Sunday, 25 June 2017

Time to Dry Out...

The waters are receding, and the sun will soon dry the land. All that is left is silt and devastation.

Thus ends the Flood.

So, what did you think? Cracking, wasn't it?

As always a big thank you to all the writers who submitted, and to all those who were published an extra congratulations.

Thanks also to the editors:

Shirley Golden
Susan Howe
Ingrid Jendrzejewski
Caroline Kelly
Cassandra Parkin
Nettie Thomson

And thank you to you, dear reader, for your constant support for FlashFlood and National Flash-Fiction Day.

And... that's it.

So, until next year, be excellent to each other, and thank you again.

Calum Kerr
co-Director of National Flash-Fiction Day

Saturday, 24 June 2017

'Daylight' by Tim Stevenson

In the quiet hour before dawn there was a ‘plink’ and then darkness.
Mary swore.
Across her desk taxidermy leapt, bright-eyed in the second life she’d given them. These early mornings were stolen time, when she could work in peace without the squeamish complaints of her family.
She opened a drawer and found the box for the replacement bulb. She pulled it out and shook it.
Empty.
She tilted her lamp, angling it so she could grip the cooling glass and twist.
Inside the delicate balloon of blue, the filament hung limp, molten ends quivering at the slightest touch.
“Make do and mend,” Mary thought.
Pliers.
She cracked the glass, swept the pieces into a bag, and examined the bare wires
“So, all I need is something between them and…”
She looked up lightbulbs and, reading very carefully, tied a single grey hair into place and watched it melt, filling the room with stink.
Upstairs she heard soft footsteps. She closed the drawers, and covered her desk with a sheet.
After breakfast and slamming doors, Mary made herself a cup of tea and read about lightbulbs and LEDs, lasers and lighthouses. The word ‘lenses’ caught her attention.
In a box by her feet, the body of a fox rested, its fur tight to its body, waiting for her to bring it back to life.
Mary stared at it as the idea formed.
Taking a scalpel, she split the plastic. The russet fur sprang up, the white-flecked tips rippling.
The head had a strong jaw, lips parted slightly as if a final snarl was waiting to escape.
Mary stroked the brow.
What she needed was an eye.
Her scalpel slid beneath the skin. The eye, now in a saucer, gleamed.
She took fine wire and formed a simple cradle, and slotted the eye into place.
She pressed the switch.
There was a hiss as this new filament hissed then glowed red.
There was a pulse, like a blink.
A cone of midnight burst out the lamp, a blue shadow stark against the morning.
She could see grass where the night touched her desk. The stems held dew and a faint hint of colour.
Then the darkness moved.
In the moonlight the grass sped past, the viewpoint low, focussed.
A rabbit bursts into view, bloodied and desperate, its face a blur of red.
She sees its mouth open, imagines the scream, the blood, the snap of death.
And again, the running, the white flecked terror around the rabbit’s mouth.
Again, the claw marks have torn the hind legs open.
The taxidermy stared back, their straw bodies all that’s left. Their lives were the hunt, speed, blood, not this rebuilt mockery.
After school, the children were happy to see her workshop empty, and later still her husband asked what had happened.
“Once I saw, I burned it all,” she said.
The flames had danced with fearsome light, as if what was burnt was free once more, and swift shadows leapt across the lawn.

'Traces' by Anniken Blomberg

Gelis Ker speaks to the elements.

There’s fire, burning her temples. There’s water; the base element of the substance trickling out her mouth—entwined with beautiful scarlet thread. There’s air, hovering outside her mouth. She needs to draw in more of it to push her words out. They’ll help her. They’ll unwind the bloodied yarn of her words to the end. When the last bit of thread falls from her lips, she’s spent. She’ll tell them everything. She’ll soar in the telling—high above her broken body.

Gelis Ker talks while their shadows loom and oscillate above her.

They burned Gelis Ker on Castle Hill, but first they strangled her. Locked her breath inside with the last of her words. Out of mercy, they said, to spare her the skin-nip of fire. On the day of the burning they stood with other onlookers and watched her body’s disintegration, its silent subjugation to flame.

But the ash of Gelis Ker was not the light, grey dust off a cold bonfire. More like fatty soot of the kind that sticks to surfaces next to cooking areas and the insides of pots and pans. Smears the collar and hems of shirts and skirts and the circumference of body hair.

Perhaps they stood to close to the fire when Gelis Ker burned. Whatever way it was, her charred traces stuck, and they never managed to wash them off. Fine particles coated the fleeting impressions of their senses: every sound tainted with pinpricks of her voice, every dawn dotted with black specks.

Gelis Ker chants in their dreams. Dreams where they wind blood-red yearn on to large spools, thread emerging from the mouth of a woman just off their field of vision. As they work they know they’re doomed. Yarn-winders for eternity. 

They burned Gelis Ker, but she’ll outlast them.

In their dreams she licks their skin. Every swipe of her tongue burns like hellfire and leaves a sensation of marching ants in its wake.

The outside world knows nothing of these internal lashing and torments. The incessant nibbling away at their immortal souls by millions of crawling things, the doors of their sanity rattling on rusted hinges. To the outside world they just look faded and thin, languid flames draped across the edges of sooty candle stumps.

And in the end they just go out, one after the other, without fuss, without words. What is left is just a thin tail of smoke that in vain it tries to ride air and ascend to the ceiling. Instead it sinks to the floor and dissipates. Leaving almost no trace, not even enough dust for a fingerprint.

The Sourness of Kisses Past by Michelle Matheson


Sometimes a gift is just a gift; sometimes it is a cry for forgiveness.
I hold the amber in my hand, the insect frozen in its centre.  I turn it over searching for the answer to an unspoken question.   It is a beautiful thing, a love token I suppose.  The rounded shape fits my palm perfectly and it’s the exact temperature of my blood.  If I close my eyes I hardly know it is there at all.
Once upon a time, limbs were flung wide, bodies strained and breath was rapid, almost rabid with desire.  But they were not my limbs; it was not my breath. I was side lined.   Since then I have subsisted in an alternate universe where neither heat nor cold exist. This world is grey.
And now this gift, this peace offering.  But where is the pleasure?  Instead the air is suctioned from the room and my lungs will not expand to fill my diaphragm.   I search for the green scent of resin but there is no longer any hint.  Helplessness hangs limp upon me.  The sourness of kisses past lingers on my tongue.  Amber shackles loom, ready to chain me to a history that I no longer cherish.
And all at once I feel the rush of blood coursing through my veins, as inevitable as the tide but twice as fierce, a tsunami of fury.
I gaze into the amber, and know I am reflected in its golden glow.  The dying buzz of the insect is trapped within, heralding my future.  I allow the globe to drop from my fingers and shatter.
Sometimes a gift is the tie that binds.

'Study of a Boy with an Aeroplane' by Susmita Bhattacharya

I’m not lover of art. I don’t know how to react to a splurge of colours on canvas. Or appreciate fine brush strokes on paper. And yet, this evening, I chance upon your painting.
It has started to rain, and I don’t have an umbrella. So I step inside the nearest door. As I brush off the raindrops from my coat, I look around. I’ve walked into an art gallery, and you are there, beaming at me. Urging me to come and look at your art. I hesitate. I don’t want to move around and make appropriate noises. Nor make eye contact with you. I have things to do. But you seem so alone in this space. So needy of appreciation that I walk around the room.
You paint local scenes. The farmers’ market. The Dover crossing. The white cliffs seem to be your favourite subject.  I cannot believe what I see. This painting: The study of a boy with an aeroplane. I look closer and my breath stops. I turn to look at you. Are you some kind of sorcerer who has drawn me in here?
Where did you do this painting? I ask.
By the Beachy Head lighthouse, you say.
I nod. I know that already. And this boy?
My son, you say.  With his new toy plane. I paint his portrait every year, on his birthday.
The eighteenth of September, I say.
Your eyes widen. I shrug and point to the painting. You’ve painted me into your picture, I say. There in the distance, that’s us, Jim and I.
Your mouth drops open. Your eyes register shock. You smile at the incongruity. I look away. I remember every minute of that day.
Our last happy day together, I whisper. I’ll never forget it. We had a picnic. We drank champagne and ate blackberries we picked from the hedges.  We swam in the sea. We laughed without thinking about the future. I look straight into your sea-grey eyes. There was no future and we knew that. He died soon after. At least we said our goodbyes.
An uneasy shuffle as we try to avoid each other’s gaze.
 But thank you, I say at last. You’ve unknowingly captured a beautiful moment. You’ve made us immortal.
I touch the coarse brush strokes on the canvas. I feel the paint blobs that define the love of my life. He feels alive, ready to hit the icy cold water. I feel a shiver go down my spine. I hear the wind in my hair and the crash of the waves. The gulls screaming and circling overhead. I taste the champagne and blackberries and his kisses in my mouth. I follow him and jump into the water myself.
You touch my shoulder and I turn.  How typical of Jim. I say.  To appear in the most unexpected of places and surprise me. I smile and head out into the rain. To carry on with my day.

