epilogue – Issue Four

So let them accuse It
of obstructing the view!
The Cabinet Of Heed has teleported Itself,
Or was Itself made manifest,
Before two sisters now
Who in high elevation pull out the drawers,
Ever selecting,
Perhaps reflecting, but
An afternoon is spent.

While the wind teases their hair
And rattles about the oak,
Profane sing-songs all about:
This is new!
It’s in the way
of we poor tourists in the clouds!
Something for the Louvre!
Call Security!
Get a selfie first!

Who placed It here?
What crane employed?
What devious hands are behind this installation?
The sisters have read and
Dare not defend, while all about
The mutters and shouts.
Security take aim
Should this be some gift from Troy.

Oscillation in the air
Tugs the sisters’ dancing hair,
Drumming on what remains of sacrificial trees.
Felled oaks breathe still
Whisper other words
Deep within:
The words two sisters read today.

Now, away, away, away…

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Arthritis – Ellie Rees

My hand and pen have fallen out.
The flow of thought from brain to paper
++no longer travels
with hand’s consent.

I’ve lost my grip:
something has nobbled my fingers

and the nib
now plays diminuendo
++++++++++++++++++feeling its way across the page.

How loose, how easy the keyboard:
a mere touch will elicit
surrender
and words come –
with promiscuous pleasure.

But there was something, surely romantic
in the kiss of a pencil on parchment,
the cushion of my palm caressing its face,
my pride in forming elegant letters;
such confident consonants, the swirl of my vowels.

The keyboard proffers
plastic wafers
like after-dinner mints,
a postprandial game of Scrabble
perhaps?

 

 

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ELLIE REES gained a Phd in Creative Writing from Swansea University this year. In an earlier incarnation she was a teacher of bright young things from all over the world. Now she is teaching herself to be a poet. One of four finalists in Cinnamon’s recent Debut Poetry Collection competition.

Image: moritz320
 

Wasps – Simeon Ralph

You see the light fitting is filled with wasps the moment you manage to lever apart the two hemispheres of the cover, but by then you are already falling. The ridge separating the two halves of the plastic casing had been caked in an adhesive strip of grime, and after removing the screws, you jabbed the tip of your screwdriver into this filth and began to prise. You had decided against fetching your stepladder from the store cupboard and had been, until recently, balanced on a child-sized chair you had dragged from the new English teacher’s classroom. One glimpse of the wasps was enough to spill you to the ground. The freed part of the light fitting clattered near you, then bounced away along the corridor. For a moment you lay still, your cheek pressed against the cool of the freshly-polished floor. Your nostrils stinging with the citrusy chemicals that coat the tiles.

Before long, you feel able to pull yourself into a sitting position. The fall was pitiful, really. Fortunately, none of the kids are still around or one of them would have captured it on their camera phone and uploaded it. The entire school would have been sniggering behind their hands for the rest of the year. You clench and unclench your fists, shake them a little to get the blood flowing, before scrambling to your feet and heading along the corridor to retrieve the light fitting.

You approach carefully. The casing has landed the right way up and, although it has shed some of its nightmare cargo as it skidded along the corridor, it is still stuffed with wasps. There are hundreds of tiny corpses in repulsive huddles crammed inside. Twisted commas of hate, their legs curled inwards and their stingers jabbing impotently in all directions. You nudge the fixture with the toe of your boot, satisfying yourself that there are no survivors, and then lean in for a closer look. A mass grave. You poke at the mounds of huddled hunchbacked insects with the tip of your screwdriver. Their abdomens are browned as if scorched. Wings shrivelled and misshapen. You wonder what impelled them to gather inside this plastic coffin if the heat of the bulb was enough to harm them. There are none of the tell-tale signs of nest-building, instead, they seem to have simply clustered inside and waited for death. Deciding to forget the whole thing, you fetch a dustpan and brush.

