40 Doses – Adrian Belmes

In the balmy June of 1979, the drive-in is on fire. The smoke rises high over the Guadalupe River, but the kids on the blanket in the park across the way hardly notice. George Jr. is too busy hiking up Mary Allen’s skirt to care about the indistinct whiff of asbestos and lead in the air. It’s June; of course there’s a fire. Just last week, the dropouts from Tivy High lit up a garbage can in the Calvary Temple parking lot. Ma says it’s Satan. George Jr. knows it’s the boredom. The summer’s only started and there’s not a fucking thing to do.

Two days before, George takes Mary to the movies. He doesn’t have to beg Pa for the keys this time, so he’s feeling big as he pulls onto Gilmer Street, stops at the corner of 4th, and honks twice for the yellow house on the left. Mr. Allen eyes him through the blinds and Mary bounces out the door. She’s been waiting. They don’t kiss until George Jr. rounds the corner back down towards the 1350 block of Junction Highway, where the Bolero Drive-in’s been in Kerrville longer than he’s been on God’s tan-and-taupe-colored Earth.

Like any good boy from the vacuous heart of central Texas, George Jr. pays for his date. He counts out six dollars and two cents in change to Betty Stotts in the ticket booth. She counts it back, peels off two little pink tickets from the roll in the office, and rips them in half, keeping the numbers and handing back the stubs. It’s a stupid little process, she knows, but that’s just how it goes. Betty’s been there two decades at least. Ever since the kids skipped town, there’s not been a thing for her to do but ask Howard Hiegel up the road for a job. He’s a good neighbor, Mr. Hiegel.

Betty likes the movies well enough. The variety is nice, if the quality isn’t. Sometimes, she’ll sneak Mr. Stotts into the booth and they’ll do it like the kids, not watching at all but letting the sound drown them. Betty likes the booth. It’s cozy, but big enough for two. Her Buick doesn’t have the room for fun like that, but there’s an awful lot of seat in George Sr.’s dear old F100. After he parks the truck in the lot, all George Jr. can remember is the title card, the popcorn grease, and the thick musk of Mary Allen’s flower-printed Penny panties on the dashboard.

The projector is warming up on the 16th of June in 1979 and Betty’s thinking about calling Mr. Stotts. It’s the same damn cheap flick as before, something about a bear and a river. The toxic waste in the Ossipee makes him a killer, but Betty doesn’t know what an Ossipee is. She doesn’t know that Randy Woolls is watching her and thinking about rivers too. He’s been driving along the Guadlupe’s edge since Medina, just following the road as best he can on 40 doses of Valium.

It’s not the most Randy’s ever taken, but it’s the first time he’s taken it liquid. Two nights ago as George Jr. pulls Mary Allen’s Penny’s off her thighs in the front seat of his Ford pickup, Randy Woolls breaks the lock off a door in Hondo. What he wants is pills, but all that small-town drugstore has is vials. Maybe that’s why he miscalculates. In Medina, Randy’s digging a needle into his arm and hoping he’s missing the muscle. There’s hardly a viable line in the grey and skinny flesh of his bicep. It burns all the way down. In Kerrville, Randy sweeps crushed cans of Coors off the floor with his feet as he leaves his Chrysler in a ditch off McFarland, lurching across two intersections to the 1350 block of Junction Highway.

Randy’s stumbling through the sodium lights. Betty’s still thinking about calling Mr. Stotts when he hits her over the head with a tire iron. There’s some debate about the origin, but the jury later figures Randy found it somewhere in the lot. With so many cars passing through, it seems likely that something should fall out of a boot in the bustle and nobody should notice. The shock of the impact strikes Betty dumb, just long enough to push her into the little closet at the back of the booth, knocking rolls and rolls of tickets off the shelf. Randy Lynn Woolls cuts her throat when she screams. He’s never killed before and, even now, he doesn’t think he’s killing. He still doesn’t think he’s killing when he stabs her nine times and throws his lighter in.

