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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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9D7A2263Esther Newton

Has been working as a freelance writer for fifteen years, regularly writing articles and short stories for magazines and newspapers such as Freelance Market News, Writers’ Forum, The New Writer, The Guardian, Best of British, The Cat, Woman’s Weekly, The People’s Friend and My Weekly to name a few, she has also won a number of short story competitions. These have been published in a collection, The Siege and Other Award Winning Stories, available from Amazon and all other on-line stores, in paperback and e-book format. A publisher has recently taken on Esther’s children’s book series; the first book will be coming out later this year.

Esther loves writing and enjoys helping other writers, which she achieves in her role as tutor for The Writers Bureau. In addition to tutoring, Esther has also started a blog, designed to provide writers with support, market information and advice. You can check out Esther Newton’s latest books here:

https://esthernewtonblog.wordpress.com/my-latest-book/

and her blog here

https://esthernewtonblog.wordpress.com

You can get a hint of Esther’s upcoming children’s book The Secret Dragon here.

Thank you Esther for agreeing to review our monthly challenge and for providing such encouraging insights into our stories!

The January Challenge

The new year kicked off with a slightly different approach to our challenges. We gave our members a choice of three prompts from which they could pick one, or more, challenges and weave a story around it in under 2000 words.

Here are the prompts:

The Room
One day as you were cleaning you noticed air being sucked towards the base of the wall near the cupboard. Perplexed you went closer to investigate. The air was going in, slightly yet in. You hold your breath and gingerly peel away at the wallpaper until a huge wrought iron door stands before you. Where…

Harold the Armchair
Write a story from the perspective of Harold the Armchair. What does he think about all day? Does he like being sat on? Do his parents approve of him being an armchair?

Abandoned hospital
Two people meet in an abandoned hospital, unaware that the other has been visiting too. Both have lost someone important in one of these rooms, and neither has been able to move on.

And here are the stories in no particular order.

The Room

By Glen Stansfield

How strange, I’ve never noticed that before. What on earth would cause that?

As a shaft of sunlight illuminates the tiny dust particles tripping off the end of my brush, each minute speck, a flickering star shining in its own tiny universe, is being drawn inexorably towards a metaphorical black hole at the base of the wall, a slow drift at first before accelerating to be devoured by the insatiable darkness. Perhaps not metaphorical, who knows how black holes work?

Professor Stephen Hawking does of course, maybe he could help out, but who am I trying to kid? Even his simplest of terms are often beyond me. The world and the universe happen, I don’t need any more of an explanation. In any case, I don’t move in those circles, not yet.

The chances of you catching me cleaning and having the sun shine on the same day are quite remote. This part of Scotland isn’t known for bright blue skies; combined with a total lack of interest in the more domestic chores and winning the lottery becomes a more likely prospect. That reminds me, it’s a rollover tomorrow: I better get a ticket.

The house has been mine for just over two years, yet it seems like only yesterday since Tanya and I separated. We could have worked harder at the relationship; I know that now, but I don’t think either of us did then, not until too late. So I moved away to concentrate on being a full time author and to hide my pain. I’m a romantic cliché in one of my own novels. God, I miss her.

Every author must dream of finding a remote cottage somewhere, sipping cups of exotic coffee, staring dreamily out of the window and waiting for a flash of inspiration to pop into your head, then bang away at the keys of an old typewriter until the latest best seller is ready to be snapped up by a publisher.

The reality is trying to peer through the rain before tapping away on a word processor in the hope something will make sense. Intersperse this with weekly visits to the nearest supermarket, fifteen miles away, to buy yet another jar of Nescafe instant, and you understand the real life of an author. Still, dreams cost nothing, and who knows, it might happen one day.

At least I’d managed to get the cottage part right, and I was published. Not properly published some would say. Self-publishing doesn’t count apparently. I’m selling books, what more do I need? And I retain full control. Master of my own destiny. ‘Aye, that’ll be right,’ as they would say around here.

One of the strips of wallpaper is curling up in the corner, right where the dust disappears. To be honest, most of the strips of wallpaper in this cottage are peeling in the corners. Perhaps something to do with the humidity, Glen Shiel Forest, only a stone’s throw away, sports the dubious title of being the wettest place in the United Kingdom. They should rename this the Wet Coast of Scotland; it doesn’t need a compass direction, everyone would still be able to find their way here – head for the dark clouds, you can’t go wrong. I wouldn’t swap though, not now, not even for all the fancy coffee in Harrods. The stunning view along Loch Duich is to die for, when you can see through the rain. Hard to believe palm trees grow in Plockton, only twelve miles away as the crow flies. Mind you, not being a crow, that would be more like twenty in my Land Rover.

I might be a little unfair when I say it always rains here, there are some gorgeous days. I think we had one last June. The locals say there are only two seasons, this winter and the last one.

They’re always pulling my leg, me being a Sassenach and all. I always thought it meant an English person, but they tell me it means anyone from the south, even Scottish lowlanders. It’s all in good fun, and they are so helpful and hospitable. Lovely people, a much overused phrase, but really quite appropriate in the circumstances. Of course, they think I’m as mad as a box of frogs; a writer no less. The world is my oyster and I choose this spot. I don’t think they truly appreciate what a pearl of a place they live in.

Apart from the amazing views there’s a strange smell in the atmosphere I find mildly intoxicating, something I never noticed down south, I think they call it freshness. No way I could go back to London now, not after living here.

Oh dear, I’m digressing again. No wonder it takes me a year to bang out one novel. Thank goodness I make enough to keep me fed and clothed. Keeping a roof over my head isn’t a problem. The proceeds from the sale of my tiny flat in London could buy me an entire estate up here, so paying cash for the cottage was a no brainer. And there is plenty to fall back on if my sales dry up, which at the moment they are showing no signs of doing, thank goodness.

I suppose I could always go back to teaching creative writing again, though I’m not sure how ‘failed author’ would look on my CV.

Right, brain, pay attention and stop wandering off into the wilderness. I wonder what’s underneath here. Maybe it hides a secret passage; the air is going somewhere. How fantastic would that be, my very own secret chamber? The cottage dates back to the early eighteenth century and Glen Shiel did see a battle between the Jacobites and the British Government forces. The whole area was in upheaval at some time or other. Perhaps this is the Scottish equivalent of a Priest Hole, but I’m not going to know unless I do something, am I?

Oh, the paper’s peeling away quite easily. It can’t be stuck down very well. This is too big to be a Priest Hole. They were tiny cramped places, well hidden. This is a whacking great iron door. Hard to hide one of them, without wallpaper anyway, and I’m not sure they papered the walls in those days, or did they? I must look it up sometime. You never know when a snippet like that could come in handy for a story, or a pub quiz.

I can’t see where it could go. There’s nothing behind there, only the bedroom, and I don’t remember seeing anything that might be a door in there. Damn, it’s locked. I’ll have a look for it on the other side.

No, the wall is solid in here. That can’t be right, why would anyone put a door in a wall and not have a hole on the other side? Now just a minute, why did I not notice that before? The bedroom feels to be shorter than it should. Could there be another room, maybe a storage cupboard? But why a wrought-iron door, and why cover it? Storage is severely lacking in this place. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to hide a cupboard.

We can settle that once and for all. Where did I put the tape measure? Man drawer: bound to be one in there.

Okay, ten feet, six inches, and the living room is fifteen feet, three inches. That’s twenty five feet, nine. It doesn’t add up. The passageway is twenty nine feet; I’m missing just over three feet. It has to be a cupboard. If only I had the key.

Oooh, now there’s a thought. I saw a bunch of rusty old keys hanging from the rafters in the outbuildings, when I moved the woodworking equipment in, maybe it’s one of those. I’ll bring the WD40 while I’m at it. A bit of lubing never goes amiss.

Why is it always the last key? Never, ever, do I get it right the first time. Another shot of WD and I reckon that will open. Ah, perhaps I should have sprayed the hinges too. That’s better.

Oh God, I can see another door, and it’s opening.

“Tanya? What the…?”

“What…I mean…how…I don’t know what I mean. What are you doing in there?”

“I live here, and I might ask you the same question.”

“You live in my wardrobe? How did you get in my apartment? Are you stalking me?”

“Tanya, please trust me. I’m as confused as you are but just come through here.”

Now the two of us are standing in my cottage, each looking as bewildered as the other. I don’t think even Stephen Hawking can explain this.

“John…I…”

“Me too.”

With our arms wrapped around each other, the day seems to have brightened considerably.

The universe must have known, even if we hadn’t at the time, and who am I to argue?

– End –

Harold Remembers

By Rohini Sunderam

I really should be dubbed Sir Harold, despite the moans from Father and Mother. They weren’t Armchairs. They came from “Superior Furniture” of a French persuasion. Mother could date her ancestry to Louis XIII all oak, walnut and austere perfection. Father had the more elegant and flamboyant Regency pedigree. I must have inherited my languor from him. Even so, he was more cabinets and escritoires and no one less than Charles Cressent is said to have designed a cabinet on his father’s side.

Then there’s me. An armchair. An upholstered armchair! The knots in their woodwork turned into horrified eyes overnight. If they’d had arms like me they’d have thrown theirs up in despair. What’s worse, I am now a La-Z-Boy. The ‘Z’ is pronounced Zee. So you can understand their despair. One more confession, I crossed the pond and came to Virginia in the Americas in 1935.

My parents and I have been incommunicado ever since.

I have had adventures, and a life far more exciting than theirs. They’re probably still locked away in Lord Stodge’s country manor in Boringhamshire. They’re happy I suppose if disappointed in their once promising offspring. I mean I have enough oak in me for the connection to them but, honey (I love American expressions), beyond that I’m as different from them as a pallet from a chest.

I came to Virginia with Arabella, a rich American heiress who married Lord Stodge’s cousin James, once removed on his mother’s side. Arabella’s family were tobacco planters and James was expected to and surprisingly did, work! The fresh Virginia air and the robust diet fired him up and he was up early and out on horseback for most of the day.

Arabella was left to her own devices. In her day she was the sauciest most piquant young woman in Virginia. She changed me from a stuffed armchair into a recliner in 1936. My parents probably heard of the conversion when she wrote to the Stodges. She was in my arms when she wrote the missive in her long flowing copperplate hand. Her writing tablet was balanced on her perfect knees, she had removed her stockings and her bare feet stroked the upper part of my lap most sensuously. Arabella and I have had some good laughs.

The furniture-makers said I didn’t have enough oak so my inner clever mechanisms are a combination of springs and inferior more pliable woods. I don’t care. Heritage is of no great importance. It’s what you do with your life that matters. When I was done, she sat down and rang for Cook.

“Do bring some cakes and tea, Cookie, I want to celebrate my new armchair!”

“Now you be watchin’ what you eat, Miz Arabella, can’t have y’all gettin’ fat.”

“Oh, Cookie, I’m not a little girl anymore! Besides, I’m married now.” She stretched out my footrest, eased my back down and wriggled with pleasure.

I’ve held some interesting people and had some extremely titillating experiences. In my arms Arabella became a contortionist, especially when entertaining certain gentlemen. The first time was when James went for a week to Richmond. Arabella entertained the neighbours with a luncheon. Along came a handsome young man from the Carolinas, Mr. Andrew Kirkland. He was tall, dark haired, had a waist almost as narrow as Arabella’s and sinuous, powerful hands. He was an artist of some kind.

That afternoon, after the guests and servants left and as the afternoon sun slanted over the horizon, he reclined, tilted up my footrest, and in no time, with that gritty voice of his, invited her to sit across his lap, her legs on either side of his narrow waist as his artist’s hands painted imaginary patterns on her thighs. Oh the sighs and the cries! After that first foray into this delicious affair Arabella couldn’t wait to try other excitements in my lap.

On James’ return, still flush from the thrill of Andrew Kirkland’s artistry, she persuaded her husband to experiment on me. But it didn’t quite work out. In his heightened state of ardour he pulled the lever and my footrest collapsed. I was flung off balance and lurched forward on my rockers. The resultant momentum forced the two of them off the seat. James heaved forward, throwing Arabella onto the floor as he fell across her, his arms and legs splayed in an ungainly heap. Arabella burst into a fit of giggles. James, mortified, jumped up, pulled up his trousers and ran up to the bedroom in a huff, his wife screaming in hysterical laughter behind him.

“Oh, Harry,” she murmured; she gave me the nickname that I bear to this day, “James is in essence a Stodge.” I was her confidant in all matters, especially those of the heart. “I must have Andrew Kirkland again, here!” she declared, after the misadventure with James.

So, whenever James went away for a few days, she contrived to call Mr Kirkland and always managed to make him stay for tea in the lounge. Cook would serve it with dainty cakes and retire to her quarters.

That’s when we discovered my lady’s flexibility. Andrew Kirkland could get her to sit on his lap, my footrest up, my back at just such an angle and Arabella’s long, lissom legs up around his neck, down by his waist, or swung all the way around my back, her ankles locked while Kirkland’s artistic and athletic abilities were tested to their limit. Oh the thrills! But, my rockers were sorely tried.

One morning in February 1937, about a year after my conversion, Arabella came down rather late for her morning tea. “Oh dear, oh dear, Harry,” she moaned. “I’m going to have a baby and I am so, so sick.” She kept a bucket next to her and frequently emptied the contents of her meal into it. Poor dear. There was nothing I could do other than allow my upholstered seat to accept her growing weight. She was sick the entire time.

