The Final Watch, by Jonathan V. Ferrini
Interstate 8 climbs west out of the Imperial Valley and twists through the rugged mountains upward into East San Diego County. My name is Tommy and I recently graduated from the Border Patrol Academy. I’m assigned to work the graveyard shift at the Campo checkpoint along Interstate 8 which is 65 miles west from the Mexican border crossing and fifty miles east from San Diego. The checkpoint is surrounded by rugged, isolated terrain accessible solely by four-wheel drive vehicles. Thousands of vehicles pass through our checkpoint daily but you wouldn’t realize it working the graveyard shift as wild animals outnumber the vehicles.
My Senior Agent and mentor is Ben who reached mandatory retirement age. He loves his job and is a widower without children. He is kind, fatherly, and enjoys telling tales of his storied career more than training me. His rotund body is showing wear and tear. He has a limp and bouts of memory loss. Ben’s faithful partner is a drug sniffing German shepherd named “Ruger” who can hold his own in a brawl. We spend most of our shift relaxing in recliner chairs and keep a cooler filled with soft drinks and water. Ben and Ruger nod off from time to time which I don’t mind. Our office is a small trailer. It’s a full moon tonight and the sky is full of stars. A breeze is kicking up the fragrance of the chaparral.
It’s 0230 and Ruger barks. Ben wakes and grabs the binoculars looking east down the freeway which is dark. “It looks like CHP Officer Wally is on the beat”, Ben remarks. Although I see nothing, I won’t question a Senior Agent. Ruger is barking relentlessly and dragging Ben to the checkpoint. Ben says, “Hand me a Coke for Wally, Tommy.” I comply but remain dumfounded. The checkpoint is lit with floodlights but I see nothing. Ben and Ruger cross the two lane freeway to the checkpoint.
Ben crouches down and leans as if peering into a vehicle to speak to a driver. Ruger stands on both legs and Ben holds him close. I watch in disbelief as Ben holds a conversation with an apparition. Ruger barks and pulls Ben towards our chase car. Ben yells, “Wally just received a radio call to respond to an overturned tanker truck at mile marker 4. I’m going to assist. Man the fort!” Wally and Ruger race down Interstate 8 with lights and siren. I’m tense and confused. I radio Ben who doesn’t answer. To my relief, I hear Ben request radio assistance from CAL FIRE Station 44, “Overturned fuel truck on fire. Driver trapped. Assisting CHP Officer Wally. Send fire engine and ambulance.” Within minutes, CAL FIRE Engine 44 and an ambulance race by the checkpoint. I run to our four wheel drive truck and speed towards mile marker 4 to assist.
Mile marker 4 is several miles west from the checkpoint. I see Ben’s chase car emergency lights flashing ahead and his chase car is positioned across the two lane freeway as a safety measure to prevent vehicles from approaching. A coyote darts from the brush, crosses my lane, and disappears into the wilderness. I swerve and narrowly miss the animal but at ninety miles per hour I struggle to gain control and keep from flipping. I maintain control of the truck and park but don’t see Ben or Ruger. There is no overturned tanker truck. Engine 44 is parked alongside the freeway with its emergency lights off. The ambulance is leaving empty. A masculine, calming voice calls to me, “Up here on the bluff, kid.” I climb up on to the bluff and meet Chief Johnny of Engine Company 44. He is tall, thin, and has a thick mane of silver hair and handlebar moustache. He is handsome and I suspect many are happy to be rescued by Johnnie. “Call it a night fellas”, Johnnie commands his men who conclude their search for Ben and Ruger.
Johnnie asks, “What’s your name Agent?” I reply, Tommy, Captain. Johnnie places his arm around my shoulder and raises his head towards the sky remarking, “You can practically count every star”. I’m flustered and quivering. Johnnie holds me tight and looks me in the eye. In a hushed voice he says, “About thirty years ago, I responded to a tanker truck fire at this very place. Ben and CHP Officer Wally were attempting to extricate the driver. Just as we began spraying the tanker with foam retardant, it blew into flames. The driver was pulled to safety, Ben suffered singed eyebrows but CHP Officer Wally burned to death. There’s no earthly explanation for what happened here tonight but I’ve seen it before. Agents like Ben never forget losing a fellow officer. When their time to die comes, they prefer it occurs doing the job they love and choose to vanish forever into the wilderness. The San Diego Commander of the Border Patrol and I go way back. I’ll call him tonight and explain everything. He’ll understand”. Captain Johnnie and I walk down the bluff to our vehicles. Captain Johnnie waves as Engine 44 returns to the firehouse. I park Ben’s chase car alongside the meridian and will retrieve it later.
I return to the checkpoint confused. I stare at the star filled sky and learned tonight life holds many secrets. I miss Ben and Ruger and will never forget them. I hope they are together in a better place. Across the freeway a lone coyote exits the brush, sits and stares directly at me. Our eyes meet for a moment and the coyote belts out a howl before returning to the wilderness.
Jonathan Ferrini is a published author who resides in San Diego. He received his MFA in Motion Picture and Television Production from UCLA.
The Business of Fellow Travelers, by Paul Handley
I entered the shop under Cyrillic lettering spelling out the company name; Svarog, the ancient Slavic god of fire. I’m tall so I had to duck at the last moment to miss a Putin mobile. I weaved between looming balloon faces of Brezhnev and Khrushchev.
Instead of a bell on the counter there was a shoe to bang for service. No need to slap a sole this morning. A young lady in a worker’s cap greeted me, “Good morning comrade,” she said without a whiff of irony. Soviet nostalgia has become a marketing tool and seems to be catching. Svarog has franchises and there is also a Proletariat brewery in our medium size town.
