1000words

where pictures make prose

Penny Falls

changeIt’s something to aim for, an empty jar to fill. Slowly it grows with silver and copper, turned out from school day pockets or hunts down the back of Gran’s sofa. Fold away your sleeping bag, remove the cushions and delve for hidden treasure under sweetie wrappers, pen lids and crumbs.

Lift the jar from the shelf, feel its weight and give a shake, dreaming of what these riches will buy when it refuses another penny: A new bike and a present for Mum. To make her smile the way she used to.

Empty the pockets of stale Sunday morning jeans, abandoned on her bedroom floor by nameless men who ruffle your hair and call you “wee man”. Take their change and crumpled bookie’s slips, these interchangeable men ignored by Gran’s rustling newspaper and gone after coffee.

When the day arrives, race home from school and tip the jar on its head. The waterfall bursts forth and sprays on the carpet, but it’s not the same. The jar feels too light to have ever held anything great; only dull browns and tiny specks of silver.

Gather up the denominations in bags for the bank. Something is lost but you don’t know what, something within you that filled with the coins.

A solitary penny remains on the floor. Mum wanders in; towelling tail dragging from the dressing gown you left her in. She picks up the coin and drops it back in the jar. It chimes as it hits the glass.

Her mouth shows the faintest curl in the corners, but it tells you everything.

(Author: Alan Crossan. Story: All Rights Reserved. Photographer: Heather Stanley. Image: All Rights Reserved.)

S-T-O-P

9b7f345b251a61c287a4c04454a94014Phil gets out his spirit level and textbook, flicking through the pages with a single finger. ‘Boys, it’s completely out by at least 20 mil.’ You can hear Greg grinding his teeth. ‘Give that to me in old money.’ ‘About an inch,’ I mutter under my breath. He turns away so he can swear and let it be carried away with the buzz of the traffic. ‘It’ll have to be re-done – I’ll get in touch with the highways agency and get them to give us another day.’ Greg’s walked off. Phil ticks his boxes and reels in his tape measure; he used to be one of us before the promotion. After that the hi-vis vest got traded in for short sleeve polyester shirts, crappo ties and a red plastic clipboard.

‘Darren, I don’t need to remind you – gloves, hat and long sleeves, please.’ He mimes out the long sleeves like I might not know they’re supposed to cover your arms. ‘We also prefer the royal blue trouser.’ Phil used to down pints with us at the pub, he was a killer at darts and did a mean Neil Diamond at karaoke. Now he can’t even say trousers properly. I nod. Greg’s pissed off into the van and I see him eating the remnants of a McMuffin whilst lighting up a fag. ‘And please tell Greg he’s not allowed to smoke in council owned vehicles anymore.’ School run mums are in the lane next to us, waiting for temporary traffic lights to change, giving us evils. Little faces press up against the glass. The kids always get a kick from seeing us outside the school; we have Bob the Builder to thank for that. Their eyes light up watching diggers, rollers and vans; anything with wheels as big as millstones and a flashing light. Some of them stare for ages till their mums drag them through the school gates, pointing to their watches, faces like thunder.

‘It’s a fricking double yellow. It don’t need us putting it 20 mil closer to the ruddy pavement for people to know they can’t fricking park there.’ Greg unscrews the lid on his flask and pours himself a plastic cup of black steaming liquid. He holds it to his lips and grimaces. ‘Bloody woman’s trying to kill me; no bloody sugar? Might as well be filling this with hot piss.’ He rests his cup on his paunch and wipes the windscreen clear with his palm. ‘Bloody jobsworth.’ We see Phil retreat into his silver Ford Mondeo. ‘I don’t get them sorts; little sheepy climbing his way up the corporate ladder so he can keep his wife in foreign holidays and pay off the conservatory.’ Phil takes off his hard hat and smooths his hair over, clipping in a Bluetooth headset. He makes a neat three point turn and speeds off. Next to us, children file out onto the school playground, ready for whatever passes for P.E these days. They are divided into pairs and given a red ball. They bounce the ball to each other, back and forth, back and forth. The teacher blows a whistle, the children form a line and go back in. One little boy runs over to the railings and watches our machines. I wave at him, he waves back. You don’t need to hear her voice to know the teacher’s giving him a bollocking. He returns to his line, eyes pointed to the ground.

