I climbed through the death zone of Mount Everest and noticed the frozen bodies in the summit’s shadow. I passed them on the way up but focused on the summit I didn’t look at them. I was the slowest climber, the last to leave the summit. I stayed there for a long time waiting for a ghost from my past to appear. It never materialized. The haunting presence of the dead caught my eye on the descent, I glanced at one body and it appeared to move. “That had to be the wind or I’m suffering from mountain sickness,” I said aloud. I walked closer. The woman’s skin appeared smooth and milky white. She resembled a porcelain doll.
I touched her face and she flinched. I fell backward. “My God, she’s still alive.” The woman blinked and whispered in a foreign language. “I don’t understand. Can you speak English? “Don’t leave me,” she said. “I won’t,” I looked up at the summit. It looked farther away every minute I lingered here. I used my radio. “Alex, there’s a woman here who’s alive, but in bad shape.” The radio crackled. “Can she walk?” “No.” “What country is she from?” “Does that matter?” I fumbled with the radio. My hand started going numb since I took my glove off.
Alex didn’t answer, but after a few minutes, the radio clicked on. “Your teammates are already at the camp. They are not in good enough shape to go back up the mountain.
I shouldn’t have lingered at the summit, but after my brother died, I quit college and stayed at home until I saw a show about Everest. He was a mountain climber and he dreamed of reaching the summit of Everest. He planned everything then COVID struck and the mountain was closed for climbers. It crushed him. He drank a lot and stayed out late at night walking around the town then a drunk driver hit him. It was a hit and run. He died alone in the street. I climbed Everest in his place. I could complete his dream and find peace. People said I wouldn’t find him there, that he was gone forever, but I needed to find some way to feel closer to him. After months of training, I made it to the summit. I didn’t find him there. “Can anyone come up and help me get her down?” “I’m checking if anyone has the strength left to do it. You’re the last climber coming down.”
The fallen climber moaned.
“What’s your name?”
She tried to sit up, but she was too weak.
“Where are your teammates?” I asked.
“They had summit fever. They were so happy at reaching the summit they forgot about me when I fell behind.” A tear formed in Jelena’s eye as she said, “I climbed the six highest mountains in six different continents; this was the last one for all seven.” She struggled to show me a crumpled picture of her on Mount Kilimanjaro. “I would have been a hero in my village in Serbia.” I put my hand on hers. “I didn’t think anyone would ever stop.” She looked at me. “But you did.”
Guilt washed over me as the thought of leaving kept coming to me. I looked at the dead bodies scattered around us then saw that Jelena’s eyes closed, I feared she joined them. I wanted to keep her talking, so I asked, “Do you have any family?” “I have a son.” She blinked back tears. “I should have stayed home with him.” “I’ll make sure you get back to him.” The camp got farther away. “We survived COVID, we can get through this.” It didn’t help.
“I should have stayed home,” Jelena said. “I wish I could go back in time; I would stay with my son.”
My radio crackled. “Chloe, this is Alex. The Sherpas are helping climbers down to the lower camps. You’re the last person coming down. It will take a long time to reach you.” Jelena coughed so hard I saw blood on her mask. I noticed that her oxygen bottle was almost empty. Snow flurries floated down as ominous-looking storm clouds formed nearby. My head throbbed so I turned up my oxygen. Then the camp called. “Chloe, there’s a storm coming, you must leave now. It looks terrible.” “She’s still alive,” I yelled. “You can’t save her.” I clicked the radio off and put my glove on, I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore. The snow intensified as I huddled next to Jelena. The radio crackled with warnings about the approaching storm. “Please go,” Jelena said. I didn’t want to tell her it was already too late. I would encounter the storm on the way down. It was impossible to make it through a storm.
She tried to reach out to me, but she gasped for air.
I noticed her oxygen bottle was empty. I put my mask on her.
The radio crackled. “Chloe. You must leave now.” The snow blew sideways. My hand was too cold to work on the radio, so I didn’t bother to answer. “Please take your oxygen back.” Jelena tried to remove the mask.
“No,” I pushed her hand away.
She blinked back tears. “Chloe, please save yourself.” “I have to stay. My brother was killed by a drunk driver. He died alone on a desolate road.” I wiped my eyes. “I can’t leave you.” “I’m sorry,” Jelena said. Snow accumulated around us. I realized we were alone now. Jelena’s eyes were closed as I huddled next to her. “I think I’m in heaven because I see an angel,” she said. “No, it’s only me.” I moved closer to her. “If I die, leave my body here. I feel closer to my brother here and closer to heaven itself.” Jelena tried to grasp my hand. “If I die, dream a little dream of me. Picture me with my son, not like this.” I thought she was crying, but frost covered the mask.
“I won’t let you die,” I said, but my heart broke in pieces. I closed my eyes as my hand went numb. Darkness spread across the mountain bringing deadly temperatures. I angled my body to block the snow from covering her. The snow buried me and I knew that if I fell asleep, I might never wake up again. Before long, my eyes closed until my frostbitten hand tingled, and warmth spread through my body. I looked up and my brother smiled at me, and held my hand. I then saw a bright light and I never felt more alive.
But I wasn’t alive. I floated above my dead body; as peace overcame me. It was like all the worries in my life dissipated at the same time. My brother was by my side.
I saw the Sherpas place Jelena on a stretcher. One of her eyelids fluttered. She was alive in the Death Zone. The snow let up and streams of the morning sun streaked through the nearby cloud-covered mountains meaning we stayed on the mountain all night. It was a miracle she survived the night.
“Chloe?” Jelena mumbled. A Sherpa I recognized from the base camp shook his head.
“She saved my life.” Jelena sobbed as they carried her down the mountain. My body was left in the Death Zone, but I was no longer there. I looked around and saw amazing views that I never noticed on the way up. I looked at the peak of Everest, then I looked down at Jelena and into her opened green eyes, and realized she would be with her son again. Relief washed over me as I saw my brother waiting for me and I reached heights higher than the summit of Everest.
About the Author
William Falo studied Environmental Science at Stockton University. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The UK journal Superlative, The Raconteur Review, Train River’s first fiction anthology, and other literary journals.
He kept dreaming that he took a wrong turning onto an empty motorway, and was sucked forward by the emptiness, faster and faster, a danger to no-one because no-one was there. The dreams stopped when Jackie appeared. She wasn’t jaywalking in his dream. Actually he’d been drinking alone in a bar again, not bothering to pace himself, no thought for the future. “Is it free?” she said, nodding towards the stool. He looked up at her – he’d seen her around the campus – then down into his pint, so she sat down anyway. “I’ve seen you here before. Wanna buy me a drink? Anything will do. Tell you what, I’ll share your next Guinness. Just ask for a straw. I’m Jackie by the way.” She held out her hand. When he didn’t shake it, she slipped it down his trousers.
They started hanging around together. He couldn’t really work her out. She knew so many people, yet she’d chosen to go around with him. Did she feel sorry for him, sex just an act of kindness? She said she was doing a multidisciplinary degree, which sounded more exciting than his geography. Did opposites really attract? She was full of enthusiasms and surprises. One night she said that her favourite Irish author was speaking in Nice. She’d never heard him talk about his works in French, she simply had to go. She asked him if he’d hitch-hike over with her. “Aren’t there cheap flights from Bristol?” he asked. “It’s not to save money, silly,” she said, “there’s the environment to consider.”
They got there after 6 rides, she chatting to drivers in French and German while he stared out the window. He was relieved when they booked into a hotel – he feared they’d end up on someone’s floor, or behind a hedge. The famous author spoke to a hall of about 20 through an interpreter, mostly about the IRA. After, walking through dark streets she picked up a traffic cone, held it to her mouth like a megaphone and spun round singing “All you need is Love.” She bought a pizza but wouldn’t let him eat it – she wanted it cold the next morning – they’d not paid for a breakfast. Cosy in bed that night he plucked up the courage to say that he wanted to learn more about her.
“So what do you want to know?” she said, rolling a cigarette with papers and tobacco she’d just bought. He’d never seen her smoke.
“What you’ve done with your life.”
“Oh, life model, blood donor – I’ve got special blood you know, – water diviner.”
“I only tried it to see if I was any cop. You never know until you try. If you can’t be beautiful at least be different.”
