Equation, by Kavitha Krishnamurthy
Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unspl
Life's problems are like math equation
each one having a different formula
to arrive at a solution
Life’s geometry is full of mystery
Everyone has their own story
Happiness lines run parallel
To difficult angles of life
Opportunities and struggles
are X and Y axis in life’s graph
the point where they intersect
mark new beginnings
in our personal map
We subtract our ego
to add meaning and substance
in our relationships
We multiply the joy
by dividing and sharing
it with our family and friends
We understand our differences
to differentiate our weakness
we integrate our strength
to inverse our fortune
to face all life’s struggles
and emerge victorious
Math is there in our day to day life
each mathematician uses a unique formula
to solve life’s theorems and theories
and to show the world that
all life’s difficult equations
does have simple solutions
Based out of Chennai, India, Kavitha Krishnamurthy is a PMO by profession and a writer by hobby. She spends her free time writing poems and drawing. She looks at drawing and writing as platforms to give colour and shape to her creativity and imagination. Her works have been published in Indian periodical magazine, Unlikely Stories Mark IV, The Garfield Lake Review Magazine, and Dreich Magazine.
The light of all lights
that molds you
as a complete package
with a cosmic brand
of your own
the melody in all that you write
the face that the world can see
the mask you forget you are wearing
The aura that allows your words
to leave a long lasting audio wave
to leave a unique glow
on all that you produce
your signature telling a
thousand stories to the world
I set the route for the
legacy and reputation
that you will leave behind
I’m what you are known for
Who am I?
I’m your MIND, I’m the lantern
that makes you shine bright
and fly high in the literary sky
Based out of Chennai, India, Kavitha Krishnamurthy is a PMO by profession and a writer by hobby. She spends her free time writing poems and drawing. She looks at drawing and writing as platforms to give colour and shape to her creativity and imagination. Her works have been published in Indian periodical magazine, Unlikely Stories Mark IV, The Garfield Lake Review Magazine, and Dreich Magazine.
Almirah, by Kavitha Krishnamurthy
Few people have a wooden almirah
some have a plastic almirah and
some have a steel almirah.
I have an almirah relationship.
It's not so glowing and glossy;
not filled with precious stones and jewels,
but with tons of memorable smiles.
It's scented with the happiest moments of my life,
the fragrance of those moments rejuvenates.
I unlock my relationship almirah
to unveil its product highlights,
it has a durable build where
relationships endure and stand the test of time.
It has an elegant design of staggered platforms
where thought patterns are elevated to love, support,
forget and forgive the mistakes of people in my life.
It has organized shelves
comprising friends and family,
each of them having and enjoying
their own space in my life;
the joys and pleasures
are stored inside a durable safety locker.
This almirah is tension and stress-resistant
and comes with a lifetime warranty.
My almirah has no price tag attached to it
for it is made of emotions,
carved and crafted with love and affection,
devoid of ego and jealousy,
decorated and painted with the
sweetest moments of life.
Based out of Chennai, India, Kavitha Krishnamurthy is a PMO by profession and a writer by hobby. She spends her free time writing poems and drawing. She looks at drawing and writing as platforms to give colour and shape to her creativity and imagination. Her works have been published in Indian periodical magazine, Unlikely Stories Mark IV, The Garfield Lake Review Magazine, and Dreich Magazine.
Converting, by Yuan Changming
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash
My father was the most loyal member of the Communist Party of China I’ve ever known in person. As a petty Party official, he was always ready to “serve the people” as taught by Chairman Mao. Every year, he would bring home at least one big certificate of merit for his political performance, but he never mentioned his achievements whenever we chanced to meet between his endless work trips; the only thing he kept saying to me was what I later recognized as the content of his oath of admission to the Party. So, he was a weird if not a mentally ill father. It’s not really that he sounded like a broken record, but that he lived as an unbelievably firm believer and passionate preacher of communism as defined in CPC’s constitution. Indeed, he seemed to have been born a true communist, and he would die as such. There’s no doubt about that.
However, shortly after his retirement, my mother began to complain that he intended to become a hundred percent Buddhist monk for the remaining days of his life.
