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Joey Fitzpatrick joey 2

Our reviewer for the July Writing Challenge was Joey Fitzpatrick, a Halifax-based writer, recently retired from The Chronicle Herald. He can be reached at dukeyboat@hotmail.com

For the moment that’s as much of a profile as he has offered. However, on closer examination it is learnt that he was until recently an Editor at the provincial newspaper and is experienced in traditional and online journalism, newspaper writing, feature writing, story telling, creative writing and editing among a host of other skills. He has provided our entrants with much-appreciated feedback.

The choices for the writing challenge for July-August were as follows:

– Describe the last nightmare you had.

– People must not look outside at night from 3 AM to 6 AM. Children are often kept in windowless rooms and adults often wear blindfolds during sleep to avoid incident.

– The evil super villain and the hero are siblings. They still have dinner at Mom and Dad’s house for the holidays.

– It seemed like a good idea yesterday…

– Nobody else is awake.

– Write a story that will make me afraid of the dark.

– Write a story that starts with a word you pick out of the dictionary at random – in this case please state the word in the prompt line.

I am delighted to report that we had eight entries. And here are the stories in the order received.

A Believable Nightmare

by Noor AlNoaimi

Describe the last nightmare you had. (This is not the last nightmare though.)

We were instructed to stay inside, but we never listened to anything they said. They; my aunts and mother, women like children, were ordered to do the same and so did not merit any of our youthful respect. I recall the vision in a blur of grey and sand. The TV was unreadable, an old 80’s model that failed to catch any signals and provide much entertainment, so we sought to entertain ourselves. It wasn’t the best of times, Kuwait and Iraq were at war and thus we were told that the air outside still contained the sickening fragrance of the offshore missiles. We sneaked out of a window in the corner room anyway. The windows were sealed, and we had to pry the tape off in order to escape- My cousins and I. There were three of us attempting our rebellious adventure- None of us really understood what war was, but it did not look good. Nobody acted like themselves, and instead started talking about people we never heard of- a name did reoccur, I think he had a ‘Bush’ of some sort.

I saw my cousins grinning below me, motioning for me to follow which I excitedly did- We barely reached the main gate then, for suddenly my eldest cousin stopped, his gaze towards a khaki colored jeep filled with people. I don’t know why, but we were all afraid of them- The men inside were armed, their countenance did not look friendly when it met ours, and I did not think they were beyond shooting us where we stood.

I heard my uncle’s voice then, I don’t remember what he said but I recall his tone, he was so fierce- we children imagined him transforming before our eyes into a dangerous lion, Instead he drew a gun- I did not see it initially- but he shot it, not towards them but to the sky. We’ve been momentarily struck deaf by it’s after effects despite the good distance between us and his weapon. I watched as the jeep fled leaving behind clouds of dust, and my uncle; giving us a good whiff of what our aunts meant about the smell of war.

I never really understood that dream, and I wish I could remember what my uncle said to them- We were very young during the war, but even so- Our sleep was still disturbed by it.

By the Lake

by Shalini Vaghjee
It seems like a good idea yesterday…

During summer holidays, we always went to my grandmother’s house far from the hustle and bustle of the city. That year, things were quite different though. I had lost my grandmother and my father just few months Earlier… But I knew that I had to take a break to that house where we have been spending our summer for the last nineteen years…

My mother would come a bit later with my sister and her newborn baby girl. Mixed feelings from the intense sadness of the loss of my father and grandmother but a deep joy for my sister who’s dream came true in the form of this angel she recently gave birth too… How happy dad and grandma would have been…
I took the train and then walked through the forest as we did in the past. But somehow the forest looked denser and even the house looked further away… Finally I saw the beautiful cottage next to the blue lake. I felt happy and all the tiredness vanished away… I ran to the house… Oh! Grandma was not here anymore to welcome me with her huge hug, so I took out the keys and opened the door…

As I entered, beautiful memories of giggling and the nice aroma of grandmas favorite pie came to me. The house had been closed since grandma fell unwell and moved to our place in the city for her treatment. The house desperately needed a good make over and I decided to dust and clean the house as our newborn princess would be here for her fist visit. I opened all the windows to let the fresh air and beautiful sunshine in. Then I went to fetch water from the lake, cleaned the house and two hours later, the sun was down. I had some sandwich which I brought and then crawled on the couch and fell asleep.

Few hours later, I suddenly woke up and wondered where I was. Of course I’m in grandma’s house, nothing to worry. But something felt awkward. I looked outside to see the dark night with hardly any stars. This was very rare.. Could it be cloudy? But the sky was blue during the day and here it had never rained during summer. Something was weird. I switched on the lights and to my dismay, blood was oozing out from my skin. I tried to rub my arms and body. But more blood continued oozing out. I felt something crawling on me, clinging to my skin and at times I felt being stung by something, but nothing invisible. On my head, in my nose, my ears…  And the blood kept oozing out… I stood on a puddle of blood, my own blood. I was breathless and even though I wanted to shout for help, I knew this was in vain. There were no neighbors for some kilometers and no one ever came on this side. Then I realized that these tiny insects were coming from the window and they clang to the skin to suck the blood out. These insects were microscopic and could be detected by the rays of light only. I desperately tried to close the window but again in vain. Looks like an army of their kind had held the window and I could not close them no matter how hard I tried. I felt dizzy, I did not know what to do, who to call. Then I remembered one of my friends who stayed nearby and quickly sent her a message. My throat was choking, so calling would not be appropriate. But I did let some missed calls on her phone. Then I fainted…

Two days later, I opened my eyes in the hospital. My body was bandaged and I was given an intravenous blood drip. I still felt a bit dizzy but I badly needed to know what happened… There were police officers, forest guards as well as my mother were waiting for me to open my eyes. We learnt that these insects were always in the forest but they never did any harm to people or even animals. However, recently  some bully teenagers came in the area and they destroyed the underground habitat of these tiny insects. These were inevitably enraged and since then they started attacking men and animals. Once they attack someone, they left the body only when all the blood had oozed out. These insects did not depend on blood nor they like human flesh. They did it only as a revenge to what these teenagers had done to their family. We learnt that they came only at night and windows need to remain shut, not like earlier… I guess opening the window at night to enjoy fresh air seems like a good idea yesterday… But not anymore…

Forever

by Mike Rollins

Nobody else is awake in this dark half of the world but we two, it seems, as I sit beside his bed through the hours that God forgot. And then there is only me.

I rang my brother as early as I thought fair, and he knew as soon as he heard my voice.

“When did he… go?” John couldn’t bring himself to say die. Guilt? I don’t know, but they had not spoken for more than two years now. And John had been Dad’s favourite. But I was the one who had been looking after him: Living with the rages and the stony silences; putting the fires out; apologising for his behaviour.

“One this morning. I didn’t see any point in waking you. It’s not like it was an emergency.”

*

I had no idea at the time what it was that caused the rift between them. They had always got on well. Dad was hardest on the eldest: You guessed it. He never hit me though. He would ground me, take away my stuff. He once burned my football boots because I made the girl next door cry. I couldn’t believe it: I didn’t make her ugly, I just confirmed it for her.

Mum had died when we were young boys. I barely remember her. She is just a presence that lingers in a certain room at a certain time. There and gone. I grew up thinking that Dad hated the world because she died, until at fourteen I saw him through the partly opened door of his bedroom, holding a picture of her and crying like a child; noiseless sobs that were all liquid sighs and short breaths. I realised then that he was a mean bastard because of love, which made it easier to understand. It didn’t make him any easier to live with.

*

Our fight at the funeral might have been less of a spectacle if it had been a cremation, and if it hadn’t been raining for three days.

It started as the coffin was being lowered. I happened to murmur, ”And don’t come back.” I know; not the nicest thing to say, but my life had been hell these past few years, looking after him with no real respite… I suppose it just all welled up in me right there, right then.

John swung at me, missing my jaw as he slipped on the mud and hitting me on the shoulder. I had been wanting to smack him one for a long time and got in a good one as he skidded past me. Up on his feet, covered in mud, he charged at me. We tumbled into the hole and Dad’s coffin broke beneath us, the cheap wood splintering.

We lay there in Dad’s grave, the rain pelting down on us, the funeral party staring,, as silent as they’d been during the service. John’s body suddenly convulsed above me, starting to shake: I thought he was crying. I was wrong. He raised his head, rolling on to his side, and I saw that he was laughing; laughing so hard that tears were mingling with the rain and the mud streaking his face.

That started me off. We lay there and howled our laughter at the grey sky.

As we walked across the stone garden, John leaned into me. “I stopped speaking to him when he found out I was having an affair. He was so disappointed in me, James; I couldn’t look him in the eye. It was over in a few weeks but I just couldn’t face him.”

*

We went for a drink later and talked about how much we loved Dad.

Nobody Else Is Awake

by Preeti Rana

Nobody else is awake.

It’s the chirping of the birds as always.

They hold up the dawn by their beaks. For me. Close to the window so I can see better. I can see better. I am so close. To the pane.

Something about the night has remained both sides. One side my breath frosts the warm glass. On the other side, I see bits of grass on the sill. The night wore green too. Or the bulbul must have stopped construction to peer in.

A laden cloud has rubbed the scent of rain against our window.

The breeze blows nothing new. Today holds the same as all the recent yesterdays. I must go. I need to change. The way you look at me. That look that you know. But won’t tell, spells difficult words. All the plans I’ve been whispering to you. You barely nod anymore.

Once before you looked at me that way. All those years back. And I hadn’t cared. Unbound by you knowing. I was so young. At heart. He had leaned across, hadn’t he, in the light of our dinner table, to listen. To me speak. He pushed aside my careful narrative with all my references of you, family, kids. With that deep hooded look. It doesn’t matter who you are, he had said. What matters is what you want to be.

Maybe he never said it. It could have been all me. Imagining those sparkling eyes as telling.

But they were intoxicating thoughts, worded, imagined. They held me those years. As if by my waist. Carrying me over hills and valleys and I saw views from impossible mountain peaks. You wouldn’t tell me I had gone insane. You hid every mirror that could reflect the insanity in my eyes. Thank God, I began to paint. Everyone, so relieved they had my art to politely applaud. Draw attention away from my madness. You made sure I never ran out of sheets and paints.

I see that night. Me sitting by this window. In my paint splattered apron. It was the first time in a long while you saw my tears roll. Form and roll. Instead of asking what the matter was you said to me “come back to bed”.

As if you didn’t need to ask. I told you I want to leave, that night. “I cannot stay or function around you”. Oh, I said that, didn’t I. You held my hand and took me back to bed. Tucked me closer to you. Held me till I slept.

He was gone. Long gone. Like any passer-by. Or a traveller, leaving behind things he didn’t need.

Or they would have come back for it.

I kept them in poems and aquarelles. But he was gone from it all. What remained held only me.

You almost knew my story. One talks about leaving to those who stay close forever. ‘I don’t love you’ are words said to those you do. It tore my heart as I said it. And you only attended to my wound. I love you. My darling.

You never left my side.

Even today it’s me who has left yours. I must return to you. Jaan. Jaan. Why can’t you hear me? Wake up. This glass. How do I return, how can I get back in. Why can’t you hear me? I’m cold again. I long for our warm bed. The way I fit in your embrace.

I am in a fall. Falling from this height is a flight. There is a fierce velocity against my flesh. No. My bones. No. Against me. I am dissolving. I see a chasm form between us. It spreads like an ink blot, my love.

You still hold my hand. Head back and asleep in my reading chair.

The babies we made on the sofa, that rug.

Asleep under the blanket of morrows. Surrounded by your books. Under our roof. Oh, look at her. Isn’t she lovely. Her heart will crush into a million pieces as this sun rises. No one would see the mosaic lines. Except us. The lightest blow could make it crumble. And she’ll build a fierce protective shell. Oh, let the heart chip with use my darling. Tell her that. Tell her now. Oh, I should have.

And look at him. Our crown prince. You have taught him to resolve with restrain. At the eighteenth hole, when he thinks no one is watching I know he will cry. And there will be no one to wipe his tears. Oh, my gentle boy. Hold him till he cries on your shoulder. Hold him now.

I wish I could breathe just one more breath.

It’s late yet only now I am awake.

Nobody Else is Awake

by Renjith P Sarada

Nobody else is awake”, that was the thought which crossed my mind intermittently when I was lying on the bed, awaiting the Goddess of Sleep to bless.

“Am I the only person who is awake in the midst of darkness at this point in time?”

“Why am I unable to sleep despite a long and tiring walk a few hours ago?”

“Why am I bereft of the much-needed five-letter word, ‘sleep’?”

“Why nobody else is awake?”

A chain of questions radiated out of my head and persuaded me to find out the corresponding answers. But, I was clueless.

I looked at the wall clock. I could barely see the time despite the fussy night lamp. The time was around two in the morning.  Felt glad to know that the night lamp, like me, was also awake – perhaps beseeching the goddess’ blessings.

I stared at my wife who was sleeping like a baby. I felt jealous.

“When would I be able to sleep like this?”, I pondered. I tried my best to contain the fact that one can sleep serenely along with another person who is deprived of it – both, under the same roof.  I got off the bed and switched on the fluorescent lamp, with a deliberate intention to disturb the sleeping beauty. After an inaudible grumble, she turned towards the other side of the light and resumed her slumber.

Let me elucidate further. I have got nothing to do with insomnia or sleeplessness or any kind of jargons indicating a sleep-deprived condition, from a medical standpoint.

What has taken the sleep out of me was a recent comment made by someone who or what shouldn’t have been of any concern to me.    Because, the “someone” being referred here is someone who is a friend of my son’s classmate’s neighbour.

I was meeting him for the first time in my life – that too during a wedding reception of someone else who was equally far from me in all aspects.   As a courtesy, I was introduced to this “someone” by my son’s classmate’s father as we all happened to share the same dining table.

Being strangers to each other, this “someone” had no business to comment on something which was very personal.   Because, that off-the-cuff comment of his, which he might have thought as a casual pleasantry was strong enough to take my sleep away for a couple of days thereafter.

Is this your son?” – even a blind person had once told about the striking resemblance between my son and myself – but not sure of the mannerisms and/or thoughts whether they match perfectly. Though I was vexed by his opening shot, I nodded with an affirmative answer without showing any displeasure.

The next was the googly (in cricket terminology) which snatched my sleep away.

“Was it a late marriage?”.

 “What”?, I grimaced, but asked myself. On hearing the unprecedented question posed by “someone”, the person who introduced me also started to turn pale – reminding me of the litmus test which I had learnt during my high school days.

“What he had to do with my marriage – if it had happened later or earlier?”,  I wondered.   In a fraction of a second, I could make out where he was coming from.   I recollected that he was looking at my more-salt-less-or-almost-no pepper hair while talking to me.

To speak the truth, he was far better than many others from a diplomatic perspective. I recall many who put it straight at my face asking why am I not “dyeing” (in proper contextual meaning, and not in the meaning of its rhyme, of course).

“Oh! I hate anything artificial. Moreover, I am dead against dyeing. Scientifically, you know, the chemicals used in dye making are hazardous……”, I smiled and changed the topic towards some current affairs – both national and international.

Bringing my thoughts back, I looked at the mirror and stared at the reflection of my head.

“True, my head has become very rich – from black metal to silver”.

 I was tempted, but stood confused – whether to dye or not to dye!  

 Because, I knew it was not at all going to be an easy game for me to get into the habit of dyeing, as I had been a strong anti-dyeing advocate, at home. Many a time, I had efficaciously argued against my wife and other people who either supported or sported dyeing. And throughout the debate, for the sake of it, I used to give lectures on the drastic side effects of dyeing based on true or untrue scientific reasons and also throwing “gyan” on made up stories about people in far away countries who lost hair and complexion due to excessive dyeing. The demography of these protagonists were ideally chosen to avoid any follow up by the opponents, especially my wife who is an expert in using Google and making use of other reliable sources.

I sat down at the corner of the bed, contemplating.

Then, I decided.  Yes, I decided to swim against the tide – but on a safer route.   I wished not to be paraded by those who were put paid to my arguments whenever they see me with glossy black/brown hair.

Before executing the plan, I prepared my own points justifying as to why I changed my mind and started dyeing. Having convinced, I concluded that there is nothing wrong in my decision. I had been voicing against dyeing, or rather against applying “artificial” colors and paints – definitely not henna.   So, nobody would have the guts to blame me for violating my argument points or call me a hypocrite if I do a henna treatment on my hair. Moreover, henna is natural.

I remembered spotting henna powder in the ‘things to buy’ list a week back, but was unsure whether it was bought and if so, whether it was black or brown. Without making much noise, I rummaged around my wife’s vanity bag. Thankfully, I could get hold of a packet of powdered henna – and that too, having the label ‘100% Natural Henna”.

For a systematic execution, I came out to the TV room where the lighting was better than bedroom. I read the instructions on the pack many times to ensure that I am not doing any mess-up with my hair, consequently affecting my face.  I looked at the list of ingredients mentioned – all were written in biological names – felt quite agnostic, but were solid enough to substantiate my justification.

“Soak the powder for 4 to 6 hours and then after applying the paste on hair, leave on for 3 to 4 hours”.

I looked at the clock. The time was almost three.

 “Oh! my God!   If I go by the instructions word-by-word, the process would not be completed even by lunch time the next day”, I thought.

Not thinking any further of pros and cons, I cut opened the packet, made up the henna paste with utmost confidentiality by getting in to the bathroom. In line with the instructions, I added a few drops of vinegar to get some highlighting. After the mixing was done, I sadly realized that I had partially tanned the wash basin by spilling the colourful paste inadvertently! I feared of the consequences that are bound to happen the next morning, when the sleeping beauty gets up.   I sprung into action to clean the bathroom at half past three – something I had never done in all these donkey years!! What a plight at night!

I waited patiently in the bathroom itself, for the paste to set in.    Feeling bored, I came back to the bedroom and lied down beside my wife without disturbing her sleep. Moreover, I wanted to give her a surprise the next day morning by posing a different look and feel!  I envisioned my potential appearance, and how everybody would be complimenting me for the new look. After waiting impatiently for an hour, I examined the paste and confirmed that the same is good to go.

“Goodness!, There are no hand gloves available. If I use my hands, I would end up like an Indian bride aftter a Mehendi/Henna ceremony”.

As a stopgap arrangement, I made use of a plastic carry bag – transformed it to a hand glove, applied the henna with much enthusiasm (like how the floors of traditional houses were coated with cow dung during pre-technological era).

