My legs dangle from a third-storey window. I have never sat on a window ledge before and this act seems frivolous enough without jumping to the street below. Perhaps the mere thought, the placement of my buttocks on the narrow ledge, is sufficient. Perhaps my future grandchildren will marvel at my daring, but we will all decide that tucking my feet back inside, back into the East, was for the best.
I feel the bricks scrape against my heels, wonder if I should stand on the window ledge and look at West Berlin as I propel myself forwards. This is the only way to get into the West now, my mother had said over breakfast. She told me I would go first, but I shook my head. You go first, I said. She shrugged, kissed my forehead. We’ll throw our suitcases out first, she said.
A cat sits on a window ledge across the street, eyes level with my own. He blinks slowly, licks his ginger paw. He looks left to right, flicks his tail, leaps across to the next ledge and slips inside through the open window. Cats always land on their feet, don’t they? Or so my friend, Bettina, used to say when, as children, we played with her litter of kittens. If I crane my neck, I can just about make out the roof of Bettina’s apartment building. She took my hand through the barbed wire a few days ago and said we’d see each other again. I bet she wouldn’t be able to imagine this moment, a leap from a third-storey window, if she tried.
I look down to the street below, to the faces turned up to me. A few women, clutching their shopping bags and the hands of small children. Several firemen shouting promises as they hold a net between them, but I can see the cobbles beneath. I watched my mother jump before me; her skirt puffed up like a hot air balloon, but her descent was not gentle: the net-holders’ knuckles whitened with the effort of protecting her limbs and skull from the ground. If I were to hit my head, break my back, what will this leap have been for? Isn’t it better to have a shot at life than not have one at all?
I breathe in, close my eyes. I think of my apartment, my job, my grandparents, of leaving them all behind. I think of knocking on Bettina’s door, inviting her to a dance. I think of my mother looking up at me from the West with our suitcases at her feet. I open my eyes and see her, arms waving in the manner of someone flooded with the sense of a job well done. Come on, Erika, she says. I lean backwards, wish myself to tumble into my room, onto my bed, but I don’t.
I can hear movement on the stairs. Has someone alerted the border guards? Did they need alerting or do they already know that I am sat here? People have been seeping from the buildings on this side of the street all week. They have already started boarding up doors and windows, blocking exits. I know I should let go, know if I get caught that I will be imprisoned, interrogated, but I feel as if my backside is glued to the window ledge.
I begin to think about how I was never athletic at school: never able to soar through the air, climb a rope, run as fast as the others. I was always the one the teacher harassed, tried to bully into better performances. I try to guess how many pounds heavier than my mother I am. They barely caught her; they will surely drop me. How can I pitch myself, my life, into the hands of these strangers and their net?
The ginger cat makes another appearance in the window across the street. He plants his front paws on the ledge, looks down and sniffs the air. He steps out, crouches, and jumps to the next ledge and the next one. I envy his ability to make choices, his dexterity as he leaps from ledge to ledge. I want to laugh at the absurdity of this, but then I look down at my mother once more: at her blanched face, at the scrunched-up handkerchief she holds. I can see in her face that she dreads each turn of my head, dreads not seeing me mid-air with my hair at sixes and sevens, dreads not being able to retrieve me from the net. She steps forwards, looks at the building as if I were a cat stuck in a tree and she were trying to find the best way to get to me. I stick my nose in the air, as if I were a cat stuck up a tree trying to demonstrate my independence, and shuffle forwards until I can’t feel the brickwork anymore, until my only destination is a net pulled taut across a Western road.
EMMA VENABLES’ short fiction has previously featured in The Gull, Litro Online, The Lampeter Review, Strix, The Fiction Pool, LossLit, Spelk, FlashBack Fiction, and Normal Deviation: A Weird Fiction Anthology. Her first novel will be published by Stirling Publishing in 2020.
Eppur si muove. And yet it moves.
Galileo was talking of the sun in relation to earth, but here in the depths of the garage studio, I can see she is the one who knows the precise moment each song should advance and move towards an ending, not me. I’m going to be ok without her, but it’s becoming clear that she drives this creative process and I’ll have to adapt. She crouches on her bass amp, the hum and drone elongated as she accentuates each pluck. Me, with the second-hand Gibson we agreed to bring, slumping on my practice amp, cursing the hobble of notes we have decided to stitch together. We are the very essence of long forgotten. We have become a residual echo.
We met in the hall where a friend was getting married. Not exactly a Scout hall, but close. Torn posters still sticky-taped from the eighties, windows that were once covered in pink ribbons and doors that wouldn’t quite close. Left-over ghosts of old vinyl lining the seats. She got up on stage and sang ‘The Way It Goes’ by Gillian Welch. Her voice swept across the stage and flew directly into the night air. I was in awe. We spoke for a while towards the end and the last thing she said to me was, here’s an idea, let’s start a band. I wanted to reply yes immediately but whispered, I always live on the edge. This was never true and the sentence has stayed attached to me like soft static and sometimes made its way out during our arguments.
We fell in love over Levon Helm's drumming. Strange, but there you have it. We loved the steadiness of his beat, the reliance of his cymbal hits and the spaces in between. We craved music. We played at so many weddings. We had rotating band members. It was always like The Last Waltz with really good cake and no goodbyes. Every time I looked in her eyes and I knew we would always have the crunch and sparkle of song. The love that comes with the right amount of discord. But over time and many songs later, we just lost a connection. A wire had come loose.
Now, she sits there, telling me my E-minor sounds a little flat. I play back the track. Eppur si muove, I say. I thought she would appreciate the science of all this. She wears the face that says I should know better. We both fuss over the choices of chords, all the while twitching at our straps. I say, before becoming Elvis Presley's agent, Colonel Tom Parker ran a troupe of dancing chickens. This line had always made her laugh. She is right, the E-minor is downcast.
There's nowhere to go after the middle eight, she says as she picks her plectrum up off the faded carpet.
I remind her that during Black Sabbath's thirty-something year career, they had twenty-nine different band members. They did okay, didn't they? I ask as I try that E-minor again. She smiles as she crumples up the piece of paper with the new words written on it, the ones that we tried to craft after a little too much champagne. She says, this time, let the chorus repeat twice. We look down at our pedals and start to play, disorientated in our loss as the room becomes smaller. The long notes bounce around the room reverberating in my chest.
We know we will have to move on.
ALICIA SOMETIMES is an Australian writer and broadcaster. She has performed her spoken word and poetry at many venues, festivals and events around the world. Alicia is one-sixth of the ABC podcast The Outer Sanctum. She is director and co-writer of the science-poetry show Elemental, and has a new show on gravitational waves called Particle/Wave, which had sell-out shows at the Melbourne Festival 2018 and is touring in 2019.
None of us could have guessed what Hussein was thinking, the day he lay down in the middle of the thoroughfare, blocking the entrance to the solar energy plant with his skinny torso. For a while, he lay there motionless, a tall man descended from mountain Berbers, his stick-thin limbs poking out from the sleeves of his djellaba, where you could see the pockmarks the doctors had left behind when they vaccinated him as a child. At first, we shared laughter over our friend’s odd behavior. Yet, the longer we stood there, the more worried we became. Between us, there towed an undercurrent of apprehension.
‘Wey, Hussein!’ called Adil, the butcher, jogging down the road from his shop. In his hurry, he’d forgotten to stow his meat cleaver, gripping it at his side like a natural extension of his hand where it caught the sun’s angry glint. ‘What are you doing down there? Getting a tan?’
‘Wey, Hussein!’ the teacher Hamid called, arriving on his midday break from the secondary school where he taught English. He looked at us skeptically, inquiring as to whether our friend had spontaneously lost his mind.
‘Just wait till his wife hears,’ Saida, the café cook, grumbled. The black kohl she rubbed on her eyelids had smudged from kitchen smoke, giving her a grim look of displeasure. She spit out the side of her orange-toothed mouth, stirring up the cloudy dust on the pavement. ‘Wey, Hussein!’ she called, ‘What happened, eh? You get run over by a camel?’
Soon, a small caravan of white Peugeots arrived, idling in the road behind us. Inside them, the ten Spanish laborers who’d been hired by the solar energy firm sat, looking confused. They were traveling to work from the hotel where they stayed in the nearby city. From the cars, they poked out their heads, lifting the tinted lenses of their sunglasses to try and catch a glimpse of the commotion.
‘What’s this?’ one of the drivers, a Moroccan, shouted. We recognized him as a man from the city where the foreigners were staying. He climbed down from the driver’s seat, hustling across the pavement in his eagerness to investigate.
‘What’s he doing there?’ the driver yelled, pointing venomously, ‘Taking a nap?’
‘He thinks he’s Gandhi or something,’ Saida mocked, rolling her black ink eyes. She pointed, outlining the arched entrance to the energy plant, a monochrome rainbow painted in desert orange. ‘He’s protesting,’ Saida explained derisively, saying aloud what the rest of us quietly dreaded admitted. With this, the driver nearly lost it.
