The Dying of the Light

By Killeen Partridge

The shutter clicks and I hear Nathaniel wind the film. He says something I can’t hear, my back turned toward the horizon where the sun is falling into the ocean. I let my arm drop as a wave breaks against my legs and soaks the hem of my dress, toes digging into the sand to brace against the ocean as it washes away.

“Rose!”

I like the way my name sounds on his lips: fearless, confident — a stranger to the Rosemary I’ve always been.

“Rosie!”

I blink tears and take a breath, turn to reach a hand out to beckon him by my side, and the shutter clicks again. “Nat, stop…” My cheeks heat. “Please.”

Then his hand is suddenly warm in mine and I’m tucked under his arm, nestled by his side. Safe.

“When will you be back?” I ask.

“Not soon enough,” he whispers. A wave threatens to knock us down, but we are stronger together and it recedes.

“I’ll write.” A meager promise, but it’s mine to make.

“Every day?”

“Every day,” I say.

He squeezes me and I lean my head against his chest, close my eyes tight against the dusk.

“Rosemary?”

I open my eyes. Rosemary? His voice sounds different and I feel my heart skip.

“Nat?” My voice frantic as I look around for him.

“Rosemary, it’s okay.”

A woman’s voice? That’s not right. Nathaniel was just here, beside me. I heard his voice. Felt his touch.

“Nat!” A feeble attempt to cry out and I’m out of breath. How odd.

“Nathaniel is gone, Rosemary,” she says.

Her voice is condescending, grates against the panic that is bubbling up inside me.

“No,” I jab a finger to where she stands now. “He was just there.” The movement is sudden and she reaches out to grasp my elbow like I’m old and frail and about to topple over.

We look where I’m pointing. He has to be there. Has to. Just out of sight maybe.

“He’s not here, Rosemary,” she says, fingers clasped tight around my arm.

I jerk away, out of her grasp, and walk along the shoreline. I watch the waves wrap gently around my ankles, but I don’t feel them this time. My hem is dry and the ocean doesn’t tug me out to sea. I stumble.

“Rosemary, your cane,” she calls after me.

I pause, blink. Look down again at the sand no longer between my toes but carpet under my feet, flecked with blues and greens.

I don’t understand.

I glance at my hands, blood vessels clearly visible under paper thin skin. I shake my head, run fingers through my hair and twist some of it around and around, a habit I picked up as a little girl to cope with the worry. This can’t be right. He was here, just now, standing beside me in the ocean.

“Why don’t we go back to your apartment, Rosemary?” She’s back again.

And this time I nod.

I let her guide me to a room that smells like mothballs and disinfectant, and she moves items about, rearranging all my things as I watch. My fingers twist through hair and work overtime. I wish she would stop.

But when she leaves I just stand there, arms by my side. Still. Like a wild animal caught in headlights — too scared to run, too shocked to hide.

“Nathaniel?” I whisper. I wait for his presence to fill the space left in her wake.

Minutes tick by.

And then I feel it — his hand warm again in mine.

He leads me toward the bed where we lie down together. I turn on my side, feel his body curl around me, fill my nose with his scent of salt sea air and aftershave. Safe.

I let myself drift away then, carried on a decades-old tide, my breath rushing out with the water.

And only the ocean returns.

                                               *  *  *
Killeen Partridge is a high school Social Studies teacher and aspiring writer in her spare time. When she isn’t in the classroom, you can find her coffee shop hopping, riding her 1974 Yamaha TY250 in the forest, or catching the next flight out. Killeen holds a Master’s in Teaching from Virginia Commonwealth University and currently resides in Arizona with her retired show dog, Gunner. You can follow her on Instagram at @killeentravels.

Out of Clay

By Jerome Berglund

Vera cracked the egg on the counter with one hand, and out came a tiny man into the measuring cup. He was dressed semi-formally in miniature business casual attire, which became quite sticky as he splattered into the mixture of whites and yolks from the two more conventional shells which preceded his anomaly.

The spinster was appropriately flabbergasted, at a loss for words as to what made this sample so different from the rest of its baker’s dozen confederates, counted the occupant fortunate he had not been among the trio preceding, destined not for beating for a cake but deposited directly onto her frying pan at breakfast. If that would have been a quicker and less complicated affair, though grisly of clean-up projectedly. This new addition to her humble abode was unexpected, indeed somewhat disagreeable…

Vera’s eyesight was not so good anymore, yet with effort she managed to fish the petite gent out from the muck, get his clothing peeled off and crudely laundered with dish soap and a toothbrush. His vocal chords seemed equally diminutive, for try as she might – she did not try too hard, either, honestly – the old lady could not rightly make out a word he uttered, shout himself hoarse though she discerned him do regularly attempting.

He therefore only succeeded getting her attention once in a while through a sort of merry jig he could effect when the spirit moved him to. More often it was she who sought her lodger out, for he turned out to be pretty handy when it came to spot-cleaning, she required a compact proxy to retrieve the earrings she was always dropping under furniture, or chase down stray root vegetables which went flying into hard to reach places.

The underside of the refrigerator, piano, behind her toilet had never been tidier. Otherwise, for the bulk of their days they each lived like a harried contractor in an open model office, assigned to different teams and unconnected tasking, rendezvousing by their peculiar water cooler at an agreed upon set hour of the evening around quitting time to digest the radio plays which Vera religiously made a habit of consuming, broadcast cracklingly over an ornate old-timey receiver on the kitchen counter. Grand dame and microscopic wretch both, in fact, proved proportionately captivated by the high drama, romance and parable these salacious sagas presented.

