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D.A. Spruzen

Our reviewer for the May-June challenge is Dorothy Hassan, who writes as D. A. Spruzen. She has lived in Northern Virginia since 1971, except for a two-year hiatus in the Middle East. She grew up near London, U.K., where she graduated from the London College of Dance and Drama Education before joining the faculty of London Theater School. Many years later, she earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte, and now teaches writing for the McLean Community Center when she’s not seeking her own muse. She also runs private critique workshops in her home and is a past president of the Northern Virginia Writers Club. In another life she was Manager of Publications for a defense contractor.

Dorothy’s short stories and poems have appeared in many publications, most recently in three anthologies, Joys of the Table (poetry, Richer Resources Publications), the Creatures, Crimes and Creativity conference anthology, and Crossing Lines (Main Street Rag). Her novel The Blitz Business, set in WWII England, was published by Koehler Books in 2016 and a poetry collection, Long in the Tooth, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2013. Dorothy self-published the first two novels in her Flower Ladies Trilogy and Crossroads, two novellas. When she’s not writing, Dorothy likes to read, paint, garden, and take care of Sam, her Cavalier King Charles spaniel

The prompts:

– Sandstorm: you are suddenly in the middle of a sandstorm you cannot see where you’re going. write a story about how you’re there and what you do to survive OR describe how it feels to be in the middle of this

– The car door is locked and won’t open write a story about how you came to be there are you inside or outside the car…

– Visual prompt as below:


What are you doing here? How did you get here? Is this a place where you wish to be or do you want to get away from here.

The Entries

Two of the entries will be coming in a little later as the entrants, having taken on board Dorothy’s detailed comments, are in the process of editing their stories. One story has already been edited in accordance to the reviewer’s comments. Thank you Dorothy!

In the middle of a sandstorm

by Melissa Nazareth

A violent sandstorm erupted and I could barely see. A moment ago, all  had been clear and I knew my way, but now I was blinded without warning. I tried to find my way to the tent, but I could hardly keep my balance, let alone walk without staggering from side to side. I prayed I would reach my safe haven, wondering if this might be my last day.

I was becoming short of breath. My eyes stung from the dust. I must have been walking for hours before my legs unwillingly surrendered. I fell to my knees and collapsed, engulfed by a sea of sand. My gaze darted from the dunes around me to the blue sky above. The sun, resplendent and merciless mocked my mortality and I instantly turned away. Formless objects in all colours of the rainbow floated past my eyes.

I felt my body tighten, then go slack. My spirit fought on. I tried to call out for help, but the shrieking cries of the desert birds gliding above drowned out my own. Something scaly slithered against my arm. Paralysed by fear, I didn’t look to see what it was, maybe because I didn’t want to know. In the silence of my heart, struck by a tempest of its own, I cried. “God, please rescue me.” I must have passed out.

Was I in heaven? Light streamed in from all sides, warming my skin, though my insides felt icy. I couldn’t move. Frantically searching for a sign, I spotted something familiar— the camel figurine on my study table. This was my room. Why couldn’t I move? I felt my eyes widen in panic before the memories came rushing back. I’d had an accident.

I had just had a heated argument with my mother. It wasn’t always like this between us. We were a happy family. We went out together and ate dinner together. But after my father left us, everything changed. I constantly felt anxious, as if I were stranded in a desert. I battled with my emotions, which would stir up without warning. Where was my life was headed? I couldn’t seem to find my path. My mother, who now worked two shifts, barely had time for me. She would leave early in the morning. When I woke up, the house would be empty. I returned from college every day to an empty house. My only safe haven was drama class. I was an average student but a good actor. Or at least, that’s what Mr. Thomas said. We were going to put on a play over the weekend. My mother had promised to attend but backed out the same day because she had to work overtime. It was the last straw for me and I had been running down the stairs after hanging up on her.  That’s when my foot had slipped and I blacked out.

A knock on the door interrupted my thoughts. “May I come in, sweetheart?” It was Mum. She was smiling but her eyes glistened. I looked away, pretending to look out of the window. She sat next to me and held my hand.

“I’m sorry, darling.” she said. “I know how hard this has been for you. I know you loved your father. I loved my husband too.” Her voice cracked.

I looked at her face, now streaming with tears. As angry as I was about everything, I knew my father’s death wasn’t her fault. He had been drinking and driving. My mother had not even had time to mourn her loss. She had taken the reins almost immediately because she had me to take care of.

“It’s been almost a year,” she said. “The memories will never go away, but I think it’s time we try to overcome the pain and resentment.” I nodded and managed a smile. My mother smiled back. That was the first time we had connected for ages. I felt a huge weight being lifted off my chest, as if the storm had passed and I could see things clearly again.


“Yes, honey?”

“I had a dream last night…

— End —

Locked Inside

by Renjith Sarada


July 20, 2018

My dear Gopi,

I hope this note finds you in the best of health and happiness. I have been thinking of writing to you for a few days, though there is really nothing new to say since we text every day.

I recall how I used to write long letters in the old days, to my parents, sisters and your mother on postcards and inland letter forms.   Since the advent of mobile phones and social media, I seem to have literally forgotten how to write, or rather how to use a pen!   I tried writing, but perhaps due to my advancing age, I could not hold my pen properly; thus I am typing it out on my computer, which is an almost obsolete device, just like me!

Well, I didn’t mention something important when we spoke this morning. I did so deliberately, as I wanted to convey more about it than I could by tossing it off in one or two sentences over the phone.   Moreover, I anticipated that you would also feel sad if I handled the matter abruptly.

