Showing posts with label Booklet 2. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Booklet 2. Show all posts

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Opal by Jessica Disney

Opal enjoys long walks around the park near her flat. She always carries a small blue tote bag with a compact umbrella inside, just in case. Today’s afternoon stroll is seemingly no different to any other. Small children from a local school kick a battered football in no particular direction and tired parents sit on picnic benches, relieved to have finished their working day. Traditionally, Opal likes to carry wholemeal bread for the ducks, but instead has settled on fifty-fifty due to shortages of her preferred brand, I assume.

On this particular day, Opal counts seven females, five males and nine ducklings, noting this down in her daily journal. They shuffle towards her and wait impatiently for their daily treat.

Opal never tires of watching the creatures fight over her offerings and plead to her for more. She allocates four slices for the ducks and wraps up the rest to store in her bag, later to be made into sandwiches or toast, I imagine. Then, she stands up, smiles to herself, and heads back to the tower block, satisfied until her next outing.

I silently observed Opal until this ending point, for the twelfth time since I tracked her down.

I close my notepad ready to store it in my coat pocket and remove my sunglasses. Then, I notice Opal stride straight past her entrance path and further down the road. Determined not to let her slip away, I follow, even as she enters an unnerving alleyway and jumps over a fence towards the railway track. She nearly trips several times as she hops through the overgrown grass but doesn’t let this defeat her. Finally, she reaches the embankment and climbs onto the platform. I am fortunately reasonably fit and so find no trouble in mirroring her movements at a safe distance away. We peer at the schedule which tells us the next train to North Brook will arrive in twenty minutes. Opal shakes her head in disgust, pacing up and down the platform edge. Her frustration heightens as a railway operative points out the obvious yellow barrier that she is failing to comply with.

When the carriages arrive, Opal runs to the front coach and hesitates, before tenderly clutching the handrails to assist her up the small step. A few minutes after boarding, a whistle is blown and our journey begins. Opal has chosen a forward-facing window seat and she places her belongings adjacent, ensuring nobody will sit there. When her position allows, I catch a glimpse as she flicks through each page of a dog-eared novel and licks her finger as she does so. Sometimes I hear a faint giggle or a gentle hum, but mostly I sit in silence owing to being situated in the quiet coach. The trolley lady offers tea and coffee, which I decline, but Opal requests a speciality tea with almond milk and four sugars. I watch the genuine disappointment on her face as she is told it shall be standard tea, or none at all.

The train gradually pulls to a halt and its travellers filter out and disperse towards the exit or other platforms. For Opal, the arrival is a huge deal and she takes a while to digest. Ten minutes later she plucks up the courage to join the queue for customer services. When she reaches the desk, I hear her mumble something about tea and ask the unenthusiastic assistant how she can reach Withington Road. Sandra, I make out from her badge, shrugs and hands Opal a town map. The temptation is too hard for me to resist. I demand Sandra directs me to the nearest taxi rank and hurriedly chase after Opal upon receiving this information.

“Excuse me, sorry, I overheard you mention Withington Road. I’m actually heading there myself and wondered if you might want to share a journey. I’ve heard taxis are pretty expensive around here so it will save us both a fortune”

My offer is too good for Opal to refuse and she gladly accepts, following me blindly to the station car park. It feels strange to observe her this close up and I can’t help but be mesmerised by her witchy eyes and matted hair. She is visibly discomforted by my obvious staring and so I look out of the taxi window instead, taking in the urban surroundings. I am startled by an intense voice belonging to Opal.

“I would like to know where you’re going.” she states, twiddling her thumbs.

“My friend's place. She lives here. How about you?”

“Me too.” is her final response before turning her head to lean against the glass.

We exit the vehicle in complete silence and I hand over eight pounds to the driver. Opal still says nothing. I intentionally cross the road but continue walking in the same direction as she. Opal stops at every building, squinting in order to make out the number on each door. I can only assume; she has never visited this friend before.

Opal reaches the gates of a long-stoned driveway. She gently pushes it open and takes in the view which presents itself to her. I am in awe of the architectural masterpiece that demands our attention. My goodness, Opal must have a rich friend, I think.

“Does your friend live here too?” she queries, as I follow behind.

“That’s right.” I say, thankful for her assumption.

I follow her into the daunting yet distinctly charming occupancy and wait a few metres away as she is greeted by a soft-spoken lady.

“Good evening Opal, my dear. Welcome back to Withington hospital. You are always welcome here. In fact, we still have your room waiting for you. Lucky for you it was vacated this morning. Right now, do tell how your mind has been treating you since I last saw you? Are those visions still causing you grief?”

Opal clasps the lady’s hands and turns to face me, I offer an empathetic smile to my mother and she responds with a knowing nod, almost as though she can sense that I am hiding something.


© Jessica Disney

The Difference Between My Father and My Mother by Robert Raymer

My father approached the runway in his Piper Cherokee Cruiser. Moments after the wheels touched down, he took off again…. He banked to the left and circled around until he was in landing position. Again, he swooped down and took off…. He shot landings five, six, seven times before I stopped counting. Each time he came down to land, I thought he was going to crash. Each time, I thought, I didn’t come home all the way from Malaysia just to watch my father die.

Since it was Thanksgiving, it’d be a double tragedy if my father did die. Instead of spending time together, I would be mourning his death. His death would forever be associated with Thanksgiving, thus putting a damper on whole holiday…. Thanks to the holiday, we had the local airport to ourselves. In other words, if my father did crash, there would be no one around to help.

Each time my father landed, he looked over at me and I would take his picture. Each time he took off my heart took off with him. If he did crash, one thing was certain, I would crash along with him…. In case my father did crash, I worked out in my mind what I would need to do. Instead of running to the crash site, I would jump in my car and race there to save time. If my father was still alive, I would help him out of the wreckage and drag him away, lest the plane erupted into flames. Then I would rush him to the hospital—the same hospital where I was born thirty-one years ago. I thought of my stepmother Marie and how she would react when I broke the news. In no time she would be in her car racing helterskelter to the hospital, ignoring all traffic lights and stop signs. I would insist that a neighbor or Roy, her son from a previous marriage, drive the car. I didn’t want another death on my hands. Maybe I wouldn’t call Marie after all because I knew she wouldn’t wait for someone to drive her. Instead I would call Roy and ask him to pick her up.

There was a hitch in my plans. I didn’t have Roy’s phone number. Perhaps I could ask the operator for assistance or have the police notify her…. I was hoping as I planned all this, I didn’t have to call anyone. I was praying really hard in the back of my mind that my father wouldn’t crash. Not today. Not when we still had so much to discuss…about my future in Malaysia, about my mother’s past, about their divorce, and about Grandfather Thomas.

My father came in for another landing, but this time he didn’t take off…. I breathed a sigh of relief. Today he was not going to die…. At the end of the runway, he turned the plane around and headed back in my direction. I was about to get into the car to meet him at the hangar, when my father stopped the plane in front of me and waved me over.

“Get in.”

My heart sank.

I didn’t want to do this.

I didn’t want to climb into that plane.

As a boy I would avoid flying with him…afraid if we would crash it would be my fault. 

If he hadn’t taken me up for a ride, he would still be alive. Even in death, I didn’t want that hanging over me…. In a labored dead man’s walk, I approached the plane with distinct sense of dread, its wing aimed at me like a drawn dagger. Not paying attention, I circled around to the right side of the wing. I could just as easily circle around to the left side; the distance was exactly the same. In the Cessna, my father’s previous plane, there was no question as to how to board the plane. The door and step-up were clearly evident below the wing. To get into the Cherokee Cruiser you had to climb onto the wing, and if the plane was at rest you could actually climb onto the wing from either side, as I did earlier that morning when my father introduced me to his new airplane.

Busy writing something down on his clipboard, my father looked up. He jerked to attention and called out, “Whoa!” His tone was firm, without a hint of panic, yet I immediately knew something was wrong, so I halted in my tracks. He waved me back around to the other side of the wing and said, “Never go to the front of a plane when it’s running.”

Had I kept going, I would’ve walked into the propeller. It was slicing through the air so fast I couldn’t see the blades.

My father just saved my life. All it took was a firm, “Whoa!” and a wave of his hand. Had it been my mother, she would’ve screamed in hysterics. In not comprehending, I would’ve run toward her to see what was the matter, and the propeller would’ve sliced the life out of me.

That was the difference between my father and my mother.

But was it really her fault?


© Robert Raymer

The Year of the Dying Fish by JB Polk

 The lake, surrounded by low hills dipping their feet in the waves, slashed the green canvas of the forest like a silver-encrusted knife. A mass of shiny slivers, resembling shattered glass, glimmered on the surface but every now and then, the sheet of water shuddered and the ripples advanced farther inland to lick the hills. With each quiver the shards rocked and submerged only to appear again an instant later.

 Above the lake the conical funnel of a volcano belched out a woolpack of smoke. 

“Another one,” Vega said. “The third one in an hour. Think it’ll blow up?”

“It will. And it’s going to be big. I’d better send a telegram to San Marcos.” 

Gallego, the geologist dug his heels into the mud bubbling around his riding boots. He was a small nondescript man with the kind of face that filled up crowds in busy cities, the kind one tended to forget the moment his back was turned. 

“The Indians must be evacuated.”

Vega laughed without mirth. 

“Evacuated? You must be kidding.”

“They’ll have to go,” Gallego glanced at the shimmering mass bobbing up and down then shook his head. 

“They are dying by the thousand. There must be an underwater connection. I saw it with the Hudson a few years back. Sulphur leaked into the lake and poisoned the fish. But the flooding was worse, wiped out all the hamlets within three miles around. Could´ve been avoided if someone had paid attention.”

Vega snapped off a tree branch and cleaned the leaves one by one with a finger. 

“They’ll not move. It’s their home. There’s nowhere else to go.”

“You’re not listening. If Tacana blows off its top, it’ll be the end of this place. And of the people.”

“It’s you who’s not listening,” it was the tone rather than the words that conveyed Vega’s exasperation. 

“I’ve lived here long enough to know they’ll not move as much as an inch. For them Tacana is not a volcano but a god. A hungry god who’s got bored with the monotonous diet of lake eel. A man drowned in there last month and his body’s not been recovered. They believe Tacana’s got him and it has whetted his appetite for human flesh.”

Gallego cleared his throat and spat into the water. 

