The Summerhouse – Rick White

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

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

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

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

‘Just come in to the kitchen George!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yes I know the feeling.’

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

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

‘Yes my love?’

‘Do you remember my nineteenth birthday?’

‘Not really. Why?’

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

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

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

‘We still chat about nothing in particular.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Image by Khusen Rustamov from Pixabay

Post-Nuclear Glue-sniffers – Rebecca Gransden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was his burden.

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

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

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Image by Anna Owen from Pixabay

Power Outage – Ron. Lavalette

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

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

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

But then,
again, hours later…

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

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Image by Reimund Bertrams from Pixabay

The Breakout – Tomas Marcantonio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nod again, grateful.

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

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

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

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

‘Better. Keep going.’

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

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

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

‘Take your time. Look around you.’

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

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

‘Good. Now get ready.’

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

‘What do you do first?’

Four in, seven out.

‘Good. Next?’

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

‘Eye contact. Look around.’

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

‘How do you know?’

My cheeks are burning.

‘The mirror.’

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

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

No, it’s not.

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

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

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

I close my eyes again.

*      *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Get out your hammer.’

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

‘Get out your hammer.’

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

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

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

‘Break it.’

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

‘Break it!’

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

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

I’m out, free, naked to the world.

‘Go,’ says the voice.

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

‘How do you feel?’

My heart’s racing.

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

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

*      *      *

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

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

‘I have,’ I admit.

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’ll dance,’ I say simply.

He nods. ‘And when doubt comes?’

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

‘Yes. And fear?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Are you ready?’ he asks.

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

 

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

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Image by AI Leino from Pixabay

The Austringer – Emma Devlin

On Monday, I watched the van drive off with the furniture. Yesterday, I sent the bags of her clothes to the charity shops. I’ve already spotted a scarf and a pair of shoes in the shop window and had to look away. I’m waiting to see what I’ll make of someone walking around in a hat or a jacket that was hers. I had to get it out. All of it. Everyone kept asking me, “Are you sure? Are you sure?” and I told them I was.

I came back to the empty house afterwards and found myself dancing. Not for joy. I just thought to myself, here I am alone, finally done, and I can extend this arm this way, and this leg this way, and twirl, spin; unravel in the last flushes of the light like a spool of thread all through the house until the shadows under my eyes and under my arms, behind my elbows, in the arches of my feet get sharp, and I’ll leap, twist, stamp, tick, trip, hop, rond, turn – quickly and then slowly, until my body feels heavy, until my hips are ground out of me, until my lungs burn, and my heart bursts my ears, and only then will I stop. That’s what I thought, and it’s what I did, too. I haven’t danced like that since I was a young woman, leaning on Frances. That’s a keepsake better than anything else.

It was while I was swinging and flailing around so that I heard it thump against the back of the house: a clatter of wings followed by a thick, bodily slap. I stopped a minute to catch my breath, the better to hear past the roar of my own pulse, and tip-toed to the back door. It was about six o’clock at this point, nearly full dark; just a chilly, ringing, torpid kind of blue outside. I had to squint. The cars that stream past the side of our – my – house cast a sickly, yellowish light up the yard and it’s by this that I finally saw it, on its back, feebly beating its wings on the ground. I let the lights go past it a few more times. One: springing grey feathers. Two: a pair of twitching yellow feet and a heaving torso. Three: a manic, rolling head, a pair of glinting eyes, and a smudge of red. And then it shrieked. The sound rose and fell in these great swings of panic, and underneath it all a low, resounding, clutching burr from deep in the centre of its chest.

My breathing was still a bit wobbly, and I huffed for a bit there on the back step before I got closer. The gravel crunched when I walked and the bird froze, but I swear I could feel this pull and push, and pull again, of movement in it. I could see the heart, like a gigantic knot, beating – humming – in its chest.

A hawk. A massive, lunatic hawk.