‘Protesting?’ the driver cried, gunning for Hussein, ‘You…!’ And in three swift strides he stood over our friend’s head, stopping short of kicking him with his heavy boots. ‘Think you can lay there when I have a job to do? I’ll run you over and backwards, you jackass!’
In response, Hussein kept silent, keeping his face glued to the road as though it were the softest pillow.
‘Calm down, hothead,’ Saida exclaimed, hobbling over to face the angry driver. Years ago, she had been waiting for her sister in the center of town when a taxicab struck her, producing the odd gait from which she now suffered. She was, therefore, most sensitive to the cause of pedestrian safety.
‘Just go around him,’ she pleaded, outlining a path with her hands.
‘And what?’ the driver shouted, shaking his open palm as though he wished to strike her, ‘End up in the ravine?’
Indeed, the river that flooded annually was now dry, leaving in its wake a gulch of craggy rocks. Of course, it would not have been impossible for the man to maneuver his vehicle around our misguided friend. Perhaps, in his rage, it was simply the inconvenience that provoked him.
‘I give him one minute,’ the driver shouted, holding his finger in the air to show that he meant it. He trekked back to the van and began revving the engine. Thankfully, a pair of gendarmes soon arrived, keeping the driver from making good on his promise. Together, the officers approached the spot where Hussein lay, tapping him with the toe-end of their boots.
‘What’s going on here?’ they asked us. ‘Has this man taken ill?’
‘Physically? No,’ Saida said, placing her hands akimbo upon her waist. ‘Mentally?’ she added sarcastically, ‘Now, that’s a different story.’
The gendarmes gave an impatient look. The schoolteacher Hamid stepped in to explain: ‘One of your officials came here promising jobs for these men at the energy plant,’ he told them. ‘Instead, they hired those foreigners,’ he said, motioning to the Peugeots full of confused-looking Spaniards.
‘Who knows what they even need the foreigners for?’ the café cook grumbled, rubbing her hennaed finger across the rows of her sensitive teeth. ‘Aren’t they using the sun to make electricity? Does the sun have a preference for foreigners?’
To his comrade, the one officer muttered: ‘We can’t have an old man lying in the middle of the road.’ He nodded, indicating the local crowd gathering. ‘If we move him today, he’ll just be back tomorrow, yaki?’
His partner nodded. They both hoped to avoid a similar telephone call from the chief of the energy plant, a paranoid man who had witnessed the crowd gathering from his office through the lens of his binoculars. Together, the policemen bent over Hussein, dragging him up by the armpits. When our friend was upright, we could see that his face was resolute. He avoided looking at us, instead keeping his eyes locked on the horizon, as the gendarmes pulled up the sleeves of his djellaba, stowing him in the van bearing the king’s insignia, and whisked him away to the place we called Hotel Prison.
After the gendarmes had gone, Saida hurried to tell Hussein’s wife what had happened. Upon hearing the news, her friend cried out, beating her palm-brush broom against the floor. Flies descended in the courtyard, hopping from bread loaf to teacup in tiny acts of pilferage. In the back room, a goat bleated, staring bug-eyed from the place in the ground where it had been tied with a rope to a stake.
‘They’ve only taken him to Hotel Prison,’ Saida burped to her friend, her gastric reflux acting up in the afternoon. ‘Free meals, no work,’ she added, an invisible cloud of gas escaping her lips, ‘Sounds like a vacation to me.’
‘What do you mean?’ Fatima berated, feeling sick. ‘A vacation? My husband is a prisoner!’ Fatima buried her face in her hands, sobbing ferociously. ‘Without him, I have nothing!’ Saida looked around her friend’s home, empty except for a stack of blankets in the corner, a bag of flour in the kitchen, a photograph of a dead relative nailed to the wall.
‘I married a stubborn mule,’ Fatima wept, feeling uncharacteristically sorry for herself.
Saida looked out the open door of the courtyard, peering out over the desert. Originally, the place they’d taken Hussein had opened as a hotel, one meant to accommodate tourists on the way south. From the outside, it was a beautiful structure, built from tall columns of pink stone, the walls glowing warmly at sunrise and dusk. Ultimately, when the tourists bypassed the hotel for one in the nearby city, the building was transferred to the bureau of prisons, the only administration with outposts this far south. For a while, the mudir maintained it as a vacation resort for the families of his prison bureaucrats. But, when the money for upkeep ceased flowing, the pool was eventually drained, the guest rooms converted into cells.
‘There will be better schools for your children,’ the government official who came to our village with talk of jobs promised. ‘No more concrete outhouses. No more electricity going in-and-out. No more struggling to find work,’ he said, stretching his arms out, laying down a smorgasbord of ink-stamped papers before us on the table. ‘Sign here, and the rest will be taken care of.’ As we could not read, the schoolteacher Hamid repeated the documents aloud to us. In exchange for jobs, the solar firm wanted access to our groundwater. For what purpose, we hardly knew. What use had the sun for water?, we joked. Yet, the last laugh was on us, for what little groundwater we had was drying up, and still the electricity flickered on-and-off.
Fatima groaned, thinking of the horrible food her husband would have to consume in prison.
Aloud, Saida wondered: ‘I heard they have a cinema in the basement,’ she said. ‘Rumor is there’s a room with velvet tables for gambling.’
With the image of grubby prison food still in her head, Fatima went to work in the kitchen, ignoring her friend’s idle chatter. In the evening, she walked off with a stack of fat bread she had prepared, thumbing a ride along the main road in the direction of Hotel Prison.
‘I came to see my husband,’ she told the guard in the booth. The guard, a thickset man, put down the newspaper he’d been reading, giving the village woman a skeptical once-over.
‘Here, have some,’ Fatima said persuasively, taking a round of stuffed bread from her satchel. She pulled back the top to reveal it was layered full of shining fat, onions, tomatoes, peppers. In the end, the guard waved her away, ignoring the gibberish pouring from her mouth, a village language not spoken in the city he was from. Outside the gate, Fatima looked up at the hotel, wondering which room her husband was confined to, if he could see her below, though the windows were mirrored to reflect the hot sunlight and there was no way to tell.
The next day, Fatima returned to the guard booth, this time bearing a tray of tea cookies she had traded with a neighbor for one of her blankets. Again, the guard waved her away, though not without taking a handful of the cookies she offered. Finding no trucks headed in the direction of the village, Fatima walked the ten kilometers home, her bunions aching in her ill-soled shoes by the time she reached home, feeling hopeless while she pumiced her feet over a bucket of well water.
The third day following her husband’s arrest, Fatima took the goat staked in the courtyard with her to the street. After struggling to overpower it, she managed to hold it down. Determined, she grabbed the knife from her pocket and reached over its throat. When she released her grip, the goat jumped back to its feet, perhaps not realizing it had been killed. Afterwards, when it fell to its side and its heart ceased pumping, Fatima again went to work.
‘I came to see my husband,’ she told the guard in the booth, this time unveiling the delicious stew she had made. She cleaned the goat thoroughly, making sausage and liver kebab, the tender meats all gleaming inside the pot with fresh oil and plump, juicy tomatoes.
‘Bi’smillah,’ the guard said. Usually, such an array of specialties was reserved for the big holiday. The poor woman, desperate to see her husband, had made the sacrifice early. Greedily, the guard dived into the pot. After a few bites, he rolled his eyes, waving the old woman on.
‘What are you doing in here, grandma?’ the second guard rushed to ask, coming at her from behind his desk in the main entrance. He stopped her in the hallway, marching her back outside to his colleague in the booth. Between savory bites of roast, the guard explained the situation, laughing, waving his friend over to join him in the meal. With the two preoccupied, Fatima hurried back inside to look for her husband before anyone changed their minds.
The long hallway filled with cells was emptier than she expected. What few prisoners were kept there were mainly old men, all lying upon musty cots, staring blankly into space and groaning. One toothless prisoner reached out to her from behind the bars, shouting obscenities that provoked his neighbors, who also began heckling. It seemed to Fatima less like a prison than an insane asylum, and she walked quickly down the hallway, pulling tighter the lizar she wore around her head so that only one of her eyes was uncovered.
When she found her husband, he was lying on a mattress of pillows overlooking the empty pool.
‘I spend day and night cooking for you,’ Fatima said, pulling out the extra food she had kept from the guards, ‘and here you are, napping like a king.’
Astonished, her husband looked up. Angrily, Fatima stopped him before he could begin to chide her for coming.
‘Did I marry a crazy person?’ she demanded, weeping softly. ‘How is it you are the only one from our village who ended up in this place?’
She removed the lid from the pot she’d saved, holding it against the bars to feed him. Seeing her husband in his cell, she felt a deep pang of sadness. Hussein, overcome with pity for his aging wife, placed his forehead against the bars. Still, he did not understand the passion that had overcome him three days prior, a feeling unknown to him his entire life.
‘How long will they keep you here?’ his wife asked pitifully.
