Her Other Passion – James Woolf

The first time she saw me, she jumped up and down so much the bedside light flickered and went out. I later discovered that the wiring in her apartment was in need of upgrading.

“You didn’t.” she cried. “You didn’t need to do that!”

They set to work immediately and soon had me wearing the chocolate brown leather jacket I had arrived with. Her face crinkled as she inspected me.

“I do love the feel of real paper. But, I think.…” She stopped.

He smiled. “For me, I sometimes make deeper connections with machines – or in my case, bicycles – than with other humans. Does that sound too crazy?”

Unexpectedly, I was tossed onto the duvet.

“Not this human, I hope,” she reprimanded, pushing her puckered lips hard onto his and forming a tight cordon around his neck with her arms. Then they collapsed, by degrees, like the flat corrugated cartons I had seen knocked over in the factory.

So this was it. I had arrived. But what happened next, immediately to my right, I was unprepared for. I understood it only in terms of him uncovering his USB cord in an effort to establish a connection with her power port. Yet, despite vigorous attempts, no stable connection could be made.

Instead of showing frustration, they lay back on the bed, screeching with laughter. I now know from my education in literature that the activity that had occurred falls within the category of “fornication”, a word I’d been aware of from my two dictionaries. What it entailed, I had never understood. They followed it up with something I later recognised in Fifty Shades of Gray, where it masquerades as “my inner goddess doing the merengue with some salsa moves.”

Afterwards, they concentrated on making me operational. During the registration process I discovered that her name was Judy. She decided that I was to be Algernon, after the character in The Importance of Being Earnest. I loved my new name – it was so me. And within minutes she was referring to me as Algie!

What a period of joy it was that followed! What edification. The delights of discovering with Judy the elegance of Jane Austen and the passion of Charlotte Bronte. The rapture of being held by her as she raced through Great Expectations. Her fingers pulsing nervously on my reverse as she lived and breathed The Tell Tale Heart. Judy carried me everywhere, pride of place in her emerald green Spanish leather handbag.

My early diet of Jane Austen had hardly suggested that people work for a living. But Judy was the diary secretary to a Chief Executive, and on her very first day back at the office I was passed amongst her colleagues and admired. How clever of Dieter to so finely judge his first present. What a catch he must be! I admit to experiencing some regret that my early moment of glory was shared with him. I now also know that their reaction was chiefly because I was a novelty, being an early incarnation (complete with tiny keyboard).

Quaint as it may sound, I was consumed by my sense of duty. I was now Judy’s. It was my job to store her books and facilitate her choices (displaying the text in her preferred font), define the trickier words and to respond to her natural reading rhythms.

Sometimes, as light and shadows from his lava lamp played on the sloping wall of his bedroom in the attic, she would read aloud to him the stories of Guy de Maupassant, her fingers squeezing me ever more tightly with each turn of the page. How well I understood from that pressure on my buttons, her desire for him to love all that she loved. But Dieter, whilst attentive and complimentary, never quite reached the requisite levels of enthusiasm. And so these occasions were always punctuated with questions from Judy as to what he really thought.

Over time (and this was preferable to me), reading once again became something that she did without him. The classics were now supplemented by a newspaper, The Independent, and also with Dieter’s letters which he sent direct to me (wirelessly) when he was away. I had been pleased to learn that he divided his time equally between the UK and his native Germany.

The letters were long and packed with details about his father’s bicycle company, their new superlight frames and plans to make headway in the American market. Having covered business matters, he would allow himself more informally to focus on Judy and their relationship.

Judy would approach the reading of these letters in a different way to the classics. She was as keen to go back and re-read passages as she was to progress forwards towards completion. Sometimes she would stop reading, a puzzled frown lingering upon her brow. What was she searching for beneath the words? Did they alone not provide her with nourishment enough? Having gleaned a thing or two about communication between lovers, I debated whether her love for Dieter was more like the foliage in the woods – something that would change with each winter – or closer resembled the eternal rocks beneath. Having finished a letter, Judy would usually make a hot drink and return to their living room. I should have mentioned that they had taken the – in my view – unfortunate decision to live together. She was occasionally tearful when alone in the evenings, but it was then that I was most full of hope. I would will her to pick me up so that we could share in the activity that was dearest to our hearts. Sometimes she would run a bath and, holding me carefully above her breasts, would read in steamy silence. I adored it when it was just Judy and me time!

The most dismal days for me were those when I was inexplicably left alone in the apartment. I preferred to believe that Judy had picked up the wrong bag, or had simply forgotten to take me to work. I could not have lived with myself if I had done anything to cause my abandonment; I summarily dismissed such thoughts from my mind. During those days, I hated the silence. I hated the afternoon presenting its passport and, with me still suffering alone, crossing the treacherous border into night. And most of all I hated being apart from Judy.

It was on just such an afternoon when I was alone that a bald man in a cream T-shirt entered the apartment. I had become aware of noises (I had hoped that Judy was back from work early). But then he slapped the bedroom light on, belched, and began carelessly dragging anything he liked the look of into a large hold-all bag. I was on the bedside table, where Judy had left me the previous evening. She had read for thirty five minutes after Dieter had fallen asleep. I had luxuriated in her attention, made all the more pleasurable by being in front of his sleeping frame. But now, in that very same spot, I was faced with an altogether different situation.

