‘The Broken Place’ by Mary Ann McGuigan

This story previously appeared in The Cortland Review in November 2015.

A black pick-up was parked haphazardly across three spaces in the store’s parking lot, the motor idling. The driver lingered at the wheel, very still, as if trying to gather himself. Dearnon, who’d been watching since the truck pulled in, put his newspaper down. The morning was cloudless, crisp, the kind of April day that can force a man to look up, to wonder about chances. He hadn’t had a customer all day, and he wished this one would either come in or leave already. The driver cut the engine but rested his arms across the top of the steering wheel, still not ready to get out. In the bed of the truck sat what appeared to be a huge telescope. Dearnon had never seen anything like it before. 

The driver’s door opened and the man stepped down. He was big, unsteady on his feet. He took small, heavy steps toward the entrance, as if uncertain whether the pavement would hold him. He wore a black shirt, black jeans, boots worn down from wandering. Thinning, strawberry blond hair was tied back in a ponytail. He opened the door of the shop without noticing Dearnon and looked toward the counter. Dearnon winced secretly at the paltry offerings: some stray beef jerkies in a display box, misshapen and gray; an empty rack meant for gum. The man’s shirt was darkened with sweat, even on this mild day. He made it to the counter, leaned his weight against it. Something was wrong.

“Can I help you, buddy?”

“Hope so.” He had a broad, friendly face, good looking. He placed his hands, palms down, on the counter. “In a bit of a fix.” He leaned forward heavily. Freckles mottled the white skin on the backs of his hands and his face was sickly pale. Dearnon worried he might be about to topple. The man tried to speak again but had trouble forming the words.  

“What’s up?” said Dearnon.

“Sweet.”

“What’s that?”

“Sweet. OJ?”

“Comin’ right up.”

Dearnon retreated to the back of the store, where he kept the drinks refrigerated. There was plenty of beer but only two bottles of orange juice left. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d placed a juice order. He took both bottles and headed back toward the counter, but there was no sign of the customer. He had a bad feeling about it, because he hadn’t heard the door so he was sure he hadn’t left. Hurrying to the front, he felt slightly out of breath. He was gaining weight. 

The big man had slid to the floor, sat leaning against the counter, knees up, head in his hands. 

“You okay, fella?” 

The man was barely able to raise his head. Dearnon opened the bottle of orange juice and leaned over him to offer it, but the man was too weak to hold the bottle so the storekeeper went down to the floor, braced the back of the man’s head in his hand and put the bottle to his lips. He took some in, although most of it dribbled onto his shirt. Dearnon pulled out a shirttail to wipe the man’s chin.

“Maybe I better call Dr. Randall. He’s not far from here.”

The man shook his head. 

“Want to come take a seat in the back?” Dearnon slept most nights there these days, not bothering to go home. The dog was gone now too.

“In a minute,” the man said. He closed his eyes and let himself relax into Dearnon’s arms. This caught him off guard, and he didn’t like it. Thoughts of the baby forced their way in, that raw vulnerability of the desperately ill. He shut his eyes to escape them, tried to focus on whether he’d placed the beer order, what he was going to tell the bank about the overdue payments, anything that would shut out the pink blankets and the crystal blue eyes. He’d never wanted the baby, made that plain right away. He and Irene were good together, fun. And they were barely twenty-five. He didn’t want to have a child before he had a life. The store needed his attention full time if he was going to make it work. When Irene went ahead and had it anyway, he didn’t complain, but he didn’t understand, and he didn’t talk much anymore. Their life became a different place, and he didn’t know the language. All that mattered was the regimen of feeding and caring, except he didn’t care, not the way he was supposed to, not until she was almost two, when she got sick. 

He looked down at his customer’s face, but felt wrong about witnessing a thing like this, when a man’s body betrays him. He settled himself down with him against the counter, tried to relax, but he was getting worried, wondered if he should get up and call a doctor. Then the big man stirred, raised his head, able to sip more of the juice as Dearnon held it for him. “I took some insulin. It’ll kick in.”

“Diabetes?” Dearnon said.

The man nodded and they sat quiet for a few minutes. 

“You give all your customers this kind of service?”

“Not a problem.” Dearnon saw they were about the same age, the sad side of thirty. 

“Is there anyone I can call for you?”

“Not a soul.” Dearnon thought he heard the customer chuckle.

They listened to the trucks on the road that fenced the strip mall, relentless, making their way south. Dearnon couldn’t remember the last time he’d just sat with someone, not without some expectation involved, some unspoken obligation.

 “I’m Ed. Ed O’Brien,” said the customer, offering his hand.

“Marty Dearnon.” He shook his hand. The man wore no wedding ring, and Dearnon wondered if he too was on his own. 

“Is that a telescope in the truck?” 

“Yup. That’s Girlfriend.” He took the bottle from Dearnon’s hand, put it to his lips.

“You an astronomer or something?”

“Eclipse chaser. I was up in Montana. It was a beaut.”

“You seen a lot of em?”

“My share.”

“I guess you travel all over the place?” 

“Yeah, you have to get on the road. I got hooked back in 1990. That summer was the first one I paid any real attention to, but I didn’t see the total, wasn’t in the right place. So I started to make it my business to get to whatever place had the best view.” 

Dearnon chuckled. “I knew a guy once who visited every major league baseball field in the country.”

“I’ve got some unbelievable pictures. Saw one in Siberia, one in Bucharest. That was the best one.”

“Why? Clear shot?”

“That, yeah. And I got to watch it with a woman I cared about.” O’Brien lifted the bottle and Dearnon watched the rest of the liquid empty out. 

