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/

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a writer’s heartbreak – Madhumati Chowdhury

1. Outside the Hands Tonight

There was wet light on the park bench, like runny sunshine
It was evening and I didn’t know what to do with my hands that night
They had spent the few days before at your place, wishing to stay there awhile.

Beside you, waiting patiently as you picked at dead skin
explaining how you can’t squeeze lemons without the sting.
Grazing, not quite touching, as I reach for your windows.
Furiously grabbing in upsurges when you read something reminiscent of the winter of past years, spent remiss.
Ash-flicked smoke passed between fingers—middle and index
Thumbs summoning whirlpools on skin without meaning, storms at the heart of it.
My hands were yours and mine till they were ours and then again each-others.

I walked off after a while because it started to rain again
and the leaves reminded me that seasons change.

 

2. Smoke Trails

Every day you wake
a little further from our bed
And I watch you each night
lying on your side
as my ringlets of smoky thoughts
cover the arch of your back
and vanish traceless
unlike the freckles on your back
I stay up all night
counting
and from between my fingers burns up a world
unsaid.

Every day you wake
a little further from our bed
My trapezing tongue holds your musty taste
but the inept artiste that it is
lets the words slip from my mind
and silence sheepishly grins
another day
another day

Every day you wake
a little further away from our bed
This time I sat reading the lines on your face
while you dismissed my quietude
and I let the watery lights
reflected on the window cast
pockmarked shadows on my arms
and waited and waited
for you to walk away
and take my speech with you.

 

3. Worn-out Weariness

The words on my page are smoking
and they trail me towards a different kind of morning
where the bones in my arm shriek at the thought of writing another line from the miserly stories stored in my memories.
I cry
I laugh
Finally, my world has given up
I see no point in the stopping of lines
The ends are not beginnings and I sigh
Clearly, dew off the cold coffee mug is much more secure in its job than I am.
With my hat full of blessing and a heart that is bellowing like a dragon being whipped eight times a day,
I start to see that I make no sense!

Climbing out my window to sit on the ledge
by the door of the neighbouring house
I see two red boots.
Tiny and soft.
They looked cold, without home.
Could you think how lonely shoes look, without feet in them?

My words are smoking on the paper and I’ve not had any time to think
I put down my sleeves and the dimensions-shift and here I have died in a graveyard of bees.
It is the tornado of slipping time, we sit here in its midst.

 

4. Summer’s Discord

The peeling walls ascend to the sky
as far as the eye can see
it becomes the freedom blue
stand up for flight

Whose misery wrote/sang/painted,
sadness into eternity?

Too late in the day
the sun has made our bed warm again
our bodies move pasts
to straddle the cold of night-time windows

its benevolence hinged on leaving
You too were special

Once, under a sky that wasn’t a wall
a tree that wasn’t butchered in a glass
warmer than whispers
sweating like a cold flask

When i float past you
Step back to let the rudeness take recourse

We gathered sand to lock in the hours
Tore down words for each lost breath
the kitchen had a light, at 7 in the evening
You would not be home yet

I am not here, flesh blood and bone
do not cook meat in glass houses

They can look in
measure your cruelty using history
call you names for trying to eat
trying to live

I miss you,
you are gone

Whose misery called/called/called,
skipped the dial-tone so steady,
to the miracles of automation telling,
“Let go, you are ready”

 

Madhumati Chowdhury is a closet writer with a severe disregard for punctuations and traditional forms (ala e.e. cummings). She also enjoys conducting photoshoots of her cat in the sun and listening to hip-hop and jazz.

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Image via Pixabay

The Feathered Girl – Kristin Garth

Detect a dripping down the bed. Diverge
direction of a head extricated
from her death grip while a demonic dirge
of dissonance escapes her lips. Gape straight
into her open mouth, deluged mattress
from some crimson spout. Look about, find out
is you, bloodletting but aware at last
of your aerial view. A ghost? You doubt
for you would see the remains of your
mortality next to her below on
this spattered bed. Out of reach and over
head floating, dripping crimson, tears, a spawn,
fragmented feathers levitate with fright,
is broken, bleeding but tonight takes flight.

 

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 sixteen books of poetry including Pink Plastic House (Maverick Duck Press), Crow Carriage (The Hedgehog Poetry Press), Flutter: Southern Gothic Fever Dream (TwistiT Press), The Meadow (APEP Publications) and Golden Ticket forthcoming from Roaring Junior Press. 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

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Image via Pixabay

Mexican Plainsong – Bill Fay

Jesus drives every Taxi,
And His Angels do the laundry.

While pieces of the
True Cross
Hang on rearview mirrors.

Spanish guitar and blasting brass
Are the cities Cathedral Choir.

Every speed bump Is a Hail Mary.
Every horn honk is Gabriel’s Trumpet.

Lime is the Holy Water,
And tortillas His Wafer.

As the Rosary
Counts the days,
To the Sunday Sacred Familia.

While the blind tourist,
Is still hunting
For their Souls.

 

Bill Fay, retired engineer and poet, holds degrees in Fine Arts, Electrical Engineering, and Business Administration. His work has appeared in Creative Colloquy, Puget Sound Poetry, and The Haiku Society of America, among others. He is currently working on his forth-coming book “Tongueless Bell”. Bill resides with his wife, Nancy and their two cats, Tucker and Annie, on Fox Island in Puget Sound near Seattle.