But what about his lifelong faith in communism? I asked her repeatedly over the phone. So very tired and afraid of his brainwashing effort, I had always avoided contacting him directly even before I left my homeland.
Because the Party has changed essentially, though not in words, since Deng Xiaoping took power, because he’d have no more to do with it, my mother explained to me on his behalf.
Why a monk? Can he just enjoy his retired life like all other normal dads?
I got no satisfactory answer from my mother until I visited her about a year later. With my father staying in Great Compassion Temple in Songzi most of the time, she had all the leisure to recount how and why he eventually decided to remain a lay Buddhist; this way, he could live up to his lifelong title as an honorable “model” Party member.
That’s a good compromise, I concluded. But how come he’s become such a determined follower of Buddhism?
As my mother sees it, my father was actually more a faithful Buddhist than a loyal Communist to begin with. There were numerous episodes pinpointing to his Bodhisattva heart. For instance, he would give every cent in his pocket to the homeless, donate every extra shirt in his wardrobe to the poor, and help every disabled person on the road. Once he walked seven miles simply to cross a river on a bridge because he had given all his money to a beggar without retaining two cents for the ferry boat. Another time, he fell down in a swoon from sheer hunger on a country path because he had given every mantou to a starving family. More deplorably, when I returned from Canada to my hometown for the first family reunion after immigration and gave him a handsome red envelop to show my filial love, he insisted on me sending it personally to a local charity. In his last years, he knelt down before a statue of Buddha and recited sutras for three consecutive hours every morning, just as he had bowed to Chairman Mao’s portrait nine times nonstop prior to breakfast during the Cultural Revolution. Most noteworthy was when his room was haunted by thousands of ants in a late spring, it never came cross his mind to kill them; instead, he kept giving them his best wishes until they all voluntarily left. Likewise, he would just let mosquitos suck his blood rather than drive them away, and miraculously, he turned out to be the only person in the whole neighborhood who got no more bites in summer.
So, he converted to Buddhism as a result of such testimonial experiences? I wondered aloud.
Not only that!
Then, my mother recalled how the seed of Buddhism was deeply planted in the depth of his soul as a thirteen-year-old orphan. It was a burning summer afternoon in 1949, several months before the Communists were to take over the entire country. While wandering in the wildness, my father began to have a high fever. Unable to bear the sizzling weather in addition to his internal heat, he went to a pond nearby, where he dug up some cool alluvium with his hands, covered his body with it and lay down on a small ridge. He would have soaked his whole body in the pond like a buffalo, but the water felt simply too hot; besides, he was afraid to get drowned, for he had never learned how to swim, even like a dog. After several wrappings, his body temperature dropped quite a bit, but he was still too weak to stand up, as he hadn’t eaten any food for the past two days. He was dying for a big bowl of rice from a mother-like landlady when a passer-by in a long orange robe spotted him far away and came over. Knowing his situation, the traveling monk gave my father five silver coins, all the money he had for his long journey to Guiyuan Temple, the famous Buddhist monastery in Wuhan. With the monk’s money as well as his help, my father got back to his normal life as a waif. And it’s since that casual encounter that he had cultivated a profound bond with Buddha. To practice gratitude, he not only had a great monk growing in his own heart and lived all his life as a lay believer, but kept trying to convert me into Buddhism.
But alas, with my stubborn faith in freedom, I have never yielded to his effort. Or maybe I should?
Anyway, while video-chatting with me on his anniversary day last week, my mother announced that she had newly made up her mind to follow his steps. How about you? she asked.
Well, like him, I only eat vegetables now.
So, you want to become a lay believer too? Like father, like son, eh?
Yes and no, Mom.
This story was inspired by and thus devoted to Yuan Hongqi (袁宏启）
Yuan Changming edits Poetry Pacific with Allen Yuan in Vancouver, and has published 15 poetry collections in English. Early in 2022, Yuan began to write fiction, with short stories appearing in Aloka (UK) and Nashwaak Review (Canada), or forthcoming in Lincoln Review (UK), Paper Dragon (US), and StylusLit (Australia), among others. Currently, Yuan is working on his trilogy.