'Memento' by Karen Jones

She confuses Jacques Cousteau with Marcel Marceau. She drinks Midori, but has no idea how to pronounce it. She wears shoes that defy gravity and will, in time, change the shape of her calves and the grace of her gait: she knows she looks damn good in them now, and now is all that matters to a girl like Suzi.

I’ve watched her for months, studied her appearance, her mannerisms, her act. Know when her mood changes, when her breasts swell for a few days each cycle. I see her – completely.

But Suzi has a disability; she’s blind when it comes to men like me. We have no place in her world, no value, no purpose, so why should she waste one of those wide-blue-eyed gazes on us? We’re not quite tall enough or handsome enough, not rich enough for Suzi to grace with her sham-shy smiles.

It’s such a shame, because I know we’d be good together. I could teach her so many things – not just laugh at her mistakes, however cute they may be – but all she ever asks of me is one more drink. I pour, she totters across the room to lean on the latest, expensively clad arm. Soon a new piece of jewellery, a new scent and a new smile appear. Then she disappears for a while, gets over heartbreak, gets back to what she thinks is normal, gets back in the game.

Last night I decided I had waited long enough for her to see me. I gave her Midori an extra kick, watched her lose all kinds of balance. I took my chance, took her home, took a little something while she thrashed and moaned, and left her with a little piece of me.

'Heat/Wave/Length' by Christina Dalcher

H is for hole in the sky Heading into the third day, she wakens to the sun's colours dancing dervish-like on the backs of her eyelids. She is hungry, thirsty, still cold from the desert night. In another hour, her skin will sting and burn, blistered by a red hole in a cloudless morning sky. E is for echo Ears singed the shade of her hair—brilliant, flaming orange—sense familiar sounds. A howl travels over the dunes, floods her with memories of comfort and companionship. It is only the wind, echoing the Sahara's silent song. A is for aeroplane A clockwork bird carried her here. She gazed over its wide wing, down to silica waves three miles below. As she wanders the graveyard of aeroplane bits, her hands touch random steles of metal, jutting like silver sculptures in a sea of monotonous yellow. T is for tree Teatime back home--cakes and Earl Grey and clotted cream. She is hungry and hot. In the afternoon, she peels off another layer, revealing the tan lines that criss-cross her shoulders—white, laser-cut scars on a parched landscape. She imagines a green ocean of pines where she once bathed in cool, protective shade. There are no pines here, no oaks, no acacias. Trees do not decorate Allah's Garden. W is for weir Watery streams appear in the distance, as they did on the first day. She moves toward ripples the colour of tears—clear, cool, wet. So much liquid, she thinks, enough to last her until tomorrow. She cries as the weir of sand fails, releasing its precious blueness, spilling imaginary droplets into the landscape before her. A is for avalanche A second sandstorm comes, crawls its way over the dunes like dry surf. She squeezes her eyes against the whirlwind of dust until she sees only inky indigo. When she opens them, the avalanche has buried more of her transport. Another storm, and the search parties will not find her. V is for vigil Vacant grey eyes pan for signs of the others—those not burnt to ashes in the crash. She finds only the pilot, violet lividity blooming on the parts of him that remain. The dry sand makes for easy, if temporary, burial. Tonight she will keep vigil, not for a saviour, but for the souls of lost travellers. E is for eternity Evening descends on the desert bringing all of the colours and none of them. Blackness comes, cold as death's hand. She allows it to take her, to carry her to the place of thrones and kings and angels, greeting eternity with a smile. 'Heat / Wave / Length' (first published December 2015 in After the Pause)

'+++ Memo: Advice for aspiring Miss Universe contestant +++' by Dave Hubble

Well done. You’ve won Miss World.

You’ve swimworn, evening-dressed and world-peaced your way up the beauty ladder and managed to avoid any slippery scandals on the way. You’re officially the best the Earth has to offer.

However, be aware it’s a big universe out there but a handful of carefully placed sequins will be a lot more use to you than a couple of men in black suits. If you work hard and follow the advice in this guide, who knows? You might even become the first Terran to wear the Quantum Crown.

First, the Aesthetics Committee. Chief Judge Kirk always picks the green girls, so there’s not much you can do to get his vote if an Orion gets to the final stages. If not, at least he’ll probably choose an endoskeletal biped.

Xenomorphs aren’t much of a problem even if one of the Committee is insectoid – they always wish for interstellar war during the interview section, and as the saying goes, “spraying acid by self-harming never comes across as charming”. Judge Giger was the only one who had a thing for them and he’s taking a post-life Sabbatical on LV-223.

Greys are no problem, they all look exactly same and for some reason most beings find it difficult to remember that they actually exist. They haven’t had a contender since Miss Roswell 1947 and we all know how that ended. Don’t underestimate some of the others though – the Predatrix from Yautja Prime’s got some of the most shapely maxillary appendages in the business, and with Klingons, they’ll  corner the ‘like ‘em tough’ votes. Your main rivals are most likely the Romulan (Vulcans consider the contest to be subjective and thus illogical) and I hear there’s a very highly rated Nibari so lock up your boyfriends as well as your valuables. The Andorian’s got some seriously expressive antennae too and it’s worth learning to read them if you can – there’s a vid-guide attached with the this data-packet.

That should be enough to get you started. Don’t forget to look though the Committee and contestant lists to see who might be favourable – or dangerous. A conflict-map is also attached to show you who definitely won’t vote for who. Use it to your advantage, stay in touch, and good luck!


+++ Ends +++

'A Throne of Bayonets' by Joy Myerscough

So Skirts and Chintz and me come out the pub and find ourselves dead opposite the haunted house. I say it’s a tourist trap, but Chintz says out for a lark. So in we go. And yes, it’s hokey. Tarot cards, a plastic skeleton done up with fairy lights, crystal balls and I don’t know what the hell else.

We pay our fivers and go into a room like my great-aunt Vera’s, inherited from her grandma Slurry and never changed a thing. And just as gloomy. Then we go on up a staircase to the attic, one of those half-timbered jobs. A loudspeaker starts up about a girl dying in childbirth, and she’s carrying on with screams and moans, which I could have well done without.

On the floor down there’s a room with a round table for the séances. Once the door closes it’s hard to make anything out, it’s about pitch black. Chintz grabs my arm and says orright? and I say orright, and Skirts says he’s orright, if anyone wants to know. But now I spot an old woman in a raincoat with one of them plastic hoods that ties under the chin, and she as sure as hell didn’t come in through the door. I’ve a message for you, she says to me, and then takes out a handkerchief and blows her nose. Which is not something you’d expect a ghost to be doing, but there it is. I say what is it then, and she says a man may build himself a throne of bayonets, but he cannot sit in it.

Chintz is rattling the doorknob and saying it’s stuck. Skirts lends him a hand, and then they get it open and we belt down the stairs and a minute later we’re back in the pub with fresh pints apiece.

“Drink life to the dregs,” Chintz says, taking a swig.

“What are you on about?” Skirts asks.

 “That’s what the man on the stairs said. The soldier. Had a rifle and a tin helmet. Covered in mud and smelled like shite.”

“I didn’t see a man on the stairs,” Skirts says.

“Me neither,” I say. “But I did see a woman in the séance room. She said something about a throne. Let me think: a man may build himself a throne of bayonets, but he cannot sit in it.”

“Only us in the séance room,” Chintz says.

“What about the girl in the attic?” Skirts says.

We stare at him.

“She was scrubbing the floor. She looked up at me and said ‘Sin recognized—but that—may keep us humble, but oh, it keeps us nasty.”’

 “What does that mean?”

“Beats me.”

“Well, there’s one thing,” Chintz says, eying his glass.

“Yeah?”

“We’ve drunk to the dregs.”

“Fair enough,” Skirts says. “Your round, then.”

Tinder by Angelita Bradney

It happens three days into my solo holiday. A touch deep inside my abdomen, both of me and not of me. I sit up and place a hand on my warm belly. Above, the papery fronds of palm trees shift reluctantly in the breeze. The sand glows white-hot. There – I feel it again.
It’s a moment made for sharing. I could post an update, even send him a message, but I know he wouldn’t appreciate it. Adding insult to injury; a reminder of my callous duplicity, he would say. I’m tempted nonetheless, but I leave my phone in my bag, him in peace.
People have settled at the beach in single-sex groups: girls in scraps of bikinis with beads around their wrists, stringy boys with muscles and tattoos. They stretch out like predators at rest; later, in the bar, they will make their move. Further along there’s a family I recognise from the hotel. The father eyes me while the mother fusses with towels and the kids run for the sea. I lie back, move my hips almost imperceptibly. Not showing yet; I could be the same age as his wife but don’t look it. Twice-weekly gym visits, everything I earn spent on myself – the advantages of being single. But there are some things you can’t do alone.
My lips taste of salt, heat radiates from my pores. When I broke the news some people carped it wasn’t fair, he didn’t sign up for this when he swiped right. What do they know of the dilemma of the body ageing, time passing, the fundamental urge to love and be loved?
Ahead of the blinding horizon the sea scintillates with promise. I rise, and bear my precious prize to the cool grasp of the water.

