And distance, distance from the things I love, the bookstores and the coffeeshops, and the things I need like your fingers in my hair and your palm on my hip, and your thumb stroking my bottom lip. Worse – you’re my own private loss, and I wonder as I sit next to him on the couch watching tigers, if he is missing someone, too. If maybe that would bring us back together.

The soup is done, but I’m not. So I turn the burner off, but I don’t stop stirring. I’m not ready to let you go just yet.

Meagan Lucas is the author of the novel Songbirds and Stray Dogs. Her short work has appeared in The New Southern Fugitives, Still: The Journal, and MonkeyBicycle among others. She is a Managing Editor at Barren Magazine. She lives in North Carolina.

hot soup – Ceinwen E Cariad Haydon

hot soup
scalds her palate
hunger makes desire rash

patience
will safeguard full flavours
next time

Cooking – Roger Haydon

It now seems that there never was any prehistoric soup, at least not a soup that mattered and certainly not an ancestor soup and that confuses and confounds me. I’m not sure I’m entirely happy with the idea that my lineage might have been rooted in mere fermentation and putrefaction arising from organic molecules shagging lethargically in dirty sea water while being struck by lightning and bathed in the sun’s unfiltered ultra violet rays. Mind you, I do have to say that the idea that I might have come from a miraculous and vaguely sexy event of mystical spontaneous generation does have a certain appeal. I can just about see myself arising from the waves in a sort of orgasmic convulsion, illuminated by a brilliant flash of lightning as I emerge naked, beautiful and fully formed, intellect in full flow, master of the world and prototype of all humanity to come. I mean, that has the kind of magnificent sweep of dramatic tragic intensity that characterises me as I have evolved until today. But, if push comes to shove, I can give that away, I really can.

No, the generally held expert view is now that my beginnings were much, much deeper and, though quieter, more spectacular and profound and, possibly, more sexy. Basically, there was the deep and endless ocean with just one bit of land poking out of it somewhere. And there was the molten core of planet earth spewing out minerals and heat and other stuff via massive volcanoes in the unlit ocean depths, a sort of continuous orgasm instead of the occasional one and that’s where I came from. And that feels a whole lot better: conceived deep in fire and water with a generous sprinkling of star stuff to finish the whole thing off. So I’m not a by-product of some mucky random spontaneous event, I am, in all my super evolved state, the descendent of a long line of inevitable events culminating in, well, yours truly, your host this wet and windy afternoon in the middle of the week. Is there a better place to be?

So, to roll out my oft quoted catchphrase, “Let’s get the chopping board and let’s have some fun”. Today viewers, snuggle down because I’m going to show you how, in these difficult and pandemically constrained times, to make easy vegetarian soups that are amazing and tasty and go a very long way on not very much. A bit like me really.

Love Letters – Lisa Ferranti

Glory’s soup bubbles on the stove, the pot’s lid rat-a-tatting a tinny melody. She adjusts the flame to simmer. Her daughter works on algebra, next room over, and Glory hears fingers tap keys, misses the scrape of pencil against paper against woodgrain, when the worksheet could be turned in at school instead of virtually.

Her son reads Shakespeare, prepping for remote end-of-year testing. The thick book drapes across his lap, and she’s thankful there’s still binding and ink and some solid things in the world, at least.

Cauldron bubble, she whispers, trying not to think of the virus, the tragedy swirling around them. She removes the pot’s lid and stirs the soup with her grandmother’s wooden ladle. Steam singes her nose, but still she inhales, adjusts seasonings. There are people counting on her soup, and not just her family. Her family’s tired of it, actually. But she helps supply the food pantry, and the ladies in the neighborhood miss her second only to their hairdresser.

The ladies swear by her soup, believe it guides them, provides answers. When Margaret’s daughter was pregnant, she fed her Glory’s signature alphabet vegetable, peeking over her shoulder as she ate, and she’d seen tiny pasta letters spell B-O-Y on the spoon. Her grandson was born a month later.

They ask Glory how she does it, beg for her recipe, but it’s a family secret. Her grandmother had the same gift, manifesting itself the same way. Glory’s gift never works for herself, though, always just a jumble of letters, holding no answers, no clues.

Glory will feed her family before she makes her round of contactless deliveries. She ladles soup into four ceramic bowls. She calls to everyone, hollering down the stairs for her husband, where he’s toiling in his makeshift basement office.

She has to physically remove one of her daughter’s earbuds to be heard, for which she gets a Mom! and a sharply shrugged shoulder.

Wash your hands, she reminds as they emerge from their separate corners of the house. She hums the alphabet song to herself because she refuses to taint future birthday celebrations.

Once they’re at the table, they’re all still distant, despite their close proximity and her efforts at conversation. So she tries another tack. She wills the soup to speak to them.

What she wants for her son is to F-L-Y, for him to go to college next year, to soar.

Towards her daughter she channels every warm feeling inside her, despite the friction between them. L-O-V-E.

To her husband, she projects an abbreviated T-H-X, and she sees his jaw relax for a second.

She peers into her own bowl, but as always, the words elude her. Looking at her family, the illusion of protection close at hand, she wants to freeze the moment and fast forward, all at the same time. She looks down again and sees O-K. Two simple letters. She decides to believe the letters are meant for her. For her family. For the world.

