By Young Lee
Old Jimmy approaches the street corner, paper grocery bags weighing in each hand, and pushes the yellow walk button with his elbow. He has on cotton yoga pants, cut off at mid-calf, partially revealing a pair of great bass swimming upshore. The old black ink faded to a watery grey against his own scaly skin. At his sleeves, his lanky, fleshy arms have long been inked with mystical birds and masks like weathered totem poles. Inspired by past winters, hunting moose, in the South East Alaskan terrain. Ancient hieroglyphics decorate his forearms to commemorate his late wife. And the markings of Buddha, the All-Seeing Eye, the Hindu Ganesha, along with Christ seated on Jimmy’s torso, front and back. Tombstones of his past.
Old Jimmy pushes up his prescription glasses with the tip of his thumb, wiggles the blood back into his fingers. He feels faint from Bikram Yoga and hunger as the amber sun presses down on him. Through the asphalt mirage across the street, Old Jimmy discerns a young man in a vintage Jim Morrison tee shirt approaching the opposite corner. He had that shirt once, a long time ago. Remembers going to their concert. As Jimmy observes him, there is something else familiar about this young man. The manner of his walk. The way he jerks his head to throw back his long wavy bangs. Sweat runs down Jimmy’s back and he rests the bags down beside him as he rubs his tired eyes and scratches an old scar on his right cheek. Despite the heat, his fingers are cold and moist. He readjusts his glasses and studies the young man’s face as he’s retrieving something from his pocket. He regards the boy’s compulsive blinking. The exact habit he had before he got cataracts in both eyes. That arched nose reminds him of his father. And the same thin lips that purse when he sniffles. Then suddenly he notices the payphone that he entered nearly forty years ago.
Old Jimmy contemplates the young man’s pure unscarred skin, and looks down at his own left forearm. His first tattoo of a pirate ship on rolling waves. Below the ship is the swaying banner written 1/12/20 – 8/20/73.
Young Jimmy stands whistling Riders On The Storm while listening to the ringtone. It had been two months since he called home. His mother would pick up and get upset as to why he waited so long. Then she would cry as his father takes over the phone and breaks the news of his cancer.
Young Jimmy does not respond for some time. He remembers all the days when his father used to cough. The one night he saw him in the bathroom spitting blood. He recalls the days when his father got sick, then recovered after two whole weeks in bed. He thinks about why he moved out to the city. The fight they had the day before the move. The phone calls he ignored while he watched TV. He thought of all these things and then thought he had more time.
“Hey, I was thinkin. Although, your mother thinks this is a bad idea. I’ve always wanted to sail the Atlantic Ocean. When you visit this summer, I thought we could make plans to go. Just you and me. What’dya say?”
“Yea dad. Let’s do it.”
They sailed for 10 days. Sunburnt with five o’clock shadows. Manned the sails during light and resting on their backs just before sunset. A beer in each hand, they spoke lightly, never mentioning the cancer. Mostly they yielded in silence to the majestic sky above them.
On the last day, Jimmy’s fishing line snatched on a brisk wind, and swung around to catch his right salty cheek. He bled. They laughed. Partly delirious from the buoyant voyage. The longest time they’ve spent in proximity.
“Now you’re a real man, pretty boy,” his father will say, pouring whiskey over Jimmy’s wound and applying gauze to his cheek. It would be the last time his father took care of him.
Old Jimmy waits. Five seconds counting down. The bags slightly trembling in his hands. The breeze slips in between the spaces of his fingers, cooling them. The walk sign takes its turn and both old and young Jimmy step onto the quiet and empty street as the summer wind blows past them.
By Lisa Gordon
Madonna lives in an abandoned barn on Ceb’s property. She dances in there. The situation essentially came out of nowhere. He heard thumping one day, and went to investigate. He knocked, and there she was. It took him a second to recognize her, but that gap between the two front teeth was hard to forget. She put a finger to her lips and then waved another finger in front of her face, as if to say, “shhhh”, or maybe it was “no”, and she smiled a sly smile before she shut the door.
(He can’t actually hear her dancing, of course—the barn is several paces away—and yet, the thought of light whispers of feet drawn across the sawdusty floor keeps him up at night.)
She was her younger self. The short, chopped hair with the bad roots, the lacy fingerless gloves and bulky denim jacket. Of course, Ceb didn’t really notice these details at the time, but when he went inside and went online and Googled Madonna, he thought, yes, it’s her. How strange. He never really liked her music, but his daughter did, so he’s glad for that. Then he fixed a grilled cheese, perfectly crisping the outsides of the bread, the way his daughter used to like it, and brought it to the front door. He knocked once, left it on the ground, and walked away. When he looked back, it was gone.
He picked up the phone to call his daughter, even though he knew she wouldn’t believe him. Her name was Lina, and she lived in San Francisco with her sometimes boyfriend. She worked at a bank doing things Ceb didn’t really understand, and he didn’t ask, because he didn’t want to seem like he didn’t understand. She also wasn’t really his daughter. She was his sister’s daughter, but she, along with her family, were in an accident. Lina became his at the age of 8. But she did call him Pops; a small victory.
“Pops,” she said, a flurry of traffic noise in the background. “Heading to work, what’s up?”
“Nevermind,” Ceb said. “Go on.”
She was always in a hurry, even as a child. What would he have said, anyway? Do you like Madonna? She would have called him crazy. He knows how she sees him, but what’s a man his age to do about it?
Still, he wished he had someone to tell.
A few days went by. Ceb did everything he normally did—painted, read the paper, sat on the porch—but now, he had one extra thing: cooking for two. He found himself paying extra attention to what he made. He made his chicken picatta, he made eggs florentine. He’d always liked cooking, but when Lina moved out, it was too depressing to do it all just for himself. He listened to Madonna’s music. Quietly, just in case she could hear. He didn’t really like it, but he felt it was something he ought to do. Her voice wasn’t particularly enjoyable, but he liked that she had something to say. At least it seemed that way, back in the 80s.
The plates were returned, clean, always. He wanted to ask her what she liked, but didn’t know how to go about doing that. He was trying to be respectful of her space, and didn’t want to overstep his bounds. He decided to leave a slip of paper with the next meal, where he listed several menu items:
pork loin with cranberry sauce,
whole wheat pasta with sausage,
salmon with lemon rice.
He included that all ingredients were purchased from the local market—fresh as could be. That night, he could barely sleep. In the morning, along with the clean plate, he found the piece of paper, ripped very carefully around the pork loin option. It was a kind of excitement—the kind that came with purpose—that fueled his new energy. He shopped with a smile on his face, and set about his cooking that afternoon. He saved the extra rosemary for another dish—surely he’d need it. He saved the extra cranberry mash in a mason jar—maybe that could be used for something. He plated carefully, arranging the meat tastefully, drizzling the sauce as decoration. It wasn’t a masterpiece, but it was something. He set the plates on the counter, remembering the linen napkins tucked away in a closet somewhere, not having been used in years. He thought he remembered them having thick blue stripes. Yes, he thought—they’ll be perfect.
When he returned to the kitchen, Lina was there. She was bent over, inspecting the plates, bemused.
“How did you know?” she asked. “That I was coming?”
“Hello there,” he said. He stood wringing the napkins stupidly in his hands.
“Haven’t seen those in years,” she said, then began opening drawers, setting the table.
“I felt bad,” she continued. “When you called the other day. I’m always too busy, aren’t I? I missed the quiet of this place. It’s what people who live in the city yearn for, and to think, I’ve had it all this time.”
“Always here,” Ceb said. He couldn’t believe that something he’d wanted for so long was coming true now, after all this time. He watched her, looking for changes. Her clothes looked expensive.
Lina unfolded the napkins. “This was for me, wasn’t it?” she asked.
“Actually—” he began.
“Beer!” she cried out. “This would be great with beer.”
“Pops?” Her head was all the way in. She pushed aside the heaping bounty. “What’s all this? Do you have—?”
This was the moment. As he walked, he placed the napkin over the plate to keep it warm. There there, he thought, admiring it for moment before straightening up and heading back. Lina watched him from the kitchen window. He hoped she could stay long enough for him to make something else.
Fairness Is Just a Word
By Paul Beckman
Don’t wait. Do it now. You might not be able to do it later. You never know.
Take your time. Think about the consequences first. You can always come back and do it later.
My parents gave me conflicting advice over the years and now I’m conflicted. I haven’t seen them in the two years they’ve been in prison but I do correspond occasionally and they still give me advice and of course it’s still conflicting.
Don’t turn your back on people. Stand up to a bully first thing or the bullying will get worse. If someone asks you to share, offer to trade.
Use your time to improve your mind. Read and write. Keep to yourself as much as possible. Only make friends with people in power.
