Streams Of Consciousness II

1. Untitled – Lindsey M. Heatherly

I’m exhausted and I’m angry and I hate myself and I want to be known but I hate being judged I need to throw the clothes in the wash I want to quit that project I started I’m tired of expectations I hate my body I hate that I’m fat I want to be skinny and dainty and quiet I don’t want to take up space I want to be what men want But I also want to be myself I want to be loved by someone who sticks around I don’t want to have to explain myself I don’t want to give feedback on that piece tonight but if I wait until tomorrow I might not feel well enough to do it It’s another thing to add to the list I want to quit Twitter I want to quit everything literary I want to skip work tomorrow I want to go on a trip I want to want someone who wants me back I don’t want to listen to her talk about her ex and I know I do the same thing sometimes I am such a hypocrite I need to get the oil changed on Saturday I need to eat better food I need to eat less I need to spend less time on Twitter I need to figure out how to find comfort when everything is scratchy wool on my skin I want silence and waterfalls and a black hole and the Aurora Borealis My head hurts I want to cry but I’m too tired The vaccine comes tomorrow which is good but I dread People don’t like me when I share who I am I’m not easy to handle or swallow I make things difficult I want peace I feel like my old life was a hundred years ago He isn’t talking to me Why am I surprised He only wants to talk when he’s horny Maybe that’s all men I want to die I don’t say that much anymore but it’s true sometimes It would be easier you know? To have all this behind me I hope the laundry dries by morning

Lindsey M. Heatherly is a Pushcart nominated writer (Red Fez & Pithead Chapel) born and raised in Upstate South Carolina. She has words in X-R-A-Y, Emrys Journal, Schuylkill Valley Journal, and more. She spends her time at home raising a strong, confident daughter. Find her online at https://r3dwillow.wixsite.com/rydanmardsey or on Twitter: @rydanmardsey.

2. Untitled – E E Rhodes

You know about the Beaufort Scale, which runs from 1 to 12. You’ve used it countless times, and not only for the weather. Maybe for the moods your oldest always seems to be in? Maybe for the state of your youngest kid’s room? Maybe for how you feel compared to all the other girls you graduated college with? Maybe to let your husband know if he should come home quick-smart? Yeah, you know what the different levels are exactly.

Where 0 is calm. The calm you feel when the laundry is done and the house is quiet and the shopping is put away and there is nothing and no one to see you hold on to the edge of the countertop so tightly your knuckles turn white.

Where 1 is light air, just ripples without crests, the sound of something awful, but only in the distance. So far away you don’t really hear it, you just know the effects it’ll have when the impact finally arrives.

Where 2 is a light breeze with wavelets with crests of a glassy appearance, not breaking, not breaking, not breaking, yet.

Where 3 is a gentle breeze, where the crests begin to break and there are scattered whitecaps. Because you read that note you found in his shirt pocket in the laundry. And you stuff your fist into your mouth and bite down hard.

Where 4 is a moderate breeze with small waves with breaking crests. Like you texted a photo of the note to your husband and know that something bad is now coming.

Where 5 is a fresh breeze with small amounts of spray. The kind that will soak you if you don’t pay attention. The kind that started, you’ll tell yourself later, when you weren’t paying attention, and that will make you desperate to start that part over again.

Where 6 is a strong breeze and long waves begin to form. The sort that knocks your feet from under you when you thought you were solid. You tell yourself that again. You thought you were solid.

Where 7 is a high wind, and everything heaps up. Actually breaking. And maybe is already irredeemably broken.

Where 8 is a gale with moderately high waves with breaking crests forming spindrift. With a spray that blinds you, scrubbing hard at your salt-smarting eyes. And you just trying to keep your head above water. Not waving. Drowning.

Where 9 is a strong gale which rolls right over you, and which crowds your visibility, extinguishing everything but the blinking-blue pilot-light on the stove.

Where 10 is a storm, that thing you never once saw coming, and all your thoughts are upended, foundering on the rocks of how is this happening? With much reduced visibility, narrowed down to that hateful blinking-blue light of whatever her name is.

Where 11 is a violent storm. With thunder and lightning. And everything in the kitchen is aggressively shaken, and your husband is belatedly home in answer to your level 4 text. Where you think things can’t get any worse.

And 12 is a hurricane force where she comes into the kitchen behind him. And all the gathered fronts come into alignment to create a perfect storm.

3. It’s not – Ellen Symons

When I wake crying it’s not because of you.

It’s because of the sun. It’s because of the way the snow glistens in sharp light. It’s because the moon played across the field all night long, chasing rabbit and red fox, coyote and mouse.

It’s because the cat is 12, when yesterday she was a kitten. And tomorrow she’ll be 20. It’s because of the grey in my hair and the wrinkles at my eyes, the cracking in my knee, the arthritic finger.

It’s because someday I won’t remember the years we had together, and all of this sorrow will have been wasted.

When I wake crying, it’s not because of you.

If it were because of you, I would have to call. I would have to rise from my bed, lift my head from your pillow, run into the world and appear at your door. I would have to hear you say no, it’s not a good time. The dishes aren’t done. The bed isn’t made. After all this time, of me washing your dishes, of me making your bed, I would have to ask why. Why, I would have to say. Is she there with you. I would have to listen. While you lied. No. It’s not a good time.

If it were because of you, there would be no remedy. There would be no stitch in time, no glue for my heart, no waterproof miracle paste that would hold the torn flesh as blood slicks its edges, as it slips through my shivering fingers. If it were because of you, I would never mend.

It is not because of you. I will stay in this bed for the sun and the moon that tumble across it. For the downy loft of its covers. For the small purring warmth of the cat at my knees. Not for your scent. Not for the smell of you ground into the fibres. Lemon and sweat, the shampoo you use, the heat of your body. Not for the way my figure shapes around the space. The space you once held. Where I held you.

I will leave this bed when. When it’s a good time. When my knees are cold because the cat has long padded to the warmth of the window seat. When I have followed the sun and the moon to the ends of their tracks. When the mouse and the rabbit have squealed in the night. When my water-chapped hands have smashed each of your dishes. When I have lost the smell of you to the fust of my own lingering malaise. When I have dreamed every dream I can muster, and no dream can undo what I have mended. When I have forgotten your lies.

Ellen Symons writes poetry and fiction from a corner of the sofa, or while walking through the trees and fields of Lanark County, Ontario, Canada. Her published work includes a poetry collection, Economies of Gratitude. She is completing her first novel.

4. On the eve of forty – Nicola Ashbrook

Is this forty then? It’s hard to concentrate with the echoes of Fortnite through the wall and my husband clattering in the kitchen. But that’s life now; rain pattering the window.

I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow on The Big Day. Not that much is happening but if it was dry while we walked, that would be something. It might take a slight edge off a BIG lockdown birthday.

I certainly didn’t think is how it would be when I imagined it a year ago. We even talked about a joint party at one point. Dancing – imagine that.

People say we’ll have to celebrate later, when all this is over, whenever that is, but the moment will have passed by then. No one cares about a fortieth six months after it. Maybe they do. Maybe I don’t. I don’t know.

I don’t know what I think. I know it’s hard she isn’t here. When I had all these frivolous thoughts a year ago about the best way to spend a thirty-ninth year, I didn’t envisage I’d be doing this – the major birthday thing – without her. I still can’t believe she’s gone and everything that has happened this year has happened. But nothing feels real. How can it in a pandemic? More than fifteen-hundred dead today.

Maybe it’s all inconsequential anyway.

What could I possibly even need when we can’t go anywhere? I feel materialistic wanting anything. It’s pointless. You don’t take the stuff with you. But I want things just the same. Not excessive things, just some things to make me feel like it has been a special day and people care. Maybe slightly excessive. I don’t know. A bit of excitement.

We’re having Thai. And cake, I assume.

I’m torn about how much fuss you should make about your own birthday. I feel you should love your own birthday but I want and don’t want the fuss. It can be a bit presumptive. I don’t think that’s the right word. A bit exposing, maybe. I don’t like the pressure to like things. I’m a nightmare.

I don’t want to be a nightmare. I want to be relaxed and pleasantly surprised. I want to survive it intact.

I probably should have a word with myself about positives and upsides and making the most of things and not being dead yet. Even though she is.

She’d be telling me my birth story now – if she were here – about how it snowed and my dad nearly didn’t make it. Imagine if it snows tomorrow. I sort of think it’s bound to rain for my luck. I should have been at the hairdresser yesterday. We should have been staying in

Chester tomorrow. Some presents haven’t arrived because of Brexit. I half think everything is shit.

But I know it isn’t. We’re okay. We’re well. I have my boys. I have everything I need. It’s just another day. No big deal. I’m overthinking it. I’m going to bed.

5. Walking Away – Mike Hickman

Geoff knew that, when it happened, balloon-limbed or not, he would try to walk away. He’d known, in fact, even before November’s trip to A and E. Because, of course, he’d gone and turned his ankle over on the way to the job, hadn’t he? It was a two mile walk, mostly uphill, and he’d no money for the pauper’s chariot. So he’d stood at the bottom of the just-washed steps in the shopping centre and he’d stamped on his foot until the feeling had come back. With the exception of a bit of a chunder into the gutter, and the loss of a shoe that he’d later had to cut off his swollen foot, it had all worked out well enough. The others had led the fuzz a merry dance while Geoff had walked the other way with the goods to conceal at his leisure. All as planned. With added limp.

And then there was the last time he’d spoken to Debbie. He’d started walking even before ending the call. By the time he’d got home, it was half two in the morning and she’d already had a go at leaning on the others to get the charge withdrawn. She meant well – she always did, poor Debs – but she ought to have trusted him. This once, at least. For his part, he’d gone down for six months. The rest of the crew hadn’t been so fortunate.

And then there was last November. Two weeks into the new job his probation officer had landed him, and Geoff had treated himself to a Friday night bus home. He’d been standing on the curb when he’d been hit by the dizziness and the balloon arms.

He could have got on the bus, could have headed home, could have cut out the middle-man and gone straight to the hospital. He’d done none of those things. He’d batted away the concerned old dears, turned on the weakest of his heels, and started walking. Even in the middle of a coronary, he’d tried to walk away.

And then, when he’d later on ended up at A and E, he hadn’t been able to sit down. He’d paced around the vending machines and he’d circled the Costa Coffee in reception in the hope that – what? That he could walk away from himself? That he could escape his own skin?

Yeah. Exactly that. And it had worked, too. Just a mild one this time, the doctors said when he was eventually discharged. If he rested up, he’d be fine.

And he would be. Now the others had been sent down, it was just a matter of retracing the route he’d taken that night when he’d called in with the anonymous tip. He’d buried his stash in the rec. If there was any strength left in those balloon arms of his, he’d liberate his share. For Debbie. For everything he’d not been able to provide her all these years.

Only then would Geoff be ready to walk away.

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

6. Kindness Cache – Shweta Ravi

Into the void of her open wound, kindness seeps like time, doing more good than love has ever done. Entangled in spaces with people who are supposed to love her and the ones she was born to love, the heart feels at home until it doesn’t. While chasing milestones in love, she runs into kindness like a possibility or a parchment addressed to her, unremembered under a heap of musty leaves. Kindness is her secret jab of serotonin that she takes without telling anybody. She rides its curve in the reciprocated smile of a stranger, leans on lines penned with words of encouragement and perches on those elevations felt within when kindness whispers – your being matters. Being nice can be the nicest thing.

Love behind closed doors isn’t always a sobremesa, especially when love is ardently performing ‘the Hour of Judgement’- it was nice to have you born, but you weren’t needed enough, when you were growing up you weren’t achieving enough, if your past spills into tears you aren’t letting go enough, if your womb hasn’t delivered yet you aren’t holding enough, if you went down the cliff you didn’t have wings enough and now that you have been found alive, you just weren’t miserable enough!

When her love is a bleached jacket, compassion sews her a new sense of self-worth. In turn she wants to be kind to others, to treat them the way she wishes to be treated. Kindness makes her believe that the man with the toothless grin doesn’t have to be a crook, that the madness of the woman in the asylum is a manifestation of intense pain and in this price tagged world where even vials of happiness shall soon be available over the counter, often all one needs is shared time.

Love’s labour’s lost too insanely in expecting the entire universe to conspire when one wants something desperately. The universe must have more urgent matters to resolve, considering we are hundred seconds away from apocalypse on the Doomsday Clock. She finds more contentment in cosmic kindness, in the space and sun it spawns. She crawls up one ray of light each day to pluck herself half a ray of hope. Gratitude is goodness, perhaps all that the planet needs in this hour, to be handled with care what was manhandled in love.

In the continuum of love, kindness keeps her anchored. She strongly believes it has less cardiovascular consequences than love, agreeable or disagreeable. If she were to choose between love and kindness, she would keep love for stories and kindness for a lifetime.

Shweta Ravi is a writer and educationist, lured by both- the simple and the spell-binding. Her work mainly focuses on the intersection of ecology, culture and literature. Her pieces have appeared in Active Muse, cwwriters.org, Women’s Web and Ayaskala.

7. Eggcorn – Amy Barnes

I’ve forgotten my name. Again. Have you seen it? I look in the wanted ads to see if someone has found my name, perhaps lost in the park on a run or under a church pew or buried under a produce aisle cantaloupe. There are other missing things listed as found, a braided gold wedding ring with initials, dogs, cats, one shoe, a silver spoon, a bag of walnuts. They’re the odd things peoples’ lives are made of. As I search for my name, I see a neighbor with a missing finger band, another one holding a real leash to walk an imaginary dog, a mother winging baby food to a baby mouth on a spoonless airplane. I look down at my shirt and see only a name tag that says My name is

I write the alphabet inside the cloud-filled globe that is my head now after the accident. There are puppet animals peeking around cumulus and cirrus matter. They sponsor my day’s search with different letters but there’s no rhyme or reason in how they write chalk letters in my head, sing song the week day to me like a lullaby.

I want to see those letters out in real life, in architecture so I keep walking everyday. I find windows and doors that look like h’s and o’s and a’s. I look for my name in trees and high rises and roads and power lines with bird commas dividing each letter from the next.

I return home and turn on the box where sounds live. The game shows are the enemy, gaming against me, always winning people with first and last names and first money and last turns. I watch the named people for the letters they gift to me. Do you want to buy a vowel? Yes, please I scream at the screen just in case my name starts with a vowel.

When I can’t take the box people anymore, I turn to book people with sacred names. The most boring parts become the most interesting. The begats they are called. It’s a word that makes me laugh. I read the long lists of names and imagine those people forgetting their names too. Who could remember a name with that many syllables and a secret meaning that only g-d knows?

The stack of tiny people name books on my sleeping place table grows. I flip through pages for inspiration. The man who joins me wearing a not-lost silver band, the one with a name that rhymes with something and a last name that is mine too, reads mystery papers about mystery and names and rooms. I read books of mystery words. Blurred names. Not my name.

I dream of my name. In liquid lights against my liquid eyeballs. Of a newspaper column with lost names lined up waiting to be claimed. In the morning I call the paper and ask to place an ad. They ask for my name.

I laugh.

8. Unexpected Item in the Bagging Area – Steven Patchett

A brand of pasta in various sauces has a promotion for a video game. But only one of the flavours has it. I assume it’s because the mac and cheese is the sort of pasta that people who play video games would prefer. Quick, filling, familiar, safe. You’d never find it on the Tuscany sausage flavour. I have no idea if it actually tastes like Tuscany sausage. I’ve never eaten a sausage from Tuscany. I doubt I could find Tuscany on a map.

I add a couple of packets to the basket.

I check my phone again. It weighs heavy in my hand, cold, inert.

I’ve never liked tinned meat, I stare in horror at the stuff once it’s squeezed out of the tin. But I don’t have to defrost anything, so I don’t have to think about it. Time saved is time earned. A few more items added to the haul.

I check my phone again, just to be sure.

Cereal next. Her favourite has gone back up in price.

I had teased her about it, telling her it’s for kids, full of sugar, not good for her. As always I’d misjudged her mood, gone too far. I could see the weary look, the sparkle fade from her eyes. I told her I’d get some anyway, only teasing, didn’t mean it.

She nodded, but couldn’t look at me.

Bread, milk, apple juice.

A5 jotter, lined. These days she loves to write, scrawling words on the page as fast as she thinks them. Trying to squeeze all her thoughts out onto the page so they’ll be there forever. She doesn’t want me to read them.

Paracetamol, re-reading the notice telling me I can only buy two packs at a time. In my head, the words sound spiteful, full of denial. As if they know what I think when I listen to her tortured breathing at three in the morning.

The phone is starting to drag, like a millstone. I note the time. I’ve been gone longer than I’d intended. A sickening need is heavy in my stomach. I push it down where it tangles up in guilt.

I looked at her jotter a week ago. I won’t look again.

I prefer the self-service tills. No excuse to talk to anyone, until the assistant casually confirms that I’m old enough for the tablets.

My phone rings and I drop my shopping from nerveless hands.

The scanning machine is talking to me, but I can’t hear what it’s saying.

All I can do is stare at the flashing words on the phone.