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Image via https://www.flickr.com/people/jm3/ / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Grievous Faults – Martina Reisz Newberry

I request ahead of time
that you be patient with me
and forgive me all my sins;
they are ephemeral but persistent.

I’ve been greedy for small things:
a home, a fan base of readers,
the addicting honey of flattery,
the warmth and perfume of Irish Whiskey
in a snifter–its magnificent dumbing down–
chocolate truffles and potato chips–
Oh! to eat them and not get fat, to stay slothful
and slender as a poppy stem.

I confess an obsession with the imperfections
of my own body. I confess that I never
stop dreaming of such thinness that amounts
to nearly-not-there. I confess my envy
of willowy young beautiful women
and, though I have stopped disliking them,
I know my envy is a dark sin frowned upon
by God, Thor, Jupiter, or Zeus.

I have avoided Pride (which is thought to be the sin
that severs the soul from grace) and Wrath, as both
are ill-fitting and carry too many consequences.
But, for the rest, dear reader, I confess all of them
and ask forgiveness from you instead of the gods.

 

Martina Reisz Newberry’s newest collection, BLUES FOR FRENCH ROAST WITH CHICORY is available from Deerbrook Editions.. She is the author of six books. Her work has been widely published in literary magazines and journals in the U.S. and abroad. She lives in her much-beloved city, Los Angeles, with her husband, Brian Newberry, a Media Creative.

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Storm Ciara – Gareth Culshaw

The letterbox snaps against the door
as a pulled Christmas cracker.
Canopies of trees sweep the sky of cloud.
The moon is somewhere hangs above
the storm that makes gates clunk
as milk bottles on a moving float.
We sit in front of the log burner
watch the flames try to escape
the wind that falls down the chimney.
Recycling tubs keep themselves low
bins try to hide in the dark corners.
Telephone wires appear to be skipping
ropes being used in a boxing club.
The birds hide cling to hedgerows
or lower branches of trees.
Earlier today the sky sheared clouds
filled the roads and pavements with white
chalk. An hour later the rain washed it away.
For a time I didn’t think I was going to get home.
Gazed out of work’s windows with sheep eyes.
Wondered if I should ring my mother
to let her know my voice is alive.

 

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Image via Pixabay

Of the Coming Plague – Kevin Higgins

I ask nothing
but that I be allowed go out and get it.
Better death than suffer
the interminable sobbing of newscasters,
the grimaces of sweating experts,
and politicians’ elongated
gobs, which keep moving
in the hope the blame
will be stapled elsewhere.

I’ll tour the town’s mortuaries
and kiss on the mouth all the corpses
that died of it. Before you ask: yes,
there will be tongues
which I’m told will feel
like cold, stiff slugs.

And if that doesn’t finish me,
I’ll start breaking into hospitals,
quarantined night club toilets,
the offices of eminent plastic surgeons
to lick clean the soap dispensers
which, by then, will be all out of soap
but alive with the world’s germs.

For, Death, what do I know of you,
never having died before?
You’ve had a terrible press,
but could be victim
of the smear campaign.

Perhaps you’re the best thing ever.
Like the first gulp of Champagne;
or all the orgasms I’ve ever had,
and a few I never managed.

 

Kevin Higgins is co-organiser of Over The Edge literary events in Galway. He has published five full collections of poems: The Boy With No Face (2005), Time Gentlemen, Please (2008), Frightening New Furniture (2010), The Ghost In The Lobby (2014), & Sex and Death at Merlin Park Hospital (2019). His poems also feature in Identity Parade – New British and Irish Poets (Bloodaxe, 2010) and in The Hundred Years’ War: modern war poems (Ed Neil Astley, Bloodaxe May 2014). Kevin was satirist-in-residence with the alternative literature website The Bogman’s Cannon 2015-16. 2016 – The Selected Satires of Kevin Higgins was published by NuaScéalta in 2016. Song of Songs 2:0 – New & Selected Poems was published by Salmon in Spring 2017. Kevin is a highly experienced workshop facilitator and several of his students have gone on to achieve publication success. He has facilitated poetry workshops at Galway Arts Centre and taught Creative Writing at Galway Technical Institute for the past fifteen years. Kevin is the Creative Writing Director for the NUI Galway International Summer School and also teaches on the NUIG BA Creative Writing Connect programme. His poems have been praised by, among others, Tony Blair’s biographer John Rentoul, Observer columnist Nick Cohen, writer and activist Eamonn McCann, historian Ruth Dudley Edwards, and Sunday Independent columnist Gene Kerrigan; and have been quoted in The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Times (London), Hot Press magazine, The Daily Mirror and on The Vincent Browne Show. The Stinging Fly magazine has described Kevin as “likely the most widely read living poet in Ireland”. Kevin’s most recent poetry collection Sex and Death at Merlin Park Hospital was published by Salmon Poetry in June; one of the poems from which will feature in A Galway Epiphany, the final instalment of Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor series of novels. His work has been broadcast on RTE Radio, Lyric FM, and BBC Radio 4.

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Image via Pixabay

Influenza Pandemic 1919 – Beth Brooke

A pale rider came over the hill;
her coldness hung in milky breaths
above the warm earth
of our newly ploughed fields.

