The second time was completely different.
“‘Low dosage’ Adam said. ‘Fun’ he said,” Elisha stumbled along the melting hallway. She dropped to her hands and knees and crawled across the floor like a civilian whose city was under siege.
“There they are again!” An ominous cadence came as one big crescendo, cascading behind her in a deranged orchestra.
“Shit, shit, shit,” she whispered. Her blonde locks dangled over her face. Her toes, knees and fingertips dug into the floor, pulling her body forward. She intermittently glanced behind her.
“My bedroom door! Only inches away, my parents won’t know a thing—they can’t hear my thoughts, they can’t hear me!”
She wrapped a reluctant palm around the doorknob and twisted with deliberate mechanical quietude. Slowly, slowly . . .
Elisha pulled the door open just enough for her slender frame to slip through and quickly closed it behind her. She leaned against the door, her head tilted back, chin up and eyes closed. She gasped heavily with heart pumping, exhaled, and wiped the tears from beneath her closed, sticky eyes.
She heard an unfamiliar voice reading poetry in a British accent like some History Channel narrator. She opened her eyes, breaking the sticky web over her eyelids.
“Why is my room covered in pink, cloudy hues, and why is my cat sitting on my bed, reading Shakespeare?”
“Damn it Butters, you can’t read! Oh, God, what’s going on? Why is my bed a cloud?”
She approached the cloud taking tentative steps. Her fingers walked the bed’s surface like scouts on a reconnaissance mission. It was soft and smooth like white silk.
She took a seat next to Butters, whose eloquent voice sent streaming wavelengths into the air, along with small clef notes that waltzed in their climb. Her mind followed them dreamily, wandering up the spiraling matrix of wordplay and musical notation, watching as their images disappeared into the ceiling.
Her eyes then fell upon a full-body mirror propped lazily against the wall. Her image bulged and was randomly contorted like that in a circus mirror. Next, she noticed that her sexy, scantily clad Lady Gaga poster began to morph Picasso-like, and grin maniacally.
Noticing a paddle next to her on the cloud, she thought, Okay . . . I’m rowing along on a cloud . . . great.
She bemoaned, “Is Juliet tender yet Butters? Is she weeping for her long-lost Romeo? Is she lovelorn, caught in an unmistakable reality, which is too much to bear?” Paddling along, she peered into the oblivion ahead.
“Adam, I’m gonna fucking kill you.”
Suddenly, a swift current of air came bursting across her body. She reeled back, looking up as three small figures arched overhead, then faded into the crimson horizon.
“My bunnies have sprouted wings! Didn’t know you guys could fly!” She squinted critically as their shapes were swallowed in the distance.
“That's it, maybe I’ll just follow after them, row along on my little cloud here and escape this damn place!”
“Hey guys, come back! Get me outta here!”
“Oh, but where is here? This is my room, my sanctum, I'm safe here, right?”
She paused, set the paddle down, bit her nails and glanced back at the morphing Lady Gaga poster. It gave neo-cubism a run for its money. Lady Gaga’s breasts were perched above her left shoulder, her head propped against her hip.
“Gross” Elisha said.
She heard Butters murmur in the background.
“Butters, you’re ridiculous.”
“Hey, why are my drapes radiating into infinity with every color of the visible light spectrum?” Her mood began to lighten as she became fixed on the drapes in a sea-like trance. Their colors were therapeutic somehow.
“Pretty cool, actually, ha! Wow, it’s like I’m trapped in one of my parents’ 1970’s Haight-Ashbury parties. Does this mean I’m gonna start dancing in bell bottoms beneath a disco light? Will I be sharing the world’s most enormous joint with the likes of Willie Nelson? Oh, hell with it. This cloud’s not so bad. Let the dawn swallow me whole, carry me off into some far-away land of mystic kaleidoscopes, vivid color schemes and fuzzy, friendly habitats. Carry me off into a vibrant landscape textured by the hands of ingenious craftsmen! Yes, take me to that place of muse and melody, rhythm and prose, of sweet sustenance and serenade!”
“Close your eyes, Alice,” an eerie, omniscient voice whispered.
“Hey, who’s there? Who’s Alice?”
A long, heavy silence drug itself across the room like the body bag of a mafia victim. The streaming array of bright colors melted into deep reds, dirty browns and heavy black. Elisha’s stomach balled like a fist. She looked down at her body.
“Why am I so small, so young? Why do I feel helpless? My hands and feet are so tiny. My hair so long, clean and soft, like when my little sister and I used to play dress up and host tea parties. Why can’t I see my face?”
“Shit! Am I too loud? Can my parents hear me?”
Just then, another cascade of wicked laughter echoed from the distance.
“Who’s there?” Elisha looked around and saw nothing but the gradual darkening of the colors.
“Shit. I’m gonna close my eyes and not think of anything at all. Everything’s gonna be okay. Like grandpa taught me, if I just shut it all out, it goes away. That was when he and sis were still here to keep me safe, make me happy . . . before the tragedy . . . before the fire.”
“You’re not here, you’re not here. There is no one here. There's no one here,” she whispered, curling her body up like a ball.
Sudden laughter rose up, climbing in octaves of hideousness. She closed her eyes and saw horrific fades of eternal darkness! Endless caverns of emptiness and desolation!
When she opened her eyes—a thin, dark-haired figure with luminous eyes stood in the doorway of her room. The muscles in her neck and along her spine tightened.
“Adam! You did this! You bastard!”
She leapt towards him, knocking him on his back, and wrapped her fingers around his neck. “I’m gonna kill you!”
A loud, authoritative voice pierced into her world like a bolt of lightning through the skies. “Wake up Elisha. Everything is okay, you are safe.”
The thin, spectacled man extended his hand. Two genuine, comforting eyes shone down at her.
Elisha lay on the bed with her fingers clasped together in a choking motion. She sat up slowly, blinking rapidly. Her head bobbed as if the muscles in her neck were weak.
Dr. Mosser sat back, crossed his legs and scribbled some notes on his clipboard. Calmness came to her by degrees. She trembled as if detaching from a subconscious gravity, feeling it slip away like rain on a windshield.
“We’re making progress.” Dr. Mosser said. “Elisha, take a deep breath and relax.”
She did so, trembling calmly.
“You had a good relationship with your sister and grandfather?” he asked.
“Do you miss them?” he said, leaning forward, raising his brow.
“Yes, of course I do,” Elisha said. She adjusted in her seat, as if the question made her uncomfortable.
“Would it be safe to say that your drug and alcohol problem started shortly after the . . . accident?”
“I see. Now, if you don’t mind, could you please tell me more about Adam?”
Elisha sat quietly on the bed. Dr. Mosser waited patiently as she sifted through scattered mental categories.
“I haven’t spoken to him in months—that son-of-a-bitch. He ditched me for some ditzy valley-girl named Alice. All he cares about is gettin’ high anyway,” Elisha said, elbows on her thighs, one fist against her cheek.
Elisha closed the glass door, descended the scratchy marble steps and left the dull gray building with its official-looking sign, Dr. Gene Mosser, Hypnotherapy behind.
Her cell phone vibrated in the pocket of her jeans. “What’s up? How’d therapy go?” a voice asked.
“Great. I got them completely convinced that Adam is the bad influence and, once he’s outta my life, everything will be okay.”
“Yeah, parents are suckers!”
“Got ‘em eatin’ outta my hands, ha, ha. Who knew all those drama lessons would come in handy?”
“Right! Where's your Oscar award?”
“At this rate, I’ll be completely ‘rehabbed’ before graduation, ha ha” Elisha said, strutting along.
“Adam’s the scapegoat, huh? You see him much?”
“From time to time. He’s still partying hard as usual.”
“Well, so much for hypnotherapy, huh? Your parents will try anything. What’s next, shock therapy?”