‘Only one month,’ he said, looking into her brown eyes full of tears. For a while, he stood there, dipping his hand into the pot through the bars, contemplating her sadness and his own misfortune. When he had finished eating, he begged his wife to return home and not worry, as he would be home before she knew it.
Later, when Fatima returned to the village, Saida came to ask her friend what she had seen.
‘The pool is dry,’ Fatima said, scratching her arms where a bed bug had made its way into her lizar. ‘The guards ate all my good fat bread.’
‘What about the game room?’ Saida probed.
‘Game room? What game room?’
Annoyed, Saida pressed her. ‘What about the movie theatre?’
‘Movie theatre? There is no movie theatre,’ Fatima responded incredulously. ‘There’s barely even electricity. I tripped and practically killed myself walking around.’
‘What about the dining hall?’ Saida persisted, ‘I heard there was a dining hall, one with chandeliers.’
‘Dining hall?’ Fatima huffed, amazed at her friend’s stupidity, ‘Do you really think they would treat prisoners so well? There is no dining hall in that hotel. There is only misery.’
The next week, crazed by the long hours spent alone, angry with her husband for abandoning her, Fatima again decided to thumb a ride along the main road in the direction of Hotel Prison.
’What are you doing here?’ Hussein asked, horrified to see his wife standing outside his prison cell with her bedroll gathered in her arms. ‘Guard!’ Hussein called, shouting to the one who had unlocked the cell and let his wife in, turning now back down the hallway as he munched on the remainder of the tea cookies she had brought.
Fatima looked up at her husband defiantly. ‘Now I’m protesting you,’ she declared, throwing down her bedroll on the dusty floor, ‘and staying here until you’re free.’
Frantic, Hussein began banging his hands against the iron bars, making such noise that the other prisoners joined in, creating a metallic cacophony that rang down the hall.
‘Do you really think he will listen?’ Fatima laughed. ‘You don’t even have tea cookies to bribe him with,’ she pointed out, feeling the first bed bug creep from its hiding place and bite into her ankle. She sighed, resigning herself.
‘You left me alone out there,’ she scolded, pulling out the knitting she planned to finish over the coming weeks, ‘How could you do such a thing?’
Hussein shrunk down to the floor, placing his chin in his hands. How could he even begin to explain himself? It was all much bigger than he could put into words. He was tired, for one. Daily, he watched his wife sweep their dirt floor with a palm-brush broom, and it made him feel they were being ignored. Rarely had they money to leave the village. In fact, Hussein realized then, now was one of only a handful of times in their long lives they had been outside the village together since their wedding day.
‘It’s pretty up here,’ Fatima eventually declared, looking out the barred window over the empty pool. ‘Like being on a ship.’
The purple desert sky was fading to a deep blue, and the Anti-Atlas indeed looked much like capped waves arising from the ocean, though the couple had only ever seen such waves in movies.
Outside, one of the guards sat beside the empty pool, playing music on a battery-powered radio. Hussein couldn’t remember the last time he had seen the sky so beautiful. He remembered, right up until the moment the gendarmes arrived, there had been a quiet commotion in his body, one he had rarely experienced in his life: a stirring in his center. He felt it now, watching his wife knit on the floor of the prison cell. It mirrored the beauty of the desert at sunset, captured by the soulful reckoning of a person’s dreams. He stood there breathing, listening to the hot desert howl: the rally-cry of being alive.
EMILY ZIDO is a graduate of the University of Maryland's Jimenez-Porter Writers' House. From 2012-2014, she worked as a teacher in southern Morocco and is currently working on a story collection dedicated to her many friends there. She lives in Philadelphia, PA.
When it came to weathering a hangover, a bench beside Belfast Lough was as good a place as any. If I hadn’t already shaved that morning, the sharp wind blowing in off the sea could have done it for me. The steady blast glided across my face, letting me feel the angles of my jaw and cheekbones. The wind roared in my ears, dulling the sea’s harsh lapping, which sounded as if a long-tongued dog was trying to drink it in a hurry. I needed some water. If only I’d the motivation to get off this bench. My fuzzy thoughts fumbled their way through my jelly head, to dissolve forgotten at the back of my mind.
The cement walkway behind me was clear of pedestrians; the morning rushers were all in work now. From here the city was mostly drowned out, and with my back to it, I could pretend it wasn’t there. I was alone with the sea.
Looking down, I noticed a blackbird nipping at the remains of a puddle of boke, probably left there the night before. The bird’s yellow beak tapped the half-digested diced carrots and sweetcorn. Its chirp-chirruping went through my head as if someone had stuffed an electric toothbrush in my ear. I stared at the bird, but it continued to peck at the vomit. I stamped my foot, hoping it would fly away, but instead, it hopped round my feet, as if to let me know how important it was.
A quick, angry swing of my boot caught the blackbird, scooping it up as my leg straightened from the knee. My kick slung it airborne over the lough. Watching the bird rise, I sniggered, impressed with my own skill, but I also felt a tinge of hope, that the stunned bird might flex its wings and fly. Instead it dropped like a turd. With a wet splash, it burst through a clump of dirty yellow froth, treated sewage from the River Lagan. From my bench, where I could again be alone with my thoughts, I watched the receding tide carry the sewage and the blackbird on out to sea.
GERARD MCKEOWN’s work has been featured in The Moth, 3:AM, and Litro, among others. In 2017 he was shortlisted for The Bridport Prize, and in 2018 he was longlisted for The Irish Book Awards' Short Story of the Year.
Friday, first light. His night shift done, Riley replenished the feeder in his garden and retreated to the conservatory. He took up his binoculars and tracked them across the bleary strip of rough grass separating the garden fence from the wood, training them on the treeline. In less than a minute, a streak of dazzling green swooped down from a silver birch, quickly followed by another, and then another. Soon, they were tearing apart peanut husks with their smart magenta bills. A hullabaloo perched all along the fence, comical in its strangeness, but persistent, loud enough to shred the dawn chorus. Three hours later, at nine am, it was time to get in his car and take a day trip to the next town on his list.
As he drove, a week of laborious April rain gave way to a few welcome flakes of blue sky between the rain clouds. He left the motorway and followed signs to a Midlands town that merged into all the other places he’d been these past three years. Greggs and Subway bookended the jaded centre. Half the shops had windows boarded-up or whitened-over.
He’d been there for an hour, handing out leaflets to those who’d take one, when he saw a figure he knew to be his daughter, hopping off a bus only a few yards ahead. This wasn’t unusual. Many times before, he’d glimpsed her crossing a street, ducking into a shop doorway, getting into the back of a car. Each time she stole away, a phantasm of Riley’s imagination. Each time a paralysis set like concrete in his veins. Yet this time was different. She was closer than ever before. So close, he could see the lustrous fibres of her ponytail coiled under her upturned collar. Gaining ground, he inhaled the wake of her perfume. He grabbed her arm. His breath shortened. She spun round and they came face to face.
It wasn’t Beth.
A startled young woman gawped back at Riley. His eyes were drawn to a mark on her left cheek she’d tried to conceal with makeup. It looked like purplish mould blemishing a freshly painted wall.
‘What have they done to your beautiful face?’ Riley asked.
The woman’s fingers touched her cheek. She continued to stare at him, eyes fearful, mouth gaping. But then her expression hardened. ‘Get off me,’ she snapped, yanking her arm free.
The leaflets slipped from Riley’s fingers and scattered on the wet pavement.
‘Creep!’ she yelled. ‘Stay the hell away from me!’
Without a chance to explain, he watched her dash up the high street. Every few paces she turned to check he wasn’t following her. Like a beaten dog, he picked up the leaflets and returned to his task.
This was how it typically went. Sometimes they took one, but more often they didn’t. Sometimes they studiously looked the other way so they didn’t have to meet his imploring gaze, or inspected their phones as they glided past. Sometimes they even crossed the street to avoid him as if he was carrying some contagious disease. Many confused him for a religious nut, or a sales zealot. Generally, the only people to show the faintest interest were the elderly or an occasional homeless person seeking the brief consolation of human exchange. The only difference today was Riley felt like he had an x-ray machine strapped to his chest. The furtive glances of onlookers reached inside him and could see that he was merely going through the motions.
A leaflet flapped in the wind and clung to his fist. The rain, which had been threatening to return, came down hard. People scurried for cover. An umbrella popped open and flew by like a glistening projectile. From under it, a passing hand snatched a leaflet, and then, only a few paces on, screwed it into a soggy ball and fed it to an overflowing bin.
With the rain bouncing off the pavement, he decided to call it a day. Back inside the car, he turned up the heater and slotted Electric Ladyland into the CD player. As he pulled away, the enigmatic opening of ‘…And the Gods Made Love’ immediately transported him to the time Beth, her interest piqued by The Jimi Hendrix Theory, had gone through his vinyl collection. Cross-legged on the living room floor, she’d listened to all four sides of Electric Ladyland. He remembered feeling how the unbearable weight of his love might topple and crush him. Poised, intent on proving she liked the music, she closed her eyes in trance-like immersion. And he willed Hendrix’s music, its easy longing and soulful abandon, to flow through her, for her to feel the crackling anticipation between the tracks like a secret whispered into her ear.