I saw my reflection on the mirror – I looked ugly – which I presumed as a precursor to the imminent handsomeness.   After applying henna on the head, I covered it using the same carry bag and tied it with a rubber band.   Due to lack of experience, I could not paste adroitly thereby spoiling the bathroom floor.   I sprung into action again – cleaning the bathroom, the second time in a span of two hours.

After the cumbersome exercise, I found it prudent not to get out of the bathroom thereby spoiling the floor of bedroom too, because I had no fascination to do cleaning any more.

I decided to stay put in the bathroom. As I had nothing else to do, I read all my pending official mails on the phone. Feeling discomfort, I decided to forget all the instructions and clean off the hair without waiting for even an hour.   I was unsure about the henna stains while washing as I did not wish to clean the bathroom for the third time in a row.  So, I took off a trickle from the head, put it on the floor and confirmed no stains remained when I washed it off with running water.

Good to go !

I took off the carry bag from the head, opened the shower and stood underneath. The colors washed off from my head through my face. I felt breathless for a while, but managed to finish the shower quickly.

Anxiously, I looked at the bathroom mirror.

“Awesome!”    All the white strands on the hairs had vanished.   I looked much younger. I came off the bathroom, dried my hair and combed it with perfection.

Oh! my God!”   I looked at the mirror again after switching on all the available lights.

I literally screamed.

This reflex of mine awakened my wife who got up from her sleep with a jolt, screaming likewise. I got a shock of my life and that made me scream again.

She looked at my face helplessly.

“What is this?? What have you done with your hair??”

Shame! I looked like a peacock, with only brown feathers. My head had turned completely brown as if my head was varnished.   I didn’t know what to do. As I lacked expertise to reverse the wrongdoing, I kept quiet.   I knew that I would be a laughing stock in the office if I go in this peacock design!

I asked my wife to suggest a remedy before the day breaks. She told me that the only quick and effective choice left was to use a black dye to cover up the brown shade – but she was unsure whether the henna stains would remain or not.

I envisaged as to how I would be in my office attire the next morning – white shirt, blue trousers, black & brown hair.

“No way! Its ridiculous. It is against my ethics. Moreover, the dye is having lot of chemicals ….”. With a typical facial expression, I was stopped abruptly by my wife handing over a sachet of black dye, which obviously contained artificial colors and chemicals.

Hesitantly, I applied the dye, waited for another hour, washed it off and came out of the bathroom – just to find my wife sleeping calmly as if nothing had happened.

I looked at the mirror.

“Not bad! Yes, I am looking much younger. Why was I against this magic all these years?”

I felt like singing a romantic song in my rough voice.

Luckily, nobody else was awake.

 “Nightmares?”

by Michelle Schultz

The last nightmare I had involved eating out at one of my favorite coffeeshops. My husband and I had arranged to meet with friends I hadn’t seen in a while the week before, so I had been looking forward to it. Our schedules didn’t often mesh with work taking my husband or our friends late into the evening with no warning, so it was a pleasant surprise that everyone was able to come and no one had to cancel at the last minute.

As I had come to expect, the coffee was wonderful: nutty, earthy, or faintly floral depending on the type that I chose. The desserts were hopelessly decadent but large enough to share, so share we did. The subdued music piped through the speakers upstairs covered any silences in the conversation, but I had plenty to discuss with these lovely individuals. We talked of everything except politics; we’d all had enough of that cropping up in our Facebook feeds. I learned that one of my friends was taking vacation soon, and another was strongly considering adopting a cat. As I was always eager to talk with other cat people, I made a note to ask in the coming days if the adoption had worked out.

I only knew two hours had passed because of my watch. It was almost ten at night by the time we had to call it a night. Time had flown, leaving me with that disorienting feeling I get when I’ve stopped focusing so much on making charming small talk and worrying about the next interesting thing I’m going to say. Instead I just let the conversation take me where it wanted, and it had gone beautifully.

I drove us home, the windows down to let the humid air make enough of a breeze to cool me. For a summer night, it was surprisingly pleasant. Maybe I was adapting to the climate here after all.

Given the hour, my husband and I only took a few minutes to pet the cats before readying for bed. It was quiet in the house, and the neighbors in the houses on either side were somnolent as well. You would hardly know anyone else lived in our compound given how peaceful it could be at night.

I lay down in bed, tired enough in a pleasant way from so much conversation, that I didn’t need to read like I usually did before going to sleep. My books were safe on the nightstand as I turned to study the insides of my eyelids instead. I felt the familiar bump as one of our cats bumped my feet before settling down to sleep on one ankle. I could feel his purr in my bones as I drifted asleep.

I blinked awake minutes or hours later. The room was dark, no curtains cracked like I used to do. My feet were cold and devoid of cats.

I turned my head, barely able to make out our dark pillows against the pale bedspread, but my husband’s pillow was empty. He must have gotten up to use the toilet and woken me. I rearranged my pillow and turned over, waiting for him to come back because he’d only wake me up again if I fell asleep.

The silhouettes on the other side of the bed were wrong. I realized that his side of the bed was neat, as if it was still made up. How odd for him to make the bed when he was coming right back.

I sat up and shook the cobwebs out of my head. I leaned forward, half-climbing out of bed to look down the hallway outside the door.

It was as dark and lightless as our bedroom.

No water ran in the bathroom, no whir came from the fan running, and no one stubbed their toe in the dark as they came back to bed.

The room was suddenly too quiet. The lack of sound was like an annoying buzz in my ears, static to fill in the empty spaces that was far too loud once you could sense it.

My husband hadn’t been home for weeks. Work had taken him out of the country, and he was supposed to have been home this week, but those things often changed.

How had I forgotten? What a bizarre, utterly mundane dream to leave me so confused. It was just like last year after my aunt died, when I dreamed of talking to her on the phone only to wake up and realize that the memory of that conversation wasn’t real.

Had I even met with our friends tonight? I strained to recall, but their faces were a blur. I couldn’t remember where we had gone. I couldn’t even tell whether I had met my husband’s coworkers or my friends from church. What had we talked about? Babies? The news? Those things were always coming up in conversation, but nothing seemed familiar.

My imagination must be having a rough time if this was the best dream it could come up with: uneventful conversations with people I already knew in which nothing changed. My muses must be bored. I should make a note to read some more interesting books.

I reset my phone to play nature sounds and lay back down to sleep.

I had a meeting that morning for the monthly women’s gossip session, or at least, that was how I thought of it. Ostensibly it couldn’t all be about women since men could come too, but most often, only women showed up to share what workout they were currently obsessed with because it was the greatest thing ever invented and solved their myriad, highly specific, and trendy health problems when combined with this very particular diet tailored to their genetic heritage, their environment, and the supplements available to them in this location.

I drank black coffee given my bad sleep the night before and sat on the fringes of the latest group to convert to cross-fit/Paleo, or was it Paleo/yoga? Were those regimens even compatible? It didn’t matter. I knew enough vagaries to talk about either if someone asked my opinion. It wasn’t important that I share my experiences so much as ask more about theirs. It was the same with babies: ask the moms questions because deep down, they don’t want to talk about you. Nobody does.

Once my requisite hour was up socializing with the other ladies, I left the room with a excuse about needing to get to my errands. I promised to meet some of them later that week for coffee or lunch so we could discuss the work that we had originally met up to talk about.

I called my husband/rescuer once I got out of sight and asked where he was. Fortunately, he had just finished up some paperwork and was free to drive me home given the heat outside.

I had to wait outdoors so I didn’t run into any of the ladies I had just abandoned, and the heat made me sleepy by the time my husband’s car appeared. On the way home, I just closed my eyes to block out the sun.

When I opened them, it was dark and I was lying down.

I flinched, kicking out and catching only bedcovers. Bedcovers?

I turned my head to get my bearings, but it was as dark as the inside of a black hole and probably just as quiet… unless planets or comets screamed as they were crushed to death, in which case it was probably as noisy as that pregnant silence that filled my ears like a wasp humming.

Once I realized it was my pillow under my head, I almost smiled in relief.

Wow, the muses really were dying of boredom. Now I was being treated to reruns of the last year of my attempts to socialize with other ladies before ultimately giving that up. With only slight variations, that dream could have been any one of a year’s worth of pointless coffees and lunches.

“Sorry,” I said just to break up the quiet as I turned over. I reached out to poke my husband’s shoulder and apologize for probably waking him up with my kicking about.

The shapes were all wrong.

His side of the bed was made up, which was odd. Why would he waste the time if he was coming right back to bed? Had he gone to pick up one of our cats as he sometimes did if he heard it meowing in the hall?

The silence in the room became the slow grinding of gears as my brain caught up with the rest of me.

My husband had been gone for over a month. There was no one here or in the hall.

I flinched anew. Why did this feel so familiar?

Wait, hadn’t I already had this dream? Or a dream? Hadn’t it too been utterly normal, as if I was spending time with friends or acquaintances that used to live here?

My phone hadn’t rung in days if not weeks. No one was calling me to arrange dinner with my husband and me. I hadn’t gone to a ladies’ meeting in over a year.

I lay back down after glancing at the clock. I still had hours to sleep.

“Did you bring the game?” my friend asked as I entered his apartment.

“It couldn’t be anything else in a box this big,” I said, hefting the giant bag holding my favorite card game and one I was eager to teach this group. “I didn’t have time to cook—“

“That’s okay. We were just going to order in this time,” my friend interrupted, closing the door behind me. “Have a seat. Coffee’s in the kitchen, beer’s in the fridge, take what you will.”

“Thanks,” I said as I set the box with the others at the table. I looked around at the familiar faces without being able to put names to any of them. My memory for faces was pretty bad when I’d only met them once, so this was normal enough.

I sat down.

“Hi, everyone,” I said, grinning although it felt a little manic. “I… um, I wanted to show you all my favorite game, the one you asked about last time.”

“Sounds good,” one friend said. “I looked it up. Apparently it won some Euro game award recently.”

“You’ll see why,” I said, opening the box with help from two others at the table. They started removing packs of cards without my asking, eager to get started.

“Did you want something before we start playing?” my other friend asked, standing up slightly.

“That’s alright. I just… want to show you how to play. So we can all play,” I said, my throat closing up around the words.

What was wrong with me?

“One sec. Allergies,” I said, waving a hand before leaving to find the bathroom and some tissues. My eyes were all scratchy too, so I leaned down to splash water on my face. “I’ll be right back. I’m not going anywhere. Please don’t go anywhere.”

I opened my eyes.

It was dark, and the room was quiet.

How funny, to dream of something so mundane. I had been showing… Steve, right? I had been showing Steve and some others how to play my favorite game. My husband hadn’t been there that time, but he would come to our next game night now that he was home.

Wait. I’d had this dream already. Now the dreams were Technicolor mundanity, complete with solicitous friends and eager listeners and clear dialogue. How completely unlike real life.

I checked my phone. The last message I’d had from Steve was from almost two months ago.

I put the phone down. It was still a few hours to dawn. My nature sounds had stopped playing, and the quiet was bothering me again. I turned so I could at least stare at my husband’s back.

The shadows were all wrong.

I sat up on one side and put out a hand. The blankets were all still tucked in, the pillow cold.

My husband had been gone for months. How had I…?

Dammit.

The Nightmare

by Sara Madan

Stranded on the side of the road not a single car had passed by…

My car had broken down in the foggy mist of nowhere. Trying my mechanical skills would be a death wish because I had none. My phone was dead. I decided to walk and find some form of life. I scavenged a flashlight from the dashboard and some left over snacks to keep me going. The foggy mist grew weary to the point I felt I was deep in clouds. The cold kept clinging to my skin like a death trail. I was alone and lost…

I had walked for almost an hour and half. Neither the fact that no vehicles had passed by, nor any sighting of a living form did not bury my confidence, I kept going. Then out of the blue, I saw something like a road sign in a far of distance. As I drew closer, the sign read “Silent Hill population none”. I thought, could this be a joke? My curiosity was begging me to unravel this fact, could it be true? Or was it a prank? Curiosity got the best of me as I moved forward and finally saw the shadows of the town in the distance.

I had finally arrived, the fog disappeared and the view was crystal clear. Houses and buildings were burnt down and I could hear faint groaning and rustling from the ruins. The trees had ghostly look and fearfully strange. As I moved further down I came across a mysterious town hall which was intact without any destruction. I decided to enter and find any signs of life that could help to fix my car. I was getting late and I am sure my parents were looking out for me. As I lunged open the door, I saw a shadow on the other side of the hall, I called “is anyone there? No answer, so I made my way to the other side of the hall, the shadow re-appeared it was skinny like a skeleton of an old man the only thing that was live was his fiery eyes. He had a crooked grin for a smile and as he spoke I could see his guts through his mouth. I asked him about the town, his reply was “welcome to hell”. My heart began to beat as he described how the foggy and misty road was the entrance to hell and that I had passed out at the side of the road in a horrific car accident. How could he have known about the road accident? Panic crept into my chest….you are dreaming…I try to assure myself and manage to cling on to that futile hope.

I whisper to myself…… am I really dead? My heart pounded furiously.

Where am I?

I eyed the portraits which were from the ceiling to floor, wall to wall; of people I knew, like my granddad and neighbours who had passed away long ago. I wondered why their portraits were here in this mysterious burnt out town. All of a sudden when the clock struck 12 midnight (that’s what I sensed), I heard someone whisper my name and then, simultaneously, all the portraits on the wall came alive. To my horror they were all disfigured faces staring at me, trying to touch me I turned to run out of the building to escape but the door was no more there, the creatures tried to claw into me, I futilely tried to escape, but my knees buckled the creatures were upon me, they said “it’s time to say goodbye” , I was choking in agony , blood oozing from my eyes, when I woke up screaming in cold sweat and my grandma holding me, whispering …it is only a dream, you are safe now.

A Life in Darkness

by Noor Nass

The dark as an adjective means with no light. The word dark as a noun means the absence of light in place. When the almighty created the earth, the earth was nothing but pitched black to the deep. The blackness to the creator was like a white page to the writer. There was nothing in that darkness not even a letter or a vowel in place. Like a blank paper ready to be written on, it was waiting to draw something.

To get the writer to be in character then he must write. Just like the creator used darkness and made light for things to be found and became a creator. Therefore, the writer must write to find the written word and be a writer.

Let that word be a story of darkness that took over my life, since I can recall. And, to find the light I had to walk the same path that I rejected over and over again.

I grew up with a 10% functional mother when I was a child. And, just because darkness took over her life.

She did not see life the way her children did or the way her husband did. As much as she was in darkness, the reality of the life we view today only made sense with a few words to her. Like “I am your mother” and “G’d is going to curse you and revenge me”. I lived with that threat constantly.

Growing up in the uptown of the East of the Island, when I was in second grade she hit me up harshly for telling her that I studied and got a 60% pass on one my subjects. She took the degree and shoved it in my face and kept on verbally repeating where is the study you studied. Then the verbal humiliation became physical, she took her heavy hands and slammed it on my 35 KG body.

First, she aimed to my arms, then she took her hands and slammed me on top of my legs- the thighs. And, last to the side way of my body. I was so bruised that you can see the purple effect on my skin.

I went running to my room locking the door behind me. I was saved by her big body that couldn’t keep up with me running around the room escaping her lashes, or my fate would have been worse.

My dad came back from work and found me that night crying myself to sleep and asked me what went wrong. And, I told him the story with showing the scars from the effects of the slams. We could tell, me, my dad, and my family that something was not right with this woman. As a child, I would be forgotten a few times after school due to her long naps and delusional state in the other world.

My mother wouldn’t work. Although she came from a well-off family that owned their own restaurant, and sent all brothers to western educational colleges. And, her sisters sent all their children to private schools for a British education. They would only allow a marriage to happen with their blessings to their offspring’s and siblings. Such as if the Man was not taught, did not work and did not pray five times a day, then it’s pointless to ask. In other words, a rocket science with no moon.

On the other hand, she dedicated herself to raise the children up instead of perusing a college degree. And as we grew older she perused a diploma degree in children’s education. Which, of course I can only remember her when it came time for food or visiting the evil castle of her sisters.

I tried to be a good child by listening to her but nothing she said would benefit me socially, emotionally, educationally, or physically. Her approach was always to serve her and to please her or I will be cursed because mothers hold the keys to heaven and I don’t.

of course, a lot of my friends do not get why I did not spend time with my mother or why I was so mean about it. Perhaps, what I could not understand about her mental situation made me in so much darkness.

Most people would go with just the feeling to be with a parent, I had to go with sympathy, apathy, guilt, forced kindness, obligations and duty. Her situation was difficult and because of social taboos her sisters and her would say there was nothing wrong. To the extent that they believed their own lies. Which is not a bad way of living but the planets will still not grow in my garden and that’s why it was a problem for me.

When I can see her speak to herself in the other world, fantasizing a different husband while she is in a marriage. Every family opportunity was invested on fighting with my father for torturing her to be on medication that are not working.

Then, it will move for his delusional understanding of the working environment, then it will move about how he should not talk about her Lebanese family. The woman used to make up fights and make up gossips that never happened. She cuts out family ties because she insists that my Aunt spoke behind her back when my aunt was in middle school. I was cursed with living with the devil’s creation, it was darkness like hell on earth.

On top of it we were brought up in a modern, Arabic setting where we relied on our parents to set the path for a good block to start our future. Unfortunately, due to the darkness we were in – it was impossible to see the light at the end of tunnel. Except if I meet someone, which I did.

Like an optimist I failed to see the challenges that came with the marriage or some people would say delusions, others would say like a good wife. But that life that made me experience my life for the first time and not force my parent’s life on me lasted until it lasted.

My Armageddon happened, my unexpected happened, and my worst nightmares happened. Like the air breeze stopped blowing my direction and began to mean a different meaning.

The meaning of my husband has altered, the best friend and my rock. That cutty hitting on me in the office while I thought he was separated turned against me. the idea of work, turned into a science experiment in my head. Should I salute the girl that was praying for something along those lines to happen, because I over smiled to everyone.

Mania gave me the feeling of euphoria like an apple falling to the ground at collision with the earth sounded like gravity to me and altered my reality. Like a different parallel world. Except this parallel world felt like a computer scientist that moved as fast as the speed of light to manage my information data.

