You wait until the sound of his footsteps fade from earshot and you slump into your chair, putting two fingers to your forehead. You pull the trigger.
You have ten minutes to decompress, get back to yourself, maybe put your inner child in a playful headlock, kick her in the shins, yank her pigtails.
And yet you still don’t know how to deal with your patient’s lingering impression. It’s like digesting a stale boiled egg. His cat litter funk still remains so you pull out an air freshener from your handbag – pomegranate and basil – and spray the room like you’re a shaman casting out voodoo spirits. You gag on the chemicals, blinking as the droplets of perfume settle on the bed and your trusted leather armchair (the things it’s seen.) You’d like to take a lie down, but sinking into the patient’s warm indentation fills you with dread.
You hear muttering out of the window on the patio several flights below and you lean out and catch a snippet of conversation – watching as a haze of smoke blooms from a couple of chain-smoking clinicians.
“The last one was really nuts,” says Mrs Chester, the psychiatrist from across the hall (you hate psychiatrists, as all good Freudians do). She’s talking to another therapist who you’ve seen around the building but don’t know much about, except he’s a Jungian with bulbous ear lobes (you have serious doubts about Jungians, too.)
“She could talk fluently about UFOs,” Mrs Chester says, “the anti-Christ, chemtrails, yogic breathing, flat earth theory, kinesiology, freemasons, angels in this world and the next, all without taking a breath. And then she wouldn’t stop crying. Saving Private Ryan was more serene. I said to her, ‘Quite honestly lady, you are mad and you need drugs.’
You lean on the windowsill, gather saliva in your mouth and gob it out. You hear a yelp from below and then you rush across the hall to Mrs Chester’s door. You pop an obscene amount of double mint gum into your mouth (relaxing, relaxing, chewing gum.)
You gently close the door behind you and sneak into the room – gum stuck in your hair and stretching out to the door handle. (Shit)
You ransack Mrs Chester’s desk and you find red and blue pills in a tangerine bottle. What are these beauties? Experimental tranquillisers only the elite have access to? The ticket to dreamland, that’s what they are. You know it goes against everything you stand for, but nobodies looking and it’s what you need (and gum isn’t enough.)
You shovel half a handful into your mouth and immediately a fuzz penetrates the periphery of your vision.
Tea. You need tea and biscuits.
Gum is left in tangled lines across the room like trip wires and you clamber through the assault course, trying not to get caught up in the sticky strands.
You’re in the communal area, sipping tea from a mug on the countertop without using your hands. The liquid is burning your lips and dripping down your chin onto the floor.
“Wu lava bum on ya wheeze.”
“Whut?” you say, turning to face the voice that is playing racket ball with your brain.
“You have gum on your knees,” says Mrs Chester, as the Jungian leers over her shoulder, surrounded by what you believe is a posse of analysts all in black, brandishing scythes.
Pointing with a cream bourbon, you say, “I don’t like you people and I’m going to tell you as for why.”
(Why do you hate them all so much?)
The analysts stare at you like you’re a rabbit in a hutch, and then you realise, in a moment of clarity, these doctors hold the expectations of so many people in their hands, and you figure, because you’ve done the training, read the literature and taken enough of Mrs Chester’s pills, no matter how well-meaning these professionals are, they’re all full of shit. Everything’s just theory, jumped up ideas and you’re not having it anymore.
You try to tell them this but you’re busy gargling scalding tea and anyway the reality is you’re a therapist yourself and your next patient arrives in one minute (what happened to your life, how did you get here, maybe you should enrol in that mime course you’ve always dreamed of and perform outside the Pompidou Centre in Paris?)
Back in your chair, in your room, you place your elbow on the armrest and your chin on two fingers, ready to interpret. Everything is at angles. Your head begins to slide as your patient knocks and enters. He lies down and starts to talk about his dog. He doesn’t notice you’re far gone, and neither do you.
Tim Frank’s short stories have been published in Bourbon Penn, Eunoia Review, Maudlin House and elsewhere. He is the associate fiction editor for Able Muse Literary Journal.
Humanity’s last ship, Our Finest Moment, began burning less than twenty minutes after leaving the port. We all knew we were dead meat when we boarded the ship, but we were expecting to at least get a little sea-sick before being massacred. The end began when the Captain announced that the island paradise he had been promising to take us to over the duration of the last six months, through the radio, and thousands of thirty second video clips on tiktok, and millions of one-sixty-character tweets, did not in reality exist. He added that he had done what he had done because he was a pessimist. He berated us for having taken him seriously. He shook his head as if disappointed with us and told us that only children would take him seriously.
We had walked the length of a continent to get on his ship.
“You are a pessimist?” someone shouted from the crowd.
“Yes, I am.”
“But you gave all of us optimism. How?” the man asked.
“My pessimism told me that you idiots would fall for the bullshit optimism.”
“But if you were intelligent enough to fool all the survivors of the planetary apocalypse,” the man paused socratically here before going on, “shouldn’t you be optimistic about your own intelligence?”
“Are you saying there is no food here for my kids?” one of the women screamed, interrupting the back and forth.
The Captain shook his head and went back to his intellectual enemy.
That’s how the killing began. It had simple origins, first hand-to-hand with a smear of stabbing. But then blunt instruments cracked open skulls. Someone threw a grenade, and that really got the party started. In a few hours, Our Finest Moment was almost sunk, with the Captain’s mouth just above the water.
“I am about to die. I knew all my life this moment was going to come and it has—”
The Captain began gurgling.
“Know what, you are right. This sucks. Pessimism is tight, the rest is shite,” the man said, jumping in and out of water like a playful fish, “But can’t you be optimistic about— ”
The man began gurgling too.
Ranju Mamachan got his Masters in Thermal Science from the prestigious National Institute of Technology, Calicut, India. He is an Assistant Professor in the Mechanical Department of Manipal Institute of Technology. He sometimes resurrects dead writers in his class to the amusement of his students.
Olive arrived at the bus stop encumbered with bags, feeling like a packhorse. The bench was full. She sank deeper into her shoes. The length of the queue suggested there would be no seats left by the time she got on.
At least most of them would get off a few stops before hers, so there was a chance she wouldn’t have to stand the entire journey. She might have a few precious minutes sitting down before she got home and had to start cooking.
Dropping the bags, she flexed her cramped and reddened hands, creased where the weight of the shopping had carved stripes into the folds of her fingers. One of the bags tipped over, spilling groceries onto the pavement. She scowled and kicked it. A soft crunch indicated she might have broken the eggs.
Staring across the road around the queuing traffic, she noticed the tree-lined drive of the yellow-bricked Victorian villa opposite. Blossom drifted across sunlit patterns on the ground behind its gates.
A memory surfaced, of bundling a red cardigan and lumpy canvas bag of books into her mother’s arms, to run home from school down a street like this one and across a field with buttercups and grasses as high as her head. She felt again the pull of grass caught in the buckles of her shoes, the tickle of seeds and petals in her socks. Her running self: a Stone Age warrior chief, a fleet-footed elf, a horse escaping from a cruel owner to reunite with the herd.
Once home, Olive would go straight out to the garden swing. She went so high, she almost took off over the trees. She spent hours on that swing. Standing: a bareback circus rider, a daredevil walking the wings of a bi-plane. Sitting: an aviatrix, a dragon-rider, an eagle. Landing, feet tumbling along the ground, she changed worlds, reluctant to go in for tea and account for the grass stains on her clothes, wash her grubby hands and sit up straight, recite what she’d learned at school today; pulled back to duty, chores and homework.
Her mind returned to the spilt packages around her, the weight of the bags jabbing her legs when she walked, the endless list of tasks in her head competing with a dull job that never paid quite enough.
She stamped her aching foot.
Sparks flew. She looked down. Instead of her shabby, down-at-heel shoes her long white legs ended in hooves. Looking behind her, she saw a glossy white back and a fine white tail.
Lowering her head, she nuzzled an apple from the shopping bag, soft lips enclosing and lifting it, rolling the cold smooth shape into her mouth. She crunched with strong teeth. It tasted vivid, vibrant and green.
Olive stretched out her arms. They felt longer, heavier, powerful. Whoosh! She looked. Her arms ended in…feathers? Wings! She moved them, creating a breeze that ruffled the clothing of the people in the queue but they didn’t seem to notice anything strange.
Whomp! Whoosh! Her hooves lifted off the ground. Still, no one noticed. She turned, kicking over the grocery bags and with a clatter, left the ground and swooped high over the street of Victorian villas and away towards green fields.
A new writer, Kate Leimer enjoys stories of all kinds. She has stories in ‘Hysteria 7 Anthology 2020’, ‘The Wondrous Real Magazine’, ‘Fudoki’, TL;DR Press ‘Hope’, Bluesdoodles and ‘Idle Ink’. She was shortlisted in the Cranked Anvil Flash Competition. When not writing, she works in a library. Twitter: @hollypook Pronoun: She/her
You laugh in your sleep. The bed quivers beneath me as your body shakes. You never remember in the morning. Smiling in puzzlement at my amusement.
It was your night time laughter that ensnared me long ago; I fell in love to the music of your dreams. As we sleep you pull me tight against you. Your body is a shield to protect me, to entrap me. I sleep in a fortress of your arms and eyes and lips.
Once you cooked for me, wooing me with creamy carbonara. We danced bare foot and you held my wine glass for me, admonishing me not to drink too fast. Too late, I was already intoxicated.
When you first threw a glass it was only a fine line in the carapace of our love. You kissed my temple in apology. Thin cracks are easily filled.
There was a time you traced the back of my knees with your tongue and rained kisses upon the small of my back. You still rain upon me but the kisses are long gone.
You were an Adonis to my Aphrodite. Now your muscle is overlaid with beer. My cooking is to blame, I wear fear like a mantle.
Our home reeks with the stench of your anger. Testosterone and sweat and fury. Surely once you smelt of baby shampoo and sunshine? Was your childhood stolen as your rage steals the voices of our children?
Your break my jaw. When I scream your name it falls into the wasted shell of our marriage.
Red and blue light flickers upon the house; a desert poisoned by blood and snot and tears. You glare at me as they handcuff you. The demand for my silence bows my head. I almost succumb, my throat scarred with swallowing my shame.
You have twenty-four hours to vacate the premises. The Sale of the Property located at 502 North Wendon Street will be held between the hours of 9:00 AM and 11:00 AM, June the 6th, 2009.
She had discarded the other papers; notice after notice had arrived, taped to the door, their block letters screaming at her while she fumbled for her key. She had ripped them, torn them, scrunched them and had finally shoved them deep into the trashcan, so the juices from the rotten meats and orange peels would soak and destroy them.
But she leaves this notice on the door so her husband will see it.
After, her husband begins shoving things in trash bags: pots, pans, stacks of unpaid bills, magazines, mystery novels, hand-sewn scrapbooks, souvenirs, letters, the kids’ old toys, Christmas ornaments, Halloween decorations, cookie cutters. He tosses the mountain of bags to the curb.
He fills his car with furniture and power tools and the television and his Playboy magazines. He drives to a friend’s house, dumps the stuff in the garage, and then comes back for more. There are so many trips back and forth that she loses count. She tries to pack the china and crystal, but her hands shake so badly that she drops them, and they form a layer of ice at her feet.
Later, her husband screams at her to Get up! Move! and he slaps her face and says You bitch.
But she had known they had no money. She would look for money by sliding her hands under couch cushions, picking up change from parking lots and swiping coins from wishing wells. The empty refrigerator would mock her. So she would slip cheese sticks and protein bars into her pockets at the supermarket. Once, she had walked out with an entire bag of groceries without paying. When there was no money left, she had thrown away the bills and they had come and taken away the garbage cans, the snow blower and her car. They had cut off the phone and the Internet and the cable. The worry would gnaw at her, but she had told no one. And no one had noticed. The kids had grown up and moved away, and her husband spent his evenings at the bar and then would come home and drill her like a dentist does to a rotten tooth.
Now, he drags her by her hair out the front door and onto the porch. He leaves her, like an abandoned rag doll. He takes the lawn mower and the rakes and the hedge clippers and drives away. The neighbors are picking through their trash and standing on the lawn, gawking.
She lays there on the porch, like a decimated scarecrow. She guards the house, though the Foreclosure Notice is above her head, a giant invitation for looters. At midnight, an old lady drags the rest of the trash bags away. At 2:00 AM, the neighbor with the spare key goes in the back door and roots through her lingerie. At 4:00 AM, a group of thugs come by and smash all the windows and graffiti obscene words on the white siding. They uproot her begonias and slice the heads off the peonies and steal the fertilizer to build bombs.
When the house and yard are stripped bare, everyone leaves, and she lays there, waiting for morning.
Sarah Daly is an American writer with work in the The Round and Litbreak Magazine.
I worked there for thirty years, I enjoyed my job, I had the responsibility of being a liaison for public events, and since we had been colonialized, we partook in demonstrations as a display of our ability to thrive and think for ourselves. Although we had been colonialized for more than sixty-nine years when I first took the job, I was also born there so knew no other life.
Part of my job was to be the middleman between law enforcement and demonstrators, and sometimes we had very thought-provoking conversations about understanding each other’s sentiments: the demonstrators and their understanding what our duties entailed, and vice versa. Activists applied for the right to hold a demonstration, there seemed to be no need to say we couldn’t, that was our job after all. Sometimes I noticed that the activists requesting permission were very worried we would deny them, and I would reassure them we would work something out, since we were all citizens of the city and we all love our city. Often at the end of the demonstration we would shake hands and say, see you next year. Then things totally changed, the main government decided that we were incapable of making these decisions for ourselves because they knew better. They sent their own representatives who had never lived in the city before to implement the changes. Suddenly the police had shields against the crowds, they didn’t speak, they put their middle fingers up at the protestors, and suddenly all the trust we built up together was destroyed with the first water cannon, the first push that landed a student on his back, the first gunshot. It’s not how I would have done this, but I was released from my duties as too soft, perhaps subversive since they believed the hardline was necessary. That same day I saw my son, eating noodles at the snack shop arrested and dragged off down the escalator for being a student in the vicinity of the protest.
