Short Fiction ~ Steve Wade
First Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 11
As though I were from his own bloodline, he accepted me into his den. We formed an instant alliance. We existed as a pack of two: alpha and beta.
At first, being the newly arrived subordinate, I learned to scamper out of his path. As alpha, he made no effort to step over or walk around me. My yelps and cries of pain did, however, awaken in him the tenderness of a dam. Always, having trodden on my paw or flank, he’d let out a guilty bark, scrunch down beside me, soothing sounds coming from his throat, while he caressed me with his forelimbs.
Outside our den in the Big Space my role shifted from beta to caretaker. Attached to each other by a cord made from dried cowhide, connected to a cowhide loop about my neck, we two became one. Through the cord, I could feel his every intention. He decided where we went and what we did. But my designated duties were to alert him to danger, to forewarn against obstacles or enemies.
“Easy Lobo,” the alpha said to me one evening when we were returning from a ramble when the Big Light made way for the White Light thrown by the Moon
Although I never learned nor mastered the Alpha’s strange tongue, we have always understood each other. And right away I understood from his tone that he sensed what I already knew. Behind us, in the shadows, we were being stalked.
Through my own deep-base growls, I jerked my head quickly towards the alpha, and then back to the threat before us. I could feel the hackles bunched on my neck. My lips I curled back as much as I could to ensure the attackers could see the whiteness of my canines against the pink of my gums. My threat worked.
The pack’s leader, a long creature who smelled like unclean death stopped before he was within ambush distance. His subordinates aped him. That’s when the alpha unhooked from around my neck the cowhide cord that connected us.
I bounded forward, my gums curled, my teeth bared and dripping saliva, in my throat a snarl. In his panic to flee, the leader fell backwards, exposing his throat. I pounced on him, closed my jaws about the vulnerable flesh. His cowardly subordinates abandoned their leader. While he squealed like a worried hog, they fled.
But the alpha approached at his usual pace - a cautious one. With his head tilted sideways, he felt about while crouched till he touched my back. Through his touch I felt a kind of healing lightning. And the sounds he made soothed. But he then turned his attention to the sickly cur in my jaws. This I got through the shift pitch in his voice. His tone became harsh, yet filled with what I knew to be a warning. I could almost guess what he said. He’d told the cur to quit struggling, to cease his screeching, and to surrender to my jaws.
The enemy complied. He left off screaming, his flailing limbs grew flaccid, and he tilted back his head, offering me his throat.
I, in turn, slackened my jaws, but continued to press my teeth into his vulnerable neck flesh. But, even towards such an ailing cur, my instincts compelled me to honour the laws of combat. He was surrendering.
“That’s it, Lobo,” the alpha said. “Good boy. Leave it now.”
I released his throat, and moved backwards. Slapping my tongue in and out through my teeth in disgust.
“Here, Lobo,” the alpha called. “Home, boy. Let’s go home.”
And home we went, bruised and wounded, but undefeated.
There were other attacks during our long companionship, but together these we countered and survived. Our loyalty to each other was as constant as the shift from Big Light to the awakening of the Moon. But the Great Grey Prowler, his voice hoarse through howling in his efforts to sway my allegiance, never relented.
My body. Unable to turn my loyalty, he concentrated on my body. He weakened my bones as he weakens the branches of a tree, and my joints he stiffened the way he takes control of a wayward and wending river by freezing its surface. In pain and zapped of energy, I lost complete interest in food - all part of the Prowler’s plan. For without sustenance and liquid, the body finds no need to continue, to suck in oxygen and pad the earth.
The alpha, my leader, stayed with me until the Great Grey Prowler emerged from the Forest of Dreams to claim me as his legion.
“Come,” the Prowler said to me. “It is your time.”
Ready now to give the huge wolf, as dark as deep grey storm clouds, instant allegiance, I felt myself slipping from my own skin and loping after him. But behind me I heard strange sounds from the alpha. I twisted my head about. He was weeping. In his arms he cradled my lifeless body. Only then did I understand the enormity of our friendship, and why he, the alpha, depended so much on my guidance.
The tears that he shed he wept from sightless eyes. Something my living instincts never programmed me to understand. I remained and watched him fumble about for tools in the garden shed. My body he buried beneath the pear tree in full blossom. Ignoring the snarled orders of Death, the huge wolf all birds and beasts know as the Great Grey Prowler, I returned to my master early after the next sunrise.
At first, the alpha was terrified that I had cheated Death of one of his rightful minions. But, as soon as he felt the life-force beating beneath my pelt, he slowly accepted me again as his most loyal companion. Blind though he is, the alpha is the only one who sees me now. For he sees me with vision greater than the eyesight of an eagle - he sees me with his heart.
Steve Wade’s fiction has been published and anthologised in over fifty print publications. He has had stories shortlisted for the Francis McManus Short Story Competition and the Hennessy Award. He has won first prize in the Delvin Garradrimna Short Story Competition on four occasions. Winner of the Short Story category in the Write By the Sea writing Competition 2019. First Prize Winner of the Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown Writing Competition 2020. His short story collection, ‘In Fields of Butterfly flames’, was published in October 2020 by Bridge House. www.stephenwade.ie
Short Fiction ~ Susmita Bhattacharya
Second Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 11
The cabin was compact – like the capsule she’d been living in for the last six months. The blue and white linen and beige bulkheads were not the same as the insulated sleeping bag she tucked into at the end of the workday, attaching herself to a post so that she didn’t float around the station like a ghost ship untethered from its navigational route. It was ironic she was feeling seasick and claustrophobic right now. The Channel was a bit choppy and the boat pitched and rolled like a theme park ride – the egg cup rides she went on with her dad as a kid. It felt strange to be back on her feet, not floating away at will, gliding in the air like it was the most normal everything thing to do.
Shona stumbled out to the deck and inhaled deeply. The fresh, salty air filled her lungs and she greedily sucked in more air. Breathing recycled air for six months was one thing she did not miss. She still heard the ticks and whirs of the machines in her head, and sometimes turned towards a gurgling sound, nervously looking for a fault. But no, it was all in her mind, just like she kept hearing her cat mewing, whimpering, crying - long after she had been buried in the garden.
It was a clear night. Stars covered the expanse of the sky and Shona spotted the International Space Station speeding round the space highway. She smiled as she imagined what her colleagues were doing at this very moment. Would they feel her eyes on them? She watched at some of the passengers also on the deck, eyes glued to their phones, missing the beauty of the night sky. She heard someone say they’d return to watch the sunrise, as they made their way inside. Shona smiled. What if she told them she was used to seeing sixteen sunrises in a day? Would their eyes widen with envy or maybe disbelief? What if she told them she spent the last Christmas up there? Christmas up in space with a much of scientists, no family and no tree– was that a desirable experience?
Last year, there was a delivery of fresh food for them at the station by a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship. Turkey, corn-bread stuffing, gingerbread biscuits and hot chocolate. There had been singing – a lot of singing- and a Santa hat making competition, which she had won. She had saved her waffle ice-cream cones and a baked bean tin and put them to good use. She smiled at the memory. The five of them, so far away from home and yet that was home. They’d then sat together, sucking on eggnog flavoured sweets, looking down on the Earth – the swirling blue swathes with wisps of white, like the marbled-effect gift paper she’d wrapped her father’s last Christmas present in. The greens and the browns appeared as they revolved around the planet, looking somewhat like a Christmas jumper, much like the ones they had on.
Shona watched the coastline as it came nearer. The sulphuric harbour lights lined the shore like a string of golden beads. She felt the knot in her stomach grow tighter. She was getting closer to home. Families crowded around her. Santa hats and tinsel, Christmas jumpers and scarves, the energy of their excitement washed over her, leaving her feeling empty. There was no one to come home to. It was going to be a lonely holiday. As she moved towards the lower deck, she took one last look up to the sky. The pink and orange bled slowly into the inky darkness. One by one the stars disappeared into the morning glow. She ached to see the bright spot racing around the Earth – the one which was no star at all. In fact, that was the place she could be her true self. That was the place she called home.
Susmita Bhattacharya is an Indian-born British writer. She won the Winchester Writers’ Festival Memoir Prize in 2016 and her novel, The Normal State of Mind (Parthian/Bee Books) was longlisted for the Words to Screen Prize at the Mumbai Association of Moving Images (MAMI) festival in India. She has been shortlisted for, and won, numerous prizes and awards and her work has been commissioned by magazines and for BBC Radio 4. Her most recent collection of short stories, Table Manners, was published by Dahlia Books (2018). It won the Saboteur Short Story Collection Prize in 2019, was finalist for the DLF Hall & Woodhouse Literary Prize and will be serialised for BBC Radio 4 Extra in January 2020. She lectures at Winchester University, facilitates the Mayflower Young Writers workshops in Southampton (An ACE funded ArtfulScribe project), and is a mentor supporting BAME writers for the Middle Way Mentoring project. Currently, she is working on her second novel.
Short Fiction ~ Stephen Smythe
Third Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 11
“What do you mean, we can’t come in?” the man in the too-tight suit snarled. “What are you – some kinda funeral bouncer?”
Ibrahim had been going to English classes for six months and had not heard this expression before, although he gathered what it meant. He looked at the woman next to the man. Her eyes were red-ringed, the pallor of her face emphasised by the black clothes. Like the man, she was not wearing a mask. “I loved Mr Watson,” she said. “He always helped people on our street.”
“I am sorry,” Ibrahim said.
The woman caught a sob and the man snorted. “Let us in. It’s not a nightclub, mate!” He had no overcoat even though it was a cold, January day.
“The number of people in the chapel is the maximum permitted,” Ibrahim said.
“Quiet, please,” Ibrahim said.
“Don’t shush me, mate!”
“The service has already started,” Ibrahim said. He had closed the chapel door before the couple arrived.
“Why won’t you let us in?” the man demanded. “We’ve got masks - they’re in her bag!”
"No more permitted.”
“I can’t understand what you’re saying.”
Ibrahim wondered if his face mask was making it difficult for him to be heard, or whether the man was ridiculing his accent.
