Crying At Work: A Guide For Managers – Dan Brotzel

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’.

Image via Pixabay

Destiny – Jude Higgins

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.

Image via Pixabay

The Substitute – Phebe Jewell

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

Image via Pixabay

Secrets – Madiha Ahmed

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.

Image via Pixabay

The Night Flowers – James Blanchard

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.

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The Thumb – Russell Waterman

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?”

Nothing.

“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.

Image via Pixabay

She Could Have Been My Grandma – Isabelle B L

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.

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The Woman Who Turned To Stone – Elizabeth Smith

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.

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Black Boots And Barbie Dolls – Kay Rae Chomic

The rubber soles of Zora’s black boots issued no sound on the tarmac and eased the pressure in her joints. The cold December night had required layers of clothing. She’d remove the parka with the Beretta in its pocket upon entering her helicopter. Zora’s stride matched the pace of Santiago, the pilot, whom she had just met. His role was to fly her to a safe house, then deliver the body to a hideout.

Weeks ago, Zora had told her boss: “This is my last job. Cash up front. An endless flow of drugs to let me live pain free.”

“Okay, but you’ll miss it. Fifty-two is too young to retire.”

“My body feels 82, André. It’s time you lead, and without me. There are others who can do what I do.”

Zora had skills out of his reach: sharp shooting, languages, piloting, disguises. She excelled at disposing of bodies. André, the schmoozer, had contacts, and wrote contracts. He laundered money, and invested wisely. They had been an effective team.

As she and Santiago climbed into the cockpit, he said, “I’m glad you killed the bastard. That family needed to lose their only son and feel some of the pain they’ve caused.” He spat on the body bag zipped tight, and spread out on the back seats. She ignored that insult. What this pilot and her boss did not know was that Zora loved that family better than her own. Zora staged their son’s murder, placed a swimsuited Barbie doll—her signature—in the crux of his arm, ensured TV coverage. Her boss wanted the body for leverage—the specifics of which she did not want to know.

In the cockpit, before buckling, as she wriggled her arms out of her jacket, she flipped the gun’s safety off and said to Santiago, “Who is coming on your left?” He turned and probably felt only a thump to the back of his head before death.

Zora’s cheeks burned, a familiar flush after an assassination.

She rushed to unzip the body bag and free Luca Fontana. He kissed her neck and lips. “Grazie, mia cara.”

Together at last, but she had to keep a cool head.

“Dobbiamo aspettare, amore mio.” We must wait, my love.

His breath, a tang of garlic and cigar, made her think about her present for him—a German antique guillotine cigar cutter. She’d give it to him later along with a box of mints.

They hefted Santiago into the body bag, placed the Barbie doll inside his bomber jacket, and would later shove his body into the Ligurian Sea.

Fitting, she thought—that was her last Barbie doll of her childhood collection, and this was her last job.

When Santiago’s body washed ashore and the Barbie doll-murder publicity went viral, her boss—her brother—would know of her betrayal. Luca had even better access to the drugs she needed, and a talent for disappearing.

Kay Rae Chomic is a novelist (A Tight Grip), and writer of flash: Ellipsis Zine, Every Day Fiction, Hundred Heroines, Retreat West (shortlisted), LISP (semi-finalist), The Dribble Drabble Review, Storgy Magazine, Crack the Spine, Five:2:One, 50-Word Stories. Kay lives in Seattle dodging raindrops.

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Don’t – Aaron J. Housholder

John drove with the windows open because the night air was cool and because the countryside was quiet after the loud night at Bear’s Tavern. And because, maybe, he’d had a few too many. Probably shouldn’t be driving tonight, he thought, but the county roads were empty this late on a Thursday, and anyway there’s nothing out here but cornfields and he wasn’t drunk enough, not even close, really, to miss the turns he needed to take. The roads out here were a perfect grid, with crossroads every mile, all numbered according to their distance from the center of the county. John’s car veered only a little to the left when he gave a mock salute to the 800 West sign for telling him just where he was.

He admitted to himself that he may indeed have had too much Bud Light when he saw the next sign. He could have sworn it said 783 West, which made no sense at all. He pushed the brake pedal, belatedly checking his rearview to insure no one was behind him. The road was all his. He peered up through the windshield at the numbers on the sign, barely illuminated by his headlights. The sign did indeed read 783 West. It was not a cross road. The cornfield to his left remained unbroken. But to his right a little one-lane road moved off into the darkness, surrounded on both sides with corn yet to be detasseled and almost tall enough to cover the sign. John wasn’t quite sure how he had missed this road before. He had come this way every night for years, headed from his job at the junk yard to his house just off of 450 East. Again, he thought, maybe too much Bud Light, but I’m gonna drive down this road. He turned right.

Through his open windows John could hear the gentle rustling of the corn stalks as he eased down 783 West. In places the corn leaves brushed the fenders of his car, a gentle papery caress. The corn didn’t quite meet overhead, but even so, the road felt like a tunnel. He cruised at fifteen, hunched forward, his face level with the top of the steering wheel because he needed, for some reason he couldn’t discern, to see the sky. The road narrowed until the papery caress on each side was constant.

At the exact moment the road widened slightly, or rather the corn moved back from the road edges, John detected the aroma of cooking meat. Off to the right, in a small clearing, John saw the faint glow of what looked to be a campfire. In shadowy relief a man sat near the fire, leaning forward in the posture of one fishing. He held a stick over the fire, presumably cooking. There were dusky shapes and mounds and jutting black angles around and behind the silhouetted figure. John brought his car to a gentle stop and killed the engine.

There was no good reason to leave the car and approach the man near the fire, but John did. The smell of roasting meet was appealing, as was the quiet crackle of the flames. Bear’s Tavern had been a bit too bright and a lot too loud, the boys tying one on like usual on Thursday night to get a start on the weekend. John found the cool air and small fire inviting.

“Have a seat,” the man at the fire said. His posture did not change and his head did not appear to move. He did, though, rotate the stick in his hand, turning the meat. John could not see the man’s face in the flickering light, nor could he identify what was on the stick. He sat down on what felt like a wooden box.

Both men sat quietly. John looked at the fire and breathed deeply, trying to clear his head. After a moment he glanced around at the slow-dancing shadows. The mounds and angles around him appeared to be the remains of a house. He could see a four-square window standing unsupported where he assumed there used to be a wall. He guessed that maybe the house burned down, though it was too dark to know for sure. Perhaps the fire in front of him was suggestive.

As though he read John’s thoughts, the man said, “Yes, this was my house.”

John nodded in the darkness.

The man turned the meat over again.

“Clear night,” John said, after a moment. The stars shone brightly as they only do in the country.

“Some are,” the man said.

The aroma of the meat took on the darker fragrance of burnt flesh. The man turned the stick once more.

After a quiet moment, the dark man said, “What do you do?”

The subject of work had been, as it always was, the subject of conversation and consternation at Bear’s. John was loathe to get into it again, but didn’t want to be rude.

“Work over at the junkyard,” he said.

The man nodded. “Ass end of the car food chain,” he said.

“I was saying that same thing tonight,” John said. “We get the dead ones, and we tear them apart and sell the pieces.”

“I worked there too,” the man said. He waved his hand, the one not holding the stick. It was his first expressive gesture. “Worked there forever. Long time ago.”

