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Zuz #3 by Tin Whistle

Del Briggs’ Midlife Crisis by William Kitcher

[Toronto, Ontario, Canada]

 

Del Briggs loved his wife, respected her, admired her for her intelligence and common sense, and thought she was still the funniest person he had ever known.

     But they hadn’t had sex for fifteen years. The inactivity had begun when their daughters were in their teens and they didn’t want to make noise that would alarm the children, but the daughters had left home many years ago, and Briggs and his wife had never resumed a regular routine. From once or twice a year, it had dwindled to nothing and, as they careened through middle age, had never come back.

     Part of it, Briggs was sure, was that they weren’t attracted to each other anymore. They’d seen each other age, and go to flab and wrinkles and hair emerging from the most unlikely body parts. And, after all, how many people in their fifties were still attractive? Sure, there was Diane Lane and there was Julie in Accounting, but that was about it.

     At least, that’s what Briggs thought, and he was fairly certain his wife felt the same way, as she had never broached the subject or his body.

     It had never bothered Briggs very much as he was a fairly low-sexual person but it was a constant thought, and he began to become concerned that perhaps he was no longer even capable.

     One night after work, he went to the bar that the Sales team regularly commandeered, and took aside Teddy Wall, a young sales whiz who was known to indulge in sex of the paid variety.

     “Yeah, I think I can help you out,” said Wall, looking at the contact list on his phone. “OK, this is what you’re looking for. Two twenty-one-year-old sisters, Inga and Ilsa, exchange students who...”

     “No,” interrupted Briggs. “Young women would just make me feel... uh... sordid. Do you have anyone a little older?”

     “I know exactly who you need. Madam La Rosa is the one. She lives just around the corner from here. Daytime is best for her.”

 

     Briggs took the information and thought about it for a few days. He wondered if he could go through with it. Would this cause him anguish? Would he feel guilty? What the hell, he thought.

     The following Thursday, he decided he could. He left work early, and went to the address. He climbed three flights of stairs, found the right apartment, and knocked on the door. The door opened and he looked into the face of his wife.

 

 

 

A Sleepless Night by Anna-Roisin Ullman-Smith

[Glasgow, Scotland]

 

From the deep dark depths of a dreamless sleep, she was suddenly yanked back into the gloom of her bedroom, her mind still clinging onto the sweetness of oblivion even as her eyes opened and settled upon the scrunched up, screaming face of her child.  

 

Perfectly at eye level to her pillow’s mounted head, the small monsters’ cries shook the empty mindless space of her brain in painful throbs. Her body took over, emitting cooing sounds of comfort as her arms untangled from the duvet and reached across the minimal space separating them, to lift and drag the small, angry creature she loved into the warm embrace of the parental bed.  

 

Hair frizzed by sleep and face sticky with snot and tears, the small human immediately hushed on contact with its mothers warmth and burrowed into her chest, thumb popping into mouth and hand clenching around a stray lock of her hair.  

 

Small sticky load acquired, she turns gently onto her back, looping the already drifting toddler’s legs over her arm and placing a hand firmly and comfortingly against its back. A sharp look through the dark to her right confirms her husband’s unbroken slumber. Rage momentarily ignites and then is quenched by the soft sleepy moan of her tiny load. She turns her eyes back down onto her sleeping monster, now turned cherub in resting, watching the soft rise and fall of its tiny chest and the rhythmic clench and unclench of its cherry pink lips around its miniscule thumb.  

 

Eyes turning up to the ceiling she reaches out for the depthless sleep she was torn from. She closes her eyes, settles her breathing, attempts to stop the cogs which have woken and begun to turn in her mind.  

 

It is, of course, at this exact moment that her husband begins to snore. Loud, bed- shaking snores which echo through her. Her eyes snap open, the cogs in her mind released to run into overdrive as the long list of chores that await her with morning light begin to flood her consciousness.  

 

Stuck, unable to move should she wake the beast now settled against her chest, she stares into the darkness, tracing the lines of the ceiling tiles, both content and furious all at once.  

 

 

 

 

To Accept The Challenge, You Must Pay The Fare by Kayleigh Kitt

[South Shropshire, England]

 

It is a Tuesday afternoon and Pete’s life is about to change.

 

He’s only agreed to go on the trip to Boraston Hall because Angela is going but , dismally when he arrives, she’s already cried off. So grumpily resigned to the back of the group visiting the stately home, he becomes his worst fear - a straggler.

 

Slowly going through the rooms, he further detaches himself from the rest of the party, mostly to avoid the scrutinising questions from Deidre. You know Deidre? Of course you do, loud, pushy with an insatiable appetite for gossip. We’ve all met Deidre.

 

I digress.

 

So Pete, now forlorn and melancholy stumbles in a corridor of our historic house, and as his forearm connects with a wooden panel to steady himself, there’s a very soft click, followed by a hiss and an animatronic voice that softly announces,

 

Main power has been restored.

 

Our wilting hero thinks he’s hearing things, but as he straightens up, doors begin to gracefully glide shut.  Tapestries on the wall recede into ceilings, panels rotate revealing a selection of brass chargers, spears and swords.

 

Carpets and rugs roll up, as if they are on hidden pulleys, disappearing into letter box slots in the floor, snapping shut, while bases of spears held by flanking suits of armour ring out on the stone floors, as their mufflers are dislodged.

 

A black walnut sideboard shivers, swallowing half a dozen goblets, although it’s not quite as successful, with the dish of apples, one landing and skimming across the tiles, hitting Pete’s boot. He hitches his rucksack, nervously pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

 

But then…. the helmet of the nearest mirrored suit of armour begins to grate in his direction.  Pete licks his lips, taking several alarmed steps backwards, nudging a table and dislodging a pewter vase, which crashes loudly to the floor, with hollow, echoing chimes.

 

The visor on the helmet begins to open, synchronised with a rising gauntlet.

 

Pete stands gawping, now frozen in fear.

 

A tatty, brown edged piece of card, ejects from the visor, landing in the upturned polished hand, followed by a shiny golden sovereign.

 

Nothing stirs, no traces of human voices, nor animal, well living at least, because the glassy eyes of the stuffed heads seem to be focused intently on any minutiae movement.

 

With a thumb and forefinger, Pete carefully extracts the card from the palm of armour.

 

It reads, “To accept the challenge, you must pay the fare.”

 

He measures the weighty coin in his upturned hand, a bead of sweat forming on his forehead.

 

Peering to inspect the glinting intricate pattern on the breastplate of the metal skin, he posts the coin into a slot in the chest.

 

 

 

Like A Million Butterflies by John Brantingham

[Jamestown, NY, USA]

           

Travis jumps off the school bus to find what looks like a million butterflies in his mother’s milkweed bush out in front of his house, but he’s quick to sneer at it because that’s what you do when you see butterflies and a busload of kids are watching you, even if your back is to them and they can’t see your face.

 

     Still, his grandmother told him about the way magic wands come from milkweed bushes covered with butterflies, so he waits until the bus moves on and then makes his face as neutral as he can make it. When it feels right, he steps up to the bush and snaps off a branch as naturally as he can, as though this is not special, but just what someone does in the course of the day.

 

     He’s too old to believe in magic wands, he thinks as he stuffs the branch in his pocket.

 

     Still.

 

     Upstairs in his bedroom, he can think about what he might want the wand to do. He supposes that the only thing he really wants is to be able to play with butterflies without anyone laughing at him, so he takes the wand and closes his eyes and circles it around his forehead.

 

     Next week, when he sees some more butterflies out of the baseball diamond, he’s too smart to go chasing after them. The wand, he knows, has no power. The other kids would laugh and talk about him for a month. He knows that when the monarch comes close to him, actually lands on his mitt, and when the ball is hit to left field while he is right so he doesn’t have to disturb the little creature, that it has nothing to do with the magic his grandmother gave him. He’s too old and too smart to believe any of that.

 

Still.

 

 

 

Three Stories by John Sheirer

[Northampton, Massachusetts, USA]

 

Planning

 

Julia had heard stories about her grandfather. He had been something of an athlete long ago. Nothing professional, but people noticed. Now eighty, he still got around well, took long walks at his senior complex, maybe with a limp on rainy days.

            So, she was surprised when she visited and saw him in a wheelchair.

            “What happened, Gramps?” Julia asked.

            “Nothing yet,” he replied.

            “So, what’s with…” Julia said, nodding in the general direction of the wheelchair.

            “You know, gotta plan,” Gramps said, gripping the chair’s arms and shaking them with his still-strong hands, rattling the frame. “The inevitable.”

 

 

Civilization

 

The homeowner woke early each weekday to dress well and tap computer keys in exchange for money. On weekends, he wore sloppy clothes and traded large portions of that money for supplies that he hauled from a big-box hardware store to his home. He sweated and swore and transformed those supplies into new porch steps and repaired deck boards and rescreened screen doors and layers of paint atop fading surfaces of his house. The homeowner could have exchanged his money for other people to come to his home and do this work for him, but what fun would that be?

 

 

Revenge Of The Lawn Service

 

Henderson Landscaping’s workers lifted sweat-lidded eyes from their tasks at 84 Maple Street to witness a Doobie’s Mow and Blow truck rumble to a stop at 97 Maple. Last month, Doobie’s site supervisor, slathered in a film of sunscreen and disguised by opaque mosquito netting, crept in at lunch break to shove a potato deep inside the tailpipe of Henderson’s best tractor, disabling it for an important job. Since then, Buddy Henderson, youngest son of the company founder, had anticipated today’s arrival. He distributed buckets of fist-sized throwing rocks to all seven employees present. They each knew what honor demanded.

 

 

 

 

The High And Mighty by Alan Berger

[West Hollywood, California]

 

I was wondering why there were so many cars double and triple parked in my driveway when I

got home.

 

My neighbor Richard was smoking a Marlboro by the side of my house, and when he saw me pull

up he came towards me as I got out of the car.

 

He pulled me by the cuff as he watched the windows while he led me to the side, so, “We wouldn’t be

Seen”!

 

“Got any coke”? He requested.

 

I gave him some.

 

“I’m here for your intervention”

 

“My what”? I asked.

 

“Yeah, don’t tell on me. I don’t want one.”

 

I started to walk to the front of my home.

 

“Hey fuckhead, you coming in”? I inquired.

 

“Yeah, you go in first. Got any weed”? He didn’t wonder.

 

I gave him some.

 

 

 

I met my wife, one early rainy morning waiting for the doors to open at an A.A. meeting.

 

 It was my first time, and I guess it showed.

 

It was her millionth time, and I guess it showed.

 

After the A.A. meeting I kissed my future sponsor wife on the neck in the parking lot and she

looked, and felt, like she was tingling all over, and then I started tingling all over too.

 

I thought at best we would be just a fleeting fantasy in an after A.A. meeting parking lot.

 

It happens every day, and night, however, this one stuck to the ribs.

 

It was love at first blurry vision.

 

Now, my significant whatever, is now a reformer.

 

A couple of her friends’ husbands were there too.

I saw them earlier in the week.

 

We all went in on an ounce of blow with a side of some ecstasy. They probably wanted to re-up and figured they might as well stay for the show.

 

I noticed one of the attendee neighbors coming out of my bathroom and making a mental

note to myself to check and see how many pills of mine they stole.

 

I looked over the audience and thought to myself that half were drunk, half were pilled, half were

coked, and half, were all the above and below.

 

I know that doesn’t add up correctly, but what does?

 

I also knew I wasn’t as whacked out as most of them but what can you do?

 

I don’t want to be known as an intervention party pooper.

 

I simply said, “Let’s not say what goes without saying."

 

Until I said,

 

“Why don’t we all empty our pockets and purses and we’ll see what we can see and what is what”?

 

 

So here we are, and nobody has made the slightest motion to empty their pockets and purses.

 

They must have thought I was kidding.

 

I was not kidding.

 

The haul was enormous, and I suggested we sell it all and donate it to charity.

 

I was voted down, so I said, “Why not live and let live?"

 

That bill was voted and passed.

 

 

 

 

Tinnitus by Alisha J Prince

[Wandsworth, London, England]

 

Raymond cut pieces of moss using nail scissors and fitted them into an ice-cream box. A pond was the small round mirror his wife had prised from a compact, it smelled of stale, perfumed powder.

 

Twigs and lollipop sticks formed the first fence. They have to be the right kinds of twigs; too supple and you have willowy vines, too frail and they risk snapping.

The next bit was controversial - cat litter for a path. Some say this is cheating because a path should be made from stones, painstakingly picked for their uniformity. But the litter was already in the cupboard under the sink. He was utilising his resources, anyway, it was redundant since the cat died. His wife had always bought fine grain which made an elegant esplanade.

Boxwood, lamb’s ear and false cypress were favourites and his signature piece was a washing line. Swings could over-egg the pudding. Not that he wasn’t experimental. He’d once made a miniature garden within a miniature garden deliberately breaking one of the four reproduction antique ceramic tile walls. He suspected foul play when only awarded third place but avenged himself the following year with a reconstruction of The Potters Field - Judas Tree and noose included. Perhaps they’re just not ready for Penjing veritas in New Malden? His wife had suggested.

He hummed and tapped his skull, a trick an ENT specialist taught him. His wife had said he was lucky; most people don’t know what they’re distracting themselves from.

Later, standing on a motorway bridge, traffic competed with the dreadful echo of inner-ear interference, he wondered: if he was distracting himself from tinnitus, what was the tinnitus distracting him from?

It was still rush hour. His head was still louder than the cars. Stale perfumed powder still lined his nostrils.

 

 

 

Mongolian Sunflowers by Karen Arnold

[Worcestershire, England]

Giant Mongolian sunflower seeds. Ten for five pounds.

Do they have sunflowers in Mongolia? Surely, it’s too cold she thought.

 

She shrugged, scrolled to another page. Scrolled back again and stared at the image. The enormous flowers were mesmerising, big as dustbin lids, radiating hot golden petals.  She looked out at the grey sky and leaned back into the faded green velour sofa. Becalmed in a sea of other tenant’s threadbare furniture, she laced her cold fingers over the soft round of her stomach for a moment, then clicked “buy now”.

 

She planted them in a motley assortment of rescued yoghurt pots and margarine tubs, in soil grubbed up from the side of the road and carried home in a bag for life. Watched as if bewitched when tiny tendrils started to unfurl. They grew so fast. She would sit at the scuffed Formica kitchen table and feel she could hear them growing, a creaking, eager noise that cut through the dull roar of traffic.

 

One evening they were too big for the pots. Roots and shoots reached out into the air, desperate for more space. She crept down the fire escape, cleared away broken glass and cigarette butts and planted them in the patch of earth by the light of a curious full moon. They carried on growing, stems as thick as her finger, then as thick as her forearm. She watered them every day of that long desperate summer, cried like a toddler when the strongest of them was kicked over by a careless bin man.

 

The next three grew sickly and jaundiced. They withered, and died, poisoned by cat piss. After that she spent hours at the window ready to defend them with bowls of water and creative expletives. Two of them reached the height of the first landing before being used as goal posts by bored teenagers and reduced to tattered stumps. The dead eyed boys ignored her pleas to just fuck off. They threw the empty beer can that had been the football at her windows, and she did not shout again. They prowled away into the dusk as the sun set.

 

The sunflowers grew. She worked out how to measure them from her window as she grew larger, too tired to climb down. She lowered down a knotted piece of string, a rental Rapunzel. She counted the climbing numbers. Seven months. Eight months. Nine months

 

The buds had reached the kitchen window when the pains started. They opened slowly along with her. The midwives commented on them as they entered the flat, and then there was no more time to talk, no time to get to the hospital.

 

They put the baby into her arms at the end of that long hot day, and both of them turned towards the window, where the giant Mongolian sunflowers, big as dustbin lids, nodded in approval.

 

 

 

 

Life’s Dreams by Mark Anthony

[Kent, England]

“You gonna eat that?” Mary asked her sister. Sue-Ellen shook her head. “No, I’m done.”

Mary stabbed the piece of pancake with her fork and folded it into her mouth having wiped all traces of maple syrup from the plate. Their mother Connie wore the well- worn mask of normality while a knot of worries tumbled in her head, careful words of advice for their first day at a new high school were delivered.

 

“Now girls, you are growing up now and some folk, especially those boys, will be paying you mighty close attention, so just you act normal, you know like always. Be polite even if they’re being mean.”

 

“We will Mom,” they said in unison.

 

Mary and Sue-Ellen sat in the back of the car, lime trees marched by as they cruised along the Maryland suburbs, Connie hummed a country and western classic, her nerves added extra vibrato to her tones. Of course, had Hank stuck around it would have a damn sight easier, but he soon pushed through the back door fly screen once he’d realised. A glance in the rear-view mirror, two faces stealing glimpses of people like birds pecking seeds from the ground, before sinking back into soft leather. At the lights near the school, Connie drew a deep breath, pulled down the sun visor mirror, a face much older that it should, but she would fight on, for her and her girls.

 

She figured that Maryland high school was large enough for the girls to fit in, yes it would be daunting but if they were to succeed in life, they need to face crowds and attention. No longer could they hide in small town life.

 

The main car park resembled a disturbed ants’ nest, encumbered masses emerging from boxes and corners marched towards a frenzied bottle neck. Mary and Sue-Ellen tentatively alighted from the car, their mother held the door and took them in her arms and whispered encouraging words before she ushered them forward.

 

“I.. I’m not sure I can do this,” Sue- Ellen said to her twin.

 

“Just focus on those dreams we have Sue-Ellen. You have yours and I have mine, we just have work together to achieve them, that’s all.”

 

“You’re right Mary. We can do this.”

 

Determined not flee the scene, Connie watched as the girls took deliberate co-ordinated strides to the knot of bodies at the entrance. An electric buzz connected all the heads except those of Mary and Sue-Ellen, it was if they were the reverse polarity, repelling them from the crowd's magnet. The girls’ awareness of the stir at first quickened their pace until forced to stop at a thronged pocket, hundreds of eyes on stalks, wide and examining, the two fair faces that shared a single body.

 

 

 

The Inside Cover  by Laura Stamps

[USA]

www.laurastampsfiction.blogspot.com      

Twitter: @LauraStamps16  

 

There it is. In my post office box. The current issue. One of the dog magazines I subscribe to. Just seeing it makes me happy. So enjoyable. This. This addiction to dog magazines. Mine. I open it to the inside cover. The first ad. Love the ads! Have I mentioned that before? It’s true. Love them. They’re as entertaining as the articles. Really. They are. And informative. Always. The ads. All of them. Really. Like this one. The ad in this issue. On the inside cover. Usually, it’s for pet insurance. But not this time. Now it’s anxiety meds. For dogs. What? What? Dogs have anxiety? How fascinating! I wonder, wonder. Could these work for humans too? These dog meds. I wonder. If they could. If that’s possible. Then I know who needs them. Him. My ex. That ex-husband of mine. Mad all the time. Him. Mad at the world. At people. At strangers. At drivers. At life. At everyone. And everything. Is it any surprise he has a heart condition? Too much anger. Too much stress. For him. For me. Is it any surprise what happened to me? That day. When I’d had enough. When I was tired. So tired. Me. Tired of his temper tantrums. His anger. The tantrums that put him in the hospital. Again, and again, and again. Tired. Me. Of going to the hospital to pick him up. Again, and again, and again. Tired of his refusal to take an anger management class. To learn coping skills. To learn. Just. Tired. On that day. Like any day. Me. Driving home from work. Like I always did. Every day. After work. But then, but then. That day. I didn’t get off at my exit. Couldn’t. Couldn’t go home. To him. Couldn’t make myself. Just. Couldn’t. Do it. Kept driving. Driving, driving, driving. Across one state. And then another. And then another. Driving. To be free. From husband-stress. From anger. Free. To build a new life. Here. In this city. Far away. Me. Free. Finally. Best ten years of my life. And counting. 

 

 

 

The Blind Leading The Dog by Alan Berger

[West Hollywood, California]

 

The last thing Amber remembered was a beam of light speeding towards her face.

 

A stubborn light.

 

Like her.

 

Now another one.

 

This time it was a flashlight lighting up her face.

 

She felt the warmth but couldn’t see a fucking thing.

 

Blinder than a bat.

 

She already had a dog that did not know he would have to be retooled which is better than being fired.

 

He already could not find his own leash, bless his heart.

 

She sure was pretty, but what blind person isn’t?

 

It was not his fault that his wife upset him so that he could not see her, and out of hurt and anger, after being left alone for

another, he attacked the night with his Harley machine until his blind rage blinded her.

 

She wore a football helmet she got from her before blind boyfriend, to wear around the house, so she wouldn’t hurt her head any further on all those big bumpy things surrounding her new life.

 

She got a call to see if she wanted a seeing-eye dog but she said she already had a dog that could see fine, and his name is Bo, then she hung up.

 

Her before blind boyfriend looked after Bo at his place while she was in the hospital.

 

Her boyfriend had women come over that he pretended to like them, until he threw them out.

 

After she got back home, he brought Bo over and she was more excited to be with Bo then with her future ex-boyfriend, whom she told it would not be fair to him to have a life with her, with her being this way. “Don’t you agree?” she frozenly asked.

 

Of course, she did not want him to agree, she just wanted to give him an out.

 

But agree he did.

 

She might have never known what she wanted out of life, but sure knew when she was not wanted.

 

She laughed when she told Bo that she had a feeling her job as an air-traffic controller career was in jeopardy, and even Bo thought it was funny.

 

If she could just stumble upon a man was like her Bo, her world of darkness would be brighter.

 

One day she got yet another call from that organization about training Bo asking how she was doing adjusting and how was this, and how was that, and just before she was going to adjust the phone to go silent, the person on the other end said they were born blind and how lucky she was to have had sight for a while at least.

They talked for hours, and when it was time to hang up, the born blind person said, “Bye bye, see you with my third eye.”

 

Then Amber lied down with her arms around Bo and cried a bit and was happy that her eyes could still produce tears that Bo would lick away.

 

 

 

To Greet or Not to Meet? By Naga Vydyanathan

[Bangalore, India]

Raju donned his Covid protection gear, the supposedly omnipotent N95 mask, as he prepared to step out for his morning walk. The current times necessitated one to fortify the body and mind before venturing out of one’s haven! Armed with a tiny bottle of sanitizer, he stood outside his door, wondering whether to take the elevator or the stairs, finally opting for the latter – at least Covid urged the weak-hearted to exercise their hearts! The air outside was cool and fresh. Raju took long, deep breaths, trying to somehow suck in the air through the numerous layers of his mask. He diligently wore only masks with five or more layers – wasn’t more the safer? Walking briskly, he noticed that most of his fellow walkers had theirs precariously hanging from their ears, safely protecting their chins. “Covid has definitely retired, not from existence, but from people’s minds!” thought Raju disapprovingly, as he turned around the corner.

 

          Raju had his eyes intensely focussed on the ground before him, for two reasons. One – he did not want to accidently step on one of the many snakes that had started venturing out bravely, boldened by the lack of human intrusion over the last few months. Two – he was scared of meeting eyes with someone he knew. Meeting eyes was OK, but meeting without a mask? “Raju bhai! Arrey Raju Bhai!” boomed a persistent voice from behind. Raju froze in his tracks – he hadn’t anticipated being recognized from the back – an impressive feat by whoever it was, considering the jagged locks of hair he sported, thanks to the Covid-confine! Turning around, he peered at the waving figure, the neurons in his brain frantically trying to find a match for the blurry masked face with images from the past.  Raju took some steps towards the still-waving figure, hoping that the increased clarity would eventually lead to a hit! With the relief of sighting a masked face coursing through his veins, he actually looked forward to physically meeting someone after all these months. Masked meetups, that too, outdoors, should be safe, no?

 

          “Aaah! Alok da! How are you doing?”, greeted Raju, giving himself a silent pat for the just-in-time identification. “Raju Bhai! So nice to see you after ages! Kya haal chaal hai?” Once the Covid-induced-ice had been broken, there was no stopping Raju. Alok da and Raju walked together, catching up on lost times. A few others joined them along the way, some meeting Raju’s stringent masking standards, some not. But these deficiencies were not strong enough to interrupt the momentum of socializing, once the initial inertia was broken.

 

          Raju hummed a cheery tune as he stepped back into his haven, elated by his mini social excursion. As he removed his mask, a tiny tickle made his nose twitch, slowly crawling its way up to a crescendo, an explosion of air pushing his lips open.

 

          ATTTTCCHHHOOOOO!  A pair of fearful eyes looked at the mirror. OMG, what have I done?  

 

 

 

The Dive by Karen Tobias-Green

[Leeds, England]

 

Kitty pulls her costume down at the legs. She hates that involuntary ride-up, like an unscheduled curtain raiser. She shuffles her tanned toes into line with the edge of the board. There’s a thrilling ripple in her legs that travels up her spine. She shivers slightly, wets her lips, blinks slowly and breathes in.  Below the bodies splash and stutter on the water. The swimmers are roped off from the divers but she can see them, sense them, hear them in tinny echoing bursts. A bunch of boys flounder and flap about in the middle of a swimming lane, tugging at each other’s limbs ever more wildly. A scream cuts through the chaos.

                                                                                       ***

Levi swallows so much water he feels he will drown from the inside. He goes under then pops up again and this time he lets go a second scream which is gurglier than the first, full of bubbles and comes pouring out of his nose and his eyes.

‘Levi what the fuck!’ Eddie is laughing at him. He has him in his sights, his eyes red from the chlorine.

‘Levi is drowning, Levi is going down!’ Eddie is yelling at the top of his voice and all eyes are on Levi now. ‘Levi’s just out the shallow and he’s drowning.’

Eddie leans all his weight on Levi’s shoulders and sends him under one more time. Levi fights to locate the bottom of the pool with his toes but he can’t. He’s not far out of his depth but far enough. The water churns around him, the air in his lungs is wet, his vision is blurred. If Eddie does that to him one more time he will die. From suffocation, or shame, or both.

Kitty wriggles her toes again. She breathes out and then slowly raises her arms high.

                                                                                      ***

Flying through the air is a gift as much as a talent. Kitty has never struggled to fly; it’s the landings that have caught her out. Not today though. Out the corner of her eye there is a flurry. A scattering. One of the lifeguards has dived in and is slowly, calmly bringing a panicking boy to the edge of the pool.  He is visibly shaking. His friends hang back in the water, alarmed, quietened.

Levi watches Eddie being lifted onto the pool side. He feels the strength return to his arms. He feels the bottom of the pool with his toes.

 

 

A Simple House Call by Alan Berger

[West Hollywood, California]

 

“Did you see that kid throw”?

 

If Packer heard that once, he heard it a million times. One hundred bucks, times a million, he thought in

his financial research wheelhouse first rate mind.

 

With that kind of money, he could cure cancer.

 

But Packer was not wanted to cure cancer, Packer was only wanted on the football field, and not in lab class. That would be a distraction from, “Keeping his eye on the ball”.

 

During his last football game for his school, Packers arm put the team so far ahead that he asked to be taking out of the game. He said his arm hurt but it was really was because he wanted to add some things he thought of

during the game that he wanted to add to his science paper homework assignment instead of playing more, “Stupid ass football”.

 

While he was on the bench, working on his papers with his helmet off and way off to the side,

coach, as usual charged over and grabbed his papers, ripped them up and threw Packer and his

helmet back on the field.

 

“Tell your teachers coach ate your homework”, was the play the fuckhead coach put on Packer’s playing field.

 

Packer got on the field.

He would remember what was ripped from him.    

 

He would lie in bed, and think about why we can’t we cure this, or replace that but, “Don’t worry

world of disease, I’m coming”.

 

He would begin the next morning like all the other mornings during stupid ass High School football

practice by heading into the science lab class first.

 

This was the first class of the day.  He would go to the teacher and tell him of his latest ideas.

 

The teacher thought it should be the other way around. Packer should be the teacher and he the

student.

He would be a student that Packer might not even give a B to.

 

One day after school, a recruiter was waiting for him in the living room with his

father.

 

That did it.

 

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree but this one rolled light years away.

 

His father introduced the diabetic looking recruiter to Packer by pointing out to his son how many players got to the N.F.L. thru this guy.

Packer’s father would punctuate his every point with the football he always carried around like the

fucking Holy Grail.

 

After the recruiter completed his pitch, Packer told his father and the recruiter he was not going

to play football at his college or any college unless Harvard Medical has one. 

 

The recruiter shook his head and got up left without a word.

 

Packer’s father hit the roof, the basement, the walls, all the time not letting go of his precious

football.

 

The football he threw good but not good enough to have his own fucking football career.

 

He yelled and shouted so loud that he started to choke and choke bad. He even dropped his

football. Fumble? 

 

 He wound up on his back, flopping like a fish on a pier. Packer started CPR, but his father kept

choking and was turning blue from the red his face was a minute ago.

 

Packer took out his silver surfer pen and performed a beautiful tracheotomy on his father’s

throat.

 

The doctors congratulated Packer as his father looked on from the wheelchair he was in as they

rolled him towards the exit of the emergency room.

 

One or two doctors wanted to mentor Packer.

 

They did not speak all the way home but when they got there and walked in the living room. Dad

saw his football and picked it up and threw it in the gas burning fireplace and turned it on.

 

He looked at his puzzled kid and said, “What’s up Doc”?

 

 

 

Teeth With Rotten Skin by Lauren Carter

[Cambridge, England]

Twitter: @writerlcarter

Instagram: @writerlcarter

 

When I was young, I only had one friend and she was imaginary.

              I knew it even then that she wasn’t real but, when I lost my parents, she’s all I had. I named her Ecca, and she called me sister.

              So, imagine my surprise when I received a call from her.

              I turn up to the cafe and there she is, the exact same after all these years, not a wrinkle on her. I almost leave but curiosity takes over.

              ‘Hello sister,’ she says when I take the opposite seat. The waiter comes over before I reply and only addresses me when taking the order. Doesn’t ask Ecca what she wants. ‘It’s been a while, you’ve grown up.’ Her voice is lower and not as cheerful as it once was.

              I stumble for the words, the questions I want to ask her. I haven’t thought of her in so long, how could I have imagined her here?

              ‘I wanted to reach out sooner, but I’ve been busy.’ She smiles at me. The waiter brings my drink over and Ecca snatches it before I get a chance and downs it.

              She never used to be able to hold things.

              ‘Things have changed,’ she says, wiping her mouth. ‘But we’re still sisters, right?’ Her tone is different now, more serious. I nod as I don’t know what else to do. Every single piece of my body is telling me to leave. ‘Good.’

              My food arrives but I don’t bother to reach for it. Ecca wolfs it down and, as she’s distracted, I look around at the quiet café. No one is paying attention to us though, I’m on my own. ‘It’s so nice to taste food again.’

              I look back at her, not only is the food gone but the plate and cutlery are no longer there. I look up to see she has cut the side of her mouth so far; it’s ripped into her cheek. Her teeth at the front are normal but the back ones get sharper the deeper you look into her mouth.

              The waiter comes back over to clean the table and looks at me confused. ‘Honey, where’s your plate?’

              I don’t get a chance to explain as Ecca jumps out of her seat and attacks the waiter, biting into his neck. The rest of the café finally pays attention to us as I hear screams and scuffles from behind me, the bell on the door constantly ringing.

              Ecca finally releases the waiter, and he drops with a loud thud, his throat slashed apart so much I can see his spine.

              ‘He was delicious,’ Ecca says, cleaning her mouth and sitting back down. ‘Not as tasty as your parents though.’

              No words come out, but I feel my hands shake. 

              She notices. ‘What?’ She smirks. ‘Don’t you want us to be together?’

              I let out a choke and grasp my mouth.

‘I’m close to a hundred souls. Then we can really be sisters,’ Ecca says, smiling.

 

 

 

On The Beach by Alan Berger

[West Hollywood, California]

 

“I’m going to kill myself.”  Roby stood by the railroad tracks, waiting for the next train to send him to paradise, or Hell, or wherever you go when you kill yourself. Maybe a reward for getting thru all these years on earth, he wished. He heard one coming down the mountain. He closed his eyes, got ready, and waited for the nerve. He jumped eyes closed over the rails. But the train had passed. Like all the boats he missed, he missed his train too. “I’m going to kill myself” He said, as he dusted himself off. This time it was the kind of saying we all say when the best laid plans, come out, the worst laid plans. Oh well. There is always tomorrow.

 

 Maybe it was just his paranoia. He thought about the drama he brought to their marriage, Like, The F.B.I. for one. Think that hurt the marriage?

 

He rode the subway and this time, instead of jumping in front of a train, he sat in one and started popping pills as he became one with the vibe of the clicks and clacks, of the tracks.  He figured to get off at the last stop and hit the beached so pilled up that the beach would forever hit back

 

It was late, but a woman sat at the other end. It was two empty people in one empty subway car with one last stop.’’ Coney Island”.

 

He said when they got to the end of the line, and the train stopped, and the doors opened, him and the woman, sat still.

 

Roby said, all of a sudden, the pills asked the woman “So, what are we dinking”?

 

He said that she had a laugh that made him laugh too.

           

When I asked him what happened after that, he said he didn’t kill himself, and she didn’t either.

 

Then, he showed me the ring he was going to give her. It was in the paper prescription bag he was holding so dearly.

 

We parted, and he said over his shoulder, “Remember, my son, no man, is a Coney Island”.  I have not forgotten.

 

 

 

Missing Person by Alan Berger

[West Hollywood, California]

 

"Hey, look who’s here”? The cop at the front desk said to the other cop at the front desk.

 

“Let’s let Irene take his statement”

 

They called on the inter-com for Officer Sanchez to come to the front desk, and when she got there, they explained that they were helping homicide, and even thou this was her first week here, and still getting her panties wet, would she mind taking a statement?

 

She was pretty and from a military family. She was the first one who left the service to become a cop. All the rest stayed in forever and then some. They laughed when they saw out of shape cops. Donut dopes they called them.

 

Army girl Sanchez was just as pretty as cop Sanchez, and she was nice.

 

The guy she was going to marry who was with her and met her in the Army died in a mid-east engagement and was never found.

 

This was going to her first statement solo experience even thou being watched, and taped, and listened to, especially by those two at the front desk, it was exciting, and she was excited.

 

Their coffee tasted a lot better and their donuts sweeter, watching Officer Sanchez play policeman.

 

Officer Irene Sanchez found that there was something touching about her subject but, she wasn’t sure she wanted to touch him, or him touch her, but oh of course she did. It has been a long season without any rain, Irene was thinking.

 

The subject told his side of his story.

 

That’s where the word history comes from you know?

 

“I’m a vet. I don’t get around much and a while ago I met a girl on the inter-net. It was like we knew each other all our lives and we talked and talked for days and days and nights and nights and we met and had coffee and she was as wonderful there as she was in my ear all those times on the phone and we made plans to see each other again and she never showed up and her phone sounds funny and she isn’t returning my calls or my E mails or anything and things just went too good to turn out this bad. I want to file a missing person report. She must be in danger”!

 

Officer Sanchez heard the boys laughing thru the door.

 

Is this your first missing person report? She asked.

No, it isn’t, unfortunately. He reported back.

 

I see said Irene.

 

Would you like to go for coffee some time? she said to him.

 

Are you going to show up? He asked.

 

We can go right now. She said.

 

Can we take your police car and put on the siren? He asked.

 

Officer Sanchez laughed.

 

He said, I’m glad you’re laughing because I was kidding. I may be nuts but I’m not crazy.

 

I know you’re not, she said to him as they walked out of the station after crossing the front desk.

 

 

 

Banking by Alan Berger

[West Hollywood, California]

Earl and Ray walked, no, strolled, into their first bank together in 1967 and a half and acted like

they owned the joint, and they did. They robbed it with the piped in music playing “I want to

Hold Your Hand”, a wonderful version by the Ray Conniff Singers.

It was so exciting that they took their sweet time getting to the empty running getaway car. A

stolen 65, and a half, red as Hell Mustang, with the top down.  Ray wanted to keep the car and

not ditch it for another as planned.

But Earl, it feels like it was made for me. Well, it is a lucky car said Earl. They kept it while

inventing a new breed. Stupid hipster bank robbers who in those days just had to stroll in, stroll

out, and hit the highway. On the highway Earl and Ray sang their own song and it was called

“We Wanna Hold Up Your Bank”.

 

Was it a day that changed their lives forever? No, it wasn’t. They were always up to something

and good for nothing. But, they sure both had charm by the buckets full.  

And that’s the rub and that’s the hook boys. It feels like it was made for you, but, alas, it wasn’t.

 

Before they spoke to each other, they did their first job together. They both really met on the

same night they broke into the school’s cafeteria from different windows, at the same time, going

after the same thing. Entitlement. In this materialistic form, it was the cafeteria’s candy and

doughnuts. They weren’t interested in the fruit. A coincidence and a career in crime, was put in

place that night.  They with the goods went to the railroad tracks and feasted, and introduced

themselves to each other. They burned the wrappers of the candy so they wouldn’t leave

fingerprints, like on T.V.

 

This was in elementary school, very elementary. Every day after that, there was something

missing from school, other than the kids that were cutting class.

Earl and Ray went to school every day. The more time they spent in school, the more they could

steal, and then pawn.  At the pawn place was a guy who knew Ray’s father before he disappeared

for who knows what reason other than he just did ” Happens all the time” was what Ray heard

about it, all the time. Ray did look back, which was not his style, he would say his father left a

good story to tell girls that wanted to mother, and father him, and a wonderful excuse, for being

such a wonderful excuse for not being a solid citizen, a square. He would hear his father say back,

“You're welcome boy”.

 

 

 

A.J. Delecta by Raymond Abbott

[Louisville, Kentucky, USA]

         

I have been a social worker most of my adult life.  One of my first supervisors was A.J. Delecta, in the welfare office serving the South End of Boston.  A.J. was easy to work for, and as pleasant a man as anyone you could wish to know.  I believe he was Polish by ancestry.  He was short, stout, with lots of dark hair he kept clipped close to his scalp, with hardly any gray in evidence.  He was too heavy for his frame, but he carried his weight well.  He usually dressed in a dark-colored suit with a bright, colorful tie.  He must have been close to sixty years of age when we met.

            We all were employed in the old civil service system of Massachusetts, and A.J.'s advice to new employees, myself included, was to take every test offered by the civil service system. 

          "You could never tell what will come of it," he said often.  Of course, he was a practitioner of his own advice.

          With A.J. there was only one rule I remember, and while he was not heavy-handed in enforcing it, he did get his way.  The rule was this: You must NEVER ever put his name in a write up.  He didn't care what you had to say.  You could quote at length from the Bible, if that were your purpose, or from Alice in Wonderland, if that floated your boat, and he would dutifully read all you had to say, usually without comment, so long as you did not insert his name any place.  If you did, he would find his white-out and remove any and all evidence that he existed whatsoever and was thereby involved even remotely with what was being recorded. Even his signature was difficult to read (or even find).

            If, for example, you said in your write up that your social work plan for a particular client was discussed and agreed to by AJ Delecta, his name was immediately removed.  Or if you wrote, totally innocently again, that you and Mr. Delecta discussed a particular subject and agreed as to how we needed to proceed thereafter, bingo!  Out came his name and the sentence connected to it.  So you learned quickly how to do your case recordings, histories, and at the same time get along well with AJ.  You were made to understand that each and every word would be read and scrutinized by A.J., sure enough, but only in search for the mention of his name. Nothing more!

      I never had a discussion with A.J. as to why he did this.  It was to avoid any and all responsibility, for good or for bad, is my guess.  If he wasn’t named in the write-up he could not creditably be held responsible for what followed, what was written.  Pretty simple rule. Not that I am an advocate of such practices. Quite imaginative, too, when you think about it.  And surely original.

 

 

 

Art Gallery by David Patten

[Denver, Colorado, USA]

 

Amaya can’t suppress a wry smile.  An item of gossip has reached her.  It seems there are those intent on labelling her a witch.  Such an archaic term, unused for centuries, its connotation pejorative.  Amaya ponders that maybe it’s because she’s an outlier.  During that unenlightened age, it was a convenient term for nonconformist women, especially those who, like Amaya, preferred to live alone.