Our favourite car — the Mitsubishi Outlander we bought when you were in school was sold yesterday. I could not control my tears when the new owner drove it past me. So many memories come to mind – the long drives with you and your mother, your friendly squabbles with each other about who would occupy the front seat, you looking at the speedometer when I used to drive fast, your excitement whenever the odometer crossed hundreds and thousands, and so on.

Dearer to me than anything, though, was the dent on the driver’s door, which I could never bear to get repaired.  The buyer asked me why that dent was not repaired. As it was so personal to you and me, I did not explain.  Taking advantage of that, he insisted on a further discount, to which I had to accede.

I am writing to you about it, so that so that I can revisit those memories and apologise for my mistakes.

I presume that you too remember that evening and the night following the prize distribution ceremony at your school. How excited we were! I was so proud as I clicked pictures of you on stage receiving the prizes from the guest of honour.   You were equally thrilled, as it was a culmination of your hard work in the face of heavy competition and related pressures at home.   As the function went on till eleven or so, you felt very hungry and wanted me to take you to a restaurant. I remember, I said no, because your mother and infant sister were waiting for us at home.   Looking back, I realize I failed to appreciate the little boy who worked hard day and night to secure this coveted prize and make his parents happy and proud. I focused my attention on talking to my friends on the phone about your achievement.   Do you also remember, that we stopped at a grocery store midway, past midnight, as I had promised to buy you some snacks to assuage your hunger?

I remember vividly, getting out of the car, specifically asking you to stay inside as the engine was on.   The shop was about to close and I had to wait till the shopkeeper reopened the till.   By the time I emerged from the shop, I was shocked to see you right in front of me, despite my instructions to stay in the car. When I looked at the car and found that the engine was not running, I smiled at you for being responsible enough to turn off the engine and lock the car.

At first, I did not notice your pale face when I asked you where the key was, three times in a row. I peered though the window of the silent car and saw the key in the ignition slot.   We were stranded on the road at midnight, locked out of our car. As I liked the car so much, I did not want to pursue the idea of breaking the window, as suggested by the impatient shopkeeper.

I remember, shouting at a helpless you for not adhering to my instructions to stay in the car. In my anger, I forgot all about the prize and your hard work.

The shopkeeper decided to leave, ditching us in absolute darkness. There was no one available to assist us as it was so late at night. You suddenly started to cry, after realizing the gravity of the situation. I briefly considered going home and bringing the duplicate key – but of course there was no transportation.    How relentlessly I yelled at you to vent my frustration!   Suddenly, you started to pray, though I am still unsure whether you prayed for help to come, or for me to keep my mouth shut!

God is kind. It was such a relief seeing the flashing headlights of a car approaching.   Thankfully, the driver, Viswa, then a total stranger stopped beside us and asked why were we standing on the road so late.  When I explained, he was gracious enough to get out of his car and see if he could find of a solution.   Before long, he, too, suggested that there are no options other than to either break the window or go home to get the duplicate key.  For me, neither was feasible as I did not want to break the window or to ask him to take me home, especially as he had his family with him, who were patiently waiting for him. Family members were also patient enough to wait for us to get out of the ordeal.

Viswa then suggested that the only other option left was to find a wire thin enough slide under the window seal and try to catch the lock lever and pull it up.   The idea sounded good, but where would we find such a wire?

Viswa started to rummage around in his toolbox.   I could notice through the corner of my eye, that you were so scared as you had anticipated us breaking the glass of our favourite car due to your mistake.   Unfortunately, Viswa could not find anything suitable.

Meanwhile, the noise woke up Viswa’s eldest son. He got out of the car and asked his father something in their language, to which Viswa replied, pointing at my car.   He immediately retrieved a wire clothes hanger from somewhere in their back seat and got to work. What presence of mind!

Thanks to the boy’s acumen, he managed to reshape the iron clothes hanger and make it resemble a straight shaft with a hooked end.  He made many attempts over the next thirty minutes or so to resize the hook so that he was finally able to unlock the car. His heroic efforts resulted in that dent on the left door above the glass frame.

I salute and respect the little boy’s perseverance and good attitude while helping a stranger in distress.

As you are aware since then, that Viswa and I have become close friends. I am glad that you also keep in touch with the then-little-boy who is now pursuing his Masters in Engineering in the U.S.A.

I realize with sadness the pain I caused you by shouting at you on the road and later at home, while telling your mother the story.   I, remember how your tears splashed on the trophy held close to your chest. I was cruel to overlook and forget the success brought about by your hard work because of my own frustration.

I love you, my dear son. That same trophy is kept safe here with me.   I polish it whenever I miss you, and that is very often.

I hope you have some happy memories of times we shared. As always, I love you and pray for you.

God bless, with love,

Yours Achchan

–End —



Susan M Toy


Our reviewer for the single entry received for our July-August Challenge was Susan Toy – a bookseller, an award-winning publishing sales representative, a literacy teacher, and a promoter of fellow authors and their books through her company, Alberta Books Canada. Susan is also an author and publisher, her imprints are IslandCatEditions and IslandShorts. Through Alberta Books Canada, Susan represented authors directly, helping them find promotion for themselves and their books, seeking out new readers, and assisting them in making wise career decisions.

Susan continues to promote authors and good books in general, throughout the world and online, on her blog, Reading Recommendations. She created the writing contest, Coffee Shop Author, has sat on the Board of Directors of the Fernie Writers’ Conference, served as a member of the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program steering committee, and was a member of the board of directors for the Writers’ Guild of Alberta. She is now concentrating on her own writing and publishing and divides her time between Canada and her home in the Caribbean.