He got home just after three-thirty, exhausted, but sleep wouldn’t come. Half an hour later, the phone rang. It was work. Somebody had called in sick last minute. Could Riley do another night? Though it was the last thing he needed, he heard himself saying he’d be there as soon as he could.
Allied Meat was only two junctions on the motorway. Before he knew it, he was descending the stairs, tying the plastic apron, pulling on the hairnet and hat, the rubber shoes and gloves.
Patrycja was at the long metal table he was usually assigned to, with Beata and Lena. He felt her eyes grab at him as he walked past, and he tried, unsuccessfully, to forestall images of her soft, pliant body popping into his mind.
‘Back so soon, Riley?’ said Beata.
He nodded and kept going to the next table.
‘You like being punished, no?’ Beata’s pink face, slick with sweat, cracked a smile. The bright, scouring light rendered her hard-edged and ugly like everything and everyone else in the factory. She made a sideways remark in Polish. Lena sniggered. Patrycja scowled, elbowed Lena, and told her to shut up.
Riley busied himself with his knife, studied his clouded reflection in the blade.
Two hoppers lugged cargoes of cooked pigs’ tongues and tipped them on each table. They set to work, packing the tongues into tins with a scoop of powdered gelatine, trimming pieces to attain the exact weight of 450 grams, or to fit them into gaps between the curled tongues. The finished tins scooted away on a conveyor belt. It was hot, tedious work. After a day handing out leaflets to unwilling strangers, his back ached like he’d taken a knock-out punch to his spine, and there was no escaping the sickening, meaty smell oozing off the vats of cooking tongues.
At Patrycja’s table, the other two women sang along to the local radio station that pumped crap all night to the factory floor. When the song ‘Kiss’, Tom Jones’s, not Prince’s original, came on, Riley happened to catch Patrycja’s eye and winced. Then, Lena and Beata went quiet, waiting for the chorus to kick in before shrieking together: ‘I just want your extra time and your… KISS!’ The way they hollered kiss sounded to Riley like keys. They collapsed into fits of laughter. Hilarious, he thought. He was a fool to agree to another shift. Their laughter was like smashing bottles inside his skull. Really, fucking hilarious.
At break time in the canteen, while most of the others went outside for a cigarette, he found a table to sit alone and rest his eyes. His thoughts drifted to the woman he’d startled that morning whom he now imagined at home gathered round the dining table with her loved ones. Though still exasperated by the man who’d accosted her, she was relaxed enough to poke fun at him, to dismiss him as a harmless weirdo. He opened his eyes to find Patrycja sitting down opposite with a bacon roll and a mug of coffee.
‘Sorry,’ she said.
‘You know. Beata, Lena.’
‘They don’t bother me.’
‘That right?’ She smiled and reached for his hand. ‘You want come back to mine, later?’ Tenderly, she trawled a thumb over his knuckles. ‘Or we go to yours. We not been your place yet.’
Patrycja was younger than him, in her mid-twenties, but she had so much hard-fought experience packed into that face of hers, he had to look close to detect her youth. To ignore the pouches hanging under her large earnest eyes and the fine silver scar crossing the twisted bridge of her nose. Plus, he did his best to disregard the factory rumours that she was only interested in him because of her fear of deportation back to Poland, back to Marcin, her violent brute of a husband.
He withdrew his hand and added another sugar to his tea, took his time stirring it with his spoon. ‘It’s we have, as in we have not been,’ he said, pettily correcting her abridged English. ‘And, to your place.’
‘We have not been to your place,’ Patrycja mimicked. ‘Better?’
Her eyes sought his approval, but Riley was occupied flicking grains of sugar across the table, a hazy kaleidoscopic image of a long-fingered hand opening a bird cage swirling in his mind. Then he heard Beth calling from Hyde Park. She was in Year 7, on her first residential school trip. Listen, she said. He imagined his daughter reaching her phone into the air for him to hear. When a siren subsided, he could make out a weird sound like hundreds of rubber toys being squeezed repeatedly and out of synch. What’s that? Sounds like mice being squashed. She laughed in that surprised way of hers, like a sharp shower on a sunny day. No, Dad! Parakeets! They have them here, her voice singing with wonder. They escaped and bred and now there’re loads of them. Cool, eh?
They’d found out about The Jimi Hendrix Theory later on a BBC wildlife documentary. The theory claimed the population spreading across the country stemmed from a typical moment of Hendrix showmanship when, back in the sixties, he released a breeding pair of Indian Ring-Necked Parakeets on Carnaby Street, Soho, as a gesture to world freedom. From an open cage, Riley saw the parakeets fly to the far reaches of a perfect blue sky, heard Hendrix’s guitar soar with them.
In the early hours of Saturday morning, Riley felt a tickle on his face, and his eyes raked the gloom to find a little spider dancing on a thread. Beside him, Patrycja’s sleeping body curled too close, too tight, made him uneasy. That and the metronome of her breathing meant the prospect of sleep was impossible. Aiming for the spider, he swiped an irritable hand above his head and was glad when it came away with nothing more than a fistful of air. He got up, pulled on his bathrobe, and went downstairs.
After opening the conservatory doors, he stepped onto the stone patio, cold and damp against his bare feet. Overnight, the rain had stopped, the wind diminished to a silky breath, an intermittent susurration in the woods. The nearly cloudless pre-dawn sky revealed a haze of spring stars, with Jupiter and a new moon gleaming above the treetops.
To his left, he glanced at the ladder propped against the house that Beth had used to escape. He hadn’t moved it in over five years. He found his foot on the bottom rung, and climbed, unthinking. Soon, he was at the top, staring through the partly open window into Beth’s room. From this new perspective he looked upon a room simple and unadorned, in contrast to the cluttered, garish, fifteen year-old girl’s bedroom he thought he knew. The neat single bed and its modest mound of scatter cushions; the small chest with CND stickers on each drawer; even the mangled remains of an acoustic guitar that in a rage she’d smashed against a wall when he’d grounded her. All of it smooth and cold as if made of porcelain or enamelled.
Across the length of the room his long shadow stretched to the far wall where a mirror blinked back at him. The harder he looked, the more the room seemed to withdraw from him, silvered by an anaemic glow that fell away sharply to impenetrable shadow, but out of which, eventually, emerged Beth. Once again, she confronted Riley; her loyalty stolen away to such an extent that, with a teenage snarl, she threatened to fling herself from her bedroom window rather than spend another minute under the same roof as him. Her boyfriend was actually all right, she screamed. She loved him. How could he, she accused Riley, actually know how she felt when he didn’t have a clue what real love felt like? A ghost of a man, unseen in the half light, Riley watched a replay of the night she climbed on to the very same ladder. Absconding from her bedroom for the last time, she hurried down the same rungs now numbing his feet, and fled to her boyfriend and the other faceless men in the waiting car parked at the front of the house. Whisked away forever as its sleek black shape pulled smartly from the curb.
Riley slid his hand inside to unfasten the catch and then pushed the window firmly shut. Once down, he pulled the ladder away from the window and carried it to the garage, securing it with a padlock and chain. With any lingering, vain hope that Beth might return the way she left dissolving from his thoughts, he went indoors and back upstairs.
For over an hour, he sat at the bedside with Patrycja sleeping peacefully only an arm’s reach away, occasionally stirring but never waking. The window pane brightened. He warmed his feet in a lozenge of sunlight blooming on the carpet, while, outside, Saturday gradually came to life: Emma Lane, next house but one, taking her daughter, Millie, to swimming; Anil, the teenager opposite, gunning his 50cc Honda and buzzing off into town; the footfall and fleeting conversation of passing joggers.
Patrycja’s troubled voice brought him back into the room and caused him to open his eyes. Deep in sleep, she muttered words in Polish he was unable to understand. Words that sounded like curses and then like pleas, her voice becoming louder and striking harsh notes of fear. Her body twitched, eyelids frantic with REM. Her legs flailed under the duvet and her arms punched the air. He leaned over to wake her but thought better of it, considering it too much of an intrusion. She let out a scream and sat upright, rigid, the pulse in her throat stamping through her skin, her eyes wide and wild.
For a moment she didn’t know where she was and looked at Riley as if he was a complete stranger. She shivered and pulled the duvet up to her chin. ‘Marcin?’ she said.
‘No, it’s me, Riley,’ he said.
‘Oh, yes, Riley,’ she mumbled. A tear brimmed in her eye and trickled down her cheek. She began to apologise for her nightmare, saying how stupid she was, asking why he wanted to be with a crazy girl like her. She paused and pressed her tongue against her upper lip to stem more tears. Then, she said: ‘It’s late. I must go. Leave you in peace.’
‘No,’ Riley said and nested her hands in his, brooding them like two delicate eggs. He didn’t want her to leave. Despite what he’d felt earlier, he experienced an unknown surge of panic. He couldn’t let her go. Not now. ‘No, you must stay.’