Frances was good at this, I thought, Frances would have known what to do. I mean, I’ve seen hawks before, flitting over the woods where me and Frances walked. The birds flinging themselves downwards to the fields at some slight movement, some glint, in the grass. Sometimes they were just blue shapes against the band of the reservoir, or a blur of tail-feathers. Then: stately, razoring, sidewinding, making light work of the mornings. Once, Frances found a ring that must have come off a hawk, the metal so scratched and corroded that it had simply one day fallen off, the bird itself probably passed through the woods and gone forever. She stuck it in my pocket, and then I stuck it in the drawer beside the bed. Occasionally I’d run my thumb over the numbers and wonder how light the bird must feel now, with no weight to pull it down, and would it miss a weight like that?

Frances was the one for the birds, is what I’m saying.

But there was just me.

So I said, right, my girl, get stuck in. I went and got my jacket from the hallstand and crept back out to the bird, which was now thrashing on the ground. It kicked out at the sky, driving itself slowly backwards along the grass and I was worried it’d busted a wing or something. So I threw my jacket over it and scooped it up. I think I shocked it because it barely moved. For a second I actually thought, sure, bring him into the house, there’s plenty of room, and I toppled a couple of steps towards the back door under the weight of it.

Don’t you dare, I thought I heard in my head, so I didn’t: I bucked him into the shed, jacket and all.

I wonder what it thought as it lay there? I turned on the old light. It’s the kind that gets everywhere and shows up all the cracks in a room. I watched the bird push itself slowly out of the jacket, upright, alert. What kind of thoughts tripped through its head as it took in my scratched-up shed with its ragged and warped floor, and, then, the dull, dank interior, with its layers of dust? I felt bad watching it, until it alighted its big orange eyes on me. Its head turned this way and that to look at me, and there was a movement coming from the very pit of it that made me wary. One wrong move, I thought, and I’ll get a talon – the point of one, black and shiny, was caught in the jacket and eking out – in the eye or, worse, all of them gripping my scalp as it might grip a rabbit, or a finch, or a mouse.

It was just stunned, I thought, you should have left it alone.

I backed out the door.

“Well,” I said. “Goodnight.” And I flicked off the light.

I didn’t sleep very well. The bed, you see, had been carted off with everything else.

I dreamed that I brought the bird a packet of mince and fed it piece by piece from a spoon, blood and grease dripping all over my poor jacket, until I just stood up and, quite primly, dumped the whole lot over its head.

When I woke up I thought about Frances. I just lay, in the little bed made of my coats and blankets, and thought: mince, teabags, apples, cakes. Her shopping lists. Her handwriting. I always liked her writing: ponderous, immoveable, matter-of-fact letters that were impressed so deeply into the paper it was like they were carved into stone. When I first knew Frances I found myself trying to copy her, even holding my pen the same. I couldn’t do it, of course; my hand was always too keen to jump ahead and even my most careful writing looked like chicken scratch.

It would have been nice, I suppose, to have kept something of hers for when I needed it. I’d thrown it all out because I couldn’t stand it around me. Imagine, the jumpers she’d knitted us, eaten year upon year by moths. Or her cups, her plates, still with a fingerprint here or there, gathering dust. The chairs, the tables, the paintings, the books, the TV, the radio, the sofa, the carpets: all of it was still there and she wasn’t. It made me ridiculous. The one thing I hesitated over were the boxes of things she’d picked up during our walks, but even those went. Frances would take my arm during those walks, pick out something from the ground, the hedges, the trees, and we would walk while Frances talked. We’d go out after the rain. We watched the blackbirds sunbathing, the butterflies in the weeds, the trees rustling crisply in the breeze, until we went home again for tea, apples, cake. Even then, lying in the eerie quiet of the house, I could recall those walks in the woods, with a fresh sun coming out from behind the clouds to warm our damp hair, our hands, our raincoats.

But I hadn’t kept anything.

So I got up.

