Pink silk scatters from the skies. Leaving delicate blossoms to outstretched little hands, clawing at petals in the breeze. He sticks them into the collie’s furry ears, as Shadow runs for dear life away from the smothering arms of the child. His glee at her fear is heard through blazing squeals of delight.
Vera lays a hand on the window. Watching her Oisin, run wild through the garden, she envies that little life. To contain a heart that swells, not the hollow left resting over her ribcage. She doesn’t remember when it turned that way, she only knows when she had realised it.
The day Donal walked out of their marriage, she had sat down and waited for the grief to come, bracing for the pain. The pain never came. It was just another school-night in their household. The only thing that changed was the warmth in her bed.
‘Vera? Are you listening to me?’ Donal walks up behind her, frustration in his voice at her idleness.
‘Yes, I am. I’m choosing not to answer that question.’ She swings away from the window to look at him. ‘Don’t expect me to care. If you’re not here to see the kids, you can leave.’
She leans back on the window-sill, furious over him crawling back here after the young one he shacked up with kicked him out. He takes another step closer. She can smell his sour breath wafting through the desperation on him.
‘You’ve changed. I like this new you, why couldn’t you have been like this before?’ He’s an inch away from her face now and leans down, hands on the painted white wood either side of her. ‘There’s a fire in you today.’
Her chest tightens, the claustrophobia rising with his presence around her.
‘And you haven’t changed a bit. Begging for me to take you back in. For a few nights. Pathetic. Not going to happen.’
‘I still own half this house.’
‘You gave that up when you walked out the door. You won’t have a leg to stand on in court if you try and take it off us.’
She can see his eyes squint in rage, it makes her lose her nerve. With a shaking hand, she pushes him away from her and goes for the door, but he grabs her wrist and has her up against the wall before she can take another breath. He twists her arm behind her back until her joints crack from the sharp pressure, and pushes her face into the cold plaster. She can feel the imperfections of the pale-mint paint job on her cheek.
‘I don’t need to take you to court to walk into my own house.’
Vera slackens her body until his grip eases enough for her to slip out of his arm-lock and turn to face him. She puts two hands on his chest, using all her strength to propel him backwards.
‘Get the fuck away from me.’
He slams his body into hers, all six-feet of him in the force, stopping her movement in all directions. She can smell the sweat on his flesh, turning her stomach, and knees him in the groin to put some distance between them again. ‘Get out before I call your mother.’
Donal bends over in pain and hisses something like cunt at her.
Vera goes for her phone on the counter when he lands a heavy fist to her stomach. She can’t help but let out a screech of pain. Molly hears them and runs in the kitchen door, oblivious to the scene in front of her.
‘Daddy, I made you a picture.’
Molly waves around her crayon masterpiece, her rainbow nail varnish blurs into the colourful image Vera sees in front of her while she picks herself off the floor, light-headed from the pain.
‘Wow, I love it.’ Donal bends over to look at his gift, a beaming smile for his little girl. ‘Is that me?’
‘Yes! And me and Shadow and the big sunflower we’re going to grow in the garden beside the pink tree.’ Molly points carefully to each subject on the picture, biting her lip in excitement.
‘I think I’ll keep this right here, close to my heart. It’ll stay in my shirt pocket till the day I die.’ Donal carefully folds the picture and tucks it deep into his pocket. Molly giggles and pulls at him for a kiss.
‘I told you to stay in your room,’ Vera scolds her, out of breath as she pulls herself upright over the kitchen sink.
‘But I miss Daddy,’ Molly says, hugging herself closer to Donal.
‘Daddy was just leaving, I’m afraid. He has things to do today, isn’t that right?’
‘Leave her be, she can come with me for the day,’ Donal says.
‘She’s not going anywhere with you,’ she snaps quickly, ‘she’s got homework to do.’
Molly moans as Vera pulls her away from him and leads her to the back door. She looks out the window and sees Oisin frozen to the spot, staring in the window. Shadow is hopping around him barking like mad at them.
‘Say bye to your father. C’mon, Oisin,’ she calls him in through the open window.
Shadow follows on the heels of the boy and lies down at Vera’s toes when she gets inside, licking her bare feet. Donal bends to rub her fur and a low growl vibrates through the dog, baring her teeth at him. He pauses an inch over her, grazing the long apricot hairs then thinks better of it.
‘Still your pet, ha? Never liked me did you,’ Donal says, eyeing the dog carefully. ‘This isn’t over, Vera.’
Tears are welling in Molly’s eyes as she watches Donal leave. Oisin stands to the side, scuffing his grass-stained runners off the skirting board, leaving green streaks over its whiteness. Vera locks the door after it shuts, then tries the handle a few more times for certainty before she can quieten her heart again.
‘Why do you have to be so mean to him? He told me you always hurt him with your words,’ Molly screeches at her mother. ‘It’s all your fault!’
She storms off as quickly as she ran in the kitchen door a few minutes earlier. The six-year-old child brewing an emotional hurricane inside her scrawny frame. Vera whistles at Shadow. ‘Go to Molly,’ she whispers softly into the Collie’s fur, and her lithe figure takes after the crying child. Silent paws, feather-like on the hard wooden floor.
‘Come here, Oisin.’ Vera spreads open her arms for him, but he won’t look at her. She goes to him and kneels to his eye level. ‘Are you okay? You never said bye to your father.’
‘Does it matter?’
‘Yes, it does. It’s good manners to say goodbye. Whether you want to or not. Is there anything you want to discuss with me? I know things have been difficult lately and if you ever need to talk it out, I’m always ready to listen.’
‘No. I just want to play outside.’
‘No more outside today. You can watch telly before we do your homework, love,’ Vera kisses his forehead and he snuggles into her chest before heading out the kitchen door, his shoulders and head lower than the carefree child tormenting his dog a few minutes earlier.
Vera closes the door behind him and covers her mouth with the scratchy wool of her sleeve before letting a sob escape her. As it shakes through her body, she slides down to the floor, choking back tears.
Vera wakes up with a shiver running through her. She rubs the hard, little bumps rising on her bare arms and rolls around to find her duvet cover on the floor and the sheets wrapped around her legs. Through the slit in the curtains, the orange hue of the street lights helps her find the path to the bedroom door. She walks through the still house on the tips of her toes and sticks her head into the children’s room.
Oisin is curled at the end of his bed around a mound of animal teddies, while Molly is wheezing little snores from under her cover. Vera tucks them both in, moving Oisin’s sleeping form back to his pillow and plants a light kiss on each of their heads.
She walks through the house, checking the back door first then the front again, making sure the metal handles thud stiffly when she tries to pull them down. Each attempt calming her fear. Bending over, she plants another kiss on Shadow’s head in the hallway and rubs the velvet of her ears. The dog’s eyes are open and watch her move around the room from her fleece, paw-print cushion.
Vera lays her head back on the pillows, cuddles with her duvet cocooned around her for heat, until the shivers lull and she starts to nod off. She feels the warmth of the little body beside her before she sees him. Oisin sneaks his way under her insulation until he’s wrapped around her.
‘You shouldn’t be awake at this hour,’ Vera whispers to him.
‘You shouldn’t be either.’
She just smiles and pulls him closer. His breathing slows as he drifts off into sleep.
‘I want to protect you, Mammy,’ comes out of him, barely audible in a whisper. His stillness lets her know he’s fallen asleep. He doesn’t notice the tears on the pillow from his mother’s eyes.
CATHY DONELAN is a writer from the West of Ireland, she is currently studying for her degree in Arts with Creative Writing at NUI Galway. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in ROPES, Dodging the Rain, The Honest Ulsterman, Spontaneity and The Lamp Graduate Journal. Her Poetry has appeared in The Galway Review and A New Ulster. She has won the December 2015 Poetry Pulse Prize and been highly commended in The Fool For Poetry International Chapbook Competition.
ON THE ETYMOLOGY OF BIRDS IN A SEASON OF AUSTERITY
Old English Dictionary tweets me in June,
not a bird-chirp, yet –
“Aviation derives from avis, which means bird in Latin.”
This age of birds in a year of austerity laws –
starlings of insolvency out of the aviary cage, arriving
for slashed pensions, hiring freezes, taxes
while the OED filters more words into our booming lexicons:
index of listicle, octocopter, in silico, cray
Z IS FOR ZAMI IN A WINTER GARDEN OF WOMEN
In a girlhood winter, I once wrote –
nothing dies and nothing grows anew.
Not the weeping podocarpus conifer
or the lady palm.
Not the green kentia nor Indian laurel.
Neither one whose common name
for Zamioculcus Zamiifolia.
In the arcades, a snowy courtyard
of posh black granite winter garden –
a stranger asks, did you snap a photo?
I ask – of what?
Next, I see constables, nine or so in the bank
and a thief
on the run.
Sun-dried leaves of Camellia sinensis
are not sage-colored tones of cash –
rather, white tea
the hue of missing dollars
earned by strong-fingered
migrant Asian women
AND SAY IF PERSEPHONE, A MILLENNIAL ALTER EGO
Attends a glassy
in southern California,
utters the street-lingo Hellenisms
of San Fernando Valley
as well as proper ancient Greek,
knows enough to say no to Hades at the mall,
nonplussed by others of his offending ilk.
Persephone testifies –
In this Anglophone tongue, I learned a phrase
for a cold, late spring:
Hades invited me to hike an arroyo trail up north.