She moved among us,
tendrils of her hair snaked around us:
hyphae branching through the
promise of the late spring day.

The dogs did not notice.
They gave no warning growls;
instead they lay quiet by the hearth
and dreamed of rabbits.

In the evening, infected
by a heaviness that dragged
our hearts back down to the
darkest days, we retired early,

the crump of artillery,
pulse of gunfire
pounded our memories.
We lay down and our dreams

were full of pictures:
sons choked in seas of mud or
hung on the wires that were all
the earth could grow.

Those who could
chose not to wake again,
preferring their dreams of the
lost children.

We buried the dead.

With the last clod turned,
the crows startled from scavenging,
rose into the air;

a pale rider up on the hill
turned; spurred her horse away.

We wiped the dirt from our hands

and trudged home.

 

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 35 Contents Link

Image via Pixabay

Playground Love – E Samples

when you forgot your composition notebook
on the desk in calculus i knew
it was my chance to talk to you and
did you feel how i slid up next to you
with the smooth synth of our collective souls
and did i notice you blush a little
like a sunrise the morning after
the big game
today during a second period lecture
on the means between extremes
all i could do was stare at your golden haloed hair
and think these uptight philosophers never
experienced the enigmatic electricity
of forbidden love; never fantasized about
kissing their unrequited in the rain
while Chris Cornell strums Sunshower
never navigated teen spirit mysticism
or paper labyrinth confessions
doused in Mazzy Star and Alanis
god, if i could just fade into you
no i bet aristotle never stood in the spotlight
center stage and announced his true crush’s name
over the opening chords of Glycerine
aristotle didn’t daydream about pinning a cheap corsage
to the sheer fabric of an angel
or long to lie in bed all day
sheets tangled to the rhythms of Recovering the Satellites
i picture us cruising the strip to the
piggly wiggly parking lot riding waves
of Lisa Loeb, the latest Cranberries,
and that one Goo Goo Dolls song I heard you
humming before choir
i’m nervous it may be too much but
should i describe the imagined
euphoria of your presence next to me
in a dark theater while Claire Danes tells Leonardo DiCaprio
you kiss by the book
how can i tell you
i want you to take off your adidas jacket
and throw it over us like a blanket
as everyone else exits and the credits roll
a song to keep us warm
how do i explain the vision
of you and i sharing knowing glances,
hushed conversation, and a basket of cheese fries
while Dolores O’Riordan sings
we’ll always be this free

 

E. Samples is from Appalachia and currently lives in Southern Indiana, USA. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Black Bough Poetry, fws: a journal of literature & art, Vamp Cat, The Honest Ulsterman, Twist in Time Mag, and The Stillwater Review. She is on twitter @emilysamples

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 35 Contents Link

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Inventory – Patrick Chapman

Substances consumed
on Friday, February 7th, 2020.

Air. Via nostrils. Sometimes by mouth.
Constant intake throughout the day.
Dependency likely. May be cut
with toxic elements.

Six mugs of instant coffee, two
of Earl Grey. Lower dose than usual.

Peanuts (80g). KP. Salt and vinegar.

Salmon, baked. Dressed with lemon slice.

Peas: approximately 60. Not
one of them an actual sphere.

Artificial potato. Milkwhite, frozen.
Contents included chemicals listed
on the box. Did not translate.

Sourdough, ham and vintage cheddar.
Two slices of each, arranged in
a sandwich-type scenario with olive-
based spread and posh mayonnaise.

One bar of crushed nuts: cashews
and a crunchy, binding substance.
Wrapper not recyclable
in this territory.

That’s it for food (as of 20:47:23).

Aspirin (500mg). Advised to dissolve one
in water and gargle the mixture, three times
a day. Have taken it once. Pharmacist said
to swallow rather than spit.
What does she know?

Otrivine spray. 0.1%. Xylometazoline
Hydrochloride. Three times a day
for three days. Apply once in each nostril.

Omeprazole Teva. Oral use. Gastro-
resistant capsules, hard. 20mg, twice
daily. How about weight-loss
and exercise, they said. Am
deaf in the ear into which
that one goes.

Serimel 50mg. One tablet daily.
Better at night. Doesn’t half
whack you. Slight overdose.
Waiting for the wooze.

Mojito-filled chocolates. Forgot
about those. Three with the fish.
Sharp and delicious.

Sildenafil. 50mg. Popped one earlier,
hopeful that someone on this boat
would notice and find it of interest.
So far, nothing doing.

This condition
is expected to persist for quite some time.

 

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 35 Contents Link

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War in the Clouds – Dylan Benjamin

When I walked into the garden the weather seemed to be at war too. The clouds in the sky hung thick, heavy and grey, but every now and then sharp beams of sunlight would punch through and touch the ground like angels reaching the earth.

I looked between the fallen fence and the boy as he zipped around nearby, pretending to shoot imaginary German soldiers. I took the time to study him, trying to scar his image into my memory forever. I wanted to be able to close my eyes and see him there, clear as day. Every freckle, every stray hair on his wild head. It felt like a branding iron.

He looked like his father, a mess of brown hair and those determined brown eyes. I’d fallen in love with those eyes twice. Once when I met his father at the town dance and again when I’d given birth to the boy. I wondered if there were clouds in France and I wondered if I’d ever see those first set of eyes again. Could I?