The old lady listened and imagined herself free and agile like their casts of maverick characters, chasing glory and adventure unimpeded against Technicolor backdrops, at liberty with a clutch at most to her person, skipping down yellow brick roads gaily, fates in her corner and necessary muses programmed in on speed-dial, awaiting her call on a dedicated landline. Vera’s shrunken guest, conversely, fantasized that he were writ as large and imposing, might proceed through the wide world and its tall orders as impactfully as the brazen heroes always appeared to: walking with footsteps audible—resounding even!—and keeping up with these giants who dominated the competition he’d been dumped into haphazard. The old maid wished she could see details through the cataract blur, hear without need of an aid cranked to its utmost volume.

The pipsqueak desired to get perceived and understood, similarly. But both, being hopeless in their own hearts’ desires, were placated slightly through vicariously thrilling in, finding soothing via proxies less unfortunate, not hampered by deficiencies in providence and privilege, confined by size or capability. The promise of pretending would have to serve for them both, and it did in a hollow, unsatisfying way. If at times the little man had a screaming desire to hit the bricks, hightail it, go live in a burrow. And Vera was half tempted to bake him in a strawberry shortcake as she had originally intended.
* * *

Jerome Berglund holds a film degree from USC, more recently has also worked as a commercial photographer and paralegal. He has previously published stories in Grim & Gilded, Stardust, Martian Chronicles, Propertius Press, and the Watershed Review, as well as a play in Iris Literary Journal.

Socials:
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Sacrifice

By Tim Frank

“Are they still there?’ Katja said as she hid in the shadow cast by the bedroom door. Her husband, Maurice, inspected the elaborate folds of their bed’s headboard for bedbugs.

“Yep, they’re here,” he said, lip curled in disgust, “everywhere in fact.”

“Well, you have to sleep here tonight. That’s what they say, you have to sleep at the source, otherwise they’ll travel around the rest of the flat and get to me on the sofa bed.”

“Sure, ah, ok honey. I can do that.”

“Thanks babe, it means the world. They’re just so horrific,” Katja said, wringing her hands, her faced drained from sleepless nights.

That night Maurice helped his wife unravel the sofa bed, align the topper mattress and arrange the duvet. When he heard her deep forceful snores, he rolled off his bed, tiptoed to the back door and let himself out into the backyard. He sat on the soft turf in the garden – the full moon high in the sky like a spotlight illuminating a stage.

He chain-smoked a few Marlboro reds, coughed up some phlegm, and hawked it into the bushes. He became so drowsy he ended up asleep on his side in the foetal position. But after an hour, he lifted himself to his feet and sleepwalked around the garden. He bumped into the fence and his plaid bomber jacket got tangled in the rose thorns. He was dreaming of being trapped in a maximum-security prison, dodging gunfire and rabid dogs.
After a while though, he became aware enough to know he was lost, and as he spun around with his arms outstretched, he called out to Katja to help direct him to freedom. Katja had seen it all before and she wasn’t surprised to find Maurice rattling about in the garden shed, face covered in cobwebs. 

He whispered to her conspiratorially, “Maurice didn’t sleep in the bed because he wants the bugs to get you.”

“Is that right?” she said.

Maurice placed his finger to his lips.

“Secrets,” he said.

In the morning the bed bug exterminator arrived with a steamer and her patented organic pesticides. She had a mouthful of blackened teeth, a leathery face and manly hands with painted fingernails. She was called Julie.

“Out of ten,” Julie said after she’d inspected their ground floor flat, “I’d say your infestation is about an eight. Either one of you been sleeping on the master bed?”

“Yes, I have,” said Maurice.

Katja gave Maurice a contemptuous glare and said, “It’s not true, he’s lying.”

“Now,” Julie said firmly, planting her hands on her hips, “I’m going to need you two to be completely honest with me, otherwise I refuse to help you.”

“If you want total honesty, Julie, that could be a problem because my husband’s a compulsive liar. Mostly about all the women he’s slept with. I know because he told me in his sleep.”

“At least I didn’t shag that stinking rat, Simon, from two doors down. I know this, Julie, because my darling wife told me while she was wide awake.”

“This Simon you’re talking about, his name isn’t Simon Jenkins, is it?”

“That’s right. You know him?” said Katja.

“Yes. Yes, well, look guys,” Julie said, taking a seat on the sofa, looking pensive, “normally I respect the privacy of my clients, but Mr Jenkins is a special case. Honestly, his place is as bad as I’ve ever seen. He’s a menace to the neighbourhood and I strongly urge you not to go near him if you want to beat the bugs.”

“Great, my wife’s a whore and Simon Jenkins probably gave us bedbugs.”

“Don’t you dare …!”

“Enough!” cried Julie. “Both of you take a seat and listen to me before I crack your heads together like a pair of milk bottles. The only way to regain trust is to win this war against the bugs, because they will strain the best of marriages. Now, I want you to give each other a kiss.”

Like guilty children, Maurice and Katja gave each other a thin-lipped peck and Julie clapped her manly hands once in delight.

Before Julie left, she insisted at least one person sleep in the infested bed so the bugs wouldn’t spread. Then she handed over a thick folder, jam-packed with instructions about bedbug etiquette. She called it The Bible.

That night, Maurice promised Katja he would remain in their marital bed. He wanted to resolve their issues even though he knew it was probably too late for that.

