the children open eyes wide as grey winds billow thru the alley finally they believe me that our food becomes deep rich earth— a transformation they would not accept on faith. the centipedes and earthworms rejoice in my work as I bucket up their troping of rebirth. mulberries fall round about: dark corpuscular rain. and I trowel in the compost, feeding the mouths of corn, tobacco, high balancing begonias that dance like pink chandeliers in the draft. A mama thrush sneaks in the maple leaves above, kids scuttling aswirl as I dig. one lone squash blossom flashes out in sudden relief, life from death— shock of yellow on black of earth.
When I think back to my childhood – the earliest part of it, the part I once refused to think about – I still don’t quite understand how I could have gotten here. But at the same time, I recognize things could not possibly have transpired any differently.
It must be because something stops being trauma when it starts being motivation; and because the best way to avoid martyrdom is to stay alive.
It’s Match Day.
It’s the day medical students find out where their residencies will be, where their careers will begin, where they will make breakthroughs and witness medical miracles and accidentally kill patients and everything in between.
It is the culmination of 16 years of schooling, and it happens at every medical school in the country, all at the same time; thousands of doctors-to-be, opening a sacred envelope, discovering their futures and lamenting their failures.
I stand with my envelope, alone. All around me are my fellow students, surrounded by family, surrounded by friends, surrounded by the whole world, it seems. I am the calm eye amidst a hurricane of excitement in the room, the center of an orbit, my gravity warping space-time so everyone else is repelled around me into a vast radius.
It has been this way since the first foster home.
It was this way through all of public school, to be honest, and private university, and my top-tier medical school as well. I am a perpetual outcast; I am a pariah. I’ve been alone most of my life, but I have not been lonely. I have, instead, been working towards this, towards this exact moment, towards my destiny.
I know exactly when I decided to be a doctor. It happened in a split-second, in one of those life-changing moments that stick with you and subconsciously guide your every action, evolution disguised as instinct disguised as survival.
I will never forget it. I was a little girl, and I was watching my mother overdose.
I know how dramatic that sounds, but it’s not hyperbole. It’s also not what you think. Watching someone overdose isn’t like Pulp Fiction, and it’s not like 8th grade health class would have you believe, either. It’s quiet; deceptively sweet, like the poppies in The Wizard of Oz beckoning Dorothy to lie down and rest.
I was little, like I said, and I shouldn’t remember this, but I do.
I watched her for a bit, lying there, not moving. I think my prepubescent brain expected something to happen, the next link in a logical chain of events, but what I didn’t realize was that her chain was ending. I didn’t realize that the only thing standing between me and that inevitability was a Savior.
I sat there as precious moments ticked away, waiting for her to get up, or die, or seize or vomit or scream or anything. Instead, she just…slept.
The rest of that day is a flurry of motion in my memory: the landlord’s frantic steps when I finally called to say she wouldn’t wake up; police cars pulling up in front of our apartment; the EMTs bustling around our tiny living room, administering Narcan, doing CPR, loading my still-inexplicably-alive-mother into the maw of an ambulance.
There was a social worker, kind but aloof, desensitized to the trauma she glimpsed every day. She was the first in a long line of state-sponsored adults who would decide my life away as the years passed. There were more police officers, asking questions, demanding answers, pumping me full of soda and nervous energy.
Surprisingly, my mother didn’t lose custody; not that day, anyway. The above scenario would repeat more than once before the government decided to take me from the only home I had ever known. It was dysfunctional and depraved, sure, but it was also still my home. Leaving it for an endless string of foster placements was nothing short of life-shattering.
What really sticks with me about that day was the belief I had, the certainty which only a child can hold, that life would get better. I remember my conviction that my mother would wake up, that she would recover, that someone would fix everything and give me a future.
Of course, that didn’t – and doesn’t – happen.
Things got steadily worse, and no one came along to give me a future. The next decade-and-a-half was as terrible as you would expect a childhood spent in the foster system to be; but that isn’t what led to my current Hippocratic quest. My calling to medicine did not come from the horror of my youth – except maybe as a grain of sand irritates the oyster until a pearl is finally formed. What my journey did accomplish was to birth my need to rise above the hidden curse in my DNA, the genetic component of addiction that I knew – even in adolescence – would be a risk for me. You see, I could never abide being just another orphan of the opioid epidemic. I have refused, my entire life, to be an academic statistic or a cautionary tale.
I have, instead, always been determined to matter.
What I mean to say is, the day my mother overdosed, the day I decided to become a doctor, I witnessed a miracle. While it may only have prolonged what I now understand was never meant to be, Western Medicine managed, in front of my eyes, to bring my mother back to life.
Through a tiny window in an ER hallway, I watched the attending physician administer volts of electricity to her temporarily-stopped heart, and I made a decision: I was going to be a doctor, too. Someday, I was going to provide that hope for a little girl in the future, one who also might believe things would improve, if she just wished hard enough.
That stuck with me through the system, through all my schooling. I learned that the only person who was going to give me a future was me; I learned that no one can fix an addict but themselves. And I learned the art of healing, the art of saving a life. I learned how to keep a child’s mother breathing long enough for things, just maybe, to finally turn around.
Because that’s all I ever wanted, the whole time.
Things never did turn around for me – so I turned them around myself. And I am becoming, if you’ll forgive my hubris, one hell of a doctor.
Around me, the noise level is nearly unbearable, excitement wafting through the air like smoke, and now the whole room is counting down; counting down to the moment when it has either all been worth it or all been in vain, when that for which you’ve worked so hard will either come to fruition or leave you desperately wanting.
I stare at the envelope, trying to will its contents directly into my brain by osmosis. Even as I watch the large digital clock mounted on the wall, red seconds ticking away the last moments of my youth, I am terrified for the countdown to reach zero. If it WAS all in vain – if all of my work, all of my dedication, all of my soul I’ve poured into this endeavor was for naught – then I haven’t just let myself down. I have let down all the little girls I could have helped down the road, all the parents I could have saved. My years of training would be a meaningless sacrifice, the martyrdom of my childhood without any of the perks of sainthood or fame.
A few seconds left, and I can see all the students around me poised to rip open their envelopes; shoulders raised, fingers tense, looks ranging from exhilaration to apprehension to abject fear. I allow myself, for the briefest of moments, to think about the very slim possibility that the envelope in my hand contains precisely the news for which I’ve been hoping.
The countdown reaches the end, and there is a pause, a second of inaction, like the entire room is not convinced of the validity of the number zero. Then, as if choreographed, there is a frantic burst of energy as hundreds of burgeoning doctors rip away paper to reveal their paths.
Shouts, exaltations, swear words and wails echo from the walls, but I swear I can even hear the silence from individuals whose envelopes contain disappointment. I feel a flash of sympathy; as someone who has been let down so many times, I’m well acquainted with that particular emotion.
Still, I haven’t opened mine, because it’s not like there’s anyone waiting to see what’s inside. A murmur in my head, the voice of my inner monologue, whispers a prayer to a deity in whom I stopped believing long ago.
Please, it begs, let it be U Penn. Please, so it wasn’t all a waste, let it be U Penn.
I take one more moment to wish, with all of my being, and tear into the envelope. I discard it and unfold the paper inside, neat business creases dividing the document into perfect thirds as if it’s normal correspondence, as if it isn’t the most important piece of paper I’ll ever read in my life.
My eyes anxiously dance over the letterhead, the date, the addresses, the electronic signature, searching out the words I’m so hoping to see.
2021 MATCH RESULTS
School Code: 2310089
Applicant Name: Hannah Reynolds
CONGRATULATIONS, YOU HAVE MATCHED!
Program Code: 170354
Program Name: Cardiac & Thoracic Surgery
Institution Name: Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania
I blink unbelievingly, in awe at what I am seeing. I hear my inner monologue again, a resonant soprano that chatters constantly in my brain, that I always try to ignore, that holds the cumulative power of a lifetime of trauma.
You know what this means, right?
You didn’t think it was altruism, did you?
Oh, you did. That’s so cute.
My calling has been to medicine, yes. My goal is to sanctify life, to save it, to keep mothers and fathers and sister and teachers among the land of the living, sure. That’s what I’ve always wanted.
But, at the end of the day, we are all human. And what is more human than an innate need for justice?
We live in a meritocracy, you see, and I realized at a very young age that nothing commands more respect than a physician. People will see the letters after my name – people will see my alma mater on my curriculum vitae – and they will listen to me. They will trust me. They will believe what I say, and believe I have the purest of intentions in saying it.
