A Tangible Beauty of Absence by Sue Pearson

CockelShell - A Tangable Beauty of Absence
A Tangible Beauty of Absence by India Hibbs, 2019

                                                     

She saw the shell, there, on the sand, on a still autumn day when the calm lapping sea melded into the sky at its horizon.

This was the first walk of autumn and it had taken some cajoling to persuade the teenagers to leave the cottage. They had grumbled and straggled behind until they breathed fresh sea air on turning the corner at the top of the hill. Then their long strides easily overtook her and suddenly she was alone. Forgotten in the moment, as they linked arms, engrossed in themselves and each other.

She bent down and picked it up. At first, it appeared sealed and she thought that the occupant may be dead within but she looked more closely. It was open a sliver and she saw and smelt that it was empty. Left home, gone fishing, just popped out. Such a clean salty exit.

The children were play wrestling ahead. The man-boy and his sister, almost as tall as each other. A tangle of limbs and wind-carried laughter.

Over years and seasons, over notches on the kitchen door jamb, they had taken this walk. At first within and then carried, later with uncertainty, holding her hand. For years, running on and back, on and back, zigzagging over the beach, hunting, scouring for treasure. Dog shark egg purses, feathers, jellyfish, crab shells, animal tracks, clean washed bones, sea glass and shells. So many shells; limpet, cowrie, cockle, whelk and top shell, lots of top shells because they twinkle silver in the sunlight. All excitedly gifted to her until her pockets could contain no more.

This one was a cockle and she popped it into her pocket. With her fingertips, she felt the sea smoothed ridges on either side, felt its coolness, the weight of its emptiness. Within her pocket, her fingers scooped it to fit the hollow of her palm. The creature’s lifetime artistry. This accumulation of such magnitude left behind.

A few grains of sand trickled from it and became lost in the dark seam of her pocket.

 

 

About the Author:

Sue Pearson began writing two years ago and had her eyes opened and brain massaged by the MA Creative Writing course in 2019.  She enjoys crafting short stories and creating poetry. She lives in Newcastle with her husband, two children, cat and dog, all of whom are muses. She stepped away from a career in law to feel the joys and frustrations of creativity and hopes that life will be different ever after. 

This story has been originally published in an online students’ literary magazine and then again reprinted in Bridges 2019, an anthology of works by creative writing and writing poetry students at Newcastle University. with the financial support of the School of English Language, Literature and Linguistics. The very same anthology is out tomorrow with Bandit Fiction. All money made from its sale goes towards the National Literacy Trust.

 

 

Causeway by Oz Hardwick

speakeasy
Speak Easy by India Hibbs, 2019

 

When the tide’s out you can walk to the island. There’s a name for this, but then there’s a name for everything, and knowing that name rarely makes much of a difference, so I decide I may as well make up my own. I decide to call it the by the name of my first pet, a black and white rabbit of which I was inexplicably frightened, just as I was inexplicably frightened of loud noises, mirrors, and the woman who sat on the side of my bed solicitously whispering that she knew everything about me. In truth, at that age there wasn’t much to know, but her voice, the darkness, and the shuffling of the rabbit in the chest of drawers, was enough to tell me that I should be wary of names and dangerous tides. The island isn’t far, and beyond that is a fragmenting Europe, then nothing but melting ice. There are rabbit tracks on the drying sand, the figure of a woman in the dying light. Names keep their power even as their referents recede, and although I keep my lips sealed the sea knows them all.

 

 

 

 

About the Author:

Oz Hardwick’s work has been published and performed internationally in and on diverse media. His chapbook Learning to Have Lost (Canberra: IPSI/Recent Work, 2018) was the winner in the poetry category of the 2019 Rubery International Book Awards, and his most recent collection – his eighth – is The Lithium Codex (Clevedon: Hedgehog Poetry Press, 2019). Oz is Professor of English at Leeds Trinity University, where he leads the Creative Writing programmes. http://www.ozhardwick.co.uk

 

The Flavor of Change by Janette Shafer

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In the City by Kasia Grzelak, 2018

 

From my vantage point on the 43rd floor of One Oxford Center, a panorama of the city of Pittsburgh unfolds from my office window.  The Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela Rivers meet at “The Point,” an urban park with a fountain which designates where the three waters meet.  A train in the distance slowly ambles past Station Square and it seems to go on for miles.  Being the new person at work means I am in many ways back to the beginning of my long twenty-two-year career in retail banking.  Even a welcome career change comes with many stressors; I don’t know what I don’t know.  I’m dependent on unfamiliar colleagues to show me the way, and for the first time in many years, I wait for guidance on my next steps.

The view of the outside world from the high-rise offers a stunning cityscape, but the interior office is bland, with white painted walls, ultra-modern stainless-steel desks, and black padded office chairs.  The decor is sterile; no artwork or photographs on the walls, only mounted dry erase boards with black markers and erasers and the fake smiles of a model family on a corporate poster.