“You’re talking about another century...”

“Another century? Not here. Time has stopped here or at least the clocks that measure must have jammed. For you Tacana might be a geological formation with an opening to the Earth’s crust. For them it’s a hungry monster that has to be appeased.”

“That’s for others to decide. I can’t let these people die. We don’t need another El Chichon - nine villages completely destroyed, two thousand dead. We don’t need this. Not now. Especially with the elections coming up.”

The geologist walked towards a circular clearing in the forest where two horses nibbled on clusters of white-coated grass.

“I’ll take care of the brass. You go and tell the Indians.” 

He pushed himself up onto the saddle. 

“And remember, Vega. Your loyalty is where your cheques come from.” 

He spurred the animal and trotted with a muted clop of hooves.

Around the lake all was silent. Even sparrows, normally chirpy and flustered at this hour, seemed to have vacated their nests. Vega strode towards the remaining horse and patted its neck. The gesture had a practical value - to reassure it and let it know he was about to mount. 

But it also fulfilled a need, the need for a physical closeness even if the recipient was a beast of burden used to harsh treatment and steep mountain paths.

It was not the first time that he felt his rootlessness - a mestizo not of blood but of culture - scratch the townie enamel and you’ll find a country lout. An Indian with a smattering of education kept at a distance by both his own and by those whose lifestyle he imitated. 

He jumped onto the horse and rode through the hushed forest towards Chaual, a haphazard swarm of shacks leaning against each other in an orderless line. From the end of the row the slurred lyrics of a bolero leaked out mingling with the desolate mooing of a cow.

Vega approached the third hut and parted a threadbare and stiff with dust curtain protecting the interior from the glare of the sun.

The shack consisted of one room: rolled-up bedding was stored against one wall; the other part was cluttered by a wooden table on spindly legs and assorted junks whose purpose or utility he failed to establish. On the far, windowless wall hung a picture of the Virgin side by side with a 1974 Coca-Cola calendar - an amalgam of the old and the new, the pious and the irreverent. As always when entering one of these dwellings, apart from a nostalgic stab to the heart, he became aware that in the silent decrepitude human figures were no more than part of the room’s artefacts.

A woman kneading a ball of dough stood by the table. She sprinkled the table-top with a blizzard of flour, her gestures resembling those of a peasant sowing seeds.

“Buenas, Maria” he greeted her. “Your husband?”

She pointed her chin in the direction of a dim corner without releasing her grip on the dough. In the penumbra Vega could distinguish the form of a man slouched in a chair, elbows resting on his knees, the head bent.

He grunted to signal his presence.

The man gazed up; his eyes dark pools embedded on a chess piece face. 

“You seen ´em…” his voice barely rose above a whisper. 

“Dyin´.”

“I’ve come to help,” Vega said.

Something like a spark of interest ignited in the dark pools but quickly burnt out. 

“It’ll be taken care of...”

The smothering heat of the fire or maybe it was the first flush of fear slapped crimson patches on Vega’s cheeks. 

“You can’t do it,” he said.

The man exposed pink toothless gums in a grin. 

“How much did they pay you, Vega?”

“You should know better than that. All I care about is your safety,” Vega strove to control his annoyance.

“I told you, it’ll be taken care of.”

Vega turned to the woman. 

“And you? You are a mother yourself. What if it was your child, your daughter?”

The woman slapped the dough on the table where it rested bulging and grey like a bloated carp. 

“You wanna know? You really wanna know?” she mouthed the words distinctly, each accentuated by a hiss. 

“If it was my daughter, I’d do it all the same. We’ve done everything. Old Villas even offered his goat. But Tacana ’s not a fool. He didn’t fall for it. No, no-one can cheat him. He knows what he wants and he’ll not rest until he gets it.”

As if to prove her right, another tremor fluttered the curtain and the full-breasted girl on the Coca-Cola calendar appeared to come to life.

“I spoke to Gallego. He thinks you people will have to leave. He’s waiting for the goahead.”

The man got up abruptly. 

“Gallego! Another pompous ass from the capital! He thinks what he’s told to think. He’s not a K’iche like me.” 

He added after a hesitant pause: “Or you.”

He strode towards Vega and grabbed him by the shoulders, their faces nearly touching. 

“What matters is the fish. We’re dead without it.” 

His fingers tightened their grip. 

“You´ve forgotten who you are? Your roots? Has the little education they hammered into you wiped out everything? We´re fishermen - without fish we are nothing.”

The woman returned to the dough separating small pieces then using an empty wine bottle rolled them into thin cakes.

Vega disengaged the restraining hands. 

“You can’t really believe it’s going to help. You´re too smart for that.”

“It doesn’t matter what I believe. What matters is what they expect me to do.”

“And your conscience? It’s human life... Life you are trying to protect... You can’t...” Vegaspat out a deluge of broken sentences.

The man kept his unblinking stare fixed on the floor as if a sudden rush of sadness had come upon him. 

“I must...” his voice trailed into silence.

Vega turned on his heel and left the hut.

The sun glistened in the sky like the fly on a fisherman’s line and the village, seen through a film of dust, had an odd nakedness associated with abandonment. The shacks resembled ancient burial mounds and, if what Gallego had predicted was to happen, that’s what they´d soon become. 

Behind the village, on a thinly wooded knob, he spotted some children - noisy, puppy-like, flailing their arms and legs in a make-believe game of cops and robbers or whatever it was Indian children in Chaual played. Scatters of shrill and bouncy laughter rolled down from the hill.

He knew he could do nothing else. Nothing for Chaual. Even less for the children. Before leaving he wondered if the Chosen One was among those he saw playing on the hill.

© JB Polk

Discovery by David Darling

 Once she stood, professor Catherine Taylor brushed the dirt off her work pants and stretched, then tucked her dark hair behind her left ear. The forty-year-old woman remained physically fit from the manual labor required for her job and the constant work at the dig site. Sixteen months previous, the archeological team from Cambridge had discovered a pyramid buried in the Valley of the Kings.

 Permission from the Egyptian government had finally been granted, with provisions. Unable to turn down the opportunity, Catherine moved into the canvas tent on location and enjoyed the challenge as the weeks flew by.

 Since she was eight years old, Catherine had always played in the dirt and loved the thrill of discovery.

 Thirty-two years later, she still had the same feeling of joy. 

 After she adjusted the LED light, she removed a wide brush from her back pocket and once again, knelt to remove a layer of compacted sand. A ring of stones, three feet across, began to emerge. The larger stone at one end had a pattern chiseled on top. 

 The design had five lines that connected and showed the Egyptian symbol for stars. Other references found within the sunken pyramid had to do with astrology. When she saw the symbol, she was not surprised. 

 A fine layer of dust rose, and Catherine closed her eyes and sneezed into her left elbow. 

The movement caused her to shift, just enough, that she dropped her weight on top of the star-stone. The round stone was the same size as her palm and with a click, it sunk half an inch.

 At this, she held her breath and looked around the small chamber. Her colleagues had long since retired for the night and she alone bore witness. Significant discoveries were supposed to be documented; however, all the recording equipment was back at camp, being charged up for the next day.

Catherine grabbed her backpack, pulled out her cell phone, and snapped a few pictures. 

Once the phone was replaced, she knelt once more and began to clear away more of the loose dirt beside the stone.

 A crack in the floor emerged between two flat stones. It resembled a broken dinner plate with sand that trickled down into the dark cavity below. She leaned forward and tried to see into the void, to no success. Using the handle of the brush, she gently levered the tip into the crack and gave it a gentle pull. The one stone slid to the side and she could see a small stone box that resembled a ten-inch sarcophagus.

 Catherine couldn’t help but grin at her discovery. A glance at her watch showed it to be almost midnight, she should have been asleep long ago. 

 Five more minutes, then I will head out.

 She had said that same phrase several times already this evening. After she adjusted the light, Catherine used the brush to remove the dust from the top of the small stone sarcophagus.

 Enough of the dirt fell off the side and it caused her to sit back and groan at the discovery. 

Scratched across the top was OPEN ME in English.

 “Seriously?” 

 Usually, pranks were not this elaborate and only done on the new interns. She let out a large sigh, reached down and removed the two stones, then placed them off to the side. 

The small stone container weighed less than five pounds and the lid was easily removed. 

 Inside was a cell phone. It rested on top of some dried-out reeds that were folded into a small mat. It was the same new model that she had bought before she had flown to the dig, however, it had no battery life.

 Catherine wasn’t too sure who had set her up, but she would get even. She pulled out her power cord and a power supply and plugged in the phone to charge. It took a few minutes before the light turned on. 

 A text warning showed on screen: Memory Card Full.

 Curious, she opened up the gallery folder and looked at the images and video clips that filled the phone’s memory. 

 The last picture showed a vast area filled with lush vegetation and large patches of sand. 

She turned to the first video and pressed play.

 A woman’s voice sounded in the small chamber and Catherine was startled at the sound of her own voice.

 I am standing outside the A537 Pyramid and the wildlife is incredible. The air is clean and pure. Just amazing.

 The video panned around and the pyramid came into view. It didn’t resemble anything where Catherine currently sat. It was eighty-feet above ground with lush vines that grew along the base. The cap was covered in sheets of gold. It looked like the tip of a spear as it gleamed in the bright sun.

 I don’t think anyone will ever believe this, but here it is. 

 Catherine let out a gasp and almost dropped the phone. The video had spun around and it showed herself as she smiled and waved. She wore the same shirt and the backpack was slung over one shoulder.

 “What the hell …”

 Her fingers navigated the screen and scrolled to the last video and pressed play. The alternate Catherine sat at a table, her hair down. She wore a white robe with a thick metal bracelet on one wrist. She smiled into the camera and folded her hands in front. The battery charge is finally running out, I don’t have much time. This video is for my past self. I am currently in Egypt, approximately 3,000 BC, and the pyramid was just constructed. 

It wasn’t built to view and track the stars but as a gateway. I have met someone here and I am happy, and I’ve decided to remain. Not sure how time works, but if you want this experience and adventure, take the Star Stone and place it in the north wall. I hope you decide to step through. Delete this video and bring both phones. Enjoy your adventure Cat. The video ended. Catherine sat on the dirt floor and closed her eyes. The scientist and  logical side of her brain dismissed the video and pictures as a prank. The emotional side of  her, that longed for her to be happy and loved embraced the possibility. At forty-years-old, the only joy she had found was when she threw herself into work and discovered old relics.

