Short Fiction ~ Katherine Koller
First Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 13
Mavis could not sleep, so she wandered her yard at night, soundlessly, to not disturb the nocturnal creatures. Already this summer she’d watched a porcupine munch fallen apples, a skunk wave through the daylilies, an escaped chinchilla nibble her sweet peas, a coyote strut down the alley, and deer posing in the pocket park. Alive and moving, they consoled her. Tonight, she heard the gate creak open, and followed the stone path to the back. A boy quietly upturned a hill of potatoes, set her pitchfork back against the fence, pocketed the spuds and folded the dried plant top into the compost bin. When the gate clicked shut, he met Mavis’s gaze. Even in the dark, she could see hunger in his hollow eyes. He ran down the alley, long-limbed and swift.
By the time Mavis limped down her driveway, she saw nothing under the lane lights. He must have ducked into another yard. A few nights later, he didn’t notice her until nine potatoes bulged in his pockets. “You can have more,” Mavis said, guarding the gate. “Squash, tomatoes, carrots.”
“Let me out,” he said, voice thick with panic.
She opened the gate. “Come back in the daytime,” she called after him.
A few days later, he did. He was maybe fifteen, but very stringy. Her own son, at that age, needed food every hour. He was retired now, and wanted her to live with him and his family in Australia, a land of no winter.
The boy stood still. “You said, carrots.”
She invited him to her patio, but he wouldn’t move from the gate, so she went back for her tin of carrot muffins, then opened it to offer him one. He took the container, grabbed the lid from her hand, and ran with it out the gate.
The next time he came by, it was dusk. He appeared more comfortable in the near-dark, or maybe his belly was a little less empty.
Mavis waited for a response, or thanks, for the muffins, but realized that returning the tin to her hand said what he meant. She asked, “Do you have a way of cooking your potatoes?”
He nodded. “Microwave.”
“You can do squash in there, too. Cut it in half, scoop out the seeds, put some butter in the cavity, and cook until soft.”
He concentrated on her next instructions.
“Decide which one you want, and twist it until the stem breaks off,” she said. He slowly freed a medium-sized kabocha.
She said, “If you keep the seeds, and dry them, you can plant them next year.”
His eyes flashed at her.
“Next time I see you, I’ll have soup.” His eyes scanned the ground now. “You can warm it up. Are you alone?”
He nodded. And then he left, the squash under his arm, running, as usual.
As dark fell three days later, he came once again, and waited at the gate. Mavis, in the kitchen, took her time gathering the soup, her sweater, her cane. She flicked on the garage outside light. He flinched, but stayed put, looking all about him.
“Every space is planted,” he said.
“My husband,” she said. “He put it all in.”
She wondered how to survive without her Max. He was hauling home mulch for the flower beds in their Volkswagen van. The accident did not give her any time to prepare or say goodbye, and so his garden, as old as their marriage, contained both comfort and hurt. His presence, in the jaunty slant of the duck decoy on a stump and the fine pruning of the lilac. His absence, most keen night after night, and so she wandered the yard, which attracted all the others, including this boy. She held up the soup.
“Could you dig the rest of the spuds?”
He took the pitchfork and began at the row farthest from the gate. She brought boxes, and a glass of water. After, he carried a box of potatoes to her garage. Another full box of potatoes, with the tub of tomato soup, went in her red wagon, and he walked home with it. This gave her a chance to get down to the alley in time to see which yard he entered. Four doors away, the house that belonged to an old bachelor. He and Max used to trade perennials, raspberry varieties. When the man died, his tidy little house went to rentals, but Mavis hadn’t noticed anyone in it lately. Until the boy.
After two weeks, and no sign of him again, Mavis picked and washed some carrots and apples and baked a loaf of bread. She filled a bag and, with her cane, strolled down the alley in a scented wind that recalled a mountain holiday with Max. Disturbed by the urgent bang of hammer on metal, the memory faded away. Workers erected a construction fence. She asked permission to view her old neighbor’s yard, and they let her in.
Wrecked furniture and waist-high weeds. The prized raspberry canes, overtaken by Manitoba maple trees. The heirloom apple tree, diseased, almost dead. Glass knocked out of a basement window. Crumbling steps. No sound from the doorbell.
She stepped through fluffing dandelions to touch the trunk of the apple tree in the way of goodbye, and found her red wagon under it. The box of potatoes, one-quarter full. The soup tub, washed, laid on top. She added her bag to the wagon, and the workers parted the fence for her, then pinned and banged it closed. Leaves blew from every tree on her way home. She wondered if she could harvest the garden that Max made in time. She worried about the dark winter ahead, unsure she could enter that tunnel without him. Her next thought was for the boy, the hope he was safe.