Under the covers, Maurice couldn’t sleep, unable to get the image of Simon Jenkins bearing down on his wife’s naked body, bedbugs crawling out of his ears and mouth like a dried-out scare crow. But Maurice was determined to stay put and as he tossed and turned, he recalled the women he had slept with in this very bed as his wife worked endless night shifts in Tesco. He saw images of the women’s eyes flashing in wild ecstasy, and as bugs scuttled over his body, he felt maybe he was making amends — his sins being cleansed in atonement.

Katja and Maurice finally fell asleep in their separate beds and their dreams were as bleak and empty as the night. Julie had warned that the bugs were almost indestructible. It would only be in the morning that they’d discover what was left to endure – whether Maurice’s sacrifice had paid-off, or it was just another futile attempt at saving their marriage.

                                                                     *   *   *

Tim Frank’s short stories have been published in Bourbon Penn, Eunoia Review, The Metaworker, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Menacing Hedge, Maudlin House and elsewhere.

He is the associate fiction editor for Able Muse Literary Journal.

On the Canvas of Dreams

By Lisa Fox

For ninety-six years, I’ve resided inside the recesses of Anna’s mind, the tempo of her firing synapses guiding my hand over the canvas of her dreams. I paint for her the landscape, the pleasure and the ache, of her subconscious journey lived in parallel to her waking world.

My artistry flows, deft and deliberate, aligned with emotions Anna shares when she closes her eyes and opens her world to me. On the day of her birth, her dreams were but a series of abstract images hovering on a fissure of light. Over time, the scenes sharpened with her growth, the canvas expanding with her intellect. 

My smooth pastel brushstrokes complement Anna’s invoked symbols of joy, images prancing across a lifetime of memories and hopes. 

A puppy’s bark.

Monarch butterflies.

A daffodil swaying in the breeze.

On these nights, she breathes easy, as do I. 

When the staccato beat of her anxiety guides me toward brisk stiff-bristled strokes of red and black, the manic display confines her in chaotic paralysis. Her raging heartbeat commands motion; her numbed legs betray her. 

Sometimes she falls. Sometimes she flies. On her worst nights, I stand ready to catch her, though I remain an enigma she will never know.

She locks her pain inside darkened corners. I attempt to mend the shattered fragments that spill into my view:

A tarnished gold ring.

Empty photo frames, blank albums.

Wilted flowers hanging from shriveled vines.

And always, a faceless man who hovers in shadow.

Each time these pieces take shape, she thrusts a cauldron of black paint in my hands, willing me to splash a dark veil over the canvas. Rare is it for a charge to commandeer her dreams with such vigor. By duty, I oblige, yet I seek only to help her. 

#

A near century of sunsets begets a litany of losses—parents and siblings, nieces and nephews, friends. Anna is alone, the last of her family. The day her mother died, I painted Anna a portal to the spirit world, where she might reunite with the souls of those passed, should they come knocking. Should she allow them in.

Spirits queued outside, waiting. Her mother and father wrung their hands at the threshold of their daughter’s dreams, begging me for entry. But only Anna could invite a spirit inside, and she kept the door shut tight, its seal as hardened as her aging mind. She relented only when Jack, her beloved childhood dog, barreled through the portal, barking and wagging. She ran her fingers over his fur; his tail thumped in time with her heartbeat. So real, she whispered, before succumbing to daylight. 

The desolation of Anna’s waking hours resonates in her nighttime murmurs, shivering over the surface of my paint wells. Though Jack’s presence encouraged Anna to open the portal to her parents, too, an inexplicable longing echoes, heavy as footfalls in an empty room. 

#

Now that her breaths come short and the cadence of her synapses weakens, I prepare to paint Anna’s final portrait—the last image her closed eyes will see. It will be my final tribute to a lifetime spent rendering the divinations of her heart. When her light fades, I will be assigned to a newborn brain, left with fleeting images of Anna’s psyche, phantom feelings of our connection. But my love for her, that will persist. Always.

I paint with broad strokes on the blank page as she drifts. I offer rolling waves over a sandy shore and the pink hues of sunset cradling the fading light. I sketch her footprints, forever embedded in the earth, yearning for them to be strong and bold as she walks on.

Anna’s breath falters. She summons storm clouds over the sea. The waves crash. The wind wails. An empty picture frame rises through the sand, protruding like a lone tombstone. The faceless man materializes and drops to his knees in a glow of adoration. He reaches for her; she turns away. Sea mist, rain, and tears wash over Anna’s youthful face. Dark grey splotches of despair stain her flowing white dress—inkblots marring a masterpiece. 

Lightning sizzles. A flashbulb pops from an old-fashioned Polaroid camera that rests on a tripod made of shriveled vines.

An empty square flutters down—a photograph never taken. 

Anna’s fingers graze the paper. It crumbles, whisked into the sand along with the faceless man, whose disintegration falls like the curve of her endless frown. 

“William.” Anna’s voice echoes into nothingness. “I should have stayed.”

William—his name, a distant sigh drowned at the edges of her consciousness; his spirit, blocked from the threshold of Anna’s dreams. 

No brush I select, no hue I blend will alter this landscape, this scene Anna has hidden from herself—from me—for decades. But now it repeats, an endless loop of regret tainting her final dreamscape. 

I cannot leave her to die with this image. 

I cannot move on if she is not at peace. 

Abandoning my brushes and paints, I extricate myself from Anna’s subconscious and step through the portal into the spirit world. The rush of a million zooming souls stings me as I do the unthinkable. The forbidden.

I cry out for the faceless man.

William.

He approaches in a glowing orb, his features taking shape. Deep-set green eyes under a shock of black curls. Strong chin. Shy smile.

“Please, come,” I say. “She needs you.”