“It’s about all there is out here,” John said. Again, this was the subject at Bear’s. The new cars, the boys at the bar lamented, they’re sold and bought down on the north side of the city, a hundred miles from here. They’re driven to the second-rate towns fifty miles away, then sold as used junkers and driven out into the country, and finally dropped off at the junkyards. John had visions of people buying these shitkickers in these small farming towns and driving them straight to the junkyard, without even a stop at the Walmart in between. He knew it probably didn’t happen quite like that, but on a dark Thursday at Bear’s, that’s what it felt like. His job was to wait for the inevitable piece of shit to fall apart in his yard, a hunk of metal somehow worth less than the sum of its parts.

“Feels like vulture work,” John said.

“Honest vulture work, though,” the man said.

John shrugged.

“Not what I thought I’d be doing at this point,” he said.

“Tell me about it,” the man said.

The meat now smelled entirely burned, but the man still held it over the fire.

“You retired from the junkyard?” John asked.

The man waved that away. “Been a long time, as I said.”

“What happened to your house?” John said.

The man said nothing.

The meat on the stick caught on fire. The flare of flame startled John, gave him a retinal glare. The man sat still and turned the meat again. The fire crawled around the meat, fully engulfing it.

“I think it’s done,” John said.

The man was silent and still.

“What happened to your house?” John asked again.

“Don’t,” the man said. The meat sputtered and crackled. A small tendril of flame, maybe attached to some skin, fell from the stick.

John shifted on his box. He thought about getting up and leaving. Whatever Bud Light buzz he’d had was gone.

“They told us we’d never go anywhere,” the man said quietly. The stench of burnt flesh was strong now. “And they were right. What is there to do out here in these fields? Didn’t want to farm. So we started that junkyard, all those years ago.” He shook his head. “Replacement truck parts and tractor parts and all the rest. Ass end of the food chain. But that’s what we had.” The burnt piece of meat finally fell off the stick. The man held the stick in the fire for a moment, turning it every so often, charring the naked end. Then with sudden violence he yanked the stick from the fire and jammed it into the darkness beside him. John heard a sickening crunch. The man raised the stick once more and held a new piece of meat over the fire, still wriggling. Its shape was undiscernible.

John remained seated on his box but moved a few inches away. The darkness of the field or meadow around him had deepened as he looked at the fire. He could no longer see his car, could barely see the stars, could feel but not really see the debris around him. The man near the fire remained in stationary shadow. The aroma of freshly roasting meat once more filled the air, coupled with the smell of burnt hair and accompanied by the crackle of the fire and the sizzle of fat. John couldn’t think of a single word to say. He scooted away further.

“Don’t,” the man said again. “There’s nowhere to go out there.”

Then, after another moment of silence, he spoke once more.

“I got another stick here, if you want it.”

Aaron J. Housholder teaches writing and literature at a small liberal arts university. His work has appeared in The Molotov Cocktail, Cheap Pop, Barren Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, and elsewhere. He serves as the Fiction Editor for Relief Journal. You can find him on Twitter @ProfAJH.

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The Coward’s Apology – Mike Hickman

Only an idiot would think that this counted as an apology.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake.”

Brendan Remnant’s trembling hand pushed up at the sash window. He might not have been altogether certain how he had got this far, but he had done his research. Mostly via movies on YouTube, none of which had featured driving rain or insecure drainpipes. Nonetheless, he wasn’t far off the action hero look he’d had in mind at the start of the evening. If said action hero had let himself go a bit in the girth department. And if he was very, very afraid of heights.

“Move, damn you.”

Parcel clamped hard under his armpit, its contents almost certainly compromised by the heat and the sweat and the rain, Brendan again failed to avoid looking at the ground. Below him was a swaying expanse of broken-up concrete filled with bins, bikes and abandoned shopping trolleys. He wondered which of these would cause the most damage when he landed, as he most assuredly would, any moment soon.

He had fallen before, though, Brendan told himself. Maybe it hadn’t been quite as bad as the literal fall he was going to suffer if he couldn’t get the window open, but…

Who the hell was he kidding?

Come on, Brendan, forget the height, he told himself. You’ve had worse.

You’ve been threatened with worse, too.

If I catch the bloody idiot responsible for this, I’ll skin him alive.

Like those words, for example. The therapists had told him, when he had let them tell him anything at all, to stop thinking about Bev. They’d told him that he was hurting himself twice over by fixating on her words when he’d sent the flowers and the card. They’d told him about the “second arrow”; and how, by replaying her comments, he was effectively firing it straight at himself. But, then, they’d mistaken him for someone who didn’t understand what they were saying, as opposed to someone who no longer cared.

No, Brendan thought, as his gloved hands slid once again from the paintwork. He did care. He cared enough to know that, whatever happened here, he deserved it. He’d take their second arrow, alright. And a third, fourth, or fifth if it did something to quell the pseudo-intellectualising about his many failings. If it just made everything stop.

Brendan shoved again at the window. For a moment, he seemed certain to lose his balance, certain to fall to the concrete below, certain to find himself looking up at the blue lights approaching. Because they were never very far away.

The parcel slid from its already uncomfortable position. If he lost it, he would have to climb the drainpipe all over again. Only an idiot would try this the once, he knew that. Twice and he was going to have to add a new label to the collection of insults he’d been awarded over the years.

The window really ought to have moved by now. He could see that the catch at the top of the frame wasn’t across. All he had to do was get some purchase – any purchase – and he would be well away. Or, at least, well onto part two of tonight’s shouldn’t-even-be-doing-this-anyway enterprise.

A third shove. A proper shove. Out and up. Reaching further than before, and why not? If anyone round these parts knew about overreaching, it was Brendan Remnant.

Only an idiot would think that this counted as an apology. That’s what she’d said. When he’d last tried.

Well, let’s see about that, Brendan thought. Let’s see how much of an idiot he was if he got through this.

“Oooof.”

14 out-of-condition stone of not exactly muscle collided heavily with the brickwork. One hand was now wedged into a growing gap between window and frame. The other grasped the drainpipe tighter still as he shifted his weight further towards the window. Towards the sill that needed to accommodate him and his bulk if he could just get his knees that bit higher. If he could just force himself through the fear.

“Please, just give me this much, God, and I promise I’ll never trouble you again.”

And up the window went. Brendan was now flat now against the wall, legs hanging free, cheap over-size shoes as ever threatening to slip straight off, and – for a moment – he was as worried about losing them as he was about falling. But then he found that his right hand was as firm as it would ever be on the perilously wet sill, and then his left stopped its frantic flailing and finally came across to join its partner in actual crime. There was a chance here. He might make it.

The parcel slipped again. A good few inches this time. Any further and it would drop. Brendan thought that his jacket, done up tighter than his former bail conditions, might well hold it if it escaped his armpit entirely, but he didn’t want to bet on it. His luck didn’t work that way.

He knew that now, and maybe part of him was banking on it failing him once again. The part of him that, even now, wondered how it would be to just let himself Fall.

Still, the quicker he was in, the better. In, across the bedroom, down the stairs, into the front room, and away. It all sounded so easy put that way. In bullet points, perhaps. On a PowerPoint. The kind of environment that used to suit him, and that he knew he could never return to. Not after what he had done and what had brought him here, clutching his precious box of Milk Tray.

The cheap apology to a woman he had never met. On behalf of the man in the pub who couldn’t say sorry to her.

And trusted the man who would forever be sorry, but could never apologise for what he had done.

Because Bev had never told him.

