Annie plants a seed. She stoops over the wooden planter and tenderly places the promise of a carrot into the crumbling black earth.
She’s been out in the yard since dawn, turning the soil and tying up bean poles. The small, stone-flagged rectangle is shared by all the families in the narrow cottages on either side, as is the lean-to shed housing their privy in the corner.
While she tends to her tiny Eden, Annie can taste the salt in the air and hear the distant rumble and slap of the waves jostling the boats in the harbour below. Her husband Donald is a fisherman like her father, and she’s lived in these slanting cliff terraces all her life. She never had a garden, though she always wanted one.
That’s why her grandson Stan thought of her when the slack-sailed ship listed silently into the harbour. Nothing in the hold but crates of dirt, and no one aboard except a skinny black dog which took off at the first opportunity. Amid all the chatter and fuss Stan figured one box of earth wouldn’t be missed – likely just ballast anyway – so he carried it all the way up to his Nanna’s yard in the stormy August heat.
Donald broke up the crate to make the planter and they filled it with the soil from the mysterious ship. She presses her fingertips into the cool, dark earth and wonders what distant lands it has travelled from, only to wind up in Whitby to nourish her vegetables. Will she be able to taste the places it knows?
Her thoughts are interrupted by their neighbour Mrs Wilson’s elderly terrier Buster, who trots over to inspect the new garden. She scratches him behind the ears for a while, but then her back starts complaining. Straightening slowly, she sees Donald stooping through their low doorway, carrying a cup of strong tea in each of his rough brown hands.
Later that night Annie wakes from a dream of runner beans. Her head is too full to get back to sleep, thinking of all the food she will grow and the jars of pickles she will give. Donald is snoring softly next to her, and the air is heavy and still. Then she hears something. A sort of unsteady clicking and scratching. It’s with them in the room, but it’s not the scuffling mice that she’s used to. A rat?
She sits up, and at the foot of the bed sees a huge black dog, yellow eyes blazing like embers. She tries to call out, to reach for her husband, but she can’t move. Annie watches in silent horror as the hound convulses, its broad back rippling. Slowly, it transforms into a man. Dressed all in black, he is deathly pale with the same flaming eyes and lurid red lips. He opens his mouth, keeps opening it, until his jaws unhinge like a snake and she sees long, glistening fangs slide from his raw scarlet gums.
She wakes from the nightmare with a start. Donald is sitting up in bed beside her. “Do you hear that?” he whispers. She listens, while her heart pounds.
It’s the same uneven scrabbling sound, but now it’s coming from the yard. Sliding out of bed, Donald tiptoes to the window, gently pulls back a corner of the curtain and looks out. After a moment he says “Wait here.” He pulls on his boots and slips out of the door.
Annie waits. Dread rests on her throat like a hand. She gets out of bed, creeping to the window as quietly as her trembling legs will allow, and peers outside. In the summer moonlight the yard is a deep blue. And it’s empty; Donald is gone. Fear clutches her. She runs to the door and flings it open, stepping on to the cool stone flags in her bare feet. “Donald!” she cries, her voice cracking.
Donald emerges hastily from the privy, and she gasps with relief. He throws his arms around her and she presses her face into his warm nightshirt.
“Sorry lass, I didn’t mean to scare you! Did you think Buster had got me?”
“He’s been at your vegetables I’m afraid, and made a right mess. It’s all right, we’ll sort it all out in the morning.”
Her husband drops off to sleep again quickly but Annie really can’t rest now. As soon as the sun rises she slips out to survey the damage. The soil has been churned up and thrown all around the planter, and her carefully tied bean poles have been toppled. With a sigh, she picks up the shovel and starts scooping the disturbed soil back into the planter.
That’s when she spots something round and pale emerging from the black earth like a mushroom. Leaning down for a closer look she brushes away some of the dirt, revealing the face of the pale man from her nightmare, buried in her vegetable patch.
His yellow eyes snap open, and his face splits into a hideous blood red grin. Without thinking Annie cries “Oooh no thank you!” and brings the shovel down hard, slicing his head clean off.
For a moment a look of surprise replaces the leering grin on the vampire’s newly detached head, before it crumbles into dust along with his body. Annie stands there, still holding the shovel.
“Did he do much damage?” Donald says suddenly from the doorway, making her jump.
She opens her mouth, but no words come out.
“I can have a word with Mrs Wilson if you like. He ought to be kept inside at night.”
Annie smiles. “Ta love. No harm done. I don’t think he’ll be back.”
Sarah Jackson writes gently unsettling stories. Her flash fiction has previously been published by Ghost Orchid Press. Her non-fiction writing has been published by the History Press, the British Library, and the Guardian. She lives in east London UK and has a green tricycle called Ivy. Her website is sarahijackson.com/writing
The feverish sun has blanched the colour out of the crowd queuing for the outlet sale. Sepia street musicians entertain with Swanee River, the banjo strumming away dully in C major while the alto sax swells the eee of Swanee. Among the mass lingers a man of restricted growth, whose wide-brimmed hat gains him six inches. He, and his sandwich board, advertising ninety-eight cent workplace trousers, should be way along Fourteenth Street, but there’s a snatch of shade here among the bodies.
In the back row, well out of the sun’s illumination, the Devil dressed in a black cassock and dog collar stands next to two nuns. He remains unnoticed by those around him, except for a little girl who glances up momentarily and notes something before returning to watch her mother help her little brother pee.
“Oh my,” a fair woman leans towards the Devil, the book she has been reading to pass her time in the queue open on the page where two lovers meet to drink cooling lemonade and declare their lust for each other.
The Devil isn’t sure whether her remark is in response to the book, or the crowd, or the heat. He considers her pale neck and the unadorned third finger on her left hand. He will keep his eye on her, along with the ugly-as-sin sandwich board man, and the legless beggar, who kneels in the gutter on a wheel board, gaping upwards, his face basking in God’s own sunlight. The bible on his lap has arrived too late for him; this hunchbacked cripple has already been named as the Devil’s own.
Hidden in the crowd, a pickpocket works his way through trouser pockets, shopping bags, billfolds. The Devil’s attention alights only briefly on him. The Devil isn’t here to judge, he leaves that to mankind. They’re hellish good at judgement. No, he’s here, like those around him, to see what he can get his hands on today.
A woman dashes past in the street, her purse held out in front of her, her hair blown backwards by the speed with which she is moving. Perhaps she has seen the looks in the eyes of those in the queue that say only they themselves are indispensable, that in a city where mothers go hungry for their children, the clothed and well-fed choose to gather in a stinking mass, queuing in hell’s heat for a bargain.
Except for the young girl, who having initially seen only a priest ranked by nuns returns her stare to the obvious horns that first alerted her to something different about this man. And then she smiles at him, laughs at the absurdity of his horns, the ridiculousness of the nuns he needs to protect him from these folk. Except those aren’t her reasons. She is smiling because it is summer and she is here with her mother and brother. She is smiling because life is good. And because the Devil knows that this is simply a moment in time, that she too will become just like the rest of them, he smiles back.
Ruth Brandt’s short stories and flash fiction have been widely published, including in Cabinet of Heed. Her prize-winning short story collection No One has any Intention of Building a Wall will be published by Fly on the Wall Press in November 2021. She lives in Surrey and Tweets @RuthABrandt.
Melissa and Dan were one of those couples who insisted they were happy.
Sometimes Mel would show me her Instagram feed, and it would be nothing but beaming couple-photos punctuated by brunches, as though that proved anything.
Dan would say things like, ‘Yeah it’s actually pretty great’ and ‘I’ve never been happier, actually.’
I haven’t told him that I think ‘actually’ is his tell, the chip in his windshield. I have the impression that, if I got him tipsy enough, the chip would burst into a web of cracks and the whole thing would explode out of him, the whole gut-wrenching truth of it.
The closest I got to honesty from Mel was at the messy end of a wedding party, when she slurred, ‘Well, no relationship is perfect, is it?’
They like to say it was a fairy-tale romance. We all know they met on Tinder. And this was six years ago, when Tinder was a grubby free-for-all. But, however they met, I have to admit that it’s worked well enough since. Six years. Not married yet, though.
‘You should get into it,’ Dan told me recently, with a wink. ‘Someone might finally straighten you out.’
‘Already tried online dating. Hated it. No thank you.’
‘You’re too old for clubs, mate,’ he pointed out needlessly. ‘Time to try something new.’
I knew Dan through Mel, and we soon became fast friends through our mutual love of American short stories. He was charming and friendly. It was Dan who eventually convinced me to move on and try again.
I suppose the apps were fine. I was put off by how superficial and flippant it all seemed. But in two days I remembered how brutal it could be.
Mel wasn’t very happy with me. I could tell by how she baked. Mel had two ways of coping with life. The first was self-medication, and the second was a constant schedule of activity. She’d told us we were making jam that weekend, and she stirred the hot mixture around the pan with the energy of a cement mixer. ‘We’ve been friends for how long and you didn’t ask for my advice on this?’ she said.
‘I’m doing all right, thank you very much,’ I said proudly. ‘Look – six matches in a week. This one even replied.’
‘Only six? We live in Manchester, not Guernsey. Let me see.’
Mel wiped her hands and took my phone. By the time the jam had cooled she’d summarised my wordy profile into three short sentences, then added that I was a geochemist.
‘That can’t make a difference?’ I said.
‘It’s not about the money. It’s about showing you aren’t a useless layabout who she’ll have to cook and iron for.’
‘Don’t be too choosy when you’re swiping,’ Dan instructed one Sunday, as we scoured Waterstones to find gifts for Mel’s birthday. ‘You’re dating, it’s a chance to see if there’s something out there you didn’t realise you were looking for. You don’t want to get stuck with the wrong person too soon.’
It was difficult to strike up a conversation with some of the people I matched with. The expectation seemed to be that I should be entertaining from the very first message, somehow witty and humble without coming across like a boring nerd or, worse, a dickhead. A simple ‘hi’ never got me anywhere, but an inoffensive quip about one of her photos usually got a response. There might be a formula for this, I thought out loud. There should be websites dedicated to tricking women into thinking you were dateable.
‘There already are,’ Dan laughed.
‘Oh. Should I take a look?’
‘Absolutely not,’ said Mel.
Once the ice was broken, I could be myself. If things didn’t go anywhere after that, it just wasn’t a good fit.
I went on a lot of first dates. Four out of five people were clearly just out of serious relationships. Their frailties showed through their expressions, like light through a split lampshade. The few people I was drawn to were distant, disinterested. One woman, a corporate lawyer, replied intermittently and unenthusiastically, late in the evening when I sensed she was bored. I won’t pretend it didn’t bruise my ego.
It was also plain that there were simply too few people out there who I might come to like, and who might, mind-bogglingly, like me back. The abundance provided by the apps highlighted the astronomical unlikelihood of my ever meeting someone who wasn’t broken, weird, attached or my polar opposite. I’d have settled for a few shared interests, but it was hard to even get a conversation flowing. Still, I found I was quite pragmatic about the chilly realities of online dating in your early thirties.
‘There’s something about hitting thirty-six that seems to send some people a little crazy,’ joked Emma, a copy-writing Literature grad originally from Leamington Spa, who I matched with Tuesday morning. ‘I plan to kill myself at thirty-five.’
We were on our first date that Thursday evening.
* * *
Lately, when I’m almost asleep, my brain flickers through everything that happened with Emma in weird phantasmagorical detail, a flicker-book in the neon colours of a wet Tokyo street.
For the first date, I chose a respectable bar with warm, low lighting. It served tapas and snacks, in case we got hungry; on Thursdays they held a salsa class, the energy of which I hoped would make up for my nervous quietude. But she had a quality that drew me out of myself, got us talking.
Thankfully, she didn’t ask me to dance. She liked to, but she also did many of her favourite things lying down. ‘Reading. Watching TV. I like to plan my next trip on my phone in bed. It helps me get to sleep,’ she said.
A tasteless joke came to mind. In a breezy silence that I filled with a sip of Shiraz, her eyes twinkled at me in gratitude for my grown-up restraint. By the time I set my glass back down, we were smiling at one another.
* * *
‘It went pretty well,’ I told Mel later. Emma was not only as attractive as her photos suggested, she was lively, with a sparky sense of humour. We’d joked about the brusque entitlement that seemed peculiar to online dating – ‘Have you been “hey strangered” yet?’ Emma asked me, using her little finger to stroke a strand of hair away from her mouth. ‘Nothing like being ignored after the third date and then expected to pick up where you left off two months later.’
Between us we’d been stood up, ghosted, blocked, breadcrumbed, kept in orbit and catfished. Emma had been actively dating since the start of the summer – almost eight months – but had mostly been disappointed.
‘I don’t often bother with a second date unless I really get a good vibe,’ she told me.
‘What did you say to that?’ Mel asked me, leaping off the armchair onto my back like a child. We fell onto the sofa and I extricated myself from my friend’s demanding grasp, grinning.
‘I’m seeing her again Saturday.’
‘I suppose it’s amazing…,’ I said.
‘Isn’t it? What exactly are you looking for?’ she asked, disengaging to take two beers out of the fridge. I thought she was about to offer me one, but she was pouring them down the sink. Mel was having one of her booze clear-outs to help her with her latest sobriety effort.
‘Any red flags?’ she asked, rinsing out the empty bottles.
‘She’s three years younger than me,’ I said. ‘Does that make her a different generation? Will she be all into Instagram and ironically stupid stuff?’
‘Three years is nothing, you gargantuan bore. Even Dan and I … Well, anyway. Did you say she had a Cath Kidston coat? You should take her some of our delicious strawberry jam. It’ll be quirky, she’ll love it. Trust me.’
* * *
On Saturday, I met Emma at Alessandro’s in the Northern Quarter, an Italian place Emma had suggested. Once we’d given the waiter our orders, Emma said, ‘So, I told a friend of mine about you.’
‘Oh?’ I said. ‘Is that a good sign?’
‘He asks about every date. He’s a massive gossip. He likes to spread it around our book club, which is annoying because one of the women there is obsessed with me.’
‘You’re not interested?’ I asked.
‘Her favourite novel is Fifty Shades Freed.’
Over our starters, we filled each other in on the boring stuff we hadn’t wanted to bog down the first date with: number of siblings and the details of our jobs.
