Eileen Stelter – Holiday Cover

Eileen Stelter
Holiday Cover

His work-life balance had gone out the window since that damned poker game a week ago. He was so sure about his hand until the Grim Reaper had pulled not only aces but clubs too.
       The stakes: cover for the Grim Reaper while he went off on a holiday to the Western Cape of the galaxy. The perks: he could winnow anywhere he wanted to—temporarily. The downside (besides all the death, the itchy cloak and constantly being called away on a whim): that awfully impractical scythe. He never knew where to put it or what to do with it.
      Halfway through another poker game with a bunch of Drivvoid, his pager went off: Soul in need of collection at the antique store, district 24. He sighed in annoyance and excused himself from the table, earning a few disapproving looks from the Drivvoid. Called away on a whim, indeed. He barely had time to gather himself, before the shadows summoned him and he walked right through the front door of the antique store, a little bell announcing his presence.
      Maybe the dramatic entrances cloaked in shadows could be counted as a perk, he thought, as he saw the human woman hunched over a lifeless, green-skinned Ethelian, startled by his sudden appearance. When her head whipped around to face him, he almost dropped the scythe.
      ‘Aidas?!’ The shadows whirled around him, reminding him to close his fist around the wooden shaft of the scythe.
      ‘You’re the Grim Reaper?!’
      ‘You killed somebody?!’
      Lilith shied away from the body. ‘It was an accident with one of the old crossbows. I knew I should have never bought those.’
      Aidas looked down at the body, green blood oozing out of it in several places.
      ‘Look at her blood, that’s not normal.’ Lilith nervously raked through her hair. “We need to call the guards.”
      ‘Are you nuts? They’ll take one look at this and arrest you on the spot.’ Lilith let out a sob and her hand flew to her mouth. ‘What am I going to do?’
      ‘Don’t you have a “good friend” who’s a detective?’ His words flew at her like glass shards.
      ‘Really, Aidas?’ Lilith looked up at him, anger now shining in her silver lined eyes. ‘Now’s the time? Newsflash: Memory lane’s closed right now.’
      Aidas held up his hands in defence. ‘Look, Lilith. I’m just here to collect the soul, that’s all.’
      ‘You can’t’, she screeched, ‘the soul is the only witness.’
The Ethelian appeared next to him as a milky version of herself, her four black eyes as wide as saucers.
‘You’re’ , she gulped, ‘the Grim Reaper?’
      Aidas awkwardly adjusted the scythe on his hip. ‘I’m the holiday cover. But don’t worry, he gave me a good rundown of things.’ He winked at her. ‘Now please follow me, I have a poker game to finish.’
      ‘You’re unbelievable.’ Lilith muttered and shook her head. ‘Let’s call the guards, give her time to adjust’, she pointed at the Ethelian, ‘and think this through.’
      ‘Alright’, Aidas hissed at her, ‘Call the guards. See if they believe your accident story. Your fingerprints are all over her body, there’s no witnesses, the place of murder is your private property. You’re going to have some convincing to do. But you’re very good at that, aren’t you?’
      Lilith’s nostrils flared. ‘Why are you being such an asshole, Aidas?’
      Aidas came face to face with her. ‘You took the dog.’
      Lilith held his gaze and spat, ‘You never remembered to feed him anyways.’
      The Ethelian jumped. ‘My… body?!’ Her gaze went down to where she lay lifelessly on the floor, an arrow through her chest and she gasped. ‘No, no, no, no.’
      ‘Miss, no need to panic. I will help you cross over.’ Aidas awkwardly grabbed her shoulder. ‘But we need to leave now, before it’s too late.’
      ‘Too late?’, the Ethelian sobbed. ‘How much time do I have?’
      ‘Every soul has a few minutes, but after that, they might not be able to pass at all.’ A white lie to get back to his game of poker. They did have a bit more time than that but to what use anyhow. Why drag out the inevitable?
      The Ethelian grabbed the reaper’s cloak in an iron grasp, as she kept staring at her body, then Lilith, then her body once more. ‘Oh my god’, she sobbed again and her grip on Aidas tightened.
      The Ethelian grabbing him didn’t help in his continuous struggle to wave the scythe. The scythe didn’t really do much except initiate the passing over the Thin Place to the River Styx. Which wasn’t a river technically speaking, as Aidas found out on his first day on the job. It was a city. And the Thin Place was a wormhole between this galaxy and the next. A shortcut to the underworld, if you will.
      He eventually managed to do something that vaguely resembled a cutting motion. The shadows that had brought Aidas here, enveloped himself and the Ethelian. From the corner of his eye, he could see Lilith still staring at them, as he kept cutting or rather clumsily ploughing through the time space continuum.
      ‘No!’ erupted a scream from Lilith at his next movement and she escaped her shock trance. Before Aidas could make his last and defining movement undone, he felt Lilith’s arm loop through his. He only had time for his head to whip around to face her in shock, before the shadows swirled around them and he felt himself being sucked through the wormhole, Lilith and the Ethelian holding onto him for dear life. Or death, he guessed.
‘Lilith!’, he exclaimed as they landed and he shook off both her and the Ethelian’s hands. ‘Are you out of your mind?!’ Lilith bent over, breathing heavily. Aidas blinked.
      ‘That was one hell of a ride.’ Lilith murmured, her hands braced on her knees. She looked up at Aidas.
      ‘You just died, Lilith.’ He pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘And you took your body with you.’ He inhaled shakily. ‘And you weren’t supposed to be collected, so there’s no place for you here. Oh my God.’ Now Aidas bent over, the hood of the reaper cloak falling over his face, as he tried to calm his breathing.
      ‘You left me alone with a dead body!’ Lilith yelled. ‘And took the only witness to my innocence in a potential murder case! I panicked!’ The Ethelian sat down on the bed, staring off into the distance—or rather at the beige apartment wall across from her.
      ‘Surely there’s some way to reverse this, isn’t there?’ Lilith grabbed Aidas’ shoulders. ‘You can send me back once we have sorted this and spoken to the guards, right?’ When he didn’t answer, she shook him. ‘Aidas!’
      ‘Only the Grim Reaper knows. I’m gonna have to call him.’ Aidas sighed and closed his eyes. ‘Lilith, you’re impulsive as shit, do you know that? Do you ever think before you do anything?’
      Lilith huffed. ‘You know I don’t. Otherwise you and I would’ve never gotten married.’ Aidas snarled at her, then walked over to a phone mounted to the wall on the far side of the apartment. Lilith looked around.
      ‘Where are we anyway?’ The studio apartment was rank. The furniture looked like it barely kept its shape and the wallpaper came off in all four corners. Lilith sniffed at the take out boxes on the coffee table, and grimaced. ‘Your place?’
      ‘It’s Grim’s apartment.’
      ‘The Grim Reaper lives in a studio apartment?’
      Aidas rolled his eyes and took the phone from the cradle. ‘He only makes two pence per person. And the cost of living on this side of Styx is insane.’ He started dialling the number he had been given for absolute emergencies only: 111. Emergencies not including regular death, the Grim Reaper had specified.
      ‘Hey Aidas, what’s cooking?’ Aidas nearly dropped the phone, when the Grim Reaper picked up before it had even started ringing.
      ‘Grim Reaper, we have a bit of a problem here.’
      ‘Oh I know, you got two for one, didn’t you.’
      ‘Yes.’ Aidas, looked over his shoulder toward where Lilith sat down on the bed next to the Ethelian.
      ‘I thought I felt a little something extra when y’all crossed over.’
      ‘What do I do?’
      ‘Change your mindset first of all. That’s not a problem, that’s a success. Keep the lady here. Show her a good time.’
      ‘No, she really can’t stay. She was not supposed to be here.’
      ‘Not forever, just until I’m back to fix it. Make yourselves at home, as a thank you for covering for me.’
      ‘You want me to stay with her here?’ Aidas glanced at the bed again. At Lilith, carefully rubbing the Ethelian’s back to soothe her. Lilith and him hadn’t slept in the same bed since way before he had filed for divorce.
It was then that the background noise on the other end of the line brought him back to the conversation with the Reaper. ‘Grim, are you in a bar?’
      ‘They serve something called a “coco loco” inside a pineapple, Aidas. I never knew what I was missing out on.’
      ‘Grim, can you focus please? This is serious!’
      Grim clicked his tongue. ‘You can’t leave a living soul unattended in Styx.’
      ‘Why can I not leave her unattended?’
      ‘They always see this light they want to go towards. But that’s the wormhole. You can’t let her go anywhere near that, you understand? Humans can’t cross over without proper guidance. They will be torn apart by the pressure.’
      ‘Grim, I need to take her back. She’s not dead and I have a life to get back to.’
      ‘Oh, your life? You mean playing poker in dive bars and getting ripped off every time?’ Aidas ignored his pointed words.
      ‘It’s too much of a hassle to describe over the phone. Just stay with her and keep an eye on her, I’ll sort it out when I’m back.’
      Someone on the other end shouted ‘Last orders, folks!’
      ‘I gotta go. You’ll manage. Just wait for me at the house.’
      ‘Sorry, brother. That’s all I can do from here.’
      Aidas growled and went to hang up, but Grim called out his name.
      ‘Wait, one more thing.’
      Aidas snapped, ‘What?’
      ‘There’s only one bed.’
      ‘I am aware.’ The line went dead. And Aidas just stared at the phone.
      ‘So’, Lilith raised an eyebrow at him, ‘what’s the sitch?’
      ‘Oh you’re going to hate this as much as I do, Lilith.’   AQ

Elizabeth Rosell – Father

Elizabeth Rosell

The dream is real. It feels so real that I cannot persuade myself that it’s not. Does that make sense? I know it’s not real, but I swear to you it is. I feel the wind in my hair, the earth beneath my bare feet, the sound of the ocean below. It’s a dream, but I’m standing on the edge, looking out, could step forward and fall over forever.
      I see his hands first. Slowly, coming up over the edge. They are withered, dirty. I want to believe they are grimy and muddy from climbing the cliff side, but I know the real reason. He was buried in the ground, but now he is here, coming over the side of the embankment. Of course, his hands are dirty. He had to dig himself out.
      I stand there, watching, frozen in place. I’m so small compared to his hands. Are they giant? Or am I tiny in this world? I don’t know. All I know is that while I desperately want to see him, I don’t want to see him climb up over the cliff. I don’t want to see him at all. I know he’s dead, but this is real after all, and I’m frightened beyond words.
      I think I’m small. The grass seems to be as tall as me, as if I’m a doll. Or maybe it’s just that he was always a giant to me, not only when I was a child, but even as an adult. I looked up to him. I guess in my dream it’s literal. I don’t like this, being small. I feel vulnerable with those giant hands reaching up and grabbing the earth around where I stand. What if they reach me? What if he crushes me, or throws me over? I should move, I tell myself. But I don’t. Just stand there, small, and unable to react. It’s my dad after all.
      Move, run. Must get away. If he gets me, if he finds me, I don’t know what will happen. I don’t want his hands on me, not those giant hands on my small frame. I feel like I will explode into the mist. I will cease to exist. Not die. Dad’s dead, but here he is. I simply won’t be present anymore. The thought stops me in my tracks. Would this be so bad? If I don’t exist, I won’t think. I won’t grieve. I won’t swallow the anger at my father’s existence.
     I startle awake, lying in my bed made of grass. It’s dark in my room, with the stars in the sky providing the only light. There is an engulfing shadow by my bed. Hands, snaking through the grass that I lie in, reaching me. They encompass me, those muddy, dirty hands. I can’t see but smell the salt water at the bottom of the cliff, the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks.   AQ