Phil’s back with new instructions, printed on A4 paper, stapled. The school don’t just want double yellow, they want some signs to depict the kids, the pedestrians. They all need to be going in the direction of the school gate, the same size and colour. ‘We’re going to need a shed load more paint for this,’ Greg says. ‘It’s being delivered this afternoon…and please… this time lads, get it right. Use the stencils provided, standards to uphold here for public health and safety. I want 20mph triangles with the red borders too.’ Greg salutes him behind his back, folds up the instructions and uses them as a coaster.

I’m better at the painting than Greg, steadier hand he tells me but it means muggins here has to do all the hard graft. We use stencils for shapes but the freehand stuff is a craft, a skill, takes years of practice. Bus stops are my speciality, don’t mind the odd cycle lane either. By the time we mix the paint and chalk up the roads, it’s 3pm and the kids are spilling out of school. Some stay to watch. S-T-O-P, you hear them spell out. ‘What you doing?’ one lad asks. ‘We’re painting the road markings so them people on the roads don’t mow you lot down.’ His mum whisks him away. ‘Stuck up cow,’ Greg replies. That’s a triangle, one girl says looking proud of herself. I smile. All the arrows face the right way, all the angles check out. We redo the double yellow to regulation, straighter than the pole up Phil’s arse, Greg says, chuckling to himself.

Greg goes home bang on 5pm like he does every day, waving me off as he heads for the pub. I finish up, watching as people file out of work, their cars creeping towards home, towards the end of another day. Their faces all turn to me, to gawp as my roller curls along the path, tracing that last faceless figure, his arm slightly raised and marching onwards. All of them are the same. They don’t have hair, clothes, eyes, mouths. They’re all headed in the same direction. I lift my roller off the floor and watch it move away, along different lines, towards somewhere else. I smile. Phil is going to have a field day.

(Author: Kristen Bailey. Story: All Rights Reserved. Image via pixabay. Creative Commons Deed CC0.)

A Prayer for Winter

efa9691bae3d2dae3a2572ccc45e0a6bIt seems that I am always cold.

No matter how I stoke the fire or bundle myself in blankets, I cannot escape the constant chill that has crept into my bones and settled there as a permanent resident.

On most days I rarely leave my hearth, afraid to venture too far from it for fear that my very skin will ice over and the blood will freeze in my veins.

Part of this comes from my advanced years. My body has slowly shriveled and shrunken, flesh left desolate by the ravages of time the way it does to all living creatures, and that flame which once burned bright in my belly has faded to a sparse scattering of embers.

Still, there is more to this chill than the mere decay of my mortal form.

I can feel it when the fire starts to dim, closing in around me like some sinister serpent. Sometimes I swear that I catch a glimpse of its icy presence in the periphery of my vision, but when I turn to face it I find only the white smoke of my breath curling in front of me.

When my son comes to visit I try to explain to him that I am being hunted by the cold, but he just smiles and shakes his head as though I were a child whose imagination had gotten the better of him. He seems to have forgotten that it was not so long ago that I was sheltering him from the terrors of the dark and the monsters hiding beneath his bed.

On the mornings when the sun is out and my muscles do not protest my every movement, I sometimes take my cane and amble alongside the dirt road that leads into town. I still have a few friends there; men with withered limbs like mine, and noses full of broken capillaries born from nights spent drinking and thinking we would never be this old.

I asked my friend Ian, who I’ve known since we were both children, if he too was being stalked by this wicked chill?

“No, no, it isn’t the cold.” Ian said, adjusting the spectacles on his nose. “It’s the damnable heat. No matter what the weather is outside, I always feel like I’m burning up. Sometimes I think my skin is just going to melt away like wax and all they’ll find of me will be a pile of bones sitting in my rocker.”

“That sounds like heaven to me.” I said, sipping a mug of tea at our usual table in the corner. “Though I suppose it wouldn’t if I was in your shoes.”

“At our age we’re lucky to be feeling anything at all, hot or cold.” Ian said and laughed as he took a swallow of dark beer and began rummaging around in his pocket for his pipe.