Photo by Miriam Espacio on Unsplash
The car broke to a halt by the side gate of a park, at the West of the city. It was five minutes to midnight. A uniformed policeman opened the front passenger door and a stocky man, in plain clothes, with a solid, bony face got out of the car.
"It’s over there, Inspector," the policeman pointed.
The Inspector made his way through the open gate and over the soft, yielding snow to where a group of uniformed policemen and women, together with another plain-clothed officer, were huddled round the prostrate body of a middle aged man. His coat was stained with blood, and his glassy, impassive eyes, stared dumbly up at the night sky.
"So we have another one on our hands!" said the Inspector, grimly, as he looked down at the corpse.
''Fraid so, Inspector,' said a sergeant, "and he was knifed to death. Just like the others."
"And no sign of our elusive killer," said the Inspector as he pulled up the collar of his coat.
"It’s as if he’s vanished into thin air," said the plain-clothed officer.
"He'll be miles away by now," reflected the Inspector.
"And all he's left behind are his footprints," added the sergeant.
The Inspector looked at a line of footprints that led away from the body.
"And he'll get rid of the shoes that made those tracks in pretty short order. You can bet your life on that." He sighed wearily to himself. "He’s an evil swine. But he’s as cunning as a fox; I’ll say that for him."
It was eight o’clock in the morning, in the bedroom of the Stanier household. As always, at that time, the radio automatically switched on - awakening Jack and Karen Stanier, a couple in their late thirties, in time to catch the morning news. The latest killing featured prominently.
"We are making some headway," the somewhat weary voice of the Inspector replied to an interviewer's question. "I can't go into details of course. We don't want to give any advantages to the killer. But believe me, every effort is being made to bring this evil criminal to book."
"By the time they catch him he'll have killed half the city," said Karen, mockingly.
"They don't seem to be making much progress do they," muttered Jack, as he pulled himself out of bed and headed for the bathroom before his wife got there.
Two weeks passed.
"I'm afraid I won’t be able to make it tonight, dear," Jack informed his wife at the breakfast table.
"Why not?" asked Karen, after chewing some of her cereal.
Tuesday night was bridge night for Jack, Karen, Karen's sister and her husband. Though of late it had become a rather tedious, unwelcome chore as far as Jack was concerned; like the performance of some pointless ritual.
‘I’m wanted at the office.’
‘On Tuesday night!’
‘What are you doing? Cleaning the place?’
‘It’s one of our periodic strategy meetings.’
‘Strategy meetings!’ she almost spat out the words. ‘You’d think you were planning the next world war.’
‘Well, office politics can be quite explosive at times, Karen,’ he said, with a wry smile on his face. ‘And as the head of my section, the boss insists I be there.’
‘Your boss wants to get a life for himself, if you ask me.’
‘And it wouldn’t look too good if the only excuse I had up my sleeve for my absence was a weekly bridge game.’
‘Tell him you’ve got a cold.’
He shook his head. 'I don't like lying to people. I wouldn't sound convincing anyway.'
‘Well you attend your precious strategy meeting, Jack. We don’t want you to get in bad odour with the boss, do we? I’ll just have to try and find a fourth for bridge, at short notice.’
Night had drawn in. Jack drove his car through the busy city streets, and then down the tree-lined suburban lanes, their pavements carpeted with freshly fallen snow. He left behind the last straggling estates of the city and the car wove down winding country roads, with hardly any traffic about, until, in an isolated spot and surrounded by wild moorland, a striking, modernist villa came in view.
He walked up a small flight of stone steps, then rang the bell of the door. The door opened, and Professor Winterman, of the Metropolitan University, stood in the entrance.
‘Jack. It’s good of you to come. I really appreciate it.’
‘Come in. Get out of the cold.’
He entered the Professor’s house.
‘I’ll take your coat.’
The Professor hung it up by the door.
‘If you’ll come this way, Jack.’