“Can’t you let us in?” the woman said, softly. “It’s freezing.”
Ibrahim stamped his feet. He had worked for the security firm in the shopping mall, but it was now closed because of lockdown. “I am sorry. I cannot.”
“How many people are inside?” the woman asked.
“Twenty,” Ibrahim said.
“I’m sure the Government says you can have thirty,” she said.
“Not here. The chapel is too small.”
“It’s doesn’t look that small,” the man said.
“There is social distancing inside.”
“Ridiculous,” the man hissed. “Get George. He’ll tell you to let us in.”
“You mean you won’t!”
Ibrahim said nothing. He looked beyond the man to where the headstones were. The sky was swollen dark grey and the naked trees seemed black. He longed for the colours of his home in Somalia and missed the lushness of Kenya – but not the camp. He felt safe here in this Lancashire town, in the north of England.
“It will not make a difference.”
“I’ve known Mr Watson since I was a little girl,” the woman said, crying as she rummaged in her handbag. “That damn virus!”
“See what you’ve done?” the man said.
Ibrahim wondered why the man did not comfort the woman. He waited for a moment until she dabbed her eyes with a tissue and appeared calmer. “I am afraid you will have to leave,” he said.
Ibrahim gestured towards the cemetery gates with his hand. “Please.”
“Make me!” The man planted his feet wide and thrust out his chest. A button popped off his jacket, and underneath part of his shirt was undone revealing a large belly.
Ibrahim had not expected to encounter aggression in a cemetery. But he was not afraid – he had known real danger in his twenty one years.
“Danny, don’t,” the woman said, putting her hand on the man’s arm.
The man gritted his teeth and spoke quietly but firmly. “We’re going inside.”
“I am sorry, sir, that is not possible.” Ibrahim stepped across the chapel doorway.
“What are you gonna do – call your mates on that?” The man pointed at the radio wedged in a pouch on Ibrahim’s hi-vis jacket. He was the only member of the security firm there. The radio was connected to HQ for emergencies only, although Ibrahim let the man think otherwise.
The man edged closer.
“Please keep your distance,” Ibrahim said, stepping back.
The man looked him up and down. Ibrahim met the man’s eyes. Nobody blinked. They were the same height, although Ibrahim was in much better shape. The man unclenched his jaw.
“Danny, come on,” the woman said. “Mr Watson wouldn’t have wanted this.”
The man kept his gaze on Ibrahim, although his eyes had lost their fire. “Where’re they burying him?”
“I am sorry,” Ibrahim said. “There is already the maximum number of people permitted.”
The man opened his mouth but no words came out. He shook his head and turned to the woman. “The world's gone mad.” She eased him away, her palm on his back. Ibrahim heard him say, “Huh. Barred from a funeral. And by him!”
As the light faded, the cemetery due to close in a quarter of an hour, Ibrahim was alone. The rain held off and the mourners had left. They kept a distance from each other around the grave, although a handful hugged awkwardly. Ibrahim did not intervene, unsure about the rules. For that, he was glad.
Ibrahim completed his last circuit before locking up, the gravel crunching beneath his boots. He recalled the man in the too-tight suit: “Some kinda funeral bouncer.” He smiled, wryly. Is that what he was? He cut across the grass towards a grave filled in with freshly dug soil and topped with a wreath of white roses. He read the words on the temporary wooden cross. ‘Thomas Gerald Watson. 1948 - 2021. Love Your Neighbour as Yourself’. Ibrahim took off his beanie and smoothed his hair. He stood there awhile. There was the low purr of an occasional car passing on the other side of the railings. Suddenly, there was birdsong. He looked up. Even in the half-light, Ibrahim recognised the red face and yellow wings of a Goldfinch. It was perched on the bare branch of a solitary silver birch. As it trilled, Ibrahim wondered why it had stayed home and not migrated.
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 ~ David Mohan
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 11
Brewer turns his back on the sea and takes the first train home.
The sun is beginning to touch the edges of buildings, all across the skyline. Certain windows glimmer as the train speeds past.
In one apartment building the green of an electric light stands out in the great mass of black surrounding it. A man stands facing the city, ironing a shirt in the phosphorescence of his kitchen. He is so concentrated he looks frozen, just standing there, staring into a grey crease of cotton.
The train passes a woman smoking on her balcony. She looks fresh from her bed, her eyes flickering in the light, her hair set loosely in place like a wig she put on to cover the mess of her thoughts. She has her handbag on the table in front of her. There is a spill out of it. He imagines a lipstick and a compact mirror, a spray of white mints.
He gets off one stop early and walks the long way to his apartment. He wants a little more of this air, this sunlight, before he goes to bed.
There are people sleeping in boxes outside the station – waking on beaches is nothing unusual for them. Finding shelter from the sea breeze amidst the dunes, trudging across cold, slipping sand, and wiry grass, is just another late night trek for such travellers.
But he feels chilled by his night spent under the stars. And grateful for this morning, its soft, diffuse, translucent light. The day will be warm, he suspects, but there’s still a little of the night chill in the shade of the big station arch. As he walks along, taking his time, he observes how the day re-claims the city in gradual subdivisions: lemony sunlight touches up the glass of the Financial District, golden tones drip down fawn and salmon coloured walls, bright, blinding points blaze at intervals.
The raffia bag he borrowed from his landlady pats his shoulder blades as he walks along, and he feels the subtle weight of the shells he’s collected, the loops and curls and spirals he has stolen from the tide-blackened sand. They are worthless things, of course. Even more so now he is back in what is supposed to be the hub of industry, and at the most restive, frantic hour of the day.
But these shells are worth something just the same: for the walks they compel him to take if nothing else. They are the reward of such walks. No: they are the evidence. Like the broken up sneakers he found once, or the seal skull. Inessential things. So soothing, so compulsive.
Today, after a little sleep, he plans to pick around at the edges of his city life before he commits to anything concrete. He will be like a fox scavenging for scraps in trash bags, or one of those gigantic gulls that swoop down onto squares, raucous and strutting.
And this evening it will be the sea train again, as always, and then it will be a blind search as the dusk crawls towards absolute darkness, and the tides re-set. He will be as free then as the sound of the sea, beachcombing till whatever time he likes.
But for now, he walks into a café that has just opened – The Bayside Retreat. A waitress yawns behind the counter as he slips through the door.
He orders a latte and curls up in a corner, his bag of shells whispering as he lays it down beside him. His threadbare trainers smell of sand grit and seaweed: a saltwater tang.
For a moment, falling into the warmth of the place, he is on another coast, in another town, far away, elsewhere. But that place is warmer, that beach has another quality, appears to be a white-hot bar when the sun is at its fiercest. And there is a house beside that ocean, and a family, although most of the time is spent wandering the dunes, and hiking the coast road, and fishing in tidal pools, and running, running and running, never still, never settled. And in this odd memory, that is, by now, as much a dream as it is a memory, there is no clear sense of inside or outside, of indoors and outdoors, as the house back then was composed as much of the beach as it was of a hallway, and as much of the dunes as it was of a kitchen, and the doors and windows were always open in any case, and everywhere you went you smelt and heard the ocean, as though it lived inside you, akin to the sound of blood pounding in your ears.
And so it is unsurprising to witness again a version of himself run from the beach, run in a wavering line up the staggered boardwalk and then through the wild, marram grass country of the dunes, and then through the open doorway of that little slanted, salt-caked house, and up the dusty, blue-dark hallway and stairs, and then along that dark landing to the room at the opposite end, facing away from the ocean, and into that musty, antiseptic-scented bedroom, and then to the seaglass jar on the dresser, where he would deposit the latest shells he had discovered, and see the soft white face of the person sitting up in bed turn towards him in the dresser mirror.
It was always a shock to see that face turn, at that moment, although it was always anticipated, always the wish that lay behind everything else, and so Brewer startles when he awakes, and finds the waitress standing over his table, frowning, her notebook lopsided in her hand, her voice, so light, so delicate, the flicker of a lighthouse glimpsed miles away.
David Mohan has been published in PANK, Hobart, Necessary Fiction,
Atticus Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Penn Review, The Seneca
Review and Westerly.
Short Fiction ~ Ruth Geldard
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 11
Ursula was on form. Holding court in her inimitable way, Hannah noticed her pause, as she made certain of her audience’s attention,
“So, there I am,” here she paused again to turn her palms upwards in mock helplessness, “doing a bit of light-dusting in the bedroom…”
Her husband on cue, said,
“You don’t do light-dusting my love, not even weightless dusting.”
“Don’t interrupt. So, there I am, looking through my bedroom window and what do I see across the road?”
She sat back in her seat with a little rhetorical, shoulder shimmy. Everyone at their table, who had gathered in the intimate space of the wine bar to celebrate Hannah’s significant birthday, was looking at Ursula, all trying to work out what she might be going to say next.
Ursula turned her attention towards John, Hannah’s husband, who, catching her gaze shifted in his seat and picked up his beer. Ursula continued.
“You know the house opposite me, the one that’s been on the market for ages because they want a ridiculous amount of money for it? Well, the estate agent from Select Homes was standing right under the For Sale sign, with a whole family of Pakistanis!”
There was an immediate hush. Hannah opened her mouth to speak but noticed John clearing his throat to say something. She held her breath, curious to see how he would react and whether he would be able to suppress his natural inclination to avoid confrontation. He looked straight at Ursula and said,
Hannah flushed this was a first. Ursula looked bewildered, as though John couldn’t possibly have understood her, because surely if he had, he would have agreed?
She said, “Well would you want a hoard of foreigners living right opposite you, I mean really? It would bring down house prices for a start, never mind the nuisance from cooking smells?”
John shrugged and said, “Wouldn’t bother me.”
The sheer unexpectedness of Ursula’s remarks and casual assumption, that they were of like mind, took Hannah’s breath away. Recent political events had opened a Pandora’s box of previously suppressed racial intolerance in Hannah’s small, seaside town, but to hear it from the mouths of friends was unthinkable.