          She’s a curator; a purveyor of aesthetics.  Her specialty is The Renaissance.  For a modest fee patrons can roam her gallery of Caravaggios, da Vincis, and Raphaels.  Bold work from over a millennium ago, the world still searching for an identity.  Crossing Amaya’s palm with an elusive gold coin, however, will favor you with an altogether more unique experience in her gallery.

          A gentle knock at the after-hours door in the rear.  Amaya opens it partway, the orb in her palm chasing away the shadow from her cat’s eyes and long, greying hair.  Cassian steps inside.  The darkness is heavy, the air cool.  Raising the orb, Amaya sees a man younger than her usual patrons, hair and eyes raven, brooding.  There is an audacity about him as he presses the gold coin into her hand.

          They stand before Cassian’s chosen piece: Botticelli’s iconic Birth of Venus.  Amaya places a hand on its center and it expands to fill the whole wall.  She regards Cassian expectantly.  Previously bold, there’s a hesitation.  He appears about to turn away, but then takes three confident steps and leaps into the painting.

          Venus is before him, an alabaster statue, hair to the waist.  Zephyrus, clutching his nymph, propels her ashore, the ocean rising with his breath.  On the sand the guardian Pomona waits, mantle ready to clothe the goddess.  Materials in hand, Cassian sits and begins to sketch.

 

 

 

Sheer Drop by David Patten

[Denver, Colorado, USA]

 

Daybreak, water the color of slate.  A lone figure stands in contemplation, close enough to the river that its current splashes over her boots.  This stretch of the Niagara resides in the commonplace, revealing nothing of the chaos up ahead.  Annie steps back up onto the grass, the October dew staining the hem of her dress and petticoats.  She adjusts her matching bonnet which, like her dress, was once the tone of ripe plums, the garments now faded and frayed.  

           

          Farther down river the water quickens, a menace in its energy.  Annie observes it coursing over rocks, dragging reluctant branches.  Then rapids, the river shapeshifting, relentless.  The air resounds, vibrates.  Ahead, the torrent launches itself into the void.  Annie is still, awed by the force of nature, her clothes absorbing the clouds of spray thrown high by the Horseshoe Falls.  Tomorrow, her birthday, she will plunge over the brink in a barrel.

           

          A small crowd has gathered at the launch point, the interest mostly morbid, as few expect Annie to survive.  But this stoic woman in her sixties, widowed since the Civil War, remains confident that prosperity will follow.  She engages with a reporter, offers a brief smile to the photographer.  The large, oak barrel has been lined with thick blankets.  Unassisted, Annie climbs through the opening and settles, cushioned.  Resigned to being accomplices to such imprudence, two men in buttoned vests and rolled shirtsleeves toss their cigarettes to the ground and step into a rowboat. 

           

          Untethered, the barrel rolls in the calm stretch of the river.  It appears inert, laden, until the current imposes its will.  Annie’s breaths are shallow, fast, as she braces for the rapids.  She hears them first.  They receive her with disdain, muscles of water pounding the sodden oak.  A thunder fills the barrel, invincible.  The energy fractures.  Freefall.  Annie is relaxed, expectant.

Sing A New Song by Fiona M Campbell

[Aberdeen, Scotland]

 

Charisma radiated from Maria Luciano, as she gave an astonishing virtuoso performance. Her passion for the music was evident.

 

Maria let her pastel pink fingernails dance over the piano keys, allowing the music to flow in a rainbow of sound. Her delicate fingers caressed the ebony and ivory, giving life to Chopin and Rachmaninov. Joyous applause echoed around her, as she took a bow. The sea of people was cloudy; the lights dazzling. A tingling sensation flowed through her, followed by a gasp from the audience and darkness.

 

The smell of disinfectant roused her. A lady in blue placed a beeping thermometer in her ear and an inflating cuff around her arm. The man in the white coat shuffled papers and shone a bright light in her eyes. 

 

          ‘You have Optic Neuritis, Mrs Luciano. There’s no treatment, but if you rest, your sight should return in four to six weeks.’

 

           Impossible! Her first European tour playing Greig’s piano concerto in A began the following week. 

 

           ‘There will be other tours,’ Nico said, kissing her hand. She was blessed to have him as her rock. Her constant in her changing world.

 

Maria lay on her purple chaise longue. Bach fugues and Scarlatti sonatas played in her head. Her fingers itched to play. Using the wall as her guide, she tentatively made her way towards her piano. Taking a deep breath, she stroked the keys and performed the elaborate melodies as if nothing had changed.

 

Three weeks passed; her vision cleared little by little, but her fingers tingled. Pins and needles. Then they were numb, refusing to co-operate. Who could play Mozart without trills and acciaccaturas? Maria sank to her knees and sobbed inconsolably. Music was her world. Without it, she was nothing.

 

With headphones over her ears, she lay completely still, gripping the panic button tightly, as she entered the MRI tunnel. So loud! A cacophony of industrial noise. Trapped, she wonders if they have found something sinister. Was this the end of her journey?

 

Sixteen days of wondering. Her legs had joined her arms; no longer following her directions. Nico wheeled her into the neurologist’s office. With a picture of Maria’s brain illuminated on the screen, the doctor pointed to the scattered white lesions.

           ‘You have multiple sclerosis, Maria.’

 

           Tears trickled down her cheeks. Relief that she was not dying from a tumour, regret for things she had not done, and recognition that her life was changing.

 

Infusions of magic medicine offered hope for the future. There was no cure. DMD’s they called them- disease modifying drugs. Maria’s sight returned. Her wheelchair resided in the attic, replaced by a pretty, purple cane. Her fingers no longer had the dexterity for the piano, but she found her voice. In stunning evening gowns, she performed passionate soprano arias.

 

Life had changed.

 

Maria rested her head on Nico’s lap, as he ran his fingers through her curls. She stroked her swollen belly. Tiny feet dancing inside her. Perhaps her new life was only just beginning.

 

 

 

For Sale by Louise Johnson

[London, England]

 

I barely recognised it.  

 

          Our frothy pink cherry trees were no longer there and father’s squirrel nest was now a living room, with white leather sofas and a supersized TV. Walls were demolished; a conservatory built. Cool greys and taupe replaced a livid turquoise and avocado palette.  

 

           I clicked on another photo, eager to discover what had become of the old-style kitchen, where mother stashed gin bottles behind packets of butterscotch Angel Delight. Here, she swayed, while singing tunelessly to herself. Potatoes burnt. Broccoli turned limp. In contrast, granite worktops and stainless-steel units looked rock-solid. 

            

          The house was reborn. It could breathe again.  

 

 

 

Jennifer Rose by Sandra Hurtes

[New York City, USA]

 

We sit in the waiting room of a doctor’s office

and pray for a baby.

Maybe you’ve been here.

Three years and five months of laboratory sex,

injections, invitro, blasts to your fallopian tubes.

The doctor’s cold speculum no longer makes you flinch.

You’re married to the love of your life

but you can’t make a baby.

And then, one glorious day your doctor smiles and says,

“Yes, you’re pregnant.”

You’re giddy; you and your husband go straight to Buy Buy Baby

where he falls for the stuffed giraffes

and yellow onesies.

You go to dinner at a fancy restaurant

and smugly decline wine.

And then, not long after, you have a miscarriage—make that four.

Just like that.

 

You can’t go through this again, but your husband wants a baby.

He bought the yellow onesies, the stuffed giraffe,

and he wants a girl to name after his sister, Jennifer Rose.

He agrees to the gender-neutral gray wallpaper.

You have one last embryo.

You’ll do anything for your husband.

You’ve loved him since the first grade

when he gave you a peppermint heart for Valentine’s Day.

You didn’t know he’d given one to every girl in the class

until your best friend Susie told you at your wedding.

Funny. Susie looks like the petite brunette across the room.

The way she twirls her hair around her finger

Crosses and uncrosses her ankles under her seat.

But it can’t be Susie.

She moved to Paris or Milan or some city you promised you’d visit

but never got around to.

Susie would understand what you’re going through.

She had an abortion in college,

and you stroked her hair when she cried and whispered,

“I wanted to keep it.” She was scared.

You’re scared now.

So is your husband.

You thread your fingers through his. He squeezes them.

You’ll treasure a boy, too. So will he.

Ten fingers, ten toes.

That’s all you pray for.

one last time.

 

 

 

The Abandoned Schoolhouse by Alex Baines

[Chicago, USA]

 

Penny eased up on her bike and braked hard, stopping by the edge of the road. She raised a hand to shield her eyes from the sun, her left foot still resting on the pedal.

     She’d decided to follow a different route home from the grocery store and gotten a bit carried away. She’d hardly expected to see an old building like this, though. The cracked sign said it was a schoolhouse, but it didn’t look much like one now. She didn’t remember ever seeing it before – how was that possible? Where she lived wasn’t exactly big.

     Penny had loved school, but school had never done much for her family. Her mom had enjoyed it, too, she found out later, although getting pregnant at seventeen meant she didn’t have much time for books after that. Penny’s older brother Tom had dropped out in tenth grade and gone to Chicago looking for work. He’d always said that families like theirs had no business going to college. Publicly, she’d agreed and found a job the first opportunity she had, bussing tables at the diner around the corner from home. Privately, though, she wished she could’ve had the opportunity. She’d always loved reading: Jane Austen and Daphne du Maurier, taken from the shelves of her senile grandmother who seemed decades older than the fifty-seven Penny knew her to be. Sitting in libraries and reading novels all day seemed like a dream come true. Her teachers thought it was a good idea, as well. She would never forget the disappointment in Mr. Langton’s face when she told him she wasn’t interested in looking at the scholarship literature he’d prepared for her. 

     Penny thought that there was something profoundly sad about seeing an abandoned schoolhouse, sadder maybe than seeing anything else abandoned, and there was a lot of abandoned stuff around here. After several moments of stillness, she realized that she wouldn’t be satisfied until she’d investigated the rooms. Leaving her bike but carrying the grocery bags with her, she felt like was creeping into something forbidden, moving to examine a trunk that might reveal dark gothic secrets.

     She found nothing. No sense, even, of anything. Her wavy blonde hair and bright blue eyes were pale ghostly reflections in the dust-thick windows. Cobwebs coated the walls and ceiling like a layer of thick dark frost. Who owned this place? Why was it still here?

     Even then, it stirred something. What was it? She looked towards the front of the single deserted room, imagining Mr. Langton’s kind brown eyes twinkling as she answered another question about metaphor in Thomas Hardy’s poetry. She stood very still, thinking. Maybe she would try to find those things he had mailed her, despite her stubbornness, about scholarships for Bradley and Southern Illinois.

     The sun seemed a little brighter when she stepped back outside.

 

 

 

Fragments Of Jenny by Jim Aitken

[South Queensferry, Scotland]

 

Like a snake winding its way, the queue in the bank weaved like the rhythm of a rattler and seemed to constantly unfurl its skin as customers left and instantly replaced old skin for new as other customers then joined the queue.

 

At the head of the queue there was someone I recognised from many years – and much younger skin – ago. She looked agitated as the teller told her that there was something wrong with her cheque. She turned, still agitated, until I spoke to her as she made her way back beside the queue.

 

‘Jenny?’ I calmly asked her. She looked at me with deep confusion in her eyes.

 

‘Yes, that’s me. I don’t think I know you,’ she replied with some hesitation.

 

‘It’s Tom,’ I said. ‘We once did Spanish lessons together many years ago now?’

 

‘I know a Tom. We have a Tom who comes round our house but he’s not you. I can’t remember things nowadays and the family only allow me out if they know I will be near the bus station so that I can get back home safely,’ she retorted with a kind of precision that had been well learned.

 

I started to retreat from the conversation I had initiated and our Spanish lessons of years ago returned to me. We went out together for the last two terms of the course and then I realised, that less than 100 metres from where we were standing, we once ran through the Autumn leaves of St. Andrew’s Square and even climbed over the railings to kick up the large clumps that lay on the other side.

 

Like being bombarded by a series of distant memories, it hit me with the sudden flashback of the first time she took me to her house. She was making tea when a kind of wailing from upstairs filled all the rooms.

 

‘It’s my mother,’ she had informed me.’ She’s got dementia. She drives me mad. I’ll go and see her  and be back soon.’

 

The double helix of damaged mind and fragmented information stood reincarnate before me. I could see she was struggling and, alarmed at the enormity of my realisation, I decided to release her from this awkward moment.

 

‘Well, Jenny, it has been good talking to you. The bus station is on the right once you leave here, remember. Look after yourself,’ I said with concern in my voice.

 

‘Thanks,’ she said, ‘it’s been good talking to you too.’

 

Then she left abruptly with a dazed kind of look and headed for the exit. I saw her long brown hair hang around her coat collar like fallen leaves as she left in a swirl of sad forgetfulness.

 

 

 

A Culinary Journey by Callum McGuigan

[Leeds, England]

With my first million I bought a perfect set of cooking spices. Because, you know. They’ve served me well, served us all well over the years, let me tell you that – the compliments I’ve had on these and every aspect of my kitchen are more varied than my vanilla collection.

 

Erm, yes, just water please. Clean palette, clean conscience and all that.

 

You know, I’ve so many truths to share if they’d only listen, only give me the voice I spent years curating. How else would they expect to learn, for example, that drinking is as much of an accessory as a scarf, and just as dangerous? I don’t drink anymore, of course. It became a distraction, like the business, so that had to go too, sometime after the second or third project.

 

I just want to be appreciated for what I do. When it comes down to it, it’s the people’s neglect of appreciation that frustrates me, makes me want to, you know, sever their Achilles tendons so they have to crawl around the room or something.

 

Don’t worry, I’m very familiar with the content of these safety briefings, but thank you.

 

Sorry. I wonder what brings you, on this, you know, ‘trip’. Not the same as me, I imagine!

 

For my industry, it’s the labelling, the marketing of it that’s the real problem; it could do with a rebranding from some literary delicacy like Atwood or Munro. I always read when cooking. Oh, oh, a joke: Did you hear what Hemingway said when he lost a limb? He had to say A Farewell to his Arms! I love American fiction, Fitzgerald too. Have you read his lesser-known novel about a king who ate his soldiers? It’s called ‘Tender is the…Knight’.

 

Are we taking off soon? No?

 

Even if you set aside how ridiculously reductive it is to label me - and my years of dedication - together with some amateur fast-food wannabe, it’s just such a boring word, phonetically. Why can’t it require acrobatics of the tongue like ‘ayuntamiento’ or ‘malleable’? I think that would give people pause, make them consider the artistry in these projects. How the selection and shopping and preparation and timing and room decoration and waste disposal are, even alone, gargantuan tasks. But no, instead they just say ‘cannibal’ and see that as enough of a label. Idiots, ignoring what really is the next step in social (and socialist) evolution.

 

Oxygen from here, life vest under here, yep got it.

 

Do you think they’ll have Jenga where we’re going? Jenga, after all, is a rite of passage and an excellent indicator of psychological fortitude.

 

I’ve heard it has rain as warm as blood, grass as thick as fingers. It’s winter there now, I think. By summer I’ll be set up with the local wildlife. I’m thinking a dish involving oranges in some way, like a, you know, twist on orange peel beef. I’ve always wanted to pick them after something, one of the only things, my father said: “If you don’t pick up your oranges with conviction, don’t grip them with inevitability, how can you ever expect to raise a family?” No family in these pockets though! Sorry, I can’t quite reach to show you with these on my wrists.

 

Oh, look! We’re moving, bon appetit!

 

 

 

 

Lady Die by Abbi Parcell

[Manchester, England]

 

Lady Die died with a needle in his arm.

 

We had jokes that it was a silver tiara. You know the kind you'd get from a 70s magazine. He loved the pomp, any excuse to wear sashes the tackiest jewels.

 

"Fuck Knows what's next..."

 

When he woke in the hospital, watching a Joan Crawford film on Channel 57 when -

 

At the wake, the tension broke when someone guessed the casket was closed because he was in there in a big wig and heels, someone said, "You know he's always late, he probably isn't here yet—he's still fixing his makeup."

 

 

 

Common Place by Matt Smikle

 

What was coincidence? He found himself wondering as he crossed the street. He couldn't quite figure, but he guessed it was something to do with timing, the clash of movements that revel in each other’s wake. The second summoning of that memory thought forgotten. Jon wasn't sure, the very concept baffled him. The man donning the same coloured shirt as him across the street, should that be odd? Perhaps this wasn't the time to wonder. He wasn't in the mood for trivia, not today, he had somewhere to be.

 

Max realised it probably wasn't the wisest decision to head out in the same shirt as the man he followed, but he couldn't change that now, all he could do was watch. He felt relief upon finally seeing his nemesis in the flesh. It almost sickened him how Jon walked among others, as if he belonged. As charming as he was, Jon was no trustworthy person, and Max was ready to put an end to it. He placed a hand in his pocket, clamping a firm grip on his fully loaded firearm; eyeing Jon crossing the street.

 

Nathan always hated this drive, this road in particular was rife with blind spots and inconsistencies. Crashes were common place here. Though no number of accidents could have prepared him for what happened next. He couldn't see the man at first, he and another man across the street were wearing the same coloured shirt. Just the clash of colours left him confused but for the first time in years... the blind spot returned to wreak its havoc once more. The man only managed a sideways glance at Nathan before he was mowed down in his bloody demise.

 

 

 

Forever Dancing on Ice by Andrew Newall

[Falkirk, Scotland]

He adjusts her seat so she can gaze out at the loch while he orders their usual meal. During winter, the loch is always frozen. Young skate on the thick ice, warmly wrapped up. He watches her, remembering when she wore skates and glided on the same loch. She also remembers. He sees her eyes follow the skaters. In a weak voice, she tells him they are good. He reassures her she was better.

                                                                                          *

     She wore skates the first time he ever saw her at their local ice rink, both in their late teens. She was good even then. It was her favourite pastime. He spoke to her when he could catch up with her, which wasn’t often. He asked her out. They dated. She competed. She won, he cheered. She lost, he still cheered. They married within a few years and on one of their weekend breaks, tried out a hotel in the Scottish Highlands, a two-hour drive from their hometown.

On a winter’s night, a log fire burned inside. Strangers met and talked with them until they were strangers no more. They were told the loch was safe to skate on when it froze over each year. When he saw her smile on hearing this news, it was no surprise that one weekend turned into an annual holiday.

                                                                                          *

     The hotel has gone downhill since that first visit fifty years ago. Rooms require upgrading, strangers remain strangers, preferring to look at phones and talk less. It saddens him because he knows this will more than likely be their last stay together. She is no longer well enough, but still insisted on coming. She told him that when she dies, she would like her ashes to be scattered in the loch.

     A few months later, he drives into the hotel grounds. When he gets out, he carries a small urn close to him and walks to the loch. Standing at the edge, he comments to his wife that this is the first time they have seen the lake in the summer when it is not frozen. After a few more private words, he tips the urn, allowing the ashes to slowly empty, a light summer breeze guiding them gently to the welcoming water.

     A year has passed since he gave her ashes to the loch. He drives to the hotel on a beautiful day. Rooms were all booked out when he phoned but he doesn’t care. On arriving, he struggles to find a parking space. When he finally does, he immediately heads for the loch, an overwhelming excitement powering him on. He can’t see for the crowds. He heard that people had come from all over to see. Excusing his way through, he reaches the lake’s edge to see for himself. Under a cloudless sky, in the blistering heat, young and old skate on thick ice which appeared at winter and shows no signs of melting.

 

 

 

Marching Season by David Patten

[Denver, Colorado, USA]

 

I’m Liam.  I’m fifteen.  I live on Berwick Road in a council house.  That’s in the big Ardoyne estate in the north of Belfast.  It’s tough, you’d better know how to scrap.  My da works down in the shipyards, stops in at the pub on the way home.  Sometimes ma has me fetch him for dinner.  He smokes a pack a day, my da.  One time I heard him and his brothers planning something bad.  I think they’re Fenians.  The Prods call us that all the time.  My da says Fenians are just proud to be Irish, that’s all.  I’ve got an older brother, Rory.  He’s twenty-three.  He hates Protestants, says he’s going to join the IRA.  Ma would kill him if she knew.  Today is the twelfth of July, the biggest day in the marching season.  The Orangemen are going to be marching through the Ardoyne.  Why do the police let them?  Because they’re all Prods too, I suppose.  Rory says the Orangemen march to celebrate some battle they won centuries ago.  Dad says they march coz they have all the power and want us to feel inferior.  Why don’t we just move to Dublin, I asked him.  He spat on the ground and said because this is our home and Ulster needs to be part of the rest of Ireland.  Ma wouldn’t leave all her sisters anyway.  I’m out on the street now, we all are.  I can hear them.  Pipes, drums.  Getting louder.  People are already shouting at the police, pushing against them.  Everybody wants to get at the Prods when they arrive.  I can see some soldiers on rooftops.  Jesus, they’re not going to start shooting, are they?  The crowd is surging.  I can see Union Jack flags and bowler hats of some of the Orangemen.  Why do they wear those anyway?  On our side people are waving Irish flags and someone’s standing on a wall with a sign written in Gaelic.  They’re right here now, the Prods, those Orangemen with their drums and flags.  Here, off the Crumlin Road into our Ardoyne.  The bastards are taunting us.  A big surge from our side, swearing, fighting the police.  Somebody throws a brick into the marchers.  The soldiers, they’re going to start shooting like they did in Derry, aren’t they?  A hand grabs my shoulder and turns me around.  Rory.  Come on, he yells and I follow him down the alley at the side of our house.  We stop in front of a dirty canvas sheet.  Rory kneels and throws it off to the side.  I can see four bottles, each one with a rag stuffed into the neck.  They stink of petrol.  Rory puts two of them in my hands, then picks up the other two.  He asks me if I’m with him.  Are you with me, Liam?  His eyes are madness.  There’s a faint whiff of whisky.  Liam, are you with me?  I look at the bottles in my hands.  They’re shaking a little bit.  I meet my brother’s stare.  I am.

 

 

 

 

Mysteries Of The Universe by Mark Barlex

[London, England]

 

That week was the project in microcosm, forty years of expenditure and almost imperceptible development, compacted metamorphically into a handful of hours and days. The thrill of purpose. The grind of preparation. The throw of a switch.

 

     The subsequent scrambling scree of data and unanswered questions.

 

     On Tuesday, in the blond-wood media centre twenty miles from the facility itself, the Director of Operations tried to describe what was about to take place.

     

     “We’re sand-blasting a mountain, looking for the Michelangelo underneath,” she said.

 

     She tried again.

 

      “We’re dropping a pebble into a well and waiting for the splash.”

 

     Sitting next to her on the low podium, the Head of Research intervened.

 

     “The well is horizontal and we don’t know how deep it is,” he offered. “We’re throwing the pebble in sideways and gravity no longer exists.”

 

     “We’re in uncharted territory here,” added the Director of Operations. “Anything could happen.”

 

     “But probably won’t,” added the Head of Research.

 

     “But could,” countered the Director of Operations.

 

     “But probably won’t,” returned the Head of Research.

     

     They made their way to the test site in silence. 

 

     Two miles below the twin banded-granite summits of Gulvain, on the geologically optimum north-west side of Scotland’s Great Glen Fault, they settled themselves in the control room.

 

     “Does this feel anti-climactic?” the Director of Operations asked.

     

     “Maybe if there actually was some kind of lever or button,” the Head of Research replied.

 

     A man at a nearby bank of monitors and controls turned in his chair.

 

     “Ready when you are,” he said.

 

     The Director of Operations replied. “Thank you, Craig. Take it away.”

 

     The lights flickered. A low thrum pulsed around then through the room.

 

     “Essentially,” the Head of Research began, “Something doesn’t add up, so we’re spinning particles into one another at staggering speeds in order to work out what.”

 

     “Better,” said the Director of Operations. “But still not quite it.”

 

     “We know lots,” the Head of Research announced, “But not everything. And while this won’t tell us everything straight away, it will give us some important clues.”

 

     “Basically, we’re throwing a quarter-of-a-trillion pound kitchen sink at it,” the Director of Operations said. “Although when you say it out loud, that sounds pretty desperate.”

 

     The lights went out.

 

     From the other side of the room, they heard Craig say, “Oops.”

 

     On Thursday, after careful deconstruction of the damaged dipole magnet assembly, the problem was revealed.

 

     “A spoon?” asked the Head of Research.

 

     “Looks like it,” replied Craig.

 

     “But is it?” asked the Director of Operations.

 

     “A spoon?” said Craig.

 

     “Yes.”

 

     “I think so.”

 

     “Or the breakthrough we’ve been searching for?” asked the Head of Research.

 

     “Which looks like a spoon,” opined the Director of Operations.

 

     Craig said, “I think it’s just a spoon.”

 

     “Maybe that’s what it wants us to think.”

 

     “It?”

     “We’re in uncharted territory here.”

 

     “I see. Should we run some tests?”

 

     “How long will they take?”

 

     “Years, probably.”

 

     “Do it,” said the Director of Operations. “What choice do we have?”

 

 

 

The Kiss by David Patten

[Denver, Colorado, USA]

Vienna is in bloom.  Like most European cities, the Austrian capital shakes off winter in a riot of color and fragrance.  Heavy clothing discarded, people stroll the wide streets in contentment.  Sidewalk cafes bustle.  Boys, fingers blackened by newsprint, call out, caps pushed back and shirtsleeves rolled high.  A gentle wind stirs, its breath full of warmth and optimism.

         

          A fashion designer, senses always tuned to aesthetics, Emilie stoops to admire daffodils circling the base of a young tree.  Spring is her favorite season.  She carefully plucks one of the flowers and sets it in her dark, bushy hair.  Gustav will appreciate it, she thinks.  As she continues on to his house for the reveal. she draws stares, some out of recognition, others due to her height and Bohemian appearance.

         

          Emilie knows she has sometimes been labelled as Klimt’s muse.  Perhaps that was once true.  But the word belongs to something more fleeting; now the two are established companions, even occasional lovers, their kinship forged in creations of beauty and sensuality.  She turns onto Josefstadte, the imposing red maple a sentinel in front of Gustav’s home.  Approaching the arched, wrought iron gate Emilie adjusts the daffodil in her hair, expectant.

         

          Klimt is standing on the garden path in back of the house facing the cottage that is his studio, windows large and clear for the light.  The garden has a canopy of tall trees, the path bordered by ferns and shrubs.  He is wearing the teal smock that he paints in.  Mid-forties now, a decade Emilie’s senior, he has a full beard, the untamed hair on his head in premature retreat.  He embraces Emilie, kissing both cheeks, touches the daffodil in her hair.  She takes his hands in hers.  “I can’t wait to see your work.” 

         

          Afternoon light bathes the studio.  Palettes, brushes, tubes of pigment and canvasses occupy the space in no particular order.  An artist’s clutter.  In one corner an easel, a large sheet concealing the finished work.  Emilie looks at Gustav for confirmation.  He nods, gesturing for her to approach it.

         

          Revealed, Emilie steps back, a small gasp escaping her lips.  She regards the painting in silence, eyes consuming all of it.  She glances at Gustav, a look of wonder, and steps closer to the easel.  Radiant in floral golds, purples, reds, greens, a couple caught in an embrace, both loving and sensual; the man cradling her face, kissing a cheek, the woman enraptured.  Beneath their feet a meadow in a mosaic of spring hues.  Klimt stands behind Emilie, hands on her shoulders.  “Is she Athena to her Apollo?”  He smiles at her interpretation.  “No, it’s you Emilie.”  His fingers find her hair.  “It’s us.”

 

 

 

After by Stephen Page

[Beunos Aires, Argentina]

 

Sunday. I wake early and prepare our breakfast. I turn on the coffee machine, the water boiler for Teresa’s tea, lay out the plates, silverware, and glasses. I open the living room windows. It is hot again today. At least 80 degrees already and it is only 7 a.m. After I squeeze Teresa’s lemon juice, cover the glass with a napkin, and put her bread in the oven to make toast, I pull the bacon and eggs out of the fridge and put a skillet on the stove. I sit and wait for her to wake to start our regular Sunday grease breakfast.

       As we finish our food and beverages, I clean the dishes.

      “Thank you, love,” Teresa says as she hugs me.

       By now it is already 90 degrees outside. I close the windows and turn on the air conditioner.

      “Too hot to go outside,” she mentions.

      “Yes, probably.”

      “Not much to do anyway, now, during this pandemic, the beaches will be full. Idiots. Too dangerous.”

      “Yes.”

      “And I don’t feel like running errands.”

      “Me either.”

      “I’m tired.”

      “I’m lazy. Out of energy. This has been going on too long.”

       I lie on the couch and read books. Teresa sits on the bed and plays ‘talk on the cellphone to friends’ for hours.

       We lunch on low-salt turkey sandwiches, then nap in separate rooms.

       By 6 p.m. it has cooled down a bit. We go for a walk around the tree-lined hilly neighborhood. We admire the spring flowers, the bees buzzing about them, the butterflies flapping, and we listen to the birds singing.

 

 

 

The Numpty Jumped Me by Melissa Molina

[Scotland]

 

(Monologue)

“I never fell off a wall. That’s not true, absolute nonsense. It was around 6 pm and it was starting to get dark. I required hard cash because I planned to go to the town centre in the morning and I didn’t want to take my bank card. Cash meant I was in control; I could easily track my spending and I would only buy what I needed. Anyway, I walked round to the cash machine and there was no one waiting. I decided I would withdraw £100.00, so I reached into my pocket for my card. I pressed 3244, but that wasn’t it. Was it 2344 or 4432? I stopped trying; the last thing I wanted was for the ATM to swallow my card. I couldn’t remember the number. This had never happened to me before, I was confused, and my head went completely blank. It was like the digits had been wiped clean from my memory. I walked over to the red brick wall and sat down; my head was spinning. I held the bank card in my hand and stared at it hoping I would remember the four-digit pin number, but I just couldn’t. Then, a tall, thin, thirty-odd-year-old looking guy sat beside me. He smelt. I inhaled a strong whiff of body odour. I know we all sweat and we all smell to varying degrees but this guy stank! He was wearing a dirty blue jacket that was torn at the collar. He looked straight at me and demanded money. I explained that I didn’t have any money; I couldn’t remember my pin number. It was freezing and I was chittering. I was cold but I was also scared. I stood up and quickly walked away and that’s when the numpty jumped me. Then, all I remember is hearing a lot of voices and when I opened my eyes I was surrounded by a crowd of people, staring at me, asking me what happened. They looked concerned as if they were trying to help me. I know there was a pool of blood on the wall but I repeat I did not fall off it. Then, the same folk strapped me to a stretcher and now I’m here, in this ward. If you genuinely want to know what happened then please listen to me. I can’t explain why there is £100.00 in my pocket and I don’t know why this slip, in my hand, is showing a £100.00 withdrawal. I did not take out that cash. I could not remember my pin number. I still can’t remember it. For the last time, I’m telling you, I never fell off a wall, the numpty jumped me”.

 

 

My Head Bumps by Stephen Page

[Beunos Aires, Argentina]

 

Teresa and I have only one evening recreation left to participate in together ever since the coronavirus spread over the world like foamy sea-water over a pebbly shore—watching TV. We can’t go to the cinema, eat inside restaurants, go the ballet, opera, or theatre, so we watch movies, TV series, news, and sports. I watch, alongside her, and I wonder, why don’t all the characters in the new movies and series wear medical masks? Why do they eat inside restaurants? Why don’t the cardboard cut-out fans in the otherwise empty baseball stadiums have medical masks painted on them?

            My head bumps, which started a month or two after COVID-19 became a pandemic, have suddenly cleared up. Two pharmacists and our hair-cutter, who comes to our apartment wearing a medical mask and rubber gloves, told me, “They are grease eruptions, a result of nerves, fear, worry, and anger all together over a long period of time.” I thought, I am not a nervous person, I fear very little, but yes, I worry for my family and friends, but I am hardly ever angry.

            The bumps used to itch, and when I scratched them, they just spread. I thought that it was because I lent my hat to a friend who came visiting on a cruise ship just before the outbreak, like he had lice or something. I felt things crawling around on my scalp. Teresa and Cati scoured my scalp sever times and told me, “No lice.”

            Grey clouds and black sea outside. The wind is whipping the trees around

Our souls at night.

            Yesterday, I woke just after sunrise and prepared Teresa’s breakfast while she slept. Then I sipped a coffee on the balcony. The sky was blue and the sea also.

            When Teresa woke, and ate with me on the balcony, I drove her to Punta del Oeste. We picked up a few things at the pharmacy, then lunched on duck breast and whipped potatoes at La Chaise.

            The sleeping pills Teresa gave me have helped me sleep again, which I have not since my dad died. I had stopped sleeping pills for six months and was just starting to feel normal again, withdrawal symptoms over, nightmares over, writing flowing smoothly, my short-term memory back, my speaking vocabulary returned—both in Spanish and English. But the news that my dad died of a heart attack while waiting in a jammed hospital admissions room,  while a line of twenty-some ambulances were lined up outside with COVID-19 affected patients inside each, was a little devastating.

            Today, oh, I mean the other today, or maybe it was yesterday, Tuesday, no I mean Thursday, Lidia slipped into my office while I was writing, and poured herself a cup of coffee from my thermos. I thought I left her some in the carafe in the kitchen. We kissed, she flashed me a peach breast, my blood rushed, and we smiled at each other.

When she left my office, I took my hands off the keyboard and I scratched my scalp.

 

 

 

Yet Another Groundhog Duvet Day by Paula Nicolson

[Lockerbie, Scotland]

 

Dear you,

     

     I don’t want a new beginning, because that would mean the death of me.

 

     A sore throat is my signature piece but rarely lasts, fading away as the nose honey takes over. But I also like creating a cough that makes people take two steps back, for I just want to isolate with you for ever; cosy in between the warm skin folds and mucous blanket of your nasal passages. Then I’ll force you to breath entirely through your mouth, littering dried saliva and chapped skin on your lips as you sleep (or not); even give you sore eyes if you want a few more days off work. Just think of all those tissues you’ll trumpet into, the money squandered on foul tasting throat pastilles and drugs that’ll keep you propped up as a cardboard cut-out of your original self.

 

     On the plus side, you can avoid all the friends you don’t want to see because of me, and watch all the crap on TV that you never thought you wanted to see. And if like turns into love, I can summon an ear or a chest infection to send you into a post viral depression as you languish at home with a cup of lemon and honey tea, in yet another Groundhog Duvet Day.

But I promise you’ll always have enough energy to update your Facebook post with, ‘I wish this cold would do one,’ and to read your responses such as, ‘You OK Hun?’ to revalidate your existence that you do have friends; albeit for four seconds.

 

     I don’t want a new beginning, because I am your beginning.

     

     Love,

 

     The Cold

 

 

 

Courier by David Patten

[Denver, Colorado, USA]

Griffith Park in the early morning.  Mateo cycles past joggers and dog walkers.  A group of elderly Koreans in wide brimmed hats doing Tai chi.  Off to the west peacocks in full voice at the zoo.  He enjoys this start to the day, cutting through the park down into Franklin Hills and then across to Sunset, which he rides all the way to downtown.  At Angelino Heights he stops at a coffee shop and checks the app for the day’s first pick up.

          Mateo can make his own hours, but the best times to ride are from around eight to three.  With UCLA out for the summer he can make good money on his bike for a couple months, and then go meet up with his mom and all her spirited siblings down in Guadalajara.  The first package is at a realtor on Wilshire.  Mateo drains his second cup, adjusts his helmet, and pushes off into traffic.

          Early afternoon.  It’s hot, July letting LA simmer.  Mateo has been staying hydrated, avoiding hills.  He’s in line at a Jamba Juice, taking a breather.  Ordinarily, he’d go another hour or two but he’s baked and wants to head down to the ocean.  He takes out his phone to shut off the app but another job lights up the screen.  A lawyer’s office just a couple blocks away, a package going to the Federal Courthouse over by the Civic Center.  Just one more job.  Mateo hits the accept button.

          The package is bulky and digs into him through his backpack as he navigates standstill traffic.  He lifts the bike up steps and walks it across the wide plaza to the courthouse.  Two uniformed officers check his progress at the entrance.  They are surly, uncomfortable in the heat.  Mateo hands one of them the package, has him sign for it on the app.

         He is a block away when the blast sends him sprawling, hauling all the breath out of him.  His ears are muffled as if underwater.  Blood trickles from his nose.  The bike is on its side, wheels spinning.  Car alarms, dozens of them.  Then sirens.  So many sirens.  Another sound, harsher, urgent.  Officers are barking at him to remain on the ground.  He feels a sharp pain in his arms as his wrists are cuffed.  A realization comes to Mateo like a slap in the face, his brain joining the dots.  The package.

 

 

Mother by Martin Hone

[London, England and also Ireland]

Up until the moment the Finance Director ran out of the office holding a hankie to her face and bawling like a baby Jackie had felt that her interview was going quite well.

     Just as the interview was wrapping up (‘Where will you be in five years?’) the FD leapt up, shouted: ‘Stop right now!’         Reaching the door she looked back at Jackie. ‘It’s not your fault but I’m really upset.’

      ‘We’ll keep your CV on file and let you know if another position comes up. In another department,’ said the HR lady.

     As Jackie crossed the car-park a voice called to her:

     ‘Jackie, please wait.’

     It was the FD, Tina, trotting after her.

     ‘I wanted to explain. About my behaviour just now.’

     ‘I somehow offended you,’ Jackie said.

     ‘Not you, me.’ She was slightly out of breath. ‘Me. My mother passed last year. Terrible shock. Stroke. In the street.           Doctor said death was instantaneous. She wouldn’t have suffered.’

     ‘I’m so sorry to hear that,’ said Jackie.

     ‘Thing is.’ Tina bit her lip. ‘You look just like Mum. You’re the spitting image. At your interview it was like I was sitting in the same room as Mum.’

     Jackie’s heart went out to her.

     ‘Seeing me everyday would have brought back too many sad memories.’

      Tina snorted loudly.

     ‘Sad?’ she said. ‘Oh no. I hated my mother. Really hated her. I just couldn’t stand the thought of coming into work every morning and being reminded of that ugly fat bitch.’

 

 

 

Hydrogen by Emma J Myatt

[Scotland - originally from Yorkshire, England]

Sue’s at a weekend camping celebration for a unique friend’s birthday, one that includes mini-lectures about the universe and elements, when in her pocket there’s a phone call. She checks it – her mother who never calls her. She lets it ring out. She listens to a last quote about leaving hydrogen alone for ages and it becoming animals and petals and people then goes to her tiny tent so nobody will see her cry – not because she’s embarrassed but because she doesn’t want to spoil the party. She knows before she listens to the message what it is so the tears start before the words.

 

The following morning there’s hurried packing whilst friends check train times, a ride to the station and hugs, tears, late trains and a sense of her falling backwards into her life as she crosses past-versions of herself in place names. The stations have their own stories and she’s in many of them, standing with a backpack on the way to or from a random adventure. Heading North she hears accents change and she cries more. She thinks about how her mother and aunt mafiaed up against her as they do with anyone who fights the family line and wonders if her aunt will hear her say sorry.

 

Back in Leeds, lightyears and lifetimes away from her past self who stood on exactly this spot, once, she looks for familiarity and only hears it, in the music of Yorkshire vowels and the rainfall.

 

In the café she sees her mother with the Godfather – the man who married her – and she runs past, unseen.

 

In the ward she says my aunt, and stroke, and is led to a tiny figure lost in sheets. Amongst the wires and bleeps and liquids going in and out she’s unconscious, breathing softly the tubed air. Machines make mountain ranges out of her heartbeats. Sue wants to climb them and reach her but she sits and takes the feathery hand that has done so much, too much to lie here on a sheet. It’s dry and has no grip.

 

‘I’m so sorry,’ she begins, and tells her everything she should have told her anytime in the previous two years.  She cries more and is amazed there are tears left. Now that it’s too late she blurts everything out through gulps and tears.

 

When she’s run out of words she sits back and holds the hand and waits for some kind of response, but of course there’s nothing. She’s much too late.

 

She knows the rest of the family will arrive soon and she’s no spirit for the fight so she kisses her aunt and creeps away, her hood pulled low. Out in the street she heads through the wet back to the crappy hotel where she dumped her bag. On the way she thinks about that quote again and knows the guy was wrong.