We play chess and reminisce until the sun starts to dip in the sky and then we say our goodbyes, each silently hoping that it isn’t the last one. During the walk home I think of all the time Ian and I have spent in that tavern. The building has been there longer than either of us, but it looks no different today than it did the first time we set foot on its rough-hewn wooden floor and rested our aching backs against its white plaster walls.

My own home has not kept its youthful appearance and seems to creak and groan as much as I do. We shudder sympathetically when the wind comes whipping through the eaves or whooshing down the chimney like an icy blast from a longhorn.

I try to be grateful the way that Ian is, but I cannot see the cold as anything other than an enemy. Even on the warmest of summer days I can still feel it flitting around in darkened alleyways where the sun doesn’t reach, or waiting to usher forth from the sky as freezing gray rain.

It is late autumn now and there is almost no trace of warmth left in the land. We have not seen our first frost yet, but the leaves have already withered and blown away and soon winter will make its presence known and then I will be prisoner to my hearth once more.

#

My son has not come to visit me in many days. He has a new child and his wife has taken ill from the labor, making it difficult for him to venture far from home. Even if he could visit, there is nothing he or anyone else can do to rescue me. No man can ask another to battle his phantoms for him.

I felt its dreadful presence again this morning. It happened as I was pulling the kettle from the fire; a slender, icy finger traced its way along my spine and a terrible chill spread throughout my body and consumed me like a fever.

I awoke some time later to find my hearth completely extinguished and the room now a bitter, frozen tomb that caused my breath to catch in my throat and seep out in thin white wisps.

If the cold had been merciful it would have finished me while I slept, but I sense that this demon frost wants to witness my demise first hand and I know that I am powerless to stop it.

All my attempts to rekindle the fire have failed, and I fear that the next time my son comes to visit it will be to discover my icy remains.

Until then all I can do is wait and watch as the alabaster vapor of my exhalations curl themselves into writhing, twisted specters of smoke that give me hints of the frozen creature’s terrible visage.

Soon I will gaze upon its true face and stare into those cold, hollow eyes as they watch with wicked delight as the fire slowly fades from my own.

(Author: Peter Emmett Naughton. Story: All Rights Reserved. Image via pixabay.)

Would You Like to Come In?

5630090707_d6f3f9171f_nA man wearing an eye patch stood in my yard. I watched him through my window as I held a blind down, trying to be sneaky. He walked in circles with his nose in the air. He eventually walked right to my front door and rang the doorbell.

I was standing by the door before it rang and reminded myself to wait a few seconds before answering. I didn’t want him to get suspicious. I took a deep breath and pressed the wrinkles out of my shirt with my hands. I opened the door.

“Hello,” he said. “Is this my house?”

“This is my house,” I said.

“Is this 678 Elm Street?”

“Yes.”

He looked up at the sky. With his nose in the air, he said, “This is my house.”

I said, “No. This is my house.” I started to shut the door, but stopped. I said, “Would you like to come in?”

“To my own house?” He asked. “Thank you,” he said.

He stepped inside, face to the ceiling, and started moving his head around in an exaggerated motion.

“Is it hard to see with the…” I didn’t want to be rude about his eye. But he had barged into my house thinking it was his own. He was rude first. I said, “Is it hard to see with that eye patch?”

He said, “Harder with the glass eye.”

“The glass eye?” I looked at him looking at the ceiling, always looking up, wearing blue jeans and pink shirt and that black eye patch. I asked, “Is the eye patch over the glass eye?”

He said, “No. I have my eye patch on the good eye so I don’t lose it. Watch.” He popped out his glass eye and held it out to me. “Try it out.”

“No thanks,” I said. “You thirsty,” I asked. I had been brewing coffee before I saw him walking in circles outside. “I have coffee,” I said.

“Sure,” he said. “You changed my house around.”

“This is my house,” I said. “I built it myself.”

“Why is there so much junk everywhere?”

“Those are just memorables,” I said. “So I remember things.” Then I said, “How can you see all the junk?”

“By looking,” he said.

I didn’t say anything. I walked into the kitchen and pulled two mugs from the cupboards. I poured coffee. I thought about asking if he wanted creamer, but decided to put it in anyway. A man with a glass eye has enough bitterness in life.

“I have your coffee,” I said.

He wasn’t in the living room where I left him. I set the coffee down on the table. I looked in the other rooms but he wasn’t in any. I walked around the outside of the house but he wasn’t there either. I looked up at the sky and then walked around in circles thinking about where this man with the eyepatch could be. I walked up my porch and pushed on the front door.

