Four Flash Fiction Pieces by Victor Schwartzman

Entry Level

Miriam’s job, an entry level position, was to cut open garbage bags in the city dump.

She cut open garbage bags to inspect their contents, eight hours a day with a forty-five-minute lunch and two coffee breaks. She worked for the city.

Her job was to look for what did not belong in the garbage. This dump was destined to use the garbage as landfill. Plastics and other recyclables were forbidden.

Miriam opened garbage bags, looking for the forbidden. If a district sent forbidden garbage to the garbage dump, its taxes increased.

Miriam had the job for six months. The promotion was running a tractor to push the bags into large holes, filling in a swamp.

Each bag told a story. One was full of used toys, another TV dinner cartons and plastic utensils. Another had body parts. When Miriam found a foot she called the police.

Miriam fretted about her career path but civil service jobs were hard to find.  

Achieving Happiness Through Career

From childhood, Thelma read obituaries of great achievers (regular folks never get obits.) In her twenties, every morning before leaving for work she read obits. And continued reading them at work. Indeed, her career had become writing obits.

Great success, she believed, came partly from genuine talent but mostly from a single-minded focus on one issue. Over- achievers were obsessed with one issue, whether it was in the arts, business or science. They followed it all their lives.

Obits, Thelma believed, kept their achievements remembered. But along with the achievements came unpleasant realities. While over-achievers were universally celebrated, frequently Thelma wrote obits of famous people she’d never heard of before getting the assignment. Over- achievers were eventually forgotten.

Also, their personal lives were often disasters.

The issue was personal. Thelma recognized herself: single- focused, isolated, troubled social life. She felt alive only when reading and writing about dead people.

Thelma wanted to change but denying her obsession was impossible. She tried therapy but withdrew–after helping her therapist write an obit about his father.

However, after writing the obit of a method actor whose obsessive behavior drove his colleagues crazy, Thelma took up acting classes. Pretending to be a nicer person was the solution, given she could not be a nicer person. She eventually learned where her inner niceness was and, after intensive study, used method acting to smile.

Eventually Thelma retired happy, believing she had achieved something unique. Her crowning achievement was to write her own obit.

It was printed after she died. Her story was widely spread and celebrated until a new obsessed obit writer emerged.

In the afterlife, Thelma regularly met people who complained she’d gotten their obits wrong. 

Making Old Movies Marketable

The movie executives met in a panic. New films were an expensive, difficult gamble.

The company had a huge catalogue of old films, but no one wanted them.

“The problem is bias,” a consultant, Melanie, told the executives. “Up until around 1990, films targeted audiences which were white. Minorities were ignored. However, yesterday’s minority is today’s majority. The paying audience now is White, Black, Latino, Asian and more.”

Melanie paused. The executives were all White men.

“You can accept the racism and low sales. Or,” she added, “you can make money by altering the movies to eliminate the bias.

“That would open them to new audiences.”

Thus began the digital altering of old films.

Stepinfetchit and Willie Best, two Black actors used as stereotypes, were digitally turned white. Their dialogue was redubbed.

However, that was not enough. Now the casts were all white. White actors were digitally altered to be from other groups. Sherlock Holmes became Japanese.

Also, almost all actors were able-bodied, so some now had disabilities. Some actors became gay, some non-binary. Most films had to be changed because bias was so pervasive. Stories were altered. More dialogue was redubbed.

The new old movies reached different audiences and made a decent profit. The company went on to changing music it owned which had been appropriated from other cultures.

Meanwhile, Melanie met with the news media. 

Living Art You Love

Marina thumbed idly through her many streaming channels, bored. Years ago she turned on the tv and rediscovered favourite films. Now she could watch them anytime.

Marina decided to implant movies into her brain. That certainly would make old movies special again because she would see them in a totally new way. She would be closer to living the art she loved.

The operation was unusual but not difficult. Marina then sat in bed and watched The Maltese Falcon in her head. It was good! She used parts of Lawrence of Arabia while at the beach, Road Runner cartoons when caught in traffic and Lust For Life when looking at skyscrapers.

But soon Marina felt more bored and distanced than ever. She saw movies better but was not living them! She had to change!

One evening, strolling downtown, considering how to become more involved, she realised everything around her had turned black and white.

Suddenly Marina was IN a movie! Her desire and implant had merged. She was in New York City, downtown, in the 1930’s, judging from the cars and clothing. She was no longer a bystander, no longer an audience. She was actively involved, in an entire black and white world!

Fantasy was finally reality—what could be better?

She boarded an elevated train, holding onto a strap, enjoying being in the movie, not realizing it was King Kong.

It was too late for Marina to realise that, given the content, much of the art you most love is best viewed from a safe distance.

Meet the Author

Victor Schwartzman decided to take his writing more seriously at a later stage of his life. His work has appeared in Cherry Bleeds, Zygote in My Coffee and St. Vitus Prose and Poetry Review.  Recent acceptances have been in The Academy of Heart and Mind and The Potato Soup Journal.  