 

Leave hydrogen alone for a really long time and it becomes aunts and tears and love.

 

 

 

The Crichton by Ian S Goudie

[Strathbungo Village, Glasgow, Scotland]

The Crichton still has an odour, you know, the one that all old hospitals have. The chemical smell of blood lingers on these walls. I cough, choking on the stench of blood and mud and rotting corpses. I hear the deafening sound of blasting bombs, of bullets firing and the screams of soldiers crying. Wounded men, the dying, waiting for my dad to cart them back to base. Oh, yes, the Crichton has a past - and one connected to my family. 

           

     This building is like a butterfly, its wings radiating from its beating heart, a Greek Cross. Those wings, its equal arms, I know they’re meant to symbolise the four elements of nature: earth, water, air, and fire, but I only think of death.

I creep up the octagonal stair tower towards the source of light, sickened that the decorative iron trellis, so cold to my touch, is there to stop sick patients from jumping to their early graves. 

 

     There's a ballroom up here, and wrapping my arms around my body, as if in a straitjacket, I swivel around 360 degrees, standing on one foot, a ballerina doing a pirouette: Madam Butterfly. I stop and think. Did my dad really believe that his war would end wars? 

           

     I feel the tears run down my face and run downstairs and out the door. Deep breaths. Calm down. Walk and breathe.

I stop under the dark shadows of a towering Nobler Fir and rest beside a smaller tree. I’ve never seen a tree like this before. Its bracts look like the handkerchiefs of mourning widows. The name plaque reads ‘Davidia Involucrata–the Ghost Tree. Planted in 1963.’ The year he died. 

 

     A shiver runs down my spine. I scatter off. Run towards the safety of the business park, and then stop dead. 

           

     I know that name. Galloway House. The paupers’ villa, in which my father died. I read it on his death certificate, where it said the cause of death was Bronchopneumonia, but I know that’s a lie. It was the war that killed him. 

           

     He was only seventeen when he signed up in 1914. An army ambulance driver in the Machine Gun Corps, the Suicide Squad. They said that he was one of the lucky ones because he hadn’t died and had no scars to show. But the bombs, that killed his comrades, blew his mind away.

           

     Men like him, they didn’t talk. They took on their demons all alone. Fought daily battles in their brains, but never won. 

In later years, he took up gardening. My mother said it helped, but the illness still took its toll. It was plain he couldn’t cope. 

 

     On Christmas Day in 1955, the men from the Crichton came. They strapped him in a straitjacket and carted him away in a St Andrew’s ambulance. A modern, clean, white, sanitised version of the type he used to drive.

 

     They wouldn’t let me visit him. Well, now I am. 

 

The Honeymoon by Mary Rothwell

[York, England]

 

“Everything still feels so surreal!” Sarah said smiling, watching the trees and hedges of the countryside whiz past in a blur of green. “I keep thinking that I shall wake tomorrow and be back at home, as though nothing has happened.”

“My dear wife,” John replied, laughing. “I promise you that not only tomorrow, but every day after, you shall wake as a married woman.” 

He did not look up from his paper as he spoke.

“Can you believe the girls at work? The teapot must have been so expensive but it was just the one I wanted.” 

“Ah, well, I guess you could count it as a leaving present as well, perhaps that’s why they splurged.”

“What?” Sarah's smile faltered.

“Well, what will happen to the house and children if you’re at work?”

“But what about the promotion?”

“Yes, it was all very exciting," John replied, only now turning to face her, "but that was before the wedding.”

“But we are only just wed, you have never mentioned children before.”

“My love, that goes without saying,” he said, oblivious to the shocked expression on his wife’s face. “We are going to be just like my parents.”

 

“To Live is To Travel” by Stan Niezgoda

[London, England]

I hate commuting. But here we go again, the mindlessness of the same landscapes floating by, disappearing. I enter the red bus, tap my card on the reader, and to the upper deck I go. I choose the seat above the stairs, always the same one. From here, I can watch not only the people outside, but the ones going with me too, the ones who much like me go about their lives on the same bus, travelling somewhere near or far.

See this lady over here? No bag, only a translucent document sleeve – inside, some papers and a passport, a foreign one. She might be going to the Job Centre, just like I did when I moved here. She’ll be asked the same mundane questions, asked to fill the same forms, maybe the same clerk will serve her. I like parallels. They make me feel as if all of our lives are somehow connected, and we are in fact, one brainless mass of people who just go places, A to B, or B to A.

 

But maybe she is going somewhere completely different. She might have lived here for years, and now, her heart pounding with as much excitement as stress, she is going to get her citizenship. Or else, she’s going to the embassy of some far-away land, to get out of here. Her life here was a stream of disappointments, and she’s finally ready to leave it behind. In the passport she’s holding, some clerk will put a giant, colourful visa and off she goes, and I’ll never see her again.

I guess I will never know. As the stops skid by in a turtle-like speed, I find myself window shopping. I like that dress, you know, the one I saw in the window of the charity shop in the rich district. I always pass this place, and yet somehow, I’d never set foot here, I see it only from the seat of the bus. I might exit here one day, just to try. I won’t buy anything because I don’t earn enough, but looking is just as good – at least your wallet doesn’t suffer.

I come out of the trance as the bus nears my destination. There are still three stops left. Here is where the woman with the passport stands up, excuses the person sitting next to her, and goes down the staircase. I follow her broad back as she’s outside on the street, and I notice something I didn’t notice from up-close. She looks just like my granny when she was still young. She turns around, and for a slight second, out eyes meet. Her dry lips lift in a smile, she nods, and walks away. Soon enough, the bus leaves and she disappears. She’s travelling somewhere else now. Maybe commuting isn’t that bad. If it wasn’t for it, I wouldn’t have realised that the only constant in life is travel, the movement. Maybe I’ll buy this dress, after all.

 

 

 

Aggis, Anchovy And Aardvark  by Kate Nelson

[North East England] 

 

March is the beginning of spring, the start of new life. A trip to shops to buy a few new plants. An Aloe mitriformis, or to put it simply a dwarf aloe vera, catches my eye. Dark green among plants that boasted slightly yellow and even maybe brown leaves. He still stands proudly on my windowsill. Alongside his three new pups: Aggis, Anchovy and Aardvark. Obviously, I’m great at naming things. They may seem like a small feature of a room, maybe most wouldn’t even notice their presence. But it gives a reason to get up every morning and brings some colour to even the darkest of places.

 

Walks On Rainy Days 

It was a particular shape of tenderness.

Those cold raindrops, the shades of the rainbow, the flower petals waving and leaning when they caressed the raindrops, the sound of the breeze passing through the trees during fall.

All these details carried a sweet and calming melody through my ears.

I stood right in the middle of all these poems announced by the nature, wandering about which beautiful touch I might add to all of this.

I realized then that being there, to witness all of that beauty, was the purpose why I went out for a walk that morning.

I was there because I was part of the magnificent painting. Maybe I didn't realize what my impact was at that precise moment, but I knew that by sharing that glimpse of warmth with what was around me was enough for me, just to be in the middle of something so obvious, yet so special, made me become motivated to do my daily walk even on a rainy days.

 

 

Saloua Bouyazderh 

 

Morocco

 

 

 

Laughter, Lilies And Love

 

Jack was a real East Ender, born within the sound of the old Bow Bells themselves.  Kind as they come was our Jack but, when the moment took him, his grasp of a Londoner’s English language was quite impressive!  In his youth Jack was quite a lad, you wouldn’t believe the things he got up to. Once he came home with a horse, ‘borrowed’, he said, had to keep her out of sight for the night he said.  Round our way not much escaped the neighbours and next day the air was buzzing! Stamping and crashing all hours of the night and the noises! Hearing the neighbours, our dad, blessed with the gift of the gab, said,

“Me and the missus were ‘aving a wild night o’ passion!” his eyes twinkled with mischief.  Our mum joined in with a thrust of her hips as she said,

“Oh yes, my ol’ man’s a real stallion when ‘e gets going!”  The cat calls and banter fair turned the air blue as the neighbours joined in the fun. Even old Mrs Jakes, hair in curlers and grubby house coat, gave a throaty cackle before she stalked back inside slippers slapping on the path.

“They’re all jealous,” dad said with a dirty laugh.

“She’ll be down the market next with the gossip!” Mum giggled.  But when old Mrs Jakes’ door closed, the look she gave put the fear of God in him and the house guest disappeared that very afternoon. Mind you, she was pleased with the manure for the garden.

 

Jack met his Rosie in the market down Brick Lane. Her family sold cut flowers, bringing them from Covent Garden early in the morning. His Mum, our Nan, used to send Jack to the market every Sunday to get fruit and veg that they didn’t grow themselves.  The day he met Rosie he quite literally fell for her… or more accurately, at her. You see, there was a pie man who sold the best meat pies you could buy in all of London. Jack was looking at the pie he’d just bought, all warm and fresh and smelling delicious. So caught up was he with the pie that he didn’t see the dog come up to have a taste of its own. As the dog jumped up, the pie went flying and our Jack flew after it, landing in a bucket of lilies. Rosie saw it all and burst out laughing, tears streaming down her face as she looked at him covered in white funeral lilies. That was until her mum came up and beat him with her broom. Only he couldn’t get up because he was laughing so much and his arse was stuck fast in the bucket.  They all fell about laughing. Even her mum joined in when she realised and it was a while before they pulled him out. It was love at first sight for Rosie and Jack, they never stopped loving or laughing from that day to this.

 

Clare Fryer

 

South-East England

 

 

 

See Me Once, See Me Again

 

“He seems like the type who likes long legs,” Bianca blurted to Rachel, as a man stole a quick glance over his shoulder, as he casually strolled across the pub’s slippery wooden floor.

 

“Nah, he is probably more interested in short and cute girls. You know, the kind that just projects innocence and wows at everything he says?” Rachel quipped, sneering at the man as he queued up at the bar counter for his drink. “Asian perhaps?”

 

“Well, only one way to find out.” Bianca took off for the restroom with Rachel closely behind her.

 

Two Hispanic girls went to the restroom, and two new faces came back to the bar moments later. Bianca became a Caucasian model, her long legs deliberately visible under a bright short skirt designed to attract maximum attention. By her side, Rachel gave off the biggest smile she was able, her petite frame and tanned skin casting doubts on her even being of legal drinking age.

 

“Game on,” the girls whispered to one another, as they slowly headed toward the direction where the man was queuing up for his drink.

 

“So, face change, huh?” The man was ready for them as they approached. Before the girls had the chance to speak, the man went on, “I’m an engineer, and what you did just now, I helped to develop the hardware for it.”

 

“Well, eh, thank you.” The girls had no way of getting in character after that sudden revelation. “It’s fun becoming someone else once in a while.”

 

“Yeah, we just didn’t foresee so many people doing it so often,” the engineer scanned across the bar, “how do you know who hasn’t done a face change in this joint?”

 

The girls had no answer.

 

“Yeah, exactly. Really makes you question the very idea of identity, doesn’t it?” the engineer continued, as he shifted his eyes back to the two girls in front of him. “Really great piece of work though, your transformations. No way I can tell you are actually Latinas.”

 

Bianca dismissed the man’s remark. “I don’t know, I wouldn’t really call myself a Latina anymore. I could have any looks, any skin colour, any voice. So why would I resign to just being a single thing?”

 

“And I think that’s great. Society’s conception of what is beautiful, stylish, modern, et cetera, will always change. You can always go for what’s trendy, just like everyone else!” The engineer let out a mock cheer but quickly became serious. “So much for ‘everyone is unique’ right? Who are you if you are just always changing your looks to become what you think society wants you to look like?”

 

The girls had no answer for that one either.

 

“Oh, by the way,” the engineer was just about to leave after quickly downing his drink, “I would love to see you both in different looks next time. The more variety the better to show off what this technology can do. It’s like you said. Game on!”

 

 

Xiaochen Su

 

USA

 

 

 

Fire Dancer

 

She was dancing non-stop in her leather outfit with a focused face. Every step of hers was planned and determined. There was a long rope in her hands. She was like a puppeteer with one difference.  There was not a doll on the margin of the rope but there was fire. A spinning fire which creates figures with its flames. She was the most beautiful thing for the boy who was watching her without even blinking. “She is like another world which has its own special sun,” he thought. He watched her until the sun went down.

 

Bengisu Belen

 

Ankara, Turkey

 

 

 

Guilt Will Out

‘Don’t touch it,’ Mother said as she left the kitchen. The cake was at the far end of the table from Anna, who was colouring. She could reach it if she stretched, not to taste it, not to eat it, just to feel its weight against her hand. She turned away to avoid temptation, but the cake had a voice, telling her to reach out and touch. She turned her head and slanted at it through one eye, waiting for it to speak again. It said nothing. She reached out, her hand creeping across the forbidden zone like a raindrip sliding down the window. The cake still said nothing. This was a trap. Anna’s hand stopped creeping and returned to her side. She looked away again but kept one eye on the cake, waiting for it to speak again. Silently, the cake twisted itself where it sat. She turned both her eyes to check. It had definitely moved. She gave it her best stare, the one she used when her friend Lucy had stolen her marbles and tried to pretend she hadn’t. The stare had worked on Lucy, and she’d given Anna the marbles back, but it wasn’t working on the cake, which sat there, refusing to move back. Only now it wasn’t where Mother had left it, so Anna would get the blame. The only thing she could do was move it herself.

 

Jason Jawando

Wolverhampton, England

The Rock Is 57 And Is Dead [sad Emoji] Part 1

 

(This piece of excrement must be accompanied with the ditty “Push the Tempo” by a one FatBoy Slim)

This is a shame because his origins movie (“The Nuttler” staring Joe Pesci) is so crap it makes your eyes bleed with hell fire.

 

The Rock was famous for being the love child of Sir Neil Warnock (Who now somehow almost unbelievably, is the manager of Middlesbrough, he’s like 300 yrs old FFS!) and Za Za Gabor who was made out of metal and the same stuff plant pots are made of, whatever the hell that is.

 

So as it happened The Rock was famous for only one thing and that was taking the starring role in the great TV sex romp known as QI a TV show nobody likes and seems to be always bloody on!!!! It’s said that at the ripe old age of 57 (Outliving many a lemon) the Rock died live on air during a bout of vomiting all over Stephen Fry, whom it is common knowledge is a robot made by Tommy Cooper. Tommy Cooper coincidentally is lord and master of key chains and related apparel. This mastery made him go mad with power and invent a TV show so ultimately dull that it even made pigeons cry.

 

It is a stark reminder of the mortality of all creatures on this world.

 

Hence Robot Fry or the FRYtener as his creator called him thought he was actually made of the same stuff that tights are made of, which would be impossible if you think about it, I mean how would a robot be made of nylon, who ever thought of that rubbish!?!

 

It was after all Sir King Neil Warnock who is now well over 600 yrs old and is starting to develop into a kind of mould which can only be detected by the same Pigs that the French use for finding Truffles. This of course brings me back to the Rock and the fact that he’s 57 and dead. The casket for the body of this huge 57 year-old mass of meat will be made out of, yes you guessed it, Frenchmen. The French as a nation where the Rock’s most favourite food stuff (If a nation as a whole can be referred to as a food stuff). It has been decided by Neil “The old as Mould” Warnock (His Dad), that as he voted Brexit and often rants on about this, that France is only good for being eaten and used as a coffin for his fat dead son. So that’s the logic of British nationalism I suppose. Countries are there to be eaten and or used as coffins. There is a now a charity specifically dealing with the issue of being eaten or made into a coffin, which is nice as another pointless trampy issue is made out to be very important when it’s not, but people will still go on TV about it and cry…”Oh the time I was treated as a play thing of British nationalism and eaten or turned into a coffin…boo hoo”. I’m sick of hearing about it to be honest.

 

 

Tom Scott

 

Doncaster, England

 

 

 

Dear Santa

 

Please please please bring Kayla home for christmas. Mummy said she went away to live in Ostralia but she hasn’t come back yet. There haven’t been any post cards with kangas or koalas. No present for my birthday like she would send normaly. She didn’t even tell me she was going away so please, please, please Santa bring her home. Mummy and Daddy won’t talk about her anymore accept when they fight, then they talk about her alot. They fight more now to so if you could make them both happy that would be a great christmas present! But if I can only have one gift then let it be Kayla please then that will make them happy. Mummy is extra speshally sad now. She cries all the time when I say about Kayla coming home so I need it to be a serprize for her so please don’t tell her!

I don’t want any toys this year. I’m only seven but mummy says I’m a big girl now. big girls don’t have dolls or bears. Big girls need bigger sisters though so if you could send your elfs to get her then I will be a good girl for the rest of my life. I made Kayla a christmas card in school today so I need her here to give it to her.

 

Thank you Santa! I beleve you can use your magic powers to bring her back.

 

Love

Emily xxx

 

 

Amy Tate

 

Chester, England

 

 

 

The Rock IS 57 And Is Dead [sad Emoji] Part 2

 

 As was Tommy Cooper who whilst dominating the world of Key Chains and TV was busy programming the FRYtener to take a mate. It will be recalled that during the last millennia mates have always been trouble and Tommy being the arch villain (The lad who ruined the Bible, was based on Cooper). Thought why not program my evil nylon believing Robot to take a mate. The hunt went on long and wide.

 

Eventually Tommy forced the FRYtener to marry this Egg he found lying about and that was the end of that…or was it? Yes, it was this cannot be taken any further, Robot Stephen Fry AKA The FRYtener was forced to marry an Egg found by his evil creator Tommy Cooper, end of FFS!

 

It’s well known that Sir King of Mould Neil Warnock has an inherent fear of wobbling, this phobia was passed on to his now a 57 year-old fat massive son The Rock. Wobbling has actually been the cause of all major world conflicts since 1952. It is well known amongst everyone in the world that the Vietnam war was caused because Ho Chi Mihn couldn’t get his jelly to wobble. This sent Lyndon B Johnson of the US quite mad and hence his occupation of South Vietnam. One of the 100000 day wars in the middle east was also caused by the fact that Yasser Arafat thought Yom Kippur was a kind of blancmange and he was terrified it would start randomly wobbling. You see Wobbling…its a hell we all must live with.

 

 

Tom Scott

 

Doncaster, England

 

 

 

The Tale Of The Profane Land

 

“What was it that you saw where you walked?”, the Teacher asked his disciple after the latter’s return from the Profane Land. That was a place far from the meadows and the springs with the pure water, a place where the valley of the beasts stretched. He himself had once wandered in that heinous world, having his strength as a sole companion. It’s been centuries since then, yet he refused to face again what eyes cannot bear to see. The abiding memories were still a painful recollection of the thin line that separated heaven from the abyss.

“Be proud of yourself for you managed to resist. You have been in a territory that people have long succumbed to an empty and dishonourable way of life. It will never cease to be a smudge on the surface of the painting that was left there to remind God of the imperfections that may exist even in his more beloved creations.” Those were the Teacher’s words, and they echoed as he gazed his disciple.

 

The student had been wandering there for two hundred years, preaching peace and love. One could easily identify the hardships he’d been through just by looking at his coarse skin and toughened flesh. The rough hands as if work-worn, and a body like an empty tomb, were remnants of a relentless quest that had now come to an end. But his eyes revealed more. They were like crystal balls, emanating fire. “Why did they call it the Profane Land?” He was tantalized by this question. Had it been his choice, he would have named it the Miracle.

 

Yes, it was true, he saw many things, not in the ones he was looking for, but in the ones that came his way. True beauty lies in the unexpected and reveals herself only when you stop seeking her. Otherwise, you will only be fooling yourself that you actually faced her, while the only thing that was there was your yearning and the erroneous affirmation that you didn’t just wasted yourself.

 

He leaned on a tree and closed his eyes, but dreams always disturb sleep.  He just wanted to forget, oh, how much he needed to let go of the demons he had once encountered. They were still inside his mind and heart, impossible to be forgotten. His body was now trembling, like the day he walked a path laid out by snakes. A man later told him that in reality, they were people, conquered by their petty desires. Another time, he found himself in a spring and when he cupped his hands to quench his thirst, they were filled with blood. It was the ominous sign that the war among the beasts had begun. Now the soil turned red, stained by disgrace and shame and the tree he was resting upon stood dead under the azure sky.

 

The nightmare was succeeded by a powerful, vivid image. There was that kid in an alley, gobbling the strawberries his mother had placed in his hands. And as she bent over and lovingly kissed him on the cheek, the air smelt of fresh-mown grass. He, then, saw boys and girls playing hide and seek in the ruins. But they had created their own world and anywhere they stepped on, the earth transformed itself. Blades of grass grew where metal blades had once clashed over and over again. A tear ran from the student’s eye and fell on the ground. The earth took it, watered the soil and the tree regained its splendour.

 

That was a story the father had coined to tell his son every night before bed. It wasn’t meant to reassure the kid, or even make him tough. It resembled life and the boy somehow needed to know that the world out there was very much like a smudge on a painting. And, though the age of profanity had now begun, there was still hope, there was turning back.

 

 

Lefcothea Maria Golgaki

Athens, Greece

 

 

 

John Named A Storm

 

John named a storm. Not ‘John’ of course (because whoever would?) but ‘Samson’ – Storm Samson (named by John). The Met Office email made it official.

 

When Ruby subsided and it was his storm’s turn, he went around telling anyone who would listen. He’d chosen the name, he explained, because it reminded him of the dog they’d never had. ‘Samson’ he would have called it, had Dad brought him back. ‘Samson’ was strong but noble. A golden retriever perhaps. Glossy and loyal.

 

In the end, Storm Samson killed eight people. John piped down.

 

 

Jonny Rodgers

 

Manchester, England

 

 

A World Without Parents

 

“Dr. Xiang, please report to Ward 7!” The PA system echoed through the vast nursery, followed by a cacophony of loud cries from babies woken up the announcement.

 

Yingzhu sighed. It has only been two weeks since she started working as a manager at the Dongcheng Nursery, but she has already been to all of the complex’s 18 wards, handling kids of all age groups by their hundreds. From cuddling just-born infants in Ward 0 to hearing the anxieties of becoming adults in Ward 18, she felt that her role has gone beyond being a doctor to providing hands-on support to residents of every age-specific ward.

 

Of course, Yingzhu is not in a position to complain. After all, she was, from her birth to turning age 18, a resident of a government-run nursery. It was time for her to give back, taking care of the new kids just like she was taken care of before. 

 

But she cannot help but wonder just how sustainable her work is. It has been more than 30 years since China has seen a couple giving birth in a hospital. The government, unable to persuade citizens to have kids, instead put together a chain of state-run nurseries. Fetuses, fertilized and grown in labs, are dropped off at the nurseries when they become fully developed. Medically trained bureaucrats like her struggle to raise the lab-made children until age 18, simultaneously as the mother, the father, the teacher, and the playmate.

 

Part of the struggles come from socializing the kids to be the same, yet different. The government demands standardized training and education for millions of adults leaving the nurseries every year. Yet, the state also worries that children growing up in the same space with the same adult supervisors cannot develop different interests and fill a diverse set of necessary professional functions. Yingzhu remembers being lumped into fuzzy categories when she was growing up in a nursery, and struggle to apply the same to the kids she oversees.

 

“Xiaoming, stop!” Yingzhu yelled just as she stepped into Ward 7. Grabbing the tall, stoutly built boy by his arm, Yingzhu yanked him away from a smaller boy that was on receiving end of punches. 

 

“But teacher, some guy came here yesterday and told me I’m gonna become an athlete in the future. I have to practice!” Xiaoming protested, trying to shake off Yingzhu’s hand from his arm. 

 

“Yes, but that’s in the future. Now you read your books, just like everyone else here!” Yingzhu retorted, pushing Xiaoming to sit down on his chair. 

 

As Xiaoming went back to his book, Yingzhu quietly seethed at the officials dropping by with their talks of the kids’ futures. Devoid of parental supervision, kids in the nursery are only too willing to lap up recognition from any adult. Kids crave any sign of their being better than their nursery mates. Talks of better looks, physique, intelligence or even just genes excite them as nothing else can.

 

“Dr. Xiang, you are needed in Ward 4!” The PA system boomed once more. Yingzhu sighed again. If she just spends her every working day running around the different wards, when will she ever have the time to stop and tell her kids that, at the end of the day, they are all special in their own unique ways?

 

Xiaochen Su

 

USA

 

 

LOST

An avid fan of Desperate Housewives, Anna-Louise liked to think of herself as one of the Bree Van de Kamps of the world: proper, pristine, perfect. She was confidant to many of the helpless househusbands of Camelia View, acting as a somewhat reluctant therapist for the men struggling to juggle their responsibilities as fathers with their need for what they liked to call ‘me time’. Their lives as bachelors brainwashed by society into thinking that they had no childcare responsibilities did little to prepare them for marriage to hardworking careerwomen.

           

     Like Bree Van de Kamp, her baking prowess was regularly utilised by members of the community when a good carrot cake was needed for one of the church’s charity bake sales, or a wedding was in dire need of her legendary hummingbird cake. It was through her reputation as the town’s confectionary queen that she met her wife, Flora. It was love at first strawberry shortcake.

           

     Now, as her fingers clung to the phone, Flora was in the forefront of her thoughts again. She forced her voice to remain level, lest the doctor – a complete stranger – hear her life fracture and break apart there and then.

           

     ‘Thank you for letting me know, doctor.’ She pressed the end call button and gently placed her mobile down on the dining table, dropping into her seat as she glanced at the background on the screen: the two of them embracing their twin boys, Jackson and Jamie.

           

     She lifted her head and took in each photo hanging on the wall. Her and Flora on their wedding day. Their honeymoon in the next state over because they couldn’t afford to go abroad at the time. Holding their sons after Anna-Louise gave birth to them, both of them smiling tearfully. The photo Flora’s father took when she finally taught her wife the family recipe for hummingbird cake only a couple of months ago, the two of them covered in flour and laughing.

           

     It was as she sat at the empty table in the empty house that she finally allowed herself to cry.

           

 

Kai Woodward

 

Shropshire, England

 

 

 

 

The Enchanted Coffee Shop

The Enchanted Coffee Shop

It’s like any other coffee shop but there’s no mistaking the aroma that dominates, powerful as a punch to the stomach; hot, full-roast Columbian.

 

But there’s more than that; tart espresso, smoky Kenyan, muddy mocha, stewed filter, lukewarm instant Nescafe.

 

I sense other things, too; love, talk, partings, grieving, loss and regret.

 

‘Every coffee I’ve ever had,’ I said, ‘just the way I had them.’

 

‘And?’ said the barista.

 

‘And; the people I had the coffee with, the experiences, my feelings…’

 

The barista waited for me to sit down, but I said, ‘No wonder it’s quiet in here,’ and left.

 

 

David McVey

 

Glasgow, Scotland

 

 

 

Indiscretion  

 

      And then he stomped off!  

             

     Tears formed in her eyes as she held her hands across her stomach. What did this mean? Would he be back?  

Was there no returning to the life that she knew with him.  

 

     She questioned her motive as to why she mentioned the situation at all.  

the thought she wanted to be honest with him. She wanted to rid herself of the guilt and shame she felt. She couldn’t live with the secret she was keeping from him and she thought that he’d understand and that they had a strong relationship.  

             

     But obviously, he hadn’t reacted the way she had hoped. What to do now. Would he be back? Could they continue as though this situation never happened. There were many unanswered questions.  

 

     It wasn’t as though she wasn’t sure of what had occurred. It was one of those times when he was out of town on business and she felt alone. She believed it was a fling that didn’t mean anything much. But what happened?  

                         

     It started as a quick indiscretion and she tried to brush it off as a little mistake or perhaps impulsiveness on her part. She never intended for the relationship to continue as it did.  

             

     With tears streaming down her face she questioned herself as to what she thought that he might do now or what he might say to her. Why was she such a fool. Could he ever trust her again?                                                                                                                       

     That night he didn’t return home. She didn’t hear anything from him for days. She tried calling his phone but it went to voicemail.  

       

     One afternoon when the doorbell rang someone handed her a certified letter containing divorce papers. They clearly stated sexually unfaithful and carrying someone else’s child. She knew now that the end had come. 

 

 

Pat St. Pierre

 

USA

 

 

 

Buenos Dias

 

Girls. Women. Females. Why aren’t I attractive to them? Andrew wondered as he stretched out his lean, too thin body on his beach towel. Am I destined to be alone? It was 1995 and he was nearing the end of his solo sojourn to South America which had begun in Argentina about six weeks earlier. The furnace-like sun beat down on Punta Hermosa beach in Peru. He rested on one hand and watched groups of teenagers milling around: laughing and joking and the families too – the beach was a place for the youth of Lima to be seen. The beach was alive to the sound of playful, enjoyable, happy people.

             

     He’d meet her at a coach depot. The coach was the main form of transport in the Americas. He’d got chatting. Her name was Carly. She was from LA and was working as a translator. Andrew told her about his travels, about England, even about his unrequited love back home – she was that sort of girl – the sort you could open up to. In return for his candour, she gave him a worn, rather thick book by John Grisham. It was hardly rucksack material but then again, he didn’t like to discard it. She had given it to him.

             

     “When you get to Lima look me up!” Carly said excitedly as she went off to catch her coach. She had told Andrew she was off on a day’s sightseeing “some place” but would back in Lima the following day. Hastily she wrote down her address. “Look, it’s easy to find.”

             

     Andrew pocketed the paper and smiled as he stepped onto his coach. He was looking forward to Lima. He stayed at a traveller’s hostel where all the Europeans spoken Spanish – except him. Odd man out. Again.

             

     She was out. Of course, she was. Twice. Andrew never got to see her so he retired to the beach.

             

     His dark sunglass shaded the sun but his body prickled with sweat. It was certainly hot. He started to drift into a soporific state. His mind cataloguing the many, many failures in his life, particularly with the opposite sex. It wasn’t long before he fell asleep.

             

     He thought someone spoke; a soft as a velvet breeze, touching his ears. He wasn’t sure. He partly woke-up. Drowsy. Was it a dream? A young woman loomed over him. Tanned, bronze, shapely legs, her black swimming costume like a second skin against her slim body. For a moment she seemed to blot out the sun. Her elongated shadow cooled him. He shook his head but the image was still before him. He leaned up on one arm.

             

     She spoken again in Spanish, as speedy a sprinter. She smiled, she laughed, she pointed to the top of the beach to where cabins sold ice creams and cold as ice drinks.

             

     “Hablo Ingles?” he said.

             

      She shook her head. Disappointed.

             

      “Buenos Dais,” he tried.

             

     In reply, she raised her open hands and walked off. Into the sun.

 

Colin Mayo

 

Hemel Hempstead, England

 

www.colinmayo.com

 

Donna

It was a rainy afternoon in June. Julie was climbing up the steps to her office when she dropped her keys. Hastily bending to pick them up, she suddenly felt a presence and rose to see a tall dark stranger standing there.
"Are you Julie Rashford?"
"Yes, and you are?"
"I'm Will, Will McKilleck."
The stranger was clutching a folder in his hands.
"I need to talk to you about my wife Donna."

Julie's office was on the small side, but it was largely sufficient for two.
"Tell me about Donna and why this concerns me."
"Donna, she was... She was my everything," Will swallowed. "And you helped take her away from me."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You should." He threw down the file. "Remember this guy, Craig Mulligan? The 18-year-old drunk driver that you helped get off the hook?"
"I can't possibly remember every one of my clients, as a solicitor I get a lot."
"Look at his face!" Will jabbed a finger at the photo on the desk. Julie was now on high alert; perhaps allowing a stranger off the street into her office was a bad idea.
"Come to think of it, he does look familiar." She flipped quickly through the file. "An open and shut case with attenuating circumstances."
"You pushed to avoid jail time even though he deserved it, leaving him free to continue drinking and driving, and giving him the chance to kill my Donna!"
Will stood up at this point, towering over Julie who felt herself shrink in comparison. The mixture of pain and rage she saw etched on his face was something she wouldn't forget in a hurry.
"What do you want me to do Mr McKilleck?"
"I want you to remember this face," he spat as he threw a photo of his wife at Julie. "I want you to see her when you close your eyes. I want you to remember that your actions contributed to taking her life, all because you didn’t make the right decision!" Will huffed and took a moment to compose himself before adding, "Don't you ever forget her name, Donna McKilleck!"

 

And with that he left, leaving Julie sitting dumbfounded in her chair.

Just then, her phone buzzed. Oh crap, it was Victor. She’d completely forgotten about him and their secret meeting.


Ignoring the call, Julie exhaled and slumped in her chair, her eyes eventually settling on the photo of Donna. She was simply a young woman who’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Twirling the photo between her fingers, she eventually placed it next to her graduation photo. The time when she’d been full of hope seemed so far away.
"I'll do better," she whispered, "for both of you."
It was better to ignore Victor. She didn’t feel like breaking up another couple anyway.

 

 

Dominique Nixon

 

Mayenne, France

 

 

 

Sands of Time

Lately, Jed and Carl have been reluctantly considering their mortality. The mind games come with the territory once you hit the mid-sixties, which the two best friends have. Why are we here? What have I done with my life?  What happens when we die? At least the second question can have a quantifiable answer. The other two Jed and Carl have already answered with another rhetorical one: who knows?

         Of course, the real reason the friends have fallen into existential contemplation is the sand. It’s running out. The giant hourglass which sits floor to ceiling in the corner of their living room has a lot more in the bottom half than the top. The friends are on the couch opposite, whiskies in hand, observing the disloyal grains sift through the narrow opening. Maybe we should go to Machu Pichu, says Jed. Or parachute off the Chrysler Building, adds Carl, swirling the ice around in his glass. Neither of them takes their eyes off the hourglass.

         Why did I leave California and the ocean? Jed thinks out loud. Carl nods, and why didn’t I take that job in Vancouver when I had the chance?  Regrets. About as useful as an expired coupon. But the two of them have been on a roll lately, playing the why didn’t I and I should have games. The score is tied. Carl picks up the bottle of Johnnie Walker.  Another? Don’t mind if I do, says Jed, reaching out his glass.

         Mid evening. The doorbell sounds and Jed gets up expecting it to be the pizzas. They need something to soak up the liquor. Standing on the porch is a well-built man in his forties, thick black hair slicked back. He looks like a hitman from Jersey, but instead of an Armani suit he’s wearing blue shorts and a matching work shirt. He notices Carl peering at his name tag: Samael.  Hi Carl, I’m Sam he says, extending a hand.  In the other he’s carrying a clipboard.  Though not quite sure why, Carl invites Sam in.  As he steps through the door, he notices a large industrial truck parked out front. Diablo Sand & Gravel is stencilled in red on the driver’s door.  The back of the truck is full to the brim with sand.

         They share some whisky and a few slices with Sam. Even one or two personal stories. Sam has a lot of charisma and confidence.  He puts Jed and Carl at ease.  They like him, feel like they already know him.  On the coffee table is the contract. I’d sure hate for you fellas to miss out on this deal, Sam says, as though he has inside track on some Vegas odds.  He gestures to the top of the hourglass, leaking sand as they speak. I can fill that back up right now, he says. Truck’s out front. Unless, he adds, you don’t want to sign the contract. He shrugs, his expression saying hey, I know you guys are not that dumb, right?

         Jed takes the pizza boxes out to the garage and puts them in the recycling. Carl washes out the whisky glasses and then pins their copy of the contract on the side of the fridge with a Heineken magnet. Back in the living room they take another satisfied look at the fresh sand that has filled the hourglass. Sand, as Sam guaranteed, that would never run out as long as they abide by the contract. Jed and Carl are smug, as though those Vegas odds have come through. They exchange a devilish grin.

 

 

David Patten

Denver, Colorado, USA

 

 

Cloning Yourself At Work: A New Way To Increase Productivity!

 

While at work, have you ever had the thought that, rather than shouting instructions at a bunch of clueless subordinates, things will move along so much faster if there was just one more of you instead? You know what you are good at, so if there are two of you, you will surely get twice the work done in the same amount of time!

 

Well, now you have the chance to make that thought a reality. Introducing the “Self-Cloner,” a device that copies you for a short time whenever you need some extra help. Your clone will have all the knowledge and energy at that moment of cloning, ready to help you get your work done when you urgently need a helping hand.

 

Don’t worry, the Self-Cloner won’t let your clone interfere with your everyday life. When the work is done, just press a button on the machine. The clone will automatically be directed back into the machine for liquidation.

 

James remembers the first time he watched the commercial for the machine that gave birth to “James II.” But James II insists that he should now only be addressed as Vincent and refuses to step back into the machine no matter how many times James pressed the liquidation button.

 

Vincent insists that he remains useful, not just as a double for James at work, but a unique individual who can contribute to society in his own way, entirely independent of James. It no longer matters that he looks just like James. Vincent says, because of all the people he interacted with, all the experience he had, all without James by his side, neither James nor he is now the clone of the other.

 

To his dismay, James realized that Vincent is not alone. A few too many people let what their Self-Cloners produced to stay in human society a bit too long. These users just got too accustomed to the convenience of having another one of them do not just their immediate work, but all the subsequent tasks at work and home for them, so much so that they forgot the need to liquidate them within a short time recommended by the Self-Cloner. The result is Vincent and other clones getting together to demand “human” rights, not just to exist permanently, but legal identity and equal pay.

 

People forgot that a separate identity does not need to be based on separate genes and upbringing. Even if everything that came before was the same, from this moment forward, everything can diverge. And with different futures, different views, attitudes, and belongings emerge. No liquidation machine’s cloning button can stop that formation of new identities.

 

Xiaochen Su

 

USA

 

 

 

The Intimacy Of Being Understood

 

 The intimacy of being understood, the warmth she was ignorant of, yet, unintentionally, she purely starved for. She swallowed her words, up deep into her mind. Every so often they urged to slip out, for she feared that they come out as gibberish to the ears of her surroundings. The assemblage of millions of words turned into scribbles of pure frustration, demolishing a once meditative and pensive home for her thoughts into a turmoil of characters. The flames of her eagerness and ardour towards life itself were recurrently being extinguished by the splash of realization that nobody showed her attentiveness. She yearned to belong to someone, anyone who would cherish her thoughts and partake in her imagination. She itched for a connection so deep that she wouldn’t have to think twice before vocalizing what haunted her head and weighed on her brain a thousand tons. She craved one silent moment that would free her from her own roaring mind, which was once her calm and safe space. 

 

Only until the English assignment required a book must be read did she feel an unnatural sentiment of relief, hence scratching the itch she had been longing for. She was baffled. How could a bunch of words organized into sheets of paper have alleviated the tension her shoulders had been carrying for what seemed to be an infinite amount of time? She knew not to be fooled by her vigorous desperation for this sentiment, causing her to misinterpret it for something else, thus she brushed it off. 

 

As the tedious day was coming to an end, and the sun was saying its last goodbyes before the next came, she sat by her window, meticulously observing the ombré of the sky getting darker by the second as the Earth devoured the Sun. She couldn’t disregard the unorthodox serenity that rushed through her, very similar to what she felt whilst reading the book. She had been dazzled by the overwhelming response to such non-living things that have given her the opening to the flow of her accumulated words, without even having to utter a single one. 

 

She began to fathom the little things that brought to her that newly found sensation, which she had been once pursuing from humans.  At last, she was then conscious of what had been hindering her all the time that had passed, when she had none to blame but her so-called friends. It was herself that had to be held accountable, for she had to understand herself before being understood by others.  

 

Self-perception was something she lacked, until she stumbled upon those simple pleasures she found worth living for, connecting the lines that shape her as the person she was. The intimacy of being understood, she thought, evolves from the intimacy of understanding oneself.

 

 

Chloe Haddad

 

Koura, Lebanon

 

 

 

Pub Cruel

 

Reece McGregor prided himself on the fact that he’d never done drugs - despite the temptations presented to him on the housing estate. No, alcohol was his only “poison” and this morning he fancied a pint. A nice, cool refreshing pint of lager and some pleasant conversation before he returned home and settled back down to a day of doing… well… nothing.