 To find someone that you would give up civilization for and a career…

 Catherine wiped tears off her face and unplugged the second phone. She deleted the last video and placed the phone in the side pocket. Once everything was packed, she slipped her arms through the straps. The possibility of what could happen astounded her … but the one ​half of her brain remained skeptical.

 The north wall of the chamber was half-cleared. It showed a mosaic of tiles and a crude rendering of the sun. Her colleagues were to resume work on the area tomorrow. She tilted the light to shine on the wall and promptly disregarded everything she knew about archeology. Catherine used her fingers to pull large sections of compacted dirt off the wall.

 Just below the stylized pictograph of the sun was a perfect circle and below that a smaller circle was carved into the stone. 

 The moon and planet Earth?

 The remainder of the wall was blank.

 It took a few seconds to remove the stone from the floor and clean it off. The top had the symbol and the bottom was perfectly flat.

 Catherine was firm in her belief that she had stepped off into the deep end, but …

 She placed the stone against the larger circle and waited. Nothing happened. The stone was too large to cover the small circle. However, the image of the star made her smile when she figured it out. The sun is a star.

 When she moved the stone and rested it on the sun, she heard a click, and then her world 

changed.

 A clear blue light shone from the star stone, bright enough that Catherine could see the bones of her fingers through her skin. A warm sensation ran up and down her spine and instinctually, she rotated the stone to the right.

 On the east wall, an outline of a doorway appeared. It was barely five-feet tall and it sounded like an electrical discharge as light danced around the black frame.

 Catherine let out a brief chuckle at the absurdity of what she could see. Up until now, she had thought it was a practical joke, but this was real. All her life she loved to explore and the thrill of discovery guided her into archeology. 

 The video that she watched made the final decision for her. The ability to discover the unknown and have happiness was too hard to turn down.

 As she ducked through the door, Catherine couldn’t help but smile at what awaited.


© David Darling

No More Heroes by Melanie Roussel

 Arthur sucked thoughtfully on his few remaining teeth and poked a fork in the direction of his two breakfast companions. “That’s what’s wrong with the world, now. No more heroes.” 

Arthur’s point was typically non-sequitur but delivered in a matter-of-fact way.

George and Eddie raised their heads, complete with frowning faces. The three old men were huddled into a plastic booth. Overhead, fluorescent light flickered, the lingering smell of overcooked sunflower oil and a tinny radio played the same new songs they’d never heard. 

It was warm in the café. Outside, the frosty air crept up the large windows, creating little corners of condensation.

“What’s that got to do with the price of baked beans?” George asked, looking down morosely at his plate. The remains of the full English breakfast had been slightly too burned, slightly too greasy and never enough. The third man, Eddie, watched the conversation unfold in silence, drinking tea from the chipped and stained mug. 

“It’s a fact,” Arthur said, confidently. “I remember the newspaper headlines. They called them a ‘public nuisance’. Destroying buildings with lasers and weather and robot dogs. 

It was 1973 when they got banned. That’s when all the papers ran that headline. No more heroes.” Arthur shook his head, disappointed at the folly of man. “And now baked beans are £1.20 a tin.”

George’s confused face cleared now, nodding sagely, back to a subject he knew well. 

“£1.20. It’s theft. Things were better back then, you know?”

Eddie chased the last couple of beans around the plate and prodded the remaining piece of grisly sausage he decided to leave. 

After the rumination on the lack of superheroes and the price of baked beans had come to a satisfactorily dismal conclusion, the three stood, replacing flat caps and heavy scarfs and well-worn coats. The bill was paid with pension money, Eddie discreetly topping up the little pile of coins when it came up short. 

The three men walked together at a speed approaching an amble. At the end of the high street they parted with a vague nod to one another. As though they were only the merest acquaintances who happened to breakfast together four times a week. Life had a routine in retirement. Breakfast at the Spoon and Fork Café, then a wander down the high street. Maybe a look in at the post office. If the government hadn’t shut it down yet. Then back home to the missus. There was always a shelf to put up, or the garden wanted weeding, or the car engine was having trouble again. The good telly didn’t start until three o’clock anyway. 

Eddie walked in the opposite direction; his hands buried in his pockets to hide the mild shake which had been creeping up on him. His route home always went through the park so he could admire the flowerbeds. But nothing was growing at this time of year. A layer of frost spread across the grass like a gossamer sheet. But earlier in the year, there had been cornflowers in thick blue clumps along the riverbanks.

Despite the chill in the air, children were still playing. Each one of them bulky with coats, hats and gloves with only the merest gap in the fabric for excited eyes and red noses, like mobile marshmallows. A dog was yapping somewhere. Stressed mothers carrying bags of Christmas shopping, hurrying to the carpark. The usual murmur of village life.

But today, there was a shout across the field. A panicked shout.

There was a young man sprinting away from an elderly woman who was on the floor. 

The man was holding a bag which was unlikely to be his, unless he had a softer, flowery side that wasn’t otherwise apparent. The woman seemed to be in a state, shouting after the man. 

Onlookers were only just starting to realise, in that slow way crowds of people do. Some were pulling out phones. A woman ran over to help the old lady up.

Eddie stooped down to the flowerbed, wincing as something in his back clicked, buthis shaking fingers managed to brush, then grab a rock. It took another age of winces to straighten. The mugger was almost at the gate. Eddie blinked. He pulled his arm back and threw.

The stone travelled through the air at a speed that made the eyes water.

Eddie was already following the trail back out of the park when the rock collided with the mugger’s head and he collapsed in a heap.

Ten minutes later, Eddie was pushing open his front door. The two-bedroom house on the top of the hill was small and snug. Snugger than it needed to be thanks to the weight of framed photographs and the huge shag pile rugs on every floor. 

A voice came from the kitchen as he hung up his coat. “Eddie? Eddie, is that you?”

“Aye.”

“Are you back?”

“Aye, I’m back.”

The framed photos which covered every wall dotted around thirty to forty years of life. The wedding, the kids and now grandkids. The various newspaper articles and photographs with Prime Ministers and other world leaders. Eddie barely saw them anymore, walking past the monument of passing years into the small kitchen.

Stella was sitting at the round wooden table. She was wearing a heavy shawl today and the heating was cranked up to a sunny day in Egypt, but Eddie didn’t complain. “Are you as cold as ice?” Eddie asked with a small smile. He avoided Stella’s answering look.

“One day, mister, you’ll get tired of that joke. How were the lads?” she asked.

“Well enough.” Eddie scratched the back of his head, walking across the kitchen. He took out the patterned mugs, filled the kettle and glanced through the window into the garden. Too cold to do anything out there today. “I stopped a mugger in the park.”

“That’s nice, dear.”

“Eighty meters, straight across the park with a stone. Got him in the head. Haven’t thrown like that since I took out Doctor Evil. You remember that?”

“You’ll do your back out again if you’re not careful.”

“Do you remember? In London.”

“It wasn’t Doctor Evil. It was the Hive Mind.”

Eddie frowned. “I thought it was Doctor Evil.”

“When you threw the lamppost across the Thames to knock out the death laser?”

“Yeah.”

“It was the Hive Mind.”

Eddie shrugged. Stella had the better memory for these things. It had been a good throw, either way. And today had felt just as good. A small stone, eighty meters straight to the head without killing them. Still got it, Eddie thought proudly. Who’s an old man now? 

The kettle clicked. 

As he passed the counter, he switched on the radio. The soft sounds of Christmas music filled the warm kitchen. “How was your morning?” he asked.

“Oh, nothing special.”

Eddie sat and pushed the mug over with a wince as the tea slouched. Stella saw the shake but said nothing. She was writing Christmas cards in small, spidery writing. There was a pile of stamped envelopes at her elbow and yet still more to write. Even as their oldest friends… well, most didn’t need a Christmas card anymore. But even as they lost the old guard, their kids had even more kids and the list of Christmas cards only seemed to grow.

“Terry’s kid just had twins,” Stella said. “I said we’d go to the christening in January.”

“Who?”

“Oh Eddie, you know. The Dynamo.”

Eddie smiled. Now he remembered. “Terry! How is he?”

“His daughter had twins. I said we’d go to the christening.”

“That’s nice.”

“And Mary sent a card. She and Hamish are still in Devon, but they’re having a bit of a time. Their grandson’s developed pyrokinesis and keeps setting fire to his bedroom. I said we’d visit them in Easter.”

“Sounds good.”

The soft music from the radio stopped as a local news bulletin came on.

“This is Rise 105.2, County Meadows local radio. This morning at ten past nine, there was an attempted robbery at the Mutual Bank on Chester Avenue. Two masked men threatened staff and customers with guns. However, their escape was foiled when a sudden snap chill froze the engine of their getaway vehicle and sealed them into their own car. The car is apparently still frozen in place outside the bank and the police have cordoned off the area.”

Eddie turned to Stella, who was studiously still writing. “Nothing special this morning, huh?”

She looked up at him with her big, blue eyes which were only magnified by her new spectacle prescription. As cornflower blue as the day they’d met when he’d rescued her from Doctor Evil. Well, that was his version of the story. Stella, or rather, the Black Ice Vixen, would tell you that it was, in fact, she who’d saved Captain Strongarm that day. 

“No more heroes, remember?” Stella said.

Eddie smiled. “You’re mine.”

“Oh, shut up.”


© Melanie Roussel

Memory Stones by Chloe Winterburn

 The warmth of the sand under the children’s toes was welcoming. The ocean crashed its waves onto the beach and the sun’s rays pushed them towards the cooling water. The beach looked more inviting to them now than before.

Caleb grabbed Clara’s hand, pulling her to the water. The twins’ black hair bobbing over the bright sand. Marie pushed Jamie lightly and sprinted towards the older two. Her legs began to ache before she reached them, but her brother was laughing close behind her, so she forced herself to carry on. 

Their parents smiled as they sat against the white cliffs, the blanket spread out beneath them. They felt a twang of guilt as the children splashed each other, squealing happily. The beach had been off limits to them; only seen through the windows of their home. 

The children played and splashed for a while before running back to their parents shivering all over. Their mother laughed as they rubbed their hands up and down their arms to keep warm. She wrapped the towels tightly around them and they sunk into them, feeling the new warmth spreading through them. The adults shared a knowing look.