‘Smiley Face’ by Harry Wilding

When I bought you
five years ago?
your                      smile
your big innocent smile
it was cute
but now as you lean
lean still against the side
your                      smile
your big mocking smile
it condescends 

I wanted to learn guitar
was able to vaguely produce 
The Simpsons theme
‘Seven Nation Army’
parts of       ‘Come as You Are’
‘All Right Now’
lo-lo-lo-lo-‘Lola’

but really 
I just wanted to play guitar
round the campfire  in the stadium
on my knees  ten minute solo
smash smash smash like Simonon
impress the girls  impress the boys
so you         are what?
not as rock & roll but
less strings   less size   less chords
= the easier option?
your                smile
your big rigid smile
it is unyielding
below your hollow empty eyes
dust layering your sunshine yellow while
your             innocent  mocking  rigid
smile
it remains sickeningly optimistic
that one day   I will play
I will learn
perhaps a chord or two
of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’
on you

Meet the Poet

Harry Wilding writes in Nottingham, where he fantasises about elaborate heists that steal from the rich and give to the poor. He has had poems published by the likes of WriteresqueThe Drabble and Selcouth Station. He likes doughnuts and equality very much.

‘It’s Hard To See When You Don’t Have A Head’ by Ross Crawford

‘That’s Hugh Headless outside again,’ she said, looking through the curtains.

‘Right, I’ll go and speak to him.’ 

The man walked down the driveway and cleared his throat. Hugh Headless spun around as if alarmed.

‘Evening Hugh, it’s John from Number 32 again. It’s Angie you’re haunting, isn’t it? She’s just down the road, Number 43.’

If Hugh had a head he would have nodded.

Meet the Author!

Ross Crawford is a writer/scriever/poet based in Stirling, Scotland. He takes most of his inspiration from the history, nature, and folklore of his home country, especially the rural landscapes of Ayrshire, the Trossachs, and the West Highlands. You can find him on Twitter at @RRMCrawford.

‘One Day This House Will Be Empty’ by Tom Kelly

with messages found behind wallpaper
photos buried in pelmets
strangers smiling back. 
Walls disappear, make way for a glossy kitchen,
have visitors asking, ‘Who lived here?’
Filigree ceiling dust settled for too long disappears.
Orphaned keys in a jar under the sink.
Walls, floors and ceilings gouged,
leaving gaps where only memories lie.
Children once filled every room: cots to king-size beds, 
long legs sliding out of a too small divan.
One day this house will be empty of us.

Meet the Poet

Tom Kelly is a Jarrow-born writer now living happily further up the Tyne at Blaydon. He has had eleven books of poetry, short stories and a play published in as many years. His new poetry collection THIS SMALL PATCH has recently been re-printed by Red Squirrel Press.  His second short story collection, NO LOVE RATIONS, will be published in April, 2022. 
Website www.tomkelly.org.uk

                                                     ‘Chasing a Bear’ by Victor Okechukwu

When Tolu was at Comprehensive College, Aguda, he was regarded as a tiger, yet in every annual running competition for Lagos state schools, he always took bronze. When it came to the relay races he usually asked his running mates whether they were mad, for they either took last or second to the last. He got admission into the University of Nigeria, Nsukka at the age of seventeen and kept jogging around the school three days a week, amidst the hectic schoolwork. He never wanted to join the Runners’ Association in school, as he felt they ran occasionally and went to the gym often, and each time he saw them while jogging past the gym, he called them ‘fools for nothing good’.

When he graduated from the University, the self-assertion of being a sprinter had died and a new notion weighed upon him. This time he ran from Bolaji Avenue to Oshodi Road, chasing down his troubles and confusion to free himself from the indictments and abuse. Each day he pursued it, eight hundred meters away, and returned happy as though he had won an Olympic Gold medal, yet it came back with greater force. It came tempting him to depression and suicide, and the more he resisted them on his desk, the less he became conscious of himself.

Every day he chased his fears. While returning, he looked around the decayed houses, pothole roads, noisy streets, the dilapidated grammar school, the empty bookstores, the unsigned brothels, the madmen flocking around in rag clothes, and the corners where drug addicts slept. He wanted to scream when he gazed at all of these, asking himself each time: when would he wake up one day in the streets of New York or somewhere in Europe, or one of those places he had often read about in the novels?

He lived with his parents; his father was an obstinate, indoctrinated, old man trying to please the old century by always speaking against globalisation and technology. Anything that had to do with the twenty-first century was demonic; he loved to wear baggy shirts and four-button suits to work. His mother was gentle and always thoughtful, but she supported her husband by wearing only her native attire (Ankara) and criticized the new world fashion. Most times Tolu’s father – Femi – called him to the sitting room and asked him several questions about his move for the career he was trying to build, but he stood saying either motivating jokes or useless plans for the future. But most times he pretended to listen, though he kept thinking about how to twist the plot of his three hundred page novel. And each time he came back from his run, he had a new idea, or felt his characters should possess a new demon.

He didn’t run this morning, because he woke up too weak to think properly: confused, empty and lonely. He had switched off his phone, the windows were closed and the door shut; the room smelt of burnt corn. He rested his head on the table, sighing, almost in tears as his disappointments pressed down heavy on him. It wouldn’t have been this way if Professor Aloysius hadn’t always told them to seize the day. He taught them in his final year, Factors Affecting Contemporary Africa, and spoke largely about the revolution of the mind. Tolu loved his class and always sat in the front smiling. One day after class he met him at the carport.

“Sir, you spoke about doing what gives you joy,” Tolu said. “I have a flair for writing, but I don’t know how to go about it.”

“Just read and write what you know – that’s what every good writer does.” Professor Aloysius touched his grey beard. “Don’t take any other advice, because great men are non-conformist: they reject rules and methods because they only lead to laziness.”

“But I’ve tried reading and writing, yet nothing I write makes sense.”

“Then try harder. You need to fail so you will give life its full worth.” He approached his car, opened the front door. “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, go get that book and read the life about it.” He closed the door and drove away in the silver Toyota Corolla.