          Since he’d lost his job in the warehouse, he’d struggled to find employment and eventually given up – well, he had a criminal record – petty vandalism, ASB, a bit of breaking and entry. His mates did it to fund their drug habits but Reece did it to for a “laugh”. They’d “do” a few shops and places on the estate. Nothing serious but he’d done time. Of course, he had. Everyone had.

          So, he pulled on his jacket and walked up the road to The Globe. He was surprised to see it boarded up and covered in graffiti, for, in truth he was out on parole from his latest stretch. After the warehouse row – the one where he’d “lost it” with his manager and got sacked - he’d been short and, well, people shouldn’t leave their windows open, should they?

          He strolled on, out of the estate, not to worry, there were a couple of other pubs in walking distance. He found himself outside The Swan – correction, it was the Swan, but now a sign read “Simpson’s Furniture”.

          “Fuck me, where can you get a pint?” Reece muttered under his breath.

          He carried on down the High Street. The Red Lion – now that was always popular and large – not really his type of pub being more “family orientated” but at least he could buy a much-needed drink.

          He smiled. It was still there and open! He slouched in.

          “Do you have a reservation, Sir?” The dark-haired waitress asked.

          Reece was pulled up short.

          “A reservation?”

          “Yes, Sir, you need a table reservation.”

          “A table reservation! I only want a bloody pint!” Reece huffed.

          “You have to be a diner, I’m afraid, Sir.”

          Reece cursed. “Is there nowhere I can buy a drink around here?”

          The waitress gave a thin-lipped smile. “Well, the Swan is now a furniture shop and that one on that rough estate closed down due to all the vandalism and robberies.”

          “Vandalism and robberies!” Reece repeated.

          “Yes, the landlady had a nervous breakdown and handed in her licence, she works in our kitchen now.”

          “Does she?” Reece said. He was in a daze. “So, there’s no pubs no more?”

          The waitress looked conciliatory, sympathetic even. “Ones that don’t sell food have been struggling for years and when you have youths running a mock, they’re sure to go under.”

          Reece left the pub and walked back to his estate. Thoughtful. “We were bored, we didn’t mean no harm,” he muttered. “At least I’ll be able to get some tinnies from the convenience store.” he considered.

          But it wasn’t the same, it just wasn’t the same.

 

Colin Mayo

Hemel Hempstead, England

http://www.colinmayo.com.

 

Perfect Teeth

How can the word river do it justice?  It’s inadequate.  It’s a fat bodied serpent feeding off the continent, nourishing its teeming forests which sustain the planet.  It’s not a river, the Amazon, it’s an ongoing event.

        

     Elliot is far from a novice.  He’s battled marlin in Florida, landed bluefin tuna off Prince Edward Island, fly fished for days in the Louisiana Marshes.  Now he has come to Peru, on the hunt for species unique to the iconic waterway: peacock bass, redtail catfish, arapaima, piranha.

        

     Six in the morning, mist rising from the surface, the chatter of tropical birds and primates from the dense rainforest flanking their small boat.  It’s long and narrow like a canoe, Elliot perched at the bow clothed in khaki, boasting zippers and Velcro and hidden pockets only an angler would wear.  At the stern, hand on tiller, Santiago guides the craft through the still waters, as the old man has done for decades.

        

     Santiago manoeuvres them into a horseshoe pool off the main river.  It’s sheltered by overhanging branches that shed pods into the water.  It’s a feasting ground.  Elliot baits his line and stands astride the bench for balance.

        

     The first two times the bait is gone, either slyly taken or slipped off.  Elliot packs it tighter around the double hook and casts again.  This time the line goes taught, the carbon fibre rod doubling in on itself, threatening to snap.  Elliot reels and pulls, reels and pulls.  Mantenlo tenso, says Santiago.  Keep it taut. 

        

     The fish is strong, angry.  A fighter.  It breaches in a commotion.  Breathing hard, Elliot brings it toward the boat.  Es piranha, says Santiago reaching for the landing net.  But Elliot raises the rod too soon, the frenzied ball of muscle arcing at him.  Instinctively he holds out a hand, Santiago’s ten cuidado, be careful, a fraction late.  With the violent precision of a steel blade, the piranha removes Elliot’s index finger at the mid joint.

        

      Elliot’s mind can’t process what he’s seeing, stalling the shock and pain.  The piranha thrashes in the boat, gasping.  The disturbance has caught the attention of an alligator on the far bank.  Santiago watches it slide into the water.  Mantener la sangre en el bote, he tells Elliot, wrapping his hand in a small towel.  Keep the blood in the boat.

 

 

David Patten

 

Denver, Colorado, USA

 

 

 

 

Word Harvesters

There were stories about specific boats that would use large nets to haul in all manner of fish and creatures from the oceans, back in the centuries before The Retribution.  Trawlers they were called.  Manned by the hardy, the adventurous, those willing to risk peril for a substantial payday.  The word harvesters felt a kinship with these bygone stories, whether true or residing in myth.

        

     There was no shortage of applicants for the word fields.  About a quarter of each recruitment drive made it through screening, with three months in the inhospitable Southern Sector the minimum contract.  When that was up, harvesters could extend to a maximum six months.  You could make two years’ worth of personal tokens if you stayed that long.  Most did.

        

     The word fields thrived in the searing heat of the Southern Sector, a continent of sand and desert.  The harvesters wore protective suits and helmets as they gathered verbs, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs.  Some worked the less glamorous fields of articles, prepositions, and pronouns; the fillers that glued sentences together.  Harvesters were allocated one of three eight-hour shifts, seven days a week.  Drones supplying language to the great cities in the Northern Sector.

        

     The Council oversaw the monthly distribution of words to all citizens, based on class and societal roles.  Micro-chips fed thoughts which appeared as language on each person’s transparent, mobile screen.  There was a healthy black market, trading in cuss words, colloquialisms, and colorful idioms.  But The Council could identify and delete these at any time.

        

     The scientists maintaining and expanding the word database had yet to seed and cultivate the word insurrection, so there was no way to describe the takeover of The Council, nor the exodus of the harvesters from the fields.  There was an inevitability to the new stewardship of The Council because language is power.

 

 

David Patten

 

Denver, Colorado, USA

 

 

 

 

Iris  

'Red boiled face, crabby', the father said as the wee girl lay in his mam’s arms.  

 

‘Her head’s the size of an orange - one of those navel ones,’ she said.  

 

‘Naval ones?’ he said, his eyes screwed, what you’ve been up to with the navy then? 

 

She laughed and then he did too but just a tad.  

 

The girl was yellow for a few weeks, jaundice, custard eyes, mustard skin.  

 

‘It’s normal,’ the doctor said.  

 

‘Ain’t nothing normal about her,’ the father said, as he flicked his eyes from the twisted belly knot, green-gilled,

stomach-swilling.   

 

The girl’s eyes were blue – in the places they weren’t yellow. The father thought of oceans, and lagoons with indigo skies and palm trees, the places they’d dreamed of in the tsunami of desire.  

 

But now the mother saw only the minute landscape of her daughter’s face, the down cheeks, the breath-blown sweep of her forehead, and the violet delta of life under her new skin.

 

 

Joan Osbaldeston

 

Hastings, England

 

 

Life From The Perspective Of The L.E.D. Inside Your Fridge

 

     The door opens, our innards firing a low hum as I light your vacant face. You peer in for milk and retrieve it, door left standing, sounds of pouring, the carton replaced. Close to black.

                                                                          *

     Open and low hum, again for milk, the voice of another in the room: ‘Please don’t forget. It’s her first time, she’s nervous.’

     ‘I won’t forget,’ replacing the carton.

     ‘Don’t. You said…’ Close to black.

                                                                          *

     The slotted pitch of evening beneath blackout blinds, eggs retrieved. Your partner: ‘You can’t be serious.’

     ‘I am. It’s true.’

     ‘Why would he…?’ Close to black.

                                                                          *

     Minutes passing and the eggs are returned, nothing said, but from you, a heavy sigh. Close to black.

                                                                          *

     Open and low hum for butter, carrots, parsnips, an onion.

     Partner: ‘Just talk to me. Why didn’t you ever tell me this?’

     ‘How could I?’ the words from your mouth flat and deathly solemn.

     ‘How old were you?’

     ‘I don’t remember. Probably…’ Close to black.

                                                                           *

     Grey morning, your partner’s eyes straining. ‘How did you sleep?’

     'Terribly, dredging all this up.’

     Your partner reaching for milk, hesitates. ‘You have to. I can’t believe you’ve never told me this.’

     ‘I’ve never told anyone this.’

     ‘Why?’

    ‘Because how am I supposed to say it? How do you ever bring something like that up?’ A long, low breath.

     Your partner finally grabs the carton. ‘I just don’t understand.’

     ‘Well that’s it, isn’t it? How could…’ Close to black. That was the last of the milk.

                                                                          *

     Open and low hum, pitch evening, groceries being stacked. You ask, ‘Where are the tortillas?’

     ‘I don’t know.’

     ‘Fine.’

     You stack items, your partner, in the background of the kitchen, eyeing you. ‘Did he ever, say anything, about why?’

     You freeze, loosen slightly. ‘No.’ You stack more inside us, hands and fingers steady. ‘It was like… speaking of it would make it real.’ Close to black.

                                                                          *

     Forcible open and hum. You slam a clip-lock container on a lower shelf. ‘Of course I fucking do!’ The door is left wide and yawning, stretching openly as a waking sleeper.

     ‘Oh God.’

     ‘Is that really what you want to hear? Jesus! That if I ever saw him again, I’d fucking choke ‘im? That I’d kill him?’

     Your partner, weepy: ‘I want you to contact a therapist.’

     ‘No, I will not contact a fucking therapist.’

     ‘Please close the fridge.’

     ‘How am I supposed to explain that to Nikki, huh? That three times a week I’m getting my head examined for things he did thirty fucking years ago? Is that normal to you?’

     From somewhere I’ve never seen, the cries of a child disturbed in sleep.

     ‘You see what you’ve done?’ hushed.

     The modern system integrated with me begins to beep, somehow both loudly and not.

     Your partner, begging: ‘Please just close the door.’

 

 

Ross Heard

 

Manchester, England

 

 

 

 

Reclaiming My Voice

 

As I leave the building, the smile on my face widens while the butterflies continue to flap, creating an earthquake in my stomach. I want to laugh and cry at the same time; I feel both sick and elated, light-headed but with 20/20 vision.

 

Everyone advised me against it: friends, partner, union representative, solicitor. Even the journalist who interviewed me told me I could stop any time I wanted. But I was determined: I'd thought this through and realised I wouldn't be able to live with myself unless I did this.

 

I'm risking everything, including my home and relationship. If I were sued, I know I'd lose any court case and despite all my training and experience, could end up unemployable. My partner says he'll back me up, but I'm not convinced. Even the strongest relationship can shatter when faced with the opprobrium that will likely come my way.

 

But some things are more important than material success and there are those who support me, many of them people I have never met and don't know, who applaud my principled stance.

 

Wanting to celebrate, I enter the first pub I see, order a drink and toast myself in the bar mirror. The wine makes me feel even more light-headed and when I stand up I almost fall over, leaning on the counter for support. The barmaid asks me if I'm okay. I nod and say: “Never felt better.” I saunter out of the pub and make my way back home. 

 

Sleep evades me for most of the night. Everything I've done and said keeps circulating in my mind as if on a loop. I keep thinking of things I should have said, regretting not phrasing my story better, wandering if the journalist will get things right, worried the newspaper might try and sensationalise my story. I must have dropped off at some stage because the alarm clock wakes me.

 

I switch on the radio just in time for the review of the daily papers, and I'm the first item. I dash to my laptop and check the paper's online edition: there it is. The journalist has done a good job, presenting the story without any frills. It doesn't need any: it is sensational enough as it is.

 

The phone rings. I agree to a radio interview which goes as well as can be expected, then switch the phone off.

 

I had signed a gagging order in return for an out of court settlement, as had others: we had little choice and even less time to make a decision. Our complaints were marked “resolved” and we were told our careers would not be affected. But there is no way I can let them get away with their bullying, because until there are changes in both personnel and procedures people will continue to suffer.

 

What will be will be, and no matter what is thrown at me I know I have done the right thing, the only thing I could do.

 

 

Kevin Crowe

 

Wick, Scotland

 

Kevin is the editor the Highlands LGBT+ magazine "UnDividingLines":

https://undividinglines.wordpress.com/

Suicide = Revenge

I’ve never feared Death. In fact, I’ve always been rather fascinated by it so when I heard about Professor Schumacher’s research into consciousness, I contacted him with a few suggestions of my own. With drones now being as small as an insect the size of a wasp, was it possible to transplant my consciousness into such an artificial envelope for a period of time so I could watch my own funeral?

            Schumacher thought it would be. Modern technological already meant that thoughts could be stored in a computer, and even operate one, so there was no reason why I might not be clinically dead and yet have a “third eye”, if you will, hoovering over my own funeral relaying back audible images to my briefly digitalised consciousness.

            Imagine that! I’d get to “see” the whole thing! Who wouldn’t like to be “present” at their own funeral?  What a way to get revenge! I’d be treated like a King; conveyed into the church by my three sons and daughter and placed at the front of the nave as my favourite song played. My children who, let’s face it, since I divorced their mother after I discovered her second affair, had had little to do with me, would step back as one and bow their heads. I’d observe, Joan, my ex-wife, first amongst mourners: tearful and tormented, her blond hair contrasting with her black pill box hat as she dabbed her moist eyes whilst wreaths read: Husband, Father, forever in our hearts.

            I’d hear the eulogies too – the force words of praise, the jokes from my manager at work: I couldn’t stand the guy, but he was an excellent raconteur, “Ken did this, Ken did that,” – the congregation would laugh through their snivelling tears. No doubt my oldest would read a passage from The Bible.  Then, one of my other sons would say “a few words”. “He was a good bloke: funny, generous, big hearted” – in other words I was a mug who bailed them all out whenever they came a-begging, only to find myself short by the end of my life and living in a one-bed, rented flat.

            So, that’s what happened. Professor Schumacher set it all up.

            “But, remember, we’ll only be able to establish computerised consciousness for about an hour, after that it will rapidly fade.”

            “Don’t worry, it’ll be an event worth dying for,” I joked… and I meant it.

            I duly hung myself. In the front room. Detailed plans for my funeral left. Timings exact. The service was to take place that Thursday. It was all set up. So, my little drone buzzed around outside the church and waited for the funeral cortege… and waited… and waited… and…

            it never arrived. In one final horrendous slap in the face Joan vetoed my dying wishes and arranged a cheaper, earlier cremation next door. With my long-distance drone lens, I saw the mourners laughing and joking and shaking hands as they left the small chapel. I was absolutely fur…

 

Colin Mayo

 

Hemel Hempstead, England

 

 

 

The Comedians

Cannon and Ball are hiding in my back garden. I can see the bushes rustling as Bobby snaps his red braces. The wind carries their whispered summons to my window: “Rock on, Tommy”. I close the curtains and sit in the dark.

              When I leave the house, Bernard Manning loiters at the foot of my drive. Between laboured breathes, he lists the people walking into a pub: an Irish man, a Jewish man, a Pakistani, his mother-in-law… I run past him and down the street, the tension of his tuxedo preventing him from giving chase.

              In the supermarket, Stan Boardman prowls by the tinned goods, seething that they bombed our chip shops. I dart into the chilled foods aisle but Russ Abbott is already there, lurking by the yoghurts. He lunges towards me, confiding that he loves a party with a happy atmosphere.

              I turn and flee. Little and Large patrol at the checkouts – Large impersonating Woody Woodpecker while Little looks confused. I drop my shopping and manage to sneak out unnoticed. As I head to the High Street, Les Dennis screams, “I don’t really know” from the opposite pavement. Jimmy Cricket springs from a parked car, insisting that I c’mere, c’mere. I double back down an alleyway but the Krankies have second guessed me. They broaden themselves and block my path. “Fan-dabby-dozy,” Jimmy Krankie hisses.

              Later, at my therapy session, I relay my troubles. I’m being pursued by comedians, I say. Light entertainers. The Old School.

              My therapist narrows his eyes. It’s a look I’ve come to recognise. It suggests that we’re on the cusp of something important, that we’re approaching a breakthrough.

              Only comedians? he asks.

              That’s right, I say.

              No dance troupes? Singers? High wire acts? Ventriloquists?

              I shake my head. Only comedians, I confirm.

              Slowly, he strokes his chin with thumb and forefinger. Well, that’s the problem, he eventually says. It’s your diet: you’re not getting enough variety.

              My therapist slaps his thigh and bursts out laughing.

              I suppose, after all this time, it’s nice to finally have a punchline. I just wish that I thought it was funny.

 

 

Mark Colbourne

 

Black Country, England

 

 

 

Reviving the Flowers

The shore was fading from itself. The predicate hides under the complacent. Something about the way the shore bubbled was so sullied and furious like a ruptured snail, salty and fizzling Something so contemptuous in that crackling and dirty dissolve. I noticed it as we left shore. The hem of my pant still wet from its last dirty kiss upon my ankle, wrapped around my shoe begging me to stay like a child, a clinging, mistaken me as its own, spawned by someone else's mistakes. Shackled to the past, lifted out of the water and yet below true elevation. Nothing but the tethered void dirtying my boots as I boarded the ship. I was leaving now. All that I had loved was a lie, the man, the garden, the flowers we had made bloom together once. The thing about an island is that secrets travel quickly and spilled milk is quick to go sour on even the sunniest of days. Why he did it I'll never know, he had the best of me and so needing her was something of an absurdist nightmare, a dark surreal that strangled more than it could surrender. I couldn't breathe, the flowers had lost their scent, the colors looked grey in the sun. So I buried him under them, hoping the nutrient from his flesh would revive them, that the mineral of his bones would paint them back to life, that they would smell like the first time we kissed all over again.

 

Tara Jones

Kansas, USA

 

 

 

Anno Domini

 

It was Peter’s idea.  A retreat of sorts; a chance to take stock a year after all that unsavory business at Gethsemane, followed by the thrill of the resurrection.  The Book of Acts was writing itself as the Apostles dispersed and set about spreading the good news, despite it mostly being met with scepticism.

        

     Antioch seemed as good a place as any.  Peter had been making some decent headway there and was keen to show the others what was happening locally.  Besides, the proximity to the Mediterranean was a draw for those wanting to extend their visit a few more days.

        

     Peter’s dwellings weren’t large enough to accommodate more than three of his friends, so the remaining eight had to make their own arrangements.  Now, here they all were in Peter’s stone, rooftop courtyard, sitting on the ground in a circle.  They prayed, and then broke bread together.

        

     As the falling sun stretched out the day’s shadows, a stranger appeared in a dark cloak.  His hair and beard looked as if the original color had been altered.  He was noticeably portly.  He shuffled in the awkward silence.  Then, a slow realization among some of those seated.  Nathaniel set down his goblet.  “Judas?”  He shuffled some more, avoiding eye contact.

        

     The Apostles all stood.  James turned to Peter for an explanation.  He shrugged.  “Not my doing.”  Now Simon addressed Judas.  “You committed suicide.”  John threw in his fifty cents. “You’re supposed to be spending eternity in the ninth circle.”  All eyes were now fixed on Judas.  “So...” he was tentative, “the suicide was a story the Romans put out as part of the witness protection program.”  His eyes moved around the group.  He left John’s comment unanswered.  “Been stashed away in Umbria.”  Shaking of heads, disbelief that this traitor stands before them.  “Yea.  Lot of grapes and olives.  And goats…” his voice trailing off.

        

     Three rooftops away two figures were stooped, observing.  Lucius and Cassius were seasoned vets of Augustus’ secret service, political puppeteers who had left their mark from Gaul to Palestine.  “You sure about this guy?” asked Lucius.  Both men kept their eyes on the gathering.  Cassius shot his partner a look.  “Are you kidding?  This is the original Judas.  He’d sell out his own mother.”  Lucius nodded, satisfied.  Cassius continued.  “They’ll eventually forgive him and he’ll regain their trust.  Then we’ll have Peter and his seditious crew right where we want them.”

 

David Patten

 

Denver, Colorado, USA

 

 

 

Double Helix

It wasn’t unexpected.  She’d been waiting.  At first it was just small things, like water seeping through a breach.  An occasional headache, clear bubbles moving across her cornea, shape shifting like a lava lamp.  Later, her skin feeling loose and oily, like it wanted to slide off.  Then the insomnia.  Restless nights filled with echoes of her history.  An accounting.  Taking stock.  One night disorder was launched, as if premeditated.  Jigsaw pieces of her life falling like confetti into colorful prisms.  That was when she knew.  It was time to go to the woodlands.

        

     A maze of primordial secrets, forests hold the keys to the truth.  Givers and sustainers of life, their trees gatekeepers of the knowledge.  She arrived in the northernmost woodlands, where the sky is a canvas for all things celestial; a glimpse of infinity.  On a hilltop she looked out over the forest, the moonlight casting silhouettes in black and white.  Silent, save for the occasional call of hunter and prey.  She sat in contemplation.

        

     The meadow grass was cool and soft under her bare feet, the approaching forest sentinel to the charms it concealed.  The secrets she knew and was borne of and now returning to, her lives millennia in the making.  Movements assured and graceful beneath a long robe of sapphire, in her green eyes the wisdom of the gemstone and a promise of spring.  Her black hair fell sleek and straight, the moon’s fingers combing it in satin. 

        

     Enclosed, she heard the murmurs of recognition, smelled the fragrance of earth and timber as the forest received her into its midst.  She wove her way deeper into the interior, the path marked by a thousand fireflies and an owl swooping from branch to branch.  They would lead her to the provenance.

        

     This is the place, veiled by a patchwork of interlocking branches, ageless and sacred.  The earth hugging her feet, soft as velvet.  Above, wisteria vines in their thousands.  Purple, pink, fragrance that can be tasted.  Smiling, she reaches out her hands and bestows the gift of herself.  A double helix hangs suspended, as if a lantern in the darkness.  It starts to rotate, the stairways embraced in a dance of life.

        

     With each rotation comes a spray of vivid, falling petals, each a recognition of a life lived; the entirety of her story.  Here Ts’ai Lun who brought paper into the world, there Cornelius, final breath preserved by the ash from Vesuvius.  And here Edmund, navigator on Drake’s wooden vessels, and there Natasha, swept up in an October revolution.  Spent, the double helix dissolves into the night.  All that remains is her robe on the forest floor.

 

David Patten

 

Denver, Colorado, USA

 

 

 

That New Guy Really Loves Molly

“That new guy at work goes on about his wife a lot.”

 

“You mean Richard? Yeah, he’s always talking about her. Have you seen how quickly he rushes off in the afternoons?”

 

It’s always exciting to have a new worker in the office. Everyone had googled him before he started. They all knew his work history and volunteering at a local hospital. Hopefully he’d fit in. Not like some. Everyone remembered the guy who took all the office cookies home with him. Or the woman who totally lost it when someone borrowed her stapler and broke down in tears.

 

Richard seemed pleasant enough. At their first Friday lunch everyone around the table was sharing stories about their partners and plans for the weekend. Some of the guys were heading to the football together. Agnes was a keen knitter and was going to a convention called something corny like “fancy yarns”. Everyone pretended to listen, but it was obvious that they became more alert when there was an opportunity to hear from the new guy. Richard and Molly were heading to the beach for the weekend. He was going to teach her to surf. They asked what she looked like, and he lovingly described her to the group as having big brown eyes and a kind face.       

 

They seemed to spend all their time together. They must have been working in the garden the following weekend because Richard said Molly told his workmates she spent the entire Thursday digging up plants. He even went with her to the beauty salon afterwards.

 

Every afternoon he used to rush home to go running with her. Some of the staff were envious of their sporty lifestyle and how they obviously enjoyed spending time together. Not like some in the office who preferred to stay back at work because it meant that they could avoid ‘quality time’ with their dearly beloved.

 

On the Thursday of his third week in the job Richard turned up at work two hours late, unshaven and apologetic. He said that Molly had knocked the alarm clock off the bedside table in the middle of the night and it had failed to go off. The more conservative at work (mostly accountants) murmured that this was a little too much information and that hints of late-night passion were best kept in the home.  

 

Everyone was keen to see this active power couple together and particularly keen to meet Molly. An opportunity arose at the annual staff family picnic a few weeks later. Some thought it odd that he had only ordered one meal. Others were surprised when he requested to sit away from small children, because Molly doesn’t like small children. They were even more shocked when he turned up on the day with no one on his arm and a chocolate coloured Labrador on a lead by his side. And absolutely no one thought that they would have to spend their picnic trying to stop Molly from licking their face!

 

Martin Hadfield

 

Brisbane, Australia

 

 

 

And To Your Right

Horton Park across from the bus depot is blacktopped, all of the benches occupied. A stunning white cat assigned perhaps by St. Gertrude, the patron of felines, watches sparrows compete with pigeons for muffin and donut crumbs. Her namesake Church in the distance with its lush lawn seems out of place. Two men rise, do jumping jacks and push-ups. Another gent wearing a Van Dyke beard applauds. The crutches at his side are a sight, one metal and one wood. A hunched dowager walks a dog back and forth that looks like Asta in The Thin Man movies. A fellow, not more than twenty-five, jitterbugs by; face crimson from drink or dope no doubt. A horse racing paper protrudes precariously from his pocket, shoes filched from a bowling alley judging from the number 8 on one and 6 on the other. A knockout of a dame in red spiked heels throws kisses at the cat she calls Fairbanks but no response. Blue jeans snug her long legs, her substantial braid; red mixed with black is a mugger’s delight. She tosses a loaf of bread to the Park Doyen who shares her bench with six shopping bags. She snags it as any gridiron tight end would. A teen topped by a Toronto Blue Jays cap, olive pants, green blouse who owns lime eyes assumes the Eagle yoga pose while flipping a cigarette holder in her teeth like FDR. The boy beside Doyen works a yo-yo that pulses light as it spins. He does an occasional soft shoe. A departing Greyhound bus has to go a block to U-turn north. Passing Horton Park the driver slows to maybe 5 mph as if he’s daydreaming about someday operating a tour bus, maybe a double-decker. One might extract a tsk-tsk or three from the look on the faces of some passengers while others ignore the spectacle. The yo-yo artist turns some spectacular twists. The fitness fellows run in place. The movie star dog barks up a storm and strains at the leash. The jitterbugging man has retraced his route. He’s waltzing but the runway beauty is missing. Van Dyke blows “Ave Maria'' across the top of his muscatel bottle while waving his aluminium crutch with his free hand. The Doyen tosses a multi-grain gift slice and the birds hop into action. The cat pounces but snares not a feather. He or she bares teeth to the sky. The bus driver does musical beeps. It’s time for the bells of St. Gertrude’s to chime but at the moment law offices and Planned Parenthood reside there.

 

Thomas M. McDade

 

Fredericksburg, Virginia, USA

 

 

 

Alley Cat

The alley cat I thought I had befriended circled me outside my apartment door, sniffing my boots and purring aggressively. He was looking for his usual; softened Marie biscuits in a bowl of lukewarm milk. I had seen him earlier in the week cosying up to the curly-haired housewife across the street who always smelled of fish.

 

“Traitor,” I whispered.

 

He hissed in response. And he was right; our relationship wasn’t mutually exclusive. He glared at me until I unlocked my door, let him in, and served the dinner his kingship was entitled to. This stand-off wasn’t my first rodeo and I rather excelled at such love-hate rituals.

 

Take Mrs. Sengupta for instance. Just this morning she scowled at me and professed her hatred in incoherent sentences. In her defence, I had pried open her toothless jaw to pour a spoonful of cough syrup down her throat. The very next minute she smacked her wrinkly lips as if eliminating the last viscous drop of khejurer jhola gur or liquid date palm jaggery sourced from Bankura. She then grinned and bonked her head on my arm like a child playing with her mother.

 

I had gotten used to half a decade of being mired in her quotidian shtick of forgetting that she hated me and forgetting that she loved me so much that I had moved to the city just to be a mild ten-minute walk away from whenever she needed me outside my regular hours as her nurse.

 

I mourn Mrs. Sengupta in the only room I call home while a faint scent of coconut oil from her head still lingers on my arm.

 

And I don’t know what to do except squat on the cool concrete floor and stare at the grimy ginger fur on this thankless insolent alley cat. I think I will call him Nolen Gur, lock him in, and throw him one of my pillows so this toxic relationship gains a little more permanence until I find another one to bury myself in.

 

 

Tejaswinee Roychowdhury

 

West Bengal, India

 

linktr.ee/tejaswinee

 

Twitter: @TejaswineeRC

 

 

Creature of Habit

 

When Kathy awoke, she poured a cup of coffee and spent an hour scrolling Facebook, checking whose birthdays were that day and posting a birthday message to those she was truly friends with, not acquaintances she had friended because of a common connection. It wasn’t until she found a post from her former co-worker Veronica, wishing a deceased grandmother a happy birthday, a grandmother who, if she were alive, would be 140, that she realized how crazy posts could be, particularly when multiple people commented, “Happy Birthday to your grandmother in heaven.” The friends likely hadn’t known the grandmother when she’d been living, didn’t know what sort of life the grandmother had lived, didn’t know if there was a heaven, or even if the grandmother had journeyed the tunnel and ended up in the light.

 

Kathy thought it nice that Veronica might remember a loved one on her birthday, maybe say a prayer for her, or silently wish her a happy birthday, but she wondered why her friend would post that on Facebook. She wondered if the message was really for the deceased grandmother, or if it was for her friend Veronica to get attention and to feel connected to the outside world since her retirement.

 

     Creatures of habit, Kathy and Veronica had lunch in the breakroom almost every day for thirty years. They had little in common and made small talk, listening to each other’s accounts of life with nods and “uh-huhs”, and talked of new dreams in their last year at the agency—retiring, traveling the world on cruise ships, finishing projects of photo albums, and cleaning out closets of years of school projects and crafts from their children, who didn’t want anything. Old dreams and fantasies the two had as teens were long gone and never quite manifested— happily ever after. Those dreams weren’t realistic, like all dreams, and had been dreamt, lived in the imagination, and died. Mid-life dreams had been to get their kids graduated and out of the house, get them married-off and off the payroll, and to have a handful of grandchildren they could spoil. Like earlier dreams, those had faded, too. Children moved away, grandchildren no longer came once they became teens, and they didn’t answer cells when she called them.

 

     Rather than traveling and finishing projects, she tried to juggle an extensive list of doctor’s appointments, fork out retirement funds for co-pays, and read the endless junk mail from the insurance and Medicare. Late at night when her concentration faded, she watched reruns of shows from her generation, but didn’t find All in the Family and Sanford and Son nearly as humorous.

 

     She walked to her bedroom, removed each slipper, climbed onto the bed, covered up, and like Sisyphus who never quite gets anywhere with his rock, she dreamed fuzzy dreams that are like reruns that will one day go off the air.

 

Niles Reddick

 

USA

 

http://nilesreddick.com/

Fania’s Journal [an extract from the novel 'Spindrifts']

I’m supposed to write in my journal every day. Sure. Like that’s the best use of my time. They said it’d be a private place to think, but I’ve wondered about that. I can think in my head without writing my thoughts. Just in case, I always use my disconnected tablet for the real journal, encrypted with three protective codes and in a language I developed myself. I know this might be over the top, but I’ve felt better knowing no one can read my actual journal. So, people can read how excited I am about my apprenticeship, but privately I’m totally dissed. I really want to learn about people From Away, and instead I’m apprenticing with Granny, my great-grandmother, who’s spent most of her life close to home in her research laboratory, two miles down an ancient mine shaft. It used to be where they studied mysteries of the universe! How the heck did that work?

 

     I’ve always loved Granny. I’ve felt as though we’ve had a special relationship, and I’ve missed spending time with her. I just never thought they’d give me a responsibility so far removed from what I really want to be doing.

 

     Ezma told me I’ve many skills and a strong aptitude for analytical thinking. I know what that means. It means sitting in an underground lab every day for the rest of my life. I guess I wasn’t very good at hiding my feelings because Ezma felt she had to remind me what Granny does is very important. Then she asked me a curious question.

 

     “Do you know what she does?”

 

     Well, of course I do! I explained, “Granny is the researcher who found the serum. She said it was a fluke.”

 

     That comment made Ezma laugh, hysterically almost. “Well, Fania, you’ll find there’s a lot you can learn from Alicia. I hope you’ll keep an open mind.”

 

     When I boarded the transport to head home after two years at Immersion, my patch reminded me to change my timer back to the village’s schedule. The health patch is a misnomer; it’s actually an up-to-date example of bio-merged nanotechnology. This latest gen’s so far advanced compared to the primitive models my grandparents used when they were young—those things they wore on their wrists. Now the healer implants the technology at birth where it merges with our brainwaves. It has reciprocal transformational capabilities, but I’ve been told there are limitations so it can’t change the basic personality or natural abilities of anyone. The patch transmits and receives communications, monitors personal health data, and provides all my reading materials. Everyone in our territory has them, so far as I know.

 

 

A-M Mawhiney

 

Sudbury, Ontario, Canada

 

Website: ammawhiney.ca 

Twitter: @ammawhiney

Instagram: @ammawhiney

link to purchase https://books.friesenpress.com/store/title/119734000176362926

 

 

 

Banana Nut Bread Club

 

When I was a child, my friends and I had a secret space club, and we pretended we would beam to different planets, explore them, and make a difference in those worlds. Later, we joined the Boy Scouts and learned survival skills and enjoyed going camping and fishing. I joined a fraternity in college where I learned the value of networking, and in my working years, I joined civic clubs to serve and give back to the community, but when my wife Pat died suddenly from a stroke in her sixties after thirty-five years of marriage, I had no idea I’d joined the banana nut bread club.

 

     The banana nut bread club wasn’t a formal club, but it seemed one because of the network of women who brought bread to me, a new widower. An eye doctor friend of mine said he hadn’t seen them coming when his wife died, and for him, it wasn’t banana nut bread. Instead, he said he’d joined the casserole club. Warm crockery of green bean, pasta, and chicken casseroles were delivered. He took them to his office, and the staff enjoyed sampling at lunch and even made a joke of it, commenting, “Doc, this casserole is the bomb. Better call this woman back.”

 

     Every single woman on the search for companionship, sex, love, or marriage in a twenty-five-mile radius brought me a loaf of banana nut bread. I didn’t know any of them and none of them had been friends with Pat. Sometimes, the banana nut bread had pecans and other times, walnuts. Sometimes, it had chocolate chips or white chocolate chips. Sometimes, I could smell the cinnamon.  I didn’t even know there were so many different recipes just as I didn’t know there were that many single, older women. Some were widows, some were divorced, and a few had never been married. Some showed up in jogging outfits, dresses, and one even wore a mink coat and it wasn’t freezing outside.

 

     I didn’t care for bananas any more than I cared for spending time with someone new, so I took the loaves to the golf club where men sampled while commiserating about their low scores, the pond at hole fourteen, or the weather and how that had thrown them off their games. Pat would have had a laugh about the banana nut bread club, and she would have wanted me to be happy with what time I have left, but I think I’ll stick to golf, maybe join a senior’s club, and travel to some of the places Pat and I had planned to go like Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, or to see the Northern Lights in Alaska. Maybe I could pretend once again I was part of a space club and had a Star Trek communicator badge and share the beauty I see with her. I think Pat would like that.

 

 

Niles Reddick

 

USA

 

http://nilesreddick.com/

 

A Forgotten Temple [an extract from the novel 'Resurrection of Evil']

 

Set in the confines of a run-down apartment building in the small Albertian town of Stavely. An unknown creature resides in apartment 200 that has a hunger for human flesh. 

 

During the age of darkness through to the modern era came the belief in good and evil. Brought along the simple question that has to be answered, all about why? The very concept of attempting to find out the truth about our existence. Over the years, people have tried to answer these questions in many parts of the world. With their own strange twists and turns that would not only cloud the minds of those who stood loyal but across the lands.
   

     The world forever grew dark, and soon the chaos came to an end by means of senseless murders and the mass extinction of these societies. All that remained was nothing more than an ancient relic, a statue of a fallen deity, who would offer protection in return for one's own mind.
   

     The perfect being in its eye was that of a loyal drone. Someone that could do its bidding and, in turn, bring forth its life to the world of the living.
   

     This diety was known simply as Banisk. A being once worshiped by small bands of people. A religion forged out of the insanity of those who believed. Darkness blanketed the land as the waters slowly rose and erased all traces of those who walked before them all. As the waters turned red and the storms began to rip apart all that was built, it was soon over. The world we know today slowly formed as the waters receded back, and soon all was back to normal for the time being.

    Soon as the world grew and humanity spread forth and cultivated into what it is today. I soon found myself living the sort of quiet life that one would find themselves indulging in while living in a small one-horse town. A place lost in the sea of farmers' fields and the odd pump jack that stood as a reminder of another time. They were often seen pumping oil out of the ground, but the odd one here and there was rusted solid.
   

     A few of those are just on the outskirts of my town, a relatively quiet place known as Stavely. It's the kind of place where everyone knows everyone. The place where you can run into a friend from high school shopping for dinner while the once-popular kid worked the register. With only one school, one grocery store, no movie theatre, and a small workforce, there wasn't much going on by means of anything significant happening around these parts. But it's my home, and I honestly enjoy it.
   

     I work as a truck driver, the kind of guy who works as a farmhand during the summer and for a small snow removal operation in the winter. For the most part, it's a simple life that I enjoy the most. As many people yearn for the city's bright lights, I just like to live my life in peace and quiet. 

 

 

Miles Davis

Alberta, Canada

https://www.amazon.ca/Miles-Davis/e/B09BLTM125/ref=dp_byline_cont_pop_ebooks_1

https://twitter.com/MilesDavisAuth

 

 

 

The Illusion of Control

 

I told my recent high school graduate daughter, who was eighteen-year-old, “You can be in by 10 p.m. on a weeknight because we have to get up and go to work early.” I heard how none of her friends had such an early curfew, how her boyfriend got to stay out until midnight, how she’d be a freshman at a university in the fall, and how she was eighteen and ought to be able to do what she wanted.

 

     I reiterated: “You’ll be in my 10:00 p.m. unless you want to pay your share of the mortgage, your car insurance, buy your part of the groceries, and purchase your own clothes. I don’t believe your part time job at Smoothie World will pay you enough to take care of your fair share.” Bess rolled her eyes, exhaled frustration, and slammed the back door.

           

     My wife said, “I feel like we’ve lost control.”

           

     “No,” I responded. “We never had control. We simply thought we did. It’s an illusion. We couldn’t control her from getting the flu or stomach viruses, we couldn’t control test scores or grades, we couldn’t control when friends hurt her emotionally, and we can’t control her bad choice of a boyfriend. It’s just a different time and a difference set of circumstances.”

 

     Despite the fact Bess hadn’t shared anything about this new boyfriend, we’d checked on him and learned he was a guy known to have some extracurricular activities--vaping, drinking, and running with a wrong crowd. It concerned us, and I conjured late night scenarios from the police department: “We have your daughter in custody. Marijuana in her boyfriend’s car. She was in the car and was arrested, too. You can probably get a reduced sentence in court.”

 

     And I thought about my Aunt Sara.  Bess had her walk, her eyes, and her smile. Aunt Sara looked a hundred after five husbands and lived in an assisted living facility managed by the state. She spent time playing Bingo and watching soap operas. My poor grandparents had suffered when alive. They’d turned gray, developed worry wrinkles, and lived on antacids until Sara moved off to an Army base with her first husband. I recalled how my grandmother shook her head when she got news of Sara’s first divorce and had said, “Sara’s just like my daddy’s sister. She made bad choices and followed her desires instead of her potential, chased dreams of love and fortune through flawed people, and never realized the grass isn’t greener on the other side. The only grass that stays green is artificial turf.”

 

     I nodded during a Netflix documentary on penguins, and like clockwork, Bess made it home at ten sharp. I heard the thump of music from the boy’s truck, saw the headlights cast shadows through the window to the wall of the den, and heard their silly laughter until the back door slammed, and the shoes clopped up the wooden stairs. No "Hello", no “I’m home”, or “Goodnight, I love you” like I used to get when I was the hero.  I heard Bess’ bedroom door shut. I hadn’t learned much about penguins and turned off the television, laid in the bed, and was thankful there was no call from the police department. I hoped Bess wouldn’t turn out like Aunt Sara, and I dozed knowing I would do my best in her adult years to take care of her come what may.