Steven Patchett is an Engineer, Father and Writer, living and working in the North East of England. His Flash Fictions have been published in Ellipsis Zine, 100 Words of Solitude and The Cabinet of Heed. He can be found on Twitter, being encouraging @StevenPatchett7

9. It’s all about the boxes – Kinneson Lalor

It’s all about the boxes and the things inside and peanuts and seeds and the damp place in the middle of the page where my hand was wet from washing dishes and then I picked up the pen to write and it all came out and even though my wrist ached and my head felt like that sort of numb you feel when your toes are cold but your nose is warm but somehow it still runs in streams down your face and creeps into the crack of your collar. What even is starch? Starch. It seems so clean and beholden. Throbbing. There’s a cut on my palm only it’s not a cut, it’s some pinprick wound I don’t remember getting but think is probably from the thorns on the barberry when I was dismantling the Christmas centrepiece into the silver bin I thought I would use for chicken feed except coronavirus came then bird flu came and the chicken coop my boyfriend husband bought me for my birthday, the really expensive bright green plastic one that I justified environmentally somehow, all set up with tricks and treats since Halloween but completely empty, the avian flu-carrying wild bird shit collecting on the grass. But I’ll keep feeding them. They’re hungry and they’re pretty and I sort of love them and get heartbroken every time one of them breaks itself on my window. I wonder how Bret Easton Ellis is spending his pandemic. Weirdly, I assume. Strangely. I’ve never read any of his stuff but the spines are pretty, fading on my south-facing shelves. I’m not sure why I thought we’d have more plants than books. I guess I misjudged what sort of person I am. Why did I even want to be a plant person? I think it’s because they breathe. Yet I keep buying books and can’t give them away. Fucking pandemic.

Kinneson Lalor followed a PhD in Physics from the University of Cambridge with an MSt in Creative Writing from the same institution. She is Australian but has lived in the UK for over a decade. Her work has appeared in various places including The Mays and Tiny Molecules, and she writes a regular blog about sustainable gardening for edibles and wildlife.

10. Punctuations – Mandira Pattnaik

All I can think of now is punctuations. And interruptions, pauses, periods, truncations and interruptions.

We are outward bound again. We’re perennially moving out, in any case, infinitely agitated atoms. Only this time the boxes are stacked at the doorway.

When you take a call, and stroll out of the room, I invite the sunshine in. Don’t know why you always keep the curtains drawn.

A mynah sits on the window sill. At rest. Except its eyes. Flaps its wings twice and flies off, one last time, out of my sight.

Below, the cars hoot and belch. What a contrast from the countryside home you promised for sixteen years.

I close my eyes, imagine silence. I like the smell of soundlessness.

Towards the end of our fifth year, when I was at the University, I remember collecting lampshades. You hated the play of colored light, called it chaos. I thought it as comma, interruption, so when it all burst open, I’d be prepared.

I hear you shouting downstairs. Clash of syllables, pitches. Bass and pitch hitting the walls. Another something gone awry. There were so many over the past year. I’m waiting for the white light that holds all.

When you return, a huge exclamation mark calibrates your brows, you don’t elaborate.

We strap up on torn seats. The Fiat was the first thing we bought, the last thing we still own. The engine thrums steadily, loyal like a dog.

Ahead of us, the scenes flip and change. Strokes, semicolons, parentheses. Couples, stretchers, mothers with prams.

The unrest rages, the pandemic powers us out of our jobs, all I hear now are the ellipses.

Mandira Pattnaik (She/Her) writes in India. Work has appeared in print and online including in Lunate, Ilanot Review, EllipsisZine, Door=Jar, Cabinet of Heed and Trampset. Tweets @MandiraPattnaik

11. Figures on a beach – Colin Alcock

They didn’t see me, sat far back up the beach, on the sand bank, tucked into the marram grass. I’d first spied them from the cliff path, before descending the steep steps to sea level. Just two figures and a dog. It could have been anybody, out for an early morning summer stroll, but even before I knew it was them, I recognised Brutus, my dog.

Everyone had told me I was so lucky to attract such a young bride, when I was far more than simply mature. Twelve years between us; an unbelievable love that seemed unbreakable. And for many years it was. We blended as one. I, the artist, putting beautiful dreams onto canvas, when I could. Painting poetic scenes of Cornwall that filled the gift shop walls, for an income. Wandering coastline, fields and moors looking for inspiration. She, the writer, plucking emotive words from the sky, the trees, the waves that rolled into rugged shores, sandy bays and quiet harbours.

But, as I grew to a more crusty age, there were tourists who sought something more than my visual poetry. And sought Anna for more than just her words. I saw signs, yet tried to hide them from my mind. But always, they were there. I spoke my suspicions only to Brutus, my loyal companion. Soft furred, silly, always ready to play; ready to take my thoughts away from despondency. But Anna had changed; she took to walking Brutus, whereas before, she insisted he was my dog, my responsibility. Then, for two-week spells, in season, I would see the slight smile, the glint of her eyes, as she recalled a moment of the day, a thought of tomorrow. It was in her stories, too. Words that reflected cherished relationships. But I doubted ours. Those two weeks always ending with her taking Brutus for an early morning walk along the beach, on a Friday, sometimes Saturday. Changeover day. Saying her goodbye. Then, come winter, the fire between us seemed always rekindled.

Now, I have reached pensionable age and fit though I may seem, I lack the vitality, the virility she retained. This summer, I knew it to be different; two weeks long passed by. Brutus even more her constant companion. I was losing her. Completely. I was just wrong about how.

I watched them that day, unobserved. It could have been someone she only casually met, they stood so far apart, Anna tossing a stick into the oncoming tide, for Brutus to fetch. Then racing back, sea foam at her feet. He calling, laughing, then coming closer, walking with her, taking her hand, enfolding her. And then the kiss. Lingering. Loving. Brutus ignored, circling at their feet.

Today, distraught, I walk slowly from the Covid ward, having heard her last goodbye; having given her my forgiveness. Avoiding my own infection by taking that sudden, selfish break alone, after what I’d seen that day. Though never telling her why. Perhaps, though, it is him she is with, now.

12. Melancholy Roses (with apologies to Marc Almond) – Sheila Scott

Melancholy is part of the Scottish DNA. Why else would we choose a spirit that reduces you to tears as our national drink? Why else would we live in a country that, had Noah lived here, would have resulted in an armada of arks (‘That’s gotta be it this time, Naamah. I’ll be in the shed making a big fuck-off freighter if you need me.’).

For crying out loud even our flag is blue.

I think that’s why we do dusk so well. Skeletal trees watch, inert, as the pallid rainbow (yes, even our skies are peely wally) seeps into the horizon.

MS Word thinks ‘peely wally’ is incorrectly spelt but has no alternative to offer. MS Word is often prone to fits of what frankly feels like anti-Scottish vocabulary-based discrimination. Indeed, often I am to be found at my keyboard, hair knotted with irritation, screaming ‘outwith IS a word you piece of hegemonous shit!’

‘Hegemonous’ has also just been granted the red squiggle of judgement. And ‘often’ the blue double underline indicating that, once again, Word wishes to impose a comma where none should be. This is my consciousness, pal, and I’ll decide what’s a word and what isn’t, and exactly where you can stick your fecking commas.

My stream of consciousness has just been distracted by something of a meta-quandary. Has the burning question of whether to eat the last Roses chocolate now (Hazel in Caramel as you ask) taken me out of said stream or is it, in fact, just another random artefact bobbing along on the waters of my inner monologue?

There follows a brief hiatus to resolve the sweetie conundrum by quashing its existential reality and putting the wrapper in the wastepaper basket. A tidy desk is a tidy mind, allegedly. It seems my desk perfectly reflects my mind: a pile of partly read books, nick-nacks (okay so we’re going to fight about this spelling too are we, Word?) including a NYC snow-globe, knitted plane, tiny painting on an easel, astronaut (not life-size), a windmill in a flower pot, bike-clock, felt squirrel with a walnut, two toy cars, a small wooden clown missing one foot and, doggedly fighting its turf in the middle, my laptop.

The horizon has finally absorbed the rainbow and we now have a blank indigo backdrop beyond the window.

It’s been a week of mixed news and the scales are tipping in favour of the negative. I think that’s why I’m dwelling on the Scottish predisposition to despondency. Probably our saving grace is that it’s nearly always leavened with the strong belief a) it could be worse and b) for many it is. Whilst this may not appear immediately obvious as a measure of optimism, it helps us look outward, dragging our forensic gaze towards the bigger picture.

It now feels foolish to dress a bout of navel-gazing as a national trait. Think I’ll have a rummage in the sweet bowl; there may just be a Roses Truffle left…

13. Ten past Ten – Bronwen Griffiths

It could be ten past ten or ten minutes to two. I am not sure which time I might prefer, or even if it is morning or night. At ten past ten I might be watching the evening news or, if it were morning, working on the computer whereas at ten minutes before two I would be digesting my lunch time sandwich or, if it were two at night, dreaming of strange houses. In any case, now that I look at my watch again, it reads ten fifteen or ten to three, though probably that will make little difference either to my sleep or my digestion and when I check again and realise that it is indeed night-time I wonder if I might try to sleep but though my eyes are heavy I do not think my mind will let me sleep just yet because it is restless like a stone at the ocean’s edge, continually rolling back and forth and knocking against other stones. But sleep does arrive, perhaps at four or five, and I dream of fast cycling and a kiss on the lips and indeed as I often do I dream of strange houses and all the while the rain beats on the window and the world turns towards the morning and then it is ten past ten and ten minutes to two and so on it goes.

Bronwen Griffiths is the author of two novels and two collections of flash fiction and her flash fiction has been widely published. She lives in East Sussex and when not writing likes to draw cacti, fish and stones.

14. Not You, But Me – Kimiko Wadriski Lumsden

What if I have nothing more to say? Nothing to add to the noise more than what I’ve already done? Or what if I’m totally silent again, afraid to make a mistake more than I am of never speaking up? Can that happen – the life be sucked right out of you without ever realizing it’s being done until you’re dead.

But when I say you, I mean me. I always do. Put that distance between my writing and myself. Keep it closed away, just out of reach so it’s not really me. (But it is, you see.) It’s the way that I can just keep saying the same lines in different styles, trying to find new ways for an old phrase. Another time, another time. I have tomorrow or tomorrow’s tomorrow. Push it back to the next day. Something is urgent, but never my own desires.

It’s the baby crying, the kid whining, the house is on fire. The smoke from a burnt dinner, the never-ending laundry piles, dumped and stacked on the bed, making mountains of fabric turning mountains out of molehills. Every tiny problem, I help it grow. Ignore it until I can’t anymore. Then when it’s time, finally, to do something about it. Well, then I’m paralyzed – fight or flight wasn’t my fortune, I freeze.

Immobilized, I wait for the moment to pass so I can carry on with procrastinating and endless self-doubting, the debate between me and my brain about who wins this round and who relegates. I can destroy myself through inaction. Wouldn’t that be productive? So, it turns out I am accomplished. Take that!

Regardless, I feel that I run in circles in my head, in my words. Are you getting bored of me yet? I am. It’s like I have to watch the same stilted pilot over and over, knowing that the first episode is just a trial run, a practice. Let’s skip ahead already, see where this show takes us. What else can I do but press fast-forward. I’m so tired of hearing the same old, same old. I KNOW.

I sit in my own feelings and thoughts rather than write them down, paper to pen. Fingers to keyboard, click-clacking away at what’s trapped inside this gray matter.

Maybe that’s why they keep coming back – those phrases – like a recurring dream, meant to tell you something, teach you a thing or two about whatever is bothering you. And again, with the you. Come on kid, when’ll you ever learn. I have to do better at this.

I wonder if I’m manic again or if I’ve always been teetering on that spectrum because I have these conversations with myself, I haven’t had quiet in my brain since (well when was it?) But even then, I’m sure the gears were turning. There is forever that urge for me to write down what I’m thinking. Will I always be trapped if I don’t get them out – write them down!

I’m feeling much better now.

Read more Streams of Consciousness in Issue Thirty-One

The 180 Degree Rule – Michael Ellman

If you have no wounds, how do you know you’re alive. – Edward Albee

ASAP numbers flash on my beeper. The chief, Dr. Mollman, pronounced like gun-moll, definitely not mole-man, is annoyed. Except for these morning conferences, I’m supposed to be in the laboratory with Drs. Frank Brennan and Sarah Todd, and my beeper should remain silent, except, of course, for the on-call weekends we’re burdened with.

“Who is it?” Dr. Mollman asks, stopping his lecture for my scolding, “Your bookie, your inamorata?”

Not only is Dr. Mollman smart and famous, he possesses a repository of fancy words.

My fellow hematology residents snicker. But quietly.

I show him the numbers on my Motorola. It’s an inside one, it’s important, and I leave to answer it.

Prince Jaboor, known simply as Jordan, next in line for the throne, and his royal entourage are residing in our hematology unit under the care of Dr. Mollman and just about everyone else who is anybody at the university. When I checked on the prince several Sunday’s ago, interrupting the IV nurse who was botching her attempt to find venous access for his packed red blood cell transfusion, I offered to help. I can insert an intravenous line into a trout. Now, I was on the prince’s call list for just about everything.

Same age with the same appreciation of beauty, same love of arguing politics, arguing just to argue—a difference of opinion is what makes horse racing and missionaries, I tell him. “Will Rogers,” he says. We laugh—it’s a guy thing, snappy erudition and humor that lift his spirits. For me, and I think it’s the same for almost everyone; it’s intriguing to see what makes famous people tick.

I visit every day, an order carrying weight even Dr. Mollman understands—the royal family has donated millions to our institution.

It’s always the same story. The prince, a student in economics at the graduate school, and the ruler-in-waiting of his oil rich nation, visits the student health service. A sore throat—everyone gets a sore throat at one time or another—it’s not a big deal. A pat on the back, return in a week if not better, a course of an antibiotic because he’s royalty, then another course, until someone discovers lymph nodes everywhere and they aren’t so little. The world-wide news about his lymphoma shreds any semblance of the prince’s privacy.

There’s a satisfying response to therapy, per our world-wide-expert on lymphoma—Dr. Mollman. The good doctor: his descriptions of chromosomal deletions, re-arrangements, and their associations with blood cell malignancies make him this close to medicine’s Nobel Prize. His carefully written epistle to the student health service doctor labeling him a dolt for the delay in the obvious diagnosis will be a collectable someday.

The bodyguard doorman and I are on first name basis: “The prince is giving an interview with Ms. Stallings,” he whispers, and he wants your photograph sitting next to him. You’re not in the witness protection program or anything like that are you?” The bodyguard laughs and opens the door.

Diane Stallings is as attractive in person as she is on television and in magazines. It’s just her, the photographer, the hospital PR hack, the prince, the prime minister, and now me. No Dr. Mollman, and he will be pissed once more.

“It’s the youth in our countries that will make the world a better place. But slowly, very slowly, years, maybe in a decade, maybe two,” Jordan says, eyes roaming between me and the blonde curls staging Diane’s handsome face. I’m reminded of the giant coin tossed before the Super Bowl kickoff: one side and the prince is the whiny patient battling lymphoma, the other, today’s loquacious and progressive son of the stodgy ruler of his oil-blessed nation.

“Business, it’s business—your country provides protection and we provide oil. I don’t think that a country that had over one-hundred-and-fifty years of human slavery, closed their doors to refugees in the last world war, and has prisons overflowing with minorities, should lecture to us about our social structure shortcomings.”

The non-elected prime minister, suddenly alert and quick moving in-spite of his corpulence, sandwiches himself between the prince and Diane and suggests it’s time for a break. “Maybe a photograph of the prince and this young American doctor emphasizing the solid bond between our friendly countries would be a good ending to the interview.”

“Diane,” Jordan says, “before you leave—please—I want to emphasize the beautiful people working here at the university and the excellence of the medical care, especially Dr. Ted and his boss and mentor, Dr. Mole-man.” Jordan, but not his father, likes to play games with Dr. Mollman’s patience. “Dr. Ted is my spiritual American friend and he and I would—since we’re speaking about beautiful people, like to entertain you and any of your single friends for dinner and dancing, as soon as they let me out of here.”

Dr. Sarah usually answers the telephone when it rings in the laboratory. It’s her wont. I’m the newest member and I should do these menial tasks. But Sarah is Sarah, helpful, overly polite, and formal. “The phone is close to me, and who knows, maybe it’s the Peron’s, Juan or Eva or both,” she tells me. I think she’s kidding.

Sarah is an Argentinean physician studying antibody production in ill patients under Dr. Brennan’s tutelage, and by default guides my way through the complexity of the laboratory. Under the guise of practicing my Spanish, we share coffee-time in the cafeteria every late afternoon.

“Just so you know upfront,” Sarah has said to me on several occasions, always with eye contact that stirs a man’s soul: “I have a beau back home, an air force pilot, handsome, smart, and our families are close. Family ties are important to Argentineans.”

I’m skilled at ignoring trivia.

“Sarah, guys are enchanted when meeting smart, capable, and, of course, beautiful women like you. They can’t help it. It’s coded in their DNA. They love smart. My Nobel Prize speech will be in Spanish, thanks to you,” I say, as my fingers reach out for hers.

“Oh thanks, yes, you’re right—men especially like intelligent women,” she says laughing loud, enjoying herself and adjusting her chair to be out of my reach. “That’s why when they slide their hands under your blouse they’re searching for your university diploma.”

* * *

Sarah cups her hand over the telephone and mouths police and pantomimes it by shooting at me with her index finger.

Two policemen will meet me in a private room adjacent to the cafeteria in an hour, she tells me. Don’t worry, you’ll recognize them, they said, and Dr. Mollman insisted that you talk to them.

I have a standing appointment with Dr. Mollman. Actually, all of the hematology trainees do. We meet with him once every two weeks. The sessions vary from a few minutes to half a day. His wisdom, although entwined with cynicism, comes from the heart—and of course the brain. But quote some mediocre literature or a scientist he doesn’t respect and he’ll borrow a stare from a prison warden. Some people give good silence, but not Dr. Mollman.