He felt annoyed anytime he thought of Professor Aloysius, his optimistic lies and foolish zeal. He stood up, paced around the room before opening the door tentatively, and peeked at the dark passage – checking for his siblings, he saw no one, so he went into the kitchen and took a loaf of bread and butter from the fridge with a cup of water. He turned only to see his two stubborn brothers – Bimbo and Kehinde – staring at him, with their gaze asking, ‘what are you still doing here?’. He walked out of the kitchen nervously, felt pained, and turned back.

“Jesus! Are you guys devils?”

Both turned to each other and smiled. He rushed into his room, banging the door. He began to eat in the dark, heard his siblings laughing in the next room, and felt ridiculed. He wanted to take a knife, walk into their room, and warn them never to insult him again, but he remembered when he did that to Ezinne, that she screamed and never spoke to him again. He felt bitter that people’s gaze held more words of hate than what they said. When he began to have feelings for Sister Abigail six months ago, when he asked her about having a relationship, she asked what he did and he said he was a writer… she stared at him with that same hate.

He heard a gentle knock on his door and pushed the remaining piece of bread into his mouth, then drank the cup of water. He finished eating the bread before opening the door to see his mother standing there. He switched on the white fluorescent that streamed its rays on her black skin and an Ankara blouse and wrapper.

“Why are you sweating?” she asked.

“I was doing pushups.”

She walked into the scattered room, with dirty clothes around and stacked books on the floor and table. She gazed at them.

” Aren’t you tired of locking yourself in with these troubles?” she asked.

“I’m trying, Mama, but you wouldn’t understand.”

She sat down on the wooden chair and gazed around the dirty orange wall, allowing the quiet atmosphere to settle. Both could now hear from outside the screeching of iron wheels, a fiercer noise of clashed horns, fenders bumped, and tires careening into potholes.

“You didn’t run today?”

“No, I had a muscle pull and back pain,” Tolu replied, standing.

“Have you heard from Chigozie recently?” 

“No.”

“He has bought a car for his mother,” she said. “Since his father died he has always been supportive and thoughtful.”

“I guess he had a gift for that,” he replied.

“What about you?”

“I believe in the next two years people will read my novels,” he said, trying a faint smile.

“Tolu, what do you want from life?”

“I think it’s the best that everyone wants.”

“Do you think being a writer will achieve that?’

” I would try my – “

“Why haven’t you applied for a job yet? You graduated with a distinction in sociology and anthropology.” She raised six fingers of both hands. “Tolu, this is six years staying at home writing crap and reading about these dead men.”

“Mama, I’m a writer and I love what I do.”

“What have you ever written? And what do you expect from me?” She held her stomach, “and your father.”

“I don’t know but with time I can do something. Probably if I can leave this country.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m struggling to be an artist here. In this place, with everything I see – “

“Do you love me?”

“Why are you asking me all these questions?” He walked close to her.

“Have you ever loved anyone else in your life?”

“Of course.” He said, wanting to touch her hand, which she rejected and a silence breathed upon them. They tried not to have eye contact.

“I’m trying, Mama, you know this is me. And I love you and Papa more than you can think of.” He said, “I am not a rebellious son.”

“Then do something, find something better than all these troubles you bury yourself with.” Tears trickled from her eyes. “Your father is too old and about to retire from his managing job, and I’m about to die.”

“Mummy.” He knelt.

“Why do you hate me so much?” She glanced at him.

“I love you, you’re the best thing in my life. I will make it this time. I would do anything to please you.” He searched her watery eyes.

“Why did you allow me to die?”

“I didn’t kill you, Mama. I can’t.”

“A cancer is growing inside of me, and they say I will die.”

“What can I do to stop the growth?”

“Go get a job, so that when I die you can look after your siblings.”

She cleaned her eyes and walked out of the room, leaving the door open. He rolled on the floor, then stood up and began to tear all the stacked books in madness, until he was exhausted. He looked at the door and saw his two brothers standing there, and didn’t mind.

“Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Meet the Author

Victor Okechukwu is a writer based in Lagos, Nigeria. He is currently studying mass communication at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He loves reading and writing, and working towards being persistent in creativity.

‘Moth’ by Holly Jackson

How did you come to be here?
A fluttering intruder in my home,
Hypnotised by un-natural light.
Beautiful, but modest, you prefer the night,
Unlike your slutty sister, butterfly.
I watch you dip and twirl –
Yellow wings beat faster than I can perceive,
A miracle of nature and evolution.
The cat sits and watches you – but doesn’t move a muscle,
Lazy bitch.
You flutter ‘round His head, but he doesn’t see,
Oblivious to your presence,
And your beauty.

Meet the Poet

Holly Jackson is a thirty-five-year-old writer of poetry and short fiction from County Durham, UK. Her work has previously featured in: The Language of Salt (Fragmented Voices, 2020), MumWrite, Periwinkle Lit Mag, Skirting Around, Analog Submission Press and others. Her debut collection of poetry and short fiction, ‘Banana and Salted Caramel’, is now available from Austen Macauley Publishers. You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram at @hjacksonwrites.

