Sabrina was on the sofa with a box of Fruity Pebbles when Kevin stomped inside. He took off his shoes, which weren’t wet because the snow was so cold, and he stood watching his daughter eat cereal for dinner.
She dipped her hand into the crinkly plastic and came out with a technicolor collection of starch and corn syrup.
This ritual done, he flopped down on the sofa beside her in his office clothes. Sabrina offered him the box, her eyes still watching and reflecting an inflorescence of colored light from the screen. They sat there and watched commercials on a Friday night. A commercial for Fruity Pebbles came on. Sabrina’s hand reached for the box, and Kevin moved the box away, and her hand reached farther, making little gripping motions that reminded him of when she was an infant.
‘Dad,’ she snapped, swiping the box.
‘I just wanted you to look away from the TV,’ he confessed.
The Fruity Pebbles commercial was over. Sabrina made a sound in her throat as if she was annoyed she’d missed it.
‘Because I just wanted you to.’ It was Friday, he thought. The weekend. Once, he would have taken the time to explain why it was unhealthy to stare at screens all day, but he’d forgotten why himself, and he thought of them sitting there in the half-light. He was still cold from the drive home from work where he’d been the last to leave his brick office building with its black-tinted windows, trudging through the snow-blanked lot and flinging himself into his car, which had been covered and cave-dark, slow to defrost.
Sabrina watched her shows with the sound turned down to an electric whisper. The plastic static of the cereal bag overpowered it. She was watching a cartoon about an infertile couple who had adopted an alien for a son. The alien looked like a human, expect that his skin was purple.
‘Have you noticed the blizzard outside?’ he asked. There was a window next to the television in their living room, and Sabrina hadn’t pulled the curtains back over the night. Snow pelted diagonally down. Twenty minutes ago, he’d been barricaded in his car with the heat slowly melting the build-up on windows he was numb enough not to go out and scrape.
‘Yep,’ she said. ‘They sent us home early. I caught a ride with Carrie.’
Kevin thought about this information. He felt terribly cold, as if someone had opened the window. He didn’t know why. He looked at his twelve-year-old daughter sitting there in her faded jeans and old sweatshirt. She sat with the box of cereal in her lap, clutching it on either side with both hands, and her legs stuck out directly forward from her, her knees bent ninety degrees over the edge of the sofa and her feet resting flat on the carpet. He looked at her light-brown hair—at how the tip of her pink ear stuck out between the curtain in front of it and the wave behind. He thought suddenly of how much he loved that she hadn’t asked if she could have that ear pierced, and then he prepared himself for when she did ask. Then he thought of something worse, and he prepared himself for when she simply came home with her ears pierced, giggling with her friends.
Then another thought occurred to him. He reached out.
‘Hey, dad—what?’ she jerked back.
‘I just wanted to see if you’d pierced your earlobes,’ he said guiltily, touching his own.
‘My ear-lobes?’ she asked, incredulous.
Sabrina looked at him with dark, liquid eyes. ‘Carrie’s mom is getting a divorce, and I think she’s really pretty.’
‘That so?’ Kevin asked.
In his car, in the parking lot of his office, he’d watched the snow slowly liquidate around him—a kind of unformed awe in him, orb-shaped, like a clot, while he thought of the elements: heat and water. Evaporation and condensation. He’d sat staring out on the empty lot and the plow-built glacier that had been added to daily for the last month. By now nearly as high as the second story of the office. Climate and industry, clean and white and glittering beside the drab building where he worked inside with clean, white spreadsheets and cool blue light.
‘I think you’d like her,’ his daughter was saying of Carrie’s mom.
‘Is my daughter trying to set me up with a divorcee so that she can be her best friend’s sister?’
She stared at him, possibly trying to figure out how such an astute question could come from a man who said earlobe. ‘It’s not the worst idea I’ve ever had.’ Her favorite phrase.
Rejuvenated, somewhat, by banter, Kevin came to his feet, weathered a gust of vertigo, and announced that he was ordering pizza.
Sabrina had reoriented herself to the cartoon.
Kevin thought of what it would be like to go out into the blizzard, stand on a mound of snow and ice like it was a mountain and let the cold tighten.
When the man who delivered the pizzas thumped the front door, Kevin paid him, looking past him out into the hyperdrive night—flakes the size of starlights, slinging themselves through headlight beams.
Inside the living room, the only lights came from the television glow, colder than the storm, and the distant bulb from the kitchen bouncing off the white wall and around the corner. Sabrina had traded the cereal box for a pillow and sat hunched over it as if she had a stomach ache, and Kevin was reminded of how the girl’s mother looked with Sabrina still growing inside of her--
To break his own thought, he threw himself down on the sofa with the pizza box and jounced his daughter and almost spilled the pizza.
Sabrina objected to this rough-housing, but Kevin plopped the box on her lap and opened it to block the screen and said, ‘Eat up quick, and then we’re going outside.’
‘Why would I want to go outside?’ Calm: she thought he was kidding.
