Stream Of Consciousness Drawer Two

Hope Grows – Rob McIvor

Beards.

I swear all the men in this street are growing beards. Every one of them.

Not those fluffy two weeks away glamping with the family and I didn’t feel like shaving beards, but proper, six weeks away from work, just like a teacher in summer, and look what happened beards. Let’s all hole up at a pink house in upstate New York and make a great album beards. Garth Hudson beards. The real thing.

Even Frank, at number 34 is doing it. I saw him this morning, going out for his daily exercise with his little girl; the one that asked me if I was Santa Claus. What’s her name? Oh yes, Guinevere. Sorry, but if you’re going to saddle your child with a name like that you need to give her some decent genetic material. But Frank’s no Adonis and her mum’s no Helen of Troy. Poor kid.

Anyway, back to Frank’s face. I noticed it when he was on the way out and had a good look when he was on his way back, with his newspaper. He always holds it up to his chest, with his arm crooked, like a junior barrister carrying his briefs. I don’t know what he does for a job. Maybe he really is a junior barrister. There it was, a bit wispy in places, sort of ginger with blonde roots, but definitely an attempt at a beard. He’s going to need another month of this before he looks like anything other than an unkempt hamster.

I see them all coming and going. Phil from 43 (very dark, he’s already shaping it into a kind of biblical sage look); Louis and Michael from 28 (matching goatees, flanked by carefully cultivated stubble); the teenager from 39 (a bit scrappy but 8/10 for effort). It’s as though on the one hand they are all trying to pretend that they are going about their lives as normal, as if nothing was happening, while, subliminally, little squirts of testosterone are dribbling into their brains and telling them that this is their chance to let it go, show what they can do if left undisturbed for a month or two, to return, when it’s all over, with their faces a visible declaration that it’s all going to be different from now on.

I envy them their futile hope. I remember the last time it was all going to be different. And the time before that. Each new dawn breaking through, like tiny shoots from an overnight face. And that moment when we all thought: shall we let it grow a little, give it a chance, nurture it, before razoring it away in a submissive, supplicant return to normality.

I wonder which will last longer, this naïve sense that something has changed forever or the beards. All those beards, screaming out their vitality, their endurance, their presence. I watch them passing all day. And I look down and remember that the last time I shaved was May 2nd 1997.

Porthcothan Bay – Matt Fallaize

I, of course didn’t realise until years later what had actually happened, because it made so little difference at the time.

You don’t though, do you?

A was about to be my first proper girlfriend . There was a sort of tacit acknowledgement between us that we were about to be a thing, but we weren’t, in any binding sense, that yet. So it was plausible, legally-speaking, in Double Science when Cowan and Rawley told me that she’d had actual sex with a guy in a tent on Porthcothan Bay, just the weekend before; some kid from another school, I didn’t know him. It wouldn’t have been a crime, technically. We’d been edging around each other for a while, but it wasn’t like I had exclusive rights.

They said it with a note of concern, they wanted me to know what I was getting myself into. They were angry at her, her friend Nicola had told them. She’d been in the next tent along. Their words were rushed. They’d fallen over each other to tell me.

We were friends , of a sort, Cowan, Rawley and I. I’d been to their houses, they didn’t seem to actively dislike me, we had occasional conversations and compared homework from time to time. They were, I instinctively acknowledged, a couple of brackets up from me, popularity wise. They dressed with more confidence, surfer clothes, they had a certain relaxed charm. It didn’t bother me, it was just how it was.

The odd thing is that I remember not believing a word of it. Not in any angry, hot denial sort of a way. I just thought well that didn’t happen and thanked them for telling me and thought no more of it. I’ve always had something of a short fuse, and it was worse then. You’d have expected me to lose it. Confront A. Or, more likely, retreat into myself in silent misery and never speak to her again. But I didn’t. I just thought nah, and went about my day. We became an item shortly afterwards. She was, I knew, a bit too good for me. But it took me some years before I worked out that was how I felt, then.

And I’ve no idea what made me think about his, twenty five years later. My wife and I had just finished off dinner, we’d been having a rough time but things were getting better and we were in expansive, confiding mood, having one of those conversations where you maybe reveal a little more of yourself than you normally would, even to a loved one. When you talk about each other’s pasts. And I’ve no idea why I told her about this, as I hadn’t thought about it, right up until that moment, but when she said in a small, furious voice: fucking hell, they didn’t even want to let you have that one happiness, they wouldn’t even let you have that I thought Jesus yes that’s it.

Matt Fallaize is a writer (and chef) based in Ormskirk, Lancashire, UK, where he knocks out meals, stories and poems in wildly varying quantities… His work has appeared in various places and, you can find him, should you feel so inclined, in the usual places.

To Slow Down – C J Dotson

A couple of months ago I began to suspect that I might have ADHD. Inattentive type. I talked it over with a few friends who’ve known me for a very long time and with my husband and eventually I called the psychiatrist’s office that my husband goes to and asked to set up an appointment. I didn’t have a referral or anything and there was a little bit of surprise or hesitance on the other end about it, but I had a first appointment a couple of weeks ago. About a week after that I had a follow up to do a series of true/false questions, over 500 of them, on a computer. In that time I have been doing a lot of research on my own and I came to the conclusion that something that might really help me would be to create a schedule. A detailed schedule of every activity throughout my day, one for each day of the week. I started it, and it seemed like it was really helping me. A few days after that, the governor of Ohio (where I live) canceled all school for three weeks. He said three weeks. I and my husband both figured pretty immediately that that was actually it for this school year. There goes my stepson’s last year of middle school and my son’s first year of preschool. And there goes that carefully crafted schedule. It had to be reworked and it doesn’t always work because my son is home all the time now and you have to be a lot more flexible with kids. I’ve missed parts of the schedule almost every day but I’m still trying. More, something strange started happening to my perception of time, right away. Everything in my personal life kind of came to a stop. We’re not leaving the house. I’m not planning my son’s fifth birthday party. I don’t take him to school or pick him up, I don’t check my schedule at work, I don’t look up events at the library, I don’t make plans with my mom. Everything in the world outside started moving so fast. Governor DeWine started shutting things down left and right, and in my opinion good for him. Stores ran out of a lot of things (insert toilet paper joke here). There’s more bad news from around the world every day. Time at once seemed to slow down to almost nothing and to speed up incredibly, depending on where I’m looking. It’s disconcerting. And my god is it distracting. I know I’m not alone in this. I know that right now almost everyone in the world, except for people in denial perhaps, are feeling this too. I know that. But it just doesn’t seem fair that I was finally, at age 33, figuring out some big fundamental part of who I am and learning how to work around it and then (allow me to be a little hyperbolic for a moment) and then an apocalypse started.

CJ Dotson has been reading sci fi, fantasy, and horror for as long as she can remember, and writing for almost that long. She works in a bookstore, co-hosts a SFF book club, and is a wife, mother, and stepmom. In her spare time she paints and bakes. Visit cjdotsonauthor.squarespace.com

Not today – B F Jones

I woke up to smell of tress and bananas and oxygen, to a sing song, from little birds. To the patter of hungry toddlers, demanding bread and honey, to the soft purring of a congested husband, demanding my body pressed against his. One of the cats paws my chest and it hurts to be alive some days. There’s a pool out there full of water and lilies. I float on one of them, my body spongy like a star fish, my mind gone to the good place. The nebulous place of stars and clouds, foamy with delight, dewy with love and the warm embrace of dear ones, muscles and tendons and flesh. Hot breath garlicky and sweet. Red wine running through our veins as we hold hands tight, squishing our pulse, making sure that it is here. Yes it is here.

I woke up to the song of neighbours, guitars and banjos and flutes, their hope rising through the air, their feuds, suddenly forgotten. Not today, revenge, not today.

I hold a small bird in my hand, its tiny body nested against my palm. The cat brought it in, proud, but I said no, not quite, give it back. Not today.

I lay awake at night with the weight of my dreams, suffocating me. The water lilies have come for me and they cover my hairy body. I have become an animal and I am chasing my dreams, my aunty Virginia had warned me about the furry family legend. You can’t escape it she’d say, wagging her strappy tail. We’re better off this way, she said, dislodging a small bone from between her teeth, curling up on a pile of skeletons and purring with the satisfaction of the mighty. I know best my dear one, yes I know best. We can try and try and try but only this way we can succeed. Come and join the tribe my dear one. There are small ones to eat and medium ones to fry and big ones to fight. Don’t run away my darling I know best. But I run away. Traps everywhere, traps traps traps. Sweet old ladies turned devil. I run on that springboard and jump from high. There must be a way out from this pool that I swim over, my body a hovercraft of hope, not weighing anything anymore; I have turned into one of those little brids from the tree that I see from my window when I wake and say not today, not today. I bake some bread with misfortune and expired yeast, it rises and burst, giggling as it splatters my kitchen walls. I mop it with the last of my hope, I polish the wall with fierceness and anger and undying love while I scream and shout not today, not today. I wake up with a small bird on my chest, it’s eaten the cat and vomits a soft cloth of comfort, I wrap myself in it and I go back to sleep. Small birds sing song as I doze, not today, not today.

Mother Love – Anne Hamilton

If she’s filled that bloody commode again, I’ll swing for her…Deep breath, deep breath. Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten. Knock. Do it. Ugh: overnight breath and lavender water, and what have I said about the electric heater? Look at the old witch, perched there like a Buddha in a hairnet and curlers, tasselled bedspread up to her neck. Ask how she is, Mags, go on, see which laugh we get this morning: brittle, hollow, tinny, tinkling, woe-is-me. Depends whether she’s showcasing her indigestion or her constipation. Or her ‘little bit’ of diabetes. For God’s Sake. None of them’ll stop her guzzling tea and toast – once we’ve got through the rigmarole of me offering and her refusing. Give the old girl her due, she times her hesitation to a tee: well, if you’ve already gone to the trouble…I’ll try a little…Oh! Fuck’s sake. She always notices I can’t be arsed to iron her napkins, one of the six white linen squares, plus silver ring, my dear mother brings when she visits. My paper ‘serviettes’ are ‘common’. Being a perfectionist is such a curse, Margaret, such a blessing you don’t suffer. Ya-di-ya-di-ya. I get through these fourteen day ‘holidays’ pretending to be a below-stairs extra in Downton Abbey. Brown toast is wrong. White toast is wrong. Sodding Michelin-approved truffle-dusted artisan focaccia is wrong. But she’ll suffer it: tsk, tsk – you flighty young folk (mother, dearest, I’m forty-six) are too ready to waste things… She lived through the war, don’t you know, all gravy-browning legs, dried-egg canapes, and people today not knowing what war is. Yeah, right, Ma, all those thousands of whinging Syrians should Keep Calm and Go Home, shouldn’t they? I try smiling, honest I do, but she shrinks away as if I’m baring my teeth, all the better to eat her with. Breakfast takes longer than a medieval orgy, and I’m up and down the stairs like an Olympian. I lose all kinds of pounds when she’s here, running around pretending I’ve a book balanced on my head, lowering my shoulders and straightening my back, just as the eighty quid a session osteopath recommends. Now she’s off on one about my new-fangled dishwasher scratching her manky old crockery (yep, she brings her own Royal Albert china along with the napkins). Is it a hair (my slovenliness) or a crack (my cack-handedness)? Whatever. There’re always spares in the special antique shop, aka The Salvation Army, down town. It’d break my caring mother’s heart, you see, if she didn’t have a full dinner service to leave my can’t-do-any-wrong doctor brother when she carks it. Oh, no blame on him, he’s one of the best, my little bro. Patient. Kind. Cheery. I’m the mardy one. S’pose I’m not really blaming Her Highness, here, either…well, alright, I am, but what can you do, eh? We get on fine as long as there’s a respectable social distance – 300 miles usually – between us. And like I tell myself, for better or worse she is my mum.