My new colleague Craig has invited me to lunch.  He is fit, attractive, and young enough to be my son.  His green eyes are warm and earnest. His smile offers an innocent sweetness.   I’m grateful for the friendly gesture.  He says to meet him in front of his office where he’ll take me to “this great place across the street, someplace kind of different.”  The elevator, sleek and steel, whisks me down at lightning speed.  It reminds of the scene from Stanley Kubrik’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” when Dr. Heywood Ford takes a stylish transporter with a lounge interior to the space station on the moon.  Outside, the natural light is welcome after a morning of the overly bright glare of fluorescent bulbs punctuated by their perpetual hum.  I follow Craig into a Venezuelan diner called Arepittas.  The bright yellow sign with paintings of corn cobs still half cocooned in their husks promises “Venezuelan Street Food.”

Craig doesn’t know me and has no idea what this has done for my day and for my spirit.  Arepittas is a Venezuelan diner specializing in arepas, my favorite food from what once was home:  Venezuela.

The country of my birth is on the brink of collapse.  My cousin Evangelina posts videos on social media almost daily of protests outside her window, reposts news stories that cry out to the rest of the world, ayuadame!  In one of her recent updates, it is nighttime, and even in the dark resolution I can make out the thousands of people thronged in the streets with their signs.  I tell Craig that I’m from Venezuela and he couldn’t have picked a better place.

I order an arepa with chicken, avocado, cilantro, and guasacaca sauce (a green tomato and garlic salsa.) An arepa is a dense cornbread made from masa flour, served split and stuffed with savory or sweet fillings.  It is my favorite food, and a taste of home.  I don’t expect that this will be as good as the ones my mother and grandmother make, but it is everything I want it to be.  The arepa is golden brown with a crunchy crust.  The shredded chicken is tangy and garlicky, fragrant like the familiar perfume of a loved one.  The avocado is bursting green, as colorful as a vase of nosegays.  The satisfying crackle as the food gives way to my teeth fills my mouth with heritage, tradition, culture, and Latina pride.  An ache springs tears to my eyes as I think of my homeland teetering on the edge of utter devastation.

“Oh wow,” I say.  “This is so delicious it’s making me homesick.  Thanks for inviting me.  How did you find this place?”

“An app.  Or maybe Facebook?”  He shrugs and laughs.  “I never had Venezuelan food before this place and now I’m totally hooked.”

I post a picture of my lunch on Facebook with a note saying, “My new office is across the street from a Venezuelan food stand!  I’m having arepas!”  Many of my friends know what this means to me and more than 60 “likes” pop up in the next hour.  One of my friends, April, asks me in the comments, “What’s an arepa?”  My usual answer to this question is that an arepa is a dense, fried cornbread made from ground maize and that the usual stuffing is some kind of spicy meat with avocado or cheese.  Sometimes I joke that it’s like a Venezuelan taco to help give context.

An arepa is the longing for something familiar in my new corporate landscape.  An arepa is my small prayer against the political corruption that is destroying my country and threatening my loved ones left behind.  An arepa is my small act of defiance against the tyranny of Nicolas Maduro as his greed threatens to upturn our homeland.  An arepa is a twinge of guilt as I start to settle into my new work environment while everything in Venezuela shifts in turmoil and unrest.  An arepa is a memory of Abuelita in her vibrant flowered dress slapping the dough between her hands before lowering it into a skillet of olive oil.  An arepa is a phone call with my Mom when I tell her I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by all this change but that I’ll figure it out.  An arepa is a balm for my wounds.  An arepa is a step towards home.

 About the Author:

Janette Schafer is a freelance writer, nature photographer, full-time banker and part-time rock singer living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Her writing and photographs have appeared in numerous publications.  A collection of her poetry titled “Something Here Will Grow” will be published by Main Street Rag in 2020.  She is the Artistic Director and Founder of Beautiful Cadaver Project Pittsburgh.

The Gecko’s Tale by Abigail Ottley

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Children by Kasia Grzelak, 2018

 

‘Jesus Christ,’ says Jerry, ‘the little bastard bit me.’

Eli doesn’t look up straight away but keeps his eyes on the workbench.  His neck is hunched into his narrow shoulders and his complexion is more than usually grey.  ‘I’d watch my mouth if I were you.  The boss don’t care for that kind of language. Outed someone two days ago. Heard it down the canteen.’

Jerry is using his long, bony thumb to squeeze the fleshy pad of his finger.  His angular features convey a mixture of indignation and pain.

‘Look,’ he says, ‘it’s bleeding.  It didn’t oughta be allowed.’ He inserts his finger into his mouth and sucks on the wound.

‘We oughtta have gloves,’ he says.  ‘They should issue us with gloves.  Anyways, why are we doing this? What’s the point of it all? Forty-eight hours and they’ll all be dead and stinking to high heaven.’

