The Crashing Crows – Steve Carr

Standing at the back screen door, the late autumn air carried the scents of dry earth and dying vegetation. Sandra leaned against the door frame and waited. The rows of dead, broken, harvested stalks of corn in the field beyond the back yard, trembled slightly, the sound of their brittle leaves being rustled in the breeze sounding like raspy old men asking for drinks of water. The scarecrows, each given a name of a dead president, nailed to nine-foot upright boards, stood guard over their quickly decaying charges. The tails to Lincoln’s ragged tuxedo jacket flapped in the wind. As hazy sunlight broke through the clouds, a small murder of crows arrived and began to circle above the field. She straightened up and watched them with rapt attention as they descended to the ground amidst the corn stalks. She placed the palms of her hands on the door’s mesh screen and closed her eyes. She imagined that her body had separated into microscopic sized particles and was passing through the screen and then turning into crows and flying off.

The whistle on the tea kettle sitting on the stove shrieked. Sandra opened her eyes and turned about. Her eight year-old son, Daniel – Danny – was standing in the doorway that led into the living room, gazing at her with his usual intensity. “Do you need something?” she said in a tone harsher than she meant it to be. “Is something wrong?’ she said, more softly.

The boy shook his head, turned, and went back into the living room.

Sandra turned off the flame beneath the kettle and then poured the boiling water into a cup in which an already used teabag lay limply at the bottom, the string attached to it drooped over a lip of the cup. She grabbed the string and bobbed the teabag up and down in the water several times, turning the water a pale shade of dark green before returning the kettle to the stove. She was about to smash a cockroach crawling across the stove top when a sound of breaking glass came from the living room. She rushed from the kitchen. A large stone lay on the floor in the middle of the living room beside where Danny was standing. The window was broken.

* * *

The rainfall began as a light patter against the bedroom window. Sandra raised the lid on the cedar chest that sat on a handmade rug at the end of the bed and took out the star-patterned quilt that her mother had given her as a wedding present. She closed the lid and tossed the quilt across the other quilt already on the bed. Felicity mewed softly, jumped down from the chair in front of the vanity dresser where it had been curled up on, sleeping, walked to the bed and jumped up onto the quilt. It walked about, kneading the quilt with its declawed paws, before finding a place to settle down. It quickly fell back asleep. The distant rumble of thunder caused Sandra to turn about and stare into the darkness beyond the window. A flash of lighting above the Badlands formations momentarily brought their irregular pancake-like layers of rock into view, and just as quickly disappeared back into the blackness. The howl of a coyote pierced the night.

Sandra removed her robe, slid under the quilts, pushing Felicity aside, and was just about to turn off the lamp on the bedside stand when Danny came into the room. “Did the thunder and lightning frighten you?” she said to him.

He shook his head and stared at her expectantly as he grabbed the elastic cord on his pajama bottoms and pulled it tight, cinching the waist tight around his abdomen.

“I can’t read your mind, Danny. At some point you are going to have to tell me what it is you want or need,” she said. She patted the bed. “Yes, you can sleep with me.”

Without taking his eyes off of her he got onto the bed and laid down next to Felicity and encircled the old cat with his arms and slowly hugged the cat, bringing it close to him. He closed his eyes. Within minutes his breathing slowed, mimicking the same sleeping sound – a gentle exhalation and inhalation of breathing – that the cat made.

She pulled a quilt over him and turned off the light. She laid back, her eyes on the trails of rain streaking down the window pane seen in the ambient light.

* * *

The school bus pulled away from the curb with Danny watching Sandra from the back seat where he sat with his face pressed against the window. She turned and walked down the long driveway towards the house, mud being added to the clumps on her boots that had already collected there. The grass that lined both sides of the driveway was noticeably bright and green, unlike all the other plants that had begun turning brown and dying off as soon as summer ended. Walking on it seemed like an act of carelessness, akin to walking on a clean carpet. The early morning chill had only just begun to dissipate, the increasing warmth leaving her to wonder if she had made Danny wear too many warm clothes before they left the house. His protests about wearing a sweater and heavy coat played out with the way he looked at her, like he expressed everything – with his eyes.

At the porch she kicked the mud from her boots and then climbed the steps while eyeing the broken window. She had duct taped a piece of cardboard retrieved from a stack of cardboard pieces in the basement over the large hole left by the stone, but only realized as she stepped onto the porch, that the cardboard was part of the box that had contained Hank’s urn. As if punched in the gut, for a moment she felt sick to her stomach and couldn’t breathe. She grasped the post attached to the porch railing and held on tightly, as if keeping from being blown away. It was then as tears began to stream down her cheeks that she saw the crows flying toward the field. They were arriving earlier in the day than usual. She ran down the porch steps and around the house, stopping in the back yard as her mud-caked boots prevented her from taking another step. Taunting a leaning Edward G. Harding, the crows descended to the rows of broken corn stalks that surrounded the base of Harding’s perch. She raised her arms and slowly began flapping them. And then she began to caw like a crow.

The birds weren’t disturbed by this at all. They continued to search the ground for kernels of corn and the insects the dead vegetation attracted.

* * *

Sandra emptied several ice cubes from the ice tray onto a piece of muslin and forcefully shoved the tray back into the freezer. She then slammed the refrigerator door closed. She pulled the cloth around the ice cubes, enclosing them in the pouch, and then tied the end. With the pouch in hand she walked over to Danny who was sitting motionless at the table, and momentarily gazed at the bright purple and red bruise that formed a ring around his right eye, before placing the pouch against his eye. “I know you can’t or won’t say who did this to you, but how can I protect you if you don’t speak up and tell me who keeps doing these things to you?”

He stared at her with the one eye, remaining as still as a statue.

She took his hand and pressed it against the pouch. “Hold it there,” she said. She turned and walked into the living room. She had stopped smoking when she found out she was pregnant with Danny, but the craving for a cigarette was overwhelming and annoying. She needed to do something with her hands, a distraction of some kind. She picked up the stone that had been thrown through the window from where she had left it on the coffee table and passed it back and forth from one hand to the other, feeling its weight, the texture of its surface. She closed her eyes and thought about people who could divine information about objects by just touching them and tried to force from the rock whatever it could tell her, what it could tell anyone. The silence was the same stony silence she received from Danny. She opened her eyes just in time to see a deer cross the driveway, slowing a bit as it stepped through the mud, and then bolt off when it stepped back into the grass. When the phone rang it startled her and she dropped the stone.

“How’s the boy?” her father-in-law said even before she could say hello after putting the receiver to her ear. “He talking yet?”


“Hank’s mother and I think Danny should come live with us for a while.”


“We got a call from Danny’s school counselor who was inquiring about you. We don’t think you’re capable of giving him the care he needs. The boy’s father, our son . . .”

She slammed the phone down and walked into the kitchen. Danny was standing at the back door still holding the ice to his eye as he watched the crows that crowded the field around several of the presidents.

* * *

The colors of the twilight sky were the same as Danny’s bruised eye. With her shawl around her shoulders, Sandra stood in the corn field looking for signs that the crows had been there, but found none. They came and went every day like apparitions that vanished without a trace. She wondered where they came from and where else did they go. Her skirt flapped in the chilly breeze, snapping quietly at times like muted Fourth of July firecrackers. Nearby, George Washington hung precariously on his post, about to fall off, with his three-cornered hat sitting askew on his white hair made from yarn. The clothes for all of the presidents had been found in steamer trunks in the attic. The pants, coats and shirts were stitched together to make up the costumes by Sandra while she was pregnant. A lot of crows had come and gone since then and none of them ever showed the slight bit of awareness that the scarecrows were there other than as things to land on long enough to survey the corn stalks.

She tightened the shawl around her and turned to see Danny standing in the doorway, watching her. He had Felicity in his arms. The cat was struggling to be set free from his hold. As she watched, the boy slowly tightened his grasp on the animal, squeezing the aged cat until it began to meow loudly and hiss.

“Danny! Stop that right now,” she screamed as she ran to the house.

He let the cat drop just as she reached the steps. She opened the door, her hand up, preparing to slap him for scaring Felicity, and then he said, “The crows.” She froze. It was the first words he had spoken in five months.

* * *

“His father used to sit on the back steps of the house and shoot the crows with his rifle,” Sandra said.

Mrs. Huston leaned forward and straightened the brass nameplate that sat on the edge of her desk. It had her name and title, School Counselor. “Those were the only two words he said?”

Sandra sat in a fake leather chair in front of the desk. The shiny brass of the nameplate glinted in front of her. “Yes.”

“Does Daniel have a special affinity for crows?”

“Not that I was ever aware of.” Sandra paused. “Danny. Everyone calls him Danny.”

The counselor smiled as if a gun had been put to her head. “Yes, of course. Danny.”

Sandra opened her purse and took out the stone that had been thrown through her window. She placed it on the desk next to the nameplate. “There are no stones like this one on our farm. Whoever broke our window with it bothered to bring that stone from somewhere else.”

Mrs. Huston looked at the stone and grimaced. “You didn’t need to bring it. I would have taken your word for it.”

“I thought it was important that you see it.”

“The school nurse has reported that Danny has come to school on several occasions with unexplained bruises and small cuts. I needed to look into it, so that’s why I called his grandparents and why I asked you to come in.”

“I told you,” Sandra said. “Someone is out to hurt him.”

Mrs. Huston lifted the stone with one hand, and using her hand, brushed away the dirt left behind. She then placed the stone on a tissue. “Why did you want me to see it.”

“It’s a murder weapon. It could have killed Danny.”

Mrs. Huston glanced at the stone as if expecting to see it move by its own volition. “Your husband died from a tragic accident, didn’t he?”

Sandra’s back stiffened. “All deaths are a tragic accident of one kind or another.”

“Yes, I guess that’s true, but I meant . . .”

“I know what you meant. Danny’s father shot himself. Danny witnessed it.”

Mrs. Huston’s tone became softer, kinder. “I know. And since then he hasn’t spoken, except for. . . “

Sandra interrupted. “Have you ever noticed that when crows, or any flock of birds, are in flight, no matter how many of them there are, or what may disturb them, they never crash into one another?”

* * *

From her bedroom window, Sandra watched a large, dark gray rabbit, hop around Franklin D. Roosevelt. She scanned the field around where the rabbit was foraging, fearing that with the oncoming night a coyote wouldn’t be far off and have a readily available meal if it got wind of the rabbit. A coyote had gotten into the chicken coop killing most of them before running off with one in its mouth as Hank ran out of the house in the middle of the night, shooting at the escaping coyote with his rifle. It put an end to their attempt to raise chickens. She often wished that the crows had carried off the first seeds planted to grow the corn. The crows were easier to kill and he took perverse glee in doing it.

Upon feeling Felicity rubbing its side against her leg, she took the cat in her arms and cradled it against her chest as she swayed gently from side to side. It was Hank’s idea to have Felicity declawed despite her protests and the veterinarian’s reluctance to perform the procedure.

“Cats can be taught not to scratch you,” the vet had said.

Hearing Danny’s bare feet on the floorboards behind her, she turned and waited for several moments before saying anything. His silence made her stomach ache. The two words he had spoken gave her hope that he had regained the desire, or ability, to talk and he would do it again soon. He remained silent, staring at her blankly. “Are you ready for bed?” she said, at last.

He nodded.

She placed Felicity on the floor, knelt down, grasped Danny gently by his upper arms, and stared into his eyes. “Do you want to go live with your grandparents for a while?”

His eyes widened, his cheeks paled. He shook his head.

She wrapped her arms around him and hugged him close. “Caw, caw” she whispered into his ear before picking him up and laying him on the bed. He curled into a fetal position as she stroked his corn silk-like hair.

* * *

It was early Saturday morning when Sandra carried the sewing basket that contained Felicity’s body out to the corn field as Danny followed behind carrying a small shovel. The crows hadn’t arrived yet. The air was almost balmy and filled with the scent of prairie grass. Near President John F. Kennedy, Sandra handed the sewing basket to Danny, took the shovel and dug a hole. She placed the basket in the hole and with tears flowing down her face, filled the hole with dirt. They turned, walked back. and had almost reached the house when the sheriff’s car drove up the driveway and came to a stop at the side of the house. In the back seat sat Jack Harley.

Sandra gripped Danny’s shoulder. “Go inside and call your grandparents. Their number is on the pad by the phone.”

The boy stared at her wide-eyed.

“You don’t need to say anything to them. Just make some kind of sound. They’ll figure it out that it’s you calling.”

He ran into the house as Sandra walked to the car just as the sheriff got out.

“Good morning, Sandra.” He pointed to Jack Harley. “His wife said you’ve been paying him to hurt your boy. Is that true?”

Sandra glanced back at the cornfield where the crows had begun to arrive. “Yes, it’s true.”

Genuinely surprised, the sheriff stammered, “Why would you do such a thing?”

“I hoped to scare my son into talking again,” she said. “His silence is killing me.”

* * *

Inside the house, Danny held the phone to his mouth. “Caw, caw, caw,” he screamed.

Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 480 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. His Twitter is @carrsteven960. He is on Facebook:

Image via Pixabay

Wait… What? – S W Campbell

Once there was a doctor who worked as a general practitioner at the local hospital. A hardworking and attentive man, he always got to work early so he would be fully ready to face the day when his first patient arrived at eight in the morning. His hair was always coiffed perfectly in a wave across his forehead and his eyes always had a friendly twinkle meant to convey to those under his care that they had not a worry in the world, he was one of the good ones.

It was on a Monday when the old man came in. He was the first patient of the day and he was there for his annual physical and checkup. There was nothing too remarkable about this old man. He was squat, wrinkly, and gray, just as most old men were before him, and just as most would be after. He had a bit of a cranky air about him, but when he smiled, revealing rows of gleaming far too white teeth, there was some strange sense of congeniality that sparked across the room, giving hints of a deep warmth and lifelong satisfaction hidden beneath the roughened burlap exterior.

Despite his smiles, the old man was not a patient patient. From the moment he was led back to the examination room he was checking his watch. The nurse warned the doctor of the old man’s impatient nature, so he was prepared enough to answer the old man’s demand of what the hell took him so long with his most professional greeting. This seemed to calm the old man somewhat, though not enough to get him to quit constantly checking his watch. Though curious, the doctor kept his queries to himself, knowing that when given time, most mysteries tend to result in solutions. His patience was rewarded, for as he examined the old man, prodding him with this and that and asking him to shift himself as needed, the grumbles were replaced by a placating tone mentioning that he had an important appointment he needed to get to at 9 o’clock.

The doctor of course politely nodded and kept about his business, again knowing that silence tends to produce more answers than questions. The old man of course did his part. He was supposed to have breakfast with his wife at the nursing home across the street. Indeed, he said with a great amount of pride in his crackling voice, every day at nine o’clock he always came to the nursing home to eat with his wife. The doctor nodded knowingly, but inside he was bursting with curiosity. Finally, as the old man was putting back on his shirt, he let the question escape his lips. What was his wife’s condition?

The old man frowned and looked at the poster showing the respiratory system on the wall. When he looked back the doctor noticed a tear on the edge of falling. Alzheimer’s was the answer, his wife hadn’t known his face in over a year. The doctor sat there, staring dumbly as the old man prepared to leave. The doctor, a lifelong bachelor, could not help letting his last question escape. Why did he keep coming back if his wife had no idea who he was? The old man smiled, though his eyes never lost their watery gleam. Because he still knew who she was.

The old man left to get to his daily breakfast appointment. The doctor sat alone in the examination room, unable to move until the nurse came in and told him patients were waiting. It was the first time in his career that the doctor failed to be on time.

Of course things began to change when the old man came back the following Monday, still grumbling about the time and completely unaware that his annual checkup had already been done the week before. The doctor quickly diagnosed him with early onset dementia, a diagnosis that shook the old man to his core. The doctor, in his gentle bedside way, tried to discern a next of kin, but in this the old man was less than helpful. A search through his records proved to be just as fruitless, so after sending the old man home, the doctor went across the street to enquire about the old man’s wife, in the hope that her records were more complete.

The lady behind the front desk was a friendly sort, especially when it came to dealing with good looking doctors who didn’t wear wedding rings. However, her flirtatious manner was quickly replaced by concerned confusion when the doctor mentioned the reason of his visit. She’s dead was the receptionist’s curt reply at the mention of the name. She’s been dead over six months now. The doctor didn’t know how to take this news, so he leaned down and rested his arms on the front desk. In response, the receptionist rose partly out of her seat, sticking her butt out a bit in case the doctor noticed, and reached up to place her ringless fingers on his hand. With a sweet voice, she asked whatever could be the matter?

The doctor, rising back to a standing position, pulling his hand away in the process, eliciting a quick disappointed look from the receptionist, explained the story told to him by the old man. The receptionist gave out a short laugh, more a bray than a laugh, which only accentuated her horse like features. The doctor was shocked by such a display, but the receptionist quickly calmed herself enough to explain. The old man did still come in every day to eat breakfast with his wife, but the woman he thought to be his wife was not truly his wife, but just another woman with Alzheimer’s. The old man had seemed happy enough with the situation, and the old woman never had any visitors otherwise, so the nursing home staff had just gone along with it.

The doctor left the reception area immediately after this revelation, never once asking for the receptionist’s phone number as she had hoped. As he crossed the street he went over everything in his head, trying to put together a puzzle, but finding himself wanting for a missing piece that would make everything perfectly clear. It all bothered him more than anything ever had before.

Of course he shouldn’t have let any of it bother him at all. After all, it wasn’t like he was even a real doctor. He knew no more about medicine than any other random fool on the street, just hints from his own visits to doctors and a wealth of nomenclature gleaned from years of watching medical dramas. This in and of itself might have been of concern if ever discovered by the hospital or one of his patients, but there was no reason to be concerned. Not only was the doctor not a real doctor, he wasn’t even a real person. He was a non-entity, a non-existent image so flimsy that it could be blown apart by an ill timed breath. The doctor hung there in the air, surrounded by a darkness so complete that it seemed to stifle even thought. Perhaps if he was real he might wonder about his predicament. Perhaps then he could realize the true state of his reality as nothing but the figment of an old lady’s fractured imagination. An old lady with Alzheimer’s laying alone day after day in a nursing home.

Such a revelation would probably bring up all sorts of questions for the doctor, at least they would if he was real. But of course sometimes it’s better not to dig into things too much, because sometimes the illusion is better than nothing at all.

S.W. Campbell was born in Eastern Oregon. He currently resides in Portland where he works as an economist and lives with a house plant named Morton. He has had over forty short stories published in various literary reviews in three countries, including Tin House, the Bellevue Literary Review, Entropy, and BlazeVOX. If you’d like to read more of his writing, check out his website:

Image via Pixabay

The Forgiving – Tina Wayland

I saw you at the bus shelter and for an instant I couldn’t breathe. You said

Oh… Um, hi.

I said

I wasn’t… I wasn’t expecting to see you. Here, I mean. I wasn’t expecting that.

You took my umbrella from me and shook it out. Closed it carefully. Gave it back to me handle first, your fist around the wet part. Dripping on your shoes.

Did you move…?

Yes. Last week. Up the street? Near the bakery.

Then a silence that felt like drowning.



No, no, you go ahead.

Sorry. This is awkward. Not bad or anything. Just… awkward.

I saw your ring, a thin gold band that almost covered the dent around your finger.

Are you—?

Yes. We bought the house together after the wedding.

I nodded. Looked down at my own hand before I could stop myself.


Not married. But we own the house. Bought it together.

You smiled but it didn’t reach your eyes. Just a tilt of mouth corners and a collection of wrinkles.

I couldn’t stay anymore. I just couldn’t.

I know.

It wasn’t you—

I know.

You let out a breath you didn’t realize you were holding. A trail of steam that disappeared.

I carry it around with me all the time. I wanted it to stop. Even a little. Just stop.

It never does. It just… you kind of forget for a bit is all.

A passing car hit a puddle, spraying water against the shelter window. We watched it drip down the glass. I said

You had to go. I get it now. I do.

But I left you. Alone, I mean. And then I couldn’t be alone.

I’m not mad. I didn’t have any room left to be mad.

I reached out to touch your arm and you let me. You said

I look back sometimes—

It’s OK. I promise, really. It’s OK.

And it was. I could see you believed me. Believed beyond the words and down into the space that haunts you. Haunts us. You said

So, have you had any, um… did you…?

No, no kids.

Me either. No kids. No.

I rocked on my heels. You rummaged through your pockets.

Does your wife—?

No. I mean, we talked about it. But she, uh, understands.

I thought you wouldn’t say more, but you said

Once she brought home this—like a little hat?


A small one. Knit. A baby hat. It was green, I think. She had, um, tears in her eyes.


She said she couldn’t resist. Like a puppy, I guess. Or maybe more like an empty leash.

You met my eyes and knew. You knew that I knew. You said

Sometimes it’s the smallest thing.

Yes. I saw a crow on the grass soon after. Just sitting there, digging. Remember?

She thought she could find worms, too.

I held back tears, a practice I’d almost perfected. You said

I often think about that song. You know, with the rabbit?

With the hand gestures. Hopping. Like this.

In a cabin in the woods!

A little old man at the window stood.

Saw a rabbit hopping by—

Knocking at my door.

Help me, help me the rabbit said…

And it hit me and I gasped, and you looked panicked, and we stood for a moment with our hot, shattered breath fogging the windows. I wanted a hole to open up. I wanted to dig my way away. You said

I’m sorry. I’m sorry. What was I thinking?

It’s always there. You think you’re OK, and then you’re not.

The rain fell harder. Drops angling into the shelter, bouncing off your shoes. I said

I’ve been dreaming a lot lately. The cottage, our car. That vacation we took to the beach.

That was good. It was fun.

Except in my dream the water is black. It’s not night or anything. The water’s like ink.


And she’s way out in the waves. But my feet are stuck in the sand. Not even deep. Just stuck.

Your pause was long, far away.

Some days it plays on a loop. It never stops starting over.

I traced a circle in the foggy window, round and round and round. I said

Sometimes I can feel her. The sleeve of her sweater. It was red, with little ducks on it. Your mother made it, I think.

With the big round buttons down the front.

It was so wet from the water. Wet wool, with that smell.

Like a barn. A lamb in the rain. You said

You didn’t mean to—

It was just a minute. I just stepped inside…

I know.

I was standing in a puddle now. Water pooling around my boots. You said

It wasn’t your fault. You know that?

I wouldn’t have blamed you if you blamed me.

No. How could I? How can I?

I plucked at my sleeve. Pulled a loose thread through the stitching until it came free.

I picked her up and she was so heavy. So heavy.

She’d been so light.

I reached for her and grabbed her sweater instead. Now it’s sewn into my own skin. The wet wool of it. It just keeps slipping away.

You stepped forward and for a moment I felt it again. The sphere of us. Our loop. A circle that, for a while, had been perfectly complete.

You were a good mom. I knew it. I’ll always know.

Your bus pulled to the curb, then, scattering puddles in an arc. Breaking the surface. You said

It’s still pouring out there. That rain’s pretty unforgiving.

Then you stepped onto the bus and paid your fare. Made your way to a seat by the window and didn’t look back.

And I said—

to the years that had sat between us, the ache that split everything, the weight that had held us underwater for so long, so long—

I said

Oh, I don’t know. I think it’s finally letting up.

Tina Wayland is a freelance copywriter by day and a fiction writer when the stars align. She has had pieces published in such spaces as The Foundling Review, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, carte blanche, and Every Day Fiction. When she’s not trying to hold down the fort, she can be found in some corner of the world or other, probably eating something new.

Image via Pixabay

Table Manners – Cheryl Markosky

People get a kick out of Miss Mochi Cakes getting a kick out of food. She sits on the deck, legs dangling. Squeezing a slippery mango, carroty juices trickle down her thighs. Resembling Octopus brains – so Miss Mochi Cakes surmises without any Cephalopoda expertise – the slick flesh will make spines tingle. Miss Mochi Cakes has power over those craving her mango sucking. She slurps forbidden fruit like a babe sups mother’s milk.

Miss Mochi Cakes washes off the gummy syrup. No one would know she wasn’t in the Caribbean; she’s in close-up with a potted palm on her friend’s boat in Hackney. Miss Mochi Cakes posts today’s mango fest on her Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response videoblog. Grown men will whimper, recalling their mothers coring peaches, husking sweetcorn, scooping ice cream.

Known as Miss Mochi Cakes, the siren of stimulation is Maggie in real life. A hint of Japanese exotica helps sell foodie-licious dreams.

Miss Mochi Cakes is a serious ASMR artist. Scrolling through comments from her 9.73 million fans, she revels in praise for scraping avocadoes from skins and whirling spiralised courgettes.

Yet, there’s one unhappy customer.

Magneto Man – once an ardent disciple – whines disapproval.

‘Your squelchy jelly isn’t squelchy enough.’

‘Your hand-ladled Stichelton isn’t supple enough.’

At first, Miss Mochi Cakes deflates like a Victoria sponge let down by baking powder past its sell-by date. Then, she fights back.

‘Okay, buddy,’ Miss Mochi Cakes announces. ‘I’ll give you livery and lathery. Squidgy and squashy. I’ll touch every one of your nerve endings.’

* * *

Maggie/Miss Mochi Cakes spoons soup into the stroke-slackened mouth of her mother, who’s in the flat’s only bedroom. Maggie sleeps on a futon in the kitchen, bringing her closer to invented Japanese roots. It’s not cultural appropriation, she reasons. It’s good marketing.

Her mother’s distressed. Maggie feels guilt that she doesn’t understand, and anger her mother doesn’t understand her either.

An orderly person, Maggie’s mom hates spillage. Maggie steers broth between her mother’s gums, but liquid trembles down her chin. ‘Hey, Mum, it’s okay if you dribble.’

* * *

When Maggie was young, she had food reveries, forking mashed potato into Close Encounters of the Third Kind piles. Sucking spaghetti fervently, smattering tomato sauce over the walls.

Her mother reprimanded her. ‘Don’t play with your food. And use your serviette.’ It was always serviette; Maggie’s mum reckoned it sounded posher than napkin.

Maggie’s preoccupation with food sculpture meant work as a photoshoot stylist, until she was fired for being too messy. Tablescaping was the next failed venture. ‘In your hands it’s table-trashing,’ declared the boss sacking her. Things finally came good with Maggie’s quirky ASMR films.

She wishes her father could witness her success. He laughed when she mucked about with food. But his sense of humour evaporated the day he left to attend a conference, from which he never returned. Like Magneto Man, she tries to put him out of her mind.

* * *

Despite Maggie’s mother’s presence and 10 million staunch followers, she’s lonely. The only person she sees regularly is Ocado delivery man Steve. She calls him Mr Substitution, because he brings lemon toilet cleaner instead of fresh lemons.

‘Today, it’s a stuffed chicken toy instead of a roast chicken with stuffing,’ he says.

‘Shall I tear it open and do crazy things with the stuffing?’ She realises this could offer Magneto Man something new to hate.

‘Keep the fluffy chicken. It might cheer up your mom.’

Steve’s a good guy. Along with lugging grocery orders up five flights, he helps Maggie with technical problems when she’s recording. He even regularly says hello to her mother.

‘What’s the dish of the day?’ he asks.

‘I’m going East European,’ she explains, hoping to regain Magneto Man’s adoration.

She presses on with perogies – dumplings stuffed with cheese and mashed potato. Glistening in butter, topped off with lardons and sour cream.

Steve polishes off two helpings before descending the graffitied staircase to his van.

Magneto Man isn’t as accommodating. ‘It’s nul points from me,’ he taunts, channelling his inner Eurovision Song Contest judge.

* * *

Miss Mochi Cakes goes into a frenzy creating Choucroute Garnie, apple strudel and American pancakes drenched in Quebecois maple syrup. Salmon en croute, lamb tagine with fragrant couscous, and pistachio macarons. Herb sauces pour lasciviously from on high, hollandaise smothers perfectly cooked eggs.

A week of world cuisine for blogs that Magneto Man disregards, his comments becoming more hostile.

‘Miss Mochi Cakes, you’re a washed-up cow.’

She’s so exhausted at the end of the ethnic blog sequence, she collapses next to her mother’s bed. Lacking energy to crawl onto her futon.

* * *

The next day, Steve arrives with items Maggie doesn’t recall ordering.

‘More substitutions?’

‘Time to rediscover the magic of ingredients,’ Steve suggests.

He places an egg in the palm of her hand. Its fragility touches her. She feels the reassuring weight of a potato. Rings of an onion bring a mathematical joy she’s lost in her ASMR fog.

Steve slices a fresh baguette, butters it and layers French jambon inside.

Maggie starts to switch on the camera. Steve grabs her arm. ‘Don’t record anything. Don’t make food crackle, scratch or ooze. Just taste it.’

Maggie bites the perfect collation: salty butter combines with pickle in the best ham sandwich she’s ever had.

‘Not bad for a trainee chef, eh?’ Steve divulges that he’s studying at Leiths School of Food and Wine. ‘How about we make food that people can actually eat.’

He greets Maggie’s mother from the bedroom door. ‘All right then, Mrs Mochi?’

Maggie’s mother smiles crookedly. She’s always happy to see Mr Substitution.

Her mother chokes in a small voice. ‘Take her out.’

Steve clutches Maggie’s hand and steers her away from the apartment.

Away from Miss Mochi Cakes’ food cornucopias.

Away from taunts from Magneto Man, who will soon be chucked off social media after he’s outed by other women he’s hounded, too.

Away from trying to please invisible ghosts in her life.

Maggie smiles, licking a blob of butter off her finger.

‘Manners, Maggie. Always remember your manners,’ Steve gently chides.

Cheryl Markosky’s a Canadian-born journalist of Italian/Polish origin, splitting her time between the UK and Caribbean island of Nevis. She’s written for various newspapers and magazines, and ghost-written two books. New to the world of flash fiction, she’s been attending workshops run by Jude Higgins, Nancy Stohlman and Retreat West.

Image via Pixabay

Crying At Work: A Guide For Managers – Dan Brotzel

Managers have to deal with many challenging scenarios as part of their role, from having difficult conversations about poor performance, to making someone redundant, to explaining to a team member that they have an unfortunate body odour. But for many, perhaps the most uncomfortable scenario of all is when you come across someone in floods of tears at their desk, or bump into them as they run sobbing for the nearest loo.

At such moments, panic is a natural first reaction, but as a leader and agent of change within your organisation, you know that people will look to you to set a constructive and respectful example. Fortunately, although the terrain ahead of you may be fraught with risk, others have successfully navigated it before you. Use the following set of best practices to formulate and implement the appropriate response…

1. Create a safe space

If someone is already feeling upset and anxious, the last thing they need is someone around them – especially a manager or leader – who looks awkward and unsure about what to do. And of course the last thing you want to do is to make the crying party feel any more uncomfortable than they doubtless already do.

So if you do see someone crying at work, the first question to ask yourself has to be: Can I get away from the scene without anybody realising I was ever here? Take a good look around, and if you haven’t been spotted by anyone, Get the fuck away fast.

How do you avoid being seen? Well, crying often happens quite late in the day, when perhaps the majority of people have already gone home. You might hear some quiet sobs emanating from a workstation, for example. Hearing before seeing is always useful, because in such situations it is often quite possible to walk very fast past the workstation and make it look like you are very distracted, or in a big hurry, or dreamily listening to something through your hastily applied earbuds.

Act as if you have heard nothing, perhaps emitting as you go a light airy whistle or engaging in some modest rhythmic tapping on your thighs, as if in time to some private melody that only you can hear. (A stretch target here would be to actually sing out loud in a way that might be construed as slightly embarrassing to you if overheard; the beauty of this move is that others will now be trying to avoid being noticed by you, in order to spare your strategic meta-blushes.)

Sometimes you might hear someone crying in a cubicle in the loo. Best to leave as quickly as you can, and go and complete your business on another floor. You can rarely be held accountable in such a scenario (unless you have an incredibly distinctive footstep) (or micturation style).

2. Practise active listening

There may be some occasions, however, where taking positive steps to avoid the situation altogether will not be the appropriate strategy. Much will depend on the context, of course, but the occasions we mean will all have one thing in common: you’ve been spotted. This scenario takes two basic forms: (a) where the crier has spotted you; and (b) where someone else has. A combination of (a) and (b) is also possible.

Now (a) might not seem such an issue. The crying person is in distress, you might reason, and will be too preoccupied to even remember your presence, especially if you slip away really sharpish. Not so. Remember you are a manager, and as such you are likely to enjoy a certain profile within your organisation; you are not, therefore, the sort of person who can pass unnoticed in your building. (See our guide, How to elevate your personal brand while appearing to be above such things.) Even if the crier overlooks you in the heat of their upset, there is a good chance that they will eventually recall that you were there. And if you fail to deliver any sort of compassionate or humane response, they are sure to tell others about it.

Scenario (b) is not ideal either, and for pretty much the same reasons. It would be just as damaging for a colleague or member of your team to notice that you observed the distressed person but failed to go to their aid – or even worse, to be spotted trying to sneak away.

In either of these cases, then, failure to act will see you marked down as callous, unfeeling, inadequate. The fact that there may be some justice in these epithets is of no value to you career-wise at this point. Indeed the whole point of the management track to which you have dedicated yourself it to maximise the virtues of your sociopathic tendencies without ever being penalised for the vices.