The conversation turned to tentative probing for warning signs in our romantic histories. When she told me about her strained relationship with her mother, who had died after five years of Alzheimer’s in a home that Emma hadn’t once visited, I repaid her openness with the story of my once-fiancé, six years prior, who had fallen pregnant with another man’s baby.
‘Oof, that can’t have been fun,’ she said.
‘I should have been tougher, kicked her right out. She’d moved in with me about a year earlier. I was paying all the rent. I let her stay for another two months while her boyfriend decorated a room in his flat for the baby.’
How embarrassing, to reveal my pathetic weakness so soon in the relationship, and to a woman who exhibited nothing but confidence.
‘Never mind,’ she said. ‘It took me three months to muster the courage to break up with my last partner. No great loss. He thought Raymond Carver was a TV chef.’
Yep, she liked American short stories, too. It’s amazing what promising little signs you cling to after dating so many oddballs. Here was someone I could talk to, without expectations or judgements, who didn’t mind my average looks or aversion to social media. It was a relief to know that I could relax and be myself, and I sensed the same in her, too. A lowering of her shoulders, a smile that came easily to her wide, bright face.
‘Got any weird interests?’ she drawled, narrowing her eyes and raising one eyebrow in mock suspicion.
‘You brought it up, you’d better go first.’
‘Yeesh. I don’t know. I used to own two chameleons? Not anymore, they only live about three years. Now you. Quid pro quo, pal.’
‘One of my things is letting my friend Mel choose our weekend activities. She likes to wind me up by making me do stuff she knows I’d never try otherwise. This week we made jam. Um, this might be weird, but I brought you some.’
I took out the heavy jar and placed it on the table next to the unlit candle. It was exactly as the waiter came with our main courses. Emma and I looked at the jam in courteous silence as the plates of food were placed between us and the waiter asked if we wanted anything else. We said no thank-you. After he left, we burst into relieved laughter.
‘Thanks!’ she said at last. ‘I can’t turn down a good fruit conserve.’
I’d ordered chicken cacciatore, because it reminded me of a sunny afternoon I had in Rome once, on a peaceful vacation after my engagement fell through. She shared her mushroom linguine, but wouldn’t hand me the fork. She held the fork herself, forcing me to eat it off the tines, one loop after another. ‘Come on, suck it! Suck it!’ she ordered, laughing, and I got cream sauce on my face and sweater but refused to bite down on the pasta and end my torment, refused to let her win the game. Once the pasta was finally gone from her fork she put it in her mouth and said around it, like a cigar, ‘You did good, kid, real good. Now wipe yourself off.’
I attacked my stained top with a napkin, warm in my cheeks. ‘I need a shower.’
Emma shrugged. ‘I have a shower at my place.’
Full of a new confidence I hadn’t felt in a long time, I quipped, ‘No dessert first?’
‘I don’t think I could still respect you if I watch you eat another thing. We should make a move now, before it’s too late. Besides, if we get peckish, we have the jam.’
* * *
We took a taxi to her apartment in a high-rise on the edge of the city centre. We were both too shy to try anything in the back seat. Heat radiated between our palms when we held hands, faintly embarrassed by the childish intimacy. She murmured that it was unexpected to meet someone she could be herself around. Perhaps nervous, she looked out the car window. I took a deep breath and kissed her neck. She leaned into it, and when I pulled back she was smiling.
‘Oh,’ she blurted ten minutes later, with the key in the lock of her apartment on the seventh floor. ‘Um, don’t be nervous about the axe on my wall. It’s just a replica from this show I used to watch with my Dad when I was little. When he died he left it to me as a joke. Last laugh’s mine, though, ‘cause I’m not remotely embarrassed.’
We passed through the threshold into an open plan kitchen-lounge. It was a big place. There was, indeed, a twin-bladed axe mounted on the wall opposite the door, above a row of low bookcases. An L-shaped sofa reached around two sides of a whitewashed wooden coffee table. There were plants, photos and exotic ornaments on various surfaces. On a second table beside the kitchen counter was a large glass vivarium. Inside, I could see a branch and some sprays of plastic greenery. The once lamp-lit home of the deceased chameleons.
I was still looking at it, feeling a change in the atmosphere of the room – probably the moving air caused by our entry into the apartment – when Emma dropped her keys on the coffee table and whirled around to kiss me. We took our time.
With her arms still around my neck, she said, ‘Drink?’
We kissed again, separated; I uncorked a Malbec whilst she drew some clinking glasses from a cupboard. From either side of the kitchen counter, she in the kitchen and me in the lounge, we filled our glasses. We moved to the sofa and made flirtatious chatter for a while.
After I excused myself to go to the bathroom, I peered at my reflection as I washed my hands. I was taken aback by the brightness of my eyes. I looked five years younger than I had the week before. Returning to the lounge, I felt weightless and loose.
‘I’m in the bedroom,’ Emma called from behind a closed door. ‘Just give me a sec, I’ll be right out.’
I sat on the sofa and tried not to look at the axe on the wall. The wine was good. It had gone a little to my head – my third glass of the evening. Emma’s glass, resting on a bamboo coaster on the table, was already drained.
She called again from the bedroom. ‘Are you going to be good, now?’
‘Of course!’ I replied.
The bedroom door opened. She stepped onto the carpet of the lounge with bare feet. For a few seconds, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. It was so unexpected that it didn’t seem to imprint upon my brain. The shapes were familiar but it was like my operating system had frozen.
When I finally understood what my eyes were seeing, I realised that I was experiencing more of the sense of humour that made Emma so attractive. I laughed at the joke, but I could see in her eyes that my slightly nervous chuckle hadn’t connected with her ears. Her expression remained unchanged; she just moved her shoulders and arms languidly, looking up at the ceiling. She wasn’t trying to be funny. It wasn’t a joke.
She was dressed in a lizard costume. It had been made for adults, but was childishly cartoonish, made of luminous green Lycra except for a sequinned yellow circle over the stomach and vividly pink spines running down her head and back. Only her face was visible; the stretchy hood of the outfit circled her eyes and mouth, covering her ears. She wore a pair of green monster-claw gloves, vastly outsized. Her feet were bare and white.
‘I’m a lizard,’ she said, stroking her toes over the thick rug. She turned around and showed me her long tail, then rotated on one foot like a ballerina to face me again. The outfit was probably meant to be a non-specific dinosaur of some kind.
I stretched my lips into a neutral smile. ‘Yes you are.’ I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Suddenly she was beside me. Almost imperceptibly quickly, she had darted across the room in a low, hunched position, moving sinuously and with total dedication to the role. She looked willowy in the clinging bodysuit, like a shaved-headed child or a crash test dummy. One giant fluffy monster claw rested on my sternum. She smelled of talc and ever so slightly of bruschetta.
Looking intensely at me with her tunnel-like brown eyes, she licked her lips in a flash and then pushed me back a step. I felt the couch behind me and sat down hard. A stiff rustle told me that I was sitting on an open magazine. I couldn’t take my eyes of Emma, who was now backing away from me. She spun around and placed both her hands on the wall at about head height and looked over her shoulder at me, waggling her stiff foam tail.
‘I’m a lizard. If you pull off my tail then it’ll just grow back. I look slimy but I’m not. I’m not slimy at all.’
‘No,’ I said.
‘Pull it!’ she snapped, scrunching her eyes closed. ‘Pull off my tail! Pull it off!’
I swallowed something the size of a golf ball and remembered Emma telling me to suck down her linguine. I didn’t want to think about it. Or, maybe I just didn’t want to be rising from the sofa and walking gingerly across the room to take a spongy green lizard’s tail in my hands and tugging.
‘Pull it off! No predator can hold me! I want you to pull my tail off. I’m not going to beg!’
I pulled on the tail. There was a scrunchy sound. Emma, her hands still against the wall, head lowered to her chest now, thrust her backside toward me. I got a better grip on the tail and yanked. The Velcro fasteners ripped apart and Emma sighed in satisfaction.
‘I can feel my cells dividing,’ she said, writhing. ‘My cold body is regenerating.’
Despite myself, I felt a twitch of arousal at her tone of voice. We stood an inch apart, me still clutching the disengaged tail, Emma turning to look up at me. She planted both monster claws on either side of my face. The cotton mitts had no traction on my face but, heaven help me, I lowered my lips to hers and we kissed deeply. Even as the heat of her mouth and a heart-fluttering adrenaline rush hit me, I wondered if I were taking advantage of a mentally ill person. Her tongue tasted of onion and olive oil.
When I pulled away, she pressed her lips together and took a deep breath.
‘I want something sweet,’ she said.
‘The jam! Get it.’
Emma had put the jar into her handbag. Now she watched me respectfully dip my hand inside for the jar and then remove it, closing the bag afterwards.
‘Take the lid off.’
I unsealed the jar with a loud pop. She grunted at the sound and skittered towards me. With a single swift outward jerk of her arms, she divested herself of the monster claws, revealing pale human paws. Into the jar of jam she thrust her long fingers. She swiped strawberry preserve in a thick, gelatinous arc across her forehead. Then two more along the lines of her cheekbones. I looked at the smears of lumpy red jam and wondered if I’d somehow triggered this.
‘Be a wasp!’ she demanded. She clenched her eyes shut again and staggered backwards towards the sofa, dragging me by my sauce-stained top. I almost fell on top of her with my full weight before I could pull free. ‘Be a wasp, you’re a big nasty wasp!’ she screeched.
‘Um, buzz,’ I said. She was scrabbling at the hem of my sweater. I held my body aloft with one hand, gripped her ribcage with the other. I had no hands free for acting. Go with it! I heard Dan say in my head. Enjoy yourself, mate!
‘Actually…,’ I said.
‘Yes! No! Keep away from me, with your ugly face and nasty stinger!’
I can’t say I made mental note of the mad script that we were ad-libbing together. All I know is that I felt as stupid as a grown adult can possibly feel, whilst also being painfully aroused in a way that I’m not proud of. Half-leaning, half-standing over the couch, I was unsupported and unbalanced.
Meanwhile, Emma swatted at me, thrashing her head left and right, knocking cushions off the couch. She raked my bare stomach with her fingernails, which were red and sticky with the jam. Syrupy sweetness filled the air.
‘No! No!’ she barked. ‘Leave my sugar alone!’
‘I think … Actually….’
I grabbed her wrists and used the leverage to push against her and stand upright. I took two steps back and probably held up my hands, like someone about to be mugged. My sweater fell back down, sticking to the jam on my stomach.
‘Sorry, but I think I’d better go,’ I said, trying not to think about the axe on the wall.
She sat up on the sofa and looked baldly at me. In a tone of voice now nostalgically normal, she said, ‘Are you serious?’
‘Yeah, this isn’t really … Sorry.’
An expression of contempt filled the circular green boundary of her hood. ‘What? Jesus, this is nothing. So I have a thing, what’s wrong with you?’
I mumbled some excuses and retrieved my coat from the arm of the sofa. There was red jam on the back of my hand. The seeds of doubt quivered inside the gelatinous blob of my anxiety. Then I steeled myself and took off.
* * *
In the taxi, I told Mel and Dan by text to prepare themselves for a full report. ‘Come over,’ Mel replied. Dan began typing something, but changed his mind. I went to their flat in New Islington rather than going home to stew in my own disappointment.
When I got there I found Mel alone, wallowing on the couch with several empty bottles in a neat triangle on the coffee table. ‘Dan just left me,’ she announced loudly.
Was I surprised? I’d always thought of their relationship as like a battered old book. The glue binding had mostly turned to dust and it would need only one good shake to scatter the pages across the room. As soon as one of them got the flu, or was depressed, or when they were rained in on holiday, the loose leaves would start slipping out.
‘It’s because I tried to stop,’ she said, indicating the beer bottles. ‘It turns me into a bitch. But how am I supposed to tolerate him otherwise?’
We’d had this conversation many times. I would ask her why she was in the relationship in the first place, and she would say, ‘What should I do, start dating again? I mean, this is why we go through all of that, isn’t it? To get to this.’
Whatever variation of that reply she gave, I would usually wait her out in silence.
David Brookes is a writer currently living in the UK, from where he runs his editing firm The STP Literary Service. He has stories published in many magazines including Scrittura, Every Day Fiction, Electric Spec, Pantechnicon, Bewildering Stories, Whispering Spirits, Morpheus Tales, The Cynic and Aphelion.
She let me know early on I was not like the other kids.
As a five-year-old, Snowball the class budgie comes home to every house but mine. I’m not allowed to perform in the skit at the end-of-year concert. We are just getting started.
As a 10-year-old, I attend other kids’ birthday parties, but mine are spent at home, alone with her. I beg to have one, just once. It needn’t be fancy or take a heap of effort, I argue. She keeps saying we can’t afford squat, and I say it can be fairy bread and sausage rolls and a picnic blanket at the park. Maybe pass-the-parcel, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, and a three-legged race. Homemade and happy. I promise an ice cream cake at Pizza Hut or a party in the decommissioned airplane out the front of shopping mall McDonald’s isn’t necessary. I cry, I plead. She squints her eyes and says no. Those things are for others. I plan to hold my own celebration in a spare room at school, send cheerful invites, then overwhelm myself with the technicalities to the point of panic attacks. My friends’ mothers sense my agitation and cater it. She harumphs at home.
As a 12-year-old, I’m forbidden from swimming classes and slip-and-slides and excursions to the city. Teachers skate close to suspecting something, but she claims poverty and they nod understanding, not knowing of the thousands of dollars in the bank. In desperation, I beg to go on the class trip to the museum, assuring her it’ll be educational without a drop of fun. She relents as a reward for knowing my place. Also, perhaps, sensing they are almost onto her. Time to provide the exception that hides the rule.
As a fifteen-year-old, she refuses to replace any electrical goods that go bung in our house because she has ‘bad luck with appliances’, one of the many self-pitying refrains she has on speed dial. Using my $6.50-per-hour Macca’s wage, I buy us a tiny fridge, a TV and a VCR, desperate for a few essentials and sick of being teased by my classmates about our analogue existence. She complains about what I pick, saying she can’t sleep from buzzing I can’t hear. I come to comprehend how nothing will ever be enough.
As a seventeen-year-old, I ring up the government phoneline to register my university course preferences. She, still with tens of thousands of dollars squirreled away for a rainy day, huffs and puffs that she can’t afford a premium phone call. I calmly explain it’s an investment in my future and offer to pay it myself. She screams in my face that I should hang up immediately because it’s a waste of money. I learn to bide my time.
