Sliver – Purnima Bala

The longest hour of the night, just like every night, she waits for the siren. They all do, positioned behind crumbling walls, peering from windows, their ears grasping every whisper, every little shuffle of fidgety feet, every loose brick trickling dust through the walls. She can see them. Smell their anticipation. Taste their fear, their desperation. Every emotion mingling with her own and settling into a bitter bile at the base of her throat. Any moment now, someone mutters behind her. Her face spreads out into a grin.

Only a madman would look forward to a night like this—didn’t her father say that once, years ago, teeth grinding down on tobacco as he waited for the same sound, the same signal? Or was it that woman who’d taught her to wield a knife? It’s hard for her to tell these days, hard to think, memories blurry, wavering, fading in and out, almost as if she’s not really there, not real at all. But what is real, she wonders, in a world where the sky could erupt, the air could fizzle, walls of water take over every inch of space? What is real when you could lose all sense of security, go from stability in the below-ground districts to the open outdoors where nothing truly remains, when these could be your final footsteps, your last attempts to see another’s smile—wretched as it may be—or feel another’s warmth one last time? Everything. Nothing. Both. Either.

The horn blares then, echoing through the streets, and she darts outside, body covered with odd materials that smell of smoke—doesn’t everything smell like smoke these days?—grimy and hole-ridden but layered just enough to protect her from the harsh winds and goggles over her eyes. The sights are the same. Layers upon layers of crumbling buildings and twisted trees, most of their branches rotten, weeping, while some stand gnarled and tall in rebellion against the churning sky, surrounded by flowering weeds and tentacles of fungi that branch out across the road, small blips of colour in the eerie dark. Scattered lamps line the streets, flickering on and off as she passes, shadows around them rising and falling. Nothing remains still tonight.

She navigates the towers of litter with practised ease, looking for things that might be of material worth—old parts, a spot of ore, an abandoned automaton or intelligence unit somewhere in the wasteland, maybe even a person, lost, the bounty on whose body would see her through the next rains—anything that she can use to bargain at the haggle booths, the only part of the below-ground that she, and so many others, are permitted into. Food. Medicines. Skin protection. Limb upgrades. Not that she can afford anything more than she sorely requires. Not anymore.

How many cycles does she have to go through before her hands no longer have to search, scavenge, seek, before her nerves no longer remain on end? How many more nights does she have to spend, rummaging around in piles of dirt and sewage, old backyards filled with junk, poison, bones, only to be spat on the next day when standing in line at a haggling booth?

It doesn’t seem worth it, the stone in her chest, heavy and cold. The voices of the people she’s lost, their ghosts lingering in the night, people who’d braved the open land when the sun was out, when each breath of unfiltered air was a threat, wanting a few tokens to feed their families or hoping to luck out and find a job working on one of the lowest, most exclusive city levels. But they ended up with lost limbs, their insides eaten up slowly, or felt their eyes fizzle until there was nothing left but hollow sockets. That’s just how it goes in this damned existence. Every action is a bargain for survival, and, sooner or later, the cost is a life. Each day as hopeless as sprinkling salt over withered daisies and hoping they’ll grow back.

But. But but but.

There’s always a but, isn’t there? Something to make her eyes flutter open, lungs expand and contract even as they burn each day; a desperate fervour, a yearning for hope. And this time it’s a sliver, a streak of moonlight, there, just there around the bend where the street turns into a rabble of stones, peeking out from shards of glass, glimmering and fading, drawing her eyes to the dusky skies, over the once-busy walkline where cottage homes and restaurants used to sit, silhouetted against the horizon, to where the ocean looms, dangerous and erratic. She walks towards it, darting around scuffles over food and tokens, ignoring the calls of her friends, everything distant, distant.

Oh, but the waves. They rumble and crash, rising and falling in a desynchronised orchestra, at times soft, offering reprieve in hushed whispers, other times deafening, wanting to claim and claim, smoke almost rising from its crests and dips. Mesmerising. Haunting. How many people had she let go to its depths? All lost, lost because of shrinking hills, stagnant soil, strangers’ greed, a system that broke and crumbled, leaving her, and so many others, scrambling in the dust.

Here I am, she mutters, lips twitching. Still alive, as promised.

She stands there just for a moment—just for a moment, she tells herself, against the tick-tick-tick of her mental clock, counting down the seconds till dawn—surrounded by the smell of decaying fish and deformed gunk, plastic bottles and wrappers and cigarette buds and loose teeth scattered about, every wave pushing items onto the shore; a silver-soaked graveyard. The only beauty she knows. She tugs a conch out of the sand, and a giggle bursts from her lips.

She sells seashells on the seashore. See, Ma? I can say it now.

She flicks a piece of plastic out of its ridge and presses it against her tin-foiled ear, harder and harder and harder, until she can hear the ocean’s screams.

 

Purnima Bala is a writer, editor, and artist whose short fiction has appeared in Ellipsis Zine, MoonPark Review, The Sea Letter Magazine, and Emerge ’19 Anthology and is forthcoming in other journals. In her free time, she reads and edits for Periwinkle Magazine and tweets @purnimabala.

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Togetherness – Áine Ní Ceallaigh

The pain is too slow. Would we heal faster, if we hurt sooner?

We were the kind of couple that would make you sick – always together, holding hands, staring at each other, kissing in public. We got to a point of forming a telepathic link – finishing each other’s sentences, calling at the same time, making tea not asked for yet, and many more symptoms we hadn’t noticed in time. We called it love and hid away from the world.

We had to make adjustments – moved our bed to a wall, so we would get up on the same side, we bought a bigger bathtub, and a large blanket to cover four feet and sometimes also my face when a movie was scary.

‘Me too,’ I said and took a sip from my love-hearts mug. He added a bit of sugar and stirred my tea.

‘You’re welcome,’ he replied out loud to the ‘thank you’ in my head.

Then, bit by bit, it started getting uncomfortable. I was hangover every Sunday, he got cramps every month. We blamed the atmospheric pressure, something we ate, or bad sleep. Friends grew strange and rare, they didn’t get us anyway. We were just fine all alone together with our three feet under the blankie eating popcorn with caramel.

One winter’s night, when he dreamed about piloting a jumbo jet, a little thought appeared. I buried it in the darkest corner of our mind, where it should have died, but it grew instead, tingling and itching. I took it out sometimes when he couldn’t see it.

‘What’s wrong?’ He asked for the first time in years.

‘Nothing,’ for the first time I lied.

Making love was effortless as we had grown into each other. It was a distraction, but not a very good one, more like masturbation. That small idea only got stronger, turned into a secret and cast a shadow even on our bath time. The blanket was too heavy, bed too soft, water too wet.

On the last day, when only his left elbow and a few toes were sticking out of me, we went to a doctor.

‘Can you cut him out? I want to be free.’

When we say forever, you know, we don’t mean it.

 

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Little Tiger – John McMenemie

I was ten years old when Grandma died. She’d been ill for a long time. All my memories of her were tainted by her illness. I think I probably remember her as an illness more than a person. When you’re young, things like illness and disease are hard to process. Death, by comparison, was quite straightforward to me.

Mum had been upset, obviously, and Dad said that Grandma was better off now, and that it was a relief for everyone, but he never said things like that when mum was around, only to me. He always spoke differently to me when we were alone, like I was an adult, or at least older than I was. He was right though, it was a relief. Mum didn’t have to go to the home every day, and she wasn’t worried sick about Grandma’s health anymore, and it seemed she was lighter somehow, especially after the funeral.

They didn’t take me or Sammy to the the funeral because they said we were too young, and Barbara came round from next door and looked after us. She’d promised us a late night staying up watching TV, but mum and dad returned at 8 and Barb went back home with twenty quid and a half drunk bottle of wine. Dad said we could stay up til 9, he said it would be good for Mum.

Dad went straight to the lounge, it’s yellowy, corner uplights reflecting off the drinks cabinet, which was a tall, dark, glass fronted monstrosity from the 1970s, filled with cut glass tumblers and sharp looking wine glasses. The top shelf, well out of reach from curious young fingers, was filled with mysterious potions labelled “highland cream” and “rum liqueur.”

He liked this expensive malt whiskey that smelt like TCP, and he poured both himself and Mum one, but she just wanted a cup of tea. She looked like she’d walked through a doorway into a familiar room which was somehow now alien to her. She was in the kitchen and seemed a bit dizzy, doing odd things like opening the cupboards to count the cups, and checking the flour was still in date, and making sure the spoons were still in the spoon section in the cutlery drawer.

Dad drank both the drinks and poured himself another one, and told us not to worry about mum, and that it was time for bed anyway, so I took Sammy and we said goodnight and went upstairs. The walls in that old house were so thin, they may as well have been paper. As we climbed the stairs we heard mum sobbing and Dad’s deep slurring voice, calming her as it often calmed us after we’d had a nightmare or a bump on the head. When we reached the landing, Sammy, she was six at the time, grabbed my hand and pointed up at the picture at the top of the stairs. The hallway light flickered quickly for a moment. The picture was a watercolour of Towan Beach in Cornwall, where we’d all spent many summer holidays with Grandma and Grandad. The flickering wasn’t down to a faulty bulb.

“Look, Mike, a butterfly!” whispered Sammy. And sure enough, sitting on top of the frame was a small orange butterfly, with black and white stripes on its wings.

Sammy said it looked like a tiger. She tried to get closer to it but she was too small, and asked me to pick her up for a better look. She was so excited, her voice got louder and she began to squeal. The butterfly quickly flittered away, and landed behind us on the banister.

“Quick Mike, lets go!” Squealed Sammy, and we switched position over to the rail, but those striped wings flicked the light again and we lost sight of the little tiger for a moment.

“Wheresit gone?” Cried Sammy, and we looked around with an elevating panic. It had flown back onto the picture frame, and we jolted round again with whispering shouts of “there it is… wow…look at it…”

Then we heard the kitchen door open. Dad gruffly shouted, “What’s going on up there? I thought I told you to go to sleep.”

“A butterfly daddy,” said Sammy. “Come quick it’s a butterfly”

“It’s not a butterfly, Sammy,” he said. “It’s January. It’s too cold for butterflies.”

But I retorted immediately: “Dad, it is a butterfly, it really is, come and see.”

We heard Mum mutter something and dad sighing “they think they’ve seen a butterfly,” and a brief pause followed by “Yeah, that’s what I said.”

“Let’s see what all the fuss is about then.” he said, clunking his glass down on the Formica. I heard him mumble, “Probably just a moth”.

Sammy was so happy, “look Daddy here look a butterfly”

Dad walked halfway up the stairs and followed Sammy’s pointing finger with his eye and then looked at me and raised his left eyebrow. We were right.

“Bloody hell! It’s a red admiral!” He exclaimed, like it was a present he’d almost given up hoping for. “Where did that come from?” And then he called to Mum, “Jackie, come and have a look at this, the kids have found a red admiral!”

Possibly frightened by all the commotion, the bug flitted around the landing, from banister to wall, picture to picture, eventually settling on an ornament of a sheepdog which sat on the narrow shelf above the stairs. Sammy was squealing like a delighted mongoose. Dad told us both to calm down, and said that we should feed it something.

“Now, What do they like to eat?” He asked us, but we didn’t know. I offered nectar as an answer and Dad gave me an impressed look, but then he asked Sammy if she remembered the zoo from last summer, and the butterfly house, and the big blue butterfly that was sitting on a piece of fruit. Sammy said yes, she did remember, it had been hot and sticky in the butterfly house and the big blue butterfly was sitting on a banana, and the banana was black and yucky, but the butterfly didn’t care.

Dad asked Mum to bring some pieces of banana, but she said she didn’t want bits of fruit lying around the house that might attract mice. Well, this made Sammy squeal even more, because she wanted a mouse, and she started crawling around the landing making squeaky mouse noises.

Dad quickly picked her up and squeezed her quiet.

“Shhhh, don’t frighten it,” he whispered.

Sammy shushed.

He gently called down for Mum to bring the banana, but she was already at the foot of the stairs with one, sliced but unpeeled, laid out on a plate like it was for the queen.

“It’s not a red admiral though.” she said. “Red admirals are blacker. This is something else.”

“Jackie, it’s a red admiral, why do you always have to shoot me down?”

They exchanged a stern, silent interaction, which I could sense reciprocated the never spoken phrase, “Not in front of the kids.”

Mum handed him the plate of banana.

“Just don’t get it on the carpet” she said. Dad acknowledged this with a subtle hand gesture that meant “alright alright…” He knew the anger that messing up the house would elicit. Often in the past he’d walked in with muddy hands or oily boots. Once he tramped varnish into the living room carpet and mum didn’t speak to him for two days. He’d learned to be careful.

He placed the chunks of banana around the tops of the pictures and we all sat on the stairs waiting for the little creature to move. It stayed absolutely where it was, twitching it’s antennae every now and then. Dad told us to be patient, and Sammy yawned.

“Well, whatever it is, where the bloody hell did it come from?” Dad asked again, to nobody in particular. Nobody said anything.

“It’s too cold for butterflies” he repeated. “Nobody round here keeps butterflies, do they?”

Mum shook her head indistinctly.

“Maybe it was living in the loft” said Dad, “and it woke up early.”

Mum was silent. Her eyes were fixed on the little beast, which quickly flicked itself onto a chunk of banana.

“Ohh it likes that,” said dad, and we watched for a few minutes. Banana had been a good idea.

Mum didn’t take her eyes off it.

“It’s mum.” She said, quietly. “It’s mum saying goodbye.”

Dad nudged me and rolled his eyes.

“Stephen don’t.” Mum said sharply. Dad held his hands out like a clock at 5:35.

“What? I didn’t do anything.”

“Just because I didn’t see you do it,” she said, “doesn’t mean you didn’t. Stop it.”

He let out a deep sigh and apologised.

“Come on now guys,” he said to Sammy and me. “Time for bed.”

My room was directly above the kitchen. I could hear the low thunking of glass on wood, chair legs scraping the floor tiles, voices hushed and intimate. I switched off my lamp – I could hear better in the dark. I heard dad say, “OK Jackie, it could be.”

Mum was upset with him. She accused him of not understanding, for rejecting her views, not just that night but regularly. She was sobbing again, and I heard dad comfort her, I imagined him holding her, stroking her hair, kissing her forehead.

I didn’t hear anything else other than two or three more clunks of those heavy bottomed glasses. I fell asleep to the gently fading sounds of nighttime murmurs and shuffling.

Next morning I woke up before Sammy and ran out to the hallway. The chunks of banana had been cleared away, the picture frames had been dusted. There was no butterfly. Mum and Dad were downstairs in the lounge. Mum looked better, her eyes weren’t puffy anymore and her shoulders were relaxed. She was holding a picture of Grandma and Grandad from 40 years ago, just after Mum was born. They were sat on a beach, Grandad with his trouser legs rolled up, still wearing black socks and polished shoes. Grandma was very beautiful in a matching pale blue chiffon trouser suit. Her hair was short. They both looked very happy. Grandma was holding a baby girl – mum, I guessed. She was in a short legged baby grow and a floppy white hat. On the baby grow was a print of a very smiley caterpillar. A piece of paper in the bottom right corner of the photo had some writing on it. “On Towan Beach. June ‘81”

“Where’s the butterfly?” I asked.

Dad got up and led me into the kitchen.

“We let it go, Mike.”

“But it’s cold outside!”

“I know, but we couldn’t keep it. It’ll be alright.”

“Sammy will be upset”

“She’ll be fine, Mike”

“Do you think it was grandma like mum does?” I asked him. He turned to the back door, opened it, stepped out onto the patio. He was disappearing off to the shed, as usual.

“I don’t know son. It could have been. Your mum says some funny things sometimes. All I’m saying is that your grandma didn’t like bananas.”

 

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Home With The Nibbles – Steve Lodge

Piril Quench, child star of the 1960’s, was well known by people who knew him well. His claim to fame came at the age of 9 when he was chosen for the role of Georgie Nibbles in that exciting early 1960’s TV serial (today, it would be called a soap), “Home With The Nibbles.” Georgie’s catchphrase was “I fink the ‘amster’s dead.” This always yielded the reply from the rest of the family. “We ‘aven’t got an ‘amster.” Georgie’s catchphrase was ground-breaking at the time, but now, of course, is a bit lame.

This serial about a typical London family from The East End, starred Sunny Muldaur as the implausibly lovely Sally Nibbles, her with the exquisite hair, and Cliff Yeast as her husband, Tony.

This show went on to spawn 3 other successful TV series, the very popular “Knackers Yard” as well as “Do You Mind Awfully?” and “It’s Just Scrap, Jack.”

After the Nibbles had been deemed to have run its course (2 seasons), the TV companies plucked various characters from the original show for “Knackers Yard.” The Dad, Tony, the eldest boy, Loxley and his girlfriend, Crimson, the uncle, Les and his wife, Blossom and their next door neighbour, the West End singer, Peggy Slant and her husband/manager, Jack, along with Loxley’s mate, Grovesy. Loxley’s brother, Darryl, only appeared in one episode of the original series as he was in prison, but he is referred to throughout the entire series and “Knackers Yard” and “It’s Just Scrap, Jack.” Sadly, Georgie Nibbles, was one of the characters not retained for the splinter series. Piril’s star began to wane.

It says a lot about the skill of the writers and the actors that what started out as a fun, family show turned very dark and post-watershed in “Knackers Yard” and became very late night viewing in “It’s Just Scrap, Jack.”

Grovesy was shot in an early episode of “Knackers Yard” and Blossom ran off with the milkman, Dirk O’Keefe, whose head later turns up on wasteland behind prefabricated houses near the Yard. The rest of him was rumoured to be in the foundations of the Hendricks to Silvertown flyover. Blossom appeared again only at the very end of the last episode of “Knackers Yard,” when we assume it is her hand appearing through the open window of Les’ office at the Yard, stabbing him with the family’s ornate dagger, last seen when Blossom takes it as she leaves their home for the last time with Dirk waiting outside in his milkfloat.

Auntie Doreen down the road and Mr Syed in the newsagents in Flockhart Street see them racing off at 10 mph in the milkfloat.

Other characters in “Knackers Yard” are the 2 doctors at the Flockhart Street surgery, Dr Youssuf and Dr Fish, Sid the bookie and Jedidiah (Jed) the café owner, plus Ollie the Onion and Jack Scrap. Also the police are regularly represented by Inspector Pepper Titus and Sergeant Withers.

After 2 seasons, “Knackers Yard,” too, began to run out of steam, despite a couple of very successful storylines. Attempts to sell the series Stateside foundered due to the Americans finding Cockney English hard to understand.

“Do You Mind Awfully?” is still going today, although it has morphed now into a quiz/current affairs/comedy panel show and none of the Nibbles cast are involved anymore.

The last “Knackers Yard” episode closes with Inspector Pepper Titus and her Sergeant, Bob Withers, looking around the office for clues as a CSI member examines Les’ body. This is also the first scene in “It’s Just Scrap, Jack.” This ran for 2 seasons also.

The “Knackers Yard” episodes were particularly well written, mainly by the husband and wife writing team, Spyros and Minty Agathocleus. Storylines tended to concentrate on only 2 or 3 ex-characters from the “Home With The Nibbles” show and their interaction with the newer “Knackers Yard” characters.

Classic lines from the show include:-

LOXLEY: ‘ang on, if they shot ‘is head off, ‘ow do we know it was Dad?

LES: ‘e was the only person I ever knew who ‘ad the tattoo of a fish riding a bike on ‘is chest.

Or:-

LES: I lost a pile last night on the boxing.

JED: But I fort you said Sid ‘ad all the fights fixed.

LES: The next fing I’m going to fix is Sid. Permanently this time. I’ve given that clown too many chances.

JED: Sweet. I know you’ll make it look good.

LES: I’m an artist.

Here are some classic lines from the original “Home With The Nibbles.”

SALLY: Tony, you are a lazy toe-rag. Just ‘cos they shot you in the arm, ‘ow long are you going to sit at ‘ome all day on the sofa, waiting for television to be invented?

Or:-

LES: They ‘ad jugglers, ventriloquists, trapeze and everyfing over there. It was like being down the end of the pier or a circus or somefing. It was so noisy, I couldn’t ‘ear meself coughing up blood. Didn’t need to use a silencer on the gun, neither.

As mentioned earlier, throughout the series’ the son, Darryl is only seen once. He is in prison, serving a very long stretch. It is never mentioned why but in the episode where the family visit him, his Mum, Sally, asks her husband Tony (Darryl’s Dad) to get Darryl to tell him where the money is hidden. In that episode, Piril Quench as Georgie is presented with his finest scene. It is a touching moment when, at the end of the visit, he hands Darryl the GET OUT OF JAIL FREE card from the family’s Monopoly set, saying “Use it, Darryl. We miss you.”

It would be a long time before Piril made it back onto TV, as co-host with Garry Arrogant of an outdoorsy, adventure series. Sadly, with only Garry On Camping and Garry On Cruising filmed, Piril lost his long battle with drink and passed away on 4 April this year at the age of 46.

 

Steve Lodge is a wandering minstrel from London now based in Singapore. He has written a number of published short stories, plays, skits, poems and lyrics. He acts and is a regular on the Singapore Improv and Stand-up comedy circuit.

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Menu Choices – Josephine Galvin

Which would you prefer for tomorrow?

You are smiling vaguely and don’t appear to have heard so I translate for you.

Soup or orange juice?

Your smile broadens and meets mine. I wonder if your remembering those boarding house meals of my childhood. The plain typed menu card with the OR in capitals. Long before you took me pubs for Sunday lunch, longer before I treated you to restaurants with seafood and fancy terrines. Blackpool., remember? It was the same choice every night. Isn’t one a drink? I had asked you baffled by the restriction. Have the soup, you advised, its more filling…

Soup please, thank you.

Pasta bake, chicken Korma or ham sandwich. Wow that’s an improvement. It’s been some kind of derivation of hot pot for the last three days. Certainly, better than our landlady’s kitchens could cater for.

That was meat, a soft veg and some boiled potatoes. Tinned, I Think. I was a thin child…

He’ll have the Korma. That’s really nice, thank you.

I smile, and thank them again. We are learning to be grateful. We are too vulnerable to be otherwise.

Breakfast? why we have to go through this routine. He’s not been able to eat breakfast for the last week. At home I would have put warm milk on mushed up Weetabix. But we are not at home.

All boxes ticked she moves to the next bed and begins the same routine again.

Would you like anything now? I indicate the tea cooling in the beaker, the room temperature yoghurt salvaged from lunch. It’s a rhetorical question.

I watch your eyes closing and I’ll sit a while looking at the entirety of a past in which you have always been present. The long legs, that walked so quickly alongside the child running to keep up, are swollen today. It’s a sign apparently but I don’t know this until afterwards.

And tomorrow, at five o clock, your tea time, when family members have come and gone and cried in the special room they keep for viewing and probably just before they move your body to somewhere I can’t access anymore, I’ll think about that chicken Korma we chose for tonight and wonder what happens to it now.

 

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For Once in a Lifetime – Joy Manné

ACT III END

10. One Ending

Nancy held her father’s wrinkled hand and sang to him, songs they used to sing together, nursery rhymes and pop songs, all those years ago, her voice sweet, her mouth close to his ear, in the background the machines accompanying his groans and gasps with gurgles and gags.

Later, in the silence after a life ends, Nancy’s heart squeezed with painful longing for her younger brother who had declined to come. Nancy’s boy, as she’d called him when he was born, no longer hers.

In the furthest corner of the palliative care room, face and chair turned away, Nancy’s mother, accompanied by a nurse.

Nancy’s mother. A dumpy, grey-haired woman, wearing by choice a blue shirt dress like a nurse’s uniform that covered her knees, and she covered her knees too with her wrinkled hands, and held onto them, rocking and wailing.

9. Shredding Before an Ending

Her mother’s harsh, high-pitched voice shredded Nancy’s heart, shredded the heart too of Emily, Nancy’s daughter, standing close to Nancy and holding her hand; even seemed to shred the leaves of the wisteria showing its pretty face over the window ledge.

Shredded the air in the room.

‘You want me dead. You want my house. You want my treasures. What did I do to deserve a daughter like you?’

‘Mommy,’ Nancy said, tears stranding her cheeks, ‘We, agreed. You can’t live here anymore. You can’t take care of yourself. You’ve chosen where to go.’

‘Granny,’ Emily said, tears stranding her pretty, child’s face too.

‘You can’t take everything with you, Mommy. I only want things you can’t take. I want your things to remind me of you, of how you loved me, of how you were before you became ill. I don’t want them thrown away.’

Shredded, suddenly, too, the lostness in the frail old woman.

‘Nancy, darling,” she said, stepping forwards, her arms reaching out toward her daughter, her voice strong, stable, her expression now proud and generous.

The old lady’s blue eyes fell upon the child and she opened her arms wider.

‘Emily. Emily.’

Not yet near enough yet to embrace them, the old woman blinked and squinted as if dust had blown into her eyes.

“I know what you’re after, Nancy,” she shrieked, dropping her arms.

8. Little Brother

Nancy’s heart sings a song of painful longing for her younger brother who declines to visit.