Tall, and too good-looking for a doctor—nothing resembling corduroy, or anything argyle in his wardrobe, and shoes with laces and shine, Dr. Mollman is a poster boy for medicine. His telephone calls come from Washington, London, and other world capitals.

I think he likes my enthusiasm and my ability to flick off his barbs so easily. But then again, maybe he is relishing the year-end review when he’ll advise me to try stand-up comedy rather than laboratory research.

My quest for explaining why many patients with autoimmune diseases such as lupus have low platelet counts but seem to have strokes and not bleeds is already running into conundrums. Platelets are those little particles in blood, not blessed with nuclei that form clots and stop bleeding. Take it from me, they are not easy to handle in the laboratory, and they seem to clump and become worthless to work with even when I just yell at them.

Dr. Mollman thinks the inflammation in my patients suppresses the entire bone marrow and the antibodies directed against platelets may have little consequence.

It will be fun proving him wrong—and I think he respects that aspect of me.

Frank and Joe, names like the Hardy Boys, are not city policeman at all they tell me, but CIA agents, while quietly flipping their ID badges.

“How are your parents, Fenton and Laura Hardy?” I inquire. They don’t respond. They’ve heard it before.

Ordinary looking, like mid-level bankers, polite and smiley—maybe too smiley—I’m big and I think I could take them, but probably can’t. They stand out in the cafeteria, but I’m not sure exactly why. Maybe it’s because they appear rested.

“Get a drop bolt for your door at home,” Joe, the dark-haired one says, pointing a finger at me after his Hulk Hogan handshake. “I could enter your apartment with spit and a nail file.”

I give him a thumbs-up.

It’s about Prince Jordan, of course. It seemed that his country is close to a populist revolt and the prince might be a compromise for both sides.

“But the prince and his policies are unpredictable,” Joe says.

“As an American and patriot, you’ll want to help us.” The polysyllabic American is presented to me as a psalm or commandment.

“Invite yourself to accompany the prince when he returns home—we have Dr. Mollman’s OK.” It’s Frank talking now. I have trouble deciding who’s in charge. Probably it’s Frank; he’s the quieter one with the confident stare.

“We have to decide between offering the prince friendship or enhanced friendship, depending on how the situation at home sorts out,” Frank says. “Our country needs his loyalty and his oil. You’ll tell us about his friends and keep us informed about developments.”

“And hey, get this,” Joe says, giving me an elbow to my side, “Diane Stallings will accompany you for the first week or so. It’s a medical-political kind of news thing. She’s on our side and will work with you.”

Meeting the chief in the early evening is different than our biweekly appointments. The trappings of a doctor-scientist remain the same, no matter the time of day: journals, manuscripts and a stack of papers requiring signatures are piled up, but now, in addition, there’s a plethora of VIPs and organizations the chief needs to telephone before he can call-it-a-day, head home, sip a dry martini, and revel in normal conversation.

“Ted, I apologize for putting you in an untenable position. I had little choice. The inquiry came from Washington,” Dr. Mollman says. “I’ll support any decision you make. They, the insiders, and sorry about the use of they, mentioned no particulars to me. And if they want to expose you to danger—please decline it. Remember there’ll always be a position for you in my training program.

“Ted, one other thing, and be sure to understand it, and I suspect you do, being the prince’s friend is different than being his physician. Don’t be caught between the Hippocratic Oath and the machinations of his and our nation’s politics.”

“I definitely would be more comfortable with you around,” the prince tells me after hearing about Frank and Joe. “There are good doctors at home, but no one knows more about my treatment than you. And who else brings me back down to reality and occasionally makes me smile. But, remember, I’ll be in the limelight, and alcohol and girls will be at a premium. Still, you and I together—we’ll have fun. There will be demonstrations, but we’re not basically a violent people. On the other hand, who can predict how it will end.”

You wouldn’t think I would have difficulty making decisions. Generally I don’t. But that’s for the minor things: surgery—no surgery, start an antibiotic stat or wait for culture results, which patient to check on first in the morning. But life-altering decisions for myself, that’s another matter. I’d been on a roller-coaster ride for years. Psychiatry one month, endocrinology another, then surgery, then nephrology, and on and on—reading Dickens on a daily basis before sleep, and I’m only on page 34. An invitation from Nurse Anna to join her family picnic: “No,” I say, “I can’t. I’m sorry. I’m in the ER that day and I can’t switch with what’s-his-name because he’s ill and I owe him a favor from my cardiology month, etc., etc.”

There isn’t even time to know if I like myself.

The prince and I meet in the hospital coffee shop. In spite-of the rattling of cups and saucers and the blend of whispering and expositions, hospital coffee shops are the loneliest place in the world. Anonymity has vanished for the prince; he and I draw polite attention. People smile and look away, respecting his privacy. He’s recovering well and has a decent chance of making it; food has begun to taste good to him again and sleep now comes easily. He wears khaki-colored chinos and New Balance shoes like every other American graduate student, but his button-down shirt with sleeves rolled-up past his elbows display the needle sticks and bruises detailing his medical travails.

“You know about those planets that are thrown out of their orbit and end-up wandering willy-nilly through the universe?” the prince asks. “They’re called nomads,” he says. That’s what you’ll be if you accompany me home—a nomad—out in the open with few options to change course. Better yet, think of it this way, Ted,” the prince says, as he pats me on the shoulder.

“Travel with me and our life will be like a chain reaction leading to more and more of I don’t know exactly what.”

The prince is not settling my heart, never mind the befuddlement of my goal-oriented life.

“Let me tell you something they don’t teach in medical school,” the prince says. “It’s not part of your medical curriculum. It’s spook business.” The prince says it again: “It’s spook business. Too bad you don’t know about it because it’s something Frank and Joe may ask you to consider. They know a lot about it—it’s part of their code. Friendship and enhanced friendship, let me repeat that, friendship and enhanced friendship. Do you know the difference? Do you know what it means?

“No,” I say, shaking my head no.

The sun, sneaking through the windows, splays patches of sunlight on our faces. Our coffee has gone untouched.

“Friendship is an old English word—a sweet word,” the prince says. “It’s not so difficult to understand. It’s the verb enhanced that tickles the senses. That’s when I’m killed. That’s the enhanced part. That’s the enhanced part,” he says again, losing his concentration for a moment, stretching his neck and taking in the bustle of the room.

“It would be easy, don’t you think? Killing me. Very easy. Think about it. A little bolus of potassium or a syringe filled with air. Who would know?”

I nod my head again. There is a sense of quiet around us in-spite-of the normal hospital scurry. Even children speak with muffled voices here. This is a place and time where lives change. I’ll speak to Dr. Mollman and talk to Sarah; and my research, as its wont, has become consuming, but I think my mind is made-up.

Image via Pixabay

Thoughts Before I Am Sawed In Half – Dee Richards

This is a moment where one wonders to themselves: “How in the hell did I end up here?” It seems pretty implausible to be chained to a tree trunk, unable to move, listening to the screeching hiss of a saw blade at top speed, just below my feet. But, I guess that’s life: unpredictable.

I was bored, you know. The same four walls, day-in, day-out. I really do hate this mess I live in. After hours of meticulous cleaning, I sit in my squeaky leather armchair staring at my accomplishment, and am momentarily satisfied. My vacuumed high-pile tan carpeting (those spots are from before I’d moved in, I swear) stand at proud attention. Sunlight pours through a “streak-free shine”. Everything in its place. I hate it.

My house is always a disaster two days later anyway, so I just need to get out once in a while. I’m driving streets that I’ve known since my mom forced me to read off the Thomas Brothers Guide to her; funny to think now, limited to one final road toward a certain acuminous end, that I would become bored of these streets. Perhaps I’d like to see snowfall just once, or crunch through leaves in the fall. The endless, rolling brown hills, the fading gray freeways, the yellow lights on a smog-filled night ignite little passion. Everywhere, imprints of memory dot intersections and back alleys, and are yet sharper than the splinters in my back, even the rotating death at my feet.

It gets so tiring to live life one thousand times, as though reflections of a shitty childhood are jewels to be flashed across endless pity parties. Though I know these roads, I am at all times, running as far as the wheels of a high-mileage Nissan can carry me on $15, give or take. San Diego is my old-ball-and-chain, to whom I return whether or not she cares. If only I could meet someone new. It seems important to note that my mom and I moved 8 times between my 5th and 16th birthdays, but always within a three-mile radius. At least when I do meet my end by steel claw with weeping sap filling my nose, I will have been in one place for quite a while – even if that is tied to a tree.

So what, I deserve my fate of being sawed in half, because I am perpetually unsatisfied? I find that to be poor logic, despite how willing I am to blame myself for the circumstances of my life. How about this: a social worker once asked me why I need to be different? Is there even an answer to this? I think, therefore I am weird? Hmm, perhaps. So, I like getting away from the mess that reminds me that I am not alone, and maybe I want to stop in at a REALLY shady-looking bar off Old Highway 80 and order onion rings. Maybe I do sell my furniture on Craigslist, and give them my actual address. Is the logical conclusion an approaching saw blade? Or do I just need to be different? Unexpected?

When I was sixteen, I got punched in the head and passed out. When I woke up in the hospital, the staff called my mom who came only to tell me that I was kicked out of her house because I was too much trouble. I elevated and lowered my feet one-hundred times with the remote, while glaring out the window overlooking the 5; meanwhile, my mom took all of my life into garbage bags, and left them on my dad’s front porch. She did the same with me once I was released from the hospital – minus the trash bags. It’s funny that I was so easily cut off.

My dad never made me go back to high school after I moved in. I guess I was going against my own expectation of never getting sucker-punched in East County, or maybe my art teacher’s expectation of me going to the Art Institute. Never surrender to expectation, I say. I stole blue hair dye from Thrifty’s, and drank vodka in the Carl’s Jr. play place; so what? Was it to be contrarian, or this need to be different? If so, I should of course die tied to a log because it is the last place I would have expected to be. Still, I am unsure if this is enough of an explanation on how I got here, inching ever closer to my fate, that hot wind of destruction blowing over me.

I should say: “I drove to the forest, found myself a tree that I fell in love with, and when THE MAN came to cut it down, I chained myself to it in protest, only to find the joke’s on me!” But, that really isn’t how it happened at all. Truth be told, my city was a logging community and citrus orchard before I was born – the last in Greater San Diego. After my mom graduated high school, there were no trees left here. When I dropped out of high school, there was a giant, plaster lemon in the center of town to remind us of the trees that once were. I assume that memories can’t hurt something always changing, always in motion. So here I am, moving toward that saw-blade. I feel the slicing wind at my heel, the sound of death penetrating my fearful soul. How did I end up here really? I guess this is it; or I could just let go of the chain.

Dee Richards is a writer, parent, and LGBTQ+ feminist badass in Southern California. She/They are published in Epoch Literary Journal, The Acorn Review & Crush Zine, in association with the Toronto Bi Arts Festival.

Image via Pixabay

3499 Click – Matthew Twigg

The ring first belonged to my great-great-grandmother. A family heirloom, passed down through the women. For the last thirty years it had sat on the middle finger of Mum’s right hand. Why not her ring finger? Resized too many times to count, the band had become worn and brittle, too delicate for any further operations.

“Which of mine would it fit best?” I asked, splaying my fingers.

“Bryony, really!” said Mum, doing likewise to examine the garnet stone, its shine grown dull by time. The claws of its setting were so worn the gem might slip loose at any moment, a set of Victorian fingers clinging to their former glory. “Anybody would think you were plotting my death.”

She smiled wickedly. Impossible to ever know what was going on in her head. True of everyone, I suppose, but I felt it more keenly with Mum, as though it were a personal failing. Daughters ought to know their mothers’ minds. Share them, even.

“Too nice to be buried with,” I said. “Graves have been robbed for less.”

This raised a hackled laugh, a smoker’s laugh. “Fine,” said Mum, shimmying the ring down the length of her finger before seizing my right hand. “There. Same one. What does that tell you? I guess we both like to flip people off in style.”

She sipped her red wine and I followed. The latest act in a long line of hapless, unhealthy mimicry. In her mouth she lit a pair of cigarettes, one of which she handed to me. Odd: Mum never smoked in the house, even after Dad died and took his protests with him. The smell of it got into the upholstery, the curtains, eventually the walls. Even Mum could admit that.

“I’ll make you a deal,” she said. “Call it a game. Indulge an old lady.”

“You’re not that old, Mum,” I said. A depressing sentiment. Glancing at my hand, the ring glistened upon its rejuvenated digit. It didn’t feel right. I slipped it off and handed it back to Mum.

“Oh, shut your beautiful young face,” she said, smiling. She replaced the ring on her finger where its light dimmed once more. “Here it is, the deal: When I die, the ring is yours, but only if – you’re humouring me, remember – only if there’s an afterlife. If there’s not and I’m just worm food, you never see the ring again.”

A jet of smoke burst unbidden from my nostrils. The premise of it was absurd; the outcome in either instance was unverifiable. I stared at her, tried to divine a sense of her overall purpose. She was a closed book, my mother, always had been, revelling in the sneak peeks she afforded those most eager to read her.

“Mum …” I wasn’t sure what annoyed me more, the morbid nature of it all, or the fact that, as an atheist, Mum was essentially wagering against my inheritance. “That’s just stupid.”

She took a deep drag on her cigarette, dropped the butt into the empty bottle with an expiring hiss, then told me she was dying.

* * *

A brain tumour. Inoperable and growing aggressively. She lasted three months more. At the crematorium, I watched as the service came to a close and her casket passed through a curtain at the front of the chapel. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! The line from The Wizard of Oz popped into my head and caused me to smile.

Grief lingered, as it is wont to do. John helped where he could: cooked meals (oven food: his speciality), took up more of the slack with the housework, the legal headaches. When I spoke, he listened patiently. He tried not to tell me how to feel. Until our meeting with the solicitor, the question of the ring – it being on Mum’s finger or not – had not occurred to me. It was, after all, just a ring, not even all that pretty.

The meeting itself was uncontentious. I was the latest in a line of only children and so, barring a couple of charitable donations to local animal shelters, we would be spared any legal wrangling. Mention of the ring, however, was conspicuous by its absence. Recalling the ridiculousness of Mum’s wager, I resisted any theological conclusions. It proved nothing. But it rankled nonetheless. Had she really taken it to her grave? The notion struck me as selfish, not in the spirit of an heirloom. But then, didn’t they remove jewellery before cremation? So just where the hell was it exactly?

Six weeks after the funeral I signed for a package. “Fair warning,” said the Hermes deliveryman, “it’s heavier than it looks.”

It was a safe, small but weighty, the sort you see in hotel rooms for storing passports and, well, jewellery.

“You think it’s the ring, don’t you,” said John, walking around the coffee table where the box now sat, as though he were interrogating a suspect. Not a strong look for a landscape gardener.

“Is there any question?” There was a numbered keypad and a strip of screen – **** – waiting for a four-digit code. I picked it up and shook it side-to-side. Silence. “What is she expecting me to do?” The present tense felt foolish. Then again, there was a chance, however remote, that she was watching, chuckling at our befuddlement.

“Try some numbers,” said John. “Birthdays, anniversaries, that sort of thing. Knowing your mother, it’ll be the date she died.”

Insensitive but true. Difficult to arrange, though. 2405. A message ran across the screen: Two attempts remaining.

“Shit,” said John, summing up.

Weeks passed as we waited for further instruction, a nudge in the right direction. But none came. The safe, in situ atop the coffee table, remained untouched. Untouched, but never far from my thoughts either. Inside that impenetrable steel case was a piece of Mum that needed to get out, that couldn’t breathe. The ring, at first no more than an idea inside my skull, grew and acquired form, substance, and significance. I wanted, needed, it out.

“I have tools,” said John. “I could bust it open.”

An obvious if inelegant solution. But it was Mum we were talking about. Handle with care; she deserved that much.

We had searched Mum’s house top to bottom, excavated every cupboard, every chest, every drawer of infuriating miscellany. Pursuing some semblance of a clue. It wasn’t like Mum to frustrate for the sake of it; she was fun-loving, certainly, a joker even, but never cruel. This scheme, this game, as she’d termed it, had started to feel like cruelty.

* * *

The psychic’s house was, appropriately enough, a mid-Victorian terrace. Narrow, tall, a town-house; purple door, brass knocker and letterbox, a sign safety-pinned to the wood: No nonsense calls. I hoped, for my own sake, that the notice didn’t apply to the spirits.

What other way was there to prove the existence of an afterlife? Short of Mum’s ghost appearing to me in person – a hideous thought – I could see no alternative way forward. I had spent the previous month refusing to engage in her gameplay, but the safe had by now acquired a talismanic quality. Truly it had become a lightning rod for all my anxieties and was obstructing any useful grief taking place. No closure until the box was open. A pithy little dose of self-delusion.

I found Jane via Facebook, a local woman with “no husband but two adorable cats”, her profile stated proudly. I had warmed to her instantly, even while regarding her profession with the severest scepticism. Seems that in spiritualism, as in life, sometimes the biggest clichés are the most reassuring. She invited me in and led me through to the living room where a pot of tea and two cups stood ready. Expecting me? Yes, but then appointments are handy like that.

Sage green walls, exposed hardwood floors, a mellow fragrance of jasmine, trinkets and doodads and statuettes on every surface; the windowsill, a coffee table, the shelves of a bookcase. A framed certificate hung on the wall. Jane was certified by the British Society of Parapsychology, a fact that I found – ahem – encouraging. In one corner stood a stack of identical books: Gifted: Communing with the Other Side. At the table, I sat opposite their author.

Tall and narrow to match the house, Jane was shoeless and loosely clothed. No less elegant for it. With her hair silver and thick, there was a grace to her, the beauty of tried and tested self-confidence, hard won over many years. Her voice was soft.