They entered a large, comfortable room, hung with modern prints, drawings and paintings. The house was indeed as striking and well-designed on the inside as it was without; and had been built according to the precise design specifications of the Professor himself. But then, whatever the Professor put his mind to he made a first class job of it. No one else lived in the house. Professor Winterman was a confirmed bachelor; though there had been a few, albeit ephemeral, romantic entanglements in the past.
‘So you managed to forgo the bridge game, then?’
‘Yeah. Told the wife some guff about a strategy meeting at the office.’
A strategy meeting that had actually taken place, the previous afternoon, during normal office hours.
‘Excellent.’ He winked slyly at Jack. ‘Though this might turn out to be a bit of a strategy meeting as well, Jack.’
‘How about a drink, now that you’re here?’
‘I wouldn’t say no to a glass of wine.’
The Professor opened up a well-lit and well stocked cocktail cabinet and poured drinks for his guest and himself. Then they sat down in comfortable chairs before a gas fire.
The Professor was a tall, well-built man in his late forties, with a long, slender, incisive face and keen grey eyes. He was a man of considerable intellectual ability, with a decisive air of confidence about him. And unlike some bookish professors and academics he looked as if he could handle himself in a brawl.
'Well, I hope all this cloak and dagger stuff was worth it?’
‘I don’t play games with people, Jack.’
‘Well, why did you want to see me, Professor? At such short notice?’
'It's to do with the killings.'
'What about them?'
'I think I've got a handle on this thing.'
With some suspicion Jack scrutinized the Professor. 'How you'd mean?'
The Professor's smile was inscrutable. 'Jack, I've been studying this entire case, in some detail. Informally of course.' He did have many other things to attend to as Jack well knew. 'It was just a dilettante exercise at first. A break from academic work. But of late I’ve become quite obsessed with it. Indeed, there have been days when it’s been the sole focus of my attention. And now, I firmly believe I'm getting somewhere.'
The murders' were the scandal and horror of the city. Ten clinical killings, all at night, at various quiet localities of the city over the last two years and three months. Moreover many of the victims were from the social top drawer; adding even further to the authorities alarm, in a class conscious society. Yet the murderer, for all the intensive police inquiry, was still a shadowy, unknown figure, hidden in night and obscurity; though casting a pall of terror and apprehension over the entire city.
'But surely, Professor, these are just the random, motiveless slayings of a madman. Isn't that why the police are having such a hard time of it?'
Winterman took a meditative sip of his brandy. 'I suppose you could call him a madman. But it's a madness that doesn't in any way impair the functioning of his intellect. Indeed, it may well be all the more powerful, precisely because of the narrow obsession of his homicidal mania.' He shrugged. 'As for being motiveless; I couldn't agree with that. There are motives behind these killings, however abnormal and irrational they might appear to the sane mind. These things have their reasons, even if they appear utterly inexplicable to the casual onlooker.'
Jack shifted uneasily in his chair. 'That takes some believing.’
'And also, it must do something to pump up his ego to think that he can create such panic and fear across a huge city, and at the same time virtually render the authorities impotent in their desperate efforts to track him down.'
To Jack it was a disagreeable subject to discuss. Though the very fact that the distinguished Professor, who he had recently got to know as a fellow member of the newly convened Commission for Urban Safety, had saw fit to raise the matter, made him sit up and take notice.
There were few subjects, however dark or complex, which the clarity of his extraordinary brain could not illuminate. The Professor had the most prodigious of intellects. His mind was a vast, pitiless instrument, forever grinding, from the crude dross of life, hard, immutable, gems of knowledge. And yet, in spite of this, it was difficult to believe that even he could have stumbled upon some vital information concerning those baffling murders, unbeknown to the investigating authorities.
'But surely, Professor, the police are pouring more manpower and resources into this investigation all the time. It has top priority as far as they’re concerned.’
'Yes, and it's getting them nowhere.' Winterman shook his head dismissively. 'They have the wherewithal; but they haven't an idea. They don’t even have the haziest description of him. Of course,’ a sliver of a smile appeared on his face, 'they make a few confident noises now and again. But those are just public relations exercises, to try to reassure the public and to keep the politicians on board.’