My life was bummed, it was not like nothing was said and nothing was heard. I ran with my music. like a disease of the mind that held me- there was no place for comfort. Like a thief in the middle of the night that came and grabbed me and my family. To each member their own path. The city of light did not grab us, but religion did. And, it taught us one truth that in the end of darkness there were the pits of hell waiting for the time of our grave. Where it called on us.

To enjoy life, each escaped to their own madness. Except mine became officially true with a pen and a paper. It was dark with no hope. Only to empty my pockets more and ignore my heart, and fill in the pockets of that gold stamp of thee educated person with the convenience of their comfort. No one gave me comfort and no one gave me light, if they tried to pass on the light they would only burn me with it. That included anything I tried to build with that burned light.

I ran for six years in and out of mental institutes, they were painful, harsh and unrealistic. The symptoms of mania would get worse. I would not want to live because I would stop feeling. I would gain weight and be paralyzed .. not to mention sleep all the time. It was obvious it was not working and the more time you gave it. The mental institute would point out how stable I looked. Not to see their own blood on their hands. Like an elephant who was given stabilizers with no purpose to attend to.

The words of wisdom of the world order would not make sense anymore. Except the almighty gave me some truths that the light in my heart kept on fading away as the years passed on and the poisonous torture continued. I found some examples of life and versus helpful and they were: “Ask, and it shell be given to you; seek and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asketh recives; and that seeketh, findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” And, in my world it was “those that peruse will find.” But in reality, I knew from numerous examples in anything someone sets his hearts to shall find the desired outcome. In other words, light decided to shine on my state of darkness. It came as a lovely video stating the new technological evidence of micro-nutrition’s effecting mental health. I couldn’t believe what I heard.

It meant I can walk, talk and look like me. And not like an instrument for the devils and demons. Maybe, with Angels and a G’d.

It was the fifth month being on the doctors advise and no mother or father or a lover shed a tear for what I was feeling. I was in so much physical and emotional pain. I spoke to my father and he placed an order for the micro-nutrition bottle. Of course, being skeptic about the validity of it working. Like dreading the fact that I might come to life again. My order came two weeks after the initial request. I took the bottle from him and went back home. Every day as soon as I wake up I would take some vitamins, and at noon time I would take one again. After four days to one week I felt better. However, It was until I dropped the psychotic crazy drugs that the micro nutrition kicked in the stranger effects. There were hardly any voices, my chemicals felt relaxed and I did not sway with my emotions. As far as everyone is concerned I was experimenting what everyone feels in their daily experience of living on this earth. However, it was until my mind survived over and over the days ahead that I realized that it actually worked. That micro nutrition was able to give my chemicals a natural creation of serotonin to my body that would take me away from my parallel reality. It was not hiding the wounds but it was creating the natural substances of my own tissue. Like my own white blood cells. I finally found the light in my darkness. To remain there would have kept me in darkness; which was painful, would not shut up, would stop, would not rest and with no purpose that is visible in reality or outside of reality. I was scared and all on my own, with no justification but condemnation. It was Dark and I was scared.

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From February to April the Bahrain Writers’ Circle was heavily involved in its annual poetry festival – The Colours of Life, and so there were no challenges.

By the end of April we were somewhat back on track and our challenge was to create a story based on a popular English nursery rhyme.

Our Reviewer – Lynda Tavakoli

Lynda Tavakoli copy

Lynda Tavakoli is a BWC member who is at present back at her home in Ireland, she very graciously agreed to review our entries. Despite a heavy schedule and houseguests, she has given us all some very valuable feedback. Thank you Lynda!

Lynda is an author and poet who divides her time between Bahrain and her native Northern Ireland. She is a special needs teacher and facilitator of adult creative writing classes at The Island Arts Centre, Lisburn. https://www.islandartscentre.com/

Her literary successes include short story and poetry awards at Listowel, http://writersweek.ie/, the Mencap short story competition and the Mail on Sunday novel competition. Lynda’s poems have been included in a wide variety of publications including Templar Poets’ Anthology Skein, Abridged, The Incubator Journal, Panning for Poems, Circle and Square http://www.writing.ie/guest-blogs/its-all-inside-circle-square-edited-by-eileen-casey/ ,the CAP anthologies, The Honest Ulsterman and Live Encounters Poetry Journal (May/July). She was selected as The Irish Times Hennessy poet of the month for October 2015, http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/hennessy-niw.

Lynda’s poetry and prose have been broadcast on both BBC Radio Ulster http://www.bbc.co.uk/radioulsterand RTE Sunday Miscellany. She has written two novels Attachment and Of Broken Things, (David J Publishing, Ireland) and has been the recipient of a number of Irish bursaries.

Lynda has published a number of human interest stories in the British national press on the subjects of breast cancer and senile dementia. She has worked as a volunteer for both Action Cancer and The Alzheimer’s’ Society, UK.

Lynda has facilitated prose recitals to commemorate the anniversary of the sinking of The Titanic and edited the prose and poetry anthology ‘Linen’ for the Irish Linen Museum. http://www.lisburnmuseum.com/

We had four entries for the challenge and are awaiting approval from two of our writers to publish their stories. In the meantime you may enjoy these two:

FRUIT AND NUT

By Nilanjana Bose

The ancient pickup rattled on upward. Anupam handled the vehicle skillfully, avoiding the huge crater-like potholes where the monsoons had washed away the surface, the rains and winds gnawing the mountain road down to bare red earth, a deadly trap for the unwary. One could split an axle clean in two on these roads. He flung the steering to the left and then quickly back to the right to avoid another monster hole and inwardly fumed. A curse on women, particularly Mamon! He threw a sidelong glance to make sure that the three packets he had collected for her sat intact on the back, and heaved a sigh of relief as the road surface improved, allowing him to press hard ahead. It would be dark before he reached home

Anupam was the youngest in the household that Mamon, the matriarch, ruled over with an iron fist. The family were dispersed, two of her sons handled the marketing of the abundant fruit their orchards produced from Siliguri, a couple others had branched further afield and acquired long term leases on mango and lychee production in the plains. All of them, with the exception of Anupam, had been absorbed into the land and what it produced. Some had moved even further, going deep into the coffee territories of the South, and even into new-fangled biotechnology based, exotic foods. The bravest of them all, Nirupam, had gone to the North East and one step further. He had set up a processing plant. Orchard Fresh. Mamon thus controlled a wide web of interests sitting in her wheelchair on her mountainous perch, but she had not been able to control Anupam.

He was a changeling, a clumsy, black-fingered lad in a family of green-fingers. Anupam hated the smells of compost and overripe fruit, the mush of pulp and juice, the mess of peels and pips. He never managed to get the cuttings potted correctly even as a child, never remembered the watering or weeding schedules, never felt the least bit bereft when his straggly vines dried up, skeletally bare and barren. Once he was of age, Mamon sent him out systematically to each of their workplaces, but he only upset the customers, or gave away the fruit at ruinous discounts, or skived off during the picking to go hiking instead. He generally made a uniform nuisance of himself wherever he went and was back at the homestead in a month or two. He sat at home feeling useless and resentful, steeped in an infinitesimally slow-boiling rage that no-one noticed.

***

Mamon sat in her room going over the books that had been brought to her, with an eye on the window, and a cocked ear. Anup had not yet come back, it was getting late, the light already wore a certain final murkiness.

Though she was aged and confined to a wheelchair, she sat tautly upright and had the vitality of a much younger woman. A falling tree had struck her and caused damage to the spine, and by the time she was in her thirties, she had lost the use of her legs. By then she had a houseful of children, and she learned to cope. When her husband died early, she had taken over the running of the estate as well. Her children were as level-headed as herself. She counted herself lucky, except for the youngest everything had turned out quite perfect. Only if Anup –.

Mamon closed the books, the entries all seemed in order, and turned a powerful work-light on with a remote switch. She picked up a bag and started knitting, her gnarled fingers remarkably swift, lightly skimming over the needles and wool in a strangely graceful dance. She compensated for the lack of movement in her legs by moving her hands constantly, over books, over needles, over people. Knitting, spinning, tying, controlling.

The light outside was gone suddenly as the sun dipped under the mountain edge. She remained alert for the returning vehicle as she finished row upon row of stitches, the quiet click-clack of the needles the only sound in the room.

The wheels were on the drive when it had become pitch dark. The headlights lit up the black square of the panes momentarily before being switched off. She looked up once and waited for him to come to her. But Anupam did not come. An hour elapsed, still she knitted and waited. No Anupam. She tired finally and asked her maid to enquire. Anupam was not in his room, nor in the house, she was told. Mamon cast off the baby blanket, and went to dinner at the appointed time. She made it a point of taking meals with the family every night, had done so since her children were babies.

But Anupam did not come to dinner either. Upon enquiry the cook said Anup dadabhai* had asked for a meal about an hour ago and eaten it in the kitchen. The cook did not know where he had gone after he had finished, presumably to bed? Mamon let the subject drop with an impatient yet graceful wave of her hand, – he must have gone to sleep curled up somewhere, it was a large house after all – and wheeled herself back to her own suite. Where had Anup gone? Was he keeping bad company? Or just avoiding her?

***

Anupam turned the ignition off and felt the old pickup shudder to a stop. Something within him shuddered and came to a dead stop too, dug its heels in. He lifted the packets from the back, they were surprisingly light for their size, the finest silk-merino blend, imported from a foreign designer, the old woman’s favoured choice. He walked into the house and for one long minute he wrestled with himself, should he see Mamon and dump the packets and be done? But he could not bear the thought of going into her room, the sharp white light, the sharp white hair, the clicking of the needles, the clicking of her sharp, holier-than-thou tongue, always hassling him to find something to do, something useful and not airy fairy. He was hungry and tired and in no shape to face her.

In the end, he had gone to the kitchen, asked the cook to serve him whatever was available, and had his meal alone in peace. Afterwards, he escaped to the swing in the rarely-used back porch and sat out the rest of the evening there, thinking things through. No-one came to look for him. No-one spotted him sitting and gently rocking in the old fashioned heavy wooden swing-seat. He, on the other hand, vaguely saw the household going about its usual business through the light and shadows on the curtained windows, the muffled noises of cooking in the kitchen, Mamon’s wheelchair on the floor as she came out to eat, the murmur of talk rising and falling and then ebbing completely to silence as everyone dispersed to the bedrooms.

Forward.

Back.

Forward.

Back.

The swing was a massive pendulum marking time. Forward. The moon came up over the serrated peaks in a sliver of polished silver, fringed with tattered streamers of clouds. Back. Someone shot the bolt of the kitchen door, and he knew that the side and front entrances would be barred soon too. He snuggled back into the dusty cushions further instead of rising, the seat was wide and deep enough. Forward. Thank goodness there were no mosquitoes buzzing around! Trees were fine things if one did not have to somehow force a livelihood from them. Back. Forward. Stop. He got up from the seat, made for the far corner where a planting of wild roses, Mamon’s favourite flowers, marked the boundary. Anupam urinated copiously on the bushes, washed at the hand-pump and splashed water on his face, and returned to the swing inexplicably pleased. As he settled back, someone inside switched off the corridor light. The frosted glass on the door darkened.

***

Anupam came stiffly into the room, his face inscrutable, the packets piled in his arms. Mamon had unpicked a knitted coat this morning, and was unravelling the wool. A few yards lay already on the floor at her feet. Her hands never stop moving, Anupam stood defiantly silent, always knitting or poking them into books or counting the money she has. Madame Defarge.

Mamon did not speak either, just gestured wordlessly for him to lay the packets on the table. She dropped the coat, tore open the packs and verified the contents. Kiwi tang, magnolia whisper, feathered heather. All three would knit up beautifully. Satisfied, she placed them back.

“Where were you last night?” She beckoned him as she spoke, and pulled both his forearms out as he stepped closer, like parallel rails, “I hear your bed hasn’t been slept in?”

Anupam pressed his lips together and looked straight back at her. Mamon reeled in the unravelled wool from the floor and started winding it round his forearms in a large loop as she talked.

“I know exactly how young men spend their time when they are not in their own beds at night,” her words were icy, “and I’m telling you, there’s no space for that behavior in my house.”

Anupam stood like a statue, his arms bent into two Ls by his side, silent and resentful. Mamon’s words came as sharp as ever. The loop of wool around his arms got thicker at an incredible speed.

“Look Anup, you’re no longer a child. You must figure out what you want to do. You can work here, or in Siliguri wherever you like. Go to the coffee plantation if you prefer. I’m sure Rupam could find you something too at that factory of his. So many options. Young men are desperate for jobs. They’d give anything to be in your position. Just get serious. Start somewhere. I won’t have idlers in this family, no breaking of free bread at my table, understand?”

Anupam did not flinch. The wool was a coarse, rough red yarn that scratched persistently against his skin, looped now in a thickness equal to his own wrists. The room seemed to fill entirely with Mamon’s cavernous mouth, he could only see her tongue and her hands moving. One looping over and binding his arms, the other looping around his soul.

The monotone went on, threatening, judgmental, sarcastic. He felt a spark of – heat? light? some primeval force start up from deep within himself, at the base of his belly, growing into waves upon waves, rising to asphyxiate him, engulfing his heart and his face and exploding in his brain. In one swift movement he moved the skein of wool forward from his forearm to his fists. Before he knew anything he had thrown the loop over Mamon’s neck like a garland and twisted it into a figure of eight. He tightened the noose, increasing pressure on her throat, rendering her speechless. She gasped for air and scrabbled at her throat ineffectually.

“Correct. I’m no child. Mind what you say to me. I don’t like your tone. And I don’t care to work at fruit and nut jobs,” Anupam’s voice was equally icy. “I don’t want your bread, free or otherwise. I’m leaving.”

He loosened his grip after what felt like an aeon to Mamon. She coughed and gasped, the skein of wool still a blood red garland around her neck. Her maid came running in.

“What happened, dadabhai?”

“Look after her,” Anupam said as he moved briskly to the door. “I’ll get the doctor.”

Mamon got her breath back and asked for some water. As she set the glass down, she heard the pickup start, and the gravel spatter as its wheels skidded in a sudden burst of speed.

– End –

Note: *dadabhai – literally, a form of addressing an elder brother. Used by maids and servants to refer to people younger in age but above them in station, especially their employers’ children.

Nursery rhyme used as prompt – Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?

A RHYME AND A REASON

By Rohini Sunderam

“It must be a serial killer,” said RCMP Superintendent Ray Jones of the Southwest Nova District in charge of Lunenburg County crime in Nova Scotia, “that’s the fourth one in as many days and all the bodies had a live fish next to them.”

“That’s the signature for sure, but how many more can we expect and who?” asked deputy Sarah Muller as the fourth victim’s body was loaded into the police van to be sent to forensics in Dartmouth.

Jones nodded, “Mahone Bay is so small, Sarah, there’s not even a thousand people here. Four killed is a shocking number. The news has hit The Herald and gone national on CBC. We’d better find the killer before this gets out of hand, eh?”

“What other clues do we have?” Sarah asked examining the small dock on which the man’s body had been found. He was fully clothed with his fisherman’s cap soaked in blood. His neck was slit from ear to ear like a gutted fish. His body was cold and blue as the Atlantic.

“There’s three at the forensics hospital over in Dartmouth already,” Jones grunted, not happy with the situation. “And now this.”

“I’ll call and ask, I know Dr. Boudreau. She was with me at Park View in Bridgewater.”

“Ah yes! You privileged Bacca-whatever lot!”

“Baccalaureate,” Sarah interjected looking up at the burly commissioner as she crouched on the jetty searching for clues. At forty-seven years old he was still a handsome man, fit and muscular, big in the chest. A one-time hockey-hopeful, he had played with the likes of Glen Murray.

She wasn’t sure if he was teasing her or had a tinge of envy against her and others who had been fortunate enough to attend Park View Education Centre, one of the more elite high schools in the province. With it was a sense of unease. A dark curtain clouded an older memory, one that had been erased after the therapy she’d undergone, which had then unlocked her ‘brilliance’.

“Yeah, call her. We need any clues we can get. A fish, a live fish, it doesn’t make sense.”

“The mafia used to do that, but it was always a dead fish sent as a warning before the killing, not after,” Sarah stood up and rapidly keyed in the Dartmouth Forensic Hospital number, while her eyes still scoured the edge of the dock where it merged with gravel, grass and little wild violets.

“Can you put me through to Dr. Amy Boudreau, please,” she said as soon as the operator came on. “It’s urgent.” A few seconds later her old friend and mentor answered and Sarah switched to speakerphone.

“Amy, you have the bodies from the Mahone Bay murders? Any clues, other than that their necks were slit from ear to ear.”

“Yes, a strange one,” Amy replied, “All three bodies have human teeth marks on the little finger of the right hand.”

“Teeth marks!” Sarah exclaimed, feeling sick. “You mean as if the killer had bitten their fingers? Can you tell if it was before or after the time of death?”

Amy continued, “Most likely after, there’s no sign of a struggle. A live human being would have certainly pulled his or her hand away. The first victim was a woman, older than the other two. A retired teacher from the old Lunenburg Academy, I understand.”

“There’s a fourth body on the way, Amy. I think there’s a bite on the right little finger too. It makes no sense. Thanks, I may call again,” Sarah hung up and looked at the Superintendent.

“And the other two young men went to that school too,” he replied, “If this victim attended the school we have a connection.”

As they entered the car, Ray Jones called the station, “We need to know if this last victim attended Lunenburg Academy and fast,” he snarled into the phone.

Sarah gunned the car into action as they sped back leaving the picturesque seaside town, shooting past the Mahone Bay Museum, Mug & Anchor bar and on to headquarters at Lunenburg. They sat in silence wondering what grotesque mind could have spawned this sudden and violent attack on the innocent folk of this tiny town.

Ray switched on the radio and tuned it to CBC in Halifax.

Sarah winced, “Do we have to hear this?”

“We need to know if the news of our fourth victim has got out.”

The radio crackled as the car sped along and the newsreader intoned dispassionately, “The latest news on the horror at Mahone Bay, a small fishing village in Nova Scotia, has authorities baffled. A fourth victim has been found killed in the same way. Suggestions are that a serial killer is on the loose. The RCMP could not be reached for a statement, we have…”

Ray reached out and killed the radio, “How th’ feck do they know so soon!”

Sarah pulled into the station and both officers rushed in to see if anything more had been learned.

“Nothing new,” said Garry Mills, “except, yes, the fourth victim also attended Lunenburg Academy. He was a couple of classes junior to me. They all were. And all in the same class, except the woman. She was a teacher.”