Slovakian Spring – Part 3

For our last instalment, we introduce five lyrical poets who responded to our call. We hope that their poetic outlook speaks across borders, and shows different dimensions of being.

near the blue woods’ by Marta Franeková

between the water and water
plant me
just beyond the meadow 
for which bees have always meant everything 

I’ll breathe in greedily 
as if I’d never existed for real and in reality 
until now 
In a forest full of consciousness
I wake up my own hands and they 
in the same instant fly away
the trees dress themselves in the festive costumes 
we’ll be together 
and invoke heaven with our eyes 
for to use my voice would not be appropriate

the day I begin 
to ignore the light 
I shall count the growth rings I’ve lived 
and when it’s decided 
when the time comes to cut me down
I’ll fall in your direction
there
where we felt the bare moss under our feet 

Rebirth’ by Judita Ďurčová

Kneeling on the seashore                                       
I pick up the fragments                                                        
of the autumn goblins made of glass,                                             
who sleep by the door                                           
of the soul of fire.

At the midnight inn
The White Death awaits me                                                            
His serpent-like eyes are full of sadness,                                       
while silken trees are caressing                                                      
my cheeks…

On the stairs of the blue rainbow
He leads me by the hand                                                                         
to the sacred ruins                                                      
where angels dance                                                                           
in the golden grass.                                                                        

Pinning’ by Vlasta Mesárošová

You give me crooked drawing pins.
At least I can hold my breath.
They say:
“Don’t whine, keep walking, kneepads 
enjoy the whole experience!”

I’ve got used to the magician
pulling out bad luck from the hat for me.
Wrapped in shrapnel, just in case,
to –
to hold together better,
so it won’t vanish with the next day,
to scrape the gilding off the bone,

the slashes on my knees don’t hurt

The Sun Is Love’ by Anton Andrej Pižurný

Like the metastasis of evil today
envy pervades everywhere, 
changing subtly 
into hatred.
The god Ares rubs
His hands with glee.
He doesn’t have to think of any schemes, 
we’ll kill each other without him.
Yet again, 
the sun rises.
It’s still up there, mighty 
and unrivaled.
Yet, Hope like pollen 
still paints our mornings.
The Sun is Love.
Where does a good man live?
In each one of us.
In everyone.
Really?

City’ by Dušan Láznička

Fire!
fear
the city of screams

Death
will perfect
the pulse of the present

ruins 
corpses
Time
– absolutely certain

absurdity

x x x

the city of sleep
not worth

panting
I see
the pleasure of the ruins
the whiteness of the glow
the fire of the dead

chill
nothingness
malignant silence
space
without emptiness

I feel
The coldness of the fear
last

in the eyes – my sorrow
smog
near the temple
             a REVOLVER

Meet the Poets!

Judita Ďurčová (1983), a poet and prose writer, read history at the University in Bratislava, Slovakia. She lives in Nové Město nad Váhom. Her poems appear regularly in literary magazines.

Marta Franeková was born in 1961, in Námestov. She lives and works as a kindergarten teacher in Oravské Veselý. Her work has been published in the following periodicals: Dotyki, Literary Weekly, in the magazine Vertigo, in the collections of the literary portal Litweb; the latter one also published her collection Oh Willow, Willow in the anthologies Pars Artem and Svetlom modrý. She made her book debut in 2012 with the collection Mute Herons (DALi Košice); in 2015 she published the collection Odklonené svety (DALi Košice) with the support of the State Literary Fund, and in 2019 her poetry book Rozprávanky (Perfekt Bratislava) was again financially supported by the Literary Fund.

Dušan Láznička (b. 1975) started his literary work when styding a in high school. His science fiction triptych was awarded third place in the National Literary Competition for Secondary School students. Later, he worked as an editor (Christian magazine Plátok), essayist and poet. In the second half of the 1990s he joined the Omega Literary Club in Trenčín, where he published poetry and prose in their collections and anthologies. He was the editor-in-chief of the club’s magazine Ars – Verbum. In 2012, he won second place in the prose category of the Jozef Branecký Literary Competition. In 2019, Pars Artem published his collection Journeys, which is his tribute to surrealism. In it, he experiments with automatic text and surreal images.

Vlasta Mesárošová was born in 1969 to a family of mixed nationalities. Part Hungarian, Slovak, German and Roma Gypsy, her literary poeticism is influenced by this rich heritage. Vlasta studied social work and has devoted her whole life to helping others. She is also involved in humanitarian aid. She is a family person, very proud of her husband and two sons.  

Anton Andrej Pižurný, born in 1961 near Zilina, is a writer, copywriter, publisher, editor, and radio presenter. He has authored 11 prose and poetry books. Moreover, he has written 5 books of reportages and 7 books for children. His other activities involve script writing and an ongoing collaboration with the Ministry for Education in Slovakia. He lives in Bratislava with his wife and three children.

‘Spring Picture’ by Emma Wells

The Cornish Sea laps, coating the daffodil-hued shoreline. Movements are as gentle and cyclical as the turn of each season – one wave spills into the next as dominoes set to fall in a predictably-fashioned line. 

Spring is a verdant season: abundant and full of the potential that surfs its way to the surface as a toppled surfer. Buds and new shoots spring from spongy holds, piercing the air with sage tendrils which reach up, and outwards, to the sun. They grow peacefully, navigating causeways as ships upon oceans. Their growth and progression is steady, but determined. They hope to find a safe harbour away from the building winds to come during autumn and winter, that notoriously travel inland, after roaring upon open seas. 

For now, they are perfectly safe.

Her forming landscape tumbles with springlike notions as a collage where each newspaper clipping holds a semblance of meaning. This is what she hopes to achieve painting Clythe Cliff and its snuggled cove beneath the rocky ledges. 