Jack pulled his face into a scowl. 'But these are experienced professionals. They must know something? They must have some idea?'
'We've waited over two years for them to unearth something, Jack, and we're still waiting.'
Of course it was a difficult case, but it seemed incredible to Jack that the police, with all the organizational and technical resources at their disposal, could be so utterly impotent before the murderous hegemony of that odious sneak killer, who had already strewn ten corpses about the city and who could strike again at any time. He looked the Professor in the face. 'What can you know, that they don't?'
Winterman leaned forward, and said, with his voice at a rather lower register than normal: 'As I’ve already mentioned, this whole business has been at the forefront of my mind these last few months. I’ve thought about it, even when attending to other matters. I've weighed up and accounted for every relevant factor of this case. Dates of the killings, time of day, locations, the means of death, and the identity and profession of each victim. I’ve even taken into account the weather conditions.'
'So what?' asked a nearly exasperated Jack.
'Because of this critical examination, I have managed to discern, behind these apparently random, opportunist killings, a secret design, and a hidden plan, which the police have managed to overlook in their investigations. Not only does this enlighten me about the motives of the killings, it also gives me an insight into the mind of the perpetrator. But what is far more crucial and significant, is that after a thorough, detailed and forensic examination and analysis of all the material and data available, one can actually predict, with confidence and I would say irrefutable certainty, where and when he will strike next.’ He sat back and smiled too himself with unrestrained self-satisfaction.
Jack felt his body shiver as if he was in a cold draught rather than a warm room. 'I don't believe it!' he exclaimed, with palpable alarm in his voice. ‘That can’t be true. You’d have to be a clairvoyant, with supernatural powers, to know something like that.’
‘This is about rational analysis, not mystical mumbo-jumbo, Jack. I know how this person’s mind works. I know what makes him tick. I comprehend the demons and obsessions that drive him. And knowledge, as they say, is power.’ The Professor looked on with imperturbable self-possession and confidence. 'In ten days’ time, not a dozen miles from this building, the next victim is due to be murdered. And that's fact, not supposition.'
‘If all this is true, and it takes some swallowing, Professor, then why on earth haven't you told the police about this? Surely, they should be the first people to know.'
'I thought of that at one time. But, unfortunately, there are a number of problems involved. One; would the police actually believe me, a meddlesome dilettante, as they'd no doubt see it, interfering in their business. Two; even if they did accept my thesis, what would happen if this information got into the hands of the press in some way. The police department can leak like a sieve when there’s a high profile case on hand. This is confidential information I have. It‘s not for public consumption. It’s got to be kept under wraps.’
Jack reluctantly nodded his head. Winterman always thought of everything.
'Well surely,' the Professor went on, 'if such a scenario came about, the alerted murderer would immediately change his plans. And knowing that someone knew all about his modus operandi, he might even leave for another city; realizing that things are too hot here. He might embark on another series of murders, in another locality. Or give up on his murderous activities altogether. And then I'd be in the dark as well as the police.’
'Yes, I see what you mean,' said Jack, who couldn't fault any of those claims.
'There is also a third reason for my decision not to involve the police. Though I’m afraid it is rather more self-orientated than the other two. Though I still think that it’s perfectly valid, nevertheless. Why should they get all the credit and the kudos for all the work and effort I’ve put into this business?’
To Jack this third was indeed the least sympathetic and substantial of the three reasons; being an appeal to intellectual vanity rather than the good of the community.
At last Jack asked Winterman a question he had meant to raise since entering his house that evening. 'Professor, why did you insist on inviting me over here, out of the blue, and telling me this extraordinary story? Out of your many distinguished colleagues and acquaintances? Why me?'
The academic looked across at his accomplice and smiled generously. 'Because I know, through personal contact, and by reputation, that you are a man of total discretion, Jack, whose word, and whose trust and loyalty can be relied upon one hundred percent. And there aren't many people you can say that about these days.'
Jack felt duly flattered at that fulsome tribute; though a core of suspicion still remained.