It was the middle of September when James, preening like a peacock, called his friends and associates into the lounge. And there, sitting on me, Harold, his wife’s armchair, he distributed cigars to those present as he announced the birth of his son. His son! My footrest nearly kicked up of its own accord. But I kept it in control.

When the baby came, she brought him to me. “I wish I could call him Harry,” she said! I wished she could. He was after all, in a way, our baby. “I hope he ends up looking at least a little like James,” she whispered as she kissed and nursed him comfortably ensconced in my ample lap.

Baby James was the loveliest little infant you ever saw, and he dropped off to sleep in minutes, when Arabella rocked him in my arms. However, by the time he turned four it was difficult to get him to behave. He’d jump on my seat. Rock back and forth till my springs groaned. There was nothing for it. I decided he had to learn to rock gently. Yes, I admit, I leaned forward and tossed him onto the floor. He did rather bang his little head and yowl loud enough to bring Arabella and three maids rushing into the room.

“Oh! Jamie, poor darling baby!” they cried in one voice. No one thought about my poor rockers or me and my groaning springs. But the imp never rocked me that hard again.

Then there was that day in 1942, when my poor dear mistress sat weeping silently in my arms as she read the letter sent by Andrew; he was off to fight with the British in the war. “What is an artist going to do in the war?” she cried. “Dare I tell him that James is his?” One dainty handkerchief after another was wept into, blown into and the next we heard was that Arabella was sick in her room and delirious. A few days later they transported me from my place in the lounge to her bedroom.

What a delightful room! Pinewood and local oak made the room comfortable and elegant at once. The servants placed me near Arabella’s bed almost nudging a dainty oak bedside table. She belonged rather distantly to my father’s family. Dorothea pursed her table-top lip when she saw what they’d done to me. “An armchair! Harry, how dreadful. With all kinds of people sitting on you. I hope your parents don’t know.”

“I love being an armchair; I’m more use, more comfort and more service than you’ll ever be.” I didn’t say a word about Arabella and our shenanigans. I didn’t have to. Later that year, James declared that he was off to fight in the war.

“How will I manage without you?” Arabella wept. Quite genuine tears they were too.

“Oh, darling! Don’t worry, I’ve asked that nice gentleman in Blackberry Hill to look in every week.”

Mr. Skinner was our next fling. Arabella showed him what to do while delicately seated in my lap. He was nervous at first and when he protested, she pursed her lips, “James said you were to take care of my every need.” She kissed him gently on his forehead.

Dorothea was aghast. “Next they’ll be on the bed!” They were.

All went well until an official letter arrived announcing that James was a hero in the war and decorated… posthumously. For weeks Arabella lay in my arms weeping and wouldn’t go down. “What are we going to do? How will we manage?”

Cook came up one day. “Miz Arabella,” she said, quite firm. “Life must go on. Mister James is dead, but you ain’t.”

A few more tears and Arabella dried her eyes, went down and had me reinstated in the lounge. She returned to my arms with an armload of books. Ten days straight she read one book after another.

Cook brought all her meals there. “Now, Miz Arabella, don’t you go givin’ you’self no headache.”

I shall run the plantation!” she declared, “that Mr Skinner has been getting a lot more than I’d planned.”

When he came in the next day, Arabella invited him into the lounge. “Sit,” she smiled heaving her bosom and closing the door.

“Here?” he looked nervous and excited all at once. She pushed him into my lap, leaned forward and grabbed his necktie, “Skinny, dear, I’ve been looking at the books. And,” she tightened it so he couldn’t breathe, “you’ve been skimming quite a bit. From tomorrow, we don’t need you.”

“You couldn’t manage without me, you strumpet!” he squawked.

She dragged him to the door. “I can! And you’ll not do anything to cross me. I have your signatures on the books and I shall take you to the courts. Now leave.”

She changed overnight. Up early. On the horses, inspecting the plantation. She sold off a small portion on which they’d started the cotton. Every night she’d retire into my arms with a mint julep and her books. The plantation prospered.

James junior turned eighteen and had begun to help his mother when in December 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. A week later a small group of local blacks went on a rampage.

Arabella was doing her books when she heard shouting and looked out. “Cookie!” she screamed.

Cook, the maids, and several of our men, rushed in.

“They’s lost their heads, Miz,” Cook said. “Jus’ changin’ times. Madness.”

“Put Harold under the doorknob and switch off the lights.”

The rioters threw stones, pushed at the door. I held tight and strong.

A gunshot rang out from an upper window. James shouted, “Get back or I will shoot!”

One more push on the door.

My back cracked, but I held on.

James fired again. The rioters turned back.

Arabella keeps me in her bedroom now.

She has a new recliner in the lounge.

– End –

Harold meets a stranger

By Nilanjana Bose

Hey! What are you doing that for? Who are you anyways? Hey, hey hey, gently, gently, these legs are not to be manhandled. Not so rough, buddy. My name’s Harold, by the way. What’s yours? Yeah, I know I don’t look my age. But it’s true – I was made when wood-plastic-carbon-fibre composites were still at the cutting edge of material engineering. My parents were gutted at the supposed dilution of the pedigree of our hard woodline; the wood part of my make-up comes from high-end forest-grown mahogany you see, but that’s just old fashioned resistance. My generation had no time for all the fear and hesitation, we embraced the changes. If people kept up with using purebred mahogany the way they did in the 20th, 21st centuries, then there would have been no woodline left at all by now.

But what years they were! Several new exoplanets had been discovered. The Third World War was finally over, the Terrorist of all terrorists had been sentenced to exile on Xysenion. The Peace Pact had come into force. The Third Intergalactic Super-Spaceway was under construction. Such exciting times! I know you guys take these things as commonplace, this to-ing and fro-ing between planets and galaxies, with your particulars packed into a device no larger than a toothbrush head. And now they are thinking of an Andromedian Galactic Bypass I hear, because of the traffic snarls on the First Intergalactic, ha!

However, back then, there were only a few daily spaceflights. And certainly no Podular personal transportation to the outer galaxies, all humans and cargo packed into space vehicles like sardines in a tin with simulated graduated gravity controls. Have you ever seen sardines packed into a tin? Hmm, I thought not. But I digress, what I meant to say is – things were fresh and new still at the beginning of the fourth millennium. There was a sense of wonder, of stepping into new, absolutely unknown worlds, exploration and excitement. None of this blasé been-there-done-that about those times.

And I was fresh and new, too. Yeah, yeah, you can snigger all you like. I might look like an antique to you, and it’s true that the prototype design goes right back to the 19th century. A simple, elegant armchair that could be folded up and carried from place to place, the Director’s Chair it was called. But by the time I was created, a whole raft of new features had been cunningly incorporated into the basic design. A marvel of modern engineering, that’s what I am. The Rexysper Recliner the design team called me, but the guy who used me just called me Harold. We both prefer simpler names.

Yes, of course my basic function remains the same – to seat people. But I can do so much more. To understand all that, you must know why I was made in the first place. You see, Rexysper had been discovered, predicted to be a rather Earth-like planet, part of the Alpha Centauri star system, and the Second Intergalactic made it possible to send a delegation up there. Apparently, the spectral analysis showed that plain wood would not last too long in the Rexysperic atmosphere. So the team created this special composite – mahogany, carbon fibre, and biodegradable engineering plastic. Then they tucked in these little oxygen cylinders – feel them here? Those, with a retractable mask. And they added a reclinable back and convertible, climate-controlled hood and padded, extendable seating, so what have you got? A complete Campule. You could land on Rexysper, sit for some time admiring the view or whatever, and then convert the seat into your own independent bed-cum-tent, with its very own heating and oxygen supply. Nifty, or what? And you thought I was just an ordinary armchair.

Let me tell you, there was nothing ordinary about that first flight out to Rexysper, or the man who used me there, or the things I saw.

First off, the flight out was a disaster. No really, it was. The astronavigator went wrong, or maybe it was the human navigator, who knows? Spaceway-rage was not a recognised phenomenon then, traffic density of course was nowhere near the same, but still. We were stuck behind a slow craft making its way to Xysenion from Merlivon for a long time, and who can say what that did to the astropilot? The end of it was that he took the wrong exit off the Second Intergalactic and ended up in Konstrantion instead of Rexysper.

The scientists spent a megaweek arguing amongst themselves, because of course none of the particulars matched, the atmospheric soup, soil compositions, the climate, the topography, nothing. They kept beaming back stuff to the Control-and-Command on Earth, and the C-n-C would send back terse messages like “values off by 50%, stop. Are you crazy, stop. Recheck instruments, recalibrate and resend data, over and out.”

They did all that, and still the readings refused to budge, and everyone spent an unconscionable amount of time bickering about things like Selenium content, and Vanadium values, and the Psi-index of the atmosphere. This went on till some radio guy in the C-n-C spotted the transmissions coming from the wrong co-ordinates, from the opposite end of the Alpha Centauri and pointed that out. So everyone decamped pretty sharpish with red faces.   Fortunately, the Konstrantion atmosphere is quite rich in oxygen, and all the breathing apparatus could be topped up before we took off again.  And though they had some minor issues with finding the right refuelling station back on the Second Intergalactic, it was only a blip and we got to Rexysper finally, only a megaweek late.

My guy, by whom I mean the one who used me, was the coolest head of them all. Not one word in argument the whole megaweek, not one instance of raised voice, or head-scratching in dismay. That was because he was not a scientist and did not care a jot for the readings whichever way the errors went, plus or minus. He was called Benjamin Otembo, and his official designation was Chief Divinopathist. His main job was to examine the cultural potential of the exoplanets, their favourability index for settlement, and their propensity for inspiring art, architecture, design, poetry, pottery or even business models.

He sat out a large part of the megaweek taking photographs of the changing Konstrantion sky and making copious notes on his tablet.

“Ah, an apple green sunrise. Rather, Centaurise. How lovely! I wonder if it’s Picasso I am thinking about? Or was it Van Gogh?”

At other times, he would go off marching and come back with bits and bobs that looked like rocks and dried mud, fossils of strange looking lifeforms, incredibly delicate and geometric. Held up to the chiffony pink light, which is the daylight in Konstrantion, they would gleam like blown-up snowflakes, translucent and beautiful.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Harold, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” He slapped my armrest with a satisfied thump and a cackle of laughter. “This is one unendingly interesting planet, full of cultural possibilities, really intriguing.”

He found some matted reed like stuff too, and came back all excited and sat quivering for a long time before he made the entries into his log. “Water body visited, turbid, milky-reddish, but can be purified to be potable. Papyrus type plant on edges, possibilities in paper making, building materials. Medicinal applications to be explored. ”

“Can you imagine, Harold?” he whispered in a hushed voice, “You could have a community settled here in a jiffy. Locally sourced building materials, potable water, agriculture, and of course where art is concerned, the sky’s the limit.”

And then of course the ghastly error in coordinates came to light and he packed up his samples and his logs, folded me up with my legs tucked under, and re-boarded the spacecraft for Rexysper, not in the least bit put out. “The more the merrier, Harold, the more the merrier.”

I tell you, I just liked Benjamin Otembo’s attitude.

But as life often turns out, Rexysper was not really merrier. As soon as we landed, (after triple-checking the coordinates) it was clear the stay was going to be well, in one word, fraught. The soil on Rexysper, which was like grits of aquamarine, was plastic-repellent. Something no-one at the C-n-C had predicted. Earth-like, my front left foot! And since every item on board, from forks to the landing module had some plastic composite or other, this meant things kept jigging up and down, grinding deeper, or falling over sideways, sometimes all three together, all of the time. Getting soil samples was out of the question, the little blue grains shuddered away from each scoop, each instrument. Further frenzied bickering broke out among the astroscientists.

Benjamin Otembo was coolly unperturbed, however. “Ah, blue sand,” he muttered as he set up camp, “a bit pretty-pretty, maybe? Cultural minefield potential. Soil should be earthy, all this jewel-toned stuff is best kept out of the surface. Plastic repellent? Hmm hmm…”

He whipped out four large red silk handkerchiefs and wrapped them deftly round my feet and then opened my legs and set me down. The aquamarine sand stayed unmoving under the silk.

He sat down with a thump and whipped out his tablet. “Thought so! You see, Harold, plastic-free is the way forward. On Rexysper at least. Vast potential for natural fibres, paper, cotton, silk, even pure metals perhaps. And aquamarine sands will send the poets into transports of joy, possibly. Not bad, not bad at all, Harold!” and he slapped my armrest in the exact same triumphant way he had done on Konstrantion. “We’ll have this twerking sorted out in no time!”

He then proceeded to wrap everything with cotton, silk and leather wherever he could find an extra shirt or shoe, even using up almost the entire supply of loo paper to wrap the instruments and the feet of the landing module. “No shit, folks.”

They got their soil samples. Thankfully, it did not need a megaweek on Rexysper to figure the settlement potential index, so there was enough toilet paper still left. The problem was: there was no surface water to be seen. The chaps at the C-in-C refused to accept this, though; it contradicted some fancy new hydrosensor that could apparently detect a drop of water across gazillions of light years. “Recheck, resend,” they kept messaging in that terse way they had. More bickering among the scientists – why had no one packed a copy of that new hydrosensor?