She called him ‘Nancy’s boy’ when he was born because she loved him so dearly. Nancy’s boy now no longer hers.

At home, at school, in college they called her brother ‘Nancy-boy.’

Determined to become a ballet dancer, he practiced behind closed doors and as soon as he could, went far away where he could have lessons without being called names.

A success on the public stage, he never came back.

ACT II

MIDDLE

7. Another Kind of Ending

He wasn’t going shame himself by paying a private detective. He told Nancy he’d be playing bowls with his workmates and borrowed a friend’s car.

What he hated most was that she’d let her lover park in a lover’s car park in a woodland, and they had left the door of the car open for all to see.

He watched them through binoculars and took pictures.

Later, ashamed of himself, he took refuge in silence and impotence.

6. Imaginings

The door of the motel room was flimsy. Nancy recognised her husband’s voice and the voice of the woman with him. They’d been easy enough to find. ‘Do you have a Mr and Mrs Smith registered?’

Nancy had to rent a room to enter the building. Still holding the key, she returned to her car and drove off

All the things I imagined, Nancy thought. Entering old age together, developing tenderness, protectiveness, finding new qualities in each other as we matured, as we retired, as our physical beauty waned, as our bodies became used and weakened, as we had more time to explore each other, and together, to explore the world.

Refreshing our love.

5. Stagnation

Their children gone, their own jobs safe until retirement, depleted by predictability, Nancy booked a flight with a group of singles to a beach resort and tennis lessons. She’d always longed to learn tennis.

She packed her bag and opened the front door.

Painted faithfully by her imagination, his trusting face rose before her.

She closed the door and remained.

ACT I

BEGINNING

4. New Eyes

Back from college with new experiences, looking at parents with different eyes, knowing more about other people’s parents, looking at the closed door, beginning to wonder what goes on behind it, to really wonder, not like a kid, but like a woman who’s had sex, and often, and experimentally, and tried a few recreationals, as the euphemism calls them, and tried threesomes, and parties.

Nancy saw her parents with new eyes.

3. Nancy-boy

‘Nancy and Nancy-boy will now open the dancing.’

It’s Nancy’s parents 10th wedding anniversary. The hall is full of relations and friends.

Nancy cringes. She loves her little brother, and no one’s ever called him that to his face, or in front of her, not out loud, but their parents called him that when they thought their children were too young to understand.

‘Nancy-boy,’ not ‘Nancy’s boy’ as Nancy called her beloved younger brother from the beginning.

‘Nancy-boy,’ mumbling their fears and prejudices behind closed doors.

Especially their father.

Just because Nancy’s brother loved dancing, and danced well, and by contrast, Nancy had two left feet.

2. Another Beginning

Nancy’s older than her brother.

Her mother believed birth was for women: a doula to help with the delivery, birth at home, Nancy allowed to come in or out of the room as she chose, Nancy’s father sent away, favouring the custom in African tribes, where women gather for a birth and men may not approach until all is over.

Nancy’s mother didn’t understand that a little girl needs her father at a time like that, when it’s her own mother giving birth; when she’s made a participant in the pain of childbirth, when she can no longer have her mother the way she did before.

A little girl needs her father when a new baby comes, when she must learn to share her parents—when that new baby is the dear little brother that both of her parents had always longed for—for themselves.

1. A Beginning

It feels like a doorway. Nancy pushes against it with her head.

It won’t give way.

Something pushes against her from behind, like a door closing, pushing her out.

It’s a doorway she wants to get out of.

Or she wants to go back the way she came.

But there’s no returning.

Nancy’s ending won’t come for a long, long time.

 

Joy Manné links flash fictions into short stories, writing in parts: solos, duets, choruses; different views of the whole experienced by different characters as the story builds, arcs and reaches its ending. She also writes classical flash. She won the 2015 Geneva Writers Group prize for Non-Fiction and was one of three finalists in the Arkansas International 2017 Emerging Writer’s Prize in Fiction. She has also published children’s books.

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The Well Fed Peacock – Reshma Ruia

Neel’s marriage began unravelling like a spool of thread the day he brought home a peacock. It started like this: waiting to catch the bus home Neel saw a flash of turquoise. He looked up and down. It was the usual snarl of evening traffic on a hot, humid Delhi night, mopeds belched fumes, cars sounded their klaxons and harassed women hurried home, balancing babies and groceries. Lurking behind a large dusty hibiscus bush, he found a peacock pecking at a scattering of peanuts. In years to come when Neel had left Delhi and settled in his ancestral village by the sea, when his hair had turned silver and his back bent double with age, he still liked to tell who ever would stop to listen about the day he fell in love with a peacock.

The peacock lifted his eyes that were as blue as Lord Shiva’s neck and looked at him, unblinking, brave and trusting. Neel knew then that the bird would fill the heart- shaped hole in his life and be his companion in sickness and old age. God had not granted him children, but bestowed on him this gift instead as a consolation prize. How could he leave the bird alone in the thick smog of the Delhi night? It was bad enough in daytime, with rogue boys pulling at your pockets, their wheedling voices demanding food, shelter, money and even your life, if you had one to spare. Neel imagined the bird’s inert body with its exposed pink belly lying across the highway, each feather plucked by greedy hands that fashioned it into clumsy crescent shaped fans to sell to open-mouthed tourists salivating over the Taj Mahal.

‘I will look after you,’ Neel promised the bird. The peacock edged closer and pressed his stomach to his waist. Neel felt his insides clench like a fist. This is what love must feel like he thought running a tender hand across the peacock’s back, which felt scaly like the back of the pomfret his wife fried occasionally as a special treat. The thought of the pomfret deep-fried with mustard seeds and ginger made his stomach rumble. The peacock, as though reading his mind, flicked out its tongue and smacked its beak.

‘Let’s go home and eat,’ Neel told the bird. He carefully loosened his striped orange tie, untied the knot and pulled the polyester ends together carefully until he’d formed a kind of lasso, the type used by John Wayne in cowboy movies. Carefully, he edged forward, eyes intent on the shimmering silk of the peacock’s neck. One careful flick and the deed was done. The peacock was captive and was his. Kindly, but with a firm hand Neel guided the peacock home through the belch of evening traffic. Cars pulled up, excited children yelled and pointed stubby fingers at the bird. An old nun standing at the traffic lights crossed herself as she saw him walk past. Neel smiled at her. ‘My new love. The apple of my lonely eye.’ He threw this confession into the air like a bouquet, waiting to see who would catch it. But the city was busy and tired and didn’t care.

‘We have a new family member and he’s very hungry,’ Neel shouted to his wife, Geeta, pausing at the front door to remove his shoes.

‘Who has come? Is it your brother…’ his wife’s called out from the kitchen. ‘Tell him to sit. We’re having fish for dinner.’

‘Come and greet him,’ Neel shouted back. Bending down, so his mouth was next to the peacock’s head, he whispered.

‘Don’t worry. She is a kind woman. She will be like a mother to you.’ The peacock’s feathers quivered and he made a loud rasping sound, spitting out a small dead snake. Neel hastily pushed the snake with his foot under the sofa.

There they stood, Neel and the peacock in the front room, the bird clumsily wedged between the coffee table and the brown sofa. The bird kept making loud guttural sounds and began jabbing the crochet tablecloth.

Geeta came in and seeing the bird, screamed aloud.

‘What monster is this? Don’t you know it’s bad luck to keep a peacock? Have you gone mad! Get rid of him quick or he’ll end up in a ditch, ‘she said, one arm on her ample hip, the other swinging the Japanese knife she used to skin the pomfret gills. Her eyes bulged and blazed as she stared at the peacock.

‘He’s not leaving and there’s nothing you can do about it,’ Neel murmured. He thought of his life- the endless beige coloured days commuting to work and the nights, punctuated only by his wife’s bickering that fell steady like the monsoon rain.

‘I can compete with a woman, but I don’t hold a chance against this bloody bird,’ Geeta wailed, her heavy hipped frame leaning against the doorpost. ‘We have barely enough money to pay the bills or buy a car and there you are bringing home another belly to feed?’ She paused and spat in the peacock’s direction.

But Neel’s mind was made up. The peacock was here to stay.

‘Find a place in your heart for him please,’ he pleaded with his wife as they sat down to dinner. Neel tore little flakes of his fish and gave it to the peacock. The bird kept opening his beak and soon Neel’s pomfret was gone.

‘Our bird here has a healthy appetite,’ he grinned. ‘Make sure you feed him well.’ He told his wife.

An idea bubbled inside Geeta’s head as she slept. The next morning she beamed at her husband. ‘Don’t you worry, Neel. I will look after him,’ she said stroking the peacock’s crest.

She was going to feed the peacock until he became fat and slothful and lost the glint and gloss of his feathers. She would tempt him with sweets, cakes and sugary smiles. Neel would soon fall out of love with the bird just as he had with her.

The following day she pawned her wedding jewellery and bought sacks of flour, tubs of butter, cream, and kilos of demerara sugar and pistachio nuts. She was going to fatten the bird to death.

Every evening, Neel would rush home from work, quickly change into his shorts and take the peacock for a stroll in the public gardens. He bathed the peacock’s feet in the fountains and obliged passers-by who wanted a selfie. When the nights were too hot and clammy, he coaxed the bird up a flight of stairs to the roof, where he pointed out the stars and sang him lullabies. A local newspaper carried a special feature on him, titled, ‘One Man and his Peacock.’ Neel had the article framed and he showed it to his boss.

Meanwhile in the kitchen his wife bent double over the hob, prepared dishes swimming in butter, nuts and cream.

‘How come we’ve suddenly got so much wonderful food?’ Neel asked her, as she cajoled another mouthful into the peacock’s open beak.

Geeta patted his hand. ‘My uncle passed away and he left me a little inheritance. We can have as much fish and rice, as we like. We want our bird to be well-fed don’t we?’ She fed the peacock pancakes for breakfast, beef burritos for lunch and biryani for dinner.

Months passed and the peacock’s feathers gradually turned dull and his belly rotund. His eyes were heavy lidded with sloth. At night, he belched and kept Neel awake. On weekends, he refused to come out of the kitchen. Neel wept with worry. He checked the bird’s pulse and massaged his neck with coconut oil. The bird grunted in pain and bit Neel’s hand.

‘What’s wrong with my love,’ Neel asked the vet who pressed his stethoscope to the peacock’s heart. The vet shook his head and drew up a list of ailments. All the rich food had damaged the bird’s heart, liver and kidneys.

Neel’s peacock died on the first harvest moon of autumn. The next day Neel packed his bags and left home. His wife never saw him again.

 

Reshma Ruia is a novelist, short story writer and poet based in Manchester. Her first novel Something Black in the Lentil Soup was described in the Sunday Times as “a gem of straight-faced comedy”. Her second novel manuscript, A Mouthful of Silence, was shortlisted for the SI Leeds Literary Prize. Her poetry collection, ‘A Dinner Party in the Home Counties,’ won the 2019 Word Masala Award. Her work has appeared in British and international anthologies and magazines such as Fictive Dream, Lost Balloon, The Nottingham Review and the Mechanics Institute Review and commissioned for BBC Radio 4. She is the co-founder of The Whole Kahani, a collective of British writers of South Asian origin.

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40 Doses – Adrian Belmes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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A Great Fire – Anthony David Vernon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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War in the Clouds – Dylan Benjamin

When I walked into the garden the weather seemed to be at war too. The clouds in the sky hung thick, heavy and grey, but every now and then sharp beams of sunlight would punch through and touch the ground like angels reaching the earth.

I looked between the fallen fence and the boy as he zipped around nearby, pretending to shoot imaginary German soldiers. I took the time to study him, trying to scar his image into my memory forever. I wanted to be able to close my eyes and see him there, clear as day. Every freckle, every stray hair on his wild head. It felt like a branding iron.

He looked like his father, a mess of brown hair and those determined brown eyes. I’d fallen in love with those eyes twice. Once when I met his father at the town dance and again when I’d given birth to the boy. I wondered if there were clouds in France and I wondered if I’d ever see those first set of eyes again. Could I?

‘I said – that’ll be a job to put back up, won’t it?’

I snapped out of my thoughts and saw Mrs. Baker standing on the other side of my fallen fence at the back. Her thick jowls and pug-like face poked out between a heavy coat and a headscarf tied tightly over her head. It wasn’t raining but that was the kind of woman she was. In the battle between black clouds and sunlight she always expected the black clouds to win. Sometimes I think she even wanted them to.

‘Sorry, I was miles away,’ I said, checking my watch. I don’t know why I did it, habit I suppose. She was on time.

‘You’d do well to stay on Earth instead of having your head in the clouds. We need practicality in a time like this,’ Mrs. Baker said. ‘That fence won’t put itself up after all!’

I forced a smile at her that was mostly gritted teeth.

‘The troops keep knocking it down on their march. Over and over. Sometimes I feel like as soon as I put it up it gets knocked down again,’ I said.

A soft rumble began somewhere in the distance. I sighed. ‘But you’re right, I best make a start.’

The boy was hiding behind a tree, popping out every now and then to fire off some shots and throw invisible grenades. It made my eyes mist.

‘He’s quite wild, your boy, isn’t he?’ Mrs. Baker said, ignoring me.

‘Not always.’

‘Doesn’t seem to slow down.’

‘No. Everything seems to go so fast.’

The rumbling was getting louder.

‘Well, between you and me, I think he needs to calm down. You know my husband is the headmaster, don’t you? He was telling me-‘

‘Shut up. Mrs Baker.’

I wasn’t looking at her, but I could feel her looking at me. I could imagine her dropped jaw like I’d slapped her in the face. It wasn’t hard, I’d seen that expression before and today there was something in me. More spite.

‘He’s a boy. He’s playing. And we’re at war. Don’t you think children should be allowed to be children, Mrs. Baker? While they can?’

She twisted her face and sniffed rudely. The boy ran to my side and nuzzled into my leg and I held those moments like a guarded secret.

‘Mum, if I’m good, do you think we could go to the pictures later?’ he asked.

Mrs. Baker raised a thick eyebrow at me.

‘Of course, sweetheart,’ I said. ‘Why don’t we walk there and check the times? I don’t think it’s going to rain today. In fact, I think the sun will come out soon.’

His smile was filled with gaps where some teeth had fallen out and I thought how young he looked. How much like his father. I wish I’d had more money to leave under his pillow for sweets. I wish we’d gone to the pictures every day if that’s what he’d wanted.

‘One moment sweetheart, let me get my coat,’ I said, and he puffed up like a proud rooster.

I took the long walk back to the kitchen as the noise in the sky suddenly grew deafening. I shut the door behind me and stared at the floor because I couldn’t watch like I had the first few times and I knew better now than to try and change things.

When I woke up it was night, like it always was, and my head was pounding. Blood trickled down my forehead, stinging my eye. Dust lay in my chest and over and around me while my nostrils burned with the smell of fire. I wiggled my toes and shuffled under the wooden beam that lay on top of me.

This was the part that I struggled with the most. None of it was easy, of course, but deciding whether to stay under that beam or wiggle out of it like I had the first time was a terrible thing.

Should I climb through the wreckage of the house, wander into the garden and see a shoe, a torn sleeve from his jacket – a hand? The nights breeze on my skin made it crawl. I don’t know why I felt more alive when it touched me, maybe because so many people were dead? Feeling alive made me guilty.

I’d stand alone in the night and hear the nearby cries. The flames from burning buildings illumining parts of the darkness while sirens sounded too late. I’d think: Is this what it’s like in France? The wreckages and the anguish and the shouting? Is anyone I love still alive there? My husband or brothers? I’d take it all in and then the bomb would hit me all over again. The boy was dead.

The boy was dead and there would be no tomorrows for him. No more trips to the pictures and he would never age a single day more. I’d wish and I’d wish and I’d wish for more time with him and then-

-I’d be back in the kitchen. The smell of breakfast still lingering in the room and muddy shoes discarded by the door; everything just as it was.

War is a terrible thing. It robs you of the safeness you feel in everyday life. I don’t mean the concern for yourself but of the people you love, fighting in a foreign land and not knowing if they’re dead or alive. And that’s the point – as much as I love my husband and brothers, how do I know they’re even coming back? How can I give up this replay? This recurring loop of my son’s last moments for the roll of a dice that they might return home to me. Would it even be worth it, after the heartbreak? Could we cope? What feels like betrayal does leave a bitter taste in my mouth. It feels like a crime.

‘Can I go in the garden and play?’ the boy asked from behind me.

It took a minute before I could face him; I didn’t want him to see me cry. The minutes are precious but its alright, I can return to them.

When I opened the door and stepped outside into the garden I looked up at the sky. The weather seemed to be at war too.

 

Dylan Benjamin is a poet, writer and essayist from Newcastle. His work has featured in Misery Tourism, 101 Words and other publications and he has upcoming work in Door is a Jar Magazine. You can usually find him at the beach with his dog or follow him on Twitter @DylanBenjamin_

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The Woman in the Wedding Cake Tree – Martha Higgins

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

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

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

Janice tearfully calls Adam.

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

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

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

Janice’s voice wobbles with unformed sobs.

I’m afraid of that woman in the tree.

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

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

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

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

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

3. A new house with a chandelier in every room

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

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

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

7. Adam arrives home with flowers

8. Adam is choosing clothes for Mia to wear

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

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

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

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

It’s ok, Janice, it’s ok.

 

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The Shadow of Stained Glass – Michelle Matheson

‘Drink the water. I dare you!’

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

‘Loser!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iron like the outlines that form the stained glass.

Iron like a crowbar.

Iron like a weapon.

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

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

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

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Funnel Clouds – Kelle Schillaci Clarke

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

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

 

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

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 35 Contents Link

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Song Lyric Prompt

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From Jumbo by Curved Air (written by Darryl Richard Way/Sonia Kristina Linwood)

A Short Sequence of Strange Events – Nora Nadjarian

On my walk this morning, I saw a soldier’s uniform hanging on somebody’s balcony. Together with a pair of silver boots. Why hang up boots? Why silver?

It rained hard last night and I had a box of books out. And they got soaked. I hung them out to dry today. A passer-by might ask: Why books?

An old man was looking at his feet as I walked past. It died, he said, and I had no idea what he meant. A small white dog next to him was wagging its tail. An old man and a young dog have things to say to each other.

During the meeting, someone called i-Phone had his face muted. He could be the faceless man who sent me a friend request on Facebook. A ladder was visible behind the speaker. He wants to escape, it’s obvious.

Go all the way to the end of your mind, and back again. Dust off your memories and sweep the strangest bits into a little shovel.

The sky is a masterpiece this afternoon but I don’t know how to re-create it using blue curtains. I’m still learning to create masterpieces out of rubbish.

Nora Nadjarian is an award-winning Cypriot poet and writer. She has had poetry and short fiction published in international journals and anthologies.

Birthday Cake – Sara Magdy Amin

It was my 120th birthday. Yes, my birth-day. I was the last of my generation to have been “birthed” out of my biological mother. She made the call on the 9th of May of the year 2120 – some of you surely remember – it made headlines, went viral on the Cloud. Back then, traditional conception was still elective, still out there on the table. Current research has found this “an absurd choice in the face of scientifically recognised alternatives”. Ectogenesis is now the safest (and the only) way to populate our species.

You could say that my mother was very much a technophobe. I mean, she did try to keep up appearances. She did have her first grain implanted at the age of 16 (the legal age for consent before it was made compulsory), we had droids at home that helped out with the cleaning and the gardening and the dreary housework. She even went as far as buying some of the more senseless devices. But I wasn’t fooled when I heard her cursing under her breath, when I saw her scoffing at the promise of (some new device) “augmenting our lives” and becoming “a thing indispensable to the modern world”. I knew, as she violated the “Act of Unity” when she was caught in possession of a cross, that she unequivocally and absolutely detested it all.

She died when I was 18. Poisoned. A grain imploded under her skin on account of some faulty design, or as I always speculated, “attempted self-removal”. She died by the very thing she deplored. I sometimes think she died for being too earnest. You simply could not live in our time and carry yourself with such conviction. I would, however, on occasion, find myself rationalising her ways. The things she showed me, on the Cloud, about how it was over there in her world; I came to the conclusion that growing up, at the time of my mother, must have been a little bit strange.

In the few hours following my birth, the Chiefs announced that foetus farms where now fully functional. They demonstrated that they could replace the entire female experience of pregnancy with tubing, one biobag and a nourishing broth. Incubated and immersed in these artificial wombs, these foetuses grew, over the years, with the help of gene editing, to a genderless, raceless offspring with superhuman strengths. Greatness was the new normal. They were able to do what previous generations couldn’t, be who they could never become; one singular, unified species. I am told, on the other hand, that I am a man, though I’m not entirely sure what that means.

Still. I was haunted by my mother and her will to live in the past.

“Xen.” I called into my Agility Series 5X arm enhancement. “Disable functions.”

It was always her tradition, on my birthday, to bake me a cake. A simple white cake. 1 cup of white sugar, half a cup of butter, two eggs, two teaspoons of vanilla extract, one and a half cups of flour, one and three-quarter teaspoons of baking powder, half a cup of milk and her bare hands. I made a promise to keep up with that tradition.

I sat opposite the cake, took one long deep breath and blew out the candles.

Love the Most and Act the Worst – Mike Hickman

“Don’t you piss on your chips, son,” the old geezer said, but – from the state of the kid’s hands, the result of the nappy dangling from his behind – it wasn’t piss that he needed to worry about.

There were chips, though. Paul’s were served up on a paper plate and he said thank you and then waited for Matthew to be given his. He watched his schoolmate. He was already wrinkling his nose at the cousin with the mucky hands. He was bound to disapprove of the fat chips from the fryer. Paul had seen him notice the lard. But he didn’t wrinkle his nose. He just mumbled “thank you” somewhere into his lap and his grandfather smiled his nicotine-stained, gap-toothed smile, and then turned to the others round the table, stopping another cousin flicking spit wads at his sister and telling his wife to get a move on and dig in. Which she did, slapping spit wad cousin round the head on her way to the table.

“Happy days,” she said, cracking a Special Brew, and indicating the spread. “Knock yourself out.”

“You’re going round his?” Joanna had asked Paul at last break on Friday.

“He invited me,” Paul had told her, “and it’s not his. It’s his grandparents.”

“Same difference.”

“He doesn’t think so.”

“Got a cob on, ‘ave you?” the old geezer was saying.

Matthew looked up, worried that it was addressed at him, but it was spit wad cousin again.

“What is it with you lot? Getting lairy the whole time. Giving me gyp. You should be more like him.” The old geezer’s teeth fair rattled when he talked. They didn’t fit. He waved a chip fork at Matthew as his wife poured HP on her chips like it was gravy.

“Yeah,” spit wad cousin said, ‘why not be more like him? Scrimshaw.” He said the name like it was a swear word, but if he’d meant to swear, he’d have sworn, and he’d have got away with it, too. Matthew’s mother’s side were the Scrimshaws, he’d explained to Paul. But he didn’t get to go to theirs anymore. Not now he was with his dad.

“Why’s he want you to go?” Joanna had asked.

Paul had shrugged, but she’d had the answer anyway.

“He’s going to show off. Posh boy. Hey, you get to see how posh boy lives. Take photos.”

Paul watched Matthew as they cleared the lard chips and they caned it through the Vienetta and they talked of Chav Nav and Sheila down the road with her cob on and how she’d get her upcommence one day. He watched Matthew smile into his lap and never once meet their eyes.

“So?” Joanna asked on Monday morning, “how was it? Did he take you to the theatre or summing?”

Paul shook his head.

“So what’s his lot like, then?” Paul looked over at Matthew in the corner of the playground, with his Harry Potter.

“No different than you’d expect,” he told her.

Mike Hickman is a former academic and (very much current!) writer from York, England. He has written for Off the Rock Productions (stage and audio) and has recently been published in the Blake-Jones Review and the Cabinet of Heed.

New Beginnings – Simon Shergold

Eric walked past the familiar building, the one he knew so well, and turned the corner. Facing him were black iron gates and the stream of maroon jacketed children seemed to pick him up and carry him with their momentum, until he was standing in what could only be described as a non-playground. No climbing frame, no raised beds with vegetables … and no coloured markings on the floor to tell him where to stand. As his brain adjusted to this new world, a blur of tangled limbs wheeled past, spinning him around and landing him on his not so insubstantial backside.

‘Fuck’, he exhaled.

He knew two things about this word. One, he wasn’t supposed to use it. Two, it was the word his mum used when she watched Arsenal on the telly and his dad used when he saw their neighbour, Mrs Otterby, walking up the driveway. Experience told him the word was a sign of bad things – and so was entirely appropriate for him to use now.

‘Fuck’. It came again, indicating the seriousness of the situation.

He felt a tug at his arm and he looked up to see his best friend, Joe, staring down at him. Suddenly bells rang, loud and insistent, and the throng of children started to disperse in all directions, weaving around Eric like water round a rock. Joey hauled him up and guided him to the nearest building and up a flight of stairs. There were already 20 or so boys lined up outside the room – and in the doorway was a grey man with wispy hair and a crooked tie.