A noise gathered in the woods, shrill and insistent as neglected car alarms.
‘Listen,’ he said, ‘the dawn chorus is in full swing!’
Patrycja gently freed her hands from his and tucked loose strands of her hair behind her ears to listen. Riley pictured a burgeoning green flitting through the dark trees, hopeful and fresh as new leaves. Maybe, he thought, it was possible for him to open his heart to Patrycja, after all. At least not to freeze whenever she broached the subject of his feelings about Beth. Confiding in Patrycja might finally lift a great weight, softly, from his shoulders, might allow him to rest. As she turned her gentle enquiring gaze upon him, he met her eyes and smiled.
‘What make such funny sound?’ she said. Without her noticing, a vivid shape, followed by another, flashed past the window.
‘Come and see.’
He reclaimed Patrycja’s hand, and she let out a squall of laughter as he tried to pull her from the bed.
She resisted and wrapped the duvet around her before eventually joining him. ‘What is it?’ she asked, bemused by his sudden animation.
Riley put a finger to his lips and then cradled her shoulders, running his fingertips over her goose-fleshed arm.
And, as he led her to the window, he was already planning how later he’d take Electric Ladyland from the top of the stack of vinyl and play it for her long into the afternoon. But before that, they would spend what remained of the morning watching the parakeets at the garden feeder. Together, they would feast their eyes on their delicious plumage and drink in their defiant, screeching feedback.
Originally from the North East of England, JIM TOAL lives and writes in the hills of South Shropshire. He works full time in education and has done so for nearly thirty years. He started writing again in his fifties after an interval of nearly three decades (a break which he now regrets). His work has been published by Litro as a Sunday short story. He is currently working on a loosely themed short story collection.
He can be found on Twitter @jtstories
Juan’s my chauffeur from airport to hotel. With the briefest glance at my ring finger, he hands me his card. He has a surfer’s body with visible tattoos and a shock of dark hair he continually flicks back from his forehead.
‘Where’s your famous Cancun sunshine?’ I point to threatening clouds.
‘Sorry, we never have this, cómo se dice, this clima here. You come from?’
‘Much snow there, no? Is good here normalmente.’ He looks at me in the rear-view mirror. ‘I take you sightseeing before storm, okay?’
He’s fast and direct. I try business-like. ‘Are you picking up my boyfriend, Roy Clark, at 6:00?’
He’s unfazed. ‘Sí. But we go see town before storm. Yes, pretty senorita?’
I twirl his card. ‘I’ll call.’
Mom says I’m attracted to bad boys. ‘Your problem? You tend to waste your time with men who won’t commit or those who’re unreliable. Not one was worthy.’ She reminds me of my abysmal choices: Amit, who was in college for six years, didn’t get a degree, never found a job; Gus, who lived with his parents at age 30.
She says Roy’s perfect and enumerates his qualifications—good looking, lawyer, financially sound. Besides, he doesn’t wear jeans.
Last week, he jotted down Mom’s number in his planner. I also heard him call the Cancun hotel and ask for a florist. One of my rings is missing. He’s a meticulous planner, yet no good at subterfuge.
A problematic legal case now delays his trip to Cancun.
I receive his frantic text: Frustrated and stuck in Houston. I hear a storm’s brewing? Flight status unknown.
He doesn’t add: I miss you. I love you.
Juan calls from the lobby. ‘You wanna go? You pay me nothing.’
‘It’s not…’ I begin.
The weather’s turning and Juan’s offering to show me around. I’ll pay him, we’ll be even. Where’s the problem? I’ll sit in the rear seat, erect a subtle barrier.
I take the front passenger seat, loosen the too-tight knot of my silk scarf.
He’s attentive and flirtatious. His hand hovers around my waist, not touching, yet tantalizingly close.
At lunch, he helps me choose tacos. Later, we get shaved ice flavored with a pinkish liquid. I giggle when I drop a chunk down the front of my blouse.
‘Nice to hear you laugh. Is pretty like you,’ he says.
Heat billows from the base of my belly.
Roy doesn’t do giggles.
It’s a pity reliable and steady are separated from easy-going and fun.
The clouds look ominous.
‘I want take you to Música Cancun.’ Juan’s serious.
‘Música festival. You like?’
His arm has come to rest on my shoulders, fingers resting just above the swell of my breast, crossing into a familiarity I should protest.
When I turn around, I’m cocooned within his arms, his breath warming my lips.
‘Let’s get back.’ I’m emphatic.
He asks if it’s the thunder.
I’m petrified of what’s raging inside me.
Another message from Roy: Staying in Houston tonight. It’s been a horrible day. Will catch earliest flight out of here tomorrow.
All night the skies unleash a frightening torrent. By sunrise, the roaring sea has flooded roads, water nips at the hotel’s gates.
Juan calls to say he has my scarf. I ask him to leave it at the front desk.
Mom would be proud.
When Roy proposes, I’ll gasp in surprise, perhaps squeeze out a tear. He will extend a velvet-covered jewelry box containing the ring. At that point, I must cover an ear to quell Mom’s voice of disapproval so I can say what I have to say.
‘I’m so sorry, Roy.’
SUDHA BALAGOPAL’s short fiction appears in Wigleaf, New Flash Fiction Review, Jellyfish Review, New World Writing and Necessary Fiction among other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn.
More at www.sudhabalagopal.com
I come home one night well after three, woozy, stumbling up the steps, and all the lights are off save the porch, which means Caroline’s in bed, wrapped in just the sheet, the comforter in a pile on the floor. My feet feel like concrete blocks, not just from the drink, and not from the hollow thud each step makes on the porch. Going inside means telling my wife I’ve cheated.
Her lips are parted, and she’s lying flat on her back. Telling her would be a whole lot easier if the sight of her repulsed me, but it doesn’t. My guilt is stage make-up for our marriage, turning us both young, as if we were still in love. It’s not even so much the way she looks, but the memories attached to her features. The way her hair is all splayed over her pillow, now, reminds me of her sprawled on a quilt in the backyard to catch a meteor shower, of the way she drank too much shiraz and passed out before a single rock disintegrated in the atmosphere.
I wonder how we got from the quilt to here. And I’m not even sure why I did it, other than being a scumbag, the kind my wife laments when her sister Beth calls with a broken heart and tears like streams. After she hangs up the phone, monthly it seems, she tells me about these assholes and she can’t believe her sister didn’t see the signs.
From Caroline’s end of the conversation: You never even went to his place? or He wouldn’t let you look at his phone? Followed inevitably by, You should have seen this coming. Like it’s always somehow Beth’s fault, and the signs are there to be seen or interpreted if one just looks with the proper frame of mind, enough scrutiny. I picture Caroline like that, inconsolable, scanning her memory for what she didn’t or couldn’t see.
I sit in the old recliner pushed to the corner of the master bedroom, the one with threadbare arms that I’ve always wanted to throw away. The one Caroline loves because it makes her feel like her father is still around, even if it’s just the idea of his ghost sitting in the chair.
When I readjust in the recliner, its springs whine. Caroline wakes up and goes, ‘What time is it?’
I go, ‘Just after three.’
‘Are you coming to bed?’
She rolls over, pulling the sheet from under her and up to her neck, smacking her lips. It’s not strange that I’m home so late, or that I’m not already in bed. I frequently can’t sleep, or I stay out late and don’t want to wake her, so I tinker in the garage sometimes and weld little nuts, bolts, old pipe fittings, and scraps of metal together into statues. In the mornings, I place the little duck or turtle or fox or whatever on the kitchen counter with a note that says Handmade by robots, and a crudely-drawn smiley face. She accepts that quirk, and the three floating shelves lined with figurines above the headboard are both testament and accusation.
‘Love you,’ she says.
I pull my shirt over my head, and consider getting into bed, waiting until morning to tell her, but I’m afraid I still smell like a stranger and this doesn’t need to be an olfactory affront.
I wonder how this will all feel tomorrow, after she knows, and everything’s changed. This is bigger than one of those arguments that gets left behind, unacknowledged until its next iteration is spurred to life by an innocuous comment or sidelong glance. And maybe we’ll try to feel normal, but it would be an illusion. We would be two people ignoring a chasm to languish in familiarity and routine. The firmament of our relationship will ripple and settle in an unfamiliar pattern that we’ll both have to navigate separately and alone.
Last winter, we went to dinner with Greg and Eva. They’d been together just as long as we had, if not longer. Caroline would get on these kicks sometimes about trying to be a normal couple. And I’d protest that just because we don’t act like they do doesn’t mean anything is wrong, even though everything was wrong. I don’t know if the wrongness was that or something else entirely. Eventually, I’d give in, go out, try to perform the way I thought she wanted.
In a little Italian bistro downtown, before we sat, they were whispering in each other’s ears, giving neck kisses like they weren’t forty.