“You understand, Bryony, that it’s an inexact science.” This after I had spent twenty minutes and a pot of Earl Grey telling Jane all about Mum. I didn’t regard it as cheating. I wasn’t here to test Jane, I wanted to assist her as much as possible. “Your mother might come through clear as a bell, or she might not. I don’t control it. I’m just a channel.”

Curtains drawn, candles lit, we held hands, each of Jane’s adorned in colourful, many-shaped rings of their own. Between us stood a solitary crystal, a light blue pyramid. Something to do with energy.

We sat for forty-five minutes, the spirits’ silence punctured now and then by Jane’s imploring tones. Did I grow impatient? Did my hands begin to sweat and spasm in hers? Did my scepticism threaten to morph into cynicism? Of course. But there was a sincerity to Jane that prevented me. I had read about so-called “cold reading” before making the appointment – the devious art of mining your client for information without them realising, then parroting it back to them as though it were revelation. Jane tried none of it.

Withdrawing the curtains to the daylight, she said, “I’m sorry, Bryony. Really, I am. We can book another session, but I understand if you’re not interested.”

No sign of Mum. Correct in her atheism, then; the ultimate in Pyrrhic victories. “Is it okay if I think about it and let you know?”

“Of course,” said Jane. “And today’s session is half price, as promised. Honestly, I’m as disappointed as you, Bryony, if that isn’t a terrible thing to say.”

I felt bad. Jane was evidently an honest woman. Would her faith be rocked by this failure? Or, to her, would it be the exception that proved the rule? Not that any rule has ever been proved by an exception, of course, but pliant logic is still logic, of a sort.

“How much for one of your books?” I asked.

Jane brightened. “Should be £9.99, but it’s £4.99 to you. I’ll write you a receipt, for the session and the book together. I know what you’re thinking, but you’d be amazed how many businesses come to me for help. It’s tax deductible, depending on how you phrase it.”

* * *

John thumbed the pages of my new purchase, scoffing over the passages he deigned to read. Satisfied, he tossed it onto the coffee table beside the safe.

“I wish you’d let me get my tools. We could be done with this in ten minutes.”

A look passed between us. If there was no afterlife, I didn’t get the ring. That was the deal.

“At least try guessing the code again,” he said. “You’ve got two more goes. When was her birthday? November twenty-first, right?”

He punched in the numbers: 2111. One attempt remaining.

“Stop!” I said, batting his hand out of harm’s way.

“It’s ridiculous, Bryony,” he said, huffing from the room. “I’m getting a screwdriver.”

I slumped back on the sofa, exhausted and defeated, the safe and the book now twin pillars, mocking me. I dug into my pocket and plucked the receipt. One failed séance, one volume of pseudoscientific hokum: £34.99. Good money wasted.

But as I stared at the receipt, a thought occurred to me. Or rather, four numbers did. I pulled myself upright and onto the floor, kneeling before the safe. I entered the numbers.

3499 … Click!

Matthew Twigg lives in Oxford (UK) where he works as an editor for an academic publisher. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines, including The Fiction Pool, Penny Shorts, Dream Catcher, East of the Web, Gold Dust, decomP, Scarlet Leaf Review, formercactus, The Hungry Chimera, The Big Jewel, and Hypnopomp.

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Tomorrow I Will Learn To Sing – Sarah Dale

I know now that the hill that squats behind our house is a giant heap of dark discarded rubble. As a child, I thought it was ancient rock and soil like other mountains. I never questioned why there were no trees or grass, or why we lived in permanent shade. Sometimes I hear it creaking. Scurries of loose debris bounce down. I’ve always stayed quiet and still as you taught me, without knowing why.

Over the years, I watched lorries labour up the side of the unstable mound. I never saw them coming. You said they weren’t there. I dared not yell at them as they teetered, depositing the load. There was no point shouting as they drove away. You shushed my bewildered despair.

Now, I wish I’d spoken up, turned the lorries back. I have learned to live in hindsight. I only know what I should have done or said when it’s too late. I am too frightened to climb the perilous mass to remove material from the top. I cannot shovel it from the bottom. It will kill me in the attempt.

My kids have moved out. I never taught them to shout, to stop lorries. My heart crushes with remorse. They are learning now, away from me. I’m glad and sad.

You still live here. I’ve done my best to build you a shelter. You wouldn’t and couldn’t move, convinced it’s a harmless hill. I leave the door open. I hope for, but don’t expect, change.

I move to a distance, shuddering with terror. It’s time. I raise my voice, broken and scared but strengthening until I am roaring, shouting, screaming. Cracks and rumbles build to thunderous collapse, the sky obscured.

I stand my ground until it is over, in shock. The dust swirls and tomorrow beckons.

Sarah Dale is a psychologist and writer living in Nottingham. She completed an MA in creative writing from Birkbeck university in 2019. She can be found on Twitter @creatingfocus

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Beginnings – Jane Snyder

This was when I was twenty-four. After the guy I was with and I had sex I would pretend to go to sleep. When he was asleep I’d get up and steal some of the change on his dresser. If there were several dollar bills I’d take a couple of them too. I was so broke then I took aluminum cans to the recycling center to pay my phone bill.

I was never sure where I stood with him. He told me I wasn’t like Susan, his ex-wife. She was successful, people fell all over themselves, giving her jobs, and he’d go back to her in an instant, if she’d have him.

Sometimes we had fun. He’d take me for drives to places he said he wanted me to see. Though, he explained, the actual purpose of the trip was the photographs he took. He liked it if I admired something, the flat green duck egg color in the sky before a storm, maybe, or the way a slant of light carved up a sand dune.

Then, and I wouldn’t see it coming, he’d be mean. What did I know, he asked when I offered an opinion without being asked, picking up cans at midnight?

I know enough not to trust you anymore, I said, because I’d told him how you don’t find enough cans on the street. If you’re going to make money, you have to check garbage cans.

He told me I couldn’t take a joke.

Our trip to Palouse Falls was the longest trip, a two hour drive each way, we’d taken up till then and I had hopes. He’d brought food I liked for lunch and didn’t complain when I asked to stop for the bathroom. The Falls, a cataract of water falling from burnished rocks, was unexpected, and he enjoyed my excitement.

On the trip back, he asked me about a book I’d just read, asked me what I thought. I said I loved it. Oh, he said. You know, he remembered when it first came out. Susan read it; she thought it was trite.

There was another hour before we got back to Spokane and I spent it thinking about what I’d say when I broke up with him.

But we didn’t break up because he started acting nicer, more like a boyfriend.

I kept stealing.

He caught me. I should have guessed it was a set up because that night he left the bills in a sloppy wad. Usually he separated the fives from the ones, put each in neat piles.

He took a more in sorrow than in anger approach and I got mad, told him he’d never satisfied me. True, but I’d never said. I’d put that wad of penis in my mouth and suck. Suck. Suck. He’d hold my head down in the beery, dried urine smell, as if he thought I might be getting other ideas. Suck. Suck. He’d pat my hair, distracting little pats, a child petting a dog. Tentatively, wanting to make friends. But he still wouldn’t come, more often than not, after I’d done everything he told me. Suck.

Don’t blame yourself, he’d say. “You did your best.”

No amount of money could make up for all the time I’d spent with your penis in my mouth, I told him. Sucking. Your problem, not mine, I said, citing my previous lovers, doubling the number. Threw his money onto the bed.

He pleaded with me as I dressed. “I shouldn’t have done it. I should have just asked if you needed help. I know you don’t have much.” He looked like a stork with his long thin legs and his barrel chest, sitting on the edge of the bed, hunched over.

“You’re pathetic,” I said, walking to the door.

He looked up at me. He was crying. I was frightened, thinking of what he could say to me.

“I’ll be different,” he said.

We married. This was how our happiness began.

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It’s All About Growing Bananas – Colin Alcock

You know how it is. Growing up, you take so many things for granted. Food on the table, new clothes, as old ones seem to shrink, trudging back and forth to school, with your Mum shoving you down the path and turning back before she meets the other mums. You don’t notice the differences, until you’re older. Like Mum always wore a headscarf, pulled tight and knotted in the nape of her neck. And I do mean always. In the house, out the house; even in bed.

I was about nine when I asked. ‘Is mum bald, Dad? I’ve never seen her hair.’ He told me no, she just likes to keep it tidied away, as if that was just perfectly normal. ‘So what colour is it?’ I asked. He said, ‘You’d probably call it fair’. Turns out later, Fairtrade would be a more apt description.

Then there was the fruit bowl. Always full of apples, pears, those little oranges and the like. Sometimes, peaches or cherries or grapes. I should have a colourful diet, Mum always told me. Eat a rainbow, with plenty of fruit to make me grow strong. But when I said I’d had a banana at school, she looked horrified.

‘Never eat those. They’ll make you sick,’ she said. But I wasn’t. ‘Your teeth will fall out.’ They already had; I was on my second set. ‘You’ll get a curved spine.’ I stood straight as a ramrod. And no pleading from me would ever get her to buy me a banana at the greengrocers.

Then came puberty and Dad took me down to his garden shed. His private space, with the threadbare old armchair, his pipe rack, a small old, Persian looking, rug and the lawnmower. And some over-thumbed magazines, stuck up high on the shelf, just under the eaves. ‘Just gardening stuff,’ he used to say, ‘you won’t be interested in those,’ as he pushed them further out of my reach. But I was. I’d been in his shed when he wasn’t there and didn’t find many pictures in those mags that were taken in a garden.

Anyway, Dad sits there, all serious like, puffing on his pipe, a slight rouge filtering over his face, starting off, ‘Well …, it’s like this, lad …’ Whereupon he tried to tell me, in stilted phrases, all the things about growing up, most of which I already knew from my school mates or worked out from his top shelf magazines. Dad was certainly more embarrassed then me. Though it was when I asked him about the itching, he really went pale.

You see, I was getting this constant itch across my scalp. It wasn’t nits. Th school nurse had checked that. It didn’t seem to be an allergy. I’d not eaten anything new or been rolling in nettles or anything like that. Nevertheless, next day, I was whisked off to the doctor by Mum. She made me wait outside, for a moment, before calling me into his surgery. I felt nervous. Had I got some dreadful disease. I had eaten another banana, without telling her.

The doctor, a young chap with a full beard and cold hands, does all the usual poking around and said I was a good, strong, healthy young teenager. Then Mum said. ‘So, is it?’ and he replied, ‘I’m afraid it is. It’s genetic.’ And Mum looked pained, as she said, ‘I’d hoped he would take after his dad.’ Leaving me totally mystified.

That’s when, for the first time ever, my Mum removed her headscarf. A full head of bananas, beneath it. I was totally dumbfounded. Shocked to the core. Speechless. Mostly ripe, but a few green ones on the turn. But definitely bananas.

Now, of course, I’ve grown quite used to it. Mum explained it was a rare unexplainable syndrome, passed down the family line, with hints of witchcraft, overindulgence and alchemy experiments thrown in. No gold there, though, just brilliant yellow. It had been passed down in my chromosomes. Her contribution obviously stronger than Dad’s.

The doctor explained that there was no cure and that over the following year I would find my luxurious dark hair would slowly fall out and be replaced with little green curls. Those curls would thicken out and eventually turn yellow, so that for the first couple of years I’d look as if I’d had a close crop and dyed it. He gave me a letter to take to school, so that I wasn’t sent home for breaking the rules on haircuts. By the time I reached twenty, however, he said I should be sprouting a full crop of healthy fruit, that required regular picking.

Now, before your imagination goes into overdrive, I’m not talking those great fat hands of bananas you see on the supermarket shelves. No, these only grow to that small size you see in packs for kiddies’ lunch boxes. Which is how Mum got away with it, under her headscarf. She told me then, that she used to pull out a few, each week and take them down to the local greengrocer’s shop and he’d pack them with the delivery to the school kitchens. That’s why she was so horrified that time I told her I had eaten a banana at school. I might have eaten part of my Mum.

It took a few days for it all to sink in and get my head around it (or should I say under it?) and I was worried what my school mates would say. Would I be bullied? But Mum fixed that when she brought me a large baker boy cap and said I was to tell them that I had a contagious head infection and I was only allowed in school as long as I kept my hat on. My mates got used to it. Called out a few names to start, but I ignored it all and after a few weeks no more was said.

The first real problem came with girls. When I’d got to that age I was interested, but they were not. Not with a boy who never took his cap off. And might have a disease they could catch. Not that they could, of course. So, I resigned myself to celibacy until I went to college. There my constant cap became quite a draw, but the closer I got to the female students, the more I worried about taking it off in a romantic encounter.

Tending mini bananas is quite a chore. You can’t let them get too wet with the sweat of exertion, or they develop a sour smelling mould. Same goes for regularly removing the ripe ones, before they go brown and blotchy and ooze a sticky mess down the back of your neck. And you have to lay them carefully in rows, after sleeping, or they stand up at all angles and you can’t get you cap on tidily.

Well the night came when I knew I’d lose my cap – more than my cap with a bit of luck – and I ignored my Mum’s caution that they would grow back bigger and thicker and shaved my head. I thought it had done the trick. I got a girl very interested in me; things were getting quite steamy and we went upstairs from the communal area in my student house and into my room. Clothes started littering the floor, until we both lay in close embrace on my single bed, she naked and me in nothing but my cap. She grasped the peak with her hand, but I clutched at her wrist and held it for a moment, before letting her rip it off.

She looked most disappointed. ‘Oh. You’re just bald. Is that all you’ve been covering up. It’s been driving me bananas thinking you might have some ghastly birthmark or lewd tattoo, you were hiding. Wait ’til I tell the other girls they’ve missed nothing.’ And then she started laughing. ‘Sorry, but my Mom said never go to bed with a bald old man unless they’ve got money. Well at least you’re not old. Hang on, where’s your loo, I’m going to wet myself.’

‘First door on left, top of the stairs, second landing,’ I automatically replied. Then, as if that wasn’t enough to take the heat out of the evening, my exposed pate began to perspire profusely. Well, you know that model glue smell that bananas give off. Well imagine it ten times as strong. So, while she had popped out the room, still not a stitch on her, I lived a little in hope, so I topped up my aftershave and mopped my head with a towel. Then I checked in the mirror to see all was well, only to find all the fluff had adhered to my scalp in haze of white. The only solution: slam the cap back on.

She came back, took one look and exclaimed, ‘Oh, no. Not with that on. You perverted or something?’ and hastily started dressing. I wanted to explain, but I don’t think she was the type to go for bananas. More a peach cocktail girl.

So that was that. The bananas came back, thick and fast and I found a backstreet food bank that happily took a couple of dozen mini bananas every now and then. No more girls, for a while. Not before I asked Mum how she and Dad got together. Apparently, he had a poor sense of smell and the only scent that really got through to him was bananas. Reminded him him of his days making model aeroplanes, from balsawood and tissue, as a boy. Happy carefree days. He said they were made for each other – and he’s been glued to her ever since.

Now, the chances of me finding a model making girl are quite slim and I certainly don’t want a glue sniffer for a partner, so I had to resign myself for a solo life for a time. I finished college and got a job in a food factory; gutting fish for frozen fish and chip suppers – so no one notices my natural odour – and it’s my excuse for dousing myself with a very pungent aftershave.

There was a girl I flirted with, quite lightly, in the tea breaks. She reminded me of Mum in a way. She always wore a headscarf, knotted tightly at the back. So, I plucked up courage and asked her, ‘Have you got any bananas under there?’ She blushed and replied, ‘Don’t be cheeky. I suppose you’ll be asking me for a date, next?’ Then she cocked her head, looked hard and long at my cap, then, brow furrowed, said ‘You’re serious, aren’t you? Is that what you’re hiding?’ I nodded my head, slowly and she smiled. ‘You can walk me home tonight, if you like. Perhaps go for a drink. I think we’ve got something in common.’

After work we strolled down towards our local, “The Bunch of Grapes”, and she confided in me she had to keep her head covered because she had “a condition”. It was a bit embarrassing, she said, she would tell me if I promised not to tell a soul. And if I’d swear on my cap to keep it a secret.

She pulled me into the shadow of a shop doorway. The deep old-fashioned type. ‘Cherries’, she said. ‘I’m a red head. They fetch a good price, out of season, down the market. Now let’s see what’s really under that cap?’ I slowly removed it, as she, in turn, unknotted her headscarf.’

That was all a good many years ago, but you may have seen us down the seaside. We’ve got an ice cream van on the promenade. Special flavours, too. Banana split and cherry pie. You’ll remember us by the oversized, bright orange, baker boy cap I wear and her tightly bound cherry red headscarf. Oh, and the blood orange twist ice lolly? That was our daughter’s idea, when she became of age.

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Tiny Particles – Denise Mills

The house was ours, not Harry’s. But every night he’d show up just the same: dirty bare feet; bruised shins; a Band-Aid on his knee covering an ever-present wound; white shirt and grey knee-length pants several sizes too small. His sandy hair stuck out all over, as though he slept on it wet, but his clear blue eyes shone more than anyone’s I had known. I was ten when we moved into that house, and even though he was only a little taller, I figured Harry was older.

At night, when I was meant to be sleeping, Harry would sit on the end of my bed and tell me stories. He told me the house was once different: the window coverings were off-white with pictures of little birds, and the kitchen bench was peachy orange rather than the splotchy grey marble. Out the back, there’d been a tyre swing hanging from the oak tree that his brother had made for him.

