Stardust by Naima Rashid

Fiction
silhouette of woman standing on rock near body of water during night time

Photo by Baraa jalahej on Pexels.com

 

The crowds tire me.

Always, the fans.

Always, the admirers.

Always, the autographs.

Sometimes, I crave anonymity so much it feels like a dark sick desire. Just being among strangers. In a place where nobody knows me.

A face among faces.

Ordinary.

Unknown.

Unworshipped.

No sooner had I stepped out of the car when it began. First, one person would see me, exclaim, come to shake hands, ask for an autograph. Ask for a selfie. They had those ridiculous sticks these days. The selfie sticks, they call them. Before you know it, there is a throng calling out from all sides. No matter what age they are, they become a child in that moment of adulation. Grown men and women, grandparents, they squeal like fan boys and fan girls. They call you their star, their beloved celebrity. You give your life in service to your art, and you get this in return. Big, boundless love. Free as the sea. Heavy as a wall of bricks. Here’s a young girl asking for an autograph on the back of her dog-eared school planner. I bend down to pat her head and sign it for her.

Those days of youth are gone, when all this would be a delightful exercise. I could go on doing it for hours, and the body would give of its endless reserve of energy. I worked out by a strict regimen every day. This body was fit as an athlete’s. The love I got from the public, I poured into the next performance. It was a sacred, virtuous cycle.

The letters I would get!

The way they would stop me every time I walked into a mall or a grocery shop.

 

‘You act out our own stories for us. You are a mirror we see ourselves in. All the faces you wear, all the names you call yourself, they are people from our own homes and our own lives. You make us understand ourselves better.’ Those letters, those heart-felt words were the real trophies, not the statues that lined the shelves behind the television in my living room.

A woman walking with her daughter stops short when she sees me, and tells her daughter about me. What would the girl know of me, this mere slip of a girl? She was too young in the era of my stardom. She grew up watching those mediocrity fests churned out in the name of drama. Forgettable, high-budget, glamour shows. You couldn’t tell one from the other. The plays from our times, though, they were another thing altogether. You could count them on your fingertips. Every single one a gem.

I was losing count now. What was it, my tenth autograph, my tenth selfie with a fan? My heels were hurting with the walk. My ageing frame could barely keep up. Why couldn’t I have an ordinary day in a shop?

The sun was beating down on me. I sat down on a bench and took a sip from the bottle. My hands were trembling as I took the bottle out of my bag and sipped. Right before me, were the smiling faces of admirers, waiting for me to acknowledge them, waiting for me to smile back.

 

To wave.

Always the fans.

Always the worshippers.

But I was tired.

*

It was impossible not to look at her as she stepped down from the rickshaw, stately and striking, a head-turner despite her age. Slim as a reed, her body was held erect and upright, despite her peep-toe heels, a steadiness in the gait that betrayed years of practice. Even in the crowded Sunday market, her air was magnetic.

The looks had begun to be exchanged by the time she had visited the third stall. A murmur of curiosity and suspicion shot like a ripple, snaking its way over the heads of the buyers, meandering through the throng, making its way through any blank space between the shifting bodies of buyers as they shuffled unhurriedly the way they do on a Sunday. Vendor’s eye catching vendor’s eye, exchanging a hint, meaning becoming certain swiftly, it charted a zigzag path.

She was smiling at the heads of cabbages, conversing with the produce, looking at displayed wares in a bizarre way, not the way one looks at inert objects, but at something that one expects would gaze back. Her only purchase was a kilo of red apples. I thought I caught the hint of a brief curtsey as she accepted, as if the object bestowed was not a bag of apples but a medal of honour.

Close-up, her air was slightly sad, the certain aura of glamour built up by the forgiving distance coming somewhat undone in the unsparing glare of midday sun. Her hair was thinning; wispy tufts of burgundy dotted her head and blew in the air like grass patches in a savannah. At the roots, they were white, at the tips, an insecure taint that howled. In the wrinkles on her face, the foundation had coagulated like overfill of ceramic. Her thickly worked-on lashes, and a lipstick that matched the shade of her hair lent her the air of a sad, over-aged clown.  As her eyes flitted through the wares displayed in the boxes laid out between us, the smile, delusional, never left her face.

Basking in an invisible glow, in a light other than the Sunday sun, it seemed, she walked steadily on. At the end, reaching the marble benches, she settled down for a drink, casting a glance back at the market she had just traversed.

The whisper made its way around the market to me. Someone had put the pieces together. While no one could recall her real name, the nation had christened her Raani – queen of the silver screen, queen, once upon a time, of people’s hearts.

The asylum had released her a week ago.

About the Author:

Naima Rashid is an author, poet, and literary translator. Her first book was Defiance of the Rose (Oxford University Press, 2019), a translation of selected works by Pakistani poet, Perveen Shakir, into English. Her work has appeared in Asymptote Journal, The Scores, Newsline magazine and other places.

 

 

Beautiful Disaster by William Falo

Fiction

 

 

photo of woman wearing brown scarf

Photo by Antonel Burlibasa on Pexels.com

 

Andreea stared at the discarded picture of an unknown family. The ache in her heart threatened to erupt into tears. She breathed into a bag of glue and the world spun around her then she fell to the ground. The picture shattered when she dropped it. The pieces of glass shimmered in the dull glow of the dying light and even the dream family it encased ended up broken in Romania. The resident stray dogs howled and ran toward the dark streets. Shadows appeared at the entrance of the junkyard and she ran toward a gathering of street children.

The men carried sticks and used them. Andreea heard the cries. She took out her knife and ran to help but tripped. The knife clattered away then the men surrounded her.

“Only we can do that,” someone yelled. Everyone stopped as an older street gang appeared.

They dropped their weapons then ran away.

Andreea got up and dashed through the junkyard on twisting paths. She ended up near the entrance where a gap in the fence allowed dogs, kids, and others to enter. She counted the escapees as they left but noticed one was missing. Someone yelled, “Help.”

She found the man on the ground with torn pants and blood pouring down his leg. A nearby rusty metal beam stuck out of a pile of debris.

Voices came closer. “Quiet,” she held a finger to her mouth and led the abandoned man down a dark path that led to the center of the junkyard. The voices passed and faded into the distance. He twisted a rag from his pocket around his leg and looked up at her with pale blue eyes that looked bloodshot from alcohol, but still shined from a flickering light nearby.

“Thank you,” he said.

“I should have let them find you.”

“Why?”

“I bet you live in an expensive villa and yet you come to this wasteland and beat children that have no home and it doesn’t bother you?”

He paused and looked her over. It must have occurred to him then that she was one of them. Her clothes were torn and stain covered. Nothing matched or looked new. Her dark, greasy hair looked like a tangled clump of fishing line. She wore boy’s clothes unless she needed money. A recent scab made her fear that she had some disease. It seemed better not to know.

“I’m Stefan,” he said.

“Andreea.”

She led him out to a back gate that didn’t shut. “Why did you come here?” she asked.

“I’m leaving for college in a few weeks. My friends and I got drunk. Someone

complained about all the street children begging from people and making Romania look bad.

Then someone said let’s do something about it. Someone picked up a stick and someone else joined him then we all ran together. Nobody wanted to be the one who did nothing. The weakest one. I had no choice.”