After sweeping the wasps into a black sack, you replace the bulb and then the casing. It is when you are returning the chair that you notice a single scorched wasp, curled like an arched eyebrow, lying just inside the classroom door. The door was closed when you were changing the bulb and this stray cannot have fallen from the light fitting. Could be there’s a dead nest secreted somewhere. Most likely, it’ll be up inside the ceiling tiles. You’ve dealt with nests before. In the summer, they could be a real problem, but this late in the year, only the new Queen would remain, hibernating inside a ball of pulp and spit. The old Queen, the drones, the workers, all long dead. The entirety of their short, angry lives, spent building a now dormant hive that would be abandoned the moment the new Queen emerged in the spring. No need to go hunting for the nest, it would be dust before long, but you can’t leave the remains of any leftover wasps just lying around. You are sure that their sacs pulse with venom long after death, and you can’t risk a child getting stung. These days, they all seem to harbour allergies.

You pinch the singed wingtip of the wasp between your fingertips and carry it to the bin at the front of the classroom. You have no idea why this one would also be scorched, as it was not crammed inside the light with the rest of them. Dropping the body into the bin, you see that the bottom is already carpeted with a thin layer of wasps. You lift the bin for a closer look and they rustle like paper. Each of the corpses is slightly charred.

Scanning the classroom, you see that the teacher’s desk is littered with yet more wasps. They are scattered across the surface like misplaced apostrophes. The bodies are discoloured, as if lightly toasted. The warped tips of melted wings poke from the gaps between the desk drawers and when you drag the top drawer open, wasps cascade over the lip and flow onto the floor in their thousands. You recoil, knocking the remote control for the interactive whiteboard over the edge of the desk. When you bend to retrieve it, you see that the battery compartment cover has come loose. Four wasps are packed inside. Their antenna withered. Their legs crisped.

You want no further part of this and head for the door, your skin itching with the false memory of a thousand bristly legs brushing against you. There is a divot in the wall, dug by the door handle. A succession of lumpen Year 9s have thrown open the door in their haste to escape the prison of English lessons. The loose plaster inside this dent is matted with twisted insect legs as if the very walls are constructed from wasps. A solitary insect falls from the keyhole and is washed up against the skirting board by the rush of air as you pull open the door.

In another version, you change the bulb without incident.

Another time still, you are outside the classroom, looking in. The glass panel in the door is smeared with handprints, but you can see the English teacher, Mr Shields, camped behind his desk, tapping at his laptop keyboard. It is lunchtime or after school, it doesn’t matter which. A solitary child sits in the middle of the second row of desks. He is staring in the direction of the clock above the whiteboard as its hands creep towards the end of detention. You rap your knuckles on the glass and Shields looks up, his face stained blue from the light of his laptop screen. He crosses the room and with some difficulty, pulls the door three-quarters of the way open and gestures for you to enter.

Are they yours? The wasps? you say. You squeeze through the gap and kick a path through the thick pile of insects that block the door. Following Shields, you ignore the crunch of abdomens beneath your feet. The soles of your boots are coated in mucous and blood and venom.

Shields offers you the vacant seat next to the vacant student. You are telling yourself that you would not react like this. That you would never take the offered seat, but you would. Everybody always does.

When you draw back the chair, a thousand wasps pour onto the floor. They merge with the dense, insect carpet. The student next to you is buried up to the calves but his expression does not change. You ask what is wrong with the boy.

By way of an answer, Shields reaches across the desk and takes the child’s hand. The boy gives no sign that he notices as Shields grips his index finger and snaps. The finger comes away easily. There is no blood. No jagged bone. He holds it up for you. You refuse the offered digit, and Shields tuts and turns the severed finger around so that you can see it is hollow. and as fragile as porcelain.

What is he?

Shields tips the finger and a dark powder, like iron filings, flows onto the desk. He traces his own finger idly through the dust, drawing patterns. He still holds the boy’s finger in his other hand and he gives it a couple of sharp shakes. A lone wasp tumbles out onto the desk. The hairs on its thorax are clogged with the dark powder. Barely alive, it crawls in a lazy circle, once, twice, before falling still. Its skin crisps. There is the faintest hint of burning hair.

