A Brief Time of History – Maria Kenny

My mother cried the day Stephen Hawking died. I came home from school and found her sitting at the kitchen table, tears on her cheeks.

‘Stephen Hawking is gone,’ she said, clutching a cup of tea.

Teacher had told us in school. We didn’t know who he was until she showed us his picture on Google. We remembered him from when he was on The Simpsons. He freaked me out a little. That voice.

‘The world is a less intelligent place now,’ Mam said dipping her biscuit into her cup.

I kept my eyes on the broken tile over the sink rather than look at her. I had been starving on the way home, but my stomach felt sick as I stood there.

She told me about a party he had thrown for time-travellers. He gave the invitations out after the party. No one had showed up. She said he had recorded the party, him, alone in a room surrounded by glasses of champagne, little plates of food on the table.

‘He did it to prove there was no such thing as time-travel’, my mam said smiling, but the smile wasn’t real.

‘He was witty like that.’

She suddenly sat up straighter, as if she had just thought of something amazing.
‘You should read his book’, she said.

I looked at her shining eyes, then looked quickly away. I promised her I would. I wanted her to stop crying. It was weird, it wasn’t like she knew him personally.

She pulled some kitchen roll from the holder on the wall, wiped her nose and stood up. I shuffled out of her way as she pulled jars from the cupboards.

‘Have you homework?’ she asked.

I nodded and she shooed me away.

Later that evening I asked dad why she was so upset.

‘Oh, your mother had notions of being a scientist.’

‘Really?’ I said.

I tried to picture my overweight mother crammed into a white coat, bent over a microscope.

‘Yeah, she wanted to study science in college, work in a lab or something. Stephen Hawking was her hero.’

He flicked through the stations on the television already bored with me.

‘Why didn’t she?’ I asked.

He looked at me, his eyebrows raised, then laughed.

‘You work it out,’ he said.

I shrugged. He turned back to the television as I continued to stand beside him. He looked up at me again and snorted a laugh.

‘You don’t have your mother’s brains that for sure. Go on, leave me in peace.’

He reached over for the ashtray, his other hand pulling a cigarette from the box.

On the way up to my room I looked in at Mam. She was mashing potatoes for dinner.

Dad’s tray already had his brown sauce, plate, knife and fork on it. The table had two placemats laid out and two glasses beside them. She glanced up at me.

‘Dinner in five minutes time,’ she said.

I didn’t move. She looked up at me again and tutted, rolling her eyes.

 

Maria Kenny is from Dublin. Her stories and flash fiction have appeared in journals in Ireland, the UK and Mexico. She was longlisted for the WoW award 2016 and was highly rated in the Maria Edgeworth Short Story competition and longlisted in The Casket of Fictional Delights flash fiction competition in 2018.

Contents Drawer Issue 14

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Swap Your Life – Sherri Turner

Carol hadn’t been expecting that. When the doorbell rang she thought it would be a parcel delivery or a meter reader. Perhaps one of those nice men in suits talking about God. She hadn’t expected a loud and overenthusiastic game-show host shoving a microphone in her face.

“Congratulations! You have been selected as today’s lucky Swap Your Life contestant.”

Was that a camera? She felt up to her hair – no rollers, thank goodness.

“I beg your pardon?” she said.

“Carol Adams, we are giving you the greatest opportunity ever offered on live television. Swap Your Life! Have you ever regretted the choices you have made? Do you wonder how it could all have been different?”

He swept his outstretched palm in a wide arc, over the neat front lawn of the semi, past the tired Vauxhall, ending at Carol herself.

“Well…”

“Of course you do! In a moment we will be showing you glimpses of how your life could have been. Remember that party in 1978? What if you’d been a bit more – er – careful?”
Carol glanced back towards the living room door, which stood ajar.

“Or later, when you turned down that promotion? How might your life have been now if you’d taken it? What if you’d turned left instead of right that day in ’86. You know the one I mean.” He winked. Carol blushed. “Today is your chance to turn back the clock, see what would have happened – and choose that life instead!”

Carol took a moment. She smiled.

“No, thank you,” she said, stepping back as she closed the door, much as she had with the nice young men earlier in the week.

“Who was it?”

“No one, dear. Some salesman.”

Always selling something, these people: new life, better life, afterlife. No guarantees though. No refund if you changed your mind. And nothing was perfect, was it? Though some things came close.

She stood for a moment, one hand on the banister, repackaging the past and the could-have-been futures back where they belonged.

