Sandra Arnold

Lord of the Dance

Clutching her list, Liberty pushed open the library door and skidded across the floor to a startled young man behind a mahogany desk. She waved her list and asked where she should look.  He pointed to the top floor where people were drifting among the shelves. There was no obvious way up, so she asked, “How do I get there?”

The young man jerked his head towards a wooden ramp then turned back to the red leather ledger he was writing in.

“Isn’t that a bit austere?” she persisted, watching a group of people struggling then repeatedly sliding to the bottom.

He peered over the top of his glasses and blinked at the ramp. “The problem is, of course, lack of funds.”

Liberty saw a famous novelist in jeans scale the ramp and as he neared the end a dozen arms reached out to pull him onto the top floor, clapping him on the back and congratulating him. Liberty took a deep breath and began the climb up the slope, clinging to the handrail at the side. She got halfway without much difficulty until the ramp rose so steeply it was almost vertical.

“How am I supposed to get up that?” she asked.

The people who’d completed the climb were absorbed in reading titles on the shelves and seemed not to hear her. A couple of pairs of hands from below shoved her up an inch or two. A voice called, “We’ll push and when you get to the top you can return the favour.”

“It’ll take forever,” she called over her shoulder and slid to the bottom again. At the end of the corridor she found a door, pushed it open and walked through a connecting set of offices, all cluttered from floor to ceiling with books and papers and empty boxes. In the fourth office an outraged librarian looked up from her knitting and stared at Liberty. “You’ve got a liberty!” she hissed.

“I know,” agreed Liberty.

Kindly remove yourself from these premises and climb the ramp like everyone else,” ordered the librarian.

“I’m not everyone else and it isn’t the right route for me, so I’m looking for an alternative.”

The librarian adjusted her pink angora cardigan which she had knitted in only three weeks following her promotion as assistant to the deputy assistant. “This is very trying,” she sniffed. “If everyone did this we’d get no work done.” She got to her feet. “Follow me.”

Through the door, down a dim passage to the foot of a spiral metal staircase. The librarian folded her arms over her pink angora bosom. “You do realise we close in ten minutes? Are you sure you can find what you want in the time available?”

Liberty nodded, thanked her politely for her trouble and climbed the stairs. On the second floor she went straight to the catalogue cabinet and searched through the cards until she found the books she wanted, jotting down their classification numbers. Slipping between the tightly packed shelves she ran her finger along the spines of the books, pulling out six, one after the other as she identified them. She needed one more. A bell clanged. Liberty scanned the top shelves, then the middle ones and then began on the bottom row. People hurried past her and down the spiral stairs. The book she wanted was the last one on the bottom shelf. She pulled it out and tucked it under her arm with the others.

Silence.

The top floor was deserted. Banging and clanking on the second floor and ground floor, and then silence. Liberty realised she was the only one left in the building. She hurried over to the check-out desk and stamped the books herself and then over to the spiral stairway which was blocked by a locked iron gate. She ran over to the ramp and found a heavy grill over it. She peered over the railing to the ground floor and considered jumping. Then she saw a trapdoor flapping in the opposite wall.

Opening the trapdoor she could see a chute. “What fun!” she shouted, squeezing through and whizzing down to the bottom. She landed on the pavement where several librarians were waiting at the bus stop to go home. Some of them smiled at her, others inhaled sharply through pinched nostrils. Pink cardigan polished her glasses and muttered, “The nerve of people who don’t know their place.”

But Liberty didn’t care. She had  her books. She strode along the pavement holding them close to her nose, smelling the musty dusty scent of old lives and dreaming of the treat ahead when she would read the night away.

She was almost home when she passed a theatre where a poetry reading was being held according to the poster plastered over the wall by the ticket office. She searched in her bag for her purse. She had just enough money, so she bought a ticket and entered the small crowded auditorium where the usher showed her to a seat near the back. The lights dimmed and the performance began. A young woman read from the lectern then invited the audience to respond to her verse.  Before anyone could comment a man in the front row started singing in  deep baritone voice: “Dance, dance, wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the Dance, said he and I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be and I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.”

The man stood up and faced the audience. Liberty recognised him as the famous novelist she’d seen at the top of the ramp. The spotlight shifted from the young poet, leaving her in shadow, and illuminated the  famous novelist. He spread his arms on either side of him like wings. The audience began clapping and cheering. Liberty gathered up her books and under cover of darkness she pushed her way past the rows of knees to the exit.

*

Biography

Sandra Arnold lives in New Zealand. Her work appears in numerous journals and anthologies, most recently in Bonsai: Best Small Stories from Aotearoa New Zealand (Canterbury University Press, NZ, 2018), The DrabbleBlue Five NotebookX-Ray Literary Magazine and Fewer than 500.  She is the author of five books, her new novel Ash (Mākaro Press, NZ)  and her first flash fiction collection Soul Etchings (Retreat West Books, UK) forthcoming in 2019. She is a guest editor for Meniscus: Literary Journal of  the Australasian Association of Writing programs.

  www.sandraarnold.co.nz

Kristy Kerruish

Waiting for Hippo

Derick Bannantyne had spent his life waiting for a hippo. The fact that there used to be a hippo at Chester Zoo is not surprising in itself but that Bannantyne waited for it is. It makes perfect sense if I tell you that Derrick Bannantyne was a taxidermist, a frustrated one, but a taxidermist by profession all the same.