“Yeah, really. Well, that’s parents for you, whatever the doc says goes. My parents didn’t like Adam anyway, figured it’d be an easy out.” Elisha said.
“Yeah, nice one.”
“So, David, you think you can hook me up with a twenty-sack this weekend?”
“Of course. But please, call me ‘Adam.’”
They both laughed.
(c) Harlan Wells
A loud scream woke up Mother and Father that morning. They leapt out of bed, stumbling over the quilt that dragged on the floor after them. They pushed open one of the children’s bedroom doors and it slammed against the wall. The children were pressed up against the window, laughing in glee but their parents were not yet satisfied that they were okay.
“What’s happened?” Father croaked, still groggy from sleep and rude awakenings. The two boys pushed between them, rubbing their faces.
“Snow, Dad!” Lucy shouted from the window. Amelia pressed her face further against the window as she gasped. Arthur and Charlie rushed to the window then, followed by their parents.
“Your first snow day, Amelia.” Mother smiled, craning her neck to see. “You’d better all get dressed then. We’ll make our way to the woods where you’ve all had your first snow days.”
The children rushed to get ready, piling on two layers of clothes. In their excitement, they fumbled over buttons and zips, bumping into furniture. Father started to warm the car and pack sleds and blankets and some food.
Mother helped them zip into their winter coats which was not without arguments. But finally they were all piled in the car, buzzing with excitement. The drive felt long to the children who were aching to sled down a hill and have snowball fights. Secretly, Amelia began to feel nervous; she had never even seen snow before unless it was in pictures. She was a bit worried about it being too cold. But when they stopped at the wood, the worry started to melt away. The snow that hung on the trees was mesmerising even to Amelia. The light reflected against the snow making everything seem brighter.
Mother began to unpack the car, handing the smaller bags to Charlie and Lucy. She entrusted Arthur with the picnic while Father took some of the sleds from her.
They made their way to the clearing. The cold was beginning to cling to them now but the further they walked, the warmer they became. Finally, Father spotted the hill and they set up camp next to it. He took Amelia’s hand and picked up a blue sled.
“You get a turn first. I can come down with you for your first go if you like.”
Amelia nodded, smiling up at him gratefully. They climbed up the side of the hill, in between the trees. Father held her hand firmly and pulled her up when she fell into the deep powdery snow.
At the top, Father placed the blue sled securely into the snow and helped Amelia get in. Once she was seated, he pushed off and sat behind her. Amelia felt a strange feeling in her stomach as they went down at great speed. The rest of her family came into view quickly, then the sled rocked and tipped sideways at the bottom. The cold snow went down her coat and she squealed, then giggled as she looked back at the snowy hill. Charlie, Lucy and Arthur were already racing up it with their own sleds. Arthur fell a few times so only the other two fought to go down first. Lucy eventually won but was closely followed by Charlie, who crashed into her at the bottom. Lucy began to grumble but was interrupted by Arthur yelling at them.
“Get out of the way!”
The two of them scrambled out of the way laughing and shouting. Arthur sat there as he stopped with a bump. Then freezing cold snow hit him in the side of the head. He gasped, deciding whether to be angry or laugh. Charlie appeared from behind a wide tree, holding another snowball and aiming at Lucy this time. Although Lucy saw this coming and pelted his chest with a snowball. Mother was getting up to join in, running to hide behind a tree trunk. Amelia wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do. This wasn’t quite hide and seek. But Father told her to hide behind the bush nearest them, crouching down beside her. He began to shovel the snow, pressing it hard around the edges to make a ball.
“This is what you’ve got to do. Make lots of snowballs and we can both throw them at the others, okay?”
Amelia nodded; a bit panicked at the pace they needed to be going at.
“A bush won’t protect you!” Charlie shouted, throwing a snowball in their direction. Mother threw one at her son, hitting the tree trunk he ducked behind. Arthur threw one and Lucy shrieked, throwing one back at his head. Father threw three snowballs at Mother, hitting her with two of them. He laughed heartily as she flashed him a dark glare. Amelia tried to throw her misshaped snowballs but couldn’t hit anyone. She began to get frustrated until she hit Charlie who was looking at something in the distance. She pointed and laughed as he went red in the face.
“Mum, I’m too hot now. Can we have something to eat?” Lucy sighed, slumping her shoulders. The rest of the children whined in unison. Mother began to smile.
“Yes, take off your gloves and have a sandwich.”
The children began to eat ravenously, and even Mother and Father hungrily ate their sandwiches.
That evening, they sat in front of the fire, hot chocolate in hand. At the dinner table, all they could talk about was their snowball fight, dramatising the sound of the impact. When their parents put them to bed that night, the children fell asleep almost immediately. Warm and tired from their exciting snow day. A first snow day Amelia would never forget.
Years and years later, Amelia would bring her children to this spot for their first snow days as her siblings did with their own children. Their parents had been happy knowing that their grandchildren would be shown the special family place and they knew it would be passed down through the family for generations to come. So even after their parents had died, the four siblings came together on snow days in the same clearing to give their children the experience that they once had: wonderful, and memorable, first snow days.
Another night void of promises settles in the city that screams desolation. If one dares to look from above, the city seems to always be sleeping in, void of youth and laughter, absorbing the quiet trembling of walking canes. In this city, with its post-war architecture of decay and corrosion, its expensive clothes thrown randomly on the shelves of stores that shout rent rip-off, fathers carry on with their heroic family missions which have always seemed to deny the dearest part of their personality.
Gabriel lounges in the old executive chair of a generous size apartment situated on the fourth floor of a building overlooking the city river. On white days, one can spot him by the window puffing on a cigarette. Sometimes he ponders on his apparent aversion of sipping on an afternoon cup of tea. He wears high socks with sandals, hats with fixed-in-place flashlights, blazers with camper backpacks. The Vikings drama series, is on again, and Tozzi, the family cat, has quickly reclaimed the lap of the man who feeds her. The TV screen hurls the harsh winter lived by the Viking Lothbrok family straight in the hearts of Gabriel and Tozzi.
For Gabriel, mathematician by profession but artist in spirit, a triangle brings more to the table than a mere shape to play geometry with. Viking Ragnar confirms the distorted history veiled behind the façade of nature claimed by a seemingly simple triangle. The social, political, and cultural negotiations behind this impressive shape are reasons enough for Gabriel to refuse shaking hands with balance. And reason enough for Gabriel to keep puffing on his cigarette with the utmost finesse, in an artistic showcase that is rare for any personality carrying a self-inflicted addiction. Gabriel is settled on getting a new heart. He has heard from the TV commercials that the modest hospital of his small town boasts the latest medical advancement: heart transplants for those who dream big, for those with pockets bigger than their dreams.
He kissed Tozzi goodbye and headed to the hospital one white morning, assured that a new heart would be the start of a new life, one possibly filled with loose-leaf teas. Sniffing Gabriel’s big pockets from the other end of the hospital’s hallway, the doctors talked him into a pair of brand new, out of the box lungs as well. With enticing words, the patient was made to feel as if life would afford him another chance to feel childhood running through the veins again, much like in the TV images advertised for the procedure, in which blonde boys run joyously in open fields of daffodils. This presumption gave Gabriel hope for renewal. And he embraced it fully. The professor in charge of his transplant boasted the necessary experience to carry the surgery successfully.
In the operating room, a room full of masculine pride and intellect, the human drama commenced. The professor, surrounded by his three assistants, began the medical procedure. The general atmosphere reeked of human indifference, monetary greed and vacation plans. Gabriel’s soul lifted above his body and dared to look beneath at the whole affair. He saw himself surrounded by the seemingly hasty medical staff. He was floating above his own surgical bed, above the progressive medical equipment the hospital had boasted itself with, above the professor’s head, and above the heads of the three assistants. Gabriel felt so big and so small, a feeling bigger than himself, bigger than life, bigger than space. He was floating in the room, becoming part of the ecstatic dance of the atoms and molecules.