Susan E. Lloy – She

Susan E. Lloy

She’s uncertain when she left her country as the entire process has been a blur. There had been too much unquenchable sorrow, stress, and unknowns, still they were fortunate compared to others. Others who had never set foot on dry land again wishing for something better. It was in the summer when the winds were strong and currents manic, but the precise date has now escaped her. They straddled the high seas against the wind and wild currents, which tossed their craft around like a cork in a swimming pool. Her child was one of a clutch of frightened children. A girl of six with wide open eyes and long, dark hair. A sweet and prepared face for such a young thing with all the dangers that greeted them with hungry open arms.
      Now she is in a camp, and the shelters that house her and her neighbours touch each other like a parade of soldiers, arm to arm. Her child went missing within a month of their arrival. No one saw a thing. Snatched up and taken by a gang or traffickers like so many others here. Three went missing that day while kicking a ball or playing some child’s game. The UN are interviewing with the help of the police, probing the disappearance of these three children as well as countless others in scattered camps across the country. And each time they visit they provide the same answer. No updates at this time.
      The opportunists, that plague these camps, prey on the unsuspecting. Rana waits and cries and, on occasion, has to be apprehended by others when she attempts to drown herself in the sea that is blue and inviting and constantly calling her name. And, if she just swam until she no longer could, then it would be done. But Rana can’t give in. She must be here if her daughter returns, so this exit is something she can’t consider, at least for now.
      She looks at every one with suspicion, save for her neighbours on either side. A tattered doll lies on the cot of her missing child. It stares back at her, forlorn and distant. Its round, blue eyes seem to be frozen in a shock-like state. Very much like herself. Every breath is already an accomplishment considering the misfortune and misery that has a strangle hold on her, which is unrelenting and merciless. Every day she, and the other parents whose children are also missing, get together and discuss their heartache and what can be done. They must rely on the police as they’re not permitted to walk around outside the camp. Feet and souls are confined to this place. This that has become home, yet has nothing of familiarity or comfort.
      She tries to imagine her child eating nutritious food and playing in the open air, the sun smiling down while she eats an ice cream under the shade of a tree. She wears a pretty, patterned dress with cute animals, or watches a cartoon series on television. But Rana knows this isn’t true. She’s heard the stories and whispers from people who have known such tragedies and realizes the darkness that awaits outside this enclosure. Yet couldn’t this end differently?
      She’s here now. After decades of living in another space. Territory that inhabited her every pore and memory. Her home of what seemed a thousand years. Her children said she can call this home now. Mavis looks around the single, solitary room with a bathroom off to one side and recognizes some familiar items. Her favourite recliner, framed photographs of loved ones. Some confined within squares she doesn’t quite know anymore, but they look at her with smiles and reassurances. There isn’t a stove to cook on. Just a bare counter with dying flowers in a vase and some snacks. Someone she doesn’t know asked her if she would like her to throw them away, but she replied–no leave them.
      She does remember when she was a young girl moving from one base to another. Never staying in one place long enough to plant roots, make good friends or have any degree of nostalgia to hitch a ride with the next. Yet, the flowers, she does remember. From one country to another all the lovely flowers that grew on the outskirts of the bases. How she loved to bring them home to her mother who always acted surprised and arranged them in a prominent place in different windows for everyone to see.
      There aren’t fields of flowers outside her windows. Just concrete and a parking lot. It wasn’t her children’s choice when they placed her here, but it was the only available spot. They try to make light of it when she asks why she is here. Oh, Mom, it’s nice here. Don’t you think? You don’t have to do anything. Everything is done for you here. Don’t you deserve this after all your years of doing for us?
      She stares off to unknown horizons imagining herself as a young girl again. How time has sped. Now she is here in a space she doesn’t like or understand why exactly. Everything aches and is increasingly more difficult. They won’t even let her out the front door on her own. This prison. This cage that is now hers. How life has become so small. She can’t even make a cup of tea. If she could only move around a bit. Pick flowers, go for a coffee, enjoy a glass of good wine after the cinema. Meet a man.
      It will take time to adjust to this space, but Lizzy expected this. How else could it be after so many years of cohabitation? She let him keep the house as she was the one who wanted a fresh start. Every crevice in that dwelling reminded her of him. Her new homestead is compact, but what more does she need? Lizzy won’t be inviting another in. Storing his socks and hobbies in her closets. Her friends say she can’t possibly know this at this juncture, yet she does. That part of her life is over and a singular one has begun.
      She looks out at the expanse of the sea where it all began for her, her childhood turf. It’s limitless horizon and soothing rhythm. This is something she will never leave again. Her migration days are over. She must stay anchored to this place on this shore for the remainder of her days. Even though the fog layers this stretch of land with force and a relentless grip. Footsteps must be taken with care. But Lizzy feels safe here with the cold Atlantic winds and hard, blue water. All familiar markers of her youth. Especially when she reads about the misfortunes of others. The migrants who take such peril-filled escape routes on waters such as this and the hard realities of the ones who make it. Homes where no hats are hung and lives that become absorbed into the unknown.
      Rana looks out from the refugee camp and sees a flock of gulls flying overhead and wants to leave with them. To where, she doesn’t care. Still, she is imprisoned here indefinitely with no freedom but a hope. Perhaps she will have news of her daughter soon and this keeps her feet solid on this foreign soil. A land where one is not easily welcomed. She looks out across the stretch of land that borders the east side of the camp. A grove of olive trees stands quietly in the field. She imagines picking olives and preparing simple fresh cooked meals. It’s so close she can imagine plucking one from a tree. Yet her feet are bound here. To this place that’s home now, but grasps none of its liberty. At this moment she knows it’s a good thing, for one step in any direction and her child is farther from her too.   AQ

Stephen Lunn – Set Out Running

Stephen Lunn
Set Out Running

He’s not in bed, snugged up into Sophie’s warm back. He’s downstairs, on the sofa. Last night comes back to him in a lump. It was no ordinary row. He can still taste its bitterness.
      The dog whiffles under the dining table, curled in sleep. Over the fireplace, the Little Ben clock says quarter to four. Dawn’s early light creeps through the curtains. He’s had enough: of the job, of the city. Enough of their friends, who were all her friends anyway. Enough of being a family man, in this sort of family.
      He dresses from the tumble dryer. Puts a change of clothes in a shoulder bag. Finds his jacket in the hall, checks his wallet: £120 in notes, some Euros. Driving licence, EHIC, debit card. Gets into the bank app on his phone, moves one third of their savings to his personal account.
      What else? Passport, middle drawer of the dresser. He crosses out Sophie as Emergency Contact, writes in his cousin in Stockport. In the same drawer, there’s a document wallet, with ‘CERTS’ in her big black capitals on the front: he takes his HND Mech Eng., RYA Yachtmaster Offshore, Level 5 Dip of Ed & Training, St Johns First Aid At Work, with CPR and Fire Marshal endorsements. Picks up his half-read book from the floor. Phone charger, notebook, pen. Toothbrush and toothpaste, from the downstairs bathroom. That’s enough stuff.
      He calls AZB taxis, for a pick-up by the Spar on Manchester Road in ten minutes. Puts on well-worn boots: cherry red, steel toecaps. Writes a note:
          I’ve taken £2K from Lloyds to get started. Everything else is yours.
          You’ll be happier without me. Loved you once. Good luck.

Sticks it under the tea caddy, and takes a last look round, at what was his life. Feels nothing except a need to be moving.
      The taxi drops him outside Hallam University at four fifty. He crosses the road and walks to the railway station, Sheffield Victoria, through curvy steel panels and sparkling fountains, feet so light he could skip. Buys tobacco, Rizlas and lighter from a newsagent, in case he takes up smoking again. Walks onto the station concourse. It’s hot and humid and busy already: students with rucksacks, business people with laptops. The departures board refreshes and a crowd rushes to Platform 8. The London train. He’s not going there.
      So many places. Birmingham, Southampton, Cardiff, going south. Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh, going north. All too obvious. West looks better: Manchester, Liverpool. Or east. Lincoln, Hull. He’s never been to Hull. He buys a one-way ticket.
      Not many people going there this morning. He has a table to himself, all the way. He talks to a ticket inspector from Rotherham who used to drive buses. Reads his book. Loves the muddy ooze of the Humber, the arc of the suspension bridge. He doesn’t look back once.
      At half eight he’s out of Hull Paragon station, on a wide street called Ferensway. It’s full of small bikes and scooters delivering takeaway food. Who for? Who gets take-aways delivered at this time of day? He stops at the kerb. Cool easterly drizzle, sea salt in the air, two short fat Spidermen advertising pizzas.
      He walks towards the brightest patch of sky, passes a Norwegian Church, an ice rink boarded up, another fat Spiderman. A sign on a post says Trans-Pennine Long-Distance Footpath, which sounds unlikely, here by the sea. He follows where it points, down a narrow alley between high chain-link fences, onto a deserted dockside. A board swinging loose on a gate says ‘Albert Dock’.
      To his right, five big cargo boats lie alongside in a floating harbour: orange hulls, grey superstructure. No people. To the left, the biggest lock he’s ever seen, and a Portakabin. Beyond them, the Humber estuary and the North Sea. It’s peaceful here. He stops and breathes deep, thinks about what he’s done, whether he had a choice. And what he’s going to do. Plenty of choices there. Take art seriously. Go back to engineering or teaching. Write something. Join a band. Starve in a garret. Work in a factory, shop, distribution centre. Advertise pizzas. No rush though. He set out running but can take his time.
      He leans on a post by the Portakabin, trying to feel the sun, smelling fish, watching gulls clean up. He wishes he still smoked, realises he can. Rolls up, sucks it down, his head instantly spinning. He flicks the half-smoked butt into the lock, making a ripple in still water. Mullet cruise over. One sucks the butt in, blows it out again. And another. It must look like food to them.
      You can’t trust looks. Everyone knows that. But little Patrick, two weeks old, fit as a fiddle, with orange hair and freckles: the child doesn’t look like him at all. Never will. You can’t trust looks, but you can trust a DNA test.
      A stubby bloke crops up behind him, asks for a light.
      ‘My pleasure,’ he says. The bloke hangs around, standing back a foot or two, like he’s waiting for something. More people come, stand in line behind the stubby one. Men with bags over their shoulders, papers in their hands.
      He’s in a queue. In fact, he’s the front of a queue, and looking the part, with his bag and his boots.
      A man half-way back looks at his watch. They all do. He does: it’s nine o’clock. A door opens in the Portakabin, a man looks out, beckons. Grey stubble, tanned, white shirt with black epaulettes. Beckons him, as the man at the front of the queue. He walks over. He can’t help smiling.
      At ten past nine he’s out on the dock with three pieces of paper, grinning like a loon. What a nice bloke that was, Robbie Suggett. Robbie gave him the papers, three small black and white miracles. A room for a week, in the seaman’s hostel. Enrolment for a four-day course, ABS Deck Certificate. And a contract. Trainee deckhand, on the SS Tijndrum, one of those orange-hulled freighters in Albert Dock. Sailing next Friday.
      He’s never been to the Baltic.      AQ