“When you have dried off, why don’t you collect some shells and stones to remember this day at the beach?” Father smiled, showing them the colourful buckets that lay next to him in the sand. 

“Then, when you’re all finished, we can have some sandwiches.” Mother said, coughing slightly. Their father frowned, then laughed at the children. 

“Let’s help you dry off now shall we?” He ran after them, growling as they ran around their picnic area laughing and shouting. They couldn’t hear their mother finishing her coughing and that was the way she wanted to keep it. 

Soon they were dry, wearing their summer clothes to keep them warm. They each had their own coloured bucket and were told to collect as many pretty shells and stones as they could. Their father wagged his finger at them playfully. 

“Whoever collects the most wins a prize.” He grinned at his wife who gave him a sharp look; she knew he didn’t have any such prize. But the children were already running in separate directions, eager to win. 

Caleb had run to the left of the beach, near the cliffs and the path leading the way home. He loved the different sizes and shapes of stones, so he picked lots of different ones at the bottom of the cliff face. 

Clara had a different idea. She loved the rock pools so she decided that the prettiest shells and stones would be around there. She hopped from rock to rock fishing some stones out from the pools as she took in the smell of salt water. 

Marie ran towards the sea where the waves pull back from the sand, leaving fresh shells and stones in its wake. She shook off the squishy, wet sand and put them in the bucket, greedily scooping them up in her childlike excitement. 

Jamie, however, wandered across the soft sand pretending he was in the desert. He dug through the sand for the stones and the odd shell, blowing off the sand before placing it carefully in his red bucket. 

Their parents watched them carefully from their spot, making sure they didn’t wander too far. Father glanced at Mother worriedly. His lips trembled as he looked at her bright red face, listening to her wheezing. He felt sick as he glanced at the children, scattered happily across the beach: What would he tell them? Should he tell them anything? 

Maybe it’s best not to tell them yet; at least not today. He just held her close as the laughter bounced across the beach. 

Soon the children were running back, presenting their buckets and shouting over each other. Their mother smiled and showed them the basket of sandwiches. Buckets and prizes forgotten, they sat down with a thump and ate ravenously. 

On the walk home, the children chattered endlessly, showing each other the full buckets. The trees waved to them in the evening breeze as the setting sun lit the way. 

That evening as they sat around the fireplace, they each chose a favourite shell or stone to put in a memory box to remember their first day back at the beach. Caleb proudly showed his black and white stone, placing it in the glossy brown box. Clara put a stone decorated with moss into the box. Marie shyly placed her small pink and yellow conch shell into the box. Finally, Jamie deposited his shiny black stone into the box. Then they gave their parents their buckets to pick something. The adults smiled, carefully picking through the four buckets. Mother picked a red cockle shell and Father picked a cream scallop shell. 

“Why don’t we put the rest of these in the garden? They’ll look lovely in the flower beds.” Mother said, beginning to get up with one of the buckets. Her knees trembled but she managed to stand. She proudly led the way to the garden through the house. They spent the rest of the evening decorating the flower beds with the shells and stones from the beach. 

****

Ten years later, the children are no longer children. Their father is moving into a smaller home, in the middle of town. Their childhood home is being sold and the four of them solemnly pack everything up. Each of them felt sick and their hearts ached as they stared at their empty home. The only home they really knew and loved. After sorting their separate rooms, they all pack up the living room together. Sometimes one of them would find a memory and show it to the others. They would smile and laugh, then come back down to 108earth. A tear often escaped, and they looked at the picture of their mother on the mantlepiece. 

“Look what I found.” Caleb tried to smile as he picked up the glossy brown box and opened it. 

Clara pushed her long raven hair over her shoulder as she stared into the box. “My moss rock. I remember seeing a crab after I chose that rock.” She smiled widely now at the memory. 

Marie wiped a tear from her pink cheek as she moved around her brother. “Oh look, my conch shell. Father would love to see this box again.” 

“He would but I don’t want to upset him either.” Jamie’s brown eyes glistened in the light as he peered into the box. “I thought I was an archaeologist and I loved to dig.” He chuckled drily. 

“Then let’s keep the box out of the other things and take this to Father today. While we’re together.” Caleb nodded, decidedly. 

In their father’s new home, they took the shells out of the box and placed them on the new fireplace around the picture of their mother who will forever smile happily. They sat around his armchair and spoke especially about that wonderful day at the beach. Tears spilling and laughter high in the air. 

© Chloe Winterburn

Love by Edward Breen

 I wasn’t sure I loved you when I first laid eyes on you, not like your mother did. She loved you even though you nearly killed her. My wife—your mother—nearly died. Her womb wouldn’t stop bleeding. We had decided, she and I, that she wouldn’t have prostaglandin in case it harmed you. In case it got into her milk. Her womb wouldn’t contract.

She had been talking about something, I can’t remember what, then she just stopped making sense. Her words became meaningless as her eyes defocused, refocused, defocused. 

Her face looked as if someone was pouring grey into the top of her skull. Filling her with death.

There was pandemonium. The midwife immediately gave her the drugs we had initially refused. And some more. The doctor, cold as frost, massaged her belly and caused her to give birth to five pints of clotted blood, like dead fish sloshing and slipping onto the absorbent hospital pads.

So, no. I did not love you for nearly killing your mother. But I played the part. I smiled and held you to my bare skin. ‘It helps with the bond,’ the student midwife said.

Who was I to question? I hadn’t slept in forty-eight hours. That was nothing: your mother hadn’t slept in that long either. And she had given birth. Then they took you away from us. You swallowed meconium, they said. You were having trouble catching your breath, they said. I went to see the nurses as they rubbed you roughly with towels, trying to get you to breathe.

‘Don’t worry if an NHS towel doesn’t get him breathing nothing will,’ said a nurse.

I just stood there, useless, empty, thinking: what if it doesn’t?

You were pink and shrivelled, limp as an anatomically perfect doll.

Then, they took you to a room with smaller glass rooms inside. In one of these, you slept. Watching over you, a softly-spoken ICU nurse.

‘He’s doing fine,’ she said when I was sent by your mother to visit. ‘Would you like to hold him?’

Would I like to hold him? It was a good question. I felt like I should hold him, you. Was that the same thing as wanting to?

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Okay.’

You were wrapped, swaddled they call it, in a knitted blanked, soft and warm and safe like a caterpillar in an incomplete cocoon. She put you in my arms and I felt it, the warmth of you. The life pulsing through that fragile little body.

After an hour they let you out. Your sentenced served. They wheeled you back in a clear plastic crib. Your mother cried and held you, tried to feed you, failed, cried some more. I could see the love for you in her. I could actually see it like a thing that reflected light connecting you to her. It looked like her tears.

‘I need a shower,’ she told me. ‘I stink.’

I smiled and found a nurse. A wheelchair was brought and I helped your mother into it. 

She was still weak from the blood loss and everything else.

‘Down the corridor to the right,’ the nurse said and left. 

I started to wheel my wife down the corridor.

‘Don’t forget the baby,’ she said.

‘Oh, yes, of course. The baby.’

I took you both down to the showers. Your mother in a wheelchair. You in a wheelie cot. 

She needed help standing up in the shower but she had to manage because I had to look after you.

Not that I was sure what that meant, not really. It was your mother who had to feed you and aside from sleeping I didn’t know what else you did. What required looking after. I felt surplus to requirements. Then you made a grunt, just a little one, and started crying.

‘I think that one’s for you,’ my wife said, hair dripping, wrapped in a towel, barely able to get to the wheelchair. ‘There’s nappies in the room.’

‘Do you have a car seat?’ the nurse asked.

‘Yes, in the car,’ I said, stupidly.

‘We can’t let you leave without it, I’m afraid.’

I just stared at her. I didn’t understand the words she said. I needed sleep. I needed to be home. 

‘Go and get the car seat,’ your mother said. ‘We’ll be alright here.’

I looked at her, holding you in her arms. She was so tired and you were asleep. But what if you woke up. What if she needed me? What if? What if?

‘I’ll stay with her,’ the nurse said, sensing my panic.

The nurse insisted upon carrying you to the door. I walked hand in hand with my wife, just the two of us for the last time.104

‘Okay, you’re free to go,’ the nurse said with a smile. ‘Drive safe, the midwife will phone tomorrow. Congratulations.’

And that was it. You were ours. Just ours with nobody to help. With our families either abroad or dead, there would be no one at home waiting. There was just the two of us. Now three.

When we got home, we lay you on the sofa. Our sofa. The one we picked out together and bought together. The one we sat on every evening together to watch TV or whatever. 

The one we had slept on, made love on, argued on, made up on. And there you were, taking up so little space on the giant thing but still, you were there.

‘What do we do now?’ my wife said, looking down at you.

I just shrugged my shoulders and laughed. 

The cat came and sniffed you, this stranger in her house. 

‘I don’t think she’s sure about all this,’ I said.

It was your mother’s turn to shrug and laugh. ‘Well, she’ll have to get used to it. She’ll learn to love him. Don’t worry.’

She put a hand on my hand and squeezed. ‘Let’s get some sleep.’

That night we slept in two-hour chunks, sometimes more than two hours between. You cried and demanded milk, then wouldn’t feed, then nodded off, then cried again. I took you and rocked you to let your mother rest. She fed you and tried to stay awake. I talked nonsense to her to keep her mind active.

In the morning, the midwife called. She had a free slot and would be around in an hour. 

‘It sounds like you had quite a good night,’ she said. 

Your mother and I looked at one another. A good night, she said.

The midwife stayed for a while, measured things, answered questions and suddenly we were alone again.

Over the week’s family came and went. They cooed over you and told us how lucky we were with how well you slept and ate and how healthy you were. You were brought out for meals and walks that you didn’t even register. All you wanted was closeness and milk and peace to sleep.

After the first week came the second and then the third. The first six months were the hardest. Then it got easier, then harder again. You seemed to go in cycles. You would sleep eight hours, then not at all, then twelve. You would acquiesce to being put down for sleep, then we had to come up with ever more elaborate methods of laying you so that you wouldn’t wake. Through vomiting bugs; temperatures; teething; learning to roll over, crawl, stand, walk, run, and talk you cycled between angel and demon. It was hard to love you sometimes, even for your mother.

Suddenly you were a year old. ‘We don’t need a party for a one year old, do we? He won’t even remember.’ You still loved the presents and attention.

