There are problems beyond The summation of equations That exist only in the minds-
Of the few who yearn to solve The questions of a universe So questionably mathematical
That even their own minds Fail to fathom the sheer depth Of the numerators and denominators too
Which give way to all manner of theory In a world where to be creative Is frowned upon only till vain fame-
Seems to eclipse all judgement And all rouge infringement dissipates To an acceptance of intellectual creativity-
Quite unlike anything found In the empiricism of formulae Which bewilder all those that lack-
The natural ability to calculate And hypothesize over an ideology So positivist in nature-
That one might ask if notions of society Were simply distortions Of our futile attempts to justify-
A life of functional differentiation So utterly contrived that perhaps Even the creativity that is so ardently suppressed-
May be just a disfigurement Of a natural ability So positivist in nature-
That its judgement is but a sardonic irony.
A R Salandy is a mixed-race poet & writer who likes to focus on the contrast between nature and humanity but also the many similarities that bring the two together. Anthony travels frequently and has spent most of his life in Kuwait jostling between the UK & America. Anthony’s work has been published 45 times. Anthony has 1 chapbook entitled ‘The Great Northern Journey’.
Candyfloss clouds. Azure sky. A sun straight from the Teletubbies.
Stevie lifted the glass to his sweaty lips, flicking away the slug that was clinging onto the side. The Coke was warm and flat. And diet. It was all the little old dear had in the fridge.
It was the fifth consecutive day of 25-degree sunshine. A once in a lifetime Scottish summer. And Stevie was stuck laying fucking concrete slabs. His uncle had reiterated it was a two-man job and they would split it 70-30. But he had failed to mention his plans to head off to ‘Eye-Beeza to piss sangria’ in the middle of the contract.
The non-existent buzz from the aspartame was only irritating him further, so he poured the remainder of the dark liquid onto a dandelion. The depressingly imposing council house loomed above him, mocking his predicament. The old dear had disappeared for her messages leaving Stevie free rein of the kitchen. But there were only so many custard creams one could take in this heat. What he wanted was a pint, to lick the condensation that puddled at the bottom of the glass, never mind the funny looks he’d get. He was missing Ryan’s barbecue for this shite.
He surveyed his work so far: only two slabs laid in four hours. His uncle was right, it was a two-man job. It was the longest and most laborious process he’d ever experienced. He had to lift the old 3 x 2 grey slabs, walk them a safe distance away, add a fresh coat of ballast and whin dust, before replacing it with a newer, practically identical 3 x 2 grey slab. What he didn’t expect was the sheer weight of the fuckers. He’d scraped his arms and knees raw and embarrassingly had to ask the old dear for a plaster. She’d just smiled as she applied it for him, making him feel like a ten-year-old boy instead of a nineteen-year-old not-as-strapping-as-he-once-thought lad.
There were still thirty-seven slabs to go, and his uncle wasn’t due back until the following week, so Stevie dragged on his gloves, laced up his boots and clomped his way back to pain and suffering and endless fucking drudgery.
Taking up his shovel, he dug underneath a slab, loosening the earth, lifting it slightly before gripping it with both hands. The most inconvenient part was getting enough purchase between the ground and concrete without crushing your fingers, but this time there was plenty of space, so Stevie hauled it up with surprising ease. Instead of being greeted by hundreds of slaters scrambling for a new home, he found himself staring into a large hole. Stevie wasn’t an expert on anything in life, and he was certainly no expert on holes (including those ones as Ryan liked to joke), but he somehow knew this wasn’t a hole created by an animal; it was perfectly round, and as he looked down, the edges seemed to have been crafted, as if the dirt had been sanded away for a smooth finish. As he peered further into the gaping maw, he realised that he couldn’t even see the end point; just more blackness, leading to nothing.
As an Indiana Jones aficionado, Stevie thought he knew exactly what to do when presented with a fathomless depth. He chose what he deemed to be a good-sized rock for the job and watched as it disappeared into the emptiness. He found himself focussing so much on listening out for the noise of the rock striking the bottom that he began to wonder if he’d already missed it. Choosing what he deemed to be only a decent-sized rock this time, he dropped it down. Once again, silence.
Stevie was never one for spontaneity, but something about this hole had him intrigued. Whether it was the heat, his frustration at his uncle, or the fact he was alone, he relished any opportunity to skive off laying slabs. And if finding a mysterious gigantic hole under a 3 x 2 slab in a council house garden in Prestwick wasn’t a good enough opportunity, then fuck knows what was.
Crouching down onto his knees, he leaned his head into the space. It was roomy enough for his scrawny body so he began to lower himself into it. As soon as his last limb passed the threshold, Stevie found himself in a tunnel. It was impossible to tell in what direction it was leading but Stevie began to crawl, hoping it followed some kind of logic, even if climbing into the hole in the first place wasn’t the least bit logical.
Now that he was in the hole, Stevie was surprised that he could actually see. From above, the hole looked inky black; yet inside that darkness, Steve’s vision was clear, as if an underground light had suddenly been switched on. Worms and ants crawled along the perfect edges of the tunnel, but as Stevie took a closer look, he discovered they weren’t crawling but hovering, as if an invisible barrier prevented them from reaching him in his crawlspace. Stevie reached out but his fingers didn’t touch earth; instead, he felt a smooth, soft edge, like silk. The bugs seemed to exist on another plane entirely.
Stevie wasn’t sure if he was expecting to see a light at the end of the tunnel, but it seemed infinite with no end in sight. Perhaps the slab had collapsed onto his head and this was death. An actual, physical tunnel to heaven. Or hell. He was going down after all.
Time ceased to exist as he continued on his subterranean journey. He saw more floating insects on either side, even a few spiders, which he was no fan of at the best of times but here he found them strangely mesmerising, knowing there was a force between him and them. They couldn’t touch him no matter how much they wanted to creep over his skin.
He turned his head to look back at where he’d come from. The hole he entered was no longer visible but still the tunnel remained illuminated. Coming to a standstill, he was surprised to find he could hear a faint noise to his right, behind the sanded dirt edge. Stevie thought it might have been laughter but that would be ridiculous. A limitless tunnel was one thing, but human laughter from within the earth itself? But there it was again, unmistakable this time. And glasses clinking. And music. He couldn’t be completely sure, but it sounded like ‘Mr. Brightside’. Of all the songs in the world, Stevie wasn’t surprised he could hear that one in the tunnel. He knew he could never escape Brandon Flowers singing about jealousy, no matter where, or how deep he was, on this planet.
Feeling more and more uncertain as to what he was supposed to do in this situation, or what the meaningful purpose of his finding the tunnel was, he kept on crawling. He could still hear the music; it remained just as loud as he went further into the unknown. He began to worry about the old dear; if this was real, and if she returned to find this hole, she might decide to climb in and join him. And then she’d get stuck, become dehydrated and die down here. He upped his pace, channelling his inner mole as his nails gripped the ground ahead of him.
After frantically pushing himself forward, like a fat seal on land, he saw a light in the distance. The music seemed to grow fainter as he got closer and closer to what he hoped was an exit to the real world and not his eternal damnation. He powered on, propelled by the urge to discover where he would emerge.
Which made it all the more disappointing when he found himself climbing out of the same hole he’d entered. He was a little bit muddier, a little more confused, but still surrounded by slabs outside the same council house in Prestwick.
‘So there you are.’
Startled, Stevie raised his head to see the old dear standing over him, a tray in her hands. She had that same smile which never seemed to leave her face.
‘Ah found a hole.’
‘And I got you some full fat Coke. With ice.’
Stevie clambered to his feet. Had she heard him properly? He knew she wasn’t deaf, and she definitely wasn’t blind. Did she somehow know about the hole?
‘Thanks,’ he said as he reached out for the perspiring glass. There was a rectangular piece of paper sitting next to it. Stevie assumed it was a coaster before realising it was the wrong way around, and there was writing on the other side.
‘I got you a little something. Just between us. You deserve it, slaving away on a day like today.’
Stevie picked up the paper. It was a cheque, the first he’d received since he was a child. £100.
‘Oh no, ah cannae take that, it’s too much.’
‘Nonsense, it’s the least I could do. Missing all your friends on such a lovely summer’s day. In fact, take the rest of the day off. Enjoy yourself.’
Only now, standing this close, did Stevie look at her face properly for the first time; he was always one for glancing at his feet during conversations. She was the oldest woman he’d ever seen. If she were to lie down during a rain shower, the water would gather and form rivers in the cracks on her face. Yet something about her eyes betrayed the rest of her face. They were youthful. An innocence and naivety still shimmering away inside.
‘Ah really appreciate it…’ he stopped himself, realising he didn’t even know her name to thank her. He glanced down at the cheque in his hand, his eyes immediately darting to the signature. Her handwriting was flowery, old-fashioned, and it took him a couple of times reading it over to fully comprehend what she’d written. He almost dropped his glass.
‘Is something wrong?’
He checked the signature once more. His eyes weren’t deceiving him. That was definitely an ‘A’, followed by a very elaborate ‘L’.
‘Yer name’s no Alice, that’s… that’s…’ he had the word on the tip of his tongue, but saying it out loud would be strange, bizarre, odd. It would be…
‘Curious?’ she wondered.
Oliver Greenall is a writer, actor and filmmaker from Scotland. His films have screened at the London and Glasgow Short Film Festivals, amongst others. He has appeared on the West End stage and in various television series. His feature screenplay was shortlisted for the BFI/Sigma Films producer acceleration programme.
Concentrate on this, and this only. Get the money.
He walks down the aisle toward the altar holding the long-handled basket; right down the center, he walks. Once at the first pew, he turns. He thrusts the basket into the pew under the noses of the parishioners. Everyone generously contributes. Row by row, slowly he proceeds up the aisle. The basket is filling with money. He reaches the pew where the woman sits; the woman he always watches, who intrigues him. She places her envelope into the basket. But for this, she is forever a stranger. Stony-faced, he continues. For some reason the sight of her makes him glance back at the altar. It’s black-veined marble. The crucifix hangs above, the cracks show in the wood. The corpus is bloodstained. Before proceeding to the next pew, he glances at the woman’s long slender legs. Feelings rise in him.
Oh, would that he were a statue with no feelings.
A bloodstained wooden statue. Like that Christ.
He thinks of that man from the night before; he sees his face. His mind wanders. He moves the basket slowly so they may put in the money easily. Where is the man now? And somewhere, someplace, the host was being elevated at the very moment it happened.
Somewhere in this big world, there was mass at that very moment.
He moves along the row of pews. Someone is kneeling in the way with his head in his hands. The basket won’t go past him. He won’t move. He wishes to be kneeling too. He wishes to pray with his head in his hands. But—the basket’s just half full. Need to fill it fully. He moves more quickly.
He is the collector.
How ashamed his parents will be when he’s found out—
No. He thrusts the basket out. Now is for the money. Now it is mass. Mass is eternal. Mass is of God. He smiles dimly pushing out the basket. What a laugh; to care about his parents now, now that it is too late. His hands grip the long handle. His hands are clean. The effects of last night’s liquor are long gone. He sees the blood, the cuts, the seeping wounds. He sees the drip of the blood into a puddle. But maybe it’s not that bad; maybe the man survived; he didn’t hang around long enough to find out. Truly he was a coward last night—the basket’s too heavy to hold—he’ll drop the basket—
No! Stop it!