Lisa Ferranti’s fiction has been twice short-listed for Bath Flash Fiction Awards and a Reflex Fiction contest finalist (BSF 2019 nom). Her stories have appeared in Literary Mama, Spelk, New Flash Fiction Review and Lost Balloon (Wigleaf Top 100). She lives in Ohio with her husband and two children.

His Name is Fred – Omar Hussain

My guardian angel spreads himself across my couch, feet kicked up on the arms, Converse shoes caked with speckles of dried mud, untied and hanging over the edge. He crooks his head in my direction.

“What are you making?” he asks.

“Soup.”

“Again?”

He’s been bunkered in my apartment for five weeks. Ever since the third day of quarantine. Randomly appeared in my mudroom, a black garbage bag full of spare clothes held over his shoulder, a stained denim vest and a grimace beneath his trucker goatee. He flapped his wings and announced himself. Tells me his name is Fred. Not Gabriel. Not Uriel. Not even Michael. This dude’s name is Fred. He eventually tells me that he was laid off because, for now, stay at home orders put us all out of harm’s way.

I stir the soup. The wooden spoon clanking against the sides of the pot. “I’m running out of food. Soup is just about all I have left.”

Of course, I didn’t believe him at first. But then he showed me the tapes. “The God Vids,” as he liked to call them. He showed me the accident on the freeway when I was 18. The time I slipped off a 30-foot boulder at Lake Tahoe and miraculously splashed into the only part of the water not littered with jagged rocks. The bodycam footage from his guardian angel uniform showed it all. Him steering the car to a manageable crash. Him gently pushing me, mid-fall, to the right spot in the lake.

“Poor doomsday planning,” he says.

“I didn’t think I was buying for two.”

“Is Karen coming over?”

Karen is my girlfriend. She’s also the reason Fred won’t leave. He’s in love with her.

“I told you to stop talking about her.”

“Remember what happens if I don’t get to see Karen?”

There’s more in Fred’s God Vids collection. There’s footage of me masturbating. Like every single time. Since I was thirteen.

In my childhood bedroom watching Baywatch.

To Spice Girls music videos.

Dial-up internet XXX pics.

Porn paysites and everything in between.

Fred is blackmailing me. Threatening to release the tapes on the internet if he doesn’t get to see Karen.

“I’ll text her.”

Every time Karen is over Fred puts the moves on her. Right in front of me. Woos her with tales of glory and guardian angel heroics.

He smiles and turns on the TV.

Karen texts back. “Is Fred there by any chance?” I slam the phone down, manhood shattered along with the screen. I stare back at the soup.

Then at Fred.

My feet move me to the supplies closet. To the bleach. I dump a bit in the pot. Stir it around.

“Soup is plenty hot. It’s all yours.” Fred walks over, flapping his wings with each step. He pours himself a bowl and tilts the edge to his lips. His mustache now tomato red.

I smile. Hoping guardian angels don’t have their own protectors.

Omar Hussain is a writer from the San Francisco Bay Area, transplanted to Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ellipsis Zine, Spelk, Dream Noir, the Drabble, the Potato Soup Journal, Fleas On the Dog and (mac)ro(mic), among others. Omar’s beta-test novel, The Outlandish and the Ego, debuted in late 2017. It received some praise, remarkably.

Soup – Ursula Troche

Storm in a teacup, virus in a soup.

“Soup, what have we done?” Introduced an ingredient that doesn’t mix! A harmful substance. Rather: we didn’t, it happened. Something’s stirred our soup, disturbed us and went viral. It’s called Corona. There we had been, more or less interconnected, together in our bowl of soup called World. And now it’s been a soup-down! Maybe it’s because we hadn’t stuck together enough when we could, we didn’t bind, we lived in a system marred by inequality, segregation – and now distance! And now, in the interval, locked down together apart to reflect.

We were supposed to be one world, one soup, all of us together a group soup. But it hasn’t always been a melting pot, this soup! Look at our pot, in which we are, our world, gone wonky. Can we have some pot luck now at least?

Liquid modernity, they say, flowing sea. We can’t give it all up because we are here. We’re in the soup, there’s no cure for it!”, almost said Samuel Beckett. Makes sense. We have to keep it clean, or soup, protect our soup the environment. Keep ourselves from drowning.

Soup of the World, what could you be made of? Tomato soup has always been my favourite. Tomato, a thing that is both a fruit and a veg, like us, who are two things at once! Both human and animal maybe. Or whatever we can be, twice even.

How do we simmer, how do we cook? A world at boiling point. Where are we in this soup? Are our oceans the soup and our islands and continents the big pieces within? Both land and sea with its many ingredients. The sea, the soup, Soup-sea! Come to the soup-side!

And that’s what I did. I went to the soup-side at night, and above me were the stars. And it reminded me of what I thought of as soup as a child, this milky murky creamy stuff that you can see around the some of stars at night: I thought that was soup. But it’s the Milky Way! It’s hanging there in the sky and I thought it facilitates travel from one star to another. Because at that distance the stars are quite close, so maybe you can get across. With the help of the soup, cosmic travelling agent. The milky soup has ways of entangling and intertwining the stars, so as to connect them – like us, in our soup-world.