The echo of Ursula’s hateful not-in-my-backyard comments became a righteous slow-burn inside Hannah threatening to flare, and the strain of holding back was almost too much, but not wanting to upstage her husband, she tamped it down.
Later, after the candles had been blown out and the cake cut, the talk turned to the safer subject of this year’s Oscars ceremony, comparison of the various films and much lightweight talk of celebrities and their dresses. But Hannah, still burning, said,
“It’s a shame there were no black prize winners though, did you see that incredible speech by that actress about the lack of diversity? Oh, what’s her name, she’s been in everything?” John helpfully supplied it but did not look at her.
“She was so inspiring brought the house down.” Oh god, what was she thinking of? She was no match for Ursula, who looking at her quizzically, said,
“All this fuss about a few prizes, they should be able to give them to whoever they like simply on merit.”
“Yes, but as black Americans make up over ten percent of the population in the U.S.A., it would be reasonable to expect at least some representation, and of course on merit.”
“Why can’t they have their own Oscars, better all round for everyone?”
Hannah folded her arms, lowered her voice and said,
“Because that would be apartheid.”
Ursula drew a sharp breath, Hannah watched as she rearranged her face, softening her features into something syrupy, indulgent. If she was at all angry it didn’t show.
“That’s so typical of you Hannah, always contrary, I think you secretly enjoy being on the side of the underdog.”
Hannah was lost, unable to make sense of the disconnect between Ursula’s words and her facial expression, she would never understand the rules of this game. She looked across at John, willing his support, but he was deep in conversation.
The remaining birthday cake was cut up and wrapped in carry-home parcels. Hannah kissed everyone goodbye, when she got to Ursula, they managed to air-kiss without touching. Oh, the relief of stepping outside into the cold, de-toxifying night air. John caught her up and getting into step took her hand.
She didn’t answer just gave him a straight look.
“Well, I think that all went off okay didn’t it? It could have been worse…”
“In whose bloody universe? Our friends are racists for God’s sake! How could we not have realised?”
“I know! When she was talking, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.”
A sudden gust snatched at the left-over balloon, someone had insisted she take home with her, it danced stupidly on its’ artificial string hideous, gift-shop gaudy in luminous pink and silver with that unrecognisable number…
“Don’t take everything so seriously…”
Hannah was weary, she knew from experience that having said his bit, John would not want to rock the boat.
As they walked home the damned balloon began again to fidget, its’ annoying, urgent bumping suggesting a desire to escape. She didn’t want it anyway. It would only mope around half-mast between floor and ceiling, reminding her of birthdays past. She unwound the balloon’s string from her hand.
No longer earthbound the balloon soared off into the indigo sky, then slowed to linger over the church roof, as if struck by a sudden gravitational nostalgia, before picking up speed to smooch gargoyles and nuzzle chimney tops, before finally venturing off into unknown deep space shrinking to the size of one of those sherbet-filled, papery sweets, from her childhood, shaped like flying saucers, Spaceships? She remembered sating that unique, biting after-school hunger, walking home with friends, shoving Spaceships into their mouths with inky fingers, unified in the sole purpose of keeping them from dissolving for as long as possible.
Artist/writer Ruth Geldard has exhibited artwork throughout London including The Royal Academy. She has made written contributions to many Art Publications, worked in adult education, and has been an art materials demonstrator and contributed to art videos.
She once painted a portrait of Timothy Spall’s mother, Sylvia, live on air, for Radio 4’s Home Truths.
A 2018 Faber graduate, her short fiction has been shortlisted for the Fish Prize and published in various anthologies. She was awarded the sapphire Award for Excellence in Contemporary Narrative in 2015. Ruth was a finalist for The London Independent Story Prize and received an honourable mention for Spaceships in the International Flash Fiction Competition.
Ruth is currently editing her novel Lemon Yellow.
Short Fiction ~ Sudha Balagopal
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 11
When the baby's heartbeat revs from the regular glug-glug-glop to a brisk dum-dum-dum on the monitor, when your contractions ride from dip to crest, a flurry of nurses prop your feet up on the stirrups.
You wiggle trembly toes, legs drug-deadened, while fraught nurses trot in and out, trundling trolleys and trays. You interlock frozen fingers while they discourse about the alarming pace of the fetal heart.
Earlier they pierced you and injected Pitocin when your contractions didn't progress.They followed that with the stab of an epidural. The numbness leaves you spiritless. And now, you're tired.
So, so tired.
“How are we doing?” the doctor asks. He's only checking on the foetus. “All set to deliver?”
You think of the couple waiting outside, perhaps pacing the lobby, perhaps crossing and uncrossing their legs, perhaps reciting prayers, perhaps rocking a tiny car-seat that rests on the floor, perhaps checking and re-checking a carry bag of frills and fluffy toys.
The doctor urges, “Almost there! Push. . .Puush. . . .Puuush.”
You fall back, spent, and the nurses urge, “Push. . . Puush. . . Puuush.”
One more hard heave, a strong squeeze, and she slithers out.
It's the wah, wah, wah, wails that send spasms into your uterus. Squalls that slice, sharp, in your chest while everyone flits about, removing vessels, papers, monitors, machines and in that blur of activity, you catch a flash of tiny, flailing arms and floppy legs before she sails into wide-open arms. They sweep her away even as you secrete bodily fluids, the room surrounded by odors of afterbirth.
You extend your limp hands; a wasted reach. No one notices. No one congratulates you.
Your fingers droop.
Someone―a no-one-special―asks a perfunctory, “Are you okay?”
You straighten and straighten the crumpled sheet over the contours of your now-empty belly.
Sudha Balagopal's recent short fiction appears in Matchbook, Smokelong Quarterly, Split Lip Magazine, Pidgeonholes and Milk Candy Review among other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn. Her work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, and the Pushcart Prize and is listed in the Wigleaf top 50. More at www.sudhabalagopal.com
Short Fiction ~ Yvonne Clarke
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 11
I stole books from the library every Saturday.
We had a ritual. My younger brother and I pootled off on Saturday mornings to our local library, a formidable Victorian edifice surrounded by highly ornamented wrought iron railings. Roller skates on and clutching my bulging library bag, I attached safety reins to my reluctant brother and enacted my fantasy of driving a horse and carriage. He was lucky I didn’t have a whip.
The day it happened was my brother Chris’s fourth birthday.
After choosing another book from the seemingly endless Thomas the Tank Engine series (I prided myself on extending my brother’s vocabulary), I headed for the adult library in an adjacent building. I tethered my ‘horse’ to the railings near the entrance. At eleven years old I only just qualified for an adult library ticket, but was still young enough to be overawed by the high ornamental ceilings and reverent hush of the interior. The echoing acoustic magnified every sneeze, snuffle and shush. This was my wonderland – a magical place of erudition and knowledge which meant more to me than any theme park. This was the space in which to banish rowdy thoughts; I wanted no one to intrude as I immersed myself in the papery, musty odour emanating from the reference section and the cloying, plasticky pong of the ‘New In’ novels.
Which section was it to be today: Fiction? I wallowed in P.G.Wodehouse (when I was happy) and Thomas Hardy (when I was full of pre-teen angst). Travel? My well-travelled father’s tales and his National Geographic magazines always fed me with a desire to know more about the world. Wildlife? Art? Music? The buffet of books was a feast for my eyes and a banquet for my imagination. But there was a problem: I could only choose three books; a near- impossible task.
Stealing became second nature. My bag could hold five books, so that’s how many I took. Maybe ‘snook’ is a better word, as I always returned them, but with the luxury of doing so in my own time. The frisson of escaping the librarian’s eagle eyes only added to the joy of attaining my literary stash – no electronics to catch you out in the 1960s.
But this day was to prove my undoing.
As I sauntered nonchalantly up to the ‘Books Out’ desk, my heart leaping as usual like a mad March hare, a voice from behind me declared in strident tones: ‘Excuse me, young lady….’
Dropping the bag of books like hot coals, I was off, down the library steps and through the park, pursued by a portly uniformed personage who showed signs of falling behind at every stride. But an ownerless greyhound wanted to join in the chase and launched himself at me with joyful abandon, causing me to trip on the path in an ignominious sprawl.
‘I’m sorry, I won’t do it again,’ I gasped, trying to hide the pain from my grit-grazed knees, holding back my tears and my fears. As the official helped me to my feet, I smelled the whiff of his stale tobacco.
‘Whatever you’ve done, love, you need to come back to the library with me.’
It was only as I was marched through the entrance that I remembered my little brother. He was nowhere to be seen. ‘My brother’s been abducted!’ I wailed, ‘Have you seen him?’
Cheeks burning with a combination of panic and shame, I was led behind the desk to an office emblazoned with the words ‘Chief Librarian’. The ultimate confessional. My heart was banging like a bird trapped in a cage. Would I be arrested? The worry of my missing brother, however, was far greater. I realised then how much I loved him, and a torrent of tears splashed down my mud-stained coat.
Mrs Black looked at me fiercely, a chief librarian’s glare.
‘You are a very lucky girl,’ she said. ‘But not as lucky as your brother. We found him wandering around the library, breaking his heart, totally lost. He said he was looking for his sister. He’s just here.’
And there, sitting on the floor in the corner of the office, was my brother, flicking through his Thomas the Tank book, sipping Sarsaparilla from a paper cup between hiccoughy sobs. Mortified and relieved, I gave a percussive sniff and threw myself at his warm little body.
‘I love you, Chris, I’m sorry. I’ll never leave you again.’
‘We weren’t calling you back to return the books, you know. We wanted to reunite you with your brother.’
My sins had found me out at last. I had learnt two lessons today. But, contrary to what I expected, Mrs Black was impressed with my bibliophilic zeal. She decided to make an exception to the three-book rule, just for me, and I soon became known by the staff as ‘Five Book Bethany’. I never had to sneak books from the library again. As for my brother, on our trips out together, I clung to him just as a barnacle clings to a rock.
Yvonne Clarke has been a teacher of English as a Second Language for twenty years. Prior to this she was a copy editor and content editor for a number of publishing companies.