I drove into town, and then past the town, and out towards the woods. I told myself that I’d park at the foot of the hill, walk for thirty minutes, sit, and come back. I repeated this to myself: drive, walk, sit, back, drive walk, sit, back, drive walk sit back, over and over again – with this weird anticipation, an anxiety, like it’d be terrible not to – until the words didn’t even mean anything anymore. Then I drove past the woods, after all, and into the next town, which I didn’t know so well.

I went around the shops, feeling sort of maladjusted, you know, until I thought about the bird. And I cheered up. I walked sprightly around this little town, this squashed, boxy little town, while I thought about that hawk back at home, brooding in the damp among the plant pots. I’ll admit that it was a lovely thing, now I could see it clearly in my mind’s eye, with its curious quartzy colours and bright, burning eyes. I kept that picture of it in my head while I walked, thinking about it so hard that in the end it felt like we were talking. I told it about Frances, about the house, about the walks, and I even sang it a song, humming to myself down the street – and every time I passed someone I smiled, because they’d never guess what I was thinking, that there was a hawk, and that I’d put it in the shed. Sometimes they’d smile back, mostly not, but I didn’t mind because here I was strolling down Main Street (narrow, spiralling, to-let signs, loading) with the voice of a bird in my head.

Poor thing, sweet thing, I heard.

We spoke while I walked up and down the streets in and out of shops, actually buying things, buying anything, picking up coats and jackets, then scarves, newspapers, jam, make-up (not that I’d be wearing it much, just to have), throwing them at the tills, swiping the card, swiping it again in the next shop as I ordered a sofa, a hat-stand, a new bed, frame and mattress and headboard and all, and a microwave (of which Frances wouldn’t have countenanced, before), and then again as I spotted tubs of ice-cream for me, packets of beef and burgers and fish for it (I’d see what it’d take, as far as the fish went), and more and more things from charity shops (ornaments, teacups, books), until finally the card got declined and I scrounged the money out of my pockets for a bottle of water and a ham sandwich, and we talked and talked through it all, as it got darker and, finally, the cold came down and caught me. I hadn’t a coat (the coat, remember, being the bed).

I was shivering, mouthing words soundlessly into my throat, picturing myself tumbling through skies and shedding feathers over the ground as I passed, pirouetting into the twilight, holding a globe in one armoured claw. Only, of course, there’d be no more actual pirouetting for a while now since I was still crackling here and there in pain from all the dancing. I was heavy with all the aches and pains in my legs, hips, back, neck, but I could still feel myself twirling in my head. So I kind of plodded-twirled my way to my car, still light even under bags, lighter still with the thought of what would be delivered in the next couple of days, and drove back home, determined to get in there and turn on all the lights, whip up all the dust, get stuck in, as I say.

I tossed the bags into the porch and fairly ran round the side of the house, expecting, I don’t know, some warm welcome, something, only the chattering in my head had stopped, the cold was in my bones now, and there was nothing from the shed. It was dark in there, between the pale, white gusts of my own breath, and still. I pressed my hand against the door. The wood was cool, slightly damp with cold, and through it I thought I felt something move, only slightly, only very slightly.

“Hello,” I said, and I felt something inside leap. It didn’t speak to me, there was just a movement, that humming I had felt before, only it was inside my head and out. It was in my hand, as true as my hand was on the door. My hand slid to the handle and I opened it a crack, peered inside. There were no lights and for a second I didn’t see anything at all, until my eyes adjusted a bit, and there it was.

It was horrible.

It was up at the roof, clutching the shelf, the hackles raised, the beak opening and closing, and yet still no call, as though its heart was in its mouth and thumping so wildly that it could not scream. It hated me, it hated my guts. Absurdly, I thought of starlings. The bunch of starlings that scythed through the sky at the reservoir. Frances told me that murmuration was the word and I repeated it to myself under my breath as we watched the birds wheel and rise and dive together in unison, like the breaking of waves, overhead, and I had never heard of anything that could be called so softly, and yet look like that. They did that when there was a hawk nearby. Could they smell it, like I could, that smell of old iron and wood, and something unmistakably, bloodily, birdlike?

How big he was, how pitiless.

“Bird?” I said.

Sweet, poor.