In my twenties, why do I not visit?
In my thirties, why do I plan my wedding alone?
In my forties, she is dead, and I can finally start living.
Rebecca Douglas is an Australian writer whose work has been published by Overland, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, Kill Your Darlings, Visible Ink, Verandah Journal, The Big Issue, ABC The Drum, and various other lovely places.
Indigo was sitting at the bus stop scrolling through social media. She didn’t see the other three people waiting with her. Indigo’s spirit guide was only trying to get her to see one of them, the man to her left who was playing a video game on his phone.
Indigo’s guide was tickling her ribs. Indigo wasn’t very psychic so she really didn’t sense the spirit’s touch much. However, after several minutes of it, Indigo’s guide did manage to make Indigo sneeze.
The man to Indigo’s left was named Ivan. His spirit guide had been trying to make Ivan notice Indigo the whole time her guide had been trying to make Indigo sneeze. Ivan’s guide had tried to short out Ivan’s earphones. He had sent a shiver up Ivan’s spine. He punched Ivan square on the jaw in his growing frustration. Ivan was a bit more psychic than most so he did take notice of all the poking and prodding by his guide. He had looked up from his phone right as Indigo sneezed.
Alas, for the soulmates’ guides Ivan looked at the man sitting on the other side of him, not at Indigo on his right side.
The man to Indigo’s right was the one who muttered; ‘Bless you,’
The soulmates didn’t meet. The Bus came and they got on one after the other but sat separately. They exited the bus separately without ever even making eye contact.
Ivan’s guide looked back as Indigo’s guide as Ivan and he got off. Indio’s guide shrugged. The guides waved goodbye to each other longingly as the bus took off from Ivan’s stop. Indigo’s guide smacked her upside the head. Indigo sneezed again.
A little old lady sitting behind Indigo said “Gesundheit.”
It was thirteen years, four months, and eighteen days later before the guides got the chance to try, try again. It was in the grocery store right by Ivan’s apartment. Both guides’ eyes lit up as Ivan rounded the corner of aisle three to walk right past Indigo. The spirit guides jumped to embrace each other. Ivan and Indigo were busy ignoring each other but to be fair they were ignoring everyone else too. Indigo was comparing the nutritional chart on two different boxes of diet breakfast bars. Ivan was on his phone again. He was talking to his mother, asking her to list off the items he needed to buy to make lasagna.
The guides were about to miss their second chance as they were so consumed in hugging. Ivan had pushed his buggy almost totally past Indigo’s. Ivan’s guide grabbed Ivan’s hands and shoved with all his energy. Ivan’s hands slipped and his buggy lurched into Indigo’s.
“Sorry.” Ivan said absently then went back to talking to his mother. “What kinds of cheeses? Do I find those in the freezer?”
Indigo didn’t even answer his single word with a single word of her own. She just nodded and kept analysing fat content and calories listed on the boxes in each hand. Again they never even made eye contact. Indigo finally tossed one box into her buggy and headed in the other direction. Both guides teared up as they waved goodbye this time.
It was fifty years, eight months, and one day before they saw each other again. The guides that is because Ivan and Indigo had yet to see each other. Ironically, they had only exchanged one word; sorry. Ivan was sitting in his wheelchair at his nursing home’s front door. He was reading sports scores on a tablet in a very large font. Still he was straining to read the print.
Indigo was being helped out of a cab. She was arguing loudly with the taxi driver and a social worker who were trying to help her walk into the nursing home. She was screaming that she didn’t want to move to the nursing home. The social worker was politely explaining that she had no family to take her in and she could no longer live alone. The taxi driver had bolted without a word after the social worker slipped him a fifty.
Indigo slapped away the social worker’s steadying hand. She stumbled right into Ivan’s wheelchair. He reached to grab her by the elbow to keep her from falling.
“Sorry.” She said the same single word that he’d said to her so many years before.
Alas, they still hadn’t seen each other. Ivan’s eyesight wouldn’t let him see anything more than ten inches from his face. Indigo’s vision was clouded with tears and she was begrudgingly going on into the nursing home.
Indigo’s guide grabbed Ivan’s guide’s arm. “We have to do something.”
“It is just too late.”
“No, they will be living in the same home now. It’s never too late! They are old. They have missed sixty years that they were supposed to be married. They didn’t have the kids or grandkids but they can still be together finally now, briefly.” Indigo’s guide was holding the nursing home door shut so the social worker couldn’t get it open for Indigo.
“Very briefly.” Ivan’s guide said glancing up at the sun. “In about three minutes, Ivan will die.”
“What?” Indigo’s guide screeched still fighting the social worker for the door’s control.
Ivan’s guide had been off on his estimate. Ivan instantly fell out of his wheelchair to the ground, clutching his heart. Indigo shook off the social worker’s hold and fell down beside the stranger on the ground.
She reached for his hand. The guide was holding his hand already but let go as Indigo took it. Ivan looked up. She was ten inches away from his face. He could see her. Ivan looked into Indigo’s eyes finally. He started to say that she was beautiful but drew his last breath as she was starting to tell him that he couldn’t give up.
You’re probably unfolding this page and thinking, Gosh, what a terrible human being Cate became since then, and by that you’ll mean ever since you pushed the door open with a big box propped against your chest, put it on the kitchen counter, yanked a sheet off it like a street magician, and pointed to a gerbil that stared at us and squeaked. “This will help us,” you said. “Looking after him will help us.” You stroked my sweaty hair and I rolled my eyes. When I came back from the shower, you were feeding pellets to the gerbil and asking him who’s a good boy, lots of nodding, lots of smiling. I went out to buy something I didn’t need, like more eggs, I was always after more eggs back then.
Two days later, I can hardly put my yoga mat down and you lead me to the kitchen counter, where you’ve set plates on opposite ends, with microwaved rice and beans piled on them. You light a candle close enough to the gerbil that it stretches its paws trying to bring the orange glow into its cage. “Caring for Little Julian is good for us,” you say. “He is us, in a way, Julian and Cate. See?” What I see is that the gerbil keeps thrusting his paw at the candle and I wonder if his whole fur will catch on fire or just his paw.
A week later, I come back from my therapist and there are two heads bobbing at the gerbil, yours and Margaret’s. I see her chalked hair, fluffed up into a lair of some sort, a floral blouse with ruffle puff sleeves, and forearm tattoos whose writing has faded into scribbles. At night, while you’re meming on your phone and I’m trying to make sense of the tsunami-shaped damp patch on the ceiling, I ask who granny is and you roll away from me in bed and turn off your lamp. Mine’s still on, so I can see your back hair through the moth holes in your college shirt.
Fast forward a month and I come home from jogging and find you standing behind Margaret, against the wall, clothes still on but rolled down around the pelvis. As I look at your butt, forward, back, forward, back, I frown and think, “Wait, isn’t this the position he said was too busy for his taste?” And, “Wait, isn’t she the age my mother-in-law would’ve been today?”
I knew, right, then, that it was unfair of me to focus on her age because men have relationships with women who are generations younger than them and people wink at them, not frown.
I know it was unfair of me to yell at you that with her you were going to save hundreds of bucks on condoms.
It was unfair to broom you out of the apartment while both of you had your clothes rolled down, especially when Mr. McShae was out in the hall and we all know he stares, and unfair to keep the door locked while you thumped on it, asking for me to “release Little Julian into your custody.”
It was unfair to line the gerbil’s cage with your dress shirts before boxing your clothes and sending them to her apartment, where you moved in, right below mine.
It was unfair to send you ransom notes for Tiny Julian’s freedom, written with letters cut out from large-print Reader’sDigest magazines.
What was most unfair was the banging you heard above you a couple of hours ago. It started off as a cracking sort of noise, from my hammer pounding against the tiled floor, something that just happened because it was Friday and there was wine in the house. Then I took out Tiny Julian from his cage, for just a second, and he wasn’t swayed by my “Come back here,” meant to sound like you, and, what do you know, he slipped into the new cracks in the tiles. The schoolteacher from next door stopped by when she heard someone cursing at the pipes. I told her the drain was clogged up, because what else would I say, we had some wine, and after a while she went to her apartment and back she came, flopping around a plumber’s snake, goggled, like some sort of villain from the 1950s. She poked and thrusted into the pipes. The snake reached in as far as it could, so we shook it around for a while, then tested the drain and everything came out nicely, a smooth flow that showed that anything that had been dumped in there at some point and may have clogged up the system was gone. She rolled back her snake in silence as we stared at opposite walls, spent, and I wondered why I had never known how handy this schoolteacher could be. We heard squeaking from the cracks in the floor, and she said “Fucking mice,” and I said “Fucking mice” back. We threw tools into the cracks and one thing led to another and the banging started again, metal on metal. I’m sure you two will bob your heads up now, staring at the water damage on Margaret’s ceiling, and wonder how to get Tiny Julian back safe to where it belongs. Maybe Tiny Julian will crawl through some rusty hole in the wall and leak out of the building before you find him.
This is all unfair of me, I know, especially if Margaret has lived here a long time and I’m ruining her ceiling. I swear I can’t remember how long she’s been here—was she in our lives when Tiny Julian arrived and she seemed too unlikely for me to notice her, like the fake geraniums by the mailboxes? I’m not sure anymore, and I really don’t care. This note is just a heads up. Tiny Julian is on the loose and I won’t make an effort to catch him. Oh, and I can’t promise the pipes will behave as they used to.
Federico Escobar grew up in Cali, Colombia, and after living in New Orleans, Jerusalem, and Oxford, spent most of the past decade in Puerto Rico—Hurricane María included. His literary work has been published or is forthcoming in The Phare, Bending Genres, Passengers Journal, and Typishly. He works in education.
‘Just one more chance, pleeeeease,’ I stretched the last word out as far as it would go, but Mother’s back was turned, and my bag stood in the hallway with my good winter coat and red wellingtons.
‘I’ve ‘phoned the Bad Girls’ Home. They’re coming for you in an hour.’ She was showing no mercy to the tomatoes as she sliced them with her sharpest knife. Her tongue clicked the roof of her mouth as they spilled their seeds over the kitchen counter. It was, I suspected, similar messiness that had led to my own fall from grace.
‘You can have your tea before you go,’ she said. I hated sandwiches, and Mother knew it. She had a machine for cutting bread, a bit like a guillotine. I flinched when she operated the blade. Taking the butter from the fridge, she waved the packet at me.
‘There’ll be none of this where you’re going. It’ll be water and dry bread before bedtime if you’re lucky.’ She tipped her head to one side to show she was thinking.
‘Or maybe a bit of gruel,’ she added.
‘Like Oliver Twist,’ I said.
‘Don’t get smart with me Madam.’ Mother gave me one of her looks. I was not taking this seriously enough.
Mother had taken me to see The Bad Girls’ Home last time I had let myself down. We had taken the bus miles out of town, then Mother, glancing around to check no-one was watching, had wrenched open some rusty gates and led me up a path overgrown with weeds and brambles. The building she had showed me was unlit and unloved.
‘Let this be a warning to you,’ she had said, placing her hands under my armpits and lifting me off my feet, so that my chin was level with a rotted wooden windowsill. I had peered into a deserted classroom; a few wooden desks and chairs, a chalkboard with some long-forgotten lessons written in an elegant cursive script. A box containing a hockey stick topped with a pair of bottle green knickers stood in the corner.
‘There’s nobody here,’ I had protested, sure I had caught Mother out in a falsehood.
‘The Bad Girls are out at work at this time. You won’t have much time for all your books and nonsense if I have to send you here.’ Her tone had made me silent. She had gazed at me for a long time before deciding I was sufficiently contrite. We had returned home, and she had made my favourite soft-boiled egg with toast soldiers.
Now, though, there seemed to be no chance of a last-minute reprieve. Mother set down a plate of cheese and tomato sandwiches. I stared at them, swallowing hard, unable to even take a first bite. A tear slithered down my cheek.
‘I’m sorry that it’s come to this,’ said Mother. She took a cotton handkerchief embroidered with her initial from the sleeve of her cardigan and blew her nose hard.
‘As a matter of fact, Mummy has had a little weep herself, this afternoon.’ I looked up as she sniffed and dabbed her eyes.
‘I blame myself. I must have been a very bad mother, to make you behave this way.’
This was my cue. Sliding down from my chair I scurried round to where she sat and flung my arms around her shoulders. I sobbed into her neck.
‘You’re the best Mummy in the world,’ I whispered into her ear. Mother did nothing for a long time. Then, stiffly, she began to pat my back.
‘There, there. Don’t upset yourself.’ Her words held no emotion, as though she was reading them from a prompt card. She extricated herself from my clutches and went out into the hall, where the telephone stood on its glass and wrought iron table. I heard her lift the receiver and dial a number.
‘I think I should give her one more chance. Perhaps she has learned her lesson this time. Sorry to have troubled you.’ I buried my head in my arms on the table and sobbed again, this time with relief. Mother came back into the room. She removed the unwanted sandwiches from the table I heard her tip them into the kitchen pedal bin, making no reference, as she usually did, to starving children in Africa. She took something from the fridge and gently placed it in front of me. The smell of chocolate made my nostrils twitch. I sat up, scrubbing at my face with clenched fists.
A slice of the kind of chocolate cake in which we only indulged on Very Special Occasions sat before me. Mother kissed the top of my head.
‘I will wipe your slate clean.’ It was an old promise, but one which had never before been accompanied by cake.
Relief had made me hungry. I devoured the whole slice, picking up crumbs on a dampened finger. Mother winced only slightly as she watched me. Afterwards we sat on the sofa, my head resting on her shoulder as we watched my favourite quiz show. Several times I answered a question when the contestant failed. Mother smiled proudly.
‘I love to spend time with my clever girl,’ she said. I began to relax in the glow of her approval. I remembered the chocolate cake, bought and sliced and waiting in the fridge for my redemption, even before my crime had been committed. I yawned, stretched, and went out into the hallway, leaving the door open wide enough for Mother to see what I was about to do next.
‘I’ll take this back upstairs,’ I said, grabbing the handles of the empty bag she had ‘packed’ for my departure. I slung it easily over my shoulder, ensuring that she knew I had no expectation of it containing any weight at all. I smiled my most angelic smile as I mounted the stairs.