Bannantyne had been employed by the Liverpool Civic Museum twenty years before I went to work there. He spent his years sitting in an airless, subterranean office surrounded by large freezers and several long-dead animals, all of which he was re-stuffing while the public could watch him work through a small window. Socially the museum was fairly restricted. Bannantyne would meet people in the lift and engage in light-hearted banter and, on occasion, join the Egyptologists for coffee and cakes. Of all his colleagues he was drawn to them the most, undoubtedly because they, like him, had an interest in the moribund. In addition to Egyptologists, Bannantyne liked young women and all of us were at some point subjected to his slightly unsettling remarks which were invariably in bad taste. We felt sorry for Bannantyne, he had little to recommend him and as he was always accompanied by a clewing odour of chemical preservatives – few sought him out. Other than that I know very little about him and less about the elderly hippo in Chester zoo.

I don’t know when Bannantyne had first laid eyes on the unfortunate hippo or when the idea came to him. I always imagine he had an epiphany but it might have occurred to him gradually, at first as whim and then as a consuming ambition. However it happened, Bannantyne started to make preparations for the arrival of the deceased hippo. I suppose that he had originally expected the hippo would pass away within the year. It was old and probably senile but it would stuff well.

There was a brief interlude during his preparations when a guinea pig called Pigsie arrived in his office. Tom, an Egyptologist who worked down the corridor,  had been given his daughter’s guinea pig to look after while she went away with her mother for a week’ s holiday. Sadly, Tom was not up to the job and the poor creature perished. Tom decided that the best thing to do was to deliver Pigsie to Bannentyne, more as an act of compassion for Bannantyne than any real desire to see it stuffed. The job was done adequately and with great relish but the end result was disturbing: Bannantyne had mounted Pigsie on a plinth, not in its usual round, contented position but in frozen animation, neck extended, two feet in mid-air. Needless to say Tom’s daughter was horrified when, on coming home, she found Pigsie stuffed and mounted in mid-leap on her mantelpiece. Despite the contention, Pigsie was the nearest Bannantyne had been to the touch of warm flesh and it seemed to heighten his expectation about the hippo. The hippo however, blessed apparently by longevity or merely a desire not to be immortalised leaping – continued stubbornly to live.

I’m not too certain why anyone would voluntarily become a taxidermist. It has never been the ambition of any child that I have ever met and certainly, one assumes, anyone who wishes to spend their lives stuffing animals with straw or sawdust, or whatever they use nowadays, must have a sinister side to their character. I’m not saying that Bannatyne was sinister, don’t imagine some white-coated man with bloodstained hands and Frankenstein laugh. In truth he was rather unmemorable and prone to bouts of depression. These became more acute with every month the hippo continued to flourish.

Eventually Bannantyne was driven to extreme measures – and he increasingly engaged his colleagues in discussions about the best way to dispatch a large mammal. No one really took him seriously – being cooped up in such a strange office surrounded by corpses would drive any man to such incoherent babbling. At the very point that Bannantyne decided on administering strychnine an Egyptologist took the bull by the horns – or the hippo by the ears –  and rang the zoo to warn the zookeeper about the impending attempt on the hippo’s life.

When Bannantyne arrived at the zoo, clutching his bottle of strychnine, several zookeepers followed him at a distance. I always imagine them armed with pitchforks but perhaps this would have been a little melodramatic. Bannantyne, contrary to expectations, paused a while and looked at the hippo, half submerged, as it chewed listlessly on a frond of vegetation and, after several minutes, he turned and walked away. I am told that Bannatyne handed in his notice to the museum the same day.

It was always a bit of a mystery but Tom, who had Pigsie sitting on his office bookshelf beside his ushabtis and steles, had a theory. Apparently Bannantyne realised, as he gazed at the hippo, that it was happy and content whilst he had never been. People gazed on it in much the same way as they gazed in on him in his claustrophobic office. It would have been cruel to kill the hippo. Bannantyne was the one who had been pickled and preserved, he had died from the inside out –   years before.

I suppose that conversation with Tom helped me to hand in my notice and walk away from the museum in just the same way Bannantyne had done. I had never been happy there. I had been waiting for a hippo too, not literally like Bannantyne but metaphorically. It is easy to wait for hippos but infinitely better to realise the futility of it – before it is too late.                                         

*

Biography

Kristy Kerruish is from Edinburgh and currently living in Europe. She writes fiction and poetry and has had work published in online and printed magazines, books and literary annuals

Joe Bedford

Switzerland in the Rain

1

I’m holding my guidebook firmly, like a Bible. I’ve just asked David – a stranger who happened to be passing – to take my photograph. My posture is stiff and apprehensive. You can see in my eyes I’m thinking he might steal the camera. Behind me, the Rhine Falls are bright white – the sunlight is catching the spray. I’m wearing the Ireland cap that David complemented me on while he was taking the picture. I look disarmed. I’m fighting the instincts of a well-prepared woman travelling alone. It made my smile genuine. I was glad when he offered to join me.