Then you were two. We felt guilty and made a last-minute dash and sent some text invitations. You loved it. Being the centre of attention. Eating your weight in crisps and cake.

We went on our first family holiday that year. Just a three day stay in a holiday park up the country. Not too long. You were so young. You loved every minute of it. Dashing around new places and enjoying everything we enjoyed because we were happy and we were there. The next year we went on a slightly longer one and longer again when you were four. 

You spoke about that holiday for months.

Now you’re nearly five; your emotions are firing; your awareness is so vast and fantastic; 

I see in you what I remember in me. Sometimes when we meet a stranger or a relative you haven’t seen for a while; you look at them askance and take a while to warm up. But when you do and you release yourself, love flows so strongly. I realise now that I actually did love you the first time I met you. You were just so new, so weird, so fragile. I took a while to warm up too.

© Edward Breen

​Forbidden by Meg Isaac

 My hand yearns for yours as I rest my head back on the mattress of grass and the choir of birds sing their tune above us. It is easy, in times like these, with the sun beating down over us and the wind humming a song between the crisp leaves of each tree, to forget every trouble we have faced, and the worries that have occupied the darkest corners of my head for so long. This body I inhabit, so often tense with an indescribable anxiety, for once is at peace, each limb floating further and further into the mossy meadow in which we are positioned. Loving you has never been easy, but in times like these, I’m not searching for comfort or ease, I am searching for your adoration.

I fight the urge to let my eyes close, turning towards you and staring deeply. A description will not do you justice. Could I describe how your hazel hair runs down your back, more striking than the seine, how your freckles dance across your cheeks, and your eyes, a blue too bright for this simple world, hold a thousand secrets and tell a hundred tales? I could. 

But you are not the perfect woman, I could never describe you as such, for who could describe an angel in such a mundane way?

My greatest wish is for nothing to disturb this moment, for time to freeze, and the world to stop turning so that I can have you, and only you, forever. Returning to our husbands, returning to a town that would drive us away if they got the slightest suspicion of the love we held, that idea seems so farfetched and so pointless. We fought hard, we won the war, the country got their freedom, and yet somehow, we are still trapped, confined to moments like these, perfect in every way possible, except for one. They must end. 

“Darling, if I could save you in a drawing and keep you there for all eternity I would, for you are the finest art there is” You say, somehow putting my thoughts exactly into words. That has always been a talent of yours, almost as if you could read my mind.

“That was rather sloppy dear,” I retort, “I thought I was supposed to be the romantic one here”

You laugh, a melodious laugh, a laugh unlike anything I have ever heard. It is not mirrored in the twinkle of wind chimes, or the chime of a bell, it is unique to you, like so many other things. I had always been told about love as a child, the feeling that you would get when you found Mr. right. Never, in my wildest dreams, had I pictured it would feel so heavenly, and never did I imagine it would not be a Mr. right that I would find.

“You know we have to go back eventually; they will start to miss us at some point” 

You inform me of what I already know, but refuse to believe, the echoes of your laugh still lingering in the air.

“Will they? Do you think they would notice if we didn’t return? What if we left now, went somewhere no one could find us, no one could judge us, we could be ourselves. I could hold you when you cried rather than stare at you from across a room. You could draw the trees as I played with the children and put smiles on our faces that would never be eradicated. 

We could be happy, don’t you think?” The image that has occupied my thoughts since the moment I set eyes on you is finally released, put out there for, well, not the world, but for you to see.

“Love, I could think of no better way to spend my days than with you. But you know as well as I do, that can’t be. How would we earn money for food, do you think our husbands would never find us, do you think we would not face the same judgement but elsewhere? You are my everything, but sometimes, everything isn’t enough”

In reality, I know this is all true, it is what I have been trying to tell myself since the image first manipulated its way into my brain. But hearing it from your lips, realising the world I longed so desperately for may never come to fruition, it causes a pain in me unlike any other. Why is it fair that we cannot be together because of other people, and their warped view of what love should be? They cannot tell me this is not natural, because you are the only thing that feels right, so who are we to stop that? Why should we have to hide because we are the same gender, why are we not free to love, like everyone else? I ask a thousand times, why? And yet I never receive an answer.

“I know. But we can do something,” I state, as I start ripping flowers from their homes, crafting them together to form a promise, “marry me, right here, right now. I may not have a fancy ring or a dress or a church, but we have love, and that is all we need. Marry me, otherwise I shall stay here forever, and I shall never leave until you say yes.”

My heart beats with, something similar to anticipation, as I look into those ethereal eyes once more, and start to question what your answer will be.

“Well, you certainly are the romantic one, aren’t you? Of course, I could never refuse you.”

With a relief I have never felt before, I slip my makeshift ring onto your finger, and admire the beauty of the flowers, but more the way in which they will never compare to the beauty of their wearer. We kneel on the grass, no longer caring about stains or mud, and you look at me, and everything around me, the towering trees, and the birds who continue to sing, and the grass that tickles at my knees, it all disappears, and only you remain. 

“I promise, that no matter what, the love I hold for you shall always remain true and strong, and that through the worst times and the best, I will be by your side, and I will weather it all with you. For there is no storm that can destroy us.”

The words you utter, so few and yet they mean more to me than any words ever spoken before. 

“I promise, that even though I cannot be with you, I will always be there, holding you up and 

I will love you harder, and I will love you more with each day that comes. No prying eyes or horrid comments or cold stares will ever be enough to tear me away from you. My belief was always that love would change my whole world. I know now that I was wrong. You are my world, without you there is nothing. And so, I promise, that I will keep this world spinning, and I will never let it stop.”

We embrace and share a moment so unbelievably special that I fear none will ever compare. A grin spreads across my face as I look back up to you once more and say

“The least you could do is make me a ring as well”

© Meg Isaac

In the Footsteps of the Paediatrician by Liz Berg

 They’re outside, howling. Every now and then there is a lull and I hope they have given up and gone. A brick, an egg, shit powers through my cracked window and it all starts again.

“Witch! Killer! Plague carrier!” 

These come at me like bullets. None of them are true. They know that. They like to harass me. They want me to leave. To walk out that door. To deliver myself into their hungry hands. Their fingers are itching to rip and tear. Their feet are dancing forward to kick. 

The police have told me they can’t protect me on the street so the only choice I have is to stay here. They don’t allow delivery vans near the street. Now neighbours who had sympathised with me, curse me. They are waiting for me to go. They wish I would leave of my own accord. They tell me this in phone-calls.

The local shop used to drop milk, eggs and bread first thing in the morning, hoping to beat the protesters. They stopped when their shop was targeted. Someone leaves me a bag on the back door every so often at night. I won’t eat from those bags. For all I know they contain poisoned goods. They’ll try any way to get rid of me.

I don’t know why I stay here. I have nowhere else to go. This is my home. I work here. I worked here. No one accepts my work anymore. I am a pariah, an outcast, shunned in my own community.

All these years, I kept my mouth shut when they spoke to me. I watched their faces as they spoke, worrying about their thoughts. If I opined, I was ready to retract almost as soon as the words left my mouth. Nothing I say changes their minds. They are entrenched in their opinions. 

They blame me for the virus. They blame me for their hatred. They want me dead to assuage an ill from a far-off country. One that means nothing to them. The ill is not their cause. They don’t even understand the cause. It is just a stick to beat me with. One they have grabbed with both hands gladly. I am in their eyes an interloper, even though I was born here. But I remain defiantly different. Quietly defiantly different. I don’t flaunt myself. 

I’m the quiet neighbour. I was the quiet neighbour where they thought I would be loud and pushy. I want peace and quiet. It seems that will only come with a grave attached. Perhaps I should go out and give myself up to them, to their baying voices, to their taloned fingers, their steel toe-capped boots.

When they rampage through, they will see nothing to reproach me with. No hoovering to antagonise those hovering, I brush and scrub the carpets, the cupboards, the ceilings. I spend hours in the bath, under the water, drowning out the jeers, the rhythmic catcalls. 

I open the door and exit head high.

© Liz Berg

Escape and Evade by Jeff Jones

 I glance at my watch and note the time. I’m running late. I always seem to be running late. If I’m going to make it to the drop-off point and back without being caught, I am going to have to hurry. So much could go wrong. There are so many variables.

Despite the chilly autumn air, I can feel beads of sweat trickling down the side of my face and my cotton shirt clings damply to my back. I can’t worry about my appearance now, all that matters is safely delivering my package and getting back before those cold, heartless… No, calm down, don’t say it, don’t even think it, you’ve got to watch your blood pressure, the doctor said so. Try and avoid stressful situations he said. Well I guess I’ve failed that one.

There’s nothing else for it, my hands are tied, I’m going to have to take the direct route through their territory. I should have left earlier, but I always know best. Or so I think. 

The smart play would be to double-back, come in from a direction they wouldn’t be expecting. They’d still see me of course, but by the time they’d organised a chase I’d be clear. I could deliver the package safely and would then stand a better chance of outrunning them on the way back no longer burdened by any cargo. They’d be waiting for me, prepared, but I would fancy my chances.

Another glance at my watch. Two more precious minutes have passed. I have to decide, though in my heart I’ve known all along that I have no choice but to make a run for it across their turf. There isn’t time for anything else.

I turn my jacket collar up, adjust my grip on the package and take a deep calming breath just like my physiotherapist taught me. It doesn’t work, my heart’s still racing, and my hands are clammy. Head down I emerge from my hiding place and make a run for it, or a brisk walk anyway, running’s beyond me nowadays.

Moments after I emerge from the anonymity of the shadows, the sun decides to finally make an appearance, illuminating me for all to see. The brief warmth it offers is most welcome, but its betrayal of my presence isn’t. It’s like nature itself is conspiring against me. 

I stop stock still like a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights. I’m expecting to hear a shout of excitement as one of them spots me, if not from one of their senior interrogators, at least from one of their scouts. But to my delight and surprise, there is no shout, just the usual hubbub of noise one would perhaps expect on a Tuesday afternoon.

Hope briefly flares in my heart and I dare to believe I can make it and strike a blow for the ordinary man, and my pace quickens in anticipation. 

I must be halfway across their patch now, maybe more. A small smirk of victory – no it’s too soon for that – of hope then, begins to tug at the corners of my mouth.