So don’t run. Don’t look embarrassed. Stand your ground. Understand that this is now a situation in which you will need to be seen to respond in some way. We’re very sorry, but there it is. Fear not, however: it needn’t be as bad as it sounds, and there are ways to turn this nightmare to your advantage.

3. Achieve through others

A powerful tactic in the event of being stuck next to a sniveller and having to pretend that you either care or know what to do is to find someone else to delegate the issue to.

Every workplace has an unofficial mother; this fact has been indisputable since the dawn of office time. Simply locate the appropriate person – it’s usually the office manager or the boss’ PA – and say in a quiet tone that conveys discretion, compassion and a panoply of as-yet-undefined finer feelings, ‘I think Jess is a bit upset; would you mind having a word? You’re so good at these things…’

Believe it or not (and we suspect not), there are some people in the world of work who actually get off on offering help, and they will be only too happy to volunteer. Indeed, their need to be useful and performatively compassionate in such scenarios is pretty much proportionate to your need to avoid the whole thing at all costs.

In the absence of such a Mother figure, it may be that the co-worker is known to be close friends with another co-worker. In which case, you might say to a bystanding minion in those same subtle, grown-up tones: ‘Go and get Caroline – tell her that Samira is really upset!’ The fact that you know Caroline is Samira’s best friend will score you emotional intelligence brownie points with anyone who witnesses this exchange; they will not need to know that Samira just whispered Caroline’s name to you through her tears.

4. Stay mindful and attentive

Let us turn now to the nuclear scenario, where you have not been able either to absent yourself from the incident without being noticed or to find anybody else to assume the burden of care. This is going to be one of those character-building moments that you will look back on one day as a defining milestone on your success journey. Fake compassion? Of course you can. Fuck it, you’ve faked everything else.

Sit near the offending party, but not too near. About half a dead body away. Say something pleadingly, self-evidently pointless such as, ‘Are you okay Maggie?’ (You’ll notice that most of our examples involve women; it’s usually them doing the crying). Do not on any account touch the offending party. Do make a modest amount of eye contact; 1-2 seconds every five excruciating minutes should be enough. Not that you want to be in there longer than five minutes: your key priorities here are to look and sound the part – and to get the fuck out of there as fast as you can.

Do not inquire after the cause of the upset. Do just look like you’re listening; simply saying nothing and not running away is a surprisingly effective tactic to apply to the emotionally incontinent, who will assume that you are actually thinking about them, rather than, say, mentally weighing up the pros and cons of that new Lexus hybrid, or crafting the opening lines of your witty but insightful turn at the upcoming Away Day. Do look down at the floor every so often. Do not manifest any signs of impatience. Do add in another pointless question every so often. Would you like some tissues? Can I get you some more water? Or tea?

Indeed, fetching liquid or tissues can be a game-changer: you can string this errand out for several minutes, and in so doing there’s always the chance that you’ll run into someone to whom you can delegate this whole nightmare. Indeed, you should see this as an important developmental challenge: if by the time you return to the scene you are still on the hook for its resolution, then you will have to ask some serious questions of yourself as to your leadership potential.

5. Lead by example

So you’re still stuck there, in consolation mode. The least you can do is extract maximum value from the situation in terms of profile raising and personal brand elevation. Necessity is the mother of invention, of course, but tedium and contempt are pretty cool too.

So here’s how it goes. Soon the crier will be feeling as embarrassed as you are (not showing yourself to be) by all the fuss, and will be keen to reassure you that your presence is no longer required. Are you absolutely sure? you’ll say. Is there anything else I can do? Of course there isn’t – but you asked and you have stayed to the end, and that’s the main thing.

In the absence of getting someone else to take over, getting the crier to dismiss you from the scene is the ultimate win. You have seen it through, you have brought the issue to a resolution. You were there for them, and it looks like you fucking care. Just make sure others have noticed.

6. Learn from the experience

The last question to consider is also the most important. Can you in any way, shape or form be construed as being in some way responsible for this crying? As you move through the stages of evasion, buck-passing and fake consolation, a series of key questions will no doubt have been running through your mind.

Is there any chance that you could be the actual cause of the outburst? Did you perhaps deliver to the crying person some very robust and perhaps slightly-too-personal feedback in front of every single other member of the team, perhaps failing to stop shouting even when they began sniffling and picking at a piece of skin on their arm in a way that another might have interpreted as extreme discomfort?

Did you berate them in a brutally intemperate email for a tiny error in a report, a report which they had just spent half the night putting together, so missing their child’s first school concert, because you didn’t get your feedback to them in time? Or did you perhaps, as you begin to dimly remember now, get all cheesy and gropey with them in the pub the night before, and their miserable hungover feeling is confused by the fact that they know they really ought to tell someone about your behaviour, especially in this day and age, they owe it to others too, but you are their line manager and generally considered to be a favourite of the all-male senior management team and they really like their job (apart from the shouting and the emails and all-nighters) and they really want to get on here, and they’ve heard that other complaints have fallen on deaf ears, so it’s all very complicated?

These are just hypotheticals, of course. Remember the old management adage: ‘There’s no ‘I’ in teamwork’? Sadly, all too true. But the good news is that there are two ‘I’s in impunity – and fully five in ‘plausible deniability’.

Image via Pixabay

Destiny – Jude Higgins

The young man sits on the sofa in yesterday’s clothes with the blind drawn and his energy drink untouched, smoking his first cigarette of the day, another one lined up ready to go. There are crumbs on the carpet, but he doesn’t notice. Sunlight filters in at the edges of the drawn blind. If his mother were still alive she’d tell him to get out and enjoy the lovely day. ‘Life will be over before you know it. So make the most of it, darling.’ There’s a photo of her on the mantelpiece, smiling. And sometimes he thinks she’s smiling at him.

* * *

The young woman stands under a shower in her shiny white bathroom and soaps herself all over although nothing has happened to get her dirty since last night’s shower. Still, restless agitation and little sleep produces sweat. This morning she’ll wear a clean tee shirt and a fresh pair of jogging bottoms although, as usual, she won’t go jogging. The cur-tains aren’t quite drawn and sun shines on that picture of her and her dad at the seaside, not long before he died. Both of them are smiling real smiles at each other, not at the cam-era.

* * *

I’d like to think something will happen to make these two meet. They live only streets apart, they are about the same age. They’re sad rather than deeply melancholic. Both par-ents died nearly one year ago. Even though the man is scruffy and a smoker, people al-ways smile at him when he speaks. Even though the woman mostly looks solemn and strained, her face lights up and she laughs if she’s teased.

* * *

We have to get them outside.

* * *

What if their parents died the same day and they meet in the woodland burial ground on the first anniversary, say hello and wish they’d said more?

What if a few days later it’s the end of the world? — the very last day — the man remem-bers what his mother said and runs to the Spa, to hug the beautiful woman he saw at the woodland burial ground, who most days waits outside the shop before it opens.

* * *

What if she has heard the news too and sprints along to the Spa hoping to meet that man she met in the burial ground when she put flowers on the young ash tree she planted for her mother?

* * *

What if she sees him outside the shop, holding out his arms, and what if she hugs him tight, laughing through her tears?

* * *

And what if they live happily ever after, even though ever after is only ten minutes?

Jude Higgins is a writer, writing tutor and writing events organiser. Her chapbook, The Chemist’s House was published by V. Press in 2017. She has been widely published in literary magazines and anthologies. She runs Bath Flash Fiction Award, directs Flash Fiction Festivals, UK and the small award winning press, Ad Hoc Fiction.

Image via Pixabay

The Substitute – Phebe Jewell

Maddie told me the woman has expensive tastes in clothes and booze, so after vacuuming the living room I go into the kitchen. Opening the liquor cabinet, I am dazzled by dozens of bottles. Squat, tall, round, square. Brown, blue, clear. I never knew there were so many kinds of alcohol. My parents only drink wine at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“Bet you won’t touch anything, especially not the booze.” Maddie laughed when she asked me to cover for her. “You’re too scared of getting caught.” Her dare followed me throughout the day. Looking up from my French test, I met Maddie’s scornful smile.

Alone now in this stranger’s house, I splash amber liquid into a shot glass. Burning almond. I check the bottle. The level has barely moved. The woman won’t notice. I lick my lips.

I open the bedroom closet to inspect the dresses Maddie says she wears as she cleans. Running my fingers over the soft fabric, I picture Maddie stepping out of her clothes, standing naked in front of the mirror.

Maddie says Jerry usually comes with her after school. “We fuck in her bed all the time. We’re careful.”

I see him pressed behind her, hands on her slim hips. Filled with tipsy bravado, I remove a silk slip from its hanger, laying it on the bed. Unzipping my jeans, I lie on the slip, rubbing myself with the cloth, picturing Jerry’s naked butt, his muscular back. I pinch a nipple, imagine Jerry deep inside me. I float back to the kitchen. The clear alcohol burns, so I try another. A sweet cherry flavored liquor. Too much like cough syrup. I pour it out, watching the dark liquid stain white enamel. I should rinse the sink, the glass. But I want Maddie to know I’m not the goody two-shoes from Mrs. Albright’s math class. For the first time I think about the woman who lives here. I can’t picture her in the house, but I can imagine her on the phone in an office high up in a skyscraper, only coming home to change clothes before going out on the town.

Mom will wonder why I’m coming home from school so late. I’ll tell her we had a sub last period, some old man who made us stay after the bell because we were too loud and disruptive. She thinks I’m her golden girl. Pure. Obedient.

Running my hands over the slip one last time, I notice a wet spot. I laugh and step back to the kitchen. The glass sits on the counter next to the bottle. One more for the road. I lift it to my lips as a car pulls up in front. Glass in hand, I slip out the back door.

Later as I undress for bed, the shot glass falls out of my pocket. I pick it off the floor, my fingers sticky with sweet residue. I can’t wait to see Maddie at school tomorrow.

Phebe Jewell’s recent flash appears in After the Pause, Sky Island Journal, Literally Stories, and Door Is a Jar. A teacher at Seattle Central College, she also volunteers for the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a nonprofit providing college courses for women in prison. Read more of her work at

Image via Pixabay

Secrets – Madiha Ahmed

Even when Gregory’s Mum started finding his bed wet in the mornings, he couldn’t tell her about the Cloud. Or Jimmy.

What could he say? Mum, there is a Cloud in my pants pocket and Jimmy’s been tormenting me? Nope, he couldn’t tell her. But he never lied to her. So he only told her he was sorry, which was true.

The first few times she was calm and reassuring. This will pass, she said. It is just a phase. After a few weeks, she wouldn’t say anything to him; just quickly stripped off his pajamas and bedding to start the washer as soon as possible. He knew this meant she was worried but didn’t know what he could do. Telling her was not an option.

To tell her, he first needed to know what was happening. He didn’t know. He had found this…wispy mass…next to him one morning. Or maybe it was in the afternoon. He wasn’t sure. But it was certainly after the first time Jimmy had called him weird at recess in front of everyone.

The wispy mass had disintegrated when he had flapped at it. That was that, he had thought. But when he looked up from his book, there it was again. So he took it outside and left it in the garden. Some time later, he noticed it floating near his window. He took it out again and furtively buried it in his old sandbox. The Cloud was hovering on his bed when he came to his room after dinner.

He only briefly wondered how it was like this, why it was here, what it was. His mind was focussed on how he would keep his Cloud safe. It clearly wanted to stay close to Gregory. His pocket seemed the obvious answer as he could keep it hidden from his mother and everyone else. Especially Jimmy. Handy dandy, he thought, though, for what, he had no idea. A Cloud and secrets – the first time he had both.

Over the next few days, whenever he was alone, resting, or sleeping, he would take it out to examine it. The Cloud was soft, silky, and practically weightless between his fingers; floating, almost transparent. Like the cotton candy his Dad had insisted he try at the carnival last spring. Just not pink. It wasn’t even as white as it had first appeared. There was a hint of grey at the edges.

With the bedwetting, he struggled with finding a place to keep the Cloud away from his person. He tried several – the tabletop, his bookshelf, a wooden box, an empty jar, an empty jar with a lid, his top drawer, his middle drawer. Somehow it was always back in his bed by morning, and everything would be damp. He didn’t like it and he especially didn’t like burdening his Mum but what could he do? And anyway, he was more than occupied with Jimmy.

Like the Cloud floating into his life, Jimmy had suddenly developed a keen interest in everything Gregory – his scruffy shoes, his almost worn-out shirts, his lunchbox from last year, his teeth that were just a tad too big for his mouth, and even how he pronounced some words at Reading Aloud time in class.

During almost every recess, Gregory would hear his words and the raucous laughter that usually followed them. He would look at the gleeful, taunting faces. And he would turn around and quietly shuffle away, willing his jelly legs to keep steady even as his chest would feel tight. And he would sit hidden among the trees at the edge of the playground, his back to the rest of them and only the sound of woodland insects to keep him company.

And of course, his Cloud – which he would take out at these times to see it all ashen and quivering…angrily? He didn’t know. But Gregory realised that every time, his Cloud would be darker and trembling more intensely, and he felt an odd fear that the fragile little Cloud might explode.

The day Jimmy mentioned his Dad, Gregory really thought it would burst. His own blood was pounding in his ears as his pocket vibrated urgently. He was sure his Cloud would be pitch black if he looked at it. His rage fuelled him enough to stomp away to his headteacher and ask to go home as he was unwell. Right away. He refused to say anything else.

It took some time till he was in the car with Mum, strapped in, safe, and only then he finally spoke. He told her he missed Dad. He told her all about Jimmy and the peals of laughter he heard even in his dreams. He told her everything that had been happening, except about his Cloud. That was still something he couldn’t explain.

And as he spoke, he felt it calm down, felt the knot in his chest loosen. He didn’t mind the snot and the tears mingling on his face nor how hoarse his voice had gotten. This was Mum and now she knew everything. Almost.

As they drove home and she promised to help straighten things out at school, Gregory felt he was floating on a cloud and knew his Mum wouldn’t have to wash any bedding tomorrow morning.

A full-time mum, part-time student, and occasional writer, Madiha Ahmed is a pakistani who lives in New Zealand with her husband and daughter, as she dreams about sleeping and writing. She tweets at @Madiha_Ah.

Image via Pixabay

The Night Flowers – James Blanchard

In the Black Garden, the night flowers bloomed. The ghost roses filled empty eye sockets with pale petals, while the tiny blue-eyed snowdrops pushed through the spaces between the ribs.

The dead man’s bones were laid across the flower bed, loosely assembled in the right order. The Gardener knelt by him and inspected the pretty little plants that grew from his memories.

Antolin. The man’s family had called him Antolin. He’d been dead a long time, well over a century according to some great-great-grand niece, and was buried in an insanely large tomb on his insanely large grounds near the Purple Hills, in the shadow of his insanely large mansion. The century after his death was filled with nothing but bitter fighting between his heirs. They fought over lands, houses, jewels, and other tawdry things the Gardener had no interest in.

She told Antolin’s family as much, when they dug up his bones and brought them to her. They prattled on endlessly about needing to know his dying intentions, or the identity of his true heir, but she cut them short. “All I care about is divining the secrets from the flowers,” she’d said with solemn intonation. “All else is a mere distraction. But I will tell you what I learn.”

Some weeks had passed since then, though the Gardener could only tell by the size of the roses. Her plot was a small, cold, dark little place, hidden from the sun in the heart of the City of Light. The Black Garden could not thrive in sunlight; sunlight was anathema to the night flowers, which fed and grew on secrets.

“You’ve rather taken to poor Antolin, haven’t you?” She told one of the roses. Its stem had wrapped tightly around the bones of his neck, digging its thorns into the vertebrae and leaving long circular scratches. “What new tidbits have you found for me?”

Different night flowers thrived on different parts of the body. The black petunias massed around the knees and wrists, feeding on the traumas of old injuries. The sickly dusk daisies, meanwhile, bloomed within the chest, around the heart, and showed the Gardener such vivid non-pictures of brilliant dark colours and heart-breaking shadows. But it was the ghost roses that spoke the clearest secrets, growing around the spine and the skull and the memory of the brainstem. The opaque petals glimmered like the oily sheen over the City’s canals, and – to the Gardener, at least – appeared to see more than Antolin’s eyes likely ever did.

Gently, she cupped the rose’s head in her hand, careful not to scratch herself on the thorns again. It tingled in her palm, as though it emitted a gentle but searing heat, stripping away the layers of her skin one-by-one. The pink-grey veins of the petals seemed to merge with the veins of the Gardener’s hand, and Antolin’s memories flowed out of the flower and into her body.

“Show me…” She whispered. The ecstasy of the dead man’s secrets tightened her chest and left breathing a struggle. “Show me…”

The Black Garden fell away, fading, dying like the flame on a spent match. In its place, orange light flooded in, whilst golden-leafed trees seemed to sprout from nowhere.

She was a child, now. Or, rather, he was a child; the line between the Gardener and Antolin had been blurred away as she stepped out of her mind and into his memory.

He was perhaps seven, or eight, small enough for his eyes to level on his mother’s waist. Ah, yes, mother, who stood tall and slender, with long blonde hair that danced in the breeze, falling left then right then left again like the weeping of a willow. Light dappled and refracted from her tumbling curls, casting rainbows and fractals like a sparkling waterfall. Blonde was not the right word for her colouring, Antolin would realise in later life. No, his mother was a warm silver, a soft metal that could be bent by his bare hands.

Mother was standing by one of these Autumn trees, her ocean-blue eyes looking into the bark with intense concentration. With an iron knife, she was carving a love heart into the wood. Was this in the misty woods, the forest of scarlet sentinels that flanked the Purple Hills? Or was it somewhere else, one of the tiny rural villages on the outskirts of the City of Light? Antolin couldn’t recall, the details of his childhood dying like embers.

But he could always remember mother. She was rooted, planted into the earth, the strongest and most enduring tree of all. If he concentrated hard enough, he could almost—

“Ow.” The Black Garden reasserted itself with a flash of pain. The Gardener had scratched herself; one of the rose’s thorns had cut across her knuckle. A tiny, lazy drop of blood seeped down her hand as she pulled away.

It wasn’t the first scratch. Over the years, the Gardener had collected many cuts, scuffs and blisters as she tended to the night flowers. Together, they formed long, winding tracks along her arms and legs, twisting into abstract little patterns. Every day new flowers bloomed from the scratches in her skin, and she looked – in her opinion – ever more beautiful.

A scratch from a night flower was always deadly, though it was a death that could take decades. One tiny break in the skin, the merest chance for the flower to find a memory, and it would begin to feed and grow. They would slowly colonise the body, cannibalise the flesh, until nothing remained except a pile of plant life and reveries. The Gardener had fed an impressive crop on herself now, with ghostly-pale petals sprouting from her shoulders like an angel’s wings. The stems, meanwhile, twisted around her neck, growing a little tighter each day, thorns digging into the flesh.

Whenever she ventured from the Black Garden and walked the streets of the City, people would stare. Their faces were filled with pity, and they’d say things like, “There goes another poor soul, another Gardener lost to her flowers. Soon she’ll be nothing but memories.” But the Gardener didn’t care. Her night flowers were beautiful, her blooming magnificent, and her memories were the memories of hundreds. Her garden, the dark little place hidden from the sun, could be a world.

She stood, and left Antolin’s bones alone. She had other flowers to tend to.

Image via Pixabay

The Thumb – Russell Waterman

It was his thumb that caught my eye. Hell, if I hadn’t noticed it twitching, I’d a sworn he was a scarecrow. Like a weed this guy just pops up outta nowhere, standing dead still knee-deep in a crop of alfalfa. Being a long hauler, I drive this stretch of Interstate 5 all the time and see my share of hitchhikers tryin’ to bum a ride, and I ignore most of ‘em, but this one was different. This guy acted as if I owed him a ride.

Curious, I tapped on my brakes and slowed to get a better look. Dressed in a dark trench coat, he wore a Van Helsing hat casting a long shadow over him. I couldn’t make out his face—or if he even had one. He looked as if he fell right out of the Apocalypse.

Interstate 5’s Central Valley is flat and straight and has zero entertainment value. Just acre after tedious acre of farmland. If it were winter you could blame all the car mashups on the tule fog, but during the heat of summer, it’s the mind-numbing drive that lulls you to sleep at the wheel. So, to stop you from going insane, or splattering your brains all over the highway, when you see a stray thumbing for a ride you think of only one thing: company.

I slowed onto the shoulder kicking up gravel and rubbernecked my soon-to-be passenger. All I could make out underneath his hat was a scraggly beard. He had a disheveled appearance, or worse, like instead of riding in cars he’d been hit by a few.

Bringing my Peterbilt to a stop I kept reassuring myself he probably just needed a bath and a change of clothes. I opened the cab door and said, “careful of that first step, it’s a doozy.”

His odor preceded him. I reasoned it was because he was standing in a freshly fertilized field. Using the back of my hand, I wiped my eyes and said, “hello.”

He mumbled something and grabbed the door handle. It was almost sunset, but his hands looked discolored or stained with a distinct red hue.

Entering the cab his attention was immediately drawn to my bolt-action Remington mounted behind me.

“Don’t worry, it’s just for looks.”

His dark eyes flashed to mine before homing in on my rifle, salivating.

“C’mon, have a seat. I have an early morning delivery.”

Tight-lipped, the hitchhiker sat down and adjusted his hat further down his forehead. That’s when I got a good look at his hands and my grin disappeared.

Switching on my headlights, I pulled onto the highway and started second-guessing myself. Is this drive so dull, so boring, am I so desperate for someone’s company, that I should pick up any down-and-out who sticks out his thumb on the side of the road? Sadly, I was never one for thinking ahead.

Glancing over, I noticed how the dashboard lights lit his silhouette. An image from an old B-horror movie popped into my head. His eyes seemed to devour whatever light came near them like a black hole. I shook it off and drove.

After several miles stifling the urge to gag, I cranked down my window and let go with a loogie my childhood buddies would’ve been proud of. Like rotten eggs, my gut feeling about the stench coming from the passenger seat left a bad taste in my mouth.

“Where you headed?” I asked, wiping spittle off my chin.

The hitchhiker sat quietly, hypnotized by the white-dotted lines dividing the road.

Trying again, “You hurt yourself? Being a trucker, I get scraped up from time to time.”

A couple of minutes later the hitchhiker slowly tilted his head down, then slightly toward me before rubbing his hands like a major-league pitcher meticulously kneading a baseball. When he finished smearing the dried blood across his palms, he scratched his beard leaving behind several red specks dangling from his whiskers. Staring off into the distance as before, he hid his right hand inside his trench coat.

The miles dragged on in silence, until I said, “my name’s Frank, Frank Beamen,” and nervously offered my hand.

That’s when he turned, and I got the shock of my life. Etched between his eyebrows was a crooked line tattoo of a swastika. I figured he did it in front of a mirror using a dull switchblade. But it was his eyes that spooked me. They looked tired and empty, hollow. Honestly, he gave me the creeps.

“My family, they call me Charlie.” He deadpanned.

I quickly reneged on my handshake and clutched the steering wheel, digging my half-chewed fingernails into the black leather cover. Unfazed, Charlie had already returned his attention to the road, stone-faced. I began sweating. The taste of this evening’s diner chili began creeping up the back of my throat. I swallowed hard trying to chase it back down.

Breathe, Frank, breathe. I stared at the road trying to drive, trying to breathe, but my eyes kept darting over to him. My mind began playing ‘what if’ games. I lost everyone one of them.

When another speeder left me in the dust, I let out an internal cry for help. Pleading for them to stop. Please, help me! I just picked up a hitchhiker and it turns out he’s a lunatic!

Then it hit me. What if this guy’s a whack job? And I had no way of knowing, but what if the psych ward at nearby Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital was one patient short? What if this guy’s their man? I started having wild thoughts of Charlie hiding a knife or machete underneath his trench coat and was ready to gut me like a fish at any moment. What if he was the crazed escapee I read about in the diner’s newspaper? What if?

Then I decided to use the only weapon I had, my gift of gab.

“Where did you say you’re headed again?”


“Me, I’m hauling a full load of almonds down to Westley. Do this every week. I haul other products too, but I always seem to attract nuts. I mean, the folks in Westley really like their nuts. Not me, allergies you know. Anyway, where can I drop you? Next town’s Chesterville. How ‘bout there?”

Or, I thought, may I suggest a trip back to the Bellevue nuthouse? It was all I could do to keep my arms from shaking off the steering wheel.

Charlie didn’t bite. I rambled on for miles, making small talk about trucking and all the interesting folks I meet, hoping he’d come back to reality and opt not to fillet me and leave me for dead on the side of the road.

It was early morning with only the moon and stars lighting up the night when Charlie began fidgeting, moving his hand around inside his trench coat. I held my breath and got ready to slam on the brakes—I wore a seatbelt, he didn’t.

“Have a toke?”

My heart was beating double-time when I was relieved to see a joint he’d it was only a joint. I exhaled and mopped my gray hair sopping with sweat.

“N-No, thanks. If’n I do that, I’ll be saying Hail Mary’s for a week.”

Charlie lit up and took a long drag. He sucked in the smoke and let it settle deep into his lungs. Each time exhaling and filling the cabin with smoke. I thought there’s no need to take a hit, all I have to do is breathe. When he was done, he swallowed the roach and said, “Pull over.”

“But, we’re in the middle of nowhere?”

Charlie turned and sank his eyes deep into mine, “You’re not the one. Pull over. Now.”

I slapped myself for arguing the point. What do I care if he wants to be left out in the middle of nowhere? I made a hurried pit stop onto the dirt shoulder. Charlie opened the door which lit up the cab. Stepping out, his coat opened, exposing a large Buck knife, stained like his hands. It had been recently used.

Charlie took position on the side of the road. Dead still, he stuck out his arm and began twitching his thumb.

I popped the clutch and hit the throttle.

Russell Waterman is an Amazon published author, including his latest, “The Adventures of Dave Diamond,” a short story complication. His fiction has also appeared in Allegory, The Daily Drunk, The Blotter, Literary Yard, Jerry Jazz Musician, Potato Soup Journal and SIA.

Image via Pixabay

She Could Have Been My Grandma – Isabelle B L

She could have been my grandma, but she wasn’t. She was my neighbour who lived on her own. My mother left me with her when she had to run a few errands. My mother used to be gone all afternoon and sometimes, my mother would leave me with my neighbour between the evening news and Sale of the Century.

During the day, I sat beside her on the swing bed and she showed me a picture book and tell me what the story was about because I couldn’t read the words in the book. It was an alphabet I had never seen before. So many picture books and no one to read them to. The pictures would show children playing in the snow, wrapped up in long coats, red scarves and Ushanka hats. Whenever she saw snow on television or in the picture books, she would tell me how much she missed the Motherland.

She never spoke about the children in the filigree frames in between the wooden dolls. When I asked who they were, she walked to the wooden dolls, caressed them as if they were real, and said nothing about those memories in filigree frames.

Sometimes we would make Pastila together. I gathered the apples from her apple tree, then she let me step on a footstool to get the sugar and the eggs from the chicken pen. She made a drink called Mors, and I drank a tall glass with the Pastila.

“More Mors please, Mrs. Maria.”

We both laughed at the tongue twister.

The postman showed her how to use the self-timer on the camera. Once she got the hang of it, we created paper memories.

* * *

My face became spotty. I became very cranky once a month. I found it increasingly difficult to squeeze into school yard cliques. My mother gave me keys, banknotes, shopping lists and cleaning instructions, but I didn’t want to stay home alone. My mother worked until the break of day. She was the hotel receptionist, always there to make her guests happy and satisfied with their stay. Come again soon!

I teased my absent mother, but also attempted conversation when I couldn’t sleep. I rang the hotel.

“No woman by that name here, darling,”

I jumped the fence to Mrs. Maria’s, and we watched the four seasons go by. Watched the trees change colour and babies hatch and take their first flight. We named our feathery friends.

While Mrs. Maria, who became Maria, would sit near me while she read a book, I did my homework. Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vsevolod Garshin were her favourite authors.

One day I noticed the filigree frames were no longer there. The wooden dolls painted in red, green and yellow seemed melancholy, just like Mrs. Maria when she spoke of her Motherland.

We continued to make Pastila together, but I didn’t need the footstool anymore. I could reach ingredients, use the oven and clean up. She would cut extra slices for my mother.

The camera changed. The self-timer was more sophisticated. We would get in position and created even more memories. We filled many take-up spools as if it were urgent.

I watched as people in grey suits walked out of her house one day after school. When I asked who they were, she walked to the wooden dolls and caressed them. This time, she played with them. Placed one inside another and repeated the action three times.

We were so much alike. We both liked the colour red, we both enjoyed reading and cooking, sugary treats and the warmth of eggs minutes after the chickens laid them. We had a disagreement about winter and summer, but I had never known her winters as I had never felt snow melt between my fingers. Objects and animals surrounded us. People were in short supply.

I understood the time together was ending when the doctor opened her blouse and I saw what looked like a speed hump on her chest. Her beautiful heart needed a little help from science. She had no problems loving, but there was an issue with rhythm. Even here, we were alike. I have no rhythm, but I had much love to give. The problem was some people have a no vacancy sign posted on their chest.

The men in the grey suit didn’t win. Nor did her heart. Cancer got the gold medal in the sport: How to kill people—fast. Hearing, I’ve read, is the last thing to go. I tried to fit so many words in. Small talk, mainly. The rain. The train strike. The For Sale sign between the shrub roses and begonias at number 46.

She left me a big box. I found an old Ushanka hat, the wooden dolls that she used to touch whenever she didn’t want to answer a question I had asked. Filigree frames without photos. The Polaroid and the 35mm. Photos tied in red ribbon, a couple stained with Pastila and Mors, photos that showed me getting taller, Maria getting smaller. And then this:

Deer Gran ma,

I luv you.

She wasn’t my grandma, but she could have been.

Isabelle B.L is a teacher and translator currently living in New Caledonia. She has published a novel inspired by the life of a New Caledonian politician. Her work can be found in the Birth Lifespan Vol. 1 anthology for Pure Slush Books and Flash Fiction Magazine. Her work is also forthcoming in Growing Up Lifespan Vol. 2 for Pure Slush Books, Flash Fiction Magazine and Drunk Monkeys.

Image via Pixabay

The Woman Who Turned To Stone – Elizabeth Smith

It was only by accident that he noticed she had gone from hot to cold, as his hand brushed against her skin in bed one morning. It was not the slight coolness that you would expect when ice licked the ground at night but a coldness which seemed to penetrate to her core. He was reminded of when he visited a wishing well whose waters petrified objects. Dozens of ossified teddy bears hung from nooses in the falling water as proof of its potency. He had still been young enough to sleep with a soft toy, too young to understand the desire to give something up in return for its preservation. His mother had plunged her hand into the well for luck and, after touching her chilled skin, which already felt to him like stone, he had refused to hold her hand for the rest of the day. Now, he felt the same mistrust and wondered if it was something in the water. Hadn’t he always told his wife that she spent too long in the shower?

When he tried to bring the subject up, she gave him a stony look.

The alterations in her appearance were gradual: a stiffening that could have been put down to age; a subtle sheen to the skin that could not. Her movements became slow, graceful even, and more and more he caught himself wondering at her beauty – it was still there, underneath the years that had trodden over and under her skin. Where had the years gone? He tried to remember the last time he had looked at her like this, sifting through distant memories which lay buried beyond the years of hard work and the chasm their children had created. Even the old photo albums could not provide him with any clues; once the children made an appearance, the visual evidence of his wife’s existence almost disappeared.

When had it started? When the last child left home? When he retired? Was it neglect? Inactivity? A protective shell? Perhaps, after many years of watching her dreams turn to stone, she had turned her gaze inwards? She did not seem worried, or at least she didn’t say anything to him. But he found himself looking at her more and more and wondered why he had stopped.

It could have been his mind playing tricks, but he suspected not. His friends commented on how well she was looking whenever they caught sight of her. Her skin was not dull, but gleamed and shimmered in the light; her complexion rivalled that of the bonniest baby. He took her to the golf club dinner for the first time in twenty-odd years and she was the belle of the ball. She declined to dance, not through lack of offers, but stood with a stately elegance while he hovered proudly beside her.

There were drawbacks. She now did a fraction of what she used to, leaving the housework to him. He had to learn to cook, although secretly he quite enjoyed it. There was some satisfaction in seeing a handful of raw ingredients become a finished dish, and the smell and sound of an onion sizzling with some garlic gave him a sense of comfort that he vaguely recalled from an earlier life. He anticipated the slow smile he would get when he presented her with something he had laboured over, and wondered whether he had ever given her such thanks in return.

He worried. Was she in any pain? Would she become completely immobile – unable to move around or even eat? Was it something he could catch? He took her to see a doctor, not long after the night he had noticed something amiss, but he couldn’t bring himself to articulate precisely what he thought was wrong and the doctor merely suggested they get someone in to help with the house. He delayed doing so, not really knowing where to look, and by the time he had thought to ask around for a recommendation he had got used to the looks of approval she bestowed upon his handiwork and to having her all to himself. He had to sacrifice reading the morning papers, and curtail his social life but, as the outside world was no longer able to hold his attention, this was no hardship.