‘For fresh air.’
In gestures as exaggerated as the cartoons she watched, Sabrina swiveled her tousled head to him and then to the window as if drawing a line. What lay beyond seemed grim, anti-terrestrial: the white lines of snow flashing all at one slant like erase marks scrubbed over a pencil drawing.
When they’d eaten one piece each, Kevin told her to get her coat, well, first, put on layers, lots of layers—did she have underarmor, and why didn’t he know if she did or not?—and where were her boots, hat, gloves, scarf? He pestered her from room to room, astonished so fully by her own astonished obedience that he forgot to add layers to his outfit, and he had to make her wait while he threw three sweaters over his head and arms.
‘Dad, I’m melting. I’m hyperventilating.’
He came out of his room and looked at his daughter frowning up at him from within her bedizenment—her beanie and her big rag scarf. He grinned at her. She looked kind of brave there, stalwart and stoic in the wallpapered hallway of their house. He wondered what had gotten into him. He felt like he wanted to tear up a little, just a little bit, but the picture he had in his mind was of a cartoon purple alien sobbing center-screen into two buckets set shoulder-width apart. It was an image that had just about cured him of tears.
They stole out of the house, and the wind was loud. They propped themselves up against the door. If Sabrina had wanted to go back inside right then, Kevin would happily have accepted this, but she didn’t; she waited for him, holding her hood down with one mittened hand.
‘We’re going to need shovels,’ he shouted, testing her reaction to this.
They took two shovels from the garage, and, in a flash of forethought, Kevin grabbed the camping lantern and a handful of hand warmers from the camping bin, and he threw all this in the trunk of his car, and he peered around the wheel and stabbed the key into the ignition, flicking the heater to thickest red and tapping the defrost buttons, and he found the ice scraper and retracted his body back out of the car and went to work.
Sabrina sat in the passenger seat while Kevin drove them to the destination he had in his head, and she kept her mittens on and breathed into the little bowl they made together, the shape of her nose soft and crowded against the red mittens. Kevin looked over at her once or twice, wondering when she was going to ask where they were going, but she didn’t ask, and they arrived in the night after thirty minutes of skidding on otherwise empty streets.
Kevin stopped the car in the same parking space in which he always parked. He bet he even had it between the yellow lines, which were buried. They sat there in the toasty interior with the window wipers slinging slush off the glass, and they gazed out at the austere shapes around them—the same place he’d been about two hours ago, the same sensations, his daughter there beside him.
‘Is this where you work?’ Sabrina asked.
Kevin was relieved that she had asked. He had been starting to worry that he’d scared her, and maybe he still had. But her mother had died giving birth to her; she wouldn’t have known the way he’d been then for the first year or two of her life, even though some part of her might have known, even then, and might yet remember. He said, ‘Yes.’
‘Cubicles in there?’ she asked, as if asking if there were sharks in the water.
‘Yes. And a coffee kitchen. And conference rooms.’
She looked shyly at him. After another minute or two, said, ‘Are we going to get out, or what?’
‘You want to?’ he asked.
She didn’t wait. If they’d driven all the way out here with shovels, Sabrina was going to at least take a look at this potential igloo; really, one of the biggest snow piles she’d ever encountered, premade. It was a big lot, after all. But Kevin watched her expression and wondered what she was thinking—what she thought about him as she pictured him in this building, hunched over his desk.
She had the sort of expression people get when they’re about to do something that they’ve known they would have to do for a long time, and whether it would be agreeable or disagreeable remained to be seen.
‘Kinda chilly out here,’ she pronounced on the night. The snow was coming at a blinding angle. Ice on her eyelashes. A bowing row of evergreens along the back of the lot. The air was ash grey and wouldn’t darken any further.
As they climbed the plowed-up hill of ice—using the shovels to pull themselves through gradients of gusts like exhausted travelers—Kevin tried to remember what he’d meant by coming here. He had never been here this late, and it felt unlawful, and whatever spontaneity he’d talked himself into had now been replaced with pensiveness.
They stood on the top and looked around together: two figures on the transitory hill in an empty acreage of office buildings. Just as Kevin suspected from the ground, they were now level with the blackened windows of the second story. He stood and faced the place where his cubicle was. He had a picture of Sabrina on his desk, not a snowball’s throw away. In the picture, she was six, and she had just returned from Carrie’s birthday party, and she was high on sugar and beaming in her chocolate-smeared blouse. She’d come home with a braid, which her friend had done for her, her first braid. Kevin remembered that she’d cried when it came undone in the bath. He loved that picture, and it made him afraid sometimes to look at it.
‘This is pretty cool, I guess,’ Sabrina said, stomping out a flattened plateau under her and stabbing the shovel in and leaning on it, world-wise and weary.
‘You think so?’
‘Yea, it’s not the worst idea you’ve ever had.’
‘We should probably head home then, don’t you think?’ He wasn’t sure what response he was hoping from her. If it had been he who had formulated the idea, it was now she who had taken the lead, and he wished he hadn’t left his phone in the car so that he could take a picture of that look on her cold face as she studied the snow under her as though she’d been commissioned to come here and to shape it into something.