Benjamin Otembo just dismantled the long telescopic legs of the landing module, joined two of them to form a long probe, and went poking the blue sand here and there. The sands of course shivered away from the legs, and so he managed to drill quite a long way below the surface. On the third attempt, he sent a second probe down after the first, with a cloth cap tied to its end. The cap, when he withdrew it, was full of a steaming liquid, silvery pale in the midday light.

“Easy-peasy drilling boreholes here,” he called out to the team, “here’s your water, underground I’m afraid, and superheated, free of cost.”

As he packed me up and untied the handkerchiefs, he said, “No question this is high on the settlement indices. But the other had those fossils. That apple green sky. Way more fascinating. The accidental stops turn out much better than the planned destinations in my experience.”

Well, that’s years ago now. You know how that ended – Konstrantion has been settled for decades. I’ve been on other intergalactic expeditions, but nothing like those first ones. Pardon me? Benjamin Otembo is leading a trip to another new exoplanet soon? And he wants his old Harold? Ah, that’ll be good seeing him again. That will indeed be grand.

– End –

The Habit

By Noor AlNoaimi

 

The premise was bleak, she thought as she stepped into the once cheerful reception area. The Town Hospital had a once modern aesthetic; the nurses wore yellow as opposed to the typical white uniforms of the main hospitals in the area. She had once believed in yellow, everyone believed it was the best for poor old grandmother. The expensive services, the Ivy League educated doctors…yeah, they all thought she’d live forever here.

Sadly, Gran pulled the break on life a bit too soon.

“God, I miss you,” she whispered as she sat across the now dusty bed; the same bed where a granddaughter used to come to visit, 4pm sharp, wearing her comfiest sweater to warm the chair next to the old woman that had sired her father.

“Papa does too,” she went on, speaking to the empty space as if it was alive. The decaying walls did not answer; the bed stayed the same, while the corridors remained empty. No more nurses telling her it was all right, natural causes, and other such nonsense. Humans have an expiry date, they were not gods upon the earth, nor were they as her old Jaipur born nanny phrased “Little gods”. She had never contemplated death before she had seen her grandmother’s small, frail body breathe its last breath…no words uttered, no goodbyes.

She simply left, taken away from her. “Nadia…”It was a whisper, an unmistakable voice. His voice. Nobody ever called her Nadia anymore; she was named after the very same person she mourned; yet her mother had quickly edited it with the excuse of it being ’outdated’. Naya, turned around and in the blur- had she been crying? – saw his hand holding a snowy handkerchief.

“I don’t want your damned pity,” she whispered. Dr Faulkner called her by that name often; she guessed it was because Gran used to talk to him about her. Her amazing granddaughter, off to save the world with a mere backpack, Naya thought sarcastically. Education! Education! She had been so passionate about that once; now she stayed at home, keeping to herself with static TV as a companion. Faulkner had books from here on to the roof and he still couldn’t recount saving a woman from old age. Nothing saved people from old age, cancer, or fatal car accidents. Human life was malleable, and everything seemed worthless when thinking about that eventual end.

“You shouldn’t keep coming here,” he said to her turned back. He obviously knew of her odd habit. “The building is to be demolished soon.”

“Then why are you here?” she asked, her hand in a fist. As if he was the god that chose to take away her sun and joy.

“I am here to say goodbye,” he replied, coming to sit across from her by the bed. He took off his spectacles for a moment, something was caught in his eye, but his old withered face remained impassive as he continued. “I have lost a few patients here, some chose to live their last days in our care and some did not. I, however grieve for those that did not have the required awareness to make that decision in their final hours…like our dear Nadia.”

“Mother didn’t want her home. She said old people clashed with her wallpaper,” she commented, unmistakable abhorrence in her voice.

“It is common for many to feel disheartened. I fear for our world, Nadia…That many of us quickly dislodge from a person as soon as they pass, or as soon as we know they are unrecoverable. To your dear grandmother, that was never the case…you were beside her. While I passed lonely patients in their final hours, you were there…praying for her while her eyes closed on our world. You believed…you still believe,“ he said, taking her closed fist in his withered hands.

She had never looked into his eyes before; his faded blue orbs were wet under his white brows, as if he too had a story to tell. “She is gone…I believe that,” she replied, her voice caught in her throat.

“Yet you come here, “ he said shaking his head, as if he thought she was wasting her time. “Your grandmother was more than these walls…this bed.” He said nodding to the empty space next to them. “She was more than doctor visits, and medication…you must understand,” he said while she shook to her fingertips.

“I know, “ she whispered, not trusting her voice to make a bolder statement.

She felt lost, adrift without her compass. Her hand soon relaxed in his grasp, and she let him hold her until he left her to reconstruct her thoughts. As he walked towards the faded doors, with the dim ‘Exit’ sign right above it, she called him back. He stopped and turned to. Naya had never seen him looking so fragile before. It was then she recalled his words:

Many of us quickly dislodge from a person as soon as they pass, or as soon as we know they are unrecoverable. To your dear grandmother, that was never the case…you were beside her. While I passed lonely patients in their final hours, you were there…praying for her while her eyes closed to our world. You believed…you still believe.

 We have family dinners on Tuesdays, I would like it if you joined us then.”

He seemed a bit surprised by her invitation, for he suddenly smiled, his hand on his heart. “I shall do my utmost to make it, “ he replied.

Naya lingered by the bed; it was dark when she finally patted the dusty bedspread. “Granny, you heartbreaker.” She chuckled, making her own deductions about the man that had just left and her dearly departed.

Perhaps there was a story there, indeed.

  • – END-

Liam Saville

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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

As you know the September Challenge became the October challenge and that kind of segued into November and we still didn’t have any entries.

I rattled some sabres. Sent out pleas. Threats. Practically begged. All but fell on my knees. Asked repeatedly, ‘Do we want to do these or not?’. The replies almost always came back enthusiastically, not so enthusiastically, but in essence ‘Yes’.  However, by the time November rolled around I had also identified and got on board a writer to critique our stories. And all I had were two entries. So, in desperation and to make up a decent number of entries I wrote one story myself. And I do hope I won’t ever have to do that again.

The challenge was:

One day your smart phone screen changes into a jungle … Tell a story in under 2000 words what happens when you discover this.

Our judge, as I mentioned in one of several emails was Alex Shaw

Alex Shaw

ALEX SHAW headshot BWALEX SHAW B.A.(Hons), P.G.C.E. spent the second half of the 1990s in Kyiv, Ukraine, teaching Drama and running his own business consultancy before being head-hunted for a division of Siemens. The next few years saw him doing business for the company across the former USSR, the Middle East, and Africa.

Alex is an active member of the ITW (The International Thriller Writers organisation) and the CWA (the Crime Writers Association). He is the author of the #1 International Kindle Bestselling ‘Aidan Snow SAS thrillers’ COLD BLOOD & COLD BLACK and the new DELTA FORCE VAMPIRE series of books. His writing has also been published in the thriller anthologies DEATH TOLL, DEATH TOLL 2 and ACTION PULSE POUNDING TALES 2 alongside International Bestselling authors Stephen Leather and Matt Hilton.

COLD BLOOD and COLD BLACK are commercially published by ENDEAVOUR PRESS.

COLD EAST – The third Aidan Snow Thriller will be published in January 2015.

Alex, his wife and their two sons divide their time between homes in Kyiv, Ukraine and Worthing, England. Alex can be contacted via his website www.alexwshaw.com You can also follow Alex on twitter: @alexshawhetman

You can find out more about him here:

FB author page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Alex-Shaw/383476491724127

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6550104.Alex_Shaw

Authorgraph: https://www.authorgraph.com/authors/alexshawhetman

Amazon Author’s page: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Alex-Shaw/e/B002EQ6R9G/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1

Alex’s Selections were was below:

FIRST PLACE: THE GATE

by Michelle Schultz

I was swiping fat snowflakes from my eyelashes when the phone rang. I dug around in my coat pockets, trying to remember where I’d dumped the phone. I had only bought it last week, one more thing to buy after moving overseas. My half-numb fingers finally found it and pressed it against my cap.

“Hello?” I said. I shifted from foot to foot, wishing there was not so much space between my boots and the hem of my skirt.

Around me, the dim Manchester morning was silent except for the thick static of snowflakes drifting slowly down. On a Saturday, few cars braved the unplowed roads, scoring muddy tracks through the clean white expanse of snow.

I didn’t hear anything, so I pulled my cap aside. I said hello again, pressing the phone tight to my ear. I thought I could hear rain falling.

The slick, cold surface suddenly turned warm and wet against my ear.

I screamed and dropped the phone right in the snow. I scratched at my ear frantically, trying to get whatever was on it off.

My chapped fingers came away wet, streaked with golden pollen.

I looked down. A scatter of pink and purple petals mingled with the pristine snow around the bus stop. My phone had landed facedown in the snow. All around it, the snow was melting, leaving a widening circle of black asphalt.

I gripped the phone by the edges and lifted it up. Instead of the high-resolution icons and default wallpaper, deep green leaves shivered under a patter of rain behind the glossy black frame of my phone. I tilted the screen, noticing the lack of a reflection. I poked at the image of a leaf, and it bent underneath my touch, leaving my fingertip golden.

Holding the phone away from me, I turned and headed back toward home.

“Well, that’s hardly useful,” I snorted. “Why is the window so small? It’s not like I’ll fit through there.”

 

“Melanie? Back so soon?” John asked, peering into the entryway when I banged the door shut. He was still in his flannel pajamas, his feet hidden in slippers.

In answer, I held up the phone. It was still leaking rainwater and the odd petal.

“You’re kidding me!” he said. He took the phone from me, cradling it as if the leaves were going to bite him. “So where’s this?”

“Don’t know,” I said, pulling off my snowy boots.

“You have to,” he said, following at my heels as I went to wash the pollen off my hands. I could see streaks of it on my coat as well. “You make the gates.”

“Not on purpose,” I corrected, rolling my eyes. “They just… happen.”

“Could they happen to something cheap next time?”

“I didn’t want a phone in the first place. Their big reflective screens can be problematic,” I said a little nastily.

As I dried my hands, a butterfly popped out of the phone and started investigating the kitchen.

“Maybe we should close it?” John asked. To his credit, he didn’t look enthusiastic about it. He had been forced to close a few gates over the years when I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It usually involved destruction of the object in question.

“Not yet,” I said. I lay the phone so I could look down into the jungle. “Just put a cloth over it so no bugs get through.”

“You think this one will go away?”

“First time for everything,” I said with a shrug. From my pocket, I pulled the list of items we needed to finish making our new home livable. “I don’t feel like shopping anymore.”

A few hours later, John took the list and walked down the icy sidewalk to the nearest store. I had wanted to explore a bigger city this morning, but my exploratory mood had soured.

Instead, I was curled on the sofa with a notebook, trying to think of a way to start my new blog post. I usually wrote about self-improvement, meaning organic food and positive thinking, topics suggested by my tiny but growing following. I wrote them on paper, and John typed them when he got home from work.

With my condition, it was a bad idea to sit near reflective surfaces for long periods of time, especially if I was trying to be creative. Windows weren’t a problem if they had curtains over them, and our house had only two small mirrors, which I spent very little time in front of.

Next to me, the phone under its cheesecloth cover twittered with strange birds and the intermittent patter of rain. It was a nice sound in the too-quiet house.

I put my head back on the sofa and kicked my feet in their wooly slippers. Truth be told, I hated this blog. A friend had gotten me involved, and it filled the time while I looked for work, but I didn’t care about blogging. Most days, I had nothing to say. What was important was avoiding fiction or things that might make me daydream. If I was bored to tears reading about gluten allergies, then I wasn’t thinking about space flight or exotic landscapes.

I lived such a boring life.

Another bee approached my phone from inside whatever jungle it was connected to. The cheesecloth shifted as the bee bumped against it, then it flew somewhere else. I could hear it receding in the distance.

I had dreamed of somewhere with trees last night. The image of trees remained. Now, on my new phone, the thickly clustered leaves of trees moved back and forth.

I wanted to push the leaves aside to see what else was there, but thinking like that was only going to keep it there. I was supposed to be thinking about clean eating, not exotic jungles.

“I know you’re there,” someone said.

I froze. I looked around, but the room was empty. I hadn’t heard the door open, but I called John’s name.

“Not John,” the voice said. “It’s Alexander, or whatever you are calling me these days.”

I left the room.

Hands shaking, I poured myself a cup of coffee in the kitchen, focusing hard on thoughts of preservatives and food additives.

There was no Alexander and never had been. All children have imaginary friends, or so I was told. Alexander was just persistent.

“I’m not going to hurt you!” Alexander said loudly, his voice echoing in the hallway from the living room around the corner.

I didn’t come any closer, just tried to think of boring, dull things. If only I remembered more math. Quadratic equations might drive that voice away.

“I don’t know this place. Did you move again?” Alexander asked. There was an odd sound, like he was wheezing. “It smells cold. It’s summer here. You’d like it. Join me, just for a little while.”

“I like it here,” I said, then cursed myself for engaging him.

“You are killing me,” he said. “This place is awful. Why are you thinking so hard about math?”

“I’m…” I started but couldn’t finish. “Take your jungle and go away.”