A strange glint lit Winterman's eyes. 'Just imagine, Jack - if two members of the community, without any assistance from the police or anyone else; acting entirely on their own initiative - were to apprehend this monster, before he could wield the knife, and then bring him to justice. Could you even begin to envisage the prestige and the fame that would flow their way? And the sheer gratitude and thanks which every class, and every member of the community would feel towards them?'
Jack was stunned. 'You want me to help you tackle this serial killer!' So that was what the eerie conversation of the night was leading to.
'Yes,' Winterman nodded, eagerly. 'Because I know his next move. Therefore, we have the advantage over him, and can take him completely by surprise.'
'Two of us, with that maniac!’
'The man's a coward, not a superman. He kills only single people, in sneak attacks, at night, usually from the back. With two people, who know precisely what they're doing, and who know his plans, beforehand, he wouldn't stand a chance.' He paused. 'Jack, the burdens of responsibility now fall upon us, whether we like it or not. I've already explained why we can't get the police involved. Therefore, we have to act on this matter. No one else will. We can’t shirk our duty, and walk away. However onerous it might seem, we owe it to society to take responsibility for stopping this man.’
Jack shrugged his shoulders and nodded his head in reluctant agreement to Winterman's drastic proposal. If the stakes were that high, if they could actually bring to an end the city's two year long nightmare - as the Professor himself, with all his awesome powers of intellect, believed - then perhaps it was worth the risk?
'Well...' Jack struggled to compose his thoughts.
'Good, I knew you'd agree, Jack; a solid, public spirited man like yourself.' He patted him on the shoulder. They got down to a discussion of their plans.
‘Just what sort of pattern is involved in these murders?’ asked Jack, at one point.
‘Only I and the murderer know that. It’s of fiendish complexity, Jack. And way above the heads of most people. It involves mathematics, of a pretty high order, and obscure symbolism. There are even some elements of the Kabbalah involved. It took me months of painstaking effort to work it out, after reading all the newspaper cuttings and playing back old news bulletins and documentaries about the murders. I even had to pull out of a number of engagements, in order to give it my full attention. I wish I had the time even to begin to sketch it out to you. Aside from which, I have to be off early in the morning; and I still haven’t finished packing yet.’ He shrugged his shoulders. ‘I’m afraid I’m a last minute man when it comes to things like this. My main purpose now is in stopping this lethal plan from being fulfilled, and to save the lives of those he wishes to kill. I’ll try and explain the substance of it, once that crucial objective is out of the way.’
‘It sounds as if he’s quite a clever sod? As well as being a sick bastard.’
‘Oh, this isn’t your average killer. If there is such a thing?’
‘D’you have any idea who the killer is? His actual identity.’
‘No. It’s the pattern, the unique configuration of these crimes, and the strange psychology of the killer, that concern me. And which gives me the key to this case. As to who the actual individual is, behind these ghastly murders; well, I haven’t an idea. And I deal in certainties, not speculation.’
‘So it could be anybody?’
‘Yes. But we shall soon find out.’
‘There could be a lucrative book deal in this, for you, Professor?’ suggested Jack, with a hint of sly humour.
‘That’s the very least I expect.’ He put an hand on Jack’s elbow. ‘We shall have our hour in the sun, Jack.’
‘I think I shall need counseling.’
'Jack, I'll be out of town for the best part of the next ten days. As I said before, I have to leave first thing in the morning. There's an important seminar on the psychological interpretation of mythology, at East Hampton, that I've agreed to attend. And this is one engagement I can’t pull out of. Top academics and experts are going to be there, from across the world. They want me to give the key address, chair the subsequent debate, and then help to summarize whatever conclusions might have been reached. Though it might be just a useless talking shop with some of the pompous windbags that will be attending. But,’ he shrugged, ‘we shall see.’
Of course, the worthy Professor was always in demand. Many organizations made liberal use of his expert talents and his powerful, penetrating mind, as if he was a national resource, freely on tap. And Winterman was sufficiently energetic - even, hyper-active - to fulfill many social obligations. And yet, though many viewed the Professor in an extremely positive light, there were inevitably, those of a more saturnine and cynical cast – some of whom indeed were fellow academics - who looked on at him, and his many works, with positive jealousy and loathing.
