Monday, June 24, 2019

Mrs Neb by Ceinwen Haydon

A solitary woman is annoyed by her neighbour's prying and tries to avoid her - until one day their paths are forced to cross; by Ceinwen Haydon.

Work's ok, but coming home is better. Well, it is unless she's standing by her gate. I have to pass her house and she's unavoidable. I call her Mrs Neb, not out loud, of course. Every feature of her face is etched into my mind: her pinched plum mouth that bleeds lipstick beyond its outline, her wrinkled nose with blackheads and wide nostrils that emphasise her scowl, her jaundiced dandelion-clock hair and her beige pancake slap that chokes every rut on her jowls and chin. She's disapproval incarnate.

I loathe her relentless scrutiny. I'm sure she lives to see folk get their come-uppance, some sort of avenging angel. When she speaks to me, which she always does if she catches my eye, she pretends to be all nicey, nicey. The fact that I see through her ruses is lost on her. She minces along in her fluffy mules, proud as a queen. Although lately, I have to say, she's let herself go. Last time I stood close enough to tell, she was a bit whiffy if I'm honest, and her clothes were un-ironed and food-stained. That would never have happened a couple of years back. She was born in the village and has always claimed special status following the arrival of all us incomers. But the truth is, I recognise her for her real self. She's a witch.

Friday, June 21, 2019

The Bubble by Craig McEwan

Craig McEwan's character has trouble navigating the social mediascape - which opinions are the right ones?

The economy is going down the plughole again: because of Brexit this time. Everyone on my timeline voted Bremain. Who didn't? We think there should be a second referendum: surely we'd get the right result this time. Our poor economy. First the bankers and now this. We hate bankers. I spotted that rat-faced cashier from Barclays the other day in TK Maxx. If looks were daggers, she'd be a pincushion. Yotam Ottolenghi posted a new recipe for soy grilled quail eggs with sesame salt today. We love Yotam Ottolenghi.

I was signing a petition to save our libraries - we love libraries - when what popped up but a friend request from Emma Braine! My family did everything with the Braines when me and Emma were kids. Her dad, Brian, was a great block-faced man who worked for Plastimo, and the only man I ever heard interrupt one of Dad's stories and get away with it. Brian Braine. He sounds like a cartoon character, and he was, in a way. Larger than life. Emma and I were inseparable until Plastimo offered Brian a big raise and a relocation to Surrey, and that was the last I saw of her.

Monday, June 17, 2019

The Debauched by Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri

The 1905 Russian revolution has turned St Petersburg society on its head, and the aristocratic Misha Sergeyevich fears his sister is seeking solace in an unsavoury place; by Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri.

My eldest sister, Tatiana Sergeyevna, was disrobed and bathing Rasputin when I returned home one evening, in 1908. She ran her slender fingers over his hirsute back, bare and dirty. This all was transpiring in my own marble bathroom with its porcelain tub, of all spaces. The tub which Papa had imported from London in the good days, the days before things came apart. I'd gone in to take a long bath after an evening dining with friends. This had been a nice release from the tensions, from our disintegrating home, our family slowly breaking apart in light of Papa's recent gambling debts and his own liaisons in Monte Carlo while abroad with the Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich, our tsar's uncle. I was twenty-two and the youngest in our family, my sister twenty-eight.

Rasputin held a bottle of Madeira, which he waved like a weapon, while my sister kept washing his back, whistling something from "The Nutcracker." This all struck me as I entered the room, as if this were the most intense moment of a dream. The moment where I'd wake up and everything would be all right. But it was happening here. My sister was completely disrobed, so was Rasputin, and their bodies seemed to defile this vast and wonderful room. I shook my head once and again, as if that would restore things to their natural modes of being. I thought of just leaving, walking out the door, out into the night, but some force pulled me back.

"Have a drink, Misha," he said, laughing, waving the bottle. I could smell the alcohol on his breath, thick and overwhelming. "Live a little."

"What are you doing, Tanya?" I said, using the nickname I'd used for my sister. She smiled.

Friday, June 14, 2019

The Woman on the Bus by Karen Toralba

An American tourist in Penang is baffled when her child receives a mysterious injury; by Karen Toralba.