You can read more about Susan here:

You can read about Susan’s books here:

And her other thoughts here:

Thank you Susan! 

And now for our July-August entry… The challenge was:

“Your story should have 2 characters, an object, a location, a dilemma, a trait. Mix them all together and you have a plot – your word limit is 2,000 words.”

The Reluctant Boatman

Extract from the Memoirs of an Industrial Mercenary by Gordon Simmonds

In the summer of 1975, I was working for a small instrument company in Waringstown, Co. Down, assigned to sort out a problem at a water treatment plant in bandit country. Bandit country was anywhere in South Armagh where the IRA had a strong and active presence. This plant was situated in an idyllic setting high up in the Mountains of Mourn and not far from Newry.

The highlight of this particular job was spending lunch hours fly-fishing in the lough not far from the plant. The weather was fine and sunny, the trout were rising in their thousands all over the lake, but none seemed hungry, at least, not for my fly. So I caught nothing, but then, fishing isn’t necessarily about catching fish–or so I tell myself.

The lowlight occurred during a trip to Newry. I had decided to replace a motor in the plant and drove to a supplier in the town. The motor wasn’t very big, but it was fairly heavy, so I sort of bundled myself backwards out of the shop door carrying this heavy motor in my arms, almost colliding with a passing soldier. Now this was not any old soldier. He was in full patrol mode, rifle unslung – locked and loaded no doubt (as the Americans would say), and more significantly, he wore a red beret with a Pegasus badge. Oops! Bumping into a member of the Parachute Regiment is not a good idea at any time, but in the middle of bandit country . . . not good.

He wasn’t a dwarf, so he wasn’t Happy. In fact he was rather tall, dark, and carried the sort of features that wouldn’t shrink from jumping out of a planeat ten thousand feet with just a scrap of silk between him and oblivion. He glared at me with obvious disdain, and despite my English accent, he either took me for a bandit, a collaborator, or both, because he proceeded to give me the third degree:“Who are you?What are you doing?Where are you going?”He growled.

Only a few short years before, I would have outranked him both in terms of seniority and rank. But now I had long hair and a beard . . . and he had a gun. Besides, I don’t think he would have taken too kindly if I had come out with the old ‘name, rank and number’ routine, so I didn’t try. It did make me think however, that if they treat every innocent person like this, its little wonder that so many in the area supported the IRA and despised the Para’s. On the other hand, every patrol around this area meant he never knew whether this would be the one when he’d be shot at and killed or wounded, as had been the case with so many of his comrades.

Commuting to and from the plant meant travelling through Lurgan. Along the main street I had noticed a boat laid upright against a wall with a for sale sign. £45 it said, complete with an outboard motor. It was about ten feet long and quite wide in the beam, with buoyancy tanks down either side. The hull was painted a bright British racing green and white on the inside. Over the course of a few nights, I considered the idea, and eventually thought it would be good for a bit of off-shore fishing. So, of course I bought it.

I didn’t own a trailer and since I was young and already stupid, I reckoned I would lash it to the roof rack. Bearing in mind I was driving one of the old Czech Skodas, the boat was probably bigger than the car. But, as I said – young and stupid. The boat was a great hit, though, and once Dad acquired a trailer, he and the boat spent many pleasurable hours fishing off Port Muck on the Islandmagee. I was away from home much of the time so I look back with regret that I missed most of those fishing trips.

Before I get to the main story, two other boating incidents come to mind. On a nice sunny day I decided to go for a sail on my own. I hitched up the trailer, drove down to Whitehead and launched the boat from the ramp there. The engine came off the Ark, but was still very reliable and invariably started on the first pull of the rope – and so it did this day – which was a shame, because I’d forgotten to loop the ballast bag over the bow. (The boat was so buoyant that without putting ten kilos of lead in the front, the bow would rise up under power. This lead was kept in a haversack, and we looped the strap over the bow post).

Still young and still stupid, I thought I could easily fix the bag without shutting the engine down. Well . . . The engine was ticking over at minimum revs when I let go of the tiller. I managed to reach as far as the middle of the boat before the engine flopped over on full lock to the left, which meant the propeller was pushing the boat anti-clockwise. It began to spin in a tight circle. In fact, within a split second, the boat was spinning on its own axis so that I almost fell overboard. Instead, I ended up sprawled in the bottom. It was like being in a washing machine; the boat was spinning so fast that I had to struggle to stand, but in the end, I did manage to claw my way back to the engine. After two or three spectacular pirouettes, I had things back under control and half expected a round of applause from the audience around the little harbor. I cut the engine, fixed the ballast and nonchalantly went on my way, as though nothing had happened.

The second incident came on another fine day. Dad and I set out from Port Muck and puttered the boat about half a mile from the harbor where we cut the engine and dropped the anchor (a pick-axe head on the end of a rope – nothing but the best for us!). We set up our rods and I was the first to drop my baited line into the water. Straight away I got a huge bite. The rod bent double and I fought to reel in this great fish it had to be size of a cod or haddock.

Every now and then the line would go slack and I had to reel like mad to keep it taught before once again the fish turned and tried to escape. The fish was pulling so hard I had to set the drag on my reel, allowing the line to feed out slowly under extreme pressure to prevent breakage. For perhaps five minutes, Dad and I were both totally absorbed in fighting this fish. Every time I reeled it in a little, the fish would run and I would be forced to feed the line out again.