The statue of his wife was all he looked at now, every line and crease chiselled so carelessly by himself and the children. It made him cry. He would do anything to turn back time so that he could do better. No sculptor gets it right on their first attempt, but he should have tried harder.

He tried now. Every day he tried with the sacrifices he made, the offerings he left at her feet. And he was rewarded with eyes which tried to smile, lips whose whispered words he couldn’t quite catch, embraces that no longer felt heavy. At night he drew close to keep her warm and listened to her heart beat steadily, louder by the day. It sounded like it was trying to escape. Most nights were spent tracking the rise and fall of her stony chest as though his own life depended on it, as she had done with each of their children.

After a while the husband realised there was no longer any change in his wife’s condition. She seemed to him happier, although he knew that the interpretation of art is always subjective. And when he looked at her now, he wondered whether she had really changed at all: her beauty had always been there if only he had looked; the slow deliberateness of her movements impossible to see until he himself stopped moving; her coldness, understandable. She had solidified into the person she had always been, there was no miracle.

It was he who had been sculpted into someone else, she who had achieved the improbable.

Elizabeth Smith is a full-time mother and occasional writer who lives in Scotland. She has been published in Firewords Magazine and placed third in the Oxford Flash Fiction Prize 2021. When she’s not chasing after her two young children she enjoys reading, running and daydreaming. She tweets @Smithinamillion.

Image via Pixabay

Black Boots And Barbie Dolls – Kay Rae Chomic

The rubber soles of Zora’s black boots issued no sound on the tarmac and eased the pressure in her joints. The cold December night had required layers of clothing. She’d remove the parka with the Beretta in its pocket upon entering her helicopter. Zora’s stride matched the pace of Santiago, the pilot, whom she had just met. His role was to fly her to a safe house, then deliver the body to a hideout.

Weeks ago, Zora had told her boss: “This is my last job. Cash up front. An endless flow of drugs to let me live pain free.”

“Okay, but you’ll miss it. Fifty-two is too young to retire.”

“My body feels 82, André. It’s time you lead, and without me. There are others who can do what I do.”

Zora had skills out of his reach: sharp shooting, languages, piloting, disguises. She excelled at disposing of bodies. André, the schmoozer, had contacts, and wrote contracts. He laundered money, and invested wisely. They had been an effective team.

As she and Santiago climbed into the cockpit, he said, “I’m glad you killed the bastard. That family needed to lose their only son and feel some of the pain they’ve caused.” He spat on the body bag zipped tight, and spread out on the back seats. She ignored that insult. What this pilot and her boss did not know was that Zora loved that family better than her own. Zora staged their son’s murder, placed a swimsuited Barbie doll—her signature—in the crux of his arm, ensured TV coverage. Her boss wanted the body for leverage—the specifics of which she did not want to know.

In the cockpit, before buckling, as she wriggled her arms out of her jacket, she flipped the gun’s safety off and said to Santiago, “Who is coming on your left?” He turned and probably felt only a thump to the back of his head before death.

Zora’s cheeks burned, a familiar flush after an assassination.

She rushed to unzip the body bag and free Luca Fontana. He kissed her neck and lips. “Grazie, mia cara.”

Together at last, but she had to keep a cool head.

“Dobbiamo aspettare, amore mio.” We must wait, my love.

His breath, a tang of garlic and cigar, made her think about her present for him—a German antique guillotine cigar cutter. She’d give it to him later along with a box of mints.

They hefted Santiago into the body bag, placed the Barbie doll inside his bomber jacket, and would later shove his body into the Ligurian Sea.

Fitting, she thought—that was her last Barbie doll of her childhood collection, and this was her last job.

When Santiago’s body washed ashore and the Barbie doll-murder publicity went viral, her boss—her brother—would know of her betrayal. Luca had even better access to the drugs she needed, and a talent for disappearing.

Kay Rae Chomic is a novelist (A Tight Grip), and writer of flash: Ellipsis Zine, Every Day Fiction, Hundred Heroines, Retreat West (shortlisted), LISP (semi-finalist), The Dribble Drabble Review, Storgy Magazine, Crack the Spine, Five:2:One, 50-Word Stories. Kay lives in Seattle dodging raindrops.

Image via Pixabay

Don’t – Aaron J. Housholder

John drove with the windows open because the night air was cool and because the countryside was quiet after the loud night at Bear’s Tavern. And because, maybe, he’d had a few too many. Probably shouldn’t be driving tonight, he thought, but the county roads were empty this late on a Thursday, and anyway there’s nothing out here but cornfields and he wasn’t drunk enough, not even close, really, to miss the turns he needed to take. The roads out here were a perfect grid, with crossroads every mile, all numbered according to their distance from the center of the county. John’s car veered only a little to the left when he gave a mock salute to the 800 West sign for telling him just where he was.

He admitted to himself that he may indeed have had too much Bud Light when he saw the next sign. He could have sworn it said 783 West, which made no sense at all. He pushed the brake pedal, belatedly checking his rearview to insure no one was behind him. The road was all his. He peered up through the windshield at the numbers on the sign, barely illuminated by his headlights. The sign did indeed read 783 West. It was not a cross road. The cornfield to his left remained unbroken. But to his right a little one-lane road moved off into the darkness, surrounded on both sides with corn yet to be detasseled and almost tall enough to cover the sign. John wasn’t quite sure how he had missed this road before. He had come this way every night for years, headed from his job at the junk yard to his house just off of 450 East. Again, he thought, maybe too much Bud Light, but I’m gonna drive down this road. He turned right.

Through his open windows John could hear the gentle rustling of the corn stalks as he eased down 783 West. In places the corn leaves brushed the fenders of his car, a gentle papery caress. The corn didn’t quite meet overhead, but even so, the road felt like a tunnel. He cruised at fifteen, hunched forward, his face level with the top of the steering wheel because he needed, for some reason he couldn’t discern, to see the sky. The road narrowed until the papery caress on each side was constant.

At the exact moment the road widened slightly, or rather the corn moved back from the road edges, John detected the aroma of cooking meat. Off to the right, in a small clearing, John saw the faint glow of what looked to be a campfire. In shadowy relief a man sat near the fire, leaning forward in the posture of one fishing. He held a stick over the fire, presumably cooking. There were dusky shapes and mounds and jutting black angles around and behind the silhouetted figure. John brought his car to a gentle stop and killed the engine.

There was no good reason to leave the car and approach the man near the fire, but John did. The smell of roasting meet was appealing, as was the quiet crackle of the flames. Bear’s Tavern had been a bit too bright and a lot too loud, the boys tying one on like usual on Thursday night to get a start on the weekend. John found the cool air and small fire inviting.

“Have a seat,” the man at the fire said. His posture did not change and his head did not appear to move. He did, though, rotate the stick in his hand, turning the meat. John could not see the man’s face in the flickering light, nor could he identify what was on the stick. He sat down on what felt like a wooden box.

Both men sat quietly. John looked at the fire and breathed deeply, trying to clear his head. After a moment he glanced around at the slow-dancing shadows. The mounds and angles around him appeared to be the remains of a house. He could see a four-square window standing unsupported where he assumed there used to be a wall. He guessed that maybe the house burned down, though it was too dark to know for sure. Perhaps the fire in front of him was suggestive.

As though he read John’s thoughts, the man said, “Yes, this was my house.”

John nodded in the darkness.

The man turned the meat over again.

“Clear night,” John said, after a moment. The stars shone brightly as they only do in the country.

“Some are,” the man said.

The aroma of the meat took on the darker fragrance of burnt flesh. The man turned the stick once more.

After a quiet moment, the dark man said, “What do you do?”

The subject of work had been, as it always was, the subject of conversation and consternation at Bear’s. John was loathe to get into it again, but didn’t want to be rude.

“Work over at the junkyard,” he said.

The man nodded. “Ass end of the car food chain,” he said.

“I was saying that same thing tonight,” John said. “We get the dead ones, and we tear them apart and sell the pieces.”

“I worked there too,” the man said. He waved his hand, the one not holding the stick. It was his first expressive gesture. “Worked there forever. Long time ago.”

“It’s about all there is out here,” John said. Again, this was the subject at Bear’s. The new cars, the boys at the bar lamented, they’re sold and bought down on the north side of the city, a hundred miles from here. They’re driven to the second-rate towns fifty miles away, then sold as used junkers and driven out into the country, and finally dropped off at the junkyards. John had visions of people buying these shitkickers in these small farming towns and driving them straight to the junkyard, without even a stop at the Walmart in between. He knew it probably didn’t happen quite like that, but on a dark Thursday at Bear’s, that’s what it felt like. His job was to wait for the inevitable piece of shit to fall apart in his yard, a hunk of metal somehow worth less than the sum of its parts.

“Feels like vulture work,” John said.

“Honest vulture work, though,” the man said.

John shrugged.

“Not what I thought I’d be doing at this point,” he said.

“Tell me about it,” the man said.

The meat now smelled entirely burned, but the man still held it over the fire.

“You retired from the junkyard?” John asked.

The man waved that away. “Been a long time, as I said.”

“What happened to your house?” John said.

The man said nothing.

The meat on the stick caught on fire. The flare of flame startled John, gave him a retinal glare. The man sat still and turned the meat again. The fire crawled around the meat, fully engulfing it.

“I think it’s done,” John said.

The man was silent and still.

“What happened to your house?” John asked again.

“Don’t,” the man said. The meat sputtered and crackled. A small tendril of flame, maybe attached to some skin, fell from the stick.

John shifted on his box. He thought about getting up and leaving. Whatever Bud Light buzz he’d had was gone.

“They told us we’d never go anywhere,” the man said quietly. The stench of burnt flesh was strong now. “And they were right. What is there to do out here in these fields? Didn’t want to farm. So we started that junkyard, all those years ago.” He shook his head. “Replacement truck parts and tractor parts and all the rest. Ass end of the food chain. But that’s what we had.” The burnt piece of meat finally fell off the stick. The man held the stick in the fire for a moment, turning it every so often, charring the naked end. Then with sudden violence he yanked the stick from the fire and jammed it into the darkness beside him. John heard a sickening crunch. The man raised the stick once more and held a new piece of meat over the fire, still wriggling. Its shape was undiscernible.

John remained seated on his box but moved a few inches away. The darkness of the field or meadow around him had deepened as he looked at the fire. He could no longer see his car, could barely see the stars, could feel but not really see the debris around him. The man near the fire remained in stationary shadow. The aroma of freshly roasting meat once more filled the air, coupled with the smell of burnt hair and accompanied by the crackle of the fire and the sizzle of fat. John couldn’t think of a single word to say. He scooted away further.

“Don’t,” the man said again. “There’s nowhere to go out there.”

Then, after another moment of silence, he spoke once more.

“I got another stick here, if you want it.”

Aaron J. Housholder teaches writing and literature at a small liberal arts university. His work has appeared in The Molotov Cocktail, Cheap Pop, Barren Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, and elsewhere. He serves as the Fiction Editor for Relief Journal. You can find him on Twitter @ProfAJH.

Image via Pixabay

This Is a Story About That Can of Tuna You Left on the Counter – Melissa Llanes Brownlee

Did you leave it for me to find? A trophy of your successful hunt through our bare pantry. Left for me to marvel at your ability to fend for yourself. Its jagged lid, torn away by the ancient ten cent can opener you bought at a garage sale trying to save money, propped up by a crooked sliver you decided wasn’t worth the manual labor to remove.

The spoon is where you left it too, the bowl half-buried in oil-soaked remains, the bent handle jutting out almost parallel to our marbled Formica counter, another cheap garage sale find. Why didn’t you finish it? I had made rice. Then again, I like tuna on hot rice. Not you.

You could have put the whole can in the fridge like you’ve done before. The smell permeating the shells of eggs, the sides of condiments, the carton of milk so much so that I had to clean the entire thing on the one night I was free, wishing I was on a beach back home with no worries or cares.

Now, the smell blankets our small kitchen with no windows to open as I dump what’s left into the over-filled trashcan you haven’t emptied yet. I wash it out, bending and straightening the lid to pop it off, as you knew I would, placing the split pieces on the counter to dry.

Melissa Llanes Brownlee is a native Hawaiian writer, living in Japan. She received her MFA from UNLV and has fiction published and forthcoming in The Citron Review, Waxwing, Milk Candy Review, Claw & Blossom, Bending Genres, The Lumiere Review, (mac)ro(mic), and elsewhere. She tweets @lumchanmfa and talks story at

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Streams Of Consciousness II

1. Untitled – Lindsey M. Heatherly

I’m exhausted and I’m angry and I hate myself and I want to be known but I hate being judged I need to throw the clothes in the wash I want to quit that project I started I’m tired of expectations I hate my body I hate that I’m fat I want to be skinny and dainty and quiet I don’t want to take up space I want to be what men want But I also want to be myself I want to be loved by someone who sticks around I don’t want to have to explain myself I don’t want to give feedback on that piece tonight but if I wait until tomorrow I might not feel well enough to do it It’s another thing to add to the list I want to quit Twitter I want to quit everything literary I want to skip work tomorrow I want to go on a trip I want to want someone who wants me back I don’t want to listen to her talk about her ex and I know I do the same thing sometimes I am such a hypocrite I need to get the oil changed on Saturday I need to eat better food I need to eat less I need to spend less time on Twitter I need to figure out how to find comfort when everything is scratchy wool on my skin I want silence and waterfalls and a black hole and the Aurora Borealis My head hurts I want to cry but I’m too tired The vaccine comes tomorrow which is good but I dread People don’t like me when I share who I am I’m not easy to handle or swallow I make things difficult I want peace I feel like my old life was a hundred years ago He isn’t talking to me Why am I surprised He only wants to talk when he’s horny Maybe that’s all men I want to die I don’t say that much anymore but it’s true sometimes It would be easier you know? To have all this behind me I hope the laundry dries by morning

Lindsey M. Heatherly is a Pushcart nominated writer (Red Fez & Pithead Chapel) born and raised in Upstate South Carolina. She has words in X-R-A-Y, Emrys Journal, Schuylkill Valley Journal, and more. She spends her time at home raising a strong, confident daughter. Find her online at or on Twitter: @rydanmardsey.

2. Untitled – E E Rhodes

You know about the Beaufort Scale, which runs from 1 to 12. You’ve used it countless times, and not only for the weather. Maybe for the moods your oldest always seems to be in? Maybe for the state of your youngest kid’s room? Maybe for how you feel compared to all the other girls you graduated college with? Maybe to let your husband know if he should come home quick-smart? Yeah, you know what the different levels are exactly.

Where 0 is calm. The calm you feel when the laundry is done and the house is quiet and the shopping is put away and there is nothing and no one to see you hold on to the edge of the countertop so tightly your knuckles turn white.

Where 1 is light air, just ripples without crests, the sound of something awful, but only in the distance. So far away you don’t really hear it, you just know the effects it’ll have when the impact finally arrives.

Where 2 is a light breeze with wavelets with crests of a glassy appearance, not breaking, not breaking, not breaking, yet.

Where 3 is a gentle breeze, where the crests begin to break and there are scattered whitecaps. Because you read that note you found in his shirt pocket in the laundry. And you stuff your fist into your mouth and bite down hard.

Where 4 is a moderate breeze with small waves with breaking crests. Like you texted a photo of the note to your husband and know that something bad is now coming.

Where 5 is a fresh breeze with small amounts of spray. The kind that will soak you if you don’t pay attention. The kind that started, you’ll tell yourself later, when you weren’t paying attention, and that will make you desperate to start that part over again.

Where 6 is a strong breeze and long waves begin to form. The sort that knocks your feet from under you when you thought you were solid. You tell yourself that again. You thought you were solid.

Where 7 is a high wind, and everything heaps up. Actually breaking. And maybe is already irredeemably broken.

Where 8 is a gale with moderately high waves with breaking crests forming spindrift. With a spray that blinds you, scrubbing hard at your salt-smarting eyes. And you just trying to keep your head above water. Not waving. Drowning.

Where 9 is a strong gale which rolls right over you, and which crowds your visibility, extinguishing everything but the blinking-blue pilot-light on the stove.

Where 10 is a storm, that thing you never once saw coming, and all your thoughts are upended, foundering on the rocks of how is this happening? With much reduced visibility, narrowed down to that hateful blinking-blue light of whatever her name is.

Where 11 is a violent storm. With thunder and lightning. And everything in the kitchen is aggressively shaken, and your husband is belatedly home in answer to your level 4 text. Where you think things can’t get any worse.

And 12 is a hurricane force where she comes into the kitchen behind him. And all the gathered fronts come into alignment to create a perfect storm.

3. It’s not – Ellen Symons

When I wake crying it’s not because of you.

It’s because of the sun. It’s because of the way the snow glistens in sharp light. It’s because the moon played across the field all night long, chasing rabbit and red fox, coyote and mouse.

It’s because the cat is 12, when yesterday she was a kitten. And tomorrow she’ll be 20. It’s because of the grey in my hair and the wrinkles at my eyes, the cracking in my knee, the arthritic finger.

It’s because someday I won’t remember the years we had together, and all of this sorrow will have been wasted.

When I wake crying, it’s not because of you.

If it were because of you, I would have to call. I would have to rise from my bed, lift my head from your pillow, run into the world and appear at your door. I would have to hear you say no, it’s not a good time. The dishes aren’t done. The bed isn’t made. After all this time, of me washing your dishes, of me making your bed, I would have to ask why. Why, I would have to say. Is she there with you. I would have to listen. While you lied. No. It’s not a good time.

If it were because of you, there would be no remedy. There would be no stitch in time, no glue for my heart, no waterproof miracle paste that would hold the torn flesh as blood slicks its edges, as it slips through my shivering fingers. If it were because of you, I would never mend.

It is not because of you. I will stay in this bed for the sun and the moon that tumble across it. For the downy loft of its covers. For the small purring warmth of the cat at my knees. Not for your scent. Not for the smell of you ground into the fibres. Lemon and sweat, the shampoo you use, the heat of your body. Not for the way my figure shapes around the space. The space you once held. Where I held you.

I will leave this bed when. When it’s a good time. When my knees are cold because the cat has long padded to the warmth of the window seat. When I have followed the sun and the moon to the ends of their tracks. When the mouse and the rabbit have squealed in the night. When my water-chapped hands have smashed each of your dishes. When I have lost the smell of you to the fust of my own lingering malaise. When I have dreamed every dream I can muster, and no dream can undo what I have mended. When I have forgotten your lies.

Ellen Symons writes poetry and fiction from a corner of the sofa, or while walking through the trees and fields of Lanark County, Ontario, Canada. Her published work includes a poetry collection, Economies of Gratitude. She is completing her first novel.

4. On the eve of forty – Nicola Ashbrook

Is this forty then? It’s hard to concentrate with the echoes of Fortnite through the wall and my husband clattering in the kitchen. But that’s life now; rain pattering the window.

I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow on The Big Day. Not that much is happening but if it was dry while we walked, that would be something. It might take a slight edge off a BIG lockdown birthday.

I certainly didn’t think is how it would be when I imagined it a year ago. We even talked about a joint party at one point. Dancing – imagine that.

People say we’ll have to celebrate later, when all this is over, whenever that is, but the moment will have passed by then. No one cares about a fortieth six months after it. Maybe they do. Maybe I don’t. I don’t know.

I don’t know what I think. I know it’s hard she isn’t here. When I had all these frivolous thoughts a year ago about the best way to spend a thirty-ninth year, I didn’t envisage I’d be doing this – the major birthday thing – without her. I still can’t believe she’s gone and everything that has happened this year has happened. But nothing feels real. How can it in a pandemic? More than fifteen-hundred dead today.

Maybe it’s all inconsequential anyway.

What could I possibly even need when we can’t go anywhere? I feel materialistic wanting anything. It’s pointless. You don’t take the stuff with you. But I want things just the same. Not excessive things, just some things to make me feel like it has been a special day and people care. Maybe slightly excessive. I don’t know. A bit of excitement.

We’re having Thai. And cake, I assume.

I’m torn about how much fuss you should make about your own birthday. I feel you should love your own birthday but I want and don’t want the fuss. It can be a bit presumptive. I don’t think that’s the right word. A bit exposing, maybe. I don’t like the pressure to like things. I’m a nightmare.

I don’t want to be a nightmare. I want to be relaxed and pleasantly surprised. I want to survive it intact.

I probably should have a word with myself about positives and upsides and making the most of things and not being dead yet. Even though she is.

She’d be telling me my birth story now – if she were here – about how it snowed and my dad nearly didn’t make it. Imagine if it snows tomorrow. I sort of think it’s bound to rain for my luck. I should have been at the hairdresser yesterday. We should have been staying in

Chester tomorrow. Some presents haven’t arrived because of Brexit. I half think everything is shit.

But I know it isn’t. We’re okay. We’re well. I have my boys. I have everything I need. It’s just another day. No big deal. I’m overthinking it. I’m going to bed.

5. Walking Away – Mike Hickman

Geoff knew that, when it happened, balloon-limbed or not, he would try to walk away. He’d known, in fact, even before November’s trip to A and E. Because, of course, he’d gone and turned his ankle over on the way to the job, hadn’t he? It was a two mile walk, mostly uphill, and he’d no money for the pauper’s chariot. So he’d stood at the bottom of the just-washed steps in the shopping centre and he’d stamped on his foot until the feeling had come back. With the exception of a bit of a chunder into the gutter, and the loss of a shoe that he’d later had to cut off his swollen foot, it had all worked out well enough. The others had led the fuzz a merry dance while Geoff had walked the other way with the goods to conceal at his leisure. All as planned. With added limp.

And then there was the last time he’d spoken to Debbie. He’d started walking even before ending the call. By the time he’d got home, it was half two in the morning and she’d already had a go at leaning on the others to get the charge withdrawn. She meant well – she always did, poor Debs – but she ought to have trusted him. This once, at least. For his part, he’d gone down for six months. The rest of the crew hadn’t been so fortunate.

And then there was last November. Two weeks into the new job his probation officer had landed him, and Geoff had treated himself to a Friday night bus home. He’d been standing on the curb when he’d been hit by the dizziness and the balloon arms.

He could have got on the bus, could have headed home, could have cut out the middle-man and gone straight to the hospital. He’d done none of those things. He’d batted away the concerned old dears, turned on the weakest of his heels, and started walking. Even in the middle of a coronary, he’d tried to walk away.

And then, when he’d later on ended up at A and E, he hadn’t been able to sit down. He’d paced around the vending machines and he’d circled the Costa Coffee in reception in the hope that – what? That he could walk away from himself? That he could escape his own skin?

Yeah. Exactly that. And it had worked, too. Just a mild one this time, the doctors said when he was eventually discharged. If he rested up, he’d be fine.

And he would be. Now the others had been sent down, it was just a matter of retracing the route he’d taken that night when he’d called in with the anonymous tip. He’d buried his stash in the rec. If there was any strength left in those balloon arms of his, he’d liberate his share. For Debbie. For everything he’d not been able to provide her all these years.

Only then would Geoff be ready to walk away.

Mike Hickman (@MikeHicWriter) is a writer from York, England. He has written for Off the Rock Productions (stage and audio), including 2018’s “Not So Funny Now” about Groucho Marx and Erin Fleming. He has recently been published in EllipsisZine, Dwelling Literary, Bandit Fiction, Nymphs, Flash Fiction Magazine, Brown Bag, and Safe and Sound Press. His co-written, completed six-part BBC radio sit com remains unproduced but available to interested producers!

6. Kindness Cache – Shweta Ravi

Into the void of her open wound, kindness seeps like time, doing more good than love has ever done. Entangled in spaces with people who are supposed to love her and the ones she was born to love, the heart feels at home until it doesn’t. While chasing milestones in love, she runs into kindness like a possibility or a parchment addressed to her, unremembered under a heap of musty leaves. Kindness is her secret jab of serotonin that she takes without telling anybody. She rides its curve in the reciprocated smile of a stranger, leans on lines penned with words of encouragement and perches on those elevations felt within when kindness whispers – your being matters. Being nice can be the nicest thing.

Love behind closed doors isn’t always a sobremesa, especially when love is ardently performing ‘the Hour of Judgement’- it was nice to have you born, but you weren’t needed enough, when you were growing up you weren’t achieving enough, if your past spills into tears you aren’t letting go enough, if your womb hasn’t delivered yet you aren’t holding enough, if you went down the cliff you didn’t have wings enough and now that you have been found alive, you just weren’t miserable enough!

When her love is a bleached jacket, compassion sews her a new sense of self-worth. In turn she wants to be kind to others, to treat them the way she wishes to be treated. Kindness makes her believe that the man with the toothless grin doesn’t have to be a crook, that the madness of the woman in the asylum is a manifestation of intense pain and in this price tagged world where even vials of happiness shall soon be available over the counter, often all one needs is shared time.

Love’s labour’s lost too insanely in expecting the entire universe to conspire when one wants something desperately. The universe must have more urgent matters to resolve, considering we are hundred seconds away from apocalypse on the Doomsday Clock. She finds more contentment in cosmic kindness, in the space and sun it spawns. She crawls up one ray of light each day to pluck herself half a ray of hope. Gratitude is goodness, perhaps all that the planet needs in this hour, to be handled with care what was manhandled in love.

In the continuum of love, kindness keeps her anchored. She strongly believes it has less cardiovascular consequences than love, agreeable or disagreeable. If she were to choose between love and kindness, she would keep love for stories and kindness for a lifetime.

Shweta Ravi is a writer and educationist, lured by both- the simple and the spell-binding. Her work mainly focuses on the intersection of ecology, culture and literature. Her pieces have appeared in Active Muse,, Women’s Web and Ayaskala.

7. Eggcorn – Amy Barnes

I’ve forgotten my name. Again. Have you seen it? I look in the wanted ads to see if someone has found my name, perhaps lost in the park on a run or under a church pew or buried under a produce aisle cantaloupe. There are other missing things listed as found, a braided gold wedding ring with initials, dogs, cats, one shoe, a silver spoon, a bag of walnuts. They’re the odd things peoples’ lives are made of. As I search for my name, I see a neighbor with a missing finger band, another one holding a real leash to walk an imaginary dog, a mother winging baby food to a baby mouth on a spoonless airplane. I look down at my shirt and see only a name tag that says My name is

I write the alphabet inside the cloud-filled globe that is my head now after the accident. There are puppet animals peeking around cumulus and cirrus matter. They sponsor my day’s search with different letters but there’s no rhyme or reason in how they write chalk letters in my head, sing song the week day to me like a lullaby.

I want to see those letters out in real life, in architecture so I keep walking everyday. I find windows and doors that look like h’s and o’s and a’s. I look for my name in trees and high rises and roads and power lines with bird commas dividing each letter from the next.

I return home and turn on the box where sounds live. The game shows are the enemy, gaming against me, always winning people with first and last names and first money and last turns. I watch the named people for the letters they gift to me. Do you want to buy a vowel? Yes, please I scream at the screen just in case my name starts with a vowel.

When I can’t take the box people anymore, I turn to book people with sacred names. The most boring parts become the most interesting. The begats they are called. It’s a word that makes me laugh. I read the long lists of names and imagine those people forgetting their names too. Who could remember a name with that many syllables and a secret meaning that only g-d knows?

The stack of tiny people name books on my sleeping place table grows. I flip through pages for inspiration. The man who joins me wearing a not-lost silver band, the one with a name that rhymes with something and a last name that is mine too, reads mystery papers about mystery and names and rooms. I read books of mystery words. Blurred names. Not my name.

I dream of my name. In liquid lights against my liquid eyeballs. Of a newspaper column with lost names lined up waiting to be claimed. In the morning I call the paper and ask to place an ad. They ask for my name.

I laugh.

8. Unexpected Item in the Bagging Area – Steven Patchett

A brand of pasta in various sauces has a promotion for a video game. But only one of the flavours has it. I assume it’s because the mac and cheese is the sort of pasta that people who play video games would prefer. Quick, filling, familiar, safe. You’d never find it on the Tuscany sausage flavour. I have no idea if it actually tastes like Tuscany sausage. I’ve never eaten a sausage from Tuscany. I doubt I could find Tuscany on a map.

I add a couple of packets to the basket.

I check my phone again. It weighs heavy in my hand, cold, inert.

I’ve never liked tinned meat, I stare in horror at the stuff once it’s squeezed out of the tin. But I don’t have to defrost anything, so I don’t have to think about it. Time saved is time earned. A few more items added to the haul.

I check my phone again, just to be sure.

Cereal next. Her favourite has gone back up in price.

I had teased her about it, telling her it’s for kids, full of sugar, not good for her. As always I’d misjudged her mood, gone too far. I could see the weary look, the sparkle fade from her eyes. I told her I’d get some anyway, only teasing, didn’t mean it.

She nodded, but couldn’t look at me.

Bread, milk, apple juice.

A5 jotter, lined. These days she loves to write, scrawling words on the page as fast as she thinks them. Trying to squeeze all her thoughts out onto the page so they’ll be there forever. She doesn’t want me to read them.

Paracetamol, re-reading the notice telling me I can only buy two packs at a time. In my head, the words sound spiteful, full of denial. As if they know what I think when I listen to her tortured breathing at three in the morning.

The phone is starting to drag, like a millstone. I note the time. I’ve been gone longer than I’d intended. A sickening need is heavy in my stomach. I push it down where it tangles up in guilt.

I looked at her jotter a week ago. I won’t look again.

I prefer the self-service tills. No excuse to talk to anyone, until the assistant casually confirms that I’m old enough for the tablets.

My phone rings and I drop my shopping from nerveless hands.

The scanning machine is talking to me, but I can’t hear what it’s saying.

All I can do is stare at the flashing words on the phone.

Steven Patchett is an Engineer, Father and Writer, living and working in the North East of England. His Flash Fictions have been published in Ellipsis Zine, 100 Words of Solitude and The Cabinet of Heed. He can be found on Twitter, being encouraging @StevenPatchett7

9. It’s all about the boxes – Kinneson Lalor

It’s all about the boxes and the things inside and peanuts and seeds and the damp place in the middle of the page where my hand was wet from washing dishes and then I picked up the pen to write and it all came out and even though my wrist ached and my head felt like that sort of numb you feel when your toes are cold but your nose is warm but somehow it still runs in streams down your face and creeps into the crack of your collar. What even is starch? Starch. It seems so clean and beholden. Throbbing. There’s a cut on my palm only it’s not a cut, it’s some pinprick wound I don’t remember getting but think is probably from the thorns on the barberry when I was dismantling the Christmas centrepiece into the silver bin I thought I would use for chicken feed except coronavirus came then bird flu came and the chicken coop my boyfriend husband bought me for my birthday, the really expensive bright green plastic one that I justified environmentally somehow, all set up with tricks and treats since Halloween but completely empty, the avian flu-carrying wild bird shit collecting on the grass. But I’ll keep feeding them. They’re hungry and they’re pretty and I sort of love them and get heartbroken every time one of them breaks itself on my window. I wonder how Bret Easton Ellis is spending his pandemic. Weirdly, I assume. Strangely. I’ve never read any of his stuff but the spines are pretty, fading on my south-facing shelves. I’m not sure why I thought we’d have more plants than books. I guess I misjudged what sort of person I am. Why did I even want to be a plant person? I think it’s because they breathe. Yet I keep buying books and can’t give them away. Fucking pandemic.

Kinneson Lalor followed a PhD in Physics from the University of Cambridge with an MSt in Creative Writing from the same institution. She is Australian but has lived in the UK for over a decade. Her work has appeared in various places including The Mays and Tiny Molecules, and she writes a regular blog about sustainable gardening for edibles and wildlife.

10. Punctuations – Mandira Pattnaik

All I can think of now is punctuations. And interruptions, pauses, periods, truncations and interruptions.

We are outward bound again. We’re perennially moving out, in any case, infinitely agitated atoms. Only this time the boxes are stacked at the doorway.

When you take a call, and stroll out of the room, I invite the sunshine in. Don’t know why you always keep the curtains drawn.

A mynah sits on the window sill. At rest. Except its eyes. Flaps its wings twice and flies off, one last time, out of my sight.

Below, the cars hoot and belch. What a contrast from the countryside home you promised for sixteen years.

I close my eyes, imagine silence. I like the smell of soundlessness.

Towards the end of our fifth year, when I was at the University, I remember collecting lampshades. You hated the play of colored light, called it chaos. I thought it as comma, interruption, so when it all burst open, I’d be prepared.

I hear you shouting downstairs. Clash of syllables, pitches. Bass and pitch hitting the walls. Another something gone awry. There were so many over the past year. I’m waiting for the white light that holds all.

When you return, a huge exclamation mark calibrates your brows, you don’t elaborate.

We strap up on torn seats. The Fiat was the first thing we bought, the last thing we still own. The engine thrums steadily, loyal like a dog.

Ahead of us, the scenes flip and change. Strokes, semicolons, parentheses. Couples, stretchers, mothers with prams.

The unrest rages, the pandemic powers us out of our jobs, all I hear now are the ellipses.

Mandira Pattnaik (She/Her) writes in India. Work has appeared in print and online including in Lunate, Ilanot Review, EllipsisZine, Door=Jar, Cabinet of Heed and Trampset. Tweets @MandiraPattnaik

11. Figures on a beach – Colin Alcock

They didn’t see me, sat far back up the beach, on the sand bank, tucked into the marram grass. I’d first spied them from the cliff path, before descending the steep steps to sea level. Just two figures and a dog. It could have been anybody, out for an early morning summer stroll, but even before I knew it was them, I recognised Brutus, my dog.