She emptied the wagon, and in the potato box she found a jar of squash seeds.
Katherine Koller writes for stage, screen and page. Her first plays, Cowboy Boots and a Corsage and Magpie, were for CBC radio. Her full-length stage plays include her Alberta LandWorks Trilogy: Coal Valley, The Seed Savers and Alberta Playwriting Competition winner, Last Chance Leduc. Her web series, about Edmonton youth changing their world, is at sustainablemeyeg.ca. Art Lessons, her novel, was a Finalist for the Edmonton Book Prize and the Alberta Readers’ Choice Award. Winning Chance, her story collection, won a 2020 High Plains Book Award and the Exporting Alberta Award. Her stories have appeared in Grain, Epiphany, Room and Alberta Views.
Short Fiction ~ Cyril Dabydeen
Second Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 13
He looks at me with familiarity--my countenance, or allure it seems. Ethnic, too? More than propinquity, you see, with my stance here at the shop’s counter, the Quickie’s corner-store. “Where d’you come from?” he asks forthrightly, but feigns affable ease.
Where? An immigrant’s instinctual game we’re playing with geography as our guide here in the Great White North (so-called).
He forces a grin, making a face--not a stranger’s face--this middle-aged man living here in Ottawa, the nation’s capital city. A newcomer, as perhaps we all are, what I want him to know; and yes, for me to accept him at his word. Our existential beingness, you see.
Now who’s really an immigrant? Indeed he’s from Lahore. What the Quickie’s corner-store confirms, in a manner of speaking: here he works at the cash register; and what he figures I will now purchase with my unaffected ease.
He keeps acknowledging me, because of our common identity-cum-familiarity.
And our longing for one place all the while, without aloneness--let it be known.
“In Canada you always buy a lottery ticket,” he tells me, entreating me--an overture mixed in with his prescience.
“To make life good,” he assures me with his verbal inflection.
“You will win.” His game of chance--I know, but don’t really know.
He laughs, because of abiding hope somewhere. And a special spirit he might have cultivated. His charm, no less. He with his new-immigrant’s dream of living a full life in Canada. A South-Asian’s quest, if only Pakistani-style. But I would rarely ever buy a lottery ticket, I’m about to tell this man.
Yet a vision of sudden wealth flits into my mind. Fantasy with a sense of escape, yes.
He laughs, sort of, with more prescience. I also laugh.
“You must keep trying,” he persists, handing me a lottery ticket--my purchase because of his prompt. A rescue point, and freedom with a vague sense of materiality, somewhere.
“But my chances are…?”
“Don’t worry about your chances.” He sounds definitive.
“You will win.”
An immigrant’s cause to celebrate, yes.
“You are in Canada!” He breathes in hard.
I also breathe in hard. Mimesis, yes.
He shakes his head in an oversized jacket, like what’s just thrown over his shoulders. He twirls his whiskers and looks at me with his lathe-grey eyes. Now it’s what we keep making of each other--our talking, more than made-up conversation, with my presuppositions.
A new identity taking shape with real or just imaginary places: now here with our own immediacy, if only our immigrant space. I unconsciously dredge up more than what’s intuitive--with our sense of oceans crossed. Will I really win?
I entertain more dreams, but not a far country, do you know? And riches, like being a maharajah in a time of yore, if a castle somewhere in Jaipur, but not one that’s gothic. Yet one far unlike a Wall Street millionaire’s, you see. Dream on!
This man wants to know my name, because of what’s authentic in me, and now forming between us. More than verisimilitude, you see. And where do I really come from with my own bonhomie, or contrived style? Familiarity yet oozes. I tell him where--more than a made-up place in my mind’s eye. Details I give to him in a casual manner.
And he’s undoubtedly from Lahore, and has been living in Canada not very long.
But how long is long?
I unconsciously pretend being a wanderer—not a wayfarer—in my new style without pretence. He asks another question to establish a marker between us--with his outsider’s sensibility at work. A subtext somewhere. He wanting to know much more than what stems from sheer curiosity. And yes, about my lottery-ticket winning chances in Canada aligned to my bona fide immigrant’s hope.
Something new to behold in our self-awareness, or self-realization.
Indeed, our actually being in one place and in one time—here at the Quickie Corner store. As other customers cast quick glances at us: our ethnic experience acted out, more than in a trumped-up familiar manner, sure. And my indeed having bought a lottery ticket and dreaming of winning--like a regular pastime.