At the top, Hades promised,
there’s a waterfall.
No. I saw my future
as a syphilitic grave
of riddled bones –
torn pomegranate of twelve pips,
one for each month.
I thought of another Persephone
gasping for light in the Hadean
underworld’s early geologic violence.
So I dialed
the missing persons hotline
to say no to a year
of blackberry winter
in Los Angeles.
I whispered, I think we have your man.
Blackberry winter –
a cold snap while blackberries
bloom. Yes, despite the drought,
my dear Angelenos,
you shall enjoy
your sempiternal spring.
KAREN AN-HWEI LEE is the author of Phyla of Joy (Tupelo 2012), Ardor (Tupelo 2008) and In Medias Res (Sarabande 2004), winner of the Norma Farber First Book Award. She authored a novel, Sonata in K (Ellipsis 2017). Lee also wrote two chapbooks, God’s One Hundred Promises (Swan Scythe 2002) and What the Sea Earns for a Living (Quaci Press 2014). Her book of literary criticism, Anglophone Literatures in the Asian Diaspora: Literary Transnationalism and Translingual Migrations (Cambria 2013), was selected for the Cambria Sinophone World Series. Lee’s work appears in literary journals such as The American Poet, Poetry Magazine, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, IMAGE: Art, Faith, Mystery, Journal of Feminist Studies & Religion, Iowa Review, and Columbia Poetry Review and was recognized by the Prairie Schooner / Glenna Luschei Award. She earned an M.F.A. from Brown University and Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, Lee is a voting member of the National Book Critics Circle. Currently, she lives in San Diego and serves in the university administration at Point Loma Nazarene University.
dance. dance. dance
from my village
have no voice,
the weight of feet.
the city holds
made of metals,
like the women
of my village
in the wind,
breaking & mending
their limbs in a dance
SADDIQ DZUKOGI's poetry has featured or forthcoming in literary publications such as: New Orleans Review, African American Review, Chiron Review, Vinyl Poetry, Volta, among others. Saddiq lives in Minna where he teaches at the School of Languages, Niger State College of Education.
It was after midnight when I got home. I paid the taxi driver and looked up at the bedroom window. The curtains were pulled but I could tell that the small lamp on the bedside table was on. My wife would be doing a feed.
It was only when I got out of the taxi that I saw my neighbour Reg, across the street, standing at his front gate. I hadn’t spoken to Reg in months. I lifted my hand, ‘Hi Reg,’ I said.
He motioned to me. I looked back up at our bedroom window then walked across the street to him.
‘What’s up?’ I said.
Bruno was Reg’s golden retriever.
‘I came downstairs for a cigarette. I couldn’t sleep.’
He took a draw on the cigarette and I saw the end light up as he inhaled.
‘It must have been his heart,’ he said. ‘He’s been on medication.’
There was a wheeze when he talked.
‘I need to get him in the boot of the car. I don’t want to try lifting him in the morning.’
I didn’t know what to say.
‘I don’t want Grace to see him. She’s been through enough already.’
Reg stood back as he opened the gate, and we walked together up the slope of the driveway to the house. He opened the car boot and lifted out his fishing gear. I suppose it had been in there all year. He lifted out a two-piece fly rod and a tackle box and carried them in one hand to his garage. I stood with my hands in my pockets waiting. There was a chill and I could see my own breath. I looked across the street. The bedroom light was off.
When Reg hit the garage light switch the long fluorescent tube blinked and then came on almost immediately, and I could see that he was looking for something. From the light of the garage I could see his front garden in a kind of monochrome. The rose bushes were overgrown; there were weeds at the edge of the pink pebbles. Maybe two months previous, from my own living room, I had seen Grace out doing some pruning. She had worn a black headscarf and her skin was stretched over her cheekbones. She was frail. Even from across the street I could see how the treatment had aged her. I hadn’t seen her since.
Reg came out of the garage with black bin-liners and arranged them carefully along the bottom of the boot. When he had finished I followed him into the house. I hadn’t been in the house since last summer. When we walked inside I could smell air freshener.
In the living room, the dog was lying on a throw on the sofa. He looked like he was asleep. He looked much smaller than usual. Then I realised he’d had his coat shorn. It was hard to believe it was the same dog.
Reg had really let the place go. There was long yellow dog hair everywhere. On one of the seats, beside the television, was a pile of old magazines and newspapers. There were ashes and white tissues in the grate and on the hearth.
On one side of the fireplace was a black and white photograph of Grace and Reg on their wedding day; on the other side was a colour photograph of their son at graduation. I couldn’t remember their son’s name.
Reg got on his knees and cradled Bruno’s head and I tried to lift his hind legs. He was still warm. Then Reg said, ‘Wait.’ And he placed the throw over him and we lifted him off the sofa in that manner. We carried him carefully through each doorway to the outside and placed him in the boot of the car. Then Reg bent down and kissed him on the forehead before finally closing the boot. I patted Reg on the shoulder and we both went back inside.
Inside, he led me through the house. In the kitchen he reached up above the grill, opened a cupboard and took out a bottle of Bushmills. Then he nodded towards the sink, ‘Help yourself to a glass.’
As I walked towards the sink I kicked a bowl of dried dog food. It was half empty.
‘Sorry about the mess,’ said Reg.
There were dirty dishes, cups and glasses everywhere. I lifted a glass and rinsed it under the hot tap, running my fingers inside and along the rim to clean it.
‘What age was he?’ I asked.
He answered immediately. ‘Eight,’ he said. He took another drink from the glass and then he said, ‘There’s a formula you know. I sat here working it out before you arrived.’
I could see the numbers and multiplication signs on a piece of paper on the table.
‘In dog years he was sixty-one.’
‘Not a bad innings,’ I said.
Reg looked directly at me, but he didn’t say anything.
I placed my glass on the table on a wicker tablemat and Reg lifted the bottle of Bush and poured freely into the glass. I put the flat of my hand out but he continued pouring. I had been drinking beer all night and I wasn’t ready for the whiskey but I lifted the glass. It tasted earthy. It would take a bit of getting used to. I patted my pockets for my cigarettes, stood up and offered one to Reg.
‘I’m just going to check on Grace.’ he said. ‘I’m not smoking in the house anymore.’
I heard his weight on the stairs as I patted every pocket for my lighter. When I found the lighter I stepped outside on to the patio. The intruder light came on and lit up the scene. There were cigarette butts everywhere. The table and chairs were there. One of the aluminium chairs was pulled out, away from the table; the other chair leaned against it. And there was a commode sitting right there on the patio. I lifted the second chair out, but it was wet, and a green slime had formed on the aluminium. I thought maybe I should go inside, get some newspapers and lay them down on it, but I also got a feeling that I shouldn’t. I sat on Reg’s seat and lit a cigarette.
As I sat there smoking the intruder light went out and I looked up at the sky. It was a clear night with no moon but you could see the stars. I looked for the plough. When I found it I looked around and, when my eyes adjusted, I saw all the little stars, millions of them, and I remembered last summer. We had only just moved in and Reg had called at the door to introduce himself. He had caught two sea trout: a cock and a hen. The male fish was around four pounds, the female a pound lighter. He had asked me if I wanted a cut. I had said yes.
He’d brought me over a generous cut from each fish. My wife, Anna, said she couldn’t eat them after having just seen them whole. I wrapped them in tinfoil and cooked them in the oven with just a little olive oil, salt and pepper. They didn’t taste like farmed fish. These fish, you could taste the river in them.
Anna had said we should invite Reg and Grace over for a drink. They both came over with wine and beer. And, when the sun moved behind our house, we all carried our drinks across the street to Reg and Grace’s. I remembered Grace carrying her sandals in one hand and a wine glass in the other. We had sat on their patio, with Bruno under the table. They got the sun right until it slipped below the horizon. I envied them that back garden.
They were both older than us by twenty years but there was a bond. Grace really hit it off with Anna. They had the same sense of humour. I think in many ways they were very similar – they had a lot in common. I remembered overhearing them talking about gardening. It wasn’t anything I was interested in, but I remember Grace saying fish blood and bone meal was the best thing for plants. The blood and guts of fish: that’s probably why it caught my attention. She talked about cuttings, and how she could take a cutting from a geranium and grow a new plant. After that night Grace brought Anna over a big red geranium in a hanging basket. It had flowered all of that summer.
Reg had said he would take me fly-fishing. He had brought me over a cork-handled beginner’s rod, showed me how to cast. I had been practising with the rod; casting from my patio until I could land the fly on my compost bin. The fishing season had come and gone — I had paid £120 for a licence — and I hadn’t got to fish.
Reg stepped outside. The intruder light came back on. ‘She’s sleeping,’ he said.
I stood, offered him a cigarette and he accepted. He stood there in a white short-sleeved shirt, but he didn’t seem to notice the cold.
‘How’s Anna?’ he asked.
‘She’s good,’ I said. ‘Anna’s good.’
‘And the baby?’ he asked.
‘The baby’s good,’ I said.
‘A good sleeper?’
I nodded. The truth is I didn’t know if the baby was a good sleeper or not, I was sleeping in the spare room. I felt like Anna and I were drifting apart since the baby had come along. Things weren’t the way they used to be.
‘My son left before you moved in,’ said Reg. ‘He’s an accountant, lives in Australia now. I’ve a sister over there as well.’
He drained the glass.
‘I might visit when things settle down here.’
