Not Coffee by Frances Mulholland

Fiction

 

Queen of hearts

Queen of Hearts by Victoria Holt, 2017

 

An ex-wife is someone you can hate, but a dead wife is untouchable. Everything you ever did together is preserved in amber, mounted on the stage of your life for your friends and family to look at whenever they feel like it. That’s it, ladies and gentlemen, step right up! You don’t even have to buy a ticket! The greatest entertainment for human beings is picking over the bones of dead loved ones.

When their father died, his little sister went a bit crazy for a while. She would only talk to people in words or phrases their dad had used. Coming into a brightly-lit room, she would turn the light off and say, “It’s like Blackpool Illuminations in here!” When their mother bought a new dress and shoes for the funeral, she opened her eyes wide and cried out, “What do you think I am? MADE of money?”

Their grandmother had ticked her off for that one. It was almost funny watching a six year-old wag her finger at a septuagenarian and growl, “You’re not too big to go across my knee, young lady! Now get out that door and straighten your face unless you want your arse skelped!”

David had been mortified at the way his mother had sobbed, and had kept his head down all day. He was keeping his head down now. He spent his days under the covers, in the bed that still smelled of Her. His mother called round every day to check he hadn’t “done something silly”, and to bleach the benches. She talked to him about the extension she was having built and what food she’d put in his fridge, but he heard it all through a bubble.

*

‘At least it was quick.’

‘I’ll say it was quick, it took her bloody head off!’

‘Oh, for God’s sake, is there any need to be so flippant?’

‘I’m not, I’m just saying-‘

‘Well DON’T “just say”.’

‘He’s in a state.’

‘Wouldn’t you be?’

‘I saw him round the Co-op. He’d forgotten what he’d come in for.’

‘I do that all the time.’

‘Yes, but your wife hasn’t just died, has she?’

‘What had he gone in for?’

‘Does it matter?’

*

People kept telling him that they would have to “go for coffee”. He hated that expression. He hated coffee. An invitation to coffee wasn’t about you, and almost always never came to anything. They said it for themselves, not for you.

*

Take as much time as you need –

                       but don’t leave it too long, because we’ll have to pay a temp if you’re off for more than two weeks.

How are you really?

                       can I have the juicy details you haven’t told anyone else?

She won’t have felt a thing, you know.

                       apparently, Anne Boleyn‘s lips kept moving after her head was cut off.

Eternal rest give unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her. May she rest in peace, Amen.

                       sorry, I’m afraid that’s the best we can do.

Have you given any thought to when you might be back?

You can stick your bloody job.

*

Six months went by and he lived off his savings. She’d been killed in their car, so he walked everywhere. He lost weight, and had to buy new clothes. The money for the new car sat in the bank.

*

Eight months after her death, he had to catch a train to London to attend the funeral of an uncle he’d never been close to. He paid extra for first-class, hoping for peace and quiet. But someone was threatening to kill themselves, and the passengers started to complain. They had more important things to do than hope a soul would stay anchored inside its host. David got off and vomited on the platform – yellow bile, and the complementary croissant that the passengers who were Worth More got. The prospective suicide was apparently averse to the sight of bodily fluids, and changed their mind.

A middle-aged woman asked David if he was alright.

‘My wife was killed in a car crash.’ Oh, that’s not what she meant, he thought.

‘Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry!’

He could feel the mist lifting. The woman was speaking to him and he could hear the shock in her voice clearly; he didn’t have the bubble around him anymore. No more conversations about extensions and what do you want for tea. When he got to London, he would buy a new suit for Uncle Donnie’s funeral.

‘It’s alright.’ He wiped his mouth with his sleeve. ‘She was leaving me for someone else at the time.’

*

He enjoyed the funeral. The service was short, the buffet was plentiful, he hadn’t been close enough to Donnie to feel terribly sad, and after all, the man had been ninety-seven. The phrase “good innings” was bandied about a lot at the club afterwards.

He didn’t know his London family very well, but they commiserated with him over his wife’s death, clapped him on the back and bought him whiskies.

‘ ‘Alf a lager when you’ve got a minute, darlin’!’

‘Two double rum and cokes over ‘ere, sweetheart!’

‘Packet of pork scratchings, love! And a smile wouldn’t go amiss!’

The barmaid was on her own, and she was getting more irate by the minute. David watched her through the warm glow of the three Irish whiskies he’d had. He’d never seen anyone so spectacularly ill-suited to the task of pulling pints and looking pleased to do so.

‘What are you doing? You can’t come behind here!’

David was behind the bar without quite knowing how he’d got there. He’d removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves.

‘You’ll never get this lot served on your own; they’re three deep as it is.’