And he had never been brave enough to ask.

Mike Hickman (@MikeHicWriter) is a writer from York, England. He has written for Off the Rock Productions (stage and audio), including 2018’s “Not So Funny Now” about Groucho Marx and Erin Fleming. He has recently been published in EllipsisZine, Dwelling Literary, Bandit Fiction, Nymphs, Flash Fiction Magazine, Brown Bag, and Safe and Sound Press. His co-written, completed six-part BBC radio sit com remains unproduced but available to interested producers!

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This Is a Story About That Can of Tuna You Left on the Counter – Melissa Llanes Brownlee

Did you leave it for me to find? A trophy of your successful hunt through our bare pantry. Left for me to marvel at your ability to fend for yourself. Its jagged lid, torn away by the ancient ten cent can opener you bought at a garage sale trying to save money, propped up by a crooked sliver you decided wasn’t worth the manual labor to remove.

The spoon is where you left it too, the bowl half-buried in oil-soaked remains, the bent handle jutting out almost parallel to our marbled Formica counter, another cheap garage sale find. Why didn’t you finish it? I had made rice. Then again, I like tuna on hot rice. Not you.

You could have put the whole can in the fridge like you’ve done before. The smell permeating the shells of eggs, the sides of condiments, the carton of milk so much so that I had to clean the entire thing on the one night I was free, wishing I was on a beach back home with no worries or cares.

Now, the smell blankets our small kitchen with no windows to open as I dump what’s left into the over-filled trashcan you haven’t emptied yet. I wash it out, bending and straightening the lid to pop it off, as you knew I would, placing the split pieces on the counter to dry.

Melissa Llanes Brownlee is a native Hawaiian writer, living in Japan. She received her MFA from UNLV and has fiction published and forthcoming in The Citron Review, Waxwing, Milk Candy Review, Claw & Blossom, Bending Genres, The Lumiere Review, (mac)ro(mic), and elsewhere. She tweets @lumchanmfa and talks story at http://www.melissallanesbrownlee.com

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And the accident happened like this… – Mike Murray

Peter kept moving so he kept appearing, like he was a ghost that couldn’t quite make its mind up to come back. You’d hear a sound, a ruffle of paper, a shift in a chair, a gruff clear of the throat and Peter would appear. The main speaker was getting quite annoyed. It was the best thing about the morning.

“Folks, if we could, all microphone’s off when I am talking.”

Peter paid no heed, ruffle, shift, gruff and appear. Speaker talks and Peter would disappear and we’d all wait for it to happen again.

My microphone was off, permanently. That was precisely how I wanted it. Who works this way? Eugh! Work is bad enough without this and then the gift of Covid, Zoom. There’s that noise again. It fascinates me. The clouds are low so you can’t see them. Those magnificent men in their flying machines. I shift in my chair, the window is always to the left of me, the rumble of distant thunder, was how I’d describe it but it isn’t that. Nothing original in me. It is upon us before we know it. The rumble, such a rumble, you can actually feel it. I try to work out is it one, or two, today? Two, I believe, there is a rumble and another rumble, two rumbles together, like two hungry kids running, both fearing they’d be missing out on their dinner. It comes, the rumble, bigger, better, more real, above me, a tingle in the atmosphere, zoom, one, two, planes fly above me at some speed and they are gone. The crows take flight. The rumble moves on from here. I imagine it to be supersonic but it is probably nowhere near. They and the rumble are gone completely and it is back to the speaker, a drone droning on, talking at me, at all of us Peter, flashing on and off on my screen, Peter interrupting him with his ghosting.

F15’s I believe. Some guy at the newspaper always manages to get a picture. I don’t. I’ve tried. How does he? With the low cloud. I can not see how the guy who gets the picture gets the picture as I cannot see. Eugh! The speaker wants me. Well, not me specifically, nobody wants me specifically but he wants me and my colleagues to now pay particular attention. It is a good sign as it means we must be coming to the end of the training. The window is so lovely here, there are sheep in the fields and green grass hills to look out on to. The crows are returning, bitterly complaining, the rudeness of the mechanical beasts. They are settling again in the trees, buzzing among themselves in conversation, I imagine they are placing a hex upon the fighter jets, for causing such a disturbance to the peace.

The speaker had told us he is a helpline advisor specialist and he was here to help us, but he hasn’t helped so far. I can tell, everyone’s faces are bored out of their dog boxes, it is a form of mind control, everyone’s faces are stuck someplace else, everyone’s faces… are stupidly moronic, they fascinate me. Peter flashes onto the screen. I like his face the best. But Roger and Carl’s are good too. I imagine they are a couple. Roger is in Michigan and Carl is in Denver. It seems fitting that Carl is in Denver, why I don’t quite know. Their faces are the roundest faces today, ballooned, expanded, gaseous explosions waiting to happen. A pin could prick their rosy red cheeks, pop would go the weasel and they’d become over-expanded and explode. That would be lovely to see. There is Stanley. Why does nobody call a kid Stanley these days? His face? He is impoverished, I know for a fact, last year he didn’t earn his bonus and nor did he the year before that. Not all of us do. Peter appears fleetingly again, the speaker is still talking at me, it is like he and Peter are arguing over changing tv channels.

Wait, Ma’s shouting.

“No Ma, not finished yet, another fifteen minutes.”

She is making coffee and has bought donuts. She became a balloon herself after second Dad left and this is now our regular lunch. I prefer the sandwiches we used to have but she buys the donuts and claims she is treating me. Sugar and jam is not me, not really.

The speaker is speaking at me. I pick up my pen but he tells me I don’t need to as my manager is emailing me. Performance targets. They mean nothing to me as I never meet them. My uncle got me the job, after second Dad left. I am still saying thank you twelve years later. I still haven’t left the job that was always going to be temporary. It’s a great gig, you can work from home, the spare bedroom was turned into a study for me. That consisted of replacing the bed with a foldout settee so that when visitors came they had somewhere to sleep. We’ve not had any visitors in twelve years. And we bought second hand. this high architect’s desk that is too big for anywhere else, I sit on a stool and work upon. If it is too big for anywhere else then it is way too big for here and it takes up a whole wall side. The foldout settee on one side and the architects desk on the other, the window wall is between them. This room has everything I need.

“Who could ask for anything more?”

Ma singing in the kitchen. Most think of it as that song but really it is; “I Got Rhythm” the Gershwin brothers, one of Ma’s favourites. One of mine too, if I am honest. She sings along to the radio, her favourite station, they only play show tunes and songs from the musicals. She has the pot on the stove and I can hear her moving about, doing things in the kitchen, I’d say making lunch, but I have covered that already so it must be some over task she has found. Ma used to be in am dram, that was where she met both her husbands but not now, says she no longer has the voice, but she still sounds good to me. What do I know?

“I got starlight. .. I got sweet dreams…”

The speaker is speaking to Stanley. They play pop-up ping-pong on Zoom tv in front of me; Speaker speaks and is on the screen – Stanley speaks and is on the screen – Speaker – Stanley – Speaker and then Peter gruffs and puts in another unwelcome appearance – Speaker – Stanley – Speaker. Speaker tells him to mute. Apparently Stanley doesn’t deliver his performance expectations either but he likes to argue about it. He too will get an email and, I imagine a follow up call from his manager. That’s what you got if you questioned things. The pain in listening to her is unimaginable, so best not to imagine it, best not to, consequences and actions, best just to accept the performance intentions knowing you’ll never reach them and wait then for the manager to call you but, by then, she can do nothing about it. You can let her drone on and it can mean nothing to you. Stanley is old. At least fifty. Stanley looks impoverished. Stanley doesn’t learn. We’ve seen this from Stanley before. He is the longest standing employee, he got a bonus for that, his only one. Ever. I have five years to go to match him, although I will never catch him, time doesn’t work like that. Not here.