Penang, Malaysia

"The doctor at the hospital said I should report this," she showed the stoic officer at the counter her young daughter's infliction - a mark similar to an elongated X that seemed to be transforming from a red scratch to an almost rotting appearance. The woman continued. "He said to show you this. I'm sorry, but I'm on vacation, and we leave in two days, so I'd like to handle this quickly, if that's possible." She produced an envelope with a message on the front which sent the officer quickly scurrying away through closed doors, who then reappeared with a slender, aging man. The police chief ushered her personally into his office and shut the door.

"I don't understand what's going on," she said as she seated herself with her child. "The doctor said it was an unusual scratch but sent me here. I'm not sure why." The woman, American, sat stiffly in a crisp white sleeveless shirt which tucked neatly into light jean shorts that stood guard over her knee caps. Her dirty blond hair, usually more styled when not on vacation, was twisted messily and clipped to the back of her head.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Twelve Steps From a Breakdown By Cathy Beaudoin

A high-flying executive pretends to be an alcoholic so she can attend AA meetings in the hope of salving her soul; by Cathy Beaudoin.

Standing at the top of the basement stairwell, nerves made me shaky and ready to vomit. Afraid the typical Manhattan brownstone was a private residence, I peered through the gritty, ankle-high window. There were a dozen rows of plastic folding chairs and a table with a coffee pot on top of it. About ten feet away, at the curb separating the street from the sidewalk, a couple of scruffy bearded guys stood smoking. I glanced at them and when we made eye contact I wanted to turn and run home, to bolt my apartment door, grab a glass from the kitchen cabinet, and squeeze it until it shattered into a thousand tiny pieces.

“You okay?” one of them probed.

“There a meeting here tonight?” I asked.

“Yeah, you’re in the right place honey.”

I bristled at the word honey. I wasn’t his honey. I wasn’t anyone’s honey.

Friday, June 7, 2019

The Tram by Cameron Dusting

A Czech woman recalls her childhood and the events that shaped who she is; by Cameron Dusting.

When I was nine years old, my family lived in a leafy district of Prague; my brother and sister and I went to school nearby. Our mother would chat with the other parents by the school's metal fence while she waited for our classes to finish. After that, we'd walk home with her. It was a fifteen-minute walk under the leaves. Sometimes our friends and their parents would walk with us too. We'd pass the graffiti-covered buildings and the red-and-white railing, talking about what we'd learned at school that day.

On the walk home, my sister Krist├Żna, who was a year older than me, always complained about the wind getting in her hair. "So, tie it up," our mother would say. Krista's hair was honey-coloured; mine was much darker. We both had long hair. Yet the wind never bothered me. I loved feeling the breeze through my hair. It felt similar to my mother's fingers running over my scalp. On one such occasion, I spoke up. "I don't mind the wind in my hair," I said. And my mother laughed, and replied, "Of course you don't, Anna."

Monday, June 3, 2019

March on the Deniers! by Simon Di Nucci

Simon Di Nucci gives us a glimpse into a post-Apocalyptic Australia that has descended into tribal savagery.

The trees are bare, killed by the salt I guess, but there are fresh weeds underneath them and the goats eat happily. I herd them through our sector, slowly in the early heat, and we are out of the dead wood in an hour. Then we walk round to the seaward side of our territory. The storm surge brought piles of fresh seaweed up the slope, before the sea retreated out of sight again. Long may it stay there.

A work party are repairing the damage to our seawall, piling the rubble back up to the proper height. The foreman tips his straw hat to me and I nod back. Manners are important in the Tribe. We look at the half-naked labourers, building our new fleet of fishing canoes, sweating to get the job done before it gets too hot. I stop to admire some of the women, their brown skin smooth over strong muscles. Some stand up and smile at me: word has got out. The foreman and I look at the wall and exchange glances: will it ever be high enough? He grimaces. I nod again and leave.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Missing Crows by William Falo

William Falo tells the story of a world-weary crow.

The smell lured her and she flew closer to the ground. The dead animal was on the side of the road near the entrance to a bridge and she wanted to be the first, but another crow landed before her. It was her partner, he roosted next to her at night. She tried to land next to him, but her landing was clumsy. An impact with a car had left her with broken, dangling feathers, causing her to fly in crazy patterns and to fall over when she landed, much to the amusement of the other crows. He called her zig-zag due to her erratic flying.