All I can say is that I have a clear conscience. I never killed anyone. I never needed to, I would give my uniform to the protestors to protect them. Before the police and civil service helped and respected each other. Now the authorities regard anyone with a question or a statement that is not wearing their facial expression as probable suspects of arrests. Once upon a time, demonstrations like ours was what made us distinct from the rest of the country surrounding us, we had enjoyed the ability to express ourselves.
Will I leave? I have lived here all my life. There are still pockets of quiet places where you can imagine it to have the equality to breathe without someone on the verge of reporting you. My wife has left with our daughter and my grandchildren. She arrived in what she thought was a free country for a fresh start and went to the community center to introduce herself to those who spoke the same dialect as us, she smiled at the people inside who looked like us, and they shouted at her. They said she was the cause of all their comforts being at risk of being taken away. She was the cause of how there are anti-human hate crimes because she was closer to where the lab leaked the virus and she probably went to protests and vigils, and our city has betrayed the country—what country I wanted to ask, the one you don’t live in any longer or the one you live in?—they walked so close you could smell the pork buns on their breath, they told us we should get real and wise up. The Middle Kingdom owned the world now, and our city was but a turd to be crushed or washed off with a hose and they swore at her. She’s been afraid to go outside since. My daughter and husband thank goodness have medical research jobs so they have work, but she said if it weren’t that she had intermarried, she would have more trouble. She is trying to persuade my wife to go outside with her and her husband and their two kids. I am still here because of my mother, she doesn’t want to leave, she is 106 years old, and I think she deserves to say where she wants to live for her final years.
I don’t know, I don’t play mahjong, and I like to watch science fiction movies, so hopefully that will help me last this phase in our lives. I always thought things would have got easier when you got older because you had grown more savvy about how to live, but it seems just as uncertain as when we were young, except our bones, tendons, and muscles don’t bend so well, and our hearts and lungs don’t pump so well, and for some of us our brains still ruminate, rolling around unnecessary concerns turned into agitated thoughts.
I hope that my mother will have a good peaceful end. She is a bit muddled now, sometimes she’s not sure what’s going on, which is good, because she brought us out from the Mainland and we traveled by boat here, she was fearless, and she knew martial arts and protected us. I told my mother I would never leave her. I know things will change again, just as they always do, time will turn something good into something we can’t bear, and then that will end and something new will turn up that will seem good and turn unbearable. I hope that when I die it is during a good turn and not a bad one.
Annie Bien has written two poetry collections and published flash fiction in print and online. She is a flash fiction winner and finalist of the London Independent Story Prize, 2020, and a Pushcart Nominee. She is an English translator of Tibetan Buddhist Sūtras for 84000.
On orange days hell is hammocked in the plastic net satsumas come in. You always cut your fingers on it because the scissors are never near enough, and the pulling kind of helps. You do not actually eat one; they are probably tangerines, and you don’t like pips.
On lilac days hell is a small pink rabbit in a lace-trimmed dress who calls you “Madame” and tries to swirl a napkin on your lap. The rabbit smells of pastel-coloured candy letters that your grandma used to give you. You didn’t like them then and you know that you won’t now.
On deep blue days there is no hell because the sky is just so pure that you don’t have a glass good enough to pour it into. The taste of deep blue morning is the smell of fresh smoked salmon on a beach picnic. The deep blue day’s picnic blanket is babydownskinsoft because that’s what you choose to remember. The deep blue days are best but don’t come often.
Marie Little lives near fields with her husband, three sons and a very silly cat. She writes poetry and short fiction in the shed; one day she might finish her children’s novel. She has a Creative Writing MA from Northumbria University and a love of unnecessary stationery. She/Her. Twitter @jamsaucer
The night before he was killed by an electric eel, Pedro had hung multicoloured lanterns outside his hut, perched as it was in stilts on the muddy banks of the great river. Perhaps he knew what awaited him. His fellow villagers had often boasted of prescient daydreams, eerie manifestations of future events reaching back, tickling the present moment. There was nothing remarkable about Pedro except for his moustache, and a fine moustache it was, too. He was a fisherman who lived alone.
The multicoloured lanterns had reflected on the river surface from his front porch, and villagers had nodded wisely on seeing them. ‘Pedro has had a premonition’, they said. For it was completely out of character for him to show any sign of festivity. He had earned a reputation as being a sullen and uncommunicative man, no nonsense and hard to get along with. He would be seen most days, mending his nets, looking after his equipment, or selling his fish in the local market. But he wouldn’t say much. He never said much.
He was found the next morning in the brown waters of the river, face down. They hooked him ashore and the local doctor came down from the village to examine him. With a grand gesture and a flourish of penmanship, he signed the death certificate, then went to the local bat and raised a toast to Pedro. That night the lanterns on his front porch came on once more, and a crowd gathered. Poor Pedro. The river had claimed another victim. As mosquitoes and moths buzzed around the multicoloured lanterns, the mourning became a celebration and people danced and sung and someone nearby began setting off fireworks, and within three days, maybe four, most people had forgotten entirely that he had ever existed.
The local hotel was a spartan affair, hidden at the end of an alleyway of ugly concrete buildings with flaking paint and a criss-cross of electrical wires. She arrived on the twice-weekly bus, clambered up on the roof of the old vehicle herself and got her case down before the driver even had a chance. He leaned on the rear bumper and lit a cigarette, then watched as she pulled her case away from him, down the alleyway through a group of children playing football She booked into her room just as the sun started to set and a thin sliver of a moon took to the sky. The room had a tiled floor and a bed which seemed abnormally high off the ground. The plain white walls had the faint trace of a tide mark around them, three feet off the ground, and she wondered if this was why the bed was so high from the floor. She unpacked and then went straight to the local bar.
It was a ramshackle place of open sides and a corrugated tin roof. She ordered a red wine and sat at one of the wooden benches near the road. Alfonso sidled up close to her. ‘What’s a pretty girl like you doing . . .’. ‘Now just look here, buster, I’ve eaten men bigger than you for breakfast, and if you don’t want my fist in your gob, then I suggest you give it a rest.’
The barman wore a vest. Typical Alfonso, he thought. The whole episode amused him. ‘I was only going to offer you a drink’, Alfonso said. A ruddy man with a potbelly and a thick white moustache which only served to accentuate his complexion.
‘I know what you’re after’. ‘Bravo!’, the barman called.
Everyone was now looking at her. ‘Now that I’ve got your attention, what can anyone tell me about Pedro?’
‘Pedro?’ ‘Electric eel Pedro’, she added. ‘He had a premonition’, Juan said. Juan was the youngest one there. Red sports vest and Adidas tracksuit trousers. ‘That’s why he lit the miltitoloured lanterns. Tomorrow, I will take you to his house on my motorbike’. ‘How far is it?
‘It is maybe a third of a mile’. ‘I can walk thank you very much’.
‘He was a fisherman’, said Alfonso, ‘We are all fishermen. The river brings, and the river takes’. ‘He had a boat ‘, Juan said. ‘He would bring his fish to the market’. ‘OK, OK, you lot. You’re not giving me much. Listen, I’ll be in town for a short while. If anybody remembers anything about Pedro, then let me know’. ‘And we can find you? In the hotel? In your room?’ Alfonso asked. ‘Jeez, you really are a bit of a pervert, aren’t you? I’m thinking you don’t get to see much action, am I right?’ Everyone laughed except for Afonso. The red wine made her tired. She walked the short distance down the alleyway to the hotel. At the entrance she noticed that the electric lines on the wooden pole feeding the building were buzzing. ‘That’s going to keep me awake tonight’, she shouted through the open door at the old man sat slumped on the reception desk. ‘Lady, it’s been like that for years. What can you do, eh?’
She gave the wooden pole a hefty whack with her handbag and the buzzing stopped. ‘Simple’, she said. Slowly, the old man reached behind to the key rack, where the room keys were kept, both of them, took hers off the wall and passed it to her. ‘What time will breakfast be? He laughed. His shoulders convulsed. He didn’t say anything. He leaned against the reception counter and looked out the door.
The next morning was very hot. She spent the first half hour looking out the window of her hotel room. She was on the ground floor and she had a very good view of three or four wooden huts around a muddy courtyard. People lived in the huts. She could see them at the windows. There was washing hanging on a line, and a skinny, long-limbed dog tied to a pole in the courtyard. She locked her door and handed the key to the old man on reception. ‘Is everything alright with your room?’ he asked.
‘There’s a dog tied to a pole in the courtyard’, she said, ‘I don’t think this is right’. ‘It’s not our dog. It belongs to a neighbour’. ‘Does she have to be tied up like that?’ ‘I will have a word’, he said, ‘with the concierge’. ‘You haven’t got a concierge, have you? ‘No’, he said. The fish market was a large space covered with a flat corrugated tin roof. It was slightly cooler, although incredibly busy, with fish laid out on tables or in plastic tubs on the floor. People were haggling. Some of them stopped as she walked through and watched her progress. They nudged their neighbours and pointed. In the corner of the fish market was a small café, where she found the village doctor sipping coffee sat at a small round table. ‘What can you tell me about Pedro?’
‘Pedro?’ ‘Electric eel Pedro’. ‘Ah, I had forgotten all about him’. ‘How did he die?’
‘’His heart stopped beating and he stopped breathing’. The doctor laughed and sipped his espresso. ‘You examined him?’ ‘Yes. And I filled in the death certificate. I have, as it has often been remarked, beautiful penmanship. Maybe in a former life, I was a monk’. ‘How did he die?’ ‘Lady, such matters are not for . . .’. ‘Yes? Were you about to say, women?’ ‘Electrocution followed by drowning.’
‘And did you notice anything unusual about his body?’
‘It is not usual for someone to be electrocuted, lady. He had a very fine and bushy moustache. In all other respects, he was completely untouched’. ‘And you conducted a proper examination? Right here, in the morgue?’
‘Dead centre of town’, he said. ‘The morgue is there’. He pointed to a building in the corner of the covered fish market. ‘It is also the fish store. You know, nobody came to the funeral because he had no family, and people had forgotten all about him.
That’s what happens in this town. People can see the future, but they forget the past. We must have done a deal with the devil at some point.’. ‘The river brings, and the river takes away’, she whispered. ‘Sorry?’ ‘Nothing. Listen, what can you tell me about him? Anything at all.’ ‘He was a fisherman. He had a boat. The night before he died, he hung multicoloured lanterns outside his house.’ ‘I’m getting nowhere’, she sighed. ‘Pedro is gone’, the doctor said, ‘And he is already forgotten. If you stay here long enough, then you will be forgotten, too. That’s the curse.’ He smiled, and drained the last of his espresso. ‘That’s the curse of this place ‘And the death certificate?
‘Great’, he said, ‘Penmanship. ‘ Juan’s upper lip was perspiring in the heat. It was one of the few upper lips that didn’t have a moustache covering it. He saw her as she came out of the fish market.
‘I will take you down to his house’, he said. ‘You don’t give up, do you?’ ‘Neither do you’. She smiled. The heat was intense as they walked, and the road from the main village to the river bank passed through areas of marshland that had subsequently dried. Flood plains, she told herself. Havens of insects and creatures. Downhill they continued to the river, which was swelled by the first rains of the season a few days previously.
‘They have more places to go when the river gets wider’, Juan was explaining. ‘Electric eels. They hide, possibly. I don’t know. Mysterious creatures. But in the summer months you are more likely to come across them. Or unlucky.. It was unfortunate”. ‘Yes, very’. She guessed his age to be late teenage, perhaps twenty one at the most. ‘Are you a fisherman, too?’ ‘We’re all fishermen’. ‘Please be careful, when you’re fishing. It isn’t very safe”. ‘Generations of my family have made their living this way. It’s all they’ve ever wanted to do’. ‘And you?’ ‘Unless I go to the city ‘Is that likely?’ She walked in the shade of a tree where it was cooler. The road was dusty and rutted, the ruts having dried into ridges which could easily trip. ‘Maybe’. They came down to a wooden jetty, and then walked along the riverbank to a row of houses, little more than wooden shacks, elevated above the river on stilts. The second one along had been Pedro’s.
‘Someone has taken the mullicoloured lanterns’, Juan pointed out. ‘I already noticed.’ The shaded area underneath the house looked tempting but she knew that there might be spiders, or snakes.
‘People have taken his boat, his nets. They weren’t his’, Juan continued. ‘They’re in use already. We are not superstitious.’ She climbed the ladder and stood on Pedro’s front porch. She looked in through the screen window. ‘He led a veny sparse existence’, she said.
She then turned and leaned on the railings, looking.
‘Have you ever had a premonition?’, she asked. ‘No’, he said. ‘And you say that you villagers are not superstitious, yet you all believe in premonitions?.’ ‘Yes’. ‘Might it be possible that he just put up the multicoloured lanterns because he wanted to see and enjoy some multicoloured lanterns?’ ‘He foresaw his death.’ ‘If I had foreseen my death, I’d do everything I could not to actually die. I wouldn’t waste my time by going out and buying some multicoloured lanterns.’
‘They were pretty…’ She clambered down the ladder and stood with Juan at the water’s edge. She looked over at the opposite bank, thick jungle vegetation teeming with birdcall and the hoot of errant monkeys . The river looked angry, swirling with unseen currents in its depth, the water itself the colour, she thought, of hot chocolate. She was sweating. It reminded her how they had a long walk ahead of them uphill back to the village in the midday heat. ‘We should have used your motorbike’, she said.
And Juan smiled, excited by the idea. ‘I haven’t got one’, he said, looking down at the ground. I just wanted to impress you’. The whole village shut down for an afternoon siesta. She walked the empty streets, trying as much as she could to keep in the shade. The church was as devoid of decoration as everything else that she had seen, whitewashed and plain with a bronze cross on the altar, and it was at least slightly cooler in there. The roof was corrugated tin. She had never seen so much corrugated tin. She figured that it got nid of water quickly, once the wet season started. She wondered why Pedro couldn’t have died at a cooler time of the year. By late afternoon people were out once more. Alfonso was at the small bar near her hotel, as was the hotel manager and the doctor. She sat at the same wooden bench that she had used the night before, and sipped cola from a glass which sweated, feeling the coolness of the moisture on her fingers. ‘This won’t do’, she told herself. She stood up and advanced on the customers. The bar manager stopped what he was doing and he leaned on the counter because he could sense that something interesting was about to happen. ‘OK’, she said. ‘What is it that everyone is hiding from me?’ They looked up. She could see a row of moustaches. Astonished moustaches. ‘The lady’, Alfonso said, ‘Is playing hard-to-get’.