It occurs to Eli that Jerry might well have a point. Eli has worked at the depot for a much longer time than Jerry and, in the course of his experience, he has had to deal with some very strange job sheets. Once it was two truckloads of turtle doves, another time three thousand white mice.  There had been trouble over that one, a lot of bad feelings.  Three thousand mice, whatever their colour, don’t amount to no rose garden.  Some of the guys got all worked up and took it into their heads to complain.

‘I ever tell you about the walk-out?’ says Eli, ‘There was this really big guy. Name of Luke.’

Jerry looks blank and shakes his head so Eli goes ahead and tells him.  He tells how the boss is under pressure that day and in no mood to listen and how, eventually, voices are raised and then all guys walk out.  For a while, it feels good, like back in the old days, before they changed the regulations.  But then next morning the boss comes around wearing this big, sticky smile. The boss takes Big Luke and a couple of others upstairs to the office and when they come back they’re all buddy-buddy and grinning fit to bust. Then the boss says he’s glad they’ve cleared the air and how he’s sorry for the misunderstanding. He raises the daily rate and everybody smiles.

‘So?’ says Jerry. ‘What’s your point?  What’s this got to do with me?’

Eli sucks in his cheeks and purses his lips.‘Well,’ he says, ‘when the boss has gone, the guys make a fuss of Big Luke.  They slap him on the back and make thumbs up and pump away at his hand.  And, when Luke says it ain’t nothing at all, they say he is just being modest.  Luke makes like he don’t want to hear it but, all the same, he’s pretty damned pleased.’

Eli narrows his eyes and fixes them on Jerry.  He wants to be completely sure that his audience is paying attention.

‘Thing is,’ says Eli, ‘about eight months later Big Luke goes missing from the depot. Word goes round that he’s put in for a transfer and maybe he did. Fact is, though, no one knows for sure. No one knows nothing.  There ain’t no one I know of, not man or woman, ever saw Big Luke again.’

Eli sees that the point of his story has not been lost on Jerry who returns to the conveyor belt but no longer has his mind on his work.  For two or three minutes, he sifts through the lizards, sorting them for size and colour.  Some of them are dead already, others are plainly too big. Finally, he turns to face Eli with the air of a man who wants answers. A thirteen inch gecko hangs limply from his fingers.  He holds it by the tip of its tail.

‘So you are saying’ he says, ‘that I shouldn’t complain.’ He makes the gecko swing about a little and seems to be studying it real close. ‘In short, you’re telling me to hush my mouth lessin’ I get what’s coming and end up like this little fella with no bark or bite.’

Eli shrugs his shoulders and turns back to the belt.‘I ain’t telling you nothing,’ he says. ‘Plain truth is, I ain’t rightly talking at all.  What I is doing is minding my business and working my way through this job sheet. Maybe it’s about time you was doing the same.’

Jerry looks at Eli quizzical like and then they turn back to the belt. Lizards of all species, all colours and all sizes, are still trundling by. On the platform that stands to Eli’s left, there is a growing pile of corpses.  Funny thing is, it just so happens nearly all of them are geckos.

***
About two hours later the lizards are done.  Eli is finishing the paper work and Jerry is sluicing down the belt.  It has been a hard day but Eli is happy that the job didn’t drag on till morning.  He likes it best when he can come in early knowing they are up to date.

‘When you’ve finished that,’ Eli says to Jerry, ‘don’t forget to spray.  That stink will be ten times worse once the place has been shut up for the night.’

‘Ok, ok, I know,’ says Jerry and you can tell he’s kind of touchy but he goes off to get the spray and his boots make muddy marks on the floor. Anyway, Jerry comes back and you can see he isn’t happy. He has the freshener spray in one hand and his mop in the other.  He is fairly stomping along.

‘Shoot,’ he says as he is retracing his steps, ‘wouldn’t you damn well know it?  Hey, you know,  I just bumped into one the guys from upstairs.  You ain’t gonna believe what he told me.’

Jerry is in the act of pitching the air freshener canister to Eli when the double doors open and in walks the boss. He has on this very sorrowful look like he has just heard someone’s died and Jerry watches with horror as the canister strikes the floor.  Everybody else kind of freezes on the spot but the boss just raises his eyebrows and makes with this great big cheesy smile as if to say that everything’s ok.  Then the smile is kind of wiped away and the sorrowful look clicks back into place. The effect, Jerry thinks, is as if one clown mask is being worn over another.

‘Eli,’ says the boss, ‘I am glad I have caught you. I’ve been mulling things over. I think we may be wrong about the lizards.  It’s too much like the frogs. Fact is, I’m pulling the plug on this one. We need to start afresh.’

Eli is taken aback.  His mouth sags a little.  On the other hand, he is a wily old fox and too long in the tooth to let on.

‘Yes, Sir’ he says, ‘I’ll pick up the job sheet first thing in the morning.’

‘No,’ says the boss, ‘you misunderstand me. I need this attended to now.’