I keep making up more than sub-continental boundary lines, see. The Far East, and the famed Silk Road, with a genuine cartographer’s sense in me. Lottery winner, eh? I look at the ticket in my hand. Breathing it, smelling it. My castle up in the air. Immigrant reality aligned to fantasy ongoing!
But this man’s not without his own guile. He pats his whiskers, muttering about real possibilities here in Canada—unlike the life he might have lived in Lahore. The lottery ticket in my hand wavers. I unconsciously rehearse the numbers in my mind.
A prized possession only. And tomorrow the draw will be. A sense of ecstasy grows because of my winning ways. Got you! I hear him say. The other customers’ eyes light up, taking us in. Casually I say my goodbye. Wishful-dreaming, nothing less. Canada--here I come.
Cyril Dabydeen’s books include My Undiscovered Country (Mosaic Press), God’s Spider (Peepal Tree Press, UK), My Multi-Ethnic Friends and Other Stories (Guernica Editions, Toronto), and the anthology Beyond Sangre Grande: Caribbean Writing Today (Mawenzi House, Toronto). Previous books include: Jogging in Havana (1992), Black Jesus and Other Stories (1996), My Brahmin Days (2000), North of the Equator (2001), and Play a Song Somebody: New/Selected Short Stories (2003). His novel, Drums of My Flesh, had been nominated for the 2007 IMPAC/Dublin Prize, and won the top Guyana Prize for fiction. Cyril’s work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, e.g. Poetry (Chicago), Prairie Schooner, The Critical Quarterly, World Literature Today, The Warwick Review, Prism International, Canadian Literature, the Dalhousie Review, and in the Oxford, Penguin, and Heinemann Books of Poetry and Fiction. Former Poet Laureate of Ottawa (1984-87). Taught Creative Writing at the UofOttawa for many years.
Short Fiction ~ Peter Wallace
Third Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 13
He did it with swift grace, almost politely, so I wouldn’t be disturbed. My backpack levitated, and I felt the straps jiggle my hands on its way off my body. As I turned, looking down so I could pick the backpack off the sidewalk, I saw him running already, my pack flying in one hand. I felt myself falling towards him, reaching out, and that started the run.
I yelled, “Stop him!” Just like in the movies. Him crashing into people, me chasing, scarcely avoiding people as they careened out of the way. He was shapeless, jeans, faded red hoodie, small, quick in his bright white shoes. Already the scattered people on lower 7th Avenue were sucked back into his wake like dust after a truck speeds through, turning to see what had happened.
He couldn’t take that backpack, I pleaded. Please, no.
The light at the corner was against him. He ran out fast, his body curving to dodge a maroon Toyota, but the car caught him and snapped his shinbone. His cry was high-pitched. Immediately a circle widened around him like he was a stone plopped into a pond. He was on his side facing under the car when I got to him, my pack just beyond his reach on the asphalt. A young woman came out of the car, trembling with tears, unable to speak or even breathe. She saw my culprit move and she choked a sob, still having visions of death in her head.
The perpetrator turned over with a moan and a sharp intake of breath. I breathed in, too.
It was a girl, maybe 13 years old.
Her long dark hair was shoved out the side of the hood. Her dark eyes were full of water. Her lip had a small smear of blood. She tried to turn her grimace into a smile as she saw me.
“Don’t tell them,” she whispered. “Ayee!” Her shin was at an angle in the middle, and she could barely breathe with the pain.
“Don’t move,” I said, reaching to support her shoulder.
She flinched at my touch but gestured me closer. “What’s so valuable?” she whispered.
“What do you mean?”
“In the backpack. What did I almost get?”
I was mystified. “Nothing.”
“But in Starbuck’s you said it was going to last the rest of your life.” She was pleading. “You said.”
I suddenly knew what she was talking about. I’d been sitting with Roger in Starbuck’s. He was listening again as I tried to figure out again what I was going to do. I had Kaliope’s pages with me, the ones she’d worked so hard on the last few months, that she’d finished just before the accident. They hadn’t been out of my possession for more than a shower for weeks, weeks that rang more hollow with every added hour.
“You misunderstood.” I sat on the pavement and pulled the backpack to me.
A woman in a white blouse and costume jewelry caught my eye and pointed down the sidewalk, mouthing an advisory: Police.
I looked at the girl. “I said treasure, you idiot. I said it was my life’s treasure.”