‘And that’s the only thing round here that is hard, isn’t it?’ she replied. There was a ripple of laughter. ‘Everyone’s being very coy. Very evasive. Lots of talk of premonitions, and of forgetting There’s no real sense here, is there? No real sense of loss, or of shock.
One of you has died, and yet really, nothing has changed’. ‘Does it have to?’, the doctor asked. ‘It doesn’t have to, Doctor Penmanship, but it does. It’s a certain fact of life. Now what can anyone tell me about Pedro?’ ‘Moustache ‘. ‘Fisherman’.
‘This all very infuriating’.
‘The river . . ‘, Alfonso started saying. ‘If you’re about to say that the river brings and the river takes away, then I’m going to knee you in the groin’. There was much laughter. ‘Hey!’, the barman said.
Everyone stopped talking and looked at him. His moustache had never seemed more earnest . ‘A man has died. We keep forgetting that. And it’s something in our history. We keep on forgetting and people keep on dying. Sometimes people die in the most tragic of circumstances, they leave behind widows and children, and the village is in shock. And sometimes people die and there’s absolutely nothing remarkable about them. And life goes on as normal. Pedro was such a man, it is true. He lived alone and we hardly knew him when he was alive. The fact that he is now dead, and that he died in such a way, means that we know more about him now than we ever did, We know his ending. Not everyone has that privilege.’
The bar was silent for a while. ‘Good words ‘, she said.
The barman nodded ‘But let me ask you this. Where did you get these new multicoloured lanterns from?’
She gestured above to where the new lanterns were strung just below the corrugated tin roof of the bar. They hadn’t been there the night. before. All eyes swung back to the barman. ‘I thought they would. . . . Spruce up the place’. ‘It’s a premonition!’ Alfonso yelled.
‘Death is in our midst!’, the doctor confirmed. ‘Bloody hell’, the hotel manager whispered. He drained the last of his beer and then got up and departed, hastily. ‘Everyone, calm down’, she yelled. ‘I see what’s happening here. And I’m sorry, I truly am. You want to forget but I’m not making it easy. And I think I know what it is. The river floods, every year, doesn’t it? The waters come up the hill and they stop. It’s an annual routine, it’s why the houses on the river bank are on stilts. But lately, something else has been happening, hasn’t it? The water is coming in to the village. I’ve seen the tide marks on various walls. The hotel room has a line about three feet off the ground. The village floods. And you know that it’s going to happen again. The river is changing, it’s a living entity, and it washes everything away. That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it? The bad news, the pain, the suffering, and memories, each year they will be washed away so that you can all start anew.. That’s what’s happening here. It’s not a premonition at all. It’s forecasting. It’s the seasons. The whole village will eventually have to move and you’re just letting everything nun its course.’ Everyone was silent for a while. ‘And the forgetting’, she whispered, ‘helps’.
She turned and walked away from the bar, and went back to her hotel room. It had been a long day. She borrowed a small fan from the hotel manager. It was obvious that he didn’t want to move from his desk. As ever he was sitting leaning at the counter, looking out through the open doorway at the alleyway and the gathering darkness and the moths. She noticed that the other room key was still hanging behind him, unused. The manager went to a cupboard and brought up this old thing with a wire covering over the blades that was so sloppily put together that you could easily put your fingers through and get them chopped off. And once she had it plugged in and stood it on top of the chest of drawers, all it seemed to do was recirculate the warm air.
Before bed, she fashioned the mosquito nets, but then she couldn’t sleep not only on account of the heat, or of the lone mosquito she could hear somewhere in her room, but also because she could hear the chains of the dog tied up outside her window, moving throughout the night.
The electric fan was noisy, too. It didn’t hum, like some that she had used. This one rumbled and spluttered and ticked and she was worried that it would catch fire, because it’s cheap plastic casing got ever so hot. She would get out of bed and turn it off, then she would get hot again and she would tum it back on again. The room and the bedding smelled constantly of damp. She reasoned that nothing could possibly catch fire in such a damp atmosphere. Just after two in the morning she heard a moped in the village street. It was the first motorised vehicle she had heard since the bus had left. She listened as the moped pulled into the alleyway beside the hotel and stopped. This ought to be interesting, she thought. Soon afterwards she heard a soft knock. ‘Juan . .’.
‘I have a motorbike’. ‘Sounds more like a moped.’
He was wearing football shorts and a yellow tee shirt with flip-flops. ‘Don’t you have a helmet?’
‘If I was stupid enough to fall off, then my brain has proven itself unworthy of protection’, he replied. ‘Good shout’. ‘Come with me’. It was a dark and quiet night. The sky was filled with stars. There was enough room on the back of his moped for her too, and she clung on, arms wrapped around his sweaty, thin waist. He took her down to the river. The sliver of a moon hung low as he shone the headlight of his moped on to the wooden jetty and the surface of the river. ‘The bar has multicoloured lanterns’, she said, as he turned off the engine. ‘That’s a shame. I’ll miss him’.
‘It doesn’t mean anything’.
‘But still. Premonition in retrospect . . ‘. The night river looked black and silent, a void. She thought about all of the creatures that it had in it. Juan stood on the wooden jetty. He kicked off his flip-flops and then removed his tee shirt. ‘Don’t’, she said. ‘It’s safe’, he replied. ‘Stop that this instant’.
He sat on the jetty, his feet dangling in the water. The light from his moped threw a long shadow version of himself which stretched away from them.
And then he made a sudden forward movement, into the water, straight under with barely a splash, and he was gone for quite a long time. She stood on the bank of the river and watched intently, the water seemed so fast-flowing. Why would anyone do such a thing? Suddenly his head broke the surface a short distance away and he was laughing, playful his voice echoing all around them.
‘It’s fine’’, he shouted, ‘It’s absolutely fine! I needed this! It’s completely fine!’ ‘Get out this instant’.
‘There’s nothing to worry about!’
He swam, and lay on his back, and swam some more, and ducked under a few times, and every time he came to the surface he was grinning, and she understood that he was still a kid. They were all children. The only difference was the size of their respective moustaches. ‘Get out now, you ve had quite enough fun!’
He climbed up on the muddy bank, laughing, running his hand through his wet hair. ‘Nothing bad happened’, he said. ‘Nothing bad. And now we can all get along and live again.’
‘Juan . . .’.
‘Nothing bad happened. Life can return to normal. Properly. .Normal life!’ He picked up his tee shirt and dried himself with it, and then he picked up his flip-flops.
She was up early the next morning. A glorious sun poked in through the window of her room, through the moth-eaten curtains She packed her suitcase and then ran her finger along the tide-mark around the walls of the room. It’s funny, she thought, how little mysteries always seem to sort themselves out. She went to the reception desk. The manager wasn’t there and the desk didn’t have a bell to ring. Fine, she thought, suit yourself.
It was good to be moving before the heat of the day started again. She wondered how long ago it was that this village had been a jungle. And how quickly it would take for the jungle to retum. She walked out of the hotel and paused for a short while, She put down her suitcase in the alleyway, then wálked left, to the courtyard out the back. She had to open a gate but she knew that the gate led to the courtyard, because she had seen it enough tunes from her window. There was nobody around in any of the wooden shacks.
The dog growled at her. She bent down and she untied its collar from the chain which was attached to the wooden pole. The dog growled at her as she did this.
‘Just hold on a moment, will you?’, she said, as it struggled.
The moment that the dog was freed from the pole, it ran away from her, out of the gate, up the alleyway, and then into the village.
‘Well isn’t that the most ungrateful thing?’, she said, to nobody in particular. She closed the gate, picked up her suitcase and walked to the main road, just as the bus arrived. It stopped outside the bar and the driver got out to help her with the case, but she clambered up onto the roof and wedged it securely where it couldn’t fall off. The driver lit a cigarette and watched her. He nodded as she climbed on the bus. He had a moustache.
The driver got back into his seat and started up the bus. They moved forward, taking the road down to the river where the bus would then tum left and head off into the jungle. She looked out of the window to her right just in time to see two or three men, fishermen pulling the barman’s body out of the water.
‘Well’, she said. And then the bus turned left and off it went.
Robert Garnham has been performing comedy poetry around the UK for ten years at various fringes and festivals, and has had two collections published by Burning Eye. He has made a few short TV adverts for a certain bank, and a joke from one of his shows was listed as one of the funniest of the Edinburgh Fringe. He was recently an answer on the TV quiz show Pointless. Lately he has been writing short stories for magazines and a humorous column in the Herald Express newspaper. In 2021 he was nominated for the Pushcart Prize and shortlisted as Spoken Word Artist of the Year by the Saboteur Awards.
Annie plants a seed. She stoops over the wooden planter and tenderly places the promise of a carrot into the crumbling black earth.
She’s been out in the yard since dawn, turning the soil and tying up bean poles. The small, stone-flagged rectangle is shared by all the families in the narrow cottages on either side, as is the lean-to shed housing their privy in the corner.
While she tends to her tiny Eden, Annie can taste the salt in the air and hear the distant rumble and slap of the waves jostling the boats in the harbour below. Her husband Donald is a fisherman like her father, and she’s lived in these slanting cliff terraces all her life. She never had a garden, though she always wanted one.
That’s why her grandson Stan thought of her when the slack-sailed ship listed silently into the harbour. Nothing in the hold but crates of dirt, and no one aboard except a skinny black dog which took off at the first opportunity. Amid all the chatter and fuss Stan figured one box of earth wouldn’t be missed – likely just ballast anyway – so he carried it all the way up to his Nanna’s yard in the stormy August heat.
Donald broke up the crate to make the planter and they filled it with the soil from the mysterious ship. She presses her fingertips into the cool, dark earth and wonders what distant lands it has travelled from, only to wind up in Whitby to nourish her vegetables. Will she be able to taste the places it knows?
Her thoughts are interrupted by their neighbour Mrs Wilson’s elderly terrier Buster, who trots over to inspect the new garden. She scratches him behind the ears for a while, but then her back starts complaining. Straightening slowly, she sees Donald stooping through their low doorway, carrying a cup of strong tea in each of his rough brown hands.
Later that night Annie wakes from a dream of runner beans. Her head is too full to get back to sleep, thinking of all the food she will grow and the jars of pickles she will give. Donald is snoring softly next to her, and the air is heavy and still. Then she hears something. A sort of unsteady clicking and scratching. It’s with them in the room, but it’s not the scuffling mice that she’s used to. A rat?
She sits up, and at the foot of the bed sees a huge black dog, yellow eyes blazing like embers. She tries to call out, to reach for her husband, but she can’t move. Annie watches in silent horror as the hound convulses, its broad back rippling. Slowly, it transforms into a man. Dressed all in black, he is deathly pale with the same flaming eyes and lurid red lips. He opens his mouth, keeps opening it, until his jaws unhinge like a snake and she sees long, glistening fangs slide from his raw scarlet gums.
She wakes from the nightmare with a start. Donald is sitting up in bed beside her. “Do you hear that?” he whispers. She listens, while her heart pounds.
It’s the same uneven scrabbling sound, but now it’s coming from the yard. Sliding out of bed, Donald tiptoes to the window, gently pulls back a corner of the curtain and looks out. After a moment he says “Wait here.” He pulls on his boots and slips out of the door.
Annie waits. Dread rests on her throat like a hand. She gets out of bed, creeping to the window as quietly as her trembling legs will allow, and peers outside. In the summer moonlight the yard is a deep blue. And it’s empty; Donald is gone. Fear clutches her. She runs to the door and flings it open, stepping on to the cool stone flags in her bare feet. “Donald!” she cries, her voice cracking.
Donald emerges hastily from the privy, and she gasps with relief. He throws his arms around her and she presses her face into his warm nightshirt.
“Sorry lass, I didn’t mean to scare you! Did you think Buster had got me?”
“He’s been at your vegetables I’m afraid, and made a right mess. It’s all right, we’ll sort it all out in the morning.”
Her husband drops off to sleep again quickly but Annie really can’t rest now. As soon as the sun rises she slips out to survey the damage. The soil has been churned up and thrown all around the planter, and her carefully tied bean poles have been toppled. With a sigh, she picks up the shovel and starts scooping the disturbed soil back into the planter.
That’s when she spots something round and pale emerging from the black earth like a mushroom. Leaning down for a closer look she brushes away some of the dirt, revealing the face of the pale man from her nightmare, buried in her vegetable patch.
His yellow eyes snap open, and his face splits into a hideous blood red grin. Without thinking Annie cries “Oooh no thank you!” and brings the shovel down hard, slicing his head clean off.
For a moment a look of surprise replaces the leering grin on the vampire’s newly detached head, before it crumbles into dust along with his body. Annie stands there, still holding the shovel.
“Did he do much damage?” Donald says suddenly from the doorway, making her jump.
She opens her mouth, but no words come out.
“I can have a word with Mrs Wilson if you like. He ought to be kept inside at night.”
Annie smiles. “Ta love. No harm done. I don’t think he’ll be back.”
Sarah Jackson writes gently unsettling stories. Her flash fiction has previously been published by Ghost Orchid Press. Her non-fiction writing has been published by the History Press, the British Library, and the Guardian. She lives in east London UK and has a green tricycle called Ivy. Her website is sarahijackson.com/writing
The feverish sun has blanched the colour out of the crowd queuing for the outlet sale. Sepia street musicians entertain with Swanee River, the banjo strumming away dully in C major while the alto sax swells the eee of Swanee. Among the mass lingers a man of restricted growth, whose wide-brimmed hat gains him six inches. He, and his sandwich board, advertising ninety-eight cent workplace trousers, should be way along Fourteenth Street, but there’s a snatch of shade here among the bodies.
In the back row, well out of the sun’s illumination, the Devil dressed in a black cassock and dog collar stands next to two nuns. He remains unnoticed by those around him, except for a little girl who glances up momentarily and notes something before returning to watch her mother help her little brother pee.
“Oh my,” a fair woman leans towards the Devil, the book she has been reading to pass her time in the queue open on the page where two lovers meet to drink cooling lemonade and declare their lust for each other.