Seabirds glide above as they buoy on uplifts, easing their shifting paths to washy swells. She watches the depth of their flight as they fully elongate their wingtips, expanding to full splendour. They breathe in heady, awakening gusts as they seek small fish to luncheon upon as they hover above the glistening sparkles of the sea’s calm edges. 

Children frolic as their parents relax on stripy blankets upon the warming sands. Cries of enjoyment and hilarity, as they play with the spilling surf, rise frequently to the artist’s alerted ears. For it is Easter-time and children are enjoying two weeks where they are freed of the confines of school bells. 

One particular toddler catches her interest as he stretches his curious, chubby toes into the billowing white foam that unravels upon the sand. He jumps in glee, running back and forth between his watchful parents and the shore, excitingly anticipating the silly surf each time he returns. This game will keep him occupied for hours. His parents turn their bodies slightly towards each other, as they lounge, enjoying a few moments of ‘adult time’. The mother shields herself from the pivotal sun with a straw hat; it has purple flowers entwined along the rim. Her oversized Bridget Bardot sunglasses cover her eyes as she flirts, smiles daintily, as her husband leans in, whispering niceties and playful promises. 

The artist shuffles her feet, having stood statically for many hours as she captured the colourful markings of the bay upon her impregnated canvas. A tartan blanket is laid beneath her easel, poised above a gentle clifftop overlooking the expansive Cornish Sea. She places her paintbrush, dipped in cerulean blue to capture the hues of the sea, as she sits to take a stretch and a break from painting, upon the easel’s ledge. She opens a small wicker hamper and unpacks a silver thermos of hot coffee. Its dark and decadent liquid reanimates her senses as its pungent aroma lifts in the breeze as she takes steady sips from a bamboo travel cup, floral patterns adorning the outer surface. Her eyes remain fixed upon the shoreline activities and the hubbub of an unusually warm and pleasant April day. No showers – not yet anyway. The sky is clear, as untainted as white, untrodden snow.  

As she unravels her lunch of Cornish cheddar, crackers and chilli jam, she breathes in deeply, suckling the salty sea air. Her fingers are flecked with debris of paint. Yellow ribbons streak her fingers and flecks of primary colours coat her fingernails: shadows of the rocks, cliffs, seagulls and day-trippers that she has translated from sight into coloured semblances upon the canvas face. She ignores the metallic tang of the paint that clings to her fingers as she tucks hungrily into a well-layered cheese cracker, having built a healthy appetite. Sips of her filter coffee punctuate her mouthfuls of comforting cheese, and the tangy chilli notes from the jammy relish, as she enjoys the enriching view. 

Abruptly, unseen and very unexpectedly, the weather takes a dramatic turn for the worst. The aquamarine skies and the skittish yelps of children at play are snuffed out as a candle flame on a windy heathland. The change is swift, as quick and lethal as lightning bolts. Large pelts of rain dash upon her head and smear the still-drying paint. The breeze, no longer gentle, achieves a much firmer hold, displacing her water jar and held paintbrushes that have been left to soak, releasing their coloured bands as a depleted rainbow. 

Without further delay, she haphazardly bundles all of her artistry belongings together, repacking them as best as she can at speed. The canvas is wet, damaged perhaps irreparably unless it it protected soon. In a flurry, she unzips her plum-coloured Peter Storm jacket and wraps it around her artwork, as a lover stood out in the cold. She pats down the rising coat, billowing in the gusts, praying that the work is not damaged beyond repair and the touch of her brushwork – she hopes to be able to rekindle its tenacity and springlike hues if needed. 

Her eyes gaze down upon the quickly cleared beach, now that she has a moment to breathe, having secured her work. In the corner of her right eye, she spies a figure. The moving shadow is clad in heavy black, as ebony as night itself, with an entrapped child under their cloak. The child is forced, overwhelmed by the stranger or so it appears, allowing his small-self to be eclipsed. His white face is drained of colour, now pallid as white-washed alabaster. 

Suddenly, she makes the connection between the toddling boy in the frolic of the waves at the shoreline only half an hour before, and this terrified face. It is the same child. 

He must have been taken or misplaced by his parents somehow. 

The artist shouts down to the ominously cloaked figure whom has disguised themselves by a raised hood, submerging their face into inky darkness. She can make out no noticeable facial features or items of clothing at all beyond the façade of the dripping black fabric that encircles the stranger, rising in turrets with the uplifts of the gale. 

“Stop. Stop, I say. That is not your child. Let him go at once,” bellows her voice, more steely than she actually feels.

The hooded enigma swiftly continues in the opposite direction from the artist, hurrying a little. To her it appears as if he or she is making for the other end of the cove. The child inside the cloak moves awkwardly and clumsily having not his eyesight to guide him or the will to be guided by a stranger. 

“I’m calling the police,” she proclaims as she hastily taps 999 into her iPhone 9. Wet drips paint the surface in translucent globules, obscuring the numbers as she blearily types. “Police please.” 

A few moments pass. 

“A child has been stolen at Clythe Cliff. A hooded figure has a male toddler hidden under their cloak and is making their way along the sandy cove. The child is calling out for its mother. Help. Help. Send someone and quickly,” she stammers. 

“Of course. Stay on the line, madam, while I report this through to the police. I will keep on the line with you until a police officer arrives,” a calm female voice announces, endeavouring to reassure and soften her spiky angst. 

Minutes tick by as the folds of the charcoal cloak begin to obscure and diminish from the artist’s view. Thickened, duplicitous fog has settled upon the shore, muddying further her view of the stranger and the guileless child within the smudgy depths of the stranger’s hold. 