I’m living in a foster home until I’m eighteen and then I’m on my own. None of my parents’ relatives who I wanted to take me in would have me, and the ones who would have me I didn’t want to be with. No one wanted me out of the goodness of their heart. They wanted me to quit school and work, hustle, steal or to be a farm hand. There were other choices—none better.
I wanted to be with the doctor’s family or the teachers’ or my aunt and uncle who worked in a factory. They were afraid I’d corrupt their kids and taint their lives when all I wanted was to be in a safe place.
This foster home is not a safe place. I’m with this family who take in foster kids as a way of making money. I have lots of chores and rules and don’t get any allowance but I am allowed to work for spending money as long as I give them half.
My parents get out in a year and a half but I won’t be allowed to live with them or see them unsupervised, not that I have any great desire mind you. It doesn’t seem fair they’ll get out before I do. I have two years left until I’m eighteen.
By Joshua Bohnsack
Working in the shop, with all these seventy-something, degenerating people eating their large twist cones at 2 in the afternoon, makes me worry about my own mortality, like when two elderly customers know each other and make small talk, makes me wonder if we’ll break apart and grow up, then fifty years later, I’ll be waiting for some teenage girl to make me a large twist cone and you’ll walk through the door, just as my wrinkled palm grasps the cone, I notice your cane, and try to gaze into your eyes to see if they are the same shade of green, but can’t really tell, because you’re wearing those big, dark sunglasses that cover your eyeglasses as you drive, and I’ll recall how blind you were when we met and wonder if you got that semi-corrective surgery, which technically hasn’t been invented yet, because this scenario is fifty years in the future, and your dark brown hair has so many strands of silver and mine has been turning grey since I was 19, so the color on my head had long since past, and we’ll stop for a second and exchange “hellos” and “how-about-this weathers” and I’ll try to straighten my spine, because you always said I was too short, and I’ll ask if you still sing and I hope you say yes, but I know we will be in different towns and I’ll be wishing for this the next fifty years.
By Zohar Teshartok
Beer-Hail, a temporary community settlement, was founded in 1981 in the Negev area. Until 1989 it contained 15 families living in provisional housing. Today 80 families live there.
There are no secrets in Beer-Hail, the community settlement in which I live with my family. Romi and I run around the rooms of our empty house, playing chase. After the clearing contractors emptied the house of its contents, we can even play ball without anybody shouting at us to stop.
Yedidya is crying on the wet balcony. My mother tries to feed him in vain. He refuses to eat without his TV program. On Tuesday people from the Cable Company came to disconnect the TV and Yedidya has not stopped crying ever since.
Eli, our contractor, gave Romi and me sweets and told mother that it was a good thing they found the oil that they’d been seeking for a long time, while he went from room to room deciding which wall to demolish, as they had done in our neighbor’s house. I don’t know why oil is so important. The sweets did not taste good.
To get our things out of the house as easily as possible, the contractor broke the wall in the living room. It rained at night and the rain made puddles in the living room and our game of chase became a really wet game in which it was forbidden to catch the person standing in the puddle.
I jumped into the puddle in the living room a second before Romi could catch me. Through the demolished wall we saw our neighbors eating breakfast and the girls from the National Service distributing flyers and promising that the Sing Song would take place this evening in the Community Center yard, and Amiel, the postman, trying to distribute the last letters in spite of the rain. Romi and I waved him farewell.
On the evening of the opening of the Center, I stood near the entrance gate shaped like wings, and offered sweets to the guests. Romi helped me to hold the basket and offered sweets mainly to herself. Now the large gate was lying on the wet ground.
The balcony is silent, Yedidya is sitting on Amiel’s lap and mother is feeding him with a spoon. There are no secrets in Beer-Hail. Romi and I are still running around in the rooms of the house.
By Carina McNally
The light that once danced through the tall branches of the trees was now encapsulated in mist. An ear cocked to the damp undergrowth hears the laughter of the missing child pulsating through the gloom of the souls it now resides with. The leaves whisper even in the absence of wind, speaking in Gaelic, the language of ancestors who once ruled the plants; perhaps lamenting a lost tongue, a lost soul of a land now pervaded by a higher culture of stars and banners and glossy chattels. Possibly one considers, the child is better off lost in the woods, a domicile of wattle, safe with still a sense of place.
An Incident of Note
By Paul Gray
It is the consulting room of Dr. Henry Jekyll. The great man sits at his desk, writing, his patient alongside. ‘This sick note,’ the Dr. muses. His voice is well modulated, deep, and vaguely hypnotic—the better for putting patients at their ease. ‘How long should I make it out for?’ His patient ponders. ‘Oh, shall we say five, maybe six … years?’ ‘Of course, no trouble at all,’ beams the medic with cordiality that has become a by-word and made him the most popular physician in London. ‘I’ll just sign it … ’ But as the signature is appended a series of terrible shudderings wracks the Dr. and, before his patient can blink, there sits before him Dr. Jekyll’s alter-ego, the evil Mr. Hyde. ‘There is your note,’ hisses this hairy, stunted travesty of a man. ‘Take it and get out!’
The patient eyes the form critically. ‘This is no good,’ he says. ‘It isn’t signed by a doctor.’
‘Do you dare take issue with ME?!’ hisses Mr. Hyde. His fingers double into murderous clubs, his bullet head sinks aggressively between his scrawny shoulders, and his sticky brown fangs clash audibly at such temerity.
‘It must be signed by a registered doctor,’ insists the man. ‘This says “Edward Hyde”.’
‘It won’t be accepted.’
For long seconds Mr. Hyde glares at the man opposite, his lips champing murderously. Then, as though some last vestige of the kindly doctor still resides within the depths of the monster’s soul and has called upwards, Hyde relents. ‘Oh very well!’ he screeches.
Mr. Hyde leaps up and with curious ape-like motions shambles across the surgery to where a trestle table stands laden with beakers and chemicals. A curtain is viciously drawn. There comes the sound of a preparation being frantically mixed and the air is suddenly noxious with the taint of stinging reagent. There follows the sound of a man guzzling. A series of frightful howls issues forth and a beaker audibly crashes to the tiles. Then the curtain is ripped aside, revealing once more the suave, handsome, and lightly perspiring form of the good doctor.
‘Sorry about that,’ he smiles walking unsteadily to his swivel chair. ‘I keep losing control of the transformation. Now this sick note.’
He begins filling out a fresh form. Abruptly he ceases and glances mischievously at his patient. ‘You’re probably fairly confused about what just happened,’ he twinkles, an impish smile playing about his lips. ‘But it’s really quite straightforward. Have I ever told you about my little … experiment?’
His patient’s boredom notwithstanding, the doctor continues. ‘It all began a year ago when I realised that man is not truly one but truly two.’
‘I know. You tell all your patients. Now, about this sick note …’
But the doctor has entered a reverie and is quite indisposed. His eyes are gleaming away into the distance and his quill pen taps absently on his teeth. ‘Little by little it dawned upon me that certain reagents were to hand—here, in this laboratory—which, if harnessed might well rip aside that fragile veil separating the dual personalities residing in each of us. But what would I find? What indeed?’
The doctor shudders; his face darkens as at some terrible memory. The patient tugs at his moustache somewhat impatiently; somewhere in the creative cavities of his brain an idea is stirring … a story. He shrugs it aside for later consideration.
The Dr. resumes. ‘So it was that I laid my plans. Some, like that fool Lanyon down the corridor, mocked my research, called me a heretic if you please! But I cared not. One night I prepared the fateful tincture. I drank …’
The doctor blinks back to his good self. ‘Hmmm?’
‘Oh yes … of course. Can’t think what came over me. You shall have it at once. Mr. … Mr. … ’
‘Stevenson,’ the other replies and there is a hint of pride in the voice. ‘Robert Louis Stevenson.’
‘Ah yes … ’
No sooner, however, has the Dr. complied when he is wracked for the second time.
‘Hello, Mr. Hyde,’ sighs the patient. The pen, which has not paused for an instant, drops from the simian grip. ‘Take it and get out of my sight!’
The patient shakes his head. ‘It’s still no good.’
‘What is it now, you little cretin?’
‘You’ve done it again, written it in one hand and signed it in another. They’ll think it’s a forgery.’
‘Do not try me too highly, little man!’
‘Look,’ the man perseveres, ‘why not take the form to the cabinet and fill it in as the transformation back takes place?’
It is an excellent suggestion and even Hyde cannot reasonably quibble. Even so … the man-monster seems on the verge of apoplexy, the very foam upon his lips. Once more the spark of goodness within that ape-like breast asserts itself, though it is a close-run thing. Pausing only to shatter his desk with a single blow, he snatches a fresh form and bolts for the alcove.
Once again the curtain is drawn. Once again comes the pungent reek of chemicals. The aural performance is repeated. New screams rend the air. Then—another sound is heard: the frantic scratch of quill upon paper. ‘Success!’ The curtain swishes aside and there stands Jekyll, deadly pale, perspiring insanely, but with the completed form brandished in his hand.