“Not when you invited me.”

The sound of John moving around outside was a godsend. I darted into the entryway so I could greet him, taking myself further from my wretched gate.

After taking his bags and picking John’s brain about everything he had done, he finally looked in the direction of the living room.

“It’s him, isn’t it?” he asked, and I nodded.

John scratched his head, looking down at his feet. He looked back up with a sheepish grin.

“Why don’t you visit him?” he asked, his eyebrows crooked up in the middle.

“I don’t even know where that gate leads!”

“It never hurt you before.”

“I was a child then. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

I had walked through the gates as a child, at least until Mom figured out what I was using the mirror in my room for. I never went very far into these strange places, and Alexander was there to explain the place to me. Still, my friends’ imaginary friends never took them out of their homes.

“Look,” John said, “Whatever we’ve been doing isn’t working. Maybe you should just… see what he wants.”

I had wanted to be normal. I had picked the dullest degree I could imagine, business rather than art or literature. I had married the most sensible, staid man I ever dated. We didn’t own pets, and living in another country meant that we could forego all of the holiday traveling. I blogged about boring topics and read computer repair magazines for fun.

This wasn’t what I had seen myself doing as a child.

“Why are you always right?” I asked John.

I released his fingers, took a breath to strengthen my resolve, and walked into the living room.

I set the phone on the floor, pulled the cheesecloth away, and tried to step on the screen without thinking too hard about it. My foot sort of shrank and sank into the leaves.

I wobbled before lifting the other foot. It too vanished into the greenery. I closed my eyes.

The sun was red-gold through my eyelids. The air was hot and wet against my skin. I kicked off my slippers, letting my toes dig into the moist earth. The air smelled loamy, sweet with bruised flower petals.

I opened my eyes. Tall leafy trees blocked out the sky overhead, but ahead, the sun melted into a pool of red and orange clouds over the horizon. The land was bright with greenery, unlike the uniform white- and grayness of the English midlands in winter.

“It’s been a while,” Alexander said. He wore a suit, but he always looked out of place in my dreams.

“John thinks I should ask why you keep coming back,” I said, my voice swallowed up by the immensity of the jungle around me. The sawing of insects and chirping of birds was deafening.

“But you know why,” Alexander said with a shrug. He turned and began walking backwards, leading me toward the edge of the jungle ahead of us. “You’re just in denial.”

“What do you want?” I said, remaining in place. “I have to grow up, Alex. There’s no future in this.” I gestured at the world around us.

“There would be if you tried,” Alexander said with a scowl. “You just don’t have the resolve to make all of this and your writing come together.”

I looked away, my eyes falling on a butterfly. I wondered what sort of people lived here, and if they knew what this butterfly was called.

“Until you embrace this,” Alexander said, his arms spread wide, “it will keep breaking in.”

He walked forward and pressed my phone into my hand. Now it looked like itself, all brightly colored icons.

“You have the gateway right here. Don’t lose this one,” he said softly. “Otherwise…”

He trailed off. A dry wind whipped up, obscuring the trees with dust. Grit blew into my eyes. The sun vanished, the sweet smells traded for dryness and a chalky taste in my mouth. The ground grew soft and insubstantial.

Alexander grew thin and wasted, and then I could see through him.

“Don’t waste this gift” was the last thing I heard before everything went dark.

I opened my eyes to our living room. I was sitting with my jungle phone in my hand, a pen in the other.

Beside me, John was reading a book. He smiled tentatively when he looked up.

“How was your trip?” he asked.

I looked down at the empty notebook and its crossed-out topics for the blog.

“I’m going to write a story.”

 SECOND PLACE: ESCAPE

by Rohini Sunderam

The jungle has its own unique senses.

There is a sensation of the old. It is primordial and comforting while still able to set our senses on edge, turning them acute and more alive than they’ve ever been in the city or around technology.

The smell is fecund. Peaty and redolent with the odour of birth and rebirth and death.

Silence is the sound of the place. Not the dead muffled silence of a recording booth or an ENT clinic where they test your ability to detect decibels, but the sound of life as it moves between the nocturnal and diurnal, pulsating to the throb of a gigantic heart.

Textures abound. But we daren’t touch anything because we are city creatures. We are afraid that the gnarled bark of a tree, the smooth sharp blade of grass or the velvet of an unknown leaf may hold hidden dangers, saps to which our soft, urban skins may be allergic, wary of resins that could burn and scar.

Ah but the sights! We can’t get enough of those. Our eyes drink in the seemingly million shades of green. We revel in the bright yellows and blues of butterflies and birds, the shy white flowers and ferns of the undergrowth. I look fascinated at orchids in their purple splendour clinging wild and wonderful to a branch. The words bromeliad and epiphyte find their way to the top of my mind, bringing with them memories of my school botany class and the stern teacher staring over his black-rimmed spectacles.

The dappled back of a panther makes us stop in our tracks and whisper as we watch its sinewy black and gold shape glide down a pathway, sending the monkeys chattering up into their trees, its head tossing away flies. It’s unusual for him to be strolling at this time of the day.

Just as it is unusual for us be to here.

It is exactly 11:11 on my smart phone face and the jungle, which appeared magically one day at this exact time, has, on cue, flashed onto the screen. Its tall grasses are once again beckoning us to leap into it.

We’ve made this trip into the portal twice before. The first time was a thrilling adventure. I touched it and it seemed real, even that typical jungle smell came out of it. I turned to my friend and showed it to him, “Check this out, this smart phone is something else.”

“It can’t be,” he said, ever the sceptic.

“Just touch it!” I challenged him.

The minute he did that a tiny fly flew out of the screen and into the room.

He’d opened his eyes wide. “Shall we?”

And without quite knowing why, we both held hands and touched the screen together.

It made a sucking sound and the next thing we were inside the jungle. An instant safari. On foot. And dressed as if we’d planned it: in khaki shorts and long bush shirts, sandals and cotton stockings looking like Dr Livingston with backpacks complete with emergency supplies and water. And what’s more we had a guide, an Indian in long khaki pants, t-shirt and a sola topi.

He looked at us and smiled, “Right on time sir, madam.”

I checked my smart watch and that’s when I noticed the magical: 11:11a.m.

We wandered around for exactly one hour and one minute and at 12:12pm we looked up, held hands together, stretched up to the sky and bang, we were back in my office cubicle.

He looked at me and said, “Were we…?”

“Sure felt like it”. I answered and looked at the smart phone, which had gone back to its regular wallpaper colours of lavender and white.

“Felt like what?” he asked challenging me.

“Like we were in the jungle?” I asked him back.

“Weird,” he replied, “Let’s not tell anyone, they’ll think we’ve been doing drugs or something.”

A few days later he was at my desk again and we were discussing an ad concept and he asked me again, “Was that jungle thing for real or did we imagine it?”

“It felt very real.”

And then I smelt it, the jungle, sending out its earthy perfume. I looked at the smart phone and sure enough 11:11am and the jungle was back on the screen.

“Let’s get something to prove it this time,” he said, “even if it’s only as a confirmation.”

So we went again. And as before the guide was there with his, “Right on time sir, madam.” But his smile seemed a bit different this time.

No cause for concern, because at 12:12pm we returned again as before. Only this time I’d surreptitiously picked a tiny flower, from its roots.

When we returned I put it into soil and watered it. It had taken root and had grown quite large in just two days.

“We won’t do it again,” my friend advised. “I felt uneasy about the guide this time.”

“So did I.” I confessed.

And yet three days later, 11:11 a.m. I was alone. And the jungle was calling me in to the phone.

‘How dangerous could it be, to go alone?’ I asked myself. ‘All I need to do is stretch up at 12:12pm and I’ll be back.’

So taking a deep breath, I held my hands together and with my index finger I touched the screen.

The loud sucking sound pulled me in.

And everything was exactly as before: the safari gear, the guide, with his, “Right on time madam.” Only this time he chuckled. I was not sure if it was my imagination but his laugh made the hair on my neck stand on end.

Instinct is as primeval as the jungle. And as a sense it should be obeyed.

The trouble with those of us who are and have been urban and civilised for so many millennia is, that we treat instinct as though it were a myth. Not real. To be mistrusted. And what’s worse, ignored.

After that initial laugh from the ‘guide’ and that uneasy sensation I allowed myself to be lost in the tour.

This time we went to a marshy sanctuary with a pool in the centre. It was loud with the buzzing of mosquitoes and dragonflies, bees and hornets. And birds of so many hues I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were waders watching the marshy pool intent on catching their prey. Other birds had their heads tucked under their wings asleep. Some flew from one branch to another chattering with their relatives and friends. Rarely speaking to another species.

The air of predatory earnestness in all the creatures gave the scene a sinister sense of foreboding.

“I’d like to see something else,” I said to the guide.

“Come,” he said. I still hadn’t asked his name, and somehow felt it wasn’t up to me to do so.

The guide then took me up into a tree house from where I could watch the lemurs.

“I will be back madam,” he said, “Just a small job to do.”

I was camouflaged in the leaves and the heat made me drowsy. I must have dropped off for, well more than a few minutes, because when I awoke it was way past 12:12pm, in fact it was one o’clock.

The guide was nowhere to be seen.

I started to worry, but then I thought perhaps this isn’t time related and I clasped my hands together and pointed upwards. Nothing happened. I was still in the tree house.

‘Okay,’ I said to myself, ‘maybe it is time-related’. At 1:01pm I aimed my hands upwards.

No. I’m still in the tree house.

Okay, I think. Let’s try 13:13 on the 24-hour clock.

Nothing.

The guide hasn’t returned.

I look up and can see my office friend peering down at me from the sky.

I wave at him.

He can’t see me.

“Hellllp!” I shout.

He can’t hear me.

It’s one thirty now. My friend has gone from the sky. The guide isn’t back.

I’ve tried getting out at 2:02pm, 14:14, 3:03pm, 15:15…

“Helllpppp!” I cry weeping, frantic. “Helllppp!”

They can’t hear me on the other side. They can’t feel me on my smart phone screen. They can’t see me.

“Oh dear God!” I cry as tears of panic threaten to choke me, “I want to go home…please, somebody, anybody, bring me back.”

With an excruciating effort of will I control the panic, “I have to be patient. I have to try again.”

When it comes to our smart phones and technology so many senses are stimulated to such a degree that in the end they are deadened.

It is now 5:05pm and I haven’t been able to return.

I’ll try again at 17:17.

I hope I have enough water in my backpack to last until 12:12pm tomorrow…

 THIRD PLACE: THE MIST OF SKARA

by Noor Nass

The story is being worked on, in the light of Alex Shaw’s comments. And when she’s ready, we’ll post Noor’s story here.

We had to combine the March challenge with April as we didn’t have enough entries for one month. In the end we received 7 entries all so different that, as our judge D. Krauss said, “Congratulations to all of you, and thanks for letting me play. You are a rather dynamic group of writers, and it was a real pleasure to read y’all’s work.”

The challenge was a simple phrase: ‘Final Morning’ to be completed in 2000 words and the entrants were allowed to interpret that in any way they wished.

Our Judge D. Krauss

Cropped sitting #3

D. Krauss currently resides in the Shenandoah Valley. He’s been a cottonpicker, a sod buster, a surgical orderly, the guy who paints the little white line down the middle of the road, a weatherman, a gun-totin’ door-kickin’ lawman, a layabout, and a bus driver, in that order. Website: http://www.dustyskull.com

These are his picks for the winning stories

First Place

I Object

by Chandan Sen Gupta

“Na’am?” asked the man at the counter. Accustomed to hearing Bahrainis converse with Indians in Hindi, I blurted out my name. “What?” he bellowed. I realized my folly immediately. His query to me was in Arabic. “Oh! I have an appointment for the renewal of my identity card,” I quickly corrected myself.

The sluggish token display system in the bustling waiting hall was no match for the briskly marching digital next to it. I dropped down into one of the few empty chairs, resigning myself to a long wait, and soon my mind drifted back to the March Creative Challenge. In spite of my best efforts I had not been able to frame a story yet.

Why did the prompt have to sound so apocalyptic, I wondered. The Mayans had been proved wrong; the world did not end in 2012. But the hint of a doomsday in the obligatory phrase – Final Morning – unnerved me. Even the cynical Sandeepan, undeniably the most learned among my friends in matters related to the Earth and its environment, had admitted that things were beginning to look up over the last decade or so. “If it is true that the Chloro-Flouro-Carbons blew a hole through the Ozone layer in the Stratosphere, then tell me why it appeared over desolate Antarctica instead of America or Western Europe? After all that is where most of the CFC was coming from,” the non-conformist Ambarish had posed the other evening, after a few pints of beer. “Extreme cold, freezing vortex wind, frozen atmospheric clouds and six months of darkness…” began Sandeepan. “But Professor isn’t the hole showing signs of closing up already?” I asked, cutting the pessimist short. “You must give humanity full marks for initiating the stitching process by choking out the CFCs.” Sandeepan had nodded reluctantly. Even the North Pole ice, which should have vanished by 2013 if the gory predictions on the effect of Green House Gases and Global Warming had proved right, was now showing signs of revival.