“So, you beat up children that have no home and money. Nobody cares about us.  My father tried to become a soccer player but wasn’t good enough. He beat my mother and when she left, he turned on me until I ran away. There are many similar stories here. We’re harassed by police and threatened by traffickers. The last thing we need is some college-bound jerks to attack us. Go home to your family and don’t come back.” She broke into a coughing attack that doubled her over.

He reached out a hand but she pushed it away. When he walked away steam rose from the sewer pipes and seemed to swallow him up. Some street children headed down into the sewers to escape the cold and she turned to follow. She saw Stefan stop and look back. Then she followed the others into the depths of the sewers.

The others looked at her and asked where she went during the fight. She told them she fell and blacked out. Misha passed her a bag filled with glue and she breathed it in so deep that she fell over and slumped against a wall.

A smaller boy with blonde hair jumped up, “Darius saved us.”

“They came at the right time. Don’t count on that all the time, Bogdan.” Darius ran the larger gang and she was once his boyfriend until she found him with another girl. Her attempt to stab him led to some of the scars on her arm.

Two large hot water pipes filled their underground shelter with some warmth, but it was no sanctuary. The smell of waste made her nauseous and a single stain covered mattress had already been claimed. Once they discovered a dead baby on the mattress covered with bugs. Rats scurried under the pipes on the edges of a brown stream of putrid water. A group of large bugs

skittered across the floor in front of her before she saw Stefania signaling to her. She lay down

next to her and they huddled together until sleep came.

The sound of a scream woke her up. “Get out of there,” someone yelled. The policeman banged his club against a pipe. The children climbed out of the shelter with yawns and

moans. The police gave each a tap on their arm with his club. “We have complaints about

you harassing tourists. I’m taking you to social services.”

They all scattered and the policeman yelled, “Come back here.”

Andreea ran. She knew the danger of the orphanages. Life there was worse than the streets, they all heard stories of the abuse and bleak conditions. She ended up by the metro station where passengers left the bus station. She had no money for food. Begging resulted in nothing but insults. She went to the street and to offer her body to men. One stopped and gave her some money and she got in his car. It was a risk. One girl got in a car and never came back and they think she is a sex slave in a foreign country.

After the police were gone, she solicited every passerby for money until a car stopped in front of her. A familiar man got out of a new car. “Andreea,” he yelled.

“What?” She answered then realized it was Stefan.

“I was looking for you.”

“Why?”

“I couldn’t stop thinking about you.”

“Well, you should.”

“I want to take you to get a coffee.”

“Are you crazy? Do you know what I look like?” She asked.

“I don’t care. Can I buy you one?”

“Okay, business is slow anyway.”

“What business?” He looked at her again.

“Do I have to explain it to you?” She asked.

“No,” he said and held the door for her. She touched the knife that she kept strapped to her thigh.

Nobody sat outside due to the cold wind that blew down the streets of Bucharest. A small stray dog struggled against it trying to get crumbs from an old man. Andreea ran to it and picked it up.

“Aren’t you afraid of it biting you?”

“I’m more afraid of you than this little dog.”

“Why did you help me?”

“You looked like a stray. Like him.” She held out the dog.

“You compare me to a stray dog.”

“You looked lost and lonely and your friends abandoned you.”

“I’m glad you helped.” He reached out to pet the scruffy brown dog. It snapped at him

protecting Andreea. She placed it down and the dog scurried away looking for food. She had none to spare.

“Let’s sit outside,” she said.

“In the cold.”

“I won’t be welcome inside.”

“Okay,” he said. They got hot coffee that sent puffs of steam into a gray sky. Giant snowflakes fluttered down around them. She realized that she sat alone on an outside table with a

good looking man and it made her feel romantic for the first time. With Darius, it was all

physical.

It ended when his phone rang. “My father,” he said then talked into the phone. He looked at her. “I have to go. Something about college.”

She shivered and he wrapped his coat around her. “When will I see you again?” He asked.

“My schedule is so busy,” she laughed then started to cough.

He reached out and she backed away. “I wanted to feel if you have a fever.”

She let him and his smooth hand on her forehead sent little shocks through her body. Despite her many sexual encounters she never felt that before. “You feel warm,” he said.

“I am.”

“I’ll bring some aspirin next time. I have to go talk about college. My father the doctor wants me to follow in his footsteps. I’m not sure I want to.”

She returned to the junkyard.  Misha gave her a bag. She inhaled and held it for a long time as the others cheered. She fell and closed her eyes.

Darius grabbed her around the neck. “Rumors are that you helped someone escape the other night.”

“Who told you that?”

“The birds.” He laughed. “We want his money. Bring him to us and we’ll do the rest.”

“Never,” she said.

“You better or all of you get it.” He waved his arm at the small group that was held by the

others of Darius’s gang. He grasped her by the collar and lifted her. “Nice coat,” he pulled out

a knife and sliced through it. She tried to get her knife out, but he held her shoulders too tight.

He threw her down. “Bring him here tonight.”

They left. Misha helped her up. “None of us told him.”

“It’s okay.”

“Will you bring him here?”

“I don’t know.”

They dispersed to find the money. She went to her secret spot where nobody could find her. Only the stray dogs ever found it. One sniffed her out and curled up with her. The dog licked her scars. “You’re a doctor too,” she said to the dog.

Stefan found her again on the street soliciting money. He either didn’t seem to care what she did because he never mentioned it. “Andreea,” he called out.

She waved to him and crossed the street. “Coffee?” He asked.

“Okay,” she said. They sat outside and sipped the hot beverage. He gave her aspirin and antibiotics. “My father will never miss them. Take two a day.”

“My plane leaves tomorrow but I want to stay here. Maybe get a job in a hotel and I can continue to get to know you.”

“You don’t want to do that. I’m broken. Go to college and become a doctor.”

“But I think you’re special.”

“I’m a dirty street girl. You don’t know how many bad things I have done.”

“I don’t care. I’ll miss the flight and spend time here with you.”

She saw a man in a business suit walk down the street with a woman in a dress and high heels. They laughed and gazed in shop windows. Maybe she could be his girlfriend and they would go to Paris and shop in clothes stores all day and sip wine at night. Get married and have

children. A man walked by and stared at her and held his nose in a mocking gesture to the others

of his group. She smelled bad and understood that they could never be like the family in the picture. She would ruin his life and would only stop him from ever being able to help others.

“Can you meet me tonight by the junkyard,” she said and got up to leave.

“Wait,” he said.

“I have to go,” she ran down the street so he would not see tears that ran down her cheek.

Darkness spread through the junkyard and she hoped Darius wouldn’t show up. But he came to the entrance with some of the others. Misha walked with her but stayed behind when he saw the gang.

###

Stefan appeared at the end of the street. He carried flowers. “He’s in love with you,” Darius whispered. “We’re going to take him for all his money. We’ll make him take us to his house and you’re the bait.”

She wanted to shout a warning but then he would still miss his flight and try to find her. She moved to stand under a light so he would see her. He waved then she grabbed Darius’s arm and pulled him under the light with her. Before he could pull away, she kissed him on the lips and held on with all her might. Darius gave in and put his hands on her behind.

Stefan stopped walking toward them and dropped the flowers. He turned and walked away. The stray dogs chased him, but when she let go of Darius he was gone. “You ruined it. Now, he will never come back to find you.”