‘I said – that’ll be a job to put back up, won’t it?’

I snapped out of my thoughts and saw Mrs. Baker standing on the other side of my fallen fence at the back. Her thick jowls and pug-like face poked out between a heavy coat and a headscarf tied tightly over her head. It wasn’t raining but that was the kind of woman she was. In the battle between black clouds and sunlight she always expected the black clouds to win. Sometimes I think she even wanted them to.

‘Sorry, I was miles away,’ I said, checking my watch. I don’t know why I did it, habit I suppose. She was on time.

‘You’d do well to stay on Earth instead of having your head in the clouds. We need practicality in a time like this,’ Mrs. Baker said. ‘That fence won’t put itself up after all!’

I forced a smile at her that was mostly gritted teeth.

‘The troops keep knocking it down on their march. Over and over. Sometimes I feel like as soon as I put it up it gets knocked down again,’ I said.

A soft rumble began somewhere in the distance. I sighed. ‘But you’re right, I best make a start.’

The boy was hiding behind a tree, popping out every now and then to fire off some shots and throw invisible grenades. It made my eyes mist.

‘He’s quite wild, your boy, isn’t he?’ Mrs. Baker said, ignoring me.

‘Not always.’

‘Doesn’t seem to slow down.’

‘No. Everything seems to go so fast.’

The rumbling was getting louder.

‘Well, between you and me, I think he needs to calm down. You know my husband is the headmaster, don’t you? He was telling me-‘

‘Shut up. Mrs Baker.’

I wasn’t looking at her, but I could feel her looking at me. I could imagine her dropped jaw like I’d slapped her in the face. It wasn’t hard, I’d seen that expression before and today there was something in me. More spite.

‘He’s a boy. He’s playing. And we’re at war. Don’t you think children should be allowed to be children, Mrs. Baker? While they can?’

She twisted her face and sniffed rudely. The boy ran to my side and nuzzled into my leg and I held those moments like a guarded secret.

‘Mum, if I’m good, do you think we could go to the pictures later?’ he asked.

Mrs. Baker raised a thick eyebrow at me.

‘Of course, sweetheart,’ I said. ‘Why don’t we walk there and check the times? I don’t think it’s going to rain today. In fact, I think the sun will come out soon.’

His smile was filled with gaps where some teeth had fallen out and I thought how young he looked. How much like his father. I wish I’d had more money to leave under his pillow for sweets. I wish we’d gone to the pictures every day if that’s what he’d wanted.

‘One moment sweetheart, let me get my coat,’ I said, and he puffed up like a proud rooster.

I took the long walk back to the kitchen as the noise in the sky suddenly grew deafening. I shut the door behind me and stared at the floor because I couldn’t watch like I had the first few times and I knew better now than to try and change things.

When I woke up it was night, like it always was, and my head was pounding. Blood trickled down my forehead, stinging my eye. Dust lay in my chest and over and around me while my nostrils burned with the smell of fire. I wiggled my toes and shuffled under the wooden beam that lay on top of me.

This was the part that I struggled with the most. None of it was easy, of course, but deciding whether to stay under that beam or wiggle out of it like I had the first time was a terrible thing.

Should I climb through the wreckage of the house, wander into the garden and see a shoe, a torn sleeve from his jacket – a hand? The nights breeze on my skin made it crawl. I don’t know why I felt more alive when it touched me, maybe because so many people were dead? Feeling alive made me guilty.

I’d stand alone in the night and hear the nearby cries. The flames from burning buildings illumining parts of the darkness while sirens sounded too late. I’d think: Is this what it’s like in France? The wreckages and the anguish and the shouting? Is anyone I love still alive there? My husband or brothers? I’d take it all in and then the bomb would hit me all over again. The boy was dead.

The boy was dead and there would be no tomorrows for him. No more trips to the pictures and he would never age a single day more. I’d wish and I’d wish and I’d wish for more time with him and then-

-I’d be back in the kitchen. The smell of breakfast still lingering in the room and muddy shoes discarded by the door; everything just as it was.

War is a terrible thing. It robs you of the safeness you feel in everyday life. I don’t mean the concern for yourself but of the people you love, fighting in a foreign land and not knowing if they’re dead or alive. And that’s the point – as much as I love my husband and brothers, how do I know they’re even coming back? How can I give up this replay? This recurring loop of my son’s last moments for the roll of a dice that they might return home to me. Would it even be worth it, after the heartbreak? Could we cope? What feels like betrayal does leave a bitter taste in my mouth. It feels like a crime.

‘Can I go in the garden and play?’ the boy asked from behind me.

It took a minute before I could face him; I didn’t want him to see me cry. The minutes are precious but its alright, I can return to them.

When I opened the door and stepped outside into the garden I looked up at the sky. The weather seemed to be at war too.

 

Dylan Benjamin is a poet, writer and essayist from Newcastle. His work has featured in Misery Tourism, 101 Words and other publications and he has upcoming work in Door is a Jar Magazine. You can usually find him at the beach with his dog or follow him on Twitter @DylanBenjamin_

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 35 Contents Link

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The Great Escape – John Grey

All the way across Arizona, New Mexico,
and now into Texas,
the sun beat down
on mother and babies,
as the air conditioning
failed to live up to its name
and rolling down windows
just invited the devil in.