He went back inside for the bottle, and when he came back outside, he asked, ‘Have you changed a nappy yet?’
‘I never changed a single nappy.’ said Reg. ‘Grace did it all.’ Then he drained the glass, looked up at the sky and said, ‘It’s my turn now.’
I lifted the glass, but I didn’t drink from it. ‘Reg, I gotta go,’ I said.
I offered him my hand. He shook it. ‘Tell Anna I said hello’, he said, ‘and say hi to the baby.’
Then he walked me through the house. On the front porch he hugged me, and he didn’t let go. ‘I’m sorry about the fishing,’ he said.
PETER JORDAN is this year’s winner of the Bare Fiction prize. In addition, he came second in this year’s Fish Flash Competition. He has received various awards, including a literary bursary from The Lisa Richards Agency, while taking an MA in Creative Writing. Three Arts Council grants followed. His work has appeared in numerous literary magazines and journals, including Flash: The International Short Story Magazine, The Pygmy Giant, Flash500, Thresholds, Litro, The Incubator, The Honest Ulsterman, Dogzplot, Spelk and The Avatar Review. Nine of his stories are in anthologies. He has taken time out from a PhD in Belfast’s Seamus Heaney Centre to complete the edits on his short story collection, Untouchable, which will be published this summer by Kingston University Press. You will find him on twitter @pm_jordan
Saturday morning. My wife Leah eats Instant Lunch for breakfast, chicken flavor in a Styrofoam cup. She never soaks the noodles long enough. I hear the crunch, the peas are pebbles. She smells of bourbon and cigarettes, and I know she got home right before I woke, but I don't say it. I wonder if he pulled his Chevy up our drive, or stayed at the end of the block like I used to, when she still lived at her parents’, when we were the ones sneaking around. I remember her mom would peek out the window of the second-floor bedroom after the door clicked, wave down the street toward me, that the house was a yellow brick bungalow just like ours, that Leah smelled then of the same, sweet-sharp tang.
Our son smacks the tray of his highchair and throws scrambled egg at me. It ricochets off my bare arm, and lands on the kitchen table with a little bounce. I pick it up, soft and crumbling, throw the egg back, and it pings him on the forehead. He giggles, flails his chubby thighs in the leg holes of the chair, and wiggles his butt up and down. Leah gives me a side-eye before she walks over to smooth his hair, wipe egg off his face. Papa shouldn’t play with food, hon-buns, she says. Kisses him on the forehead. He smiles up at her, all dimples and messy kid, and I know she’s right. I could never do this without her.
I also know who he is, our friend. My friend. I know Leah’s only getting even. When she was pregnant I did the same thing to her. Stayed out late. Didn’t say where I was going. Came home with phone numbers. I never called them, but it doesn’t matter. It was enough.
Later, Leah will nap with our boy, and I will play football down by the lake with my brother and his buddies. The wind will be cool and light, but I will come home sweaty. She will rub her eyes, tug on the front of my shirt and say, mm, man stink. She’ll carry our son to his crib, and his arms, heavy with afternoon sleep, will hang at his sides. She’ll place him on his back, and he’ll suck his thumb. Only then will she pull me to the bed, cover herself with me. We will move slowly, like we are keeping time. But for now, she taps her fingers on the table and sighs, tilts soup into her mouth. The noodles crunch.
CHELSEA VOULGARES lives in the Chicago suburbs and is the editor of the literary journal Lost Balloon. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Passages North, Cheap Pop, Midwestern Gothic, Literary Orphans, and Bust, and has been awarded grants from the Illinois Arts Council and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. You can find her online at chelseavoulgares.com or on Twitter @chelsvoulgares
On a sunny Saturday in June, Dad takes me to my favorite beach. I should say it used to be my favorite beach, back when I could see the horseshoe-shaped bay and the craggy rocks growing up out of the sand like castle turrets on either side. Now, thanks to that bizarre infection with the unpronounceable name, all beaches are pretty much identical. And sunny Saturdays? They might as well be cloudy Tuesdays. With every year that goes by, my memories of sun shimmering on waves grow foggier, one shimmer and one wave at a time.
You might say I live in a world filled with nights, one after the other.
I still like the beach, though, especially on days like today. I think it must have something to do with how I sense the sun. The doctors tell me my brain reacts to it, but I don’t know whether that’s true or whether it’s another story they make up to lift my spirits, motivate me to get outside, get some fresh air, get on with life. What I do know is I love the feeling of my skin shining, as if the sun turns me into polished silver or bronze. Maybe gold, maybe platinum. Or the steel of a knight’s armor, glistening before the joust.
‘Can we build a sand castle?’ my sister squeaks in her little-girl voice.
Susan is eight now, the same age I was when I carefully placed my last flag on the last turret on the last castle I made.
‘Sure,’ I say, although I’d rather read my new book. I’m good at Braille – better than I thought I’d be nine years ago.
Susan must have heard me hesitate. ‘Please, Katie? It’ll be fun.’
I always loved building castles at the beach. I imagined miniature knights and squires, all made of smooth sand, galloping up toward the drawbridge on sturdy steeds while princesses and ladies-in-waiting giggled and gossiped from the parapets. I don’t love making castles so much anymore – my job these days is to pack bucket after bucket of sand, knowing I won’t see the final masterpiece. But I put the book aside and tell Susan I’ll help.
Susan and Dad work on the foundation; I know this because I’ve filled and tamped down four of the oblong molds, and that’s always the best way to start a sand castle. I reach over and ask Susan to put my hand on the base so I can feel what they’ve done so far.
She swats my hand away. ‘No, Kate! You’ll ruin it.’
‘I’ll be careful.’
‘That’s what you said the last time,’ Susan whines. ‘Daddy, tell Kate not to touch my castle!’
My castle. She has no idea how those two words sting.
Dad hushes her, saying it’s our castle, not just Susan’s, and places two round buckets next to my leg so I can find them easily. I wonder if he’s familiar with that old saying about actions speaking louder than words.
A few more buckets and Susan starts squealing. ‘Oh, it’s so pretty! Oh, Kate, I wish you could see it!’
I don’t bother telling her the only way I can see is with my hands. To my eyes, the castle might as well be made of black sand on a moonless night.
‘Hurry, Kate. We need another bucket,’ Susan says.
Dad laughs. ‘Come on, slowpoke.’ He means it to be funny.
I don’t see it that way. Ha ha. Good one, Kate.
Susan joins in. ‘Come on, slowpoke!’
The sun burns hotter on my face, but it isn’t really the sun that makes me flush. As I listen to Susan and Dad deciding how big to make the moat, and Susan offering to fill pails with water – ‘Kate can’t do that by herself,’ she chirps – I feel more like a forgotten rusted toy than a shiny silver star. I turn, burying my face in the beach towel, and wonder if tears will make me rust faster.
Something blocks the warmth on my arm, and I raise my head. It’s an old habit, looking up to see what I can’t see, but one I haven’t yet forgotten. ‘Dad?’ I say.
‘Yes, honey?’ Dad’s voice comes from the opposite direction. I’m pretty sure he has his back to me. Now I hear water sloshing into the castle moat and Susan skipping around in the sand, telling me how wonderful her castle is without really speaking to me at all.
‘Hi,’ a different voice says. He sounds about my age – not quite a man, but past the awkward squeaky stage of puberty. ‘How come you’re not helping with the sand castle?’
I shrug. The hardest part about being blind is having to tell people. No, that’s not true. The hardest part comes after you tell people – when you hear them say, Oh, I’m so sorry. That part sucks. But I tell the boy anyway, knowing he’ll leave. Hoping he’ll leave.
What does seeing have to do with building a sand castle? he says.
I feel warmth on my arm again and a few grains of sand scatter onto my feet. He must have knelt down. Well, I guess it sort of helps to know where you’re putting the sand, doesn’t it? Besides, what’s the point if I can’t see it when I’m finished?
He laughs. ‘Yeah, I guess it might as well be like painting on a black canvas with black paint. Sorry. Bad joke.’
‘Or building castles with black sand on a night with no moon,’ I say, and can’t help laughing myself.
We come up with a dozen different metaphors for sightlessness, each one sillier than the next. The funny part is, none of them bothers me.
‘So,’ he says, and I hear him scooping sand into one of the pails. ‘How about we build a crazy castle?’ He takes my hand and wraps my fingers around the handle of the pail. "’You start.’
‘Why not? Besides, who cares what it looks like? Even the best sand castles end up getting washed away when the tide comes in.’
In another ten minutes, I’m sitting in the center of four sandy turrets, patting them smooth while he replenishes our water supply.
‘You’re going to ruin it,’ Susan says.
Of course I will.
‘No, she won’t.’ It’s the boy’s voice again, speaking in my direction, not Susan’s. He shuffles away, kicking up fine grains of sand, comes back, plops clumps of wet sand around me. ‘Do the north wall first. That’s the direction you’re facing. Like this." I can feel him guiding my hands right and left until my fingertips graze the sides of the turrets. ‘Got it?’
‘Got it,’ I say. I wish my tone carried the same confidence as the words.
Susan sniffs, mumbles something under her breath about how I’ll screw everything up, and her voice trails off.
It must be at least an hour later, because the sun kisses my back now. ‘Well? What does it look like?’ I ask the boy.
‘It looks like a castle. With a princess sitting in it.’ He takes my right hand and carefully places it on one tower. ‘Here. That’s north-east. I put some crenulations on the parapet. Can you feel them?’