He nods, a quiver tugging at his lips. “I’ve been waiting for her.” 

William glides through the portal toward the beachfront. He whispers her name in the breeze, and Anna’s storm clouds retreat.

 I paint a vibrant sunbeam over Caribbean-blue water. The waves undulate, steady as a heartbeat. Daffodils sprout in the sea foam: they burst into butterflies, flitting through the sky. It’s a landscape befitting paradise. 

William takes Anna’s hand and softly kisses it.  

“I will,” she whispers. He leads her toward the portal.

A flashbulb pops.

Synapses silence. 

Light fades. 

I detach, drifting through darkness. Onward.

*   *   *

Lisa Fox is a pharmaceutical market researcher by day and fiction writer by night. She thrives in the chaos of suburbia, residing in New Jersey (USA) with her husband, two sons, and their double-doodle puppy. Her work has been featured in Metaphorosis, New Myths, Luna Station Quarterly, and Brilliant Flash Fiction, among other journals and anthologies.

The Final Thoughts of Sergei Nikolayevich Rossov

D C Hubbard

Sergei Nikolayevich Rossov picked up the tin can from the sidewalk in front of him and sorted through the kopecks with his freezing fingers. The total was just enough for a borscht with sausage and bread from the fast-food stand across the street. Or for a small bottle of cheap vodka from the liquor store. Both would keep him warm in the coming icy night.  But only the second one would help him remember. His choice was made.

By the time Sergei Nikolayevich left the shop, the winter night had long since conquered the city. Moscow’s rush hour traffic crept past him, hissing through the slush on the four-lane boulevard before him. He shivered from the cold and pulled his fur-lined cap down tighter over his ears. From experience he knew that the homeless shelter would be hopelessly overcrowded by this time and wouldn’t take him in. With the bottle he had purchased tucked in his pocket, he turned right toward Gorky Park to find lodging for the night.

The corner of the park where he and other homeless men usually gathered was empty that January night. They were expecting minus twenty degrees, which was, in itself, sufficient motivation to get a spot in the shelter in good time. He shrugged, moaned softly, and continued alone, further into the park. This suited him fine.

The park became all darkness as Sergei Nikolayevich left the main drag with its monuments and other crowd-pleasing attractions. He headed deeper into a wooded area and straight to a stand of dense, leafless shrubs that he crawled under for cover. There was a space in the middle where the snow was packed hard. He wasn’t the first to bunk there. He took a large plastic sheet out of his well-worn backpack and spread it out on the snow. Then he lay down on it and put his backpack under his head as a pillow. He wrapped the rest of the plastic sheet around his body and took the bottle of vodka out of his pocket. With his eyes closed, he heard music start up in his head, as it always did when he was resting. The sound of flutes playing in a minor key. A Mozart requiem. Lacrimosa. 

Gradually, the distant din of homeward-bound people quieted until the park was still, and the emptiness of night fell upon Sergei Nikolayevich mercilessly, like the Last Judgement. Or like Soviet justice. For the two were one and the same: threatening and arbitrary. 

The first swig of cheap vodka burned hellishly in his throat and he grimaced. The second one was already painless. When the liquid reached his empty stomach, the growling stopped and heat spread through his internal organs. The alcohol initially sharpened his thoughts. Memories flooded in. Pictures from back then.

The music in Sergei Nikolayevich’s head became louder and childlike. He saw Olga with Alyosha, their son. All blond hair and bright blue eyes; he was the image of his mother. Olga was teaching him to play the recorder, because, second only to her love for her family, came her love for music. She wanted her son to love it too. Her maternal patience was endless. Alyosha was only seven years old. Olga would smile, ruffle his hair and correct his wrong notes. They laughed about it together, then he played the traditional children’s song again, from the beginning.

The picture faded, then focused again. Sergei Nikolayevich recalled the day when the death notice arrived. Olga collapsed on the floor. The light in her eyes went out forever. Her flute went silent. Wasn’t it an honor to die in Afghanistan for Mother Russia?

It took all the will that Olga possessed to get up off the floor and return to work at the textile factory. She had meals ready for Sergei Nikolayevich when he came home after his shift at the gasworks. Exactly as she had done before, but now the music was gone.  And she, herself, barely touched her dinner.

On his way home early last spring, Sergei Nikolayevich spied the first crocuses poking above ground at dusk. The yellow and purple flowers caused a faint glimmer of hope to rise in his chest. When he opened the door of their apartment, he smelled bean stew. Olga had cooked his dinner; the pot was waiting on the stove. The rest of the dishes were washed and drying next to the sink. He found her in the bathtub lying in warm, blood-red water.

After Sergei Nikolayevich had buried her, he returned to the apartment to get his backpack. The backpack that now served as a pillow. He never crossed the threshold again.

In the meantime, Sergei Nikolayevich had become too warm. He threw off the plastic covers, pulled off his fur-lined hat, loosened his scarf, unbuttoned his anorak. His eyes closed again and he immediately saw and heard Olga and Alyosha playing their flutes. Alyosha, at eighteen, a picture of health and young manhood. He and Olga were playing a cheerful duet, the flute passage from a Mozart concerto. While they played, he looked at his mother with the eyes of love. She returned that look. Then both of them turned their eyes to Sergei, and they shared their love with him.

Sergei Nikolayevich’s breath became shallow, and with a smile playing around his mouth, he gently disappeared into the depths.  

