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What’s Next – Priscilla Green
I’m tired of climbing mountains,
swimming across rivers,
tired of goals,
Give me a moment to breathe,
to rest my head on a pillow
and sleep for the night
before you ask me,
Let me exist,
I have climbed mountains,
swum across rivers,
Priscilla Green is a Canadian writer of fiction and poetry. Her recent work has appeared in Spadina Literary Review and Vaughan Street Doubles. She lives in Toronto.
Heartless – Ann E Wallace
The man behind Curtain #6, in the bed next to mine, is moaning. Moaning the plaintive sound of a man who is very, very cold. The sound of a man who is burning up with fever and cannot keep the warmth within his body. A man who is so cold and so hot all at once that it hurts.
Whenever he stops moaning, he coughs. And coughs. And coughs. A deep, dry hacking cough.
In my bed, in Curtain #5, I cover my head with my jacket. The curtain between us is not thick. And I am quite sure, though I cannot see him, that the coughing man is facing me. And I am facing him. I know I should face away. But that would require a great deal of effort.
The coughing continues. I roll, slowly, from my left side onto my right. I rearrange the lines attached to me—attached to my blood pressure cuff, to the blood oxygen monitor taped onto my index finger, to the IV in the crook of my right arm. I spread my sweater and jacket over my body, pulling the soft collar of my coat over my face once more.
I am wearing a surgical mask, but I am not confident it can block out that cough, with its millions of infectious particles whirling through the air from one bed to the next to the next.
Many of the doctors and nurses here wear two masks, one on top of the other. Some wear a mask over an N95 respirator. Others have plastic shields over their faces. I feel naked in my thin paper mask.
They must feel naked even in their double or triple layers when they duck behind Curtain #6 to care for my neighbor.
He moans and coughs for ages, surely an hour or longer. I wonder how the staff does not feel the distress I feel inside of me as I listen. I cannot not listen. He is 6 feet away, maybe closer. I have no job other than to lie there and listen.
My bedside monitor beeps often, intermittently. My heartrate is 48…49…50…49. These numbers are low. So low that they set the alarm to beeping.
I wonder if my heart is trying to slow itself to a putter, so I might protect it from the man in Curtain #6 and all the other coughing men, coughing women, behind the curtains. If I could slow its rhythm down, down…down, I might lie still and know his breath, their breath, cannot touch mine.
As the monitor beeps with each dip of my heart below 50 beats per minute, I know that if I allow myself to feel anything for the man in Curtain #6, my heart would race with concern.
But my job here in this ER is to safeguard my lungs, my body, my heart, my family. And hope that there will be time to cry for the man in Curtain #6 later from the safety of my home.
Ann E. Wallace is writing at home in Jersey City, NJ while she and her daughter recover from COVID-19. Her poetry collection Counting by Sevens (2019) is available from Main Street Rag, and her published work can be found online at AnnWallacePhD.com. She is on Twitter @annwlace409.
The Quiet Abandoned Places – Anne Howkins
Rose takes herself to quiet abandoned places when no-one is looking. They de-fizz her blood, unwind the labyrinths deep in her head, slow her pulse – let her be Rose.
Trudging through the mud to a semi-derelict cattle byre hidden in a dip. A pair of March hares catch her madness. They box each other’s ears for the hell of it; bolt across the sprouting wheat when the wind carries the dismayed scent of Rose to their twitching nostrils. She squeezes under a sheet of corrugated iron which pretends to be a door, hanging broken hipped and laced around its edges. Rose perches on the old manger while she watches a spider straight-jacket a fly with silk, until all that she can see is a silver pearl trembling in the draughts. She wonders if she should free the fly, understands it’s too late. A gust catches the disturbed metal sheet, sends it twisting like a dislocated limb until it crashes into the byre.
Rose gasps herself up the hidden steps by the old railway bridge. Sleepers and tracks absent now the colliery trains are distant ghosts clacking through the night; the gravel cindered with coal grime shed from bodies long gone. Solstice butterflies leave the buddleia to flit around her head, collecting the dusty guilt and despair that gathers in her wake. Birdsong and light fading as the tunnel draws her in. A shock of feathers confetti her naked shoulders when roosting pigeons startle at the crash and splinter of a roof timber.
Rose seeks the building hidden in the dark woods. Brick growing out of grasping jewelled brambles as rosebay willow-herb floats feathery seeds in the autumn equinoctial wind. Hands stained red hauling herself up the fire-escape, setting oxide flakes drifting to earth. The final heart-wrenching pull over the top. She lies wide-eyed on a mossy bed, wondering if she could net a mackerel from the sky, bait it with confusion. The crack and crash when her weight sends tiles cascading to the floor.
Shivering her way to the mid-winter lake where the hill ponies and sheep gather in shimmering summers. They are safe in their winter paddocks, squabbling over the sweetest mouthfuls of June-scented hay. The old drove road crunchy under Rose’s feet, her eyes scrunched against the sunlight bouncing off last night’s tinkling hoar frost. She picks her way over the frozen hoof-pitted margins and slides onto the pristine ice covering the brackish water beneath her feet. Her exhaled worries shadow her as she swoops and glides over the frozen surface. The cracking and splintering behind her as the ice yields to her weight.
Rose opens her eyes. White everywhere, the walls, the sheets, the light. Her body a crumpled carapace, the hiatus in her head. Everything has aspirated away. Machines whooshing, blinking, beeping.
Nails digging into flesh. Stinging salt on cheeks. The cage door closing.
A silver pearl trembling in the breeze.
A Week in the Life of a Broken Boy – Alva Holland
This broken boy. He cowers in the corner of the locker room.
‘Kid! You wanna be a boxer? No cowering.’
He lifts his head, a bruise the size of a tennis ball on his cheek.
‘You been practisin, boy? Let’s go in the ring – do it properly.’
This broken boy. He limps ahead of me. I am unseen. He drops his pants for his shorts. A large black mass spreads across his upper thigh.
‘No rogue fightin’ kid. You have to stick with my programme.’
This broken boy. A no-show. I call his number. No reply. I call his house. Disconnected.
This broken boy. He arrives, dressed only in his shorts and flimsy t-shirt. It’s -3 outside.
He’s shivering, his bruises visible, his intense pain hidden, he thinks.
I throw him some track pants, ask him why he wasn’t here yesterday. He says nothing.
This broken boy. He’ll be waiting. Car’s got a flat. Jesus! I call the kid. No answer.
This broken boy. He has busted the chain on the gym door. I find him crouched in the corner of the locker room.
‘Kid! This is not working.’
Then I see the blood, a constant slow drip from his head.
‘Jesus, kid, what’s going on?’
‘Not going back, never fucking going back.’
This broken boy is scared senseless by the arrival of the uniform. The kid runs, tripping, dripping.
‘For chrissakes, kid, you need help.’
I reach him, it’s not difficult to catch up with this boy.
I stand him up.
He winces under my touch. Everything about him hurts.
I send the uniform away.
This broken boy is asleep on my couch, looks younger than his years.
My wife comes back from her mother’s.
Looks at the kid.
‘WTF?’ she mouths.
She folds a blanket over the broken boy.
We go upstairs to bed.
I hear the front door slam.
Dammit to hell, kid.
This broken boy. Where is he today?
Doorbell rings. It’s the uniform. His eyes tell me what words need not.
Failure – me.
I have failed this broken boy, shattered now.
Donna – Carl Taylor
Donna’s life was paint by numbers. She wasn’t lonely because she had a cat and a smartphone. It also helped that Donna had no imagination, which was all right because imaginations are no longer necessary. If anything, imaginations may prove a detriment in this world. Who among us doesn’t have a friend that was felled by their own creativity? It can be a sin worse than pride because often it is a sin of pride, plus a splash of something extra.
Now imagine (or perhaps it would be better if you didn’t imagine) the monochromatic interior of Donna’s apartment. Let your mind gently peruse this space; this snapshot of orderly boredom. The sink is empty, the litterbox tidy, and there is a scent of Febreze wafting from a yellowing plug. Donna walks gingerly through her habitat. Donna is an egg, after all, and every morning she cracks herself in two and pours the yolk across the many hours. She lives in a tiny condo on the third floor, or maybe it’s the fourth. (Here, the floors and the condos all look alike.) When she feels secure, Donna likes to take the stairs rather than the elevator for the exercise. Donna doesn’t feel lacking in any way and doesn’t desire that anything change; but of course, things do change, whether that is our intention or not. Donna is thirty years old and perhaps has been for many years.
One day Donna met Pete. She didn’t mean to. She was in line at the movies when it happened—a box of unbuttered popcorn in her right hand and a ticket stub to a humorless film in her left. Donna preferred movies in the classic mold. She found the virtual reality films overly stimulating. Even the theaters designed to incorporate smells were a bit too much for Donna. The cinemas where films watched the audience were sufficiently unexciting, yet still unnerving in their complex meta-expression. Donna stuck with the 2D films.
Donna was really looking forward to being bored for two hours. That’s when Pete bumped into her while attempting to untie his shoes. When their eyes first met, Donna found herself sufficiently unimpressed with the stranger’s traditional garb of sweater and khakis. She further noted that this man who bumped into her had somber brown eyes, a casual grimace to his lip, and symmetrical (but not too symmetrical) features. In other words, she found Pete to be nearly perfect in his mediocrity. He too was slight of build. He too had a box of unbuttered popcorn and a ticket to the same humorless film.
“I suppose one shouldn’t attempt to untie their shoes while holding a giant tub of popcorn.”
“I’m not sure why one would attempt to untie their shoes at all.”
“So that one may tie them again, but tighter,” he said, and this made a certain paralytic sense to Donna.
“Are you here with anyone?” she asked.
“Just the general crowd,” he said, and he smiled in a way she found gallant, but not overly so. Certainly not dashing. In other words, his demeanor too was almost perfect, in a world as judged by Donna.
Now, when people asked how they met, they would say, “It just happened.” And Donna would say, “Love is like anything else, you can only find it when you’re not looking for it.” And Pete would add, “I was untying my shoes, and then…Donna.” Everyone agreed that the couple was cute, but not too cute; their relationship sensible in the way a modern romance should be.
Then, an eruption of their perfectly average harmony. After six months of comfortably lukewarm dating, Pete agreed to move into Donna’s condo. It was a sensible move, they both thought, one that would save them money and provide a logical next step. During this spring of their romance, they spent their days at work and their evenings on a couch, their shadows silhouetted against the blue furnace of the television screen.
“Are you happy?” Pete would ask while holding her hand.
“Yes, I think so. You?”
“I think so.”