Gabriel became a witness to his own transplantation taking place live, this time no TV screen in between. Recollections of the Lothbroks family came to mind, coloring its terrible Viking adventures. He clearly saw the triangle on his open chest, connecting heart and lungs. He chuckled at the whole scene, remembering the last episode of The Vikings, that last night he spent home with Tozzi. Suddenly, panic took over the professor and his three assistants. The vitals monitor signaled the urgency of taking matters into available hands: an almost flatlined waveform approached with the hurling of a locomotive breath. The professor reached for the defibrillator, shouting mechanistically, “let’s save this man’s life!” Chaos busted the only door open and the three assistants squirmed the ground like worms at the impending sound of a pesticide can sprayed over them in full force. The dooming flatlined waveform has reached the station. And was there to stay.
“The man is dead,” declared the professor with a profound gravity, yet untouched by the slightest emotion of pain. The vitals monitor has said so. It must be real then. “There’s nothing I can do for him now,” continued the professor, taking off his gloves on the way to the door. He was washing his hands, heading for the salvation door, leaving behind the three miserable individuals to pick up the scraps of human decency which he has always refused to be bothered with in his profession. And so, he left, just a bit disappointed in himself, but only for a short minute of two. His daughters and wife were already packing their duffle bags for daddy’s promised trip to an all-inclusive resort in the Bahamas. The professor thought he would reach the blue shores, sip on a cool margarita, soak in the ocean’s salts brought close to his nostrils by the grace of wind, and put on those few extra pounds which come as courtesy of enticing daily buffets. Gabriel, the man, would soon vanish from the professor’s thoughts. Pppooofff!
“But I didn’t die,” whispered Gabriel to a room filled with people who didn’t have ears to listen. “…I didn’t die” “…didn’t die” “…die.” The resilient echo kept fighting its fight. The three miserable assistants now conducted their fragmented dialogue in an atmosphere of confusion. “What if we try to resuscitate?” “No use, call the guards to remove his body from the bed?” “His open eyes terrorize me.” “I can’t bear the looks” “Stop the lament, the morgue is his place of rest now, with the dead ones.” “It’s normal, do you hear me?” Their cries and noises were ringing in Gabriel’s ears with the rapacity of a jungle cat crowning the culmination of its hunting game.
All this time, from above, Gabriel tried desperately to offer the men a glimpse of evidence that his existence was real. He descended a bit to reach a more equal plane, one that could make some sort of communication possible between him and the three men, and hollered his “Can you hear me fellow humans? I am here” in their ears, moving from the left ear to the right one of each man. One of the assistants, the one who wore his dark hair in a ponytail—now covered by a pathetic hospital grade shower cap—the one who hated deodorants, the one who always chanted his Hare Krishna mantra in the solitude of his room, the one abandoned by a sculptural girlfriend who much too often scoffed at the boy’s spiritual beliefs, the one who unintentionally bragged a pair of dark, masculine eyes which evoked a suave gentleness of femininity, heard Gabriel’s penetrating voice. “Yes, I can hear you,” whispered he, a bit timorous at the thought of being detected by his colleagues and taken for a complete wacko, word he heard before in social circles. “Then what are you doing with my body?” insisted Gabriel, with hand gestures that didn’t match the sublime terror reflected in his eyes. “We’re taking you to the morgue, in a black plastic bag, blacker than death itself,” admitted the boy. “At the morgue?” Gabriel’s eyes widened with amazement. He just couldn’t believe how decisions were made down below now that he belonged to a different realm of reality. He witnessed first-hand the atoms and molecules dancing their ecstatic dance around him.
“Don’t take me to the morgue, folks, I am alive,” begged Gabriel, yet his composure betrayed a total loss of hope in the power of human comprehension. “I know you are,” the boy firmly implanted his words in Gabriel’s ear, “but my power ends here. The vitals monitor insists that you are dead and the professor left for Bahamas.” And just like that, the resilient echo kept fighting its fight. “Gabriel, you are but bones” “…you are but bones” “…are but bones” “…but bones” “…bones.”
(c) Raluca Comanelea
A seagull shrieks outside Ksenia’s window then whirls away to skim over the breakers. It’s the same damn bird that always wakes her at 4 am, an hour before she rises. She yawns and gives it the finger, thinking Why do I even bother going to bed? I, Ksenia Orekhov, am going to shoot that bird.
Sliding into a silk dressing gown she heads for the shower. It’s Friday and her day off, but she hates to lie in bed. It’s a waste of time. Unlike Von, Ksenia works for a living as a part-time IT security specialist, since she refuses to benefit from what her mother Vonya calls ‘tributes for love’. This gets translated by the Revenue Office as ‘living off immoral earnings.’ Their sea-front penthouse flat is conveniently close to Brighton Rail Station. Each working morning Ksenia wakes at five to get the six-o-nine train into Victoria, running for the connection that gets her to the office in Twickenham for 8 am. She was lucky to find a new company that didn’t examine passports and work visas too closely.
She sighs as she towels herself, looking into the mirror at her rake-thin body. ‘So stylish to be so thin, my dear,’ Von always says. She quite likes her hair which is blonde with a little help and has a natural tendency to frizz in the morning. Von says it’s because Leo’s probably her father. Ksenia drops the wet towel as though it’s contaminated by the thought, and takes a clean one, thinking, Oh God I hope not. I wonder if there’s a way of getting someone’s genes out of your body. It makes me sick to think I’ve got his sleazy DNA coiling all through me like letters in a stick of Brighton rock. She dries her hair efficiently, trying to blast the idea out of her head. Anyway, Von said ‘probably’. Twenty-four years ago, she must have had a lot more men to choose from than a kitten-kicker like Leo. With a last blast her hair’s smooth again. Staring into the mirror as she applies her make-up, she examines her narrow face, her expressive dark-blue eyes sombre and thoughtful. I don’t look anything like him. I wish Most were my father.
Von’s men have come and gone but Most is a constant in Ksenia’s life. He’s a bit of an antique, but luckily his bank balance is as healthy as a gym bunny. It’s a powerful attraction for Von, addict shopper in Brighton’s Lanes. He has the friable, cultivated elegance of a courtly Spanish grandee, and he’s very fond of Ksenia. Grabbing jeans, shirt, and pants from the floor she slides into her clothes and ankle boots and heads for the galley kitchen.
Time for a cup of coffee and the first ciggie of the day—food’s not her goal. Von’s Sobranies in their open silver tray tempt her, but she needs the swifter jolt from her Egyptian brand. She leans on the breakfast bar, dismissing Von’s lover boy Leo from her mind and drawing in peace of mind from the shifting shades of the seascape framed by the floor-to-ceiling windows. Joyfully inhaling the morning’s signature scent of coffee and camel-dung cigarettes, she relaxes her shoulders and thinks of her last meeting with Most. That job paid for Von’s last destructive raid on her credit card. Maybe he won’t forget her. Her Blackberry whines and she flicks it to scroll the text message:
Meet me Vanuzzis 10 am LGW
Bring suitcase two days. Most
Ksenia smiles as she sends ‘OK’, making a mental note to take her Russian and UK passports. In another ten minutes she’s packed a bag; she’s used to it. It’s a job. Scribbling a note to Vonya, (‘Away three days with Most. Taken credit cards. Behave.’), she runs down the four flights and out the door.
Gatwick North heaves with frantic movement like a City pub at closing time. Ksenia looks through a throng of shuffling, sweaty travellers to the haven of the bar and sees Most relaxing in an armchair reading the Washington Post, a faint smile on his face. He knows the truths behind the newsprint. Glancing up he sees Ksenia looking his way and rises, folding his newspaper. His face lights up as he walks towards her with his arms held out.