                                                       *   *   *

D C Hubbard is an American ex-pat who has lived in Germany for most of her adult life. Deborah started writing late and self-published her debut novel, The Peace Bridge, in 2012. Since then, she has written many short stories in German and has been published in various anthologies in her adopted homeland. She is a student of history, enjoys playing with language(s), and loves telling a good story—especially ones that offer insight into the human condition. http://www.dchubbard-writes.com

 

Signs of Communication

By Shome Dasgupta

“This is your final warning. The warranty for your automobile will expire, and there is due attent—”

“Hello—hello. Hello. Please, hello.”

He heard the phone disconnect, and he looked around his room—bare, empty—deserted.

Silence—just silence. He waited. There was no weather. There was no time. There was no one—there was no language. There was no world. He waited.

“This is your fin—.”

“Hi. Hello. I’m here—I’m here. Please don’t go.”

There was more of nothing.

On his bed crouched forward with his elbows on his knees, a head to the dust of the wooden floors, as if there was a prayer. More time or nothing—four walls, a creation of hollow samples of strangled lines. A day upon a day, he felt a torment. On the table, just even with a pillow without dents or creases, set a container of aloe lotion, a brush, and sparkling watch. Every now and then, he almost turned his head toward the other side—the side that was no longer there.

52 years.

“Hi—hi. Yes. I’m here.”

“This is to inform you that there’s a lawsuit pending against—.”

“That’s wonderful. What should I do? It would be my pleasure.”

“—action is required.”

“Please. I’m here. Please don’t.”

He said this, only to a click.

Indeed, there was hope.

“Greetings. We’re calling to let you know that your house and all of your assets have been repossessed due to recent acquisitions. Be advised that—.”  

“Yes. Who is this? I am here. I can talk. Please talk to me. I have no one to talk to—I’m here.”

“Any disputes can be claimed through your local—.”

“Take my hand, dear.”

Another ended call—a one way conversation, and he again was in his room, stuck with the echoes of his own mind. He couldn’t turn around. On his own side of the bed, on the table, an empty glass—there for as long as the blanket never moved. There, for as long as a toothbrush remained still every morning and every night.

This was it. This will be it, he thought, as the back of his neck was rigid, aching. It was ringing, but he dropped it—falling, he scrambled on the floor, picking up the phone, like an aged map for treasure, lost for a million years only to be found tucked in the dresser drawer of an abandoned home hidden in the ruins of nowhere.

A different sound—a different tone every time, and every time, he wished for it to be someone, anyone, to say hello—to talk about the day.

“Hello—.”

“Hi. How are you doing? What would you like for breakfast?”

“I’m—and I’m here to let you know—.”

“Would you like to go to the garden today?”

“It is too late to take any—.”

“How about we go out for dinner, dear.”

“If any matter arises, contact us—.”

“The bees are outside again.”

“This is your final notice—.”

“Lemonade.”

And that was it, and there was nothing else. That was the last time—he threw his phone against the wall, cracked and splintered. He picked it up and threw it again—again and again and again. There were no signs of communication, and as he gathered his thoughts and turned around, he looked at the far side of the bed—a still life so it appeared.

He walked there and went under the cover—cold and tight, and he lay on his side, looking at the sparkling watch and the aloe cream next to it. He lay there and put his thumb in his mouth and closed his eyes, dreaming of a conversation that could never happen.

“I miss your voice.”

                                                                *   *   *

Shome Dasgupta is the author of nine books, including The Seagull And The Urn (HarperCollins India) and most recently, Spectacles (Word West Press), and a poetry collection, Iron Oxide (Assure Press). Forthcoming novels include Cirrus Stratus (Spuyten Duyvil) and Tentacles Numbing (Thirty West Publishing House). His writing has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, New Orleans Review, American Book Review, New Delta Review, X-R-A-Y, Magma Poetry, and elsewhere. He is the series editor of the Wigleaf Top 50. He lives in Lafayette, LA and can be found at www.shomedome.com and @laughingyeti.

Washed Gravel

By Lorraine Jeffery

“Paul Stringham’s dead,” Mary Gardner said reaching across the table for her daughter’s hand.  “I’m sorry Shannon. I know you were friends. Marge called about an hour ago, but I thought I’d wait until you were up.”

Shannon didn’t move. “How?” The word rode out on a tiny puff of air. 

“Overdosed. His folks just found out yesterday.”

 Shannon nodded, looking down at the breadcrumbs next to her round, cornflower blue plate and felt warm tears sliding down her cheeks. Sure, kids drove too fast, messed around with drugs, and did dangerous things in Gunnison, Utah—but nobody died from those things. 

Mary released Shannon’s hand and passed her a tissue. “His parents didn’t hear much from him after he left for Los Angeles. Did you?”

Shannon shook her head.

Her mother looked at her, expecting something. Shannon swallowed and asked, “Are you sure? I mean about him overdosing?”

“Well, that’s what the police said, and I don’t suppose they say things like that to the family unless they are pretty sure.”  She looked at her daughter’s stricken face. “Did you know he was on drugs?”

“He wasn’t on drugs,” Shannon stated. “At least not when he was here.”  

“He always was kind of different,” Mary confided. “I mean, I feel bad it happened and all, but he was kind of, well, a little odd or something. You couldn’t see it coming of course, but I suppose most people won’t be totally shocked.” 

A sick, lonely feeling began in Shannon’s stomach and seeped through the rest of her body. She put her head down on the table. 

Her mother stood up and cleared her throat. “Marge asked me to tell Barb, so I think I’ll just run over.” 

When Shannon heard the backdoor close, she raised her head and stared at the yellow tabletop. Yellow. She would never have thought about yellow if she hadn’t known Paul. He had told her about yellow—and red and blue and all the shades, hues and blends she had never really seen before.