I had tried hard but could not get going with the prompt. The perpetual cycle of day and night, the change of seasons and the cycle of life so fascinated me that I refused to see any finality in them or anything else for that matter. After many failed attempts I had, finally, made it to Riffa Fort for a breakfast last Saturday. But there was nothing final about it. I wanted to go there again and gaze at the country side at the foot of the “Rimrock” – through the windows in its watch tower – just like the ruler Sheikh Salman Bin Ahmad Al Fatah once did.

Last week, while leafing though the newspaper at a coffee shop, a fellow writer let out a whoop and claimed triumphantly that he had, at last, found a thread to the story. “Americans see Blood Red Moon,” I saw the screaming headlines. “A presage to the Armageddon,” he declared, framing an imaginary title in the air. “But its occurrence can be explained though elementary Physics,” I protested. He frowned at me for being a spoilsport. “I know that, but Physics can’t make a good story.”

“Are you sure it is not “Final Mourning?” Sukanya tried to help me out with an alternative approach, yesterday. “Err….but is there a preliminary mourning as well? You die only once, is it not?” Now I was more confused and distressed than ever. “A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant….” “Please Sukanya, not Shakespeare again. Give me a cue to the March Creative Challenge,” I begged. “Get your laptop out and start pecking away at the keys. You’ll soon be there,” she counseled and breezed out of the room.

A call on my mobile distracted me. “Good morning Sir, this is Tolby.” The name failed to ring a bell with me. “Tolby who?” I asked. “Tolby, from the Holiday Club, Sir. You became our member last night, remember?” “Ah yes, I do. Go on Tolby.” There was no way I could forget the chap. “What are your hobbies?” he had asked, as we took our seats for the presentation the previous evening. “I used to have one when I was about your age. But not any longer.” Penetrating through my defenses wasn’t going to be easy for him, he realized. “You look tired. Are you just back from work?” he enquired, the smile never leaving his face. “Hmm,” I nodded. “How many children do you have, Sir?” he asked again, trying a different approach to pry me open. Before I could utter a word, Mita had given him not only the answer to his query but also a brief bio-data of Ankur and Rinky. From them on he directed all the, seemingly, lucrative club membership and vacation schemes at my wife, realizing that she was the key to open my impregnable guard. “Imagine staying at the best resorts in town absolutely free for the next fifteen weeks, once you have become a member of the Holiday Club,” he said after taking us on a virtual tour of the world – from South East Asia to Europe and America. “But your membership fees account for eleven of those fifteen years,” I pointed out, after a quick mental calculation. “We also have the club facilities that come as a bonus,” he came back promptly. I looked at Mita. Her wistful eyes suggested that she was already in far away Thailand or Malaysia.

“Congratulations Sir, for this wonderful gift to your family. I hope you are feeling better now,” Tolby had said, shaking my hand at the end of the signing of the contract. For the first time that evening the smile on his face looked genuine. God knew who was, actually, feeling better. “Yeah, thanks for showing the way,” I said and turned around. “I thought you mentioned that last year’s world tour was a let down,” I asked Mita as we drove back home. “Yes but we can’t go to Mars, can we?” she remarked. I joined her in the laughter. It was true – a man’s happiness lay in the contentment of his wife.

“Sir, I called to remind you of the photographs that we require for your membership cards,” Tolby said over the phone. “I’ll be there tonight with those,” I said. “Thanks, have a good day, Sir.”

“What is your token number?” asked the security guard, looking down at me as I switched off the mobile. “1090.” “Come tomorrow, 1095 is already at the service desk,” he pointed toward the display on the wall. “Uh! Oh!” I mumbled. The tortoise had finally caught up with the sleeping hare and gone past him. “But how..” I started to protest. “Don’t worry, I was joking,” laughed the guard. “Go next.”

While returning home after work that afternoon, I prayed for clear roads. It had been a backbreaking day at the office and getting bogged down in the weekend traffic could finish me off. On my first day at the Driving School in Isa Town, ten years ago, the Traffic Instructor had posed to the trainees, “What is the major cause of bottlenecks on Bahrain’s roads?” “Saudi Drivers?” a girl suggested innocently. Though the Instructor had roundabouts in his mind, everyone saw her point. As luck would have it, I ran into a snarl at the mouth of Exhibition Road. The lights turned green, then amber and finally red but the traffic remained as static as ever. When, after an agonizing wait of fifteen minutes, the vehicles started moving again, I saw my path blocked by a gleaming Volkswagon Beetle. I risked annoying the others and honked, but the car did not budge. In despair, I watched the lights go back to red. When I finally managed to maneuver past the stranded car, the reason behind its immobility became clear- the exhausted driver had fallen asleep at the wheel!

“Let’ walk down to Exhibition Road and get some Samosas for a snack,” suggested Mita, as I entered the house. “Not a bad idea,” I concurred with her. The sight of young men playing cricket next to our building always enthused me. On most Friday mornings, the sound of their strokes woke me up from sleep. It was wonderful to see Indians, Pakistanis and Baluchis forget their national rivalries and enjoy the game together. Further down the road, we passed the footballers in their brightly coloured jerseys, deeply engrossed in their game. I loved the vibrancy in the air. My program for Friday was already planned – an early morning visit to the heritage buildings along the Pearl Route in Muharraq and a tour of the Al Areen Wild Life Park later in the afternoon. My work load over the next two months, to achieve the project milestones, was substantial, but the thought of the week long trip to the exotic Caribbean islands after that thrilled me no end. How I wished this life would continue forever.

The bleep on my mobile notified me of an email. It was a reminder from Rohini for the March Challenge. My mind was made up. I would write back saying that this prompt was not for me, may there never be a final morning.

2nd Place

Another Long Journey Home

by Gordon Simmonds

Excerpts from the Memoirs of an Industrial Mercenary.

I was thirty something and working as a technician in Saudi Arabia. In accordance with the contract, I only got home to Ireland for two weeks every four months. My employers in Saudi gave us the cost of an air fare direct to the UK in cash, which allowed us the opportunity to book our own flights, and if we could find a cheaper route, we could pocket the difference. It’s hard to believe now, but I must have been more resilient in those days, because the cheapest route I could find was Dhahran to Bahrain, Bahrain to Kuwait, Kuwait to Heathrow, Heathrow to Belfast. I presume it must have been Kuwaiti Airlines because the key condition was that I must travel via Kuwait.

I’m not sure what year this took place but I guess 1977/78 and the weather was fine and sunny although it was not summer. The trip home was long but uneventful and I spent the vacation with my parents in Ireland. On the return, I chose to have a stop-over in London so that I could stay overnight with my brother and his family in Essex on my way back to Saudi.

My flight from Heathrow to Kuwait was at eleven o’clock in the morning, so it was very early and I am almost ready to leave for the three hour journey to Heathrow when there was a knock on the door. Hard to imagine these days, but without a word of a lie, there, on the doorstep were two uniformed policemen. They asked if they could talk to Gordon Simmonds. When I identified myself, they went on to say “We have just received a phone call from your mother to say that your brother hasn’t got a phone so she can’t contact you. She wants you to know that there is a rail strike today and there will be no trains running”. Just that. I thanked them and away they went.

Oh dear, this was going to be tricky. In my usual delinquent fashion, the time I had allowed was adequate but with little room for error. In my defence, I had just spent four months in the desert and two weeks in Ireland, and was totally out of touch with the situation in England. Anyway; my brother didn’t have a car, so straight away I contacted a car hire company……. and another, then another. There was not a car to be had in the whole of Southend. Obviously, everyone knew about the strike – except me.

I’m panicking now. What little spare time I had allowed was gone, so at the cost of an arm and a leg, I called a taxi. At least I was on my way – but not for long. We had barely got out of town when we hit the queue….. forty miles of it. Every commuter who normally went to London by train was on this road – we could have walked it quicker. However, after hours of travelling at a snail’s pace, we got to the airport. Breathless and exhausted I arrived at the check-out with ten minutes to spare whereupon, “Sorry sir. You are too late, the gate is closed.” I begged, I pleaded, I claimed extenuating circumstances. I even appealed to higher authority, but to no avail – the gate was closed, the plane had gone.

OK then. Plan B… Except there was no plan B. So I invented one.

I found out that the next flight to the Gulf was British Airways to Doha leaving around midnight. From there it was only a short hop to Kuwait. In those days there were only two types of passenger, first class and the rest, and a ticket was transferable. The fact that I don’t remember having to pay extra, suggests that I must have been able to use the existing ticket. Otherwise that would only have added insult to injury, and I wouldn’t have forgotten that.

Anyway I’m booked on the flight and I’ve got twelve hours to wait. Then, as now, airports are the most soul destroying places on earth. Nowhere comfortable to sit, nothing to do, and a mortgage required for food and drink. After reading the daily paper from cover to cover and doing all the puzzles, midnight arrived; at which point the message came up on the notice board, “flight delayed”. Two hours later, we started to board. The captain came on the intercom “Sorry about the delay ladies and gentlemen, but if you look out of the left hand window, you will see that this three engined plane now has four engines”. He went on to explain that a Trident was grounded in Doha with engine problems and needed a new one, so they had bolted a spare one on the outside of the wing. This was a novel excuse but sure enough, there were two engines on the left wing and only one on the right. Perhaps they could now call it a Quadrant and I’ve claimed the bragging rights ever since.

We took off and I adopted my usual travelling procedure and was fast asleep before the plane left the ground. Waking only for meals, we got to the gulf six hours later, at which point the pilot came on the intercom and said “Sorry ladies and gentlemen, but there is thick fog in Doha and we are having to divert to Abu Dhabi”. Plan B was looking decidedly flawed, since this now meant I would miss my connecting flight to Kuwait.

I’d been travelling for twenty four hours when we landed at Abu Dhabi and after a while in transit, the fog cleared in Doha and we continued the flight. As expected, my connecting flight to Kuwait was long gone, but with the consolation that there was another later that day. Another interminable wait and then off to Kuwait which by now was in darkness. Now you might be forgiven for thinking that the journey was nearly over – no such luck. My next connecting flight to Bahrain had also gone.

Kuwait airport was under renovation and the transit lounge had plastic sheeting for windows. As I’ve already stated, I’m not sure what time of year this was, but it was either early spring or late autumn because it was cold. I spent a very uncomfortable night shivering whilst trying to sleep spread out across three or four plastic seats. Next morning, I finally got the flight to Bahrain. By the time we arrived I had been travelling for forty eight hours. I must have had to wait all day for a flight into Dhahran, because it was dark again when we landed. Passport control and customs was always slow in Dhahran, so I made sure that I was among the first to get off, and reached passport control at the front of the queue. I presented my well-worn passport to the official and he flicked through the pages, and again, and again. He looked up at me and said “mafi visa” (no visa) and waved me away in that peremptory fashion typical of Arab officials. Stunned, I too flicked through the pages, and again, and sure enough the passport was full and there was no entry visa.

At this point I must tell you that Saudi visas took up a full page of a passport, and flicking through, it was easy to count the visas……. entry, exit, entry etc. until the last page which was exit. What had happened was that the visa office had stamped the exit visa, but couldn’t add the re-entry visa because there were no more pages – and then decided not tell anyone. Eventually one of the airline staff was brought over and I was duly escorted back to the plane I came in on. Next stop Bahrain.

After travelling non-stop for so long, the next few days were something of a blur to me and I remember little of the detail. I took a taxi to a hotel; I don’t know what or where and fell into a dreamless sleep. Now here I must digress to explain that British Embassies are there for the sole purpose of providing a palatial edifice for the residence of the ambassador. Any British citizen in need of help is merely an unwanted distraction to the main business of entertaining rich dignitaries.

My first obstacle to getting into the place was the man on the gate; an unshaven local employee who made it obvious that I was a nuisance and had the cheek to interrogate me as to my intentions. Eventually I got through to a room that looked like a bank, but not so posh. I queued for ages and when I got to the window, I had to go through all the interrogation rigmarole again; looking back now, I realise that I never saw or spoke to an English person throughout the whole sorry time. I was told to come back the next day. I suppose I ought to have been grateful for such a quick turn-around – but at the time, I wasn’t.

Next day was a similar story at the Saudi Embassy. Again, it was come back next day, and again, I should have been grateful, but again, I wasn’t. Eventually, armed with a shiny new passport and another full page visa, I was able to board a flight for the short fifteen minute hop to Dhahran. Six days after I started this journey, I got home and back to work.

3rd Place

Final Morning

by Michelle Schultz

We are withholding Michelle’s story as she is developing it further.

Congratulations everyone!

Other Entries!

Continuing on from last time – with the permission of the writers I am placing a few of the other entries. Please leave your comments so we know what your take is on the stories! The stories are listed in no particular order of preference.

Nancy the Servant

by Noor Nass

It was 1930, when Nancy was cleaning the balcony and placing some lavender flowers on the balcony of the house. Everyone called it Al Jara at that time.

She hears a man entering the door, with his pondering footsteps. The servant who was a part-time maid whispered to her: ” Is it that English man again, the one I spoke to you earlier about”

“What was his name- oh yes, D A I LY. Sargent D A I L Y. Looks like – they found something in those field digs that you heard earlier about, dear Nancy”

Nancy responded to her coworker ” sounds like a break through”

Colonel Daily responded to the servants with a hiss ” is that English I hear?”

“Yes sir!” As Nancy & her co-worker bowed down with respect, and continued cleaning up the Jara house, with what looked like a mopping stick made from palm leaves.