My fingers move up and down, snaking over the rises and falls. I imagine princesses and ladies-in-waiting waving delicate handkerchiefs as knights and squires approach the drawbridge. ‘It’s beautiful,’ I say, thinking the boy who built my castle must be some sort of medieval architecture genius.
‘We did a pretty good job. Maybe we can make another one next Saturday. If you’re here.’
‘I’ll be here. My name’s Kate, by the way.’ I feel a little stupid not even knowing his name.
‘I’m Hugo,’ he says, and I don’t need to see his smile. I can hear the shine in it, like the steel of a knight’s armor, glistening before the joust.
CHRISTINA DALCHER weaves words and mixes morphemes from her home in the American South. Recognitions include The Bath Flash Award’s Short List, nominations for Best of the Net and Best Small Fictions, and second place in Bartleby Snopes’ Dialogue-Only Contest. Laura Bradford represents Christina’s novels, which feature a sassy and stubborn linguist with anger management issues. You can read additional short work here or follow Christina @CVDalcher
LAURA MADELINE WISEMAN teaches writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and is the editor of two anthologies, Bared and Women Write Resistance, selected for the Nebraska 150 Sesquicentennial Book List. She is the recipient of 2015 Honor Book Nebraska Book Award, Wurlitzer Foundation Fellowship, and an Academy of American Poets Award. Her book Drink won the 2016 Independent Publisher Bronze Book Award for poetry. Her latest book is Velocipede (Stephen F. Austin State University Press), a 2016 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award Finalist for Sports.
He’d been watching the dog on and off all morning. It lay in the grass with its head slumped on it paws, and it would have been a sad sight were it not for the fact that it didn’t seem scared or forlorn. It seemed to understand that at some point its owners would return.
Every time someone walked by it would raise its head in anticipation, then, seeing only a stranger, it would slump and the waiting would start over.
Beth joined him at the window.
‘Is it still there?’
She sipped at her coffee and leaned forward to take a better look.
‘Strange, the way it’s just sat there quietly all day like that, don’t you think?’
It was not a word he would have considered using with regards to a dog.
Loyal, yes. Or energetic, brave. But strange? He couldn’t figure out how she came to that conclusion.
‘You think so?’ he asked.
She faced him and he thought he saw her shrug.
‘It hasn’t made a sound all morning. Not a bark or a whimper. You’d think it would complain more.’
He could have explained to her that it was just the way dogs were, that it had no control over its reactions. Everything was just instinct with dogs. All it could do was sit there and wait and believe.
But when he thought about that it made him want to touch it, comfort it.
‘It’s just being a dog,’ he told her.
‘Should we do something, maybe? Give it some food, or a bit of water?’
She was already heading to the kitchen, not waiting for a reply, and he listened as she rummaged around opening cupboards, running the tap, filling a bowl with water.
The fridge door squeaked and he heard her flick open a Tupperware box and dish out scraps of chicken she had saved from last night.
He stayed by the window and watched the dog.
It looked well cared for, not the kind of dog that would be abandoned.
No doubt the owners would be back. They must have forgotten it. Tied it to the tree and then gone off to do something, forgetting they’d taken it with them.
Do people do such a thing, he wondered. Forget their dog?
Apparently they did.
And he imagined them coming home, walking in the door and calling its name.
‘Hey, buddy! Hey, Sam!’
Panicking when they didn’t hear it pattering down the hallway, all wagging tail and goofy grin before realising suddenly, ‘Sam! We forgot Sam!’
He watched as Beth crossed the street. She was talking to it, using that chirpy voice people have for animals.
‘Hello there, boy. How you doing? You want some chicken?’
The dog all over her at once. Licking her face as she bent down. Ignoring the bowls, such was its need to be touched.
‘Poor thing,’ he muttered, before he could stop himself.
He watched them together.
The dog tangled itself around her, and kept jumping up to lick her face as she tried to wriggle free.
The bowls lay toppled and ignored on the pavement, affection winning out over food and water.
Beth laughed, then gave up and lay on the grass, abandoning herself to the dog’s attentions, and he felt a pang inside, something close to joy as he watched them. It had been a long time since he had seen her like this.
He’d long ceased believing happiness would return. Oh, something close to it would come, he was sure of that. But only something close, not the real thing.
And yet, here it was – joy, pure and simple. And all you needed, it seemed, was the courage to walk towards it.
‘My God,’ he whispered, and he turned away from the window and headed to the kitchen.
He was sat at the table drinking a cold beer when he heard them come in.
He knew she wouldn’t leave the dog outside. The way she had laughed as she played with it told him that much.
The dog loped into the kitchen ahead of her and scuttled around sniffing the floor before spotting him and stopping in its tracks.
He leaned towards it and held out his hand.
It hesitated, cocking its head, unsure of him, so he tried the chirpy voice.
‘Come here. Come here, boy!’
And it bounded then, paws landing on his shoulders, tongue slathering, whimpering with pleasure.
Beth stood in the doorway, watching him and laughing.
He tried to push the dog away but it kept coming at him, its tail thumping the table, rat-a-tat-tat, like a drunken drummer and it took him a moment to understand that he should simply give himself over to it.
Later, he watched it as it lay on the kitchen floor, dozing in a ray of afternoon sunshine that filtered through the window. It was nice to see how settled it looked, how at home it seemed. It was comforting to sit there and watch it like that. To enjoy a simple thing.
Perhaps this was what they had needed all along? Maybe he’d been wrong. Perhaps chance could bring things your way just as easily as it could snatch them from your grasp.
And it was as if the dog somehow sensed what he was thinking. It raised its head and looked at him, as if it was nodding in agreement, saying, ‘Yes. Yes, that’s exactly how it is.’
And for the briefest of instances he imagined something had shifted, some change, some long awaited movement towards the future.
Was it possible to get to that place? To a time, when things seemed to come so easily?
But outside he could hear voices. The past hour they had walked up and down the street calling the dog’s name. Not Sam, but Rufus, and he felt Beth stroke his head as if he was the dog.
‘I guess I better tell them he’s in here.’
‘Yeah, I guess you better,’ and he smiled at her for the first time that day.
‘It’s a good name for a dog that, Rufus, don’t you think?’ she said.
But they were already walking out the door and all he caught was a last glimpse of Rufus’ tail.
There have been many little deaths along the way. Small moments that should have meant nothing. The big events never catch him out, he can prepare for those, knows they’re coming.
But folding laundry, or buttering toast? Why do simple things like that catch him unaware?
He has to stop himself sometimes. Because he looks for it more and more now, seeks it out even. The places where grief can hide. He does this even though he knows no good can come from it.
And though she has never said that he is punishing himself, he knows this is what she thinks, that he is too hard on himself. Knows too that he is the one who has placed the question between them.
‘How can I ever be trusted again?’
But she trusts him. She is willing to start over. She is still prepared to wait for him.
And there are times when he thinks he can do it. When he thinks, ‘Get over it, Andy. You can get over it.’ Almost believing it.
Until it happens again. He butters toast, folds laundry and falls back into a past he feels may never even have existed.
In the dream he is outside the house looking in.
A comforting family scene is unfolding inside, the three of them seated round the kitchen table eating dinner.
The windows have steamed over so he cannot see the finer details. It’s as if a fine veil has fallen over his eyes, separating him from the scene in front of him, leaving him aware of his isolation, aware that this little scene is only something he can look upon. He cannot walk into that kitchen and take his place at the table.
The morning after, he feels empty, as if it is he who is the ghost. And though another day has started and life clatters on all around him, he feels he is not part of it, lost as he is in that moment in the past, in that moment which holds him spellbound.
It is the split second before the accident, the moment when things can still take a different turn.
They walk side by side along the riverbank and when Luke slips, this time he is not sitting further up the embankment, but there to grab his arm and stop him falling.
They pause for a moment as a tremor of shock shudders through them, then laugh.
‘Whoa, you almost went in there, Lukey!’
Walking back home, to the kitchen, to dinner, the three of them together again, they are unaware that in a split-second happiness such as this can be lost.
They live for ever after, never knowing this.
This is the moment he awakens. Luke’s name on his lips, though he never shouts it out.
But the dream is like a welt. A scar upon his heart. Not visible. But there just the same. Proof, if any were needed, that time flows in only one direction, that there is no returning to the moment before the wound was made.
Scars form. Wounds harden. But they do not heal.
The afternoon sunlight fell on the spot where the dog had lain yesterday.
He had come into the kitchen and sat at the table waiting to see it.
He understood the foolishness of it, the danger. He was looking in the wrong direction once again, looking backwards to a moment that could never be recaptured.
But as the sunlight poured into the room, he understood what it was he had caught a glimpse of yesterday. The first indication in all these years, that a little bit of happiness really could be found again.
It was elusive perhaps. As fragmented as particles of light. As simple and honest as a dog. But if he stretched his arm into the sun he could feel the warmth and he could catch it this time, if he wanted to.
He was certain of it. He could catch it, hold on to it, and never let it go.
