Short Fiction ~ Mahesh Nair
(First Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 3)
You are in a sack of self-glued cardboard and a peacock headdress under a scaffold on 32nd and Broadway. Night and drizzling. You unload the cart: a nibbled-at mattress and a noisome blanket. You’ve been acting weird with me.
A white man saunters by and slips on a banana peel, but throws his hands down in time, like a good actor. “Filthy filth,” he screams.
You laugh back.
He yanks his phone out and calls 911.
From across the road, I trudge in a sack of cardboard and a peahen headdress; sit next to you.
We peel apart our cardboards and lay them down in front of us. Our messages to each read, Happy 10th Wed. Annv. and 2nd year of Sobriety inside a drawn heart. “Your heart is more roundish,” I say.
Almost round like the slimy ball you’d picked from trash, the glazed doughnut I crave, the painful lumps below my rib cage nobody’s aware of.
An NYPD car pulls up. A white cop steps out and talks to the man, before ambling toward us. “I’m fine with you here, but leave in the morn.” He then scans our cardboards. “Ah! Congrats.” He pulls out his wallet, hands you a bill of 100 and leaves.
“A dozen glazed from Dunkin, hon?”
I shout Yes like the one years ago.
You cackle before whizzing into the mizzle and away.
I look at your heart on the cardboard. They are tiny pearls of words in a heart shape: Homeless, we will overcome the bumps together. Lumps too. We will have feathers one day and be in full plumage.
Seconds later, the man and the cop return with a cameraman. You follow them.
“Let’s reshoot this from a close angle,” the man says. He adjusts your microphone. “Be yourself. Okay? No acting.”
Mahesh Nair studied fiction at New York University. He was short-listed for Bath Flash Fiction Award, Micro Madness NFFD, London Independent Story Prize, and long-listed for Reflex Fiction prize. His work has appeared in Barren Magazine, Literary Orphans, Crack the Spine, The Bookends Review, Smokebox, Paragraph Planet, 101 Words, Blink Ink Print, and is published in three anthologies. He was a contributing author for a CNF anthology, Lady by the River.
Short Fiction ~ Elaine Barnard
(This story is the second prize winner in the Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 3)
I elbow the little guy beside me. “I don’t like anyone trying to jump ahead of me,” I yell at the teller. Maybe he thinks since he’s small he can get away with it. But no one gets away with it when I’m around. I sense it coming. I know by body language when someone is gonna pull a fast one. My dad always said, “Give them an inch, they take a yard,” and he sure was right.
The bank teller, Becky, her name tag says, looks at me like I’m a foreign creature, a guy from another planet.
“What can I do for you?” Becky says meekly. Like she’s afraid if she talks loud I might blow the bank up.
“Look, this guy tried to get ahead of me.”
Becky presses her lips into a thin white line. She’s not bad looking, just kinda boring in her blue tailored suit and little red tie, a white shirt underneath. Is this the Fourth of July or what? Yay, it’s the B of A, the Bank of America I’m dealing with here. One of the oldest institutions in the USA. I read where they’d been cited for corruption. Some kind of loan scheme.
Who knows? Who the hell cares? All I want is my place in line. When I should be at the front, I damn well better be.
The little guy rolls his eyes at me. They’re big brown eyes like maybe you’d see on a panda. Where did this idiot come from anyway? What the hell is he doing in my country? I bet he owns that Persian rug place on the corner or maybe that shop that sells chandeliers from Damascus. Stolen probably. Counterfeit goods. Copies of the real thing left behind when the Syrians evacuated.
I can’t stand all this new stuff in my town. All these shops selling Cuban cigars and imported dinnerware from Italy. Let Americans eat off American plates. Let the Italians eat off their own.
“What did you say your business was, Sir?”
“I didn’t say. If I’d said it you would have heard it. I don’t mumble.”
Becky looks at me with those watery blue eyes. She pushes some golden strands behind her ears. She has beautiful ears, delicate lobes of white flesh. I’d like to buy her some earrings.
“What did you say?”
“I’d like to buy you some earrings.”
“Thank you but I don’t wear earrings at work.”
“I’m not thinking of work. I’m thinking of after. After you get off. What time does the bank close?”
“Hours are posted on the door, Sir.”
“My name isn’t, Sir. It’s Howard, Howard Briar. Howie to those who know me well.”
“Well, Mr. Briar, I’d be happy to serve you.”
“I bet you would. I’d be happy to serve you as well.”
Suddenly I feel a movement behind me, a hand on my arm. “This way, Sir, I can take care of you in my office.”
“I don’t want to be taken care of.”
This guy is about my size, six feet two with hands the size of baseball mitts. He could play catcher on any team.