No one will remember, however, that Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services ruined my life. No one will remember how they took me away before things could get better, how the social workers and police and judges and foster mothers were a collective force to endure, a Sisyphean boulder on my back as I struggled to grow, to live.
But I remember.
I remember bureaucracy, taking everything from me; I remember impotence, feeling dehumanized by the system. Most of all, I remember helplessness, my omnipresent childhood companion. Now, however – as a U Penn-trained doctor, as a pillar of the community, as the American Dream made incarnate – I will finally have what I never had before.
I will finally have power.
I will have power because knowledge is power. But power corrupts like opioids corrupt like the foster system corrupts, so is it really any wonder that I plan to wield my M.D. like a weapon – my education a switchblade in the scabbard of my mind – for payback, first and foremost?
Growing up in this city of Brotherly Love, I was screwed by both nature and nurture. But now – I will finally be taking my vengeance for both.
Shannon Frost Greenstein is the author of “More.”, a forthcoming poetry collection from Wild Pressed Books. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee, a Contributing Editor for Barren Magazine, and a former Ph.D. candidate in Continental Philosophy. Follow her at shannonfrostgreenstein.com or on Twitter at @mrsgreenstein.
It was a brief spell in his life, one of which most people are none the wiser, one that passed largely without incident. That is if any period of time in which one lives as a mango can be described as passing largely without incident. In truth, it can’t. Not that Kermit Lansbury can be persuaded:
“No, it passed largely without incident,” he told me once, quite firmly. It was September 1977, the first time I’d heard about it — this Mango Period. I tried to argue, but each time my mouth opened so did his: “Nuh-uh,” he would say, raising an eyebrow and a forbidding finger, that mischievous gleam in his eye. But on this occasion, as has so often proved the way, argument would get me nowhere.
Kermit Lansbury, even back in ’77, was already a highly regarded artist — in fact, perhaps you recognised the name? At the very least you’d probably know some of his more famous works: Untitled #111; Untitled #40; and perhaps his best work yet Untitled #86. Or perhaps you would if he’d given them proper titles. Or even created them; at least in the conventional sense. You see, Kermit’s reputation has been founded on taking abstract conceptual art to audacious and previously unimagined new levels (new depths, say his critics): his works exist only in his imagination; only as concepts. As he puts it:
“To make the concept concrete is merely to make concrete. And what fun is concrete?”
It goes almost without saying, then, that his works are quite unusually brilliant. Indeed, Kermit himself has assured me of their brilliance on many an occasion.
“Oh, they’re brilliant!” he always tells me, rolling his eyes in apparent rapture. I wish I could somehow walk around that internal, mental gallery of yours, I tell him — that everyone could. “But that’s just it,” he enthuses, all expansive hand gestures and wide animated eyes. “There is no need. Of course my works could not possibly be more personal, yet what could be more universal than subjectivity? We all have that in common. The simultaneously personal and universal — a beautiful paradox! Already they are somewhere inside of you. Inside of everyone. People need only look!”
Nonetheless, I did once ask him: if your works are just lying around inside of everyone, waiting to be found, then what makes you so special? “Me? I just found them first!” he laughed. Perhaps, that is something that all great artists can say of their works?
But to anyone unfamiliar with the world of Kermit Lansbury no doubt this all sounds much like the Emperor and his new clothes, and his claims to have lived as a mango perhaps no more than a cultivated eccentricity. Let me describe, then, one of the pieces he once described to me; it is not something he is in the habit of doing, and took much persuasion on my part, but I’m sure he will forgive me — after all, it has already been exhibited all around the world. The piece in question is very simple, and like all Kermit’s work unnamed: it consists only of a huge black expanse and in the bottom right-hand corner a tiny white dot. It is in the interpretation that complexity arises:
“To you, a pessimist,” he told me, “it will mean optimism, perhaps, this dot. And from moment to moment you will see a different dot: smaller, larger, in a different position, maybe even sometimes no dot, according to your mood. Everyone will see it differently. Me, I see a negative of the image — I call the dot Pessimism. But, of course, I am blessed with innate optimism. Someone else may call the image Solitude; another, Hope. How to name it, then? It is much that way with all my work.”
How to name it, indeed? But even more so, as we have already touched on, how to render it? How to render any of his works? Ever changing, endlessly interpretable, so personal as to be universal: the only possible medium, the only possible gallery space for Kermit’s works, indeed the only place that would not rob them of their essential subjectivity is certainly in his head; and at the same time, perhaps, in all our heads. To commit such works to canvas would not only compromise them, it would be impossible.
Exhibiting Kermit Lansbury, needless to say, is not without its challenges.
The stunned face of the girl who first opened a gallery to Kermit’s works was itself a picture. After many weeks of assuring her not to worry, that everything would arrive in time, just go ahead with the invites, he had turned up just an hour before the opening entirely empty-handed. “But where are they?” she had asked. “Your works? We can’t open to an empty gallery!”
“Why not? It’s a perfectly lovely gallery. All the more so for the lack of clutter,” he had deadpanned. The poor woman was frantic. It was her first exhibition. A young heiress, at this stage merely dabbling in the arts, Portia Teversham had never owned a gallery before. Which is not to say that she wasn’t taking the whole thing entirely seriously.
“We have press coming! We can’t— “
“For an unknown? You have done me a great service.”
“Don’t worry. I’m here. That’s all you need. Every one of my pieces, even some I have yet to create — they are all here,” he had smiled, tapping his temple. I remember her just staring at the madman, open-mouthed. “I was once a mango, you know,” he had then whispered in her ear, as she would tell me many years later. I don’t think he could resist.
It is to her eternal credit, then, that she finally went ahead with the event. Kermit had, of course, talked her round:
“If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then let them come and behold beauty. What need have they of artworks? Interpretation too. Is that not the critical thing? If that is of their own making — the public, the critics — then my work need not be involved.
“Don’t misunderstand me, there are, of course, artworks in my mind, many of them — I have spent countless hours over each — but how can I render them as I see them? Only in my mind are they as I see them. The instant they leave my mind they have failed. Were I instead to describe them it would be just the same.
“Nevertheless, they are undoubtedly worthy of exhibition. And so, here we are. I have my twenty works and each of the audience will be asked to leave with their twenty interpretations. Would that not also be the case if my works had simply been placed on the walls? When you think about it, where is the problem?” The poor girl hadn’t been sure, although she’d been quite sure that there was one.
But it was too late, by now — and not just to cancel the show — she had fallen for him…
More or less the same speech Kermit later gave to the assembled press and public. Some critics enthused wildly, if inaccurately, about the event as “a profound and unique comment on the impossibility of Art.” Others decried Kermit as a “charlatan” pulling a “cheap stunt.” While others were merely curious to see what he might do next. The reviews of that first show, it’s safe to say, were decidedly mixed. But there was one in particular that pleased him enormously:
“The images I saw ranged from the oddly comforting and vaguely pastoral, to ones so perverted and disturbing I can’t even begin to relate them. Whether these in fact corresponded in any way whatsoever to those that Lansbury had brought to the gallery, I have no idea. But, why not? Kermit Lansbury’s images are subjective, as were mine. And what do we all have in common? Our subjectivity. Thus, as subjective images are they not somehow universal? Frankly, I don’t know, and it’s making my head hurt. But that’s no reason to suppose that tonight I didn’t meet a genius.” It was nice, Kermit told me, that at least one person had understood.
It might seem odd to think nowadays, when Lansburys quite regularly change hands for hundreds of thousands, but Kermit was unable to sell a single piece at that first show. But bear in mind, back then his particular brand of conceptual art was unheard of; much less, widely understood. Collectors were baffled. Not that it’s ever been unusual for an audience not to be able to touch great works of art — museum guards are generally quite insistent on it — but in 1969, not even to be able to see what you were buying, it was unprecedented.
How times have changed!
We have Kermit to thank, of course. For it was he who first pointed out the obvious: many art collections already go unseen, gracing only the bank vaults of the rich. To these people, that they will never see what they have purchased is — aptly enough where Kermit’s work is concerned — entirely immaterial: all that matters is ownership; investment. To Kermit, then, his works may as well remain in his head.
Of course, widespread acceptance that a Lansbury might be no more than a deed of ownership was, as you’ll imagine, far from instantaneous. So it was perhaps a great fortune that a certain young heiress fell for my dear friend when she did (but in the career of which successful artist has luck not played a hand).