The Devil isn’t sure whether her remark is in response to the book, or the crowd, or the heat. He considers her pale neck and the unadorned third finger on her left hand. He will keep his eye on her, along with the ugly-as-sin sandwich board man, and the legless beggar, who kneels in the gutter on a wheel board, gaping upwards, his face basking in God’s own sunlight. The bible on his lap has arrived too late for him; this hunchbacked cripple has already been named as the Devil’s own.
Hidden in the crowd, a pickpocket works his way through trouser pockets, shopping bags, billfolds. The Devil’s attention alights only briefly on him. The Devil isn’t here to judge, he leaves that to mankind. They’re hellish good at judgement. No, he’s here, like those around him, to see what he can get his hands on today.
A woman dashes past in the street, her purse held out in front of her, her hair blown backwards by the speed with which she is moving. Perhaps she has seen the looks in the eyes of those in the queue that say only they themselves are indispensable, that in a city where mothers go hungry for their children, the clothed and well-fed choose to gather in a stinking mass, queuing in hell’s heat for a bargain.
Except for the young girl, who having initially seen only a priest ranked by nuns returns her stare to the obvious horns that first alerted her to something different about this man. And then she smiles at him, laughs at the absurdity of his horns, the ridiculousness of the nuns he needs to protect him from these folk. Except those aren’t her reasons. She is smiling because it is summer and she is here with her mother and brother. She is smiling because life is good. And because the Devil knows that this is simply a moment in time, that she too will become just like the rest of them, he smiles back.
Ruth Brandt’s short stories and flash fiction have been widely published, including in Cabinet of Heed. Her prize-winning short story collection No One has any Intention of Building a Wall will be published by Fly on the Wall Press in November 2021. She lives in Surrey and Tweets @RuthABrandt.
Melissa and Dan were one of those couples who insisted they were happy.
Sometimes Mel would show me her Instagram feed, and it would be nothing but beaming couple-photos punctuated by brunches, as though that proved anything.
Dan would say things like, ‘Yeah it’s actually pretty great’ and ‘I’ve never been happier, actually.’
I haven’t told him that I think ‘actually’ is his tell, the chip in his windshield. I have the impression that, if I got him tipsy enough, the chip would burst into a web of cracks and the whole thing would explode out of him, the whole gut-wrenching truth of it.
The closest I got to honesty from Mel was at the messy end of a wedding party, when she slurred, ‘Well, no relationship is perfect, is it?’
They like to say it was a fairy-tale romance. We all know they met on Tinder. And this was six years ago, when Tinder was a grubby free-for-all. But, however they met, I have to admit that it’s worked well enough since. Six years. Not married yet, though.
‘You should get into it,’ Dan told me recently, with a wink. ‘Someone might finally straighten you out.’
‘Already tried online dating. Hated it. No thank you.’
‘You’re too old for clubs, mate,’ he pointed out needlessly. ‘Time to try something new.’
I knew Dan through Mel, and we soon became fast friends through our mutual love of American short stories. He was charming and friendly. It was Dan who eventually convinced me to move on and try again.
I suppose the apps were fine. I was put off by how superficial and flippant it all seemed. But in two days I remembered how brutal it could be.
Mel wasn’t very happy with me. I could tell by how she baked. Mel had two ways of coping with life. The first was self-medication, and the second was a constant schedule of activity. She’d told us we were making jam that weekend, and she stirred the hot mixture around the pan with the energy of a cement mixer. ‘We’ve been friends for how long and you didn’t ask for my advice on this?’ she said.
‘I’m doing all right, thank you very much,’ I said proudly. ‘Look – six matches in a week. This one even replied.’
‘Only six? We live in Manchester, not Guernsey. Let me see.’
Mel wiped her hands and took my phone. By the time the jam had cooled she’d summarised my wordy profile into three short sentences, then added that I was a geochemist.
‘That can’t make a difference?’ I said.
‘It’s not about the money. It’s about showing you aren’t a useless layabout who she’ll have to cook and iron for.’
‘Don’t be too choosy when you’re swiping,’ Dan instructed one Sunday, as we scoured Waterstones to find gifts for Mel’s birthday. ‘You’re dating, it’s a chance to see if there’s something out there you didn’t realise you were looking for. You don’t want to get stuck with the wrong person too soon.’
It was difficult to strike up a conversation with some of the people I matched with. The expectation seemed to be that I should be entertaining from the very first message, somehow witty and humble without coming across like a boring nerd or, worse, a dickhead. A simple ‘hi’ never got me anywhere, but an inoffensive quip about one of her photos usually got a response. There might be a formula for this, I thought out loud. There should be websites dedicated to tricking women into thinking you were dateable.
‘There already are,’ Dan laughed.
‘Oh. Should I take a look?’
‘Absolutely not,’ said Mel.
Once the ice was broken, I could be myself. If things didn’t go anywhere after that, it just wasn’t a good fit.
I went on a lot of first dates. Four out of five people were clearly just out of serious relationships. Their frailties showed through their expressions, like light through a split lampshade. The few people I was drawn to were distant, disinterested. One woman, a corporate lawyer, replied intermittently and unenthusiastically, late in the evening when I sensed she was bored. I won’t pretend it didn’t bruise my ego.
It was also plain that there were simply too few people out there who I might come to like, and who might, mind-bogglingly, like me back. The abundance provided by the apps highlighted the astronomical unlikelihood of my ever meeting someone who wasn’t broken, weird, attached or my polar opposite. I’d have settled for a few shared interests, but it was hard to even get a conversation flowing. Still, I found I was quite pragmatic about the chilly realities of online dating in your early thirties.
‘There’s something about hitting thirty-six that seems to send some people a little crazy,’ joked Emma, a copy-writing Literature grad originally from Leamington Spa, who I matched with Tuesday morning. ‘I plan to kill myself at thirty-five.’
We were on our first date that Thursday evening.
* * *
Lately, when I’m almost asleep, my brain flickers through everything that happened with Emma in weird phantasmagorical detail, a flicker-book in the neon colours of a wet Tokyo street.
For the first date, I chose a respectable bar with warm, low lighting. It served tapas and snacks, in case we got hungry; on Thursdays they held a salsa class, the energy of which I hoped would make up for my nervous quietude. But she had a quality that drew me out of myself, got us talking.
Thankfully, she didn’t ask me to dance. She liked to, but she also did many of her favourite things lying down. ‘Reading. Watching TV. I like to plan my next trip on my phone in bed. It helps me get to sleep,’ she said.
A tasteless joke came to mind. In a breezy silence that I filled with a sip of Shiraz, her eyes twinkled at me in gratitude for my grown-up restraint. By the time I set my glass back down, we were smiling at one another.
* * *
‘It went pretty well,’ I told Mel later. Emma was not only as attractive as her photos suggested, she was lively, with a sparky sense of humour. We’d joked about the brusque entitlement that seemed peculiar to online dating – ‘Have you been “hey strangered” yet?’ Emma asked me, using her little finger to stroke a strand of hair away from her mouth. ‘Nothing like being ignored after the third date and then expected to pick up where you left off two months later.’
Between us we’d been stood up, ghosted, blocked, breadcrumbed, kept in orbit and catfished. Emma had been actively dating since the start of the summer – almost eight months – but had mostly been disappointed.
‘I don’t often bother with a second date unless I really get a good vibe,’ she told me.
‘What did you say to that?’ Mel asked me, leaping off the armchair onto my back like a child. We fell onto the sofa and I extricated myself from my friend’s demanding grasp, grinning.
‘I’m seeing her again Saturday.’
‘I suppose it’s amazing…,’ I said.
‘Isn’t it? What exactly are you looking for?’ she asked, disengaging to take two beers out of the fridge. I thought she was about to offer me one, but she was pouring them down the sink. Mel was having one of her booze clear-outs to help her with her latest sobriety effort.
‘Any red flags?’ she asked, rinsing out the empty bottles.
‘She’s three years younger than me,’ I said. ‘Does that make her a different generation? Will she be all into Instagram and ironically stupid stuff?’
‘Three years is nothing, you gargantuan bore. Even Dan and I … Well, anyway. Did you say she had a Cath Kidston coat? You should take her some of our delicious strawberry jam. It’ll be quirky, she’ll love it. Trust me.’
* * *
On Saturday, I met Emma at Alessandro’s in the Northern Quarter, an Italian place Emma had suggested. Once we’d given the waiter our orders, Emma said, ‘So, I told a friend of mine about you.’
‘Oh?’ I said. ‘Is that a good sign?’
‘He asks about every date. He’s a massive gossip. He likes to spread it around our book club, which is annoying because one of the women there is obsessed with me.’
‘You’re not interested?’ I asked.
‘Her favourite novel is Fifty Shades Freed.’
Over our starters, we filled each other in on the boring stuff we hadn’t wanted to bog down the first date with: number of siblings and the details of our jobs.
The conversation turned to tentative probing for warning signs in our romantic histories. When she told me about her strained relationship with her mother, who had died after five years of Alzheimer’s in a home that Emma hadn’t once visited, I repaid her openness with the story of my once-fiancé, six years prior, who had fallen pregnant with another man’s baby.
‘Oof, that can’t have been fun,’ she said.
‘I should have been tougher, kicked her right out. She’d moved in with me about a year earlier. I was paying all the rent. I let her stay for another two months while her boyfriend decorated a room in his flat for the baby.’
How embarrassing, to reveal my pathetic weakness so soon in the relationship, and to a woman who exhibited nothing but confidence.
‘Never mind,’ she said. ‘It took me three months to muster the courage to break up with my last partner. No great loss. He thought Raymond Carver was a TV chef.’
Yep, she liked American short stories, too. It’s amazing what promising little signs you cling to after dating so many oddballs. Here was someone I could talk to, without expectations or judgements, who didn’t mind my average looks or aversion to social media. It was a relief to know that I could relax and be myself, and I sensed the same in her, too. A lowering of her shoulders, a smile that came easily to her wide, bright face.
‘Got any weird interests?’ she drawled, narrowing her eyes and raising one eyebrow in mock suspicion.
‘You brought it up, you’d better go first.’
‘Yeesh. I don’t know. I used to own two chameleons? Not anymore, they only live about three years. Now you. Quid pro quo, pal.’
‘One of my things is letting my friend Mel choose our weekend activities. She likes to wind me up by making me do stuff she knows I’d never try otherwise. This week we made jam. Um, this might be weird, but I brought you some.’
I took out the heavy jar and placed it on the table next to the unlit candle. It was exactly as the waiter came with our main courses. Emma and I looked at the jam in courteous silence as the plates of food were placed between us and the waiter asked if we wanted anything else. We said no thank-you. After he left, we burst into relieved laughter.
‘Thanks!’ she said at last. ‘I can’t turn down a good fruit conserve.’
I’d ordered chicken cacciatore, because it reminded me of a sunny afternoon I had in Rome once, on a peaceful vacation after my engagement fell through. She shared her mushroom linguine, but wouldn’t hand me the fork. She held the fork herself, forcing me to eat it off the tines, one loop after another. ‘Come on, suck it! Suck it!’ she ordered, laughing, and I got cream sauce on my face and sweater but refused to bite down on the pasta and end my torment, refused to let her win the game. Once the pasta was finally gone from her fork she put it in her mouth and said around it, like a cigar, ‘You did good, kid, real good. Now wipe yourself off.’
I attacked my stained top with a napkin, warm in my cheeks. ‘I need a shower.’
Emma shrugged. ‘I have a shower at my place.’
Full of a new confidence I hadn’t felt in a long time, I quipped, ‘No dessert first?’
‘I don’t think I could still respect you if I watch you eat another thing. We should make a move now, before it’s too late. Besides, if we get peckish, we have the jam.’
* * *
We took a taxi to her apartment in a high-rise on the edge of the city centre. We were both too shy to try anything in the back seat. Heat radiated between our palms when we held hands, faintly embarrassed by the childish intimacy. She murmured that it was unexpected to meet someone she could be herself around. Perhaps nervous, she looked out the car window. I took a deep breath and kissed her neck. She leaned into it, and when I pulled back she was smiling.
‘Oh,’ she blurted ten minutes later, with the key in the lock of her apartment on the seventh floor. ‘Um, don’t be nervous about the axe on my wall. It’s just a replica from this show I used to watch with my Dad when I was little. When he died he left it to me as a joke. Last laugh’s mine, though, ‘cause I’m not remotely embarrassed.’
We passed through the threshold into an open plan kitchen-lounge. It was a big place. There was, indeed, a twin-bladed axe mounted on the wall opposite the door, above a row of low bookcases. An L-shaped sofa reached around two sides of a whitewashed wooden coffee table. There were plants, photos and exotic ornaments on various surfaces. On a second table beside the kitchen counter was a large glass vivarium. Inside, I could see a branch and some sprays of plastic greenery. The once lamp-lit home of the deceased chameleons.
I was still looking at it, feeling a change in the atmosphere of the room – probably the moving air caused by our entry into the apartment – when Emma dropped her keys on the coffee table and whirled around to kiss me. We took our time.
With her arms still around my neck, she said, ‘Drink?’
We kissed again, separated; I uncorked a Malbec whilst she drew some clinking glasses from a cupboard. From either side of the kitchen counter, she in the kitchen and me in the lounge, we filled our glasses. We moved to the sofa and made flirtatious chatter for a while.
After I excused myself to go to the bathroom, I peered at my reflection as I washed my hands. I was taken aback by the brightness of my eyes. I looked five years younger than I had the week before. Returning to the lounge, I felt weightless and loose.
‘I’m in the bedroom,’ Emma called from behind a closed door. ‘Just give me a sec, I’ll be right out.’
I sat on the sofa and tried not to look at the axe on the wall. The wine was good. It had gone a little to my head – my third glass of the evening. Emma’s glass, resting on a bamboo coaster on the table, was already drained.
She called again from the bedroom. ‘Are you going to be good, now?’
‘Of course!’ I replied.
The bedroom door opened. She stepped onto the carpet of the lounge with bare feet. For a few seconds, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. It was so unexpected that it didn’t seem to imprint upon my brain. The shapes were familiar but it was like my operating system had frozen.