The girl tried to sit. “So what was it?”
“Like a Harry Potter book?”
“Yeah,” I scoffed. “Exactly.”
I got to my feet and felt a policeman’s hand on my elbow. I began to pull away, and it tightened.
The girl pointed at me, shouting. “He shoved me in front of a God damned car, broke my fucking leg.”
“You stole my backpack, little girl. So just—”
The cop turned me around but the girl kept talking to my back.
“There’s nothing in your backpack. You just told me.”
“I just told you – ”
“Why would I steal nothing?” She at last was able to sit up and lean against the shiny bumper of the maroon car. She seemed so small and young. “Broke my fucking leg.”
Another cop came up, his ham-shaped hand clasping the top of my pack. “Is this yours, sir?”
“Yes, you can see – ”
The wiry piano-playing hand on my elbow stopped me from reaching.
The ham-handed cop opened the backpack. “What’s in here?” he asked, as though already sure it contained contraband.
“It’s none of your — She stole—”
He pulled out the manuscript. “What is this?”
I held out my hand. “Give it to me.”
The cop read. “Is your name Kaliope?”
“Bob — ” said the cop who held me.
“Give me that!” I screamed. I leapt at him, yanking my arm away from the policeman who held me. The cop in front of me let go of Kaliope’s pages to grab my arm, twisting it until my elbow popped, dull and loud. Tears came. It was almost a relief.
The cop spread me over the hood of the maroon car. The young woman driver called out something in Korean, her hand covering her mouth. I could see an ambulance just pulling up as the girl in the red hoodie lay back on the pavement and closed her eyes. A young man had his cell phone out and was videoing, saying loudly, “You wouldn’t do this if he was white.”
When the cop not-Bob cuffed me, he said as he turned me around, “Sorry, man. I got to.”
I saw all the pages fluttering down the avenue. They caught the wind, a few going in jerking curls up towards the buildings. Her book was as dismembered as her body in the crash. The faint flicker of the sheets of paper on the street was whispering the same promises as a lifetime scattered into a careless breeze. All my faith scattered. All my memory scattered. All my hope that this wasn’t real — scattered. I would never be able to track down those words.
My knees started to fold. I leaned against the cop, who held me up like he was a different person. He was the one who kept me from falling.
Peter Wallace’s first novel, Speaker, was published in 2020. He has received a number of fellowships, and got his MFA at Yale School of Drama. He has directed and taught extensively, including a stint as Chair of Theater at Eugene Lang College at New School University. Through Bard College, he taught writing practices in Myanmar, Turkey, and Russia, and is also on the Language and Thinking faculty there. He has been a fisherman, a motorcycle bum, an interfaith minister, a sculptor and a bodywork therapist. He lives in Oregon, where he teaches playwriting, and answers the phone at the suicide hotline.
Short Fiction ~ Jan Kaneen
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 13
Its 1983 and your stepmother’s slapping your sixteen-year-old big sister round the head in the backyard, screaming into her face that she’s an evil bitch for writing such wicked things about her in the diary she just happened to find lying open when she was tidying up the filthy midden that is your sister’s bedroom. Do you
a) Listen from the kitchen breathing in the terrible scents of false accusation and Blue Grass perfume, weeping silent tears of impotent rage that choke in your throat forever.
b) Stride outside keeping your voice as steady as you can, saying ‘Chrissy can write what she likes in the privacy of her own diary which no-one has the right to read without her permission.’
c)Record the outburst on the state-of-the-art tape recorder dad bought at the weekend because he loves a gadget, so when you tell everyone that your widely-respected nursing angel of a stepmother is actually a deeply troubled, mentally unstable ticking time-bomb, they believe you, rather than thinking you’re some sort of deluded fantasist.
d)Fly at your stepmother like a thing possessed grabbing her arm as she aims another swipe at your cringing sister shrieking, ‘Leave her alone, you nasty old cow.’
It’s a sweltering Saturday afternoon in 1976, and you and your new step-mum are chatting to an old lady in a cool pew at the back of a fusty old church before the wedding of one of your step-mum’s colleagues. The old lady asks your step-mum how she met your dad and your step-mum replies, quick as sixpence, without even mentioning your dead mother, that she and your dad were childhood sweethearts. Do you
a)Keep quiet and never mention it again so it festers like a suppurating wound that only starts to heal years later when you revisit the moment in therapeutic short stories and flash fictions.
b)Tell the old lady in as grown-up a voice as you can muster, that your step-mum feels insecure about her place in your dad’s affections and is under a lot of pressure at work which is why she makes up these stories that continually omit your real mum from familial narratives.
c) Keep quiet but in the car on the way home ask her why she said it?
d)Call her a big fat liar and storm out crying.