Maybe it was the sound of breaking waves, or a sixth sense, I don’t know, but in the midst of all this action, I turned round – and there, not fifty metres behind us, were the soaring cliffs and jagged rocks of a little island just outside the harbor. I dropped the rod and made a lightning dash for the engine which started first time, once again, so we were able to motor away to safety. Another few seconds and we would have been served on the rocks without a drink. We had dropped anchor in what proved to be a rip tide. The fish I’d hooked was actually the hook itself catching and releasing on the bottom as the fast current rushed us toward the rocks.

Looking out the front room window of our house in Ballycarry, you could see down the hill to the causeway across to Islandmagee and beyond those green fields to the Irish Sea; way off into the distance are the shores of Scotland. It was a popular joke in the village that if you could see Scotland, it was going to rain. If you couldn’t see Scotland, it was already raining.

On a clear day you could just make out the cottages on the Scottish coast, like little white dots against a green field background, and I often wound the kids up by telling them I could see a little old man sitting in front of his cottage, smoking a pipe. They would then spend ages staring through binoculars trying to find him. Of course, a tiny dot, even at times-ten magnification, is still only a slightly less tiny dot, so if any of the kids are reading this now . . . I was lying!

Since I am definitely a fair weather fisherman, this particular day must have started out fine, because Dad agreed that a day’s fishing was a good idea. But instead of going to our usual fishing ground off Port Muck, we decided to try the sea in Browns Bay for a change. Now, Browns Bay is a mile or so round the coast from Port Muck, so it made sense to use the ramp at Ballylumford, which was closer.

In due course the boat was launched and we puttered our way round the headlands into Browns Bay. We spent perhaps an hour fishing, but nothing was biting so we packed up and moved past the next headland into Port Muck Bay. By the time we arrived there, the weather was changing. The sky had darkened as clouds rolled in, and the wind was stiffening. The sea, which had been calm and benign, was gradually becoming choppier and choppier. Without dropping a line we decided to call it a day and pointed the boat back to Ballylumford.

The wind and waves were coming in from the north, but we had to sail northwest, directly across the incoming storm. As the sea got higher, we realized we couldn’t maintain this direction without being swamped or capsizing, so I steered directly into the wind and hoped we could turn and use it to still get past the headland.

Here I had a dilemma, I could persist in trying to round the headland, or I could turn downwind and motor into Port Muck harbor, walking to Ballylumford to retrieve the car and trailer. But there were no roads in the direction of Ballylumford – which meant trekking across fields and hedgerows for a mile or more. Since I was wearing thigh-high sea boots, it was not a prospect I was looking forward to,

So I stubbornly maintained this direction for maybe an hour with the seas getting higher and higher. Eventually I realized we weren’t going get around the headland, but by then, the situation was at a point where the seas were so high, I couldn’t turn safely even though I wanted to, and all that was happening was we were being pushed out further and further from shore. The crew of a passing yacht shouted over and asked if we needed a tow, but since they were sailing at right angles to the wind, it would not have helped.

Finally the boat stopped riding the waves and began ploughing through them. I clearly remember being oblivious to the danger and shouting “Yee-haa!” as the first of a succession of waves broke over the bow soaking us both in a spume of cold Irish Sea water. It was scary, but at the same time, exhilarating. All this time, Dad sat stoically in the middle of the boat watching everything but saying nothing – even now, I wonder what was going through his mind, but I chose the title of this story because I’m sure he must have been saying to himself “I’d rather not be here.” I can remember the day so clearly, with Dad gripping the gunwales with either hand, looking like a drowned rat, while the sea tossed us about like a cork. Neither during nor after did he ever criticize my decision. I know he’d seen a lot worse during the Arctic convoys but if it had been me, I’d have said something like “For crying out loud Gordon. Turn the bloody boat!!”

Eventually a small patch of calm water appeared as though out of nowhere, but by the time I realized I could turn, it was too late and it had disappeared. Maybe five minutes later, I was ready when another, larger patch came up, and swung the tiller over. That plucky little boat turned on a sixpence and we were away. Despite taking an hour to travel half the distance into the wind, it took no more than five minutes to motor downwind and into Port Muck harbour.

I left Dad minding the boat and spent the next half-hour or so ‘yomping’ across hill and dale, through hedges, and over fences with a couple of kilos of sea boot on each leg. I retrieved the car and trailer, picked up Dad and the boat from Port Muck, and headed home for tea. Oh happy days!!

The title of this story was the first that came to mind when I decided to write these memoirs. Not long afterwards, Dad bought a bigger boat with a bigger engine and most importantly . . . some life jackets!

Our Judge Robin Barratt

Robin Barratt copy Profession:     Author, Writer and Publisher Nationality:    British Email: Website: Facebook: Robin is a writer and author and has written hundreds of articles for magazines and newspapers worldwide and is a genre best-selling author of five non-fiction true-crime books, a biography, a self-help guide and has edited, written and published a number of industry specific manuals and trade directories as well as two coffee-table photographic portfolios. Recently Robin was commissioned to ghost-write and publish a tribute book about Abdulla Ali Kanoo, the late Chairman of one of the biggest merchant families in Bahrain, and in 2012 compiled edited a travel anthology titled: My Beautiful Bahrain and is currently planning a follow up. Robin loves travelling, exploring and experiencing, and his all-time favourite quote is: “If you don’t want to lead an ordinary life, don’t do ordinary things!” Robin found the stories very interesting, but felt that one or two of them could do with some work in the crafting. His feedback has been shared with the various entrants. Thank you Robin, it helped immensely that you have lived here in Bahrain as the challenge was set here.


