image by b f jones
The Peacock – Louise Mather
The peacock lay on the bed without its feathers
the cat decided to only consume half
then take a nap
in the nook by the fire
now the light had left
The stars came in through the window
glimmering shreds of rain
saving the silence
to be slept through
the night dragging at things
In the morning
she would have to clean the carpet
doused in blood
she scrubbed at her face
as if it could be made beautiful
her knees looked as if they had never been washed
discoloured and darkened
as if they had been knelt somewhere for a very long time
trying endlessly or wishing to
rid themselves of hope and despair
The cat roused from another nap
licking its paws stretching out
contemplating the weather outside
wondering what next to undertake
perhaps taking a moment to remember
the other half of the bird
could not be saved
The Self-Revising Text – Christopher Pieterszoon Routheut
A monk-scholar was on his long way home from a monastic school. Grey and fuliginous stones, and a contrastive brilliance of glitterstone, diverted him. He ascended high steps to the jagged fragments of an old door hanging crookedly into shadows. He eyed the portal a little longer, and then crossed into the shadows.
When he gained the light raying from a hole in the ceiling, he realised that he had entered an abandoned temple. The shrine lay bare. The bare altar was stained with blood. Dents and scrapes blemished a wall, as if it had withstood much battering and pickaxing.
He wondered what was secreted behind the wall as he circumambulated the temple. Treasures scintillated in his mind’s eye, for a moment. He did not covet them. They vanished. He imagined a sacred meadow thrice the size of the temple, yet contained entirely within its meagrest-seeming chamber, rivered with pure water scholars could drink to enhance their understanding, uberous with ever-fruiting abundance holy women and holy men could feast on to prolong their lives by centuries, in order to grow centuries-wise. He imagined himself an untiring sentry, guarding the meadow against any wantwit, any wantoner, anyone who would try to ruin it.
When he circled back to the wall, it was gone. He was certain that he stood exactly where he had looked at the dents and scrapes, where he could have reached out and touched them earlier, if he had so wished. Now, there was only open air, and a glow in the darkness beyond.
He stepped slowly through the darkness. A scroll illuminated itself before him. He recognised the general styles of its characters. They were characteristic of an ancient syllabary he had come upon before, in foreign texts, but had never learnt to read.
The characters flowed on the scroll. The curved straightened. The ornate became plain. The text seemed to be revising itself whilst he examined it. Illustrations likewise changed afront his eyes.
He doubted the prudence of perusing the scroll any more, even if he could learn the syllabary and find some means of comprehending the ever-revising text. The text could be long forgotten falsehoods. Inadvertently, he could precipitate the falsehoods back into currency, back into fervid belief.
A hard clop at his back startled him. He spun fast. By the dim glow of the text, he noticed that the wall was building back up. He rushed to escape, but was too late.
He suspected that the wall would open only when he was certain that falsehoods were truth. He hoped and prayed that the wall would never open.
The Place In Which She Lives – Nick Olson
The artist is forming a panorama of the place in which she lives. She is stitching together photographs with black thread and filling in the places she cannot access with watercolor, gouache, and oil representations. She pounds pavement all day and most of the night, looking for places she has not yet captured. The people she catalogs as well as the places, and she has no qualms about duplication, so you’ll see the same jogger first here, then there, as if cloned, or else stretched in time along the same road, a stop motion flip book that can’t be flipped but can only be looked at in sequence.
Her husband, the writer, before he died, had encouraged the project. He’d sat and gone over grant opportunities with her, a mess of takeout trash spread out on the floor in front of them like a made-to-order constellation. He helped write the grant with her, and when she got it, he raised a toast of water to her health and good fortune.
She came and showed him drafts all throughout dialysis, through the pained process of not-recovery, and the moments collected in the corners of all the rooms they inhabited, the space like something they hadn’t fully reckoned with until he was dying, until they knew that this place would soon only be hers. He told her to go out, to take pictures, to paint in the gaps that the pictures couldn’t capture, that she’d only get one chance to live out her dream, but what he meant was Don’t Remember Me Like This. He prepared for himself a deep dark cave where he could spend the rest of the time he had been allotted.
She prepared dark teas in the mornings without him. Dark teas and cold breads and birdsong emptied of music–only the untranslated calls for food and mate. The project was becoming a monster.
The place in which she lives includes her neighborhood, her city, and every house and apartment in it, so she spends her days in constant work, always walking, staying in one place just long enough to document it before moving on. She gets home cold, covered in tiny dead bugs, and dehydrated. She’ll put on another of her teas and catalog what she saw that day, try not to see the nights she’d come back and show him what she’d done.
She’s flattened out every dwelling, every place and person into a photographic melange, subtracting a dimension but adding something that never was there and could only be there now because of her. Buildings become exploded diagrams laid out in film and paint, till every square inch is covered in exquisite detail, without concern for scale. Street art is given equal billing to the buildings it’s found on, and every chewed-up and stuck-on piece of gum is captured. Building tops stretch sky that’s been patched together, because everything that means something to you is made up of still smaller things that mean just as much.
She comes back home every night in the quicksand of persistent exhaustion, having spent her entire day out there, returning to a bed that’s been halved, and now she’s remembering to breathe, to properly eat, to keep hydrated, because if his voice is no longer there to remind her, then her voice will have to suffice.
She’ll come back and she’ll spread butter on a piece of bread, and let her breath hitch in her chest, and look out at the far wall of her home, this place in which she lives, where the entire spread of the project is there, so far, even after all this time still a work in progress. The buildings and streets and trees meticulously studied and cataloged, and the people, when they show up, allowed to just be within this space. And there in one of them, only the one, is her husband. He’s sitting on a simple chair on their patio, looking out and down the side of a road that to him will never look like what it right now does to her.
Nick Olson is a writer and editor from Chicagoland now living in North Carolina. He was a finalist for Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award, and he’s been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, decomP, and other fine places. When he’s not writing his own work, he’s sharing the wonderful work of others over at (mac)ro(mic). His debut novel, Here’s Waldo, will be published through Atmosphere Press, and he tweets updates at @nickolsonbooks.
The Teeth Were Sharp, The Eyes Were Wide – Rachel Abbey McCafferty
Sarah was 12 the first time she saw the monster.
Her only chore, other than keeping her room in order, was to wash the dishes after dinner. She was standing at the sink on the kitchen step stool, the small wooden one decorated with pale blue flowers. It had been her grandmother’s before it was her mother’s, and the paint was chipped and faded. All the women in the family, including Sarah, were short. If it wasn’t for the stool, Sarah wouldn’t be able to wash dishes or to see out the small window above the sink. But she had it, so she was able to do both. And it was out that small window that she spotted the monster.
It was early evening in December, and her backyard was dark as midnight. Dark, save for two chalk white circles floating near the back corner of the lawn, by the wood pile. Sarah squinted and the circles came into focus: eyes. Big white eyes with pinprick pupils. The eyes blinked out and reappeared bigger, closer.
And then, in a flash, a wide, fanged mouth, teeth glistening in the moonlight.
It had been a long time since Sarah believed in monsters, but she wasn’t one to argue with evidence. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, counting to 10. That’s what her mother had told her to do as a child when she was afraid there was something hiding in her closet at night. Nothing had ever appeared at her bedside, so if monsters were real, Sarah supposed the countdown had worked.
When she opened her eyes, the eyes in the backyard were gone. Sarah avoided the windows in her house from that day on, keeping the curtains drawn like a vampire covering mirrors, much to her mother’s consternation.
She didn’t see the monster again until the summer after her junior year of high school.
She was driving home late at night after working the closing shift at the diner downtown. The summer job kept her hands and feet busy, if not her mind, and put money into her still-small college fund. She was daydreaming about the places the money would take her, the cities with neighborhoods the size of her small town, when she saw it.
Those eyes, blinking bright from the woods beside the winding road. Her heart skipped a beat. Maybe even two. The monster had found a window she couldn’t cover.
Sarah stopped driving that very day, catching rides from her coworker Cindy with the dark eyeliner, keeping her gaze focused on her shoes or closing her eyes tight in the passenger seat.
It was another 17 years before she saw the monster again. She had gone off to college, fallen in love, gotten married, given birth to two children who looked just like her husband in miniature, all while avoiding the windows in her dorm and then her apartment and then her home with the small brick fireplace and the cracked driveway. She invested in decorative curtains. She hadn’t driven. She hadn’t traveled. She hadn’t dreamed.
Then one night, her younger child, a daughter, learning to walk, reached up and grabbed the long blue curtain covering the living room window and fell, tearing it straight away. Sarah rushed to her side, forgetting the monster beyond the walls amid her daughter’s wails of surprise. When she had dried her daughter’s tears, the girl stood and gaped at the stars she had never seen. “They’re real,” the toddler whispered. Sarah walked to the window. She saw the stars first, and then the monster, unblinking eyes wider than ever before, teeth sharper than she had remembered.
Sarah burned with rage.
She ripped the curtain from the other side of the large picture window and threw it to the floor. Then she stormed over to the dining room and tore those curtains from their rods. In the kitchen, she broke the blinds in her rush to take them down. The bedrooms received the same treatment, moonlight flooding the second floor.
Then Sarah gathered up all the curtains and stomped into the backyard. She dumped them in a pile on the concrete slab the previous owner had meant to turn into a sunroom and tossed a lit match in the center, her gaze trained on the monster.
The flames danced in its large eyes, glinted off its teeth. The monster opened its mouth as if to roar, to scream, to swallow Sarah whole.
Still Sarah stood, staring.
Its mouth stretched down to the ground and up to the sky, a cavernous void that consumed the night. It stretched until Sarah could no longer see the eyes that had so long watched her, until she could no longer see the moon or the stars or the planets orbiting the sun alongside the Earth. It stretched beyond space and time. Still Sarah stood.
Then there was a pop, a shudder in the atmosphere, and it was no more.
The addition Sarah and her husband put on the concrete slab the following summer had wall-to-wall windows. She planted a small vegetable garden in the far corner of the backyard and parked her newly purchased 2018 sedan in the cracked driveway.
Sometimes, late at night, their daughter saw eyes in the darkness. She never blinked.
Rachel Abbey McCafferty has been writing since she first learned that was a thing people could do. She’s a newspaper reporter in Ohio whose favorite questions are “what if” and “why.” Her flash fiction has appeared in journals like The Molotov Cocktail, The Ginger Collect and formercactus.