It was locked.

I rang the doorbell.

I didn’t hear any footsteps approaching before the door swung open. The man with the eye patch stood in my house.

I said, “Hi.” I said, “This is my house.”

He said, “This is my house.” He started to shut my door on me but stopped. He asked, “Would you like to come in?”

(Author: Alex Gates. Story: All Rights Reserved. Photographer: Mislav Marohnić. Image: Some Rights Reserved.)

Blame It on the Lego Gods

BrickZoe warns him not to. He’s always wrecking her things and she’s had enough. There was the colouring book that’s now a scribble of various blues. There was her favourite marble, white and gold, last seen plopping through the grill of the drain. Then there was Tigger, hurled across the room, and how he ended with a splash in the potty. He’s been through the washing machine several times but has lost an eye, and Zoe could still smell pee.

She’s sure her brother does it on purpose, even though Mum leaps to his defence.

“Don’t be mean, Zoe. Let him play. He can’t help that he’s younger than you.”

But it isn’t his age that bothers her; it’s the stupid way he behaves. It’s the stupid way her mum acts when he’s around, and how Zoe always gets the blame.

She digs her hands into her new box of Lego and prays to the Lego gods. For once, please, please don’t let him ruin things.

Mum rushes over when she sees them side-by-side. “Zoe, you know he’s too young for those small pieces. I thought you understood that after the near miss with the marble.”

Zoe glares at her mum’s back as he’s whisked away.

She creates a makeshift Lego wand and waves it at the warm spot where he was sitting. There’s a swirl of blue smoke and a pop. A Lego boy appears, head, hair and blue top. No legs or arms, far too much trouble. At least this time she can blame the Lego gods. But she’s relieved he’s still smiling. She never means to be unkind.

(Author: Shirley Golden. Story: All Rights Reserved. Photographer: Natalie Bowers. Image: Some Rights Reserved.)

Scrawlbabies

Hire PurchaseAfter the Crash, there were a lot of them. More than anyone thought, really. We called ‘em ‘Babies’ because even though they were grown adults, they seemed to only just be getting their bearings in the world. The cyber-addicts, the chatroom junkies, the guys who had been lining up to literally download their minds. They were an invisible demographic until there wasn’t any network binding them together, so we lost track of how many were really out there. A lot of them survived the riots and chaos of those first months, which seems crazy, but most of the fuckers were still just huddled in basements and attics the whole time, more or less paralyzed with the bleak prospect of life without their digital fix.

Most of the proto-cities had already risen and fallen before the Babies started trickling out. You’d catch a look at ‘em while you were out foraging – you’d these guys still wearing t-shirts for some old band and sweat pants or something; the sort of useless clothing people loved when they didn’t worry about the elements much. The Babies didn’t have packs or bags, didn’t have weapons…but they survived because they didn’t have anything worth taking, either. Some of ‘em got lucky and the glorious ‘Restored Republic’ picked them up on a sweep and brought them to one of the communities; but the RR pretty much stopped leaving that land they have in Florida after a few months. Plenty of ‘em died in the year or so after: exposure or disease or wild dogs or who knows what else. Fuck, plenty of ‘em probably couldn’t even manage to feed themselves if they couldn’t find a bag of junk food.

That’s what made it so crazy when we started seeing the scrawl. Everyone figured it was gang signs or something; you still had some roving bands that hadn’t settled into villages yet, but most of them had gotten over the bullshit ‘romance’ of the open road and chosen the whole ‘shelter and food’ thing. The Reclamation hadn’t started yet, but honestly that thing was a joke anyway. Even if we could get the power going in the cities again, no one seemed really interested in it. It’s like we made this subconscious consensus that our new shitty lives were better than what we’d had before. Gotta admit there’s a certain freedom to it all. Of course there’s a certain freedom to shitting in a ditch, too – so I guess we shouldn’t completely rule out goin’ back to the cities someday.