Harry taught me about a lot of things. He had an elaborate theory that the stars and planets we can see in the sky are just tiny particles within a much larger galaxy, and that this continued on forever, in both directions. I told my dad about this, with large, over-exaggerated hand gestures. “Did your teacher tell you that?” he asked, with a concerned look on his face that gave him a deep wrinkle between his eyebrows. “No. It was Harry!” I replied. My father smiled, reached out his hand and tousled my hair. “Ah, Harry. Of course.”

Dad seemed to like Harry, until one day he didn’t. My father was down the other end of the house when I heard him let out a high-pitched squeal, like the cartoon ladies when they see a mouse. When my mother got home, they went into their bedroom and talked loudly about a barefoot kid down the end of the hall. “It was just standing there!” Dad exclaimed. After a long pause, Mum asked: “Do you think it was it Harry?”

That night, Dad sat down on the edge of my bed and asked me what Harry looked like. When I told him his eyes grew wide and his face pale, as he fiddled nervously with his wedding band. “We are going to stay at your Aunt’s place for the next few days,” he said, patting my knee. I did not argue.

When we returned that weekend, it was already getting dark. As our car drove slowly over the gravel driveway, I saw Harry sitting on the red brick fence. He waved at me, but I knew better than to wave back, or to tell my parents. Hours later I pulled on my gumboots and snuck out to convince him to come inside, but he shook his head and said, “I can’t. They caught me.”

But he seemed happier, somehow. Maybe he was thinking about the tiny particles, as his blue eyes looked up at the moon.

Denise Mills is a writer from Central West NSW, Australia. Tweets @denisey_pooh

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Honey – Hugh Behm-Steinberg

One day when I was testing my blood sugar the number I got was way too high. Right away I jumped to the part where my eyeballs explode and the doctors have to chop off all my limbs because I’m such a shitty diabetic. But then my wife Sharon asked me if I had washed my hands before testing, and sheepishly I said no.

“Go scrub,” she said.

So I did, thoroughly, with tons of soap, and when I pricked my finger again and retested my numbers were fine. Back to being a good diabetic, I promptly forgot about it and had another stupid salad for dinner.

As a newly diagnosed type 2 this happened to me a lot. I’d assume I was back in my old life until it was time to test, then I’d screw up and forget to wash my hands, get the crazy high sugar reading, freak out, and then I’d get reminded by my incredibly patient wife about the whole hand washing thing, retest and go back to eating those stupid low carb crouton free salads, taking those stupid pills that are only going to work for a little while, and continuing to live with myself in this stupid new life and its terrifying clots of numbers.

If I was telling my origin story, this would be the part where I’d mention the deep regret I felt about having survived the explosion at the experimental candy factory (you’d be surprised how many of those there happens to be), how I felt the urge to do something with the newfound super-powers I was supposed to have (Candyman!), instead of dwelling upon the mutant skin condition I actually got from the accident that made me sweat high quantities of glucose and suffer the joys of type 2 diabetes. I don’t know how anyone puts up with me.

“It’s because you’re so sweet,” Sharon said. “And not just because I get a buzz from sucking on your fingers.”

“Quit procrastinating and finish your novel.” I said.

It was spring, and lucky for us the bees were swarming around the apple trees and jasmine in our yard. There was a steady droning sound all the time, which we found comforting. We’d wonder where their hive might be, whether the bees lived around here or perhaps they were migrants, going from spot to spot, working their way up or down the coast as the seasons changed. Gradually we stopped noticing; it just became part of the background, like traffic noise from the highway nearby.

That changed when we started hearing buzzing at night, coming from somewhere in the walls of our house.

“Maybe they’ve moved in next to the wrens,” I said.

“Hopefully they’ll keep the rats away,” Sharon said, reminding me that there are worse sounds than buzzing to hear coming from the walls of your home.

“Oh yeah,” I said, and started reading all the articles I could find about bees nesting in houses. “Did you know it’s illegal now to kill bees?”

The next few days were really hot and humid; I’d go to sleep early, naked and not even using a bedsheet while Sharon worked upstairs on her novel. Sometimes I heard buzzing, sometimes I’d hear the metal softly leaking out of Sharon’s headphones, and sometimes they’d blend together so I couldn’t tell which was which.

I was dreaming I was floating on an ocean of honey, bobbing up and down in a giant, humming wave, and that I was part of something ancient and wonderful, but to truly be part of it I had to lie still and move as little as possible. “Sweetie,” I heard above me. It was the Queen! “Don’t move.” I felt something tickling me. “Don’t move don’t move don’t move.”

Hardly awake, I very slowly opened my eyes, then gritted my teeth so I wouldn’t scream. There were bees everywhere, all over me. The ones that must have been on my eyelids were fluttering around my head. Those pictures you see where someone is covered all over with bees: that was me, and all I could think of was how horrible it would feel to get stung to death. I didn’t move while Sharon ran outside and dialed 911.

The dispatchers sent over animal control, who took one look, murmured something about the endangered species act and some beekeeper they knew who might know what to do, and one of them said bees can sense fear, while my wife kept insisting someone do something, anything. Around then, mercifully, I fainted.

When I woke up, I kept my eyes squeezed shut and just listened; although the buzzing was still there, it didn’t seem as bad as it was before. I opened my eyes and started to get up. I was starving.

The buzzing roared back; thousands of bees swarmed about the room from wherever they’d been resting. The landline rang and rang and went to the answering machine.

I saw Sharon standing in front of the bedroom window talking into her phone. “Sweetie,” I heard her say on the machine. “You’re going to have to stay still for awhile. The bees aren’t going to sting if you don’t move and you leave them alone. The bee specialist says she’ll be over right away with her crew, so just wait, please?”

I tried to nod without getting stung to death; Sharon gave me the thumbs up. Meanwhile the bees kept landing on me, tickling a little, and taking off. It felt like they were feeding, and I was their all you can eat buffet. At least someone was getting their breakfast today.

Not much later I saw a van drive up and a couple of people in beekeeping suits hopped out. I could see them talking to Sharon, discussing their plans, peering into the window, going back and forth fetching supplies. Carefully, like if somebody screwed up all the bees would explode, one of them removed the screen and opened the window, slipping in a hose, which in turn pumped smoke into the room, which in turn seemed to calm things down. “Mr. Berenbaum,” the other one of them said. “It’s okay to get up and leave your bedroom. Just no sudden movements: we don’t want to spook the bees.”

I was still naked, but like a vampire in one of those silent movies climbing back into the world of the quick, I got out of bed in our smoke-filled bedroom, a cloud of groggy bees trailing behind. I made it to the bathroom before they woke up and began swarming again, but I managed to shove some towels under the door. The buzzing kept growing until it peaked, then it gradually muted as the house filled with smoke. At least I got a chance to pee.

There was a knock. “Mr. Berenbaum?”

“Yes?”

“I’m going to open the door, and I want you to stand very still. Can you do that?”

“One second!” I said, wrapping a towel around my waist and trying my best to manifest fearlessness. “Okay, you can come in!”

The beekeeper opened the door with a bunch of bees buzzing around her. She was carrying a garbage bag and one of those smoking things, and once inside she shut the door behind her and started smoking up the room. Pulling a whiskbroom and a bee suit out of the bag, she brushed me down, whisking a few persistent motherfuckers away. I zipped up the suit and for the first time in forever I felt a little bit safe. Only hours later did I realize I’d been stung in seventeen different places.

Walking out of our smoke-filled house, I watched the beekeeper’s crew lever off chunks of drywall looking for the hive. I kept wondering if my insurance would be covering this as I made my way outside, still in shock as they tore our house apart, wall by wall by wall, honey and bees oozing everywhere; I fainted again.

When I woke up I was in the hospital. Sharon was stroking my forehead, which freaked me out because I thought the bees were back. I felt sour, but at least the bee stings weren’t hurting so badly, and cautiously I relaxed while she caught me up on what happened. She told me the story of the red honey from this one set of hives that smelled like lollipops because all the bees, instead of visiting flowers like they were supposed to, were sucking off the waste pipe of an experimental candy factory. How that sort of thing happens a lot more often than gets recorded because there’s all this concentrated sugar everywhere, and bees will now ignore flowers to get at it. They’ll even fly in the dark to get it. So that was what happened to me because I was just that sweet. “When they tore out the drywall they found the hive in our living room. But you’re going to be fine,” she said, “and I have something to show you.”

Sharon pulled a honey jar out of her purse and a teaspoon. “You must try this,” she said. “It’s like super concentrated you, and there’s a little something extra in it as well.” She opened the jar and swallowed a teaspoon’s worth. She put the jar down, then proceeded to do several one arm handstands on the rail of my hospital bed. If I haven’t mentioned it before I’ll say it now: my wife has the most amazing toes. I could stare at them for days, even if I was covered from head to foot in bees.

“We’re going to have superpowers, David Berenbaum, superpowers we can pour into bottles and sell for whatever we think miracles are worth! We’re going to be so rich!” she said. “There’s only a little honey now, but they can make a lot more if we let them. It’s just bees. We can live with bees. We can learn to handle some changes, can’t we?”

She looked so happy, like she did when all the words would just flow out of her all at once into that very first novel. Maybe it was a side effect of the honey.

“Ok,” I said. I could learn how to hold very, very still if it meant we’d be happy. “But you still have to finish writing that book.”

Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s prose can be found in X-Ray, Grimoire, Joyland, Jellyfish Review, Atticus Review and Pank. His short story “Taylor Swift” won the 2015 Barthelme Prize from Gulf Coast, and his story “Goodwill” was picked as one of the Wigleaf Top Fifty Very Short Fictions of 2018. A collection of prose poems and microfiction, Animal Children, was published by Nomadic Press in January, 2020. He teaches writing and literature at California College of the Arts.

Image via Pixabay

John Wayne & Me – Tom Kelly

The suitcase is the first step on the road back to mam and dad. I can see us sitting side-by-side. The radio crackling with, Two-Way Family Favourites as I wait for dad to open his suitcase while they sing along to Dean Martin: I am so pleased none of my friends can hear them singing, “The sweet, sweet, the memories you gave a-me, you can’t beat the memories you gave a-me…”

Dad said to me, “We’re lovely singers, aren’t we?”

Mam was aware of my face-ache. “He doesn’t like us singing. He’s more interested in your suitcase.”

Mam knew what I wanted. “Howay dad let’s have aa look. Will ye give me ya medals dad? When aa’m old, dead old, like seventeen. What’s in that wooden box?”

Mam showed her anxiety. “I wish you would get rid of it! It’ll end in tears.”

Dad said, “Don’t talk daft.”

I can see Dad holding his Green Howard’s cap badge. I have a photograph of me wearing it. I can step back to the moment it was taken. I am standing against a wall, the school photographer lining us up, the quick click and away, there were forty-odd in my class so there wouldn’t be a lot of time.

We didn’t have a camera at home, so it’s difficult, sometimes, to put yourself in time and place but this photograph allows me do that. I had cut my hair and made an inverted V at the front. And there is my dad’s Green Howards cap badge on my jacket’s lapel. I wanted to be a soldier. I would march up and down in the kitchen with dad shouting out instructions, “Stand tall. Swing your arms. Not both together. Where’s your rifle? You’ll be on a charge boy. Stand to attention.”

I would stand tall and proud as any soldier. I marched with a poker but it was a real gun to me and I’d kill the enemy. My heart was bursting with pride. I had to be brave, just like dad. I pressed dad about his war. “Will aa fight in aa war like you?”

Dad turned serious. “I hope to God you don’t have to. Aa saw enough for the both of us.”

Mam went to the shops and with her out of the house, dad would go on with his story and I would fill in the details: that was our routine. I had heard the stories dozens of times but I wouldn’t let him miss anything out. Dad battled on, “We were parachuted into Norway in April 1940 and ended-up in a village called…”

I dived in, “Voss!”

“That’s right son, near Stavanger…”

I jumped in again, “Aa bet it was great.”

Dad turned away from me and seemed to be looking for something in the backyard before he spoke, “War’s not glorious son. Ask your uncle Tommy, he’ll tell you it was no picnic in Burma and your uncle John ended-up in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.”

It was glorious to me. You didn’t die. You would wake up next day, go to school, play football. Death wasn’t forever. I didn’t know that as I put my dad’s medals in a line across my chest and pinned the cap badge onto my balaclava, praying mam wouldn’t come back before dad opened that wooden box.

Dad went on as I sat at his feet, “So, we were parachuted into Norway but the Germans outnumbered us, it was a hell of a battle and we had to retreat… we lost a lot of lads…”

Dad was talking slowly as I said, “What’s in your eye dad? Use me hankie, it’s nearly clean.”

Dad seemed angry as I watched his face turn stern. “It’s not like in the comics, you don’t play with bits of wood, they’re real guns and bullets and when you fall down dead you don’t get up.”

In the History of The Green Howards it says, “The Green Howards conducted an adventurous withdrawal through the mountains by train, truck and foot and on April 30th, 1940, the navy took off the ravenously hungry survivors by the light of the bombed and burning Norwegian villages. The Brigade had performed a classic withdrawal operation.”

“Classic withdrawal!” Dad was captured by the Germans. “The first words of German aa heard were Achtung. We’d been led into a trap, by a quisling. He said he’d take us to Sweden which was a neutral country. We were in a mountain hut and the Germans surrounded us and then took us ti’ Poland and had us working on farms all the way there. Me mam and dad thought aa was dead and…”

I had the newspaper cutting in my hand. “I know what happened next dad, your name was in the paper and they read out your name on the wireless…”

Dad read from the newspaper cutting: “Among the list of British prisoners broadcast from Hamburg last night….”

“It was you dad!”

Dad smiled. “Aye me mam and dad thought aa was dead until Lord Haw Haw gave out me name out on the radio.”

I wanted more of the story. “Tell us about Poland and the camps.”

Dad picked-up his war medals and spoke with heart-stopping emotion. “The Polish people treated us well, aa remember finding a loaf of bread left for me, by the farm workers, they had nowt but they still gave us. And aa remember queuing up in the camp for soup and me and me mate could see there wasn’t going to be enough, so we got a bowl of hot water and threw it in the faces of people and grabbed our share. If ye didn’t ye’d die, it was dog-eat-dog. Ah’m not proud of that but aa wouldn’t be here if aa hadn’t done it.”

Five years in a prison-of-war camp. The scars stayed with him all his life.

Mam came back from shopping and caught us by surprise. “Come on you two! Move yourselves. Aa’ve told you, get rid of that box!”

And that was the end of dad telling his war stories. I sat reading my comic but all I wanted to do was open the box in me dad’s suitcase: more than anything in the entire world. There was a time-bomb under my parents’ bed. In the coal black night under the hissing gas mantle something was burning through me but it was our night at the ‘Regal’, for our weekly ritual of worshipping the celluloid Gods on the magic screen. We walked to the pictures, our voices converging, “What’s on, mam?”

“Operation Pacific.” Was mam’s quick reply. Dad added, “How John Wayne won the war.” I said, “Dad, dad, did you know John Wayne?” Mam laughed, “After a few pints your dads met them all.”

In the pictures, war was glorious. Nobody died, they lived forever, safe and secure with their mams and dads. Just like me but then I heard me mam’s angry tight-lipped whisper, like enemy gun fire spitting out of the dark, “If you don’t get rid of it, it’ll go in the Tyne!” I wondered what was going to be thrown in the river? Next doors cat? Mam hated it. I knew it had made a mess in our house but that seemed drastic. I wondered if it was the rabbits?

We used to breed them and I would bump into one or two dancing a dead dance on the backyard clothes’ line, generally after dad had met somebody in a pub who fancied a rabbit pie. Maybe mam wanted rid of them, she had more than enough of their smell and those little brown marbles piling up in the straw.

Walking home from the pictures it hit me! The wooden box. I would never discover what was in it. The Holy Grail was so near. It was in our bedroom, under mam and dad’s bed. I felt like a proper soldier, when somebody needs saving from the jaws of death, like John Wayne winning the war, but now I had my own battle: I was at a loss as to what to do.

The only thing on my mind was the wooden box. I sat with my Eagle comic glued to my face but I wasn’t reading it. I was thinking and planning.

The next night mam pulled a funny face and said, “Can you hear squeaking?”

Dad was reading The Herald but eventually did answer, “That’ll be the mice.”

Mam screamed, “Mice!”

Dad was still reading and answered from behind the paper, “Aa see them first thing in the morning, just before aa go to work. Aa gave them aa bit breakfast. They play lovely in the hearth; they’re living in the couch.”

Mam’s voice went up several octaves, “Why didn’t ye say!?”

Dad reluctantly put down the paper. “You’re always asleep in the morning.”

Mam was red in the face. I nearly said something about her looking like a clown but didn’t as she let out a yell, “They’re underneath us!”

Dad was taking notice now, “Take it easy, the neighbour’s think aa’m murdering you.”

I thought she was really going to kill dad as she screamed, “Aa’ll kill you!”

I decided to join in. “Aa can hear them mam, squeak! squeak!”

Mam was near the door and pointed at dad, as if she was going to spear him.

She said slowly, “Get them out now!”

Dad was still sitting in his chair when he said, “Wait till after me tea.”

Mam had the door wide-open; a cold draught ran into the house. “There’ll be no tea ‘til you get rid of those mice. Aa mean it! The bairn’ll give you aa hand to take the couch into the back yard.”

Dad and me fought with the couch down the wooden stairs into the backyard, the mice were screaming but my mother was screaming even louder.

The whole street must have heard mam. “Get them out. It’s a nightmare! Mice living under us. Mice! I hate mice! Keep them out of the toilet and shut the coal house door!”

Dad, in a matter-fact way said to me, “Hand me that knife.”