Lord, give me strength. Squeeze the handle. He shudders. The basket moves filling. The organ music swells. Perversely he thinks of a woman he read about once who was enamored of a bull. That was unnatural. He feels unnatural. Now is the time to think perverse thoughts. The dark blood begins to congeal. He steps to the next pew. He thrusts in the basket. What’s it like to be lying on the tracks with a locomotive bearing down? This is how he feels. There’s a locomotive coming. He hears it. He feels it. But this is all fantasy. The money is becoming heavy. His muscles flex. He clenches his teeth. Drinking wine will do no good. Drinking wine does no good. Drinking wine is no good. Wine costs money.
Get the money.
Basket in, basket out—much too mindless. But look at all that money. There’s plenty of money in the basket now. Yes, he must be the devil. Yes, he is worse than the devil. Even the money is evil; the basket’s overflowing now; but no, this is God’s money. Nothing of God’s is evil. Would that he were of God.
He glances over to his family, in the back pew. The thoughts swarm upon him. The money is too heavy. He sees the wife he will lose. He sees the children he will lose. He’s near the end. His glasses are sliding down his nose. He pushes them up. They slide back down. There’s no use. He paid nine dollars for liquor last night at three a.m. He glances back to the priest in his heavy vestments. The innocent holy man. So unlike him. But think of it; think of it; the money becomes his once it’s slid into the basket.
How easy it is to give up ownership of something.
Of one’s life.
A pale slumped old man in one of the last pews gives an envelope. Every rib is showing under the old man’s thin shirt. And the skinnier one next to him is bald; they sit pale bald and bony, like dead men.
But they give money.
In the last pew, he is given money by a scowling man; it is him; it happens to be exactly the way he feels. He turns and looks out over the church; they could all be his brothers and sisters.
They could all be him. But they are not. Since last night, there is a chasm between he and them. If only he had not done what he has done.
But he is at mass now.
He steps to the back wall of the church and pours the money out into a large basket on the floor. He holds the empty basket.
The money’s gone now.
They’re pulling up outside; there are sirens.
But no; he is at mass now. Car doors slam outside.
He gives up the basket. He goes to sit by his wife. He is at mass now.
The back door opens.
That back door creaks so badly why don’t they do something about that back door—after all, they’ve got the money. He knows they’ve got the money. He got it for them.
Jim Meirose’s short and long works have appeared in numerous publications, including South Carolina Review, New Orleans Review, Xavier Review, Witness, Into the Void, Exterminating Angel, Phoebe, Otoliths, Baltimore Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, American Literary Review, 14 Hills, and many others. Twitter: @jwmeirose jimmeirose.com
One younger sister who has never measured up, one younger brother looking for escape
They shared a lifetime of coming second, failing to impress, being overlooked. She had the idea she would beat her sister down the aisle. Once the idea had formed, it took root in her mind and flourished like a Buddleia in a paving crack.
Five encouraging friends
They met in a bar in town, somebody’s birthday. The girls loved his accent, his American teeth and button-down collar. He took an interest, paid for the drinks. She was elated when it was her number he took. He fitted easily into her circle of friends. At her house he took charge of the barbeque, set out the chairs, she handled music and drinks. They went on trips to the coast, country houses, walks on the moors. He developed a liking for tea and English breakfasts.
An inability to acknowledge areas of incompatibility (earplugs and rose-tinted spectacles are useful here)
She realised he used humour as a defence mechanism if the conversation got difficult, but told herself that if he could make her laugh, she’d always have fun with him. She said she’d go anywhere with him, as long as they were together. He didn’t like her taste in dogs or the fact that she had so many male friends. He agreed to a French bulldog named Reggie, though he would have preferred something larger. The sex was great – everything else would work itself out.
Three or more parents (to include at least two reluctant and one enthusiastic)
‘I suppose you can always divorce him, but don’t think we can pay for another wedding,’ her mother said as they shopped for dresses.
‘Well her Mom looks great for her age, but are you sure about this?’ his father said on the morning of the wedding.
‘Don’t listen to anyone else. If she gives you goose bumps, you go for it,’ his Mom said, plucking fluff from his suit.
Put all ingredients into a large vessel and stir. (You will need to wear protective clothing as the cooking process can get messy)
They honeymooned in Mexico, then he moved into her place. The housemates made themselves scarce. They shipped over some of his things, made room for the gifts from his extended family. She hated the ornate clock he insisted on hanging in the hallway but hoped she could learn to live with it. He decided it was normal for the husband not to have much space in the bedroom closets. He busied himself in the garage, stripping old varnish from her dining suite, sanding down table legs. He wanted to show her he was good with his hands.
When the housemates moved out, there was space in the fridge and an emptiness in the rooms upstairs. They increased their TV package so he could watch the baseball, and got a rescue cat; black and bitter, with a smudge of white on his chest. He scratched his claws on the newly sanded table legs.
Transfer into a pressure cooker and turn up the heat. After nine months, the mixture should become saturated, bitter and completely unpalatable
He took her back home for Thanksgiving, showed her around his home town. She ate his Mom’s pumpkin pie, teeth scraping the tines of her fork. She laughed nervously at remarks
about grandchildren and spent a lot of time on her phone. He wondered if the goose bumps would return back in England.
Back home she started a new job, further away. His contract came to an end and he struggled to find work. Sex became sporadic and functional. Reggie started earning good money as a stud dog. He said he wouldn’t mind being a house-husband, but not in this Godforsaken place where it rains all year round. She said she’d never agreed to move to the US and asked how he could ever have thought she had.
Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely
Her sister announced her engagement to a partner in a law firm. She got a coil fitted. He discovered that he enjoyed soccer as much as American football, but this wasn’t an interest she shared. She disagreed with his views on American politics, which he interpreted as a personal attack on his identity. One of Reggie’s girlfriends had puppies and she brought one home without consulting him. The hallway clock stopped working one day and neither of them noticed.
Serve with a shot of Decree Absolute
Rebecca Field lives and writes in Derbyshire. She has been published online by Riggwelter Press, Spelk fiction, Reflex Press, The Cabinet of Heed and Ellipsis Zine among others. Rebecca has work in the 2019 and 2020 UK National Flash Fiction Day Anthologies. Tweets at @RebeccaFwrites
Oh, Emily, I’m so glad you’re here! I wanted to talk to you and didn’t know if you’d come.
I see you’re mad at me. I can sense it in your silence. Well, you have every right to be. Sigh. I’m sorry Emily. I’m really sorry. But please, hear me out. One last time. Just hear me out. I have something important to tell you.
I just want you to know…all my life has been…tch! You’re probably thinking why I never said anything before today. I didn’t think this is how things would turn out. Not after all you did for me. Maybe things would have been different if I had, eh? Maybe we wouldn’t be here today? Maybe I wou-sigh. Emily, sorry. You’re right. This maybe business is not helping right now. Just…just listen to me, okay?
Just listen. Please.
I remember the day we met very well. I was only nine. Seems ages ago now. The social worker who drove me looked like she perpetually had a bad smell under her nose. I don’t remember much else except her voice. I can still hear it some nights. Telling me…well, telling me all the not nice things about me. How I was running out of chances. How I should be grateful for people like her and you who were saving me from me. I just wanted to jump from the car and run.
You greeted us next to a full trailer, and before I could process anything else, I coughed, gagged, my eyes watering. The onslaught on my nostrils was severe. I heard the social worker struggling to speak. Not wanting to offend, I didn’t look up when you introduced yourself. Remember that, Emily? You even said something about it, remember? How I found the ground very interesting?
I had caught a glimpse of you from the car before we disembarked. Your face looked like it belonged to a kind woman. Kinder than anyone I had known. My heart thudded faster with excitement. But I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I was too scared, Emily.
I remember your dirt-caked gumboots. I couldn’t look up. I didn’t want to look up. So I made myself trace all the shapes the dried mud on your shoes had made as you spoke. At least, I thought it was mud. You told me you were glad I was there. That you were sure we’d have a great time. That the only thing that mattered was the life we’ll have now.
And then I saw your gumboots getting closer. Felt a pair of arms around me and this – oh! how do I describe it? – this sweet, sweet scent enveloped me. It was magical. Intoxicating. I took deep breaths. Trying to savor the fragrance that felt like it belonged to the heavens. To take it all in. To keep it with me forever. My brain freezing, relaxing, letting go.
In that moment, I felt as if everything was right with the world, Em. That everything was right in my world. You were saying something and the social worker was saying something. But the words washed over me. I just remember being hugged. I just remember how you smelled. I had never really experienced the joy of either before.
Oh, Emily. You have no idea how peaceful I felt with you! I was nine, deeply troubled, adrift. But you became my safe space. My anchor. Clichéd but true.
You truly helped me turn my life around. Farm life was difficult to adjust to with its gruelling chores, along with regular schoolwork. My nose had the hardest job, though. I remember gagging at each individual assault as I went about my chores. I never knew how much animals pooped or that I’d be the one hauling wheelbarrow loads of it from one end of the farm to the other. I just tried to remember how happy you were with your flourishing roses and vegetables. You used to laugh at me when I would judiciously close all the windows of the house, but you also always had something in the oven too – a simmering roast, fresh buns, chocolate cake.
That was nothing compared to you, though. Every time you’d hug me, your scent would bewitch me. I would feel the weight of the world lifted from my shoulders. And it’s funny that you had no odor despite being busy with farm stuff all day. Even just being near you was enough most days. You kept me grounded. You kept the demons away. I only had to think about coming home, to you, and I was able to keep my head down and my nose clean. Ha-ha! That’s almost a pun.
What you don’t know is that it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy at all.
You see, it was hard to break habits. It was hard to rewire my brain. I read somewhere that early experiences shape our psyche. And what we think, what we do, what we want to do. Every day, I battled with my fears – of messing up, of losing you, of being alone again. Of being abandoned again. Like every other person before, but this time by you.
It was a daily struggle. Dark thoughts would creep up no matter how busy I was. Laying the hay, feeding the hens, hauling animal faeces, doing homework, having dinner with you, reading before bed. Phantoms lurked in the unreachable corners of my brain and I was unable to banish them.
Do you know what that’s like? Do you have any idea? Tch! Stop saying that. Yes, you took me in and raised me like your own. Perhaps better than how you would have raised your own. But I’m telling you that you have absolutely no idea what a troubled kid actually goes through! Of the daily battles we fight and the gambles we take. Of the dread that follows us like a shadow. You don’t know – you can’t know – what it’s like to only be loved when it’s convenient for other people.
Despite all that, I did well. When I moved to town, got a job, a place of my own, you said you were proud of me. And that’s all that mattered. Till you went ahead and…
And now you sit here, angry, disapproval etched into every wrinkle – yeah, you think I don’t see that? – making me feel like I’m back in the dark. Like I’m nine again and the worst kid in the room. The kid who can’t do anything right. The kid no one loves. The kid who’ll always be alone.
Yeah, holding in your protests and I-love-yous, eh? Right. I know where you’re at now. Pfft. Yeah. I know your deal. What, did you think I wouldn’t find out? That it would be as simple as that to brush me off, huh? Done and dusted. That you could just go and get another kid to replace me? That’s how easy it was for you. We’re available a dime a dozen, anyway, right? God!
Tch! I don’t believe you anymore. Do you think I’m blind? Or stupid? You broke me, Em. You made me and then you broke me.
That’s the trouble, Em. The demons never go away. So, of course, I did what I did. You left me no choice. I had to figure something out, to keep you with me. And I have no regrets. I got you back, didn’t I? You’re here, right now, aren’t y-
Hey, Emily! Where are you going? You can’t leave! I’m not done talking. Emily. Emily. You can’t go. You can’t leave me here. Hey, pal, get your hand off of me! Emily! You have to understand. You’re the only person who ever understo- hey, I said leave me alone! Emily? Emily! Come back. Come back, Emily! Emily, come back! Don’t go, please, don’t leave me with them. Emily, get me out of here. Don’t leave me! Get off! Emily, I have more to say. Please! Emily! Emily! Emily!