At the table Greg held Eva’s hand. He pulled out his phone and reached across the table to show us pictures of their kids with too big sunglasses and smears of zinc on their noses, sitting together in the same oversized beach chair. Then one with both of them in the water, faces pressed together, lined with indentations from wearing goggles all day. Then a family picture, Greg in white linen pants, Eva in a billowy sun dress. All cheek bones and tanned skin and perfect teeth.
‘The boys loved Mexico,’ Eva said.
Caroline squeezed my thigh under the table. ‘I’m jealous. It looks gorgeous.’
Greg said, ‘Next time, we’re leaving the kids here.’ And they looked at each other the way husbands and wives sometimes do. ‘You should have felt the water. It’s like taking a bath.’
‘When was the last time you guys got out of the city?’ Eva said.
It had been so long I couldn’t remember. I put the glass of wine to my lips and motioned for Caroline to answer.
‘When we went out to Nova Scotia, something like four years ago, right, honey?’
‘Sounds right.’ I cleared my throat.
‘Canada! God, I love it there. Everyone’s so polite. You guys have to go somewhere warm next time.’ Eva grabbed a roll from a wicker basket and dunked it into a ramekin of seasoned olive oil. ‘The fresh ocean air like that, picturesque sunsets. It can do wonders for your health, right, Sweetie?’
Greg nodded, winked. ‘And other things.’
I pictured Eva naked, lounging in some recliner on the balcony of a resort with a backdrop of lush banana trees, a colorful sarong cast aside like a deflated rainbow on Saltillo tile. I took a long swallow of wine, trying to wash the image down my throat.
‘We both work so much. It’s tough to find time to do anything, let alone get out of the country,’ I said.
The waiter came by balancing three plates on one arm and holding the fourth in the other. He set them down in front of each person and asked if everything looked great.
‘Fantastic.’ Eva looked between both of us, her painted eye brows raised, and said, ‘Another bottle of wine?’
I downed my glass, nodded. After the waiter was gone, Greg got to work on his spaghetti, fastidiously twirling it into the bowl of a spoon. I mashed my blackened tilapia into tiny pieces with the side of my fork. Caroline, sitting with her legs crossed under the table, had kicked off her shoe and begun running her toe up and down the side of my leg.
Eva poured half of her dressing over her salad and placed the tiny pitcher on the edge of the table. ‘Without kids, you guys shouldn’t have a problem finding time to travel. It’s not like you can’t afford it.’
‘We shouldn’t, but somebody just likes to make excuses when I try to bring it up.’
The waiter came back and circled the table, refilling everyone’s glass. Caroline took a sip, then said the wine was just giving her a headache and slid her glass to me.
‘It’s all about making time, prioritizing.’ Eva forked salad into her mouth, chewed, swallowed, dabbed at her lips with a cloth napkin. ‘With the kids, it’s so hard sometimes. Adrian, he’s got martial arts on Tuesdays and Thursdays, then soccer on Mondays and Wednesdays. And Malcolm, we’re starting piano lessons early, one day a week. It’s a logistical nightmare.’ Bite. Sip. Dab. ‘Greg, though, he’s such a sweetheart. He’ll arrange for our nanny to shuttle them around, so we can have the house to ourselves at least once a month. It’s necessary. I can’t imagine if we didn’t have kids. I’d never be able to catch my breath.’ She leaned toward Greg, and he pecked her on a cheek still inflated with half-chewed lettuce.
‘Gotta make time,’ he said.
‘I know! It’s so important,’ Caroline said. ‘Sometimes John will leave work early so he can get home before me and I’ll come home to rose petals and wine and ugh it’s perfect. He knows what I like.’
I looked at her incredulously, knowing full well I hadn’t done anything like that in years, not since our fifth anniversary at least. She leaned over, and I pecked her on the cheek, forcing myself to smile and linger, to act like Greg, which is what she wanted after all. A public guilt trip. And for whatever it was worth to her, she was right. I should have done those things, but when I tried, it felt forced, disingenuous, and would inevitably turn into some kind of argument. Either I wouldn’t say the right thing, or she’d accuse me of only doing it because she wanted me to. There was no winning in that, for either one of us.
After dinner, we stood in front of the restaurant, Eva’s arm linked with Greg’s, her head resting on his shoulder. ‘We should do this more often,’ he said.
We all agreed and said goodbye, that we’ll be seeing each other soon. Caroline and I started down the street, walking in the opposite direction. She grabbed my hand and said, ‘Let’s walk downtown. It’ll be romantic.’ Her cheeks were flushed, either from the wine or the chilly night air.
She steered me across Fifth Ave, to the other side of the street and into the heart of the city. ‘They’re so pretentious,’ she said. ‘The way they go on and on about all the vacations, their kids. It’s sickening.’
‘Then why’d you drag me out here?’
‘I didn’t drag you anywhere. We need to get out of the house and do things sometimes. It’s what people do.’
‘Unhealthy is forcing yourself to spend time with people you don’t like because you think it’s something people should do.’
‘Spending time with me is that bad?’ She quickened her pace.
‘That’s not what I said.’
‘It’s what you meant.’
‘You pick apart every word I say and look for some kind of slight that isn’t there.’
She pulled away, turned back around, and said over her shoulder, ‘Can we just enjoy the night? For once.’
‘What do you think I’ve been trying to do?’
We walked together in silence, both my hands crammed into my pockets. I listened to the sounds of the city. Car horns and engines, music beating through the walls of bars.
Eventually, she looked up at me. I mouthed, I’m sorry, and pulled her close, kissed her on the top of the head. We walked that way for a while, without talking, without acknowledging that nothing was actually resolved, and it would stay that way. It’s easier, sometimes, to pretend the problem doesn’t exist than it is to tell your partner the truth, that you’ve fallen out of love maybe, and you don’t really, deep down, want to fall back.
In the room I’ve shared with Caroline for fifteen years, she’s barely moved. The air is thick and stale, which has always made it difficult to sleep. Caroline gets cold at night, so not turning on the ceiling fan is one of those little concessions I made along the way.
I decide to take a shower to wash the stink off and give me a chance to figure out how I’ll phrase the sentence that’ll finally dismantle our marriage.
After, when I’m clean on the outside, hair still wet and turning cold, maybe I’ll go to her side of the bed, naked, and grab her hand. She’ll startle awake with that confused look in her eye while her brain makes sense of the fact that it’s still dark outside and I’m waking her up. I’ll say something and, hopefully, it will be compassionate, even if it’s a terrible thing to tell anyone. She’ll blink, process, blood draining from her face while the truth of the act becomes real, spoken between two people who will never look at each other in the same way again. She’ll pull her hand from mine, ask something like, what do you mean, and I won’t say anything to that because she’ll be reeling, her brain stalling for time to digest a chunk of red-hot iron.
Then, I’ll vomit a lot of words, some true, some partially, some just rationalizations that even I won’t believe, trying to make it hurt a little less. One thing I won’t say is I’m sorry. As much as I’ll want to because it’s a thing people say when they do something bad, I won’t.
Instead, I lock myself in the garage and rifle through bins of discarded metal scraps. I weld a tiny man on wing-nut knees looking up at the sky with his hands together in supplication and write a note that says, Handmade by robots.
SPENCER LITMAN is an emerging writer in Phoenix where he lives with his wife and two smaller versions of his wife. He is an intern with Superstition Review. His work appears or is forthcoming in JMWW Journal, Ellipsis Zine, Pithead Chapel, Eunoia Review, Riggwelter, and X-R-A-Y Lit Mag.
Julie hears a sound she cannot name. Not yet. Naming a sound gives it meaning, and so far this sound has none. Any name would imply a source, an intention, that has caused a sound to be. She can only guess.
This sound’s name is thud.
Thud. Thud. Thud, thud, thud.
It’s coming from the door. The door is what’s thudding. Julie is alone in the room. She knew that already, because she was awake when Martin left this morning. He must have known she wasn’t asleep, because he leaned over to kiss her on the back of the head before he left. Julie had listened to him getting dressed, including the jangle of his belt buckle as he lifted his trousers, the swoosh as he threw his jacket onto his back, and the tutting as he struggled with his cufflinks. Julie had named those sounds. She kept her eyes closed and stayed completely still, more still than any sleeping person could be, and let herself be held down by the heavy weight of a hotel duvet.
She would have been happier without the kiss. At least she hadn’t felt it on her skin. Her hair was not as thick as it once was, but it was thick enough to cushion the blow of a man’s unwanted lips.
Thud. Thud. Thud, thud, thud.
There it is again. And another sound, once Julie concentrates hard enough. Thud, and a rattle. That’s the security chain, left hanging loose, insecure, and shaking with every contact.
Thud, rattle. Thud, rattle. Thud, thud, thud, rattle, rattle, rattle.
Julie can’t move. She regrets it now, not moving while Martin was getting dressed. She could have left with him, getting away from whatever is on the other side of the door. She desperately wants to stretch. She wants to arch her back and stretch her arms out, pulling her shoulders until they almost pop. She wants her toes to reach the edge of the bed and wrap themselves around the rim of the mattress. She wants to stand up and free the wind trapped in her body, which will only happen when she bends her bowel in just the right way. She dare not do that. That sound has a name and it will ring out, in Julie’s experience, far too loudly.