“Do you have special coffees?” I asked, hoping for a communist java tour.
“Absolutely,” she responded with enthusiasm I did not associate with an economy mapped out for the next five years. “My name is Svetlana,” she added in what I took for an Eastern European accent that I hadn’t noticed during her greeting.
“Is that your real name?”
“Of course, do you think I get new name for a job? Geez,” she said with a theatrical eye roll. “One of our selections is a Cold War Pour. Perhaps too cool a morning for that. We have our hot items for the occasional thaw in relations.”
My guffaw was met with a puzzled look.
“We grind our beans on premises as fine as Chernobyl nuclear fallout, but you won’t lose your hair. That’s a joke.”
My forced laugh sounded phlegm infused.
She pointed at another vacuum sealed jar. “This is Fair Trade Cuban Missile Crisis Espresso. Leave any displays of imperialism such as ostrich cowboy boots and slurs like pinko or fellow traveler outside the store. We will leave arms at home except for the minimal needed for self-defense, like if we get robbed. No offensive weapons, promise,” Svetlana said while crossing her heart.
“That seems eminently fair,” I said with a touch of an upper-class eastern accent that had never previously passed my lips.
“You may belly up to a Siberian Slow Pour.”
“I thought there was a chill in the air,” I responded.
“Correct. The Siberians need heat. It is a hot beverage. We also have a brew from the beans of the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields. The ashy soil lends a forward tasting, tart finish.”
On the wall was an explicit photo of lean indigenous people struggling to bring in the bean harvest while a well-fed imperialist owner on his estate sups on a balcony at a luxurious table, a French press prominently displayed.
“I see you are admiring our art. We have a coffee that goes along with that picture. Colonialism Café, made from the green beans that are separated from the primo dark beans like so much chaff. It will keep you warm on the tundra and has enough caffeine still present for the serfs to complete assigned work quotas. Do you have a work force that would appreciate this particular varietal?”
“How sensible,” I murmured, having never uttered that phrase before either. “You know, I’ll have to get back to you on that, costs, union involvement, that sort of thing.”
“Of course,” Sveltana said. “Close the refrigerator door!” she barked at a customer who had just placed the creamer back into a dormitory size refrigerator. I thought the cooler was a nice touch to keep the cream fresh, but I would focus to make sure the door was sealed. I noted that when she screamed the eastern bloc accent disappeared and was replaced by a patois I would locate as more Chicagoese.
She continued with the java tour. “We also offer a fine selection of motherland blends, Guatemalan Gulag, for instance. Trotsky Traitor has Mexican beans. Keep it authentic. Don’t pronounce the x!” she added with mischief in her eyes. “For added flavor we also have a fine selection of Shining Path Syrups.” These I could see were poured from jug shaped like the noggin of a beheaded intellectual or a college professor on permanent sabbatical to the jungle.
I began to feel uneasy, scrutinized. “Is that clock looking at me?” I asked. The clock behind the counter contained at the base of the hands an orb with a pupil.
Svetlana laughed. “We call it our Stasi eye. It came from a toy bear. Don’t let it scare you. It’s just a pleasant memory of how things used to be.”
“Can I ask you what happened to your other stores? How many franchises have you lost? Two?” I had read in the newspaper that both franchises had shut down due to charges of racketeering against corporate headquarters by the individual franchises.
“Those franchisees operate like strongmen. Not true to communism. What happens when market forces intrudes.”
“Okay,” I said. I ordered a Gang of Four Grind and decided to forego the cream.
“Come back tomorrow if you like. We are having a tasting of coming brews, a purge preview sampler of incoming joes. Of course, in the end we will decide who will stay and who will disappear.
“The coffee, right?”
“Yes. What did you think we were talking about?”
Paul Handley’s work has appeared in Adirondack Review, Eclectica, Gone Lawn, and Monarch Review. Runner-up William Richey 2015 Short Fiction Contest judged by Aimee Bender.
Mitch, by Charles Hayes
Under the long steel span across the Ohio, against the abutment just off the water’s edge, I hear the wake of a passing coal barge lapping in the mud a few yards below our hunker spot. It must of rained up the Kanawha, the water didn’t seem that close last night. But last night was a little fire and a couple of bottles of Mad Dog. Nothing got too close.
Struggling from the dumpster blanket it hurts to see my breath blossom in front of my face. As if the DTs ain’t enough. Looking over at Mitch wrapped in a plastic drop cloth, I wonder if the plastic is any better than my blanket. Stirring not a lick, maybe Mitch is on to something. Seeing his empty bottle at the lip of the plastic, I figure we’re even there. Mine was empty before my face hit my hat.
Reaching out my hand to gauge how bad it is, or worse yet, how bad it’s going to get, I see my tremble is just inside a sway. My need is alive but Mitch is old, I’ll give him a little longer. Hustle then we will, try the trash around town first for maybe a quick one left behind. It will be late enough to beg after that. The rumble above has yet to really get started. Wish I could sleep like Mitch. Those days are gone for me. Maybe 15 minutes more.
Pulling the blanket as much around me as I can, my back to the concrete, I stare out at the river and the long line of coal barges being pushed by a single tug. Pushing a load like that, wouldn’t take much of an error to hit one of these abutments and bring the bridge down. But coal has enough money to hire good pilots, make sure that doesn’t happen……most of the time. Still most of that money goes somewhere else. Always has. Can’t seem to think of anything that coal has left around here that moves on independently or grows much. Coal to China and the money to the Northeast and Midwest. Oh well, too much soot I guess. Dirties the ink on those nice Benjamin Franklins. A warm Mad Dog would do me just as well about now.