And then—tragedy! The repeated infusions of poisonous chemicals have wreaked havoc upon the Dr.’s heart.
But even as he sinks to the parquet flooring he is not exempt from the curse. The shudders consume him and he is, for the final time, Mr. Hyde.
Appalled, the patient dashes across, making sure to seize the completed form before kneeling beside the stricken creature.
‘Is there anything I can do?’ he babbles. ‘Anything I can get you?’
Seconds from death, Mr. Hyde rolls up one leathery eyelid. ‘How about a doctor?’ he gurgles.
The Sudden Decompression at Waterloo Station
By Eugenio Eustace
As way of description, he was a man who had once purchased—and indeed lay for—a stamp-like tattoo that ran in black across his left buttock. One that read ‘Do what you love. Love what you do’ in a big, basic typeface. As if the decision was more practical than anything.
His mother was furious of course—when told, six years after the fact. She’d always warned him what she’d do, should he graffiti himself like that. Not that her promised ranting and raving got to him all that much—or at all. God blessed you with a lovely body she’d occasionally say, in words to that effect. Broad shouldered, like your father. So imagine her ire, matched only by this man’s actively reaffirmed indifference. She genuinely didn’t speak to him for two weeks. A reaction this man told his wife was symptomatic of the problem. His wife had seen his tattoo many times of course, and disliked its aesthetics almost as much as his mother hated its concept. But conceptually it meant a lot to him, and therefore a lot to her. Even if it did once feature on a Pros/Cons list, rustled up in a Wetherspoon’s with friends and wine, some dark time.
He’d been an illustrator back then, and despite his wife’s steady employment as a primary school teacher money was always an issue. His regular visits to local brothels didn’t help matters. As such there were a few other women about town who knew about his tattoo. He often worried about its uniqueness, and the subsequent potential it offered for street-level identification, should one of the many he had been behind wish to out him—should they bump into, or track down, his wife. She was the only one who knew, as far as he knew, apart from them. So he was always extra courteous, as he figured who could wrong a nice—a kind—man. He was in no position to tip though. And he constantly worried about whether his usage of their joint bank account was impeding his wife’s. Or whether his treatment for a bad back and all the massages it entailed—some of which he technically attended—was enough to happily fool her.
She somewhat resented him, on the sly, for where his artistic ambition, in rhetoric at least, had led them. She thought the massages were a bit much, and offered to do them herself, and secretly swotted up after work on her laptop, sat across from him on the sofa, legs intertwined. She learned all she could about pressure points, and where they were, and how to expertly manipulate them in service of health and wellbeing. That was before, of course, she did a bit of extracurricular research, to keep things lively. In covering her tracks she occasionally came across her husband’s Internet history, but took it in jolly faith and usually used it as research, to be implemented, where practically possible. She secretly judged him, if anything, for his carelessness. Or maybe, she thought, he didn’t care, and was just taking a rather relaxed attitude to the whole thing. Which was entirely possible she thought, as, you know—the tattoo. In matters of carelessness the tattoo seemed to sway things that way, you see. To the conclusion of possible prattishness. To the conclusion that her husband, even after all these years of knowing and loving him, may in fact, be a prat. And this worried her more than it should. And only manifested as something at all positive when the wife herself was being a problem—in her own words and by her own admission. And when she was a problem she considered her problem pairing a perfect match. And therefore any prolonged periods of sanity proved to be problematic, relationship-wise. At which point the tattoo, and all it represented, sometimes became too much to bear. Which sent her on a downward trajectory, sanity-wise. Which inevitably evened the score.
There was a lot of hugging. And eventually the cumulative effect of the hugging, the years, and the genuinely held and felt love that he had for her cooled him. He took up a sensible job in the city, and wore a tie to work. He decided that he would give it all up and ground himself, if you will.
So it surprised him as much as anyone when there was a catastrophic atmospheric event, and a train’s worth of commuters were sent flying out of the open doors at Waterloo like the carriage had just depressurised. The coroner’s report said he had died from overwhelming blunt force trauma. The first response crew had scraped him—and the hundreds of others that didn’t make it through the ceiling and out into London—from off of the ceiling and walls.
By Zohar Teshartok
Tamara finished eating her supper in the living room, watching her favorite TV program, The Great Migration: the Wonderful Flight of the Birds. She was allowed to eat in the living room only when she stayed alone at home.
The program came to an end. Tamara tried to read the illustrated Book of Fairies and to color the red-winged beetle in the booklet, but the noise outside prevented her from concentrating, and the crayons remained scattered on the living room table. Tamara looked at the message left by her parents: `We went out with friends, we won’t be late, there is food in the refrigerator and don’t forget to wash your hands.’ She wanted them to return home already.
Suddenly she heard a voice near the house and ran to the window to see if it was her parents’ car, but what she saw was a large vehicle, unknown to her, and people in uniform approaching her house. The people in uniform went up to the third floor and Tamara was frightened when she heard them knocking and ringing the bell of the Tal family’s flat. ‘I would love to join the migrating birds and fly far away with them,’ she thought to herself.
She increased the volume of the TV in order to hush up the noise from the staircase, and ran to her room, the only place that was safe (where she felt safe). In her room there was a fairy and a goldfish; once the fairy had helped her drive away an evil ghost who tried to enter the room through the open window.
The knocking at the door turned louder and Tamara hurried to hide under her bed. In her hiding place, with closed eyes, she smacked her tongue, pulled her ears – once the right ear and twice the left – and, holding the blanket over her head, she whispered, ‘Gold fish, gold fish, take me far way now.’
When she opened her eyes she almost fell off the back of the fish. She immediately took hold of its fins trying not to look down. Around her was a group of animals carrying little boys and girls on their backs. She saw a lion with a golden mane and a red-haired boy hiding inside it. Aviv was sleeping quietly on the back of a tortoise, and a moment before the injection at the dentist’s, he knocked twice on its shell. Tamara knew some of the children from the neighborhood who had joined the trip, and they waved their hands to each other. A fairy led the troupe through green and orange pastures. All the children clapped their hands when they saw the snowy crest of a high mountain over which they passed. Tamara felt much more secure with her friends on the journey. Suddenly she noticed the amusement park and the mountain train passing through it. The fairy bid the members of the troupe to proceed in a column, head to tail, on passing the narrow mountain crossing, on the way to the park. Before landing in the park, the goldfish moved carefully among the tree tops and Tamara bent her back so as not to get hurt by the thorny branches.
On raising herself, she was slightly hit by the base of the bed under which she was hiding. She checked what was going on and listened to the voices around her. The goldfish was swimming in circles in the aquarium in her room, and the fairy doll was resting at its side. No noise was heard except for the TV in the living room; no knockings at the neighbor’s door and no sound of steps on the staircase.
Tamara ran to the window to see if the large vehicle was still standing in the street, but all she saw was a green frog for recycling the garbage, and street cats. After lowering the volume of the TV she collected some of the crayons scattered on the table and began coloring a wish-tree. She painted its leaves in gold.
By Francesca Baker
It was like walking on subtle vibrations, a tremor underfoot as each flake of snow melted on the touch of her boot’s sole. The overall effect to a bystander might have been ‘crunch crunch’ but it felt much softer to her stride.
She turned back to see the foot shaped depressions in the snowy carpet. The driveway stretching ahead looked long and clear, the cathedral arches of trees weaving over the serene landscape. Dazzling white snow blinded her, its purity making her feel dirty and wrong. It was so beautiful. So natural. So real.
A tear started to form.
She stiffened her jaw as she silently admonished herself. This soft crap was just the drink talking. She needed to sleep it off, then this feeling would pass. This twisting, violent rush of anxious anger that was welling up inside her, like knives rioting in her stomach, thrashing itself against every atom of her body and ready to splurge out—all over the clean, white, snow.
Must. Not. Make. A. Mess.
Like she always did. Because that’s what she was. A mess. A big fucking mess. And for no good reason. School was easy, the best education on offer and a quick mind to absorb it. Mum and dad loved her, and gave her everything she wanted. They argued a bit, but mostly seemed to have some blissful dynamic. The grand fairytale house in the countryside, her four-poster bed stationed loftily in the front room, waiting for her, at the end of the pristine driveway.
But – she didn’t belong here.
Her head started to swirl, the dazzle of the snow like glitter in eyes. The tab Jared gave her was kicking in. Teetering on the side of her feet, she watched the world begin to shimmer, dilating in crystalline beauty. She moved to the delicate branches of the tree, at the tiny icicles suspended upon them, so close as if to try to see the intricate and unique formations. They looked as soft as feathers. As brittle as a heart. If she touched them they would wither away.
Putting a gloved hand to her mouth to stop her warm breath melting the beautiful frozen water away she began to cry again.
Must. Not. Make. A. Mess.