When I finally understood what my eyes were seeing, I realised that I was experiencing more of the sense of humour that made Emma so attractive. I laughed at the joke, but I could see in her eyes that my slightly nervous chuckle hadn’t connected with her ears. Her expression remained unchanged; she just moved her shoulders and arms languidly, looking up at the ceiling. She wasn’t trying to be funny. It wasn’t a joke.
She was dressed in a lizard costume. It had been made for adults, but was childishly cartoonish, made of luminous green Lycra except for a sequinned yellow circle over the stomach and vividly pink spines running down her head and back. Only her face was visible; the stretchy hood of the outfit circled her eyes and mouth, covering her ears. She wore a pair of green monster-claw gloves, vastly outsized. Her feet were bare and white.
‘I’m a lizard,’ she said, stroking her toes over the thick rug. She turned around and showed me her long tail, then rotated on one foot like a ballerina to face me again. The outfit was probably meant to be a non-specific dinosaur of some kind.
I stretched my lips into a neutral smile. ‘Yes you are.’ I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Suddenly she was beside me. Almost imperceptibly quickly, she had darted across the room in a low, hunched position, moving sinuously and with total dedication to the role. She looked willowy in the clinging bodysuit, like a shaved-headed child or a crash test dummy. One giant fluffy monster claw rested on my sternum. She smelled of talc and ever so slightly of bruschetta.
Looking intensely at me with her tunnel-like brown eyes, she licked her lips in a flash and then pushed me back a step. I felt the couch behind me and sat down hard. A stiff rustle told me that I was sitting on an open magazine. I couldn’t take my eyes of Emma, who was now backing away from me. She spun around and placed both her hands on the wall at about head height and looked over her shoulder at me, waggling her stiff foam tail.
‘I’m a lizard. If you pull off my tail then it’ll just grow back. I look slimy but I’m not. I’m not slimy at all.’
‘No,’ I said.
‘Pull it!’ she snapped, scrunching her eyes closed. ‘Pull off my tail! Pull it off!’
I swallowed something the size of a golf ball and remembered Emma telling me to suck down her linguine. I didn’t want to think about it. Or, maybe I just didn’t want to be rising from the sofa and walking gingerly across the room to take a spongy green lizard’s tail in my hands and tugging.
‘Pull it off! No predator can hold me! I want you to pull my tail off. I’m not going to beg!’
I pulled on the tail. There was a scrunchy sound. Emma, her hands still against the wall, head lowered to her chest now, thrust her backside toward me. I got a better grip on the tail and yanked. The Velcro fasteners ripped apart and Emma sighed in satisfaction.
‘I can feel my cells dividing,’ she said, writhing. ‘My cold body is regenerating.’
Despite myself, I felt a twitch of arousal at her tone of voice. We stood an inch apart, me still clutching the disengaged tail, Emma turning to look up at me. She planted both monster claws on either side of my face. The cotton mitts had no traction on my face but, heaven help me, I lowered my lips to hers and we kissed deeply. Even as the heat of her mouth and a heart-fluttering adrenaline rush hit me, I wondered if I were taking advantage of a mentally ill person. Her tongue tasted of onion and olive oil.
When I pulled away, she pressed her lips together and took a deep breath.
‘I want something sweet,’ she said.
‘The jam! Get it.’
Emma had put the jar into her handbag. Now she watched me respectfully dip my hand inside for the jar and then remove it, closing the bag afterwards.
‘Take the lid off.’
I unsealed the jar with a loud pop. She grunted at the sound and skittered towards me. With a single swift outward jerk of her arms, she divested herself of the monster claws, revealing pale human paws. Into the jar of jam she thrust her long fingers. She swiped strawberry preserve in a thick, gelatinous arc across her forehead. Then two more along the lines of her cheekbones. I looked at the smears of lumpy red jam and wondered if I’d somehow triggered this.
‘Be a wasp!’ she demanded. She clenched her eyes shut again and staggered backwards towards the sofa, dragging me by my sauce-stained top. I almost fell on top of her with my full weight before I could pull free. ‘Be a wasp, you’re a big nasty wasp!’ she screeched.
‘Um, buzz,’ I said. She was scrabbling at the hem of my sweater. I held my body aloft with one hand, gripped her ribcage with the other. I had no hands free for acting. Go with it! I heard Dan say in my head. Enjoy yourself, mate!
‘Actually…,’ I said.
‘Yes! No! Keep away from me, with your ugly face and nasty stinger!’
I can’t say I made mental note of the mad script that we were ad-libbing together. All I know is that I felt as stupid as a grown adult can possibly feel, whilst also being painfully aroused in a way that I’m not proud of. Half-leaning, half-standing over the couch, I was unsupported and unbalanced.
Meanwhile, Emma swatted at me, thrashing her head left and right, knocking cushions off the couch. She raked my bare stomach with her fingernails, which were red and sticky with the jam. Syrupy sweetness filled the air.
‘No! No!’ she barked. ‘Leave my sugar alone!’
‘I think … Actually….’
I grabbed her wrists and used the leverage to push against her and stand upright. I took two steps back and probably held up my hands, like someone about to be mugged. My sweater fell back down, sticking to the jam on my stomach.
‘Sorry, but I think I’d better go,’ I said, trying not to think about the axe on the wall.
She sat up on the sofa and looked baldly at me. In a tone of voice now nostalgically normal, she said, ‘Are you serious?’
‘Yeah, this isn’t really … Sorry.’
An expression of contempt filled the circular green boundary of her hood. ‘What? Jesus, this is nothing. So I have a thing, what’s wrong with you?’
I mumbled some excuses and retrieved my coat from the arm of the sofa. There was red jam on the back of my hand. The seeds of doubt quivered inside the gelatinous blob of my anxiety. Then I steeled myself and took off.
* * *
In the taxi, I told Mel and Dan by text to prepare themselves for a full report. ‘Come over,’ Mel replied. Dan began typing something, but changed his mind. I went to their flat in New Islington rather than going home to stew in my own disappointment.
When I got there I found Mel alone, wallowing on the couch with several empty bottles in a neat triangle on the coffee table. ‘Dan just left me,’ she announced loudly.
Was I surprised? I’d always thought of their relationship as like a battered old book. The glue binding had mostly turned to dust and it would need only one good shake to scatter the pages across the room. As soon as one of them got the flu, or was depressed, or when they were rained in on holiday, the loose leaves would start slipping out.
‘It’s because I tried to stop,’ she said, indicating the beer bottles. ‘It turns me into a bitch. But how am I supposed to tolerate him otherwise?’
We’d had this conversation many times. I would ask her why she was in the relationship in the first place, and she would say, ‘What should I do, start dating again? I mean, this is why we go through all of that, isn’t it? To get to this.’
Whatever variation of that reply she gave, I would usually wait her out in silence.
David Brookes is a writer currently living in the UK, from where he runs his editing firm The STP Literary Service. He has stories published in many magazines including Scrittura, Every Day Fiction, Electric Spec, Pantechnicon, Bewildering Stories, Whispering Spirits, Morpheus Tales, The Cynic and Aphelion.
She let me know early on I was not like the other kids.
As a five-year-old, Snowball the class budgie comes home to every house but mine. I’m not allowed to perform in the skit at the end-of-year concert. We are just getting started.
As a 10-year-old, I attend other kids’ birthday parties, but mine are spent at home, alone with her. I beg to have one, just once. It needn’t be fancy or take a heap of effort, I argue. She keeps saying we can’t afford squat, and I say it can be fairy bread and sausage rolls and a picnic blanket at the park. Maybe pass-the-parcel, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, and a three-legged race. Homemade and happy. I promise an ice cream cake at Pizza Hut or a party in the decommissioned airplane out the front of shopping mall McDonald’s isn’t necessary. I cry, I plead. She squints her eyes and says no. Those things are for others. I plan to hold my own celebration in a spare room at school, send cheerful invites, then overwhelm myself with the technicalities to the point of panic attacks. My friends’ mothers sense my agitation and cater it. She harumphs at home.
As a 12-year-old, I’m forbidden from swimming classes and slip-and-slides and excursions to the city. Teachers skate close to suspecting something, but she claims poverty and they nod understanding, not knowing of the thousands of dollars in the bank. In desperation, I beg to go on the class trip to the museum, assuring her it’ll be educational without a drop of fun. She relents as a reward for knowing my place. Also, perhaps, sensing they are almost onto her. Time to provide the exception that hides the rule.
As a fifteen-year-old, she refuses to replace any electrical goods that go bung in our house because she has ‘bad luck with appliances’, one of the many self-pitying refrains she has on speed dial. Using my $6.50-per-hour Macca’s wage, I buy us a tiny fridge, a TV and a VCR, desperate for a few essentials and sick of being teased by my classmates about our analogue existence. She complains about what I pick, saying she can’t sleep from buzzing I can’t hear. I come to comprehend how nothing will ever be enough.
As a seventeen-year-old, I ring up the government phoneline to register my university course preferences. She, still with tens of thousands of dollars squirreled away for a rainy day, huffs and puffs that she can’t afford a premium phone call. I calmly explain it’s an investment in my future and offer to pay it myself. She screams in my face that I should hang up immediately because it’s a waste of money. I learn to bide my time.
In my twenties, why do I not visit?
In my thirties, why do I plan my wedding alone?
In my forties, she is dead, and I can finally start living.
Rebecca Douglas is an Australian writer whose work has been published by Overland, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, Kill Your Darlings, Visible Ink, Verandah Journal, The Big Issue, ABC The Drum, and various other lovely places.
Indigo was sitting at the bus stop scrolling through social media. She didn’t see the other three people waiting with her. Indigo’s spirit guide was only trying to get her to see one of them, the man to her left who was playing a video game on his phone.
Indigo’s guide was tickling her ribs. Indigo wasn’t very psychic so she really didn’t sense the spirit’s touch much. However, after several minutes of it, Indigo’s guide did manage to make Indigo sneeze.
The man to Indigo’s left was named Ivan. His spirit guide had been trying to make Ivan notice Indigo the whole time her guide had been trying to make Indigo sneeze. Ivan’s guide had tried to short out Ivan’s earphones. He had sent a shiver up Ivan’s spine. He punched Ivan square on the jaw in his growing frustration. Ivan was a bit more psychic than most so he did take notice of all the poking and prodding by his guide. He had looked up from his phone right as Indigo sneezed.
Alas, for the soulmates’ guides Ivan looked at the man sitting on the other side of him, not at Indigo on his right side.
The man to Indigo’s right was the one who muttered; ‘Bless you,’
The soulmates didn’t meet. The Bus came and they got on one after the other but sat separately. They exited the bus separately without ever even making eye contact.
Ivan’s guide looked back as Indigo’s guide as Ivan and he got off. Indio’s guide shrugged. The guides waved goodbye to each other longingly as the bus took off from Ivan’s stop. Indigo’s guide smacked her upside the head. Indigo sneezed again.
A little old lady sitting behind Indigo said “Gesundheit.”
It was thirteen years, four months, and eighteen days later before the guides got the chance to try, try again. It was in the grocery store right by Ivan’s apartment. Both guides’ eyes lit up as Ivan rounded the corner of aisle three to walk right past Indigo. The spirit guides jumped to embrace each other. Ivan and Indigo were busy ignoring each other but to be fair they were ignoring everyone else too. Indigo was comparing the nutritional chart on two different boxes of diet breakfast bars. Ivan was on his phone again. He was talking to his mother, asking her to list off the items he needed to buy to make lasagna.
The guides were about to miss their second chance as they were so consumed in hugging. Ivan had pushed his buggy almost totally past Indigo’s. Ivan’s guide grabbed Ivan’s hands and shoved with all his energy. Ivan’s hands slipped and his buggy lurched into Indigo’s.
“Sorry.” Ivan said absently then went back to talking to his mother. “What kinds of cheeses? Do I find those in the freezer?”
Indigo didn’t even answer his single word with a single word of her own. She just nodded and kept analysing fat content and calories listed on the boxes in each hand. Again they never even made eye contact. Indigo finally tossed one box into her buggy and headed in the other direction. Both guides teared up as they waved goodbye this time.
It was fifty years, eight months, and one day before they saw each other again. The guides that is because Ivan and Indigo had yet to see each other. Ironically, they had only exchanged one word; sorry. Ivan was sitting in his wheelchair at his nursing home’s front door. He was reading sports scores on a tablet in a very large font. Still he was straining to read the print.
Indigo was being helped out of a cab. She was arguing loudly with the taxi driver and a social worker who were trying to help her walk into the nursing home. She was screaming that she didn’t want to move to the nursing home. The social worker was politely explaining that she had no family to take her in and she could no longer live alone. The taxi driver had bolted without a word after the social worker slipped him a fifty.
Indigo slapped away the social worker’s steadying hand. She stumbled right into Ivan’s wheelchair. He reached to grab her by the elbow to keep her from falling.
“Sorry.” She said the same single word that he’d said to her so many years before.
Alas, they still hadn’t seen each other. Ivan’s eyesight wouldn’t let him see anything more than ten inches from his face. Indigo’s vision was clouded with tears and she was begrudgingly going on into the nursing home.
Indigo’s guide grabbed Ivan’s guide’s arm. “We have to do something.”
“It is just too late.”
“No, they will be living in the same home now. It’s never too late! They are old. They have missed sixty years that they were supposed to be married. They didn’t have the kids or grandkids but they can still be together finally now, briefly.” Indigo’s guide was holding the nursing home door shut so the social worker couldn’t get it open for Indigo.
“Very briefly.” Ivan’s guide said glancing up at the sun. “In about three minutes, Ivan will die.”
“What?” Indigo’s guide screeched still fighting the social worker for the door’s control.
Ivan’s guide had been off on his estimate. Ivan instantly fell out of his wheelchair to the ground, clutching his heart. Indigo shook off the social worker’s hold and fell down beside the stranger on the ground.
She reached for his hand. The guide was holding his hand already but let go as Indigo took it. Ivan looked up. She was ten inches away from his face. He could see her. Ivan looked into Indigo’s eyes finally. He started to say that she was beautiful but drew his last breath as she was starting to tell him that he couldn’t give up.