His daughter hefted her shovel. ‘We can go when we’re tired.’
When the wind picked up again, they descended the mountain on the leeward side to the base and began to dig.
ANDREW REICHARD is an author who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His short fiction has appeared in journals such as The Collagist, decomP, Into the Void, and others. Connect with him on Twitter @DrewReichard
She could be funny sometimes. When I was swearing because the face recognition feature on my laptop wouldn’t work—I always feel rejected if it fails—she said I should try it with a can in my hand. Hilarious, I replied. Well, it turned out was she was right. There you go. So maybe it wasn’t sarcastic humour after all, just a practical suggestion.
She was very practical. I relied on her a lot for things that don’t get done so well now or don’t get done at all. It was her idea to go out into the garden at night for instance and pick the slugs off the Brussels sprout plants with tweezers and drop them in a bowl of salt water. The leaves were being shredded. That worked pretty well till I got tired of all that bending over in the dark. And I felt sorry for the little creatures. Not a nice death for them. She was unsentimental though. She said if I hadn’t the stomach for that then I should put out beer traps, especially as I liked beer so much.
The slugs and I had a lot in common, she went on, warming to the subject, getting worked up. That prompted me to get angry and swear and she shouted that I was more in love with beer than I was with her. My witty response to that was that I was more in love with orange juice than I was with her. Probably a mistake. Then she left. She’s seeing someone from her office now. I imagine. She always complained at how I always preferred drinking at home to going out. Now she can go out all she wants.
So it’s worked out well all round.
I have my routine. Most nights after dark I go out into the garden to have a drink and top up the small containers I stuck in the ground, the beer traps, just as she said. I like it, it’s peaceful sitting and shining my phone here and there, seeing beetles scurrying for the shadows. It’s deathly quiet and the plants look other-worldly in the torch beam. It’s like being on another planet.
It doesn’t take long before the little guys are coming out of their hiding places. I amuse myself by thinking they can hear the sound of the ring pull. I’ve got quite fond of them now so I’m torn because I hate for them to die but at the same time I’ve set my heart on my own sprouts at Christmas.
She said it could be any beer, that slugs weren’t fussy. No need for some American-style IPA in a fancy colourful can. But I’ve got standards and so they get what I drink. She’d have laughed at that, for a few seconds, before getting annoyed at the waste and how I’d stubbornly insist on doing it my way. I can imagine the argument that would have resulted. The stupid thing is she actually quite liked beer. It wasn’t like we had nothing in common.
Here they come. Slowly, slowly. They move like they’re dreaming. I know I should have just got cheap stuff. They don’t know the difference. It does seem a waste, she was right. She was about most things. But then I have a silly sentimental streak and the way I see it, if it’s their last drink then the least I can do is to make it a good one.
JULIAN WAKELING was born in Sunderland and grew up in Lincolnshire. He attended Central Saint Martins School of Art in London and has worked for two art galleries, the post office and as a cycle courier. He sometimes produces music and has released two house music singles. He is also a street photographer. He was long-listed this year in the Fish and Reflex flash fiction contests. He currently lives near Lincoln. His website is julianwakeling.com and you can find him on Twitter @WakelingFiction
Jess leans over the potter’s wheel, as his mother instructs. Brace elbows on knees, place both hands around the clay. Press foot slowly on the pedal and start the wheel spinning. Now. Force the clay into the very center. You’ll know it’s there when it’s perfectly smooth. Not smooth as in un-gritty. It’s still gritty. It’s terra cotta—Jess is a child, he’s using inexpensive material, not the porcelain his mother uses. So. Smooth as in spinning perfectly within the hands.
Jess strains with the effort; he is not often allowed in the studio. But the clay has its own mind and goes everywhere but the center. Slightly below, slightly above. His heart races. The skin on his hands is raw. It will be a long time before he’s invited back.
‘For Christ’s sake,’ his mother mutters.
Rachel’s irritation smacks Jess across the face. He wipes his tear and smears clay on his cheek.
Jess’s memory of that afternoon is from the vantage of a ghost in the corner, except the end, when he is back in his child-body. He regards his present-day afternoon, his beautiful, enormous studio with a darkroom at the back and a little kitchen to the left where later he will prepare a snack for the twelve middle-schoolers he is teaching today. Fundamentals of Photography is a weekend workshop that supplements his salary as a wedding photographer. His mother scoffed at both photography and weddings, of course, as she did the classes he taught. Those who can’t—she reminded him periodically. He never retorted that at least he could pay his rent on time, unlike her. Or that he was in demand for his services, unlike her. Or that everyone has the right to pursue a creative life, that it’s natural to want one, that to create is human, so fuck off. That’s the real bitch of being raised by a frustrated artist who could be violent and frightening. Eventually you understand they too are suffering. Eventually you worry you will become them. Jess returns his thoughts to the present. Please, God, let me leave no marks.