And down here it’s different. If I think that the sea is the soup, then I have seen sea in the sky too! Sky-ocean, soup-world, something’s cooking. Our categories break open. Soup as a substitute, even as a word. And that might help. It might help us to take our challenges in keeping our world in order.

Soup could be the password to a new world, which we say to each other, acknowledging the flows that bind us together. Now there’s some soup for thought!

The Night Is Day – Ian Anthony Lawless

Moonlight splashes across the bare wooden floor of Harold’s room.
He is to move soon. To be less overwhelmed by memory and space. The house breathes a sigh of relief.
Floorboards are creaking where feet have not touched.
Harold sits on the end of the bed. A hollow imprint on the left side.
Where Marget once slept.

Now he is full of regret.
Dam it!

He shouts, to his darkened reflection in the bedroom mirror.
Ignoring the strips that are slowly descending from above it.
Little pieces of daisy patterned wallpaper gently floating all around.
As if carried by a stiff breeze.

Who ever knows what your last words are to be?
Amid flying newspapers and near misses with slippers whizzing by his face, his last words to his wife was
“I’m sorry. But he is my son. He deserves to see me”

An shameful affair committed in the early days of their relationship.
Doctors tried to calm his shaking body.

That trembled and would not allow voice to exist.
So overwhelming was the death of his wife.
His mind felt as if in another body. That he was observing from afar. Plus the house became his carer now.
It was no comfort when they told him she died peacefully in her sleep.
What is peaceful about anger and silence. Furrowed brows and bitter sighs?
Her heart had to be broken.
There was definitely anguish in her expression when fruitlessly Harold tried to wake her up the next morning.

Now Harold is forever restless.
His nocturnal routine sparked him up from sitting position to a jump into a poker straight stance. All in a surge of extreme energy.
He surprised himself by this feat of agility.

At 45, he expected his legs to buckle as if made of sand.
But now frankly nothing surprised him anymore. It was time to confront his nightly visitors.

“Everything is spotless, like always my dear.
The words jump from his mouth before he could even finish formulating them.”

Reaching the landing, he turns his head to the side, ear cocked towards the hall. In an overt display of listening. It was more for the house.
He slaps the air repeatedly. As if grappling with a ghostly foe.

Thump!

A sound emanates from the downstairs kitchen.
The sound of porcelain scratches across the marble counter.
His thoughts scream to find rationale but there is none.

Once again as if a puppet master guides him, his feet begins to rise three inches off the ground. He floats down the long flight of stairs.
The needle of a record player is heard being placed.
Beethoven symphony number 9 lightly plays.

As he passes the sitting room, he sees the legs of male being crossed. The laughing man again.
Tartan slippers hanging on milky white feet.

Crash!

The Kitchen. Where Marget always loved to be.
On the table for the fifth time this week.
A bowl of soup.
Boiling hot, Harold smiles

“Hello again my love”

Making A Point – Kali Richmond

I struggle to believe that anyone considers soup anything but a disappointment. It’s noble claims of rejuvenation, healing and soothing are the closest thing I’ve found to a global joke, for food added to liquid and cooked until disintegrated and abused seems evident in all culinary corners. There are books dedicated to this one category of cuisine. I look at the smiling faces of the chefs or home cooks or celebrities, dieticians, fitness fanatics, bored trustafarians, and see devilment behind the eyes. Delicious, sumptuous, mouth-wateringly good, irresistible, opulent. They know soup is shit. They’re flogging a lie.

I eat soup to make a point. Made from scratch portrays moderate ennui – all that effort, the cost of ingredients. From a plastic container which must be kept refrigerated demonstrates self-loathing – the most scorned of packaging for something that won’t even fill me up. From a tin confirms depression – its content luridly reminiscent of partly digested food. I reach now for the tin.

And panic. The smell rising up from the boil (it says do not boil, yet takes an age to heat without boiling, congealing at the edges, cold in the centre, requiring constant stirring. Devilment, see?) is so pungent, so evocative of school dinners, that I worry the act too blatant and set about trying to hide my misery. Nachos sprinkled on top, sour cream, grated cheese, all of it piled one after another. A sprinkle of paprika, a flurry of chopped chives.

Thrust a spoon into the seething mass of melt. Scorch my tongue. A nacho spears my gums. I am a baby, an aeroplane of slop hitting turbulence as I laugh at my pathos. I am terribly ill to torture myself so. I am falling out of a wormhole, the years sped up, teeth flowing from my mouth as hair catches in the wind, as loose change falls from a pocket, as hail rains down from wretched sky. I am in need of sustenance but can no longer chew. I am cold and wish to be warmed. I am warmed and wish to burn.