Anyway, the scrawl. We were still makin’ scavenging runs in the cities. Most of the buildings were burned husks but you’d find this and that sometimes; and honestly nothin’ impressed a girl like bringing her home something from a city. Nothing impressed them less than getting your ass damn nearly bitten off by a dog in the city either, just ask my wife. The scrawl was only on stuff like old digital billboards and electricity-hydrants and traffic lights and shit – it was like some kinda mush of graffiti and that ‘hobo code’ shit people started using when they would walk the rails right after the Crash. We ignored it, of course, but then we’d find electric stuff still working and covered in the scrawl. Crazy shit wired together out of car batteries and torn apart computers and even toys. They’d rig it up to make a stoplight start flashing or make a car alarm sound and once I swear to God I saw a fucking remote control car zipping around with a little camera on it. Well it wasn’t long later that the cities started getting dangerous again. You’d hear about whole parties just not comin’ back. You’d see lights, hear noises, all kinds of shit. Wasn’t long before there was electric fences and if you got too close these little red laser-sights would start followin’ you around. Started to be you didn’t just stay outta the cities, you stayed far the fuck away from the cities. The kids thought it was because they were haunted; but we knew better. Some of the Babies managed to grow up.

(Author: Rob Grim. Story: All Rights Reserved. Photographer: Dirk Knight. Image: Some Rights Reserved.)

Napkins, Teacups, Ribbon

JubileeNapkins

Mel has chosen Union Jacks. She’s hoping they’ll say street-parties and bunting; maybe infuse the atmosphere with some goodwill and warmth. She folds each one and lays it on a saucer.

“You can’t make them like us, you know, Mel,” Rob says, watching her smooth out the tablecloth as he prepares to leave for work.

“I know that,” she says. “I’m not trying to make them like us. I’m just trying to make it harder for them not to like Jack.”

She’s sure that they would rather not be coming to her house today. But it was made very clear to her when they moved to the village that “the Britherham Village School Mothers’ Meetings are held in strict rotation.

So this month, no-one can deny it’s her turn.

Teacups

When the doorbell stops ringing, Mel counts just seventeen. Which at least means everyone gets a teacup, and she won’t have to put out mugs.

Every woman milling round her living-diner is the mother of at least one at the village primary. They are all politely pleasant, and one of them gives Mel a noticeably genuine smile. “Hello there, I’m Steph,” she says, giving Mel’s hand an oversized shake. “Thanks for hosting. Here- I’ve brought cake!”

She passes Mel a huge jam sponge with a ribbon tied around it. It prompts a few ripples of “ooh!” in several conversations about how this child and that are doing this term.

No one asks Mel about Jack.

Mel goes to the kitchen to make tea, and stands staring at the small bottle on the high shelf while she waits for the kettle to boil. Her heart always sinks a little deeper when she sees Jack’s name on the label, looking so small next to 5MG TWICE A DAY.

And then she remembers Jack asking her if taking the pills will give him superpowers, and she’s smiling by the time she goes back to the dining room with tea.

There’s a sudden hush as she enters the room. Mandy, a mother from Jack’s class, is sitting with her lips pursed and her eyebrows raised. Mel sees Mandy’s eyes flit briefly to Jack’s school photo on the piano, as if checking that she hasn’t left her words behind on his face.

Mandy sees Mel watching her, and hastily rearranges her gaze onto the piano. “Erm- so who plays?” she says brightly.

“Jack,” says Mel, setting his name firmly in front of everyone along with the teapot. “He plays beautifully. His teacher says he’s very good for his age.”

Mel pours the tea. She tops up the pot. She pours more tea. And teacups are raised to faces, like bone-china masquerade masks.

Eventually Mel stops serving and hides behind her own cup for a while. She spots a chip on the rim, but it doesn’t matter. She knows that behind their masks, no one is looking at her. They’re looking at the little boy who disrupted the Class Assembly last week. Who once bit another child’s arm. Who has to be supervised in the queue for lunch.

Teacups clink on saucers, like awkward coughs in the silence.

And then:

“Bloody lovely napkins,” someone says.

Mel looks up. It’s Steph, the one with the genuine smile. She’s standing at the piano with a napkin in her hand.

“The Union Jack,” Steph continues, gazing at it thoughtfully. “You wouldn’t think it would work, really- all those stripes and sharp wedges crammed together, and all that fierce red and cool blue trying to share the same space.” She places her napkin on top of the piano, looking around at no one in particular. “But of course it does work, and it works very well. Just a little bit of space here and there, where it’s needed, and- voila! It’s bloody marvellous, don’t you think?”