I had sufficient knowledge of petty crimes committed by the orphans and pick-pockets of London to know what was going on. I’ll admit that it was my own safety which initially concerned me. What if the man dropped me into that sack along with the designer clothes, jewellery and electronic goods? Worse still was the realisation that he was mad as well as bad. Raising his right leg in front of me and using the base of his foot, he smashed the full length mirror on the wardrobe and kicked the dresser stool, sending it clattering into the door of the en-suite. Then, approaching me, he made as if to grab me, but instead swiped at the bedside table with his bare arm, tipping it over and causing me to perform a neat forward roll on the floor. A torrent of CDs and framed photographs from the shelf above rained down on top of me. I could hear him above me, crunching on the piled up possessions, and I was in fear that he would step directly on me and crush me. But the noise subsided. I heard one or two thuds and he was gone. Oh, the agony of waiting for Judy’s return. The guilt that I hadn’t done more to stop him.

That day, Judy and Dieter came home together. Judy was utterly dismayed by the chaos she encountered; she ran from room to room, spraying expletives wherever she went. Dieter called for her to remain calm, stressing that she must not touch anything: “It is all evidence, Judy!”

But Judy was already in the bedroom, and, in the confusion of the moment did not hear him. She was on her hands and knees sifting the debris, wailing for her Algernon. And then, as she scooped me up and held me aloft, she planted a beautiful, lipsticky, kiss on my screen. I knew in that moment how much she loved me and how much I loved her.

Her delight was cut short. Dieter stormed in behind her, screaming about an open window that he’d discovered – that she, Judy, must have left open – and that would certainly scupper their chances of recovering on their insurance. I’d never seen him subject poor Judy to such a vicious verbal attack. But she was not standing for it. Thank goodness for her strength of character. “Since all you care for is the insurance money,” she told him, “you had better phone the frigging company immediately.”

And with that, she marched past him and out of the flat. In the nearest café, she re-read Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, drinking soya lattes and stroking my leather cover repeatedly.

She was my own heroine that evening and I reflected on our special relationship. We e-readers are created equal and innocent, and we mediate our understanding of the world through the personal choices of our owners. Our personalities are therefore truly shaped by (and become markedly similar to) theirs. The relationship between owner and e-reader might be said to be the very purest form of parenting.

I had plenty of opportunity to develop this thesis, as soon afterwards Judy began devouring a plethora of books on the subject. What to Expect when you’re Expecting and Bringing up Bébé were two of the many titles. It was a worrying development, providing a stark warning that my life would soon be changing forever.

My feelings of insecurity were not helped by a conversation on the subject of names that I overheard from a new fuchsia handbag.

“Dietz,” she began. “I know it’s slightly strange, but if it’s a boy – how about Algernon?”

“But – but, what about…?” I imagined him casting his arm in my general direction.

“I know, but I like that name. PLEASE. Algernon?”

How was I to feel then? How could I not wish that I’d been stolen after all and sold on to a new home where I might be truly appreciated?

Since the burglary the atmosphere in the flat had changed. Security had become a charged topic of conversation. There was less fornication and this led to a confrontation in which I was centre stage. One afternoon, Dieter, alone and restless, picked me up and looked through Judy’s varied collection. He began browsing in the online store. He downloaded a sample of Fifty Shades of Gray. And then purchased the whole thing. I did not enjoy the feel of him reading me. I noticed that he did not do so with sustained attention. He flicked from page to page, then settled on a passage which he read slowly and meticulously. I was then dropped (open and face down) on to the sofa as he hurriedly left the room.

I felt degraded. I knew that it was not a book that Judy would ever have chosen and this was confirmed when she said: “It contaminates Algie – just being on him!”

Dieter’s face darkened to scarlet.

“You clearly need to broaden your horizons, Judy.” And in a voice choked with anger, “Now that you’re pregnant, I would suggest our relationship might actually benefit from your reading it.”

I understood by now that I saw only a small part of Judy and Dieter’s relationship. But I had little doubt that this episode was linked to the thorny subject of fornication.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that when Judy forced herself to read this controversial book, my functions first started to fail me. I forgot where she’d reached in the story and soon afterwards opened up on a book about forgiveness that Judy had finished months earlier. She rolled her eyes and called me a “stupid thing”.

And then came the darkest period. Dieter was away. His letters had told of the family business struggling, so he was spending more time in Germany. That morning, Judy returned to the bedroom looking as grey as a battleship. She stayed there for the rest of the day. And then for several more days: sleeping a lot; hardly eating; frequently crying; and never reading. I was a helpless spectator on the bedside table. I had no idea what had happened. No inkling of what was wrong.

That is until a week later, when she received Dieter’s final letter. Delivered wirelessly as usual, he must have also texted her as she opened it immediately. It read as follows.

Dear Judy

From now on I have decided to make my life in Germany once again. My father cannot cope without me. I have realised in any case that I will be happiest with Heike. I may not have mentioned her before. She is our new marketing manager and we have been spending much time together. It is probably for the best that there will be no Algernon the Second. Like me, he would have struggled to find a place close to your heart bearing in mind your other passion.

Naturally I will arrange a collection of my belongings.