It’s 1987 and your sister’s left home to go to university so there’s only you and your step-mother indoors most breakfast-times. One morning, she oversleeps so you’ve already eaten your cornflakes, washed-up your bowl and put it away when she comes downstairs. As you leave for school, she follows you to the front door, blocks your way and accuses you of leaving with an empty stomach, saying you’re going nowhere until you’ve put something proper inside you. Do you
a)Eat whatever it is she wants to keep the peace, then go upstairs to put your fingers down your throat which takes ages to do in complete silence so you miss your bus and the start of A level physics, as well as triggering a ten-year struggle with bulimia.
b)Say, ‘Just because you didn’t see something doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, now pull yourself together and stop with the control freakery.’
c) Take a slice of toast by way of compromise because you can always bin it as soon as you’re round the corner.
d) Tell her to FUCK RIGHT OFF because she’s a madwoman-nutjob who means nothing-nothing-NOTHING to you, spitting the words into her face until she slaps you hard but you don’t react despite the peppery sting but stand rigidly still as you hiss into her ear that you felt nothing because she is nothing, worse than nothing, a ghost of nobody, a shoddy simulacrum clinging to a dead woman’s legacy, then push past her taking in her pale waxwork face as you run outside into the syrupy sunlight feeling the heat of the moment surging through you like electricity - like energy - like power.
Jan Kaneen's short fiction has won prizes in places like Segora, Molotov Cocktail, Retreat West, Bath Flash and Fountain Mag, and has been published widely in places like The Fish Anthology, Comma Press's Dinesh Allirajah Prize Anthology and Aesthetica. She has stories forthcoming in The International Sort Short Story Magazine, Retreat West's The Weight of Feathers and Molotov Cocktail's winner anthology and her debut Memoir-in-flash The Naming of Bones is published by Retreat West and available to buy here The Naming of Bones (retreatwest.co.uk).
Short Fiction ~ Stephen Smythe
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 13
Al Pacino was arguing with the check-out guy at the Llanedeyrn Co-op, claiming he’d been short-changed. He'd lost his hair and carried an extra stone or four, but it was unmistakably him.
He spotted me while I was queuing, told the check-out guy it wasn’t over, and lifted me
off my feet. ‘Jimmy,’ he said, squeezing the breath out of me, ‘alrigh or wha?’
We stood on the pavement outside the store and he lit up a giant spliff. My carrier bag
contained the staples of the single man: a thick white sliced, a dozen fish fingers and a six-pack of Stella. It was Saturday, still sunny at seven, the kind of evening which promised so much when me and Al used to knock about as teenagers.
The top three buttons of his sweat-stained shirt were undone, revealing salt ‘n’ pepper hairs and a chunky gold chain. Mirrored sunglasses stuck out of his top pocket and he had a large sovereign ring on his pinky. The stench of Al’s dope competed with the rotten smell of an overflowing bin and his cheap aftershave.
Me and the other lads called him Al Pacino after we’d seen The Godfather half-a-dozen times. We’d pretended to be eighteen so we could get into The Rialto, the local flea-pit. Al’s moniker stuck, even though his real name was Owen. He had black hair, slicked back, and saucer-like brown eyes, mournful and mysterious, as though he knew something we didn’t. When he started going with Suzie Thomas, he boasted he’d made her an offer she couldn’t refuse.
He held out his spliff.
He shrugged. ‘It’s up to you, it is.’
His family was from the South Wales Valleys and moved to our Cardiff estate forty-odd
years ago when me and Al were both ten. He was different from us city boys with his sing-song accent and the way he spoke, repeating his words.
We’d lost touch after I crossed the border to go to university. I had a new life, made
He took a deep drag and exhaled. ‘What’s occurring?’
‘Got a flat on Fenway Street.’
‘Bit of a come down for you, Jimmy,’ he said, ‘moving back here.’
A police car flashed by on blue, siren blazing. Al didn’t even glance at it, just kept talking.
‘Heard you had a big house in Bristol.’
‘Wasn’t that big.’ I was light-headed from his smoke. ‘I’m going through a divorce.’
‘Nasty,’ he said. ‘I heard you had kids.’
‘One of each. Grown up.’
‘Tidy.’ He squinted and put on his sunglasses. ‘I wanted kids.’