Monique van Maare – Engulfed

Monique van Maare

I built a shelter on the island’s highest point. It’s not much for comfort, but it keeps me dry. When I moved up here, I could still see the reefs and the other atolls in the distance. Gulls would screech and brace against the strong East winds, swooping in to forage in the scattered bays. Now, there’s just water everywhere.
           I am the last one here. When the tourists stayed away, the young and adventurous among us packed their bags and sought out the cities. Then, when the first terraces flooded with sand and seashells, families gathered up their young and headed for the mainland, too. Slowly, the frothing white web lines connecting our little islets faded, as one by one the fishing boats and water taxis were left behind at their wooden docks.
           I stayed, out of a deep love for the turquoise of our waters, and the giant sea turtles that stop here every year on their long journeys to nest. Perhaps, too, out of love for the wind-beaten shape of her palms, the long empty stretches of her windswept dunes.
           She was always our provider. Pine, coconut and figs featured richly on our plates, and hollow coves protected the crops of hatching fish. Even now, there are hibiscus flowers growing up here that I can braid into wreaths, like we used to do on festive days. We’d dance on the stony beaches, and honour all her winged, leafed and finned species. I made one yesterday, but it unraveled from my head with my first sway, translucent yellow petals raining softly on my leathered skin. I can sense the day getting closer. I must remember to collect those nervine herbs I saved.
           The day the water reached the old graveyard, I cried until the purple dawn. I thought of the bones of our great-grandfathers and -mothers, our uncles and nieces and the little ones that died too young, roused roughly by the incoming waves, their spirits roaming the outstretched peninsulas and lifting angrily into the sky. Will they find peace again? Will the wind remember their stories, and strew them to our scattered hearths?
           Soon, porpoises and dolphins will nibble in her valleys. Sharks will mate in the shallow hollows of her ponds, which will no longer fill with lilies. The waters will get darker and wider, and the fierce pull of the currents will be deeply foreign to her soil. The nereids, with their bleached coral crowns and white silk robes, will swarm in and laugh at her discomfort, and at our hubris, our folly, our devastation.
I feel I owe her this, to be with her as she is consumed by the waves. When the time comes, and my last sanctuary here disappears in the waves, I will grind my feet into the shifting sand of her last dune, and hold on to her with my curled-in toes as long as I can.
           When the cold water reaches my knees, and the gales pick up, the bones of our ancestors will call my name, tell me it is time to let go. I will remember how Perseus came for his sweet Andromeda, perched on her rock in the sea, but I know that he never held such promise here. My body will be thrown off the sand by the bashing current, and she and I will become one. Even if, against all odds, the wind guides his winged Pegasus to these waters, what else will he see but an endless blue-grey expanse of deeply heaving sea?     AQ

Mandira Pattnaik – Somewhere in Subliminal Spaces

Mandira Pattnaik
Somewhere in Subliminal Spaces

was Zoev. Strung like a taut wire. In the dirty unapologetic puddle, Sun got poached. Howls of people they addressed as Leftovers — separated from those that left for a permanent exile — rung in his ears. Skies above, as clear as mirror, held no promise of rain. Light reflected from everything except the blackened-out mounds of earth. Zoev stood on the causeway next to the sludge of toxic chemicals, to his right were weeds shrouded under soot.
      Things had precipitated fast. Way too fast. How many days ago was he in the cockpit of a fighter jet bombing the land below? A mere switch of the button had rained gamma rays; everything got decimated; wildly circling vultures were all that there was left to show for life. Lastly, the prized land—barren, a chemical dump—had meant nothing. Hours later, they had ordered an emergency evacuation to the edge of the planet. Beyond the boundaries of known homes.
      Suicidal shame it was—the waiting ships’ crew had body-scanned the passengers for microbes. Deaths and diseases on the journey were unaffordable—they had scanned people inside out. Passengers had buckled onto seats, five in a numbered chamber, packed from floor to ceiling with fuel and food.
      Amidst bursts of confetti, people had thrown wads of currency, rejoicing because they’d been allowed into the journey. As a final unshackling.
      Little did they know: money was ash. Money, dust.
      Zoev had scrambled to get onto the ship. Far too many here—everyone murmured under their breaths. People got squished; there was a stampede. The problem needs trouble shooting—someone had suggested. There was a shower of bullets; people had fallen like game animals—bloodied and maimed in a heap, but nobody could care less.
      Alas! Zoev was stopped at the final passage—a trace of the ordinary flu!
      Zoev decided to run along the causeway, turning back spitefully to see the glistening tip of ships leaving for another street, an away home, pointing to the skies, looming over the burnt out stumps of Cedars.
      He ran as fast as he could—dejected, hungry and thirsty. He thought he’d die of thirst. Finally, he sneaked into the humble roads of the town he once lived in. He stood outside his childhood home, taken over by a family of overgrown plants, black nightshade, pink water speedwell, water plantain and dwarf spurge, all dying, or just tethered to life.
      He looked around: Once the pride of the Mediterranean, now a ghostly town of half-eaten buildings, the crowns all smoked black. Yawning windows screamed—shrieks which none heard. They had bombed the town before it was too late. The ships wouldn’t have room for everybody.
      Zoev, a prisoner of the Sun and skies and whatever became of its clouded amalgamation, trudged through the ashen blocks, the smell of death was overpowering. His tongue hung loose.
      Evening descended. He watched the crepuscular skies sliced by white and black fumes rising from the destroyed precincts. Insignia of stupidity!
      Zoev thought of the calm turquoise planet it once was; and saw only tufts of amber dead grass. He remembered Jane, his wife. He thought of his mom. I’ll fall back on lives and afterlives; I’ll own you forever. His eyes welled up.
      Further down the street, he saw a Rottweiler at the bend—black and mahogany, its forehead arched. It was hungry; narrowed its eyes to measure the domain challenger. Zoev aimed his pocket knife like a spear at the animal. He stood like a Greek statue and threw. At lightning speed, the Rottweiler charged, an arrow off a bow. The spear had no chance. The dog struck the man to the ground and with its paws held him to the dust till his head threatened to burst. Zoev lay like dead. The animal paused and circled him.
      Tired Zoev wanted death; he did not beg for mercy. But the animal gave him pardon and crouched. The night they spent face to face. Nothing moved, only the ships leaving, one after another.
      When the sun emerged, all fire and fury, Zoev rose to his feet. He wasn’t sure if he was grateful to be alive. He ignored the Rottweiler but it followed as they paced together across the once-charmed cobbled walkways, down to the river, east of town.
      They saw traffic frozen in time; cars mangled; cycles twisted in a heap when the people tried to escape like mad.
      The river lay dead. Zoev walked over its broken bed, and reached its dried middle. He began to dig furiously—in its depths may lie the native element that could quench his thirst.
      The Rottweiler watched him surreptitiously, afraid of the fanatic man. From the core of its being rose a voice—ingenuity of man is matched only by his unwise actions! Zoev kept on digging deeper. No trace of water. Mounds of dry sand piled; blood oozed from his fingers.
      Now a dust storm rose, obscured the definitiveness of day or night. Winds came in from every side. Man and animal, unguarded, were like offerings to the elements. Zoev screamed —not a wise thing to do—sand entered his mouth, blinded his eyes. He was beginning to give up when the Rottweiler darted towards the stone banks, led, the man ran behind.
      They reached a dark cavern, the corners of which were lit by a feeble ethereal light. Zoev did not know where he was; he stood numb and drained. In that light, the Rottweiler marked out—clear water seeping by the rock sides, like a melting heart. The dog watched the man lick, like a return to the native element after the apocalypse.   AQ

Katherine Gustafson – Gold, with a Cross

Katherine Gustafson
Gold, with a Cross

Jesus had been weighing the decision for days, sawing his tongue in and out of the gap, considering the possibilities. He had finally decided what he wanted: gold, with a cross. The cross would be on the front, carved in lightly so you might have to look twice.
      He had knocked the tooth out against the grainy bottom of a swimming pool two weeks before, diving deeper than he meant, losing himself in the moment of cool, chemical blue. Slamming into the concrete felt like being punched in the face. He came up yelling, the thick, iron taste of blood in his mouth.
      The gold had been his brother Edgar’s idea, since Edgar was the kind of guy who wore three gold necklaces at a time. But the idea of having the cross was all Jesus’s own. It had come to him, of course, at church. Ever since the accident, Jesus had developed a habit of inspecting people’s teeth when they spoke, of imagining the shape of them hiding behind closed lips. When Father Gutierez took the sip of the blood, Jesus pictured his teeth—crooked, overlapping like shacks leaning on a hillside, deep black grooves between them.


Dr Hibart’s first thought when he saw the kid in the doorway was that he looked like a young hooligan. The slicked hair and thin beginnings of a moustache reminded Dr Hibart of the groups of teenagers who loitered at the bus stop near the garage where he parked his clunker Toyota every morning. In baggy jeans and sports jerseys, they yelled into cell phones, their arms around girlfriends in tight skirts, wearing shirts that looked like they were made of fishing nets.
      Dr Hibart thought these kids spent too much of their time on the street corner, looked too much like they were waiting for something to happen. This particular kid in the doorway looked too young for that group, though, surely no older than thirteen. And despite his longish hair shining with gel and his oversize t-shirt with a graffiti-style logo, he had a nice way about him. The missing tooth gave him a loopy look that Dr Hibart found endearing. He remembered his own young self, talking back to his parents for the first exhilarating time when he was eleven, not caring that his father would beat him with a belt for saying the word ‘bullshit.’ He had wanted the beating, actually, perhaps had even provoked it, so that his brother couldn’t call him a sissy anymore. So he could finally be a man, a guy who gets hit with a hard strip of leather and doesn’t cry, not even once.