“Feelin’ better?”

O’Brien nodded. “I ought to be used to these spells by now.”

“Maybe the docs need to adjust your meds.” Dearnon’s uncle had been diabetic, and he had asked him once if he could watch the injection. “Next time,” he said. But the man was dead by then. 

“Let’s just say I don’t always stick with the program.”

Dearnon heard the rebellion in O’Brien’s voice, the unwillingness to play by the rules. It was a dangerous way to go, but he couldn’t fault him for it.

“Every time things go haywire, I wonder if it’s curtains,” said O’Brien. “But things always settle down.”  

“Where you headed now? Home?”

“Not yet.” He put the bottle down.

“Where is home anyway?”

“Good question,” said O’Brien, with a bit of a laugh. “New Jersey, not far from Princeton.”

“I been on that turnpike. After the army.”

“Well, don’t let that fool you. New Jersey’s a pretty place really.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean—”

“It’s okay. You own this place?” O’Brien looked at the shelves, and Dearnon wished he had a way to explain why they were mostly bare.

“The bank owns it really.”

“Still, it’s yours to run. That’s something.” His glance took the place in again. The lower shelves near where they sat held only a few boxes of Cheerios, one tipped on its side, and odd jars of relish and cans of peas. “Just open up?”

Dearnon grinned then, letting it in, the time that had passed already. “Eight years.” He looked around the store, wondering again if he should have bought those shelves at that auction when he had the chance. He had an urge to defend himself somehow, make it clear that things could have been different. Business had been good in the beginning. But a business like this takes time, energy. You have to want it. Before long all they wanted was a doctor who could tell them what was wrong. Dearnon said nothing, and O’Brien stopped the questions, as if he understood there would be no neat explanation for the state of things here, that the reasons were still too raw. 

“So where’s the next eclipse?”

“Japan.” 

“Is that woman going to watch it with you?’ O’Brien’s face changed, and Dearnon wished he could take back the question.  

“She’s not interested.” O’Brien took a deep breath, trying to sit up straighter, but it was a struggle. He looked out into the parking lot, as if frustrated, eager to move on. “Seems like things get pretty quiet here.”

“Business comes in spurts, I guess.” But it didn’t. It hardly came at all anymore. Some days he didn’t bother opening up. He had to sell the place, but he couldn’t seem to part with it. It had become his hideout. Customers were an intrusion. A year ago, he’d dismantled the bell that announced an entry.

O’Brien didn’t challenge him. 

“I’m thinking about selling.”

“Yeah, maybe a new location,” said O’Brien. “One of those little college towns, where you can get some run-off business.”

From where they were sitting, Dearnon could see the dust that had balled up under the lowest shelves, and he felt oddly embarrassed, as if it could still matter. When he first opened the place, he’d polished the wood floors on his knees. He was fanatical about offering special cheeses, breads you couldn’t find that easily. 

O’Brien gazed at the bottle in his hand, almost as if he expected to find some kind of answer in it. “It didn’t have to be this way,” he said, and for a crazy moment Dearnon wondered if the man was reading his mind.

He remembered the casseroles Irene left him in the fridge, how much that had angered him, as if feeding him made her any less gone. He left them out for the dog. “Yeah,” he told O’Brien. “I know what you mean,” but Dearnon never did figure out what he could have done differently, what would have been good enough, or even why he didn’t at least try to talk to her. He looked out through the glass of the front door into the parking lot. He could see the telescope in the truck, the huge metallic blue barrel reflecting the sunlight. He wondered what it would be like to be able to cart around the thing you needed most in the world. 

“So you gonna be there?” Dearnon said.

“Where? Japan?”

“Yeah.”

“Got nowhere else to be.”

“How long since you seen her?” Later, Dearnon wondered why he didn’t stop there, at a point where he would have understood nothing more about this man. Or about himself. 

“Two years,” said O’Brien.

Hardly enough time to forget what she smelled like. Dearnon didn’t need to know any more than that, because all endings were made of the same stuff. A silence too long. A bed too big. “Ever try to reach her?”

O’Brien looked at his watch. “Twenty minutes ago.”

“And?”

“She says it won’t work, not now.” Dearnon wondered if it was about his illness, but he waited for more, realizing he wanted a different answer, a different ending. A car pulled up outside, but then moved on, as if the driver saw she had arrived at the wrong place. Good, Dearnon thought. He didn’t want to get up.

“She had this odd thing she did.” Dearnon listened, not surprised that the things the man would remember would be the things he couldn’t make sense of. “After we had a fight, she’d call me to see if I got home okay. Every time. I completely forgot about that, till just recently.” Dearnon knew that letting shit like that back in wasn’t good. “I wasted all that time.” He understood then that O’Brien was probably very ill, and that he knew it. 

He opened the other bottle of juice, took a slug and passed it to O’Brien, who downed the rest and sat up straighter. “What do I owe you for these?”

Dearnon laughed. “On the house.” He sat up, but reluctantly. He didn’t want the man to leave. The last time he’d exchanged this many words with anyone he was explaining himself to a nurse from intensive care who wanted to see ID before she’d let him near his daughter. The child crying out for him made no difference to her. 

O’Brien got to his feet, still unsteady but better than before. He gathered his things and Dearnon was struck by how purposeful he seemed, checking his watch, asking how much time it was likely to take to get to Laramie. 

“Three hours, easy. You sure you don’t want to rest up, eat something?” But Dearnon could see the man was gone already, his mind on the road. 