Yours

Dieter

It was then that Judy did a strange thing. She found my text to speech function and made me read the letter aloud. It was the first time I’d done this. Despite the discomfort of voicing those words, I was filled with hope that it would now just be the two of us – that I would remain Judy’s forever. Perhaps the letter was hinting that she’d always loved me more than Dieter?

As soon as I’d completed the letter, she made me read it again. And then again! And as I did so, her expression changed. No longer my beautiful Judy, she was now a wild woman whose face was filled with loathing and anger! I wanted to cry out loud that I was not responsible, that I wished only to make her happy. After the fourth reading she looked at me with piercing intensity and screamed a long wordless scream, her mouth hideous and contorted. And then she snapped me shut. Putting me to one side, she left the room. I did not see her for two months after that.

In fact, it may have been less. Or perhaps more. How could I tell, being without hope? I had certainly been abandoned. I could feel the dust gathering on top of me, as if I were a bad memory that needed burying. I lay alone in my sarcophagus of depression.

I was brought to by the voices of Dieter and Judy. I wondered if it had all been a fantasy. Maybe they were still together. And yes, here they both were, in the bedroom, talking about who would keep the clock radio. And a fancy speaker that tuned into mobile devices. Then Dieter picked me up.

“Our old friend Algernon,” he said with a tense smile.

“Yes, your very first present to me.”

“How could I have forgotten? It seems so long ago.”

“Have it. I never use it now. Besides, I’d rather not be reminded of you.”

There was a pause. Dieter put me down again.

“It’s an outdated model,” he said. “If I get one, it’ll be the whizz-bang latest.”

“It was on its last legs anyway,” she agreed. “Let’s recycle it.”

“Yes. Or they can be reconditioned. Better for the environment.”

It was a shock, let me tell you, to hear of myself referred to in this way; a mere object, well past its shelf-life, ripe for recycling or reconditioning. Both the dreaded R words sent shockwaves through my system. They meant me being slated – a whitewash of everything that made me, me. My preference, by a small margin, was for reconditioning. That at least promised a rebirth of sorts, with the possibility of a new owner who might show me loyalty and not cast me so brutally aside.

“I’m not bothered either way,” Judy said. “Leave it with me. I’ll sort it.”

They then moved into the kitchen where they argued heatedly about the silver cutlery set they’d been given as an engagement present. They both wanted that!

The flat went quiet again and another few hours went by before Judy returned to the bedroom, this time alone. She sat down on the stool in front of the dressing table, where I had so often seen her applying her make up before work. She reached across, picked me up and placed me carefully on the dressing table. And then she opened me. She began browsing in the online shop and quickly settled on Cold Comfort Farm. It was about Flora Poste, making a new life following the death of her parents in the Spanish plague. As she read, Judy started laughing – that high pitched cackle of a laugh I’d first heard those many long months ago. Judy suddenly looked at her watch, and, swearing quietly to herself, rose from her chair. She put on her gloves, dropped me into a new burgundy handbag and left the flat.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Round 107 Goes To The Monster – Traci Mullins

I used to fear her dying. Now I fear her living.

The paramedics find her on the kitchen floor this time, unresponsive and chilled like a popsicle.

“A couple more hours and she wouldn’t have made it,” they tell me.

I’m still the emergency contact, but no matter how powerful my love remains, I’ve never won a round with The Monster. For years, the denizen of addiction held us both captive. I’d had to save myself.

When I get to the hospital, the nurse glares at me suspiciously. Pulling back the warming blanket intended to unthaw Molly, the nurse points to multiple bruises on every extremity.

“What’s going on here?” she demands.

I’d seen this before, knew about the drunken falls and collisions with sharp-edged furniture. “This is the fourth time this year she’s been hospitalized. She does this to herself.”

Two days later Molly wakes up, the same haunted defeat in her eyes I’ve seen a hundred times before. I hold her hand as we silently mourn our lost dreams.

The Monster cackles as I look away. Molly lets go of my hand.

 

TRACI MULLINS writes short fiction and has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine, Dime Show Review, Spelk, Ellipsis Zine, Palm-Sized Press, Fantasia Divinity, CafeLit, CommuterLit, and others. She was named a Highly Recommended Writer in the London Independent Story Prize competition.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Always Meet in a Public Space – F C Malby

Mark Jackson
47 years old
Electrician
Likes football and climbing
Seeks 30-40 year old female for adventure.

After three months of chatting online, this will be all you know about Mark. You will arrange to meet at Waterloo station on Saturday morning for coffee. It is half way between Stevenage and Horsham, and in a public place. Always meet in a public space, you never know, Stacey will tell you. Stacey will tell you lots of things, wade in on a lot of your internet dating with opinions and advice, some of it will be unwarranted. There will not be anything in particular that might give you cause for concern from your ‘chats’ with Mark, nothing that will ring any alarm bells. He will be polite and interested, will ask questions about your life.

But, you will know little about him, except that he will have a teenage daughter, Kate, who wants to be a nurse, and he will go climbing in Scotland and sleep out in the wild without a tent. He will tell you a story about putting up some tarpaulin between his motorbike and a friend’s bike on a recent trip to France, hoping neither of the bikes will collapse on either of them, crushing them in their sleep. He will be funny, charming and less invasive than Tom, a thirty year old chef, who will ask you about your underwear and ex boyfriends, or Henry, a thirty-six year old plumber who will ask for your number in the first message and ask to chat ‘offline.’ You will not be sure whether to decline or ignore, eventually choosing the latter.