Thud, rattle. Thud, rattle. Thud, thud, thud, rattle, rattle, rattle.
Julie blames herself for getting cornered like this. She had accepted the invitation to the weekend away with Claire and Michelle and Jen even though she didn’t want to go. Those three were what Julie called her demographic friends. Same sex, same age, same social class, similar houses, similar jobs. The four of them even looked alike. No surprise: bombarding a group of people with the same food, weather and fashion trends for forty years isn’t a recipe for diversity. Except they aren’t the same. Something about the wiring of a brain, Julie believes, is as unique as a fingerprint, and her wiring just doesn’t suit the environment she’s been put in. It’s Jen’s birthday next week and she asked for this weekend as a gift. She thought her friends would love the idea, and the others probably did. Julie hated it. Why couldn’t Jen ask for something Julie could buy and be done with? Why did she demand her time and her volition? Those belong to me, Julie thought.
This isn’t the hotel she and her friends had booked into. They met Martin in town, in the first pub they’d come to after a sedate dinner. Julie was bored. She had wanted something to happen. Anything. She wanted Claire’s car to break down in the middle of nowhere. She wanted Michelle’s handbag to be stolen from the back of her chair. She wanted Jen to end up in A&E with alcohol poisoning. She wanted to go off and sleep with someone. It was something out of the ordinary to talk about, an unexpected event to skew and squeeze into the narrative. As there was only one of those imagined events Julie had the power to bring about, that was the one that was going to happen. Volition, she thought.
So when this man looked over at her while she stood at the bar, looked her up and down, in fact, the decision was made. He didn’t know that. He didn’t know he’d already succeeded. Julie was going to see what he did next. She was going to judge him and test him and figure him out, and then she was going to have sex with him. She signalled to her friends she was going to the loo, but instead she went to sit on her own, around the corner where the man could see her. He joined her a minute later while she looked at her phone. He was good-looking, with dark grey hair, and clothes that were plain and expensive. He wore a wedding ring.
‘Have you forgotten where your friends are sat?’ he said.
‘Oh, not at all,’ Julie said. ‘I just thought you might like the opportunity to talk to me as well as look at me.’
Thud, rattle. Thud, rattle. Thud, thud, thud, rattle, rattle, rattle.
Martin played it well. Just by coming over to her he had declared he was interested. After that, all he had to do was be normal and let the evening pass pleasantly, until it was time to go. He talked about himself. Julie talked about herself. Neither of them paid attention to what the other was saying because they didn’t need to. He’s probably a very interesting man, Julie thought. Maybe even a nice man. Some of them are both. Some of them are more than walking penises. Tonight, it didn’t matter either way.
When Julie was ready to leave the pub with Martin last night, ‘Enough,’ she had said, and stood up. She went to find her friends again. They’d been taking turns craning for furtive glances for the past hour, so they knew what she was up to. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow,’ Julie said. ‘Something has happened.’
The first physical contact Julie had with Martin was as he opened the door to his car, and put his hand on the small of her back as she got in. It was a BMW. Martin took the road heading out of town, and drove quickly. They went downhill, turning off the A-road with its lights and white lines, and down a narrow country lane. Julie had sunk back into her seat and switched off. She got sleepy.
Thud, rattle. Thud, rattle. Thud, thud, thud, rattle, rattle, rattle.
By the time Martin had pulled up in front of the hotel, she didn’t feel much like sex anymore. But she did want to go inside. It was a nice hotel, probably nicer than any other scaffolder’s wife was going to sleep in tonight. She knew she’d have the sex, too, once she was in a bed beside a man that wanted her and there was nothing else to do.
Julie is glad she slept with him. It wasn’t that she enjoyed it. Sex for Julie is always an aesthetic pleasure. She can’t orgasm unless she’s watching herself in a mirror, and even then only certain angles work. The only mirror in the room is on the back of the door—the thumping door—and it doesn’t point at the bed. Julie is glad because this morning she is a new person, and it isn’t in her to want to change back to a previous version of herself. This isn’t the first time she has cheated, but it is one of the times, and the first time she’s done it here, in this town, in this bed, with this man. This doesn’t mean she isn’t scared of what’s happening now. She doesn’t want sleeping with Martin to be the last thing she ever does. But it is something she has done.
‘My advice is to always remember what lies you have told,’ Martin had said, after they’d finished.
‘I lied when I told you my name is Claire,’ she replied.
Thud, rattle. Thud, rattle. Thud, thud, thud, rattle, rattle, rattle.
No, it’s time to be honest, Julie decides. Thud is too neutral. If I drop my phone, or my bag, or my book on the floor it might land with a thud. But I wouldn’t have thrown it, I wouldn’t have meant it. This sound is that of a hand being directed with force at the door. At Julie. It’s not even with knuckles. The sound is loud but it’s too dull for that. This is a thud made by the fleshy underside of a fist. It’s a thump.
Thump, rattle. Thump, rattle. Thump, thump, thump, rattle, rattle, rattle.
Julie decides to move. She’s had enough of the deadlock. She slithers out of bed without lifting the duvet, until she’s kneeling on all fours on the floor. Her ears are full of blood but she’s pretty sure she hasn’t made a sound. There’s an alarm clock on the bedside table showing 7.20am. Propped up against it is a business card for a minicab firm, with a few words scribbled in the margin. ‘Call them for a lift—my account. M.’ How sweet.
Julie lifts herself up onto her tiptoes. She creeps toward the door. Past the antique desk and its brass handles. A level of sophistication the guests probably adore. Past the tea tray with the kettle and the mini cafetiere. That delicate little thing must be a hassle for the staff to clean, extracting the soggy grinds from the bottom. Julie wonders what hidden dirt they have left untouched elsewhere in the room as recompense. Past the alcove and its fitted shelves, not even the tiniest gap between wood and wall. Past the chair in the corner, one of those attractive, comfortable chairs with the round back that no-one ever has in their own house. Martin pays far too much for his pleasure, she thinks.
Thump, rattle. Thump, rattle. Thump, thump, thump, rattle, rattle, rattle.
She is inches from the door now. If someone’s on the other side, the two of them are well within touching distance of each other. She sees her body in the mirror. That would have been useful last night.
Thump, rattle. Thump, rattle. Thump, thump, thump, rattle, rattle, rattle.
There’s a peephole and Julie wants to look through it. She places her fingertips on the door, slowly, silently. One tip at a time. She shifts her weight and lowers her face towards the door. Cold metal on her eye socket. On the other side, coming into focus, nothing at all. The blank beige of the wall on the other side of the corridor, and nothing else. Whoever is there, whoever is thumping, has placed himself out of view.
Thump, rattle. Thump, rattle. Thump, thump, thump, rattle, rattle, rattle.
The door vibrates against Julie’s skull. She felt that one. She wonders about putting the chain on the door. So he can’t get in. Does he want to get in, or just make her hear him? She clasps the end of the chain between her thumb and forefinger, then pulls it tight. At that moment:
Thump. Thump. Thump, thump, thump.
No rattle. Julie has stopped the rattle. She changed the sound. What if he noticed? But she wants him to notice, she decides. She wants him to notice. Julie lifts her arm, and draws her fingers together into a fist. She sends her hand flying back toward the door with all the strength she has:
Thump. Thump. Thump, thump, thump.
These are her sounds. Her thump. Her fist. She wants him to notice. She lets go of the chain and does it again:
Thump, rattle. Thump, rattle. Thump, thump, thump, rattle, rattle, rattle.
Her rattle, too. Without stopping to think again Julie grabs the door handle and flings the door open in one movement. There he is, leaning up against the wall to the left of the door.
‘Hello, Martin,’ she says.
He’s frozen, his face pointed down at the floor. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.’
‘Don’t look away. You’ve seen my body before.’
‘I thought I’d left something in the room, but I don’t need it.’
He backs away, a few paces. He looks at her like he’s asking permission to leave.
‘Was it all for this, Martin? Did last night happen just so you could bang on this door in the morning?’
‘There’s no harm in it.’
‘Please go away now.’
Julie goes back inside. She puts the chain on the door, thumps it one more time, and then goes to get dressed. She phones down to the front desk. She asks them to order her a cab, and to send someone upstairs to remove the man loitering outside her room.
Richard BERRY has written fiction for Dream Catcher, Bandit Fiction, BFS Horizons and Soft Cartel. He has written about politics for The Guardian, Economist, New Statesman and Open Democracy.