2

David is stood on a wet log with both arms outstretched. In the background, the swollen Rhine is brown, full of debris, overflowing across the trail. Trees on the opposite bank hang right over into the water. The proud incline of his head, accepting and defying the rain, is completely characteristic. He made that pouting face everywhere, half-joking around his conquering of nature. He had no maps, no equipment and no plans. All he had was the backpack and a tatty, heavy tent that let in rain. I was amazed by the idea that this wandering soul was English.

3

The rainwater spills off my anorak into my canteen as I reach for the camera in David’s hand. I look worried that it might be damaged by the rain. We’ve just worked out we’d lived within a mile of each other in East London, though he’d given up his flat completely for the trip. He seemed almost unaware that the referendum was taking place that week, and did nothing to acknowledge that as an Irish citizen I might be adversely affected. He laughed off my suggestion that he could’ve made a postal vote – not cruelly, but with genuine disbelief.

4

I’m sat on a tree stump with two red, wet hands at my cheeks, probably just a few minutes after the referendum result came through, trying not to cry. You can see me preparing to snatch the camera from him, my accusations already rising in my face, ready to villify him for his apathy. He’d simply stared up into the dripping trees as if I was criticising the weather or the price of bread in Switzerland. His nonchalance frustrated me but we stuck together. I needed someone to talk to, even if I considered him part of the problem.

5

David has his arm round a hiker with a grey beard. The two of them are laughing, with absolute sincerity and openness – the kind of laugh that David provoked in almost everyone he stopped along the trail. The hiker has just congratulated him on the referendum. He spoke about the EU with polite derision. David shook his hand. The hiker congratulated me too. I nodded politely but boiled inside. Later, when we crossed into Germany to buy cheap food, I criticised David for his irresponsibility. We crossed quietly back into Switzerland, but he never stopped celebrating with the hikers.

6

He must have taken this picture of the Ireland cap when I was elsewhere. He’s sat it up on a wet stump in a muddy glade, beside an empty wine bottle. Water is falling from the surrounding leaves. This was the day we got drunk and I described my grandfather’s face the first time I’d brought an English boyfriend back to Ireland. David laughed and impersonated an angry Dubliner. I tried to chastise him but I couldn’t help laughing. His child-like lack of conscience was sometimes endearing. Later I wondered if I was letting him interfere with my principles.

7

The trail has been dramatically severed by a tract of fast-flowing water set into a deep ditch. The juncture of thick mud and river water forms a natural aleph, which David has caught the shape of from his vantage point in a tree. I’m stood with my map stretched out in front of me. You can see I’ve already made up my mind not to cross. My mouth is open – I’m explaining that we’ll have to follow the flooding east to eventually rejoin the trail. My eyes are low. I already knew what David’s response was going to be.

8

He’s holding my camera at arm’s length, pulling a face. Somewhere behind the lens, I’ve already asked for my camera back and started to argue with him. For all his profound sympathy and openness, he couldn’t perceive why I wouldn’t follow him into the ditch. He just laughed when I told him the risk was pointless. I told him if he didn’t value his own life – if he really didn’t care about anything – then he could go on along without me. I marked my ballot openly, and made sure he understood. He simply tightened the straps on his backpack.

9

This is the only picture of us together. David insisted we take it before we part company, even though I was still calling him stupid for bothering to ford the flooded path. My face is unsympathetic, bored. His is placid and warm. He said afterwards he understood why I couldn’t follow him. We wished each other good luck and I made a cruel quip about him surviving to see the apocalypse after Brexit. He just pouted, turned his face in profile, and then scrambled carelessly down the bank towards the water. The photo does neither of us any justice.

10

The campsite at Kreuzlingen is empty but for one hiker looking out to where the Rhine meets the Bodensee. Their silhouette is cut against the fading light over the lake, their feet planted in the pale grass where the floodwaters have receded. From here he looks like David, though he’s not. I wonder if he were to turn, and photograph me in the dusk beside my tent, whether I would look like David – like another wandering soul, heading out into the world with no plan and no apprehension, and only a damp Ireland cap to indicate where I’d started.

*

Biography

Joe Bedford is a writer from Doncaster, UK. His short stories have been published widely, including in Litro and The Mechanics’ Institute Review, and have been placed in various prizes across the country. His work is available at joebedford.co.uk.

Aoife Walsh

Leaves

She woke up dead and stayed that way for a week. It was her sister’s fault. If she hadn’t been in the tree house with the silvery pail in the first place, then she never would have gone looking for the frog spawn. It wasn’t the right time of year for frog spawn.

The pail had a big cut in it, but was good for holding leaves. They gathered as many of them as they could fit into it. And then they poured them out from a height to see if they would fly. Some did.

Her sister took the butterfly net to catch the flying ones. She caught the more purpler ones and set alight the others. Her sister had been given the singing name of Joanna. Her own name of Olivia, she rarely said aloud. Unless the teacher made her. When others said it out loud, sometimes she heard it and sometimes she didn’t.

She couldn’t keep up with Joanna, so she sat by her tree. She swept up leaves with her feet and put them in a circle around it, to make a crown for the tree’s roots. She sang while she did this. And that’s when it happened. Not the falling dead part, that came later, but the meeting with the Root Creatures.