Red Dress – Carla Sarett
That winter was always ice or storms,
the weather uncertain, even windier on Houston.
I can’t say why I walked so late
when snow was falling thickly,
and promised to last till dawn.
But in this moonless haze,
this, I know, is what I saw:
A single illuminated storefront
a single dress of flaming crimson,
its skirt a perfect circle,
its neckline a perfect square.
A dress I’d always wanted
without naming my wanting
to go with my black velvet heels.
Returning home, a few blocks over,
to a man I didn’t love and never would,
I wondered how a store, however lit,
could last with one dress,
only darkness behind it.
And when snow had melted,
not that week, but the one after,
I went back to the street I’d walked alone,
in ordinary daylight, and found
nothing to tempt me.
I’ve searched for the dress, now and then,
more for the proof of it, since
I’ve lost the habit of wanting
things or people and I forget
which street I walked down
in that uncertain season.
Carla Sarett’s recent work appears or is forthcoming in Prole, The Virginia Normal, Third Wednesday and elsewhere. Her novel, A Closet Feminist, will be published in 2022. She lives in San Francisco.
Bone Handles – Kathy Hoyle and Karen Rust
I lay the mats just right, the bone-handled knives soldier straight beside them. Their blades glint with menace against the flowered cloth. Granny says they’re not real bones, but I know different. Grandad never lies. He says they are the bones of the others… the ones who told.
Granny has her back turned, as usual. She hunches over the soup pot as she stirs and stirs. A dash here, a sprinkle there, always adding to the flavour, yet never tasting. Her lips are always tightly sealed.
She catches me staring and nods towards the open door.
‘Out you go.’
Out of sight, out of mind.
I find a spot in the dappled grass, hook out a worm with my fingernail. It squirms to be free. I crush it between my forefinger and thumb. Worms don’t have bones. They only die when each of their five hearts stop beating. I wonder if Granny has a heart at all.
The wooden gate creaks.
Grandad follows the path up toward the house. He is silhouetted against the sunlight, whistling a heavy-booted tune. He holds out his arms and calls my name. I run into them, just like I should.
Once, I hid behind the old pile of wood next to the shed. I never made that mistake again.
Grandad’s whiskered breath finds my ear, his kiss is tender.
‘Hello sweetheart,’ he says, laying a calloused palm on the back of my neck. I squirm. He pulls me tighter.
Inside, we all sit at the table. Granny serves the soup, hot and salty. I hate the taste.
‘Eat up, girl, the soup will make you big and strong,’ says Grandad.
I smile and count up all the days to ‘big and strong’ in my head.
I stroke the bone- handled knife and wonder how it will feel, buried into flesh.
Karen Rust and Kathy Hoyle met whilst studying for their MA at The University of Leicester. Karen’s short fiction has appeared in Ellipsiszine, Mookychick and Ink Pantry and Kathy has been published in a variety of litmags including Virtualzine, Lunate and Spelk. They have both thoroughly enjoyed working together on this piece.
Over The Wooden Barrel – Adam Rose
The wooden barrels were a nice touch. He would not have chosen the live horseshoe crabs in glass flower pots. The outdoor portable bathrooms actually had chandeliers dangling over the al fresco gold laden sinks. He knocked his oversized head twice and thought about complaining to the wedding planner. He wiped his hands on the back of his tuxedo pants.
Music from the band lofted over to the nearby trees. He hated being asked about his neck tattoo. It was a tattoo of a scar that was identical to the actual scar he received from falling off the jungle gym at his nephew’s 9th birthday party.
He plopped down onto one of the many neon hammocks bolted to a clump of maple trees. Sap dripped into wedding gift jugs. He swayed under the star poked velvet and patted the marijuana lollipop in his coat pocket.
His wife’s heel toe drum beat caused him to fall out of the hammock. The lollipop shattered in its wrapper, and he hoped to suck on the fragments.
She stood over him with the swaying chandelier light reflecting off the back of her blonde hair. Her eyes were hazel but looked like black dashes as she stared down on him. She said, “You are embarrassing me.”
No one was on another hammock or anywhere near the restrooms. Everyone was on the dancefloor, flopping around to The Macarena. He lifted himself upright on the hammock. He gave the empty space next to him a gentle pat and said, “Room for one more.”
She took a Ziploc bag of almonds from her purse. Earlier, he noticed she was too overwhelmed to eat. They were put at a table filled with his cousins; both preferred their hamsters back in Trenton.
An almond fell by the roots of the maple and got stuck in some of the tree’s ooze like peanut brittle.
She munched and sat down beside him. Her hand touched his knee and she sighed.
She said, “When we feel more settled and Myrtle and Hans have their litter, maybe we could graduate from hamster babies…after we sell a few to the pet store. If we wait, Myrtle might eat them, or Hans could kill them out of boredom.”
A bat flittered by. He yelled, “Bat!”
Her eyes fell through the ground in disappointment. A swarm of fireflies zooming by like streaks of yellow paused by their hammock.
A Babe With Attitude And A Heap Of Brains – Sandra Arnold
When her new classmates found out what Ophie was short for, a group of boys started following her, chanting “O-feel-ya!” Her well-practiced indifference got rid of some. And as the library wasn’t their natural habitat the rest drifted away to find other targets. Only one continued to stalk her. Bryan. Every time she came out of the library he was there, muttering, “Brainy bitch,” and spitting in her direction before loping off to rugby practice. Every time she answered a question in class she could hear him whispering, “Nerd, dork, dweeb, geek, who’s a pointy-headed freak?”
Bryan’s teacher told her she was handling Bryan brilliantly. “Always better not to overreact,” he said. “He’ll soon get bored.”
But Bryan showed no signs of getting bored. He found out that the little boy Ophie collected from primary school each day was her brother. He also knew his name, amongst other things.
“Your ma was a fuckin’ Shakespeare freak,” he whispered. “That’s why her brain exploded and she carked it.”
Ophie stared at him in silence.
He stared back. “Drop the attitude, babe!”
When she got to the gate of Cornelius’s school she found him vomiting on the ground with dog shit in his hair. “That big boy made me eat it,” he cried.
Bryan’s teacher rolled his eyes when Ophie told him. “Yeah, he can be a pain, but he’s an awesome rugby player. Works hard in the school vegetable garden too.”
Ophie picked this sentence apart while shelling walnuts at home. She tried to reassemble the words so they made sense. They didn’t. She cracked a shell in two and stared at the walnut lying inside. She wondered why she’d never noticed its resemblance to diagrams of the brain. She heard her father’s key in the lock. “We won’t tell him what Bryan did to you,” she warned Cornelius. “In case he overreacts.”
Next day, after Bryan finished rugby practice, Ophie followed him to the school’s vegetable plot. She watched him turn over the compost heaps, weed the gardens and water the vegetables. As he was heaving a large sack of horse shit from the toolshed to an empty compost bin, she slipped inside the shed. She watched him wrap his arms around the sack ready to tip the contents into the bin. Keeping her eyes on him she picked up a hammer and imagined his skull splitting in two like the walnut shell and his brain lying on the ground in one perfect piece.
It didn’t work out quite like that.
She emptied the rest of the horse shit into the bin, filled it up with compost and tied wire netting across the top. She put the empty sack and the hammer back in the shed and hosed down the entire area.
When she tucked Cornelius into bed that night he clung to her and said he was scared of Bryan.
“Don’t be,” she said. “He’s got no brains.”
Sandra Arnold lives in New Zealand. Her most recent work, a flash fiction collection, Soul Etchings (Retreat West Books, UK) and a novel, The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell (Mākaro Press, NZ) were published in 2019. Her flash fiction and short stories have been widely published and anthologised. http://www.sandraarnold.co.nz
Windmills – Fiona McPhillips
No more money, Cathy said, and she meant it. Niall had been bailing Paudie out all his life and he was never going to sort himself out as long as Niall kept doing it for him.
“Definition of insanity,” she said. “You can’t save him, just like your da and your grandad before him. It’s not your responsibility and I’m not putting up with it any more.”
Niall knew what that meant. Another extended stay at the office, sleeping on the sofa, up before shift started on the factory floor at 6am. Not to mention another couple of hundred quid down the drain. He’d talk to Paudie, tell him about the new rehab centre in Portlaoise, offer to set it all up for him.
The first snowflakes of the looming Storm Hannibal fluttered past the amber glow of the street lights. Niall blew a lungful of smoke at them as he walked down the drive, glancing up and down the road for Paudie. He’d be late of course, armed with a patter of elaborate excuses. Niall wished he could be straight for once, save them all a load of bother. It was the waiting combined with the fear of the unknown that really put the shits up him. Paudie didn’t cross town to exchange pleasantries, and on a night like this, he must be desperate.
The snow was settling, a soft veil of it on the car, silver threads gathering on the arms of Cathy’s rose bushes. Freya was first out, scooping a handful from the bonnet of the hatchback before running onto the street to find a victim. Children came laughing and shrieking from all directions, twirling in the orange beams of light, tongues out, touching and tasting and squeezing the last drops of fun from the evening before they’d be grounded by the big snow. Kian pushed past his father, bumping shoulders as he sauntered out the gate, almost the height of him now.
“Hey, watch it,” said Niall but Kian kept walking across the road, stopping only to pull up his hood. Niall clenched his fists, resisting the urge to grab his son by the arm and teach him a bit of respect. Not here, not with so many neighbours about. He stubbed his cigarette against the gate and was turning back into the drive when he saw the hunched and haggard shape of his brother in the shadows at the end of the street. Paudie moved slowly, dragging one foot in front of the other as if propelled by an intrinsic mechanism rather than free will. Niall watched him shuffle in and out of the light, arms wrapped around a purple windbreaker, a plastic bag hanging from his wrist. It’d been Christmas since he’d been round; he’d gone out for smokes at 4pm and that was the last of him. It was the New Year before Niall admitted the €200 to Cathy.
“Howiya Nialler, Cathy you’re looking only gorgeous and the size of Kian, Jaysis, I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him.” Paudie had flicked the switch as he walked up the drive, turning on the role of Paudie before heroin. “Where’s me princess, Freya?” The kids were summoned from the street and handed contraband presents – a broken watch for Kian (“It probably just needs a battery”) and a Barbie with frizzy hair for Freya (“Ma, does he know I’m nine?”).