She started writing flash fiction in 2019 and has had success in several flash and short story competitions, including the 2020 LISP Short Story Prize and the 2020 Worcester Arts Festival Flash Fiction Competition.
As well as writing she enjoys cycling, music, and anything to do with protecting the environment.
Short Fiction ~ Cath Barton
First Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 10
There had once been an uninterrupted vista across the park. The sun still rose behind the three-winged Georgian house – the worse efforts of man could do nothing to change that – but a tarmac road now sliced through the avenue of trees that had lined the original carriageway from the gates. The oaks to the west of the road had split and been felled, and those on the house side had grown so thick that its facade was hidden from view.
Marcia Brice-Martin, visiting with her husband from Ormonville, a one-street town of clapboard houses in the American Mid West, was none the less enchanted.
‘This is so pretty,’ she trilled to the girl selling entrance tickets from a window cut in a portacabin. ‘Back home we have only – ’
‘House and garden or just garden?’ interrupted the unsmiling girl. Her shift should have finished an hour earlier and she was feeling the heat inside the metal box.
‘Excuse me?’ said Marcia, who had forgotten to put in her hearing aids that morning.
The girl sighed and repeated the options slowly.
Marcia’s husband bristled and stepped forward. If he’d been back home, he would have had his hand on his gun. ‘Two tickets for the complete package,’ he barked at the girl.
‘Elmer’, Mrs B-M started in a high voice, ‘Don’t you think–?’
As he lifted an arm to silence her, she noticed, as she had earlier that morning, how prominent the veins were on the backs of his hands.
‘We will take the tour, Marcia,’ he said. ‘You wanted to come here. We will damn well see it out.’ He would have slammed his hand on the counter to emphasise the point, but there was no counter, only the sliding plastic window behind which the girl sat with the tickets.
Marcia, who would have preferred to have simply strolled round the walled garden before taking tea, knew better than to argue.
‘Tours start on the hour,’ the girl said in a flat voice. ‘Forty minutes round the East Wing of the house. Stay with the guide at all times.’
As they walked towards the house Elmer Brice-Martin stumbled and clung to his wife’s arm.
‘Your stick, Elmer, we should go back to the car and fetch it,’ she said, her voice rising again.
‘Don’t fuss, Marcia, it’s this damned gravel the English lay on their paths. Designed to trip a guy up.’
The Brice-Martins were nearing the end of the 3pm tour when Trenchant Collier, a local boy whose father had worked in the gardens of the house two hundred years previously, woke from a long sleep in one of the furthest greenhouses, which were out of bounds to visitors, and went in search of something to eat. As he entered the old kitchen, which had been kept exactly as it was in the early 1800s, except that the joints of meat and loaves of bread were plastic replicas, the boy was surprised to see the small gaggle of people dressed in clothes strange to him, and equally surprised when he bit into a loaf of bread and found it impossible to chew.
None of the visitors saw Trenchant, but Marcia felt his aura. She said nothing to her husband; he was a sceptic who preferred the feel of cold hard metal to stories of the insubstantial. In the conservatory tea-room they ordered cream teas, though, looking at the veins standing out on her husband’s forehead now as well as his hands, Marcia wondered about the wisdom of this.
‘Don’t you think–?’, she started as Elmer spread strawberry jam thickly on half a large scone.
‘For heaven’s sake, Marcia, can’t you let a man enjoy a bit of fruit?’
Elmer heard his voice ricochet off the glass of the conservatory roof like a spray of gunfire. The legs of the wicker chair into which he had squeezed himself buckled as he instinctively ducked down. He reached out for one of the table legs to steady himself, but caught only the trailing edge of the tablecloth.
Trenchant Collier, who just had come into the tea room, was still in search of something he could eat. The girl whose job was to stop children from poking their fingers into the cake icing had been distracted by the unfolding calamity at Table 3, and in any case would not have seen Trenchant pick up the apricot and walnut loaf which she had just taken out of the freezer and attempt to bite into it.
Marcia was wailing, thinking this was the heart attack she had long feared would carry her husband off. He, on his back like a stranded beetle, was impeded in his struggle to right himself by the tangle of tablecloth. The floor was splattered with sticky jam and cream and tea was trickling under the neighbouring tables. Trenchant picked up a scone rolling in his direction and smeared it with butter that had been left on another table. Relieved to find something edible, he sat down and watched the drama unfold.
Marcia, feeling Trenchant’s aura again, and now convinced that her husband was about to die, cried out even more loudly.
‘For heaven’s sake, woman, pull yourself together!’ Elmer, who had managed to get to his feet remarkably unsullied by jam and cream, sank heavily onto another chair which wobbled but remained upright.
‘More tea, waitress,’ he called to the hapless girl who was trying, single-handedly, to clear up the mess.
She scurried into the kitchen. Marcia felt Trenchant depart. Elmer was still with her.
The waitress brought tea and more scones. ‘On the house,’ she said.
Neither of the Brice-Martins had any idea what she meant, but both feeling somewhat shaken, tucked in.
‘You need to ask for the recipe for these, Marcia,’ said Elmer. ‘They’re real good.’
She did not reply. Her thoughts had turned to the ghost story she was going to relate to the Women’s Home Guild when they got back to Ormonville.
Cath Barton is an English writer who lives in South Wales. She won the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella 2017 for The Plankton Collector, now published by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint.
Her second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, will be published in November 2020 by Louise Walters Books.
Cath’s short stories have been published by print magazines including The Lonely Crowd and Strix, as well as in a number of anthologies.
She is also active in the online flash fiction community.
Short Fiction ~ Kasturi Patra
Second Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 10
I read the first few lines of the bestselling thriller for the fifth time. Still, nothing registered. The oil-stained suede couch sagged further, its springs creaking in agony, as I slouched to make myself invisible to the people in my parents’ living room. It was difficult to ignore their words though.
“Forty-two and still single, chhi chhi…are you sure she isn’t, you know…” Neela Kakima let those words hang in the air. I doubted whether she actually believed her hoarse “whispers” wouldn’t reach me in the balcony.
“Na na, nothing like that,” Ma sounded apologetic, “we’ve talked about that, too.”
Baba cleared his throat; he was an expert at squashing uncomfortable conversations be it the refugee crisis in Syria or his own daughter’s sexual orientation.
In my peripheral vision, I noticed Arnab Kaku rubbing his thick, hairy knuckles over his potbelly, bits of his protruding stomach visible from between the straining shirt buttons. His fingers adorned with gemstone rings, looked like a grotesque rainbow.
I threw up a bit inside my mouth when he stuffed his face with the jaggery sondesh and spoke with his mouth full, “Girls these days are getting too much freedom and that’s getting into their heads,” unlike his wife, he didn’t pretend to whisper, “I keep telling Neela how lucky we are to have a son.”
I chucked the paperback with a splat on the coffee table and stood up.
My breathing slowed down only after I reached my childhood bedroom upstairs. My parents hadn’t changed it much since Didi and I left—the walls were adorned with our artwork in crayons, the door of the steel almirah was studded with stickers from popular nineties cartoons—Powerpuff Girls, TaleSpin, Duck Tales. On top of the study table sat a picture frame that held a photo of Didi and me squinting at the camera, wearing identical batik printed frocks.
The soft, pudgy body squashing against my back, smelling of apple shampoo and cocoa butter, woke me up from my fitful slumber.
“Rinki!” I sat in a puddle of sleep induced daze mixed with the affection that I reserved only for my six-year-old niece. She crawled into my lap screaming, “Mashiiii”, I dipped my face into her curly hair wishing I could bottle her earthy scent of childhood and take it back with me when I left Kolkata.
“I hate to break the aunt niece reunion but I have to,” my elder sister stepped into the room smiling affectionately, “Rinki, go down for lunch, I’ll come with Mashi in a minute.”
Didi didn’t ask me why I was sitting on my own in this dark room when there were guests downstairs, instead she took me in her arms. I rested my head on her shoulders just like I used to on nights when I was certain the monster was calling me from atop the palm tree outside the window. My visits to Kolkata wouldn’t have been so frequent if it weren’t for my sister and my niece.
At the lunch table, Didi tried veering the conversation into neutral territories.
“Congratulations, on your admission to the MIT, Riju!” Didi put on a big smile and looked expectantly at the young man who was grinning at his crotch while typing furiously on his phone under the table.
Neela Kakima nudged her son and muttered something, perhaps reminding him that my parents hosted this lunch to honor his “grand success”.
“Thanks,” he shrugged.
Didi gave me a sideways glance, I shook my head and put a little bit of rice mixed with chicken curry into Rinki’s open mouth.
“From the moment he ranked twentieth in the IIT entrance exam, I was certain that my boy is going to make it to the MIT,” Arnab Kaku beamed while his son was once again lost into the fascinating world inside his phone.
“Yes, Riju has always been a gem of a boy! From topping his classes to representing his school in quizzes and cricket matches. You guys have been extremely lucky!” Ma cooed while serving Riju the juiciest pieces of mutton, maybe, as a reward for his hard work.
Post lunch, Didi and I lay stretched on our childhood bed, our legs sticking out, our heads huddled in a single pillow, as we traded news of our lives. My parents had taken Rinki to their room for an afternoon nap. The three guests were in the guestroom, probably gearing up for their next meal.
After a while, I got up to make our favorite masala tea. On my way to the kitchen, I noticed my parents watching a Bengali soap on TV.
“Where’s Rinki?” I leaned into their darkened room searching for her small body lying curled up next to my mother.
“Riju took her to the terrace.”
I sprinted down the corridor and climbed two stairs at a time, my parents called out after me, but I didn’t stop.
When I pushed open the terrace door with a creak, there was no sign of anyone except for a few sparrows perched on the bird feeder pecking at the rice Ma had left for them.
The voice came from behind the water tank, a smooth, seductive whisper, so familiar sounding, like a silk scarf tightening around my throat. I instinctively grew quieter, tiptoeing to the place from where the sound came.
Rinki’s purple frilly frock was hitched up while Riju tickled her thighs, his fingers crawling upward, “I’m coming now, hau mau khau, manusher gondho pau…” those words that scared me as a child, the words of a monster who could smell human blood.