“An old classmate with a grudge?” Sarah asked.

Ray followed, “What class did she teach? Garry, you’re probably our best lead.”

“The young ones, Grade two or three, maybe. The kids loved her, as I remember.”

“What would spark this so suddenly and now?” Ray asked.

“Has anyone been away from your school and returned lately?” Sarah added.

“It’s tourist season so it would be hard to narrow things down.” Garry replied.

“Why four people and all with a fish next to them?” Sarah voiced the others’ thoughts.

“Let’s see what we can uncover at the Bluenose Academy,” Ray said to Sarah, “the old school closed down, remember? You stay here Garry, and if you remember anything of importance about these guys call us!”

****

 “We need to speak to the oldest teachers,” Superintendent Jones explained to Ms White the headmistress. “This is not to worry present-day students but anyone who knew Mrs. Haines would be helpful.”

“I knew her,” Headmistress White replied. “She retired a few months ago in April. I can’t think of anyone who would want to harm her.”

“Anything at all that you can recall,” Sarah added.

“There was a minor incident but good heavens, that was maybe twenty years ago.” Ms White’s forehead formed a series of tiny ridges and her eyes narrowed as she concentrated. “Something to do with a little boy with a lisp. He ran away from school because some kids teased him about it. I don’t believe he came back to the school.”

“His name?” Ray prompted.

“Or the names of the other children?” Sarah added. “We could prevent another horrendous killing if we knew.”

“You’ll have to check the archives, dear. Didn’t you attend the Academy?”

“No,” Sarah replied, “I don’t really remember my early school years. I was in therapy for a while.”

The two were directed to the digitised archives and given a password.

Back in the office they headed to their desks, “Dig. That’s what we’re going to have to do,” Ray Jones looked at Sarah as they settled down in front of their computers. “Twenty years ago from today. You take 1993 and I’ll look at 1994.”

“Would the incident have been recorded?” Sarah asked, “I mean some of the schools used to cover these things up.”

“Just search for Mrs Haines. If nothing shows up you go to 1992 and I’ll move up to 1995.”

“What are the young men’s names? Maybe that could help?” Sarah’s heart was thumping like a landed fish. For no clear reason she sensed the need for urgency. Four down, how many more to go?

Garry came forward, “the names,” he said handing Sarah and Ray a sheet each.

As they scanned the list, all three said in unison, “It’s alphabetical!”

“That’s it,” Ray said, “there’s Albert, Bernie and Chad.”

“But Mrs Haines is an ‘H’ so how does that work?” Sarah asked.

“She’s a teacher, maybe that doesn’t count. Keep looking.” Ray said.

“I fear there’s going to be a fifth one, and it’s going to be today!” Sarah was shaking.

“Calm down, Sarah,” Ray looked over to her, “Calm down, I fear that too.”

“Me too,” Garry added, “I mean one, two, three, four…no one ever stops counting at four!”

“It’s that nursery rhyme!” Sarah shouted, “One, two, three, four, five. Once I caught a fish alive. That’s sort of how psychopaths think, isn’t it?” She felt sick in her stomach as she recalled the rhyme.

“Garry, think about it,” Ray said to his second assistant, “Was there ever anything to do with a nursery rhyme?”

A few seconds of pacing around the office and Garry said, “Yes, I think so. A bunch of boys used to tease this kid with a lisp. I think they used to make him recite it and laugh.”

“The headmistress said something about a kid with a lisp who ran away.” Sarah stood up and joined Garry, pacing alongside him and matching his stride.

“Garry, names, we need names,” Ray looked at the two on the floor, “Sarah you look to see if there’s a kid with a name beginning with D or E next on the list. Garry cast your mind back or call someone.”

Sarah was back at her computer, “D has Diana, Deena, these are girls, you sure they were only boys, Garry?”

Garry nodded, “Yes, I think so. Deena is fine, she runs the bakery in Mahone Bay. Took it over from her parents. She may remember.” He keyed in Deena Baskin’s number, the cell phone buzzed. He held the phone to his ear for a full thirty seconds, no one answered. Then with a hoarse whisper he said, “Oh my God! No. They weren’t all boys. Deena was part of the gang that terrorised this kid.”

Ray stood up, “Sarah,” he said calmly, “You stay here, Garry and I will go make sure Deena is okay.”

****

Sarah locked the front door and sat waiting. A slow dread crept up her spine as that curtain that hid the old memories flicked apart.

She wasn’t Sarah, she was Erin and she recalled the young boy as nine of them danced around him, “Say it again,” they mocked.

Poor little Donny whimpered as he said,

“One, two, free, four, five.

Onth I caught a fith alive.

Thix, Theven, eight, nine, ten.

Then I let it go again.

Why did you let it go?

Because it bit my finger tho.

Which finger did it bite?

This little finger on my righth.”

She had been the worst of them. Poking him, laughing into his face. She had liked him, but didn’t want the others to know and so she had teased him the worst of all. Then he’d run away and the guilt of it had sent her into a fever and she had passed out. When she recovered, she didn’t go back to Lunenburg Academy. Her parents put her into therapy and made her middle name her first name.

“Oh, my God! What did we do?” Sarah moaned as she rocked in her chair, hugging her stomach. “I was the monster.”

A loud thumping on the door shook her out of her daze.

“Erin!” A deep smooth voice called, “I recognised you the other day, sitting in the cop car, an RCMP officer and all. Then, it came back to me. The therapy and a new school. Me too, Erin, me too. I don’t have a lisp any more. Open up Erin, I just want to say hello!”

– End –

CLOCK DOWN

By Vijay Boloor 

It was a bright moony night and all was peaceful in Mouseville. One night not long ago, Mariam Mouse the head teacher of Mickey High school settled herself at her desk.

A cup of piping hot tea, at her side, she settled down to mark the workbook of class four mice students. Their syllabus was learning to differentiate cheese, breads and cakes.

She was nodding her head with disapproval as she went through the books, red pen in hand.

“I don’t know what will happen to this young generation, no interest in academics.” Mariam muttered to herself.

She glanced at her tiny clock on the wall, it was just past one am. She was a little worried. Misha, her young son, was not home yet it was way past lunch time and he was never so late.

His favorite pumpkin soup and slice of cheese lay on the table. Misha was always home around this time. He was a good mouse kid and had just finished high school. He was ready to go to college to study survival skills. He was keen to study defense and attack tactics, how to dodge cats and dogs.

Soon after one o’clock a sudden flurry of activity jolted her out of her books. She came running out to see what the ruckus was, and who was thumping at her door.

“Miss, open up quick!” The door banging increased in volume and frequency.

   Mariam sensed the urgency and rushed to open the door and as soon as the door opened half a dozen neighborhood mice barged in.

 Three young mice were carrying her son Misha, who looked unconscious and limp. They cleared the couch tossing aside small stuff on the floor. They even flung her half knitted sweater out, and the leader amongst them and signaled the boys to lay him there.

Misha was all knocked out and there was no bleeding nor any injury visible.

Mariam Mouse was in a panic, her mouth and eyes wide open, dumbfounded and speechless. Her school teacher mentality kicked in. “Call the doctor, call the doctor! “she squeaked.“My poor little Misha,” Mariam wailed. She was almost upon him cuddling her unconscious son lying on the sofa. How many times have I told him not to go out with you naughty boys. What happened to him and where did you all take him?

The eldest of three young mouse kids Seymon with a quivering voice replied,“There was a big party in the neighborhood at Lord Colton’s house and we were hunting for cheese and some cake.”

“But what happened to Misha?” Mariam interrupted.

“He got hit by the golden ball,” Seymon blurted out.

“You foolish boys how many times have the elders warned you never to go play with that wretched machine, and especially with the golden ball, how many times?” Mariam was furious.

The three young mice put their heads down, their tails curled inwards.

Seymon said “Aunty it was Misha who insisted we go there and play.”

“And you guys agreed. You are the elder, could you have not stopped him.”

II

On the streets of Mouseville hardly an incident occurred that went unnoticed by Rocky and his crew. Rocky Rodent was a mouse of action, mostly violent ones.

Rocky rodent, the Mouseville strongman, judge, jury and executioner of this pack of homely rats.

He excelled in the techniques of terror, expert in untangling traps, fighting snakes and frogs. His extensive knowledge of poisons and baits, he knew how to avoid them and neutralize them.

It pleased his sense of pride and ego that all of Mouseville called him protector of Mousekind… the MIGHTYMOUSE. Swearing and shaking his fists Rocky barged in Mariam’s house. “How’s the kid?” he snapped.

Mariam raised her head and looked at him, disciplinarian that she was, she intensely disliked Rocky.

She admired his ferocity. She didn’t like his hygiene. She liked his bravery but not his vagabond lifestyle, but today was different. He was her only saviour. She looked at him in jeans and white shirt with a blue waist coat, smelling of stale cigarette.

Rocky had come to help, with Speedy on his heels, Speedy Gonzales was his fellow conspirator, a tough brown mouse fast and a ruthless assassin.

Speedy, who also killed frogs and snakes, never backed down in a quarrel. It was rumored in and around Mouseville even young cats were afraid to cross his path.

Speedy always awed Rocky mentally and physically. He too detested his personal hygiene and scruffy looks but nothing could hide the alert intelligence of Rocky’s eyes.

The young mice filled in the details of the accident to Rocky.

“When did this happen” queried Speedy.

“When the clock struck one,” was the chorus reply.

“What are we doing about this damned machine?” Mariam asked with a dejected look

A quick committee meeting was formed. Tito the old mouse chaired the group.

“Yup, it has injured many in our community, you remember Zack? Mickeys brother in law I mean Minnie’s younger brother, he had died from the impact.”

Yeah everybody remembered Mickey’s brother in law Zack.

Mickey was the most famous mouse personality of all time, everyone knew him, and people forgot Zack but remembered Mickey.

 “Boss the damned machine, let us destroy it.” Speedy said looking right into Rocky’s eyes. “Yeah it’s a good idea to destroy it but it’s pretty dangerous. Lord Colton has two big cats,” Wailed Tito the old mouse.

There was silence. Everyone looked around and half of them were looking at Rocky. He was the community’s choice if it had to be done.

“We can’t stand and watch all the time, it injuring our youth. That giant machine must come down. Boys will be boys and mice will be mice. It’s bound to happen again. It’s time it came down,” said Mariam.

Rocky and Speedy had a quick huddle meeting and both nodding came back to the room.

“We will do it!!!” said Rocky with determination.

Rocky, without wasting any time, quickly got into action. He and Speedy went to their garage where they lived and got his crew together.

Rocky loved a challenge, as chief of expedition, guerrilla warfare to bring the machine down.

“Get the gear and let’s go before it’s daylight and don’t forget to pack the Cat trap.”

 “We will need it, I can feel it,” added Speedy.

They marched into Lord Colton’s mansion, and found their way into his living room followed by his dirty dozen mice.

Rocky surveyed the imposing giant grandfather clock standing tall as the Empire State Building.

“Tonight you are coming down baby,” Rocky yelled to his team.

They were fully equipped with all the rigs and gears of a construction crew but Rocky had deconstruction on his mind.

“Down! Down!” Chorused the mice gang.

“Jigs you take three from the gang and saw away 4 inches from the front left foot of the clock,” ordered Rocky.

Sal said I will take the front right leg and moved swiftly with his team to tackle his mission.

Rocky explained to Tiny who was his team’s gymnast how to harness the pendulum, the golden ball.

“Tiny you tie the gong and harness it around the pillar.”

“When the bloody clock falls the gong will be yanked right out of the clock mama mia” Rocky smirked in delight.

“Right boss” squeaked Tiny…

“Meow” the chilling sound echoed across the hall all the mice froze and took cover! The cat was on the prowl.

   Speedy gave a quick glance and signaled Tiny to take position on the dining table and pass him one end of the twine.

Speedy and his crew had studied cat behavioral psychology, they knew that the cats get attracted to circles, they feel safe in them.

   They worked fast and laid out a ring of thick rope laced with fish oil and fragments of fish, two sets of twine passed through the circle with a team of 4 mice holding on to each end.

   They waited. The mice are not known for their patience, but in this case they waited.This was not the first time they were trapping a cat, the cat just stood at the entrance head cocked, looking in the dark trying to smell something.

 The mice gang were quiet there was absolute silence in the room. After almost an eternity the cat moved. It hovered around the strange unfamiliar circle, but the familiar smell of fish lured it right in the trap.

Split seconds later the mice reared into action. Pulling their twines in unison coordinating and looping it twice, the cats two rear feet were entangled and tied in the loop.

She yelped and meowed, the rats grunted, and pulled harder and tied the cat’s feet firmly and fastened them to the leg of the heavy dining table.

Speedy acted fast and put a brown paper bag on her face, to keep her confused and quiet.

“Team let’s get back to our main mission.”  It was half past two and at the strike of three they needed to finish. Also there was the threat of the other cat coming.

The teams got down to sawing the left leg of the giant grandfather clock with frenzy, the speed of rats was incredible and in no time it was done.

“Boss the saw broke. What shall we do? We are almost done,” Jigs said meekly.

Speedy and Rocky surveyed the leg and noticed it was practically done.  A few more strokes would do the job. To go back and get new saws would be unwise. A quick conference decided they would hammer away the last part of the almost sawed of leg. A team got in position pulling the twine tied to the leg.

It was time just before three. All the mice were in safe areas pulling the rope. Speedy volunteered to do the last hammering as he was the fastest to run before the clock crashed.

At three o’clock sharp the clock couldn’t gong as the pendulum was fastened. A final signal was given, the last bang of the hammer, a hard pull from the mice team and the giant clock came down crashing on the floor.

Before the Colton house hold could wake up and come to see what had happened the mice were out and away in a victorious mood.

This event surely called for a major celebration. The news of the downing of the clock spread like wild fire in Mouseville. Every mouse came out bringing their choicest food and there was singing and dancing, there was squeaking and prancing.

Meanwhile in Mariam’s house, Misha was slowly coming round opening his eyes. “Hi Mom,” he smiled and Mariam was relieved.

She too had heard the news of the downing of the great clock. She also heard the noise of celebration and singing of the mice gathering in front of Rocky’s garage.

She took Misha, who seemed fine and had miraculously recovered, to the street party to celebrate, and to show her appreciation and respect to Rocky and his team.

There was a great deal of celebration, Rocky’s garage was decorated in colorful paper flags. The happy mice danced and distributed cheese and cake crumbs.

Hickory Dickory Dock

The mouse ran up the clock

The clock struck one

And the mouse came down

 Hickory dickory dock.

From that day onwards this rhyme was deleted from the mouse nursery books.

And

Mariam introduced a new poem in Mickey high and now the mice kids learn this nursery rhyme.

Hickory Dickory Dock

The Rocky ran up the clock

The Mice struck one

And the Clock crashed down

 Hickory Dickory dock.

– End –

Liam Saville

Headshot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liam Saville was our appraiser and critic for the month’s challenge. Many thanks to Liam for perhaps the most detailed feedback our writers have ever received!

Liam lives in Sydney Australia with his wife, two children, and their German Shepherd.

He is a former member of the Australian Army and has studied at the Royal Military College Duntroon. Liam also served for several years as a police officer in his home state of New South Wales, and currently works full time in a regulatory and enforcement role with a public sector agency in Sydney.

Liam is the author of two novellas, Predator Strike and, Resolute Action, both of which feature Australian Defence Force Investigator, Captain Sam Ryan.

Liam Saville

Author of:

Predator Strike

Resolute Action

Find me on Facebook Follow me on Twitter

Visit my Website: https://liamsaville.wordpress.com/books2/predator-strike/

The Challenge was based on a news item in the GDN on Sunday 15th February in which they reported that a 15-year-old girl committed suicide by jumping out of a three storey building. Their challenge was “to write a story about her and her death plunge, you may, if you wish change the ending and have her live, if you prefer. The object is, however, to try and get inside her mind.” The word count limit is 2000 words.

And here are our stories. They were all very different and took extremely different approaches! Well done all of you.

NOTE: As some of you may know, we are no longer rating our stories. And so all entries are treated equally. The stories featured below are in no particular order, they do not represent a 1st/2nd/3rd rating.

FLIGHT

By Michelle Schultz

Jesse looked up from her homework when the apartment door opened. Over the sound of her next door neighbor’s classical music, she listened for the sound of a purse hitting the floor that would signal her mother’s arrival. Instead, she heard The Boyfriend’s voice as he finished a phone call.

The television blared to life a minute later, and she let out a sigh, tucking back the long hair that the breeze from the open window was blowing in her face. Maybe he didn’t think she was home. She wasn’t in the mood to earn any more expensive gifts from him.

She checked her new smartphone, wishing that Chris would text the details of their date tonight. He had said he was free, hadn’t he? No texting him–that was one of the rules of his game. The silly rules were worth it to get out of this hellhole more often.

To kill time, she worked on her algebra until her phone trilled on its lowest setting with a call from her older sister. Knowing that The Boyfriend, or Morgan, couldn’t hear her over the television, she answered.

“Marianne?” she asked. She should have known her sister would not be content to text this conversation.

“Are you at home?” Marianne said, a bit breathless.

“Yeah, why?”

“I’m outside,” Marianne said.

Jesse leaned out one of the giant double-glazed windows. No screens, another perk of this older-style building that Morgan rented. She sat on the sill and swung one leg out easily, the very picture of sangfroid.

“Is he home?” Marianne asked into the phone, looking worried at Jesse’s third-story perch. Her messy red hair was tied back, and her yoga pants and baggy university sweatshirt made her look like she had just climbed out of bed.

Jesse nodded in reply. Marianne wouldn’t even come in the building if Morgan was there.

“I’ll come down,” she said, hanging up the phone. She mimed sliding off the sill just to hear Marianne gasp. There were some wildly overgrown hedges down below, but they were hardly a decent cushion for such a drop. Jesse would have to brave the hallway.

She grabbed her purse and the soft leather jacket that she had earned a few weeks ago. With the weather warming up, she wouldn’t be able to wear it much longer. Maybe Chris would give her a time so she could go straight to him rather than coming back inside.

She avoided the creaky spots in the hall out of long practice. When she reached the gap that opened into the living room, she ducked and crawled on her hands and knees. When he was seated, he couldn’t see over the sofa between them.

Ahead, the kitchen and its well-oiled locks beckoned, and she was outside and down the stairs without another sound.