Flat land,
and scenery crudely plain,
nothing to hold a child’s attention,
made for grown-up thoughts,
the kind you wished
would leave your mind alone.

You feared to drive at night.
In the dark,
even if you knew exactly
where you were,
it would still feel like
you were lost.
A bland road,
two indifferent head-lights
would see to that.

So you stayed in cheap motels
with lanky drawling unshaven guys
begrudgingly handing you your keys
and barely slept on lumpy mattresses
while clutching your family to your chest.
When someone asked, “Where’s Daddy?”
“California” was answer enough.

 

John Grey is an Australian poet, US resident. Recently published in Hawaii Pacific Review, Dalhousie Review and Qwerty with work upcoming in Blueline, Willard and Maple and Clade Song.

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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 Seven

dreamland – M P Armstrong

before, my dreams were populated with half-fantasy images
from the curled-up and shadowy edges of reality, a variety
that seemed culled from the random spin of a wheel. teachers
from a semester abroad grew fangs and appeared, pale and
growling, in desks next to me in my tenth-grade algebra class.
the sun dripped glittering watercolor over the backyard fence
that gobbled my sanity, and probably also my hand, if touched.
the jewel-toned scales of dragons perched on the roof of the
dining hall and vortexes to other dimensions swirled in the
pond on the quad. my dreams now are comprised of ordinary
moments: my family gathered around a table laden with a heavy
holiday dinner–mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and
three kinds of pie, with ice cream, even. my roommate bringing
steaming mugs of coffee, golden brown with clouds of cream, to
our spread of notebooks and textbooks in the library as the sun
begins to smudge the sky with light, a friend locked in a warm
and determined embrace under a blanket as the light chatter of a
romcom and the multicolored glow of Christmas lights fill every
corner of the room, turning the standard dorm into an image off
the front of a greeting card. my brain is romanticizing the moments
from life before, my subconscious smoothing over the stresses and
tensions, and my sleep setting the scenes to songs from the bleachers’
discography. i do not want to remember what those were really like,
dinners spent with bitter words bubbling in my throat and threatening
to boil over, the specter of failure hanging in the air-conditioner wind
over every flashcard and frappucino, the rotted curiosity about the
blurry lines of relationships twisted up in every body entangled with
mine. i want to think about the mirrors of those moments in the near
future even less. terror served next to the turkey, cooked by a respiratory
therapist and carved by a man of almost eight years old. peeks at the
list of names tucked inside the front covers of books with dates, mental
calculations: could their coughs still linger on the pages? the threat that
lurks in every human being, even the ones that we once could touch
without thinking twice, even the ones we had been dreaming about
holding close throughout the months we spent separated. i would rather
live in that fantasy world, bleed out because the woman who taught me
about roman history dug her teeth into my jugular in front of the girl
i wanted to ask to homecoming or watch my dorm burn to the ground
from the sparks belched by a winged lizard, than live in this one, this
hazy dreamland where the dangers do not disappear when my alarm
starts beeping and i open my eyes. a conscious nightmare is darker
than the bruise-like circles under my eyes born of avoiding sleep; i
would rather spend the rest of eternity waking with night terrors than
experience the screaming, sweating horror during the bright daytime.

M.P. Armstrong is a disabled queer poet from Ohio, studying English and history at Kent State University. Their work appears or is forthcoming in Luna Negra, Red Earth Review, and Social Distanzine, among others. They also serve as managing editor and reporter for Curtain Call and Fusion magazines. In their spare time, they enjoy traveling, board games, and brightly colored blazers. Find them online @mpawrites and at mpawrites.wixsite.com/website.

Emails From God – Valerie Griffin

Email from: god.creator@thisisallthereis.com
To: mothernature@thisisallthereis.com, theuniverse@thisisallthereis.com
Subject: Our Discussions re the Deterioration of Planet Earth

I accept the responsibility falls on my shoulders. Although, in my defence, I never thought they would start to bite the hands that feed them. I gave them everything they needed. In hindsight, maybe I gave them too much? It’s hard to stomach, watching them systematically harming themselves and every other living thing on the planet; killing off the life that was given to them to nurture; the life to keep them alive.

Email from: mothernature@thisisallthereis.com,
To: god.creator@thisisallthereis.com, theuniverse@thisisallthereis.com
Subject: Re: Our Discussions re the Deterioration of Planet Earth

Frustrating though this is, beating ourselves up about it won’t help and the onus doesn’t just lie with you, God; it lies with all of us. We have to find the solution for them to realise, and correct, the consequences of their actions. They think they know better, but this proves they don’t.

Email from: theuniverse@thisisallthereis.com
To: god.creator@thisisallthereis.com, mothernature@thisisallthereis.com,
Subject: Re:Re: Our Discussions re the Deterioration of Planet Earth

I am beyond angry. I have no time for these arrogant and selfish people, deluded by their own self-deception that what they’ve been doing is for the better good; who are now bogged down and suffocating in their barren land of wastefulness. We all know it can’t go on. This doesn’t just affect Earth, it affects the balance of the whole of space and time. I can arrange for a meteor strike, that’ll shake them up. BOOM! BANG! GONE! HAVE A NICE DAY NOW!!!