“Mitch roll your ass outa that plastic, we got to get something to drink. Ain’t no coal barge goin’ to pull up and unload us a taste. Get up!”
Staying wrapped and getting to my feet with no small effort, I try again. “Come on Mitch, get up. Ain’t a lick of Mad Dog left!”
Going over to Mitch, I hate to do it but need is need. Reaching down and taking the edge of the plastic I unroll him to the elements.
Having no longer any troublesome needs to fill, his pale face to the early rumble above, Mitch is dead.
Charles Hayes is an American who lives part time in the Philippines and part time in Seattle with his wife. His writing interests centers on the stripped down stories of those recognized as on the fringe of their culture. Asian culture, its unique facets, and its intersection with general American culture is of particular interest. As are the mountain cultures of Appalachia.
Oddities, by Peter Hurtgen Jr.
Jo had wanted to be in the freak show his whole dull life. Everyone thought he was a freak anyway. The townsfolk. His family. Everyone.
o never felt at home. Even at home. Especially at home.
He wanted to be in the freak show more than anything in the world. Actually he most wanted to kick Bruce Willis’ ass, which he thought would be easy. But after that, Jo dreamt of the carnival.
He dreamt of tempting the unwitting by hawking his disgusting, otherworldly exhibitions. Scaring and daring hapless audiences into becoming witnesses to his madnesses. Grotesque contortions that sent small children running away screaming—grown men screaming away puking—elderly people limping away complaining about screaming children.
Jo imagined himself the center of attention as he coughed up something that should not be able to be coughed up—something most people need to keep inside of them—then shoving it back into his throat and washing it down with some hard, dry rye whiskey.
That was Jo’s dream, anyway.
And on that day—the last day of winter—his seventeenth birthday—his dream would come true.
At a quarter to midnight, on the run-down train depot in the dead middle of St. Nowhere City, Florida, a strange train screaked to a loud, steamy stop. Army letters stenciled on the lead car read: Oddities
First off was Eli, the Elephant Boy, who raised his huge, grey arms, Nixonianly saluting the nonexistent crowd.
The Limpski Twins were close behind. Two LIL Mouths—One BIG Asshole, it said on their steamer trunk.
Out of our way, Fatboy, the twins said in unison, in typical Limpski Twin fashion, and they waddled past Eli.
Then, awkwardly, loudly, in fits and starts, many other malfigures plopped onto the gangplank like irregular bowel movements.
Jib Jub the Man-Monkey.
Scarlet the Skinless Harlot.
The Torso Bros, Mat and Bob.
Hop the train! Sneak onto the caboose! Live the life of a traveling oddity!
Jo was in the train station men’s room, staring at himself in the permanently cloudy mirror, psyching up his courage, when Barb the Bearded Lady sauntered in to use the urinal.
What in the fuck are you staring at? she inquired after finishing. She flushed and shimmied down her skirt.
I want to be in the show, said Jo through his cloudy reflection.
Sorry, you look pretty fuckin’ normal to me, kid.
That’s when Jo opened his trench coat and showed her his problem.
I’m speechless, she said. Or implied without actually saying it.
It was that easy.
Barb was shocked. Jo had knocked her socks off. She immediately took him to see Señor Razors, the MC-slash-show owner, who was likewise terrorized by Jo’s stunt. He hired him on the spot. The spot being an actual fresh blood spot on the concrete. Nobody was really sure whose blood it was.
All the other oddities at the train station could not look away from Jo at that moment. Though many wanted to. They just stared at the boy, wincing in disgust and pleasure, tinged with a little jealousy.
They had found a hero that day. Perhaps, a savior
And Jo? He was finally home. These were his people.
Peter Hurtgen Jr. is a former TV producer, current teacher and secret novelist living in Los Angeles.
Feedback, by Vincent Mannings
Kingston, Jamaica. August 1954.
“Ah, Mr. Fleming: good chap. I’m so glad you could come.” The man gestured at a chair as he talked. Naturally, he was a pup, much too young for the job, and unrefined, not drawn from the stock that the service once exclusively preferred. Clearly, times had changed, and Fleming was not surprised, but this particular pup did seem affable enough, and he continued: “Take a seat. You probably know why you’re here today?”
Fleming knew. Or at least he’d guessed the reason, this morning, when the invitation had come by hand to his beach-house’s shabby front door. Fleming’s tropical winter home was cozy, if ramshackle, a modest retreat about twenty miles up the road. It contained everything the gentleman author required: a typewriter, three cartons of French cigarettes and a generous supply of good, hard liquor. At dawn today, he’d heard a knock, and there’d been a brief exchange: two shillings for a slip of paper. Now, he sat down wearily in this young fellow’s office, straightened his tie and waited.
“Mr. Fleming: you’ve been mentioned in certain quarters. Look -”
The poor man: he did appear to be rather uncomfortable. He was seated behind a desk too big for him. “A drink?” He nodded in the direction of a small bar in a corner of the room, the full thing in miniature: copper counter, bottles, an oversized mirror behind shelves laden with every kind of glass. Fleming glanced at his wristwatch. It was mid-morning. Already, the air was hot and thick.
“Absolutely,” he said. “A Scotch on the rocks would do very nicely.”