Eric looked at him with some confusion. He didn’t seem the sort of man who would play the tambourine in the class song first thing in the morning. He also didn’t appear to be dressed entirely appropriately for the days’ events with paint, water and sand. Eric’s sense of unease only deepened as the class filed in. He took his coat off and looked for his peg. The one with his name on and the panda above the hook. Nothing. Not a panda in sight. Just a row of green metal pegs, most of which were being hijacked by the mob now pushing past Eric.

Finally, he hung his coat and turned to find his seat on Giraffe Table. He’d been king of Giraffe Table for five years or so now and was hoping that –

The tables were in rows. All facing the front. No group setup. No early morning chatter. There was only one seat left, right in front of the grey man. Eric hurried over and stood behind his chair in silence, like all the other boys.

‘Abbot?’ The teacher barked, looking down at his big book. The absence of ‘Yes, Sir’ hovered in the room. Funny, thought Eric. Someone has my second name as his first name.

‘Abbot?’, ‘ABBOT?’ ‘Eric Abbot???’

Suddenly the truth dawned on Eric as eyes turned to him.

‘Fuck’, he answered.

Our Hollowed-Out Past – Mark Sadler

“I feel absolutely no connection to it,” complains Agnes Carr, two decades after her death in the bedroom a few feet from where she now perches, atop a small downward step. She stares into the short, sunlit corridor of the new extension, where she cannot go.

Brian Currie lost his entire right hand after he put it through the wall, into a first-floor room that did not exist when he was alive, pushing some unread books off a shelf in the process.

‘Good thing I didn’t put my head through,’ he says to himself as he stares down at the stump, amused by the thought. He wonders what’s become of his hand; whether it was erased from existence, or if it’s still there on the other side.

Adrian Foyle came down from the attic after they laid floorboards, emerging into the ebbing familiarity of his former home. He found a dust-grimed fragment of old wallpaper clinging to the tanned plaster, behind a vertical pipe, in one of the landing cupboards. He holds onto its curling edge like a security blanket, while the renovators advance through the house, eating up the interior landmarks of his past, leaving its shell intact.

Lin Cozens said “sod it” after they closed the ice cream factory and converted the old building into luxury flats. She went on into the clouded opacity of a light that glimmered a reluctant welcome.

Anthony Crab used to flick his percussion cloth at the drum kit of his old jazz quartet, to the irritation of his replacement. The group has long ago disbanded, its members drifting apart into continents of old age.

“What about the clutch of poisoners that used to be buried under the mistletoe, in the yard at Morleystone prison?” says the Reverend Mary Tomlin. “Don’t think for one moment they were grateful when they were mixed in with the hoi polloi in that choleric sunspot.”

The metal diamond lattice of the round patio table is projected as shadow onto her bare legs, making it look like she is wearing fishnet stockings; a hybrid of vicar and tart.

Mary brooks no argument in her exorcisms. She shoos the dead outside with her cardigan.

“The bishop of Canterbury once told me to do something useful with the shin-bone fragment of St Edward,” I remark. “He said that, if I planted it upright in the vicarage garden, it would banish every ghost within fifty miles.”

“If you did that, it would certainly save me a lot of bother.”

“What do I do when a member of the public turns up wanting to view our holy relic?”

Mary ponders my dilemma for a few moments.

“Buy some spare ribs from the supermarket. Whittle down one of the bones, then stain it with some tea. I doubt anyone will be the wiser.”

Inside, my housekeeper opens the front door to fetch the milk off the step.

A few feet away from me, the back door slams shut.

Ou konn kouri, ou pa konn kache* – Hannah Storm

I knew Haiti I told my editor when I heard about the earthquake. I knew Haiti I told myself boarding the plane, hiring the car to cross the border, passing hillsides stripped of trees and people stripped of everything.

I knew Haiti, I thought as I eked stories from this land where tales transfer between generations and few write down the words.

A decade taught me I did not.

How can anyone know somewhere when the ground is pulled from beneath its people? How can anyone know a place to which they have no legitimate connection but the perverse promise of returning to make amends?

I had visited Haiti twice before in 2004. The first time was with the Brazilian football team, playing a ‘peace match’ against the Haitian side: a fawning display of foreign muscle where Brazil led the peacekeeping mission without keeping peace. The lone female, I rode with other journalists in an armoured personnel carrier. Infront, the world’s most famous players sliced the sewage strewn streets and lifted the golden World Cup. Men, women and children clung from skeletal trees, stood in festering trash, climbed on corrugated roofs for a glimpse. In the greens and yellows of their heroes’ kit, they chanted and waved Brazilian flags with the misnomer ‘Ordem e Progreso’ [Order and Progress]. My mini disc recorded the magic, while I played back the previous evening in our fancy Dominican hotel, across the border. I’d stepped from the lift, and a man in Brazilian kit had pinned me to a wall. My memories are blurry. But I remember studying each player during the match, wondering was it him? Meanwhile the wealthy sat and the poor waited in the heat and filth for their heroes.

I couldn’t get over the disparity. I silenced the noise of my trauma in pursuit of the story of a place long abused by others.

Months later in my hotel high above the Caribbean, Barbancourt burnt my throat. My eyes watered, but I didn’t cry. No rum could negate the roar of gunfire or my guilt. As I drank, white men swaggered, arms tightening the tiny waists of local girls tottering like new born animals. I watched them talk, laugh and disappear into the shadows. I tried to navigate the story of something so normalised in this castle of privilege against a backdrop of pain. But I was scared.

By day, I paid a man with a golden capped smile to drive me to the slum Cite Soleil. In this place that meant Sunshine City, night meant no power and militias who raped women under cover of darkness. I wanted to tell these stories, but couldn’t find the words. I promised to return, but years past.

I knew Haiti, I told myself back in 2010, as I heard the hilltop hotel had collapsed, stealing lives. I knew Haiti I told myself when I returned home, wrecked and ragged.

A decade on, I know I was wrong. I had no right to suppose I knew this place – but with time, I have finally found a way to say I know myself.

(*Haitian proverb meaning: you know how to run, but you don’t know how to hide)

Blue Lagoon – Lou Adderline

Her new friend had called this monstrosity a ‘Blue Lagoon’. But she’d been to an actual lagoon, on holiday in Bali, and nothing there even approached the vivid shade of blue in the martini glass she’d just been presented with.

When she’d been told that moving to university would bring with it a whole swathe of new experiences, encountering new shades of blue was not what she’d thought they meant.

This particular radioactive looking drink must have been put in an inappropriate glass. A ‘Blue Lagoon’ wasn’t a martini. Granted she was not the most avid fan of the James Bond films but she would have remembered if one of 007’s defining features was a tongue the colour of a child’s after too many raspberry sweets. So, wrong type of glass, which didn’t bode well for the quality of the bar she’d been taken to.

In fairness though, visiting a bar was, in itself, a ‘new experience’. Bars had never been her thing. There was a pub at the end of her road where she’d sometimes found herself for family events, christening receptions, non-significant birthdays. That pub had always been familiar enough to be unthreatening, possibly because it had the same trodden paisley carpet as the church function room, as well as the same people.

She must have been eyeing the glass with suspicion for too long because her new friend ventured, “Not like the look of it?”

“I -,” she wasn’t sure what to say. It wasn’t as straight forward as liking or not liking it. Rather, she was just overwhelmed by everything. University was a new stage of her life, she’d moved to a new town, into a new room. She’d spent the last three days meeting a constant stream of new people. They’d asked if she wanted to go to ‘the bar’. A whole new setting. New settings had different rules, rituals, ways to be interacted with that she was having to learn on the fly. It was so loud. Crammed into a booth with the latest set of strangers having conversations in every direction. Her senses were at capacity. Brimming with anxiety that was threatening to spill over the rim if, on top of it all, she now had to interact with this whole new shade of blue.

Her new friend smiled gently from across the table, “You don’t have to drink, you know. You can stick with water.”

“It’s loud.” She replied. Then kicked herself for the non sequitur.

“Wanna go outside for a bit?”

They made their way out of the back entrance into an alley. There were a few sparse huddles of people smoking, the smell mingling with that of the open bins – but overall it was a significant reduction in sensory input.

They stood for a moment in the warm night breeze. She was still gripping the stem of her glass.

“You know – I’m sure those,” her new friend nodded towards the Blue Lagoon, “are meant to come in those big, wavy glasses. I mean, its vodka, it’s not a martini.”

She blinked, “That’s – exactly what I thought.”

She almost didn’t notice herself relax enough to take an absent-minded sip.

Lou Adderline is a recently lapsed academic currently trying to ‘write more’. This is the first piece of fiction she has submitted to a publication. She’s on Twitter @loufuchsia

FROM THE CORONA POEMS – Kathryn de Lyon

VIII. THEY SAID, “THINGS OVER THERE MIGHT BE A LITTLE BIT STRANGE.” (THE ALIENS)

Like the stars we have just travelled through
they are multicoloured and scattered.
So much space between them.
No clusters, no groups,
rarely more than two of them together.

They move away from each other
like planets with strange orbits.
No gravity pulls them together.

A multitude of silent buildings
stand stiff and ignored
like boxes wrapped and waiting
for hands that will never open them.

Countless roads are running everywhere,
endless scratches
with few motorised vehicles
moving over them.

They said things over here
might be a little bit strange.

Indeed, strange creatures,
solitary,
unfriendly,
uncaring.

Perhaps we should not care
either.

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From Tango Till They’re Sore by Tom Waits (written by Tom Waits)

Chequered – Mike Hickman

One profile photo and two weeks’ worth of texts about what he wanted, what he needed, and every one of them some kind of true, led him there. The Mark in the photograph became a different person. A truer person. The kind who’d respond to ‘stickers’ and ‘likes’ and ‘flirts’. The kind who would then be rewarded, this one (Mark told himself) not-to-be-repeated night, with an invitation first for pre-drinks at her house and then for the kind of night out on the town that the version of him in the photo had never previously had.

That much was also true. He’d told Sylvie that, just as he’d explained what he’d have been doing if he hadn’t accepted her offer.

The third or fourth pub was a micro-brewery – Chequers – and they were packed in too tight, with no chance of the necessary distance he thought he’d need for the one lie he had to tell.

Just the one, to slide underneath all the truth he’d so far presented in plain, easy-to-read, 12 pt. font.

The truth he continued to use against himself, right there, in that Brexity bar with the stippled, rippled bald heads and checked shirts all around. Checked shirts – chequers. Yeah, he’d been amused by that, and told her, too. Possibly within earshot of the bald heads, and she’d been faux scandalised, but it was just the sort of thing that a man like him would say out loud, not thinking of the risk of a bunch of fives in the cake hole.

Sylvie liked him for his inexperience. And all it had taken was the truth. They stood back-to-back against the pillar, and he’d told her the first LP he’d ever bought (Abba – mortifying) and the first film he’d ever seen at the cinema (Young Einstein – worse) and she’d laughed and she’d twinkled and he’d twinkled and he’d thought how easy it was when all he had to do was Tell The Truth.

He was a sensitive soul – every one of his truths had supported that – and so Sylvie took her time working up to the question. It was nearing midnight and now they were in the window of the bar where she’d suggested they might most successfully scandalise the street.

‘Where is she now, then?’ she’d asked.

And he hadn’t needed the lie. Just the truth she expected to hear.

‘Where is she now, then?’ she asks.

Mark looks across the faded consulting room, checks the clock behind the woman’s head, realises that there’s a good ten minutes of the session to go and remembers what she had said about this being the one place where he needs most of all to be honest. Not with her. With himself.

But he had told the truth that night that led to every night – until every night had led to none. It had been plain, simple, easy-to-read, not chequered.

He uses the same words he had used that night.

‘She’s gone to her mother’s,’ he says.

Mike Hickman is a former academic and (very much current!) writer from York, England. He has written for Off the Rock Productions (stage and audio) and has recently been published in the Blake-Jones Review and the Cabinet of Heed.

Confessions of a Moon Child – Nicola Lennon

Once a month or so, the girl would fall
from grace. They took her
by the hand, reciting the way
to ask for forgiveness, rosary beads trailing,
Our Fathers falling
away.

Her father left her in the box. She saw
how he washed away his sins,
filling the font. She waded
through spilt beads until she found
it wasn’t him. It was the moon that took her
home.

She was careful, after that. Good.
She told the priest a tale, reciting
how she pushed a boy. Later,
the moon would shine through stained-
glass sky, and she prayed for a boy
to push.

On her final visit, she confessed
the lie. She brandished it
with a sharpened smile and, there,
she said it. The truth left her tongue like fallen
communion in its full moon
disgrace.

Cabinet Of Heed SOC Stay Safe

Photo Prompts

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Image by MabelAmber via Pixabay

Summer Holidays – Sarah O’Connor

It’s still there. Draped aloft on the wall by the tram stop to attract attention, by some kindly passerby who recognised it as a precious object. Worn but cared for, loose wool strands carefully stitched back in over the years. I pass it twice a week, crossing the bridge on my way to the Co-op for milk or bread or other essentials. Only essentials now of course. And yes, those bottles of wine down the bottom of my basket are essential. Maybe the volume is a bit much for someone living alone but… People said to be kind to myself and a nice Valpolicella is my treat. Nothing cheap obviously. I’ll keep my standards if nothing else.

The thick wool looks increasingly incongruous. It was March back then, and still cold, on the Thursday evening he last came back from the office with winter carried on the breeze. Laden with laptop and office files and a stack of panic buys from Waterstones to keep himself occupied for what he could see coming, he hadn’t noticed it fall from one of his many overstuffed bags for life. Now people pass it in flip-flops and shorts or linen sundresses and despite the cheerful colours calling out, its weight is like a relic from another time. A different world within touching distance – both millimetres and universes away from us. Before the coughs and breathlessness. The lethargy and pain.

I could just claim it of course. Take it from the wall, bury my nose deep within familiar fibres and carry it home to join the rest of his wardrobe. But I can’t. The scarf sits there like graffiti marking his last journey in the world. Before the fever hit and we stayed within our walls. I only spotted it about a month ago when I started doing my own shopping again. And by then it already felt part of the landscape. A shrine to his existence in this place and time. I keep wondering if someone will recognise it. Will they pick it up and return it to me as a symbolic offering? But no-one here knows us. On this anonymous street where even distinctive flourishes like his Tom Baker scarf go unremarked. Of course Sharon next door knows – she saw the parade of official vehicles that morning. Whenever she sees me over the fence, she straightens a spine crooked from years and gardening to give me a serious, sympathetic half-smile. I will let her know if there’s anything she can do, thanks. But there won’t be. We both know that, and perhaps the offer comes from knowing that. I sit and stare at the grass growing tall – it’s past my knees now for lack of his skills with the half-broken lawn mower. I put down the unread tome from his reading pile, take a sip of my chilled Chenin Blanc, and watch some ants as they scurry around my feet.

Monster Maze – Thomas Roberts

Alice was wearing only her nightie which wasn’t nearly enough, all things considered. She was standing on a cold, dark road which was flanked by two grey brick walls. She was alone in the maze – his maze. And there he was, in front of her, semi-transparent and chuckling. The ugly Troll Prince.

‘You’ he said, ‘Ha Ha! You will not find your way through my maze. You will not reach my Castle. You will not earn the right to become my Queen.’ He pointed at her. He wore several large rings with shining stones which looked like they should snap his shrivelled little fingers. Ugh, and his nails were long and brown with filth.

‘When I get to you, I’m gonna…’ she reached out to throttle him, but her hands just passed through.

‘Oh, fair maiden, I am a gentle Troll. We cannot have you freeze to death as you try. No, Ha Ha! Good luck, my dear, in the – Ha! – in my Monster Maze’. He stepped back, and blurred away into non-existence, leaving only a striped scarf in its place.

Marry him? She was going to bloody well kill him.

She kicked gently at the scarf with the end of her toe. It seemed to be just a normal scarf. She picked it up and, satisfied that it wasn’t going to strangle her, put it on. She took a deep breath and set off. She would find the way to his Castle.

On that first day in the maze she saw several small creatures which looked like rodents, though they had very long ears with fluffy whiskers at the end, and they were bright bubble-gum blue. That evening, as the sun fell, an incredible darkness fell between the cold brick walls. Exhausted, she found a corner and fell asleep quickly.

Someone was tugging at her scarf. She opened her eyes in a panic – it was one of the blue creatures sitting cross-legged beside her, pulling it. She reached out and snapped its neck. She hadn’t eaten in a day, and at least now there would be breakfast in the morning.

Days and weeks passed.

The blue vermin had disappeared, she had probably eaten them all – they tasted like mint and had been easy to catch – one day she came across a pair of identical yellow birds and caught one, though the other managed to escape, flying away. It stayed far from her now, and sang a beautiful lament for its dead partner every sunset.

Months passed.

She was so hungry now that she couldn’t move. She couldn’t even bring herself to lick at the moss and morning dew on the walls. She just lay there.

She died there.

She decayed there.

The scarf gradually worked free, finally breaking through her mouldy neck and flying up into the sky, riding the wind for a short while, before finally settling atop one of the grey walls not that far away; right beside the exit of the maze, where there was a gaggle of the small blue creatures and the lonely yellow bird. They were all glad to see the scarf for they understood that the awful monster was now dead. One of the blue critters held a small paw and took the yellow bird’s wing.

“Now we can go home” it said, and they all walked back into the maze together.

Cosplay – Mike Hickman

In 12 foot multi-coloured scarf, cigar-scented maroon velvet jacket and 1970s Bernard Manning comedy club clip-on bow tie, the boy was many things – he was certainly called them, too – but what he was most of all was a collision of Doctors. A provocation of Doctors, if not a deliberate, panama hat topped frustration of Doctors. No Class 10 child from Derby Road Junior was meant to look like he looked. No child in town had perhaps ever tried to look like he looked, not on a Saturday afternoon, not on any afternoon, and certainly not in Fleming Park, amongst the jumpers for goalposts and the dog walkers and the winos. Although, in truth, he wasn’t meant to look like this. Hadn’t even perhaps intended to.

But it was his birthday.

Now, with the internet and the relaxation in mandatory anti-Anorak prejudice, it is possible to get the knitting pattern online. You’ll need size 4 knitting needles and 26 25gm balls of wool in various colours (purple, camel, bronze, mustard, rust, grey, and greenish brown, if you want to get it exactly right). Cast on 60 stitches and then begin – 8 purple rows, 52 camel, 16 bronze, and on and on exactly as Begonia Pope had – you can look her up too; that’s a real name – when James Acheson had given her the wool, told her to knit the scarf, not told her when to stop. The boy had heard the story then and he accepted it as funny. It’s almost certain he would have wanted stories of his own. The costume – they call it ‘cosplay’ now – might have helped, he thought. If he’d had chance to think.

It was a present. Along with the jacket and the bow-tie his father had worn once in 1977 to a do that may or may not have involved naked ladies.

Someone must have said he would like it. A scarf, you know, like that “Doctor ‘oo” off the telly. That bloody thing he talks about all the time, when he’s not reading about it. He wants to look like him. He’s got the hair, too. He won’t have it cut. Looks like a bloody circus clown. Why not knit him the scarf? That’ll keep him happy.

It didn’t. Not then. And none of it went. If he’d joined the kids jeering and throwing spit wads, he’d have said it was all Wrong, all of it. Not just the length of the scarf and the colours, but you couldn’t have the Pertwee jacket and the McCoy hat together in the same place. It was all Wrong. As wrong as the boy on the mound in Fleming Park, as if put there for Obloquy’s sake. And still there years later, too.

But. He had been a collision and a provocation of Doctors out there in front of them that day. He had worn the scarf. He had looped it round that moment and he had pulled himself out and over.

He would wear it again.

All Was Left A Scarf – Fred McKenney

So what do we have now
I see it from the window
the neighbor’s daughter
must have gotten out again
poor thing, she walks
and doesn’t know yet
what happens when you
step outside your depth
we have walls now
and fears, with phantom
images at play in our front lawns,
– simulated hopscotch
and I’ll pretend the children’s
laughter is all I miss,
but that girl, she’s gone too
(dissolved like all the others)
and the unkempt yard
overrun with ghosts.

The Edge of Tomorrow – Geraldine Renton

We danced.
We sang.
We drank.
We fell in love with strangers.
We drank some more.
The night became close to dawn as we strolled through the uninhabited streets of Galway.
We ambled past the Spanish Arch as the sun rose over the old long walk.
We wandered towards the Claddagh and sat with our legs dangling over the water’s edge.
Swans began to make their way toward us, despite us repeatedly telling them we had nothing for them only vodka.
We sat side by side and watched them seamlessly float along the still water, ever hopeful.
We didn’t speak.
Maybe, we each knew that this was the end; right here, right now.
We broke the silence only to recall drunken snippets of the night before.
We felt, for now, time had stood still,just for us.
We sat for another while longer, we were in no rush.
We laughed about the things we did over the years and marvelled aloud about what was yet to come.
“Are we doing anything today?” I glanced down our line of four.
“Don’t think so. I’ve to go home and pack,” she shaded her eyes from the heightening sun.
“Yeah me too”, “Yep me in all” echoed the final voice.
Deflated, I peered down at the water and watched the swans veering closer to our feet.
Slowly I bobbed my head up and down.
We drained the last of the vodka before getting up.
“Halloween, so?” I inquired.
“Ah hello?! Halloween!” They traded glances before adding “We will do our best! But definitely Christmas”
“Well, that will be some night then, eh?” I grinned.
“Yep, for sure” they all agreed.
I yanked my scarf up off the ground, shaking the final pieces of grass loose.
They began to chuckle -“What are we going to do without you, the one who always brings something for us to sit on?!”
“My dad assumed I was telling him that I was gay when he saw it.”
We all cracked up.
“In fairness, I’m impressed your dad knows it’s a pride scarf!”
I contemplated Would I ever have friends like this again?
“Well, it’s actually just a multicoloured scarf, but it could be used for pride, I suppose” I studied my scarf.
“Here take it, sure wouldn’t it be grand in the big smoke for ya” I passed it to her.
She held it, “You sure?”
“Absofuckinglutely…plus it guarantees at least YOU will come back, it’s not for keeps though, my dad likes it too” I winked.
“He might be trying to tell you something!”
We all laughed.
“We will be back soon, promise” we hugged for a moment.
I’d miss them more than they would miss me, I knew that much was true.
We walked through the awakening city, arm in arm, before getting into four separate taxis.

 

elephant-1822516_1920

Image by sasint via Pixabay

Sanctuary – Judy Darley

Mo wasn’t in the mood for the tourists this morning. Tata could see that from the rigidity of her ears and the way she tried to swish the stump that was all that remained of her tail. While visitors rushed to feed other elephants, he shielded Mo from them, clucking to her softly.

“Elephants have moods like we do,” he told a white-blonde child who crept close. “Mama Mo tired so we her give space.”

Mo was the old grandma of the group. She’d spent her youth carrying tourists before that was frowned upon.

Given the choice, he knew Mo would be alone with her thoughts, remembering the family she’d lost, the men who’d taken her, and the one who’d cruelly severed her tail. When she arrived at the sanctuary two decades ago, she’d held a calf in her belly; he remembered it shifting beneath his palm in the vastness of her womb.

“Touch firm, so she knows it’s you,” he recalled his father teaching him. “Otherwise you’re like a mosquito, not much anything good.”

He watched as the child withdrew to stand a short distance away. Her quietness contrasted sharply with the youngsters shrieking, waving food and retreating from searching trunks. At first, he wondered if she was afraid, but the look she and the elephant shared was one of curiosity, of trust. It had taken him months to earn Mo’s confidence that soundly.

She held a small cucumber in her hand but made no move to offer it to Mo.

“You want to feed her?” he asked.

The child didn’t respond.

Mo’s trunk swayed outwards, exploring the scents in the air.

“You tease Mo,” he warned. “She smell cucumber and don’t know why you don’t give it her.”

He left Mo’s side and walked to the child. She blinked at him as he gently lifted her arm. “Come closer,” he said, but it was Mo who stepped forward, not the child.

He showed the girl how to hold the cucumber where Mo could grasp it, her trunk tip as sensitive as human fingers. The child’s eyes widened as Mo’s breath huffed over her and the trunk curled upwards, coiling the cucumber onto her fleshy tongue. The girl’s laughter was almost noiseless, punctuated by small gasps. She glanced from Mo to Tata and returned his beam, clapping small hands with a patter like rain on banana leaves.

Tata and Mo watched as the child ran to her waiting parents, who’d been observing throughout, Tata realised now. Her fingers danced in the air, painting a story of courage, wonder and joy. The parents signed back, and the mother mouthed a thank you to Tata across the sanctuary.

When the other elephants marched to the pool where tourists would cloak them in mud, Tata allowed Mo to lead him to the spot where she liked to stand and gaze. He rubbed her shoulder, as high as he could reach, feeling the thick skin move beneath his hand.

Judy Darley is a British writer who can’t stop writing about the fallibilities of the human mind. Her fiction has been published in the UK, New Zealand, India, US and Canada, and performed in Hong Kong. Judy’s short story collection Sky Light Rain is out now. Find Judy at http://www.SkyLightRain.com and https://twitter.com/JudyDarley.