And we are done. Zoom closes. I have thirty minutes for coffee and donuts. Training session over, time for lunch and I can then get back to my job. Can’t wait. Just kidding. People can be very rude when they finally get to speak with me after being in a queue and being told every thirty seconds for forty minutes,

“Your call is in a queue, your call is important to us, we are experiencing a high volume of calls today, please bear with us.”

I have a script to read but it doesn’t inspire me. I read it dutifully.

“Calls are recorded for training purposes.”

They listen in sometimes and we all live in fear that they listen in to us and we get the call from the manager who is never happy with us. I stick to the script. It works better for me. Callers get very rude, try to beat humanity out of me. I stare out of the window, I won’t be beaten. Sometimes I let my headphones rest around my neck, I can hear them still talking at me so I know when they finish and I can pick the script back up. Their call isn’t very important to me and it isn’t very important to anyone, except them, them and their problems. Things go wrong, what can I tell you. But that isn’t in the script, I often think it should be. We once had a prize among ourselves, if you could get away with saying,

“Have you tried switching it on and off?”

But they sacked Matt for that so we all had to stop doing it.

Coffee and donuts with Ma are fine, I’d still have preferred sandwiches for a change. The radio plays Mack the Knife, now that is one of my favourites, the Billy Vaugh Singers whistling rendition, even better. Thankfully, this station never plays the Frank Sinatra take on it, like us, they think he murdered the song, but then he murdered most things. I blame his connections with the mafia, he wanted to kill things, I guess he thought it would impress them. Don’t start Ma on My Way by the way, best not to go there. I tell Ma, about Peter ghosting in and out of the screen and she laughs. She doesn’t know Peter but she can only imagine and it tickles her. I knew it would. Sometimes they play a whole soundtrack from start to finish, and this puts Ma in Heaven. Her and Tony, her second husband, not my dad, used to dance around the kitchen table to whole albums. Soon after they met at the am dram we came here to live with him. It is his house. Dad was bereft. Never got over how she just left. Tony left too, about three years later but she’d already married him and the judge gave the house to her for as long as I lived here. I live here still. I am thirty-two, I have a friend and he thinks it weird and if I am honest, I do too. Tony is still furious but too broke to go back to court. Dad is dead, he never had fury in him, just tonnes of self-pity. To be honest I could see why Ma left him. I left him too didn’t I, but I sometimes forget that.

We’d only just said, “Did you hear the planes?” When the iPad notification ping pinged. News alert. We always stop dead and wonder who is dead when it does that. Ma reads it out. I always hope it is the Queen of England. I don’t know why her particularly but that is what I always hope for. That would make the news.

“Reports coming in … Two military planes have crashed in Mistral Valley. Rescuers are on the scene.”

“Oh God!” Ma says.

“Yes, God.” I say and as it isn’t the Queen of England, I leave her to listen for more news, updates as they have them but that’s already the news for me, why do they labour it so? I put my headphones on, give it ten seconds, see whose name is next calling and say,

“Welcome to IT caller service, how may I help you today … Joleen? How are you today Joleen?”

They drone on and I listen, not to them, but for the sound, a rumble. I know though that now, it will be some days again before others come again. Wings touched, that will be the explanation, it happens every few years, training, bit more exciting than ours. So I listen, I wait, the rumble will come again, they can’t stay away.

Short story writer finished and now looking for a home for debut novel. Previous stories in The Honest Ulsterman, Here Comes Everyone and Nottingham City Short Story Competition, highly commended. Bit of poetry out there as well. Follow @mikeyboywriter

Image via Pixabay

Hot Sauce Helpline – David Powell

Jeff sat in his office reading a book: ‘On Ugliness’ by Umberto Eco.

In the office he had a phone, a desk, and a print of De Chirico’s ‘Gare Montparnasse’.

Sometimes he had a phone call from Tony.

“Jethro’s Original Hot Chilli Sauce Helpline. My name is Jeff. How may I help you?”

“Hello, Jeff. Tony here. Is it possible to use Jethro’s Original Hot Chilli Sauce as a sexual lubricant?”

“Hello, Tony. Yes, it is certainly possible but I would advise against it. The ingredients in Jethro’s Original Hot Chilli Sauce include chillies and these can cause irritation when applied to the sensitive parts of the body.”

“Thanks, Jeff. Good advice as ever. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Tony.”

But most nights he sat and read a book, or sometimes he wrote poems to Jane, his girlfriend.

When he was thirsty he would go downstairs and get a Coke from the machine. When you got close to it, it sensed you coming and lit up in energetic red and white.

Jeff put down his book on ugliness and picked up his pen.

Jane you are not here

Nor in this book on ugliness

Hot sauce fills my nights

He liked Haiku. No frills, distilled thought. He wrote another.

Jethro’s sauce is hot

Not for use in sexual play

Sweet sticky fingers

He put his pen down and looked up at the picture on the wall. A dreamscape of sorts. A long inclined walkway with two tiny figures leading to a clock that said 1:28. A train arriving in the distance and, in the foreground, a large bunch of over-ripe bananas. The picture, with its multiple vanishing points, always disorientated him. The clock said 1:28 but the shadows were those of at least 5:30. Flags flew in tatters from the clock and from a pole in the distance. What did it all mean?

He ate his sandwiches—tuna and onion with Jethro’s Original Hot Chilli Sauce. It made him thirsty and brought him out in a sweat so he went downstairs..

At the far end of the corridor the machine was already lit up. Most unsatisfactory. He went back up to his office without getting a drink.

He had always thought that he was alone in the building at night, now somebody else was here. He knew that Oliver’s Olive Oil had a sales office somewhere in the building. He would find out who it was.

The phone rang.

“Jethro’s Original Hot Chilli Sauce Helpline. My name is Jeff. How may I help you?”

“Hello, Jeff. It’s Tony again. Tell me, would Jethro’s Original Hot Chilli Sauce, if packaged differently, make an effective anti-rape defence device for women or men out on their own?”

“Jethro’s Original Hot Chilli Sauce is intended as a condiment that can form part of a healthy, balanced diet. Unfortunately, the viscosity of the sauce in its packaged state would preclude its use as a self-defence tool.”

“If I diluted the sauce with some type of medium to lower its viscosity?”

“That would exceed the parameters of the sauce. Jethro’s Original Hot Chilli Sauce is a foodstuff and your statutory rights may be affected if you re-purpose the sauce in this way.”

“Okay. Thanks, Jeff. Goodnight.”

“Not at all, Tony. Goodnight.”

He switched the phone to auto-answer mode and left the office. The corridor stretched away to infinity in either direction. The lift was directly opposite. He went to the sixth floor and opened the door that corresponded to his own office directly below. The room was empty. It had a phone, a desk and a print of de Chirico’s ‘Gare Montparnasse’. On the desk lay an over-ripe banana, a can of Coke, and a pad of paper with some writing.

He read the writing.

To become truly immortal a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere.