“I know,” she said.

Darius shoved her away. The others ran down the street to look for Stefan but returned alone.

He would make his flight. She curled up in her secret spot with the stray dog that followed her. The dog licked the tears off her face, but some of them made it past its tongue. The lonely tears fell onto the dying flowers that she held close to her heart giving them the hope of life.

She knew that she would keep an eye on the coffee shop and look for a man, maybe a doctor sitting alone with a steaming cup of coffee. She would walk closer and see if there was a cup for her there too.

“Andreea, let’s go.” The others called out. She wiped away the tears and ran to join the others while the stray dog followed her.

 

 

 

  About the Author:

William Falo lives in the USA. He studied wildlife in college and was a volunteer fireman. His work has appeared in Vamp Cat Magazine, Fictive Dream, Litro Magazine, Vaughan Street Doubles, and other literary journals. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He can be found on Twitter @williamfalo and on Instagram @writerwilliamfalo 

 

Vapour Trail by Matthew Roy Davey

Fiction
20181105_143241

In the City by Kasia Grzelak, 2018

 

Michael, his son, sent ear-plugs, but Ephraim refused to wear them; they were made of synthetic material.  Ephraim hated almost everything about the modern world – the bleating telephones, the growling engines, the sharp bite of exhaust; technologies of a brutal century.

Not that it wasn’t his century, just that he was living at the wrong end of it.  When he was young cars had been rare in the village and there had been few telephones.  The sky hadn’t been slashed with wires.  Roads could be crossed without looking each way.

Ephraim wished to live in the world of his novels – composed with a fountain pen, of course – where clops on cobbles were the only intruding sounds, the sweet smell of horse-apples the only exhaust.  He was not alone in his dreams; book sales allowed him to buy a remote cottage in the Welsh hills.  There he could shut out the modern world, far from roads and without sight of telegraph-pole or pylon.  Gas and plumbed water were his only concessions to the twentieth century.  The peace of an earlier age should have settled on his life.

But the vapour trails remained.

He tried to keep his gaze below the horizon, ignoring the vandalised heavens, those infernal white lines, bisecting the sky.

Still he heard modernity, roaring in the air.

Michael’s offer of earplugs became increasingly moot as his father grew deafer with age.

If I could go blind, Ephraim wrote back, I might wheeze on to a hundred.

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), was 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’ was translated into Mandarin and Slovenian and 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 recently been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

 

Protest by Niles Reddick

Fiction

 

20181105_143405 (1)

Children by Kasia Grzelak, 2018

 

For Melanie Safka who performed at Woodstock

 

I read the obituary of my friend’s mother on the funeral home website and scrolled through other obituaries. I was surprised to learn my third grade teacher had died, apparently from cancer. It had been over forty years since I’d seen her, and it made me sad that I couldn’t thank her. When she taught us in third grade, all the boys, including me, had fallen in love with her.

Maybe she was our “mother figure”, like Helen Crump was to Ernest T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show. Ms. Katherine wore stylish clothes, drove a 1970 blue Camero convertible with a white stripe, and gave us all MIA bracelets to wear in memory of her husband who’d been shot down in Vietnam. We asked her if he’d be alright. Her eyes had teared, she said she didn’t know, but hated war and hoped we never had to go. We didn’t want to go either, even though we were too young, and vowed to each other at recess we’d protest if they tried to make us.

Contrary to high school and college, I don’t recall what we might have learned in Ms. Katherine’s class, but I knew I learned to love the letter “K”, the color blue, convertible Camaros, hair with frosting, dimples, and sandals that matched Ms. Katherine’s clothing. I asked my mom if Ms. Katherine could come to my seventh birthday party, and she did. I watched her smile and interact with my grandmothers, aunts, and even my mother when she wasn’t spooning out ice cream to go with each slice of cake. At some point, I knew that when I grew up, I wanted to marry her. I imagined her fighter pilot husband would approve, and I could take care of her like she took care of me at school.

My mother, who was a great cook, periodically prepared one meal that I despised and just the smell of it frying in a pan on the stove could make me throw up in my mouth or at least have dry heaves. I’d faked an allergic reaction to her fried liver, stomach aches, and diarrhea to try to get out of it and even begged for our outside dog to come inside, so I could feed him underneath the table. After she fried it, the whole house smelled and it seemed to take an entire can of Lysol, with windows open, to get rid of the smell. Finally, I made up my mind that I would protest, go on strike, and runaway, if necessary, to avoid the fried liver.

“You’ll eat it or you’ll go to bed hungry,” my mother said. Had my dad been home at that point, she may have given him her look, raised eyebrows and pursed lips, and he might have threatened a whipping.

“Oh, no, I won’t. I’m protesting, just like the people on TV.”

“You will eat it or your daddy will whip you when he gets home, just like the police do to those hippies on TV.”

“The hippies are right. War is evil. Vietnam killed Ms. Katherine’s husband. I won’t be here to eat liver or go to war.”

“You’re too young to go to war, and just where do you think you’ll be going?”

“I’m running away.”

“You’re not going anywhere, young man.”

I put some clothes in a brown grocery sack, walked out the door, got on my Huffy, sack in the basket, and drove down the hill and onto the two lane artery that ran through our town, pedaling as quick as I could until I got to Ms. Katherine’s house. By the time I glided under her carport, I cried, propped my bike against the brick wall, and knocked on her door.

“Why, Michael, what are you doing here? What’s wrong? Come on in. You want a Coke?”

She took a Coke out of the refrigerator and popped the cap off.  The glass was ice cold, I took a swig, and then explained that I loved her, I wanted to live with her, that I hated liver, and that I had runaway. We sat at her Formica dinette in the mint green kitchen and she held my hand. “Your mom and dad love you and would be very sad to know you had runaway.”

“My mother doesn’t care.”

“Oh yes, honey, she does. She may be too busy to tell you, but she loves you very much and is probably crying that you left, frantically calling your aunts and grandmothers. Let me fix you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to go with your Coke because I know you must be hungry, and we’ll put your bike in my car and I’ll drive you home before you mother cries too much and calls the police.”

“Okay,” I said. I didn’t want to be sprayed by a hose or beaten with a baton.  Ms. Katherine patted my head, told me I was a dear, and said she had high hopes for me.

Ms. Katherine’s convertible Camaro pulled in our driveway, and my mother came out crying. Mom apologized to Ms. Katherine, told her she’d been on the phone with everyone, told her the story about liver, and hugged her.  Ms Katherine told her it was fine, that I was a sensitive boy, she had high hopes for me, she’d fed me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a Coke, and I probably didn’t need supper.

I took my bike, put it under the carport, and unpacked my clothes from the paper sack and put them in my chest of drawers. Mom came into my room where I was playing with matchbox cars on the braided round rug on the wooden floor and told me I didn’t have to eat the liver, that she wouldn’t cook it anymore, that she didn’t really like it either, but it was good for us and she just wanted us to be healthy. That was, of course, before we knew fried foods would kill us. We hugged and I told her I was sorry, I wouldn’t protest anymore, and I wouldn’t run away again.