Your mother will ask why you can’t meet people the ‘old fashioned’ way, you know, face to face. You will fob her off with the excuse that no one meets like that these days and that no one actually has time to meet face to face — long work hours and modern living. Your mother will roll her eyes and tell you about how she met your father at school, and how he was the only man for her. You will hear the story more times than you will ride your bike to the office, and listen to your mother complaining about plummeting marriage rates and sky rocketing divorces. She will always exaggerate. Face to face meetings will consist of blind dates with oily business men, organised by well meaning friends, and recouping with ex boyfriends at parties, or at the pub, after one too many.

The truth will be that you are afraid of men. All your friends will be married and you will not want to be alone, despite your fears, or childless, by the time you are forty. That is Mark’s dating cut-off point’ so there must be some truth in the matter. Internet dating will be easy. You will log on, late at night with a glass of Pinot Grigio, in your flannel pyjamas, and chat to men without leaving the house. The idea of meeting up will be less appealing, but you will want to see what Mark looks like in the flesh, find out if there is any chemistry between you. He looks warm and friendly in his profile picture. The light makes you think it is summer. He is crouched down in a garden with a brown and white collie — intense, brown eyes, tongue hanging loose.

Can’t wait to meet you, he will say in his last message. Looking forward to seeing that pretty face. It will be Wednesday and your stomach will flutter.

Saturday morning will bring with it a cool, fresh start. You will pull on a polo necked sweater and jeans — not wanting to look too smart — followed by your white Nike trainers. Waterloo will take an hour and nineteen minutes from Horsham via Clapham Junction. You will leave the flat at nine twenty, allowing for a ten minute walk to the station and time to buy a ticket. You will take a book for the journey, Girl on the Train, and understand the irony. It will be an intense read and there will be an absence of commuters. The carriage will be empty, apart from a man at the other end, reading a paper. You will remember to text Stacey to tell her where you are meeting, will have fed the cat and told your mother you are going for a job interview. Two of these things will be true.

An announcement will crackle across the tannoy: something about not leaving belongs on the train and Vauxhall being the end of the line. You will slide the book into your bag and glance across at the man at the other end of the carriage. He will already be waiting by the door. The cafe will be located in the atrium of the station and you will wonder whether Mark might already have arrived. As you reach the door, you will realise you arrived first and will take a place at a table near the door, just in case. He will arrive five minutes later, dressed in smart trousers and a pressed shirt. It might as well be starched at the collar. He will smell of cologne as he leans in to kiss you on the cheek. Your stomach will lurch as he touches your skin.

“Excuse me, could we have two coffees?” he will ask the waitress.

“Certainly, Sir. What would you both like?” She will look at you.

“I’ll have a cappuccino, thank you,” you will say with a smile, but it will be forced.

“And I’ll have an espresso.” The waitress will watch Mark intently. You imagine most women linger; he is good looking and toned, dark hair, blue eyes, long lashes. He will take your hand. “I’ve been wanting to meet you since we started messaging, but I didn’t want to seem too keen.”

“It’s good to take things slowly.” He will not respond.

“So how was your journey?” he will ask.

“Smooth, no problems. I’ve almost finished my book. How about you?” You will imagine that he might ask about the book.

“It was fine. I’ve been here for a while.” You will wonder what he did before he met you.

“Your job must keep you busy.”

“Yes, but it earns me good money.”

He will run his finger around the rim of the sugar pot. You will watch the waitress making the coffees, willing her to join you, but you will not be able to explain why the thought enters your mind. You won’t feel comfortable with him in person. There will be no real reason, but something won’t feel right. Trust your gut, one of your friends will tell you. Maybe there will be something in it. The coffees will arrive, but Mark won’t look up. You will want to grab the waitress’s arm, stop her leaving. Your reaction will make you question whether or not there is something wrong with you. Trust your gut.

“Tell me about Kate. How is she doing?”

“My daughter? She’s good, gone to see a friend today. She’s studying for her mock GCSEs. It’s a stressful time.”

“I can imagine.”

“What about you? How was your week?”

“We had a big project to deal with, lots of meetings.” You will not be able to remember any further details, and won’t feel comfortable elaborating.

He will raise his eyebrows and take another sip of coffee. He will be cooler in the flesh than the warm and interesting online version of himself. Always meet in a public space, Stacey will say. “Tell me about your relationships. Any bad stories?” he will ask.

“Nothing I can think of. Why?”

“It’s always interesting to find out who people have been out with in the past. What luck they’ve had.” He will smirk.

“It’s not something I feel comfortable talking about.”

You will get up to pay for the coffees and walk towards the counter at the back of the cafe. Always meet in a public space. The waitress will give you the bill as you will pull out a crisp ten pound note. It will have been newly printed. You’ll feel nauseous, won’t want to return to the table.

“Were the coffees okay?” the waitress will ask.

“Hmm? Yes. Lovely, thanks.”

“Are you all right, Madam? You look pale,” she will say.

“I think so. The man I’m with, what do you make of him? I know it’s an odd question, but it’s a blind date and I don’t feel comfortable.”