Too true, he thought. Who wants art to be about common sense.

He went down to the fourth floor. Here, the office under his own was exactly the same but without the Coke, the sandwich, and the writing. Somebody had carved the words ‘Giorgio was here’ on the top of the wooden desk. The phone began to ring. It wasn’t his phone—he shouldn’t answer it. It was probably a call for Giorgio. He shut the door and went back upstairs to his own office. It was as he had left it.

He looked at his watch — 5:30. Nearly time to call it a night. My, time had flown by.

He turned off the auto-answer and the phone started ringing immediately.

“Jethro’s Original Hot Chilli Sauce Helpline. My name is Jeff. How may I help you?”

“Jeff, it’s Tony. Tell me… if someone wanted to kill themselves, would they be able to do it by overdosing on Jethro’s Original Hot Chilli Sauce?”

“Jethro’s Original Hot Chilli Sauce has been tested by The Department of Food and is certified fit for human consumption. No amount of ingested sauce will lead to the cessation of life in human beings, however, you may experience intestinal discomfort in the short term…

“Yeah, yeah, just asking. You know… you’ve always given it to me straight, Jeff. Can you give it to me straight just once more?”

“I hope so.”

“Is life worth living, Jeff?”

“I would say—to become truly immortal a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken it will enter the regions of childhood vision and dream.”

“Is life a work of art then, Jeff?”

“I don’t see how it can be anything else, Tony.”

“Good advice as ever. Speak to you soon.”

“Goodbye, Tony.”

He wrote another Haiku.

Dawn draws near at last

Two vanishing points are seen

Somewhere a phone rings

David Powell was born in London and was a professional musician before moving to Italy in 2007. Twitter:@dspowell7

Image via Pixabay

Finished, All Gone – Gordon Pinckheard

Okay, if I wanna talk to myself, I’ll talk to myself. Focus! Just don’t screw up the driving.

Show me a problem, and I’ll come up with a solution, or – often – lottsa different solutions. Okay, sometimes there ain’t a solution. An ant isn’t going to the moon, well not without help, it ain’t.

But this is not that time. This problem is nearly done being solved.

It’s not likely, but the cops could be looking for this car, and I’m not going to be in it when they find it. It’s a nice car too. Only the best for Jimmy. Pity if anything was to happen to it.

His face when nine inches of David went into him! He shoulda seen that coming, the way he’d been carrying on. This is going to be the end of David’s career; I’ll leave it behind. It’s my favourite knife too.

Nothing to worry about, I’m all set. Stopped for cigarettes and a lighter. A bit of light coughing. And again for the jerry can and petrol. Okay, who fuels their lawnmower at this time of night, but I didn’t appreciate that crack about my gardening clothes. I like black; shoes, suit, shirt, Covid mask. Just tell ’em a story, give ’em a picture – damps down the ol’ curiosity.

Okay, here’s the airport. Short term car park. Round and round the ramps. Not too many cars parked up here. No one about. Can’t see any cameras, but maybe they’re around. And no sprinklers. The joy of old buildings, yes indeed. Park near the stairs.

Keep head down all the time. They won’t get much from the top of my head. Keep the mask up.

Lower the windows. Outta the car, lean back in and empty most of the petrol over the seats. Christ, it stinks. Don’t want it on me. Open the boot. Baptise Jimmy with the rest. Leave the Bowie knife sticking up out of him. And, pièce de résistance, in goes the lighter. Whoo, that worked a treat. A baptism by fire for Hell’s newest black soul. Off I go, down the stairs.

“Hey! Do you have a phone on you? There’s a car burning up there. Can you call the fire brigade? That’s great. You might want to stay back down here on the stairs; it looked pretty bad.”

Now, walk slow, nothing strange about me, is there? Taxi, taxi, wherefore art thou?

“Yeah, city centre. The bus station. That’s it.”

And we’re off. Out of the airport, just one more taxi heading into town. Nothing to see here, folks.

“Eh, what? Yeah, it was just a quick day trip. No luggage means no holdups. A funeral. Actually, a cremation. A business partner. Just something I had to do, not personal.”

Bye, bye, taxi. Time to mix and mingle with the common folk. Let the cops try and find Waldo. Not a trace to be found. No fingerprints, no DNA, no Jimmy no more. And there you go, problem solved.

Gordon Pinckheard lives in County Kerry, Ireland. Retired from a working life spent writing computer programs and technical documents, now freed of constraints and encouraged by Thursday Night Writers (Tralee), he can write anything he likes to entertain himself and – hopefully – others.

Image via Pixabay

Arcadia – Andrew Hart

“It was, then, in the imagination of Virgil, and of Virgil alone, that the concept of Arcady, as we know it, was born — that a bleak and chilly district of Greece came to be transfigured into an imaginary realm of perfect bliss. But no sooner had this new, Utopian Arcady come into being than a discrepancy was felt between the supernatural perfection of an imaginary environment and the natural limitations of human life as it is.” Erwin Panofsky “Et in Arcadia Ego”

“How are we going to get home?” Melissa asked, as we sat in the tiny café, the owner banging about behind us, “I don’t fancy getting even muddier.”

“There is bound to be a quicker way than back along the river.” I suggested hopefully, but perhaps less than convincingly.

“You and your impulses,” and her laugh tinkled like the sound of a small bell, and then fades away. That is the problem with ghosts; they disappear.

We had gone to bed early that Christmas night, our first as a married couple, to make love and to stay warm.

“Just think that a year ago I did not even know you existed” she said, beautiful and naked, and then she kissed me, a kiss that was at first affectionate and then swiftly became passionate.

We were awake by five.

“Shall we go to Chester?” I suggested, “I don’t think it is far”.

What with making love again and a long breakfast, it wasn’t until after nine we set off, but the roads were quiet, so that it did not take long to get there. After parking the car, we walked down to the River Dee.

“We should have brought sandwiches” she said, her hand on my arm, “I doubt anywhere is open.”

We crossed the bridge over the river and began to walk along the riverbank.

“Do you know where we are going?”

“Nope. It will be fun to find out though.”

It had rained a lot over the last few days, and the further we walked away from Chester the muddier the ground became, a few times one of us stumbled or slipped, but we held each other up laughing, so that anyone who saw us would have thought we were two drunkards returning home after a night of debauchery.

And then we pushed through some trees and came into a glade, and on our right, looking down upon us, was a villa; pink and white with a large garden sloping down towards us.

“That is my type of house” I told her, “close to the river, a good size and not far from Chester.”

I tried to walk up the slope towards it, but then I felt a pain in my left leg, and I realised that there was wire stretched out to stop intruders and the curious.

“That’s a pity,” Melissa said laughing.

“Oh well, if one of us becomes a millionaire then we can buy it and take down the fence.”

“Definitely.” And we kissed, pressed hard against each other, her breath smelt of chocolate and coffee. Perhaps we all have a tendency to romanticise the past, but I cannot remember ever being so happy.

I ring my daughter Esther.

“Happy Boxing Day” she says.

“Happy Boxing Day to you. How are my grandchildren?”

“Lisa has just been sick after eating all her selection box for breakfast this morning, whilst Dan is looking at the book you got him.”

And my son-in-law?”

“Still in bed, he had a bit to drink last night, well we both did, but the children woke me. How are you?”

“Okay. Off out for a walk in a moment.”

“Oh good, I hope Christmas wasn’t too dull.”

