Someone, or something, was stealing Jopson’s apple-blossom.
Three small apple trees in pots stood on his front path. A supermarket bargain. It was their first year for blossom and every bud, as it burst into colour, was carefully counted. Four for Lady Sudeley, three for New Beth’s Pool and two for Pitmaston Pineapple. He’d fallen for the names. But each night, for three consecutive nights, a blossom had disappeared from Lady S.
Enough was enough.
So Jopson went to the library and took out a book on fruit trees.
Chapter 7: Diseases & Pests. But it wasn’t canker, or scab or mildew. So, a thief. And what a list of scoundrels: badgers, foxes, rats, mice, squirrels and deer. Imagine: a deer in Dullage!
There was nothing for it – he’d have to stay up and keep watch. Like Morse. Just thinking about it made Jopson’s heart beat faster. He prepared sandwiches and a flask of coffee. Watched the clock.
Jopson stared out through a crack in the bedroom curtains. ‘Ow,’ he whispered after pinching his cheek. Staying awake was harder than he’d thought.
At half past midnight, his gate clicked open.
He couldn’t believe it. Not his neighbour Dr Fitch who never left out any bird food, and lit a smoky bonfire whenever Old Mrs Rodway hung out her washing. Jopson had half-suspected Fitch. But it wasn’t Fitch, it was Old Rodway – Dragon Breath, wearing her dressing-gown and slippers. She plucked the remaining flowers from Lady Sudeley, put them in a paper bag and shuffled off. Jopson went to bed, but couldn’t sleep. Stared at the ceiling, wondering what to do.
In the morning, Jopson knocked on Old Rodway’s door. Stood back when she opened it. She still wore her dressing-gown.
He followed her into the lounge. Ornaments and trinkets stood on every surface. He sat on the edge of the sofa and Dragon Breath slumped into the armchair. From her pocket she produced the blossom. ‘You might want to loosen your tie.’ She divided the flowers into two and handed half to Jopson. ‘Close your eyes and chew slowly.’
Jopson sat back and did as he was told.
He found himself staring at the cuckoo clock on the mantelpiece. A car-boot knick-knack, the sort of thing he might buy. It was in the style of a Swiss chalet with the clock above a thermometer and the weather pendulum at the bottom. On the right stood a man in a top hat holding an umbrella, and on the left a woman in a summer blouse.
A white blouse with bright red daisies. Her pleated skirt was a golden yellow and shimmered, like a field of wheat. The daisies on the blouse became cherries. Jopson could taste them. One of the cherries had eyes and a mouth. ‘He’s eating us,’ said the cherry. One by one the cherries began to disappear.
Jopson glanced at the weatherman in his top hat and tails, and white leggings. He tucked his shirt in and doffed his hat at the woman in the blouse. ‘Afternoon, Lady Sudeley.’ The umbrella became a cigar, a big fat blue cigar. Jopson had never smoked a cigar, never smoked anything, except Fitch’s bonfire. It felt fantastic. He stopped smoking, bit off the end and ate it. He’d seen it done in films. Tasted like fig rolls but without the rolls.
The hands on the cuckoo clock showed eleven hours had passed. Jopson was starving.
In the kitchen, Old Rodway fried up. Two eggs each. Jopson never ate two eggs, even on his birthday.
‘How did you know about apple-blossom?’
‘I read it on the world wide web. Meant to help my–’ She pointed at her mouth. ‘The blossom has to be picked at night.’
The next night they met up and picked blossom from New Beth’s Pool.
Jopson sat on Rodway’s sofa. He’d taken off his tie.
Nothing happened for a while, and he glanced across at her. Her eyes were closed, and soon he followed suit.
Jopson climbed down from the cuckoo clock and waited for Rodway. In his tails, he felt like a tiny James Bond. He was only six inches tall. Wearing a cherry blouse, six-inch Rodway whispered their mission.
Next-door, they clambered through Fitch’s cat-flap. Jopson climbed the cupboards and urinated in the kettle. But just as they were getting started, Rodway heard a noise. She jammed a paper-clip in a socket, and they scurried away, giggling like teenagers.
A shaft of sunlight woke him. In the armchair Rodway was snoring.
The third night they tried blossom from Pitmaston Pineapple.
Again, Jopson found himself staring at the cuckoo clock. His old friends with the blouse of cherries and the figgy cigar. He waited, but he couldn’t taste cherries or figs. Umbrella man stripped off his tails and stood in his underwear. Cherry blouse took off her cherry blouse to reveal a lacy white bra. Jopson didn’t know where to look.
The weather people stepped down from the pendulum onto the mantelpiece. They held hands. They counted down from five and Jopson found himself counting with them.
‘3 – 2 – 1.’
The two of them jumped off the mantelpiece, cherry blouse’s skirt billowing up like the Baroness in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
They landed on the rug in front of the fireplace and continued to undress. Jopson covered his eyes with his hand. Then let the fingers splay apart.
Watched them couple like dogs.
The cuckoo clock showed three hours had passed. Old Rodway was sitting next to him on the sofa. They were holding hands. He disentangled his fingers and frowned. She smelt delicious. Intoxicating. Like . . . The Spicy Girls. He looked down at his lap. Trousers poking up.