Jesus looked at the dentist looming over the chair, his teeth small and straight, his eyebrows raised in alarm when Jesus pronounced the word ‘gold.’ The gold front tooth with a cross in it would be the exact opposite of what the dentist would want, which was partly why Jesus wanted it. The dentist surely thought it should be white and plain like every other tooth. The dentist was white and plain, too, and had a paunchy belly and flying snatches of balding hair above his ears. Jesus suspected the dentist did not approve of gold, that he bought his wife only fussy, silver things studded with diamonds.
      Jesus thought it best not to mention the cross to the dentist, since he knew this guy named Suarez, one of Edgar’s friends, who could carve it in for him later, after the tooth was in his mouth. Jesus imagined that the dentist did not approve of putting religious symbols on front teeth, gold or otherwise.
      But being religious wasn’t necessarily the point. The cross would be more of a symbol of the faith that held his family together than it would be of God himself. The family of eight attended mass every week at Iglesia de la Virgen on Route 15, where Jesus had been baptized in the fancy font and taken his first communion just last year. He was glad of that now, despite his wavering sense of God, because he wanted to know how people lived life where he had come from, where he was born. He had no memory of his native country, but his parents still lived immersed in a squeezing nostalgia for the valleys and cities in which they had grown up. The cross in the tooth would say: El Salvador.
      And the cross would describe in the merest glimmer the rhythms of his current home, a poor, gang-addled neighborhood on the outskirts of this brutal and dirty American city, an area where his little sister Irma could only play safely inside, allowing her dolls on pretend picnics to run through imaginary grass. The people of his neighborhood were bonded together by their burning dedication to God and Jesus and the Virgin Mary, able to bear up under the pressure of continual violence and crushing poverty because they were buoyed by the certainty of a divine and perfect love. Their ability to endure was just as inspiring as any God that Jesus could have found in the wide, blue sky.
      The dentist said, of course, that he did not work with gold. ‘I do replacement teeth in white only,’ he pronounced slowly, as if Jesus would not understand his English. ‘I don’t do gold teeth.’ Gold teeth seemed to him, no doubt, to be related to mobsters and gang members. ‘Low-lifes,’ he would call them, alone in his parlor with his needle-nosed wife.
      ‘I guess I’ll go somewhere else, then,’ said Jesus casually, waiting with a thrilling sense of anticipation for the shock on the dentist’s face.
      ‘Honestly,’ said the dentist. ‘You don’t really want a gold tooth in the front of your mouth. No one will take you seriously. I’ll put in a white one. You’ll be on your way in no time.’ He rapidly clipped an aquamarine paper bib around Jesus’s neck and swung the light on its hydraulic arm into place above the chair.
      ‘Gold or nothing,’ said Jesus, allowing a note of challenge to creep into his voice. ‘Quiero solo oro.’ He almost hated himself for provoking the poor man that way, allowing the statement to slip out in Spanish, to become some kind of taunt. It was the same way he heard Edgar talk to the teachers at school. The dentist blinked in what Jesus took to be a dense and uncomprehending way.


Dr Hibart felt he was losing stamina. He didn’t know how many more times he could calmly examine mouths studded with cavities, lance the abscesses of poor oral hygiene, put up with the attitudes of burgeoning gang members. It was all so noble, but it was exhausting. When he had set up his storefront twenty years ago, bursting with the charitable spirit, he had never imagined that the people he was trying to help would resent him, find him suspicious, demand discounts on services that should rightly be twice as expensive as the prices he was asking. The people of this forgotten corner of the city seemed to feel entitled to what he was so generously offering. Inexplicable, he thought, how people didn’t realize he was doing them a favour.
      And now here was this kid, asking for a gold front tooth, like Dr Hibart was some kind of ghetto jewellery store. He thought about his wife Clara, just last night, insisting over dinner that he move his practice to the suburbs.
      ‘Just think,’ she had said, ‘we could go on another cruise next winter. With the money you’d make.’
      And to be honest, it didn’t sound half bad. He could picture himself on the deck of an ocean liner, a gin and tonic balanced on the arm of his chair, the great blue iron of sea and sky pressing the wrinkles out of him.
      But, even so, he didn’t know if he could. He had spent so many years being the good guy, giving back to the world, fulfilling his responsibility as a son of privilege. It was what he was supposed to do, the role he had always played, and the people here depended on him. He was needed in a way other people weren’t.
      Even if at times the need did overwhelm him. It got exhausting, always coming to their rescue. Old Mr Santos, with his twelve teeth, five poodles, and one pair of shoes. Mrs Palmero, whose son was a crooked cop taking bribes from the gangs to neglect patrolling his own mother’s block. Little Ricky Lindo, with the biggest smile around and teeth so prone to cavities he was in the office every other week. At times he desperately wanted to close his office door and leave them all to fend for themselves. He could be on a cruise ship while they went on living their miserable lives, which he was never going to be able to fix anyway. But there were only two other dentists in the area, neither of whom properly sterilized his instruments, and Dr Hibart knew he would never forgive himself for selling out.
      ‘I know you feel an obligation, dear,’ Clara had said. ‘But honestly, how many more years? It was really a youthful fling, wasn’t it? And what about us? I was thinking it would be nice to go to Venice again.’
      Listening to this punk kid talk about putting a gold tooth in his mouth, Dr Hibart suddenly felt an incredible fatigue. Venice, he thought. Canals and gondolas and cobbled alleyways. Pasta and wine and cannoli. Venice would be very nice.


No oro,’ the dentist said, picking up a sharp instrument as if to threaten with it. ‘Blanco o nada.’
      Jesus blinked. He could feel his mouth fall open. The dentist had spoken in Spanish, the foreign words lurching through his pallid lips. They sounded almost unrecognizable, floating in the air over Jesus’s head, waiting for him to grasp them. Blanco o nada. White or nothing.
      ‘Dios,’ Jesus finally said, staring hard at the dentist, wondering if perhaps he had heard wrong. The man’s pale blue eyes did not look like the kind that would open up onto a lush foliage of foreign language.
      ‘Blanco o nada,’ said the dentist again, brandishing his gleaming tool, a pointed hook.
      ‘¿Conoce Español?’ Jesus asked. Maybe the dentist only knew a few words. Perhaps this same argument had occurred before with someone else.
      ‘Todo sobre dientes,’ responded the dentist, picking up the small mirror on its silver stick. Tooth-Spanish was what he knew. He had learned it during a semester as a guest lecturer at the Escuela de Odontología in Buenos Aires. Sitting there with Jesus staring up at him, he thought fleetingly about the joys of dancing Tango with beautiful dentistry students in the sultry Argentinian air. Those were younger days, when Clara had been willing to learn the steps from handsome men after three margaritas, exchanging seductive glances with Dr Hibart as they wheeled by each other on the dance floor in the arms of strangers, gorgeous and coordinated partners who laughed with affection at their gawky, North American ways.
      Jesus didn’t know the words for the different teeth; was unfamiliar with language in Spanish for things like fluoride, cavity, root canal. The dentist, it seemed, knew things in Jesus’s own language that he himself did not. He looked away from the dentist, toward the slat-blinded window.
      Blanco o nada. He turned the question over. He had set his heart on the tooth with the cross carved into it. But he knew that in neighbourhoods other than his own, people did not have gold front teeth. White kids, the ones at he sometimes saw from afar who wore striped polo shirts and played baseball after school, did not have such teeth. Would he be making a fool of himself? Not that he wanted to be like them. He wanted to be him, Jesus, Salvadoreño. But he didn’t want those kids to laugh at him either. He thought for a moment about how the boys on the all-city soccer team he had qualified for that year called him ‘Holy Ghost,’ joking that he should go crucify himself when he missed a shot. ‘Hang it up, Jesus,’ they said, laughing. ‘Don’t you know how to cross the ball?’
      ‘But the thing is,’ Jesus told the dentist. ‘The thing is, I wanted to get something carved in the tooth. With gold, you can carve it.’ The gold he could forgo—after all, that wasn’t even his idea. But the cross, no way. He needed to have the cross.
      ‘Carve it?’ asked Dr Hibart, not sure the boy had spoken correctly. ‘What do you mean, carve it?’
      ‘Well, actually, a cross,’ said Jesus, tracing it with the tip of his finger on the space where the tooth used to be. ‘Católico,’ he said, touching the graffiti logo on his chest.
      ‘A cross on your tooth?’ The dentist considered for a moment, studying his own face in the mini tooth-mirror he held. ‘Ah, because you’re Jesus,’ he said finally, nodding as if he had figured out a riddle. The name sounded awkward in the dentist’s mouth, Hey-Zeus, the syllables distinct and separated, like two different words.
      Jesus, in fact, hadn’t even thought of that connection, hadn’t realized that the cross on the tooth would be a symbol of who he was in a more literal way than he had imagined. Like a nametag. For a moment he felt that the dentist understood, that he might tell the dentist that his grandfather’s name had also been Jesus. His grandfather, who had grown coffee beans in El Salvador for thirty years until he was killed by a guerilla during the fighting in 1984.
      ‘Oh, well, yeah,’ Jesus said. ‘And just, you know, because my family’s Catholic and all.’ He couldn’t express to the dentist that he wanted the cross because he was afraid of losing himself in the battering bustle of life in the United States. The cross would create an invisible golden thread that could tie together his two cleaving halves.
      The dentist nodded, pursing his lips and looking curiously at the space where Jesus’s front tooth used to be. He imagined the ridiculous look of this child with a gold tooth gleaming in his mouth, the unfortunate error to be regretted ever afterwards. But the boy had looked at him with such an earnest expression, laying bare on his face his desire to do something special, to impress the meaning of his life on his body. Perhaps it was something like the desire for a tattoo, Dr Hibart thought, which was an idea he had toyed with back in Argentina. The desire to change oneself to show the inside on the outside, to bear a small piece of your identity to the world.
      ‘Well,’ said Dr Hibart slowly, pausing, not quite sure he wanted to follow his own trail of reasoning. This reasoning might lead him places he didn’t want to go. But why not? A cross, so pious. A statement of this boy’s own true self, so honest. ‘If we do a white one, I can leave a cross-shaped indent.’ He paused again, reconsidering if in fact this was a good idea. What would Clara say about this new adventure?
      Jesus did not want to hurt the dentist’s feelings, but he was not quite sure this scheme would be good enough. How would anybody see the cross carved into a white tooth? He needed to be bold. This tooth could not be a namby-pamby, white-man tooth.
      ‘Well, you see,’ continued the dentist quietly, as if he were telling Jesus a secret he was afraid his dental assistants would overhear. ‘If there’s a groove in the tooth, someone who works with gold can fill up the groove with gold. You could have a gold cross in a white tooth. Would be very good-looking, I imagine. Of course, you’d have to find someone else to do it. As I said, I don’t work in gold.’
      The dentist ducked his head after he had finished speaking, shocked at what he was proposing to this kid. Was this a dentist’s office or a carnival? He could see Clara’s face in his mind, that shrewd look of hers over the tops of her half-glasses burning the inside of his stomach. But he could just imagine it, could see the process by which he’d shape the tooth, could picture the subtle shine of the finished product. Inside of Dr Hibart somewhere an artist was hidden, covered over by years of enamel. His wife did not know this part of him.
      Jesus also had not suspected the depths of this dentist. The guy looked like every other white guy with a bad comb-over, but here he was, envisioning the exact tooth that was destined to fit into Jesus’s mouth. Like the dentist, Jesus could picture the beautiful finished product. He could see the way the tooth would look normal if glanced momentarily. But there would be a glint, a special gleaming, that would cause people to pause and look again. Then they would see it: a simple, gold cross, a statement of himself, Jesus.
      ‘Bueno,’ he said to the dentist, grinning, the gap with no tooth making him look lopsided and silly. ‘Diente blanco, cruz oro. Gracias.’
      Dr Hibart smiled as he pressed the button to lean Jesus’s chair back. The boy looked like a young child with the tooth missing from the front, much less like the surly ruffian who had appeared half an hour before. Briefly, the dentist thought of his own son Charlie, estranged, living halfway across the country, he and his efficient wife in their house with the pleated draperies.
      ‘De nada,’ Dr Hibart said to Jesus, poising his mirror and his pointy hook as the kid opened wide for his inspection.  AQ