I shoved him so hard that he lost his balance and fell flat on his back. I could hear footsteps behind me.
Looking at the faces surrounding me, I let out a wail that I’d been holding inside for the last thirty-five years.
When I could finally breathe, I told them, “Arnab Kaku is indeed lucky to have a son who is just like his father.”
Kasturi Patra is a writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Jaggery Lit Mag, Litbreak Magazine, Bengal Write Ahead, Escape Velocity, 50-Word Stories, and Women’s Web. Her fiction is forthcoming in Lakeview International Journal and in TMYS Review. She is a reader for Voyage: A Young Adult Literary Journal. She recently won a novel pitch competition and her novel is forthcoming next year from Half Baked Beans Publishers. She is pursuing an MFA in Fiction from Writers' Village University. She lives in New Delhi, India, with her husband and four adopted animals.
Short Fiction ~ Brindley Hallam Dennis
Third Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 10
The fact is, I never felt that far away, he said, from home. He sipped at his whisky.
It’s the other side of the world, I said.
But you don’t notice that, he said. It’s because we travelled by air, he said. You just sit in the plane. We couldn’t see out of the windows. If we’d gone by train it would have been different.
It would have taken a hell of a lot longer, I said.
But we’d have seen all that countryside passing by. We’d have had to make sea crossings as well. We’d have seen the distance, not just spent the time.
I could see what he meant, and I sipped at my whisky.
It was like that with Mel; with Mel and me. Only not like that. About distance being what you felt, not what it really was.
Sometimes I wondered about walking there, to where she lived. I wondered about putting everything I needed, really needed, into a bag and walking out of the house and keeping on going until I got there, to where she lived.
That would take days. It would take weeks. It would take the best part of a day by train, or even to drive down, but I never thought about taking a train, or driving. I always thought about walking there.
It’s not about just the distance. It’s about what you have to overcome to get there. It’s about what you have to overcome to start out.
That’s not all it’s about. It’s about it being a penance too. A penance for not having made the journey already. Every day on the road would be an act of contrition. Each one for a year of procrastination, near enough, depending on when you start counting.
It would be a demonstration too, a demonstration of how much you cared, of how sorry you were, at least, that’s what I told myself, whenever I wondered, about walking there, to where she lived.
It would give them time, as well, walking there, give them time to get used to the idea; time to work out what was going on, what it all meant, retrospectively, and for the future. That’s what I told myself too. And word would get down to her, word that I was on my way. Somehow, word would get down to her, because someone, someone, who knew me, would work it out, in the time it would take me to get there, walking, to where she lived. And that would give her time too, time to prepare for it, for me getting there.
It would be on Social Media, or a phone call, by word of mouth. He’s gone missing, they’d tell her. He’s walked out, they’d say. He’s vanished. Nobody knows where. And perhaps, then, they’d wait, to see how she reacted.
She’d know right away. Of course she would. She’d know.
I think he’s coming here, she’d say, and then she’d look at them, to see how they reacted. Where else would he go, she’d ask? Where else could she imagine I would ever go, if I walked out like that?
She’d still have time to think, after they told her, before I got there; time to make plans, to clear the decks, to get ready. She might even want to come out and look for me. The closer I got, the fewer roads there would be to look for me on. She could work it out, whatever the route I took, there would be fewer roads to choose the closer I got to where she lived.
And when I get there, where she lives, she’ll be watching for me, from an upstairs window, or behind a curtain, or maybe even on the threshold. And at nights she’ll leave an outside light on so that I’ll be able to find my way, and she’ll maybe even leave the door unlocked, because whatever people think, and whatever they say, I know she’ll be wanting me to arrive, and she’ll be wanting me to have walked all the way. It couldn’t be any other way, for Mel; for Mel and me.
It’s in the winter that I wonder most, about walking to where she lived, when the days are short and grey and wet. I wonder on the bleakest days, and in the longest nights. And then the Spring comes around, and I forget, and another year has gone.
Isn’t it? He says, and I realise he’s been talking all the time I’ve been thinking and I see that he’s filled up both our glasses again, but I have no idea what he’s asked me, nor what the answer is, and he, sensing that I have no answer, says, it’s a hell of a distance.
Yes, I say, it is a hell of a distance.
Brindley Hallam Dennis lives on the edge of England within sight of Scotland. He writes short stories. Writing as Mike Smith he has published poems, plays and essays, often on the short story form and on adaptations from texts to film & TV. Many of his stories have been published and performed, sometimes by Liars League in London, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. He holds the degree of M.Litt from Glasgow University.
Short Fiction ~ Karenne Griffin
Third Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 10
He walked along the beach, kicking at pebbles, his heart in the soles of his well-worn trainers.
Why? he kept asking. The question churning slowly, as did the sea to his left. Grey water that slopped listlessly, tumbling the pebbles with a soft rattle. He cast his eyes across the calm, metallic sheet, unable to determine the horizon. Grey, grey everywhere. Except for the pebbles. They ranged between black, white and many shades of brown. Rounded gently by the sea. He bent to pick up a piece of something green: glass that had also been worn smooth by the sea. This fragment was a delicate eau de nil. Not that he’d ever seen the Nile, but he’d crossed a river that colour in Afghanistan, tumbling from the mountains in its haste to reach the sea. It had taken Jawad years to save enough for the hellish voyage across Europe that had culminated in a couple of hours in a small boat to England. He had made his home in this damp, grey land, thankful at first to be alive. But now he wasn’t so sure. For when his wife and son had followed two years later, they hadn’t been so fortunate. Sometimes he walked to the large cemetery at the top of the hill and wandered along the avenue of cypresses until he came to their graves, marked only with wooden stakes. Somehow he must find the energy to save enough to replace these flimsy reminders of Samia and Ahmed with stones in a colour other than grey. White granite would be wonderful, but it was very expensive.
He preferred visiting this beach rather than going to the graveyard. This was the place their bodies had landed, limp and lifeless after the storm had swamped their boat. Jawad had waited on the shore, his misgivings growing as many hours passed. The ruthless man who had taken his thousands of pounds in exchange for delivering Samia and Ahmed had fortunately also drowned. Otherwise he would have felt obliged to kill him.
Jawad’s foot kicked angrily at the pebbles, turning up another piece of glass. This one white like the ice that formed in winter, in this land as well as his own. Though Afghanistan wasn’t really his land anymore. He doubted he would ever return. He picked up the glass and held it to the light, then placed it in the pocket of his jacket with the first one. They would join others in a drawer at his bedsit. His collection embodied the many tears Jawad had cried since Samia and Ahmed had been snatched from him at the eleventh hour. It seemed apt that nobody knew where sea glass originated. He wondered whether it would be possible to make headstones from flat rock, and fix these tears of glass to their surfaces, in memory of his lost loved ones.
Karenne Griffin is the author of five novels and two travel books. Born in Australia, she has spent most of her life in the UK, and the past 20 years in Wales. When not writing she enjoys country walks. She has eclectic tastes that exceed her budget, and her alter ego is a flamingo.
Short Fiction ~ Adam Kelly Morton
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 10
Lana’s asleep beside me when my cell rings. I kiss her naked shoulder and reach across her to my bedside table.
It’s Rob. He tells me that Ricky’s dead.
The ice at the park was too soft to skate on, so we were in our boots, taking slap shots. Over on the hill, kids were tobogganing. We could hear their shouts over the echoes of our stick blades cracking, pucks thudding into the stained white wood.
Then one of my shots went sailing over the boards, right to where Rob’s eight-year-old brother Ricky was pulling his sled up towards the chalet. The puck hit him in the face. I dropped my stick and ran over to where he had collapsed.
There was blood all over the snow.
“You going over now?” Lana says, leaning on our bedroom door frame.
“Yeah,” I say, pulling on my shoes.
“How old was he?”
“My god,” she says.
We hug, and I walk out of our apartment into the May sun. I drive over to Rob’s folks’ house back on Harmony Street. My mom still lives a few doors up. I knock on Rob’s porch door and step in. Their living room is full of silver-framed pictures of Rob and Ricky.
Rob’s mom, Lorna, comes in from the kitchen. “Hi Alan,” she says. “Can I get you something? Tea? Water?”
“No, thanks,” I say.
“Okie doke,” she says.
I watch her go back into the kitchen, and I sit down on one of the green felt armchairs. Everything in this room is green or silver. Clean.
Rob walks in from the hall. “Hey,” he says. I stand up and give him a hug. We sit back down, with Rob on the sofa across from me.
“You okay?” I say.
“I guess,” he says.
I lower my voice: “What happened?”
He stands up. “Let’s go downstairs,” he says.
We walk into the kitchen, past Lorna, who’s spreading margarine onto white bread. We go down the stairs, through the family room in the basement to the storage room. On the way, we pass the open door to Ricky’s room. I can see his posters of Vanilla Ice and Color Me Badd in there.
In the storage room—full of tools and mason jars full of pickled things—Rob points up to a wooden beam in the ceiling. “He hung himself,” he says. “We found a note. He was having trouble with school and with his girlfriend.”
“Holy fuck,” I say. For a second, I feel bad about having sworn. Then I realize it doesn’t matter.
I hadn’t seen Ricky in years, but he had always been a shy kid. Whenever we played Dungeons and Dragons or board games he was quiet, just kind of following along.
Rob tells me I should probably go. I nod, and we go back upstairs. When we get there, Lorna says, “Do you want a baloney sandwich?”
“No, thanks,” I say. “I’ll have something at home.”
“Okie dokie,” she says.
I give Rob a hug and tell him I’m here for him. “Thanks, Al,” he says.
More than anything, I want to see my mom. I walk up the street, and in through the old front door. She’s is in the kitchen, still in her yellow bathrobe, watching Coronation Street on the black-and-white TV. When I tell her how Ricky died, she says, “Jesusmaryjoseph.” Then she’s quiet for a while. “Do you want a cup of tea?” she says.
She puts the kettle on to boil and gets out one of my old mugs—a graduation mug with a trophy printed on it that reads ‘Certified Smart Son’.