‘The blossom of this tree is different.’
‘You can say that again,’ said his neighbour.
Jopson wondered about her first name. ‘The blossom of this tree is different.’ He leant over and kissed her.
(c) James Ellson
There is a peacock on the wing of the plane.
Riley can see from where she is sat, where the scratchy material of the airplane seat rubs against her back, that there is a peacock perched on the wing of the plane. She can see a lot of things around the plane, none of which are very interesting – her mother sitting rigid in the chair next to her, fingers prying absentmindedly on the rim of a can of crisps. It makes a dull noise. A few rows behind, there is a baby crying, an alarm clock that she cannot reach to turn off. A stranger to her, the person in the aisle seat sniffs at regular intervals and wipes his sweaty nose with a grimy looking tissue. Chattering, mumbling, screaming baby, itchy fabric of her chair; Riley counts the things she sees and hears and smells and feels. She makes a tally in her head of all the senses violated, a list to tick at an offending noise in her head. Like a computer, she calculates how long it will be until these annoyances add up to the equation – the one where she overloads her systems and shuts down completely.
So she distracts herself with the peacock outside the window.
It peers from a distance at her, its beady eyes looking like ripe berries in its bush of sleek feather-leaves. Its beak is a grey hook hanging off its startling blue head; feathers on stilts poke from its cranium. It occurs to Riley that they should be swaying in the wind – they are motionless, save for when the bird cocks its head and they jostle like palm trees. Tail fanning out behind it, she can see even through the muggy glass of the window how the feathers make eyes that stare right back at her, and her computer-brain comes to the conclusion that they could trick a predator easily; they almost look real through the porthole. They, as well, are frozen. The ice-bite of the wind out there doesn’t move them, the peacock stands proud and still.
In only a few seconds, her CPU brings several search results to the front of her thoughts. There should not be a peacock out there. It’s impossible. That is a logical error in the world’s code – a peacock could not have gotten onto the wing, and it certainly could not stay on the wing at the speeds they were flying at. But triumphantly it stands out there, challenging her with its existence of green and blue.
Then, it trots forward. Leaning its head towards the window, the Bird and the Riley gaze at each other. Maybe it is trying to say something, but she cannot understand, it does not speak her binary.
It begins tapping its beak on the window.
Why has no one else noticed? Riley thinks. She turns to her mother, calling to her, but there is no reply. Her mother’s eyes are like marbles in her head, her fingers clockwork pistons as she thumbs over the still unopened can. The peacock is still pecking; Riley reassures herself that this glass is designed for airplanes, a bird’s beak can’t even put a crack in it. As that command gets delivered through her system, the window splinters slightly.
Gripping the arms of her seat, Riley runs through her irritation list. The baby is still crying – it sounds like a recording now, playing on loop, not a child of flesh and blood. It sounds like its vocal chords are made of tape and its body is a chassis. The peacock slams its beak against the portal to the outside; she strains in her seat. When she calls out to her mother, her voice sounds like treacle, thick and heavy and muffled.
Tap, tap, tap on the glass. She realises with alarm that she cannot recognise her mother. She knows the noise – the scraping on the can – but her face does not pull up any search results in Riley’s browser-brain. There is a crack running perpendicular to her arm on the seat; Riley begs her mother to see it, to see the bird, yet she is beginning to believe that she has turned invisible.
With the baby still screeching in its metallic voice, the crack in the window spreads like butter across the glass and finally it opens. The mother-who-is-not-her-mother stares ahead with pinball eyes, the stranger in the aisle seat sniffs into his hanky.
Riley crawls out of the window. The glass bites her knees, the sharps glinting like crystals in the sun. The peacock waits for her outside, its personal fan fluttering with anticipation. When she reaches it, it spreads its wings – its masses of tarpaulin and glue – and flies away. Riley’s CPU has expired.
With squinting eyes she looks around, standing on the wing of the plane with no breeze and no chill. The sky is an ocean of white froth and deep, deep blue. She looks down, looks where there should be land below – or sea, twinkling in the midday sun.
There’s just more sky. Out on the wing of the plane, Riley looks out on an endless sky. She can’t hear the baby anymore.
(c) David Crozier
Callie stared at an empty street through a rickety screen door. It hung by one remaining hinge, on its last breath, just like the town of Gallia. In a week, Callie will finally turn eighteen and will never have to come to this godforsaken place again. Eighteen was a magical number for a child of a bitter divorce. At eighteen, she could decide who she wanted to have in her life and who to shut out. Forever.
Callie pushed her perfectly styled silky chestnut hair back and turned around. Her dad looked up from lacing his shoes.
“Are you going to change before we go out?”
“What’s wrong with what I’m wearing? Callie retorted.
“Your jeans are so ripped, I’m afraid they’ll fall off you at the parking lot. And your top. Does it have to be so cropped?”
“We’re not going to a church. And you can’t tell me what to wear. We’re in the middle of nowhere. Who cares?”
Every conversation turned into an argument.
They got into the car, and Daniel Morrison drove to Sonny’s Grill. Callie looked sideways at her dad, at his thinning brown hair, and at his old fashioned polo shirt stretched over his protruding abdomen. She did not hate him; it was just so difficult to talk to him lately.