On the weekends they would take turns burning pancakes. Weeks would pass—no, months. The television talked of revolution in the streets.
“Someone should do something,” Donna said.
“Yes. Someone should.”
The outside world changed, but Pete and Donna mostly stayed the same.
A year later Pete got promoted at the numbers factory. His superiors at the factory commended him for the way he moved numbers that year. Meanwhile, there were mass layoffs at Donna’s place of employment—everyone with below-average work output received their walking papers, and everyone who exceeded expectations preemptively left to find a new location to spend the majority of their waking lives. Donna, of course, stayed right where she was.
Donna and Pete’s relationship continued to exist. It was neither great nor terrible, and that was exactly how they wanted it to be. Needed it to be. Donna suspected that Pete would soon propose. Every time Pete dropped to his knees she became convinced that he would. Each time she was wrong, he was merely untying and then retying his shoes. Then one evening, as summer started to tickle in everyone’s ears, Donna’s sister Meghan called. Donna hadn’t heard from Meghan in years. Donna wasn’t certain how to react when Meghan said that she was in some sort of trouble. But Donna couldn’t help but agree when Meghan asked to crash at Donna’s condo for a while.
* * *
Meghan arrived at the apartment a day later, carrying nothing but a tube of toothpaste.
“What about a toothbrush?” Donna asked.
“I figured you had an extra,” Meghan said. “Don’t ya?”
“Well, yes,” Donna said.
“Good. Then I figured right.”
Meghan invited herself in and swept the room, walking in a brisk manner and picking up pictures and other knick-knacks.
“You could really use an interior decorator,” Meghan said. But then she caught herself and said, “But of course, I could use an interior period, so who am I to be so snooty?” Meghan was wearing a vintage green dress and vibrant costume jewelry. She looked misplaced in that spartan condo. Anywhere else she may have looked like a sophisticate, or even a model.
“Where’s your man?” Meghan asked. She pulled out a pinch of snuff and inserted it firmly into her lower jaw.
“Out,” Donna said.
“Marvelous,” Meghan said. Then, “I’m going to go spit this in the sink and redo my makeup.”
At dinner that evening, the three of them gathered around a Moroccan meal that Meghan cooked. Meghan kept repeating she had learned the recipe from an ex-lover, who was from Morocco, or who had at least spent some time in Morocco.
“It’s very flavorful,” Pete said.
“Yes,” Donna agreed. “There are many flavors.”
“We should all go to Morocco,” Meghan said. “Wouldn’t it be something? Africa.”
“That would be neat,” Pete said, staring in Meghan’s direction a bit too long. When he caught Donna’s eyes stalking him across the table he meekly said, “I suppose it would, anyway.”
Donna kicked Pete under the table.
“But probably not,” he added.
“Honey, how was work today?” Donna asked.
Pete sawed at some lamb with a butter knife. “Good,” he said. “Work was good.”
“What do you do?” Meghan asked.
Pete contemplated the question. “I suppose it depends on the time of day,” Pete said. “Right now the thing I am doing is eating supper. But at night I sleep, during the day I work—.”
Meghan laughed, a quite loud laugh. “Dear, I meant: what job do you have?” she laughed again.
“Oh,” Pete said while trying not to blush. “I move numbers.”
“Are they heavy?” Meghan asked. Then she laughed and patted Pete on his shoulder. “Just a joke, dear.”
“You know,” Donna said after she forced a swallow of the lamb. “Pete is really great at his job. He’s considered one of the top numbers movers in his company.”
Pete blushed some. “Well, I try my best,” he said.
“You know,” Meghan said. “I am actually writing a screenplay about numbers. You see, it’s about a world where everything is binary code. So, there’s only ones and zeros, and the problem is they just bloody hate one another. Of course, right. The zeros want to kill all the ones, and the ones want to kill all the zeros. There is a revolution, a war.”
Donna’s mouth falls agape. “Who wins the war?”
“Who do you think?”
“Well,” Pete said, swatting away a fruit fly. “Technically one is a higher number than zero. But in a binary code, they really are equals.”
Meghan smiles. “Don’t be silly, you two; neither of them wins. They both kill each other off equally. But the important thing is the moral of the story; that as long as we’re divided we may be destroyed.”
Silence. Silence until dessert. Donna chose the dessert. It was red apple slices and sugarless brownies.
“We should have had this before dinner,” Meghan said. “What a great palate cleanser.”
* * *
The next day Pete could barely concentrate at work. He moved numbers in the wrong direction—sometimes even in the incorrect order. Some numbers he mixed up so badly they were upside down, or backward. This was all right when it came to the eights because they looked the same either way, but the threes started to resemble the letter “S.” The entire factory almost shut down. It was chaos. “I’m sorry,” Pete said to his boss, Dr. Blaster. “I don’t know what’s come over me.”
Dr. Blaster gave Pete an affectionate pat on the back. “These types of days happen,” he said.
“That’s true,” Pete said. “Because it did happen.”
“Something on your mind, son?” Dr. Blaster asked.
“Yes,” Pete said. “Women troubles.”
“Yes, indeed,” Dr. Blaster said while straightening his bow-tie. “It’s never easy to be in a relationship. But they do say that one is the loneliest number.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Pete said, realizing what he had always suspected: all of life was just the moving of numbers.
* * *
That weekend Meghan invited Donna and Pete to an art show. One of her friends was making erotic sculptures of donuts.
When Donna went to the bathroom, Pete and Meghan stood observing a crème donut, only the crème was semen.
“It sure is something,” Meghan said. “Make sure you bring some extra napkins if you choose that one.”
“I suppose everything has a hole in it, waiting to be filled,” Pete said, trying to sound mystical and wise. Then he tried to hold Meghan’s hand, but Meghan batted it away.
“I will not be your Blanche DuBois!” Meghan said, pinning back her hair.
“No, no of course not,” Pete said, visibly flustered. “We don’t even watch the Golden Girls.”
Meghan laughed. Red-faced, Pete retreated to untie his shoes.
“What if I am falling for you?” he asked from near the floor. “Do I have any chance?”
“Perhaps,” Meghan whispered. “But you better convince me rather quickly. This is a short story, not a novel. You only have another thousand words or so if you hope to pull something monumental like that off.” Then Meghan ran off to her artist friend, to compliment her on the vagina-shaped cruller, and how lifelike the “menstrual-jelly donut” appeared.
* * *
An inspired yet noxious tension started to poison the formerly average condo. Donna wasn’t sure what to think, or even what to feel. (She had spent so much time trying not to engage in either activity.) And as for Meghan, well she only wrote herself into this story so she had somewhere to be. She really was meant to be in a much more exciting and dynamic story, not something so shabby as this; but things don’t always work out as planned. Perhaps the story should be retitled “Meghan,” rather than “Donna.”
Pete continued to flounder at work and was soon laid-off. Dr. Blaster commented he had never seen someone “lose it so quickly.” He took no pleasure in Pete’s troubles. Pete was even granted a generous severance, but for the first time, his future seemed to him both exciting and terrifying. Pete even stopped untying his shoes; after all, what do shoelaces matter in a world so filled with uncertainty? Then Donna’s work fell below average, leading to poor performance reviews, and finally a below-average severance.
Soon the three were unemployed together, uncomfortable every hour of the day in that plain little condo. Weeks passed in a quiet misery. But underneath the surface there were stirrings.
* * *
Pete would follow Meghan around the condo like a baby duck. Meghan would sometimes lead him on. It’s not that Meghan wanted to be mean-spirited, it’s just that she was impossibly bored. Donna started to become more possessive of Pete, and even more distant to Meghan. There were quibbles, then ugly arguments. The air itself grew tense and thick with regret and longing.
* * *
One full-moon night, during a severe thunderstorm warning, of which no rain would fall, Donna approached Pete and told him her suspicions.
“You’re in love with my sister, aren’t you?” she said.
Pete circled the room, not sure what to say. He thought about telling the truth. Instead, he dropped to untie his shoes. While on the floor, he said, “I don’t think of your sister that way. You’re imagining things.”
“No,” Donna said, realizing just how untenable the situation had become. “I don’t imagine things. That’s not me. In fact, my whole life I’ve been told I have no imagination.”
“But neither do I,” Pete insisted, but they both knew that for some reason he had grown one.
“Stand up,” Donna said. “Stop hiding on the floor like a child.”
“Stand up,” Donna repeated. “Stand up! If you’re going to lie to me, have the indecency to do it to my face.” Pete remained on the floor, tying and untying his shoes until Donna left the room.
Within a week Donna would again be alone in her condo. The sink would again be empty, the cat’s litterbox tidy, and there would be a scent of Febreze wafting from a yellowing plug. Outside there would soon be a new revolution in the streets, and Donna would again hope that somebody else would do something. But not her—Donna would again sit with her cat and her phone, and nothing of the outside world would ever trouble her again. She wouldn’t allow it.
The next morning Pete approached Meghan and asked her to run away with him.
“Think of it,” he said, while untying his shoes, “we can go anywhere, be anything, do anything. We can move more than numbers. We can travel to Morocco.”
Meghan stared down at Pete. “If we traveled to Morocco together, would you promise to wear sandals?”
Meghan knew she had to go somewhere else, and that she must do it quickly. But just as surely, she knew that Pete would not be the vessel of her journey. That he would not be a part of her journey at all.
Meghan sighed, why do men always have to fall in love with the unattainable? In a way, isn’t that the least imaginative notion of all?
Carl Taylor is a writer, recovered attorney, and the Editor of Oscilloscope Literary Magazine. Carl’s writing can be found at http://www.carltaylorwrites.com
Kleptomaniac – Andrew Shields
The candy in my pocket
lay beside the money
I hadn’t had to spend.
With every step, I left
the store behind and took
a step into my life.
A bus pulled up, its motor
humming more than ever.
The people getting off
and on had never talked
as loud as that before.
The air rushed into me,
rushed out to join the breeze
with just a touch of spring.
I pushed the crosswalk button,
its metal cool to touch,
then reached again to touch
the candy in my pocket.
No candy ever tasted
better for not being bought;
it’s best left in that pocket,
beside the unspent coins.
Andrew Shields lives in Basel, Switzerland. His collection of poems “Thomas Hardy Listens to Louis Armstrong” was published by Eyewear in June 2015. His band Human Shields released the album “Somebody’s Hometown” in 2015 and the EP “Défense de jouer” in 2016. Twitter: @ShieldsAndrew Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/andrewshieldspoems/
A Fair Amount Of Ghosts – Zach Murphy
He plays the trumpet brilliantly on the corner of Grand and Victoria. He doesn’t look like he’s from this era. He’s impeccably dressed, from his crisply fitting suit to his smooth fedora hat. There aren’t many folks that can pull that off. He’s cooler than the freezer aisle on a sweltering summer day. He performs the type of yearning melodies that give you the goosebumps. I’ve never seen anyone put any money into his basket.