‘Mind you, I’m a Bampi seven times over.’
‘A grandad?’ I frowned. ‘How come?’
‘Suzie’s boys all have kids,’ he said. ‘Love ’em like they’re my own.’
‘You and Suzie finally got together? That’s worth drinking to.’ I took two Stellas from my
bag and passed him one. We clinked cans. ‘Cheers.’
‘We say iechyd da round here. You’ve been in England too long, you have.’
‘I meant to keep in touch – ’
‘Have I changed much, Jimmy?’ He turned sideways and breathed in.
‘Wish I could say the same for you, boyo.’ He roared with laughter.
I grimaced. ‘The divorce is putting years on me.’
‘We’re not with each other anymore,’ he said. ‘Me and Suzie. She kicked me out last
‘Trust issues,’ he said. ‘Hers, not mine.’
‘My marriage ended unexpectedly,’ I said, ‘for one of us.’
‘The trouble was her first husband,’ he said. ‘Long distance lorry driver. A wench in
in every village.’
‘What’s that got do with you?’
‘Everything,’ he said, swigging his beer. ‘I paid for another man’s sins.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that, Al.’
‘Suzie broke my heart. She blamed my job.’
‘Surrounded by women all dolled up for a night on the town. Necking Prosecco from the bottle – randy as hell.’ He belched. ‘I feel them undressing me with their eyes, I do. ’
‘What’s your job?’
He pointed across the road to a white Toyota with Dragon Cars in red on the door.
‘Toughest job in the world,’ he said.
‘I was made redundant,’ I said. ‘Company downsized.’
‘Bet you got a big pay-out, Jimmy.’
‘It’s going fast,’ I said ‘With the divorce lawyer – ’
‘Single and minted. Lush.’ He grinned. ‘You got a bit of skirt on the go?’
I looked at the ground. ‘I’m finding it hard to – ’
‘You need a good woman, you do,’ he said, biffing me on the arm. I winced. I’d be bruised
later. I reached into my carrier bag. ‘Fancy another?’
‘Best not,’ he said, flicking away the spliff butt. ‘Lisa will have my tea on the table.’
‘My girlfriend. We’re shacked up.’
`I thought Suzie broke your heart?’
‘We all need somebody, Jimmy. Especially at our age.’
‘I’ve got a cat.’
‘Come on,’ he said, clapping me on the back. ‘I’ll give you a lift to this new flat of yours.’
‘No need,’ I said, ‘it’s only down the road.’
He lobbed his empty beer can. It bounced off the bin and clattered onto the pavement.
‘No problem,’ he said, ‘I’m going that way.’
Inside his car was like an oven. He wound down the windows and told me to fasten my seat belt. ‘Don’t want to get into trouble with the law again,’ he said.
His tyres screeched. We’d no sooner set off than we pulled up outside my flat. ‘Thanks,
‘Two-fifty,’ he said.
‘Two pounds fifty. Minimum fare.’
I laughed nervously, waiting for him to smile.
‘Call it three with a tip.’
He took off his shades and looked at me with those saucer-like eyes. ‘It’s nothing
personal,’ he said. ‘It’s strictly business.’
‘I’ve no cash, Al.’
‘You can owe it me, you can.’
I got out.
He called through the window, ‘I know where you live!’
As I watched Al Pacino drive away, I realised I’d left my carrier bag in his taxi.
Stephen Smythe lives in Manchester, England. He achieved an MA in Creative Writing at Salford University in 2018. His flash fiction was shortlisted for The Bridport Prize in 2017 and longlisted in the Bath Flash Fiction Award, 2018. He was runner up for his micro fiction in the Bangor Literary Journal FORTY WORDS competition in 2019 and this year in the same competition his story was Highly Commended. In 2020, he had poems shortlisted and longlisted in The Eighth Annual Bangor Poetry Competition and his five minute play 'Mr Bombastic' was shortlisted in the Todmorden Book Festival Play and a Pint Competition (performance and result held over to 2021). His story 'Granny' received an Honourable Mention in The Strand International Flash Fiction competition -9.
Short Fiction ~ Susan Cardosi
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 13
The woman is eager to rise when the alarm sounds. She tip-toes across the hall to wake her son.
“Sweetie, it’s time to get up for school,” she whispers happily.
“But I’m busy dreaming,” he groggily retorts.
“Sorry, but I’ll make you a waffle.”
“Of course,” she promises.