Karen Lethlean – Being Outdoors

Karen Lethlean
Being Outdoors

There were noises. More like something was eating the trail than walking. At the very least, something rearranging the undergrowth. Were there Tasmanian Devils on the mainland? Or course not. A troop of mountain bikers were headed for him maybe? What is the plural term for mountain bikers? Peloton? MTBers? Train? A Murder? Nope that was crows. Anyway, mountain bikers’ groups fractured quickly within sight of the start line. Out for a social ride MTB “bro” would carry on a conversation. Gary’d be able to hear snippets like the time they taught Ryan to get up steep inclines, “…keep your pedals spinning over…pedal, pedal, pedal.” Or the tale when Jonno fixed a pinch flat with just a Band-Aid. Wouldn’t have thought those repairs could be enough to get him home, but damn thing worked. Cheapskate Jonno was probably still using that wheel. Anyway, MTB noises: what would they be—pedals grating over fallen branches and rocks, rear wheels slipping in loose gravel, chain suck or rear wheel wash out. Maybe someone yelling to warn the tail ender to avoid the way motor bike trial bikers had gouged ruts and loosened stones. Gary remembered his days growing up near the national park, exploring trails similar to the one he was on. That time they were confronted by the group of runners training for the Six-Foot Track Marathon. When his motley group had been heaving supplies for several days walking had met a sweat laden group, carrying little more than drink bottles, the track barely wide enough for them to pass. But those runners had been silent, apparition like; whereas now the landscape was interrupted by distinct grunts. Noises of flattening scrub, stomping on endangered species was more like an unruly group of army cadets or scouts pushing down the trail broke Garry’s reverie. Soon enough of five burley fishermen lugging rods and a huge esky came into view. Pity, had it been mountain bikers Gary would have liked to see what they were riding.
      They smiled and waved and the more senior of them asked Gary if he was all right, which he resented. They would be in trouble soon, trying to get the outsized esky down that steep hill without going arse over tit. Might function to keep drinks and to a lesser extent food cold but did they really need something the size of a small fridge, and just how do they manage to lumber it along these trails?
      ‘Perfectly fine.’ Gary answered.
      ‘Severe weather warning, bro. Came over the radio.’
      Gary shook his head, refused to believe. ‘Thanks. But I only just got here.’
      ‘Reckon it’ll hit just after dark. You camping out?’
      ‘It’s going to be rough.’
      Younger members of the group had gone on, the pair carrying the esky between them slipping and sliding and laughing, so the harbinger of doom bade farewell and went too, unhurried.
      Harbinger. Hard bringer. Harp binger. Where had that word come from? If Gary had his phone he could find out. It was odd, not being able to satisfy his curiosity immediately. But he felt healthy, disciplined; like refusing a beer or a meat pie, increasing exercise or cutting back on sugar. Gary thought the words ‘Are you going to talk to me or look at your phone?’ Crossed his lips way too often these days.
      It was less windy up here than on the beach, and there were places where Gary could see that the fishermen had skidded with the esky’s weight. Broken saplings, dishevelled bush on the track’s edges. He fell himself at one of these markers, his foot sliding back and putting him off balance so that he came down hard on one knee. Onward, Gary told himself, despite the throbbing and bleeding. Don’t even think about the giant mud bruise spread over his new walking pants. Sure, enough he’d encountered similar pain on more than one bike ride. More than his share of involuntary dismounts, most spectacular was that face-plant because he’d caught a glimpse of a large lace monitor lizard ascending a tree.
      Gary could barely make the words heard, competing with raucous laughter, “thought the tree was moving. Lizard was so big.”
      All good fun till his step dad had issued that ultimatum, “unless you can promise me no more picking dirt out of wounds, no more MTB. He’d tried to soften it by saying, ‘I’m only telling you this because your mother worries you will seriously hurt yourself…’ Gary always felt he could have really been famous, more well-known than Cadel Evans.
      His knee wasn’t that bad, Gary could shut it out. Told himself, if you can’t see the blood it’s not hurting.
      First-aid kit. He supposed he should have packed one. Hadn’t even thought of it. Gary had a mind-image of a much younger version of himself trying to explain to his mother why a list of essential equipment had been ignored. “Well I did have food. I had a bar of chocolate and a packet of chips…” That walk along the Helensburgh spur track had been a disaster; he’d been lucky to come back alive.
      Gary turned at the first fork the track offered and went along for half an hour or so. By now his knee was pinging and now his back hurting from the lumpy load. Further on around the shoulder of the hill before the track narrowed and dropped again to a small clearing. Perfect. The trees were taller here, not so wind-bent, and there was a stream and blackened fire spot. Gary was sure this defunct group would not have had tents like his brand new two man dome bright yellow and green, compactly packed, a cylindrical marvel with tiny instructions written in pale ink. He opened the bag.
                  Insert male push rod (4D) inside of female rud (33F). Bend for make archin.
                  Raise high the tent roop up by sliding rud flaps.

      Gary was sure there wouldn’t be 33 pieces in his pack, nor that he would find any numbers, even if he looked. Plus, this was the best example of poor translation he’d ever seen, probably from Chinese or Vietnamese. He dismissed these instructions by folding up the paper and putting it into his pocket.
      The rods and slots were colour coded; the tent pegs and guy ropes less complicated than the tents he’d erected on surf beaches with his stepfather. Always accompanied by adult caustic comments. He recalled being stung in the face with sand. The misshapen tent usually dismounted what seemed like mere moments later. Before too long Garry’s new tent took shape, sitting on the ground like an igloo, a child’s playhouse. Clever design. Any fool could put it up.
      There were enough twigs lying about for a small fire, which he could get it started if the lighter held out. Inscribed – Rugby World Cup 2011 found under the sofa in his flat. Gary sat on the ground, pulled the joint from his pocket and took a deep drag. And another, until he felt the warmth seeps into his brain. Night was falling bit by bit and so was the rain. Heavy drops plinking and plunking on leaves high and low sounding like music, the higher tones above and the bass pattering on the clearing floor. On the humus. Hummus. Humans. Hubris. Gusts of wind higher in the canopy sent scatters of rain falling in a rush, like a kettledrum on the tent roof and dead leaf litter. Just a few drops – Noah isn’t called for, Gary told himself.
      One more drag took the last of it. Dave had hardly been generous. Anyway, the weed had belonged to a roommate, who said it was okay, as long as it as a pinner.
      Gary had stared at the wrinkled, emaciated thing. ‘Fifty bucks for that?’
      ‘I’m taking a commission.’ Dave said. ‘Then I won’t feel so used.’
      A torch. He’d forgotten to bring one. Or even a candle, and now was the hour for candles, as they used to say in the times before electricity. Gary stood up, his legs stiff from the two-hour walk. Was his knee actually swollen? He felt his head spin as if he was going to topple forward. Might have been a pinner, but it was strong and he was tired and unaccustomed. Gave it up with smoking tobacco in his mid-thirties. Crazy idea to have a bushie now after all this time. And alone? What was he thinking? No torch. The night coming. Just him and a cigarette lighter out here.
      Just him and his thoughts. His chance to do what he’d come here to do. Think about his relationship. If he even wanted it anymore. If he really wanted to go on with the same old, same old. ‘Plenty more possibilities out there,’ Dave had said. Fish in the sea, wasn’t that the saying. Being out here was all about efforts to deprive himself of company, anything really, see what was addictive, habitual, and what wasn’t. Live each moment in his own head. Shift the glut. Just be.
      A mistake. What a wanker. What a lofty ambition, when most people on the planet are worried about how to get hold of clean drinking water and their next meal. To think he’d had this dream of escape in the back of his head for months, maybe years. Fifty ways to leave your lover… Recognizing those words Gary was filled with joy and regret. Had he wasted any earlier opportunities? Maybe he needed to stop taking himself so seriously.
      Mea culpa…
      But then he realized he was stoned. The self-abasing alter-ego was haranguing the paranoid ego for perceived failures, under achievements or instances of bad behaviour. He would have to try and shut this off. Reach outside his brain – that would be the go. As his step-dad used to say, ‘Inside your head Gaz, that’s a busy place.’ Fuck he hated being called Gaz. Not like the prick didn’t know his real name.
      Here was a bird nearby calling out mournfully, a single downward cry, as if it too resented the rain. The bush was quiet apart from the wet and that one bird. Too quiet. What he hears others might call silence; therapeutic natural mumblings; bush ambience tones. Supposed to be relaxing, right; but this quiet made his skin crawl. He’d heard nothing other than gulls as he’d made his way up the bluff, and on the dusky ridge path an incessant insect drone. The single bird continued to call with little variation. Coo-woo. Coo-woo. The wind was strengthening. The bird went on and on.
      Gary entered his tent, spread out his sleeping bag on the bumpy groundsheet and lay down. Almost immediately, as if it had suffered sudden death, the bird call ceased; strangled out; stopped mid cry. Rain drummed more steadily on fabric. A dome of pale sunshiny yellow in the gathering gloom. The nylon rustling gently in the wind. He would go over pros and cons of staying with Brenda. Once. He would only do it once and then go on to other things. Promise. What’s in the past was done.
      There was a scuffle in the leaf mould outside; maybe it was his imagination, again, but that did sound like the impact of flesh on feather. Gary was sure he heard a low growl, and the tent wall bulged suddenly against his head – solid, animal, alive – and then all that noise was gone again. He was up and out of his tent and into the clearing, working the cigarette lighter to a flame, with a clicking thumb. Shielding it from the wind and rain. A flash showed him two reflective eyes the size of golf balls and a dark, muscled shape hunched over a feathered mess. When the lighter agreed to illuminate again, Gary held it cupped towards the nonchalant animal, jaws working. Eating the catch where it had fallen. Pricked ears gleaming, a flash of white incisors.
      A fucking huge wild cat. A super cat. He’d read about them. How feral cats were evolving after nearly two hundred years of going wild in the bush. Breeding ever stronger and larger offspring. How they feasted on native birds, marsupials, reptiles and lately rabbits, even Cane Toads didn’t stop these beasts. This one was easily twice the size of a domestic. Seemingly oblivious of the rain and increased night chill. A small tiger, brindled and strong, fearless. It must have known Gary was standing there, frozen in awe at such a powerful carnivore. Still the creature just chomped on, implacable. What kind of bird was it? He knew the names of city birds, noisy and Indian Mynahs, sparrows, lorikeets and even the aptly named King parrots. But this one wasn’t a parrot, even though Gary would have liked to think a feral cat might take one of those domestic vandals disguised as Sulphur Crested Cockatoos. That would be payback for all the chewed baloney railings, destroyed washing lines and robbed lemons. He’d told Brenda often enough, ‘Leaving out food only encourages them.’
      The flame died in the same instant that Gary realized his finger was burnt from holding down the flint. He put it in his mouth and waited for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. The cat’s eyes reflected dully but with more of a challenging air than they had before. And moving, coming nearer to stand between him and the tent. And vanished. Into the tent. He was sure of it. He’d heard the sweep of fur against nylon as it passed through the opening. Or had the creature just brushed the fabric on the way back into the bush?
      His hair was dripping into his eyes, his hoodie was soaked and Gary was paralyzed with indecision. If he could get the lighter going again, he could bend into the tent and see what the monster was doing. But it could fly at him, blind him with poisonous claws. A beast big enough to knock him flat, rip his throat out, eat his eyes. Groping in the dark, Gary patted the tent roof once, twice, harder the third time. Then the same thing against the wall lower down, to scare it. He doubted the impact of his actions, they seemed so insignificant.
      Then Gary listened. There was the sound of packaging being ripped open, like an eager child on Christmas morning. More ripping. It must be the salami. Or Garry’s small slab of cheese. The cat was quieter now. Difficult to hear over wind and rain. When he held his ear to the tent wall, Gary could hear another sound. A low rumble, and it took him a moment to realize the cat was purring. Monster hadn’t purred when it ate the bird. Obviously, it preferred his meagre supplies. Nitrates and garlic. Processed pork without feathers, must evoke genetic memories of ancestors’ lives spent eating human food and sleeping on soft beds.
      ‘Puss, puss!’ he called. In a way his mother had summoned the family moggie. ‘Puss, here pussy, puss.’ Falsetto. Shit if his gang of mountain bike buddies had heard they’d sign him up for the next stand-up comedy show.
      The purring went on, as did chomping and tearing, while outside rain beat down and wind picked up intensity. If he didn’t get under shelter soon, probably catch pneumonia. Who knew what sort of germs were only now having a procreative party on his drenched person? Aside from potential illness Gary knew he had to do something. Like riding that same trail after he’d fallen, getting back on the bike when his legs were quivering. Standing in the bathroom knowing he had to come out and face his step-father’s lip curl, endure the next verbal onslaught. Dry his face, couple of deep breaths: do it.
      It’s going to be rough.
      Ridiculous. ‘Be a man!’ Brenda would say.
      ‘Right.’ Gary said aloud to the listening forest. ‘I’m coming in.’
      The cigarette lighter gave one last wavering flame, enough to see the way to his bed and observe a damp-furred scavenger hunched in a corner. Gary climbed into his sleeping bag and pulled the thing up over his head. Defence, he thought. In case this beast sprung at him. There was a short silence. Then the cat let out a low growl and went back to its meal, crunching, purring, and sounding out liquid mastication of cheese and sausage. Gary would be left with the tin of beans, that’s all. If he’d stayed in town there would have been a warm bed, maybe not alone, and a good breakfast to anticipate.
      Nothing in childhood, hell even amongst his darkest ‘off the rails’ moments of early adulthood had prepared Gary for a night spent in a wet tent alone with for an apex predator with this sharp, gut-wrenching stink. Gary could smell it even from the confines of his sleeping bag. Tomcat. Probably already crapped or sprayed, maybe both. No neat scraping in a cat-tray from this animal.
      Eventually he closed his eyes. Didn’t make it any darker but Gary slept.
      In the morning, when he woke, the cat was curled up against him, the tent floor a wasteland of greasy paper and plastic wrappings. The cat woke too and for one long moment met Garry’s sleepy gaze. Tooth and claw. Brute nature. His first waking thought was a projection into a feral primitive mind: was this daemon wondering what was next on the menu? Can I eat you?
      Rapidly, with no warning, the animal extended a long hairy arm and scratched a deep incision into Garry’s brow and cheek, narrowly missing his eye. Then it was gone, a swift tumbling backwards movement which leapt through the tent flaps. He heard drumming paws, then shifting and refolding of enclosing bush.
      At the bus stop Gary endured curious stares from locals and knew he must have looked a sight. In the public toilets he’d bathed the scratch as best he could. Wished again for a first-aid kit or at least antiseptic cream. Would probably need a tetanus shot. His face and knee throbbed. His foul-smelling tent had refused to pack neatly into the cylindrical bag. Gagging from the stink and half blind with pain he’d stuffed the bloody thing as best he could, but still had to carry the segmented rods loose in one hand.
      After the night’s rain, parts of the track had been washed away. Gary had fallen, slipped, skidded, scraped his arms, and knocked his head on a low branch. His clothes were thick with mud, drying now but still likely to besmirch the seats of the bus when it finally arrived.
      ‘Rough night, mate?’ was all the driver said as he took the fare.
      ‘Yer, but you should see the other guy.’ Hurt his face too much to try and back that comment up with a grin.
      They wound up over the hills until the city spread below. Close to midday, mid-week, everybody going about their business as normal. There was the distant sheen of the busy harbour. Grey moody skies with the sea being crossed with white wakes of boats and ferries. A vista, to Gary, the most welcome sight ever, in the whole world.
      A deep contentment welled, satisfaction as unheralded as the sudden claw of the cat. He’d confronted the wilderness, he’d not taken his phone. He’d been alone with the elements, and survived. Soon as he could he’d get that old bike out of his mother’s shed, dust it off, get stuck into giving the thing a good lube, check the tyres, throw his leg over again.
      For now, he was going home to a bath and bandage his knee. Cook Brenda’s favourite curry, have everything nice by the time she got home.
      Ahead Gary saw a future with his arm around Brenda’s tattooed shoulder. He would by and not abandon her like his father.    AQ