You’re probably unfolding this page and thinking, Gosh, what a terrible human being Cate became since then, and by that you’ll mean ever since you pushed the door open with a big box propped against your chest, put it on the kitchen counter, yanked a sheet off it like a street magician, and pointed to a gerbil that stared at us and squeaked. “This will help us,” you said. “Looking after him will help us.” You stroked my sweaty hair and I rolled my eyes. When I came back from the shower, you were feeding pellets to the gerbil and asking him who’s a good boy, lots of nodding, lots of smiling. I went out to buy something I didn’t need, like more eggs, I was always after more eggs back then.
Two days later, I can hardly put my yoga mat down and you lead me to the kitchen counter, where you’ve set plates on opposite ends, with microwaved rice and beans piled on them. You light a candle close enough to the gerbil that it stretches its paws trying to bring the orange glow into its cage. “Caring for Little Julian is good for us,” you say. “He is us, in a way, Julian and Cate. See?” What I see is that the gerbil keeps thrusting his paw at the candle and I wonder if his whole fur will catch on fire or just his paw.
A week later, I come back from my therapist and there are two heads bobbing at the gerbil, yours and Margaret’s. I see her chalked hair, fluffed up into a lair of some sort, a floral blouse with ruffle puff sleeves, and forearm tattoos whose writing has faded into scribbles. At night, while you’re meming on your phone and I’m trying to make sense of the tsunami-shaped damp patch on the ceiling, I ask who granny is and you roll away from me in bed and turn off your lamp. Mine’s still on, so I can see your back hair through the moth holes in your college shirt.
Fast forward a month and I come home from jogging and find you standing behind Margaret, against the wall, clothes still on but rolled down around the pelvis. As I look at your butt, forward, back, forward, back, I frown and think, “Wait, isn’t this the position he said was too busy for his taste?” And, “Wait, isn’t she the age my mother-in-law would’ve been today?”
I knew, right, then, that it was unfair of me to focus on her age because men have relationships with women who are generations younger than them and people wink at them, not frown.
I know it was unfair of me to yell at you that with her you were going to save hundreds of bucks on condoms.
It was unfair to broom you out of the apartment while both of you had your clothes rolled down, especially when Mr. McShae was out in the hall and we all know he stares, and unfair to keep the door locked while you thumped on it, asking for me to “release Little Julian into your custody.”
It was unfair to line the gerbil’s cage with your dress shirts before boxing your clothes and sending them to her apartment, where you moved in, right below mine.
It was unfair to send you ransom notes for Tiny Julian’s freedom, written with letters cut out from large-print Reader’sDigest magazines.
What was most unfair was the banging you heard above you a couple of hours ago. It started off as a cracking sort of noise, from my hammer pounding against the tiled floor, something that just happened because it was Friday and there was wine in the house. Then I took out Tiny Julian from his cage, for just a second, and he wasn’t swayed by my “Come back here,” meant to sound like you, and, what do you know, he slipped into the new cracks in the tiles. The schoolteacher from next door stopped by when she heard someone cursing at the pipes. I told her the drain was clogged up, because what else would I say, we had some wine, and after a while she went to her apartment and back she came, flopping around a plumber’s snake, goggled, like some sort of villain from the 1950s. She poked and thrusted into the pipes. The snake reached in as far as it could, so we shook it around for a while, then tested the drain and everything came out nicely, a smooth flow that showed that anything that had been dumped in there at some point and may have clogged up the system was gone. She rolled back her snake in silence as we stared at opposite walls, spent, and I wondered why I had never known how handy this schoolteacher could be. We heard squeaking from the cracks in the floor, and she said “Fucking mice,” and I said “Fucking mice” back. We threw tools into the cracks and one thing led to another and the banging started again, metal on metal. I’m sure you two will bob your heads up now, staring at the water damage on Margaret’s ceiling, and wonder how to get Tiny Julian back safe to where it belongs. Maybe Tiny Julian will crawl through some rusty hole in the wall and leak out of the building before you find him.
This is all unfair of me, I know, especially if Margaret has lived here a long time and I’m ruining her ceiling. I swear I can’t remember how long she’s been here—was she in our lives when Tiny Julian arrived and she seemed too unlikely for me to notice her, like the fake geraniums by the mailboxes? I’m not sure anymore, and I really don’t care. This note is just a heads up. Tiny Julian is on the loose and I won’t make an effort to catch him. Oh, and I can’t promise the pipes will behave as they used to.
Federico Escobar grew up in Cali, Colombia, and after living in New Orleans, Jerusalem, and Oxford, spent most of the past decade in Puerto Rico—Hurricane María included. His literary work has been published or is forthcoming in The Phare, Bending Genres, Passengers Journal, and Typishly. He works in education.
‘Just one more chance, pleeeeease,’ I stretched the last word out as far as it would go, but Mother’s back was turned, and my bag stood in the hallway with my good winter coat and red wellingtons.
‘I’ve ‘phoned the Bad Girls’ Home. They’re coming for you in an hour.’ She was showing no mercy to the tomatoes as she sliced them with her sharpest knife. Her tongue clicked the roof of her mouth as they spilled their seeds over the kitchen counter. It was, I suspected, similar messiness that had led to my own fall from grace.
‘You can have your tea before you go,’ she said. I hated sandwiches, and Mother knew it. She had a machine for cutting bread, a bit like a guillotine. I flinched when she operated the blade. Taking the butter from the fridge, she waved the packet at me.
‘There’ll be none of this where you’re going. It’ll be water and dry bread before bedtime if you’re lucky.’ She tipped her head to one side to show she was thinking.
‘Or maybe a bit of gruel,’ she added.
‘Like Oliver Twist,’ I said.
‘Don’t get smart with me Madam.’ Mother gave me one of her looks. I was not taking this seriously enough.
Mother had taken me to see The Bad Girls’ Home last time I had let myself down. We had taken the bus miles out of town, then Mother, glancing around to check no-one was watching, had wrenched open some rusty gates and led me up a path overgrown with weeds and brambles. The building she had showed me was unlit and unloved.
‘Let this be a warning to you,’ she had said, placing her hands under my armpits and lifting me off my feet, so that my chin was level with a rotted wooden windowsill. I had peered into a deserted classroom; a few wooden desks and chairs, a chalkboard with some long-forgotten lessons written in an elegant cursive script. A box containing a hockey stick topped with a pair of bottle green knickers stood in the corner.
‘There’s nobody here,’ I had protested, sure I had caught Mother out in a falsehood.
‘The Bad Girls are out at work at this time. You won’t have much time for all your books and nonsense if I have to send you here.’ Her tone had made me silent. She had gazed at me for a long time before deciding I was sufficiently contrite. We had returned home, and she had made my favourite soft-boiled egg with toast soldiers.
Now, though, there seemed to be no chance of a last-minute reprieve. Mother set down a plate of cheese and tomato sandwiches. I stared at them, swallowing hard, unable to even take a first bite. A tear slithered down my cheek.
‘I’m sorry that it’s come to this,’ said Mother. She took a cotton handkerchief embroidered with her initial from the sleeve of her cardigan and blew her nose hard.
‘As a matter of fact, Mummy has had a little weep herself, this afternoon.’ I looked up as she sniffed and dabbed her eyes.
‘I blame myself. I must have been a very bad mother, to make you behave this way.’
This was my cue. Sliding down from my chair I scurried round to where she sat and flung my arms around her shoulders. I sobbed into her neck.
‘You’re the best Mummy in the world,’ I whispered into her ear. Mother did nothing for a long time. Then, stiffly, she began to pat my back.
‘There, there. Don’t upset yourself.’ Her words held no emotion, as though she was reading them from a prompt card. She extricated herself from my clutches and went out into the hall, where the telephone stood on its glass and wrought iron table. I heard her lift the receiver and dial a number.
‘I think I should give her one more chance. Perhaps she has learned her lesson this time. Sorry to have troubled you.’ I buried my head in my arms on the table and sobbed again, this time with relief. Mother came back into the room. She removed the unwanted sandwiches from the table I heard her tip them into the kitchen pedal bin, making no reference, as she usually did, to starving children in Africa. She took something from the fridge and gently placed it in front of me. The smell of chocolate made my nostrils twitch. I sat up, scrubbing at my face with clenched fists.
A slice of the kind of chocolate cake in which we only indulged on Very Special Occasions sat before me. Mother kissed the top of my head.
‘I will wipe your slate clean.’ It was an old promise, but one which had never before been accompanied by cake.
Relief had made me hungry. I devoured the whole slice, picking up crumbs on a dampened finger. Mother winced only slightly as she watched me. Afterwards we sat on the sofa, my head resting on her shoulder as we watched my favourite quiz show. Several times I answered a question when the contestant failed. Mother smiled proudly.
‘I love to spend time with my clever girl,’ she said. I began to relax in the glow of her approval. I remembered the chocolate cake, bought and sliced and waiting in the fridge for my redemption, even before my crime had been committed. I yawned, stretched, and went out into the hallway, leaving the door open wide enough for Mother to see what I was about to do next.
‘I’ll take this back upstairs,’ I said, grabbing the handles of the empty bag she had ‘packed’ for my departure. I slung it easily over my shoulder, ensuring that she knew I had no expectation of it containing any weight at all. I smiled my most angelic smile as I mounted the stairs.
‘Love you, Mummy,’ I said. I was tired of this game and would not be playing it again.
Alison Wassell is a short story and flash fiction writer published by Retreat West, Reflex Fiction, Firewords, Bath Flash Fiction, NFFD, FlashFlood Journal and The People’s Friend. She has been longlisted, shortlisted and placed in various competitions.
The mountain air is clean, smelling like greenery and last night’s rain. It’s still warm from today, the first day of summer, but already cooling as the sun sets.
I fasten the helmet strap beneath my chin, put on my thick gloves that are padded with a plastic puck in the palm, and check my longboard again.
The asphalt road waits before me, finally clear after the long winter and spring. Black grey, surrounded by wildflowers, trees on one side, the deep, green valley on the other. I’ve ridden this road so many times I can see its course in my mind, flowing down the mountainside like a river.
I put my right foot on the board, and push off hard with my left. Another couple of pushes, then gravity does the rest. I lean left or right to move with the road, almost effortlessly after all these years of practice. Soon, I’m going fast. Faster than a wooden plank and four polyurethane wheels have any right to go. It almost feels like flying.
This late in the evening, I have the road to myself. Just me and the wind rushing in my ears. I put my hands behind my back and lean forward, bending my knees to keep my balance. Soon, there’s the first sharp curve. I crouch and lean into it, grazing the padded gloves over the ground to brake and steer myself in the right direction.
Once I’m past the curve, I get upright again, taking in the bright blue sky, the setting sun. Take a moment to revel in the thrill of going this fast.
Above me, swifts tumble and soar, catching insects, playing bird games. Going faster than you’d think a bundle of feathers would ever be able to. Like me, they return here in summer after the long winter keeps them away.
One flies low, its black wings glinting in the sun, tumbling through the air, in complete and utter freedom. I once read that swifts can stay aloft for months at a time, sleeping in the air, nesting up high, rarely ever touching ground.
If only I had wings like that.
Another curve in the road, and then, immediately, there’s a tunnel. I move with the curve and enter the darkness, keeping my eyes on the light ahead, watching for car headlights that could surprise me in this narrow space.
In here, cool nothingness surrounds me. Only the wind rushing in my ears, the beating of my heart. I could be floating in a sea, or flying in a dark sky, if not for my feet stuck to the board, my final connection to the ground.
The bright light at the end gets bigger. The sounds come back with the warmth of summer. I ride out of the tunnel and am engulfed in light.
The setting sun is before me, shining through a dip in the mountains, showering everything in yellow, orange, red.
It surrounds me, blinds me, pierces through my eyelids and deep into my skin. Gives me warmth, strength.
It builds me wings.
I can feel it.
I throw off my gloves with clumsy fingers, then take off my helmet. I need to feel the wind in my hair, the sun on my skin. I need to feel all of it.
I spread my golden wings.
My legs move the board right and left, following the road from memory. I speed down, barely feeling my feet touch the board, so fast, so free. I laugh in the warm light.
I’m almost soaring like the swifts in the endless blue, towards the setting sun.
The sound of a car engine.
I barely keep my balance. The sun blinds me, golden spots floating before my eyes. My legs don’t know what to do. They move left, then right, wobble on the board.
The car honks, tires screech.
My wings melt.
I steer away from the noise, but I’m going too fast. I can’t stop, I can’t see where I’m going. I lose control of the board, feel it roll off the road and get stuck in the grass while my body keeps moving.
I am free.
My body is airborne, the road behind me, the valley below. The setting sun ahead. There’s nothing but air surrounding me, nothing but the blue sky, nothing but the swifts calling out and swooping all around me. Nothing to keep me on the ground. I am flying on my own now, absolutely, utterly free.
They’ll call it a tragic accident. Carelessness. Hubris.
But, for now, I spread my wings.
Lotte van der Krol is a multi-genre writer from the Netherlands. She likes to walk in the woods, following the strange sounds that are almost like music but not quite. Her work has appeared in Popshot Quarterly, Capsule Stories, Weird Christmas, and others. She’s on twitter @lottevdkrol and on lottevanderkrol.wordpress.com
Standing at the back screen door, the late autumn air carried the scents of dry earth and dying vegetation. Sandra leaned against the door frame and waited. The rows of dead, broken, harvested stalks of corn in the field beyond the back yard, trembled slightly, the sound of their brittle leaves being rustled in the breeze sounding like raspy old men asking for drinks of water. The scarecrows, each given a name of a dead president, nailed to nine-foot upright boards, stood guard over their quickly decaying charges. The tails to Lincoln’s ragged tuxedo jacket flapped in the wind. As hazy sunlight broke through the clouds, a small murder of crows arrived and began to circle above the field. She straightened up and watched them with rapt attention as they descended to the ground amidst the corn stalks. She placed the palms of her hands on the door’s mesh screen and closed her eyes. She imagined that her body had separated into microscopic sized particles and was passing through the screen and then turning into crows and flying off.
The whistle on the tea kettle sitting on the stove shrieked. Sandra opened her eyes and turned about. Her eight year-old son, Daniel – Danny – was standing in the doorway that led into the living room, gazing at her with his usual intensity. “Do you need something?” she said in a tone harsher than she meant it to be. “Is something wrong?’ she said, more softly.
The boy shook his head, turned, and went back into the living room.