I try to return to the front of the line. Everyone is staring at me which I like. I’ve always enjoyed an audience. So I raise my fist thinking he’ll slink back to his office. But he doesn’t. The pressure on my arm increases. Two security guards approach in their white shirts and black pants like they’re going to church or something.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I shout as they try to force me out the door. “All I want is my place in line. What kind of country is this anyway? It’s going to hell in a handbag. Illegals on every corner. Pretty soon they’ll run this bank. It’ll be the Bank of Arabia.” I bang on the door which they lock behind me.
I get in my truck and turn on the radio full volume. From the glove compartment I extract a small vial. It’s empty. No refills. It has my doctor’s name on it and his phone number. I call him on my cell but get a recording, “Doctor Slentz is on vacation until September first. If this is an emergency, please call—“ I slam down the phone. The hell with it, the hell with everything. I don’t need my meds. I never have. They just make me sleepy. I don’t want to sleep. I want to drive like hell away from here. I rev the engine. Dogs bark. Kids cry. Old ladies drop their groceries.
I drive out the Entrance instead of the Exit. I’m hoping some dope will try to drive in and I can ram him with my bumper. But my tires catch on the grid, “Do Not Back Up.”
Then I hear the sirens. My head swims. My ears explode. As the officers approach, weapons drawn, I begin to cry. I know what’s coming. It’s happened before. Yes, I know where I need to be. It’s cold. They take your blood pressure and your oxygen level. They feed you even when you’re not hungry and change your sheets when you make a mess in your dreams.
Elaine Barnard's collection of stores from her travels in Asia, The Emperor of Nuts: Intersections Across Cultures was published by New Meridian Arts in 2018. Her work was recently featured in the New Short Fiction Series at the Annenberg Center in Santa Monica, CA. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fiction. She was a finalist for Best of the Net. Elaine received her MFA from the University of California, Irvine and her BA from the University of Washington, Seattle.
Short Fiction ~ Brindley Hallam Dennis
(This story is the third prize winner in the Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 3)
When I read the name I recalled the first time he came into the office. I could remember thinking, you’ve got about as much chance of getting the job as I have of swimming the channel.
You could tell he wasn’t familiar with interview techniques. He was unshaven, scruffy, badly dressed and truculent. I can remember thinking how glad I was that it wouldn’t be me behind the big table.
That duty fell to Mr Shukri, our beloved leader. Excuse the sarcasm, but he is a bit of a character. Most self-made millionaires are, I guess. What a day to pick though. I shall take the interviews today, he’d said, snatching the sheaf of papers from me. You are never too big, he said, to get your hands dirty.
So all I had to do was send them in.
In the end the job went to a woman called Anjali. She was of Indian ancestry I think, but she’d come from some Godforsaken hell-hole in the Middle East, well, perhaps not forsaken. She’d walked across mountains and deserts through the war-zone, traversed several countries, made it on foot across the whole of Europe, and survived the English Channel in a rubber boat. And she’d done it with two kids under five in tow.
This is the sort of person that we want, Mr Shukri had said, smacking the application form with the back of his hand. She has guts. She has determination. She has endurance, ingenuity, and a cool head in a crisis. You couldn’t argue with that. He didn’t say anything about Gary Shardlow’s application, and maybe he thought that was a kindness.
It turned out though, that Gary had plenty to say for himself. That was the second time he came into the office. He wasn’t ‘reeking of booze’. There wasn’t the faintest whiff of alcohol about him. That’s pure invention, and not by anybody who works for Mr Shukri; not by Mr Shukri himself either. Neither was he ‘straight off the street’, whatever that means, though he still looked scruffy.
Mr Shukri and I were both in the front office when he burst in. He was raving about British jobs being taken by migrants. Fucking migrants, I think, was the exact term he used. I thought he was going to assault us, but Mr Shukri threw out an arm across my chest and stepped towards him. Mr Shukri can be quite an imposing figure when he needs to be.
Fucking immigrants, Gary shouted, taking our jobs. Cheap fucking labour.
Labour? We do not employ labour in this company, young man, and nobody who is working here is cheap – is that not right, Sam?- Let me tell you, Mr Shardlow, why it is that she got the job and you did not.
And I was thinking, how the hell did he remember the boy’s name?
We are looking for the people who can think on their feet. We are looking for the people who will push this company forward; the people who are looking for the new ideas, and for the ways to make them happen. We are looking for the people who are not daunted by difficulties, and who do not consider the possibilities of defeat. We are looking for the people who overcome the obstacles and are beating the odds. We are looking for the people with balls.