I thought he was going to slice their heads off. I was preparing myself for a lot of blood. Mam screamed. Dad slit the underside of the couch; it was like killing an animal, spilling its intestines and white pink-eyed mice ran into the backyard, dozens and dozens of them squealed and squinted into the light. Mam screamed again. We attacked them, me with a shovel, dad with a hammer. They ran for the drain as we chased and battered and battered them: it was exciting.

I was killing the enemy: the mice. We gathered the mice together, scraping their dead bodies along the backyard, leaving a film of blood, half bits of legs and heads in a terrible trail. I didn’t think, I just did it. My mother watched from upstairs, standing behind the net curtain that seemed to be like a failure, a flag of truce but not for us, we had won. We had defeated them; it was John Wayne and me. I was glorious in battle. Dad shouted up to mam, standing upstairs, away from the carnage, “They’re dead, well and truly dead.”

I can see the white and pink carpet of dead mice dumped in the bottom of the dustbin. Dad put his arm around me as if we had done something great together. I felt like a hero and wanted more, much more than that cushion of white mice with blood speckled over them, like monkeys’ blood you get on ice- cream, except this was real. This blood was dead real.

I looked up to dad who was wiping the blood from his hands on the wall.

I said, “Dad, was aa good help?” He looked down at me and smiled, “You wor aa proper little soldier.”

As I washed my hands in the water bucket and started getting ready for church, after the killings, I knew I had to open the box and felt strange but excited.

The priest was on the altar with a golden cross embroidered on the back of his vestments, I was at Mass but I was in a different world. The priest would never kill mice because he was God’s messenger on Earth and he could send me to Hell. My knees were dead as I kneeled but I couldn’t pray, instead I went over the battle with the mice. No Last Post for them, no six-gun salute, no being saved by Flash Gordon, just the realness of death. I felt a shiver which had me scared and I got my handkerchief back from my dad. God was not blessing our killing. I was worried. There was a tight knot in my stomach that would not go away. As we walked home from church to the scene of our crime, the fight, battle, killings, my eight-year self was struggling to come to terms with life and death. Walking home from church I felt nervous and said, “Aa want to go to the toilet!” I began to run home.

And as I ran, I told myself, “Aa’ve got to open the box.”

I fumbled with the door key. Mam and dad were at the top of the street, I dragged the suitcase from underneath the bed and threw it open!

“Aa gun!”

My heart was drumming and beating like a terrified bird. I began to sweat and could hardly breathe. I dashed out of my room and put the gun under my pillow.

Now I knew what was in the wooden box. I needed time to compose myself and dwell on the power of the gun that would lie under my head tonight. I had killed mice and now I had a gun. I could be John Wayne. I could not stop shivering with excitement. All the time I was thinking about the weight of the gun and my stomach turned to jelly. I felt sick as I tried to think of a plan.

In the bedroom I embraced my pillow as the gun nestled and burned against my cheek and it was so heavy, I felt it in the dark. My mam came into the room.

My finger was stroking the trigger. She left the room and shut the door. I got a shock and squeezed the trigger. It was pointed at the door. Everything stood perfectly still, like a photograph, as if it wasn’t real and the loudest bang in the world rang round the bedroom. I could hear my dad scream.

Dad had kept the gun from the army and mam was always telling him to get rid of it. The ambulance and police came. All of the street stared at our house. And later there was an inquest but they could not charge a child of eight with killing his mother. A tragic accident, they said.

Tom Kelly’s ninth poetry collection This Small Patch has recently been published and re-printed by Red Squirrel Press who also published his short story collection Behind the Wall. His stories have appeared in a number of UK magazines and on Radio Four.

Image via Pixabay

Highgate Station – Nick Black

They’re steep, the stairs at Highgate Station, dropping into the ground from the car park taking all weathers with them. On a wet late Autumn evening, surface street lamps battling against the gloom, those steps are lethal. Believe me.

The relentless hiss of rain. The pirouette of leaves.

Nobody uses handrails when they’re running.

Tuesdays and Thursdays we’d meet. Usually I’d wait in the car with the radio on, but that one time I decided to buy something from the little booth in the station at the top of the escalators, by the ticket machines, having read a text – “I’m starving!” – and always been eager to please. Something small to eat on the way. Tuesdays and Thursdays were when we’d go to yoga. When I had a body.

Tuesdays and Thursdays, around 6pm, wave after wave of passengers pass through me, joggingly ascendant, phones flying to faces as they approach a signal, eyes raised to the skies and umbrellas popped open, but not… Not.

Taking another route? Another exit? I wait. I hope. Vaguely aware of what feels like cobwebs being brushed through, no, fainter, dreams of them being brushed through, only I’m the cobwebs. I imagine, if they register anything at all, they’ll think it the shift from hot tunnel winds to fresh night air, but it’s me. Waiting, just in case. Nowhere else to be.

Eventually each night, the metal gates are dragged closed. The lights turned off. The hours emptied, darkened. Lengthened.

I recommend against dying foolishly.

Nick Black manages two public libraries in North London. His writing has been published in lit mags including trampset, Okay Donkey, Splonk, Spelk, Lost Balloon, Ellipsis Zine and Jellyfish Review.

Image via Pixabay

tête á tête – S M Colgan

Your gaze settles on Tupac, stark against the back wall.

That you would even find yourself in a place like this. Small and cramped, too many tables all squashed into a space little bigger than your bedroom, hardly room to move without banging into someone else. How is anyone supposed to sit here in comfort when the next table is right there? Claustrophobic even half-empty, making your skin itch.

It was her suggestion, this place. Said with just the slightest edge, you’ll love it there, her voice gone all nasally.

God but you hate when her voice does that.

She knew exactly what she was doing bringing you here. The urge to curse lies heavy on your tongue. You swallow it down and inhale, let the breath out slowly through your nose, fight the pounding of your heart. Cursing her would only make her worse.

“Well?” she demands in that tone, one eyebrow quirked, and your fingers drum against the edge of the table to keep you from plugging your ears. Bad enough sitting here but having to listen to her—

“Well what?” You’re not sure why you’re even feigning ignorance. You know what she’s talking about and you have nothing to feel guilty over. But there’s an odd pleasure in it, in pretending for a few minutes. A vindictiveness that eases the tightness in your chest.

Let her think what she will.

“Aren’t you going to answer me?”

You snort and turn it into a coughing fit, gasp for breath and it eases some of that tightness. The man at the next table, some student of some description, moves away and the extra space makes it easier to sit up. You’re tempted to tell him it’s not the flu, just the cigarettes you smoked last night, but then he might come back closer.

You sip your 7Up to clear your throat. Probably not the best choice, but you doubt if they serve tea in here. You could have asked for a glass of wine even though it’s not long after noon, but you have too much respect for your liver to put it through that after last night’s gin.

God but what possessed you to drink gin? Even now the room is spinning if you move too quick though that might be the lack of air with so many bodies in so small a space. Too many people. What are they all doing out at this time of day? Surely they’re not all getting a talking to?

Damn bloody gin. You should have just gone for the rum.

Will you tell her that? Tell her that the gin was a mistake and rum would have been more sensible? You can just imagine her reaction. That nasally voice and the white of her eyes and “Sensible? Sensible! After what you did last night?” Shrill like a harpy, creating a scene. Maybe she’d get you both thrown out. Then you could go and die in a ditch like your bones demand.

Making a mockery of your situation, that painting of Tupac on the wall. Not just him, everything. The big hanging bulbs too bright, the strung little fairy lights. Who has fairy lights up in fucking February anyway? No one in their right mind, that’s who. Too miserable of a month for such things, wet and cold and threatening snow. One afternoon of bright, cool sunshine, just to trick you into thinking it’s April. What gave it the right to play with your feelings like that?

She sighs and you squeeze your lips tight, dare her to speak.

Christ but she fairly sprung at you this morning. In your face, all high and mighty, nails out, asking where you’d been and who with. She already knew, she just wanted you to say it, so she could be all righteous.

Did she rake your cheek with those talons? If it were a film she would have, great drama. She loves drama, it would suit her.

Part of you wishes she had.

A policy of saying as little as possible is clearly the best way forward. You never did figure out the nature of your association beyond a strong maybe. Not your fault if she wanted to pretend at more than that. Not as if you’re married. Doesn’t she know a body’s got needs?

True you never would have considered before last night how far those needs would stretch, but she doesn’t need to know that.

“Will you at least say something?” That nasally voice piercing your ears, trying to make them bleed the way it echoes in your brain. Say something, say something, say fucking what?

“I’d prefer to save my voice.” You try to sound dignified in spite of the itch in the back of your throat.

She snorts, and you glance at her, just for a second before you look away. Best not to look too long in case you have to answer, so you look down to your hand instead, still resting on the table beside the 7Up and the remains of your greasy chips. It might be a decent place to eat, if the chips weren’t so greasy.

Whoever decided grease was the cure to a hangover ought to be shot.

Last time you were out, a single croissant was all you could stomach the morning after. And you hadn’t even had that much. A couple of shots and one daiquiri and two pints. Though the Jägerbomb was probably a bad idea, and you suspect that’s what did the damage. Your insides feel less like paint stripper today.

Could be worse, you suppose. You still have some cash in your wallet this time. Going to the bank when you can feel your skin crawling is not something you’d recommend anyone do. Not even her.

Shit but you could do with another smoke. Would she leave you be, if you went out and bought a box? Or would she try to follow? Probably follow you like a shadow all the way to the shop. Maybe someone would think she’s your stalker and call the Gards. Could save you a good deal of trouble.

Ugh but then there’d be an investigation. A whole bloody hassle.

Your cheek itches and you scratch it, the stubble sandpaper beneath your nail. You forgot to shave this morning, but it hardly matters when you half feel like death anyway.

Tomorrow. Tomorrow will start off better. With a shave.

She sits back and tilts her head, folds her arms. Waiting, watching. Giving you space. Ah, so she has decided patience is a virtue. You’d wondered if it would occur to her sometime this year.

Maybe you should tell her. Should tell her, just to see what she thinks. There was a time the two of you could laugh over such a thing. It would be nice if she could laugh now, just a little one. Just to prove that she still can. You doubt if she would laugh now, but maybe telling her would drive her away and you could have a little peace. Could go for a sleep right here in this chair. Someone would probably think you’d died.

Mightn’t be the worst thing.

Getting buried alive sounds tempting with what you’ve been through.

A flash of last night before your eyes. Cigarette smoke curling to the sky, grey against the glowing orange streetlights. The drizzle damp on your skin. That laugh gentle in your ear, curve of a smiling mouth, warm breath tickling your neck. Those blue eyes, mildly amused, skin soft beneath your fingertips.

It was a good night, one of the best, even if it has brought you here.

“What was his name?” her voice is faint, and your fingers twitch on the table. You clench them tight.

The name is heavy on the back of your tongue, but you swallow it down.

“It hardly matters.” And your voice is just a little rough, but that would be the sore throat. Or the lack of sleep. Or the smoking. Any of them, all of them, and nothing else.

Nothing else.

“It does matter.” Her words are so low you can hardly hear them.

The echoed murmur of his voice in your ear, I’ll unzip it, a beat, your breath, Grand.

Grand.

Such a simple word.

You said that about her too, once.

Grand.

And you see, for the first time, how the light here brings out the red in her hair. Maybe that’s why they have the fairy lights, for these little things. The thought is incongruous, but still your eyes linger on the red, the tones of it, deep in the mahogany. Her hair has always reminded you of mahogany, ridiculous as it sounds. Not brown, not black, somewhere in between. Something more.

Better.

Why would she ever come to a dump like this?

You open your mouth for to ask her, for to say it. To say the name, to tell her of him, but you swallow. And the name won’t come now, though it was there a few moments ago. All that comes is the appellation that you stuck to him when you couldn’t stand the sight of him, before—

Before.

If he came in now, you’re still not sure you could stand the sight of him. And somehow, to draw attention to that name feels like letting her win.

You sip the 7Up and it’s cold in your mouth. Cold, when his breath was warm, his tongue—

Christ but what you wouldn’t give for a chess board now. Something to do with your hands. Pieces to fiddle with, a pawn to move, just a little closer to her. Just to provoke her into doing something other than sitting there looking at you like that, as if she were disappointed. What right has she to be disappointed? Maybe if you were something more, but you’re not and she knows that.

You could have handled it if she’d hit you.

Violence has never been in her nature and you know that, you know it, knew it even as you tried to make her. Just to feel her fist connect with your cheekbone, solid and real, the crack of it, your head knocked back.

Was what why you did it? To see if you could?

Likely it was only the gin, clouding your senses. There isn’t one redeeming factor in that drink.

“I think you know who it was.” And your voice is little more than a whisper as your eyes meet hers.

You’re not sure when you last saw her so pale. Her face stiffens.

“I’m not sure I want to be right.”

“You are.” Both sure, and right. “You know you want to be. Know it’s better to be.”

She makes a noncommittal noise, her mouth twisted wry. “Better than wondering, I suppose.”

She supposes. It’s not often she supposes. You always like it when she does, and something inside you softens, slips.

When did you come to hate her? Or is hate too strong of a word? Is there any word that fits?

The table smooth beneath your fingers. “Well, it was him, so you know.”

Him, and how you kissed him beneath the lights. How you cupped his cheek and stroked that curl of hair away from his ear and kissed him, and when he backed you into the wall and went to his knees, you knew you would not regret it.

You still don’t regret it. Maybe you never will. What would the use be in regretting it? It’s in the past, and that’s that. Time to draw a line under the night and move on.

She nods as if she agrees, as if she hears your thoughts. “So what now?”

What now?

What now indeed.

Your eyes meet Tupac’s on the back wall, knowing and still. Waiting, as much as she is, for your answer.

S M Colgan (she/her) is a bi writer living somewhere in Ireland. Her work focuses on emotion, history, sexuality, and relationships, romantic and otherwise. She writes to understand people who are and have been, and to ease the yearning in her heart. Her most recent prose pieces have been published with October HIll Magazine and The Lumiere Review. Twitter: @burnpyregorse.

Image via Pixabay

Ampersand – Anthony Ward

Ampersand! She loved the sound of words, and her favourite sound was ampersand. She often lived in the coastal town Hawthorn where she would look out across the harbour waiting for him to return. She had waited for months at a time. Her eyes weathered by an emotional fog that drifted from echoing reminiscences that crashed against her mind, washing up a frenzied froth of thought and turmoil that left the flotsam of contrived moments amongst the jetsam of memories, before drifting back into the callous serenity of the doldrums.

The words she had exchanged with him ebbed through her, soaking her with sorrow.

“DNA triplets switching genes on and off.”

“Who switches the genes on and off?”

“Oh God,” he said, raising his arms like a preacher in surrender.

He bore the physique of a renaissance sculpture, ripping off his jumper in the pitch blackness, creating static sparks, like lightning in a thunder cloud. While she was very much aware of the body she was in, saddling herself with her clothes and adorning her smile as if it were a garment. She was more beautiful than he cared to admit. That half-cocked smile of hers had him leaning towards her. But all too often after the event, like a cat, he’d act like he wasn’t interested once he’d gotten what he’d craved. But she loved him no matter what. And she waited for him no matter when.

Why do the dark nights close in fast while the light nights open out so slow, she mused whilst looking out across lighted landscapes of C D Frederick. Though now it was mid-September and the Constables had become Turners.

He could be gone for months at a time. But months had become years. He wasn’t coming back. Which is why she couldn’t let him go.

She splashed her head into the clockface then lay there with a half-hearted grin upon her strangled countenance She was a piece of driftwood, the moniker of the boat. Her body contorting and gnarling before settling into serenity, insouciant in her suffering. She had become a song, singing on the ripples of timelessness.

“It’s the Sods law of things, when the natural outstands the logic,” he had said, those words whispering through the void.

“I could never understand logic. It tends to make common sense superfluous,” she had replied.”

Somewhere, travelling light waves through the infinite ocean of space, these conversations still echoed, while he was somewhere on the expanse, searching for himself in the belly of the whale.

What is real exactly? She thought staring at the ceiling through poached eyes. The sound siphoned through her lungs until she was a siren beckoning for his lamp through the oblivion, where she drifted, like Ophelia, in her blackened consciousness. Her hair all bladder wracked, her skin crawling with crustaceans, the cold washing its warmth through her as moonlight drizzled and spat, drizzled and spat, in spates of insomniac duration.

The last night she saw him he’d been kept up all night with tinnitus and toothache. He said his tooth was trying to eat into him, burrowing into his cheek like a lobster’s claw that wouldn’t let go. He wanted to tear it out with a fork.

“What is salvation when there’s nothing to salvage,” he had told her as he was about to leave.

She could still feel the tooth in her hand itching inside her as black and white mists engulfed the room inside out, black tar swabbing the walls as the foghorn hounded intermittently. The view from the window a photograph negative. Her veins stretched taut like violin strings scything. Stairs-there were stairs-spiralling upwards. A light spinning, was spinning, slowly, then speeded, slowly, then speeded, like a heartbeat, beating, beating, beaten, pulsing then pulling, pulsing, pulling. She was dermatologically an eggshell beginning to crack like fissures in an old painting hanging upon the wall. The walls crumpling like paper. Seagulls perched upon the window sill.

“Life’s a beach and we’re all at sea,” they squawked, emulating his last words that came ashore before she was swept away by the depths of drowning.

Anthony Ward tries his best not to write but he just can’t help himself. He writes in order to rid himself and lay his thoughts to rest. He has recently been published in Streetcake, Bluepepper Poetry, Shot Glass Journal and Mad Swirl after a hiatus in writing.

Image via Pixabay

We Swarmed Like Locusts – Robin Bissett

The first thing I saw when I woke up on the cold tile floor of Steven Corman’s bathroom was a moving amber object. I was unsure of the time, whether I had been curled up here for hours or years.