'Ms Anderson' by Sonia Hope

Mr Breheny was dying for a cigarette. His restless, nicotine-stained fingers matched the pale ginger of his hair.
    Ms Anderson hadn’t phoned him.
    As Boogie Nights blared from the assembly hall speakers at last week’s School Staff Social, Mr Breheny had shuffled in the direction of Ms Anderson until they were dancing together. He was awed by the elegance of her cheesecloth dress and perfectly sculpted Afro. Afterwards, they drank warm beer out of plastic cups, chit-chatting, laughing, and Mr Breheny scribbled his phone number on a scrap of paper and pressed it into her hand. Eyebrows raised quizzically, she had thanked him and slipped it into her handbag.
    Since then, whenever Mr Breheny walked into the staff room his colleagues greeted him with silence.
    He didn’t care.
    He decided to postpone his cigarette break.
    Mr Breheny strode down the corridor to Ms Anderson’s classroom. Knocking softly, he opened the door.

'Nelson' by Amanda Huggins

The summer we met, I sat on the porch and watched the tarmac shimmer with mirages, conjuring Ged’s shape out of the arid haze as I waited for him.

Mama stayed inside, out of the sun, standing at the window in her stained satin slip. Sometimes she walked from room to room, opening drawers and cupboards as though searching for something to help her make sense of the world. She was waiting for my father to come back even though she knew he never would.

Ged was like him. He didn’t say much, and I never minded. He talked with his eyes and his hands, and I knew he loved me. When we moved in together, we left town and rented a house by the lake. We were happy, or so I thought.

But I’d never seen the mask of silent anger and self-loathing that darkened his face for weeks at a time. When he came home from the garage he would take a cold beer and sit at the kitchen table staring at the wall. We no longer went down to the shore or hung out with our friends along the boardwalk.

Then Nelson arrived. Ged wasn’t fond of cats. But he took to this tiny stray with the missing eye; the other the same bright blue as his own. Nelson was our charm, and I prayed for us.

One afternoon we got caught in a downpour as we were gathering firewood, and we raced back to the house, laughing. It was a rare good day; Ged seemed happy.

I threw our muddy clothes in the washing machine whilst Ged heated some soup. We sat down to eat and I asked if he’d seen Nelson. The cat had been asleep by the stove when we walked in, but now he’d disappeared. It wasn’t like him to go out in the rain.

Our eyes met and we both jumped up. Nelson was always climbing in the washer. I ran through to the kitchen and saw his tiny body turning with the clothes. I hit the stop button, but I couldn’t bear to look through the glass again and see him limp and still. Ged crouched down and peered into the drum.

‘It’s ok,’  he said, ‘he’s still moving.’

We wrapped him in a towel and he fell asleep in the crook of Ged’s arm.

*

Later, we made love for the first time in months. The rain had stopped, and through the open window I heard an owl. Nelson’s tiny head lifted for a moment before he curled round asleep again.

I watched their faces as they slept. We were all safe.

But the next day Ged’s eyes looked through me. I made pancakes for breakfast, but he said he was going into town. Nelson slipped out of the door behind him.

I stood at the window like my mother used to do, and waited for them both to come back. But neither of them ever did.

'This Fractured Night' by Debbi Voisey

This is not a dream. You are awake. The noises are still in your head and you have the blood on your shirt from when you helped the young girl. Some of this might even be your own. You go to the hospital where people are milling in their hundreds. Everything inside is in slow motion. You watch people make calls, some sitting on floors, some shirtless. Some swiping tears with grubby hands and saying "I don't know, I don't know" into their phones. Outside, this fractured night is limping towards morning. Everyone wants to give; to have their blood taken to try to put some of this back the right way up. You see people of all ages and you don't notice their race. Their blood is the same colour. You hand your form in as two more ashen faced parents are led behind a screen.

'Wrong Entrance' by Bren Gosling

Sister’s text pleads, hurry! The cab driver’s words, Hackney to Norwich- we’ll do it in under two, repeat inside my head. No-one has spoken since. Countryside whizzes by; other cars, and we’re rumbled in the slip stream of juggernauts. My husband’s hand tries to maintain a moistened grip, I pull away. I attempt to conjure Mum’s smell in the wind billowing through half opened windows, but fail. I shut my eyes: see her combing out knots from my long hair at thirteen, wrapping school books in brown paper, the magnificent cake she made for our wedding. My hair’s a mess. Did we set the alarm?

*

The taxi pulls up at the hospital, but, wrong entrance. We go around again. Finally, in the right place. Press the lift button; up three floors, can’t find my breath, our footfall echoes along the disinfected corridor, never ending. Nods as we float past the nurse’s station, and are told In the side room. Relatives I haven’t seen in years are congregated in a semicircle, bed- centred like an altar, Mum’s corpse: jaw - dropped and toothless. She went 3 minutes ago, someone whispers.

**

I climb off my husband, then fall beside him in the afterglow of intercourse. Can’t remember the last time we did it like that - actually looking at each other: meaning it .My sister’s put us in the small back bedroom formerly occupied by her son, pre university. He’s at his girlfriend’s. Exhausted, but wide awake I can’t shift the image of those flowers I sent Mum, still in the same vase where she put them on her kitchen table two days ago. My eyes trace across a football poster. ‘We’ll go round the world,’ I say.



(Longlisted for the Fish Flash Fiction Prize 2014)

'Evil Doings' by Lynn Latham

Pansy loved a raffle.

As a child growing up in a strict religious family she was told repeatedly that raffles were sinful. At socials when the raffle was announced, her father, a lay preacher at the local church, would purse his lips tightly and mutter 'not for us, thank you'. Then he would watch as prizes were drawn, tutting under his breath and making a sign of the cross under the table.

'You mark my words girl,' he would snarl, 'if you start on that, it will lead you down a long slippery trail to gambling and alcoholism' (sherry was often offered as a prize), 'always remember your Christian upbringing!'

Reaching her teens, her father allowed her, somewhat reluctantly, to go out with friends to socials. There were beetle drives, whist drives, bingo (not approved by father) and of course, a raffle. She would buy just one ticket and oh, the excitement as the numbers were drawn, would hers come out? It wasn't the prizes she coveted, no, rather the thrill of doing something father had forbidden and the anticipation as prizes were drawn! But she did enjoy the chocolates which had, of course, to be consumed in secret, and the tins of talc or bath cubes that would have to be secreted under her knickers in her 'winnings drawer'!

Once she won a bottle of sherry, no worries about her age back then, it was just handed over; she shared it with friends, then felt so ill that she assumed that was her punishment for going against her father's will. Hadn't he said she'd come to no good if she started gambling? But that didn't stop her...

Now she is 80 and lives in sheltered accommodation. Every month there's a social, a bit of bingo, some tea and cakes and, yes, there's always a raffle. She still experiences the excitement of the tickets being drawn, will she win the Cussons talc, the bath salts or maybe the Milk Tray? She wonders if these prizes have laid in drawers, having been illicitly won many years ago.

Still she feels her father's disappointment as she buys her ticket, she feels him looking down, judging her. He must surely be up in heaven, having been so Godly a man, never once succumbing to the excitement of gambling. Having slid down that slippery slope he warned her of, she assumes she will rot in hell.

She glances at her ticket as number 333 is drawn, yes, yes, she shouts excitedly, that's mine! I knew it was a lucky number. I'll take the sherry please, she cries, and glances upwards to see if father is watching, still pursing his lips and shaking his head slowly in despair… but Pansy will always love a raffle.

Sleepover by Janelle Hardacre

Everyone had boobs except me. I looked at my two friends when they wouldn’t see. We all had our nice PJs on. Mine were silky, from New Look. Navy polka dot short shorts and a blush pink strappy vest. There was a supportive crop top inside which I had to keep pulling down.
Bryony wore a bra even when she slept. She had actual cleavage and proper brown nipples. She wasn’t shy about getting changed. Pippa’s were smaller but her nipples poked through her Jack Wills vest. Mine never poked.
“Oh em gee! Shall we play Dreamphone?” Pippa said, distracting me from her B-cups. I joined in with the squeals and claps of agreement. It would be “hilare” according to Bryony. Pippa slithered under her bed, pushing dusty boxes until she found the old childhood game.
 