Twilight in Bahrain – You’re near the American Mission Hospital crossing the street near the building that everyone says is haunted. For no reason at all you get a really sinking feeling… what happens next? And here are Robin’s winners:

1st Place Scott Birch

Out In

I keep my eyes down walking out of the American Mission Hospital on a hot, humid summer day. The sun is very bright and feels like a weight on my back. So I keep my head down and stay out of the way of a crowd of moving feet. The street is dusty, dirty, noisy, overcrowded and ripe with the smell of sweat, rubbish and car exhaust. I’m immersed in the noise of people. My sunglasses have steamed up within seconds of me leaving the hospital Don’t stumble and fall, you’ll catch something. My body is wet and sticky under my work shirt. I have to look up when I want to cross the road. Cars are still moving quickly so I have to see further than 10 metres. I have to get back to the office. Time to brave the sun, and so I raise my head, blinking even behind my sunglasses and finding my chance to cross to where my car is parked. As I scurry across the road I take in the crowds, the cluttered shop fronts and dust everywhere. Then, like all the other times I’ve left the hospital. I see the empty block. The empty flats have been that way for years. The block sits brooding on the corner a few busy metres from the main road. Haunted, people say. Any building emptied by a landlord’s ill fortune is haunted in Bahrain. Nonsense, superstition, underlying fear, all permeates the madding crowd like background radiation. After my first appointment, walking back to my car, I looked at the windows and was struck by that sudden feeling of disquiet. I saw black holes into dead rooms, windows into nothing When you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes back into you, somebody once said. That night, I dreamed of the haunted block. Somebody I knew but couldn’t see was whispering into my ear. In you go, your turn now. The street was dark. Everywhere is always dark in all my dreams. The crowds of people were just dry silhouettes, mannequins made out of floating soot. The windows were at ground level, or I was floating towards them, being wound in like a fish on a line. The block appeared much bigger. The windows themselves yawned wide to swallow me, the scenery and the world. They would suck me in and I would be gone. I woke up with a start, entangled in drenched sheets. And that’s how it continued for most nights – a reoccurring nightmare. Some nights I would look at the windows from afar and tell the familiar voice no. Other nights I would
murmur ‘yes’ and find myself flying through the window frame into utmost void. That’s when I would wake up shivering and gasping for breath. And here I am today, back on the street. I look down again, step onto the pavement. I’m a little dizzy from the heat. My gut sinks a little. The block stands a few metres back from the road. Is it my imagination or is it wrapped in silence? The windows from the first floor and higher up stare back at me; blank, empty, somehow scary. A big concrete cuboid covered with black compound eyes. The traffic is slowing now, bumper-to-bumper. Anxious, shiny faces perch on hunched shoulders behind greasy steering wheels. I hear a radio up loud through an open driver window. More news from Syria: bodies have been found, claims made, denials issued Chemical weapons. It’s terrible over there, a whirlpool of hate. I’m walking along the dirty pavement with a sick feeling in my belly to match this bad news. The future of Syria looks so black, dark seeds of hate germinating, uncoiling, spreading within the nation. Groups of people coalescing and setting themselves against other groups of people in pitched battles. There’s so much conflict in Arabia and everywhere else. In Bahrain on streets like this one, angry youth fester in discontent. It breaks out in riots, kids throwing Molotov cocktails and burning tyres, to be met with tear gas, a toxic, stinging white mist as if to answer the poisonous black fumes. Where will this violence, this division take us? Into what hole could Bahrain be dragged by extremist madness? I look up briefly at the haunted block again. Those rectangular frames around darkness are looking back at me and I wince What is in there, through those windows? I can’t see in. Head back down; I’m walking through a cloud of sweat, breath and harsh, querulous voices. I remember the calm voice of the doctor whose surgery I’d just left. Please sit down. It was hard to meet his dark, gentle eyes. We’ll need to perform a resection and anastomosis. After … There have been advances in therapy. We can help you manage the side effects with anti-emetics and other medications … I remember Dad in hospital years ago. He couldn’t talk and he was so frightened. His eyes wide open, blue irises framing black terror or blinking with surprised pain I can’t say it. Nurses in clean white uniforms brought in what looked ludicrously like a little shopping trolley with sickly-bright yellow bags riding on it. The bags carried the black hazardous materials symbol that looks like a clutch of scythes Poison. The nurses moved calmly, spoke reassuringly. I