I managed to throw the door open behind me as he lurched downwards. If I’d been caught in his stoop then I’d have nothing to tell you – luckily he swept upwards and out, sweeping just past my head in a bolt of stony colours, and I remember reaching out for some reason at the yellow flash of his feet. He wanted out, that’s all, he wanted up. I stared at him as he soared over the top of my house and away, far away, into the woods. I stared so hard, for so long, like I thought the feathers he had shed in his flight, still caught in an updraft of air, would knit together again and he would be back where he was, feet reached out towards me.

But of course not.

I clicked on the shed light. There was an almighty mess on one whole wall of the shed, spatters on the windows, even right up to the roof. I stood there, daft, wishing to God I hadn’t thrown out the scrubbers. Then something caught my eye on the shelf where Bird had been perched and I reached into the mess for it, fumbled it in my cold hands and dropped it. I saw the smooth form of the egg fall, a flare of light, and crash on the floor. Quite empty, not a hint of yolk, as if it had been sitting there for years and rotted from the inside. Anyway, it fell and was crushed to dust on the floor, and the fragments of it were blown away by the wind through the open door, and were lost among the shadows.

Well.

I went to the porch. The plastic bags with all that stuff in them were practically luminous in the dark, the receipts for even more stuff flapping about miserably in the wind. I carried it all indoors, in a couple of trips. I was so tired. But you know, I turned on the lights and looked around me, figuring out where I’d put the stuff once it got here – you’d think I’d regret it, send it back, but, really, let’s be practical here – and as I did it I found myself getting into a rhythm, stretching this arm to point, this leg, at the places I’d put the table, the chairs, the microwave, and, then, the things I’d buy later like the bookcase, the carpet, the curtains, the colours, the textures. I’ll admit something to you. I still had a couple of photos of Frances stashed in the attic, because of course I did, and that’s what I did once I stopped dancing and got my breath back. I put them on the mantelpiece – bare but for her – and she’s watching me from it still. I’m still moving things around, just so, keeping an eye on her pale hair, her dark eyes, a hint of colour around her throat, and the littlest spotting of bird down on her shoulder.

 

Emma Devlin is an Irish writer of flash and short fiction based in Bangor, Northern Ireland. She has an MA from Queen’s University Belfast in Creative Writing, with publications in Blackbird: New Writing from the Seamus Heaney Centre, The Bangor Literary Journal, and Honest Ulsterman.

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Image by Gentle07 from Pixabay

The Post Office Delivers A Shock – Michael Grant Smith

Our town of Last Chance gets heavy snow every fifty years or so, but we elect a mayor every four. Many who win are candidates to join a damn Homeric Hero Hall of Fame, truly they deserve it, but other mayors, not so much. You could say we’re blessed with an honest, competent public servant as often as we warn our kids to bundle up before they go sledding.

A ways back in 1993 the aforementioned rare snow fell and nearly made Last Chance disappear. Two or three discontented residents

applauded the change, declared it an improvement. Constable Arlene was dispatched to visit each complainant in their home, where she said people had a right to speak their mind but if they had so much pep why couldn’t they attend to these code violations, and these ones over here. The blizzard abated nigh the dawn of Monday business. Honey Sweet, our postmistress, flipped her sign to “Open.” Christmas loomed a week hence.

The post office door’s bell tinkled and a slight but dapper fellow entered. A silvery goatee embellished his ruddy man-in-the-moon face. Honey had shoveled and salted the sidewalk, but the gentleman brushed non-existent snowflakes from his camelhair overcoat and stomped his spotless wingtips upon the doormat. He marched thusly for quite a while.

“Good morning, Mayor Nelson,” said Honey. “May I help you?”

Mayor Lowell “Fuzzy” Nelson thumped once more, approached the counter, and set on it a shoebox-sized parcel. With a flourish, he removed his porkpie hat. He attempted a smile but it ended up a grimace, not the train-coming-at-you grin that got him elected mayor three terms and off scot-free from at least two intervening indictments.