“But you are beautiful.”
“Tits like fried eggs. When I got fed up with pimply art students asking me out I worked in an Old People’s Home on Saturdays. Oh what fun we had. Snakes and Ladders, me rolling the dice for them and moving the pieces. And we played Hungry Hippos. We put 4 of them in wheelchairs head-to-head in a cross shape, gave them each a broom, and they had to drag little multi-pack cereal boxes from the middle. We were doing the pushing and pulling of course. The most exciting thing they’d done for yonks. Oh, I’ve done bucket-loads of things. The past – you can drag it along like a snail carrying its shell. I prefer to frisbee it away.” She picked her pillow up to show him what she meant, hurling it against the door.
“What do you want to be?” he asked. “Heard of Chaos Theory? They do it in maths. Small causes, big effects. Butterfly and hurricane.” She flapped her arms, blew in his face. “I go where the wind takes me.”
But he already knew that was a lie. He knew she was always heading for the borders, the grey zones, not to challenge simple rules (not speed limits – she couldn’t drive anyway) but the unwritten ones.
“Now I should ask you the same questions,” she said, “because that’s why people ask questions, isn’t it? But I won’t give you the satisfaction.”
After returning to Uni in one piece they didn’t see each other for a few days. He felt he’d come off a motorway and everything was in slow motion. He felt he’d gone from loner to socialite without the slog of finding friends. She’d introduced him to so many people – only a few words, but that was the hard bit. He could build on that. He nodded to people he recognized as they passed.
He had a cousin, Sue, at the same university. They met once a term to keep their families happy. They found an empty table in the Mandela coffee bar, she talking about her boyfriend John, he about his latest essay. Jackie suddenly appeared, sat on his lap, “Glad you got coffee,” she said to both of them, “Tea is for mugs.” She lap-danced, kissed him and walked out.
“That was a joke,” he said, when Sue said nothing, “Tea comes in mugs.”
“She’s on my course,” said Sue, “Sort of, anyway. She’s not allowed into lectures or seminars, she has to do everything by email.”
“She tries to sleep with lecturers. With anyone really. Are you two just friends?”
“We go out together sometimes.”
“Mum thinks you’re gay. Are you?”
He couldn’t sleep that night. Why him? he wondered again. To remind her that there’s always someone worse off? Just as he thought he’d understood her, she changed. She wore her life like a model the latest outlandish fashion, a different one each day. Holes where no holes should be. She was on the spectrum then slid off it. Everything – the motorways, the holes, the frisbees – were metaphors then real, his then hers. “It’s like a Mobius Band,” she’d told him once, “If you follow the surface you’ll end up in the other side. There’s nothing behind, nothing deep, nothing hidden. They do it in maths.” Could he spend his life with her? It would be like a game of draughts at first, her white pieces on white squares and his black ones on black. They could work things out eventually. Couples do. His parents would hate her though. And would Sue manage to keep quiet? No.
He and Jackie planned to meet on Friday in the campus plaza. He got there early, sat in his usual place under the clock. He watched her as she approached from afar. When she touched people’s shoulders they looked up, then away. When she greeted people, mostly they ignored her – even the boys. She reminded him of a beggar working through a carriage on the tube.
She sat beside him. She nudged him with her hip. “You don’t talk much do you? What’s up?” she asked.
“Got some bad results. If I don’t get the grades I need for the PhD I don’t know what I’ll do.”
“You’ll be ok,” she said, kissing him. “Don’t you ever worry about your work?” he said, “You never mention it.”
This was his plan. Either she came clean, or he’d end the relationship then and there. Even with his limited experience he knew that it wasn’t good for one person to be in complete control. Was it so wrong to want to know more about her? Didn’t he have rights? Could he cope with being alone again, just as he’d sorted his life out?
“Hey look, if it’s about that girl, don’t worry,” she said, “I’m not the jealous type. I’ll warn you though she’s going out with John the pile-driver.”
“Pile-driver?” “If you slept with him you’d understand.”
He’d expected her to do that – change the subject. She was going through a bad phase. He should be helping her, not thinking of dumping her before he became the laughing stock of the campus. “So what shall we do?” he said. “Tonight.”
A tedious Greek masterpiece put on by the Film Soc that night ended their affair. He couldn’t believe it had lasted only a term. For the rest of his life he remembered to talk more. He remembered to ask people the questions he wanted them to ask him. And holding his dying wife’s hand he remembered that there was always hope, that being alone was nothing to fear.
About the Author
Tim Love’s publications are a poetry pamphlet Moving Parts (HappenStance) and a story collection By all means (Nine Arches Press). He lives in Cambridge, UK. His poetry and prose have appeared in Stand, Rialto, Magma, Unthology, etc. He blogs at http://litrefs.blogspot.com/
I walk to work every day now. I notice things that I wouldn’t if I was driving: birdsong; cream, pink, and peach blossoms on the trees and the ground; and once, a parade of quad bikes bringing up the rear of a funeral cortege. It’s the seventh week of lockdown, and with fewer cars on the road, the air is sweet and clean.
My new job is hectically busy because of COVID-19, and it’s a temporary one, so I’m anxious to prove myself. The day passes quickly, and I’m looking forward to walking home. This morning, it was warm and balmy but for a crisp chill that raised the hairs on my arms as I walked along shaded sections of pavement, but the morning’s blue sky has turned gunmetal; a chill breeze comes through the open windows, with spittles of rain on the glass.
‘Off home?’ Nichola fingers the silver charm on her necklace.
‘Yeah.’ I look up briefly before returning to my screen.
We met yesterday, sitting at adjacent tables in the staff kitchen. I ate chicken pasta salad; she ate tuna sandwiches cut into triangles. We stayed two metres apart observing the social distancing rules. Everyone does, but Nichola is particularly careful.
‘Do you like cats, Michael?’
‘Er, no. No, I don’t.’
Her green eyes narrowed and seemed to dissect me, as though expecting something better. I sighed inwardly, annoyed at having to explain myself.
‘What I mean is, I’m not an animal lover. But I don’t hate them.’
Nichola yawned, showing small, sharp teeth. She licked a fleck of tuna from the corner of her lips. ‘Maybe you haven’t met the right cat,’ she said.
‘Maybe I don’t fucking want to.’ I didn’t say this. I just shrugged.
‘You can’t get coronavirus from cats,’ she said.
I didn’t reply. I decided to swerve Nichola from then on.
Now her eyes are on me as I stand and pull on my jacket. Her silver chain tinkles faintly as she runs it across her lower lip.
‘Do you want a lift? It’s going to rain.’
I’m about to refuse when the room darkens, and long wet splats begin to hit the windows with increasing speed. ‘OK,’ I say, knowing that I sound resigned rather than grateful.
We meet in reception, as arranged, and Nichola goes ahead of me down the stairs. From behind, I see that her lockdown roots are showing, and the sight of her pale orange hair with thin white stripes emerging from the crown is unsettling. I’m about to say that I’ve changed my mind, that I’ll walk home in the rain, when she turns around. ‘
Michael, could we stop at mine first? I’ve got some cat litter that I need a hand with. Bad back, you see.’
‘OK,’ I say. ‘
Great!’ She jumps the last few stairs, landing silently.
The rain has eased and the sky has brightened by the time we reach her old Volvo estate. I hover by the passenger’s door.
‘Ooh, would you mind sitting in the back?’ she says, her face screwed into exaggerated apology. ‘Social distancing.’
At first, I’m annoyed at being relegated to the back of the car, but after a few minutes, I feel relieved. Nichola is one of those confident drivers who has no right to be: tailgating; switching lanes without indicating; looking away from the road to fumble with the stereo. She suddenly brakes and pulls over at a bus stop, causing a lorry to swerve and blast its horn. She turns around to face me and light catches the pale hairs on her cheek and upper lip. The exaggerated apology face makes another appearance.
‘Michael, would you mind getting in the back? It’s just… well, we’re not quite two metres apart.’
‘The back?’ I say genuinely baffled. I was in the back. She gestures with her head to the space behind me.
I get out of the car and back in through the door of the large open boot. I avoid eye contact with the people at the bus stop in their blue and white face masks, although I want nothing more than to join them. As Nichola drives away without indicating, I watch them enviously through the rear window. They’re free while I’m sitting next to a thirty-litre sack of cat litter in the car boot of a mad woman.