Eli and Jerry exchange looks but the boss doesn’t see this.  He is too busy checking on the figures that he keeps in his little leather book.  He doesn’t see Eli raise his hand in warning or Jerry’s eyes narrow.  He doesn’t feel the tension between one man and the next that tightens like a net across the room.

The boss closes his notebook and puts it in his breast pocket. He pats the pocket as if to satisfy himself that everything is in order. ‘Two thousand ought to be enough,’ he says.  ‘Shall we say not later than seven?’

He doesn’t wait for an answer but is already half way out the door.  But then he pauses and stands in the doorway, his head cocked to one side.  He looks like a man who has just forgotten the very thing he came there to say.

’By the way, Jerry, it almost slipped my mind. I wonder if you can give me a minute. There’s something I’d like to discuss with you — in the office upstairs.’

Jerry looks at Eli and Eli looks at the boss.  Then he shrugs his shoulders, a movement so small you can hardly see it at all.  As the door closes behind Jerry, Eli is starting up the conveyor belt.

‘Mice,’ he says. ‘Friggin’ mice.’

                                                         © Abigail Elizabeth Ottley

 

 

About the Author:

 

Abigail Elizabeth Ottley writes poetry and short fiction from Penzance in Cornwall. Since 2009 her work has appeared in numerous journals, magazines and anthologies. These include ‘The Lake’, ‘The Blue Nib’, ‘Atrium’, ‘The Atlanta Journal’ and ‘Ink, Sweat & Tears’. Abigail was featured in ‘Wave Hub: new poetry from Cornwall’ edited by Dr. Alan M. Kent and was among the winners for ‘Poems on the Move’ at last year’s Guernsey Literary Festival. 

My Place by Lynn White

TheGardener
The Gardener by India Hibbs, 2019

 

My Place

 

I creased the page

to keep my place,

but when I returned

I was unsure,

unsure if I had found it.

Was it really my place,

the place

I’d once inhabited.

It didn’t seem quite right.

Perhaps I’d moved on too quickly,

turned over two pages instead of one.

Perhaps I should go back,

retrace my steps.

Maybe then I’ll find my place.

 

About the Author

Lynn White lives in north Wales. Her work is influenced by issues of social justice and events, places and people she has known or imagined. She is especially interested in exploring the boundaries of dream, fantasy, and reality. She was shortlisted in the Theatre Cloud ‘War Poetry for Today’ competition and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Rhysling Award. Her poetry has appeared in many publications including Apogee, Firewords, Capsule Stories, Light Journal and So It Goes. 

  https://lynnwhitepoetry.blogspot.com and https://www.facebook.com/Lynn-White-Poetry-1603675983213077/

 

 

Introducing Carl Scharwath

Editor’s Comment: We were impressed by Carl’s play with light and shade. Do you think you can WRITE about light and shade in your poem or prose? Use these images as a prompt for your writing.

 

Images by Carl Scharwath (clockwise): Entrance; Embrace; Black and White; Art Colony; Building

About the Author:

Carl Scharwath has appeared globally with 150+ journals selecting his poetry, short stories, interviews, essays, plays or art photography (His photography was featured on the cover of 6 literary journals.) Two poetry books ‘Journey To Become Forgotten’ (Kind of a Hurricane Press). and ‘Abandoned’ (ScarsTv) have been published. His first photography book was recently published by Praxis. Carl is the art editor for Minute Magazine, a dedicated runner and 2nd-degree black- belt in Taekwondo.

 

A Journey by Train by Matthew Roy Davey

'Above us'
Above us by Amy McCartney, 2019

 

Mama packed the bags days ago, but she won’t let me tell anyone.  She says people will be jealous, but I think she’s worried about getting in trouble with school.

I can tell she’s excited, she can’t sit still and runs for the phone every time it rings.  It’s never Papa though.  He’s not allowed to call.  Mama can’t wait to see him again.  She says he’s at the end of the journey.  Two trains and a boat and then another train.  I’ve never been on a big boat before.  I keep asking when we’re going but Mama gets angry and snaps that she doesn’t know.  I can’t wait to see Papa.  His face is starting to get blurry in my brain.  I can remember his smell though, like leather and soap.  A warm smell.

There’s a knock at the door.  She nearly jumps out of her skin.  It’s Peter.  I have to call him Uncle Peter.  He’s not really my uncle.

“Get your bag,” Mama tells me.

Halfway to the station, I realise we’ve left Martha behind.  Mama tells me it’s too late, we’ll have to leave her, but I start crying and Peter turns the car around.

“We should still make it,” he says.

I don’t go in to get Martha, Peter runs in and finds her on my bed.  I say ‘thank you’ and put her safely in my bag.  I wonder if Mama’s got Martha’s ear – she still hasn’t sewn it back on – but I don’t dare ask.