That was when the boy managed to say, what…but Mr Shukri kept on going. Do you know what she has done, my boy? She has brought her family out of hell and has walked it across the several thousand miles of inhospitable terrain. She has negotiated her way across the half a dozen borders. She has dealt with the people speaking a dozen different languages, most of which she did not know a single word of. She has found a way through where there were barriers. She has found a way over where there was barbed wire. She has found a way out when they were caged in. She has found the way in when they were shut out. She has kept them together. She has kept them safe. She has brought them home, to the new home, and she has turned up at this interview looking as if she were going on to take tea at the Ritz. Don’t you dare talk to me about cheap labour.
Gary Shardlow went silent. He went pale, and he stood there looking like a defeated man. That’s when Mr Shukri took me by surprise again.
He said, look, Gary…you do not mind if I call you Gary? Gary, we have an office in Turkey. You take yourself to that office and tell them to contact me and say that you have arrived, and I will find you a job. This is a promise, Gary.
I can’t afford to fly to fucking Turkey.
I am not asking you to fly. I do not care how it is that you do it, and you do not have to take anybody’s kids with you. Only take yourself there, in any way that you can, and tell them to contact me. Then Mr Shukri turned to me and said, give him one our cards, with the Turkish office address on it.
I said, yes Mr Shukri, and I went over to the receptionist at the front desk to get one. When I turned round Mr Shukri had gone, but Gary Shardlow was still standing there like a man in a daze.
I said, he means it, you know, and I pressed the card into his hand.
Right, he said, and I thought there’s as much chance of him getting to Turkey as there is of me swimming the channel. I doubted he would even try, and probably best if he didn’t.
I hadn’t thought about Gary again until this morning, and now I have to decide whether or not to take the newspaper through to Mr Shukri with his coffee.
Brindley Hallam Dennis lives on the edge of England where he writes short stories. Writing as Mike Smith he has published poetry, plays and essays on the short story form. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com
Short Fiction ~ Janet Olearski
(Third Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 3)
When they gave Louise the letter, they said she could leave right away if she wanted to, providing she’d finished the clearance procedures. She'd need to hand in her office keys, take back her library books, give up her gate pass. Khalid would cancel her visa. The accommodation was all paid up so, for now at least, she could stay. But then there was the issue of the utilities, the bank account, the phone, the health insurance. There was the business of re-homing or exporting the animals. Without the visa, all would be withdrawn or made invalid.
Fatima said Louise could pay for a temporary visa, or perhaps find another job. ‘Or, you could just go.’
Two and a half months later, still into the packing, had she been in that other place – the place where she was going - she would not have survived. What Elvira had done, she would have done too.
They came back from the beach that day, Anja and her husband, and saw the sky turn grey and the air become mist.
'We passed your area,’ Anja told Louise afterwards, ‘but then the fire seemed distant.'
The fire is always distant until you look again.
After eating they were tired and turned in for the night, but Anja slept poorly. She woke at three and went outside. There was an orange glow on the horizon.
In her thoughts, Louise often replayed their meeting. Maybe it was something she did to express her thanks. That she could not speak the woman’s language did not concern her. Elvira had come that day to welcome her. Louise explained what she could about herself, her name, and where she was from. Elvira took her by the arm and led her to a shaded spot behind the house, at the foot of a meadow.
'There,' she said, pointing upwards, while a small dog yapped and scurried at their feet. ‘That’s where we live,’ she said. ‘The house with the brown-wood awning.’
Louise could not identify it at first. Then, shading her eyes, she saw the house. It overlooked the landscape, and she and Elvira were in the landscape, in its view.
Louise was not ready. She wasn't ready to lose her job. She wasn’t ready to move. Sometimes not being ready in life is a good thing, better than not being ready in death.
In the desert, she would ride her horse along one of many tracks. They were all either long or short, but they went in different directions beneath the descending sun, across sand, gravel, shrub. She told herself that the short tracks were safer because she was less likely to find herself under the Sheikh's helicopter, or spooked by another horse, or surprised by a herd of gazelle. But it is not the length of time or distance that matters. What is going to happen will happen, even in the blink of an eye. You need to accept it, and try to be ready when it comes.
There’s a place for each of us somewhere, Louise believed, to merge, connect, be accepted, start again. Elvira told her she was welcome and she must come and visit. Months earlier, it was what Louise had hoped for when, sensing an ending, she had bought her house. This stranger hugged her, kissed her on both cheeks, and disappeared into the meadow, chattering to the dog as she went.
Louise would never see her again.
Once, many years before, John had asked her if she had ever seen the desert.
Louise had imagined it. She hadn’t seen it. John knew something she didn’t know.
'Once you've seen it, you'll never forget it,' he said.
It was romantic then, that thought. Now, after its heat, its aridity, its emptiness, she wanted something better.