Sandra turned off the flame beneath the kettle and then poured the boiling water into a cup in which an already used teabag lay limply at the bottom, the string attached to it drooped over a lip of the cup. She grabbed the string and bobbed the teabag up and down in the water several times, turning the water a pale shade of dark green before returning the kettle to the stove. She was about to smash a cockroach crawling across the stove top when a sound of breaking glass came from the living room. She rushed from the kitchen. A large stone lay on the floor in the middle of the living room beside where Danny was standing. The window was broken.
* * *
The rainfall began as a light patter against the bedroom window. Sandra raised the lid on the cedar chest that sat on a handmade rug at the end of the bed and took out the star-patterned quilt that her mother had given her as a wedding present. She closed the lid and tossed the quilt across the other quilt already on the bed. Felicity mewed softly, jumped down from the chair in front of the vanity dresser where it had been curled up on, sleeping, walked to the bed and jumped up onto the quilt. It walked about, kneading the quilt with its declawed paws, before finding a place to settle down. It quickly fell back asleep. The distant rumble of thunder caused Sandra to turn about and stare into the darkness beyond the window. A flash of lighting above the Badlands formations momentarily brought their irregular pancake-like layers of rock into view, and just as quickly disappeared back into the blackness. The howl of a coyote pierced the night.
Sandra removed her robe, slid under the quilts, pushing Felicity aside, and was just about to turn off the lamp on the bedside stand when Danny came into the room. “Did the thunder and lightning frighten you?” she said to him.
He shook his head and stared at her expectantly as he grabbed the elastic cord on his pajama bottoms and pulled it tight, cinching the waist tight around his abdomen.
“I can’t read your mind, Danny. At some point you are going to have to tell me what it is you want or need,” she said. She patted the bed. “Yes, you can sleep with me.”
Without taking his eyes off of her he got onto the bed and laid down next to Felicity and encircled the old cat with his arms and slowly hugged the cat, bringing it close to him. He closed his eyes. Within minutes his breathing slowed, mimicking the same sleeping sound – a gentle exhalation and inhalation of breathing – that the cat made.
She pulled a quilt over him and turned off the light. She laid back, her eyes on the trails of rain streaking down the window pane seen in the ambient light.
* * *
The school bus pulled away from the curb with Danny watching Sandra from the back seat where he sat with his face pressed against the window. She turned and walked down the long driveway towards the house, mud being added to the clumps on her boots that had already collected there. The grass that lined both sides of the driveway was noticeably bright and green, unlike all the other plants that had begun turning brown and dying off as soon as summer ended. Walking on it seemed like an act of carelessness, akin to walking on a clean carpet. The early morning chill had only just begun to dissipate, the increasing warmth leaving her to wonder if she had made Danny wear too many warm clothes before they left the house. His protests about wearing a sweater and heavy coat played out with the way he looked at her, like he expressed everything – with his eyes.
At the porch she kicked the mud from her boots and then climbed the steps while eyeing the broken window. She had duct taped a piece of cardboard retrieved from a stack of cardboard pieces in the basement over the large hole left by the stone, but only realized as she stepped onto the porch, that the cardboard was part of the box that had contained Hank’s urn. As if punched in the gut, for a moment she felt sick to her stomach and couldn’t breathe. She grasped the post attached to the porch railing and held on tightly, as if keeping from being blown away. It was then as tears began to stream down her cheeks that she saw the crows flying toward the field. They were arriving earlier in the day than usual. She ran down the porch steps and around the house, stopping in the back yard as her mud-caked boots prevented her from taking another step. Taunting a leaning Edward G. Harding, the crows descended to the rows of broken corn stalks that surrounded the base of Harding’s perch. She raised her arms and slowly began flapping them. And then she began to caw like a crow.
The birds weren’t disturbed by this at all. They continued to search the ground for kernels of corn and the insects the dead vegetation attracted.
* * *
Sandra emptied several ice cubes from the ice tray onto a piece of muslin and forcefully shoved the tray back into the freezer. She then slammed the refrigerator door closed. She pulled the cloth around the ice cubes, enclosing them in the pouch, and then tied the end. With the pouch in hand she walked over to Danny who was sitting motionless at the table, and momentarily gazed at the bright purple and red bruise that formed a ring around his right eye, before placing the pouch against his eye. “I know you can’t or won’t say who did this to you, but how can I protect you if you don’t speak up and tell me who keeps doing these things to you?”
He stared at her with the one eye, remaining as still as a statue.
She took his hand and pressed it against the pouch. “Hold it there,” she said. She turned and walked into the living room. She had stopped smoking when she found out she was pregnant with Danny, but the craving for a cigarette was overwhelming and annoying. She needed to do something with her hands, a distraction of some kind. She picked up the stone that had been thrown through the window from where she had left it on the coffee table and passed it back and forth from one hand to the other, feeling its weight, the texture of its surface. She closed her eyes and thought about people who could divine information about objects by just touching them and tried to force from the rock whatever it could tell her, what it could tell anyone. The silence was the same stony silence she received from Danny. She opened her eyes just in time to see a deer cross the driveway, slowing a bit as it stepped through the mud, and then bolt off when it stepped back into the grass. When the phone rang it startled her and she dropped the stone.
“How’s the boy?” her father-in-law said even before she could say hello after putting the receiver to her ear. “He talking yet?”
“Hank’s mother and I think Danny should come live with us for a while.”
“We got a call from Danny’s school counselor who was inquiring about you. We don’t think you’re capable of giving him the care he needs. The boy’s father, our son . . .”
She slammed the phone down and walked into the kitchen. Danny was standing at the back door still holding the ice to his eye as he watched the crows that crowded the field around several of the presidents.
* * *
The colors of the twilight sky were the same as Danny’s bruised eye. With her shawl around her shoulders, Sandra stood in the corn field looking for signs that the crows had been there, but found none. They came and went every day like apparitions that vanished without a trace. She wondered where they came from and where else did they go. Her skirt flapped in the chilly breeze, snapping quietly at times like muted Fourth of July firecrackers. Nearby, George Washington hung precariously on his post, about to fall off, with his three-cornered hat sitting askew on his white hair made from yarn. The clothes for all of the presidents had been found in steamer trunks in the attic. The pants, coats and shirts were stitched together to make up the costumes by Sandra while she was pregnant. A lot of crows had come and gone since then and none of them ever showed the slight bit of awareness that the scarecrows were there other than as things to land on long enough to survey the corn stalks.
She tightened the shawl around her and turned to see Danny standing in the doorway, watching her. He had Felicity in his arms. The cat was struggling to be set free from his hold. As she watched, the boy slowly tightened his grasp on the animal, squeezing the aged cat until it began to meow loudly and hiss.
“Danny! Stop that right now,” she screamed as she ran to the house.
He let the cat drop just as she reached the steps. She opened the door, her hand up, preparing to slap him for scaring Felicity, and then he said, “The crows.” She froze. It was the first words he had spoken in five months.
* * *
“His father used to sit on the back steps of the house and shoot the crows with his rifle,” Sandra said.
Mrs. Huston leaned forward and straightened the brass nameplate that sat on the edge of her desk. It had her name and title, School Counselor. “Those were the only two words he said?”
Sandra sat in a fake leather chair in front of the desk. The shiny brass of the nameplate glinted in front of her. “Yes.”
“Does Daniel have a special affinity for crows?”
“Not that I was ever aware of.” Sandra paused. “Danny. Everyone calls him Danny.”
The counselor smiled as if a gun had been put to her head. “Yes, of course. Danny.”
Sandra opened her purse and took out the stone that had been thrown through her window. She placed it on the desk next to the nameplate. “There are no stones like this one on our farm. Whoever broke our window with it bothered to bring that stone from somewhere else.”
Mrs. Huston looked at the stone and grimaced. “You didn’t need to bring it. I would have taken your word for it.”
“I thought it was important that you see it.”
“The school nurse has reported that Danny has come to school on several occasions with unexplained bruises and small cuts. I needed to look into it, so that’s why I called his grandparents and why I asked you to come in.”
“I told you,” Sandra said. “Someone is out to hurt him.”
Mrs. Huston lifted the stone with one hand, and using her hand, brushed away the dirt left behind. She then placed the stone on a tissue. “Why did you want me to see it.”
“It’s a murder weapon. It could have killed Danny.”
Mrs. Huston glanced at the stone as if expecting to see it move by its own volition. “Your husband died from a tragic accident, didn’t he?”
Sandra’s back stiffened. “All deaths are a tragic accident of one kind or another.”
“Yes, I guess that’s true, but I meant . . .”
“I know what you meant. Danny’s father shot himself. Danny witnessed it.”
Mrs. Huston’s tone became softer, kinder. “I know. And since then he hasn’t spoken, except for. . . “
Sandra interrupted. “Have you ever noticed that when crows, or any flock of birds, are in flight, no matter how many of them there are, or what may disturb them, they never crash into one another?”
* * *
From her bedroom window, Sandra watched a large, dark gray rabbit, hop around Franklin D. Roosevelt. She scanned the field around where the rabbit was foraging, fearing that with the oncoming night a coyote wouldn’t be far off and have a readily available meal if it got wind of the rabbit. A coyote had gotten into the chicken coop killing most of them before running off with one in its mouth as Hank ran out of the house in the middle of the night, shooting at the escaping coyote with his rifle. It put an end to their attempt to raise chickens. She often wished that the crows had carried off the first seeds planted to grow the corn. The crows were easier to kill and he took perverse glee in doing it.
Upon feeling Felicity rubbing its side against her leg, she took the cat in her arms and cradled it against her chest as she swayed gently from side to side. It was Hank’s idea to have Felicity declawed despite her protests and the veterinarian’s reluctance to perform the procedure.
“Cats can be taught not to scratch you,” the vet had said.
Hearing Danny’s bare feet on the floorboards behind her, she turned and waited for several moments before saying anything. His silence made her stomach ache. The two words he had spoken gave her hope that he had regained the desire, or ability, to talk and he would do it again soon. He remained silent, staring at her blankly. “Are you ready for bed?” she said, at last.
She placed Felicity on the floor, knelt down, grasped Danny gently by his upper arms, and stared into his eyes. “Do you want to go live with your grandparents for a while?”
His eyes widened, his cheeks paled. He shook his head.
She wrapped her arms around him and hugged him close. “Caw, caw” she whispered into his ear before picking him up and laying him on the bed. He curled into a fetal position as she stroked his corn silk-like hair.
* * *
It was early Saturday morning when Sandra carried the sewing basket that contained Felicity’s body out to the corn field as Danny followed behind carrying a small shovel. The crows hadn’t arrived yet. The air was almost balmy and filled with the scent of prairie grass. Near President John F. Kennedy, Sandra handed the sewing basket to Danny, took the shovel and dug a hole. She placed the basket in the hole and with tears flowing down her face, filled the hole with dirt. They turned, walked back. and had almost reached the house when the sheriff’s car drove up the driveway and came to a stop at the side of the house. In the back seat sat Jack Harley.
Sandra gripped Danny’s shoulder. “Go inside and call your grandparents. Their number is on the pad by the phone.”
The boy stared at her wide-eyed.
“You don’t need to say anything to them. Just make some kind of sound. They’ll figure it out that it’s you calling.”
He ran into the house as Sandra walked to the car just as the sheriff got out.
“Good morning, Sandra.” He pointed to Jack Harley. “His wife said you’ve been paying him to hurt your boy. Is that true?”
Sandra glanced back at the cornfield where the crows had begun to arrive. “Yes, it’s true.”
Genuinely surprised, the sheriff stammered, “Why would you do such a thing?”
“I hoped to scare my son into talking again,” she said. “His silence is killing me.”
* * *
Inside the house, Danny held the phone to his mouth. “Caw, caw, caw,” he screamed.
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 480 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. His Twitter is @carrsteven960. He is on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/steven.carr.35977
Once there was a doctor who worked as a general practitioner at the local hospital. A hardworking and attentive man, he always got to work early so he would be fully ready to face the day when his first patient arrived at eight in the morning. His hair was always coiffed perfectly in a wave across his forehead and his eyes always had a friendly twinkle meant to convey to those under his care that they had not a worry in the world, he was one of the good ones.
It was on a Monday when the old man came in. He was the first patient of the day and he was there for his annual physical and checkup. There was nothing too remarkable about this old man. He was squat, wrinkly, and gray, just as most old men were before him, and just as most would be after. He had a bit of a cranky air about him, but when he smiled, revealing rows of gleaming far too white teeth, there was some strange sense of congeniality that sparked across the room, giving hints of a deep warmth and lifelong satisfaction hidden beneath the roughened burlap exterior.
Despite his smiles, the old man was not a patient patient. From the moment he was led back to the examination room he was checking his watch. The nurse warned the doctor of the old man’s impatient nature, so he was prepared enough to answer the old man’s demand of what the hell took him so long with his most professional greeting. This seemed to calm the old man somewhat, though not enough to get him to quit constantly checking his watch. Though curious, the doctor kept his queries to himself, knowing that when given time, most mysteries tend to result in solutions. His patience was rewarded, for as he examined the old man, prodding him with this and that and asking him to shift himself as needed, the grumbles were replaced by a placating tone mentioning that he had an important appointment he needed to get to at 9 o’clock.
The doctor of course politely nodded and kept about his business, again knowing that silence tends to produce more answers than questions. The old man of course did his part. He was supposed to have breakfast with his wife at the nursing home across the street. Indeed, he said with a great amount of pride in his crackling voice, every day at nine o’clock he always came to the nursing home to eat with his wife. The doctor nodded knowingly, but inside he was bursting with curiosity. Finally, as the old man was putting back on his shirt, he let the question escape his lips. What was his wife’s condition?
The old man frowned and looked at the poster showing the respiratory system on the wall. When he looked back the doctor noticed a tear on the edge of falling. Alzheimer’s was the answer, his wife hadn’t known his face in over a year. The doctor sat there, staring dumbly as the old man prepared to leave. The doctor, a lifelong bachelor, could not help letting his last question escape. Why did he keep coming back if his wife had no idea who he was? The old man smiled, though his eyes never lost their watery gleam. Because he still knew who she was.
The old man left to get to his daily breakfast appointment. The doctor sat alone in the examination room, unable to move until the nurse came in and told him patients were waiting. It was the first time in his career that the doctor failed to be on time.