“I don’t think you need to worry.”

“Why?” you will ask, and you’ll lock eyes with her. The waitress will nod in the direction of the table by the door. You’ll turn to find it has been vacated. Mark will no longer be there. “Is he in the men’s toilets?” you will ask.

The waitress will shake her head. “No, he left through the front door just as you got to the counter. I did think it was a bit odd. If you don’t mind me asking, what made you get up? You’ve only just arrived.”

“I needed to get away. I feel a bit sick. Can I have a glass of water?”

“Yes, of course. Do you want me to call someone for you?”

“No, I’m fine. I’ll head home. Thank you.”

You will leave and catch the next train back. You will not be able to bring yourself to read the rest of the book. Your nerves will overtake your desire to discover the ending. The carriage will almost be empty again. You’ll watched the trees pull away into the fields as the train picks up pace, and wrestle with questions about the date, about him; and you’ll wonder. Always meet in a public space.

At Horsham, you’ll pick up a Gazette. You will walk the ten minutes to your flat, turn the key in the lock and climb the stairs. You will kick off your shoes and flick on the kettle, find a corner of the sofa and pull out the paper. Flipping through the first few pages, you’ll glance at the weather on the back page, then scan the crossword. It will be a tough one this weekend. You will hear the kettle switch flick up and you will get up to make a coffee, then settled back down and turn to the middle section. He will be there. Mark’s face will be in the paper.

Jeffrey Richards (56), wanted for the murder of Kaylee Williams (16). There will be a picture of the bloodied face of a teenage girl next to his. The words, ‘violent sexual assault,’ will begin to blur as you try to read the detail. You will want to vomit, want to scream. Always meet in a public space.

You will contemplate emailing the dating app, calling the police, calling Stacey or your mother, but you will be unable to move; instead, you will drop your coffee, watch it spill across the sofa and across your lap, watch the brown liquid bleed into the fabric. Always meet in a public space.

 

F C MALBY is a contributor to Unthology 8 and Hearing Voices: The Litro Anthology of New Fiction. Her debut short story collection, My Brother Was a Kangaroo includes award-winning stories, and her debut novel, Take Me to the Castle, won The People’s Book Awards. Her stories have been widely published both online.

Image by Primrose from Pixabay

Leaving Lucy – Faye Brinsmead

Lucy!

That textured patch in the gap between liquidambar leaves is the crown of her head. Coarse-weave brown, with silver wisps like glow-worms. They remind me how long we’ve been doing this. Our nightly performance has changed over time. She no longer bawls my name, she stage-whispers it. Soft, but intensely audible.

I don’t usually lower my voice. Bugger what the neighbours think. But tonight it’s a tiny sound carried on the breeze, fluttering past her ear like a dead leaf.

Don’t want any.

The glow-worms hesitate. Should she insist? She’s tried threats, cajoling. Bottom line is she can’t climb up here and get me. Or force spaghetti-bolognese-boiled-carrots-and-brussels-sprouts down my throat.

Molecules of night hang in suspension. Stars delay their rising. Gnats tread air.

Lucy, this has gone too far. I want you inside in twenty minutes. Your father and I …

I listen to her vinyl sandals scrumpf through wet grass, prepare to step down, land heavily on the concrete path. Like a conductor, I could wave in the skreek of the sliding door, waggle a finger for each heel-fall, welcome silence with a levelled baton.

Instead, I lie back in my nest, staring up at leaf-blotted stars and mouthing her name. Lucy, Lucy, Lucy.

Three years ago, when Emily, my only friend, moved interstate, I took to spending recess and lunch in the library. At the back of the main room, spiral stairs led to a loft where old magazines sprawled on dusty shelves. In the gum tree whose lemon-scented leaves pressed against the loft window, a magpie was raising her brood. As I watched them that first day, a National Geographic slid off its shelf, landed near my toe. Was Lucy a Tree-Climber, After All?

That’s how we met. I, crouching on green shagpile; she, staring at me through the polymer clay eyeballs of her reconstructed face. We were both eleven. We didn’t look alike, except for the brown eyes. But something made me feel I was gazing at my reflection in a brackish pool. After I found Lucy, I didn’t try to make any other friends.

Her skeleton, a broken necklace on black velvet cloth, didn’t have any feet, just a single ankle bone. By contrast, the toddler Australopithecus afarensis whose discovery had prompted the National Geographic article had a large, curving, wiggle-able big toe. So she could shinny up the home-tree if a leopard slunk by, crawl into her family’s nest at sunset.

Nest? Yes. After dark, our ancestors became wingless birds who folded up their bipedal bravado in the hair of trees.

That afternoon, a hail of Bunnykins cups, bowls and plates dispersed Sal, Prue and Mattie. Psycho! Sal shouted over her shoulder as they fled inside to tell on me. The tree-house was mine. I swept the rest of the girly rubbish over the edge. With my brother’s help, I moved the pine platform about 10 feet higher, covered it with earth and dead leaves. The scents of growth and rot creep down to meet me as I scale the trunk after school every day.