Enough. You shove your chair back. Your intention is to head for the door, but the chair’s momentum is cushioned by the drift of wasps that have washed up behind you. You manage only to stumble to your feet, scraping your thighs on the underside of the desk. Your shoulders sag. The prospect of wading through the knee-deep lake of wasps is too much and you sink back into the chair. You are hollow. A string-cut puppet. You will rest your head, here on the desk, just for a few minutes. You are dimly aware of the bodies of the wasps that burst under you. Of the stingers that warp as they press against the skin of your cheek. Your arm is stretched out before you on the desk. It is too close to your face for your eyes to focus properly and your skin is a vague pale smear. Your forearm seems to taper to a thin point before it contracts and expands, then flows towards you like liquid. You can feel them in there. The wasps. They are packed too tightly to writhe, but they quiver and hum and soon they will burn out.

In another version, the classroom is already empty before you arrive.

Another time, there is no classroom at all. Only wasps.

 

 

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SIMEON RALPH is a writer, lecturer and musician with the noise-rock
band Fashoda Crisis. Currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing
at MMU his work has recently appeared in Bull & Cross, The Ekphrastic
Review and Riggwelter Press. Originally from Essex, he now lives in
Norwich.

 

Image: skeeze

 

 

Five O’Clock Shadow – C.R. Smith

The woman’s mouth was moving yet her words made no sense. It had been a long night. My eyes were still adjusting. It was always a shock to walk out into daylight after working underground. The square was deserted as usual; that peaceful time of day before rush hour kicks in. “Sorry, can you run that by me again?” I said. The woman was obviously distressed about something.

“Like I said, officer, he only stopped to redo his shoelaces. I told him to hurry — I thought we were going to miss our train — I was always telling him to double-knot ‘em. He— ”

If only she would get to the point. I rubbed my eyes. A full English breakfast had my name on it. “Yes, yes, madam, now, walk me through it again, step by step — slowly this time.”

“All he did was sit on the wall. The shadow came out of nowhere.”

“The shadow?” My eyes swept the area. There was nothing out of the ordinary.

“I couldn’t understand what he was shouting about at first. I thought he was mucking me about. Then I moved closer. It was eating him. There was nothing left. His feet were — gone.”

“What do you mean by gone!?” I leaned forward. No alcohol detected on her breath.

“You know — nothing — zilch. His feet were just— gone,” she said, waving her arms around. ”He couldn’t stand. His legs just ended. I tried to reach him but couldn’t get close enough. He begged me for help. I didn’t want to leave him, but there was no one around. I ran as far as the ticket hall before I found someone.”

She was becoming hysterical, her voice rising.

“Take your time,” I said, looking down at the brick wall. No obvious signs of blood.

“When we got back, he was screaming. I heard him before we turned the corner. The shadow was all over him, his legs were gone. The man with me ran over and tried to grab him. The shadow got him too — I think — it happened so quickly. We were all screaming.”

I nodded. Her screams had alerted me.

“The shadow ate both of ‘em,” she said, between sobs.

As far as I could tell there were no signs of a struggle, or any sign of the two men for that matter. Reminded by my rumbling stomach I was off duty, I decided to let someone else deal with the woman. “Give me a minute,” I said, rubbing my stubbled chin. “I’ll get someone to take your statement.”

The least I could do was pretend to believe her. I turned around to call it in. When I glanced back a shadow was eating the woman’s legs.

 

 

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C.R. SMITH is a Fine Art Student whose work has been published in such places as 101 Words, Twisted Sister Lit Mag, Train Flash Fiction, Ellipsis Zine, Spelk Fiction, The Horror Tree, Glove Lit Zine and Ad Hoc Fiction. http://www.crsmith2016.wordpress.com
Twitter @carolrosalind

 

Image: Kaylah Otto on Unsplash

Pea Soup Year – Christine Collinson

The night the storm blew in, I was already as low as can be. Hunger gnawed at me like a rat on a bone. Pitiful harvests had left us bereft; me, Danny, and the girls. Just like everyone else in the whole damned town.

We ate a simple meal of cockles, but it wasn’t enough. Danny and I barely slept as the wind wailed around us, sleety rain battering against the shutters. Through tired eyes, I watched him get up again and again to stoke the guttering fire.