 

Where Buddha meets Bambi – Bayveen O’Connell

When you visit Nara, Japan’s first capital, you will most likely be frisked by Bambi or one of his cohort. Roaming Nara Park freely, resting, and grazing, these deer are considered to be a National Treasure. So if one trots over all spindly legged, with perfect eyelashes and candelabra antlers but you don’t have any of the coveted shika senbei (specially made deer crackers available from park vendors), this deer is wont to stick its muzzle in your pocket and chew up your map or tissues. Don’t fear though, these rather tame Sika aren’t all pushy. Although I did see one young woman yelping and zig-zagging down the road being chased by a cheeky one; it would be unfair to think of the deer as pests due to the fact that they are constantly being pursued by tourists with selfie sticks seeking the perfect Insta snap. The locals don’t bat an eyelid if a deer is sniffing around outside a 7 Eleven convenience store, and look on amused while the Sika and the visitors negotiate their own, often comical, symbiosis.

You were wondering what’s so special about these animals and why they have the run of the park and city? Legend has it that the Shinto god of thunder, Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto, rode into Nara on a white deer over a millennium ago. Takemikazuchi and three other gods became absorbed into the Kasuga Taisha Shrine, leaving the Sika as their messengers and protectors of the city.

Some tourists go to Nara just to hang out with the deer, others for its second biggest attraction: the Daibutsu or 15m bronze Buddha statue housed in one of the world’s largest wooden buildings, Todai-ji Temple. The Daibutsu, which was my main draw, is a vast sight to behold and well worth running the gauntlet of curious Sika. I stood in front of the Buddha and craned my neck to take in the whole tableau of the gargantuan sitting deity lit up from behind by a golden halo of smaller buddhas. After traversing the temple in an anti-clockwise flow, noting the warrior protectors that flanked the Daibutsu on both sides, I took one last stare at him, marvelling at this feat of art and engineering dating back to the 700s. Given that this was the busiest of all the temples I’d visited in Japan, I didn’t feel any calmness or inner peace but that was restored on the long walk back out of the park. And there was a deer waiting for me just beyond the Nandai gate as evening was starting to fall.

A world away from the Celtic horned god Cernunnos, the elusive herbivores of The Phoenix Park, and carrots I left out for Rudolph in my formative years, I strolled the way I came passing more posing Sika, some of them bowing for a biscuit. The souvenirs I’d passed earlier near the train station suddenly made sense: little laughing bald guys with horns. Of course, nothing marries Nara more than a horny Buddha.

 

One Evergreen Autumn – Mark Sadler

I was a crater wirer during the early years of the second great war. I am neither proud, nor ashamed of it. I knew my way around explosives so that’s what I did. We operated in teams of three, wiring the shell craters with booby traps. It was battlefield terrorism. Getting your enemies into a mindset where they were wary of taking cover.

Burma was an entirely different kettle of fish. It was jungle warfare. The enemy could strike at you from any direction. The only trenches were the natural ones that had been dug out by the forest elephants. I suppose that it made it easier for them to move around between the trees. It made it somewhat easier for us to move supplies around too, although there were risks attached.

We were camped where the beak of the savannah penetrated the forest. Nearby there was a church run by evangelical missionaries. When I returned to Burma, thirty years later, the only remnant of the Christian faith in the area were the hallelujah apes. They were descendants of the gibbons who had learned to crudely mimic the hymns that were sung by the revivalist congregation. They could never get to grips with the melodies, but they had the rhythmic structure down pat. They’re a tourist attraction now. Hearing them again; it brought back bad memories.

Buddhism always seemed a better fit for the country. During the war, you would sometimes spot the monks, in their saffron robes, wandering through the trees while the fighting was going on, as if everything was normal. They would sit cross-legged in the jungle trenches meditating. Every elephant who ambled past would very-gently lay down a single green leaf at their feet, as if they were bestowing a blessing.

One of the local guides told me: “The elephants are on a journey. They recognise the monks as travellers on the same path.”

“If they carry on much further south-west they’ll hit the Bay of Bengal,” I replied.

“Maybe these elephants no longer wish to inhabit the land,” he said. “They are making the long journey back to the water.”

Then he put his hand on my arm and said: “Who is wiser?”

Our patrols were being routinely ambushed. There was a feeling that somebody was leaking information. Suspicion fell on the monks.

One morning, we were moving heavy supplies through the jungle trench network. There was a young man mediating in the middle of the path, blocking our way. After he repeatedly failed to acknowledge our requests for him to move, I shot him in the head. Nobody told me to do it. We’d lost a few men the night before. Him sitting there in a trance, like none of it mattered, was the final straw for me.

When we came back later, there was a fresh pile of green leaves where the body had been.

In the trees, the gibbons hooted a discordant chorus of All Things Bright and Beautiful.

 

Expiation – Mike Hickman

Do I give this to you because I want you to take it, or because you want to take it from me? Is this some kind of need, on your part as well as mine? Is it dependency if you are just there and I do not ask before weighing you down? And where does ‘just’ come into it when I don’t question how you come to find me here in this place? When we don’t so much as exchange a look before the offering – when I do not need to explain what I am handing to you as you reach to take it? As I assume so very readily that you can.

You know, of course, that I cannot explain what it contains – that much is unspoken. And yet you come, from how far away I won’t ask, and you don’t mind. You sit, seeming content, and I trust to the contentment without needing to see it because I have seen it before. Somewhen. Before I realised – did I? – what you were content to take. Realised what you could bear.

I feel you’d prefer not to tell me why you would so willingly accept the offering. Is this some kind of symbiosis? Is that the word? Or is it a form of desire? You look like you’d know – your eyes, they tell me that you’d know. Simpatico, perhaps? Is that what we could one day have again, even if I’m not sure we had it before?

Do I give this to you because you need to receive it from me? Because you’ve waited for this? Because our past, I’ve learned – is it learning? – was without the sharing that would have confirmed that there was properly something between us?

Did I realise – did you tell me? – how one-sided it had all been, that I wouldn’t ‘open up’? I remember those words, even if not who said them. It has to be two-way, this sort of thing. Whatever this sort of thing happens to be.

Did you tell me that?

It has to be two-way. But in order to receive, I first have to give. I have to commit to give. I have to know that you can bear what I am carrying.

So is this expiation? Do I give this to you because I’ve realised – or you’ve told me – that it will stand as expiation for the hitherto unshared and the half of us that wasn’t? And if you sit and you wait and you take it from me on those terms, can I be happy with that? Can I be happy with it being more about the recognition that you can receive – that I have been wrong in the past to assume that you can’t – and that the contents of the container matter less than this one act of recognition as it passes from me to you. As you are there, as you have always been, to take it?

Is that what this is? As ever, I pass.

 

Cabinet Of Heed SOC Stay Safe

One Word Prompts

Soup Banner

Soup – Taiwo Patrick Akanbi

the hollow-settler
always sizzling with joy
with bubbling stares while
its ironclad house is seated on fire

finger-licking tongue-biting suasion
cheek-activating mouth-watering sensation
the no-eye-swallow escort
and full-eye-baring-grain transporter

the style-trender
garnished with varying seasonings
for supping times, all seasons borne
at its nap-hour, it makes-up with spreading oil

with enough spicy-pepper
hot-to-the-taste, and tongue rending
a delicious soup speaks to the eye
devouring it, is its savouring

Minestrone – Mike Hickman

57 varieties, twenty thousand genes, forty-six chromosomes, 45p.

Diploid cells contain all forty-six chromosomes. Chromosomes contain DNA.

The can contained Minestrone. The cheap kind. It looked like something you’d find on the pavement on a Saturday morning.

DNA is the blueprint, its bases arranged in pairs. There are six billion base pairs and their sequences result in proteins – proteins that can be mutated; mutations that then result in hair colour, height, behaviour.

They don’t have to be fatal.

The cupboard was all cans. Some of them had labels. The Minestrone didn’t. It was a “surprise”. We liked those. We were told we did. The first three out of the cupboard had been Ambrosia Devon Custard. She liked Ambrosia Devon Custard. They were decanted into a bowl and put in the fridge with the single block of Cheddar and the single two finger Kit-Kat. There was no need to account for those. They’d last her a week, easy.

I reached in for a fourth can. The fourth can was the Minestrone.

45p.

Promoters and Inhibitors result from alterations to the genetic code. Promoters and Inhibitors control neurotransmitters. Dopamine. Serotonin. The gas and brake pedals of the brain, so the books say. Too much of one and you’ve got depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, panic attacks. Psychopathy. Too much of the other and things happen.

Things happen.

The frontal cortex goes offline and, before you know it, you don’t need to know it. You’ve done it.

So the books say.

There was no label on the tin and no knowledge of the contents until the lid was removed.

Watery, brackish, rust-coloured, thin.

45p.

“You opened it,” she said, “you eat it.”

Neurotransmitters. Dopamine and Serotonin. Just how much they affect you depends on your genetic make-up. Depends, too, on enzymes such as MAO-A, to break them down when they’ve done their thing; to stop them signalling. And from this breakdown – or not – comes further behaviour – or not. Emotion, aggression, sexuality. Everyone different. More than 57 varieties.

I’d opened it so I’d eat it. She’d said so. The lid said 45p. I had 45p.

I went over to the hob – for some reason, they were all watching, so perhaps they knew this was coming – and I went to turn the dial – it came off in my hand, I remember that. No-one laughed.

Given the sheer number of combinations of genes – the role of glutamate and amino acids and more besides – there are thousands of different “normal” frontal cortices, and millions of different ways in which neurotransmitters can be pulled out of the synapses. Can be terminated.

“You’ve paid me for the soup,” she said, “but you’ll take the electricity without thinking, won’t you?”

She’d been working up to it. No matter which one of the cans I’d pulled out of the cupboard, it was all leading here. She was waiting on my response. She’d got the others there to see me shame myself. Again.

The shame I struggle to understand in the soup of Me.

Me and Gran – Simon Shergold

It turns out that Oxtail is the best soup if you are going to poison someone. Something to do with the rich beefy stock and the tangy, smoky aftertaste that defies better description. The depth of flavour hides the bitterness of rat poison apparently. Who knew? Not me. I went with minestrone, thinking that ‘variety of flavours’ would do the trick. How wrong I was and, now, here I am.

Me and gran would share a bowl of soup every day for lunch. Routine was our watchword, ever since she’d taken me in when my relationship with my parents became too angry. She’d always seen the good in me, unlike others, and forgiven my outbursts with a smile and a cuddle. I loved her. And I loved her house – I mean, really loved it. I loved the garden, with its willow tree dangling in the breeze, the branches and leaves creating a natural tent for me to feel safe in when things got too much. My room was at the top of the stairs, overlooking my haven, and the smell of gran’s cooking – full English, roast dinner, whatever I fancied – would waft under the door and call me downstairs. Which is why it might seem strange that I decided to poison her.

I think it started when she gently enquired as to when I might look for a job. ‘’Bout time I think, love’ she said, (over a bowl of pea and ham). I nodded assent and thought that would be the end of it. But, as the days went on, she became more persistent;

‘I need some help with the rent, love’ (Cream of chicken).

‘A chance to meet people your own age, love’ (Mulligatawny).

‘Little bit of independence, love’ (Tomato and Basil).

Each bowl and each conversation chipped away at that thing in my head that caused all the trouble with my parents. By the time we reached ‘You’ll have your own money. Maybe get some driving lessons, love’ (Oxtail – missed opportunity), I’d resolved that, drastic as it was, gran had to go.

I was careful with the rat poison, didn’t want to go overboard. I told her I’d make lunch for us. Went to the bakers to get our crusty rolls – gran likes them with seeds, I prefer them plain – and picked up the minestrone from the corner shop. I remember standing over the stove, the saucepan bubbling the little pieces of veg and pasta against the burnt orange of the broth. I remember ladling it out and I remember gran starting to eat; no slurping, she was a soup specialist.

‘Warren’ barks a voice. Not a nice voice like the doctors who work here but a nasty one.

‘Visitor’. Just two words, two commands.

I enter the white room, tables and chairs spread out. And there she is. Gran. I take a seat opposite and she reaches out a hand.

‘Hello, love’, she says.

‘Hi gran’, I answer.

‘Love you’.

‘Love you too’, I reply.

Even if the pencil fades – Colin Alcock

It was right at the bottom of her shopping bag. The one she still clutched tightly after the bomb; a crumpled heap under the rubble. Leatherette, black and maroon, scuffed and scarred, with long use and broken bricks; one handle crudely repaired after the time she tripped on the kerb and sent her meagre haul of groceries rolling down the gutter; her day’s prize, a small roll of brisket splayed beyond use, under the wheels of a bus.

So many years since then. But I kept the bag. Though I never delved deep, until today. Now in my hand, her last thoughts, perhaps. Written down on a small, feint ruled page, torn from the little blue, spiral bound pocketbook she kept, with a pencil, on the kitchen windowsill. ‘Can’t trust my memory these days,’ she’d say. ‘I have to write it down, as soon as I think of it.’ It brings back memories, as I read.

Bread
She used to make her own. Beautiful, sharp crusted loaves, so soft inside, some served warm with butter bought straight from the farm, brought around by pony and trap. Then we had to move into the town. Dad’s job. Three years later the war.

Rice
Creamy puddings turned to sloppy milky ones, to make the rice go further. And oft times semolina instead.

Sugar
Not wasted in tea, anymore. Rationing. Used sparingly. Sometimes for sandwiches to give us energy for school. If there was no jam. Occasionally, condensed milk.

Bovril
Not just for gravy; as a warming drink against winter’s cold or mixed with the sparse mince and oatmeal for cottage pie. Dad had the largest portion, until an exploding shell took him from us. At the munitions factory.

Soup
She must have been saving points. Tinned stuff was extra to ordinary rations. A luxury for her, after boiling up meat bones and vegetable scraps to make a greasy broth. I never told her it made me feel sick. Especially when we had no bread. Or it was mostly cabbage.

Butcher’s
No longer her own choice. That would be leg of pork, slow roasted to fall away, as it was carved; roast potatoes, cabbage and baby carrots (all grown in our back garden, before we lost Dad); lashings of real gravy and an apple sauce. Now, only a dream. Now, only what the butcher can find for her allowed fourteen pence. Old pence. Nothing, if you don’t get there early.

Butter
She’d normally buy this alternate weeks, 4 oz at a time. Reckoned just 2 oz would melt away by the time she got home.

Potatoes
The staple diet, next to bread, and like most vegetables, not rationed. Just scarce. Unless you grew your own.

And there it ends. A crumpled list. A mirror on her life. Even if the pencil fades, the memories never will.

Colin Alcock is a septuagenarian storymaker, mainly of shorter works, who has published two collections and three novels. Swopped to fiction from copywriting, in retirement, and writes simply for the love of words and the images they can create.
Website: http://colinalcock.co.uk Twitter: https://twitter.com/ColinAlcock

The Rules of Contagion – Judy Darley

Ms Elba tells us we’re doing an experiment to consider how germs spread. I wonder how it compares to the ‘blue eyes, brown eyes’ test my big brother did last year. He wanted to do it with me when he came home, but got cross because my eyes are green.

The Rules of Contagion is different. Our class is down to twelve kids with parents who are key workers; the rest are being homeschooled. Ms Elba designates four of us germ carriers. “You have germs on your hands,” she tells us. “Some will transfer to anything you touch.”

I can feel miniscule monsters wiping their dirty feet all over my palms.

Lisa Marwell goes to the art sink. “Happy birthday to you,” she sings as she scrubs, going through the song twice. “Happy birthday dear Cornona, happy birthday to yooou.”

When the four of us sit down, an invisible circle opens around us. It’s like ‘blue eyes, brown eyes’, only worse.

Everyone’s making paper rainbows to thank the NHS and other key workers. I ask Liam Gibbs for the classroom scissors. He pretends not to hear. I snatch them from his hands and he screams like I stabbed him.

Ms Elba sends me to the corner.

My nose is running, but I’m scared to wipe it in case the germs get inside, so I let my nose-juice drip onto the wall.

The scissors lie on the table where I dropped them.

When I’m allowed to my seat, I crayon a big black cloud instead of a rainbow and tear it a grumpy mouth.

One germ-carrier has an asthma attack and goes to the nurse.

In the playground, another gets sent to the headteacher after punching a classmate.

Lisa sits atop the climbing frame, fake-coughing whenever anyone approaches.

I stare at my hands. Maybe I can teach the germs tricks, like a flea circus.

Maybe I’ve washed them off already.

At 3pm, Ms Elba waves goodbye and encourages us to stick rainbows in our windows.

I show her my raincloud with its torn-out mouth. Her eyes widen, but she tells me expressing feelings is important, especially sad and angry ones.

Mum collects me at the gate and we walk the long way home.

“Tell me something funny,” I beg, swinging my bag.

“Oh.” She thinks. “A patient on my ward says lockdown is the best time of his life. He feels part of something again.”

I don’t get why that’s funny. “Anything else?”

“Um, someone I know is using their time to whittle spoons.”

“Didn’t they have any?”

“They had plenty. Another person I know is spending whole days digging up cauliflower, cabbage and spinach to simmer into soup.”

“Your soup-maker sounds lonely,” I say. “So does the spoon-whittler. You should introduce them.”

“I should, shouldn’t I?” Mum beams. We reach a hopscotch some homeschooled kids have chalked and take turns to hop, skip, and jump – arms in the air in a silent, unending cheer.

Judy Darley is a British writer who can’t stop writing about the fallibilities of the human mind. Her fiction has been published in the UK, New Zealand, India, US and Canada, and performed in Hong Kong. Judy’s short story collection Sky Light Rain is out now. Find Judy at http://www.SkyLightRain.com and https://twitter.com/JudyDarley.

All the things you cannot buy – Cath Barton

It was in another country, another world, time stolen out of time. I remember the ferry, the warmth of the night air and of you behind me at the rail of the boat, your mouth on my neck. Cut now to the two of us standing by the side of the road – for what I remember as hours, but memory plays tricks – until finally a car stopped, a man who recognised us for what we were, said he knew a place.

It was no more than a roadside bar, and Madame ne parlait pas anglais, mais oui, une chambre. Yes, they had a room. She winked at me, or I imagine now that she would have done. A young girl and an older man. Oh là là. They really do say that in France, though in this case it would have been behind the closed door of the kitchen, after she had left us alone in the little room with the iron bedstead and a sink in the corner.

They were – I don’t think memory deceives me here – delighted, this Madame and Monsieur. He cooked, she served. There might have been the odd local drinking at the bar. Or there might have been just the two of us. We were hungry for everything there was, in those few days – the sun, the château down the road, the wood where we lay together. And, bien sûr, the food.

I think this was on the second night. Soup, bright green in colour and sharp in taste.

‘Qu’est-ce que c’est, s’il vous plaît, ce potage?’

‘C’est de l’oseille, Mademoiselle.’ She stood there, smiling.

All we could do was smile back and laugh and say it was good, très bon. We had no idea what ‘oseille’ meant. I thought I knew French, hadn’t taken a dictionary.

I remember nothing of the journey home, just the bleakness of the aftermath, and dark blue sheets on my single bed where I hugged my memories close. Later I dragged out my big French dictionary and looked up ‘oseille.’ Sorrel, it said. But it turned out that, along with everything else I really wanted, I couldn’t buy it. It would, I thought, have to just be one of those memories which time would erode and tarnish.

But it has followed me through my life, that elusive herb, the sorrel that makes the best soup. I found it growing in the first garden I could call my own, a patch of South London earth. And I discovered how to recreate the soup, or at least an approximation of the memory. The tang of it. By some quirk that I cannot explain, the plant has turned up in every garden I’ve had since. The memory is rekindled each time as I fry onions and boil up potatoes. The soup looks unremarkable, unassuming. Until I take it off the heat, add the herb and whizz it up. The green is shocking. It is the colour of my life. And the taste of my hope.

Perils of Staying Safe – G J Hart

Day 1

Why now the rumble
of history’s
stone and sappless
fields and dusty
skies beckoning me
lay down
your blanket.

Day 3

And why now
Your call – decades
late, tongue mad
as a hugged
cat as storms roared
and pain out-paced
the hit.

Day 9

And strange the world
now mirrors me – exactly
how collapse
looks in a quiet
room – the walls
folding in on
my creases.

Day 15

And wastes
Of coffee, tundras
of news, peeling
each day like battered
soup – knowing
on Mars our minds
still drill
rock.

Day 28

Is this a stage darling?
I couldn’t be angrier –
no habit, no ritual, best
to stand strong – punch
till your eyes
droop.
You can do it.

Day 90

Land, land –
a mistake the sea
never make and my body
cups no breeze,
my belly broken
ice – portents poor
sailor – you boat
bears it’s own
rock.

Soup – Basila Hasnain

Soup- we call it curry here, the soup as you know it. But there are Soup stalls you’d know nothing about: the semi-solid broths served under the names of Asli* Chinese Soup, or American Choupsy Soup or more presumptuous one, World’s Best English Soup. Of course, these, you see, are seasonal stalls that appear around Model town roundabout, Moon market outskirts and township bazar.

The boys standing at the stalls waiting for a car to pace down, slow just a bit so that they could just leap onto it’s windshield ,waving the menu card with oil marks and grease-coat , thrusting it forward hampering the hasty drivers heedless of horns. There’s urgency in their wish to sell. A daily wager’s urgency to make it through the day with at least a hundred rupee including tips if it’s their luckiest day. It’s an anxious urgency of a con, who knows it’s not exactly soup, they don’t even know half of the ingredients that go into making a soup. They better sell while the pots are hot and weather, chill. It’s the rush of a local Lahori who knows it’s only through the short period of December to January and maybe half of February too.

This year winter was long, this year they had better chances too, this year the stalls have added an extra few pots meaning making extra rounds of soup bowls too. But this year with winter virus came along. An alien diction, a strange commotion everywhere, an unprecedented silence- there were no business for street food sellers, no whizzing cars, no customers- The stalls were brought to stand still inside the borrowed garages and places. The hungry sales boys, mostly preteens, fired. There was no business. Everyone said so. They said we are all going to suffer, the rich, the poor- daily wagers and billionaires together? This’d be an amusing conceit of conditions, if it was believable by any measure. You don’t see them dying for basic needs, you don’t see them choosing between health or hunger. But they say, it’s all the same, everywhere. The poor are, globally, in more trouble. This’d appease the misery of their struggles if it was to be over in some foreseeable future. This now seemed like an endless tunnel of morbid blackness and despondence. There’s no refuge from now and no promises of quantum leaps in coming days after the pandemic’s termination. The resulting hunger, poverty and hopelessness seems like a tedious dénouement to the current conditions. What else could you expect when the pessimists are mute, and the optimists are hoping for a day of judgement?

Basila Hasnain is an inspiring Pakistani writer, currently working as a faculty member in LCWU, Lahore since 2016. Recently, two of her papers were published and presented in Research Journal Of Language And Literature (RJLL) and 1st National Conference on Linguistic Challenges in Regional Integration and Globalization.

Fuel Banner

Upward, like flowing silk – Mark Sadler

“Safety!” declared Michael Sams.

Across the table, the new boy lifted his mug a few inches above the drying arc of a fresh tea stain.

“To safety,” he replied, quietly.

“It completely ruined the sport,” continued Michael.

Scattered laughter. The boy got up and made a slow retreat into the oily gloom of the garage, where he leaned against the lip of the counter, with his back to the sink. A grease strain on the cement floor pooled around his feet like a bruised shadow.

“You’ve embarrassed the lad,” said Brian Miles. “If he’d wanted to be insulted he could have stayed in Cambridge and had it done by qualified experts.”

Michael glanced across his shoulder towards the kitchenette.

“Don’t be like that,” he said.

The boy rejoined the table in a different chair, making steady eye contact with his tormentor.

“We used to cook our own fuel,” said Michael. “You refined the basic product until you arrived at something that would move you rapidly through the gears, like flowing silk. Every team had a recipe.

“I worked for Boughton, when it was on the bones of its arse. They was based at a country house in Suffolk. Their neighbours were giving them grief over the engine testing. Said that it was frightening their dairy cows. I was staying in one of the groundskeepers cottages. I used to clay-pigeon shoot everyday before breakfast.

“There was an American team called Skeete. They were paying over the odds for talent so I made the jump. I got the call to go down to Edden Speedway. I walked into the garage. Matt Skeete was there with two of his engineers. Germans lads. I used to called them Bill and Ben. They was perched on wooden footstools, peering over the sides of a massive vat of fuel. On a trestle table there was what looked liked someone’s weekly shop. Fruit and vegetables. Loads of this skin-lightening cream you can only buy in the Gulf States. They began adding it to the mixture.

“Matt looks up at me and he says: ‘How’d you like to help us win the World Championship, next year?”

The boy smiled without emotion:

“I know how this story ends.”

“I thought we’d replicate the recipe,” replied Michael, indignantly.

He dragged a handwritten list from his pocket.

“Why don’t you go into town and pick this lot up?”

A flicker of hurt registered in the boy’s eyes. He pursed his lips like he wanted to say something. Instead settled for swinging his jacket violently over his shoulder as he exited.

“Not a mark on him,” said Michael.

Alan Busby rocked on the bent pin of his chair leg.

“Future of the sport, isn’t it,” he mused.

“What was really on that list?” asked Brian.

“A few things the missus asked me to pick up.”