Colonel Daily – with merely a whisper ” we found it, we found it” mumbling with joy to his spirit. “Where is he?” Questioning what looked like a soft physique yogurt skin young lady at an age of 19 years young, that was so focused on cleaning.

” Who sire? ” – Nancy’s Co-worker responded, with thick Gramanic English accent, as she was old.

They might assume that you are an Anglo-Norman, some say.

Nancy responded to DAILY directly “ over their – Sargent!”

As her Majesty enters through the door, “Well, of course – you mean my dear husband,” the Queen enters to the living room bows her head down with respect to the Sargent DAILY as the guest of the day. While, signaling a sign language of dismissal to the servants, so they can receive their signal to leave the room & carry on their house duties or chores.

” Who, are you looking for Sargent Daily, and please be quick & specific” as his highness Prince of the Arabs has been given you enough of his time following the events you handled on some English nonsense.

My dear Queen ” it is time, to inform the Prince of the awaited result”

” We found it, the first Arab dig of Oil ” it is the first in the region it is unbelivable.

The Queen directly ordered the servants back again and firmly spoke to them by saying, “call your Majesty directly and interrupt his Ottoman phone call.”

The events that took place after that shifted rapidly, in the Sheikh and his people lifestyle and economical situation. The Delmonia that they once knew has transformed itself to a considerable important hub, of national and international affairs in the oil industry of the 1930’s of the 20the century.

Delmonia became an export and import of international affairs, which allowed them to invite new neighboring bloods, to take over hand on jobs. While, the people of Delmonia- transformed themselves to a desk job. In order for them, to delegate future aspirations, and environmental security and economical welfare of prosperity. Wealth found it’s way hidden among them again.

These were the days of how life changed, outside the Palace of Al Jara.

As the days ends at the palace, Nancy picks up herself and finds her way out to the awaited carriage, to be driven by the escorted mule to what sounds like a muddy road of pouring rain.

All of a sudden the mule begins to make a sound, and stops to what seemed like a nearby village.

It’s up north from the Palace, and it took Nancy and her carriage some 45 minutes, until arrival. Due, to the darkness with dim lightning’s.

The village was made of five houses placed next to each other, to resemble a neighborhood.

Each house was made from dried palm trees leave and felt very natural as in part of nature.

Nancy stepped down of the carriage and walked to her home alone house of palms, that within her she always dreamed of a different of prosperity.

It was made of 4 bed rooms and a palm rug. In the hallway!

Originally, Nancy’s mother – was brought down by an English navigator from the ports of Phoenicia.

Her mother was a common country girl, which lived in an upper scale society. She fell in love with a man outside her family circles. The neighbors say, he was an English or French man – that they were not quiet sure about. Due, to the newly introduced – world order back than.

No one knew the true identity of the carrier. As Nancy’s mother, kept it a secret and took the first exit trip on port to a country they called Delmonia for a fresh water start.

There, she gave birth to her daughter at the Path hospital and she named her daughter Nancy, in relevance to a nurse nun that delivered her first baby.

Nancy’s mother was a brilliant dancer and enjoyed life at the night clubs that thy called Malahi. Arwa never understood why some men never enjoyed whisky and gin and strip dancing for clients that paid substantially good amounts.

But, the changing world was coming and Arwa had to stop what she was and settle down with a Muslim man. As the custom of Delmonia was known to be a savior and not a lover.

Arwa loved him dearly, and never understood the world of the laws. And Adnan never knew that she was the best thing that happened in his life. Soon after she passed away, from the Collaria Mosquito – leaving Nancy at the age of 5 years old with Adnan as her step father.

And that is how Nancy was brought up in Delmoni in the 1920’s by a man named Adnan that taught her how to read, write and type on a type writer in English broken grammar as their mother language.

By the age of 15 Nancy found her first job as servant in al Jara and Adnan as her stepfather, moved out to settle with his new wife from a country called Yamen Eden.

When Sergeant DAILY left the house, after his meetings with the Sheikh, all he can think about was Nancy.

Her soft spoken dialect with sweet respect to her Majesty the Queen made him want to keep Nancy all for himself, as a luxury of a hard days work.

Back in the village Nancy began wondering how life would have been if she was ever married.

Pretending that God left her all alone in this world.

Well, off she goes again as her next door neighbor watches her clean the palm rug from the dust and fix the lanterns for reading time in the dark. While supper is boiling, of sweet potatoes, spinach and lentil beads.

All of a sudden she smells smoke – oh no the house is burning. She grabs her necklace and runs to the neighbors. Her neighbor tried to calm her down and made her go to bed directly.

And one final morning as Nancy wakes up and walks outside of her gorgeous savior neighbor’s house, only to find her palm house smashed with mud and charcoal smoke. That covered the whole area of the village with what looked like a black mist of smoky palm leaves. All the neighbors began sobbing and were just thankful that it was the other nigh of element of nature. Due, to the heavy rain that washed away her burned home by Hooligan Thugs out of revenge of someone.

She couldn’t capture what to think or feel at that moment, because she loved him and feared him. Luckily she did not understand authority and how series they are for those that commit to them.

She can see that authority walking right towards on a fine morning day. Sargent DAILY walks beside her and, gets down on his knees and proposes to Nancy. While, she has tears streaming down of her eyes of what was lost of hard days work. She responded back to him, I do not know what to say, as the answer will not please you ears or your mouth alone. I already asked your father, and he gave me my yes. Can you give me yours?

– End –

Prisoner # 42114

by Noor AlNoaimi

Metal sounds echoed in a random but rhythmic hymn of dread. Their steely dank prison was a cluster of square rooms, divided by bars, parted by a slim corridor that slithered past them towards the stairs beyond to the faint light there- Freedom. Teasing their eyesight, yet it was elusive, away, like the air they breathed yet could not touch.

Christopher was in his last days, no longer did he dream like the young men around him, of a home and a wife, of money and fame, of dark deeds done in the night, of continued debauchery, of crimes that were yet left uncommitted jailed as they were.

Murmurs, curses, rotten oaths that bounced off their lips like breath, so commonly said, weightless towards the passing guards that strolled past their bars. He sat there, his empty eyes upon the sight of the free man of the law beyond him, whistling his tune as if the sight of the fallen men around him was a delight.

“You’re up next, Columbus!” Cooed the officer beyond his bars, and for a moment he did not realize the words were to him, he had long ago forgotten his name, the famed surname he carried was exchanged for prisoner number 42114, plastered upon his mucked uniform right against his heart.

“For what?” Snapped his younger neighbor, another prisoner of the metal chambers.

” Just a quick poke in the head, he wouldn’t even have to stand.”

Some gasped, some laughed, others stared in plain horror for that same cruelty might turn to them next.

His neighbour did not go on in his show of defiance, he stepped back, starred at the warden then glanced towards him, Christopher, at a loss for words.

 I will be dead soon. His numb mind predicted, just as the lone officer passed him still humming cheerfully, his glazed hollow eyes stared at the man of the law, swaying up the stairs in good cheer, as if such an event was a jovial one, perhaps it was. He had not led a good life, not in the least. He had smuggled more than any of these common folk dreamed of, he had leached enough to have limitless fortunes overseas, and even more in his motherland.

But it was no use, for they were blocked away, banished from him just like the lifestyle he used to lead, he was now an exile of that life, a nothing, a figment of the man he had been, a loser; and losers always ended up in these situations.

The echoed voices of the men around him carried on, checked ‘Boom’ explosions into the dreadful present, their faces would glance his way, men leaned against their barred cells to talk to the occupants of the next one, “Who was he?”

“Used to be some big shot in New York.”

“Millions! They said he stole it all.”

“How did he do that?”

All eyes settled on him, killers eyed him, assessed him from the top of his white head, to the tips of his chipped shoes. Their disturbing smirks, daggers into his long dead pride, perhaps gleeful that one of those rich show offs was first in line, in what un-doubtfully be their fate too. Younger delinquents looked to him in awe, stricken that they did not know more of the quiet old man that was to die, Others who have witnessed such things did not bat an eye, relics of the place much like the bars behind him, a cool reminder of that the discomfort he felt now would only be temporary, it would all end soon.

Christopher Columbus was a man of very few words; he kept to himself, took a seat at the corner and did not make eye contact with the rest of them. He would look at times but his eyes would blink them out of focus in a moment, it was clear to all of them that he did not want any attachments, and for a cell of emotionally challenged cons that was easy enough, they left him to his solitude, ignored him. For who would care about numb old 42114? Nobody did until now, until death came with the timely proclamation that he was to be jolted and poked until he was gone from this world.

He stared ahead, his startling blue eyes now paler than they’d ever been, his head of fine blonde hair turned shades of white and grey, he was dying as it was, his very body shrinking towards the ground, it did not matter if it was tomorrow or the next, death would come, swift or slow, it will come.

The light around him snapped off, the whispers around him ceased and he closed his eyes for a moment, welcoming the dark.

Next he opened them, it was morning, the metal sounds returned, banging upon the rusty bars of the cells, it was like any other day really, except this time the clanking stopped with him, they opened the bars, and in walked the warden, the same man from yesterday, his hand clasped his belt, his eyes black pools in the dim lighting.

“Stand up, Columbus…Its gonna be over soon.” He said.

Christopher stood, though his knees were wobbly, his step unbalanced, the two officers behind the warden held him by his arms, pulling him out of his dank cell and adjusting his wrists to the hand cuffs they had.

“Like he’s a threat!” Chuckled one of the cons on the opposite side of him.

“ Smooth sailing, Mr. C”

“Bye bye, Mr. C”

“God bless.”

The array of their masculine voices echoed behind him, young and old, deep and boyish, mocking and kind.

But his mouth was mute to reply, he felt heavy as they made him walk the steps towards the elusive light, the effects on his eyes was devastating, for it wasn’t the sun or the stars but fluorescents, rectangular blocks of lightening that blinded him. He squinted, then closed his eyes for a moment as he was led away, letting them take him to the dreaded beyond.

The chill, dark, even dampness of the air, he could smell his own sweat, his hair matted like a pampered dog out in the sun for too long.

“Here we are.” Came the warden’s voice as he banged the white doors open, walking him over to the metal seat at the center of the room.

“You may stand aside, Fin.” Said an accented voice in a masterful tone.

Christopher dared to open his eyes now, the haunting lights made everything look green and sallow, or perhaps it was his own vision that did that.

Behind the long table beyond him, sat three individuals all wearing similar black suits, their frames broad and slim, their eyes held his in an assessing manner, the papers in front of them signified one thing.

He was a job, a workload they wanted to get done and over with. They did not care for his history; they did not care for his past, nothing more than to get him in a grave soon enough to indulge in their morning coffee.

Their voices recounted his wrong doings, his crimes, reasons that had put him into such an existence; reasons for the death he was about to experience.

He stared at their lips, the numbness slowly began to leave him, while the officers exchanged the metal cuffs for the leathered ones to bind his wrists onto the chair’s arms, his neck was also bound against the metal back of the chair, his head too, forced upon with that ominous bondage, wires hung around him in a deathly sway, murderous trappings for prisoner 42114.

“…Following the decree of the condemned, we hereby order to initiate the execution.”

“Any last words?” They asked in union.

Hot saliva snaked his mouth, his gaze blurred a thousand versions of them, and to his aged eyes, they did not look three at all, more like a hundred demons gliding up to meet his helpless gaze to ask that malicious question.

Last words? His brain repeated, an empty echo through his bare mind.

“ Any Last words, 42114?” They asked again, impatience in their tone.

“My name-“ He rasped, “My name is Christopher.” His voice sounded weak, and low so he said it again. “My name is Christopher…”

“We know that, Mr. Columbus. Will that be all?”

“ My name is Christopher.” He repeated. “My name is Christopher.

Again and again he said it, his discarded tongue speaking after much silence, the one truth he knew of his life, his name.

“Commence.” Said the man at the centre, his tone even, still masterful.

The lights around him turned red, purple, yellow…radiant colours that jolted his brain a thousand times over, the electric shots that went through him, burned and chilled him, smoke ensued and he could smell his own burnt flesh in the air, charred skin over fire.

Then it all stopped, his breath caught.

He longed for the sun, the empty sky that so resembled his eyes, but he did not see calm blue, no he saw black, jarring black, peering into his pupils.

“Still breathing!” Barked the warden to the distant corner, obviously to the one responsible for the deadly contraption that would lead to his undoing.

It did not take long for the colours to come back, the smell to return, the breathlessness to continue. The jolts intensified, shaking him a million times a minute, the stabs of the laced wires pulled his soul away, scorched his body until once more it turned dark.

Black, just like the eyes of the warden, emotionless black beads that stared into his.

“There has been a mistake.” The devil whispered.

Christopher’s gaze widened, he looked around him, it was the same room, the same dark fluorescent lighting, but there was no one else, he was alone.

“ Unfortunately, I cannot remedy your death.” The devil went on in that disturbing whisper.

Christopher stared, speechless, shivering at the news the creature spoke to him.

“You were an innocent…a little more than a common thief. I’ve had Pedophiles, Killers, rapists. A lot more deserving of this than you…yet here you are.”

Where am I? He wanted to ask but his teeth were bared down against each other, his mouth immobile to utter a sentence to the menacing face of Satan.