Peter drives much faster this time and Mama keeps looking at her watch.  I see Peter take her arm and squeeze it.  I don’t like that.  I’ll tell Papa.

Peter stops in front of the station and we get out.  Peter has the tickets and he runs with us through the ticket hall to the platform.  He tells the ticket-collector he’s just carrying our bags.  Mama keeps looking over her shoulder and Peter is sweating.  The ticket-collector frowns but lets us through.  Peter is bundling us into the carriage when a whistle blows and I think the guard should have waited until the door was closed.  Then Peter is yanked back.  His eyes go wide as he disappears into the crowd of men.  They’re all wearing those horrid black uniforms and shiny boots.  One of them steps forward.  His hands are behind his back and he’s smiling but his eyes are like stones.  Mama’s hand starts squeezing mine so hard it hurts.  Her hand is getting slippery.  I can hear Peter shouting and then his voice stops in the middle of what he’s saying.  I can see him again.  Two men are holding him on each side, dragging him down the platform like a big dolly.  Some of the people on the platform have turned to watch but most are hurrying away, their heads down.  I reach inside my bag to make sure Martha’s ok, squeezing her softness.  The smiling man steps towards the train and holds out his hand.  He’s wearing black leather gloves.  I can smell him now he’s closer.  Sausages and cigarettes.

“Perhaps Papa will come to us now,” he says.

There’s a skull on his hat.  It’s smiling.

 

About the Author:

Matthew Roy Davey was the winner of The Observer Short Story Competition 2003 and winner of the Dark Tales competition (August 2013). He has also been long-listed for the Bath Flash Fiction Award (Spring and Autumn 2017), Reflex Flash Fiction competition (Spring 2017) and Retreat West Quarterly Competition (Summer 2018).  His story ‘Waving at Trains’ has been translated into Mandarin and Slovenian and been published in anthologies by Vintage and Cambridge University Press.  Recently he has been published by Everyday Fiction, Flash Fiction Magazine, Odd Magazine, and Flash: The International Short-Story Magazine.  He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

 

This is a Frankenstein Night by Jane Burn

Puddle by Amy McCartney, 2019

 

This is a Frankenstein Night.

Re-build the monsters in your life. Finish work in the dark, pace
the salted car park to where you parked. You spent the shift
smiling, cramping on un-passed wind. The waistband bites.
Check behind, let go of painful blusters as you waggle across
the stiffened grit. Turn to unlock the car, be feared that someone
might grab your back, pull out your lungs, crack your spine,
ground you like a broken doll. Sit at the wheel and scream
your breath. Press a thumbnail to the opposite hand and scrape

a beautiful traipse of pain. Mourn the lack of spectacle. Too much
night for birds. Snatch what you can from the headlight’s fan.

Stretch your voice to the radio. Make your throat a wishing well.

.

About the Author:

Jane Burn is a Forward and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet who is based in the North East of England. Her poems have been widely published in many magazines, including Butcher’s Dog, The Rialto, Under the Radar, Crannog, Strix and Iota Poetry. Her work has also been included in anthologies from publishers such as The Emma Press, Seren,  and Smokestack. Since 2014, Jane has been lucky to have success in forty-one poetry competitions. Her eighth book, Yan, Tan, Tether is due to be released by Indigo Dreams.

Heavy Absence by Edward Lee

Inner spaces
Inner Spaces by India Hibbs, 2019

 

Sunday, 5:00 pm. I have just strapped my daughter into her car seat; she’s perfectly capable of doing this herself, but it gives me a gentle pleasure to do it for her. I give her an extra hug and kiss, tell her I love her and close the door. Her mother starts the engine of the car, pulls out from the pavement and drives away, the two of them returning to the family home. My daughter waves to me through the window and blows me kisses. I wave and blow her kisses in return. I will not see her for another thirteen days.

I stand at the side of the road for a moment longer, a heavy nothingness settling in my chest like a slowed detonation. Over the next thirteen days that heaviness will spread – explode – throughout my body until I can feel it in the tips of my toes and fingers. As it spreads its mass will increase until it seems as though it is weighing down my very existence. At approximately 11:00 am, on the Saturday morning thirteen days away, when I see my daughter again, that heavy nothingness will whiplash back into the centre of my chest, falling into semi-dormancy until the Sunday at 5:00pm when I once again strap my daughter into her car seat and watch her drive away for another thirteen days, and it slowly explodes throughout my body again, an ever-repeating pattern, my own personal circle of hell.