‘Love you, Mummy,’ I said. I was tired of this game and would not be playing it again.
Alison Wassell is a short story and flash fiction writer published by Retreat West, Reflex Fiction, Firewords, Bath Flash Fiction, NFFD, FlashFlood Journal and The People’s Friend. She has been longlisted, shortlisted and placed in various competitions.
The mountain air is clean, smelling like greenery and last night’s rain. It’s still warm from today, the first day of summer, but already cooling as the sun sets.
I fasten the helmet strap beneath my chin, put on my thick gloves that are padded with a plastic puck in the palm, and check my longboard again.
The asphalt road waits before me, finally clear after the long winter and spring. Black grey, surrounded by wildflowers, trees on one side, the deep, green valley on the other. I’ve ridden this road so many times I can see its course in my mind, flowing down the mountainside like a river.
I put my right foot on the board, and push off hard with my left. Another couple of pushes, then gravity does the rest. I lean left or right to move with the road, almost effortlessly after all these years of practice. Soon, I’m going fast. Faster than a wooden plank and four polyurethane wheels have any right to go. It almost feels like flying.
This late in the evening, I have the road to myself. Just me and the wind rushing in my ears. I put my hands behind my back and lean forward, bending my knees to keep my balance. Soon, there’s the first sharp curve. I crouch and lean into it, grazing the padded gloves over the ground to brake and steer myself in the right direction.
Once I’m past the curve, I get upright again, taking in the bright blue sky, the setting sun. Take a moment to revel in the thrill of going this fast.
Above me, swifts tumble and soar, catching insects, playing bird games. Going faster than you’d think a bundle of feathers would ever be able to. Like me, they return here in summer after the long winter keeps them away.
One flies low, its black wings glinting in the sun, tumbling through the air, in complete and utter freedom. I once read that swifts can stay aloft for months at a time, sleeping in the air, nesting up high, rarely ever touching ground.
If only I had wings like that.
Another curve in the road, and then, immediately, there’s a tunnel. I move with the curve and enter the darkness, keeping my eyes on the light ahead, watching for car headlights that could surprise me in this narrow space.
In here, cool nothingness surrounds me. Only the wind rushing in my ears, the beating of my heart. I could be floating in a sea, or flying in a dark sky, if not for my feet stuck to the board, my final connection to the ground.
The bright light at the end gets bigger. The sounds come back with the warmth of summer. I ride out of the tunnel and am engulfed in light.
The setting sun is before me, shining through a dip in the mountains, showering everything in yellow, orange, red.
It surrounds me, blinds me, pierces through my eyelids and deep into my skin. Gives me warmth, strength.
It builds me wings.
I can feel it.
I throw off my gloves with clumsy fingers, then take off my helmet. I need to feel the wind in my hair, the sun on my skin. I need to feel all of it.
I spread my golden wings.
My legs move the board right and left, following the road from memory. I speed down, barely feeling my feet touch the board, so fast, so free. I laugh in the warm light.
I’m almost soaring like the swifts in the endless blue, towards the setting sun.
The sound of a car engine.
I barely keep my balance. The sun blinds me, golden spots floating before my eyes. My legs don’t know what to do. They move left, then right, wobble on the board.
The car honks, tires screech.
My wings melt.
I steer away from the noise, but I’m going too fast. I can’t stop, I can’t see where I’m going. I lose control of the board, feel it roll off the road and get stuck in the grass while my body keeps moving.
I am free.
My body is airborne, the road behind me, the valley below. The setting sun ahead. There’s nothing but air surrounding me, nothing but the blue sky, nothing but the swifts calling out and swooping all around me. Nothing to keep me on the ground. I am flying on my own now, absolutely, utterly free.
They’ll call it a tragic accident. Carelessness. Hubris.
But, for now, I spread my wings.
Lotte van der Krol is a multi-genre writer from the Netherlands. She likes to walk in the woods, following the strange sounds that are almost like music but not quite. Her work has appeared in Popshot Quarterly, Capsule Stories, Weird Christmas, and others. She’s on twitter @lottevdkrol and on lottevanderkrol.wordpress.com
Standing at the back screen door, the late autumn air carried the scents of dry earth and dying vegetation. Sandra leaned against the door frame and waited. The rows of dead, broken, harvested stalks of corn in the field beyond the back yard, trembled slightly, the sound of their brittle leaves being rustled in the breeze sounding like raspy old men asking for drinks of water. The scarecrows, each given a name of a dead president, nailed to nine-foot upright boards, stood guard over their quickly decaying charges. The tails to Lincoln’s ragged tuxedo jacket flapped in the wind. As hazy sunlight broke through the clouds, a small murder of crows arrived and began to circle above the field. She straightened up and watched them with rapt attention as they descended to the ground amidst the corn stalks. She placed the palms of her hands on the door’s mesh screen and closed her eyes. She imagined that her body had separated into microscopic sized particles and was passing through the screen and then turning into crows and flying off.
The whistle on the tea kettle sitting on the stove shrieked. Sandra opened her eyes and turned about. Her eight year-old son, Daniel – Danny – was standing in the doorway that led into the living room, gazing at her with his usual intensity. “Do you need something?” she said in a tone harsher than she meant it to be. “Is something wrong?’ she said, more softly.
The boy shook his head, turned, and went back into the living room.
Sandra turned off the flame beneath the kettle and then poured the boiling water into a cup in which an already used teabag lay limply at the bottom, the string attached to it drooped over a lip of the cup. She grabbed the string and bobbed the teabag up and down in the water several times, turning the water a pale shade of dark green before returning the kettle to the stove. She was about to smash a cockroach crawling across the stove top when a sound of breaking glass came from the living room. She rushed from the kitchen. A large stone lay on the floor in the middle of the living room beside where Danny was standing. The window was broken.
* * *
The rainfall began as a light patter against the bedroom window. Sandra raised the lid on the cedar chest that sat on a handmade rug at the end of the bed and took out the star-patterned quilt that her mother had given her as a wedding present. She closed the lid and tossed the quilt across the other quilt already on the bed. Felicity mewed softly, jumped down from the chair in front of the vanity dresser where it had been curled up on, sleeping, walked to the bed and jumped up onto the quilt. It walked about, kneading the quilt with its declawed paws, before finding a place to settle down. It quickly fell back asleep. The distant rumble of thunder caused Sandra to turn about and stare into the darkness beyond the window. A flash of lighting above the Badlands formations momentarily brought their irregular pancake-like layers of rock into view, and just as quickly disappeared back into the blackness. The howl of a coyote pierced the night.
Sandra removed her robe, slid under the quilts, pushing Felicity aside, and was just about to turn off the lamp on the bedside stand when Danny came into the room. “Did the thunder and lightning frighten you?” she said to him.
He shook his head and stared at her expectantly as he grabbed the elastic cord on his pajama bottoms and pulled it tight, cinching the waist tight around his abdomen.
“I can’t read your mind, Danny. At some point you are going to have to tell me what it is you want or need,” she said. She patted the bed. “Yes, you can sleep with me.”
Without taking his eyes off of her he got onto the bed and laid down next to Felicity and encircled the old cat with his arms and slowly hugged the cat, bringing it close to him. He closed his eyes. Within minutes his breathing slowed, mimicking the same sleeping sound – a gentle exhalation and inhalation of breathing – that the cat made.
She pulled a quilt over him and turned off the light. She laid back, her eyes on the trails of rain streaking down the window pane seen in the ambient light.
* * *
The school bus pulled away from the curb with Danny watching Sandra from the back seat where he sat with his face pressed against the window. She turned and walked down the long driveway towards the house, mud being added to the clumps on her boots that had already collected there. The grass that lined both sides of the driveway was noticeably bright and green, unlike all the other plants that had begun turning brown and dying off as soon as summer ended. Walking on it seemed like an act of carelessness, akin to walking on a clean carpet. The early morning chill had only just begun to dissipate, the increasing warmth leaving her to wonder if she had made Danny wear too many warm clothes before they left the house. His protests about wearing a sweater and heavy coat played out with the way he looked at her, like he expressed everything – with his eyes.
At the porch she kicked the mud from her boots and then climbed the steps while eyeing the broken window. She had duct taped a piece of cardboard retrieved from a stack of cardboard pieces in the basement over the large hole left by the stone, but only realized as she stepped onto the porch, that the cardboard was part of the box that had contained Hank’s urn. As if punched in the gut, for a moment she felt sick to her stomach and couldn’t breathe. She grasped the post attached to the porch railing and held on tightly, as if keeping from being blown away. It was then as tears began to stream down her cheeks that she saw the crows flying toward the field. They were arriving earlier in the day than usual. She ran down the porch steps and around the house, stopping in the back yard as her mud-caked boots prevented her from taking another step. Taunting a leaning Edward G. Harding, the crows descended to the rows of broken corn stalks that surrounded the base of Harding’s perch. She raised her arms and slowly began flapping them. And then she began to caw like a crow.
The birds weren’t disturbed by this at all. They continued to search the ground for kernels of corn and the insects the dead vegetation attracted.
* * *
Sandra emptied several ice cubes from the ice tray onto a piece of muslin and forcefully shoved the tray back into the freezer. She then slammed the refrigerator door closed. She pulled the cloth around the ice cubes, enclosing them in the pouch, and then tied the end. With the pouch in hand she walked over to Danny who was sitting motionless at the table, and momentarily gazed at the bright purple and red bruise that formed a ring around his right eye, before placing the pouch against his eye. “I know you can’t or won’t say who did this to you, but how can I protect you if you don’t speak up and tell me who keeps doing these things to you?”
He stared at her with the one eye, remaining as still as a statue.
She took his hand and pressed it against the pouch. “Hold it there,” she said. She turned and walked into the living room. She had stopped smoking when she found out she was pregnant with Danny, but the craving for a cigarette was overwhelming and annoying. She needed to do something with her hands, a distraction of some kind. She picked up the stone that had been thrown through the window from where she had left it on the coffee table and passed it back and forth from one hand to the other, feeling its weight, the texture of its surface. She closed her eyes and thought about people who could divine information about objects by just touching them and tried to force from the rock whatever it could tell her, what it could tell anyone. The silence was the same stony silence she received from Danny. She opened her eyes just in time to see a deer cross the driveway, slowing a bit as it stepped through the mud, and then bolt off when it stepped back into the grass. When the phone rang it startled her and she dropped the stone.
“How’s the boy?” her father-in-law said even before she could say hello after putting the receiver to her ear. “He talking yet?”
“Hank’s mother and I think Danny should come live with us for a while.”
“We got a call from Danny’s school counselor who was inquiring about you. We don’t think you’re capable of giving him the care he needs. The boy’s father, our son . . .”
She slammed the phone down and walked into the kitchen. Danny was standing at the back door still holding the ice to his eye as he watched the crows that crowded the field around several of the presidents.
* * *
The colors of the twilight sky were the same as Danny’s bruised eye. With her shawl around her shoulders, Sandra stood in the corn field looking for signs that the crows had been there, but found none. They came and went every day like apparitions that vanished without a trace. She wondered where they came from and where else did they go. Her skirt flapped in the chilly breeze, snapping quietly at times like muted Fourth of July firecrackers. Nearby, George Washington hung precariously on his post, about to fall off, with his three-cornered hat sitting askew on his white hair made from yarn. The clothes for all of the presidents had been found in steamer trunks in the attic. The pants, coats and shirts were stitched together to make up the costumes by Sandra while she was pregnant. A lot of crows had come and gone since then and none of them ever showed the slight bit of awareness that the scarecrows were there other than as things to land on long enough to survey the corn stalks.
She tightened the shawl around her and turned to see Danny standing in the doorway, watching her. He had Felicity in his arms. The cat was struggling to be set free from his hold. As she watched, the boy slowly tightened his grasp on the animal, squeezing the aged cat until it began to meow loudly and hiss.
“Danny! Stop that right now,” she screamed as she ran to the house.
He let the cat drop just as she reached the steps. She opened the door, her hand up, preparing to slap him for scaring Felicity, and then he said, “The crows.” She froze. It was the first words he had spoken in five months.
* * *
“His father used to sit on the back steps of the house and shoot the crows with his rifle,” Sandra said.
Mrs. Huston leaned forward and straightened the brass nameplate that sat on the edge of her desk. It had her name and title, School Counselor. “Those were the only two words he said?”
Sandra sat in a fake leather chair in front of the desk. The shiny brass of the nameplate glinted in front of her. “Yes.”
“Does Daniel have a special affinity for crows?”
“Not that I was ever aware of.” Sandra paused. “Danny. Everyone calls him Danny.”
The counselor smiled as if a gun had been put to her head. “Yes, of course. Danny.”
Sandra opened her purse and took out the stone that had been thrown through her window. She placed it on the desk next to the nameplate. “There are no stones like this one on our farm. Whoever broke our window with it bothered to bring that stone from somewhere else.”
Mrs. Huston looked at the stone and grimaced. “You didn’t need to bring it. I would have taken your word for it.”
“I thought it was important that you see it.”
“The school nurse has reported that Danny has come to school on several occasions with unexplained bruises and small cuts. I needed to look into it, so that’s why I called his grandparents and why I asked you to come in.”
“I told you,” Sandra said. “Someone is out to hurt him.”
Mrs. Huston lifted the stone with one hand, and using her hand, brushed away the dirt left behind. She then placed the stone on a tissue. “Why did you want me to see it.”
“It’s a murder weapon. It could have killed Danny.”
Mrs. Huston glanced at the stone as if expecting to see it move by its own volition. “Your husband died from a tragic accident, didn’t he?”
Sandra’s back stiffened. “All deaths are a tragic accident of one kind or another.”
“Yes, I guess that’s true, but I meant . . .”
“I know what you meant. Danny’s father shot himself. Danny witnessed it.”
Mrs. Huston’s tone became softer, kinder. “I know. And since then he hasn’t spoken, except for. . . “
Sandra interrupted. “Have you ever noticed that when crows, or any flock of birds, are in flight, no matter how many of them there are, or what may disturb them, they never crash into one another?”