She fell on her beak this time. He hissed. It was his way of laughing. Above them, the sky darkened with black forms coming closer. Food was scarce lately due to all the building in the area. The woods shrunk and the animals vanished.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Cinco de Mayo by Celia Perry

Celia Perry's flash fiction about an Arizona State University student whose Cinco de Mayo celebration goes very wrong.

Karen blamed her husband for the May 6th phone call. It was all Jeff’s idea to have Brian enroll at Arizona State after high school graduation in San Diego. Karen had hated the thought of their only child being so far from home. She didn’t think he was ready or even wanted to be there. But it was Jeff’s alma mater and he insisted it would be good for Brian to have a little more space. Space… from whom? She hated him for it. She would always hate him for it.

“Mrs. Peterson?” She made out a man’s voice, unfamiliar and heavily accented, through the static on the line. “I am Capitan Jose Ramirez of the Nogales police here in Mexico. You have a son named Brian Peterson?” Silence followed.

Karen felt weak kneed, leaning on the kitchen counter to steady herself. “Yes?” She paused. “But I don’t understa -”

“We have detained your son here until deciding if any charges will be made against him. Do you have an attorney in Mexico you wish to contact? He would be allowed to speak with your son. No one else, though, at this time.” Again, silence. Karen could hear her heartbeat growing louder in her ears.

Friday, May 24, 2019

The Rescues of Brittan Courvalais by Tom Sheehan

A storied old man has an unusually deep connection with his fresh born grandson, but tragedy nips at his heels; by Tom Sheehan.

It did not come with electricity or a smash of static on the air, but it was there. Brittan Courvalais, five minutes into the darkness of a new day, a streetlight's glow falling through his window like a subtle visitor, was caught on the edge of his chair. Knowledge flowed to him, information of a most sublime order, privacy, intimacy, all in one slow sweep of the air; his grandson was just now, just this minute, into this world, his only grandson. He could feel him, that child coming, making way his debut into the universe, and his name would be Shag. And for this life he and Shag would be in a mysterious and incomprehensible state of connection. This, in the streetlight's glow, in the start of a new day though dawn was not yet afoot.

People of the neighborhood shortly said that the oldest man among them, white-bearded, dark-eyed, 75-year old Brittan Courvalais, loved his only grandchild Shag in a deep and special way. They said there was a virtual connection, a most generous connection between them, more than the usual. At times they dwelled on the love ingredient, and then on the old and the young, the near gone and the coming. On days when young Shag came by, just an infant in his mother's arms, the old man's step changed, his gait changed, his shoulders stiffened, his voice went lyrical. Some heard him singing under the silver maple tree in the side yard, the tone reaching, ascendant, carrying more than day in it or cool evening or a new stab at dawn. Shag would come, put his arms out, and nestle against the old man's beard. The pair would look into each other's eyes and the world about them seemed lost, distant, at odds with the very young and the very old. Brittan's daughter Marta could only beam when the topic was broached, or say, "I don't know what it is. It mystifies me, but it's as if they share an infinite else." She'd smile broadly when she said it, shrug her shoulders, be fully happy in her puzzle.

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Tech by Saket Badola

A dying mob boss receives a visit from a man with a mysterious technology capable of healing him; by Saket Badola.

It was three in the afternoon when Olan arrived at the village. He gazed out the train window. He could see that the heat was dry, the sun was bright, the people were sparse, and the sleepy village was even sleepier at this time of day. Olan brought the tech with him. He'd taken the tech around the world many times over: from large cities like London and Hong Kong, to boroughs and suburbs, to so many nameless, faceless small towns. He liked the small towns. To them he was a stranger - a foreigner with no name.

Olan exited the train. He rubbed his face, dusted his long coat, kicked his shoes against the bench to shake the dirt off, and picked up his bag.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Arcadia Swept Down by Scott Archer Jones

An ageing couple live in a decaying old house in Galveston, and it's not clear who will collapse first; by Scott Archer Jones.

Until today I took care of my younger brother Donnie. Each morning Donnie would ask, Elizabeth, what shall we do today? For sixty years I gave the same answer. Donald, we'll have breakfast, then we'll tend to the past.