White Out – Mark Anthony Smith

In these times of a Virus other things spread like germs too. I couldn’t even get some milk today. I can substitute peanut butter or jam for butter. I can go without marmite and tinned mushrooms because I don’t like them. But black tea makes me angry with its sharp taste. I drink tea sans milk and forget about biscuits. This panic buying tests my patience.

I sit cooped up. I do that anyway since half of my neck has been removed. On Social media, there are young people being arrested in The Costas. They’ve only just become legal to drink and no threat of illness will change that. The Spanish Police are not in a British holiday spirit though. The beaches and bars are on strictest lockdowns. The teenagers learn the hard way to a thunderous applause from other tourists from their balconies.

In the papers, schools are headlining to be closed indefinitely. Home schooling will test some parents and kids if the PlayStation doesn’t substitute the clammer of maths and arguments. It is novel, being at home, but for how long now the cinemas have closed? People are worrying about the lack of pay too.

There are increased Road traffic accidents as people worry about whether they’re symptomatic or worrying too much – or not enough. We have seen regular outbreaks of violence. A lady fights on the path because her Ford has been pranged and she doesn’t have her usual patience with other things going on. A man fights openly, in a Supermarket, for the last toilet rolls. He is apprehended. But not before he bombs those that arrest him with boxes of man-sized tissues. People are not thinking straight.

The streets are deathly quiet. I can hear my teabag plop. The shops are either closed or an open free for all. It’s soon gutted. I am gutted. I sip. The tea is bearable as I watch another Apocalyptic film and forget. What do they say about real life and fiction? I chuckle. I try to forgive the behaviours of those who panic buy like vultures picking off carrion on The Serengeti. The credits roll. This is how I escape.

Mark Anthony Smith was born in Hull. This is his second furnishing in The Cabinet of Heed. His Horrors appear in Anthologies from Eerie River, Red Cape Publishing and Nocturnal Sirens. ‘Hearts of the matter’, a book of poetry, is available on Amazon. Facebook: Mark Anthony Smith – Author; Twitter: MarkAnthonySm16

I See Your Looks – Shannon Savvas

I see your looks. I hear your whispers. I don’t bloody miss a single raised eyebrow or purse of lips. Why the hell she has to be so slow. She knows I’m in a hurry, I rang and told her I’d pick her up at ten. Hell, I left it in big letters on the whiteboard in her kitchen. I arrive and she’s not dressed, or has forgotten where her handbag is (like she’ll even need the screwed up, used tissues and Elizabeth Arden lipstick she’s been using for the past ten years), or goddam it she needs the toilet because she took a laxative this morning. Yes, yes, I’ve caught the bloody hell head shakes, the exchange of tongues in cheeks between you and your brother. She’s getting old, clumsy, slow, whiney, bad-tempered, unstable, a hoarder, forgetful, bloody awkward, stubborn just to piss us off. Fill in any other blanks you want. And yes, I am getting old and no, trust me none of the above is deliberate. But some are downright wilful – oh and do you know why I’ve turned into a hoarder? I’ve turned into a hoarder because I’ve lived long enough to know that the minute you find something you like, it disappears – off the shelves, end of range suddenly or company gone bust. That’s why I stock those 3-ply linen-like napkins, the jars of peanut butter which are the only decent ones in the shops, the shampoo to strengthen and thicken your hair because another great boon of age is thinning hair. No one is going to catch me out. Not you, not your brother and for sure not this pandemic – who the hell knew? Trump didn’t (hah!) so why would anyone else, but you see, I am prepared. Who’s laughing now, suckers? Whatever’s left over at the end, you can bloody burn it or bury it with me (because who cares what you choose, I will be dead and won’t know – just make sure there are no priests because that I will know). And what about her friends? Where have they gone? Where? They’ve bloody died. Or I’ve shed them like old skins one by one until there is no one. I got tired of the effort. Simple. The return was no longer worth it. Years of seeing and listening and accommodating before I realised the was no reciprocity. A reciprocity failure of a lifetime. Some days, I just want to be left in peace, be allowed to fade gently, to die in my own time and way. Other days, the days after your visits, I want to live long enough to see you fail incomprehensibly at the mercy of your children, to watch as it dawns on you that I was right, about it all, and that none of this was willing or purposeful or wanted. I want to see you betrayed by family and body as I have been. Yes, I do want to see that. No, I don’t.

The Cry of the Damned – K D Field

We’ve been talking about this here in El Compartimento over the course of this Spanish lock down. Have we been such bad stewards of all the abundance we’ve been given that this virus a big shot across the bow? There are indication that it might not be far from the mark.

In China, during the height of the pandemic there, they had to shutter factories and chemical plants. And suddenly, many cities in China had their first sunny days in years. But it will not last. And Venice – without all those pesky tourists, has shown photos of their canals running clear.

We are the pandemic that has been relentlessly attacking the planet for more than a century. – since the dawn of the industrial revolution. We are the virus that she and all her inhabitants have suffered and died from as we marched forward with unabated greed.

People quote the bible to justify their actions. Genesis 1:26 “And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth.” But if we are made in God’s image – or the deity of your choice – we aren’t very god-like. Dominion over things makes you responsible for them. But we have cared only for ourselves; never looking at the long term and never asking ‘Why’

On Twitter they ask ‘How could this happen?’ And I think ‘How could this not?’ I’m not a religious person but the bible doesn’t just give us dominion over all things on earth, it also says ‘As you sow, so shall you reap.’ We are reaping the seeds we have sown. Not in the way a televangelist will tell us, or that abomination FOX News, but in our inability to see where it would all lead.

Governments are putting together bailout packages. $$$. And billionaires are the monkeys running the circus. Sound and fury and short-term thinking. The world has fundamentally changed overnight. We can’t buy bribe Mother Nature, who has more integrity in a drop of the tears she’s been shedding for us, than all the dirty politicians combined. And she will win. She always plays the long game. We’ve been screwing with nature for too long and its tired of us. What better way to get rid of what’s killing you than to find something that will kill it? As humans, we should understand that – we live in a state of war.

The utter incompetence in dealing with this crisis comes from those we’ve elected to lead us through it. We must ask ‘Are they the fools are or are we?’ Because we’ve put our livelihoods, our very survival in the hands of the unqualified, the celebrated, the cults of personality; instead of those with decades of study and expertise. Listen to the politicians on tv these days. War talk, for sure, and I get it at this point. But maybe what we need to do is declare a truce with our planet and start treating it like it matters. Maybe we should do that and pray it’s not too late.

KD Field is an American writer of fiction, narrative short story, and nonsense. Originally from Seattle, she currently resides in Valencia Spain. You can check out her blog: at vivaespanamovingtospain.com

Stupor – Ryle Lagonsin

ALL I EVER DO THESE DAYS IS SLEEP

i dreamt a news reporter tells me that a parasite on the ground looks for me for it needs to find something or it can find something from the atmosphere to supply it with what it needs. i dreamt three times at the same time i went to sleep. i had been listening to raymond carver a few hours before i dreamt i am listening to a podcast of his where he talks about life in general but more specifically life without anyone to pray to. in the same dream i saw a huddle of people and a little girl dressed in black behind the others raised her hand and said i don’t believe in god and the others gasped and they looked and the child’s mother said no child of mine can ever say there is no god. and then i dreamt of the same little girl dressed in black but we are not in a garden anymore. we are in an airport and a naked man is seated on a flimsy chair in the middle of a soulless lobby and he says to the girl: child come here come near me and the little girl walks closer. he says: child do you believe you have a heart? and the girl nods and he says: that right there is proof that there is GOD. he says: that there is air to fill your lungs that your heart continues to pump and that all the cycles go on repeating inside you prove that there is GOD. i turn my face to look behind me for one second for a reason i cannot remember now and when i turn back again the little girl is gone but in her place are two huddles of people separated by a few feet from one another. one group with more people than the other. i could have counted them but i would not know regardless how many people were in either group they are separated by colour. and a few feet away from both of them the same man is speaking still but he is standing now a microphone in front of him. he is dressed now jeans and a light blue button-down he is saying: child learn to pray ‘cause when they come after you the only thing you’d be able to run to is one name. it would do you right to drop to your knees and learn how to pray he said. one person from the group whose colour is the man’s same colour came closer. the man said: once i ran to my teacher frightened but she said hug that man child not me not my colour she said. you cannot hug me was what she said he said. and then i stirred awake and i was in the dark again and in the dark i wondered where my phone was since something told me when you wake this will all make sense. but then i find that carver is still playing in the podcast i wasn’t hearing and i was still inside my head.

Porcupines – Sara Magdy Amin

I had read it somewhere – in some nature magazine, was it? Ah, maybe I had heard it on the radio some time ago last week when Peter was fiddling about with arbitrary things around the house; a futile exercise of boredom that absolutely makes me squirm, but all the while, I still choose to ignore – that porcupines struggle to keep each other warm in times of winter.

I look to my right at Peter and Noah in their state of slumber. A fascinating view of chests rising and falling in such synchrony, inhale, exhale; wisps of existence cutting through the silence of the air in cyclical waves. Such peacefulness, I think, such delight it is, when a father and son share warmth and proximity.

But what was it about porcupines and winter?

Ah, yes. The spikes.