Sonny’s Family Grill was the only sit-down restaurant in Gallia. Callie slid into one of its tattered laminate booths and stared at the unchanging menu under plexiglass. A waitress came over, but Callie was not ready to order. She had been a vegetarian for the last two years, and places like this rarely had anything she could eat. Daniel asked for more time.
“Callie, why do you want to go to Columbus Community State? You could go to any elite university.”
“Like you did, Dad? Where did that get you? Unemployed and on welfare?”
“I’m not on welfare. I earned my unemployment benefits.” Daniel’s face darkened.
“It’s supposed to be temporary. All the other hospital exec’s at Gallia Community lost their jobs as well when the hospital closed. But they all moved on. You’re still here. And unemployed. So much for your elite degree.”
“The others jumped the ship when it started sinking. They did not want to be tainted by failure. That’s not me.”
“No, you’d rather lose your career and family.”
“Callie, I’d never choose to lose my family. I didn’t want the divorce.”
“But you still think you’re qualified to give advice.”
“Callie, the way you’re going... I just don’t want to see you wind up a loser like…”
Callie shot up and rushed out of the restaurant. Daniel stared at his hands as if they had pushed her. He waited, hoping she would return. Daniel was proud of his daughter. She was only seventeen but was determined and smart. When Callie started anything: piano lessons, karate classes, her own cooking website, she always practiced till she got to the top. He wanted the best for his girl but could not find a way to tell her that he was on her side. Always was. Always will be. The waitress stopped by two more times. At last, it became too awkward to sit alone. Daniel stood up and left.
Callie sat in the car, brooding. Not a word was spoken on the drive. Daniel was fuming but decided to avoid another argument. They got home, and Callie stormed into her room.
The next morning she found a note on the kitchen counter next to her favorite fresh berry parfait. She regretted her meanness and wanted to apologize. But Daniel was not home. Callie stared at the note and read his plea: “Callie, I’m sorry about yesterday. Please meet me at our dock. I know you plan never to see me again, and in a week, you’ll never have to. Let’s not end things this way. Love, Dad.”
“Our dock.” Callie forgot about the dock in the ravine. Years ago, her dad had gotten busy with his job, and they had stopped coming to feed the ducklings. She pushed the broken screen door and looked across the street at a tree filled ravine. It had been their favorite place. Callie walked across the street toward it. She dreaded her meeting with the man at the bottom, but she knew she had to atone for her behavior.
Her father sat at the end of the decaying dock. He aged since his lay-off and divorce. Despite what she had told him, Callie needed him to be in her life. They clashed because of their similarities, not differences. Both clang to beliefs and people long after they should. Like him, her eventual realization at her errors made her feel betrayed. She also realized how many times over the years, there had been no one in the world, whose opinion she valued more than his.
“What happened to all the trees?” Callie asked to get Daniel’s attention.
“Most of them had died from an Emerald ash borer infestation.”
“We had that in Columbus as well. Mom had to hire someone to cut down six ash trees from our backyard.”
“Gallia doesn’t have the funds to take out the dead trees. They’re left to rot.”
Daniel looked at the daughter who had grown up faster than he thought possible.
“Do you remember the rafts of ducklings we used to feed here? You wanted to keep them as pets.”
Daniel did not want to talk about ducks. He wanted to tell Callie that he was not ready for her to fly away. He never would. But the words he had rehearsed stuck in his throat. Callie too could not apologize.
They talked about the ducks and trees.
“I wanted to say...what time is your mother coming?”
“Dad… in an hour.”
“Oh, then we'd better head back and pack.”
Daniel slowly stood up. Taking the last glance at the creek, the father and daughter walked home in silence.
(c) Sonia Mehta
Friday afternoon, two thirty. Work complete, kettle boiled, my paperback waits for me on a rumpled mass of mustard-yellow fleece. I slide myself onto the window seat, slipping my bare feet under the contours of soft fabric, holding the coffee cup aloft. With my free hand I scoop the novel up like a pet kitten then nudge my thumb against the bookmark until the heavy covers heave open, exposing the text. Two hours cocooned in my fantasy world before the house becomes heady with noise once more. Two hours all of my own. Two hours of bliss. But not today.
My eyes slip over the words, breathing in their meaning, my lips pursed to the edge of the mug. I take a sip - mechanical, rehearsed - until my sight becomes distracted, my body jolts in response, drops of scalding liquid dribble down my chin. Thankfully, the cup itself does not spill, but my book tumbles from my hold and down to my lap then onto the floor too far from my grasp. I feel a flurry of panic. Everything is coming undone. I have been shaken, disturbed. I look outside.
Something is creeping. A dark blob against an otherwise green perfection, row upon row of rectangles divided by low oak fencing. The occasional flower bed, wooden bench, sprinkler system or pond add a little interest but from up here it could be a sports pitch or a farmer’s field. Yet there is the miniature mass again, moving. I slip on my glasses. I am not mistaken.
Crawling nimbly across the lawn of what I presume to be number thirty-four is Old Norm, beloved pet of the elderly Mr Henry Dunhelm.