At dawn our neighbour appeared, suddenly, at our door. Rubbing his hands against the cold, he breathlessly told of a ship wrecked in the night. A great cargo vessel, tipped on to the shore.

The passing of the storm had left us with an unsettling calm. Danny went out to join the rescuers, wrapped up against the cold. I sat beside the fire and pictured the ship lying askew, its once majestic sails in tatters. I prayed there were survivors. As I huddled the girls to me, we sang softly together.

Hours passed before Danny returned. As I opened the door, full of questions, I stopped to watch him rolling a small barrel up the path; a sight I’d never seen.

He rolled it inside, then upended it. The barrel rested before us, unadorned. I looked at Danny, but he merely raised an eyebrow. When he prised it open and stood, beaming, I could only stare at dozens of the greenest pea pods I’d ever set eyes upon.

For a long moment, I didn’t speak. “We’ll be eating pea soup for weeks!”

“Nah, Gwen, love; we’ll be eating it well in to next year.”

“If somebody had told me that peas would be our salvation, I’d never ‘ave believed ‘em.” I picked up a pod and squeezed it between my fingers. Then, from somewhere deep down, the laughter began.

 

 

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CHRISTINE COLLINSON writes (mainly historical) short fiction. Her work has appeared in Firefly, Prima and Writers’ Forum magazines, in Ad Hoc Fiction’s eBook and on Paragraph Planet. Find her on Twitter @collinson26.

 

Image: John Thomas Serres [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Residential Care – Clare Read

Tony sat in his pod. He was warm and snug, listening to the horse racing. He had no idea if it was live, or even if it took place in the real world anymore, but the sound of the horse’s hooves thundering down the furlong was reassuring.

He shifted in his chair; it rippled beneath him, altering its pressure every few minutes. A mug of sweet tea appeared from a dispenser close to his right hand, accompanied by a digestive biscuit. In his little capsule all of Tony’s needs were taken care of. He hadn’t seen another living soul for years. That was despite Tony knowing he was surrounded by at least fifty other ageing men, meandering towards death in NewWay Care Facility.

A screen on Tony’s left hand side started to beep frantically. He ignored it. He played this game with the machine every day; exerting a little bit of curmudgeonly independence. It used to madden Jennifer, his late wife, this cunning ability to ignore her calls and continue with whatever he was doing. It became one of their jokes. Ignoring this incessant computer carer, if only for a few minutes, made him feel like she was there nagging him again. He’d give anything for that.

After a few minutes Tony finally gave in and placed his arm in the cuff. Blood pressure, heart rate and oxygenation stats appeared on the screen, accompanied by a smiley face. Then his pills were dispensed. The machine waited eagerly for him to take them and swallow them, before clicking on to standby once again.

When Tony had first seen the pods he’d been amazed by their ingenuity. Gone were concerns about overcrowded residential homes, and a shortage of carers. Instead, these one man spaceships were able to cater for his every need. Food and medication, carefully prepared to avoid allergens and meet nutritional needs, was conveyor belted into the site and delivered to each pod. Exercise was carried out through mini electric shocks to his muscles, ensuring he remained toned and fit, probably more so than when he came here. A touch screen computer gave him access to Ebooks, TV, music, the internet and social networking sites. Temperature regulation did away with the need for clothes and bedding, medication meant his hair and nails no longer grew, and twice daily he was sprayed with disinfectant to keep him clean. A button on his chair opened a hole, into which he could excrete; the waste carried away to a processing site. Even medical emergencies could be responded to electronically. Defibrillators were fitted as standard to every pod.

Yes, there were times when Tony was lonely. He missed the sound of another human voice; especially Jennifer’s. But he’d been just as lonely in his flat. The only care he’d received there was 15 minute domiciliary visits morning and evening; the ever changing carers man-handling him in and out of bed, then setting him up in front of the TV. One time they’d forgotten to come and he’d laid there stranded having morbid thoughts involving Mr Tibbles, his moth eaten cat, finding an alternative food source.