O’Brien thanked him, said he’d be fine. He adjusted the straps of his heavy backpack, extended his hand. Dearnon shook it. There was no more to say. He watched him go out the door. A few steps before he reached the truck, he hesitated, and Dearnon thought he was going to turn around. But he kept going, opened the tailgate, searched for something. 

He wanted to call to him, but he stopped himself. He looked down at where they’d been sitting, let his thoughts go where they shouldn’t. He fought them off, concentrated instead on the stranger’s truck backing up, turning smoothly to protect its cargo, then moving with only the barest hesitation back onto the road. 

When there was no more to see, Dearnon locked the door, so he wouldn’t be disturbed. He walked to the back, moved the newspapers off his bunk and sat down, picked up the phone. The number came to him with no effort at all. The rings were insistent, shrill. He wished he could stifle the sounds, keep them from making so much out of this. The hello was small, tentative, as if she’d recognized the number. He didn’t speak, and she hung up.

He said the number aloud, as if testing it, and this time the sequence began playing tricks on him. Maybe that wasn’t the number. Maybe that wasn’t her.   

About the Author

Mary Ann McGuigan is a freelance editor, based in the USA. Her short stories—nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net—have appeared in The Sun, Image, North American Review, Prime Number, and other literary journals. PIECES,  her collection of short stories, was published in 2017. WHERE YOU BELONG, one of her YA novels, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and  she has served on the panel of judges for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. The New York Public Library, the Junior Library Guild, and the Paterson Prize rank her YA novels among the best books for teens. More at http://www.maryannmcguigan.com

Two Poems by Susan Castillo

Bloom Where You Are Planted

I made a garden by the sea,
northern Portugal.  Roses bloomed for me, 
shielded by stone walls 
from blasts of silver wind.  

I made a garden up on Skye.
Crofter’s cottage. They’ll say a woman
came from the mist. She planted two giant trees.  
Sequoias. I was never one to think small.

I made a city garden by a black heath 
where plague victims were interred.
Cascades of yellow roses. 
Blood and bone are good for soil.

I made a garden in the Sussex countryside, 
cloaked the house in roses. Grew grapevines.
Filled it with children’s laughter,  
learned to live with darkness.

I made a London garden.  
Weeded out old sadness, threw out decay. 
Planted bold bursts of flowers,
draped walls in blooms and scent. 

Bloom where you are planted    
My mother used to say.

Braiding

In a distant Southern parlour.  
I comb Grandmother’s straight black hair.
People always said she might have Indian blood
Where did all these wrinkles come from

For goodness sake, I answer.   
You’re eighty!  It’s okay to have a few.

Now the light streams through the window
in the Sussex countryside.  My granddaughter
combs my hair.  It used to be 
dark gold, now is white. 

My granddaughter pats my shoulder.
You’re beautiful, she says.

About the Author

Susan Castillo Street is Harriet Beecher Stowe Professor Emerita, King’s College London.  She has published four collections of poems, The Candlewoman’s Trade, (2003), Abiding Chemistry,  (2015), The Gun-Runner’s Daughter, (2018) and Cloak (2020), as well as several scholarly books. She lived in Portugal for 25 years, and is now based in London and in the Sussex countryside, where she owns a vineyard.

‘The Body That Washed Ashore’ by Greg Forrester

Stealing precious moments together in the budding dawn, it was two young lovers who saw the body wash up on the sand. They thought little of it, believing it to be a log covered with seaweed, but as the morning arrived in full, a rumour that the lifeless body of a woman had been found on the beach had spread, and soon the entirety of the town had crowded along the promenade hoping to catch a glimpse of the woman from the sea. Access to the sand had been cordoned off by the authorities and all the gathered masses could see was a shape beneath a black sheet amongst the milling officers. Those on the sand were at a loss with what to do with the body. The town was small and the only doctor had drowned two years previously, so an open call was put out over the local radio stations and spread by word of mouth for anyone with sufficient anatomical knowledge of men or fish to make themselves known.

First to answer the call was a travelling medical student from Scandinavia who emptied his stomach upon seeing what lay beneath the sheet. Twice more eager strangers appeared in those early hours, and on each occasion they left ashamed, unsuccessful, and haunted by what they had seen. It was then that the authorities decided to move the body. They took it into the basement of the police station, to a forgotten room where an autopsy could be performed in private. Locking the door behind them as they returned to their investigations, they waited for a solution to appear.

Brooks arrived three days later. An amateur ichthyologist and professional con artist, he presented himself at the station in a freshly starched black suit and bowler hat while the day was still young.

‘I believe you’ve been waiting for me,’ he announced, proudly striding into the station. From his briefcase he produced papers asserting his medical qualifications, stealing them from sight before they crumbled under closer inspection. ‘Where is the body?’

A junior constable led him down to the basement. Unlocked the door. Paused. Then removed the sheet.

There it was, lying in front of him. The body that had washed ashore. Lifeless. Her eyes open. Her sclera full of the sea. A fish’s tail where her legs should be.

‘I see,’ Brooks muttered to himself. He then repeated himself for the benefit of the watching constable who had backed up against the wall. ‘You are very lucky that I have found my way here.’

Brooks began to scrutinise the body with the precision of an architect, his face so close to its sallow skin that his eyelashes ran across the dead flesh. A viscous, tear-like liquid coated the skin around its eyes, while the lips were still damp with seawater and the tongue was noticeably missing. A strange smell permeated from the skin, reminding Brooks of an Italian port. Tilting her head to rest as if sleeping against the stainless-steel table, he found small incisions along the neck and, recognising their structure, deduced that these were gills of some description. Using a pen produced from his jacket pocket he lifted a lamella.