An immense shell flanked by four stumpy legs ending in tiny claws, a shrivelled triangle for a tail, and a golf-ball-sized head as wrinkled as his owner’s with the same gummy grin and beady brown eyes. The tortoise has escaped again and is making his way across the garden in a bid for freedom.
I adjust my lenses, my book and beverage hastily forgotten in favour of this far more interesting distraction; a live break-out.
There is no sign of Mr Dunhelm and Old Norm is making fierce progress through the recently trimmed greenery. He has bypassed the border and is heading towards the stump of an aged and fruitless apple tree which shades a rugged bush, a compost bin, and the pond. I watch the branches reflected in the water's surface, suddenly realising the awful truth. My eyes are rooted to the scene as if on stalks, yet the act of observation makes me feel somehow implicated - an eye-witness to this poor creature’s plight. What else can be done? Should I run to help? Call someone - the police? An animal charity? Should I search online? How to rescue a suicidal tortoise. It seems hopeless. Helpless. Instead, I clasp my palms together and pray.
Old Norm ambles head-on towards the pond and gracelessly forward-rolls into the shallow depths without a sound. A miniature tide circulates, dampening the border of tiny pebbles, retreating back to cover the body. His stocky legs writhe around, his shell and head entirely submerged. It does not take long before he is still. Something dull happens in my chest, my heart and hope emptying as the little life ebbs away. I pray again, this time for a quick end to his suffering.
My muted incantations are wasted or perhaps answered; there is Mr Dunhelm. He is wearing a striped dressing gown and slippers, his hair a few wild wisps across an otherwise bald scalp. He shuffles at the same pace as his companion, finally falling to his knees by the pond as he scoops out the lifeless body. Without pause, he leans down towards the motionless mound and prises apart the animal’s jaws, descending his own pursed lips to meet them. His cheeks bellow with breath, blowing into Old Norm’s stiffened head, damp and crusted with dirt. I blink away my disbelief.
A few moments later, Mr Dunhelm rights the now wriggling creature, tucks him under one arm, and marches back to the house as if nothing has occurred. His expression is one of mild amusement, as if this sort of thing happens all the time. They will probably have a cup of tea and a leaf of lettuce together, watch television then have a long nap. All will be well. Instead, it is I who feels stricken. I have just witnessed my neighbour giving his pet tortoise mouth to mouth resuscitation.
I do the only thing I can think of. I abandon my afternoon of tranquility and return to my desk. I retrieve a sheaf of yellowed writing paper and my fine nibbed pen. Dear Mr Dunhelm, I begin, trying to steady the tremor of my hand, at approximately two forty on the afternoon of Tuesday 19th July, I saw what can only be described as a near miss. May I take this opportunity to urge you to take better care of your pet. I fear that a repeat of the incident might lead to an untimely demise for your companion, and I cannot bear witness to such an eventuality. Regards, a concerned neighbour.
I shuffle on shoes with the intention to deliver the envelope post haste, yet once again I am distracted. I peer outside; there he is. The reanimated body of Old Norm. A striped band runs around his shell, held aloft by a tottering Mr Dunhelm. His unsecured dressing gown tumbles in the breeze as he clings on to the belt across his gently straining pet. He turns this way and that, enjoying the warm air circulating through the fabric. I pray again, only this time for whoever invented flannel pyjamas. I crumple the letter into a ball, kick off my shoes, and nestle back down with my book.
(c) Rachel Wade
As the eastern sky turned red, Dr. Jenn Carson got up from her bed. She stood by the living room window, tall and quiet, gazing at the wild flowers through the open window. The rays of the winter sun caught the zigzagging wings of orioles and woodpeckers that created patterns across the sky in the sleepy tribal hamlet of Sylee, India. She looked at the blue-green hills that dominated the hilly topography, for miles around.
The thought of the pandemic crossed her mind that devastated the tiny village over the past few months. The news of people disregarding government guidelines shocked her. Only a few health workers worked with dogged persistence to combat the pandemic.
Cycling through the sal, siris and simul trees she reached the chipped building of the health sub-centre that morning and said to the nurse-
“Any new coronavirus case, sister?”
The pagan only nodded in affirmation.
Dr. Carson washed her hands for some time with soap even her hands were not visibly dirty. She entered the isolation ward wearing a face mask. With just one toilet for the patients who needed urgent care, the smell of their excretion mixed with hotness due to power failures made life a living hell there. She kept essential medical services running though with much difficulty.
Abandoned by her husband a tribal woman lay with sad eyes, an unclear figure cloaked under a blanket. She smiled at Dr. Carson, her eyes glinting with hope. The doctor realised that the patient was feeling stressed during the crisis. She decided to talk to her patient. “How many weeks pregnant are you,” asked Dr. Carson in a calming tone maintaining a safe distance. The woman answered in a faint voice, “Nearly 16 weeks.” The sick woman started to cough. The sounds of her laboured breathing broke the silence of the ward. The old wall clock struck the hour making a sound once. “Can you tell me about your family?” asked the doctor. “I have three kids at home and a husband who is a heavy drinker,” replied the debilitated woman with great difficulty. Tears trickled down her cheeks. “Didn’t you stay at home?” asked Dr. Carson. “I can’t even see my children. I don’t know where I‘ve caught it from, but I’m very ill,” said the ailing woman. “Don’t be scared,” said the physician, “as depression is not an advantage.” The queasy woman only nodded. The doctor never took off her mask.