“No it was fine, I like it quiet. I watched a couple of films.”

“You could have stayed with us.”

“I know, I know.”

But their house is small, and I find the children hard work after a few minutes. I try to love them, but I much prefer the thought of them than the tiresome reality and my son-in-law Pete clearly makes my daughter happy but goodness he is dull, as only the well-meaning can be. I often wonder what Melissa would have made of him, I imagine our lying in bed together discussing him, Melissa urging me to be more patient with our daughter’s family.

“They are your grandchildren,” she says, “Esther could be difficult, don’t you remember?”

“But you were with me then.”

“I am sorry.”

“Where are you going for your walk?”

“I might go to Chester and walk along the river.”

“Oh well, have fun. Come and visit us before school re-opens.”

“Of course I will.”

I put the phone down and finish my coffee before getting into my car and driving through the Mersey Tunnel on my way to Chester.

The river was on our left, occasionally we could hear voices echoing from a distance, and then once we saw a boat go past us with a man and woman leisurely rowing, whilst at the front was a little girl shouting with glee. Melissa did not need to say anything, we kissed and I stroked her bottom through her jeans and for a moment we pressed tightly together before carrying on, the girl’s cries of delight gradually fading away. It was very muddy now and the path was becoming narrower and rising away from the river.

“We might have to go back soon” said Melissa, “we could end up slipping down into the Dee.”

“Don’t worry I will rescue you.”

“But would I be able to rescue you? I don’t like getting wet, and you have definitely put on a bit of weight over the holiday.”

And then we saw it, the back of a large stately home.

“Now that’s my kind of house” Melissa told me.

“I think it is Eaton Hall” I told her, “I am sure that it is somewhere near here, owned by the Grosvenor family, the richest family in England I believe.”

There was a fence to keep out the plebs, but Melissa was afraid of nobody in those days, and she hauled herself over it into the grounds, and so I followed her over, as I would follow her anywhere in those days.

“If we see anyone just run” I told her.

“Oh we can tell them we wandered in by accident.”

“With that fence?”

We squelched on the muddy grass, water bubbling over our boots.

The house was beautiful, symmetrical and with sandstone brick covered with ivy.

“I wonder if anyone is in?”

“Let us hope so, I could do with a cup of tea.”

“And scones.”

“And cake.”

Hand in hand we walk along one side of the house, peering into the windows, trying to see into the rooms behind their heavy curtains.

“I don’t think anybody is here.” Melissa said.

“Maybe there are servants upstairs. The family will be in London.”

“Who would want to be in London for Christmas?”

“Well actually…”

She ran ahead of me, she would be twenty-five next year, and probably would never be as healthy and fit again. I ran after her, and when she stopped suddenly, I caught her, my arm round her middle, and she pressed herself into me, and for a moment we wrestled, laughing.

There was an orchard at the side of the house, and we walked in through the gateway and admired the bare trees.

“Why don’t have apple trees?” She asked. “You could make us toothsome apple crumbles whenever we felt like it.”

“I don’t see why not. I will go to the garden centre and see what they have.”

“Couldn’t you steal a tree from here? I am sure that their apples would be delicious.”

In fact I never did get the apple tree, I always meant to, but a few days later Melissa told me that she was pregnant, apparently she had already suspected it that day, and then we had a house to prepare for our new arrival. Sometimes I look out at my pristine garden and wonder if I should get an apple tree, or maybe grow raspberries like my dad did; it would be easy to arrange and I have plenty of time, but I have never can be bothered, and who have I got to make apple crumbles for now?

In a shady corner close to the orchard, we came across a row of gravestones.

“To the dear memory of Katharine Caroline, 2nd wife of Hugh Lupus first Duke of Westminster and daughter of the 2nd Baron Chesham, born Dec. 3rd 1857, died Dec. 19th 1941” and underneath” Melissa read aloud, her voice losing her usual cockney tinge, and sounding proper and precise “her ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace.”

“Sounds a bit boring” she told me, “I bet her husband was more exciting.”

“She lived a long time.”

“And gentle and peaceable the whole time, how dull. I bet she wasn’t, not really, she was probably a horror, in her own set of rooms, making her children’s lives a misery, and then when they had died, their children.”

I laughed, slightly shocked at Melissa’s disrespect for the dead.

“They probably killed her in the end; banged her on the head with a spade when she was doing the gardening.”

“At least it was quick.”

“Not that quick”.

The fence is larger than when Melissa and I had visited almost thirty years ago, or perhaps I am older and less athletic, certainly there is no way that I can climb over it now, and there is a faint humming coming from it, suggesting it is electrified; perhaps our incursion all those years ago had caused them to bolster their security. I am wearing wellington boots, remembering how muddy it was on our last trip, but it is much drier this time, and come to think of it, it hasn’t rained much this holiday, and the paths had been improved with gravel added. With a shock I realise that I have not done this walk since that Boxing Day so many years ago, and yet that day seems so recent, as if I could touch it and be back with Melissa, the succeeding years disappearing into oblivion.

And now I am lost, I don’t remember that happening last time; it had been an easy walk; just following the river, until we reached Aldford, but now the path stops suddenly at a fence, with “Agricultural Land. Please Keep Out” written on it. A cow stops her grazing to stare at me curiously. I wonder what has happened and if the village is cut off from me, like Eden. Frustratedly I retrace my steps until I see another path leading away from the river, which I follow less than hopefully. The path becomes concrete and there are “Private” signs on my right, and a cottage, which seems familiar, and then there is the small, hump-backed bridge that I remember us walking over, which lead us onto more land owned by the Grosvenor family.

We were quiet as we followed the tree-lined path, slightly awed and not sure where we going, but then we were out in the open and for a moment the Winter sun dazzled us and we both shielded our eyes. There was a church ahead of us, outlined against the white sky, and we headed towards it and behind the church we discovered a village, which proved to be Aldford, a Victorian model village built by Sir Richard Grosvenor, 2nd Marquess of Westminster about a hundred years earlier.

We wandered around the church for awhile; admiring the stained-glass windows and the memorials (more Grosvenor family dead) and then, tiring of holiness, we explored the village itself, which consisted of large houses with extensive gardens, and then further out farms.

“Would you like to live here?” I asked her.

“Eaton Hall maybe, but I am not sure about this village. I imagine that it would get dull pretty quickly, although it does look lovely, and much quieter than Liverpool.”

Just as we were beginning to get tired and hungry, we came upon a small courtyard and there was a small café, which doubled up as a bakery. I ordered coffee and tea cakes.

“What a beautiful village” Melissa said to the old man who served us.

“We were just closing” he muttered.

“Well we won’t be long.”

It was already getting dark, and the air had the smell of Winter afternoons, which I have always loved so much.

“Perhaps we should ask him to make us some sandwiches?” suggested Melissa with a mischievous grin, “and maybe cake and another coffee?”

“Or even a hot meal?”

We sniggered over our coffee and then when we finished, we left him a generous trip, and walked away, hoping to find a quicker way back into Chester, we could hear him locking the door as we left the courtyard.

The café is now a small supermarket, which is closed, there are – incongruously – a couple of boutiques too, which are also closed. I wander about the village; it is smaller than I remember it; whichever way I walk, I am soon out of the village, and on roads without pavements, and I wish I hadn’t come, even a day spent with my grandchildren and son-in-law would have been better than this, and I am overcome with self-pity; “a poor old man, as full of grief as age.”