She lay down. Her hair immediately became wet, and she shivered and spasmed as the cold jarred her nerves. She just wanted it all to go away. Before she tainted things any more.
The tab wore off. The drunk feeling passed. She saw the glistening purity of the frozen landscape in front of her. She did not know whether she was alive or dead.
How Your Daughter Died
By Ronnie O’Toole
I don’t think you know me proper. They call me Chase. I work in the post-room down the corridor from you. I’m always in an Arsenal jersey.
It was me that took that book from your desk, the book about your daughter. I’m real sorry. If I’d seen the cover I’d never have took it. But people are allowed to pick up books from desks, aren’t they? You can’t read other people’s screens or answer their phones or lean back in their chairs. But if you see a book on a desk it’s okay to just pick it up and read the cover, I seen people do it. That’s all I did.
It was the picture on the cover that stopped me. Those girls looking so sad even though you couldn’t see their faces, so white, like a feather would knock them down. Ghosts.
I stared at it so long I thought someone must have seen me, so I put it on the trolley under the envelopes. The second I got to the post-room I hid it in my duffle bag and then decided: it’s the weekend, I’ll bring it back Monday. That was my plain intention.
And I read it. All Saturday, kept it by my bed, read every last page. The things they go through, them girls. The way their bodies change, they stop talking, their periods go messy. Yellow skin, did she have that? Lumbago. I had to look it up. I cried for her.
Then I had another plan. That I wanted to see her, to be close to her. To see where you lived and what she was like. See what stage she was at. It’s easy to get someone’s address when you work in the post-room.
But she wasn’t there, nor you. Just your wife hanging washing, and a boy playing football against a wall. So I left the book where I thought just you would find it. In the shed. Couldn’t leave a book like that just anywhere. Living with Anorexia. You wouldn’t know who knew and who didn’t.
So when I heard she was gone I cried all night. Thinking of what you’d all gone through. Horrible. I won’t be at the funeral but I’ll be thinking about you. And her.
I bet she was pretty.
By Charles D. Tarlton
He had a hard time deciding what to pack. What do you take when you are leaving for good? The thought occurred to him briefly that he could always come back later for whatever he forgot today, but his mind refused the idea. He was going now forever.
Stuff accumulates, then you clean house, throw things away, and begin accumulating again. That’s what all these possessions represented, habitual accumulations, nothing that couldn’t be replaced, would be replaced, and had always been replaced. He chose the smaller of the suitcases.
He put his suitcase down on the porch, held the screen door open with his elbow, and used both hands to close and first lock and then unlock the front door. He shrugged and picked up the suitcase again and the screen door closed behind him with a click as he turned and walked to the waiting cab.
He’d made the final decision to leave only this morning, but it was a long time coming. He’d packed up and left in his imagination a thousand times before, but then she would come into the room, say something to him, and the bubble would pop. “Dinner is ready,” he could imagine her calling to him today. She’d go back to the kitchen, grow impatient and come looking for him, but he’d be gone.
As the cab pulled out into traffic he felt a faraway tinge of something and wondered if it was guilt or what. Ah, but he dismissed it. He was escaping from a life sentence, after all. Still, he felt another quick spasm. Times like these even the strongest resolve might waver a little, but what the hell. He dismissed it again; no way he was going back.
He didn’t have a physical ticket, he realized, as the cab came to a stop at the airport. He only had the page ripped from the tablet by the phone where he had scrawled “EU59968T99SVU”. He assumed the airline would know this was proof he’d paid for a flight to Santa Fe, but if not, he could always show them the charge on his card. “Stop worrying,” he told himself.
He was walking away from his share of the house, the car, the investments and the bank accounts (except for a little one he’d opened in his own name months ago). That would help make up for what he was doing. No one could say he’d left her high and dry. She had the house, the car, and the money. He had his freedom, if this shaky feeling inside was what it felt like being free.
Passengers were lining up to get on the plane. It was six o’clock and he’d be in Santa Fe by midnight. No, wait a minute, that would be midnight New York time, Santa Fe would be two hours earlier, only 10 p.m. He wondered if they would give him dinner on the plane.
He got into Santa Fe with hardly a bump. The dinner had not been very good, so he was looking forward to something from room service at the hotel. He took another cab there (two in one day, a record) but he went to bed instead of ordering more dinner. He closed the drapes in the room and fell asleep. He slept all night and awoke exhausted in the morning.
He wasn’t certain at first where he was when he woke up, though, and he was frightened for some reason. “You picked up and left her for good,” he said to himself, but it didn’t sound so wonderful somehow. He looked over at his little suitcase with his few pitiful things spilling out. He was sweaty and the strange room depressed him.
The phone rang and he froze. How could she know where he was? The phone rang again and slowly he answered it. “Hello?” he said, but it was just the front desk with his wakeup call and reminding him breakfast was being served in the lobby. “Fine, thanks,” he said, and hung up.
He took a shower, but his hands were actually shaking when he tried to shave. He could feel a kind of high frequency vibration inside his arms and legs. He felt sick, had some diarrhea, took another shower, and then just sat trembling on the end of the bed in his underwear.
His whole body had become heavy and slow, from the inside out, and his stomach actually hurt. Something was twisting him into knots and he had trouble just sitting still. He paced furiously and, then, without really thinking, he stopped and stood very still in the middle of the room. He was like stone for a second, and then just as suddenly he got dressed, stuffed the rest of his things into the suitcase, looked around the room, and went out. The housekeeper’s cart was in the hall and he squeezed by it on his way to the elevator.
He was lurching back and forth miserably while the doorman hailed him a taxi. “The airport,” he said as he crawled into the cab. He fidgeted the whole way, impatient to do what—he didn’t really know. He had to go back and fix things, he kept saying to himself, and then just once out loud, “It’ll be all right!”
He was in another taxi, pulling up in front of his own house. He got out and looked up at the windows, then paid the driver. As he came up the front steps carrying his little suitcase, the screen door swung open and she was standing there, holding it open with her elbow, a funny look on her face. “What is wrong with you?” she asked, her voice just a little harder than usual.
The Third Gender
By Camillus John
Stephen Roche didn’t take drugs in the same way post-modern Rugby players don’t take steroids, in the same way I don’t, for it’s a communion with a bicycle I didn’t understand. Like I didn’t understand electronic dance music until I got inside the liquid wheel. Until Lenny my bicycle, the bicycle that can lick your mind out, licked my mind out.
I cycled up the Greenhills Road every day to my job with the hole in the Donut Factory at the top of the hill, my skirt and hair trailing in the breeze. Cycle to work. Cycle home. Ad nauseam. My bike just transport. One dimensional. No gender. Until I listened to the druggy rumours in world commentary. Doctor Scream. I got excited. As Bono would say, “I haven’t been this excited since seeing the Dutch tax rate for non-residents for the very first time.”
Halfway up the ascent I have to stop, too tired, too wretched. Feet on the ground. I hear a voice, a beacon clad in Lycra, don’t ride the bike, let the bike ride you. So I relent when I see the length of tongue coming out the saddle at me. From off this proffered tongue I take and swallow the tab, the Donut Hole, put my feet to the pedals and pump steaming pistons up the hill again.
Lenny is now my bicycle and just as I imagine I can’t get any stronger, his tongue—my steroid and I decide that Lenny is a he—his tongue rams itself up my nostrils, probes deep into my head and licks my mind out. And there it is—there—with my body being synthetically re-sequenced into thumping bass-lines. Beyond interpretation. But everyone should interpret cycling for themselves as long as they vote yes in the referendum for the legalisation of steroids in the workplace for all hard-working families.
Lenny’s wheels, vinyl records spinning in black, break-beating at hardcore speeds. I intensify with the energy rush. Pour my liquid mind and liquid body into Lenny’s two liquid wheels. I’m right inside cycling, the cool core of existence. Buzzing like paired-thin electrical wires. I am a he too, for the moment, I decide.
The bicycle reaches the very peak of the hill, time-stretching, and lifts off into the blue sky towards the sun. The sun, which today, is a ring donut frosted in pink and sprinkled with white icing-sugar.
Our thighs thunder, our calves lightning, we cycle through the hole in the dead-centre of our donut-sun. We yearn for rewind after rewind after rewind. For cycling without the mask. The quintessence. All psyched up and ready to work more efficiently at the Donut Factory; harder, faster, stronger—as long as we get our soma.
Rugby players can legally stamp, spike and grievous-bodily-harm their fellow human beings on pitch yet cyclists have to illegally commune with God on bike looking over their shoulders constantly for the dope-testers, pedalling scared. But now that the Minister has said that it’s going to be in the water in higher dosages, when the referendum passes, riding past from Italy, I’m as thrilled as my local GP, Doctor Smoked Salmon, when he sees sick babies in his surgery. He says, “I don’t see sick babies, I see fifty pound notes.”