“For me, too.” The man exhaled loudly then rose to busy himself with glasses and ice, and the fuss of it provided the cover he’d been needing: “When you retired, Fleming, no one gave permission for you to be writing stories.” He stretched the last word out, tested it like he hoped it were something breakable, something he might one day be able to snap. “Here,” he muttered, returning to the desk with two glasses of the finest single malt. “And do excuse me.” With that, he pressed a red leather button and spoke through the gauze of an intercom: “Did the Colonel arrive?”
“Just now, sir.”
“Then ask him to step inside.”
The door opened. Fleming got out of his chair. The Colonel was retired, and he was dressed in civilian clothes. He actually seemed quite dapper; that is, thought Fleming, for people of his class. And though the man’s army days were long behind him, he’d obviously remained a fearsome proposition: he was tall and broad, well-built and perfectly comfortable with being in charge. Immediately, he began with the shouting: “So, this is the writer? This?” He marched toward his quarry, flashed a lop-sided smile then added: “I must say, you’re shorter than I expected. Older, too.”
The shorter, older man was blushing: “Is that so?” he asked: “Well, my name is Fleming, Ian Fleming. And you are?”
“I’m the one who’s here to tell you that we all must follow the rules.” The Colonel stared: “Do you mind if I say this? I do hope you don’t mind.” He bellowed, sneered; he’d come up rapidly and he stood now with his chin just a couple of inches from Fleming’s nose. In his hand was a ruffled paperback, a novel. His eyes bulged. He barely acknowledged the wet young pup across the desk, the wimp with his finger still on the red leather button.
“Do I mind?” asked Fleming. He’d almost stammered, looking up at the man. His face began to sweat.
“Well, you don’t see me selling stories,” the Colonel said. He gripped the tattered novel in both hands, twisting it: “Do you? Any of us? Great God, must the enemy learn everything?”
“Indeed, no -”
“Good! Very good. It would seem that I am being clear.”
Now, he brandished the novel, and he held it close to Fleming’s head while he addressed the young pup: “What’s the name of that ridiculous secret agent?”
The pup had no idea; he simply shrugged his shoulders as the Colonel said to Fleming: “I can’t remember, either; can you?” The voice was calmer suddenly, and the big man waited before he continued: “Perhaps it’s best if we all forget his name.”
He tossed the book on the desk and then extended a large and meaty hand.
Fleming saw that hand and once again infuriated himself by concealing his anger, masking his resentment; it was an awful default resort to timidity he’d acquired in nursery school and had never been able to lose. He gazed as if he were for a moment on the outside of his skin, saw his own hand reach up in response, watched as the hand was engulfed by the Colonel’s great paw, the shake protracted and firm. And then he felt the other paw grasp his shoulder, pull him so that his right ear came within just an inch of the big man’s vulgar mouth. Now, the Colonel could simply whisper:
“Go to the beach. Relax, Mr. Fleming. Enjoy your winters here; may they be restorative and happy.” He paused, sighing: “And, of course, may they also be many.”
Vincent Mannings lives in Pacific Grove, California with his wife, Helene. He’s published an excerpt of a completed novel in the literary journal, ‘Writing Disorder."
Medusa, by Lara Saunders
Rebecca had been lying for so long on the sofa, her arms wearing the silence like sleeves, that the mouse didn’t realise she was there. Its body crouched like a forgotten walnut against the skirting board.
The daylight behind the closed curtains had thinned to an opal glow. The fire that her daughter Kayla had so carefully constructed earlier on crouched low with neglect. It was still giving off a little heat and licking tenderly at the logs in the grate, but it was at the cheese course stage of its meal, and nothing would make it glorious with hunger again.
The scurry of the mouse initiated a stirring in Rebecca. Time shuddered around a clock face. With a deep breath she heaved herself onto her feet. The mouse made itself long and thin against the wood, frozen in time. Rebecca looked once around the room, and left it as it was.
Rebecca hadn’t been expecting the shock of the cold. She walked out into the pale wintry world into sensory oblivion, falling into the easy rhythm of one foot in front of the other, her steps like little bites eating away time. Night was descending, the deepening fog was darkness and the darkness was smoke. Her breaths made irregular puffs which disappeared into the cold air. She headed down a coastal path. As a small child she could only imagine the horrors which might be hiding in the low shrubs. To the right of the sandy path, behind a thick curtain of trees and bushes, Rebecca knew there was a sheer drop to the waves which lashed and snapped like the jaws of an animal running hungry to the beach. As a teenager, her fears had taken on shapes and faces; the wolves in the old fairy stories had become the men with evil intentions that she had seen on the news. As a middle aged woman, she heard no whispers in the trees, just her own steps and a perpetual avalanche of waves somewhere far below her feet. Her toes froze inside her slippers. She wanted to remove them and feel the familiar sensation of sand on her soles but she knew sensation was lost to her.
The air had shrugged off degrees, like an overcoat it was tired of wearing, and it was now almost freezing. Even the sea hid its scent behind the cold. She walked past a bench set back into the beachgrass. It bore the inscription; For Maddie, our daughter. Even the upper ends of the river believe in an ocean. It was her favourite bench, tourists didn’t know it was there. She might have sat and stayed a while if it weren’t for the homeless man who lay there, looking up at the stars. “1985; that was a very good year” he said in a whisper, so that his voice was a tentacled thing, shocking Rebecca until she grew accustomed to the presence of that sound in the air, and let it wash over her. “1985, that was a very good year,” He repeated, and said again in the time it took her to walk past him.