“Madam, five minutes. I’ve sent the nearest based team to you,” the operator’s voice assures. “Can you confirm if you can still see the child?”

As the artist looks up, she sees that the sea air has brewed into an even deeper and more penetrating fog – a well of moody stupor. In despair, she scans the stretch of the sands, seeing no movement or person at all. Beads of perspiration begin to drip down her back and forehead as her level of panic rises – plummeting to sky-high plains. She can feel the tormented thuds of her heart as her panicked thoughts stumble over one another, tripping in their frenzy. 

Thud. Thud. Thud. 

As she grabs onto the easel to steady her nerves, the beach is now just a cloudy haze. She looks to her artwork and sees that her coat has fallen from the canvas, not surprisingly in the ferocity of the building sea wind. 

She eyes the canvas – the self-same one that has wholly occupied each, and every, thought for the vast majority of the day. 

Shock.

Despair.

Alarm. 

No longer are the etched brushstrokes, floral and spring-like, visible upon the surface. No longer do the images reflect the joyous scenes of the morning’s merriment upon the sands. No longer is the artwork her own. It has been erased, completely tampered with by some unknown, malevolent force. 

For upon the canvas, her paintwork has been wholly obliterated from existence. Instead, there are two words, scoured in the deepest black as the hue of a crow’s wing at midnight: He’s mine. 

Meet the Author

Emma Wells is a mother and English teacher. Her poetry has been published in: The World’s Greatest Anthology, The League of Poets, The Lake, The Beckindale Poetry Journal, Dreich Magazine, Drunken Pen Writing, Porridge Magazine, Visual Verse, Littoral Magazine, The Pangolin Review, Derailleur Press, Giving Room Magazine, Chronogram and for the Ledbury Poetry Festival. She also has published a number of short stories and her first novel, Shelley’s Sisterhood, is due to be published shortly.

‘This’ by Delphine Seddon

This 
is what 
it feels like
on the worst days
all those black days
oil slicks on the brain
residue of my regret is 
clogging up the veins
slumping through
something like
a heartbeat
say bad things 
to the good people
only fuck the bad people
doubling over at the sight of
blue jeans ripped at the knees
leather jackets studs in noses
as I’m transparent now so
weightless cold drifting
can’t feel the breeze 
the colour of petals
can’t remember 
the taste of 
her hands as I
count each nail 
with my tongue
scared to  sleep
scared to wake
scared of not
feeling this
tie me to 
the bed
tie me 
to 
a
n
y
t
h
i
n
g

Meet the Poet

Delphine Seddon is a Faber Academy graduate and studied poetry at Goldsmiths, London. She has been short/long-listed in the WHSmith Young Writers Competition and Henshaw Press Short Story Competitions, and published by Muse Pie Press. She works in the music business.  

‘How Henrietta Lost Her Groove’ by Constance Mello

1.

I decided to name the car Henrietta the day me and Espi were driving it to San Jose for the Ariana Grande concert. I do this thing where I don’t think before I act, and so I was anxious and stressed about going to the show. I’d purchased the tickets over six months in advance, amidst all the excitement around thank u, next, and now that the excitement had passed the show seemed more chore than fun. I remember driving up the 17 and being terrified of Espi’s driving, zig-zagging over the mountain at a speed that’s much too fast, like every California driver. Always 10-20 miles over the speed limit. 

(A while later, Dane told me Californians got away with this because you’re less likely to get pulled over here than in other states, where ticketing is an important monetary resource for the police departments. Here, we just pay higher taxes.)

It felt special, somehow, that he’d loaned us the car to go. We’d only really been friends for a few weeks, and more than friends for just over ten days, but he seemed sincere in his offer, and so I accepted. I hated the bus. 

Henrietta was only a few years younger than me, having been made in 2003. She was old enough that the black was faded, and her plasticky nature showed through to the point where sometimes, in the right light, you’d think she was purple. She was also always covered in dust and leaves, from being parked in the church parking lot under a big tree. I hated that her windshield wipers never worked, and so the view was never as good as it could have been. 

I connected through the weird bluetooth plug Dane had, and played country music loud enough for us to hear even when we were going fast. Old cars do this thing where the faster you’re going, the less you can hear inside, and that’s another thing that drove me crazy. 

But I’m loyal to a fault, and so even though she had many things to dislike about her, I loved Henrietta. More for what she represented than what she really was, but still. She was my boyfriend’s car, and I loved watching him drive it, and so I loved it as well. For a long time, she was also the only car I’ve ever driven, and Dane had been the only one who’s ever taught me how to drive. 

When we got to San Jose and tried to find parking, Espi almost killed us when she turned the wrong way and we almost got hit by another car straight on. But Henrietta was quick, and when Espi turned the wheel sharply to the right, Henrietta didn’t even screech before coming to a halt on the sidewalk. “We almost just died”, Espi was out of breath when she turned to me. I was laughing at that point, already texting Dane about the quarrels we were putting Henrietta through. 

Henrietta’s parking brake also almost killed us. The car had a habit of driving even with it on, and you wouldn’t realize it unless you had to go uphill and almost floor it to hit a solid 45. Me and Espi were already on the road by the time we realized the parking brake was still on, and then when we pressed the button and pushed it down the car shot forward a little too haphazardly, making our seatbelts work a little bit harder. 

On our way back after the concert, we both had to shine our flashlights at the shifter because the lights on it didn’t work, and so we couldn’t see what gear we were shifting into. And even if the lights had worked, the letters on it were so faded that you might not have been able to see them regardless. And so we drove off, shining my flashlight at the shifter. 