‘It’s been too long, devushka dorogaya.’
The smells of sandalwood and cigarettes on his elegant overcoat are reassuringly familiar to Ksenia. She snuffs up remembered comfort in his arms, savouring his ‘dear girl’ endearment. Good to know she can count on his remembering past successes.
He pats her back and releases her, beckoning to someone over her shoulder. ‘My business in Washington went well. Now we’re going to Biggin Hill; I’ve a charter waiting. Leonard here will drive us.’
‘Are we going to Petersburg again?’
He nods. It’s typical of Most to take a charter flight. She can’t imagine him in the company of ordinary travellers. They’d sense him as a herd of sheep sense a predator in their midst.
Tall as a plane tree and clad in a suit of sombre grey, Leonard uses his height and powerful shoulders to cut a path through the throng like a scythe. A Mercedes is waiting; the short drive brings them to one of Biggin Hill’s charter plane hangars where a neat, needle-nosed Lear jet sits on the tarmac. Silent Leonard the chauffeur becomes Leonard the pilot as they complete the departure process and board.
‘We’re flying into Pskov; it’s less busy, and from there Leonard will drive us to the hotel. We can pick up the M20.’ Most tucks a cashmere blanket around Ksenia’s shoulders as she settles into the cream leather seat. ‘Try to sleep.’
Two hours later they land on the charter runway at Pskov and pass through the Arrivals hangar at speed. A Volga V12 Coupe is waiting for Leonard the driver.
Ksenia runs her hand over the gleaming bonnet of the classic car, admiring the retro styling.
‘You keep the old ways, then?’
Patting the car, Most exchanges a glance with Leonard. ‘It has its uses; this one was bought in Moscow. The glass is bullet-proof.’ He ushers Ksenia gently into the back seat and sits next to his driver, taking a file of papers from the glovebox. As the car speeds through the dusky afternoon Ksenia takes her i-POD from the pocket of her leather jacket and pops in her Buds, closing her eyes again. The only way to travel in this country is with rapper Oxxymiron’s voice guiding her back to her roots.
Entering Primorskaya on the city’s outskirts, the brutalist ranks of stone tower blocks in Ulitsa Nalichnaya come into view: her mother’s birthplace. No wonder she took the quickest route out of here, Ksenia thinks. I would too. They pass Moskovskiy railway station and the graffiti-covered garages between Ligovsky Prospekt and Ulitsa Vosstaniya in the city centre, old and perilous playgrounds for her friends. The main streets of Petersburg have arched entrances that lead to through to a timeless warren of enclosed squares called dvor, one of the most characteristic features of the city. Ksenia finds them fascinating, and very useful too. They’re an ancient stone maze in which pursuers can be lost with ease; she knows them like the back of her hand.
‘No 14 again?’ Ksenia asks, and Most nods. She smiles, as she likes the gracious Italianate hotel on the Moyka Embankment, part of the Venetian canal landscape created by Peter the Great. Most’s favourite poet Puschkin has a historical connection with the house and its opulent fin de siècle décor makes Most feel at home. It’s there he’ll wait as she stalks the target he sets. She never misses.
(c) Jean Cooper Moran
“You called me fat.”
Mike shook his head and sighed. Never in their six years of being together or six months of engagement had he ever said anything close to that statement.
“No, I didn’t. I never said that.” Mike said.
“But you didn’t defend me! When Zach said I didn’t need any more cookies and then LOOKED AT ME you didn’t tell him to shut the fuck up. You said nothing.” Amy crossed her arms and looked out the car window.
True, she had gained a little bit of weight since they’d been together, but nothing that would constitute as fat. Mike had even gained weight too. He was still the larger of the pair, and no one considered him fat. They both looked good in their striped Christmas sweaters tonight.
The drive home from Avonworth to Greensburg was long enough as it was, but now it was going to last twice as long if not three times as long. The weather was good, just a few of the first snowflakes of winter, little dreams waiting to pile up into nightmares, which helped the drive. Mike thought he could take a short cut to make the drive even shorter, but now he was doubting whether or not he remembered the directions right.
Zach’s ugly sweater party was a good time while it lasted. Somehow, through the trials of young adulthood, Mike and his friends found less and less time to chill together. Just a couple of years ago they were spending time in cramped dorm rooms in college, but now they rarely had time for drinks. For one Saturday night in December though, they could all hang for a few hours together.
But that ended as soon as Zach’s couple drinks caught up with him and he started to insult the guests. Mike felt awkward as the host shot out at everyone, one by one until his sights landed on his fiancé. Amy had asked for the cookie tray so she could have exactly one cookie. It was to be her first cookie of the evening. And then Zach said she didn’t need any more unless she wanted to put an X in front of her shirt size.
Now Mike was driving his fiancé home.
“Where even are we now?” Amy was scrolling around his phone, messing with the maps.
“My boss said if we skip 376 after Pittsburgh and then head east through some suburbs, we can shave a half-hour,” Mike said.
“And you trust your boss more than Google right now?” Amy asked.
“I just want to get home,” Mike said.
“Me too. I’m gonna type in the address and you’re gonna follow it to a T.” Amy tapped the screen.
They rode in the car for a few miles listening to nothing but the weird voice coming from the phone telling them where to go. Neither Mike nor Amy noticed when the screen blipped, and their destination changed from home to a new location just a few miles down the road, before displaying Palace Road in Greensburg as the destination once again.
They were still silent as Mike drove into the home development. There was no need to look at the phone until it dinged and said they’d arrived at their destination when they were in front of a cookie-cutter two-story house. The black mailbox had 147 in red letters on the side.
Mike put the car in park. “Why are we here?”
“I don’t know,” Amy said. Her eyes were wide and she kept looking around at the identical houses all around them. “I put in our address. We should have gone to Greensburg. Look, the phone says we’re even in Greensburg!”
Mike looked at his phone. It did say they were on Palace Road, Greensburg. However, they most certainly were not. They didn’t live in this brooding gray house with the cement walkway to the front door.
“What’s wrong with your phone?” Amy opened her car door and stepped outside.
“Nothing. It got us to Zach’s apartment. I don’t know why it couldn’t get us home. Maybe if you would’ve trusted me on the shortcut, we’d be home by now,” Mike said. He was undoing his seatbelt.
“Maybe I was too fat to trust you.” Amy then slammed the car door shut.
She was going up the walk to House 147, and Mike had to run a few steps to catch her. The ice melt crunched under their feet like gnashing teeth.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going to ask whoever lives here where on God’s green earth we are, and how the hell we get back to Greensburg.”
Mike followed his fiancé up the walkway. Dead roses were in the flowerpots by the front door.
“I don’t think we should be knocking on random doors. We can just backtrack.”
“NO. I want to get home tonight. We’re asking for directions. I can’t trust you or your phone right now.” Amy said.
She then knocked on the door three times.
Mike waited three heartbeats.
The doorknob turned.
“Hello?” A middle-aged man in a black sweat suit answered the door. He opened the door only far enough to poke his head through, only far enough to strain the little lock chain. He wiped his forehead and smiled.
“Hi. I’m Amy. This is my fiancé Mike. We’re lost. Can you please tell us how to get back to 376?” Amy asked.
The man nodded and undid the chain. He opened the door wide enough that they could walk through. He then motioned for them to come in. His hands and clothes were dirty as if he’d been gardening on this dreary evening.
“Absolutely. Please come in. I can help you,” the man smiled.
Amy walked inside the house. Mike made eye contact with the homeowner’s hard, blue eyes before following his fiancé inside. When the door closed behind them, they had no idea that the reason Mike’s phone didn’t take them to Greensburg was because of a little setup in the basement of this house designed to lure them to the same fate as the couples buried in the backyard.