The volume of sound increases abruptly through the car’s speakers, amplifying Jenny Murray’s voice mid-sentence: ‘–woman and her cat. Why does it make her a crazy cat lady when a man with a cat is just a man with a cat?’ I close my eyes, wishing I could close my ears. I try deep breathing but the smell woody of cat litter, overlaid by something meatier and denser, prevents me. My eyes are stinging, my belly roiling. My mouth fills with saliva and I think I’m going to vomit, just as the car slows and stops. I open my eyes to see a cul-de-sac of shabby semi-detached council houses. I’m aware of Nichola’s torso through the rear windscreen as she opens the boot.
‘I just need to run in and use the loo,’ she says.
‘Great,’ I say to the empty cul-de-sac. I get out of the boot and stretch my cramped legs. Wanting the job done, I lift the sack of cat litter and carry it towards the house, almost tripping over a large tabby cat that slaloms slowly between my legs. Another – white with black and tan splotches – sits in the downstairs front window, its tail flicking slowly up and down.
The front door is ajar and the keys still in the lock. I push it with my shoulder, dropping the sack of litter onto the hallway floor. Then it hits me: the eye-watering aroma of piss and the meaty smell of cat food that’s but one digestive step away from being cat shit. I hold my breath and return to the doorway, inhaling deeply and trying not to puke.
I take out my phone, open Google Maps and enter my post code. I’m five miles from home. Fuck it, I’ll walk. I feel a burst of energy and wild happiness. Keeping as close to the front door as possible, I turn in the direction of the staircase. I hear nothing: no running water or flushing.
‘Nichola?’ I step back into the hallway. The door to the left of me is closed. Could she be in there? ‘Nichola, I’m going. I’ll walk the rest of the way.’
Wishing I had a face mask, I cover my mouth and nose with my hand, and move slowly towards the closed door. The white, black and tan cat from the window is sitting there, watching me, flicking its tail. ‘Fuck off,’ I mouth silently. I grip the handle and slowly open the door. Another cat is visible inside the room, black with white paws, crouching low, its tail moving laterally across the carpet, ready to pounce. Jesus, how many cats does she have?
‘Nichola?’ I enter the room, opening the door fully with my elbow. There’s no furniture, apart from scratching posts and climbing frames with levers and fluffy balls. A large, enclosed litter tray flanked by two smaller ones sits below the windowsill, and in the middle of the room, a white and green mechanism that appears to dispense cat treats is next to a water fountain. Eight or nine cats of varying sizes and colours occupy the room. There’s no sign of Nichola. I’m about to leave when I hear an arrhythmic scrabbling sound from the enclosed litter tray, accompanied by the sudden smell of fresh cat shit.
‘Fuck me! Jesus!’ I gag, pressing both hands over my nose and mouth. The flap of the litter tray opens outwards and a fox-sized cat emerges, pale orange with white stripes. I watch in fascinated revulsion as it stalks towards me, green eyes fixed on mine. It purrs loudly and begins to rub itself against my calves as though it knows me, then jumps upwards playfully. I yell in pain as sharp claws pierced my thighs through my jeans. The cat retreats and licks its paws, looking bored.
I retreat to the hallway – grateful for a sudden gust of air that comes through the open front door – and go arse over tit onto the sack of cat litter. When I right myself, the large, ginger cat is sitting by the open front door, looking out at the path. I keep my eyes on it as I call out again to Nichola that I’m leaving. Again, no reply.
The cat blinks and yawns, showing small, sharp teeth. It licks the corners of its mouth then jumps up, pressing its paws against the open door, slamming it shut. The hallway is dark now. The cat is barely visible, apart from the white markings on its head and neck and a small silver charm on a chain around its neck that tinkles faintly.
About the Author
Barbara Robinson is a Manchester-based writer with an MA in Creative Writing from Manchester Writing School, MMU. Her novel thesis, Elbow Street, was shortlisted for 2018 Northern Writers’ Awards (Andrea Badenoch category) and longlisted for the Grindstone Literary Prize 2018. In 2016, her story Supersum was short-listed for the Willesden Herald Short Story Prize and published in Willesden Herald: New Short Stories 9. She has had short stories published by Confingo, Ellipsis Zine, Fictive Dream, Cicerone Journal and has been listed on the TSS Best British and Irish Flash Fiction list for the past two years.
It was not a feeling that she could describe with words. Rather, she just knew. That morning, when her mother called her from down the long corridor, she knew that there would be no moment of retreat. No retracing of her footsteps. Hermi lingered on threshold of her room, hanging onto the door frame with short, sharp, fingernails. She could hear her mother speaking to somebody else, the occasional sprinkling of her name in the conversation. She sounded ready for conflict.
‘HERMI!’ Came the call again, her mother’s voice battling with the wooden structure of the house, threatening to drag it to the ground.
Hermi hovered still, awkward in the pale dress that had been laid out for her to wear today. She stared at the sickly little flowers that crawled up from the hem, the blue embroidery that danced with the yellow. This was not her usual clothing.
‘That child.’ Came her mother’s words, once more. ‘She is so –‘
Hermi strained to hear the end of the sentence, desperate to know what she was, really. One socked foot crept into the corridor, and Hermi followed it with the other, displeasure crawling across her skin. She tiptoed gently over the uneven floorboards, carefully avoiding those that she knew creaked and groaned beneath human weight.
‘What are you doing child? What is taking you so long?’
Hermi snapped her eyes from the floor to her mother, who now stood at the end of the corridor, with her hands on her hips. She was wearing, Hermi was surprised to see, a bright yellow sundress, which appeared to be around two sizes too small. The short capped sleeves cut into her skin, causing red rivets to form over her fleshy arms. She clicked her fingers, and turned swiftly, walking into the room at the far end. The conversation appeared to continue within.
Hermi took a breath, and stepped forward again, paying particular attention this time to the patterns that covered the walls. Of course, she had seen them many times before, but it was only now that she realised that they were hand painted. Was all of the wallpaper hand painted in this house? She couldn’t think. There was a strange sound from within the room that held her mother, and Hermi reached deep inside herself for some semblance of courage. She continued forward, despite every part of her wanting to go back to yesterday, to earlier, to another time. Her fingers hovered over the wall as she moved, feeling the brushstrokes and paint beneath them.
Suddenly, quite by accident, she had arrived. Hermi stepped inside the room, and saw her mother, nodding to her, beckoning her in further. There, sat on the bed, was a man. He was wearing a dark suit, though the jacket was folded beside him, a hat placed prudently on top. Hermi blinked at his colourful suspenders and white shirt, and then focused for a moment on his face. Ah yes, she thought. There he is.
About the Author:
Rachel Grosvenor is a British writer and tutor, with a PhD, MA and BA Hons in Creative Writing. She writes in various genres and forms, from travel writing to fantasy, and her work has been published in equally diverse places – from Cadaverine Magazine to the wall of the blue bedroom at the National Trust’s Baddesley Clinton. Rachel’s writing news can be followed on Instagram at @teachmecreativewriting, or on her website www.RachelGrosvenorAuthor.com.
What is it that we meant to say when we say nothing? That we stayed up all night, huddled in blankets, while the children we might have conceived watched us from beyond the breakers, eyes black with reproach. Words like ships passing: some rigged with ice and frost, others with spark and flame, waves seething and bucking on the pebble shore, beside themselves. Memories composting somewhere out back by rivers of stained glass where oblivion receives its baptism. Bundles of once in a lifetime opportunity tossed from the high windows like stacks of newsprint in old black and white movies. Birds peeling from trees like dates from calendars in the same black and white movies. Tidal waves rising over coastal villages, sudden mountains poised on the mirror glare of the full moon. All of this real, none of it true
…when we say nothing. We maintain a certain equilibrium among us like stone spheres floating in outer space, free falling all ways at once, so, in a sense, not falling, but remaining in place—where no place exists. In this we maintain the appearance of a life the way dust drifting from an explosion maintains the appearance of a shape, cohering as clouds, mushrooms, or flowers, all manner of things, except what it is: a cloud of shards, bits, dust. Disbursing, flying in all ways at once, when, as for us, all we want is to establish a position. Each one of us must have a position, a point of reference, even if that points is, in essence,
Nothing. The times rife with trigger words and code words, rumors and conspiracy theories of uncertain provenance. A constant supply, more all the time. Fact weaponized, truth driven underground. Dark energy manifest in ambient decay. Thoughts drifting apart, conversations trailing off, the point lost at the start, if there was one, if that even mattered. Logic is a carnival mirror. The obvious is too subtle, insult preferable. Occam’s razor become Occam’s head shot become Occam’s hand grenade clearing the way in social discourse for the consolations of intellectual paralysis. No response necessary if no response possible. Nothing to say. Nothing to save.