Kali Richmond is a native Londoner and lapsed VJ currently attempting a closer to nature existence in the north of England. When not cultivating an unruly patch of land and unrulier children she attempts to write amid the chaos. https://twitter.com/SevenKali

Cabinet Of Heed SOC Stay Safe

Stream Of Consciousness Drawer Four

The Butter Stone – Mary-Jane Holmes

Outside my window, a palimpsest of snow, moles home-school their children in the art of house-building, arctic terns drone the moors and one unidentified wader sits on a capstone scoping for worms. Not a common snipe or oyster catcher – my usual neighbours. Who was it that recently twittered ‘our neighbours have been cancelled?’ Bigger, chevron-winged, cryptic brown and black. I’ve looked it up – dismissed dunlin, dotterel, sanderling, redshank … a woodcock? Perhaps – but in a land devoid of trees? Perhaps in a world gone mad so in this ménage rustique of sociability and solitude, the imagination soars for something more exotic – a long-billed dowitcher from Siberia, a rostratula from Africa, a tutuwiki from New Zealand. Not that last one – it needs to be extant. That word has so much more heft now doesn’t it? I’ll plump for the dowitcher. My father (no longer extant) worked in a brewery in Novosibirsk. I wonder if he ever saw a dowitcher feeding on the banks of the Ob? All I know is he flew there every month with an airline called Crash – but to fly, the longing for it, to be lifted out of all this, to be like the clocks, to spring forward into the dog days of a summer, salad days unvaried accept by accident. Salad – I’ve ordered Cut-and-Come-Again lettuce, and early seed potatoes that I’ll chit and bury in the soil left by the mole’s excavations, like my grandparents did ‘earthing up’ their Casablancas and Maris Pipers in another time of crisis and now the sun still seemingly in its winter quarantine, marches its slow gait across the horizon, appearing suddenly, luminous as fever, above Goldsborough’s cap of gritstone, over the Herdwicks and Swaledale flocks self-shielding from the three day north-easterly the Met office had predicted. Oh, to be able to forecast, to grasp some reassurance from our modern-day oracles! What would Pythia make of our modelling and algorithms? If we burn laurel and barley, pour cold water over a goat to see if it shudders, would Apollo tell us what is to be done, or perhaps his son Asclepius, god of medicine or perhaps his goddess granddaughters? Hygeia, Panacea. Goddess. God. Godwit, that is what that bird is sitting on the wall, once thought of as ‘the daintiest dish in England’, its eggs a trophy for any Victorian collector’s display cabinet. The eggs I will go and collect are from a more sustainable source – pure breed Marans – left by the farmer down the road, in a small metal tin, each dozen with a happy face felt-penned on its box and I will leave my money sprayed with a 3:1 mixture of surgical spirit and water in return, like the villagers once did four miles from here in the Great Plague of 1636, where they picked up fresh wares and left their money in vinegar in the single cup mark set in the weathered rock, that came to be known as the Butter Stone.

Elephants in Silhouette – Mark Sadler

Anton came knocking on me door, absolutely over the moon, on account of a herd of elephants, that roam in the vicinity, having been reported as gone down with a pachyderm variant of polio, meaning they all had to be culled.

“We going to hunt thee mighty mammoth,” he says/sings. Already he’s unlocking me gun safe with the key to his safe. That lazy sod, Fisher, wot makes them, gave them all identical locks. It opens out like a drinks cabinet. Can’t fault the craftsmanship. That’s all done in Thailand; the inlay and the internal compartments. All Fisher does is ship the pieces over and add a few finishing touches.

Okay, so the hunting licences will cost more than you’ll get back from selling off the parts of the animal, even when you factor-in the traditional-medicine barrel-scrapers wot will will buy anything. You do it for the sport, don’t you? When was the last time anyone got to legally hunt elephants in this neck of the woods?

Anton fired up the sat-tracker. We piled into his truck. Well, when we got there, mate, it was all sick animals far as the eye could see; staggering about; some already toppled over, and the hyenas gearing up for a big feed. It weren’t no hunt.

Cropsie was there with his band of men, wot been paid by the National Park Service to carry out the cull.

He says: “You can take first swing of the bat if you want, mate.”

Then, cos he can’t pass on an opportunity to get a dig in, he looks me long-bore up and down an’ he says: “Nice little poaching toy you got there,” knowing full well I ain’t poached more than a hen’s egg in me life.

Jason looks at me an’ says: ‘I can’t do it mate.’

We drive back to the parks office. Even get a full-refund on our hunting licences. Next day, the herd comes rumbling past in a convoy of covered lorries.

I moved to Amsterdam the same year. Things was getting too hot where I was. The Chapples got butchered on their ranch. I mean literally butchered. I could see the way the wind was blowin’, bringin’ the fire to me door.

I was telling the story about the elephants to this girl here the other night. She’s an animal rights type. Doesn’t like hunting. Hates big game hunters, even when I told her the licence money goes into conservation. She screams at me for five minutes. When she runs out of words, she pitches me own drink in me face! The worst people are the ones wot are so privileged, they don’t see their feet treading down on the backs of others.

Me and Jason was proper pissed that night, staggering along Geldersekade, like a pair of elephants with polio trying not to tumble into the canal: The silhouettes of men who should have fallen down a long time ago, holding each other up by accident.

The Pedestrian Underpass – Sebnem Sanders

Mama told me not to go into the pedestrian underpass. She said bad people live there, in the darkness. On the way to Mama’s kiosk, it was hot at noon, and I forgot to wear my hat. One could cook eggs on the pavement. Sweating and thirsty, I sipped water from the bottle I filled from the tap at home, while covering my head with one hand to protect myself from the fierce sunrays.