“Well,” she says, “I’m not all that surprised.”
I don’t understand what she means.
“You know what Ricky was like: so shy and never showing any emotion. His mother is the same way, you know.” She takes a sip of her tea as though it’s case closed on the subject. When my tea is ready she gives it to me, along with some chocolate chip cookies. We’re sit there for a long while.
The next day, Mom and Lana come with me to the visitation at the funeral parlour. I kneel down in front of Ricky, lying in his coffin, wearing a black turtleneck. He looks the same as when he was a kid—pale, soft skin and parted soft-brown hair. He still has the dimple on his left cheek from when I hit him with the hockey puck.
I cross myself, stand up and walk over to Rob’s parents. His father’s eyes are red, and he uses both hands to shake mine. He tries to say something but can’t. When I reach his mother, she says, “Thanks for coming, Alan.” She smiles. I smile back.
I walk out to the car with Mom and Lana, holding Lana’s hand. She puts her head on my shoulder, while my mom takes hold of my elbow.
“Well,” Mom says.
We drive back to Harmony and get out of the car. In the driveway, Mom hugs us both. “I love you guys,” she says. With my hand on her back, I can feel her sobbing. “I’m glad you have each other,” she says–her face pressed into my chest.
Lana and I keep holding hands as I drive us back to our apartment. On the way, we pass by the park. They’ve planted Japanese maples around the perimeter, all purple with spring leaves. Down where the ice rink used to be, they’ve built a playground.
The ambulance arrived to take Ricky to Lakeshore General. Blood was still pouring out of his cheek, and the EMTs were trying to staunch the flow with gauze.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
As they wheeled him into the back of the ambulance, Ricky looked up at me. He smiled a little, and gave me a thumbs-up.
He was going to be okay.
Adam Kelly Morton is a Montreal-based husband and father (four kids, all seven-and-under), who teaches acting and writing for a living. He's had stories published in Canada, the US, and the UK, and has an upcoming piece in A Wild and Precious Life: A Recovery Anthology, to be published in 2021. His debut collection was released in May, 2020. Adam is currently working toward an MA in Creative Writing from Teesside University, UK (distance).
Short Fiction ~ Cyril Dabydeen
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 10
He keeps at it with style, about having recently recovered from a hip operation--what he wants me to know. Now he’s doing well. How well?
“But...?” I ask.
Milt grins; he’s in his sixties; as is Jim, his friend—a twosome. Both are retirees from the federal government, and they make no bones about it. Milt thinks about the pension he currently receives, and gloats, “If I live up to 85, that means I’ll get a million bucks from the government; I’ve done the math, sure. Christ, it’s like winning the lottery!” he crows.
I wait to hear more, looking at his almost rotund form--unlike Jim. “But the government--it’s the office politics I couldn’t stand!” Milt snaps next.
“Aw, what politics,” mocks Jim, looking at me askance. Yes, me.
And again, it’s about Milt’s recent hip operation. “I must try to get all the body parts I need now,” he grates.
“Before it’s too late, dammit,” he hisses.
Jim laughs. I bide my time, sort of, now indeed considering body parts in the offing. Old age, see, with Alzeihmer’s, dementia. Physiology, not psychology. I look at them both with curiosity. “Get it all now, once you sense it coming--the little pain in the bones, I mean. Yes, go and get it.” Milt’s eyes really focus on me. Jim nods; and he’s heard it all before.
“Because body parts will no longer be available with all the seniors now putting a premium on limbs,” Milt rationalises. “Soon we will all be waiting in line, like in your common grocery store.” Simple matter-of-fact logic—here in the men’s change-room after the swim. Not a doctor’s ward, ah.
Milt’s face mirrors a new reality, he and Jim being here to kill time.
I watch them having a “social moment”—like a genuine senior’s moment after swimming in the pool marked out for the elderly. “Parts are bound to be scarce, see,” Milt continues; then again about his hip operation. “It was quick, the bone cartilage replacement...titanium. In the hospital they wanted to send me home after two hours,” he almost shrieks.
“But?” I ask.
“I told them I need physio for two weeks; I insisted on it. I didn’t take acting classes for nothing.”
“I could have been one--”
“An actor. You’ve got to...these days.” Who’s really acting now? “Get all the body parts you can soon, bud,” he calls me in his thespian’s style. Milt’s now adamant. “Let the young people pay for it, the new workers. Christ, yes!”
Jim simply nods.
“Must I pay…?” I say.
“Think, man,” Milt beckons me.
"I am thinking,” I admit to parlaying, not demarcating, “What if I need a new brain?” I try humour, like my ploy. Jim bursts out laughing.
Milt has a jaded expression. “You can get that too, can’t you?” Who is cynical? “How about a new soul?” I attempt next. Why not? Milt looks at me in consternation. New soul?
“Maybe you really need a good soul,” he excoriates.
“But not a bad soul, eh?” Jim scoffs.
The transformative guru in me now: “It’s about one’s karma.”
“You’re getting metaphysical on me, man,” Milt peers into me. “Now if you see a beautiful woman–naked, I mean....” he raises his arms suddenly.
Thinking…what? I balk at his brand of metaphysics, not aesthetics. Objectifying …who? Transcendence is in the offing, see. Milt adds, “You will still lust after--?” “I will think only of...,” I try.
“Her beauty, is that it?” Milt forces the words out.
Ahem. Our jousting continues. Milt and Jim eye each other, then again look at me--as if to say “He really wants a new soul.” But wherein lies my soul? What neurons, molecules? A genuine social moment it is!
I invoke famed neurologist Oliver Sachs. But indeed it’s getting genuine body parts because of the panic about Alzheimer’s and dementia just around the corner. Covid-19, too. Watch out! And body parts being scarce in the capital-city--here like one’s hallowed place. Let Milt and Jim have it their way, I concede.
But it’s not like being in a monastery here, nor a place of pilgrimage or retreat. Milt casts a weird look at me. Jim’s in on it, too. Now what acting lessons must I take? I imagine being, well, Marlon Brando. Jim’s lips twitch. Milt, well, he won’t come here again. And I will yet consider having a new soul. Metaphysics, yes.
One female swimmer appears, out of the blue--mermaid-like, from deep undersea, you bet. Fantasy! But now, it’s really like having half a heart, half a kidney, and one lung stretched thin. I breathe hard and stretch my arms out. Hip joints pulled tight. Tissue, ligaments with titanium. Oh, a new soul I yearn for, believe me. I look left and right, for the imaginary mermaid thinking of an exquisite body and soul, yeah!
Cyril Dabydeen’s recent books are My Undiscovered Country (Mosaic Press), God’s Spider (Peepal Tree Press), and My Multi-Ethnic Friends (Guernica). Previous titles include: Jogging in Havana, Black Jesus/Stories, Berbice Crossing, My Brahmin Days, North of the Equator, Play a Song Somebody, Imaginary Origins: Selected Poems, and Drums of My Flesh (IMPAC/Dublin Prize nominee, and Guyana Prize for best novel). Nominated for the Pushcart Prize, he twice won the Okanagan Fiction Prize. Cyril’s work appeared in the Oxford, Penguin, and Heinemann Books of Caribbean Verse and Fiction. A former Poet Laureate of Ottawa, he taught at the UofOttawa for many years.
Short Fiction ~ Edward Barnfield
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 10
‘Tomoko’s Web’ is the largest exhibit in the gallery, a free-standing technicolour textile sculpture the approximate size of an aircraft hangar. There’s a cute note explaining the artist’s inspiration, some fable about watching kids clamber over an earlier installation.
Daniel always smiles at that. The Children’s Gallery is full of cute notes, writing on the wall designed to reduce your guilt about dumping your offspring here for an afternoon, keep up the pretence that the scribble corners and junkyard xylophones are ‘educational’. The space is designed around the writings of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist who argues people are happiest when they ‘flow’, so you know what to expect.
Ceri loves the web. First time they came here, she ran to it, slipped off her shoes and bounced in her socks on the padded floor. The sculpture is full of false entrances and springy dead-ends, loops where the kids can climb up but can’t get inside. If they’re persistent enough, they can find the right hole to enter the valley, access the real excitement. There are swings built with bags of canvas like stunned insects, and the more athletic youngsters leap from the ropes and slide down the sides.
Alongside the instructions not to run and banning gum, there is a text box explaining that the whole concept is designed to encourage risky play, enable kids to practice regulating their fear.
Of course, it’s perfectly safe. That’s the trick of ‘Tomoko’s Web,’ the illusion of danger, the opportunity for the child to rise to a level he or she is comfortable with. If anything, the participants are part of the exhibit – it’s the parents who experience the spectacle, the unease.
Like today. Someone’s child is howling, and a mother is trying to peer through the outer seam to trace the location of the sobs. There are two boys Daniel doesn’t like the look of untying their laces: fat and pale, English and entitled, and older than Ceri by at least three years. He catches himself, fights down the paternal throb of pre-emptive anger. No point losing it at a couple of gobby eight-year-olds.
Besides, he tells himself, he’s used to it now. They come here on the weekends when they are on this side of town; Cynthia, his wife, peeling off for a coffee or a shop nearby. Daniel has learned not to react when he loses track of his daughter among the strands. Once, he saw her fall three levels, plunging from a ceiling rope to land laughing in a smaller net at the base.
It’s all useful practice, aversion therapy to fight down the hum of parental paranoia. You can’t always be there to protect them. She’s about six feet above him now, grinning down from a tiny slit in the side. A presentiment of adolescence and beyond.
When she’s 9, Ceri will cut her knee on a broken tumbler at her friend Grace’s house. Daniel will be sharp with Cynthia for about a week afterwards. (Grace’s mum being a friend of Cynthia, inflaming his suspicions of the parenting skills that made the accident possible.)
In the now, Ceri has found a silk-hinged trapdoor, and is wiggling through a crawlspace beneath the main web. Daniel can barely make out her yellow dress, brown hair through the bright fibres, and winces when there’s a flash of football shirts in the layer above, the two boys wrestling. Again, Tomoko has anticipated, ensured there’s enough cross-stich to prevent any contact.