It was when Mr Tibbles shuffled off this mortal coil that Tony decided he couldn’t stand it anymore. The benefits of having his own space and independence were quickly starting to weigh much less in the balance than having all of his needs met. So he’d sold all his possessions, now useless, and cashed in everything to move into his little pod, nicknamed sputnik in his head.

When the horse racing finished, the lights dimmed for his afternoon nap. The chair reclined backwards and the pod gently rocked as if trying to get a baby to sleep. Initially this had made him feel sea sick. He’d flipped urgently through the electronic pages of the manual in a bid to turn it off. However after several attempts at pressing buttons and issuing voice commands, he’d achieved nothing. Eventually he gave up. Over time he had become used to it, and now, lying there, it didn’t take him long to nod off. He no longer had worries bombarding his sleep or a busy brain from a hectic day. Instead, he lay in his darkened shell dreaming of his previous life.

When Tony woke up his pod was still dark. He felt disorientated. Generally, he woke up when the lights came on and his chair returned to a seated position, like in an aeroplane. But here he was still lying down, eyes blinking in the bottom of the capsule. He wondered if it was still nap time and lay there hopefully, but slowly it dawned on him that something was wrong. For one thing the pod wasn’t rocking and he was getting colder and colder.

He started pressing buttons, then jabbing them more frantically. The pod remained stubbornly unresponsive. He was getting close to kicking the thing when eventually the computer lit up. It started whirring as if rebooting. He relaxed and began contemplating what he was going to watch next, a quiz show that was bound to have him yelling at the TV, or a crime drama.

His relief was short lived. The whirring was soon replaced by a message on the screen:

Insufficient funds – payment required immediately.

Tony stared at the flashing words. Money was a distant memory. He had never been a rich man, but he’d thought his savings would see him out. Clearly his calculations were wrong. Lying on the still and flaccid chair he tried not to panic but he was already gasping for breath and he desperately needed to pee. He had spent years in this pod, yet he had no idea how to contact anyone if he needed them, or even how to get out of it.

Hoping there’d be an emergency button like they used to have in lifts, he looked all around him. He longed for a friendly human voice to give him reassurance and tell him they’d “get him out of there in a jiffy”, but there was nothing and tapping the screen just made the message flash faster. Giving up on dignity he started to shout and bang on the pod. He waited, but there was no response. He tried again and was met with silence . His heart pounded. When the time came he’d signed up to a nice morphine fuelled death, not one from lack of food and oxygen, or one that involved him lying in his own faeces. He kicked the computer screen. Apart from hurting his bunion nothing happened.

Just as he was about to give up, Tony noticed a little button next to the door hatch. In the gloom of the pod he’d missed it. He almost giggled at its absurdity. He leant over and pressed it. Slowly the door slid open.

Tony climbed unsteadily up on to his hands and knees and peered out of the hatch. When he’d moved into the pod, everything had looked shiny and new. The place had smelled fresh and airy. Now it looked like an abandoned warehouse. Rust covered the conveyor belts leading to each capsule. The pods themselves were covered with grime and dust. The whole place smelt foul.

At 87, Tony was no longer a nimble man and despite increased muscle tone due to the ministrations of the electro-exerciser, it took him some time to haul himself out. Suddenly he was very aware of his nakedness. He inched passed the pods. There were no signs of life, despite the grinding of the conveyor belts surrounding him. Yet, he was sure that in each capsule there was another man, with money still left, enjoying reruns of the Chase or Midsummer Murder just as he had planned.

Tony focussed on his immediate needs. The first was to have a pee. One of the joys of the pods was that he hadn’t had to hobble to the bathroom every time his shrunken bladder decided it was time. That single press of a button had been a joy. He walked unsteadily, passing row upon row of capsules, until he reached the door, cautiously opened it and looked out. He was met by a long empty corridor, a buzzing florescent light flashing incessantly, and no sign of a toilet.

Close to wetting himself, Tony considered peeing against the wall, but the idea of his ammonia stink adding to the musty smell of the room felt wrong and disrespectful to the other men dozing in front of their televisions. He shuffled further out into the corridor in the hopes of seeing something useful, but there was nothing, not even a pot to piss in. The only thing he could think to do was to ask one of his roommates if he could use their waste disposal system – just for a second.