He grunts his body to a vertical position and rubs his eyes. She considers what a handsome boy he is with his shiny, blonde hair starting to curl at the ends and the carefree happiness in those brown eyes. Both consolation and melancholy sharpen her breath for noticing today. He scoots off to the bathroom in his fraying superhero pajama pants that used to be too long. Is he taller today? she wonders, Is that possible? After he closes the door, she waits to hear the sound of the sink before continuing to the kitchen.
The waffle iron and batter fill the house with their familiar smells of morning, which usually speeds his preparation. The boy soon slides into his kitchen chair while stuffing his backpack with notebooks and folders. She sets the waffle topped with blueberries and syrup in front of him, “What’s on the agenda today?” Merely hoping to hear his voice for as long as possible.
“We’re dissecting earthworms,” with a slight tone of disgust. “You don’t think they feel it do you?” The question surprises her, something he has never considered during these breakfast encounters.
“No honey, they are specimens for science. They can’t feel the dissection.”
“I know that, I mean when they die to become specimens.” Her bottom lip quivers. There is a change in her son this morning, as though he is finally becoming aware of his world.
“What do you think?” she asks.
“I guess when all things die it must hurt a little, even an earthworm. Dad said he wasn’t in pain, you know, before it happened to him. That he would just fall asleep and not wake up, but...” So much to say. Her eyes begin to water as she looks at the clock, only a few minutes left with him today.
“I think about your dad a lot. I wish he was here with us right now.” Their eyes dart to the empty chair at the table.
“Me too.” He smiles at his mother and finishes his waffle. “I better hurry, the bus is coming,” acknowledging its brakes squealing around the intersection down the road.
She helps him with his backpack at the door, secretly smelling his head with a deep inhale, before he runs out across the thick, dandelion yard and slowly disappears into the ether of the in-between.
The bus driver rolls slowly past the house waving at the woman on the porch, just like every morning, as though it offers solace. The children stare, remembering the boy who went to school with them. He loved superheroes and designing paper airplanes. A few days after the funeral, the kids folded their own and showered her yard with airplanes from the windows of the school bus. The beauty of that moment kept her alive that day, and the next morning the loop began.
The accident that took her son was months ago, but young spirits often get stuck and need a guide. The woman feels her husband’s hands on her shoulders. His soft voice and breath in her hair, “He’s starting to understand. Soon enough, he will be able to see me and break the loop. Then…”
“You will guide him to his afterlife and both be gone, again.” She desperately wants to hold onto her blessedly cursed life.
“I know what you’re thinking, but you promised me. The universe will bring you to us one day. Please don’t force its hand. I kept you from living for too many years when I was sick, and now,” he gears up for the only argument they have left as his wife turns to face him.
“Stop,” she says calmly. “Have I ever broken a promise to you?” Shaking his head, he both wins and concedes. Missing his marriage and dreading the permanent goodbye, he takes in her scent and kisses her.
“Maybe I’ll name it Promise,” she says after a while hiding under the covers with him.
“Grief, loneliness, everything that whispers from the dark empty. Even when it claws at me to see if I can still bleed, or tries to pull me farther and farther inside until I’m lost. I’ll never escape it, so I’ll keep it next to me. Look,” she wriggles loose from their cocoon to reach for the shoebox of saved paper airplanes. Between everyday’s loop, she writes stories about her husband and their son inside each one. “Promise and I will fly these all over the world until I am with you again,” but when she turns back, her husband has disappeared.
With a sigh she grabs her pen.
Susan Cardosi is a fiction and essay writer living in Los Angeles. She was a bookstore manager and buyer for many years, and has since created content and written articles for museums, literacy advocacy groups, and Fostering Families Today. Susan is a foster and adoptive parent and youth advocate. She received a bachelor’s degree after studying communications, literature, and dance at Otterbein University. She is currently looking for a home for her paranormal romance novel and ghostly murmurs short story collection. Find her spouting opinions and recommending bazaar tales on Twitter @cardosi_susan.
Short Fiction ~ Susan E. Rogers
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 13
Mick Nolan didn’t think he had ever been so nervous in his entire sixty-eight years. Not when he boarded the plane in Dublin at age twenty-two to leave Ireland for good. Not the day he started the construction job in Atlanta, a brawny greenhorn with a brogue nobody could understand. Not even twelve years later when he signed the mortgage for eighteen thousand dollars on the seventy acre watermelon farm a few miles from Gainesville, Florida. He stood with his thumbs hooked in his pockets and checked the arrivals board for the tenth time. The flight was due to land in eight minutes.
The phone call from his cousin Mary in Dublin replayed in his head.