‘Aren’t you going to…’ The constable’s voice stumbled, and instead, she pointed towards the lower half of the woman, to the fish tail. In truth, Brooks had been stealing glances at the tail since the sheet was lifted, but he was an expert in his profession, a professional with a role to play.

‘My dear. Clearly, there is something here with this poor soul that we would not expect. It does not take someone with my expertise to tell you that, you know this already. But first, we must ascertain if what at first view may appear normal – her face, her heart, and so on – we must know if these are as expected, or if…’ Brooks made a show of pausing, to think. ‘What if this piscine appendage is merely a misdirect, hiding an even bigger secret?’

It was close to midday, and the town had not forgotten about the mystery that had washed ashore three days previously. Curiosity had festered like a rotting infection, nursed by vivid dreams of a lady walking from the ocean, only to become a fish on land. Those who experienced these dreams woke unusually late the following day with the salty taste of the sea on their lips and found themselves unable to speak of anything other than the body which had been hidden away deep inside the station. So it was that crowds gathered and grew outside the station day by day, water-sellers, fire-breathers, card sharks, and fortune tellers plying their wares; pickpockets, silver-tongued politicians, young mothers, and aged beauties mingled with their prey. Amongst the crowd was a young troubadour whose eyes sought out the station door, watching anxiously for her lover.

Once his initial inspection was complete, Brooks excused himself from the station in search of ingredients for a tonic he told the officers would be needed to complete the autopsy, though first he procured enough coin to cover his supposed costs. He wasn’t long out the station before the crowds swarmed around him. What is it? Where did it come from? Should we be afraid? Can I count on your endorsement? Brooks shook these questions off with a reassuring smile, stopping long enough to bask in the heat of the fire-breathers as he moved among the bodies. Free of the crowd, he straightened his bowler hat and secluded himself inside a dark, windowless pub and found a drinking companion who would enable his vices in exchange for strange tales.

While waiting still for her lover to emerge from the station, the troubled troubadour heard a quiet song carried on the wind. It was a tune that belonged to no one, a whispering lament which forced her into action. It demanded to be discovered. Entranced, she abandoned her wait for her lover and began a pilgrimage in the direction of the song, towards the beach on which the body washed ashore.

Brooks returned to the station with ingredients squirreled away inside the pockets of his suit jacket: bellis perennis, to purge; peony and snapdragon, to relax; anise and garlic; spirits of salt. These he mixed together above a naked flame until they produced a viscous liquid coated with an amber-like membrane. In the borrowed beaker the tonic bubbled, like sea foam, like a rabid animal, a noxious scent rising above the glass. The scent of thirst and abandon, of being lost at sea, of washing ashore. But when he returned to the basement ready to administer the tonic, he found the room empty. There was no sign of the body which had laid there on the stainless-steel table, only the silhouette of a woman left behind in the dust, and a pathway of water leading out of the basement.

‘Where is the body?’ Brooks called into the mass of the station, but this too, he found empty. Finding a nearby flask, he emptied his tonic into the container, pocketed it, and then followed the trail of water out into the town. It was deserted. Where what felt like only moments prior, he had struggled through curious, self-serving bodies to get back to the station, but now all that remained were the legacies they would leave behind: propaganda pamphlets, scorched pavement, unwanted futures. Still he followed the water, through secluded streets and abandoned alleyways.

Eventually he arrived at the same beach on which the body had been discovered, three days prior.  on that morning, the entire town crowded along the promenade looking out towards the sea. Brooks slid through the masses like a hunter, emerging onto the sand to see three silhouettes there on the crest of the sea. One of these figures he recognised immediately as the subject of his improved autopsy, but on either side of the woman, supporting her, dragging her towards the water, were two figures he couldn’t make out. One of them appeared to have an instrument of some sort, a lute or small guitar, strapped to their back.

‘Stop,’ Brooks cried, doing his best to run through the rising tide and sinking sand in his freshly starched suit and bowler hat, but he knew it would be to no avail. Helpless, he could do nothing but watch as the waves enveloped the shapes. 

Three disappeared under the water, and two bodies washed ashore.

‘She just wanted to be free,’ said the troubadour, struggling for breath. The lute which had been strapped to her back was now missing, but she seemed not to notice. At her side, hand in hand, stood the junior constable who had been charged with guarding the body. Brooks stared hard at her, betrayed, but she refused to meet his eye. The flask containing the now-redundant tonic he had prepared for the autopsy hung limp in his hand.

Soon the crowds dispersed. Days went by without incident and any remnants of those salt-tasting dreams which had haunted the residents faded. Three days Brooks drowned his sorrows in the windowless pub, paying his bill with unbelievable stories – of a creature from the sea, part woman, part fish. Once the alcohol had thoroughly distilled his disappointment, Brooks placed this bowler hat proudly back atop his head and strode out of town, briefcase in hand.

On his way out of town he took the waterfront road, walking for the first time unimpeded along the promenade. It made him happy to see the beach deserted. Perhaps those young lovers would no longer need to hide their romance, he thought to himself, removing his shoes as he strode out onto the sand. In front of him was an endless world of blue. He walked into the rising suds of the tide, the water lapping at the bottom of his trousers. It was peaceful.

Brooks stayed there long enough to feel the tide rise and recede and watch the day fade away around him. It was then, in that greying façade, that he walked further towards the sea. Checking that the beach and the promenade behind her still deserted, he placed his briefcase down in the sinking, still-damp sand and clicked it open. There inside were his fraudulent medical papers, the flask containing the unused autopsy solution, and the bag of coins he had procured from the officers still full. He felt something wash ashore close by but didn’t look up. Instead, he ran his fingers along a glass jar hidden in his briefcase. There inside the jar was a human tongue, grey and decaying.