V. J. Hamilton – Flightless Bird

V. J. Hamilton
Flightless Bird

Abigail’s fingernails dig into the armrests as the van pulls into her parents’ driveway, and she turns to the driver, her brother Ethan, and says, ‘You did bring the turkey, right?’
      His man-child face fills with soft bewilderment. The air in the van is thick with the aromas of candied yams, bacon drippings, broccoli au gratin, and kabocha squash casserole. ‘Let’s see,’ he says, pulling on the parking brake. ‘The roasting pan was so hot I took it out to cool… I went to pack… you came over…’ His face grows blanker and blanker.
      Her voice rises. ‘Do you mean to say we drove all this way and you never once thought: “Did I actually put that giant pan with the forty-pound turkey in the van?”’
      He shrinks against the driver’s seat and turns off the ignition.
      ‘All this way—blocked for an hour by the G-D Thanksgiving marathon,’ she emphasizes. She says ‘G-D’ rather than ‘goddamned’ because they are in their parents’ driveway, and their parents are deacons in the church. Might as well get right back in the habit that served her throughout her teens.
      The Grand Plan threatens to crumble. This year, with Mama’s recent heart trouble, the three young adult siblings had insisted: ‘We’ll divvy up the feast and cook things separately and bring everything to you.’ The siblings live on the east side of the city; their parents live on the west. Ethan had insisted that he would roast the starring dish—the turkey—and Abigail and Ruth co-ordinated the side dishes.
      His thumbs are already dancing madly over his phone. ‘I’ll text Ruth. She can swing by and pick it up.’ Ruth is the eldest child of the family, ten years older than Abigail, who is the youngest.
      ‘Ruth has three kids and four pies and you think she’s got room for that giant turkey in her hatchback?’ Abigail pulls at her hair, staring at her parents’ neatly kept bungalow with the long wooden wheelchair ramp, now unused. ‘Besides, I bet she left ages ago.’
      Abigail and Ethan are already two hours later than planned, which means they are missing the Thanksgiving church service the parents usually drag them out to attend—but she refuses to share this silver lining with Ethan. She wants him to twist in the wind over yet another stupidity.
      She exits the van, his lovingly refurbished two-tone vintage VW camper van, slamming the door harder than necessary, and tries to unlock the bungalow door. The 4-digit number code does not work. She tries several codes, punching harder and harder at the keypad. She returns to the van, muttering, ‘They changed the G-D code!’
      Ethan looks up from this phone and grins. ‘Good news: the baby is projectile vomiting, so Ruth hasn’t left yet.’
      Abigail puts her hand over her mouth. Her nieces are darling, but whatever germs they carry, she usually falls ill from them, too. Just the thought of a crowded noisy table makes her woozy.
      He checks the phone. ‘She’ll pick up the T-bird.’ He grins. ‘Problem solved, Miss Fussbudget.’
      ‘But can she get into your place?’
      ‘Don’t worry,’ he says, ‘There’s likely someone there.’ He shares a house with four other undergrads a couple blocks away from Abigail’s funky little apartment. He pats her arm and clucks. ‘I see your stress-o-meter is ratcheting higher, Sis. Tell you what, I’ve got some edibles to help you chill out.’ He smiles his goofy gap-toothed smile.
      ‘What! Why’d you bring those? With Papa’s radar? And the kids around? Oh Ethan, you know how worried Ruth gets!’
      ‘I’ll keep the candies out of sight.’
      ‘Yeah, that’s what you said about the tabs last time.’ Abigail pulls harder at her hair, remembering the frenzied call to the Poison Control line.
      Ethan rummages vigorously in his duffel bag. ‘Oh crap, these are my floor hockey things. Guess I brought the wrong bag.’
      Of course, she thinks bitterly. Now she wishes she could gnash her teeth on defenceless little gummi bears, and absorb some of the calming CBD, THC, or whatever it is, to cope with another day of Ethan.

* * *

A day earlier, Abigail had dropped by her brother’s house and discovered he was ‘short on funds’ so had not done a speck of shopping. ‘But you said you’d do the meat,’ she scolded him. ‘We can’t show up empty-handed!’
      Looking stunned, as if a pet dog had bit him, Ethan said, ‘I thought Thanksgiving was, like, next week.’
      Too disgusted to speak, she stomped off to her local butcher and begged for his very last bird, a forty-pound behemoth. Meanwhile, Ethan played a round of Blade & Soul with his posse, then searched the cupboards for pans, tested the oven, and inadvertently tested the smoke detector. He was just turning off the screeching alarm as she returned, breathless from hauling the bird. ‘Hey,’ he said, ‘I bet there’s tons of roasting pans at the thrift store.’
      They trekked to the thrift store to buy their largest pan, and to the bakery to buy day-old bread.       Ethan tried to win back her good graces and even charmed her into buying a flat of day-old sprinkled doughnuts.
      Back at the shared house, she silenced her inner nag and helped him cut up a mound of bread and mushrooms. Together, they wrestled the raw carcass open to rinse it and rub it with garlic. She couldn’t help but laugh as the turkey slipped and slid around the sink. The truce continued while they crammed the bird’s cavern with Ethan’s bread mixture. The loaded tinfoil-covered pan was so big it took over most of the shared-house refrigerator, displacing his housemates’ food. But their grumbles were soothed by the flat of doughnuts. Karma seems to go in Ethan’s favour, she thought.
      She left at sundown, after extracting a promise from him to start roasting the turkey at 8 AM so it would be done by the time they had to drive across the city, dodging the path of the city-wide marathon.
      But this morning, she made repeated unanswered calls to him. Finally she’d gone to his house, banged on the door until he opened, sheepishly saying, ‘Incredible as it sounds, I overslept.’