JENNIFER HARVEY is a Scottish writer now based in Amsterdam. Her writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in various publications in the US and the UK, including: Carve Magazine, Folio, Fjords Review, Bare Fiction, Ink Sweat & Tears, The Lonely Crowd, as well as various anthologies including the 2014 and 2016 National Flash Fiction Day anthologies. She has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize (2014, 2015) and the University of Sunderland Short Story Award (2016), and her radio dramas have won prizes and commendations from the BBC World Service (2016, 2009 and 2001). In 2016, her Young Adult novel was longlisted for the Bath Children's Novel Award. She is a Resident Reader for Carve Magazine. You can find her online over at jenharvey.net or follow her on Twitter @JenAnneHarvey
Sometimes she wonders if it was a mistake, coming back up to this river town with its long memories. It’s not like she had much choice, but still. She didn’t really expect anything as grand as forgiveness or acceptance. Maybe she had hoped for some kind of peace. People do leave her alone. Averting their eyes in the market, crossing over to the other side of the road as soon as they spot her. She’s not sure what’s worse, these casual evasions or the bags of hand-me-downs and day-old cakes that arrive on her porch like clockwork after every Church social or bazaar. She thought the town’s tongues would have moved on by now.
Just stay there for a little while, her sister said. It was something at least. Just stay there till you know what’s what.
‘Tennessee,’ the boy answers, meeting the stare of these two boys at his front gate. This is their territory and they’re quick to sniff out newcomers.
‘Tennessee? What kinda name is that?’ asks the taller one with the buzz cut, leaning back in his bike seat. He squints at Tennessee like someone used to calling all the shots.
‘My momma says she gave it to me so as I’d never forget where I come from.’
‘That where you’re from?’ the other boy pipes up, pushing back his greasy bangs with dirty fingernails. His left sneaker is worn through at the toes and his patched-up jeans are grubby with oil stains. ‘Tennessee?’ he spits the word out. A watermelon seed.
‘Nah. You’re from the South. We’re calling you Dixie,’ the big boy declares and the matter is settled. ‘I’m Billy. He’s Sam.’
‘All right, Dixie,’ says Sam. ‘See ya ‘round.
Tennessee watches them ride off. Billy’s strong legs propel him forward for a few seconds, then he stands on the pedals and glides his cherry red BMX down the hill. Sam’s knees make sharp angles as he furiously spins his rusty one-speed to keep up.
Over the next few weeks, he sees them around the town. Notices them pinching peaches from the fruit truck, shortcutting through the cemetery to the river, selling nightcrawlers to the fishermen for odd nickels and dimes. Sometimes when Billy sees Tennessee, he waves broadly, ‘Hey, Dixie, we’re over here!’ If he can slip away from Momma, he goes.
They show Tennessee how to put old pennies on the train tracks just before Harley’s Hornet comes barrelling down on its way to Parkersburg. Afterwards, the three of them hunt among the tracks and ties, gathering up the uneven, shiny ovals of squashed copper.
Other times, they seem to see straight through him. Billy’s caught up arguing with Old Man Jenkins about a broken window and doesn’t look so friendly. Doesn’t look so big next to his daddy, either. Sam passes him by on Main Street, without even a nod, softly singing Look away, look away, look away, Dixieland.
‘Tennessee, washing’s done. You gotta hang up that laundry now. Where’d you put them clothespins?’
‘Tennessee, when you gonna wind up that hose and put the shovels in the shed?’
‘Tennessee, you listenin’ to me?’
Truth is, he hears every single one of her questions, banging out, one after another like kids slamming through a screen door in summertime.
No, Momma. Not today. There’s a bend in the river with mud turtles in its flats and crab grass on its banks. Sam and Billy are collectin’ worms and asked me along. They don’t ask more’n once. I wanna see the blackbirds flit through the cattails, them ones with the red and yellow badges on their wings. I wanna be by the water. I just don’t have it in my bones to find and fetch for you today, Momma.
‘Tennessee? Tennessee? Where you hidin’? Don’t you go thinking I don’t know where you are! Tennessee-eee?’ When she adds another syllable to his name, her voice goes up like a bird whistle. He looks up through the cracks between the wood planks. The boards bow slightly as she moves across the veranda.
She stands right above him. He holds his breath, wills his heart to beat more quietly.
Thwap! Thwap! Thwap! She hits the bottom of her cane on the porch. There’s precious few inches between her stick and his skull. ‘Tennessee?’ Bits of dry dirt and grit fall through the cracks into his hair. He doesn’t dare twitch.
‘That boy,’ she says it like a curse.
When her lopsided footsteps hobble to the other end of the porch, he starts to breathe a bit more easy. She settles into the hanging wooden swing. Its chains creak and the floorboards squeak their relief.
‘That boy.’ Softer this time, sadder.
Inside, the phone rings. She doesn’t move.
Ten minutes pass. Tennessee’s scalp itches. Pins and needles are prickling his foot. The phone rings again.
This time, with a heavy sigh, she gets up from the swing, makes her way inside.
She puts down the receiver and glances out the front window. Sees him sneaking through the front gate and dragging out the beat-up old bike he hides in the bushes. His face is losing its boyish roundness, growing into the harder edges of his father’s cheekbones. She wishes he didn’t act so hunted. Eyes always darting, checking corners for danger, for escape. He’s always been skinny, but this summer, he seems bony. As if his arms and legs are running towards something so fast the rest of him can’t keep up. When he looks back one last time, checking to see if he’s made a clean getaway, she steps away from the window.
He finds them down by the river sitting on the bank. It’s only just past noon, but he’s already sticky from the rising humidity. He longs to dunk his feet in the water’s rush. A rusted coffee tin sits by Billy’s side, a trowel sticking up out of it. Tennessee dumps his bike on the grass and walks over; the boys are looking at something Billy holds in his hand.
As he gets closer, Tennessee sees it is a squashed pack of cigarettes.
Billy slides one onto his palm and taps it on a rock. His face transforms into a grin as he looks up and sees Tennessee coming. He holds the unlit cigarette to his nose and takes a whiff.
‘Mmm, mmmm, sweet tobacco. Hey, Dixie, wanna smoke?’
Tennessee shakes his head and peers in the coffee tin, poking around for worms. ‘Where d’ya get them from?’
‘He lifted them from his daddy’s store,’ Sam gloats, reaching for the pack.
Sam puts a cigarette between his lips, pulls out a lighter, and with a practiced motion, lights the tip of the cigarette. He takes a deep inhale and blows smoke towards Tennessee’s face.
‘You scared?’ Sam holds out the pack of cigarettes.
Tennessee takes one and taps it on his palm, not sure which end to tap, so he taps both. ‘Nah, ain’t scared.’
Sam gets up, faces Tennessee. They are exactly at eye level. Sam’s left hand holds the lit cigarette at his lips. With his right, he holds the lighter only inches away from Tennessee’s face. Flicks it on.
‘C’mon, then, Dixie.’
The heat of the flame makes Tennessee’s nose tingle. He wants to bite his lips and turn his head but he knows breaking eye contact would be a mistake. Pushing the cigarette between his index and middle finger, he says nothing. He doesn’t want this dry whisper in his hands. He wants to dig for worms in the moist soil, to feel that dark coolness between his fingers.
Billy stands and moves between them. He pushes Sam’s arm down. ‘Leave him be, Sam.’
Sam’s eyes flicker up at Billy for an instant. He extinguishes the lighter and stuffs it in his pocket, scowling at Tennessee.
The afternoon passes with chores. She hangs the washing on the clothesline. Weeds and thins baby carrot shoots and spinach seedlings. Changes the bedding. She looks through the latest paper bag filled with other people’s old clothes. Finds some jeans that should do for Tennessee to last the summer and starts to hem them up.
The phone doesn’t ring again. She knows it won’t, but she can’t help looking at it, hoping for another call, a better one, with different news.
‘Where were you?’ Billy demands. ‘You missed the steamship leaving. Sam’s little brother almost fell in when they wound up the ropes and pushed away.’
He tells them how he was near ready to leave when his momma called out. How he dove under the front porch, thinking she’d go round back to look and then he’d make a dash for it. But she didn’t and he was trapped until the phone rang. Took two calls to get her to move. He’s about to demonstrate how he wiggled out from under the porch, belly to the ground like a sniper, when Sam butts in.
‘You’re always missing something, Dixie,’ Sam starts. ‘Why didn’t you just walk straight out the front door? Why sneak and hide? Just tell your momma you got stuff to do. Say “see ya” and skedaddle.’ Sam smirks and glances over at Billy. ‘Not like she’s going to run after you.’
Billy shakes his head, ‘Sam, don’t...’
Sam steps closer to Tennessee, smelling of smoke and sweat, and whispers in his ear, ‘After all,’ he sniggers, ‘she didn’t chase after your daddy, did she?’
Billy lets out a low whistle.
Tennessee turns, shoves Sam away, ‘You shut up! You don’t know a thing ‘bout my daddy, you don’t know a thing ‘bout my momma, you don’t know anything ‘bout anything!’
Sam, grinning, sidles around. ‘I know what my momma says about him.’ Taps his right index finger to his left palm. ‘I know what they say at the shop when they chit-chat at the counter,’ tapping two fingers now, ‘and I know what the church ladies say about you and your momma every Tuesday night prayer meeting since you got here.’ Three fingers. Lowering his voice, ‘You know what they all say?’
Tennessee’s can feel his blood surging down his arms.
‘Your daddy. He ain’t coming back. He ain’t never coming back. Everybody knows that.’
Tennessee draws back and swings, his knuckles smarting as they collide with Sam’s front teeth. Sam’s head is thrown back by the blow and his eyes bulge. Before he can retaliate, Tennessee punches him again, just below the chest. Sam stumbles backwards toward the river bank.