“I have to say, the house is looking great, Cathy,” said Paudie, venturing no further than the doorstep while Niall got his coat.
“It’s Niall’s house too, Paudie,” said Cathy, head tilted and arms folded. “How’re you doing?”
“Grand, grand,” said Paudie. “You know yourself.”
She threw him a wry smile. “I’m not sure I do Paudie. Or if I want to.” She pulled Niall aside as Paudie turned back down the drive.
“I said I won’t,” said Niall.
“Yeah, but I know what an eejit you are when you’re with him.”
Niall zipped up his parka and mumbled “Fuck you” to himself as he followed Paudie out into the street.
* * *
“Look man, I’m sorry about before, you know, at Gallagher’s,” said Niall, putting two pints of Guinness on the table. It was ‘regulars only’ at Niall’s local and no amount of banter was going to get Paudie through the door. “The new bouncer’s a bit of a prick, throwing his weight around. Puts me right off the place.”
They had to settle for Duffy’s, a dim and dingy bar with a small table hiding in every alcove and corner, and a selection of post-punk classics that gave it an unearned charm. The whiff of spilled beer and stale smoke spelled lock-in, although that was the last thing on Niall’s mind. He’d be playing for a speedy resolution and exit and a four pack on the sofa at home later. Paudie was slouched on a stool, picking at his fingers, one knee bouncing up and down like a jackhammer, keeping poor time with the Stranglers.
“You know what they say, Nialler. I wouldn’t want to drink in any pub that’d have me as a customer.” He tried to laugh, wincing as the scab on the corner of his mouth split open. His grey, translucent skin stretched taut across high cheekbones, giving him the look of their grandad in his later, ferocious years. Niall ran his hand across his stubble as he looked away over Paudie’s shoulder, where a scut of a teenager was pleading with a bald and bemused man in a black Harrington. Cathy was wrong, Paudie wasn’t like Grandad, or Da. Paudie would never hurt him, not intentionally.
“You still up in Coolock?” asked Niall.
“Nah, staying in town now.” Paudie pulled at his knuckle until it cracked, a single splintered snap of bone against tendons. Niall shivered, trying not to look at Paudie’s hands with their ripped fingernails and protruding veins.
“Anywhere in particular?”
“Near Christchurch.” Another crack. And another, ligaments twisted and stretched to their elastic limit.
“Jesus Christ, Paudie, can you stop that?”
Paudie slammed his hands on the table. Niall reached for his pint and threw back half of it.
“Sorry, man,” said Niall. “It’s just… that sound.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Paudie. “And chewing, slurping, scraping, snoring… breathing.”
“What can I say?” said Niall. “I’m a total fuck-up.”
Paudie snorted into his pint, looking over the top of it at his older brother, as Niall let his eyes wander to the snarling lips of the man in the Harrington. The boy cowered, preparing for his punishment.
“Listen, Niall,” said Paudie, rubbing the back of his neck. “D’ye remember that summer out west, the one where I fell in the slurry pit…”
“And I had to climb in head first to drag you out?”
“Yeah.” Paudie smiled. “Sorry about that.”
“It’s ok, I’m over it now.”
“It was a good summer, yeah?”
“Apart from when Grandad was beating the shite out of us.”
“He was a vindictive fucker alright,” said Paudie, “but you always protected me.
“I tried, Paudie,” said Niall, “but I was only what – twelve, thirteen?”
“You were thirteen that summer. I was ten.”
“Ok.” Niall raised his pint to his mouth, eyes following the Harrington as the man dragged the boy out of the pub by the wrist. He fantasised about intervening but even if he had the nerve, the consequences probably wouldn’t be worth the distraction. The aul fellas at the bar knew better, keeping their heads down until the disturbance had passed into the whistling wind outside.
“D’ye ever think of that summer, Niall?” asked Paudie. “You know, jumping off the bales of hay and hiding with the dogs in the fields beside the windmills?”
“Ah Paudie, it’s a long time ago, must be 25 years now.” Niall drained his pint. “Same again?” He pointed at Paudie’s half-full glass.
“So you don’t remember?” said Paudie.
“Yes and no. I remember the windmills,” said Niall, standing up. “I’ll get you another pint.”
Niall rested his head in his hands as the Guinness settled to the sombre thump of Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’. Paudie was always hard work but Niall had got used to treading that familiar path. Tonight the conversation was veering off somewhere new and unsettling; he’d try and wrap it up before the blizzard took hold.
“Hey, man,” said Niall as he sat back down on the stool, “it’s gonna be a rough one out there tonight.”
“Yeah?” said Paudie, drumming his fingers loudly on the table.
“Ah Paudie, c’mon.” Niall had the look of a disappointed teacher.
Paudie slowed his fingers to a stop and sank back on his stool.
“Nialler, I need to borrow a few quid,” he said without looking up.
Niall shook his head slowly. “I’m sorry Paudie but I can’t.”
“I’ll pay you back this time, I swear.” Paudie’s voice was detached, mechanical, like he was reading from a script. As if the outcome was already set in stone. “Cathy doesn’t need to know.”
“It’s not just Cathy, it’s you too Paudie. How’re you ever gonna get better if I keep facilitating you?”
Paudie smirked, his cracked sore oozing yellow gunk. “Ah Nialler, it’s not like any of this is your fault, is it?”
“What d’ye mean?” asked Niall, seeking refuge in his Guinness once again.
“Just wondering if you’re having an attack o’ the aul conscience,” said Paudie. “Not like you at all, Nialler.”
“I… I’m just worried about you, Paudie. Cathy is too.”
“Uh-huh.” Paudie swilled a mouthful of Guinness, as if mulling over this brave new world. “So I can beg and plead and pull all the usual bullshit but you’re not gonna give in?”
“No, I mean it this time,” said Niall, grabbing Paudie’s early capitulation with both hands. “I’m sorry man, I want to help you but I just don’t think handing over cash is doing either of us any good. I mean, where do you think the money comes from? I work my arse off in that factory for fuck all and you want to shoot it up your arm? I’ll help you get clean, Paudie, but I can’t help you get high any more.”
“Right so,” said Paudie. “Look Nialler, I’ve come out empty handed so I’m just gonna nip out to the cash machine and then I can get the next round in, right?”
“Yeah, sure man, no worries.” Niall exhaled slowly as Paudie walked away; he knew Paudie didn’t have a bank account.
* * *
Niall was coming to the end of his fourth pint and eyeing the door when it swung open, howls of wind and whirls of snow foretelling the entrance of a stocky, bearded man in a puffa jacket and a sheepskin hat. He kicked his boots against the floor and threw his hat on the bar, shaking the remnants of snow from his beard. All eyes watched him sideways as he surveyed the room, orange juice in one hand, hat in the other.
“Howiya.” He raised the hat in Niall’s direction. “Niall, isn’t it?”
The four pints and an ageing memory had blurred Niall’s recall but the adrenalin rocketing through his veins convinced him that this was not an old friend.
“How’re ye doing, Niall?” asked the man, sitting down on Paudie’s stool without opening his jacket. “I’m Keith.” He held out his hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Who are you?” asked Niall, removing his crushed fingers from Keith’s grip.
“I’m a friend of Paudie’s.” Keith smiled, large white teeth gleaming under a substantial moustache. “You could say we work together.”
Niall tried not to think; there was no thought process that would make this easier, no unfortunate teenager over Keith’s shoulder to divert his attention. Just the steady rhythm of the Buzzcocks to regulate his breathing.
“Where’s Paudie?” he asked.
“Don’t worry, Paudie’s fine,” said Keith. “He’s at the office, helping the boss with the accounts. There’s just a small problem but I’m sure we can sort it out.” Keith took a swig of his juice, wiped his moustache with the back of his hand and put his elbows on the table. “You see, Paudie owes the boss some money and he’s sent me to find you, says you can pay it for him.”
If Niall’s heart had been beating a bit slower, if he’d had a little less to drink or some more time to think, he may have been able to evaluate the situation. But under the unfortunate circumstances, all he could do was stick to the original plan.
“I don’t know anything about any money,” he said. “I hardly ever see Paudie any more.”
“We’re only talking 600 notes here, Nially,” said Keith. “For starters anyway. Sure I’ll walk you to the ATM myself.”
“No.” Out of the corner of his eye, Niall could see the sweat blistering on his nose. “I’m not bailing him out any more. He has to stand on his own two feet.”
Keith laughed and wagged his finger, as if Niall had just told a joke. “I don’t think Paudie will be standing on his own two feet if he doesn’t pay his debts.”
The fat grin on Keith’s face left Niall in no doubt that he’d use Paudie for sport if he got half a chance. There was no point in appealing to his better nature, no amount of begging or pleading that would do anyone any good. The penance was in the post, one way or another.
“I can’t pay it,” said Niall, his voice flat and vacant. “I don’t have it,”
“Are you sure about that?” asked Keith.
“Yeah.” It was the truth. Niall had less than 300 quid to last him until payday.
“Now Nially, you’re not going to make me ask Cathy for it, are you? Or maybe Kian has some pocket money stashed away, or what’s that little princess called? Freya, is it?”
Niall put his head in his hands before lifting it up to look Keith in the eye. “You’ve crossed a line. This has nothing to do with them.”
“It’s just business, Nially,” said Keith, knocking back the last of his drink and standing up. “We’ll be in touch.”
* * *
The wind roared around Niall, blasting snow into one ear and then the other, shooting it down his neck and up his sleeves. As far as he could see ahead of him, the street was made of snow, a single, solid entity with contours of cars and bins and bollards. It was boot-high already, folding in on his Stan Smiths, forcing him to take giant, anxious steps away from Duffy’s and towards his family. He felt like he might never get there, that the end of the world could come first.
He ploughed on down the lane to the estate, snowflakes swirling angrily between the high walls, his path lit only by the ghostly glare of the distant street lights against the snow. He may have heard the footsteps behind him but there was so much noise inside and outside his head that he couldn’t make sense of any of it until the jagged breath was upon him and with it a wailing, thrusting grunt, both intimate and remote. He was aware of pain but it was dull and distant, as if it belonged to someone else. He put his hand to his side and held it up, the blood dripping through his fingers and splattering onto the snow. Was this his punishment? He’d expected something but not so soon. Maybe it was all over now. But there was no sound of retreat behind him, no footsteps fading in the distance, only rapid breathy groans and he knew. He turned around to the shivering shape of Paudie, his phone in one hand, the bloodied flick knife hanging in the other.