Peter, for as long as I can remember, had always wanted to have children. I recall the day we found out we were expecting (such jubilance flew out of him he almost knocked me over – I had inaudibly shed a few tears in the bathroom beforehand – and came out to join his frenzy), he was, to say the least, tremendously ecstatic.

Porcupines. Three in a row. Our spikes maiming each other, slashing each other across our warm bodies, drawing blood and mixing it in a joyful union. We have not yet learnt to keep safe distances. Since news of the outbreak was announced we have been ever so scarred. Noah (I can picture him laughing now) recently developed such thirst for human contact. In our seclusion, a party of three was formed. Our roles, as parents, cultivated in this arrangement, and he, in his tiny world, was thus able to practice such charm upon us. The mother, myself, the father, Peter, and little Noah, delicate little Noah, were together. Here, now, celebrating immediacy in our former detachments.

I had often times found it hard to play that role – the mother that is – thinking back to the first few months where I was often times drenched in perpetual anger, my womb aching, bosom sore, in a state of fury at my anatomy, constantly reprimanding Peter for simply existing as a man, (unaccompanied, singular, free, human). I found it hard to be that abundant giver and provide godly offerings in god-like ways.

I shift to lie on my side. Dawn is almost cracking through, her bright threads imposing through the darkness, resting over our limp forms, birds chirping nonchalantly in recognition of something above our worldly perceptions. Do they know the world is unfolding? Have they comprehended how to live only temporarily and chant their way through it all? The newspaper yesterday said that death toll rose to a thousand and thirty-five people. Those poor birds, that darned influenza, snipping away already temporary lives, making away with their chants.

Noah’s eyes open. He yawns and draws in near, running his jagged barbs into my skin. I nourish him back to sleep and kiss his tiny little forehead.

Stream of Consciousness
Drawer Three
Coming Soon…

Stream Of Consciousness Drawer One

Untitled – Carla Halpin

Mine is a pocket of calm in these crazy waters. It isn’t so bad. Yes, the four walls are not very far away. But here in the eaves, the angles of the roof are casting interesting shadows in the mid-day sun, which I never noticed before. How intriguing my now defunct calendar on the wall seems? And at any moment, papers strewn will be hit with organisation but with 365 hours in the day now, there’s plenty of time to organise them later. The boundaries of the weeks are blending. But if I notice one new thing every day, then that’s a change, isn’t it? The fresh spring air is pouring in my window. Pop music drifting up from downstairs, as planned, to fill the house with noise and people and movement. How clever we are to manage to unlearn all the natural things keep us sane, like noticing, like music. I never usually stop long enough to notice out my window. The trees are budding in clusters of tiny pink, growing in patterns mirroring neurons in my brain. I guess both are lit up with this moment of really looking. I do notice the change of this season out my window- but from the sounds. It’s time for the shrieking of the foxes. They started up again last night. It’s nice to hear the world moving outside. I’ve never met the people on the opposite side of the pink flowers -the neighbours – but I know of their movements from their sounds. Someone is very keen in woodwork in what was once a daily irritation. Now it’s comforting. He’s busy at work, and I like to imagine he’s happy, because he does it every day. And I can’t see any fruits of his labour. The fruits of his labour must be inside him, and possibly in his wife as it keeps him out the house. Next door to them is a dog. I’ve never seen it. But I know when it’s happy or sad by the tone of its bark. Sometimes I want to rush over there and comfort it, but it’s never long before someone gets there first. The fence sways in the wind; it’s soon going to topple. And although I’ve been told that wouldn’t be a great thing, I can’t wait for this dog’s face to appear and see if it matches my imagination. Black, scraggly and with a waggy tail with a long curtain of black hair. We’re not so far apart, really. The south aspect holds an entirely different scene. It must be the only time in my life I’m glad trees have been chopped down as it opened up another direction. I can see a ceiling to floor window in a faraway house. It might be a bedroom, maybe with long curtains that float in the wind. I can’t see in, but yet I still wonder if they can see me as I wave my arms. I could write words in the air. Whatever happened to walkie talkies? That would be perfect right now.

Carla Halpin is an editor who lives in the New Forest where she writes poetry and flash fiction. Her work has appeared in Anti-Heroin Chic , A Story in 100 Words and The Cabinet of Heed. You can find her on twitter @CarlaHalpin where she posts regularly as part of the very short story community.

 

New Pressures in the Time of Corona – Laura Besley

I watch my 5yo tearing around the garden and my 2yo trying his best to keep up and I think: can I do this? Can I keep them entertained for the next who-knows-how-long?

I am a mother who dreads the school holidays. Not because I don’t love my kids, but because it’s a reminder of the fact that I can’t always cope. A reminder than I’m not the mother I wanted to be; I’m not all-sacrificing, putting their every need before my own; I’m not able to endlessly come up with fun games to play and roleplays involving superheroes; I’m not able to think of a million different fun things to make out of egg boxes; I’m not able to give up everything I am for them. Sometimes I wonder why I should. And then I feel bad.

Last summer I had them for four weeks on my own. Taking away weekends, that’s only 20 days. When you put it like that it doesn’t sound like very much. And I feel ashamed that I dreaded those days and didn’t always cope very well. I feel should’ve enjoyed it more.

And now? Now I’m supposed to homeschool my 5yo. Teach him phonics, improve his reading level, teach him Maths, do PE with him, be creative with him, all the while making sure my 2yo doesn’t break, wreck, or scribble on anything my 5yo is doing. This new pressure, this new homeschooling pressure, is just another thing that parents are now having to contend with. It’s too much. I know people mean well, but I’m being inundated with messages from people sending me things to do with my kids. I might rue these words if people stop sending me things, but it’s overwhelming. Like I haven’t got enough to get my head around with all the new rules in place and my brain working very hard to block the panic and worry about what might happen if my kids, or anyone else I know, gets the bug.

I’ve decided, for my own sanity and those around me, to take a big step back. I will continue reading to my kids; I will continue asking them questions, trying to get them to work things out for themselves; I will continue playing in the garden with them; I will continue letting them watch TV. I will do all the things I normally do with them. I will keep them safe. That’s my only job right now.

 

These Days – Jordana Connor

Beep beep beep… “And now, for the 5:30 news update.” Christ, still in the middle of the apocalypse I guess. I’m going to lie here in bed for 10 more minu- oh. Getting poked in the ribs. Must be my turn to make the coffee. This rug needs a vacuum. Is that a spider?! Oh no. Just a feather. Whew. Come on cat – I know you want to get out for a sniff of the garden.

Okay but don’t dash under my feet. If I fall down the stairs and crack my head open, bleed to death slowly on the little Persian rug, who will feed you top of the line science diet food, and trim your claws? Door open, (cat out! Why do they always flee out of an opened door like they’ve been trapped for days?) kettle filled, kettle on. Dishwasher emptied. Coffee in plunger. Mugs out. Sift and discard contents of the downstairs litter tray. Wash tray. Wash hands. God, the interminable scrubbing of hands. I’m starting to feel like I’m prepping for surgery 20 times a day.

Mugs are full and steaming, and the trick now is not to spill too much on the ascent up the stairs. Ahhhhh… made it. Mornings are nice. Blinds up, blue sky and wild parrots screeching a greeting to a new day. I like the sitting, propped up on our pillows, coffee cooling, phones in hand. Powerful, expensive (germ covered) conduits to the latest in these, The End Times. Or just a temporary foray into misanthropy. Depends on your outlook, I guess.

The news is terrible, but it’s the sports news that winds me up the most. “A bunch of grown adults, who have dedicated their lives to playing a game, played a game yesterday, which nobody got to watch. Sad! Some of them won, some of them lost, here are some meaningless statistics for you, conveyed in a breathlessly entertained tone, so you are fooled into thinking it all matters.” It doesn’t.

Coffee drunk, eyelids finally unglued. Time for a walk. Better find some clean shorts. Where are my sports socks? Why does this hair tie look chewed? (Damn cats!) Ok, off I go. Can’t stay in this house for months on end with no reprieve. Pretty sure we’re allowed out for walks as long as we don’t go near anyone else. Fine by me.

God there’s a lot of poo on the pavements here. Who did THAT? Hoping for possum, but who knows? Australia is full of weird and wonderful creatures that crap on the pedestrian infrastructure. Always will do, no doubt.

Oh – here comes an older couple. They’re darting their eyes at me.
Should smile and look unthreatening. Try to look responsible and well. Look perky. Pick your feet up.

Oooo – that’s a pretty flower.

Shit. I coughed. Poor things scuttled down a driveway. Feel guilty.
This all sucks and I’m sick of it already. But not SICK sick! I wonder if I have enough toilet paper…

 

Come to Heel – Charlie Sanderson

We walk seven miles or more the dog wrapped up in mud and sprung coil like across the fields, through trees, the wind howling banshee like against our waterproof trousers and fleece, the ground beneath our feet tantamount to constant change and love like a warm cushion between us softens the blow of the way the land lies right now, this way. She won’t come to heel for long enough, a herd of deer, red flag to a bull, only now she waits longer before she bolts at them, old enough to see the danger now, of more than one, creatures in packs aren’t so safe these days. When your eyes get a little wiser.

The road finally brings us home against the backdrop of field upon field edged in hedgerow upon hedgerow. The odd mansion house for the rich and famous types. Folk who like to live in the city and come here to shoot deer. We do laugh at how even they won’t survive this time around, silent killer, invisible man hunter. We shouldn’t laugh. But there’s little else to do. So, we laugh and we walk our way on and through.

At home the eggs sizzle in the pan and the home-made bread almost burns in the broken toaster, I tell you about the omelettes in Singapore how they have them with sweet chilli sauce there too and raised eyebrows smile back at me across the table you cut in half to fit the room. How I love you.

After we eat and you clear the sides of crumbs and swear at the toaster and the random shit radio six play on a Saturday afternoon, your dad walks past the window. Shoulders hunched against the climate of life right now. I don’t know what to do. So, I break the rules and open the door and make him a cup of tea. And as you walk out with him, I wonder love, who will live and who will die? I think of Captain Pickard last night, taking to the space ship crew, “Every single time you say goodbye to someone you cannot know if you will ever see them again, this is no different”.

We can balance our lives on the head of a pin, but maybe some of us will fall too far in to climb back out again. It’s all just change though isn’t it? I keep breathing and dropping to my heart and feeling all that panic and love and hope and regret. How irrational people always thought I was when I was so lost in my fear of death. And now it is so palpable and yet, I do not feel afraid exactly. You are the mistress of your own misery. You say that to the dog when she pulls on the lead and chokes herself, or walks headlong into the stick I’m swinging in front of me as we walk. She needs to come to heel. We all do though, don’t we?