Mel’s face begins to burn, and she stares down at her cup. It starts to feel like a small trophy in her hands.

And then someone says, “Well! Maybe it’s time we all had a piece of cake.”

And then someone else says briskly that “you know, we really ought to be gathering our thoughts for the Christmas Bazaar.” And there’s a gradual blooming of chatter, and a setting down of cups, and a searching of handbags for agendas and pens.

Mel smiles gratefully at Steph, and briefly raises her teacup in a small, silent toast. Steph winks, and then turns away to join a discussion about the raffle.

Mel walks over to the sponge cake on the table. She slips off the cheerful yellow ribbon and slices the cake, as generously as she can.

Ribbon

After they’ve gone, Mel doesn’t clear up. Instead she sits for a while just looking at what’s left: at her dining table, strewn with scrunched napkins and used cups.

It looks just like the table at 42 Pine Drive looked last month, and just like the table at 6 The Grove will look next month.

And for a moment, Mel closes her eyes, trying to feel just what it’s like to be them. No medication in her kitchen, no child therapists in her Contacts, and a sunny, clear future stretching before her like a yellow-brick road.

And then Mel’s eyes are wide open again. Because thinking that way doesn’t last long. It never does.

Mel hums as she begins to clear up the mess; stacking teacups, discarding napkins. The yellow ribbon from the cake is lying stretched across the table, climbing and twisting round saucers and spoons. Mel picks it up and carefully winds it around her fingers. She puts it in her pocket. She’s going to give it, she decides, to Jack.

She’s going to give it to him the next time that he’s running in happy circles round the village green.

She’s going to tell him to hold it up high as he runs, and to let it fly behind him, like a small, bright banner in the wind.

(Author: Jacki Donnellan. Story: All Rights Reserved. Photographer: Natalie Bowers. Image: Some Rights Reserved.)

Breaker

UntitledClouds swept in from the west and the sky turned to soot. There was some thunder, a long way off, that sent part-timers squealing for the shore, for pubs and warm clothes. All the more surf for me. When the rain came, the surface drummed a frenzy of white and grey. It washed the salt off my face. I sat astride the board, swaying with the heft of the Atlantic, and waited for the next wave.

It took me a while to spot him, but someone else had stayed. Fifty metres away, he rose and fell on the swell of water, looking over his shoulder, waiting for a wave worth catching. When I caught his eye, I nodded. He nodded back.

The rain yammered harder, growing to a roar. The big rollers started to pound the beach. He and I rode wave after wave in the relentless rain. We gradually moved closer to each other, though we didn’t talk. He was grizzled, his grey hair cropped close. He wore a rash vest and trunks, rather than a wetsuit, though it was out of season and cold. He rode an old school long board. I hadn’t seen one like it for years. We surfed in silence for an hour.

The waves grew bigger as the tide ran out, sloping up and flooding into monsters. He was a good surfer. He was a great surfer. He caught the big rollers easily, and held his balance as if he rode the board on rails. The sea sluiced out beneath him, washing into foam, and he sank into the water, then turned and paddled back into the break, diving beneath the oncoming waves. I matched him, wave for wave. Sometimes we caught the same water, and I tried to ride it longer than him.

Then came the leviathans. Three metres, four metres high. Honestly, if I’d been alone, I think I would have left for shore. But the old man was fearless, and I was ashamed to be beaten. So I stayed and surfed the monsters. I was riding dragons. Each time I surfed the wave out, I kissed my tiki and gave thanks to whatever dark gods watched over me. Then, with fear and resentment in my heart, colder now and muscles aching, I turned and paddled back to meet the old man. He only grinned and caught another wave. We rode the sea into evening.

As it grew darker, I found myself scared of the surge, the power, the unstoppable catapult of ocean rising against gravity. The waves grew bigger, enraged that we had dared to challenge them. I barely cared about the old man. I rode in fear of my life, but couldn’t bring myself to leave. I was being tested by the ocean. As the light leached from the sky, the waves became black holes, sucking up the sea. I could only outrun them for so long. Eventually, they caught me. I fell, and the Atlantic closed around me in a vice.