When we got back to Santa Cruz, we stopped at Safeway. We didn’t often have the luxury of having a car to go grocery shopping with, and so me and Espi stocked up on things for the apartment that would usually be too annoying to bring on the bus – toilet paper, paper towels, canned goods. The Safeway was the only thing open past midnight in Santa Cruz besides the Donut store, and the roads were quiet. I grabbed the Earth Balance butter Dane liked, because I knew he was out. 

Espi dropped me off on the curb of Porter College, where Dane’s apartment was. She drove off in Henrietta and I said it was okay, that I’d walk over the hill to College Nine in the morning. 

Me and Dane drove to San Jose many times over the course of those couple of months, but that first drive with Espi stuck with me. I haven’t spoken to her since, and that was kind of the last thing we did together before parting ways for summer. I ended up spending more time in that car than in my own apartment over spring, even when summer was coming around and making her interiors hot enough to burn the bottom of my thighs. 

2. 

Three weeks into our relationship, Dane had to travel down to San Diego to look at the school he later ended up transferring to. He asks me to come with him. It’s an 8 hour drive, and we’d have to spend at least one night at his parents’ house, an hour and a half away from our final destination. 

Dane is stressed, and his TMJ starts acting up before we even get to King City, a location mostly used for truck drivers to pull into and rest. We pull in and Henrietta, being the tiny Toyota Matrix that she is, looks like an insect next to the imposing and positively American looking trucks surrounding her. We go into the convenience store, buy me a banana and him some Tylenol, but I know it’s only a temporary measure. Every time his phone rings during the drive it’s his mother calling, and his jaw locks again. 

The drive is long and warm, and if you’ve ever taken the 5 up or down you know that a large part of it is just desolate farmland. Henrietta treks on, her air-conditioning just slightly too weak to really make any difference. In my black jeans, I feel the heat of the black seat transfer into my thighs and butt, just like I feel the heat from the ceiling transfer into my head. We listen to Dane’s playlist, and there’s something about Henrietta that will always be pop-punk to me. As in Blink-182 pop-punk, the stuff that’s old and somehow timeless, bright and sunny San Diego days and checkered Vans. 

By the time we pull into Temecula – the city closest to where Dane’s family lives –, it’s cloudy and almost dark out. It’s also the first time I get dressed inside Henrietta, pulling on a new pair of jeans and fresh shirt, changing my sweater out for my jean jacket. Anyone who’s ever had to put on jeans in the back of a small car will know what a feat that is, especially in a crowded mall parking lot on a Friday night. I joked that Henrietta is the first car to see me naked since adulthood, and it was true, at the time. And even though there have been other cars since, you never forget your first. 

When we make our way to his parents’ house, another forty-five minutes away, we drive by the neons one more time, and I like to watch the morphed reflection of them on Henrietta’s hood. She smells like fifty different smells after the all day drive, but I’m already so attached that sitting down into the passenger seat after Dane is muscle memory. It’s my reaction to his action. 

Before we get there, in the middle of nowhere at 3000 feet altitude, he pulls over onto a patch of dirt, and we can overlook the mountains on both sides. The stars are bright and clear, and I look up at them through the window. He tells me it’s the last cell service spot, and it’s still 5 miles away from his house, so he texts his mom and then turns off the engine.

We climb out of the car, and I lean on my door, still looking up at the brilliant sky, uninterrupted by light pollution. He comes over and, against the car door, presses up against me, and we kiss. I can’t help but think that this is something from a movie, but then again, I don’t think Henrietta lives up to the part of the sexy car that the love interest drives. 

When we get to his house, the dirt road there leaves us in a cloud of dust around me when I step out to open the gate. The car is noisy on the gravel up the driveway, and I’m nervous. When cars make that much noise arriving, that means whoever’s inside knows you’ve arrived. The first time I see his house’s bright yellow front door is through Henrietta’s windshield. 

I can tell that Dane is nervous but determined to get it over with, so we step inside and take off our shoes, and sit with his family in the living room. He’d told me that his dog, Charley, would bark at me, but he doesn’t. He sits on my lap while I talk to his mom and dad and sister, and after a little while we go to bed, being careful not to make any noises that would imply sex, because Dane is still getting used to the idea of having a girlfriend over at his childhood home, and it’s all fine by me. 

The next morning we’re up by six, and on the road by seven, to see the school. It’s pouring rain, which is unusual, and it’s the first heavy rain I’ve experienced inside of a car in California. It feels comfortable, like I could fall asleep, but it’s loud because of the water on the road and Henrietta’s poor insulation. Still I lean my head against the seatbelt, trying to find a comfortable position, and Dane has his hand on my thigh. He only ever drives one handed, and any concerns I have for my safety aren’t enough to make me let go of his right hand. 

Dane decides he wants to drive back that same day, and the drive is chaotic and a little tense, with me making sure to never fall asleep and keep him talking, keep him awake. In hindsight, we should’ve waited until Sunday to drive back, but he was adamant he wanted to be back before then. We listen to Avicii on back roads that the GPS sends us through, and at one point Dane says it feels like he’s dead. 

“Slap me,” he asks. 

“Where?”

“On the face.”

I do, and for a moment he wakes up. 

“It still feels like I’m dead, though. Like time isn’t real.” 

I know exactly what he means. We were both exhausted and borderline hallucinating, and when I think back to that drive, Henrietta the only car on the road for miles on end, it’s a little scary that we did it. The music loud and the base rattling the plastic speakers, no longer fit to play music at any volume at all. 