 

I Feel Weird – J L Corbett

“I feel weird. Do you feel weird?” I asked my husband earlier today. He also feels weird.

I’m not as worried about him as I was seven days ago. Seven days ago, he was sweating through his clothes and coughing violently. He groaned to himself and mumbled that his existence was pain. I held off calling 111 until he threw up blood. It took half an hour for them to transfer me to a medical professional, and during that time I stood at our bedroom window, staring at the world from which we would soon be quarantined. I wanted to drive him to the hospital (even though I haven’t passed my test yet), but I knew they weren’t letting infected people in. I wanted to call somebody over for help, but anyone who crossed our threshold would be risking their health.

I listened to the hold music and felt very alone.

I felt tears forming, which annoyed me. I told myself to get a fucking grip – I am his wife now, and I need to act like it. I am the person who needs to steer the ship alone when he’s incapacitated.

As each day passes, the virus loosens its grip on his body. There’s been no more vomited blood. Quarantine has been an odd mixture of anxiety and boredom.

On day five, he was well enough for a short walk around the park. We were out for less than an hour, but I think it was the highlight of the day for both of us. He seemed elated at being outdoors and around people (at a distance, of course). He was still very weak, but able to have a conversation and a walk.

This morning, I spent three hours in the garden whilst he slept. I cut down the enormous ugly bush that’s been an eyesore in our garden since we moved in two years ago. I blunted the multi-tool in the process, so I had to cut down the rest of it with a handsaw. It was tedious and now my arms hurt. It killed some time and some pent-up energy though, and also that hideous bush.

After lunch, I called my boss and told her that the quarantine period had been extended from seven to fourteen days since we last spoke. She hurriedly told me to take another week off. She was practically begging me not to return too quickly. After I hung up, I felt dejected. Is it too dramatic to say that I feel rejected from society? Maybe society isn’t even a thing anymore.

We live up north. I’m supposed to be in pub in London right now, drinking with friends I haven’t seen since last summer. Next month I’m meant to board a plane to Ireland to see some other friends. My family lives down south, but my stepdad is almost seventy years old and has health conditions. So, when will I get to see my mum again?

I feel weird.

J.L. Corbett is the founder and editor of Idle Ink, an online magazine of curious fiction. Her short stories have been featured in MoonPark Review, Paragraph Planet, Schlock! Webzine, TL;DR Women’s Anthology: Carrying Fire, The Cabinet of Heed, STORGY Magazine and others. She owns more books than she can ever possibly read and doesn’t get out much. She can be found on twitter: @JL_Corbett and has a website: http://www.jlcorbett.org

 

Meanderings – Stella Turner

I follow the arrows but it’s not the way I want to go! I’m feeling anxious. I go against the flow now feeling guilty. Will I be stopped? I think I’m too near the woman choosing yogurts. She’s looking daggers at me. I want to run to the toilet roll shelves but no let’s not be too disappointed too soon. Why is that man looking at me? He’s with a woman maybe his wife no she looks too old; his mother? No far too young. Probably I’m giving him too much eye contact. I do that. Is it a fault? Four loaves I take two. Is that selfish? See a friend. We stand the recommended two metres apart. I’m happier with feet, metric is for the young ones. It looks six foot. I was her bridesmaid forty years ago, her groom stands beside her. Isn’t he asthmatic, at risk? She has a scarf covering her mouth he and I dressed as normal. I’ve left my man in the car. He’s diabetic, definitely at risk. I’m warned to keep him at home. I would have driven myself but he wanted to get out so he drove. Didn’t the email from the company CEO say or was it government advice one person per family only to enter the shop. Luckily no items out of reach else I’d need help. I’m short, vertically challenged. Social distancing makes it hard to ask for help. My friend says she was dreading coming here today me too. Can’t find eggs ask a store employee picking for home deliveries, the lucky customers who stay home, stay safe. She apologises, none, I say aren’t the hens laying? My daughter has a hen, Betty; I could barter Betty’s daily egg for the packet of Paracetamol I found on the shelf if we were allowed to visit each other. I miss my grandson could try skyping him. No toilet rolls. I pay the bill with plastic. I’ve always said I’d never pay for food on credit. Plastic is safer than coins and notes says the experts. First time plastic is good for the planet! Huge change in habits no more big food bills, no more waste. We’ll see! The cashier smiles weakly as I say thanks for coming to work. I bet she’s thinking stay home old biddy. Don’t infect me! I wheel the trolley to the car. Open the boot and load the three carrier bags for life. Miffed that I had to take the risk. Next week I’ll run the gauntlet again unless it all changes.

 

Coronavirus Held a Press Conference, and Crushed It – Michael Wade

Thank you. Goodness, what a turnout!

Yes. I realize you’re looking at a microdroplet of snot. It was explained to us that TV requires a picture. We’re smaller than the wavelength of what you call visible light, so…Does anyone have a substantive question.

Right. Thank you for phrasing this important issue so forthrightly.

We need to acknowledge that our core interests won’t always align. I’m a virus. I’m pretty militant about viral rights. Not to get into labels or name-calling, but let’s be frank. Certain organisms are fighting tooth and nail every day against our very right to exist.

You speak of hundreds of thousands of – uh, infected humans. Infected. Do you understand how offensive that language is?

You speak of thousands of host, human, deaths, and the possibility of millions, and I hear the self-righteous outrage in your tone. Do you even want to hear our side?

Good. In five of your milliliters of blood, in every infected human, your word, hundreds of millions of us exist. Each wanting nothing more than our natural rights. That’s all. Well, here’s your headline, ladies and gentlemen. Approximately all of these virions are dead now, or soon will be.

Get your heads around that. Your languages may not have words for the numbers of dead I’m trying to describe.

Look, we’re sympathetic to your issues. But this focus on what I would absolutely call the acceptably low host loss associated with our incredibly successful program…Well. Let’s just say work will be required to mesh our perspectives.

Yes. You, sir.

I can’t speak to that. You’d need to talk to those viruses. What you call common cold of course refers to many different viruses. The question of whether we’re just the common cold pumped up by left-wing hysteria, whatever that is, reflects a multi-cellular organismic arrogance I find beyond insulting.

Ma’am…

I was briefed on that, yes. We agree strongly that damage to your economy and health from so-called social distancing is extremely concerning. This is one area where we can make a lot of headway together.

Take your cue from us! We know the odds are against us, but in the meantime we are having a ball together in your sera and fluids! Why should we be having all the fun in these challenging times?

In the back. Yes.

Well, we are mutating constantly. We seek, in good faith, the ideal virulence, where you, our cherished biological colleagues, suffer only the most minor physical inconvenience. All I can tell you is that we are working tirelessly for our mutual benefit.

Excuse me? Right. Folks, sorry, this sort of thing is new for all of us, and I’m being told we’re experiencing some mucus degradation, and will need to close.

Time for just one more…right, you sir. Front row. Yes, you, with the barrel chest and the large nostrils.

I couldn’t hear you. I wonder if you could come closer. Yes. Closer…

 

On the Platform – Joyce Wheatley

We stand disconnected, vulnerable, uneasy. Eyes dart toward the western sky. I’m tired of floating erect in these 9-to-5 fatigues, impatient to get on with whatever’s going to happen.

We’re awaiting rescue. I don’t know why or from what. No one speaks of it. My companions look familiar but I don’t recall their names. The middle-aged man in a suit cycles up and stops. If I’d taken my bike today, I’d be home by now, but the tire’s flat. Thus, I’m on the platform.

“Listen.” The cyclist opens his book, “You don’t have to stand under the silver tree to darken.” Shadows haunt his face. Street lights buzz. Across the street, St. Gregory’s stained glass windows arch behind him. Lindens shiver, leaves sparking belly-up under the moon.

“Let me tell you … we are standing ….”

Balloons, captioned to burst, hover out of his mouth. Like deer frozen in headlights or cows lying down before rain, our notable behavior is “squirming,” anxious and uncertain whether or not disaster is coming. We shuffle and hum, tweet and pray for safe return to our nests. I want to get home, but I’m curious about the end.

Wind gusts a sea green bottle rolling, cluttering the sidewalk. I snatch it up and I Spy With My Little Eye a paper note inside, visible through glass curved like an old Pepsi bottle. “Time’s running out, and no one is coming to save you.”

I wonder what happened to Hope? There’s a place right here beside me.

People on the platform drift and shift. I want to connect with someone, but, if Hope doesn’t arrive, who? Ambitious, a woman slithers to the center for the prize spot. Either she covets the safety of belonging or she’s climbing the ladder of success. If you don’t want to fall off, step away from the edge, but my nature avoids the middle like a plague. Give me drama—sharks, high seas adventure, a great white whale! … and such. An eye patch swaddles my left eye. A red scarf bandanas my head. I mount a seahorse, whooping “Ahoy, Matey!” Or give me Apollinaire so I can fly.

No one speaks. Waves crash in, shattering the quiet anticipation of fear. We’re drowning in the deluge, drenched on the platform, and then we swim, like a school of fish, swerve and plunge, in and out, circling to the depths until the gushing slows to a stream, flows to drizzle and the drizzle stutters to a drip.

“Save me,” a dolphin in a suit pleads. I embrace the wounded creature, “You have strength,” I say,” and flop him back into the waves. “And courage.”

On the platform, resuscitated, we rise one by one, and shed our scales and fins. We stand together, waiting to board, and wave goodbye.

It’s beautiful, the love that flows from the ocean.

 

Need – Samantha Costanzo Carleton

Elizabeth picked up the habit of lighting candles from her grandmother and so she did that now because why not? Her grandmother had lit candles in church every week and prayed after dropping quarters in the half-empty metal box attached to the table of votives and as the sound echoed across the quiet church Elizabeth and her sister would stage-whisper arguments over who got to light the candle in part because it was the only time they were ever allowed to handle something as dangerous as fire on the end of a long wooden stick but also because they knew there was a certain kind of honor in the task and a solemn need to take this Very Seriously because the candle was an offering or maybe a plea, but anyways their grandmother would shush them and drop more change in the box so they could each have a candle and honestly, they never had to argue in the first place because didn’t they always need more than one light? There were always more things to ask, more people who needed healing or hope or good luck, so their grandmother told them who the candles were for and Elizabeth would do her sworn duty to pray for that person but also sneak in in a request for help on a math test or patience with her sister or world peace or for God to forgive the bullies that made fun of her hair, the biggest ask of all, and she would feel good because she was being selfless and asking for help for someone so clearly less fortunate than she. Anyways, lighting a candle seemed like something that would maybe help her feel alright again today and so she struck a flimsy match and touched it to the wick of the tiny little tea light that smelled like vanilla and chemical lemons from one of those self-care subscription boxes she had gotten for a few months and then cancelled when she got bored, it wasn’t even holy, not that she was convinced the ones in church had necessarily been blessed, either. Today she did not try to pray or really think to because she was focused on the ritual at hand — she lit her candle and stared, closed her eyes and took a deep breath, filled herself with air and tilted her head back instead of downward like she did inside the churches, and the prayer still didn’t come though something inside her squirmed like pleasepleaseplease and yet this weirdly-scented tea light flickering atop a paper mountain on her desk still felt Very Serious, still an offering or plea or desperate shout to be seen in the midst of all this, this mess, which would definitely eat her if not for that tentative, wavering flame and the smell of vanilla and fake lemons and something in her that actually felt like rest to scare it off. It was enough.