“Cup of tea?” she called.

“Yes, please, love.”

“Biscuit?”

 

Sherri Turner is a writer of short fiction and poetry and has won prizes in competitions including the Bridport Prize, the Bristol Prize, the Wells Literary Festival and the Stratford Literary Festival. Her stories have also appeared in a number of anthologies. She tweets at @STurner4077.

Contents Drawer Issue 14

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What To Do After College – John Sheirer

Fill your head with dirt–rich, dark topsoil. Plant flowers in your ears–daisies or azaleas. Grow trees in your eye-sockets–butternut or cottonwood. Cultivate food crops in your nose–corn, potatoes, grains. Plow them with your tongue. Irrigate with saliva.

Your brain? Keep it for amusement. Donate it to science. Or chop it up for fertilizer.

 

John Sheirer lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, and has taught writing and communications for 26 years at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Connecticut, where he serves as editor of Freshwater Literary Journal (submissions welcome). His books include memoir, fiction, poetry, essays, political satire, and photography. Find him at JohnSheirer.com.

Contents Drawer Issue 14

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White Noise – Christine A Brooks

I want to cover my ears, I want to hum, or sing LA LA LA
loudly
Over your words, your memories, your testimony.

I want to turn up Dylan,
Beatz blasting
Tremblin’
So my mind doesn’t hear your
Thoughts, your recollections,
Your truth.

No
I want to scream, no.
I want to cry.
I want to die.
I want to unhear, unknow and unremember,
Those terrible nights, more than one, more than two,
Maybe even, more than three
When I could not scream, I could not talk, and I could never

Ever tell.

I want to change the channel,
Block out the noise,
I want it all to stop,
Like it did last time, when I

Just pretended it never happened.

 

Contents Drawer Issue 14

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The Smartest Human – Marisa Crane

Another morning in paradise for Wilder. The fluid cushioning him is warm, and he hasn’t got a damn thing to do if he doesn’t want. He reaches his hand out in front of his face and examines the back of it. It’s pruny from his long soak, the soothing spa session that he fears is coming to an end. Or so he’s heard, anyway. Exactly when is uncertain.

That makes it all the more terrifying.

The Outside People—his Mommy and his other Mommy—always say “soon, oh so soon” and make smooching sounds when they talk about his impending arrival. There is a man who comes round and coos at Wilder as if he’s adorable and tiny like his unfertilized neighbors. The man says things like, “Can you hear me, little one?” He acts like Wilder doesn’t understand the world, but he does, visitor man. He does. He knows that the world is shamelessly uncushioned, that it hurts when people fall down. He knows when the man is about to come over because the Mommies start to bicker. Quietly, lovingly, even, but bickering just the same.

“I don’t trust him, Jenn,” Sonya will whisper. Sonya is the one whose warm, soothing fluid Wilder resides in. The host of his all-inclusive resort. She thinks he can’t hear her if she lowers her voice.

“Alan deserves to know his child if he wants,” is what Jenn usually says.

“Our child,” is what Sonya usually counters, a bit snappy.

“Shhh, we don’t want the baby to overhear any animosity,” says Jenn. “There’s enough of it out here as it is.”

They say this all the time. That the Outside is this drab, almost never tranquil place, full of torrential people who can and do hurt each other. From what Wilder understands, he will join those people and become the hurter and the hurt. Never one or the other.

Always both.

He once tried to draw a flowchart of all the Outside people he knows with his right big toe but he misfired and wound up kicking Mommy in the ribs. I am already a hurter, he thought, feeling quite down about it, but also strangely basking in the camaraderie of the Outside People. But then he heard cries of glee erupt from Mommy’s mouth (that is something he is a bit envious of—this noise-making skill, but alas, one can’t have it all.

He will gladly remain silent if it means never having to erupt out into the world a crying, screaming, bloody mess).

“He kicked! Wilder kicked! I felt it, I swear,” Sonya said. Wilder heard footsteps then Jenn’s soft musical voice. What’s a Wilder? He’d thought, the first time he heard his name.

“Oh my god. Oh. My. God.”

“I know.”

“Also, did you just name our son?” Jenn laughed.

“I guess I did.”

Wilder could detect her embarrassment through the many layers of viscous biology separating them.

Me, I guess I’m a Wilder, the fetus thought. He’s come to grips with the name by now, but it took a while. He’d heard of these things called wild animals, like bears and wolves, and he’d wondered if the Mommies thought he would become a killing machine too. The thought made him nervous, made him grab his toes and squeeze tightly.