Betty’s alive when she sees the rolls of pink tickets catch fire and the plastic start to melt. In all, it takes minutes, just enough for the light to change on the intersection of Main and Junction Highway. The cars are turning right into the lot again, so Randy closes the door and opens the register. In court, he claims he doesn’t remember this part, but George Jr.’s got both hands firmly on the wheel in the drive-in. Maybe he thinks it strange that Betty’s out for the night, but he can’t smell the smoke as Randy Lynn Woolls takes his two cents and six dollars, peels off two pink tickets, and hands back the stubs. He’s got other things on his mind.

George Jr. circles twice. The night is packed. He smells the popcorn and thinks about Penny panties. He’s burning, but Mary Allen is nervous with 400 spots tight in the carpark. You really wanna watch this again, George? Why don’t we get some fresh air? By the time George pulls out, the booth gets too hot for Randy to stay. He empties the register, takes the keys to Betty’s beater off the counter, and shuts the door. The movie’s just getting started as the parking Buick swerves and clips the bumper of the fleeing Ford. George Sr. asks about it later, but tonight, George Jr. zips back onto Junction Highway. Mary Allen gets all the sky in Laura Hays Park as Betty burns in the Bolero. The kindling’s mighty good.

Mr. Hiegel doesn’t see the fire for another ten minutes. He sees Betty’s Buick first, and that ain’t Betty in the driver’s seat. It’s Randy that’s kicking his feet onto the dash and counting the bills and change. His hands can hardly grip the paper as it goes tumbling into the cracks. Later, the court tells him it was 600 dollars and he marvels at the sum. It couldn’t have been that good a movie, not that he was watching. Mr. Hiegel’s watching the ticket booth. Twenty minutes after Betty dies, he calls it in. He’s a good neighbor.

By the time George Jr. takes his face out of Mary Allen’s Penny’s in the park long enough to see the squad car lights and big red engine come down Junction Highway, the column of ash that’s been pouring out the ticket booth has irreparably damaged the screen of the Bolero drive-in. It never quite gets repaired, and every actor in every film that’s ever shown after looks a little grey in the face. Nobody notices that night, but they do the day after when the whole thing hits the papers. Randy Lynn Woolls, too gutted to move under the influence of drugs and beer, is still sitting in the car when he’s arrested. On 40 doses of Valium, your honor, there’s no way Mr. Woolls knew what he was doing.

In the August of 1989, Randy’s on the table and the technician can’t find a vein. An addict all his life, he’s got no trouble pointing out a thin line of blue on the back of his palm. When the plunger gets pulled, it burns all the way down. Nobody’s crying when they close the Bolero that year. There’s just no interest in drive-ins anymore.

 

Adrian Belmes is a reasonably depressed Ukrainian Jew residing in San Diego. He is the EIC of Badlung Press and has been previously published in Riggwelter, X-R-A-Y, and elsewhere. His chapbook, “this town and everyone in it”, was published by Ghost City Press. You can find him at adrianbelmes.com

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A Great Fire – Anthony David Vernon

Oak crackles, evergreens blacken, a great fire consumes a forest. Scurrying upon some high branch a bird collects droplets of water from fruit dropping them from its beak onto the fire.

A panther approaches the bird, “You know you cannot extinguish this fire with droplets of water.”

The bird replies, “This I know but I do what I can.”

A gator slouching along a bank sees the fire and takes action, wiggling through water to the fire. The gator uses his open jaw as a shovel heaving water onto the fire.

The panther approaches the gator, “You know you cannot extinguish this fire with mouthfuls of water.”

The gator responds, “Just trying to do something.”

The bird and the gator continued their efforts in vain for hours until a great rain came and extinguished the great fire.

The panther once more approached the bird, “See, what was the point of your efforts, when you knew you could not extinguish the fire? You should have left it be.”

The bird rebuttals, “Rain may come, rain may not show, all I know is that I am that which I can control.”

The panther once more approaches the gator, “Why did you do something when doing nothing would have also led to the fire being extinguished? No flame lasts forever.”

The gator answers, “Sure, I could spend all my time biding along this bank and watch the world through my slits pass by as gentle breezes do. Or I could swim rapidly through the freshwater before me. The choice is my own. Yet I cannot decide to swim or bide based on what will or may come. All my slits see is what is now.”