Outside there was the roar of an over-revving engine and the screech of tires.

The Collection – Amanda van Niekerk

Gary was taken aback; aggrieved even. It showed on his face.

Come on Bru, he said. It’s lockdown. You’ve got plenty here to see you through. More than enough. Please Man, just one.

Dawid laughed– the sound filling the 2 metres of sacred space between them. He took a small step back. Tension can cause contraction– he needs to maintain the distance.

Well, we don’t know that for sure, he said.

The bottle in his hand was dusty, the label faded. This one says 1992, he said. It’s all down to pot luck now. I just don’t know what I’m going to get. Some of these are probably not even ok for cooking with. He laughed again— a short laugh. He slid the bottle back into its slot in the crate, its slim, dark neck pointing outward alongside other necks of other bottles.

Gary’s face hardened– a tightening at the jaw, a frown pulling at his eyebrows. Oh come on. You’ve got like ten bottles there. And they’re probably all fine. Please Man, I’m asking you. Just one to keep me going. Don’t make me beg Man, it’s embarrassing. Come on, you owe me that favour, you know you do.

Dawid was holding his breath now, his cheeks puffed up. Tension hummed in the silence. He exhaled loudly.

Sorry Gaz– extreme circumstances. Not a good time to be discussing favours. Seriously, I need to hang onto these babies. God only knows when these restrictions will be lifted. Sorry Man, but I’m taking no chances here.

Again he laughed. Tentative.

Hey, maybe you should have been better prepared. We were warned remember? We all knew.

The space between them shimmered. Sunlight entered the gaps, striking the dark glass of the necks of bottles.

Fucking ridiculous. Gary was pulling his jacket from the back of the chair, heading towards the door in the same stride.

So much for friendship, huh? He paused, turning, his movement abrupt, one finger raised and pointed at Derek– at his chest. You like to see me sweat, don’t you? To see me run. Well I won’t be forgetting this.

The phone call from the security company next morning was brief: Sorry to hear that Mr Scheepers. There’s been a spike in petty crime in the area since lockdown. The guys on the other side are getting restless, you know?

Dawid waited.

Yup, he said.

So what exactly is missing, Mr Scheepers? Anything of value?

Dawid paused, his breath was puffed up in his cheeks. He exhaled loudly.

Not much. Around three hundred bucks in cash, and some change. And a bottle of red wine.

Mr Celery – Lou Adderline

The man’s hand curls around the base of my stem and hauls me upside down. He turns on the tap and the water gushes over me. Streaming down my green body, splitting at the delta of my leaves and finally reaching the sea of the sink drain. He thumbs the grooves that dirt sank in when I grew inside the soil.

I’m clean now. I’m ready for the machine. The silver bullet centrifuge that will tear me. Fibre from fibre. Until I’m something he thinks he needs me to be.

This is a strange and desperate development. We have been cultivated since antiquity. Our stalks and leaves and salts and stems and seeds. We’ve been useful. Perhaps too useful. Perhaps these unmeetable expectations are of our own doing.

I am a vegetable – perhaps I cannot conceptualise immortality. But I know I cannot make this man immortal. Every morning, he performs this same ritual on his kitchen counter. He’ begging. He thinks I can save him. I have no means to verbalise that I cannot save him. I have no vocal chords. If I had, I should scream it.

He plugs in the cable and flicks a switch. The machine begins to hum, soft but anticipatory. He throws us inside. A blinding, deafening buzz whirls me around and I become something changed. A neon green liquid in a pint glass – highlighter fluid with the coarse stench of salted earth.

Every morning, he cleanses us and liquidates us and drinks us to cleanse himself. Now, all that’s left is waiting. So, we sit in the glass and wait. Fibres floating to the top as our entwined molecules attempt to reverse entropy. It’s ill-fated. He will stir up before he drinks.

Our mission isn’t clear. I am food. Food is fuel? I can follow the metaphor. Becoming caloric intake comes naturally. A calorie is not an arcane thing. No one had told us what a toxin is though. I do not understand how to fight them. What is it I am meant to fight?

He reaches for the glass and tips it into his mouth. Nose pinched. Gulping and guzzling and gagging at the taste. He is trying to brew the elixir of life. There was no philosopher’s stone, there was no fountain of youth. You cannot convert mercury to gold and if you try it will poison you. His kitchen counter alchemy will fail and, as he swallows, I am so sorry.

Lou Adderline has spent most of her life in a village in the North of England. She is on Twitter @LouFuchsia. This is her first time writing from the point of view of a vegetable.

Soup Banner

Stirring – Meagan Lucas

I stand with my back to the shrieking, the tossing of throw pillows and Nintendo controllers, and the tantrums rumbling through the floor. I ignore my husband as he shouts through his closed office door, directing me to quiet the wildebeests. His ‘please’ strangled. With my hip pressed into the stove front, the pressure – almost pain – is a relief. I stir the soup.

The soup we bought, horded, for when the virus came for us and we needed something easy and comforting, to spoon past our fevered lips. But it hasn’t come, not the way we expected with lungs full of pus, but by shrinking the house: the constant narrowing of halls and a squeezing of rooms pressing us into each other. I’m 5’2 and I walk bent over, turn my shoulders and suck in my belly when I squeeze through a door. At first, I suck up their cuddles with a straw and hold them tight, I ask sweetly him to move his elbow so I can scratch my calf, but now the skin of politeness worn off, and their sweaty skin chafes me, and I just push him away instead. At least the danger outside has a name; we can wear masks, we can stay in. But the peril inside is ripping me limb from limb.

No one wants soup, not even me, though I keep stirring. I only want pretzels and jellybeans eaten in the car parked in the dark garage, alone. They talk longingly of the homemade sourdough, biscuits, and sticky buns in their feeds. But the kitchen becomes a haven because no one wants to help with dinner. ‘What about pizza delivery,’ they say when I complain I’m too sad to cook. I can’t even shit without someone knocking on the door, yelling through the wooden panel, needing me. And so it’s only here, damp in the split pea steam, where the heat can hide the flush of my cheeks, that I can grip the spoon and think of you. You’re a vacation, a warm hug, a cocktail on a crowded rooftop deck, and this is simultaneously a punishment and a reward.

I used to think the idea of quarantine was sexy. Oh no, I’m trapped in this small space with this attractive person, who knows what will happen? Sweatpants. That’s what happens. Homeschooling during conference calls, and grey roots, stress pimples, carb-loading and passive aggressive channel switching. And distance, distance from the things I love, the bookstores and the coffeeshops, and the things I need like your fingers in my hair and your palm on my hip, and your thumb stroking my bottom lip. Worse – you’re my own private loss, and I wonder as I sit next to him on the couch watching tigers, if he is missing someone, too. If maybe that would bring us back together.

The soup is done, but I’m not. So I turn the burner off, but I don’t stop stirring. I’m not ready to let you go just yet.

Meagan Lucas is the author of the novel Songbirds and Stray Dogs. Her short work has appeared in The New Southern Fugitives, Still: The Journal, and MonkeyBicycle among others. She is a Managing Editor at Barren Magazine. She lives in North Carolina.

hot soup – Ceinwen E Cariad Haydon

hot soup
scalds her palate
hunger makes desire rash

patience
will safeguard full flavours
next time

Cooking – Roger Haydon

It now seems that there never was any prehistoric soup, at least not a soup that mattered and certainly not an ancestor soup and that confuses and confounds me. I’m not sure I’m entirely happy with the idea that my lineage might have been rooted in mere fermentation and putrefaction arising from organic molecules shagging lethargically in dirty sea water while being struck by lightning and bathed in the sun’s unfiltered ultra violet rays. Mind you, I do have to say that the idea that I might have come from a miraculous and vaguely sexy event of mystical spontaneous generation does have a certain appeal. I can just about see myself arising from the waves in a sort of orgasmic convulsion, illuminated by a brilliant flash of lightning as I emerge naked, beautiful and fully formed, intellect in full flow, master of the world and prototype of all humanity to come. I mean, that has the kind of magnificent sweep of dramatic tragic intensity that characterises me as I have evolved until today. But, if push comes to shove, I can give that away, I really can.

No, the generally held expert view is now that my beginnings were much, much deeper and, though quieter, more spectacular and profound and, possibly, more sexy. Basically, there was the deep and endless ocean with just one bit of land poking out of it somewhere. And there was the molten core of planet earth spewing out minerals and heat and other stuff via massive volcanoes in the unlit ocean depths, a sort of continuous orgasm instead of the occasional one and that’s where I came from. And that feels a whole lot better: conceived deep in fire and water with a generous sprinkling of star stuff to finish the whole thing off. So I’m not a by-product of some mucky random spontaneous event, I am, in all my super evolved state, the descendent of a long line of inevitable events culminating in, well, yours truly, your host this wet and windy afternoon in the middle of the week. Is there a better place to be?

So, to roll out my oft quoted catchphrase, “Let’s get the chopping board and let’s have some fun”. Today viewers, snuggle down because I’m going to show you how, in these difficult and pandemically constrained times, to make easy vegetarian soups that are amazing and tasty and go a very long way on not very much. A bit like me really.

Love Letters – Lisa Ferranti

Glory’s soup bubbles on the stove, the pot’s lid rat-a-tatting a tinny melody. She adjusts the flame to simmer. Her daughter works on algebra, next room over, and Glory hears fingers tap keys, misses the scrape of pencil against paper against woodgrain, when the worksheet could be turned in at school instead of virtually.

Her son reads Shakespeare, prepping for remote end-of-year testing. The thick book drapes across his lap, and she’s thankful there’s still binding and ink and some solid things in the world, at least.

Cauldron bubble, she whispers, trying not to think of the virus, the tragedy swirling around them. She removes the pot’s lid and stirs the soup with her grandmother’s wooden ladle. Steam singes her nose, but still she inhales, adjusts seasonings. There are people counting on her soup, and not just her family. Her family’s tired of it, actually. But she helps supply the food pantry, and the ladies in the neighborhood miss her second only to their hairdresser.

The ladies swear by her soup, believe it guides them, provides answers. When Margaret’s daughter was pregnant, she fed her Glory’s signature alphabet vegetable, peeking over her shoulder as she ate, and she’d seen tiny pasta letters spell B-O-Y on the spoon. Her grandson was born a month later.

They ask Glory how she does it, beg for her recipe, but it’s a family secret. Her grandmother had the same gift, manifesting itself the same way. Glory’s gift never works for herself, though, always just a jumble of letters, holding no answers, no clues.

Glory will feed her family before she makes her round of contactless deliveries. She ladles soup into four ceramic bowls. She calls to everyone, hollering down the stairs for her husband, where he’s toiling in his makeshift basement office.

She has to physically remove one of her daughter’s earbuds to be heard, for which she gets a Mom! and a sharply shrugged shoulder.

Wash your hands, she reminds as they emerge from their separate corners of the house. She hums the alphabet song to herself because she refuses to taint future birthday celebrations.

Once they’re at the table, they’re all still distant, despite their close proximity and her efforts at conversation. So she tries another tack. She wills the soup to speak to them.

What she wants for her son is to F-L-Y, for him to go to college next year, to soar.

Towards her daughter she channels every warm feeling inside her, despite the friction between them. L-O-V-E.

To her husband, she projects an abbreviated T-H-X, and she sees his jaw relax for a second.

She peers into her own bowl, but as always, the words elude her. Looking at her family, the illusion of protection close at hand, she wants to freeze the moment and fast forward, all at the same time. She looks down again and sees O-K. Two simple letters. She decides to believe the letters are meant for her. For her family. For the world.

Lisa Ferranti’s fiction has been twice short-listed for Bath Flash Fiction Awards and a Reflex Fiction contest finalist (BSF 2019 nom). Her stories have appeared in Literary Mama, Spelk, New Flash Fiction Review and Lost Balloon (Wigleaf Top 100). She lives in Ohio with her husband and two children.

His Name is Fred – Omar Hussain

My guardian angel spreads himself across my couch, feet kicked up on the arms, Converse shoes caked with speckles of dried mud, untied and hanging over the edge. He crooks his head in my direction.

“What are you making?” he asks.

“Soup.”

“Again?”

He’s been bunkered in my apartment for five weeks. Ever since the third day of quarantine. Randomly appeared in my mudroom, a black garbage bag full of spare clothes held over his shoulder, a stained denim vest and a grimace beneath his trucker goatee. He flapped his wings and announced himself. Tells me his name is Fred. Not Gabriel. Not Uriel. Not even Michael. This dude’s name is Fred. He eventually tells me that he was laid off because, for now, stay at home orders put us all out of harm’s way.

I stir the soup. The wooden spoon clanking against the sides of the pot. “I’m running out of food. Soup is just about all I have left.”

Of course, I didn’t believe him at first. But then he showed me the tapes. “The God Vids,” as he liked to call them. He showed me the accident on the freeway when I was 18. The time I slipped off a 30-foot boulder at Lake Tahoe and miraculously splashed into the only part of the water not littered with jagged rocks. The bodycam footage from his guardian angel uniform showed it all. Him steering the car to a manageable crash. Him gently pushing me, mid-fall, to the right spot in the lake.

“Poor doomsday planning,” he says.

“I didn’t think I was buying for two.”

“Is Karen coming over?”

Karen is my girlfriend. She’s also the reason Fred won’t leave. He’s in love with her.

“I told you to stop talking about her.”

“Remember what happens if I don’t get to see Karen?”

There’s more in Fred’s God Vids collection. There’s footage of me masturbating. Like every single time. Since I was thirteen.

In my childhood bedroom watching Baywatch.

To Spice Girls music videos.

Dial-up internet XXX pics.

Porn paysites and everything in between.

Fred is blackmailing me. Threatening to release the tapes on the internet if he doesn’t get to see Karen.

“I’ll text her.”

Every time Karen is over Fred puts the moves on her. Right in front of me. Woos her with tales of glory and guardian angel heroics.

He smiles and turns on the TV.

Karen texts back. “Is Fred there by any chance?” I slam the phone down, manhood shattered along with the screen. I stare back at the soup.

Then at Fred.

My feet move me to the supplies closet. To the bleach. I dump a bit in the pot. Stir it around.

“Soup is plenty hot. It’s all yours.” Fred walks over, flapping his wings with each step. He pours himself a bowl and tilts the edge to his lips. His mustache now tomato red.

I smile. Hoping guardian angels don’t have their own protectors.

Omar Hussain is a writer from the San Francisco Bay Area, transplanted to Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ellipsis Zine, Spelk, Dream Noir, the Drabble, the Potato Soup Journal, Fleas On the Dog and (mac)ro(mic), among others. Omar’s beta-test novel, The Outlandish and the Ego, debuted in late 2017. It received some praise, remarkably.

Soup – Ursula Troche

Storm in a teacup, virus in a soup.

“Soup, what have we done?” Introduced an ingredient that doesn’t mix! A harmful substance. Rather: we didn’t, it happened. Something’s stirred our soup, disturbed us and went viral. It’s called Corona. There we had been, more or less interconnected, together in our bowl of soup called World. And now it’s been a soup-down! Maybe it’s because we hadn’t stuck together enough when we could, we didn’t bind, we lived in a system marred by inequality, segregation – and now distance! And now, in the interval, locked down together apart to reflect.

We were supposed to be one world, one soup, all of us together a group soup. But it hasn’t always been a melting pot, this soup! Look at our pot, in which we are, our world, gone wonky. Can we have some pot luck now at least?

Liquid modernity, they say, flowing sea. We can’t give it all up because we are here. We’re in the soup, there’s no cure for it!”, almost said Samuel Beckett. Makes sense. We have to keep it clean, or soup, protect our soup the environment. Keep ourselves from drowning.

Soup of the World, what could you be made of? Tomato soup has always been my favourite. Tomato, a thing that is both a fruit and a veg, like us, who are two things at once! Both human and animal maybe. Or whatever we can be, twice even.

How do we simmer, how do we cook? A world at boiling point. Where are we in this soup? Are our oceans the soup and our islands and continents the big pieces within? Both land and sea with its many ingredients. The sea, the soup, Soup-sea! Come to the soup-side!

And that’s what I did. I went to the soup-side at night, and above me were the stars. And it reminded me of what I thought of as soup as a child, this milky murky creamy stuff that you can see around the some of stars at night: I thought that was soup. But it’s the Milky Way! It’s hanging there in the sky and I thought it facilitates travel from one star to another. Because at that distance the stars are quite close, so maybe you can get across. With the help of the soup, cosmic travelling agent. The milky soup has ways of entangling and intertwining the stars, so as to connect them – like us, in our soup-world.

And down here it’s different. If I think that the sea is the soup, then I have seen sea in the sky too! Sky-ocean, soup-world, something’s cooking. Our categories break open. Soup as a substitute, even as a word. And that might help. It might help us to take our challenges in keeping our world in order.

Soup could be the password to a new world, which we say to each other, acknowledging the flows that bind us together. Now there’s some soup for thought!

The Night Is Day – Ian Anthony Lawless

Moonlight splashes across the bare wooden floor of Harold’s room.
He is to move soon. To be less overwhelmed by memory and space. The house breathes a sigh of relief.
Floorboards are creaking where feet have not touched.
Harold sits on the end of the bed. A hollow imprint on the left side.
Where Marget once slept.

Now he is full of regret.
Dam it!

He shouts, to his darkened reflection in the bedroom mirror.
Ignoring the strips that are slowly descending from above it.
Little pieces of daisy patterned wallpaper gently floating all around.
As if carried by a stiff breeze.

Who ever knows what your last words are to be?
Amid flying newspapers and near misses with slippers whizzing by his face, his last words to his wife was
“I’m sorry. But he is my son. He deserves to see me”

An shameful affair committed in the early days of their relationship.
Doctors tried to calm his shaking body.

That trembled and would not allow voice to exist.
So overwhelming was the death of his wife.
His mind felt as if in another body. That he was observing from afar. Plus the house became his carer now.
It was no comfort when they told him she died peacefully in her sleep.
What is peaceful about anger and silence. Furrowed brows and bitter sighs?
Her heart had to be broken.
There was definitely anguish in her expression when fruitlessly Harold tried to wake her up the next morning.

Now Harold is forever restless.
His nocturnal routine sparked him up from sitting position to a jump into a poker straight stance. All in a surge of extreme energy.
He surprised himself by this feat of agility.

At 45, he expected his legs to buckle as if made of sand.
But now frankly nothing surprised him anymore. It was time to confront his nightly visitors.

“Everything is spotless, like always my dear.
The words jump from his mouth before he could even finish formulating them.”

Reaching the landing, he turns his head to the side, ear cocked towards the hall. In an overt display of listening. It was more for the house.
He slaps the air repeatedly. As if grappling with a ghostly foe.

Thump!

A sound emanates from the downstairs kitchen.
The sound of porcelain scratches across the marble counter.
His thoughts scream to find rationale but there is none.

Once again as if a puppet master guides him, his feet begins to rise three inches off the ground. He floats down the long flight of stairs.
The needle of a record player is heard being placed.
Beethoven symphony number 9 lightly plays.

As he passes the sitting room, he sees the legs of male being crossed. The laughing man again.
Tartan slippers hanging on milky white feet.

Crash!

The Kitchen. Where Marget always loved to be.
On the table for the fifth time this week.
A bowl of soup.
Boiling hot, Harold smiles

“Hello again my love”

Making A Point – Kali Richmond

I struggle to believe that anyone considers soup anything but a disappointment. It’s noble claims of rejuvenation, healing and soothing are the closest thing I’ve found to a global joke, for food added to liquid and cooked until disintegrated and abused seems evident in all culinary corners. There are books dedicated to this one category of cuisine. I look at the smiling faces of the chefs or home cooks or celebrities, dieticians, fitness fanatics, bored trustafarians, and see devilment behind the eyes. Delicious, sumptuous, mouth-wateringly good, irresistible, opulent. They know soup is shit. They’re flogging a lie.

I eat soup to make a point. Made from scratch portrays moderate ennui – all that effort, the cost of ingredients. From a plastic container which must be kept refrigerated demonstrates self-loathing – the most scorned of packaging for something that won’t even fill me up. From a tin confirms depression – its content luridly reminiscent of partly digested food. I reach now for the tin.

And panic. The smell rising up from the boil (it says do not boil, yet takes an age to heat without boiling, congealing at the edges, cold in the centre, requiring constant stirring. Devilment, see?) is so pungent, so evocative of school dinners, that I worry the act too blatant and set about trying to hide my misery. Nachos sprinkled on top, sour cream, grated cheese, all of it piled one after another. A sprinkle of paprika, a flurry of chopped chives.

Thrust a spoon into the seething mass of melt. Scorch my tongue. A nacho spears my gums. I am a baby, an aeroplane of slop hitting turbulence as I laugh at my pathos. I am terribly ill to torture myself so. I am falling out of a wormhole, the years sped up, teeth flowing from my mouth as hair catches in the wind, as loose change falls from a pocket, as hail rains down from wretched sky. I am in need of sustenance but can no longer chew. I am cold and wish to be warmed. I am warmed and wish to burn.

Kali Richmond is a native Londoner and lapsed VJ currently attempting a closer to nature existence in the north of England. When not cultivating an unruly patch of land and unrulier children she attempts to write amid the chaos. https://twitter.com/SevenKali

Cabinet Of Heed SOC Stay Safe

Stream of Consciousness – Drawer Seven

dreamland – M P Armstrong

before, my dreams were populated with half-fantasy images
from the curled-up and shadowy edges of reality, a variety
that seemed culled from the random spin of a wheel. teachers
from a semester abroad grew fangs and appeared, pale and
growling, in desks next to me in my tenth-grade algebra class.
the sun dripped glittering watercolor over the backyard fence
that gobbled my sanity, and probably also my hand, if touched.
the jewel-toned scales of dragons perched on the roof of the
dining hall and vortexes to other dimensions swirled in the
pond on the quad. my dreams now are comprised of ordinary
moments: my family gathered around a table laden with a heavy
holiday dinner–mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and
three kinds of pie, with ice cream, even. my roommate bringing
steaming mugs of coffee, golden brown with clouds of cream, to
our spread of notebooks and textbooks in the library as the sun
begins to smudge the sky with light, a friend locked in a warm
and determined embrace under a blanket as the light chatter of a
romcom and the multicolored glow of Christmas lights fill every
corner of the room, turning the standard dorm into an image off
the front of a greeting card. my brain is romanticizing the moments
from life before, my subconscious smoothing over the stresses and
tensions, and my sleep setting the scenes to songs from the bleachers’
discography. i do not want to remember what those were really like,
dinners spent with bitter words bubbling in my throat and threatening
to boil over, the specter of failure hanging in the air-conditioner wind
over every flashcard and frappucino, the rotted curiosity about the
blurry lines of relationships twisted up in every body entangled with
mine. i want to think about the mirrors of those moments in the near
future even less. terror served next to the turkey, cooked by a respiratory
therapist and carved by a man of almost eight years old. peeks at the
list of names tucked inside the front covers of books with dates, mental
calculations: could their coughs still linger on the pages? the threat that
lurks in every human being, even the ones that we once could touch
without thinking twice, even the ones we had been dreaming about
holding close throughout the months we spent separated. i would rather
live in that fantasy world, bleed out because the woman who taught me
about roman history dug her teeth into my jugular in front of the girl
i wanted to ask to homecoming or watch my dorm burn to the ground
from the sparks belched by a winged lizard, than live in this one, this
hazy dreamland where the dangers do not disappear when my alarm
starts beeping and i open my eyes. a conscious nightmare is darker
than the bruise-like circles under my eyes born of avoiding sleep; i
would rather spend the rest of eternity waking with night terrors than
experience the screaming, sweating horror during the bright daytime.

M.P. Armstrong is a disabled queer poet from Ohio, studying English and history at Kent State University. Their work appears or is forthcoming in Luna Negra, Red Earth Review, and Social Distanzine, among others. They also serve as managing editor and reporter for Curtain Call and Fusion magazines. In their spare time, they enjoy traveling, board games, and brightly colored blazers. Find them online @mpawrites and at mpawrites.wixsite.com/website.

Emails From God – Valerie Griffin

Email from: god.creator@thisisallthereis.com
To: mothernature@thisisallthereis.com, theuniverse@thisisallthereis.com
Subject: Our Discussions re the Deterioration of Planet Earth

I accept the responsibility falls on my shoulders. Although, in my defence, I never thought they would start to bite the hands that feed them. I gave them everything they needed. In hindsight, maybe I gave them too much? It’s hard to stomach, watching them systematically harming themselves and every other living thing on the planet; killing off the life that was given to them to nurture; the life to keep them alive.

Email from: mothernature@thisisallthereis.com,
To: god.creator@thisisallthereis.com, theuniverse@thisisallthereis.com
Subject: Re: Our Discussions re the Deterioration of Planet Earth

Frustrating though this is, beating ourselves up about it won’t help and the onus doesn’t just lie with you, God; it lies with all of us. We have to find the solution for them to realise, and correct, the consequences of their actions. They think they know better, but this proves they don’t.