All of that is to say, Wilder’s dream vacation is soon coming to an end. In the early days, he’d falsely believed that his amniotic sac was all there was to existence. Rad. The temperature’s always ideal, he’s always satiated if not absolutely stuffed by the tube’s glorious deliveries. No roommates, just some single-cell neighbors whose company he tends to enjoy when they’re not sending his sky (or uterus ceiling, if you will) crashing down with catastrophic news of his eventual departure. It was about three months ago when they gave him a little biology lesson.

“You know you’re gonna have to leave this place eventually, right?” the one egg had squeaked. She’s a bit of a know-it-all, but she means well.

“What are you talking about?” Wilder had asked, placing his hands behind his squishy head, as if he were lounging in a hammock.

“You’re only in here until you’re big enough to join the Outside People.”

The others had murmured in agreement, sending a shiver through his chunky legs.

“Well, uh—when is that exactly?”

Wilder hadn’t been convinced she was telling the truth. The eggs loved to gossip since life inside the ovaries could be a bit dull. And the notion of birth was simply too bizarre to comprehend. Who would leave such a cushy, luxurious environment? He figured that some people—those who had picked the short umbilical cord for sure—lived Outside while the more fortunate ones resided Inside.

The know-it-all had turned to the other eggs and they’d whispered amongst themselves while Wilder leaned against the walls of his sac, feigning casual indifference.

“We think your Birthday Ceremony is in 3 months and 1 week, give or take.”

“My what? Speak sensibly,” he’d said, mildly irritated.

“The day that you are pushed by some mysterious force out of your warm sac and into the Outside. We saw it done once before, long long ago, before the Mommies knew each other.”

“What was it like?”

She’d taken a deep breath and quivered. Wilder hadn’t liked how she looked at him, her eyes uneasy and apologetic. She was usually pragmatic and matter-of-fact, a strict but fair source of knowledge and kinship.

“He screamed like I’ve never heard anyone scream before. There was a lot of blood. I don’t think he survived.” She’d paused. “I hid from the cascading sperm, those handsome fucks, for a while after that. I feared what would come if I hooked up with one of them. I didn’t want the same fate.”

Wilder hadn’t known what to say. He’d looked around at his surroundings accusingly, as if the heated sauna he’d come to call home had now been replaced by a conniving, lying betrayer. He’d now become the hurted. The Outside was somehow capable of inflicting pain from the Inside. Normally he’d consider himself to be fairly eloquent but all he’d been able to muster that day was a simple, “fuck,” then a low, ominous whistle.

“You come out of that hole,” another egg had spoken up, gesturing towards an unbelievably small tunnel.

“There?” Wilder had asked, bewildered.

“Yes, I know it seems insane, but that’s exactly what the Outside People are.”

“That must be a joke. There’s no way my head is fitting through that tiny space.”

The egg had shrugged, as if to say, That’s all I know.

Wilder hadn’t asked for this. He hadn’t asked to enter a world he’d heard so many treacherous and terrifying things about.

Out there, people were killing each other over technology and the lack of technology and breakfast and green slips of paper and love and the lack of love and bad weather and bad hair and games and houses (without lovely fluid in them) and arbitrary borders and beliefs and betrayal.

I refuse to be betrayed, Wilder had thought. When the time came for his Birthing Ceremony, he would simply refuse to come out. It would be as easy as that. He would never be ready to quit that good good and he didn’t see why he should have to.

This morning, about three months after the life-changing discovery, the morning of Wilder’s would-be birth, Sonya goes into labor and nothing happens. Her water doesn’t break, there is no crowning, the contractions don’t accomplish shit. Jenn furiously searches Google for records of this having happened elsewhere. Nada. Just some discussion boards about possible alien insemination.

The doctors, upon further examination, conclude that the baby would prefer to stay where he is for the rest of his life. They deem Wilder the smartest human being to ever exist. Out front of the hospital, they erect a statue to commemorate him. News spreads, and no one is ever born again.

The Earth is very grateful. It blooms like you’ve never fucking seen before.

 

Contents Drawer Issue 14

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Toads – Ellie Rees

I blundered
upon a troop of toads:

not a knot; not one
wore another like a rucksack –
they seemed to be quite self-contained.

Arrested, alert
they faced away from me:
their backs such a vibrant burnt-orange;
I could see their spines and the
warts on their skin;
a synchronicity on the lawn.