At first, she couldn’t tell them apart from the leaves, but once they started giving out to her she could see they had mouths. They were bigger too. And shinier. They wanted to know why she had woken them up. She didn’t want to say that she hadn’t meant to, so instead she told them she had heard they were wise and that she was seeking advice. This made them swirl. What did she want to know, they swooshed.

‘Well’ Olivia paused, ‘I’d like to know what to do with an annoying sister. Oh, and what makes dead people go dead.’

The leaves bunched together and rustled.

‘We will help with both dilemmas’ they said the word dilemma with six extra ‘m’s , ‘but you must help us with something.’

She sighed. Why was it people, and now these Root Creatures, always wanted something back. Why couldn’t they just give. Like a dog.

‘Fine. I’ll help.’

The leaves flew up high, together, like starlings and fell back down all around Olivia. Some got into her hair.

‘Stop that!’ she shouted at them.

‘Who are you talking to?’ Olivia was flicking her hair out of her eyes and kicking leaves when she heard Joanna’s voice.

‘Why were you talking to yourself? Have you turned into our aunt?’

Olivia stuck out her tongue at Joanna’s back and took a glance at her tree. It looked busy.

When she awoke the next morning. Joanna was not in her bed. She was not under her bed either. Or under the stairs where they hid on Tuesdays. She put on her mystery-solving clothes and went into the woods. She heard bird song, then wind and rain drops. She walked to her tree. She kicked the leaves into a circle around it. Nothing happened. She was late for school, so she ran back to the house and put on her school-going clothes. She took two steps at a time on the stairs and tripped at the top.

‘Oww!’ she cried. It echoed around the landing and up to the attic.

At school, the teacher was learning them about re-incarnation. The word didn’t sound like what it was supposed to do. It ought to have more ‘u’s. And wasn’t a carnation a flower? Nobody asked where her sister was. She rubbed her knee where she had fallen. During the break, she went to find the nurse. But the nurse was away. The sign on the door said so.

By the time she got home, the woods were blue-dark. She went inside and took out her pencil collection. She picked out the darkest writing one and made a map of all the places that Joanna could be.

At first light, Olivia left the house and went to the tree house. There was Joanna’s silver hair clip. She took it and climbed back down. She sang. She gently hugged the leaves into a crown around her tree. All the way up it this time. She heard rustling.

‘Welcome back.’ the Root Creatures said.

‘Thank you. I was wondering if you have seen my sister Joanna?’ she asked.

‘Why, of course we have. We took her away. According to your wishes.’

‘Oh no. I think you are mistaken. Please return her.’

‘We are not mistaken and we cannot return her. We will now take care of your other request.’

The leaves laughed harshly, raised Olivia up and knocked her head against the bark of the tree. With the first knock, her head throbbed, with the second, her brain hurt and with the third, her forehead bled. She fell to the base and lay there not moving.

‘Am I dead?’ she asked when she awoke.

‘You’ve been out for a week.’ Olivia opened her eyes to the voice. The lights were too bright.

‘Where am I?’ she asked.

A different voice said, ‘In your room. You fell and hit your head. But everything’s going to be okay.’

‘Where is Joanna? It was my fault. They took her, because of me.’

‘Shush now. We’ve been over this. Joanna died last year. It was an accident. Please rest. We’ll give you something to make you feel better.’

Olivia turned towards the wall and stayed quiet until the voices went away. Later that night, she heard the leaves against the window and opened it.

She heard them say, ‘We took care of your requests.’

Her voice was weak, ‘They were only questions. I didn’t want you to do anything.’

‘Enough!’ the leaves sounded wild now.

‘You promised us something.’

‘I did?’

‘You did.’

She balanced herself on the window sill, stepped onto the ledge outside. She jumped.

The leaves did not catch her.

*

Biography

Aoife Walsh’s first short story ‘Madeleine’ won third prize in the inaugural Ruairi Roberts short story competition awarded by the People’s College in Dublin. Her second story, ‘Couple’ was published by the The Galway Review. 

Liam Hogan

The End of Everything

People assume I get up at dawn. Sometimes, when the lamps flicker on, a glimmer of false light that precedes the real thing by at least an hour, I wish that were true.

But at this, my favourite time of the year, it is not such a hardship. It’s during the summer months that I start to feel sleep deprived; the days of work too long, the nights of sleep far too short.

Whatever the season, I eat a simple breakfast; a high energy slow release sort of thing, before I descend to the stables. It’s still quiet, but at my approach there’s a faint snicker as one or more of the horses stir. It’s usually Bronte, a subterranean rumble to her breathing. But, by the time I slide back the bolts, all four are awake; expectant.

They’re eager to be up and running. For them, the long winter nights are no great boon. To each his, or, her own, I say.

“Good morning, Aethiops”, I softly call. “Good morning, Sterope.” I lower a sack of oats from my shoulder. The same oats I ate earlier, though my four horses–two male, two female, the males taking the trace, the females the yoke–my horses prefer their oats raw. Eous nuzzles at me, trying to make me spill more than his fair share, but I’m careful that none of them gets more than any other. They must pull equally; they must pull together. Things go awry when they don’t and this is not the day and age for things to go awry. Maybe once I could get away with it, but now, any indiscretion would be quickly spotted and cause the greatest of turmoil. My route is circumscribed.