 

Niles Reddick

 

USA

 

http://nilesreddick.com/

 

 

Crystalline Flesh  

 

The cut shimmers in this odd light. It doesn’t seem that bad, one of those things you totally don’t notice until you look down at you arm. In truth, it could have been there for hours. Hell, he’d been working down here since 6am after all. The time now must be…well he didn’t know. There was no way to tell. No clocks on the walls and only an idiot would wear a watch down here. It could so easily get stolen or dropped and crushed underfoot. No, the only thing he had on his person was the clothes on his back and the tools in his hand.

 

They had been commissioned ever since this place had been discovered. Within a week of it making international news, a crew had been put together by a coalition of oddly specific defence ministers, ecological spokespersons and general talking heads in smooth cuffs. What they knew was, ironically, very surface level. An undiscovered, interconnected string of tunnels and shafts had been discovered under the plains of the boiling deserts of Death Valley. Unprecedented but, as initial investigative teams had discovered, certainly not empty. Walls lined with gemstones and minerals galore! Completely alien to record books and catalogues alike. And so, naturally where there laid the chance for ground-breaking discovery and quite frankly unearthly profit, mining teams were dispatched immediately.

 

 

Lionel, fresh from wiping another sheen off his forehead, looked down at his wrist once more. Staring at these walls for too long was an easy way to sicken yourself. The luminous, reflective cascades made everything downright psychedelic. Not to mention their team, one hundred strong, had been working for four months and you couldn’t really tell any work had begun at all. It was enough to drive you to bitterness and kill any motivation stone dead. At least looking at his arm gave him something to focus on. Even if the wavy, watery reflections still danced on his skin from time to time.

 

Looking deeper however, Lionel noticed something. The cut, stretching horizontally along his wrist, seemed…well he didn’t want to sound crazy but, alive! The small window his injury opened into his body squirmed. And, looking deeper still, he swore he could see quartz like flecks hardening inside him! Curiosity drew him to scratch at the surface, not caring about the sharp stings that pelted him like thousands of tiny arrows. This time, tinkles of tiny fragments chimed on the ground as Lionel himself, was turning into a mine of sorts! He began to panic, his breath hitched. His tools clanged where the crystals had gently bounced with haunting symphony. He scratched further, further. Blood began to trickle as it reflected on the walls and cast a visceral glow over everything.

 

 

Kai Double

 

Norfolk, England 

 

 

 

 

Matthew's Trip To The Bridge

Matthew hadn’t slept a wink. Again. He’d been getting quite used to these nights. First, a couple of cans to keep the shakes at bay. Then, onto the vodka. Always the cheap stuff. That vodka that slides down the back of your throat like paint stripper. Vile gear but it does the job for Matthew. Or at least it did.

 

These last few months had led to a new acquaintance in Matthew’s life. Crack. Devil smoke. The debts were mounting up. Matthew hadn’t been working and the goodwill of his shattered ma and pops had run dry. Surely rock bottom.

 

His head was pounding. He got up from his bed and checked the side cabinet for any downers to take the edge off. Nothing. He tossed the empty Valium box into the now sizeable pile of counterfeit, street valium packets.

 

The thoughts started again. They had been appearing on and off every couple of days. It felt closer now. Real close. He stumbled through to the bathroom, his heart pounding in that all too familiar, anxiety-induced beat. He looked at himself in the mirror. A face once routinely admired by the girls back in the glory days of high school was now scarred and humiliated. He felt his sharp, jagged cheekbones. A feeling of intense sadness enveloped Matthew as he studied his tortured face. His nose, broken and with a two-inch scar straight across it. His eyes, yellowing and tinged with bloodshot. He could look at it no more. The thoughts were loud and he had succumbed.

 

The keys to the battered, ninety-seven, P-Reg Ford Fiesta were beside the scorched pipe he had last sparked up, just before six am. He glanced up at the small clock. It had just gone eight-thirty. He picked up the keys and made his way to the front door. The time had come for Matthew's trip to the bridge. His inevitable trip to the bridge. 'I hope the traffic isn't too bad', he thought.
 

 

R.A . Gallagher

 

Edinburgh, Scotland.

 

 

 

Indigo Augment

 

I cannot stop crying as I watch her. The tears cloud my eyes, yet I see clearer than before with each moment that passes. Each second feels like a thousand lifetimes pass by but I can’t tear myself away from what I see before me. How could I? It’s sadistic in the most personalized way. My knees try their best to tremble but instead? Instead, they simply give out. I slump to the silvery, clinical floor with an unnatural sound. I beg my eyes to give my frazzled conscious a break, I don’t want to remember her like this. But, if I look away, it could get worse. It’s a desperate thought really, it could never get worse. The spidery cables sprawling from her brain like mechanical snakes, the cold clamps around her blue shins are parasitic, metallic slugs. Draining what little heat left. The way she is suspended high above me, like a saint. A martyr would be more fitting. What did she die for? To be honest, I don’t really know if she is dead. It’s cruel, but I hope. I hope with all my heart she is. That she isn’t trapped in there. The digital world excavating her spirit mercilessly? I could not bear to think about such a thing. The whisps of her soul being mangled into putty as wires, plugs, cords, and sickly vibrant neon fluids invade the person that once was. I could not bear it. I could not. I... will not. I puke. Not even the natural bile spilling into this.... this void gives me comfort. There is no human in place. There never was to begin with.

 

 

Kai Double

 

Norfolk, England

 

 

 

Shifted Sides

 

‘That’s where they’re buried, both of them.’

 

It feels almost strange to hear the old man talk like this. I have, of course, known him my whole life. But not as much as I maybe should. Maybe this is the same with everyone. They don’t ask the questions that they want to know the answers to. They’re scared to ask in case the person they’re asking doesn’t want to answer.

 

‘We can visit you know, if you want.’

 

He looks across at me but doesn’t answer the question.

 

‘I used to go every Sunday. My mam would give me the flowers and I’d visit the grave. It’s the one in front of a big stone angel.’

 

I don’t want to ask again if he would want to visit. He’s bad on his feet and I get the feeling that he doesn’t quite remember where the graves would be. I wonder to myself when exactly he stopped visiting. Was it after his mother had died? Or did he continue to go; to take solace in the silence of the cold headstones and the angel looking down over the three of them? These are the questions that you can’t ask. Maybe the questions that you don’t need to ask because you already know the answer.

 

Silence recaptures us. Nobody knows what to say.

 

‘We can visit if you’d like, we can buy flowers and drive down one time?’

 

Again, he looks as though he has nothing to say.

 

‘They both died during the war. I was seven or eight. One of them was killed in an air raid. It wasn’t the bomb that killed her. The doctor said that the force had pushed her heart across her body. It had shifted sides.’

 

Silence.

 

We don’t drive past the cemetery the following week.

 

 

Ewen Frazer

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England

 

 

 

 

3 Linked Stories:

 

1. Entrenchment

 

You’d be surprised—I had great people for parents. Wasn’t even broke. Once I should have declined, but said, “Yes.” Then it was incremental. Me and Ronnie and Ronnie’s crew dealt with whatever arose, stressing spot decisions. prompt action. After you’ve crossed a line, expect detectives to look into your business. Doing what seems necessary takes you strange places. It’s better to know where the bodies are buried out in the desert than be dragged out there and told to dig. Should’ve said I couldn’t stomach it. I vacillate on who scares me the most: the cops, the competition. Myself.

 

 

2. A Surge of Static

 

They taped the wire under my shirt in a nondescript government van. It passed a spot test. The detectives reminded me of my pressing motivation to go out and lie terrifically. Barely around the corner I met Ronnie, flanked by two of his guys. He’s super-cautious but this time he doesn’t pat me down. He watches his words though. Ronnie doesn’t take the conversation to the desert graves, where we both know the bodies are buried. Then my wire crackled. Shot, but the detectives get to me quickly. One asks, have I heard about the witness relocation program? Interested. Available.

 

 

3. Backstory of Your Local Independent Bookseller

 

After the trials are over and the Feds don’t need me anymore, I plan on living small. Can’t wait. At the moment I’m under 24-hour guard at a budget hotel I don’t wish to identify. I’m free to go out if I want, but the guard follows me everywhere. So mostly it’s TV and reviewing my life choices to pass time.

 

The prosecutor offered to set me up somewhere warmer, performing easy work for my living. Seems like there must be a catch to it. Right? That was a no-thank-you. Instead, I asked for a failing bookstore in a college town. A quiet hideout. The kind that only draws smart people.

 

Who was it who stressed that you tend to become like those you surround yourself with?

 

I found out the Feds were on to our entire operation, so long story short, I had to wear the wire. Wear a wire or life without parole? No-brainer. Shaved my own chest so the duct tape wouldn’t

pull and laid down more tape than Berry Gordy ever did. The detectives tracked our last flight out of Cartagena, had our supplier, had eyewitnesses, knew where both of our warehouses were.

 

Before approaching me they already had a snitch who flipped, but Ronnie found out and that guy suddenly died and was buried.

 

Once I get clear of here, I don’t expect to ever visit this state again.

 

All I can do is look forward. You know, make the best of it.

 

 

 

Todd Mercer

 

Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

 

 

 

Joy

 

Alison pulls into Walmart, parks her car, and reaches under her shirt to scratch her bellybutton. It itches. Like fire. This morning, while she was running the five-mile track at the college, the one she runs every morning, her stomach started to itch. So she scratched it. And that’s when she pulled the mangled remains of a tiny bug from her bellybutton. Great. Bitten by a mystery bug. She had hoped the bite would fade quickly. It didn’t. It grew larger, angrier, itchier. And there wasn’t just one. There were seven of them on her stomach, including the bite in her bellybutton. Each bite large, inflamed, itchy. Grabbing her wallet, Alison opens the car door and hurries across the parking lot to Walmart. Today, her professor in Comparative Religion assigned the class another paper to write. The topic of this one? Joy and the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism. “I should write about these bug bites,” Alison says, laughing as she scratches her stomach. “The title of my paper could be Joy, Buddhism, and Bug Bites.” According to the Buddha, life is suffering. Buddhists believe suffering is important, because it can lead to joy. But Alison has a problem with that. She’d rather skip the suffering and grab the joy. Can’t she do that? Can’t she have joy without suffering? This. This is what she’d like to know. This is what she wants her paper to be about. Ten minutes later she emerges from Walmart with a big tube of hydrocortisone cream. Pulling her keys from her pocket, Alison passes a woman whose hair is dyed the color of bluebells and tied in a long ponytail. Her shirt is blue and so is her sweater. “Love your hair,” Alison says. The woman turns and smiles. “Thanks,” she says, happily swinging her bright blue ponytail from side to side as she walks into Walmart. “This,” Alison says, heading toward her car. “Now this is what I’m talking about.” 

 

Laura Stamps

 

calico-kittycat@hotmail.com 

 

www.laurastampsfiction.blogspot.com  

 

Twitter: @LauraStamps16 

Excerpt from the novel 'Silly Rabbit & Honey Bunny Seventies Adventure' 

 

I chuckle at her last-boyfriend memory.

           “...when did you leave the conversation?” asks Hope as we stroll along Fremont into periphery of glitz and lights from surrounding casinos.

           “I’m a good listener. ”

           “Sure you are. I see you can’t say the same thing about being without. Can you?”

           “Stop the interrogation--geeeez! Give me a break here.”

           “Can you?” she persists 

           “It’s been a while for me,” I admit

           “What is a while to you,” she is undeterred.

           “Months,” I laugh.

           “Good answer,” she laughs, “you’re such a guy. I could strangle you without conscience.”

           “I’m not out there. Since that first day you saw me and didn’t see me in the store. It’s been what…months? For me, a while is since I moved to Las Vegas.”

           “You didn’t leave a girlfriend in Phoenix?”

           “I didn’t say that. Everywhere I leave--I leave a girlfriend. So there!--ambushed at the pass, Lone Ranger surrenders.”

           “You won’t be leaving me--so get use to us.”

           “Just so you know. This whole platonic pals thing is not my gig. You turn me on. I don’t hide girly mags under the bed.”

          Comment conjures blushing with laughter from Hope.

          “You are just--wwwell!--bashful you are not.” 

          “So what’s on your mind looking at me?” I conjure curiosity.

          “Just wondering...will he handle me with care when he has his way with me.”

          “Let’s just say…you won’t regret letting me have my way with you.” 

          “Just remember. Your nine months without are my nine months plus 2 years.”

           “Are you kidding me--you can’t just say anything to make a point, Silly Rabbit.”

           “It’s not like I planned it, Honey Bunny,” she admits with sheepish eyes and grin.

           “I am soooo scared of you, Babe. Seriously. I could hurt myself knocking you off.”

           “Considering I blush much easier than I break. You’ll just have to do what you have to do--won’t you, Big Guy?”

           “That is so sweet and sacrificial. Of course you do realize I can sweep you off your feet--hold you up like my trophy and just claim you?”

           “That would make me blush. But to do anything with your trophy you’ll have to lay me down. Breaking the precious pumpkin won’t be easy as you think.”  

           “Listen to you--you little cute rosy cheek brat. We’ll see--who rolls-over first.”

           Hope gloating triggers mutual laughter.  

           “So when does it happen?” I ask restoring seriousness to conversation.

           “Couple of months. Maybe sooner. I’m sure the store is already talking about The Boyfriend screwing The Daughter. Now they’ll have you to deal with as Manager,” she says looking up at me at cashier counter of souvenir shop flaunting emerald eyes with kiss-me mouth.

           “Yeah. Get back with me about that boyfriend-girlfriend gossip--will’ ya!”

           “I gotcha!” she confirms, “Until then. You don’t have to be so guarded with me in the store. Manly attention keeps the bitch away, Honey Bunny.” 

           “They’ll notice me noticing you, Silly Rabbit.”

           “Now ask me if I give-a-damn.” 

 

          

j.e. Rosser

          

Las Vegas, USA

         

https://twitter.com/Rosser_Reader

           

https://jerosser.com/about

 

 

 

 

Broken

I see through your lies, that gilded façade you show to the world. You wish to conceal the emptiness you feel by your cheerful smile and plans for joyful times when your lover returns. Being the object of pity would be more than you could bear, so you convince yourself of his undying love; that he did not wed the heiress he met in Saint-Tropez.

 

     What will it take to mend your broken heart and shattered dreams? Gaze through the splintered wound and there will be me, waiting here for you to see.

 

Millie Thom

Nottinghamshire, England

 

 

 

Folk Tales

 

Folk claimed these woods were enchanted; magical creatures played in their midst. Faye smiled at that. She’d frolicked amongst these trees since she was a child, had playmates aplenty. But she’d never thought of them as magical.

     

     Occasionally, she’d emerge to wave at passing trains but the passengers never seemed to notice her. Perhaps the billowing smoke from the steam engines hid her from view. So she’d drift back amongst the trees until the next tooting whistle.

     

     A stray dog had become her newest friend. He’d follow her for hours, provided she didn’t flap her wings too hard.

 

 

Millie Thom

 

Nottinghamshire, England

 

 

 

A Really Good Listener

 

‘You know, Stanley, it’s no fun living with a man who takes me for granted and never listens to a word I say. He’s really selfish when I think about it.’

     

     Melanie leaned against the gate beside her friend, glum-faced as she considered how miserable she’d been since Jack moved into her flat. ‘He never wants to go anywhere, even at weekends, says he’s too tired after working all week. Cobblers to that! I work all week, too, and have all the housework to do. Jack doesn’t even help with that. He just sits in front of the telly, waiting for his meals. And don’t get me started on the washing up.’

     

     Feeling more positive than she’d done for months, Melanie made to leave. ‘Thanks for being a good listener, Stanley. This little chat’s helped me make up my mind. Jack can pack his bags tonight.’

     

     Stanley the Scarecrow watched Melanie stomp off down the lane. Yes, he was a good listener. He’d be a good talker, too, if someone had thought to give him a mouth.

 

Millie Thom

Nottinghamshire, England

 

 

 

Cemetery Sex Games: Coitus In The Coffin

 

“Let’s do it,” said Jane.

 

“You’re crazy,” I responded.

 

We’d had sex in a lot of bizarre places before. But a coffin? I thought this was a bit extreme, to say the least.

Jane stripped down naked. It was a pitch-black night. Jumping into the empty casket, which looked to be brand new,

 

Jane laid down, stomach first.

 

She put her head in toward where feet usually are, purposely, so that her plump, juicy ass stuck out of the place a deceased face would normally be displayed.

 

She knew I couldn’t resist this.

 

I guess this would make for a nice story.

 

Stripping down to nothing, I jump in behind her, slipping my already hard cock in between the slit of her huge ass and pushing into her moist vagina.

 

My upper torso was outside the casket, while my bent legs were inside.

 

“Get inside with me!” Jane beckoned, in between moans.

 

My girlfriend is insane.

 

I looked left and right, and obliged.

 

Luckily, I was rather thin. I squeezed my upper body into the coffin, placing the top of my chest on top of her back and proceeded to hump her until climax.

 

We didn’t notice the cover of the casket had closed during coitus, as it was already dark in the lower end of the coffin.

 

We were stuck. I tried pushing and kicking the cover out with my feet.

 

No luck.

 

“Let’s get this one in the ground tonight, so that we have less to do in the morning!” said a voice from outside. I assumed it was a cemetery worker.

 

“OK, boss. I’ll lower it down,” another voice replied.

 

It had begun to rain.

 

Our screams were muffled by heavy raindrops.

 

 

Donal Greigh

 

Twitter: https://twitter.com/DonalGreigh

 

Medium: https://donalgreigh.medium.com

 

 

 

The Social Dilemma

 

Saturday, I wake at 5 a.m., prepare my coffee, sip a cup, open all the window blinds in the house, then prepare breakfast for Teresa and me. I eat, but Teresa does not wake until 11 a.m. She is depressed and sleeps sometimes 11 or 12 hours a night. Well, that gave me time to write, read a bit, think about my book project and how to develop it to an end.  I turn on the news and Tyrant Reginald said, “I am the least racist person I know!” Reminds me of a friend who once told me, “I am the humblest person I know.”

           

     After noon, we drive into town and lunch at La Chaise, at a table in the open garden, the flowers intoxicating our olfactories, the birds choralling Brahms, Wagner, Mozart, some tunes written by others but sung by the Tabernacle Choir, and an occasional background riff from Mick Taylor.

           

     The lunch of fish soup and brazed chicken covered in broccoli was exquisite, but the bald headed, sun blotched waiter kept standing six feet away with his mask on and rattling on the whole time we ate, gossiping about this person and that person. My wife gossiped with him, like she always does.  Why do people want to talk so much? Don’t they want to look up at the pines swaying under the blue sky and contemplate existence? Or, at least, don’t they want to leave me and my wife alone to talk with ourselves? I mean, that is why we came here alone, not just because of the virus, but because we are together? Right? I mean, a couple together should be able to talk a bite or two of food, sip a little wine, hold hands, look into each other’s eyes, and speak silently if not out loud about our lives and how lucky we are to be together here in this paradise. Jeez!

           

     The sun was stronger than usual, and the asinine waiter’s droning was making me ill, so Teresa drove me home, dropped me off, then went errand shopping alone. I napped an hour or so, then when I heard her return, I rose to help her unload the car of groceries. I turned on the T.V. for our regular virus-time recreation, TV, I found a documentary titled, “The Social Dilemma.” Teresa did not care for it. She mumbled something ´bout, “We live in a social dilemma.” And went to bed.

 

 

Stephen Page

 

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Website: https://smpages.wordpress.com

 

Twitter: https://twitter.com/SmpageSteve

 

 

Excerpt from the novel  ‘The Buried’

 

A New Life:

I got a new job! Though it's not much by means of payment. But at least it was enough to put a roof over my head and allow me to have a hot shower now and then.

   

Though the small community I live in could do with some kind of excitement. Times have been a little slow since they closed the mini golf down the street off from the main drag. But the economy has hit us all pretty hard, I figure. I used to have a cushy job once that felt likes ages ago.
But, nothing’s going to keep me down at this point. So, with thirty minutes until my first shift started, I quickly threw together a lunch consisting of a bygone sandwich, a fruit cup, and a stale blueberry muffin. Not bad for someone who scrapped together a meal on the fly.

 

I couldn't believe it when I got the call, a gravedigger for the community cemetery just a few miles away.

Now, this used to be a mining town of sorts. A place where you could make a decent living. The kinda place where you could buy a house then settle down and not have to worry about what tomorrow would bring. Then the unthinkable happened. The mine shut down, and just like that, the once lively town of Coalspur went silent. It happened so quickly that people were just leaving in droves.

 

A community that was so tight-knit promptly fell silent, and all that remains are the few hundred that want to keep this place going. Because tomorrow might bring something great, something new, and perhaps this town might get the revival it greatly needs.

The very idea of me being a gravedigger is not what I'd call a job that one seeks out. It's kind of like working in a bar or perhaps a used book store. It's usually the type of job one gets asked about because nobody wants it. But this is something I'll do because just like insurance and taxes, everyone's going to need it. I honestly do believe, for the most part, that there's no such thing as a bad job. It's just how you look at it, and sometimes it takes a shot in the arm to realize that.

 

So, just as I made my way out the front door of my century-old one-bedroom home built around the end of World War One. That is in dire need of a coat of paint and some new windows, but for the time being, I was thankful that it hadn't collapsed yet.
 

My stomach was in knots, but I figured what could really happen with just digging holes in the ground?
 

So, with the warm summer sun beaming down with not a single cloud in the sky, I made my way towards the old and often overlooked piece of history in our town. 

 

 

Miles Davis

 

Alberta, Canada

 

https://www.amazon.ca/gp/product/B09MC4HLC8/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i3

The Lake House

 

Deep below the lake’s murky surface, there sits—in tact—a house. A two-story structure of Carpenter Gothic details like elaborate wooden trim bloated to bursting. Its front yard: purple loosestrife. Its inhabitants: alligator gar, bull trout, and pupfish. All glide past languidly—out of window sashes and back inside door frames. It is serene, and it is foreboding. Curtains of algae float gossamer to and fro. Pictures rest clustered atop credenzas. A chandelier is lit, intermittently, by freshwater electric eels. And near a Victrola, white to the bone, a man and a woman dance in a floating embrace.

 

 

Keith Hoerner

 

Southern Illinois, USA

 

M. Dusa

 

Mother stands frozen in my bedroom doorway… a block of stone: arms splayed, legs spread, a barrier to my exit. I cannot move her, never could; she’s as heavy as her gaze—when she looked in on me. So, I am left to chip away at her, like I did before she was transformed, but literally now. I yell, “Stop imprisoning me!” She doesn’t answer; she has been silenced. Her face looks shocked, accusatory, wide-eyed. My tresses flare in a fighting response—as though slithering about my head. Then, for the first time, I hear the sound of hisses. 

 

Keith Hoerner

 

Southern Illinois, USA

Apples And Oranges

         

Priya was perched lazily on the parapet wall of her terrace, her legs dangling on either side, her gaze deep and far into the horizon. She was grateful for the luxury of living in an independent home with a terrace and a garden during these times of forced captivity, thanks to the coronavirus. As she sat limply, Priya let her thoughts wander free and watched them as they nudged her emotions playfully. With socializing almost down to a nil, this exercise was her daily source of amusement. It made her feel like a mother indulging in playful banter with her kids, watching them scramble all over the place. And just like kids do, her thoughts never failed to show her a path of hope when she felt low, or pull in the reins on those days she was flying high. 

 

           Shankar ...it was more than a decade since she met him. It was her first job, fresh from college, and his second. With the zeal to prove themselves running high in both of them, they spent many hours huddled together, coding their projects. What started as a mutual attraction triggered by a common passion for excellence, finally led to them becoming partners in life. 

         

          Priya dwelt on how their relationship had unfolded over the years - the initial years of nervous excitement, the exhilaration of anticipating their first child, shared grief over loss, moments of mature companionship, and finally, the lethargy and intolerance that comes with familiarity and expectations. It saddened her that off late, the squabbles between her and Shankar were more intense and frequent. Was it because she had changed? Or had he? Why was it that their differences seemed starker now than ever before? 

 

          As her thoughts flitted over her life with Shankar, Priya realized that she and Shankar had always been as different as they are now. Yes, they did have their allied interests. These were what got them together in the first place, but they were different too. In fact, aren't any two individuals like apples and oranges, whatever be the relation between them? The differences are always there, it is the perception that changes - sometimes the apples are redder and the oranges, sourer. When the glasses are tinted with love, patience and acceptance, these differences are sometimes even likeable! 

 

          Priya jumped down from the parapet, a hopeful smile on her lips. As always, her thoughts had shown her the way forward. Humming a tune, she skipped lightly down the stairs. She knew what she needed to do!

 

Naga Vydyanathan

Bangalore, India

 

 

 

Extract from 'In To The River Of Madness'

 

The darkness of the night grew over the cold water carved into the Earth was named by ancient travellers in these parts as Freeman River. It was primarily used by fur traders attempting to make a living in this unforgiven land. But while they moved on and died within the company of strangers, the years and fate soon brought me here.
     

     In some form of torture, I wanted to leave the confines of society from which I felt enslaved too. The boredom of working day in and day out, the realization of wasting my life, soon brought me a sense of wanting to break free. So, here I am after a year of much thought and without telling a single soul for fear of having someone attempt to stop me or report me missing without venturing out into the wilderness.
     

     A few days of sleeping under the stars during the warm nights of August had brought me a sense of inner peace. A thing I hadn't felt in quite some time. I wasn't even worried about the fate of my car after all, which was a mystery to me since I worked so hard to pay for it. Maybe, those who repo it will take it somewhere where a loving family will buy it or perhaps a divorced doctor. The hike to the river felt like an eternity. The spot I had decided to call the foundation of my new existence was within a grove of brush and a few trees. Crafted from tree branches with mud as the mortar and moss to keep the wind out and insects that might see me as a quick meal.

     While the day turned to night and the sky was clear and void of any natural light. It was the kind of night where the entire world could end, and no one would notice. This existence of mine was honestly the end of the old and in with the new. And there I was, sitting on the bank just looking out into the watery abyss of my own doing.
     

     A world forever lost in the idea of greed and lust. This is the world we live in, a world where people will make a choice to be followed by the absence of one's own foolishness. I wanted to move away from the herd. Away from the clouded minds of the fools of our society and so I took myself out of the problem. And now here I am. Living my life within the confines of nature by a river that gives life and maintains it.

     The river had been worshipped by a small tribe located in these parts. They originated from a forgotten piece of land somewhere in the north where they reigned over all who had encountered them. They were known by not a name but by the cold winds that traversed the landscape bringing a slow and painful death. They never trusted anyone from the outside circle of their existence.

 

 

Miles Davis

Alberta, Canada

https://www.amazon.ca/gp/product/B09K7SR8R9?pf_rd_r=9S6NKM07X5ZMYAP0WPDR&pf_rd_p=b84b7a33-3e6c-498a-8674-6a34958d31c1&pd_rd_r=f41948fa-3373-42e4-a789-d118dae229cb&pd_rd_w=1wrkq&pd_rd_wg=1OH1t&ref_=pd_gw_unk  

 

 

The Last Walk

 

For a Younger, More Fiscally Responsible Future!

 

The colorful banner adorning the edifice of the City Hall screams at the passersby.

 

Shinichi walked past the banner into the building for the very last time.

 

For him, the promise of a more youthful government is not mere political sloganeering. He was clenching a letter from the government, reminding him to drop by for his Procedure:

 

Mr. Suzuki, as representatives of the city, we congratulate you on your upcoming 70th birthday. We remind you of your patriotic duty to undertake the Procedure as soon as possible, to free up resources for your younger compatriots. Your sacrifice is much appreciated as our country strives toward financial probity.

 

The terseness of the letter spells out an inevitable end for millions of new 70-year-olds in Japan. A mere decade ago, the country’s pension system collapsed, as average life expectancy surged beyond 120 years and the number of tax-paying working-age adults hit a record low. Facing an ever-widening gap between a shrinking tax base and ballooning expenditure devoted to the needs of the retirees, the government decided to take the drastic measure of “eliminating” all “non-productive” residents.

 

Shinichi walked into the crowded waiting room. The men and women queuing up for their turn quietly watched the TV hanging from the ceiling. In a program playing in repeat, anime characters are introducing the Procedure.

 

“It’s simple and painless!” Beamed a smiling dog in a doctor’s lab coat. Walking over to the mustached old bear, the dog throws a couple of red pills in the bear’s mouth and the bear soon falls asleep. “You will just go to sleep!” The dog whispered as the bear fades out from view.

 

“Suzuki-san, is that you?” A coarse voice interrupted Shinichi as he watched the dog and the bear. “It’s Tazaki, from the University of Tokyo. Do you still remember me?”

 

In front of Shinichi was a tall man in a trendy suit. Only his thinning white hair belies his age.

 

“Ah, it is you,” Tazaki laughed after Shinichi nodded in acknowledgment. “We haven’t seen each other since that last alumni get-together, eh, like 20 years ago?”

 

Before Shinichi can respond, Tazaki continued. “I’m not gonna bother asking how you’re doing. What’s the point right? I felt that we both did well though. Went to the University of Tokyo, got into big companies, became executive officers, travelled so much…” Tazaki’s voice trailed off as he lowered his head. His laugh disappeared.

 

A few silent seconds passed before Tazaki raised his head again. Forcing a smile, he blurted, “Suzuki-san, you don’t mind taking the last walk with me, do you? I think It’s fate that we ended up doing this at the same place on the same day…and it’s just so hard to ask people I know to accompany me for this, you know?” Tazaki stared directly into Shinichi’s eyes, almost begging.

 

Shinichi had to nod. He couldn’t say no.

 

Tazaki’s expression brightened up. “Great! Let’s finish up the paperwork. I think we still have half an hour until our turn.” He quipped, looking to the queue in front of the Procedure room. “So, tell me, what have you been doing these 20 years?”

 

 

Xiaochen Su

 

USA

 

 

 

And They Will Not Be Harmed

Holding her mother’s hand tightly, Rayanne considered the plain white church with disappointment. It was not what she had expected. Chewing on her braided hair, she kicked her new shoes in the dust. Her mother, a devout woman, scolded her and producing one of her endless supplies of handkerchiefs, rubbed at her shoes until they shone. Gazing around her in displeasure, Rayanne saw the arrival of Pastor Hamblin and her spirits rose. She had heard so much about him, and now, at last, she would witness a miracle for herself. A shiver of anticipation ran through her, and she pulled her mother’s hand towards the church door. She asked herself later why she hadn’t been afraid, why a nine-year-old girl at her first service hadn’t felt at least some apprehension? But she hadn’t, not at all.

 

Entering the church, she looked for an indication of the marvels which were to take place but found none. The inside of the church reflected the outside in its wooden ordinariness. Benches lined the room, and a large fan rotated in the ceiling producing a soothing hum. But all this was unremarkable. Rayanne looked at her mother, who must have seen the questioning in her eyes as she squeezed her hand and whispered, “Patience, Rayanne, have a little patience.” Rayanne sat back and kept her eyes fixed firmly on the front of the room.

 

Pastor Hamblin was electrifying. He crackled and spat across the room. Sweat shone under his arms and down his back as he seemed to burn with power of such ferocity that it infected all those he touched. Rayanne flushed, feeling the heat in the room, saw her mother wiping her forehead with a clean handkerchief. Playing louder and faster, the band built to a crescendo, and then…then a wooden box was brought into the room.  Rayanne felt all the hairs on her arms stand on end, and her palms were slick with sweat. Pastor Hamblin plunged his bare arm into the box and grasped a long venomous snake. Holding it aloft, he cried out, dancing joyously across the room. The snake’s skin gleamed as it twisted this way and that. It felt smooth and cold under the hot fingers of the pastor. Others now came forward to handle the deadly snakes dancing and moving as if they were untouchable. Eyes rolled, and limbs twitched as the ecstasy in the room flowed. Snakes hissed, and fangs sought flesh, but the congregation danced on, paying little attention.

 

Mesmerised, Rayanne watched the seething mass in front of her. Blood roared in her ears, and her eyes burned. Standing, she moved towards the pulsating pastor, unhearing of the words called out by her mother. She focused all her attention on the Copperhead. Its piercing black eyes seemed to stare into her soul. Spittle flecked its head, and its tail thrashed ferociously as she lifted her arm and gently took the creature into her hands.

 

 

Anna Mirfin

 

Chesterfield, England

 

 

 

Samson and Delilah

 

A short time after they met they were married. That’s when the trouble started. Samson had been at the club ‘earning’ he called it. The squared-circle, home of champions, chumps in yellow shorts and pink blouses. He’d turned them all purple and black with his fists and feet. Delilah, his missus, had watched it all, her green eyes glittered with gold - the gold they’d paid her for the information, the same gold that capped her teeth. 

     Every girl wanted to be his, Samson was a catch, a keeper, a true diamond. Delilah, well; tart in a tiara, only wore knickers to keep her ankles warm. Samson knew it, but what could he do? He loved her.

    ‘What’s your secret? How are you so good?’ Delilah pressed him every day, but he would not yield. He spun a couple of yarns ‘It’s me hair,’ he said. So she shaved it. The next fight was his fastest yet. He broke Jim’s face like a clay pot, one hit, shattered.

     ‘What’s your secret?’ Delilah coiled around him like a python.

     ‘The boots, they keep me grounded,’ he confided. There was a mysterious fire, and the boots went black as sin. Tony lives on a ventilator now.

     ‘How can you love me when you keep secrets?’ The icy tears shattered on the floor. ‘My friends think you cheat.’

     ‘I’m called, alright!’ Samson stood his ground. ‘God, what made me, gave me sight. I see things a moment before.’

Samson slept well that night. His drink was spiked. When he awoke it was dark. He rubbed his eyes - just empty sockets, nothing more.

     She took him to the club, called out the whole gang. All the yellow shorts kicked him, and the pink blouses punched and scratched. Jim threw bricks and Tony, gas. Everyone took a swing while poor old Delilah sat counting her gold.

     To this day, Samson sits alone. He stares at the wall and says not a word, not even to God who’s just waiting to hear.

 

 

Matthew Bridle

UK

 

https://theonesagacouk.wordpress.com/

 

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/180049761X

 

 

Yellow-Bellied

I was super thrilled that day. I was going to see my first movie in a theatre without being chaperoned by mom and dad! Of course, my neighbour uncle, Ravi, was accompanying me, but still, a girl of just ten going to the movies without parents? I felt all grown up and important! The movie had one of my favourite actors, she was playing the part of super-cop - that was the icing on the cake! Brimming with excitement, I started getting ready. 

 

     I stood outside Ravi uncle's house, stomping my feet in impatience. Of course, I was ready before time. At last Ravi uncle came out and we started walking towards the theatre. It wasn't a long walk, may be about a mile or so. The movie was as good as I thought, and even if it wasn't, why would I care? The feeling of exhilaration hadn't ebbed one bit. In fact, it was at its peak - I was bursting to go home and share all the details of my "first-time-alone-movie-going-experience" with my mom. 

 

     The streets were darker and quieter now. We had been to the evening show. I was a little scared, but then Ravi uncle was there to take me home safely - that thought made me brave. We both started walking with quick steps towards home, making small conversation. 

 

     Suddenly I felt Ravi uncle put his arm around me. It didn't feel like a reassuring hug, though, now, I am sure he wanted to pass it off as one. I felt uncomfortable and was desperate to wriggle out of it. We walked a few more steps in silence. Then, while asking me if I was feeling scared, Ravi uncle, put his hands on my chest and started groping me. Again, I am pretty sure, he wanted to pass it off as a harmless touch. Today, I know it was not. At that time, I was confused. It definitely didn't feel good, but in all the innocence of a ten-year-old, I didn't understand the malintent. I tersely answered that I was not scared and hurried my pace. There were hardly any people on the streets, and even if there were, I doubt I would have approached for help. I wasn't even sure if I needed to, was this wrong? I only knew that I did not like it.

 

     Finally, we reached home. All these years, I have been trying to brush this incident under the carpet. But it keeps resurfacing.  After that day, not only did I avoid going anywhere close to Ravi uncle, but I started to subconsciously doubt every word, smile or touch, by people of the opposite sex. Are they yellow-bellied monsters, hiding behind the innocence of a child, like Ravi? I can't think of calling him uncle any more. That day changed me forever. 

 

 

Naga Vydyanathan

 

Bangalore, India

 

 

 

Hungry Hippo

 

The tantrum the child was throwing in the confectionery aisle was so spectacular that I just had to stop and watch. I offered his mother to buy her son whatever he was after if I could film the meltdown. She told me to fuck off and wouldn’t let me explain what viral meant.

 

In the canned food section, I pocketed a tin of anchovies. It’s become a bad habit recently, especially as I don’t like fish. I astounded myself by nicking a jar of Bovril as well. I wondered where this could be leading.

 

I got what I really came in for and went to the busy checkouts.

 

I held the carton of semi-skimmed to my chest and cleared my throat. The woman carried on loading her weekly shop onto the belt, she wanted her moment of power and milked it. When she had finished, she asked the bleeding obvious.

 

‘Is that all you have love?’

 

To her dismay and my satisfaction, I refused her offer to queue jump.

 

The alarm went off as I was leaving. Had they tagged the Bovril? Security came over and I decided to throw my own tantrum. As I was screaming on the floor that I would bring all the 124 tins of anchovies back, I became aware of the confetti and applause. The store manager helped me to my feet and congratulated me on being their millionth customer. I was given a £500 voucher and a filthy look from weekly shop lady.

 

Ian McNaughton

Cardiff, Wales

 

Symptoms Of A Male Pregnancy ‎

 

The gynaecologist was confused when Najji‎ entered his office unexpectedly and unaccompanied by a ‎woman. The doctor asked what brought him in.‎‏ ‏

    

         “I’m having pregnancy symptoms,” Najji said. ‎

    

          “What? What are you talking about? You’re a man. You must be joking,” the doctor ‎scoffed. ‎

    

          “Believe me, Doctor, I’m not. I’m serious. Let me ‎explain my case, and then you judge.”

    

          The doctor sat to listen‎. ‎He had to hear this‎.‎

    

          “The first symptom is that my belly swells whenever high-ranking politicians ‎promise to promote the general welfare. They talk of social justice, ‎salary increases and improvements in housing and public transportation. When I hear these promises, I feel like I’ll explode from ‎the excessive swelling.” Najji patted his rotund belly. ‎

‏    

          “That’s only swelling. That’s no indication of pregnancy,” the ‎doctor said. ‎

    

          “I know that. I also feel the urge to throw up when I ‎watch news on TV or read a newspaper report about the disgraceful ‎state of our society. People are dying of hunger while others spend millions on trivial ‎wedding parties without shame,” said Najji.‎

‏    

           “That doesn’t indicate that you’re pregnant either,” the ‎doctor said.‎

    

          “I know that, but I also have these unexplainable cravings, namely for a beautiful country ‎where people can live together peacefully without ‎being driven to emigrate to other lands in search ‎of a better life,” said Najji.‎

    

          The doctor kept his legs crossed and quickly swung his knees outward and inward. ‎

‏   

          “Ah, yes… cravings. Anything ‎else? Go ahead.” ‎The doctor stopped himself from fidgeting.‎ ‏ ‏

    

          “I have this unremitting dizziness every time I wake ‎up,” said Najji.‎

    

          “What else?” the doctor asked. ‎‏   ‏

    

          “I also feel these kicks in my belly whenever I hear about Gaza’s misery, the occupation of ‎Iraq, and the Arab humiliation from begging Israel ‎to accept peace initiatives.” ‎

    

          The gynaecologist laughed heartily at that. “If this is the ‎issue, then all Arab men are pregnant, because ‎they feel the same symptoms. However, you are not ‎pregnant.” ‎

‎‎    

          “How can you tell? I was told I was pregnant.”

‏   

          “Who is the idiot who told you ‎that? I’m the specialist here and I can tell who’s pregnant ‎and who’s not,” the doctor said. ‎‏ ‏

    

          “His Excellency, the President of our Republic, when he ‎visited our factory yesterday,” Najji said.