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The Woman in the Wedding Cake Tree – Martha Higgins

Janice is astounded as a woman perches precariously on the top tier of the wedding cake tree in her back garden. The woman stores her books, clothes and high heels on the two bottom tiers in neat bundles. Her long dark hair falls onto the white blossoms and her silky blood red dress drapes over the tree. Janice peeps from a corner of the kitchen window as the woman picks some blossoms nonchalantly and throws them on the ground. Janice’s eyes widen, she loves that tree, she and Adam bought it together after their honeymoon on a July day when joyfulness seemed so easy.

The woman puts blossoms in her mouth savouring them slowly. Janice creeps around the walls of rooms peeping out the windows hoping the woman doesn’t see her daily wanderings where she touches or picks up all the things she and Adam bought together. The house smells differently since he left, that slightly spicy man smell is gone with him and Janice’s body is drooping with terror and grief.

In the evenings the woman in the tree wears silky soft grey pyjamas, her toenails are painted red and she stretches out precariously on a branch and arches her feet salaciously.

Janice tearfully calls Adam.

Jan, you need to pull yourself together, what the hell are you talking about? Look, we each have our own lives to live now. You know we agreed all this. You need to stop getting ridiculous ideas.

Janice listens miserably, wondering how she got to be an annoying stranger to him.

Look, I need to go, Mia and I are going out to dinner, just do you best, ok?

Janice’s voice wobbles with unformed sobs.

I’m afraid of that woman in the tree.

Oh for God’s sake, stop being so bloody crazy Jan, nobody could put up with you.

Janice drops the phone and falls to her knees clutching her stomach as her body feels like it is breaking apart in the middle. She sobs until the singing from the garden catches her attention. She creeps to the window and sees the woman back again and singing softly to herself. She sees Janice and holds up a sign; “SLIDE SHOW AT 7PM”

Curiosity pushes Janice to sit at a corner of the kitchen window before 7pm. The woman sways slightly as she kneels on a branch holding a group of large cards. She smiles kindly at Janice for the first time as she slowly holds up one card and then another.

1. Adam and Mia in a sunbeam, looking lovingly at each other

2. Adam and Mia’s tangled limbs in Adam’s car

3. A new house with a chandelier in every room

4. The Eiffel Tower looms over Adam and Mia on a Bateaux Mouches on the river Seine

5. At a party, Adam is drinking copiously and telling jokes, Mia sits there uncomfortable and irrelevant

6. Adam stands under a chandelier berating Mia and then storms out of the house in disgust

7. Adam arrives home with flowers

8. Adam is choosing clothes for Mia to wear

9. Mia sits crying at the kitchen table and Adam tells her she must learn lessons for her own good

10. Mia sits alone in the kitchen at midnight, Adam hasn’t come home

Janice slides to the floor and sits staring at the kitchen wall, at some stage she pulls a cushion off a kitchen chair and lays her head on it on the floor. She wakes cold and achy; robotically she gets up to look out the window. The blossoms strewn on the ground are the only signs of the recent occupation of the tree.

Slowly she begins to pack up all Adam’s things that he carelessly left behind. She then cleans the house, wiping down all the surfaces carefully. In the evening she puts a large green bin bag with Adam’s things on the front doorstep and ties it tightly. Then she sits at the kitchen table and speaks softly.

It’s ok, Janice, it’s ok.

 

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The Shadow of Stained Glass – Michelle Matheson

‘Drink the water. I dare you!’

‘No way! That’s holy water! My insides will melt!’

‘Loser!’

I curve my hand and scoop the water into my mouth. Nothing melts. We laugh as I exhale one loud exclamation of relief. We charge down the aisle, kicking and scuffling, cursing the need to go over the roles we will perform on Sunday. We are buoyed by my pseudo bravery, flouting the rules of decorum in this place.

It’s cool in the church, no sun beating on our burnt limbs. We don our robes and perform time honoured rituals. I hand Father the chalice, empty now as it won’t be on Sunday morning. Even in practise the remembered smell of incense lingers. It coats both my mind and my tongue.