Within months of meeting, the pair had announced their engagement, unveiling to some of the richest people in Britain what may still be Kermit’s most stunning creation, even surpassing Untitled #86: Portia’s engagement ring. Quite unique, and near impossible to copy, its transparent magnificence — as you’ll doubtless imagine — left all in attendance breathless. Soon, a Lansbury was near impossible to obtain. Yes, it was a very happy union, in so many ways.
Granted, not a marriage without its difficulties — Kermit’s frequent alcoholic excesses down the years are well documented, and thus not recounted here; ditto the incident with the sturgeon and the dentist — but neither he nor Portia have regrets, and even as Kermit’s life sadly now nears its end, their devotion to each other remains as simple and tender a portrait of love as you could ever hope to see.
Yet, even in death — and may its scythe turn rusty — old Kermit will blaze a unique and distinctive trail: as perhaps the only artist who has ever taken his each and every work to the grave (how this will affect the collectors market, goodness only knows). But I say ‘perhaps’, for here a contradiction lies: are Kermit’s works not, as he has so often suggested, just waiting to be found in all our heads?
To Kermit there is no problem here, of course, nor with any contradiction: “So both things are true,” he will always shrug. “What can I say? I didn’t create the world!”
True — but he did make it that bit more interesting.
But let us return to the beginning now, and that little documented period before his great artistic success. I recently asked him again — had it informed his work?
“How could it?” he replied. “I was a mango! I was not conscious. My work has thus been informed entirely by not being a mango.” As he was of course aware, that wasn’t really what I wanted to know. He sighed. “People buy things that exist only in my head, yet that they have problems with? OK, I will tell you what happened when I was a mango.” What? I asked, thinking finally I might get to the bottom of it. “Nothing,” he laughed, “I was a mango, of course!”
Like I said, sometimes there’s just no arguing.
Tim Warren is a writer of mostly very short things. His microfictions and flash can be found most recently in Serious Flash Fiction Anthology: Vols. 5 & 6, Paragraph Planet, Overheard, Pendemic and the VSS365 Anthology. The rest you can find on Twitter. He lives in Cornwall, UK.
In the days before air conditioning when oscillating fans provided fleeting relief, and winter chills were waylaid by Franklin stoves placed in the kitchen near the stairway to warm upstairs bedrooms, Aunt Josephine, a large, smiling, accommodating woman, the first born of a family of five, stood in the town’s only grocery story with her younger sister and nephew staring at a cold, blue tube almost six inches long.
Their husbands remained in the 1953 Plymouth. “Hell, one grocery store is just like any other.”
They had risen at four thirty, and, while the men milked, the two women stoked the stove, visited the outhouse, prepped the Windsor oven, gathered eggs, pulled a slab of ham, sliced it, returned the remainder to the aging room, hauled milk from the milk barn, worked the small hand pump attached to a pipe that ran from the windmill into the kitchen, started the Coleman coffee percolator, laid out the men’s breakfast of ham, sausage, scrambled eggs, homemade biscuits, bread baked the day before, newly-churned butter, milk as fresh as that morning’s sun, remembered to bring the butter and jelly to the table, ate while standing, washed and dried the dishes, placed a towel over the glasses in the rack, swept the floor, rushed to the outhouse one more time, then changed into hand-sewn flour sack dresses, nylons, and the same type of shoes their grandmother wore, came downstairs, and loaded the car with the necessities for a pre-McDonald’s day trip. As long as they returned by six that evening they’d be okay. “Cows don’t milk themselves.”
In the refrigerated grocery store aisle. Aunt Josephine, holding the six-inch blue tube, said to her younger sister, “Pauline, look at this. What do you think?”
“It’s only ten cents.”
“For a dime I could buy-“
“Look.” She handed the cold blue tube to her younger sister.
“Just put em in the oven and in less than twenty minutes- Jeez.”
“Come over here.” Her younger sister motioned toward the frozen food section.
“What are those?”
Aunt Josephine touched the rectangular package of frozen chicken, peas, a dollop of mashed potatoes, and four apple slices.
“Why?” She placed the package back in the freezer and returned to reexamine the blue tube.
Back home that evening, they served supper with the blue tube biscuits, said nothing, but planned to return to that grocery store. After all, cake mixes were a dime too.
Thomas Elson’s short stories, poetry, and flash fiction have been published in numerous venues such as Calliope, Pinyon, Lunaris, New Ulster, Lampeter, Selkie, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, and Adelaide Literary Magazine. He divides his time between Northern California and Western Kansas.
On the first day of the course, the tutor told us to do a Stanislavski.
This was after he’d given his movie credits. A couple of bawdy British “Confessions” movies and the film that finally killed off the British horror industry. And he seemed proud of it and I was fucking awed by him with his jumper tied round his shoulders and his indoor sunglasses and his perfect teeth. I was fucking awed by his Certainty in Himself.
And then, ten minutes into the ‘lecture’, he told us to do a Stanislavski.
Which is how I found myself out on the town with the shoppers and the baby buggies and the druggies and the meths heads and the oldies, and I thought this was going to be It. This was how we were going to Learn. This was going to change my life.
I listened to a bald bloke talking to his mate on the blower about needing a “hundred Thatchers” for something and I fell into step behind him. I imitated his walk a bit – the strut and the constricted swing of the balls in the too-tight jeans – and I wondered if I could dare try to drum up conversation with him. Just ask him the time, perhaps, but in the lingo, with the old dog and pears and whatever else I could remember from the TV. ‘cos how would he know? He wouldn’t know I’d just started at the not-quite-a-University. He wouldn’t know I was an acting student.
Apart from the long coat and the scarf and the badges, that is, but I’d turned the lapels up and out and I’d adopted the walk and I could do it, I could do it, I could do it.
The bald bloke disappeared into Ladbrokes and I was left loitering around the bus station with the dirty macs and the blue rinses and the drivers with their ghee-greased DAs. That was still good, though. That was what Peter director man had suggested we do. So I sat there on a bench for half an hour, maybe an hour, and I turned my collar up further and I adopted the posture of the ardent fag smoker, although I put the biro away after attracting more than a few funny looks. Which should have been fine. Because there were plenty like that where I’d come from. Before today. Before I’d been packed off on the train to the digs and the Uni with a six pack of crisps and the single saucepan that my mother had been able to spare.
There were plenty of the lost and alone to be seen in the town centre back home. They were in their own worlds, too. How difficult could it be? Even without the White Lightning cider and the dog on a string.
The hour passed. It might well have started to rain.
When we got back to the lecture theatre, and after Peter had got off the phone to his agent to check that, once again, the film industry had no use for him, I got to hear of some of the others’ exploits. The big girl from Stoke had gone into a gay bar at 10 in the morning and had a right old time of it playing pontoon with a couple of geezers who she swore blind were wearing chaps. The self-conscious skateboarder had found himself down by the river and fed the swans whilst reciting Keats at passers-by. And a goodly quantity of the rest of the cohort had been down to HMV for the sales.
What had we learned from this, Peter wanted to know? Putting ourselves into the shoes of others. Being out there and Taking On A Part. What had we learned about the craft of being an Actor?
And this might have been the first inkling of the first hint of the first chink in the armour of this course and its pseudo-intellectual, anti-intellectual bunch of tutor poseurs who would rather have been propping up the bar in the Ivy than speaking to unwashed poxy students like us.
Because he’d thought it was a learning experience.
I’d sat there for an hour. Maybe two.
He’d thought we’d have “got something” from Being Other People.
Which meant he’d thought we knew who the hell we were.
But what really hit me, as he let us talk and he looked at his watch and he waited to scoot us out of the seats so he could get back to exercising his own seat, was the thought that should have occurred to me from the first.
Maybe the ones who’d been to HMV had known. Or had known that it wasn’t worth the knowing.
It was Day 1 of the course. And maybe some of us knew who we were well enough to have a punt at being someone else of a drizzly Monday morning, but he sure as hell hadn’t told us who the fuck Stanivlaski was.
Mike Hickman (@MikeHic13940507) is a writer from York, England. He has written for Off the Rock Productions, the Blake-Jones Review, Bitchin’ Kitsch, Bandit Fiction, Brown Bag and the Trouvaille Review.
You came to the door like it was the last one on earth, huddled on the welcome mat in the single-digit snow like your life depended on it.
When we opened our home to you, you hurried in and made yourself comfortable, like you belonged.
We let you out, but you came right back, and we couldn’t say no in the face of your enthusiasm, only closed the bedroom door by sheer force of will, waking to your laundry room cries like new parents.
In the morning, nothing worse for wear, we fed you and pondered our next move. As you cozied up to us, we became familiar, our bond fragile in the face of some premonition of entropy spurred by a shadowy betrayal.