“I’ve just heard. It’s not Tony,” came a tinny voice from the pink plastic phone, followed by a chorus of oohs and cackles. A fifth of a bottle of vodka from the parents’ cupboard was circulating now. We all took tiny sips. I felt it burn down my tubes and enjoyed the swimmy feeling that came with it.
“He looks cool in whatever he wears,” said the phone. I wasn’t sure if we were still playing. Pippa was lying on her front now, her boobs squished. It made them look bigger.
“Oh my God, I would totes do Tony. Look at him!” She lent her face right into the board and made a moan grunt at his thumbnail portrait. “Who would you have, Mill? Except Tony. Obvs.” We all giggled.
“Ooh erm.” I faked a look of pained struggle as I made my way around all the handsome faces on the board. “It’s gotta be Ryan,” I said. He was tanned with blue eyes and floppy blonde hair. It still wasn’t the right time to tell them I didn’t really think of any boys like that.

'Dinnertime in Delhi' by Louise Mangos

There are dozens of them along the walls of the Red Fort outside Chandni Chowk. He picks the pretty girl wearing the buttercup satin dress, with thin legs, and feet dwarfed in a pair of scuffed Birkenstocks. He stoops to place a coin in her dusty palm, and is instantly drawn through the dark vortices of her eyes.

Inside he spirals, through mosaicked arches, across emerald grassy turrets, along darkened alleys smelling of cumin and cinnamon, past bright swathes of whispering saris, kaleidoscopes of jewels set in yellow gold, voices cackling in a hundred dialects, to a slum hut suffocating under a corrugated iron roof in the urban evening sun, with a beaten earth floor and thick air pungent with the fumes from a charcoal burner, where a baby lies waiting for his child mother to return to ease the stone of hunger in his belly.

'Complicit' by Gay Degani

The front door slams. Walls shake. A vase of tasselled wheat slides through my hands onto the kitchen floor. Glass shards lie among stalks as late afternoon sun spills gold onto gold, and I hear his boots in the hall.

A shock of hot wind rattles the screen of the open back door. I glance out. The barn isn’t far, a haven if I would only move. But I don’t. I wait.

He bursts in, shirt flaked with grime, jeans mud-glazed. He stops when he sees me. Between us, a curl of pleasure, eyes locked, breath vanished.

I step toward him in bare feet, feel the bite of glass, reach up to place a hand on his cheek.

“You’re still here,” he says.

“Where would I go?”

“I didn’t want you here. Not for this.” He loops me with thick arms, pulls me close, my ear pressed hard against his farmer’s sweat. We stand like vine and tree till he leans down and puts his lips to mine.

When the world comes back, he says, “Where is he?”

If I’d gone to the barn to hide or if I’d left in the wagon as we’d planned, I would not be here to say these words, but I am. “In the field by the creek.”

He sets me on a kitchen stool. “Stay.” At the door he turns back, his mouth grim.


Linoleum, my toe, the rod my feet rest on, smeared with blood. The quiet slap of the screen door. An owl’s hoot from the nearby copse.

I wait in a warm shaft of light, hands in my lap, until I hear a quick loud crack from the north where my husband rides his tractor bare-headed through the wheat.



First published in SmokeLong Quarterly.

'The Rota' by Jo Derrick

Salome is looking shabby. Time to give her a bit of a hand-wash. I don’t know why I called her Salome. It suited her, I suppose. My Arthur thought I was mad naming a knitted toilet roll cover, but I have names for all my bits-and-bobs. Last Wednesday in the month today and so ‘cleaning out the china cabinet day’. As I swirl the Fairy Liquid in warm water, I think how Mother told me to always keep to my list of chores, no matter what. Arthur died on the third Thursday in February. It was ‘clean the horse-brasses’ day. Once the Powers That Be had dealt with him, I set to. Now, whenever I do the brasses, I think of Arthur, his chin on his chest and his arms folded neatly. The nurses thought I was bonkers when I told them what I was rushing home for. There was no point hanging around, though, was there? I’m just drying off The Royal Albert when I hear the back gate click. Bloody Susan again. Wonder what she wants to borrow this time? “Lena? Just coming to see you’re all right. Remember it’s your turn to do the flowers tomorrow. It’s orange tones week.” Autumn already. Where has the year gone? I give Arthur’s urn a pat to remind myself that it’s been over six months since he passed. “I know. Time flies. I’d offer you a cup of tea, but I’ve still got The Crown Derby to do. Mind Salome on your way out. She’s having a soak.” It’s only later when I’m watching Eggheads that I remember there’s something else on tomorrow. Church flowers and..... Arthur Day. Every Thursday I bake Arthur’s favourite cake in his memory, knowing when I take a bite that a bit of my loving husband has gone into it. Susan says it’s sacrilege putting a spot of Arthur’s homemade wine into a Madeira, but she misunderstood me when I told her about my secret ingredient. I go and rinse out Salome and hang her up to dry, then I pop round next door to ask Susan for my cake tin back. She gives me one of her looks. When I get home, I take one of my best silver spoons and unscrew the lid of the urn. Not much of my Arthur left now, but I know how it used to make him smile when I said I loved him so much I could eat him.

'A Rank Outsider' by Jennifer Hall

A high-jumping old boy was back on familiar turf to present the junior medals. Like a giraffe at the watering hole, he stooped in the afternoon haze with congratulatory words for each budding athlete. Above this gentle creature, a bumper crop of prickly parents competed for the best views from the packed stands.

Pete's absence went unnoticed. He lay alone in the feathergrass behind the hammer cage, far from the madness and condensed testosterone. He rotated an idle foot to stretch his calf, and pondered the lack of drama in sport these days.

It was mind-numbingly predictable; the same names were applauded religiously at each weekly assembly. Silverware outranked analytical ability. Rugby team members were kings. Pete cringed as he recalled the exclusive maroon neckties and sudden feigned South African accents that had followed the recent ‘first fifteen’ tour of Johannesburg. In the summer, the bulk of them morphed into the athletics team; speed and self-importance, transferable skills. Nobody batted an eyelid when one of these heroes swanned into class insultingly late. Teachers laughed at their jokes. Sarah laughed at their jokes.  And sporting elite associated only with their own, of course, cocooned in a cloud of muscle-strain spray. No room for a chess player.

Pete raised his head as the loudspeaker fuelled the tension: a blast of Chariots of Fire to announce the final event. The 3000m Steeplechase is not for novices: four barriers and a water-jump lined each of seven circuits of the track. It was the last of those that interested Pete.

He watched. Waited. It would work in his favour that the leading pack were bunched. The distant bell gave its signal: just one lap to go. They were coming.

Timing was everything. A momentary window of invisibility on the bend, and Pete was in. Fresh as the breeze, limbs pumping, he cleared the oncoming barrier in step with the frontmen, then pushed on, streaming ahead unchallenged. The crowd leapt, parents shrieked as the unknown figure ate up the track. The giraffe stood tall, eyes on the clock. Pete hit the home-strait in full flow, the favourites trailing in his wake. Sweat-banded PE teachers, squinting in disbelief, foamed with excitement. They knew the record could go. The shouts went up.

Metres from the finish line, Pete saw the reflection of a champion in the one remaining water-jump. He stopped, sat down and washed his pawns.

'In Other People’s Shoes ' by Emily Devane

That evening, the house fizzed and bubbled with guests. Matilda crept upstairs. She sniffed the ghosts of Fathers’ cigars and buried her head among the coats – stroking the mink and ocelot with her fingers, exploring pockets for lipsticks and loose change.

Then, with Mother’s gold sling-backs sliding beneath her feet, she tottered in front of the standing mirror, tried adulthood on for size. Her painted lips, made crooked by a hairline crack, smiled back.

Lately, Mother had taken to staring at her own bare reflection before announcing: ‘And now for my armour!’ with a reckless tilt of her martini glass.

Earlier, Matilda had sat cross-legged to watch the pencilling of lips and eyebrows, the dabbing of cheeks, the endless blotting – then skipped beneath Mother’s perfume spray, waiting for a cascade of scent to fall upon her own upturned cheeks and cast its spell. How she longed for the same fine hands (so practised at wielding a cocktail), the same full-throated laugh (low, from too many cigarettes) and the same devastating way of seeming not to care (marriage offers since Father: plenty).

Up there, for a while, Matilda could pretend what she liked. For example: that the sound of Mother’s laughter was not a lie.