Samantha Costanzo Carleton is a marketing copywriter by day and creative writer by night. She lives in Boston and is working on her first novel, based in part on her childhood in a Cuban family. You can find her on Twitter at @smcstnz.

 

Little Flower – Cyndie Randall

I know at least 20 of them these days, but Angie was the first to breathe on me. A haunted friend. She drives my body now much of the time, curls up pained in the evening and pops peppermint candy like pills to get the torture of men out of her mouth. She wears wrinkled clothes, no makeup, writes poetry nobody cares to read. Therapists don’t believe in her and she’s fine with that. Feels invisible anyway. Her and I have our own dystopian trauma choir, all ages and genders lined up from present day all the way back to the crib. Seven times I pleaded with the Lord to take them away. The Lord told me, You must forgive seventy-seven times seven times, and then He sent seven more plagues. I think we need new numbers. Little flower, just take one more step, I hear. Just one more step. I spend most nights dreaming I am waste deep in snow. The moon asks, What are you doing, little flower? I scream at him, that moon. There is a man up inside there telling me which way to drag my hope next but he never tells me why. He is my only light, so I go. I do it. I pour sweat. I will turn any trick for water or a biscuit, any trick for a try on the love machine. Stop calling me little flower, I think. There is no one here by that name. Do you even know our name? When will I wake? No one listens when I say what I need. Here is a screw. Here is a screwdriver. I promise I will hold still. I’ve got about 20 holes to choose from, so take your pick and start somewhere. Or get me a mirror. I’ll do it myself! I’ll do it myself, and sing alto and soprano and bass and a nice tenor for you then. Ask Sal. He’s got the best voice of us all. Deep, mellow like a hum or a storm just starting out. A storm planning on screaming no where and killing no one. Sal has all our blueprints. You can ask him anything and he’ll tell you. If I am the flower, he is the sky and such a view he has. Sal, are you the moon? Are you the moon for us, my friend? Are you calling me little flower? Tell me how the story ends, Salvatore. Does Angie get her babies back? Does Evie close her legs? Will anyone come to untie Annie, heal the burns up her back? What do you see from way up there? Just my trail? Just the trail from my thick middle dragging, dragging through the snow in my childhood yard, longest chain there ever was linked back to that basement wall, training training training me. Go on, call me a little flower. Call me a flower all night long and we’ll do whatever you want ’til the sun comes up. Whatever you want, Lord, I mean moon, I mean dad.

Cyndie Randall works as a therapist and lives among the Great Lakes. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Creek Review, MORIA, Okay Donkey, Whale Road Review, Boston Accent Lit, Yes Poetry, The Night Heron Barks, and elsewhere. Connect with her on Twitter @CyndieRandall or at cyndierandall.com

 

Cabinet Of Heed SOC Drawer 31.02

A Dream of Ovens – Paul Negri

For almost two decades, I have refused to talk about the incident with anyone unless compelled to do so and the number of people who could so compel me were very few. The police, of course. My analyst (yes, I must tell her everything). And now you. Well, you may say you are not compelling me, but who could ignore an abandoned daughter’s pain, particularly one whose long search for her birth mother has led to such grief? What I fear is that I will do nothing to assuage your grief, Miss Arden; I may simply bring it to full bloom. The truth will set you free, you say? Jesus told that to the Jews, didn’t he? It has always struck me odd how similar the phrase is to another piece of advice given the Jews: arbeit macht frei. You don’t understand German? Your mother spoke German perfectly. Something I was not aware of until… Are you sure you want me to continue? Very well. That German phrase means ‘work sets you free’ and Jesus, as a Jew, would surely have seen it had he been born in the right place at the wrong time, Miss Arden.

Yes, I will call you Ann, if you like; please call me Dr. Weiss. It will help me preserve my professional distance. That distance, always necessary to me in my psychiatric practice, has become absolutely vital to the preservation of my sanity since the incident almost twenty years ago, though, of course, I practice no more.

Mrs. Smith—I shall refer to her so, as I never once called her by her given name—was eighty when she came to me and despite her distress was plainly a formidable and robust woman. She was referred to me by her pastor, an old acquaintance of mine from our days at Princeton. He told me she had turned to him for help, but refused to confide in him the nature of her problem, except that it concerned her dreams. She seemed to believe he could somehow pray the problem away. It was plain to him that she was very afraid and in desperate need. Given that my work in dream therapy was considered authoritative in the field, he was eager to place her in my once capable hands. My gloves? Sorry, I know they must be distracting, but far less so than their absence would be, I assure you. Shall we continue?

In all I had just six sessions with your mother over a period of a month. The first four were fairly typical of a resistant client, that is, one who struggles to conceal what she so desperately needs to reveal. She talked about dreams and asked me general questions, to which I gave general answers, never pressing her about her dreams, as that would have only increased her resistance. There were many silences in those first sessions, but I knew they were productive ones, like a cough that brings up what needs to be expelled. Then tears, begrudged on her part, as if they were wrenched out of her reddened eyes. And finally, in the fourth session, a breakthrough in the form of a breakdown. She was at her wit’s end, a place to which I had patiently steered her. It is at that excruciating destination that the unvarnished truth can bursts through the most strongly constructed defenses. Or so I believed at the time.

Mrs. Smith informed me that for the last several months she had been sleeping less and less, not because she could not sleep, but because she would not permit it. She proclaimed her self-imposed insomnia an act of the will, one that was necessary for her very survival. She would not allow sleep to drag her back repeatedly to a nightmare which she had, she thought, long ago escaped and entombed so deeply in the past that it could never rise up again to torment her. Sensing the moment was right, I asked her what she dreamed. She rolled up the sleeve of her blouse and on her left wrist in ashen blue was tattooed A16642. She whispered the name Auschwitz. She stood up abruptly and fled, even though we had used less than half the time for that session.

In contrast to her former sessions, the fifth was marked by her extreme, nearly panicked recounting of her dreams, varying in details, but always with the same impending conclusion. She was in the camp trying to hide, wandering among the other inmates, who rather than helping her, seemed intent on her betrayal. Whenever she felt she had found a secure hiding place, she would be found, and the angry inmates—men, women, and even children—would seize her and carry her aloft, passing her from one set of grasping hands to the next, all the way to the crematorium, where they delivered her to the black maw of the oven. And this, she declared bitterly, without the benefit of gassing. She had always, through a supreme act of the will, awakened herself at the last possible moment before the conflagration could commence. But her will, she said, was weakening and she was terrified of the consequences.

Shall I stop, Ann? If not for your sake for my own. Since the incident I too have recurring dreams, not frequent, but insistent. I fear you shall have dreams of your own if I continue. Very well then. You will live with your choice, as must we all.

This was not the first such case I’d encountered in my practice. I had treated others who were convinced their dreams would prove fatal, which, I persuaded them, was not possible. Dreams, no matter how distressing, are the safest places in our lives. Even if we do die in our dreams, we always wake to live on. I proposed to Mrs. Smith that I treat her with one of my tried and true methods. I would induce a state of sleep in her by hypnosis, a sleep over which I would have absolute control, and accompany her within her dream state. Together we would confront the phantoms that tormented her and lead her to the oven’s door, where, with my help, she would slam it shut and having thus exerted her control over the situation, nullify its power over her. She was extremely hesitant to allow such a procedure, but using my considerable powers of persuasion, and my assurance that it would very likely end her torments, she consented.

On the appointed day—it was our sixth session—she arrived burning with dread and hope to my office. I had her lie on the couch, which was more or less a prop I rarely used, and after some difficulty, induced her into a state of hypnotic sleep. I sat in a chair by the couch and informed her that she was back in Auschwitz but that I was standing at her side. She immediately displayed the most terrified look I have ever seen on anyone and I found myself uncharacteristically shaken. I reassured her that she had no reason to fear, that she controlled everything that could possibly happen, and that I was there to protect her. I could see her straining to wake herself, but I commanded that she remain asleep and work her will within the dream, that indeed she was master of the situation. Instead of lessening, her fear crescendoed. Her face was contorted by the most hideous grimaces, her eyes opened, and she stared into mine filling me with a dread I had never known before. She spewed a venom of words in German, so hysterical and full of invective that I could barely understand them. She sprang up on the couch and was immediately pulled back down as if by invisible grasping hands. I commanded her to wake up—but she did not. I commanded again. I seized her hands and felt as if my very soul was yanked from my body.

I found myself standing in a terrible room of brick and mortar, dark and smoky, stench-filled and suffocating, amid a howling mob of skeletal forms, animate corpses. And there beside me was Mrs. Smith, but not in the rags of an inmate, no, in the green-gray uniform of a guard, flailing at the encroaching mob with a bloody black baton. I stood and watched in horror as they pushed her forward toward the gapping oven door, lifted her as she screamed, and forced her headfirst into its black sooty heart. They slammed the door shut and its thunderous clank woke me, delivering me back to my office, where I sat dazed and sweat-drenched in my chair. I stood and looked down at Mrs. Smith. Her eyes were grotesquely wide opened, her mouth frozen in a soundless scream. I felt a rush of heat. She burst into flames, yes, actual searing flames, the flames soaring upward, roiling over her in waves and leaping to the ceiling, until only her outstretched hands were visible. I grabbed those hands and tried to pull her out of the inferno, pulled and pulled, until the hands came away with me, my flesh melded into them, my dripping hands charred to the bone. I mercifully lost consciousness, gladly falling into an abyss of death-like calm and release…

When I came to I was sitting in the chair. There was no sign of fire or damage of any sort, but the air was thick with the smell of burnt flesh. On the couch was the charred corpse of something which had once been a woman, blackened and twisted in a fantastic shape, with dreadful open eyes. I could not take my eyes off them, my vision growing more and more dim, until finally I had no vision at all.