To put ourselves at ease, I say, it’s just someone else’s cat.
Cut off your ear, you tell me. You don’t need your mouth to paint, your eyes to make music, or your ears to write. All you need is suffering. Everybody famous has committed at least one act of insanity. Would Van Gogh be half as interesting if he didn’t cut off his ear? No one likes stories about shiny, happy people, and when you’re interviewed on late-night, no one wants to hear about your pleasant childhood or balanced chequebook.
Failure would be easier to endure if I didn’t need to succeed. How else am I going to sell my novel and move to Siberia? Or paint a masterpiece and move to Siberia? And why are we moving to Siberia? The world is ending, that’s why. No potable water, disgruntled critters setting off contagions, nuclear apocalypse, world peace. There’s no shortage of cataclysms waiting to take us. It doesn’t matter because you and I will be safe in Siberia. The rest of them… well, we never liked them anyway.
You don’t always make sense. Doc tells me you skip a few steps. She doesn’t think we need to write a best-selling novel or paint a masterpiece to move to Siberia, but you do, and I’m on your side — always. She wants us to live in the real world, like no one’s watch-ing. But the real world is all pretending, isn’t it? Remember when we were on that Truman Show, or at least we thought we were, and we had to be on our best behaviour. Imagine living 24/7 with that aunt — we all have one — who chastises you for not behaving like a lady. Sit with your legs together, don’t pull that face, don’t touch that, don’t gesture wildly while you talk to yourself. Behave like a lady because someone’s always watching. It was exhausting, putting on an act day and night. Do people actually live like this? I don’t know because it’s just been you and I for so long.
She tells me it’s a matter of time. Success is a matter of patience and persistence. It’s a matter of focusing on one thing and mastering it. Well, what if I focus on one thing and fail at it? I’ve got to spread my risk: something no one on Wall Street thinks to do. Put my eggs in a few baskets so that no one makes omelettes out of them. It’s not something she’ll under-stand. She’s linear, but you and I, well, we’ve got to move to Siberia, so you and I are going to have to be different. Surely, something will work, and if it doesn’t, we’ll just have to pre-tend it does. No matter how poor you are at what you do, there’s always that one guy who’s capable of selling dung as elixir. We just have to find that guy. That guy can make us presi-dent.
It used to be so much easier as a kid. The expectations were clearer; the rewards were clearer. You weren’t around then, but there was a voice before your voice. Daydreams where I was pretty and powerful. The lines I came up with: wise and witty, with just the right mix-ture of humour and pathos. I’ve never been able to do any better. Doc says that, eventually, it’ll all work out in our favour. She says that I should just do and not think of the thereafter, but how is that possible? I can’t stop thinking about what it’ll be like out there in the cold: you and I in the infinite emptiness. It’ll be quiet outside, and it’ll finally be quiet inside. Not you, dear friend, I’ll never get rid of you. I’ll just get rid of all the negative lil sourpusses who crush joy like bugs under their feet.
It’s not going well for us, friend. I don’t think we’ll get to Siberia this way. But you’ll help me, won’t you? Why can’t they be all like you? I can hear your voice in my ear — the one slated for destruction.
Don’t you worry, love. In six months, we’ll want to be the next Beethoven and forget all about this. Did you know he was deaf? Now, there’s a story for late-night. The world’s full of possibilities, even if the probabilities haven’t always worked in our favour. They have pianos in Siberia, don’t they?
Varsha Venkatesh is a scientist living in Bangalore, India. She loves writing, photography, and mystery novels.
Mozart died at 35 and thus never came to know the indignities of an old man’s bladder.
If he had, he would, Colm thought, have made his Symphony no.41 shorter, or — at least – perhaps made the second movement a little less ‘adagio’.
He twisted in the plush seat in an attempt to shift the excruciating pressure from one side of his abdomen to the other.
Were his wife still alive she would be hissing at him right now from the adjacent seat, admonishing him for ‘not going before it started’ and – especially – for the pre-concert beer to which he had treated himself in the foyer.
The simple truth was, he didn’t really enjoy classical music: he never had. He’d only ever come to these dirges to keep her company, and now she was gone it was an automatic habit which persisted in the way hair and fingernails are said to continue growing post mortem.
The pain now was unbearable. He knew he couldn’t hold on. The violins and the cellos were joined bv the bassoons and the brass. A stretto between the high and low strings leading inevitably to the coda’s five-part invertible counterpoint. He squeezed his thighs together. But there was no stopping the contrapuntal climax when it came: a tidal wave that crashed over the auditorium and burst out through the doors of the concert hall, gushing down the steps and into the surrounding streets, sending the French horns clanging into lampposts and the strings skittering down the gutters, whining like drowning cats.
The conductor raised his arms. There was a fleeting silence – a glitch – before the audience stood as one to acclaim the orchestra. All except Colm, who remained seated and who — in his spreading humiliation — wished himself not just miles away, but years.
Originally from Manchester, Tim Craig now lives in London. A winner of the Bridport Prize for Flash Fiction, he has also placed third — and been commended — in the Bath Flash Fiction Award. His teeny-tiny stories have appeared in the Best Microfiction Anthology 2019 (ed Dan Chaon), the New Flash Fiction Review and in the BIFFY50.
Stefan’s half way up the oak tree, his 10-year-old limbs propelling him onwards. His brother, Luke, kneels on the ground below, shaping an arrow with his penknife, a bow slung over his broadening pre-teen back. Gregory, the youngest brother, feels in the pocket of his shorts for his secret treasure, folds small fingers around it.
‘Hey, Babyface!’ shouts Luke. ‘You wanna help with these arrows?’
Gregory shakes his head, runs quickly into the house.
Mom’s upstairs moving things about.
‘Anyone seen my pink slacks?’ she calls, as Gregory slips into his room.
He hears her open a window.
‘Has anyone seen my pink…’
‘No!’ chorus Stefan and Luke.
Gregory picks his way through Lego bricks, train-track, denims and t-shirts, being careful not to stand on his plaid hunting jacket, the one that looks like Dad’s. Mom loves that jacket, loves it so much she bought the same jacket for Luke and Stefan too. My Southern men she’d said, photographing them, posting them on Facebook.
From his bedroom window, Gregory watches his brothers.
‘Bow down before your king!’ commands Stefan from the treetop.
Luke looks up at Stefan.
‘Shoot me!’ Stefan dares him.
Luke charges his bow, sends an arrow skywards. Gregory’s breath catches as Stefan topples, falls like a cowboy in a Western, his arms outstretched, before smacking into dusty ground.
‘Get up, stupid!’ Luke says, laughing.
Stefan doesn’t move.
‘Stefan!’ Mom calls racing towards him from the back door.
She kneels beside Stefan, her ear to his mouth.
‘Fooled you!’ Stefan yells, pushing Mom away and rubbing his grazed elbow.
‘Bastard!’ says Luke. ‘You’re a dead man.’
‘Ha! You thought I was, you mean!’ says Stefan, getting up and vaulting the picket fence. Seconds later, Luke is after him and Mom is looking at them the way she did when they had their ‘men’s men’ photograph taken. She’ll tell Dad later and he’ll smile, talk of boys being boys, before looking at Gregory, challenge in his eyes.
Mor-ti-fi-ca-tion. The word his mother used when she spoke of the boy next door who’d had his ear pierced. Gregory says it now, likes how it sounds. He takes the treasure from his pocket, removes the lid. The pink is so pretty. If Gregory listens carefully, he swears he can hear it sing. This is the colour he’d seen on his father’s cuff that day he’d come home early from school when Mom was away. Dad had grabbed a tissue from Mom’s dressing table, pretended to blow his nose but really he’d been rubbing his mouth. When he’d turned to face Gregory, Gregory had seen black lines around his father’s eyes, like someone had circled them with a pen.
Tired Dad had said when Gregory stared at him. I’m just so tired.
Gregory puts the lid back on the lipstick, opens his wardrobe and slips the little tube in with the pink slacks beneath the box for his Nerf gun. A perfect match. He’s chosen well.
Gina Headden’s writing has been published on audio platforms and in fiction and non-fiction magazines, including, amongst others, Lightbox Originals, Ellipsis Zine, FlashBack Fiction, Longleaf Review, Sunday Herald Magazine, The Casket of Fictional Delights, Funny Pearls and NFFD’s Flash Flood. Gina lives in Scotland and tweets @gmdfreelance.