Everyone had told me I was so lucky to attract such a young bride, when I was far more than simply mature. Twelve years between us; an unbelievable love that seemed unbreakable. And for many years it was. We blended as one. I, the artist, putting beautiful dreams onto canvas, when I could. Painting poetic scenes of Cornwall that filled the gift shop walls, for an income. Wandering coastline, fields and moors looking for inspiration. She, the writer, plucking emotive words from the sky, the trees, the waves that rolled into rugged shores, sandy bays and quiet harbours.

But, as I grew to a more crusty age, there were tourists who sought something more than my visual poetry. And sought Anna for more than just her words. I saw signs, yet tried to hide them from my mind. But always, they were there. I spoke my suspicions only to Brutus, my loyal companion. Soft furred, silly, always ready to play; ready to take my thoughts away from despondency. But Anna had changed; she took to walking Brutus, whereas before, she insisted he was my dog, my responsibility. Then, for two-week spells, in season, I would see the slight smile, the glint of her eyes, as she recalled a moment of the day, a thought of tomorrow. It was in her stories, too. Words that reflected cherished relationships. But I doubted ours. Those two weeks always ending with her taking Brutus for an early morning walk along the beach, on a Friday, sometimes Saturday. Changeover day. Saying her goodbye. Then, come winter, the fire between us seemed always rekindled.

Now, I have reached pensionable age and fit though I may seem, I lack the vitality, the virility she retained. This summer, I knew it to be different; two weeks long passed by. Brutus even more her constant companion. I was losing her. Completely. I was just wrong about how.

I watched them that day, unobserved. It could have been someone she only casually met, they stood so far apart, Anna tossing a stick into the oncoming tide, for Brutus to fetch. Then racing back, sea foam at her feet. He calling, laughing, then coming closer, walking with her, taking her hand, enfolding her. And then the kiss. Lingering. Loving. Brutus ignored, circling at their feet.

Today, distraught, I walk slowly from the Covid ward, having heard her last goodbye; having given her my forgiveness. Avoiding my own infection by taking that sudden, selfish break alone, after what I’d seen that day. Though never telling her why. Perhaps, though, it is him she is with, now.

12. Melancholy Roses (with apologies to Marc Almond) – Sheila Scott

Melancholy is part of the Scottish DNA. Why else would we choose a spirit that reduces you to tears as our national drink? Why else would we live in a country that, had Noah lived here, would have resulted in an armada of arks (‘That’s gotta be it this time, Naamah. I’ll be in the shed making a big fuck-off freighter if you need me.’).

For crying out loud even our flag is blue.

I think that’s why we do dusk so well. Skeletal trees watch, inert, as the pallid rainbow (yes, even our skies are peely wally) seeps into the horizon.

MS Word thinks ‘peely wally’ is incorrectly spelt but has no alternative to offer. MS Word is often prone to fits of what frankly feels like anti-Scottish vocabulary-based discrimination. Indeed, often I am to be found at my keyboard, hair knotted with irritation, screaming ‘outwith IS a word you piece of hegemonous shit!’

‘Hegemonous’ has also just been granted the red squiggle of judgement. And ‘often’ the blue double underline indicating that, once again, Word wishes to impose a comma where none should be. This is my consciousness, pal, and I’ll decide what’s a word and what isn’t, and exactly where you can stick your fecking commas.

My stream of consciousness has just been distracted by something of a meta-quandary. Has the burning question of whether to eat the last Roses chocolate now (Hazel in Caramel as you ask) taken me out of said stream or is it, in fact, just another random artefact bobbing along on the waters of my inner monologue?

There follows a brief hiatus to resolve the sweetie conundrum by quashing its existential reality and putting the wrapper in the wastepaper basket. A tidy desk is a tidy mind, allegedly. It seems my desk perfectly reflects my mind: a pile of partly read books, nick-nacks (okay so we’re going to fight about this spelling too are we, Word?) including a NYC snow-globe, knitted plane, tiny painting on an easel, astronaut (not life-size), a windmill in a flower pot, bike-clock, felt squirrel with a walnut, two toy cars, a small wooden clown missing one foot and, doggedly fighting its turf in the middle, my laptop.

The horizon has finally absorbed the rainbow and we now have a blank indigo backdrop beyond the window.

It’s been a week of mixed news and the scales are tipping in favour of the negative. I think that’s why I’m dwelling on the Scottish predisposition to despondency. Probably our saving grace is that it’s nearly always leavened with the strong belief a) it could be worse and b) for many it is. Whilst this may not appear immediately obvious as a measure of optimism, it helps us look outward, dragging our forensic gaze towards the bigger picture.

It now feels foolish to dress a bout of navel-gazing as a national trait. Think I’ll have a rummage in the sweet bowl; there may just be a Roses Truffle left…

13. Ten past Ten – Bronwen Griffiths

It could be ten past ten or ten minutes to two. I am not sure which time I might prefer, or even if it is morning or night. At ten past ten I might be watching the evening news or, if it were morning, working on the computer whereas at ten minutes before two I would be digesting my lunch time sandwich or, if it were two at night, dreaming of strange houses. In any case, now that I look at my watch again, it reads ten fifteen or ten to three, though probably that will make little difference either to my sleep or my digestion and when I check again and realise that it is indeed night-time I wonder if I might try to sleep but though my eyes are heavy I do not think my mind will let me sleep just yet because it is restless like a stone at the ocean’s edge, continually rolling back and forth and knocking against other stones. But sleep does arrive, perhaps at four or five, and I dream of fast cycling and a kiss on the lips and indeed as I often do I dream of strange houses and all the while the rain beats on the window and the world turns towards the morning and then it is ten past ten and ten minutes to two and so on it goes.

Bronwen Griffiths is the author of two novels and two collections of flash fiction and her flash fiction has been widely published. She lives in East Sussex and when not writing likes to draw cacti, fish and stones.

14. Not You, But Me – Kimiko Wadriski Lumsden

What if I have nothing more to say? Nothing to add to the noise more than what I’ve already done? Or what if I’m totally silent again, afraid to make a mistake more than I am of never speaking up? Can that happen – the life be sucked right out of you without ever realizing it’s being done until you’re dead.

But when I say you, I mean me. I always do. Put that distance between my writing and myself. Keep it closed away, just out of reach so it’s not really me. (But it is, you see.) It’s the way that I can just keep saying the same lines in different styles, trying to find new ways for an old phrase. Another time, another time. I have tomorrow or tomorrow’s tomorrow. Push it back to the next day. Something is urgent, but never my own desires.

It’s the baby crying, the kid whining, the house is on fire. The smoke from a burnt dinner, the never-ending laundry piles, dumped and stacked on the bed, making mountains of fabric turning mountains out of molehills. Every tiny problem, I help it grow. Ignore it until I can’t anymore. Then when it’s time, finally, to do something about it. Well, then I’m paralyzed – fight or flight wasn’t my fortune, I freeze.

Immobilized, I wait for the moment to pass so I can carry on with procrastinating and endless self-doubting, the debate between me and my brain about who wins this round and who relegates. I can destroy myself through inaction. Wouldn’t that be productive? So, it turns out I am accomplished. Take that!

Regardless, I feel that I run in circles in my head, in my words. Are you getting bored of me yet? I am. It’s like I have to watch the same stilted pilot over and over, knowing that the first episode is just a trial run, a practice. Let’s skip ahead already, see where this show takes us. What else can I do but press fast-forward. I’m so tired of hearing the same old, same old. I KNOW.

I sit in my own feelings and thoughts rather than write them down, paper to pen. Fingers to keyboard, click-clacking away at what’s trapped inside this gray matter.

Maybe that’s why they keep coming back – those phrases – like a recurring dream, meant to tell you something, teach you a thing or two about whatever is bothering you. And again, with the you. Come on kid, when’ll you ever learn. I have to do better at this.

I wonder if I’m manic again or if I’ve always been teetering on that spectrum because I have these conversations with myself, I haven’t had quiet in my brain since (well when was it?) But even then, I’m sure the gears were turning. There is forever that urge for me to write down what I’m thinking. Will I always be trapped if I don’t get them out – write them down!

I’m feeling much better now.

Read more Streams of Consciousness in Issue Thirty-One

Issue 37 – Drawer Two

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

What’s Next – Priscilla Green

I’m tired of climbing mountains,
swimming across rivers,
running marathons;

tired of goals,


Give me a moment to breathe,
to rest my head on a pillow
and sleep for the night

before you ask me,
‘what’s next?’

Let me exist,

I have climbed mountains,
swum across rivers,
run marathons.


Priscilla Green is a Canadian writer of fiction and poetry. Her recent work has appeared in Spadina Literary Review and Vaughan Street Doubles. She lives in Toronto.

Heartless – Ann E Wallace

The man behind Curtain #6, in the bed next to mine, is moaning. Moaning the plaintive sound of a man who is very, very cold. The sound of a man who is burning up with fever and cannot keep the warmth within his body. A man who is so cold and so hot all at once that it hurts.

Whenever he stops moaning, he coughs. And coughs. And coughs. A deep, dry hacking cough.

In my bed, in Curtain #5, I cover my head with my jacket. The curtain between us is not thick. And I am quite sure, though I cannot see him, that the coughing man is facing me. And I am facing him. I know I should face away. But that would require a great deal of effort.

The coughing continues. I roll, slowly, from my left side onto my right. I rearrange the lines attached to me—attached to my blood pressure cuff, to the blood oxygen monitor taped onto my index finger, to the IV in the crook of my right arm. I spread my sweater and jacket over my body, pulling the soft collar of my coat over my face once more.

I am wearing a surgical mask, but I am not confident it can block out that cough, with its millions of infectious particles whirling through the air from one bed to the next to the next.

Many of the doctors and nurses here wear two masks, one on top of the other. Some wear a mask over an N95 respirator. Others have plastic shields over their faces. I feel naked in my thin paper mask.

They must feel naked even in their double or triple layers when they duck behind Curtain #6 to care for my neighbor.

He moans and coughs for ages, surely an hour or longer. I wonder how the staff does not feel the distress I feel inside of me as I listen. I cannot not listen. He is 6 feet away, maybe closer. I have no job other than to lie there and listen.

My bedside monitor beeps often, intermittently. My heartrate is 48…49…50…49. These numbers are low. So low that they set the alarm to beeping.

I wonder if my heart is trying to slow itself to a putter, so I might protect it from the man in Curtain #6 and all the other coughing men, coughing women, behind the curtains. If I could slow its rhythm down, down…down, I might lie still and know his breath, their breath, cannot touch mine.

As the monitor beeps with each dip of my heart below 50 beats per minute, I know that if I allow myself to feel anything for the man in Curtain #6, my heart would race with concern.

But my job here in this ER is to safeguard my lungs, my body, my heart, my family. And hope that there will be time to cry for the man in Curtain #6 later from the safety of my home.

Ann E. Wallace is writing at home in Jersey City, NJ while she and her daughter recover from COVID-19. Her poetry collection Counting by Sevens (2019) is available from Main Street Rag, and her published work can be found online at She is on Twitter @annwlace409.

The Quiet Abandoned Places – Anne Howkins

Rose takes herself to quiet abandoned places when no-one is looking. They de-fizz her blood, unwind the labyrinths deep in her head, slow her pulse – let her be Rose.

Trudging through the mud to a semi-derelict cattle byre hidden in a dip. A pair of March hares catch her madness. They box each other’s ears for the hell of it; bolt across the sprouting wheat when the wind carries the dismayed scent of Rose to their twitching nostrils. She squeezes under a sheet of corrugated iron which pretends to be a door, hanging broken hipped and laced around its edges. Rose perches on the old manger while she watches a spider straight-jacket a fly with silk, until all that she can see is a silver pearl trembling in the draughts. She wonders if she should free the fly, understands it’s too late. A gust catches the disturbed metal sheet, sends it twisting like a dislocated limb until it crashes into the byre.

Rose gasps herself up the hidden steps by the old railway bridge. Sleepers and tracks absent now the colliery trains are distant ghosts clacking through the night; the gravel cindered with coal grime shed from bodies long gone. Solstice butterflies leave the buddleia to flit around her head, collecting the dusty guilt and despair that gathers in her wake. Birdsong and light fading as the tunnel draws her in. A shock of feathers confetti her naked shoulders when roosting pigeons startle at the crash and splinter of a roof timber.

Rose seeks the building hidden in the dark woods. Brick growing out of grasping jewelled brambles as rosebay willow-herb floats feathery seeds in the autumn equinoctial wind. Hands stained red hauling herself up the fire-escape, setting oxide flakes drifting to earth. The final heart-wrenching pull over the top. She lies wide-eyed on a mossy bed, wondering if she could net a mackerel from the sky, bait it with confusion. The crack and crash when her weight sends tiles cascading to the floor.

Shivering her way to the mid-winter lake where the hill ponies and sheep gather in shimmering summers. They are safe in their winter paddocks, squabbling over the sweetest mouthfuls of June-scented hay. The old drove road crunchy under Rose’s feet, her eyes scrunched against the sunlight bouncing off last night’s tinkling hoar frost. She picks her way over the frozen hoof-pitted margins and slides onto the pristine ice covering the brackish water beneath her feet. Her exhaled worries shadow her as she swoops and glides over the frozen surface. The cracking and splintering behind her as the ice yields to her weight.

Rose opens her eyes. White everywhere, the walls, the sheets, the light. Her body a crumpled carapace, the hiatus in her head. Everything has aspirated away. Machines whooshing, blinking, beeping.

Murmured voices

she’s back

early days

no promises

Nails digging into flesh. Stinging salt on cheeks. The cage door closing.

A silver pearl trembling in the breeze.

A Week in the Life of a Broken Boy – Alva Holland

Monday: 09:00

This broken boy. He cowers in the corner of the locker room.

‘Kid! You wanna be a boxer? No cowering.’

He lifts his head, a bruise the size of a tennis ball on his cheek.

‘You been practisin, boy? Let’s go in the ring – do it properly.’

Tuesday: 09:00

This broken boy. He limps ahead of me. I am unseen. He drops his pants for his shorts. A large black mass spreads across his upper thigh.

‘No rogue fightin’ kid. You have to stick with my programme.’

Wednesday: 09:00

This broken boy. A no-show. I call his number. No reply. I call his house. Disconnected.

Thursday: 09:00

This broken boy. He arrives, dressed only in his shorts and flimsy t-shirt. It’s -3 outside.

He’s shivering, his bruises visible, his intense pain hidden, he thinks.

I throw him some track pants, ask him why he wasn’t here yesterday. He says nothing.

Friday: 09:00

This broken boy. He’ll be waiting. Car’s got a flat. Jesus! I call the kid. No answer.

Friday 09:42

This broken boy. He has busted the chain on the gym door. I find him crouched in the corner of the locker room.

‘Kid! This is not working.’

Then I see the blood, a constant slow drip from his head.

‘Jesus, kid, what’s going on?’

‘Not going back, never fucking going back.’

Friday 09:55

This broken boy is scared senseless by the arrival of the uniform. The kid runs, tripping, dripping.

‘For chrissakes, kid, you need help.’

I reach him, it’s not difficult to catch up with this boy.

I stand him up.

He winces under my touch. Everything about him hurts.

I send the uniform away.

Friday 22:30

This broken boy is asleep on my couch, looks younger than his years.

Friday 23:15

My wife comes back from her mother’s.

Looks at the kid.

‘WTF?’ she mouths.

She folds a blanket over the broken boy.

We go upstairs to bed.

Saturday 06:15

I hear the front door slam.

Dammit to hell, kid.

Sunday 17:56

This broken boy. Where is he today?

Doorbell rings. It’s the uniform. His eyes tell me what words need not.

Failure – me.

I have failed this broken boy, shattered now.

Donna – Carl Taylor

Donna’s life was paint by numbers. She wasn’t lonely because she had a cat and a smartphone. It also helped that Donna had no imagination, which was all right because imaginations are no longer necessary. If anything, imaginations may prove a detriment in this world. Who among us doesn’t have a friend that was felled by their own creativity? It can be a sin worse than pride because often it is a sin of pride, plus a splash of something extra.

Now imagine (or perhaps it would be better if you didn’t imagine) the monochromatic interior of Donna’s apartment. Let your mind gently peruse this space; this snapshot of orderly boredom. The sink is empty, the litterbox tidy, and there is a scent of Febreze wafting from a yellowing plug. Donna walks gingerly through her habitat. Donna is an egg, after all, and every morning she cracks herself in two and pours the yolk across the many hours. She lives in a tiny condo on the third floor, or maybe it’s the fourth. (Here, the floors and the condos all look alike.) When she feels secure, Donna likes to take the stairs rather than the elevator for the exercise. Donna doesn’t feel lacking in any way and doesn’t desire that anything change; but of course, things do change, whether that is our intention or not. Donna is thirty years old and perhaps has been for many years.

One day Donna met Pete. She didn’t mean to. She was in line at the movies when it happened—a box of unbuttered popcorn in her right hand and a ticket stub to a humorless film in her left. Donna preferred movies in the classic mold. She found the virtual reality films overly stimulating. Even the theaters designed to incorporate smells were a bit too much for Donna. The cinemas where films watched the audience were sufficiently unexciting, yet still unnerving in their complex meta-expression. Donna stuck with the 2D films.

Donna was really looking forward to being bored for two hours. That’s when Pete bumped into her while attempting to untie his shoes. When their eyes first met, Donna found herself sufficiently unimpressed with the stranger’s traditional garb of sweater and khakis. She further noted that this man who bumped into her had somber brown eyes, a casual grimace to his lip, and symmetrical (but not too symmetrical) features. In other words, she found Pete to be nearly perfect in his mediocrity. He too was slight of build. He too had a box of unbuttered popcorn and a ticket to the same humorless film.

“I suppose one shouldn’t attempt to untie their shoes while holding a giant tub of popcorn.”

“I’m not sure why one would attempt to untie their shoes at all.”

“So that one may tie them again, but tighter,” he said, and this made a certain paralytic sense to Donna.

“Are you here with anyone?” she asked.

“Just the general crowd,” he said, and he smiled in a way she found gallant, but not overly so. Certainly not dashing. In other words, his demeanor too was almost perfect, in a world as judged by Donna.

Now, when people asked how they met, they would say, “It just happened.” And Donna would say, “Love is like anything else, you can only find it when you’re not looking for it.” And Pete would add, “I was untying my shoes, and then…Donna.” Everyone agreed that the couple was cute, but not too cute; their relationship sensible in the way a modern romance should be.

Then, an eruption of their perfectly average harmony. After six months of comfortably lukewarm dating, Pete agreed to move into Donna’s condo. It was a sensible move, they both thought, one that would save them money and provide a logical next step. During this spring of their romance, they spent their days at work and their evenings on a couch, their shadows silhouetted against the blue furnace of the television screen.

“Are you happy?” Pete would ask while holding her hand.

“Yes, I think so. You?”

“I think so.”

On the weekends they would take turns burning pancakes. Weeks would pass—no, months. The television talked of revolution in the streets.

“Someone should do something,” Donna said.

“Yes. Someone should.”

The outside world changed, but Pete and Donna mostly stayed the same.

A year later Pete got promoted at the numbers factory. His superiors at the factory commended him for the way he moved numbers that year. Meanwhile, there were mass layoffs at Donna’s place of employment—everyone with below-average work output received their walking papers, and everyone who exceeded expectations preemptively left to find a new location to spend the majority of their waking lives. Donna, of course, stayed right where she was.

Donna and Pete’s relationship continued to exist. It was neither great nor terrible, and that was exactly how they wanted it to be. Needed it to be. Donna suspected that Pete would soon propose. Every time Pete dropped to his knees she became convinced that he would. Each time she was wrong, he was merely untying and then retying his shoes. Then one evening, as summer started to tickle in everyone’s ears, Donna’s sister Meghan called. Donna hadn’t heard from Meghan in years. Donna wasn’t certain how to react when Meghan said that she was in some sort of trouble. But Donna couldn’t help but agree when Meghan asked to crash at Donna’s condo for a while.

* * *

Meghan arrived at the apartment a day later, carrying nothing but a tube of toothpaste.

“What about a toothbrush?” Donna asked.

“I figured you had an extra,” Meghan said. “Don’t ya?”

“Well, yes,” Donna said.

“Good. Then I figured right.”

Meghan invited herself in and swept the room, walking in a brisk manner and picking up pictures and other knick-knacks.

“You could really use an interior decorator,” Meghan said. But then she caught herself and said, “But of course, I could use an interior period, so who am I to be so snooty?” Meghan was wearing a vintage green dress and vibrant costume jewelry. She looked misplaced in that spartan condo. Anywhere else she may have looked like a sophisticate, or even a model.

“Where’s your man?” Meghan asked. She pulled out a pinch of snuff and inserted it firmly into her lower jaw.

“Out,” Donna said.

“Out where?”


“Marvelous,” Meghan said. Then, “I’m going to go spit this in the sink and redo my makeup.”

At dinner that evening, the three of them gathered around a Moroccan meal that Meghan cooked. Meghan kept repeating she had learned the recipe from an ex-lover, who was from Morocco, or who had at least spent some time in Morocco.

“It’s very flavorful,” Pete said.

“Yes,” Donna agreed. “There are many flavors.”

“We should all go to Morocco,” Meghan said. “Wouldn’t it be something? Africa.”

“That would be neat,” Pete said, staring in Meghan’s direction a bit too long. When he caught Donna’s eyes stalking him across the table he meekly said, “I suppose it would, anyway.”

Donna kicked Pete under the table.

“But probably not,” he added.

“Honey, how was work today?” Donna asked.

Pete sawed at some lamb with a butter knife. “Good,” he said. “Work was good.”

“What do you do?” Meghan asked.

Pete contemplated the question. “I suppose it depends on the time of day,” Pete said. “Right now the thing I am doing is eating supper. But at night I sleep, during the day I work—.”

Meghan laughed, a quite loud laugh. “Dear, I meant: what job do you have?” she laughed again.

“Oh,” Pete said while trying not to blush. “I move numbers.”

“Are they heavy?” Meghan asked. Then she laughed and patted Pete on his shoulder. “Just a joke, dear.”

“You know,” Donna said after she forced a swallow of the lamb. “Pete is really great at his job. He’s considered one of the top numbers movers in his company.”

Pete blushed some. “Well, I try my best,” he said.

“You know,” Meghan said. “I am actually writing a screenplay about numbers. You see, it’s about a world where everything is binary code. So, there’s only ones and zeros, and the problem is they just bloody hate one another. Of course, right. The zeros want to kill all the ones, and the ones want to kill all the zeros. There is a revolution, a war.”

Donna’s mouth falls agape. “Who wins the war?”

“Who do you think?”

“No idea.”


“Well,” Pete said, swatting away a fruit fly. “Technically one is a higher number than zero. But in a binary code, they really are equals.”

Meghan smiles. “Don’t be silly, you two; neither of them wins. They both kill each other off equally. But the important thing is the moral of the story; that as long as we’re divided we may be destroyed.”

Silence. Silence until dessert. Donna chose the dessert. It was red apple slices and sugarless brownies.

“We should have had this before dinner,” Meghan said. “What a great palate cleanser.”

* * *

The next day Pete could barely concentrate at work. He moved numbers in the wrong direction—sometimes even in the incorrect order. Some numbers he mixed up so badly they were upside down, or backward. This was all right when it came to the eights because they looked the same either way, but the threes started to resemble the letter “S.” The entire factory almost shut down. It was chaos. “I’m sorry,” Pete said to his boss, Dr. Blaster. “I don’t know what’s come over me.”

Dr. Blaster gave Pete an affectionate pat on the back. “These types of days happen,” he said.

“That’s true,” Pete said. “Because it did happen.”

“Something on your mind, son?” Dr. Blaster asked.

“Yes,” Pete said. “Women troubles.”

“Yes, indeed,” Dr. Blaster said while straightening his bow-tie. “It’s never easy to be in a relationship. But they do say that one is the loneliest number.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Pete said, realizing what he had always suspected: all of life was just the moving of numbers.

* * *

That weekend Meghan invited Donna and Pete to an art show. One of her friends was making erotic sculptures of donuts.

When Donna went to the bathroom, Pete and Meghan stood observing a crème donut, only the crème was semen.

“It sure is something,” Meghan said. “Make sure you bring some extra napkins if you choose that one.”

“I suppose everything has a hole in it, waiting to be filled,” Pete said, trying to sound mystical and wise. Then he tried to hold Meghan’s hand, but Meghan batted it away.

“I will not be your Blanche DuBois!” Meghan said, pinning back her hair.

“No, no of course not,” Pete said, visibly flustered. “We don’t even watch the Golden Girls.”

Meghan laughed. Red-faced, Pete retreated to untie his shoes.

“What if I am falling for you?” he asked from near the floor. “Do I have any chance?”

“Perhaps,” Meghan whispered. “But you better convince me rather quickly. This is a short story, not a novel. You only have another thousand words or so if you hope to pull something monumental like that off.” Then Meghan ran off to her artist friend, to compliment her on the vagina-shaped cruller, and how lifelike the “menstrual-jelly donut” appeared.

* * *

An inspired yet noxious tension started to poison the formerly average condo. Donna wasn’t sure what to think, or even what to feel. (She had spent so much time trying not to engage in either activity.) And as for Meghan, well she only wrote herself into this story so she had somewhere to be. She really was meant to be in a much more exciting and dynamic story, not something so shabby as this; but things don’t always work out as planned. Perhaps the story should be retitled “Meghan,” rather than “Donna.”

Pete continued to flounder at work and was soon laid-off. Dr. Blaster commented he had never seen someone “lose it so quickly.” He took no pleasure in Pete’s troubles. Pete was even granted a generous severance, but for the first time, his future seemed to him both exciting and terrifying. Pete even stopped untying his shoes; after all, what do shoelaces matter in a world so filled with uncertainty? Then Donna’s work fell below average, leading to poor performance reviews, and finally a below-average severance.

Soon the three were unemployed together, uncomfortable every hour of the day in that plain little condo. Weeks passed in a quiet misery. But underneath the surface there were stirrings.

* * *

Pete would follow Meghan around the condo like a baby duck. Meghan would sometimes lead him on. It’s not that Meghan wanted to be mean-spirited, it’s just that she was impossibly bored. Donna started to become more possessive of Pete, and even more distant to Meghan. There were quibbles, then ugly arguments. The air itself grew tense and thick with regret and longing.

* * *

One full-moon night, during a severe thunderstorm warning, of which no rain would fall, Donna approached Pete and told him her suspicions.

“You’re in love with my sister, aren’t you?” she said.

Pete circled the room, not sure what to say. He thought about telling the truth. Instead, he dropped to untie his shoes. While on the floor, he said, “I don’t think of your sister that way. You’re imagining things.”

“No,” Donna said, realizing just how untenable the situation had become. “I don’t imagine things. That’s not me. In fact, my whole life I’ve been told I have no imagination.”

“But neither do I,” Pete insisted, but they both knew that for some reason he had grown one.

“Stand up,” Donna said. “Stop hiding on the floor like a child.”


“Stand up,” Donna repeated. “Stand up! If you’re going to lie to me, have the indecency to do it to my face.” Pete remained on the floor, tying and untying his shoes until Donna left the room.

Within a week Donna would again be alone in her condo. The sink would again be empty, the cat’s litterbox tidy, and there would be a scent of Febreze wafting from a yellowing plug. Outside there would soon be a new revolution in the streets, and Donna would again hope that somebody else would do something. But not her—Donna would again sit with her cat and her phone, and nothing of the outside world would ever trouble her again. She wouldn’t allow it.

The next morning Pete approached Meghan and asked her to run away with him.

“Think of it,” he said, while untying his shoes, “we can go anywhere, be anything, do anything. We can move more than numbers. We can travel to Morocco.”

Meghan stared down at Pete. “If we traveled to Morocco together, would you promise to wear sandals?”


“Never mind.”

Meghan knew she had to go somewhere else, and that she must do it quickly. But just as surely, she knew that Pete would not be the vessel of her journey. That he would not be a part of her journey at all.

Meghan sighed, why do men always have to fall in love with the unattainable? In a way, isn’t that the least imaginative notion of all?

Carl Taylor is a writer, recovered attorney, and the Editor of Oscilloscope Literary Magazine. Carl’s writing can be found at

Kleptomaniac – Andrew Shields

The candy in my pocket
lay beside the money
I hadn’t had to spend.

With every step, I left
the store behind and took
a step into my life.

A bus pulled up, its motor
humming more than ever.
The people getting off

and on had never talked
as loud as that before.
The air rushed into me,

rushed out to join the breeze
with just a touch of spring.
I pushed the crosswalk button,

its metal cool to touch,
then reached again to touch
the candy in my pocket.

No candy ever tasted
better for not being bought;
it’s best left in that pocket,
beside the unspent coins.

Andrew Shields lives in Basel, Switzerland. His collection of poems “Thomas Hardy Listens to Louis Armstrong” was published by Eyewear in June 2015. His band Human Shields released the album “Somebody’s Hometown” in 2015 and the EP “Défense de jouer” in 2016. Twitter: @ShieldsAndrew Facebook:

A Fair Amount Of Ghosts – Zach Murphy

He plays the trumpet brilliantly on the corner of Grand and Victoria. He doesn’t look like he’s from this era. He’s impeccably dressed, from his crisply fitting suit to his smooth fedora hat. There aren’t many folks that can pull that off. He’s cooler than the freezer aisle on a sweltering summer day. He performs the type of yearning melodies that give you the goosebumps. I’ve never seen anyone put any money into his basket.

There’s a formidable stone house that sits atop Fairmount Hill. It’s been for sale for as long as I can remember. The crooked post sinks deeper into the soil with each passing year. It isn’t a place to live in. It’s a place to dwell in. There’s a dusty rocking chair on the front porch. It’s always rocking. Always rocking. I’m not sure if the chair is occupied by an old soul or if it’s just the wind. Maybe it’s both. I guess the wind is an old soul.

This town is full of posters for Missing Cats. There’s one for a sweet, fluffy Maine Coon named “Bear.” He’s been gone for a while now. I’ve searched through every alleyway, under every porch, and inside of every bush for him. Sometimes I think I see him out of the corner of my eye. But then he’s not there. The rain has pretty much washed away the tattered posters. If he ever turns up, I worry that the posters will be missing.

I met the love of my life in Irvine Park, near the gloriously spouting water fountain, beneath the serene umbrella of oak trees. We spent a small piece of eternity there together. We talked about whether or not the world was coming to an end soon, and if all of our memories will be diminished along with it. After we said our goodbyes and she walked off into the distance, I never saw her again. So I left my heart in Irvine Park.

Zach Murphy is a Hawaii-born writer with a background in cinema. His stories have appeared in Peculiars Magazine, Ellipsis Zine, Emerge Literary Journal, The Bitchin’ Kitsch, Ghost City Review, Lotus-eater, Crêpe & Penn, WINK, Drunk Monkeys and Fat Cat Magazine. He lives with his wonderful wife Kelly in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Brat! – Joey Rodriguez

A dithering sunset of rose pink and ochre pixelated the horizon. The antsy unlucky bobbed to the monosyllabic backtrack, waiting to be selected from the herd lining the glowing boulevard. Electric traffic lights ferried the hard-topped and gull-winged down the strip, the ocean to the west lapping its murky paw onto the dead, lingering sand, prying at the sagging palm trees.

Condensation wriggled around the greasy fingerprint embossed on the exterior of the slender glass. Non-alcoholic; a paper straw. She dared not touch the bubbling cola. Her sightline afforded her an inconspicuous reconnaissance of the pulsating nightclub. A cybernetic beat swelled her heart against her ribs, refusing to harmonize with the muffled, technological track. She ignored the flapping bill and the consolation prize in the plastic pouch, both caught in the unhelpful, sweltering breeze.

The locus of control slipped the bulky helmet around her face, the reflective void of the visor concealing her eyes. Her backpack had been tightened to its zenith, the perspiration transferring from her skin to the polyester. Straddling the motorbike, she calmly initiated the engine. To the heat of the blood-red signal, her canvas sole tapping the asphalt to maintain balance. Her right wrist twisted cautiously, the weapon finally announcing its weight. A left turn signal swung her into a majestic U-turn, the stench of hairspray and cologne beaten aside by her protective caul as she slid parallel to the waiting celebrators. The barrel offered false positives, any one of them could suffer as benefactors of the trickledown.


It was the bulging pectoral of the bouncer who received the inaugural salvo. The open-bolt, blowback-operated submachine gun thwacked the air, stunning the preoccupied crowd into a cautious gawk. The port windows of the entrance doors collected the backdraft: a long, viscous stream of argon-tinted excess. A stray bullet had caught his neck, the pressurized release guiding her past the screaming and fearful. Now, with their powdered webspaces covering their rotting mouths and their plastic satchels jiggling with pink and blue vitamins, they would part for her.

Her motorbike scraped the roadway as she muscled aside the swing doors. A goon prowling the coat check reached for his holster, but her throbbing, syncopated arc tattooed his uselessness along the crimson walls. Shades of helium dripped as the inebriated hostess ducked back onto the shadowed dancefloor proper.