“I’m sorry, Niall. I had no choice,” he whimpered. “You left me no choice.” The flash of his camera lit up the blood like ruby red merlot against the pure white of the snow. Niall stumbled backwards and slid down against the wall as Paudie delivered the evidence of his deed to the boss. “It’s just a nick,” he said, “you’ll be fine.”
“I don’t… get it, Paudie,” said Niall.
The wind circled and swooped, knocking Paudie off balance, pushing him back against the wall until he was standing over Niall.
“Yes you do,” he said. “You owe me.”
“I owe you?” said Niall. “What are you talking about? You owe me hundreds, thousands probably. And what about all the nights you’ve been completely fucked up and I let you stay in my house, with my kids there? I’ve always been there for you.”
“Not always,” said Paudie. “You know what I’m talking about.”
“I think I need an ambulance,” said Niall, his hands thick with blood.
“You were supposed to protect me. That was your job, that’s what Ma said.”
“Paudie, there’s a fuckload of blood,” said Niall, his voice cracked with panic.
“You were supposed to keep me safe from Grandad,” said Paudie. “That’s why we shared a bed.”
Niall leaned onto his torn and leaking side, trying to reach the phone that was stubbornly deep in his pocket. He yelped with pain as he yanked it out, howling as he tried and failed repeatedly to unlock it with bloody fingers.
“Remember, Niall? The day we ran away and hid in the fields next to the windmills?”
Niall wiped his shaking hand on his parka and then his jeans but his phone would not accept his tainted touch.
“And then we sneaked back into the house after it was dark, into that single bed in the spare room?”
“I need help,” shouted Niall. “Please, Paudie.”
“I need to talk about that night,” said Paudie. “When you were 13 and I was only 10.”
Niall jabbed his frozen nose at the phone’s emergency button.
“Just ten years of age, Niall.”
His head quivering and one hand steadied only by the other, Niall stuck his tongue on the screen and the ringtone finally burst into action.
“I remember everything,” said Paudie, looking down on his brother.
In the three rings it took for the emergency services to answer, Niall composed a message of love and regret for Cathy, calculated how much damage might be found on his laptop and refused to think of the night in question. He was half-resigned to an undignified exit when the operator’s voice jolted him back to life.
“I’ve been stabbed, in the side, there’s so much blood,” he shouted, high-pitched syllables punctuated with shallow sobs. “I’m in the lane to Ashtown Park, the one that goes from Claremont Road.”
“I know you remember too,” said Paudie.
“I don’t remember,” said Niall to the operator. “It all took me by surprise.”
“And I lay there afterwards,” said Paudie “and all I wanted was for you to comfort me, make it all better.”
“He’s gone now, he ran away,” said Niall. “I’ve no idea who he was.”
“I just want you to admit what you did.”
“I told you, there was no incident, I wasn’t involved in anything.”
“Please Niall, I need your help. I’m a goner without it.”
“I’m in no fit state to do anything. Please hurry, I’m bleeding out here.” The phone slid out of Niall’s frozen hand as the last of his resolve drained away. His mind flickered on and off, only the impending sense of doom keeping him lucid. Paudie stood over Niall, his sunken eyes wide and expectant.
“You need… to go,” said Niall, his voice slurred and sluggish. “There’s an… ambulance… coming. Probably the guards too.”
Paudie let rip a feral yowl before hurling himself against the wall, slamming his head into it. He collapsed, weeping, onto the ground.
“Tell me you remember,” he cried.
A siren wailed in the distance, sweeping closer with each new gust of wind.
“Paudie… I have a family.”
The snow covered Niall’s legs and had set its sights on his arms, as if he was slowly disappearing, limb by limb.
“I’m your family.”
Niall closed his eyes, surrendering himself to the snow, the sirens, the wind.
Fiona McPhillips is a journalist and author of two non-fiction books. Her work has appeared in Litro magazine, Brilliant Flash Fiction, the Galway Review, the Irish Times, the Irish Independent, the Huffington Post and other publications. She is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Dublin City University.
Scenic Direction – Patricia Walsh
In your strong, capable hands I fall,
jumping off conclusions bloodied same,
trite announcements bedevil the glossary,
celebrating nights off with an illicit part.
Hand-held meaning mourns the exactitude
the terrible conversation regales manifold,
favourably ugly through its own mothball,
not paying tax for future plans.
Kissed in a proper corner, forbidden parts,
the slaughtering rain turns its own head,
not learning anything from the theatrical piece,
venturing into the uncharted punishment is key.
Garnering favour, the better to see with,
the sale of bitter beer redeems the coloured eye,
the esteemed search for words remains beautiful,
the accents signifying nothing through hindsight.
The watched noticeboard cossetts its partners
the wired agenda sets its own roots, agaze,
dissected through the classroom’s canopy,
available to all corners, a seemly dissertation.
Mislaying one’s mind, the distant the better,
fed turgid breadcrumbs not fit for the birds,
in the pay of industries, ignorant following
a euro for thoughts caught in the doing.
Patricia Walsh was born and raised in the parish of Mourneabbey, Co Cork. Her first collection of poetry titled Continuity Errors was published in 2010, and a novel titled the Quest for Lost Éire, in 2014.
Cartilage – Jason Schwartzman
The younger tellers retreat into the crevices of the bank. Olivia hides behind a desk in her polka dot dress and buries her new engagement ring in a pocket. Tim pancakes himself under the counter with the deposit slips, muttering tough things and fingering his comb over. I open Tim’s drawer and put his flask to my mouth, warm and metallic. His midday indiscretion now mine. The robber taps his gun against the glass divider and grins, teeth all piled on top of each other.
“Slow day, huh?” he asks.
I don’t bother letting him know that in this tiny branch, they’re all slow. That the only times things pick up a bit is on my lunch break, when I hold out bread crumbs for the finches out back. They’ve even started landing on my hand, so I can see them up close in all their colorful intensity. The robber’s accomplice stands by the door looking at her watch. Her ski-mask eyeholes are self-cut scissored wounds in the stretchy black. His gun is just a BB gun, encased in a grocery bag. I almost go into my standard service routine, how may I help you, averted eyes, dead person smile. But I just sit there and he tells me to get the money. It’s less dramatic than in the movies and I can see he’s worried, like my husband Seymour before he checks his one shitty stock every morning. I try to imagine what the gun would feel like but I can’t. My hands search the drawer for the keys to our little safe, but my arthritis acts up when I rummage through the items. Thinking about the physiology of it always makes it worse, bone grinding against bone.
Seymour will have to watch alone tonight, our standing date by the television, my chair empty, the easy logic of another procedural, one more cold case solved. He says he likes when I sit next to him. But it’s all we ever do together anymore. He dismisses my hobbies, says I’m a crazy bird lady. Maybe he was never capable of appreciating a bronze crown, a ruby throat, a golden wing. Or maybe he just got old, lost something of himself. The robber is banging again, but it’s far away, like a faint touch to someone in a coma. His eyes find me and they plead, rimmed with wet, pupils fighting outward, the hot green of his irises expanded until they are just the rings of a planet. Then those gaping holes scroll away and he is yelling instructions to his accomplice while she passes her screwdriver from one hand to the other. It looks similar to the one in Seymour’s toolset, when he monkeys around the house tightening screws, even though some of the floor boards are rotting and the brick walls need repointing, bleeding out their mortar year by year. It’s hard to belief that he once built a whole deck himself, engraving our initials on the underside of a plank.
I step over the Rorschach muddle of Olivia’s polka dots, her moans predictable and annoying like an alarm clock. I move toward the safe and grip the key tight, so the pain from its little teeth distracts from the ache in my joints. Seymour says old hands are a portrait of a lived life and it’s not that I don’t believe him, I just disagree. I usually try not to look at my hands and their swollen veins, little rivulets snaking through my skin, still pumping somehow. I look back and through the dusty glass it seems like the robber is smiling at me. The key clicks in the safe and the door lurches open. I imagine the two of them, cutting along some highway, beat-up car leaking gas and guts and hope, zipping through the rest of the countryside, past the blips of all the other obsolete towns, heading for a coast, settled into a motel’s nook, tattered bedspread revived by the vivid green of the bills, straight and smooth from some other universe where people live undamaged, mint condition lives and no mistakes are made.
“Where you gonna go?” I ask as I force my hand into the safe.
“You fuckin’ kidding me lady? Just get the money!”
My calm collapses and the arthritis screws deeper into my fingers, leaving them stiff and clawed. I know I’m taking too long. I wonder if I’ll ever see Seymour again and decide so what if I don’t? Each year I have less to say to him, it’s true. I feel something, but it doesn’t seem like much, maybe a roll or two of bills. “C’mon,” says the Clyde figure, tapping on the window in erratic fits, his Bonnie pulling strands of her hair out under the mask, and damn, how does it all just slip away? I try to grasp, I try to reach, but my hands feel like cardboard, like cement that has dried and Olivia says thank Jesus and then I hear it too, the violent blast of the sirens, pulsing through the protective glass. My therapist likes to gently remind me that even ends have parts, that I still have some road to walk. I unlock the partition and hand them the money, tell them that there’s a way out through the back. They don’t say thank you, but I don’t need one, and they practically break down the door. Olivia stands and so does Tim and for some reason I relock the partition, as though to divide myself from them. The cops come and ask me to open up. I don’t know what chance those two have, but maybe this isn’t the end of the end after all. I pretend to forget which key it is and then when I grasp the right one, I go as slow as I can.
Jason Schwartzman is the senior editor at True.Ink, a revival of a heritage adventure magazine. His writing has been published in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Narrative.ly, The Rumpus, Hobart, River Teeth, Nowhere Magazine, and Human Parts, among other places. You can find him on Twitter @jdschwartzman.
Everyone is Laughing and Happy – D T Robbins
As soon as my eyes open we’re back at each other’s throats. It’s as if she was waiting for me. She’s always been awake before me but it used to be I’d find her at the table with her cup and a freshly brewed pot of coffee. “Hi, honey,” she’d say. “Good morning, hot stuff,” I’d say.