‘Valerie, watch your light,’ he shouts across the room. ‘You’re casting a shadow.’
She looks up, looks to her still life of tulips, moves. ‘Sorry!’
‘No time for sorry,’ he says. It turns his stomach to raise his voice. ‘Focus on the picture. Pun intended.’
These tiny artists are his hatchlings and someday they will fly into the world and be free.
The power cuts. The spinning clay halts. And then, an alarm. The kiln is cool enough to open and Rachel is luminous with expectation. She dons thick gloves and takes up long-handled iron tongs. She approaches the brick gas-fired monster standing floor to ceiling and pulls out the key brick, jutting out at the top. Then the next. The scalding air ripples into the room and bends around the little boy, who has crept up to watch. She is a red goddess and he is nothing. More bricks come down, a painstaking task. The boy reaches towards one; it’s too hot to get even five inches away. Finally, finally, the bricks are low enough and Rachel scrabbles at them with her gloved hands. She peers inside. Scrutiny. Then disappointment.
Rachel uses the tongs to withdraw a large urn. To the boy it’s as beautiful as a miracle, tall and perfect. He would give anything to make such poetry. But he is only seven. What could he give?
Rachel clicks her tongue and sets the urn on the counter. Another piece comes out. A platter glazed with soft pink. That one Rachel drops on the ground like dirty clothes. Lightning bolts across the surface. A series of delicate tea bowls. They get the same treatment. On and on, each piece receiving a harsher sentence, until the last ones are flung against the wall. The kiln is empty. The little boy is weeping. Rachel looks at him sharply. ‘What are you doing here?’ Her voice is the threat of punishment and the punishment itself. She leans into his face and asks again.
Throwing pots: the term for using a potter’s wheel to make a vessel. Jess has turned that phrase over and over in his mind for the last thirty years. Its edges are rounder. But it still draws blood.
Valerie has removed the tulips from the vase and thrown them on the floor in a heap. Oh no. She is crouching next to them. Jess cannot see her face. The lamp is on its side. No. It casts a halo around the mess. Jess approaches. He has encouragement to offer, a gentle word, a hug, commiseration. Before he can speak Valerie looks up with bright excitement. ‘Can you hold your hand over the bulb with your fingers spread out? I have an idea.’ He does and lines of dark and light fall on the crisscrossed stems like oracle bones, an ancient pattern calling forth some new future. ‘Perfect, yeah,’ she says. ‘So cool.’ She crouches at his feet. ‘I love this class.’ She takes the shot.
WHITNEY CURRY WIMBISH is an American writer in Scotland. Her fiction has been published by Barren Magazine, MIROnline, and r.kv.r.y. quarterly literary journal, has received honourable mention in two Glimmer Train competitions, and is forthcoming in Great River Review. Her reportage/nonfiction has been published in The Baffler, The Financial Times, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming in North American Review. Whitney holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School and can be found on Twitter at @whitneycwimbish
Arjun is in line at the museum café when Stephanie fires him.
It’s just a text. ‘Sorrry we’re letting you go.’
He doesn’t know how she does it, misses the autocorrect. He doesn’t really think she’s sorrry.
Fucking Stephanie and her fucking design ideas that are always so fucking better than his.
He’s at the front of the line now and the woman behind the counter stabs him with a glance. He pockets his phone. His appetite’s fled.
Arjun can’t bring himself to ask for the Smoked Mackerel Pâté. Twelve dollars plus tax. He stares down at the crooked part in the woman’s hair, the black roots beneath the blonde. All he wants is a glass of water. But his tongue is stubborn. He’s kept the woman waiting and now can’t summon the social grace to ask for a free cup.
‘Sorry,’ Arjun says and ducks out of line.
Into the conceptual art exhibit. He’d come for inspiration, but now wants to go home. Wait till five, show the text to Mona.
‘No more Stephanie,’ he’ll tell her, the stupid, botched text bringing them together the way nothing else could. Not even the ring she used to want, before she found out he was fucking Stephanie.
It was just the two weeks. Arjun ended it, confessed everything to Mona, who laughed and then stopped laughing.
Seven months later, she still wasn’t laughing. She didn’t believe Stephanie had been the driving force.
‘Takes two,’ she said one night, not even looking up from her dissertation.
It wouldn’t work, the text. It would just show Mona they were already done.
Arjun heads deeper into the exhibit, stalling, buying a moment before deciding.
He’ll freelance. He’s been saying he wanted to freelance and now he’ll have to.
He walks through a pharmacy that looks just like a real one, down to the pill bottles. Arjun pictures a world where he’s done one small thing different and he’s not fired. Or he doesn’t confess to Mona. He just lies and Mona laughs at ‘sorrry’ and rubs his shoulders while he boots up the home computer.
Something small could change everything.
That’s when he sees it. Up high on the wall, on a tiny clear shelf, rests an ordinary glass of water. It’s partly full and there’s a long narrative beneath it, but Arjun doesn’t read it. It’s the kind of thing Stephanie would go on about, its brilliance making Arjun and his semi-realist drawings seem clumsy in comparison.