Monica picks up a wine bottle from the plastic carton and reads the label – ‘Chateau Saint Veran.’ She looks up at the house; bespoke window shutters, burglar alarm and double spiral Buxus topiaries by the front door. The beam from her mobile phone torch swathes the green glass in stark white light. Monica twists the bottle around to look for the tiny emblem of four arrows pointing anticlockwise around a circle on the bottom left side. Best to be certain that there’s a deposit, no point in carting the bottles around for nothing. The ten empty bottles of ‘Chateau Saint Veran’ chink party sounds against the others as she places them inside her box shaped ‘bag for life.’ Monica takes a pencil and her list out of the small pouch she carries around her middle and adds the house number to her notes on Rue des Tulipes: 23rd April 2020, number 22, ten bottles. For Monica, only harvests of ten and more deserve a mention.
Ten green bottles, Monica chuckles as she pads quietly up the street, opens the boot of her 1993 Ford Fiesta and places her pickings inside, taking care not to clatter the bottles. When the boot is full, she coasts the car twenty metres down the street in neutral. After all, Monica wouldn’t want to wake the neighbours.
It’s a dark but clear night, Venus and a full moon glow in the sky overhead. Monica takes an empty bag, closes the car door and scuttles across to number forty-three. When she sees the fox in the middle of the road she pauses; it freezes and stares. The fox is the size of a small dog. Their eyes lock. He loses interest and slopes off in the direction of the dustbins.
Monica pulls her silicone gloves up, tucks her mousy hair under her beanie and inspects the contents of the recycling box. ‘Macon Lugny,’ and ‘Pouilly Fumé,’ ‘Chablis Prestige 2018,’ – excellent taste and all bottled in Belgium by her favourite supermarket, meaning at least 30 cents deposit back each. She pushes the minor wine bottles aside or removes them to access the depths of the container. Eight bottles from number 44 clatter together in a chain reaction as Monica slots them inside her ‘bag for life.’ Number 52 is a beer drinker, Monica cannot abide that sort, it’s just not worth the effort, all those bottles for so little. She passes it over to rejoice at number 54’s over brimming recycling box; completes the bag and returns it to the car. She treads lightly in rubber soled sneakers. Her grey jacket and navy trousers are equally unobtrusive.
Yellow light suddenly spills out through the windowpanes. Monica blinks but the facade of the house is imprinted on her retina like a chess board. The curtain twitches. Monica scurries past.
Inside number 54, Claire hears the clinking of glass against glass. A light sleeper, her curiosity compels her to rush to the window and peek outside. Since her children left home and she retired from her teaching job, the outside world has taken on more than a passing interest. She sees a stranger pilfering from the recycling containers. The cheek of it. After observing for a few minutes, she realises that it’s a woman. There’s something strangely familiar about her gait. Poor thing, being driven to rummaging through others’ rubbish, she thinks. Wait. The woman is putting stuff into a Ford Fiesta loaded up with shopping bags. A car! Well really! Organised crime in Kraainem! Claire raps on the window.
A groaning noise breaks the silence,’ What are you doing?’ Claire’s husband mutters, ‘I’m trying to sleep.’ He turns over.
Smartphone in hand, Claire takes the stairs two at a time, grabs a coat, unbolts the front door and dashes out into the night. Thank goodness for those Zumba classes, she thinks. As the silver Ford Fiesta rolls past, Claire pushes the camera button, flash! Just in case, she takes a mental note of the registration plate: ‘SS0 203;’ and repeats the combination in her head until she grabs a pen in the hall and scribbles it on a stray car parking ticket.
Phew. So much effort, so early in the day. Claire sits at the dining table sipping filter coffee. She rubs her eyes and yawns. It’s one thing that a person in need is stealing bottles and claiming the deposits back, but in this case the act is pre-meditated and organised. That’s it, organised crime.
Meanwhile, in Rue des Roses, a block further on, Monica’s Ford Fiesta is packed to the roof with thirty-three bags each containing 12 bottles, plus the four extra loose bottles Monica picked up to round the figure up to 400. By Monica’s calculation, that makes 120 euros in deposit back. Some days she is tempted to carry on despite her lack of car space, hiding bottles in a ditch by the park to pick up later, but today she is tired and knows that the glass collection for the adjacent area is scheduled for tomorrow.
Back in the car, a flicker of headlights in the driving mirror causes Monica to sink low in her seat as a people carrier swishes past. Monica engages first gear and drives off, her face low on the steering wheel. She’s home in time for breakfast.
Inside number 54, Claire picks up the telephone and calls the local police station.
‘Hello, this is Claire Wrigley, of 54 Rue des Tulipes and I’d like to report a crime,’ she says.
‘Er… Hello Madam. What sort of crime are we talking about?’ The policeman replies.
‘At four o’clock this morning I saw a woman stealing bottles from the recycling bins on Rue des Tulipes.’
‘Bottles you say?’ comes the reply.
‘Yes. Are you taking note?’ Claire says.
‘Madame, technically speaking we’re not talking murder or aggravated violence in any form?
‘Well, no… but it’s theft, and I have the car registration number of the perpetrator,’ Claire interjects.
‘We’ll make a note and get back to you Mrs …. what did you say your name was?’ The policeman asks.
‘W-R-I-G-L-E-Y, 44 Rue des Tulipes,’ Claire’s dictation is interrupted by a dialling tone at the other end of the line.
‘Really!’ Claire slams the receiver down.
Claire lifts the calendar on the back of the kitchen door to check the recycling dates for the month of May. The next glass collection is Friday, 29th May. Five whole weeks away. Then she has an idea. On her laptop Claire consults the website of the waste disposal company. The glass pick-up day is Friday, 24th April for the neighbouring district of Wezembeek-Oppem – tomorrow.
Upon waking, Monica stretches her arms and legs out like a starfish, then sits up and shrugs her shoulders several times to loosen her joints. Out of habit she places her hand in the dent in the bed where Richard used to lie. Monica’s body aches from the constant bending down to place the bottles in the recycling machine of several supermarkets. Even now, the garage is so cluttered with bags and bottles that she leaves the car outside. One more mission this evening and then she can rest for a few weeks. Prior to leaving, she consults her notes and plans her trip, and fills the car with shopping bags.
Upon arrival in Wezembeek-Oppem, Monica parks at the top of Rue des Narcisses and starts at the odd numbers. Number 3 is prime real estate in deposit bottle terms; a strong, spicy ‘Saint Joseph 2019,’ – five times, followed by a full bodied ‘Saint Emilion,’ – tenfold. She doesn’t lock the car as she trudges up and down checking the plastic boxes and filling her bags. Monica places each bag of bottles in the car and walks from house to house checking boxes. As always, she gently lifts unwanted bottles out and places them on the pavement to be able to access any hidden treasures.
A car cruises past, its headlights shine full beam on Monica. She keeps her head down. As usual, Monica sets the car in neutral and allows it to roll further down the street. Suddenly a car cuts in front of Monica’s forcing her to slam her foot on the brake, she presses hard on the pedal, to no avail. She tries to steer away from impact, but the wheel won’t budge. It all happens in an instant. Monica’s Fiesta shunts into the Range Rover and comes to a halt. The sound of bottles rattling rings in Monica’s ears long after the car stops. She rubs her neck.
An urgent tap tapping on her window wakes Monica out of her trance. Due to the mist on the inside, she can’t see who it is and as the window is broken, she opens the door.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’ Monica steps out of the car.
‘I’m making a citizens’ arrest!’ Claire shouts.
Lights begin to flicker on and off in neighbouring houses, their glare filters out across the street illuminating both the women’s faces.
‘Claire?’ Monica says.
‘Monica?’ Claire says.
‘From Zumba?’ They both say at once.
‘Well I wouldn’t expect this from you?’ Claire says.
‘This? What is this?’ Monica looks up at Claire.
‘Stealing bottles from outside people’s homes.’ Claire prods Monica’s arm.
‘Well I wouldn’t expect you to pull in front of me like that, causing an accident!’ Monica replies.
‘We’ll see what the police have to say about it shall we?’ Claire pulls her smartphone out of her pocket.
A man’s voice cries out from a house, ‘Keep it down out there!’
‘It’s not what you think.’ Monica replies.
‘I know what it looks like.’ Claire looks down her nose at Monica.
‘Since Richard died my life has never been the same,’ Monica wipes a tear from her eye.
‘We all have our burdens to bear,’ Claire replies.
‘I collect the bottles with deposits that people can’t be bothered to return to the supermarket. Each bottle is worth 30 cents. It may not seem much but multiplied by hundreds every week…’ Monica says.
‘And bank the money no doubt!’ Claire says, starting to dial…
‘The money goes to the Belgian Cancer Foundation.’ Monica replies, ‘I can show you receipts.’
‘B-b-b-b….’ Claire stutters, ’I-I-I d-d-don’t know what to say.’ She touches Monica’s arm. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Look, you weren’t to know.’ Monica, ‘It’s not something I shout from the rooftops.’
‘But your car,’ Claire says. Both women turn to look at the concertinaed bonnet of the Fiesta.
‘That’s why we have insurance,’ Monica reaches inside the car to retrieve the papers.
Monica suddenly finds herself enveloped in an awkward embrace, her arms stretch out by her body, the papers in her hand flutter in the breeze.
‘So sorry,’ Claire crushes Monica’s slight body to her.
One month later. Early morning on Friday 29th May, Claire parks the Range Rover at the top of rue des Tulipes, she hands a ‘bag for life’ to Monica and keeps one for herself.
‘You’ll do the odd numbers?’ Monica asks as she steps out of the car.
‘And I’ll do the evens,’ Claire laughs.
Belgium based writer Sheila Kinsella’s short stories draw inspiration from her Irish upbringing. An avid watcher of people’s behaviour, and blessed with abundant natural curiosity, Sheila lures the reader into a shrewdly observed world via imagery and comedy. Her work has appeared in The Blue Nib Literary Magazine and the Brussels Writers’ Circle anthology ‘Circle 19.’
Our neighborhood on East 59th Street was an urban backwater, a still pool off the main drag where everything and everybody swirled slow and lazy. As kids we hoped — no, we knew — one day we’d catch the current of Kennedy Boulevard and be swept away forever.
Sundays were the worst. Once noon mass let out most people got raptured away to their kitchens and living rooms or to some out-of-town relatives. Real ghost town outside. TV was dull after the Bowery Boys finished their routines. Whatever Mom cooked always involved boiling water that steamed up the windows. Made that apartment feel even smaller.
This Sunday was like every other one. The corner store was closed. Me and my friends Dwayne and Izzy stood at the glass door, coveting the Hostess cupcakes resting on wire racks just beyond the doorway. Cream-filled devil’s food delight with white swirls on top of chocolate icing, taunting us from the store’s dusty shadows. I was five, Dwayne and Izzy were six.
If we bust the window we could get some cupcakes, I said. Dwayne went round the side of the store to the gravel parking lot, came back with the corner of a cinder block and heaved it through the door. The glass shattered the day like a starting gun. Izzy was in and out and down the street before anyone else showed up. Dwayne stood there expecting thanks. I stepped back saying look what somebody did.
The dads paid for the door. I was still allowed in the place. But I never saw the other two after that. Some of us really did manage to get out of that neighborhood.
I heard Dwayne was somebody’s bag man when he got killed. Izzy’s probably in office or in jail. Me? I’ve always been an idea guy. I do all right.