There’s a formidable stone house that sits atop Fairmount Hill. It’s been for sale for as long as I can remember. The crooked post sinks deeper into the soil with each passing year. It isn’t a place to live in. It’s a place to dwell in. There’s a dusty rocking chair on the front porch. It’s always rocking. Always rocking. I’m not sure if the chair is occupied by an old soul or if it’s just the wind. Maybe it’s both. I guess the wind is an old soul.
This town is full of posters for Missing Cats. There’s one for a sweet, fluffy Maine Coon named “Bear.” He’s been gone for a while now. I’ve searched through every alleyway, under every porch, and inside of every bush for him. Sometimes I think I see him out of the corner of my eye. But then he’s not there. The rain has pretty much washed away the tattered posters. If he ever turns up, I worry that the posters will be missing.
I met the love of my life in Irvine Park, near the gloriously spouting water fountain, beneath the serene umbrella of oak trees. We spent a small piece of eternity there together. We talked about whether or not the world was coming to an end soon, and if all of our memories will be diminished along with it. After we said our goodbyes and she walked off into the distance, I never saw her again. So I left my heart in Irvine Park.
Zach Murphy is a Hawaii-born writer with a background in cinema. His stories have appeared in Peculiars Magazine, Ellipsis Zine, Emerge Literary Journal, The Bitchin’ Kitsch, Ghost City Review, Lotus-eater, Crêpe & Penn, WINK, Drunk Monkeys and Fat Cat Magazine. He lives with his wonderful wife Kelly in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Brat! – Joey Rodriguez
A dithering sunset of rose pink and ochre pixelated the horizon. The antsy unlucky bobbed to the monosyllabic backtrack, waiting to be selected from the herd lining the glowing boulevard. Electric traffic lights ferried the hard-topped and gull-winged down the strip, the ocean to the west lapping its murky paw onto the dead, lingering sand, prying at the sagging palm trees.
Condensation wriggled around the greasy fingerprint embossed on the exterior of the slender glass. Non-alcoholic; a paper straw. She dared not touch the bubbling cola. Her sightline afforded her an inconspicuous reconnaissance of the pulsating nightclub. A cybernetic beat swelled her heart against her ribs, refusing to harmonize with the muffled, technological track. She ignored the flapping bill and the consolation prize in the plastic pouch, both caught in the unhelpful, sweltering breeze.
The locus of control slipped the bulky helmet around her face, the reflective void of the visor concealing her eyes. Her backpack had been tightened to its zenith, the perspiration transferring from her skin to the polyester. Straddling the motorbike, she calmly initiated the engine. To the heat of the blood-red signal, her canvas sole tapping the asphalt to maintain balance. Her right wrist twisted cautiously, the weapon finally announcing its weight. A left turn signal swung her into a majestic U-turn, the stench of hairspray and cologne beaten aside by her protective caul as she slid parallel to the waiting celebrators. The barrel offered false positives, any one of them could suffer as benefactors of the trickledown.
It was the bulging pectoral of the bouncer who received the inaugural salvo. The open-bolt, blowback-operated submachine gun thwacked the air, stunning the preoccupied crowd into a cautious gawk. The port windows of the entrance doors collected the backdraft: a long, viscous stream of argon-tinted excess. A stray bullet had caught his neck, the pressurized release guiding her past the screaming and fearful. Now, with their powdered webspaces covering their rotting mouths and their plastic satchels jiggling with pink and blue vitamins, they would part for her.
Her motorbike scraped the roadway as she muscled aside the swing doors. A goon prowling the coat check reached for his holster, but her throbbing, syncopated arc tattooed his uselessness along the crimson walls. Shades of helium dripped as the inebriated hostess ducked back onto the shadowed dancefloor proper.
The blinking, toxic Fresnel illumination refracted off the helmet’s visor, masking her mirrored entrance, sacrificing herself into the ocean of uncaring egos. Between sonic pulses from the towering speakers, she stomped, keeping rhythm with the mesmerizing enchantment of the robotic dance. To the rear, circumventing the stage, into the hallowed halls, her heel shoving the door inward, breaking the inquisitive nose on the opposite end.
The handheld weapon spat fire until his face lifted free. There were others, the corridor flush with the childlike pop of retaliation. Not the second door on the left, but the fourth one. An indirect spray kept her upright, the plaster twirling in front of her with every near miss. The magazine had yet to reach its end, every discharge releasing fresh shades of neon, krypton, and radon-infected plasma into the blacklight void. The cacophony perpetuated a wall of distorted frequencies, shuttering her ears from stereo to mono.
The deceased formed a splayed, multi-colored stepladder, the wet mixture applied liberally to her canvas sole as she clambered. Another punch of her submachine gun loosened the gilded knob, the jamb swinging open the forbidden panel for her.
Nestled at a sprawling oak desk, business at hand, piles of blues and pinks, wads of green. The tinted veins of his eyes peeked from behind the lowering sunglasses as she lifted her reflective veil, their apertures increasing, the poison temporarily, and terrifyingly, lifted. He raised his retort from the blotter, the hammer engaged. You fucking-
Little held his abdomen together, the fleshy strings tearing at the afforded, short length, unleashing a fountain of neon. The room adopted his murderous radiance, recorded indefinitely in her memory. His trajectory slammed him into the wall, a harmless, reactionary twitch pulling the trigger of his sidearm and lodging a bullet into the ceiling.
She disrobed her backpack and wrenched the zipper. The collected line of a leather leash trembled in her grip. Serenity allowed her the prize, the tiny kennel unlocked, the metal carabiner engaged around the collar. The obedient puppy led her through the carnage and into the cooling twilight. Sirens peppered the atmosphere, there would be a swift follow-through.
She righted the motorbike, parked herself onto the seat, and lifted the pup into the crook of her arm. Petting him lovingly, she assured him the strip would swallow them, protect them until the stars aligned once more. The engine grumbled, her visor slapped into place, the accelerator grip revved to ensure a streak of steaming rubber in their wake as they jettisoned into the fading melody of freedom.
Now, what to name him?
Joey Rodriguez lives in New York City with his wife, Lauren, and their Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Joon. He is the author of four novels (JQR, Below, Termination Dust, and The Final Transmissions of A Doomed Astronaut), two novellas (Raptures of the Deep, The Blood of the Cactus), and one short story collection (All Animals Are Comrades). He was recently published in “Fleas on the Dog” and “In Parentheses” literary magazines. To purchase any of his books, visit his official website: notyourplatypus.com.
The Haircut – Dreena Collins
I unboxed the new hair clippers.
Sat in his usual armchair, he cradled a can of lager. He kept his body still but flicked his eyes in my direction.
“Am I getting this bloody haircut, or not?” he asked.
“I’m just coming, sweetheart.”
He snorted, picked up the remote control, stroking the side of the tin like a kitten in his lap.
He would not want to be a guinea pig, and yet I had no time to practice. Briskly, I brushed them along my forearm: at least I should check that they worked.
The clippers purred in near silence, travelling smoothly along with a gentle vibration. I watched, fascinated, as my skin transformed. The ploughed path left behind shimmered, glowed pink as a baby mouse. Unlike any skin I’d ever seen.
“I’m waiting!” he yelled.
Confused, I swept them over my toes. If I closed my eyes, I wouldn’t even know they were there: taciturn, soft as they were. And yet as I looked down, I saw my foot transfigure into infant skin. My nails peeled away; toes sealed together in a flipper. Utterly smooth.
“Darling, there’s something odd about these –”
“Hurry up,” he interrupted.
I tripped through empty cans, the accidental origami of his discarded crisp packets on the floor. Gingerly, I started at his nape. His hair dropped down in caterpillars onto the carpet, and I saw it: his raw scalp, sparkling.
I travelled over the tattoo on the back of his neck, buffing away until the topless mermaid vanished. Next, up behind his ear, and the scar from that fight last Christmas completely disappeared.
He continued to swig, unaware.
“You’d better not balls this up,” he said.
I glanced at the clippers. Paused. Excitement prickled in my belly.
“I’ll do your moustache, too, sweetheart,” I said, leaning in towards his mouth, with determination.
Dreena Collins is a writer who also works in education. She has been listed and placed in numerous writing competitions, most recently taking first place in the Flash 500 international writing competition (May 2020). She has three published story collections and has featured in several anthologies. Twitter: @dreenac
Care – Mark Colbourne
No, that’s not right, Dad. It isn’t real. Give me your phone. Give it to me. Look. It’s a scam, that’s all. This isn’t actually from an African Prince. There’s no diamond mine. There’s no landhold agreement that he requires funds to release. None of it exists. These are just people trying to con you. They’re frauds, criminals. I know. Ok – lay back. Try and relax. You’re getting worked up. Let’s just… let’s just take a breath.
Is that better?
No, you’re right: they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it. Preying on people, pretending they care when all they’re trying to do is steal your money… They rely on you being greedy or gullible, I suppose. Maybe both. You’ve just got to be on your guard, not get taken in. Well, it’s hard to stop them, Dad. They could be anywhere in the world and I don’t know how you’d track them down. I’m not really sure how that works. They can get your email address from all sorts of places. There’s lists of them out there that you can buy, I think. Sort of, yes. I do work with computers but not like that. Because it’s complicated. Right, ok: I used computers when I was at work but I’m not an expert in programming, or networking, or phishing, or whatever else. Dad? Dad? Do you want some water? There you go. You just need to catch your breath. It’ll pass. It’ll all be fine.
Don’t say that. Because you’ll just start worrying yourself again, that’s why. Well worrying isn’t going to help, is it? I’ll go back to work. Of course I will. Yes, I’ll get another job. At some point, Dad. Soon. I’m here with you now so I’ll just have to deal with that later on. The bills will get paid. The mortgage, yes. The credit cards, yes. Jesus, Dad – you don’t have to keep banging on about this. I’m not going to have the house repossessed. How? People lose their jobs all the time and survive. It happens. Sometimes things just swing against you. That’s life. So let’s stay positive, yes? That’s what we need. That’s what Mum would want. Yes, I know. I miss her too. I suppose she’d know what to do. She always knew what to do.
Are you ok like that? Why don’t we get you sat up a bit? Hold onto my shoulders. Just raise your back and I’ll slide this pillow in…. Careful, careful. There we go. Is that comfortable? I think it’s better for your chest like this. You’re tired? I know. We’re all tired.