I try not to think about the next thirteen days as I turn from the road and, with slow steps and stooped shoulders, re-enter the house in which I am staying, confined to one room – my home, the family home which my daughter and her mother are returning to, is a locked building to me since myself and my daughter’s mother separated over a year ago. The evening to come will be hard enough to get through without absorbing tomorrow and the twelve days after into my being all in one go, but, of course, by trying not to think about it I am thinking about; there will be entire days over the next thirteen days, as there has been over the past multitude of thirteen days, when it is all I can think about, no matter how much I try to distract myself with writing or exercise or music or reading, when, in fact, I am utterly incapable of writing or reading, of listening to music or forcing my body to perform any task which requires conscious deliberate thought. Walking up the stairs to my room I can already feel my mood plummeting into a watery abyss I feel I could drown in. For thirty hours I felt like a father again, seeing my daughter, being with her, minding her, feeding her, playing with her, putting her to bed and reading to her, waking her the next morning and doing it all again; all those things which when done every day – as I used to do them every day as a stay-at-home dad – can become repetitive and almost annoying, and from which you sometimes wish you could be spared, but when taken from you become everything that ever gave your life meaning, and which you would be willing to make any sacrifice to reclaim. And now those thirty hours are over, and I have been made a distant father once more, and this switch, though I am expecting it, and have been experiencing it every second weekend for over a year now, is as breathtaking and sudden as it was the very first time.

I will sleep little tonight, and the few hours I do get will be broken hours. When I wake on Monday morning I will feel as though I have had no sleep at all. My daughter not being there as she was there only the morning before, will add a hard pain to the heaviness in my chest, stalling the breath in my lungs; I will feel not just like an absent father but like I am not a father at all, that I am in fact an interloper in my daughter’s life – and this sensation too will only increase as the thirteen days proceeds – and I will want to close my eyes and not open them again until the Saturday morning when it is our weekend together. But I won’t. I will rise from the bed because I must rise. My life must be lived and this is my life now, this spreading heaviness and repeated pain, this seeing my daughter thirty hours out of three-hundred-and-thirty-six; the world does not cease its spinning simply because you are undergoing some hardship – even my daughter knows this – though, I freely admit, I sometimes wish, more childish than my own child, that it would stop its turning, or, at the very least, I might cease to exist for a moment, cease to think, to feel, to be spared for a handful of minutes from wondering, childishly so again, what I might have done to deserve this life.

And just as I will rise Monday morning, I will rise Tuesday morning, and every morning after, fighting the urge to not rise at all. I will stumble through my days, because what else can I do? I worry that after all this time – seventeen months to be precise, seventeen months this very day as I type these words – that this nothingness still sits so heavy inside me, that there is still such fresh and eager pain; even allowing for the pain born from the ending of the relationship with my daughter’s mother, pain which, thankfully, has faded away into a dull echo, it still seems excessive for this heaviness to be still so relentlessly prominent. It is not that I have been expecting it to have passed by now, but surely, after seventeen months, it should have lessened as I grow accustomed to it, or if not accustomed, at least somewhat inured – and I have spoken to other separated fathers and they have told me that it does lessen to such a degree that you are barely aware of it, and they are quick to voice their genuine surprise that it has not done so for me after so much time – but it has not lessened, it has not eased, it is a weight so prominent and unyielding that it feels like an extra organ in my body, pushing aside my heart and my lungs to make room for itself, and it does not feel like it will ever lessen; potentially another childish thought, a ‘my world is over’ kind of statement, but one that is solidly real in its sad surety. In fact, it sometimes feels like it gets worse every time, the burst of pain as I say goodbye to my daughter on the Sunday evening a milligram heavier, a millimetre deeper, than it was two weeks before, as though the repetitiveness of it is not allowing it to heal, like a scab that is constantly pulled off just moments before it can become a scar and is made all the worse for this cruel savagery.

Part of the problem might be to do with the depression I have suffered with all my life, how, among the many ways it impacts my life (the unwanted gift that keeps on giving), it can amplify stress and other negative emotions while also allowing them to continue beyond what would be a normal duration of such emotions and experiences. Maybe I simply need more time to acclimatize myself to this change in my relationship with my daughter, as I usually need more time to overcome stress or sadness or anxiety. Maybe another seventeen months. Thirty. Forty. I hope not, because not only does my depression amplify that heaviness, my depression, in turn, is amplified by that heaviness, detrimentally affecting not just my emotions, but all aspects of my life from my concentration to my appetite, and everything in between that make up the day-to-day living of a life.

I find much-needed comfort in the fact that my daughter, in that awe-inspiring way of children, has adjusted to the change in her life, her parents no longer together and living apart; her heart is still kind, her smile is still warm, her eyes still full of love. And as that heavy nothingness which contains her absence at its very centre spreads itself though my body across those thirteen days which seem to progress as though each one contains more than the normal twenty-four hours, it is the thought of her kind heart, her warm smile, and her loving eyes, that gets me through each of those too-long days, until that Saturday morning finally arrives and she is there running towards my arms, her eyes, so like mine, alight, her face shining with her beautiful smile, and the most wonderful word I have ever known rushing from her mouth like a promise that yes, it will eventually get better, someday: Daddy.

 

 

About the Author:

Edward Lee’s poetry, short stories, non-fiction and photography have been published in magazines in Ireland, England and America, including The Stinging Fly, Skylight 47, Acumen and Smiths Knoll.  His debut poetry collection “Playing Poohsticks On Ha’Penny Bridge” was published in 2010. He is currently working towards a second collection.