Bill Merklee loves short stories, short films, and very short songs. His work has appeared in Flash Flood Journal, Ellipsis, Bending Genres, X-R-A-Y, Ghost Parachute, Gravel, Columbia, New Jersey Monthly, and the HIV Here & Now project. He lives in New Jersey. Occasional tweets @bmerklee.
Sarah always wanted to live in a world of color, not the ash-gray monotone of her home. But color costs. Color isn’t free. You have to earn it. Her mama died giving birth to Jacob, and Sarah had to become his mama. Her papa worked hard but lost most of what he made—trying to forget, to ease his loneliness.
Sarah had a way about her and could sense what people wanted. Nobody could barter like Sarah. She traded a white platter for a green blanket to cover Jacob, her mother’s ring for his blue jumper, even her wedding gown for Sarah’s tangerine dress that brightened her sallow world.
One Saturday Jacob was playing with the sock rabbit Sarah’d made, and she was sweeping the yard in front of their house. A stranger in a dark suit with shine on the jacket sleeves and dirt in the creases of his patent leather shoes walked up to Sarah, almost knocking her over. There was a glint of desperation in the old man’s rheumy eyes as if he’d hiked miles before stopping there. He carried two large buckets of paint and a short-handled brush. Plenty enough for the whole house.
“See this paint, it can turn your clapboard dwelling into a place where stars come out to get a view.”
Sarah smiled, imagining her walls bright as a summer orange and looked down at Jacob, pulling the rabbit’s button eyes. When she picked up Jacob, he grabbed her hair hard. She set him back down.
“Where’s your Papa?” the stranger asked.
“In town.” Most likely getting pissed, she thought.
“You tending the boy?”
‘He’s my brother.’
“I see you like tints by that dress you’re wearing,” he said. “I’m going to show you about color.”
“I’m not supposed to let strangers in,” she said.
“I don’t want an argument, but you will hate yourself if you don’t see what this paint can do.”
With his buckets and brush, he walked straight in and looked around the room, noticing the scattered pieces of green and blue. Sarah watched him search for a spot that would give him an advantage. He went to the board with the coat hooks and streaked it with his apricot paint. It looked as if the sun had settled indoors, laying its refracted glow on everything in sight—the wooden table, Jacob’s crib, her papa’s rocker, the shelves stuffed with ragged newspapers, even the pale face of Jesus staring at the ceiling.
“Want these buckets?” he asked.
“Do you see anything you want?” she replied.
“Make me an offer,” he snarled.
Sarah noticed the old man’s gnarly hands, cracked and calloused, and looked down at Jacob’s chubby arms like a baby angel she once saw in the Bible. His fingers soft and shiny. She trembled, suddenly aware that Jacob was her pot of gold.
Chella Courington is a writer and teacher whose poetry and fiction appear in numerous anthologies and journals including SmokeLong Quarterly, Potato Soup Journal, and X-R-A-Y Magazine. Her novella-in-flash, Adele and Tom: The Portrait of a Marriage (Breaking Rules Publishing), was featured recently at Vancouver Flash Fiction. Courington lives in California.
‘The judges were blown away by the quality of the submissions.’ Yeah, yeah. I have read quite a few summings-up by judges of short story competitions over the years, and invariably they go on about how they were astounded by the brilliance of the entries, how so many of the stories could have made the shortlist on a different day, how basically everyone deserved to win and coming up with the winner was an exquisite agony, darling.
Well not this time.
Your stories were all sadly very mediocre, and the only vaguely decent one basically picked itself in a matter of minutes.
The bar was embarrassingly low. Within a few minutes I’d managed to get rid of about 95% of your entries with a quick glance.
Not that I was quixotic or rash in my choices. I began, logically enough, by throwing out all the stories formatted in Ariel, Calibri or Garamond, which are all currently on my typeface shitlist (they know why). Next went stories formatted in less than 24 point. Despite the beat carnivalesque experimentalism of my own prose I’m not as young as I was, and forcing your judge to squint is just bad manners.
Stories with names in title case got whacked next because I mean, who are you, Samuel Pepys!? Then I remembered that I’d recently switched allegiance to title casing from sentence casing myself (it’s an age thing) but the story pile was going down nicely and I wasn’t going to go back and try and retrieve all those printouts from the roadside now. (I was driving overnight to a secret ayahuasca ceremony in Aldershot, so they could have gone anywhere.)
The next thing I did was to go though and identify the story by my ex-wife. It was a story about a bloke with a boil on his forehead who belched a lot, and ignored her dog, and stayed in bed half the weekend eating plain nachos, and wore the same red cardigan for weeks running till it stank. He had a birthmark on his left calf roughly the shape of Cyprus, and ended up (she claimed) in an old folks’ home taking pot shots from his balcony with an air rifle. It was called ‘Yes, Yes, This Story’s About You, You Stupid Sad Bastard’, or something like that.
So that one had to go, which was a shame in its way. I really liked that red cardigan.
Next I got rid of any story with animals in it. It is well known that the cats and their heathen brethren have already taken over the entire internet; these days, I can’t move on my timeline without coming across a video of an otter cosying up with an armadillo, or a pair of excited alpacas doing some moves that look oddly Latin. (Do. Not. Say. Llamabada.) Enough is enough, people! Animals suck. They steal our time and energy, when we could use that vital lifeforce to be out agitating for real political change – campaigning for free mouthwash, demanding an end to cordless dressing gowns, petitioning the powers-that-be for proper research into the mysteries of lucid snoring and all the rest.
I didn’t like any stories that referenced the weather either. It’s just a cliché. Ditto the sea. Ditto stories that began with the ‘The’ or ‘I’. It’s just too late in world history for that kind of shit, man. Read your Pope. Or get elected pope, I really don’t care. Your stories are still out.
I looked for a story by my other ex-wife though she’s not really much of a writer. There was one called ‘Cutting The Toxins Out Of My Life’, which did give me pause.
I also cut out all the stories with stupid or fancy language in. Words like albatross and flummox and frisson. Ditto plinth, helium and Albuquerque. Ditto ditto.
I also removed any stories that didn’t end in death because, really, what’s the point?
After all this critical winnowing and expert filtering, the only story left that was any good was one by this bloke called Donny Pretzel and it was about a man who arms himself with a 23” Sub-Automatic Pump Action Super Soaker Assault Water Pistol, which he fills with a base of tomato ketchup and garlic puree, laced after much experimentation with one part chilli spray to three parts Thai ginger paste, and he goes out and messes up every person who’s ever done him wrong. He gets to shoot them and they get to be covered in red stuff, but when he gets taken to court, the jury find him not guilty because he obviously has moral right on his side and he’s basically just such a charmer. And it was beautiful, it was like the Wild West but he didn’t kill anyone, maybe just got a bit of spice in a few eyes.
Donny, whoever you are, you’re an amazing writer and I know you’ll go far. Reading your story, I felt like I knew you already and you were writing just for me. You’re clearly a very sensitive guy whose been through so much but come out the other side with your talent and significant portions of body hair intact.
It’d be my honour to present this prize to you in person, Donny. So in the meantime I’ll hold on to the cash until you can make it over this way. Try and get here for a Thursday lunchtime if you can. It’s two for one at Pasta Lodge, and we can maybe go for a game of crazy golf afterwards and make an afternoon of it?
I think maybe we could be friends. I think maybe we could start one of those famous literary friendships that people make films about. I think I’d like that. I think maybe you could use a friend. I think I probably could.
Bring your piece if you’ve got one. I googled it in the library and feral pigeons are legal game, but it’s probably best not to try and cook one this time. Also we have to make sure the pellets don’t drop onto the petrol station forecourt next door as there have been a few complaints.
In the sway of the valley was a paradise, a garden of pleasure not unlike the Garden of Earthly Delights. People lazed on the grass, and in coloured bathers dove into a gleaming pool. There was a thick feeling among us. The dull ache of the sublime. And we never did mind the guards who patrolled, because the grass was very green and the textures so divine.
I felt resistance sliding across the edge of my mind like a third eyelid. Secretly cleaning it of the drugs they gave, and when it was washed I would see, momentarily. I followed the cattle-line of comely, dew-skinned specimens as they trotted along in their patent shoes. By twos we approached the platform to feed. Lab-coated women watched us from all sides, peering over glasses as the queue of glazed eyed wanderers drew infinite patience from their complete lack of appetite.
For the first time I was aware of myself. I was conscious as I approached the platform and sat down to my meal. The drugs were conspicuous, and difficult to avoid. I ferreted copious amounts of powder into my pocket during the flicker of their blinks.
Dinner finishers completed their course in the brothel’s maze, and were encouraged to drink excessively so that the drugs could bloom all the wilder. I found a blonde girl in the corner in a patent leather mini, and seduced her into the back room in order to hide. Almost immediately after shutting ourselves in, a young man burst through the door to join us. It was then that I realised that he too was resisting. I showed him the drugs I had concealed and he nodded to the girl, who had started salivating at the sight of them. I hardly had a moment to think before she buried her face in my hands, consuming such a quantity of powder that her eyes turned ice blue, and she slumped down in the corner.
Occasionally, the guards came in, and the young guy and I had to pretend as if we were having a right old time with the girl on the floor. Somehow, he jimmied a panel out of the wall, and we were able to access the front corridor of the main compound. We remembered this later when we awoke on the grass, sleepy, and touching each other’s hair.
* * *
Again I found myself in the valley. It was a cornucopia of enjoyment–colourful bodies, blissful textures, and breezes honeyed by the blooming. I had never looked to the edge of the valley before, but now I could see a path. It was dirty, indistinct and had bristly shrubs along the way. No wonder our eyes had been repelled from such an unattractive section of the visual field. I crawled and shifted with great stealth! Without anyone noticing, I mounted the winding path, up and up, as it curled around.
A rattle-hiss startled me there, and under the shrubbery a strange spider was poised. Half my size he was–pink and red and yellow and black. His voice was green, and his venom was white. He told me in clicks and crackles (and psychic speech), that Mistress had founded the community below after she had forged a bargain with the Arachanarchons. They hunted once a year, injecting anaesthetising venom into their prey, so that the flesh was made softer and sweeter by the bliss they felt at death. Mistress allowed them to live in freedom in the dense bushland surrounding the valley, upon the condition that they surrender a quantity of their venom on a weekly basis, as a sort of tax.
My mind was so wide at this point, and the spider’s voice so verdant that I scarcely noticed the glint that swished past my ear. I turned, like an animal, my bloodshot eyes burning into the distance where my attackers hid. I couldn’t tell if I was visible or not, but I saw beside me what had darted close. Little tinks and thuds sounded as syringes clattered around me, shot from the guns of the guards. The great spider closed his lazy eyes, and curled into himself like a crab.
I grabbed a handful of syringes, for protection, and darted off into the scrub. It seemed that the guards were not inclined to follow, yet soon I found myself on the other extreme of the ridge, and had to climb down the rock-face in full view of two guards having a cigarette break. I acted as intoxicated as possible, telling them a wild tale about how I had chased a butterfly to the top of the mountain, only to chase it back down again!
They regarded at me strangely but then resumed their conversation, commenting that it was a fantastic day for a picnic. There was an expanse of long grass between the pool dwellers and me. I acted like something they might see–a downy rabbit perhaps. I tickled my whiskers on a dandelion and frolicked back into the flock.
In the water I was safe again, and in a dreamy state of mind I dove, gliding along the length of the pool like a smiling seal. It was under there in moments that were thick with time that I saw him again, and our eyes communicated our resistance.