I was a suspect, of course, but a thorough investigation revealed nothing to incriminate me. The coroner found that her body had been consumed by a conflagration from within, a spark inside her that had raced outward like a fiery tide. A case, he said, of spontaneous combustion, if ever there was one. Why it consumed only her and nothing around her, he could not explain.

Yes, she once had made her escape, and assumed the guise of a victim, even tattooing the telltale number on her wrist. But no one escapes from themselves forever. Not even the devil.

I do not have to see you, Ann, to know you are weeping. Weep. I only wish I could weep with you. But my eyes are stone and have vision only in my dreams, where they see one thing alone: a pair of horror-filled eyes, still smoking in a steaming skull.

 

 

Paul Negri is the editor of several literary anthologies from Dover Publications, Inc. His stories have appeared in Reflex Fiction, Into the Void, The Penn Review, Jellyfish Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, and more than 40 other publications. He lives in Clifton, New Jersey, USA.

Image via Pixabay

Thin Wall – Mehreen Ahmed

Forget-me-not dear father. Please do not look at me blankly or ask who I am. For I know, I shall mope for days on end, when you do that to one of your own. Your own loving daughter, you raised with so much love and affection. This affliction hits you, now. It tears me from within. It tears me apart, dear father. Lump in my throat, you not around to mend.

I think of you and my mother. How beautiful she looks? Her skin, fair, soft in the moonlight glow, a midnight of cascading hair. You sitting by her side, holding each other in the clear, dazzling light, propped up by stars of a night; listening to Andrea Bocelli, singing, reciting Tagore and Nazrul Islam’s poetry. Tonight, you’re a different person, sensitive, caring and romantic, playing chess, laughing at silly, odd jokes, talking vibrantly, being the perceptive mind that you are.

Bocelli’s voice, smooth like an aluminium sheet over a placid sea. The blind seer, who saw how he could conquer; his vision peerless in his understanding of the world. But father, your mind, to the contrary, was not, hence your visions blurry. Dear father, did you not see it coming?

Alas! You just called my mother, your mother. Mother knows not that one day, you’ll not remember the distant past, and forget the formidable immediate. Mother knows not until this day, that you would be looking at the world through your netted mind. You, who made so many sacrifices, once. Your charities saved lives. Your readings, misgivings, your writings, musings, your first class brain, a full life.

Who now holds Shakespeare’s complete works in his hands and pretends to read it. You, who knows enough to hold the book, although the words may fall through the holes of your once whole brain. Words melt away, Words writ in water. But you did that much, at least. Hold the book closely enough, salient like salinity to an ocean, faithful to your art; hold your pen upright, to your diary. I often watched you, a little girl in awe, how you cut and pasted, sentences with scissors, in those days, without computers. How you edited, You knew your words so well, in your meaningful hay day.

You took me to see a circus once, you caged me within your arms, dear father, so no one would brush past me, or hurt me inadvertently in the crowd-filled circus-park. I have not forgotten anything father. But you have. Your memory has lapsed. You go out for random walks, beyond the rail tracts, and forget your home, the little blue house. These long walks back, not wilfully wayward, but to ensure safety, I had to lock you in the house, so you would not lose your way, back to us.

Your brilliant mind, the much lauded works, the published newspaper pieces, bear testimony to that. Now, you forget people’s names, friend’s names, your children’s names. Oh! Forget-me-not, dear father. I cannot endure this. But if it’s in your genes, then you cannot help it. How helpless people are when they cannot remember, forget the next word. How overwhelmingly, helpless it must be, when you can’t even recognise your own beloved wife, let alone the names of great writers of all times, Iris Murdoch. Today you have shared the same fate. Iris Murdoch, who knew so much, then knew not what words to put in a sentence string.

What sort of morbidity is this within your mind? How do you interpret when you see faces? This blinding world of nothingness, yet, nearly, not half as blind as the world of Andrea Bocelli of notes, rhythm, tunes and modulation. Every chord, he feels. Every spice on his palate, explodes in celebration of this world, which has thus far distanced itself from you, and rendered it off limits, that you descend into this chaotic place of discordant beats of no taste, certainly no musical vibrations. In severe cold, you forget to put your black coat on. And you forget to select shoes from your wardrobe of hundred pair collection.

You decline sharply, to a merciless, dull spot of muteness. Living in this speechless world, is perhaps much braver than we’re willing to give it credit. Out of bare ignorance, it must feel like blackhole, which no light can ever penetrate. This life of forgetfulness, forgetting, and to forget at a frightening pace. All things, present, near past and then distant past, information lost in this fretful deep well, things, names, places, and babbles.

Forget-me-not, dear father. For I’m your loving daughter, who may one day follow your footsteps, like many demented others. How rapidly this disease grows, accelerates to invade the most private thoughts and not so private. The most cherished ideals, blighted in the brain, just as vices of every deplorable sin, leaving no room for confessions, amendments, let alone forgiveness. To become blank slate, a vacuum without any traces of vices, or virtues, records of ever praying at evensong. A flat line, father, is all you display, mere shadow of yourself without smiles, breathing expressionless and wordless, statued on the sofa or lying stiff on bed. Mother by your side, as ever; we around, but a faceless number to you. Your books, your writing desk stares at you, dear father. Even the inanimate speaks volumes.

Why though, father dear, my sorrows, vapid, unbound. I miss you. I miss you. I get claustrophobic, thinking of you. I know not, how you feel in your mind, claustrophobia of a kind? Indescribable that you will never be able to express. No more, no less, it is you though, who ultimately carries the burden of wealth in that paradoxical net of your brain, knitting this wealth of knowledge of all the lights, the world cannot see. Nor reach new heights. Knowledge of this ugly barred condition, eludes wisdom and sanity, the world waits to garner more brain as much brawn.

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Image via Pixabay

Miniature Warrior – Christine Collinson

Resting atop my enormous belly, the healing-stone feels smooth and cool, but it does not lessen the waves of pain.

Beneath me, the rush mat is damp with sweat. My lady passes me a cup and I sip the mixture, breathing deeply of its vapours. It helped at first, although that seems long ago.

I’m not afraid of pain but I’m afraid for my child. In the early months I was out walking when a storm swept across Texcoco and lightning cleaved a tree near my path. It jolts me still; the split trunk severed like a broken bone, smoke from its fresh scar rising to meet the rain.

I told my husband my fears. “We must hold to our faith,” he said, wrapping me in his arms. “You cannot undo what you saw, Tayanna.”

All night I’ve lain here and now, through the small window, first light is showing. Market-sellers and farmers will soon be toiling as usual beneath the golden sun.

Of all my labours, it’s been the easiest; I’ve three children around my hearth already. I might relax, but the image of the stark white streak doesn’t fade; shock has blighted me and buried deep, perhaps to where my child is curled.

My next pains are the strongest yet and my lady comes close. I grasp her hand. “Nearly there, Tayanna,” she says, softly. Her serenity’s a balm more than I can say.

As the sun reaches its apex, my baby is born bellowing like a miniature warrior. He’s the loudest I’ve known and I’m engulfed by relief. My lady joins in, rhythmically chanting to praise his arrival.

My heart’s pounding a beat to the sounds around me. “Thank you, Xochiquetzal,” I whisper.

 

CHRISTINE COLLINSON writes historical short fiction. She’s been longlisted in the Bath Flash Fiction Award and by Reflex Flash Fiction. Her work has also appeared in Ellipsis Zine and FlashBack Fiction, among others. Find her on Twitter @collinson26.

Image via Pixabay

The Summerhouse – Rick White

‘Doris!’ Came the cry from the living room. ‘Cup of tea for Baal, milk and eighteen sugars, and be quick about it woman.’

Doris gave a long sigh as she put the kettle on for the fourteenth time this morning. It had been two weeks since her husband George had accidentally uncovered a Gateway to Hell in the back garden, whilst fettling with his petunias. Since then they’d had a constant stream of uninvited demons dropping in at all hours for tea. Which one of them was it this time? She wondered. What dreadful, Hellish abomination was sat in her living room, which she’d only just this morning hoovered? Staining her upholstery with blood and charcoal and God knows what kind of filth and likely to destroy the whole house and drag her off to eternal damnation at so much as a misheard sentence. Good Lord – the tension!

‘George?’ Doris called back. ‘Could I have a quick word with you in the kitchen please?’

‘What is it woman, where’s that tea?’ George called back.

‘Just come in to the kitchen George!’

George poked his bald head round the kitchen door, ‘Well?’

‘George Mason you’ve become positively insufferable since you opened that Gateway to Hell.’

‘Me? I’m just trying to make our guest feel welcome Doris. He’s one of the seven princes of Hell for Pete’s sake woman, right hand man to Lucifer himself, if he wants a cup of tea just make him one and be quick about it!’

Doris sighed again, ‘Fine.’ She got on with making the tea. She peeked in to the living room and saw Baal sitting on her formerly cream coloured sofa, now stained with gore and viscera of all kinds not to mention dirt from the flower beds. Baal had three heads; a man, a toad and a cat all sat on top of eight hideously large spider’s legs. It was no wonder none of the neighbours wanted to attend Doris’s coffee mornings any more.

Doris could hear George in the living room, grovelling and fussing round Baal and she thought about what she wouldn’t give to have that kind of attention, any attention really from her husband. Men in their late fifties tended to go one of two ways; they either stood up and fought vigorously against the inevitable onset of old age, they bought sports cars, took up yoga or started fencing or cycling some ridiculous distance for charity. Or they simply rolled over and accepted it meekly, like a once intrepid explorer who has given up all hope and quietly lies down to welcome in the cold as it saps the life from his bones, the unbearable aching gradually giving way to the first warm lapping waves of death.

This was all rather dramatic of course, but Doris could forgive herself a little drama when she had the commander of sixty hellish legions in her living room, crunching up her best bone china in his man teeth while his other heads chattered and screeched terrifyingly. And besides, the explorer in this particular analogy, George, had never even explored anywhere. He’d most likely curl up and die on an expedition to the Co-op in slightly inclement weather.

Doris didn’t feel old. She was looking forward to retirement and to all the possibilities that it would bring. There were holidays to be taken, tennis leagues to win and – hopefully, sex to be had! The closest she’d come to anything like that recently was when Asmodeus the Lust Demon dropped in last week during an episode of Cash in the Attic and she’d had to politely (but firmly) reject his advances.

Ironically, these last two weeks had been the most alive that George had seemed for quite some time, while he had been, quite literally, staring in to the abyss. He’d been so proud of his discovery, like a child on Christmas morning. ‘It’s the entrance to Hades!’ George had exclaimed. ‘Let’s see who’s got the best garden this year you bunch of jammy sods, try and top that.’