My nest – our nest – contains nothing but an Arnott’s biscuit tin of clippings about Lucy culled from magazines and newspapers. I’ve grown quite a bit since the day I evicted my sisters. When I’m up here now I have to crouch in a way that pulls me back three years, and three million. Side by side, we gather fruits, dig for plants, suckle our babies. Our people live in a range of habitats, but I’ve always known that our home-tree grows beside a lake, its roots slipping among strange shapes of ancient fish.

I’m not allowed to sleep up here. Come down by dinner-time is the rule. Recently, I’ve been bending it more and more, testing the give of its fibres. Tonight I don’t care if it breaks. I’m not coming down. Lucy’s fall hurts less up here, even though, squinting through the swirl of autumn leaves, I can plot every micro-second of her trajectory.

I saw it at breakfast time, on the front page of the newspaper fortress Dad hides behind.

Lucy fell from tree, new CT scan suggests

The skeleton of Lucy, the 3.2-million-year-old hominid, shows injuries best explained by a fall from a tree, a team of scientists claim. Full story page 10.

Braving Dad’s outrage, I snatched the paper, ran out of the house, scrambled up here. It wasn’t easy in my school dress, which I tore on a forked twig. Through a smear of tears I read the article over and over. Bits of it have lodged in my head like shivers of glass.

We wanted to piece together the story of her life. We had no idea we’d find the clues to her death … She landed feet-first, probably at the edge of a lake … Almost certainly, death came quickly … quickly …

Twenty minutes must have passed. Another coat of dark blue has deepened the sky. I’m ready to face them. Heels tensed, hands gripping branches, eyes trained on the outside light. If Dad brings out the ladder –.

These are the fractures we see when a modern human falls from a great height.

 

FAYE BRINSMEAD lives in Canberra, Australia. A lawyer by day, she writes short fictions in all the snippets of time she can find. Her work appears in Reflex Fiction, MoonPark Review, Twist in Time Literary Magazine, formercactus and Vamp Cat Magazine, among others. Say hello on Twitter @theslithytoves.

Image by Michael Gaida from Pixabay

Mare Serenitatis – Jennifer Wilson

no matter that I am no beauty,
the mirrored sea will not break
beneath me. instead I tread
as though suspended, barely
wet, the soles of my feet
silvered by the tide.

and I move against the moon
who would gravitate to storms
should I slip, make a
miscalculation of my steps
as I seek you, stoop
to pick your pale white
eyes up from their bed –
little closed cowries pressed
tight against the grit and darkness
of the ocean floor.

O the sea, my love, is nothing
to fear though it is no
friend of mine. black bands
of hagfish make no meal
of bone. do not cry,
there is salt enough
in our wounds already.

 

JENNIFER WILSON lives in Somerset, England, with her newborn baby and fully-grown husband. Her work has appeared in Memoir Mixtapes, Molotov Cocktail and Mojave Heart among others. ( A full list can be found at jenniferwilsonlit.wordpress.com, while she may be found on twitter @_dead_swans )

Image by Stefan Schweihofer from Pixabay

Lockcharmer – James Burt

1

I’d been having a bad time of it when I locked myself out of the flat. I couldn’t afford a locksmith, and the friend who had my spare key was away. All I could do was phone my friend Rory and ask if I could stay a few nights.

-Actually, I’ve got a friend who can help, he said.

-What, he’s a locksmith?

-She’s a she. And sort of. I’ll give her a call and see if she can come round.

Rory arrived with Elaine about an hour later. She stood behind him, not looking me in the eye. Elaine was quiet, hair tied back from a serious face. She seemed too delicate to be a locksmith and carried no tools. I decided she probably had some special gadget – perhaps all the tools and gubbins locksmiths normally carried were for show. She’d not even called ahead to ask what type of lock I had, which made me think she knew some special trick.

We stood awkward on the stairs and chatted about the weather. I wanted to get inside and get some sleep, but it seemed rude to hurry things. Finally, Rory turned to Elaine and asked:

– Can my friend stay and watch?

Elaine glared at him.

– I’ve known him for fifteen years, Rory explained. You can trust him.

– Fine, she sighed. Just don’t get in the way, OK? And don’t tell anyone what you see.

– I won’t, I said.

– Seriously. You promise?

– I promise.

I was still expecting some special gadget. Instead the woman knelt down in front of the lock. She just put her face close to the keyhole, too close for her to see it properly, lips just short of kissing it. Rory and I didn’t speak and could hear Elaine whispering. Within twenty seconds there was a click and my door creaked open an inch.

– That’s an easy one, said Elaine

 

2

One night, lying in bed, Elaine told me how she learned about locks.

Her brother had dreamed of being an escapologist. He was fifteen months older than her and infuriated their parents. He’d get into trouble at school, or clumsily break ornaments. Elaine did her best to prevent arguments, but there was nothing she could do when Adam started playing at escapology.

Adam refused to keep the keys for his locks – he threw them away, so he’d have more incentive to get free. After the first couple of times his parents would regularly search his room, but he still managed to hide locks and chains. After he was found cuffed to a radiator for the third time in a week, Elaine decided to do something.

Of course, she had no idea where to start. She bought three padlocks with some leftover Christmas money and sat in the dark, playing with them, trying to figure how they worked, talking to them.

Elaine wasn’t quite sure how it happened – she’d never managed to explain it to anyone – but she had a knack. Elaine could persuade locks to open. But she was adamant it must be a secret.