Time flies like the knife thrower’s daggers. The outline emerges with sharpened edges. The life we failed to embrace gone with the ghost of transgressions we failed to commit. Words withdrawn like hands cupped around a flickering match. Some warmth persists, some light. What is it you were going to say? Nothing. What were you going to say? Wallpaper peeled away, plaster and slats gone. Curtains fluttering in windows that no longer exist.
Sadness. Regret. The louche menace of a forest cave wet with dream. Are we under an illusion. Or are we under arrest? What is it we mean to say when we say nothing? Sweetness and warmth. Unstated understanding in companionable silence like a plate passed down a table. Simple things. Strange things. Every blessing is a revolution. If it’s real. What is it we meant to say? Come into the water. It’s warm. It’s nothing. Come in.
About the Author:
Chris Moylan is an Associate Professor of English at NYIT where he publishes poetry and literary criticism as well as short prose. His prose poems and flash fiction have recently appeared in Flea of the Dog, Parhelion and Strata magazines.
Our garden, which was not wide or extensive, could be reached via either of two doors at the rear of my parents’ house. It is only now, thinking back, that it occurs to me the garden was several feet lower than the house itself. I realise this because in remembering it I visualise the succession of broad, fraying concrete steps that separated the garden from the house. These steps were set on either side of a brick protrusion that might once have been a scullery or kitchenette, although as far as I can recall it never achieved any obvious purpose. Tacked onto this were the remnants of a shed-like object, which I believe had originally been built to store coal. The actual garden, when you reached it, consisted of an uneven and weed-ridden lawn, with what might in other circumstances have been flower beds on either side, and a concrete path to the left beyond which, and margined by a high, plain fence, lay a small, muddy wilderness whereon my father might once have attempted to build a rockery. Throughout the eighteen years I lived in my parents’ home none of this changed – somehow it would have been unthinkable to change it. Things were as they were, immune to aesthetic uplift or any other form of improvement. I have only to close my eyes to see everything I have described clearly. The result of this, I realise, is a tendency to leave things as they are, benign inertia that leads me to accept my physical environment, with all its attendant factors, as they first manifest. So it follows that the house in which I now live, low-roofed, single storey, just back from a plain beach looking out at the north sea, is much as I found it when I moved in, still subject to the various neglects of the previous owner, almost a remnant of someone else’s life. My only neighbour is Annie. She lives two-hundred metres up the steep climb that leads to a small, unamiable village, from which neither of us have managed to gain acceptance. She knocked on my door shortly after I’d moved in to explain that she’d been in the habit of foraging the herbs that grew wild in my garden. She was holding some well-used pruning shears and a bucket. ‘Take whatever you want,’ I said. ‘I’ve just made a pot of tea if you fancy some.’ We sat in my small living room, with its rotting sash window and view down to the sea. Annie cast a severe glance along the row of paintings I’d just unpacked and which I’d leant against one of the unevenly plastered walls. ‘Did you do these?’ she asked. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Over time.’ ‘Why so many self-portraits?’ ‘Because they remind me who I am when I’m in danger of forgetting.’ It was something I’d said before – a joke with a certain amount of truth in it. Annie continued to frown at them then turned her scrutiny to me. ‘It’s so introspective. Wouldn’t it be more freeing to look beyond yourself?’ ‘I paint other things too.’ I pointed to a stack of cardboard boxes. ‘I just haven’t got them out yet.’ She nodded in a way that suggested she was willing to suspend judgement. ‘I’m an artist too. Come up and have a look once you’ve sorted yourself out.’ Thus things began. If I visit Annie in the morning I will find her in her shed, which is a miracle of tidiness and functionality. Inside it, she fashions organically shaped mirrors decorated with pieces of recycled glass, carves slender figurines from planks of driftwood, and writes the odd poem inspired by the seascape. She advertises her mirrors and carvings online and people buy them. Her poems get published in small, tastefully crafted journals. ‘You can’t live here and be passive,’ she explained, early on. It would be clear to anyone that Annie is a creative person, orderly in her habits, and pro-active rather than passive. If I visit her in the afternoon I will find her in her strictly regulated garden, which somehow manages to both blend in and stand out from the coarse, encroaching vegetation that grows on the hill around her cottage. ‘People in big cities drift along – there’s no way that will work here,’ she felt the need to point out when I’d failed to complete my unpacking, perhaps six weeks after I’d moved in. In fact, I have rarely lived in a big city. And the default habit of accepting any new circumstance in which I find myself has made me, in my opinion, a good adapter. Annie, I soon understood, is inclined to view this as a moral failing. ‘I worked in San Francisco for five years. I practised as a canine psychological interventionist. That was how I managed to buy this place outright.’ Annie says this matter-of-factly, although her fingers dance as she indicates the singular, bijou home she has conjured around her. ‘I specialised in anger management for terriers. There was quite a market at the time.’ ‘Christ, Annie,’ I’m aware of the admiration in my voice. ‘However, do you go about doing something like that?’ To set oneself up as a Californian dog guru must require a staggering degree of personal organisation, I think. ‘Everywhere you go has a niche, you just have to work out what it is.’ Annie explains this kindly as if she has realised that even the most commonly accepted truism has somehow eluded me. Our conversation makes me think, and when I go home I start a self-portrait. The version of me that begins to appear is my thirty-year-old self, a heavily-Fairisled warden in a llama sanctuary, holed up, not unhappily, in a croft on the far north coast of Scotland. I am bearded and my eyes seem wider apart than usual, either from exposure to the hypnotic gaze of the creatures I care for, or from hours spent mesmerised by the vastness of the North Atlantic. ‘You’re like a piece of human litmus.’ It’s a few days later and Annie is looking at the painting from behind my shoulder. ‘You’re someone who becomes your surroundings.’ Before Annie applied herself to the canine psyche she worked as a therapist with humans. She still seems keen to share her insights. I’m beginning to realise this is also her way of building friendship. ‘I could paint you,’ I suggest. The following week Annie sits before me. I ask her to focus on the ukulele that hangs on the wall behind and above me. I look at her intently. She has pulled her tapering auburn pigtail forward across her left shoulder. There’s something about its thickness and rope-like quality that in itself speaks of vitality. It doesn’t surprise me that we can only work in fifteen-minute episodes because that’s as long as she can remain still. ‘It must be strange having had just the one childhood home.’ she says, maintaining her pose but lifting her eyebrows. ‘Not really.’ There’s a quality of zeal I’m trying to capture in her eyes. ‘Back then and round our way it was normal.’ She purses her lips and nods to the ukulele. ‘My mum and dad were always shunting us about. I’d been to five different schools by the time I was sixteen.’ It’s my turn to nod. ‘Lots of change,’ I say. ‘What about now?’ ‘I went out looking for things when I was younger, but these days I prefer to be in one place. I’m settled here for the duration.’ ‘For the rest of your life?’ Annie is one of those people who could be any age within a twenty-year span, but from the things she’s told me I guess she’s about forty, in which case, as I wasn’t thinking of going anywhere either, it looks like we’ll be around each other for a significant chunk of time. ‘Show me somewhere better,’ she says. ‘Can we stop for a cup of tea?’ I make tea but still observe her. Once I’ve started a portrait my subject continues to occupy my mind until it’s completed. This also goes for self-portraits. Annie’s appearance, I think, is self-descriptive. Her sweater is evidently hand-knitted, her espadrilles home-made. Her physique is slender, and for a practical person, her hands are surprisingly delicate. But even in repose, she radiates energy and a conviction which seems to imply that, with the right effort, the immediate world can always be put in order. ‘How long have you been single?’ she asks. The question doesn’t surprise me: curiosity is an inevitable by-product of portrait painting. ‘Technically never.’ For some reason, at this moment, it occurs to me that Annie might be teasable. ‘I’ve always been several people in a single body.’ ‘Very clever. When did you last have a partner then?’ ‘Pretty much until I came here. We were together for nearly ten years.’ Annie considers this. ‘I would have thought you’d be someone to settle down for life.’ ‘Part of me would have liked to.’ To my surprise, she ceases to probe. Instead, she puts down her mug and stretches. ‘I’m ready to start again.’ Annie resumes her seat. I peer and dab. I become increasingly aware of the candour that inhabits her features. With Annie, what you see is what you get, though there’s a lot to see and hence a lot to get. ‘You won’t need to sit any more after this,’ I tell her at the end of the session. ‘I’ll do some bits of finishing during the week and then it’s yours.’ ‘What will I owe you?’ Her expression suggests she’s ready to haggle. ‘Nothing,’ I say. ‘I offered to do it.’ Annie stands, grips my shoulders and presses a kiss on my cheek. She looks at me, very intently. ‘I’m going to become your agent,’ she says. Each morning Annie bathes in the sea. She continues to do this even when October mists lie thick across the shoreline. At a certain point, I start looking out for her return and begin a ritual of taking her a hot drink which I hold for her to sip as she towels herself. As I watch her I sometimes imagine a future in which things happen just as they do now. ‘You’ll notice the difference straight away.’ A still morning and Annie has come with a singing bowl and a cluster of sage. As she warned me, she is going to clear the energy in my house. She lights the sage with a match and sets it down on the stone hearth, then forms three fingers of her left hand into a tripod on which she balances the bowl. Next, she moves purposefully round each room striking the bowl with a turned hardwood mallet. She continues to do this for several minutes then opens the front and rear doors and all the windows. At this point, I feel as if something is flying out through the top of my head. Annie looks at me knowingly. ‘This is your house now,’ she explains. ‘You’ll find it shapes itself around you and you can begin to let things go.’ For the next several weeks I feel a disconcerting sense of absence in the simple domestic space I was beginning to call home. Autumn shortens the days. One afternoon, when the sea is quiet and the weather overcast, something moves me to paint the garden of my childhood. It seems strange that I’ve never done this before. As I visualise it, it is as large as it would be to a ten-year-old, and still full of casual neglect. My parents’ dachshund runs down the path as if he is still alive. I am sitting on one of the broken steps trying to read a book I’m too young for. I look up from its pages and notice that to my right, against the fence and halfway down the lawn is a lilac tree, in full blossom. It sways in the light breeze. I clench my brow and scrutinise my memory. I could swear I have never seen a lilac tree there before. I explain this to Annie. ‘It’s because you’re creative,’ she says. ‘Creative people are less likely to see what’s actually in front of them. Creativity is like a lens that distorts things.’ ‘Perhaps I just took the tree for granted,’ I suggest, ‘like I never really registered that the garden was lower than the house, even when it was completely obvious.’ ‘Memory can add things as well as take them away.’ Annie says this gently, and for a moment her face is transformed by kindness. One moonless evening as I sit reading I notice an amber light flickering somewhere beyond the window of my living room. I get up and, looking down to the beach, see what might be a small pyre floating out on the tide. I go to my front door, open it, and stand just outside, silently. As my eyes grow accustomed to the mix of glare and darkness I realise the object is a figure, perhaps an effigy, ablaze upon a raft of branches. Then, in the nimbus of light it casts, I pick out Annie, standing upright and trancelike as it washes slowly away from the shore. For a moment I wonder if the figure has been formed from the reeds I have seen drying in her shed, then that thought melts as both figure and raft merge into a single conflagration, smouldering, hissing and crackling as it gradually dissolves into the sea. When eventually the last flames die, the night reverts to blackness, with the ebb and flow of the tide the only sound, and I tiptoe back indoors, leaving Annie to the cooling air, and whatever private moments she has chosen to set adrift, then extinguish.
About the Author:
Mike Fox’s stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His story Breath (Fictive Dream), and Blurred Edges (Lunate Fiction), gained Pushcart Prize nomination. His story The Homing Instinct (Confingo), was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story The Fun Police (Fictive Dream) was listed in Best British and Irish Flash Fiction (BIFFY50) 2019-2020. His story, The Violet Eye, was published by Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook. http://www.polyscribe.co.uk or @polyscribe2
Love. That singular point in the universe that is you, all alone in the world, surrounded by people passing by, your life in the figures of others. I remember these figures passing me by, the people in school, the people on the street, the constant loneliness at home with my family, and that I had nowhere else to go, but into my heart and my mind. This was the room I locked myself into. Love was enchantment from that singular point of view. Love was that January, I delivered a letter of love so to speak, a love letter. She had told me that she lived “down there”, pointing at the corner of the street. That January I almost broke my neck slipping on the steps, Saturday at four o’clock in the morning. The things we do for love. – She never gave me an answer to that letter, though, because she did not live in that house. By “down there”, I eventually found out, she meant around the corner, at the literal end of that street, not the house at which I had delivered the letter, strange as that may sound. I sighed, but did not say anything, when I found out. I was in love with her for no reason.
I was in love with her for no reason, because, in my view, there was no reason for anything in the first place. Love simply was the material from which movies were made, images of speechless intimacy, which, cut into sequence by an editor, simply occurred, spontaneously. In a world where there was no reason for anything really that spark lit me up and let my heart beat faster. It made me feel alive again in a world in which I had survived my own abortion. And since I had survived my own abortion, my mother only thought it proper that I do my choirs. She never really loved me anyway, but was in denial of it, because, as a mother, it was her duty to love me, a social obligation, a household choir. I wanted to get away from all that. I wanted to get far away from her, but when I opened the door and went outside the world hit me like a brick wall of singular rejection, because I did not fit in. There is no reason for any of it really. But when I saw Sara, I thought that, perhaps, I had finally found someone out there like me.
Singularly sarcastic, dressed in black with a studded collar around her neck, Sara had no high expectations of the future. The management sucked. There was too much control in society. There was too little communication. We never spoke on the school yard, only when we sat next to each other in class. She once passed a note to me in history: “I have ‘dirty’ written on my thong. Smells like a teen spirit?” The teacher caught me laughing. But I never knew, if Sara really liked me, because the only time we ever talked was in the afternoon on the way back home or on evenings at the local pub, where all of us aged and under-aged goth and punk teens in this town hung out, forsaken by our parents and the world for seeing how forsaken they were.
The only time we ever talked was when she was not hanging out with her clique on the school yard or when I joined her band of friends at the pub. Was this a form of rejection or was there a possibility of being caught up in a conversation with her? One evening, Lina, a loose friend of mine, contacted me, saying it was urgent, that she had run into trouble with a guy she had broken up with and needed protection. Getting up from my chair and heading out, it took some time for Sara to realize that I was trying to say goodbye. She was focused on another conversation.
He had threatened her, she told me. He had poked a dog’s eye out with a stick. She did not want to be alone anymore. She did not want to go back home. She did not feel safe in her apartment. She only felt safe with us. I stood there, while Kurt went into the shop. Lina was shaken and sick of what had occurred, of this guy that had started stalking her. Kurt came out with three beers, one for each, as we sat there on the street and stared out into the night. Who does such a thing to someone he supposedly loves? Who physically threatens a person, who says she does not want to see him anymore? What kind of a person does not understand that ‘No’ means ‘No’? – “I’m through with that fucking psychopath.”, she said, finding some resolution in her words, thoughts turned into speech turned into action. – “Do you know where he lives?”, Kurt asked and outlined a plan, involving another friend of his, someone who could help him help her. I stared out into the empty street, feeling alone in all this, realizing that no one else but us was here. Did Sara even care about me?
She ignored me at school. She ignored me in class. It was the same as always, the same routine as the past five months since January, as I realized that night with Lina. And so I finally decided to write Sara another letter. Maybe I was projecting my love onto her like a screen. Maybe I was peddling a dream, riding by her place every day on my bike. Every movement that I made sparked up the dynamo of love, my yearning. But my crush on her was crushing me. I needed to know, if there was a chance… I remember the day I visited her house, when without an explanation she told me that she had already been taken, when she had told me that he was the hunter and she was the hunted and he had finally taken her as his prey. I remember that day, because I did not know what that meant, to be someone else’s prey. – “Now he has me.”, she said, wrapping her arms around her legs. But what did that mean? She had asked me, if I could wait outside for a moment, when she opened the door. She did not want me in her house.