The kids? Ha, no, they’re probably the only ones who aren’t tired. What did Mum used to call Tim when he was really little? Tornado Tim, yes… Can you remember? He used to race up and down your garden like a mad thing. It seems like a long time ago. Yes, I suppose it was a long time ago. September, that’s when he starts High School. You know that, Dad. I’ve told you this. I know: you get confused. I’ll bring him. Of course I’ll bring him. Soon. One day soon. Because he’s with Steve this week. And Anna is as well. Remember? The kids are with Steve and I’m here with you.
Yes, Dad, Steve is fine. Steve is Steve and Steve will always be fine. I don’t know if he’s seeing anyone else, no. Why would I? It’s none of my business, not anymore. Well he wouldn’t introduce them to Tim and Anna without talking to me first, would he? He may be a shit but he’s got some basic sense of right and wrong. I know you liked him, Dad. He’s a very likeable man until you have to live with him every single day. Yes, he’s a good dad to the kids. That’s true. Well, because sometimes things don’t work out, do they? It’s no one’s fault. Why does it have to be anyone’s fault? Look – you and Mum, what you had for all those years, a lot of people aren’t that lucky. We don’t all find the right one first time off. Jesus, Dad, no – that doesn’t mean I’m seeing someone new. I can blame you for asking, actually. Don’t you think I’ve got enough going on at the moment?
No, no, no… I didn’t mean it like that. You’re not a burden. That’s not what I think. I don’t want you to get any carers in. I don’t want you to go into a home either. I know you can afford it, but you don’t need to. I’m here. No! Christ alive, Dad, no! It’s not about reducing my inheritance. You actually think that?
I’m not crying.
Don’t apologise. You don’t have to apologise. That’s not what I’m doing this. I’m here because I want to be here. You know that. I’ll look after you. We don’t need people coming in and out of the home. I can do it. It’s fine. No, no – not this again, I don’t want to talk about it. Because we’ve already talked about it. Over and over. Its all sorted out. The will’s with your lawyer and everything’s in order. There’s the property and the savings and the whole bloody war chest. I know where the paperwork is: your bank books, the share certificates, the pensions… Oh, Dad, stop fretting. It doesn’t matter. Come on. I’ll be fine. The kids will be fine. James will be fine. I’ll work it out soon enough.
James called? He called you? When? Because I’ve been here for the last two days and you haven’t had a call. Are you sure? Last week then…? Ok. Are you getting mixed up again? No, he hasn’t called me. He knows I’m here. Well, he should do because I sent him a text. Oh, I don’t know, maybe he could just get in a car and come and actually see you? Maybe that would be a good idea? I don’t know what he’s doing, Dad. He’s probably mixed up with some nonsense or some woman or some scheme and that’s all that matters to him at the moment. I am allowed to speak about him like that, actually. He’s my brother and I know exactly what he’s like. He’s been the same since we were children.
Don’t get upset. You will see him. I’m not saying you won’t. It’s just… It’s just what he’s like, Dad. You know what he’s like. He doesn’t mean it. I don’t think he can help it. Yes… You’ve got a point. Nobody’s perfect.
Your hand feels cold. Are you warm enough? Do you want another blanket? I’m not fussing,Dad. I just want you to feel ok. God, I know, I know. It doesn’t mean that you have to suffer, though, does it? Don’t say I’m just like my mother. I’m not. I’m not at all. And anyway, Mum didn’t fuss. She… She just sorted everything out. God, maybe it’d be better if I was a little more like her. Maybe then I’d be here with the kids, here with Steve. Maybe I’d still have my job. Maybe I’d be even able to make James get his act together.
No. Don’t be. I’m just feeling sorry for myself.
Do you remember when she died? I think about it all the time. I mean, now especially. I… She was too young to go. And we had to watch her, watch her slipping away, eaten up by the cancer. I remember feeling so helpless, so small. Seeing her in all that pain, seeing her so confused and frightened. That last time I talked to her, she didn’t even know who I was. She didn’t know who the kids were, or James, or anything. Lost in the past, in whatever memories were looping through her mind. Hollow eyes and pale skin and gasping for breath. And we were sat there just waiting for the end and…
Sorry. Were you going to sleep? No, that’s alright. Nothing. I was only thinking out loud. It doesn’t matter. Not anymore. Do you want to get some rest now? Ok. It’s time for your pills though. You take those and then you can go to sleep.
No, Dad. That’s not right. You’re getting confused.
You had your pills this morning. You haven’t had any since then. I haven’t given you any since then.
Have I? I really don’t think so, Dad.
Twice a day. No more. It’s ok. It’s hard to remember. It’s hard to keep track and everything’s starting to blur. That’s why I’ve come, Dad. That’s why I’m with you.
Here. Your pills. Have a sip of water. And swallow. I know. Your throat hurts. Everything hurts. It’s hard. But that will stop soon. I’ll look after you. I’ll do the right thing. For you, for everyone. I’ll make it better. I’ll sort it out. I’ll help you get to sleep.
Between The Mirror And The Bed – John Tustin
It’s funny how I don’t remember being in love with her,
I can see moments in my mind like snapshots
Or scenes as if a movie I saw once two decades ago
But no memory brings even a scintilla back
Of what I once must have certainly felt.
I watch the video rewound and I see someone who looks like me
But I don’t feel any connection to him.
Long before I finally left it got to the point
I couldn’t even look at her without a wave of nausea overcoming me.
My nerves would often leave me in the bathroom off and on for hours.
“You’re such a loose-ass bastard” she was constantly saying.
She was right.
There was one night that I was drunk
And I went to get into bed with her –
She was sitting up watching television
And I saw her in the mirror in that halo of TV light.
It was like looking at a total stranger.
She was so beautiful.
I kept thinking that as I got into bed with her.
“If I didn’t know her. If only I didn’t know her.”
For that second between the mirror and the bed
I thought that if I didn’t know her and just saw her on the street
She would have stayed in my mind afterward for a long time.
I still didn’t remember being in love with her.
I still didn’t feel any emotion for the real her.
If only she was just someone else but she wasn’t someone else –
She was Shamseen.
Her parents gave her that name as a little girl because her temper was hotter than the sun.
Drunk and stumbling, I got into bed.
Shockingly, she wasn’t angry. She seemed happy I came to bed and didn’t mind that I had been drinking.
It was strange because her anger was perpetual
And whiter, hotter when I had been drinking and/or off in the other room
Writing or reading poetry. Everything about me incensed her.
Everything I did or didn’t do brought her disgust
But that night she wasn’t even a little bit disgusted by me.
I looked at her after I got into bed and I saw her as she truly was again.
Not a romantic or pleasant feeling lingered from my moment looking at her in the mirror.
It was all gone already and she was again the woman who spoke to and treated me the way she did.
I turned away from her and flipped the bedsheet over my head,
My last thoughts before sleep being the continuing the plot to escape.
Chang’s Gift – Jessica Evans
“My mom said it’s fragile, so don’t drop it.”
Chang’s tongue tripped over his teeth and formed a firm line at the start of the word “fragile.” His own f-clef, already searching for a grand staff: a declaration of kindergarten love on Christmas Eve.
His future-virtuoso hands offered Irina something precious pink and mid-line mauve, a forgotten blush. A pale-yellow ribbon twisted over and under: a machine-made braid. With his gift, Irina received her first adornment. Scarlet secrets formed around egg-shaped fake-mother-of-pearl. Eggs, her earliest obsession, the way they capture and contain.
Sticky elastic glue, once runny and now hardened, solid and secure. Lodged to keep the thin metal clasp in place. Irina held it close, Chang’s promise-gift. He would write, he promised.
“Every day. Or at least once a week,” his resolve lessened as minutes swallowed up air. “It’s going to be fun, you know, over there.”
Chang’s afterthought to the distance between Taiwan and America, too far to conceptualize. Irina fingered the bow. Distance is only exquisite when it seems infinite. Chang’s move became her first lesson in loss.
She clasped her pianist fingers around the plastic and the promises and let herself believe in Chang. He reached for her other hand and the two darted from her cloistered house, Irina’s out of season jacket unzipped, its thin fabric flapping like yellow jacket wings, ready for flight.
Inside Chang’s mom green Astro van, the kind of cozy warmth that Irina only knew from kids movies. Hui smiled at Irina and handed her a thermos of still warm, made from milk hot chocolate. Irina and Chang created a triangle with their heads and sipped the sweet. Hui drove, slow and careful. Irina’s mother, languid and supine by four in the afternoon, a faint smell of briny grapes and spicy oaks lingering on her breath didn’t even know she was gone. Hui’s eyes darted to the sliver rearview mirror and held Irina’s. Here, Irina was safe.
* * *
She wore that coronet only once, to her kindergarten graduation, both parents absent. Mrs. Ates helped her clip it securely to her thin braids. Chang long gone, Irina sang her school song with the rest of her classmates, falsetto and flat, fretting the entire time that her hairbow would slide and fall, smashing into puzzle pieces.
Chang wrote twice – once at her birthday over summer and then again, the following February. He sent his second letter in a red envelope, a final parting gift. The last letter, a two-sentence plead to Irina that she needed to write back.
* * *
On a dreary Wednesday afternoon over winter break, teenaged Irina crowded in her bathroom with Amy and Tori to smoke a pinner joint rolled in transparent tissue paper. It fell apart halfway, but they pretended to be stoned anyway, laughing too loudly, voicing sudden cravings for random snack foods. In Irina’s room, the almost-women began to scavenge through her memories on display. Restless and eager to be something more than who she was, Tori became vapid and snarky and made adolescent jokes that stabbed at Irina’s absent childhood.
First, Tori reached for photos of Irina in small dresses, her Friday night dinner outfits and recital whites. Here, her parents clutched her shoulders, her mother’s talon red fingers formed a claw. Irina’s face, open and scared.
“I didn’t know you played violin, Irina,” Amy said. Even semi-stoned, her face was beatific, cherub cheeks calling out for sun and wildflowers.
“Not anymore,” Irina pulled the photo from her friend and studied her child-self face. The innocence, the radiance.
“What’s going on in this one?” Tori waved a picture like an amnesty flag.
The photo is from the sea, just her and her dad, the trip they took after Susan died.
“Just a family trip,” Irina managed to say, unwilling, unable to explore that loss.
“Oh, was your mom already dead here?” Tori smirked.
“Tori, what the fuck is wrong with you?” Amy, already always prepared to defend.
“It’s fine, guys, really. Yeah, she was already dead. Can we change the subject or something though?”
Tori nodded. “Good idea. Let’s look in here,” she pointed to Irina’s steamer trunk.