Then I saw a girl. Older, taller than me, heading down the steps of the underpass. Her sundress was similar to mine, even its belt tied with a bow at the back. Her haircut exactly the same. Perhaps she also had it styled at Joe’s on the high-street. Sunbeams followed her down the labyrinth of steps. I felt safe and tailed her into the fading light.

At the very bottom, darkness swallowed her. Goose pimples on my arms, I thought I’d lost her. Once my eyes adjusted to the inky dark, I spotted her walking down the bleak corridor. I heard noises. Guttural and harsh, they terrified me. I didn’t see who or what pulled her aside. It happened too quickly, but I ran forward, saw them tearing off her clothes. They did bad things to her, and I couldn’t move. I couldn’t move.

At last, I screamed at the top of my voice. They came after me. I flung the glass bottle at them, and when they grabbed me, I bit their arms with my sharp teeth. Somehow, I freed myself from the demons of darkness, and ran down the tunnel like rabid in flight, and up the steps towards the street. Breathless, I dashed into the daylight and found a policeman who listened to me. He followed me to the underpass and said, “Wait here. I’ll be back!”

I waited and waited, and saw the young girl being carried outside on a stretcher. Thank you, God, for hearing me. She’s alive, Mama. I saved her life.

Sorry, Mama, for not listening to your advice. I’ll never ever use the underpass again. I love helping you sort out the glossy magazines on the news-stand. I learn so much from reading the bold titles and looking at the pictures. Please, don’t be angry with me, Mama. I’ll be careful next time.

My head is bursting. I’m tired now. I need a story from you before I go to sleep. I love it when you read to me and tell me tales from foreign lands. Please, don’t cry, Mama. I’m here, lying next to you. Can’t you see me? Read to me, Mama, so I can rest in peace.

Sebnem E. Sanders lives on the Southern Aegean coast of Turkey and writes short and longer works of fiction. Her stories have appeared in various online literary magazines, and two anthologies. Her collection of short and flash fiction stories, Ripples on the Pond , was published in December 2017. More information can be found at her website where she shares some of her work: https://sebnemsanders.wordpress.com/

Wrinkles – K E Warner

We had a connection, my Gran and me. I loved her quirky eccentricities, she loved my malleable adulation. Gran was an eclectic product of the Irish potato famine, the Great War, and the roaring twenties, me a spin-off of TV dinners, the assassination of JFK, and free love. One would wonder what we could have in common.

‘Kim’, she would state – Gran never simply said anything, she stated everything – ‘Kim, you need to use eye cream. Every day. Start now. I know you’re only eleven, but this is important.’ My Gran had the most beautiful skin. Soft as butter, white as cream, and as plump as a cow’s full udder. I must have inherited my skin from my father’s side. But I tried eye cream. Well, not real eye cream, I used petroleum jelly and woke up most mornings with a film over my eyeballs. But damned if I was going to get wrinkles around the eyes. I was going to have skin like my Gran’s.

One day I arrived at her farm for a visit, hopped out of the car and before I was within ten feet of her she gripped her throat, rolled her eyes, and appeared to be in the throes of death. ‘Don’t come any closer. You were smoking. That is a disgusting filthy habit. And it will give you wrinkles.’ My fourteen-year-old self knew there could be only one response. ‘No gran, not me, my friends were smoking. It’s just on my clothes.’ Yeah. I stopped smoking that day. Not sure if it was the threat of wrinkles or the disappointment in her voice.

She had the voice of an angel too. She sang with the Sweet Adelines in Winnipeg. I used to love going to watch her sing. When I was sixteen they were going to perform at the Winnipeg Concert Hall. For Winnipeg – that was huge! I was supposed to be part of a group of cheerleaders – all granddaughters of the ladies in the choir. We rehearsed for weeks. I never missed a practice – even though my part was limited to approximately six seconds. She must have warned me a million times to ‘Never miss a rehearsal and never, ever be late – it’s disrespectful of everyone’s time when you are late.’ When it was finally time for the big show, I hung around the dressing room waiting for her, asking everyone else if they had seen her. When she finally arrived, I heard her before I saw her. Her friends must have told her that I was going to rub it in that she was late. ‘Well, she wouldn’t if she knew her great-grandmother had died and I was getting her off to the morgue.’ I slumped on the floor and cried. She found me in tears and stated, ‘Don’t cry. You’ll get wrinkles.’ To this day, I am rarely late for anything.

Gran has been gone for many years now. I still feel connected. Most often it is when I look in the mirror and see the wrinkles.

Isolation – Michelle Walshe

It’s not so different to the way it was before. The front door kept them out, those enemies of peace and solitude – people, chatter, noise. The air inside the house embraced me, settled quietly on my skin. Soothing.

Suddenly, there is a terror is in the air. The front door is sullen, forbidding. People, chatter, noise are ghosts. The air inside the house scratches my skin. Panic comes in waves at the thought of the particles of pestilence bombarding each other all around me.

Do they bounce off each other like dust motes in the sunlight and scatter far and wide or do they congregate, their coronas entwining, binding them together, making them stronger, ready for invasion? They resemble falling snowflakes but is each one a different shape like a true snowflake or are they uniform, like soldiers, identikit, prepared for maximum impact?