After some time, Dr. Carson came out of her room and gazed absently at the far distance. The blazing sun casted ripples of gold everywhere. After a while, she entered her room. The sun began to play hide-and-seek from behind the clouds. In the profound silence, a lone dove cooed.
The shrill cries of some wild birds broke the silence. Suddenly, rain poured down from the murky skies and soaked the foliage. A fresh smell arose from the sodden earth. The sharp rain began to ease off at last. A sudden flash of sunshine appeared but there was no rainbow. Dr. Carson peered through the window at the crisp and clear sunshine.
Dr. Carson opted for a light lunch at her desk that overlooked the forest from her room. She planned a mountain bike ride on her new Hero 24T on the weekend. She thought of her motherland where she started biking young- even before her feet reached the ground. The rural nurse suddenly appeared running. “The sick woman is having more difficulty in breathing, doctor,” she cried out in fear. Dr. Carson turned around, startled, at the sound of the nurse’s voice. She rushed to the isolation ward. The shortness of breath gradually decreased in intensity in her patient. “The function of her lungs have become normal,” she muttered to herself and uttered a sigh of relief.
The sun set slowly, turning the sky into a shade of tangerine. The condition of the sick woman worsened at nightfall. Dr. Carson decided to travel ten kilometres to the nearest hospital through the dark and desolate forest road, as the ambulance driver did not report for work. “Keep a tight hold on the bicycle seat,” the physician said to the nauseous woman. Green lights flashed from the luminescent organs of lovesick fireflies in the wilderness.
The lights rippled and danced, vanished and reappeared again. Lots of strange noises made them feel slightly nervous. Dr. Carson continued along the desolate road for some time.
A gust of hot wind swept through the foliage. Massive flames lit up the night sky while shrill cries of frightened animals broke the nocturnal ambience.
The two women got trapped by the raging and unpredictable bushfire. “What the heck?” Dr. Carson said in a low voice. “It is hell!” cried out the anxious woman. “Oh my god, what is coming towards us?” whispered the doctor as she tried to evacuate the place. “It doesn’t look like that the fire is weakening,” the bilious woman answered in a feeble voice. She began to cough violently. The strong winds only managed to spread flames and embers. Suddenly, Dr. Carson took a very sharp turn onto a dirt road pocked with holes. The old bicycle jumped on the rough and loose surface of the narrow track but never broke down. The battered wheels and the narrow handlebars held firmly as Dr. Carson cycled out of the forest until she reached the town hospital.
As the ward boys carried the sick woman on a stretcher, Dr. Carson mentally prepared to lodge a fire report with the town Brigade.
(c) Dipayan Chakrabarti
It’s been a few years since we laid our bets, and I’m still confident that Ranga’s about to owe me money. Too bad Ranga is dead.
Don’t worry; I’m not too broken up about it. A lot people are dead these days. The heat took out the first round, back in my grandparents’ day, and just when humanity was adapting, they got hit by the freeze. My dad died in the freeze. That was a long time ago. Centuries.
It wasn’t only the planet trying to kill us off back then. We’ve always been best at killing ourselves. Wars, biological weapons, regular old sadness--I can’t remember which plague took which of my friends anymore, or in what order.
In a few minutes, it’s not going to matter anyway.
I sometimes wonder if the human race would have bothered trying to save itself had we known how useless it would all be in the end. We jumped from one dying planet to the next on an endless quest for a new home. All the while we fought to keep ourselves not only alive but young, not only young but beautiful. We slathered our skins with chemicals and solutions, blood and bone. When science failed, we embraced ancient rituals. We consumed the hearts of our enemies on far-off stars and bathed in the blood of virgin planets.
We’re the cockroaches of the universe. Drop a bomb on us, and we scatter and spread.
Cockroaches. I don’t think I’ve seen one in decades. They might be extinct, too, for all I know. I guess humans are better survivors after all. Or, we used to be.
Now the whole universe is set to collapse, and I guess we deserve it. The human race has never been great about considering the needs of other species. It’s no surprise that other advanced societies got real tired of our selfishness as we expanded forever outward. Like our ancestors on Earth, we stole and killed our way forward, claiming territory along the way, never once considering that there might be others out in the void--stronger, smarter, more organized--who would take issue with that.
If there was a trial, I never got wind of it, but the sentence was handed down regardless. We’re convicted murderers now, the whole human race, labeled as a threat to neighboring galaxies. With a weight of evidence against us, whole stars exploded in our wake, we’ve been condemned to death.
It doesn’t shock me that someone thinks we’re worth killing. It’s not the first time they’ve tried. But I do wonder how much better off the universe would be without us, when it seems there’s plenty of others out there willing to kill their way to the top.
The only thing that surprises me is the fact that I’m facing down the end alone.