I can’t remember much of being underwater. Only the headrush rolling undertow, tumbled and barrelled in a chaos of whitewater and sand. Wave after wave smashed across me, until I thought my lungs would split. When I finally fought my way to the surface, the waves were easing. Heaving for breath, I looked around. Somehow, the rain had stopped. As though appeased by my failure, the waves fell into a steady roll, measured and calm. Night had fallen. The old man was gone. The old man, the man who could surf it all. He’d fallen too.

And he hadn’t come up.

My first thought, God help me, was that I had won.

I searched. I swear I searched. I checked the water, then the beach. I looked for his longboard, his shirt, his body in the breakers. I couldn’t find a thing. I stayed out until the last of the light had sluiced from the sky and only the pull of the waves told me where the sea exhausted itself on the shore.

I meant to ask for him in town, but I never did. And after that, I always meant to move away. I thought I’d travel back to Spain, or get a dry suit and move to Thurso. But I stayed. I’ve surfed the same beach every day since. I can’t even remember how long ago it happened. Out there, embraced by the cold swamping of the sea, I’m no longer sure where I am or what I’m doing. I stand on my board, holding my balance, and lean into the surge of the swell. The sunset fades into a rime of colour. The water slops beneath my board. It sounds like there’s someone with me in the dark, although I know, of course, that I’m alone.

(Author: Simon Sylvester. Story: All Rights Reserved. Photographer: Billy Plummer. Image: Some Rights Reserved.)

Lost Socks

lost socksMy orange Bic lighter flared against the end of my Newport and my eyes flicked to an astonishing sight. Hung in the Virginia evening sky as if it were some big-butt clothesline was a cloud in the shape of a men’s athletic sock. I tugged on my cigarette, but my eyes stayed glued to that cloud.

To my right, the door to the Rinse and Roll Laundromat clanged open and I hoped it wasn’t a customer who needed change or dryer sheets. My break was short enough—fifteen crappy minutes—and I hated when they needed something when I was on my time. Mara came out then, hauling a basket of clean clothes to her Honda, the beat-up jalopy a lookalike for its owner with dings in the driver’s door and the right bumper scraped and separated from the rest of the car. She dropped the pile in the trunk, tightened her messy ponytail and waved. “See you next week, Deedee.”

I nodded back and blew a few smoke rings for entertainment. “Yup, next week. I’ll be here.”

Without fail, Mara did her laundry every Wednesday at five o’clock. She slammed shut the trunk and eased into the car, her ponytail slipping loose again.

Through the laundry’s window, I spotted a woman with half her body leaning into a dryer, likely looking for a lost sock. Did she think the machine had some hidden compartment? As if. She could have at it as long as she didn’t go all the way in, shut the door and take the machine for a personal spin. A group of knuckleheaded frat boys had done exactly that last Saturday night and only my bluffed threat to call the police got them to leave. Even with my scuffed Converses standing on the right side of the law, I didn’t want any contact with the cops.

My gaze shifted back to the cloud. The sock in the sky looked like the same kind that Daddy wore when Lulu and I were kids, the same ones that our dryer hungered for. He used to joke with Mother that the dryer only liked the taste of his socks and none of ours. That was back when Daddy cared enough to make jokes. Back when he still worked for Vandermass Furniture as their top salesman.

After Vandermass fired Daddy, he stopped joking.

A cool April wind wheezed through the parking lot and I rubbed my arm, the left one still crooked around the elbow after it broke when I was twelve. It was Thanksgiving, a few months after Daddy left the furniture company, and he had tossed me across the dining room like I was a rag doll. He said he didn’t like the way I chewed my turkey. Declared I did it in an ungrateful style. I told him that I didn’t know how to chew any other way. If I’d have kept my damned mouth shut, my arm would be straight today.

And if one of Daddy’s socks went missing then, Mother felt it all over her body. One time he got so mad, he kicked in the dryer door.

Eventually, he left us, taking his obsession with missing socks, his punches and fists, his anger at the world, and at us, with him.

“We’re better off without him,” I said to Mother, though my throat burned as if the words had been soaked in bleach.

My sister, Lulu, nodded agreement. I was the older of the two of us and back then she always went along with what I said.