* * *

Now Abigail sits in the van, glaring at the family bungalow, as squat and imperturbable as a toad statue. There’s peeling paint on the highest trim, where Papa can’t reach any more; there’s a warp to the plastic siding where the family once had the barbecue set up too close; and every time she visits, the front steps look more rickety. How did her parents raise all their children in this tiny place? Routinely they’d have twenty people enjoying turkey and fixins every Thanksgiving.
      A joke about a turkey, the flightless bird being unable to travel, occurs to her but she refuses to share it with Ethan. That goofball needs to learn a lesson.
      A triple-rap on her window startles her. Mrs Persimmon, the next-door neighbour, steadies herself with a rake. Abigail lowers her window. The woman leans in. Her dentures are too big and a nimbus of white hair surrounds her face. ‘Oh, it is you! How are you doing, Abigail and Ethan? How lovely. The family for Thanksgiving. Your parents are the luckiest.’ She crackles with good cheer. ‘Mm, smells delicious.’
      ‘Hello Mrs P, how’ve you been?’ Ethan says. Their family occupies a unique and unwanted prominence in the neighbourhood: a decade ago, one child, Susannah, was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer. Mrs Persimmon’s late husband had built the wheelchair ramp and for a time it was Abigail’s favourite thing because they could wheel Susannah in and out of the house so she could still be part of the games, a faint-voiced cheerleader. ‘That ramp is still holding strong,’ Ethan says.
      ‘It is, isn’t it?’ Mrs Persimmon says wistfully.
      ‘I loved racing my skateboard on it.’ He smiles. ‘Hey, maybe my board’s still in the—’
      ‘Don’t even think of it,’ Abigail says irritably. ‘You’ll break your arm and then I’ll have to drive this G-D van.’
      The old woman laughs uncomfortably, like someone seeing static disrupt a favourite TV show. She excuses herself to continue raking.
      ‘We’re sitting ducks now,’ Abigail says, half-dreading the coming barrage of well-wishers. They’re like the Royal Family, she supposes. Minus the jewels.
      ‘I have an idea,’ Ethan says. ‘Why don’t I run and get some cola? Ruth never lets the kids have it. I gotta be the uncle who spoils them.’ He leaves the VW, giving a jaunty wave.
      Go ahead, rot their teeth, she thinks. Another stone upon Ruth’s load.
      Thuds rain upon her window. It’s their neighbour Frank, former chairman of the fundraising committee for Susannah’s experimental treatments.
‘      ‘Well, hello, Abigail! You are looking beautiful, as usual. How wonderful, you kids coming home to see your ma and pa.’ Frank, a retired barber, is carrying leaf bags and a copy of Community Courier under his arm. She admires his fedora and mustard-yellow tailored jacket. His dapper moustache is trimmed so sharp you could cut your thumb on it.
      ‘Yes, it’ll be fantastic to see them,’ she says with bombast. They chat briefly about her parents being at church and how they (the kids) concocted a Grand Plan of bringing the Thanksgiving feast. ‘What with Mama’s heart, you know.’ No mention of the turkey fuck-up.
      ‘What treasures you are.’ He pulls out his phone and shares a picture of his newest grandchild, born last month.
      Frank leaves, and Abigail frowns as the memory of Ethan’s stupidity washes back on her like acid reflux. The turkey, the heart of the meal. Missing. Honestly, what a sieve-brain. What a chucklehead.       She adjusts the mirror, checking her scarecrow hair, then checking in the rear-view to see if Ethan is on the way back. But no. He’s a dawdler, too.
      She rummages in her bag for a comb and spies the Bible, today’s passage still book-marked. She’s secretly glad she didn’t have to go make nice with dozens of church folk. The reading was about Abel and Cain. What were they fighting over, anyway? Was it some screw-up by an idiot brother? She reads:
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’
      ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’

      She feels a frisson of recognition as she reads the words ‘my brother’s keeper.’ That sly old Cain, ducking the question by answering with another question.
      ‘Boo!’ Ethan leans in the window and Abigail jumps. He drops a box of Nerds Candy on the page. ‘Reading the Good Book, are you?’
      ‘Cause I feel like murdering you,’ she says.
      He gets in the van and puts the two-litre bottle of cola between them. ‘Everything will be okay.’
      ‘How can you say that?’ She scowls. ‘Again, Ruth has to rescue us.’
      ‘Hey, I should be the angry one—I roasted the damn beast.’
      ‘Which makes you all the stupider for forgetting it!’
      ‘You could’ve asked me, “Hey, did you pack the T-bird?”’
      ‘You could’ve asked yourself: Duh, what’s the one thing I’m s’posed to remember?’ She mimics a beefcake voice.
      ‘I had so much going on, Abby! Laundry, phone calls, grocery shopping…’
      ‘That is normal, everyday life! Can’t you handle it?’ She pulls at her hair; the scalp is quite tender. ‘It’s the damn gaming. Taking over your life. Tell me, when’s the last time you went to class?’
      ‘Aw, Sis.’ He smiles winningly. ‘You have the checklist. You have the menu. Why didn’t you say 1-2-3 like you always do?’
      ‘Because I’m sick of always being your memory device!’ She thumps the armrests. She digs in her nails until white crescents show. ‘How are you ever going to manage? And find a girlfriend and settle down and—and—’ She waves at the family bungalow, its aura of homey comfort, and drops her voice to a whisper. ‘Haven’t you ever wondered why no girl sticks around past the second date?’
      Ethan’s face crumples. ‘Is this what she said to you?’ he asks quietly.
      ‘What? Who?’
      Abigail is briefly immobilized: Melissa and Ethan? Beautiful, talented, intelligent Melissa? She is stratospherically out of her brother’s league. Melissa had sung at Susannah’s funeral. Abigail recalls the crystalline moment: Melissa’s voice soaring ever higher in the nave. Abigail had ached with grief over losing the sister she was closest to, but somehow, that perfectly sung note of the requiem acted as a lighthouse: shining, guiding, showing that the land of hope was within reach. As the notes swelled, Abigail’s heart had stopped hurting. Yes, Susannah was gone, but there were still the others. The three musketeers. She had sworn she would never, ever let her siblings down.
      ‘I was just so happy thinking of driving over here with you,’ Ethan says, lit with innocence, his longish side-hair looking like floppy dog-ears.
      She blinks rapidly.
      ‘Oh hey, Abby. I wanted to share my new song with you…’ He fishes in his pocket and pulls out a turtle-shaped flash-drive. ‘Oops, I forgot. My van player is busted.’
      ‘This is … cool. Your song-writing.’ She does not ask what the song is about. All his songs are, in one way or another, about Susannah. Good times with Susannah. Losing Susannah. Wishing Susannah was here. Of course, he disguises them as ordinary romantic ballads or (on occasion, for Mama) Christian hymns. Abigail accepts his flash-drive and tucks it in her bag. Her eye lights on her notepad. She pulls it out, chuckling. ‘Look at this. How did you know I had a checklist with me? You really should try making lists, too, Ethan. Lists keep you focused.’
      ‘Thanks! I’ll try that,’ he says. He takes the notepad from her and peruses it, then pulls a stubby pencil from the junk tray of the van. He makes a mark and jots a note, item 17.5, in between items 17 and 18. It says, Review checklist with Ethan.‘There,’ he says, handing it back. ‘It’s more efficient to add one little thing to your list, isn’t it? Instead of starting a whole new list for me.’
      Abigail’s face falls. ‘You’re mocking me.’ Her eyes sting.
      Honk honk! As if to emphasize the cruel joke, a horn toots. Ruth pulls up in her hatchback with enclosed roof carrier attached. As the car doors fly open she yells, ‘Everybody, take your knapsacks and pillows.’ Three children pour out, doing as told, and Ruth bustles around, unloading cooler, boxes, and bags—and the giant roaster. The children are locked out from the bungalow and Ruth says, ‘I guess Papa forgot to tell us the new code.’
      ‘Forgetfulness runs in the family,’ Abigail says icily.
      ‘Thank God for that,’ Ruth says. ‘With all the suffering in the world, forgetting is a mercy.’
      ‘Not if you’re responsible for a flightless bird.’
      Soon the six of them are surrounding the pan Ruth has placed on the cooler. ‘Well, Ethan, I picked up your giant pan here but I didn’t look inside… are you sure there’s a roast turkey?’ Ruth teases, ignoring the evident tension. She pulls off the lid and six heads incline. ‘Ahhhh.’
      ‘So beautiful, so brown!’
      ‘Smells amazing!’
      ‘Mommy, can I try a lil piece?’
      Abigail’s mouth is already watering, longing to taste Ethan’s new stuffing.
      ‘The centrepiece,’ Ruth proclaims. ‘Good job, kiddo.’
      Ethan shuffles. ‘I was starting to wonder if I’d remembered to roast anything at all,’ he says defensively. ‘The stupid incompetent ass that I am.’ His eyes dart to Abigail.
      Ruth pats him and says, ‘You’re a turkey genius, lil bro.’
      ‘Oh, I thought I heard voices,’ chortles Mrs Daguerre, the west-side neighbour. In her house-dress and wispy chignon, she totters toward them. ‘Let me take your picture—you are the perfect ensemble—say cheese.’ The neighbourhood shutterbug, she snaps three photos before they can object. She was the self-appointed photographer for the fundraising efforts to bankroll Susannah’s treatments. Her photos often ran alongside articles in the community newspaper. But her best photos, to Abigail, were the ones shown at Susannah’s memorial service. ‘How splendid… you are home to celebrate with your parents. Were you held up by the marathon?’
      ‘It’s open,’ calls the oldest niece, running to the adults. ‘I tried 4321 and it worked!’
      Ruth continues chatting with Mrs Daguerre and Ethan, who is making them laugh. Abigail picks up her kabocha casserole and heads inside. Soon her parents will arrive, and a new kind of madness will descend.    AQ