She punches me in the chest and tells me she can’t believe I humiliated her in front her whole family last night. Her cousin had brought over a bottle of 10-year bourbon and we drank until everything felt like a song. She asked me to slow down. I yelled instead.
I tell her getting drunk is the only way I can stand to be around her idiot fucking family anymore. With all their talk about politics and how the country has lost its way, there’s no use trying to get a word in edgewise. If you don’t see it how they see it, you aren’t paying any attention.
She says, “Don’t you dare fucking talk about my family like that. If it were up to them, we wouldn’t even be together.”
I say, “You think I don’t already know it? Why bother trying anymore?”
She pulls on her workout clothes and says she’s going to the gym. Her ass looks amazing in those pants and I already wish I’d just said I was sorry.
I draw a hot bath and ease in with a glass of Jack and Diet Coke. My head feels like it’s about to shatter but it’s the weekend so I decide to ride it out. There’s a candle her mom gave us that smells like candy canes. I light it, set it on the toilet and turn the lights out. The neighbors in the apartment next to ours are playing with their toddler. They’re playing monster. The kid is making all kinds of noise and screaming, the mom and dad chasing. Everyone is laughing and happy. I wonder if they know there’s a naked man with a hangover on the other side of the wall.
The steam loosens up whatever’s stuck behind my nose and I feel myself coming back around. It looks like she cleaned the tub recently. There’s no more soap scum or black marks from our feet. When she and I first moved in, we took showers together. She’d lather me up, then I’d touch her. It’s a miracle we aren’t the ones with the toddler the way we used to fuck. Sex says a lot about a relationship. If it’s good, things are promising. If it’s bad, the end is nigh. Sex in the shower told us we weren’t only good but that we made each other good. I feel myself stiffening and I start rubbing. The blood in my head pounds like someone is taking a baseball bat to my brain the more excited I get. In the reflection of the showerhead, I watch her tug on me while I kiss her neck and tell her I love her.
“Are you serious right now?” she says. The water is cold and the glass sits at the bottom. I fell asleep.
“Jesus Christ, cut me some slack. I was just relaxing.”
“We were supposed to go grocery shopping today. You should have been ready by now,” she says, blowing out the candy cane candle.
I tell her we can still go. It’s not even noon yet. Besides, it’s Saturday and I don’t know why she’s in such a damn rush to leave.
She leans over and opens the plug, tells me get out she needs to shower and get ready. Sweat pellets trickle down her back and stomach. Her pants stick to her. Her bra too. It smells like body odor and Christmas. I try to touch her as she steps into the shower but she closes the curtain.
I get dressed and wait for her on the couch. She walks out of the bathroom with a towel on her head and nothing else. Going to the gym has made her tighter in just about everywhere. This isn’t something she ever told me, even in our meanest moments, but I’ve gotten fat. Plenty of others have made fun of the weight I’ve gained, told me I should lay off the burgers and the beers. Not her. It probably didn’t happen this way but I wonder if she thought her getting in shape would count for the both of us.
I say, “I’m ready when you are.”
She says, “You can stay. Honestly, I think I just need some time to myself.”
Neither of us made the bed yet, so I crawl back in and throw the covers over my head. The sheets smell fresh. We’d bought the bed brand new and the sheets were the only thing she’d let me pick out. She told me I have terrible taste, but any idiot can pick out white sheets. Christ knows I’m an idiot when it comes to those things and others. My body feels heavy and I start drifting back to sleep, hoping she’s waiting on me when I wake up.
D.T. Robbins’ stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Hobart, Bending Genres, X-R-A-Y Lit, Trampset, Ghost City Review, and others. He’s founding editor of Rejection Letters. Follow him on Twitter at @dt_robbins or go to dtrobbins.com for more information.
Little Dearies – B F Jones
‘What do you mean you are scared? What of?’
The twin girls furnish an explanation which is half words and half squirming, and rather inconclusive.
‘It’s the dolls!’ interjects Leo. ‘The wittle babies are scared of the dollies!’
‘Tom, stop that. Girls, maybe it’s because it was our first night here. We can’t do much about the dolls, you know it Grandma and Grandad’s house and they don’t like us changing things.’
Lisa remembers the time when Tom, then three, had dragged one of the numerous couch throws onto the floor to make a bed for his teddy bear. Her mother had turned ashen and Lisa had feared she might drop dead there and then. Asking her to remove the collection of dolls, neatly aligned in a corner glassed cabinet of the children guest bedroom would end up in a diplomatic incident.
Poor kids. Wait, what? No, they only have to endure this a few days a year, this was her entire childhood. Child unfriendly furniture in an austere house, most of the conversations starting with ‘Don’t touch’ or ‘Watch out’ or ‘Why didn’t you’. Age 13, she’d broken one of the delicate porcelain ornaments from the console, misjudging the breadth of her puffer jacket and watching it with dismay being swiped by the oversize sleeve and crash onto the floor. Mum hardly spoke to her that week. Even after she told her after the bullying. No wonder she’s so damaged.
She shakes herself back to the present. She kneels and stretches her arms wide to embrace both little girls. ‘Come on girls, you’re big now, almost 7. Let’s give it another go tonight OK?’
‘Good girls’, says Ben who has been sitting quietly reading a paper across the table.
‘Everyone, how about a drink?’ He strokes Lucy’s hair as he walks past to the kitchen, winks at Aby. He brings a large glass of red for Lisa and a tumbler of whisky for himself and some Fanta and crisps for the kids.
She doesn’t generally let them have soda but when Ben is here she’s always more relaxed. She finds that her parents’ rigid awkwardness more tolerable in the company of her brother, and with him around they also seem a bit more relaxed. Apart from a slight inclination for Whisky, he seems to have grown unaffected by their parents’ lack of affection, unachievable expectations and overall dominance.
Right now, they are listening to one of Ben’s stories and their faces are transformed by rare, wide smiles. I think it’s the wine, she overhears Tom tell his baby sisters, and she laughs out loud.
The next morning Aby and Lucy both wake up moody and exhausted.
‘Are you still scared girls?’ They both nod gravely.
Lisa worries they might not sleep the entire stay. She goes into the room. She considers the dolls for a long time. That one in the middle. Its left eye only half open. Creepy. Why would her parents keep that shit? Why stick it in the kids’ room? If they’re not welcome they could just tell her, she can take it. She grabs one of the bedspreads and throws it over the cabinet. There. Problem solved. If they moan she’ll tell them it’s the only way they will be able to stay.
When she comes back downstairs, Ben has sorted the drinks again and him and Tom are playing Battleship. The girls sit across them, reading Playmobil magazines.
‘Where did you get those?’
‘Uncle Ben got them for us.’
‘I hope it’s fine, thought they’d deserve a little treat, they’re so good. Aren’t you, little dearies?’
‘That’s fine, she says. You deserve a treat too, thanks to you and your red wine I had the best night’s sleep in a very long time.’
‘Here’s to another tonight!’ He smiles, passing her a large glass, before bringing out the chicken and roast potatoes just as their parents walk in, telling the girls off for not reading novels and Tom for wearing flip-flops at the dinner table.
She feels rages slowly creeping up but Ben catches her eye and nods imperceptibly. Come on guys, let kids be kids. Wine? Aida and John both relax, don’t make any more odious comments, and go to bed early, a little tipsy.
The girls get agitated at bedtime, Aby’s eyes filling with tears. Lisa takes them up, shows them the covered cabinet, hugs them tight and whispers loving words to them. She feels relaxed, almost languid, the holiday definitely easing the tension of the past year after the bitter divorce, the endless exhaustion and low mood.
When her girls both get upset at breakfast, Lisa gets genuinely concerned. ‘Why did you not come and get me if you are still scared? Oh I’m so sorry I didn’t hear you, I must have been fast asleep. What is going on? Lucy starts talking but Aby stops her. We can’t tell. I mean. We don’t know. It’s nothing.’ Lucy babbles nervously and next to her Aby has broken into sobs.
In the kitchen, Ben has stopped whistling and his arm has paused mid-stir of the pancake batter.
Scraps – Martin McGuigan
Barney pulls into the driveway and swings her round. In the backseat is a bag from the corner shop, containing 2 white fish, cauliflower, carrots, a bag of spuds. Hullo! He says to the empty house. Chandelier and bannister look back at him like he’s stupid or something. Wonder if Mary’s gone for her nail appointment.
Spuds away, fish goes in the fridge. Kettle boiling already. Now? At the kitchen window. The bird feeders will want refilling. Barney unlocks the back door and calls for Scraps. There’s the dog, but she’s clearly in a bad way. Struggling to get up on the front legs, she points her cataract-cloudy eyes at him, but she’s wobbly on the flagstones. She drags herself forward to Barney, standing there on the back step. She’s following her sniff, but the back end won’t do what the front end is telling it. The hind paws just scrape along the flags and she can’t get up the back steps into the utility room. This dismays Barney very much; he likes the smell of the dog in the utility.
Barney fetches her bowl. No scraps for you now, Scraps. Kibbles and water (and he must make a note to get more dog food). He puts the bowl down on the patio for her, but she’s seven-eight paces away from the porch step. She whines and scoots the one paw up under herself, takes a few tries to get up now and teeters like a bad press-up. Now she’s steady with the two front legs, she drags herself to the bowl with her snout down. SNAFLHKRNCH. SLSHIKRNS. SNAFFIKRNCH. Gah, that’s nice.
Scraps, settles her way down to lie by the bowl, pawing twice before she goes down. Could almost be basking like, except for the long wheeze she gives out.
The ball. The ratty busted tennis ball she likes so much.
Scraps! C’mere girl!
Her ears prick up. Head lifts too.
Barney has the ball now. She grumbles, but it sounds like a farty old wheeze. He wafts it in front of her snout. She snaps for it, but Barney’s quick with the hand and draws the ball away, not letting her have it, but giving her a taste almost. Her head’s lifted, he knows she wants it. He hurls it down the lawn. She scrabbles up but can’t make her back paws do the trick. Bound forward again and she cowps on her bottom jaw. She grumbles and snorts with the sting of it, but she doesn’t bark.
Poor dug. Something’s not right with her.