Email from: god.creator@thisisallthereis.com,
To: mothernature@thisisallthereis.com, theuniverse@thisisallthereis.com
Subject: Re:Re:Re: Our Discussions re the Deterioration of Planet Earth

Ah…you never suffer fools lightly, do you Universe? We need to save Earth not destroy it totally, that would make us no better than them. These people need educating again. Let’s get them working in harmony once more, not discord. Despite the few, there are hundreds of millions who, I know, will grasp the chance to make a better life for themselves and save the planet. People who will spend time self-reflecting, who will look, and find, the silver lining…because there’s always a silver lining.

Email from: mothernature@thisisallthereis.com,
To: god.creator@thisisallthereis.com, theuniverse@thisisallthereis.com
Subject: Re:Re:Re:Re: Our Discussions re the Deterioration of Planet Earth

Very dramatic, Universe, but I agree with God. And the silver lining is the seas being free from contamination, allowing marine creatures to swim in clear, uncluttered waters; the skies devoid of airborne impurities, providing thermals of fresh air for the birds to soar freely. And the land. The forests, the woods, hedges and fields – so lovingly created and vital for existence – will start to regrow; the animals, unceremoniously ousted from their natural habitat without a thought from those desperate for profiteering, can start to rebuild their homes again. It’s time to heal.

Email from: god.creator@thisisallthereis.com,
To: mothernature@thisisallthereis.com, theuniverse@thisisallthereis.com
Subject: Re:Re:Re:Re:Re: Our Discussions re the Deterioration of Planet Earth

Well said, Mother Nature. I have an idea…leave it to me.

Valerie is a published writer living by the sea in Dorset. She writes short stories, flash fictions and is currently editing her first novel. She likes growing weird-shaped vegetables and people watching on the seafront.

Walls – Tamara Rogers

The walls moved again today.

You’d miss it if you blink, but I don’t blink. I haven’t blinked for weeks.

Always alert.

Eyeballs starting to itch.

Maybe put some cream on them, in them.

Because constant vigilance is required in this dreary apocalypse. This apocalypse of online shopping and socially distanced street parties that turn into moist, sweaty germ factories. Whole streets ready to go down together, singing Vera Lynn in triumphant idiocy.

They sing and clap while others die saving them.

That’s the spirit.

But I digress, because we were talking about the walls moving. You can tell, for those who haven’t been paying attention, by looking at the shoes I left by the front door. The shoes that haven’t been worn for weeks (government mandated exercise can eat my ass), the shoes that were piled on top of each other in the carefree way of someone who thought they were going out again but then never did, the shoes acting out the Mary Celeste of Clarks. Because the shoes have fallen over. You see? The right foot’s heel was resting on top of the left foot’s toe, but now it’s prone on the floor, laces trailing onto the welcome (but don’t tread shit everywhere) mat.

Easy to miss, I guess, so I’ve smeared paint on the wall for next time. One long streak from the wall onto the floor, nice and thick, dripping lilac (surely a drunken shopping choice) in ugly, bulbous tears. The walls move, the line breaks.

It’s time for (more) coffee in my carefully curated quarantine schedule. On the way to the kitchen I kick the wayward shoes into the corner. What do you do about moving walls? Are they hostile or am I an unwitting accomplice to an act not yet revealed?

Is this a benign Changing Rooms?

Is this a trash compactor from Star Wars?

Should I call the letting agent?

And the coffee is strong and black and bitter, it burns my tongue but tastes good, topping up the buzz roiling under the stale sweat on my face. My heart races, forgetting that sport is cancelled for the foreseeable. Feel alive, albeit riddled with anxiety. Feel alert, refreshed, wired to fuck.

Next stop on the timetable; ten minutes in the back garden. Fresh air is good for the soul and also for the lungs and let’s be honest that cough has been hanging around. The garden is, well, barely a garden. Dirty paving slabs squeezed into a back alley, the reincarnation of a well-behaved public urinal.

Inside, and back to the couch.

I look at the wall, glare at the streak of paint, stare out the window. There the neighbours come and go, wear their masks around their necks or under their noses, stand two metres apart but let their kids smear snot on each other.

I rub my eyes, sandpaper scratching under my ‘lids.

Mom used to say things could be ‘so dull it’s like watching paint dry’.

I never thought watching paint dry would feel so tense.

Tamara writes mainly dark, surreal tales with a touch of science fiction. Her novel Grind Spark was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award 2014. She is interested in all things weird in the world of psychology, artificial intelligence and armageddon. And cats.
Twitter: @tamrogers Website: http://www.thedustlounge.com

The Garden Not Open – Bronwen Griffiths

The garden was due to open after the long winter closure but the disappointment of the grey clouds was nothing compared to the realisation that the garden would not open this spring and perhaps not even this summer and I was wondering if there would be anyone to clear the weeds from the cracked paths or if the bird topiary, with its fuzz of new leaves, might be metamorphosing into new shapes. I imagined the birds turning into furry cats, the kind of cat caught out in a rainstorm, not that it has been raining and indeed there has been no rain for many weeks and we have been glad of this because all winter it poured cats and dogs, and lakes appeared where none were there before. I was also, in thinking of the garden, remembering its ancient mulberry tree because we too have a mulberry in our garden but when I spoke to one of the gardeners last year he was not much interested in our mulberry though I am interested both in our mulberry and the garden’s mulberry and how and if they are related. What I thought was that our mulberry might be the grand-daughter of the mulberry in the garden, though perhaps it might be the daughter, but I have no evidence of this. The only evidence I have is that mulberries make delicious jam but are also a devil to pick because the juice runs down arms and stains hands until the picker of mulberries resembles an extra from a slasher movie and this I have most definitely known. Thinking more of the mulberry, in particular its large leaves, larger than a hand, I am now wondering if, once the leaves appear in their fullness -and even now in the middle of May they are not quite grown to maturity – the quarantine might be lifted so that I can go and visit the gardens and see the other mulberry, the old mulberry, which may or may not be the mother or grandmother of our own mulberry.