That is how it ended that day. She would not clarify anything else, so when I arrived back home, I stared at the wall of my room, which answered me with as much silence as Sara had answered my letter. She had said her piece and yet said nothing at all with her words. Who in this world, after all, would let someone else treat them like cattle? It did not add up. So I continued staring at the wall, as if it were able to reciprocate my feelings, but the tapestry remained blank. There was nothing else to do. Lina was still staying with Kurt, still waiting for his friend to come back from Berlin next week, a big and muscular man, a boxer. He had a simple plan to solve her problem. He wanted to intimidate Lina’s stalker. It made me wonder, how she was doing, until I finally realized that Sara would probably never return my feelings.
It was my mind that comprehended it, but my heart that was slow to understand, so I crafted a letter one third and final time, romantic and thankful for everything she given me (nothing), a goodbye letter so to speak, giving emphasis on what she meant to me (everything). Love, for me, was no stock exchange. It was a gift to receive and give. Nothing you could ask for in return. As impossible as it might be for a person like me to be loved, it is not impossible for me to love. At least that was what I felt that day. It was a Saturday in July, when I dropped that last letter at her doorstep, four O’clock in the morning. I wanted to leave some kind gesture, an appreciation of the beautiful person that she was, the beautiful person I sketched pictures of in class, when I thought she was not looking. And so I put a rose next to the envelope that I had left for her. This was my farewell.
Kurt told me that they were going to kick down his door. They were on their way now. The door rang. I opened. There was a woman in front of me with two large men behind her and the scent of roses surrounding her, Sara. She told me that her boyfriend had gotten jealous, because of the letter that I had left and that it had to stop, unless… she looked to her left side then to her right side, citing two muscular arguments standing behind her. She smelled of roses. She smelled as if she had plucked the flower that I had left her, squeezed and crushed its petals, and distilled perfume from it to wear on this specific day. – “It was a farewell letter.” I explained, just when she was about to speak. There was an expression of surprise upon her face, but also an expression of deep and calm relief. She nodded and, without a word, turned around, her two best friends following on her heels. Watching her leave, I could not help but wonder, what effect the visit Kurt was paying Lina’s ex would have on her situation.
Why Sara never told me in plain and simple words that she had no interest in me, remains an enigma. ‘No’ after all means ‘No.’ All that I know is that we graduated from this incident and went out our separate ways.
Two years later, a former schoolmate informed me that Kurt, who had helped Lina get rid of her ex-boyfriend, was stalking his girlfriend now. He was unable to bear that she had left him and could not accept that she had been very clear and blunt about the fact that she did not want to see him anymore. He wrote her an infinite number of letters, called her over and over again, tried to contact her at every turn, and frequently rang both at her door and the door of her boyfriend, who told me all of this. He entered the house, when the door opened, without asking. Instead of asking, he simply barged into the house not only with his physical body, but with all the pains and sorrows he carried inside his heart, as if he was the center of the world and all the world revolved around him, because he, of all people, had been forsaken. It almost was, as if he needed someone else to love him, in order for him to love himself. Pitiful. Ugly. Haunting. Who was this man he was telling me about? I did not recognize him. Funny, how, looking out the window, I, for one moment, caught a reflection of myself.
About the Author:
Daniel Schulz is a German-American writer and blue collar worker. 2015 he directed his play Humanity Incorporated for the 100° Festival at the Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin. 2016 he published a short story collection titled Schrei. In 2017, he undertook the inventory of the Kathy Acker Reading Room, i.e. the personal library of Kathy Acker at the University of Cologne, which he has curated since. In 2019 he co-organized the Kathy Acker in Seattle Symposium for the Goethe Institute and co-edited Gender Forum’s special edition “Kathy Acker: Portrait of an Eye/I”. His works have been published in Der Federkiel, Luftruinen, Die Novelle, The Transnational, Mirage #5, and the German anthology Tin Soldier. Forthcoming: Kathy Acker in Seattle.
I’m upstairs in Ben’s room counting the old plastic stars stuck to the ceiling when the phone rings. It’s past midnight, but not as late as it could’ve been, and when Ben speaks he doesn’t sound too drunk.
‘Hey, Dad. You’re still awake?’
‘Any chance of a lift?’
‘Just tell me where you are.’ This is a dad-shaped hole, and I slot into it, no square-pegging.
‘I’ve got someone with me,’ says Ben. ‘A girl.’
I stop on the stairs, thinking of when Ben was born, how I worried his chin was too small, that he had no eyebrows. I think of standing in the hospital carpark, chaining menthol cigarettes, exhaling smoky paranoia.
‘No problem,’ I say. ‘We’ll give her a lift home too.’
It’s been raining — the roads slippery and beautiful like wet skin — and I’m driving over the bridge, thinking about the man who jumped last week. His photograph was in the paper: a thin face, eyes like a startled horse. He was, he said, happy to have a future, that he was a different man entirely to the one who jumped, that he was sorry.
There’s a song on the radio about the end of the world, and I’m tapping the steering-wheel, singing along. The Saturday-night-Sunday-morning streets are full of people, couples joined together like paper dolls, bullish men in t-shirts with tattooed necks. I try to remember being seventeen, but it’s like I’ve been forty-three my whole life, a permanent state of exhaustion, uncertainty and the need to buy multipacks of coat-hangers from supermarkets.
I turn into Dean Street, and there’s Ben, leaning against the wall of the club, hands in his pockets, a girl standing next to him holding a pair of red shoes, one in each hand. She’s in black jeans, a yellow t-shirt; Ben’s in a suit like he’s mourning a distant relative, like he’s serious about a whole lot of things.
Ben holds up a hand. The girl smiles, points at the car, and I see that although she’s drunk, she’s almost certainly not drunk enough for me to have to carry her up to her parents’ front door wearing a sad and sorry expression. I finally understand that there is a benevolent God who loves me, and I pull into the curb.
‘So,’ I say into the rear-view mirror. ‘You don’t like taxis, Caitlin?’ The car smells of wine and cigarettes. Caitlin’s resting her head on Ben’s shoulder, his hand is on her thigh, and I’m thinking: This is my son,who is able now, somehow, to place his hand nonchalantly on the denimed leg of a beautiful girl.
‘Taxi drivers drive too fast,’ she says. ‘You know how in video games, when a fatal crash is an inconvenience at best?’ Her voice is high and a little desperate, like a red balloon drifting up into a blue sky.
‘Tell him about the star-sign thing,’ says Ben. ‘The serial killers.’
She sits up straight, says, ‘Oh, everyone knows about that already.’
I see that the words on her T-shirt say ‘Heroes not heroin,’ and that it’s too big for her, like it’s her dad’s. ‘I don’t know a thing about serial killers,’ I say. ‘Or star-signs.’
‘This is totally true, right, Dad?’ says Ben. ‘But you won’t believe it. I know you won’t.’
‘Try me,’ I say, and I smile into the mirror like a chat-show host, like a fat uncle at a wedding.
‘Okay,’ says Caitlin. ‘What would you say if I told you the top twenty-five serial killers of all time had the same four star-signs?’ She cocks her head like a curious ostrich. ‘What on earth would you say to that?’
I laugh at her mock-gravitas, this girl in a yellow T-shirt with my son’s hand on her thigh; I laugh at the strangeness of living, of star signs, of violent death and coincidence.
In the back seat, Caitlin is counting on her fingers one-by-one: ‘Sagittarius. Virgo. Gemini. Pisces,’ she says. ‘There’s no arguing with the facts.’ She leans her head back onto Ben’s shoulder, and he smiles down at her, lifts his hand from her thigh, smooths her hair out of her face. Her eyes are closed tight, like a mole’s. Like a child, pretending.
‘Isn’t that ridiculous?’ says Ben.
‘Ridiculous,’ I say, smiling, because it really is.
We’re driving over the bridge. I want to turn to them, tell them there’s nothing other than dumb luck in this world that can save any of us, but I don’t say anything, I just drive, wondering how it’s possible that the stars on a kid’s bedroom ceiling can be even more beautiful than the real thing.