Part of the point of anti-art is to piss people off.
Arjun is pissed off. The pharmacy hasn’t cured him. You’re supposed to get something out of art. He should know. He’s an artist. He works for himself now.
Arjun’s mouth is dry. His phone buzzes. He’s tall enough to reach the glass. He rises on his toes and stretches up.
GENEVIEVE ABRAVANEL is Associate Professor of English at Franklin & Marshall College. Her scholarly writing has appeared in a number of journals. She’s held grants and fellowships from the NEH, the American Association for University Women, and the Penn Humanities Forum; in 2012, she published a book of academic nonfiction with Oxford University Press. She lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania with her family.
Geography teachers were supposed to be like Mr Mason: tweed jackets, salt-and-pepper stubble, and coffee breath. Or like Miss O’Connor: short cropped grey hair, a mouth pursed up like a cat’s anus and—well, coffee breath again. Geography wasn’t Anna’s best subject, not that she had one, really, but at least there were explosions in Science and mess in Art. She couldn’t see a positive to Geography. Until Miss Wing.
There was Anna, minding her own business, hair unbrushed and crisp crumbs on her shirt, bag slumped on top of the desk, texting Deanna, when Miss Wing walked into the room. Silence crashed through the whole class.
Miss Wing was short and slim with hair cut so sharp you could have guillotined paper with it, a figure-accentuating lilac dress, and the prettiest elbows Anna had ever seen. She hadn’t known she was an elbows girl before. She hadn’t had a favourite body part. She’d been pretty oblivious to bodies, in fact. Deanna could go on about Louis’ arse all she wanted, Anna had only pretended to agree to join in. Miss Wing’s elbows, however, appeared to her as two tiny points of perfection in an otherwise bland world.
Anna sat up straight, phone into bag mid-message, brushed away crumbs, wiped at her mouth just in case, and started pulling out her pencil case and books in imitation of studiousness.
‘Good morning, class, my name is Miss Wing. I will be taking you for Geography this year. Who can tell me anything about coastal erosion?’
Anna wished with every nerve that she knew something about it. God damn Jordan! His grandparents’ house had crumbled off a cliff. Lucky bastard. Miss Wing’s dark brown, perfect eyes were on him.
As the lesson continued, Miss Wing spoke softly but with absolute confidence. Never before had chalky outcrops increased Anna’s heart rate, never before had a word like attrition sounded exciting enough to memorise.
All Anna could think about for the rest of that day was smooth, evenly caramel-coloured skin on twin wondrously pivoted elbows. At lunch she shunted beans with her fork, unable to actually face sticking any into her mouth. Her throat was closed over. In fact, her whole body had shut down.
That evening, she slipped away from her parents to her bed to read her new Geography text book from cover to cover with her thighs tensed against each other. She googled ‘Coastal Erosion’ with one finger pressed between her legs. A pastel-painted cottage crashed piecemeal onto foaming rocks in time with her first ever spasming shudders.
RUE BALDRY’s short stories have previously appeared in The First Line, Pif, The Incubator, Mslexia, The Honest Ulsterman and The Mighty Line. She lives in York, UK, and has a BA in English Literature from York University, and an MA in Creative Writing from Leeds University. She was the 2017 Bridge Award Emerging Writer and a 2015/16 Jerwood/Arvon mentee.
Adam Lock - There’s a reason why people close their eyes when they kiss, and we know what it is… (A Clickbait Story)
Rachel lies naked in bed except for the nights she wears glasses to read. I like that she’s naked except for her glasses. Glasses are a male invention. The male gaze. Schaulust.
She hands them over for me to clean—it’s an apology—means no sex.
‘You do a better job than me,’ she says.
Sometimes I listen to books but there’s no substitute for reading yourself.
I say, ‘Tell me about colour.’
‘Colours can be many things,’ she says. ‘The sky is blue, the sea is blue, my eyes are blue.’
‘What about red?’
‘Anger is red, fire is red, my lips are redder than yours.’
She takes back her glasses.
‘I don’t see how so many things can be the same colour,’ I say. ‘What about your hair.’
‘White isn’t really a colour. It’s all the colours pressed together.’
‘Your hair is all the colours?’
‘It’s difficult to explain.’
The house is quiet and I listen to my wrist watch ticking.
‘Do you wish you could see them?’ she asks. ‘Colours?’
Rachel lies in the V of my arm. ‘I remember the first time a man looked at me. Really looked at me. I was fourteen.’
I reach for my book and follow the tiny bumps on the page, the rise and fall of subject, verb, object.
Rachel says, ‘I like when you read me the way you read your books, with your fingers. It makes me feel timeless. Like Marilyn Monroe. Or like the Mona Lisa.’
She takes my hand from the page and presses it against her cheek. I stroke her with the side of my thumb.
She says, ‘I close my eyes when we kiss. Did you know that?’