The blinking, toxic Fresnel illumination refracted off the helmet’s visor, masking her mirrored entrance, sacrificing herself into the ocean of uncaring egos. Between sonic pulses from the towering speakers, she stomped, keeping rhythm with the mesmerizing enchantment of the robotic dance. To the rear, circumventing the stage, into the hallowed halls, her heel shoving the door inward, breaking the inquisitive nose on the opposite end.


The handheld weapon spat fire until his face lifted free. There were others, the corridor flush with the childlike pop of retaliation. Not the second door on the left, but the fourth one. An indirect spray kept her upright, the plaster twirling in front of her with every near miss. The magazine had yet to reach its end, every discharge releasing fresh shades of neon, krypton, and radon-infected plasma into the blacklight void. The cacophony perpetuated a wall of distorted frequencies, shuttering her ears from stereo to mono.

The deceased formed a splayed, multi-colored stepladder, the wet mixture applied liberally to her canvas sole as she clambered. Another punch of her submachine gun loosened the gilded knob, the jamb swinging open the forbidden panel for her.

Nestled at a sprawling oak desk, business at hand, piles of blues and pinks, wads of green. The tinted veins of his eyes peeked from behind the lowering sunglasses as she lifted her reflective veil, their apertures increasing, the poison temporarily, and terrifyingly, lifted. He raised his retort from the blotter, the hammer engaged. You fucking-


Little held his abdomen together, the fleshy strings tearing at the afforded, short length, unleashing a fountain of neon. The room adopted his murderous radiance, recorded indefinitely in her memory. His trajectory slammed him into the wall, a harmless, reactionary twitch pulling the trigger of his sidearm and lodging a bullet into the ceiling.

She disrobed her backpack and wrenched the zipper. The collected line of a leather leash trembled in her grip. Serenity allowed her the prize, the tiny kennel unlocked, the metal carabiner engaged around the collar. The obedient puppy led her through the carnage and into the cooling twilight. Sirens peppered the atmosphere, there would be a swift follow-through.

She righted the motorbike, parked herself onto the seat, and lifted the pup into the crook of her arm. Petting him lovingly, she assured him the strip would swallow them, protect them until the stars aligned once more. The engine grumbled, her visor slapped into place, the accelerator grip revved to ensure a streak of steaming rubber in their wake as they jettisoned into the fading melody of freedom.

Now, what to name him?

Joey Rodriguez lives in New York City with his wife, Lauren, and their Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Joon. He is the author of four novels (JQR, Below, Termination Dust, and The Final Transmissions of A Doomed Astronaut), two novellas (Raptures of the Deep, The Blood of the Cactus), and one short story collection (All Animals Are Comrades). He was recently published in “Fleas on the Dog” and “In Parentheses” literary magazines. To purchase any of his books, visit his official website:

The Haircut – Dreena Collins

I unboxed the new hair clippers.

Sat in his usual armchair, he cradled a can of lager. He kept his body still but flicked his eyes in my direction.

“Am I getting this bloody haircut, or not?” he asked.

“I’m just coming, sweetheart.”

He snorted, picked up the remote control, stroking the side of the tin like a kitten in his lap.

He would not want to be a guinea pig, and yet I had no time to practice. Briskly, I brushed them along my forearm: at least I should check that they worked.

The clippers purred in near silence, travelling smoothly along with a gentle vibration. I watched, fascinated, as my skin transformed. The ploughed path left behind shimmered, glowed pink as a baby mouse. Unlike any skin I’d ever seen.

“I’m waiting!” he yelled.

Confused, I swept them over my toes. If I closed my eyes, I wouldn’t even know they were there: taciturn, soft as they were. And yet as I looked down, I saw my foot transfigure into infant skin. My nails peeled away; toes sealed together in a flipper. Utterly smooth.


“Darling, there’s something odd about these –”

“Hurry up,” he interrupted.

I tripped through empty cans, the accidental origami of his discarded crisp packets on the floor. Gingerly, I started at his nape. His hair dropped down in caterpillars onto the carpet, and I saw it: his raw scalp, sparkling.

I travelled over the tattoo on the back of his neck, buffing away until the topless mermaid vanished. Next, up behind his ear, and the scar from that fight last Christmas completely disappeared.

He continued to swig, unaware.

“You’d better not balls this up,” he said.

I glanced at the clippers. Paused. Excitement prickled in my belly.

“I’ll do your moustache, too, sweetheart,” I said, leaning in towards his mouth, with determination.

Dreena Collins is a writer who also works in education. She has been listed and placed in numerous writing competitions, most recently taking first place in the Flash 500 international writing competition (May 2020). She has three published story collections and has featured in several anthologies. Twitter: @dreenac

Care – Mark Colbourne


No, that’s not right, Dad. It isn’t real. Give me your phone. Give it to me. Look. It’s a scam, that’s all. This isn’t actually from an African Prince. There’s no diamond mine. There’s no landhold agreement that he requires funds to release. None of it exists. These are just people trying to con you. They’re frauds, criminals. I know. Ok – lay back. Try and relax. You’re getting worked up. Let’s just… let’s just take a breath.

Is that better?

No, you’re right: they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it. Preying on people, pretending they care when all they’re trying to do is steal your money… They rely on you being greedy or gullible, I suppose. Maybe both. You’ve just got to be on your guard, not get taken in. Well, it’s hard to stop them, Dad. They could be anywhere in the world and I don’t know how you’d track them down. I’m not really sure how that works. They can get your email address from all sorts of places. There’s lists of them out there that you can buy, I think. Sort of, yes. I do work with computers but not like that. Because it’s complicated. Right, ok: I used computers when I was at work but I’m not an expert in programming, or networking, or phishing, or whatever else. Dad? Dad? Do you want some water? There you go. You just need to catch your breath. It’ll pass. It’ll all be fine.

Don’t say that. Because you’ll just start worrying yourself again, that’s why. Well worrying isn’t going to help, is it? I’ll go back to work. Of course I will. Yes, I’ll get another job. At some point, Dad. Soon. I’m here with you now so I’ll just have to deal with that later on. The bills will get paid. The mortgage, yes. The credit cards, yes. Jesus, Dad – you don’t have to keep banging on about this. I’m not going to have the house repossessed. How? People lose their jobs all the time and survive. It happens. Sometimes things just swing against you. That’s life. So let’s stay positive, yes? That’s what we need. That’s what Mum would want. Yes, I know. I miss her too. I suppose she’d know what to do. She always knew what to do.

Are you ok like that? Why don’t we get you sat up a bit? Hold onto my shoulders. Just raise your back and I’ll slide this pillow in…. Careful, careful. There we go. Is that comfortable? I think it’s better for your chest like this. You’re tired? I know. We’re all tired.

The kids? Ha, no, they’re probably the only ones who aren’t tired. What did Mum used to call Tim when he was really little? Tornado Tim, yes… Can you remember? He used to race up and down your garden like a mad thing. It seems like a long time ago. Yes, I suppose it was a long time ago. September, that’s when he starts High School. You know that, Dad. I’ve told you this. I know: you get confused. I’ll bring him. Of course I’ll bring him. Soon. One day soon. Because he’s with Steve this week. And Anna is as well. Remember? The kids are with Steve and I’m here with you.

Yes, Dad, Steve is fine. Steve is Steve and Steve will always be fine. I don’t know if he’s seeing anyone else, no. Why would I? It’s none of my business, not anymore. Well he wouldn’t introduce them to Tim and Anna without talking to me first, would he? He may be a shit but he’s got some basic sense of right and wrong. I know you liked him, Dad. He’s a very likeable man until you have to live with him every single day. Yes, he’s a good dad to the kids. That’s true. Well, because sometimes things don’t work out, do they? It’s no one’s fault. Why does it have to be anyone’s fault? Look – you and Mum, what you had for all those years, a lot of people aren’t that lucky. We don’t all find the right one first time off. Jesus, Dad, no – that doesn’t mean I’m seeing someone new. I can blame you for asking, actually. Don’t you think I’ve got enough going on at the moment?

No, no, no… I didn’t mean it like that. You’re not a burden. That’s not what I think. I don’t want you to get any carers in. I don’t want you to go into a home either. I know you can afford it, but you don’t need to. I’m here. No! Christ alive, Dad, no! It’s not about reducing my inheritance. You actually think that?

I’m not crying.

Don’t apologise. You don’t have to apologise. That’s not what I’m doing this. I’m here because I want to be here. You know that. I’ll look after you. We don’t need people coming in and out of the home. I can do it. It’s fine. No, no – not this again, I don’t want to talk about it. Because we’ve already talked about it. Over and over. Its all sorted out. The will’s with your lawyer and everything’s in order. There’s the property and the savings and the whole bloody war chest. I know where the paperwork is: your bank books, the share certificates, the pensions… Oh, Dad, stop fretting. It doesn’t matter. Come on. I’ll be fine. The kids will be fine. James will be fine. I’ll work it out soon enough.

James called? He called you? When? Because I’ve been here for the last two days and you haven’t had a call. Are you sure? Last week then…? Ok. Are you getting mixed up again? No, he hasn’t called me. He knows I’m here. Well, he should do because I sent him a text. Oh, I don’t know, maybe he could just get in a car and come and actually see you? Maybe that would be a good idea? I don’t know what he’s doing, Dad. He’s probably mixed up with some nonsense or some woman or some scheme and that’s all that matters to him at the moment. I am allowed to speak about him like that, actually. He’s my brother and I know exactly what he’s like. He’s been the same since we were children.

Don’t get upset. You will see him. I’m not saying you won’t. It’s just… It’s just what he’s like, Dad. You know what he’s like. He doesn’t mean it. I don’t think he can help it. Yes… You’ve got a point. Nobody’s perfect.


Your hand feels cold. Are you warm enough? Do you want another blanket? I’m not fussing,Dad. I just want you to feel ok. God, I know, I know. It doesn’t mean that you have to suffer, though, does it? Don’t say I’m just like my mother. I’m not. I’m not at all. And anyway, Mum didn’t fuss. She… She just sorted everything out. God, maybe it’d be better if I was a little more like her. Maybe then I’d be here with the kids, here with Steve. Maybe I’d still have my job. Maybe I’d be even able to make James get his act together.

No. Don’t be. I’m just feeling sorry for myself.

Do you remember when she died? I think about it all the time. I mean, now especially. I… She was too young to go. And we had to watch her, watch her slipping away, eaten up by the cancer. I remember feeling so helpless, so small. Seeing her in all that pain, seeing her so confused and frightened. That last time I talked to her, she didn’t even know who I was. She didn’t know who the kids were, or James, or anything. Lost in the past, in whatever memories were looping through her mind. Hollow eyes and pale skin and gasping for breath. And we were sat there just waiting for the end and…


Sorry. Were you going to sleep? No, that’s alright. Nothing. I was only thinking out loud. It doesn’t matter. Not anymore. Do you want to get some rest now? Ok. It’s time for your pills though. You take those and then you can go to sleep.

No, Dad. That’s not right. You’re getting confused.

You had your pills this morning. You haven’t had any since then. I haven’t given you any since then.

Have I? I really don’t think so, Dad.

Twice a day. No more. It’s ok. It’s hard to remember. It’s hard to keep track and everything’s starting to blur. That’s why I’ve come, Dad. That’s why I’m with you.

Here. Your pills. Have a sip of water. And swallow. I know. Your throat hurts. Everything hurts. It’s hard. But that will stop soon. I’ll look after you. I’ll do the right thing. For you, for everyone. I’ll make it better. I’ll sort it out. I’ll help you get to sleep.

Between The Mirror And The Bed – John Tustin

It’s funny how I don’t remember being in love with her,
Not really.
I can see moments in my mind like snapshots
Or scenes as if a movie I saw once two decades ago
But no memory brings even a scintilla back
Of what I once must have certainly felt.
I watch the video rewound and I see someone who looks like me
But I don’t feel any connection to him.

Long before I finally left it got to the point
I couldn’t even look at her without a wave of nausea overcoming me.
My nerves would often leave me in the bathroom off and on for hours.
“You’re such a loose-ass bastard” she was constantly saying.
She was right.

There was one night that I was drunk
And I went to get into bed with her –
She was sitting up watching television
And I saw her in the mirror in that halo of TV light.
It was like looking at a total stranger.
She was so beautiful.
I kept thinking that as I got into bed with her.
“If I didn’t know her. If only I didn’t know her.”
For that second between the mirror and the bed
I thought that if I didn’t know her and just saw her on the street
She would have stayed in my mind afterward for a long time.
I still didn’t remember being in love with her.
I still didn’t feel any emotion for the real her.
If only she was just someone else but she wasn’t someone else –
She was Shamseen.
Her parents gave her that name as a little girl because her temper was hotter than the sun.

Drunk and stumbling, I got into bed.
Shockingly, she wasn’t angry. She seemed happy I came to bed and didn’t mind that I had been drinking.
It was strange because her anger was perpetual
And whiter, hotter when I had been drinking and/or off in the other room
Writing or reading poetry. Everything about me incensed her.
Everything I did or didn’t do brought her disgust
But that night she wasn’t even a little bit disgusted by me.
I looked at her after I got into bed and I saw her as she truly was again.
Not a romantic or pleasant feeling lingered from my moment looking at her in the mirror.
It was all gone already and she was again the woman who spoke to and treated me the way she did.
I turned away from her and flipped the bedsheet over my head,
My last thoughts before sleep being the continuing the plot to escape.

Chang’s Gift – Jessica Evans

“My mom said it’s fragile, so don’t drop it.”

Chang’s tongue tripped over his teeth and formed a firm line at the start of the word “fragile.” His own f-clef, already searching for a grand staff: a declaration of kindergarten love on Christmas Eve.

His future-virtuoso hands offered Irina something precious pink and mid-line mauve, a forgotten blush. A pale-yellow ribbon twisted over and under: a machine-made braid. With his gift, Irina received her first adornment. Scarlet secrets formed around egg-shaped fake-mother-of-pearl. Eggs, her earliest obsession, the way they capture and contain.

Sticky elastic glue, once runny and now hardened, solid and secure. Lodged to keep the thin metal clasp in place. Irina held it close, Chang’s promise-gift. He would write, he promised.

“Every day. Or at least once a week,” his resolve lessened as minutes swallowed up air. “It’s going to be fun, you know, over there.”

Chang’s afterthought to the distance between Taiwan and America, too far to conceptualize. Irina fingered the bow. Distance is only exquisite when it seems infinite. Chang’s move became her first lesson in loss.

She clasped her pianist fingers around the plastic and the promises and let herself believe in Chang. He reached for her other hand and the two darted from her cloistered house, Irina’s out of season jacket unzipped, its thin fabric flapping like yellow jacket wings, ready for flight.

Inside Chang’s mom green Astro van, the kind of cozy warmth that Irina only knew from kids movies. Hui smiled at Irina and handed her a thermos of still warm, made from milk hot chocolate. Irina and Chang created a triangle with their heads and sipped the sweet. Hui drove, slow and careful. Irina’s mother, languid and supine by four in the afternoon, a faint smell of briny grapes and spicy oaks lingering on her breath didn’t even know she was gone. Hui’s eyes darted to the sliver rearview mirror and held Irina’s. Here, Irina was safe.

* * *

She wore that coronet only once, to her kindergarten graduation, both parents absent. Mrs. Ates helped her clip it securely to her thin braids. Chang long gone, Irina sang her school song with the rest of her classmates, falsetto and flat, fretting the entire time that her hairbow would slide and fall, smashing into puzzle pieces.

Chang wrote twice – once at her birthday over summer and then again, the following February. He sent his second letter in a red envelope, a final parting gift. The last letter, a two-sentence plead to Irina that she needed to write back.

* * *

On a dreary Wednesday afternoon over winter break, teenaged Irina crowded in her bathroom with Amy and Tori to smoke a pinner joint rolled in transparent tissue paper. It fell apart halfway, but they pretended to be stoned anyway, laughing too loudly, voicing sudden cravings for random snack foods. In Irina’s room, the almost-women began to scavenge through her memories on display. Restless and eager to be something more than who she was, Tori became vapid and snarky and made adolescent jokes that stabbed at Irina’s absent childhood.

First, Tori reached for photos of Irina in small dresses, her Friday night dinner outfits and recital whites. Here, her parents clutched her shoulders, her mother’s talon red fingers formed a claw. Irina’s face, open and scared.

“I didn’t know you played violin, Irina,” Amy said. Even semi-stoned, her face was beatific, cherub cheeks calling out for sun and wildflowers.

“Not anymore,” Irina pulled the photo from her friend and studied her child-self face. The innocence, the radiance.

“What’s going on in this one?” Tori waved a picture like an amnesty flag.

The photo is from the sea, just her and her dad, the trip they took after Susan died.

“Just a family trip,” Irina managed to say, unwilling, unable to explore that loss.

“Oh, was your mom already dead here?” Tori smirked.

“Tori, what the fuck is wrong with you?” Amy, already always prepared to defend.

“It’s fine, guys, really. Yeah, she was already dead. Can we change the subject or something though?”

Tori nodded. “Good idea. Let’s look in here,” she pointed to Irina’s steamer trunk.

Inside, Chang’s long forgotten bow resting on top of those two letters, the red of the envelope pristine and preserved. Tori stopped short when she was the little-kid script.

“What’s that about?” she asked.

“Just letters from a friend,” Irina’s fingers, ginger and soft, held the letter.

“This looks fake-fancy and random,” Tori plucked the bow and tried to clip it into her curly strands. The letters fell to the carpet as Irina snatched back her hairbow, unwilling to share the memory. Outside her room, the front door opened and closed. A clinking symphony of bottles clamored together as Judy made her way to the kitchen.

“Hi, mom,” Tori sing-songed to Judy.

“She’s not your mom,” Irina hissed.

“Well she’s not yours either,” Tori fired back.

* * *

When she leaves for college, Irina takes the trunk intact. She doesn’t look through for the gemstones of her errant adolescence. The trunk stays with her for two years before she meets Marcus and then abandons the half-hearted dream of finishing college.

Later, Irina unearths Chang’s gift when she’s looking for her mother’s ashes. Nestled amid track ribbons and debate team medals, Chang’s bow, a time-capsule innocence, her first crown.

Sometimes, Irina takes out the hairbow to trace egg-shaped pearls, and longs to clip it into her still-thin braids, never letting it slip to the floor. Her cartographic imprint, the mapping of her heart can be traced specifically to a gift undeserved and love skirted away, too fast to catch, their language too inarticulate.

Jessica Evans is a Cincinnati native who practices restarting her life every few years. Work is forthcoming in Past Ten, Tiny Molecule, and Lily Poetry Review. Find her on Twtter @jesssica__evans

Don’t I Know You? – Joy Manné

So I was in Rome airport, standing in this queue in a satellite corridor waiting to be let onto the plane. Standing there, near the front of the queue, seven or eight passengers away from the plane door. Minding my own business. Preoccupied with my own thoughts. In my own mind. A good place to be. Looking at no one. Fidgeting, mind, as the sun was shining and the glass walls of these corridors magnify heat. I was wearing a suit and tie. Going to an appointment. Meeting a colleague at the next airport. Sweating then sweltering. Wishing I was at an airport that had air conditioning in their satellite corridors like—was it Munich? Heathrow? Madrid? One of those. Or another. I’ve forgotten. This one certainly didn’t. My feet were swelling and my shoes becoming tighter by the minute, my smart Italian shoes – a mistake to travel in these.

I was impatient, feeling quarrelsome with the airport organisation, fidgeting from one foot to the other—discretely, mind. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, and then a man three people ahead craned his neck around and looked me in the eye. In the eye. I looked right back. I won’t let anyone put me down. In any case, I was the bigger man. Considerably bigger. It helps to be bigger in this world, and stronger.

So I was standing there, in this queue, getting hotter by the moment and struggling to remain calm and dignified, and it’s all made harder by the man staring at me. Staring, eyebrows up. Staring,

eyebrows together. Staring, deep furrow in between eyebrows. And then he shouted. Shouted, mind you. Shouted out loud, ‘Don’t I know you?’

I didn’t know him from Adam and I never forget a face. Never. How could I forget those slithery eyebrows and stringy and unwashed hair. I don’t know people like that. My hair is brylcreamed smooth, like my father’s always was.

‘Don’t I know you?’ the man shouted again, louder, now half-turning his body as if to approach me. ‘I’m sure we’ve met. I hope we’ve got seats together. It will be great to talk about old times.’

I didn’t have old times with this man. I muttered something unintelligible but polite-sounding. I’m a courteous man. If I’m seated next to him, I’ll move.

‘We had a drink together,’ he shouted in my direction, smack into the face of the man behind him, because now he’d turned fully around.

I turned my head to look at the glass walls of the corridor, then beyond them into the airport, and then let my eyes travel to the queue behind me and my body follow their rotation, slowly, as if it was the most natural thing to do. I didn’t want to offend him, or to have him start a fight in the narrow corridor. What if he were travelling with friends? I turned as if I had some kind of task to do.

The man increased his volume. ‘I’m sorry I’m making you uncomfortable,’ he bawled. ‘but I know we’ve met. Please don’t turn away. I’m sure I don’t owe you any money. I’m sure you don’t owe me any money. It wasn’t that sort of meeting.’

I’d got my back solidly towards him now. I was urgent to get away. My eyes met those of a woman three people further down the queue. Middle aged. Plain. Plain as can be. A man has nothing to fear from plain woman. A man can ask them anything. Time of day. Nearest subway. Best restaurant. They never intrude. Plain women are safe as houses. Built rather like houses. No curves. I like them. I feel good with them. They don’t ask a man for anything and are grateful for what one gives.

I smiled at her and mouthed, ‘Do I know you?’

She looked at me, interested, as if it were possible. Her eyes were nondescript brown, her hair too, straight, tidy. Plain women always have hair like that. She frowned. She barely had eyebrows, but thin as they were, I saw the two fine tattooed lines twitch and join. ‘Not sure,’ she mouthed back.

The man behind me was still noisy in my direction. Was he drunk? I sidled down the queue which was crushing up now with passengers impatient to get into the plane. I kept my back to the shouting man who thought he’d met me. I have a broad back. I go to the gym.

I reached the woman.

‘Do I know you,’ I asked her, now talking, not mouthing. ‘Have we met?’

She appraised me. Looked me up and down. Considered my suit, tie, well-creased trousers. My tight brown and black Italian shoes.

‘I think we have,’ she said eventually, blinking her short sparse eyelashes. ‘Yes, I think we have met. I think I remember where.’

Could I have met her and forgotten her so completely? My breathing became rapid. Oh, dear Lord, I think, will they never let us into this plane?

I needed a toilet.

I waited for her to speak.

‘I met you in Florence,’ she said.

I have been to Florence. She made a good guess. We were catching our plane in Rome Airport and Tuscany is but a short flight away, or a drive. No great distance.

‘I’m very fond of Florence,’ I said. ‘I can stand in front of the cathedral for hours. Losing myself in those Ghiberti doors. Porta del Paradiso. Gates of Paradise, they’re called. Gates of Paradise, indeed they are. All those figures. That amazing perspective…’

‘Florence, South Carolina,’ she interrupted. ‘I’m American.’

I looked into this plain woman’s face. The man behind me was still trying to get my attention.

‘I’ve never been to America,’ I lied.

‘I think you have,’ she said. ‘Because I’m sure I’ve met you there.’

And then in the dignified way plain women have, she turned away as if searching for something. Something in her handbag, on her hand-luggage, on her shoe. As if turning away was the most natural and polite thing to do. She turned with small precise movements until I could no longer see her face at all, and then suddenly, she stood up and down on her tiptoes several times, waving her left hand vigorously. She was not a tall woman. Plain women never are. In a sweet and gentle voice, she called to a woman with a small child in her arms three people behind us, ‘Don’t I know you,’

And then the mumbly microphone announcement came that our plane was now ready for boarding.

I stepped into the cabin.

The stewards and stewardesses were saying ‘Hello,’ to each and every passenger as they always do. I’d barely taken a step towards the aisle between the seats, hadn’t even turned into it, when the stewardess fixed me with her eyes and said, ‘Don’t I know you?’

I thought, this flight is jinxed. Now’s the time not to take this flight. Now’s the time to turn around and get off. Now’s the time to save myself while I still can.

And then I realised she was looking at the woman in front of me.

I’ve never sighed out so deeply in my life.

The next time I took a plane from the airport in Rome, I wore dark glasses and a hat. The satellite corridor was hot as usual, because it was summer and it still didn’t have air conditioning. I was standing in the middle of the queue, minding my own business, preoccupied with my own thoughts, in my own mind. A good place to be, and happy—oh, so happy—to be wearing comfy shoes. I’d packed my smart brown-and-black Italian pair to change into for my appointment. Just then a hard finger tapped me on my shoulder and a sharp voice spoke into my ear, ‘Don’t I know you?’

Joy Manné links flash fictions into short stories, writing in parts: solos, duets, choruses; different views of the whole experienced by different characters as the story builds, arcs and reaches its ending. She also writes classical flash. She won the 2015 Geneva Writers Group prize for Non-Fiction and was one of three finalists in the Arkansas International 2017 Emerging Writer’s Prize in Fiction. She has also published children’s books.

Full Explanation: The Shopping Trip – Sarah Mosedale

On 12th April my wife asked me to pick up a few items from the shops on my way home. She often does. She dictated a list to me over the phone. I wrote it down on a piece of paper which I placed in my right trouser pocket.

It was a very hot day and the traffic was heavy. I could not park directly outside the dry cleaners, my first port of call, because all the spaces were taken. I drove around looking for a parking space. After ten minutes or so I found one a few streets away.

When I entered the dry cleaners it was not the usual assistant behind the counter. It was a young man I did not recognise. He refused to release my wife’s dry cleaning to me without the production of a ticket. An absurd stand-off followed. The heat and smell in the shop were almost overpowering and the garments in question were in plain view. Eventually, after my wife vouched for me and described the items in eye watering detail over the phone, I was entrusted with them, paid, and left the shop.

Some time had passed but the heat seemed if anything more intense. The plastic wrappers stuck to my back unpleasantly. I removed my tie and stuffed it into my left pocket. I undid the top two buttons of my shirt. I could not remember where I had left the car.

I searched the side streets for some fifteen or twenty minutes becoming extremely hot and uncomfortable. I was worried that my migraine might recur. I knew it was important to reduce my body temperature. Fortunately my wife is not a small woman.

I placed my shirt and trousers in a green recycling bin knowing it would be relatively clean and made a careful mental note of the house number. After a little thought I added the rest of my wife’s dry cleaning in order to protect it from my perspiration. I continued to look for the car without success.

Although I felt the benefit of my change of attire – the air circulates round the body much more freely when one is wearing a dress and I appreciated my wife’s preference for natural fibres – I was still in danger of overheating and was beginning to have some concerns about dehydration. So when a young man approached and suggested a drink I felt this was the most sensible course of action in the circumstances.

He led the way to a hostelry I had never visited before. No-one commented on my appearance. It seemed a relaxed and informal venue. There was no air conditioning but the room was dark and relatively cool and I began to feel much better. I phoned my wife and told her I had been delayed. I did not want to worry her with details. I was confident I would be able to retrieve her dry cleaning and the car once I had cooled down.

I requested tonic as I knew the quinine would be beneficial. I suffer from cramp when dehydrated. I now realise it was gin and tonic but I have never been able to taste the difference. I believe many people can’t. Although I paid my share the young man insisted on fetching the drinks which I perceived as a kindness.

After some time a couple of his friends joined us. The atmosphere was convivial. One of them spent a lot of time fiddling with his phone as so many young people do nowadays. It was good to be out of the stifling heat. I remember we laughed a lot.

I know it was considerably later when we left because it was dark. I now realise I must have been quite inebriated but at the time I attributed my state of mind to relief and exhaustion. I never drink to excess so am not familiar with the sensation.

My new friend must have helped me to find the car. I remember having some concern over whether I was well enough to drive. My legs were somewhat unsteady due, I presumed, to my cramp problems. But there was none of the usual accompanying pain so I believed the quinine must have helped and was reassured that I would not be struck with debilitating muscle spasms.

I appreciate that it must have been unpleasant for my wife to be awoken in the middle of the night by the police. I am taking advice about the photographs in the Sunday papers. Some were obviously Photoshopped and all were in violation of my rights to privacy.

I feel confident that now I have fully explained what happened my wife will not wish to continue with divorce proceedings.

Sarah Mosedale: 2nd Place Flash Fiction 500 Winter 2019, published in National Flash Fiction Day Anthology 2020 (forthcoming), Ellipsis, Funny Pearls, Lunate, Flash Flood Journal, Flash Fiction Festival Three, Paragraph Planet; readings at Manchester’s Verbose and That’s What She Said @moseywriter

Home Recollected – Tom Garback

Today is Wednesday, and is night, and as we pass through tunnels of sifting time, there is no way of knowing how your sun has sank, and nor how low. I try to recall pieces, crumbs untaken by Augustinian rats, while they carry no inherent order. We are riding the Amtrak home for Trenton, sometimes least known of these passengers myself, save I glance at glass reflections and say, No, I know them no more than I know me. Though, we do live in the county north of Philadelphia. Memory slips out, loosed by physiological cosmology, Augustine’s broken philosophies, and later bites of dialogue come back. Maybe they are altered. The station there, in brotherly love’s city-center, far too crowded, the highways choked to even get my dad to swear before me, and when we haven’t been together since summer? Such hassle would be blasphemous. I can’t tell you how hard I am holding on. Families see the set of sun each day, and promise me, mom, we’ll all be happy come Thanksgiving.

When we are home, I nap. You couldn’t call it sleep because it lasts three hours, equal to my nap the night before. Today I wake for the doctor. Last time for the train to Trenton. My ride from Boston’s nearly 7 hours after delays. They are worst these times of year. Doctor needs to see the bump on my neck. I promise this, she says, it’s going to take more than some bickering to tear us apart. Of course non-cancerous, he tells Dad in the hallway.

Mom slept on the couch for hours that morning. I can’t say why. Dad makes shrimp, bleeding hearts in the window, and Don’t these lines mean there’s shit in them? but everyone ignores me, and in the fryer floating green tomato and potato wedges, and some orzo soup for lunch, and chocolate cake dessert, with icing that’s powdery because he wanted to make it himself, and You used confection sugar on this? Home makes me care more about sketching. College can’t carry the familiarities. Creativity cannot thrive in the company of strangers.

Our dog Kibbles, enthusiasm wide in the morning, and Where was this energy last night when I came in? You’d think he had forgotten me, but the opposite is true, as is most times with dogs. The possibility of a kiss, I plant inside the rafters all week, and the holiday nears, and somewhere in the streets of Boston waits my kiss for when I’ve returned. In the mirror each day, I squeeze the rolls across my waist. Mom stopped harping on my thinning front, so I may work the treadmill without shame. Kibbles makes me red beneath his bites. I told her, It bothers me when you tell me I’m not fat. They switched my mattress with theirs. Sleep is softer now, and lower, how I can’t stand, though I stand for them, with dull back aches for the alarms of a clock.

My favorite icing, buttercream. The night goes up, and Jess finally comes down from her bedroom chamber. Dad does take offense. I never see you anymore. She put an 18-hour shift in yesterday, and two of her patients were mouthy again, and can’t she lie down on her day off, wouldn’t you think she could? He’d worked so hard on dinner, and sharing this meal alone was no fulfilling habit of the overworked nurse. I understand. I don’t. Last night she walks in on me starting to sleep. I say hello. She closes her door quietly after stepping out, announces herself at the edge of the kitchen linoleum. Dad asks me if he can make something else instead, and I shame him out of care, and that makes him feel worse. Just checking to see if you were sleeping. Drop the rest of the cake off at the neighbors for me, he orders, and I think of how it’s only the women in the family who receive therapy for anxiety. She is bitter now, at the table. The men cannot admit a thing. She is bitter, standing out there in the hall. How long did you sleep? She is mocking me. So who are your friends in Boston? at the table. I’ve told her before. None of your business. Mom and I go to Philly today. That’s what pisses her off. I’m always working, you never work, you do nothing all day! We’re doing the dishes. Mom says, Jessica.

Don’t take Kibbles out of my room, before she closes my door. You wake me up. It’s like a cave in there, I say. You should open the blinds. But then you wouldn’t be able to sleep, would you? She knows what I mean. I count the number of skyscraper from the train window. She can’t help it; she works night shifts. How many are in Boston? That’s why it’s unfair for me to recollect her as lazy. I think I prefer Boston. Try putting cream on it, dad says at lunch, We’re out of ointment. Really, mom? Jess feels he’s always making fun of her. She gives me a tender squeeze. You need to stop picking at it. Get the cream. I can’t bend my neck too far for two weeks after the procedure. I made it with buttercream this time.