“I wish to mail something valuable to myself,” His Honor shouted. “Its cost far exceeded what I could afford, yet its worth is vastly less than what I deserve!”

Honey peered over her eyeglasses and took one step backwards.

“Sir, you aim to mail it to yourself?”

Because the eight o’clock hour had barely passed, Honey and the mayor were alone. Tammy, Honey’s subordinate and best friend, was not scheduled to arrive until ten, and Charlotte’s Salon & Barber upstairs opened at noon — the staff worked late evenings in order to provide “Premium Bath and Spa Services” to Last Chance’s elite.

“To myself, yes, you are correct,” the mayor boomed. “I will receive it with grace and good humor!”

“Well, then,” said Honey. She blinked. “It’s your choice. Ain’t no law says, don’t send yourself Christmas gifts.”

“Christmas gift! A Christmas gift? Nonsense!”

Ice crystals gleamed within Mayor Nelson’s eyeballs. His chin whiskers bristled like a bed of nails.

“Let the great feats I have accomplished be my legacy,” he bellowed. “I will live forever in the public consciousness as a monument to talent and tenacity! My package relates to those noble precepts, not Christmas!”

Honey wrote out a postage receipt and then forgot she had just written one, so she made another. She scribbled on the receipt and deleted the duplicate charges. Her hands jerked around as if a puppeteer pulled strings.

“Fine, sir, fine,” Honey said, looking away from the mayor’s face. “We’ll send your package right away.”

She kept her attention stuck on the counter. Her long-ago training had finally found a home. Troubled, violent patrons are less likely to kill you if they believe you can’t ID them. Would an elected official commit murder? Even if the victim had voted for the murderer? Her best hope was that Constable Arlene might respond within the hour.

“I don’t think you are aware of my identity,” said Mayor Nelson. He waved his hat for emphasis or to swat invisible insects. “Maybe you live in isolation or are in another way unable to recognize me. Do you suffer from impaired vision or an untreated cognitive disorder?”

Honey, who had greeted the mayor by name bare minutes ago, shook her head and nodded simultaneously. Her customer inhaled a hogshead of air and wobbled with indignation.

“I have left an indelible mark on human history,” he roared. “My great triumph shall remain mine always, singularly my very own!”

Honey affixed a postage label to the box and slid it off her scale.

“Comes to twelve dollars and seventy-five cents, sir.”

He reached into his overcoat. Honey squeezed out a sob, but the mayor produced only an exquisitely finished leather billfold, counted out thirteen one-dollar bills, and pushed them across the counter. Honey gave him his change, receipt, and a fake smile. Pocketing his quarter, the mayor squared his shoulders and proclaimed:

“A postmark’s timestamp will flout the test of eternity and enshrine my notoriety. In furtherance of this objective, the package’s contents shall remain forever a mystery to me and everyone else.”

“Okay, thank you, have a blessed day,” Honey said in a cracked whisper. “Please enjoy your not-a-present unknown thing.”

“I’ll never know if I will or will not enjoy it,” thundered the mayor. “I mustn’t open the package or molest it in any way. Do you not understand?”

Mayor Lowell “Fuzzy” Nelson donned his hat, turned, and was gone, his exit punctuated by the door’s jingle-jangle. Honey idled in neutral for a bit; pondered how bells and etcetera ran her life. She drew a fresh address label from the stack.

Tammy arrived at half-past ten. Upon her lips died an excuse about how the blankety-blank weather messed up her whole morning and the roads were almost too evil for her military-surplus jeep.

“Why do you gaze at yon box, Honey?” said Tammy. “One might believe it’s the first you ever seen.”

Honey dragged her stare from the mayor’s parcel. Tammy noticed the red eyes and jittery lip of a moral dilemma, having witnessed a few in connection with her irregular employment upstairs at Miss Charlotte’s.

“Thirty-two years I upheld my swore oath,” said Honey. “Thirty-two years. No matter what, I never felt no temptation to monkey with The Rules. Until this day.”