He retraced his steps and stumbled back into the vast room. He couldn’t get over how deserted it looked. When he’d been lying in his pod he’d pictured a small army of service bots maintaining everything, overseen by a team of doctors and nurses. Maybe everything was done remotely now?

Tony staggered over to the first pod. Things were getting desperate. His bladder felt like it was about to explode. Feeling faintly ridiculous, he knocked on the hatch; quietly at first and then more vigorously. He was met by stony silence. He wondered if the person inside could hear him, or whether like him they had no idea how to open the capsule. After counting to 30 in his head, he tried again, but there was still nothing.

The last thing he wanted to do was barge in on another old guy. It might give him a heart attack. However, he could see no other option. Being found wandering around naked was one thing. Doing it with urine trickling down his leg was quite another. Tony pressed the hatch open button.

With a grinding sound, the door slowly opened on its rusty hydraulics. Before he could look inside, the stench hit him; the sweet smell of rot and decay. He stumbled backwards and began to gag violently. As he reeled, he nearly tripped over the next pod in line. He didn’t have to look to know what was inside the capsule.

Filled with fear, Tony lurched between pods.

With the same grinding sound, the hatches slowly opened.

The smell filled the room.

He was completely alone.

 

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CLARE READ is reasonably new to writing. Two years ago she joined Marvellous Writers, a community writing group, and hasn’t looked back. She particularly enjoys writing about people that others might consider as underdogs and really likes to explore the internal world of her characters. In the non fictional world, Clare works in the NHS with people with a Learning Disability.

 

Image: J Clear at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Aftermath – M. Stone

our goodbyes
spent shotgun shells

no bared teeth or raised hackles
not even a whiff of threat

he returns to his wife
and I slink into an unshared bed

holding fast to things unsaid
sewing needles clasped between my lips

when I finally confess him
to a friend over sweet tea

her face forms a cold front
her unasked question chills the air

well what did you expect?

 

 

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M. STONE is a bookworm, birdwatcher, and stargazer who writes poetry and fiction while living in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her poems have appeared in San Pedro River Review, SOFTBLOW, Calamus Journal, and numerous other print and online journals. She can be reached at writermstone.wordpress.com.

 

Image: Wild0ne via Pixabay

This Place Is A Zoo – Zoë Ranson

This is a city of night. After dark, it trembles with life.

I work nights, at a gas station beside the Autobahn. Like traffic, life passes me by. From my perch behind Perspex, I glimpse moments of it, wobbling images, no bigger than postage stamps. Funny what you get used to.

I ended up behind glass. An ambition fulfilled in some ways. A sliding partition punched with holes seals me off from people who seem distant, only inches away. As they drift through to their next episode, I am barely a supporting character. A mime.

After weeks on nights, days of the week seem unimportant. I know it’s Thursday when the Club Kids traipse across the tracks, jittery and wild-eyed, and knock on the glass to order candy and cigarettes. Look away patiently, as they scrabble with coins, identifying them by touch, when their eyes play tricks. Then they are gone for another week, sashaying into the blackness. Fortune, not skill, keeps them out of the road. They are so young, they can’t see any danger.

Before I took this job, I was a student of marine biology. But everything was different then. Ruby was still here.

I suppose it is like being in a cage. I hadn’t thought of it that way until Saturday, when a cackling man pressed his lips up against the pane and capered like a monkey until another, broader, man tapped fiercely on his shoulder and ushered him on.

Like any retail job, there are regulars, so habitual you can grab their Cheetos, their gum, their Pueblo in advance. We need only our eyes, a slight gesture; no words. My favourite is a woman I call Sierra. She comes every night for a pack of American Spirit on the way home from the casino where she works as a croupier. Her nails are always immaculate. Looking down at my own ragged cuticles, I am ashamed of their gnawed flesh, the flaked paint.

I could combine my talents, I suppose. Medical experiments. I’ve thought about it. They could pay me to sleep behind glass. Hook me up to a monitor, while they observe, sensor pads on my fingers measuring every twitch, every surge.