Great Grandfather called the house Arcadia. Cotton shipping built it on an elegant Galveston esplanade. Flat-roofed: how I hated that roof - its amalgamation of tin and copper, solder and hot-tar patch. Leak in, cold in, bats in.

I had lived within one of the beautiful bedrooms that opened not only onto the landing that circled the stairs, but that had double doors onto a balcony that overlooked the ballroom floor. After my first fall, we moved downstairs to the Jubilee parlor, a room that flanked the front hall. Donnie and I emptied out the furniture, the books and boxes of family photos, my Barnard degree. We disassembled the breakfronts. He would tug on the area rug we placed under each piece of furniture, and I would shove. Into the ballroom depths, into narrow rows of the past. Twin beds in the Jubilee, where we could keep tabs on our infirmities, his dementia, my heart and eyesight.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Something Extra by Patrick Ritter

Patrick Ritter imagines a world in which track racers' mechanical hearts are fine-tuned like F1 vehicles, but it's a future Scott Ryan is determined to resist.

Scott Ryan rose out of a deep stretch. He glanced up at the stadium clock above the track infield. Fifteen minutes until the start of the race.

Scott felt strong and ready. He started jogging along the edge of the infield past the warm-up areas for the other runners. He moved easily, with power and lightness, lifting his knees high with each step.

From the infield, a large red and black banner caught his attention. Scott clenched his jaw as he read it - Flowmax Racing Hearts. Beneath the banner several technicians bent over a young runner sitting in a padded chair. His bright jersey showed off the large Flowmax symbol. The runner was calm, almost bored, his face flushed with confidence. Inside his chest, an artificial heart - the Flowmax T4 - whirled silently.

The hair on Scott's neck bristled. Over the public address system the first of the runners was announced and the crowd roared. Thirteen minutes to go.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Assault on Mount Carmel by Tom Sheehan

At the end of World War II, a gang of small-town crooks foment resentment when they persist with their shady weekly poker game; by Tom Sheehan.

Mount Carmel Road was a quiet dead end in the north section of town. And in the middle of the night when the war in the Far East was over and the radios blared out the news, all the lights went on in all the houses on that blind street, except where the card game was being played. Many of the neighbors were solidly indignant about that turn of events on VJ Night, two Mount Carmel boys among those who would not be coming back from the mad Pacific, which most of us had only seen in Saturday newsreels at the theater.

This house was a dark house on a dark street in my town that, with some lesions and scars, hangs on to a place in my memory and will not let go. Not ever. The family that lives there now most likely is unaware of its past. Tenants and landlords hardly leave scribed notations of a dwelling, thinking all things will ferment, dissipate, and eventually pass on. Fifty years or more of recall usually get dulled, terribly pockmarked, or fade into the twilight the way one ages, a dimming of the eyes, a bending at the knees, a slow turn at mortality. But this one rides endlessly in place, a benchmark, a mooring place. It resides as a point of time, a small moment of history colored up by characterization of one incident.

Monday, May 6, 2019

The Night of the Haunted by Michael McCarthy

A hit man is haunted by the memories of two of his victims, by Michael McCarthy.

It's a balmy evening, there's a couple leaning out of a dimly lit window at the side of a house overlooking an alley. They're both naked and their heads are wreathed in smoke from their cigarettes, its effect heightened by the intermittent blinking of a faulty street light. You can't even see the moon or stars.

Let's call her Kate and him Daniel.

There's a very light drizzle shining on their skin. If you saw them, and you were that way inclined, you might find their bearing iconic like a scene from a European Art House film.

This house is empty apart from them. There was a fire in which two people died. The only two people in the house: the owner and his female friend. The house had been in the process of being converted into flats for rich singles as an additional pension for the owner.

The man is clearly older, he's tanned and balding with cropped grey hair. Kate is a dyed blonde, her hair lying loose on her shoulders. She looks about twenty years younger than Daniel, but neither of them care. Age is irrelevant to them.

Kate prefers the cool shade of her back garden, while Daniel is very well travelled. They're both smiling. There's some music playing in the background, an infectious pop song. It's not loud, it just... carries. Kate's moving her head from side to side in time, while Daniel's swinging his hand in front of him and clicking his fingers like a band leader.

They've clearly found each other. It took them long enough.