Back from her ride, shaking off the sand, she switched on the TV news. It showed a snaking inferno, undulating across mountains, woods and valleys. She hoped it wasn't the place, but it was. She had longed for grass and trees, not the desert that had become a home to her. At least the desert never burned.
When Anja got up again before six, there was an inexplicable stillness, no bird calls, no animal sounds, a wall of grey rising behind their house, clouds drifting skywards, the forest crackling and creaking.
And Elvira went into the burning house, the one with the wooden awning. To save her dog.
London-born author Janet Olearski is based in Central Portugal, where she writes fiction and creative non-fiction. Her stories have appeared in Constellate, Sleet Magazine, The Commonline Journal, Wasafiri, Bare Fiction and elsewhere. Her most recent work includes the story collection A Brief History of Several Boyfriends, the novel A Traveller’s Guide to Namisa (unpublished) and, as editor and contributor, The Write Stuff anthology. Janet is a graduate of the Manchester Writing School at MMU, and the founder of the Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop. Find her at http://www.janetolearski.com and @JanetOlearski
Short Fiction ~ Muddasir Ramzan
In the darkness of one’s heart, where one filters all the unresolved tiers one encounters in life, I found a letter, with no address on it, waiting to be posted and yet preventing itself from being shared. This internal battle — to allow this voice to reach out, or to silence it inside — readily absorbs its nuances:
Every time I’ve had the impression that I’ve been useful in letting your presence out of my soul, you visit me in my dreams. Why so? — This keeps me engaged. When you’ve made me realise, over and over again, that you are not feeling the same way you made me feel for you when we were unruffled. I keep on deliberating: were you not involved the way you wanted me to be? As it came out, there was a deafening silence from both of us. That silence was filled with anger. Or, was it petulance, and disappointment first?
As I remember, deliberations were often slow and cumbersome, so our meetings were not particularly thrilling. And yet I looked forward to them. I guess you were angry that I was toying with you, and alarmed as well. That was the seed – maybe you only wanted me to imagine so – when you decided to withdraw how I felt for you and how you felt for me, and how we felt together. Or, was it that you'd finally realised that we could never be one?
Was it so? — I think yes, otherwise how could you let me stay away from you for this long? I remember all your efforts to bring me back to your world when I had pretended to leave you; also, when you had understood your wrongdoings and corrupt dealings when we had a fight. Those nights when you contacted me, and I assured myself to stay hard, that I didn't have to answer you: your frequent calls and texts, saying, ‘I'm dying to hear your voice again.' Because I felt, and felt it right, that you'd be doing the same things again. You would play like an observer, delve into small annotations in which you would conclude how alienated I made you feel, would accuse me of deriving sadistic pleasures out of your longing for me, and underestimate the situations we were in – the conditions of our homeland as well as the differences of our families. I was not so sure of myself that I would be so spirited in letting you long more, without reciprocating my feelings.
Admittedly, I had not felt so strongly for anyone as I had felt for you in the moments of those first meetings when you had felt most strongly for me. I feel guilty for my intense urge for someone who doesn’t feel the same for me anymore. How did it happen? At first, I did not know if these gaps that had been widening were mostly my doing or yours. As time passed, it became clear that it was you, most of the time, who did wrong, you identified it, and we accepted it. But how long could saying sorry balm the wound?! You know when you showed up on my previous birthday, something about your expressions— lowering your eyes, frequently, passionless embraces, new anxieties — left me in little doubt of the truth. Which, later, you proved that this little doubt rose up in fumes when you didn’t even wish me on this birthday. I was both panicked and relieved.
‘Hold on, I never think of my existence without you; you are my pride, everything of my existence.' Was this you in my dream tonight? — Or, was it the sensation of your memories? — Or, was it just the spirit of those scenes when you poured out these words?! Whatever. These dreams made me think again about our love, our promises, even when I know, it is impossible to have us back the way we were — living our dream. And even in the dreams, I could feel your absence in your presence: more so, on opening my eyes, I recognised you were not around.
Don’t think that I have over-looked your wrongdoings, your hurts — which always ran parallel with your love. I cannot overcome them, even if I want to. Because they’ve filled a corner of the space in which your lack keeps haunting me. Sometimes when I think about it, I conclude maybe you were never involved the way you were behaving. But then, how could you surrender yourself entirely for me if you were not really in love? It is what is troubling me, like a dead man who is posturing in the mind of the killer. I did not kill you though, even at some point I wanted to kill your presence and strained hard for it when I felt that you did let go of your feelings for me, or pretended to. Even your pretending not to love was troubling me. I think you were checking on me, examining the deepness of my love for you. And, you would keenly observe how I react to the news that you’ve some other friend. But your testing was bothering me, I was clear about the fact that if you're doing it to test me, then there is some percentage of doubt in your trust over me, and if you don't trust me entirely, you'll not be faithful to me. Yes, out of anger and disappointment, I wanted to leave you for forever, I had made it the essential part of my New Year to-do-list, which you knew when I saw the fire of your love dwindling.