But I don’t see sick babies, I see the new kinaesthetic intelligence. A third gender. As pregnant as Molly Bloom’s last, as yet unrealised, yes, in Ulysses. Our baby’s due in November, stabilisers on the future. As Madonna said, “So good, I threw my husband out the window.” No need to reinvent the wheel. Just keep it spinning.
By Tracy Sweeney
I loved our house from the very first moment that we crossed the threshold. My mother always told me that old houses have character. And this one was no exception. The floorboards creaked as we climbed the stairs, the windows rattled with every gust of wind and the radiator hissed angry bursts of squealing steam. In the winter I wore scratchy wool socks to bed, and in the summer I blew out the circuit breakers running both an air conditioner and a fan to keep cool. Our house had character—it was just really pissed off.
But I didn’t mind. Well, most of the time. There were those nights when I was alone. But I wasn’t supposed to be alone. The nights I stared at the clock incredulously, waiting for the scratch of a key against the door. Waiting for the sounds the house was missing. Just waiting. And when I’d finally feel the house shake as the door slammed shut, I’d hold my breath expecting the shrill sound of an alarm being fed a clumsy code. And if we were lucky and the alarm didn’t sound, I’d listen for footsteps. Would they continue on to the living room stopping at the couch, or would I hear those floorboards I loved so much creaking under the weight of someone who should have been home hours ago. And if the floorboards didn’t creak (oh please, don’t creak), I’d fall asleep more alone than before.
On those nights, our house wasn’t the only one really pissed off.
Not all of the time. When it was quiet and I had nothing to do but burrow under the lush covers, I swear I could hear the house settling around me. It was my own private lullaby—the house’s way of making me feel safe, welcomed, protected. Those were the best nights.
But when I finally stopped waiting for the scratchy sound of the key against the door. When I changed the combination to the alarm. When it was quiet and still and our house was just my house—the creaking, the rattling, the hissing—were deafening. I’d drown out the sounds with ear plugs, music, white noise machines. Anything to escape. I couldn’t bear it.
Until I was sick of the ear plugs, the music, the creepy white noise. I stopped and listened to the sounds of the house once again. The floorboards creak, the windows rattle and the radiator hisses angry bursts of squealing steam.
I love everything about this house. It has character and it’s mine.
By Nels Hanson
The heavy locked safe, enclosed by three lead-lined steel boxes, was lowered down the deepest shaft of Earth’s most penetrating mine, the moment the leaking Ohio train car reached the army base not marked on any map or named in public documents.
Still the shielded light escaped, the powerful rays attracting awakened night creatures – a thousand owls, and bats diving blind, through waves of Gypsy moths suddenly thick as gathered starlings.
A darker place was needed, a scientist said, so men wearing black-visored helmets lifted the container with the crane. On its chained hook, the metal cube weighed tons, but held less than one full pound.
The unknown substance had fallen from the sky, found yesterday by the boy in Cleveland near his backyard swing. His mother had feared he’d caught fire playing with matches and gasoline, before she saw the glow encasing him came from something in his hand.
She made him drop it in the grass, then called 911 and authorities arrived and took possession of the suspected meteor.
Now packs of dogs raced antlered deer, chasing the tarped truck rushing from the mineshaft to the harbor and a fast ship in readiness, just in case …
A nuclear destroyer, pursued by harbor seals and two Greenpeace cutters equipped with cameras, steamed for the South Pacific, destination the Mariana Trench, its abysmal floor 35,000 feet below the surface, a mile deeper than Everest is high and almost as cold.
On dazzling TV screens, the world watched as the square cargo fell like a streaking shooting star, into water flaring to a cyclone funnel of light.
Alarms and sonar warning horns blared. Birds, fish and whales, arriving from every compass point, behaved erratically. Shearwaters plunged and tiger sharks, jaws clamped tight, overtook blue schools of tuna and dolphins diving for the abandoned gold.
The aura kept propagating, in rings like ripples from a boulder, tsunami tides of photons widening, blazing on the globe’s dull shores as now everything appeared lit from within, no longer just reflecting light.
We saw the dark sea turn the palest turquoise green of shallow ocean within an island reef, and something changed inside us. Utter silence, no bird sang, then shouts and cries rebounded from house to house, enemies hurried to embrace and weep, and strangers recognized their friends. People gave belongings away, until those in need were overburdened and looked for others to share their treasure.
No one was certain what the new fire was or how it worked, except that all the lonely found love and any love already living was multiplied.
“Is the Pharaoh’s Ship of the Sun returned and voyaging, the great bonfire on a royal raft rowed by ghostly oarsmen, the Grateful Dead?” one scholar asked on television.
“No, the fearful Rapture’s finally begun,” a preacher answered.
“Event Horizon,” a physicist countered.
Another said, “The Hidden Imam has revealed himself.”
The cargo was retrieved, the craft coiling miles of cable, sailing tepidly through water boiling with life, milling terrapin, rare giant squid, floating transparent jellies like glass fishing floats, inside them luminescent clouds in clear-domed skies.
The prow parted brimming silver anchovies and sardines, slowly as an arctic breaker prods a trail in ice. The hull became a sieve shooting glowing spears, the armored hold alive with a hedgehog’s ball of golden spines too bright to watch for long.
We walked in a different light and forgot the ship sailed on, unaware the captain had received new orders and alerted all hands.
India and Africa abaft, Atlantic to Cape Canaveral, the destroyer picked up speed, faster than any fish could swim or ship could follow, and soon made port in Florida and was unloaded, the weighty fire delivered by flashing motorcade.
The veteran NASA crew was waiting in asbestos suits, with hoods of executioners and welders’ black goggles. In padded gloves they transferred the safe within the lead-lined boxes to the puffing rocket and retreated quickly down the brilliant gantry.
Our planet’s citizens were still dancing in the streets when the black ten-story missile secretly blasted for space, the circle of its burners eclipsed by the payload’s growing shine, as if the object could feel or think and its light grew stronger as it realized it wasn’t wanted on Earth.
Then it was away and the trouble started – the late afternoon grew brighter, at dusk stars and the moon blanched out like the sun when it set, and a different morning came. Everyone stopped and wondered, went home and locked their doors, to listen to the news and stare at the early brightness at the curtained window.
Over shocked horizons, had a new sun been born? Evening didn’t come, that day or any another, and the exuberant and thankful became increasingly disturbed. Many prayed for darkness, blamed others or the government, picked fights and cheated, committed crimes, demanded back their prized possessions.
Finally, days becoming weeks, a constellated night returned, the flame gone out in the far vastness of deep space, a match dropped down a well. There were Orion, the Dippers, the Pleiades, secure and distant, and the white moon again, and our milder sun!
We were glad as hungry nocturnal animals in Alaska’s waning summertime. At last the blinding substance from the Cleveland boy’s backyard, the heart-shaped stone appearing one noon, from who knows where, why no one knows, was bound into the void and we were saved, the emergency ended, as we were now informed.
World leaders met, and afterward our president addressed the nation:
“No longer vulnerable to the burning passion to live only for love, we can rest assured that our planet is stable and will not illuminate again a universe in which momentarily we became the pole star.”
HOW CLOSE SHE HAD COME
By Patty Somlo
A weary voice in Miranda’s head reminded her that nothing was ever going to change, as the wood-sided, turn-of-the-century houses, some painted in three or four bold colors, passed in a blur. The August morning was warm and bright, but you wouldn’t have known it from Miranda’s mood.
Walking east about ten blocks, Miranda couldn’t shake the deeply gray gloom, even after taking in the splendor of the summer flowers—roses almost absurdly huge and Oriental lilies with their overwhelming perfume.
Miranda turned and headed west. She had enough pills laid out on the kitchen counter. Could she find a reason not to go home and swallow them?
How insanely boring this depression had become. It was like those cheap ads they showed on Saturday night, endlessly regurgitated, hawking vegetable choppers and under-the-counter lights and plastic bags guaranteed to keep cheerful yellow bananas from resorting to their natural inclination and turning brown. Her only recourse seemed to switch the power off and put an end to it all.
Miranda’s thinking was going along like this when she spotted the bus. It looked like something unearthed from the mud, a vehicle with a devilish purpose. What grabbed Miranda’s attention was the NIAYH painted in straight white letters above the front windshield of the bus, the body of which was covered with the flat black paint used for late-model cars. This was the first thing in weeks that had lifted her spirits up. NIAYH. What could it possibly mean?
Alongside the bus Miranda found an answer. Again, all in white.
NOW IS ALL YOU HAVE.
The words made Miranda feel ungrateful for wasting so much of her life. She even felt a bit silly for being depressed.
Still digesting the significance of running smack into a phrase like that while questioning why she should stick around, Miranda turned the corner. The community garden, full of plants she didn’t know the names of climbing thin bamboo poles toward a tantalizingly blue sky, was on her right. Traffic passed steadily up and down Twentieth Avenue. Her eyes drifted to the sidewalk.