A flicker of movement to my right. Was it real or imagined? I must keep going, sanctuary is in sight, tantalisingly close. Stay on mission. Don’t be distracted. 

There it is again. Somebody is there. I stop; my first mistake and turn to look; my second. He’s been lurking menacingly in a shop doorway, one of the many closed down  shops that now litter our High Street, searching for a target and now he’s found one. The hunt is on.

He’s onto me in a flash. From the moment we make eye contact my fate is sealed, he knows it and I know it, but like any trapped or cornered animal fighting for its life, I’m not going to go down without a fight.

Panic threatens to overwhelm me and after backing slowly away from him I finally manage to break eye contact and try to make a run for it, but all sense of direction has abandoned me, and I’m flustered into indecision. The world around me has shrunk, suffocating me and claustrophobia has me in its vice-like grip.

Finally, I regain my bearings and resume my escape, but seemingly out of nowhere his comrades have surrounded me and are closing in from all directions. His sort never hunts alone, I should have remembered that. I’m trapped.

I nervously turn to confront my tormentor. He’s grinning and knows I’m cornered. The game’s up. Judging by the wide-awake suit, expensive loafers and trendy haircut, this one must be one of their most senior interrogators. This is going to go hard on me. He won’t accept any excuses and will pursue me relentlessly if I try and bolt. No point trying to appeal to his compassionate side either, as his sort don’t possess one. Can’t in their job. They need to be ruthless, dogged, determined. I watch anxiously as he reaches inside his double-breasted suit jacket and I hold my breath, his eyes never leaving mine as he closes the gap between us to virtually zero. I hear a gentle clicking noise as his Parker pen is primed for action, much like its wielder.

Behind him, just down the other end of the High Street, I see a man in a dark blue uniform slowly circling my car, no doubt salivating at the prospect of issuing another ticket. 

If I’d just left earlier, if I’d just paid for my parking instead of gambling by parking in one of the town’s ‘free parking for 20 minutes’ spaces. If I’d just taken another route across the High Street.

None of it matters now. I could try pretending that I’m from Poland or some other Eastern European country, but the last time I tried that the interrogator himself turned out to be from there and I ended up looking a right fool. Better to just take my punishment and get it over with. Resigned to my fate I drop my bag of library books at my feet and look the young man in front of me squarely in the eye.

Guess this is one market research survey I’ll have to endure.

© Jeff Jones

Cross the Eyes by Josh Cassidy

 Sprawled out on his bed, Chandler relaxed after a gruelling day of labouring in the July sun. 

Flicking through the channels on his TV and thinking about what to eat this evening, he spotted the reflection of a woman in the TV from the open window behind him. At first, processing what he saw, he assumed he’d imagined it, dehydrated and exhausted from hauling bricks around a worksite all day. Shrugging it off he tried to calm himself, but then the unmistakeable noise of the garden gate’s bolt grinding open snapped him into life.

Leaping out of bed to look out of the window of his ground floor apartment, he saw a woman in the open gateway, surrounded in the overgrown branches that had bonded to the gate over the years. Her eyes were a piercing grey, dark make up surrounding them and a nest of blonde hair slick with sweat.

 Lips covered in a deep red lipstick, she smiled at him mockingly, as if tempting him to give chase.

 Chandler locked eyes with her and she troubled him instantly, she was as wild a woman as he’d ever seen, he felt threatened by her. Then he noticed the camera strap wrapped around her neck. 

‘What are you doing?’ Chandler yelled at her.

The woman laughed loudly for only a second or two and fled. Chandler kicked on his shoes and dashed outside to follow her. Chandler saw her skipping along the pavement with her back to him when he came through the gate. She was apparently in no hurry, almost like she was waiting for him to catch up. Chandler ducked behind a parked car and took a second to catch his breath. If I tried to tackle or detain the woman, any passer-by would surely assume I was attacking her, wouldn’t they? Chandler thought. Moving carefully using tree’s, bushes and car’s as cover, he pursued the woman for what seemed like hours, occasionally losing sight of her momentarily but finding her quite easily and this worried him. Was she letting me track her? Is it a trap? he wondered. He felt for his phone in his pocket but felt nothing, in the rush he had left it back at his apartment along with his wallet. 

‘Damnit’ He scolded, under his breath. 

Chandler followed the woman all the way to the other end of town, the infamous part of town rife with murder and drug deals. The local community had nicknamed it ‘The Ruins’. It was a miserable place, full of crumbling, grey tower blocks and abandoned cars.

Chandler watched the woman as she approached a line of garages and stood in front of the second door along, slipping under it and closing it behind her. Chandler sat down behind a burnt-out car on the rough gravel and pondered what his next step was. He supposed that he could return home and call the police, he knew where he could find her now after all but just as he was about to turn away and run home, he heard the garage door open again. He kept low and watched her from under the car. She appeared from the garage, looking as disturbing as she did before. She closed the garage door and walked  away, no skip this time, she walked with purpose around a corner and out of sight. 

Everything in Chandler told him to run the opposite direction and sort this out with the police, but he just couldn’t get the thought of the camera from his mind. Did she leave the garage door unlocked? he suspected she had. Chandler raced from behind the car, to the garage door and slipped under the door, closing it softly behind him. There was no light in the garage, but some light seeped in from the seams of the door. It didn’t illuminate much but there was a strong smell of candles and smoke. Finding the light switch, he flicked it and illuminated the room. 

‘What the hell…’ Chandler muttered to himself.

Grief washed over Chandler and he wished he had run the opposite direction, he wished he had called the police and not entered the garage. The walls and tables were littered with pictures of him. Photos of him sleeping in his bed, at restaurants with his ex-girlfriend, even of him stood atop a house he helped build last July. All of the photos were definitely him, his blonde hair, his stocky frame, the photos were so clear you could see the acne scars on his face but each of them had the same drawings over them. Thick black crosses scribbled over his eyes messily. The sound of the garage door handle shaking snapped him out of his shocked stupor and daylight filled the room as the door opened. 

The woman stood stunned at the sight of Chandler inside the garage. They both stood and matched each other’s stunned gaze for what seemed to Chandler as hours. The woman’s expression slowly turned to a sly grin and broke the silence. 

‘Do you like my collection?’ She said excitedly.

‘You’re crazy!’ Chandler snapped back. 

‘Aren’t we all?’ She replied snidely.

Before he could think she grabbed a screwdriver from a table and lunged at him. He stepped to the side just in time and she narrowly missed his stomach. Grabbing the woman, 

Chandler threw her at the table, knocking it over and spreading hundreds of pictures across the floor. Running for the door like his life depended on it, he reached out for the handle, just as he seized it the woman speared him in the calf with the screwdriver. Chandler wailed out in pain and pulled the screwdriver out of his leg. Waving the bloody screwdriver at the woman he screamed. 

‘Stay down!’

The woman looked up at him and then softly started to giggle.

‘See! We’re all a little crazy!’ The woman splutters out in between laughs.

Chandler lifted the door and ran away from the garage. He was limping heavily, but adrenaline pushed him through the pain. His mind was racing at a million miles, but he remembered he once heard about a police station that had been built on the outskirts of The Ruins, it had been in all of the local papers. The photo’s he had seen still lingered around his head as he looked over his shoulder again. He hadn’t seen the woman since he got away. She mustn’t have followed me? he assumed.

As Chandler turned a corner, he seen a horde of police cars parked outside the station, he had made it. He sighed relief and thanked god he had made it away from her. He slowed his pace down to a brisk walk, his heart pounding still but slowing with every breath. 

He crossed the road and was within a stone’s throw of the station when he caught sight of someone out the corner of his eye on the adjacent side street. Before he could turn to look, the woman leapt out at him and hit him hard with a brick across his forehead. He tried to let out a cry for help, but his voice had eluded him. Chandlers world faded to black.

Chandler woke slowly, his eyes blurry and his head pounding like a drum. He couldn’t move but he blinked a few times to try and focus his eyes. He was back at the garage, the same cheap swinging light and smoky smell. He turned his head to the left and she was there. He wasn’t surprised this time nor was he shocked at her deranged look. He looked to the right and this time he was shocked. Photos of other men looked back at him, he didn’t know any of them, but they all had the same crosses over their eyes and a candle lit in front of them. 

He looked down his body and to find thick black tape securing him to the table, he couldn’t move an inch. 

‘Why are you doing this?’ He whimpered. 

‘I like your eyes.’ She answered softly.

Chandler sobbed harder as the woman stood up and stooped next to him. She leant down, and he could feel her warm breath on his ear. Then she moved to another table and picked something up. She turned back towards him holding a long knife. Chandler frantically shook and wriggled around but it made no difference, the woman just stood, in a daze, a blank look layered on her face, almost trancelike. 

‘Please. Please just let me go home.’ Chandler begged. ‘I won’t go to the police. I promise!’ 

A small leer grew on one side of her mouth as she stopped over his heart with the point of the knife and slowly pushed it hard through his chest. The woman spoke softly as she watched the life drain from Chandler.

‘You are home. Your home is with us now.’

© Josh Cassidy

Unheard by Lois Chapin

 My new patient sits down on the couch I just sanitized with Lysol and a leather treatment chaser. His unshaken hand fidgets with the elastic around his ear. Dark eyes, red-rimmed with grief, peer over the top of a logoed mask. My own face covering suffocates me like my boyfriend’s hand in the empty Griswold’s parking lot at seventeen. I worry what my patient’s mask triggers for him.

I keep telling myself, we’re all safe. 

The office window I shoved open after my last patient’s video session, lets in the traffic sounds that reverberated over her audio, “I’m suici….”

“I didn’t get---,” he says. 

Sweat beads on his black forehead. His mask accordions with each breath. I force myself not to glance outside at the F-150 booming at the red light. 

“Wanted to say goodbye,” he says.

“That had to be hard,” I say, trying to make a compassionate face with only my eyes. I’ve always been more of a Skinnerian than a Rogerian. 

“ICU nurse tried,” he says.

A yellow thread from my cleaning cloth lies on the carpet beside his Sketchers. Tires squeal outside my screened widow as the light turns green. The smell of burning rubber tugs at a sneeze.

“Sound cut out on her tablet,” he says.

My brow furrows above my mask. “Must’ve been devastating,” I say.

I prefer treating people in person. Video sessions pixelate faces just before self-disclosure. 