When the sentence was announced, I had a party invite sent out within minutes. Come see the end of the world with me! Seems no one else thought it was a laughing matter, if any of them even got the note. Maybe they have someone else they’d rather spend their last moments with.
No skin off my teeth. I brought enough ales for a dozen people to this god-forsaken bit of space debris, and I’ll happily drink them all myself. I crack open my fourth. I can’t feel the container through my thick glove, but my brain still tells me it’s cold because that’s what my synapses expect. The human brain does wild things in the vacuum of space, especially after three strong ales. The amber liquid is bitter on my tongue and not cold at all anymore, but I’m not drinking for flavor.
I settle down on my favorite crag, prop my feet on a piece of blackened stone, and wonder which destroyed planet this particular spit of rock came from. No one keeps track anymore. Even the Homeworlders, that cult that has tracked every fragment of Old Earth for centuries, have given up their records and campaigning since news came of our impending destruction.
In the end, it doesn’t matter what rock you’re sitting on when you explode. Or implode. I’m not actually sure which.
Still, I can’t find fault with the view out here. Stretched out all around me, stars and planets swirl into galaxies, fading into the distance to points I can barely see, hundreds of lightyears from my perch. Debris floats by like flotsam on a river, sucked in by the gravity of a battered old moon that no longer has a planet to trail after. People have always talked about “the blackness of space”, but when you’re in it, you can see it was never black at all. It’s blue and white, purple with flashes of orange and maroon. Nothing is ever as flat as it seems from a distance. Nothing.
Past the pinprick stars reflecting toward us from other galaxies, something flashes. It’s coming.
Aside from the ale, I brought another important party supply along for this ride. I nudge the old radio next to my boot, and it crackles to life, blaring familiar words, “-clouds of white. The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night, and I think to myself…”
I sigh, content. Turning, I raise my ale in toast to where Ranga might be sitting, were he still around. “What do you think, man?” I prompt the ghost. “Is it going to be a bang, or a whimper?”
Whimper, he whispers on the solar winds, and I lean back on my rock, sipping my ale with a little smile as that brilliant ray of destruction streaks closer.
“You’re going to owe me so much money.” I chuckle, because there’s nothing else left to do. The light washes over me, and the universe collapses around my laughter.
(c) Lou Hoffmann
‘Gardeners Club every Wednesday, free to join!’ the note on the billboard read. Interesting, I thought. As I moved here only a few weeks ago, I wanted to become acquainted with the other inhabitants of the apartment complex. Time to take part.
As I entered the community garden, I saw what looked like a herd of pink elephants grazing. At my arrival, they all stood upright. They turned out to be my fellow residents, busy attacking the defenseless little plants. There were only women present, and they were all nude…
I wanted to flee, but one participant had already spotted me.
Shit, my next-door neighbour!
She came towards me with sturdy steps, her breasts flopped cheerfully as if they were happy to see me.
“Hi, nice to see a man joining us. It’s World Naked Gardening Day, so if you would like to undress, please go to the shed over there. See you in a minute.’
I left the shed a few minutes later, stark naked, hiding my private parts with the cutting scissors that I had brought with me.
“I notice that you brought your own ‘material’?” My neighbour glanced downward.
The quotation marks around the word material were clearly audible.
“But that isn’t necessary, love. We share our ’tools’. Everybody can ’grab’ what he wants. No private ’parts’ here, haha.” Quotation marks again.
I shuffled as discreetly as possible to the nearest flowerbed and spotted a wild plant that seemed in desperate need of pruning.
“No, no,” a fellow women gardener cried out. “That one has to stay, it's there to scare away the pests.”
“Which pests?” I asked, while persisting in my squatted position.
“The Limacus flavus,” she said, smiling.
“The what?” I asked.
She cast a glance at the cutting scissors and said: “The nude slug.”
(c) Stef Smulders
Goldilocks was a builder renowned for her excellent work in the construction of houses. She knew how to make houses of straw, houses of wood, and houses of brick. She was also adept at interior decorating and could always find just the right decor for any house, whether constructed of straw or wood or bricks of various shapes, sizes, and colors.
A confident young woman, Goldilocks initially preferred her real name of Gertrude Stingleforth, but her blonde hair had given her a nickname from which she could not escape. In the end she decided she liked the way GOLDILOCKS looked on a golden business card, all in capital letters, followed by Design, Construction, and Interior Decorating for All Types of People with her contact information at the bottom.
One day Goldilocks was trudging through the forest near her office, looking for possible clients. Suddenly she saw a clearing, and in the clearing she spied three little pigs, each attempting to build a house. One was working with straw, a second with wood, and a third was laboriously piling brick upon brick.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen," said Goldilocks. "Allow me to present my business card." Each little pig stopped what he was doing, wiped his hands on his apron, and accepted a card.
"Can you help us?" asked the pig who was laboring with piles of straw.
"Well, yes, but in this northern climate a straw house just isn't quite the thing. And the Big Bad Wolf could knock it down in a second or two."
"What about my house? I do so like wood," said the second little pig.
"Well," said Goldilocks, "it's a bit harder to blow down than a house made of straw. However, just like a house made of straw, a house made of wood could burn up, if the Big Bad Wolf or a streak of lightning decided to set fire to it. I could certainly help each of you if you desire a straw house or a wood house, but there's a better option."