She followed the path as it climbed and went from sand, to stone, to concrete, and she saw the outline of the playground where once she had pushed her daughter on the swings - that had been Kayla’s favourite part of the playground, and the thought gave in to the question - what would have been his? Rebecca looked away from the playground to the field beyond. She felt the emptiness of this field which became the vastness of the sky above her, the numb clouds and the deserted heavens above. This became the hollowness of the trees and the rustle of woodland creatures who scurried to and fro for food, for shelter from the rain, away from danger and towards safety and sustenance. And it did not matter if they lived, or died, if they bred or if they were obliterated. The only thing Rebecca had any desire to do was lay down her head alongside that emptiness and to be still as the darkness.
Eventually she turned back towards the street where she made her home. There would be her house, there would be her daughter, there would be the belongings that furnished her life. She thought about how quickly the things that had made her life beautiful dissolved into nothing, and everything became the absence of the boy.
Rebecca walked out of the cold which froze her, and into her house which scorched her. Her cotton slippers had been no defence against the latent rain on the long grass or the mud and dirt of the path. She dropped audibly onto the sofa, glad that Kayla was not in the room to see her fall. She picked the drenched slippers off her feet to reveal the pale skin beneath, with a blueish tinge from the cold and pink nail varnish peeling off the nails. Kayla had painted them in an evening of soft music and easy chatter as she talked about her university course and Rebecca had complained of swollen feet that she could no longer reach over her expanding stomach.
The room was largely how she had left it, though now there was a young fire in the fireplace to replace its dying predecessor. Rebecca watched the flickering dance of flames and shadows, which made everything seem alive; the dusty fireplace and the empty walls of the lounge room. She was breathless in the midst of the sudden heat. Kayla’s music tumbled down from her bedroom.
Rebecca closed her eyes and lay her head back onto the cushions of the sofa. She came to at the sound of her daughter’s voice and tipped her head the right way up, the world rushed back to her, angles and edges. Kayla stood before her.
“Where have you been? I was worried.”
“I must have dropped off.” Rebecca said, not answering her daughter but marvelling at the sudden sleep that never came when she lay her head on her pillows at night, but swooped down when she wasn’t expecting it. Her limbs lay outstretched on the sofa and heavy with unfulfilled sleep. “Could you bring me a glass of water please?”
“Yeah,” replied her daughter, innocuous and agreeable. Once she might have responded with light resistance, an exaggerated sigh or the old favourite; what did your last slave die of? Rebecca wondered whether they would ever fall back into easier ways or if the things that had passed would always leave this taste in the air.
Kayla returned carrying a tall glass of water, ice cubes tinkling merrily against the side of the glass, which stirred in Rebecca an aching need for vodka.
“So… where have you been?” Kayla sat down, her thick red hair tied in a ponytail winding like a crimson river down her back. She was dressed in a soft navy jumper and dark jeans. Rebecca thought about telling Kayla that there was no need to dress in shadows, but she stopped. She knew what words she should use, how her lips and tongue should move and how it would feel to say them and what they would sound like in her ears. Those were the things she knew, but before she could begin, came the familiar heavy feeling like something was sitting on her head and holding her jaw. Rebecca could fight it off but it was easier to let the heaviness sit there. When this happened, other people would usually fill the silence.
“Dad phoned while you were out.” Kayla began. “He just wanted me to tell you that he is sorry to hear about Patrick.”
“Oh that’s…” Rebecca paused to wonder what was the appropriate response to knowing that one’s ex-husband was sorry about one’s dead baby. That’s… nice or kind or good to know? In the absence of the right adjective she allowed the unfinished sentence to hang there as it struggled to convey the meaning of a completed one.
“Would you like me to run you a bath?” Kayla wondered helpfully as she eyed the grimy edges of Rebecca’s feet.
“Yes,” she answered with feeling, knowing at that moment that a bath was exactly the right thing.
“And,” continued Kayla, carried by the momentum, “while you’re having a bath I’ll make us some dinner.”
“Toast is fine.” Rebecca mumbled, wanting nothing that needed her to be pleased or grateful or interested. “I can manage on toast.”
“Just a little bit of pasta and you don’t have to eat it all.”
Kayla’s music still played, the song that emerged from somewhere above their heads was full of life; slow but fierce with an insistent beat. Rebecca could not begrudge her daughter wanting to lift the melancholy which swooped and dove about like a protective house martin. Yet she inhabited a different world now, and she watched her daughter through glass.
She got to her feet, and headed to the bathroom, enjoying the feeling of a locked door. She undressed and stepped into the water, without looking down at the body that had turned against her child and herself, and now continued to breathe and buzz and hum and need when she wanted everything to cease. Rebecca lay back in the bath and soaked her hair in the warm water. She swayed her head from side to side and imagined herself as Medusa, with snakes for hair. Her own hair floated obligingly with a life of its own like the mythical serpents. Rebecca thought of having a gaze that turned everyone to stone, and she pictured herself petrified. She hung her mind upon the moment when the world stopped.
Lara Saunders is an aspiring writer living in South Australia, working on a novel length piece but also hoping to gain wider experience. She is originally from England where she undertook a creative writing degree before focusing on a career in social work.
Crane Collapses, No Fatalities, by Gabriel Schenk
Clark heard a man scream outside. He looked out to the street but no-one was there.
Michelle gestured at the wooden chair on the other side of the coffee table, and he lowered himself into it. The chair was too small and the sides pressed up against his thighs. He shifted his weight from one butt cheek to another and felt the wood buckle. He stopped wiggling and concentrated on his legs instead. Crossed or uncrossed? How does he usually sit? Crossed. No, uncrossed. He laid his hands out on the armrests, palms-up. They were glistening with sweat.