    

          The gynecologist bounded up from his chair and ‎said, “If it’s the president, then you are indeed pregnant. In fact, you are going to have twins! Congratulations, sir!”

 

 

 

Written by Mohsen A. Al-Saffar - Iraq

 

Translated from the Arabic by Essam M. Al-Jassim – Saudi Arabia

 

 

 

 

Green Thumb

Professor Dakshinamurthy stood at his doorstep fumbling for his keys, all hot and sweaty from his morning walk. He was a stickler for discipline and regime, but of late, the age and loneliness were making him forgetful at times. Finding his keys at last, Murthy let himself into his house. With clockwork precision, he hung the keys on their hook, washed up, changed into a fresh pair of clothes, discarding the sweaty ones into the laundry basket, and went to his "balcony garden" to tend to his green babies.  

 

          Gardening hadn't particularly been his passion until a few years ago, when he had lost his wife, his best friend and long-time companion, to a terminal illness. He had been broken, but his penchant for routine and his passion to teach, had slowly helped him to move on with his life. Soon, he had recovered enough to resume his after-school tuition classes for the neighbourhood kids. He had also put his heart and soul into gardening, which had been his wife's favourite pastime - she had had a green thumb and he was resolved to develop one, to make sure her garden thrived. 

 

          Murthy sat on the floor of his balcony, gazing lovingly at his babies. Each plant, though confined to its pot, stood its ground, flaunting its unique aura. Somehow, these plants brought back memories of the kids he had taught over all those years - those small impressionable, trusting minds, lending themselves unabashedly to his classes. "Rana...", Murthy whispered to the majestic sunflower - he could see the tall, lanky child with a bright smile come up before his eyes. Every plant in his garden reminded him of an old student of his, the tender flowers and tiny saplings were like the young kids he had taught in primary and high school, the larger plants brought back nostalgic memories of his days as a professor. Murthy would talk to each one of them every day, for hours, reliving his life's journey with a sense of deep satisfaction. He had nurtured those young minds then, and these plants were nurturing him now in his lonely days.

 

          Rana would be a young man now, Murthy wondered, probably making his mark in the field of science. That child had a natural curiosity about everything around him, Murthy thought with a smile, as he stepped into the kitchen to make his breakfast. 

 

 

Naga Vydyanathan

 

Bangalore, India

 

 

 

Smidgen [a collection of Micros]

 

Yellowstone

A dragonfly caught in a Yellowstone was in the national museum of Scotland. I was there, one afternoon, looking through the artefacts.  A light emanated from it and I looked at it mesmerized. It transported me to the 17th-century Jacobite period. The fairies at the stone of Craigh na Dun had taken me there. This Yellowstone was mine; my rebel lover had given me. It was now 200 years old nearly; I still lived that memory — caught up in the past. The dragonfly was now a pinned showcased object — and I too was pinned forever to that living past.

 

Salt

Cordelia's sweet love for King Lear was full of salt. This paradox, salt, was disreputable for being for what was intrinsic to it, not sweet, yet sweet, and tasteless to the palette without it. It was a balm on a wound. A swim in the ocean took away the woes of many, because the salt soaked all the malady. Everyone knew it, but they could not make it sweet.

         There was a village by the sea, over the mountain pass. A wedding feast was taking place. The feast comprised salt food only. There were no sweets. After the feast was over, guests waited expectantly for sweets. None arrived, because the bride’s father had no more money left.

         The guests cried out. What kind of a feast was this without sweets? But the sweets were already in the salt, like Cordelia’s love. But the guests were inconsolable. They thumped their fists on the table, and demanded dessert. 

         This embarrassed the bride’s father to the hilt. But he couldn’t tell his guests that his sweet girl was enough. The feast they had, was just as sweet. Foolish guests called him a scrooge. They left in anger, and grief befell the house. 

         The night passed. In the day’s first light, all the brides-men woke up and looked enthralled at the gate. A golden unicorn stood with a handsome merchant who traded salt. He asked for her hand. As they wedded, the unicorn galloped away into the sultry syrup of a golden sun. 

 

Fire

In a jaundiced sky, bats and crows flew amok in uncertain directions at dusk. The sky, a canvas of black jittery spots, to behold from the space above. Ablaze over the tall gum trees, was a tell-tale sign, suggesting the end of time. The fire grew. The forest, the possums, the dingoes, the denizens ran deeper around the bend. Distant cries of human voices carried distress. Trees and houses and the animal habitat, all burnt to a cinder. The fire burnt without ebb, without a reprieve. A permanent haze hung from the sky. The luminous fire sparked, but like ubiquitous fireflies bejewelled a feral frontier.

 

Pants

Two pairs of pants were swinging in the autumnal winds alongside the clothesline. It was above the red sprawling azealia bed. One was female and the other male pants. They were tightly pegged. The wind couldn’t move them from the waist. But fanned to wrap themselves around in the legs. 

         The legs couldn’t stay away. The stronger the winds, the closer they were. The male pants were over the female at one point. They were even close enough for a kiss. The female pants swung themselves higher and the male followed suit. They frolicked. The Azealia stirred. This moment underpinned by romance. The winds whispered to the pants that time was slipping away. The pants paid heed. They did exactly as they were told. It blew a little harder, the male pants got unpegged, it flew over and landed on the female pegs. 

         A magpie swooped in. It looked around with its sharp eyes, that no one came close to pull them off the clothesline. The bird was ready to gouge the eyes of whoever dared. The wind brushed the bird too. It took off to another clothesline on the opposite side. From here it had a better view of this sweet togetherness. This lasted a while. No shudders.

         The pants stayed pinned onto each other until they were dry. The magpie sat sentinel. Its curiosity piqued; it trembled in the winds, regurgitated and beaked.

 

In Death

I woke up from a coma amongst the stars. I realised, I was trapped in a nightmare of a merciless world. Plunder and torture without care; closure and a renewal of a better life.

 

Genesis

At midnight, someone was knocking on my window pane. It was a sinewy twig, wavering in the blustery winds. Knocks persisted. The window had fogged up from the recent cold waves. I walked up and stood before it. A coal spattered night, there was the twig rubbing itself on the fog. This reminded me of Grandma’s fantasy metamorphosis of the moon shadow; that it was a woman, sitting and spinning for a thousand years. Spirits breathed through leaves; grandma had often said before she passed away, now buried in a graveyard downstairs. What was it, the twig? It nodded and said something to me. The fog on the window cleared up, to be re-fogged. I kept looking at it until the twig left a sign on the fog, as though it breathed onto the windowpane. It stirred, I walked up to it and wrote the letter G. On the breathing. The twig stopped stirring. That was the sign; the windowpane was all fogged up, but not from the cold wave. The twig took roots where her body had lain; green leaves were her new veins. This metamorphosis through photosynthesis marked the cycle of an organic genesis.

 

 

Mehreen Ahmed

 

Australia

 

 

 

Moving On

Corn waving in the waning sun, breeze-brushing knees that wish to sink still further into nurturing Mother Earth, become at one with flow of landscape-changing year, each ear of wheat not knowing life is ending here. Swish. Eyes fix on distant hills, a single upright tree claiming a summit like triumphant flag – “This is mine” – daring me to conquer it. I don’t belong, it tells me loud and clear. A cock crows, signalling desertion, love denied in guilty swirling of long hair cascading down the back I turned. White clouds tease me with their scoot across the sky towards that other place, that other life I knew. White stones beneath my feet wonder callously where I’m heading, on this unknown path I’ve taken now. I grasp a nettle, growing by the drystone wall, clutching its pain as cooling balm for stomach jangling in a world I do not own. I left in sweltering heat, sweat pouring like the tears I dared not shed. Silently, I left them all behind. There were no hugs, no kisses, no comforting goodbyes. Not now. Decision made, each tyre-turning mile a move towards I knew not what or where. I came. I saw. I live.  I have another cheek, to test what life will strike me with. There is no turning back, only striking out with knowledge of the past towards a future I must carve with care. My egg-timer is already set in motion. I must busy myself with sowing of new seeds to harvest in my autumn years. “Crack on,” says the bramble that thwacks my tired legs. “Your time is now, your future happening.”

 

 

Jackie Hales

 

Somerset, England

 

 

 

Shadows Of The Darkness

 

 

Dear diaries,

 

Once it started you never know the end 

 

That what they said when it started 

 

The beginning of the ending 

 

I opened my eyes on the darkest day of my life 

 

No sign of life outside my house 

 

Just sitting there trying to wake up from this nightmare 

 

But it was all blurry yet so clear 

 

No voices or noises 

 

Just me and my bruises 

 

We fought back yesterday and we lost half of us 

 

Now we don't know which one is which 

 

The creatures are pulling us to the darkest corners of the city 

 

This city of ghosts that we try to survive its owners 

 

We live a day thinking about the bright past because we can't see any future

 

 

They are consuming us one by one 

 

They need our lives for them to live 

 

They wait for us to fade so they can be here.

 

 

Saloua Bouyazderh

 

Morocco, Africa

 

 

 

 

Pillow Fight

 

“Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen and welcome as you join us here tonight live - Bedside - for what promises to be a thrilling end to this evening’s entertainment. Our final bout of the night between two old favourites, Pillow and Tired Person. 

 

Pillow, dressed in a simple one-piece white cotton outfit and weighing in at just under two kilos, technically not even a feather weight, is looking relaxed and has been on the bed for some time now, all day in fact. 

Tired Person weighs in tonight on the bathroom scales at twelve stone two, but fans will know that superior weight doesn’t guarantee victory. And - yes - the main light’s just gone out, Ladies and Gentlemen, the signal for the start of tonight’s contest.  Here’s Tired Person, trade mark two-piece costume, coming in fast. They’ve crossed the room and turned on the bedside lamp. No reaction from Pillow. Tired Person pulls back the covers, they’ve got a knee on the bed and - oh my goodness - Tired Person has just collapsed onto Pillow. Tired Person’s head has literally hit the Pillow - a tremendous blow. That’s followed by some rapid head poundings - but it’s having no effect on Pillow and boy, does that annoy Tired Person. More pounding straight into Pillow’s midriff. Pillow responds by shifting their weight to both ends. A classic Pillow tactic; stay still, absorb the blows, wear your opponent down. And…oh my word. Where did that come from? Tired Person has just unleashed a tremendous right, knocking Pillow completely out of shape. And Tired Person’s got Pillow up against the bed head now, there’s nowhere to go and - Tired Person has picked Pillow up, ladies and gentlemen. Pillow is up - they’re in the air, completely off the sheets and - wham - down goes Pillow and Tired Person follows up with their trademark ‘gruesome threesome’; chin rub, jaw swipe, head roll. But is it enough? No, not tonight as Pillow easily cushions the blows. Tired Person really wants to knock the stuffing out of Pillow tonight. Ouch, two quick right jabs straight into Pillow’s left side, forcing another weight change. Is that enough to ensure victory for Tired Person? - No. Once again Pillow takes it. Boy, can they take it.

 

And there goes the alarm. It’s all over. It’s time to get up and go to work which means no sleep for Tired Person for the third consecutive night. Let’s take a look at the score card. Tired Person thirty-four sleepless nights, which means Pillow leads with thirty six. There’ll be some celebrating in Pillow’s corner tonight.

 

That’s it for this evening Ladies and Gentlemen. There’s just time for me to thank you for joining us here tonight at Bedside. Be sure to tune in tomorrow evening for a special tag team event, two Pillows up against a newly married couple. Who knows what they’ll make of Pillow’s soft approach?  Should be one hell of a contest.”

 

 

Christopher Plato

 

Margate, Kent, UK

The Accident

 

Every government fences its highways to save reckless drivers from stray animals, and vice versa. There was a beautiful girl who went cruising in her father’s Jeep Wrangler. Somewhere along the way, she had gone off course. A stray cow emerged from nowhere. The impact left that brown skinned cow airborne. Gravity pulled it down head first. Both skulls cracked each other wide open at collision. Two lives lost. Two bereaved. The cow owner and the hunter reached the scene at the same time. Upon seeing his daughter’s fractured skull, the hunter’s pain left him speechless. He could not even shed a tear. The cow owner was aggrieved by his loss. He was shrieking like a hyena.

 

“Oh no. This cow is all I had left.” Even kneeling with the cow’s head in his arms. The kind of gory scene experienced by he who lost a lover.

 

This did not go down well with the hunter whose question left nothing to be desired.

 

“That’s not how to mourn a cow!?”

 

Staring at the hunter’s feet, the farmer said, “How dare you pin this on me?”

 

The farmer shook his head, guilty, agonised in disbelief.

 

“You’re guilty, aren’t you?” The hunter asked, “Why do you have no shame?”

 

At this point, the farmer slumped down in shame.

 

“Do you realise she was only 15? I’m gonna punish you for what you’ve done.” He left his daughter’s dead body behind and went to the back of his car. He returned with an elephant killing shotgun and shovel.

 

With a fevered stare, the hunter said, “Dig a grave and bury them yourself.”

 

While the hunter took a smoke in his truck, the farmer was digging. The hunter kept making repetitive sharp gestures. His jutting chin and hard jawline could be felt in the darkness.  Moments later, he left his car seat and went to stand above the two dead bodies. A moment of silence for the cow, before leaving two bullets in both the girl and the cow.

 

He then went over the grave and said to the farmer, “It’s all your fault.” After which he wiped fingerprints off the shotgun and threw it into the grave.  By now, the grave was way beyond six feet. “How are you gonna get yourself out of this one?”

 

As the hunter stepped into his car, another car slowly drove to the scene. It parked as he drove away.  It was the sheriff of the town. The sheriff and the hunter saluted each other. In the rear view, the hunter saw the blue lights flashing.

 

 

Denslow Christian D. Kisi

 

Harare, Zimbabwe

 

 

 

 

Excerpt from The Harvest

 

Morning Comes:

I breathed a sigh of relief as the morning sun rose into the heavens. What had happened the night before was honestly so unbelievable that I don't even know if anyone would believe just what I saw. But I had to keep going in the hope of attempting to rid myself of this damned place. Those in my hamlet of just what could only be described as a monster. I don't honestly know what she is, but I know that strange things have happened ever since she arrived. Small animals went missing, and the crops just on the outskirts of town slowly began to turn black and die off. It was as if we had been cursed by some biblical plague. But it did cause a few of the older churchgoers to act out and start preaching on the streets, rambling about how God had cursed the land and Satan is roaming about. But that was, for the most part combating the unknown illness that has plagued the land.

 

One night when Mrs. Gold arrived, a strange sighting of some beast roamed the fields at night. Many had believed it was nothing but the overactive imaginations of school children. Or perhaps those overindulging in too much rye at the only watering hole for a hundred miles.

But as the days grew longer, I found myself getting caught up with the local hysteria. Children would sneak out at night and, in the cover of darkness, go out to the Gold residence in an attempt to witness the creature that stalks the fields. Even the local Sheriff had to hire another deputy and, believe me, I'm thankful for the job. It was either being a deputy or working on the fields. With the fear of some strange creature mutilating animals, I think being a deputy is a much safer option.
But my favorite had to have been on my first day when I got the call to investigate what I was told was nothing but a missing person. Nothing but the odd call about a drunken husband attempting to start a fight with a flag pole. With the gossip that perhaps something mysterious had happened, I had to remind myself that these paranormal-type things aren't real. But my whole world was going to change, and just how I saw it. You know they never prepare you for just how crazy people can get, and it honestly just had to be on the day I was working.

The call came in around six o'clock, just as the sun was working its way down before the night arrived. It was a suspected sighting of someone lurking around the Wilson farm. The widow claimed to have seen someone in the cornfield and just wanted us to check it out. Probably kids just playing tag or Edgar, a notorious drunk who likes to drink himself into the stage of blacking out and wanting to get back to nature. 

 

Miles Davis

Alberta, Canada

The Indigo Child

 

Kaveri lay on her back, gazing at the sky above. It was a beautiful, dark night, the clouds like blotches of mud on the satin indigo sky.  The soft grass underneath her felt cool and cosy. The waters of the nearby river lapped gently against the banks, making a silent soothing noise, periodic and calming, like a mother's lullaby. Kaveri revelled in the harmony she felt within and around her - this was her best moments each day, the time when she almost believed that she was just another common little girl.

         

          A cry from the priest of the riverside temple jolted Kaveri from her tranquil sleep. She got up with a sigh and walked towards the footsteps of the temple that was looming large and magnificent, against the pristine dawn sky. Her day of prayers, rituals and meeting with the thronging devotees as goddess "Kanya Kumari" would soon begin. It all started when, as a child, she was deemed to be different - more sure, strong-willed, intuitive and empathetic, than her peers. She was thought to have paranormal abilities - a few happenings in her neighbourhood, where she rightly predicted the future, only strengthened this belief.  And before she knew it, she was elevated to the status of a goddess - the temple became her new abode, the devotees her family.

         

           The initial few years were spells of deep anguish for Kaveri - she yearned for the secure comfort of her mother's lap, the soothing familiarity of her home. She was now resigned to her new life - maybe she did possess supernatural powers and could help those in need.  But every night, as she lay on the river bank, gazing at the indigo sky, the little girl inside her, would wistfully wonder when she could be a little girl again.

 

           "During the darkest indigo midnight, yet countless stars blossom.” - Dr. Sunwolf.

 

           Kaveri waited for her starry night.

 

 

Naga Vydyanathan

 

Bangalore, India

 

 

 

Excerpt from The Bat of Hardisty

 

Welcome to Hardisty:

 

It was a warm summer day in August on the cusp before the fall approached. It was thick like pea soup, and the land was something of a beautiful sight, something taken from an old painting hanging in a discount motel off a forgotten highway. Now, I'm not the kind of person who would complain about the heat. But just like the changes in the season, there is always something new that can come and change one's perspective. 

 

I was born and raised in the small town of Hardisty, the kind of place where people work hard for what they believe in and enjoy a beer at the old watering hole. The history of this small slice of heaven was one of oil. Over the years, everything moved forward while the landscape stood perfectly still.

 

Not much has changed here except for the odd coat of paint and patchwork on the residential streets. But all that was about to change on that warm summer night when a foul odor was in the wind, and it started to make the water taste sour. Everything about what was on the cusp of our doors was about to change our lives forever.

 

I was living in a small two-bedroom house, a reminder of what littered the nation just after the second world war. You know the type of cookie-cutter place. It wasn't much to look at, but it was mine, and so I honestly loved the place. Though the pipes would rattle, and every so often, the lines would freeze. It was something I could call my own. 

 

The old Hiller home had been vacant for the span of a year. It was a shame when they discovered the bodies on that cold winter day. Mr. and Mrs. Hiller were the kind of people that were considered pillars of the community. The type of people that would help anyone in a tight spot. The day their twisted and disfigured corpses were discovered was when all of us mourned. The official report was a gas leak, but I never bought the official report. There was something off about the explanation since their son, a trained technician, did all the work for them. He owned a small company that did that sort of thing, and since news got out about his parents. He was out of business the next day, and after he was cleared of the charges, he pulled up and moved out. Not much is known of his location now, but I figure he'll never be seen again.

 

But it was a big surprise when the place was sold for far below-asking value, but in these trying times, you take what you can get. Being a small town, everyone noticed this and waited with anticipation for who would finally call this place home. Many didn't want to buy the pace where people tied in such a horrible fashion. But as the moving vans rolled in and began unloading several dozen odd-shaped boxes. As the hours passed by and the eyes from the snoopy neighbors faded out of sight. With the sun setting and darkness soon approaching, I decided to head out for a walk to clear my head before having a late dinner.

 

As the crickets sang all the while, the Sun went down as the battered streets encircled the area. While the street lamps slowly came on, giving light to everything below them. It was a different world, the world of darkness. In a place like this, one can still feel completely safe even if one is afraid of the dark.

 

But that night was the last night one could feel truly safe in the dark. People rarely locked their doors, and if someone needed to use their phone if their car broke down, so be it. It was the kind of place where everyone got along, and fear was absent.

Miles Davis

Alberta, Canada

The Bat of Hardisty is available to read on Amazon Kindle:

 

https://www.amazon.ca/gp/product/B09HK2YNC9/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i2

 

 

Excerpt from Among the Gilded Vines 

 

 

From the curvaceous silhouette of her body against the faded siding, Duck knew the visitor was a woman.  A naked woman.  From high on her head, a snowy nest of snake-like braids toppled from their perch, the last of the orange sun’s light speckling the midnight blue of her chest and shoulders.  Like a soundless fish speaking Morse, the woman’s velvety lips opened and closed, her eyes trained on Duck’s torso.  

 

          “Oh!” Duck exclaimed, the sound of her own voice startling her just as much as the smouldering heat suddenly radiating from her front apron pocket.  Unthinkingly, Duck plunged her hand into the smock, her fingers clumsily extricating the shell as staticky currents of light flickered along its striated pattern.    

 

          She was hallucinating.  Probably leaked methane from the old fracking facility two towns over.  These kinds of things didn’t happen.  Not to her.  Not to anyone. 

 

           Repeating her silent mantra, the edges of the woman’s eyelids crinkled as she stood, her skin glittering and dewy from the endless, invisible spring bubbling beneath her mane.  Entranced, Duck’s grip on the shell tightened even as it grew hotter, the outer lip sawing into the meat of her palm, another line between life and fate.  

 

          “Who are you?” Duck asked, the stranger’s pendants crackling with the same radiant energy Duck now felt vibrating up through her fingers, the base of her hand, the joints of her wrist.

 

          Though the air remained still, Duck heard a whisper through the branches behind her.  A droplet of sweat trickled expectantly down the back of her neck.  Chest aching, she realized she’d forgotten to inhale.  Opening her mouth, she waited for the breath to rush in but something was wrong.  

 

           The air wasn’t moving, in or out.  Contracting her diaphragm, she strained to expand her lungs, the pressure mounting in the back of her throat, her eyes, her temples. 

 

          Sinking forward, Duck’s forehead pressed against the steering wheel as the murmur of the breeze returned, this time louder.  Darkness looming from the margins of her retinas, she centered her gaze on the fist still resting in her lap, the shell no longer flickering but completely illuminated, yellow beams projecting between her fingers. 

 

          Opening her palm, the shell’s light cast Duck’s contracting body in an ethereal glow.  Shoulders hunched, her spine bowed with hypoxia, she gagged as her chin touched her sternum, the rumble of wind growing louder.   Louder.  And suddenly, elucidated by a final surge of adrenaline, Duck realized it wasn’t wind at all.  

 

          The light fading rapidly, Duck held the shell against her ear. 

 

          “In this sphere, you are worthy,” a voice echoed from within.  

 

          Duck watched as the shell slowly tumbled through the air, a luminous blur sinking, sinking, the light fracturing into a dozen razors beneath the pedals before the world went black.

 

 

Erasma Trouvère

California, USA

 

 

 

Blue-Pencilled

 

The shrill ring of the phone broke the busy silence of Arya's workplace. It was from Ayan's school, the principal wanted Arya to come over for a chit chat over Ayan's recent abnormal behaviour. Arya gave a sigh, directed, not at her son, but at the school authorities - patience, tolerance and acceptance seemed to be in the want these days.

          As Arya drove to the school, her thoughts meandered to her own childhood. She was a timid boy on the outside, always the butt of jokes for her feminine air. As a child, she loved dressing up, playing with dolls, dancing, and would burst into tears at the drop of a hat - all of these stereotypical feminine traits. Those were confusing, in fact, traumatic years, her mind was in perpetual turmoil between what it wanted and what was accepted. 

 

          She remembered how her parents had loved dressing her up as a girl in her toddler years - she had saved every picture from those memorable times. Looking through them, even now, brought a smile to her lips. It was a brutal shock to her, when, as she grew older, suddenly the "dressing up" or dancing was no longer viewed as cute. Being just a child of six, Arya couldn't fathom the sudden shift in attitude. Her mom, who used to encourage her to prance around in borrowed frocks, now, showed disgust when she enjoyed playing with girls and dolls.  School was another hell where she was constantly ridiculed for being a sissy. "Act like a boy," were the constant words that fell on her ears. She was crushed, the day she overheard her parents lying to their family friends about her, trying to portray her as a normal boy, albeit a bit timid. Arya couldn't decide which was more cruel - not understanding or not willing to understand. She felt as if precious parts of her life were blue-pencilled by the world around her. 

 

          Then, at college, she met Arnav. It was a huge relief to meet someone who was similar to her, one who could understand her psyche. Life didn't seem so bad after all. They decided to be a couple. After one last futile attempt at being accepted by her parents, Arya and Arnav started their life together in the US. What a cruel irony when the people and land that you view as your own do not accept you for who you are! 

 

          As Arya drove into the school premises, bracing herself for the meet with the school principal, she promised herself that she would not try to mould her son's life with a blue pencil. The sky was a pristine blue, reflecting the resolute calm running in Arya's mind. 

 

 

Naga Vydyanathan

 

Bangalore, India

 

 

 

 

Silent Screams

                                                             

He feels the familiar tingling in his loins as the engines pull up beside the blazing building. With growing excitement he watches the firefighters run out their hoses, ladders unfolding as they creep slowly up the side of the building. Then he sees a girl at the window, arms waving in terror as the flames lick hungrily around her pyjama-clad body.  He moans as her terrified screams echo across the night sky.  As his thrill heightens arms reach out to her, pluck her from the blazing ledge.

He scowls, his body stiffening then...nothing.  There are fewer thrills now, it all ending too quickly as bodies are snatched from a burning inferno by this new breed of firefighter. It had been more satisfying once, poorly equipped engines, ladders and hose reels hardly able to reach the upper floor windows. He had watched with mounting excitement as bodies had become totally engulfed by the  flames.  But now he had his little machine. Now he could replay their drawn out, haunting cries of anguish.  He had dozens of tapes, neatly stacked and labelled on the shelves in his poky little bedsit. He would sit with Patsy in the evening and listen to them, Patsy turned on by the blood-curdling cries. But now she was gone, lured away by the pervert Kenny with his chains and  manacles. But he did not miss her.  Alone he could take time to savour every moment, listen to every last thrilling haunting scream until there was nothing but silence to fill his tormented mind....

        

      He watches again as the flames climb the building, white hot fingers reaching ever higher up the drab, concrete flats. He is about to leave, the sounds he so longs for becoming out of reach of his machine. But then something catches his eye, a tiny figure perched high on one of the narrow window ledges.  He watches, fascinated as the firefighter calls out to her. He feels his throat contract, his body stiffen once more as she pauses for a second before...He moans with ecstasy as she falls, her body tumbling over and over like a broken doll, her cry bouncing off the concrete walls. He feels the tension ebb from him as she smashes in to the pavement below.

                                                                    

                                                                                          (2)

    

      He is back in his dingy bedsit, grubby fingers sifting through his recordings, splicing and editing.  He sees again the girl, hears her last despairing cries. He kisses the tape before placing it carefully back on the shelf.  He is tired now, his body sated as he slumps gratefully  onto his filthy mattress. Tomorrow he will start again, another carefully placed piece of kindling, a splash or two of fuel...

    

      He sleeps deeply. So deeply he does not hear the siren, does not smell the smoke sliding beneath his door as it seeks to extract its terrible revenge.

 

 

 

Roger Woodcock

Mansfield, England

 

 

 

White Flash

Many years ago I taught fourth grade in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky.   Some of the boys I taught at the Marie Roberts School (Lost Creek, Kentucky) were tough, and at times we had discipline problems.  I recall in particular one small boy surnamed Noble, a common name there.  One day he was especially rough and fresh with me on the playground.  Somehow, an incident started - I may have had to break up a fight between him and another boy.  We exchanged some angry words and he came back with something surly that was hard to ignore.  As I turned away, the crisis over, I said under my breath, more to myself than anyone else, "Little bastard!"

         

          Well, the little tough guy heard it and the next day his uncle, or was it his grandfather, at any rate, an elderly blind man with a cane was in the principal's office.  I was summoned and had to explain myself to this relative, which I did, as best I could.  I didn't deny what I had said, but I played it all down and the matter was settled between us. Other teachers later told me the man was prone to complaining in this way, but he was also capable of violence if he did not hear what he wanted to hear.  He could come right across a desk, I was told, with that stick he carried and attack the offending person.  In this case, it would be me. I think I decided at about that time, if not that very day, that teaching was not for me.

         

          I sometimes wonder how that Noble boy made out in life.  I recall one day on the playground he was suddenly surrounded by a group of boys, and I, smelling trouble, went over to investigate.  But it seemed he was proudly telling the other boys a story about his older brother.  He smiled as he told it, as if grateful for all the attention, including mine too, I suppose.  He was recounting how his brother got shot between the eyes that very weekend, killed dead by some blackguard.  I didn't smile though, but I soberly took in what the boy was saying about his brother being killed.  He seemed proud to tell it, and I sensed the other boys were envious, that they would have liked to have been able to come to school and report their older brother being shot dead between the eyes.  I never heard another thing about the death, who did the shooting, what the circumstances were, or if justice was ever served.  Was the perpetrator caught and jailed?  Was it a revenge killing of some sort, an eye for an eye?  I was reminded - not that I needed to be by then - of just how violent a place it was I lived in.

 

 

Raymond Abbott

Louisville, Ky. USA

 

Steps

I stopped at the chemist to buy some mints, hoping they might mask the twin evils of beer and onion. I was in enough trouble as it was. I stood at the lights waiting for the green man when I heard someone yelling. I looked in the direction of the noise and saw a girl in a red dress tearing down the library steps. No one seemed to be chasing her, but then she raised her arms spastically and ran toward me, straight onto the road. I opened my mouth to say NOOO, by which time all the metallic bangs and screeches had occurred. For the space of a sucked in breath, Macquarie Street was silent.

                                                                                     **********

 

          I had been working in the library, or more truthfully, I’d been flicking pages and doodling as I moped. Suddenly my phone vibrated. The text said ‘I’m staying. I love you’. I sucked in my breath and it stayed there, locked up. And then another text: ‘I’m across the road’.

           

          I smashed everything into my handbag and raced for the exit. I shoved my way past the heavy front doors and ran out into the sunlight. He was there, at the lights, signalling to me. Nearly tripping over two people with their heads together at the bottom of the steps, I dashed to the street. I raised my arms above my head, waving like mad as I ran towards him.

 

Alicia Thompson

Sydney, Australia

Alicia's debut novel, 'Something Else', will be published by NineStar Press in October 2021.

Her website is www.efolio.com.au and you can find her at aliciathompsonauthor on Instagram and Facebook

 

 

Last Breath

It all went wrong after he had died.

He had led a very fulfilling and successful life. Born to two established Oxbridge academics, he had enjoyed a high flying, liberal education. This was followed by his own successful academic career. Not as stellar as his parents. Not even redbrick. More 1960’s concrete. But Norfolk had been a wonderful place to bring up the children. Marriage had been good. A couple of fleeting affairs but nothing that had disturbed the equilibrium.

He had been an atheist since childhood, following his parents lead. He had no time for any religion, but actively despised Christianity. He obviously admired Islamic architecture, found Buddhist philosophy thought provoking, and thought that Hinduism had a certain cache. But Christianity was simply vulgar.

So when he found himself on his deathbed, he was very much looking forward to taking his last breath, followed by the welcome relief of nothingness.

The Hollywood style pearly gates came as a bit of a surprise. The helpful “Saint Peter” lapel badge that the gatekeeper was wearing was a shock. The grim expression he noticed as the gatekeeper perused a big gold book did not bode well.

 

This nightmare couldn’t be death.

It was only when he followed the increasingly hot and cindery path that he was directed on that reality set in. He turned around, thinking he may be able to belatedly argue his case. But it was a lifetime too late.

The gates of hell banged shut on him.

For eternity.

 

Peter Williams

Chester, England

Stepping Out

It’s sometime around the sixth month of the year. Joseph wraps himself up and steps outside, just to get a feel. He doesn’t know when he last left the house, but supplies are running low and needs must.

 

The outside world will appear vastly different now. The trees are long dead, flowers no longer grow, the grass is brown and the buildings, including his own, are decaying but Joseph cannot see any of this because of the intense mist that surrounds him.

He is nervous, he can barely even see his own feet, but walks down the street, knowing his way from memory. Surely there are others. He knocks on doors and taps on windows, he waits for shadows or voices. He hears only silence.

 

He has waited too long, he was too comfortable with his supplies. He shouldn’t have been so complacent. It’s been the bane of his life. When he was much younger, he would put off his studies to the day before a deadline, confident in his ability, only to come across some unforeseen problem, which would soak him in anxiety. His work ultimately suffered, and though he would promise not to make the same mistake next time, he always did.

 

It was the same in adulthood. He would spend money without a care instead of budgeting like any other sensible person, confident he could win some money back on the football before his next wage. Yet he was a pathetic gambler who rarely won anything, and if he did, it would be a measly 20 or 30 pounds. He was often borrowing money as a result.

His stress levels are rising now, and before long he doesn’t know where he is, and turns to go back. He hesitates, all he can see is mist, and a faint yellow, circular glow where the sky should be. “Bring them back!” he cries. “Bring them back!”

He is answered by the gentle gust of a breeze as the yellow glow fades away.

 

 

Craig Snelgrove,

Manchester,  England

 

 

 

 

Unnecessary Necessary

 

An unnecessary necessary slab of torment and comfort,

making me feel guilty for the time I spend with her.

“Should I be feeling this way?” I ask.

“Yes,” she says.

She knows the answer to everything. Being ‘smart’, I suppose she would.

 

Black and bruised, cracked and hacked,

indented in my life, hand and jeans.

I feel lost without her, shackled yet free to leave whenever I want.

How did I ever manage without her, especially in my teens?

 

The keeper of all my memories and witness to private chat.

There used to be a silence between us but now she can talk back.

Just to me I hope, although I hear spies can listen in,

as long as it’s not my mother then I don’t really care… I think.

 

A friend and foe, an enemy of my time and a tunnel of escape.

The demon who trolls through my input and shows me lands far and warm,

she knows it’s wet and cold outside.

She’s seductive and clever and always on my side.

 

She’s a part of my body now, my hand face and ears,

a bit haggard and aged, a phone battling to keep its head high.

 

Her time has come and gone, been replaced and outsmarted,

a new one I should buy.

 

My relationship is one that if for one moment I think I have lost her forever.

I panic and get sad.

That’s how much she means to me,

yet I loathe her for making me feel so needy and bad

 

I dropped her once and spread the already webbed cracked screen.

On my laptop I searched for new models,

I’m not so stupid as to use my phone.

She would break her motherboard heart and would purposely wipe her own memory of me and that of her own.

She could live without me but not me without her.

 

We get along fine and, if I did not have one,

I would be frowned upon by society. I would end up having just real friends and not know the time or day.

I would book zero rated hotels and for train tickets too much I would pay.

I’d miss my birthday and that of others. I would not know how many times I am being liked.

I would not know if I should be building a nuclear fallout shelter.

Ok, yes, I admit it, I love my phone and most importantly, I can use it to see if I have spinach on my teeth or a bogie on my nose.

 

Ian McNaughton

Cardiff, UK

 

 

 

What If 

Luke was not a good guy, or at least that is what he thought. There he was, looking at her and thinking about what a good guy would say, but he could not think of anything. She was sitting next to him, he was sure there were a thousand things to say, but not even one that his brain could make his mouth formulate. The mere thoughts he had were vicious, her body, her smell, and his fantasy flew away. She looked at him, and he avoided meeting her eyes. When he got the courage to look back and ask a stupid question about the white noise from the radio channel, her eyes were not there, and the chance he thought he had gone forever. In his head, a line echoed ‘people come, and people go.’

 

Juan Moreno Diaz

Great Malvern, UK

 

 

 

After Her

 

Though she was in the next room, he laid me on the bed they shared and dressed me in her clothes. Listen, he said, and it was to the sound of her breath deep in sleep. Close your eyes, he said, and when I did it was to the dreams that she dreamed too, her hand in his, the touch of his lips, the words he whispered when they made love and the way he held her afterwards. It was the wash of salt water around her ankles, the rush of waves on a distant shore. Moisture in its continued absence, the tears he did not cry for her. Tell me, he said, and when I did it was of the feel of his lips on mine, his hands touching, holding me, eyes looking deep into my own. He ran his fingers through my hair. It smelt of spring and summer and of winter too. Tell me how it feels, he said, and I whispered in his ear and he gasped and said don’t stop. I told him that I would not. He pressed his thumb between my lips. Yes, he said, that, and when he was done we lay in each other’s arms. I listened to his soft breath, her sobs from the next room. Closed my eyes in the expectation of dreams but instead to an emptiness inside. I slipped from his arms and dressed in her robe. Sat at the dressing table and looked in the mirror and saw her face. Applied lipstick, makeup, perfume. Took the pillow and held it across her nose and mouth and pressed gently, lovingly. Eyes empty of all but the reflection of my own. I did not feel her struggle. Watched my own movements in the mirror and hers and his too. The space where I’d left him sleeping, the indentation in the pillow. Rain ran down the window pane, drops gathering on the newly budded rose leaves. I waited for one to fall, but was not sure that any did before the sun rose and burnt them away again.

 

 

jm summers

 

South Wales, UK

 

 

 

 

Ready

 

We’re standing next to crashing waves. The sound of rushing water and the ferocious winds pushes against me, surrounds me, and leaves my heart beating hard. People say the waterfall is beautiful, but I’m small (no more than 4 feet) and all I see is an angry water monster ready to devour me. My little sister suddenly shouts--her hat has flown off her head and landed just next to the raging rapids. My dad runs recklessly after it, leaving me screaming in fear. I’m scared that he’ll be swept away by waves. I watch him climb down the slippery rocks and grab my sister’s hat. Then he climbs back up and laughs at my overreaction. My mom is recording. Perhaps now, 11 years later, I’m finally ready to go back.


 

Katie Shih

 

California, USA

 

 

 

 

Tales Of Mrs Magno

 

1.

The other day it was my birthday. Mrs. Magno came to visit. It was a surprise and a strange occasion. She never comes on ordinary days.

No one knew, of course, that she was coming; that’s until I went out to share some of my birthday dishes, the buttered garlic shrimps and the pancit canton guisado with the pretty wife, our next door neighbor.

Mrs. Magno came down from the top floor, where her husband, Mr. Magno, keeps doves. I pretended I wasn't surprised. Our eyes met in an instant when she descended the stairs.

‘Hello, Mrs. Magno! I’m so glad to see you. It’s been too long since your last visit,’ I greeted her.

She stared at the plate of dishes I had given to the pretty wife.

I slowly moved closer to her and asked, ‘Would you like to have lunch with us? Ma’am Rachel is here. Please come. We will be happy to have you.’

‘Why? Is it your birthday?’ she answered.

I replied shyly, ‘Yeah, it’s my birthday. Let’s have lunch.’

‘Oh, Happy birthday, Lodit! But no, okay lang. Thank you, I can’t,’ she smiled, shyly refusing my invitation.

Instead, she ushered me to apartment number 1. She opened the door.

‘Why is the door open?’ I asked.

She replied, ‘Nakabukas eh? Look, how messy it is!’ she said.

‘Well, the kids are at work. All of them. No one stays here now. I never see them around,’ I replied.

‘Maybe you could to apply to be their house cleaner and get paid for it. Tell the occupants. I know you can do it, Lodit!’ She smiled like a witch.

‘Well,’ I smiled at her, ‘how about the both of us apply for the job. House cleaning is your expertise too, right? It will be fun working with you.’ I grinned back at her.

She was expressionless.

‘Lunch?’ I asked, breaking the silence.

‘No. Thank you, Lodit. Happy birthday!’ And she disappeared.

 

2.

Sometimes, I take the role of a chef. Not the true chef, of course. Just a pretend chef to keep up my motivation with cooking. Pretensions are necessary for me to survive the challenge of cooking.

Yesterday, I had to fry around 3 kilograms or more of sea fish. My roommate had already marinated the fish with meager vinegar, kalamansi juice, salt, and umami. They were ready for deep frying.