“Come on “she told me, “that sign says Chester” and so we followed a narrow, but busy road, cars swooping past us, a couple of them sound their horns as they do so, I let her walk ahead of me, so that if one of us would be hit, it would be me. Every so often she looked back at me with a mischievous grin, and I smiled back, and that is how I mostly remember her, an image as firmly fixed as if it had been a photograph.

And now I walk back the same way, and for a moment I see her ahead of me; her long black coat, which she had had ever since I had known her, and her straight red hair, reaching down to her waist, which I had watched her wash that morning, long ago. I try to catch her, I run until I am breathless, and for just a moment I am so close; I can feel the touch of her coat as I reach out to hold her, I can smell her shampoo and hear her laughter, and then I say her name and she is gone and the road is empty in front of me, and as I stand there, a car drives past me almost knocking me into the hedge.

I walk the rest of the way back to Chester, breathing in the cold air, and wondering if Melissa would recognise the rather old man, puffing along, that I have become. Once I have driven back home to Liverpool and made myself some cheese on toast, I ring my daughter again, and she tells me what they had done that day, and then we talk of previous Christmases and I tell her that I love her. She seems surprised by this announcement, and then says she loves me too but that she has to go and put the children to bed, and I stifle the urge to tell her to get Pete to do it. Before she hands up she says that she is looking forward to seeing me tomorrow, that the children will be excited to see me, and that after dinner Pete will take me to the pub to watch Everton play on their widescreen television, and I tell her that it will be fun, which it might be.

They might not be perfect and long before the day has ended, I will be desperate to come home, but at least they will be company for the day, and at my age that is important.

Now lying in bed I hear a cat miaow from my garden, and I go down to let it in from the cold, but when I open the back door there is a scrabble of claws, and the cat is gone into the night, so I get a drink of water and go back to bed. In the dark I can see the photograph of Melissa that has been there for a quarter of a century, and I give her a smile and she smiles back at me through the dark.

“Et in arcadia ego.”

Image via Pixabay

In The End, Aren’t Epiphanies The Best? – Michael Cocchiarale

That first day of school, he realized aloud: “Each person is unique.” Mrs. Freytag smiled, incredulous—that was to be her lesson for October!

When ten, a week before Grandma passed, he realized one should not take life for granted. Soon after, he realized what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. At high school graduation, while everyone cheered, he realized life would never be so easy again.

Word got out. In college, he became famous, something he’d seen a mile away. An interviewer asked, “Do you know you can’t get everything you want?” The boy would have laughed, had he not long ago realized that pride preceded a fall.

Onwards, through those anxious, transitory twenties. So many ways he spared himself misery by understanding things in comfortable advance. He dodged drugs. Credit card debt loans. Ill-advised relationships due to pregnancy or sentimentality.

At his thirtieth birthday party, he was introduced to his future mate. Of course, he knew immediately she was The One, if only for the next phase of life.

At forty, he foresaw his child not remaining little forever.

At fifty, a concern: Had everything dawned on him?

“What’s wrong?” his wife asked, keeping distance as he knew she would.

He might have said, “Don’t know” if he’d not realized moments before the danger of complacency. Still, it was a close call. He took comfort in a long-established insight—tomorrow was a brand new day.

Years later, alone in his garden, he looked up from the book he was finishing, stunned to realize how sad it was to have known all beforehand. He massaged his throat. Studied the plump shrubs that lined his yard. God, those febrile cries, the thundering apocalypse of hooves. Nothing, he understood too late, could keep the enemy from thrashing through at every side.

Michael Cocchiarale is the author of the novel None of the Above (Unsolicited, 2019) and two story collections–Here Is Ware (Fomite, 2018) and Still Time (Fomite, 2012). His creative work appears online as well, in journals such as Fictive Dream, Fiction Kitchen Berlin, and The Wild Word.

Image via Pixabay

Moosezilla – Scott Miller

I am walking in the forest to clear my mind. My “now” is elusive. Legs move me to the creek where I gain momentary focus crossing on a too narrow log. On the far side, I’m lost again, though my feet know the way.

I am barely aware of the presence of spruce trees and boggy ground. A bird call turns my head. I bend down to examine footprints on the trail, could it be a lynx? There’s some scat; yes, a lynx. As I move through the thick, twisty wood, my mind falls from these moments of clarity, back into its tumult of past and future, remembrance and planning. I try to bring it to heel – when I recall that I want to; it’s a wild beast, lost in its delusions. I look up, surprised that I’ve arrived at the big birch I like to sit under; I do not recall the walk. I sit, close my eyes, attempt to focus, then forget my purpose and slide back into chaos.

A ripple of vertigo as the dark forest to my left reveals itself to be a wall of fur and flesh. Moosezilla, seven feet tall at her shoulder, goddess of beasts manifest. We’ve met before. She’s a distinctive creature, the largest moose I’ve ever seen; and so I’ve named her, as I sometimes do with distinctive creatures. Now, she’s right beside me, and a shock of rational fear jolts me, but I’m rooted to the ground along with the tree I lean against.

Moosezilla calmly turns her head towards me. She looks down at me, way down. I can smell her. I can feel her damp exhale on my face. Our eyes lock – and the sky splits open, jagged hail pierces me, I am shredded out of existence.

* * *

I am walking serenely through this same forest on four knobby-kneed legs. I stop and reach up to grasp a birch twig with my mouth; my lips are as supple as fingers. I stand and chew, then move slowly on. I traverse the forest with no purpose but movement. I browse on twigs and leaves. I stop and gaze at my surroundings.

At day’s end, I climb a low ridge to select a sleeping place; it is sheltered, with views all around. Not that there is much here to be wary of, it’s just what one does. When I wake, I stand and pee on my bed of the night before. I chew and swallow bits of the surrounding shrubs, then move on. I eat, nap, eat again. Tranquility is my being, slow movement is my life.

Day follows day, all the same, all completely absorbing. The season turns and I move through deep snow. I’m cold, but that is just another way of being. Food is less abundant and less appetizing, but that is winter. Spring comes, the snow melts, and wonderful new food sprouts from the ground and the trees.

I am moose. I am the forest and the sky. I am the twigs and leaves that I eat; I nourish myself with myself. My existence is not separate. All around me, every object glows with significance. Infinity stands behind each leaf and moves through the air with each mosquito. I am boundless.

* * *

She turns away and I am myself, sitting against a birch tree, with my two legs stretched out in front of me. I am myself, and the tree is a tree, and Moosezilla is moving slowly away into the thick, dark wood.

Scott Miller is a writer and artist who lives in a yurt, in a fen, in end-of-the-road Alaska. When not working, he’s likely roaming the woods with his dog, Alice.

Image via Pixabay

A Family Of Achievers – Anita G Gorman

The Brownsons were a family of achievers. Achilles, the father, was a medical doctor specializing in brain surgery. His wife, Eulalie, worked as a professor of linguistics. She focused on attempting to reconstruct the language of the ancient Etruscans.

Determined to create and rear children who were as proficient as their parents, or even more so, Achilles and Eulalie spent a great deal of money on their first child, Anemone, who eagerly lapped up learning as well as learning laps in the swimming pool behind their rather substantial house.