Of course, I was happy, very much, whenever we were together. I could see the joy and pride of having me in your eyes, too. But then we realised our mismatch. I understood it and bluntly told you so. But what did you do? — Instead of stopping me, you favoured your ego: I could see that you didn’t want to assume that you were rejected by a person whom you trusted as your abode for peace, your alter-ego, the one whom you could count on, who was always there for you. But love is not any game, and you can neither win, and neither lose. I should have seen your self-absorption at the very onset of our relationship [if it was that], which — of course — I’d felt, but then my thoughts were more absorbed with the wealth we had explored together. I knew what was troubling you: that breaking my heart would make you restless. But then, first love haunts a person for forever: you’ll always compare your new lover(s) with me, I assure you that you’ll never find me in them.
But both of us, I guess, know that our pretending to be hard and uncaring will melt soon if and when our eyes meet again, like the exposure of the sun on meeting the hard-pretending snow, solidified by the cold nights. The fact is there, the truth is there, and so is the love. It’s us who are nowhere, which is how our nostalgia is born.
Muddasir Ramzan is a young writer from Kashmir, India. He regularly contributes blogs to the Muslim Institute, London. His short stories, flash fiction, poems, reviews, and interview have appeared in various international journals, including the Kindle Magazine (India), Kitaab (Singapore), and the Critical Muslim (UK). He is a doctoral student at the Aligarh Muslim University (Department of English). He can be reached at email@example.com.
Short Fiction ~ Gillian Brown
(First Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 2)
I kick open the padded door to the cell of the new prisoner, Angelo Harper. From his name, I’ve conjured up a tough guy with swarthy skin and massive biceps, covered in tattoos. Instead, I find a man so pale it looks like he’s never seen the sun. He has an angular face and little flesh on his body.
I’m somewhat relieved, until I notice the one thing that stands out. His staring grey eyes are cold enough to freeze my blood.
'Don't come any closer,' he says.
I’ve been a screw long enough to know when to mask my face. I push my way through his wall of aggression and dump his dish of porridge on the table, which is fixed to the floor. He jangles the chain attached to his ankle with a menacing clink. I turn abruptly and march out, slamming the door behind me.
The prison psychiatrist, Dr Harris – best known around here as Psycho – is standing outside. He’s doubtless up to his usual tricks, spying through the peephole.
He places a hand on my arm. 'You know what Angelo told the trial judge?’
I shrug, feigning disinterest.
‘He said he killed the two boys to save them from their father's abuse.’
‘That’s his defence lawyer putting words into his mouth.’
‘Maybe. But the forensic psychologist backed him up. Angelo suffered constant abuse in his own childhood. He's never known love.'
I sigh. ‘The usual bullshit.’
‘I’m not so sure. He told me voices in his head told him to do it. The boys were his cousins, you know. It was a humane death, if murder can be such a thing. There was no violence involved, he simply spiked their drinks with drugs legally available on the Internet.’
‘The vibes he sends me are far from humane. Positively aggressive in fact.’
‘Hmm. A common reaction in such cases. Suppressed fear.’ Psycho scratches his stubbly chin. 'I've an idea.’
His madcap plan comes into effect during the cons' next exercise session. He lets three cats into the yard. One glance at the prisoners and two skitter off, tails scraping the ground behind them. The third, a battered and scarred tabby, sits down and twitches her whiskers. She sniffs, stands up and raises her tail in the air. Seemingly without fear, she pads forward straight towards Angelo. He narrows his eyes. A confused look crosses his face.
'I hate cats,' he shouts, aiming his right foot. Too Late. The cat claws at his leg. A dark red stain seeps through his trousers. The cat darts off.
I catch Psycho’s eye and give him an I-told-you-so look. He shrugs.
The experiment is put on hold.
A week later, Angelo glares at me in his usual manner and mumbles, 'Where's the tiger?'
I frown, until what he means dawns on me. 'So you like cats now, do you?'
'Course not.’ His shriek of a laugh sends a chill up my spine. ‘I want to strangle it.'
I don’t doubt his words, but when I tell Psycho, I’m surprised to see his eyes light up. 'As I thought. There's an emotional connexion here. Love…hate…maybe both,’ he mutters, rubbing his hands together. ‘Conflict. It’s a start.’
I shake my head. Psychiatric claptrap.