About the Author:
Jason Jackson’s prize-winning fiction appears regularly in print and online, most recently at Fractured Lit, Craft Literary and the charity anthology You Are Not Alone. Jason’s story Mess of Love was placed 3rd in the 2020 Retreat West Short Story Competition and his flash In my dream I see my son features in Best Microfictions 2020. His prose/photography piece The Unit is published by A3 Press. Follow Jason on Twitter @jj_fiction
You tell me my eyes are crooked at dinner and I would have laughed but this time I just look down. You ask me why I’m quiet and I shake my head, I’m not quiet, but I want to say why, I want to tell you. I’m picking at a cannoli when you come back from the bathroom, knocking over a tall chair at the bar with a bang, I jump and then especially I want to tell you but I don’t I smile instead and say yes let’s get the check. We’re going up the stairs now to our apartment, I have to do a work thing so I open my computer and I forget about it for a minute, I’m typing fast and I call to you in the bedroom are you asleep because now I want to talk. Mm you say rolling over as I nudge you mm curling into yourself nestled in the grey sheets.
I want to tell you that on my way to the wine store before dinner tonight, I walked past a man sitting on a stoop who said into his phone, now I have a gun you won’t be saying that anymore. When I heard the word gun my heart raced for a second and my pace quickened, just ever so slightly because I didn’t want the man to know that I heard, that I was listening.
I finally got to the wine store and I drank whatever they were offering for tasting too fast, wishing I had the blurry fuzz of alcohol to soften the hardness of what I just heard.
I remember waiting in line with friends to checkout at a gas station. We were still in high school. A woman behind us stared, she said over and over again, we were so lucky, so so lucky. She was swaying slightly, small liquor singles in her hands.
Now, I try nudging you awake babe come on I really want to tell you but your breathing is thick against the pillow your eyes crinkled tightly shut. I look at a whiskey bottle on the shelf in the next room, almost empty and small, though not as small as the bottles she held tightly but tenderly between her fingers. I think about drinking it but I don’t, I lie back and stare at the white ceiling fan orbiting in the near distance, wondering what she was trying to forget.
About the Author:
Habiba Warren was born in southwestern New Mexico. After completing her BA in Nonfiction Writing and French at Sarah Lawrence College, she moved to Brooklyn, where she currently resides. She works in creative marketing for TV/film and has previously published work in Pond Magazine.
Stuffed at the back of an enormous freezer in Clark’s Grocery Store, two blocks up from my childhood house, was the body of a stillborn baby. Maybe “stuffed” is the wrong word: the infant had been tenderly wrapped in a soft blue blanket, then parcelled up in brown paper, and wrapped in aluminium foil.
The police found it when old Mrs Clark went into the nursing home down the road. She’d become forgetful, and had left the gas on when she went to bed.
The baby had been a shock – Mr Clark had been overseas, and Mrs Clark had strayed only once the whole time and not even realised she was pregnant. She managed to recall that it breathed only once in her arms before fading away. She didn’t even remember putting it in the freezer.
When my father realised I’d overheard Sergeant Brennan tell him all this, he didn’t scold me for being out of bed. He laughed, and got me to pour him another Scotch.
When I met the editor of my very first newspaper for the very first time, he expressed the usual astonishment that with a father like Jack McCauley, I wasn’t going into writing fiction. Stories like finding a dead baby in a freezer are precisely why I couldn’t write fiction. I tried to picture Miss Cynthia Clark’s face when she opened her copy of a book I would never write, with a soft blue cover, wrapped in brown paper, her half-brother stolen and splashed all over the stiff cream pages inside.
‘Your first name…what the hell is it? Looks like a typo to me.’
‘Aoife.’ I could never keep the Irish out of my voice when I dragged out the vowels of Eee-fah.
‘No, it’s more of an F sound than a V.’
‘It’s too Irish for our readers. They won’t read your articles if they can’t read your name.’
He looked up to the ceiling, pondering this conundrum.
‘You can be Ava McCauley. People like Ava Gardner. And it’s easy to spell.’
I gathered my things and hurried to my desk. I’d always hated my name. My mother had nearly died giving birth to me, so my father had picked it while she recovered, drugged beyond comprehension.
My father was an author, and my mother was an illustrator. Jack ‘made it big’ in a way Moira never did. His books were constantly on the best-seller list, one was even adapted for the movies. He cemented his success with an acrimonious divorce from my mother, and remarriage to a former Miss Rhode Island. That marriage was followed by another one, to an airline stewardess, who divorced him after discovering his indiscretion with a secretary, whom he later married in Las Vegas before settling in California. I missed most of this while I was at boarding school, but friends were kind enough to pass me the press clippings.
My mother remarried to a doctor and settled down to have her real family with him.
It turns out changing my name from Aoife to Ava had a transformative effect on me. With my first wage packet, I bought my first lipstick. Tracing the crimson bullet over my lips, I imagined that Ava Gardner’s glamour was rubbing off on me. When I checked my reflection later on in the street, I was horrified to discover that the crimson rosebud the salesgirl had so admired in the department store was nothing more than a bloody gash on the lower half of my face, sucking all of the colour out of my complexion.
‘Rub a little of it into your cheeks,’ advised Myrtle at the next desk, ‘And think about mascara. That way your eyes won’t get lost.’
I wasn’t sure exactly where my eyes were getting lost, but I took her advice, and it seemed to work better. Myrtle even gave me a dusty pink shade to wear around the office. I’d grown up away from all of my glamorous stepmothers and stupidly thought lipstick only came in red.
After I’d been at the paper a month, I went to drinks with Myrtle and a few others. To my horror, I found myself wedged between Tom Denehy and Joanne Carter. Tom was the coming man in those days; he’d even been published in The New Yorker; Joanne was an arts critic. My father had a new book out that month and Joanne was tossing it around the table, along with the pretzels. Nobody apart from Myrtle had asked my name, so nobody made the connection.
‘It’s too ridiculous for words!’ Joanne laughed. ‘Does he really expect us to believe that things like that actually happen?’
They had been analysing the story of the baby in the freezer. I sipped on the martini someone had bought me, and tried to focus on the peculiar feeling of the oily yet fiery sensation of the drink. The image of a slug spontaneously combusting at the back of my throat popcorned to life in my head, and I tried not to retch.
‘That’s not the worst of it,’ howled Maurice Shaw, a theatre critic. ‘The wife curling up with a hot water bottle whenever the husband goes to his mistress? So cliché!’
I remembered a weekend home from school, and seeing Miss Rhode Island doing just that. I then remembered seeing Maurice Shaw’s name on the list of those auditioning to play Rick Chance, the protagonist of my father’s third novel, when it was made into a movie. My father was good buddies with the producer and the two of them had gotten roaring drunk at the auditions and hurled an empty bottle of Bourbon at Shaw’s head.
If I ever wrote a novel, I thought, I would open with that. Miss Rhode Island had always been kind to me. I got the impression that the food parcels and books she sent me a school were an apology for her breaking up my family.
I drained my glass. Muttering apologies, I shoved past Joanne to the bar, where Myrtle was sitting with another group of co-workers. Just as I reached them, however, she got up and headed for the restroom. I was left standing, open-mouthed and alone in front of people I didn’t know, holding an empty glass. I felt like my father and I wanted to die.
‘Ava, same again?’
Tom Denehy took the glass from me and steered me into a bar stool. I shook my head.
‘How about we have a coffee instead?’ He gestured to the barman. I didn’t like coffee any better than I liked Martini cocktails, but I thought it would be impolite to refuse him twice.
‘Not a fan of McCauley’s work?’ he asked.
‘Not really,’ I said. ‘Although I do think he’s getting more honest with age.’
Thomas looked taken aback. ‘How so?’
I realised that I had offered an opinion and immediately vowed to Our Lady in Heaven never to accept another Martini for as long as I lived.
‘I remember reading about that baby in the newspapers,’ I said. ‘Also, I think he’s started to realise what an ass he makes of himself sometimes, chasing after women who are young enough to be his daughter.’
He scanned his copy of the day’s paper. I later found out it was his practice to take a copy everywhere with him, open at his own column, in case a restaurant was full or something like that.