Ablution By Rob Martin

 
The car is clicking as it cools and I drop to a crouch and place my fingertips on the bodywork. The bumper is dented and the wing is scuffed. I trace the gouges in the paintwork; each jagged burr catching my fingers like Braille. The headlight lens has a web of fractures and I reach across and pull a clump of hair from the glass; long blonde strands ping from the cracks and curl around my fingers. Something wet hangs from the end of them.
My stomach suddenly lurches and I rush to the sink and throw-up. Bile stings my throat and I gulp from the tap and watch the water chase away the poisonous slick. I fill a bucket with warm soapy water and sponge the bodywork; the soapsuds turn pink as I squeeze the sponge. I tip them away and flood the plughole with bleach.
I open the door from the garage into the hallway. The door grazes the carpet with a gentle shush. I shorten my breaths and form an O with my mouth but I stumble against the bannister halfway up the stairs and I curse. I pause, gripping the step but there is no sound from the bedrooms. Our door is closed; Jen never waits up.
Across the landing, the night-light from Becca’s room casts a comforting glow from the crack in the door. I push and it slowly swings open with a hint of song.
She has kicked off the covers and lies asleep on her back; blonde curls framing a baby face, blowing pink spearmint kisses into the air. I move in to stroke her forehead, but as I deepen my breathing, the smell of stale beer spills from my mouth and fouls the air. She stirs and turns away from me, and I clasp my hand to my mouth and back out of the room.

I stagger into the bathroom and I loosen my tie. I can breathe again. I peel off my suit and kick it into the corner. I shower with the dial on eight and my body turns lobster pink. The sponge foams, and the tea tree and lemon suds slough away my bad skin.

 

Visa Temple by Sudha Balagopal

I lose Mother in the throng outside Visa Temple. A river of humanity walks around the shrine, singing, chanting. “Come, son,” Mother said a moment ago. Before I can protest, she's gone, borne on the tide of temple-goers.
Mother believes circumambulating the temple eleven times will make my brother's US visa come through. My engineer's mind protests, but I indulge my widowed mother's request and drive her here.
“Move,” a young woman orders. She stands so close, I smell the jasmine flowers in her hair.
“I'm not participating,” I tell Jasmine girl.
“Then, you shouldn't have come. You're in the way. Walk!”
Jasmine gives me a gentle shove. In moments, I'm swallowed by the crowd and walking alongside her.
As for Mother, only the residing deity holds the secret to her whereabouts.
My bare feet encounter warm stones worn smooth by thousands of devotees. The air heavy with incense and flowers, I hear coconuts thrown, cracked and offered in front of the sanctum.
Jasmine sets up a communal chant. Her bangles tinkle as she raises a shapely arm.
“Jai bolo, Govinda.” Her voice is deep, strong, earnest in supplication.
Responses reverberate from all four corners, “Jai bolo, Gopala.”
Echoes ricochet off the temple's walls.
I cannot accept any connection between a 500-year-old place of worship in an Indian town and the granting of US visas. Yet, hundreds visit each day.
I surrender to the collective pace.
When Jasmine falls silent, I ask, “How many more cycles?”
“Why do you care, non-believer?”
Curiosity. Are these her preliminary eleven rounds of praying for the visa, or the 108 thank-you circles after?
“So I know when to get off. I can't keep count.”
A woman extends a silver tray with flaming camphor, the aroma sharp, medicinal.
“Not telling. You don't believe.” Jasmine waves her palms above the flame, presses them to her eyes, embracing the energy.
“I don't wish to go to the US.”
As a heavy-set man jostles me, I teeter. Jasmine crashes against my body and I hold her up. She feels strong, sinuous.
“Sorry!” I;m apologizing for acknowledging sensation.
The light from the temple's oil lamps reflects in her eyes. The combination of camphor, coconuts, incense, flowers and history plant a curious yearning. I believe the guilt of losing Mother makes me breathless.
“I must go. Bye, Jasmine!”
“Who?” She reaches for her braid, scattering some of the flowers.
“Never mind. Good luck, although I don't understand why anyone does this.”
“Are you married?” she pushes back her hair, a challenge in her question.
Nervous, I laugh. “No.”
“You'll understand when you're separated from your spouse because of a piece of paper. I'll do a thousand rounds of this temple to be with my husband.”
Someone shouts my name.
“Mother!” I wave. When I turn around, Jasmine has disappeared.
In the car, Mother asks if I'll bring her back when my brother receives his visa.
I ponder before I answer.



(This story first appeared in Right Hand Pointing.)

'Bond Girl' by Jan Stinchcomb

 She gets things because she looks right. The peppermint ice cream is pale pink in the candlelight and the waiter brings her extra cherries, but Georgia wants a halter top and black cat-eyes like the girls at the bar have. Wet, red lipstick. A French cut bikini. Sandals with straps that snake all the way up to the knee. Her dad is sitting with her, listening to her stories, but his eyes dart over to the bar from time to time. He always comes back, though, and calls Georgia his little swinger. His baby. His Bond girl.

It’s nice that her mother decided to stay behind with her migraine so that Georgia could be her dad’s date.

Bond girl. Georgia wants a big machine gun for spraying the bad guys and saving the day. She won’t ever let go of it. She’ll keep it in her perfect closet next to all the handbags and jewelry. Right up against the diamonds. And when her mom can’t get dressed because nothing makes her happy anymore, can’t even get out of bed, Georgia will hand her the gun and let her have a turn.



First published in Hypertrophic Literary, Spring 2017

'When the Bough Breaks' by Jayne Martin

If they don’t get here soon, he is sure he will bust wide open. The bright yellow lily he’d picked for her this morning was already starting to wilt in the muggy heat of the Iowa noon. Seems like it was just spring when his father had carried him up the ladder to a thicket of Juniper branches where four tiny spotted eggs rested among the carefully-arranged twigs of a sparrow’s nest. “It’s no bigger than that right now,” his father explained. He’d seen babies before, watched as his Aunt Ellen grew large and round as a pumpkin with his cousin Ray. He knew they took a lot longer to hatch than sparrows. His mother, too, had grown large and round as a pumpkin. Some days she could barely get off the sofa. Her ankles had become thick purple rivers emptying into swollen ponds of flesh that he would rub as she stroked his head and called him her good boy. “She’s going to depend on you to protect her, you know,” his mother had said. He could do that. He was good at protecting things. When their barn cat tried to climb up to the sparrow nest, he’d chased it away with the hose and it never tried that again. He would hold her hand when they walked to school bus, and teach her how to tell the good snakes from the bad ones, and when it thundered so loudly that their whole cabin shook and lightning lit up the sky for miles around, he would hide his own fear so that she would feel safe. By then the baby sparrows had flown off, all but one that he had found lying stiff and cold at the base of the tree. When he had cried, his father said that was just nature’s way sometimes, and together they had buried it and said a prayer. He had clung to his mother’s skirt while his father half-walked, half-carried her to their car. They told him not to worry about the blood that trailed from their doorway. Soon dusk would begin to cast shadows like ghosts across their land. Still, he waited. Nature was especially unforgiving that year. This piece was originally published in the summer of 2015 by Midwestern Gothic and went on to win Vestal Review's VERA Award in 2016.

'Pity' by VRL Thonger

Among the crowd of staring women, one slender girl, a crate of cucumbers on her head, gestures at me and laughs. A naked baby, held by a toddler, tugs her sari.

My reluctant host translates. She can't believe you're 18 too, he says. You're so big. And where are your husband, your children, your mother?

'Halloween Sucks' by Christopher Stanley

Halloween sucks for grown-ups. Faceless streets in the crepuscular gloom. Supermarket-dressed monsters chasing treats from one jack o’lanterned porch to the next. I remember when zombies were scary, when witches were creatures of possibility, when the smile of the stranger hid the fangs of a vampire. But then I grew up.

Nothing frightens me anymore.

The creature is oblivious to the cold. Icy fingers tug at my ears, snot dribbles from my nose, and my breath blooms like bubbles of ectoplasm. The creature refused to wear a coat because it would spoil his glow-in-the-dark skeleton onesie. I told him he would freeze to death but he wears the weather with youthful indifference.

Halloween sucks because this is supposed to be my wife’s job. She’s abandoned us for an emergency stocktake, whatever that is. Up ahead, the creature’s counting his booty again. No prizes for guessing who he takes after.

My trousers vibrate. My wife wants a picture of the creature in his costume. I slip the phone back in my pocket and say it’s time to go home, but he’s vanished. The pavement is deserted. There are cars lurking on both sides of the road, street lights illuminating nothing but themselves, hungry doorways waiting to seduce the innocent – but my son is gone, stolen by the darkness or something worse.

I imagine never being able to hold him again, never hearing him squeal as I tickle his ribs or blow raspberries on his belly. The adventures we won’t have. The memories we won’t make. The shadow falling across my wife’s face as I explain how our happiness came to an end. I’m consumed by the demons of my worst nightmares.

And then I hear a voice behind me, wet with slobber, the sounds barely recognisable as words.

“I’m going to eat you next.”

I turn. So slowly. And there he is.

My son, the creature, sitting at my feet with one hand buried in his bucket and the other one picking a half-chewed sweet out of his teeth.

The Stairwell by Fiona Morgan

 
That crazy old hag is sitting in the stairwell in her fucking nightie again. She stinks of piss.  A tell-tale trickle winds its way across the grimy, crumbling concrete and drips onto the step below, glimmering in the feeble fluorescent light.
 