remember the smell of antiseptic and a note of something coppery under it, a faint suggestion of the butcher shop. Clean, white trousers and shoes swished past me hunched in my seat Not me too Dad I’m not strong it’s too much and you’re not here anymore. The haunted block stands there looking strangely cold in the heat of today. I’m drawn to look at those windows and I wonder what’s inside those rooms I think I know oh god no. Everybody around the haunted block looks so busy, but the block still to my mind lends this corner of the street an air of tension. As if in affirmation, I see an argument break out between two labourers. Fast words a- jostle with the vowels and liquid consonants of the Southern Sub-Continent tumble between frenetic mouths and flashing eyes. Many of the citizens of Bahrain are this angry and even more hostile towards each other. It’s all over social media. People on both sides of a chasm within their minds are hurling abuse at each other in text online, or on placards and posters. Terrible words of hatred. How can anyone call a group of people that? Communities, sects, cultures – you can’t just excise them from your imagined utopia as if they were a disease! Dehumanizing terms that historically have prefigured outrageous conflict have been thrown around with abandon Toxic vocabulary. Don’t they see where such abuse can lead? Don’t fall in. The dangers of social division, people against each other? They only have to look a few hundred kilometres away, where a lexicon of dehumanisation has seeded, grown and borne its evil fruit. A country divided against itself, fighting itself, literally poisoning itself Don’t say those things. Dad lay there in his hospital bed. He couldn’t talk, but he really wanted to voice his urgent thoughts. I had my voice, but I wouldn’t say what was on my mind. I can’t say the word. I have to go home and tell my family and friends the word, the terrible word. There’s a bench on the street, set back a little in a tiny square. I reach it and slump down onto the hard surface. An old man has obviously been watching my progress. I see his dusty shirt as he bends towards me and I look up at him. There’s concern all over his ancient, creased face. He asks ‘You are okay?” “Yes,” I say and I’m trying to smile. But he’s looking closely at my face and then he touches my shoulder. He’s worried about me. Something inside me breaks. I cringe and now the tears come. It is big and broken and I’m trying to push it up and out of my chest through my throat, one painful cry after another. My face drips. Grief and fear heave up in shards from my straining gut, from that dark thing deep inside me. I can’t say it. I just can’t. So scared, so scared my body at war with itself destroying itself they want to put poison in
me to kill the thing inside me whose name I can’t utter and terror rises in me from the dark place uncurling and writhing like a snake. I see the hazardous material stickers again Dad looked so peaceful but he was pale and so very cold. On television were Syrian bodies laid out in rows. Stinking diesel fumes from a passing truck fill the air. I remember the Bahraini doctor at his desk, only kindness in his obsidian eyes, and I see blooming clouds of black and white. I have to go back to my family and friends and say to them the name of the terrible thing and I don’t know if I can do it, if I can say it to myself let alone to anybody else, if I can go into that dark place. The tiny part of me that always observes knows that the old man has stepped back. My grief is too open, too raw for him to continue comforting a stranger on the open street. My sobs are less frantic, I’m regaining control of myself, but I continue to cry into my hands, eyes screwed up against a bright sun and an oncoming tunnel pulling me into an abyss of hurt. I feel like an empty shell about to fall apart. What are my chances? How long have I got? Maybe I shouldn’t have been so angry with myself, with everything. I should have thought more, learned more about life from those around me Dad. I should have taken more care of myself. I should have appreciated everything and everyone I have had in my life. I shouldn’t have ignored what I really knew deep down. I’ll have to look this in the face now. Head up! All the thoughts come just like they do to the people that I read about in the magazines. All the same syrupy platitudes suddenly mean everything, right here in this street. Fill the void. Make my days count, forgive myself, forgive everybody else, let the light in, do this business of living right You can still make a full recovery from Stage 3. The storm is over in a minute. I can’t say it yet, but I will be able to soon. I can look at it for what it is. Tears did that. They washed the lying metaphors away. Out is not in. disease is not sentient. It has nothing to say to me but death. People throw the word as an insult because they don’t want to sit and talk. Such a label can never be real, but I’ve got the real thing, so I will have to fight. It is not part of me I am not a community there is a difference there are cells and there are people. I stand up and walk again. The old man is farther off but looking at me. I smile because now I can and I give him a little salute. I will say the word tonight. I know before I look up at the haunted block that the spell is broken. I could get somebody to open it up for me. I could walk into those rooms and see that they’re not so dark, the sun reaches them too. I would step through the doorway and see that those interiors are touched by light.