Mother never agreed and was never the same after Daddy left. She blamed his leaving on many things; her most ridiculous theory was in thinking that if she hadn’t lost so many of his socks then he wouldn’t have grown mean and left us. When dryer sheets first came out, she ran over to my apartment, crying, too, and said, “If these had been invented earlier I wouldn’t have lost so many of Daddy’s socks.”

I told her, “Dryer sheets aren’t a cure-all. They make clothes softer. They don’t prevent them from going missing.”

“I think you’re wrong.” Her eyes were set on some far-off place where things would have turned out different. It was a place where she and Daddy would have turned out different.

Customers at the laundromat often wondered where all their socks disappeared to.

I blew smoke rings in the air and said to nobody, “They go up to that giant sock cloud.”

Then I laughed, the kind of good hard laugh that shakes your bones and makes your eyes water. I wondered what Mother would say if I told her I’d found all of Daddy’s lost socks.

She’d surely ask me if I was using again, her voice quivering with worry.

And I wasn’t. I was clean and had my six-month chip as proof. After a few more puffs it was time to go back in, my break was over. I ground the cigarette under the heel of my sneaker and headed inside to check if any of the customers needed anything.

Someone always needed dryer sheets.

(Author: Sharon Kurtzman. Story: All Rights Reserved. Image via pixabay.)

We Make Use of What We Have

CastleShe’s taken many soldiers down the line, but he is the first who can speak French so fluently.

“Studied it in university,” he smiles, accent gratingly perfect. “Along with Latin and literature, and I graduated at the top of my class.”

She doesn’t even bother to try out her English with him.

They sneak through the forest in a winding way, like two deer keenly aware that hunters could be behind any gnarled tree. As a child she would pretend that there were elves and monsters in the woods, bent on kidnapping her until her father beat them back. Now there are worse things, she knows, worse things that have snatched her father away and she is helpless to claim him back. She is helpless, but she can have some measure of revenge when she takes soldiers down the line.

She’s taken gruff men, rough men, and scared men to the castle, an old thing crumbling like stale cake left out much too long. Its walls are ancient and ugly, but they shelter from the wind and eyes. She used to think it was haunted, when she was young. Oh, but she would trade anything to believe in ghosts again!

“We’ll have to wait until Paul returns at first light. He can take you across the border into Spain.”

“Excellent,” he nods, adjusting his bloated pack. “I could do with a rest!”

She cocks her head to the side, curls bouncing with the movement. “You may miss the next boat at this rate.”

“There’ll be another. Besides, ha ha,” he says, grin sheepish, “it’s my fault we’ve dallied.”

“Yes,” she mutters, “it is.”

When they finally set up their provisions beside a stone wall, they each—to the other’s surprise—produce flask from jacket pocket. His has brandy, he says with a tone of pride, the very same he’d left England with. Hers is barely full with the dredges of a Bordeaux found, she explains, in an abandoned barn during her last trip down the line. The bottle neck had been broken and jagged, but miraculously upright. It had only taken cheesecloth to strain the glass shards away.

“Say, that was a good idea!”

“We make use of what we have, don’t we?”

They clink their flasks together.

“If you leave the parachute here, I can destroy it.” She eyes the cumbersome pack on the ground. “I’ll make sure the Boche don’t find it.”

“I’ll keep it, thank you.” He gives her another sheepish grin. “My daughter wants it.”

“She is in the habit of jumping from planes as well?”

“Not at all! She’ll make a wedding dress, she tells me.”

Her eyebrows lift. “That’s… very clever.”

“Gets it from her mother, I assure you.”

“This castle,” she says, looking about their shelter, “was a present as well. A father gave it to his daughter on her wedding day.”

“Oh, is that so? A fine gift.”

“But I think a parachute is much more practical, these days.”

“Ha ha, indeed it is!” He nods to the tarnished ring on her left hand. “And what did your father give you?”

Her smile falters. “Nothing. He’s buried somewhere in Charleroi, we think.”

“Ah. I see.” He clears his throat, lifts his flask. “Cheers, then, to your father.”

“To your daughter,” she sighs, raising her meager wine. “May she have a lovely gown.”

He takes a long drag, wipes away a brandy droplet with the back of his arm. “We make use of what we have.”

“Yes, we do.”

(Author: Kris Weldon. Story: All Rights Reserved. Photographer: Natalie Bowers. Image: Some Rights Reserved.)