Barney decides to get her basket and put it outside for her. At least she’d know the smell of her own kip. In the utility he takes the dog basket – it’s shaped a bit like a butter-bean, but with the inside carved out, like a quarry y’know – and he puts it down next to the two blue bins. Inside it is the stiff blanket covered with dog’s hair.
The dog slithers into the curl of her basket. SNFL. Then settle. She seems more content there at least. Friday: 60% chance of precipitation. Must do something about that.
Barney goes into the kitchen. Countertop – phone is ringing. Picks up the mobile, only it’s not ringing, it’s time-to-take-your-drugs alarm. He goes to the pillbox on the sill. Some days full, some days empty. Was he here at all on Tuesday? He takes Fridays set and wash them down with tapwater. Where was he again? Ah yes. The brolly. In the cloakroom there’s an old golfing brolly. Barney opens it outside and he sets the handle down on the ground, so the brolly covers Scraps’s basket.
What’s next? Will want to light the fire later. So the fills up the coal scuttle. Ah. The bird feeders will want refilling. So he goes back into the utility. Open up the cabinets and while he’s looking at the big nutballs (like stuffing) and breadcrumbs, he thinks –
Must get Nicorette for Mary.
* * *
Barney wakes in the middle of the night. The night is purple on the ceiling and brown on the walls. Again, Mary is not there. Where could she be? Quick. I’ll ring Frankie. He’ll know.
* * *
People land up at the house in one first great drove. Barney gets agitated, starts wandering around to make sure everything is in order. Frankie takes him aside, just as Martina arrives with some men in black pinstripe.
Now, he says to Barney, it’ll be a long enough day, so it will. He’s got that big bulbous, cancerous nose there, that looks so odd next to the black tie he refuses to cinch up. Big obnoxious fucker that he is. But, he goes, you just tell me if you need something.
Aye, no bother, Barney says, trying to think.
Martina comes in the kitchen and hugs him right away. Oh Daddy, she says, shaky voice on her, how are you holding up?
I’m still alive.
And Barney is out of sorts then, with the two pairs of eyes on him, intensely, as though they were trying to pin him down. It was all triangular, staged like a showdown.
He asks, Who’s yer man?
Martina takes him by the elbow. She’s had her hair dyed and straightened at the hairdressers. She’s a fine young woman when she’s dressed up in black. Good cut of a jacket on her. She’s the very picture of all things holding-it-together.
C’mon. We’ll go through and see her, she says.
They were bringing the box in.
At some point, many others start to arrive in mourning garb. His brothers, their wives, their children (?). God there was so many of them it was difficult to keep track. He doesn’t make it out much anymore. Every time a car comes up the driveway he gets up to greet them, then Martina or Frankie would sit him down and go to the door in his stead. Then the next person comes in and shakes his hand. They all say things like,
She wouldn’t want us here cryin’.
Loved by all.
One by one the people come to Barney first, shake his hand, then go into the other room for a bit. People continually pass him cups of tea, which he forgets to drink. Yet he accepts more cups of tea that pile up around him. Hubbub. Clatter of crockery. Silence strains tight as a spiderweb before someone interjects. Once or twice, Barney goes into the kitchen, where there are too many women, always in a production line of washing plates, drying plates, kettle boiling and clicking off. He’s an intruder in their domain of pottering. Such pitying looks.
Now, Mary loves the Singing Priests, and in the big lounge, Father Martin O’ Hagan is holding court.
I was in Boston, he says, when I got the call. She’s not got long, but I says I can’t get back till Monday and, well, we didn’t want to leave it that long. So I said I’ll get the chaplain on the ward to go see her. He’s a Phillipino fella like, and a good lad. He goes in there and says how’ya getting on and Father O’ Hagan sent me and whatever. She says you’re not Father Martin. And he says well Father O’ Hagan can’t be here and he’s very sorry, but he’ll come as soon as he’s back. So they chat for a while and he administers her the rites. But when he turns to go, she goes to him, It was awful nice of you to come and see me all the way from China!
All assembled have a good laugh at that.
That was her. Caustic wit, and these brief wee flashes of it, right till the end.
Barney says to Frankie, Where’s Mary?
The whole room stops at that, like it’s just stopped spinning and everyone is still clinging on for dear life. Frankie jerked his head and said, She’s in next door. Barney went through. There: pallid skin, stillness, more sleep than prayerful repose.
* * *
In the night, a call:
What is it Daddy?
You have to come quick. I can’t waken Mary, he says.
* * *
The dog isn’t touching her food. The pellets and the water had turned to mush from the rain overnight.
Poor Scraps, she’s barely eaten a mouthful.
Barney takes the bowl to the uncovered soil beneath the hedge and tosses its contents there. Going back, he pauses by the dog, and pets her. Scraps acknowledges him and lifts her muzzles into his hand. Her fur is cold and greasy. He strokes and feels the give of her flesh underneath the black hairs. Must be pink under there, though he always imagines the black hairs are the outer shell of her. Forget what you don’t see. She does a big wheeze outward and makes a whistling noise. Barney strokes her, then refills her bowl with kibbles and water, and sets it in front of her.
Go on girl.
Scraps jerks up, pushes forward on one paws and tries to get her head near the bowl. She lands with her snout just over the edge of the basket, snapping away in mid-air there. Barney gets down and tips the bowl into her and LUPPALPKRN LPPA she gets a few licks in. Ah, she’s getting some water at least. He pets her head and tries to push her towards the bowl to chew something, but she just sticks the forepaw out and pushes herself back into position. Then Barney sees a damp patch on her blanket; she must have fouled it during the night, he concludes.
Poor thing. So he gets one of the deckchairs on the patio and brings it over to the dog. He wants to be close to her. He sets it down facing the basket, goes to the cloakroom for his waterproof, and puts it on over his fleece. It’s cold, but it should stay dry. He sets himself down next to the dog. He sets himself down next to her to observe. Scraps has her own ways about her, of grumbling in her sleep, of snorting and S-shaking her head away from a smell. The tics all come out. He pets her and from sleep she responds with one forepaw over the lip of the basket, digging at the ruckled bottom of his cords. Sometimes she’ll wake and he gets a few licks on his palm, then she droops down to sleep again.
Sometimes a crow comes down and she wakes up to growl at it. She’s growling at the thing with the low, motorcycle hum of someone snoring next to you. Snoring the house down like.
It’s losing light now. The sky and all the air takes a deeper blue inside and spreads dark powder through the wash. Must go to the shops, he thinks, to get stuff for lunch. So he takes his keys, goes to the shop, and shortly thereafter comes back with a cod, two bags of spuds, two bottles of milk and a Belfast Telegraph. He goes through to check on the dog. Ah good, she’s in her basket, getting some sleep in. Now, to worry about lunch. He puts the potatoes on.
Then Frankie calls round.
In the hallway, Barney says, Right Frankie. I was just thinking about calling over to see you actually.
Oh aye, Frankie says, and they go through to the kitchen.
Frankie goes, Do you know why I’m here?
You called me twelve times last night.
No I did not!
Howl on, he says. Then Frankie gets the phone out to show. Sure enough, there they are.
Oh right, says Barney.
Barney’s doing the potatoes for lunch, far too many potatoes for one man, and Frankie notices that Barney is boiling far too many potatoes. So he asks him, Who’s all that for?
He says, Ach sure they’ll keep.
And Frankie’s like, You know we have to talk about this. Seriously. But what the FUCK have you boiled all them potatoes for?
Sure, they’ll keep for dinner. With Mary like. When she’s home.
Frankie shakes his head.
Or they’ll do for Scraps, says Barney.
Here, how’s the dog? Frankie says.
Barney takes him through the utility room, out to Scraps’s basket. Frankie takes one look at her. Well…
* * *
Sunday morning. Wettened beige on the flagstones. Must’ve rained during the night. Barney coughs and there’s a throaty hack that sends him lurching forward. He goes inside to get an easy peeler for breakfast. Must get the fruit in.
Barney stands at the back door with the peel in one hand and the easy peeler in the other. A crow comes down and lands on the edge of Scraps’s basket.
Ey! Get out of it!
It caws and tip-toes closer to the dog. The blackened thing tries to peck at her fur, and Barney throws the scrap of orange peel to try and knock it away.
Martin McGuigan writes fiction and essays. He is from Country Armagh, Ireland and currently lives in London.
Tell Me – Nina Shevzov-Zebrun
You can tell me about a life
a life cobbled in pine
pine bowing redwood
redwood rinsing air.
You can tell me about a birth
a birth bloody with me
with me and breasts spilling river salt.
You can tell me about a song
a song mouthing sorry,
sorry you’re the blank stone in this field of rest—
sorry patriots don’t know your name.
You can tell me about a bird
a bird floating on cold
cold like the Ice Age of history
history crueler than the average human.
You can tell me about all these things—
and like a squirrel among sunflowers
I’ll pick a morsel for the future, and
simply leave the rest behind.
Nina Shevzov-Zebrun is a medical student pretending to be a writer. A summa cum laude graduate of Harvard College, she lives at the intersection of medicine and art. She also lives in NYC, and has fiction in Maudlin House, The Zodiac Review (forthcoming), and others.
The Migration of Locusts 27 – Wim Hylen
A group of locusts who had known each other as fledglings reconnected during a time of rapid vegetation growth following the heavy rains. When the serotonin bubbled in their brains, they fled westward. Many of them had spent summers in the Midwest so they were familiar with the terrain. As the plague migrated, they bred promiscuously and many tangled attachments and some serious relationships developed.
At the urging of a locust named Art, a few of the younger ones formed a collective they called “Locusts 27” after some obscure artists that had gathered in 1927 in Paris. At first it was a joke, a way to pass the time. But before long, some of them began to take it seriously. They discussed the aims of their collective as they migrated in dense insect clouds, nearly blotting out the sky near Iowa City.
“To enable the subconscious to assault consciousness,” Elf said.
“To overflow the sewers of the modern world, metaphorically,” Leonard said.
“To reattach the drain pipes of our souls to the wellspring of ancient intuition,” Art said.
They continued to discuss the topic as they flew over Dubuque. They were not like the others, they decided, massive swarms of undifferentiated Locusta Migratoria. They were unique. Rebels with wings. And serotonin percolating in their brains, like the boiling cauldron of the Weird Sisters.