She narrowed her eyes, watching him serve the double rum and cokes to the man with a face like a plate of varnished corned beef. ‘Well…you seem to know what you’re doing.’

*

An hour later, most of the mourners were belting out songs of the Motherland. ‘The Fields of Athenry’ had been sung four times.

The barmaid, who was called Michelle, was flirting with David. It had come as a surprise to him, after months of seclusion, that he was worth flirting with.

Michelle casually mentioned that she had a day off coming up in three days’ time, if he was still around. Just in case. If he was at a loose end. If he fancied doing something.

‘Yeah,’ David lied as he tried to recall through the haze of whiskey what time his train home was the next day. ‘We could go for coffee or something.’

 

About the Author:

Frances Mulholland has been writing ever since she was five years old when she realised that putting an amusing caption on a drawing of her dad could get cheap laughs. Her inspirations include folklore and mythology, as well as the everyday lives of the people around her. She lives in Northumberland.

Silence by Mike Fox

Fiction

 

Neuro_Mandala

Neuromandala by Stela Brix, 2018

Memories are an environment, don’t you think? And the longer you live the more that environment grows; like bindweed perhaps or, if you’re lucky, roses tangled round a trellis. Now I find that no new experience comes alone: each arrives enmeshed in things of the past.

 

I think of this as I walk along the river, the water silver and grey, ochre near the bank where it reflects the autumn foliage. A cluster of small craft float, moored together in midstream, still as an island. Mist lies on the water like silence, and I think of the day, the early summer afternoon, the very quiet, still moment, when Geraldine kissed me. For a few seconds I can even feel the press of her lips on my cheek.

*

It was the other girls who’d started it, although the boys soon joined in. Puberty was the problem – it’s easy to see that in hindsight. Previously she’d been as inconspicuous as the rest of us. She and I had sat next to each other right through junior school and on into seniors. We had borrowed each other’s pens, caught each other’s bugs, and shared whispered answers to tricky questions, so that often we gave the same wrong answer.

 

I didn’t recognise her sudden blossoming, I genuinely didn’t, although now that seems inexplicable. I did notice the small gifts that started appearing on her desk. And the way some of the other boys began to stumble with their words when they spoke to her. They, I suppose, were the shy ones. Others started to ply her with embryonic chat-up lines, while she reddened and shrank.

*

I could tell she didn’t like it. Her head dipped and her long dark hair began to fall forward like a plea for privacy. Before long she stopped putting her hand up to answer questions. She spent more and more break time in the library. I could feel her withdrawing, even from me. If our shoulders touched when we shared a text book she would start and retreat, and soon there was an unbreachable inch of space between us, never before needed or even thought about.

 

Everyone’s skin is permeable. I know that now. Perhaps hers was more than most. She just didn’t want to stand out, and suddenly, unavoidably, she did. I can still frame her face: the lustre in her hair, the particular blue of her eyes and the small extra crease beneath the lower lids, the simplicity of her mouth and the default gentleness of her expression.

*

‘Stuck up cow.’ That was the moment it broke out. Before it had just been an atmosphere. Cora MacDonald, standing over her, staring down, Geraldine with her head bowed, not wanting to be seen. Teenage accusations are often wrong, or at least misplaced, but they’re fertile nonetheless. From that point on Geraldine did not fit in, would never regain the chance to.

 

Cora MacDonald was loud and physically strong. She had her coterie. They quickly fell in behind her. It wasn’t subtle, but it had no need to be. That very rare thing, a pure unblemished beauty, wished only to be invisible. All that was needed was to call attention to it.

*

Inevitably the boys started too, joining the pack, their teasing blunt with spite. What they couldn’t possess they could at least take part in destroying. I tried to protest and got my lip split. Geraldine looked at me and, almost imperceptibly, shook her head. Anything I did could only make it worse.

 

So I sat beside her – that was my one option: a single witness, each of us in our own form of exile. I watched as her spirit drew in on itself, as the space around her contracted, as the sense of her nearness diminished.

*

It stopped abruptly – the day our form teacher announced that Geraldine would be leaving at the end of term. No reason was given. Perhaps, in the moment of victory, the hunter finds compassion for their victim. Or perhaps that final brittle conquest allows them to see just what it is they’ve done. There were even some clumsy attempts at reconciliation, although it was clear Geraldine didn’t want those either.

 

The imprint of her lips fades from my cheek, and my mind returns to that final day of term, the last time I saw her. I’d said goodbye and walked away, but then heard footsteps running after me. When I turned she was there. She reached up, the press of her closed mouth gentle and deliberate, and then, somehow, I found myself alone, and for a few moments the world around me was silent.