“Thanks for seeing me so quickly,” he said, wiping his hands on his jeans.
Michelle nodded her head slightly, gold earrings flashing under her black bob-cut hair. “How are you feeling, Clark?”
“I’m fine,” he said. “I mean, I’m not fine. That’s why I’m here. I’ve been... having trouble sleeping, and pills don’t help. I can’t get to sleep at night and then I wake up too early. I have this great job. It helps distract me, but when I’m not working I’m worrying about all the bad things happening. I don’t know how long I can keep distracting myself.”
Another person screamed outside.
“I’ve never had therapy before,” he said. “Is this how it works—I just talk about my problems? What do you want to know?”
Michelle leaned in and the sides of her hair jerked forward in tandem with her earrings. “As this is our first session I just want to get to know you, and find out some of the issues you’ve been experiencing.”
He stood up.
“Sorry, I feel a bit claustrophobic in that chair. Do you mind if I walk around? I’m not much of a sit-down-and-think kind of guy.”
“Please, go ahead.”
“Thanks. What is this painting of? I mean, where is it?”
“I’m honestly not sure. Does it have a title?”
It didn’t. The mountains were capped in pink snow, bound at the roots by swathes of pine forest. A pale blue lake flooded the foreground, crusted with ice, like the layer of sugar on a glazed doughnut. He pushed his glasses further up his nose and peered in closer. The brush-strokes were thick and there was no signature. It was probably made in a Chinese sweat shop. If he closed his eyes and listened carefully he could hear the noises of hundreds of brushes rasping and sliding against canvas.
He looked around for something else to inspect but aside from the painting, a computer on a desk, the little coffee table, and two chairs, the office was empty. He cautiously lowered himself back into his seat.
“Ever been ice-fishing?” he asked, his seat creaking softly. “My dad took me out once. Deep winter, up near Wilmington. We drilled a hole six inches through the ice and waited with bated breath... bated breath and baited hooks. We were there for hours. I pretended we were Lenape Indians, and dad played along, teaching me some Unami words he knew, and telling me how people used to live off the land. We caught Rainbow Trout and Yellow Perch before it got dark, then went back to the car to eat peanut butter jelly sandwiches and trail mix.”
“That sounds fun,” said Michelle. “Did you often do things like that with your dad?”
“Oh sure. Yeah. He knew so much about the local history and landscape.”
He paused. He knew what he had to say next, but finding the words were difficult, like hunting for jigsaw pieces in the dark.
“He died last year. Mom says she’s fine but I still hear her crying at night.”
“It’s hard to lose a husband, but it’s also hard to lose a father.”
He nodded. “It was so sudden. He was in the back yard raking up leaves when it happened. I should have been there. If I’d found him in time I could have taken him to the hospital. Is it normal to feel so guilty?”
“It’s normal, yes, to feel responsible for the death of another person—especially a parent.”
More people screamed: long wails of despair and angry shouts of frustration. He turned to look at the window.
Michelle followed his gaze. “Is it too bright?” she asked. “We can close the blinds if you like.”
“No, it’s fine. It wouldn’t make any difference. But thank you.”
They fell into a silence offset by the screams of help he could hear continuously, like radio static, unless he shut them out. She looked back at him expectedly. He stared at his hands, wondering what else to say. “There’s so much bad stuff happening all the time,” he said at last, the words tumbling out of his mouth.
There was a bang; the rumble of metal tearing through brick and concrete; screams, these ones abruptly cut short.
He stood up again. “I’m sorry, but I really have to go.”
“We still have twenty minutes.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I’ll be back for our session next week.”
He hesitated at the door, one foot in the corridor, the other still in the office. Outside the window, on the other side of the city, he heard people yelling instructions to each other. Some of them were calling his name.
“What if it was my fault, though? What if I could have saved my father and didn’t?”
Michelle stood up as well. “You couldn’t have saved your father,” she said, bending down to pick up her empty notebook from the chair. “You’re not...”
She looked at the door but Clark had already gone.
Gabriel Schenk completed his DPhil in Arthurian literature at the University of Oxford in 2014. Since then he has been working in academic publishing, and writing fiction and articles in his spare time. His main project is a novel set on Mars.
2012, by Siphazo Vuso
The evening has always been my favourite time of the day. When everyone is packing up from their jobs, the heavy traffic, and the smell of home cooked food. I will watch without blinking as the sun packs its things eager to head home. These things were all I needed to be reminded that even though the world was round; it moved in a slow strange way. It was in the middle of July and although I was in the South of Africa, East London in the outskirts of the Eastern Cape, the sun shone like it belonged here.
I had just turned twenty then. I remember the smell of smoke as if someone were burning something somewhere. We were in the woods with my friends smoking cigarettes and talking about the future as if it ever goes according to anyone’s plans. I was the tallest and skinniest of my friends; Frawd was of medium height and had muscles from doing two hundred push ups every morning and Wazi was short and had long dreadlocks that he hated but never came around to cutting them. At times I would look at them and wonder what they were doing being friends with me and sometimes I would ask myself what was I doing being friends with them. I battled with these questions, these questions that had no answers.
I shared no similar qualities with my friends nor them with me. They would sometimes hang out together and feel guilty about what they had done and in doing so bury every detail of the trip that they had shared without me when I am around. Hanging out without me was not a problem to me, I was shy and had no valid interesting things to say whenever we were together but I guess it hurt me that they would think such would hurt me.
“So what you say Zakk? Keen?” Frawd was saying. I had drifted off on whatever it was we were talking about that I had to ask what the question was.