“Lets make a deal.” The devil continued a clawed finger emerged, black and menacing from his oversized fist. “I will let you walk away from the hell I represent if you do this…”

The faces he last saw before he left the world were around him, emotionless as they bore down their gazes at his body, none blinked as they touched his charred flesh, nor did they whisper a prayer for his sake, none cared to.

“Revenge?” The devil murmured against his ear, the vowels he spoke slurred in a song that touched his consciousness, he was under his spell, a deviant urge to rise and kill someone, specifically the men that put him to his doom so unjustly.

“Yes…”He rasped in the dark.

 -End-

 

Our Judge: Rebecca Young

Rebecca Young is an award winning journalist who has also worked in public relations and marketing and publishing. She is working on her first book: The Pessimists Guide to Optimistic Thinking. She also blogs for family and friends at http://www.youngsontherun.blogspot.com/.

As a member of the Bahrain Writers’ Circle Rebecca is an active member of our Creative Writers’ Workshop group and has won almost all of our monthly challenges. She graciously agreed to judge this month’s challenges and has provided helpful and detailed feedback to all our entrants.

Thank you Rebecca!

THE CHALLENGE

This was the prompt for the challenge story to be completed within 2000 words:

The prompt:

“The plane lifted off the runway and into the air. The person next to you turns and quietly whispers in your ear, “I know I’m supposed to keep this a secret, but I absolutely must tell someone.”

And here are Rebecca’s winners:

1st Place Simi Kamboj

If I Could Tell You

We are withholding Simi’s story as she is developing it further.

2nd Place Kelli Horner

The Secret

Eliza counted the money in her wallet- $42.58.  She had splurged on a coffee and a blueberry muffin at the airport Starbucks.  It was the first time she’d had Starbucks since Craig left four years ago.  Her per diem was fifty dollars, which seemed a bit much, but she wasn’t going to complain.  She had already figured out that she could pocket forty if she ate the continental breakfast at the hotel, drank the coffee at the training center and stuck to fast food for lunch and dinner.  One-hundred and twenty bucks could get Colby a new pair of shoes and Alex a new winter coat.  Plus she could pay the gas bill for the month.

She sighed and buckled her seat belt. Eliza knew that she was lucky for this opportunity.  There were people who had been at the office a lot longer than her but her boss, her friend Pammy, knew Eliza was struggling to make ends meet.  She offered Eliza the trip as a much-needed break from her role as single mom of three, with the added bonus of paying her overtime.  It would mean filling the refrigerator, paying the rent she owed and guaranteeing that the water would stay on for another month.  Pammy was her savior.

Eliza closed her eyes, determined to forget about her financial problems for a bit and maybe even sleep a little.  The flight was nowhere near full and the passengers seemed to have stopped boarding.  She smiled, grateful to not be sitting beside anyone.  She had just started to put her feet up on the seat beside her and open a well-worn copy of Pride and Prejudice when an airline employee helping an old man down the aisle stopped beside her.

The old man seemed lost inside his too-big suit jacket.  He reminded her of the old man from Up– big nose, bigger glasses, a shock of white hair on his head.  The employee gently turned him toward Eliza and, pointing to the aisle seat said, “Mr. Watkins?  We’re here.”  The old man, who had been watching his shuffling feet, slowly lifted his head and adjusted his glasses.  He looked confused and it seemed to take him a moment to remember where he was.  The employee handed him his ticket and the fog seemed to lift.

“Right, sorry,” he said, cheerfully and allowed the employee to help him into the seat and to buckle his seat belt.  The old man smiled broadly at Eliza and she couldn’t help but smile back at him.

The plane lifted off the runway and into the air.  Just as Eliza unbuckled her seatbelt, planning to move to the window seat, for a little extra room, the old man touched her arm, startling her.  His eyes were twinkling and he smiled a wide smile.

“I know I’m supposed to keep this a secret, but I absolutely must tell someone.”  He looked around as if to check if someone was listening.  Eliza smiled politely and waited, hoping she wouldn’t have to humor him for too long.  “I’ve just won the lottery.”  The old man giggled and covered his mouth, like a schoolgirl.

Eliza smiled politely and said, “Well, that’s wonderful.  Congratulations.”  She continued her move to the adjacent seat when he took her hand, stopping her.  His hand was cool and papery.  His grip was tighter than she would have expected.

“I’ve never even played the lottery before.  Did it this once, on a whim.  My buddy Arnold plays every week, the same numbers, the same order.  ‘Give it a go, Eddie,’ he said.  That’s me, Eddie Watkins,” he said, slowly offering his hand across the seat.  “So I did.  I played my birthday, my wife’s birthday and my daughter’s birthday.  I almost played our wedding date but then had a feeling that I should stick to birthdays.  Good thing I did, huh?”  Eddie giggled again.

Without prompting, Eddie started talking.  Eliza found herself drawn into conversation with him.  When the drinks trolley rolled by, and Eliza asked for the complimentary water, he offered to buy her a sandwich and a coffee (whoever heard of paying for coffee on an airplane, he muttered).  He told her how he and his sister had practically raised themselves after his dad walked out.  His mom was working three jobs, just to keep them from starving.  “That’s where I’m going now,” he told her.  “My sister’s.  With all this money, I want to finally give her all the things we never had growing up.”

His sister April was younger than him but already in a home.  “It’s a real nice place- it looks like a real house,” he admitted.  “But I wouldn’t want to live there.  A lot of rules and the cook burns everything.  No satellite TV, either.  I don’t know what I’d do without my Jeopardy,” he laughed.   “Oh listen to me, droning on.  What about you, young lady?  Do you have a family?”

Eliza, somewhat reluctantly because she didn’t really want to bother him with her problems, said her husband had walked out as well and since then, it had been a real struggle to keep her and the boys afloat.  She had considered taking a second job, but when she mentioned it to Pammy, she had suddenly gotten a ‘well-deserved’ raise.

As she was telling Eddie about Alex begging to go on the class camping trip (which should be free because it’s camping, for God’s sake) suddenly, as though a light had been switched off, Eddie looked confused.  Eliza stifled a laugh; he looked like a little lost puppy dog, looking at her with those big eyes, head tilted to the side.   He was quiet for a few moments and Eliza began to feel nervous.

“Eddie?” she said gently.  “Are you okay?”

He looked at her and smiled a weak smiled and chuckled, but it was almost as if he didn’t recognize her.  Eliza watched with growing concern as he looked around.  She could see the panic building in his eyes, his mouth dropping open, his hands trembling slightly.  He looked at his own hands and saw the ticket he was still clutching and seemed to visibly relax.  And just as quickly, his eyes lit up again, he smiled laughed a genuine laugh.

“Tell me about your kids?   Me and my wife, God rest her soul, we never had any babies of our own.  How many do you have?”  Eddie asked.

Eliza started to tell him about her boys and then hesitated.  “I thought you said you had a daughter?” she asked, thinking she had misunderstood.

“Oh no.  Edith wanted children so bad, but it just never happened.  One of my life’s biggest regrets, though I couldn’t do anything about it,” he shook his head wistfully.  “But tell me all about your boys.”

Eliza told Eddie all about the boys- how headstrong Alex was and how, even at seven, he had taken on the role of ‘man of the house.’  Colby was her artist, her dreamer, always painting and coloring, seeing the good in everyone he met.  The baby, Cash, was nothing but spoiled rotten, she said, laughing.

“A mother’s love,” Eddie mused.  “I can see it all, right here in your face.  You just want to take care of them.  I know you’re doing your best.”  Without warning, Eliza teared up at Eddie’s kind words.  Eliza took his hand in hers again.

They continued to talk, telling each other stories about their families and the lives they’d lived.  Before she knew it, the pilot announced that they would be landing in a few minutes and Eddie began to fumble around in his jacket pocket.  Pulling out his checkbook, he wrote a check and folded it up.

“Young lady, I’d like you to have this.  I don’t know if it will help but I hope you’ll accept a little generosity from an old man.  There’s no way I can even hope to spend this amount of money in the time I have left on this good earth.  I might as well share it around, wouldn’t you say?”  He smiled and handed her the check.

Five million dollars, it read.  Five million dollars?!  Her breath caught in her throat and she covered her mouth to hide a gasp.  Tears welled in her eyes and she pressed the check to her chest.

“Oh Eddie, oh I can’t take this,” she whispered, pressing the check back into his hand.

“You can and you will, young lady.  It’s not a request, it’s an order,” he smiled.

“This is too much,” she said.

“Please, take it.  It would make an old man so happy,” he seemed to plead.

“Eddie, this is unbelievable.  I cannot even begin to thank you.”  She leaned in awkwardly for a hug, trying to turn sideways with her seatbelt still fastened.   Eddie suddenly looked frightened and shrank back.  “Oh!” Eliza exclaimed.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to, I mean… I was only trying to…”

He stared and, again, gave her a chuckle and a dismissive wave, but almost before she’d had time to figure out what she had done wrong, he smiled brightly.  He took her hand in his and held it until they landed.  “Come and meet April,” he said.  “She’ll be waiting for me.”

Eliza helped Eddie off the plane to the waiting wheelchair.  She walked up the jet way with him, with one hand in his and one hand clutching the check inside her wool coat.  Her smile stretched from ear to ear.  She was already planning vacations and new wardrobes and savings accounts.  There would be trips to the water park that summer, maybe even a week at the beach.  It was the beginning of a wonderful new life for her and the boys.

Eliza accompanied Eddie all the way to the baggage claim area.  A woman Eliza’s age approached them as they reached their carousel.

“April,” Eddie said, reaching out his hands.  Eliza stopped, confused.  He had said his sister was younger, but this woman had to be thirty to forty years younger than Eddie.  How could she be his sister?

“Daddy!” the young woman exclaimed.

“Daddy?” Eliza and Eddie asked at the same time.  April’s face fell and she glanced back at a man standing beside the carousel.

“Excuse me,” Eliza said, offering her hand.  “I’m Eliza.  I met Eddie on the plane.  But I’m a little confused.  He said his sister April was meeting him today.”

“I’m his daughter.  My name is April.  Since his sister June died a few years ago, he’s gotten confused and sometimes thinks I’m her.  It’s gotten worse lately, which is why I convinced him to fly out here to live with us.  Me and my husband.”

“Oh,” said Eliza.  Then, as the realization began to dawn on her, she gripped the check harder, tighter, afraid to ask, but knowing she must know.  “Is it… does he have… ?” she started, letting the question hang in the air.

April smiled sadly.  “He wrote you a check, didn’t he?”  Eliza nodded.  “That started just after June died as well.  He became convinced that he won the MegaMillions.  He’s been writing checks left and right, to anyone and everyone who takes a moment to talk to him.  The truth is, I cancelled his checking account over a year ago.  If I didn’t, he would have been bankrupt and writing bad checks all over North Carolina.”

Eliza stood rooted to the spot as April’s husband loaded Eddie’s bags onto the trolley. She waved a weak goodbye to the family, still unable to move.  Eddie smiled back at her and called out, “I hope life treats you well,” giving her a wink.  April began to push his chair towards the exit when Eliza heard him ask, “June, what’s for dinner?”

3rd Place Michelle Schultz

Visions

We are withholding Michelle’s story as she is developing it further.

Something different

This time we’re putting on another entrant’s submission after consulting with him so here it is! Do comment and let us know what you think.

The Delivery by Emad Alfons

The phone kept ringing like a staggering siren, on and on it relayed in the abandoned room. Mayor Bernaski has just left his office heading to Heathrow’s airport to catch his 11:45 flight to Moscow. A few miles away from the central state building occupying the backseat of his bulletproof 745 BMW an alarming buzz itched his right thigh. Again he paneled his cell phone to silent mode but luckily he could still feel it’s vibration throbbing his thigh. Peculiarly he gazed at the screen wondering at the unknown number appearing on the monitor, he gently pressed the answer button and uttered a hesitated greeting tone. The signal was weak and the phone’s charge about to die. Few could be heard from his assistant Tony who tried contacting him at the office but got no reply. Fortunately the message was delivered and the mayor informed of the swap, to take place at the airport. Boris Patel was to be replaced at the mayor’s assistance instead of Tony. The brief chat ended followed by a squeaking low battery indication.

A few minutes later avoiding downtowns crowded streets the driver made a complete halt outside Heathrow’s airport. Patel was alerted on his walkie-talkie of the mayors arrival, hurdling his way to him at an alarming pace. The mayor was joined by his private staff and secretary who accompanied him on every foreign diplomatic event. Regulations committed and check-in cleared the mayor along with 4 of his private staff boarded the plane.

Yuri Bolakov an ex-KGB agent sent his advisors to declare a press conference to be conducted shortly after the mayors arrival. Accommodation was finalized at the Four Seasons hotel and a private duplex suite secured with the supervision of highly ranked statesmen. Conference invitations delivered, attendees informed and the hosting hall ready for the conference. Bolakov made sure that everything seemed normal, his duty was to ensure that this feeling of comfort was present and sensed evidently.  His fierce features and shallow smile made the flow of work managed to complete perfection. All was set early before the plane took off Heathrow’s airport.