“Are you fixing to confess badness, girl? I mention it because you got a look about you, of admitting stuff. What is it you done or are ciphering about doing?”

“I’m already going to burn, so don’t fuss with trying to stop me.” Honey held up Mayor Nelson’s box so her friend could read the address label.

Even without her half-glasses, Tammy made out the destination just fine. She’d been there so often to sit on the porch and sip shot glasses of beer, and the familiar handwriting left no doubt.

“Miss Honey Sweet, why’re you showing me a box you’re mailing to your own place?”

The best part of getting snow every half-century or thereabouts is you can hope it doesn’t reoccur for a plenty long while. Some of Last Chance’s citizens behave similarly, in regard to their indiscretions and lapses and whatnot. Unexplainable no-good behavior will happen when it wants, which is what makes it impossible to explain. The rule applied to Mayor Lowell “Fuzzy” Nelson’s stubbornly consistent bad habits and mental flat tires, but don’t get all encouraged and assume it’s the same for regular folks.

 

Cabinet Of Heed Contents Link 21

Image via Pixabay

The Colour Of Us – Patricia Sandberg

I hold the postcard in my hand. Pots of pigment in a South American market array on a worn blanket spread on hard ground. Vessels of intensity.

And I think of you, how I might paint who we were.

Carmine, the red of crushed cochineal insects. Yellow, like purree, the pigment made from urine of India’s cattle starved on mango leaves. Lapis lazuli blue, a mineral inlaid into Tutankhamun’s funeral mask. White of powdered chalk, a void of colour. Black of charcoal, burned matter.

Pigment cupped for protection or to prevent escape.

*      *      *

I see us as the painting begins, take up a pencil, its sides rough against my fingers, its point blunt.

Emerald burns with jealousy. Gold turns to sulphur. Ruby catches fire. Essences lose distinction when blended, fade when diluted and bleed when they run. Canvas is a material for display or cover.

I sketch, rough and hurried with lines crossing yet unconnected – the edges of us are yet to be determined. We can’t get enough of one another. Flesh is electric. Lightning and storm. A thicker brush mixes the paint, creates tone. This is for the underpainting. The part that lies beneath what comes next. We move in together.

Calm. An image. The beach, water sky blue. My head is resting on the warmth of your belly, feeling it rise with your breath. The sun is like the hands of a healer over us. I am your life, you say. And your life is mine.

The painting evolves. I lay a wash of yellow’s harmony over the canvas but the rushed lines of us push through, jar against the soft glow, against my hand that directs the brush to fill in the lines and round out edges. I try to paint a memory of comfort in our world but elements unbidden emerge and interject into the scene I am creating. Darker hues insert themselves. Lines thicken and harden. Edges fall down cliffs.

Random script, a cacography that’s hard to read, appears in the corners of the canvas. Questions. Small things. What time did you come home from the office? Who did you eat lunch with? Where are you going? At first, bright – jokey, like your face.

You code your words but I’m learning.

I want us to be together more, you say.

Dove becomes cloud, and silver, slate. Your shape reveals in small distinct strokes of the brush while mine begins to dissolve.

You’re finally home. Slow bus?

I pretend it is jest though your eyes don’t laugh. Your words de-cipher.

Don’t dress like that. Don’t act like that. Don’t be you.

I protest and you storm out. I wait for hours in the dark for the door to open so I can apologize. No dress is worth fighting over. I become beige.

Graffiti scrawls across the painting. Lavender and lilac yield to the bruise of mahogany.

Who was that calling?

You don’t believe it was my friend, my mother, work. I try rearranging your colours, examining the painting through your eyes but find myself sinking into your pot of pigment.

Don’t you fucking look at me that way.

I adopt shadow, look away.

Coral and watermelon convert to garnet and brick, and my pot has a rim that prevents flight.

*      *      *

A postcard is something you send from a distance.

I push aside the pots of paint. Lift a broader brush. Swish its bristles in a cup of water, start at the centre of the canvas and work outwards in slow, swimming strokes unwinding the vortex that drew me in.