Bronwen Griffiths is the author of two published novels and two collections of flash fiction. Her flash pieces have been published in a number of anthologies and online journals and her novella-in-flash, Long Bend Shallows, was shortlisted for the Bath Award. She lives in East Sussex and likes to garden.

Goldie and Three Scary Bears – Liz Power

So there’s this little girl, real cute…she goes for a walk in the woods. Big woods, maybe bad woods, full of wolves and real bad people. Shithole woods.

She’s called Goldie… real pretty blonde hair. Remember… I have tremendous respect for women… all women.

Anyhow, Goldie comes across a small house right there in the wood and she knocks on the cute front door. It’s not a big house, by the way, not like mine. I’ve got more money… more brains… better house, apartment, nicer boat. I’m smarter than they are. When no one answers, she just walks right in.

On the table there are three bowls of porridge… I love porridge by the way, it’s from Scotland where my mother’s from…did you know that? Goldie’s hungry, real hungry, like she’s not eaten all day. She tastes porridge from the first bowl, and it’s too hot.

She tastes porridge from the second bowl, a bigger bowl, but that’s cold. Finally she tastes the porridge from the third, biggest bowl and it’s just perfect. She eats the whole lot up…the smart thing to do, big brains… smart cookie.

Now, she feels real tired… long day out avoiding bad people, scary people.

She sits in the first chair, the biggest, which would be the best chair as it’s the biggest and the best. But it’s too big so she tries the second chair, not as big, but still too big. Then she tries the smallest chair and it’s just right.

But then it breaks! Shit manufacturing! If you vote for me, I’ll make sure there isn’t shit manufacturing. Build a wall – keep the shit manufacturers out, along with criminals and Mexicans…

Goldie feels real exhausted. She goes upstairs to lies down, but the first bed’s too hard, so she gets in the next. That’s too soft! Soft beds give me back ache – I like a good firm bed. Then she lies under this sweet little quilt in the third bed. That one’s just fine and Goldie falls right asleep – just like that.

While she’s sleeping these three bears arrive. It’s their house, right? Scary bears…might be bad bears from Mexico. But I’m probably the least racist person you will ever meet…

Daddy bear… he’s short and fat just like that Kim Jong-un… he says real loud ‘someone’s been eating my porridge!’

And Mama bear… she’s a handsome bear… remember, I have tremendous respect for women, I really do… she says ‘someone’s been eating my porridge!’

Then this real cute Baby bear says ‘someone’s been eating my porridge and they’ve eaten it all up!’ Baby bear starts wailing and carrying on because his chair’s all broken. Crooked – like crooked Hillary.

Then the scary bears go upstairs to look round some more.

‘There’s someone sleeping in my bed!” cries Baby bear.
Just then, Goldie wakes up and sees the three bears, yells real loud and runs away into the big, bad forest.

You know what? Never goes back there again. So, if you vote for me I’ll make sure there’s no more scary bears in shithole woods, because I’ll build a very big wall and keep them all out. I probably would do that, probably. Maybe.

Can’t Quit Drinking Today – Shelly Norris

It’s like Earth shuddering on her axis.
If only there were some method of proof.
It’s like watching Rilke’s tiny slumbering
silences cradled deeply in the limbs
peeping through, vulnerable
to a month of cold slate sky
snowing ash and sleeting ice.
It’s like the foreshadowing
after the opening climax (just
one of fifteen) that twists
the bloody battle scene
into a training exercise
where casualties rise and dust off
that follows the heroes’ conversation
casually revealing the exposition.
It’s like the dog excusing himself
when he thinks movie explosions
and aftershocks are genuine
gunshots and thunder.
Like trying to remember
not only laughter is also contagious.
Like trading Cabernet for Absolut,
needing limes, and making do
with essential lemons.
Like when after two decades
the one guy finally invites
the other guy to dinner
to meet his wife and baby
and I remind the dogs
TV coyotes are just actors
though they know I know
they know a flesh and blood pack
lurks right across the road
in someone else’s woods.
It’s like when the other hero—
usually older jaded or younger
hungry, maybe with the least
to lose—says maybe; we know
which character will not live
much further into the plot
or probably washes out filthy
in the end. It’s like ghost ships full
of live tourists and sailors marked
for death drifting into ports
forbidden to disembark.
It’s like the hero’s young wife grilling
the past out of two old soldier friends
who’ve fought to hell and back together
her and us wondering why
he wasn’t the best man
or even a guest at their wedding.
It’s like Elliott’s cruelest month
growing sociopathically more sinister
like choking in the billowing smoke
from a neighbor burning brush
on a dry windy day or that black
poodle off its leash dashing
in front of speeding cars every time
or feeling torn as the Palomino’s head
stretched between barbed wires
as she reaches for greener.
It’s like the hero’s DNA at the scene
the explosives residue in his garage
the encrypted folder on the dark web
the millions in offshore accounts
he never opened. Too tidy.
How does the FBI Director miss that
every time? It’s like the Walker Hound
wolf howling in his dreams.
It’s like all the conspiracies
coalescing into golf ball hail
beating us down on the front end
of a tornado swarm sweeping
the wobbling planet
and irruptions kicking off mega fires
and triggering fault lines—Wasatch,
Tatsuda, Sobral, Seattle, The Rhine
Rift, New Madrid, Longmen Shan,
Clarendon-Lindon, Elsinore, Tacoma,
The North Aegean Trough—more
than you can name and all of them
at once, and the shifting waves that morph
into hurricanes, typhoons, tsunamis.
It’s like when the tests weren’t perfect
and no one actually offered tests
and technically no one refused them
or when King County’s Public Health
Department sent body bags instead
of tests to the Native Health Clinic
and sometimes
nothing is fathomable.
It’s been just like that.