Do those spikes help to burrow into the soft, spongy lung tissue of their new-found hosts? Do they squirt poison or are they suction points for deeper attachment? Do they assist the march through the airways and arteries, spinning their continuous cartwheels, silent and invisible until you are unable to breathe? This scares me most. The reports of a vice like grip on the chest, a burning feeling in the lungs.

Victim’s bodies feel like they are on fire inside. Outside, Rome burns. And the world. Like the ancient landmarks that rose to the surface of the earth during the heatwave of two years ago, old truths rise from history. Mistakes are doomed to repetition. Society is fragile. Economy even more so. Crisis reveals the best and worst of humanity. Fear spreads faster than fire. Behavioural scientists have case studies in real time. Herds are interesting. Especially when they don’t have immunity. Planet Earth can recover, if only we took the same measures to save her as we are taking to save ourselves.

It seems much can be accomplished in an emergency that is impossible in real life. Fakery abounds. The spin has never felt so spun. Our house of cards is tumbling, card by card. Every day as a another one flutters away a new fissure in the land is exposed. The way we treat the people who sew the fabric of our society stands in stark comparison to the way we treat the ones who consume it.

Speechwriters look to the past for inspiration, spouting lines ripped from previous orators. The current leaders trot them out in solemn tones with grave expressions in minimalist surroundings. They say we are at war. We are. At war with ourselves. With our bodies. With our habits. With our preconceptions and our need for distraction.

For it is distraction that has led us here. Too distracted to be hygienic, too distracted to notice the elderly, the supermarket workers, the health care professionals, too self-absorbed to notice the wilful destruction of the planet.

Will this bring us back to simplicity, to nature, to family, to better communication? We’re being told to stay at home, but do we really understand where that is?

Michelle Walshe is a writer from Dublin. She began writing in 2017 and has been published in The Irish Times, The Irish Examiner, The Telegraph, The Sunday Independent, The Gloss and Woman’s Way magazines and in an anthology, Teachers Who Write. She has won bursaries, residencies and writing prizes, most recently the Iceland Writers Retreat.

Thoughts On Pandem(ic)onium – Sara Hodgkinson

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Probably not because none of us share a brain and none of us are psychic (or are we?) but then we might all be thinking something similar because let’s face it there’s one main thing that is hanging about us all like a terrible smell – a deadly one, even deadlier than the dog’s worst guff – and no it’s not Brexit (for once). Is there anything stranger than the pandemonium of a pandemic where you can’t actually SEE anything happening other than in the figures and data that the news spews out every evening around five when you’re normally cooking your tea but Boris is now there bumbling his way through yet another emergency conference? I don’t think so, but then we’re only at the beginning of what will likely be weeks of this or months even, though months are incomprehensible when all I can see is the end of today and curling up in bed to slip silently into delicious dreams of all the things that Tesco couldn’t give me when I dared to venture out for a dash through the aisles. What do we even do if toilet roll runs out? I’m all for cutting down on waste, but WASTE from US is not something you really have much choice in and cleaning it up is far easier with Andrex on your side. ALTHOUGH. When we were in Nepal there was less faffing about with paper and more squatting and shaking so perhaps that’s the way forward? And in Asia there’s the whole hand thing which most of us have two of so I guess there shouldn’t be a problem, and I’m more worried anyway about never getting going again because once you’ve stopped – stopped, slowed, broken the usual routine, started to get used to doing less – how do you start up again and get back to the pace of before? What if we can never return to how it all used to be but then do we really want to anyway because wasn’t there all that concern over how modern society is toxic and we’re all doing too much and there’s a looming mental health crisis and so on? There’s something to be said for the slowness and the silence that comes from waking without an alarm to absolutely nothing – no cars going past on their way to work, no idle chatter of kids on their way to school, just quietness that I never really realised wasn’t there until it was and now I sort of like it, really. Maybe this is a chance to start again, in a society where we all actually care a bit more. Then again, maybe there won’t be enough of us left to do that anyway! I’m not being flippant, it’s just a thought, but maybe – maybe – we’ll be changed in some way that makes us all, on some level, slightly better human beings than we were Before It Came.

A Brief Sojourn – Emily Harrison

You wonder how old you’ll be when this is all over – this being the pandemic but also this being the altered life you now have to lead which, in any case, is a pointless, fruitless thing to wonder because you imagine there will be no ending. No one is going to write THE END. Although they’ll probably say it on the news and well, maybe they will write it, but they’ll most definitely be wrong because these things don’t really end, do they? They reduce and we return but the memory bones and breath of it endure for however long eternity lasts. How long does eternity last? Erm. Perhaps a better question is how long does the daily invasion of information last? The data, the intelligence – the lack thereof, the charting of death; too much to ingest. It makes you feel sick, just like all that pasta that’s been hoarded in kitchen cupboards. You can’t eat pasta because it makes your stomach tighten like the taut turn of a screw. Unlucky for some. You suppose it’s better to feel something than nothing. That’s what happens when information is an onslaught – information that is horrific and scary and do you know someone that will die from this? Probably. In the blitz of information, you’ve started to become numb to its daunting fissure and your protection policy is to simply retreat into the great vastitude of your brain where nothing is felt, and nothing is gained, just a plain sailing ignorance of avoidance tactics and escapism.

It’s like the time you weren’t sure if you had cancer.