Jackie Kingon – Once Upon a Passover

Jackie Kingon
Once Upon a Passover
      Matzah balls floated like celestial bodies in chicken soup. Its electrons danced with delectable aromas. Sadie inhaled. ‘Let’s have some now,’ she said to her pregnant daughter Zelda. ‘I’ll pass out from hunger if I wait for Aaron to finish reading the Haggadah.’
      Zelda dug a crater into a matzah ball and brought it to her lips. ‘They’ve defied gravity Mom. Light and delicious.’
      Aaron, wearing the tie saved for special occasions, opened the door. ‘What’s this? Eating before reading the Passover Haggadah. It’s a sacrilege.’
      ‘It’s just soup, Aaron.’
      ‘Everything’s ready, Dad,’ Zelda said. ‘The brisket, the tzimmes. the roasted chicken with gribenes is crisper than bacon.’
      ‘Nothing’s crisper than bacon,’ Aaron said.
      ‘And how would you both know?’ Sadie asked.
      Zelda rolled her eyes. Aaron shrugged and said, ‘I don’t see a place for Elijah?’
      Sadie pointed to a bridge-table near the hall. ‘I put Elijah there. The table’s too crowded when your cousins come.’
      Aaron frowned. ‘Elijah is supposed to sit at the head of the table. He’s the honored guest who announces the arrival of the Messiah.’
      ‘But he never comes,’ Sadie sighed.
      ‘Maybe you didn’t see him.’
      ‘That’s what they said when I was a child. OK. Kids at the bridge-table.’
      The front door opened.
      Irving and his family piled in. ‘You’re early,’ Aaron said.
      ‘This year we didn’t want to be hungry while you read the Haggadah,’ Irving said. ‘So, we stopped for Chinese before we came. Moo Shu Pork doesn’t stick to your ribs like brisket.’
      Sadie frowned. ‘Moo Shu Pork on Passover? God will be angry.’
      ‘Not the God of the Chinese,’ Irving said. ‘And they have more people.’
      Finally, everyone sat at the table and Aaron began the service. After ten minutes Sadie said, ‘Move it, Aaron.’ David drank his wine. ‘It is supposed to last for four cups.’
      David pouted. ‘It will be bad luck if I don’t drink three more.’
      ‘It’s symbolic,’ Sadie said.
      ‘Why when I want something it’s symbolic?’
      She pushed a red manicured finger into David’s chest. ‘I’ll show you symbolic!’
      Aaron said, ‘If I cut the ten plagues to five what five should I cut?’
      ‘Keep the locusts,’ Irving said. ‘No locusts. No Passover.’
      ‘And keep the frogs,’ his wife said. ‘Their legs are delicious sautéed in garlic butter.’
      Suddenly a strange green light illuminated the room. Everyone glowed. Aaron got up peered through a window and saw a pewter grey ship sitting on his front lawn. ‘If I didn’t know better I’d say it’s a flying saucer.’
      ‘Since when did you become a maven on flying saucers?’ Sadie asked.
      ‘It says—Flying Saucer: Property of Elijah the Prophet from Tau Ceti.’
      ‘What’s Tau Ceti?’ Sadie asked.
      ‘Tau Ceti is a super Earth exoplanet that orbits a G-type star. Its mass is 3.93 Earths and takes 162.9 days to complete one orbit of its star.’
      ‘And what makes you so smart?’ Irving put in.
      ‘The small print on the side.’
      Everyone went outside and looked.
      Irving’s voice rose. ‘Do you realize if this is what we think it is we might be making first contact. We’ll be famous. Better, we might get rich!’
      Aaron said. ‘Whatever, it’s ruining my lawn. We’ll call someone later to have it removed. Let’s finish the service and eat.’
      A man who looked like someone you thought you knew sat at the head of the table. He wore a well-tailored blue suit, white shirt, blue tie with six-pointed gold stars. Sadie closed her eyes and hoped when she opened them he would be gone.
      Aaron, distressed he didn’t take his class in how to spot a homicidal maniac more seriously said, ‘Who are you?’
      ‘I’m Elijah. You invite me every Passover. Here, take my card.’
      Aaron looked and read: Elijah: Prophet: Specialty: Passover.
      ‘Everyone wants to see me in a robe and sandals but I prefer to keep up with the times.’
      ‘Nice suit,’ Aaron said. ‘Ralph Lauren?’
      ‘Saville Row. But actually, I prefer this. Then in an eye blink he wore ripped jeans and a white T shirt that said Happy Passover.’
      Irving’s daughter, who up to that moment wished she could be elsewhere, peeked from under her auburn tresses, battered her eyelashes and smiled at him.
       ‘Parlour trick,’ Aaron said mixing curiosity with caution. ‘How come we never saw you before?’
      ‘I use a cloaking device. Santa and I share it. It’s out of season for him. People in ancient days saw me.’
      ‘Yeah,’ Irving said. ‘All the good stuff in the Bible seems to have happened in ancient days.’
      ‘Later, when people wanted autographs and pictures I couldn’t enjoy my cup of wine, so I activated the cloak.’
      Brows wrinkled. Elijah continued. ‘It’s not easy being a prophet, a saint, an immortal being? Everyone wants favours. The critters from the kibbutz near Betelgeuse love wine and expect me to bring them several cases after all the seders. And the children on Arcturus, who look like your oysters, want toys from Santa. Anyone want winged sandals? I can get them wholesale. Elijah holds up his arm. ‘And now I have a Rolex.’
      Irving said, ‘I’m wearing one just like it.’ He pushed his sleeve up. ‘Hey, where did it go?’
      ‘God moves in mysterious ways,’ Elijah said.
      ‘I don’t think God needs a Rolex,’ Irving said.
      ‘He still likes sacrifices. This is a token sacrifice.’
      Irving lowered his arm.
      ‘We usually exist as a quantum wave in superposition being near many places at the same time. That’s how we are able to reach so many families in one night. But when someone observes us, we become a particle. Someone here must have observed me: caught my eye.’
      ‘I thought I saw food fly out of the Chinese restaurant,’ Irving said.
      ‘Bingo!’ Elijah said pointing to Irving. ‘Checkmate.’
      Sadie, not knowing what to say asked, ’Do you want your cup of wine now?’
      ‘But none of that sweet stuff. No one ever drank that while wandering in the desert. I’ll have merlot. This night would be different from all other nights if I had dinner. No one gives me food: no nuts no canapés. Santa gets Christmas cookies; roast turkey; sometimes Beef Wellington. I tried switching jobs with him but he said lox didn’t compare to lobster.’
      Aaron brought the merlot and poured Elijah a cup. Sadie placed a steaming bowl of matzah ball soup in front of him. The aroma of chicken broth going back to antiquity permeated the room. He inhaled its soothing sent, dipped his spoon in, tasted and swooned.
      ‘Ah, the real thing. Not what I get on Tau Ceti. Come back with me, Sadie, and teach them how you make it? I’ll give you almost eternal life in exchange for your recipe. Even the restaurant at the end of the universe could learn from you.’
      Sadie said. ‘You sound like the movie Cocoon. I’ll give you some to take home. I don’t want eternal life if it comes with arthritis.’
      Elijah sighed. ‘Few realize, that movie was a documentary.’
      ‘You look like us,’ Aaron said.
      ‘Immortal beings have the ability to shape shift. You would never recognize Santa when it’s not Christmas. As long as I’m here, I’d like to enlighten you about your version of Passover.’
      Aaron picked up a Haggadah. ‘We are enlightened! We’re called “the people of the book” and here, here it is written.’
      Elijah smiled. ‘By people who wanted to sell scrolls. But dinner first, commentary afterwards.’
      After dinner everyone moved from dining room to living room, sank into the upholstery and turned their eyes toward Elijah who now had a salt and pepper coloured beard and wore a dark brown robe. ‘I thought a change of clothes set a better mood,’ his voice sliding into a deep baritone. ‘And it came to pass…’
      ‘Why does stuff like this usually start with “and it came to pass?”’ Aaron asked.
      ‘Poetic license. “And it came to pass,” appears some 727 times in the King James Version.’
      Irving said, ‘We don’t use the King James version.’
      Elijah shrugged and continued. ‘The Martians needed a more fruitful planet because their seas were evaporating and the third planet from the sun, that they previously thought too hot and too wet for intelligent life, now with their options closing, looked like a promised land. But after close analysis, they saw most of its inhabitants didn’t want to share their spaces with other inhabitants making it unlikely that they would share their planet with them even if they brought gifts and asked nicely. Finally, after googling “top non-threatening beings of the universe,” a human baby surfaced as number one, as long as you weren’t its parents who usually worried about it forever from the second it was born.’
       ‘So, Moses was a Martian, disguised as a human baby,’ Aaron said. ‘That’s like superman: a being from another planet comes to Earth ensconced as Clark Kent.’
      ‘But Clark couldn’t be near kryptonite or he would lose his strength,’ Elijah said. ‘And Moses learned he couldn’t eat dairy and meat products together or shellfish and pork or he would lose his powers.’
      ‘So, a bacon cheeseburger for Moses was akin to kryptonite for Superman,’ Aaron deduced.
      ‘Precisely! And to ensure that this would never happen to them they created dietary laws called Kosher laws that restricted these things.’
      ‘Did Moses see God’s face?’ Zelda asked.
      ‘He saw a being from the Soup Bubble Nebula in Cygnus who was cruising the area. When Moses asked if he was God he said, “I’d like to be. But it’s too much responsibility.”’
      ‘Close enough,’ Moses cried.
      ‘And the burning bush?’ Aaron asked.
      ‘Works on batteries. Santa always gets a big order for them. At Christmas.’
      ‘And the parting of the Dead Sea?’ Irving asked.
      ‘Strong winds push water to one side making it possible to cross on the shallow side. It sometimes happens other places like Lake Erie.’
      ‘Told you we didn’t need so much commentary,’ Sadie said. ‘A few words. Ten minutes tops. So, was Moses the only Martian who came?’
      ‘Oh no. Martians disguised as a tribe of beautiful intelligent people followed. They lured Moses to an oasis that made Heavenly Pizza and gave free manna toppings and free delivery. Everyone wanted in.’
      Zelda patted her belly. ‘Am I carrying a Martian?’
      Elijah popped a chocolate covered macaroon into his mouth. ‘Hmmm, real cocoanut. Not like the stuff they grow on Rigel Kantaurus that tastes like hay. Delicious.’
      ‘Well…’ Aaron said.
      ‘We’re all related. It’s one big universe including all its parallel parts. Everything bouncing from wave to particle and back to wave. To quote your poet Walt Whitman who today has incarnated as a Hasidic obstetrician, “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking.”’
      ‘No one is going to believe what you told us let alone parallel universes with parallel Passovers where we could still be slaves unto pharaoh,’ Sadie said. ‘Besides, what should we do with all these Haggadah books?’
      ‘Santa can give them as Christmas presents. Everyone likes a good story. But a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.’
      ‘Especially for kids that get thrown out of school,’ David piped.
      ‘And a lot of knowledge is not dangerous?’ Irving asked. ‘What about Schrödinger’s cat? Could it have been a hamster? Did you have a Bar Mitzvah? Who paid?’
      ‘Ah, questions and more questions whose answers might bend the space time continuum.’
      ‘Surely you’re jesting,’ Irving said.
      Elijah smiled. ‘Though I’m not limited by time and space as you are, it’s time to move on. Check your watch Irving.’
      Irving looks at this wrist. ‘It’s back!’
      ‘Never really left,’ Elijah said. ‘An aspect of quantum physics.’
      Irving tapped his wrist. ‘Quantum physics has an answer with no answer to everything these days.’
      ‘Do you mind if we take your picture?’ Aaron asked.
      Elijah nods, runs his hand over his hair to smooth it.
      Everyone gets their phone, snaps a photo and looks. Aaron gasps. ‘I’ve one of a four headed octopus with red scales.’
      ‘Oops! Try now.’
      Everyone snaps again.
      Elijah checks Aaron’s camera. ‘Better.’
      ‘But no one would believe that photo is Elijah,’ Irving said.
      ‘It’s not. It’s a computer-generated composite image of a middle-aged multi-racial human male. But I can add wings and a halo if you want.’
      ‘Forget it,’ Sadie said. She went into the kitchen and brought a large container of chicken soup and two dozen chocolate covered macaroons that she gave Elijah.
      ‘Do you really need to fly in a space ship?’ Aaron asked.
      ‘No. It’s a mystical illumination. But the razzle dazzle insures I’m taken more seriously and I and get more dinners.’
      ‘I thought you traveled in a chariot of fire,’ Irving said.
      ‘It was time for an upgrade. Besides chariots of fire are hot and uncomfortable.’
      ‘Shall we walk you out?’ Sadie asked.
      ‘No need.’ Then he kissed Sadie on both cheeks and gave everyone else a high five. ‘Adios amigos. Time to roll.’ He paused. ‘Is that still a hip expression?‘
      ‘I wouldn’t know,’ Aaron said. ‘I’m over the rolling age.’
      For a moment nothing happened. And then it happened. He was gone.
      Everyone ran outside. There was a grand silence. Nothing was there. The lawn looked greener and lusher than it ever looked. Then Aaron spotted a small bottle that he picked up. The label said ‘Miracle Grow.’ ‘Where did this come from?’
      ‘Probably a neighbour,’ Sadie said.
      ‘Or Tau Ceti,’ Irving said.
      No one ever saw Elijah again. And no one revised the Haggadah. But each year when Sadie set a place for Elijah at the Passover table the wine, the soup, and macaroons vanished.            AQ