* * *
From her bedroom window, Sandra watched a large, dark gray rabbit, hop around Franklin D. Roosevelt. She scanned the field around where the rabbit was foraging, fearing that with the oncoming night a coyote wouldn’t be far off and have a readily available meal if it got wind of the rabbit. A coyote had gotten into the chicken coop killing most of them before running off with one in its mouth as Hank ran out of the house in the middle of the night, shooting at the escaping coyote with his rifle. It put an end to their attempt to raise chickens. She often wished that the crows had carried off the first seeds planted to grow the corn. The crows were easier to kill and he took perverse glee in doing it.
Upon feeling Felicity rubbing its side against her leg, she took the cat in her arms and cradled it against her chest as she swayed gently from side to side. It was Hank’s idea to have Felicity declawed despite her protests and the veterinarian’s reluctance to perform the procedure.
“Cats can be taught not to scratch you,” the vet had said.
Hearing Danny’s bare feet on the floorboards behind her, she turned and waited for several moments before saying anything. His silence made her stomach ache. The two words he had spoken gave her hope that he had regained the desire, or ability, to talk and he would do it again soon. He remained silent, staring at her blankly. “Are you ready for bed?” she said, at last.
She placed Felicity on the floor, knelt down, grasped Danny gently by his upper arms, and stared into his eyes. “Do you want to go live with your grandparents for a while?”
His eyes widened, his cheeks paled. He shook his head.
She wrapped her arms around him and hugged him close. “Caw, caw” she whispered into his ear before picking him up and laying him on the bed. He curled into a fetal position as she stroked his corn silk-like hair.
* * *
It was early Saturday morning when Sandra carried the sewing basket that contained Felicity’s body out to the corn field as Danny followed behind carrying a small shovel. The crows hadn’t arrived yet. The air was almost balmy and filled with the scent of prairie grass. Near President John F. Kennedy, Sandra handed the sewing basket to Danny, took the shovel and dug a hole. She placed the basket in the hole and with tears flowing down her face, filled the hole with dirt. They turned, walked back. and had almost reached the house when the sheriff’s car drove up the driveway and came to a stop at the side of the house. In the back seat sat Jack Harley.
Sandra gripped Danny’s shoulder. “Go inside and call your grandparents. Their number is on the pad by the phone.”
The boy stared at her wide-eyed.
“You don’t need to say anything to them. Just make some kind of sound. They’ll figure it out that it’s you calling.”
He ran into the house as Sandra walked to the car just as the sheriff got out.
“Good morning, Sandra.” He pointed to Jack Harley. “His wife said you’ve been paying him to hurt your boy. Is that true?”
Sandra glanced back at the cornfield where the crows had begun to arrive. “Yes, it’s true.”
Genuinely surprised, the sheriff stammered, “Why would you do such a thing?”
“I hoped to scare my son into talking again,” she said. “His silence is killing me.”
* * *
Inside the house, Danny held the phone to his mouth. “Caw, caw, caw,” he screamed.
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 480 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. His Twitter is @carrsteven960. He is on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/steven.carr.35977
Once there was a doctor who worked as a general practitioner at the local hospital. A hardworking and attentive man, he always got to work early so he would be fully ready to face the day when his first patient arrived at eight in the morning. His hair was always coiffed perfectly in a wave across his forehead and his eyes always had a friendly twinkle meant to convey to those under his care that they had not a worry in the world, he was one of the good ones.
It was on a Monday when the old man came in. He was the first patient of the day and he was there for his annual physical and checkup. There was nothing too remarkable about this old man. He was squat, wrinkly, and gray, just as most old men were before him, and just as most would be after. He had a bit of a cranky air about him, but when he smiled, revealing rows of gleaming far too white teeth, there was some strange sense of congeniality that sparked across the room, giving hints of a deep warmth and lifelong satisfaction hidden beneath the roughened burlap exterior.
Despite his smiles, the old man was not a patient patient. From the moment he was led back to the examination room he was checking his watch. The nurse warned the doctor of the old man’s impatient nature, so he was prepared enough to answer the old man’s demand of what the hell took him so long with his most professional greeting. This seemed to calm the old man somewhat, though not enough to get him to quit constantly checking his watch. Though curious, the doctor kept his queries to himself, knowing that when given time, most mysteries tend to result in solutions. His patience was rewarded, for as he examined the old man, prodding him with this and that and asking him to shift himself as needed, the grumbles were replaced by a placating tone mentioning that he had an important appointment he needed to get to at 9 o’clock.
The doctor of course politely nodded and kept about his business, again knowing that silence tends to produce more answers than questions. The old man of course did his part. He was supposed to have breakfast with his wife at the nursing home across the street. Indeed, he said with a great amount of pride in his crackling voice, every day at nine o’clock he always came to the nursing home to eat with his wife. The doctor nodded knowingly, but inside he was bursting with curiosity. Finally, as the old man was putting back on his shirt, he let the question escape his lips. What was his wife’s condition?
The old man frowned and looked at the poster showing the respiratory system on the wall. When he looked back the doctor noticed a tear on the edge of falling. Alzheimer’s was the answer, his wife hadn’t known his face in over a year. The doctor sat there, staring dumbly as the old man prepared to leave. The doctor, a lifelong bachelor, could not help letting his last question escape. Why did he keep coming back if his wife had no idea who he was? The old man smiled, though his eyes never lost their watery gleam. Because he still knew who she was.
The old man left to get to his daily breakfast appointment. The doctor sat alone in the examination room, unable to move until the nurse came in and told him patients were waiting. It was the first time in his career that the doctor failed to be on time.
Of course things began to change when the old man came back the following Monday, still grumbling about the time and completely unaware that his annual checkup had already been done the week before. The doctor quickly diagnosed him with early onset dementia, a diagnosis that shook the old man to his core. The doctor, in his gentle bedside way, tried to discern a next of kin, but in this the old man was less than helpful. A search through his records proved to be just as fruitless, so after sending the old man home, the doctor went across the street to enquire about the old man’s wife, in the hope that her records were more complete.
The lady behind the front desk was a friendly sort, especially when it came to dealing with good looking doctors who didn’t wear wedding rings. However, her flirtatious manner was quickly replaced by concerned confusion when the doctor mentioned the reason of his visit. She’s dead was the receptionist’s curt reply at the mention of the name. She’s been dead over six months now. The doctor didn’t know how to take this news, so he leaned down and rested his arms on the front desk. In response, the receptionist rose partly out of her seat, sticking her butt out a bit in case the doctor noticed, and reached up to place her ringless fingers on his hand. With a sweet voice, she asked whatever could be the matter?
The doctor, rising back to a standing position, pulling his hand away in the process, eliciting a quick disappointed look from the receptionist, explained the story told to him by the old man. The receptionist gave out a short laugh, more a bray than a laugh, which only accentuated her horse like features. The doctor was shocked by such a display, but the receptionist quickly calmed herself enough to explain. The old man did still come in every day to eat breakfast with his wife, but the woman he thought to be his wife was not truly his wife, but just another woman with Alzheimer’s. The old man had seemed happy enough with the situation, and the old woman never had any visitors otherwise, so the nursing home staff had just gone along with it.
The doctor left the reception area immediately after this revelation, never once asking for the receptionist’s phone number as she had hoped. As he crossed the street he went over everything in his head, trying to put together a puzzle, but finding himself wanting for a missing piece that would make everything perfectly clear. It all bothered him more than anything ever had before.
Of course he shouldn’t have let any of it bother him at all. After all, it wasn’t like he was even a real doctor. He knew no more about medicine than any other random fool on the street, just hints from his own visits to doctors and a wealth of nomenclature gleaned from years of watching medical dramas. This in and of itself might have been of concern if ever discovered by the hospital or one of his patients, but there was no reason to be concerned. Not only was the doctor not a real doctor, he wasn’t even a real person. He was a non-entity, a non-existent image so flimsy that it could be blown apart by an ill timed breath. The doctor hung there in the air, surrounded by a darkness so complete that it seemed to stifle even thought. Perhaps if he was real he might wonder about his predicament. Perhaps then he could realize the true state of his reality as nothing but the figment of an old lady’s fractured imagination. An old lady with Alzheimer’s laying alone day after day in a nursing home.
Such a revelation would probably bring up all sorts of questions for the doctor, at least they would if he was real. But of course sometimes it’s better not to dig into things too much, because sometimes the illusion is better than nothing at all.
S.W. Campbell was born in Eastern Oregon. He currently resides in Portland where he works as an economist and lives with a house plant named Morton. He has had over forty short stories published in various literary reviews in three countries, including Tin House, the Bellevue Literary Review, Entropy, and BlazeVOX. If you’d like to read more of his writing, check out his website: http://www.shawnwcampbell.com.
I saw you at the bus shelter and for an instant I couldn’t breathe. You said
Oh… Um, hi.
I wasn’t… I wasn’t expecting to see you. Here, I mean. I wasn’t expecting that.
You took my umbrella from me and shook it out. Closed it carefully. Gave it back to me handle first, your fist around the wet part. Dripping on your shoes.
Did you move…?
Yes. Last week. Up the street? Near the bakery.
Then a silence that felt like drowning.
No, no, you go ahead.
Sorry. This is awkward. Not bad or anything. Just… awkward.
I saw your ring, a thin gold band that almost covered the dent around your finger.
Yes. We bought the house together after the wedding.
I nodded. Looked down at my own hand before I could stop myself.
Not married. But we own the house. Bought it together.
You smiled but it didn’t reach your eyes. Just a tilt of mouth corners and a collection of wrinkles.
I couldn’t stay anymore. I just couldn’t.
It wasn’t you—
You let out a breath you didn’t realize you were holding. A trail of steam that disappeared.
I carry it around with me all the time. I wanted it to stop. Even a little. Just stop.
It never does. It just… you kind of forget for a bit is all.
A passing car hit a puddle, spraying water against the shelter window. We watched it drip down the glass. I said
You had to go. I get it now. I do.
But I left you. Alone, I mean. And then I couldn’t be alone.
I’m not mad. I didn’t have any room left to be mad.
I reached out to touch your arm and you let me. You said
I look back sometimes—
It’s OK. I promise, really. It’s OK.
And it was. I could see you believed me. Believed beyond the words and down into the space that haunts you. Haunts us. You said
So, have you had any, um… did you…?
No, no kids.
Me either. No kids. No.
I rocked on my heels. You rummaged through your pockets.
Does your wife—?
No. I mean, we talked about it. But she, uh, understands.
I thought you wouldn’t say more, but you said
Once she brought home this—like a little hat?
A small one. Knit. A baby hat. It was green, I think. She had, um, tears in her eyes.
She said she couldn’t resist. Like a puppy, I guess. Or maybe more like an empty leash.
You met my eyes and knew. You knew that I knew. You said
Sometimes it’s the smallest thing.
Yes. I saw a crow on the grass soon after. Just sitting there, digging. Remember?
She thought she could find worms, too.
I held back tears, a practice I’d almost perfected. You said
I often think about that song. You know, with the rabbit?
With the hand gestures. Hopping. Like this.
In a cabin in the woods!
A little old man at the window stood.
Saw a rabbit hopping by—
Knocking at my door.
Help me, help me the rabbit said…
And it hit me and I gasped, and you looked panicked, and we stood for a moment with our hot, shattered breath fogging the windows. I wanted a hole to open up. I wanted to dig my way away. You said
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. What was I thinking?
It’s always there. You think you’re OK, and then you’re not.
The rain fell harder. Drops angling into the shelter, bouncing off your shoes. I said
I’ve been dreaming a lot lately. The cottage, our car. That vacation we took to the beach.
That was good. It was fun.
Except in my dream the water is black. It’s not night or anything. The water’s like ink.
And she’s way out in the waves. But my feet are stuck in the sand. Not even deep. Just stuck.
Your pause was long, far away.
Some days it plays on a loop. It never stops starting over.
I traced a circle in the foggy window, round and round and round. I said
Sometimes I can feel her. The sleeve of her sweater. It was red, with little ducks on it. Your mother made it, I think.
With the big round buttons down the front.
It was so wet from the water. Wet wool, with that smell.
Like a barn. A lamb in the rain. You said
You didn’t mean to—
It was just a minute. I just stepped inside…
I was standing in a puddle now. Water pooling around my boots. You said
It wasn’t your fault. You know that?
I wouldn’t have blamed you if you blamed me.
No. How could I? How can I?
I plucked at my sleeve. Pulled a loose thread through the stitching until it came free.
I picked her up and she was so heavy. So heavy.
She’d been so light.
I reached for her and grabbed her sweater instead. Now it’s sewn into my own skin. The wet wool of it. It just keeps slipping away.
You stepped forward and for a moment I felt it again. The sphere of us. Our loop. A circle that, for a while, had been perfectly complete.
You were a good mom. I knew it. I’ll always know.
Your bus pulled to the curb, then, scattering puddles in an arc. Breaking the surface. You said
It’s still pouring out there. That rain’s pretty unforgiving.
Then you stepped onto the bus and paid your fare. Made your way to a seat by the window and didn’t look back.
And I said—
to the years that had sat between us, the ache that split everything, the weight that had held us underwater for so long, so long—
Oh, I don’t know. I think it’s finally letting up.
Tina Wayland is a freelance copywriter by day and a fiction writer when the stars align. She has had pieces published in such spaces as The Foundling Review, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, carte blanche, and Every Day Fiction. When she’s not trying to hold down the fort, she can be found in some corner of the world or other, probably eating something new.
People get a kick out of Miss Mochi Cakes getting a kick out of food. She sits on the deck, legs dangling. Squeezing a slippery mango, carroty juices trickle down her thighs. Resembling Octopus brains – so Miss Mochi Cakes surmises without any Cephalopoda expertise – the slick flesh will make spines tingle. Miss Mochi Cakes has power over those craving her mango sucking. She slurps forbidden fruit like a babe sups mother’s milk.
Miss Mochi Cakes washes off the gummy syrup. No one would know she wasn’t in the Caribbean; she’s in close-up with a potted palm on her friend’s boat in Hackney. Miss Mochi Cakes posts today’s mango fest on her Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response videoblog. Grown men will whimper, recalling their mothers coring peaches, husking sweetcorn, scooping ice cream.
Known as Miss Mochi Cakes, the siren of stimulation is Maggie in real life. A hint of Japanese exotica helps sell foodie-licious dreams.
Miss Mochi Cakes is a serious ASMR artist. Scrolling through comments from her 9.73 million fans, she revels in praise for scraping avocadoes from skins and whirling spiralised courgettes.
Yet, there’s one unhappy customer.