Inside, Chang’s long forgotten bow resting on top of those two letters, the red of the envelope pristine and preserved. Tori stopped short when she was the little-kid script.
“What’s that about?” she asked.
“Just letters from a friend,” Irina’s fingers, ginger and soft, held the letter.
“This looks fake-fancy and random,” Tori plucked the bow and tried to clip it into her curly strands. The letters fell to the carpet as Irina snatched back her hairbow, unwilling to share the memory. Outside her room, the front door opened and closed. A clinking symphony of bottles clamored together as Judy made her way to the kitchen.
“Hi, mom,” Tori sing-songed to Judy.
“She’s not your mom,” Irina hissed.
“Well she’s not yours either,” Tori fired back.
* * *
When she leaves for college, Irina takes the trunk intact. She doesn’t look through for the gemstones of her errant adolescence. The trunk stays with her for two years before she meets Marcus and then abandons the half-hearted dream of finishing college.
Later, Irina unearths Chang’s gift when she’s looking for her mother’s ashes. Nestled amid track ribbons and debate team medals, Chang’s bow, a time-capsule innocence, her first crown.
Sometimes, Irina takes out the hairbow to trace egg-shaped pearls, and longs to clip it into her still-thin braids, never letting it slip to the floor. Her cartographic imprint, the mapping of her heart can be traced specifically to a gift undeserved and love skirted away, too fast to catch, their language too inarticulate.
Jessica Evans is a Cincinnati native who practices restarting her life every few years. Work is forthcoming in Past Ten, Tiny Molecule, and Lily Poetry Review. Find her on Twtter @jesssica__evans
Don’t I Know You? – Joy Manné
So I was in Rome airport, standing in this queue in a satellite corridor waiting to be let onto the plane. Standing there, near the front of the queue, seven or eight passengers away from the plane door. Minding my own business. Preoccupied with my own thoughts. In my own mind. A good place to be. Looking at no one. Fidgeting, mind, as the sun was shining and the glass walls of these corridors magnify heat. I was wearing a suit and tie. Going to an appointment. Meeting a colleague at the next airport. Sweating then sweltering. Wishing I was at an airport that had air conditioning in their satellite corridors like—was it Munich? Heathrow? Madrid? One of those. Or another. I’ve forgotten. This one certainly didn’t. My feet were swelling and my shoes becoming tighter by the minute, my smart Italian shoes – a mistake to travel in these.
I was impatient, feeling quarrelsome with the airport organisation, fidgeting from one foot to the other—discretely, mind. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, and then a man three people ahead craned his neck around and looked me in the eye. In the eye. I looked right back. I won’t let anyone put me down. In any case, I was the bigger man. Considerably bigger. It helps to be bigger in this world, and stronger.
So I was standing there, in this queue, getting hotter by the moment and struggling to remain calm and dignified, and it’s all made harder by the man staring at me. Staring, eyebrows up. Staring,
eyebrows together. Staring, deep furrow in between eyebrows. And then he shouted. Shouted, mind you. Shouted out loud, ‘Don’t I know you?’
I didn’t know him from Adam and I never forget a face. Never. How could I forget those slithery eyebrows and stringy and unwashed hair. I don’t know people like that. My hair is brylcreamed smooth, like my father’s always was.
‘Don’t I know you?’ the man shouted again, louder, now half-turning his body as if to approach me. ‘I’m sure we’ve met. I hope we’ve got seats together. It will be great to talk about old times.’
I didn’t have old times with this man. I muttered something unintelligible but polite-sounding. I’m a courteous man. If I’m seated next to him, I’ll move.
‘We had a drink together,’ he shouted in my direction, smack into the face of the man behind him, because now he’d turned fully around.
I turned my head to look at the glass walls of the corridor, then beyond them into the airport, and then let my eyes travel to the queue behind me and my body follow their rotation, slowly, as if it was the most natural thing to do. I didn’t want to offend him, or to have him start a fight in the narrow corridor. What if he were travelling with friends? I turned as if I had some kind of task to do.
The man increased his volume. ‘I’m sorry I’m making you uncomfortable,’ he bawled. ‘but I know we’ve met. Please don’t turn away. I’m sure I don’t owe you any money. I’m sure you don’t owe me any money. It wasn’t that sort of meeting.’
I’d got my back solidly towards him now. I was urgent to get away. My eyes met those of a woman three people further down the queue. Middle aged. Plain. Plain as can be. A man has nothing to fear from plain woman. A man can ask them anything. Time of day. Nearest subway. Best restaurant. They never intrude. Plain women are safe as houses. Built rather like houses. No curves. I like them. I feel good with them. They don’t ask a man for anything and are grateful for what one gives.
I smiled at her and mouthed, ‘Do I know you?’
She looked at me, interested, as if it were possible. Her eyes were nondescript brown, her hair too, straight, tidy. Plain women always have hair like that. She frowned. She barely had eyebrows, but thin as they were, I saw the two fine tattooed lines twitch and join. ‘Not sure,’ she mouthed back.
The man behind me was still noisy in my direction. Was he drunk? I sidled down the queue which was crushing up now with passengers impatient to get into the plane. I kept my back to the shouting man who thought he’d met me. I have a broad back. I go to the gym.
I reached the woman.
‘Do I know you,’ I asked her, now talking, not mouthing. ‘Have we met?’
She appraised me. Looked me up and down. Considered my suit, tie, well-creased trousers. My tight brown and black Italian shoes.
‘I think we have,’ she said eventually, blinking her short sparse eyelashes. ‘Yes, I think we have met. I think I remember where.’
Could I have met her and forgotten her so completely? My breathing became rapid. Oh, dear Lord, I think, will they never let us into this plane?
I needed a toilet.
I waited for her to speak.
‘I met you in Florence,’ she said.
I have been to Florence. She made a good guess. We were catching our plane in Rome Airport and Tuscany is but a short flight away, or a drive. No great distance.
‘I’m very fond of Florence,’ I said. ‘I can stand in front of the cathedral for hours. Losing myself in those Ghiberti doors. Porta del Paradiso. Gates of Paradise, they’re called. Gates of Paradise, indeed they are. All those figures. That amazing perspective…’
‘Florence, South Carolina,’ she interrupted. ‘I’m American.’
I looked into this plain woman’s face. The man behind me was still trying to get my attention.
‘I’ve never been to America,’ I lied.
‘I think you have,’ she said. ‘Because I’m sure I’ve met you there.’
And then in the dignified way plain women have, she turned away as if searching for something. Something in her handbag, on her hand-luggage, on her shoe. As if turning away was the most natural and polite thing to do. She turned with small precise movements until I could no longer see her face at all, and then suddenly, she stood up and down on her tiptoes several times, waving her left hand vigorously. She was not a tall woman. Plain women never are. In a sweet and gentle voice, she called to a woman with a small child in her arms three people behind us, ‘Don’t I know you,’
And then the mumbly microphone announcement came that our plane was now ready for boarding.
I stepped into the cabin.
The stewards and stewardesses were saying ‘Hello,’ to each and every passenger as they always do. I’d barely taken a step towards the aisle between the seats, hadn’t even turned into it, when the stewardess fixed me with her eyes and said, ‘Don’t I know you?’
I thought, this flight is jinxed. Now’s the time not to take this flight. Now’s the time to turn around and get off. Now’s the time to save myself while I still can.
And then I realised she was looking at the woman in front of me.
I’ve never sighed out so deeply in my life.
The next time I took a plane from the airport in Rome, I wore dark glasses and a hat. The satellite corridor was hot as usual, because it was summer and it still didn’t have air conditioning. I was standing in the middle of the queue, minding my own business, preoccupied with my own thoughts, in my own mind. A good place to be, and happy—oh, so happy—to be wearing comfy shoes. I’d packed my smart brown-and-black Italian pair to change into for my appointment. Just then a hard finger tapped me on my shoulder and a sharp voice spoke into my ear, ‘Don’t I know you?’
Joy Manné links flash fictions into short stories, writing in parts: solos, duets, choruses; different views of the whole experienced by different characters as the story builds, arcs and reaches its ending. She also writes classical flash. She won the 2015 Geneva Writers Group prize for Non-Fiction and was one of three finalists in the Arkansas International 2017 Emerging Writer’s Prize in Fiction. She has also published children’s books.
Full Explanation: The Shopping Trip – Sarah Mosedale
On 12th April my wife asked me to pick up a few items from the shops on my way home. She often does. She dictated a list to me over the phone. I wrote it down on a piece of paper which I placed in my right trouser pocket.
It was a very hot day and the traffic was heavy. I could not park directly outside the dry cleaners, my first port of call, because all the spaces were taken. I drove around looking for a parking space. After ten minutes or so I found one a few streets away.
When I entered the dry cleaners it was not the usual assistant behind the counter. It was a young man I did not recognise. He refused to release my wife’s dry cleaning to me without the production of a ticket. An absurd stand-off followed. The heat and smell in the shop were almost overpowering and the garments in question were in plain view. Eventually, after my wife vouched for me and described the items in eye watering detail over the phone, I was entrusted with them, paid, and left the shop.
Some time had passed but the heat seemed if anything more intense. The plastic wrappers stuck to my back unpleasantly. I removed my tie and stuffed it into my left pocket. I undid the top two buttons of my shirt. I could not remember where I had left the car.
I searched the side streets for some fifteen or twenty minutes becoming extremely hot and uncomfortable. I was worried that my migraine might recur. I knew it was important to reduce my body temperature. Fortunately my wife is not a small woman.
I placed my shirt and trousers in a green recycling bin knowing it would be relatively clean and made a careful mental note of the house number. After a little thought I added the rest of my wife’s dry cleaning in order to protect it from my perspiration. I continued to look for the car without success.
Although I felt the benefit of my change of attire – the air circulates round the body much more freely when one is wearing a dress and I appreciated my wife’s preference for natural fibres – I was still in danger of overheating and was beginning to have some concerns about dehydration. So when a young man approached and suggested a drink I felt this was the most sensible course of action in the circumstances.
He led the way to a hostelry I had never visited before. No-one commented on my appearance. It seemed a relaxed and informal venue. There was no air conditioning but the room was dark and relatively cool and I began to feel much better. I phoned my wife and told her I had been delayed. I did not want to worry her with details. I was confident I would be able to retrieve her dry cleaning and the car once I had cooled down.
I requested tonic as I knew the quinine would be beneficial. I suffer from cramp when dehydrated. I now realise it was gin and tonic but I have never been able to taste the difference. I believe many people can’t. Although I paid my share the young man insisted on fetching the drinks which I perceived as a kindness.