She’s blocking our way up, so Jay stands in front of her, chest out, legs apart, a jerk of his chin saying “fuck the fuck off”. Usually that’s enough to make people scarper, but the old bint is no part of his pecking order.  I stand mutely behind him, waiting for things to play out, part of it yet not, the way I always am.  The way I’ve always been, since forever.
 
Jay sucks the air through his teeth.  "You're disgusting," he says to her, like he's starting a conversation. “You know that, don’t you? You’re disgusting.” 
 
Like the old bint is in any position to answer back.  She just stares blindly ahead, wringing her hands, muttering who knows what crazy shit under her breath. 
 
Jay can’t handle being ignored.  Not by anyone.  He lifts his shirt, shows the old lady the piece tucked into his jeans, nestled against his stomach like a second cock, placing a hand on it in suggestion.
 
She still doesn't react, so he bends his head. Puts his lips right next to her ear. Pauses. "Boom!"
 
Even though I knew it was coming, I flinch.  But it’s like she never hears him. She doesn’t even fucking blink. She's not afraid of him, not like us. Stupid crazy old bint.
 
She looks up at him with pale, dead eyes. They terrify me, those eyes.  Like there’s everything and nothing behind them.  They latch onto him, see straight through him. See everything cruel and twisted about him and do not give a shit.
 
She reaches out a clawed hand, fingernails jagged and dirty.  Clasps him around the wrist in a vice-like grip.  He tries to take a step back, but the old bint half rises off the step, using her weight to hold him in place.
 
She starts laughing, deep and low, head titled to one side.  The hairs rise on the back of my neck.
 
Her eyes snap into a sudden focus.
 
“Do it,” she spits, reaching for his gun with her other hand, “Do it!” Her voice rises until she’s chanting it in a vitriolic scream, “Do it! Do it! Do it!” 
 
It's like an ambulance siren stuck on permanent. I clap my hands over my ears.
 
"Shut the fuck up you stupid cow!" Jay shouts, wrenching his arm away, twisting out of her reach.  The old bint staggers, but she doesn't stop screaming.  He shoves her, pushes past her.  Takes the stairs two at a time.  I slither along behind him.
 
From the top of the stairs, I look back. She calms immediately now that he’s gone.  She sits down again, stroking her frayed nightie over her knees, muttering to herself.  I know, without anyone saying, that we’ll never take that stairwell again. 

On Every Street by Kim Martins

She stands at the kitchen sink, washing crusty dishes and gazing out the window. There isn’t much left of the bottle of wine she drank last night.

Their bed is unmade and his pillow, with its smell of tobacco and sweat, has not felt his smooth weight in days. Through endless nights, she tosses in shivering sheets. Perfectly good meals lay untouched on the kitchen table and she wishes love could be sifted from fish bones.

She imagines him leaning across the table, cupping her face in his hands and telling her yes, the salmon was good, the Pinot smooth, and she would see desire mirrored in his eyes.

It ended. She doesn’t know why.

Down the street, clothes hanging on lines are slapping in a stinging wind. The purr of lawnmowers and keys turning in locks are soothing suburban sounds to her. On every street there’s a woman like Ruth, who lives at number 8, and bakes the best buttery scones.

She watches Ruth now, carrying her basket, and hears the ghost of polite conversation between them. Can I help you take in your shopping? he says. Her dusty voice asking whether he’d like a cup of tea, as a thanks for his kindness. The jug boils, legs entwine and lips explore.

She wonders if they talk about plans for the future, with their heads close together, pushing her into the margins of new stories they are creating.

She sees the curve of Ruth’s belly. How could she prepare for this bitter day?

She rinses the dishes; looking for the answer. She wishes sleep would return, lets out a breath and picks up a pen. She draws some paper towards her and looks at the blood red dahlias in a vase on the kitchen windowsill.

'Acetone Smells Like Death' by April Bradley

I’ve worn the same fingernail polish since my grandmother’s funeral in June, and I can’t tell the difference between the sheen of pink from the layers of my nails. It’s possible that instead of paring off bits of polish, I’m peeling away bits of myself. I’d go to the women at the salon who speak Korean when I tell them I need another manicure for another funeral, but acetone now smells like death and my nails are the kind of wreck that reveals oblivion, sometimes dirty, bitten and uneven, patchy and peeling. A salon is the last thing before I finish packing for Nashville, before the funerals, before the wakes, before I drink too much and smoke more than I should with my sister, but goddamn our nails look great. For my mother I chose Scarlett and let it chip because she was a defiant woman; French tips for my grandfather because I’ve never, and he appreciated a well-dressed woman; a classic nude for Kathleen, my former Mother-in-law, a woman so gracious she never let my divorce from her son get in the way of our relationship. My grandmother preferred her granddaughters in colour, so we wore reds, corals, lapis, turquoises, purples. I’ve gotten my nails done more this year than I have in the last decade. I look at my nails and I imagine each of them taking my hand, caressing my fingers and shaking their heads, smiling. But it’s my grandmother I hear, Sweet baby girl, go get your nails done. You are such a smart, pretty thing.


First published in The Airgonaut, December 2016.

'About Me Being a Big Brother' by Audra Kerr Brown

Uncle Rufus from 5b spends the night and makes bratwurst for breakfast. We stand at the kitchen window eating the bratwurst out of rolled cones of newspaper and watching the snow pile up on the fire escapes and power lines below. Uncle Rufus is not our uncle; he’s just some old man who smells like dirty shorts and comes over for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners and when Mom needs a favor—like last night after she got the birthing pains and had to go to the hospital. “Congratulations,” he says. He clinks his mug against mine, and Hawaiian Punch splatters on the floor like the blood when Mom’s water broke. He says he got a phone call from her in the middle of the night, and then he tells me your name, your weight, and the time you were born. I sop up the spilled punch with the toe of my sock and try to picture you like the babies on television, but all I can see is the frightened face of the bird Mom pulled out of the kitchen vent last spring. Uncle Rufus hands me a sack lunch of cashews and red licorice. “You’ll get used to it,” he says, and I know he’s not talking about the sack lunch but about me being a big brother. “You’ll have someone to hold under the blankets when you fart.” He laughs, but I’m thinking of how I’d cried when Mom wouldn’t let me keep that bird, the sound of her voice that told me to hush up and when I said I couldn’t, the sting of her hand across my cheek that made it so. Uncle Rufus now helps me into my boots, zips up my snowsuit—catching the tip of my chin in its teeth—and sends me to school. On the way I toss the cashews to the crows and bend the licorice ropes to form letters in the snow. When finished, I stand awhile and stare at your name. To get used to it, I guess. Originally published by Maudlin House, Jan 2015 issue.

'At The Yacht Club' by Tom O'Brien

'Sir you simply can not do that in here.’

‘Not only can I. I already have. If you my good man, can look me in the eye and tell me that this, and more, has never been done in this place, with its illustrious history of Lords, Ladies and Americans then not only will I eat my own hat but eat yours. And his. And her knickers'.

He looked closer at the maid. ‘Those I may eat later in any case.'

Taking his cane and the leash of his Irish wolfhound, he stepped from the bathroom stall.

‘Good day to you all.'

'The Interview' by Jane Ayres

The room seems dark despite the bright beams scything through mullioned glass, to fall upon an inky desk, piled with papers threatening to topple. Here dust motes dance to the sounds of muffled footsteps and young voices calling.

Panelled walls and heavy furniture…a sagging sofa before a high fireplace. Books line the walls, from oak floor to stuccoed ceiling.

I lean back in my chair and breath in a deep draught of good St Gregory’s air. The smell is a dear friend…always the same, in term time or holiday…of beeswax polish and chalk dust and boiled brassicas.

I’ve always been lethargic at this time of day. A good helping of steak and kidney in suet finished off with a sago pudding would cause a man of any age to close his eyes for a few moments, but lately, I ignore the bell that summons all to playing field or classroom, and find myself nodding well into the afternoon.

But not on Tuesdays.

Today I see the miscreants, the malefactors, the offenders. What heinous crimes must I punish this week? I glance at the rattan cane in front of me and sigh.

A timid knock.

‘Come.’

The knob turns and a diminutive figure in serge shorts and aertex shirt stands on the threshold.

‘For heaven’s sake come in. I won’t bite you.’

He is small for his eight years and approaches to quiver in front of me.

‘Ah, Jenkin’s Minor. And what brings you in here today?’

‘Mr Anstey said I should come, Sir.’

‘Oh did he? And why was that, pray?’

‘For failing to climb a rope, Sir. In the gym Sir.’

‘For failing to climb a rope eh? And did you try to climb it?’

‘Oh yes, Sir. But I wasn’t very good at it and I kept sliding down.’

 ‘I see…’ I pause for effect. ‘You haven’t been here very long, have you?’