Four decades later we’re all blabbermouths adrift on a sea of hyperbole shouting to be heard. — Steve Rushin, Sports Illustrated, 1 Apr. 2002
In this mathematically mediocre nation it may be difficult for the algebraically disabled to accurately determine variables of the directrix— I may not even understand this though Socrates might parade me before an amazed assembly of elitists to illustrate how, behold, this under- educated daughter of the working class exposed to field rows and grain silos innately does grasp lines of symmetry, parallel rays, and cones sliced into curves— but how to reduce Point A at one distant end of a horizontal axis to a singular finite cause— a virus, a hubris, too much airtime to fill, no handler, no filter— this craving for simplicity usually leads down some slippery slope or a continuum of faulty causation (thereby corrupting validity of the vertical axis)—an injustice just as sure as when geometry is involved I likely know not whereof I speak. I am but deaf when promises echo from a hollow chamber; when an ellipse of a Center of Interest encased in its own circular (s)hell wherein it is both central and the two fix’d points adding up to no reflection and over self- valuation utters 260,000 words of self- adulation, I know a titmouse from a mule. Consequently, in an oval room a person babbling at focus point f1 is easily heard by a person preening in a mirror at focus point f2.
These persons are the same person yammering about himself. This is nothing new under the sun. If we could graph this debacle the whole hullabaloo resembles a boxy dragonfly, one wing steering leftward the other straining far right tugging the thoraxes to shreds just like that delicate kite my father crafted from balsa and newspapers loosely held by Elmer’s glue and scotch tape, the same way it split to ribbons facing its first Wyoming gust in the untrained fists of a five-year-old. Oh, the tantrum! Where x and y, where w and z on the infinitely expanding asymptotes represent dichotomous extremes each symbolizes fear without qualification. Where x champions Top Dog shouting genius, prophet, chosen where y satirizes the Satyr x empathizes with Underdog and y screams fact and x screams fake. In the hyperbolic hyperbola arcing from x to w, arcing from y to z words heard wrongly, wrongly said slippery words meaning something other than their meaning, a joke, perhaps not to the many cudgeled daily by void adverbs, waiting . . . waiting, waiting for one substantial verb, for any signifier that means. Props, his followers shout, for thinking outside the linear box as the graph takes on the angles and curves of a four-horned goat’s polycerate con- figuration, which is not as rare in nature as you may think; it’s more common than truth which is now endangered, nearly extinct and the muddled axes of cause and effect are anything but imaginary as they stretch one end bemoaning unfair assignations of hooves and tail and twitching ears and one end crying in narcissistic outrage by proxy how unfair to goats, one end decrying endless negative and derogatory language as they imagine Center of Interest supine, praying in tongues to their ancient God for strength and answers, claiming how, with no sleep or pay this martyr transforms to Atlas shouldering a world despised because it so despises him. How theoretically, parabola can be used for deflection, radar, satellites and concentrating the sun’s rays into hot spots of brilliance and sanitized healing with the precision of a head-on collision that kills both drivers, if not for regulatory rollbacks harming the vulnerable like watching lightning bolts slither down the extrados of a rainbow and the vertex, that excluded and undecided middle at the rise who might at any moment slip either way, or worse, decide for themselves. If not for the steepening curve and the only thing flattening here is the earth.
Shelly Norris currently resides in the woods of central Missouri with her husband John, two dogs, and seven cats. A Wyoming native, Norris began writing poetry around the age of 12. Norris’ poems embody the vicissitudes of unrequited love and loss, dysfunctional wounds, healing quests, and the role of cats in the universal scheme.
The evening was warm. We are speaking about the month of May, after all; when the mercury levels in a temperate country as mine are easily in the high forty-degree Celsius mark. A heatwave had gripped the entire country in its clutches, and it was the tenth day when the temperatures had hit a record breaking high. I was standing on the edge of the boundary wall of my terrace, which, on the other side, fell into a thirty-foot drop ending in a cemented floor where a building was being constructed. And the thought that flashed across the box of rationality I call my head – the thought which had thrusted itself forward, pushing everything else aside – was frightening: what if I were to fall down this drop.
Would I die? Well, that would depend on where I landed, wouldn’t it? On my feet, maybe I’d break a lot of bones. On my head, and I would buy myself a one-way ticket to afterlife.
I’ve often wondered, particularly in the quiet hours of the night, the time when you find yourself sliding down the hole of vulnerability, why I feel this urge (because I don’t have a better word to describe it) to jump off my terrace whenever I looked down the drop. As far as I could remember, I’ve never suffered from vertigo. Before my father, god rest his soul, yanked our family out of our house in the country and threw us in this top-storeyed flat in the city (where the summers are agonisingly hot), I don’t recollect being afraid of heights. But now, here we are. I can’t take my eyes off the steep drop, and, the longer I remain fixated, the quicker I feel the urge hurtling forward to take control.
The construction work had been agonisingly slow. Two months in, and the workers had only put in the concrete flooring. In this tormenting heat, I wouldn’t blame them. I saw two workers, in their sweat-stained vests and black bottoms, standing by the cement mixer as it churned the cement. The older one, who stood with a slouch (a resigned, almost defeated look most characteristic of a life that has seen insufferable turmoil and pain), puffed on a cigarette. Although I stood significantly higher, the waft of the smoke as he took a drag from the stick and breathed it out was… sinfully irresistible. I felt the cloud of thoughts in my mind emptying and feeling heavier at the same time.
And, just like that, the pledge I’d taken to never smoke following an acute attack of tuberculosis last year started melting away. The desperate craving was returning. My twin brother, who could be fairly called my worst enemy, did hide a pack in his cupboard. For a computer wizard (he worked in the cybersecurity department of a multinational corporation), he wasn’t too clever with the digital passcode he’d used to lock his cupboard.
7.9.87. Our birthday.
But maybe it wasn’t the unquenchable craving for a cigarette that made me restless. I was still looking down. Staring into the drop was ominously hypnotic.
The next second, I heard a voice. At first, I thought it was the heat – the way it makes you light-headed – causing my imaginative mind to, well, imagine things. But I heard it clearly all the same. A whisper, which, despite the audibly loud cement mixer, the last calls of the birds as they made their way back to their nests, and the chattering of the kids playing in the neighbourhood park, had enough strength to carry itself to me. And it only spoke two words on an endless loop.
Do it. Do it.
The part of my mind which had been able to fortify itself from the urge didn’t have to know rocket science to decrypt the underlying meaning. The urge may have tried to thrust itself to the fore and almost taken the controls of my mind each time I dared to look down into the drop earlier, but, this time, I knew it was going to be successful. My mind screamed at me to take my eyes off the drop. Because it knew all I had to do was look the other way; and the terrifying tentacles, which were reaching out farther now, would recede.
But, I couldn’t. I felt my mind trying to oust the urge that was pushing its blade deeper into my consciousness now crying in painful fury. And, yet, I stood where I was; half bent over the boundary wall, my eyes trained on the drop. The workers milling around the cement mixer went off in different directions. Mr. Cigarette exited through a door at the back of the site. The other walked over to a small scattering of bricks, bent down and started sifting through them.
Though still a whisper, the voice became more whole than it was. And, with the voice, I felt the urge growing in size, now threateningly close to taking over my mind. It was alive and pulsating with what I could only describe as manic obsession. A part of me – maybe the smidgen that still hadn’t fallen to its tyranny – felt fearful. I felt myself shivering.
My head was growing heavier. The urge, which had locked itself in inside my head, was swelling in size. Amid the madness, I felt another sensation.
I felt clarity.
So, not resisting it anymore, I placed my trembling hands on the boundary wall. Hot tears trickled down my cheeks. Firming my grip, I boosted myself up. The surface should have felt hot to touch, but that didn’t stop me; I suppose I didn’t even realise it. I was enchanted, ensnared. But, in the process of heaving myself, I lost my balance. Propped only against my shivering hands, I couldn’t stop the momentum that carried me forward. The wind picked up. I could hear voices from down below. Mr. Cigarette, emerging from the door, bellowed. I couldn’t make out his words. The momentum kept carrying me forward. The voice – Do it – raved in my ears.
But the clarity in my mind, which had submitted to the urge completely, persisted. The last ounce of fear was supressed to nothingness. I would like to believe I even smiled. Not a hearty, big smile; just the touch of a curl at the corner of my mouth. Soon, I was completely on the other side of my boundary wall and my hands had come away. I was falling, falling…
It was a Saturday night. The city was buzzing with excitement, flashing neon signs and speeding taxi headlights lighting up the streets, feverish music thumping through open windows and locked doors. Promise hung in the air like smoke, intoxicating people prowling the sidewalks in search of new dangers to entertain themselves with.