You don’t appreciate all I do for you, Dad says. You always pick on me, Jess says. Mom says that night, You’re picking on the four of us, dog included. You said he smells. Mom is joking. That eventually becomes anger. She storms upstairs. Dad defends her. Kibbles paces, in sync with the volume of their vocal performances. Now I’m mad! she says after its obvious, getting off the couch. Her spirits are high on the train to Philly. She values nothing like family time. Your Aunt Marie hasn’t spoken to me in years, and you two are going to carry on like this in front of me? Mom says from the staircase. Do you know how much that hurts me? It worries me, where you two will end up in 30 years. On the train, I tell her that it’s okay what she said last night, how mad she was. The joy my visit should bring is squandered tonight. I fall asleep trying to cry. Mom looks out the window to the skyline and thinks up a story about her grandmother’s quirks. For a second I think I’m crying. Philadelphia holds its promise, I think as I dream. The sounds of the softest sobs, embarrassing. How will she behave? No, it’s mom down the hall.

My sister and I never fought when we were young, Mom says at the restaurant on Walnut. Maybe you have to, to let it out. It brings you closer. I nod because, thinking of Jess, I’m unsure if I agree. I grab my book when Mom has stormed upstairs and slammed her door. I take it to the living room. An hour later, Jess is apologizing to her. If you’re not happy with your life choices, don’t them out on me, missy. As we cross Rittenhouse Square, Mom says, You have to be understanding with Jess. She hasn’t had the same opportunities. My good work in school wasn’t an opportunity, I think. When I catch the train to Boston a week later, she says that Jess is on a different path in life, and everyone has the right to their own path. But doing well in school is hardly a choice, either. The day trip is successful. We drink tea when we’re home. You lean smart, you have a chance at genius. Text your sister and ask if she wants any. You lean dumb, teachers toss you aside, especially at our rundown Catholic school. I send the message from Mom’s phone, suspicious. Dumb’s an easy word for robbed. Jess replies positively, disproving me. We’d all switched to public school by grade 5. I take it we are healed. The icing is fine, I tell dad. I say all because my dad was the school chef. Stop refusing to believe me when I say the icing is fine. He quit the night I told mom, Yes, I want to switch like Jessie did.

I am a guest in my childhood home. Fights become embarrassing. Arguments between my sister and my mother: matters that don’t involve me; failure on the part of the hostess. I try to say with eyes, I don’t see it this way. They’re trying to impress me as if I’ll rate them poorly on I sit on the couch, observe old habits resurface, habits I don’t acknowledge before moving out. Will I find happiness in Boston? I fight with Jess on the last day of summer. These fights bear the freshness. I fight with Jess on the last day of Thanksgiving break.

Thanksgiving morning. Breakfast. Scrambled eggs. The yolk kept in. Sausage, bacon. White toast. Butter. Grape jelly. Early Grey. Vanilla bean cream. All three on a diet, they say. Propel in substitute for soda. I wrap Kibbles in my lap on the flat wood of the chair. He’s lazy, Jess says. Who does she mean? At dinner, You ought to be like the turkey and jump in the oven. Are there egg whites? Do you visit other campuses when you’re in Boston? Dad ignores my request. And is brunch every day? (I tell her I’m sick of her.) You don’t appreciate anything, mom says. You sat and watched me set up the Nativity by myself. She offended me. I sulked.

Don’t put the flowers on the lawn. But they’re dead, mom. Throw them in the trash. It’s natural to leave them on the grass. They’ll stink. At least I don’t feel like the guest anymore.

I think of advertisers sending holiday emails with their in-laws at the door. I think of the Schedule Send function on Gmail, and why aren’t vacuums better designed with today’s technology, but mom doesn’t want me to complain about housework, because the in-laws will soon be knocking at the door. When I’m in the shower, mom wants to argue. Through the door, over falling water. The issue is you fighting with Jess in front of me and your father. It’s impolite. Since when? But I act like I can’t hear. She’s just stressed about the in-laws.

I hate to wear well-fitting clothes around them. Maybe they’ll think me handsome, and there’s nothing more uncomfortable, and before I leave for my train to Boston mom says how much Jess resents going to community college, not getting the chance to go away. Different paths, I think, and how can one help someone with these matters, when it’s too late? Why don’t I have the right to be happy? Why must I feel guilty? Why must I counsel her in payment for my freedom? I write to Aunt Linda after breakfast. Dad puts the turkey in the oven. I tell her how good it is to be back home.

In Boston, I think of mom’s outbursts and apologies, and her cruelty. How will I show my son a proper visit home? Her embarrassment becomes mine. I hope he had a good time, and that we make him proud and that he’ll come back for the next break. Dad pulls out the turkey. The in-laws always do some cheering act around the dining table. I hug my father goodbye. They applaud, laugh. The train is coming to Platform One in a few minutes. Mom lays down the cranberries. Dad won’t have to suffer rush hour on the way back. We’re lucky that the sun comes so directly onto the plastic china. For a moment I consider telling dad to stay a few minutes. My cousin lets Kibbles onto their lap. The train comes into Back Bay Station. I look at my family around the table of food. A feeling rushes onto me. I feel as if I’ve never left.

Tom Garback is currently pursuing a BA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College, where he works as a Staff Writer, Blogger, Copy Editor, and Reader at various on-campus magazines. His fiction, poems, and essays have been featured in Blind Corner, Oddball, Polaris, Gauge, Sonder, and several others.

Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man* – Craig Snelgrove

if you think to yourself things like
Snickers are better than Mars bars,
or if you think to yourself
Ronaldo is better than Messi,
or if you think to yourself
Nike is cooler than Adidas,
or if you think to yourself
this kind of music makes me feel
more alive than that kind of music,
or if you think to yourself
this politicians’ policies
are something I can believe in,
whereas that politicians are not,
that politicians a fascist,
a communist,
a fat cat, scum bag, capitalist,
and if you think to yourself
there is some kind of meaning
to this existence,
that a god, or something, is real
and has a plan, or a design,
in place for me,
or if you think to yourself
that god is a myth,
that there’s no point to any of this,
if it all feels a bit futile
when you get up in the morning,
look in the mirror and think
man, I look so ugly today,
my hair looks so stupid,
my clothes are so boring,
just like my personality is so boring,
it’s good to be reminded then, sometimes,
that there’s always gonna be someone
who will be thinking very differently.

*quote from The Big Lebowski

Craig Snelgrove is a writer from Manchester, UK. Craig holds an MA in Creative Writing and his work has previously been published in Live from Worktown anthologies and most recently in Worktown Words

Cup O’ Joe – Christopher A Micklos


Mort stares at the sign. Is that the name of the café or the promise of what awaits inside? It doesn’t matter, really. He’s been a customer since they opened eight months ago, and he isn’t about to let all this virus nonsense change his morning routine.

Mort nudges open the door and shuffles in.

A line of sluggish patrons, all dull eyes and slack jaws, reaches from the counter to the door. Taking his place in the queue, he can’t contain a moan.

How long has it been now? Two weeks—three?—since the TV talking heads and social media morons started panicking? Through the cobwebs, Mort recalls the ominous warnings and urgent exhortations for citizens to stay indoors and keep safe. Judging by the look of this morning’s crowd, the calls for caution had gone unheeded.

Mort himself had been a skeptic from the start, mollified by assurances from top officials that the outbreak would be contained and eradicated in a matter of days…a couple of weeks, tops. It made sense to him. After all, nobody in their right mind would believe the frantic tales being spun by the fake news media to scare the populous and boost their dismal ratings.

But then he ventured out to Costco and saw it for himself: the chaos, the ransacked shelves, the half-inhuman crowd.

And now Mort can’t shake the throbbing in his head, at first a dull ache but now an intense, thundering torment. Caffeine had always helped assuage that pain in the past, so here he is at the place with the sign that says CUP O’ JOE.

Even as the line shortens in front of him, it stretches back further by the minute, out the door and down the front steps of the café. Nothing is going to stop this crowd from getting its daily dose, that’s for sure.

One of the others near the back of the line starts to impatiently push his way to the front, but he doesn’t get far. A snarl here, a sharp elbow there, and he ends up right back where he started.

At the counter, the disheveled barista pushes a brimming mug out to Mort, who recognizes the dark pockmarks and sores on her once-pretty face. He’d seen them in a mirror just that morning.

Maybe the virus actually is spreading, after all? Oh well, that’s the world now.

Unperturbed, Mort grunts and stumbles toward an open seat in the corner of the café.

Passing the others still waiting in line, he feels their green-eyed glares. He hugs the mug to his chest, shielding it with one arm while keeping the other cocked, ready to swat away any greedy hand that might reach out to steal it.

By now, every fiber aches, and Mort sits down and gazes into the mug, ready to savor the promised relief.

All around him, the other lumbering zombies moan and lurch and stagger about, their eyes bleeding and puss oozing from the familiar sores.

Ignoring them, he tears a spongy fold of gray, gooey goodness out of the bloody mess in the mug and pushes it into his mouth, munching happily.

Mort has no idea who Joe was, but his brain really hits the spot.

Christopher A. Micklos is a writer, director, and producer whose writing has appeared in numerous print and digital outlets over the past several years. His award-winning first feature film, THE NURSERY, was distributed worldwide by Uncork’d Entertainment in 2016; and his second feature, THE HEADMISTRESS, is expected to be released in 2021. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife and daughter and their monstrous mini-labradoodle, Ygor.

My Sixtieth Birthday – Henri Colt

“She’s not too young for you,” my sister joked as she took her seat at my table. “You’re too old for her.”

“Well, Jenny,” I said, forcing a grin, “I may be old, but I’m not dead.” I was embarrassed she had caught me staring at the hips of a young woman exiting the coffee shop.

“Sixty’s not so bad, is it?” She squeezed my arm tenderly, as if she knew she had put her finger on the source of my bourgeoning depression. Since my divorce, events rather than years defined my life: a tumultuous love affair with the wrong woman, my best friend dying from cancer, losing the family business after thirty-two years. I wanted female companionship, but I struggled with a loss of confidence. I didn’t have the courage to date.

“Still looking for that next adventure,” she declared.

Neither my father, nor my uncles, and surely not my little sister had prepared me for this. Maybe it was time I owned up to my sexual dysfunction. My testosterone had plummeted; my desires vanished, and even pleasuring myself had become impossible. All I saw in the mirror was a chubby, balding guy with sparse gray hair and drooping shoulders. An irreverent pout formed by permanent wrinkles at the corners of my mouth made me feel grossly unattractive. Gone were the days of my mischievous smile.

“I feel invisible,” I said, “like a ghost, you know? If it weren’t for the occasional conversation with a waitress here at the coffee shop, I’d shoot myself.”

“I hope you’re joking.” Jenny’s bitch face said it all, so I bit my tongue.

She nudged my shoulder. “Are you okay?”

I shrunk into my chair. “I’m tired of the shaming language in those commercials touting Viagra.”

“Men have andropause,” Jenny said matter of factly. “It’s inevitable.”

I dropped the conversation and asked her for an update.

“My mammogram is clean,” she said happily. “It’s been three years since the chemo.”

“Yay!” I didn’t tell her about my visit to the urologist. My PSA is high again. “An older guy at the climbing gym shot himself last week,” I said. “Rumor has it he was happy, married, kids, the whole nine yards.”

Jenny shook her head. “There’s a wave of clinical depression and suicide among older men in this country. With the opioid crisis and coronavirus, nobody talks about it anymore.”

I felt a lecture from my sister the psychologist coming.

“Andropause is real,” she said, “but men tend to crawl under a rock with denial until it’s too late.”

“I have low testosterone, and I can’t get it up.” There, I said it. Strangely, I was glad to have upped the ante of our conversation. “What have you got to say about that?”

She chuckled. “I’d say that telling someone you have low testosterone is probably not the wisest thing to share on a first date.”

“That’s not funny.”

“Have you thought about taking supplements?” she asked. “My girlfriends say testosterone gel works wonders on their husbands’ libido.

“I’ll be okay,” I shrugged.

“I’m concerned about you,” she said, putting her arm around my shoulder.

Watching women coming through the coffee shop’s doors, I felt like a dog that couldn’t bark, let alone bite. I hated myself for allowing this part of me to take over my life.

Jenny put her fingers at the corners of my mouth to pull my cheeks upwards. A forced smile formed on my lips.

“Yay,” she laughed.

I flinched. “As they say, life sucks, then you die.”

“And as you said when I got here, you’re not dead yet.”

Her words rang home like an epiphany. There was hope, faith, shit…a pretty young thing shimmied onto her chair at the far end of the patio. She crossed her suntanned legs and brushed her long, auburn hair away from her eyes. Her nimble fingers tapped across the lunch menu.

Jenny’s playful grimace snapped me back to the conversation. She had noticed the object of my distraction.

“Hemingway won a bet with a six-word story,” she said. “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.” She raised her eyebrows, obviously begging a response.

“Maybe mine should be, “instead of shooting yourself just get laid.”

Her laugh reminded me of my mother’s. “That’s seven words,” she said.

“Indeed, it is sis, indeed, it is.”

The woman at the other table wore strands of turquoise beads around her wrists. Her hair had settled wildly on her shoulders, and a pair of dragon tattoos graced the length of her forearms. I marveled at the audacity with which her generation tackled body paint, and when she smiled, I felt alive, grateful for the glorious remembrance of it all.

Henri Colt is a physician-writer and adrenaline junkie whose passions include mountaineering and tango. His short stories have appeared in Rock and Ice Magazine, Fiction on the Web, Active Muse, Potato Soup Journal, Red Fez, and others.

Home Time – Cath Holland

Potato peelings plop onto newspaper, curled shapes spelling words I can’t make out. All I know is if I cut ‘em that thick, Mum would shout.

She blinks at the clock on the wall over my head. ‘He should be home.’

My brother Liam turned feral this summer. In the mornings he scoots out on his bike. Goes for hundreds of miles or so he reckons. Boomerangs back when he’s hungry.

Dad in the doorway home from work decides ‘bloody hell, time’s getting on’. Calls the police and a policeman comes, the tallest man in the world in a black uniform with shiny buttons.

‘They do whatever they like, my kids. No matter what I say. I’ve told ‘em.’ Mum cocks her head in my direction but sounds frightened and thready.

The policeman puts Mum on the phone to ring everybody she can think and I know she’s adding up the twenty pence each time ‘cause she garbles words real fast and throws the phone down quick and hard straight after. In the end Mum runs out of numbers to call and I say about the cowboys and cattle rustlers and highwaymen in the hills. That’s where the baddies hide and plan bank robberies like in the films, Liam always says.

‘Show us.’

Mum and Dad nod in agreement, desperate now. The silence in the room, as I buckle one sandal and pick up the other, the sole of my foot slipping wetly against the leather, tells me this isn’t the time to remind them how they laugh at Liam’s stories. And that this morning he said where he’s going, over a bowl of Coco Pops, as I watched the milk go chocolatey. A head and shoulders drift past the window and the expression on the man’s face in the doorway, changes everything. Mum crumples like a tissue. Dad is horrified. At Mum on the floor making a show of us, or what the man’s saying about what’s been found in the woods?

I’m sat down next to a nice nodding lady with moist pleading eyes. ‘Be brave’ she and the tall policeman both repeat slowly like I’m thick, ‘for your mum’.

It’s dusk and the clock keeps ticking. Mum’s huddled on the couch in the front room, her spine round like a shell. My insides shrink. I wonder whether to say again about the cowboys and rustlers in the hills. Remind everybody. Maybe they forgot. I’ll tell them how Liam stands in the rec at the top of the road every night after school, satchel strap diagonal across his chest. Legs apart like John Wayne, right in between the red metal rocking horse and the swing with rubber seats and concrete floor, staring at the blank fuzzy felt green fields, miles away. When he’s grown up and there’s no home time to bother with, or school, nothing like that, he can go find the baddies. Search ‘em out. Prove it’s true. Make them sorry. No-one can stop him.

Cath Holland is a writer of fiction and fact based in Liverpool. She is published by Mslexia, National Flash Fiction Day, Dead Ink, Retreat West.

Yuri – Andrew Hart

“When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear.” (Yuri Gagarin)

I often think about Yuri Gagarin, the first man to orbit the earth; floating alone in a tiny capsule, and for almost two hours, the centre of the world. No wonder he turned to drink and craved the attention of other people, once he was back down on earth, to convince himself that he was real, or that they were. Over and over again I have watched interviews with him, as he calmly and politely is asked the same questions by presenters from London to Moscow, but behind that eager to please smile, there was the face, of a man who seemed baffled and was trying to understand what had happened to him out there in space, alone and in the dark.

“So, I don’t really exist?”

“Perhaps in theory; but when you are out teaching the piano, or going to the shops, then no, no you don’t.”

“So according to you it is only when I am here, in front of you that I am real?”

I thought about it for a moment, “yes; I know it sounds odd, but when you are not with me, then you are nowhere.”

He pinched himself, ever the clown.

“I feel real.”

“But that is because you are with me. Perhaps try it when I am not here.”

He looked at me oddly, not sure whether to take me seriously or not. We continued to walk around Warwick castle, but in silence, he a little ahead of me and clearly sulking, he painstakingly read the various notices in all the rooms and only roused himself when we had lunch at the rather expensive café. As we sat together eating and cheese tomato toasties, and he enjoyed a beer, he tried to resume the conversation.

“You are a strange one, I cannot tell when you are joking or serious.” He laughed, having got me categorised.

“That’s what all my men say.” I responded, which ensured he said nothing more for another hour or two.

That night, as he pushed himself into me, he groaned, “Am I real now? Can you feel me now? Do I exist?”

And for those few moments as he intruded himself upon me, he was there, but when I awoke the next morning to an empty bed he had faded away, as when he had come out of my body the previous night. And I lay in my bed, it became the centre of everything; my dressing table, my wardrobe, this room….

I suppose that it is egotistical to think that everything revolves around me, that I cause it to be; this man, my lover standing in front of me talking nonsense, the radio, the kitchen, the house.

Even people and objects I glimpse when I am out and about in Manchester; the woman I glance at standing by the window of her house stroking her cat, a brief, overheard conversation between two men, as they hurry past me; will they disappear as soon as I pass them by? It is difficult to believe that they will continue to have a separate existence once I have walked on; that the woman stroking the cat, will go out to do some shopping, meet a friend for lunch, that she has her own interior life; her own worries and ambitions. I see her as an actor on a stage, who has said her lines, and now heads to her dressing room, unneeded for the rest of the play?

On Friday evening, we sat and drank wine.

“All we do is drink” I told him.

“Well let’s have sex then.”

“But can’t we talk, or perhaps we could read? When was the last time you read a book?”

“But we are watching television.”

“Are we? I stopped following it ages ago, it is just background noise.”

“I’m watching it?”

“What is about then?”

He sighed and poured himself more of the wine we had bought from Aldi that afternoon. When we first met we used to drink once a week at most; Saturday evenings if we weren’t going out, or if we had a guest, but now we never have guests, and we rarely go out, and thus we drink most evenings. His pupils must smell it on him, as they turn up bleary eyed to go through the pieces that he has set them to learn.

“I am serious, we drink every evening.”

He laughed, and took my hand and then undid my blouse, and we ended up naked on the sofa. As I kissed him I could smell the alcohol on his tongue and body, and afterwards as I fell asleep wedged into the back of the settee, I felt disgusted with him certainly, but most of all disgusted with myself.

My parents saw Yuri Gagarin when he visited Manchester shortly after he returned to earth. It was a muggy July day in 1961, and later in the afternoon the heavy sun gave way to rain, but it did not stop my parents gathering to watch as Yuri Gagarin drove in an open top car smiling and wet, waving happily at the crowds who had turned out in their thousands to see him.

They had only been married about eight months, and I would be born just over a year later, I being their first and, as it turned out, only child. I imagine them waiting patiently, amidst the smell of damp and cheap perfume, for this man who had done something that nobody had ever done before; my mum looking thin and fragile, my father strong and tough, but it was him who would not survive the decade (dead of cancer shortly after his twenty-sixth birthday) but she seems just the same and still walks the same Manchester streets she did all those years ago, but her mind clouded by senility and sadness.

“He seemed very happy” my mum told me, “a smile for everyone, even though he must have been soaking wet.”

“Did he talk to you?” I had asked her, we were sitting in the kitchen, as we so often did; I must have been eleven and she a widow, in retrospect still young.

“No, we were just part of the crowd, and were only close to him for a few moments. Your father did say that he smiled at him though.”

I have seen photographs of his visit to Manchester; including one that my father had taken, when the crowd had broken slightly so he got a good picture. But by the time that mum told me all about it, Gagarin was dead in an aeroplane crash at the age of thirty-four, and my father was a couple of photographs on the sideboard, and someone my mother talked about when she was feeling lonely, and all she had was a little girl for company.

“Your boyfriend is a pianist” Martha tells me. I nod in agreement, difficult not to, as I often mentioned this to people I knew, it kept him real, and his profession reflected well on me I thought; making me seem bohemian and creative.

“We have got this concert in a couple of months, for the Samaritans, would he be able to play something for us?”

Martha is my friend; I cannot remember how we met or when; perhaps she just arrived labelled “friend.” But we often go to the theatre together or meet for lunch during the week and reminisce (about what?) over panini and cake in the Italian café/ deli in Manchester city centre, near Piccadilly.

“I can ask him.”

“It would be nothing taxing, but we could do with something a bit. If he could just play one of the classics, you know Beethoven, or one of them.”

I clearly did not meet her at anything musical.

“I will let you know” I tell her, breathing in the smell of the café; mostly tomatoes and bread, and I drank down my iced lemon drink and prepared to make my way back to work.

Sometimes I wonder if things will happen without me there to control them; it is a leap of faith expecting things to sort themselves out when I am not there. As I sat waiting in the over-heated hall for my boyfriend to play, chewing on a peppermints to ease my nerves, I wondered if he would appear, perhaps he was there already behind the scenes talking to Martha or practicing in an alcove somewhere, or maybe having a quick drink. He was to play the last piece of the first half; an Impromptu by Schubert, which I had heard him running through this morning as I ate my breakfast.

Quite often people let me down; my father dying, my mother slowly losing her mind. And as I sat there in the bleak hall, filled mostly with the young, and a few worthy looking older people, their copies of The Guardian ostentatiously visible like a rather large ticket, I began to feel dread, I had worried about this ever since Martha asked me, the possibility of being humiliated more than I could bear. I had already sat through various pieces; comic songs that me sad, sad songs that made me giggle and sketches that lasted too long. Between performances I could see Martha behind the scenes; popping out from behind the curtain at the back of the stage, to make sure the audience were still there and appeared happy. She did not seem to notice me, but then there seemed to be so many there she knew.

A rather battered looking piano was rolled out onto the stage, and sat there portentously whilst I became acutely aware of the sound of shuffling bottoms and whispered comments from all around me. I could feel sweat dripping down my spine causing me try and rub it against the back of my chair, whilst the piano sat there, waiting to be made use of.

I wondered if I could leave; grab my bag from the floor and push myself past the people next to; I began to brace myself to get up and apologise, but then it didn’t matter, as he strode onto the stage with a smile; well-dressed and confident, because of course he had done this sort of thing time and time again and he was always going to turn up and save me from embarrassment.

I exhaled deeply, having held my breath for several seconds, without realising it. I could see him look for me, and then once he caught my eye, he gave me a grin and sat down and after a moment of thought began to play. I did not really listen to his music; it could have been the Beatles or nursery rhymes for all the attention I paid it, I was just so relieved that he had turned up, but when he finished I applauded long and hard, and to my relief so did the audience around me – a couple even stood up to clap, and I heard a couple of “bravos” – and then after another swift glance in my direction he gave another smile and disappeared off stage.

I found him and Martha at the interval.

“Where did you find him” she said smilingly “he is lovely, and so talented…. You are lucky.”

We chatted for a few moments, and I felt like a normal person, real amongst other three-dimensional people, and with a boyfriend who had a separate life, and who I could be proud of. And then Martha was called away, and we decided to miss the rest of the concert and go home.

And then that night I took him inside me to thank him for turning up, for actually existing, and confirming something, although I was not sure of what. Shall I be let to sleep, now that this perpetual morning shares my bed?

“I love you” I said, and he returned my kiss; he tasted of peppermint which almost overwhelmed my mouth, and I cuddled close to him to stop him disappearing into a puff of smoke,

But as I lay there, I was remembering sitting in the church hall, the smell of deodorant and perfume choking me, knowing that he would not turn up. Watching the piano rolled on stage, the seat pulled out ready for him, and when it became clear he was not going to appear, a cross looking Martha appearing on stage, apologising and suggesting we go and have refreshments, and then giving me the most hurt of looks.

I fled, out into the rain, as wet as when Yuri Gagarin visited this city all those years ago, and soon my jacket was saturated and my hair a mess. I could not face a bus, and so walked all the way through the streets of the city until I reached my house, cold and empty, with my piano in the music room where I taught schoolchildren and bored housewives, and I sank down onto my bed and pulled my duvet over my body, that smelt of nothing but me.

And then as I slept, I was rising above it all; the bed where I lay alone, the house where I lived, the terrace of which it was a part, my home city of Manchester; and they slipped farther and farther away below me, so that I could no longer distinguish even my own country. As I continued to float upwards, I could see at my feet, planet earth; a blue globe, with swirling white clouds; a football, which I could kick, and do with as I pleased.

Opinions Get Tested – Samantha Carr

The fashion runways of Paris and Milan are as empty as the
Nightingale Hospital in London. Yet the makeshift morgues are full.
Opinions get tested as people cycle more, but you can’t lock them
down. Sing happy birthday to wash off the loneliness of eating a cake
alone. You can’t let them eat cake if there is no flour on the shelves of
socially distances supermarket queues. There are no flights out to
Benidorm, but the return flight is not cancelled. Birds are tweeting
louder, you could hitch a ride back with them. The tweets are getting
louder. Opinions get tested. The facts check themselves and find
themselves wanting more masks.


Cabinet Of Heed Contents Drawer 37.03Cabinet Of Heed Contents Drawer 37.01

Issue 37 – Drawer Three

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.

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.

“No handouts.”

“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,, 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 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.

C’mon girl!

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,

I’m sorry.

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,
which is
There are in the archive
eternal wings,
which love the weird
of the cherub
of hope.


Cabinet Of Heed Contents Drawer 37.01Cabinet Of Heed Contents Drawer 37.02


Issue 37 – Drawer One

image by bart plantenga

Raking – Heather Cook

before the sun rises,
i find myself hauling insecurities
the same way
i haul leaves and debris
from my yard in the fall.

i know this because
i miss the bag many a time
and i am
shaky and weak while raking.

when i am done, gusts of wind
move them back on the lawn
and clog my fence.

i know this because
i have had fifteen personalities,
none of which are loved by me.

sometimes i rake myself hollow
to bury them inside.

this year, i want you to know,
i’ll let insecurities bounce about my yard—
let them decompose.

make a choice to

feed my leaves to earth worms.

Heather Cook studied literature and creative writing at the University at Buffalo. Her work has appeared in The Magnolia Review, East Coast Literary Review, Ghost City Review, NAME Magazine, and others. Sometimes she feels alive.

Imagine The Flies – Kathryn J Barrow

I dip my hands into suds and take a dish. I need to finish, to start watering the front garden, but dishes done first, imagine the flies. The water’s hot, it must be. No one in their right mind could dispute it, they wouldn’t, would they?

Bubbles twinkle, pink, blue and purple in today’s sunlight, shining through the window. Soon it’ll be gone when it finds its way to the front. So graceful. Would make many a ballerina envious I would think. Gliding its way behind clouds, trees. Thinking about it, no other weather’s like that, take rain, and wind, they hungrily let themselves rip, everyone’s aware of their presence. Still, I suppose the sun gets itself noticed more extravagantly.

I bet in deserts they don’t think like that. It’s much worse for them out there. It would savagely sore and burn, dry and scorch.

Then again, my plants will be thinking the same if I don’t get them watered. I remember last year. I’d not watered anything for three days. I’d come back from a retreat forgetting to ask the neighbor to pop round with a watering can. My plants were drooping, petals lying lifelessly on the beds and leaves like crispy bacon.

Shaking off the memory I dip my hands into the water. To my horror, it was cold. I’d left it recklessly. My plans for the day ruined. The sun nearly at the front. I threw the cloth in anger, I’d have to start again. It landed on the plant atop the window sill. I watched water drip onto the soil, where it soaked it up.

I knew what I needed to do. I emptied the bowls contents, picked it up and went into the front garden.

My plants would live, at least until tomorrow.

The Remaining Twilight- Connor Lucey

It was that time of year when, if the seas were calm and the city didn’t spin, the sun could set like a ball in a drainpipe, straight down between corroding skyscraper walls into the canal. People would fill the long, tree-lined parks that bordered the waterway for the spectacle, nudging up to seawall railings, setting up blankets and chairs in the grass, and filling nearby outdoor cafes. The point was to witness something beautiful together. If they were lucky, they’d be in a part of the world that was mild and comfortable. Everyone might feel the sun smoldering on their bare arms and still enjoy the sea breeze, mellower here than at city’s edge. They were lucky today.

On the terrace of one parkside cafe, at a battered wicker table with a good view of the event, sat three strangers. The first to the table was an older gentleman with thinning hair and rough hands swollen with arthritis. He had spent the morning on his usual neighborhood stroll and sat down for a coffee when the parks were empty. The second was a young woman, a university student who had skipped her afternoon class to come to the park and write. There were still chairs open by that time but no free tables, and this particular old man, she’d sensed, might let her write in peace. The third was also a woman, more toward middle-age, and was grateful for any seat. Minutes earlier, she’d convinced her partner to watch their infant son so she could step out of the apartment for a few moments’ peace.

For all three present, the golden hour was an unexpected bonus.

The new mother, eager to talk with anyone other than her husband, broke the table’s silence. “They say we passed within sight of Hawai’i this morning. Did anyone see it?”

This was a usual greeting, of course. They’d all grown up with the stories of what came before. There were the books, the videos, the archived technologies, taught in school and kept at the library. But they’d never known life as anything but this. No one in the city had. So it was common practice—fashionable, even—to fill small talk with topical thoughts and phrases about land: something no one had, and yet everyone had in common.

The man shook his head. “No, I’m afraid not.” The sun was low enough between the buildings that he had to squint to address the woman, who sat at the front of the table. “I hear it was a clear day though. The islands’ green mountains must have been wonderful.”

The student stopped scratching in her notebook but pretended not to notice the conversation.

“I heard the same thing,” the woman said, sighing. “I don’t remember the last time I saw a coastline, I’ve been so busy lately. Japan, I think, spring before last. We spotted cherry-blossoms with the field glasses.” She turned to the student. “How about you? Did you see Hawai’i?”

The young woman closed her notebook. “No, I didn’t.”

“When was your last time, then?”

“I don’t know. When I was a kid, maybe? It’s not very interesting to me.”

The old man smiled, and the woman prodded playfully, gently. “You don’t care about it at all?”

A tight smile in return. “Not really. I’m sorry if that offends you.” They both waved it away, so she continued. “The land is just something we’re taught to fawn over, I think, like it’s more than just an occasional disruption in the horizon. Why should we care if people used to live there?”

The woman nodded her head. A large group of children, all undernourished and none over the age of twelve, passed by the table. They were shouting and laughing in the light, which now reflected off the canal and seemed to buff every seam of rust and decay from the buildings overhead. Clothes dyed colors with names like “forest green” and “slate gray” hung threadbare off their bodies.

The student’s was a common way of thinking among the younger generation, as it had been with the woman’s when she was that age. The lore of town limits and road trips and earth, not water, as far as the eye could see—of a reality that didn’t shift constantly, ever so slightly, beneath one’s feet—these things were spoken of reverently by others, as religion, and imposed on them unwillingly. As far as she had been concerned, that was an ancient world, settled, spoiled and abandoned by people who had left them with nothing but a floating hunk of metal and stories of a better life long gone. Something in the woman began to change, though, as she got older. In the last few months, especially. The past didn’t seem so distant anymore.

The student shrugged. “I mean, if they said tomorrow it was safe to return, I might think differently. But you can’t live life that way. Waiting for the past.”

By then the light neared the horizon. Chatter and whistling echoed through the trees as birds from all across the Pacific prepared to roost for the night.

“I worked most of my life on the farm barge,” the man said, leaning forward, “and there wasn’t much supervision. The nights we passed close enough to some shore, if the moon was hidden, people would shove off from our loading ramps in homemade rafts. Hundreds of them over the years, paddling toward a black smudge in the distance. They knew the consequences if all of it were true. That was worth the risk, I suppose. We called them crazy then, and wrong. But these days I wonder.”

As he spoke, the sun touched into the water and sank. A hush had fallen over the crowd, soaked in ever-deepening shades of light until, at last, the source was gone. The show had ended. In the remaining twilight, everyone clapped.

Connor Lucey is a salty New Englander living in the Pacific Northwest. He received a BFA in Creative Writing from Portland State University and is editor of The Absurdist Fiction Magazine.

Hitchhikers – Jane-Rebecca Cannarella

I leave strands of my hair like fragile worms in all spots I go: a cat burglar dropping a calling card. Filaments like the fraying pith of an orange separating the skin and fruit; the threads of my body depart like little stowaways in all sections of the city and surroundings. Philly is filthy with my shedding.

The evening of January 20, 2019, felt just like a night three years earlier when I drank Espolon from under a stranger’s tongue with a cocktail straw at a club in Fishtown. He was tall and drunk with eyes so grey they reminded me of the tabs on soda cans, and when he put his arm around my waist and dared me to drink from out of him and use him as “a human cup” I decided not to pass up the chance. How often do you run into grey-eyed strangers whose mouths are red solo cups as they startle dizzy girls? I pushed my hand through the curtain of my bangs to see him better, but visions are distorted when you stand too close. He tipped a shot into the mug of the underside of his mouth.