That evening, Psycho brings the tabby back.
He lets her into Angelo's cell and double bolts the door. I grab Psycho’s sleeve. ‘I’m no cat lover, but what about the poor animal?’ I’m already thinking about the bloody mess I’ll need to clean up.
Psycho fixes his eye to the peephole and relays the scenario as it unfolds. 'Hmm. Neither of them knows what to do. They’re both standing rigid, eyes locked, having a staring match.' He ducks slightly aside, so we can share the view. 'Take a look.'
The apprehension between them is palpable. A mixture of bravado and fear seems to permeate the cell.
Suddenly the cat arches her back. Angelo reaches out a tentative, bony hand. I gasp. Psycho is breathing heavily beside me. Inside the cell the cat and the prisoner continue to eye each other up in a wary silence. The tension mounts.
Siding with the cat, I whisper. ‘Don’t! It’s a trick.’
But it’s Angelo who backs off. A flash of uncertainty crosses his face. He turns to the door, as if he has guessed we are watching.
Psycho shakes his head. ‘If he knows he has an audience, my experiment is worthless.’
He’s right. Angelo lowers his head and reaches forward with both hands towards the cat’s neck. Psycho unbolts the door just in time for the cat to dart out, leaving a high-pitched yowl behind her.
I don’t see Angelo again until just before lights-out that night, during my habitual check of every cell. Looking through his peep-hole, I can barely believe my eyes. He is sitting, chin in hand, on his bed, with tears rolling down his cheeks. I should leave him be, but I can’t resist the chance to embarrass him. As I open the door to make a snarky comment, he turns his head away to hide his face. At the same time, something soft brushes past my legs. I forget what I was going to say as – out of nowhere – the cat slips into the cell.
My jaw drops as the cat flattens her ears and lets out a low growl, sounding more like a tiger than a pussycat. Angelo’s head jerks back towards the sound. His watery eyes lock onto the cat. He presses his lips together. His chest heaves. He seems to have forgotten I’m here.
I hold my breath, ready to take action when necessary.
The cat takes a hesitant step towards Angelo and rubs herself against his legs.
She raises the tip of her tail high in the air, and twitches it from side to side. The air is electric.
Angelo bends down. ‘Hello, Tiger,’ he says and gently strokes her back.
Gillian 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 ~ S.B. Borgersen
(Second Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 2)
The Drugmart advertisement in Saturday’s paper caught Beryl’s eye. YesterYear with Yardley it said, under a grainy picture. The illustration struck a chord: of her and Howard going to the pictures; going to the fair; going on the train to the seaside. Howard was good at deciding where and when to go. Goodness they had such times together.
Beryl never went down the High Street. Even now, she didn’t know if she should. In the end she got off the bus before she had chance to change her mind for a fourth, or was it a fifth time? Unused to the roar of the traffic, she wondered about removing her hearing aid. But then again, she wouldn’t be able to hear if someone hooted. Would she?
Beryl soon found Drugmart. She wanted to go on Wednesday, but couldn’t decide whether to wear her red or navy coat. By the time she’d decided, she’d missed the bus and they only ran twice a week. Howard had been gone for over twenty years, but it was still hard without him. He would have said, “Wear the red one Toots,” right off the bat.
The cosmetics department with its glossy consultants lured Beryl in. She pulled off her plastic rain hat and fluffed up her perm, glancing in one of the many mirrors, wondering who the wizened, tired face looking back at her belonged to.
“Can I help you?” the glossy consultant smiled a painted smile.
“Um,” said Beryl. “Er, I think it was Pink Capri. The lipstick.”
“Pink Capri?” said Miss Glossy, “let’s see what we have in our Retro Range.”
Beryl slumped against the counter. She heard faint voices. People’s faces were just a blur mingling with shiny articles swimming up and around her: mirrors with old crones, bottles and potions, racks of lipsticks, and the life-sized grainy photo of her and Howard at the fair.
A teary Miss Glossy stood beside Beryl’s cordoned off lifeless body waiting for the paramedics to arrive. She gently tucked a lipstick in Beryl’s red coat pocket. “I found your Pink Capri,” she said.
Internationally published, S.B. Borgersen writes, knits socks, and walks her smashing dogs on the south shore of Nova Scotia. Her favoured genres are short and micro fiction, and poetry. She has thirteen draft novellas gathering dust.
A member of The Nova Scotia Writers’ Federation, Writers Abroad, and a founding member of The Liverpool Literary Society, Sue judged the Atlantic Writing Competition (Poetry) 2016 and Hysteria (Poetry) 2017.