2nd Place L.P.

Note: Our winner has decided to remain anonymous preferring to use the initials L.P. for the story:

The Dentist

I put my hand on my cheek and couldn’t help but feel sorry for myself. My jaw felt like it had been pounded at with a hammer. They said I wouldn’t feel anything from the numbness, but what they hadn’t mentioned was that the feeling was repulsive in and of itself. Every time I swallowed, I felt as though someone had cut off part of my tongue and replaced it with a heavy sack of tiny needles. After sitting in the dentist’s office for 2 long hours, as he carried out his bloody and gruesome work inside my mouth, I felt I needed some fresh air. Living in the neighbourhood meant I could afford to walk around and allow the breeze to blow away some of the painful memories and sights of that night. I took my bag, mumbled a ‘thank you’ to the receptionist through all the gauze in my right cheek and stepped outside of the American Mission Hospital in Saar. I took a deep breath and swallowed a chunk of left over blood. Yuck. Half my tongue was numb, my cheek was beginning to swell up, and my stomach was busy pumping acidity. Needle. Drill. Knife. Blood. Needle. Drill. Knife. Blood. My head swirled. Stop it, Arlette. It was bad enough to sit through, there’s no reason for you to replay it in your mind over again. I looked up at the full moon and pondered what awaited me. Looks like it’s going to be a long walk home. I stepped out onto the main road in Saar and crossed the street to the other side. I needed to be away from all the noise so I walked inside the compound I lived in when I was younger. It was quite a large place with around 50 white Victorian-styled villas. They all looked the same on the outside with well kept gardens, fresh flowers along the entrances, and brown picket fences surrounding them. Although they all adhered to identical exteriors, they were home to varying secrets and stories. As I reached the second block, I found myself staring at the Harper’s house. I spent so many days in it with my childhood best friend, dancing around and playing pretend. Around the corner was the Anderton’s house. I recalled how I broke my leg running down the stairs and was grounded for the rest of the month for running indoors. It felt nice to reminisce about my childhood. I walked further across the street and saw a house that looked very different than the rest. It looked a lot older with unkempt grass, chipped paint, and a broken fence. It was the house of the three boys who had a physically abusive mother. I couldn’t recall their name, but I remember it ended quite badly. Their mother had suffered from psychosis and was a threat to her children, but the father couldn’t afford to be at home as often as necessary due to his high-powered job. Things eventually changed when she had her worst episode and ended up choking her youngest son, Kieran. She was taken away and the family had to return to England to stay with their relatives. It was quite heartbreaking. After that incident, the house was deemed ‘haunted’ and had been abandoned ever since. I walked over to the park and sat on one of the swings. I saw myself playing hopscotch and 40/40 with the other kids. They were such beautiful memories. My head was starting to throb so I walked up the stairs to the pool and laid on the hammock seat by the adjacent trees. I gazed at the dark sky and felt the blood rush to my head, back to my jaw, and then down to my stomach. The full moon was so beautiful. I allowed the silence to sink in and tried to enjoy the moment while it lasted. It was getting late, but I needed at least 30 minutes of solitude before heading back home. As the minutes passed by, the night breeze became colder. The chill began getting to me and I knew I couldn’t handle sitting out in the cold much longer, so I got up and started heading back. Strangely enough, I had a very eerie feeling walking back. I wasn’t a fan of walking in the dark, but I had walked these streets many a times as a child and felt safe revisiting my childhood. I was about to head towards the gate when I turned around to take one last look at the neighbourhood I once called home. I took a deep breath, swallowed more blood, and sighed heartily. Right as I was turning back, I heard a loud noise that made me jump. Oh Lord! It was merely a cat rummaging through garbage. Then I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before. The side of the ‘haunted’ house had a green symbol painted on it. It looked freshly painted. Hmmm…how strange! The more I looked at it, the more I noticed other peculiar characteristics. The main door was run down, but the doorknob seemed to have been recently renovated. How bizarre! Why would anyone only renovate the doorknob? I slowly walked a bit closer to it. The tips of the fence had small red marks. I put my finger on one of them to feel the texture. It was moist and warm. I looked at my finger and noticed the paint was still wet. That’s odd. I smelled it and immediately got goose bumps. It was blood. My whole being was telling me to run away as fast as I could, but I heard a small screech. Oh no! What if someone’s in there? I heard the sound of an old squeaking door slowly open and slam. There was another screech. Oh no. Oh no. I pushed the fence forward and walked to the side of the house. I looked through the window and into the darkness. I must be imagining all of this. Yes, it’s probably the anaesthetic from earlier. This is all in my head. Squeaking door. Screech. Oh Lord! A small candlelight appeared at the back of the room. I heard the voice of a baby crying in the background. Oh good God, there’s a baby! I didn’t know what to do. I considered leaving, but there was a baby. Why was there a baby in an abandoned house? “Is anyone there? What’s going on?” All I heard in response was the squeaking door, the baby’s cries and an old woman shrieking. “Hello? What’s going on? Are you all right? Who’s there?” I freaked out. Hearing the baby cry and the woman shriek gave me the urge to do something. I reached into my bag, took out my perfume to use as pepper spray and stormed in. Simultaneously, someone started whistling. You can do this, Arlette. You can do this! I moved towards the light and felt something on my shoulder. Oh boy. Goosebumps invaded my whole being. I turned around and it was her. I can’t believe it’s her! “Hello, Mrs….” Yikes. She looked really old. She had a torn white gown on and was reaching for my face. Breathe, Arlette. Breathe and back away slowly. “Kieran…” “No! No!! I’m Arlette! I used to live across the street from you! Remember? I’m not Kieran!” Her eyes widened as she reached for my throat. I quickly moved my hand in an attempt to spray her with the perfume but I lost my balance and fell backwards. She landed on top of me. I tried to wiggle myself free from under her but she held my shirt and pulled it towards her. I felt her body weigh heavily on me. Her white hair was slowly making its way over my face. I noticed a strange burning smell and wondered if it was her stench. I then looked to my side and noticed that the perfume bottle had fallen, broken into pieces, and landed on the candle. It caught on fire. She grabbed my throat and placed her thumbs on the hollow at the base of my throat. I tried to push her off, but I couldn’t breathe. Breathe, Arlette! Breathe! The burning smell was getting stronger as the room began fogging up with smoke. The woman’s screams were ringing in my ears. Someone kept opening and slamming what sounded like old wooden doors. I wondered why they were more preoccupied with that than helping me out. You can do this, Arlette! I mustered enough strength to bend my knee upwards and kick her in the stomach. She rolled over and her dress caught on fire. I coughed and breathed and coughed and breathed. The burning smell was suffocating me. I tried to get up, but fell down the first and second time. I tried a third time and managed to start running. She screamed at the top of her lungs. I ran as fast as I could. Before long, the whole house caught on fire. I laid on the street in front of the house coughing as the flames grew bigger and bigger. The woman’s screams were getting louder. And so were the baby’s. Oh no! I forgot about the baby! I got back up to run in to the house, but a man came out of nowhere and tried to stop me. “The baby! There’s a baby in there!” The baby’s cries were heartbreaking. The woman continued screaming. The fire grew bigger. “Calm down. Are you okay?” “But the house! We need to stop the fire! The woman is still alive! Kieran is still alive!” The woman’s screams began quietening down, but the baby continued to cry. Every time he did I felt my heart break into smaller pieces. You must save him, Arlette! “It’s okay! Calm down. It’s all going to be okay.” He hugged me hard. “The baby! The crying! There’s a baby! I need to save the baby before the fire gets to him!” I yelled at him, failing to understand his calm demeanour. “Shshsh. It’s okay. There’s no fire. Calm down. It’s just me. It’s all going to be okay. There’s no fire. It’s just us.” I felt him hold me tight as he calmed me down. I looked up and found myself by the pool on the hammock. I must have fallen asleep earlier. “It seems you were having quite the nightmare.” “I suppose. Gosh, it seemed so real!” He giggled. “It’s okay. It’s all going to be okay now.” He put his hand on my cheek. “Ouch!” I felt my jaw and cheek throbbing. “Sorry! Are you okay?” “Yeah. I just had my wisdom teeth pulled out and it still really hurts.” I rested my head on my hands. “Man I hate dentists.”