“Jesse!” Marianne said, grabbing her as soon as she got outside. “Don’t text me stuff like that!” She squeezed Jesse tight, and Jesse just sighed and patted Marianne’s back. Marianne might be seven years older at twenty-two, but sometimes Jesse felt like the calm, rocksteady one.

“It’s not a big deal,” she started, but Marianne pulled away, her eyes wild.

“Not a big deal?! Are you not sure?”

“Three tests, all positive.” Jesse shrugged.

“Is it…,” Marianne’s face went even pale. “It’s Chris’s, right? Your boyfriend’s?”

Jesse swore and threw up her hands, knocking Marianne’s away.

“Of course it’s his!” She hissed. “Who the fuck else’s would it be?”

She thrust her hands in her pockets and stalked down the sidewalk toward the corner store a few blocks away.

“Jess, listen!” Marianne jogged to catch up with her. “You said some odd things a few months ago.”

“Yeah, well, it was nothing.”

Marianne stopped her with a hand on her arm.

“You know you can tell me anything, right? Even if Mom isn’t there…” she trailed off, expectant.

“I am telling you. Mom doesn’t know.” Jesse raked a hand through her hair. “Can I stay with you?”

Marianne snorted. “You’re joking, right?”

At Jesse’s look, she frowned.

“That’s impossible. I only have a bedroom. My roommates and I share the common areas.”

“I’ll sleep on the floor,” Jesse said quietly.

“Not in your condition.”

“Then I’ll rent another bedroom.”

“With whose money?”

“Chris’s. I’m going to tell him this weekend. He has a job.”

Marianne mimed tearing out her hair. “Talk to him. Then call me.”

 

After some more strained conversation, Marianne returned to campus. Jesse waited for Chris’s message in the diner nearby, trying to learn to like decaf coffee. She smoothed the front of her jacket, wondering how much longer it would fit her. It was a nice gift, really.

Her equally nice phone vibrated and she grabbed at it, her heart fluttering at Chris’s name.

8:15. Meet me at the turnaround one street over.

It was always a time and a location within walking distance of her apartment. Chris did love his games. He was sensitive about the age difference between them, but Jesse didn’t care. Some highschooler borrowing his parents’ sedan couldn’t compare to him.

She left the diner and made the trek to his car. When she got close enough, the passenger door lock clicked open so she could climb in. His car was quite roomy, which was nice when he didn’t bother to get a hotel. She let him kiss her before he drove them out into the city.

Living in the suburbs, she didn’t always get to go into the city itself, so she craned her head to see as much of the lights and skyscrapers as possible.

“Where are we going this weekend?” she asked with a smile, her eyes drinking in the beautifully-dressed people.

“About that…” Chris said, his eyes forward. “I’m going to have to reschedule.”

“But I was looking forward to it,” she said, knowing she sounded whiny. Now she was going to have to come up with new plans to stay out of the house. Her mother didn’t notice when she was gone all weekend given her terrible working hours, and Morgan didn’t care. That’s what Chris was for, her white knight rescuing her from home, boredom, and Morgan.

“Plans change. I have to pick up some extra shifts.”

Jesse glanced behind Chris’s seat where his ever-present gym bag sat. His uniform hat with the badge on the brim rested atop the bag. Cops were so busy all the time, but that meant a steady source of income.

“Here we are,” he said as he pulled into a parking lot.

She looked up and up. It was palatial, this hotel. Lights ran all the way from the ground to the top floor so far away. The glass reflected all the lights of the city back at her, and rooms glowed golden and inviting across the hotel’s face.

Once they had checked in and he tossed his things on the nightstand did she take a breath.

“I have something to tell you,” she said.

He only hummed in response as he set up his things. He passed her a scrap of black lace with the tag still hanging off it. This was a gift too. She forced the thought away as she clenched it between her fingers. She was an adult now. She could do this.

“I’m pregnant,” she blurted out, then clapped a hand to her mouth. She had meant to wait until they were done so he would be tired and happy.

“You’re what?”

“Carrying your child,” she said softly, trying out the words for the first time. The different words made it sound special, not like a condition. This was theirs, their child. Even if he couldn’t marry her now, he could support her until she was old enough.

His expression was frigid.

“Are you seeing someone else?” he asked, his voice too calm.

“What?! No!” she said quickly. She dropped the lingerie and walked up to him. “You know I love you.”

“We used protection so this wouldn’t happen.” He stood up suddenly, looking flushed and uneasy. “I’ll take you home.” He thrust the lingerie and his shower supplies back in his bag.

“There’s a clinic downtown. You can get some help there.”

“Some help?” she asked, stupefied.

“Just call me if they want money for it,” he said.

He wouldn’t listen to her protests. He didn’t care that it was their child and she wanted to keep it. They left the beautiful hotel behind, and she cried all the way home.

He left her standing at the sidewalk leading to her building. Her eyes were so swollen and scratchy that she couldn’t read her phone to find Marianne’s number.

“Hey, kiddo,” she heard a voice call from an upstairs window. It was Morgan, leaning out to have a smoke.

She ignored the voice and walked up to the entryway. When she reached the apartment, Morgan had the door open for her.

“What’s wrong?” he started, but she walked right past him toward her room. “I’m talking to you, Jesse.”

“Fuck off,” she said, slamming her door when she reached her room.

Before she could turn and lock it, Morgan had it open again. Among his many masks, he wore the picture of concerned fatherhood well, but right now he turned her stomach. All men were the same.

“You don’t talk to me that way,” he said, his voice low.

“Honey?” Jesse’s mom called from her office. Jesse hadn’t realized she was even home.

“I’ll handle it,” Morgan called, then he closed the door behind him.

Jesse clutched her purse tightly, her heart flipping over in her chest. She edged back toward the open window now that he was blocking the door.

“What did you say to me?”

“I said go to hell,” she said. She had never once yelled at him, never once objected to his so-called parenting, never said anything about the gifts…

His eyes widened in surprise. Then his hand shot out and snagged her arm. She jerked her arm away but he held tight.

“You watch your mouth. Your mom doesn’t need this kind of stress.”

“You aren’t my father!” She shouted. “Don’t touch me!”

She slapped him hard across the face. Stunned, he dropped her arm.

She turned to the window before she could overthink it. Like so many times before, she hoisted herself onto the windowsill.

This time she didn’t stop. She grabbed the frame and rolled out. Her fingers caught on the rough cement ledge. They bled while she hung, her feet dangling above empty space. She heard screams from somewhere, but the blood roaring in her ears drowned it out.

She let go.

 

Marianne got to the hospital while the police were still collecting statements from all the witnesses. She stayed in the waiting room all night until the nurse finally led her in the next morning.

Jesse had broken both legs falling into the hedgerow, but she lived.

Marianne sat nearby while Jesse gave her report to the policeman beside the bed. She named her boyfriend, which made the cop’s eyebrows shoot up, and she had plenty to say about Morgan that only confirmed Marianne’s fears. Jesse didn’t want them to dismiss her actions as a suicide attempt.

When the cop finally left, Jesse squeezed Marianne’s fingers.

“There’s a shelter and a school they can send me to,” she whispered. Reading the question in Marianne’s eyes, she smiled self-deprecatingly.

“It’s alive. We’ll talk about adoption later.”

Marianne rubbed her thumb over Jesse’s fingers.

“Go to sleep, Jess. I’ll keep an eye on you.”

“Thanks.” Jesse smiled, her eyes fighting to stay open. “I don’t have to go home. I’m free.”

“You’re safe now,” Marianne confirmed.

Jesse closed her eyes and fell asleep.

 

INVESTIGATING THE DEATH PLUNGE

By Muneera Fakhro

“I didn’t do it! I didn’t kill her or even help her commit suicide or any of the sorts!”

That seemed to be the only words I have said for the past two weeks since I was arrested for being an accomplice to a suicide case of a young girl. It’s quite a scandal for a police officer like me to be accused of such bullshit. I’ve never been involved with a minor, and there’s no way they’ll find any evidence that I did!

After a while of eating nothing but plain prison food and sleeping in rugged smelly beds I was taken to see my defence lawyer for the first time and go through my charges in detail. I took my first steps into the office, and the silence was overwhelming since all that’s around me were books, papers, certificates framed and put on the wall and all I could see is black and white spread around the place from furniture to electronics. The rattling of handcuffs had been ringing non-stop in my ears the whole time though it seemed to be easing this awful silence in this place.

“The lawyer will be here in a few minutes. Don’t try doing any funny business now, you hear?!” The officer behind me had been pushing me around since this morning, he was a colleague of mine and we were good friends until this whole thing began and his perception of me had completely changed, as if he never knew me. I’m just a filthy criminal now.

“Do I look like I can DO anything like this?” I said mockingly lifting my arms and wriggling one of my legs. “I’m chained head to toe, there’s not m-“ I got punched and pushed to the ground so quickly I barely caught on to what had happened just now.

“Know your place, you piece of scum!” Before I knew it, he pulled me up, getting me to stand; he had seen the lawyer coming back. Whatever happened to human rights I wonder, nobody gives a fuck about it here.

“Hello officer.”

“Good afternoon, Ms Huda. Here’s your 3 o’clock client, and all of his case files should be with you.”

“Yes I’ve looked through them this morning, thank you.”

My lawyer’s a woman? Surely this office doesn’t have the least of a feminine touch around. This will be boring to the end, I just hope she’s good enough to get me out of jail. Urrgh this guy can really pack a punch; I can feel any last meal reaching up my throat.

“…Is he alright? He seems to be squirming in pain.” She asked with concern in her voice, but the officer didn’t pay no mind and pushed me to the seat in front of her office desk.

“No worries, he’s alright; he’s just heavy with guilt for what he had done. I’ll be waiting outside.” And with that, he left.

She sat in her chair, put on her glasses and started flipping some papers. She doesn’t look that young but not that old either, around mid-thirties perhaps. She has the kind of curly hair which would move with her whole head if she turns around. Her skin is a bit tanned and doesn’t appear to be the cheerful kind of person. She clears her throat, getting my attention before she spoke.

“Mr….Officer Khalid A., age 22, Bahraini nationality. You are accused of assisting a young girl to commit suicide in Manama. Also-“

“I’m innocent of those charges, you have to-“

“Calm down, Mr Khalid! I’m only going through the court files for your case and I’ll be discussing further details with you today. It’s my job to prove your innocence. As you know, the court will be pressuring you with all sorts of questions and accusations, and in order for this case to end with a non-guilty verdict you need to keep it together,” I nodded as I took a deep breath to calm myself and collect my thoughts. “Alright, after what I had previously stated, which is probably all you know, we’ve found a few more leads about her identity and your connection with her; and I’m afraid these facts won’t be much to your benefit. The girl’s name is Narjis R., age 15, and appears to be pregnant in her forth month…”

My mind went blank and couldn’t hear what the lawyer was saying after that… Narjis? She can’t POSSIBLY be the same Narjis, this is insane! I felt sick and couldn’t hold it any longer and got up, frantically looking for a trash can and throwing up whatever’s inside my guts out, possibly my guts as well.

After coming to I realised I have been out of it for the past 20 minutes and the lawyer had called out to her secretary and got me whatever she could manage from her desk; water, a couple of towels and some pills to calm my upset stomach.

“That woman is NOT 15 and I’ve already cut all ties with her long ago.”

“It’s easy to get fake IDs these days and lie about your age. I couldn’t believe it myself when I saw the body; she’s fully grown for her age but she’s definitely 15 and bore a child for that matter, based on the autopsy report. What make it worse are the messages we found on Facebook between the two of you.”

“But you’ll see that the messages are from a few years ago! There’s no proof that I had recent connections with her.”

“And that’s what I’m aiming at, not having sufficient evidence could be our only ticket to get you out of prison; DNA tests would be of great aid if we don’t get a match.”

“Don’t worry, it won’t.”

“I’ll need you to tell me the nature of the relationship you had with her; don’t miss out any vital detail. I’ll be recording this for future reference as well.” She got out a digital recorder -a yet another colourless object- from the desk drawer and turned it on. She started by stating the case number and a brief explanation of its details, and then placed it on the desk.

+++++

I was on patrol near a shopping mall in Manama that day when I saw a young lady rushing from the parking lot and passing the road recklessly, her behaviour seemed a bit suspicious. Just as I decided to get off the car and follow her, four boys, in their high school uniforms, ran after her. I rushed over to stop whatever those kids are scheming, and luckily, I caught on and they scattered as soon as they recognised my uniform. The woman was shivering on the ground; her feet were too weak to support her.

“Are you alright, miss?” As I knelt down to reach her, she jumped on me and grabbed onto me for dear life. She broke down in tears and all I could think about at the moment was how her chest was pressed against mine and how awkward for me to have such thoughts at such a time.

“They…have been following me for over a week… I was t-terrified …”

“Shhh… it’s alright, you can come with me and file a report at-“

“No! Don’t! Please, they’ve threatened me not to say a word about them to a soul. I can’t!” She began to panic and throwing a few weak punches at me, so I had to grab her from her wrists and say something to calm her down.

“Alright! Ok, I won’t report anything! I’ll get you back home safely. How’s that sound?” She sniffled, nodded hesitantly and tried to lift herself up while still clinging to me.

“My flat is close by; we can reach it by foot.” I helped her walk and reached a building five minutes later, her place was on the third floor, to the far right of the stairs. “Please, come on in, I’d really like to repay you for saving me with a drink or a meal.”

“No, I can’t; I’m still on patrol but I appreciate the thought.”

“Please,” Her voice turned hoarse, tears are obviously on the corner of her eyes and I could guess what she’s going to say next. “I live alone here, and I could really use some company right now.”

I sighed. “Guess I got no choice, but only for a little while.”

“Even little is enough for me.”

I sat nervously on the living room’s couch; I’m alone with a girl in her apartment in our first meeting. Isn’t this progressing too fast? Not that I hoped for anything to happen; she just got attacked and she’s probably crushed and too stressed out to do anything.

“Hey, I made some milk tea and some toasts with omelette eggs.”

…Or not. She placed the tray on the table and sat right across, pouring the tea. “I didn’t catch your name, I’m Khalid by the way.”

“Oh, my name is Narjis, and again, thank you for going out of your way for me.” She doesn’t look 100% Bahraini but her overall features shows she’s Arabian for sure; pale skinned, long wavy brown hair, and a nice curvy body.

“That’s a pretty name, as a flower and as a person.” She chuckled.

“Some used to make fun of it and often calling me ‘Narcissistic Narjis’.”

“Well I’m not educated enough to know other meanings to your name.”

“You know you just insulted yourself, right?” She chuckled again. It seemed that she’s more relaxed and cheerful. That’s a good sign. WE talked and talked, and one thing led to another, and been involved with her since. We’d go out often, have some ‘Fun’ in her apartment, and stayed connected through phone calls and Facebook.

A few months later, I found out that she had other relationships with other men and been getting money out of them, drugs at some times. Then things went horribly wrong in my head, unable to make a good judgement out of all this, when I found her journals and read what was written on the day we met. I can still remember it word by word:

15-August-2013:

Ever since I broke up with that man and I’ve been followed by those strange boys every time I go out, and been getting threatening texts by him. He’s always been a control freak consumed by jealousy and I’d rather kill myself than go back to him, guess I’ll find myself a police officer to date; he’d provide some security at least for a while.

16-August-2013:

I was so lucky yesterday, I actually found a police officer who drove those kids away. That officer was so naïve he believed every lie I made, he’s nice though and would make a good boyfriend for the time being, and in case they came back.

+++++

“So you won’t deny having a sexual relationship with her?”

“No…”

“…I hope we can convince the court that,” She let out a heavy sigh which confirms my worries that it will not end in good. I can probably clear your name on the current charge. However, I can’t guarantee that this won’t appear again in court under a different charge.”

“At this point, it doesn’t matter anymore.”

As time passes, I began to lose my strength and will to fight for my freedom. Being stared at with judgmental glares each time I take the stand had drained what was left of my energy. I was able to prove my innocence and just as Ms Huda predicted, the case had reappeared on a different charge.

By now, I have gotten used to life in captivity, not that I’m not confident about getting out but somehow I know, I won’t be taken lightly for the mistake I’ve made with that girl, even if I wasn’t on the wrong. I made that mistake and I’m willing to take full responsibility for my actions. It’s the right thing to do.

GIRLS LIKE HER

By Anita Menon

11th August, 2013

Dear Diary,

It is my birthday tomorrow. I don’t feel excited at all. Growing up is no fun. As usual Mamma has made arrangements to have the local caterers serve dinner. My family will come for dinner and it will be chaotic at home. How I wish, I could celebrate it with my friends from school. We could go to city center and try the new milk shake place. But Mamma will never allow me. I will be 16 this year and since last year, I have hardly stepped out of the house without family. Meeting friends has been restricted to school and visiting each other’s’ homes. Doniya, told me that once we get married, it is easier to do what we want. With our husbands, ofcourse. But we have to pray that we have easy –going husbands like hers. It is late now and I better go to sleep else Mamma will think I am texting someone.

Good night.

 12th August, 2013

Dear Diary,

Happy birthday to me. J

I’m relieved to be back in my bedroom. The dinner was such an exhausting affair; the same food, the same people and the same conversations. Aunty Noor won’t stop talking. She was talking about my friend Eman and how she has so many boyfriends. She said,” Girls like her; they have no place in this society. They are bound to bring shame to the family. If I was her mother, I would lock her in a room and never let her out. Alhamdulillah, our Reem is not like her.”

I think Eman is leading the life we all want to live secretly. She goes out to the mall and shops when she wants. Her parents are divorced and she lives with her mum. I wonder, if my parents will ever get divorced? I would definitely want to live with Baba because Mamma is always cross with me. Baba wants me to be an architect but Mamma says a girl should be married off before she ‘sprouts’ a mind of her own. Eman and I are not best friends but we go to the same school. Mamma would be livid if she found out that I hang around with her during break-time. I can hear her speak in my head right now, “Reem, a girl’s reputation is everything. Once ruined, there is no way back home” How will Mamma react if she ever knew I had a secret crush in my life. J

It is late now, I should sleep. But before that, let me check my messages on the phone.

 Eman: Hey, Happy birthday habibti. I missed school today because I was sick. I’ll see if I can meet you tomorrow. I have a gift for you. Xx

 16th August, 2013

Dear Diary,

What a boring day it has been! School just dragged and there is pile of home work to do. I don’t feel like doing any of it. I told Eman about my ‘secret crush’ today on whatsapp but she hasn’t replied. It has been 4 days that she has missed school. I hope she is not too sick. Mamma won’t allow me to see her. She would say, “Reem, one rotten apple can spoil the whole barrel.” Let me try messaging her now. Maybe she will answer.

You: Hope you are well Eman. Rasha was asking about u n complaining that u don’t pick your phone when she calls. If u are 2 sick, I can come and see u. I’m also excited to see my birthday gift. Xoxo

 17th August, 2013

Dear Diary,

No news from Eman. I am getting worried. I am also worried that I am putting on weight. Rasha said, I looked fat with my hair pulled away from my face and my braces make my face look broader. I hate her. It makes me think whether that is the reason why my ‘secret crush’’ doesn’’t look at me! He passes by my house in his Patrol car but looks straight ahead. He looks so handsome in his uniform and he has so many friends or maybe they are his colleagues. But he looks so dashing in his ray bans. Uff…

Rasha told me that Eman has a boyfriend and she has seen them kissing outside of school. I think Rasha is jealous because Eman is so smart and beautiful. I wonder how Eman manages her grades so well and still does whatever she wants. I really wish Eman answers my whatsapp messages. I better ask her again.

You: Eman it has been so many days but you haven’t answered my messages.I wish you just answered. Worried much. xoxo

Eman: I am okay. Xx

20th August, 2013,

Dear Diary,

I met my ‘secret crush’ today. Yoohoooooooooo. Outside my school. My heart stopped. He gave me his phone number. J J J

 1st September, 2013,

Dear Diary,

I feel like I am not the same Reem anymore. I am so happy. I can’t focus on what people are talking about and my heart stops at the slightest thought of him. Is this love? I think I love him. I want to tell Eman because I feel she will be the only one to understand. Let me message her right now.

You: Eman, my darling, are u awake?

Eman: Yes. J

You: can u keep a secret?

Eman: Yes J

You: I went out with ‘Secret Crush’ today. He is so tall n has dimples. I have a picture on my phone. Wait, let me send you.

Eman: hmm…

You: What? Say something…

Eman: Going to sleep. Good night.xx

4th September, 2013,

Dear Diary,

Eman is not talking to me. I wonder what went sour between us. She refuses to sit next to me. The other day, she passed by without smiling at me, in the school corridor. But I am not sad. If she doesn’t want to talk to me, it is her problem. I have so much going on in my life that I have no time to fix anybody’’s imaginary problems.

He said, I look beautiful in white. I am going wear white every day. He even said, I had the most beautiful fingers he has ever seen. I should have told him, I am an architect in the making. J

I wish Eman stopped being Ms. Grumpy soon. I am so sleepy. I can’t keep my eyes open anymore. Good night.

Dear Parent,

We would like to inform you that your daughter, Ms. Reem is short of attendance. Last month her attendance was only 3% and her grades are falling. The teachers have tried to counsel her but it is not working. Please make an appointment with Ms. Reem’s class teacher as soon as you can.

Yours faithfully,

Mona A

Principal

 1st October, 2013

Dear Diary,

I am in such trouble. I never thought the Principal would write a note, home. Mamma was like the fiend fyre from Harry Potter that grew monstrous with every passing minute. She demanded to know where and with whom I was spending my school hours with. I told her, I was too bored to sit in class, so I went for a stroll every day and then back to the school library. She knew I was lying but no way, am I going to confess. No way.

I have to be more careful now. Even if I get into trouble, I cannot have his name tarnished. I love him too much to see him bothered. Only if Eman would talk to me…

 22nd December, 2013,

I love him so much Diary.

I Know I don’t write too often. But he listens to me and I feel, I say it all to him and then there is nothing to write.

Later, Diary. Be happy for me.

1st January, 2014

Happy New Year.:-)

14th March, 2014

Dear Diary,

Things are not going well between us. Me and him. He is so disturbed all the time and gets angry too. He wants to do stuff to me and I keep saying no. But I think I can’’t keep saying no, else he will leave me. I’ll die if he does. Eman keeps looking at me in class as if she wants to talk.

Eman: Reem, you awake?

You: Yes.

Eman: need to tell you something.

You: Tell me.

Eman: Don’t go around with him. He’s not a good guy.

You:What are you talking about?

Eman: Nothing. Just take care.

You: hmm…

 31st July, 2014

Dear Diary,

I am feeling so sick these days. I can’t even get up from my bed in the morning. I have to rush to the bathroom to throw up. The whole day at school is a torture because either I am nauseous or dizzy. It must be a bug that is going around. I should go to the doctor. Eman watched me in the washroom when I was throwing up. But she didn’t come up to ask if I was okay.

Later towards the end of school she did and I ignored her. She wanted to tell me something but I walked past her like I didn’t see her.

Good night. Hope this bug goes away.

Eman: Hey, talk to me. Don’t ignore me. I know you are sick.

You: Yup. I can manage.

Eman: I think you are pregnant. Better get a pregnancy test. If you want one, I have one. Feel free to use it.

You:No, no, no it can’t be. Eman is only scaring me. How can I be….?

 2nd August, 2014

Dear Diary,

This can’t be. I can’t be….. Now what do I do? Eman helped me do the test and it’s positive. I don’t know what to do now! I can’t think. Eman says, there is a way to manage this without anyone knowing. She has done this before last year and I remember how sick she was. Aunty Noor had come home and she made such a fuss about me putting on a little weight. If she ever got to know about this, she will go about telling everyone she meets in the town. Mamma will kill herself and Baba won’t be able to step out with his head held high. Let me ask my love, if he knows what I should do. Yes, he will know…

 3rd August, 2014

Dear Diary,

I am the most unlucky girl on this planet. He doesn’t want to do anything with me now. He says, he is with the police and news like this will destroy his career and since I am a minor, he will be arrested. He asked me to do whatever I should do to get rid of it. I ran to Eman and cried till I didn’t have energy. It was as if the day couldn’t be worse. She confessed that last year it was he who had got her pregnant. She had tried to warn me that I wouldn’t listen. Now what am I to do? Each day, I will look bigger as my stomach swells from what is inside it. How will I hide it? I am too scared to do what Eman is suggesting? Turns out I am a girl just like her and Aunty Noor will have a field day gossiping about me.

I know what I have to do. Yes. No one will be ashamed because of me. Not him and not my family. I wouldn’t want to be called the rotten apple.

Diary, I’m going to take you with me. This is it, then.

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 2.24.34 PM

The challenge for September, was to create a thriller based in Bahrain with a word count of 800 to 1200 words. We encouraged lots of atmosphere, shadows and whispers, screams and deadly silences and that good old staple – the chase!

Our judge was the well known writer Paul D Brazill. He is the author of the black comedies Guns Of Brixton and Gumshoe, as well as Roman Dalton- Werewolf PI and The Noir World Of Luke Case, a noir romp which takes place in various cities throughout Europe – Warsaw, Madrid, Granada, Toulouse & Cambridge. His stories have been published in various magazines and anthologies, including The Mammoth Book Of Best British Crime 8 and 10 – alongside the likes of Lee Child, Ian Rankin and Neil Gaiman.

Paul’s overall comments were very encouraging. He said, the entries were, “A particularly good selection of stories. All the writers followed the guidelines and used the word count really well. I felt that all the stories would only benefit from being longer.” This is such an endorsement for our writers and as I’ve been saying a unique opportunity to get feedback at this level.

All the entrants received a general overall comment which was both encouraging and helpful.

In First Place we have Rebecca Young

THE STALKER

Congratulations! Rebecca you are a second time winner!

We’re holding the story back as Rebecca is working on it, to hopefully send it in to one of the magazines that Paul has suggested.

In Second Place we have Adnan Al-Baroudi

Congratulations Adnan! This is a first-time entry and you’ve done very well, we look forward to other stories.

THE CHILDREN ARE CRYING

“You must hurry, Markus.” The distant voice called from behind the walls. “The children are crying, and the flood waters continue to rise.”

This voice – this mysterious entity has been speaking to me ever since I entered this god-forsaken tomb. I should’ve stayed at the campsite. I should’ve never come here. I’ve had a terrible feeling about this place ever since I arrived here, and truth be told, I was given warnings aplenty, but the strange invitation letter from my old friend Commodore Theodore Barnabus, who was extremely adamant on inviting me here without giving away any details about the purpose of the invitation intrigued me.

There was something else beyond natural that was residing beneath the earth that they were beginning to discover, and they seemed quite convinced that it was behind a series of unfortunate episodes that had put a kink into some of their operations. Theodore explained that the colonists did not want to openly admit it, but he could read the concerned looks they quietly exchanged with each other and understood as well as they did that they must have stirred a dormant evil. I was only an archeologist and doctor of human psychology, so why else invite me?

This was supposed to be a brief visit. My study was supposed to proceed back in my mansion in Luxembourg. The only instruments I brought with me was equipment to measure small samples of rock and soil, a recorder, a dated map of the island and some assorted reads about the history and relevant commentary on this region. However, the exit is sealed. I am now isolated from my camp inside the earthly caverns beneath the soil and all I’m left with is my journal and this useless lantern that doesn’t illuminate anything but my trembling hand. The air here is dank, and I’m reminded of the scent of death everywhere I turn. There are carvings down here in an ancient hieroglyphic language I do not recognize, and chillingly detailed symbols too graphic for me to describe. Whatever made these was a sinister being, and I am left to wonder if the voice speaking to me somehow bares some answers to a lot of these … inscribed memories.

There is a history here lying dormant. I’ve seen my fair share of paranormal activities in the past. The caves of North Africa come to mind; the forests of Manchuria, and that one incident in the Southern Islands of Indonesia – but this place feels completely different.

I did some of my investigation as soon as I arrived on the shores of Manama. The fort construction was proceeding on schedule, and other than the occasional dissent everything was progressing with absolute normalcy. That was until one night when the tide moved in a little closer than people had anticipated, and with it an ancient stone seal beneath the sand collapsed only  a few miles from the fort’s location, what nobody realized was that the doorway behind this seal belonged to a large burial mound that had been buried beneath the sand for over four thousand years. No one had noticed it before. No one cared to ask. No one dared to approach it, and so it was ignored.

Until some weeks went by and night fell over the labor camps near the construction site people reported a loud and terrifying scream. The scream sounded like a child. And this was strange, because there are no children in the camp. The next morning a labor worker went missing.

This cycle repeated itself every single day afterwards, while other accidents began to arise. One incident saw three laborers dead of dreadful incinerations following a fire the night before. In another incident two soldiers were found drowned off shore with their feet chained to a heavy weight, once again there was no explanation for it. Work was getting disrupted due to what people described were strange ghost sightings, and it wasn’t long before things began to turn very sour. These sightings escalated to the point when laborers reported a gunshot, and the soldier in question was found the next morning huddling in a corner and quivering in terror over the limp corpse of his comrade. When asked what had happened he offered no sensible explanation.

The soldier was executed, as per protocol, but I was finally allowed to view the reports and was chilled at what he described. He simply said: “I did it for the children. He needed me to save the children.” And when asked who was ‘he’ the soldier only said: “A voice.”

Command eventually had to issue strict orders to restore some measure of order, among them were that there would be no mention of ghosts, and any such mention would result in harsh punishment. This of course did little to perturb chaos, because the very same day those orders were barked out almost twenty laborers that night had suffocated in their beds.

I’m left to wonder if perhaps it was this same voice the soldier mentioned that was accompanying me through these dark tunnels. He had a sound that I could only describe as alarmingly mechanical, and lacking any morsel of remorse, and yet there was an urgent weight to his tone. Each time he called me by name I felt as though I was listening to an old friend, as though he was expecting me.

I had barely slept the first night in the small camp I established beside the burial mounds before I heard the scream of a small child. I woke to feel the familiar crawls prickling up my spine and recognized that there would be no sleep tonight. Gathering what courage I could muster, I stepped out from my camp armed only with a lantern. In the silent approach to the burial mound my boots crunched over the sand and the distant sea crashed against the shore.

“You should hurry, Markus,” the voice invited me. “The children are crying.”

In Third Place we have Maeve Skinner

Congratulations Maeve! This is a first-time entry and you’ve done very well, we look forward to other stories.

MISSING

Ben was playing hide and seek in the food aisles of Al Osra.

I was in a hurry. ‘Bennnn, Mummy has to go – now,’ I called again.

Still no sign of his little body racing to hurl himself against my legs. The assistants hadn’t seen him for a few moments. My frustration replaced by a flutter of realization. He wasn’t in the shop. Glanced towards the car park and saw him. He held the hand of a woman I’d never seen before, walking away from the store.

‘What are you doing with my son!’ I shouted at the stranger and swept Ben into my arms. ‘Buwds’, he pointed towards the aviary.

‘Where were you taking him?’ I shouted at the stranger.

‘What’s the problem,’ she looked surprised.  ‘I was leaving the store when this beautiful boy appeared at my side. He pointed outside, I assumed he was following his mother. He pulled me towards the aviary. Why did you leave your son to wander off alone?’

I glared. Embarrassed. ‘I apologize. Thank you for looking after my son.’ I turned to leave.

She peered closely. ‘Are you Ruth Martin?’

‘Yes. But we haven’t met…’

‘We have. Almost three years ago when our babies were born in Awali Hospital. I’m Anna McCann. Don’t you remember me? We were in the same antenatal class but we moved to Dubai shortly after.’

‘No, I’m sorry.’ I studied her. Nondescript features, doughy complexion, tired eyes and lank, loose hair.

‘So many of that group left Bahrain after you’d had your babies. What did you have?

‘A boy, his name was Anthony.’

Was! The word hung between us. The look in her eye was disturbing.

‘He died a year ago, on his second birthday. He would have been three on 22nd.  Like Ben.’

‘I’m so sorry…’

‘It’s alright.  I go through this more times than you can imagine. I usually deny having a child. But when Ben appeared ….’

Fortunately Ben chose that moment to break the tension.  ‘Go car, Mummy,’ he tugged my arm. His face flushed with heat.

‘Sorry Anna, I have to go.’ Damn. My third Sorry to this disturbing woman.

‘We must meet up. We’ve recently moved to Amwaj and I don’t know many people. Give me your number and I’ll give you a missed call. Perhaps we could meet for coffee.’

Reluctantly I reeled off my number, tempted to give a wrong digit but Amwaj was too small. I’d bump into her anyway.

I put Ben into his baby seat and reversed out.  Anna stood unmoving, watching us. I waved. She didn’t wave back.

The first call came three days later. ‘Please come to tea and biscuits with Ben.’  Against my will I agreed. I felt sorry for her. Guilt I suppose.

Anna lived in Zawia 1, overlooking the Lagoon.

‘This is Anthony’s room. I’ve kept it as it would be, if he was alive.’

My blood ran cold as she showed me the car shaped bed. Bookshelves filled with neatly stacked books and games. A child’s desk and chair. A cupboard filled with clothes to fit Ben’s size. She must have brought all this stuff recently.

‘I cant accept that he’s gone,’ she explained. ‘An accident in a building site. He wandered off and entered an empty building and fell down a lift shaft.’

Too terrible to contemplate.  Anna had a breakdown and was still under medication.

Anna continued to find excuses to meet . I agreed, even inviting her to our house on Tala.  Her sadness hung like a shroud fuelling my unwarranted guilt.  She clung to Ben, tempting him with gifts from Anthony’s hoard. He wriggled away, guided by a sixth sense.

Anna became my Stalker: At the supermarket. Out walking. On the beach. ‘Just passing by.’

Things reached a climax. One day I returned to the house and found her in Ben’s bedroom. Sitting on his bed reading from one of ‘Anthony’s’ books.

‘What are you doing here?’ I yelled hysterically.

‘I rang the doorbell but no answer.  Saw Ben crying at the window. I pushed the door and Darling Ben let me in. He handed me one of Anthony’s books – how could I refuse?’

‘That’s a lie!’ I shouted. I called for Carmel, my housegirl. ‘Did you hear the doorbell. Did you let this woman in?’

‘No Ma’am. I was outside hanging washing, door not locked. I didn’t see lady.’

I was furious. ‘Ben doesn’t like anyone to read to him except for John and me.’

‘Perhaps he likes my voice,’ she said unsmiling. ‘Anthony loved me reading to him. I’ve brought more of his books for Ben. He was really enjoying this story, weren’t you my darling.’ A shiver ran up my spine as she cuddled my son and kissed his head.

‘Get out. Don’t ever come into my house again.’ Quick as a flash, Anna gave Ben another kiss. I’ll see you again,’ she whispered and left.

What happened to Anthony? I checked the web for Emirati newspapers of a year ago. There it was.  Mystery of English toddler found dead on building site.  Workmen had seen a woman and child on a balcony. The child standing on the edge. The woman seemed to reach for him but he fell to his death.  She was arrested but released into psychiatric care. An icy hand clutched my heart.

The day before Ben’s 3rd birthday I had a splitting headache. I dozed in bed, Ben playing in his room nearby. Carmel ironing in the kitchen. I heard Ben giggle. Smiled to myself; such a happy child.  Then silence. Too quiet. I jumped up;  Ben’s room was empty.

‘Where is he Carmel?’

‘Didn’t see him Ma’am.’

Heard shouting from crowd gathered at building site across wasteground. Yelling and pointing upwards. Small figure standing in open lift, six floors up. It was Ben. ‘How did he get there?’  Then I saw Anna behind him.

My winged feet raced across the sand. I screamed helplessly.  The foreman assessed the situation. Sent a group up the stairs, stationing one at each floor where the lift stopped.  The crane driver dispatched a worker to perch on the end of the wire and slowly manoeuvred it to swing towards the lift.

‘Mummeee, Mummeee,’ Ben crying for me. Heartbroken, I stood frozen and helpless.  Watched in horror as Anna, arm outstretched, stepped nearer to Ben. As she closed in, Ben stepped forward, towards the edge.

‘Come to me!’ Anna’s shriek floated down.  She pressed a button and the lift shook and moved higher. A collective roar rose from the crowd.

‘He’s mine,’ her screams echoed around the empty building. The cab driver re-positioned his crane. The wire now hung close to Ben. His fearful cries tore me to shreds.  A young man stood up on his precarious perch. His arm swept out and grabbed my son to safety.

An inhuman howl of anguish rent the air:  ‘Anthony why didn’t you come to me when I called,’ Anna screeched as her body spiralled down to her death.

