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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-

We have a few changes to ‘The Monthly Challenge’. One – we’re not going to rank the stories. Two – all entries sent will be judged – feedback sent privately to each entrant. Three – all stories entered will be featured.

Do please invite your friends to read and comment on the stories. That way you’ll get public feedback too.

The January challenge: “There is a bloody brave little animal in Africa called the Honey Badger. It may be the meanest animal in the world. It kills for malice and for sport, and it does not go for the jugular – it goes straight for the groin. It has a lot in common with the modern American woman.”

This was to be taken as a preamble or premise without necessarily using the words in the story.

 

profileOur judge for the January challenge was our very own member and mentor Seumas Gallacher.

SEUMAS GALLACHER escaped from the world of finance five years ago, after a career spanning three continents and five decades.

As the self-professed ‘oldest computer Jurassic on the planet’ his headlong immersion into the dizzy world of eBook publishing opened his eyes, mind, and pleasure to the joys of self-publishing. As a former businessman, he rapidly understood the concept of a writer’s need to ‘build the platform’, and from a standing start began to develop a social networking outreach, which now tops 18,000 direct contacts.

His ‘Jack Calder’ crime-thrillers series, THE VIOLIN MAN’S LEGACY, VENGEANCE WEARS BLACK and SAVAGE PAYBACK blew his mind with more than 80,000 e-link downloads to date.

He started a humorous, informative, self-publishers blog three years ago, never having heard of a ‘blog’ prior to that, was voted ‘Blogger of the Year 2013’ and now has a loyal blog following on his networks. He says the novels contain his ‘Author’s Voice’, while the blog carries his ‘Author’s Brand’. And he’s LUVVIN IT.

To get Seumas’ books follow these links:

Vengeance Wears Black

Amazon links: UK http://amzn.to/1ACk5eq, US http://amzn.to/1DPx2WN, Can http://amzn.to/1vYv0nb, Aus http://bit.ly/1zV9aNR

Links for Savage Payback

Amazon: UK amzn.to/1CHhw01, US amzn.to/15zUsD9, Canada amzn.to/1yXWRli, Australia bit.ly/1yGJ5ok

Smashwords : https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/514352

And here are our stories. Thank you Michelle and Glen!

THE HONEY BADGER

MICHELLE SCHULTZ

I did not know what to expect when I met my first American Woman. If you are reading this, then please know that the capital letters are intentional. Up till now I had only heard stories from my German uncles who did business and occasionally ran into them. Old traditionalists, they are. They were master craftsmen within their guild, working in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and, having already acquired enough wealth through honest labor to set themselves up well, took occasional commissions from the immorally wealthy Americans. Mostly it was men trying to get something built before they left the Vaterland to return to their real homes. Sometimes though, it was women. They came along trying to haggle and doing it poorly. German women did not act as they. We knew enough to expect that a job was worth what it was worth and if you wanted it cheaper you did not insult the craftsman – you went elsewhere. These American Women, my uncles told me, would attempt to play the coquette, batting their heavily mascara’d eyes, maybe attempting to play (unsubtly) upon their poorly developed feminine wiles. Perhaps, Onkel Hermann said, they might have succeeded if they weren’t young officers’ wives who knew about as much about keeping a man happy as a Frankreicher knew about keeping vows of fidelity. Once the young women knew they weren’t getting anywhere, the women would give up in a huff and either pay the recommended price, or would stomp out of the store.

All this, I learned secondhand. My Onkels were reliable men and they would only play the occasional joke; I did not think they were lying to me about these stories.

All this I was sure of and then it was time to move to America for school. Oh certainly I could have taken the tests and secured myself a position within Germany but my family did not believe I would do well enough to succeed in a trade and they were not confident in my ability to survive a Universitaet. I wanted to stay where I was comfortable but Vati would not hear of it. Even at my age, his word was Law. I was moving to California to attend UCLA and that was Final.

I flew out of Munchen and stopped first in Atlanta, Georgia. I know how to pronounce it, thank you very much. The customs man was more polite than I was expecting but he smiled less.   He had eyes that suggested I was already guilty. The look he gave me upon seeing my passport suggested that maybe if I hadn’t done something already I was going to very soon. I did not like it, or him, but I did not have to. I had always heard that Americans are a suspicious group. They are afraid of so much – not least of which that they will not always be at the top of the world; that the world will not always need them. Pride in my country was fine, but we have been good and we have been bad. Sometimes a country doesn’t have to be for anything. It just has to be.

My first American Woman was on my transcontinental flight. The attendants were just bodies in uniforms – not real people. No, the woman who sat next to me was young. She insisted that we talk. I was not in the best of moods for conversation. She swore that we would soon be fast friends and asked all manner of questions. Wasn’t I young? Where was I going? What would I do there? School? Oh my! Is someone going to meet you there? What school? Did I know Joseph Tolliver there? (of course I didn’t. I hadn’t even been there yet!) What about Eric Jarmand? (still no, I’m afraid). What about the professors? Had I already picked my classes? Did I want to hang out when we got to California? Wait…what? Now it was my turn for questions. Where in California was she going? (My school, she was a sophomore at UCLA). Why was she bothering with me? Naturally curious. And she liked meeting new people. I was interesting. A hundred different throw-away reasons. Confused, I agreed and she squealed happily. Such a strange noise.