When she’s 14, over the summer, Ceri will retreat to her room and stop eating. Cynthia will schedule appointments with specialists. A haunted sense of failure touches everyone in the house, as though a missed symptom or lost puzzle piece enabled this sickness to infiltrate. Finally, a week before school restarts, Ceri will emerge and ask for cornflakes. Daniel and Cynthia sob, separately.
She is up among the swings now, climbing monkey-style to the absolute apex, where a second industrial safety net prevents any further escalation. Even after all these visits, he still has the urge to cry out, call her down, but he forces himself to ignore it. She jumps, graceful as a swan dive, and lands in one of the smaller inner webs. Again, the laughter.
University will be difficult. Ceri will miss out on her first choice, victim of some obscure new Department of Education mandate. (Grace, with worse grades but richer parents, is accepted). Daniel and Cynthia have separated by this point and, as they trade blame in a coffee shop, he’s struck by a vision of the scar on her knee.
There’s commotion, a clash of bodies at the web’s centre causing squeals and side-line interference. One of the Dads is remonstrating with a staff member, honking about safety codes, and another is trying to climb in on a rescue mission. Daniel knows it’s futile. ‘Tomoko’s Web’ has tensile strength enough to hold a family-size car, but the entrances all narrow to keep the adults out. He thinks he hears Ceri cry, imagines one of the football boys rolling over her.
At 22, having graduated with honours, Ceri will celebrate with her on/off boyfriend and three of his college friends. When they leave the apartment, she will notice that the driver is having trouble focusing, his speech slurred. She does not get out of the car. Daniel is asleep when the phone call comes.
The angry father collects his daughter from a porthole, carrying her out despite her protestations. The Tom Cruise manque still has one leg stuck when his son (the fatter of the fat eight-year-olds) escapes with a nosebleed and a sheepish expression. Daniel waits for a minute, holds his breath, his hopes for his daughter’s future all tangled. Finally, two feet in blue socks touch down on the cushioned ground. He lets out a silent prayer to Tomoko – Ceri, safe once more, now and forever.
Edward Barnfield is a writer and researcher living in the Middle East. His stories have appeared in Lunate, Leicester Writes, Cranked Anvil, London Independent Story Prize, The Short Story, Reflex Press, Communicate.ae, GoArchitect and Grindstone Literary. He is currently working on a novel and a collection of short stories. He’s on Twitter at: @edbarnfield
Short Fiction ~ Gillian Brown
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 10
A sense of possession swells Alice’s chest. Even the clusters of shivery grass that stand outside the fence belong to them now. Her thoughts jump to the future. Children skip about, playing hide and seek. A little boy sticks his head out from behind a mulga bush. ‘Here, Mum!’ he says, too young to understand the game. Her fists tighten. She must be patient.
She and Sam came out here together, following their dream. Land in the outback was free for the taking but making a home of it has meant two years’ hard work. Without Sam’s skill and endurance, they’d still be living in a makeshift shelter, under scraps of canvas. Or… perhaps not living at all.
Alice opens the wooden gate that Sam has made from strips of stringybark. She traces her fingers over the lettering carved on the front: Alice & Sam. And underneath: A Place Called Home. For their eyes only. Their nearest neighbours live several hundred kilometres away.
A smile crosses her face as Toby, their aging cob, neighs from the makeshift stable round the back, hungry for his supper. On the horizon, Sam’s silhouette grows bigger. His wide shoulders. His measured step. Two rabbits swing from his left hand. In the other is his rifle.
Alice’s stomach rumbles. Its immediacy gives temporary distraction. The doctor’s words, ‘Conception is possible, but unlikely,’ cling to her like a bad odour she can’t wash off. She won’t tell Sam. He too dreams of a family. Especially a son.
‘Light the fire, girl,’ Sam says, planting an affectionate peck on her cheek.
Alice turns away. ‘Righto.’
She manages a smile. ‘Nothing.’ She’ll tell him when the time is right. Not today.
The fire they share each night, outside the front porch, not only cooks their meal but eats up their solitude. Long after they’ve eaten, she gazes into its embers. In those moments, content. This is home now. It belongs to them. Together, they’ve made it so. Stage one of the plan is in place. Stage two has a setback. That’s all. One day soon, there will be the sound of little feet and laughter.
A flock of scarlet and emerald parakeets fly by. They shriek at each other in a language only they can understand. ‘One big, happy family,’ she says. A lump rises in her throat, before she can stop it. She glances at Sam and sees his mind is elsewhere. For him, practicalities come first. He just assumes babies will come – a natural consequence of their lovemaking.
They eat their rabbit in companionable silence, chewing the meat from the bones until only a skeleton is left. But tonight, the embers give Alice no peace. Each dying spark seems to sear her flesh and burn into her soul.
Next day, Sam announces he is off to buy provisions in the market town, three days’ ride away. She hides her fear of being left on her own. Until now they’ve survived on what they brought with them, along with food from Sam’s hunting and gathering, and a supply of home-grown cabbages and potatoes. Rain water is stored in the huge tanks Sam constructed. Enough for drinking, and for Alice’s vegetable plot, down by the creek. Often dry.
‘I’ve run out of ammunition,’ Sam says, ‘and much besides.’
Alice gives him a list of her own. ‘Okay,’ she says lightly, but her heart is heavy.
He saddles Toby, kisses Alice goodbye and trots off.
After he’s been gone a week, she starts to pace. She can’t concentrate, forgets to eat. Ten days seems like a decade. After two weeks, her insides feel as hollow as the trunk of a dead eucalyptus. What could have happened? She picks at her raggedy sleeve, picturing the new smock he promised to buy her.
Gripped by shame at her lethargy, she makes dough with the last remnants of flour. When she pulls the loaf from the mud oven, she tears at it with the hunger of a starving dingo. But it tastes of nothing.
The sky whitens with heat. A flock of parakeets fly in. Alice throws some crumbs on the ground towards them. The birds land, gingerly moving closer. After eating, they huddle up together with an air of intimate contentment. Alice wipes a tear from her cheek.
Next day, she sets off with the spare rifle Sam left her. ‘For emergencies,’ he said. Soon, a wallaby hops by. Her finger shakes on the trigger. The marsupial’s big, dopey eyes seem to plead with her. She lets it hop away. Hunger chews at her gut. When it comes back, she kills it.
Sam told her stories about Ned Kelly and other highwaymen. How they rob and kill for a living, getting rich off others’ hard-earned savings. Sam has taken most of theirs with him. She starts to lose count of the days he’s been gone, but it is as clear as the Southern Cross in the night sky that he isn’t coming back.
She roasts the meat on the fire, wondering what to do. Not only has she lost the man she loves, her dream of a family is history now. She lets out a long, shuddering sigh.
In the morning, she chisels a wooden cross for Sam’s grave. And one for Toby. When the wattle comes into bloom she’ll lay a bunch beside them.
Time passes. Between sunup and sundown, she gathers bush-tucker and kills game to eat. The parakeets creep up closer and closer to the house. They peck at the ground, demanding crumbs. ‘Sharing my breakfast with the birds!’ Alice laughs for the first time in weeks. ‘Part of my new family.’
She sinks back into the shivery grass and gazes up at the great expanse of sky, imagining Sam looking down. She lays a hand on her stomach as her son’s feet kick inside her; strong and determined. Just like his father.
Gillian Brown started out as a travel writer but now concentrates on fiction. Her inspiration often comes from her travels or real life experiences. Motivation comes from short story competitions, for which she has a mild – but enjoyable – addiction. She has had stories published in magazines, in anthologies and online and won and been shortlisted in various competitions.
Short Fiction ~ June Hunter
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 10
Manno watched his wife and young son, wrapped up in each other as they slept, and held the imprint of their peaceful closeness in his mind as he crept down the stairs. His footsteps made no noise, and the front door was quiet as it clicked behind him.
Outside the night was clear, the wind a soft rustle in the trees and a hush along the grass. He left behind the silent coffee shop, the empty grocery store, the sleeping cottages and bungalows.
Later there would be grey, smudged CCTV footage of him as he crossed the forecourt of the service station at 3:20 am. His dark curly fringe emerging from beneath his hoody. His white face stark in the greyness.
As he made his way out of the town his strides were longer and deliberate, and Manno felt an easiness from the back and forth tipping weights, and loudness of his thoughts. An energy after the exhaustion of his never ending despair.
He noticed no one on the road - no person, no car, no animal in the fields. Only shapes of gorse bushes looming on either side, and above him a basin of stars. He could smell the countryside and hear the sea in the close distance, but he perceived all of this as if he was sensing it through a straw.
Later an insomniac runner would recall a man in a hoody, and how his eyes seemed empty and bulging. The runner didn’t think the man had been aware of his passing presence.
Manno took the gravel path off the main road down to the beach, the loose stones crunching beneath his feet. He could hear the pure sound of water trickling down the hillside as it made its way to the sea, and the sigh and whisper of the waves as they rolled onto the sand and faded away again.
He didn’t remove his shoes as he stood at the water’s edge and gazed across the bay. In the distance he could see the flickering lights of the town he had just left and remembered the image of his wife and child, curled into each other as they slept; his wife’s face peaceful as the morning, as she wandered through her dreams.
Later she would tell a reporter that his absence was uncharacteristic, even though he had been dealing with some issues.
Manno couldn’t tell whether the tide was coming in or going out as he walked into the sea, his eyes focussed on the darkness ahead. Nor whether the water was cold or warm as it rose up his body. When it covered his head he turned to float on his back and was calm as he stared at the sky full of stars.
He didn’t struggle when the waves covered his face and all he heard was silence. His only anxiety was that which crushed him for what he could have been. Even as he felt a burning in his chest when he inhaled water into his lungs, he didn’t fight. His vision blurred and faded out. As his body shut itself off, he felt only euphoria.
Later his wife wondered how it was that you could love someone to the moon and back, and it still wasn’t enough to make them stay.