Billy shouts at them to stop, but his voice sounds thick like someone calling underwater. Sam’s down, Tennessee’s kicking. Every foot he lands in Sam’s belly feels like payback. He can’t stop. Kicks harder and harder. Sam wraps his arms around his body to block the barrage and rolls into the river. Panic sprawls on his face when he surfaces and splashes back under again. Billy jumps in to help.
She decides to roast a chicken for dinner, takes one from the deep freeze and leaves it on the counter to defrost. Looks for potatoes in the pantry, finds one of the jars of green beans her sister brought down from Marietta. It’s not Easter. It’s not even Sunday, but she wants to mark the day, counter bad news with good food.
There is a collection of old apples rolling around the bottom of the fruit bowl, they need eating. She peels the skin off the biggest in one long ribbon, rotating the apple as she pushes the peeler blade into the flesh. Concentrates on not breaking the fragile casing, getting just the right amount of width and depth to keep the whole intact. When she finishes, she picks up the strand and winds it back into the shape of the apple, a shell with empty insides. She holds it a moment, tosses the skin on the pile of peelings and slices the peeled apple.
Tennessee pedals as hard as he can, the wheels slipping on the dirt, moving too fast to gain traction. Doesn’t look over his shoulder; it would only slow him down. Unsure if they are close at his wheels or still at the water, he imagines them on their bikes, gaining on him, throwing rocks or sticks at his wheels. Away from the river, down the lane, across Main Street, whizzing through traffic signals. He passes his house, cuts through a vacant lot, and drops his bike in an overgrown hedge.
Heads for the thickest overgrowth, squeezing behind branches. A thorn drags along the back of his arm as he yanks his sleeve free of brambles. Shielded by heavy greenery, he crouches on rotting leaves, gasping for breath in the close afternoon heat, chest pounded by his rabbiting heart. Waits.
No one tears across the lot, no one comes looking for him. His knuckle feels sore. Looks down to see a cut where his fist met Sam’s front teeth. His blood or Sam’s? After gingerly flexing his fingers open and closed, he shakes his hand out and wipes it on his jeans. Rubs at the streak of crimson along his arm, wincing at the sting. He moves a few boughs to scan the lot again. No one. He remains still, stays alert. Stays until the shadows grow long and the heat softens. Finally, he creeps out, looks in all directions. He is alone. They would have gone home by now. It’s getting toward dusk.
In the twilight he sees the laundry has been hung up on the line, the hoe and shovel now stand neatly against the garden shed. He brushes away the murmur of guilt that comes with knowing how his momma would have laboured to complete these tasks. The garden hose still snakes through the grass. Behind the thin curtains, he sees her silhouette at the sink. She moves unevenly across the kitchen.
Inside, he brushes off his trousers. Carefully hangs up his jacket instead of leaving it on the floor. He pauses. Aromas of roast chicken and potatoes. It’s not Sunday. It’s not a birthday. Part of him stirs in alarm at this extravagance on an ordinary day, but his stomach rumbles louder than his suspicions.
She is sitting at the table with a glass of water. The places have been set. She looks up at him as he comes through the doorway, her deep set brown eyes looking more weary than angry. Damp strands of her greying brown hair have worked themselves free from her usual tidy plait.
‘Where were you? Coulda used your help today. I called for you.’
‘Sorry, momma. Didn’t hear.’
He feels her eyes studying him and moves his hand with the bruised knuckles behind his back.
She pushes her palms against the table top as she stands.
‘You go wash your face, I’ll get the dinner.’
When they eat, the only sound is the scraping of knives and forks. He doesn’t ask her why she’s made a special meal, but asks for seconds, eats every bite. She brings out an apple pie for dessert and he smiles. The first time all evening. She cuts him a generous slice.
As he stretches out his hand to take the plate, her eyes rest on his freshly scabbed knuckles. She purses her lips, ‘You been fighting?’
He quickly puts the plate down in front of him and tucks his right fist under his legs. ‘No, momma.’ He’s a bad liar, so he doesn’t say much when he tells a fib. It’s awkward to eat with his left hand, but he loves pie. She doesn’t press him any more about his day.
‘I had a phone call this morning,’ she begins. ‘Your daddy.’
He puts his fork down even though he still has half a piece of pie.
‘He… he says he’ll be coming back later than he thought,’ she speaks carefully, her eyes looking down.
‘He says it’ll maybe be in the autumn, now. Fidgeting with her napkin, she is grasping for words.
He sits back in his chair and folds his arms across his chest.
‘When he comes back, it’ll be better, we’ll be moving and…’
She speaks too quickly, and then her voice shrinks when she glances up and meets his gaze. A long silence.
He pushes his chair back, scraping the legs across the floor, and rises. Though his forearm is trembling, there is an unfamiliar resonance in his voice.
‘What are you talkin’ about, Momma? He ain’t coming back. He ain’t never coming back. Don’t you know that? Everyone knows that.’
He expects she’ll get up and slap him, scold him for being fresh. Tell him he’s talking nonsense and how dare he disrespect his daddy.
When she doesn’t, when, instead, she drops her eyes and her shoulders crumple, he looks down at his unfinished pie. He doesn’t want it anymore.
MELISSA FU grew up in Northern New Mexico and currently lives in Cambridgeshire, UK. She is widely published in the US and UK. Her piece 'Suite for my Father' was the regional winner of the Words and Women 2016 Prose Competition. She is delighted to be a 2017 Apprentice with the London-based WordFactory. In 2014, Melissa combined her loves of writing and teaching to start Spilling the Ink, a small business offering creative writing courses and coaching. You can find her on Twitter @WritingCircles
The way we push through light
Trees frighten me a little,
the way they
hold snow as if
for the first time,
as if they understand
how our obsessions
seep inside until
Their swagger scares me, too,
the way they ignore
the icicle’s drip,
the growing hole
that will harden
into a pine-
like the one in this
boundless room where
years fall like doors.
There’s nothing exquisite
about the way
we push through light,
or turn from cold so sure
of itself we hear
We scrabble like mice
between white sun
and white earth,
taking refuge beneath
what I can do
to convince you
this is about snow
and how nothing is fatal
except the wind.
This small burning
Except when every word is a betrayal.
Think of the night, how it gathers its children
Except when my grief grows voiceless
Think of a desert sky so vast it’s not really there
Except when I wake and know my dream wrote me
Think of the sea, how it forgets what it has lost
Except when I see myself in the river’s depths
Think of when the world was rain
Except when I stand before the open gate
Think of the field with its wild hunger
Except when I come back grown
Think of my hand on the hollow of your breast
Except when I lie awake guilty that others sleep
Think of the small burning in this attic room
Except when I tear through this paper house
Think of how we fall because we can’t let go of the wind
PETER GRANDBOIS is the author of seven previous books, the most recent of which is The Girl on the Swing (Wordcraft of Oregon, 2015). His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in over seventy journals, including, The Kenyon Review, The Gettysburg Review, and Prairie Schooner, and have been shortlisted for both Best American Essays and the Pushcart Prize. His plays have been performed in St. Louis, Columbus, Los Angeles, and New York. He is a senior editor at Boulevard Magazine and teaches at Denison University in Ohio.
He’d been watching the little girl across the street for a couple of days. He’d turn the TV down low, until it buzzed white noise; the people mostly mute but still his company, and flick the curtain. Not enough so anyone would see but just enough to make sure she wasn’t being left behind.
Her big brothers were gangly and red-faced; they looked like they swallowed petrol for breakfast, pedalling around all over the street on their bikes. She was gentler. She moved like a ballet dancer, her limbs exactly where they should be at all times. She didn’t want any attention from her brothers, perfectly happy to amuse herself, chattering away to an invisible audience.
His lawn was overgrown and browning, he needed to mow and tend to it, because sometimes she sat in front of it holding court. He wanted to offer her a squash, or a biscuit, but she would probably run away from him. He knew the others in the neighbourhood kept their children back from his house, in case of bothering him. She didn’t bother him in the slightest. But the scars would bother her, probably. The scars bothered everyone, so he kept to himself.
Retired. Former. He wasn’t sure which one he preferred. Sometimes he dreamt about the fires and he’d wake up sweating. Once he had woken himself in his boots, laces tied, on the stairs. He had to remember he didn’t do that any more. He didn’t miss the smell of burning at all. He wondered what stories were told about him, if anyone remembered him at all. He’d gotten some kind of something, gold, that sat in a drawer. He didn’t want it. What he wanted was to go back and tell those people they needed to get out faster; he wanted to pull more hands that reached out to him. He hadn’t even realised his body was burning until Tommy had tugged him down on the pavement and whispered all right now, so close in his ear, bear arms across his chest until he was put into the back of an ambulance.
Grace. That was who she looked like. The little girl in the street singing to herself.
Grace. Number 21 rescued. Her blonde hair shorn after surgery. She had come to visit him in his room in the hospital. Comparing skin grafts. Sharing notes on the doctors. They emailed sometimes. She'd been moved to a special unit, sent pictures of how far she had healed. He sent nothing back.
The little girl was scuffing her shoes on the pavement and frowning.
Tomorrow, he would try a biscuit.