* * *
I found myself next to him in the corridor with my heart beating fast. Infiltrators had entered the compound. They wore strange white helmets with ink tubes connecting their thoughts with their spine. The ingenious apparatus protected them from the dust that puffed like white flour into the darling sky. My mind kept folding itself like a gigantic map; fold and double and fold. With each crease my mind would skip, and with each spread of map, I would be aware of where I was. Their excited eyes implored us to follow, their weapons cocked in urgency. Mistress had scuttled to the rafters and they had her surrounded. Booms and squeals, clatters and tinks sounded in the distance.
We exited through a series of white tunnels, virgin to my eyes. A train carriage set on a near vertical railway awaited us, hoisting its limp and bedazzled cargo up and out of the valley. Kaleidoscopic spiders as large as unicycles fled in all directions, over hill and over dale. One came right for us! I grabbed a newspaper from an old man who had been reading it, rolled it up into a mean whacking stick, and pelted the arachnid with all my might. Down he fell like a squalling orchid, and I stumbled backward into my silent co-conspirator. Magenta fluid dripped from the paper as the headline caught my eye. “Spider Venom: the Secret Ingredient in Life Saving Vaccine.” We looked at each other and read on.
Although the words jumped backward and forward in the lines, flickering and inverting by turn, an impression of the article’s meaning reached our liquid consciousness. The world was a wasteland, and people’s souls were sinking to their ankles; their sagging life force easily discarded by a careless movement of the foot. They believed the Arachanarchons would bring about heaven on earth! Or at least a semblance of it.
I turned to the old man, who sat listlessly, staring at his empty hands. We could not really communicate. I grasped his face and held it up to my own attempting to make the shape of the spine helmets with my hands. His stare penetrated deep into my eyes, paying no heed to time. Then, he made a gruff face, formed fists and held his wrists together. I looked around me at the long legged beauties with sheening hair as they began to slump. It was an uncharacteristic posture. In horror I felt an intangible sweetness slip from my body as the grey metallic tang of the train carriage became apparent to my nostrils.
It was a coup–an eviction from paradise–to make room for others more powerful than us. To the one who had shared my desire for escape, I turned. “At least now I know my name. What is yours?”
S. K. Balstrup is the author of Spiritual Sensations: Cinematic Religious Experience and Evolving Conceptions of the Sacred (Bloomsbury: 2020) and holds a PhD in Religious Studies from The University of Sydney.After years of academic writing, creative works are slowly emerging from old boxes and drawers, the first of which have been published by The University of Sydney Press and Lunate.
The building with square windows is getting closer.
I have been suspicious of square windows since I measured the one in my bedroom and found the proportions to be inexact. When I told my flatmate, she said: yes, well, they are almost square. I said: we have a word for that.
I have wondered before whether the encroaching building might be a church. It has no spire or steeple, but when I look at it, I think: worship. I pass hours gazing into it and forget everything I am.
I saw someone at the window once. She was looking at me and nodding. The motion was slow and deep, like she was rocking her body back and forth. She rocked for a while, faster and faster, until she hit her head on the glass. Then, the window was empty again.
I have thought for a long time that the figure might be the one moving the building. I sensed it in the way the rocking seemed to happen outside of her. Recently, I have found myself rocking too.
The encroaching building has ivy growing up it. When my flatmate noticed, she squinted and said: that wasn’t there before. We watched the glossy leaves rustle for a time, and when she wanted to look some more, I took her to the window. We rocked together, slowly at first, then faster. The ivy was always there, blooming under the surface the way veins bloom under the skin.
After that, everything was still until New Year’s Eve. With no one to celebrate with, I stood in my bedroom and said: Happy New Year. In response, fireworks burst from the building, lighting up the windows like glistening eyes.
Get back with your rectangles, I wanted to shout. I’ve given you what you want.
Leonie Rowland has an MA in Gothic literature. Her writing has been published by Ad Hoc Fiction, Reflex Press and Horrified. She also has work forthcoming from Dreich, Emerge Literary Journal, TSS Publishing and BlueHouse Journal. You can find her on Twitter @leonie_rowland.
I don’t wear a mask to protect you. Why not? Because screw you. I do it because me.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s great that everyone wears a mask now. Why? Smiling. I don’t have to look at all the goddamn smiling anymore. Before, I couldn’t walk down my own street without everybody smiling for no reason. Some old lady wants to get on the bus ahead of me. Fine, whatever. Then what does she do? Smiles at me. Screw you, grandma, just get on the goddamn bus and let’s go.
I’d go to a restaurant. I’d order a meal. What do they do? That’s right, they goddamn smile at me. Screw you, Trainee, just hand over my Whopper and fries then go screw off and find a mask.
Masks are good. Firemen wear masks. Awesome masks. Big goddamn masks for running into burning buildings to save puppies. I was going to be a fireman once — they begged me to join when they saw my bod — then something else came up. You’re not a fireman either, so just shut up.
One big reason I wear a mask is the ladies. They get one good look at this chiseled façade and the panties just drop to the floor. For an irresistible chunk of gent like me it’s best to cover up with a mask so I can get on with my goddamn business without getting constantly mobbed. Even a professional pussy wrangler can only take so much. It’s always been like that for me, so go screw your ugly self with a frozen broomstick.
I wear a mask because it’s badass. Badass dudes wear masks. Like those badass cowboys rustlin’ cattle and ridin’ into town with masks on and the womenfolk run off and hide in a cellar. Okay, they’re bandanas but same goddamn idea. Then they burst into a saloon and uncork whiskey bottles with their teeth and drink the whole goddamn thing. They take their masks off for that. Then they put them straight back on again and go rob a bank and shoot everybody because screw them.
Then there’s The Mask. You seen that? With Jim Carrey? It’s pretty goddamn out there. You don’t think so? Then go screw a goat.
I’d wear a mask on my Harley, if I had a Harley. And I wear a mask every time I stand near some bro’s Hog. Because I could take that Fat Boy out to Highway 50 and ride that ribbon of freedom into the wide Nevada sunset every goddamn day. No helmet, just a mask to keep the goddamn June bugs out of my teeth.
I wear a mask because I’m a man. A real man. As a real man, I smoke cigars. Big goddamn real cigars. After I spark up a stogie first thing in the morning, I put on a mask to keep that musky, real man aroma circulating all goddamn day. By 10:30 a.m. I’ve inhaled and exhaled so much oxygen-depleted personal man-stink that I start hallucinating like a technicolor lava lamp. I bet you want a slice of that heaven. But no, screw you.
Goalies wear masks. No, not soccer goalies, you goddamn Euro-pansy. I’m talking NHL.
Mostly I wear a mask all goddamn day to show my solidarity with the brave women and men who serve our great nation. Notice I said women first to prove I’m not a sexist. When you look at all the wars we won — Vietnam, Korea, that Gulf War country, and goddamn World War Two — one thing totally stands out. Masks. Our soldiers wear masks in trenches, masks on fighter jets, masks in tanks, masks jumping out of choppers, masks in the jungle and masks in the desert. Nothing says USA! USA! USA! real loud three times in a row quite like wearing a mask.
Because wearing a mask is wearing freedom. It’s goddamn America right there on your face.
Especially a mask with a stylish camouflage pattern or a patriotic Stars & Stripes motif, available in a range of convenient sizes.
And if you order now you can save 20% on a selection of combat compatible facewear to suit all your nationalistic needs. Visit http://www.goddamn-masks.com today and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.
Or go screw yourself, goddamn commie.
Paul Ruta is an old ad guy who lives in Hong Kong. He wrote a children’s book under the pen name Andy Spearman, published by Penguin Random House. He has talked baseball with Vidal Sassoon and has won a trophy for throwing a Frisbee very far. http://www.paulthomasruta.com
Do you remember when tattoos were cool; when strangers shook hands and hook-ups happened; when women shaved their bodies and men pumped their guns; when reality stars ruled and virtual worlds beckoned; when commuting took hours and the school run was a thing; when the craving for likes trumped the need for affection; when summers were warm and hurricanes rare; when snow came in inches and the seaside existed?
No? Me neither.
But my grandmother does and she swears life wasn’t much better back then.
Wagging a finger, the one with the ring etched in ink, she tells me again. How the world is more pleasant with less people in it; how choice was a headache and the rat race a pain; how the young are so lucky, being born when we were, with dieting an ordeal we’ll never endure, ditto for jetlag, and surgery too; how fortunate we are to have missed the decade of plague, to have slept through the fighting, curled up in our cribs; how blessed we all are to have made it this far, to have lived through the storms that ended more than the war.
Then clearing her throat, she says that soon she’ll be gone. Tutting and sighing, she says not to fret, she’s told me everything so often there’s no chance I’ll forget. But she tells me again, just to be sure.
Keep your eyes on the heavens and your ear to the ground.
I nod and I knead and I mouth along with her lesson.
After fourteen years alone together, I know her spiel. There’s more to come; she’s not done yet. And on she goes. The sky and earth will guide me, she claims. Their language, I’m told for the thousandth time, only needs deciphering, like the poems we pour over when it’s too wild to go outside. But then she stops and instead of finishing in her usual way, with a rueful smile and the bit about greed, she shuffles closer to the fire and stares so intensely at the flames that I’m afraid she’ll fall in. Abandoning my ball of dough, I tug on her sleeve with my floury hand. Her lecture I can do without, but her voice I need. She hugs herself and delivers the ending in a whisper.
Stick to your own patch. Take care of it and it’ll take care of you. You’ve enough to get by. Trust me on that. And don’t get greedy.
I nod again and return to work, but then she whispers new lines that bring me back to the fire.
And pay attention to the world around you, especially to the weather. Because that’s how it starts, small changes first and then-
The rest of her sentence is lost to a fit. She coughs and she heaves and she struggles for breath. I settle her down and wait to hear more; but the pressure has dropped by the time she recovers so I listen instead to the wind.
N.K. Woods studied Creative Writing in the University of Edinburgh. Her work has appeared in Tales From the Forest, The Galway Review, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, The Honest Ulsterman, Flash Fiction Magazine and The Ogham Stone. She lives in Ireland.
When I think back to my childhood – the earliest part of it, the part I once refused to think about – I still don’t quite understand how I could have gotten here. But at the same time, I recognize things could not possibly have transpired any differently.
It must be because something stops being trauma when it starts being motivation; and because the best way to avoid martyrdom is to stay alive.
It’s Match Day.
It’s the day medical students find out where their residencies will be, where their careers will begin, where they will make breakthroughs and witness medical miracles and accidentally kill patients and everything in between.
It is the culmination of 16 years of schooling, and it happens at every medical school in the country, all at the same time; thousands of doctors-to-be, opening a sacred envelope, discovering their futures and lamenting their failures.
I stand with my envelope, alone. All around me are my fellow students, surrounded by family, surrounded by friends, surrounded by the whole world, it seems. I am the calm eye amidst a hurricane of excitement in the room, the center of an orbit, my gravity warping space-time so everyone else is repelled around me into a vast radius.
It has been this way since the first foster home.
It was this way through all of public school, to be honest, and private university, and my top-tier medical school as well. I am a perpetual outcast; I am a pariah. I’ve been alone most of my life, but I have not been lonely. I have, instead, been working towards this, towards this exact moment, towards my destiny.
I know exactly when I decided to be a doctor. It happened in a split-second, in one of those life-changing moments that stick with you and subconsciously guide your every action, evolution disguised as instinct disguised as survival.
I will never forget it. I was a little girl, and I was watching my mother overdose.
I know how dramatic that sounds, but it’s not hyperbole. It’s also not what you think. Watching someone overdose isn’t like Pulp Fiction, and it’s not like 8th grade health class would have you believe, either. It’s quiet; deceptively sweet, like the poppies in The Wizard of Oz beckoning Dorothy to lie down and rest.