Dane is playing a song for kids, about the moon. 

Moon, moon, moon, shining bright. Moon, moon, moon, my night light. 

When we finally get back to his apartment, carrying our backpacks and hoodies and trash and the blanket, I don’t think we even took a shower. Just changed into pj’s and slipped into bed, exhausted and borderline delirious, cramping ourselves into the twin bed that we slept on that whole quarter. Dane’s open mouthed breathing was like a soothing white noise machine, and falling asleep felt like slipping from one dream into another. 

3. 

I wasn’t really bothered to go into quarantine. I was actually pretty relieved. 

Because of our particular situation it had gotten quite awkward to still be staying with Dane and his roommates on campus, and going back to his parents’ sounded like a great way to get some space that was just ours, even if it was just his room. 

So we loaded up Henrietta, and I could tell Dane was feeling sad. The car was filled to the brim, with Dane’s guitar and bass hanging over my head on the passenger side, my backpack and computer on my lap, my other belongings in a box at my feet. I had two suitcases in the trunk, but mostly I packed light. Dane’s the over-packer between us and he’s bad at packing, so it definitely felt like we’d gathered all of our belongings to flee the zombie apocalypse. In a way, that’s what we were doing. 

A pandemic meant that a lot of the time we spent outside the house looked very different from before. Dane started Doordashing and I went with him, happy to be driving around, looking at the empty streets outside the window. When this all first started, it was still cold, and I remember feeling safe and warm, watching the world through tinted windows. It felt like an extension of the house that was just ours, even more private than Dane’s room, because no one could come in, because the doors didn’t open straight into the living room. 

Delivering food means you get to know a lot of restaurants, you get to form opinions about how long it takes them to get orders ready, you get to smell food in the car and be hungry, and you get to drive to people’s houses and put down bags at the door. Especially during a pandemic, you don’t really see anyone. Restaurants make sure to set the orders onto tables at the front, and customers make sure to select ‘contactless delivery’ when ordering. For the most part, it was just spending time with Dane, driving around in Henrietta, listening to music and watching the Great British Bake Off. 

(Or The Office, or Parks and Rec, or Psych, or Sherlock, or Chuck, or Scrubs.) 

We’ve been through most drive-thrus a suburban town like Temecula has to offer. You have the classics: McDonald’s, Steak n’ Shake, Wendy’s, Burger King, Jack in the Box, Raisin’ Cane’s. I am now expertly acquainted with most fast-food fries, I know exactly what my order is every time with the limited items that don’t contain meat or dairy – there’s not a lot of them. I can confirm that the best technical fries are from Five Guys, but that the most comforting ones are from McDonald’s. 

Then we had our more adventurous eats, from the restaurants we didn’t even know existed until we got an order from them. Chinese fried tofu and eggplant, coconut paneer curry, hawaiian teriyaki chicken. Endless poke bowls, with the house sauce. Crab stuffed dumplings dipped sweet n’ spicy. Heaps of garlic naan bread that we would pick up later at night, after our shift was done. New York style pizza, with garlic knots and the salad that had too many olives. The mixture of smells became familiar enough that I knew it had penetrated the surface. Henrietta would never smell the same. 

She will forever have the slightly oil smell of old fries, I think. As much as Dane tried to keep her clean, just having the bags in the car for too long meant the smell clung to the fabric seats, along with the smell that naturally occurs when two people spend a long time in an enclosed space together. Anyone who’s car-camped or had to spend a long time in their car would know what I’m talking about. 

Henrietta was instrumental in making sure both of us didn’t lose our minds while quarantining. Sometimes we would go on drives just around Aguanga, the town where Dane lives. There’s no one for miles at some points, but moving and rolling the windows down is more helpful than you’d think. A car may feel like an enclosed space, but at least it moves. I’ve come to appreciate that more than I ever thought I would, especially as someone who doesn’t drive. 

Quarantine was also when we said goodbye to Henrietta. Dane is an irresponsible car owner, and we once drove 2000 miles through Arizona mid-summer and not once considered changing her oil. When we brought her back, she sounded like an eighteen-wheeler, wheezing her way up the driveway. Dane’s dad, who makes a living off of cars, was upset. 

Dane decided to sell her this year and get a newer car, to last him the rest of his college years and beyond. The search was long and annoying, especially because, being out in the middle of nowhere, not having a car can be really isolating. The closest grocery store is over thirty minutes away. 

What was good about selling Henrietta is that Dane found her the perfect new owner, the exact same age that Dane was when he first got her. He made an Instagram post talking about how he’s happy that his first car became someone else’s first car. 

And that’s what I love about Dane. He sees poetry everywhere, even the most mundane of exchanges. He takes pictures, he makes an Instagram post, and ponders over the caption for hours. His first car wasn’t glamorous or even cool, but both of us loved it anyway. When I asked him about his choice, we said he wanted something to drive friends around in.

Now, when we Doordash, it’s in a 2010 Volkswagen Jetta. It’s sleek and silver and Dane hates the seats; turns out Germans don’t prioritize comfort over function. 

Meet the Author

Constance Mello (she/her) is a Brazilian scholar, writer, and teacher. She graduated with a degree in Cultural Studies and Gender Studies from the Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany, and is currently pursuing a dual Master’s Degree in English and Creative Writing. Her writing has been published in The Ilanot Review, Fearless She Wrote, and Latinx Lit Mag, and was a finalist in the Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards.