Wednesday, 20 January 2021

To Share is to Care

 

by Amrita Valan

black  coffee

 

After thirty days of ritual dinners together Eva was getting bolder by the day, and more reckless. She could see that she was getting the desired results of her ample ministration in her husband’s face, his gait and mannerisms. She upped the dosage. Even lit perfumed candles to please him, perhaps he would succumb to her deepest desire today? Across the table her stately husband gazed at her with an intensity and she was sure, it wasn’t just his ardent admiration of her tender love and care.

Perhaps…she wondered once again, but her thoughts were cut short as her husband smiled at her with devoted puppy dog eyes.

Eva felt her sweat plop onto his arsenic laced soup, a daily ritual but today he asked her, " Let's share it together from the same bowl honey.”

 

About the author

Amrita Valan is a writer from India and is passionate about exploring life, both dark and sunny side up. If she didn't write she would have wanted to be sent on secret missions involving travel. She had been published in Spillwords, ImpSpire and Cafe Dissensus among other zines. 

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Issues

 

by Tracy Hope

a chilli hot chocolate, for a bit of spice

 

‘Rebecca. I’m reluctant to do this.’

I scuffed my feet, sneaker soles screeching on the linoleum. I knew what Jacob was going to say next and I knew it was rubbish. I stopped listening; Jacob’s lips moved while he, incapable of eye contact, stared at my left shoulder. I scratched there, watching his gaze twitch to the other side. He’d always reminded me of a startled rabbit in a field. If I stayed still, so would he. But if I moved suddenly, he’d bolt for the nearest hole.

He slid a piece of paper towards me, leaving a sweaty streak across the desk, and sighed.

‘This is your first formal written warning. A second written warning will result in instant dismissal.’

I signed my name with an I-don’t-care flourish and waved the pen at him. He learned early on not to stand too close when we were talking, especially if I was holding the date stamp at the time. He once spent an afternoon at the issues desk with FEB24 smudged across his cheek.

‘You know this is a load of rubbish. Mrs McIlroy has it in for me because I don’t like James Patterson.’

Jacob sighed, shifting his nervous gaze from the pen to my right earlobe. I rubbed my ear, irritated. He blinked.

‘You told her James Patterson was making her stupid.’

‘I did, yes. Along with all those other hacks she reads. But I gave her my list of suggested reading.’

‘Do you really not see how condescending that is? Rebecca, you bullied her. It can’t happen again.’

‘Are we done? I have books to shelve.’ I shoved the letter back across the desk, where it caught the air and glided to the floor. When I left the office, Jacob was crouched on the linoleum, retrieving the letter from under his chair.

I fled to the cool, dry air of the basement archives, sulking in the dark at the bottom of the stairs. I’d been as polite to Mrs McIlroy as I could have been, under the circumstances. But she insisted on reading every James Patterson and Jeffery Deaver she could get her wrinkly hands on. Maybe it was my reference to her age that offended her. Old ladies got funny about their age. I’d only said she didn’t have much time left to read the quality books, and she’d have to read fast. It was true, wasn’t it?

The room smelled of decades of ink. Every issue of the local rag was stored here in huge folders that slid smoothly into recesses against the walls, a newspaper morgue. In the middle of the room were four large reading tables. The cleaners seldom came down. This was my refuge when I wanted somewhere quiet to read, or just to avoid Jacob and Ellen, the junior librarian. I kept my own stash of books under the stairs. Melville, Hemingway, Dostoevsky: my old friends were always here. I reached for Great Expectations and held it close, running my fingertips across the cover.

The solution to my problem came to me slowly, but it was such a clever idea that I had to act on it right away. I stood, brushing dust from the back of my knee-patched work pants, and climbed up to the main floor. Jacob pecked at his computer and Ellen was nowhere to be seen. Probably shelving books, or maybe singing to the mice in the kitchenette. She carried on like a princess in a musical. No handsome princes in the library though, only Jacob the startled rabbit.

There were no customers; the village is small and this is usually the time the old ladies cluster at the tearooms to share gossip and cakes. I rolled an empty trolley out from behind the counter and hid myself among the stacks.

Where to start? Ugh, those ridiculous vampire romance novels. I swept through the aisles, digging out two dozen trashy supernatural stories and piling them onto the trolley. Next? Pseudo-erotica! Fifty shades of purple prose, lined up on the trolley next to the vampires and werewolves.

Then to Self-help: I gathered armfuls of 'non-fiction' and stowed them on the lower trolley shelf. The trolley was already almost full. I would have to make multiple trips. I heaved books along the shelves to fill the gaping holes where books had been extracted, rotten teeth yanked from the mouth. Last and with utmost pleasure, I rolled into P and removed every James Patterson book from sight.

I wheeled the trolley back towards the counter. Jacob’s head was still barely visible above his monitor. He wouldn’t show his face: a combination of embarrassment at having to reprimand me this morning and general nervousness. I sailed confidently past him and turned the corner, where I’d left the door to the archives wedged open. In no time at all I had stacked all the books neatly out of sight, under the archives stairs.

 

When the old ladies came in for their weekly supply of junk food for the brain, they were mildly surprised to find they’d been cut off.

‘Margaret, there aren’t any Miss Marples this week! I wonder who has them.’

‘Joan, dear, it’ll be that Mrs Higgins. You know she loves mysteries. I can’t find any Ladies’ Detective Agency books either.’

‘She probably paid to upgrade her membership. I’ll go and reserve them.’

‘I wouldn’t. It’s that young girl on the desk. Rebecca? Rachel? You know, the little thing with the brown hair. She bullied poor Ida terribly. Ida laid a complaint.’

‘Really?’

From my hiding place behind the shelves, I heard the musical tones of someone settling in for gossip. I slipped back to my place at the counter and waited for them to approach. I was a queen presiding over the realm I had shaped, the peasants queueing to beg my favour.

This was just the beginning.

About the author

Tracy is a New Zealander living in Switzerland with a husband, two teenagers, and a cat who screams curses. She is a literacy teacher and is currently working on an anthology. 

Monday, 18 January 2021

In A World Where You Can Be Anything Be Kind – the next chapter

 

by Alison Proud

a pot of English Breakfast tea

 
Dale woke up, something had hit him in the face.  He removed the newspaper to see his mum standing over him.  ‘Better not have been your lot involved in that old woman’s death’ she shouted and slammed out of his bedroom.  ‘What does she care’ he thought?  He got up and headed into town to get himself some breakfast, no food in the house as usual.

     He walked to the arcade, but his ‘friends’ no longer gathered there, not after the incident with the old lady.  Jack had recovered from his stab wound, paid Leo the money he owed him, and everyone was a gang again, but they got together on the other side of town now.  He would go over there later but this morning he needed to do something first.

     Henry was up early this morning; in fact, he had not slept much at all and he felt tired.  He made a cup of tea and sat at the table in the kitchen.  The basket of tulips that were left on his doorstep the day before brightened up the room and reminded him of his beloved Joyce.  He missed her so much but somehow those flowers made him feel closer to her.  He wondered who had left them for him.  Maybe it was the man in the shop where he bought his newspaper.  He drank his tea and then set off to thank him.

     Dale felt relief as he saw him.  He watched him walk through the arcade and into the newsagents and then leave again with his newspaper under his arm.  He wondered how he was feeling and coping without his wife.  He wanted to ask him if he was OK, if there was anything he could do to help.  Instead, he stayed tucked away, watching him from a distance.

     Henry was really puzzled because the man in the newsagents had said he knew nothing about the flowers.  He thought about asking in the supermarket but there were so many people working there, no one would remember yesterday’s purchases.  He made his way home and sat himself down to read the paper. 

     Dale went into the supermarket to get some food, he was starving.  At the till he handed over the sandwich and a bunch of flowers.  ‘£7.50 please’ said the lady. Damn. He only had a fiver.  ‘I’ll have to put this back’ he said to her.  He was angry when he left the shop, if his mum had food in the house instead of just wine and cigarettes, he would have been able to buy both.

     For the first time in a long while, Henry had switched on the television.  Neither he nor Joyce were ever really that interested in watching anything, but now the noise made him feel less lonely.  It had been a long day, but night-time was finally here, and Henry decided to go to bed early.  When he went to check the front door was locked, he noticed a piece of paper hanging out of the letterbox.  ‘I’ve left you something, I hope you are OK,’ was scribbled on the paper.  He opened the front door and picked up the yellow tulips from the doorstep.

     Every day after that, more yellow tulips were left at Henry’s flat.  The rooms were bursting full of colour and he felt like Joyce was still with him.  If only he knew who was being so kind, he desperately wanted to thank them.  One day he even sat in his doorway all morning and afternoon, determined to see who was bringing the flowers.  They arrived overnight on that occasion, after he had given up waiting and gone to bed!

     Dale had not eaten for days; he was spending his money on the flowers for the old man.  His mum had kicked him out when she found out about Jack’s stabbing and he was sleeping rough now.  He wanted to buy himself food, but he had to keep on getting the flowers. The old lady had bought them every day and she was gone because of his gang, so it was his responsibility to keep up her routine.  This afternoon he bought the flowers, but he did not feel good, so instead of taking them to the old man’s house he put them on the ground next to his makeshift home in the doorway of a disused shop and slept.

     Yesterday the tulips had not appeared at Henry’s flat and when he left to go and get his paper the following morning, he was surprised to not see them left on the doorstep overnight.  The tulips (always yellow ones) had been arriving every day for a long time and had helped Henry to smile again.  So, today he felt a twinge of sadness that maybe it was going to stop now, and he would never find out who had been so caring and thoughtful to do this for him.

     Henry bought his paper.  On the way out of the arcade, he stopped as something caught his eye, something yellow.  Next to one of the homeless types in a shop doorway were some flowers, a bunch of flowers......yellow tulips.  His yellow tulips, Joyce’s yellow tulips, the yellow tulips that were not delivered yesterday.  Henry walked over and bent down to pick them up.  Dale opened his eyes and saw the old man. ‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘I didn’t feel well enough to bring them to you yesterday.'  

Henry asked the lad when he had last eaten, and Dale could not remember how long it had been.  ‘How have you been able to buy these flowers every day?’ Henry asked.  

‘I use the money people give me’, said Dale and pointed to the plastic pot next to the homeless note in front of him.
 

‘I have bacon at home young man, come with me and I’ll make you breakfast’.  

 

Henry held out his hand and helped Dale to his feet.

About the author 

Alison has a passion for writing and attends a creative writing class. They write short stories each week and she is also writing a novel. She gets ideas for stories when she is out in the countryside walking her dog. That's when her imagination is at its best!

 

Sunday, 17 January 2021

Torn

 

by Sharon Overend

bitter lemon 

I snap to attention as my teenage daughter charges toward me, a pair of garden shears clutched in her hand. Head spinning tantrums are nothing new in our household, but the introduction of sharp objects is new.  

Blood rushes from my limbs and my hands tingle like when I wake from a nightmare. I’m on my knees. Two bags of black soil and a bouquet of four potted chrysanthemums crowd the flagstone walkway. I’ve just finished raking the first of the autumn leaves and pulled out the last of the summer flowers.

Her charge stops inches from me, her weapon held waist high, parallel to my face. She’s breathing hard, her chest rises and falls in quick spastic jerks. Her cheeks are blotchy and tear-stained, her eyes wild.

“What’s wrong, Cassie?” I ask. My left hand grips the side of the empty planter, my right hand curls around the handle of a semi-submerged trowel. I’m surprised not only because of the shears, but also that her face is tear-stained. She doesn’t like to cry. Even when she was little and fell, her chin would quiver and her Adam’s apple piston up and down as she fought to swallow back tears. I’m a crier and nothing drives her crazier than when my voice chokes.

“I want my phone back. If I don’t call them, my friends will dump me.” The autumn air is cool, but she’s wearing shorts. Her leg muscles are tight, and like a horse in the starting gate, she shifts her weight from side-to-side.

“Your friends aren’t going to dump you,” I say and bring one hand to my forehead to shield my eyes from the glint bouncing off the blades. A halo of yellow surrounds her head.

Her eyes narrow and the shears follow my movements. “How would you know?” she asks. Her right eye turns in, the way it does when she’s tired or manic. The scents of her lavender shampoo and a freshly turned garden hang in the open air between us. “You don’t know anything about me, or my life.”

I stare at her in disbelief. I know this child, my dramatic child, my middle child, the one we planned, the one who hadn’t been an oops. I know each of my daughters. My eldest is quiet, studious, a deep thinker. The youngest is an athlete, the golden girl. And this child, the one wielding garden shears, the one always on the verge of hysterics, is the difficult one.

I leave the trowel upright in the dirt and push up from the ground.

“Put the shears down,” I say. She’s three inches taller than me, and I’m forced to look up into her face.

The tantrums began in her first months of life when colic robbed her of the comfort suckling at my breasts should have provided. Maybe her baby mind had concluded it was my milk, my breasts, her mommy, that made her belly cramp.

“I bet you wish I would.” 

Brat. Drama queen. Manipulator. Mental. Wounded. Words others have used to describe her, words I’ve used to grab her attention, needles pushed through a pincushion.

 My fingers coil into a fist. Loose, dirt-encrusted garden gloves fold and bunch inside my palms. I’ve been working in the garden, the early autumn sun beating on my bowed back, for a long time. I’m tired and thirsty and definitely not in the mood for yet another of her over-the-top outbursts.

I lower my voice and speak slowly. “Someone’s going to get hurt.” It sounds like a promise.

“That’s the point, Sue.” She never calls me Mom anymore. I’ve told her if she doesn’t want to call me Mom, then she doesn’t get to call me anything. She knows where the button is that makes my arms, legs and mouth flap. I inhale deliberate, measured breaths—one Mississippi, two Mississippi. She angles the blade tips toward me. “It’s your turn to be hurt.” Heavy chunks of strawberry-blonde hair hang outside her chaotic ponytail.

I stagger back. The pain I’ve tried to hide from her kicks back against me. So that was it. She needs to hurt me, her protector, because she doesn’t know, because I’ve hidden my true feelings too well. I’ve never told her how it felt to find her blacked-out drunk on the living room floor, what it was like to hide her shoes each night so she wouldn’t sneak out, or that I vomited when a police officer knocked on our door to say she’d been found beaten and raped the one night I forgot to hide her shoes.

A muscle twitches beneath my eye.

A gaggle of geese squawk overhead, a feathery platoon of drones. The rumble of a postal truck reaches us, and I worry the mail carrier, or a neighbour, or the geese have clued into what is happening. What would an assault charge do to her future?

 “This isn’t the end of the world,” I say.

“Oh my god!” Like a toddler, she stomps her foot. “Give me my phone.”

 “No,” I say.

The smartphone had been a peace offering, her reward for surviving three weeks with underage prostitutes and drug addicts. As we signed the admission form, the director of the youth treatment centre held my shoulder and suggested Cassie’s problems were bigger than her father or I could manage. As though we were leaving her at the babysitter, he insisted our goodbyes be quick. Except these babysitters would not be taking her to the park, or reading her Dr. Seuss books. Her chin trembled and she battled me away when I tried to hug her. I cried for twenty-one days, but not during parents’ night.

If she breaks your house rules, use a currency she understands, we’d heard at our parent support group.

Less than twelve hours into her phone prohibition, and she has already resorted to physical threats, to garden shears. I square my shoulders.

“Dad caught you texting at two this morning.” Violation of house rule #26—no phone calls or texting after eleven. “If you pass your math test, you’ll get your phone back.”  

I chase a look up the street. Although I pray no one is watching, I hope to see one of her sisters coming home.

“I need to talk to my friends.” She points her hip at me. The cold look on her sullen face slips and the lines around her mouth soften. For a fleeting moment the little girl who played dress-up with her cat is back. “I won’t text after bedtime. I promise,” she says, deep dimples appearing on her cheeks.

I sigh and my fists unclench. I’d thought we were good parents. I gave up my career to stay home with my girls. Their father worked sixty hours a week to provide a good life for us. She never had refined sugar before her first birthday cake.

She doesn’t get it. “I’m not giving it back. A cell phone is a privilege, not a right.” Maybe she’ll never get it.

The sweet child vanishes. “It is my right.” Oversized hoop earrings bang against her neck. “I have every right to say goodnight to my friends.” She kicks at a chrysanthemum pot, the red one, and it topples. Blood red petals and moist black earth splay away from us.

“They’re your friends, not your family,” I say, my voice louder than I intend. Last night, I knocked on her door and she told me to fuck off. I put my mouth to the door jam and wished her goodnight. She threw a shoe and the wood panel bounced against my face. I turned the knob and she braced her body against the door. I pushed back. Her feet slid and a sliver of space opened. I sandwiched myself into the gap, and she pressed harder. I avoided looking at the line of bruises on my torso when I showered this morning.

“No, they’re my family. You’re the people I’m forced to live with.” When the therapist asked her younger sister what would be the one thing about our family she’d like to see change she’d answered, that Cassie wouldn’t hate her. Her father stays late at work most nights, then every weekend disappears downstairs. He says if he gets too close to Cassie, he might say or do something he’ll live to regret. “Give me my phone.” She stretches her free hand toward me.

I shake my head.

Her hand and the shears wave between us. “Give me my goddamn phone, right now.” My gaze fixes on her and my heart pounds, not because I fear the waving shears, but because I realize, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she really and truly doesn’t trust me. I reach for her.

“Don’t.” She drops her phone-empty hand and jabs her weapon at me. “Don’t you dare touch me.”

I pull the garden gloves off, drop them to the ground and surrender my palms to her. Cool air brushes across warmed skin, and the hairs on the back of my hand stand on end.

“Why not help me tidy up this flowerbed?” I ask.

“You don’t think I’m serious. You don’t think I’d cut you, do you?”

“I think if you hang out here with me, we can talk through what’s bugging you.”

“I told you what’s bugging me. You’ve got my phone, and I want it back,” she says but does lower the shears to her thigh.