June Hunter lives and writes in Sneem, County Kerry, Ireland. Her work has been featured in Second Chance, Mash, Flash Fiction Magazine, Reflex Fiction, Potato Soup Journal and The Blue Nib. She participates in two writer's groups – Clann na Farraige, Kenmare; and Sneem Writer’s Group.
Short Fiction ~ Linda Wastila
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 10
Dear Mom, you write, Boston is good. Your pen, the one you stole from the Holiday Hotel’s front desk, pauses over the postcard you stole in Faneuil Hall. You don’t write how your fingers go numb from cold every morning when you scavenge the green trashcans that line Newbury Street for tossed half-drunk lattes and bags filled with torn croissant and muffin crumbs. You don’t dig too deep in the garbage, though, never too deep. In fact, you don’t tell her where you get your meals; you don’t mention food or shelter or Nikko at all. You don’t tell her you’re writing from a damp park bench in the Fens where Nikko and a man, silver at his temples to match the thin stripes in his suit, have disappeared into tall waving grasses.
The music is great, Mom, you write instead. Musicians everywhere. We play in Harvard Square. We want to book a studio, press a CD because, Mom, people like our songs. People like us. And passersby do appreciate your music. They drop quarters, a bill or two after listening while they lick their chocolate mint ice creams. Good nights you rake in thirty, forty bucks but you don’t tell your Mom that good nights happen rarely, that usually police scatter you with their batons because you don’t have a busker license.
And the people are nice. I don’t know why you and dad ever left this city. Last week a lady who looked like your Mom—same age, same streaky blond hair, same hazel eyes which look at you with pity—fluttered a twenty into your guitar case. Since then, every night as you drift on the cusp of sleep, the way that lady looked at you burns red against your eyelids, and you carry that memory into your dream. The same dream you have every night while Nikko prowls the city, of how you fly above stars and circle the sun held aloft by a lightness, a freedom, and then how you fall, tumbling and flailing through clouds, while below you the green-blue marble of earth looms closer: mountains, trees, roads, your town, the church your father ministers and where you sing in the choir, the dirt path through woods to school, your house, and just as you brace yourself to crash through the roof, the angel swoops down, her white white wings swallow you with silver heat; she pulls you close, the angel, and her eyes fill with light and pity and compassion, and as you surrender into her she opens her wings and you spin to the ground, a sonic boom.
You wake the same way every time, your body twitching in the moldy sleeping bag you call home. Streetlight filters through the plastic bag draped at the end of the refrigerator box. The smolder of campfires opens the morning. You reach for Nikko, for warmth, for reassurance, to trace the angry red lines marching down his inner arms, but he’s gone. He’s always gone.
Remembering, you shiver on the bench. Nikko emerges from the grasses, alone, and pumps his fist in the air, green clenched between his fingers. You hear him mutter about getting a hotel room tonight if you can’t get into the hostel. You know, though, the money will be gone by then. He slumps beside you, the bills float to the bench, and cries.
You rub his back, pocket the two tens, and pick up your pen. Dear Mom, you write again. Boston is good. There are angels here.
Linda Wastila writes from Baltimore, where she professes, mothers, and gives a damn. Her Pushcart and Best-of-the-Net nominated prose and poetry have been published in The Sun, Smokelong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, Blue Fifth Review, The New York Times, Camroc Press Review, The Poet’s Market 2013, Hoot, Every Day Fiction, and Nanoism, among others. In 2015, she received her MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins. When not working on her novels-in-progress, she serves as Senior Fiction Editor at JMWW.
Short Fiction ~ Rachel O’Cleary
First Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 9
She grips the rough bark between her knees, grunting as she reaches higher, hands already pink and stinging. Splinters pierce her palms and thighs, but she continues, eyes reaching up, only up.
She stops. This is it. This is the one. She hoists one leg over the branch and stretches - head out, toes curled against the trunk.
The branch wobbles, but she hugs it tightly, inhaling earthy bark and tangy orange leaf. Her heart stops walloping and settles instead into a smooth roll. She rests, eyes half-open, and breathes with the tree. In. Out. In.
Mum is nowhere to be seen. Her car is in the driveway, but no healthy snack awaits them on the table, no strident voice orders them out of their uniforms.
Their calls race round corners and up stairs.
It is the boy who finds her, being just young enough to think of looking for his mother in a tree. His sister doesn't believe him, but not knowing what else to do, she finally comes. Her eyes, round and clear as bubbles, rise to meet her mother's.
The boy giggles and shrieks at Mummy's game, but the girl only tilts her head. Her body stills, as if she is approaching a stray cat.
“It's OK, Mum,” she coos. “You can come down now.”
Mum grips the tree tighter and twitches her head slightly. Her eyes rest on the children for a moment, then close.
He finds them sitting beneath the tree, chins tilted up. The boy is no longer having fun. He wipes the tears from his pink cheeks with his sleeve so Dad won't see.
They tell him they have begged, promised good behaviour, even tried to tempt her down with chocolate.
He cranes his neck.
“Come on now,” he calls. “What are you playing at? Look at the children – who will take care of them?”
She meets his stare, but says nothing, moves not a millimetre.
“Shit,” he says. Goes to the shed.
When he returns, saw in hand, the girl jumps up, pushes against him frantically.
“No!” she shouts. “No, leave her! I'll make dinner. I'll put him to bed. Just leave her!”
He brushes past.
The chainsaw roars to life, and he stands holding it, watching his wife in the tree. Waiting. She doesn't blink.
He finds the crotch in the tree that holds up her branch and presses the blade in. The whine of the saw becomes a deep growl. A puff of pale sawdust leaps from the tree and softly floats down to earth. He withdraws, pauses again. The children wail, mouths open, but he cannot hear them. His eyes lock on hers.
Blade returns to branch, woodchips flying in all directions. The roaring and swirling mounts as the blade pushes further. A pale dust sticks to their skin, their sweat, their tears. And then, a sharp crack.
Her eyes cool and placid, even as she falls.
Rachel O'Cleary is an emerging writer of short fiction and has a degree in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. She has recently worked as an English teacher in Poland and France, and currently lives in Ireland with her husband and three children.
Short Fiction ~ Bruce Meyer
Second Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 9
Did I remember the path beside the lake where the maples bent over the cinder path and reminded her of a cathedral she visited in France when she was ten?
There was no path beside the lake.
“Yes,” she insisted, “you were there. We walked slowly. You held my hand. Wind rustled through the leaves. You said it would rain by midafternoon and it did.”
We had never been to such a place. I reminded her of the beach, the hot July sun turning sand into a frying pan in the late afternoon, and how she was afraid her water-puckered feet would blister if she walked to the cottage without her sandals.
“Did we hear the ocean?”
“All day,” I said.
“Did I burn?”
“No. I put lotion on your legs. I rubbed your arms and back with it, and you went back to sleep.”
“Then? Then did we walk beside the lake?”
“There was never a lake.”
“But I remember the canoe, the paddle dipping in the water, the trail of silver droplets making haloes in the still surface, and how afterwards we stood on the verandah of the lodge and looked up at the stars. There were so many stars.”
I wanted to tell her that she could only live one life at a time in her mind.
“You are thinking of a time I was not there.”
“But you were there when you lit a taper and touched it to the wick of the candle. You passed your finger through the flame and I was amazed it did not burn you. You told me to try it, but I was afraid. And when a moth that had gotten caught between the screen and the inner window flew free when opened the sash to let in some night air, it headed straight for the flame. It frightened me, and to calm me down you told me to make a wish.”
“What did you wish for?”
“I wished that you would always be with me. We would walk along the cinder path beside the lake and listen as the wind moved through the trees.”
“I wish there had been a lake.”
“But there was, and I wished that if you could not be with me in that moment, that wonderful moment when I felt so alive with you holding my hand, that you would find me again, and you did.”
Bruce Meyer is author or editor of over sixty-three books of poetry, short fiction, flash fiction, non-fiction, and literary journalism. His next book of flash fiction, Down in the Ground, will be published by Guernica Editions in 2020. He lives in Barrie, Ontario.
Short Fiction ~ Bob Thurber
Third Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 8
Straight out of high school Mick’s uncle landed him and me second-shift jobs at a textile factory where everybody wore rubber headphones to muffle out the noise. Everybody except the old timers, who were already deaf. I can’t even tell you what the company manufactured, but they certainly made a lot of it. From three until midnight Mick’s uncle calibrated dozens of loom-like machines and repaired any that broke, while Mick and I hauled cartons of braid from the loading dock. When nothing needed doing it was fun to watch the machines suck up braid like giants slurping spaghetti, while high above dozens of spools and bobbins intertwined different colored fibers, crisscrossing with one another.
Most nights, after work, we walked straight to the east side and grabbed a booth at the International House of Pancakes. Neither of us owned a car but Mick told the waitresses he drove a Cadillac with AC and power seats. He flirted and teased, and because we were good tippers the girls flirted back.
After we’d downed enough coffee to fuel a tractor-trailer driver’s all-night run, we’d hike over to Riverside cemetery and linger by the cliffs, smoking Marlboros and talking nonsense until two or three AM. Sometimes we just gazed at the stars and moon reflecting off the black water.
Mick’s sister was buried somewhere in Riverside, but we never went near her grave. Years before I met Mick, his sister had been strangled in her bed, on Easter, while everybody was at church. My mother remembered the whole story from newspapers and TV. She told me the police questioned everybody and in the end arrested nobody.
Mick never talked to me about any of that, and I never mentioned I knew shit, though one night, while taking a shortcut, walking past old houses with dim porch lights and pitch-black windows, Mick picked up a stone big as a baseball. He wound up and pretended to throw the stone, faking me out. He did this house after house, telling me each time how nobody in this world should ever be considered safe and protected behind anything as frail as glass.
Bob Thurber is the author of 6 books, including “Paperboy: A Dysfunctional Novel". Over the years his work has received a long list of awards and honors, appeared in Esquire and other notable publications, and been included in over 60 anthologies. Selections have been utilized as teaching tools in schools and universities throughout the world. Bob resides in Massachusetts. He is legally blind. For more info, visit: BobThurber.net