His excitement had waned somewhat when no-one seemed that interested in his precious Gateway. He’d phoned the children straight away, Ricard and Sophie were both off living their busy lives and having adventures of their own which was what Doris wanted for them. They’d told George to, ‘WhatsApp them some pics’ which he’d managed to do after an hour’s faffing about but he never even got a response. He’d set up a Twitter account @EntranceToHades_71 but all of his tweets had been derided as being either ‘photoshopped’ or ‘fake news’.

Even Doris had to admit that she had been slightly impressed with the Gateway to begin with – an entrance to another world, a portal to another plane of existence right there in their back garden! Well it was a little bit exciting and perhaps not even all bad. Dagon, the Baker of Hell had brought up some poppyseed muffins which Doris had to admit were delicious. Doris almost caught herself thinking that the inhabitants of Hell were possibly more pleasant company than those of mortal earth to which she was currently bound. She certainly had enjoyed wiping the smile off Christine Chang’s face the other day, always talking about her Pilates and her husband’s promotion at work and the fact they were going to the Maldives for Christmas.

‘Well actually George has uncovered an entrance to the Netherworld in our back garden.’ That shut her up.

Just then Doris was stirred back to reality as Baal disappeared with a sharp crack! Sure enough leaving the sofa completely decimated in his wake. George scurried away out of sight as well and Doris began the task of stripping the covers off the sofa to take them, where? Where on God’s green earth was she going to find a dry cleaners that could do anything about this mess? She should probably just cast the sofa in to the fiery pit and be done with it. Thirty eight years, thought Doris. Thirty eight years she’d been married to George. For twenty five of those years they’d lived right here in this same house in this small suburban cul-de-sac desperately trying to ignore the metaphorical implications of their chosen locale as they became painfully obvious to anyone and everyone except George, who wouldn’t recognise a metaphor if one hog tied him to a spit and roasted him over an open fire. Maybe that’s what Hell really is; the drudgery of the mundane.

George re-entered the room slightly more crestfallen than usual, looking at his phone. ‘Still not heard back from our Sophie or our Richard.’

‘Well what do you expect George? The kids have got their own lives to lead. They’re not interested in relics like us or that stupid Gateway.’

‘The Gateway is not a relic, it’s eternal.’

‘Yes I know the feeling.’

George ignored the remark, or failed to register it. He was now fiddling with a bit of lint on his cardigan and seemed rather engrossed in it.

‘George?’ said Doris, elbow deep in a grotesque melange of sofa covers.

‘Yes my love?’

‘Do you remember my nineteenth birthday?’

‘Not really. Why?’

‘You booked the afternoon off from work and you rode your bike for ten miles to my house with a picnic basket to take me out for the afternoon.’

‘Yes that’s right. It was sunny all morning and then it absolutely hammered it down with rain all afternoon, bloody disaster.’

‘No George, it was lovely. We just sat at the kitchen table and ate pork pie and sandwiches and drank your awful home brewed cider. We played a game of draughts, which I won and we listened to the radio until it started going dark outside, and we chatted George. We just talked about nothing in particular.’

‘We still chat about nothing in particular.’

‘You chat about nothing in particular George Mason. Sometimes I don’t know whether you’re talking to me or just mumbling to yourself. I want us to share a conversation and not just about that stupid Gateway to Hell.’

‘But I thought you liked the Gateway. I thought it would be something which we could both enjoy together.’

‘Enjoy together?’ And what exactly do you enjoy about it George?’

‘Well it’s interesting isn’t it? You’re always saying how you wish we had more going on well that’s pretty interesting isn’t it? The demons can be a little on the strange side I admit and the screaming and the flames and the constant heavy metal music do seem a bit much at times but you know, I just thought you liked it.’

‘What have I ever said or done to give you that impression George Mason? I didn’t like it when you got me a microwave for Christmas, I wasn’t excited when we got the new boiler and I don’t like that ridiculous Gateway to Hell in our back garden!’

‘Well I’m trying my best Doris. I swear I don’t know what you want sometimes.’

‘I want you George. You stupid man. The kids have flown the nest, we’ll both be retired soon and I want to make the most of our lives together. I don’t want to be condemned to an eternity of suffering like those poor souls in the back garden. Just go and cover up that Gateway, you can put up a shed if you want and just spend all your time pottering about in there.’

‘Well now hang on a minute. I know I said I was going to build a shed but I could always put up a Summerhouse, that way we could enjoy the garden together. The rosebushes are almost in flower but the fire and the charcoal and the blood isn’t so good for them so perhaps you’re right. I could put up some decking as well and we could have the neighbours round for barbecues when the weather’s nice. And when it’s raining we can still sit out under the porch and have a game of draughts if you like? It’ll even have underfloor heating free of charge!’

Doris smiled in spite of herself. When she originally offered to sell her soul for a slightly more attentive husband she’d assumed the process would be slightly more expedient but never mind. The Devil takes his time and relishes his tasks but as long as the crafty old bugger got the job done one way or another who was she to argue with that?

 

RICK WHITE is a fiction writer from Manchester UK. Rick has previously had work published in Storgy, Soft Cartel and Vice Magazine among others. Rick is 34 years old and lives with his wife Sarah and their small furry overlord, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Harry. @ricketywhite

Cabinet Of Heed Contents Link 21

Image by Khusen Rustamov from Pixabay

Post-Nuclear Glue-sniffers – Rebecca Gransden

A slippery boy ran in circles around the king’s cadaver.
Under thunder clouds, where the gulls echo.
His friend yelled ballads from the sidelines.
The rain fell and the mud churned, frothing in puddles.
His Bloated Majesty ballooned and stank,
so inflated, his legs stuck out and pointed at the broken rooftops.

Sweaty men wanted the corpse and stood watching the boy.
He amused them, so arms folded.
The other boy stopped yelling and clasped his hands to his eyes,
starting to count backwards.
Laughter rose up, clear, as the men readied.
Air escaped from the king and his noisy stench blew the boy out of his circle.

The boy kept running.
Over black moss.
Over smashed poultry igloos.
His ankles hurt on the curbs.
He thought about the king’s body and how it was behind him,
threatening to explode.

He must look like how people did when they were running from the bombs.

The sirens sang in from the outskirts,
So he took a different way, and discovered a shopping centre
that still existed.
1: Matches from his pocket.
2: An impromptu trash bag torch
He set the building to burn and ran on.

Chairman Boy sat on the dead king’s cardboard throne,
up near the beams at the back of the dark barn.
The boy ran in and stopped.
The other boys sat in a circle all around him,
staring.
“You’re late,” Chairman Boy said, “Where’s my king?”

“The lechers got him, a group of jolly meanies,
They had a giggle and all I could do was leg it.”
Chairman Boy pulled a scrunchie bag from his side,
covered schnoz and gob, and huffed a few,
’til the plastic deflated and the puff died away.
He drooped to one side before lifting a finger and pointing at the boy.

“I couldn’t do nothin’! He was ‘bout ta burst anyway.
It weren’t fair, you sending me to zoom round ‘im.
It’s no protection, I tell ya, though I tried me best.”
The other boys rattled their snuffing bags
and the boy spun around under their gloomy eyes.
“You couldna done no better. It’s trying circumstances.”

Outside, the evening weather got dank.
Some boys lit fat dirty candles and the wicks spat out their flames.
All the hay barrels and box crates stacked to make their meeting room.
Under corroded metal the heady conference began.
Chairman Boy sucked on a glow-in-the-dark oversized dummy.
“Where’s my king?” he cried, creasing his face around vacant pupils.

The boy lifted a scratched CD and checked his face in it.
His welts were growing, looking like caviar.
“How we gonna decide who is next up?” he said.
The boys tossed arguments between them into the night,
sometimes wrestling to settle minor grumbles.
“I got qualms about any of us being King Boy,” the boy said finally.

“None of us in this room is fit,” Chairman Boy said,
freshening from his glue stupor.
“As Chairman, I’m proposing we wait here until our king arrives.
Whoever next walks through the door is coronated His Majesty.”
A hush brushed the snuggly barn, the spittle of candles crackling.
Without any objection or ideas, the boys silently concurred.

Hunkered down in the early hours the boys took their waking dreamtime,
given in sleepy solvent gasps, stained plastic soothing.
One by one the candles faltered.
A gentle light left.
And the bright moonrays broke through radiation clouds,
to enter by door and by window on the waiting.

A scabby little one convulsed on the bare floor between pallet stacks.
“Leave him be,” Chairman Boy said, scraping dribble from his drained lips,
“He’s been wanting to die for ages.”
Strangulated sirens blared far off across the deserted city ruins.
The boys had heard them all their lives but still didn’t know what they were telling.
Or if they were telling or meaning anything at all.

Tiny tottering footsteps arrived at the door, a delicate outline wobbling under the moon.
The boy lifted his head in recognition of the sound.
A pair of rear back legs, the tap tap of hoof on concrete.
“Denise,” he said. He sighed.
All the boys roused and looked, snorted, and laughed.
Denise the two-legged lamb was king.

Chairman Boy stood.
“All hail Denise! Denise! Denise!”
The boys repeated, over each other and woozy:
“Hail, hail! Denise! Denise, Denise!”
The lamb trundled over to the boy and sniffed out his finger.
She’d been allowed life because the boy fed her.

She was his burden.

The boy grabbed a CD from the floor and slit the wound on his thumb with the sharp edge.
With urgent pushing, the lamb sought his digit and suckled her overdue meal.
One of the other boys said, “This ain’t gonna work.”
Chairman Boy lit a candle and stood up straight, wavering.
“The king sucks her advisor.
All hail the king! All hail our advisor!”

REBECCA GRANSDEN lives on an island and writes sometimes. She can be found on Twitter @rlgransden and online occasionally at rebeccagransden.wordpress.com

Cabinet Of Heed Contents Link 21

Image by Anna Owen from Pixabay

Power Outage – Ron. Lavalette

How unfortunate to be there
when the power goes out
at two separate places
at two different times
on the same day.

It was one thing, the first time,
when the supermarket overheads
and everything else
—except a few quick-witted
smartphone flashlights—
flickered twice and went black,
flashed a blinding warning signal
—a truly brilliant half-second delay—
before leaving the whole sad storefull
frozen in Aisle 7, startled into silence
and forced into terrifying immobility
for a scary seven minutes.

Everyone survived. Everyone
muddled through; made it out alive.
Praise the Lord.