“We are going to Mary’s after these cigarettes. You coming? Andy might be there,” he said and they both giggled under their breaths.
Andy Khani was not just any girl. She was the girl, just hearing her name made my stomach knot - we had shared a kiss on New Year’s Eve and a week later she came to my house, stood in the porch with her braids in a bun and asked to talk to me.
“What’s going on?” I had said with my hands in my pockets, hoping I sounded cool.
She had given me an annoyed look.
“Look, I don’t have time for corny. I came here to tell you forget what ever happened on New Year’s Eve. I don’t want you telling anyone. I am seeing someone,” she had said as if it was the most natural thing to say.
“Sure. I am seeing someone too anyway,” I had said.
“Wow cool. Then forget I said anything, this is a good day!” she said and jogged all the way to the gate, to the street and away from me.
We arrived at Mary’s and ordered beers. The place was already abuzz with people. We chose the corner table and soon as we sat down Frawd started a conversation on cars then moved to politics and the next thing I knew he was deep on who invented sex. Frawd was like that, he was good at telling different stories at once and linking them together. For example, he would start the conversation with let’s say story A and from story A would come story B and within story B comes story C. You would not see it at first but you will realise later that all the stories had a way of linking together, so perfectly so.
But I was not listening. My eyes were fixed on the table next to the door. There were three girls but my eyes were on one. The line that forms in her mouth when she laughs, her brown little eyes, the way she would get lost in thought. I watched this as a mother would watch her unborn child, it was Andy Khani in flesh and blood. Frawd saw and got up. He chatted a bit with the girls and next thing I knew they were coming to our table.
Andy sat right next to me, so close that I could hear her breathing in tune with the loud music. She smiled at me a little and got back to the hot conversation Frawd had started. I sat there frozen at the spot with my mouth dry. Yet there were many things I wanted to say but the words wouldn’t come out.
“You want to go for a smoke,” she asked out of the blue, taken aback I got up and followed her out of the door.
As soon as we were outside she said “Hold this.” I held her cold beer as she rummaged through her purse for a lighter. She found it and lit a cigarette as we walked into the night. It seemed only moments later that we found ourselves sitting on the grass a full mile away from the pub.
“Do you think God exists?” she asked, blowing smoke out of her mouth.
“Yeah, I think so,” I said.
She turned to look at me and said “I want to tell you something so strange, so deep, something about me that I have not told even me."
“Okay,” I said and waited.
“I don’t know why but when I saw you I just got the urge to tell you. to tell someone who knows this might be the last night on earth,” she said blowing out smoke, “It was May in 2012, two years ago. I was coming out of Mary’s, wasted off my head. I remember the night. It was a chilly night, very chilly. I had called a cab but it never came. I don’t know what was I thinking but I walked to my house. A few guys, three or four I don’t remember, started to walk in my direction. They started chatting me up and then next thing I knew...” She stopped to take a sip of her beer and I could see tiny little tears streaming down her perfect cheeks, very slowly as if waiting for something.
“The next thing I knew they were hitting me and calling me a bitch and ripping my clothes off. They raped me on this very same spot we are sitting at, and left me here to die. This time the tears came like an angry rain.
I took her in my arms and held her and we kissed that night, so many nights since she had surprised me with the kiss that had stolen my heart. As fate would have it, my elation would not last.
Frawd called me the next morning. The sound of his voice as he said who he was...the anguish, the pain...sent a chill up my back. She had taken her own life during the night.
I couldn’t speak.
“Did she say anything to you, man? About...uh...anything?” he asked.
I managed to say “No,” and hung up and watched as the darkness descended.
South African writer Siphokazi Vuso has a Journalism Diploma. She has always wanted to pursue writing as a career and has two years experience writing articles for various news publications in South Africa. Her love for fiction and journalism has given her a broad base to which she can approach a range of topics. She especially enjoys writing young adult fiction and poetry, you can find more of her writing at her website www.scrapedwords.wordpress.com.
Not Goodbye, by Abigail George
S. talks of suicide. It is not the first time. I tell her to hold on. Tomorrow she’ll feel better. She cries. I hold her. What else can I do? She’s the love of my life and she’s in pain so I make something for her to eat. She tells me that she doesn’t deserve me. That she can see that she’s hurting me. I say that she’ll feel better after she eats something. She tells me afterwards in the evening while we’re watching television what was she thinking. How can she do this to me. I tell her to forget all about it. Like it was the first time that she had ever said that she would take her own life.
Like I had never heard her reasons before or read her journal. Like I had never driven her to the psychiatrist. Shrink’s crazier than me, she said. Never going back there. At night, especially in winter, the pavements become rivers. The streets become streams lit by moonlight. Windows turn into mirrors that we can see our soul in. We argue but I still want to touch her. Touch the story on her lips. The singing in her fingertips. The promise of her. The fine thread of her. Waiting for her arrival at the train station, I want the weather forecast to delay snowfall.
That independent winter-branch. Wild geese calling. The origin of her hair was an autumn forest. Gold and volcanic-red and rust. I want to fall asleep in her arms and wake up to the sound of winter rain. Listen to her read sonnets to me. I want to tell her about my childhood cousins. My uncle’s swimming pool in Johannesburg. Eating peaches. Peach juice dripping down our chins (now almost forgotten to adult me). I want to touch her graceful neck, each of her vertebrae. Her loneliness. Run my fingers up and down her spine.