Short Fiction ~ Bruce Meyer
(Third Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 2)
A young woman has been bequeathed, in perpetuity, the windfalls from her uncle’s orchard. She will never own the orchard. That gift went to someone else, a distant cousin who never visited the uncle when he was dying. The windfalls, however, are not bad as windfalls go.
Some of the apples are bruised, some have small brown spots. She will never offer anyone apples with worms in them. That would not be right. The apple belongs to the worm who has found it. Other fruits may not be the best apples a person can buy, but they will do for pies or tarts or for those who are hungry and simply need most of an apple to eat.
Every morning from late August to early October when the rains pour and it is too cold to sit outside and sell apples, the woman walks the distance into town, carrying two butter boxes full of apples and a length of wooden planking under her arm. She sets up her stand facing the church door. Before setting the apples out for passersby to inspect, she polishes them on her white apron so that the skins catch and reflect the light, gleaming as if they are striving to be better than what they are though she never makes any illusions about what they are. If people ask she tells them, honestly, that the apples are windfalls. Those who know her respect her honesty. The apples are all she has to live on. Over the years, people count on her being there. It is reassuring to see her there, patient, waiting, selling her apples as best she can.
There is a rumor that she was almost married. A young man who cut hay in the orchard might have fallen in love with her. There are days in the harvest season when she sits in front of her plank and butter boxes stares up at the sky above the cross on the church steeple. She seems far away. Some people says she has a look of love in her eyes. No one is certain, though. The young man who cuts the hay and trims the floor of the orchard short, so sheep can safely graze there, never comes to town. No one has any idea of what he looks like or if he even exists. But there are rumors. That’s the way stories go. They aren’t made of certainties.
On the plank she arranges the apples in ranks as if they are soldiers who are to be inspected before they are sent off to die. As the boys and men pass through the town square on their way to the train station, they wear long coats, steel helmets, and carry rucksacks filled with tinned food but never anything fresh. She hands each of them apples. They lean from the train car windows and kiss her, but she knows the kisses are not for her. They are for the world each of them is leaving behind, a world where they will not taste apples.
During those times of sadness, most of her fruit rotted before it was sold. Some of the apples, when the townspeople were destitute and hungry, she merely gives away because charity is the least one can do in the face of suffering. Some of her fruits are kicked to the gutter when the town is invaded. Others are confiscated to feed the invaders. Even when she tried to keep some for herself, they were confiscated.
One soldier pelts her with her own fruit saying that she is a criminal to sell rotten apples in the middle of the town square, especially facing the church door where God peers out between the heavy oak slabs and sees her for the awful wretch she has become. Then, the invaders go away. The apples are no better and no worse than they have always been though there is something missing from the taste that was once so familiar and inviting to her. The trees from whose rooted feet she gathered the windfalls are spare and scrawny as her own limbs have become. She is no longer able to bend down to pick up the windfalls. Her back aches and her legs have grown stiff from sitting on the pavement of the town square.
By the time she is an old woman, she has sold her apples for more than five decades. She has watched the blossoms burst from nodes in the spring, seen the petals scatter on the warm breezes of early summer, and witnessed the fruit ripen in the sun and grow red and round and full more times than she can count. She would like someone to listen as she tells the story of the apples, but no on stops long enough to hear her out.
She has seen the fruit of her life – the apples, the boys she loved when she was young, and the men who came later full of ardor and eagerness to experience the hardships of the world where they thought they could test themselves against its violence and its pain, go off to wars and not return.
There is one apple, however, that never turned brown. She was tempted to eat it during the harder times but held herself in check. She kept it in the pocket of her white apron, a perfect, round, red apple that never blemished or shrank or grew too tangy to be near. She takes the perfect apple from her apron pocket, writes a note, and before she walks away from the butter boxes and the plank she has knelt before as if an altar for more years of her life than she can recall, she takes a pencil and writes a message on the paper and lays it beneath the apple.
“This apple is my story,” is all the message says.
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 ~ Steve Wade
(Honourable mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 2)
The local cemetery, a playground for Luke and his friends all year round, became something different at Halloween. Stories of witches, ghouls and goblins, and the tales they learned in school about All Souls Day and All Hallow’s Eve made it the only place they would go for their Halloween party. Here they would compete to tell each other the scariest stories about flesh eating ghouls, and evil spirits returning from the dead.
At eleven, Luke was the oldest of the four pals. Two of the others were ten, the third almost Luke’s age. The year before, they had only succeeded in climbing over the locked gates, before Luke said he had seen Salem’s red eyes flaming from behind the crooked Celtic cross.
Salem, the reason the boys screamed and shouted that day last Halloween as they clambered back over the gate, was an enormous black dog owned by an old woman who lived alone in a tiny white house outside their country town. Everyone said that the old woman was a witch and that Salem was a hound from hell.