For now though, I am here.

Now there is no more Ruby, time is split into work and not work. A loveless blended wallpaper of sleeping and waking. Every night at 2 a.m. I take my break, while Heinrik, the supervisor, belligerently covers the register. I climb the stairs to the bridge high over the Autobahn and cross to the middle. Melding lights below me, I send plumes of smoke up towards the stars.

That night I looked down and saw her, a mystery woman sat on the bench beside the phone kiosk. That’s why she stood out, I suppose. A break from the old routine. I mean, she stood out anyway – tall, graceful, enormous hands. There was a holdall at her feet, one of those huge kitbags. In this city, you see them all the time. Slight, threadbare teenagers, like some wannabe Cheryl Strayed, legs buckling as they’re tipped forward beneath the hulk of them.

I am clockwork. Three nights, the same thing – the green bag at her feet, scrolling through something on a ritzy phone. If I were to cry out to her, my words would drown in the language of the road; whooshing tires, the symphony of horns warning against impulse.

When I was a scientist, a professor of mine gave a word of warning: I shouldn’t mind the cruelty of nature. That the aim. Is always. To try and not be cruel yourself. But I was. This same professor told me I was ‘dangerously ambitious’; as though applying that to my own life like a band aid could prevent me from doing any further harm.

When I was a scientist… A past version of myself. I am one now, still, only lapsed. Like a person who mislays their religion, because it seems at odds with their lifestyle. I’ve mislaid my ambition.

Once my studies were completed, I was cut adrift from my subjects. To remind myself who I am, I go to the reptile house three afternoons a week. Out in the raw plane of the zoological gardens, it’s the most brutal kind of cold. The reptile house is always warm.

++

I sleep Saturday away. When I wake, I struggle to get it together. My one night off: I have to go out, to the Lido, for the band I used to like with the fractious singer, the one with the flamingo pink hair.

The show is over when I arrive. On stage: another band who I do not care for. The crowd is ecstatic, shrieking someone else’s words as though they are their own. Sweat crawls down the walls. My skin feels see-through, fluorescent under the lights. I’m too hot, but know the cold outside is gruelling, so I push my way through to the back of the room. And her. She is taller than I remembered, the flat of one foot pressed into the wall. There is graffiti behind her: Punk Rock is Nicht Tot. The old symbol of Anarchy.

First circuit: I don’t even look.

Circuit two takes in the whole room – plus the bathroom, briefly, to check my teeth, tussle with my hair.

Third one: I go in.

I open my mouth and I can’t remember how to talk exactly. Beautiful people make me nervous.

Waiting for someone?
Not really. I just came to see the band.
I’m good at waiting. Not tables. No, I’d say helpless at tables. But other things.
And I am. Good at waiting. But, she doesn’t ask, doesn’t speak again, only smiles.
I smile back, but there’s a bite. I hate being pitied more than any brush off.
A lull, then:
You have a heavy bag.
She looks up at that.
Big enough, she joked, to carry a body. Ruby’s would’ve slipped in there with room to spare. Pieces of the girl so small and unafraid.

She moves off through the crowd like liquid. Shimmering inside like a Club Kids gel bracelet. Then the lights go out and the crowd’s cries switch from euphoric to chilling. A power cut. The city, so alive at night, is famed for them, striking without warning.

++

A week later she appears in gloaming. She slinks up to the window the bag knocking round her shins. In dimness of the garage forecourt, fingers splayed, she looks at me as though startled that I could exist in real life, as I am often startled myself at the sight of my own reflection.

Her voice is robotic and so low, I almost don’t understand. What she is asking for, in her slow strange way, are those gummy sweets that are sets of teeth – three packets of pink candy, inset with tiny white squares. She tips me five Euro for service I didn’t provide and sails away.

I lost Ruby at night. I was at my perch, playing solitaire with loose Smarties when the road took her. Sailed out into the blackness, as the juggernauts thundered on.