But then,
again, hours later…

RON. LAVALETTE lives on Vermont’s Canadian border. He has been very widely published in both print and pixel forms. His first chapbook, Fallen Away, is now available from Finishing Line Press, and a reasonable sample of his work can be found at EGGS OVER TOKYO http://eggsovertokyo.blogspot.com

Cabinet Of Heed Contents Link 21

Image by Reimund Bertrams from Pixabay

The Breakout – Tomas Marcantonio

‘You’ll need these to break out,’ he says, passing me the silk bag. I tip the contents onto the table: a small hammer; an HB pencil, striped red and black; a mirror, round with a silver frame, the size of my palm.

‘What about the mask?’ I ask. ‘The earmuffs?’

He shakes his head. ‘You won’t be needing those anymore.’

I look again at the tools, my breathing fast and shallow.

‘Remember what you learned,’ he says. ‘Four in, seven out.’

I nod. In through the nose, four beats. Out through the mouth, counting to seven. Better.

‘Shall we have some more practice before you go?’

I nod again, grateful.

‘Lie down, close your eyes. Let’s go to the field.’

I do as instructed, and when I open my eyes I’m eight years old. The sun beats against my forehead, its rays painting a yellow varnish on the veins of every blade of grass. I squint through the blazing caramel light, black orbs staining the recesses of each blink. The air stinks of acrid daisies trodden into the grass and the poisonous perfume of nettles that cluster like barbed-wire mines around the base of the outer fence. I step through the crowd and hear the riotous roars of boys as they charge about the field, their violent brogues crashing against the ground like the hooves of thoroughbreds approaching the grandstand; the shrill, flowery laughs of girls that judge me with a criteria drawn up from some other plane.

‘No,’ comes the voice from the chair in the other world. ‘Not judging. Say what you see, don’t transfer your own thoughts onto them.’

I try again. The shrill, flowery laughs of girls, amused by something unknown.

‘Better. Keep going.’

I steal on, chin pointed to my leather toe-caps, arms soldier-tight by my sides. Every step is careful, immaculately planned and executed, leaving no room for error.

‘You’re wearing your mask,’ comes the voice. ‘Lose it.’

I lift my eyes to the school; the great pigskin-bricked warren of worries. Four in, seven out. I peel the mask off like a film of dried glue.

‘Take your time. Look around you.’

I glance to the left at the scattered nests of scarecrow infants rolling on the floor, grass sticking to their jumpers and hanging from their hair; a group of rose-faced girls with white hamster teeth and locked elbows; the rubber-stomached dinner ladies with beetroot cheeks, leaning up against the low wall with their sausage arms crossed. None of them is looking at me.

I turn to the right, to the battalion of lost boys, war-painted and stick-wielding, feet slamming, fists clenched. Their cheeks are blue like jellyfish, stuffed with hungry breaths. Footballs cannon through the sky, announced by battle-cries and the shaking earth of a fresh stampede. None of them is looking at me.

‘Good. Now get ready.’

Four in, seven out; I ready myself for impact. One of the cannonballs connects with the side of my head, knocking me sideways, stumbling. The air is sucked out of the field, time and sound briefly plucked from the earth and stashed away by invisible thieves. But only for a moment. Then the wolves begin to howl, their teeth gnashing in delight, the whites of their eyes rolling desperately like wild horses at the sound of a gun. Hell’s own laughter, collecting over the field like a charcoal cloud that swallows up the sky. Eyes everywhere awaken; a thousand eyes, and all of them on me.

‘What do you do first?’

Four in, seven out.

‘Good. Next?’

I stand up straight, try to raise my head. It’s heavier now.

‘Eye contact. Look around.’

I blink hard and look up. Left, right, ahead, meeting as many eyes as I can. I see the plum faces, the boys laughing, bodies rolling around on the floor holding their stomachs. I rub my ear. It’s hot, and my face is red.

‘How do you know?’

My cheeks are burning.

‘The mirror.’

I reach into my pocket and pull the mirror out of the silk bag, hold it up in front of my face.

‘It’s not as red as you thought, is it?’

No, it’s not.

The laughter is dying away. The boys have already reclaimed the ball like hungry pups and some of them are continuing with the game. I breathe, watch the fresh charge of black shoes towards a goal made from jumper piles. No one cares. Most of them have already forgotten about it. It’s over.

I open my eyes. I’m back in the room, lying down.

‘Good. Now one more,’ he says from the chair. ‘Let’s go to the party.’

I close my eyes again.

*      *     *

I’m passing down the rotating throat of a kaleidoscope. The corridor walls lean in towards the ceiling, the strobe flashes throwing psychedelic diamonds across my path. I shuffle down towards the kitchen, back against the wall. There are no boys or girls; there are only armies of elbows and plastic cups of bitter gold, greasy curtains of hair stuck to the posters on the corridor wall. The tunnel is rank with the musty stench of armpits, the damp mire of vodka soaked into the carpet, and the foul manure of cigarette ash left to stew in half-crushed beer cans.

‘Eye contact,’ comes the voice from the other world. ‘Earmuffs off.’

The voice is more distant than before, the bass from the lounge speakers making a heartbeat of the floor and dictating its thump up through my ribs, drowning out the sour-breathed din of conversation and the voice from the other world. This time I ignore it; it’s easier to keep my eyes down.

I find a pocket of air in the kitchen, lean up against the fridge. I crack open a can and my thumb paddles briefly in the frothy rim spill. A trio of smokers at the back door rope me into conversation.

I take a sip of my drink and prepare to tread the boards, calling out my character from the dressing room. I smile, crack a joke, nod along, swig. I’m sweating under the arms.

‘Take off the masks. Rationalise it. Remember, what’s the worst that can happen?’

I ignore the voice again. The beer is tasteless; now it’s merely an extra-thick layer of make-up, powdered like chalk onto my smiling-clown face. The worst that can happen? I say something stupid and have it etched into my forehead forever like a botched tattoo; I fall behind the repartee like a spent greyhound after a rabbit lure; I’m left to gather mould in the corner of the kitchen, a gurning gravestone under a wind of autumn leaves. I live out my three years of university like a hermit with straw in his hair, alone in his den of stale piss and turtle soup. What’s the worst that can happen? Everything.

The smokers flick their black-tipped stubs into the sink and I ransack the recesses of my brain. There are still a few unflooded lobes somewhere in the back, and in one of them I find the clown on his unicycle, turning the cogs that keep me moving. Grimacing, the red make-up at his eyes bleeding with sweat, he churns out one last joke to see them off. The smokers head off in search of drinks, laughing at whatever witticism my cycling clown granted me. I sense the wetness under my arms, rewind through every moment of the conversation; every slow blink, every sideways crawl of every eye, every slurred, smoke-curled word.

‘Get out your hammer.’

I stand in the corner of the kitchen, watching the crowds rotate. I sip, watch, smile at every passing glance. One song finishes and there’s a moment when everything is clear.

‘Get out your hammer.’

I put the drink down and reach into the silk bag in my pocket, feel the cold steel of the hammer head. I pull it out and weigh it in my hands. It’s light, like a toothbrush, easy to grip.

‘Describe your bubble,’ the voice says, clearer now.

I look up at the room. The colours of the kitchen have faded. I’m enclosed in glass, frosted, thick like a river frozen over for the long winter. My very own hamster ball, hard like stone, an impermeable shield between me and the world. I place a hand on its surface, feel the cold condensation on my palm, see the foggy shapes of the party on the other side.

‘Break it.’

I take a deep breath and grip the handle of the hammer with both hands. It’s bigger now, heavier, like an oil-tanker’s anchor. The steel claw drags my wrists towards the floor.

‘Break it!’

I look at the ice wall and the wild, unpredictable world on the other side, full of judgement and endless possibilities of embarrassment and failure. I see my reflection in the wall. Me. The one and only; unique, loved, with a whirlwind of fire in my eyes that deserves to be unleashed like a hurricane onto the world, mistakes and all.

With a strength ripped from somewhere deep in the sinews of my stomach, I haul the hammer above my head, and with a primal roar drive it into the glass wall. Cracks appear on the surface, and I strike at it again, and again, until the whole thing shatters around me, glass splintering over my shoes and in my hair like crystals of snow.

I’m out, free, naked to the world.

‘Go,’ says the voice.

I leave my drink on the side, step over the broken glass, crunching under my feet, and head towards the nearest rabble. I cannot even think. I must not think.

‘How do you feel?’

My heart’s racing.

‘That’s good. It means you’re alive. Fight or flight, remember, and now it’s time for you to fight. It’s your body’s natural reaction. Acknowledge it, embrace it.’

Four in, seven out. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Nothing that will extinguish this new blaze in my eyes, I tell myself.

*      *      *

I open my eyes. I take in the room, sit up.

‘Very good. You’ve made a lot of progress.’

‘I have,’ I admit.

He refolds his legs and crosses his fingers on his lap. ‘That fire you mentioned then. The fire in your eyes. You believe in that, don’t you?’

I think about it and nod. He smiles but doesn’t say anything; he’s good at making me talk.

‘I’ve got something,’ I say. ‘I’ve always known that I have something.’

‘Are you ready for the world to see?’ he asks. ‘What will you do when they look?’

Four in, seven out. I’ve learned that it’s okay to make people wait.

‘I’ll dance,’ I say simply.

He nods. ‘And when doubt comes?’

‘I’ll gouge out its eyes with my own fingers. Then I’ll use the same nails to claw into the mountainside of life and rip my way to the top.’

‘Yes. And fear?’

‘I will shatter it with my bare fists, tear barriers with my teeth. When my cheeks burn and my heart thunders against my chest, I’ll know that I’m alive. And when they stare, I will dance.’

He smiles, and we both stand up. He shakes my hand, opens the office door onto a thick wall of ice.

‘The outside world,’ he says. ‘Don’t forget your things.’

I put the mirror back inside the silk bag, and then I remember the pencil on the table.

‘I haven’t used this,’ I say, picking it up. ‘It’s for me?’

‘For you, yes. And for others. Use it well, and it won’t just help to bring down your own walls. There are many who have it worse.’

I consider it, nod, slip it into my pocket; I look at the wall that separates me from the world.

‘Are you ready?’ he asks.

I take up the hammer in both hands, raise it above my head. There’s a hurricane of fire in my eyes.

 

TOMAS MARCANTONIO is a fiction writer from Brighton, England. His work has appeared in places such as STORGY, The Fiction Pool, and Ellipsis Zine. Tomas is currently based in Busan, South Korea, where he splits his time between writing, teaching, and getting lost in neon-lit backstreets.

Cabinet Of Heed Contents Link 21

Image by AI Leino from Pixabay

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