Magneto Man – once an ardent disciple – whines disapproval.
At first, Miss Mochi Cakes deflates like a Victoria sponge let down by baking powder past its sell-by date. Then, she fights back.
‘Okay, buddy,’ Miss Mochi Cakes announces. ‘I’ll give you livery and lathery. Squidgy and squashy. I’ll touch every one of your nerve endings.’
* * *
Maggie/Miss Mochi Cakes spoons soup into the stroke-slackened mouth of her mother, who’s in the flat’s only bedroom. Maggie sleeps on a futon in the kitchen, bringing her closer to invented Japanese roots. It’s not cultural appropriation, she reasons. It’s good marketing.
Her mother’s distressed. Maggie feels guilt that she doesn’t understand, and anger her mother doesn’t understand her either.
An orderly person, Maggie’s mom hates spillage. Maggie steers broth between her mother’s gums, but liquid trembles down her chin. ‘Hey, Mum, it’s okay if you dribble.’
* * *
When Maggie was young, she had food reveries, forking mashed potato into Close Encounters of the Third Kind piles. Sucking spaghetti fervently, smattering tomato sauce over the walls.
Her mother reprimanded her. ‘Don’t play with your food. And use your serviette.’ It was always serviette; Maggie’s mum reckoned it sounded posher than napkin.
Maggie’s preoccupation with food sculpture meant work as a photoshoot stylist, until she was fired for being too messy. Tablescaping was the next failed venture. ‘In your hands it’s table-trashing,’ declared the boss sacking her. Things finally came good with Maggie’s quirky ASMR films.
She wishes her father could witness her success. He laughed when she mucked about with food. But his sense of humour evaporated the day he left to attend a conference, from which he never returned. Like Magneto Man, she tries to put him out of her mind.
* * *
Despite Maggie’s mother’s presence and 10 million staunch followers, she’s lonely. The only person she sees regularly is Ocado delivery man Steve. She calls him Mr Substitution, because he brings lemon toilet cleaner instead of fresh lemons.
‘Today, it’s a stuffed chicken toy instead of a roast chicken with stuffing,’ he says.
‘Shall I tear it open and do crazy things with the stuffing?’ She realises this could offer Magneto Man something new to hate.
‘Keep the fluffy chicken. It might cheer up your mom.’
Steve’s a good guy. Along with lugging grocery orders up five flights, he helps Maggie with technical problems when she’s recording. He even regularly says hello to her mother.
‘What’s the dish of the day?’ he asks.
‘I’m going East European,’ she explains, hoping to regain Magneto Man’s adoration.
She presses on with perogies – dumplings stuffed with cheese and mashed potato. Glistening in butter, topped off with lardons and sour cream.
Steve polishes off two helpings before descending the graffitied staircase to his van.
Magneto Man isn’t as accommodating. ‘It’s nul points from me,’ he taunts, channelling his inner Eurovision Song Contest judge.
* * *
Miss Mochi Cakes goes into a frenzy creating Choucroute Garnie, apple strudel and American pancakes drenched in Quebecois maple syrup. Salmon en croute, lamb tagine with fragrant couscous, and pistachio macarons. Herb sauces pour lasciviously from on high, hollandaise smothers perfectly cooked eggs.
A week of world cuisine for blogs that Magneto Man disregards, his comments becoming more hostile.
‘Miss Mochi Cakes, you’re a washed-up cow.’
She’s so exhausted at the end of the ethnic blog sequence, she collapses next to her mother’s bed. Lacking energy to crawl onto her futon.
* * *
The next day, Steve arrives with items Maggie doesn’t recall ordering.
‘Time to rediscover the magic of ingredients,’ Steve suggests.
He places an egg in the palm of her hand. Its fragility touches her. She feels the reassuring weight of a potato. Rings of an onion bring a mathematical joy she’s lost in her ASMR fog.
Steve slices a fresh baguette, butters it and layers French jambon inside.
Maggie starts to switch on the camera. Steve grabs her arm. ‘Don’t record anything. Don’t make food crackle, scratch or ooze. Just taste it.’
Maggie bites the perfect collation: salty butter combines with pickle in the best ham sandwich she’s ever had.
‘Not bad for a trainee chef, eh?’ Steve divulges that he’s studying at Leiths School of Food and Wine. ‘How about we make food that people can actually eat.’
He greets Maggie’s mother from the bedroom door. ‘All right then, Mrs Mochi?’
Maggie’s mother smiles crookedly. She’s always happy to see Mr Substitution.
Her mother chokes in a small voice. ‘Take her out.’
Steve clutches Maggie’s hand and steers her away from the apartment.
Away from Miss Mochi Cakes’ food cornucopias.
Away from taunts from Magneto Man, who will soon be chucked off social media after he’s outed by other women he’s hounded, too.
Away from trying to please invisible ghosts in her life.
Maggie smiles, licking a blob of butter off her finger.
‘Manners, Maggie. Always remember your manners,’ Steve gently chides.
Cheryl Markosky’s a Canadian-born journalist of Italian/Polish origin, splitting her time between the UK and Caribbean island of Nevis. She’s written for various newspapers and magazines, and ghost-written two books. New to the world of flash fiction, she’s been attending workshops run by Jude Higgins, Nancy Stohlman and Retreat West.
Managers have to deal with many challenging scenarios as part of their role, from having difficult conversations about poor performance, to making someone redundant, to explaining to a team member that they have an unfortunate body odour. But for many, perhaps the most uncomfortable scenario of all is when you come across someone in floods of tears at their desk, or bump into them as they run sobbing for the nearest loo.
At such moments, panic is a natural first reaction, but as a leader and agent of change within your organisation, you know that people will look to you to set a constructive and respectful example. Fortunately, although the terrain ahead of you may be fraught with risk, others have successfully navigated it before you. Use the following set of best practices to formulate and implement the appropriate response…
1. Create a safe space
If someone is already feeling upset and anxious, the last thing they need is someone around them – especially a manager or leader – who looks awkward and unsure about what to do. And of course the last thing you want to do is to make the crying party feel any more uncomfortable than they doubtless already do.
So if you do see someone crying at work, the first question to ask yourself has to be: Can I get away from the scene without anybody realising I was ever here? Take a good look around, and if you haven’t been spotted by anyone, Get the fuck away fast.
How do you avoid being seen? Well, crying often happens quite late in the day, when perhaps the majority of people have already gone home. You might hear some quiet sobs emanating from a workstation, for example. Hearing before seeing is always useful, because in such situations it is often quite possible to walk very fast past the workstation and make it look like you are very distracted, or in a big hurry, or dreamily listening to something through your hastily applied earbuds.
Act as if you have heard nothing, perhaps emitting as you go a light airy whistle or engaging in some modest rhythmic tapping on your thighs, as if in time to some private melody that only you can hear. (A stretch target here would be to actually sing out loud in a way that might be construed as slightly embarrassing to you if overheard; the beauty of this move is that others will now be trying to avoid being noticed by you, in order to spare your strategic meta-blushes.)
Sometimes you might hear someone crying in a cubicle in the loo. Best to leave as quickly as you can, and go and complete your business on another floor. You can rarely be held accountable in such a scenario (unless you have an incredibly distinctive footstep) (or micturation style).
2. Practise active listening
There may be some occasions, however, where taking positive steps to avoid the situation altogether will not be the appropriate strategy. Much will depend on the context, of course, but the occasions we mean will all have one thing in common: you’ve been spotted. This scenario takes two basic forms: (a) where the crier has spotted you; and (b) where someone else has. A combination of (a) and (b) is also possible.
Now (a) might not seem such an issue. The crying person is in distress, you might reason, and will be too preoccupied to even remember your presence, especially if you slip away really sharpish. Not so. Remember you are a manager, and as such you are likely to enjoy a certain profile within your organisation; you are not, therefore, the sort of person who can pass unnoticed in your building. (See our guide, How to elevate your personal brand while appearing to be above such things.) Even if the crier overlooks you in the heat of their upset, there is a good chance that they will eventually recall that you were there. And if you fail to deliver any sort of compassionate or humane response, they are sure to tell others about it.
Scenario (b) is not ideal either, and for pretty much the same reasons. It would be just as damaging for a colleague or member of your team to notice that you observed the distressed person but failed to go to their aid – or even worse, to be spotted trying to sneak away.
In either of these cases, then, failure to act will see you marked down as callous, unfeeling, inadequate. The fact that there may be some justice in these epithets is of no value to you career-wise at this point. Indeed the whole point of the management track to which you have dedicated yourself it to maximise the virtues of your sociopathic tendencies without ever being penalised for the vices.
So don’t run. Don’t look embarrassed. Stand your ground. Understand that this is now a situation in which you will need to be seen to respond in some way. We’re very sorry, but there it is. Fear not, however: it needn’t be as bad as it sounds, and there are ways to turn this nightmare to your advantage.
3. Achieve through others
A powerful tactic in the event of being stuck next to a sniveller and having to pretend that you either care or know what to do is to find someone else to delegate the issue to.
Every workplace has an unofficial mother; this fact has been indisputable since the dawn of office time. Simply locate the appropriate person – it’s usually the office manager or the boss’ PA – and say in a quiet tone that conveys discretion, compassion and a panoply of as-yet-undefined finer feelings, ‘I think Jess is a bit upset; would you mind having a word? You’re so good at these things…’
Believe it or not (and we suspect not), there are some people in the world of work who actually get off on offering help, and they will be only too happy to volunteer. Indeed, their need to be useful and performatively compassionate in such scenarios is pretty much proportionate to your need to avoid the whole thing at all costs.
In the absence of such a Mother figure, it may be that the co-worker is known to be close friends with another co-worker. In which case, you might say to a bystanding minion in those same subtle, grown-up tones: ‘Go and get Caroline – tell her that Samira is really upset!’ The fact that you know Caroline is Samira’s best friend will score you emotional intelligence brownie points with anyone who witnesses this exchange; they will not need to know that Samira just whispered Caroline’s name to you through her tears.
4. Stay mindful and attentive
Let us turn now to the nuclear scenario, where you have not been able either to absent yourself from the incident without being noticed or to find anybody else to assume the burden of care. This is going to be one of those character-building moments that you will look back on one day as a defining milestone on your success journey. Fake compassion? Of course you can. Fuck it, you’ve faked everything else.
Sit near the offending party, but not too near. About half a dead body away. Say something pleadingly, self-evidently pointless such as, ‘Are you okay Maggie?’ (You’ll notice that most of our examples involve women; it’s usually them doing the crying). Do not on any account touch the offending party. Do make a modest amount of eye contact; 1-2 seconds every five excruciating minutes should be enough. Not that you want to be in there longer than five minutes: your key priorities here are to look and sound the part – and to get the fuck out of there as fast as you can.
Do not inquire after the cause of the upset. Do just look like you’re listening; simply saying nothing and not running away is a surprisingly effective tactic to apply to the emotionally incontinent, who will assume that you are actually thinking about them, rather than, say, mentally weighing up the pros and cons of that new Lexus hybrid, or crafting the opening lines of your witty but insightful turn at the upcoming Away Day. Do look down at the floor every so often. Do not manifest any signs of impatience. Do add in another pointless question every so often. Would you like some tissues? Can I get you some more water? Or tea?
Indeed, fetching liquid or tissues can be a game-changer: you can string this errand out for several minutes, and in so doing there’s always the chance that you’ll run into someone to whom you can delegate this whole nightmare. Indeed, you should see this as an important developmental challenge: if by the time you return to the scene you are still on the hook for its resolution, then you will have to ask some serious questions of yourself as to your leadership potential.
5. Lead by example
So you’re still stuck there, in consolation mode. The least you can do is extract maximum value from the situation in terms of profile raising and personal brand elevation. Necessity is the mother of invention, of course, but tedium and contempt are pretty cool too.
So here’s how it goes. Soon the crier will be feeling as embarrassed as you are (not showing yourself to be) by all the fuss, and will be keen to reassure you that your presence is no longer required. Are you absolutely sure? you’ll say. Is there anything else I can do? Of course there isn’t – but you asked and you have stayed to the end, and that’s the main thing.
In the absence of getting someone else to take over, getting the crier to dismiss you from the scene is the ultimate win. You have seen it through, you have brought the issue to a resolution. You were there for them, and it looks like you fucking care. Just make sure others have noticed.
6. Learn from the experience
The last question to consider is also the most important. Can you in any way, shape or form be construed as being in some way responsible for this crying? As you move through the stages of evasion, buck-passing and fake consolation, a series of key questions will no doubt have been running through your mind.
Is there any chance that you could be the actual cause of the outburst? Did you perhaps deliver to the crying person some very robust and perhaps slightly-too-personal feedback in front of every single other member of the team, perhaps failing to stop shouting even when they began sniffling and picking at a piece of skin on their arm in a way that another might have interpreted as extreme discomfort?
Did you berate them in a brutally intemperate email for a tiny error in a report, a report which they had just spent half the night putting together, so missing their child’s first school concert, because you didn’t get your feedback to them in time? Or did you perhaps, as you begin to dimly remember now, get all cheesy and gropey with them in the pub the night before, and their miserable hungover feeling is confused by the fact that they know they really ought to tell someone about your behaviour, especially in this day and age, they owe it to others too, but you are their line manager and generally considered to be a favourite of the all-male senior management team and they really like their job (apart from the shouting and the emails and all-nighters) and they really want to get on here, and they’ve heard that other complaints have fallen on deaf ears, so it’s all very complicated?
These are just hypotheticals, of course. Remember the old management adage: ‘There’s no ‘I’ in teamwork’? Sadly, all too true. But the good news is that there are two ‘I’s in impunity – and fully five in ‘plausible deniability’.
The young man sits on the sofa in yesterday’s clothes with the blind drawn and his energy drink untouched, smoking his first cigarette of the day, another one lined up ready to go. There are crumbs on the carpet, but he doesn’t notice. Sunlight filters in at the edges of the drawn blind. If his mother were still alive she’d tell him to get out and enjoy the lovely day. ‘Life will be over before you know it. So make the most of it, darling.’ There’s a photo of her on the mantelpiece, smiling. And sometimes he thinks she’s smiling at him.