‘Do you know why people do it?’
She says, ‘Because the brain cannot cope with both visual data and the sensation of kissing. It’s an overload of information.’
‘I don’t have that problem,’ I say.
‘No, instead, when we kiss, your fingers stop moving.’
She sits on my lap and kisses me.
‘You’re right,’ I say.
I hear her smile.
I say, ‘You’ve taken off your glasses.’
She says, ‘Would you like me to tell you all about yellow?’
ADAM LOCK writes in the Black Country, UK. He won the TSS Summer Quarterly Flash Competition 2018, and the STORGY Flash Fiction Competition 2018. He was placed third in the Cambridge Short Story Prize 2017, and has been shortlisted twice for the Bath Flash Fiction Award 2018. He’s had stories appear in various publications such as New Flash Fiction Review, Lost Balloon, MoonPark Review, Fictive Dream, Spelk, Reflex, Retreat West, Fiction Pool, Ellipsis Zine, Ghost Parachute, and many others. His website is adamlock.net and you can find him on Twitter @dazedcharacter
I always picture her as she was on that last day, in the blue dress scattered with white stars. White ankle socks and navy shoes skip before us, then break into a run.
‘Bet you can’t catch me!’
We didn’t try. Wandered on, bickering. We were often happy to amuse the afterthought; that day, happy to collect her from a party while Mum got tea.
A rustle of leaves, a beating of wings—a song thrush flew out of the hedge at Hoad’s field. The nest—the last we ever robbed—was above head height and a good way in. I hoisted Jem onto my shoulders.
‘Mark! Jem! Bet you can’t catch me!’
She wasn’t a hundred yards ahead, I swear, but by the time Jem was down she’d disappeared into Church Lane.
‘Shit! It’s cracked.’ Jem threw the speckled egg into the hedge.
‘Doesn’t matter. We’ve got one at home.’
A battered Anglia rasped towards us when we turned into Church Lane. As he slowed to take the corner, the sick bastard looked straight at us and did a little wave.
There was no sign of Josie. We thought she was hiding and would jump from behind a hedge. It was in the churchyard that we started calling.
‘Come on, Josie. Mum’ll be going spare.’
We scoured the place, hoping to see the blue dress flitting between headstones, peeping from behind a tomb.
‘Josie! The game’s over, okay?’
We walked home trying to convince ourselves she’d had a longer start than we thought or dodged away among the graves to leave us hunting, the mischievous little thing. She’d be long home by now and we’d be in for it for letting supper spoil.
We were barely through the gate when Mum flung out of the house, more powerful than she ever was again.
‘Where the hell have you been?’
‘Sorry, Mum, we…’
‘I hope you’re sorry. Susie’s mother says you left hers more than an hour ago. Now get indoors.’
She stood to one side pointing at the front door, but after a moment pushed past us to the gate and scanned the street. When she turned back to us, she already seemed smaller.
PATRICIA NEWBERY’s prose and poetry has been published in several reviews, including Ambit. She’s a translator and editor and lives in Egypt.
The girl knows the little wooden piece her father sent for her birthday is supposed to be an oven range because on top are four black burners the circumference of cigarette burns, and on the panel between the stovetop and the oven door are tiny, warty knobs. But the knobs do not turn. The oven does not heat up. The burners do not emit flames. Open the oven door, and there are two empty shelves like the shelves in the kitchen cabinet over their microwave, the cabinet where her father had kept his gin, before her mother told him one night as she was sponging up rings on the counters that their marriage was broken, and he said, ‘Broken? Can a thing be broken if it never worked to begin with?’
MICHELLE ROSS is the author of There's So Much They Haven't Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, The Pinch, and other venues. She's fiction editor of Atticus Review. Her website is: www.michellenross.com
You’re on a farm.
Wind whips through rain.
Footsteps on gravel.
A knife unsheathed.
Dad with his knife goes cut cut cut cut and then stab in the neck. My turn. Dad shows me how to do it properly. I don’t cry because I’m a big lad to be using a knife. I hold the knife and dad holds my hand and we cut the skin from the neck down to the private parts. Together we cut the skin up the legs but I cut around the neck all by myself and dad doesn’t even need to help much. I put the knife down careful because a knife’s not a toy. I don’t cry because there’s nothing we can do about it now. We sometimes eat bits for our tea because there’s nothing bad about it but this time we just need the skin. We both pull the skin off the body.
You hear rips, clicks, velcro sounds.
You picture skin torn from flesh.
It’s not a bad thing. He can’t feel anything because he’s dead and that means you go to sleep and don’t wake up. Anyways, I’m a dragon and dragons don’t cry.
Now you’re in the farmhouse.
An alarm clock buzzes, bedcovers rustle.
The man turns off the alarm and kisses the woman.
Bedsprings squeak as the man gets out of bed.
Maggie thinks he’s too young. We got into a shouting match about that last night. But the lad’s asking questions. He needs to know how things are. This is us. Plus, he’s interested in the animals, interested in learning their ways and things.