And flush away the harsh colour, the bully lines of you.

 

Cabinet Of Heed Contents Link 21

Image by Patricia Sandberg

In The Attic of the Holiday Home by the Sea – B F Jones

The landlady had been clear, her stiff tone definite. No attic visit.

And ever since, she had wondered what was up there. She’d miss out on the delights of a week of crisp sea air and grilled fish, consumed by her assumptions – Gold? Ghosts? Unspeakable war paraphernalia? – and her childish curiosity.

She could hear noises during her sleepless nights, remote rhythmical clanking – the boiler? And a soft, occasional fife her husband attributed to wildlife. There was sometimes the ineffable feeling of another presence that she didn’t like thinking about.

On the sixth night she finally caved, and climbed up the wonky ladder, exhilaration and terror leaping in her throat.

The attic was warm and brightly lit. The old man didn’t see her. He exhaled two sharp blows of the wooden whistle, and the small green locomotive slowly started again its eternal 8-shaped journey.

 

Cabinet Of Heed Contents Link 21

Image via Pixabay

The Tutor – Bayveen O’Connell

After mid-terms it was decided that I needed a biology tutor. Dad made a call or two and then dropped me off at the house at the end of the terrace on Lincoln.

“You’ll love her. We dated senior year,” he grinned as I got out of the car.

Climbing the steps, I heard the door click open.

“Maggie, right? I’m Angie,” a woman in a whoosh of loose kimono robe welcomed me in.

The hallway led to the kitchen, which was illuminated by windows running the length of the whole room, overlooking the yard. She sat and motioned for me to join her. Angie’s hair was long, black and silky, and she looked out at me through her bangs, pulling a pack of Lucky Strikes and a lighter from the pockets of her kimono.

“John said you’re struggling in Bio.”

I flinched. It sounded worse coming from a stranger. Raising her eyebrows, she put up her hand. “Struggling. I hate that word. Forget it.”

I exhaled, letting a nervous giggle escape. Smiling as she lit up, she said: “So what’s up?”

“What’s up?” I wasn’t sure where to begin.

“What’s the deal with Bio?” Angie took a drag.

I glanced along the infinite window sill where things were growing in pots higgledy-piggledy, green and dangling in every available space. “Humans are ok, even frogs and parasites but plants are just too bland. I mean…pea chromosomes and bladder wrack seaweed?”

Angie exhaled and issued a whoop of laughter. “Your father’s grown wise with his years, sent you to the right place.”

I looked back at the sill again, full of strange colours and scents, high sweetness and sour rot.

“You’ve seen my babies, eh? Here, let’s make a bet. If you don’t have green fingers by the end of the month, I’ll give you 40 bucks.” Angie stood up, coaxed me from the chair and pointed towards a pot with spiky-headed things. I shrugged, eying the gross little petals that looked like mouths.

“We can bet your father’s money.” Angie said, watching me watching her plants.

Above us, a bluebottle fly hummed, bumbling down the window. It made a long, lazy loop around us and stopped near one of the spiky mouths.

“What you think?”

I didn’t reply. I was too busy looking at the fly rubbing its front legs in anticipation of some delicious juice, then crawling up and into the red tongue of the plant. Just like that- snap! The jaws closed around it, the spikes inter-twined, yet I could see the shape of the fly still wriggling inside.

I turned to Angie, my eyes nearly bulging out of my head: “This can’t be real, this is some sort of…”

Angie threw her head back and chuckled, the light glossing through her hair.

“You’re not a teacher, are you?” I said.

She rolled her eyes, “No, I’m a witch. And I have more weird stuff out in the greenhouse, if you’re interested.”

 

Bayveen O’Connell lives in Dublin and loves travelling, photography and Bowie. Her flash, CNF and poems have appeared in Three Drops from a Cauldron, Former Cactus, Molotov Cocktail, Retreat West, The Bohemyth, Boyne Berries, Underground Writers, Scum Lit mag and others.

Image by Mylene2401 from Pixabay

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