The dirt hadn’t even settled on the last couple yet.
(c) Nate Ealy
“Please, do as I ask and get a taxi home… I’ll pay.”
Satisfied that Edith was securely tucked into her bed Margaret finally looked up. Edith’s concern for her was touching. Margaret knew it was ill-advised to become emotionally attached to the residents, but Edith was a sweet old lady if a little cranky.
“Have you won the lottery then, Edith?”
“Fat chance stuck in here.”
“It’s not that bad is it?”
“You get to go home every night.”
“Well this is your home now, Edith, and…”
“Yes, yes, I know; you’re trying to change the subject. Please, if you won’t take a taxi catch the bus home.”
“What’s this all about, Edith? Why don’t you want me to get a lift with Rachel?”
Edith’s eyes narrowed as her gaze flicked about the room. “I’ve seen her again – the lady in white.”
“Not this again, Edith, we’ve talked about this,” said Margaret taking a step back, distancing herself not only from the old lady but also her dementia inspired delusions.
“I’ve seen her standing behind you and Rachel.”
“Can you see her now?”
“Well there you go. Now try to sleep. I must get going or Rachel will leave without me.”
“Good! It might save your life.”
“That’s quite enough of that, Edith thank you.”
“It’s not my fault - I didn’t ask for this gift.”
“It’s just your imagination, Edith or perhaps your medication. I’ll mention it to Doctor Richards.”
“Was it my imagination when I warned you that Dorothy was about to die or that other old biddy…”
“Yes, Phyllis – scatty old crone she was.”
“Dorothy was very old and Phyllis, bless her, had been ill for ages.”
“But I told you they were about to pass on.”
“Yes, you did, but as I said, there were good reasons and the timing of their deaths was just a coincidence. Now you really have got to stop this nonsense, you’re upsetting the other residents.”
“Inmates you mean,” interrupted Edith with a sly smile.
“No, residents. You don’t want Mr. Reynolds, moving you to another home, do you?”
“At least I’d be away from Rachel. Nasty piece of work that one. Still, if the lady in white is right, she won’t be around much longer.”
“Edith! That’s a horrible thing to say.”
Edith snorted her derision but had the good grace to avert her eyes from Margaret’s angry gaze.
“You ready, Margaret?” Rachel asked as she came bustling into the room. She didn’t bother acknowledging Edith.
“Excellent. I don’t want to be late for Pilates. You sure you don’t want to come?”
“No thanks. It’s been a long day.”
“Suit yourself.” Rachel turned and headed for the door.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Edith when hopefully your disposition will be a little brighter,” said Margaret.
“I wouldn’t hold your breath,” sneered Rachel.
Edith’s mumbled response never reached Rachel’s ears.
Edith waited until both women were just outside her room before deliberately knocking her bedtime drink all over her clean sheets. She then began to wail pitifully. Within seconds Margaret was back at her side. An indifferent Rachel loitered by the door.
“What’s the matter, Edith?” asked Margaret.
“I spilled my drink,” sobbed Edith pointing at the wet patch.
“How on Earth did you do that, I’ve only been gone thirty seconds?”
“Let the night shift deal with it, Margaret. She probably did it on purpose and I’ve got to go,” called Rachel, impatiently checking her watch.
“I can’t leave her like this, Rachel; it’s not fair. Besides, they’re busy doing the meds; you know they can’t be disturbed while they’re doing that. I’ve no choice.”
“Sure you have. Our shift’s over – let her be someone else’s problem now.”
“Well I can. Sorry, Margaret I’ve got to go. It’s just a job,” and with that Rachel flounced down the hallway.
“Are you cross with me, Margaret?”
“No, Edith, I’m just disappointed. I really needed that lift home. Now I’ve got to catch two buses and face a daunting walk.”
“I’m sorry about that, but I don’t regret it.”
“Rachel was right; you did spill your drink on purpose!”
“I had to do something to protect you. Now I know you’re going to be alright because the lady in white just left with Rachel.”
“Don’t start on about that again, I’m not in the mood. I thought we were friends, Edith?”
“We are, that’s why I did it.”
“Well you’ve a funny way of showing it.”
After changing the bed Margaret said good night to Edith and left.
Margaret was one of life’s lovely people and Edith hadn’t enjoyed upsetting her, but if it saved her life, then it was worth the few days of distant behaviour she was likely to receive. She’d come around eventually. Satisfied that she had done the right thing, Edith drifted off into a deep sleep.
“Morning, Edith, it’s time to get up,” said a cheery voice.
Edith could hear somebody busying themselves in her room. She opened her eyes to see an unfamiliar face smiling down at her. Whoever it was they were far too jovial for that time of morning. “There she is. Time to get up, Edith; there’s a nice cup of tea waiting over there for you whilst I make your bed.”
“Who are you?” asked Edith brusquely.
“My name’s Maria, I’m from the Agency and I’m going to be looking after you today.”
“Where’s Margaret?” A cold dread washed over Edith. Had she been wrong? Had the lady in white been after Margaret all along? The colour drained from her face.
“I know I’m a stranger, Edith, but there’s no need to look so worried. I don’t bite.”
“Where’s Margaret?” Edith repeated.
It looked to be a real struggle for Maria to wipe the smile from her face. “I’m afraid Margaret won’t be in for a while. She’s not feeling too well,” she explained as she helped Edith into the chair.
“What’s up with her?”
Maria stopped what she was doing and turned to face Edith. “One of the other ladies who works here… well there was an accident… she was…”
“…killed,” finished Edith matter-of-factly.
“Yes. Rachel, I think they said her name was. I didn’t know her I’m afraid. Anyway, her death has hit some of her colleagues hard, and some, including Margaret, have called in sick. It’s sure to be upsetting for you residents too. Now drink your tea then we’ll get you dressed and downstairs for your breakfast.”
The home was unusually subdued that morning as the terrible news sunk in. The Agency carers who had been drafted in did their best to keep the residents’ spirits up, but nobody had the heart for interaction of any sort and eventually the staff took the hint and left the residents to their own devices, most of whom, soon nodded off.
The next few days dragged, Edith choosing to spend long periods alone in her room, Rachel’s death hitting her harder than she’d expected, draining her. She was just dozing off in her armchair one day when she became aware someone was watching her. She looked up and smiled in recognition.
“Margaret! How are you?” The dark smudges beneath her eyes were clue enough.
“I’m okay,” replied Margaret quietly. She sat on the edge of Edith’s bed and stared at the old lady.
“I’m so glad you’re alright, Margaret.”
“I don’t know how you knew something bad was going to happen, all I know is that I’ve lost a good friend, but I could have lost so much more, but didn’t, thanks to you. I will always be grateful, Edith, but please, I don’t want to hear any more premonitions. The police say an idiot tried to jump a red light and it could have happened to anybody, but you knew different, didn’t you?”
“All I know is that when the lady in white appears it means somebody is about to pass on. She tends to shadow the unfortunate soul for a while beforehand. I’d seen her around Rachel and was worried that if you went with her, she’d claim you too. Only by separating you could I be certain.”
“And now she’s gone?” asked Margaret hopefully.
“She disappeared that night… but came back yesterday.”
“Oh dear, not again. Who is she…? No… I don’t want to know.”
“I’m truly sorry about Rachel.”
“Let’s talk of this no more. I’m coming back to work Thursday, and I want you to promise me that when I do there will be no more talk of ladies in white. Deal?”
“Deal,” replied Edith.
Margaret leant forward and kissed Edith tenderly on the forehead and then left. Edith watched her leave and then slowly turned her gaze to the far corner of the bedroom.
“Is it time?”
The lady in white smiled and slowly nodded.
“I’m ready,” said Edith closing her eyes. She wondered what she would see when she opened them again.