I could have been down there with them, finding my own way through the night, finding my own excitement between the lights, but no. I had to be on a high roof, shivering in the cold, trembling at the thought of those same sidewalks so many feet beneath me.
“Just look at this view!” Noah exclaimed, “Isn’t it amazing?”
I didn’t agree. I didn’t care for this ‘view’ except in being at least nine feet away from it. I wanted to be somewhere inside with music and people. I wanted to be warm and on ground level. I wanted him to stop leaning over that fucking ledge. It made me dizzy just to look at him. I held onto the frame of the metal door that had led us here and tried to focus on my breathing.
In, and out. In. And out.
I felt sick.
Noah looked at me over his shoulder, softly illuminated by stray light from the streets below. His brown curls bobbed gently in the breeze, framing his face just so. He smiled.
God, he was beautiful.
“What’s the matter?” he teased, “Scared?”
“I’m not scared,” I protested, “I’m cold. It’s fucking freezing up here.”
In, and out. In, and out.
“C’mon,” he said, holding out a hand, wiggling his fingers, “you don’t want to miss this.”
I started to tell him that I wanted to leave, but the words died on my lips when he turned up that smile, flashing his teeth, dazzling me. I never could say no to that smile.
Fucking hell. I closed my eyes and took a step before I could change my mind. The roof felt wobbly beneath my feet. Another step. Noah’s hand grabbed mine, gently pulling me towards him and the ledge. The stone felt icy cold against my stomach. I opened my eyes.
I stared into the maw of a concrete ravine of buildings and sidewalks, the windows glittering like sharp teeth, calling for me. My body tensed, ready to spread my arms and take the leap, the world already spinning towards me, the ground getting closer and closer.
I shot back, right into Noah’s arms.
In, and out.
“You should look up, not down,” Noah whispered in my ear. I shivered. I had closed my eyes again, trying to hide, but in the dark it was still there. That endless, endless depth and falling, falling, falling.
“It’s not so scary when you’re not looking at the ground,” he said. There was that smile in his voice again. Noah gently took my chin to move my head upwards. I let him.
“Open your eyes.” I did.
Before us the city spread out like a grey, static sea. Traffic lights and neon signs reflected in windows and puddles on rooftops, greens and reds and blues flashing on and off. Living room lights shone brightly, here and there strings of Christmas lights hung from balconies. In the distance the lights of smaller towns hummed, and even the deep black sky showed a few stars. A landscape made of light and darkness.
I let out a breath.
It was beautiful.
I was still trembling, though.
Noah kissed my cheek and let go of me with a laugh. He climbed onto the ledge and stood up right, without a fear in the world, with nothing between him and the heavens, between him and the earth.
“Sometimes,” he said, spreading his arms wide, “you just have to face your fears.”
I looked up at his dark silhouette. He was right.
So, I put my hand on Noah’s leg, and pushed. He fell without a sound.
In, and out.
Slowly, the trembling stopped.
Lotte van der Krol’s favorite color is the green-blue of the sky on a clear day about an hour after the sun has set. Her short fiction has appeared in Popshot Quarterly, and you can find more stories on lottevanderkrol.wordpress.com. She’s also on twitter @lottevdkrol
There’s a solitary cucumber lying on the ground in the supermarket car park, its shiny shrink-wrap protecting it from grime.
Is it acceptable to just take it? Is that stealing? Or should I hand it in at the store? Whoever dropped it might come looking for it.
I’m pondering the etiquette of this situation when I spot another man two or three feet away. He’s also staring at the cucumber. He looks at me. I expect to see thoughts similar to mine in his eyes, but no. There’s nothing but a steel certainty. His lips curl into a smirk. His eyes narrow. He wants this cucumber. That solidifies my resolve. I hadn’t been certain previously, but now this cucumber is the most important thing on Earth. I would walk over hot coals for this cucumber. I would eat glass for this cucumber. I would most certainly punch this doofus in the face for this cucumber. Except none of that would be for the cucumber in reality. It would be to show said doofus which of us is the real man around here. Here being a dusty supermarket car park just off the A473.
My arm twitches. So does his. He makes a ‘wanker’ gesture with his fist. I show him the middle finger. He edges towards the stranded fruit. I do the same. Suddenly we’re cowboys in an old Western, circling a loaded gun on the saloon floor, wondering who’s going to be the one to grab the prize and shoot down the other. He swivels his shoulders and suddenly takes a swing at me. It misses by miles and it’s my turn to smirk – what an amateur! – but too late I realise it’s a decoy strike, distracting me while he ducks swiftly to grab the cucumber. He clasps it in his paw. There’s a grin on his face. He’s won. He’s the man. He’s the victorious sheriff throwing the bandit out of town. He’s Johnny Big Cucumber. And I’m the loser, sprawled face-down in the dirt. I turn red. I never knew salad could leave me so emasculated.
Then the cucumber is snatched abruptly from his hand. An old lady clutches it triumphantly. ‘’Scuse me, lads, I dropped this on the way to my car,’ she tells us. She beckons at a knackered brown Mondeo. ‘Thanks for finding it for me.’ Her husband leans from the driver’s seat window, sniggering, as she returns to him, the cucumber erect in her fist. We, now each as emasculated as the other, watch them leave. She waves her prize at us as they chug away.
I look back at my former foe. Our eyes meet once more, then we stare at the ground. ‘Okay,’ he says.
‘Bye,’ he says.
We walk off in opposite directions. Then I realise I’m heading away from the supermarket and turn around. I still need to buy food.
Later, shopping complete, I run into him again in the gents toilets, but we don’t acknowledge each other.
David Cook’s stories have appeared in the National Flash Fiction Anthology, Spelk, Cabinet of Heed, Ellipsis Zine and more. He’s a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee. He lives in Bridgend, Wales, with his wife and daughter. Say hi on Twitter @davidcook100.
I clock out and sit in the car, smoke a cigarette with the window down, waiting for the five o’clock wave of traffic to ease. There’s only one way out of the industrial estate and it bottlenecks every time. We’re bumper to bumper all the way to the motorway which pulls us like a slow tide; sluggishly we flow into the first lane, some try to break out into the middle, I wait, my indicator clicking in sync with the windscreen wipers as the first flecks of rain fall. The matrix sign flashes up 40 and we grimace at the irony. There must be a hundred people here, together, alone together in our worlds, eyes forward, inching slowly on. Maybe even listening to the same song, the same station, both synced and separate. It’s then that I see them, the gulls, circling high up to the East, a half mile from the barrier, above something of interest behind high walls. Probably a land fill site. They circle and caw, pull and lift, swirling like a whirlpool in the grey of the sky, it’s a scruffy kind of beauty, like scratches in tin. They are held together by something, an invisible tether, and I wonder what holds them, draws them, spins them in this cloud. Like us, inching through our own existence, alone together. Now and then the sun that has already set throws dying rays like an afterthought this way. There will be a rainbow somewhere, I should look for it in the mirrors. A red hue seeps across the clouds and now and then a yellow flash paints the underwing of the birds, gilding them, they shimmer like pearl as they spin, a shoal, and I wonder if they have ever seen the sea.
Ian O’Brien writes and teaches in Manchester, UK. His fiction can be found online and in print in magazines such as Fictive Dream, Prole, Neon, Flash Fiction Magazine and Storgy. You can find him on Twitter at @OB1Ian
Apartment to apartment, dorm to dorm, Across the country by plane, I carried you.
You were a soft and silky “little number,” Plucked from the shelves, or was that me?
From shopping mall to honkytonk hotel room, Later donned to make others feel special, not him.
Knowledge changes how we see an object, how we see Ourselves—no longer as objects to be donned or to adorn.
Gauzy, lacey white panties, matching camisole, I held you in my hands, seized by your sudden presence.
Alone, in a modest single room apartment, me unpacking, Soon-to-be first husband out of sight and sound,
I saw you for the first time, even though I’d first worn you For the one who spread out on the bed and urged: “Twirl.”
He 31, I 13, ages inverted, I now 26, curled your apparition into a ball as the Sheer fire of you cleaved my mind.
We split ourselves in two. She before. She now.
But you, Love, saw from the other room, draped your robe over my Clothed, soon-chilled figure, and walked me gently into the night.
An empty darkened lot, a dumpster, me, and a match lit, A tender touch from you as the fire and power became mine.
The wooden stick, so small, I flung to the gravel, myself still numb. As the flames quickly and quietly consumed that little number,
White innocence turned yellow smoked hot & I began to slowly remember who I now was.