Email from: theuniverse@thisisallthereis.com
To: god.creator@thisisallthereis.com, mothernature@thisisallthereis.com,
Subject: Re:Re: Our Discussions re the Deterioration of Planet Earth

I am beyond angry. I have no time for these arrogant and selfish people, deluded by their own self-deception that what they’ve been doing is for the better good; who are now bogged down and suffocating in their barren land of wastefulness. We all know it can’t go on. This doesn’t just affect Earth, it affects the balance of the whole of space and time. I can arrange for a meteor strike, that’ll shake them up. BOOM! BANG! GONE! HAVE A NICE DAY NOW!!!

Email from: god.creator@thisisallthereis.com,
To: mothernature@thisisallthereis.com, theuniverse@thisisallthereis.com
Subject: Re:Re:Re: Our Discussions re the Deterioration of Planet Earth

Ah…you never suffer fools lightly, do you Universe? We need to save Earth not destroy it totally, that would make us no better than them. These people need educating again. Let’s get them working in harmony once more, not discord. Despite the few, there are hundreds of millions who, I know, will grasp the chance to make a better life for themselves and save the planet. People who will spend time self-reflecting, who will look, and find, the silver lining…because there’s always a silver lining.

Email from: mothernature@thisisallthereis.com,
To: god.creator@thisisallthereis.com, theuniverse@thisisallthereis.com
Subject: Re:Re:Re:Re: Our Discussions re the Deterioration of Planet Earth

Very dramatic, Universe, but I agree with God. And the silver lining is the seas being free from contamination, allowing marine creatures to swim in clear, uncluttered waters; the skies devoid of airborne impurities, providing thermals of fresh air for the birds to soar freely. And the land. The forests, the woods, hedges and fields – so lovingly created and vital for existence – will start to regrow; the animals, unceremoniously ousted from their natural habitat without a thought from those desperate for profiteering, can start to rebuild their homes again. It’s time to heal.

Email from: god.creator@thisisallthereis.com,
To: mothernature@thisisallthereis.com, theuniverse@thisisallthereis.com
Subject: Re:Re:Re:Re:Re: Our Discussions re the Deterioration of Planet Earth

Well said, Mother Nature. I have an idea…leave it to me.

Valerie is a published writer living by the sea in Dorset. She writes short stories, flash fictions and is currently editing her first novel. She likes growing weird-shaped vegetables and people watching on the seafront.

Walls – Tamara Rogers

The walls moved again today.

You’d miss it if you blink, but I don’t blink. I haven’t blinked for weeks.

Always alert.

Eyeballs starting to itch.

Maybe put some cream on them, in them.

Because constant vigilance is required in this dreary apocalypse. This apocalypse of online shopping and socially distanced street parties that turn into moist, sweaty germ factories. Whole streets ready to go down together, singing Vera Lynn in triumphant idiocy.

They sing and clap while others die saving them.

That’s the spirit.

But I digress, because we were talking about the walls moving. You can tell, for those who haven’t been paying attention, by looking at the shoes I left by the front door. The shoes that haven’t been worn for weeks (government mandated exercise can eat my ass), the shoes that were piled on top of each other in the carefree way of someone who thought they were going out again but then never did, the shoes acting out the Mary Celeste of Clarks. Because the shoes have fallen over. You see? The right foot’s heel was resting on top of the left foot’s toe, but now it’s prone on the floor, laces trailing onto the welcome (but don’t tread shit everywhere) mat.

Easy to miss, I guess, so I’ve smeared paint on the wall for next time. One long streak from the wall onto the floor, nice and thick, dripping lilac (surely a drunken shopping choice) in ugly, bulbous tears. The walls move, the line breaks.

It’s time for (more) coffee in my carefully curated quarantine schedule. On the way to the kitchen I kick the wayward shoes into the corner. What do you do about moving walls? Are they hostile or am I an unwitting accomplice to an act not yet revealed?

Is this a benign Changing Rooms?

Is this a trash compactor from Star Wars?

Should I call the letting agent?

And the coffee is strong and black and bitter, it burns my tongue but tastes good, topping up the buzz roiling under the stale sweat on my face. My heart races, forgetting that sport is cancelled for the foreseeable. Feel alive, albeit riddled with anxiety. Feel alert, refreshed, wired to fuck.

Next stop on the timetable; ten minutes in the back garden. Fresh air is good for the soul and also for the lungs and let’s be honest that cough has been hanging around. The garden is, well, barely a garden. Dirty paving slabs squeezed into a back alley, the reincarnation of a well-behaved public urinal.

Inside, and back to the couch.

I look at the wall, glare at the streak of paint, stare out the window. There the neighbours come and go, wear their masks around their necks or under their noses, stand two metres apart but let their kids smear snot on each other.

I rub my eyes, sandpaper scratching under my ‘lids.

Mom used to say things could be ‘so dull it’s like watching paint dry’.

I never thought watching paint dry would feel so tense.

Tamara writes mainly dark, surreal tales with a touch of science fiction. Her novel Grind Spark was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award 2014. She is interested in all things weird in the world of psychology, artificial intelligence and armageddon. And cats.
Twitter: @tamrogers Website: http://www.thedustlounge.com

The Garden Not Open – Bronwen Griffiths

The garden was due to open after the long winter closure but the disappointment of the grey clouds was nothing compared to the realisation that the garden would not open this spring and perhaps not even this summer and I was wondering if there would be anyone to clear the weeds from the cracked paths or if the bird topiary, with its fuzz of new leaves, might be metamorphosing into new shapes. I imagined the birds turning into furry cats, the kind of cat caught out in a rainstorm, not that it has been raining and indeed there has been no rain for many weeks and we have been glad of this because all winter it poured cats and dogs, and lakes appeared where none were there before. I was also, in thinking of the garden, remembering its ancient mulberry tree because we too have a mulberry in our garden but when I spoke to one of the gardeners last year he was not much interested in our mulberry though I am interested both in our mulberry and the garden’s mulberry and how and if they are related. What I thought was that our mulberry might be the grand-daughter of the mulberry in the garden, though perhaps it might be the daughter, but I have no evidence of this. The only evidence I have is that mulberries make delicious jam but are also a devil to pick because the juice runs down arms and stains hands until the picker of mulberries resembles an extra from a slasher movie and this I have most definitely known. Thinking more of the mulberry, in particular its large leaves, larger than a hand, I am now wondering if, once the leaves appear in their fullness -and even now in the middle of May they are not quite grown to maturity – the quarantine might be lifted so that I can go and visit the gardens and see the other mulberry, the old mulberry, which may or may not be the mother or grandmother of our own mulberry.

Bronwen Griffiths is the author of two published novels and two collections of flash fiction. Her flash pieces have been published in a number of anthologies and online journals and her novella-in-flash, Long Bend Shallows, was shortlisted for the Bath Award. She lives in East Sussex and likes to garden.

Goldie and Three Scary Bears – Liz Power

So there’s this little girl, real cute…she goes for a walk in the woods. Big woods, maybe bad woods, full of wolves and real bad people. Shithole woods.

She’s called Goldie… real pretty blonde hair. Remember… I have tremendous respect for women… all women.

Anyhow, Goldie comes across a small house right there in the wood and she knocks on the cute front door. It’s not a big house, by the way, not like mine. I’ve got more money… more brains… better house, apartment, nicer boat. I’m smarter than they are. When no one answers, she just walks right in.

On the table there are three bowls of porridge… I love porridge by the way, it’s from Scotland where my mother’s from…did you know that? Goldie’s hungry, real hungry, like she’s not eaten all day. She tastes porridge from the first bowl, and it’s too hot.

She tastes porridge from the second bowl, a bigger bowl, but that’s cold. Finally she tastes the porridge from the third, biggest bowl and it’s just perfect. She eats the whole lot up…the smart thing to do, big brains… smart cookie.

Now, she feels real tired… long day out avoiding bad people, scary people.

She sits in the first chair, the biggest, which would be the best chair as it’s the biggest and the best. But it’s too big so she tries the second chair, not as big, but still too big. Then she tries the smallest chair and it’s just right.

But then it breaks! Shit manufacturing! If you vote for me, I’ll make sure there isn’t shit manufacturing. Build a wall – keep the shit manufacturers out, along with criminals and Mexicans…

Goldie feels real exhausted. She goes upstairs to lies down, but the first bed’s too hard, so she gets in the next. That’s too soft! Soft beds give me back ache – I like a good firm bed. Then she lies under this sweet little quilt in the third bed. That one’s just fine and Goldie falls right asleep – just like that.

While she’s sleeping these three bears arrive. It’s their house, right? Scary bears…might be bad bears from Mexico. But I’m probably the least racist person you will ever meet…

Daddy bear… he’s short and fat just like that Kim Jong-un… he says real loud ‘someone’s been eating my porridge!’

And Mama bear… she’s a handsome bear… remember, I have tremendous respect for women, I really do… she says ‘someone’s been eating my porridge!’

Then this real cute Baby bear says ‘someone’s been eating my porridge and they’ve eaten it all up!’ Baby bear starts wailing and carrying on because his chair’s all broken. Crooked – like crooked Hillary.

Then the scary bears go upstairs to look round some more.

‘There’s someone sleeping in my bed!” cries Baby bear.
Just then, Goldie wakes up and sees the three bears, yells real loud and runs away into the big, bad forest.

You know what? Never goes back there again. So, if you vote for me I’ll make sure there’s no more scary bears in shithole woods, because I’ll build a very big wall and keep them all out. I probably would do that, probably. Maybe.

Can’t Quit Drinking Today – Shelly Norris

It’s like Earth shuddering on her axis.
If only there were some method of proof.
It’s like watching Rilke’s tiny slumbering
silences cradled deeply in the limbs
peeping through, vulnerable
to a month of cold slate sky
snowing ash and sleeting ice.
It’s like the foreshadowing
after the opening climax (just
one of fifteen) that twists
the bloody battle scene
into a training exercise
where casualties rise and dust off
that follows the heroes’ conversation
casually revealing the exposition.
It’s like the dog excusing himself
when he thinks movie explosions
and aftershocks are genuine
gunshots and thunder.
Like trying to remember
not only laughter is also contagious.
Like trading Cabernet for Absolut,
needing limes, and making do
with essential lemons.
Like when after two decades
the one guy finally invites
the other guy to dinner
to meet his wife and baby
and I remind the dogs
TV coyotes are just actors
though they know I know
they know a flesh and blood pack
lurks right across the road
in someone else’s woods.
It’s like when the other hero—
usually older jaded or younger
hungry, maybe with the least
to lose—says maybe; we know
which character will not live
much further into the plot
or probably washes out filthy
in the end. It’s like ghost ships full
of live tourists and sailors marked
for death drifting into ports
forbidden to disembark.
It’s like the hero’s young wife grilling
the past out of two old soldier friends
who’ve fought to hell and back together
her and us wondering why
he wasn’t the best man
or even a guest at their wedding.
It’s like Elliott’s cruelest month
growing sociopathically more sinister
like choking in the billowing smoke
from a neighbor burning brush
on a dry windy day or that black
poodle off its leash dashing
in front of speeding cars every time
or feeling torn as the Palomino’s head
stretched between barbed wires
as she reaches for greener.
It’s like the hero’s DNA at the scene
the explosives residue in his garage
the encrypted folder on the dark web
the millions in offshore accounts
he never opened. Too tidy.
How does the FBI Director miss that
every time? It’s like the Walker Hound
wolf howling in his dreams.
It’s like all the conspiracies
coalescing into golf ball hail
beating us down on the front end
of a tornado swarm sweeping
the wobbling planet
and irruptions kicking off mega fires
and triggering fault lines—Wasatch,
Tatsuda, Sobral, Seattle, The Rhine
Rift, New Madrid, Longmen Shan,
Clarendon-Lindon, Elsinore, Tacoma,
The North Aegean Trough—more
than you can name and all of them
at once, and the shifting waves that morph
into hurricanes, typhoons, tsunamis.
It’s like when the tests weren’t perfect
and no one actually offered tests
and technically no one refused them
or when King County’s Public Health
Department sent body bags instead
of tests to the Native Health Clinic
and sometimes
nothing is fathomable.
It’s been just like that.

Shelly Norris currently resides in the woods of central Missouri with her husband John, two dogs, and seven cats. A Wyoming native, Norris began writing poetry around the age of 12. Norris’ poems embody the vicissitudes of unrequited love and loss, dysfunctional wounds, healing quests, and the role of cats in the universal scheme.

Cabinet Of Heed SOC Stay Safe

Stream of Consciousness – Drawer Six

The Lighthouse – Nicki Blake

I have a photograph by my bed that everyone has seen before – the classic lighthouse by French photographer, Guichard, the one from a thousand inspirational motivational posters (I hate those things) with the lighthouse jutting out of a milky green sea, the waves crashing up around it reminding me of the lace in an extravagant Elizabethan ruff which makes the lighthouse a skinny brown neck. We all had this picture back in the day, we Gen Xers, along with our copies of Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Fleetwood Mac albums, back when metaphysics was cool, the summers were simpler and we had the time for self-discovery – such a very sixth-form thing to do, to go into ourselves and mouth off at the cosmos under the influence of cheap cider and cigarettes. We sat on the edge of the cricket pitch and stubbed our cigarettes out on the grass so we could have our hands free to make daisy-chains which we placed on our heads like little crowns.

The Latin word for crown is corona and I told someone recently how strange it is to see a connotation shift, not in a sneaky creeping way as with some words and their etymologies, but within the space of weeks. Before, the only time I knew corona was from astronomy, meteorology, when there was a circle of light around the sun or the moon. Another way of saying it is ’22 degree halo’ but corona sounds more impressive, or at least it did. The ruff of lacy waves around the Guichard lighthouse could be a called a corona too, I suppose.

There were no drones in those days, so I imagine the photographer with his camera equipment hanging out of the helicopter door in the kind of Atlantic storm that would send the waves two storeys high. And all to give us a lesson in what? Humans versus nature? Fortitude? Endurance? Up and down the coasts of France, collecting lighthouses, repeated symbols of warning and of our care for those at sea.

I wonder what the helicopter pilot thought? When the photographer came to him and asked to be flown into the maelstrom? How much do you charge for something like that and what kind of mindset do you have to have to take on such a commission? Does he brag about it in his old age? “I was Guichard’s pilot – he was insane, made me do all these low fly-bys in the worst weather!” Did he get any credit for his role in creating the art? Look at me, assuming it was a man who was the pilot – though, in those days, it probably was. I wonder if (s)he reminisces now, in mandatory lockdown in some apartment in France, lonely as a lighthouse keeper, remembering taking on the elements with Guichard and thinking they’d conquered them, never imagining that when defeat finally came it would not be through great waves but in tiny droplets.

Nicki Blake is an emerging poet and writer of short stories based in Perth, Western Australia. Her work has been published both online and in print anthologies. Nicki’s writing draws on her lived experiences of working with words, as well as a heritage that is both European and South-East Asian.

 

100 Days of March – Vincent JS Wood

March went on for 100 days, morning after morning trickling into one another in a syrupy haze. It took half the year, but we’re now in April and everything is exactly the same. I feel like dead meat in formaldehyde, just a useless hunk of flesh, not visibly decaying but certainly not alive. Everything around me feels like it’s covered in a thin layer of amber so that you can’t touch and test how it really feels, like a world lightly honey glazed.

For the past three days (or is it four? five? six?…) I’ve had thoughts of chain-smoking in the sun. Flicking discarded butts into the scum collected at the bottom of the, now defunct, pond at the heart of the garden. Hearing the sizzle, then hiss, and proceeding to light up another to pass the time, is a recurring vision that appeals in both its grotesque imagery and its promise of fulfilment that it could never live up to. The irony of desiring lung hardening apparatus, to turn my chest to wheezy black dust, is not lost on me during a time of contagious respiratory disease. It’s odd because I don’t physically crave them either, I haven’t smoked in quite some time, but the thought of them has resurfaced as a cure-all to boredom and it scares me just how deep that hook goes. If that particular vice remains embedded in my muscle memory, what other sharp barb is waiting to resurface from a forgotten wound at any given moment?

I spend a lot of time in the garden now. Just to be outside is a tiny freedom in and of itself at the moment and I try to busy myself with labouring in the unkempt, overgrown peripherals of the property. An inherently absurd task given that I have the patience, demeanour and physicality of a man whose lower-middle-class parents actively encouraged his ridiculous notions of becoming a writer and, subsequently, has avoided doing a single day of ‘proper’ work in his life. And yet, I have a particular penchant for destructive work; cutting, digging, uprooting and the like. I know that creating something will overcome this boredom, it may not be anything special but the joy of the craft is its own reward and yet, I always opt for demolition which may also explain the part of my psyche that wants to smoke the days away. Destruction is a form of creativity I suppose.

Of course, people are dying and you’re here making flippant remarks about your own mortality and not contributing anything to the situation so perhaps you are an arsehole. Perhaps you’re just another self-involved moron postulating on being isolated with a mental illness when really all you need is a cigarette and to shut the fuck up. Perhaps destruction isn’t creative at all, perhaps you’re just digging holes because it’s all you know how to do.

March went on for 100 days, I pray to the unknowable void that April doesn’t too..

 

Untitled – Lindsay Bamfield

I walk my daily walk, a different way each day through the maze of roads round here, that I’m still discovering. No-one knows me but a few of the other solitary walkers respond to my greeting as we pass each other, one of us veering onto the nature strip for our obligatory two metres. I hope to see the elderly gentleman who sings as he walks. Instead I hear rainbow lorikeets screeching as they fight over ripening figs in a tree, and a lone wattlebird sitting on a branch making a forlorn squawk. It is autumn here and the front garden flowers are fading but there is still loveliness to be seen. Fading flowers have their own beauty signalling younger, more radiant days in the past. My own past has disappeared now I’m in a country where there are only two people who knew me when I worked, made a difference in people’s lives. No-one else here is interested in my past. The few people who have got to know me here view me as someone’s mother and a grandmother, that’s all.

I am making a new present life for myself but my plans, like everyone else’s, have been interrupted by social lockdown. The holiday I’d booked has been lost, and the theatre tickets I bought have been refunded. The course I signed on for will now be online and the writing group I had just joined has been put on hold for the duration. So yet again I must rely on myself to keep alive, active and creative.

My baking has had to stop because there’s only me to eat the result. My gardening in my tiny garden connects me to precious nature. Even though I’ll have to wait so long for the outcome, I plod on in hope. My sewing calms me but my writing bothers me because I can’t get it right. I hadn’t realised how much I relied on being around other people to energise me. Not just people in the social groups I had joined but people on trains, in parks, in shops. Not just the people I was drawn to but the infantile, giggling girls who annoyed me with their loud music on the train, the noisy youngsters that barged into me on the road crossing, the dawdling mother and children who obstructed the shop escalator, the earnest young man who gave me his life story, mercifully quite short because he’s young, at the writing workshop when I asked him what sort of writing he does.

I continue my daily walk, looking at flowers, the trees, listening to the birds, saying hello to the few people who pass me or are tending their front gardens. I say hello to the dog who looks out through the gate of the house on the corner, and know that one day this too will be in my past and strangely this will connect me to the people I’ve yet to meet. One day when this is over.

Lindsay Bamfield relocated from London to Melbourne last year. She writes flash fiction and short stories and may one day even get her novel published.

 

I had children, only one of which I knew – Colin Alcock

I look down into the still water of the pond. The reflection is clear, but I take no narcistic pleasure in what I see. I see lines and wrinkles that are not ripples and the blue sky of summer behind me. And there the truth lies. If I look back the sun shines on high, but I lose sight of myself. Yet looking down, all I see is an illusion. And beneath it the unknown future. Except I know, that for me, there is no future. I am spent. I have thrown away the right to live. I have taken life away from another.

In my twenties, I was a butterfly sipping from a thousand flowers. I spread my wings and mirrored the beauty of the world, but never settled long on any bloom. Admirers only saw my brightest colours, never my dark underbelly that craved intoxication from the finest nectars. That saw me creep into the corners of the night, feared of predators who would demand their due, for what I had consumed.

In my thirties, I metamorphosised into a devious demon, plucking the strings of others’ hearts, leaving behind a trail of tears, twisting and turning my way through countless loves that I never loved and gathering their gifts, their coin, to feed my taste for luxury.

My forties came and my game had run. Bankrupt of soul; jobless; taking the handouts of the poor; theft and cunning carrying me in a downward spiral. A sycamore seed whirling at the wind’s pleasure. Until I met her. The real butterfly, who was as beautiful and generous inside as the myriad glints she displayed to my eyes. She made me believe what I could be.

I had children, none of which I knew, left behind in the darker days. And now another, on whom I lavished a love equal to my butterfly and through my fifties I watched him grow and sparkle in new sunlight. Until he emerged from the chrysalis of early teens with traits that I can only call mine. The same dark underbelly to the bright aura of his personality. His gift to attract beauty to his side, to take only the pleasure and live off the nectar of society. Never giving back.

I didn’t need a mirror to see myself. My face creased with worry, with horror and with regret at what I had spawned. He took no heed of my story; he had an even meaner streak and I watched him destroy lives, leaving his own trail of misery, until I could take no more. I lured him back with the promise of precious nectars, an offer of gold and brought him to this pond. Intoxicated. Incapable.

I’m in my sixties, now. Staring down in quiet isolation. I turn away from my mirror image, but still see myself reflected, deep below the surface, ripples now stilled, in the upturned face of my son. And, as dragonflies hover and butterflies alight beside me, I weep.

Colin Alcock is a septuagenarian storymaker, mainly of shorter works, who has published two collections and three novels. Swopped to fiction from copywriting, in retirement, and writes simply for the love of words and the images they can create.
Website: http://colinalcock.co.uk  Twitter: https://twitter.com/ColinAlcock

 

neighborhood watch – Matthew Daley

Of course I remember when I took classwork home to a friend who stayed home from school because he wasn’t going to spread himself to others how thoughtful so considerate so his mother called the school and the message went from one to the other till I was prevented from joining in the straight line walk to the cafeteria because Ms. H- said I needed to take work home to S-and someone in the office confirmed with my mother by calling my mother at work that I could make the heroic quest to deliver homework if I wouldn’t mind and this was the seriousness of a combat medic getting to the front line to give a bite-sized kick of morphine and yes I was ready for the mission because I was born for this moment because heroes aren’t born they are chosen by time in its incremental mood so I took a different route home and don’t worry Ms. H- I know the way and I did and I stepped over different sidewalk stories and avoided breaking mothers’ backs until I knocked on S- door and no he wasn’t home or wasn’t answering and the woman in the other half of the divided house opened in a bathrobe confession with her grey wasp next hair and Lipton teeth wanted to know if I wouldn’t mind being so kind to help her move her couch it wouldn’t take but a minute but I knew she had a monster inside she had to feed and I ran because my parents didn’t buy milk so how would they ever know I’d gone missing

 

Nesting – Lindsay Bennett Ford

After he got sick he said “Don’t let me end up with a phone strapped to my wrist ordering food. I want life locked in here to seem real. Not on demand, scrolling and clicking like a fool. We’ll need to talk to get through this together.” She looked at his body soft and folded on the bed, sprained by the weight of the unknown – wondering how and when he would heal.

Outside, when she dares look, the birds flap and part ways suddenly as if caught in the act of something shameful, elicit like teenagers flying apart when the door opens on them unannounced.

The weeks before lockdown she had seen things: the boy with no shoes and soaking wet socks making footprints on the concrete steps; the seagull speaking in tongues with squawks of a misremembered song from years ago. The chalk rocks crumbling in the storm of silence while the wind howled all the ears shut.

That’s why she waited two moons to tell him about the baby.

The only time she leaves him is to get supplies from the warehouse of late capitalism. They sit in silence when she returns – the scene sits burned in the collective from too many movies when the end comes and fear brays on the doors smearing blood. Pinkish like sarsaparilla. Now the aisles are almost empty and she takes the last packets of dolmio sauces and whispers an apology to the pigeons nesting in the rafters; “Don’t leave breadcrumbs, save them for the hunger in you that will never be full.”

At night when the owl hoots they talk of the future. A precious jewel in her belly – they agree on only one thing; old ways will become new again.

On the balcony in the midst of someone else’s plan she sits dumbstruck in spring sunlight listening to the blackbirds making nests, preparing to be Gods once more.

 

I Miss My Mum – Sarah Day

I miss my Mum I miss my Mum I miss my Mum. I miss how she wouldn’t say anything I wanted her to say but would surprise me with something else. Always left field. Seeing our old house again, I remembered how my first years were spent with her, just the two of us. Just my Mum and I for most of the day and how even then I was aware that she was going out of her mind and trying to find distractions from this life with me, this relentless boredom that I seemed able to produce. It is a slight feeling, not a huge one, but it has always been there this feeling that I am not good enough to keep someone company. That I was not enough for my mother, or that I wasn’t what she had wanted. That what I wanted was a secondary thing. That I needed to get out of the way for her desires, that I needed to be quiet so she could think. That I was the reason she had to do all these boring tasks. That if she didn’t have me she would be living an exciting life, full of stories and books and adventures that she had all had to give up to be a mum. That our house wasn’t a permanent thing for her but a temporary structure because she had to do this tedious task of bringing me up. That she wanted to be elsewhere, always. Always elsewhere. That each thing she had to do during the day was tedious -– washing, cleaning, cooking, but she did it anyway hoping that soon it would all be over and I would be grown up and she could move on to the next stage in her life. Watching her drink her iced coffee with my plastic periscope through the screen window. She must have said that she wanted some time to read on her own, some ‘me time’ before people said that, and I felt so strange that she was now down in our new car port with its painted concrete floor and sofa made from wooden planks my dad screwed together and a foam they covered with an old sheet stapled round it. This new room that I thought might be for all of us was being commandeered as a room for grown-ups to have reading time, alone, sipping iced coffee.