I was little, like I said, and I shouldn’t remember this, but I do.
I watched her for a bit, lying there, not moving. I think my prepubescent brain expected something to happen, the next link in a logical chain of events, but what I didn’t realize was that her chain was ending. I didn’t realize that the only thing standing between me and that inevitability was a Savior.
I sat there as precious moments ticked away, waiting for her to get up, or die, or seize or vomit or scream or anything. Instead, she just…slept.
The rest of that day is a flurry of motion in my memory: the landlord’s frantic steps when I finally called to say she wouldn’t wake up; police cars pulling up in front of our apartment; the EMTs bustling around our tiny living room, administering Narcan, doing CPR, loading my still-inexplicably-alive-mother into the maw of an ambulance.
There was a social worker, kind but aloof, desensitized to the trauma she glimpsed every day. She was the first in a long line of state-sponsored adults who would decide my life away as the years passed. There were more police officers, asking questions, demanding answers, pumping me full of soda and nervous energy.
Surprisingly, my mother didn’t lose custody; not that day, anyway. The above scenario would repeat more than once before the government decided to take me from the only home I had ever known. It was dysfunctional and depraved, sure, but it was also still my home. Leaving it for an endless string of foster placements was nothing short of life-shattering.
What really sticks with me about that day was the belief I had, the certainty which only a child can hold, that life would get better. I remember my conviction that my mother would wake up, that she would recover, that someone would fix everything and give me a future.
Of course, that didn’t – and doesn’t – happen.
Things got steadily worse, and no one came along to give me a future. The next decade-and-a-half was as terrible as you would expect a childhood spent in the foster system to be; but that isn’t what led to my current Hippocratic quest. My calling to medicine did not come from the horror of my youth – except maybe as a grain of sand irritates the oyster until a pearl is finally formed. What my journey did accomplish was to birth my need to rise above the hidden curse in my DNA, the genetic component of addiction that I knew – even in adolescence – would be a risk for me. You see, I could never abide being just another orphan of the opioid epidemic. I have refused, my entire life, to be an academic statistic or a cautionary tale.
I have, instead, always been determined to matter.
What I mean to say is, the day my mother overdosed, the day I decided to become a doctor, I witnessed a miracle. While it may only have prolonged what I now understand was never meant to be, Western Medicine managed, in front of my eyes, to bring my mother back to life.
Through a tiny window in an ER hallway, I watched the attending physician administer volts of electricity to her temporarily-stopped heart, and I made a decision: I was going to be a doctor, too. Someday, I was going to provide that hope for a little girl in the future, one who also might believe things would improve, if she just wished hard enough.
That stuck with me through the system, through all my schooling. I learned that the only person who was going to give me a future was me; I learned that no one can fix an addict but themselves. And I learned the art of healing, the art of saving a life. I learned how to keep a child’s mother breathing long enough for things, just maybe, to finally turn around.
Because that’s all I ever wanted, the whole time.
Things never did turn around for me – so I turned them around myself. And I am becoming, if you’ll forgive my hubris, one hell of a doctor.
Around me, the noise level is nearly unbearable, excitement wafting through the air like smoke, and now the whole room is counting down; counting down to the moment when it has either all been worth it or all been in vain, when that for which you’ve worked so hard will either come to fruition or leave you desperately wanting.
I stare at the envelope, trying to will its contents directly into my brain by osmosis. Even as I watch the large digital clock mounted on the wall, red seconds ticking away the last moments of my youth, I am terrified for the countdown to reach zero. If it WAS all in vain – if all of my work, all of my dedication, all of my soul I’ve poured into this endeavor was for naught – then I haven’t just let myself down. I have let down all the little girls I could have helped down the road, all the parents I could have saved. My years of training would be a meaningless sacrifice, the martyrdom of my childhood without any of the perks of sainthood or fame.
A few seconds left, and I can see all the students around me poised to rip open their envelopes; shoulders raised, fingers tense, looks ranging from exhilaration to apprehension to abject fear. I allow myself, for the briefest of moments, to think about the very slim possibility that the envelope in my hand contains precisely the news for which I’ve been hoping.
The countdown reaches the end, and there is a pause, a second of inaction, like the entire room is not convinced of the validity of the number zero. Then, as if choreographed, there is a frantic burst of energy as hundreds of burgeoning doctors rip away paper to reveal their paths.
Shouts, exaltations, swear words and wails echo from the walls, but I swear I can even hear the silence from individuals whose envelopes contain disappointment. I feel a flash of sympathy; as someone who has been let down so many times, I’m well acquainted with that particular emotion.
Still, I haven’t opened mine, because it’s not like there’s anyone waiting to see what’s inside. A murmur in my head, the voice of my inner monologue, whispers a prayer to a deity in whom I stopped believing long ago.
Please, it begs, let it be U Penn. Please, so it wasn’t all a waste, let it be U Penn.
I take one more moment to wish, with all of my being, and tear into the envelope. I discard it and unfold the paper inside, neat business creases dividing the document into perfect thirds as if it’s normal correspondence, as if it isn’t the most important piece of paper I’ll ever read in my life.
My eyes anxiously dance over the letterhead, the date, the addresses, the electronic signature, searching out the words I’m so hoping to see.
2021 MATCH RESULTS
School Code: 2310089
Applicant Name: Hannah Reynolds
CONGRATULATIONS, YOU HAVE MATCHED!
Program Code: 170354
Program Name: Cardiac & Thoracic Surgery
Institution Name: Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania
I blink unbelievingly, in awe at what I am seeing. I hear my inner monologue again, a resonant soprano that chatters constantly in my brain, that I always try to ignore, that holds the cumulative power of a lifetime of trauma.
You know what this means, right?
You didn’t think it was altruism, did you?
Oh, you did. That’s so cute.
My calling has been to medicine, yes. My goal is to sanctify life, to save it, to keep mothers and fathers and sister and teachers among the land of the living, sure. That’s what I’ve always wanted.
But, at the end of the day, we are all human. And what is more human than an innate need for justice?
We live in a meritocracy, you see, and I realized at a very young age that nothing commands more respect than a physician. People will see the letters after my name – people will see my alma mater on my curriculum vitae – and they will listen to me. They will trust me. They will believe what I say, and believe I have the purest of intentions in saying it.
No one will remember, however, that Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services ruined my life. No one will remember how they took me away before things could get better, how the social workers and police and judges and foster mothers were a collective force to endure, a Sisyphean boulder on my back as I struggled to grow, to live.
But I remember.
I remember bureaucracy, taking everything from me; I remember impotence, feeling dehumanized by the system. Most of all, I remember helplessness, my omnipresent childhood companion. Now, however – as a U Penn-trained doctor, as a pillar of the community, as the American Dream made incarnate – I will finally have what I never had before.
I will finally have power.
I will have power because knowledge is power. But power corrupts like opioids corrupt like the foster system corrupts, so is it really any wonder that I plan to wield my M.D. like a weapon – my education a switchblade in the scabbard of my mind – for payback, first and foremost?
Growing up in this city of Brotherly Love, I was screwed by both nature and nurture. But now – I will finally be taking my vengeance for both.
Shannon Frost Greenstein is the author of “More.”, a forthcoming poetry collection from Wild Pressed Books. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee, a Contributing Editor for Barren Magazine, and a former Ph.D. candidate in Continental Philosophy. Follow her at shannonfrostgreenstein.com or on Twitter at @mrsgreenstein.
Rashmi leaned into the thick perspex of the tunnel, her body bending to its curve. Outside the wind tugged at the grass and tore it horizontally. She longed to be that grass.
Everyone else she knew had moved on. They had learned to live with this new life, like hamsters in plastic tube houses or rats in a laboratory maze, but she couldn’t let go.
A loose slate on the building opposite shook free and clattered off the top of the enclosed walkway. No-one batted an eyelid. Finally, a voice broke her reverie.
‘There you are!’
Rashmi turned towards her sister. Eloise was standing, hands on hips and head tilted to one side, a pose familiar to Rashmi from earliest memory.
‘I’ve been waiting an absolute age. Eventually gave up our table and came looking for you.’ She tugged at Rashmi’s arm. ‘I should’ve known you’d be wind watching again. Come on, I’m starving.’
Rashmi trailed after her sister down the long winding tunnel towards the mall. Outside, a bird was careening towards the left wall, its wings scattered and useless and its beak open in impotent protest. Eloise glanced over as Rashmi’s eyes followed its final path. A smear of feather dust decorated the exterior for a matter of seconds before the currents lifted and carried the particles clear. No trace remained.
‘Dunno how those beggars still get out there.’ Eloise rapped her knuckles on the perspex. ‘Just as well it’s made of sturdy stuff.’
Rashmi had stopped again.
‘Jesus wummin!’ Eloise pulled again at her sister’s sleeve and hauled her towards the colourful noise of the food court.
‘Don’t you ever miss it?’ They had placed their order and Rashmi was circling her glass of soda and lime round its damp outline on the paper tablecloth.
‘The wind. Don’t you ever miss standing at the seaside, the salt air blowing your head clear of thoughts. Or breezes cooling the sun on your bare skin in summer?’
Eloise lifted one of the laminated menus from its holder and used it to fan herself.
‘You live in the past Rashmi. Do I miss spending an hour getting ready then within seconds of stepping outside having the style ripped out my hair and my make-up smeared by streaming eyes? Do I miss dodging airborne litter and flying debris? Do I miss projectile bird-shit on good outfits?’ She set the menu on the table and looked her sister in the eye. ‘What do you think?
‘Trouble is, your memories are rose-tinted.’
‘At least we were…connected.’
Eloise’s waved hand took in the perspex warren beyond the food court. ‘How much more connected could we be?’
‘Not that kind of…’
‘Chicken pesto panini?’ The waiter dropped the plate on the table without waiting for a response.
‘That’ll be m…’
‘And brie and cranberry on wholemeal.’ He deposited the second dish and left. The sisters swapped plates.
‘So, Mum rang last night…’ Eloise barely broke for breath, a mouthful of food pouched in her cheek. Rashmi took a sip of her soda and resigned herself to another lunch with her sister.
The foreman looked pointedly at his watch as Rashmi returned to her station at the depot.
‘I’ll make it up at the end of the day.’ She made a face at his retreating back.
In the changing room, she opened her locker and retrieved her uniform. As she pulled the overalls up over her boots and slid her arms into the sleeves, she stared at the photo taped to the inside of the door: two sisters in matching bathing costumes, knee deep in waves that stretched all the way back to the sky. They were grinning as the breeze tangled their salt-straggled bobs.
‘Rose tinted.’ She shoved the locker shut and pocketed her key-card.
Pete was standing by the truck, stabbing a finger at one of the hand-held devices as she approached.
‘Thought you were a no-show.’
‘Sister. Lunch. Phone call from Mum.’ She stuck out a hand for the device.
‘Lucky we got you back at all then.’ He patted the cab. ‘Loaders are done. It’s all yours.’
‘Cheers Pete.’ She clambered up the three metal bars on the side of the wagon and settled into the driver’s seat. One of the depot floor runners heaved the door closed behind her, its hefty locking mechanism slamming into place with a resounding clunk. She set the device into its port on the dashboard and considered today’s route.
‘Ya beauty. Coast here I come.’ Rashmi slid the key-card into the ignition slot and mock saluted Pete through the cabin window as the truck roared into life and began gliding along the iron track towards the exit. The siren howled throughout the depot and the floor runners retreated to their kiosks before the great doors slid open to the howling winds.
She had been ecstatic when she finally secured a transit post; this was as close as you could get to being outside on your own since the great winds began. Once on the open rail, she clipped her music box in place and voice-selected a favourite indie band. The cabin filled with the sound of twanging guitars and a decent gruff melody, and she smiled as Eloise’s accusation of her living in the past resurfaced.