They were dreading what they were about to do. Their arrival would spell doom for wherever they landed. But it was their biological destiny. They had become gregarious and migratory. There was no stopping them and they were powerless to stop themselves.
But then the murmuring began, a few whispers and innuendos.
“Does biology equal destiny?” asked Elf.
“Is free will free?”
“Mind over matter!” said Leonard.
“That’s a cliché.”
“All clichés have a kernel of truth,” said Art.
After much discussion, the plague reached a consensus. They would descend when it felt right. But they vowed that they would not swarm and would try like hell not to devour the crops.
As they approached Lincoln, Nebraska, they all felt it; a hot, tingling sensation in their thorax, a signal that the time had arrived. They swooped down into a field about 8 miles outside the city limits, alighting on stalks of corn with silent slaps of their wings. They sniffed the air, a lush mixture of sweet vegetation, dirt and sunshine. They exhaled deeply and took in their surroundings. Then without warning, a group of them began to swarm.
“Remember our plan!” the stalwarts hissed, but they might as well have been entreating a bunch of tweakers to stop sucking on the pipe. It was useless.
Although the urge to gorge, to feed off each other’s manic energy, was a craving that felt bottomless, the devotees stayed put. Despite the throbbing in their heads and abdomens, they were able to rein in their impulses. But as time passed – one minute, two, three – they despaired of being able to stuff down the ravages of instinct much longer.
“Locusts 27!” yelled Art to his compatriots, his antennae twitching with desire.
“Locusts 27!” he heard echoed back to him.
“We’re still in control” Leonard yelled.
“No instinct without responsibility!” cried Elf.
“Observe our creation!” Art croaked, feeling faint.
In a farm house within hollering distance of the field, a family sitting down to dinner heard a faint buzz that slowly grew more insistent. They put down their utensils and gazed at each other quizzically.
“What’s that sound?” the father asked, adjusting the strap of his overalls.
“Bats?” the wife posited.
“A helicopter,” Adam, the son, guessed. “Heading towards Lincoln General?”
They walked to the window and stared out at the field. What they saw puzzled them. Each cornstalk seemed to have attached to it a small, brownish-black nugget. From a distance, the dark nuggets looked like dots on the greenish-yellow corn stalks, forming an intricate mosaic set against the azure sky.
“It looks like a museum painting,” said the mother.
“Like a Seurat. Dejeuner Sur Le Mais,” said the son, who would be off to college in the fall.
“You don’t say,” the father said.
They were silent for a moment.
“I don’t know what the heck it is. But my goodness, it sure is beautiful,” the mother pronounced.
Just then, Art’s antennae twitched wildly and he tumbled from his corn perch onto the Nebraska dirt, dead.
A grievous hiss of pain arose from the field.
“Artie!” cried Elf.
“The poor son of a bitch. He was a genius,” Leonard sniffled.
“Farewell, my friend,” said another, his voice hoarse with grief.
Within seconds, the plague began to swarm, forming a hissing tornado above the doomed crops. It didn’t take them a half hour to leave the field devastated: ravaged, barren and artless.
Wim Hylen’s work has been published in Four Chambers, Café Irreal, Crack the Spine, Rivet and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among other places. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.
Team Building – Stella Turner
“I feel like ninja butterflies are throwing ninja stars in my stomach” whispered Jack. Sid looked away; Jack looked stupid in his Superman costume, why had he chosen that with his puny frame? Sid wished he hadn’t picked Leonardo; the turtle shell felt really heavy and altered his centre of balance, he’d already fallen twice on the assault course.
This team building exercise was a bad idea. He hated his workmates; this forced camaraderie would never change his mind in a million years. Why hadn’t he rung in sick and gone out with his mates Al and Jamie? They’d be watching the rugby now, swigging down the Stella and ordering a Vindaloo. He was watching Jill dressed as Wonder Woman trying to manoeuvre over the monkey bars. Everything she ate went to her hips they were enormous. He hoped she’d fall and he’d volunteer to take her to hospital then dump her at A&E and head to Al’s flat to catch the last of the game.
The buzzer sounded. Everyone cheered and clapped. Sid put his two fingers in his mouth and whistled shrilly. The high pitched sound made Jack jump. Sid laughed.
“It’s vote time”
“What we voting for?”
“The least productive member of staff, we do it every year”
My vote will be easy thought Sid it was going to be Jack with Jill a close second.
Standing in a circle each staff member volunteered a name. Sid went first “Jack” Everyone else unanimously repeated the same name, Sid. Sid shrugged. He’d soon find a new job. The ninja stars settled in Jack’s stomach. He’d been sure it was his turn. This year’s theme was ‘buried alive’. Sid’s screams and pleas were muffled each time earth was thrown into the hole by his colleagues. He must have missed that final e-mail.
Things Like This – David Alcock
The shelf in the riverbed was behind them and so was the roar of the rough white water. The river was now almost motionless. It was glassy and gliding and calm. Paul watched a current as it slid round a boulder and marked the river’s brim with a spinning silver stream. He saw the mirrored trees going down through the waterway, toward the blue sky beneath a mass of green leaves.
Then his daughter’s voice came shrilly from behind him. “What is it?” She pointed at the path. Paul’s head swung round from the river. His eyes squinted, came open, and he smiled. “It’s a shrew,” he said amusedly, and all four of them stepped forward to have a look.
The handful of grey fur moved deliberately across the woodland footpath. It hurried past some fallen brown oak leaves, and stopped beneath some ferns on the wayside bank. The children squatted in front of it. They watched it clean its fur in the shadows beneath the leaves.
“I think it’s a vole,” whispered Angela.
“Maybe,” said Paul. “But I’ve never seen one as closely as this.”
It climbed up the bank in front of them, traversed a ledge, and disappeared down a hole. Paul straightened up and frowned. Slowly, he shook his head. “I saw one once before,” he mused, “many years ago. I spent the whole of one summer looking for it.” He paused. “I only ever saw it that once.” He turned again from the bank beside the footpath, and looked through the trees to the wide brown river. “You can spend the whole of your lifetime looking,” he said quietly, “but you won’t see anything, unless you get some good luck.” His eyes moved over to a sunbeam, which broke on a wind wave into a galaxy of stars.
Then the little boy stood up. He turned and looked searchingly at Paul. “But we are lucky, aren’t we, Dad? Aren’t we lucky? To see things like this?”
Paul turned, and his face was in shadow, but the glints sharpened in the sockets of his eyes. A ray of light had pierced the treetop above him and his family were brilliant in a yellow shaft of light. “Yes, we are,” he agreed. And he looked altered. Then he took the boy’s hand and they set out again along the path.
Dave Alcock lives in Devon, England, and writes about the ordinary people and places of the British provinces. His stories focus on psychological change and the seeing and acceptance of new things. His flashes have been published in print by Ad Hoc Fiction and can be found online at Every Day Fiction and STORGY Magazine.
My Dear Bill Bixby – Mark Keane
The gate clanged shut. Sitting up in bed, reading our comics, we could hear raised voices and hushed warnings from our old man to keep the noise down. Then, the key in the front door, clinking bottles and the thud of the coat stand against the wall. Friday night, close to midnight, The Yacht had shut its doors and the old man was bringing some of his cronies back from the pub to extend their drinking.
“Party time.” My brother looked across at me and grinned.
“Do we have to go down?” I didn’t want to get out of bed.
“Come on, Peter, you don’t want to miss the fun.”
We crept down the back stairs. The carpet in the hallway muffled our footsteps but we had to be careful. If the old man knew what we were doing we’d pay the price. The door of the front room was ajar, sounds of bottle openers at work, glasses distributed, chairs moved closer to the fireplace. Our old man’s grunts told us he was down on one knee, using the poker to revive the fire.
“The prices Tobin charges for take-outs are scandalous.”
“The man’s a chancer and as fat as a bishop on the money he’s taken from us.”
“He’s a miserable bugger, I’ve yet to see him crack a smile.”
“Tobin may be a dry shite but he runs a tight ship.”
“You mean a tight shite runs The Yacht.”
“The Yacht’s a decent boozer, where would we be without it?”
“Who’s in there?” I whispered.
My brother took a quick peek. “The Hanger and Axel.”
Two Friday night regulars. The Hanger’s real name was Andy Kearney. He owned a newsagent on Vernon Avenue where we often went to shoplift comics. The Hanger chain-smoked, using the glowing butt of one cigarette to light the next. Thin and bony, like a skeleton, someone once joked that his clothes hung on him like they were on a clothes-hanger. Axel was a self-employed plumber who operated from his gaff in East Wall. The dead spit of Eddie Murphy so we named him after Axel Foley from the Beverley Hills Cop films. If the real Eddie Murphy was white and had a Dublin accent, you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.
We didn’t like The Hanger and his nicotine fingers, his wheezing and smoker’s cough. Always describing people as genuine but there was nothing genuine about him. The Hanger was a sneak. We preferred Axel with his winks and nods and Eddie Murphy smile. In summer, when he came to pick up our old man, he played football with us in the back-yard. Then he’d dig his hand in his pocket and give us money.
“Get yourselves some toffees,” he’d say. “No fags mind, cause smoking is a mug’s game.”
The Hanger would never do that so we didn’t feel bad about the shoplifting.
“That’s a grand fire,” Axel said.
“Very relaxing and a great ambiance. You could turn this place into a nice little pub.” The Hanger followed this with a bout of hawking as he dredged up all manner of gunk from his lungs. There was a hiss when he spat into the fire. “That’d give Tobin something to think about.”
“A little competition never did the pub trade any harm.” Our old man was fond of saying stuff like that.
We could feel them settle in, shifting in their seats, The Hanger striking a match as he started on his first cigarette. My brother went to push the door open wider and I stopped him. Too risky, one of them might notice. The front room was off limits, the velour couch and good armchairs only for visitors. We weren’t allowed anywhere near the shiny mantel clock, the China dogs and figurines.
“There’s great heat from that coal,” Axel remarked.
It was freezing in the draughty hallway.
“Go upstairs and get our jumpers.” My brother liked giving me orders.
When I came back down, he started yawning and pointing at the door.
“A great humanitarian,” I heard the old man say and knew what that meant.
“He was a great man and a visionary,” the Hanger croaked, his throat clogged with phlegm.