I sat up and cracked my spine by shifting against the doors of the wooden sink cabinet. Then, I rose slowly, breaking through the heavy layers of the humid air, like Athena splitting the skin of Zeus’s forehead, only much more shamefully. I wiped the crust from the corners of my eyes and grabbed a discarded red solo cup. As I swished lukewarm tap water around in the fuzzy lining of my mouth, the object appeared again.

It was a cockroach, scuttling from the edge of the bathtub toward the shower drain. I imagined it flaring its antennas, rearing up on its little legs, and hissing at me. Cockroaches would probably be a lot more intimidating if they behaved like horses, but they hadn’t learned how to yet.

Yeah, things could be worse, I thought.

Steven’s aging grandpa opened the bathroom door, clad in nothing but a loosely tied bathrobe. He squinted and shook his head, as if to wake himself from a strange dream. Or, a nightmare.

He bit into an Ambrosia apple while eyeing me. Amidst crunches, he asked, “We’re not related, are we?”

“Uh, no,” I said. I grabbed my shell jacket and brushed past him, emerging from the liminal space into the still, bright world.

Robin Bissett is a Teaching Artist and Writer from Central Texas. She enjoys absorbing and sharing stories and strengthening her surrounding literary communities.

Image via Pixabay

The Ache – Amber Rollinson

On edge, her teeth gritted, she calls the medical centre. It is the only medical centre for miles, but never has any appointments – too many patients, too little medicine. People might say it is a sign of the times, but she hasn’t seen people for months to be sure of this. The ache is sudden and unignorable, too much top of everything else. So, she calls the medical centre, asks for an appointment to see Dr Hangman, thinks she will be waiting a long time.

Actually, the voice says, clipped and icy, we have space later this afternoon.

The waiting room is empty, with enormous bay windows looking onto the equally empty landscape. In the bare field opposite she can see the burnt remains of a car. Beyond that, there are the leftover trunks of the large forest that used to blanket these hills in a thick sponge of pine needles, rotting down. Now the land is exposed, harder.

Dr Hangman will see you now.

Dr Hangman is a small man with tiny rat’s eyes and pink ears which match the pink of his nose, spidering with veins. He looks unhealthy and she wonders if she should go and see someone else. Surely she will not find a cure with a man who looks the way he does? Then she remembers there is nowhere else to go and takes the proffered seat, smoothing her grey skirt over her knees.

What seems to be the problem?

There’s this ache. It won’t go away.

Is it high or low?

He tuts irritably when she doesn’t understand.

A high note or a low note. Sharp or more general?

General, she says at last. All over.

He types something into his computer, fingers moving in a burst of furious speed. She cannot see what he has observed about her because the screen is turned away. Waiting for his pronouncement, she inspects the room, its magnolia walls, the plastic skeleton in the corner, jaw hanging open in a deranged smile.

Right. Stand up.

She stands.

Hmm. Yes. Sit down.

She sits, wondering what his thoughts are, the ache spreading, beginning to grow claws.

I have some medicine for you. Just go back to the waiting room, wait a minute, then come back.

But why?

Just one minute, he says. Is that all right?

Thinking about it, she can’t come up with any reason why it isn’t all right. She will go out there, return in one minute, and then he will give her medicine. If that is all she has to do, it is not so much to ask for a pain free life.

She goes. Returns. On the desk there is an orange vial with a single white pill inside.

That’s enough? She asks.

Oh, for now. For now. Dr Hangman says, nose twitching, confirming her impression of him as distinctly rat-like. As he stands to show her out, she almost expects to see a scaled tail swishing behind him, but there is nothing.

Come back and see me if the ache doesn’t go.

In her car, she dry-swallows the pill, desperate for the ache to go. And it does. For a few days, she lives a pain free existence, goes running, sneaks to the brow of the hill to look down at the village lights. But the following week, the ache returns, and she phones the medical centre for another appointment.

Dr Hangman doesn’t have any appointments available.

How about next week?

No, the icy voice responds.

No?

Dr Hangman doesn’t have any appointments left at all.

How can that be? What am I supposed to do?

She sighs and asks her to hold, returns five minutes later sounding more irritable than ever.

I’ve spoken to Dr Hangman and he’ll see you, but he’s not convinced you are doing enough to get the ache to go away yourself.

Like what? What am I supposed to do?

Well, are you exercising for example?

I run a lot, I go walking.

Okay. How about sleep?

She considers this and sighs. No, actually, I sleep rather poorly at the moment. It’s the worry. Everything seems so difficult.

Right well that will be it, she says sharply. His advice is to try sleeping in different places. It will trick your mind.

Is that true?

He’s a doctor. I’ll book you in for an appointment next week, but you must try sleeping in different places. Okay?

She agrees to do as she is told and hangs up the phone, wincing as the movement jars her spine, which twinges her hips, which pangs deep in her ankles and her hands. All over, she aches, cramps up, coils stiff and tight like old metal. She shifts her neck from side to side.

That night, she pulls a blanket onto the sofa and curls up into a ball trying not to think of the ache. Her jaw is clenched so she wiggles it, turns over. The wind rattles the windows, she sees a light and goes to investigate but there is nothing. Returning to the sofa, she rolls over, throws the blanket off because she is too hot, pulls it back on because she grows cold, her fingers ice, her breath misting. She turns the heating on, but the sound of the boiler disturbs her.

In the morning she phones the medical centre again.

I tried to sleep in a new place, but I just couldn’t get comfortable and there were all these new noises. It won’t work – tell Dr Hangman I just need one of those pills again and I’ll be fine.

The receptionist is silent for a moment, then says Dr Hangman expected this. He expected you would get back in touch. Let me put you on hold and see if he’s available to talk.

The song that is the hold tone is a pop song people used to sing back in the village years ago. She remembers going to art classes where they would all fill each other in on their latest ailments, their colds and fevers, their brittle bones and misshapen feet. One of the ladies had a cracked spine because her husband hugged her. You’re like porcelain, they exclaimed, how sad!

But we all, don’t we, do damage to each other? We’re innately damaging creatures, doing damage to the environment as well. It’s our nature, I mean, look at the forest, that is half the size it was when I was a girl.

At this, they fell silent. The woman was an environmentalist, and her political comments were consistently grating when they just wanted to draw flowers and hilltops.

She, for one, found this woman a piece of work and wanted to tell her so. Always, just as she was about to come out with it, blurt her vindictive feelings, the teacher would arrive, and they would stop chatting. Back then, she had been working on an oil painting of a cathedral, green and ivy-sprawled, open to the sky; a green cathedral, a sacred parcel of land, broken open.

Yes, this is Dr Hangman?

He answers like he doesn’t know who will be on the line, even though – so she said – the receptionist just went to check if he was free.

I came in about my ache?

Ah.

You recommended sleeping in new places.

I can’t prescribe any more medicine until I know you’ve tried all the alternatives. There’s no point taking pills to cover up the pain when that won’t solve the root of the issue.

I have tried. I can’t sleep wherever I sleep.

How many places have you tried?

One other.

Well exactly. If it’s noises bothering you, why not try outside? I find that very soothing.

She pictures him as an outdoorsy kind of person, with diamond-shaped calves and arms like knotted rope, wearing hiking boots and technical fabric fleeces, backpack on, trail mix in his pocket, surveying the blank land, the scraggled, wind-beaten place they live in with his sunken, rat’s eyes. He might have once been able to name all the flowers, hear birds and identify them just by their song.

Now bin bags and fluttering polythene are the new petals, and he can name those too; he can hear car engines and guess their make and manufacturer.

Trust me, go and try.

That evening, she sets off, woollen blanket in hand, thick-socked, to the forest. It is one of those nights where the moon is the white of an eye, unblinking, near-daylight in its brightness. She finds a spot by a large oak tree, spilling a green tongue of moss into the surrounding ferns, serrated copper. Amongst them, bottles and cans stud the grass like mushrooms, appearing in the night.

She sleeps fitfully, becomes cold, decides to scrape out a hole like she has seen people do in arctic conditions on the television. It is difficult – time passes – her hands turn brown and mud-caked. But at last, the soft earth like a duvet over her, she sleeps.

And in the morning, the ache is gone.

She goes home, eats a can of baked beans to warm herself up. Fresh food is hard to find these days. She looks out of the window and sees where she has come from, sees the forest flicker before her eyes in the wind. All of a sudden, the pain returns. Stabs her, grinds her to dust. She picks up the phone.

The pill is smooth and white, perfectly formed, delicate, bitter in her mouth. She swallows it and thanks him.

Dr Hangman frowns.

It’s my job. You don’t need to thank me.

According to the doctor, is it time to forget the sleep problem and focus on diet. You are what you eat, after all, he says.

You are a can stamped flat, a plastic bottle, a handful of nuts.

Obviously, fresh vegetables and fruit are out of the question these days. I’ve prepared a diet sheet for you. All of it should be fairly self-explanatory.

At home she fills her bowl with mud from the garden, tests a half-spoonful on her tongue, finds it sharp and bitter, swallows. She cannot make it through more than a few mouthfuls, and the ache in the small of her back pangs as she rushes to the bathroom to be sick.

Out with the darkness that is inside you, he will say. Out with it. You are suffering greatly.

He withholds the pill for the whole of the next appointment. She is salivating nearly, is clenching her fists to hide her sweaty palms. Hunched over, she watches him, brow cold, knees twinging.

Ah, I almost forgot. He reaches over and for some reason she opens her mouth, allows him to place it on her tongue himself as if he is giving her communion. She swallows it dry, too desperate to wait for water in a tiny plastic cup.

The pain fades but doesn’t go completely. Each time, the pill has become less and less effective. She is terrified of the day when it will do nothing at all.

The diet is working, Dr Hangman says, as per my expectations.

She doesn’t know how to respond, and the ache eats her words, so she sits back, exhausted.

There is this plant you could try which has been known to help in cases such as these, he says. I’ll draw you a picture.

He is an artist too, creative, ink-stained fingered, paint-splattered plates by the sink, brushes on the draining board. She leans over to see it; a sketch that seems to be real, to move and flutter in invisible wind, to be touchable, edible. She hasn’t seen many plants in her time but the trees of the receding forest, and those seem grey, haggard; not alive like this one.

This is what you need.

On her plate she arranges the leaves. She is on the edge of the forest, nestled beside a mattress with springs escaping like teeth, a car wheel thrown from the road, a disposable barbecue and foil trays. There is no light coming from the moon tonight, she could be the only one left in the world. The hemlock tastes like a hello from a stranger, deadly, delightful. They are handsome, with mud-dark eyes.

Like water streaming from her body, the ache leaves her. Already she is lighter, could run for miles, climb a mountain. Tonight though, she is tired.

There is a time for everything, Dr Hangman might say.

Yawning, she burrows down, pulls the soil over her head for warmth, sleeps.

Amber Rollinson is currently studying for the MSt Creative Writing at Oxford. She writes fiction and poetry and has been featured in Epoque Press’s e-zine, Channel Magazine (forthcoming), and The Common Breath (forthcoming). She is also a cyanotype artist and has had artwork featured by Epoque Press, Streetcake, Aeonion, and Neon.

Image via Pixabay

Stockholm Syndrome For Birdwatchers – Amanda McLeod

It just seemed to start happening more and more. I think I began to notice when they appeared in places and numbers that seemed…odd. I mean, an owl in your barn is totally normal. Thirty-seven of them lined up on your back fence is not. Owls in the homewares department of Target is not normal. Real ones, I mean, not ones embroidered on cushions. Ones that watched me. That followed.

Those amber eyes, so many sets of them, unblinking in the night. I had to keep the blinds closed so I could sleep. I tried to explain them away. Once you start feeding them, they follow you everywhere. I could just pretend I was eccentric until they started perching on the top of my computer monitor at work. After two weeks, my boss suggested I work from home for a while. The relief was a warm bath.

They were there day and night, unnatural for nocturnes, closer and closer. There were feathers in my bed, and dessicated piles of small bones appeared in the corners of rooms. The owls were settling in. Their eyes became comforting, their hoots a reassurance. I slept easier in their presence. We know, they seemed to say. We’ve always known.

Amanda McLeod is slowly learning to say yes to less in Canberra, Australia. She’s usually covered in ink or paint and enjoys crafting art and words, which you can find in places like The Canberra Tales and Stone of Madness Press. Her debut flash collection Animal Behaviour is available now from Chaffinch Press, and you can read more at amandamcleodwrites.com

Image via Pixabay

Christmas Ain’t Like Christmas Used To Be – Rick White

Grandpa Henry lights a cigar from his silver Queen Anne tabletop lighter. It’s a fine looking object – about the size of a lemon – heavy and ornate. Like Grandpa Henry it’s from a different time, before mass production. His cheeks puff as he rotates the cigar in the flame, the fine leaf glowing orange, silver hair haloed in silver smoke.

‘Who wants to see Rudolph?’ Grandpa asks his three grandchildren who are tearing round the house in their pyjamas.

‘Me, me, me!’ the children scream, heading for the front door.

‘Coats on first!’ says Eric, Henry’s son. He doesn’t know how the old man does it. Obviously the red dot in the sky is just an airplane, but how does he always get the timing right? As soon as the kids step outside they’ll see Rudolph’s red nose in the night sky. He must study the flight patterns or something.

Eric remembers the first time his dad showed him Rudolph’s nose. Or he thinks he does. Our earliest memories are usually not memories at all, they’re stories that someone has told us about a time we were too young to remember. Our brains make up the details.

In a few years, hardened arteries will cause Henry to develop vascular dementia. He’ll forget his family, time will warp for him, language will defeat him. And then he’ll be gone.

The children won’t remember him fully. But just as their eyes don’t notice when the red light in the sky blinks off momentarily, so their minds will fill in the gaps of Grandpa Henry. They might remember a fancy silver lighter, shiny like Christmas. The smell of cigar smoke and sandalwood cologne. A warm hand on the shoulder, and a long crooked finger, pointing up at a starry sky.

Rick White lives and writes in Manchester, UK. His work can be found in Storgy, X-Ray Lit Mag and Milk Candy Review. @ricketywhite

Image via Pixabay

The Last Book Collector – Michael Grant Smith

Canvas billowed anew. The rain’s hiss abated. I hoped signal strength would improve.

“Hello?” I said, louder. “Is anyone there?”

“You’re not funny,” interrupted my fare. “I didn’t pay for theater. Concentrate on landing me safely.”

“Madam, with my good eye closed I can navigate the entire Colorado Archipelago. Oftener than the tides have risen I’ve sailed thusly. Relax, let me skipper my boat.”

“Such a mariner, oh dear!” She studied the reflection in her own long-inert cellphone; plucked a rogue chin hair; spat overboard into salt water. “I suspect I’ve hired a fool to convey me to the Denver Islands.”

* * *

The sky’s weight presses the sea, prevents its escape.

I stroked the barely-visible implant scar on the nape of my neck. The snores of my angel complemented a symphony of wind and breakers.

“Wake up,” I said as I prodded her with my toe. “You commanded my silence for the duration of our passage, but we’ve reached our destination.”

She wiped slumber-sand from her eyes.

“So bold, you are,” she snarled. “To suggest one could sleep aboard this deathtrap of a cockleshell! I was deep in meditation.”

Like an anchor, my gaze dropped upon her.

“Your appraisal of this vessel may be correct, madam, yet thanks to your courage and perseverance you’ve arrived at the Denver Islands. I bid you farewell!”

“Again with the humor! Have I not demanded you cease your foolishness? We are nowhere close to shore!”

“My ‘cockleshell’ draws deep and we dare not risk the rocks. You and I, our voyage together ends here. Your contract is recorded on my device.” I held up my blank phone as evidence.

“Bah! Bring me in, pirate. I will double your fee.”

“My counter-proposal: I’ll eject you into the brine forthwith, and at no additional charge.”

“Carry me,” she said, and with a trembling hand drew her hood. “I cannot swim.”

I furled the reefed sail and set fast my oars. Across the railing slithered an anchor chain. I slipped over the side and waves caressed my ribs, welcoming me.

“Your taxi awaits,” I said, and extended my arms to her.

* * *

I eased my burden onto dry slabs of slate. She withdrew payment from her satchel. I hefted the gold coins — my luck was on the mend. Soon, I’d clear all debts and greet my future.

“Thank you and goodbye, madam.” I kept my eye mostly on the buildings and stone outcroppings far above us. She wrapped her cloak tighter against the breeze.

“Bunghole,” she said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“As well you should, and often! Bunghole, yes. The opening at the bottom of a boat.”

“No, you are mistaken. A bunghole is the means by which we fill or empty a barrel.”

“Well, you’re the expert. No matter what you call this, you may want to put it back.” She turned and began her upward trek.

In one hand I clutched my wages; in the other, a bronze drain-plug.

I splashed into the surf. My boat’s keel settled onto sand four feet below swirls of ripples and bubbles. Sunlight pierced overcast. Atop the mast a gull preened.

* * *

To raise my scuttled boat and refit it would cost all I’d earned from the trip. My first night ashore was cold — I catnapped in a ramshackle toolshed — although my rage kept me warm enough. How would I avenge myself on the Harpy who sank me?

In the chilliest hour before dawn I checked my phone for messages. As usual, there were none. I massaged my aching joints and set out on a prowl. These island-neighborhoods enforced curfews and I had to be sharp. I snuffled the bones of an abandoned commercial district until I found a prospect.

Some would encounter Sunnyside Booksellers and believe it a rind stripped of anything edible, combustible, or otherwise valuable.

Crafty me, I discovered a trap door. I wound my flashlight’s crank and spelunked the tomb-scented cellar.