Deirdre Fagan is a widow, wife, mother of two, and author of a chapbook, Have Love (Finishing Line Press, 2019), and a forthcoming collection of short stories, The Grief Eater (Adelaide, 2020). She is an associate professor and coordinator of creative writing at Ferris State University. Meet her at deirdrefagan.com
Frankie, from my book group, picks up my red wooden statue from the kitchen bench. ‘My mother told me never to go to bed with a bench left messy,’ she says.
She has come to help me sort out my kitchen and living room. I don’t recall asking her. She just invited herself, really. Well, maybe I had been complaining about the small amount of space I had for myself in my apartment and how things crowding my living space made me feel uncreative and lethargic.
Frankie has arrived with yellow rubber gloves and two black rubbish sacks. The phrase Swedish Death Cleaning comes immediately to mind. We both look at the kitchen bench which despite my best efforts is often crowded with objects. Don’t even ask me what. Or how they get there. I am a big believer in that theory about how things get messy and out of control when someone is not even living in the room or the house. I swear it has even happened to me. I go to bed one night leaving the apartment tidy and when I get up the next morning, there is the mess.
Now she holds the red statue, which I am sure used to stand on the bookcase, at arm’s length. ‘These are two a penny in Vietnam,’ she says. ‘I saw them on the university history department trip there.’ Frankie is an administrator in the department. The lecturers might plan lectures and do all kinds of research but as far as Frankie is concerned, she’s the one who tells people what to do. Sometimes it sounds like she alone runs the place. ‘Not even hand-carved.’ She looks at me expectantly.
‘She made a long journey to get here. She chose me, you know. I’m sure of that.’
Frankie sighs. She is a very down-to- earth person. ‘Chose, schmose,’ she says, as if she is talking to one of the students who has said he wants to choose another course. Not history. Although why I have thought of this, I can’t say.
‘I like it,’ I say. ‘I like to look at it.’ I do. I like the little hat she wears, and the small bumps that are her chest.
Frankie frowns. ‘Liking is different from needing,’ she says.
‘But what about that famous William Morris quote?’ I return. ‘He said, “Have nothing in your house that you don’t believe to be useful or beautiful.”’ I have her now.
Frankie, however, appears unfazed. ‘Never heard of it.’ She hefts the black rubbish bag, ready to proceed. ‘Where is the beauty in a tawdry badly painted mass-produced object cluttering up a perfectly good bench? And what use is it, exactly?’
I could tell her it protects me.
The first night I joined the book group, Frankie took me under her wing. After the group, she insisted she and her husband, Geoffrey, would see me home even though I lived within walking distance. ‘You can’t be too careful,’ she said. ‘Not around this neighbourhood.’ Geoffrey, a big balding man with a paunch drove us in their little Mazda.
I was surprised a week later to find Geoffrey knocking on my door. I found myself staring at the gold chain dangling in his chest hairs. He said he was driving by and noticed a flashing on my roof was loose. Did I want him to fix it?
I said, I’d tell the landlord. He’d pop around and fix it. For no good reason, I said the boxing club my landlord was a member of wasn’t far from my flat.
Geoffrey said, Fair enough, good to know. ‘But if you do get any problems in the apartment that you don’t want to bother him with, here’s my card.’ I glanced down at it. ‘No job too small,’ it read. His hand stroked mine as I took it from him. ‘I’m your man.’ He looked down my top as he spoke. I was sure he winked at me before he left.
After the next meeting, I teamed up with one of the other book group members who also lived nearby and walked with her. It became a regular thing.
But just recently, someone said Justine, the youngest of our group who lived in the opposite direction from us, wasn’t coming to book group any more. She was sure a man had followed her home after the last book group. Whenever she looked back, he was the same distance behind her. He disappeared when one of her neighbours came out on the street to put his recycling bins out.
I remembered the last meeting. I was sure that was the night when Frankie wasn’t there. She’d had to go up north to see her elderly mother, someone said.
Even now I can’t be sure of my suspicions. I don’t tell Frankie about the protection.
Instead, I remove the statue carefully. I say I know some place I can take it, a charity shop that would be glad to receive it.
I turn her attention to the drawer under the kitchen bench. She takes great delight in throwing old raffle stubs, Lottery tickets, paper clips, drink bottle lids and bits of Tupperware whose use can’t be readily identified into her black sack. I let her throw some perfectly good unmatched linen I never use into the Goodwill bag.
After Frankie has gone, dragging the black sack behind her, I go into my bedroom and lay the statue down in a drawer, tucking her inside the folds of a soft cashmere sweater. ‘Not for long,’ I promise the Red Lady. Now I am the one who must do the protecting. Whatever it takes.
Kate Mahony’s fiction has been published in, most recently, Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand, Canterbury University Press, 2018, and Mayhem, Waikato University Literary Journal, New Zealand, 2019, The Blue Nib (Ireland) Fictive Dream, 2020. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University, Wellington. http://www.katemahonywriter.com
The house stood at the top of a hill on Home Street in the sleepy little town of Whitmore. It had been apartments previously, an upstairs and a down. This was a time when children played outdoors without any worries, doors were left unlocked, and keys rested in ignitions unattended. The two children in this family were used to doing what they were told. An oppressive atmosphere reigned which was exacerbated when the father, who worked two jobs, was home.
It had an attic which could only be reached by ladder. The brother and sister sneaked into this mysterious space. It had a strange smell, and the girl seemed allergic to the insulation. Their parents had stored several boxes and other random items up there. When they all settled in for the night, an eerie silence ruled except on some nights when they could hear creaking sounds coming from somewhere above—the attic. The boy who was labeled “sensitive” by the parents imagined the sounds were made by a body swinging from a rope. The parents said it was just the old house groaning in the wind, but the boy noticed the sounds from above even when there was no wind.
His sister started sleepwalking not long after they moved in. One night she went down to the basement landing to get the bag she used on her paper route. The parents caught her with it before she headed out the door. Another time she walked halfway down the landing from upstairs to where a door led to the outside. When it had been apartments, stairs had stood on the outside of the house which the parents had torn down. If she’d gotten out that door she would have fallen into space.
These children were drawn to things unseen, defying their parents’ prohibition of occult activities like Ouija boards. They played with their friends, fascinated by the light touch it took to get answers to questions. A young girl had been kidnapped a couple of years before they’d moved to Whitmore, and their neighbors told them how all the houses were searched and how fear gripped the town where nothing like this had happened before. When the brother and sister asked the board, “Is Maria still alive?” the needle slid quickly to “No.”
As they grew older, they became very close. They could read each other’s thoughts. Often at the dinner table listening to their parents’ conversations, they gave each other knowing looks no one else could read. One Sunday morning the children heard their parents talking in hushed tones before mass. The sister hovered near their almost completely closed bedroom door and heard them say that an infant had once died in her room. How they had come upon such knowledge she had no idea. She went and immediately told her brother, and together their imaginations conjured up all sorts of things.
The family had a cat. The father wanted a dog, but the mother put her foot down. The girl named the cat Peter after Peter Tork of The Monkees. He was a good-natured cat and the mother loved to feel it rub against her legs when she was doing dishes or cooking. Unfortunately, the cat was no good at mousing. The mother had seen droppings around the house and had seen a mouse when doing laundry in the basement.
Actually, it was the father who had a terrible fear of these creatures and brought home rat traps with poison. The mother objected but the father was insistent. They would have to keep the cat away from the traps. So, he set a couple of them: one on the landing heading to the basement and one in the basement. Everyone was given strict orders to keep the kitchen door which led to the basement closed at all times.
A couple of days later, on a Saturday morning, a scream echoed throughout the house. Seeing the kitchen door open, the mother had gone down to the basement to investigate and found Peter curled up dead by the furnace. When the sister found out, she became a bit excited about what they were going to do with Peter. “Can we bury him in the back yard and put up a cross?” she asked a little too eagerly. “I can help dig.” The brother suspected she had left the kitchen door open, for he had heard her creeping downstairs after they had all gone to bed. The brother wondered if the spirit of the dead baby were responsible for the changes he saw occurring in his sister.
The following morning, she told him she had had visions when going to bed the previous night. As she lay awake staring at the wallpapered walls, she saw faces appear in the pattern. In a couple of them, mouths were slowly moving. She had been very scared and had put her pillow over her face. Each night now she would have trouble falling asleep. In addition, she obsessed over how she didn’t want to attend the all-girl Catholic school their father was now insisting on. The brother could sense how angry she was. He’d started feeling afraid of his sister’s thoughts. They were disturbing and violent. He struggled with whether to say something to their parents.