His website is richardjberry.com
When she was five, Lydia buried a strawberry in the yard under the freshly laid mulch. Her puffy pink Easter dress and the patent white leather Mary Janes got dirty, but Lydia thought it was better than telling her grandmother that strawberries are too sour. Strawberries were the closest thing her grandmother had to a family crest. She had strawberry hand towels, strawberry soap, strawberry dessert plates for the strawberry shortcake, and Lydia’s mother had stressed the importance of saying yes to everything her grandmother offered her. That’s what kept everyone calm. Her mother hadn’t said she had to eat everything, though. So the ground swallowed what Lydia rejected. Mounds and mounds of strawberries she wasn’t allowed to say no to.
The strawberry patches encircled her grandmother’s backyard. She called it providence. Lydia called it fecal seed distribution. It was one of the main ways seeds were propagated. An animal ate something and shit it out where a plant eventually grew. Her mother glared at her. Lydia was always getting in trouble for telling the truth these days. It suited her conscience, but made her stomach ache. Some people you have to walk on eggshells around, and some people it’s broken pieces of pottery that slice your feet open with nicks and gashes until you’re so bloody that your feet don’t look like feet anymore. Just amorphous blobs of blood, bone and meat.
‘Are you sure you want that chocolate cake?’ her grandmother asked. ‘A moment on the lips is a lifetime on the hips!’ She held up the big, juicy strawberry coated in sugar on her fork. ‘These strawberries are so fresh!’
What her grandmother meant: you’re fat, if you’re not careful you’ll get fatter and then no one will ever want you and what will you do?
Lydia yanked down her shirt, afraid some skin might be showing. She wore everything at least a size too big because she didn’t like the way people looked at her, always categorizing her as fuckable or competition or not worthy of basic respect. ‘I like this cake,’ she said and forced in a mouthful.
‘Chocolate is bad for your skin.’
‘Actually that’s a myth,’ Lydia said through a full mouth. ‘It’s sugar spikes that do it, and sugar can come from anything.’ She’d contradicted her grandmother with facts. A no-no since she learned to speak. The momentary pleasure gave way to dread.
Her grandmother set down her fork. Her eyes were stormy and her face had turned into a perfect mask of disgust the way Paul Ekman explained it. Nose lifted, raised cheeks and a lifted upper lip. Her grandmother couldn’t challenge her on the facts, so she went to her only two avenues of expertise: appearance and men. ‘Why are you so pale?’
Translation: fix your face, being tan is attractive, why are you so ugly?
‘I don’t know,’ Lydia said. ‘Maybe because I don’t work outside?’
Her grandmother pursed her lips. Their family’s American origins were in the dairy farm she’d grown up running. They survived the Great Depression in comparable luxury because they’d grown their own food.
Lydia shoved more cake into her mouth and grinned. She never won.
Her grandmother’s ninetieth birthday was attended by the whole family. Lydia even came down from Amherst at her mother’s request. Her mother had set up a long table, and her grandmother screeched out who should sit where. Lydia did as she was told and took her seat at the right hand of her grandmother, who tried to offer her wine. She read her grandmother’s intentions to get her drunk and declined.
‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ her grandmother asked like she always did. She had never asked what classes Lydia took or what the campus was like. Lydia was a nerd in a family of wannabe beauty queens because beauty was power. If she’d been a boy, she would’ve been hailed as the family scholar. As a girl she was a failed girlfriend/future wife. That suited her just fine.
‘No,’ Lydia said.
‘Do you have any male teachers?’
Lydia swallowed her desire to scream about abuse of power. How she would never compromise her education that way. Men come and go. Her education couldn’t be taken from her. And even though all of her teachers were male that semester, she said, ‘No.’
After dinner, the family set about the strawberry patches with wicker baskets to pick dessert. Lydia was in charge of picking for her grandmother and made sure she selected the ones with white peeking from beneath the green tops. She believed they were the sourest.
In the photo series from that day, Lydia can be seen standing next to her grandmother as pale as ever, having spent more time inside with books than with boys on the lawn. Her smile is forced, patient, waiting for the day it doesn’t have to pretend.
When Lydia’s grandmother died, her mother hired people to clean, toss and donate what was left of her life. The house was empty when Lydia arrived. She retrieved the brand-new shovel from her trunk. She stomped the blade into the earth until her feet blistered and her hands stung. It took an hour, but she dug up every single root that could’ve given life to a strawberry. Her stomach aches were gone. Joy sprouted from her body like a second skin. She bagged the plants to take to the dump and left the holes in the ground. Some things weren’t meant to be filled.
CHELSEA STICKLE writes flash fiction that appears or is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, Five on the Fifth, Crack the Spine, formercactus, Hypnopomp and Occulum. She’s a reader for Cease, Cows and lives in Annapolis, MD. Find her on Twitter @Chelsea_Stickle
One day, you feel a stuttering of your heart, so you stop, hold your breath, and it goes quickly away. But it’s enough.
That night, you don’t sleep. You lie awake, and the ceiling is a cracked map of the past. You watch time as it ticks from the clock, filling the room with itself, and you can’t breathe, so you try to feel your heart, the beating of it, but there’s nothing.
The next day, you go to the doctor’s—an emergency, you say, sweating on the phone—and you wait on a plastic chair next to a slot on the wall where people post their sample bottles, until the receptionist calls your name.
The doctor is a fat man who doesn’t look at you, but he listens as you tell him your heart beats too fast sometimes, that at other times it doesn’t beat at all, and he tells you to unbutton your shirt. The stethoscope sticks to the cold sweat and the hairs on your chest, and the brush of the fat doctor’s thumb just below your nipple is your first human contact for weeks.
He tells you there seems to be nothing wrong, but that it’s always good to get these things checked out, so he makes an appointment at the hospital. You thank him as you stand up, and you walk out of the room, out of the surgery, into the cold of February. You sit down on a wall where there is still some snowmelt, and you cry.
That night, you get drunk. There’s the old postcard on your wall of a middle-aged couple waltzing in what seems to be a motel room in the fifties, and you’re dancing around the room like them, arms held exactly as if you were holding the woman. The silence makes music in your head, and your heart has a rhythm like the hooves of a horse. You dance like this, with the lights off and your slippers on, until the music fades and you stand in the middle of the room, suddenly ridiculous.
Weeks later, and the hospital waiting room is full of old people trying to smile. There are fish in a tank, all the colours you have ever seen in your life, purple on yellow, red with green. The sunlight through the blinds casts diagonals across the glass. You wait, and you don’t mind waiting, until finally a tall woman wearing jeans under her white coat comes out and says your name.
As she connects you to a machine she tells you that she needs to take some readings, and that Doctor Prentice will take a good look at you to make sure everything is fine. It’s like being a child again, and as you listen to the click and the whirr of the machine, you look at the discs taped to your chest and you imagine yourself in a film. There will be spaceships and monsters and a beautiful alien woman—she might be green, and then turn blue when she falls in love with you—and thinking about this, you sleep, briefly, because these weeks have been long, these weeks have been heavy.
The doctor is young. He’s wearing an open-necked shirt and he taps a pen against his desk as he reads the printout. There’s something wrong, he says. Not a big thing, but something. He wants to monitor you for a couple of weeks, and to do that he’ll need to strap a yellow box to your chest.
He shows you the box. It looks like the small midsection of a child’s metal truck, with its smooth lines and black lettering. There are wires coming off either side, and the doctor gives you some adhesive discs. He shows you how to attach the discs to your chest, above and below your heart, and then he secures the wires. The box has a black strap built into it, and the doctor pulls it tight around your torso. He does all of this slowly and calmly and you nod at him, showing willing, but you cannot speak. There’s a button on the top of the box to press whenever you have what he calls—in a soft, pleasant voice--an episode. He sits behind his desk again, and it’s only then that you can get up, thank him, assure him you understand. You must bring the box back in two weeks, he says, and the results will be ready in a month.
You speak to the nurse outside about another appointment. Before you leave, you watch the fish for a while, but the colours seem less vibrant now the sunlight through the window has faded.
That night is the first for you and the box, and you wait to feel something, but your heart beats with the beat of a thing that has been beating that way for a thousand years and will continue to beat that way for a thousand more.
You cook salmon, open a bottle of cheap white wine, and after you’ve eaten—after you’ve washed the dishes, the pan, the knife and the fork—you go to the mirror in the bedroom, take off your shirt, and you look at your reflection. You take off your trousers, your socks, your boxers too, and you stand naked in the shadow cast by the lamplight.
As you walk from bedroom to living room, you feel the weight of the box, like responsibility, like hope, like love. You lift your arms and you hold them out as you begin to waltz. It’s a dance you only know from the postcard, but you’ve been dancing it for years. You look at the man holding tightly onto the woman in the blue dress, imagining yourself pulling her close, and it’s only then you feel the heartbeat coming from the box, its rhythm a counterpoint to your own.
JASON JACKSON’s prize-winning fiction has been published extensively online and in print. He recently won the Writers Bureau Short Story competition, placed second in the Exeter Short Story competition and third in a TSS Flash Fiction competition. His stories have been nominated for The Pushcart Prize and Best of Small Fictions. Jason is also a photographer and his hybrid prose/photography work The Unit is published by A3 Press.
Jason regularly tweets @jj_fiction