‘No Sir, three weeks, Sir.’

‘Well Jenkin’s Minor, you’ll soon learn, that here at St Gregory’s we expect boys to work hard. To be strong and agile. Not waste their time failing… you will never get anywhere in the world, sliding
down ropes.’

The boy hangs his head.

‘No Sir.’

‘Your brother was a fine climber. A proper little Indian fakir.’

‘Yes, Sir.’

Such dejection. It lies in the air like a wet fog. An hour with the telegraph crossword would be so much better for both of us. Oh well, better get on with it.

‘Hands out Jenkins.’

The little fellow bravely turns up his palms. The tender skin already broken and red. Such a shame to make things worse.

‘It looks as if Mr Anstey’s rope has already done my work for me,’ I say. ‘Run along and let matron put some iodine on those.’

The gratitude on his face is short lived. He realises, as he scuttles away that he has escaped me, only to fall into the clutches of a worse tormentor.

But at least my conscience is clear.

‘Next Boy!’

Cannon Fodder by Alyson Faye

The gnawing started as soon as night fell; incisors clicking, toes scurrying over both the dead and live bodies. The rats feasted. There wasn’t much you could do about it. The living had nowhere to escape to anyway. Their living quarters were awash with mud, corpses and spent bullet cases. There was no colour anywhere. The landscape was brown mud, punctuated by wire fences. At night the blackness was broken by the sound of men moaning.

Private Bill Mason sucked heavily on his cigarette. Huddled down, soaked through, the lice itched his scalp. It had been a day to end all days. A living hell. The enemy’s Howitzers had hammered away for hours. Mason’s ears rang, constantly. He didn’t know what to write home. There were no words to describe what his life had become. Writing had never been his strength, he’d been good at making things. Bloody useless in this war though, he thought, when all he’d done was watch everything and everyone be pulverised.

My dearest Lily
It is night now. I can see hundreds of stars. It is quiet enough. I miss you, your cooking, our…. 

Mason absent-mindedly rubbed his right foot. The stub of his big right toe buzzed, with phantom energy. He’d lost it a few months back. Frostbite, gangrene, the usual. He was lucky though. It was just his toe. So far. He felt his eyes fill. He swallowed hard. You had to get a hold of feelings, else they’d be your undoing. He’d seen men dragged away, gibbering.

When I get home I’m going to make you that dresser you always wanted….
He contemplated the planing of the hardwood under his hands. The wood’s smell. Lily’s face. He could not think about tomorrow.



(First appeared on www.Tubeflash.co.uk)

Reboot by Munira Sayyid

These things, they just happen. You can’t control them.

It happened to me one morning while I was drinking coffee. I remember it was a Wednesday because I wanted to wear my Wednesday panties but couldn’t find them and had to settle for my Sunday panties. I was staring at the basket of potatoes that would be empty by the next day when he crashed through the window. The dramatic entry was immensely appreciated by the neighbor’s dog.

I knew by the way he made a quick study of my apartment and me, that he wasn’t a man. He was a manthing.

I informed him that I don’t do anything before my morning coffee. Ever the gentlemanthing, he took a seat beside me, refreshed my cup and helped himself. We drank coffee, talking about nothing while the neighbor managed to subdue her dog without abusing his lineage.  

He then proceeded to deal with the remains of the window, disposed of the pieces of glass and mopped the floor for good measure. I did not have to double check his work. Manthing and I watched a reality show on television and he made the right amount of nasty comments in the most eloquent manner. I asked him what he preferred for lunch and manthing did not shrug. He replied that any dish with potatoes paired with the leftover chicken would be lovely.

Manthing and I ate spiced potatoes with leftover chicken and the conversation was mute. It was turning out to be a beautiful day.

We spent the evening doing all my favorite things. He was more than eager to watch Love Story while snacking on caramel popcorn and play the guitar for me.

I decided to do something special for manthing so I wore my satin nightgown to bed. I had to cut off the sleeves and tuck my stomach but it was worth the effort because after taking one look at me, he exclaimed that I was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. When he did not insist on sex, I knew I was in the company of the latest model. I fell asleep with my golden haired dreammanthing, his strong arms tucking me close, while he pretended to snore.

I awoke in the middle of the night to a middle-aged man screaming at us. He was wearing a lopsided wig and a belly that was going to rip open his shirt. After throwing his wedding ring at me, he stormed off along with a suitcase. Manthing frowned at me and I told him, No, I don’t recognize that man.

Next morning, there were two cups of coffee waiting on the kitchen counter with no sign of manthing. I wasn’t surprised. The latest model had a tendency to go rogue. But I didn’t mind falling in love with a bad boy. I was eating blueberry pie for breakfast and had put on my Wednesday panties when it was Thursday. I was a bad girl too.

'Summer Baby' by A.E. Weisgerber

The seventeen-year cicadas punched out in May and throttled through June. On porch evenings, sitting with my Apollos, we discerned three calls. One with four distinct parts, one with two crescendos, and a third went skeedle-dee-boppity-doobop-deedleeeeee. I couldn’t decode cricket, noise looping excitedly all around in the night, in the trees: labor pains. What are they saying, Apollos?

He said, it is like Dr. Seuss Go Dog Go, where you think it’s about hats, but it’s one big huge dog party up in the trees.

I said, Mother Nature has been dogging me all day, while I was thinking about what shirt to wear, she was keeping up pressure on the gas pedal and messing with the governor. Driving me to that big dog party.

He said, I don’t know how to say their sound. I hear, yet see the circus acrobat, pretty lady, who can hula-hoop fifty silver rings at a time. Sometimes they are all rotating excitedly out of rhythm, and then, in a moment of fluid clarity, all the hoops shimmer as one serpentine tube. That’s the sound.

I said, yes. That is the sound. It rolls.

And today is the day, in a serpentine swirl and some huffy dog language I am going to. I am going to. Growl and say Gnnnnnhhhhhh.
A girl will crawl out of the mud of me, and she will roll and skritch in my cochlea. It is past midnight, and we are on the sleeping porch, go bag and car keys. Knowing, the hospital is 9 miles, 8 potholes, 7 lights, 6 turns, and can do can do Mother Nature is shifting my gear box: its shimmering patterns of serpentine flesh have a will have a will have a throttle.



Originally published in SmokeLong Quarterly.

'Rockpooling' by Sharon Telfer

“Look, Daddy, look!” She strains upwards, on tiptoes, arm, fingers, whole body outstretched, willing him to see. The black pebble gleams in her starfish hand. “I found some jet.” She plants it in his palm. “That’s not jet!” Her brother pulls at his sleeve, trying to get a better look. “It’s not, is it, Dad?” “Well, it does look like jet.” Unlikely, he thinks, and too heavy. “Let’s see what else we can find.” They lean their long shadows over the pool. He takes his daughter’s hand. Her sea-wrinkled fingers curl round his like suckers. Last summer, he had held onto her brother as tightly. Now the boy crouches at the edge, old enough to balance on his own. The green weed sways softly. A crab scuttles under the overhang. He names mussels for them. Barnacles. Sea squirts. They giggle at the words. Twice a day, he says, the waves come in and wash the pool clean. No one but them will ever see it just like this again. He glances up. The tide has turned, sooner than he’d expected. “I know what we should try to find now.” They look up, their faces like sea anemones, opening for what he will say next. “Mummy! And what was Mummy going to get?” “Icecream!” The boy is already away. Hoisting his daughter onto his shoulders, he strides after, calling warnings of seaweed and slippery rocks. The pebble, drying now to grey, lies forgotten, as the tide creeps in behind them. (First published on Faber Academy blog, Runner-up in weekly QuickFic competition, April 2016)

'Hell No It Was Fun' by Kath Kerr

Even though I had to share my table with a couple of guys who had a row about a girl and they almost started fighting and the beer was five pounds a bottle and someone spilled red wine on my silk jacket and I lost an earring and the ladies’ had flooded so my boots got wet and I found out right then that they leak and a girl kept staring at me and it was a bit scary and the music was loud and I don’t like rap or bluegrass much and the final episode of that series was on TV and the taxi home was twenty pounds and I only had fifteen so we had to go to a cashpoint and I couldn’t find my key and had to wake up my sister to let me in, at least my battery lasted long enough for me to receive your text saying you had been to football with your cousin and couldn’t make our date so not to wait around for you.

'Marks on a Page' by James Burr

The Writer-Who-Had-Never-Written-A-Word had read countless books on writing and on the walls of his bedsit were several large posters, structured outlines of novels he hadn’t written, stories he had not started, each scene linked to others with biro arrows, intricate manipulations of the most ingenious narrative structure of any work ever unwritten.