About the Author:

Niles Reddick is author of the novel Drifting too far from the Shore, two collections Reading the Coffee Grounds and Road Kill Art and Other Oddities, and a novella Lead Me Home. His work has been featured in eleven anthologies and in over two hundred literary magazines including The Saturday Evening Post, PIF, New Reader Magazine, Forth Magazine, Cheap Pop, Flash Fiction Magazine, With Painted Words, among many others.

 

Cailín Maith by Frances Holland

Fiction
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Maria Magdalena by Ida Saudkova, c.a. 2000

 

 

‘And WHY weren’t all of you at Mass this morning?’

Father Reilly loomed over the little ones as they stood in a grubby row, their faces twitching with an impulse to laugh at this enormous gargoyle with tufts of white hair sprouting from his nostrils.

Miss Cunningham, the priest’s secretary and driver, watched, embarrassed, from the threshold of the kitchen as the kettle shrieked and whistled on the stove. The children’s Aunt Kathleen poured the boiling water onto the tea leaves, muttering in the Cant the entire time. She was still muttering when she carried the priest’s tisane through in its dainty periwinkle-blue cup and saucer.

‘In ENGLISH, if you please, Kathleen; remember, we ARE in England!’ he bellowed over her curses.

‘That’s not what you said last week, Father,’ piped one of the children, seizing her chance. ‘You said that the Holy Father was mistaken to allow the Mass to be celebrated in the vernacular.’

The priest turned his rheumy blue eyes on Deirdre, who was thirteen, and Jimmy, the youngest of the siblings, saw his chance to escape. But as he made a run for it, Father Reilly’s enormous paw clamped down on his shoulder, and held him fast.

‘So we can add listening at doors to the LITANY of transgressions you have failed to confess, Miss Connolly? That was a private conversation between myself and your brother, who, coincidentally, has also not seen fit to grace us with his presence at Mass today!’

‘He’s unwell,’ retorted Deirdre. Upstairs, she could hear the effort of Gerry trying to be quiet as he moved around his bedroom.

Father Reilly peered up at the ceiling. ‘The old injury?’ He drained the dainty teacup in one gulp.

Deirdre nodded. Gerry had taken a bullet in the Battle of Monte Cassino. It had never healed properly, and Father Reilly was not known to be sympathetic even to those injured in the course of their duty to King and Country.

‘Athract,’ began the priest, turning to Deirdre’s grandmother, ‘you understand that it gives me no pleasure to visit you here today. You, of course, are welcome to receive Communion in your home, on account of your age and infirmity, but when hale and hearty children risk the wrath of God, and imperil their immortal SOULS – ’

Bridget, who was only seven, began to blub. This was nothing new. At least eight children had been reduced to tears by him this week alone in Catechism.

Athract waved a bony hand dismissively. ‘The little ones were enjoying the snow. They all say their prayers before bed and do their bit around the house. I think that pleases God, even if it doesn’t please you.’

‘Might I use your lavatory, Mrs Connolly?’ asked Miss Cunningham. Athract shrugged, and jerked her head towards the back door. Miss Cunningham was used to less well-off families regarding her with suspicion and disdain.

‘Fetch me some more tea when you’re done, Miss Cunningham,’ barked Father Reilly, thrusting his cup at her.

She squeezed awkwardly past Kathleen, who was doing a reading for a neighbour, and ran into the outhouse, her teeth chattering. She was still carrying the priest’s teacup.

She locked the netty door behind her and thought of all the things she needed to ask her employer forgiveness for. How she’d casually scraped her door key the length of Father Reilly’s car when she’d seen him parked outside Mrs Lewis’ house, because he’d thrashed her son Michael for daring to ask if maybe God wasn’t real. How she’d let his tyres down after seeing  Morag Anderson wet herself in terror during assembly by bellowing to the whole school how he’d seen her sticking her tongue out during the Eucharist. How she and the curate had gotten tipsy at a wake last week and egged each other on to crueller and funnier impersonations of Reilly.

I’ll give him something worth absolving me for.

She pulled down her knickers, and aimed a warm stream of piss into the translucent china vessel. Before leaving, she shook herself, and genuflected reverently at the picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that hung on the inside of the netty door. His warm, pale, oval face smiled down blandly at her own sharp features.

“Thy will be done,” she muttered.

 

About the Author:

Frances Holland 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.

Knives and Forks by Sarah Leavesley

Fiction
Red_in_the_Morning

Red in the Morning by Stela Brix, 2018

“There’s no milk!” Luke slams our fridge door closed, then tips his bran flakes back into the packet as noisily as feet stomping on shattered glass. “Didn’t you sort the shopping?”

“Oscar had two bowls of Cheerios this morning. I thought I’d get some on my way back with the kids, as I’m dropping and picking up again!” I try not to shout but my tone is unmistakably barbed. These days whenever we talk about money, work and chores, simple sounds, letters and gestures are suddenly as sharp as knives, pierce like forks.

Luke growls, then clunks two slices of bread into the toaster, clangs the cutlery drawer open and loudly pulls out a knife for the margarine. The kids have finished that too, I think. Though neither happening is my fault, that doesn’t stop the sliver of guilt, as I gulp my last mouthful of milky coffee.

“I’m sorry, Tilly finished the spread with her toast.” I say, putting my arms around Luke’s back before he opens our near-empty fridge again, twists to throw another jibe or I have to look him in the face and see his tired disappointment. But he doesn’t move, doesn’t say anything, simply rests there in my hug, swaying slightly.

When he finally turns to look at me, his exhausted expression mirrors how I feel. We’re like two ghosts living on the memory of who we were ten years ago.

“Do you want a cereal bar?” I rummage through my bag and pull out a green packet. It’s a little squashed and crumpled from weeks of being carried just in case, but Luke swallows it in two bites, then crunches through one slice of dry toast.

Oscar bounces into the kitchen with his book bag, followed by Tilly.

“Time to go!” she announces, looking up at her dad and me with expectation.

I glance across at Luke. He’s still frowning, forehead puckered by lines as if his whole essence of being were buried deep inside his mind. Sometimes, the unspoken thoughts between us feel sharper and more piercing than any hurled words.

“I’ll be home around seven,” he offers, smiling briefly before he kisses us all on the cheek and grabs his car key.

#

Later, as I unload the shopping after my shift, I realise I used the wrong bank card. I’m not sure it matters much; I know they’re all close to maxed out. Maybe that’s what Luke’s not telling me. I try to bite back my tears, wondering how it got to this – crying over milk that isn’t even there to spill.

I switch my phone on and it buzzes a backlog of messages.

I’m sorry. Neck massage later. Xx Luke’s text must have been from this morning, but with work rules, it’s only now that I get to read it.

There was a time when I’d have made his favourite lasagne and he’d have bought me cherry ganache to savour while he flirted with what to massage next – turning even a row into romantic foreplay.

But these are not those days.

Ok, me too. See you later. Xxx I reply, then cut two small sandwiches for Oscar and Tilly, who are beautiful and funny and cute but always hungry for something.

There’s no text back. The conversations in which neither of us want to say goodbye or stop chatting belong to different versions of ourselves, in a different relationship.

I take out the ‘Non-Stop Red’ lipstick I slipped into my pocket just before the checkout. It’s wrong, of course; I felt it as soon as I left the store. But it’s not like I can simply return the lipstick. And the colour looks so good, as if it were invented for my kiss. I examine ghost Claire in the mirror: my lips are the only part of me that’s still alive.  Simon says my smile’s the first thing he noticed. But smiling comes naturally when I’m around him.