After some time a couple of his friends joined us. The atmosphere was convivial. One of them spent a lot of time fiddling with his phone as so many young people do nowadays. It was good to be out of the stifling heat. I remember we laughed a lot.
I know it was considerably later when we left because it was dark. I now realise I must have been quite inebriated but at the time I attributed my state of mind to relief and exhaustion. I never drink to excess so am not familiar with the sensation.
My new friend must have helped me to find the car. I remember having some concern over whether I was well enough to drive. My legs were somewhat unsteady due, I presumed, to my cramp problems. But there was none of the usual accompanying pain so I believed the quinine must have helped and was reassured that I would not be struck with debilitating muscle spasms.
I appreciate that it must have been unpleasant for my wife to be awoken in the middle of the night by the police. I am taking advice about the photographs in the Sunday papers. Some were obviously Photoshopped and all were in violation of my rights to privacy.
I feel confident that now I have fully explained what happened my wife will not wish to continue with divorce proceedings.
Sarah Mosedale: 2nd Place Flash Fiction 500 Winter 2019, published in National Flash Fiction Day Anthology 2020 (forthcoming), Ellipsis, Funny Pearls, Lunate, Flash Flood Journal, Flash Fiction Festival Three, Paragraph Planet; readings at Manchester’s Verbose and That’s What She Said @moseywriter
Home Recollected – Tom Garback
Today is Wednesday, and is night, and as we pass through tunnels of sifting time, there is no way of knowing how your sun has sank, and nor how low. I try to recall pieces, crumbs untaken by Augustinian rats, while they carry no inherent order. We are riding the Amtrak home for Trenton, sometimes least known of these passengers myself, save I glance at glass reflections and say, No, I know them no more than I know me. Though, we do live in the county north of Philadelphia. Memory slips out, loosed by physiological cosmology, Augustine’s broken philosophies, and later bites of dialogue come back. Maybe they are altered. The station there, in brotherly love’s city-center, far too crowded, the highways choked to even get my dad to swear before me, and when we haven’t been together since summer? Such hassle would be blasphemous. I can’t tell you how hard I am holding on. Families see the set of sun each day, and promise me, mom, we’ll all be happy come Thanksgiving.
When we are home, I nap. You couldn’t call it sleep because it lasts three hours, equal to my nap the night before. Today I wake for the doctor. Last time for the train to Trenton. My ride from Boston’s nearly 7 hours after delays. They are worst these times of year. Doctor needs to see the bump on my neck. I promise this, she says, it’s going to take more than some bickering to tear us apart. Of course non-cancerous, he tells Dad in the hallway.
Mom slept on the couch for hours that morning. I can’t say why. Dad makes shrimp, bleeding hearts in the window, and Don’t these lines mean there’s shit in them? but everyone ignores me, and in the fryer floating green tomato and potato wedges, and some orzo soup for lunch, and chocolate cake dessert, with icing that’s powdery because he wanted to make it himself, and You used confection sugar on this? Home makes me care more about sketching. College can’t carry the familiarities. Creativity cannot thrive in the company of strangers.
Our dog Kibbles, enthusiasm wide in the morning, and Where was this energy last night when I came in? You’d think he had forgotten me, but the opposite is true, as is most times with dogs. The possibility of a kiss, I plant inside the rafters all week, and the holiday nears, and somewhere in the streets of Boston waits my kiss for when I’ve returned. In the mirror each day, I squeeze the rolls across my waist. Mom stopped harping on my thinning front, so I may work the treadmill without shame. Kibbles makes me red beneath his bites. I told her, It bothers me when you tell me I’m not fat. They switched my mattress with theirs. Sleep is softer now, and lower, how I can’t stand, though I stand for them, with dull back aches for the alarms of a clock.
My favorite icing, buttercream. The night goes up, and Jess finally comes down from her bedroom chamber. Dad does take offense. I never see you anymore. She put an 18-hour shift in yesterday, and two of her patients were mouthy again, and can’t she lie down on her day off, wouldn’t you think she could? He’d worked so hard on dinner, and sharing this meal alone was no fulfilling habit of the overworked nurse. I understand. I don’t. Last night she walks in on me starting to sleep. I say hello. She closes her door quietly after stepping out, announces herself at the edge of the kitchen linoleum. Dad asks me if he can make something else instead, and I shame him out of care, and that makes him feel worse. Just checking to see if you were sleeping. Drop the rest of the cake off at the neighbors for me, he orders, and I think of how it’s only the women in the family who receive therapy for anxiety. She is bitter now, at the table. The men cannot admit a thing. She is bitter, standing out there in the hall. How long did you sleep? She is mocking me. So who are your friends in Boston? at the table. I’ve told her before. None of your business. Mom and I go to Philly today. That’s what pisses her off. I’m always working, you never work, you do nothing all day! We’re doing the dishes. Mom says, Jessica.
Don’t take Kibbles out of my room, before she closes my door. You wake me up. It’s like a cave in there, I say. You should open the blinds. But then you wouldn’t be able to sleep, would you? She knows what I mean. I count the number of skyscraper from the train window. She can’t help it; she works night shifts. How many are in Boston? That’s why it’s unfair for me to recollect her as lazy. I think I prefer Boston. Try putting cream on it, dad says at lunch, We’re out of ointment. Really, mom? Jess feels he’s always making fun of her. She gives me a tender squeeze. You need to stop picking at it. Get the cream. I can’t bend my neck too far for two weeks after the procedure. I made it with buttercream this time.
You don’t appreciate all I do for you, Dad says. You always pick on me, Jess says. Mom says that night, You’re picking on the four of us, dog included. You said he smells. Mom is joking. That eventually becomes anger. She storms upstairs. Dad defends her. Kibbles paces, in sync with the volume of their vocal performances. Now I’m mad! she says after its obvious, getting off the couch. Her spirits are high on the train to Philly. She values nothing like family time. Your Aunt Marie hasn’t spoken to me in years, and you two are going to carry on like this in front of me? Mom says from the staircase. Do you know how much that hurts me? It worries me, where you two will end up in 30 years. On the train, I tell her that it’s okay what she said last night, how mad she was. The joy my visit should bring is squandered tonight. I fall asleep trying to cry. Mom looks out the window to the skyline and thinks up a story about her grandmother’s quirks. For a second I think I’m crying. Philadelphia holds its promise, I think as I dream. The sounds of the softest sobs, embarrassing. How will she behave? No, it’s mom down the hall.
My sister and I never fought when we were young, Mom says at the restaurant on Walnut. Maybe you have to, to let it out. It brings you closer. I nod because, thinking of Jess, I’m unsure if I agree. I grab my book when Mom has stormed upstairs and slammed her door. I take it to the living room. An hour later, Jess is apologizing to her. If you’re not happy with your life choices, don’t them out on me, missy. As we cross Rittenhouse Square, Mom says, You have to be understanding with Jess. She hasn’t had the same opportunities. My good work in school wasn’t an opportunity, I think. When I catch the train to Boston a week later, she says that Jess is on a different path in life, and everyone has the right to their own path. But doing well in school is hardly a choice, either. The day trip is successful. We drink tea when we’re home. You lean smart, you have a chance at genius. Text your sister and ask if she wants any. You lean dumb, teachers toss you aside, especially at our rundown Catholic school. I send the message from Mom’s phone, suspicious. Dumb’s an easy word for robbed. Jess replies positively, disproving me. We’d all switched to public school by grade 5. I take it we are healed. The icing is fine, I tell dad. I say all because my dad was the school chef. Stop refusing to believe me when I say the icing is fine. He quit the night I told mom, Yes, I want to switch like Jessie did.
I am a guest in my childhood home. Fights become embarrassing. Arguments between my sister and my mother: matters that don’t involve me; failure on the part of the hostess. I try to say with eyes, I don’t see it this way. They’re trying to impress me as if I’ll rate them poorly on Tripping.com. I sit on the couch, observe old habits resurface, habits I don’t acknowledge before moving out. Will I find happiness in Boston? I fight with Jess on the last day of summer. These fights bear the freshness. I fight with Jess on the last day of Thanksgiving break.
Thanksgiving morning. Breakfast. Scrambled eggs. The yolk kept in. Sausage, bacon. White toast. Butter. Grape jelly. Early Grey. Vanilla bean cream. All three on a diet, they say. Propel in substitute for soda. I wrap Kibbles in my lap on the flat wood of the chair. He’s lazy, Jess says. Who does she mean? At dinner, You ought to be like the turkey and jump in the oven. Are there egg whites? Do you visit other campuses when you’re in Boston? Dad ignores my request. And is brunch every day? (I tell her I’m sick of her.) You don’t appreciate anything, mom says. You sat and watched me set up the Nativity by myself. She offended me. I sulked.
Don’t put the flowers on the lawn. But they’re dead, mom. Throw them in the trash. It’s natural to leave them on the grass. They’ll stink. At least I don’t feel like the guest anymore.
I think of advertisers sending holiday emails with their in-laws at the door. I think of the Schedule Send function on Gmail, and why aren’t vacuums better designed with today’s technology, but mom doesn’t want me to complain about housework, because the in-laws will soon be knocking at the door. When I’m in the shower, mom wants to argue. Through the door, over falling water. The issue is you fighting with Jess in front of me and your father. It’s impolite. Since when? But I act like I can’t hear. She’s just stressed about the in-laws.
I hate to wear well-fitting clothes around them. Maybe they’ll think me handsome, and there’s nothing more uncomfortable, and before I leave for my train to Boston mom says how much Jess resents going to community college, not getting the chance to go away. Different paths, I think, and how can one help someone with these matters, when it’s too late? Why don’t I have the right to be happy? Why must I feel guilty? Why must I counsel her in payment for my freedom? I write to Aunt Linda after breakfast. Dad puts the turkey in the oven. I tell her how good it is to be back home.
In Boston, I think of mom’s outbursts and apologies, and her cruelty. How will I show my son a proper visit home? Her embarrassment becomes mine. I hope he had a good time, and that we make him proud and that he’ll come back for the next break. Dad pulls out the turkey. The in-laws always do some cheering act around the dining table. I hug my father goodbye. They applaud, laugh. The train is coming to Platform One in a few minutes. Mom lays down the cranberries. Dad won’t have to suffer rush hour on the way back. We’re lucky that the sun comes so directly onto the plastic china. For a moment I consider telling dad to stay a few minutes. My cousin lets Kibbles onto their lap. The train comes into Back Bay Station. I look at my family around the table of food. A feeling rushes onto me. I feel as if I’ve never left.