This message was scrawled in yellow. Instead of printed letters, crisp and straight, the writer had relaxed into cursive.
Don’t Give Up, the message on the sidewalk read.
By now, Miranda was convinced. Something otherworldly and life-shattering was afoot. She stopped and took in a loud deep breath. The air entered her throat and floated down. She could feel her lungs expand and contract, growing clean and pure, as if scrubbed with a bar of Ivory soap.
Miranda followed the breath with her mind, through her belly and thighs to her calves, on down to her toes. She wiggled her big toe and then tapped the front part of her right foot, from side to side to side.
Forgetting to look both ways once she lifted her foot, Miranda stepped off the curb. Feet from where Miranda stood, a green SUV slammed to a stop. Just in time. Oblivious, Miranda continued on her way across, until she heard the tires let out a painful screeching sound. The putrid stench of burning rubber entered her nostrils.
She looked up, as her heart kicked into a quicker beat and her throat went dry. She didn’t notice that the black lines left by the burning tires aimed directly toward her. The driver barely missed her as he sped off.
Walking the rest of the way across the street and stepping up onto the curb, Miranda Wilson was still unaware. How close she had come this miraculous morning to having her wish to end it all finally realized.
By Deirdre McGrath
Every day Jimbo and Flox frequented the same fast food joint for a cappuccino and a milkshake served by Angela, the waitress.
“Bondjour Angelique me auld flower! Two of your finest beverages if you please,” Jimbo said before filling his lungs with air, and then off he goes until he runs out of puff.
A reading from the book of Jimbo is delivered from a podium of plastic, illuminated by stark florescent light:
“You should see it Flox, the old lady sees a cat on the street, pets the animal as if she really likes it, gives it a false sense of security like and then, for no reason, shoves it into a wheelie dustbin. Well, I got some laugh out of it. She is some operator, I thought to myself. I got the nephew to show it to me on the computer, on that You Tube. Ten times I watched it with the tears rolling down my face.
“The nephew has some set-up, it’s like Cape Canaveral with wires and screens and flashing lights and gadgets and gizmos. Technology ha!
“I mean to say, if that happened with the cat a few years ago no one would know about it, no one would see it. Sure, things happened long ago and even if you saw something a bit off, you didn’t believe it yourself. There were fellas who took the sight from your eyes and would tell you black was white and right was wrong. There was no You Tube back then for all to peruse, but by Jesus tis there now and tisn’t goin’ away, Flox boy.
“There’s uproar about the cat now of course, they’re baying for the old lady’s blood. Well, by Jesus if they think that’s bad they wouldn’t want to have seen uncle Mossie on the You Tube, God rest him. D’ya remember? I can still see him heading off to the river with the jute sack. It didn’t knock a feather out of him though. He was a tough nut, he did the dirty work no one else wanted to do I suppose. Sure, who am I telling, weren’t you his assistant for a while? Thanks Angela, fine cuppa brew. Will ya marry me today turtle dove?”
“In your dreams, Jimbo,” said Angela.
Flox Flanagan winced and stirred his vanilla milkshake with a red straw. He had intended to get the strawberry flavour today but despite this he heard himself ask for his usual. “I’ll get it tomorrow,” he decided.
“Do you know what happened to the animal, Jimbo? Did he escape from the bin?” asked Flox.
“Jaysus, Flox, he could still be in it for all I know! Tis how he got there is the entertaining bit. Tis all equal what happened to him afterwards. I’ll get the nephew to show it to you tomorrow in the Star Ship Enterprise. I’m telling you, it would make a cat laugh!”
Flox had no notion of watching the cat episode on the computer. There was a knot in his gut at the thought of it as he focused on the vapour rising from his friend’s cup. It would be like watching himself. He pledged that tomorrow would be different for him; he would climb out of the dustbin himself or at the very least lift the lid to let some light in to warm his soul a little.
Lady in Green
By Maurice Cashell
When Mike’s contract ended in Geneva in the mid-1970s he came back to Dublin on the car ferry with his seven-year-old, Neil. Neil wanted to fly but was won over by the promise of McDonald’s hamburgers and some key rings in Paris.
They started, inevitably, at the Eiffel Tower. Mike had a coffee in the second-floor café while Neil looked at key rings. Within minutes he was back, furious, minus his money and with a minuscule plastic Eiffel Tower in a paper bag. He had asked for his money back but the diminutive saleslady in the souvenir shop told him that she had registered it in the cash register, couldn’t reverse the process and then ignored him.
Mike got the same story when he went to negotiate with the darting little hummingbird of a woman in her cage. Money in cash register, transaction over and if Monsieur was so sore about it he shouldn’t have let the child shop on his own. He could talk to the manager when he came around in the afternoon … if he came around in the afternoon.
The rest of the tour was spoiled. At the Arc de Triomphe some old soldiers were laying a wreath. One patted Neil on the head, asked him where he was from. In no time the boy was declaring war against France. Mike made the appropriate apologies and dragged him away for another hamburger.
Towards evening they went to meet a friend who worked near the Etoile. The meeting point was a coffee bar in the Rue Rude (honestly! you can’t make these things up). He was late and Neil amused himself by reading aloud the titles of records in the jukebox. Mike explained that Joe Dolan—who had two records, “Sweet Little Rock ‘n’ Roller” and “Lady in Blue”—was from Mullingar, near where Mike was born. Soon a young woman with Kelly-green hot pants approached. From his teenage years Mike had consumed whole shelves of Balzac, Victor Hugo, Flaubert and de Maupassant. The world of prostitutes was an ever present and fascinating microcosm of French society. What was more natural in the Rue Rude than a prostitute?
She smiled at Neil. What a nice boy, she said, and where are you from? And how do you like Paris?
She didn’t stand a chance. Out it came, the biggest outpouring of the day. Eiffel Tower. Key ring. Plastic. All my money. Won’t give it back. Tomorrow no good. Going on a boat. To Ireland. Never coming back. And having let it all out he collapsed like a punctured balloon.
When he finished she opened her purse and gave him a ten-franc note.
“Just remember that all Parisians are not like that lady,” she said, “and come back when you’re a little bit older.” And with that she went back to her friends.
But Neil had to have the last word. He thanked her for her note and with some change from Mike went to the jukebox. He played “Lady in Blue”.
He got the colour wrong, but his heart was in the right place.
By Shevaun Rutherford
“Watcha doin’ up there, Snow White?” calls up the short one.
“Come down, Snow!” says the tall one. “Let down your hair!”
“That’s Rapunzel, doofus,” says the big one, whacking the tall one in the stomach.
“Don’t have to hit me, Stan,” says the tall one, backing away with a hand thrust out protectively. The big one, Stan, takes no notice.
“Gonna come down, Snow White?” says Stan.
I sigh. The cloud of hot breath dissipates into the frosty air. “No,” I say to Big Stan. I watch him out of the corner of my eye, pretending to be occupied with a particularly stiff fingernail.
“Then we’ll have to come to you.” Stan begins ascending the playground ladder, and the other two follow closely.
The bullies have never managed to scale the playground, not right to the top anyway. There is no way they’ll manage it today, not with the painted metal slick with ice, their gloved hands slipping for purchase. That was their biggest mistake; they won’t make it halfway with gloves. I suppose they can’t manage without them, but I’m used to the cold. I never liked summer. In the summer I can’t go out at midday, or without a gallon of sunscreen or those ridiculous sunglasses they force me to wear.
The difficult fingernail comes loose with a final rip. I begin nibbling free a loose shard of the remaining nail.
The short one is the first to fall, crashing into the tall one on his way down the rock-climbing wall. Big Stan makes it to the top of the monkey bars, but stops while he’s ahead. He cringes at the sky.
I smile and poke my tongue out. I catch a few snowflakes before Mrs. Graham appears and ruins everything. Thankfully, she stays to make sure I get down from the roof of the playground turret all right, telling me off all the while.
I don’t mind though, because she never really calls my parents. I smile at the bullies as she leads us inside, and am happy to see that they’re itching to get their hands on me. They don’t though, because Mrs. Graham will call their parents.
Mrs. Graham rounds up all the kids quickly enough, with various degrees of sourness in her comments. “Hurry up! Come back here! You’ll get your uniform wet! Hurry up!”
Soon, everyone is in the classroom, playing cards and board games. I sit in the corner with my drawing book. I’m biting the thumbnail of my right hand, and fixing Big Stan’s hair with the other. In the drawing of course, I would never dare touch Stan’s hair, or any part of him for that matter, even with Mrs. Graham about. I think I capture the angry look on his face quite perfectly. A shadow comes over the playground scene. I look up.
It’s some new kid. I can’t remember his name. I remember very few names.
“Hey, wanna play outside? No one else will come with me,” he smiles, contorting his ugly narrow face.
I scratch my sheet-white arm nervously. No one ever talks to me, except for Mrs. Graham and the bullies. “We’ll get told off,” I say.