 3rd Place Noor AlNaimi

That Feeling

Lights. They surrounded everything on that eerie street where the world seemed to be in busy turmoil. Cars swerved past our vehicle; honked and slithered so close they threatened to scratch my husband’s new convertible. ” Who in their right mind gave you a license? ” Shouted Mo out the window as I slumped back against the leather seat. It was dark and blurry; I didn’t like the rocky way we had to careen through the tight pathways, much less keep up with my husband’s short temper about the places I pick and their impossible locations. “I told you we should’ve gone to the Ritz.” He said. …And It was such a good night too. I thought annoyed; we had a very nice dinner at La Fontaine, took a long walk around the villa and I even managed to get Mo to comment on a few of the artworks displayed. Yes, granted all he said was. ” I’m not paying two thousand dinars for a doodle!” But still I made him look. Now I had to survive my husband’s Saudi style driving which made ‘Fast and the Furious’ look tame. “Slow down.” I said as we passed a red light. “And get smashed to the side? No! Let me handle this.” He scoffed all masculinity and steel. It was a busy street and that night the traffic was worse than usual. I looked out the window to watch flashes of buildings as we passed all I got were little glimpses due to the speed we took. What agitated me most were the blinking lights around us, they were blinding and overpowered my vision so I had to squint most of the way until we arrived at another speed bump. “Stop!” I screamed, the whole world shook in that instant, my heart plummeted to my stomach as the car screeched to a halt, almost grazing the hunched figure mere millimeters away from the front of the car. “Oh my god.” I mouthed as we gazed at the woman who was standing in those macabre lights, like a nightmarish being. Her face was grotesque. Her skin wrinkled and swarthy. She looked to me like she had seen much of the world and did not like it. Her yellow eyes looked at us with deadly promises after the near fatality we could have caused her. A sense of dread crept through my whole being, the hair on my back stood on end and at that moment everything stopped. She stared at us and then drew her lips up exposing her teeth in what can only be described as an animalistic snarl. “Oh my god…oh my god…”I kept saying my palm against my gaping mouth, “We almost ran her over.” I whispered, staring at her as she crossed over to the other end of the road seemingly unharmed. She was an old woman I realized. I watched her walk over to the other side of the road, her body heavy, balanced upon those shaky limbs. A poor old woman. I thought once more trying to calm myself and shake off the image of her horrid snarl. It was only nerves due to our would-be accident, I should brush It off like Mo and steer myself away from those murky thoughts. “We didn’t.” My husband replied. I thought I saw him breathe a sigh, but it was very swift, as if he too wanted nothing more to do with the scene, he cruised away just as swiftly, far off towards the wide highway. But even after we reached the house, I still couldn’t shake off that memory of her face. Glaring and hateful, there was a world of evil in those eyes…so much evil. I shuddered thinking back on her wild features, tossing that foreign feeling aside. I felt my husband take my hand in his with a tight squeeze. He seemed to notice me rallying with myself, and I responded with a smile.  Pull yourself together. I thought as we finally walked into our bedroom, the lights were dimmed thoughout the house, the kids were probably sleeping soundly, this was usually my favorite time of the day yet it felt very wrong somehow. “I should check on the kids.” I said fighting the need to just dive into the sheets and call it a day like my unruffled husband, who was changed and ready for bed. Our near calamity was already a thing of the past to him. I darted out of our room towards the nursery, a flicker of lights greeted me from within, and I had to squint once more as I opened the door, left slightly ajar, to the kids’ bedroom. I peered inside, expecting to see two angelic faces upon their pillows just like it was every night. I saw feet. Little feet curled against the crumpled pillows and hidden beneath the covers were the rest of their little bodies. With relief, I adjusted them, chuckling at the grimaces they gave me before finally, they were properly placed. I retreated back to the bedroom to find my husband already asleep with an orchestra of snores; I rolled my eyes and drifted past the bed to change out of my dinner attire into some very comfortable pajamas. I proceeded next to slip into bed for some much needed rest. It never ends. I thought with a contemplative smile. I went on to replay my day, trying to extinguish that ridiculous dread I was feeling, purposefully tossing that image of that horrid misshapen woman out of my mind. Poor old woman-walking the street, relax! My cool mind told my frantic heart; somehow through the night I found the right corner for slumber, but I drifted from dream to dream all random fluff and blackness. When daylight broke I was back on my feet once more, padding upon the floor towards the kids’ room, my husband had probably woken up earlier with work calling off the hook. “Noor.” He said from the doorway, his eyes wide in an expression I did not see very often. “What’s wrong?” ” I found this.” He said and handed me a piece of paper, “It was under the door.” As I unfolded the scrap of paper, my heart began that familiar frantic tempo, reminded of the sensation I felt the night before, the note read: ” Who in their right mind gave you a license?”

– END –

Congratulations! Everyone and thanks for taking the challenge.

April 2020

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