I pull away from the mirror and these thoughts. While Oscar’s busy playing and Tilly’s sorting her homework, I might have an hour to prepare something different for dinner. I’ve not tried homemade tomato soup in a while, but I think I remember everyone loving it. Besides, it’s quick, will slip down easily and only needs spoons.

 

 

About the Author:

Sarah Leavesley is a fiction writer, poet, journalist and photographer, with flash published by journals including Jellyfish Review, Litro, Spelk, Ellipsis, Fictive Dream and Bending Genres.

Tackle and Tootsie Pops by N.T. McQueen

Fiction
Maps

A Childhood Map by Stela Brix, 2018

A rod, a reel, a tacklebox and a bag of Tootsie Pops.

In the complex relationship with my father, only one shared activity remains hallowed. Moments where I am afforded the ability to look back without questions or doubts or quixotic lenses.

Fishing.

These moments remain hallowed, untouched by lies and replacements and fruitless applause. These moments, whether in folding chairs or on the jagged edges of the Mendocino bluffs, the bodies of water drowned the demons if for a few hours. In retrospect, I think I understand why my father always ordered us to spread his ashes into the Pacific Ocean off “the rock” in Makerriker State Park. To this day, his affinity for this one rock still has a shroud of mystery. He never caught some massive fish or held an epic tug-of-war with a mighty behemoth of the depths still shrouded in legend. It’s just a damn rock.

For a son, the first fishing trip with your father is one of those pivotal initiation rights. Not just going with your father while he fishes but being a capable participant. Someone who can rig up their own line. Tie a hook with a blood knot, clamp on sinkers and a bobber, untangle a rat’s nest in the reel, dislodge a hook from tulles without snapping your line. Casting without snagging a blackberry bush or tree branch. The autonomous fisherman. The moment you become a peer and not a source of hook tying practice for your dad.

The first trip with my dad didn’t actually count. At six, I remember waking up at 5:30am in the dark, hopping in the Toyota truck, picking up Grandma Olive and driving 35 minutes to Lakeside Park along the channel before the county let the weeds and hydra consume it. Grandma had her plaid folding chair and her nine- foot bamboo rod rigged and ready for any bottom feeder that might snag her nightcrawler. As for me, my rod of choice (actually the rod of my father’s choice) was a three-foot, nail thin reel and rod combo of Superman equipped with three pound monofilament.

Truthfully, I didn’t care much about what rod I used. My heart was in the moment, not the outcome. Perhaps my heart was set on the bag of Tootsie Pops my dad religiously brought on fishing excursions. In a sense, they acted as his communion, his eucharist to partake within his sanctuary from the mysteries after him.

As the sun crept over the oaks on the opposite side of the channel, I sat by my dad on a short bank with my Superman rod and my line floating on a bobber. Maybe a bluegill or crappie might have some interest to the wiggling redworm. Blue jays shrieked in the branches and mallards and their brown mates swam, often dipping with their tailfeathers jutting skyward. The faint hum of boat motors carried from the lake.

To be honest, my six year old mind began to wander and boredom set in. The dreams of reeling in

my first fish faded and I wondered if maybe I should have stayed home with Splinter and the turtles. Closer to my sanctuary and all the characters awaiting my imagination in my toyboxes.

As I sat beside dad, tossing pebbles into the water, I failed to notice my bobber dipping before being sucked under the surface.

“Nate, you got a fish!”

I held the rod which no longer danced but bent in my paralyzed grip. Dad leaned over and tried reeling and I sat, intrigued but not enough to take ownership. Perhaps the battle seemed not worth the fight.

But then the moment erupted in a chaotic burst of water and spray as a massive carp breeched, jerking and kicking. Without a hesitation, my paralyzed grip let go and I fled. I scampered up the embankment and away from the lake’s edge as my dad, along with Superman, wrestled with the beast. I watched from a distance, heart racing and resigning myself that this would be my last fishing trip.

A minute later, dad walked up the bank with a piece of Superman in each hand. The line snapped and curling where it broke. He tried to assure me that was my first fish but, even at six, I knew that if you don’t land it, you can’t name her.

Later that morning, Grandma caught another carp with her bamboo rod. Dad told me to stand next to her as she held it up with both hands. As he wound the disposable camera, I looked eye level with this carp, face to face as its narrow mouth pulsated before spitting a wad of mud and mutilated worm into my eye.

The next trips in the early dark yielded much better experiences. As a family, we’d gather our rods and tackle and Tootsie Pops and fish for bluegill in the reservoir where the Hidden Valley Lake dam released when it overfilled. Dad, Sarah and I would stand on the concrete wall, just high enough from the water’s edge and dangle our lines writhing with worms, watching the bluegill peck and investigate until one fish’s greed consumed it. Fish after fish would take the bait and dad would show us how to grip their lip and pull the hook without getting a palmful of sharp spines from the dorsal and pelvic fins. Then they’d return to the water and we’d fish on. When the bites slowed, Sarah and I would walk the concrete embankment up the hill to the lake and survey the nestled paradise of homes lining the lush golf course.

Sarah contributed to fishing sometimes but, for the most part, the trips became a father and son event. However, even I had my limits on patience. The camping trips to Fort Bragg where dad and I sat on the bluffs, lines taught in the water and moving with the ache of a ship at sea, sucking on Tootsie Pops and waiting and waiting and waiting held a magic and banality my young mind could handle so long. After an hour, my legs would take me to the tidepools, trying to snatch crabs scuttling into crevices, attempting to catch gobys with some fishing line on my finger and searching for starfish before humans committed an accidental genocide against them. Then I practiced my ninja moves, jumping from rock to rock and seeing how fast I could traverse the jagged terrain.

Two hours later, ready to start something new, but dad sat so long on that rocky seat, I wondered if part of him had become stone. Bites or no bites, he stared across the waters, rod and reel at attention, striving to catch something. As if he were in competition with the Pacific Ocean or the God who created it.

Throughout the years, those fishing trips became more sparse but they happened. We’d even have the opportunity to try for salmon in the Sacramento River or off the Mendocino coast in a boat where we’d troll our lines in eight foot swells. My gut handled the river but those swells defeated me and my involuntary duty involved chumming the waters with my breakfast and soul. Even snagging a 27 pounder couldn’t mitigate my misery. But dad fought the sea and always seemed to win.

Maybe the Tootsie Pops were his secret weapon.

I’ve scoured the past for faults in these memories. Agonized and analyzed the minutiae of the trips that stood out as insincere moments. This scrutiny of memory has become normalized in my relationship with my father. But these memories have remained hallowed, untouched, sanctified and pure for some reason. The bluffs, Lake Cleone, the Russian River watershed, Hidden Valley Lake, Rodman Slough, Mather Lake. These bodies of water somehow cleansed him of the pressure of his choices, his demons, his fears. The act of fishing, for a moment, taught his to be a father who taught his son how to bait a hook, tie a blood knot, reel a bass lure, hold a fish. A man who stood at the bow of a charter boat as his son lay on the seats, fighting nausea, waiting for the unmistakable dance of the rod tip and then calling me over to real in his fish on his line.