– If too many people find out, she said, it won’t work.

– How do you know that?

– I just do. Same as I know how to open the locks.

 

3

Her bedroom was full of old padlocks she’d collected. They dangled open from loops of string attached to the ceiling. On her dresser was a massive lock, three hundred years old, she told me.

Elaine said that sometimes the locks talked back. Occasionally they complained, about the scrapes felt from an incorrect key, or the jabs of a badly cut one.

– Locks don’t use words, she said. But they give off vibrations, sort-of-feelings. Some are clenched tight; others are all serious and workmanlike. And padlocks are happiest when they’re open: you can just tell. They don’t mind protecting something – it’s what they’re made for – but they hate being left locked around nothing.

When she spoke about them, you could tell – Elaine loved locks.

 

4

I woke up in the night and saw Elaine wasn’t beside me, the duvet flat where she should have been. Probably gone for a glass of water, or to use the toilet; but what, I thought, if she was speaking to my doors? She could be researching the tiny details of my life, asking the locks who had visited, what times I’d come and gone.

I crept out of bed and into the hall. At the far end I could see light beneath the bathroom door. I went back to bed, slipped under the covers and pretended to sleep. The door creaked open and the bathroom light clicked off, then Elaine’s bare feet padded back to bed. She was soon asleep, breath puttering quietly, as I lay staring at the ceiling. I had no intention of cheating on Elaine – I loved her, I honestly believe I did. But I didn’t like the idea of not being able to keep secrets if I ever needed to, even if I couldn’t think of what those secrets might be.

I could hardly ask her never to talk to my doors, could I? It had to end. As much as I loved her, I couldn’t spend my life with someone I could never have secrets from.

 

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

The Tutor – Bayveen O’Connell

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

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

Climbing the steps, I heard the door click open.

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

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

“John said you’re struggling in Bio.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What you think?”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Image by Mylene2401 from Pixabay

Corsican Visits, Summer 1988 – B F Jones

The sun beats down on the orange Mehari that sways down the tortuous road, its engine screaming with each bend.

The Pernod was refilled during the visit to the Antoniottis, the retired teachers who they occasionally go fishing with. So they’re now on a tight schedule, with two more dominical visits to squeeze in before calling in to great aunty Virginia, who has early lunch on a Sunday, in order to treat herself to an additional half hour of siesta.

The small car rattles through the town, startling churchgoers as they flock out of the service, dozy with prayers and incense, squinting in the midday sun.

The children sit at the back, sticking their arms out of the flapping plastic windows, nauseated by the car fumes and curly roads. They long to be at Father Constantino’s house already. Out of all the visits, this one is the best, it also only happens every other Sunday as Father officiates at the Greek Orthodox church bi-monthly, making it even more special. The cordial hasn’t got white flakes in or a dark crust around the bottle’s rim and sometimes there’s ice lollies he presses into their hands before mum and dad can say it will spoil their appetite. He then sends them into the garden where his cats are willing to be chased and held tight, bottom legs dangling, and where juicy figs hang low and are allowed to be picked.

But this Sunday is different. A stern Father awaits them outside his front door. There has been an incident he says. Forgetting to greet the children, he addresses the parents solely, his voice as quiet as his baritone nature can muster, his accent stronger in his rushed explanation. They catch fragments of it. “…a traffic jam in Ajaccio…delay.”

“So it’s here? Inside the house?”

“Yes. In the lounge. Do come in, we can sit in the office.” And his voice grows strong again, his words final: “Children, today we’ll be staying in the office.”

So they sit in the stuffy room, trying to wash away discomfort with more Pernod and cordial and a small ball of very dry pistachios, mum telling Father about yesterday’s trip to the beach, and how big the waves were.

Louis fidgets, uncomfortable on the edge of the small couch, his brother’s leg hot and sweaty stuck to his. He was hoping to see Brunu, his favourite cat, but they can’t go to the lounge and the lounge leads to the garden. He crosses his arms, refusing to touch the pink cordial as a sign of protest. But the grownups don’t pay attention, they are deep in conversation, talking about the wildfires and the drought and the mayor.

Louis wonders what’s in the lounge. Maybe a pirate treasure? Father Constantino always tells him about the pirates that once roamed off the coast. He says there are pirate ships resting on the seabed and that he should look for them when he goes snorkeling.

The grownups are still talking, Sofia is sitting on the floor, playing solitaire, hard at work trying to shuffle the yellowing deck of cards, and Jacques has lowered his head on the nearby cushion and tucked his thumb in his mouth. Louis gets off the couch and walks out quietly, his heart thumping hard at the thought of a pirate’s chest sitting in the lounge. And if there’s no treasure, he can always go to the garden to see Brunu.

The lounge is dark but he can make a large, rectangular shape.

A treasure chest!

It is longer than expected, lacquered white and not wooden, but the handles are golden, as expected. The pirate lying in it is having a siesta.

 

Image by Nadine Doerlé from Pixabay

Joan of Arc – Dan A Cardoza

I am in Paris, for one year, my high school student exchange program. I enroll in the obligatory French language classes. To my surprise, I love both courses, and my teachers, especially, Fleur. I have her in my advanced French class. I admit she is my favorite, a master linguist, and philosopher of everything Amour.