Winning Entries

The challenge was to write a 1000 word story in which the “setting affects the character”. The sentence/prompt was: “The gardener had been up since dawn mowing the lawns and sweeping them”. This should be incorporated into the story at some point. It could be your opening sentence or your closing or just appear somewhere in the story.

Our judge was the talented and passionate author Ruth Jacobs. She writes a series of novels entitled Soul Destruction, which expose the dark world and the harsh reality of life as a call girl. Her debut novel, Soul Destruction: Unforgivable, was published in April 2013 by Caffeine Nights. Ruth studied prostitution in the late 1990s. She draws on her research and the women she interviewed for inspiration. She also has firsthand experience of many of the topics she writes about such as posttraumatic stress disorder, and drug and alcohol addiction. In addition to her fiction writing, Ruth is also involved in non-fiction for her charity and human rights campaigning work in the areas of anti-sexual exploitation and anti-human trafficking. Ruth gave our three winners valuable tips. And here are the Winners for the June Contest:

1st Place: Rebecca Young

2nd Place: Simi Kamboj

3rd Place: Apoorva Mishra

We are only featuring two of the stories as Simi Kamboj is developing her story further for possible publication.

The Gardener’s Wedding

by Rebecca Young

Word Count: 996

The gardener had been up since dawn mowing the lawns and sweeping them. For the past 27 years, Tom Fields had cared for these grounds. Watching the early morning light filtering through the trees he thought he had never seen a more glorious day. Perfect for a wedding.

From the big house, a pathway through the formal knot garden led to a sweep of emerald lawn. At the back of this lawn, a sea of white chairs lined up in precise rows like soldiers in front of a white gazebo. The gazebo was framed on either side by pink climbing roses and backed up to a wooded area. It would be a beautiful setting for Charlotte Biltmore’s fairy-tale wedding, which was taking place in just a few hours. By then, the sun would warm the roses, filling the air with their fragrance.

The chairs bordering the aisle had tin buckets attached; awaiting the bouquets that Tom’s assistant Sam was just delivering from the greenhouse. Eschewing her mother Bitzy’s more exotic tastes, Charlotte liked old fashioned flowers like peonies, sweet peas, lilies and English roses. She had asked Tom if he could provide the arrangements for the ceremony.

“It just seems silly to buy them when we have some many lovely flowers here,” she’d said.

He had been happy to oblige, knowing that Charlotte would be pleased with whatever he came up with. They were old friends. Each year, he had planted her a children’s garden, filled with snap dragons, pea vine teepees, purple carrots, licorice, giant pumpkins and fairy houses he built. When Charlotte left for college, Bitzy insisted Tom turn it into a sculpture garden featuring a tacky piece Peter had purchased for her in Italy. That summer, Charlotte caught Tom pruning in the sculpture garden.

“I miss my garden! I suppose I’m too grown up now, but it was magical.” She had smiled, then sighed, “I’ll just have to plant my own someday.”

Never was a girl more different from her mother. Bitzy always wanted the newest and the best. And she always wanted more. For all her wealth and education, Charlotte had remained remarkably unspoiled. At 25, she was still a wide-eyed innocent; marrying an equally idealistic young doctor, Mark Ashcroft.

Bitzy and Peter were just a little disappointed in their future son-in-law. He was brilliant, good looking, charming. He was successful enough, in a way, and had a passable family. But offered nothing to really elevate their daughter’s position (or their own). The young couple couldn’t be bothered by the subtleties of social climbing. They were in love and out to change the world. Their planned honeymoon was a Doctor’s Without Borders trip to Ecuador. Real life would probably disillusion them soon enough, but Tom thought their love would last.

Tom turned his attention to the next task at hand. Instead of just scattering pink rose petals in the aisle, he had wanted to surprise Charlotte by arranging them in an intricate swirling heart pattern he’d found inspiration for on the internet. If his buddies ever discovered his secret Pintrest account, he would never live it down. It had taken several wheelbarrow loads of petals, much, much more than they had, but Tom was able to call in some favors and requisition enough. Starting by the gazebo, he began arranging them according to the sketch he had made. He was just finishing when he heard someone approach.

“That’s nice,” drawled Bitzy Biltmore. “I’m surprised you could come up with something like that Tom. But you do have an eye for beauty.”

Maybe she was fishing for a compliment because she knew her radiant daughter would easily outshine her today. He stood up beside her, examining the effect. “It is pretty,” he said, turning to look at her, “but not as beautiful as you.”

She gave him a haughty smile. Bitzy was still beautiful, but there was a worldliness, a hard edge to her beauty now. She was still long, lean, tanned. But he remembered when he had first met her, so many years ago. Her looks had been softer, more inviting. Her deep brown eyes had sparkled. Now they usually just flashed with annoyance or contempt. Her laugh had been so free, bubbling up out of her. It was so controlled now, like every other part of the socialite’s image. It had been a long time since he had earned one of her laughs.

“Can you believe I am old enough to be mother of the bride?” asked Bitzy, fishing again.

“No,” Tom paused, searching for Sam. He was no where to be seen. “Bitz…” he began.

She started, then stared fixedly at the design, “Don’t call me that.”

“But, after everything. Please tell me about Charlotte, Bitz. I know, but I need to hear it from you.”

“I don’t know what it is you think you know.”

Tom interrupted. “You know exactly what I know! Don’t pretend we haven’t talked about this before. She is my daughter. She has my nose, my height. She doesn’t look anything like Peter! The dates are right. I know it. But I want you to tell me it’s true.”

“How dare you speak to me about this on today of all days,” she seethed. “Just like you to drag out the ugly past now to spoil everything!”

He flushed, ashamed. He lowered his voice, pleading now. “Please Bitz. I just have to know.”

She turned around, facing the house. “No. Of course not. When you are done here, please attend to the ribbons on the topiaries in the drive. Crisp bows please.”

After she left, Tom festooned the topiaries and was then pressed into service helping with the last minute touches in the reception tent on the west lawn. As he worked, he realized he would hand in his notice on Monday. Finally, everything was perfect and it was time. Tom slipped unnoticed into a chair on the back row to watch his daughter’s wedding.

— End —

The Party

by Simi Kamboj

This entry was withheld from publication here as it was entered in a Literary Journal where we are extremely happy to announce that Simi’s story was published!

You may read her story here: The Prague Revue

The Girl in a Saree

by Apoorva Mishra

Word Count: 800

“I am having feeling”, she said. She never took her eyes off me. I kissed her forehead as she collapsed on the bed. I offered her a glass of water and asked her if she said that to everyone. It was her first time, she said.

We still had ‘time’ so I ordered dinner. She refused to eat until I finished eating. When I insisted, she ate the fries while leaving the burger for me.

“My friend recommended this place to me. She said the job was good and the money was better”, she offered to tell me her story.

“Why did you come here?” I asked her as I looked at her. I was angry, at her and myself.

She smiled wryly and turned her face away from me. I regretted asking that question. She never had a choice. I gave her the money and reminded her to ask for money before going any further. It was time to go and she asked for my phone number. I asked her to stay and she agreed.

“Why did you come here?” I asked her again.

“To be free”, she replied.

Before I could ask her what she meant by that, she began showing me the pictures on her phone.

“Do you know what a saree is?” she asked me as I saw a picture of her, looking resplendent in a white saree. I gave her an approving smile. She blushed as she put the phone away and leaned in for a kiss.

I looked over the window and the gardener had been up since dawn mowing the lawns and sweeping them.

“What will you do when you become free?”, I asked her when she said that she had to pay her ‘agent’ a fixed sum.

“I will do anything I want”, she said as she arranged the books on the corner shelf.

“What do you mean by that?”

“I don’t know”, she answered as she sprayed the room freshener generously on the carpet.

She wanted to watch a movie on the weekend and I agreed to go with her. I reminded her that she needed to ask her ‘agent’ first. She smirked and asked me to make coffee for her.

“You have a nice home. I wish I could stay longer”, she said with a hint of sadness in her eyes as her phone buzzed incessantly. I wanted to stop her from going out but the reality of our situation struck me. To be free, is what we secretly desired yet here we were, slaves to our needs. At least she could blame others for being in this situation. My problems, on the other hand, were purely down to my indiscretions. I wanted to help her for she did not deserve this life where the money she earned was just to keep her on the right side of her agent. She needed to leave and leave soon.

I suggested that I pay her agent so she could go back home. She refused and kept looking at my room, content with what she had done about the general lack of order.

I led her gently onto the sofa, knelt down on the floor as I held her hand and asked her, “Why are you here?” I could see that a part of her wanted to say yes and I wanted to hear her say that.

“To be free”, she said yet again.

“Will you go home after your contract expired?” I asked her, clearly looking for an answer that would satisfy the sense of superior moral authority in me.

“I will go home for a month and come back again”, she said as she played with her phone.

I stood up and walked over to the door and bid her goodbye. She reminded me of our weekend plans. I knew she would never be allowed to be emotionally attached to anyone at work. But I wished we could go out and saved her phone number onto my phone.

It has been a year since we met and I await her call, hoping that we meet. Today I saw her again and her smile had lost the sense of familiarity towards me. I walked up to her and asked if she wanted to come with me. She agreed.

“Are you free now?” I asked her as we ate the burger, split in half.

“Yes. I am free”, she answered and for a moment I thought I saw that smile return to her lips.

Later that weekend, we went to the movies. We walked on the cobbled streets framed by the moon above and the rows of rectangular homes below as she pulled me closer and whispered into my ears.

“I am having feeling”, she said. I think I finally got my answer.

— END —

 

The challenge was to depict a Sore Loser in under 300 words using a story format
 
Our judge was the Indian writer Kavery Nambisan whose book ‘The Story That Must Not be Told‘ was short-listed for the Man-Asian Literary Prize. In her comments on the winning entries she said, “I must say you’ve given them a challenge! Not easy…They seem to have understood the word constraints that you must have set, and the theme. Each of them shows promise, in different ways… In stories as short as these, every word must be made to count. It’s a good exercise.”
 
Now let our readers enjoy the first of what we hope will be a regular feature from the Creative Writers’ Circle.
The WINNER is Simi Kamboj
RUNNERS UP are Rebecca Young and Noor Nass

A Sore Loser

Simi Kamboj

Word Count: 200

“I want to die.”

“Hmm, what?” I adjusted the television volume. Manchester United was playing Real Madrid in the Champions League final and I had settled in for the evening.

“I said I want to die,” she repeated, louder this time.

“Why?”

“Because I’m a failure. I’m worth nothing.”

“What happened?”

“I went for the audition”

“And”?

“They chose some Nina. The producers thought she had ‘charisma’.”

“Maybe she did,” I nodded absently.

“You really think so? I think the audition was a farce!”

“Look,  there’ll be other opportunities.”

“That’s it. Maybe she told the producers she’d do anything for the part, and batted those fake eyelashes at them. Charisma, my foot!”

“Listen, you’re talented. You’re taking music lessons. Something will work out.”

“I think I’ve had enough. I want to take a break from everything”.

“Alright, but can we discuss this after the game?”

“Just as I thought. If I walked off the terrace this instant, nobody would notice. When you finish with your game, you can go looking for the charismatic Nina.”

At this point, Wayne Rooney headed the ball into the net. By the time I could tear my eyes away from the television, she was gone.

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RUNNER UP

Family Game Night

by Rebecca Young

BWC “Sore Looser” Contest Entry

Word Count: 297

Family Game Night

“Then I’ll trade this wheat for bricks and then build another road and a settlement,” Bill narrated as he changed his cards for two blue pieces, which he then placed on triumphantly on the board. “That’s nine points.”

“So you are winning,” grumbled Heather, 12, who didn’t especially care for her uncle Bill. Emily didn’t blame her daughter. Bill had been whining the whole game that he had the worst spots on the board, the dice never favored him or they ganged up on him. She didn’t see how. Bill’s mousy wife Karen hardly dared make a play and their daughter, Molly, 10, seemed equally cowed.

It was funny, how playing brought up childhood memories of other games- invariably won by Bill. She looked at her hand. But maybe not today.

She cast the die, rolling a six. “That gives me another point,” Emily said, revealing her hand “and I have three points here, so makes ten. I win!”

Bill looked at the cards in her hand disbelievingly. Then his lips pressed into a hard thin line. “You always were a little cheat.”

Astonished, she laughed, stopping short as she looked at Bill’s cold expression. “C’mon Billy- it’s just a game,” said Emily.

Bill shoved his chair back from the table, scattering pieces on the board. Emily saw Molly flinch. “Time to go,” he said, storming towards the door.

Disbelieving, Emily looked at Karen, who wouldn’t meet her eyes. Karen got up and warily made her way over to Bill.

Another childhood flashback- of Bill’s grimace as he gave Emily an Indian burn that left bruises. Afterwards, he was more careful not to leave a mark. And she was careful to avoid him.

What did I just do? she thought, as she watched Molly scuttle after them.

 —————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

RUNNER UP

SORE LOSER

By Noor Nass

Word count: 260

Her name was Sama, she was eighteen years of age. Life seemed good in her parent’s eyes, a popular reputation, a highly achieved GPA from a well-established high school in the country, and a very loved character among her peers. The new car gift from her Grandfather just made it seem very liberating; and a scholarship from Yale University made her dream even better. Until came across her path an opportunity of a proposal by a close relative of hers, she couldn’t let that slip away too.

For a marriage from a member within her own family would not come that easy and who knows when she would fall in love again, if not now!

But life seemed a bit unfair when she came back from her summer holidays in Paris, after her engagement from Zatter. For her life came to an end for her studies in Yale University. For she soon discovered that a child was on his way to this beautiful life that she called the Sand Island “Bahrain”.

As a young bride she began to feel betrayed by life itself, away from her peers, away from her daily outing with friends and limited intake of food due to the babies effect on her body, not to mention consent of a husband’s approval every time she wanted to do something. She began to feel like a loser. Sama began to whine and whine and whine! In 5 years she managed to lose everything that everybody considered to be a success and her whining came to an end ..

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Three years I spent with and without her. The last time she called, I blew her off. And now, two weeks later, I’ve been asked to give her eulogy.

I do not know when it was that I fell in love with her. I do not know whether it was when she prayed earnestly for my sick father to be well again or when she playfully punched me on my arm if she did not have a smart comment when I teased her mercilessly about things. I do not know whether it was when she insisted that I do not miss a single class with an oh-so-serious look on her pretty face or how her gorgeous brown eyes stared at the notebook in concentration as she completed class notes for me. I do not know whether it was when we watched the moon together or when she confided in me with tears in her eyes that she was an orphan. I don’t know whether love happened when she hugged me with pride and joy after her graduation or when she quietly held my hand afterward. I can’t point to a specific time as the one moment that ‘I fell in love’ with her and I have no clue how I did. However at end of the day, I was a goner. I was head over heels in love with her.

Our relationship was doomed right from the start. My parents would never accept an orphan girl into our family as my wife. I did not care about what anyone else thought. I was in love. And being so lost in love, I chose to ignore the fact that 95pc of long distance relationships do not work. I wanted to make us work. Our careers took us to different cities and different countries. Things got so hectic that we were never together in the same city for more than three days. Time moved on. Days became months and years. Three long not-so-happy years passed. The initial wonder and determination gave way to exhaustion and frustration. Love took second place to practicality. We broke up. And it was ugly.

She did not want to break up. And she made it painfully clear in more ways than one. But I was sure this was the best way out. I chose not to listen to the tiny nagging voice inside that said that I was making a mistake. I stuck to my decision. She called occasionally. Conversations would begin in a friendly tone and end in either her crying and blaming me for everything or in me losing my temper and slamming the phone down. This went on for a while. I was reaching the end of the rope as far as my patience was concerned. The last time she called was nearly two weeks ago and I totally lost it. I blew her off. And today I’m numb with shock, disbelief, hurt and above all guilt when a common friend rang to say that she passed away this morning. She had been the victim of a hit and run accident. She died on the spot.

I was always bad at expressing my feelings except maybe anger. So, when I replaced the phone on its cradle, it was almost natural when I began scribbling my feelings on paper. Remorse and a truckload of guilt ate at my insides. If only I had known that she would be taken away this soon…

The Last Time

I do not remember
The last time we spoke over the phone
Was it a Tuesday? Or a Friday?
Was it a sunny day? Or was it raining?
Were you crying? Or holding back your tears?
If I had known that it was our last phone conversation,
Would I have spoken to you longer?
Would I have been kinder?
Would I have shouted at you and slammed the phone?
Or would I have told you that I loved you no matter what?

I do not remember the last time
That you cooked one of your special dinners for me
How you pondered over many recipes before you decided the one
If I had known it was our last dinner together,
Would I have enjoyed the food more?
Would I have complimented you more heartily?
Would I have eaten slower?
Would I have helped you clean up after?
Or would I have insisted on another candle-light dinner?

I do not remember the last time
When we made sand-castles on the beach
Or the last time you wrote our names
On the sand and waves washed them away.
Would I have stayed longer?
Would I have laughed harder?
The last time we saw a movie together,
Would I have held your hand longer in the theatre darkness?
The last time I kissed the nape of your neck
And sent shivers down your spine and goose bumps on your hands
Would I have kissed you more?
If I had known it was the last time?

The last time we fought,
Would I have apologized first?
Or would I have avoided the fight altogether?
The last time I held you in my arms,
How small you felt against me
How soft, how warm, how nice…
Would I have held you longer?
Or would I have never let you go?
I don’t remember the last time I did hug you,
But heaven knows how I wish I did.

Sadly, I do remember when exactly we broke up
I remember your tears and shock.
I remember how you asked me why I left you
I remember how hollow and empty we felt
I remember how I broke your heart and I will never be able to forget it
If I had known that it was the last time,
That we were going to be taken away soon, so soon,
Would I have broken your heart?
Would I have pushed you away?
If only I knew it was the last time…

A BWC Creative Workshop Exercise

Secreted from the underbelly of the moth caterpillar called Bombyx mori, it sat in suspension for thirty-five days, a single filament one and half kilometres long. The cocoon was plunged into a hot bath to loosen the glue that held the threads together. Then it was cooled so that this thread could be unravelled. The caterpillar died in the process. That fine single strand of silk, for which a life was sacrificed, then joined three other martyrs to form a thread of one of the finest, most prized fibres in the world.