It was a feeling that lived in a soup of alarm and erotics and disgust and excitement. That evening in January I stood in a house in the Philadelphia suburbs that wasn’t my own while pet sitting and pretended to be the sort of adult who could own that home. I welcomed the warmth of the stew of emotions that existed like cytoplasm, a mess of alive. My face was wet with the whiskey I filched from the cabinet like a little kid who wears a spaghetti sauce beard, and I sent impulsive texts begging for a boy with cheekbones that were sharp as daggers to come play grownups with me at the house that wasn’t my own. He was a stranger like the other stranger but had a mouth like the pit of a nectarine; hunger is better than thirst with his body that holds flowering flesh to eat and eat and eat. Somehow the same but totally different.

When he finally agreed, I wandered around the house unmoored and enthused like the time I took the ferry from New York to Connecticut as a little girl and marveled at all of the deep red jellyfish that sidled the side of the ship with their tentacles like noodles and sticky seaweed hairs. I remember being frightened but delighted at the proximity to such stinging. In the house in the suburbs, the shaggy dog ran between my legs sharing my excitement, we paced all the steps like captured explorers trying to pass the time as it slowed into honey. My stomach was seasick.

He arrived out of a carshare in a tempest of mussiness and shared inebriation and eyes like gallows. He threaded his hand through my bun with knuckles made from the stones of peaches while we stood at the foot of the stairs, the blonde dog at our legs. And once, when I was a teen, I had the most perfect plum while sitting cross-legged at Jones Beach with granules of the beach in its purple stretched skin, and the syrup spilled over my chin as I grinned like a clown at the sea. The whipping atmosphere pulled the flyaways around my face into the spiderweb of nectar on my cheeks.

In the pretend land of what if this house was ours in the home in a suburb I could never afford to live in, I tilted my head all the way back to look at the headboard with cracks in the wood like filigree. My face was plum-juice wet and it captured the strings of our bodies greedy but combined. I smiled like a clown against the grains of his face, rough like sand.

*      *      *

The next morning, after he left but before I got out of bed, I looked at the red-purple pillowcase with the nightcrawler shapes of my escaped brown strands swimming in the divet-ed wake. I wondered aloud to the bodies of cilia strands whether I made a mistake and thought about how nice it was that they could escape my body with its impulsive choices but I couldn’t. My sighs disturbed them in the pleats of where heavy heads rested from the night before. Fallen threads from my frame don’t second guess their choices.

On the nightstand, my phone hummed with unread messages, tiny swells. Strangers become less strange when you attach hitchhikers to their belongings, intertwining the two of you–and my body felt more familiar in the shadows of the midmorning. The messages were from the not-now-a-stranger who said that he found the fabric of my hair on his sweatshirt, played with the pieces. Followers that shared his journey back to the city; a scrapbook of our bodies linked on him.

After I read the texts, I took the bundled tresses into my fist and pulled their split edges to my lips, the warmth of emotion like breakers tunneling through me, whispered to the witch’s broom of hair, “thank you.” I held the phone close and pushed back too-long bangs to read and re-read the messages, vision distorted; a mess of being alive.

Jane-Rebecca Cannarella is a writer and editor living in Philadelphia. She is the editor of HOOT Review and Meow Meow Pow Pow Lit, as well as the author of the flash fiction collection, Better Bones, and the poetry collection, Marrow, both published by Thirty West Publishing House. Jane-Rebecca chronicles the ways she embarrasses herself at

Prometheus On Her Rock – Sarah Michelson

He always told her that he knew the second he saw her. She was the most beautiful girl in the room, so vibrant, so fun, so full of life. He told her that he fell in love the second she caught his eye. And she smiled, and pursed her lips, and her green eyes twinkled, and she gave him a soft and delicate kiss.

They got married in the spring, in a lush garden full of peonies and roses, just the two of them and their families. She looked like she was floating in her wedding gown of silk and lace and tulle. Her mother cried and her father nodded solemnly as she walked down the aisle, bobbing and bouncing with the kind of air only love can give you.

As they lay together in bed, he ran his fingers softly across her thighs and her breasts and kissed her forehead and told her that there was no one on earth like her, no one so soft, so beautiful. He cupped her chin and patted her nose and held her so tight she thought she might meld into him, which was exactly what she wanted. Will you always wait for me? he asked. And she said Yes, yes of course, I will always wait for you.

He went to work every morning and she stayed home to paint and write and sing. She plastered canvases with acrylics and empty sheet notes with black blotches of rhythm. She danced until the sun set and her husband came home, and she would make him dinner and kiss his forehead, and they would hold each other tight again.

One evening her husband called and let her know that he’d be home late, work was intense, he said. And she nodded over the phone as much as one possibly could nod over the phone, and said she understood completely. Instead of staying home that evening to make dinner, she went out dancing with her friends, swaying her arms in the air like dandelion seeds floating in the breeze.

She got home late, so late that the darkness of the sky nearly blinked out the stars. What she expected was to see her husband lying in bed, arms open in anticipation of where she would be resting. What she saw was her husband sitting at the kitchen table, brows furrowed, fingers tapping on the cheap wood.

Where were you, he asked, and she responded truthfully— out with friends. Why didn’t you wait for me, he asked. I didn’t know when you would come home, she replied. I’m hungry, he said. I’m hungry and I got home an hour ago and there was no food for me to eat.

You have access to the same ingredients I do, she said. Why couldn’t you make yourself dinner?

He looked her dead in the eyes and simply said, It’s your job. It’s your job and you didn’t do it and I’m hungry.

So she sighed to herself, and pulled some meat and vegetables out of the refrigerator, and set about to making her husband dinner in the steady silence of the night.

The next afternoon he called to let her know that he would be home late again, that again, work was too intense for the typical hours of the day. And she said of course, and good luck, and that she loved him. And he told her that he loved her too. She decided to take a painting class in the latter hours of the afternoon— she’d always wanted to improve her hobby. She arrived back home around the time her husband would return on a typical day to start preparing dinner and opened the door to find him sitting at the table, the same pose and expression from last evening.

Where were you, he asked, and she replied truthfully that she had been taking a painting lesson. You didn’t make dinner, he said. You were going to be late, she said. You should have waited anyways, he said. So she reached into the pantry and grabbed a box of pasta and set to work preparing a meal. Her husband remained at the table, watching her carefully as she worked.

Spring turned to fall, and the couple went walking through the park on a cool, gentle evening. She had wrapped a wool scarf tight around her neck and cheeks— her skin had always been so sensitive. He held her hand as they meandered down the paved road. Your hands are starting to feel rough, he said. There are calluses on your palm, he said.

I’ve been making you dinner and painting and writing, she said. I’ve been using my hands.

They used to be softer, he said.

I’ll buy stronger lotion, she said.

They walked in silence for a while, until they finally passed a younger woman on the path. She looks like a woman who takes care of her skin, the husband said. I’m sure she does, the wife replied. The husband shot the young woman a knowing look, and she caught it in her glittering amber eyes. The wife looked away. They went home. She made him dinner. He complained that it was bland.

As they lay in bed together, he avoided her hand’s touch. He looked into her eyes and said that they seemed duller than he remembered. She said that they were still the same eyes. He turned his back and fell asleep. She got up and tried to dance in the hallway, but couldn’t summon up the energy.

Fall turned to winter and her hands began to crack in the cold. Her husband couldn’t bear to look at them. They walked through the park together. He wouldn’t hold her hand unless she put it in a mitten. They passed woman after woman, each one with gentle and soft features by her husband’s account of the matter. Look at her manicure, he said, pointing to one particularly expensive-looking young lady. That’s a girl who knows how to take care of herself. The wife sighed deeply. And that night, instead of going dancing or to her painting class, she made her husband dinner, carefully exfoliated her hands, and painted each fingernail a cool cobalt blue with painstaking detail. And that night, he didn’t hold them.

He called the next afternoon to let her know that he would be home late, because work was crazy, once again. And she nodded to herself in a way that she prayed would never translate in her tone. She started making dinner and had it nice and warm for whenever he got home, but didn’t stay to eat it with him. Instead she just went to bed as soon as the chicken left the oven. She was tired. She was so, so tired.

When she woke up, she found her husband holding her hand. Her hand looked softer than it had before. The fingernails were painted a screaming shade of red. She stretched her fingers. They moved slowly, uncomfortably. She looked around her wrist. It was full of tiny little stitches.

Her husband called her almost every day now to tell her that he was staying out late. She didn’t paint anymore— the paintbrush hurt in her hand. It was a hand that wasn’t used to grasping a paintbrush. She stopped dancing after she woke up one morning and found her foot was a full two shoe sizes smaller than it had been the night before. She lumbered awkwardly through the kitchen, trying to collect all the ingredients for the evening’s meal. She spent all afternoon on it, carefully measuring out every ingredient just so.

This is disgusting, he told her hours later. You can’t even differentiate a teaspoon from a tablespoon. Can you even fucking read?

The next morning, a new amber eye rolled around in her socket. Jammed in haphazardly by someone who just wanted to get the job done.

What are you doing to me, she screamed. You know what your problem is, he asked. Your problem is you never know when to shut your mouth. And the next morning, her lips were small and pointed and tight, like a tiny poppy stiff in the wind. One might mistake the tiny scabs of venous blood encircling them for a bit of misplaced lipstick.

Winter turned back into spring. People started staring at her in shock. She walked through the park alone— he couldn’t be seen with her, he said. Her gait was awkward, different body parts responding to different neurologic impulses at inopportune times.

When she got home, her husband was asleep. She sat at the kitchen table and stared straight ahead, one amber eye and one green eye struggling to act in unison. It was late, and he hadn’t waited for her. Her eyes rested upon one of her kitchen knives, quietly shining against the overhead light. And although it hurt, she stood up and walked towards it with a steely resolve. She grasped the knife in her hand— her fingers felt stiff— and slowly slid it into the skin just above her ribcage. She was precise. It was like carving a turkey.

He woke up the next morning to breakfast in bed. You’re so kind, he told her. Of course, she said, her green eye sparkling. The meat was juicy and sweet and cooked to a sizzling perfection.

This is delicious, he said. What is it?

She smiled, the corner of her mouth struggling to lift properly.

I’m surprised you couldn’t tell, she said. You’ve loved having it before.

Sarah Michelson is a horror writer and comedian, in no particular order. She is also a professional ghost. You can follow her on Twitter @sarah_michelson.

Featherless – Kristin Garth

Lower eyelids. Don’t dare to stare. Bear crow
talons through nightgowns, cotton threadbare. Rife
with pecks from a beak now full of hair, thrown
flesh over an avian spine, midnight
you share a communal mind. Amplitude
of bones, remainders of wings, is friendship
before you know what it means. Clouds dilute
memories of humanity. They slip
out of young pores without ceremony
from featherless flesh hiding hollow bones.
You cannot get there ever alone. The
limbs lengthening limp as you have grown
as grounded, flat as your topography—
still a featherless crow they just set free.

Kristin Garth is a Pushcart, Best of the Net & Rhysling nominated sonnet stalker. Her sonnets have stalked journals like Glass, Yes, Five:2:One, Luna Luna and more. She is the author of fifteen books of poetry including Pink Plastic House and Shut Your Eyes, Succubi (Maverick Duck Press), Crow Carriage and Candy Cigarette Womanchild Noir (The Hedgehog Poetry Press), Flutter: Southern Gothic Fever Dream (TwistiT Press) and The Meadow (APEP Publications). She is the founder of Pink Plastic House a tiny journal and co-founder of Performance Anxiety, an online poetry reading series. Follow her on Twitter: (@lolaandjolie) and her website

In The Sky With Diamonds – Patience Mackarness

Someone’s already set up camp on the island, which is a downer. We pitch our tents in a circle beside the tarn instead. Everybody laughs at my solo tent. Just big enough for a dog, one of the young guys says. We hope he doesn’t mean it like that.

It was a long hard climb and we all travelled light, except for the young guys who lugged up six-packs of beer. Clearly they imagined this trip as Ibiza-at-altitude. Even the huskier one is bent like an old man. The skinnier one has brought a remote-controlled speedboat.

We slide into peat-dark water and swim out, a line of heads above their reflections. The toy boat makes elliptical loops around us. Kayleigh-Kate forges ahead, she’s training for a cross-channel swim and does multiple lengths of every lake and pool she finds.

Out come the stoves and dinners. Trail meals like dogfood, chocolate cake in a foil tin, spaghetti with meatballs. Everyone’s hungry after the climb and swim, and eyeing my sausages. I donate some to the young guys. They hand round beers. We sing, louder and dirtier than the people on the island.

We reminisce about the open-air pools and lidos we’ve swum, the rivers Wharfe and Derwent, the wave-sculpted chalk cave at Flamborough Head. The mountain tarn is our next step. Margaret, who was once a nun, says it’s like the Stations of the Cross. Trudy says, With a happier ending, I hope.

Joe and Trudy sit close together by the campfire that isn’t really a campfire but a kind of brazier Joe made from a biscuit tin. They’re in their sixties, but Joe wears a big-cat smirk, and Trudy has amazing skin, what make-up artists call the just fucked look. We all know what they say about wild swimming. We’re counting on it being true.

The stars wax as the brazier wanes. We lie flat in in a circle. I say, Magic lanterns. Kayleigh-Kate says, Harbour lights. Trudy says, Fuck the clichés, they’re diamonds. One of the young guys farts; it reverberates round the tarn. From the island someone shouts, Time for bed, Zebedee!

Lying in my miniature tent, I remember I was here before. We had clipboards and drew diagrams of how the lake formed in the age of the glaciers. The erupting spot on my chin felt bigger than Helvellyn.

At dawn it’s mountain-misty. Sheep crowd in, exploding their reputation for mildness; they seem to like the smell of sausages in the unwashed frying-pan.

The tent people come over. Four men, grizzled and spare; a mountain rescue team in training. The tattooed one’s mine.

We look up through drifting mist towards a bald-topped crag. Joe’s silhouetted, down on one knee. We can tell Trudy’s saying yes.

The two young guys straddle their boat, grown overnight to the size of a bobsled, and set off down the mountain, bouncing and whooping.

Kayleigh-Kate smashes sixteen more lengths of the tarn.

Margaret steps into the sky and soars.

Patience Mackarness lives and writes partly in an elderly VW camper van, partly in a cottage in Brittany. Her stories have been published by Lunch Ticket, Dime Show Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, The Coachella Review, Flash Frontier, and elsewhere. Her work can be read at

Our Komodo (A Kind of Love) – Valerie Fox

Mrs. Komodo, at Home

You said you’d be right back. I await. Up a tree. All our grinning kids are gone. I don’t let the watchers get close. Four of those dirty beasts perch with their binoculars and tuna-fish sandwiches. Yum. I’m afraid. I hear scratching and tapping. Like dental or scissors. They mention you are at Disney World and laugh. I’m queasy. I miss your serrated bites. I don’t feel like hunting anymore, I’m hurting. I’ve got my soaps and trailing yarn. Maybe that’s enough. I fell hard for your handsome gait. I took care of the kids. You said a minute.


Our lizards are shy, an island animal. Here’s a nest decoy. Our young have wrinkles all around their baby eyes. They’re used to us and their drastic teeth are changing year by year.

This juvenile one is April Jo. Still residing, at seven years, she has her own tree-view. Her waddle is fetching, her grin. As she grows up, we measure April Jo’s envenomed, gripping bite.

Many tests in hill-stations use goats. The meat attracts Varanus komodoensis. Same thing with lookalike automatic menus. Look, that’s where we put the goats. We aren’t doing that as much anymore since, honestly, our friends come to expect this meat offering and lose some of their hiding and hunting ways. You want to adapt a little or at least to try.

Check out her rotational chewing point, that vector. She has her mama’s eyes. Is anyone else here feeling lonely or sleepy?

The effort to survive airplanes is intense. That’s the second one today. Bacteria survive and colonize. Here we say “disease” without meaning positive or negative. Mortal, not moral. Bacteria stay in the mouth and on escaped prey. In the next activity we will join forces and form a grid. Later we’ll plug in our numbers.

One favorite study is like this. You approach an individual to see how long it takes the giant to react. “To react” means to turn and look, gaze. Keep your handwriting steady. You want your notes to be legible. If there’s enough time we’ll come back. You can guess what we mean by enough time.

We get enchanted by the direction of what we are gathering here, and we are going to go full on and four-footed. We are not a zoo. Let’s break for lunch. Be quiet for now, stay frozen.

Mr. Komodo, Extant for Now

I didn’t choose this side of the planet, I was drugged, awoke in this bacteria-free condo. Inhaled the refrigerator contents lickety-split and scratched the sofa-back raw. Can’t get these claws to work the buttons on things. Worst part is seeing clever you on-screen. And the kids, alert on their puffy, sun-filled bellies. A few limbs and branches were dangling from your dear mouth. As part of this new life there are too many kinds of milk substitutes and banknotes, so it gets super confusing. I think away my days. I whine at you on the elephantine TV: I am glad you’ll never see me this way. I yearn to hear the voice of someone who still has a heart.

Valerie Fox has published in Juked, Ellipsis Zine, Cleaver, Reflex, Okay Donkey, Maryland Literary Review, Across the Margin, NFFR, and other journals. Her books include Insomniatic, The Glass Book, and The Rorschach Factory. She has a story in the upcoming 2020 edition of “Best Small Fictions,” from Sonder Press.

Bear Aware – Sean Igoe

Bears are powerful and strong animals; they should always be treated with caution and respect.

“Wouldn’t it be great to see a bear?” said Eric, filled with infantile wonder. Cheryl disagreed with a curt “No” as Eric went into the inevitable bear impression. She was tempted to leave the claustrophobia of the tent, but it was getting dark.

Always use extra caution when moving around at night.

New York, L.A, Las Vegas… so many possibilities, but here they were, camping again. True, the very real threat of an ursine mauling made it considerably less tedious than the Peak District, but this was not a plus.

Bear attacks are extremely rare – a person is 67 times more likely to be killed by a dog.

Cheryl had been ready to turn back even before they reached the Rockies West Park Ranger Station and the revelation that they would be camping in Bear Country. Ranger O’Neil had assured them it was perfectly safe, as long as the appropriate precautions were taken. He had talked them carefully through the Bear Aware leaflet, as Eric made excruciating jokes about Pic-a-nic baskets.

Never leave any food scraps or garbage out.

All food must be carefully sealed. Even uncapped toothpaste could attract a bear.

Keep your odorous activity to a minimum.

“Your campsite should be upwind of your urine,” Ranger O’Neill had said, and then continued, with an admirably straight face, “Ensure there are no fluids of intimate generation unsealed in your tent.” That was not going to be a problem.

Back home, Cheryl had been thrilled when Eric had hidden the plane tickets in her birthday cake. Although it did ruin the cake. For a time, it reminded her that Eric could be exciting, impulsive, fun. America had seemed so appealing, but Eric had kept all the arrangements secret as part of her present. Eric wanted to see the real America. Disneyworld, Californian beaches and Broadway shows were apparently not the real America.

Store all food and odorous attractants in sealed bags or airtight canisters.

Sleep was impossible for Cheryl, with the sounds of the wild invariably bear-like to her ears. Was that a bear howling? A bear rustling in the trees? A bear hooting like an owl?

Daybreak, and Eric was fast asleep, snoring and grinning like an idiot baby. Cheryl removed her passport from Eric’s backpack, dressed and quietly exited the tent. She looked slowly and carefully around at all the so-called beauty of nature. Then, resolute, she squatted at the tent flap, silently performed an odorous activity and walked out of the wilderness.

Beer Head Barbie – Bart Plantenga

Barbie is my role model. She might not do anything, but she looks good doing it.
Paris Hilton

The guy they call Mír walked by. I saw he had transformed the “O” on his forehead into a peace symbol. As a true “peace symbol” artist, this was maybe his way of promoting world peace – or promoting himself in the name of profiting from peace – you do what you gotta do. Or something like that. Let me explain the “O”.

You walk into your local bar, the place where you know where to hang your truss or ironic gun belt. But already in the entranceway you sense something is amiss, awry – somebody’s tinkering with your gears. It’s as if good beer [not-quite obscene prices], good music [tending toward cliché – Dave Brubeck, Hank Williams, Pixies, Tom Waits], and good conversation, heat in winter and AC in summer were no longer enough. The bar owner is not the only one who suddenly got it into his head to install stuff: more TVs and slot machines, blinking beer signs, talking toilet seats, poker machines, trivia challenges, darts, billiards, retro-modern Scopitone machines – but this one beat them all. It was officially called “branding” by mags like New York and New York Press and “dotting the i” by adherents. To me it still looks and smells like a ritual, a rite of passage, but maybe also like a hipster trend.

They say it was concocted by an ad hoc scrum of barroom denizens in, some say, Chumley’s, others insist it was the Olde Towne or Rudy’s or Downtown Beirut or Nell’s – or some place like Ypsilanti, Michigan. No matter, at least it wasn’t some ad agency boardroom scheme. At least no one was saying it was stealth marketing. It did just seem to pop up out of nowhere, growing insanely popular as barroom activity in a matter of like the time it takes to down a shot of some brand name something or other. In some hoods, branding was now almost impossible to avoid. You simply got sucked in or went home and sulked. And if you were hovering in over Sally’s bar at just the right angle, it could almost remind you of that Russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter.

“Dotting the i” required contestants [celebrants, acolytes, dotters] to answer weird questions: What’s the melting point of skin? How many truck tires does Pooh have to pile on top of one another to reach the honey in the tree? How many Yankee baseball caps are sold worldwide annually? Name two famous assassins who shot presidents and then were shot themselves. How many glasses of milk does it take to give you a .02 blood alcohol concentration on a Breathalyzer test, enough to have your driver’s license suspended in many states? Did Magic Johnson invent the high-five hand gesture while at Michigan State? What was the name of the prostitute who fled Sam Cooke’s hotel room taking his clothes with her? Why are yawns infectious? How long can someone survive on water and toe nail clippings? There were a million more where these came from.

The ritual usually involves mass consumption of whatever beer and whatever harder stuff goes well with beer because if you answer 3 questions in a row correctly, one of the other contestants takes a bottle cap from the bar, presses it to the victor’s forehead and smashes it into his forehead with a fierce elbow or punch or it is sometimes hammered into the forehead with a beer bottle – clinkclink – embedding it in what little meat there is to be found there. The victor might follow this with a little mock Hottentot dance or something they imagined “their man” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins might do before someone removed it, revealing a bleeding, branded “O” in the middle of the forehead.

This created, as some dotters were quick to point out, a near-perfect triangle between the “O” and the victor’s two eyes. And so for months now people have been wandering around the East Village, whooping it up with this “O” brand in their foreheads. The brand eventually scabs over, leaving an indelible scar that might come in handy later in life as one’s fount of personally inscribed mythic tales as it slips down out of the main text into an illusory footnote to a not-so-exciting running narrative.

I eventually got tired of going to Sally’s or Bar Nickel Bill where I had to hear about the significance of the equilateral triangle, the number 3, the deity, the significance of 33 … It was like hanging out with new Baptist church congregants or college football fans going on about legendary fullbacks. The dotters all had their ideas about how the “O” “mapped” the mind’s eye and could go on and on about New Age Traveler [post-industrial-hippie] festivals of dotters, especially in the area outside Sedona, Arizona where they “learned” that triangles represented vigilant-third-eye angels. Some saw dotting as a corollary to the devil-Masonic, all-seeing eye on top of an Egyptian pyramid [the Great Seal of America] portrayed on the back of a dollar bill. Others pilgrimaged to Sedona’s Dotter Fest [SDF] to experience mass dottings. Dotters brought potato sacks full of SDF-approved bottle caps to sell from makeshift teepees. There were bands that sounded like the Swans or the Cocteau Twins and there were dotter workshops. The more enterprising dotters sold their own hygienic, do-it-yourself, dotter bottle cap and hammer kits from the back of a VW bus – perfect gift for the pagan who has everything. And someone – no, not Robert Anton Wilson – lectured on the significance of SDF as an acronym for “Sans Domicile Fixe” [homeless]. Some were already predicting that branding would eventually surpass tattooing in popularity. In New York, dotters were regularly being interviewed on local public access TV shows; there was a dotter convention in the Armory on Lexington Avenue where the band the Dodgy Dotters were performing when cops under order from NY’s Health Department, concerned with on-site HIV, tetanus, and hepatitis infections, busted the event.

Some dotters began openly claiming they were being unjustly barred from clubs and restaurants; others described situations involving discrimination or intimidation in the workplace. Still others announced the opening of “dotter-friendly establishments.”

The world is magic: a week earlier I had been listening to my red radio that could somehow mysteriously tune in WFMU, despite its meager proportions and despite lots of metal obstructions and concrete high-rises that had prevented mightier audio aficionados with their high-end FM loop antennas from receiving WFMU for over 25 years now. Yes, clear as a bell as I listened to Reck or Rick or Wreck interviewing the famous ex-MC of Club 57, ex-dominatrix, print media entrepreneur, and, for a time, Rites & Rituals Anthropology Professor at Masaryk University, Bikini Girl [Volta de Cleyre]. She did not want to discuss the “dotter phenomenon,” but rather Barbie and her early conversion of Barbie into a “makeshift sexual device.”

On the radio it always stops there, though, just short of where innuendo crosses over into provocation. And now here we were in the Linger Lounge, face to face, fan to crush, discussing the dynamic relationship between cocaine and fanaticism, failing body parts and complaining about dotters and the recent introduction of dotter “O” appliqués – all the rage – as we waited for our unexpurgated Barbie stories to kick in.

“It’s now like Halloween 365 days a year around here,” she noted as if we both knew that everything she uttered was instantly quotable. She had had the mighty as S&M clients and knew all their names. She could name at least 100 seminal Ohio garage bands. Her face was beautiful precisely because of its absorption of domestic pain, of milky-murky cocktails, and the ennui of the entire Midwest [Ohio]. My heart still gets hurled into an empty field like a horseshoe magnet, aorta over auricle, by a splendid face. Strange, this cosmos of beauty and how it still manages to disassemble awareness.

We discussed how she imagined Barbie must’ve felt and how her own “teen juices d’amour” had actually matted Barbie’s golden locks back and how these clandestine secretions gave Barbie’s hair a strange sheen. And how this made Barbie look punk or flapper or attitude-enhanced – or like an ICBM manufactured by Rockwell maybe in Ohio – and how all this made Bikini Girl the envy of her classmates who dreamed only of mauve boudoirs and dates with Kiss, and marrying a career military man and mistook Barbie’s mysterious sheen for Dippity Doo. Hehehe. In a silent instant our thoughts drifted to insertion.

“You asked listeners to call in with their tales of youthful dabbling in Barbie Voodoo.”

“Indeed I did,” she remembered as she sucked the last sips of Delirium Tremens from its classic stemmed snifter glass, which is perfect for heightening the mystique of this ale. Heightening a superior ale is the act that raises us out of ourselves. [Did I say that or she?]

I ultimately decided to confess how I met Barbie (cat. # T34959687) down on Orchard Street. I remember the breadth of her every skittish step circumscribed by her skirt design and anxiety. It was her first trip to NYC. Well, not her first – she’d often been chauffeured to Mattel HQ on 6th Avenue and had often dined at the Waldorf to later mingle at the Yale Club. But this had certainly been her first excursion below 14th Street, let alone Houston Street.

She did not understand why we met here. Why I gave her a bracelet of used crack vials and a necklace made of car window crystals. She did not understand my world of gallantry. Her world was filled with award ceremonies, chivalry and runway knights in perma-crease slacks. She did not understand why I thought it important that I’d broken the side window myself and had taken nothing from the vehicle. She did not understand that the GESTURE was the gift. And this was disappointing.

She did not understand why boys and girls along the parade route of her life would stick pins into her. And why others had painted crucifixes where her genitalia ought to have been. And why still other others threw pocketfuls of baby teeth at her feet of indistinguishable digits. She did not understand that the world had become a place where there was ever less to win and ever more to lose.

Barbie discussed her early days of life in Taiwan while she sipped a Blue Lagoon Margarita I’d prepared in her honor, knowing how electric blue complimented her eye shadow. And after 2 BLMs, I coaxed her into my bathtub of cheap, warm beer. OK, I hid my eyes at first.

“It’s therapeutic,” I said as I made motorboat sputters to mock her eternal affections for the trappings of wealth.

“Yea, right,” she retorted, much less naive than adventurous. She climbed in and we floated there for a long time, unburdened of all weight and doubt. I became increasingly drunk on her head – no really. Here’s how: I dipped her big coif of adjustable-length hair into the cheap, warm beer and then sucked every inebriating molecule out of her big head of hair. Over and over. She said it was OK, something she could tolerate. “I’ve been through worse.”

And this routine came to pass so that I could no longer drink beer in any other manner. This was how I got drunk. And this habit managed to keep me out of many bars where drinking was still done in more conventional ways.

bart plantenga is the author of novels Beer Mystic, Radio Activity Kills, & Ocean GroOve, short story collection Wiggling Wishbone & novella Spermatagonia: The Isle of Man and wander memoirs: Paris Scratch and NY Sin Phoney in Face Flat Minor. His books YODEL-AY-EE-OOOO: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World and Yodel in HiFi + the CD Rough Guide to Yodel have created the misunderstanding that he is the world’s foremost yodel expert. He’s also a DJ & has produced Wreck This Mess in NYC, Paris & Amsterdam since forever. He lives in Amsterdam.

2017 – D S Maolalai

was a year with weather
flipping like a coin
on a table; winter
come summer
with no pause
for a spring. I was
living in Toronto
and something
of a hedonistic life, living
on my wits between shifts
at the hospital,
where I was of course
responsible. the air all the time I remember
tasted like fresh pears
and lilac
and I had three girlfriends
and finally found
some good bars. once,
in the park, a hawk flapped down in front of me
but it didn’t get any squirrels. I took long walks
up Dundas with the past
on my back
like rocks
getting lighter.

DS Maolalai has been nominated four times for Best of the Net and three times for the Pushcart Prize. His poetry has been released in two collections, “Love is Breaking Plates in the Garden” (Encircle Press, 2016) and “Sad Havoc Among the Birds” (Turas Press, 2019)

Flood Warning – Sarah McPherson

I’m squashed up on the kitchen windowsill with my feet on the draining board. Hoping I won’t be here too long, but who knows these days. The flood defences aren’t holding up like they used to, and sometimes it takes forever to pump the water out.

It happened quick this time, I only had a moment’s warning. The sirens went off and before I could blink I saw the water coming down the street. So I hopped up on the window ledge and watched it rush by. Thought I might be ok for a minute, but no. It came in under the door and up through the floorboards, swirling over the kitchen tiles and the rest of the ground floor too. Six inches pretty fast, then slowly rising up to around the ten inch mark. It seems to have stopped for now, but there’s no guarantees.

Feels like I’ve been sat here for an age but I can’t let my guard down. If it starts rising again before they can drain it I might have to leave my current perch and make for the stairs, something I’d really rather not have to do. I mean they say brief exposure won’t do any lasting damage but I’d still have to decontaminate, and that stuff’s awful hard on your skin. It’s bad enough that I’ll have to scrub out the whole downstairs floor.

Five times this year the dams have ruptured, and we’re not even in June. I wish they’d do something about it. Dad used to tell stories about before I was born, back when things worked how they were supposed to and the floods weren’t a threat. I’m not sure I believe it to be honest. He also told me there were fairies at the bottom of the garden. As if anything could live that close to the water!

It’s lapping at the cabinets, like there’s a current flowing through here. That can’t be a good sign. If I shimmy round to the fridge before I get down it’s only a couple of metres to the door and then the stairs just outside. They’ll sound the alarm again if there’s another wave coming, and I’ll have to make a run for it. If the water ever made it up the stairs… No, the drainage hasn’t got that bad. Yet.

It’s a blessing really that I’ve only got myself to worry about. After Dad, you know, Bella didn’t stick around long. Said she’d heard the floods weren’t as bad up north. Said she’d send word when she got settled, so I’d know she was ok. That was six months ago. Folks round here look out for each other of course, but it’s not family.

This place is too big for just me, but at least it’s got space to get up high when I need to. Mr Leach at the end of the road is only a bungalow. I heard he keeps his loft hatch open and the ladder down all the time now.

I’m trying to decide if it’s better to stay near the window where I can see up the street or move round nearer the door when the siren screams again and I hear the water roar.

Sarah McPherson is a Sheffield-based writer of short fiction and poetry. Her writing has appeared in STORGY, Corvid Queen, and Atrium Poetry, among others, and has been long/short-listed in competitions including Writers’ HQ Flash Quarterly and Reflex Fiction. She tweets as @summer_moth and blogs at

Ghosted – Wilson Koewing

When Alison saw Jacob Barnes again—after being ghosted two months prior—he appeared on the light rail in downtown Denver. She stood on 18th listening to No Doubt’s version of “It’s My Life” in her giant red headphones. He wore a fashionable overcoat and appeared to stare through her as the train slid by.