"And that would be?" asked the little pig who was working with bricks and mortar.
"Mr. Pig, you are attempting to build the best sort of house, a brick house." Goldilocks squinted as she looked at the bricklaying the pig had so far completed. "However, I think you need my help."
Before long, the brick house, under Goldilocks' supervision, was completed.
The wood from the wooden house was used for the interior of the brick house, and the straw made quite adequate stuffing for the pigs' mattresses.
Having worked with the three little pigs for some months and having found them quite congenial and even helpful during construction and the interior decorating process, Goldilocks decided to hire them as consultants. She was tired of being a one-woman operation.
One day Goldilocks decided to wander deeper into the woods and asked the three little pigs if they would like to come along.
"Oh yes," they all oinked at once, put on their hats, and followed Goldilocks deeper into the woods.
"Boy, this place is dark and remote," said one little pig. "Right," said the other two. And then, all of a sudden they saw a clearing and a quaint, rather large brick house with three chimneys.
"I wonder who lives here," said Goldilocks as she knocked on the front door.
When no one answered, she knocked again, then turned the doorknob.
"Let's look inside," said Goldilocks, who was adventurous as well as confident. The three little pigs were somewhat less confident.
"My, what a lovely house, but it needs a bit of work. I see there are three bedrooms, a nice big kitchen, a sunroom, a substantial dining room, a game room in the basement. But we can make it better."
The pigs were tired after trundling through the woods and one by one disappeared into the bedrooms to take a nap. Goldilocks settled in the sunroom, sketching plans to improve the decor of the house, whose inhabitants were completely unknown to her. As she thought and observed, however, she decided that the house might be the home of some bears. She found that idea intriguing and added to her house plans containers of honey placed in strategic locations.
Then she heard the sound of feet, or paws. It was a thunderous sound. Soon she heard someone shout, "There's a pig in my bed!"
Then another bear shouted, "There's a pig in my bed too!'
And a third bear, with a tinier voice squeaked, "There's a pig in my bed as well!"
Goldilocks decided she had to intervene before any bears were interested in having pork chops for dinner.
"Hello. May I help you?" she asked cheerily.
The largest bear scratched his head. "May you help us? This is our house! Who are you, and why are three little pigs sleeping in our beds?"
"Because they were tired."
"That's no answer! This is our house, and we don't want any trespassers."
"Please, calm down, Mr. Bear. Let me show you what I have been doing. I'm Goldilocks, noted builder, designer, and interior decorator. Here, please take one of my business cards."
The giant bear took the card in his paw. "So?"
"I have been drawing up plans for your lovely home, so that we can make it even more lovely."
"I and the three little pigs that are currently sleeping in your beds. Aren't they cute?"
"Bears are cuter."
Goldilocks laughed. "Please, take a look at the plans I have drawn up for the remodeling of your home. Note the addition of containers of honey in every room, in handy places."
"Honey, you say?"
"Yes. I thought honey would be an added attraction, especially if you were entertaining."
"A great idea! Why didn't I think of that?"
Goldilocks smiled at the big bear. "Because I'm the expert house builder and interior decorator. And how about a nice shed behind the house? It would give the three little pigs something to do."
(c) Anita Gorman
‘D’you know what I’m going to tell you,’ declared my father, sweeping the window for the umpteenth time with a folded-up newspaper, ‘if you were to hold up a single pane of glass no bigger than that hand there inside of Windsor Park, do you know what it is? There’d be one bloody fly would go banging its head again it all day long, so there would…’
Mother was less than impressed. His exertions had already overturned one geranium pot. ‘Can’t you leave it find its own way out, Seamus?’
‘If it would, believe me, I’d be delighted to.’ He caught me smirking at my twin sister, Dee. We’d have been seven that summer; the summer they burned Bombay St. Da thought about it, then fired Dee a sneaky wink. ‘Did you ever see a more obstinately stupid animal than a fly?’
‘Aye,’ muttered Mother. ‘I married one, so I did.’ She’d been going through the clothes myself and Dee had packed, tossing some out onto the sofa, folding others in in their place. Jack was watching it all silently from the doorway. He wasn’t going with myself and Dee to stay with the Hamiltons. Jack was going down to Dublin, to stay with Da’s relatives. He was old enough to go on his own. The night before while Ma and Da were shouting downstairs he’d shown us the ticket for the train, to coax Dee out from under the pillow.
‘Would you not squash it and be done with it?’ The more agitated my mother grew, the more East Belfast her accent became; Da’s pantomimes were always pure Liberties.
‘And leave a smudge on the new pane of glass, is it? For the life of me I can’t see why you bothered your Barney having it replaced…’ Another lunge; another geranium teetered. He made a grab for the plant, but his fingers were clumsy and it was their attempt to right the pot that sent it over the edge. It bounced once, overturned, and spewed muck over the carpet.
‘Oh for Christ’s sake, Seamus!’
‘What?’ He frowned. ‘Tsst. Sorry about your precious carpet!’
‘You might help me with these, instead of chasing that blooming fly all around the house.’ A-rind the hice, her vowels were that sharp by now.