I want to sink into her country with absentminded blessing. I dream we’re taking one of our drives to the beach on a lazy Sunday afternoon. We walk on the warm sand hand-in-hand. Afterwards we’ll eat picnic haloumi cheese or hamburgers and drink pink milkshakes. Watch the waves from the car. She smiles. She laughs. And I tell myself that I know nothing yet of the heartbreak that will follow. She taught me that we all need space and sex and nicotine. Tell myself she will find me (if she’s looking after all these years). I will not lose hope to this agenda. These rituals of soil and water. Vapour. Instead I will smile through my tears.
Balled up fists. Here are the instructions for finding her. Give or take a mansion of gathering light for her hair like silk. Outside the windows, I spy a rose. The roses in her garden. I don’t go out there. There are memories. Rain-crystals of life shiny like a mirror. With their trail of vulnerability. St Joseph’s lilies made of prophetic lace. I remember how she sunbathed listening to Joy Division. Grand sap pinned in my hand where I’ve pulled the aloe apart for my blotchy skin from shaving. I try and isolate them in the garden.
Wild flowers stalk me and the day is fluid. They seem to chant less on hot days. She’s probably lovelier now. Purer. Enchanting in ways that I can only imagine. She’s maturing cloth in my hands. I often think of her in moonlight. Far away, with her old face, still pretty. Still lovely. Still focused on seeing the anticipatory nostalgia around her in everything. The kitchen is warm and smells of soup. I have stories but I don’t have her. The cupboards are fading. Falling into silence. The roar of the sea is hidden from view. The dogs whine outside. It is a summer’s day.
A surfer’s parliament. Now it is raining and my feet in sandals are as cold as winter. Desperate rain spits. Soon the lights will come on in the house. Neon-burning. Everything will be warm and alive. I will undress then and my volcanic bones will sink into the warm dreamtime-bathwater. Spaghetti-for-two will fade from memory fast or perhaps I will cook that tomorrow. Flying solo. On guard for the open, competitive, flesh-made-vulnerable, mute hours. Her warm tongue. Skin tanned and frame brown. S. is gone and I have to decide to live or fade away.
I tell myself (I am good at making up stories), two nights before she will leave, there is an aroma of a curry-pot in the kitchen. I will find her cutting up red chillies, onions. Layering warm spices mixed with fragrant oil in the steaming pot. Masala. I make roti. She cuts her finger. Bursts into tears and turns to me to say me that she can’t do this to me anymore. I don’t know yet that I will sit at the phone for years and wait to hear it ring. Wait to hear her voice. I only know this while my new wife, Ruthie, sleeps next to me in the dark. That it will fill the entire fibre of my being with both pleasure and pain to hear S’s voice in our Aspen Height’s flat again. Sometimes Ruthie catches me staring into space. Sitting at the computer.
My tea gone cold. Waiting for inspiration to kickstart my creativity and my imagination again, I’ll drink cups of tea until midnight. Think of Paris. Long for S. We wanted to honeymoon in Paris. Don’t try and find me. Those words play inside my head like a stuck record. Yet, I am still hopelessly devoted to her memory. S. is my Ophelia. Plath. My Mrs Rochester. I tell myself that maybe she’s with someone else right now. Maybe I will see her in a restaurant having a romantic dinner with someone who looks like me or someone who doesn’t look like me. Maybe S. is married too (with children). I wonder does she still like drinking warm champagne.
Pushcart Prize nominee Abigail George is a South African-based blogger, essayist, poet and short story writer. She briefly studied film at the Newtown Film and Television School followed by a stint at a production company in Johannesburg. She has received two writing grants from the National Arts Council in Johannesburg, one from the Centre for the Book in Cape Town, and another from ECPACC in East London. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Aerodrome, Africanwriter.com, Bluepepper, Dying Dahlia Review, ELJ, Entropy, Fourth and Sycamore, Gnarled Oak, Hackwriters.com, Itch, LitNet, Mortar Magazine, Off the Coast, Ovi Magazine: Finland’s English Online Magazine, Peeking Cat Poetry Magazine, Piker Press, Praxis Magazine Online, Sentinel Literary Quarterly, Spontaneity, The New York Review, and Vigil Pub Mag. She has been published in various anthologies, numerous times in print in South Africa, and online in zines based in Australia, Canada, Finland, India, Ireland, the UK, the United States, across Africa from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Turkey and Zimbabwe.
A Club, by Lawrence Syldan
Go stand in the corner and do not think of white elephants. So she did and did not. We exploded in churlish laughter, and she disappeared, and the rest of us were mildly flabbergasted that the rain began painlessly to fall. Was the oily suggestion a punishment? The next night she dropped by wearing a brocade hobble skirt and smashed Pico’s favorite vase, pretending the act an accident. Her mobile gray eyes emitted a muted yipping, and her weeping was of the more or less dry variety. After all, she was old money and not in our circle, so we plied her slowly with brandy. She sipped the liquor from a trembling glass and we were astonished at the golden silence. The drab tones of a clarinet next door mirrored her querulous presence. On a bright sweet morning they found the corpse next to a neighbor’s compost. Katy, our President, has a thrombus that is difficult to treat and that is why we chose her President. We are responsible for her condition, too, and wear our guilt as we do our culture, lightly. Accountable for everything, reads our motto. So the days get mixed with days and the nights with nights. Then two weeks after the terrorist bombing, with velleity, sitting under the old hanging swag lamp, the club discussed the approaching end-times and her passing before reading from our pastorals and romances . . . . Being all Sons of the Pioneers, we rode off toward the sunset, each with a bandage on the brim of his white hat.
Lawrence Syldan writes: “I am mainly a poet but have written a few nano fictions.”
END OF FALL 2017 EDITION