Books in mounds, monoliths; volumes stacked like cordwood. Ink on paper! Bindings — every color and size! I’d outlast winter if I kept this jackpot a secret. Inside a stove, all words burn the same.

My implant chirped a warning. Above and outside, someone approached. Overburdened I fumbled ladder rungs and hauled a bundle of creative non-fiction, whatever that was. Three more nights and I’d empty this cellar of all the fuel I could stow.

* * *

By day I serviced my refloated boat: dried, cleaned, greased, re-stitched, nailed, and tied. After dark I lugged loads of books and hid them onboard underneath oilcloth tarpaulins. Planks creaked as the hull hunkered low in the water.

At last, my pre-dawn departure. Ribbons of purple and red glowed between the forsaken towers of Old Denver’s skyline. I set the oars into their rowlocks and there she was, the Harpy, not thirty paces away and jogging along the stone quay. She hailed me via a trumpet formed by her hands.

“Ahoy, as your type is fond of saying. Is this where I buy a ticket?”

I almost snapped an oar over my knee; instead, I smiled.

“It would please me to accommodate a repeat customer. Come aboard and you can disembark anywhere except dry land.”

“Always with the jokes. The seafaring comedian. Let us agree to allow bygones be whatever, and enter into a new contract. Will you take me home?”

“I’d rather use the butt-end of this oar to put out my remaining eye. No! My services are unavailable.”

Panting, she gave her satchel a shake and the effort nearly tipped her over. Coins were her orchestra, she the conductor.

“Five times the outbound rate is my offer. Paid when we arrive at Port Rainier.”

“Stay where you are, I’ll pick you up.”

* * *

Loathing runs as deep as oceans, and early in our journey my passenger’s unkind behavior caused me to take constant soundings. However, I possess the wisdom to forgive offences as long as revenge is inconvenient or unprofitable.

By the third week she laughed more and criticized less, followed by her unprompted vow to prepare the evening meals. Our conversations grew cordial and she seldom scolded me when I looked at my phone.

“You have regrets,” she said on the brightest and bluest morning since we’d left. “You miss connecting with people and things.”

Hood thrown back, her iron-gray curls gleamed. Outlying Cascade Isles, lumps of brown and black, blistered the horizon. I rubbed my implant scar and rummaged for a response. Despite the day’s brilliance my thoughts were blobs of mercury.

“I suppose I’ve spent too much time on this cockleshell — yes, I remember you named it so. Anyway, solitude is my preferred companion.”

“Oh, a man of action, yet stoic! In my field of work I’ve never chanced upon someone so deliciously complex.”

She grinned at me and I mustered one for her. I’d come to find her aquiline nose and dusky eyes quite fetching. My implant throbbed in an unfamiliar manner.

I labored to push a reply out of my word-hole. “Who are we but water-spiders, skimming the surface, racing from one adventure to the next?”

“Yes, my captain, you’re the sailor-poet-philosopher, the burglar who talks in his sleep. I’m the librarian who won’t allow you to burn your precious cargo.”

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The Amazon of Bloomsbury – Shannon Savvas

(A re-imagining of the Byzantine mores of Vanessa Belland her set and their infliction upon her daughter Angelica Garnett née Bell by way of Duncan Grant)

Charleston Farm, East Sussex

Christmas Day Night, 1918

Today the child decided to be born. Before breakfast!! I cannot believe it. Our first Christmas since the end of the beastly war. Our first Christmas after four long, dull years of Lutheran sensibilities out of consideration for “the people” and their sacrifices. I should have been downstairs presiding over the feast of food and festivities I’d planned; festivities almost Roman Catholic in their excess. How delicious. But the child almost ruined everything but for my darling Virginia. Thank heavens, she oversaw the morning hunt and orchestrated the later dinner and party. Judging by the glee and shrieks rising from downstairs which punctuated my beastly labour, I suppose it was in the end, only my Christmas the baby ruined.

It wasn’t a difficult birth. I suppose I must be pleased that it is a girl and not another boy. My friends tell me daughters are so much more fun. I doubt it but I do believe they are cleaner and more reasonable than boys. Small mercies. Lennox is a Gorgon-faced Godsend, even though she demanded the Devil’s dues to return to service for this one. I suppose it was her form of retribution because we let her go so abruptly once Quentin and Julian were both away at boarding school. How could I have foreseen the spectre of another child? But whatever Duncan agreed to pay her, it is worth every penny to not have the onerous duty of tending to a crying, hungry baby day and night. I informed Lennox the day she moved back into her rooms that I refuse to be a heifer to this child. She has engaged a wet nurse who will arrive the day after Boxing Day.

Clive suggested we call the child Angelica, after all, he said it is on this day the angels brought good news. I suppose this baby is good news, but for whom, I am not certain. Not for me. Now the boys are at the Quakers’ school in Reading, a baby is not what I need. Clive has promised to take her under her wing. He is such a good man and will be more of a father to Angelica than Duncan could ever know how to be, so the least he deserves is to give her a name. God knows Duncan is too distracted and really, he has become such a bore. I do not always wish for his company.

Clive has barely been in. He has spent the day entertaining Duncan and Bunny. They came down yesterday and will stay until Boxing Day. With little consideration for me or this baby, the three of them have indulged in an inordinate number of raucous toasts ever since they returned from the hunt. I could hear their noise all the way up here, but I suspect they were celebrating the end of the war and their enforced exile from London as “conscientious objectors” more than the birth of Christ or Duncan’s girlie as Bunny called her. She is merely a timely excuse.

Later, Bunny popped up to see the baby, champagne in one hand, a filthy White Owl cigar in the other. He blew smoke across her little face which enjoined a stern cluck of disapproval from Nanny Lennox. But when has disapproval ever deterred him? He oohed and he aahed, towering over the child’s crib, a swath of Christmas ivy around his neck, a travesty of a merry fairy godmother.

Oh joy, he declared. She is delicious. Good enough to eat with a crème anglaise and strawberries. If she is as lovely when she’s twenty, let’s see, good Lord, I shall be only forty-six — I think I will marry her. Will it be scandalous, Vanessa?

Yes, it would. However, I kept silent. Sometimes Bunny is as insufferable as he is amusing. I accepted a glass of champagne and we toasted the absurdity of the idea.

Lennox has taken the child. The visitors have gone, the men retired. Finally, I have some peace.

* * *

Christmas Day, 1932

I don’t know whether to be pleased or annoyed with Virginia. She has gifted Angelica the outrageous sum of one hundred pounds annually to purchase clothes. Who in their right mind would bestow such funds on a fourteen-year-old? Dear as my sister is to me, Virginia has not been in her right mind for some time. I am worried. I told her she has been highly irresponsible but she dismissed my objections. She implied my allowing Angelica to travel on the Continent, unaccompanied but for Lennox, was more irresponsible, but both Clive and Duncan backed me up that for the purposes of education Angelica’s sojourn in Rome was far more valuable than that ghastly school in Essex.

* * *

Sissinghurst, Kent

Sunday Afternoon, 15th August 1937

Vita has invited us down for the week. A relief to leave London. I cannot bear anymore condolences on the loss of my darling Julian. It is a welcome distraction to be with Vita and Harold who has a quiet and thoughtful way about him that is quite calming. Between my grief and the talk of Oswald Mosley and his band of thugs and the menace of an increasingly strutting Germany, I have felt lost in a deep well of sadness. Still, I thank God every day for our Royal Family and the sanity and sensibility of British politics. Stuffy as society may be, it is a blessing that we are more obsessed with the marriage of the American divorcee Mrs Simpson to the Duke of Windsor, than with the rantings of that nasty little man Mr. Hitler in Berlin.

Angelica and I motored down with Virginia and Leonard on Thursday. Clive arrived with Duncan in tow yesterday morning. Bunny and his wife Rachael – I cannot bring myself to call her Ray (how vulgar, how gauche) no matter how often she insists I do – arrived by train this afternoon. Rachael is to my eyes much more interesting than when I last saw her; she has lost much weight and her face is drawn, tight and of a curious hue. I might ask her to sit for me in the autumn.

Angelica, who has become quite temperamental and rebellious since she decided to become an actress – a grave misjudgment in my opinion, the child has neither looks, allure nor talent of any description – was extremely beastly to Bunny and made cruel fun of Duncan at lunch. I thought enough. Time the child knew the truth. I took her for a walk in Vita’s wonderful white garden and explained that Duncan is her father not Clive. I tried to ameliorate the situation by telling her that in many ways she was lucky to have two fathers, not one. She spat back that in reality she felt she had none. Her performance was worthy of Isadora. I waited until she had calmed and run out of her diva tears before instructing her to not discuss this further with anyone. Especially Clive’s father who must not be made aware of Duncan’s role in her genesis as William has almost certainly bequeathed what he believes to be his granddaughter, a sum of money in the event of his death. Practical girl, she saw the sense. Well, she should. A woman’s life and fortune are precarious and only someone foolish would unnecessarily risk any upheaval. I have instructed her to make her excuses and not attend the party tonight. It seems only prudent.

* * *

Monday 16th August 1937

I am appalled. Angelica, despite my advice, not only attended the party, but dressed a little too provocatively for an eighteen-year-old girl. She certainly drank more champagne than was advisable. Laughed too loudly and danced with unseemly abandon. I asked Clive to tell her to stop, but he said let her have her fun, that if she was a little wild as he put it, perhaps it was because she still grieved the loss of Julian and has been forbidden to make a “pilgrimage” as she called it to Brunete in Spain. That debacle shows no sign of abating and it would be madness not to say pointless for her to undertake such a trip. Still, Clive is right. However, I felt I needed to address her outrageous behaviour.

When I spoke to her, she threatened to be indiscrete regarding her true paternity and ruin the evening in front of everybody, including several notables and minor Royals. After a while, she calmed and I left well alone. The child has always been willful and I can live with her irregular behaviour. What I found most distressing was watching her flirt shamelessly with Bunny last night, in the presence of Rachael who was visibly embarrassed and hurt. With Julian gone, there is no one to temper her. Perhaps Quentin can take her to tea when we get back to London and have a word. She might be more prepared to listen to her brother than her mother.

* * *

Charleston Farm, East Sussex

Christmas Day, 1938

Everyone has come for Christmas. Quentin has brought a young woman, Anne Popham for the holidays, they seem rather serious. I will get Clive to find out more about her family. Bunny and Rachael are here, but I fear her health has deteriorated. The last time I saw her was just over a year ago when she declined to sit for me. What is troublesome is that Angelica and Bunny carry on in a way that is wholly inappropriate and raises my concerns. I remember his drunken prediction about marrying her despite his being in a liaison with her father. And how can I tell her that this man was her father’s lover? It mattered not a jot until now. There is something quite wrong with this relationship. Not least that they are being quite disgraceful in front of his poor, sick wife. Perhaps I or Duncan should speak with him. Warn him off. Or do I leave them to have a fling, however distasteful? Perhaps an older man will help settle her. Let her get her rebelliousness out of her system and then she can move on and hopefully meet, marry someone more suitable.

I have just spoken with Virginia. She assures me my daughter will tire of that rusty, surly old dog with his amorous ways and his primitive mind. Typical Virginia – she has the most vivid and apt way of putting a matter. I hope she is right. She knows all sorts of interesting young men, closer in age and class to Angelica and has promised to send them Angelica’s way after the holidays.

* * *

Christmas Day, 1942

It is done. And I must be gracious and welcoming. Bunny might believe he has pulled off a coup, perhaps exacted a small revenge on Duncan, but I find it disgusting. An affair was one thing, but this marriage is partly my own fault. If I had found the courage, had informed Angelica about her intended husband’s history and more specifically his proclivities, namely that Bunny had not simply propositioned me (thankfully I rejected him – would he be so petty to marry her out of spite?) but had conducted a liaison with her father, might she have called off the marriage? In a note of sordid glee, she informed me she lost her virginity to Bunny while staying with the novelist Mr. H.G. Wells in Sussex. It is quite abhorrent to me that Bunny Garnett, fifty years old, has married my daughter, a mere twenty-four years old. The poor deluded girl is giddy with her new status and independence. They have moved to his place in Cambridgeshire, so it is somewhat of a blessing that I shall see less of her and her husband whom she refuses to call Bunny – he’s not a pet, Mama, she said – rather she insists on calling him Darling David. Quite nauseating.

It was all very well being tolerant when Darling David’s excesses were amusing, scandalous and delicious in equal measure, but when it is one’s own daughter sucked into the insobriety of others’ sexual mores, one finds one is forced to re-examine one’s own opinions – and admit to one’s culpability. I, we, created and glorified this sordid seeking of sensation and acceptance of breaking taboos.

It is not difficult to conjure a list of muckrakers hoping to be the first to inform Angelica of her husband’s dalliance with her father, enjoying the anticipation of her dismay. Then how gleeful will she be, I ask, if somebody tells her, as they surely will be keen to do, about not-so-darling David’s torrid relationships with both male and female intimates of our circle and beyond (more than I care to name!)? They will do so all the while claiming moral outrage but seeking revenge or social superiority over our eccentric little family, spreading the dirt and depravity so deep that it will be Angelica, an innocent, who is shamed and not her Darling David who has tainted everybody he has known. Including me.

I know this milieu; indeed, I have dabbled in it myself but that gives me advantage. I shall make it my mission to use whatever means, practical, immoral, sexual or sentimental, I will call in all debts owed whatever their nature, financial, patronage, discretionary – bearing in mind the large repository of secrets entrusted to me which I am quite prepared to use as leverage to ensure no one disillusions Angelica.

Let my silly daughter have her illusion of a great love affair. Better that than laying this family bare to ridicule and judgement heaped upon our name. But I confess, I am tired. Tired of these men; Bunny and his predilection for young flesh of any persuasion, our George and Gerald who took me and Virginia for sport, and Lytton and Roger and Leonard and all their ilk who offer praise and speak of equal artistic worth yet ensure we are crimped by social, marital and maternal expectations.

And if I must wield the librys to slay the switchblade tongues or lay down with husbands, wives, or fathers to ensure their silence, so be it. But given the inbred snobbery of our venal and socially ambitious times, I doubt nothing more than invitations to our dinner parties and readings and gallery openings together with promises of attendances at their parties will be suffice.

My daughter needs to be protected.

I will be her Amazon.

A New Zealand writer who divides her heart and life between Cyprus, England and New Zealand. Winner: Reflex Fiction (Winter 2017); Cuirt New Writing Prize (Galway, Ireland) (March 2019); Flash500 (Summer 2019). Runner up, shortlisted, longlisted, commended and published here and there.

Image via Pixabay

Expiry Date – Katie Isham

I skipped breakfast that morning. Very out of character. I always have breakfast. Cereal of some form. Mostly Shreddies but sometimes I throw caution to the wind and have Frosties. Never the real ones of course – supermarket’s own brand versions are just as good.

But that morning the milk had turned. It hadn’t reached its expiry date, but it smelt awful. I was unprepared; we had no bread in for toast. So I went without.

I should’ve taken that as a bad omen.

I drove myself to the hospital. It was a follow up appointment from the scan so there should’ve been no invasive procedures to stop me driving. I told Trish I could handle it and for her not to worry. I’d ring her with news on my lunch break. All routine.

Sit down the doctor said. Sorry the doctor said. Measured proliferation the doctor said. Hostile carcinoma the doctor said. Short period of adjustment the doctor said. I didn’t hear anything else the doctor said. She shook my hand and shuffled me through to the processing department.

The room was small and square. Empty and cold. The expiration machine dominated the room. I knew what it was of course, but I wasn’t prepared for its grand scale. Bulky and smooth. Why do they have to shape the scanner like a coffin? Fitting I suppose, in every aspect.

It was my time. Whirring and sliding, I entered the machine. It wasn’t painful. These administrative things never are. The blood tests on Tuesday made me squirm more. Hell, getting out of bed in the morning causes me more distress.

On completion they clamped the shackle on my left hand. The assistant didn’t make eye contact. I couldn’t blame him. I can’t imagine how he does this job. Every hour. Every day. Every week. Setting in motion the countdown. The giver of time and the taker of time in one role. I said thank you on my way out. It’s not his fault. I’ve never been a believer in shooting the messenger. I’ll keep my manners until the end. For another ninety-four days. According to the display on my wrist.

Intelligence requested. That’s what it reads on my medical report. I asked for this. I embraced the medical advancements. I signed up for the donor register. I donated blood and saliva and cells and sperm and willing. I ticked the permission boxes. I banged on the door of progress. I shouted about how knowledge was power. I never thought I’d regret it.

The traffic was slow, but I made it home by midday. Even considering I stopped at the supermarket for fresh milk and a new box of branded cereal. I’d called in sick when the hospital dismissed me. I may repeat the call tomorrow. Sitting in the car I fiddle with the shackle and wonder if I can hide it from Trish. She never ticked the box. She never wanted to have the information.

Ninety-four days, thirteen hours and seven minutes until my expiry date. Give or take. Modern medicine is marvellous but there is a ten percent buffer zone for computer error. Reasonably.

I have less time left than the box of cereal in my footwell. I thought the information would be comforting. I thought when the time came, I’d want to know. I thought that it would give me the opportunity to get my affairs in order and spend my last days doing what I wanted. Turns out all I want to do now is fight to outlive my cereal and wish that I had more time.

Katie Isham is a writer, teacher, drummer and mild adventurer from the UK. She writes angry emails, the odd fictitious story, and a travel blog that is currently somewhat static. www.vintagegnome.blogspot.co.uk. Her words can be found in Dear Damsels, Funny Pearls and The Daily Drunk. She can be found on Twitter @k_isham. 

Image via Pixabay

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