It is good that my horses are so well behaved. The most beautiful horses ever to have lived, I proudly claim; sleek and powerful, as they have to be for their unusual load. Intelligent, too. Far too intelligent, sometimes.

After they have fed, I take care to brush each of their coats, to comb through their thick manes. I run blunt hands over their fine limbs, making sure they are and remain in good health. Occasionally, and fortunately rarely, one turns lame and I need to borrow a replacement. Those are not generally good days. Even as I do my work I worry about leaving a poorly horse behind, untended and alone.

I check my watch. It was a gift, a railway man’s pocket watch, the numbers large and easy to read, the knob for adjusting the time protected from accidental knocks. It is the same device that allowed the trains to run on time and on schedule, for a while, at least, and it serves me the same purpose.

Before I had it, before it was invented, no-one would notice if I was a few minutes late, or a few minutes early. But those times are past. My comings and goings are written down months, years in advance.

Today is the winter solstice: the shortest day of the year. The mares are restless, brimming with too much energy. I slow my brushing, doing my best to calm them.

Once each has had equal treatment, I turn my attention to their tack; to the bridles and straps, the reins and the trace. No saddles; these four horses pull a chariot.

It is the chariot, of course, and not I, that brings the dawn.

I leave hitching it to the last minute. Once it is attached my horses will have no choice but to pull away from it, to protect themselves from its fierce heat and light, even at this time of year.

As we ride out of the stables and take to the skies I breathe in the cold air. You’d have thought a sun god would be used to the heat, to miss it even, but I always enjoy that first crisp gulp, a taste of the last of the night. Today it is scented by wood smoke and heady with the forthcoming festivities, the ones that should really have taken place last night, as they did in olden times, at the very turn of the year.

And then we’re climbing, soaring, and I must pay close attention to my route.

Even so, and as I may have mentioned, this is my favourite time of the year.

It isn’t simply because I savour the extra time in bed and most definitely not because I do not enjoy my work, my allotted task. It is because, at this time of the year we fly so much closer to the ground, barely clearing the trees even at noon. And so I get to watch, as each of you goes about your carefree business, safe in the certain knowledge that I can’t possibly exist.

Safer still that I will never forsake my sworn duty, for to do so, even for a single day, would mean the end of everything you know.

*

published previously in Arachne Press’s “Shortest Day, Longest Night”, December 2016

*

Biography

Liam Hogan is a London based short story writer, the host of Liars’ League, and a Ministry of Stories mentor. His story “Ana”, appears in Best of British Science Fiction 2016 (NewCon Press) and his twisted fantasy collection, “Happy Ending Not Guaranteed”, is published by Arachne Press.

http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk or tweet @LiamJHogan

DC Diamondopolous

1929

Douglas Haines was not an impulsive man. He’d given it a lot of thought—his decision final. He stood atop the Savings and Exchange Bank in the financial district of Los Angeles. The wide box toes of his oxfords suspended over the roof’s ledge. Ten stories high, with no awning to catch a leg, the sidewalk empty, there would be no question of death.

He looked across Spring Street. The new city hall building dwarfed the Barker Brother’s Furniture Company, Coulter Dry Goods, and every structure downtown. Giant candy canes and fake laurel were fastened to street lamps. Outside the post office a Santa Claus rang a bell over a donation pot, shouting, “Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas,” mocking Douglas, who’d lost everything in the stock market crash.

Without money, how could he give to charity? There’d be no Christmas tree, no presents for his wife and daughter. Merriment had disappeared with his fortune.

He blamed the bankers, the stockbrokers, himself. Greed had grabbed him by the lapels. He remembered the seductive breath of it urging him to acquire more capital and with it the insatiable appetite for power. The country was drunk with wealth one moment, bankrupt the next.

If only he’d acted! The warnings of a crash had been threatening. First the September market crash in London. The papers promised the Rockefellers and Morgans would save them—invest. And there were his nightmares, for over a week, the same one. He was back in the war, in France, clawing his way through the mud to reach the Savings and Exchange Bank. With each handful of sludge, he slid further into an abyss. He’d wake up shaking, his nightshirt soaked. Mary would stroke his face. “It’s just a dream, darling.”

After the crash she reassured him that money didn’t matter as long as they had each other and Lilly. How could she understand? She who was sheltered from the responsibilities of being a husband and father, supporting a family, protecting them, and if required, going off to war. What kind of man was he who had to send his wife and child to her parents’ home in St. Louis—and borrow money for the train tickets from his father-in-law?

Now his gut acted up, repeated stabs that sometimes reached his chest. Mary. Lilly. Hard to finish—thoughts, when . . . he took a deep breath and found strength in taking charge of his death, a semblance of the person he’d been when supervising hundreds of men.

On the 8th floor below, he’d cleaned out his office—pictures of Mary and Lilly, pencils, pens, letters, awards, his pipe and tobacco, a photograph of himself smiling with the moving picture star Buddy Rogers at the ribbon-cutting ceremonies for Mulholland Highway. His life’s work was packed in boxes, sealed against a future, neatly stacked, with all the edges touching, for Douglas Haines was a tidy man.

The Great War made him that way. His Springfield was cleaned, uniform buttons polished, everything in tip-top shape. Orderliness lived with him even as he stood on the mantel of the Savings and Exchange Bank: hair combed, shoes waxed, suit pressed.