The second time, he appeared on the Megatron at Coors Field on opening day catching a homerun in his beer cup.

The third, she spotted him through strobe lights at Canopy on South Broadway dancing solo in a dense crowd surveying the room. She forced through the bodies. It wasn’t clear if he saw her, but as she moved, he moved, entered the restroom and never reemerged. She didn’t notice a back exit, but there was no other explanation for Jacob’s disappearance, leave some outlandish escape through the ceiling.

*      *      *

Alison first met Jacob at Confluence Park in downtown Denver. She’d wandered down for lunch and sat on a rock listening to her headphones and watching the rivers collide. Jacob waded knee-deep in the water. His shoes and socks abandoned on shore.

As he wandered over, Alison conjured ways to say not interested. Instead, he sat beside her as if she wasn’t there and produced a spliff. Alison took a few puffs, which was unlike her, and agreed to shrug off work and accompany him to a nearby bar.

Alison ordered a drink then went to the bathroom to message her boss and turn on her out of office. She returned to the bar and took down her fizzing drink in a single gulp.

*      *      *

A week passed without Alison spotting Jacob again. No matter how adamantly she spoke to friends and co-workers, they didn’t seem to listen.

She met her closest and least reliable friend, Lisa, for martinis at a trendy cocktail spot.

Before Alison could mention Jacob, Lisa’s attention was drawn to a scruffy man seated alone at the bar who she’d had a recent fling with.

“He’s acting like he has no idea who I am,” she said, staring at him through the window.

“Can we discuss this Jacob thing?”

“He had some weird kinks, though,” she continued. “but don’t they all.”

*      *      *

They went on one official date to the Denver Art Museum. An exhibition of late 17th century English paintings graced the walls. Jacob was enthralled, but Alison found none of the paintings interesting, save one—a portrait of a woman about her age with pale features and life-like eyes. She could have been living right there among them; she didn’t seem from another time.

Outside, they sat in an art installation; a dozen double-sided and connected metal rocking chairs that struck notes that blended together to create music when rocked. Jacob’s droned dull like a bass, but no matter how hard Alison rocked, hers made no sound.

At the end of the night, Jacob barely uttered goodbye and disappeared onto the light rail to return to his suburban enclave.

Alison went over a week later. When she arrived Jacob practically ignored her while deep cleaning his empty spare room. She made a drink from his bar. He folded clothes, setting a few stained ones aside and placed them in a garbage bag he threw away in the alley dumpster. A young woman who resembled Alison wandered by as he slammed the lid. She recognized Jacob and wanted to say something but saw Alison and continued on.

After eating takeout and watching an episode of Six Feet Under, they shared their lone intimate moment. In the glow of a bedside lamp, Alison rubbed Jacob’s back as he pleasured himself into a towel before promptly falling asleep.

*      *      *

A month passed and Alison forgot Jacob again. She went about her days, fog-like and constant drifting. One morning, she locked her bike by Union Station and walked in the opposite direction of her office, intent to try a new coffee shop a friend had touted on social media.

Alison stepped inside, shook off the cold and removed her giant red headphones. The barista turned to face her, and the barista was Jacob Barnes.

“Jacob?” she said.

His face flashed no acknowledgement.

“What can I get started?” he said.

“Jacob,” she said. “It’s me, Alison.”

“Double soy latte,” he said. “Four fifty.”

Alison turned and watched a woman dig through her purse and hand Jacob a debit card.

“That’ll be right out,” Jacob said and walked away.

Confused, Alison let her gaze drift around the coffee shop. A half dozen other women, who vaguely resembled Alison, watched Jacob’s every move. One peered over a laptop seething. Another sat blasé on a windowsill clutching a hula hoop. A third wept by a potted cactus, holding the string of a red Elitch Gardens balloon hovering over her head. A fourth cackled while scribbling feverishly in a journal. A somber fifth held a leash but on the other end there was no dog. The last sat in a booth with another woman, flailing her arms as she spoke, but the other woman wasn’t paying attention. She was reading a book.

Alison removed the giant red headphones from her neck and stared at them in her hands. Outside, she sprinted in front of Union Station, past birds that didn’t scatter and across a street of cars that didn’t slow. Reaching the park beside the river, she placed her shoes upon the shore. Her foot dangled over the rushing water. She gasped when she dipped a toe in and felt nothing.

Wilson Koewing is a writer from South Carolina. He lives in Denver, Colorado. His work is forthcoming in Ellipsis Zine, Pembroke Magazine and The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts.

The Narrow Corridor – Michael Loveday

He woke to a churn in his stomach, a heave in his throat.

He lunged out of bed, swayed, then wobbled a little. He made it only to the corridor before the contents of the evening’s drinking and dining splattered onto the floor. It was his best friend’s floor – his closest, oldest friend, the one who understood his intimate faults and secrets. He had walked this narrow corridor many times in his life. Its oak boards were splitting at the sides and had been repeatedly daubed with paint, lately a cherry-brown colour. In between the boards there were dark gaps, big enough to squeeze a little finger into but no more. He’d always wondered what lay down there.

When he’d staggered back from the bathroom with an armful of toilet roll to mop up the liquid and the gloopy, half-digested chunks of potato and carrot, he realized that a lot of his evening had fallen into those gaps. A fingertip alone could do nothing to get the remnants of it back. It had been a merry evening with his friend and it should not have ended up in the holes between floorboards, beyond his grasp.

He wondered if he should, in the morning, confess to his friend and explain that a part of their lives had disappeared out of reach in that rickety, old corridor. He thought maybe his friend would want to know. But in the end, he decided: he’d cleared up all that was visible, better to say nothing now.

The floorboards were mottled, cracked and uneven. At their ends, the cold, unpainted heads of nails sat at the surface. He reached a finger into the gap again, searching for something, though he didn’t know what.

Michael Loveday’s novella-in-flash Three Men on the Edge (V. Press, 2018) was shortlisted for the 2019 Saboteur Award for Best Novella. He also writes poetry, with a pamphlet He Said / She Said published by HappenStance Press (2011). He specialises as an editor and mentor for novellas-in-flash:

Participating Merv’s – Stephen Pisani

The local Merv’s Taco Terrarium advertised its “Bankruptcy Week” a few years ago during that nebulous time between Christmas and New Year’s. I should know, because I worked there at the time. To make my current affiliations and loyalties as clear and transparent as possible, I am no longer employed by that particular franchise, or any other Merv’s. The job was supposed to be a stop gap, a bridge connecting my adolescent wandering and an adult pursuit of meaning and fulfillment. Alas, it didn’t quite work out that way. I’m not sure it ever does.

On the day I found out about the “Bankruptcy Week” gimmick, I was slumped over the counter reading the paper, careful to keep my Merv’s elf hat balanced on my head and wary of my Merv’s elf sleeves jingling their Merv’s elf bells with every flick of my wrist to turn the page. Suddenly, I stopped on an image of “Merv,” who was my boss and the owner of the franchise, and whose actual name was Chuck. The man in the picture had a halo of greasy hair surrounding a circle of baldness and a pair of the thickest glasses I’d ever seen. Surprisingly, Mr. Merv—he insisted on the formal title—looked even worse in real life. I objectively felt this way. My criticism had nothing to do with the elf ears he forced us to wear at Christmas, nor that he made us balance on a broomstick at Halloween, nor that he insisted I don a full Abe Lincoln costume during President’s week, cheek mole and all.

Mr. Merv walked through the door and barked a “Hello.” I shuffled in my green polyester suit, careful not to lose my place in the paper.

“What’s the deal with this ‘Bankruptcy Week’?” I asked sheepishly, tapping my index finger on the advertisement before Merv could get close enough to see it. I didn’t add, “This is the worst idea I’ve ever seen.”

He approached the counter and leaned over to look at the rows of coupons, raising an eyebrow like he was seeing them for the first time, like he wasn’t the one who framed them with strings of cartoonish Christmas lights and dinosaurs in Santa hats on his computer in the back office and shipped them off to the Garbonzo Gazette. I recoiled, not because Merv looked so ugly, but because his scent matched his appearance—his was the face of body odor—and also because I knew the prices in the advertisement would put us out of business.

“Gotta get people in the door,” Mr. Merv grumbled.

Okay, sure, but a hundred and thirty dollars for a chilly chameleon taco? A buck fifty-five for a boa bean burrito? One ninety-nine ninety-nine for a cold-blooded value meal: two lizard soft shells, a Komodo dragon corn tortilla, and a salamander soda pop? Ridiculous! Where else in this town could you feed a family of four for under a thousand dollars? I had half a mind to tell Mr. Merv we may as well just give the food away.

It would have been one thing if the meat was no longer fresh. You could justify selling snapping turtle at less than five hundred dollars a pound if it was some sort of prepackaged frozen knockoff. But that wasn’t the case. Merv insisted on keeping the terrariums on the counter, the snakes slipping through the fake fauna of theirs while the lizards snapped their tongues at prospective buyers from another.

“No, no, no, son,” Mr. Merv said, shaking his head at me, “we’re not really going out of business. It’s just a figure of speech.”

“Not yet,” I wanted to say. I didn’t know what to think. I could only dream of the store being a shade busier. Most days, staring at the reptiles in their glass enclosures was the only way to pass the time. I got so bored, my mind lulled itself into the believe that these animals were waiting to be adopted, rather than trying to stave off an untimely death with each day they went unclaimed. They were the only green things I ever saw; my tip jar could not have been emptier. Mr. Merv liked to bark that we don’t work for tips. “You don’t see me complaining,” he’d always say.

Business changed during “Bankruptcy Week.” Not necessarily for the better. Customers of all types flooded the place. Men, women, short, tall, children, octogenarians, bald people, people with mullets, fat people, people who looked like a stiff wind would blow them over, like they hadn’t had a good meal in weeks, and they ate like it, too.

“Let me get three of the green tree pythons,” one guy said, his finger poking the glass of the snake terrarium just to the left of the sign reading “Please Keep Fingers Off The Glass,” and two of the corn snakes, five of the cottonmouths,” and with his entire palm resting next to the sign, “let me see, yeah, one of those bright green guys hiding in the back.”

I pushed buttons on the register as he talked. The total value of his order climbed slower than the tortoises in their cage on the end of the counter. His gastronomically ambitious order could have fed a football team, all for the price of two gallons of cockroach milk. We might as well have been giving the food away.

I hit one last button and without looking up asked, “You’re sure about all those cottonmouths? They’re extra venomous, you know?” I’d never seen anyone who could handle more than two tacos stuffed with the poisonous buggers.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said, because what did he have to lose? Let’s say he didn’t like them, or the poison was indeed too much for him. So what? At a tenth of their usual price, he came out ahead as long as he ate more than fifty percent of one. And if he did eat all five, risking almost certain anaphylactic shock? Well, at that point we could offer him a glass of CroFab antivenom for—I hope you’re sitting down for this number—fifty-seven dollars, when the same amount costs us nearly fifty-eight from the manufacturer. We’d basically be paying this guy to keep him out of the hospital. You’re welcome.

Mr. Merv placed an asterisk beside our advertisement in the Gazette. It corresponded to a note at the bottom that explained, Offer Valid Only at Participating Merv’s Taco Terrariums. We had to be the only store participating. The extent of Merv’s participation was cooking up all the orders that were threatening to shut us down.

“Everything’s fine. We’re doing great,” is all Mr. Merv would say about the ill-fated sale, even as I watched a twenty-five-hundred-dollar order of tuataras leave the terrarium and then the kitchen just as quickly as they entered the store, and for half the price.

If the moniker described Mr. Merv’s hopes and dreams, “Bankruptcy Week” had its desired effect. The store’s accounting certainly wasn’t my responsibility. Even without seeing the books, I knew we were firmly in the red by week’s end.

Just before closing time on Sunday, at the end of our busiest week—Mr. Merv confirmed he’d never seen anything like it—he tiptoed around the soapy floor I worked over with a mop, whistled at the piece of paper in his hand, flicked it with his index finger, and declared, “Well, we certainly can’t afford another week like that, can we?” Before I could respond, he told me, “I wasn’t speaking to you, son,” and walked away. It was only the two of us in the restaurant. I continued to mop, and he continued to absentmindedly get in my way, cursing the “birdbrained numbskull”—his words—who conceived such a “cockamamy”—again, direct quote—idea.

On Monday, when I asked Mr. Merv about the newest ad he’d placed in the Gazette, he predicted “Trade-In Week” would dig us out of the hole where “Bankruptcy Week” had planted us.

“Gotta get people through the door,” he insisted.

I read off some of the items Mr. Merv had listed as available for swap and said, “How are we supposed to cook without this stuff?”

He waved a hand and said, “We’ll make ‘em raw if we have to. That’s all the rage in insects now, rare caterpillar and medium rare slug and seared spider; don’t see why we can’t get in on the craze.”

I had more questions, but he skulked to his office behind the kitchen. By the time I turned back around, a customer had plopped an off-white toaster on the counter between us. The appliance was riddled with all types of dinks and dents, like he’d been firing hockey pucks at it all morning.

The customer waved the ad from the Gazette like it contained the words of a higher power, first at me and then the toaster. “What will you give me for this?”

The words, “I’m sorry, we’d have no use for that thing,” were just about forming on my tongue when Mr. Merv suddenly appeared next to me with one hand extended as a greeting and the other massaging every imperfection in the toaster on the counter.

“Well, what have we got here?” he said.

“Half of it’s almost completely new,” the customer said.

“Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.” Mr. Merv placed his hand under his chin. “I can see that,” he continued.

Mr. Merv offered the customer three fryers in exchange for the toaster. He accepted three more toasters throughout the day. The dented one was in the best condition. Over the course of five or six hours, I watched the flat top, the oven, and two terrariums—full of our most expensive products—make their way out the door. He tried to part with the walk-in fridge, too, but the physical impossibility of dislodging it and getting it out the door made that sale impossible.

When closing time came and our kitchen looked like the toaster section at Kevin’s Kitchen Equipment Emporium three-quarters of the way through a clearance sale, Mr. Merv put his hands on his hips and said, “Another successful day. See you tomorrow.”

I came to work the next day to find Merv in the kitchen with his fingers shoved into a toaster slot like he’d dropped something into the crevice between the driver’s seat in his car and the center console.

“Need help?” I asked.

He wiggled his fingers with a pained expression on his face. Sweat formed a line from the top of his bald head into his eyes. The beads that managed to fall between them trickled over his nose into his mouth. I couldn’t tell whether he was actually stuck until he said, “I’m not stuck. I just can’t get this darn thing out.”

He asked me for a fork and I handed him a plastic one from underneath the counter. He dug for a couple minutes until he plucked the fork victoriously from the depths of the dented toaster. A tokay gecko burnt almost beyond recognition strained the fork’s flimsy tines. I identified the gecko by the bisecting slits in the eyes I got used to seeing on the other side of the terrarium glass when things were slow.

Mr. Merv must have noticed the look on my face. “Just a little crispy, that’s all,” he said.

He tucked the charred gecko into a corn tortilla filled with lettuce, diced tomatoes, shredded cheese, and signature Merv’s Viper Sauce.

“Try it,” Merv said when he was done, pushing the taco into my hand.

I took one bite, followed by another and another, until the taco disappeared. Much as I hated admitting it, the toaster gave the lizard a solid, crunchy bite. I gave Merv a thumbs up as I finished chewing, and as the afternoon progressed, we sold whatever kitchen equipment hadn’t moved the previous day. Eventually, the toasters were the only thing we had left. Mr. Merv didn’t say so, but he seemed reluctant to part with them. I didn’t want him to either.

The next customer who entered the store asked, “What do you have left?”

I told him about the toasters, not entirely sure of Merv’s stance on selling them.

The customer donned the classic thinking man’s pose, hand tucked under his chin. “Can I see them?” he asked.

Before I could turn around, Mr. Merv plopped every toaster, one by one, on the counter. “Pick whichever one you like,” he said with a smile, “or package them together.” Without saying anything, we both understood we had no reason to hold onto them. We had nothing left to cook in those toasters anyway.

Stephen Pisani is an MFA candidate in fiction at Adelphi University. He spends his spare time working at a golf course, where he watches people chase a little white ball around a big patch of grass.

exposed – Ceinwen E Cariad Haydon

tin foil boxes half empty
remains of last night’s take-away
cold curry stinks in his musty fridge
all that’s left of Friday night
apart from his unbrushed breath

so many months of expectation
spent longing for her touch

his chance at last wine-fuelled
rash he spoke too soon of love

she couldn’t wait to leave

white wine then red
second bottles always makes him cry

tears season her absence
her plate congealed and cold

Ceinwen E Cariad Haydon lives near Newcastle upon Tyne and writes short stories and poetry. Her first chapbook was published in 2019: ‘Cerddi Bach’ [Little Poems] by Hedgehog Press. Her first pamphlet is due to be published 2020. She is a Pushcart Prize and Forward Prize nominee (2019). She believes everyone’s voice counts.

Day 47 – Bart Van Goethem

Just look at that little mouth grinding away like a tiny cement mixer. How long can you chew on a piece of broccoli, anyway? I realise she’s only seven, but still. Her jaws go up and down, up and down, up and down. In between she opens her mouth slightly, not every time, though it feels like every time, and the sound of smacking fills my ears, fills my head, fills me.

I look at her. I look at my wife next to her. She doesn’t seem to hear the noise or at least she looks like she’s not bothered by it. I look back at my daughter. Shall I say something? Shall I tell her to stop eating like a baby? Learn some manners? Finally?

I gaze at her pinkish lips. So innocent. I shouldn’t get angry with her. I really shouldn’t. I can barely comprehend what the world is going through and where it is going to lead us, let alone a child. A noisily eating child. She doesn’t even realise it. She’s just looking in front of here, smacking absentmindedly. She doesn’t notice my hard stare. So I decide to do the wise thing and look away.

Suddenly she’s right next to me, her chomping mouth almost touching my ear. Smack smack smack smack smack. The noise ricochets in my auricle, then dives brutally in my ear canal, echoing all the way down, louder and louder. The cacophony pounds on my ear drum, ruthlessly. Smack smack smack smack smack. I start to feel disoriented and I put my fork on the table. I’m trying to breathe, to just let it pass. She is almost finished eating. We are all almost finished eating. Smack smack smack smack smack. It reverberates all through my body, making me shiver. I want to yell, STOP, STOP IT, but I’m not going to. I’m the adult, she’s the child, I’m not going to snap. I am not going to snap.

And Then There Were None – Paul Beckman

So, my mother had six sisters and a couple of brothers and there was always someone not speaking to someone else, and if the parents didn’t speak their kids didn’t either, but we didn’t know why.

I was in my early twenties, home on leave from the service when I dropped in to see a couple of cousins and they told me our mothers weren’t speaking. I asked why, and they shrugged and told me I had to leave. How about a glass of water first I asked, and they brought me a glass of tap water and I took a sip and spilled the rest on one cousin’s head and spit the sip I was holding in my mouth at his sister.

I still had three good friends from high school I spoke with but no one left in my family that I talked to and that included siblings.

I forgot about a poker game I promised to play in the next night and two of the three friends that had been speaking to me stopped because I didn’t show and they couldn’t play without me. The last guy, Billy, still spoke to me. He was easy going and never liked the idea of not talking.

He saw me sitting alone in the coffee shop and sat with me and asked if I was lonesome not having anyone to talk to and I told him no, that my friends were like my family—all stupid and annoying.

How was I to know he’d take that personally?

Paul Beckman’s latest flash collection, Kiss Kiss (Truth Serum Press) was a finalist for the 2019/2020 Indie Book Awards. Some of his stories appeared in Spelk, Necessary Fiction, Litro, Pank, Playboy, Jellyfish Review, and The Lost Balloon.

Amoeba Pete – Kimm Brockett Stammen

Pete lived in a small house on Sycamore Street. Pale and flaccid, his hands flapped when he spoke, and he had a way of edging sideways when walking, as if to present the thinnest aspect of himself first and thereby reduce the size of the target he made. He had no knowledge of the name the neighborhood children had given him.

Pete lived with his aunt, a lump, housebound by edema. She wiped crumbs off counters, stacked newspapers in corners. Her wheelchair whacked against walls; the chair was wide, the house, like Pete, wasn’t.

Pete cleaned schools, including the one that the children of his block attended. Three evenings a week he edged into EastWest Public Elementary by its side door. There were mops, the big flopping kind, and buckets that, no matter how much hot water or how much soap Pete dumped in them, always smelled rancid and old.

On a Tuesday evening in spring Pete left his house, also by the side door. The front door was for his aunt, because of the ramp, although she rarely went out. He walked along to the back alley, where children were running in circles next to his car. They were yelling, they shoved each other. Pete remembered, as if in a long brown haze, a childhood with loud voices and games of running and falling and graveled knees. He didn’t know why, but when he thought back on it his childhood seemed flat. A plain dirt plane which existed merely to be traversed, and had no other function, even in memory.

“Yaaaaa!” the children scattered like crows when they saw him. To a modest distance, then watched to see when it might be safe to come back.

“Do you like cake?” Pete called into the alley. He didn’t know why he said it. The last of the cake had disappeared into his aunt’s maw that morning.

The children edged closer, turned their bodies incrementally to face him. Like sunflowers to the sun, are children to cake.

“I’ll be back!” Pete slammed the door of his dusty Mazda.

He mopped the school’s tile bathrooms, vacuumed the taupe-carpeted hallways. He’s seen a photo once of the Amazon: muddy, endless, matte, and doubtless concealing danger. As usual, there was leftover cake in the staff room.

No one had ever said he could take leftover cake, but it was so frequently there, from birthdays, retirements, teacher appreciation weeks, that if he didn’t take it it drew flies. Filching cake seemed part of his duties, and besides, his aunt enjoyed it. Why he had suddenly promised it to the children who scavenged his neighborhood, Pete had no clue.

He drove home at three a.m., and parked his car in its usual spot. He set the cake, wrapped clumsily in tin foil, on the hood. A pre-dawn crow–a smarter and more curious crow than the others–hopped along the dusty alley towards him. Or perhaps this crow, thought Pete, was also just coming home after working through the night, cleaning up others’ messes.

The crow hopped onto the hood of the car and cocked its head at him. A scrap of moonlight glinted in its bead eye. The crow would tear apart the tinfoil and eat cake the instant his back was turned. Pete took the prize into the house, found a large Tupperware, stained, came back outside and set the container over the cake on the top of his car, giving the crow a wise look. Then he went to bed.

*      *      *

Amoeba Pete’s a total weirdo, what a geek, how freakish, said the kids, boys and smudged girls, their mouths full of cake. It was morning, they fought over the carcass. Don’t stick your fingers in. You got more. A girl called Pricilla–a name she hated and vowed to avenge herself on her parents for–pushed a boy whose nose was streaked with blue frosting. He pushed back, someone ripped the tinfoil, the rest of the dessert spilled on the ground. There was more yelling and pushing, and somehow Pricilla’s foot landed smack on the cake.

“You kids shut the fuck up!” yelled a neighbor. The kids ran; they were in any case late for the bus.

When he rose at noon, Pete found the Tupperware squatting upright on his car’s hood, empty as if it were begging.

That Thursday there were scattered papers, moldy coffee mugs, crumb constellations on the battered particleboard table of the EastWest school’s staff room, but there was no cake. Pete opened the fridge, discerned a large container of cream, half a pizza, a smell. When his work was done he took the first two home and set them in the Tupperware on top of his car. He didn’t remember his own elementary school, but there seemed to him some kind of vague justice in what he was doing.

He turned and saw that his aunt watched him from her window. She was not really his aunt. She was the mother of his wife who had died. But he didn’t like to think about that, about the thin body angled on the bed, or how long ago it was, or the brief time they were married, when life had felt three-dimensional and he had strode through it, proud, straight, with her on his arm.

*      *      *

The children left notes in the empty Tupperware:

We like cake better.

You have funny flapping hands.

Then there were no more notes. Pete took colored paper and markers from a box labeled Staff Room Only, and put them in the Tupperware along with his offerings. After that the messages came back with regularity:

Cake with sprinkles.

Your aunt sucks eggs.

That last note was not nice but Brice isn’t.

Brice is not his real name.

We have a name for you. It is also not your real name.

The holidays came and the staffroom filled with cookies and things on shiny red paper plates. Cellophane, ribbon, crumbs under chairs. After the EastWest Season’s Greetings Concert, Pete stayed long hours cleaning up frosting-smeared doorknobs and punch-chocolate-fruit-snot-encrusted carpet. When he finally left it was with two full Tupperware containers. He set one on the hood of his car and brought the other inside for his aunt, who had taken a fall from her chair and broken her collarbone, and could not go out even to see her physiotherapist because the ten visits allotted by the insurance company had been used up long since. She, like everyone, was waiting for a new year.

After that the school was closed for two weeks.

Without school to go to, Pete–strangely–dreamed about school.

School was a river, non-reflective, never giving up its secrets but hiding them in a stealthy current of silt. His dreams smelled of liquid sewage and squalor, the stench of them stung his nostrils in the night and caused him to wake coughing, angry, wanting his wife. His yells clanged off the black window panes and flung themselves back at him, as if he were being thrashed, and he wondered: why? He asked himself: why? And the knowledge came to him that this was what was meant; he was meant to be single. A single-celled animal, catching food, floating, doing his work by extending fingerlike projections of protoplasm.

*      *      *

On the first morning of the first day of school in the new year Pete took out his garbage. They were there, the children, surrounding him warily. But like crows that have been fed, they were bold, and came closer.

“Your name’s Pete,” said one.

Pete stood sideways to the children.

“Amoeba Pete!” said another.

“That’s rude!” said Pricilla. “We don’t call you that anymore.”

“I don’t mind it.” said Pete. “Are you Pricilla?”

“No!” yelled Pricilla.

“She hates that name,” said a boy. “Can’t call her that.”

Pete so rarely spoke to people about things that mattered. He spoke to the cashier about the weather, to his employer about the job, the cleaning agents, the hours. He spoke to his aunt about the television, about cake and her collar bone. He had worked for years in a school but had never spoken to children.

He asked Priscilla, “What would you like to be called?”

She glared at him. She was a child, and she knew everything about him and had no patience for it. “Why do you cry in the night?”

Pete turned and ran. Or, as he stood there, a smear of immobility, he remembered the feeling of running. Down the hall of a school, slipping on the brown tile floor, running, out of breath, while crowds of bullies chased after him. Out the double doors, into the playground, under the swings, zigzagging through children. Barreling into walls, narrowly averting forehead-smashing poles. So many poles in elementary school, claggy with peeling tan paint. Back in to the building again, hiding, panting until the bell rang or until they found him again, the big boys and the mean girls and the ones who just didn’t like how he smelled, the way his hands flapped when he talked, the way he thought, or he grew, or the simplicity of his conception of self.

“I,” he said, and as he said it he faced them, and at the same time felt his shape shimmer and alter like light through water, felt the sun like the memory of his wife on his flesh. The crows lit, their beady eyes cocked, drawn to the nebulous edge.

Kimm Brockett Stammen’s writings have appeared or are forthcoming in Oyster River Pages, Pembroke Magazine, Cirque Journal, Rosebud, Atticus Review, Ponder Review and others. She was the 2nd Place winner in Typehouse Magazine’s 2019 short fiction contest, and was shortlisted for the 2019 Eyelands International Short Story Prize. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University in Louisville, KY.

Crowned Virus – Aldas Kruminis

The world had to stop
to guide us to the poison
inside our veins, to find
the foundation of our flaws.

Exposed of binary borders
and self sketched walls,
the multi-nation world
through death became one.

All the shields and tanks, containers
of archaic thoughts,
now dust underground
as we gasp for air. Within

the old world was buried, guarded
now by guns and bullets
conquered by a crowned
virus, the death that

collected our last breaths
as our voices prayed for love.
Humbled by the power, we bowed
and sheltered from the force

that suffocated our lives. Obsolete
became weapons, former rulers,
their triggers and buttons
locked and cocked in the past.

Still, the loss of sanity is severe,
the murder of truth and facts
goes unpunished, the ignorance
rides free without a mask

and spreads division
in the world dying for unity.
Clowns dressed in suits
shout misguided blabber

and blind the world,
already holding its breath,
from choosing the righteous well.
In times of struggle we turn to wisdom

to find the universal truths:
you can lead a donkey to the water,
but it still needs to choose
whether to drink or spit.

Aldas Kruminis is a writer from Dublin, Ireland. He holds and MA in Creative Writing and dreams of a career as full-time writer. His work has been published in Iceberg Tales, Terrene, Idle Ink and elsewhere. His website:

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Vines Don’t Register – Gabrielle Griffis

Plastic bottles stuffed with sterile pills lined the shelves. Labels promised improved cognition, stress reduction, better sex. Plants extracted from their land of origin filled vegetable capsules. Goldenrod grew from the floors, yellow flowers cracked through linoleum.

Doris sobbed over the register.

“How do I get more customers?” She choked. Her cellphone sat on the counter. Social media pictures of yogis drinking smoothies and workers holding colorful produce lit up the screen. Blue skullcap blossoms curled around a rack of gift cards. Their purple cups shivered in the forced air. The store was being overtaken by greenery.

Millie bit her tongue and brushed her hair out of her eyes. Doris, with no experience running a business, inherited the natural food store from her mother. Millie watched the worker turnover rate grow. The store haemorrhaged money. Would-be clientele was comprised of former employees Doris had alienated from her business.

“If we don’t get our numbers up we’ll close,” she wailed.

Millie stopped mopping, and pushed a cluster of evening primrose to the side. The papery lemon flowers bowed on green stalks. Smells of citrus, sweat, and gray water suspended in the air. She adjusted her “Doris’ Market” apron in the dim light of the freezer.

Although she was standing there, she knew Doris wasn’t really talking to her. Doris didn’t really talk to anyone. Millie continued mopping, pushing water around a cluster of white yarrow.

As a seasonal worker, Millie was detached from her job. She didn’t need it, she just liked the free smoothies. She watched Doris fume each summer when kitchen staff didn’t work harder, all the while refusing to compensate them adequately.

Vegetation creeped into the shop. Goldenseal, milk thistle, uva ursi sprouted through the floors and foundation cracks.

It was as if Doris and her loyal customers didn’t see them. They preferred the aseptic herbs, processed and powdered in plastic bottles. In capsule form, they could be anything, sand, canola oil.

“What’s the difference between these?” An older woman asked, shaking a pair of bottles at Millie.

“I don’t know, I’d have to see what you’re holding,” Millie replied.

Customers asked employees for recommendations eager to purchase their suggestions.

“I’m not a doctor, so I’m not qualified to say,” Millie would tell them. A large number of people were willing to put their trust in a stranger and an ambiguous jar.

The dwindling clientele would describe their woes, low-energy, dermatitis, insomnia. Sleeplessness was common among coffee drinkers glued to their screens unwilling to give up caffeine and technology habits.

Millie read that a plant could only help if they were asked first. Judging by the labels, none of the plants had been asked, if they were plants at all.

Over the years different roots and shoots would gain popularity. Sales of ginseng, turmeric, and other spices rose and fell. Layfolk read about celebrity diets or an actress would describe her eucalyptus enema practice. Kits with smiling athletic-looking women promising to improve digestion and “boost” the immune system flew off the shelves. 

Demand for patchouli incense remained consistent.

Millie read the tabloids. Women came in asking for jade eggs. All the while slippery elm trees gnarled their way through the foundation, their pink flowers and sinuate leaves blossoming with spring. Doris didn’t see the advantage of the herbal cornucopia. Elderberry bushes grew over the pipes. Purple berries stained the floor.

“What do I do?” Doris cried. The boxes kept coming. Plastic containers full of flowers, vegetables, and nuts that had been dried, fried, and concocted into face creams were shelved by employees.

Millie shrugged. The trunk of a willow groaned outside. Its branches overshadowed the windows. She wondered what the land looked like before the downtown was erected. They were about to find out. Birds had started to roost in the boughs. Animals once eradicated were starting to return.

Even if Doris had to close the store, the local flora and fauna, many of which were on the shelves, would overtake the structure. It was better than sterility.

When the season ended, Millie would fly south and enjoy days in a warmer climate with her husband. She’d been around the store for over a decade, living off the inflated currency she earned in summer. She had dual-citizenship and a dispassionate attitude, watching capable employees shrivel and blow away.

Even if Millie did offer advice, Doris would spit it back as soon as it left her lips. She’d seen it a thousand times.

“I think you should get some rest,” Millie replied, nodding and wheeling the mop bucket towards the hallway. She dumped the gray water. Purple echinacea spilled from the sink. Ghostly hummingbird blossoms reached through the eaves above a carpet of clover and mullein.

Millie clocked out and took off her apron. Scarlet bergamot petals fell from the pocket. As she walked along the refrigerators and out the side door she looked back at Doris. Her tear stained face was illuminated by her phone. Greenery curled around her, fungal hyphae had started to grow, ready to decompose an already rotten venture.


Gabrielle Griffis is a mutli-media artist and musician. She studied creative writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she has also worked as an affiliate of the Juniper Writing Institute. Her fiction has been published in or is forthcoming from XRAY Literary Magazine, Gone Lawn, Cease, Cows, decomP, Ghost Parachute, and Blue Lake Review. She works as a librarian on Cape Cod.

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Image via Pixabay

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