The bedroom door opens and closes softly.
Footsteps on creaky floorboards.
The man opens the boy’s bedroom door.
At first the lad doesn’t understand what’s happening. I touch the skin on his face. I feel the texture of his hair. His eyes aren’t open but I lift him out of bed. I dress him, put on his waterproofs, his big jumper. He wraps his arms around my neck. I carry him into the kitchen, sit him down at the table. He stares into space. He blinks. Maybe that’s something he’s picked up from me, subconscious like. I never want to get out of my nice warm bed on a morning. But with me, it’s like a ritual.
Cups clink and the man lays them on the table.
The coffee’s hot, nice and strong. I’m awake now. I drink another. I’m happy to be up. It’s a ritual and the lad doesn’t take his eyes off me. He’s always been fascinated by the little stovetop coffee-maker. Got a good mind, not like his dad. Inquisitive like. He drinks his pretend coffee, mostly milk. This lad doesn’t just want to know the hows. He wants to know the whys.
The door opens and closes.
Paws tap-dance on floorboards.
Used to be I’d smoke a few fags with my morning coffee. That was breakfast. The lad tells me about a hippo that sweats sun cream so it doesn’t get sunburn. He watches all them nature programmes. He tells me about an octopus that’s like a real Transformer. It turns into a flatfish or a water snake. Mimics the other animals. Fits in with its surroundings.
A storm now. You hear it. You feel it.
The quad bike motoring up a bumpy road.
The breaks squeak and you picture red brake lights shining.
Dad shines his torch and I shine my torch. In the field the mam sheep stands next to a tiny baby sheep. The proper name for a mammy sheep is a ewe and the proper name for a baby sheep is a lamb. Another lamb sticks out of the ewe’s private parts. I see the lamb’s head and two legs popping out. Dad walks closer and I walk closer. The legs are all the way out now and so are the other legs and the lamb plops out onto the grass like splaaat! Dad says it’s a big one. With her tongue the ewe licks off all the sticky stuff. First she licks off the sticky stuff on the big lamb’s mouth so it can breathe. She’s a very clever ewe. She’s clever but dad says she’s not looking after the other lamb, the tiny one. Dad picks up the tiny lamb and puts it down near the ewe’s nose. The ewe turns away.
You picture the smoke from their mouths.
Dad tells Bella and Tess to scare the ewe. Dad says it might make her protect the tiny lamb. The dogs bark. The mammy sheep stands in front of the big lamb but not the tiny one. Dad tells the dogs to stop. I tell the dogs to stop. I run fast as I can to the bike and get dad’s bag from the trailer. From his bag dad gets some of the coffee mush from breakfast and rubs it on the tiny sheep’s bum. I rub it on the tiny sheep’s bum. Then we rub some of the coffee mush right up the ewe’s nose and she sneezes and it’s so funny. I laugh lots but dad only laughs a little bit. Dad’s beard is itchy and that means he’s trying to get an idea. The big lamb walks funny because it’s just a baby and it’s still learning and it keeps falling down. It falls falls falls but gets up and tries again. It can walk better now. It walks to the ewe because it wants to drink the milk out of her tummy. It’s drinking the milk fast because I can see it’s belly going in and out, in and out. The tiny lamb stands by itself. It’s shaking all over. Dad’s beard is really itchy now.
The quad bike motoring down the bumpy road.
Wind and rain, wild.
You feel it.
The lad sits between my legs, holds onto the handle bars, pretends he’s driving. The newborn lamb sits tucked away in my coat, zipped right up, so just his little head peeps out. The dogs sit in the trailer attached to the back. We motor across the fields and down the track. Wind whooshes my ears. Eyes streaming down my cheeks. I ride with one hand and with my other hand shield the lad’s eyes. He swots my hand out the way.
The quad bike breaking.
An orphan lamb’s only got a couple of hours. I don’t like raising them by hand, away from the flock. I take the lamb to the farmhouse and hand him over to Maggie. I tell her if we’re not back in two hours give the lamb the bottle. Maggie takes the lamb in her arms. She fusses about the boy. She wants to know if he needs to put another jumper on. She tells me in a stern whisper that he’s not ready. I tell him he can go back inside if he wants.
Wind and rain.
Sheep bleating, bleating.
You focus on the bleat of one ewe in particular.
I tell dad I don’t think we should have taken the lamb away from the ewe. Dad says we had to do it. I think maybe it was because the ewe didn’t want the lamb. Dad says it doesn’t mean that. It just means that sometimes the ewe can’t look after all her lambs because she hasn’t got enough milk in her tummy. Dad says that doesn’t mean she’s a bad ewe. It’s not her fault she doesn’t have enough milk in her tummy. I feel a bit upset but I don’t let dad see because I’m a big lad to be out working with dad and the dogs. We’re in a different field now. Dad shines his torch to shows me another ewe. With her tongue this ewe cleans her lamb but the lamb won’t wake up. Dad cuddles me and says it’s okay to get upset. Dad says I can go back home if I want. Now dad’s being really daft and I’m still crying but I’m laughing as well because with his hand dad picks up the ewe’s poo and he chases me pretending he’s going to splat it on my head. He puts the poo and other sticky stuff in a bucket and I help even though it stinks worse than when dad’s been to the toilet after his Sunday dinner.