He also makes musical noise under the names Ayahuasca Collective, Lewis Milne, Orson Carroll, Blinded Architect, Lego Figures Fighting, and Pale Blond Boy.

His blog/website can be found at https://edwardmlee.wordpress.com

 

 

Home for the Holidays by Emily Huber

Bridging hands
Bridging Hands by Amy McCartney, 2019

Alana heard frenzied scratching on the other side of the door as she turned the key in the lock. She barely had it open even an inch when Walrus Face forced his bulbous head into the gap, his eyes rolling in every direction and his tongue flapping wildly in his mouth. Alana nudged him back into the apartment with one foot.

“Jeez, Wally, calm down.”

She pulled the door closed behind her. The dog flipped around suddenly, throwing himself at the floor and bouncing up again and again. Alana rolled her eyes at him and threw her bag on the counter.

“You dork.”

She knew she shouldn’t be annoyed with him, and she wasn’t. Not with him anyway. She wasn’t sure what had irritated her, but that wasn’t unusual. These feelings often came out of nowhere. Still, that annoyance, the unsettledness got to her, it itched at her brain. What is it, Alana. Something must be wrong.

She’d felt fine when she went to work that morning. Well, maybe that wasn’t true. Maybe she’d been feeling this way all week. But again, it was hard for her to tell. Anyway, she’d felt seemingly fine today when she went to work. It was the last day before their brief holiday vacation, and that meant no one in the office was focused enough to get anything done. Everyone was preoccupied sharing holiday plans and traditions.

“I’m having an ugly sweater party tomorrow, if you want to come” Rebecca said. She was the girl who sat at the desk behind Alana’s, and she was the chattiest person at the office by far. It was Rebecca that’d started the whole conversation about the holiday vacation in the first place.

“I can’t,” the girl who sat across the aisleway from the two of them, Maya, said. “I’m leaving early today. I have a flight to Michigan at four.”

“Oh, that’s exciting! You must be excited to go home this year.”

“I am, but the airport is just going to be chaos today.”

“Yeah, that does kind of suck. What about you, what are your plans, Alana?”

“Oh, I’ll probably just stay home. Hang out with Wally.”

“Oh,” Rebecca said. “Well, if you’re not doing anything, you should come to my party tomorrow. I’d love to have you there.”

“Thanks. That sounds like fun.” Alana knew when she said it that she would not be going.

It wasn’t Rebecca’s pity for her Christmas plans that annoyed her. She didn’t care what the other girls thought. It was something in the air—wherever she went lately, she couldn’t get away from it.

There’s no place like home for the holidays . . .

It followed her as she left work at the end of the day. But on the drive home it was more of the same.

No matter how far away you roam . . .

It sank like stones in her stomach.

I’ll be home for Christmas . . . you can count on me . . .

Alana turned off the music. Her heartbeat echoed in her empty chest, and she made the decision to avoid the radio for the rest of the holiday.

Now that she was finally home in her apartment with Wally, Alana kicked off her shoes and felt the coolness of the hardwood floor through her socks. She shivered and made herself a cup of tea. She breathed in through her nose and counted the things in her kitchen that started with the letter “s,” and she willed her shoulders to release. She carried her tea carefully across the room to the couch, Walrus Face twirling around her ankles. She sat down gingerly, and Wally leapt up beside her and rolled onto his back so his bulging stomach rose above his flattened snout. Alana half-heartedly reached out to scratch his belly before she turned on the television.

Here, too, there was that feeling. On the television was a holiday commercial for a big box store, showing small children in their matching pajamas squealing with joy as they opened their presents. Their parents looked on with bright smiles as the melodic sound of bells rang in the background. Alana rubbed her head with one hand.

She remembered her own Christmas like that, in her matching PJs. She couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old. She knelt on the living room floor, tucked half under the Christmas tree, looking up at her older sister, mother, and father who were sitting on the couch.

“Alright, Alana, hand out the next one,” her mother said.

Alana stretched out her arm. She grabbed a box that was heavy, and she could hear something grainy shifting inside as she pulled it out. “It’s for Mom.”

Her mother took it from her. It was clearly a gift from Alana’s father—neither Alana nor her sister were skilled enough to wrap their presents so neatly. Alana’s mother opened the box carefully, almost weakly, and her face remained neutral and still like a doll’s.

“A set of bath salts . . . and lotion . . .”

Alana’s father leaned back against the arm of the couch, his voice stern. “Vanilla. It’s your favorite.”

Alana’s mother’s face still didn’t change. “Thank you. Would you go preheat the oven for breakfast?”

Alana’s father got up without a word and went to the kitchen. Her mother tucked the gift under the couch and shook her head. “Anything but vanilla. I hate vanilla. Gives me a headache. Pull out the next one, dear.”