(c) Jeff Jones
One in three men has a criminal record by the time they’re forty years old. Mark Ashworth wasn’t one of them, and as he approached his birthday, he wondered if he’d been missing something. He’d broken the law, of course. Driven without a seat belt, smoked a little weed, bought a hooky watch. But none of that counted.
One Sunday morning he lay in bed watching the rectangle of light on the duvet. His wife snuffled alongside him, and his twin sons were already moving in the next room. The strip of light stretched and thickened, like the day ahead. Mowing the grass, and a barbeque with the in-laws. And then back to work, forty-five hours of delivering parcels and getting hooted at.
The ceiling needed painting.
He hated painting.
Three options as he saw it. Stealing a car gave the tantalising possibility of a police pursuit, but was offset by the likelihood of getting caught. It also required expertise he didn’t have. He could rob a shop, a chemist or a newsagents. He wouldn’t even need a weapon, just say he had one. Even thinking about it made his pulse speed. The selection of the premises, the recce, the anticipation for days beforehand. And the moment itself: the spine-tingling shouted demand and the hotfoot escape. Its brevity was both a positive, and a negative – all that endeavour for so little cream.
Which left burgling a house. Not only did it not require special equipment or skills, but the adrenalin rush would be protracted.
His wife’s raggedy voice interrupted. ‘I’d kill for a cup of tea.’
In the kitchen Mark filled the kettle. Would night-time or daytime be better? Would he need an alibi? What about dogs? What would he steal? The kettle overflowed.
On Thursday after his shift, Mark put on his running gear and booked off with his supervisor. His boss expected it, he ran home twice a week. Halfway there, he ducked under a broken fence panel and took the cut-through behind a new estate. His usual route. As he passed the gaps between identikit houses he saw mothers with young children arriving home from nursery. The local school turned out half an hour later. He knew who walked, and who car shared. He knew who was friendly with who, who was very friendly. He knew all sorts.
At the last house, he checked behind him and stopped. The drive was empty, the woman already having left in the car to collect her two children. He felt sick. It was now or never.
He climbed over the gate and hid behind the shed. Damp logs riddled with mushrooms were piled up.
No one shouted, no dog barked.
Even so, he couldn’t move. What if they were hard up? What if one or both of them worked for a charity, or ran the local cub scouts? They were excuses. Either he was going to do it, or he wasn’t. Time was ticking. Twenty-five minutes and she’d be back.
He snuck out from the shed and walked across the grass to the conservatory at the back of the house. On Tuesday he’d checked for an alarm box and a camera. He felt hot and cold all over, like his first time with a girl.
Time slowed, each unfolding second separate, and crisp as snow.
Inside the conservatory were armchairs and a wicker divan. Magazines lay strewn on a table. A window was slightly ajar.
Mark pulled on gloves. He slid a hand under the frame, unclipped the latch, and opened the window wide. Burgling was easy.
He climbed in, feeling giddy. For a few minutes he could do what he liked. He went to the sideboard and opened a drawer. Placemats and paper napkins. No one kept anything of value in a conservatory. Cash, valuables, jewels would be upstairs, or in the cornflakes packet. He laughed at himself.
The sound shocked him. He was there, burgling. He wondered if he’d technically committed a crime if he hadn’t actually taken anything.
He opened the glass door to the hall and stepped–.
Mark came to with the worst headache he could remember. His vision was blurred and he could only see out of one eye. He couldn’t move his arms – or his legs. He was tied to a wooden chair.
A man stepped forward and punched Mark in the ear.
He felt excruciating pain. His ear rang and his head throbbed. The man feinted another strike, and Mark twisted his head away. Even that hurt. He’d never considered the woman’s husband might be at home.
‘Who the fuck are you?’ The man jabbed a finger on Mark’s forehead, then stepped back. He was bald, squat, and built like a boxer.
‘Mark – Mark Ashworth.’ Speaking hurt. ‘You don’t know me.’ He sounded whiney, like someone else.
Keeping his eye open was an effort. He could smell urine. He looked down and realised he’d pissed himself.
The man sniggered and left the room. He returned with a car battery and jump leads, then disappeared again. Making several journeys, the man brought a hammer and a pair of pliers, a bucket of water, a baseball bat. He arranged them on the tiled floor.
Mark felt sick. He wished he’d never been so stupid, so middle-aged. He should have bought a PlayStation.
The man walked forward. Swaying his head to avoid another blow, Mark saw white stars. The man rapped his head as if he were knocking at a door. ‘Who the fuck?’
‘I drive a van, deliver parcels. I live in Kellitch.’ He swallowed, desperate for a sip of water. ‘This is the first time I’ve done anything like this – I won’t do it again.’
‘I won’t do it again,’ said the man in a high-pitched voice. He sat down on the wicker divan, and see-sawed his head from side to side. Tattoos of swallows on his neck.
‘Tell me something of interest and I’ll let you go.’
‘Like a funny story?’
The man opened a can of beer and took a swig. He leant back and put an arm along the back of his chair as if he was welcoming a friend. His forearm fatty and pink as a leg of pork.
‘Is that what you think this is, a joke?’
Mark shook his head. He couldn’t think. He promised himself when he got out of this, he would buy his wife flowers and take the boys to the seaside. They’d all go, make a day of it. But first he had to get out of it.
‘What about a discount code for the company where I work? They make steel products: bars, angle iron, box sections, tubes.’
The man hurled his half-empty can at Mark, catching him under the eye. The can skittered away, spilling beer across the tiles.
His captor left the room, and clumped upstairs. Mark’s eye stung, but he tried to concentrate. He had no money, no access to any money. He had no special skills, couldn’t predict the future.
The man thudded back down the stairs and re-entered the room. He sat on the wicker divan and placed a handgun alongside him.
‘To help you focus.’
Mark looked away, and looked back. He wasn’t mistaken.
He hurt all over, and kept hoping it was all a dream and he’d wake up in a sweat. He couldn’t do any magic tricks, or sing, or tap-dance. The kids beat him at memory games at Christmas. His wife ran the household, booked their holidays, organised repairs. He delivered parcels, sometimes to the wrong address. When – if – he got out of this, he’d learn to play the piano, and take the kids camping. He’d watch less television, volunteer at a charity. Climb Ben Nevis. His life had to be worth something.
The man aimed the gun at Mark.
An idea came to him.
‘How are you defining “of interest”?’
‘Don’t get fucking smart.’
Mark knew one thing about this man – but telling him could backfire.
‘You got something?’
The balance of power had shifted, but Mark still felt uneasy. He was risking his life. No longer could he feel his bruised eye or cut face. The prickly sensation he’d felt as he approached the house returned. He wasn’t going to climb a mountain or learn to play the piano. If he got out of this, he was going to burgle again. The buzz like nothing he’d experienced. Before, he’d been scrabbling on the ground, but now he was flying around the moon.
The man picked up the gun, and pointed it at Mark.
‘Your wife’s having an affair with the young builder next door.’
The word was quiet, clipped.
‘I heard you.’
The man walked over to the window and gently headbutted the glass. He wheeled round, put the gun under his chin and fired.
A few minutes later, Mark heard the sweet song of police sirens. As they strengthened, he hummed along.
(c) James Ellson
No matter how long he stared at the fuel gauge, he knew that it would not budge. Out here in the middle of the countryside, in the middle of a forest, in the middle of the track that doubled as a foot path and road, he was stranded in his brand-new Vauxhall, faced with a long walk.
He'd even forgotten to bring his mobile phone, so there was no way of communicating to anybody unless he walked to the nearest phone-box, or somebody was to pass by, which seemed unlikely, as for the past two hours he'd been driving, he hadn't seen a soul, not even a sheep or cow. He thought it ironic that he'd run out of petrol down a country lane. He knew it was an old trick that many people used. Suddenly ‘running out of petrol’ down a lover's lane was something his friends used to do.