* * *
The young woman stands under a shower in her shiny white bathroom and soaps herself all over although nothing has happened to get her dirty since last night’s shower. Still, restless agitation and little sleep produces sweat. This morning she’ll wear a clean tee shirt and a fresh pair of jogging bottoms although, as usual, she won’t go jogging. The cur-tains aren’t quite drawn and sun shines on that picture of her and her dad at the seaside, not long before he died. Both of them are smiling real smiles at each other, not at the cam-era.
* * *
I’d like to think something will happen to make these two meet. They live only streets apart, they are about the same age. They’re sad rather than deeply melancholic. Both par-ents died nearly one year ago. Even though the man is scruffy and a smoker, people al-ways smile at him when he speaks. Even though the woman mostly looks solemn and strained, her face lights up and she laughs if she’s teased.
* * *
We have to get them outside.
* * *
What if their parents died the same day and they meet in the woodland burial ground on the first anniversary, say hello and wish they’d said more?
What if a few days later it’s the end of the world? — the very last day — the man remem-bers what his mother said and runs to the Spa, to hug the beautiful woman he saw at the woodland burial ground, who most days waits outside the shop before it opens.
* * *
What if she has heard the news too and sprints along to the Spa hoping to meet that man she met in the burial ground when she put flowers on the young ash tree she planted for her mother?
* * *
What if she sees him outside the shop, holding out his arms, and what if she hugs him tight, laughing through her tears?
* * *
And what if they live happily ever after, even though ever after is only ten minutes?
Jude Higgins is a writer, writing tutor and writing events organiser. Her chapbook, The Chemist’s House was published by V. Press in 2017. She has been widely published in literary magazines and anthologies. She runs Bath Flash Fiction Award, directs Flash Fiction Festivals, UK and the small award winning press, Ad Hoc Fiction.
Maddie told me the woman has expensive tastes in clothes and booze, so after vacuuming the living room I go into the kitchen. Opening the liquor cabinet, I am dazzled by dozens of bottles. Squat, tall, round, square. Brown, blue, clear. I never knew there were so many kinds of alcohol. My parents only drink wine at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“Bet you won’t touch anything, especially not the booze.” Maddie laughed when she asked me to cover for her. “You’re too scared of getting caught.” Her dare followed me throughout the day. Looking up from my French test, I met Maddie’s scornful smile.
Alone now in this stranger’s house, I splash amber liquid into a shot glass. Burning almond. I check the bottle. The level has barely moved. The woman won’t notice. I lick my lips.
I open the bedroom closet to inspect the dresses Maddie says she wears as she cleans. Running my fingers over the soft fabric, I picture Maddie stepping out of her clothes, standing naked in front of the mirror.
Maddie says Jerry usually comes with her after school. “We fuck in her bed all the time. We’re careful.”
I see him pressed behind her, hands on her slim hips. Filled with tipsy bravado, I remove a silk slip from its hanger, laying it on the bed. Unzipping my jeans, I lie on the slip, rubbing myself with the cloth, picturing Jerry’s naked butt, his muscular back. I pinch a nipple, imagine Jerry deep inside me. I float back to the kitchen. The clear alcohol burns, so I try another. A sweet cherry flavored liquor. Too much like cough syrup. I pour it out, watching the dark liquid stain white enamel. I should rinse the sink, the glass. But I want Maddie to know I’m not the goody two-shoes from Mrs. Albright’s math class. For the first time I think about the woman who lives here. I can’t picture her in the house, but I can imagine her on the phone in an office high up in a skyscraper, only coming home to change clothes before going out on the town.
Mom will wonder why I’m coming home from school so late. I’ll tell her we had a sub last period, some old man who made us stay after the bell because we were too loud and disruptive. She thinks I’m her golden girl. Pure. Obedient.
Running my hands over the slip one last time, I notice a wet spot. I laugh and step back to the kitchen. The glass sits on the counter next to the bottle. One more for the road. I lift it to my lips as a car pulls up in front. Glass in hand, I slip out the back door.
Later as I undress for bed, the shot glass falls out of my pocket. I pick it off the floor, my fingers sticky with sweet residue. I can’t wait to see Maddie at school tomorrow.
Phebe Jewell’s recent flash appears in After the Pause, Sky Island Journal, Literally Stories, and Door Is a Jar. A teacher at Seattle Central College, she also volunteers for the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a nonprofit providing college courses for women in prison. Read more of her work at https://phebejewellwrites.com
Even when Gregory’s Mum started finding his bed wet in the mornings, he couldn’t tell her about the Cloud. Or Jimmy.
What could he say? Mum, there is a Cloud in my pants pocket and Jimmy’s been tormenting me? Nope, he couldn’t tell her. But he never lied to her. So he only told her he was sorry, which was true.
The first few times she was calm and reassuring. This will pass, she said. It is just a phase. After a few weeks, she wouldn’t say anything to him; just quickly stripped off his pajamas and bedding to start the washer as soon as possible. He knew this meant she was worried but didn’t know what he could do. Telling her was not an option.
To tell her, he first needed to know what was happening. He didn’t know. He had found this…wispy mass…next to him one morning. Or maybe it was in the afternoon. He wasn’t sure. But it was certainly after the first time Jimmy had called him weird at recess in front of everyone.
The wispy mass had disintegrated when he had flapped at it. That was that, he had thought. But when he looked up from his book, there it was again. So he took it outside and left it in the garden. Some time later, he noticed it floating near his window. He took it out again and furtively buried it in his old sandbox. The Cloud was hovering on his bed when he came to his room after dinner.
He only briefly wondered how it was like this, why it was here, what it was. His mind was focussed on how he would keep his Cloud safe. It clearly wanted to stay close to Gregory. His pocket seemed the obvious answer as he could keep it hidden from his mother and everyone else. Especially Jimmy. Handy dandy, he thought, though, for what, he had no idea. A Cloud and secrets – the first time he had both.
Over the next few days, whenever he was alone, resting, or sleeping, he would take it out to examine it. The Cloud was soft, silky, and practically weightless between his fingers; floating, almost transparent. Like the cotton candy his Dad had insisted he try at the carnival last spring. Just not pink. It wasn’t even as white as it had first appeared. There was a hint of grey at the edges.
With the bedwetting, he struggled with finding a place to keep the Cloud away from his person. He tried several – the tabletop, his bookshelf, a wooden box, an empty jar, an empty jar with a lid, his top drawer, his middle drawer. Somehow it was always back in his bed by morning, and everything would be damp. He didn’t like it and he especially didn’t like burdening his Mum but what could he do? And anyway, he was more than occupied with Jimmy.
Like the Cloud floating into his life, Jimmy had suddenly developed a keen interest in everything Gregory – his scruffy shoes, his almost worn-out shirts, his lunchbox from last year, his teeth that were just a tad too big for his mouth, and even how he pronounced some words at Reading Aloud time in class.
During almost every recess, Gregory would hear his words and the raucous laughter that usually followed them. He would look at the gleeful, taunting faces. And he would turn around and quietly shuffle away, willing his jelly legs to keep steady even as his chest would feel tight. And he would sit hidden among the trees at the edge of the playground, his back to the rest of them and only the sound of woodland insects to keep him company.
And of course, his Cloud – which he would take out at these times to see it all ashen and quivering…angrily? He didn’t know. But Gregory realised that every time, his Cloud would be darker and trembling more intensely, and he felt an odd fear that the fragile little Cloud might explode.
The day Jimmy mentioned his Dad, Gregory really thought it would burst. His own blood was pounding in his ears as his pocket vibrated urgently. He was sure his Cloud would be pitch black if he looked at it. His rage fuelled him enough to stomp away to his headteacher and ask to go home as he was unwell. Right away. He refused to say anything else.
It took some time till he was in the car with Mum, strapped in, safe, and only then he finally spoke. He told her he missed Dad. He told her all about Jimmy and the peals of laughter he heard even in his dreams. He told her everything that had been happening, except about his Cloud. That was still something he couldn’t explain.
And as he spoke, he felt it calm down, felt the knot in his chest loosen. He didn’t mind the snot and the tears mingling on his face nor how hoarse his voice had gotten. This was Mum and now she knew everything. Almost.
As they drove home and she promised to help straighten things out at school, Gregory felt he was floating on a cloud and knew his Mum wouldn’t have to wash any bedding tomorrow morning.
A full-time mum, part-time student, and occasional writer, Madiha Ahmed is a pakistani who lives in New Zealand with her husband and daughter, as she dreams about sleeping and writing. She tweets at @Madiha_Ah.
In the Black Garden, the night flowers bloomed. The ghost roses filled empty eye sockets with pale petals, while the tiny blue-eyed snowdrops pushed through the spaces between the ribs.
The dead man’s bones were laid across the flower bed, loosely assembled in the right order. The Gardener knelt by him and inspected the pretty little plants that grew from his memories.
Antolin. The man’s family had called him Antolin. He’d been dead a long time, well over a century according to some great-great-grand niece, and was buried in an insanely large tomb on his insanely large grounds near the Purple Hills, in the shadow of his insanely large mansion. The century after his death was filled with nothing but bitter fighting between his heirs. They fought over lands, houses, jewels, and other tawdry things the Gardener had no interest in.
She told Antolin’s family as much, when they dug up his bones and brought them to her. They prattled on endlessly about needing to know his dying intentions, or the identity of his true heir, but she cut them short. “All I care about is divining the secrets from the flowers,” she’d said with solemn intonation. “All else is a mere distraction. But I will tell you what I learn.”
Some weeks had passed since then, though the Gardener could only tell by the size of the roses. Her plot was a small, cold, dark little place, hidden from the sun in the heart of the City of Light. The Black Garden could not thrive in sunlight; sunlight was anathema to the night flowers, which fed and grew on secrets.
“You’ve rather taken to poor Antolin, haven’t you?” She told one of the roses. Its stem had wrapped tightly around the bones of his neck, digging its thorns into the vertebrae and leaving long circular scratches. “What new tidbits have you found for me?”
Different night flowers thrived on different parts of the body. The black petunias massed around the knees and wrists, feeding on the traumas of old injuries. The sickly dusk daisies, meanwhile, bloomed within the chest, around the heart, and showed the Gardener such vivid non-pictures of brilliant dark colours and heart-breaking shadows. But it was the ghost roses that spoke the clearest secrets, growing around the spine and the skull and the memory of the brainstem. The opaque petals glimmered like the oily sheen over the City’s canals, and – to the Gardener, at least – appeared to see more than Antolin’s eyes likely ever did.
Gently, she cupped the rose’s head in her hand, careful not to scratch herself on the thorns again. It tingled in her palm, as though it emitted a gentle but searing heat, stripping away the layers of her skin one-by-one. The pink-grey veins of the petals seemed to merge with the veins of the Gardener’s hand, and Antolin’s memories flowed out of the flower and into her body.
“Show me…” She whispered. The ecstasy of the dead man’s secrets tightened her chest and left breathing a struggle. “Show me…”
The Black Garden fell away, fading, dying like the flame on a spent match. In its place, orange light flooded in, whilst golden-leafed trees seemed to sprout from nowhere.
She was a child, now. Or, rather, he was a child; the line between the Gardener and Antolin had been blurred away as she stepped out of her mind and into his memory.
He was perhaps seven, or eight, small enough for his eyes to level on his mother’s waist. Ah, yes, mother, who stood tall and slender, with long blonde hair that danced in the breeze, falling left then right then left again like the weeping of a willow. Light dappled and refracted from her tumbling curls, casting rainbows and fractals like a sparkling waterfall. Blonde was not the right word for her colouring, Antolin would realise in later life. No, his mother was a warm silver, a soft metal that could be bent by his bare hands.
Mother was standing by one of these Autumn trees, her ocean-blue eyes looking into the bark with intense concentration. With an iron knife, she was carving a love heart into the wood. Was this in the misty woods, the forest of scarlet sentinels that flanked the Purple Hills? Or was it somewhere else, one of the tiny rural villages on the outskirts of the City of Light? Antolin couldn’t recall, the details of his childhood dying like embers.
But he could always remember mother. She was rooted, planted into the earth, the strongest and most enduring tree of all. If he concentrated hard enough, he could almost—
“Ow.” The Black Garden reasserted itself with a flash of pain. The Gardener had scratched herself; one of the rose’s thorns had cut across her knuckle. A tiny, lazy drop of blood seeped down her hand as she pulled away.
It wasn’t the first scratch. Over the years, the Gardener had collected many cuts, scuffs and blisters as she tended to the night flowers. Together, they formed long, winding tracks along her arms and legs, twisting into abstract little patterns. Every day new flowers bloomed from the scratches in her skin, and she looked – in her opinion – ever more beautiful.
A scratch from a night flower was always deadly, though it was a death that could take decades. One tiny break in the skin, the merest chance for the flower to find a memory, and it would begin to feed and grow. They would slowly colonise the body, cannibalise the flesh, until nothing remained except a pile of plant life and reveries. The Gardener had fed an impressive crop on herself now, with ghostly-pale petals sprouting from her shoulders like an angel’s wings. The stems, meanwhile, twisted around her neck, growing a little tighter each day, thorns digging into the flesh.
Whenever she ventured from the Black Garden and walked the streets of the City, people would stare. Their faces were filled with pity, and they’d say things like, “There goes another poor soul, another Gardener lost to her flowers. Soon she’ll be nothing but memories.” But the Gardener didn’t care. Her night flowers were beautiful, her blooming magnificent, and her memories were the memories of hundreds. Her garden, the dark little place hidden from the sun, could be a world.
She stood, and left Antolin’s bones alone. She had other flowers to tend to.
It was his thumb that caught my eye. Hell, if I hadn’t noticed it twitching, I’d a sworn he was a scarecrow. Like a weed this guy just pops up outta nowhere, standing dead still knee-deep in a crop of alfalfa. Being a long hauler, I drive this stretch of Interstate 5 all the time and see my share of hitchhikers tryin’ to bum a ride, and I ignore most of ‘em, but this one was different. This guy acted as if I owed him a ride.
Curious, I tapped on my brakes and slowed to get a better look. Dressed in a dark trench coat, he wore a Van Helsing hat casting a long shadow over him. I couldn’t make out his face—or if he even had one. He looked as if he fell right out of the Apocalypse.
Interstate 5’s Central Valley is flat and straight and has zero entertainment value. Just acre after tedious acre of farmland. If it were winter you could blame all the car mashups on the tule fog, but during the heat of summer, it’s the mind-numbing drive that lulls you to sleep at the wheel. So, to stop you from going insane, or splattering your brains all over the highway, when you see a stray thumbing for a ride you think of only one thing: company.