Of course things began to change when the old man came back the following Monday, still grumbling about the time and completely unaware that his annual checkup had already been done the week before. The doctor quickly diagnosed him with early onset dementia, a diagnosis that shook the old man to his core. The doctor, in his gentle bedside way, tried to discern a next of kin, but in this the old man was less than helpful. A search through his records proved to be just as fruitless, so after sending the old man home, the doctor went across the street to enquire about the old man’s wife, in the hope that her records were more complete.
The lady behind the front desk was a friendly sort, especially when it came to dealing with good looking doctors who didn’t wear wedding rings. However, her flirtatious manner was quickly replaced by concerned confusion when the doctor mentioned the reason of his visit. She’s dead was the receptionist’s curt reply at the mention of the name. She’s been dead over six months now. The doctor didn’t know how to take this news, so he leaned down and rested his arms on the front desk. In response, the receptionist rose partly out of her seat, sticking her butt out a bit in case the doctor noticed, and reached up to place her ringless fingers on his hand. With a sweet voice, she asked whatever could be the matter?
The doctor, rising back to a standing position, pulling his hand away in the process, eliciting a quick disappointed look from the receptionist, explained the story told to him by the old man. The receptionist gave out a short laugh, more a bray than a laugh, which only accentuated her horse like features. The doctor was shocked by such a display, but the receptionist quickly calmed herself enough to explain. The old man did still come in every day to eat breakfast with his wife, but the woman he thought to be his wife was not truly his wife, but just another woman with Alzheimer’s. The old man had seemed happy enough with the situation, and the old woman never had any visitors otherwise, so the nursing home staff had just gone along with it.
The doctor left the reception area immediately after this revelation, never once asking for the receptionist’s phone number as she had hoped. As he crossed the street he went over everything in his head, trying to put together a puzzle, but finding himself wanting for a missing piece that would make everything perfectly clear. It all bothered him more than anything ever had before.
Of course he shouldn’t have let any of it bother him at all. After all, it wasn’t like he was even a real doctor. He knew no more about medicine than any other random fool on the street, just hints from his own visits to doctors and a wealth of nomenclature gleaned from years of watching medical dramas. This in and of itself might have been of concern if ever discovered by the hospital or one of his patients, but there was no reason to be concerned. Not only was the doctor not a real doctor, he wasn’t even a real person. He was a non-entity, a non-existent image so flimsy that it could be blown apart by an ill timed breath. The doctor hung there in the air, surrounded by a darkness so complete that it seemed to stifle even thought. Perhaps if he was real he might wonder about his predicament. Perhaps then he could realize the true state of his reality as nothing but the figment of an old lady’s fractured imagination. An old lady with Alzheimer’s laying alone day after day in a nursing home.
Such a revelation would probably bring up all sorts of questions for the doctor, at least they would if he was real. But of course sometimes it’s better not to dig into things too much, because sometimes the illusion is better than nothing at all.
S.W. Campbell was born in Eastern Oregon. He currently resides in Portland where he works as an economist and lives with a house plant named Morton. He has had over forty short stories published in various literary reviews in three countries, including Tin House, the Bellevue Literary Review, Entropy, and BlazeVOX. If you’d like to read more of his writing, check out his website: http://www.shawnwcampbell.com.
I saw you at the bus shelter and for an instant I couldn’t breathe. You said
Oh… Um, hi.
I wasn’t… I wasn’t expecting to see you. Here, I mean. I wasn’t expecting that.
You took my umbrella from me and shook it out. Closed it carefully. Gave it back to me handle first, your fist around the wet part. Dripping on your shoes.
Did you move…?
Yes. Last week. Up the street? Near the bakery.
Then a silence that felt like drowning.
No, no, you go ahead.
Sorry. This is awkward. Not bad or anything. Just… awkward.
I saw your ring, a thin gold band that almost covered the dent around your finger.
Yes. We bought the house together after the wedding.
I nodded. Looked down at my own hand before I could stop myself.
Not married. But we own the house. Bought it together.
You smiled but it didn’t reach your eyes. Just a tilt of mouth corners and a collection of wrinkles.
I couldn’t stay anymore. I just couldn’t.
It wasn’t you—
You let out a breath you didn’t realize you were holding. A trail of steam that disappeared.
I carry it around with me all the time. I wanted it to stop. Even a little. Just stop.
It never does. It just… you kind of forget for a bit is all.
A passing car hit a puddle, spraying water against the shelter window. We watched it drip down the glass. I said
You had to go. I get it now. I do.
But I left you. Alone, I mean. And then I couldn’t be alone.
I’m not mad. I didn’t have any room left to be mad.
I reached out to touch your arm and you let me. You said
I look back sometimes—
It’s OK. I promise, really. It’s OK.
And it was. I could see you believed me. Believed beyond the words and down into the space that haunts you. Haunts us. You said
So, have you had any, um… did you…?
No, no kids.
Me either. No kids. No.
I rocked on my heels. You rummaged through your pockets.
Does your wife—?
No. I mean, we talked about it. But she, uh, understands.
I thought you wouldn’t say more, but you said
Once she brought home this—like a little hat?
A small one. Knit. A baby hat. It was green, I think. She had, um, tears in her eyes.
She said she couldn’t resist. Like a puppy, I guess. Or maybe more like an empty leash.
You met my eyes and knew. You knew that I knew. You said
Sometimes it’s the smallest thing.
Yes. I saw a crow on the grass soon after. Just sitting there, digging. Remember?
She thought she could find worms, too.
I held back tears, a practice I’d almost perfected. You said
I often think about that song. You know, with the rabbit?
With the hand gestures. Hopping. Like this.
In a cabin in the woods!
A little old man at the window stood.
Saw a rabbit hopping by—
Knocking at my door.
Help me, help me the rabbit said…
And it hit me and I gasped, and you looked panicked, and we stood for a moment with our hot, shattered breath fogging the windows. I wanted a hole to open up. I wanted to dig my way away. You said
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. What was I thinking?
It’s always there. You think you’re OK, and then you’re not.
The rain fell harder. Drops angling into the shelter, bouncing off your shoes. I said
I’ve been dreaming a lot lately. The cottage, our car. That vacation we took to the beach.
That was good. It was fun.
Except in my dream the water is black. It’s not night or anything. The water’s like ink.
And she’s way out in the waves. But my feet are stuck in the sand. Not even deep. Just stuck.
Your pause was long, far away.
Some days it plays on a loop. It never stops starting over.
I traced a circle in the foggy window, round and round and round. I said
Sometimes I can feel her. The sleeve of her sweater. It was red, with little ducks on it. Your mother made it, I think.
With the big round buttons down the front.
It was so wet from the water. Wet wool, with that smell.
Like a barn. A lamb in the rain. You said
You didn’t mean to—
It was just a minute. I just stepped inside…
I was standing in a puddle now. Water pooling around my boots. You said
It wasn’t your fault. You know that?
I wouldn’t have blamed you if you blamed me.
No. How could I? How can I?
I plucked at my sleeve. Pulled a loose thread through the stitching until it came free.
I picked her up and she was so heavy. So heavy.
She’d been so light.
I reached for her and grabbed her sweater instead. Now it’s sewn into my own skin. The wet wool of it. It just keeps slipping away.
You stepped forward and for a moment I felt it again. The sphere of us. Our loop. A circle that, for a while, had been perfectly complete.
You were a good mom. I knew it. I’ll always know.
Your bus pulled to the curb, then, scattering puddles in an arc. Breaking the surface. You said
It’s still pouring out there. That rain’s pretty unforgiving.
Then you stepped onto the bus and paid your fare. Made your way to a seat by the window and didn’t look back.
And I said—
to the years that had sat between us, the ache that split everything, the weight that had held us underwater for so long, so long—
Oh, I don’t know. I think it’s finally letting up.
Tina Wayland is a freelance copywriter by day and a fiction writer when the stars align. She has had pieces published in such spaces as The Foundling Review, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, carte blanche, and Every Day Fiction. When she’s not trying to hold down the fort, she can be found in some corner of the world or other, probably eating something new.
People get a kick out of Miss Mochi Cakes getting a kick out of food. She sits on the deck, legs dangling. Squeezing a slippery mango, carroty juices trickle down her thighs. Resembling Octopus brains – so Miss Mochi Cakes surmises without any Cephalopoda expertise – the slick flesh will make spines tingle. Miss Mochi Cakes has power over those craving her mango sucking. She slurps forbidden fruit like a babe sups mother’s milk.
Miss Mochi Cakes washes off the gummy syrup. No one would know she wasn’t in the Caribbean; she’s in close-up with a potted palm on her friend’s boat in Hackney. Miss Mochi Cakes posts today’s mango fest on her Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response videoblog. Grown men will whimper, recalling their mothers coring peaches, husking sweetcorn, scooping ice cream.
Known as Miss Mochi Cakes, the siren of stimulation is Maggie in real life. A hint of Japanese exotica helps sell foodie-licious dreams.
Miss Mochi Cakes is a serious ASMR artist. Scrolling through comments from her 9.73 million fans, she revels in praise for scraping avocadoes from skins and whirling spiralised courgettes.
Yet, there’s one unhappy customer.
Magneto Man – once an ardent disciple – whines disapproval.
At first, Miss Mochi Cakes deflates like a Victoria sponge let down by baking powder past its sell-by date. Then, she fights back.
‘Okay, buddy,’ Miss Mochi Cakes announces. ‘I’ll give you livery and lathery. Squidgy and squashy. I’ll touch every one of your nerve endings.’
* * *
Maggie/Miss Mochi Cakes spoons soup into the stroke-slackened mouth of her mother, who’s in the flat’s only bedroom. Maggie sleeps on a futon in the kitchen, bringing her closer to invented Japanese roots. It’s not cultural appropriation, she reasons. It’s good marketing.
Her mother’s distressed. Maggie feels guilt that she doesn’t understand, and anger her mother doesn’t understand her either.
An orderly person, Maggie’s mom hates spillage. Maggie steers broth between her mother’s gums, but liquid trembles down her chin. ‘Hey, Mum, it’s okay if you dribble.’
* * *
When Maggie was young, she had food reveries, forking mashed potato into Close Encounters of the Third Kind piles. Sucking spaghetti fervently, smattering tomato sauce over the walls.
Her mother reprimanded her. ‘Don’t play with your food. And use your serviette.’ It was always serviette; Maggie’s mum reckoned it sounded posher than napkin.
Maggie’s preoccupation with food sculpture meant work as a photoshoot stylist, until she was fired for being too messy. Tablescaping was the next failed venture. ‘In your hands it’s table-trashing,’ declared the boss sacking her. Things finally came good with Maggie’s quirky ASMR films.
She wishes her father could witness her success. He laughed when she mucked about with food. But his sense of humour evaporated the day he left to attend a conference, from which he never returned. Like Magneto Man, she tries to put him out of her mind.
* * *
Despite Maggie’s mother’s presence and 10 million staunch followers, she’s lonely. The only person she sees regularly is Ocado delivery man Steve. She calls him Mr Substitution, because he brings lemon toilet cleaner instead of fresh lemons.
‘Today, it’s a stuffed chicken toy instead of a roast chicken with stuffing,’ he says.
‘Shall I tear it open and do crazy things with the stuffing?’ She realises this could offer Magneto Man something new to hate.
‘Keep the fluffy chicken. It might cheer up your mom.’
Steve’s a good guy. Along with lugging grocery orders up five flights, he helps Maggie with technical problems when she’s recording. He even regularly says hello to her mother.
‘What’s the dish of the day?’ he asks.
‘I’m going East European,’ she explains, hoping to regain Magneto Man’s adoration.
She presses on with perogies – dumplings stuffed with cheese and mashed potato. Glistening in butter, topped off with lardons and sour cream.
Steve polishes off two helpings before descending the graffitied staircase to his van.
Magneto Man isn’t as accommodating. ‘It’s nul points from me,’ he taunts, channelling his inner Eurovision Song Contest judge.
* * *
Miss Mochi Cakes goes into a frenzy creating Choucroute Garnie, apple strudel and American pancakes drenched in Quebecois maple syrup. Salmon en croute, lamb tagine with fragrant couscous, and pistachio macarons. Herb sauces pour lasciviously from on high, hollandaise smothers perfectly cooked eggs.
A week of world cuisine for blogs that Magneto Man disregards, his comments becoming more hostile.
‘Miss Mochi Cakes, you’re a washed-up cow.’
She’s so exhausted at the end of the ethnic blog sequence, she collapses next to her mother’s bed. Lacking energy to crawl onto her futon.
* * *
The next day, Steve arrives with items Maggie doesn’t recall ordering.
‘Time to rediscover the magic of ingredients,’ Steve suggests.
He places an egg in the palm of her hand. Its fragility touches her. She feels the reassuring weight of a potato. Rings of an onion bring a mathematical joy she’s lost in her ASMR fog.
Steve slices a fresh baguette, butters it and layers French jambon inside.
Maggie starts to switch on the camera. Steve grabs her arm. ‘Don’t record anything. Don’t make food crackle, scratch or ooze. Just taste it.’
Maggie bites the perfect collation: salty butter combines with pickle in the best ham sandwich she’s ever had.
‘Not bad for a trainee chef, eh?’ Steve divulges that he’s studying at Leiths School of Food and Wine. ‘How about we make food that people can actually eat.’
He greets Maggie’s mother from the bedroom door. ‘All right then, Mrs Mochi?’
Maggie’s mother smiles crookedly. She’s always happy to see Mr Substitution.
Her mother chokes in a small voice. ‘Take her out.’
Steve clutches Maggie’s hand and steers her away from the apartment.
Away from Miss Mochi Cakes’ food cornucopias.
Away from taunts from Magneto Man, who will soon be chucked off social media after he’s outed by other women he’s hounded, too.
Away from trying to please invisible ghosts in her life.
Maggie smiles, licking a blob of butter off her finger.
‘Manners, Maggie. Always remember your manners,’ Steve gently chides.
Cheryl Markosky’s a Canadian-born journalist of Italian/Polish origin, splitting her time between the UK and Caribbean island of Nevis. She’s written for various newspapers and magazines, and ghost-written two books. New to the world of flash fiction, she’s been attending workshops run by Jude Higgins, Nancy Stohlman and Retreat West.