Tom Garback is currently pursuing a BA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College, where he works as a Staff Writer, Blogger, Copy Editor, and Reader at various on-campus magazines. His fiction, poems, and essays have been featured in Blind Corner, Oddball, Polaris, Gauge, Sonder, and several others.
Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man* – Craig Snelgrove
if you think to yourself things like
Snickers are better than Mars bars,
or if you think to yourself
Ronaldo is better than Messi,
or if you think to yourself
Nike is cooler than Adidas,
or if you think to yourself
this kind of music makes me feel
more alive than that kind of music,
or if you think to yourself
this politicians’ policies
are something I can believe in,
whereas that politicians are not,
that politicians a fascist,
a fat cat, scum bag, capitalist,
and if you think to yourself
there is some kind of meaning
to this existence,
that a god, or something, is real
and has a plan, or a design,
in place for me,
or if you think to yourself
that god is a myth,
that there’s no point to any of this,
if it all feels a bit futile
when you get up in the morning,
look in the mirror and think
man, I look so ugly today,
my hair looks so stupid,
my clothes are so boring,
just like my personality is so boring,
it’s good to be reminded then, sometimes,
that there’s always gonna be someone
who will be thinking very differently.
*quote from The Big Lebowski
Craig Snelgrove is a writer from Manchester, UK. Craig holds an MA in Creative Writing and his work has previously been published in Live from Worktown anthologies and most recently in Worktown Words https://worktownwords.uk/index.php/ed-4/16-ed-4/87-tuesday-ed4
Cup O’ Joe – Christopher A Micklos
CUP O’ JOE.
Mort stares at the sign. Is that the name of the café or the promise of what awaits inside? It doesn’t matter, really. He’s been a customer since they opened eight months ago, and he isn’t about to let all this virus nonsense change his morning routine.
Mort nudges open the door and shuffles in.
A line of sluggish patrons, all dull eyes and slack jaws, reaches from the counter to the door. Taking his place in the queue, he can’t contain a moan.
How long has it been now? Two weeks—three?—since the TV talking heads and social media morons started panicking? Through the cobwebs, Mort recalls the ominous warnings and urgent exhortations for citizens to stay indoors and keep safe. Judging by the look of this morning’s crowd, the calls for caution had gone unheeded.
Mort himself had been a skeptic from the start, mollified by assurances from top officials that the outbreak would be contained and eradicated in a matter of days…a couple of weeks, tops. It made sense to him. After all, nobody in their right mind would believe the frantic tales being spun by the fake news media to scare the populous and boost their dismal ratings.
But then he ventured out to Costco and saw it for himself: the chaos, the ransacked shelves, the half-inhuman crowd.
And now Mort can’t shake the throbbing in his head, at first a dull ache but now an intense, thundering torment. Caffeine had always helped assuage that pain in the past, so here he is at the place with the sign that says CUP O’ JOE.
Even as the line shortens in front of him, it stretches back further by the minute, out the door and down the front steps of the café. Nothing is going to stop this crowd from getting its daily dose, that’s for sure.
One of the others near the back of the line starts to impatiently push his way to the front, but he doesn’t get far. A snarl here, a sharp elbow there, and he ends up right back where he started.
At the counter, the disheveled barista pushes a brimming mug out to Mort, who recognizes the dark pockmarks and sores on her once-pretty face. He’d seen them in a mirror just that morning.
Maybe the virus actually is spreading, after all? Oh well, that’s the world now.
Unperturbed, Mort grunts and stumbles toward an open seat in the corner of the café.
Passing the others still waiting in line, he feels their green-eyed glares. He hugs the mug to his chest, shielding it with one arm while keeping the other cocked, ready to swat away any greedy hand that might reach out to steal it.
By now, every fiber aches, and Mort sits down and gazes into the mug, ready to savor the promised relief.
All around him, the other lumbering zombies moan and lurch and stagger about, their eyes bleeding and puss oozing from the familiar sores.
Ignoring them, he tears a spongy fold of gray, gooey goodness out of the bloody mess in the mug and pushes it into his mouth, munching happily.
Mort has no idea who Joe was, but his brain really hits the spot.
Christopher A. Micklos is a writer, director, and producer whose writing has appeared in numerous print and digital outlets over the past several years. His award-winning first feature film, THE NURSERY, was distributed worldwide by Uncork’d Entertainment in 2016; and his second feature, THE HEADMISTRESS, is expected to be released in 2021. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife and daughter and their monstrous mini-labradoodle, Ygor.
My Sixtieth Birthday – Henri Colt
“She’s not too young for you,” my sister joked as she took her seat at my table. “You’re too old for her.”
“Well, Jenny,” I said, forcing a grin, “I may be old, but I’m not dead.” I was embarrassed she had caught me staring at the hips of a young woman exiting the coffee shop.
“Sixty’s not so bad, is it?” She squeezed my arm tenderly, as if she knew she had put her finger on the source of my bourgeoning depression. Since my divorce, events rather than years defined my life: a tumultuous love affair with the wrong woman, my best friend dying from cancer, losing the family business after thirty-two years. I wanted female companionship, but I struggled with a loss of confidence. I didn’t have the courage to date.
“Still looking for that next adventure,” she declared.
Neither my father, nor my uncles, and surely not my little sister had prepared me for this. Maybe it was time I owned up to my sexual dysfunction. My testosterone had plummeted; my desires vanished, and even pleasuring myself had become impossible. All I saw in the mirror was a chubby, balding guy with sparse gray hair and drooping shoulders. An irreverent pout formed by permanent wrinkles at the corners of my mouth made me feel grossly unattractive. Gone were the days of my mischievous smile.
“I feel invisible,” I said, “like a ghost, you know? If it weren’t for the occasional conversation with a waitress here at the coffee shop, I’d shoot myself.”
“I hope you’re joking.” Jenny’s bitch face said it all, so I bit my tongue.
She nudged my shoulder. “Are you okay?”
I shrunk into my chair. “I’m tired of the shaming language in those commercials touting Viagra.”
“Men have andropause,” Jenny said matter of factly. “It’s inevitable.”
I dropped the conversation and asked her for an update.
“My mammogram is clean,” she said happily. “It’s been three years since the chemo.”
“Yay!” I didn’t tell her about my visit to the urologist. My PSA is high again. “An older guy at the climbing gym shot himself last week,” I said. “Rumor has it he was happy, married, kids, the whole nine yards.”
Jenny shook her head. “There’s a wave of clinical depression and suicide among older men in this country. With the opioid crisis and coronavirus, nobody talks about it anymore.”
I felt a lecture from my sister the psychologist coming.
“Andropause is real,” she said, “but men tend to crawl under a rock with denial until it’s too late.”
“I have low testosterone, and I can’t get it up.” There, I said it. Strangely, I was glad to have upped the ante of our conversation. “What have you got to say about that?”
She chuckled. “I’d say that telling someone you have low testosterone is probably not the wisest thing to share on a first date.”
“That’s not funny.”
“Have you thought about taking supplements?” she asked. “My girlfriends say testosterone gel works wonders on their husbands’ libido.
“I’ll be okay,” I shrugged.
“I’m concerned about you,” she said, putting her arm around my shoulder.
Watching women coming through the coffee shop’s doors, I felt like a dog that couldn’t bark, let alone bite. I hated myself for allowing this part of me to take over my life.
Jenny put her fingers at the corners of my mouth to pull my cheeks upwards. A forced smile formed on my lips.
“Yay,” she laughed.
I flinched. “As they say, life sucks, then you die.”
“And as you said when I got here, you’re not dead yet.”
Her words rang home like an epiphany. There was hope, faith, shit…a pretty young thing shimmied onto her chair at the far end of the patio. She crossed her suntanned legs and brushed her long, auburn hair away from her eyes. Her nimble fingers tapped across the lunch menu.
Jenny’s playful grimace snapped me back to the conversation. She had noticed the object of my distraction.
“Hemingway won a bet with a six-word story,” she said. “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.” She raised her eyebrows, obviously begging a response.
“Maybe mine should be, “instead of shooting yourself just get laid.”
Her laugh reminded me of my mother’s. “That’s seven words,” she said.
“Indeed, it is sis, indeed, it is.”
The woman at the other table wore strands of turquoise beads around her wrists. Her hair had settled wildly on her shoulders, and a pair of dragon tattoos graced the length of her forearms. I marveled at the audacity with which her generation tackled body paint, and when she smiled, I felt alive, grateful for the glorious remembrance of it all.
Henri Colt is a physician-writer and adrenaline junkie whose passions include mountaineering and tango. His short stories have appeared in Rock and Ice Magazine, Fiction on the Web, Active Muse, Potato Soup Journal, Red Fez, and others.
Home Time – Cath Holland
Potato peelings plop onto newspaper, curled shapes spelling words I can’t make out. All I know is if I cut ‘em that thick, Mum would shout.
She blinks at the clock on the wall over my head. ‘He should be home.’
My brother Liam turned feral this summer. In the mornings he scoots out on his bike. Goes for hundreds of miles or so he reckons. Boomerangs back when he’s hungry.
Dad in the doorway home from work decides ‘bloody hell, time’s getting on’. Calls the police and a policeman comes, the tallest man in the world in a black uniform with shiny buttons.
‘They do whatever they like, my kids. No matter what I say. I’ve told ‘em.’ Mum cocks her head in my direction but sounds frightened and thready.
The policeman puts Mum on the phone to ring everybody she can think and I know she’s adding up the twenty pence each time ‘cause she garbles words real fast and throws the phone down quick and hard straight after. In the end Mum runs out of numbers to call and I say about the cowboys and cattle rustlers and highwaymen in the hills. That’s where the baddies hide and plan bank robberies like in the films, Liam always says.
Mum and Dad nod in agreement, desperate now. The silence in the room, as I buckle one sandal and pick up the other, the sole of my foot slipping wetly against the leather, tells me this isn’t the time to remind them how they laugh at Liam’s stories. And that this morning he said where he’s going, over a bowl of Coco Pops, as I watched the milk go chocolatey. A head and shoulders drift past the window and the expression on the man’s face in the doorway, changes everything. Mum crumples like a tissue. Dad is horrified. At Mum on the floor making a show of us, or what the man’s saying about what’s been found in the woods?
I’m sat down next to a nice nodding lady with moist pleading eyes. ‘Be brave’ she and the tall policeman both repeat slowly like I’m thick, ‘for your mum’.