We touched down at LAX and she hailed a cab while I grabbed our luggage. Such a trusting woman. She even told me which luggage was hers and naturally assumed I would bring it along. I grabbed my trunk, and her otherwise unremarkable beige hard case save for a glinting fake jewel on a ribbon suspended from the handle. Dragging them along behind me, I trudged towards the exit doors.

She was waiting with what looked like a pair of black-haired friends, pale of skin. They had clearly brought her a coat – Black with a furry white hood. She smiled when she saw me. She didn’t make a move to retrieve her bag, though.

“These are my friends Leah and Skyler. They brought their car. You wanna ride with us?”

She must have seen my hesitation because she added “It’s gotta be cheaper than a cab.”

That sold me. Vati’s first payment of my stipend was conditional upon actually arriving at the school.

I didn’t actually have much money beyond the cab fare and hoped to be able to confirm another rumor about the terrible quality of American Biers. That was what college students did, right?

We all bundled into a small hatchback, with Skyler and I in the back, Leah in the driver’s seat, and my nameless friend in the front passenger seat. We were on the road for maybe 20 minutes when they pulled off the freeway and into a small side street. There was an old neon sign out front that spelled out COFF E. I felt Skyler stroking my arms, which was strange. I started to ask why we were stopping when Skyler’s stroking of my arm turn into a sharp pinch. My head jerked to my left arm, where Leah had bitten me. BITTEN ME. WHAT THE HELL!?   I felt almost immediately sleepy. I tried to shake myself awake, at which point Leah reached back and held my legs down, her face changing under the skin, her eyes shrinking to small beads, her face elongating, never taking that creepy smile off her face. Her clothing sloughed off her as she slithered around my legs in a figure 8, holding them fast, constricting but not crushing.

My nameless friend was watching all of this, suddenly not so distinct from her hood, her snout…wait snout? It was sticking out from under the hood that was no longer a hood. There was no smile here, only a sharp pain between my legs.

Was that… blood?

Oh well. I guess it didn’t matter.

HELL HATH NO FURY LIKE A HONEY BADGER SCORNED

Glen R Stansfield

Dr Laura Ellison’s husband was a very lucky man.

Laura was not only a very talented surgeon but gorgeous with it too. Her long black hair, dark brown eyes, high cheek bones, olive skin and model-like figure turned heads wherever she went. Martin had no idea what she saw in him. She was an eminent surgeon; he was your average blue collar construction site worker. The pay he brought home each month wouldn’t cover the mortgage on the dog kennel of their Portland Heights home.

They met by accident – literally. She ran into the back of his car at a stop sign. He had never seen anyone so beautiful, and with the testosterone fuelled optimism of youth he asked her out. To his surprise she agreed, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the early days of their relationship he started to call her the honey badger. Once, she asked him why.

He replied, ‘Because as soon as we get behind closed doors you go straight for my groin, just like a honey badger.’

The name stuck and twenty years later so had the passion. Their sex life never waned. The honey badger lived on.

Eventually Laura rose to the dizzy heights of having her own private practice as a plastic surgeon, and he rose to the dizzy heights of the top of the nearest building under construction. Her practice was no ordinary one, she specialised in the rich and famous; those who refused to accept ageing is an inevitable process and should be embraced with grace.

They were the most unlikely pair you would ever meet. Martin never had any aspirations other than his current job. He loved the outdoors, and he loved the camaraderie on the building site. He was never fully comfortable in Laura’s social circles but he kept it well hidden. Martin loved his wife dearly, and he knew she reciprocated.

Life was as sweet as it could be for both of them, apart from a lack of children. Heaven knows they tried, but despite the best fertility treatments available, children were not forthcoming. They discussed the possibility of adoption but agreed it wasn’t quite the same as having your own. Finally they accepted it wasn’t in their destiny to have children and got on with their lives. Like many childless couples they transferred their parenting instincts to the animal kingdom. Two gorgeous blue eyed Huskies performed the duties of surrogate children with all the enthusiastic energy that only a well-loved canine can show.

Then came the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the dream started to come apart. Martin suddenly became unemployed. At first he enjoyed the time off, getting meals ready for Laura when she came home, pottering around the garage, tinkering with his ’64 corvette and of course, the endless walks with the never tiring dogs. The walks proved to be his downfall.

One glorious day he was trotting along with the Huskies in Marquam Nature Park when an attractive young lady stopped and asked if she could pet the dogs. She reminded him of his wife all those years ago, when they first met. They chatted for a few minutes about the animals, and the weather then went their separate ways and he thought nothing more of it.

Two weeks later whilst walking the dogs near the Marina, he saw her again. After several minutes of chat he invited her for a coffee at one of the several establishments bordering the waterfront.

He had been so surprised when soon after sitting down she said she must leave. He was even more surprised to find an hour had already passed without him realising it. Before she went she wrote her cell number on his hand.

‘Give me a call if you want another coffee,’ she said over her shoulder as she left, and in a swirl of black hair she was gone.