She thought it was funny that I couldn’t leave her alone for one moment that I spent so long spying on her when she was only reading. She laughed at my constant needy energy. Perhaps touched that I needed her so much. That I missed her for that half hour she decided to take for herself.

Now I miss her all the time and always will as she has taken all the time for herself. She has gone to the carport of me time forever. Where the periscope can’t see her. Where even if I crouch down beneath the lip of the windowsill there are no mirrors that can reflect off each other to get the right angle for that. She is gone gone. Forever gone. And now I’m left feeling just not enough still for the memories. Just not enough of a person to hold down a life. Wondering if I was supposed to be brought here at all, and feeling slightly apologetic for taking up space. Reminding myself over and over again that this life is mine to lead. That I have every right to it.

 

Magnolia Breath – Karin Hedetniemi

There were deer tracks in our wet cement this morning. “They like to nibble on your magnolia blossoms,” our neighbour said as she walked past. I’m never awake so late at night, but I smiled at the thought of a buck, standing under moonlight, reaching up into the branches, and chewing the thick, soft petals. I took a picture of the carved imprints with my phone, so I could refer back to this moment again and again, whenever I need assurance the world is imperfect and kind of whimsical and never lets you forget this in small offerings you don’t expect and interactions you can’t control: squirrels that nest in your grandmother’s hammock and wasps that build a nest under the eaves, just outside your reach when standing on the tallest rung on your ladder and now this deer, who will probably be back again tonight when the cement is dry, but there won’t be any evidence it was here.

I actually saw a deer later this morning in the cemetery, standing motionless between the headstones, sunlight streaming from behind carving him into a cement statue. Different from an angel or an obelisk or a simple slab. More majestic, fitting of the landscape. Standing on someone’s grave, sinking imprints in the dewy grass and cool earth. Standing over someone named Eunice or Alfred or Elsworth or Adelia May. Someone who once lived in a house like mine, or maybe even mine, who surveyed the garden every morning to consider the growing wasp nest, or the branch sheared off in last night’s wind storm, or to cradle a tiny, cracked robin’s egg. Someone who now waits every night for tall trees to drop pine cones on their bed, and small creatures to nibble on their sheet of wildflowers. He was standing there, blink, now he’s slightly to the left, blink, further, blink, now I can’t find him.

I scanned the cemetery, but the deer was gone, camouflaged by hazy sunlight and shadows. The pup never even noticed, never picked up the scent, and trust me she smells everything, including the mere thought you might reach into your pocket to give her a treat. Suddenly her wide eyes are locked on you, and she’s commanding you with her doggie ESP “give me the treat” before you even involuntarily twitch a muscle in your arm or make a conscious decision, whether it will be here or after we round the next corner. She just knows, she’s onto you, she can already smell that savoury morsel in the future, now making its way to her mouth across time and space. She knows five minutes before someone’s coming home or when someone’s leaving, even before the suitcase is pulled from the closet. But she didn’t sense the deer at all. She didn’t bark last night when the trespasser stepped across our wet cement and stretched its neck and buried its nose in the sweet fragrant blooms of the hundred-year-old tree, making its moonlit offerings to ghost deer.

Karin Hedetniemi lives by the sea in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada where she photographs and writes about nature, inspiration, and being human. Her work has appeared in Sky Island Journal, Pomme Journal, Barren Magazine, Door is A Jar, and elsewhere. She publishes essays, photos, and stories on her website: http://www.agoldenhour.com

 

For Zip – Wendy Chrikos

What it means to disappear. What it means to die. What it means to roll around in the sheets and wake up gasping for fresh air, afraid that you’ve been choked, somehow, in your sleep. I don’t know what any of it means, frankly, or if our words and good thoughts and collective prayers even mattered — actually, of course they didn’t matter — but it feels especially harsh that the very last picture of you is you standing in the middle of an empty West Village intersection, donning a mask. Documenting your life ’til the end.

Save the memory, you’d say.

In the caption you wrote that you were off to the bank, needed cash, still had to buy groceries, y’know, but it was fine, you were fine, everything was fine fine fine fine fine fine fine…

What it means to show up. What it means to share. What it means to grab at the day with both hands so that it has been squeezed of its life by dusk, tucking each and every blessing inside the wrinkles of your pillowcase so that one morning, years later, you can see a familiar face on the 6 train and say, Oh, wasn’t it your birthday last week?

How did you know? How did you always know? I am never a person someone remembers, not ever. So how did you?

What it means to matter. What it means to make others matter. What it means to remember, to be the keeper of all of the memories, to understand what remembrance means. What it means that by doing what you love and loving what you do, you became our touchstone, the binding of our book, the connective tissue pulling us back to the best years of our lives.

Oh, God, I am sick and I am so, so sad.

Because what does it mean for us? To have our nucleus gone? What will it mean for us to spin out from you, unconnected? Who are we without you?

What it means to breathe. What it means to touch. What it means to be alive from the touch and the breath and to die from the breathing and the touch and…and can you regret a touch? Would you? Would you say it was worth it? That held hand, that hug, that impassioned kiss or familiar peck on the cheek, or, hell, that shared cup of coffee, whatever it was. Was it worth it, still, now that we gather on your page of memories, sending our hopes and prayers and declarations of adoration, believing somehow that it will reach out through this space and find its way to you so that you know what you mean — what you meant. What did it mean? What does any of it mean? And would you do it all over again, again and again and again and say yes, it did, it did matter, that you regretted none of it, not a single solitary breath of it?

Cabinet Of Heed SOC Drawer 31.07

Stream Of Consciousness Drawer Five

The Elevator Scene – Catherine Thoms

The first thing I’m doing when this is all over is getting a haircut, I text my mother. My ends are frayed and splitting just like my mind is frayed and splitting and it’s all I can do to just sit here and focus on my fingers moving across my keyboard without wanting to stop and pick at my hair. My mother says she feels like we’re living the elevator scene from You’ve Got Mail, the one where they’re all talking about the nice things they’ll do for the people they love once the elevator gets unstuck and Tom Hanks realizes his girlfriend, Parker Posey, is kind of a terrible person. Except in this version of the movie, the one we’re living, Tom Hanks is the one with the virus, so maybe Meg Ryan leaves daisies on his doorstep because she takes social distancing very seriously but either way, The Shop Around the Corner closes and I’m still out of a job.

Normally I’d be at work today at the New York City bookstore that inspired that movie, slipping my page-a-day crossword into my back pocket to complete while standing at the register, bothering my co-workers for answers. Now, I’m all alone and thinking about all the things I never thought I’d miss about work, like the old woman who calls every week like clockwork, the one who nobody wants to talk to because you have to speak slowly and loudly and repeat yourself, and because she always asks if we have anything new that fits her very specific interests (beautiful ballet books, girls in other countries, girls with disabilities), and even though we all know her interests by heart, there never seems to be anything for her. I think nobody wants to talk to her because we all feel guilty, for not trying harder, for dreading having to talk to her in the first place. Every week she buys at least one book and gives her credit card and shipping information over the phone. I looked up her address once and saw that it’s a senior living community right off the expressway. The website made it sound nice enough, and at the time I thought to myself that it must be nice to get old and live with all your friends again like college, with activities scheduled every day, and to be able to simply call your favorite store every week and have someone pick out a book for you and pop it in the mail. Now I think of her and I hope she isn’t afraid, I hope someone still answers the phone when she calls, I hope she feels safe and isn’t too terribly alone. Today I thought about asking her—if I ever get to go back to work and if she is still alive (a morbid thought)—why she always calls, why this store, why those interests. Funny, the idea that I could deal in stories all day and never once think to ask about hers.

Catherine Thoms is a Brooklyn-based writer and bookseller. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Honey & Lime, Nightingale & Sparrow, and Oh Reader literary magazines. She retweets Jane Austen memes @c_thoms137.

 

Untitled – Elizabeth Moura

Mama doesn’t like me writing; but today she gave me a paper and pencil and told me to go ahead. I was very surprised, because she usually takes paper and pencils away from me, and locks them in her bedroom.

I wanted to thank Mama, but didn’t have a chance. She was coughing worse; she turned away from me, coughing like I had done last year, when I got sick at Christmas. Her mouth was covered with one of the thin old dishcloths she was always going to throw away.

What shall I write, Mama, I said, turning my head. She had already left the room; only the cat was there, washing itself again, and staring after my mother. Mama shut the bathroom door, still coughing. She turned on the water in the sink, real hard. It must have been splashing all over, I thought.

I lay down on the floor with my pencil and started to write on the single sheet of paper she had given me.

Here is my story:

I put on my best baseball hat, the one mama bought me, and hurried outside to play with the other kids. I couldn’t find any kids, so I spent time hitting a ball, and watching it roll to a stop far away in the brown field. You’d hardly know it was spring; the grass hadn’t turned green yet; one droopy little dandelion got squashed by the baseball. I spent my day hitting the ball around the field, figuring other kids would show up.

I stopped playing to watch two big black birds pecking at something. They were very busy doing this. I walked as close as I could; they were pecking at a dead squirrel. It was disgusting. The eyes had already been pecked out; one of the ears was half gone. They weren’t interested in me, they just kept pecking. I became bored by them and walked away.

There were no kids coming, so I decided to go home.

I forgot to wear socks, so my shoes flapped as I walked along the street to our house.

I was glad to be heading home; playing alone is no fun after a while. I opened the door and my mother had made my favorite food, macaroni and cheese. I sat down at the table, and when mama turned her back I let my cat eat some off my fingers. I still had my cat to play with. This is good.

I put down my pencil, and ran around the house, looking for Mama.

I finished the story! It’s real good! I said.

She must still be in the bathroom, I thought; the water had stopped running. I opened the door. Mama was lying on her back on the floor; her eyes were open and staring at the ceiling, but she wasn’t coughing anymore. She was very quiet.

This is a perfect ending for my story, I thought; I ran to find another piece of paper and my pencil.

 

Stamens I have kissed (or, a prayer for our pestilence) – Faye Brinsmead

Ooievaar is Dutch for stork, and a daffodil grows in my ear.

Saying it drives the drear away. Ooievaar, ooievaar, ooievaamen. Hail daffodil, frill of grace, the auricle is with you. If I ask for a lend of my ear, if I beg – ooievaar! – do, please, refuse. I need your brown boot root, I need you bulbous, bibulous. Bubbles, yes; bibles, no. Blessed be the fruit of my fear.

Ooievaar is stork for daffodil, and an ear grows in my Dutch. Finest process powder fights cocoavirus. Droste, Valrhona, E. Guittard Cocoa Rouge in wearable keepsake tin. My daffodil’s corona masks disaster. Ooievaar, poor cochlea. I knew them, Eustachian. Fellows of infinite pollen dust. Here stung those stamens I have kissed… Have kissed… Young Lochinvar stoops in his stirrup. To kiss… Ooievaar.

Ooievaar is daffodil for ear, and a Dutch grows in my stork. They traded loonly in the cloud. That banks on higher cryptoshares. The daffodil craze made the stalk market crash. Hashtags, hashtags, we all fall. My dame has a lame tame daffodil. Daffodo, daffodon’t. Count to happy birthday while you hanitise your sands. Covert short cuts can kill. A sneeze on the breeze is worth 46,000 in ICU. I see you. My anvil restyles your stigma. Your corolla come, your calyx be done, at home as it is in Hubei. For Wuhan and Wuhan. Ooievaamen.

Ooievaar is ear for Dutch. Will a stork grow in my daffodil? I sprinkle sugar on the soil, pray for red-beaked innocence. From time-before marshes, Neanderthal caves of care. I imagine the stork in its yellow frou-frou nest. Wombing a Trojan cargo of reborn souls. A pandemic of peace, itching to infect. We’ll exclench fists, quiver fingers outwards, unthread isolation’s web. We’ll wash suspicion from behind our eyes. Leave three-ply pinatas on strangers’ doorsteps. Cosset random grandmothers with mugs of cocoakindness.

I imagine stamens I will kiss to kingdom come.

Ooievaar, ooievaar, ooievaamen.

Faye Brinsmead lives in Canberra, Australia. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Cabinet of Heed, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, MoonPark Review, The Disappointed Housewife and other places. She sporadically tweets microfictions @ContesdeFaye.

 

The stars have fallen – Cath Barton

The stars have fallen from the heavens and landed in beds of celandines, blanketing our fields. I would hold them up to your chin like so many buttercups, asking if you like butter and you would bat me away in annoyance because the time for that is gone, or so you fear. And in any case I now have no right. My right is only to follow the line that undulates in front of me and takes me on the path I did not know I had to travel, so close to the edge I did not ever guess was there. Was I blind, or merely unthinking, or downright selfish? Oh, we have all been selfish, we have all thought we could have… No, stop. Now there is just this, now, here, and the swish of the traffic on the road, cars coming and going who knows where or why.

There is, nonetheless, warmth in the sun, which is a kind of miracle after all that rain, the unremitting rain. It was so on the day I learned to make the bread that will sustain us through this. It is an obsession now. I wake and think of how I will mix the flours, lift and fold the dough, stage by slow stage, until the heat, slash and bake. Do stars have these obsessions? Dead? How can they be dead, shining as they do? Only a reflection? The hills would return my laughter. They are impassive, have been there longer than you or I can comprehend. Now the butterfly flits and a humble bee appears outside my window, disorientated, this is not his place, he seeks greenery not asphalt, and flies on, the only way he knows.

Nature is all of this, stars, celandines, rocks, tiny living things, precariously strong. There is, in her domain, neither good nor evil, merely a striving for balance. That’s the trick, to arrive at the point of equilibrium and hold it. It see-saws, the pendulum movement chaotic and unpredictable, even by the largest of the cleverest. Hold steady, fall, regain your composure for a moment and fall again. We must not seek gain. Shall I say it once more so that one of us may understand it? No gain. Look into my eyes, see the reflection of the light from the celandines, feel my breath on your cheek and know that it is benign. This is the impulse, to carry on, to feel the warmth on our foreheads and hear the sparows in the lilac which will blossom in mere days, open from tight buds to an unleashing of scent.

It is merely this that is required of us, to wait for the time of the lilacs, to breathe them in and to let them go, knowing that the pendulum will swing back. Holding on is useless, we will fall. So sit, listen to the birdsong close, the hum of the traffic on the road beyond and, further off, the quiet river and the flow and the continuity of everything.

Cath Barton’s second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, will be published in September 2020 by Louise Walters Books

 

March is Now Officially 300 Days Long – Sheila Scott

Go for it, brain. The next five hundred words are all yours. Actually only four hundred and eighty six now…seventy eight. Stop counting.

It’s now half past midnight though we all know it’s really only half eleven. I’ve never understood this insistence in putting the clocks forward and back so, for one week either end of summer, our Pineal Gland can sit smugly in the midbrain going ‘Well I’m not seeing any extra daylight here, how about you?’ And Pineal Gland would be absolutely right. All we’re doing is shifting the window ever so slightly while nature rolls its eyes at us like teenagers – mother of f- something just went ‘BONG!’ in the ceiling. Adrenal Glands’ turn to take centre stage and send a muscle-jangling squirt of homebrew amphetamine into the system.

That’ll help me sleep.

It’ll be the house settling no doubt. That’s what people say when big structures make disquieting creaks and groans: the house settling. Should it have hung in there and waited for something better instead? Is it unhappy with us? We’ve treated it well, bought it nice things like windows and doors, hell, even walls in places. To be honest, we’ve practically rebuilt it to the point where I feel we paid a really big sum of money for a patch of ground and the cube of air hovering above it. We even plastered the front room ceiling twice after the first effort applied by Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid fell on our heads before twenty-four hours were out. Perhaps it liked its old seventies vibe with the geometric carpets, spirograph-on-acid wallpaper and flesh-grating Artex.

The big, bricky ingrate.

I do not see why I can’t have a portal. I think it’s a perfectly reasonable request in 2020.

Wy do people like flying dreams. What on (or, in fact, off) earth is so wonderful about flapping around completely detached from anything of substance?

Do fish have walking dreams?

The fox left a turd right in the middle of the back grass last night and I can’t help but feel it was making a statement.

If the CIA and Russian Secret Police are really listening to us through the smart telly, all they’ll get from our house is sarcasm and farts.

We found a summer replacement for Fireplace on YouTube today. In the dark, sodden winter nights, Fireplace really tied the room together, man, and with our first energy inefficient smart telly it actually warmed it too. It was like having an ornamental panel-heater with a light entertainment function. Now we have an ice-cold Euro-thingummy rated upgrade. For the coming months which we shall optimistically call summer, we’ve got Tropical Beach, replete with lapping waves. They must loop these things perfectly because, from the palm tree shadows, the sun stayed in the exact same spot this afternoon for eight solid hours. So did we.

How can it be a full moon when the Apollo astronauts fecked off with bagfuls of it?

No more ceiling-bongs. For now.

 

gently rocks the chair – Christine A Brooks

When my mother was dying and the end was so near we could hear it creep around the house, creaking floorboards and gently rocking the chair, I made a promise to her. I vowed that, no matter what, she would not die alone.

No matter what.

My family and I stayed with her around the clock, at her hospice bed in their dining room, monitoring each inhale waiting for the corresponding exhale. Each rise of the floral bed sheet seemed to stay longer, resting, before finally releasing and falling to her chest. On the third night of our vigil, I stayed alone with her trying somehow to take in her last last’s and let her know I there and she was not alone.

When Death came, He did not thunder in snatching her away from me with brutal force. He did not cause her pain or fear as He came to be with us that night. She lay in a deep peaceful sleep with a look of acceptance, not defeat, on her waxen face and breathed easily, free from pain. Death joined us that cold night in February with grace and peace and what can best be described as respect. We sat for a moment with Him before He absorbed her last exhale and just like that —I was alone.

If Death should come for you, tell Him I said hello. We’re old friends. He’ll take good care of you.

Christine Brooks is a graduate of Western New England University with her B.A. in Literature and her M.F.A. from Bay Path University in Creative Nonfiction. Her recent poems are in The Cabinet of Heed, Door Is a Jar, Cathexis Northwest Press and Pub House Books. Her book of poems, The Cigar Box Poems, was released in February 2020.

 

Communion – Glad Doggett

Preparing and sharing food is one of the ways I express myself creatively. But it’s more than that: It’s a way to communicate love. Basically, cooking is my love language.

It started when I was a young, single mother of two small children. I would pore over cookbooks and watch chefs and cooks on PBS. This was before the days of HGTV on 24×7. Back then, I had to seek out the cooking mentors. There was no Gordon Ramsey or Giada on TV at Prime Time.

I watched, I burned, I learned. Over time, I figured out how to combine ingredients to make a dish that tasted good. I knew almost intuitively how to get around in the spice drawer. I never measured or worried. And in spite of being raised in a family that never
ventured beyond salt and pepper, I was not intimidated by what I thought were “exotic spices” like cumin or ginger. I added this and that, throwing caution to the wind. In the end, my reckless abandon became dinner. And most of the time it tasted good.

My kids are grown now and I cook primarily for my husband and myself. But this Coronavirus lockdown has changed everything. I cook as an escape from the uncertainty of the outside world. When I make soups, bake cookies, mix up casseroles, a switch flips and the worries fall away. These culinary distractions come easily. No thought or recipe required. No chemistry involved.

The one thing I’ve never tried until now is to bake bread.

The real test for a home cook is to transform flour, salt, yeast and water into bread. In bread, you can’t hide your mistakes. There are rules to the measurements and bake times. Bread keeps no secrets: too much salt, it’s inedible; too little, it’s bland; not
enough yeast, it’s flat; short-change the rise time, it’s a brick.

But oh, bread is worth the effort. Fresh homemade bread is manna. It nourishes the body, pleases the palate, and delights the senses. Everybody loves warm bread. A buttery slice of bread briefly heightens your senses, and stops your wandering mind. You forget to worry. You just taste joy.

It’s no small thing to create sustenance from a list of ingredients. Baking bread is a form of magic. Wet dough comes to life, rising and breathing. Add heat and the conjuring is complete.

Baking bread is a form of meditation. It requires you to get quiet, slow down and purposefully use your hands to knead, measure and mix the components. You stop to read the recipe, focus on the instructions, ensure the measurements and the oven temperature are right. It requires present-moment attention to wait and watch the crumb become browned and crisp. Time slows; it’s just you and the bread.

Offering the finished loaf to another person is communion. It’s a way to say, “I offer you my time, attention, and love through this nourishment.”

 

Revels with Nic – Will Fihn Ramsay

Two weeks ago, an actor friend of mine died.

Due to the pandemic, there was no funeral.

There was, however, a brief window to say goodbye. The hour after I found out, I was in a suit, ironed shirt, and at the Chapel.

I hadn’t realised, but here they do open-casket.

So I “saw” him. Made it easier to say goodbye. Talked for ages. Cried.

At the end, gave him a rendition of Revels (Tempest).

Which was so utterly apt. I had learnt it the week prior and had had trouble linking it to death.

Then I walked out. He was a dearheart.

It was a beautiful glimmer of time. Little things. I had chosen black and silver cufflinks. Had combed my hair. (My hair is unmanageable). He lay motionless, peaceful, wearing a tux with a rainbow bowtie.

I remembered our time together and how kind and supportive he was.

And twice when I spoke to him, I am convinced, absolutely convinced, he smiled, and that whilst I delivered Revels he opened an eye and looked at me. And he was still supporting and encouraging me in death. As a fellow actor.

Then the speech just made ever more sense.

And I thought about the bizarre synchronicity of it all. How I’d only learnt it the previous week as an exercise, and struggled, and now everything clicked.

Something important about our friendship for you to know:

We once had a conversation in the car driving back from some terrible am-dram show. We were talking about smoking. We both said we used to. I mentioned how I sometimes miss it and still think it’s “cool.” He looked slightly, ever so slightly, reproachful, said nothing.

It was later someone told me he had only one lung. By then we were already friends. As I believe quite strongly in agency, and don’t like hearing people’s news from others. I cut that conversation and walked away. It was for Nic to relay to me if he wanted and he hadn’t.

And I knew he was ill from what he’d said to me, and that was enough.

And this was germane to how we spoke.

Incidents and happenings and retellings prima facie formed the basis of our friendship. Perhaps it can only be that way with someone who is daily made aware of their mortality.

I don’t know whether he had been terminally ill, nor how he died. I hope it was that final and wonderful natural progression of a life-well-lived and a body worn-out and I was peaceful.

I am honoured to have shared some time and some thoughts with him, and I’ll miss him.

Saying ‘goodbye’ was genuinely lovely, and melancholic, but only in that cathartic way that humans need, and hold a perverse longing for that we never voice.

These layered and muddled thoughts, I hope, explain why the speech was so utterly intrinsic in bidding him adieu as his little life was rounded with a sleep.

Will Fihn Ramsay sometimes acts, sometimes writes. Skis often. Lives in Geneva, Switzerland. You can check out some of his other stuff at http://www.fihnramsay.com

 

Blossom – Sherri Turner

There is a tree in next-door’s garden, cherry I think, hooching with blossom and purring like a well oiled Ducati. The bees are feeding, oblivious to the danger that they are in, that they are a threatened species. Such lovely oblivion. We think we want to know things, we Google and we Wikipedia and we ask Siri – ‘What was he in?’ ‘What’s the population of China?’ ‘When do the clocks go back (or forward) and which is which?’ Information overload. Stuff we need to know to live our busy-as-a-bee lives and pretend that we are enjoying ourselves. There are things I’d rather not know, things we would be better off not knowing, so that we could just be happy, enjoy the passage of time, feed on the blossoms. But we do know, though nobody likes to talk about it. Or they didn’t use to. Some days there is talk of nothing else. Yet the tulips are flowering as though nothing is happening, as though they can’t hear or smell the fear and the sadness. Thank goodness for that. And please, nobody tell the bees.