It shone in the light with a gentle glow, blushing as each of its minute three-sided faces caught a sunbeam that exposed its lissom length and supple sinews. It glowed as a moonbeam caressed its tresses. And it stretched in pleasure almost to its tensile limit pleased at its own resilience as one of the strongest natural filaments in the world. Its pride was short-lived.

Before it could revel in its own existence, the thread was trapped. Caught and wound into a skein. Then, enslaved in a ring, the yarn was packed off to a fabled land, Turkey. Here in the dyer’s harem the skein lost the innocent cream of its youth and was plunged into an indigo dye.

The indigo whispered its own sad story of capture, beatings and torture. The two strangers in a strange land wept and embraced each other. As their tears mingled the indigo imbued the silk with the softest, most beautiful hue of sorrow – blue; the kind that shines bravely in the sun and glistens pensively in the moonlight.

Today, a three denier thread of that silk waits suspended, rigid with fear, as a lady’s fingers clutch its neck and aim to push it into the oval eye of a sharp metal spike. At the last moment the thread flinches and dodges the eye of the needle.

The lady looks at the thread, then gently slides it over her tongue. The wet muscular rough appendage arouses an old memory – the glue that once held each strand tight and safe in that cocoon of the Bombyx mori caterpillar so long ago. The recollection makes all three deniers cling to each other now stiff with anticipation as they fly through the eye of the needle. It is threaded.

And the slavery of the silk is complete as the metal spike pulls all three strands together through the squared fabric to form a blue daisy in the lady’s embroidery. The silk sighs as it succumbs to its eternal punishment, forever bent, never free to flow and dance in the light again except in minute parts of its length as it weeps across the tapestry.

Poet’s notes : The story of our man, illustrated in the letter, is very abstract. The lines must not be taken literally or physically, in the man’s interactions with the tree and the experiences he goes through. I didn’t want to restrict the reader’s imagination. It is written in such a way, that you join the dots in your own unique way. What is this key? Maybe it’s a fruit from this accursed vampyric tree, maybe it is an actual key that opens a door inside the tree where the man enters. Maybe the roaming soul mentioned at the beginning of the poem possesses the man, and inhabits his mind with all these thoughts of him being a tree, it’s all up to the reader. I found similarities in the nature of trees that are vampyric in my opinion that I wanted to exploit ,away from the traditional ‘bat-tale’. The bottom line of this piece that I really want to emphasize is this: What if vampirism isn’t just merely a bat-bite? What if it’s something more? A biological or metaphorical mutation of pure human emotions and feelings like lust, greed and power. My endeavor in this piece is to explore those emotions and emphasize on human frailty and weakness, realization of the vanity, of the beautiful promise of immortality and then ending the letter with melancholy remorse.Thus, the opening line “Someone died of looking too far”, Hope I delivered such ideas into your mind and thanks for reading.

“Someone died of looking too far”

The forest near Golgoltha is like flesh to a bone,
It’s been there since the beginnings of time.
Now that flesh bleeds and the bone’s become weak,
The trees hold sway to an ancient rhyme.
Maybe from a pebble, maybe a stone,
A soul began to roam seeking different forms.
And maybe it gathered a lust for immortality
Even greed!
All that is certain is the blackness,
of this seed.
Now it lurks within an oak tree,
In the forest of Golgoltha
Where no one is to wander free.
But as the fate’s tragic strings do play,
A man happened to go astray.
A man with a character, who’s ever hungry,
Ever in need for more!
That never finds rest,
Never reaches shore.
They say he met his end,
Leaving behind him only a note,
buried underneath a tree,
In the forest of Golgoltha,
where no one is to wander free.

“There is a key,
Beneath the tree,
Made from its morbid leaves,
It reveals an ever-open door of unease.

Its branches shape my twisted thoughts,
And I crave what the trees really sought.
But entering is agony to the world untaught,
Of control, anger and remorse,
And I will be the center of its knot.

I realize I’m more,
As I dance in its rain,
I’m angelic!
Yet truthfully vain,
I perceive my dark strains,
I see them reflected on a tiny sand grain.

They are trees,
Rotten pulp inside and never well.
Roots sucking, ever-growing, undying thirst!
Tired boughs* reaching for the light.

Decadent, Taking from others to live.
Bound forever to marvel at death.

And now I have become like them,
Sucking crimson fluid through a hollow stem.
Driven by hunger, weak in the light
Never at ease, roaming the night.

An unfettered beast within me,
Claiming sovereign control.
I pace deserted roads to find,
A refreshing taste of hope.

This is now my home that will,
hungrily devour my own name,
and my soul gladly kill,
with no deep enough, a grave.

While the moon is riding high
A veiled feeling is flaking inside
Where beauty sleeps in the lap of horror!

I feel the dark
I feel the dark…”

I had just finished teaching Engineering Graphics to my class of Senior year students when the school receptionist called me to the office. There was a DHL delivery man waiting for me with a small parcel. I showed him my ID card and signed the receipt and got the professionally wrapped box from him. I looked at the senders address. It said “Miracle Construction and Interior Designers” and gave the corporate address of the firm. I had heard of Miracle Constructions. Who did not? It was quite famous in town. But I wondered why they would send me a registered packet. Even though I was curious, I did not want to open the packet in the school office. I hurriedly walked to the privacy of my empty Engineering Graphics hall to open my little surprise. After carefully cutting away the binding twine and layers of external wrapping paper, I was left with a black velvet jewellery box. My curiosity rose to a higher level and I eagerly opened this little box. Inside was a beautiful charm bracelet crafted in gold. I lifted it carefully out of the box and examined it. Tears of joy began to well up in my eyes as I recognised my own ‘Memory Bracelet’. I looked for an accompanying note or a letter and I found a letter among one of the layers of packaging. I was in a hurry to open the packet that I somehow missed it. Now that I found the letter, I tore it open and read as fast as my eyes could read. Tears of happiness and pride rolled down my cheeks and I made no attempt to wipe them away. I cherished the moment and I knew it was not every day I would feel something like this. The letter was signed Asghar Khalifa. I sank bank into my chair and thought of Asghar and how he was all those years ago. I thought of how I impacted his life and he, mine. I held my memory bracelet and slipped it onto my wrist. In my mind, I travelled back in time. Eight years.

Asghar was one of the students of the first batch that I taught at The Good Shepherd School.  I joined the Good Shepherd School as the Engineering Graphics teacher for the junior and senior students just after the summer of 2003 when Aaron, my wonderful husband of four years was diagnosed with terminal lymphoma or the cancer of the lymph nodes. I did not want to take up the job. All I wanted was to stay by my husband’s side and care for him. His health was failing fast and the chemotherapy sessions weren’t kind to him either. We had a live-in paramedic at home as my husband did not want to stay admitted in the hospital for his treatments. As a result, one wing of our not-so-small villa was converted into a mini-hospital and it certainly felt like one. I, who always was queasy when it came to hospitals and medicines did not enjoy this medical renovation of our house, but if I had a choice, I would first make my Aaron better. But he showed no signs of getting better. His health kept deteriorating so fast that every day when I got back from work, I felt he had aged 2 years in the past few hours. I would then mentally make a note to resign my job and stay with Aaron but he would not hear of it. In fact, the job was his idea. In the nine years that we were together, he had asked only two things of me. One was to marry him after a whirlwind romance of 5 years. The other thing was to take up this job. Even though I was a civil engineer by profession, I never wanted to spend hours in the office. I did freelance work for friends and family and that was about it. But when the job offer from the school came to us through one of Aaron’s professional acquaintances, he was adamant that I take this job up. He knew I hated the hospital atmosphere and he knew my heart broke to see him sick but his logic which almost never coincided with mine was that I needed a change from the sickly hospital atmosphere at home. And my freelancing work wouldn’t be able to guarantee that. It was useless fighting with him over this and I knew it. With every last ounce of strength in him, he pleaded and begged and threatened and ordered me to join work as soon as possible. He had constant medical support from the hospital and  to top it, there was the live-in paramedic. He said he was going to be fine. I had no choice but to believe him and take up the job at the school.

I do not think I did justice to my two batches of senior and junior students, not at least in the first month of work. My mind was always at home with Aaron and I kept checking my phone every 15 minutes to make sure that I did not have any missed calls from home. I hurried to finish off the syllabus and did not make any particular attempts to know the names of students even. I was doing something that I was forced to do when I’d rather be at home. It was evident in my classes. Even though the feedback forms from the students said that I taught well, I knew that they were just being nice. I did not do a good job and I knew it. Aaron was in my thoughts always and when the school day got over at the end of the 9th period, I rushed home to stay with him. All I wanted to do was just stay with him.

You know how they say fate is cruel? Well, I can write a book on the cruelties of fate. I lost my father when I was just 4 years old. And when I was in my second year of college, my mom went away to join my dad in heaven. I have had to wage a war against my odds to make it out in the world and the only good thing that happened in my life was Aaron. And fate took him also away after we lost our battle with his cancer. Devastated was an understatement to describe the way I felt. I was under shock for a few days and all the procedures were carried out by our family friends. I watched how my life was not going to be the same again through a third person’s eyes. We did not have any children. Our first attempt at having a child resulted in an aborted foetus and my uterus was ruptured. I could never conceive ever again (Didn’t I tell you fate was cruel?). Whatever Aaron made in his lifetime was transferred in my name in the last few days when he was alive. Maybe he had an inclination that he was going to die real soon. When I was away at school during the day, he had painstakingly called a lawyer and made a will entrusting everything to me. He had sorted out all his bank formalities, changed the ownership in the bond documents and bank accounts. He knew me well enough to know that I would not be in a position to handle any legalities after his death and so, he had done all of that for me and I hadn’t had a clue that he did all of this. He knew that I would never marry again – I had sworn it to him the day he was diagnosed with cancer and he wanted to make my life better  – or at least liveable, in whatever ways he could before death called him away. And he did. Starting with making me stand on my two feet without anybody’s help – my job at the school. True, the pay was not all that great, but it was enough and more for a widow like me who had my dead husband’s savings to fall back on in case of emergencies. My Aaron did all he could and beyond. He was the one person who knew me inside out. For shouting out loud, he was my soul mate. And now, he was gone.

The school officials were gracious enough to give me a month off to mourn Aaron. Now that he was gone, I felt so empty inside. It was as if there was nothing worth living for. I agreed with the Bible and sincerely believed that suicide was a sin. If I did not, I would have gladly taken my life the moment death came knocking at Aaron’s door. But now, I was here. Alone. The day I went back to work, my students were sympathetic and kind enough not to give me any trouble. They quietly did the diagrams that I drew and explained on the board. They did not even ask me any doubts in class and I was grateful. When the bell rang at the end of my junior class, every single student in the class of 41 got up and came to my table. One of them had a  hand-made card and it was signed by all of them. I looked at the serious young faces and heard them say “Our Condolences, Teacher. We are really sorry”. And then, one by one, they came closer and hugged me, starting with the girls. This little, selfless action of theirs was so earnestly done that I felt so much better than I had in ages. One by one, they filed out of the class and I sat back in my chair. I couldn’t help but smile. True, I would never be a biological mother, but here I was in a class of 41 kids and the least I could do was make an effort to be the best teacher they ever had. I knew I had to focus on something else other than my sorrow and the engulfing hands of death that had taken so many important people from my life. And my class of students was a good distraction. In more ways than one.

I started putting more efforts into my classes and made sure my students knew what I was teaching. True, my class of students was considerably better than other divisions in the 11th grade, but there were academically weak students in my class too. I did not know how to work with them. It was challenging because I had never worked with such a  diverse group and I did not know how to get through to them and help them pass in the annual exams which were just two months away. I was working on  a plan to get them to pass their exams when I was called by the principal for a parent-teacher interaction session for the benefit of these weak students. I brightened up slightly because speaking to the parents first hand would give me a better insight into the lives of these children and I would know how to get across to them. I was right and wrong.

The Parent Teacher Interaction was nothing like what I expected it to be. For each division, all the teachers who taught the various subjects sat around in the room and each student along with his/her parents were called into the room. Then each teacher shared his/her opinion about the student with the parents and got the parents’ version of things. The discussion was supposed to be a productive one but I was horrified to find out that it was far from it. I was the new teacher on the block and nobody really cared much for my opinion. When the students came in one by one with their parents in tow, I was sad and horrified to note that my fellow teachers were so critical about the students and had almost demeaning comments about their performance in class. It was anything but positive criticism. It was unkind, hurtful and saddening. The kids sat with their heads bowed and the parents looked embarrassed. Whenever I could interject this discussion, I did talk about the positive things I could think of about the student. From my junior class of 41, 12 were called for the interaction. Of this lot, maybe 4 or 5 were genuinely not interested to be in school and the only reason they were there was because they had no choice (Exactly how I felt a few months before). The remaining others just needed help and I was determined to do all I could to help them out, at least in my subject of Engineering Graphics. There were tears shed and depressing looks and heads bowed and for the first time in my life, I felt this was what I was called to do. I had worked in an Interior design company before I got married and I also did freelance work on and off. But never before had I felt this way before. I knew God had definitely worked through people and certainly through Aaron when he forced me to take up this job. And I was now grateful. I had my task outlined clearly for me. I belonged here. I had to help these students. This is what I was called to do.

Even though I felt a pull at my heart strings during the course of the Parent Teacher interaction, the one time I felt tears well up in my eyes was when Asghar and his father  came into the room. He was the last student of the day. My colleagues went on their usual lines about how he was not going to pass in his 11th grade if he kept failing his internal exams and term papers. Asghar stared at the floor with vacant eyes while his father visibly fumed up. When the teachers were done with their individual monologues, the father added to the long list of complaints about Asghar’s academics and the works. Suddenly the big man got to his feet, lifted Asghar to his feet holding onto his shirt collars and slapped him hard across his face again and again. It all happened so suddenly that we teachers were stuck to inaction for a few seconds. Then when it sank in that the father was physically hurting his son, the male teachers got in between the father and son and tried to calm the father down. The tears which were threatening to flow down my cheeks finally did. I went over to Asghar and put my hands around him. Asghar was way taller than me and broader too. With some difficulty, I got him to sit down and tried telling him that it was going to be okay. But Asghar did not even raise his eyes to look at me. He kept staring at the floor and after a few minutes of comforting him, I seriously began to wonder whether he was able to even hear me because there was absolutely no response from him, not even a sign from his body language. I then held his chin and lifted his face to look at him. Tears were flowing down from his cheeks too. When he realised that I saw his tears, he wiped them off furiously and sneered to me “Go away” and walked out of the room. By now his father was much calmer and nobody had to say that the meeting was over, we saw the father walk to his car parked outside. By now, Asghar was already inside the car, with his seatbelt on. The father got into the driver’s seat, put on his seat belt and drove away. My fellow teachers looked visibly relaxed. Senseless banter continued between the teachers and the principal who was present. I do not remember the conversations, I just wanted to get home and have a good cry. And when I got home that day, I did. I cried long and hard. On one hand, I had had my revelation that this was what I was called to do for the rest of my life, and on the other hand, I was too heartbroken to see the way the Interaction went and especially how Asghar’s father hit his grown child. I knew there was a lot of work I had to do if I had to help these children and I prayed for strength and courage because I was all set to change the predictions that my fellow teachers made that these kids not seeing their 12th grade and graduation.

The next day, I was ready to take up my new challenge. During my class, I made an announcement asking all the 12 students who had attended the interaction session yesterday to stay back after class. From that day on, I started extra classes for Engineering Graphics and made sure I gave my personal attention to my students during their regular classes and the extra classes. Slowly but steadily, I saw small improvements in their performances. Asghar was an exception. No matter what I seemed to do, he stayed dumb – literally and otherwise. He looked uninterested in whatever was happening in the class and stared at me with a  blank look in his vacant eyes. I tried in vain to get him to talk to me. I tried the friendly approach and when that did not work, I tried the stern-teacher approach. Nothing seemed to make a difference to Asghar. He was always quiet in the class and lagged way behind the rest of his class. I was at my wit’s end and I had no clue what to do. After my multiple failed attempts, I began to ignore Asghar completely. Now when I think back at that, I see that as my failure as a teacher, but then again, I had tried everything I could and it was all useless.

The Annual Exams were just a week away. My group of special 12 was gearing up to get at least enough marks to pass. Once I helped them with their Engineering Graphics sums, I gave them time to study the other subjects they were giving exams for. I could not clarify their doubts and questions when it came to the other subjects, but at least I could give them an atmosphere to study and practice sums and write their reports and essays. They seemed to make some kind of progress. Well, everyone except Asghar. He was a super-special case. Even though he made it a point to attend all the regular classes and extra classes, I seriously began to wonder why he was wasting his time and my efforts by even being in the class. It was one of those days when I was particularly vexed about my students, especially Asghar when I saw him drawing clumsily on his drawing sheet. I couldn’t help but yell at him. “Why on earth aren’t you using a 30degree set-square to draw that diagram??” My voice came out louder than I intended. The class went silent. I did not lose my temper very easily with my students and this was one of the rare moments. I walked over to the elevated drawing table where Asghar was standing with his incomplete drawing sheet.

I repeated my question again. “Why are you not using a set square?? Don’t you have one?”. Asghar stared at me intently for a moment and asked a totally unrelated, random question “Teacher, can I have your bracelet?”.

I was visibly surprised and taken aback. It was the second time I heard what his voice sounded like. “What?”

“Can I have your bracelet?”

“Why do you need my bracelet for?”

Asghar just stared at me. His speech-quota was over.

I asked him again “Why do you want my bracelet, Asghar?”

He stopped looking at me. He looked down at his table and tried to continue his drawing.

I was quite puzzled at this weird exchange that we shared. I just stood in front of his table and asked the other students to resume their drawing. End of the day, I watched as the students took their backpacks and left for their homes. I hoped to speak to Asghar then. But he did not stop even when I asked him to and I felt like an idiot, I did not know why.

As I lay on bed that night, I could think of nothing else but Asghar and his strange request. He wanted my Memory Bracelet! Of all the things that Aaron had left behind of our life together, the Memory bracelet was my favourite. To anyone else, it was an ordinary charm bracelet, but it was anything but ordinary for me. Crafted in Sterling Silver, my memory bracelet had 12 tiny round slots where the charms were hooked on. Even thought there were 12 slots, only 9 were taken up by the charms. 9 tiny charms to denote the 9 lovely years that I got to spend with my Aaron.

contd.. Part -2 in the next post.

September 2017
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