Salem’s reputation came about from his habit of turning up outside the door of a home where inside someone lay dying. There the giant black dog would begin to howl, a long drawn-out wail that would start off as a deep base sound and graduate to a high shift-pitch so mournful it could curdle even the blood of a banshee.
A year older now, the boys decided they were bigger and braver.
Inside the graveyard before his mates, Luke called in a loud whisper for them to follow him. But the three boys were busy tossing a coin to decide who would be the first between them to climb over the gate. Finally, they agreed to scramble over the wrought iron gates together.
Just then, Luke heard behind him the distinctive panting of a dog. Strangely unafraid, he twisted about. There, like some black demon that had absconded from the kennels of hell, stood Salem. With eyes burning as red as infernal embers, and teeth as white as bleached bones, the black hound blinked once. He then shifted about uneasily, before trotting off into the shadows.
Without knowing the reason why he should, Luke felt a compulsion urging him to follow. He did. But as he moved through the graveyard, now lit by the bony light thrown by the moon, Luke saw all about him pale, hazy figures of men, women and children. The figures were eyeless and dressed in ragged clothes. They stretched out their arms towards him before disappearing. And still Luke was unafraid. Not until he reached Salem, who had led him to a small grey headstone with newly turned earth, did Luke remember what it felt like to experience true horror.
Inside his body a phantom hand grasped his stomach and squeezed as he read the inscription in black ink:
Our Beautiful Boy Forever, Forever a Boy
15-08-2007 – 01-05-2018
A prize nominee for the PEN/O’Henry Award, and a prize nominee for the Pushcart Prize, Steve Wade’s fiction has been published widely in print and in digital form. His work has won awards and been placed in writing competitions. His fiction has been published in over forty-five print publications, including Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts, Crannog, Boyne Berries, Zenfri Publications, New Fables, Gem Street, Grey Sparrow, Fjords Arts and Literary Review, and Aesthetica Creative Works Annual. He has won the Delvin Garradrimna Annual Short Story Competition four times. www.stephenwade.ie
Short Fiction ~ Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar
(Honourable mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 2)
A boiled half-egg, bright yellow in the center, jumps out of my lunchbox as if it was waiting to be freed. I catch it before it hits the ground. Two squished half-buns and one flattened half-egg are still inside the plastic box.
I lick the salted butter off one of the half-buns wondering how my lunch doubled today. We couldn’t have grown rich overnight.
Every morning, my elder sister, Reena, boils an egg and butters a bun. Then, she cuts the egg and the bun right through their centers with Mother’s old, but sharp, knife. After sprinkling pepper on the yolk, she packs one half-egg and one half-bun in her tiny lunchbox and the other set in mine. Mother sleeps in because she sews other women’s dresses and blouses till the first light of dawn. The whir of her rickety sewing machine has always been our lullaby. Reena and I help her by fastening buttons and stitching buttonholes in the garments after school while other kids play hopscotch or skip ropes.
Father labors in the cornfields, from dawn to dusk, to send us to the grammar school meant for rich children because he believes good education is the key to a comfortable life. Once you get high-paying jobs, he says, you will have platefuls of food and trunkfuls of dresses.
I feel my left toe pierce a hole in my sock and touch the roof of my tight shoe. Thankfully, no one can see what happens inside a shoe.
Reena, a year older, gets a new uniform and a pair of new shoes each school year while I am given her old ones. This year, Mother had to redo the hem of Reena’s old pinafore to make it touch my knees. Thus, the bottom inch of my dress is a chocolate-brown while the rest of it is the color of weak tea. I scrub and scrub the dark part with soap on Sundays but it refuses to fade.
Yesterday, I noticed a bunch of my 6th-grade classmates pointing to the discolored edge of my pinafore. I wanted to box their ears but did not.
I sit on a bench and take tiny bites of the egg, let it linger on my tongue, and savor the sudden good fortune. As I lift the second half-bun, I see Reena, by the row of faucets, in the playground. Her right hand is under a faucet, forming a cup, from which she is drinking water; her empty left hand is behind her back.
Yesterday, when walking home from school, my stomach growled so much I told Reena I wished I had no sister, so I could eat a full lunch.
My eyes sting and my hands tremble. I replace the half-bun in the box beside the half-egg and run towards my sister.
Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar is an Indian American. She was born in a middle-class family in India and will forever be indebted to her parents for educating her beyond their means. She is a Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee; her work has been published online in The Ellipsis zine, Lunch Ticket, Star82 Review, Cabinet of Heed, and also in print, most recently in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. She blogs at Puny Fingers and can be reached at twitter @PunyFingers.