Martin liked her company. He was sure there could be no harm in meeting for a coffee now and then. He had always admired beautiful women, from afar. He never wanted to do any more than just look. Why would he when he already had the most amazing woman in the world? So a coffee now and again would not be a problem.

Several months passed and their meetings became an almost weekly event, always at the same coffee house. He realised on the weeks they didn’t meet, there was a sadness inside him. He wanted to see her again, talk about world events and her life as a student. He even found himself reading some of the plays being performed at the local theatre where she worked in the evenings, so he would know what she was talking about when she mentioned them. He had no other motives than to have some pleasant company to distract him from his boredom. Sure, he liked her company but it was no more than that.

One day she asked him what he did for a living that allowed him time to come to the Marina any time she was free. He didn’t know why he felt the need but he lied to her. He told her he sold his construction business, and he didn’t need to work.

She never questioned it, and she never questioned why he didn’t invite her to his house.

He was content to leave things as they stood, sometimes seeing her and sometimes not. That is until the time his wife went away for a week to a conference in Nevada.

It wasn’t planned but it happened anyway, and the way it happened was something of a cliché. They met in the evening for the first time. She had no work at the theatre that evening, so Martin asked her out to dinner. A couple of bottles of wine later they found themselves in a hotel room; the passion consuming them both.

The next morning both the hangover and the guilt kicked in. He knew he had made a big mistake. What had he been thinking? He risked his marriage and for no good reason. The only thing he could do was stop it right now. He told her they couldn’t do this or even meet for coffee again. It had been wrong. She was much younger than him and he shouldn’t have let himself get carried away. He was too scared to tell her he was married. In any case she must already know, he reasoned. Although he never revealed it, he was sure it must be obvious.

Imagine his surprise when she readily agreed. No hysterics, no anger, just a casual acknowledgment of the mistake and they should not see each other again. Perhaps she had been using him.

After that night he didn’t call her again. He found a new place to walk the dogs and never went near the Marina. He never set foot inside Marquam Park again either. He washed the whole episode from his mind and concentrated on finding another job.

Eventually the construction industry started its slow recovery and once again Martin was on top of the world. Well, on top of a new office building anyway. Everything returned to normal and Martin was content with his life once more.

He couldn’t understand why he couldn’t move. His arms and legs seemed to be restrained, and he was sore in places he didn’t know he existed. What’s more he couldn’t see and his brain refused to function; everything was dreamlike, the voice speaking to him ethereal and distant.

‘Hello Mr Ellison. Are you are back with us yet?’

The voice sounded familiar, but in his semi-comatose state it was too much of an effort to place it. He tried to speak but nothing came out apart from random grunts.

‘You’ve been in a bad accident Mr Ellison. You’ve had us all worried. We didn’t think you would make it.’

He drifted away again. Later he was aware of the voice explaining he had some damage to his eyes. Nothing to worry about, but for the time being they would stay covered to allow them to heal.

How long he had been there he couldn’t tell. He didn’t remember anything about an accident. Was it a car accident, or a fall at work? He could only remember coming home as usual one evening, and then after that – only darkness.

He had strange dreams. In them he took a lot of medication, tablets for this and injections for that. In his more lucid moments he thought maybe these were not dreams at all. Maybe the painkillers, or whatever was making him so tired and woolly headed made him imagine everything; he struggled to focus on anything. Reality and dreams all intermingled.

And then there was the voice, saying ‘I know,’ over and over again. Could it be real? He didn’t know because he couldn’t see.

What did it know, and why was it telling him? Sometimes he thought he could hear his wife. Those must have been the times she visited. He longed for her to be there when he was more awake.

This time when he woke he was blinded by the light. The bandages had gone. He could only see shapes as his eyes were not used to the light after being covered for so long. He could move his arms and legs. How long had he been able to do that he wondered. He was aware of lying on the bed in his dressing gown. Still woozy, he decided to try to get to his feet. He rolled on his side then shuffled to the edge of the bed. Slowly he sat himself up and tried to look around the room. It felt strange. There seemed to be no windows, almost as if it was a basement room. Perhaps there were some windows in the next room. He could just make out a doorway in the far wall. His eyes slowly became accustomed to the light, but the drugs still affected his vision. Everything moved around as though someone was smudging the images in his mind, stirring them around; making mental mosaics.

He concentrated hard in an effort to get to his feet and was rewarded with a very unsteady upright position. One foot stayed still and the other made little steps around it until he was almost balanced. He felt drunk. Maybe that was it. Maybe he was drunk and this was only a dream.

Unsteadily he made his way over to the door, his dressing gown falling open as he did so. He didn’t look down but he knew from the sensation he was naked underneath. As he reached the opening he was startled to see a semi naked woman approaching from the other side. He pulled his dressing gown closed, she did the same. They screamed simultaneously. What he assumed to be an open doorway was a full length mirror on the back of the door. He was looking at himself.

Taped to the glass he could make out the hotel room receipt, the girl’s phone number and a slightly blurred photograph of her leaving the University.

Dr Laura Ellison’s husband was a very lucky woman – she was still alive.

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