‘Stuff it.’ She rattled the gear stick to the beat and sang along with gusto. The journey ahead would take her through the beautiful rolling hills of Kenville County and terminate at the pristine coastline of West Brand, previously a popular seaside resort.
The immense bulk of the truck thrummed along the monorail network requiring only the occasional input on the gear stick or brake from its driver. Cities and towns came and went. In the gaps between lay open landscapes, the blasted scrub narrating the prevailing wind direction. Occasionally, she caught glimpses of the coast: sand bulked in the far end of its curves and rocks undercut by waves thrown out by forceful currents.
Rashmi remembered the freedom of childhood summers. Wind breaks and parasols were secured with the simple heft of her father’s hand. You could build sandcastles that lasted until the careless step of a stranger caved the ramparts. You could sit on a towel with the breeze lifting your hair from shoulders sticky with sunblock. When you got bored, you could run with abandon into the rippling cool of a welcoming sea. The level surface would take your weight gladly and, as it gently lifted you up and down, you could raise a sleepy smile towards the heat of the sun.
The last family holiday to the seaside – in fact, outdoors – had been the year before the ban. The wind break had been torn from her father’s hands and vanished up and away like an overgrown kite. Grit had filled their eyes, noses, mouths, making the picnic inedible. The sea had hurled forbidding waves onto the damp sand, forcing the family high into the shelter of the dunes’ stinging grasses.
The following year, they joined the other families in the domed enclosures of Midpoint Parks.
Beach trips had been outlawed for nigh on ten years now, but she had never forgotten the feeling of those now distant outings.
The grey blocks and tube network of West Brand rose quickly on the horizon and the rail drew the truck closer to the crystal shimmer of the sea. Rashmi dropped through the gears until the truck glided to a halt within the concrete confines of the depot. Doors clanged shut behind her and floor runners emerged from their kiosks like cockroaches into a night-time kitchen. The forklifts buzzed round the back doors of the truck, carrying away the treasure to be hoarded in bays before onward distribution to the enclosed malls.
She clambered out the cabin and passed the device to the waiting clerk.
‘Lovely day out there.’ She pointed beyond the steel grey wall towards the beach.
‘Is it?’ The clerk didn’t look up, just clicked the device from the truck into a second one hanging from his belt and uploaded the data.
‘Anything to take back?’
‘Yeah. You’ve time for a coffee if you want.’ The clerk nodded to the staff canteen on the mezzanine.
Rashmi took the elevator to the upper deck and swiped her card in the door lock. She collected a coffee, wandered over to the viewing pane, and watched as the floor runners emptied and reloaded her truck. Grey overalls, grey walls, grey base, grey vehicle. She glanced up at the light tubes overhead and caught the slightest glimmer of blue sky.
When they had finished, the foreman waved up at her and Rashmi returned to the truck. He handed her the updated device and she recorded its receipt with a squiggly signature on the screen held out by the foreman.
‘No bother. Probably see you tomorrow.’
‘Aye, no doubt.’ Rashmi once again scaled the steps to her cab. Once again, she slotted the reconfigured device into its slot on the dashboard. Once again, she waved goodbye to the foreman and listened to the siren wail as the cockroaches ran for shelter.
But this time she unclipped her seatbelt, manually overrode the sealed door of her cabin and descended the three silver rungs to the depot floor. This time, as the doors slid open at the end of the warehouse, she ran towards the daylight, beyond the prison of the compound and into the elements.
Paul hammered on the reinforced glass of his kiosk, his warning shouts trapped within the protective shell. In panic, he hit the emergency button, but she was too far ahead, the doors juddering together too slowly to prevent her escape. For a second, Paul watched as the winds devoured the solitary figure standing beyond the gap. He heard a primal howl break from Rashmi as the blast of the wind struck her face, ripped at her hair, clothes, skin.
By the time the doors clamped shut, she had gone.
Hybrid writer-scientist, Sheila most enjoys turning idle thoughts into short narratives and illustrative doodles. Her work has been published in Postbox, Edwin Morgan 100 Anthology, Cabinet of Heed, Causeway, Ellipsis Zine, Flashback Fiction, Bangor Literary Journal, Poetic Republic, and 2019 Morton Writing Competition. Her intermittently hyperactive Twitter account is @MAHenry20.
The evening was warm. We are speaking about the month of May, after all; when the mercury levels in a temperate country as mine are easily in the high forty-degree Celsius mark. A heatwave had gripped the entire country in its clutches, and it was the tenth day when the temperatures had hit a record breaking high. I was standing on the edge of the boundary wall of my terrace, which, on the other side, fell into a thirty-foot drop ending in a cemented floor where a building was being constructed. And the thought that flashed across the box of rationality I call my head – the thought which had thrusted itself forward, pushing everything else aside – was frightening: what if I were to fall down this drop.
Would I die? Well, that would depend on where I landed, wouldn’t it? On my feet, maybe I’d break a lot of bones. On my head, and I would buy myself a one-way ticket to afterlife.
I’ve often wondered, particularly in the quiet hours of the night, the time when you find yourself sliding down the hole of vulnerability, why I feel this urge (because I don’t have a better word to describe it) to jump off my terrace whenever I looked down the drop. As far as I could remember, I’ve never suffered from vertigo. Before my father, god rest his soul, yanked our family out of our house in the country and threw us in this top-storeyed flat in the city (where the summers are agonisingly hot), I don’t recollect being afraid of heights. But now, here we are. I can’t take my eyes off the steep drop, and, the longer I remain fixated, the quicker I feel the urge hurtling forward to take control.
The construction work had been agonisingly slow. Two months in, and the workers had only put in the concrete flooring. In this tormenting heat, I wouldn’t blame them. I saw two workers, in their sweat-stained vests and black bottoms, standing by the cement mixer as it churned the cement. The older one, who stood with a slouch (a resigned, almost defeated look most characteristic of a life that has seen insufferable turmoil and pain), puffed on a cigarette. Although I stood significantly higher, the waft of the smoke as he took a drag from the stick and breathed it out was… sinfully irresistible. I felt the cloud of thoughts in my mind emptying and feeling heavier at the same time.
And, just like that, the pledge I’d taken to never smoke following an acute attack of tuberculosis last year started melting away. The desperate craving was returning. My twin brother, who could be fairly called my worst enemy, did hide a pack in his cupboard. For a computer wizard (he worked in the cybersecurity department of a multinational corporation), he wasn’t too clever with the digital passcode he’d used to lock his cupboard.
7.9.87. Our birthday.
But maybe it wasn’t the unquenchable craving for a cigarette that made me restless. I was still looking down. Staring into the drop was ominously hypnotic.
The next second, I heard a voice. At first, I thought it was the heat – the way it makes you light-headed – causing my imaginative mind to, well, imagine things. But I heard it clearly all the same. A whisper, which, despite the audibly loud cement mixer, the last calls of the birds as they made their way back to their nests, and the chattering of the kids playing in the neighbourhood park, had enough strength to carry itself to me. And it only spoke two words on an endless loop.
Do it. Do it.
The part of my mind which had been able to fortify itself from the urge didn’t have to know rocket science to decrypt the underlying meaning. The urge may have tried to thrust itself to the fore and almost taken the controls of my mind each time I dared to look down into the drop earlier, but, this time, I knew it was going to be successful. My mind screamed at me to take my eyes off the drop. Because it knew all I had to do was look the other way; and the terrifying tentacles, which were reaching out farther now, would recede.
But, I couldn’t. I felt my mind trying to oust the urge that was pushing its blade deeper into my consciousness now crying in painful fury. And, yet, I stood where I was; half bent over the boundary wall, my eyes trained on the drop. The workers milling around the cement mixer went off in different directions. Mr. Cigarette exited through a door at the back of the site. The other walked over to a small scattering of bricks, bent down and started sifting through them.
Though still a whisper, the voice became more whole than it was. And, with the voice, I felt the urge growing in size, now threateningly close to taking over my mind. It was alive and pulsating with what I could only describe as manic obsession. A part of me – maybe the smidgen that still hadn’t fallen to its tyranny – felt fearful. I felt myself shivering.
My head was growing heavier. The urge, which had locked itself in inside my head, was swelling in size. Amid the madness, I felt another sensation.
I felt clarity.
So, not resisting it anymore, I placed my trembling hands on the boundary wall. Hot tears trickled down my cheeks. Firming my grip, I boosted myself up. The surface should have felt hot to touch, but that didn’t stop me; I suppose I didn’t even realise it. I was enchanted, ensnared. But, in the process of heaving myself, I lost my balance. Propped only against my shivering hands, I couldn’t stop the momentum that carried me forward. The wind picked up. I could hear voices from down below. Mr. Cigarette, emerging from the door, bellowed. I couldn’t make out his words. The momentum kept carrying me forward. The voice – Do it – raved in my ears.
But the clarity in my mind, which had submitted to the urge completely, persisted. The last ounce of fear was supressed to nothingness. I would like to believe I even smiled. Not a hearty, big smile; just the touch of a curl at the corner of my mouth. Soon, I was completely on the other side of my boundary wall and my hands had come away. I was falling, falling…
I clock out and sit in the car, smoke a cigarette with the window down, waiting for the five o’clock wave of traffic to ease. There’s only one way out of the industrial estate and it bottlenecks every time. We’re bumper to bumper all the way to the motorway which pulls us like a slow tide; sluggishly we flow into the first lane, some try to break out into the middle, I wait, my indicator clicking in sync with the windscreen wipers as the first flecks of rain fall. The matrix sign flashes up 40 and we grimace at the irony. There must be a hundred people here, together, alone together in our worlds, eyes forward, inching slowly on. Maybe even listening to the same song, the same station, both synced and separate. It’s then that I see them, the gulls, circling high up to the East, a half mile from the barrier, above something of interest behind high walls. Probably a land fill site. They circle and caw, pull and lift, swirling like a whirlpool in the grey of the sky, it’s a scruffy kind of beauty, like scratches in tin. They are held together by something, an invisible tether, and I wonder what holds them, draws them, spins them in this cloud. Like us, inching through our own existence, alone together. Now and then the sun that has already set throws dying rays like an afterthought this way. There will be a rainbow somewhere, I should look for it in the mirrors. A red hue seeps across the clouds and now and then a yellow flash paints the underwing of the birds, gilding them, they shimmer like pearl as they spin, a shoal, and I wonder if they have ever seen the sea.
Ian O’Brien writes and teaches in Manchester, UK. His fiction can be found online and in print in magazines such as Fictive Dream, Prole, Neon, Flash Fiction Magazine and Storgy. You can find him on Twitter at @OB1Ian
Frankie, from my book group, picks up my red wooden statue from the kitchen bench. ‘My mother told me never to go to bed with a bench left messy,’ she says.
She has come to help me sort out my kitchen and living room. I don’t recall asking her. She just invited herself, really. Well, maybe I had been complaining about the small amount of space I had for myself in my apartment and how things crowding my living space made me feel uncreative and lethargic.
Frankie has arrived with yellow rubber gloves and two black rubbish sacks. The phrase Swedish Death Cleaning comes immediately to mind. We both look at the kitchen bench which despite my best efforts is often crowded with objects. Don’t even ask me what. Or how they get there. I am a big believer in that theory about how things get messy and out of control when someone is not even living in the room or the house. I swear it has even happened to me. I go to bed one night leaving the apartment tidy and when I get up the next morning, there is the mess.