“A very tall man, even without the stovepipe hat.” We could always depend on something silly from Axel.
“And from humble beginnings,” our old man spouted. “Born in a Kentucky log cabin.” “Isn’t it always the way.”
“And furthermore, the greatest orator this world has ever known.”
“You’re right there, Jim, the same gentleman knew how to deliver a speech.”
The Hanger made a point of calling the old man by his first name, something Axel never did.
“Go on, Jim, give us a recitation from the great one.”
“I will, now that you ask.”
“What’s it to be tonight?”
“His greatest speech, given in the midst of the American Civil War when he was called upon to unite the people.”
The room went quiet. The old man took his time before he started.
“Four score and seven years ago……….”
As expected, The Gettysburg Address. My brother tied an imaginary noose around his neck and yanked it upwards. I grabbed my throat with both hands and stuck out my tongue.
“……….brought forth on this continent a new nation……….”
He delivered it in his trademark Yankee twang, more or less pronounced depending on how many pints he’d had in The Yacht. The Hanger and Axel should be sick of The Gettysburg Address by now but they encouraged him and Axel called him The Lincoln Scholar. Ten years sorting letters in Post Office Station J in Manhattan meant our old man knew everything there was to know about America and we’d heard every one of his stories, over and over again.
“……….testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure……….”
We’d heard how he had to memorise a thousand zip codes and had less than ten seconds to put the right envelope in the right box.
“If you didn’t get it right,” he told us, “you were out on your ass.” We listened and never gave him back-chat because we didn’t want a beating. “A bit of discipline never did any harm,” he liked to say.
“……….we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate nor can we hallow this ground……….”
We’d heard about dangerous criminals on the Lower East Side with guns, and how he stopped a bank robber once and the Police Captain pinned a medal on his chest but he threw it in the Hudson because he was so humble. And about the millionaires he met in Oyster Bay and their big boats and big Cadillacs and how great the Kennedys were but not as great as Abraham Lincoln. Hidden behind the door, we played silent trumpets and trombones.
“……….far above our poor power to add or detract……….”
I could picture him, sitting upright in his chair, severe look on his face, so important and proud of himself. Speaking softly, then turning up the volume, demanding the full attention of The Hanger and Axel.
“……….this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom……….”
I crouched down, brandishing a tomahawk in my best Apache rain dance, careful not to make any noise. My brother pumped his fists in the air.
“……….government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
The last words of The Gettysburg Address but our old man had his own last words.
“The End. Abraham Lincoln.”
“Jaysus, that was great. You brought the house down with that, Jim.”
“Powerful performance, you should be up in the Olympia.” The way Axel said it made me think he didn’t mean it.
“He was a great humanitarian.”
“You’re right, Jim, can’t disagree with you there.”
“Sure, didn’t he free the slaves?”
My brother gave me the thumbs up; Axel was on good form tonight.
“Ah, for God’s sake,” the old man growled. “Who let go?”
Someone must have farted, a frequent occurrence on Friday nights.
“Jaysus, the smell on that is desperate.” The Hanger started coughing and spluttering.
“It’s a natural bodily function. Better out than in, I say, and Tobin’s Guinness is very gassy.” Axel laughed his Eddie Murphy laugh.
“Take yourself to the bathroom if you want to foul the air.”
My brother mouthed “the bathroom” and rolled his eyes. Our old man never called it the jacks.
“What are friends for if not for sharing?”
“The honk off your farts is spoilin’ the drink. You need to see a doctor, your insides must be clean rotten.”
“Gentlemen, a bit of decorum.” Talking about farts was beneath our old man.
They quietened down. We could hear them opening more bottles, another shovelful of coal added to the fire.
“We’re all friends here and good Irishmen.” The Hanger started up again and we had a fair idea where this was leading. “What do you make of these so-called Easter 1916 celebrations?”
“Sure, it’s only once a year, where’s the harm in recognising our history?” Axel with a question that wasn’t really a question.
“Nothing but window dressing. We have unfinished business in the North. Am I not right, Jim?”
Without waiting for an answer, The Hanger started singing.
Send the soldiers back to Britain and the MPs to Whitehall
Let Irishmen both North and South join Stormont with the Dáil
We’ve been together far too long, so let us one and all
A united Ireland, let’s heed this clarion call
When he stopped, we took our fingers out of our ears.
“You can carry a tune.” It was what the old man always said.
“Don’t forget the message, as true now as it ever was. Our day will come, an Ireland occupied can never be free. Northern Ireland is still under the control of a foreign power.”
“All the same, what good comes from conflict? We don’t want to return to the days of bombs and hunger strikes. Those were shocking times.” Axel must have shaken his head solemnly when he said this.
“All part of the struggle, my friend. There are no innocent victims in the fight for freedom.”
“I’ve never been to Belfast. Maybe I should pay a visit.”
My brother prodded me in the ribs. “Beverly Hills Cop Four; Axel takes on the baddies in the North.”
I put a finger to my lips to shush him.
“We have to be true to the principles of Connolly and Pearse,” The Hanger declared.
“What we need is somebody like Honest Abe to lead the people.”
“No chance of that,” The Hanger was dismissive, “not with the gombeens who run this country. Connolly was right, ruling by fooling is a great British art with Irish fools to practice on.”
I raised my hand in a salute while my brother took his invisible rifle and fired off some silent shots.
“He was a great humanitarian.”
“You’re right, Jim, James Connolly was indeed a great humanitarian and a great socialist.”
“Not Connolly,” irritation creeping into the old man’s voice. “Abraham Lincoln was a great humanitarian and orator.”
“No problem, Jim. Abe was a great man.”
“I don’t see any sense in killing,” Axel piped up. “How can it unite us? I suppose I’m a lover, not a fighter.”
“Listen to himself, our East Wall Casanova.” The Hanger’s laugh turned into one of his wet coughs.
“Make love not war, that’s my motto.”
“Lincoln was a great romantic,” the old man droned on. “He worshipped his Mary and she was no oil painting.”
“She’d have had to put up with terrible beard rash from playing kissy faces with Abe,” Axel joked.
“It’s a fact that Lincoln was the first bearded president in the White House.”
“Strictly speaking then, his was the First Beard.”
We held our sides in pretend laughter.
“Mr. Kearney, pass us over a bottle.” Axel let out a loud belch. “The heat from the fire has me parched.”
“Heat from the fire me arse. Will you go easy, we’re running low on fuel.”
“Lincoln was a man of compassion.” Our old man raised his voice, not liking these interruptions. “As well as being a great humanitarian.”
“We’re agreed on that.”
“And not just a brilliant orator, his writing was second to none.”
“Sure, we have no shortage of writers in this city.”
“O’Casey and Joyce knew their way around a sentence.”
The Hanger must have thought that made him sound smart.
“Lincoln composed a very touching letter to a Boston widow whose five sons died in the Civil War. It’s an outstanding piece, let me give it to you.”
“Game-ball, fire away.”
“We’re all ears.”
I looked at my brother; what was this?
“My dear Mrs. Bixby, I have been shown in the files of the war department……….”
I was certain we’d heard the lot, Lyceum Address, Inaugural Address one and two and everything else but here was something different.
“……….the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle……….”
My brother started grinning. “Bixby, that’s the guy who plays The Incredible Hulk.”
One of his favourite TV programmes, he never missed an episode on Saturday mornings.
“……….tendering to you the consolation……….”
He took up a boxer’s stance and started shuffling about, fists raised. “Bill Bixby,” he muttered, “The Hulk, don’t make me angry.”
“……….I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish……….”
He jabbed me in the chest. “That hurt, get off ya eejit,” I hissed.
“……….the cherished memory of the loved and lost……….”
He punched me in the arm and I pushed him away.
“……….yours, very sincerely and respectfully.”
He came back with another punch that I dodged. My swinging fist missed its mark and he rammed into me with a shoulder charge.
“The End. Abraham Lincoln.”
“Bravo! That was grand.”
“He was a great humanitarian, Jim, you’ve never said a truer word.”
I lost my balance, the impact knocked me backwards, my flailing arms pushed the door open and I landed in a heap in the front room.
“What’s that racket?”
Three heads turned to look at me. A gasp from behind the door followed by giggling and footsteps on the stairs as my brother scarpered back to our bedroom. I was on my own.
“What’s going on there?”
Turning slowly, leaning on my elbow, I could see the grim face of The Lincoln Scholar, his lips a thin line, eyes flashing with rage.
“Well hello,” Axel, smiling, “glad you could join us.”
“You young pup.” The old man struggled to keep his composure. “You and your brother acting like gurriers.” Gone was the Yankee twang, his chin flecked with spittle.
I shrugged my shoulders. That really provoked him.
“You little brat, I’ll take the rod to you.”
He reached for the poker, shoving his chair to one side. Axel stepped in front of him.
“Easy now, no need to lose the cool. It’s only high jinks. There’s no harm done, let the boy be.”
If Axel hadn’t been there our old man would have beaten me and my brother, not with the poker but with the leather strap he kept in the dresser. Six whacks each, he wouldn’t hold back, a bit of discipline never did us any harm.
The Hanger had been quiet but now he spoke. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” frowning at me but I could tell he was enjoying this.
I looked over at our old man, fists clenched at his side.
“You’re showing your father no respect.” The Hanger took another drag on his cigarette. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
There was only one thing to say, so I said it.
“I think he’s a great humanitarian.”
Mark Keane has taught for many years in universities in North America and the UK. Recent short story fiction has appeared in Horla, Into the Void (Pushcart Prize nominee 2020), Lamplit Underground, Emerging Worlds, Potato Soup, Raconteur, Rumble Fish and the Dark Lane and What Monsters Do for Love anthologies. He lives in Edinburgh (Scotland).
The Filed – Pawel Markiewicz
I am willing to archive the world lonely
or in solitude withal a fish,
To archive the finny-plaice
means extract its eternal fins.
This is an infinite dreaming shrouded in repository
about Blue written somewhere in the
chasms of soul.
Abide!, because cases of elves
filed in the land of
eternal frosts need you
without the winter like me.
Is the lyrical I a carmine cat
that feels the world
full of after glow of flames.
Mayhap I become lost
in the archive of heart,
finding the primeval crystal,
the harp of our ontology – trilogy,
There are in the archive
which love the weird
of the cherub