Shelly Norris currently resides in the woods of central Missouri with her husband John, two dogs, and seven cats. A Wyoming native, Norris began writing poetry around the age of 12. Norris’ poems embody the vicissitudes of unrequited love and loss, dysfunctional wounds, healing quests, and the role of cats in the universal scheme.

Cabinet Of Heed SOC Stay Safe

Double Vision – J L Moultrie

Not fitting in with
the misfits has gone
a long way to sharpening
the angst. The water is
red and I can’t. Let. Go.
I’ve survived, somehow –
flitting and twisting through
the years; seething inside
days meant for someone else.
The serpentine sky, violet
and blue, is lodged in
my throat. The swarthy
city streets are redacted
from my memory. Each night
is a vestige of solace –
circumstances purged of change.
I am a guest in my own
body, subsisting on the sight of waterfalls.

 

J L Moultrie is a native Detroiter, poet and fiction writer who communicates his art through the written word. He fell in love with literature after encountering Fyodor Dostoyevsky, James Baldwin, Rainer Maria Rilke and many others. He considers himself a literary abstract artist of modernity.

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 33 Contents Link

Image via Pixabay

Heart – Aldas Kruminis

It supplies with birth the instrument
of mind and body – the human life.

It echoes in the mind when it goes blank;
skips a beat with a kiss or a smile
with born babe’s first breath or “I do” long awaited.

It toils when it suffers, like a sponge
scraping away at grimy burned dishes, it soaks
up the misery and pain to clean the soul.

It speaks with beats when mind fails
to articulate. It knows more than thought and hurts
the most when it no longer bleeds.

 

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/

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 33 Contents Link

Image via Pixabay

What Coming Home Looks Like – Aisling Keogh

I do the school run when darkness fingers the light-
gently giving two to the idea there will be any sun today.
That grey half light forgives my no make up face
and those tiny pink purple veins around my nose,
inherited from my mother.

My black coat touches off bare ankles,
sock less inside walking shoes, and forgives my saggy breasts.
Bra-less, they sit on a stomach that should be smaller.
I always wear earrings to look more put together
than I actually am.

This morning, I did the school run like this, in my pyjamas.
And came home to you, a visitor in my house, in my kitchen, in your pyjamas.
And instead of yelling “be with you in a minute”
and running to change, I kicked off those shoes
and stood barefoot on my unwashed floors.

I unzipped my coat without a thought for my forty-something body
and wondered how many times we’d done this before?
Even though this was a first.

 

Aisling Keogh is a psychotherapist and a stay at home mother to three young children. Her short stories have been published with The Irish Independent, Crannog Magazine, Wordlegs, Ropes, Bangor Literary Journal, A New Ulster, and “Story Cities” an anthology published by Arachne Press, in June of 2019. Her first published short story, “How to Save a Life,” was shortlisted for the Hennessy Irish Literary Awards 2011. In 2018, Aisling finished writing her first novel, which she is currently submitting to agents, and in January 2019, she was shortlisted for the Doolin Writer’s Weekend Short Story Competition. In her free time Aisling likes to write and sing.

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 33 Contents Link

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Stained Lass – LindaAnn LoSchiavo

Religion classes taught us to behave:
Defer fun’s gratification. Submit.

The patriarchy ruled the afterlife — —
Along with most improper things. Obliged.
Coerced. Imperfect those Confessions, stained.

Could any child prevent assaults or blab?

Each catechism lesson drilled down deep,
Swore death would be “the best day” of your life.

Meanwhile, your body was a sacrament,
Impure of thought and deed upon command

Swift holy water dip on the way out.

 

LindaAnn LoSchiavo is a dramatist, writer, and poet. Her poetry chapbooks “Conflicted Excitement” [Red Wolf Editions, 2018], “Concupiscent Consumption” [Red Ferret Press, 2020], and “A Route Obscure and Lonely”‘ [Wapshott Press, 2020] along with her collaborative book on prejudice [Macmillan in the USA, Aracne Editions in Italy] are her latest titles. She is a member of The Dramatists Guild and SFPA.
An interview — https://www.thepoetmagazine.org/interview-with-lindaann-loschiavo

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 33 Contents Link

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