 

A Little Bit of Rain – Michelle Noonan

Midday on a warm Sunday, I’m out for a run. The streets are quiet, empty of both cars and people. A bright orange sign warns that the park is closed until further notice. I think of that app I used to use while running, the one with the story in which you run from zombies in your search for survival supplies. Wouldn’t that be so eerie right now? I’m tempted to try it, for a moment, before deciding maybe that would be a little too spooky even for this horror movie lover. The sky is gray and somber, like everyone’s recent mood. But as I turn the corner, I discover brightly colored words chalked across the sidewalk. Messages left by neighborhood children: be happy, love always, read books, keep learning, learn love. One has drawn a rainbow, with a reminder that you can’t have a rainbow without a little bit of rain. I stop to take a picture of each one, grateful to be smiling. I start to notice other bright bits of the day: birds singing, trees budding, a few flowers beginning to bloom. Amidst all the news of illness and death and looming catastrophe, the world is coming to life as it always does in the spring. Our children remain hopeful. I think of the parents or teachers or whoever sparked the idea of leaving messages on the sidewalk, and am reminded that this is how we care for our children. We give them hope. We remind them of the bright spots and silver linings. I think about how opening my eyes to let in the light, to notice beauty, has kept me going since I tried to take my own life last year. How long I struggled, clawing my way through each day for the sake of my own children, with determination but without true desire to live. And now here I am, running on this sidewalk, shedding worry with every step and hearing, for the first time in a long time, the voice inside myself that wants to live. I want to keep going, keep moving, keep living, keep running. I want to see where life will lead me now, to see what will happen, who I’ll become, who my children will become. And I’m scared, not of becoming ill or of dying, but of not living, of missing out, of not being able to experience what the future holds, however grim or joyful or difficult or exhilarating it might be. I want to be. I want to become. I want to learn. I want to always be this free, the way I am right now, running through the cool spring air, my body moving as if this is what I were born for, heart pumping, lungs working, eyes seeing, ears hearing. The earth beneath me is solid, the sky above boundless with promise and wonder. The birds are singing. Each step I take feels like a wish, like a mantra, like a promise to my children: alive, alive, alive.

Cabinet Of Heed SOC Drawer 31.06

Stream Of Consciousness Drawer Four

The Butter Stone – Mary-Jane Holmes

Outside my window, a palimpsest of snow, moles home-school their children in the art of house-building, arctic terns drone the moors and one unidentified wader sits on a capstone scoping for worms. Not a common snipe or oyster catcher – my usual neighbours. Who was it that recently twittered ‘our neighbours have been cancelled?’ Bigger, chevron-winged, cryptic brown and black. I’ve looked it up – dismissed dunlin, dotterel, sanderling, redshank … a woodcock? Perhaps – but in a land devoid of trees? Perhaps in a world gone mad so in this ménage rustique of sociability and solitude, the imagination soars for something more exotic – a long-billed dowitcher from Siberia, a rostratula from Africa, a tutuwiki from New Zealand. Not that last one – it needs to be extant. That word has so much more heft now doesn’t it? I’ll plump for the dowitcher. My father (no longer extant) worked in a brewery in Novosibirsk. I wonder if he ever saw a dowitcher feeding on the banks of the Ob? All I know is he flew there every month with an airline called Crash – but to fly, the longing for it, to be lifted out of all this, to be like the clocks, to spring forward into the dog days of a summer, salad days unvaried accept by accident. Salad – I’ve ordered Cut-and-Come-Again lettuce, and early seed potatoes that I’ll chit and bury in the soil left by the mole’s excavations, like my grandparents did ‘earthing up’ their Casablancas and Maris Pipers in another time of crisis and now the sun still seemingly in its winter quarantine, marches its slow gait across the horizon, appearing suddenly, luminous as fever, above Goldsborough’s cap of gritstone, over the Herdwicks and Swaledale flocks self-shielding from the three day north-easterly the Met office had predicted. Oh, to be able to forecast, to grasp some reassurance from our modern-day oracles! What would Pythia make of our modelling and algorithms? If we burn laurel and barley, pour cold water over a goat to see if it shudders, would Apollo tell us what is to be done, or perhaps his son Asclepius, god of medicine or perhaps his goddess granddaughters? Hygeia, Panacea. Goddess. God. Godwit, that is what that bird is sitting on the wall, once thought of as ‘the daintiest dish in England’, its eggs a trophy for any Victorian collector’s display cabinet. The eggs I will go and collect are from a more sustainable source – pure breed Marans – left by the farmer down the road, in a small metal tin, each dozen with a happy face felt-penned on its box and I will leave my money sprayed with a 3:1 mixture of surgical spirit and water in return, like the villagers once did four miles from here in the Great Plague of 1636, where they picked up fresh wares and left their money in vinegar in the single cup mark set in the weathered rock, that came to be known as the Butter Stone.

Elephants in Silhouette – Mark Sadler

Anton came knocking on me door, absolutely over the moon, on account of a herd of elephants, that roam in the vicinity, having been reported as gone down with a pachyderm variant of polio, meaning they all had to be culled.

“We going to hunt thee mighty mammoth,” he says/sings. Already he’s unlocking me gun safe with the key to his safe. That lazy sod, Fisher, wot makes them, gave them all identical locks. It opens out like a drinks cabinet. Can’t fault the craftsmanship. That’s all done in Thailand; the inlay and the internal compartments. All Fisher does is ship the pieces over and add a few finishing touches.

Okay, so the hunting licences will cost more than you’ll get back from selling off the parts of the animal, even when you factor-in the traditional-medicine barrel-scrapers wot will will buy anything. You do it for the sport, don’t you? When was the last time anyone got to legally hunt elephants in this neck of the woods?

Anton fired up the sat-tracker. We piled into his truck. Well, when we got there, mate, it was all sick animals far as the eye could see; staggering about; some already toppled over, and the hyenas gearing up for a big feed. It weren’t no hunt.

Cropsie was there with his band of men, wot been paid by the National Park Service to carry out the cull.

He says: “You can take first swing of the bat if you want, mate.”

Then, cos he can’t pass on an opportunity to get a dig in, he looks me long-bore up and down an’ he says: “Nice little poaching toy you got there,” knowing full well I ain’t poached more than a hen’s egg in me life.

Jason looks at me an’ says: ‘I can’t do it mate.’

We drive back to the parks office. Even get a full-refund on our hunting licences. Next day, the herd comes rumbling past in a convoy of covered lorries.

I moved to Amsterdam the same year. Things was getting too hot where I was. The Chapples got butchered on their ranch. I mean literally butchered. I could see the way the wind was blowin’, bringin’ the fire to me door.

I was telling the story about the elephants to this girl here the other night. She’s an animal rights type. Doesn’t like hunting. Hates big game hunters, even when I told her the licence money goes into conservation. She screams at me for five minutes. When she runs out of words, she pitches me own drink in me face! The worst people are the ones wot are so privileged, they don’t see their feet treading down on the backs of others.

Me and Jason was proper pissed that night, staggering along Geldersekade, like a pair of elephants with polio trying not to tumble into the canal: The silhouettes of men who should have fallen down a long time ago, holding each other up by accident.

The Pedestrian Underpass – Sebnem Sanders

Mama told me not to go into the pedestrian underpass. She said bad people live there, in the darkness. On the way to Mama’s kiosk, it was hot at noon, and I forgot to wear my hat. One could cook eggs on the pavement. Sweating and thirsty, I sipped water from the bottle I filled from the tap at home, while covering my head with one hand to protect myself from the fierce sunrays.

Then I saw a girl. Older, taller than me, heading down the steps of the underpass. Her sundress was similar to mine, even its belt tied with a bow at the back. Her haircut exactly the same. Perhaps she also had it styled at Joe’s on the high-street. Sunbeams followed her down the labyrinth of steps. I felt safe and tailed her into the fading light.

At the very bottom, darkness swallowed her. Goose pimples on my arms, I thought I’d lost her. Once my eyes adjusted to the inky dark, I spotted her walking down the bleak corridor. I heard noises. Guttural and harsh, they terrified me. I didn’t see who or what pulled her aside. It happened too quickly, but I ran forward, saw them tearing off her clothes. They did bad things to her, and I couldn’t move. I couldn’t move.

At last, I screamed at the top of my voice. They came after me. I flung the glass bottle at them, and when they grabbed me, I bit their arms with my sharp teeth. Somehow, I freed myself from the demons of darkness, and ran down the tunnel like rabid in flight, and up the steps towards the street. Breathless, I dashed into the daylight and found a policeman who listened to me. He followed me to the underpass and said, “Wait here. I’ll be back!”

I waited and waited, and saw the young girl being carried outside on a stretcher. Thank you, God, for hearing me. She’s alive, Mama. I saved her life.

Sorry, Mama, for not listening to your advice. I’ll never ever use the underpass again. I love helping you sort out the glossy magazines on the news-stand. I learn so much from reading the bold titles and looking at the pictures. Please, don’t be angry with me, Mama. I’ll be careful next time.

My head is bursting. I’m tired now. I need a story from you before I go to sleep. I love it when you read to me and tell me tales from foreign lands. Please, don’t cry, Mama. I’m here, lying next to you. Can’t you see me? Read to me, Mama, so I can rest in peace.

Sebnem E. Sanders lives on the Southern Aegean coast of Turkey and writes short and longer works of fiction. Her stories have appeared in various online literary magazines, and two anthologies. Her collection of short and flash fiction stories, Ripples on the Pond , was published in December 2017. More information can be found at her website where she shares some of her work: https://sebnemsanders.wordpress.com/

Wrinkles – K E Warner

We had a connection, my Gran and me. I loved her quirky eccentricities, she loved my malleable adulation. Gran was an eclectic product of the Irish potato famine, the Great War, and the roaring twenties, me a spin-off of TV dinners, the assassination of JFK, and free love. One would wonder what we could have in common.

‘Kim’, she would state – Gran never simply said anything, she stated everything – ‘Kim, you need to use eye cream. Every day. Start now. I know you’re only eleven, but this is important.’ My Gran had the most beautiful skin. Soft as butter, white as cream, and as plump as a cow’s full udder. I must have inherited my skin from my father’s side. But I tried eye cream. Well, not real eye cream, I used petroleum jelly and woke up most mornings with a film over my eyeballs. But damned if I was going to get wrinkles around the eyes. I was going to have skin like my Gran’s.

One day I arrived at her farm for a visit, hopped out of the car and before I was within ten feet of her she gripped her throat, rolled her eyes, and appeared to be in the throes of death. ‘Don’t come any closer. You were smoking. That is a disgusting filthy habit. And it will give you wrinkles.’ My fourteen-year-old self knew there could be only one response. ‘No gran, not me, my friends were smoking. It’s just on my clothes.’ Yeah. I stopped smoking that day. Not sure if it was the threat of wrinkles or the disappointment in her voice.

She had the voice of an angel too. She sang with the Sweet Adelines in Winnipeg. I used to love going to watch her sing. When I was sixteen they were going to perform at the Winnipeg Concert Hall. For Winnipeg – that was huge! I was supposed to be part of a group of cheerleaders – all granddaughters of the ladies in the choir. We rehearsed for weeks. I never missed a practice – even though my part was limited to approximately six seconds. She must have warned me a million times to ‘Never miss a rehearsal and never, ever be late – it’s disrespectful of everyone’s time when you are late.’ When it was finally time for the big show, I hung around the dressing room waiting for her, asking everyone else if they had seen her. When she finally arrived, I heard her before I saw her. Her friends must have told her that I was going to rub it in that she was late. ‘Well, she wouldn’t if she knew her great-grandmother had died and I was getting her off to the morgue.’ I slumped on the floor and cried. She found me in tears and stated, ‘Don’t cry. You’ll get wrinkles.’ To this day, I am rarely late for anything.

Gran has been gone for many years now. I still feel connected. Most often it is when I look in the mirror and see the wrinkles.

Isolation – Michelle Walshe

It’s not so different to the way it was before. The front door kept them out, those enemies of peace and solitude – people, chatter, noise. The air inside the house embraced me, settled quietly on my skin. Soothing.

Suddenly, there is a terror is in the air. The front door is sullen, forbidding. People, chatter, noise are ghosts. The air inside the house scratches my skin. Panic comes in waves at the thought of the particles of pestilence bombarding each other all around me.

Do they bounce off each other like dust motes in the sunlight and scatter far and wide or do they congregate, their coronas entwining, binding them together, making them stronger, ready for invasion? They resemble falling snowflakes but is each one a different shape like a true snowflake or are they uniform, like soldiers, identikit, prepared for maximum impact?

Do those spikes help to burrow into the soft, spongy lung tissue of their new-found hosts? Do they squirt poison or are they suction points for deeper attachment? Do they assist the march through the airways and arteries, spinning their continuous cartwheels, silent and invisible until you are unable to breathe? This scares me most. The reports of a vice like grip on the chest, a burning feeling in the lungs.

Victim’s bodies feel like they are on fire inside. Outside, Rome burns. And the world. Like the ancient landmarks that rose to the surface of the earth during the heatwave of two years ago, old truths rise from history. Mistakes are doomed to repetition. Society is fragile. Economy even more so. Crisis reveals the best and worst of humanity. Fear spreads faster than fire. Behavioural scientists have case studies in real time. Herds are interesting. Especially when they don’t have immunity. Planet Earth can recover, if only we took the same measures to save her as we are taking to save ourselves.

It seems much can be accomplished in an emergency that is impossible in real life. Fakery abounds. The spin has never felt so spun. Our house of cards is tumbling, card by card. Every day as a another one flutters away a new fissure in the land is exposed. The way we treat the people who sew the fabric of our society stands in stark comparison to the way we treat the ones who consume it.

Speechwriters look to the past for inspiration, spouting lines ripped from previous orators. The current leaders trot them out in solemn tones with grave expressions in minimalist surroundings. They say we are at war. We are. At war with ourselves. With our bodies. With our habits. With our preconceptions and our need for distraction.

For it is distraction that has led us here. Too distracted to be hygienic, too distracted to notice the elderly, the supermarket workers, the health care professionals, too self-absorbed to notice the wilful destruction of the planet.

Will this bring us back to simplicity, to nature, to family, to better communication? We’re being told to stay at home, but do we really understand where that is?

Michelle Walshe is a writer from Dublin. She began writing in 2017 and has been published in The Irish Times, The Irish Examiner, The Telegraph, The Sunday Independent, The Gloss and Woman’s Way magazines and in an anthology, Teachers Who Write. She has won bursaries, residencies and writing prizes, most recently the Iceland Writers Retreat.

Thoughts On Pandem(ic)onium – Sara Hodgkinson

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Probably not because none of us share a brain and none of us are psychic (or are we?) but then we might all be thinking something similar because let’s face it there’s one main thing that is hanging about us all like a terrible smell – a deadly one, even deadlier than the dog’s worst guff – and no it’s not Brexit (for once). Is there anything stranger than the pandemonium of a pandemic where you can’t actually SEE anything happening other than in the figures and data that the news spews out every evening around five when you’re normally cooking your tea but Boris is now there bumbling his way through yet another emergency conference? I don’t think so, but then we’re only at the beginning of what will likely be weeks of this or months even, though months are incomprehensible when all I can see is the end of today and curling up in bed to slip silently into delicious dreams of all the things that Tesco couldn’t give me when I dared to venture out for a dash through the aisles. What do we even do if toilet roll runs out? I’m all for cutting down on waste, but WASTE from US is not something you really have much choice in and cleaning it up is far easier with Andrex on your side. ALTHOUGH. When we were in Nepal there was less faffing about with paper and more squatting and shaking so perhaps that’s the way forward? And in Asia there’s the whole hand thing which most of us have two of so I guess there shouldn’t be a problem, and I’m more worried anyway about never getting going again because once you’ve stopped – stopped, slowed, broken the usual routine, started to get used to doing less – how do you start up again and get back to the pace of before? What if we can never return to how it all used to be but then do we really want to anyway because wasn’t there all that concern over how modern society is toxic and we’re all doing too much and there’s a looming mental health crisis and so on? There’s something to be said for the slowness and the silence that comes from waking without an alarm to absolutely nothing – no cars going past on their way to work, no idle chatter of kids on their way to school, just quietness that I never really realised wasn’t there until it was and now I sort of like it, really. Maybe this is a chance to start again, in a society where we all actually care a bit more. Then again, maybe there won’t be enough of us left to do that anyway! I’m not being flippant, it’s just a thought, but maybe – maybe – we’ll be changed in some way that makes us all, on some level, slightly better human beings than we were Before It Came.

A Brief Sojourn – Emily Harrison

You wonder how old you’ll be when this is all over – this being the pandemic but also this being the altered life you now have to lead which, in any case, is a pointless, fruitless thing to wonder because you imagine there will be no ending. No one is going to write THE END. Although they’ll probably say it on the news and well, maybe they will write it, but they’ll most definitely be wrong because these things don’t really end, do they? They reduce and we return but the memory bones and breath of it endure for however long eternity lasts. How long does eternity last? Erm. Perhaps a better question is how long does the daily invasion of information last? The data, the intelligence – the lack thereof, the charting of death; too much to ingest. It makes you feel sick, just like all that pasta that’s been hoarded in kitchen cupboards. You can’t eat pasta because it makes your stomach tighten like the taut turn of a screw. Unlucky for some. You suppose it’s better to feel something than nothing. That’s what happens when information is an onslaught – information that is horrific and scary and do you know someone that will die from this? Probably. In the blitz of information, you’ve started to become numb to its daunting fissure and your protection policy is to simply retreat into the great vastitude of your brain where nothing is felt, and nothing is gained, just a plain sailing ignorance of avoidance tactics and escapism.

It’s like the time you weren’t sure if you had cancer.

Mum sat next to you as the consultant spoke and you assume her brain was reeling with feeling and thought and dread and terror and she’ll confirm it if you ask but for some reason, you stared at the consultant as he said you would need a biopsy and felt nothing. Perhaps your brain levitated out of the room and your body stayed put – the body that maybe had cancer. It would’ve been in its throat. Maybe the body does have cancer, but you don’t know it yet. Oh fuck. Back away from that and to this, which is thinking about how old you’ll be which leads into questions about who you might be and what you might achieve which is to say that you’ll probably achieve living life – no mean feat, considering. Three years ago, you weren’t sure about living life, which is both a comfort and not – a sort of background noise to dwell upon and look back upon in moments when your mortality is hurled straight into your face like the blare of a police siren going out to fine someone for being outside longer than the government allotted time. Remember when you considered dying? An odd time. An awful time, in many ways. In most ways, actually. In all ways, truth be told.

You wonder how old you’ll be when this is all over. You hope you don’t figure it out.

Emily Harrison uses writing as an escape from reality and doesn’t drink enough water. She has had work published with Barren Magazine, Gone Lawn, Ellipsis Zine, Storgy, The Molotov Cocktail, Retreat West and Riggwelter Press to name a few. She can be found on Twitter at @emily__harrison

Featherweight – Kyle Tinga

When it came down to it, the only reason a human heart would ever be the same weight as a feather is if it was a damn heavy feather. Thoth knew this, Anubis knew it, even mightiest of all ye mighties Ra knew it. Then the question became where to source the feather, and that’s where all the ideas at the council dried up. The gods with feathers coughed and began to very politely shuffle back towards the temple entrance, while Ra rubbed his temples in a way that screamed “If I wasn’t the Supreme God then I’d be praying right now”.

“Right then, when we create humankind and judge their deeds, what feather do we weigh their hearts up against?”

A tentative hand was raised by Hathor, ready in all of her plumpness and finery, jingling and jiggling as it rose. “We could do one of those larger birds? You know, the ones that go around the liver of something or other in one of the Northern countries. Protoman, Promare, something of that nature. I’m sure a feather of that size would be heavy enough to give humankind some kind of advantage.”

“Still feather weight, innit?” That came from Sekhmet, arms folded across his chest and sharpened teeth gnashing and snarling. “And when it’s FEATHER weight it’s light as a FEATHER! Nobody’s going to come to the heavens which means nobody makes their way to us which means people will stop believing! Got to be a heavy one.”

“We could craft it out of precious metals. Gold and silver and suchlike.” The words came from an overgrown beetle, whose shining carapace was studded with diamonds and jewels of every size and colour. “That would make it suitably heavy for our purposes.”

“Then it would be a falsehood,” came the reply from Anubis in a low growl, his jackal’s jaw exposing elongated canines. “If we are weighing up the truth and sin within a human heart, it would taint the core of morality to use a fake feather.”

“What about sunbird?”

All eyes darted towards the speaker, her voice serene amidst the growing clamour. Mother Isis, mother of man and mother of the world, had her hands rested in her lap and a very small smile upon her face. “Sunbirds,” she replied, “Are truth and flame. Remember that they hold the weight of eternity in their feathers, and shed it as they’re reborn. So they are light and heavy in equal measure.”

At once whispers became chatter became yells of “Sunbird! Sunbird! SUNBIRD!” At last! A solution!

“All well and good. But,” said a no-nonsense Thoth, adjusting his spectacles with a rigid wingtip, “Where on earth do we find the sunbird?”

Ra blinked. Blinked again. Blinked thrice, and then laughed a full-bellied laugh that echoed throughout the desert dunes and palm trees. “Why, my dear Thoth, on the sun! And luckily for us, I believe I know exactly where.”

My Job to Remember – Michael Edwards

This limp I acquired cost the most of all. My left foot drags across sidewalks, floors and sunsets. Soles of my shoes scuff and abrade to the point of skin grazing rough concrete exfoliating the calloused bottom of everything. Limping is a symptom of trying to get somewhere. I can’t tell you where that is because I’m not there yet. Forget I said the thing about the limp. I’m walking fine, stride in time one leading to the next and I pace the room digging ruts in the same path like oxen at the millstone. I’m yoked to forget that linear is expected and radial, axial, actual work is looked down on. How to be blue collar begins with myth and ends with bills unpaid until each credit card juggles the chainsaws or falling batons blindfolded. This is the circus that you dreamt of running away to, the horizon and over the purple sky of twilight, dimmer than the last century and a sun sizzling fried eggs in August heat on the sidewalk, segmented, control joints, planned fractures where tree roots push up and tectonics of urban expansion and contraction, freeze-thaw – leaves pile up to elbows and rot. Cars disappear in leaf litter and trees send their seeds sprouting, humus, new earth, rich neglect, they would say extinction, extermination, self-determination, individuation. This last week or so the sky has bloomed like dandelions gone to seed and the spheres of the heaven are filled with fluffy parachutes swirling in gales of warm winter, snowless, creatureless – only the proliferation of weeds, of plants, of phloem and xylem. Sapwood bleeds through bark bursting, the high pressure pulse of Pacific forests, climatic shifts – birches so warm their sap rots in-place and punky wood is all that’s left as winds snap fragile limbs, milkless, decalcified, malnourished, hyperthermic entropy. Decay, waste, recycled and deposited. Injected, and this won’t make the cut. I can’t remember why I even started. The rains stopped months ago. The humid heat took over and the limp is back. The last man limping through detritus and logs decomposing, reanimating, vegetating. Well, if the last man is what I am, at least these plants will feed me. The last winter coat was sold for parts and the only thing I remember is the frost on the windshield when January chilled my fingers, blood rushing to the core, protecting vital organs and the north has become south and I’m never coming back. The last man on earth. Only the tops of pyramids peek out through the soil layer, coating the earth with fertile foundation from new life – plants have heartbeats they say. Water has a pulse and they synchronize to the tide’s ebb and flow and the mud we make of words that we used to sling at each other. And now I’m the last man on earth and it’s my job to remember, but there’s no one left to remind me how I got this limp.

Michael Edwards is a poet, writer and young dad living in Vancouver, BC. Follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/michaelwrites1

Black Mirror – Mehreen Ahmed

I sat in front of a mirror. The many glaring lights fixed on its frame, enhanced my reflection on the mirror. I saw a masked face in white make-up paste. The make-up artist diligently applied colour dust with a small sponge on my dark skin. Eye make-up was the hardest to do.

“Take a closer look.” She held another mirror. It looked black. I saw a cinema. Of my mind. Of a stream. Of a monologue.

The winds were rough. In the early dawn, the door rattled in the stormy winds. I screamed and held on to the flimsy bed frame. On a summer’s day, The winds revved up like a car in the hands of a novice. Five years of age. I sat by the window. The winds knocked on the glass pane. Another morning. Some clouds had gathered. I opened the windows and a sudden gust of wind whipped my face as it passed through the hut. My hair blew wildly over my face, almost veiling it with a mass of dark locks. I looked at the distant sky and saw layers upon layers of dark clouds; each layer a different shade of grey. The little daisies down by the mountain stream, danced insanely in the ferocity of the winds. Poor yellow little souls and bleeding blades of grass. Then there was a knock on the door. They came back. There was a ship wreck off the peninsula. Couldn’t make it in the storm. How was I to endure that? Those faces of desperate sailors floated in the ocean of my eyes; their bodies floating. The gardens bled.

Who’s at the door? My son? Did you come back for me? Have you come for my soul. Oh God. The wooden door went off the latch. It flung apart. Crazy! The crazy winds. My hut seemed to be wrung out of its soil. The mountains green, but dark and grey today. Dark. Yes, pitched dark it

was too, when my unfledged 16 year old went away to the edge of the peninsula toward a faraway coral island.

The mountain spring. The fall from this height among the rocks and the craggy crevice. The rains lashed its spray across the – My son, my little boy, Are you even alive? Come back. But no drugs and overdose. The ship that drowned in that ever engulfing sea. Took away. The water. The ocean. This stream. How I miss you? Little baby. Little. No more. Down by the green valley, I see him running. I see him now and then, he vanishes. There he is again. Play. Play. Hide and seek. Don’t run to the ocean though. Come back. Come back. Dear child. There he comes now. Up the ragged hill he climbs back. He’s here. In my arms. Kisses and hugs. The ocean rises and falls. Boats passing through mountain ridges. Suddenly all falls apart. No boats. No ships, only the sounds of the raging seas.

Cabinet Of Heed SOC Drawer 31.05

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