“Nah,” he says, waving a thin hand. “She’s reading. We can sneak out.”
I look up to see, yes, Mrs. Graham is stuck in Woman’s Weekly magazine. I have finished the drawing. I stand up.
“Golly, Jordan,” says the boy, looking up at me, “you’re taller than you look.”
I’m taken aback to hear him use my name, and it is extra embarrassing that I can’t use his. Of course he’s surprised I’m tall. No one ever gets close to the albino kid.
We’re lucky the door is already open, and sneak out easily enough, but if the bullies had noticed us we’d have been goners. Mrs. Graham may not be fond of them, but if they dobbed that we were sneaking out my parents might be in for a shock.
The corridor is empty and the noise from the other classrooms blocks out the sound of our footfalls on the concrete floor.
The air bites my flesh when we go outside. I begin to catch snowflakes on my tongue.
Whack. I have a mouthful of snow.
“Snowball fight!” says the kid.
I wipe the snow off my face, and underneath is a smile.
Pour le Mérite
By Andy Jones
The harsh tone of the loudspeaker silenced the throng on the platform initially. Then a collective moan of despair began, only to be stilled by the smack of rifle butts on flesh and bone. The young SS officer recoiled from the spectacle, hoping that colleagues hadn’t noticed his disgust.
A national socialist believer before he came here, he now knew that what the leadership said was untrue. These people were not a threat. They were harmless, bewildered, crushed by their ordeal. The growing mound of personal belongings scattered all around them bore mute testimony to their transience in the new world order.
They were quiet now. The only sound was the hissing of steam as the locomotive prepared to return for its next load of superfluous human beings. Even the dogs were quiet, panting after the frenzied excitement of the arrival. Some of the bedraggled crowd realised they were doomed. Others still clung to the hope that this was a prelude to something better. Children played around their parents’ feet, or tried to hide in a forest of legs.
In his mind he had not crossed the line. It was true that he had used his riding crop a few times, but never with malice. When the recipients of his half-hearted blows looked at him from behind protective arms, he tried to tell them that he was sorry with his eyes, but they could not see beyond his black uniform with its death’s head insignia.
A man was trying to attract his attention. The same thing had happened many times, and he had learned to steel his heart to the frantic pleadings, but … there was something about this man. The SS officer was drawn towards him, while closely watching his comrades at the other end of the platform as they began sorting the soon-to-die from the die-laters.
As he approached, the man opened his hand to disclose a small velvet box. Inside, nestled in crimson silk, gleamed the order of Pour le Mérite, or the Blue Max. This shadow of a man had earned it as a young pilot twenty-five years earlier, serving in the Kaiser’s war. Curiosity aroused, the SS officer indicated that he should quietly move towards the stragglers at the end of the line.
The bearer of the decoration spoke softly to him. ‘Thank you, Herr Leutnant. You can see that despite my religion,’ he gestured at the yellow Star of David stitched on his overcoat, ‘I served Germany well. Now it has come to this.’ He looked around. ‘I am not worried about myself. My concern is for my wife.’ He indicated the slight careworn figure behind him. The SS officer knew that nothing could save them, not ten Blue Maxes. Certainly not a junior officer such as he. ‘I am sorry. There is nothing to be done! It is impossible.’
The soldier began to move away, but the man spoke once more, quietly, urgently. ‘I can see you are a decent man. I would like you to have this to remember me.’ The officer decided quickly. There was a gap in the wall near where they stood. Taking the man roughly by the shoulder so as to avoid the attention of the other damned, he pushed the couple through onto an overgrown patch of earth.
‘Do you understand what is going to happen to you when they come?’ he hissed, his own fear adding an edge to his voice. ‘Yes, Herr Leutnant,’ came the steady response. ‘Do you wish another way?’ The old man looked at his wife, clinging to him like a frightened child. ‘Yes. I would be very grateful to you.’ The officer drew his pistol and placed it on the nape of the frail woman’s neck. She sagged in her husband’s arms as the weapon bucked. Kissing her, the old man laid her down gently. With a whispered ‘thank you,’ he turned his back, bowed his head and awaited delivery from the torment planned for him. The executioner stooped and prised the glorious confection of blue enamel and gold from the dead hand, slipping it into his pocket.
He stepped back onto the platform just as the selection team neared the end of the line. The SS doctor looked at him quizzically. ‘What have you been up to?’ he asked mildly, indicating the still smoking pistol. He pushed past the younger man and saw the sprawled bodies in the weeds. ‘What happened here?’ The Leutnant felt the warmth of the medal in his pocket and replied, ‘The old fools tried to slip away from their fate, Herr Doktor. I couldn’t allow that.’ His superior nodded. ‘Good man. But no more freelancing, if you please. There is a quota, you know.’
That evening Schnapps and Vodka flowed in the bar. The next morning the Lieutenant applied for a transfer to the front. A Russian infantryman, looking for bread in a dead German’s pockets, found the medal in the ruins of Minsk. Exchanged it later for a crust.
By David J. Wing
We use it in all walks of life, every day and long may it continue.
We queue at the Post Office, while we wait on our giros, our stamps and our penny sweets that now top 10p.
We queue in Poundland, while we ponder our need for that nail-set and movie themed shampoo in our basket.
We queue in the bakery at lunch and salivate over the cheese and ham slices.
And while we queue, we wait, patiently.
It’s an in-built English nationalism; a stereotype of the most respectable order. Pride of place, handed down from generation to generation. Never will it change, never will we barge.
We queue at the Polls; to waste a vote and dream of a better future.
We queue at the bus stop and hope that of the two that come, one has space for us.
And when the Zombie apocalypse comes, we will wait, patiently and orderly for the rescue buses and the salvation trains, the Apache Helicopters and that fellow with the machete and when the monsters seek to steal our position, we shall turn and say…
“Excuse me, I believe this lady was before you.”
“I will move mountains,” she said and mountains were moved. “Now let there be life,” and there was life. The skies teemed with birds and the seas filled with fish. She looked at what she had done and saw it was good but was still not pleased. “It needs people,” she said. She created people. In the beginning, they had no clothes, houses or tools but stumbled around and died. She led them to a place of safety where food and shelter were provided. Whenever they died out she made new ones. She placed them in a garden with a wall around them to protect them from disease and wild animals. “There,” she said. The number of people multiplied until there was not enough room for them in the enclosure. She lowered the walls and pushed them out. Soon she would move over the face of the Earth and find them everywhere. But they remained at the same level. She would speed up history: Thousands of years would pass by in seconds, and after thousands of years had passed they would still be doing the same things they had always done. She left out tools for them but they would not use them. In anger, she killed most of them. Advancement quickly followed. Small gatherings of mud huts grew into large gatherings of mud huts, and then stone structures appeared. Temples and palaces sprang up all over the world. Sometimes one of the new cities would displease her because their houses were built in the wrong way or painted the wrong colour and she would flatten them. “That’s sorted them,” she would say.
The people began to develop by themselves. Sometimes she would check their course and send them on another way but they would eventually revert to the way they had been going. She would invent ridiculous clothes and beliefs and the people would wear them and believe them. Advancements moved at a faster and faster pace. Technology spread across the world. They would sit in front of computers and create, maintain and develop countries and civilisations. Once she had directed everyone’s life, and then the lives of selected individuals—but now the people made their own world, directed their own lives. She tried not to interfere. Civilisation had reached an advanced level and she wanted to see what would happen next. Now and again when she grew restless, she would start the odd earthquake. The people would scramble over the rubble and start all over again. It was about the time when artificial intelligence was developing that her mother called her down for dinner.
She stared at a man getting out of his car.
It had been a hard day at the graphic design office and he was glad it was over. New orders had come in and his section was understaffed. It was a lovely summer evening, and as he got out of his car he breathed in deeply the rich aroma of flowers. Walking into the sitting room, he greeted his wife and children who were seated on the sofa watching television. The television went on and off and then so did the wife and children. Looking out the window, he saw the trees disappear. Inside the house the tables and chairs and walls followed. The wife and children kept glimmering off and on. Now he could see them, now he couldn’t. It went dark, parts of him flying off until finally, his elongated head suddenly contracted into a screaming point of light and he was gone.
Picasso the Wonder Dog
By Ty Spencer Vossler
Rad had lived his entire life in Atascadero (Spanish for Deep Mud). Course nearly everyone living there called it something else. He’d tried out community college in San Luis Obispo for a semester, but higher learning didn’t set right with him. He’d never been much of schoolboy, and Atascadero hadn’t been the best place for academic inspiration. In fact, on the first day of English 101 at the nearby college, a girl sitting next to him asked where he was from. She sniggered when he told her, pretending not to have heard him right and whispered, “Deep Shit?”