Paul Barton was stuck here alone, with a diamond ring in his pocket for his girlfriend of four years. He was nervous. He had been driving from his mothers to her parents where she lived and would have popped the question upon meeting her. The fact he'd forgotten the mobile, and forgotten to refuel, he blamed on his fear of asking her. He didn't know why he was afraid. Perhaps it was her response.
Maybe she would reject him, and leave him, but that was worst-case scenario. He didn't think she would do that, at least not without a good reason. At 25, unlike others his age, he was ready to settle down, and he thought, and he hoped, he'd found the right person to do that with.
It was 1:30pm and the sun blazed in the sky. Through the archway of trees along the path, sunlight filtered through and dappled the ground, and his car. He knew he would have to get out and walk. There was nothing he could do here. He got out and locked it. There was nowhere to walk back to. He would have to continue onwards.
The path wound through the forest, deeper and deeper. Birds chirped somewhere in the trees and the leaves rustled slightly. He'd never felt so alone, so lost. He quite liked the solitude, and thought he may come back to it once he'd gotten home, but thoughts of it turning dark, and sounds from within the forest made him quicken his pace. He knew the path had to lead somewhere. When he usually returned from his mother's, it was along a traditional motorway route, but such was his haste for his response, he thought that this way would be a shortcut. Perhaps it was, but it didn't matter if there was no petrol in the tank.
He walked for at least two miles before something made him slow down and stop. It was footsteps. They seemed different, and he looked around into the forest and soon saw what it was that was heading right towards him. It was a horse. A huge black stallion that wound through the trees to his right. It soon walked onto the path and stopped before him. Paul could see that it was scrutinizing him. It reminded him of a horse that a medieval knight would ride. Its coat was sleek and shiny, its eyes black and piercing. It walked around him, still watching him, before it turned and walked back into the forest, out of Paul's vision.
He was still picturing a knight sat astride it when he thought: ‘Hold on, why is there a horse on its own out here with no rider?, and with no gear for it to be ridden?’. He looked around. Perhaps somebody was looking for it. There was no-one. He continued onwards and didn't think much more of it until he finally reached a small village where the path merged into a proper road.
He knew there was no point in ringing anybody. He needed a can of petrol, but he doubted that this place had a petrol station, so knew he would have to ask someone if they maybe had a spare can in their garage he could buy. He wandered around until he saw a man outside his bungalow, dressed in blue overalls, examining the engine of a land rover. Tools and engine parts were scattered all around him. Paul slowly approached.
"Excuse me," he said. The man stopped what he was doing and looked up. He nodded his acknowledgement. He must have been in his late forties. He wore thick glasses and his hair was greasy and matted, his face smudged with black. He wiped his hands on an oily rag.
"Sorry to bother you, but I don't suppose you have a spare can of petrol I could buy?"
"Sure," he said, nodding. He threw the rag onto the floor and walked towards a garage beside his house. He returned moments later with a full can and set it down, then held out his hand. "Call it a tenner," he said. Paul fumbled around for his wallet and eventually he handed him the money.
"You don't happen to know anyone who's lost a horse do you?" he asked. "There's one wandering around in the forest?".
Paul was irate, pouring the petrol in his car, and then slamming the door behind him. How could his time be wasted like that? He was nervous enough as it was with his impending proposal. The man had told him of Cherry and Jake, horse and owner, over four hundred years ago. For some reason, in the middle of the same forest, they became separated, and none ever found the other. Now, apparently, Cherry's ghost wanders the forest, still looking, but if she see's you, and you're not her owner, you do not survive long afterwards. Paul angrily started the engine.
In the morning, a man walking his dog found the car in the same place, its engine running, and behind the wheel, Paul staring at him with a blood-drained face and dead, lifeless eyes.
(c) John Jones
Her knitted face, whiskery with stray wool at the edges, is tea-stained with discontent. It emerges from a puff of chalk dust like the baddies in the VHS films I watch on rainy Sunday afternoons.
She smells like the inside of my Granny’s cupboard that time the old water tank burst – stale, dank and mildly septic. I fancy her square brown shoes house mangled toeless feet, like Roald Dahl’s Witches. It’s my favourite book; I hardly need to read the words now; I know it so well. It sits warmly on the shelf, moulded into the shape of my hands. It neighbours my other favourites: Polly Pockets, Connect Four, and a jam jar of my best felt tips.
The drawer of my beside cabinet holds other treasures: a stone with a tree pattern cast through the middle like lightening; a lazy spiral fossil I found on a beach; haystacks of paper dolls; and – underneath all that - my hidden notebook. The secret pages are filled with hideous portraits of my teacher. I colour her skin and hair the same hue as the fag-stained wallpaper at my Great-Uncle’s prefab. I stab in a grotty biro to scribble over her mouldy auld face and Thaterchite skirts.
And here we are again, on a calendar-boxed Wednesday: little bodies on little chairs, with splayed metal legs, like a beastie cowering under a shoe. We are small. And contained until lunch time, jingling about inside like buttons shoogled in a biscuit tin.
Patent feet tap-tap-tap like dominoes and frilly ankles dream of sparkly Skip-its and weathered footballs. Our scabby knees wear fierce sheddy medallions. The playground calls to us through the classroom window, in a sing-song voice of puddles and tarmac.
I join the dots between the freckles on my left arm. Jenny sucks on her ponytail, the end as wet as a paintbrush. Mo repeatedly flips his eyelids inside out, like a hi-fi ejecting a tape. Craig pretends to stick a compass into his thumb and grimaces at us with a pantomime of gore and blood loss. My chest jerks up and down, my shoulders join in, and, like air escaping out a balloon - out pops the squeakiest of giggles.
With the whisp of the giggle-trill still on my lips, I immediately feel the spotlight land on me, and me alone; icy and deep, and it expands to be larger than the classroom itself.
‘Lisa, come up to the board now.’ You have sunk my battleship.
I look ahead and a complicated question squats on the board. Which she knows I don’t understand. We haven’t been taught this yet. I realise she’s going to make An Example of me.
I’m like a remote-control car, forcing myself across the classroom, pushing on primary-coloured buttons. Everything around me is now in between-channels static, at once both close and out of reach. My insides liquidised; I suddenly wish I could ask to go to the toilets. I could lock myself inside and wait out the day amongst the haunted windows and rattling Victorian pipework, painted in flaking pink. Everyone shrinks back from me, leaves withering on a jaggy bramble bush: my fate is contagious.
The teacher points her finger, gnarled like a monkey nut husk, at the black board. If her wizened potato-face knew how to, it would be smirking. But I know she doesn’t have the imagination.
After a second and a lifetime, I reach the apologetic black board; it was made for greater things. It smells like sighs. I pick up the largest, least-used piece of white chalk, thinking it won’t yet have been poisoned by her claws. I fumble, and it drops to the ground soundlessly. I bend to retrieve it, feeling its smoothness in my palm, like my tree-stone.
The chalk tries to whisper me possible solutions. But I can’t do anything. There are numbers and letters on the board; all heaped into a pile. I don’t know what to do with this tenement alphabet with numerical sheets hung out to dry.
She makes me stand there until I cry.
And I am red-eyed with chalky fingertips and angry crescents on my palms where I’ve sunk my nails into the flesh. Like birds flying off into the distance. Once more contained within my seat, I feel other childish eyes upon me.
After the bell releases me, I run home quickly and alone, escaping from my classmates and their unblinking eyes and our smallness. I don’t tell my mum. Instead, I take out my notebook and I scribble and rage and rip through pages with heat and sickness and shame. That night, I fall asleep with it clutched in both my hands, like a shield.