I had to cook outside of our flat, next to the door opening, along the alley, going to the entrance downstairs, beside our little pots of the garden of greens. I cannot cook inside because the smell of the frying of fish sticks to the fabric. And that’s not good.

I brought along with me a little chair and a book; a science text entitled The Green Kingdom. I read while frying. Doing this meant that whilst doing a household chore I was also learning and entertaining myself at the same time.

While I was engrossed in reading and the fish were crackling in the frying pan, Mrs. Magno suddenly appeared.

‘What are you cooking?’ she asked.

‘Oh, Mrs. Magno, you’re here again. Where is Mr. Magno?’ I asked instinctively, out of astonishment.

‘He’ll be here soon when he recovers. He’s sick.’ She replied.

‘Covid case? I hope not.' Again, I could not contain my instinct.

‘Just your normal fever and body malaise,’ she replied. ‘Ano yan? Andami naman!’ she asked again about the deep-fried fish.

‘Yes, deep-fried fish. We bought it cheaply at the fish market this morning,’ I said, as I put aside the book I was reading.

‘How did you prepare it?’ she asked.

‘Ma’am Azel marinated it with vinegar, kalamansi juice, salt, and umami. Then I brought the cooking oil to boil before frying the tasty fish,’ I replied. ‘I’ve already cooked some. Would you like to have one?’ I asked her.

‘No, it’s okay,’ she smiled, ‘the smell is tasty.’

‘I don’t eat meat, Mrs. Magno,’ I informed her.

‘Ah, kaya pala. That is your secret to why you look younger than your age,’ she declared.

‘You look younger too at your age Mrs. Magno, even though you’re a meat eater,’ I replied. Her face cheered up, pleased with my reply.

‘Here, take this one,’ I gestured to the fried fish, which her eyes were glued upon.

‘No. It's okay, I already ate my lunch downstairs at the eatery. I’m so full.’

She looked at the book I was reading.

I said, ‘Ah, this one here is like the book I’m writing - nature and stuff.’ I held up the book, showing the contents to her. Her eyes brightened.

Then she looked up at the walls of the apartment building. Her eyes seemed to focus on the black dust, probably coming from the smoke of vehicles. ‘It needs repainting soon,’ she said.

‘Hmm, and that means you will kick us out!’ I said, laughing.

‘No! You stay here in my apartment, Lodit, forever! Dito ka lang,’ she replied, smiling. That really surprised me.

‘Why can’t you stay here too. Couldn’t you build a new room on the top floor?’ I asked.

‘Yes, that’s my plan. I’m waiting for the money. Additional rooms for rent and a room for me,’ she said.

‘Wow, that is a nice plan,’ I replied, for the lack of anything to say.

‘You know, Lodit, you should find a partner and get married.’ I expected this prodding again from her. It’s one of her favorite topics with me.

‘I’m okay with being single again, Mrs. Magno. I’m already done with marrying and all that stuff. I’m happier now. I can do lots of things I want. And writing demands most of the time being alone. Besides, why are you encouraging me to get married again when you’ve had a hard time yourself with Mr. Magno?’ I quipped.

Mrs. Magno smiled and fell silent.

‘Fish? It’s tasty, healthy, and anti-aging!’ I said, Mrs. Magno never protested this time. I wrapped one big fried fish for her in an aluminum foil.

‘I’ll give you a present this Christmas, Lodit,’ she said.

I chuckled.

 

Zea Perez

Manila, Philippines

 

 

 

 

Tom Thumb

 

Against his flanks the rider pressed his heels and the horse knew the urgency asked of him without further need of whip nor spur. There was a sudden tightness in the rider’s legs, a purposeful poise in the position the rider took in his seat, a balance to the rider’s weight, and in the way the rider’s head was held close against his neck so that he could feel the rider’s breath calm against him. The horse began to race, for race was being asked of him. And now he saw ahead their rival. A brutish thing with silver flesh and a great snorting nostril blowing plumes of thick steam into the air, protruding from the top of its colossal head, as the blow-hole of the whale but with far less grace. It moved so fast that its rising breath trailed behind it as wild as the horse’s tail flowed behind him. It gurgled and clattered along its path, its feet a system of struts and wheels, as of the cart. Its legs were hidden beneath its incandescent flesh. Then the horse saw that this brutish creature carried its own rider, and that this rider was gesturing at him and smacking his lips as if to laugh. The horse, indignant, snorted and pounded the ground harder – faster - until dust rose behind him as steam behind his vice. The horse drew level with the silver beast and matched for a moment its pace. His rider offered him only gentle encouragement. The horse felt his heart thumping and breathed heavily into his expanding chest. His muscles worked with a strength beyond him, for he was running now on his rider’s passion and his own thrill. On the memories of his forebears – of the two Arabians, or the Turk who stood as stud for their racing kind. The silver brute fell behind, chugging and coughing and polluting the skies with its breath. So raucous was the brute that it seemed it would never catch its breath again, but die desperately choking for air. The horse rejoiced, for he had won. But it was curious, he found, for when he came to a halt panting and cold with sweat, his mouth foaming and his blood a marching band in his body, that same silver thing came coughing along at the same determined pace, and it seemed not a bit fatigued. It went on into the distance and scarce seemed to worry. Once its bloated shape was out of sight its breath lifted over the horizon to tell of its going still. And then the horse worried. He worried that every rider might find such a mount, as chugs and chuffs and doesn't go as fast as a horse, but doesn't ever need to stop for breath.

 

          His rider patted his heaving shoulder and spoke in his human tongue, with pride immeasurable apart from in sin: "Well Lad, you showed him," and turned the horse for home.

 

Roy Duffin

York, England

 

 

 

As Is

 

I could say that the reason I wear full upper dentures is because of my years as a boxer.

Or, as I was doing 120 on Sunset Blvd,  that I swerved as to not hit a baby bird and went though the windshield.

Or, in my years with the NHL, NFL, and WWE, took its toll at my teeth booth.

But that would be bullshit.

Poor hygiene, but they are as white as white can be.

They are  so perfect and white that they look phony and that’s the way I like it, uh huh.

 

Or I could say that my time in prison was because I was P.O.W.

 

That would another lie. Working with bad company while working in a bad company was more like it. No, not like it, that was it.

 

I would love to say that my lower than Whale Shit credit rating is because I financed a dear friends heart operation with all my credit cards.

That would be a load of Horse Shit.

It was because I had to do my own two flopped like a flounder movies with my own money.  

 

If I ever get arrested for domestic violence, I could argue that I live alone.

 

The reason I have pockmarks on my face is not because I ran into a burning building to save orphans., although, I have alluded to that.

 

And what’s this I hear about my car and that a man of a certain age should have better.

 

I’d like to say that it’s my daughter’s  car and I loaned her my Jaguar, so she could take my Grandkids to a birthday party in style, but that would be misleading as this car is mine for the last 18 years and no oil changes.

It’s incredibly thrilling to be at a smart dinner party and drop, ”I went to Harvard”, Yet, I must say I went to public schools.

Public Toilet schools.

But.

My body, my heart, my hair, and my brain are working out and looking good So.

 

Having said that. I have at this point, must be honest with you.

 

You’re going to have to take me, as is, and never was.

 

 

 

Alan Berger

West Hollywood

 

 

 

 

The Painting

 

The walls of the room I was waiting in were dark green; the ceiling a fading white. The single window was small and barred. It was quite dark inside, as not much light was let in; the darkness of dusk.

 

A painting hung on this wall. It was very large - nearly eight feet long and five wide. A soft light above it highlighted the details. It depicted a landscape and was so exquisitely wonderful that an effort was required not to reach out and touch the dewdrops painted therein. I took a deep breath expecting to smell the roses. I wouldn’t have been surprised if butterflies had flown out of it.

 

The landscape portrayed what seemed to be the corner of a large garden. There were beds of various gorgeous flowers there – red, white, yellow, blue.

 

The left side of the canvas was occupied by a tree. Its brown and speckled trunk and the vast expanse of leaves were partly seen. The green was greatly soothing to my eye.

 

It did not take a vivid imagination to picture the whole tree. On doing so, there was a distinct impression that it was very large. Under this partly seen mammoth, its fallen leaves were scattered on the new grass. A red flower among them rapidly drew my attention back to the tree. The flowers were seen on a closer look. They were nearly hidden by its dense foliage. I felt a twinge of regret along with a wish that the artist had set up his easel or his mind at another spot from where the flowers would have been clearly visible.

 

There was a pool, too. It was not too large. There were beautiful lotus flowers in it. They were pink and white.

 

As my eyes moved from the left to the right, the squirrel on a branch was not missed. The little fellow was perched up on its hind legs. It was holding something in its forelegs- a nut?

 

There was another tree on the lower edge of the landscape; a smaller one. What drew my attention to it was not its trunk or its leaves and flowers. It was the small boy who had climbed up and was perched on one of its stout branches. His fingers were curled into the shape of binoculars and he was looking through them. Going by his line of sight, he could have been studying the birds near the pool. He could have been drawn to something in the thicket; maybe, the birds or the flowers in the trees.

 

And while my mind was debating this, there was the sound of steps and the door leading to the interior of the house opened.

 

 

R G Kaimal

 

Bangalore, India

 

 

 

Caught In A Net


I was running, my feet pounding beneath me, the blood rushing through my veins. As I ran, I surveyed my surroundings vivid and slightly blurred by my speed. On one side of the path there was a row of trees and on the other below me was a river. As I ran further, a pool of rubbish caught my eye. It was moving. Moving but not in a normal way, not caused by current but by something underneath. I pulled to a stop and surveyed the writhing mass. Bubbles were coming up from underneath. I heard a gurgled cry and the blood froze in my veins; someone was stuck underneath.

 

Suddenly, the mass went still. I didn’t think; I just dived in ignoring the coldness of the water and diving under, my eyes open but unable to see through the grime filled liquid. I couldn’t discern anything; brown murk filling my vision. I moved forwards under the mass of plastic groping out in front of me trying to find the cause of the noise I had just heard moments before, trying to save whoever it was. My hands hit a mass. A body, a child’s body. I pulled at it but it didn’t move; it was stuck. My lungs were screaming at me for air. If I stayed much longer neither of us would survive. I gave one last tug and the child came loose. I battled my way to the end of the float of plastic, my blood singing in my numb ears as if crying out for oxygen. I pushed to the surface and gulped in the air a little boy now in my arms. 

 

I struggled back to the bank, hauling the child up with me and collapsed. After a few seconds I had regained some of my senses. I turned over the child. He was small, probably 7. My breath caught as I saw him. He looked... no he couldn’t be. I pressed my fingers to his pulse but came back with nothing. “No,” I gasped, my eyes still stinging from the water flooding with tears. How could something so pure and innocent be dead? A beautiful angel ensnared in a net, a fish caught in a stream. As I pressed my hands to his wet cold temple, his wet blonde hair covered in mud and debris, I swear I saw scales augmenting his pale neck, glistening in the sunlight. He was just another fish caught in a net, a net of polluted plastic we put in place.

 

Ebony Hutton-Mitchell

East Sussex, England

 

 

Learn To Love The Down

 

“Your drinking is getting out of hand.” But actually, I found I had begun to handle it quite well.

I’d been at the steel factory for about eight months when I collapsed from acute liver failure.

My supervisor came over with my timesheet, asking the guys what time I caved, so he could clock me out. Then he called the ambulance.

 

I woke up prepared for panic and tears but all I got was, “I told you that you had a drinking problem, you said your piss was the colour of cola”

“No, I don’t and that was the one time.”

“Well, you drank that wine at eleven in the morning, didnt you? And now look at you!”

“But it was Valentine’s Day.”

It was already too late. “Your’e in denial,” she said.

“No, I aint!” And a doctor was nowhere in sight.

 

They were going to carry out blood tests but then the nurse couldn’t find my mainline.

He slapped my arm and after several attempts my skin bruised purple and little holes filled it.

“You’ll probably be fine anyway,” he said.

“Yeah, it’s one of them, aint it?”

 

The morning after, my Irish friend came in to see me. He mentioned we’d have coffee and I got my hopes up. But then something about a “moral compass kicking in” had made him leave the hipflask in the car. I’d already dropped the coins in by the time I noticed the coffee machine needed stocking up - and so we drank decaf.

 

Three days of daytime telly passed, when a nurse came into the room and handed me a letter addressed to my name. It read that I had to return and work off my four week notice period or else they wouldn’t give me my money. Next time, I’ll have to sort myself out and try harder - at least pass out after payday.

 

 

Richard Bari

Birmingham, England

 

 

 

 

Light Of My Life

                                                                                   Five Years Ago

Five years ago, I had a heart attack and almost died. Home from the hospital, I got into the cozy bed my dear wife had made with many throws and pillows and went to sleep. In the middle of the night, I changed position and my arm rested on her waist. She snuggled up to me and we spooned. I said, “This feels good.” She answered in a language I did not understand. Eyes still shut, I asked, “Why are you babbling?” She answered in that weird language again. Startled awake, I sat up and looked at her. She wasn’t there. I muttered to myself, “What a weird dream!” and went back to sleep.

 

I recounted the dream to my wife the next morning. She laughed and said, “Honey, we haven’t slept together in the

same bed for years. The pain killer is having a weird effect on you.” Moments later, she asked “What language was I speaking?” I said, “I don’t know. It sounded like Russian.”

                                                                                    A Year Ago

A year ago, I had my second heart attack and almost died. Home from the hospital, I got into the cozy bed my dear wife had made with many throws and pillows and went to sleep. In the middle of the night, I changed position and my arm rested on her waist. She snuggled up to me and we spooned. I said, “This feels good,” and remarked she had a tennis player’s body. Turned on, I turned her head around to kiss her lips. There was no face. All I saw was a bright light where the face should have been. But the rest of the body was lithe and toned and tanned - Anna Kournikova in her prime. “What the fuck?” I ripped the sheets off and sat upright. No Anna, no nothing.

 

I recounted the dream to my wife the next morning. She laughed and said, “You always had a thing for Anna.”

 

                                                                                    Today

Last night, I had my third heart attack. In the middle of the night, I changed position and my arm rested on her waist. She snuggled up to me and we spooned.

“Рад, что ты наконец-то здесь (Glad you are finally here),” she said.

“Я рада, что я здесь (I’m glad I’m here),” I said.

“хотел бы я видеть твое лицо (Wish I could see your face),” she said.

“побалуй себя (Treat yourself),” I said and turned her head around so she could see my face.

“Без лица. Просто яркий свет (no face, just a bright light),” she said.

 

 

Balu Swami

 

Buckeye, AZ, USA

Rare Flower

 

Abebe wanted to be a poet. Poetry speaks of flowers, she told her mother who smiled and went back to preparing the wat. She wanted to give her voice to the meadows. The meadows were alive with flowers after the months of rain. The world was alive but it couldn’t tell anyone because no one had given it words to speak.

When she was a small child, there was an old man who would sit in the shade of a large tree near the well and sing poems. There was nothing she would rather do than sit and listen to his voice. Her mother told her she was being useless and wasting her time, but the inflections rising and falling made her feel as if she was riding on the clouds.

            One day he asked her what her name was.

            “Abebe,” she answered. “It means rare flower.”

            “I know that,” said the old man. He began a song about a mountain flower that was more beautiful than any in the world. A young man sought it out, not to pluck it, but to lie down beside it and inhale its perfume. But to reach the flower on the mountain, the young man had to endure many trials and tests.

            Before the poem could end, the old man vanished.

            Long after the village had been torn apart by warring factions, and after her mother wandered off into the sand to find help for her young brother and never returned, and after the flies had closed his eyes, Abebe made her way to a camp where an Irishman bandaged her feet. He sent her to a place that was so cold the constant rain ate into her bones.

            Her teachers did not take her poetry seriously, especially when she wrote about a doll she owned. Her mother made it for her. The rag baby was dressed in flowers, and though it always appeared dead when someone else held it, Abebe knew it sang to her in whispers.

            “Do you still have it?” the teacher asked.

            “No,” she said as she wept. “Only its words.”

 

 

Bruce Meyer

 

Ontario, Canada

 

 

 

Silent Screams

He feels the familiar tingling in his loins as the engines pull up beside the blazing building. With growing excitement, he watches the firefighters run out their hoses, ladders unfolding as they creep slowly up the side of the building. Then he sees a girl at the window, arms waving in terror as the flames lick hungrily around her pyjama-clad body. He moans as her terrified screams echo across the night sky. As his thrill heightens arms reach out to her, pluck her from the blazing ledge. He scowls, his body stiffening then… nothing. There are fewer thrills now, it all ending too quickly as bodies are snatched from a burning inferno by this new breed of firefighter. It had been more satisfying once, poorly equipped engines, ladders and hose reels hardly able to reach the upper floor windows. He had watched with mounting excitement as bodies had become totally engulfed by the flames. But now he had his little machine. Now he could replay their drawn out, haunting cries of anguish. He had dozens of tapes, neatly stacked and labelled on the shelves in his poky little bedsit. He would sit with Patsy in the evening and listen to them, Patsy turned on by the blood-curdling cries. But now she was gone, lured away by the pervert Kenny with his chains and manacles. But he did not miss her. Alone he could take time to savour every moment, listen to every last thrilling haunting scream until there was nothing but silence to fill his tormented mind...

 

He watches again as the flames climb the building, white hot fingers reaching ever higher up the drab, concrete flats. He is about to leave, the sounds he so longs for becoming out of reach of his machine. But then something catches his eye, a tiny figure perched high on one of the narrow window ledges. He watches, fascinated as the firefighter calls out to her. He feels his throat contract, his body stiffen once more as she pauses for a second before...He moans with ecstasy as she falls, her body tumbling over and over like a broken doll, her cry bouncing off the concrete walls. He feels the tension ebb from him as she smashes in to the pavement below.

 

(2)

 

He is back in his dingy bedsit, grubby fingers sifting through his recordings, splicing and editing. He sees again the girl, hears her last despairing cries. He kisses the tape before placing it carefully back on the shelf. He is tired now, his body sated as he slumps gratefully onto his filthy mattress. Tomorrow he will start again, another carefully placed piece of kindling, a splash or two of fuel...

 

He sleeps deeply. So deeply he does not hear the siren, does not smell the smoke sliding beneath his door as it seeks to extract its terrible revenge.

 

 

Roger Woodcock

 

Mansfield, England

 

To the Wild


“Fucking gross,” he muttered about the hair in his soup, which was otherwise comprised of water, spinach leaves, various spices, and the charred mutilated remains of a creature that several days prior had been enjoying the soft tingling sensation of a warm current, and though it may not have had the means to fully understand what it felt, had surely felt it. That should count for something, she thought. She was no vegetarian, but she did sometimes wonder if it was only because there were limits on the amount of suffering the human mind can fathom. Someone dies every second. Feet can crush bugs in a grassy field, you kill little bacteria when you shower, your cells are perpetually dying and being replaced. Life is an endless parade of invisible funerals, empathy has its limits - like now, she thought to herself as he somehow continued to complain. His hair had a bucket of gel in it; she wondered if it would upset a shark’s digestive system. She imagined how he would fare as a hunter-gatherer (not well). To distract herself from his next rant, she bit on her tongue and tried to taste it, and after, wondered what his would taste like. Deep-fried. Animals, she thought, both of us, just animals until the day we die - but what would it mean to live?

      In that moment, it began to take root. She was human, but she wanted to forget it for a little while. She wanted to roam free among the wild fields and lush forests and the unyielding parade of life and death. She wanted to feel like the animal she was. There, on that hectic New York night, she began to seriously consider living in the woods.

     First, though, she had to interrupt him and go the restroom, which actually meant leaving. Nature is cruel.

     On the way out, she passed the lobster tank. Sad little captive aliens, claws bound, awaiting harvest. She gently pressed the tips of her fingers against the glass, and looked into the beady little eyes of the closest one. She hoped all the wants and desires of their little crustacean brain had been satisfied by life up to that point, even if an undignified demise was inevitable. You matter, she thought, little sea monster, you matter.

     His evening wasn’t as transformative. He waited ten minutes, paid the bill, thought about the shocking number of freaks in this world, and returned to his modern life.

 

 

Kevin Criscione

 

Boston, USA

The Vanished Half

 

If I held my breath for you, I would have died a thousand times. If digging were to show you, I’m sure I’d have hit bedrock by now. A blend of condensation and cigarette smoke billows from my mouth and drifts upward towards the moon as I stand knee deep in snow. I would have moved mountains to keep your lips from that sharp kiss, on thigh and wrist. To be gone only 3 hours and to return to emptiness, to nothing. I search for you without searching, hoping not to find you in bars and restaurants, but in the deepest reaches of my mind. Once found, I’ll cut you out, I’ll plunge a knife into my skull, and roughly outline you, like removing a tumour, I’ll carve out the infected area and discard it. You left me with a curse, of memory, of concern. Where are you? Our vow of eternal life was said to one another, without you I am half of a whole. I’ve already waited for two hundred years for the vanished half. I can’t wait any longer.

 

 

Sam McCartney

 

Glasgow, Scotland

 

 

 

 

Ban Beans

“Got any beans?” the voice rasped from behind a shadowy alcove in an empty shopfront.

A year ago, I might have thought I was hearing a hungry vegan begging for a few lentils. That was before an Amazonian tribesman announced at the United Nations that the development of coffee plantations was killing the rainforest. Soon after that a social media movement called #banbeans had sprung up. It not only argued for the banning of coffee to save the rainforests but also argued that its effects were addictive and making people sick causing anxiety, insomnia and heart issues.

When once you could strike a business deal or start your day with a cup of freshly ground, people were now afraid to admit that they ever drank it. Of course, this didn’t affect the drinkers, it just drove up prices and drove us all underground. Since the illegalisation of coffee, and the almost simultaneous legalisation of marijuana, “a kilo of Columbia’s finest” has taken on a whole new meaning.

Just for the record, I’ve never taken anything illegal in my life. But I’ve been drinking coffee for as long as I can remember. I certainly never meant to become a dealer. I stocked up as soon as the ban was announced, and very soon friends knew that I had a pantry full of instant. Some of them told their friends and before I knew it strangers were offering to buy jars of coffee at ridiculously inflated prices. At the same time, I found myself out of work and unskilled. After all, there’s not much call for baristas these days.

My circle of friends and acquaintances quickly grew. It wasn’t long before I was sought out by some coffee growers from the country who had the product, but not the contacts. They hadn’t intended to get into this game either. They were just farmers who suddenly found themselves with a hillside of illegal substances. Or so they said.

One contact called Rod didn’t exactly look squeaky clean. He introduced himself to me in an email, saying he was a grower and suggesting that we meet face to face. He nominated that we meet up in a tea house. I can’t stand the stuff but went anyway. Rod wore a leather jacket, rode a Harley Davidson and bore a scar down his left cheek which was partly covered with stubble.

This wasn’t so much a business transaction as a warning to get off his patch. Rod was setting up shop and he didn’t want any competition. Seeing a sudden flash of a knife blade under the table while sipping on a cup of Earl Grey was enough to get me worried. I was forced to give him the names of my most regular customers, just to get out of the tearoom in one piece.

So, when a raspy voiced stranger asked me if I have any beans, the safe answer would have been “no”. Even though I have a shed full of the stuff in the backyard. But, when you’ve got commitments to buy a constant supply of beans, your customers keep shifting to the competition, and there’s bills to pay, it can be tempting.

You never know who you can trust nowadays.

“Have I got any beans? Yeah, sure. How many shots do you need?”

 

 

 

Martin Hadfield

 

Brisbane, Australia

 

 

 

 

Apart from Myself

          Apart from myself, who am I? Trying to pull myself forwards, while all the time pushing myself back. Who can blame Orpheus for not doing what was easier said?

           

          I tread on and on, trying to look forward, being drawn back on myself. Is it sentiment? This longing that short changes me?

           

          I tiptoe through life, routine after routine, instead of chasing after it. Letting it get away from me. Disconsolate with consolation. I’d love to lie down in the centre of an artic desert, reading the constellations, but I couldn’t bear the cold. I’d love to stand at the precipice of a mountain and take in the air, but I couldn’t stand the heights. I’d love to fly into space and see the world from above, but I’d be too claustrophobic.

           

          I’ve no destination in life. I just drift from day to day. But I can’t even do that without steadying myself.

           

          The stairs become harder. As if my very density’s dissuading me. I climb one-foot-in-front-of-the-other. Slowly reaching the top. Gravitating towards the dark cavernous opening, where I wade towards my bed and collapse into it. Setting myself adrift. Drifting apart from myself. All at sea. Swaying on the sheets. Tossed by my squalling consciousness.        

 

          Apart from myself I’m no-one. Just me. On my own. A lighthouse. Searching. My thoughts orbiting. Fast, then slow. Fast, then slow. Decoding. Dot, dash, dash. Dot, dash, CRASH. The waves crash against me. Unprovoked, but against me. I stand defiant. Taking whatever it throws. Then settling. Settling. Sleep takes me. Then takes me apart.

           

          Apart from myself. Who am I?

Anthony Ward

Durham, England

 

 

 

 

Only Because

 

These few things. Light that shimmered in a heat haze as if in its falling dappled through the trees it had become less real, how it danced over the still flowering bluebells, dandelion seeds that drifted in clouds through the still, warm air. The tumble of water over pebbled stones, a sky that was always clear, steps taken until the count of how many became as if an abstract thing. The colour of her hair which was as dark as her skin was pale, eyes that might have been blue or green or emerald or sometimes all at once. It was the cool of her touch when she took my hand and led me through first shocking and then deliciously cold water. Days that were warm, days that were more so, though it was impossible that there could have been so many. The stove on which we baked Welsh cakes, bread, warmed beans and vegetables and stews. Daisy chains worn as if we had some claim over the small world we inhabited, though ever in thrall to the changing weather, the ebb and flow of the seasons. Despite that it was always spring and there were always bluebells budding, dandelions and crocuses and tulips. When the moon filled the sky we danced in the meadow, afterwards so tired that it would feel as if it had been forever. When I drifted off to sleep the divide between waking and sleep would be as if a very fine thing. When she whispered her name in my ear it was because now I would forget. But listen, she said. Feel, and placed a hand onto a belly that registered just the faintest ripple of movement. The ghost of what had been, the memory of what would. Still, she said, still, although I had been, because I would not. Listen, she said, listen, though I did not know to what. The rush of the wind through the trees. The meaningless chatter of water in the stream. The cry of a songbird that had once been beautiful but now just marked the violent demarcation of its territory.

 

jm summers

South Wales, UK

 

 

 

Making Peace With Dandelions

Leaving the house after so long, I can't shake the feeling I have forgotten something. I rummage through my bag, but all the important things are there, purse, keys, spare mask. Good to go then.

As I start the car, the low fuel light comes on, and then the low tire pressure light, alternating in flashing neon, like the start of a migraine. I realize I will have to sort it out now, and this starts the tears again. The radio is tuned to your favorite station, the BBC World Service; a deep voice speaks over my whimpering, "A song can make you an alcoholic or a revolutionary." This is so preposterous I let out a bark of laughter, and I'm shocked by the sound.

I change channels, a bright female voice says, "Dandelions get a bad press. In fact, they are spectacular. Their petals--a lion's mane roaring, magically turning into fairy wings as...". A man with clipped tones interrupts her, "Very poetic, I'm sure, but they do ruin your lawn." And immediately you are back from the dead—fighting the dandelions, spraying poison like a demented monk sprinkling holy water. I tried to get you to be more environmentally friendly, mixing up a solution of water and vinegar. It proved ineffective, and it left behind a lingering smell of disappointment that, with all your chemicals, you couldn't banish. Looking over at the grass now, I know you would be proud--it is a green carpet, lush, and oh so dull.

For the last forty years, I have never gone anywhere without my hand in yours. But thinking about it now, your fingers were always cold in mine, dampening me down.

I feel skittish like a horse without a bridle as I get out of the car and walk over to the verge. I select a giant dandelion clock and wish as I blow away the tiny, white parachute seeds. They dance like the blessing of a new beginning before settling all over your perfect lawn.

 

Adele Evershed

Wilton, Connecticut, USA

 

 

 

 

An 11-Part Mini Saga of the Girl in the Box

Week 1 (Introduction)

In some distant far-flung land lived a girl in a box...

 

Week 2

The girl hardly remembered her parents or how she ended up in a box. Every time she asked, she was ignored or rebuked. The only people she knew were her caretakers, but she never saw them since they dwelled outside the box. Under their special attention, the girl thrived and bloomed.

 

Week 3

Life inside the box was dark and lonely. She was deprived of human touch, love, and companionship. Once she attempted to lift the box cover, only to find it sealed tight. That’s when she learned that leaving the box was forbidden. But why was it forbidden?

 

Week 4

Every day, through a little hole in the box, she would peep and conjure up imaginations and fantasies of the world outside. The girl would imagine herself romping along the verdant hills, gazing at the clear azure sky above. She would think about seeing the flamboyant colors of cities, the aromatic smells and tastes of palatable dishes, the noisy sound of chattering humans, and most of all, she pondered whether she would be welcomed.  She knew she was different. The mere thought of acceptance both captivated and terrified her. Her desire to leave was almost upon her, when she remembered her confinement. 

 

Week 5

Curiosity was the girl’s most prominent trait.

“You will soon know,” they said.

 

Week 6

“She is a special girl,” said her caretaker.

“Her deeds will make history!” cried another.

“She will be famous and people will remember her,” concurred a third.

This mysterious conversation puzzled the girl. She had never done anything worth acknowledging. What could they be talking about?

 

Week 7

The girl did not have to search for an answer. A day after she overheard the conversation, she was told that she was allowed to go outside. The girl’s heart leaped for joy. Now she had the opportunity to explore the world. This was the most exciting moment of her life.

 

Week 8

The girl was released in the woods. While she explored, she stumbled upon a village. She entered the village and received a warm welcome. She mingled with the villagers and spent the night there.

 

Week 9

The next morning, the girl discovered carnage. She fled in terror. She sought shelter in a nearby community only to find death the next morning. The girl could not understand.

 

Week 10

The girl roamed far and wide in search of food and shelter. Many times she was turned down and she knew no reasons. She longed for her box. However, she forgot her way home; now she is lost and all alone.

Week 11

Disillusioned, the girl wanders the ends of the earth claiming lives without remorse. She has realized her purpose and has become good at it. People will remember her as a scourge that plagued the world. This is her new life, the crowning glory of Veerus, the girl in the box.

 

Stefanie Kate Watchorna

 

Philippines

 

 

 

The Fan

 

Boyeng turns to face the electric fan. Relief. ‘Ahhhh!’

 

Suddenly it stops. He checks the outlet. Everything seems okay.

 

‘Nay, is the power out?’

 

‘Yes, nothing new! There was an announcement from the village authorities yesterday. Power levels are critical. It’s summer. Current use soars up and so do the bills!’

 

His mother is feeding a bowl of lugaw to his two younger sisters.

 

‘Where is the fan, Nay? I seem to have a fever. Damn hot weather!’

 

Mother hands the fan over to him, cut-out from a carton box of Lucky Me noodles.

 

Boyeng takes off his t-shirt and lays down on the Coco lumber floor. Sweat rolls down him.

Through their open door, he sees the neighbors’ blazing barong-barong roofs. It’s noontime. Heat is like hell, so they say. Children, shirtless, are all outside. Some play marbles while others dip themselves in huge plastic pails.

 

It’s the second time he showers after work. However, his sweat still drips uncontrollably, like their problematic faucet.

 

‘Still the same, Nay. We can only grab some plastics and bottles.’ He gives over fifty pesos to her. Sullen.

 

Boyeng, twelve years old, fatherless, no longer at school, the lone bread-winner, works by salvaging recyclables from the Smokey Mountain of Tondo, one of the most well-known trash and garbage dumpsites in Metro Manila. Closed because of the pandemic, it’s finally been re-opened, thanks to the urban-poor association. Thank God, they won’t starve now!

 

He gulps the glass of water his mother offers him.

 

His mother asks, ‘Did you hear, yesterday? Mang Inggo passed out and was hurried to the hospital! Too much heat! High BP!’

 

‘We need to secure more boxes of carton for insulation though.’ His eyes lift to their barong-barong roof. The roof’s height is just high enough for them to stand erect in their tiny abode. ‘Just to minimize the heat,’ he says to his younger sisters. The other one keeps on scrubbing her prickly heat rashes.

 

His nose becomes itchy. He unconsciously scratches it. Blood suddenly spurts out.

 

‘My God, Boyeng! You know I hate seeing blood! Go now! Get another shower!’ His mother, panicking, gives him the tabo and bath soap.

 

Night comes. Still no electric current.

 

A sister keeps crying. Itchy rashes are too much for her. His mother patiently sponges her with cold water for relief.

 

The youngest sister hates having no light. So, the candle remains lit while they are in bed. He keeps on fanning them.

 

His mother falls asleep in no time at all.

 

‘Hey, little Sis, please sleep now.’ He prods her and yawns tremendously.

 

He gradually unclasps the carton fan beside the burning candle, casting its light against the peculiarly dark night. His eyes surrender to nothingness, then to his dreams as they close. In his dream, everything is refreshing. He is diving and swimming in the serenest water, where colorful fishes are whirling in front of him. Aquatic plants and seaweeds are dancing and swaying, ushering him to the grandest and freshest seabed corners.

 

 

Zea Perez

Manila, Philippines

 

 

 

 

The Night That A Bug Flew Into My Room

 

‘Blood. I need, Blood.'

     The time came and the mosquito thought it, if we could say they think at all.

 

     She was flying throughout the streets in a warm, humid night of summer.  

It had been flying all night looking for an opening to fly in, where

humans sleep, so she could feed herself. She needed it.

And there she felt it, the warm light coming from an enormous

opening, it was her chance to get her meal that a dumb, slow human

would provide, she thought. She buzzed in and felt it, a big warm body, full of what she needed.

 

     Time had arrived, she flew towards the gigantic body.

     'Bitch,' she muttered to herself. One could have thought that she

heard the mosquito buzzing around and she got annoyed. But we 

would be wrong. Lucy was lying down on her bed, thinking,

or better to say, regurgitating memories about a co-worker of hers.

“Fucking lazy bitch.” She spoke out loudly this time while penetrating

the ceiling with her glaze. She still remembered the time she mocked

her haircut, with that hideous laugh. But she would get her

revenge, out lasting revenge on that whore, she thought.

     'There is my blood, stupid human no see me.'

The mosquito thought if we could say that they think. She flew to that

warm, huge vein, ready to land and sting, ready to get

herself satisfied. But she perceived something, a couple of glazing eyeballs, and the

motion of a huge surface with five towers moving towards her tiny but

speedy body.

     'Danger,' the mosquito thought, dodging her faith as mosquitoes

usually do.

 

     'Shit, a bug,’ Lucy thought, and she did what usually humans do while

terminating the life of a mosquito. But she failed, still boiling about her

co-worker. She felt too lazy to kill the mosquito. Still, it was too annoying to let it

be. Suddenly, something crossed her mind. She imagined that the

mosquito was her hatred co-worker, that hideous bitch, and fantasied

about terminating her, she found her motivation to finish it and

grabbed a book to smash the heck out of the defenceless being.

     'Human may sleep, I try again,' she thought, humans gave up easily,

lazy creatures they were, so she would try again. But something

strange was happening, now the human was picking something, the

human had those glazing eyes.

 

     'Danger!' And she dodged an enormous object, it almost hunted her

down, she needed to fly away, feed herself somewhere else.

 

       'I will kill you, bitch.'  One could have thought she referred to the

mosquito, but once again, we would be far from right. She was diving

into her fantasy, but instead of a book, she visualized a hammer. Every

miss was a hit-miss on her co-worker's skull, the more she missed her

target, the harder she smashed the book, trying to annihilate the

mosquito.

 

       ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck!” she thought, dodging as many certain deaths as she

could. The human was far from normal, compared to hazards she

dodged in the past. She dodged tricky spiderwebs, speedy sparrows,

and treacherous Drakos, Yet, she knew she was going to be her meal.

But this, this was far from normal in her reality. The human did not

want  to hunt her for his meal, the human wanted her destruction,

there was something monstrous on this human.

 

 

     'Don’t move whore!' she shouted this time, smashing as hard as she

could, but imagining it was her hammer on the face of her co-worker,

but in reality, it turned out to be her book on the window. Blood ran,

but it was hers, and the mosquito also-ran, but away from her.

'This bitch made me bleed,' she thought, her face was the description

of a dog with canine rabies, she was determined to bury a hammer

into the skull of her co-worker, and with such a thought, a smile grew

on her. The door of her room opened, and she heard her mum

shouting with concern.

 

     'Lucy! You’re bleeding! God! What is going on?'

 

     Lucy, crying aloud, answered.”Ohhhh, Mummyyy, I was sooo scared,

a bug flew in!!”

 

     The mosquito flew away, dodging the last impact, she saw her meal in

the air, enormous blood spheres flying by her side, along with shiny

crystals, but she was determined to run away from that creature,

regardless of the need for blood, just to fly away into the night.

 

     'What a horrible creature,' she thought, if we can really affirm what mosquitoes think.

 

Juan Moreno Diaz                                                 

Great Malvern, UK

 

 

 

 

Last Of The Great Axeman

 

Nothing stirs, nobody abroad in the eerie early light when he clicks his vehicle door softly shut, drives from his photo-filled flat to the protected wetlands where a fallen river red gum bough, partly harvested by him, lies in wait where no firewood may be gathered except in permitted periods.

 

He parks as close as he can, nose, old eyes, streaming in the scouring cold air, remembering when he was thirteen, always courting trouble, when he axed enough logs to fill the area under the water tanks, his bastard father arriving home from work, refusing to acknowledge the proudly stacked piles, the effort.

 

He totes tools across his wasted shoulders, axe, heavy log-splitter, sledgehammer, for this hard timber that takes years to rot, cocks an ear for movement, perhaps a long-distance runner trying to postpone the inevitable, but there is only stillness, hands burning with the cold, another memory.

 

The heavy slabs he breaks must be manageable to carry to his vehicle with frequent rest stops, several trips along the path skirting this lagoon, past silent swans, pelicans, watching, an ethereal mist starting to lift from their water, daylight ascending.

 

He swings lustily, splits the great log, a glistening red streak from its early days, its heart, exposed, but in those moments he ruptures his bicep tendon, knows with no regrets he could have had sawn stove wood delivered for the harsh winter ahead, knows those unknowing shall think he had no lack.  

 

 

Ian C Smith

Sale, Victoria, Australia

 

 

 

Sport

 

When they trap her she pushes off one, wrong footing them as they grope to strip her, then dodges, eluding oafish attempts to tackle her, executing a neat step over when another, fallen, tries to trip her before she sprints from beer and curses, her flight towards the penumbra of light.  Looking back when she reaches where twos and threes become an optimistic crowd, she sees them beyond moths bewitched by the floodlights’ effulgence, hunter-morons still fixed on their quarry.  Mingling with the throng, breath spent from rushing headlong, sweat aglow, she notes animal symbolism, red against white like blood on snow.  Sheltering amidst witless taunts to the opposition, she slips through the crowd’s maul towards black gates, towering walls.  Nearing turnstiles she bisects queues, to circumambulate below grandstand eaves, hopeful ranks, thinning, still coming as she leaves.

 

A nimble wraith of vulpine U-turns, she now jogtrots away from the light, stealth her sword, sedate side streets her shield, swallowed by the night.  She slows, arms akimbo, musing about contradictions, the pack’s mentality being virtuoso’s disregard.  Laughing, she lines up a can, kicks straight and hard, sending it clattering into the gutter, her follow through, arched foot level with bright eyes, manual-perfect for skill; far behind, a great roaring like savage beasts in the Colosseum closing on their kill.   

 

 

Ian C Smith

Sale, Victoria, Australia

 

 

 

Doctor’s Orders

A man’s brain had recently lost weight. Un-sedated, he lay on a pristine hospital bed. When the doctor entered the pristine room with a power-drill in his hand, the man thought of all the different ways he could be pristinely tortured…

 

            “What’s the drill for?” asked the man.

 

            “We have to make a hole in your head,” said the doctor. “There’s too much build-up in there.”

 

            The man heard a mechanical whirring behind his ear. “Wait,” he said. “Can I die from this—?”