EMMA WINTER studied American Literature and Creative Writing at both the University of East Anglia and San Francisco State University. She's had short stories published in Banshee and been shortlisted for AdHoc Fiction and the TSS Spring Fiction Competition 2017. She's working more short stories, flash fiction and a full length novel. You can follow her on Twitter @MsEmmaWinter
A PANG OF SPECTER
They came in droves
asking quietly that we not talk loud
or sing rough or dance wild;
their whisper more thunderous
than the roar of death.
Your father’s tombstone resembles
mine – meaning my father’s;
a slaughtered voice resembles
a moldy artwork – meaning our carcasses.
They care less about both
our perforated shadows – these people
perfecting hindrance to free air
showed no interest in refined chimneys,
because your kinsmen cannot be my kinsmen;
because ghosts cannot be docents to ghosts
or wind a forerunner to wildfire.
They came when you were too naked
and I was too afraid. To say stop
when you were just a dry leaf?
We understand that nothing stays afloat
unless there is an artist underneath playing a tune.
They said a special permit is needed
to have our babies look like us. Renaming humans,
our shirtless words suddenly caught their fancy.
But you’re dead and I’m not alive; and
they sure cannot imagine how hard for us
pulling the straw that connects this world and the next.
BOLA OPALEKE lives in Winnipeg, MB. His poems have appeared in a few poetry magazines like The Puritan, Sierra Nevada Review, FIVE Poetry Magazine, Poetry Quarterly, Miracle E-zine, Poetry Pacific, Drunk Monkeys, League of Canadian Poets feature, St. Peter's College (University of Saskatchewan) Annual Anthology (Society 2013 Vol. 10), Pastiche Magazine, UK Poetry Library and others.
I will not live as long as I have lived. I can say that with confidence, finding myself now at the indeterminate age of fifty-four. I have passed the arbitrary span of mid-life, even at its most elastic. The archetypal crisis, which in a strange way I had hoped for, could not in fairness be described as such, and I can’t help feeling I missed out. No dramatic reshaping in the image of youth, fun and pathos intermingled. No, for me it was more a pervasive unease, which continues to this day. I am devoid of the certainties I see in lives around me. And yet…
It’s difficult to say what sort of life I had in mind. Hope fluctuates, aspirations morph, contingencies intervene, memory distorts the younger self. And then there’s the stock exchange that is confidence. And not so much the difficulty of imagining beyond my immediate circumstances, more the feeling that whatever I imagined, by the act of imagining, would distance me from achieving it. I have watched other people doing things, seeming certain, or at least confident, feeling a part of something larger, however small in actuality. On the whole such feelings have eluded me.
I look more and more to memory. Memories are the final arbiter of age. They make our life inescapably what it is. It’s not only personal of course. Era is a template that defines and shapes. Those who came before, and after, are from different tribes. They wore different clothes, liked different things, and shared or argued over different sets of principles. My generation, or at least specimens like me, imagined that life would form itself around us. When this happened we would find our ‘thing’ and do it. My ‘thing’, it’s fair to say, has proved elusive but, I suppose, something about my early life impregnated me with hope which, in vestigial form, remains to this day. Or almost.
I recently excavated photos, stuffed away for years. Which version of myself was me – or were they all? The fringed child, painfully trusting of others? The teenager, stylised, disaffected, but more than anything confused? The pale young man in a wedding suit, adulthood rapidly catching up? Then a phased retreat into anonymity, mercifully before the advent of Facebook, though when I think of it I suppose that contributes to the anonymity.
Perhaps it’s my hormones – men are allowed to talk about an ‘andropause’ now I understand – but this potent concoction of regret and yearning..... What do I value about my life in retrospect? Whatever it is bears no resemblance to the aspirations of my youth, even if I could fully describe them. But perhaps people like me are defined by the opportunities we fail to take, or even recognise, until others step in and do what we might have done. Forgive me for outlining the background to my state of mind, perhaps it might give a context to what happened. If so, you are now in a better position to grasp the full implications.
I live in a coastal town in the south of England. If that sentence chills your heart I can quite understand. There’s something deadening about seaside towns facing the English Channel; full of stark evidence of the ageing process and youth lacking the vitality to migrate to lives more fulfilling. It’s as though the ebb and flow of the sea sucks energy from the land, and its inhabitants.
Speaking of which, quite frankly the sea has always terrified me. Years of proximity have done nothing to change this. Thirty lengths of the pool and then hit the jacuzzi feeling mildly virtuous – that’s the sort of swimmer I am. Apart from its nasty undulating surface there’s all the murk that lies beneath: a grim, sordid collective unconscious of malevolent plankton and hostile crustaceans. And the sheer scale. Man versus nature? There’s only one winner. In short, little about the prospect I am about to describe appealed to me, except, I’m forced to admit... Well, judge for yourself.
I was walking along the shore in the mid-morning, something I do from habit on days I am not working. Nothing was unusual: predatory gulls, snatches of banal conversation, the late spring weather not warm enough yet for sunbathers. Bandstand, pier, promenade; what else is there to describe? To locals, a backdrop to our lives, to visitors, novel in an anachronistic sort of way, if that isn’t too contradictory. The sea was bland and roughly the same colour as the sky, and I looked towards a horizon that, in consequence, had almost disappeared.
And then I saw him, on his back in the water, some way beyond the pier. He was not so much thrashing about as employing his limbs in a dystopian way, as though the sea was a bizarre, unsympathetic world which he happened to be inhabiting, much to his discomfort. Every so often spurts of water issued from his mouth.
As I began to assimilate this an elderly couple approached me.
‘We think that poor chap’s in trouble,’ the man said.
I agreed this seemed probable.
‘Can you swim?’ He asked pointedly.
I had to admit that I could.
‘Only there’s no lifeguard on duty today – we checked the rota.’ He indicated a rotting notice board.
The implication was clear and I would like to say that I strode forward and plunged in unhesitatingly, but in honesty a prolonged discussion ensued before I began removing shirt and trousers. Neither do my motives in eventually taking this course, when I consider them, bear close scrutiny. Many things can pass through your mind at moments of crisis, but I fear that empathy for the struggling swimmer was not foremost. Something more base was at work. A creeping thought emerged as I began to undress. How would it look if this went well? Some residue of wish fulfilment, perhaps an image from something I once saw or read, floated to the surface, and with it the opportunity to view myself in a different light.
A shapeless life redeemed by a single act: does that sound preposterous? Well yes, I suppose it does, but I found myself suddenly overcome by a potent blend of adrenalin and submerged hope which, like a tsunami, washed aside my reluctance. I was unexpectedly galvanised. Outer clothing discarded, I moved with purpose towards the gentle folds of tide.
The sea is often described as a living entity. When you step into it you realise this as a literal truth. It is cold in a rather hostile way. It is also whimsical, in the manner that a psychopath choosing a victim might be viewed as whimsical. As the mild waves began to lap my calves the vision of heroism began to feel considerably more arbitrary. I would not have been the first to turn back. But, like many others, I suppose, the combination of quest before me and shame behind drove me forward. When the water was up to my chest I needed some moments to control my breathing and then set off, head as high as I could keep it, in dogged breast stroke.
The struggling swimmer bobbed in and out of my view. The pier to my left towered above me, and I noticed a handful of people had already gathered to watch. Heroes, or at least those we remember, never do their acts in private, but as I trundled forward I began to yearn to be free of scrutiny, especially as, with every few strokes, my thoughts turned increasingly towards survival. Subjectivity, I know, is intrinsic to the human condition, but when I looked back to the shore fifty metres behind me, I saw a mile of distance. Trying to control my imagination, which was rapidly taking a sinister turn, I edged toward the end of the pier and, once beyond it, realised I had lost a final symbol of safety. I looked out into the enormity of the sea, unameliorated by a detectable horizon. The sense of being adrift in an alien element augmented the chill that had, like a greedy predator, entered my bones.
Panic is a physical thing. Roughly at this point my brain explained to my body that it was in trouble, and it reacted accordingly. My limbs abandoned coordination. Breathing became a desperate act. A sporadic honking sound arose in my throat which, in retrospect, brings to mind a donkey in sexual arousal. The drowning man, who was now less than twenty metres away, looked over and began to swim towards me with a powerful crawl.
‘Don’t worry, pal,’ he said as he drew near. ‘I’ll get you back.’
Grasping me by the chin and armpit he took easy control of the situation and I found myself gazing at the sky, which I had never viewed with such relief. My body was numb, limp and passive, but I had stopped hyperventilating.
My sense of time at that point can’t be relied upon, but we seemed to reach the shore quickly, and when the water was shallow enough, my fellow aquatic carefully stood me on my feet and led me to the sand, where a small crowd had gathered.
‘Just sit yourself there for a minute, friend,’ he said. ‘You’ll be fine now.’ Then, turning to the small crowd that had assembled: ‘Has somebody got a towel?’
‘He went out to try to save you, he thought you were drowning,’ said the woman from the elderly couple, accusingly.
My rescuer looked at me as though trying to grasp a new paradigm.
‘Sorry, mate. I was doing my whale impersonation,’ he said.
I had misconstrued. Not drowning but whaling.
Sitting on the dispiriting sand, the realities of my life were brought abruptly into question: there were consequences to be assimilated. But this was not the time. As quickly as my traumatised body would allow, I dried myself, put on my clothes, reassured and thanked my now solicitous and apologetic rescuer, and with the dignity of the humiliated began an unsteady walk home.
So there you have it; an episode too banal even to be ignominious. I’m told photos have appeared online. The term ‘gone viral’ has been mentioned. Bear in mind I returned to land wearing only underpants.