Alana reached back once more. This gift felt thin like paper, and it had her name on it. She tore it open. It was a monthly calendar with pictures of puppies on it.

“Merry Christmas,” Mariah said.

Alana didn’t say a word. She looked up at her sister, who laid against the back of the couch with her arms crossed. She appeared to be staring into space, tuning all of them out. Alana checked underneath the tree. There were no more presents for them to open.

“Do you want me to heat up the mashed potatoes?” her father called from the kitchen.

“Ew, I hate mashed potatoes,” Mariah sneered.

“Yes,” Alana’s mother called back. She turned and gave Mariah a light smack on the shoulder. “Would it kill you to not be so ungrateful? For god’s sake it’s Christmas.”

Mariah shrugged and rolled her eyes. Alana stood and went to the table for breakfast.

 

Alana changed the channel. The next channel was a news station, and a middle-aged reporter popped up on screen in front of an image of a crowded airport.

“Airport traffic is at an all-time high, and massive snowstorms are threatening to delay hundreds of flights across the country as travelers rush home to visit their loved ones . . .”

Alana muted the television. She watched the reporter’s mouth move in front of the image of the crowded airport. Beside her, Wally, still laying like a log on his back, had started snoring. Alana could still hear the tin sound of the music in her head.

I’ll be home for Christmas . . . you can count on me . . .

Massive snowstorms are threatening to delay hundreds of flights across the country as travelers rush home to visit their loved ones . . .

Alana reached for her computer on the coffee table. She went through the motions slowly, nervously. It was a lot of money, but still possible to get a round-trip flight on Tuesday. There was still a little time, if she wanted to. But she wasn’t sure. She felt sick to her stomach, and so weak she couldn’t stand, couldn’t do anything else until she’d thought about it from every angle.

She could picture it, almost. She could see herself sitting at the kitchen table, her skin crawling and unable to control her fidgeting fingers winding around her coffee mug. Her mother circled around the kitchen, moving cases of food from the fridge to the oven to the counter and back again, all while watching Alana without turning her head.

“So . . . do you like your therapist?” she set a timer on the stove. “I mean, she better be good. Too expensive not to be.”

“I don’t want to talk about therapy, Mom.”

“You know what I was reading? I saw online that there are these vitamins that you can get that are supposed to support your . . . emotions. Hormones, stuff like that. That seems good, yeah? Vitamins? Maybe you should give that a shot.”

Alana buried one hand in her hair and tried to remain composed. “I don’t need vitamins, Mom.”

“Well, I’ll send you the article about them anyway. Let me know what you think.” She glanced over at Alana with her lips pursed. “Couldn’t you at least act like you’re happy to see us? At least smile? It’s Christmas.”

“I’m just tired.”

Her mother shook her head. “You could at least try to be in the holiday spirit, Alana. This is your home, you know.”

Alana didn’t respond. She squeezed the mug in her hand and looked deep into her drink. Her eyes felt warm and lost. When it was clear her mother did not intend to say more, Alana got up and took her coffee into the dining room.

Her sister looked up from her phone when she entered. Mariah didn’t say anything, but Alana felt the urge to leave like the force of a wave rolling off of her. She was about to turn around and retreat to her old room when Mariah spoke.

“So.” The dreaded ‘so.’ It bit her like a thumbtack in her lip yet again, the twentieth time this trip. “Mom says you’re in therapy now. What happened?”

“Nothing happened,” Alana said. “I’m going to my room.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Mom says you have anxiety.” Mariah leaned back in her chair, her eyes back on her phone screen. “But I don’t see how you’re any different. You’ve always been antisocial.”

Alana’s head started to pound. She blew out a strained breath. “I need some air.”

“If you were just going to avoid us the whole time, why did you even come?”

Alana clenched her jaw and turned back the way she came. Hot and tight with anger she marched past the living room, where her father sat motionless in his recliner watching the football game.

On Christmas morning, Alana awoke and put on her fuzzy socks. She wrapped herself in a blanket and went into the kitchen, and Wally joined her, trotting in circles around her feet. She moved from cabinet to cabinet and pulled things out of the fridge for her breakfast. She listened to the bubbling of the pancake batter and the sizzle of bacon on the pan. She brewed up some coffee, took her medicine for the day, and piled her pancakes onto a plate. She dumped on syrup and covered them in whipped cream—ridiculous amounts of both, almost too sweet to eat. She took her plate to the couch and hummed to herself.

There’s no place like home for the holidays . . .

She sat down, and Wally hopped up beside her. She pulled a few bacon strips from her plate and set them on a napkin for Wally. He gobbled them up, slobbering a little on his front paws. Alana pulled her blanket around her shoulders and settled in.

THE END

 

About the author:

Emily Huber master’s student at New York University living in Brooklyn, and an editor on their literary journal Caustic Frolic. I have had fiction published in the literary journal The Foundationalist.