Few weeks later he dropped classes, took back his job at the Atascadero Rite Aid. It was about 103º on his first day back, and Jessie (a high school chum) took him out to the Burger Queen after work. Jess peppered him with questions about college. Rad took three minutes to summarize his experiences, and then changed the subject to Picasso. Jessie almost spit his Dr. Pepper, clamping a hand over his mouth to keep from spraying. He paused and looked down at his burger basket to make the sign of the cross.
Rad’s jaw dropped, “No way—gotta be shittin’—
“Yep. Seen it happen. Picasso was creatin’ a masterpiece on ol’ man Vinson’s front step. Vinson seen from his front window and surprised Picasso with a BB-gun. Fuckin’ dog tore out on the street, run smack into Big John Rucker’s Chevy Silverado.”
“That’s messed up. He was an artist, man.”
“Yeah,” Jessie laughed, “Seen him balance a turd on a sprinkler head once—then turned to admire it.”
“Remember when he dumped in my mom’s gardenin’ shoes?”
“Leave anything like that outside,” Jessie said, “he’d find it.”
“Front bumper—Rod Gardner’s Mustang—”
“Oh yeah—Rod’s all, WTF and Picasso finished up by pissin’ on his rims—”
“Rod still got that ol’ Mustang?”
“Far’s I know … ol’ Picasso—yeah, he was somethin’.”
As he sipped Coke, Rad thought about Atascadero’s famous mutt. Picasso, the wonder dog, he mused, picturing him as he finished the last of the curly fries on his red plastic basket. Just an average size dog—kind that nobody ever stopped to pet ’cause the damn thing was covered in filthy dreadlocks, had sores on his legs and hair missing from his ass. Picasso smelled like piss, and it seemed the critter couldn’t go ten paces without lifting a hind leg to lick its little pink boner. He walked as if his body was wracked with arthritis. Hell, Picasso had even ruined one of the most intimate moments in Rad’s young life.
Rad remembered a date his senior year with Marisol. He’d asked her out ’cause it was getting late in his virginity and he’d heard she might be able to help out. Things started out pretty well. His Dad let him borrow the Ford F100 and he drove Marisol out to Lake Success, more of a puddle really, not something you’d attribute success to. Marisol looked kind of pretty—short black hair framing a face you’d never see on a checkout stand magazine, but she was pretty exotic for him nonetheless. She had almond shaped eyes and looked Chinese in the glow of the half-moon that night. But she was Mexican—said she was from Oaxaca. She spelled it for him, but he couldn’t pronounce it.
Marisol wasn’t skinny, but her fleshiness was pleasant to the touch. Luckily it was a Wednesday and they were by themselves. He’d given thought to taking her into a prune orchard, but was afraid he’d get stuck. At night you couldn’t tell if the trees had been recently irrigated or not. Lying on an old quilt in the bed of the truck, they looked up at the sky and remarked about the three stars hanging there. The cat-scratch moon gave off enough light for him to see the shirt buttons and the snap on her pants. He’d had a condom in his wallet for six months and it was burning a hole in his pocket. Just as his hand conquered the clasp on her bra, there came a noise. Marisol sat up to look around. Rad tried to pull her back down, but she pushed him away.
“C’mon baby, ain’t nothin.”
“Heard something,” she said, her accent tickling his ear.
“Shit,” he muttered, sitting up, wallet was in his hand.
A stand of bushes off to the side of the truck snapped and rustled. “Raccoon or opossum,” he predicted. And then the perpetrator emerged as if on cue. Picasso waddled a ways and looked up at the couple.
“Shoo—get lost, mangy mutt!”
Picasso stood his ground, studying the canvas before him.
Rad looked for something to throw, but he’d cleared the truck-bed for the quilt. Should’a gone to the Easy 8, he reprimanded himself. It was Easy 8 because it cost eight bucks for a room. He could have afforded that. Damn it to hell anyway, he smoldered.
“Go on! Git!”
“We should be going,” Marisol said.
Rad put an arm around her shoulder and kissed her neck. “It’s early … ” then looking up, “Hey, more stars have come out, look at that.”
Picasso had summed up his options by then. He flipped to his back, twisting so the lucky couple had a bird’s eye view. Out came his tongue, making slow, noisy licks to his penis.
“That’s gross!” Marisol said, reaching up behind her back to hitch her bra.
Motherfucker, Rad thought. Lamely he tried to draw her toward him. She struggled away and he gave up.
“We should go,” she repeated.
“All right.” He was defeated.
A slurping sound foretold the end of his Cola. Rad burped painfully through his nose and squeezed it with a thumb and forefinger.
“Yep, some dog,” he sighed.
Jessie went to refill his Dr. Pepper, and Rad stole a curly fry from his basket. Didn’t matter much if he got caught––he was already in Deep Shit.
By Ben Mason
There’s just enough time for one last search—felis catus in place of “cats”, slightly more scientific-sounding keywords on either side.
She must know what will become of them. They’re tranquil now, one lolling under the desk, another in the empty aquarium, yet another atop the bookshelf. But after a few days—or weeks—with no oversight, who’s to say they won’t revert to some primal state? Who’s to say Junior and Leo won’t eat Celine’s share of the food? Or try to violate her? Or, God forbid, each other?
There are still no answers.
She walks to the window above the kitchen sink. Through the glass, as always, it’s a parade of ankles, the odd cigarette or wrapper or gobbet of phlegm hitting the sidewalk. She springs the latch and pushes, barely manages to force the gap to whisker width. The cold buffets her face, pricks at her eyes. Pant legs shush. Car horns honk. A man says Unbe-fucking-lievable into his phone. It will be an adjustment, no doubt. But better to leave them to the outside, to trust that alley culture will keep them in check, than to let them live in a world solely of their own design.
“Here kitties,” she calls.
Her phone vibrates. It’s E_____. ETA 15 min.
She replies. Same. Getting dressed.
She disrobes on the way down the hall. Her shower is hasty, unsatisfying. The moment she emerges from the bathroom, wearing just a towel, hair still wet, she’s freezing. She jogs in place as she checks the bedroom for cats. None. The living room. None. Finally, in the kitchen, she finds all—four—of them sitting on the heating vent beneath the table.
She takes a few steps towards them, bends down, rests her hands on her knees. The stranger, a fat orange tabby, holds her gaze.
When her phone vibrates this time, she doesn’t look.
She runs straight to the bedroom, throws on a sweater, jerks herself into long underwear, socks, pants and boots. She sprints back to the kitchen. The cats watch her every move, rapt as she stands before the sink and scatters two generous handfuls of seafood nibbles on the sidewalk.
“Yummy yummy yummy.” She scoops up Celine and the stranger, one in each hand, and puts them through the window.
Leo meows. Junior meows.
“I didn’t forget you.” She grabs them, sets them down next to the others, yanks the window closed.
E_______ texts again. S_____ and I on site. S______ in place. ETA?
The embassy is a 20-minute walk; the ceremony starts in 10. ETA 5 min.
She lingers for a moment, taps the glass. “Psst. Kee kee kee.” The cats, still eating, are oblivious—even to the passersby who narrowly avoid stepping on their tails. They don’t notice when she slips away.
In the entryway, beneath the coat rack in a fancy department store box, are the hat and coat S_______ delivered yesterday. She unties the ribbon, opens the lid, puts them on. The hat is knit but not particularly warm, a shade of green—dayglow, nearly—she’d never, ever wear. The coat, a network of obscure packets and wiring stitched meticulously into the lining, weighs at least twenty pounds. Its pockets are sewn shut, save the front right, through which she’ll access the detonator. She’s been reminded more than once not to rest her hand there—not until the appointed time—no matter how cold it gets, no matter how fidgety she feels.
Her regular, everyday coat hangs on the rack. She checks the pockets for her gloves. They’re not there. She tries her raincoat. They’re not there. She tries her regular coat again. Still nothing. She bolts for the bedroom—but catches herself, slows to a walk. As she passes the kitchen, she glimpses the cats sitting in a line at the window, looking intently in. Leo sees her, paws the glass. She keeps going, stiff, upright.
In the bedroom, she empties one dresser drawer, then another, then another—all to no avail. Likewise the shelf in the closet, the box of scarves under the bed. On her way to look in the living room, she stops to watch a young boy, maybe five or six, squat and pet Celine. Celine hisses, strikes, scratches his hand. The boy stands up, kicks her. She runs away, followed by Junior and Leo, followed by the boy. The stranger inches closer to the window, lies down, licks his groin.
She’s searching under the couch when her phone vibrates once more.
RU on site?
She starts removing cushions with one hand, types with the other. Slight delay. ETA 10 min.
The ceremony may have ended by the time she arrives; the crowd may have begun to thin out. E_____ may spurn her, refuse to make eye contact as he gives the signal from across the courtyard. S_____ may mutter some mild, disapproving oath as he watches from his safe remove. But she will not leave until she’s ready. She will find her gloves. She will be warm before she’s absolutely hot.