When Anemone was four, her brother Isadore joined the family of achievers. From the start, Isadore took to games and books and educational toys of various kinds. For a time his mother, the professional linguist, thought that Isadore was born speaking ancient Etruscan, but then she decided it was just precocious babble. Sometimes, in fact, Eulalie wondered whether she should continue studying Etruscan or move on to Hittite or perhaps to Baby Babble. In any case, she had few people to whom she could communicate her linguistic concerns.

Anemone and Isadore grew in height and in the depth and breadth of their learning. The Brownsons, according to their peers–who were few–were and had the perfect family. All was well, as Anemone studied Italian at the age of eight and Isadore worked on German when he was six. Then everything changed.

Eulalie discovered, to her surprise, that she was pregnant. Not to worry, she assured herself and her husband. The child, whether male or female, would no doubt be as accomplished as their first two. By the time this child was three or four, Number Three would no doubt have absorbed Italian from Anemone and German from Isadore and begun his or her own independent study of Latin and Greek.

Then the Brownsons had a surprise. Eulalie was pregnant with twins. This prediction was confirmed one winter night when a boy and a girl emerged. They were small and lively and healthy and not quite cute, but they would be in due time, their parents assured themselves.

For some reason, Eulalie insisted on calling the twins Jack and Jill.

“Why such ordinary names?” asked Isadore the brain surgeon.

“I don’t know. It just came to me that these two should be called Jack and Jill.”

Eulalie the linguist got her way. After all, she had gone through the trouble of giving birth to twins, so her husband thought she should have a say in naming them.

Anemone and Isadore often recited the nursery rhyme about Jack and his sister Jill to the twins. They used English on these occasions. On other occasions Anemone spoke to them in Italian, Isadore in German, and their mother in what she hoped was ancient Etruscan or a variant thereof.

The twins had a nanny, since the Brownsons were totally busy with their careers. The older children had a well-educated governess to oversee their studies until a suitable school could be found. Eulalie often lamented that a suitable school might never be found, but her husband assured her that Greta the Governess would guide their children through history and geography and mathematics and perhaps, eventually, the Swedish of her native land.

Then something odd happened. As Jack and Jill grew older and Nora the Nanny was no longer needed, Jack and Jill tended to ignore the educational efforts of their parents and the governess. The twins spoke only English. They stared at those who attempted to speak to them in Etruscan or German or Italian. Their father the brain surgeon attempted to teach them the names of the bones in the human body as well as the parts of the human brain. Jack and Jill just laughed at the funny names.

They showed only the slightest interest in books and puzzles and mathematical formulas. When no one else was watching, they played video games, because they did have access to smart phones and tablets and computers. “When no one else was watching” meant the middle of the night, after Greta had gone home and everyone else in the house had gone to sleep. These nighttime adventures online led to sleepiness in the morning, and Jack and Jill often dozed off during their lessons, which they found not only boring but useless in their world of fantasy and games.

Greta the Governess was afraid she would be blamed for the twins’ lack of erudition and what seemed to her to be their constant desire to take naps during lessons. Greta was afraid to suggest to Drs. Eulalie and Achilles that the young twins might have narcolepsy, a disorder the name of which she found after typing “sleepiness” into a search engine.

This situation continued for some time. Then one night Eulalie had insomnia. On her way to the kitchen to get some warm milk, she heard laughing coming from the twins’ bedroom. Slowly and quietly she opened the door and peeped inside.

There they were, her twins Jack and Jill, wide awake and playing video games.

“Jack! Jill! Why aren’t you asleep? You shouldn’t be playing video games in the middle of the night. You shouldn’t be playing video games at all! It’s not what we do in this family.”

Jill smiled at her mother. “Mom, it’s so much fun, and this is the only time we can play. No one will let us play games during the daytime.”

“Of course not. Those games are useless.”

Both twins started to cry.

Then Eulalie had an epiphany. As she gathered her twins into her arms, she began to wonder why she had insisted on giving them such ordinary names. Maybe that was why they liked video games. Hadn’t her own studies and research convinced her that people were different and needed to pursue their own interests?

“Tell you what. We will give you an hour each day to play your games, if you promise to sleep during the night. You need your sleep. You know that, don’t you?”

“Miss Greta thinks we have narcolepsy. Whatever that is.”

“Does she, Jack? Well, I will have to disabuse her of that notion.”

In the following weeks, during that precious one hour a day, Jack and Jill taught their favorite games to Anemone and Isadore while Greta read Swedish mysteries. And when they all grew up, the four Brownson offspring and their governess formed their own highly successful company, Brownson Games, Inc., featuring games in English, Italian, German, and Swedish. There was no need to produce any diversions in Etruscan.

Image via Pixabay

Earthly Pleasures – Andrea Lynn Koohi

Ever since I took up four-legged walking, I’ve seen the world in a whole new way. It started at the park when I approached a group of four-leggers and asked them why they did it.

“See for yourself,” said a middle-aged redhead, looking up from the dandelion she’d been sniffing.

So I threw down my purse and pressed my palms to the grass, felt a moist warmth cradle my fingers.

“Knees off the ground!” the lady said. “We don’t crawl like babies. This is sophisticated four-legged exploration.”

So I lifted my knees and began to walk. It was hard at first. My back ached a bit. But within a few minutes the appeal was clear. I was instantly immersed in a brand new world, the scent of summer earth awakening my nostrils, ants and beetles tickling my knuckles. To think my fingertips had so many nerve endings and I had never used them to explore the ground! With a new-found urgency, I dug my nails into the soil, slid my fingers along worms, rocks, roots I never knew were there.

Then the walking path caught my eye, shades of grey glittering, beckoning me over. For once I said yes to my burning desire, cared nothing for the side-eye of nosy two-leggers. I moved off the grass and onto the path, moaned with pleasure as bits of sharp gravel embedded in my palms. I had never felt so alive before.

Four-legged walking was an instant addiction, a love I couldn’t limit to the park alone. Soon I was four-legging at work and at home, at the grocery store with the basket balanced on my back.

My boss was displeased but sank into silence when I told him it was my right to walk the way I wanted. In fact, everyone at the office became silent when I passed, which was perfectly fine because it relieved me of small talk.

At home I explored heating vents, complex carpet fibres, the intricacies of dust bunnies I had never noticed. For a while my husband found it amusing, until last Tuesday when I decided to take my dinner on the dining room floor. I sucked up spaghetti noodles one by one, my palms pressed thankfully the floor. It just felt right. The way I should have eaten my entire life.

From the chair beside me I sensed a stillness, felt the burn of my husband’s critical stare.

He can’t take this from me, I thought, my nostrils flaring, the end of a noodle slapping sauce on my face.

Finally he stood, his legs confronting me.

“This has to stop,” said a voice somewhat quieter than the one I knew.

I felt a sudden pang. He was probably lonely up there. But what could I do? I no longer cared for an upright existence.

“I’m living the way I want to,” I told his shins. Would he remember all the times he told me the same thing, walking out the door at 9pm?

“I never see your face anymore,” he said, his voice slightly cracking.

I was staring at his kneecaps just below his shorts. I’d never noticed how square they were.

“You could always join me,” I heard my voice say, another hallow echo of his own favourite words.

He didn’t reply, just walked away, Achilles tendons flexing.

Andrea Lynn Koohi is a writer from Toronto, Canada. Her recent work appears or is forthcoming in Idle Ink, The Maine Review, Pithead Chapel, Streetlight Magazine, the winnow magazine and Emerge Literary Journal. Find her on Twitter @AndreaKoohi

Image via Pixabay

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