It’s dusk and the clock keeps ticking. Mum’s huddled on the couch in the front room, her spine round like a shell. My insides shrink. I wonder whether to say again about the cowboys and rustlers in the hills. Remind everybody. Maybe they forgot. I’ll tell them how Liam stands in the rec at the top of the road every night after school, satchel strap diagonal across his chest. Legs apart like John Wayne, right in between the red metal rocking horse and the swing with rubber seats and concrete floor, staring at the blank fuzzy felt green fields, miles away. When he’s grown up and there’s no home time to bother with, or school, nothing like that, he can go find the baddies. Search ‘em out. Prove it’s true. Make them sorry. No-one can stop him.
Cath Holland is a writer of fiction and fact based in Liverpool. She is published by Mslexia, National Flash Fiction Day, Dead Ink, Retreat West.
Yuri – Andrew Hart
“When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear.” (Yuri Gagarin)
I often think about Yuri Gagarin, the first man to orbit the earth; floating alone in a tiny capsule, and for almost two hours, the centre of the world. No wonder he turned to drink and craved the attention of other people, once he was back down on earth, to convince himself that he was real, or that they were. Over and over again I have watched interviews with him, as he calmly and politely is asked the same questions by presenters from London to Moscow, but behind that eager to please smile, there was the face, of a man who seemed baffled and was trying to understand what had happened to him out there in space, alone and in the dark.
“So, I don’t really exist?”
“Perhaps in theory; but when you are out teaching the piano, or going to the shops, then no, no you don’t.”
“So according to you it is only when I am here, in front of you that I am real?”
I thought about it for a moment, “yes; I know it sounds odd, but when you are not with me, then you are nowhere.”
He pinched himself, ever the clown.
“I feel real.”
“But that is because you are with me. Perhaps try it when I am not here.”
He looked at me oddly, not sure whether to take me seriously or not. We continued to walk around Warwick castle, but in silence, he a little ahead of me and clearly sulking, he painstakingly read the various notices in all the rooms and only roused himself when we had lunch at the rather expensive café. As we sat together eating and cheese tomato toasties, and he enjoyed a beer, he tried to resume the conversation.
“You are a strange one, I cannot tell when you are joking or serious.” He laughed, having got me categorised.
“That’s what all my men say.” I responded, which ensured he said nothing more for another hour or two.
That night, as he pushed himself into me, he groaned, “Am I real now? Can you feel me now? Do I exist?”
And for those few moments as he intruded himself upon me, he was there, but when I awoke the next morning to an empty bed he had faded away, as when he had come out of my body the previous night. And I lay in my bed, it became the centre of everything; my dressing table, my wardrobe, this room….
I suppose that it is egotistical to think that everything revolves around me, that I cause it to be; this man, my lover standing in front of me talking nonsense, the radio, the kitchen, the house.
Even people and objects I glimpse when I am out and about in Manchester; the woman I glance at standing by the window of her house stroking her cat, a brief, overheard conversation between two men, as they hurry past me; will they disappear as soon as I pass them by? It is difficult to believe that they will continue to have a separate existence once I have walked on; that the woman stroking the cat, will go out to do some shopping, meet a friend for lunch, that she has her own interior life; her own worries and ambitions. I see her as an actor on a stage, who has said her lines, and now heads to her dressing room, unneeded for the rest of the play?
On Friday evening, we sat and drank wine.
“All we do is drink” I told him.
“Well let’s have sex then.”
“But can’t we talk, or perhaps we could read? When was the last time you read a book?”
“But we are watching television.”
“Are we? I stopped following it ages ago, it is just background noise.”
“I’m watching it?”
“What is about then?”
He sighed and poured himself more of the wine we had bought from Aldi that afternoon. When we first met we used to drink once a week at most; Saturday evenings if we weren’t going out, or if we had a guest, but now we never have guests, and we rarely go out, and thus we drink most evenings. His pupils must smell it on him, as they turn up bleary eyed to go through the pieces that he has set them to learn.
“I am serious, we drink every evening.”
He laughed, and took my hand and then undid my blouse, and we ended up naked on the sofa. As I kissed him I could smell the alcohol on his tongue and body, and afterwards as I fell asleep wedged into the back of the settee, I felt disgusted with him certainly, but most of all disgusted with myself.
My parents saw Yuri Gagarin when he visited Manchester shortly after he returned to earth. It was a muggy July day in 1961, and later in the afternoon the heavy sun gave way to rain, but it did not stop my parents gathering to watch as Yuri Gagarin drove in an open top car smiling and wet, waving happily at the crowds who had turned out in their thousands to see him.
They had only been married about eight months, and I would be born just over a year later, I being their first and, as it turned out, only child. I imagine them waiting patiently, amidst the smell of damp and cheap perfume, for this man who had done something that nobody had ever done before; my mum looking thin and fragile, my father strong and tough, but it was him who would not survive the decade (dead of cancer shortly after his twenty-sixth birthday) but she seems just the same and still walks the same Manchester streets she did all those years ago, but her mind clouded by senility and sadness.
“He seemed very happy” my mum told me, “a smile for everyone, even though he must have been soaking wet.”
“Did he talk to you?” I had asked her, we were sitting in the kitchen, as we so often did; I must have been eleven and she a widow, in retrospect still young.
“No, we were just part of the crowd, and were only close to him for a few moments. Your father did say that he smiled at him though.”
I have seen photographs of his visit to Manchester; including one that my father had taken, when the crowd had broken slightly so he got a good picture. But by the time that mum told me all about it, Gagarin was dead in an aeroplane crash at the age of thirty-four, and my father was a couple of photographs on the sideboard, and someone my mother talked about when she was feeling lonely, and all she had was a little girl for company.
“Your boyfriend is a pianist” Martha tells me. I nod in agreement, difficult not to, as I often mentioned this to people I knew, it kept him real, and his profession reflected well on me I thought; making me seem bohemian and creative.
“We have got this concert in a couple of months, for the Samaritans, would he be able to play something for us?”
Martha is my friend; I cannot remember how we met or when; perhaps she just arrived labelled “friend.” But we often go to the theatre together or meet for lunch during the week and reminisce (about what?) over panini and cake in the Italian café/ deli in Manchester city centre, near Piccadilly.
“I can ask him.”
“It would be nothing taxing, but we could do with something a bit. If he could just play one of the classics, you know Beethoven, or one of them.”
I clearly did not meet her at anything musical.
“I will let you know” I tell her, breathing in the smell of the café; mostly tomatoes and bread, and I drank down my iced lemon drink and prepared to make my way back to work.
Sometimes I wonder if things will happen without me there to control them; it is a leap of faith expecting things to sort themselves out when I am not there. As I sat waiting in the over-heated hall for my boyfriend to play, chewing on a peppermints to ease my nerves, I wondered if he would appear, perhaps he was there already behind the scenes talking to Martha or practicing in an alcove somewhere, or maybe having a quick drink. He was to play the last piece of the first half; an Impromptu by Schubert, which I had heard him running through this morning as I ate my breakfast.
Quite often people let me down; my father dying, my mother slowly losing her mind. And as I sat there in the bleak hall, filled mostly with the young, and a few worthy looking older people, their copies of The Guardian ostentatiously visible like a rather large ticket, I began to feel dread, I had worried about this ever since Martha asked me, the possibility of being humiliated more than I could bear. I had already sat through various pieces; comic songs that me sad, sad songs that made me giggle and sketches that lasted too long. Between performances I could see Martha behind the scenes; popping out from behind the curtain at the back of the stage, to make sure the audience were still there and appeared happy. She did not seem to notice me, but then there seemed to be so many there she knew.
A rather battered looking piano was rolled out onto the stage, and sat there portentously whilst I became acutely aware of the sound of shuffling bottoms and whispered comments from all around me. I could feel sweat dripping down my spine causing me try and rub it against the back of my chair, whilst the piano sat there, waiting to be made use of.
I wondered if I could leave; grab my bag from the floor and push myself past the people next to; I began to brace myself to get up and apologise, but then it didn’t matter, as he strode onto the stage with a smile; well-dressed and confident, because of course he had done this sort of thing time and time again and he was always going to turn up and save me from embarrassment.
I exhaled deeply, having held my breath for several seconds, without realising it. I could see him look for me, and then once he caught my eye, he gave me a grin and sat down and after a moment of thought began to play. I did not really listen to his music; it could have been the Beatles or nursery rhymes for all the attention I paid it, I was just so relieved that he had turned up, but when he finished I applauded long and hard, and to my relief so did the audience around me – a couple even stood up to clap, and I heard a couple of “bravos” – and then after another swift glance in my direction he gave another smile and disappeared off stage.
I found him and Martha at the interval.
“Where did you find him” she said smilingly “he is lovely, and so talented…. You are lucky.”
We chatted for a few moments, and I felt like a normal person, real amongst other three-dimensional people, and with a boyfriend who had a separate life, and who I could be proud of. And then Martha was called away, and we decided to miss the rest of the concert and go home.
And then that night I took him inside me to thank him for turning up, for actually existing, and confirming something, although I was not sure of what. Shall I be let to sleep, now that this perpetual morning shares my bed?
“I love you” I said, and he returned my kiss; he tasted of peppermint which almost overwhelmed my mouth, and I cuddled close to him to stop him disappearing into a puff of smoke,
But as I lay there, I was remembering sitting in the church hall, the smell of deodorant and perfume choking me, knowing that he would not turn up. Watching the piano rolled on stage, the seat pulled out ready for him, and when it became clear he was not going to appear, a cross looking Martha appearing on stage, apologising and suggesting we go and have refreshments, and then giving me the most hurt of looks.
I fled, out into the rain, as wet as when Yuri Gagarin visited this city all those years ago, and soon my jacket was saturated and my hair a mess. I could not face a bus, and so walked all the way through the streets of the city until I reached my house, cold and empty, with my piano in the music room where I taught schoolchildren and bored housewives, and I sank down onto my bed and pulled my duvet over my body, that smelt of nothing but me.
And then as I slept, I was rising above it all; the bed where I lay alone, the house where I lived, the terrace of which it was a part, my home city of Manchester; and they slipped farther and farther away below me, so that I could no longer distinguish even my own country. As I continued to float upwards, I could see at my feet, planet earth; a blue globe, with swirling white clouds; a football, which I could kick, and do with as I pleased.
Opinions Get Tested – Samantha Carr
The fashion runways of Paris and Milan are as empty as the
Nightingale Hospital in London. Yet the makeshift morgues are full.
Opinions get tested as people cycle more, but you can’t lock them
down. Sing happy birthday to wash off the loneliness of eating a cake
alone. You can’t let them eat cake if there is no flour on the shelves of
socially distances supermarket queues. There are no flights out to
Benidorm, but the return flight is not cancelled. Birds are tweeting
louder, you could hitch a ride back with them. The tweets are getting
louder. Opinions get tested. The facts check themselves and find
themselves wanting more masks.