 

In later years when the lies he fed became more and more voracious, those moments where he sought cleansing and catharsis from them at the water’s edge became more desperate. One summer when my middle daughter was young, my family camped at Mackerricher State Park (except my mom who loathed camping and stayed in a hotel). Aunts, uncles, cousins, even my in-laws all set up tents and played badminton, horse shoes, catch and drank beer. One of those days, dad spent some time fishing off the bluffs. I joined him for two hours without so much as a bite and I wanted to see my family. So I walked back to the camp with my wife and girls and my mom. Six hours later, dad roamed the edges of Lake Cleone, desperate to not be beaten by the water. My mom complained and ranted about how crazy he was but I felt sympathy for some inexplicable reason. His desperation to validate his time, effort and actions seemed the moves of a man on a precipice. A precipice, at the time, I had no inclination he stood on.

 

From bluffs to lakeshore, he fought all he could not control for six hours. The trail around Lake Cleone worn even deeper from his incessant and stubborn pacing, trying every reed clearing, rig set up, reel and bait he could muster to catch a trout or bluegill or crawfish. Anything to validate this choice. To attempt and fail, losing hooks and bait and weights in the name of victory on his own terms. When does determination transform into pride? Or perseverance into obstinacy? Or when does a lie become a truth?

 

When dad finally returned, walking along the narrow road between Ten Mile Beach and Lake Cleone into Makerricher campgrounds where his children and grandchildren and brothers and sister-in-laws all sat around the campfire, laughing and eating, he emerged from the redwoods empty handed save his rods and reels. The flippant promise of fish for dinner that night faded from everyone’s memory but he must have still been back at the water in his mind, wondering what he did wrong. Why all of his efforts proved fruitless.

 

Whether he ponders all those fishing trips with empty buckets in his prison cell, I can’t say. And if he tells the few left in his life those thoughts, can you trust the words of a pathological liar? Perhaps the foundation of his memories lies in those empty buckets or the one that got away, not on the fish I landed or those moments at Mather Lake helping my daughters reel in bluegill and watching bobbers.

 

As a father now, my daughters speak of a desire to fish but tremble at the early morning wake up call or the empathy for the worm. They may join me in the early dark and watch the sunrise over the mountain. They may go through a metamorphosis from boredom to anticipation as I did, but maybe not. My oldest just practiced casting a lure into Honokohau Harbor as I directed her on how to flip the bail, hold the line, when to release and all the subtleties of the cast. Maybe the spark lit. Maybe not. Maybe using Tootsie Pops creates the incentive for them.

 

Regardless, if that is the memory given me, I will store it with the others. Canonized for the remainder of my days.

 

About the Author:

N.T. McQueen is the author of the novel, Between Lions and Lambs and The Disciple. His writing has appeared in issues of the North American Review, Fiction Southeast, Entropy, The Grief Diaries, Camas: Nature of the West, Stereo Stories, and others. He has done humanitarian work in Cambodia, Haiti and Mexico and teaches writing at several colleges and universities in California.

Cinderella by Alwyn Bathan

Fiction
96727304_1362490450807199_7614073414818463744_n

Catch by Stela Brix, 2020

 

In the back of the Ford Transit, Karam was cold, wet and bloodied. His heart beat in his throat. Every bump in the road hurt. The gaffer tape binding his wrists and ankles cut into his cold gooseflesh. The gag choked, forcing his breath through his nose. Only able to sit upright until the next corner or when the van braked, he rolled, braced himself.

The van came to a stop. Karam shuffled to the back doors.  Lined with plywood, covered in paint and dirty scuffs, the windows were covered in reflective foil. He looked down the length of his body to work out what was causing the pain. His black bomber jacket was pulled up to his shoulders, his fingers and hands covered in scrapes and scuffs, his jeans wet in large patches. He was grass stained and mud spattered. One foot was colder than the other, his right foot shoeless and sockless, throbbing with pain.

Tariq’s face was bloodied and wet from tears. He looked across at Karam, who shrugged.

 

In the cab, spindly roll-ups were lit and passed between the occupants of the bench seat. Amidst the tobacco fug, they exchanged congratulations, slapped one another on the back.

‘Can tell you’ve been working out mind…picked him up like a frightened rabbit, that skinny ‘un. Clean and jerk. Thought you about to press him up above your shoulders!’

‘I’ll do it for you when we get there. Always happy to get the guns out.’

‘Where now? Should I follow Billy’s Golf?’

‘Nah. Take the A38. MacDonald’s anyone? Carbs for when we get there?’

‘What about the, erm…cargo?’

‘No full English for them tomorrow morning, I’d be thinking.’

 

Flashes of blue light illuminated the motorway. The patrol car slowed, pulling onto the hard shoulder. Raindrops on the grass were picked out by its headlights.  Reflected light skimmed the wet tarmac. Every nobble and bump in the surface, visible. Beyond the guard rail was a drop, sudden and steep. Opening the vehicle door, the officers put on their caps and silently surveyed the scene. Sharp shards of rain furrowed their brows, their eyes narrowed in the darkness.

The police radio on Burden’s lapel crackled and spat.

‘Charlie-delta-six to base. Exact location of this incident please?’ he asked. He looked at his colleague, whose eyes darted around, scouring beyond the guard rail. Plumes of frozen breath unfurled from the officer’s nose and lips.

‘Incident reported beside emergency phone, ID 767.  Four IC1 males handling two IC6 males on hard shoulder. One vehicle nearby, red VW Golf, index November-delta-one-five-golf-yankee-foxtrot. Believed stolen plates. Running checks on ANPRs in vicinity to locate vehicle. Report when checks made please.’

‘Weird,’ muttered Malik, his warm breath funnelling from the raised collar of his service waterproof. ‘We’re in the right place. And only one person rang it in?  A scuffle at the side of the motorway?’

Approaching the guard rail, the officers shone their torches across the grassy drop in front of them.

‘No tyre marks.  Bit of road rage between boy racers?’ speculated Malik. ‘God, my stomach is rumbling. Is it buttie o’clock yet?’

‘But just the red Golf?  For six guys?  Must’ve been a second car, especially the way they’re built around here.  You and your stomach. Like that plant, Audrey! Feed me now! I don’t have a good feel about this. Let’s look down the slope. We’ll call time if there’s nothing else.’

Slicing the soles of his boots into the incline, Burden smiled.

‘This is how mountain sheep feel,’ he muttered. ‘And, by the way, it’s your turn at The Greasy Spoon when we’re done.’

Malik disappeared, landing with a bump at the bottom of the slope. His grunt echoed through the darkness. Burden smiled, until the cold hurt his teeth.

‘Yes, I can confirm that I am OK, thanks mate. Found this, tripped over it.’

Malik produced a black Puma training shoe. A man’s, worn and muddy, its laces still tangled in a tight knot.

‘You were right mate. Looks like we’ve just missed our Cinderella.’

 

When the engine stopped, the van was in total darkness. Karam could hear the hoot of an owl close-by. Tariq cried beside him. The padlock securing the back doors rattled against the outside as the key was turned. The door-handle creaked, the door opened. Karam squinted out into the darkness.

 

Moonlight illuminated skeletal trees lining the brow of a distant hill.

 

And the silhouettes of his captors.

 

About the Author:

Alwyn  Bathan was a teacher for 39 years before deciding to return to formal learning through the MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University. She works for Unicef UK, promoting children’s rights in education settings. She is a keen on social justice and work-life balance, not necessarily in that order! She won the Evesham Festival of Words Short Story Competition 2019 and is considering her post-University options, but is certain that creative writing and the persistent purchase of stress-related handbags will feature in her plans. This story featured in the Bridges 2019, published by Bandit Fiction this February.

 

Driftwood by Bill Stifler

Fiction
Bota

Lost by Victoria Holt, 2017

We only think we remember the flowing current of our past.  Instead we remember eddies, that branch cutting the water, a mist-hung spider’s web limply swaying above long ripples.  There are no words for one yesterday distinct from another.  I try to remember–long days sitting in the sun, half-sleeping, lulled by the drone of locusts as evening slips in–weaving the past around me like a shawl to keep off the night’s chill–memory, fantasy, daydream blending into dusk.

Sometimes as I sit here listening to the river slip away, she comes to me. She never speaks, only stands smiling shyly at me as if waiting.  She wears the dress she wore the night of the flood, pale green like the first shoots of new grass.  I’m glad she comes, I think, but she frightens me.

It was summer then, too, July and sticky, the air heavy with heat, crushing us.  I didn’t want to go out.  I wanted to stay home, maybe read a book before going to sleep, but she was restless.

She drove.  She liked to drive, especially at night, running fast down back roads, the wind racing past us, and sometimes she turned off the headlights and drove with just the moon and stars for light.  At night she was like the wind.  I never watched the road, only her long black hair swept back, dark pools, hiding her face, defining it.  She drove more slowly as we came into Braddock, turning on the headlights, as though we were any young couple in from the country for a night on the town.

We ate, I can’t remember where or what.  I should remember.  It may have been Fortelli’s.  We often went there.  She liked Italian, especially the long Italian loaves of bread served with real butter, and she always wanted seconds.  The waiters all knew her.  They teased her about the bread, telling her if she kept eating it she’d end up looking like a fat Italian wife.  She smiled at them from under her long lashes, her head tilted shyly, seductively, her hair falling easily across her face, hiding her.  I can’t separate that night from any other.  All I remember is this image of her face above a candlelit table and soft music.

Afterward, we danced.

Sitting here by the river, I watch the swallows dip and soar above me.  They seem almost to fall into the river, then catch themselves and pull away, only to dive again, a constant rhythm of rising and falling blending with the rhythms of the river.

The musicians announced the last song.  Only a few of us were still dancing.  Sometime during the night it had begun to rain, and I remember hearing it striking the roof, steady and loud.  The doorman was drenched from helping people to their cars, and his shoes squeaked.

Driving home, I saw the river making its way across farms, at times crossing the road as if traveling with it.   Once, I glanced over at her.  She was sleeping, her arms stretched along the seat not quite touching me.

I might have stayed in town.

The road was bad, slick with mud.  Wherever the river crossed it, I’d feel the car slip for a moment with the current.  Then the car slewed one last time, the engine drowning, and the river was in the car.

I want to dance with her again, here, by the river.  Only, today, she doesn’t come, though the sky is bright, and the sun glints on the water like laughter.

 

About the Author:

Bill Stifler teaches composition and mythology at Chattanooga State Community College.  Originally from southeastern Pennsylvania, Stifler has lived in the Chattanooga area since 1972.  Stifler also serves as the webmaster for the Meacham Writers’ Workshop, a biannual event featuring readings, discussions, and group conferences by creative writers from around the world who share their experience and expertise with local and regional writers.

Electric Candle by Alfredo Salvatore Arcilesi

Fiction
page0001

Candle by Cinzia Piazza

 

Heart pumping faster than her legs, she feared she might kill her mother, feared her father would catch up to her.

“Cora!”

Oh, no!  Daddy’s getting closer, she thought.  He’s s’posed to be sleeping.

Ignoring her father’s pursuit, Cora ran past the quiet houses lining the quiet street on this otherwise quiet night. Past the bungalow, home to Mr. King, who had dressed as Santa Claus one Christmas “’cause he’s too busy to do it himself,” Mr. King had explained.  Past Ms. Shelley’s dark, leafy lawn, where she hosted Easter egg hunts “‘cause the Easter Bunny’s too busy to hide the eggs himself, so I help out,” Ms. Shelley had assured.  Past Dr. Deaver’s home that doubled as his dental office, where he had presented five-year-old Cora with a dollar to commemorate her first lost tooth, because, well… “The Tooth Fairy’s too busy.”  Past the houses that remained dark, for their inhabitants had yet to be awakened by-

“Cora!”  A breath.  “Stop!”

Blazing through a dead intersection, Cora spared a thought for the archetypes on whose behalf her neighbours claimed to work during their respective seasons.  She wondered where they were: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy.  Wondered if they saw the X-ray, the way she had.  She wondered if they saw the lie.  Or-

Her heart stopped.

Her mother died.

Her father caught up to her.

Then a double crash against her small ribcage.

And another.

Another.

Her heart rediscovered its rhythm.

Her mother was still alive.

Her father—in spite of the closing sounds—had yet to catch up to her.

Cora’s heart had forgotten a pair of beats, one per terrible thought:

What if they knew about the lie?

What if they were in on the lie?  Them.  Mr. King.  Ms. Shelley.  Dr. Deaver.  Daddy.  The doctor.

And when she thought she couldn’t lose another beat:

What if mommy lied to me?

No.

Impossible.

Though it was looking that way.

Cora didn’t want to think of her mother in that light.

All the more reason to run.

“Cora!”

Too close.

He was quick for someone who was not only old, but had been asleep.  They had been watching television; he had allowed her to stay up as late as she wanted, a sort of gift—including all the junk food she could pack into her sugar-and-salt-coated belly—to celebrate her recovery.

Recovery.

The X-ray, she thought.  The lie.

The plan had formed during her time in the hospital, then solidified in her bedroom (after the doctor deemed it safe enough for her to return home) into something simple, doable.  Her footsteps were light, quiet—the coughing fits had faded to wheezes—and her father had taken to marathon sleeping in the wake of the loss of their beloved matriarch.  The cemetery was only seconds away, past Mr. King’s, Ms. Shelley’s, and Dr. Deaver’s.

Of course, Cora had to be careful, for the last time she snuck out of the house she ended up in the hospital, where the lie had waited to be discovered.

Within her.

Tonight, not seconds but minutes ago, Cora had eased away from her father, uncomfortably sleeping on the other end of the couch.  She had tiptoed toward the front door, and after tense moments with the loud lock and creaky hinges, made her escape.  The cold air had stabbed her body, trying to get to that special spot into which it had settled three weeks ago, trying to send her back to the hospital. She hadn’t intended to run, though she knew she should hurry; there was no guarantee her father would remain asleep.

Down the front steps.

Down the driveway.

To the right, along the sidewalk that had lead her and her father from house to cemetery every day after their first, ceremonial visit.

“Cora!”

Daddy’s awake! she had thought.  He’s coming!

Breaking into a sprint, the race for the cemetery had begun.

Now, finally, breathlessly turning into the cemetery, Cora kept an eye and ear out for zombies, though she couldn’t be bothered with them at the moment. Or any moment.

Now was her only chance to learn the truth.

“Cora!”