So he would read and research and plot and outline until one day, writing from life, he came up with the idea of a story about a writer who never gets round to writing anything.  He scribbled down character notes of the main protagonist, someone whose life and mannerisms were much like his own.  He pored through creative writing textbooks and outlined a potential narrative structure; it would be a tale of a writer who never got round to writing anything who has an idea that would be groundbreaking in its literary brilliance, yet the writer is tortured as he knows that he will never write it.

Excited, the Writer-Who-Had-Never-Written-A-Word scribbled down ideas on a piece of A4, linking ideas with arrows, adding others with creased Post-It notes.  He could start in media res, outlining the predicament of his writer who never writes, before flashing back to the past where he could lay the seeds of his theme and outline the anguish of the main lead.  Yes, the story could be about a writer who never got round to writing anything who has an idea that would be groundbreaking in its literary brilliance, who is tortured as he knows that he will never write it, who then writes a tale about a writer never gets round to writing anything who has an idea that would be groundbreaking in its literary brilliance, who is tortured as he knows that he will never write it.

The narrative possibilities opened up before him, as the Writer-Who-Had-Never-Written-A-Word excitedly imagined plots and sub-plots interweaving, a puzzle-box opening, a fractal narrative forming a tapestry of infinite repetition.  He spread sheets of paper across the mucky carpet, slapping Post-It notes between them as his work of outstanding genius developed.  Yes, his story would be one of a writer who never got round to writing anything who has an idea that would be groundbreaking in its literary brilliance, who is tortured as he knows that he will never write it, who then writes a tale about a writer never gets round to writing anything who has an idea that would groundbreaking in its literary brilliance, who is tortured as he knows that he will never write it, who decides to write a story about a writer who will never get round to writing it.

And so the Writer-Who-Had-Never-Written-A-Word feverishly manipulated sheets across the floor, an ever-growing spiral of ideas while on his desk lay his notepad and pan, not a single mark on the page, and ink that would never be used.

Adventure at the hairdressers by Chris Willis

 ' Be with you in a tick, Mrs Evans' said Alice, pulling her trolley across the room. ' Full works today then? I've got some new eye shadow in, it will bring out the colour of your eyes perfectly. I saw it in Boots yesterday, automatically thought of you. Mind, the cost of make-up is going up. I bought myself some new mascara, three and six it was. I couldn't believe it! We'll get your hair done first, oh, and I also got some new nail varnish, goes nicely with your outfit.'
 
  Alice had not been the best pupil at school, leaving at sixteen with no qualifications at all. This aside, she knew what she wanted to do, although her parents took some convincing, particularly her father. You would have been forgiven for thinking that she'd asked to fly to the moon, totally impossible!

  'Why can't you be like your cousin Edith?' he'd said, ' She could put a word in for you at Woolworths, I'm sure.'
The thought of standing behind a counter at Woolworths filled her with dread. Listening to women trying to choose between boiled ham or luncheon meat for Sunday tea, or could they just have a quarter of corned beef instead?

 'Beautician'  Her father grimaced, 'What sort of job is that for a young girl? You have ideas above your station, young lady.' The pleading went on until a compromise was reached. If she did the first year of the course and stuck with it, she could do the second year and the exam. If she failed, he would take her up to Woolworths himself.

  But she didn't fail, passing with flying colours, including a distinction. A fully qualified hair and beauty technician, the first in their family to go to college and achieve such good results, opening the door to a bright future. Her father wasn't moaning now! Quite the opposite, telling everyone what a talented daughter he had.

  As she promised, the new eye shadow made Mrs Evans' eyes look bluer than ever, and the soft pink lipstick and natural blusher completed the picture. Just the nails to do, a shade of red to compliment the two piece suit she was wearing.

 ' Almost done, I'll just take this fringe back a little more, so everyone can see those sparkling eyes of yours'

 She heard the door open, 'Just finishing here' she called, as she saw Mr Taylor standing in the doorway.

 'Another wonderful job, Miss Cooper, you are a credit to the firm. I'll just wheel her through to the chapel of rest, her family are waiting to say goodbye'.

  Alice loved her job.

Catechism by Emma Dykes

Father? I says, d’yer know my friend, Lou?
He doesn’t know her.
No, she don’t go to church. She’s protestant. Will she go ta Hell?
Hunky priest he is but mustn’t think that. It’s a sin. He says Yes. She don’t worship in the proper way but she’s my best mate and she’s comin to my Holy Communion. I got a white dress with a ribbon and an Aunty-knitted cardi. She should sit at the back in case she’s struck by lightning while I am received. She’s nice. She should stop saying Oh My Christ though because he’s not hers. I say Praise Peter God, cos that’s his name and I know him, cuz he’s in me somewhere. Sometimes her mum says Christonabike and I don’t know why and I feel funny when I laugh about it. We hang upside down on the metal bars and breathe creosote right up into our soft little brains. God can see our knickers. I won’t go to Heaven without Lou I don’t think.

'When Susan Died the First Time' by Christopher Allen

When Susan died the first time, the guys at the office filled a black leather book with 50 pages of heartfelt condolences. Back and front. That’s what they said: ‘heartfelt, back and front.’ I couldn’t open the book. It’s in the bedroom closet behind a big green box of yellowed tax receipts. Who has the steel for heartfelt, back-and-front condolences? From guys who never gave me anything but email porn jokes and MILF videos. Who wants to be reminded that she couldn’t keep Susan alive?

When Susan died the second time, I’d quit the office with the guys but I was a guy myself. This time, mourning Susan as a man, I was ready to seek the familiar, warm hands of guys—of buddies. I would unzip my grief to their affection, however they wanted it, but no one came. In the break room, averted eyes scoured the light green cement walls as I sat there, open; their silence left me wasting and wondering why Susan had lived at all.

The seventh time Susan died, I was so small that no one noticed. Hordes of Susans milled around me, ignoring my suffering with their oval, alien eyes, with their bared legs and teeth, with their laughing and ambitions and Susans of their own. To them—if they noticed at all—I must have seemed a speck. To them, I was just the droppings of a Susan, and Susans tended to leave the tiniest.

I was living in a little town called Susan on the outskirts of Susan when Susan died the ninth time. I’d just landed a job working for a man named Susan in a company named Susan. My name was Susan and when Susans spoke to me, they spoke a language called Susan because Susan was the only language I’d learned, and every noun, verb and adverb was Susan.

The sixteenth time it died, I refused to say its name. I sent two black suits to the cleaner’s and meant to wear them for a year, but when I went to pick them up I was told a man named Susan had taken them. So I dusted off the black leather book from the first time it died and read all fifty pages, each heartfelt condolence, back and front. The missives were strained and awkward; they were violets-are-blue and adaged—but also affirming of my insistent loss. Not one of them, not even once, had mentioned its name.



Originally published in Indiana Review; finalist in the 2013 Indiana Review ½ K Competition.

'Castle of Sand' by Chris Drew

My mum and dad take me to the beach every year for my birthday. When I get home I write everything down like a story and even draw pictures. Next year I’m going to ask for a camera so I can take photographs and start a scrapbook. This is what happened today: 1. Ice Cream I licked the dribbles of ice cream from my fingers and watched the seagulls soar in spirals overhead. My favourite is a vanilla cone with chocolate sauce and a chocolate flake and two wafers. My mum and dad sat on the wall either side of me until I’d finished every mouthful. 2. Shell I hung from their hands and rocked back and forth. The tide toppled over our feet and pulled the sand between our toes. I felt a sting under my heel but it wasn’t a jellyfish, it was just a broken shell that sliced the bottom of my foot. Did you know that shells are the protective skin of dead sea creatures? Like armour. When the animal dies, the shells wash up on the shore and sink into the sand. My dad lifted me onto his shoulders while my mum stuck a plaster on my foot. I looked down and saw the broken shell covered in blood before the waves scrubbed it clean. 3. Sand Castle We knelt in the shade of an umbrella. I collected a bucketful of wet sand while my dad scooped a deep ditch around my mum. The ditch is called a moat. It fills with water and stops invaders getting in. I started to build the castle around my mum while she looked straight ahead. Her eyes were mirrors that reflected the whole world. 4. Tide My dad stepped into the circle and put his hand on my mum’s shoulder. When he touched her she moved away and walked towards the sea. I ran to collect the sand before the tide reached us. I tipped my bucket over again and again and built the castle higher, wider, stronger. Water trickled into the moat and coiled around me. I reached up and tipped another turret. A wave scurried towards me and splashed my face. I grabbed fistfuls of wet sand and piled them into the towers, but the waves crashed over me and the walls crumbled between my fingers. 5. Sun I shielded my eyes and looked for my mum. She was in the sea, floating on her back. The sun throbbed like a heart and stained the water red. I screamed for her to come back, for my dad to save her, but she floated further and further away. 6. The End I stood between them as the whitecaps washed between my legs and devoured the castle. It melted like ice cream and disappeared, as though it had never even existed. It doesn’t matter though. Next year, I’ll build another one and take a photograph so I can remember it properly. So it will last forever.

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