'Meet me ten days from tonight; that's a Thursday - by the statue of Pan, at the center of Centennial Park.’
'Is that where ..?'
Winterman nodded his head grimly. ‘Yes. At eleven thirty in the evening someone will walk by the statue. Someone who takes an evening stroll through the park, at that time, as part of his daily routine; passing the statue along the way. And who the killer has carefully observed before now.’
‘How can you be so certain?’
‘It’s what the plan specifies, as the next, inevitable move. So you and I must get there at precisely eleven o’clock, Jack; ahead of the killer and his victim. There are plenty of bushes and shrubs we can use as cover.’
‘Okay, I’ll be here,’ said Jack, with leaden resignation. ‘Though I must say, eleven thirty seems a bit late for someone to be taking a stroll.’
‘Obviously something of a night owl.’ He leaned forward. ‘But I must insist, Jack, that you don't mention this to a living soul. Indeed it must be as if this meeting between us tonight never took place. As I mentioned earlier, if this information became any kind of common currency, and the killer got to hear a hint of it, he'd just go back into hiding and our plans would be scotched. That’s why only we can, and must, be privy to it. Confidentiality is the key to this whole business. Also, don't ring, or contact me in any way, during the interim. I must rely on your utmost discretion, Jack. Don’t let me down. Lives are on the line in this business. The next time and place we meet is where I've already stated.' He nodded his head sombrely. 'That's the day of reckoning.'
Jack was equally solemn in reply: 'You have my word, Professor. I won’t let you down.'
‘Good man.’ He patted him on the back again. ‘I know I’m asking a lot. And you’ve every right to be anxious and concerned. It’s certainly how I’d feel. But in ten days you’ll see the logic and inevitability of the whole thing. This is no wild goose chase; believe me. And we will be performing a vital public service.’
Twenty minutes later a sobered Jack Stanier made his way homewards, through the bracing winter night. By the time he reached his doorstep he'd concluded that playing a few rubbers of bridge, however tedious it might have been, would have been a much more agreeable, though less stimulating a prospect, than the grim undertaking he had agreed to that night.
For Jack, the ten days dragged interminably. The fear and tension caused by the prospect of coming face to face with that monster proved at times almost unbearable. His wife and work colleagues, sensing that something was amiss, expressed their concerns about the state of his health. He told them that he was under the weather, and would be right in a few days’ time. Yet the knowledge that he would be doing an immense service to society and that the redoubtable Professor Winterman would be there with him - having already assured him that they would be inevitably successful in that chilling confrontation - made him able to face, despite his terrors, that awesome challenge.
At length the evening came.
The park was eerie and quiet, apart from the rustle of the trees in the wind and the cry of a distant bird. It was ten minutes since he had arrived at the scene, by foot, and by an indirect route, as instructed by the Professor; after giving his wife an excuse about meeting some old school chums at a restaurant. Snow was falling from the sky and was inches thick upon the ground. Behind him, in the darkness, stood the statue of Pan on his lofty pedestal, with his horns, scraggy beard, cloven feet and reed pipes. A spirited Victorian interpretation of that timeless creature of myth. A cold wind scythed across the park, blowing thick flakes of snow onto his face. He shivered, but not just from the bracing weather. Before him the park stretched like a vast, impenetrable shadow.
He stood near a gnarled old tree, that he could recall climbing in his youth. The sudden renewal of those happy memories, from a more innocent time, cheered him for a while, and he smiled to himself and nodded his head. But the feeling was brief and fragile. For now, in the winter darkness, in the cold night air, and divested of its leaves, it didn't appear as the friendly presence of old, but seemed gaunt, and strange, and sinister.
He stamped his feet and blew warm breath into his cupped hands. He'd needed an ample stock of Dutch courage to face the prospect before him that night, and he carried a whisky flask in a side pocket; but the effects of the drink were rapidly wearing off, leaving him feeling jaded and sluggish.