I pull the trowel from the dirt and sweep it over the garden. “I thought I’d put these flowers along here, but if you’d rather, you can help me turn over the soil.”

“I’m not touching your disgusting muck.”

 I again stoop to the ground and gather up the gloves. “Put these on,” I say.

She considers me a moment, then the gloves. “Then can I have my phone?”

“Maybe,” I say.

She places the shears next to her foot, the blade tips pointed away from both of us. Our fingers touch as she takes the gloves. I watch as her doughy soft hands fill first one, then the second deflated glove. “I hate this shit,” she says.

“Gardening can be cathartic.” I hand her the trowel.

When she and her sisters were younger, I’d squared off three sections in the garden and let each girl decide what to plant in their plot. Cassie asked if she could plant a peanut butter tree. She sulked when her father laughed and told her peanut butter didn’t grow on trees. I crouch beside her and begin pulling weeds. The sky changes when a cloud passes above us. With the sun blocked, the air feels more authentic, cooler, more like fall. I tilt my head slightly, just enough to watch her as she works, but not enough that she knows I’m studying her, a sly sideways look. She pays no attention to the goosebumps that have appeared on her arms and legs. She digs a hole, then raises the nearest chrysanthemum, the orange one, out of its pot. The plant leans away from her. The hole is too small, and half the root ball rests above the ground. A groan gurgles in her throat. She brushes loose dirt toward the flower and stands.

“There,” she says. “I’ll take my phone now.”

“You can do better than that. Just set the plant to the side and make the hole a bit bigger.”

“I did what you told me to do. I helped you plant your stupid flower. Now give me my phone.” The trowel clatters to the ground.

“I’m not giving you the phone unless you finish what you’ve started.” I’m on my feet.

“You lied. You said I could have it if I helped.”

“I don’t lie.”

“Ha,” she says. Like an enraged hockey player, she shakes off the gloves.

“Cassandra.”

She notices me notice the way her hand is shaking. Fresh tears swim across her eyes.

“You’re not perfect. I’ve heard stories. I know who you really are. I know you did drugs, and I know you were a slag. You’re not better than me.”

Her words echo through me. I’ve been found out. When I was seventeen, I’d run away from home. Booze and drugs, plasters to help stop the bleed. Sleeping with every boy who groped under my t-shirt, the only way I could convince myself someone wanted me.

I raise my hand shoulder height. I want to slap her, to stop her from saying anymore, to stop her the way I’d been stopped. My mother had used a wooden spoon, my father a leather belt, an ex-boyfriend, his fists.

She steps closer. “Try it,” she says. Her breath puffs into my face, coffee and peanut butter.

I lower my hand. I’ve never slapped any of my kids.

“Wonder what the neighbours would think about you if they knew the truth?” she asks. Gleeful satisfaction sways across her face. She knows she’s rattled me.

My throat tightens. She’s too young to understand. She’s had an easy life. All the bad that has happened to her, happened because of the poor choices she’s made, not because we ever mistreated her, not because we ever rejected her. “I’ve never used drugs, and I sure never let any boy use me.” One day, when she’s older, I’ll tell her what kind of man her granddad was.

“Liar.” Her voice is loud, her words wild again. “I’m done talking.” She grabs the rake I’ve rested against the house. “You don’t give a shit about me.” A flip of her wrist and the rake is upside down, each metal tine aimed at me. I don’t want her to think I’m scared, but for the first time that afternoon, I am. I’m scared for both of us. “You sent me away and I hate you,” she says.

She doesn’t hate me.

“I love you.”

A moment of stillness. The point of return.

“Bullshit,” she hisses. My gaze remains steady, unwavering. “Bullshit.”

Her facial features twist together, her brow, her lips, her jaw, her eyes. She moves, urgent, crazed, frenzied, a dog lunging for a rabbit.

The point of no return.

My feet won’t move, but my torso does. I curl away and fold into myself.

A low whoosh of air as it separates and bangs back together. The tines of the rake catch my sleeve. The tearing sound stops her.

Inside the split-second pause, I glance over my shoulder to see where she is, where the rake is, then it’s coming toward me again. Hot pain sears my cheek. My hand covers the opening gashes each tine has made. Her face unfolds and my pain flashes in her eyes. Sticky red seeps between my fingers, blood red. Then a moan, outside of either of us, ascends.

The sound of metal and wood explodes against stone.

She drops to her knees.

I drop to the flagstone.


About the author 

SHARON OVEREND is an award-winning author whose short stories have appeared in Canadian, American and UK literary journals and anthologies. Originally from Toronto, Sharon and her husband recently purchased a country property where she plans to let nature inspire many more writing projects. www.sharonoverend.blog