Although they had attended the same high school, Shannon had had only a nodding acquaintance with Paul. She remembered him as a thin, nondescript boy, whose parents owned the only hardware store in town. She had always wondered if he had to pay for things he wanted from the store but she had never asked him. It seemed that all through high school they had never been in the same place at the same time.

That changed after graduation though. She had run into him on her way home from the offices of Boskfell and Hendley. Her parent’s house was only a few blocks from the law office where she worked as a secretary, so she usually walked home from work, past the small park and some abandoned buildings that had once had been a gasket factory. 

Paul had set up his easel in the park and was doing an oil painting of the decrepit old building across the street. Shannon looked at the building, with its sagging shutters and rusty façade. Why would he want to paint an ugly building? She had to see what he was doing. She walked into the park, came up behind him and stood watching him paint, seeing colors, hues, tints and warmth she decided must have come from him, not the building. He turned and looked at her quizzically.

“Do you like it?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she answered honestly. “It doesn’t look very much like the building, but maybe I like it better.”  

He studied her a moment and smiled. He told her about colors, about their ability to flow and blend—about their feel, taste and smell. He told her about the music of shades, their marriages and the strength of their unions. Shannon just listened and marveled as she realized her experience with colors had always been flat and visual—narrowly visual at best. Everything looked different after that. Red roses became vermilion, scarlet, crimson, titian and cerise. The washed gravel of her parents’ driveway became pearl, slate-gray, steel and she even noticed russet-colored agates in the mix. 

Paul had fascinated her, but she often wondered how he would get along in the real world of Boskfell and Hendley. There was something naïve and childlike about him. Something she thought she might have lost long ago. But then she was not quite sure she had ever had it in the first place. 

She never dated Paul. She wasn’t even sure he dated at all. But they had talked, walked and gone on some picnics together. Always, they had talked about his paintings.

He seemed so intense when he painted. Shannon was always looking for the joy that she thought painting should bring him but she didn’t see it in his eyes. “Does painting make you happy?” she asked one day as they sat at a picnic table. 

He considered her question. “Yes and no. I’m always trying to get it right. Once in a while I do and it’s . . . it’s such a incredible high I can’t even describe it. But most of the time I feel like I’m just missing it somehow, and then . . .” He shook his head. He stared at the unfinished plank table and then his eyes brightened. “You play the piano don’t you?” 

Shannon nodded.

“Are you good?” 

“I don’t know,” she said slowly. “Good enough to play in church sometimes.”

“But don’t you ever wonder if you could be really good? I mean, famous or something? If you went to college, studied piano and practiced day and night, don’t you ever wonder if you could be really good?”

Shannon stared into his coffee-brown eyes and then shook her head. “I’m not that good.”

“But don’t you wonder if you could be?” he persisted.

She shook her head. “Not really.”

Paul studied her intently and then looked past her at the massive green maples in the park. “I want to paint colors no one else has ever painted,” he said softly. “Brian Crabtree told me that he saw colors he had never seen before when he was high on LSD.”

A feeling of alarm rose in Shannon’s chest. “You don’t do drugs do you?”

“No,” he said. “But I would like to see those colors.”

She had worried about his statement long after she had returned to the safety and quiet of her parent’s home.

Paul was painting a fall picture with saffron yellow leaves on sepia trees when he told her he was going to Los Angeles to see if he could become a recognized artist.

“That’s important to you, isn’t it?” she asked.

His answer was slow in coming, but he finally said, “Yes, I think it’s very important. I have to know if I’m good or not.” She looked at the painting, trying to decide if he was good, but couldn’t tell what she was supposed to be looking for.

“What if you’re not? What then?” she asked. 

He looked off into the distance at the cobalt blue mountains and shrugged his shoulders.

“You could always work in the hardware store,” she suggested.

“No,” he said. “My dad would like that but it’s not an option.”

# # #

Shannon heard the bang of the back gate. She was still sitting at the table when her mother returned to the kitchen.

“Barb is going over to stay with the Stringhams, if they need her,” Mary said.

“That’s good. Are they taking it very hard?”

“Well, I’m sure they are,” her mother said in an exasperated tone. “He was their only boy, you know, and he could have had a very secure living with the hardware store. But he never seemed to like that much. Now he’s broken his parents’ hearts. How could he do such a thing?”

Her question was directed at no one, but Shannon felt compelled to answer. “I don’t think he meant to hurt them. Most likely he wasn’t thinking about them.”

“Well then, what was he thinking about?” demanded her mother.

“I don’t know. Probably his painting.”

“You’re safe on that guess. What did the two of you talk about anyway? I never could understand what you saw in him.”

“We mostly talked about colors and his paintings,” Shannon said. “It was terribly important to him to be a really good painter. Maybe he decided that he wasn’t.”

Her mother looked at her sharply, “What do you mean by that?”

“Nothing,” Shannon replied. “He was different and yet…and yet there was something about him that made me wish I could be more like him. 

“Good grief, and overdose on drugs?”

“No, not like him in that way,” Shannon said, brushing the breadcrumbs from the table. “I liked his yellow.” 

Smiling at her mother’s bewildered glance, Shannon rose and walked out into the bittersweet sunshine, in a town that would easily forget colors. 

                                                       *   *   *

Lorraine Jeffery has published over hundred poems and her poetry book titled, When the Universe Brings Us Back, was published in 2022. Her prose has appeared in many publications, including Persimmon Tree, Focus on the Family, Elsewhere, Ocotillo, War Cry, Exponent II, Segullah, Plus, Utah Senior Review and Mature Years. 