In 1918, he’d wanted to desert—the bombs, grenades, pissing his pants from the fear of it. He endured but returned home, broken. Now as he gazed out at the dying bruise of a purple and yellow sunset, he was deserting. He had no money. A bum. Douglas was more afraid of living without honor, a name, a plaque on his office door announcing his achievements to all who entered, than stepping off a building.

He inched his shoes further over the ledge. Surely death would come in an instant. Then what? Not even the Carnegies or Vanderbilts knew the answer to that.

He saw derbies bobbing along the sidewalk. Where were the men going? Home? To other rooftops? That damn Santa ringing the bell. How come the sun sets—the moon rises? He looked up. There must be stars out by now in St. Louis. Had Lilly made a wish on the first one? He closed his eyes. Teetered.

He grasped his chest, leaned his upper body back. His left hand felt wrong. His thumb rubbed an empty space where his wedding ring had been—best ten years of his life. After he’d packed up his office, he left an envelope on his desk. Inside it he put his wedding band and wallet—also, a note to Mary telling her he loved her and Lilly, and that he was sorry. Would she understand? And Lilly. A child needs a father. His body twitched. He was back in the war, felt the dank mire of the trench, shooting at the Huns, men dying, scared and homesick, longing to run away.

Steady, Haines, he told himself. Find courage in being, a—a what? A coward?

“Mary,” he whispered.

He’d met her after the war. She brought everything that was good and clean and kind into his life, turning his dark world into one of wonder and hope. Then Lilly came. “Daddy’s home!” Every night she’d run into his arms. It was the best tonic for a hard day’s work. Who could love them more than he did?

He blinked, a hood of darkness flung over his future—never to see his child or hold the woman who brought him back to life. What would they think if they saw him standing on the edge of a building? How would his wife feel if she found him in the morgue? Could they ever forgive him for deserting them?

Douglas Haines was not a crying man. But tears for his family came hard, like a torrent. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his face. He stepped down from the ledge and crouched against the side of the building, shaking.

He stood, brushed off his suit, made certain his tie was centered and straight, then walked across the rooftop to the door and opened it.

*

Biography

DC Diamondopolous is an award-winning short story and flash fiction writer with over 125 stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, and anthologies. DC’s stories have appeared in: So It Goes: The Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, Lunch Ticket, Raven Chronicles, Silver Pen, Scarlet Leaf Review, and many others. DC was nominated for Best of the Net 2017 Anthology. She lives on the beautiful California central coast.

Aisling Lynch

Curio (An Excerpt) 

Fog.

It was a bit like Fog. Or at least, this is what she assumed. She had never actually seen fog. Joseph had described it to her before, once. He would often ‘accidentally’ reveal new words to her when she talked to him about her dreams.

“It’s a weather phenomenon. It’s very heavy and hangs quite low in the air, reducing visibility.”

“Like clouds falling from the sky?” she had chirped.

Joseph had sighed. ‘Sky’ and ‘Clouds’ were a few of the words he had let slip during their sessions. Strictly speaking, Pleasance wasn’t supposed to know about The Outworld. Her purpose lay beyond that, or so she was constantly told by the Wardens of the Sanctum. Pleasance had still longed to see a ‘Picture’ of the sky (another word harvested from Pleasance’s stubborn curiosity). But of course, pictures of anything from the Outworld were forbidden. The only pictures Pleasance had were the ones she saw while she slept, and they were always the same.

“Yes. Like clouds falling from the sky,” Joseph confirmed for her.

He always had a very strange look when he spoke of these things. Pleasance observed this on a day that she had probably overstepped her limit of questions.

She did so intentionally.

His eyes became almost long and seemed as though they did not look at anything. Sad, he looked very sad.

It was probably because he wasn’t supposed to answer her questions, but often did.

Or maybe he wanted to see pictures too. Life at the Sanctum was awfully dull.

In any case, what she saw right now was fog. Or at least that’s what it felt like. Could fog be a feeling like Happy or Hungry? She couldn’t really be sure if she was seeing this ‘fog’ because she knew for a fact that her eyes were closed.

“It is time to wake up, Pleasance.”

She had actually been awake for a while. She had learned to stay motionless if she wanted to stay awake during ‘sleeping hours’. If NaNa detected any movement that didn’t cohere with proper REM sleep she stuck you with a sedative. She was quite unapologetic about it too.

“It is time to wake up, Pleasance.” Pleasance continued her act, breathing evenly with her eyes closed. “It is time to wake up, Pleasance.”

In the beginning, she felt sorry for NaNa. The only things that made her real were the quarters she was ‘programmed’ to oversee. That was before the fifth time she had stuck 7 year old Pleasance with her arsenal of substances for refusing to go to sleep. She wasn’t so sympathetic after that.

“Programmed” she remembered Joseph explaining. “It means NaNa has… a pattern built into it so it can carry out tasks to help the department. Like making sure you eat your vegetables.” Pleasance had glared at the small pad on her cell wall that served as one of NaNa’s physical conduits. That strange mechanical arm of hers was always lurking somewhere too.

“Why doesn’t she have a face?” she had asked, Joseph had laughed at this, it was one of the few times she had seen him do so.

“It’s… She’s not human Pleasance. But she was designed by humans. Think of her as a kind of puzzle.”