‘Alright. Alright.’ Kneeling up, he lifted the pot, tested the crack with his thumb. ‘As you wish. a ghrá mo chroí.’ He set the geranium upright on the floor and began to flick the crumbs of soil onto one huge palm, and from there back under the leaves. We could all see he was making twice the mess he was clearing. Jack was taking it all in from the door. He’d packed his own suitcase the night before.
‘Ach leave it! I’ll do it!’ snapped Mother. Her words made Father redouble the speed of his efforts. ‘It’s alright, it’s done now.’ It wasn’t half-done, so Jack disappeared and came back with the dustpan. Dee had gone over to the sofa. Leafing through the mound of discards, she pulled out her favourite dungarees.
The fly snarled through the air in an S-bend, then set to butting the central windowpane again and again, ignoring the open one to the side. ‘Christ,’ whispered our Da, still on his knees, ‘if there’s one animal I can’t abide, it’s a fly in the house.’
‘I’m taking these with me Ma,’ said Dee. Like bunting, she’d trailed the dungarees from the clothes pile as far as her suitcase, and was seeing where they could fit. Her case had about twice the amount of stuff mine had.
‘You are not taking those with you. What would Auntie Rose think?’
Upon the mention of Auntie Rose, Da knelt suddenly up, eyes indignant. He was on the point of saying something else choice about the Hamiltons and their Protestant notions. ‘Hey Da,’ interrupted Jack, ‘how come they don’t do themselves brain-damage, with all their head-banging?’ Father peered at Jack, as though surprised to find him squatting there in front of him with the dustpan. ‘What? Who has brain-damage?’
‘The fly!’ Da looked briefly at him, and had turned back towards Mother, about to let fly about the Hamiltons. But Jack pressed on. ‘Would you listen to the bollox…’
Now, we’d never been allowed to use bad language in the house. Never. Myself and Dee stared at one another. Mother froze. Then Da’s hand shot out and caught Jack square in the mouth. He yelped. Hands to his face he looked at Ma. She tugged the dungarees from Dee’s hands and said, in a calm voice, ‘I want no more nonsense out of you young lady. Finish your packing, the pair of you. It’s not a blooming helicopter we have.’
It was years later that I came to understand that scene. It was years later I realised why they wouldn’t let us stay on in that street any longer; why Jack had said what he had said.
(c) David Butler
‘I've got compassion fatigue,’ announces Steph, plumping down on the bench next to Vera.
‘Sounds serious,’ deadpans Vera. ‘You could get signed off work with that.’
‘Well, I'll be off work soon anyway,’ says Steph, running her hands over her stomach.
‘Mmm. And what's brought on this terrible condition?’
Vera smothers a laugh. Steph shoots a look at her. She often suspects her mother-in-law of mocking her.
‘No, dear. I meant your compassion fatigue.’
Steph launches into a meandering complaint about the multitudes who make unreasonable demands upon her - girls in the office, neighbours, strangers in the street it seems - all drawn towards and depending upon the saintliness of Steph.
‘...and you know me, nothing’s too much trouble. I'd give anyone the shirt off my back – ‘
Vera smiles in reply. Today is a good day. She can sit upright, she’s warm, and surrounded by the scent of jasmine. Her son rootles around in the garage while his pregnant wife sits here alongside her on the wrought iron bench, glowing with life - with two lives. The child Steph carries will take the family forwards, into the future. Vera has made peace with the idea of the future. Her son will be there. Her grandchild will be there. Her garden will keep growing even when she cannot tend it.
Today is the longest day - the day that doesn't want to end, and never does quite end. There will still be threads of cobalt and violet in the sky at midnight. Vera plans to stay up late. She doesn't want to miss anything. The youngsters will have gone home by then, carrying the bowls of food and parcels of clothes she’s pressed upon them. She'll have given Steph her old sapphire ring, and it will be too small for Steph's swollen finger, but never mind. They won't understand her generosity - not yet.
Vera feels the sun against her eyelids. Even the birds have fallen quiet in the heat. Only Steph is audible, although Vera isn't really listening. She's never much liked her peaches-and-cream daughter-in-law. Peaches have stone hearts. But, after all, the peach stone begats the peach tree...
Vera's gaze moves over a ragged lawn. Blackbirds fossick among bark chips in the flowerbeds, and a few precious bees circle the roses. White hydrangea blooms will glow when Vera limps around her garden at midnight.
‘...and what about you?’
‘Me?’ Vera is surprised to be asked a question. Steph's normally incurious blue eyes rest upon her.
‘Have you thought about downsizing? I mean, this place – the size of it. Must be hard to maintain.’
Vera has the distinct impression that Steph is calculating the property's square footage. The young family live twenty miles away in a three bed semi which Steph has filled with mirrors and crushed velvet couches.
‘I won’t be leaving for a while,’ says Vera.
'Seems wrong somehow,’ sighs Steph, as though changing the subject. ‘That some people have so much, whereas others...’
‘I know,’ says Vera. ‘Some people have youth, and health, and love.’ She pats the younger woman's hand. ‘The trick is to enjoy your time in the garden. Because it only lasts a moment.’
(c) Josie Turner