‘Hey…’ he said, ‘Ava McCauley?’ He’d found my name tacked to a dreary article on dry rot in Midtown. ‘You’re not related, are you?’
I laughed. ‘No. But I get asked that all the time.’
Tom flashed perfect white teeth at me and his eyes crinkled at the edges. ‘Well, it’s not like you’d pass up a leg-up like having Jack McCauley as your old man, is it?’
I smiled, and blew on my coffee to cool it.
I don’t know how long exactly we sat at the bar talking, but I do remember leaving with the distinct impression that Tom Denehy would be my first Great Love Affair. Already, I could see us in bed together, his tenderness at my inexperience barely masking his eagerness; then a few months later, I would receive a job offer at Mademoiselle or somewhere like that. He would beg me to stay, but we’d both know our time together was at an end.
The old affection would cling long enough for me to read the announcement of his engagement to an unremarkable, dumpy secretary name Claire or Camille or something like that…I’d never liked ‘C’ names.
I would attend the engagement party, striking in a burgundy dress – scarlet would have been too obvious. He would have one too many whiskies and profess his regrets and undying love, but I would no longer feel the same about him. We would part friends. He would name his daughter Clarissa Ava in my honour.
Even my daydreams were depressing.
There was nothing I could trust about Tom. Even though he never came out and said to, I instinctively avoided him at work. I rarely went out for drinks with the gang, slinking off to a movie theatre by myself, where he would meet me an hour later.
He wanted me with an intensity that scared me, and I started to wonder if it was him I liked, or the fact that he liked me. He would kiss me so passionately that on several occasions, I nearly fainted from lack of breath. I started to believe that my lung capacity was increasing from the sheer effort of keeping up with his kisses. I figured that if journalism didn’t work out, I could become a synchronized swimmer.
On the night we finally slept together, in my rickety single bed in my tiny apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, he didn’t hold me as tightly as he had when we’d just kissed. I knew then that he would end up breaking my heart.
Jack was back in New York for two weeks, and he asked me to meet him for lunch.
‘What d’you think of the book?’
‘Not bad. Less verbose than your last one.’
He poured me a glass of wine and I tried to settle into the feeling of being a twenty-one-year-old working woman discussing serious literature and drinking Cabernet Sauvignon with her father, whom she hadn’t called dad in thirteen years.
‘Some of my colleagues thought the stories were far-fetched.’
‘Joanne Carter…Maurice Shaw…’
‘Tom Denehy liked it.’
‘Hm,’ murmured Jack. ‘Who’s Tom Denehy?’
‘We – we just work together.’
He nodded slowly. ‘Which stories did they think were far-fetched?’
‘Mrs Clark’s baby.’
Jack scoffed. ‘Well, I hope you set them straight.’
‘They don’t know you’re my father and I’d quite like to keep it that way.’
I’d never seen Jack look hurt before, not even when Miss Rhode Island lost their baby at twenty-two weeks, but he looked hurt now. Only for a moment. That moment was the pride and joy of my life, I realised, as I sat opposite him, my hair coiffured, my lips rouged, my eyes fringed with black lashes as soft and alluring as magpie feathers. If any press spotted us having lunch, my latest stepmother would doubtless be straight on the telephone to scream accusations into my father’s ears. His ears were creased where they met his face, I noticed. My father was getting old.
‘You should have written that story,’ Jack said. ‘Sandy used to make me read all the stories you sent home. What in God’s name are you doing writing about dry rot and beauty contests?’
The waiter who’d been headed towards us to take our order made a swift diversion to an empty table, brushing a piece of imaginary lint off the pristine tablecloth.
‘I couldn’t write about that,’ I croaked. ‘It wouldn’t be right.’
Jack scowled. ‘It wasn’t right that Mrs Clark felt so terrified that the only thing she could do with that poor baby was bundle it into her freezer for the next thirty years! You know her daughter called me after it was published?’
‘Yeah,’ Jack said. ‘She called me an asshole. But I don’t give a damn, Aoife, and I’ll tell you why. Not telling these kinds of stories keeps the people who are down at bottom, always, which is exactly where some people think they should be kept. I don’t give a damn for somebody being born the wrong side of the bedsheets! What the hell kind of difference should that make in this day and age? You know I was a bastard, don’t you?’
I hadn’t known this, and the shock must have shown on my face.
‘They sent your grandmother off to one of those godawaful Magdalen laundries. They would have taken me away from her, but her brother was going to America with his wife, and he got her out. They made up a story about a dead husband back in Dublin, and that was that.’
Maybe there was a connection between how my father ran from one wife after another and how he’d come into the world.
‘Why didn’t you tell me any of this?’
Jack smiled. ‘Hell, I’ve gotta leave you something to write about.’
We filled the whole hour with talk. Outside the restaurant, Jack squeezed my arm and turned to leave, then paused. ‘I hope this Tom guy is a decent sort.’
I loathed him at that moment. He’d been absent for most of my life, would be hard-put to tell you what colour my eyes were, and yet here he was, giving me the fatherly advice I’d craved my whole life.
When Tom came by that night, I noticed that his ears, too, were starting to crease where they met his face. I also noticed the smell of Femme de Rochas clinging to his body.
I remember vomiting as soon as we’d made love, and asking him to leave. I told him I’d probably picked up a bug.
When he’d gone, I changed the sheets and tried to think about what I would do. I remember crying, and as I licked the tears from my lips, tasting him on my mouth. He’d brought a bag of cherries over for me, and had eaten some on his way there.
I threw the whole lot in the trash, full of rage towards him and the other woman; was she admiring a similar bowlful of cherries on her counter top?
I realised, just before I fell asleep, that I couldn’t remember the colour of Tom’s eyes.
Tom didn’t come to the office the next day, or the day after that, or even for the rest of the week. He was over at The New Yorker. All week, I swung between wanting to murder him and being desperate for him, so much so that I didn’t notice my monthly was late until Friday.
Tom was coming out of The New Yorker with a smooth-looking blonde girl. I lingered across the street, feeling keenly the cheapness of my blue suit and the tightness of all the powder I’d applied to my face.
When I told him what was wrong, the colour drained from his face. He told me he knew of a place where it could be “taken care of”. I wondered how many women he’d said those words to.
When I asked him if the blonde was the one I’d been able to smell on him the week before, he didn’t say anything. He just pushed a crumpled wad of notes into my hand. I felt like a prostitute.
‘I’m not going to one of those butchers,’ I said, sounding more resolute than I felt. I pushed the notes back into his hand and walked away before he could say anything.
When I felt the sensation of something coming away inside me, I knew it wasn’t my monthly. I’d just crossed the road to my apartment, and swung my bag around me so that it covered my backside.
I could make out the spinal cord, and the ribcage. It looked like a fossil one sees in a museum, its chest flayed open on the wad of tissue I cradled it in.
Placing it inside a clean Tupperware, I went back into the bathroom to let the rest of the blood drain out of me, and into the lavatory.
Afterwards, I put the box in my refrigerator, and fell asleep, fully clothed, on the couch.
The only woman I knew for certain who’d lost a baby was Miss Rhode Island. She told me to rest up, then see a doctor. I called in sick and stayed in bed for three days straight. Tom didn’t come by, or even call. I emptied the Tupperware down the lavatory.
On the start of my fourth day in bed, the telephone rang. It was my father, telling me to get up, get dressed, and get my ass down to the 21 Club.
‘It’s hard now, but it’ll make great material.’
My mouth dropped open as Jack ordered two more whiskey sours. Sandy had wisely waited until that morning to telephone him to break the news of my misfortune.
‘How the hell can you say something like that?’
‘Aoife, you should be writing properly. Write the truth. Write about your grandmother. Write about what a terrible father I was. Write about this Tom Denehy, and put the goddamn frighteners on him so he thinks twice before treating another poor girl like this.’
He pushed my drink towards me and I threw it back without hesitation. Part of me wished I’d kept Tom’s money and bought a one-way ticket to Paris.
‘Any other pearls of wisdom before you leave?’ I asked Jack.
‘Just the one,’ he said. ‘Change your last name, too. You don’t want people thinking you’re riding my coattails.’
About the Author:
FRANCES HOLLAND is a writer from Northumberland. Her work has been published in The Manchester Review, Mslexia, Fragmented Voices, Litro, and other publications. She is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University.