The next day, at that same no man’s land time between morning break and lunch, the teacher vomits out another impossible question across the black board.
This time, there is no hair sucking, no eyelid gymnastics, no mime acts. We sit inside the silence, eyes downwards and obedient. The classroom is set up as a torturous game of Guess Who. The teacher enjoys the wait, pacing back and forth with her hands behind her back, like the captain of a slave ship (which our school history books don’t tell us about).
And we wait. I try to hold my book in my head so it occupies the space; my drawings laced with sharp-angled graffiti, the words like dry black-eyed beans left soaking in me, overnight. They expand. My secret makes me Big.
But this time I am not selected, and I exhale a guilty relief that goes from my clenched fists down to my curled-up toes, and oozes out under the classroom door.
This time, eyes are off me. The teacher’s hook pierces her catch, and Clara shuffles up to the board. Clara who has Mrs Green come in on Mondays and Tuesdays for her reading and writing. Clara who still needs help buttoning up her jacket and lacing her shoes. Clara who just had the patch removed from her right eye last week. Clara who blinks both eyes, surprised, and moves the chalk from one hand to the other, as if she’s forgotten which hand she writes so inexpertly with.
The teacher waits until Clara cries.
It doesn’t take long this time, maybe six breaths. So clearly, the teacher hasn’t squeezed out enough from the event. Her soiled raisin eyes dart from side to side like a crow, looking for carrion.
‘Come on, now, don’t cry, Clara’, she says, raising her chin.
She looks out at her eight-year-old charges who have almost forgotten my shame from yesterday – ‘Crying doesn’t help anyone. Does it, Lisa?’.
(c) Amy B. Moreno
A reflection on the enigma of consciousness, or something.
Death is nothing like I had imagined; nothing in the least like my expectations. Altogether, a bit of a surprise: a revelation, you might say. So, if anyone tells you they know what’s coming, don’t you believe a word of it!
My consciousness, which -- I now realize -- had for some time been ebbing away, almost imperceptibly, now simply evaporated. One minute, there I was; and the next? There I wasn’t! As simple as that. I wasn’t afraid of death, you understand; I just didn’t want to be there when it happened. (That’s one nice thing about being dead: you don’t get sued for plagiarism.)
So, what is it like? I know you’re dying to know. (Sorry, but that’s what passes for a joke here in the hereafter.) Well, truth to tell, it’s a bit ordinary: like being stuck in traffic on a rainy Monday morning in February when you’re late for work: intensely frustrating and boring at the same time. Know the feeling?
Search as I might, I could see no bright light at the end of the tunnel; no choirs of angels plucking on lyres serenading me as I approached the pearly gates. No pearly gates, in fact. Whoever really believed there would be? I mean, come on! Life after death? It’s pretty much like life before birth. Remember that, do you? No, I thought not. But oblivion’s not so bad, really, once you get used to it. I like to think of it as the other ‘Big O’. It’s the only possible way to get through eternity; trust me.
Back when I was still alive, my main concern was what the food was going to be like. I know that sounds petty, but as I aged food had become more and more interesting, and it was hard to break the habit of looking forward to the next meal. Well, there wasn’t much else, was there? In my younger days, I’d worried more about the sex: would there be any? Would I get my share? Would I enjoy it? Would I still be able to...? Well, you know. But as I got older, that concern -- so compelling in my youth -- had simply wilted. Funny, that.
There was no one to ask, of course; and anyway, once your consciousness is gone, that’s pretty much it as far as meaningful communication is concerned. Game over. If I’d had a memory, I might have remembered that wonderful song by Phil Ochs: ‘When I’m Gone.’ If you don’t know it, do yourself a favor, while you still can.
Know what I miss the most? The complexity of it all. Curious, really, considering how much that got up my nose while I was still alive. Oh, how I had longed for things to be simpler! Be careful what you wish for, I guess. Complexity and meaning: that’s the heart of the matter. Now, don’t get me wrong; I never figured out the meaning of life any more than the next person, and once you’re dead it certainly doesn’t get any clearer, believe me. But I can assure you that compared with death, life is full of meaning; simply bursting with the stuff... whatever it is. I miss that.
Death is just so damn stupid, you know? Same old same old, from now to eternity. You think life seems pointless sometimes? Just wait till you try a bit of death! ‘Thank goodness for oblivion’ is what I say. Where would we be without it?
All my life, I’d known exactly how I was going to die... or so I’d thought. I’d be driving down this two-lane road somewhere -- dark trees on both sides, slightly menacing -- and there, coming towards me in the other lane, I’d see this white painter’s truck with a ladder strapped to the roof.
Was there perhaps a bump in the road? Or maybe the driver swerved to avoid something. I would never know exactly how it happened, but at that precise moment, one of the bungee cords holding the ladder to the roof rack -- having been stretched a little too far a little too often -- decided to give up the ghost and take me with it. Couldn’t it have held on for another five seconds? Two would have been enough. But no.
I’d seen it so often in my imagination: the ladder flying towards the windshield, targeting my frontal lobe like a heat-seeking missile. There’d be this split second when I realized there was no way out, and then...? No longer driving down the road; embarked instead on an eternity of oblivion.
I was so sure of my imagined destiny that what actually happened came as a huge surprise; a double surprise, in fact, if you’re keeping count. You see, I was driving down this two-lane road -- dark trees on both sides, slightly menacing -- when suddenly, out of nowhere, this kid runs out in front of the car, chasing a soccer ball. It’s a healthy sport, by and large, soccer; not too many injuries unless you get into the professionals, or get hit by a car.
To this day, I don’t know how I avoided him. Reflexes I didn’t know I had took over and brought the car to a swerving screeching stop. So far, so good. But guess what? Right behind me there was this white painter’s truck with a ladder strapped to the roof. The bungee cords didn’t stand a chance.
Talk about being blindsided! Have you ever been hit on the back of your head by a flying ladder? No? Me neither. I don’t know how it missed me, but it did. Made a right mess of the dashboard though, as it ploughed through into the engine compartment leaving me unscathed... physically, at least. I never drove again.
I actually died on a Saturday, some years later. It had been an altogether bad day, right from the start. All my life I’d hated Saturdays -- nasty, schizophrenic days -- and now I know why: one of them was lying in wait for me. I awoke to find myself out of sorts and coffee, had a row with my wife -- only to remember, belatedly, that she had been dead for three years -- and then dropped my dentures down the garbage disposal. After that, death came as a bit of a relief.
And mine was an easy death, as deaths go. A lot easier than the one I’d imagined. Just this piercing pain from out of nowhere skewering my left temple, and then...?
“Stroke,” said a cute paramedic, bending over me.
‘As in caress?’ I wondered, hopefully, as I lay on the stretcher. ‘This might not be so bad after all.’ But no.
My heart gave one final, half-hearted little squeeze that pushed my reluctant corpuscles a few measly and unnecessary centimeters further down my clogged arteries; I sucked in one last breath and slowly began to turn blue.
Dead on arrival, apparently. I was in no fit state to argue.
I remember thinking: ‘That’s it? There must be more to death than this!’ But no, not really.
“What about your footprints in the sands of time?” you ask. (That’s your plagiarism, not mine.) Well, my genetic legacy, such as it was -- that alphabet soup which, for a while, had spelled ‘me’ -- was destined to fade like the Cheshire Cat, diluted generation after generation until it was no longer recognizable, even by those who might have cared.
And my atoms, what of them? I had high hopes for some: a couple of carbons in particular that had served me well. I watched with interest as each one penetrated the future in pursuit of its own destiny, its unique trajectory across eternity; but neither of them amounted to much.
In spite of that, I’d like to think that they were altered in some way -- ennobled, perhaps? -- by the time we’d spent together; that the singular experience of being a part of me had somehow rubbed off on them. But it hadn’t, of course.