There must have been twenty, there might have been more.

Where were they going and
why had they stopped?

Dead leaves from the beech tree, frisked by the wind

landing upright –
an identical tilt

stalk-end half-buried in
the clumps of grass –

or maybe the worms
were pulling them down

down underground
already.

 

Contents Drawer Issue 14

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Pigeon Trouble – B F Jones

I heave myself up the narrow chimney shaft.

Finally, I will find out where all those pigeons are coming from.

Six. Six dead pigeons in 2 weeks.

This chimney is a nightmare. Who wants a dead pigeon falling on them every time they’re planning on making a fire? Not to mention the ridiculous draft that the opening creates. You open your chimney and it blows your front door open.

Kind of like the “Every time god closes a door he opens a window” stuff. Although in this case he opens a chimney, throws a rancid dead bird in your face and opens the front door with such force that the cutlery shakes on the kitchen shelves.

I wonder if it works the other way round? If you slam the front door with great power will it shut the chimney? Maybe I’ll check later. It might amuse Marcia. She’s been so cranky lately. Dreaming of pigeons, the poor sucker.

Climbing through this shaft is harder than I thought. It is a sweaty reminder of my age, my latest birthday having thrown me into the depth of middle age. In my shaky effort to climb up, I can feel how much gut I’ve got, spilled all over my midriff, clinging to my waist.

I shouldn’t be far now. Maybe a couple more feet. Though it is very dark still, and the battery on my mobile and only source of light has run out a mere 2 minutes into my climbing journey.

Shouldn’t the shaft be lightening, as I get closer to the top?

Six. Six bloody dead pigeons in 2 weeks. You open the chimney to make a nice romantic fire for your wife and you end up with a dead pigeon and an argument. As if it was my fault. I didn’t bring the pigeons in there, Marcia.

I’m gonna get it all sorted. I just need to finish climbing up this fucking chimney, get rid of the nest or cadavers or whatever might be up there and then I’ll have a nice fun story to tell the kids and maybe some loving from my cranky wife.

The shaft has narrowed now and there is still no sign of light, just a deepening damp smell. I reach up to gage how far I am and my hand comes into contact with cold concrete.

The chimney is sealed.

Where did all the pigeons come from?

Sudden, inexplicable fear crawls through my body, and the dampness seems now to treacle through my veins along with a palpable sense of doom. Deep breath, calm down, and climb down.

The story to the kids won’t be as fun and I’ll probably have to settle for a sexless marriage, but at least I will no longer have to experience this cold, narrow abyss.

Climb down. Slowly.

I can hear a noise echoing through the shaft. A crunching noise followed by the sharp metallic thud of car door closing.

Marcia.

She’s angry. I can tell from the clattering of her heels, and the vigorous shutting of the front door. In the kitchen, the cutlery cackles, and in the lounge the chimney hatch slams shut.

 

B F Jones is French, lives in Surrey with her husband, 3 kids and cat and works as a freelance digital consultant. She has book reviews and stories published on STORGY. She also had stories commended by the R. C. Sherriff Trust and LISP.

Contents Drawer Issue 14

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The Spirit of the Wooden Box – Mark Tulin

It took me until I was sixty to appreciate you. It’s a shame that you had to die before I could acknowledge your impact on my life. Too bad you’re in a wooden box now in the living room, all ashes, just a spirit of burnt remains.

Now that you’re dead, I can barely hear your cries. There’s no anger. No unmet needs or disappointments. No crazy garbled words or high heels whizzing past my forehead through a bay window falling onto the street. No telling me to sit up straight in a chair or to read the Home and Garden section of the Sunday paper or chastising me for wearing the color blue in the house. Just your pure memory lingers, the good overriding the bad. The essence of your perfect version.

Every time I look at the wooden box that sits on the drawing table, I hear a quiet voice, no longer screaming or tears streaming down your face. No longer talking in riddles, playing the victim, complaining about things that no one cared about or even understood.

There is only silence without breath. Your quiet spirit hovers in and around the wooden box and watches me prepare your favorite dinner: pasta in red sauce, a baguette, a bottle of Chianti. Your spirit keeps me company, my ally, and my honored guest. When I interact with the insurance adjuster, you help me calculate the numbers. When I inhale my Albuterol through a nebulizer, you encourage me to take a deeper breath. I can finally tolerate being close to you. No longer do I have to create distance or drink myself to sleep to get you out of my head.