Mum sat next to you as the consultant spoke and you assume her brain was reeling with feeling and thought and dread and terror and she’ll confirm it if you ask but for some reason, you stared at the consultant as he said you would need a biopsy and felt nothing. Perhaps your brain levitated out of the room and your body stayed put – the body that maybe had cancer. It would’ve been in its throat. Maybe the body does have cancer, but you don’t know it yet. Oh fuck. Back away from that and to this, which is thinking about how old you’ll be which leads into questions about who you might be and what you might achieve which is to say that you’ll probably achieve living life – no mean feat, considering. Three years ago, you weren’t sure about living life, which is both a comfort and not – a sort of background noise to dwell upon and look back upon in moments when your mortality is hurled straight into your face like the blare of a police siren going out to fine someone for being outside longer than the government allotted time. Remember when you considered dying? An odd time. An awful time, in many ways. In most ways, actually. In all ways, truth be told.

You wonder how old you’ll be when this is all over. You hope you don’t figure it out.

Emily Harrison uses writing as an escape from reality and doesn’t drink enough water. She has had work published with Barren Magazine, Gone Lawn, Ellipsis Zine, Storgy, The Molotov Cocktail, Retreat West and Riggwelter Press to name a few. She can be found on Twitter at @emily__harrison

Featherweight – Kyle Tinga

When it came down to it, the only reason a human heart would ever be the same weight as a feather is if it was a damn heavy feather. Thoth knew this, Anubis knew it, even mightiest of all ye mighties Ra knew it. Then the question became where to source the feather, and that’s where all the ideas at the council dried up. The gods with feathers coughed and began to very politely shuffle back towards the temple entrance, while Ra rubbed his temples in a way that screamed “If I wasn’t the Supreme God then I’d be praying right now”.

“Right then, when we create humankind and judge their deeds, what feather do we weigh their hearts up against?”

A tentative hand was raised by Hathor, ready in all of her plumpness and finery, jingling and jiggling as it rose. “We could do one of those larger birds? You know, the ones that go around the liver of something or other in one of the Northern countries. Protoman, Promare, something of that nature. I’m sure a feather of that size would be heavy enough to give humankind some kind of advantage.”

“Still feather weight, innit?” That came from Sekhmet, arms folded across his chest and sharpened teeth gnashing and snarling. “And when it’s FEATHER weight it’s light as a FEATHER! Nobody’s going to come to the heavens which means nobody makes their way to us which means people will stop believing! Got to be a heavy one.”

“We could craft it out of precious metals. Gold and silver and suchlike.” The words came from an overgrown beetle, whose shining carapace was studded with diamonds and jewels of every size and colour. “That would make it suitably heavy for our purposes.”

“Then it would be a falsehood,” came the reply from Anubis in a low growl, his jackal’s jaw exposing elongated canines. “If we are weighing up the truth and sin within a human heart, it would taint the core of morality to use a fake feather.”

“What about sunbird?”

All eyes darted towards the speaker, her voice serene amidst the growing clamour. Mother Isis, mother of man and mother of the world, had her hands rested in her lap and a very small smile upon her face. “Sunbirds,” she replied, “Are truth and flame. Remember that they hold the weight of eternity in their feathers, and shed it as they’re reborn. So they are light and heavy in equal measure.”

At once whispers became chatter became yells of “Sunbird! Sunbird! SUNBIRD!” At last! A solution!

“All well and good. But,” said a no-nonsense Thoth, adjusting his spectacles with a rigid wingtip, “Where on earth do we find the sunbird?”

Ra blinked. Blinked again. Blinked thrice, and then laughed a full-bellied laugh that echoed throughout the desert dunes and palm trees. “Why, my dear Thoth, on the sun! And luckily for us, I believe I know exactly where.”

My Job to Remember – Michael Edwards

This limp I acquired cost the most of all. My left foot drags across sidewalks, floors and sunsets. Soles of my shoes scuff and abrade to the point of skin grazing rough concrete exfoliating the calloused bottom of everything. Limping is a symptom of trying to get somewhere. I can’t tell you where that is because I’m not there yet. Forget I said the thing about the limp. I’m walking fine, stride in time one leading to the next and I pace the room digging ruts in the same path like oxen at the millstone. I’m yoked to forget that linear is expected and radial, axial, actual work is looked down on. How to be blue collar begins with myth and ends with bills unpaid until each credit card juggles the chainsaws or falling batons blindfolded. This is the circus that you dreamt of running away to, the horizon and over the purple sky of twilight, dimmer than the last century and a sun sizzling fried eggs in August heat on the sidewalk, segmented, control joints, planned fractures where tree roots push up and tectonics of urban expansion and contraction, freeze-thaw – leaves pile up to elbows and rot. Cars disappear in leaf litter and trees send their seeds sprouting, humus, new earth, rich neglect, they would say extinction, extermination, self-determination, individuation. This last week or so the sky has bloomed like dandelions gone to seed and the spheres of the heaven are filled with fluffy parachutes swirling in gales of warm winter, snowless, creatureless – only the proliferation of weeds, of plants, of phloem and xylem. Sapwood bleeds through bark bursting, the high pressure pulse of Pacific forests, climatic shifts – birches so warm their sap rots in-place and punky wood is all that’s left as winds snap fragile limbs, milkless, decalcified, malnourished, hyperthermic entropy. Decay, waste, recycled and deposited. Injected, and this won’t make the cut. I can’t remember why I even started. The rains stopped months ago. The humid heat took over and the limp is back. The last man limping through detritus and logs decomposing, reanimating, vegetating. Well, if the last man is what I am, at least these plants will feed me. The last winter coat was sold for parts and the only thing I remember is the frost on the windshield when January chilled my fingers, blood rushing to the core, protecting vital organs and the north has become south and I’m never coming back. The last man on earth. Only the tops of pyramids peek out through the soil layer, coating the earth with fertile foundation from new life – plants have heartbeats they say. Water has a pulse and they synchronize to the tide’s ebb and flow and the mud we make of words that we used to sling at each other. And now I’m the last man on earth and it’s my job to remember, but there’s no one left to remind me how I got this limp.