Pleasance had done a variety of puzzles at the Sanctum. She rather enjoyed them.

“It’s time to wake up, Pleasance.”

However, NaNa was a significant exception. She remained still.

“Preparing to administer adrenaline dose…”

At this, Pleasance sat bolt upright, all smiles.

“Good morning NaNa! Are you feeling well?”

“My systems are operating at 97.4%.”

“What about the other 2.6%, are they feeling well?”

“Any complaints regarding my performance of duties should be logged with the Administrator’s Circle.” Pleasance shifted out of her small bed..

“That’s not what I meant. I asked are you feeling well?”

“Wellness implies the human sensation of feeling emotions. I cannot answer your question.”

“So you are not well?”

“I cannot answer your question”

“In that case I hope you feel better.”

“Feeling better implies the human sensation of feeling emotions. I cannot comply.”

“You are funny, NaNa.”

“Funny implies the human…” Pleasance mouthed NaNas response along with her as her closet revealed itself from the always seamless wall. She began to dress for therapy. This was her usual morning spar with NaNa, the real fun would start later.

Joseph had promised her a new puzzle today. And afterwards she would have questions he probably wouldn’t be allowed to answer.

*

Biography

Aisling Lynch is a Daydreaming Enthusiast with a penchant for nonsense in all its forms. Sometimes it’s coherent enough to be written down, sometimes it’s better off left in her head.

Jennifer Nolan

The Forest 

The forest looked the same as always as Meredith approached it; monstrous and towering and far too green.

The quickest way between neighbouring villages was through these trees but everyone laboured instead on the long cobblestoned way around, picking over rain-slick stone on wet days and ignoring the dry shelter the trees offered.

In the late days of a hot summer, berries grew fat on the woodland bushes, ripening till they burst against the ground for the birds, untouched by human hands.  In the winter, the thick dry trunks offered a bounty of firewood to the little frozen town, but no-one would cross over into the thickets to take any despite their blue fingers and chattering teeth.

She had been terrified of these trees as a girl, staying far away with the rest of the children. You couldn’t look at the trees too long, the town elders said, because the forest would look back, and then it would find you and take you into the trees and you’d never come home.

Mother had said bad children were taken by the Forest. Children who didn’t say their prayers and were wilful and wild.

She stood on the border of the Forest now, wobbly on too-thin legs as she stared up at the trees.

Her nightgown was a blotched grey, stained and stinking of sweat under the yellowing armpits. It grazed the dew-wet grass as she idled by the old trunks, toes curling hesitantly against the wet grass.

She still felt heavy with the fever that had overrun her for the last two weeks, too-hot and too-cold and so so tired. Her hair stuck thin and greasy to her skull, skin nearly baggy on its own skeleton.

The forest loomed overhead, green and brown and speckled with life and it made her feel so small, as it always had.

She took a step into the forest.

Then another.

The baby stirred in her arms. He was as sweaty and weak as she was, flushed with fever and refusing to feed. Only three weeks born and he’d only the energy to fret and fuss quietly, mouth too dry to issue a cry that made any sound. Her heart ached for him.

Elder Morton said he’d be dead by dawn. That she should do the kind thing and wrap his little head in a soft feather-down till he passed, like she had to with the others that came before him.

The trees looked just like trees as she passed, mossy and dotted with mushrooms and birds’ nests. The normality of it all made her skin crawl, and she clutched the bundle tighter against her chest. There was no monster greater than the one your mind could conjure when left to its own devices.

A rustle from the left had her eyes darting like a frightened deer, half-expecting to see all the lost children from her childhood and from generations before, still young and wild, dancing barefoot to pagan songs.

  Instead a red-furred squirrel scuttled up the broad trunk of an ancient oak,  a nut clasped triumphantly in its cheek-pouch.

Meredith forced a breath that went in too cold and came out too warm, and continued deeper into the woods.

After an age of walking, the two travellers reached a clearing where Meredith bent, setting the little body down on a half-rotten tree stump. A caterpillar wriggled by, undeterred as the baby stirred at the sudden absence of his mother, tiny fingers twitching weakly for anything to hold.

 For a moment she reconsidered in a surge of panic. She should be in front of the hearth with her child, letting him pass peacefully. The thought of a forest-taken little boy eternally dancing barefoot among the trees had seemed like hope a few hours before, and now it felt like it was going to choke her.

What had she done? What if she was wrong? What if they found out she had done this?

Meredith had half-reached to him again before she steeled herself, and her hands curled into fists and dropped back to rest against her filthy nightgown. 

“This is my boy.” She said to no-one in particular, and the first time she said it nothing came out, so she licked her lips and forced herself to croak  it again. She sounded weak and reedy, and she hated it.

“Please be kind.”

Wiping her eyes, she straightened, took a deep breath and tottered away on unsteady legs.

The woods were quiet behind her.

*

Biography

Jennifer (Jen) Nolan is aspiring writer in her mid- 20’s. She hails from County Kildare, where she writes lots of fantasy-based nonsense while she studies Animal Care.

Anita Goveas

The Waltz of the Flowers 

   Whenever she told the story later, Kalini added in all things she should have noticed at the time.