Maggie’s gone, Mick, God rest her soul. Awful troubles for the girl. She’s only twelve, you know. I’ve had her with me for two weeks now, but I’ve got my own six to care for and there’s not much left over. I can’t keep her, Mick, I just can’t.
The men’s room was only a few steps from where he waited. His stomach churned and his hands trembled as he turned on the faucet to wash them. He studied himself in the mirror. His hair was a mass of soft white waves that had framed his face since he was thirty. Wrinkles circled his eyes and whispered his age. An old man about to father a twelve year old.
He had no experience with children except his own nieces and nephews and that was over fifty years before. He’d lived alone since he came to America, set in his ways after all these years. How could a life-long bachelor be able to give this one what she needed? Especially after all she’d been through and a whole ocean away from everything she knew. Mick shook his head. It was only right – the girl was family, after all. They would figure it out together. He was her last hope.
He wet his palms and ran them over his head to smooth down his hair. At least he could look presentable. He turned off the taps and reached for the paper towels.
The public address system announced the flight from Dublin had arrived. Mick took a deep breath and walked to stand near the bottom of the escalator. Butterflies danced jigs in his stomach. Maybe he should have had a shot of whiskey to fortify his nerves at the airport bar. No, that wouldn’t do. A two hour drive home was ahead of him. Besides, he had given up all but a nip before bed, strictly medicinal, to help him sleep. His tongue felt like sand as he ran it over his teeth. He reached in his pocket for one of the peppermints he always carried and popped it in his mouth.
Two figures at the top of the escalator drew his attention. A flight attendant held the hand of a tall, young girl. A skinny thing with braids and a freckled porcelain complexion, she held tight to a pink plush rabbit. She was the very image of her grandmother, his own younger sister Alice, at that age. Mick recognized the blue and green plaid skirt of the convent school even after all these years. Her shoulders in the white cardigan slumped as her bowed head watched the moving steps beneath her shoes. At that moment, her sad green eyes looked up into his gaze.
Gracie raised her head and her glance met the eyes of the wrinkled old man standing at the foot of the escalator. Instantly, she recognized her mother’s face haloed in the thicket of white hair. The same laughing blue eyes and delicate upturn at the end of his nose had complimented the strawberry gold of her mother’s wavy mane. She bit her bottom lip as her mother’s words came back to her.
Not to worry, pet. I’ll always be here with you, Gracie, no matter what.
The past month squeezed hard on Gracie’s heart. She barely thought of anything else – her mother dead and her whole world shredded to bits. At first, they sent her to live with her grandfather, but after the broken nose two weeks into it, the priest had her removed and brought to Cousin Mary’s. The ruckus in that house – sharing the bed with three little cousins and somebody always coming or going – only added to Gracie’s confusion. She was used to being alone and cried each night until sleep rescued her. Brothers and sisters might have been nice, but she was too old to learn to be part of a family now.
Her breath sucked in with a catch. The nice woman squeezed her hand and smiled down at her. Gracie held on tightly. She knew she had to go with that old man, to live with him because nobody else wanted her. A tear dripped onto her shoe. She swiped her nose with the back of her hand and squeezed her rabbit tighter, the only constant friend she’d had through this ordeal.
They came to the end of the escalator and Gracie lifted her foot high to step off. She saw the old man nod. The nice woman guided her to him and gave her shoulders a gentle nudge. Stopped three feet away, Gracie didn’t move. Mick crouched down with his hands on his knees, his eyes on a level with hers.
“Hello, Gracie. I’m your Uncle Mick and I’m pleased to meet you.”
The softness of his tone and the cadence of his speech were the echo of her mother’s own voice. Gracie shuffled one step forward. Mick held out a peppermint and she slowly reached for it. He smiled and she lunged forward to loop her arms around his neck. Hanging on with all her strength, she sobbed into his shoulder as he hugged her back and crooned in her ear.
“Not to worry, pet. I’m here with you now, Gracie, no matter what.”
Susan E. Rogers lives in St. Pete Beach, Florida, retired from a Social Work career in Massachusetts. Retirement was a catalyst for beginning her life-long ambition to write. Her other interests include genealogy and psychic spirituality, and she often twists these into her writing. She has written and collaborated on numerous genealogical articles. She self-published her first book ‘Uncovering Norman’ in 2018 about her own psychic experiences. Since 2020, her short fiction has been published in anthologies and has appeared in several literary magazines. You can visit her author website at www.susanerogers.com and social media pages on Facebook and Twitter.