‘This makes six,’ Brooks said, directing his voice out into the ocean. Beside him rested the troubadour’s lute. ‘One more, and your payment is complete.’

Brooks shouldered the lute and turned his back on the water – and his accomplice, hidden beneath its surface – and made his way along the waterfront road to the next town.

About the Author

Greg Forrester (he/him) is an award-winning writer based in the North East of England. He is a current PhD candidate at the University of Sunderland, writing about magical realism and northern identity, and was Highly Commended for the Sid Chaplin Award in 2021. He is Managing Director of Bandit Fiction, a not-for-profit digital publishing company, and has been previously published by Fairlight Books and TL;DR Press. You can follow him at @GregForrester4 on Twitter, @forrester4 on Instagram, and find out more about him at his website, www.gregforrester.com

Four Haiku by Tohm Bakelas

suburban new jersey blues

sad eyes in my head— 
rhododendron petals fall 
as robins sing songs 

broken shadow

lost wandering confused streets— 
the sun forgot to 
shine on me today

unavoidable outcomes

when everything fails, 
pain settles in like grey smoke 
in the nighttime sky  

i remember

i watch a small child’s balloon 
float towards white clouds— 
i watch a dream die  

About the Author

Tohm Bakelas is a social worker in a psychiatric hospital. He was born in New Jersey, resides there, and will die there. His poems have appeared in numerous journals, zines, and online publications. He has published 13 chapbooks. He runs Between Shadows Press.

‘The Figure Skater’ by William Falo

The rubles felt heavy in my pocket, and I waved the lorry past the open gate until I saw the ice skates dangling out of a bag. I clenched my fists and ran after the truck with visions of the girl I loved doing triple axles on the ice skating rink in his head. “Stop,” I yelled. The truck screeched to a stop. The shrieks of the hidden stowaways came from under the blankets in the back of the truck. I grabbed the ice skates and pulled back the blanket. Three girls shivered in a corner; they all glared at me.

The driver stormed toward me, “We paid you.”

“Whose ice skates?”

“Mine,” a girl said.

“Not anymore,” I said.

“Take the skates.” The driver walked back toward the front of the truck. “But let us through.”

“No.” I signaled for them to turn around, and I walked back to the guard shack, carrying the skates. The truck turned around. 

The wind increased, and gray clouds drifted into Seversk. 

I often thought of leaving the city and all its pollution. The nuclear plant scared me after both my parents died from cancer in their fifties. They both worked at the plant when it exploded in 1993. I was lucky to get the security guard job, and one day I met a beautiful figure skater and helped her leave. 

The wind whistled through holes in the shack, and I pulled out the bottle of vodka from under the desk. The ice skates hit the floor with a thud, and the vodka warmed my insides.

I remembered the day that Ekaterina skated on the frozen pond despite a blizzard. She spun in circles with such speed that she became a blur. I told her that she was going to be a champion.

Later, she hired a coach who would meet her in Moscow. I gave her money and helped her escape, and I planned to meet her there in the future. But, after she won a few competitions, I never saw her again except on TV with her new husband, her coach. I thought I was over it until I saw the skates on the truck.

The empty vodka bottle shattered on the floor next to the skates. I picked the skates up and slung them over my shoulder, and left the shack. Andrei, the relief guard, shook his head. All the guards confiscated items to allow smugglers to get people out of the closed city, but ice skates had to be a first.

I lugged them into my apartment with plans to destroy them.

The morning sun shimmered off the ice when I watched children skating across a pond on the way to the guardhouse; I spotted one girl skating on a ragged-looking pair of ice skates. 

“Her feet must be killing her,” a man standing on the hill alongside me said. “She found those in the dump; imagine if she had good skates.”

It was Viktoria, the one I took the skates from at the guard post. She spun in circles that made her blur, then, with spread arms, glided across the ice with her hair dangling behind her. 

It was beautiful, and I fought back the comparison to Ekaterina. The shift at the gate proved to be excruciating due to my headache. A few truckers used obvious fake identification cards, but I let them pass when they paid me.

I checked every destination, and each one made me dream of other places. The names of distant cities echoed in my mind; St. Petersburg, Moscow, Vladivostok, and others filled my mind. I never saw any of them. I was born in this closed city and stayed here my whole life, even after my parents died. I planned to leave to be with Ekaterina to follow her on her skating adventures, but she left me behind. 

That night, I bought more vodka with the bribe money and walked the cold streets. A few people wandered alone like me, and I saw the figure skater.

I turned away, but she saw me. “Wait, I want to talk to you.”

I stopped.  “Can I have my ice skates back?”

Bruises covered her arms. 

“Are they from falls on the ice?” I pointed at the bruises.

“Some of them,” she said while covering her arms.

“What else happened?” 

She looked away.

“Oh,” I said and reached out to touch them but pulled my shaking hand back.

“Why are you trying to leave?”

“I don’t have to tell you,” she said and turned away.

“No, but I have your skates.”

“What’s your name?”

“Anton. I heard them call you Viktoria.”

She nodded. “I am trying to compete in figure skating, and there is a competition coming up in Moscow.”

I knew what the smugglers require if you don’t have enough money. 

A car stopped in front of them. “Viktoria, you still owe us money for messing up that smuggling attempt with those skates.”

She turned away and started walking down the street. “Wait,” I walked toward the car. “Leave her alone.”

“What are you going to do, security guard? Fight us, or report us. How about all the bribes you took?”

I stopped. They rolled up the window and drove away, leaving me standing there. The sound of sobbing came from the direction that the girl walked, but she was gone when I tried to find her.

I kept checking, but Viktoria never arrived at the pond the next day, and I couldn’t find her on the streets. When I returned to the guard shack, I searched the records for any trucks going west. A few could have left with girls in them. I had an idea. 

The car I owned sat under a covering of snow, and I cleared it off. The engine started, and I drove down the street. I stopped at a bus station. There was one bus going to Moscow to take residents to visit relatives in Moscow. It already had the permit. I signed it and changed the number of passengers to add one more. The skates felt heavy in my hands, and I put them on the last seat of the bus. 

“I don’t want anyone to touch them or sit next to them,” I  said, and I gave a handful of rubles to the driver.

Darkness spread over the city, and I walked through the streets looking for Viktoria. I found her near the pond.

“Viktoria,” I said. “I got a plan to get you out of here.” I held out a ticket for Moscow.

“What’s that for?”

“So, you can compete. I saw you. You can be great.” I paused when I realized that I remembered saying those exact words to Ekaterina.

“It’s too late now,” Viktoria said.

“No, it’s not; take this.” I handed her the tickets and an envelope filled with rubles. 

“They won’t let me leave.”

“I’ll stop them. Hurry, the bus leaves soon. It’s a few streets over. Go to the last seat.”

“Why are you helping me?” 

I hesitated. I couldn”t answer. I did it before for love, and it ended up hurting me. This time it was different. Maybe it was love, but real love. I knew I would probably never see her again, and yet I wanted to help her.

“You better go,” I said without answering her question.

“Will I see you again?” 

“You never know,” I said, but I didn’t believe it.

She started walking away, and a car followed her. She walked faster, and the vehicle began to speed up.

She tried to run, but the car closed in on her, and I ran out into the street. The sound of brakes screeched, but the car hit me. The pain seared through me. A man got out of the car and tried to drag me out of the way, but I fought him.

Sirens echoed through the city, and the flashing lights got brighter. The man dropped me, and I saw a light flicker inside the bus as it drove away. I glimpsed Viktoria holding the skates in the window – then the light went out, but I smiled, knowing that she would skate again. I pushed the man away and limped to my car. Without looking back, I drove toward the city gate. It was closed, but I smashed through it and headed east, leaving the city that became my prison behind without looking back at it. 

Before Viktoria skated in the Russia Federation Figure Skating Championship, she looked at the audience for any familiar faces, but there were none. She had no family anymore, and there wasn’t anybody to cheer for her. Her coach gave her last-minute encouragement. She skated a near-perfect routine ending in a spin that seemed to have her twirling forever. She ended up facing the crowd, and in the last row, she saw a familiar face clapping for her. Their eyes locked, and he smiled; she wanted to wave to him, but someone stood up in front of Anton, and her coach called her over as the crowd applauded.

After getting her scores that qualified her for the National Team, she looked for Anton in the audience, but the seat was empty. 

About the Author

William Falo lives in New Jersey with his family, including a papillon named Dax. His recent short stories can be found in Vamp Cat Magazine, Fragmented Voices, Dead Skunk Literary Magazine, the anthology of the year’s best dog stories, and other literary journals. He can be found on Twitter @williamfalo and Instagram @william.falo

‘Pink Flamingo’ by Özge Lena

I was grounded
by my father he

made me stand 
on my one foot

like the shame pink
flamingo I saw 

that night by the
salt lake glistening

like a paraph on a
paper of sprinkled 

diamonds at the time
my mother died but

I was kissing you and 
the flamingo was so pink

the lake bleached your
lips lust pink when  

it was too late to call the 
ambulance my mother’s 

eyes poison pink lying
on the rust pink kitchen 

linoleum I knelt down 
whispering flamingo 

flamingo flamingo
realizing if I repeat 

a word more than ten 
times it would sound like 

coming from another time of 
another planet of scar pink

like the word mother
like the word mother

About the Author

Özge Lena (she/her) is an Istanbul-based writer/poet and an English language teacher who has a published novella titled Otopsi (The Autopsy). Her poems appeared in Green Ink Poetry, Fahmidan Journal, One Art Poetry Journal, Seiren Quarterly, Off Menu Press, and elsewhere. Her poetry was shortlisted for the Ralph Angel Poetry Prize 2021, judged by Mary Ruefle.

Pushcart Prize Nominations

We are delighted to reveal our chosen nominations for this year’s Pushcart Prize, selected from our magazine and this year’s Big Book, Heart/h . Our deepest thanks to each of our authors and poets for entrusting us with your work – you make this possible!

For Poetry

Holly Magill for Dad Teaches Me to Light Matches7th April 2021

Kayleigh Campbell for Lunar Eclipse28th April 2021

Clive Donovan for Buttons26 May 2021

For Short Stories

Mikki Aronoff for ‘Nature/Nurture‘ in Heart/h

Sean Burke for ‘A Silver Maple‘ in Heart/h

Kelly Kaur for ‘The Kitchen is her Home‘ in Heart/h

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Pushcart Prize?

The Pushcart Prize is a time-honoured literary project in the United States. Founded in 1976, it recognises the best small presses in the world by publishing the winning pieces in a yearly anthology.

Why didn’t you choose my piece?

We are deeply passionate about all our authors’ work – that’s why we published you! We’re only allowed six nominations, though, so we went for those pieces which had especially stuck with us this past year.

Can I nominate my own work?

The Pushcart Prize only accepts nominations from publishers, not from individuals.

‘The Compliment’ by Daniel Schulz

The whistle of his lips reverberated down the corridor, following her lonely steps toward the platform we were leaving.

“Hey, you know the subway is running late tonight, right?” I shouted back at her, trying to warn her about the twenty minute delay. No reaction. “Did you really have to do that?” I asked.

“Calm down. It’s a compliment,” Tom answered, deflecting my discontent. This was exactly the problem I always had with him. I took a deep breath and kept still. I didn’t want an argument. We had both had this conversation once before. This wasn’t the time to have it again.

It was ten o’clock that evening. We had just returned from work, when the subway home had announced a delay of about twenty minutes. That’s when we walked down the corridor, when we saw her walking up toward the platform, when we were on our way to the bus station out front, looking for an alternative way home. Looking at the schedule I realised it made no difference – that the subway was still my fastest ride home. Tom looked at me. He still was the man who appreciated women in every way but the one they wanted to be appreciated in.

“Are you going back to the platform?”, he asked. Of course I was. And deep inside I hoped I wouldn’t see her again, avoid an awkward situation. “See you, tomorrow,” Tom said, leaving for the bus. And while I watched him get in the bus that was just driving up, I secretly hoped she wouldn’t remember who I was, if I saw her at the platform that is. But, of course, I wasn’t quite as lucky as that.

There was a nervous kind of silence. An uneasy ignorance of my presence, displayed with purpose. As if to hope that nothing bad would happen if she just ignored me. It was the kind of body language I recognised from myself when I used my body to speak – the kind of language I employed when I was out partying on the weekends, trying to avoid the anger of drunk men and strangers passing by. Trying to avoid the violence that some people’s stares or comments toward me promised.

Like a stranger whistling behind me, telling me I have a great ass.

I proceeded to the other end of the platform, putting as much distance between us as possible, trying to be thoughtful of her, when, looking back, I caught her staring at me in angst, a glance of recognition. She remembered who I was. She remembered the sound of someone whistling after her. Or maybe it was the way I was clothed: I was wearing black pants and a leather jacket on my body, and black smears on my face from work, unwashed traces from the factory. Standing there underneath the neon light, I must have seemed like a shadow casting itself toward her, leering at her from underneath the abyss that was my face. Seeing her fear, it seemed impossible to disarm it, as it was me that was her angst.

The thought of apologising to her crossed my mind. But even speaking to her would perhaps make her flinch, even if I apologised for his behavior. Maybe even apologising to her would make her feel uncomfortable, giving the impression I wanted something from her. Better not do anything. Better leave her alone. There was no way to untie the knot in her stomach.

Twenty minutes is a long time to wait.

Staring out into the night and onto the platform across from us, I let my thoughts wander away, hoping somehow that it would put her at ease that the shadow standing here, underneath these lights, displayed no interest in her. This is what Tom never understood about what he was doing, the unease that it caused for others. Glancing back for a second, I saw a man in uniform approach the woman he had disturbed. Her face expressed a sigh of relief, as the subway slowly rolled in. Twenty minutes is a long time to wait. Lucky enough, the cars we entered were separate.

While the landscape outside slowly increased speed, my thoughts remained still in reminiscence of the fear that had shown on her face. Twenty minutes is a long time to be afraid, out there in the dark. I could feel the unease on her face spread throughout my body. There was a desire to break away from the world that surrounded me, an urgent need to separate myself from the passengers sitting all around me – an urgent need to isolate myself in panic, realising that the expression of her fear reflected who I was.

About the Author

Daniel Schulz is a U.S.-German author based in Cologne. He is best known for his short story collection Schrei (Formidabel 2016) and his work as curator of the Kathy Acker Reading Room at the University of Cologne. In 2019 he co-organized and curated an exhibition for the Goethe Institute in Seattle for which he edited the book Kathy Acker in Seattle (Misfit Lit 2020). He also worked as co-editor of Gender Forum‘s special edition Kathy Acker: Portrait of an Eye/I (2019). His works have appeared in the journals Der Federkiel, Luftruinen, Die Novelle, The Transnational, Electronic Book Review, Mirage #5, Gender Forum, Fragmented Voices, Divanova, Kunst-Kultur-Literatur Magazin, Versification, Salut L‘absurde, Café Irreal and Cacti Fur as well as the anthologies Tin Soldier (Sarturia 2020), Corona -Schnee (Salon29 2021), Jahrbuch der Poesie 2021 (AG Literatur 2021) and Heart/h (Fragmented Voices 2021).  Instagram: @danielschulzpoet

‘Returning to the Shack in the Wood’ by Helen Kay

I draw a screwdriver from my handbag. 
Four screws, sunk to their necks,
pin the tarred door to its splintered frame.

We gave up padlocks last year: 
too many lost keys, and metal hearts, 
worn openly, tempt straying hands. 

The tin roof has new chapters of rust.
We dread chewed wires, mothy towels, 
the selves we left, now mould-spotted.  

The Philips glances off worn grooves,
but finally the timber grinds its hinge hips;
lost air sucks up the green light of oaks. 

A glissando of duct tape releases boxes;
we uncurl the tent’s skins and peg out
our drey amidst a hug of oaks.  

About the Author

Helen’s work has appeared in various magazines. In 2021 she was a finalist for the Brotherton Prize. She curates dyslexiapoetry.co.uk . Her pamphlet, This Lexia & Other Languages (v. press) was published in 2020. She has a sidekick hen puppet diva called Nigella.

‘Granda Tot’ by Tom Kelly

Jarrow born writer, Tom Kelly, tries to discover the life and hard times of his maternal grandfather, almost fifty years after his death. He follows him from a boy on the training ship, ‘The Wellesley,’ moored off North Shields, through two world wars. And still asks, “do I know my grandfather?”

Photographs of Granda in a sailor suit with his mother.

In this rare photograph, taken one hundred and twenty years ago, we see an unsmiling mother and child. No smiles for the camera. No wonder. Margaret Henderson, his mother, my great grandmother, would have been thirty-years-old. 

My grandfather, James Robert Henderson, was born in Jarrow on March 14th 1889 and died August 18th, 1972. The bald facts. What do they hide, what do they tell us? How much do I really know about him? Take away photographs and family stories and what is left? 

Just weeks after his birth, on March 31st, 1889, the Eiffel Tower was unveiled for the Paris Exhibition. The Tower, at the time, was the World’s tallest structure. It is seen as one of the masterpieces of nineteenth century architecture. In sharp contrast, my grandfather’s birth would have been met with a sense of foreboding. No fanfare for James Robert Henderson. His mother, Margaret, was a single mother. He was illegitimate. The mark of Cain was on his head. His father was killed in a pit accident at Hebburn Colliery months before his birth.

Granda was born into a world where the stigma of being illegitimate was difficult to overcome. His mother needed to work. She did not have family support and she placed her son initially in Green’s Boys Home, South Shields and at twelve-year-old on the ‘The Wellesley’, an Industrial School ship, moored off Liddell Street Quays, North Shields. ‘The Wellesley’ was initiated in 1868 to take care of boys who, “through poverty, parental neglect or being orphans may be in contamination with vice and crime”. There were 300 hundred boys on the ship.  The boys could have visitors once they had been onboard for two months and provided the visitors were not drunk!

Life onboard ‘The Wellesley’ was harsh. At half-past four in the summer, or five in the winter, they would wash, have breakfast and scrub the decks.

He was fifteen when he left the training ship and signed on a sailing ship that left the Tyne for the Black Sea in 1904. Incidentally ‘The Wellesley’ was burnt off the Tyne on March 11th, 1914. I suspect Granda did not shed many tears at its demise.

However, ‘The Wellesley’ developed a number of skills he used all his life, his dexterity with rope always amazed me as did his prowess at darning, knitting and sewing. He was also a strong swimmer, which was encouraged and developed on the ship. It is said he saved a man’s life in the Tyne, that led him to being awarded a lifesaving medal, which was pawned when money was in short supply in the 1920’s and 30’s.

After returning from sea, he worked in the shipyards on the Tyne. 

He used the sailing skills learnt upon ‘The Wellesley’ and became a Rigger.

He told me he would stand outside the shipyard gates and if you had paid the foreman a bribe you would get a start, perhaps a day or two’s work.

This bribe, in the form of a half-a crown, would be placed in a matchbox and slid along the counter to the Foreman, often in Jarrow’s ‘Long Bar’.

During this time Granda met Margaret Cumiskey, my grandmother. Her father, my great grandfather, was Thomas Cumiskey an Irishman from Clonbur, in Galway. Bridget Lydon, his wife and my great grandmother was born in Jarrow in 1865 and Thomas in Clonbur a year later in 1866. Thomas came from Ireland to work in Jarrow’s Palmers Shipyard.

When Granny brought Granda to meet her father, for the first time, and told him that Granda was not a Catholic she was told, “Don’t bring that man in this house again”. Reason, eventually, prevailed. Granda ‘turned’ and became a Catholic and they married at St Bede’s Church, Monkton Road, Jarrow, on February 21st 1914. 

With the First World War looming Granda joined the East Yorkshire regiment and became, Private James Henderson 16985, which is stamped on his three medals in a case on my desk. The medals were presented to each surviving serviceman at the end of the war and were nicknamed ‘Bubble, Squeak and Wilfred’ by the servicemen of the day. 

War was declared on August 4th 1914 and he saw action in Italy, France, and Salonika.  In an article in the Gazette in February 1964, celebrating their Golden Wedding Granda said, “I was there at the beginning and at the end”. And that is why among his medals is the ‘1914-1915 Star’, which were given to those who saw service between August 1914 and December 31st 1915.

He fought in Gallipoli from April 1915 to December 1915. The conditions that the troops at Gallipoli had to endure were horrendous, bad sanitation led to a dysentery epidemic. Granda, along with thousands of others, contracted dysentery, which stayed with him all the way home through France. He also suffered frostbite and on his return to England was treated for several months at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, in Buckinghamshire before he was able to return home to Tyneside.

After his recuperation he returned to working in the shipyards of the Tyne.  It was while working in the yards he gained his nickname ‘Tot’, as he was a small man. However, he always preferred his full name, James Robert Henderson, which he would say slowly and with pride.

His mother, Margaret, known as ‘Polly’ died in 1937 and now the Second World War was on the horizon and his sons fought in Borneo and South Africa. 

He continued to work in the yards throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s and when he retired from the shipyards took a part-time job on the building of Jarrow shopping centre in the 1960’s and later at a bakery on the Simonside Industrial Trading Estate. His wife, my grandmother, died at home, in 1969.  Grandfather died not long after being told of the birth of my sister Maureen’s son, Stephen. Granda was 83.

There they are the bald facts I have gleaned over the years. Do I know him any better? I can still hear his voice: deep, slow and resonant but recall little of what he said or not enough. I want to know more, but now it’s too late to ask.