Too much mephedrone, they said. Distorted how things were. The din of the road, pulsing and rhythmic, inviting her out to dance. She thought she had wings. She expected to fly up, over the speeding metal boxes, to catch the underside of the bridge and dangle there, powerful and carefree, her legs swinging. A superhero, a comic book Catwoman. Instead she became a pile of broken bones, a beatless heart at their centre.

There’s a certain number of times the human body can stand a shock. If I scrunch my eyes closed, there’s an outline. I’m not sure if it’s hers. Heinrik is the only one who knows me. He knew me with her and sees that without her, I’m nothing.

In a second, I see my future beside the road. I yell for Heinrik, I need to go on break early, it’s an emergency. Spring up the steps to the top of the bridge and scan the darkness below. Wait. A spill of sweet teeth on the steps to the bridge like a fairground breadcrumb trail to lead me home.

Slick of wet road, lights scampering across. She shivers in the moonlight. My own teeth are chattering, I forgot the trapper coat I wear, still on the peg.

I stagger down the other side, stumbling over the last few steps. She’s bending over. A shooting pain shatters through my leg as I struggle towards her. Wait Please. I run now, thoughts spilling out.

I have so much to tell her. How I am cooped up at night, sleeping the day away. How there’s a fashion in the pizzeria here for dropping rocket on top of everything.

I tell it to the stars, because she is gone and I am powerless and sorry about it. I liked being in control of someone else. I’m not especially proud of that.

 

 

 

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ZOË RANSON is a fiction writer from Hackney via Walton-on-the-Naze. She writes stories from the very short to the epically long and, sometimes, for the stage.
Twitter: @zooeyr

 

Image: StockSnap via Pixabay

 

No Word of the Cat – Karen Jones

She’s sitting with her back to him, reading the newspaper – his paper – pretending he’s not there. He hates when she does that, but he’s not allowed to whine. That was one of the counsellor’s rules.

He takes a deep breath. “Nice out?”

She shrugs.

She’s been out, hung out the washing, knows whether it’s nice or not.

“Looks nice,” he says, voice steady.

She sighs. “It’s hot when the sun’s there, cool when it’s not – that kind of day.”

He wants to punch her in the face. He wants to yell, “Well thank you, fucking Einstein! I am aware that it is hot when there is sun and cool when there is no sun!” but punching people is not allowed any more. The counsellor was very clear about that. He closes his eyes and counts to ten, clenching and unclenching his fists to release the tension.

“Still no word of the cat? No one responded to the posters?”

Her shoulders droop and she coughs away a sob then shakes her head.

He wants to laugh and shout, “Stupid fucking cat. Good riddance to the scrounging little bastard!” but he’s not allowed to shout and definitely no swearing.

Bloody counsellor and her, “The packed bag that sits by the door will be your reminder. She will be ready to leave at any moment. The future is in your hands.”

“Fucking cow,” he thinks. But his wife has spun around and she’s staring at him. Christ – did he say that out loud?

A smirk and her head cocks to the side. Then she gives an I-told-you-you-couldn’t-do-it nod of her head.

“No. I didn’t… I wasn’t talking about… I was thinking about…” But she’s up, chair scraping along the tiles (he tries not to wince), leaving the scent of her coconut shampoo in her wake as her heels further assault the tiles.

He runs into the hall. Too late. The door slams, the bag’s gone, the cat flap rattles. A brown mouse runs in and scrabbles across his bare feet. It’s not afraid of him. A tear drips off his nose and lands on his big toe. Crying? He doesn’t do crying.

He stares at the mouse and the truth hits him: He really misses that damn cat.

 

 

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KAREN JONES is from Glasgow. Her stories have appeared in numerous magazines and e-zines and have been included in print anthologies such as Discovering a Comet and more micro fiction, The Wonderful World of Worders, An Earthless Melting Pot, City Smells, 10 Red, HISSAC 10th Anniversary, Bath Short Story Anthology, Ellipses: One, Bath Flash Fiction Volume Two and Flash Fiction Festival One. She’s been successful in short story and flash competitions including Mslexia, Flash 500, Writers Bureau, The New Writer, HISSAC and Words with Jam. Her story collection, The Upside-Down Jesus and other stories, is available from Amazon.

 

Image: Alexas_Fotos

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