Now she holds the red statue, which I am sure used to stand on the bookcase, at arm’s length. ‘These are two a penny in Vietnam,’ she says. ‘I saw them on the university history department trip there.’ Frankie is an administrator in the department. The lecturers might plan lectures and do all kinds of research but as far as Frankie is concerned, she’s the one who tells people what to do. Sometimes it sounds like she alone runs the place. ‘Not even hand-carved.’ She looks at me expectantly.
‘She made a long journey to get here. She chose me, you know. I’m sure of that.’
Frankie sighs. She is a very down-to- earth person. ‘Chose, schmose,’ she says, as if she is talking to one of the students who has said he wants to choose another course. Not history. Although why I have thought of this, I can’t say.
‘I like it,’ I say. ‘I like to look at it.’ I do. I like the little hat she wears, and the small bumps that are her chest.
Frankie frowns. ‘Liking is different from needing,’ she says.
‘But what about that famous William Morris quote?’ I return. ‘He said, “Have nothing in your house that you don’t believe to be useful or beautiful.”’ I have her now.
Frankie, however, appears unfazed. ‘Never heard of it.’ She hefts the black rubbish bag, ready to proceed. ‘Where is the beauty in a tawdry badly painted mass-produced object cluttering up a perfectly good bench? And what use is it, exactly?’
I could tell her it protects me.
The first night I joined the book group, Frankie took me under her wing. After the group, she insisted she and her husband, Geoffrey, would see me home even though I lived within walking distance. ‘You can’t be too careful,’ she said. ‘Not around this neighbourhood.’ Geoffrey, a big balding man with a paunch drove us in their little Mazda.
I was surprised a week later to find Geoffrey knocking on my door. I found myself staring at the gold chain dangling in his chest hairs. He said he was driving by and noticed a flashing on my roof was loose. Did I want him to fix it?
I said, I’d tell the landlord. He’d pop around and fix it. For no good reason, I said the boxing club my landlord was a member of wasn’t far from my flat.
Geoffrey said, Fair enough, good to know. ‘But if you do get any problems in the apartment that you don’t want to bother him with, here’s my card.’ I glanced down at it. ‘No job too small,’ it read. His hand stroked mine as I took it from him. ‘I’m your man.’ He looked down my top as he spoke. I was sure he winked at me before he left.
After the next meeting, I teamed up with one of the other book group members who also lived nearby and walked with her. It became a regular thing.
But just recently, someone said Justine, the youngest of our group who lived in the opposite direction from us, wasn’t coming to book group any more. She was sure a man had followed her home after the last book group. Whenever she looked back, he was the same distance behind her. He disappeared when one of her neighbours came out on the street to put his recycling bins out.
I remembered the last meeting. I was sure that was the night when Frankie wasn’t there. She’d had to go up north to see her elderly mother, someone said.
Even now I can’t be sure of my suspicions. I don’t tell Frankie about the protection.
Instead, I remove the statue carefully. I say I know some place I can take it, a charity shop that would be glad to receive it.
I turn her attention to the drawer under the kitchen bench. She takes great delight in throwing old raffle stubs, Lottery tickets, paper clips, drink bottle lids and bits of Tupperware whose use can’t be readily identified into her black sack. I let her throw some perfectly good unmatched linen I never use into the Goodwill bag.
After Frankie has gone, dragging the black sack behind her, I go into my bedroom and lay the statue down in a drawer, tucking her inside the folds of a soft cashmere sweater. ‘Not for long,’ I promise the Red Lady. Now I am the one who must do the protecting. Whatever it takes.
Kate Mahony’s fiction has been published in, most recently, Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand, Canterbury University Press, 2018, and Mayhem, Waikato University Literary Journal, New Zealand, 2019, The Blue Nib (Ireland) Fictive Dream, 2020. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University, Wellington. http://www.katemahonywriter.com
The house stood at the top of a hill on Home Street in the sleepy little town of Whitmore. It had been apartments previously, an upstairs and a down. This was a time when children played outdoors without any worries, doors were left unlocked, and keys rested in ignitions unattended. The two children in this family were used to doing what they were told. An oppressive atmosphere reigned which was exacerbated when the father, who worked two jobs, was home.
It had an attic which could only be reached by ladder. The brother and sister sneaked into this mysterious space. It had a strange smell, and the girl seemed allergic to the insulation. Their parents had stored several boxes and other random items up there. When they all settled in for the night, an eerie silence ruled except on some nights when they could hear creaking sounds coming from somewhere above—the attic. The boy who was labeled “sensitive” by the parents imagined the sounds were made by a body swinging from a rope. The parents said it was just the old house groaning in the wind, but the boy noticed the sounds from above even when there was no wind.
His sister started sleepwalking not long after they moved in. One night she went down to the basement landing to get the bag she used on her paper route. The parents caught her with it before she headed out the door. Another time she walked halfway down the landing from upstairs to where a door led to the outside. When it had been apartments, stairs had stood on the outside of the house which the parents had torn down. If she’d gotten out that door she would have fallen into space.
These children were drawn to things unseen, defying their parents’ prohibition of occult activities like Ouija boards. They played with their friends, fascinated by the light touch it took to get answers to questions. A young girl had been kidnapped a couple of years before they’d moved to Whitmore, and their neighbors told them how all the houses were searched and how fear gripped the town where nothing like this had happened before. When the brother and sister asked the board, “Is Maria still alive?” the needle slid quickly to “No.”
As they grew older, they became very close. They could read each other’s thoughts. Often at the dinner table listening to their parents’ conversations, they gave each other knowing looks no one else could read. One Sunday morning the children heard their parents talking in hushed tones before mass. The sister hovered near their almost completely closed bedroom door and heard them say that an infant had once died in her room. How they had come upon such knowledge she had no idea. She went and immediately told her brother, and together their imaginations conjured up all sorts of things.
The family had a cat. The father wanted a dog, but the mother put her foot down. The girl named the cat Peter after Peter Tork of The Monkees. He was a good-natured cat and the mother loved to feel it rub against her legs when she was doing dishes or cooking. Unfortunately, the cat was no good at mousing. The mother had seen droppings around the house and had seen a mouse when doing laundry in the basement.
Actually, it was the father who had a terrible fear of these creatures and brought home rat traps with poison. The mother objected but the father was insistent. They would have to keep the cat away from the traps. So, he set a couple of them: one on the landing heading to the basement and one in the basement. Everyone was given strict orders to keep the kitchen door which led to the basement closed at all times.
A couple of days later, on a Saturday morning, a scream echoed throughout the house. Seeing the kitchen door open, the mother had gone down to the basement to investigate and found Peter curled up dead by the furnace. When the sister found out, she became a bit excited about what they were going to do with Peter. “Can we bury him in the back yard and put up a cross?” she asked a little too eagerly. “I can help dig.” The brother suspected she had left the kitchen door open, for he had heard her creeping downstairs after they had all gone to bed. The brother wondered if the spirit of the dead baby were responsible for the changes he saw occurring in his sister.
The following morning, she told him she had had visions when going to bed the previous night. As she lay awake staring at the wallpapered walls, she saw faces appear in the pattern. In a couple of them, mouths were slowly moving. She had been very scared and had put her pillow over her face. Each night now she would have trouble falling asleep. In addition, she obsessed over how she didn’t want to attend the all-girl Catholic school their father was now insisting on. The brother could sense how angry she was. He’d started feeling afraid of his sister’s thoughts. They were disturbing and violent. He struggled with whether to say something to their parents.
One night he awoke in fear thinking of his sister. She had gone down to the kitchen, gotten a butcher knife, and stealthily crept into their parents’ bedroom. She smelled her mother’s cold cream, noted her father’s pipe in its stand. The mother, a light sleeper, heard the floorboards creak, awoke to see her daughter holding a knife over the father. She screamed and shook the girl’s body to get her to drop the knife, for she knew her daughter had been sleepwalking. The “sensitive” boy stood watching from the doorway reading his sister’s real thoughts.
Marc Frazier has published poetry for decades in journals including The Spoon River Poetry Review, ACM, The Gay and Lesbian Review, Slant, Permafrost, and Poet Lore. He has memoir in Gravel, The Good Men Project, decomP, et al. His fiction appears in Flash Fiction Magazine and Autre. His three poetry collections are available online. See Marc Frazier Author page on Facebook, @marcfrazier45 on Twitter, or marcfrazier45 on Instagram.
Way back when art was still made (pieces of themselves which people called pictures and songs and poems and movies and so on), sometimes it was real Art, capable of healing—which is to say, once upon a time humankind felt things and vulnerability was considered a virtue, encouraged, even. If you can believe it. The trouble was, way back then, real Art was work, real hard work, and when it came to work most people were utterly artless. And so, we left the art to the artists—persons who didn’t mind getting their hands dirty, who didn’t mind a meager spiritual return—while we, ourselves, content to listen, to marvel from a distance at creation but take no part in it, began to consume the sights and sounds around us rather than hear or see them for what they were. Contentment being what it was—humans being human—we developed a tolerance. We became critics. Soon, there were more critics than there were artists, and no one could agree on anything. Everyone was a critic, especially the artists, because within everyone was a creative drive starving for inspiration.
Of all the earthly appetites, the indulgences of true Art were next to none. But it turned out we were gluttons. And we were proud. We were so very proud, taking in, giving back nothing, demanding more. In this regard, we can blame ourselves. Call it hubris. The Gods were always calling humanity out on that—a prime offense. A prime mover: we couldn’t help ourselves. Whenever real Art was made, we put it on a pedestal. We put it on display. We even pretended it was God, sometimes, not just offerings. We worshipped it. We sexualized it. We got off on it. We ate it up. We welcomed judgement.
The God who came appeared to humanity as a great big Tomato with a green toupee. It had been watching the Earth drama from on far, not unlike so many Earthlings numbing themselves with sensations all the rage. It was Biblical, the way we destroyed ourselves for want of understanding ourselves. Eden burned and everyone carried matches. And yet—from these ashes sprung the highest Art. Seeing us lust about in this way, the big Tomato grew to want a closer look. A taste. It got off on our scheming eloquence in the face of self-inflicted doom. Let it be said, this could have led only to our current state of social sobriety, now.
But, for a time, the big Tomato God grew friendly and bright, bordering on overripe, Its skin brimming sweet red, tearing as It spasmed in fruition. So long as we impressed the Tomato with our plight, all the fighting and backsliding and deceit in the world ceased. Suddenly, there was money in everybody’s pockets, and everybody went to bed at night with full bellies and a roof over their heads with clean drinking water on tap; and everybody was more tolerant and openminded and true to their word; and they chewed with their mouths closed, covered their mouths when they coughed; and people pulled up their pants, used their blinkers, bathed regularly, made sure women got theirs first; and there was general goodwill toward humankind.
But how critical, the God who came. In our defense, we had a lot less to make art about when people got along and looked out for one another instead of living lives devoted to gratifying themselves. Where was the tension? Where was the suspense? The double-cross? The sacrifice? The death?
The big Tomato grew harder and harder to please, unimpressed, peeved. It grew rotten, downright nasty! If the big Tomato had truly given, now it took away.
Life on Earth became increasingly dogmatic trying to please this great big Tomato we called God. For the sake of progress, we abandoned our Ideals. We sold out. We gave the Tomato what it wanted, never mind the cost. We rehashed old ideas; we tried to remember. We “recycled.” There were many names for what we did, all awful—and to no avail. In the end, we killed our Would-be God. We starved It, the great big Tomato that came down from the sky, for us. A bad movie was made about it, and remade, and made again, and…
Jimmy Huff is a writer and musician from the Missouri Ozarks, USA. His work has appeared in Third Flatiron Anthologies, Dirty Chai Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, and other lovely places.