   The first warning was tapping when she played her muse-music. It was louder during The Waltz of the Flowers than Ravi Shankar, but Tchaikovsky wasn’t for everyone. When the muse took her, and she jotted down images before they floated away, the tapping sounded like the beating of tiny wings. There would have to be thousands, and what would be that small and that active in Sussex in the autumn? The butterflies had gone, hummingbirds were absurd. It was possible that her enforced solitude in her hard-won cottage had caused her to imagine fairies. But her book deadline was encroaching and the hummingbirds and fairies had to be captured on the blank pages.  She considered mentioning it in the Hand and Flower, in case it meant problems with her new/old cottage, with the Victorian plumbing, or the Tudor beams or the possibly Renaissance wiring. But she hadn’t lived down the ‘Cosmopolitan Incident’ yet. Larry-the-landlord still said  there, so much better than that flowery muck” every time he handed over her glass of cider. Nine weeks later.

   The second sign was a murmur when she watched TV, almost like someone was repeating the dialogue. It was loudest during Gardener’s World, and non-existent during Question Time. But her closest neighbour was 500m away and Mr Post only listened to The Archers. This time, she called in Ethel-the-electrician, who drank two cups of strong black tea and stared at a samosa, then poked at the TV and talked about echoes in an old house and people from the city who might not be used to that. As a parting shot, she peered at the green shoots of crocus that were pushing their way up along the freshly scrubbed path, and said “they won’t last long, soil’s too acid. Most people don’t bother, tidier that way.”

   Kalini took her camera for a proper explore around Lower Seedscombe that weekend. She’d fallen in love four months before with the polished pump outside the grocers, the thatched roofs and the immaculate rows of window-boxes. Swathes of colour and almost total quiet, perfect writing atmosphere. Kalini hoped Ethel had meant she was growing the wrong type of flower, as she zoomed in on a tub of daffodils. The light glanced off a very green leaf, she poked at petals and pinched leaves. All the flowers were artifical. Not an insect to be seen or a bird to be heard, and not what she’d expected from the countryside.

   When golden sticky fluid started dripping down the walls, Kalini went by herself into the attic to investigate. As she opened the hatch, the buzzing boomed over her like a helicopter. She poked her head through, afraid the plumbing was about to explode, and wondering how she would explain that in the post-office. The floor and beams were coated in sticky white and yellow gunk, and the air was thick with stripy, fuzzy, possessive pollinators. She slammed the hatch shut, rested her head against the cool wooden surface for a few minutes, then edged the corner down. Still bee-infested.

  Kalini thought of all her acquaintances in the village and what they would do, breathed in slowly and fetched her stereo and Tchaikovsky CD and a sun-faded Encyclopedia Brittanica.

   “Right, ” she said, because the insects were listening and she had to start confidently. “There are 900 cells in a bee’s brain.” She had wanted to experience nature.

   The village got used to Kalini wandering around with a bee escort. Larry learnt to make beehives, Mr Post listened to Gardener’s Question Time, Ethel planted lavender. Kalini’s honey was sweet and moreish and won awards. And everywhere she went, the villager’s newly-planted flowers bloomed.

*

Biography

Anita Goveas is British-Asian, based in London, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, most recently in Flashback Fiction, Mojave Heart review, The Brown Orient, formercactus and Spelk. She tweets erratically @coffeeandpaneer

David Hartley

Sample #1

Perhaps it would have been better, somehow, if this had been sample #142 or #96 or #305, something innocuous and meaningless but no, it was sample number one, the first, and he already wanted to taste it.

He’d tried blaming a few other things. Perhaps it had reached some telepathic tendrils into his mind at the point of death to make him look at it hungrily because, hey, it wasn’t dead, it was just lying microscopically still, waiting to be ingested so its parasitic foetal cells could awaken and attach to his stomach lining and grow inside his blood.

Or: this was an important scientific experiment that needed to happen now before endless committees talked themselves into a tangle, and the whole thing got entrenched with the bioethics lot and tied up in the finickity parameters of some drawn-out lab test in which he would almost certainly not be involved.

Or: he needed to step up and be the pioneer because there were millions starving back home, billions soon, and here on Europa there was a nearly endless supply of these nutritionally rich organisms whose alarming rate of reproduction and ease of capture meant they were almost begging to be used to save an ailing species of twelve billion superior mouths.   

But truth was, he just wanted to taste it.

He just wanted, more than anything, the experience of pressing the monochrome dough between his teeth, feeling the spread of its fizzing oil across his tongue while that sharp, salty, oaky aroma filled his mouth and coated his throat and washed him through. He’d seen the salivation of the others. They’d all thought it. But none had the guile, or the access.

So, he slipped the scalpel from his sleeve, angled his body to block the cameras, and sliced out a decent chunk from the thirteenth petri dish of Sample #1. It was the part he’d identified, in his head, as the flank. The morsel and the scalpel went back into his sleeve as he lowered the thirteenth petri into permanent cold storage.

Later, as he cooked it, he thought he saw, just for half a second, the meat twitch into life. He grinned at himself. He chuckled, he whistled, he shook his head, for it must’ve been the spit of the oil, the kick of the flame, a trick of the eye.

*

Biography

David Hartley writes strange stories about strange things for strange people. His work has appeared in Ambit, Black Static, and Structo, and he is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at The University of Manchester.