I’ve heard it said that rather than attempting to fill the shoes of another we should try harder to fill our own. If anything, as a result of this experience, my shoes have grown loose. But then, perhaps, they always were.
MIKE FOX is a trained therapist. He has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness. His stories have appeared in, or been accepted for publication by, The London Journal of Fiction, The Nottingham Review, Fictive Dream, Popshot, Confingo, Structo, and were awarded second prize in the 2014 and 2016 Bedford International Short Story Competitions. He is currently seeking publication for a collection of short stories. His website is www.polyscribe.co.uk
Marriages, like life, are three-dimensional; divorce papers aren’t. As carefully as she had once dissected mathematical problems, she now beheld the impossible miracle by which years of shared breakfasts, damp bathroom mats, and shopping-cart-steering had transformed into four leaves of stapled paper, slid across a varnished tabletop by an overpriced attorney with brittle fingernails. There was magic, after all.
She had left the lawyer’s office earlier to find that the world was still there, unchanged. Wyatt was already walking to his car; he hadn’t said a word, hadn’t even looked in her direction, and she didn’t mind. Growing smaller by the second, his trouser legs too short, his head balding at the crown, he receded into the background, small and self-conscious. She thought that perhaps she wouldn’t go home just yet. Never waste a blue sky, her mother used to say.
Her parents were long gone now, but she remembered this: when she was a child, no older than seven, her father had often decreed that she had hands so beautiful she could model. By the time she was an adult, he had changed his mind: now they were too atypical, and she would always remember that word. Wyatt always used to say, funny what you can tell of a person simply from looking at their hands. He wasn’t talking about watching the gestures we make as we speak, but about taking a magnifying glass to the back of a hand and reading, along every callous inch, a new truth about its owner.
Her father had passed away before he could see her hands enter middle age, one faster than the other after she’d poured a saucepan full of boiling water onto it, the skin forever more wrinkled, lines carved deep and parallel, very close to one another. Now she held her left hand up as she waited in the shade to buy an entrance ticket. There were traces of pastel nail polish she hadn’t bothered removing from the crease where her fingernail sloped into the plump skin of her fingers. There was the slight hint of color on her knuckles, the brown spots at the birth of her wrists, the blue veins apparent on the inside of her thumb. And there was the polished skin, pink and soft like the place of a recent scab, where her wedding ring used to be.
In front of her was a mother, sweating, her two children on either side of her, one pulling her sleeve, asking incessant questions about the zoo (‘Will there be a lion?’, ‘Will there be dinosaurs?’), and the other silent and alone in her own world, her arms dangling.
There had been few warning signs, proper. Over the years, the marriage’s expiration date had changed, daily, like the price of a share, swayed one way or another by every small thing they did and said to each other. One day, the expiration date had been ten days away, and no action undertaken after that could have pushed it back any further.
Once inside the zoo, safe amid swarms of microscopic flies and the distinct smell of animal shit, she made for the insect wing, guided by memories she hadn’t known she still kept, in the hidden geography of her mind, of a trip to the zoo as a college student. In the butterfly garden, the air was thick and warm and smelled like rainwater, and she wondered if she might be able to live here, inside the greenhouse. She wouldn’t feel more alone here than she would in her home, which she had gotten to keep. She wouldn’t even entertain the thought of moving, because she knew a thing or two about the power of inertia. She understood that she needed the routine that they’d built, a routine she’d devoutly carry on, like the legacy of something that didn’t deserve to be remembered. The butterflies fluttered all around, hundreds of flapping wings, and she felt a strange kind of sadness for the simpler, duller ones, with less beauty to their design.
In the area reserved for odder, less consensual insects, she stopped before an empty tank. A young man looked inside, at nothing, fascinated, his brow furrowed. ‘They’re called phasmids,’ the man said. She saw it, then, moving slowly across a leaf: life.
Eventually, she had begun to despise the very things she had once loved the most about him. He seemed pathetic, in the literal sense, pleading for affection, begging for the world to see him in his despaired grandeur. She could tell he was done thinking of anything but the destruction of age settling on him pore by pore, wrinkle by wrinkle, its hold over him tighter with each prescription issued by the doctor’s office. He’d once said that if you didn’t wake up with some sort of pain or another after you reached fifty, you were probably dead. This was followed by a snort, and she’d begun to suspect that if this was the way he reacted to his aging body, he’d have no pity for hers.
And it wasn’t long before words had come jolting out of his mouth as if held behind his front teeth too long, words that hinted at the idea that perhaps she didn’t take care of herself enough, that perhaps she was turning into something lowly and sickly, the mere presence of which may taint him. He started suggesting things, and those suggestions dug invisible marks into her mind, drawing blood, growing infected, festering for weeks. She looked in the mirror, at the saggy skin below her neck, the lines on her face, dozens of times a day. It wasn’t the specter of age or even simple, disappointing ugliness that stared back at her; she hadn’t caught ‘old’ like one catches an unsightly disease, no; it was something else altogether that she stood to catch if he remained too close: hate.
She never once daydreamed, as she folded his laundry, of shoving it down his throat through his opened mouth at night. But if she had, it would have gone like this: she’d grab and pinch his nose with determined fingers, forcing the gaping hole to open more, and there, in between the resting thickness of a tongue and the sharp little teeth, she’d shove his dirty gray underpants where they’d fit snugly. He’d wake up emitting a muffled gurgle, an animal in danger, looking at her with perfect confusion, yet not seeing her.
But she wouldn’t, because she couldn’t, and shouldn’t. And that was it.
Stepping out of the insect garden, she looked up to find that the skies were now bluer than they had been in decades, at least since some unnamed day in the mid-80s when she last thought of gazing up like this, for no reason at all. In those days, she had felt like the world would soon be hers. The ghost of that idea now moved through her, sad, but blunt and fleeting, fast eroding under the power of something new: life, gritty and wrinkled, but real and hers. She focused on the movement around her, the children running and screaming ecstatically, and the soccer moms walking slowly in white sneakers and the college students licking ice cream cones.
Everything smelled of summer as she made her way to the monkey shed and sat on a hard rock bench, contemplating the animals across the deep trench. They were heavy and dirty, their skin covered in lustrous hair; the dignity with which they carried themselves, their expressions, their eyes were so human they were hard to look at. She imagined perching on a branch, lazily, then dangling off with one hand like the smaller monkeys. She imagined sitting next to the large ape who sat apart from the crowd, leaning against him. His mouth hung, shiny and slick, with eyes like charcoal, the sharpest she had seen. Suddenly they were on her, and she knew, staring back, that they were equals.
MARIE BALEO is a French writer born in 1990. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Litro Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, Five on the Fifth, Spilled Milk, Jersey Devil Press, Five 2 One Magazine, and others.
My boss, Duncan, smells like pipe tobacco and moth balls. And though forbidden to smoke, he does.
If I were dying, I’d break the rules too. This is certainly his attitude, and I respect it.
Across the street from Duncan’s pharmacy is a fancy new organic food market. I try not to shop there, but I’ll admit to being taken with a long-haired cashier who can’t remember my name.
‘You go and have some goddamned fun tonight, young lady,’ Duncan instructs. But I don’t like leaving the shop before he does these days. Sometimes he forgets to lock up.
‘I’ll bet you don’t remember my name again,’ I say, standing in front of Dylan the cashier – holding my red tuna sushi.
‘How do you know?’ Dylan says, hands on hips.
‘Okay, then. What is it?’
‘Busted! But my whole family is this way with names,’ he says, flipping his long, shiny hair behind his shoulders.
‘No worries,’ I say.
I remind him that I’m Polly and I work across the street, at the antiquated pharmacy. I tell him that my boss has lung cancer and that soon the pharmacy will be sold.
‘Someone will probably turn the pharmacy into a doggie nail parlor,’ I say. Dylan does not seem to find this amusing. Maybe he has no sense of humor.
I look at the bracelet hanging loose around my wrist. I’ve been losing weight, nearly down to a size-zero. I never want to work anywhere else.
It will soon be my birthday, and to celebrate, I will talk to the cashier about the purported health-benefits of krill oil capsules.
‘I am not a whale,’ I’ll say. ‘I don’t understand why krill oil would be good for me.’ Maybe this will amuse him.
I’ll shock him when he sees me buying two slices of tofu chocolate pie.
At the window, which faces the market, I see him in the parking area talking to a pretty new employee. She reminds me of a Labradoodle, bred to be hypoallergenic and good natured. Her blond hair looks angelic and light, but false. It doesn’t even create a shadow on the asphalt.
From here I can see that Dylan’s cheeks have turned-pink. Perhaps he’s shy around women he really likes. I tell myself that when he ages, he'll look like a rooster.
He’ll continue checking out women’s balanced meals and herbal cures. He’ll smile and say, ‘excellent choice’. If they’re pretty, he’ll remember their names.
Someday this period of time when I worked for a dying pharmacist will be a weird memory. It will have little significance to me, but I’ll remember the way my boss cared about me, and how young the cashier across the street made me feel. A feeling like that is hard to replicate. Nobody really knows how people disappear.
MEG POKRASS has published stories in McSweeney's, Five Points, Wigleaf, Smokelong, and many magazines online and in print. Her work has been internationally anthologized, most recently in the Norton anthology Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton, 2015) and the upcoming anthology, New Microfiction (W.W. Norton, 2018).