The priest is a background drone as he intones. He casts holy water and droplets land on my arm. I am in a nether world, physically present but my mind has already drifted to other summertime pursuits.

I’m rostered to help clean up today. As I wait, the late afternoon light beams down upon me, dust motes float in the air and I am coloured by stained glass. Heavy doors swing shut behind the other boys. They shout out their goodbyes. Free to race away.

I can feel his eyes upon me. Slanted, cat like, sizing me up.

As the door swings shut, my stomach tightens. This is no dainty butterfly dance of nervousness. Instead the heavy beating of crows’ wings grows inside me. I imagine the crows’ beady eyes standing out on stalks.

I am the hunted. The wings beat upon me until I close my eyes. I squeeze my eyes shut so I can see the red tracery of capillaries in the darkness.

I bite the inside of my cheek and my mouth fills with blood, the taste of iron on my tongue.

Iron like the outlines that form the stained glass.

Iron like a crowbar.

Iron like a weapon.

There is a vortex of sound. His breath raises the fine hair on my arms and I am not quite able to transport myself as the masses of saints bear silent testament.

Outside those doors, summer continues. I think about the squeal of bike tyres and the hum of bees. I think about swimming pools and bombing off the jetty.

I do not think about this place, or the press of his hand. I do not wonder if I am the only one. I do not think about telling. I think that I was wrong to drink the holy water. I think that my insides are melting after all.

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Funnel Clouds – Kelle Schillaci Clarke

The girl pretends she’s Gretel, leaving behind a trail of tangerine peels. She sits cross-legged in the back of the cart, her legs having long outgrown the front seat, too tired to keep up with her mom as she speeds through aisles like those ladies in gym shoes at the mall. Trader Joe’s reusable bags crinkle under her butt while she digs dirty playground fingernails into the tangerine she’d snagged from the free fruit bin. The peel trail follows them up produce, down meats, up canned fruits and vegetables. Her mom doesn’t notice. Worry has her mom’s brows in a wrinkle, a funnel cloud forming over her head as she squints at oatmeal box labels. The girl pops tangerine into her mouth, having missed lunch. One bite is sour, the next sweet. She counts the segments, worried the last one will be sour and that it will be the sour taste that stays stuck on her tongue. She didn’t grab her backpack when her mom surprised her at school, so no water bottle no lunchbox no tissues. The items in the cart make no sense to her: peroxide, toilet paper, microwavable mac and cheese. Her mom took her out of school for this? She leans over and grabs Go-Gurts from the dairy display while her mom, still on the phone, tosses boxes of stick butter onto her lap as if she’s not even there.

They’re going in circles now, the girl can tell, because there’s the peel trail and there’s the free fruit bin again — no apples, just tangerines and a bruised banana. She stands and bends over the cart, nearly falling then regaining her balance by clutching onto the avocado display. She’s pretty steady for five-almost-six, but three avocados hit the ground. No one notices. The store is crowded, everyone on their phones. Funnel clouds and furrowed brows all over the place. She manages to snag another tangerine and slips the fruit into her unicorn hoodie for later. She loves me, she loves me not, she loves me, the girl sings in her head, popping segments of what’s left of the first tangerine into her mouth and sucking their juice—sweet, then sour, then sweet. Her stomach begins to hurt again, but she can’t tell if it’s because she’s hungry or full. Her mom is too busy on the phone. Virus-this, pandemic-that, her mom keeps saying, and the girl hears other shoppers saying the same words. Maybe they’re all talking to each other, the girl thinks, pressing her hot face into the cold bars of the shopping cart, looking from one worried face to the next. Maybe this is how we all talk now.

 

Kelle Schillaci Clarke is Seattle-based fiction and creative nonfiction writer. Her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Blood Orange Review, Superstition Review, Barren Magazine, Pidgeonholes, Crack the Spine and Ghost Parachute. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, but left the desert in favor of the rainy Pacific Northwest, where she can now be found wiping surfaces with bleach, temporarily homeschooling her six-year old, and tweeting @kelle224.

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Song Lyric Prompt

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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

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