The wooden box has a Yahrzeit candle burning above it with a trail of black smoke rising to the ceiling. Whenever I see that candle flame flicker, I think of you praying for my deceased father over the kitchen sink. I watched your trembling hands clutch a prayer book, your parched lips muttering a chant in Hebrew, your eyes closed while rocking back and forth like you were at the Western Wall of Jerusalem.

Next to the burning candle is the image of you as a teenager, posing on a stoop with long brown hair, wearing a high school letter on your sweater, and resembling a young Elizabeth Taylor with a closed-lip smile. You were surprisingly beautiful then, seemingly had the world at your fingertips with a clear plan about your future. You wanted to write brilliant poetry and short stories that would make people see the world from a more compassionate place. Then you met a man, convinced yourself that you loved him, had a baby and then lost your mind. The photo makes me think of what might have been if you hadn’t gotten married and settled for a muted life, taking care of a man who never encouraged you to follow your dreams.

“You don’t have to feel sorry for me or worry anymore,” your spirit whispers.

“I can’t help it,” I say. “You seemed so vulnerable, barely five-foot tall, and I feared that people would take advantage of you.” But then I realized that you were far from incapable of taking care of yourself. You launched Coke bottles at a bully across the street that teased you for the way you dressed. You threatened to break a car window with my Louisville Slugger when a neighbor walked on your flowerbed. Despite your diminutive size, you were as fearless as a pit bull.

You spirit whispers to me not to betray myself or to deny who I am.

“Don’t question your intuition,” you say. “Live the kind of life that you dream about. I weighed myself down with fear, but you can rise above it.”

I stand motionless, lightheaded with nostalgia. I see you clipping my mittens to my coat sleeves and opening up a can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup to go with the grilled cheese sandwich browning on the skillet. I see you push me down a snowy hill in a red Flexible Flyer, watching me until I make it safely to the bottom. You take pictures of me in the swimming pool while riding a walrus float, sliding into third base under a tag at a little league baseball game, and in my glen plaid bar mitzvah suit, standing awkwardly right after I became a man. With your Kodak camera, you captured all my sacred events and then neatly pasted those developed photographs into an album, chronicling my life’s story with your stamp of approval.

I stand in front of the wooden box, now, acknowledging all the things that you did for me, feeling guilty that I never returned the favor. I always focused on your insanity, never on the person behind the crazy talk.

“I wish I could do my childhood over,” I tell the spirit of the wooden box.

“It’s not about me. It’s about you,” the spirit answers.

I nod my head. I tap lightly on the wooden box. The Yahrzeit candle flickers with a beautiful orange flame that reminds me that you are still here.

 

Mark Tulin is a former Philadelphia Family Therapist who now resides in Santa Barbara, California. He writes poetry and fiction and is currently looking for a publisher for his novella. His chapbook, Magical Yogis, was published by Prolific Press (2017). His stories are in smokebox.net, Page and Spine, Friday Flash Fiction, and others. His previous Cabinet story, “Weekend in the Suburbs” can be heard in podcast form at Other People’s Flowers, His website is the Crow On The Wire.

Contents Drawer Issue 14

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Chickpeas – Qurat

My mother once told me
that goats have to be fed carefully –
that all too often, upon finding a bucket of chickpeas,
whether dried or swollen with water
to twice their size, bloated,
they gorge themselves, eating senselessly,
until their insides burst.
Not for lack of intelligence –
maybe the opposite,
barely chewing their chickpeas
before gulping them down, even though they
scratch against their throats on the way
down,
barely breathing in between mouthfuls
anything for something,
even if it hurts –
I’ve gotten too good at the dark
too used to my serrated silences,
uninterrupted by the stream of rotating images
and sounds, which I can hardly piece together
before they’re gone (not that I would),
the chickpeas are burnt, it’s all smoke, everyone’s
killing themselves slowly (it’s the only fashionable way)
and wondering why they aren’t dead yet
and wondering why they aren’t alive
and wondering if everyone else is
wondering the same thing.
I can’t seem to get myself
to burn.

 

Qurat is an engineering student, an avid environmentalist, and an emerging author. She has work forthcoming or currently in The Evansville Review, Augur Magazine, Tenth Street Miscellany, The Temz Review, Rag Queen Periodical, Yellow Taxi Press, and KROS Magazine. Find her on Twitter: @DQur4t.

Contents Drawer Issue 14

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