 

            But the doctor had already commenced the drilling. Right on the crown of his skull. The man tried to hold still and shivered as a rivulet of blood slid down his spine. Bone ruptured and split. Then the drill broke through and poked his brain—and he felt a release.

 

            “Isn’t that better?” asked the doctor.

 

            “Yes, yes,” stammered the man. “Much better.”

 

            “Now,” said the doctor. “You’re going to have to keep that weight off.”

 

            “I’ve tried,” said the man.

 

            “Just keep your nose out of those damn books,” said the doctor. “Smoke a lung-threatening cigar. Drink booze, not beer.”

 

            The man scribbled down notes on loose paper.

 

            “And most importantly, make love to your wife when you get home.”

 

            The man sighed. Stared into the linoleum floor. “I can’t,” he said.

 

            “You must!” exclaimed the doctor.

 

            “We haven’t…you know…in months.”

 

            The doctor was silent and glaring.

 

            “I don’t think she loves me,” said the man.

 

            “Oh well,” said the doctor. “There’s nothing wrong with that. You’ll have to tell her it’s the doctor’s orders.”

 

            “Yessir.”

 

 

             Back at home, he told his wife about the doctor’s orders. She replied that she would rather lick a dead fish than sleep with him again. In fact, she told him he’d have to make love to his pillow instead.

 

            And so, the man is now making love to his pillow, enamored by its opulent curves and pristineness, and it’s much better than his wife…

 

Lucas Clark

Smithville, Ohio, USA

 

 

 

 

Scarlet

 

She took his hand as if for the first and the last time too. The cherry blossom had opened that day, its colour that of her thoughts, of the morning sky in which a pale moon lingered. Dew still wet on the grass under her bare feet, goosebumps, fleetingly on her arms. When she woke, the startling blue of his eyes. A bee, as if it were the first, attracted by the newly blossomed forsythia, still flowering snowdrops, daffodils, budding tulips. It was newness, it was change, it was waking from the slumber of winter, the casting off of things grown stale and the waking to new. Now it will be different, he told her. They woke to a room empty but for a bed and chest of drawers, bare walls and carpet, windows without curtains. Because there was no one else, empty fields for as far as she could see and as far as she knew. The bathroom with the dripping tap. The smell of things old, grown musty with disuse, lacking in ways she could not express. The love between them defined by an absence. It was in the dreams that came to her, things that must once have seemed ordinary. Another’s touch. It was all that he said would be theirs one day when winter had passed. Look, he said, and his words were the colour of a dawn newly broken, the shade too of night when it was at its darkest. All she thought she knew, the potential for change, possibilities hitherto undreamed of, apple blossom ephemeral as the moon, his touch when he passed. He put his hand to her stomach and felt for movement, his ear to listen, breath warm on her skin. Now it was time, he said, and when they kissed she felt his breath as if it were her own. Folded him in her arms till only the thin linen of her dress separated their bodies, pregnant with the possibility of what now could be. An owl cried though the sky was bright for all that had passed, all it had thought certain, all that it thought it knew. The world become new, all that he had been, and her too.

 

 

jm summers

 

South Wales

 

 

Killed With Kindness

 

Aaron was vulnerable. So very vulnerable. Even to the last.

‘I don’t want to die,’ he sobbed to Nicole, as she forced another pill on him.

‘But it’s for your own good. It’s the best way to end your pain and suffering.’

‘But…’

‘Don’t break your promise, Aaron. Make me proud of you, for once.’

‘Yes, but…’

‘Shush. You don’t want the silent treatment again, do you?’

 

An unlikely tony-town romance. Shy, ice-cream scooper meets self-confident Ivy-Leaguer. A fifth-generation trailer-trash no-hoper falls for the spoilt spawn of successful real-estate professionals. A relationship built on cruelty and dependency.

 

Ever had a boyfriend so lame and limp you named him Lettuce Boy? Well, ask Nicole about that.

Ever had a girlfriend so mean, she tongued a college boy right in front of you? Ask Aaron all about it.

Ever had another human stick to your skin like a leech? Again, ask Nicole.

Ever had a girlfriend you pledged to die for and had the promise accepted? You could ask Aaron, if only he still was around.

 

‘One more pill, Aaron. Just one more.’

‘But…’

 

From the beginning, Aaron sensed danger, but his desperate loneliness led him willingly to his doom. What choice did he have? [‘I’ll choose you a flavor, Aaron.’ ’Gee, thanks Nicole.’] Crippled inside, any crutch would do, even when it was repeatedly kicked from under him.

 

[Sunday at the lake]

‘Ever creamed a girl before, Aaron?’

‘Nicole?’

‘You know, rubbed sun-cream all over a girl’s hot flesh?’

‘Well, no.’

‘Didn’t think so. Would you like to?’

‘Sure. I mean, I’d love to.’

‘Okay. But you need to earn it.’

‘Oh.’

‘See those pretty flowers on the island. I’d love a bunch of those to take home. Think you could get me some?’

‘Aren’t they the same flowers as these ones?’

‘I don’t think so. They’re more colourful and brighter.’

‘It’s only the light, Nicole.’

‘Let me be the judge of that, Aaron. Am I going to get my flowers or not?’

‘Seems quite a swim.’

‘Is it beyond your strength? I’ve had other boys make it.’

‘When?’

‘When I came with Todd, or maybe it was Harry. My skin’s getting awfully red, Aaron. You don’t want me to burn, do you?’

‘No, ‘course not.’

‘That’s the manly spirit! Pants and shirt off, mister…that’s it! And your boxers. I won’t want you near me with wet boxers.’

[Ten minutes later Aaron waves from the island whilst Nicole texts him the message he reads on his return]

‘Apologies - fed up of waiting - gone home - starting to burn - feeling bad about it so taken your laundry to clean - I know - I’m such a love bunny! See you tomorrow - N’

 

‘I’m scared, Nicole.’

‘Take the fuckin’ pill, Aaron.’

 

[Aaron reads his poem to Nicole]

‘You smote me with your scent and smile.

I crept on my knees after you – mile upon mile.

I was a creature without a dream

Until you came and made me…’

 

‘Aaron, no more of this romantic junk, okay?’

‘Whatever you say, Nicole.’

 

[For the record]

Childhood A:

Parents locked into their screens. Neglected hours spent in a pretty, pink bedroom. Rows of Barbies strung up by their necks in the closet. A bleach-poisoned goldfish floating belly side-up in a bowl. The puppy being ridden like a horse until it’s back becomes broken.

 

Childhood B:

Rusted trailer on the edge of town. A father to both the mother and her son. Most treasured possession: a bike without brakes. 50% school attendance. Saturday nights dodging flying empty liquor bottles. Sunday mornings mending broken windows with Saron-wrap.

 

‘Aaron, can you hear me? Aaron.

Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!’

 

[Money, power, influence]

Daddy called the family attorney who, in turn, called the cops and a top defense attorney. Mummy visited the trailer with a brief-case full of greenbacks and the father [‘I’m telling you straight, Lou, he was such an odd, old looking bastard!’] was more than happy to testify in court that Aaron was a bat-shit crazy, suicidal depressive since the day he was brought into the world by his sweet, caring mother. Psychologists, psychiatrists, euthanasia experts, forensic toxicologists and addiction specialists so confused the jury that they failed to reach a conclusive decision.

 

A family vacation to Montserrat to celebrate. First class travel and a personal masseur-mindfulness coach for Mommy and her babykin.

 

[Postscript – college library]

‘Hey, it’s Norman right? What ya reading, huh? The Iliad. My, my! And in the original Greek, too. Are you some kind of genius, sweety-pie?’

‘Well, I…’

[He’s wearing sandals and socks - how cute!]

‘wait a moment…’

[He’s so thin and weedy. He needs fattening up.]

‘aren’t you the…’

[Cheap deodorant. How quaint!]

‘girl who was on…’

[I better he’s never kissed a girl.]

‘TV?’

[Maybe he’s gay?]

‘On trial for involuntary manslaughter…’

[Aw, see how he avoids eye contact. A sure sign of his feebleness.]

‘or something like that?’

[So shy and vulnerable!]

 

Je Swarez

Atlantis

 

 

 

 

Fear

When I was about eight years old, my father forced me to go with him to the funeral of a friend of his that I didn't know. I had unwillingly relented. We were living at Nainital at that time. At that tender age, I was a shy kid. I was more intent to play games than to go and visit a funeral. I loathed it but had to listen to my father.
 

It was a clear morning, when we got there. We had parked our car outside the cemetery. The cemetery had a narrow, gravelled pathway. It was dotted with Cedar, Spruce, Cypress and Miranda trees which acted as a canopy for the underlying graves. We had walked along the path towards the congregation where the ceremony was to take place. I stayed in a corner beside a Cypress tree waiting for the time to pass and again was peeping at the proceedings of the ceremony to check if it was over.

Then suddenly, a man approached me from behind and said, ‘Enjoy life boy, be happy because time flies. Look at me now, I didn't enjoy life!’

It was a weird, stray comment from a stranger. Then he passed his hand over my head and his hands kissed my hair and then he left as mysteriously as he had arrived.

My father, before leaving, forced me to say goodbye to the dead person. I looked in the coffin and was startled that the man who was talking to me when I was standing beneath the Cypress tree was the same man in the coffin. I was petrified and yet when my father asked, ‘You ok?’ I had answered, ‘Yes!’

Although, I had sweaty palms, I didn’t have the courage to tell him about the incident. After all, it was broad day light and I didn’t want to make myself a laughing stock. Silently I was unable to tell anyone of this incident.

Years later, when my father passed away, I went to the same cemetery. After his burial, as we were walking towards my car, with my mother beside me. Once again, I saw the man. The man who was my father's friend, whom they had buried at the cemetery when I had visited this place years ago, was walking out of the crowd towards me. The stress and everything got to me. I fainted.

When I came around, I didn’t find the dead. The first words that I had uttered was, ‘The man in the coffin!’

‘Yes, that was your father, Johnny!” replied my mom.

 

‘No, not him, I saw one of my father’s dead friends!’

 

‘The shock is tremendous, I guess!’ replied my mom and stared at my girlfriend Joanna.

 

I had not elaborated after that. Neither did they ask me anything regarding this anymore. I was not able to sleep properly and had repeated nightmares. I was terrified of being alone. I didn't turn off the light at night and had several other turmoils which almost wrecked me psychologically. I always wanted to know, ‘Why me?’

 

Later on, I was forced to visit many psychologists at the behest and insistence of my mother and girlfriend. Though they said, ‘There is no issues with you!’ This process went on for two decades. Then I discovered something incredible that changed my life, completely. That dead idiot had an identical twin!

 

Shamik Dhar

Kolkata, India

 

 

Unloved‘Oh, God!’   

'Oh, God!'

 

Another call from believers prompts Jesus’ return to ‘the scene of the crime’. The room is small, with only a few people around. Too little for another Last Supper. Some have masks on their faces, the Pope and some other fellow, Bill something. Jesus nods to his colleague who’s looking at his clothing - very ordinary for such an important figure, he thinks. Previous ones were glittering in gold, brighter than the Sun itself. Last time he was here, in Potsdam, there were hundreds of humans around, dressed sharply, many in uniforms and with medals, especially those who didn’t look kindly to his figure. He thought it was the last time, definitely Last supper, when he’d sent them to San Francisco, as it looked like the peace was here to stay. However, every time, at Waterloo, during Saint Laurent trouser experiment or suffragette movement, he believed it was the last time but, of course, it wasn’t. 

 

‘Who are these three guys?’ Jesus is wondering.

‘They are three presidents - Trump, Putin and Kim of North Korea,' Bill whispers to Jesus, as if he is able to hear his thoughts, standing two feet apart. Jesus is looking towards the distance, contemplating what is going on, as everybody was keen to touch him until now.

‘But where are the rest? And why do you have a mask?’

 

‘Social distancing,’ Bill shrugs the shoulders. ‘That is why we summoned you. This is a crisis beyond any recollection.’

 

Jesus smiles, wanting to tell him a few words about crisis, calamities and disasters, but across the table, one of the presidents, the red one, makes a speech. Jesus doesn’t believe what is he hearing, looking left and right, to the Pope and Bill for a reaction on their masked faces. What kind of world is this? Talking of some virus that kills thousands of people isn’t the problem, but violent protestors and the economy are.

Nobody can interrupt the speaker, as he rages on and on, about democrats, journalists of CNN and other anti-American media, people who attack police guns and knees with their bodies and throats, China, China, China and so on. 

 

Finally, he stops talking, looking at the crowd around the table, only half of the required number, due to Covid-19 restrictions.

 

Jesus also looks around the table, but mostly upward, to the heavens. He breaks the silence trying to change the subject:

 

‘One of you will betray me!’

 

A second later, the red president replies. ‘I will, I will!’ I am good at betraying, lying, in general - all the vicious and brutal things us humans are doing to fellow humans and nature.’

 

The wingmen, both shouting, approve. All three leave the table and the chamber is happy and jubilant.

 

The Pope and Bill are excited and, without saying goodbye, two feet apart, leave Jesus alone and wondering to himself.

 

‘Oh, God!’  With nothing better to say, Jesus shouts in despair, as any believer or agnostic around the globe would when in a similar position.

 

 

Jovan Ivančević

 

from the Balkans

 

 

 

 

The Follower

 

“Have you seen Ravi?” Mr. Singh asked me.

 

‘No, Mr. Singh. He told me he was going to visit his native place for some days. Probably he’s gone there,’ I lied.

 

Okay, let me tell you about Ravi and Mr. Singh. You must be wondering who the hell they are! Ravi and I were neighbours. Mr. Singh was the owner of the flat. I don’t know why Mr. Singh was so concerned about Ravi. Every now and then he asked me about his whereabouts, as if I was his guardian. It was so irritating sometimes. I locked the door and was about leave and, again all of a sudden, that same dog started barking at me. It was Ravi’s pet, a street dog whom Ravi used to always feed with his leftover food. I always carry a packet of biscuits with me and I gave him a small piece, so that he wouldn’t follow me again, like he did on other days when I was going to my office. Mission accomplished!

 

After work, I was coming home and again that nasty dog followed me. I didn’t know how to get rid of him. Just like his owner, Ravi. Irritating, stalker, abuser and blah blah blah! He’s a nasty piece of work. I think all the bad characteristics that a person can have was in him and that’s why I....ooh ok ... nothing. it’s a secret😏.

Even after all these days that dog can still smell his owner’s blood on my hands.

Can you suggest me a way to get rid of it? I will be grateful to you then.

 

Oh, now you came to know about my secret. It’s ok to share with you readers. I hope you won’t tell this to anyone else 😉

 

 

Prapti Gupta

 

Kolkata, India

 

 

 

The Get Together

 

‘Mom are you ready?’ I ask.

 

‘Yes dear, let’s go,’ she replies.

 

Today my mom and I are very excited. After a long time without seeing him, we are going to meet with father. I can’t really explain how happy and excited I am. After a lot of struggle and patience we are getting to meet him. But the sad part is the meeting period is very short, just 10 minutes.

 

On our way, I was thinking what questions I will be asking him. There are so many but I can’t ask all of them. We reach the place after some time. Mr. Morgan is waiting for us. He’s the medium through which we are going to talk with father.

 

He looks at us in a very strange manner, as if he hasn’t seen people like us before. Yes, I admit we are different because we are new to this place, but yet we look like human beings.

 

‘Good morning Mrs. Evans, I was just waiting for you and your son,’ he says to us.

 

‘Is everything ready? We can’t wait to meet him; hope you can understand,’ my mom says to him.

 

‘Yes. The whole process will be 20 minutes and you can talk to him for about 10 minutes, not more than that, otherwise it can be risky for me,” he says.

 

We are disappointed upon hearing about the time limit but still we nod.

 

Then he takes us inside a room. It is a dark room, in fact very dark.

 

Okay, let me be clear with the facts. We are going to do planchette. This is the only method and medium of our contact with him.

 

My mom and I haven’t talked with father since the day we two died in a road accident a year ago but which he survived!

 

It’s really a special day for both of us.

 

 

 

Prapti Gupta

 

Kolkata, India

 

 

 

 

Waving

 

She appeared to be waving at me as I ambled down the street. Though being so short sighted, I could not tell, nor determine, who it was from the distance. Her face was obscured by waves of billowing brown hair. Fearing I may be rude, I raised my hand and waved back at her. This gesture being reciprocated by a ‘Hey.’

 

          ‘Hey,’ I replied as she walked straight passed. Then I realised that she had not been waving at me at all. ‘Phew,’ I thought to myself, ‘she was far too beautiful to talk to. I would have been beside myself.’

 

          As I turned the corner, I spotted her heading in my direction, which I thought was odd as she had just literally passed me a moment ago. Again, she appeared to be waving at me. I was in two minds whether I should wave back. Fearing that it couldn’t be a coincidence, I retuned the wave just in case. Though she walked right on by and I watched her walk on down the street without turning round.

 

          Then I turned another corner and spotted her walking towards me. This time I didn’t wave at all and I pushed on walking until I passed her.

 

          I turned another corner and spotted her walking towards me. It looked like she was jumping up and down, trying to get my attention. I just ignored her and walked on passed.

 

          But no sooner had I passed her, I decided to turn round and follow her.

 

          I was just about to catch up with her when she turned the corner. But when I turned the corner, I recognised her beige brown pea jacket halfway down the street. I chased after her, and once I turned the corner, she was halfway down the street again.

 

          This went on several more times before I decided to give up and turn back. But no sooner had I given up on her, I turned around and found her right in front of me.

 

          ‘Hey.’ she said with a sunrising smile. ‘How’s it going?’

 

          ‘Er, fine,’ I replied tripping over my words. ‘Great.’

 

          ‘Great!’ She beamed brushing her hair behind her ear, as I fell into her deep hazel eyes. ‘Why are you following me?’

 

          ‘Following you! I’m not following you.’

 

          ‘Yes, you are. You’ve writing about me as I speak.’

 

          ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about!’ I retaliate. ‘I have no idea who you are. I didn’t even know you existed until I started…’

 

Anthony Ward

Durham, England

 

 

 

 

Unloved

Tell me, he said, how it was, and so I did. Kissed him with lips as red as... Blood, he said. As night, I said, skin as pale as the moon. He wanted to know what it meant, but it did not mean anything. Because there is no meaning, I told him. Except this, except love. Though this was not love. I felt his arms around me, his lips on mine. Asked if he was sure this was what he wanted, and he said, of course. Then it would be, I said, but not yet. Tell me a story, he said, this time one that is about love, and so I did. Afterwards he told me that this was love, that he did this for me. He had not eaten in a long time. I told him that he did not love me, not truly, but only the idea of me. How then, he asked. I told him that he knew already. Passed the razor, the bottle of pills. Kissed his lips tenderly, as if it were a beautiful thing. But first, I said, tell me that of which you are most afraid. In the very depths of the night, what you most fear that you might see. He whispered the words in my ear. The wardrobe door opened a little, barely a crack. Touch me, I said. Felt his hand on my leg, the bare, pale skin of my thigh. Kiss me, I said. He did, as if for the first time. Make love to me, I said, and when he did I looked deep into his eyes, and saw nothing there except my own reflection. Now, I said, now you are ready. After he had cut blood began to flow, and when I made to leave he asked why. I told him that it was because he had not learned to love enough, though there was no reason. Opened the door a little, said there, now it is ready. Pale eyes in the darkness. Felt my belly swell, pregnant with the first fruits of his death. At the last he asked if there would be anything left for him, but the blood that flowed was like waves on a distant shore. Unloved. One he would remain forever unable to reach.

 

jm summers

 

South Wales

Mr. Barish

 

Dec. 09. 2042.

 

It is with the hollowness in my soul that I remember this day – Mr. Barish’s death anniversary. At the end of my life that is bygone with the memories that are lost in time, I remember not much about Mr. Barish, but the last conversation, or session, I had with him is still fresh in my memory…

 

‘You know something, Doc? If the people are the dressing table, and the memories the cosmetics… then it is your life that is the mirror.’

 

‘Is that right, Mr. Barish? Where did that come from?’

 

‘When I was brushing my teeth this morning.’

 

I grinned upon hearing this. He stood by the window, looking at the white sky blending with mountains dressed in snow, and then he turned – the life in his eyes was gone, and then it was there again.

 

I said, ‘I’m sorry to remind you Mr. Barish, but... your last three albums have been flops.’

 

‘They don’t get me, you know. They can’t feel what I feel,’ he paused, ‘at least, not yet.’

 

‘What is it exactly that they need to feel?’

 

‘I know you don’t feel it too, Doc, but do you know why I still pay to talk to you?’

 

I said nothing. My job was on the line. I was too selfish. As I thought of that, he asked me to show my palm, and handed over a key.

 

‘What is this, Mr. Barish?’ I asked with instant regret.

 

‘I pay you because you are the key into that,’ he pointed at the drawer of the dressing table behind him. ‘What is the meaning of life, Doc? It is something,’ he said as a smile turned up on his face, ‘it is that something we keep chasing and chasing and chasing, and just when we think we’ve made it, that we’ll know now what is that something – we die.’

 

‘But what exactly is your point, Mr. Barish?’

 

‘I think I’ll never make it.’

 

‘Perhaps you don’t need to, if death is what awaits right after it,’ I said as I looked at the clock on the dressing table. Mr. Barish followed my eyes but didn’t say anything. That was the last time I met him.

 

The next day the call came in, they'd found him on the floor – covered in blood, with the mirror smashed.

 

 

 

Udbhav Rai

 

India

 

 

 

 

my books

 

excuse me – my shift key and tab key no longer work but i want to tell you about my books. they’re wonderful inventions, i don't know what i'd do without them, they're so useful. in the books, i talk about toxic rain and how to stop it, plastic and why we should stop using it, destruction of the ozone layer and what to do about it, nuclear war and how to avoid it. but i suppose i should say that those aren't the reasons my books are useful. after all, none of those things matter anymore, it's pointless to even discuss them. the reason they're useful is because we nuked our world back to the stone age, we had non-stop winter, the snow has barricaded me in my house, and the burning books keep me warm.

William Kitcher

Toronto, Canada

 

 

 

 

Nothing Bad Happens In This Story

 

Nothing bad happens in this story. Right from where it starts to the last sentence, people go out and explore the mountainous terrains of the Spiti Valley. There are beaches, first kisses, friendly neighbours, ‘not-so-friendly’ uncles; even fathers return home in this one.

 

Isha sits down at her laptop, typing away an article about vacuum cleaners: 5 ways how Kavel's vacuum cleaners will change your life. ‘Change your life huh?’ Isha wonders aloud to a stuffed room, its walls painted in doodles. ‘People are just desperate to change their life, so much so that they will buy a new vacuum cleaner to make that happen.’ She scoffs at air, ‘You hear than Johnston? Isn't that funny?’

 

There is a lamppost that flickers. Her sister's lamppost. The one she brought from Spiti Valley. It’s a stupid old lamppost that does nothing but flicker. But it's important because it comes from the Spiti Valley. It comes from experience. ‘I absolutely hate this lamppost. But I cannot get rid of it because, if I do, she will come back and notice it gone. But I want it to be known that I hate this lamppost. You write that down Joshua.'

 

Vacuum cleaners do not clean vacuums. That's a funny little thought for you. But can you imagine if they did? Bars would be empty, then you could bet that on your life. ‘I have a life.’ Isha types away: 1. Kavel's vacuum cleaner can help YOU be more time-efficient.

 

How many articles does one have to write before they can afford a trip to Port Blair? Depends on how much they are paid per word. Isha's friends went down to the local beach when they were in school. Both her best friends did. ‘You know Johnston, I am only twenty-five. Plenty of time for first kisses. Besides, I HATE school trips. Really bad things can happen on school trips.’

 

Speaking of feeling uncomfortable, Isha cannot remember what happened at her aunt's place that night. Sure, her uncle insisted that she drank when she was only twelve. He was being a funny-funny man. Nothing bad happened in the storeroom that night. Her funny uncle is a decent father to her cousins. Five years later he still comes back home with pastries and fruit juice. 'It's all good Johnny, it's all good.'

 

As stated before, nothing bad happens in this story. Even though the room Isha sits in is filled with only a feverish, yellow light of the flickering lamp. The small seven-year-old fridge, which once belonged to her mother, does not contain much to eat, but there are cheese slices and cold water. She won’t sleep hungry.

 

Isha is breathing and the air is somewhat clean. There are stars outside, although it's a little cloudy. There’s not going be any rain tonight, and Isha has never been drenched in the rain, ever. But there might be rain one day. Something bad may happen one day too.

 

 

 

Aishwarya Srivastava

 

Lucknow, India

 

 

 

 

The Time Machine

'Do you want me to help with the washing up?'

 

'No, you silly old fool, its going straight in the dishwasher like every other morning; you just go to your shed and carry on playing with your tatt!'

 

'Here we go again'! he mutters.

 

'It’s a workshop woman and I am immersed in a scientific project of enormous importance for the future of mankind!'

 

Changing out of his slippers into steel toe capped boots, he gently closes the backdoor.

Elizabeth Carmichael gave up moaning years ago. If she were honest with herself, she did worry that Samuel had just a little bit of dementia or possibly OCD. Either way, she wasn't going to worry about it today - she had too much on! Pilates, painting class, lunch with two of the golden girls from the golf club, then the afternoon at the art gallery with an old school chum - perfect.

 

Samuel stepped awkwardly into his overalls - things took longer these days.

 

'Morning Sam' A young woman with shiny black shoulder length hair, nose and eyebrow piercings, dressed in torn black t-shirt and ripped jeans breezes in through the wooden door with two steaming coffees.

 

'How's it going my Main Man?' she asks, pulling herself gracefully up onto his work bench and sitting cross-legged amongst the metal filings.

 

'Skylar, would you mind?' he pleads. 'There is a perfectly good chair right there!'

 

Skylar laughs, points to the bumps on her backbone and does not move.

 

'Can we estimate any kind of completion/finalization yet my friend?' she enquires, head resting to one side like a little sparrow.

 

'I would say - give or take - earliest could be this Friday,' Sam replies.

 

'Ace!' Skylar, unfolding her long legs, glides to the floor. 'Today is Tuesday, right Sam?' He nods in agreement

 

'What do you think I should bring?' Skylar asks, her large green eyes piercing into his faded grey ones.

 

'Well, in all honesty, just yourself; not much room onboard for mementos.'

 

'Fine by me, I'll drop by on Thursday just to check in, tatty bye,' and she is gone.

 

Days pass as they do when you are retired and unconfined by timetables. Skylar peeps through the workshop window late Thursday, mouths, ’See you tomorrow,' and is gone in a cloud of stardust.

 

Friday dawns bright and clear. Sam disappears into his workshop and Elizabeth decides to spend the day shopping and lunching with ladies from 'The Club'.

 

Sam puts the finishing touches to his creation, which somewhat resembles a portable toilet; and as he stands back to admire his handiwork, Skylar appears. Holding hands they enter and quietly close the door.

 

It wasn't as if Elizabeth missed him; in fact, she preferred life without the silly old fool; it was just the not being able to explain.

 

Well, you can hardly say your husband had just gone off in his Time Machine with a faerie - can you?

 

 

 

Tricia Waller

 

On the border between Hertfordshire and London, England

The Winter And Summer Of A Helium Balloon

There are different types of rivers. Some are small, others- big. Some are beautiful, others - nothing special. But all of them have something in common – they bring back memories.

Here is Vltava. Do you remember how we walked along it one winter night? Of course you do. You were in your black coat, I in my big blue jacket. I dreamed of summer, when the extra clothes would be useless, when everything would be lighter and nicer. Then, maybe just then, I would be actually happy.

I took you by the arm so that I didn’t lose you. You were so far away. When I was a child, they used to buy me helium balloons. Who would have guessed that this would teach me how to deal with you? But you don't know something more. I took you by the arm so that you don’t end up losing me.

We hardly talked anymore. You lit cigarette after cigarette. And we said ~ bye ~ and you kissed me on the lips, and I didn't feel anything towards you.

 

When two people are helium balloons, the question is which one will take off first. That was me. But you know I didn’t do it on purpose. You just forgot to hold me.

 

Here is Vltava again, but in the summer. Everything is lighter and nicer. Now I know that there are things that weigh more than a winter jacket. They are not to be seen. And then -not now- just then, I might have been actually happy.

 

Not all the people are helium balloons. Some are ordinary balloons. I can't stand that some people forget how to fly. That's why I'm afraid for you. You, for me - not anymore. We sit by the river and the sun shines in our eyes. You close yours, so that you don't go blind, and I close mine for something else. You won't see this anyway. But if my eyes were canvases and the sun was an artist, it would immerse its brush in a lake, completely lonely and it would reflect itself half-way. That’s when I know my soul is painted with watercolors.

 

We talk a lot. And we say ~ bye ~. And you don't kiss me on the lips.

If you want to make a helium balloon fall, you have to pierce it with a needle. But who would have guessed that some balloons fall due to the lack of piercing? Now, if you wish, you can keep me forever. But you let the wind blow me away.

 

Since then I’ve crossed many rivers. Much bigger, but all empty.

 

 

 

Nina Zhelyazkova

 

Bulgaria

 

 

 

An Incarnation of Chiaroscuro

 

Almost September, winter’s end, broke but free, hooked on a movie, I mutter, hands like moths fluttering in my familiar docks’ rusty halls.  A foraging dog prowls the remains of a fire on stained concrete.  I breathe the sharp smell of tar, break bylaws of trespass but blend in, here in the ‘fifties of my strange lonely boyhood, after escaping from school and home to the Port of Melbourne’s brick and iron bowels.  A barge hoots near Constitution Docks’ dark sheds.  Place intertwines with wan happiness, this entrepot my mise-en-scene.

 

Near a goods embankment I reprise ‘Waterfront, Maribyrnong/Yarra the Hudson River’s stand-in.  Pigeons like boxer Terry Molloy’s rise from a broken sawtooth roof, clattering through mist over oily water as I flip his collar, air chill, damp, my quick fists burrowing into jacket pockets.  I long for an angel with Edie’s face, convent-innocent, unlike mine, who might understand, even share, my boyish dream of making the big time.

 

Eva Marie Saint’s first movie, the only woman cast by fellow Oscar winner Elia Kazan, with Steiger, Malden, Lee J. Cobb, and Brando, hotshock of Streetcar. American cinema-verite, another first, a triumph in monochrome, the neo-realism of Hoboken-on-Hudson’s corruption.  Brando hung out with Rocky Marciano long after Nebraska, and military school, absorbing inarticulate authenticity, hoping to become a contender. 

Did Eva Marie study the religiously dutiful to become chaste Edie trying to resist the kid brother of a mobster?

 

Her fair hair, alabaster complexion, lit up that bleak waterfront landscape like saints’ haloes in medieval art. 

Brando, often shot in shadowy semi-darkness, echoing my teenaged days, contrasted with her angelic glow, the camera’ work with light and shadow at the moral heart of this moody movie that captivated me incognito in those sour docklands now archived by memory’s lens.

 

 

Ian C Smith

 

Sale, Victoria, Australia

Blues

( blue (Austral. sl. ) argument, row)

 

We rented behind a block of corner shops, rooms like gloomy cells one side of a narrow hallway abutting the next shop, parking space, entry, from a back lane.  Beyond our kitchen’s locked door our landlord the butcher weighed chops, sausages, sexual innuendo, for women eking out housekeeping days.  We heard cleaver thuds, saucy laughter.

 

That summer we argued again, as the poor who toil for the dishonest do, heat, need, itching under our skin, voices muted by butchery until temper betrayed hot secrets.  I stamped off, drove, half-crazed.  This was when Donald Campbell attempted to hurtle Bluebird across central Australia’s aridity for the land speed record.  I hurtled my blue Volkswagen through Melbourne’s southern suburbs to the cool pub.

 

Returning, contrite, I clipped the gate left ajar, and a plastic toy.  Inside, darkened rooms echoed, as haunting as distant Lake Eyre.  After phone calls they came back, each of us subdued.  We tried in our cyclic way but damage dug deeper each time.  I hammered out my Beetle’s dent, resprayed the panel Summer Blue, its paint shop colour, but patch-ups bear scars.

 

Campbell, born wealthy where I lived as a boy, died chasing the water speed record three years after Lake Eyre, his body located in Coniston Water’s deep decades later.  He could not foresee death so soon despite risks taken, and perhaps I am still alive because, born poor, I drove a Beetle instead of the Bluebird.

 

Under summer’s brilliant night sky, alone except for ghosts from the unshakeable past, mind a weft of loss, wonder, my age now unimaginable then, I am driving that hot day of misery again, not quite making the tight turn from our back lane where love’s guttering light found the fraught future hard to penetrate.  I scan iron galaxies for shooting stars, blazing blurs hurtling across stellar space so briefly glimpsed.    

 

 

Ian C Smith

 

Sale, Victoria, Australia

 

 

 

 

Cachupoi Alu!

 

Today, one of the goats encounters his love interest. The goat is mad!

The effect is like hell to me. I so disappoint my father. He cannot believe one of the goats is missing. He lectures me for my irresponsibility. Well, he did warn me that goats are foolish when in mating age. I agree somehow. Why did I miss out to check thoroughly if the goats are complete? I have no idea that I am engaged in a much bigger task. Tending the goats and expanding their numbers require my time and discipline. Though

 

I spend every moment with the goats I enjoy it. They are lovable creatures.

I usher the goats every day to a grassy area on a façade backdrop of two-story, ebony colored, wooden bungalow houses of the affluent families in our village. The grasses do not seem to mind. It keeps on growing and growing while the goats eat them daily. The vibrant and lush Cogon Grasses are their favorites, spreading on both sides of a limestone road where one spur is routing to our home.

 

My retribution, father asks me to locate the mad goat. Pronto! He supposes I must use my deductive ability. Can I account all the neighbors who are tending goats? I count like three to five. And so, our retrieval ordeal commences. It is already dark. It’s past six in the evening.

 

I am down. I think my father loves the goat more than myself.  More so, my father usually asks me to ensure that the goats get their snacks. He does not even bother to ask me if I’ve had one. Why would he have me find it in the middle of the night?  Can’t it wait in the morning? Maybe, he does not see me as a fragile girl. What if I may encounter a huge snake blocking the road? Why can’t my father find the goat by himself?

 

However, father is unrelenting. Together we will find the goat. We use good flashlights. We check the goats’ resting places from one neighbor to another. Fortunately, in less than an hour we finally find him. True enough, it is just around the neighborhood.  To my relief I even hug the goat, overpowering my irritation. But the mad goat will not leave his love one that simple. My father drags him hard around to detach him from his love one. The goat is noisy until we arrive home. It is a terrible ordeal.  The mad goat seems to get his dose of reprimand from his parents because they are all so noisy when they see him.

 

When everything settles, my father is in excellent mood. I overhear him conversing with my mother as they lay in bed, thinking I am already asleep.  He admires my sense of responsibility. He says, though I am still young for the task, I managed and the goats are breeding well. My father shows his gratitude in various ways. Cooking peculiar food that is never heard of is one of them. This time it is Cachupoi Alu he calls it. It is his creation delicacy from a Cassava flour and a little salt. He garnishes and tops it with some fresh spinach, eggplant, bell pepper and tomatoes all from his garden. It is like a big round pizza!

 

I discern maybe I am my father’s favorite after all. He helps me in my early morning study routine. It forges a poignant heartwarming bond between us. Unknowingly the daily tending of the goats hones my sound sense of responsibility, character and some X factor abilities which I have yet to discover. 

 

 

Zea Perez

 

Philippines

 

 

 

Deception

 

"Yeah, I will be there by 8 pm. See you soon". I ended the call. Anna called me. Oh! Let me introduce her. Actually, she was my best friend when we were kids. When she was eleven her parents died in a road accident. After that she was sent to her uncle's house in Boston. From that day we lost contact. There was not even a single day I missed her. She has gone through a lot of tragedy. She was coming back to Los Angeles, my city after almost 12 years. I was overjoyed.

 

I rang the doorbell. It was someone's house that she was staying in, definitely not a hotel or a rented house. And there she opened the door. In a red long gown, hair tightly tied at the top she gave me a tight hug. I really wanted it since a long time.

 

After a lot of chit chat, I asked her the question which I wanted to since I came to her house. "Hey, is this a kind of hotel? It doesn't look like that"

 

"Oh no, it is one of my friend's house, she is away for a week so she told me to stay here only". She replied.

We ate snacks, danced, sang and did all the things that we missed for so many years. At last, she went to prepare the dinner. I was sitting idle. I thought of exploring the house, a stranger's house. I was just exploring when I saw a strange thing, a family photograph of an old man and an old woman. There was not even a sign of teenager or anyone in her 20’s or even 30’s living in that house that could be her friend.  Next, I went to the bedroom. I was just coming back when my eyes went under the bed. I could see a toe finger out just under the bed. Maybe it could be some kind of a doll or something like that, but wait! Isn’t the finger big enough for a doll? I was just about to check it out when all of a sudden, my mobile phone started ringing. It was my neighbour Frank. I picked up.

 

“Hi there, have you heard the news?” he sounded quite nervous.

 

“What news?”

 

“A serial killer has murdered about six people in the morning itself. A victim somehow managed to survive and described her as a young woman in her twenties wearing a red long gown, blonde hair tightly tied up…” Frank continued the description.

 

As he was describing her what came to my mind was a clear picture of Anna. Her red long gown, the house and the creepiest part was that toe finger. It must be of the old house owner whom Anna had killed. No combination of 26 alphabets can describe how I felt. Only one thing that came to my mind was to escape from that house. As soon as I turned around, I found Anna standing right behind me with a horrifying cunning smile. Before I could do anything, she placed a knife on my stomach and started stabbing me.

 

“Noooooo….” I cried out. “Oh, Thank God, it was a dream” I gasped. I was just going to freshen up when my phone started ringing.

 

“Hello Emily, I’m Anna. I just landed to Los Angeles today. Will you be coming to my house today? I will text you the address after sometime”

 

A cold shiver ran down my spine.

 

 

 

Prapti Gupta

 

West Bengal, India

 

 

 

 

Swaying

           

That rocking chair, rocked back and forth, back and forth, whenever there was no body in it. Happy, like when a dog wags its tail, wanting to attract attention. Yet Rebecca never noticed it rocking, even when she was in the room, watching through the vented windows, looking over the hills where the skeletal trees stood distant.

           

          That was the room where her father liked to write. How he used to write before he took it seriously. Every day at some point she would stand there taking in the view her father had taken in many times. Whether she was watching the sun scatter the dust, or determining mythologies from the clouds, or listening to the scudding wind against the cladding or the scuttling rain in the gutters, she liked to absorb the atmosphere of the room. She tried to convey how she felt about every aspect of life, from the reinvigoration of spring, through the vibrancy of summer, the autumnal contemplation or the senescence of winter. It was all beautiful. At times it was too beautiful to take. She could never find the words.

           

          Her father had been her mentor. He’d told her to contemplate the enigmas of existence and to fully appreciate the natural world and not get too caught up in herself. She had been his life.

           

          Her thoughts travelled back to that afternoon when her father lay on his death bed, swaying in the blue bedding, fighting against the ebbing tides of consciousness. All the things that he’d wanted to say were too far adrift for him to capture, too far for him to grasp upon the horizon where the sky and sea merged.

           

          As he lay between oscillating comforts, the words that he had wanted to say washed up beside him. He reached for them, then thought it better if he just let them go. Not saying anything would be better than telling her anything that would end up playing upon her mind he thought. From beneath the waves he managed to lift his head above the surface and spoke to Rebecca,

           

          “Always do what you feel,” he managed in a gargled voice.

           

          But then that temptation that would drive him to drink would have to have the last say, and before he knew it, the words where floating from him. “You have a wonderful imagination, don’t let it go to waste.” Before the final wave washed over him and the heavy burden of the sea evaporated into the weightlessness of the sky.

           

          From that day on the rocking chair started to rocked back and forth. Yet Rebecca never noticed. She sat down in it with the intention of trying to convey the view from the window. But she couldn’t find the words. She could only sit there rocking back and forth, back and forth.

 

 

 

Anthony Ward

Durham, England