Teens’ parents’ text outside bedroom doors, “Don’t lie to your therapist!” Those locked in cars for privacy, drop their phones between seats and center consoles scrounging for scraps of note paper. 

In person I can look them in the eye. Staring at a camera light at the top of my screen to not look down on a patient, is still patronizing. The thumbnail self-portrait at the bottom of my screen never makes eye-contact.

“There won’t be,” he says. “We can’t---a funeral.” 

I tap on my keyboard trying to think of something profound or diagnostic to write. I nod instead.

“Can’t, you know, gather. But her family can’t come anyway,” he says. “Their business. The rioting.” He pulls out a tissue with several swift jerks without touching the top of the box. He blots at a tear and wipes the sweat from his face, knocking the mask off his nose. “Uh, sorry,” he mutters, and fixes his face covering.

I should be the one apologizing. My mirror neurons fire vampire mode. 

Time is frozen. We’ve both viewed the slow murder time and again. He’s the color of the man whose life was pressed out of him. I’m the color of the murderer. I’m not worthy of his trust. My shame is irrelevant.

This courageous grieving man in front of me is a warrior. I want him to know. It’s time.

“It’s, uh, okay,” I say. I’m not really sure anything is. “Take your time.”

My next patient, geriatric and white, will spend 50 minutes detailing what pejorative thoughts I must harbor behind my mask. Another victim of hearing loss. 

Timing is everything. I’d called the previous woman back on her cell after my screen displayed a spinning Ouroboros. Just Fifteen seconds re-established defenses that blocked revisiting the intrusive thoughts of ending her life. 

I’ll end this session touching his credit card like a monk breaking a vow of poverty. Then I’ll say, “You’re not alone,” with no touch of his arm, no pat on the back, no handshake, no visible smile, no standing by the door I hold open, no hug, only a chasm of social distance.

© Lois Chapin

October October by Andrew Ball

“Once upon a time...”“I love stories that start like that!” said Billy.
“Me too! You tell the best stories, Grandma. Why can’t you put me ’n’ Billy to bed every night?”
“Because, sweetie, as soon as your Mum and Dad get back, I have to jump on my broomstick and fly away into the night. A witch’s work is never done, you know. Now, have you both brushed your teeth and done all that other stuff? Good, then snuggle down and let me get on with the story."
“Once upon a time, there was a young girl...”
“What was her name?” asked Lucy.
“She had twenty-six first names, one for each letter of the alphabet. Her twelfth first name was... Lucy.”
“Just like me! How many last names did she have?”
“Twelve; one for each month of the year. So, every morning she’d look at the calendar to see what her name was that day.”
“But...”
“Yes, Billy?”
“What was she called at the end of each month? You know when she ran out of alphabet?”
“Ah, those were special days when she only had a last name, but she used it twice. So, today, on Halloween, she’d be called...?
“October October!”
“Very good. Now, as you may already have guessed, October October was an unusual young girl. She was never bored because she loved to think, and she always had lots of things inside her head that needed thinking about.”
“What sort of things?”
“Oh... things like how fast she was moving, for instance. She knew that the earth was about 25,000 miles all the way around at its fattest point, and it took 24 hours to rotate back to where it had started, so she did the math and came up with...?”
“About 1000 miles an hour! Wow!”
“But then she thought: ‘Hmm... That’s just at the equator. If instead I was standing on the North Pole, I’d be spinning around slowly, once a day, like a top. That’d be cool... in more ways than one.’ And then she thought: ‘I wonder why we still talk about sunrise and sunset. They should be called horizon fall and horizon rise.’
“Anyway, the day I’m telling you about was a school day. October October loved school, all of it, apart from recess. She didn’t really know how to do recess, so she usually hung out in the classroom thinking her thoughts and waiting for it to be over so that she could get back to learning stuff.
“But on this particular day, her teacher had sent her out into the playground to get some fresh air. Almost immediately, she caught the attention of a group of kids -- boys mostly -- who were roaming the playground looking for trouble. She’d tangled with this group before.
“Let’s get her!” said the ringleader, rallying his troops. “Yes, let’s get her!” echoed his second-in-command, who always followed orders, whatever they were. “Yes, let’s!” said a girl who was longing to be accepted into the gang.
‘Uh-oh,’ thought October. ‘Here comes trouble...’
Backing her up against a wall, they surrounded her: a mob of scowling predators.
‘Hmm... Think your way out of this one,’ October thought to herself.
“She’s a witch!” snarled the ringleader, the chant spreading through the mob like wildfire: “Witch, witch, witch...”
“But even witches deserve a fair trial,” said October, sounding calmer than she felt. “I’m innocent until proven guilty; it’s in the Constitution.”
“I know what...” said the ringleader, who wasn’t quite as stupid as he appeared to be, “...we’ll give her a trial by ducking stool, like they did in the old days. We’ll tie her to a chair and throw her into a pond. If she floats, she’s a witch; if she sinks, she’s not. How does that sound?”
‘Like double jeopardy or something,’ thought October. “What pond?” she asked.
“Oh...” said the ringleader, knocked off his stride.
‘You should always have a plan B,’ thought October.
“I know!” said the girl who wanted to be a part of the gang. “We should put two stones into my lunch bag - a black one and a white one - and get her to pick one out without looking. If she picks the white one, she’s innocent; but if she picks the black one, she’s a witch.”
‘At least I’ll have a 50% chance,’ thought October, ‘which is better than a ducking stool.’
“Right; pass it over,” said the ringleader, struggling to regain control of the situation.
Smiling slyly to himself, he bent down, picked up two stones from the gravel playground and dropped them into the empty lunch bag. Then, making sure she couldn’t see in, he held it out for October to pick the stone that would seal her fate.
But October had been watching closely -- as if her life depended on it, in fact -- and she’d noticed that the ringleader had picked up two black stones. Her chance of being acquitted had just dropped to zero!”
“Oh, no! What on earth can she do?” said Lucy.
“She can’t expose the ringleader as a cheat. He’d beat her up for sure!” said Billy.
“‘Think!’ thought October. ‘There must be a way out of this pickle.’ As the group held its breath, she slowly reached her hand into the lunch bag and felt the two stones nestling at the bottom. Whichever one she picked, she was doomed... or was she?
Her hand began to shake; they’d expect her to be scared, wouldn’t they? ‘Go on,’ she thought. ‘Act it up a bit. They need you to be the victim here.’ She let a stifled sob escape her lips. ‘Careful, drama queen. Don’t overdo it.’
Inch by inch she withdrew her hand, the shaking getting worse as the moment of truth approached. And then, right at the lip of the lunch bag, a miracle! The stone slipped from her shaking fingers and fell back onto the gravel path, lost forever amongst its neighbors.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said. “How clumsy of me. But never mind; you can tell which one I picked by checking the color of the one that’s left in the bag.”
A look of horror passed across the ringleader’s face. He knew when he was beaten.
“Go ahead, look!” said his second-in-command, wondering why the ringleader looked daggers at him. “Yes, look!” said the others. Reluctantly, the ringleader reached into the bag and drew out the remaining stone, the one that he and October both knew for sure was black. He opened his hand and their eyes met: the victor and the vanquished.
“And that’s how October’s witch pulled an October switch. Goodnight, kids; sleep well.”


© Andrew Ball

Layover by Rebecca Redshaw

The voice over the loudspeaker paged every thirty seconds announcing arrivals, departures, and delays.

 Kathleen sat amid the turmoil surrounded by luggage laden college students in jeans and businessmen in dark suits with leather briefcases in one hand and wardrobe bags flung over the opposite shoulder in the other.

“Why do women insist on mimicking men's drab attire in the workplace?” she wondered. Kathleen had fallen into the three-piece suit trap as well except she always added a dash of color, either in the form of a striped scarf or colorful silk blouse. Few of her colleagues would suspect her bikini panties. A slight smile crossed her lips. She always wore red ones whenever she addressed the board, especially for those unassuming tight asses who admired her total professionalism.

Kathleen shifted her body on the fake leather bench of the terminal. Usually Annette, her secretary, scheduled her flights with as little layover time as possible. And usually, Kathleen visited the executive club to return phone messages and have a complimentary vodka tonic. But this evening, nothing was usual.

The flight from Chicago had been late landing in Denver and it would be at least two hours before the runway was cleared of snow for the LA departure. Colorado often had freak spring storms. The irritation of the delay was complicated by the closure of the club because of a broken water pipe. Kathleen, was sitting with the general public, waiting.

"Oh, well," she sighed out loud as she surveyed the crowded terminal. There was no point getting irritated.

She considered working her way to the bar, but a football game on the large screen TV had drawn an enthusiastic crowd and even a drink was not worth the thick smoke and bumping elbows she would encounter.

“So,” Kathleen cajoled herself, “relax.”

Traveling for the company the last two years had eliminated all glamour from flying. 

To Kathleen boarding a 747 for New York was like a daily commute on the freeway for some; something she had to do to get to work. Of course, her family saw her travel as neither a burden nor a sacrifice. Aunt Sadie thought she was a stewardess. "After all, why else would Kathy fly so much?" 

Kathleen’s gaze focused on a tailored, tasteful woman in her 60's greeting a distinguished man with a discrete kiss on the cheek. As they passed, she noticed the woman properly take his elbow.

“If Daddy had lived, that's how Mother would have said 'Hello,'” Kathleen thought.

But her father had died when she was thirteen, leaving his wife an insurance policy that would allow her to live comfortably, but not extravagantly, without having to work.

“What would life have been like if Mother had to do what I do?” Kathleen wondered.

Their situations were hardly the same. Mike had walked out on Kathleen and in a very unceremonious manner.

“He should have had the courtesy to die like Daddy.”

No such luck. Mike left a note which Kathleen saved.

Kath, I don't love you anymore. I don't know why. Take care of yourself. Mike

Kathleen rested her head on her left hand stroking her forehead with her long fingers.

"Thanks, Mike," she said out loud.

She cleared her throat to cover the startledness of the young sailor seated beside her. He shifted in the chair, pretending to fall asleep.

Kathleen flashed back to the present, noticing an airport wheelchair at the end of the opposite row. She blinked sharply, focusing on the old woman's face.

“Silly how you think you know someone.” Kathleen studied the face. She shook her head. “I guess all Gramma's look the same.”

The old woman's body was stooped, her elbows on worn arm rests. Both hands clutched a gold trimmed, black pocketbook on her lap. The torn edges of her boarding pass were snapped, half inside, half outside the purse.