First I giggle, and then I ask her “how?”

Fleur’s short answer, “Slightly lift your tongue like a pen, and then sketch tiny alphabets in your closed mouth. This works especially when painting nouns and verbs.”

“You are making me blush Fleur.”

“No Ms. Melissa, your limitless imagination is making you blush.”

I cry when I say goodbye to Fleur. She asks that I be careful. She says, “there are so many decisions in life, and so few involve choices. Love is the most important decision in life, choose wisely.”

By the end of summer, before my senior year, I commanded the poetics of the French and believe true love will eventually find me, and haunt me pleasantly forever, like a ghost circling the tip of an endless Dreidel.

*      *      *

Years press forward, depressed, I drop out of college, with only one quarter remaining.

*      *      *

We are taking one of our long drives, into the foothills, where witchweed, and lavender thistles bouquet the rolling green landscape, wafting a potion of jasmine blossom, and the delicate scent of wild mustard. But as I look closer, past all the beauty, I can also see the alabaster rib cage of a winter deer, under the rotting oak shade branches. I see spring creeks, running dark and muddy, and moody. I see all this through my passenger window, and then as I slowly turn, I notice you thinking too hard.

You fancy me invisible and then you mouth, “I still can’t believe she’s gone.”

*       *      *

We take too many of these trips, but at least I can mull to myself out the window, rearrange the scenery, even the weather, which seems darker with each new trip.

When we return in the early evening, you ask me, Please stay for a glass of Merlo you would rather not waste.”

I say, “No thank you, Mr. Conrad.” I think cadavers.

*      *      *

Over Bombay and Safire, at a fancy hotel bar full of enough men for a turkey shoot, you flirt me around like it’s a whore convention. I think shame on you, but I understand because in your mind I am bought and paid for, like your wrinkled laundry waiting for its folding in a basket at home.

As I cry and race home, I throw out party napkins full of telephone numbers. The fresh air pounds me like a sound tunnel, cigarettes, ash and filth lift then whisk in a swirl, like Dorothy’s Kansas tornado.

‘Where are those god damned ruby red shoes when you really need them,’ I say out loud?

*      *      *

I’m not worth much, that’s what my lazy boyfriend says. He fancies himself a ninja wordsmith, and he’s good at the hateful ones. He’s a Jedi Knight, with a sword for math. For example, he knows exactly how many empty Budweiser cans it takes to recycle our dreams, typically $10.00 at the recycled center.

During sex, I am high above him on a cloud hooked to a string. I can predict when he cums, because that’s when I am paying late bills or eating apples in my mind. Then I crush, “Right there, right there baby!” That’s when I cut the string and untether, and float to the stars, far from the white noise in my head. Then somehow, I awake from my sleep not quiet dead.

*      *      *

I’ve been told that it is ok to live with the memory of love. That it’s ok to live with a vivid image, or .gif of stormy neon kisses that flowed over and down, staining my white blouse. Just live with the memory of weather and the wetness you caused, all this just by saying “I love you,” and meaning it. I’ve been told by my therapist, it’s also ok to remember the broken dishes on the floor, to make room on the table when food was not what we hungered for. If only I didn’t recall the two solemn marines at the front door.

*      *      *

On our way home from yet another Sunday and dusk, you say, “No! Like an ice cream cone, slow and easy, like she used too.”

I listen, but I can’t hear you. It’s a terribly windy day that insists on flapping against my ears like mad seagull wings. I have to lean into the wind just to hang on. As I stand at a childhood bridge in Seattle, mist rises from the water toward a cloudless sky. I see heaven, magnifique, it is so all alone, orphaned of name. On such a day, emptiness can only be quenched in fathoms. ‘I say to myself slow and easy, slow and easy. It’s almost over.’

*      *      *

Le temps a des ailes. ‘Time has wings.’

All stories must end. This one does not.

We find ourselves at Smith College in Northampton Massachusetts. Melissa is teaching a class about the French Renaissance. Outside, on a bench, a young woman finds herself pleasantly fatigued from the challenge of learning. She looks out across the vacant green courtyard at the tall stand of fall Sycamore, which seems to climb into the afternoon sky like a burning teal castle. Just in time, a damsel needs rescuing.

In her silence, she traces the letters of Joan of Arc with her tongue, blending each letter into words into a carousel of thought. It’s The One Hundred Year War, a revolution. She knows to take her time.

‘il y a pire que d’être seul, as Fluer might have said––there are worse things in life than being alone, like having no choices perhaps.

It’s then, Erica, with only the tip of her tongue, slowly spells, M-e-l…

La Fin

 

DAN A CARDOZA has a MS Degree in Education from UC, Sacramento, Calif. He is the author of four poetry Chapbooks, and a new book of fiction, Second Stories. Recent Credits: 101 Words, Adelaide, California Quarterly, Chaleur, Cleaver, Confluence, UK, Dissections, Door=Jar, Drabble, Entropy, Esthetic Apostle, Fiction Pool, Foxglove, Frogmore, UK, High Shelf Press, New Flash Fiction Review, Rue Scribe, Runcible Spoon, Skylight 47, Spelk, Spillwords, Riggwelter, Stray Branch, Urban Arts, Zen Space, Tulpa and Zeroflash.

Image by bonoflex from Pixabay

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