She knew her mother’s name, but not the letters of which it was comprised.  She knew her mother’s headstone, but not in the thick darkness. She recognized the tree against which the headstone seemingly rested, and- Yes! Made out its twisted silhouette, shaped by the streetlamp from beyond the cemetery.

The frozen grass ended. The mound of earth began, a heavy blanket over her mother (if she was there), tucked in by the small yellow excavator that had patiently waited for her, her father, and the few mourners to leave before it could discreetly perform its job.

Cora dove to her knees, and began digging her short fingers into the cold dirt, yanking out pitiful handfuls. The small craters her fists made quickly filled in with seemingly more black soil than there had been. Determined, she thrashed at the dirt.

“What’re you…” Quick breaths. “…doing…” More quick breaths. “…Cora!?”

She continued the excavation as if her father hadn’t finally caught up to her, as if he wasn’t witnessing her apparent breakdown, too stunned to take the final steps to seize her, to stop her from spraying his pants with flung dirt. To stop her from disturbing the ground, his wife, her mother.

Cora dug harder, deeper, numbness creeping throughout her hands.

I gotta know! she told herself.

Ignoring her father, who knelt before her.

            I gotta know!

Ignoring her father, who took a face full of dirt.

I GOTTA KNOW!

He didn’t stop her.

‘Cause he knows I know! she thought.

Frozen razors cut hot tracks into her cheeks.  She used both anesthetized hands to investigate the conflicting sensation, but succeeded only in lodging clumps of cold, hard dirt into her teary eyes.

Stupid!

She was angry to had shed even one tear in the presence of her father.  She continued to dig, furiously, but the dirt stung her eyes.  She tried to ignore the annoying pain, but gave in to wiping her eyes, depositing more dirt within them.

Again, she tried to dig…

Again, she wiped her eyes…

Tried to dig…

Wiped her eyes…

Dig…

Wipe…

With a scream of frustration, loud and fearsome enough to scare nearby zombies back into their graves, exhausted and defeated Cora collapsed onto her side, feeling nothing.

Except her heartbeat.

Many heartbeats—pounding her chest, neck, ears, pulsing throughout her tired legs, her unfeeling hands.

Another heartbeat joined her own. Slower. Calmer.

Too tired to reject him, too cold to admit her body needed his warmth, Cora wondered if her embracing father’s own mother or father or someone he loved, someone he trusted, lived in his beating heart. Or if they had lied to him, too.

Perhaps it was the cooing, coupled with the gentle rocking.

Perhaps it was the way her heart began to slow, calm, synchronize with her father’s.

Perhaps it was the pathetic progress she—a mere girl, not a professional excavator—had made, and knew she would never learn the truth, see it for herself.

Perhaps it was the way her father whispered it was okay, all okay.

“It’s not okay!” Cora blasted, elbowing his chest. His heart. She didn’t need the ambient streetlamp to illuminate her father’s stunned, hurt expression. “I wanna see Mommy!”

In the past couple of weeks, she had come to know what the beginning of her father’s crying sounded like: a hitch in his voice, as if he was trying to prevent a sneeze. She heard it now. But instead of speaking in tears, he spoke in words. “I… I know you do. I want to see Mommy, too, but-”

“ Where is she?”

Silence from his silhouette.

“Where. Is. She?”  Three numb fists pounding against his chest.

Then it came: the not-quite sneeze, followed by the awkward sobbing. “I’m sorry, I…”  He swallowed the rest.

“You lied to me, Daddy.” Whatever tears she reserved, her father used. “You and Mommy lied to me.” Thinking about her mother as a liar had made her feel bad, guilty; saying it aloud made her feel outright criminal.

As she had in the hospital bed, then in her own bed, Cora replayed the lies in her exhausted, perplexed mind:

“No matter what happens, I’ll always be in your heart.”—her mother’s final words, the night before the surgery.

            “That’s just Mommy giving you hugs and kisses.”—her father, shortly after the funeral, clarifying what Cora took to be a ghost in her bedroom.

Mommy giving me hugs and kisses?

            How could that be if she’s s’posed to be in my heart?

            Sneaking out of the house after what her father told her.

            Standing in the windy backyard, receiving—and trying to return—her mother’s hugs and kisses.

            Her father discovering her weather-ravaged body the following morning.

            The doctor showing her the X-ray of her chest, where her new-moan-yeah no longer threatened.

“But Mommy wasn’t there, in the X-ray,” Cora said now, the tears brewing again.  “I looked and looked and I couldn’t see her.” A tear betrayed her. She didn’t bother to catch it, not if her father hadn’t seen it. “So if Mommy’s not in my heart, and mommy’s not the wind, giving me hugs and kisses,” she pointed a dirt-encrusted digit at the pile of disturbed earth, “then she’s gotta be in there. She’s gotta.”

What she took for yet another tear landing on her cheek was, in fact, one of her father’s.

“I saw Mommy in the coughing, and I saw them put the coughing in the ground.” She  pointed at the spot where she was certain her mother was buried in her coffin.

If whimpers were speech, then Cora might have understood what her father was trying to say.

“Mommy is in there, right?”

She tried to push against her father’s embrace, the only response he could muster.

“Right?” Cora managed, before giving in.

 

#

 

In spite of her father’s snug work, Cora still felt the breeze that wasn’t her mother’s hugs and kisses penetrating the thick comforter. He kissed each bathed cheek—one from him, one “from” her mother; they both knew, but never brought up—and left. Tomorrow they would have a talk about mommy. “True talk,” daddy had said.

The creaky hallway steps she had once thought belonged to a ghost disappeared into her parent’s bedroom.

Or’s it just daddy’s bedroom now?

            She didn’t know.

Her parents’—her father’s?—bed squealed, then silenced.

She hated to ruin her father’s careful work, but she needed to know.

Kicking away the comforter, Cora, aware of where the creaks hid among her floor, tiptoed toward the mirror sitting atop the drawer. After minutes of careful study, she saw that her father had lied to her again, in the cemetery: she saw not a single trace of her mother within her features.

“True talk,” daddy had said.

Tomorrow.

Navigating the creak-mines strewn about the floor, Cora returned to bed, turned on her side, and stared at the nightlight her mother had installed. In the shape of a candle, its flame perpetually ablaze, albeit with the help of electricity, the small beacon of comfort had defended Cora from an assortment of bumps in the night. No longer fearing those bumps, she reached for the nightlight, but stopped.

A new fear.

A fear of her own making:

If I turn off the nightlight, how will mommy know where I am?

 

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About the Author:

Having spent the last decade writing an eclectic bibliography of award-winning and produced short and feature-length screenplays, Alfredo felt it was time to revisit and explore a childhood ambition: to share stories by way of short-form and novel-length prose.  The creative journey has been bountiful, yielding a modest crop of complete and in-progress novels as well as a collection of short stories.  Alfredo lives in Toronto, Canada, and is currently editing his latest novel, in addition to maintaining a minimum 1,000-word-a-day diet. He can be reached via Twitter @libraryscent

 

About the Illustrator:

Cinzia Piazza was born 34 years ago in Venice, Italy. Her real name is Cinzia but everyone calls her Ciwa, a nickname of unclear origins that fits perfectly. Following a university degree in biology, she fell in love with Bèzier’s curves and vector illustration, which has now become her profession.

website: http://cinziapiazza.it/

instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ciw_a