One night he awoke in fear thinking of his sister. She had gone down to the kitchen, gotten a butcher knife, and stealthily crept into their parents’ bedroom. She smelled her mother’s cold cream, noted her father’s pipe in its stand. The mother, a light sleeper, heard the floorboards creak, awoke to see her daughter holding a knife over the father. She screamed and shook the girl’s body to get her to drop the knife, for she knew her daughter had been sleepwalking. The “sensitive” boy stood watching from the doorway reading his sister’s real thoughts.
Marc Frazier has published poetry for decades in journals including The Spoon River Poetry Review, ACM, The Gay and Lesbian Review, Slant, Permafrost, and Poet Lore. He has memoir in Gravel, The Good Men Project, decomP, et al. His fiction appears in Flash Fiction Magazine and Autre. His three poetry collections are available online. See Marc Frazier Author page on Facebook, @marcfrazier45 on Twitter, or marcfrazier45 on Instagram.
Way back when art was still made (pieces of themselves which people called pictures and songs and poems and movies and so on), sometimes it was real Art, capable of healing—which is to say, once upon a time humankind felt things and vulnerability was considered a virtue, encouraged, even. If you can believe it. The trouble was, way back then, real Art was work, real hard work, and when it came to work most people were utterly artless. And so, we left the art to the artists—persons who didn’t mind getting their hands dirty, who didn’t mind a meager spiritual return—while we, ourselves, content to listen, to marvel from a distance at creation but take no part in it, began to consume the sights and sounds around us rather than hear or see them for what they were. Contentment being what it was—humans being human—we developed a tolerance. We became critics. Soon, there were more critics than there were artists, and no one could agree on anything. Everyone was a critic, especially the artists, because within everyone was a creative drive starving for inspiration.
Of all the earthly appetites, the indulgences of true Art were next to none. But it turned out we were gluttons. And we were proud. We were so very proud, taking in, giving back nothing, demanding more. In this regard, we can blame ourselves. Call it hubris. The Gods were always calling humanity out on that—a prime offense. A prime mover: we couldn’t help ourselves. Whenever real Art was made, we put it on a pedestal. We put it on display. We even pretended it was God, sometimes, not just offerings. We worshipped it. We sexualized it. We got off on it. We ate it up. We welcomed judgement.
The God who came appeared to humanity as a great big Tomato with a green toupee. It had been watching the Earth drama from on far, not unlike so many Earthlings numbing themselves with sensations all the rage. It was Biblical, the way we destroyed ourselves for want of understanding ourselves. Eden burned and everyone carried matches. And yet—from these ashes sprung the highest Art. Seeing us lust about in this way, the big Tomato grew to want a closer look. A taste. It got off on our scheming eloquence in the face of self-inflicted doom. Let it be said, this could have led only to our current state of social sobriety, now.
But, for a time, the big Tomato God grew friendly and bright, bordering on overripe, Its skin brimming sweet red, tearing as It spasmed in fruition. So long as we impressed the Tomato with our plight, all the fighting and backsliding and deceit in the world ceased. Suddenly, there was money in everybody’s pockets, and everybody went to bed at night with full bellies and a roof over their heads with clean drinking water on tap; and everybody was more tolerant and openminded and true to their word; and they chewed with their mouths closed, covered their mouths when they coughed; and people pulled up their pants, used their blinkers, bathed regularly, made sure women got theirs first; and there was general goodwill toward humankind.
But how critical, the God who came. In our defense, we had a lot less to make art about when people got along and looked out for one another instead of living lives devoted to gratifying themselves. Where was the tension? Where was the suspense? The double-cross? The sacrifice? The death?
The big Tomato grew harder and harder to please, unimpressed, peeved. It grew rotten, downright nasty! If the big Tomato had truly given, now it took away.
Life on Earth became increasingly dogmatic trying to please this great big Tomato we called God. For the sake of progress, we abandoned our Ideals. We sold out. We gave the Tomato what it wanted, never mind the cost. We rehashed old ideas; we tried to remember. We “recycled.” There were many names for what we did, all awful—and to no avail. In the end, we killed our Would-be God. We starved It, the great big Tomato that came down from the sky, for us. A bad movie was made about it, and remade, and made again, and…
Jimmy Huff is a writer and musician from the Missouri Ozarks, USA. His work has appeared in Third Flatiron Anthologies, Dirty Chai Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, and other lovely places.
I couldn’t count the number of times I’d seen him. Every day at lunch, if the weather was nice, I’d leave my office and sit out on a bench and eat my sandwich. It wasn’t a nice spot. It faces a busy intersection, where four lanes cross each other. But it was the only option.
He would usually already be there by the time I sat down. He would sit by the side of the road in his black, tattered clothes. When the light at the intersection turned red, he would walk out in front of the lines of cars, with all the pretense of a performer walking on stage. He would swallow a gulp of whatever was in his clear water bottle, and spit fire high into the air, and in that moment he was always grand.
Then the fire breather would walk between cars holding out a bag for change. If he was lucky, he’d get folded bills handed to him by drivers who never looked him in the eye.
The day his luck turned was no different. Even now, I’m convinced he didn’t know anything had changed. He looked just as dejected as always when he arrived at the corner, yet walked out with the same bravado when the light changed to red.
I swear, I swear he was surprised when he breathed out his fire, and instead of reaching out and then disappearing, it kept going. The ball of fire left his mouth, it grew, and changed, lengthening, shortening, moving. All while wisps of flames, tendrils of white light, swirled around its edges.
It became a phoenix, a great bird of fire. It flew up and over the idling cars and then down, fast, and straight back into the fire breather’s mouth before the light went green.
Of course, now, all the windows rolled down. As he strode between cars, his bag fuller than it had ever been, I saw something come over him. I assumed it was realization, but I’ll never know for sure.
In the coming days, I bore witness to a few transformations. My corner went from a mundane intersection to a tourist attraction of sorts, a Mecca if you will. Pilgrims of all kinds flocked there, from bored gossips to religious fanatics, convinced the fire breather’s creatures were a sign of the end times.
The fire breather traded his rags for fine designer button downs that somehow never looked quite right on him. He still had the same swagger as he approached his line of cars, but now he sent three kids out between them, and two down the sidewalk, running out with bags that gained weight so quickly the boys would struggle to bring them back.
I myself underwent a transformation of sorts. Seeing as I was one of the original witnesses to his first creature, I went from quiet lunch breaks alone to chatting eagerly with the surrounding crowd. I have to admit I enjoyed basking in my own celebrity status, thanks to whatever this was.
His creatures were never the same. He breathed out all manner of things. Animals, birds, reptiles. There was a lion, complete with a fiery mane moving in never-ending spirals, and once a whole flock of perfect doves. The fire even formed little white rings around their tiny necks.
All the spectators had their theories as to how the Fire breather had come by this ability, and they all claimed that the manner of his end was proof of their hypothesis, that this could only mean that they alone were right.
Some said he had bribed some sort of God, and then angered it. Others that he’d traded with the devil, and his debt had come due. Still others thought he was taking some kind of drug, and this was a kind of overdose.
I don’t know about all that. All I know is that I was sitting in my usual spot, watching with everyone else, when the fire breather let out a great bull. It grew out of his mouth, its front hooves hit the ground before its back ones had time to be let out. His stomach curled in with the force of the breath it took to birth the thing. Then it ran through the street and back again. The fire breather opened his mouth to accept it, but the bull did the same. And it swallowed him whole.
Alexa Hailey is a freelance and fiction writer from Massachusetts whose fiction work has been published in Spelk Fiction, Flash Fiction Magazine, Vamp Cat Mag, and others. Alexa tweets at @lexabobexa.
They came out from behind the trees, the sun glinting off their amber eyes and their feet bracelet’d in dew.
With their voices raised in unison their cries of persecution and fear penetrated the still morning air.
As more gathered in the clearing she stepped forward and a hush fell. ‘It’s time. It’s time,’ she whispered.
In one body they silently padded down neglected, thorn lined paths that led out of the untamed woods.
They swarmed through the village’s streets, scratched at gates; clipped up driveways and scrabbled at freshly painted doors.
When the sound of fleeing footsteps faded they entered the abandoned homes and settled before still warm hearths.
Susan Darlington is a poet and arts journalist based in West Yorkshire, UK. Her work regularly explores the female experience through nature-based symbolism and stories of transformation. It has been published in the UK and US (Fragmented Voices, Algebra Of Owls, Runcible Spoon, and Anti-Heroin Chic among others). Her debut collection, ‘Under The Devil’s Moon’, was published by Penniless Press Publications (2015).