*

Perhaps that was her parting gift: silence. She knew it better than most. The river mist is damp on my hair and clothes, the ash path still as a cloister, and I can hear no sound from the water.

 

About the Author:

Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness.  Now writing fiction, his stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His story Breath, published by Fictive Dream, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2019. His story Blurred Edges, published by Lunate Fiction, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2020. His story The Homing Instinct, first published by Confingo, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story, The Violet Eye, is available from Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook. www.polyscribe.co.uk or @polyscribe2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Go to Denver by Melissa Grunow

Fiction, Uncategorized
Mothwings

Mothwings by Stela Brix, 2018

In the dark, my hand was shadowed against the angel wings on his back. Some time ago ink-filled needles had ripped apart his body and taken on images and symbols with unexplained meanings, words without definitions. His skin, light and smooth, was an access point into the world within him. It was twisted, complicated, uninviting. I wanted all of it and nothing to do with it at the same time.

His tattoo crawled across my hand and danced with the shadows, consuming my palm.  His exposed neck waited, while he laid there facing away from me. I had attacked him while his soul was raw, his heart vulnerable. I had told him the truth about us, about him. And he didn’t like it.

“I’ll never completely trust you. You’ll never respect me in the way that I deserve. And we’ll always come back to that,” I had said just moments earlier.

Silence. “So what do we do?” he finally asked.

“I suppose we have two options.” I didn’t sound like myself. I was always asking the questions; he always had the solutions. He could see things that I couldn’t. But in the dark, something had shifted, and I was the one with the voice. “We can compromise, and that’s what makes us, well, us. Or this ends it.”

We hadn’t even defined it yet. Our worlds had collided together suddenly, physically, a sloppy attempt to fill gaps in ourselves left by others: his by a lover who left him because he could never be something he wasn’t, mine by an attacker who left me with a black eye and a persistent fear of parking lots. We found solace in how we mutually exist in the world. As the days passed, though, it became strikingly evident that how we react to and engage with others was so notably different. We didn’t know if we could survive it.

“This can’t last forever,” I had told him a week earlier during a late-night phone call. “This will change. We will change.”

We argued about love. He ran his hand over the Emily Dickinson quote tattooed on his chest, “That love is all there is, is all we know of Love,” and said, “Love is a promise that I will hurt you less than anyone else.” He turned over, looked through the dark and right through me.

I didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe in love, either, but I did understand loyalty. What I did not understand was why he would still go to Denver in the morning. Why he would pursue love with another, even if just for the weekend? Especially when I had just come home, whatever “home” was, to be with him.

I’ll be a wreck, I had told him. You already are, he had said. We had spent the past two hours talking about it. Being reasonable, fair, giving each other the chance to complete our thoughts.

“Don’t go to Denver,” I pleaded. My suitcase was sitting, still packed, at the foot of the bed. His empty suitcase was waiting next to the closet. There was still time for him to change his mind.

It doesn’t have anything to do with you, he said. I can’t accept that, I said. I’m not asking you to, he said. You can’t just use me, I said. I’m doing this because I want to be used, he said.

Round and round and round we went until I bit into his shoulder, and the talking stopped. A train blew its whistle outside the open window; a gentle fall breeze crept into the room, settling over the bodies of two lovers causing just one to shiver.

 

About the Author:

Melissa Grunow is the author of I DON’T BELONG HERE: ESSAYS (New Meridian Arts Press, 2018), finalist in the 2019 Independent Author Network Book of the Year Award and 2019 Best Indie Book from Shelf Unbound, and REALIZING RIVER CITY: A MEMOIR (Tumbleweed Books, 2016) which won the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Memoir, the 2017 Silver Medal in Nonfiction-Memoir from Readers’ Favorite International Book Contest, and Second Place-Nonfiction in the 2016 Independent Author Network Book of the Year Awards. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, The Nervous Breakdown, Two Hawks Quarterly, New Plains Review, and Blue Lyra Review, among many others. Her essays have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net and listed in the Best American Essays notables 2016 and 2018. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction with distinction from National University. She is an assistant professor of English at Illinois Central College. Visit her website at http://www.melissagrunow.com for more information.

A Tangible Beauty of Absence by Sue Pearson

Fiction, Uncategorized

 

CockelShell - A Tangable Beauty of Absence

A Tangible Beauty of Absence, 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.

 

 

The Gecko’s Tale by Abigail Ottley

Fiction, Uncategorized
20181105_143405 (1)

Children by Kasia Grzela, 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. 

A Journey by Train by Matthew Roy Davey

Fiction
'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.

 

Home for the Holidays by Emily Huber

Fiction
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.