I slowed onto the shoulder kicking up gravel and rubbernecked my soon-to-be passenger. All I could make out underneath his hat was a scraggly beard. He had a disheveled appearance, or worse, like instead of riding in cars he’d been hit by a few.
Bringing my Peterbilt to a stop I kept reassuring myself he probably just needed a bath and a change of clothes. I opened the cab door and said, “careful of that first step, it’s a doozy.”
His odor preceded him. I reasoned it was because he was standing in a freshly fertilized field. Using the back of my hand, I wiped my eyes and said, “hello.”
He mumbled something and grabbed the door handle. It was almost sunset, but his hands looked discolored or stained with a distinct red hue.
Entering the cab his attention was immediately drawn to my bolt-action Remington mounted behind me.
“Don’t worry, it’s just for looks.”
His dark eyes flashed to mine before homing in on my rifle, salivating.
“C’mon, have a seat. I have an early morning delivery.”
Tight-lipped, the hitchhiker sat down and adjusted his hat further down his forehead. That’s when I got a good look at his hands and my grin disappeared.
Switching on my headlights, I pulled onto the highway and started second-guessing myself. Is this drive so dull, so boring, am I so desperate for someone’s company, that I should pick up any down-and-out who sticks out his thumb on the side of the road? Sadly, I was never one for thinking ahead.
Glancing over, I noticed how the dashboard lights lit his silhouette. An image from an old B-horror movie popped into my head. His eyes seemed to devour whatever light came near them like a black hole. I shook it off and drove.
After several miles stifling the urge to gag, I cranked down my window and let go with a loogie my childhood buddies would’ve been proud of. Like rotten eggs, my gut feeling about the stench coming from the passenger seat left a bad taste in my mouth.
“Where you headed?” I asked, wiping spittle off my chin.
The hitchhiker sat quietly, hypnotized by the white-dotted lines dividing the road.
Trying again, “You hurt yourself? Being a trucker, I get scraped up from time to time.”
A couple of minutes later the hitchhiker slowly tilted his head down, then slightly toward me before rubbing his hands like a major-league pitcher meticulously kneading a baseball. When he finished smearing the dried blood across his palms, he scratched his beard leaving behind several red specks dangling from his whiskers. Staring off into the distance as before, he hid his right hand inside his trench coat.
The miles dragged on in silence, until I said, “my name’s Frank, Frank Beamen,” and nervously offered my hand.
That’s when he turned, and I got the shock of my life. Etched between his eyebrows was a crooked line tattoo of a swastika. I figured he did it in front of a mirror using a dull switchblade. But it was his eyes that spooked me. They looked tired and empty, hollow. Honestly, he gave me the creeps.
“My family, they call me Charlie.” He deadpanned.
I quickly reneged on my handshake and clutched the steering wheel, digging my half-chewed fingernails into the black leather cover. Unfazed, Charlie had already returned his attention to the road, stone-faced. I began sweating. The taste of this evening’s diner chili began creeping up the back of my throat. I swallowed hard trying to chase it back down.
Breathe, Frank, breathe. I stared at the road trying to drive, trying to breathe, but my eyes kept darting over to him. My mind began playing ‘what if’ games. I lost everyone one of them.
When another speeder left me in the dust, I let out an internal cry for help. Pleading for them to stop. Please, help me! I just picked up a hitchhiker and it turns out he’s a lunatic!
Then it hit me. What if this guy’s a whack job? And I had no way of knowing, but what if the psych ward at nearby Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital was one patient short? What if this guy’s their man? I started having wild thoughts of Charlie hiding a knife or machete underneath his trench coat and was ready to gut me like a fish at any moment. What if he was the crazed escapee I read about in the diner’s newspaper? What if?
Then I decided to use the only weapon I had, my gift of gab.
“Where did you say you’re headed again?”
“Me, I’m hauling a full load of almonds down to Westley. Do this every week. I haul other products too, but I always seem to attract nuts. I mean, the folks in Westley really like their nuts. Not me, allergies you know. Anyway, where can I drop you? Next town’s Chesterville. How ‘bout there?”
Or, I thought, may I suggest a trip back to the Bellevue nuthouse? It was all I could do to keep my arms from shaking off the steering wheel.
Charlie didn’t bite. I rambled on for miles, making small talk about trucking and all the interesting folks I meet, hoping he’d come back to reality and opt not to fillet me and leave me for dead on the side of the road.
It was early morning with only the moon and stars lighting up the night when Charlie began fidgeting, moving his hand around inside his trench coat. I held my breath and got ready to slam on the brakes—I wore a seatbelt, he didn’t.
“Have a toke?”
My heart was beating double-time when I was relieved to see a joint he’d it was only a joint. I exhaled and mopped my gray hair sopping with sweat.
“N-No, thanks. If’n I do that, I’ll be saying Hail Mary’s for a week.”
Charlie lit up and took a long drag. He sucked in the smoke and let it settle deep into his lungs. Each time exhaling and filling the cabin with smoke. I thought there’s no need to take a hit, all I have to do is breathe. When he was done, he swallowed the roach and said, “Pull over.”
“But, we’re in the middle of nowhere?”
Charlie turned and sank his eyes deep into mine, “You’re not the one. Pull over. Now.”
I slapped myself for arguing the point. What do I care if he wants to be left out in the middle of nowhere? I made a hurried pit stop onto the dirt shoulder. Charlie opened the door which lit up the cab. Stepping out, his coat opened, exposing a large Buck knife, stained like his hands. It had been recently used.
Charlie took position on the side of the road. Dead still, he stuck out his arm and began twitching his thumb.
I popped the clutch and hit the throttle.
Russell Waterman is an Amazon published author, including his latest, “The Adventures of Dave Diamond,” a short story complication. His fiction has also appeared in Allegory, The Daily Drunk, The Blotter, Literary Yard, Jerry Jazz Musician, Potato Soup Journal and SIA.
She could have been my grandma, but she wasn’t. She was my neighbour who lived on her own. My mother left me with her when she had to run a few errands. My mother used to be gone all afternoon and sometimes, my mother would leave me with my neighbour between the evening news and Sale of the Century.
During the day, I sat beside her on the swing bed and she showed me a picture book and tell me what the story was about because I couldn’t read the words in the book. It was an alphabet I had never seen before. So many picture books and no one to read them to. The pictures would show children playing in the snow, wrapped up in long coats, red scarves and Ushanka hats. Whenever she saw snow on television or in the picture books, she would tell me how much she missed the Motherland.
She never spoke about the children in the filigree frames in between the wooden dolls. When I asked who they were, she walked to the wooden dolls, caressed them as if they were real, and said nothing about those memories in filigree frames.
Sometimes we would make Pastila together. I gathered the apples from her apple tree, then she let me step on a footstool to get the sugar and the eggs from the chicken pen. She made a drink called Mors, and I drank a tall glass with the Pastila.
“More Mors please, Mrs. Maria.”
We both laughed at the tongue twister.
The postman showed her how to use the self-timer on the camera. Once she got the hang of it, we created paper memories.
* * *
My face became spotty. I became very cranky once a month. I found it increasingly difficult to squeeze into school yard cliques. My mother gave me keys, banknotes, shopping lists and cleaning instructions, but I didn’t want to stay home alone. My mother worked until the break of day. She was the hotel receptionist, always there to make her guests happy and satisfied with their stay. Come again soon!
I teased my absent mother, but also attempted conversation when I couldn’t sleep. I rang the hotel.
“No woman by that name here, darling,”
I jumped the fence to Mrs. Maria’s, and we watched the four seasons go by. Watched the trees change colour and babies hatch and take their first flight. We named our feathery friends.
While Mrs. Maria, who became Maria, would sit near me while she read a book, I did my homework. Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vsevolod Garshin were her favourite authors.
One day I noticed the filigree frames were no longer there. The wooden dolls painted in red, green and yellow seemed melancholy, just like Mrs. Maria when she spoke of her Motherland.
We continued to make Pastila together, but I didn’t need the footstool anymore. I could reach ingredients, use the oven and clean up. She would cut extra slices for my mother.
The camera changed. The self-timer was more sophisticated. We would get in position and created even more memories. We filled many take-up spools as if it were urgent.
I watched as people in grey suits walked out of her house one day after school. When I asked who they were, she walked to the wooden dolls and caressed them. This time, she played with them. Placed one inside another and repeated the action three times.
We were so much alike. We both liked the colour red, we both enjoyed reading and cooking, sugary treats and the warmth of eggs minutes after the chickens laid them. We had a disagreement about winter and summer, but I had never known her winters as I had never felt snow melt between my fingers. Objects and animals surrounded us. People were in short supply.
I understood the time together was ending when the doctor opened her blouse and I saw what looked like a speed hump on her chest. Her beautiful heart needed a little help from science. She had no problems loving, but there was an issue with rhythm. Even here, we were alike. I have no rhythm, but I had much love to give. The problem was some people have a no vacancy sign posted on their chest.
The men in the grey suit didn’t win. Nor did her heart. Cancer got the gold medal in the sport: How to kill people—fast. Hearing, I’ve read, is the last thing to go. I tried to fit so many words in. Small talk, mainly. The rain. The train strike. The For Sale sign between the shrub roses and begonias at number 46.
She left me a big box. I found an old Ushanka hat, the wooden dolls that she used to touch whenever she didn’t want to answer a question I had asked. Filigree frames without photos. The Polaroid and the 35mm. Photos tied in red ribbon, a couple stained with Pastila and Mors, photos that showed me getting taller, Maria getting smaller. And then this:
Deer Gran ma,
I luv you.
She wasn’t my grandma, but she could have been.
Isabelle B.L is a teacher and translator currently living in New Caledonia. She has published a novel inspired by the life of a New Caledonian politician. Her work can be found in the Birth Lifespan Vol. 1 anthology for Pure Slush Books and Flash Fiction Magazine. Her work is also forthcoming in Growing Up Lifespan Vol. 2 for Pure Slush Books, Flash Fiction Magazine and Drunk Monkeys.
It was only by accident that he noticed she had gone from hot to cold, as his hand brushed against her skin in bed one morning. It was not the slight coolness that you would expect when ice licked the ground at night but a coldness which seemed to penetrate to her core. He was reminded of when he visited a wishing well whose waters petrified objects. Dozens of ossified teddy bears hung from nooses in the falling water as proof of its potency. He had still been young enough to sleep with a soft toy, too young to understand the desire to give something up in return for its preservation. His mother had plunged her hand into the well for luck and, after touching her chilled skin, which already felt to him like stone, he had refused to hold her hand for the rest of the day. Now, he felt the same mistrust and wondered if it was something in the water. Hadn’t he always told his wife that she spent too long in the shower?
When he tried to bring the subject up, she gave him a stony look.
The alterations in her appearance were gradual: a stiffening that could have been put down to age; a subtle sheen to the skin that could not. Her movements became slow, graceful even, and more and more he caught himself wondering at her beauty – it was still there, underneath the years that had trodden over and under her skin. Where had the years gone? He tried to remember the last time he had looked at her like this, sifting through distant memories which lay buried beyond the years of hard work and the chasm their children had created. Even the old photo albums could not provide him with any clues; once the children made an appearance, the visual evidence of his wife’s existence almost disappeared.
When had it started? When the last child left home? When he retired? Was it neglect? Inactivity? A protective shell? Perhaps, after many years of watching her dreams turn to stone, she had turned her gaze inwards? She did not seem worried, or at least she didn’t say anything to him. But he found himself looking at her more and more and wondered why he had stopped.
It could have been his mind playing tricks, but he suspected not. His friends commented on how well she was looking whenever they caught sight of her. Her skin was not dull, but gleamed and shimmered in the light; her complexion rivalled that of the bonniest baby. He took her to the golf club dinner for the first time in twenty-odd years and she was the belle of the ball. She declined to dance, not through lack of offers, but stood with a stately elegance while he hovered proudly beside her.
There were drawbacks. She now did a fraction of what she used to, leaving the housework to him. He had to learn to cook, although secretly he quite enjoyed it. There was some satisfaction in seeing a handful of raw ingredients become a finished dish, and the smell and sound of an onion sizzling with some garlic gave him a sense of comfort that he vaguely recalled from an earlier life. He anticipated the slow smile he would get when he presented her with something he had laboured over, and wondered whether he had ever given her such thanks in return.
He worried. Was she in any pain? Would she become completely immobile – unable to move around or even eat? Was it something he could catch? He took her to see a doctor, not long after the night he had noticed something amiss, but he couldn’t bring himself to articulate precisely what he thought was wrong and the doctor merely suggested they get someone in to help with the house. He delayed doing so, not really knowing where to look, and by the time he had thought to ask around for a recommendation he had got used to the looks of approval she bestowed upon his handiwork and to having her all to himself. He had to sacrifice reading the morning papers, and curtail his social life but, as the outside world was no longer able to hold his attention, this was no hardship.
The statue of his wife was all he looked at now, every line and crease chiselled so carelessly by himself and the children. It made him cry. He would do anything to turn back time so that he could do better. No sculptor gets it right on their first attempt, but he should have tried harder.
He tried now. Every day he tried with the sacrifices he made, the offerings he left at her feet. And he was rewarded with eyes which tried to smile, lips whose whispered words he couldn’t quite catch, embraces that no longer felt heavy. At night he drew close to keep her warm and listened to her heart beat steadily, louder by the day. It sounded like it was trying to escape. Most nights were spent tracking the rise and fall of her stony chest as though his own life depended on it, as she had done with each of their children.
After a while the husband realised there was no longer any change in his wife’s condition. She seemed to him happier, although he knew that the interpretation of art is always subjective. And when he looked at her now, he wondered whether she had really changed at all: her beauty had always been there if only he had looked; the slow deliberateness of her movements impossible to see until he himself stopped moving; her coldness, understandable. She had solidified into the person she had always been, there was no miracle.
It was he who had been sculpted into someone else, she who had achieved the improbable.
Elizabeth Smith is a full-time mother and occasional writer who lives in Scotland. She has been published in Firewords Magazine and placed third in the Oxford Flash Fiction Prize 2021. When she’s not chasing after her two young children she enjoys reading, running and daydreaming. She tweets @Smithinamillion.