Judging the Book by the Reader

By Bette Kosmolak

There she is—a beauty with high cheekbones, wide-set, dark, chocolate eyes—stretched out on the black pleather bench where it meets the twelve-foot expanse of Starbucks’ windows. She pulls straight locks into a scrunchie, slips off black suede boots, and nestles her shoulders further into the corner before she props stockinged feet on the chair opposite. To anyone with an eye, she exudes the same nonchalance as that woman in the ankle-length, fussily frilled Victorian dress lounging on de Maupassant’s monument in Parc Monceau. Except this woman is wearing faded jeans, a plain T-shirt and a hoodie.

She reaches into her bag and pulls out a paperback. She opens it at about the one-third mark and moves her bookmark to the back half of the book. A few moments after burying her eyes in the book, one hand reaches for her coffee. She lifts the cup to her nose. A quick sniff and then a swallow before she returns the cup to the table with a movement born of muscle memory. Automatic, absent-minded. As if she’s done this a million times.

At a stool at a high table clear across the room, I fidget: straighten a pant leg, check for phone messages, twirl a Tall Americano to even the added cream and sugar, and hear every scuffle, every swish of doors swinging open or closed, every mumble of every order. In a half-hour, timid or commanding, treble or bass voices order a Vente Pistachio Latte (teen perched on Nikes), extra hot, short White Chocolate Mocha (suited stodgy man, maybe a real estate agent), Espresso Cold (soccer mom), and a tall Flat White (middle-aged woman dragging a plastic Loblaws bag sprouting carrot tops). 

In that half-hour, other than turning page after page, my lovely beauty remains as still and languid as that statue in Paris. She doesn’t flinch when a spoon hits the floor. Doesn’t look up to see who is laughing. Only her warm eyes move, assiduously following line after line. 

Not being able to endure her composure any longer, I cross the room and stand at her table sufficiently long to be unnerving. She looks up.

“What are you reading?”

“You want to know?” she says, poking her index finger into her book to hold the page.

“Yeah. Need to know what you find so absorbing you can shut out the world.”

She replaces her finger with her bookmark, closes the book, drops it on the table while she pulls on her boots, straightens her hoodie on her shoulders. And stands. A wide smile crosses her face and her eyes twinkle.

 “Nothing important,” she says as she heads for the exit.

“Hey, you forgot your book.”

“No prob, I have another copy at home,” she calls as the door swings open and she’s gone.

                                                               *   *   *

Bette Kosmolak is an emerging writer living on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. She is passionate about writing, reading and art.

Emily’s Song

By Robert P. Bishop

My village, Chipping Well, came to a halt at midmorning. Every electrical device in the village, whether connected to the grid or battery-powered, stopped working, almost as if a master switch had been thrown by an invisible hand.

Cars and trucks died in the streets and would not restart. The daily freight train stalled on the tracks and remains there, motionless. Computers and cell phones went silent, as did the radio and television station. Life-saving devices in the small hospital failed and patients connected to them died. Water from the public utility stopped flowing from taps. A passenger aircraft flying over Chipping Well fell out of the sky and everyone aboard perished when the airplane slammed into John Stoddard’s ripening wheat field and set the golden stalks on fire. 

People gathered in the village square soon after the shut-down, asking questions. Nobody knew anything, of course. The mayor tried to reassure the people that this outage was temporary, but he had no satisfactory answers. Finally, the mayor asked two men to ride their bicycles to Marshgate, the village seven miles away, to see if it was experiencing similar problems.

When the men returned and reported that Marshgate, and Spelsbury, Marshgate’s neighbor, were equally paralyzed, the response was cataclysmic; the people of Chipping Well went on a rampage, looting the stores and cleaning them out. Grocery stores were hit first. People fought each other; many were bloodied and three died in the frenzied fights for food. 

People descended on the other shops after the grocery stores were emptied. By the end of the day, shops in Chipping Well were a ruin of broken windows, doors hanging from broken hinges and shelves stripped bare. 

After the looting had exhausted the people, the village council managed to hold a community meeting. Several men were selected to act as constables and given the authority to shoot on sight anyone engaged in further looting and violence.

A fragile calm has settled over the village, but it’s not going to last. The people are gripped with a desperation that is dangerous. 

Rumors about what caused the collapse are rampant, but they are just that; rumors. Some say it was a massive cyber assault on the nation’s electronic grid. Conspiracy theorists insist the meltdown was orchestrated by the sinister One World Government to seize power. Others claim aliens are taking over to enslave or even eat us. And some claim it is God’s punishment and the end of the world is at hand. They might be right. We still have no explanation for what’s happened to us and the neighboring villages and no way to find out.

***

We have reached a numb but hopeful expectancy; a belief the government, if one even exists anymore, will bring order out of the chaos that surrounds us and restore our lives to the normalcy we had before the collapse. But the government better hurry; we have only a few days before our meager food supplies are exhausted and we begin to starve.

How the government will restore normalcy escapes our grasp, yet we hope for the miracle.

But, as the proverbial saying goes… something good always comes, and for us, it is Caruso’s. 

***

Emily finishes brushing her hair, puts the brush on the dresser and looks at me. “I want to go to Caruso’s tonight.”

“How do you know Caruso’s will be open?” I smile but my face feels like it is going to crack and shatter. 

“He will be open because there is no one else, and the woman will be there.”

“How do you know?”

“She is always there. I love the way she plays the piano.”

“Yes, her music is…” I can’t go on.

Emily sits by me on the bed. “How much longer?”