The plane took off on time, the busy staff started their work immediately soon after the seat belts icon dimmed. The cabin crew offered cold mint and hot towels, while the mayor being handed his towel gestured with his fingers to the crew member and ordered a cup of coffee. Briefly after the order, Patel followed the white shirted crewman, dipping his hand into his right pocket to grab a black device with a small screen, one of those digital type bleeping devices. The mayor’s phone already dead asked his assistant to put it on charge and was handed another to carry out his phone calls. With each of his team busy with scheduling and planning, his personal bodyguards keen to every motion, no one paid attention to the most obvious detail, the coffee.

Patel was back to his seat beside the mayors secretary, he turns to her and quietly whispers ” I know I’m supposed to keep this a secret, but I absolutely must tell someone”. His words startled her and instead of looking back at her computer screen, her eyes grew weary and worry crippled down her spine. “I think the mayors life is in danger” he added, making sure his voice was only heard by the secretary.

Coffee was served in a paper cup on a small platter with sugar and cream on the side. The mayor immediately poured the cream and added a pack of sugar to his hot drink and started sipping his first mouthful of hot toxin. The coffee contained Ricid, a highly poisonous powder which the crewman added 100mg of it carefully into the cup. The toxin circulates through the blood faster when accompanied by a sugary substance, with minor flu symptoms appearing within 8 to 10 hours. The toxin was now running through the mayors system, and the flight to Moscow would approximately take 6 hours.

“I can’t clearly know where the threat is but the mayor is in danger” Patel continued his chat with the secretary, with her eyes fixed on his lips as if reading his words. There was no appealing threat present on board, no peculiar movements or any sense of instability. Patel could not sense any present danger threatening the mayor’s life on the plane, but the message he received on his private device made him insecure. A professional security man could not figure where the threat lies.

The coffee cup lay empty in front of the mayor and the sense of warmness cuddled his belly, not aware that a toxin will soon be clotting his veins.

The plane arrived at Moscow’s airport at 5:15 with Patel tilting around himself searching for traces of threat but what made matters worse is the normality of things which dissipated a sense of security at it’s most. The adrenaline pumping through Patel’s and the secretary’s veins made everything seem alarming to them, rechecking the mayors luggage and personal belongings. The bodyguards too sticking to the mayor after Patel informed them of the threat. Shortly the staff and the mayor left the airport heading towards the hotel, with the mayor releasing his first cough between his palms. It appeared normal to Patel and thought it was due to atmosphere’s change giving it no much attention, but when the mayor started feeling dizzy and his limbs getting loose and vulnerable he had to act. All his attention was focused now on saving the mayors life, giving no much attention to traces of threat as he knew that the danger had impacted already.

They arrived at the hotel and were welcomed by Bolakov, showing them the way to their rooms. The Mayor was tired and feeling cold by now and prompted angrily at Patel to lead him to the restroom. Holding him by his arms with the help of the bodyguards they penetrated directly the suite with Patel’s eyes grabbing the features of a familiar face, the white shirted crewman standing before Bolakov. His eyes said more than his mouth could utter and took his first steps towards the crewman. He stepped rigidly in front of Bolakov and asked if he could call in for the hotel’s doctor for a quick check up to the mayor. He tested the crewman’s reaction with a few questions and recorded his body language and eyes. He knew he was involved in the scene but the mayor’s life was important at the moment. He accompanied the doctor to the suite where the mayor was fidgeting like a newborn baby lying helplessly on the bed. The doctor predicted a form of seizure or epileptic defect and soon injected the mayor with a mixture of tranquilizers to stabilize the body. 10 hours have passed since the toxin entered the mayor’s body and was affecting the body’s organs. The doctor announced that the mayor should be sent to the hospital for immediate surveillance.

Bolakov and the crewman vanished into thin air, leaving no trace of their presence in the hotel as if their mission has been accomplished. Patel couldn’t simply find them, he stormed the hotel and asked at the reception for the men but everyone denied their existence and some denied their identities. Everything about them was fake, the only thing true about them stayed unveiled. Bolakov and the crewman where members of a secret resistance to arms dealing who used their state jobs as war veterans to defuse any attempted threat to their country. Mr.Bernaski was there to sign a confidential treaty between both countries to import used weapons. Weapons to be used against their own countrymen and soil. The mayor was their target, they had to eliminate this threat at all costs and dismantle the root of future smart missiles being imported to their  country. Worst of all where the two parties behind the deal, a Russian warlord and an English secret arms dealer. The deal was far from legitimacy, but had to be covered delightfully by a diplomatic event, the mayor was attending.

The mayor arrived the hospital at 9 pm with severe neural failure and respiration low enough to decrease the heartbeat to 20 beats per minute. The toxin has been circulating his blood long enough to be curable, at 10:15 the mayor was announced dead.  Patel’s black device rang again and Tony’s number appeared now. Patel read the following message “Reach into the mayor’s right jacket pocket, take the bank card and head to the bank’s headquarters at 182 valon st and ask for Richard Daftport, he’ll lead you to the locker”.  Patel was now in the midst of confusion, alone and perplexed he had to know what was he involved in. He did as Tony told him and made his was to the bank’s main office asked for Richard and was lead to a private room where an iron box settled on a table. Patel was sure that everything had been settled beforehand and everyone played a specific role, each providing a piece of information. He was not asked for any identity nor to present any documents confirming his relation to the mayor.

He opened the box and started running his eyes over some papers with bank accounts and confidential contracts carrying the mayor’s name. He emptied the papers into a bag Richard provided him with and left heading back to the hospital. With all matters being settled by the embassy, Patel now drew patterns attaching one end of the string to another grasping the entire image. He possessed papers of the mayor’s secret contracts with warlords, Tony’s involvement with the Russian secret service police and a plot to assassinate the mayor. He knew that he had to act on both ends, submitting the documents to court and bring Bolakov, the crewman and Tony to justice.

The device rang again with Tony’s number, now the message read as follows “Delivery met”.

And here is one more entry!

The Dependable Passenger by Akbar Khan

That ringing! The alarm? The phone?!

I groggily rose from my bed and made my way to the source of my broken slumber. I pulled open the door, only faintly aware of my surroundings.

Slowly, it came back to me, as I looked at the bell boy’s face. “Senior, you wanted a wakeup call?”

“Normally one would just receive a call on the phone, not a personal visit.”

“Phones no work, sir. So I come to you.”

“Why, thank you.” I said closing the door on his tip hungry expression. My political preference holds me from handing out freebies, though political support is subject to change, now that I’m eligible for healthcare. What’s the harm in switching sides for a day or two?

The flight is way too early for my liking; a result of having your family book your flights.

Do people still dress up for flights? I guess you could call a hoodie neo formal, blue jeans go with everything. Flipflops, now that’s just being practical.

I rushed out the door with the pitter patter of my footwear on the cheap carpet, bags in tow. Meager belongings make for a good traveler.

Checking out is an easy process in a dump like this. No services offered, no services charged. I slammed down the bunched notes and keys on the front desk, thanking the cute receptionist on the way out.

Probably should have asked her name. On second thought what’s the point, it’s not like I have time to flirt and she probably isn’t single anyway.

Best not to get myself tangled with another exotic girl, not after the last one.

The taxi rides in Third-world countries are unpleasant, to say the least. Maybe if I paid a little more, I could have gotten the driver to turn on the air conditioning. They always seem to want to make conversation.

“No, really, I enjoyed my stay.” Been stuck in office meetings all week, not much of a vacation.

“Good, I’m happy you like my country. So you went downtown? Met a few of the honeys?”

Oh god! When has this become appropriate conversation? Whatever happened to talking about the weather or the economy? “Yeah, sure buddy, a few.” Smooth…

Twenty minutes of awkward conversation later, we reach the airport.

The airport, highly unremarkable, looks as if it was purposely built to bore any passing on-looker, deliberately lowering the expectations of incoming tourists. The rolling green hills, blue skies and silky sand on the beaches get a noticeable boost by comparison, especially if you had arrived on a flight from one of the local carriers.

It was about 10 before I plopped down on the seat. Economy class, not the most glamorous way to travel. I was looking forward to a quiet flight and to avoid social interaction by burying myself in the in flight magazine. The seat next to me was empty and I hoped it would stay that way.

“hmmm…”

A young lady in a pair of blue jeans and a plaid shirt was struggling to fit her bag in the overhead compartment. My large carry-on-bag was not placed in the most appropriate position. I decided to do the decent thing, get up and help. Ignoring my natural awkwardness, which insisted that my interest be better placed on this fascinating article about research done on drying paint.

Pushing my bag to one side, I managed to make enough space to slot her bag in place.

“Thanks.”

“No problem” I turned and got a good look at her. She couldn’t have been more than in her late 20s. Bright red hair framed her face, along with a friendly smile.

We took our seats, hers the aisle and the window for me. I tried busying myself with last view of the rolling mountains, out in the distance, trough the tiny window. I decided to go back to my magazine but quickly got distracted by my fellow passenger’s fidgeting.

Twirling her thumbs, it was quite obvious she was nervous. Just as the plane started to taxi, I noticed the blood drain away from her face. It was hard not to stare, her fear of flying was quite obvious.

The whine of the engine turned into a rumble as the plane started barreling down the runway. I turned to see the lady had her eyes locked front and was now gripping the armrests. I managed to hide my smile to the other side of my face, more commonly known as a smirk.

My covert amusement didn’t last long. Just as the plane lifted off of the runway. I hear her voice whispering into my ear. Personal space, along with flying, was not her forte.

“I must tell you a secret, I probably shouldn’t tell anyone this.”

All of a sudden we are best buddies; I seemed to have missed that memo.

“Umm, sure. If you want too.” She waited for a key moment, no escape! She could be any one of the horrors seen on the news or a combination. Question is, does she blow up the plane first, or drop the drugs to her cartel friends first?

“I’m afraid of flying.”

I masked my sigh of relief with a nervous laugh. “Well that’s not too bad. Lots of people are afraid of flying.”

“No, you don’t understand. I’m the air marshal on this flight.”

It was now my face’s turn to lose color. Odd that the increased possibility of danger is less terrifying than losing your comfy layer of defense against a highly unlikely danger. Chances that a plane would be hijacked are quite small. Suddenly, I feel like I’m in a really lame bar joke: A terrorist and a cowardly air marshal walked into a plane…

“I know this might be a little unusual..” understating a little aren’t we? “… but I really needed to tell someone.”

The plane lurched as it hit a pocket of turbulence, making her flinch. It almost seemed like the sky was reluctant to let go of his sway over the Ms. Air Marshal.

“Sure. Quite unusual actually. So how did you get into this line of work?” I hope I can carry the conversation long enough for her to relax.

“Two years of training. I passed my exam with flying colors, you know.” She said with a sheepish grin. It made me glad that I could take her mind off of her work disability. I’m still not quite sure if distracting an officer of the law is a good thing.

Weren’t air marshals supposed to be middle aged men with handle bar mustaches who don’t draw any attention? Then again, none would suspect the petite girl with hair bright enough to flag down rescue planes with.

“You’re fear of flying wasn’t an issue?”

“The simulator was well grounded. They didn’t really ask me if I was scared of heights. In fact I have never actually been in a plane before.”

Somehow I do not find the same level of humor as her voice suggests I should have. I guess this speaks volumes about the government and their ability to keep the public safe.

As the plane leveled off, Ms. Red Head seemed to have calmed down but her nerves seem to rattle in tandem with the plane through every pocket of turbulence.

I would have called this a smooth flight but sitting next to someone like her, makes you aware of the slightest bumps.

We had our in-flight-meal, as we chatted away. It might have been the free alcohol I happily downed. I do seem a lot more charming when filled with the right amount of booze. She on the other hand stuck to her juice.

Agitated voices began coming from the rear of the plane. This gradually got louder with one voice becoming the predominate character in the argument. Whoever it was, was slurring his words heavily, obviously intoxicated.

The little passenger next to me scraped up the last bit of her custard before squeezing out of her seat. She briskly walked down the aisle to the source of the commotion. I dived to my right to get a better view of what was happening.

The man had grabbed the collar of a terrified air hostess, while other passengers looked on in shock. He was stumbling a bit, not quite sure what to do now that he was in the commanding position he put himself into. He seemed more than happy to just continue yelling at her. Good

Ms. Scared of Flying, let loose a quick jab to his ribs, while with her free hand she swiped his hands away from his victim. Just as he buckled over in pain, she pushed him to the floor, pinning his hands behind him.

“Stop resisting! You’re under arrest!” She commanded, in a voice quite unlike the one that was whispered in my ear.

I didn’t see either of them for the remainder of the flight. Both seemed to have found seats next to each other, where he could be kept out of trouble.

Leaving the plane, I reflected on the day’s events. This had been without a doubt the most interesting flight I have ever been on. Maybe more people would fly, if they knew they were going to see some martial arts action. Hmm, that could actually work. I wonder if any of the airlines will let me pitch my idea…..

“Hey!” Ms. Kick Ass was jogging up to me a silly grin on her face.

“Hey. That was amazing! Good Job.”

“Thanks. I just wanted to say thanks for everything, Richard.”

“Oh it was no trouble. Wait… How do you know my name?”

“It was on the passenger list. I had to note it down for… official purposes, as a witness. Also your phone number. Anyway, see you around.”

Walking out of the airport, I couldn’t help but hope she would call. Things may finally be looking up.

September 2017
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