Something thrown, landing.
I shout at dad for chucking the lamb on the trailer. He tells me the lamb can’t get hurt now. So what? That’s not nice. That’s really not nice. Dad says sorry and that he should’ve been more gentle.
Quad bike motors, bumpy road.
Slower this time.
The wind blows harder and rain comes down heavier.
That one ewe bleats and it gets you.
On the quad I ride slowly down the track in the dark before dawn, looking back over my shoulder. The ewe walks behind the trailer. I shout the dogs to follow behind the ewe. The boy shouts the same. I don’t let the dogs get too close to the ewe. I don’t want them to make her more upset. She wants to come. She wants to follow the lamb. She doesn’t know the little bugger’s dead. I lead the ewe to a drystone pen.
You’re on a farm.
Wind whips through rain.
Footsteps on gravel.
A knife unsheathed.
I kneel down, hold the lad by the shoulder. I tell him that what we’re going to do might seem like we’re hurting the lamb, like we’re doing a bad thing, but we’re not. I tell him we’re doing a good thing and if he’s brave, he can help, he can use dad’s knife. I ask the boy again if he wants to stop. He says no. He says he’s a dragon and dragons don’t cry. I pin the dead lamb down flat on its back, legs in the air. I get to work skinning it. Around all four legs I knife circles skin-deep, cut cut cut cut. I pinch the skin under the lamb’s throat and stab into it. I pass the knife to the boy. He takes it. His hand is steady.
The lamb bleats.
The boy breathes two breaths to the man’s one.
My mam brings the little tiny lamb back out of the house. Dad says we’ve still got enough time because it hasn’t been two hours yet. The lamb is shaking, shaking. I talk to it. I say it’s okay, don’t be scared, pretend like you’re a dragon. Dad holds the skin we cut off the dead lamb.
The lamb bleats.
You need to be strong.
Dad tells the tiny lamb everything is going to be all right. He calls it bonny lad. Dad says the skin’s like a big jumper. He puts the big jumper on the tiny lamb. He says to the tiny lamb that we’re nearly done, bonny lad. I say we’re nearly done, bonny lad. Dad ties a string around the tiny lamb’s belly so the big jumper doesn’t fall off. Dad says perfect, why aye. I say why aye! Then dad gets the bucket with the poo and other sticky stuff and he pretends he’s going to slop it all on my head. He’s just pretending again. He’s just so daft. With his hand dad scoops up the poo and sticky stuff and puts it on the lamb’s head. I do the same.
The ewe bleats.
The lamb bleats.
You need to believe.
In the barn, in the pen, the ewe whose lamb died and the lamb whose mother rejected him. The orphan’s wearing the dead lamb’s skin. The ewe sniffs the lamb, really sniffs her head. The lad says he’s hot now. I help him take off his big jumper. Maggie walks from the farmhouse to the barn. On a tray she carries the stovetop coffeemaker and cups. She pours us each a cup, a pretend coffee for the boy, mostly milk. The dogs sit at our feet. The ewe sniffs the lamb and looks at me and sniffs the lamb. The lamb tries to reach her teat. This little orphan smells like her lamb, but still she walks away, leaves the lamb to tremble and bleat by itself in the corner of the pen. I open the gate and go into the pen and pick up the lamb and put her under the ewe’s nose. The ewe turns her head to sniff the lamb again. She sniffs and sniffs. The lamb takes a few wobbly steps towards the ewe’s teat. The ewe’s still not sure. She could butt the lamb or kick the lamb and that’d be that. One kick and she’d shatter every bone in the poor little bugger’s body. The ewe steps away. I take the boy into the pen. I’m on my knees, my arm around his waist. The ewe turns her head to sniff the lamb some more. The lamb tries again for the teat. The ewe sniffs and she sniffs and you fucker does she sniff. The lamb teeters and falls and totters and falls and finally, finally, it finds the ewe’s teat with its mouth.
The silence carries their echo.
You feel the inside-warmth of the barn.
At first the mammy sheep doesn’t want the little tiny lamb with the big jumper on to drink the milk out of her tummy. But then it works because the lamb’s belly goes in and out, in and out. Dad picks me up and lifts me upside down and we run around like when you score a goal like yerrrsss!
You hear the birds sing.
You feel the sun shining.
You picture the breeze strumming the trees.
Dad puts me down. Mam’s crying and I think it’s happy crying. But then dad looks at mam and his beard is very very very itchy. He picks me up and cuddles me and cuddles mam at the same time. Dad touches the skin on my face and feels my hair. Dad says he and mam need to tell me something that might be hard to understand.
You need to leave now.
Now you’re free to go.
Go on and leave.
WALTER BURRELL lives and works in North East England.