“A few more days. When our food is gone.” I walk to the closet, open the door and peer in.

“Are they still there?” 

“Yes.” I close the closet door carefully, as if it is made of thin and ancient glass. 

***

Caruso’s is the only business that remains open. It is also the only business in the village that was not looted. Perhaps Caruso’s four sons, who stood guard over it with scowling faces, and armed with black, sinister-looking semi-automatic rifles, had something to do with that.

Caruso keeps his café open as a defiant gesture, a refusal to accept the chaos that surrounds us. His bistro is a gathering place where we can believe we are still well-behaved and civilized residents of Chipping Well. 

His four sons, unsmiling and still armed with the sinister-looking rifles, stand guard. After a brief inspection Emily and I enter.

We sit at a small table with a flickering candle on it and accept whatever fare is offered; tonight, it is a weak tea brewed with spruce bark. We pay whatever we can. I don’t know why we bother. Money is worthless. There is nothing to buy in the village, no food, no medicines, but we pay for the fare with the few coins we still have. Emily believes we need the act of buying something to believe our lives are still normal. Or maybe it is Caruso, in his defiance, demanding we cling to the life we once had just days ago.

Murmuring voices around us fall silent as the woman with the black patch over her right eye steps from behind a curtain and approaches the piano on a small platform against the bistro’s back wall. 

The woman arrived in the village last year and became a fixture at Caruso’s, performing nightly. She is a mystery and keeps to herself. The only thing she shares with the village is her music. 

The woman bows to us, sits down, places her fingers on the keys and pauses for several moments before she begins to play. Her music is haunting. It reaches inside and inflicts pain so terrible people weep. Some men, it is rumored, go mad after listening to her music, hurry home, strip off their shoe and sock, put a rifle barrel in their mouth and pull the trigger with their naked big toe.

The woman pauses and beckons Emily to join her. Emily steps onto the stage and stands by the woman. The woman begins to play again. The music and Emily’s voice merge and wash over the people sitting at the tables, soaking into them as the flickering candles cast shadows across waxen faces and frightened eyes. 

The language Emily sings sounds as if it might be east European, perhaps a dialect rooted in a remote village deep in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains, but this is a guess on my part. Emily refuses to tell me what the language is, and I have no way of finding out. 

***

After the song is over Emily places her hand on the woman’s shoulder in what is clearly a gesture of love and whispers something to her. The woman begins to play again as Emily steps off the platform. 

Emily returns to our table. “We can go now,” she says to me. The music follows us into the night.

Hand in hand, we walk to the park by the river and stand on its grassy banks, listening to the soft susurrus of water sweeping southward. The night is black, but the distant horizon glows saffron-orange from the fires consuming the city a hundred miles away as the looters and desperate people continue to roam unchecked. 

This morning village constables shot three men from the dying city who were rampaging through our streets. Curious about what these men meant for our village, some villagers went on a scouting mission. They brought back terrifying news; thousands of crazed and desperate people were pouring out of the burning city, destroying everything in their path, and would soon arrive in our small and fragile community. 

Lovers hide in the park as if the dark will protect them from the horror that is coming. After a few moments listening to the river’s dark waters flow by, Emily and I walk away. We’re not going to tell the lovers in the shadows how it ends. We’re going home where I keep a rifle and two bullets, gleaming bright as animal eyes in the night, on a shelf in the closet.

I’m happy for the woman with the eye patch who plays the piano at Caruso’s. She will be the last one to hear the music. 

*   *   *

Robert P. Bishop, an army veteran and former teacher, holds a Master’s in Biology and lives in Tucson, Arizona. His short fiction has appeared in Active Muse, Ariel Chart, Better Than Starbucks, Bindweed Magazine, The  Blotter Magazine, Bright Flash Literary Review, Clover and White, CommuterLit, Corner Bar Magazine, Creativity Webzine, Down in the Dirt, Flash Fiction Magazine, Fleas on the Dog, Friday Flash Fiction, Ink Pantry, Literally Stories, The Literary Hatchet, Lunate Fiction, Scarlet Leaf Review, Spelk, and elsewhere

Till Death

By Rosanne Trost

“Hey, you wanna smoke a joint, before we do it?”  Such eloquent words from my husband of eight hours.

Weed gave me a headache. Not worth the throbbing pain. I was a two olive martini girl.

He had promised not to smoke in front of me. 

Our wedding night. In Las Vegas. He passed out. Always happened when he smoked too much and drank beer.

I found another beer in the hotel room frig. Took off the uncomfortable hot pink frilly nightgown he had bought for me.  Slipped into my sweats. Turned on “American Idol.” Raised the volume to drown out his snoring.

The next morning, I let him sleep, and began packing. Shocked to see he had stuffed hotel towels inside his duffel bag. What was that about?

I called my best friend. Told her about our wedding night. She had hated him from the first time they met. 

“Leave the bastard. Come home. You said he wasn’t that good in bed anyway.”

Why did I marry this guy? Desperate?

I brushed my teeth. Left him sleeping. Went downstairs to the breakfast buffet. Charged it to the room.

Walked back into the tacky wedding suite.  He had fallen out of bed. Not breathing. 

I pulled the stolen towels out of his duffel bag.

Checked his pulse.

My hands shaking.

Dialed 911.

                                                                   *   *   *

Rosanne Trost is a retired registered nurse. Since retirement, she has developed a passion for creative writing. Her work has appeared in a variety of print and online journals, including Chicken Soup for the Soul, Amsterdam Quarterly, Commuter Lit, and Temptation.