The woman slowly unbuttoned the top two buttons of her coat then looked up at 

Kathleen.

Embarrassed by her intrusion, Kathleen quickly looked away. “Probably waiting for her family. I hope they come soon.” She wondered why she cared. No one would be waiting for her in Los Angeles. 

Usually she justified her singleness as freedom. “Come and go as I please. Vacation when and where I want. No one to pick up after. Freedom.”

Of course, her mother redefined this freedom as loneliness. "You must feel so empty with no one in your life, dear?"

Kathleen never answered her mother. There was no point telling her that there had been other men since Michael. She didn't think her mother really wanted to hear that she was even occasionally sexually satisfied.

There hadn't been that many since Michael, but more than Kathleen like to admit. No one seemed to last more than six months or the mention of the word commitment, whichever came first. Her last breakup was particularly emotional. 

"You're going to be alone, Kathy," said Christopher through embittered tears. 

Maybe so, thought Kathleen, maybe so.

Maybe that's why she remained fascinated with the woman in the wheelchair.

“What if I'm not seeing Gramma but I'm seeing myself?” 

Kathleen closed her eyes slowly and remembered.

The three generations lived together briefly after her father died. Her mother, unable to be responsible for anyone other than herself, soon shuffled Kathy off to boarding school and placed her husband's mother in a nursing home.

The women seldom saw one another, usually at Christmas holidays and spring break. 

Kathleen and her grandmother wrote often.

Kathleen remembered the spring break Gramma had a stroke. She borrowed herroommate's car and drove 125 miles to the nursing home. As she walked the dimly lit corridor that smelled of urine and bleach, Kathleen saw the wheelchair facing away from her. As she walked silently toward the woman, she recognized the green cardigan she had given as a present.

The grey head was bowed, and the frailness of the body startled Kathleen as she turned and knelt, looking up into the eyes of the person who had always been her best friend.

"Gramma?"

The steel blue eyes clouded by cataracts, stared up until she recognized the girl.

"Kathy, Kathy." The crippled hands touched her granddaughter's tearstained cheeks and cried.

There was nothing Kathleen could do to change life for her grandmother. Her pleas fell on deaf ears when she begged her mother to help.

"They're taking care of her at the home. Now that I've married Richard, I can't think of a better place for her to be."

"Right, Mother," Kathleen said aloud shaking her head, bringing both herself and the sailor beside her back to reality. He got up and moved to another bench.

Kathleen looked across at the wheelchair. The woman had nodded off. Several minutes passed when an airline employee approached the chair.

"Mrs. Everett?" A little louder. "Mrs. Everett?"

The old woman jerked awake, startled by the attention. Leaning over, the attendant spoke slowly.

"Mrs. Everett, your family called. They're stuck in the blizzard. They didn't want you to worry. They'll be here soon."

"Thank you, dearie," she smiled. "I'll be fine."

Her tired eyes followed the messenger as she briskly walked away. Turning her head, she once again caught Kathleen's eye.

This time Kathleen didn't look away.

"Beautiful snowfall," she motioned to the windows speckled with flurries.

Kathleen looked outside for the first time, noticing the gentleness of the night.

Gathering her winter coat and briefcase, Kathleen moved to the empty bench beside the wheelchair.

"Yes, I suppose it is."


© Rebecca Redshaw

Rise and Set and Rise Again by Jenni Cook

Damp sand shifts beneath my bare feet. Overhead, the sun strains to reclaim the sky from the clouds that linger after last night’s summer storm. The beach is silent this time of day, disturbed only by lapping waves and the occasional cry of a gull. I take a deep breath, savoring the salty ocean air.
This solitary moment is my daily reminder that despite my profession, there’s more
to life than death.

When I reach the wooden bench that marks my turn-around, I raise my arms and stretch toward the sky. Normally I’d take a seat and watch the sunrise, but today I don’t have time. Instead, I retrace my steps and think about what to say to the high school student who asked to shadow me for the day. Unlike some local business owners, I don’t have a canned talk I give every year to the student who elects to observe a day in my life. In three generations, the family business has never had a shadow on Career Day.
 
I guess no one wants to see what the town’s lady mortician does when she goes to
work. Not that I blame them.

#

“Did you always want to be a mortician?” Hailee Ryan eyes me curiously.
Ahh, the directness of youth. She lacks the uneasiness adults often exhibit when
discussing my occupation.
I pause outside the embalming room door and consider how to respond. The
openness of her expression pushes me toward honesty.
“No.” I smile ruefully. “I actually wanted to be a wedding planner.”
Hailee’s charcoal grey eyes grow round in her pale face. “That’s a big difference. Why
did you change your mind?”
“My dad owned the funeral home when I was a kid. His dad owned it before him. My
older brothers went different directions; one’s a cop, the other’s an insurance adjuster. I
was Dad’s last hope.” I shrug. “I caved. Family legacy, and all that.”
She tilts her head and studies me. “Do you regret it? Not becoming a wedding
planner, I mean?”
This time, I lie. Not because I want to mislead Hailee, but because the truth opens up
a huge can of worms I’m not prepared to deal with today.
“Of course not. Who wants to deal with bridezillas and their overly opinionated
mothers anyway? I still help people with one of the most important events in their lives. I
coordinate the flowers, and services, and--”
I open the door a little more dramatically than is necessary, and we’re hit will the
smell of formaldehyde. Hailee’s gasp at the sight of the embalming equipment spares me
from continuing with the fib, or worse, confessing the truth: That I’m sick to death of, well,
death. That I’ve received an offer from someone who wants to buy the business, and I’m
considering selling out now that both of my parents are gone.
I answer Hailee’s rapid-fire questions about the embalming process and glance at my
watch.
“C’mon. We have an appointment.” I close the door and turn back toward the office.
If only I could turn back the last twenty years as easily.

#

Late that afternoon, I sit behind the heavy walnut desk in my office at the funeral
home. Hailee sits across from me, jotting notes with a glittery pink pen that looks out of
place in the somber surroundings.
When she called to ask about shadowing me, I was a little concerned the bereaved
wouldn’t be enthusiastic about a high schooler observing their grief. Instead, most have
been accepting of the idea. Her presence even seems to provide them a much needed
distraction. I’m impressed to see she has an ease with the grieving that many people never
achieve.
Hailee points her pink pen at me. “Can we talk about those burial clothes in the
Display Room? It smells like lemon furniture polish in there, by the way. Anyway, does
anyone really buy those clothes? On TV they put people in fancy clothes, like a wedding
dress, or a suit and tie. Sometimes they even go buy something new to be buried in, but I’ve
never heard of shopping for clothes at the funeral home.”
“It depends on the circumstances. If someone’s house blew away in a hurricane, for
example, they might not have anything. But you’re right, most families provide something
for the deceased to wear.”
“Whew!”
“You know, Hailee, you’ve really taken to this today. If you’re considering applying to
a mortuary science program when you graduate, I’d be happy to write a recommendation
letter for you.”
An expression I can’t identify crosses her features, and she avoids eye-contact when
she replies, “Maybe. I don’t know. It just…depends.”
“On what?”
“I don’t know. Just stuff.”
“Fair enough. You’re what? Fifteen?”
Hailee nods.
“You’ve got time to decide.”
She bobs her head again, but she still doesn’t look at me.
She’s quiet for the next half-hour, but when her mom arrives to pick her up, she
thanks me politely and asks if she can stop by again sometime. I tell her sure and wave as
they drive away.
Edna, my receptionist, glances up from her computer as I walk back to my office.
“What do you think is going on with her?”
“I don’t know. Maybe all the talk about death got her unsettled? But she handled it
better than a lot of people twice her age.” People like Blake, my last boyfriend. He called it
quits because he couldn’t handle being with a woman who dealt with death all day. He 83
wasn’t the first. Only the latest in a string of men who found my occupation creepy. Blake
was the one who had me seriously considering the offer to sell the funeral home. I could
start a wedding-planning business with the proceeds, he’d said.

#

Five weeks later, I take my morning walk along the beach. Late summer has given
way to fall, and it’s too cool to go barefoot. I wear a hat and scarf to ward off the chill in the
dawn air and walk briskly to stay warm.
I make the turn in my usual spot, but instead of using the return trip to think about
the day ahead, I think about what Hailee’s parents told me when they came to drop off her
clothes yesterday.
“Hailee had an aggressive, inoperable form of brain cancer.” Mrs. Ryan’s eyes had
filled with tears.
“We found out right before Career Day.” Mr. Ryan had stroked his wife’s back.
“That’s why she wanted to shadow you. She knew she was dying. She wanted to know what
would happen to her body when her time came.”
“She didn’t tell me.” I shook my head. Hailee had stopped by the funeral home
regularly the first three weeks after Career Day. When she didn’t show up last week, I was
surprised how much I missed hearing her chatter. I’d been busy, though, and just assumed
she was, too.
“She said she didn’t want to be treated like a cancer patient. She wanted to live her
life as normally as possible for as long as she could.” Mr. Ryan had shrugged.
“She left a note for you.” Mrs. Ryan had reached into her purse and retrieved a
folded piece of paper. I gave her a brief hug, and she left the room stifling a sob.

#

I arrive at the car and slide into the driver’s seat. Before I stick my key into the
ignition, I open my purse and pull out a piece of paper. I’ve read Hailee’s note at least a
dozen times, but I take in her round script written in pink glittery ink again.
Lenora - Thanks for letting me shadow you on Career Day. By now you know it wasn’t
because I wanted to be a mortician. Sorry about that. I want you to know that what I learned
shadowing you gave me peace about what would happen to me after I died, especially after
I saw how much you cared for everyone who came to you. Also, I know you’ll say what my
parents need to hear to bring them comfort now that I’m gone. For what it’s worth, if it
weren’t for having to die and everything, I’d have taken you up on that offer for a
recommendation letter. I know you kinda got guilted into being an undertaker, but I think it’s
what you were meant to do. And, like you said, who wants to deal with bridezillas and their
crazy mamas anyway? Love, Hailee
When I get to work, I call the funeral director the next town over.
“Max? It’s Lenora. Listen, I’ve considered your offer to buy the business. It’s quite
generous. You know what, though? I’ve decided not to sell. I think this is where I’m
supposed to be after all.”


© Jenni Cook