Michael Edwards is a poet, writer and young dad living in Vancouver, BC. Follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/michaelwrites1

Black Mirror – Mehreen Ahmed

I sat in front of a mirror. The many glaring lights fixed on its frame, enhanced my reflection on the mirror. I saw a masked face in white make-up paste. The make-up artist diligently applied colour dust with a small sponge on my dark skin. Eye make-up was the hardest to do.

“Take a closer look.” She held another mirror. It looked black. I saw a cinema. Of my mind. Of a stream. Of a monologue.

The winds were rough. In the early dawn, the door rattled in the stormy winds. I screamed and held on to the flimsy bed frame. On a summer’s day, The winds revved up like a car in the hands of a novice. Five years of age. I sat by the window. The winds knocked on the glass pane. Another morning. Some clouds had gathered. I opened the windows and a sudden gust of wind whipped my face as it passed through the hut. My hair blew wildly over my face, almost veiling it with a mass of dark locks. I looked at the distant sky and saw layers upon layers of dark clouds; each layer a different shade of grey. The little daisies down by the mountain stream, danced insanely in the ferocity of the winds. Poor yellow little souls and bleeding blades of grass. Then there was a knock on the door. They came back. There was a ship wreck off the peninsula. Couldn’t make it in the storm. How was I to endure that? Those faces of desperate sailors floated in the ocean of my eyes; their bodies floating. The gardens bled.

Who’s at the door? My son? Did you come back for me? Have you come for my soul. Oh God. The wooden door went off the latch. It flung apart. Crazy! The crazy winds. My hut seemed to be wrung out of its soil. The mountains green, but dark and grey today. Dark. Yes, pitched dark it

was too, when my unfledged 16 year old went away to the edge of the peninsula toward a faraway coral island.

The mountain spring. The fall from this height among the rocks and the craggy crevice. The rains lashed its spray across the – My son, my little boy, Are you even alive? Come back. But no drugs and overdose. The ship that drowned in that ever engulfing sea. Took away. The water. The ocean. This stream. How I miss you? Little baby. Little. No more. Down by the green valley, I see him running. I see him now and then, he vanishes. There he is again. Play. Play. Hide and seek. Don’t run to the ocean though. Come back. Come back. Dear child. There he comes now. Up the ragged hill he climbs back. He’s here. In my arms. Kisses and hugs. The ocean rises and falls. Boats passing through mountain ridges. Suddenly all falls apart. No boats. No ships, only the sounds of the raging seas.

Cabinet Of Heed SOC Drawer 31.05

Tunnel – Wendy Burke

I’m in trouble. Big trouble. There’s been an accident in the tunnel.

It’s dark. Can’t find way to the cool air. Panic. Blood bangs where? There, in my temples.

Confusion, noise and medics they trying help. Voices say, ‘keep moving, that’s it, that’s it.’ Are they know I, the voices? They- the memory dark. It… it’s colder getting. I not reach the out. Legs no work. Begin shut down. It’s I- okay, stay here deep dark. Stay now in longest night. I-

‘Come on son,’ someone he shout, far away, like through water. They not. Give up. Hands on my head, my shoulders. Pull, pull, the wrench-pain of a limp-limbed beginning.

Then comes bright light of outside. Someone screams. Or it’s a boom of beeps and talk.

Man, woman – oh. Oh! Are you Mum? D-dad?

I am safe.

I am born.

 

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 32 Contents Link

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay 

Ashes to Ashes – Mari Maxwell

She got the gold.

In the end it didn’t much matter.

She was all about the money, the having. She’d probably hock it anyhow.

Gold to her was orgasm. Dull warmth burnished. She had to have. Must have. Will. Have. It.

Kept the monster fed so she could weigh and stamp each nugget. The pure stuff. High end. First class. And if she draped herself in 24 or more karat how her adoring public would bow and scrape and she could just flutter her fingers, gold bracelets tinkling as each smashed into the other.

I hope her Midas touch turns it all to clay.

 

Mari Maxwell’s writing has featured in a Coercive Control exhibition with Wexford Women’s Refuge Nov. 2019; Healing Words Exhibition in London Oct. 2019, University College Dublin’s Poetry Wall in 2019 & 2018. Her writing features online and in print in Ireland, USA, India, Brazil and Australia.

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 32 Contents Link

Image by Frank Winkler from Pixabay 

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