All his doubts and misgivings began to burgeon. Was it all some elaborate practical joke on the Professor's part; an outlandish confidence trick, with himself as the unwitting dupe? Should he be there at all, in a deserted park, on such a cold, wintry night? On such a bizarre venture? He thought again of the Professor's smug, superior demeanor, and his haughty, disdainful manner, and wondered if he could entirely be trusted?
His nerves were jolted by the sudden barking of a dog in the far distance. A further ten minutes passed, and he wondered why the Professor was late, when he had insisted that they both get there on time? The idea of being there, on his own, with a ruthless killer on the loose, was almost too unbearable to think about. Then he heard some footsteps in the distance, that alerted all his senses. He picked out a distinctly human form, at first a mere shadow that moved through the desolate park. It steadily came towards him.
'Professor!' said Jack, in as loud a voice as he felt appropriate.
'Jack,' came Winterman's unmistakable voice, in reply.
Despite his earlier misgivings, a wave of relief and euphoria broke, like soft spray, over Jack's hunched, tension-ridden body.
'Am I glad you've arrived,' he whispered into the pool of darkness still separating them; 'with that maniac out there.’
'He isn't out there, Jack. He's right here.'
Before he could even begin to ponder the meaning of those cryptic words, Jack perceived a glint of reflected light on the polished edge of a knife blade. A knife directly pointed towards him, and held, fixedly, in Winterman's right hand.
The Professor reached the point of rendezvous, and Jack could just make out his face in the weak light. He was visibly grinning, as if at the enjoyment of some private joke.
'How else d'you think I knew when he'd strike?'
Blood drained from Jack's face. In the space of a mere second the whole terrible truth dawned upon him, shattering the entire edifice of his confidence, as a surging tide would topple a child's sand-castle. Stunned into disbelief he faced the murderer. 'It was you! All the time!' He shook his head with infinite regret.
Jack - now utterly unsure and uncertain of himself; his breath tremulous and his hands shaking - took some steps backwards. He lost his footing and almost fell over. He shook his arms and screamed in terror. But it was too late to escape or summon help. Winterman thrust the knife blade into his body.
'What did I tell you Jack,' cawed Winterman with malicious humour; ‘he would never dream of attacking two men. That's why he was so grateful you consented to be alone.'
The knife blade entered repeatedly Jack's torso. The body fell untidily to the snow covered ground. He rolled over, let out a low moan and expired.
The killing done, the murderer disappeared from the scene. The next morning the body was discovered. The investigation began anew.
Michael Noonan lives in Halifax (famous for its Piece Hall), West Yorkshire, England, and has a background in food production, retail and office work. Have had stories, entitled, The Stairway to Paradise, and The Hold-up, published in the anthology volumes, ‘Even More Tonto Tales’, and ‘Shades of Sentience’; the latter an Australian publication. He wrote an article on the Kubrick movie 2001 A Space Odyssey that has been published by Bridge Eight Magazine, in Florida; a fairy-tale he penned, entitled, The Guardian of the Wood, has been published in the Fantasy Arts and Studies journal in France, and a story he wrote, called, The Personality Cult, has been published by Terror House Magazine, based in Budapest, Hungary. He's had an article on the Titanic published in a literary anthology called Watermarks, in aid of the Calder Valley Flood Relief Charity, and an article he wrote – using the pseudonym, Albert Hall - about J.G. Ballard has been published on the cultural literary website; www.literaryyard.com. He won second prize in the Pen Nib International Writing Competition 2021 for an essay, Who Guards the Guardians (about the unacknowledged power of the press and the media). He's had a short story, The Labyrinth, printed in the anthology volume, Colp: Underground, in Australia, and his tale, All the Time in the World has been published in Fission #2 Volume 1: Stories from the British Science Fiction Association. His story, Count on Me, has been published in the anthology collection, And the Dead Shall Sleep No More: Volume 11. He has had a volume of his short stories published, entitled, Seven Tall Tales, which is available at Amazon as a book or a kindle. His comic one act play, entitled, Elvis and the Psychiatrist, has been shown at the Sundance ten minute comedy festival at the Sixth Theatre in Racine Wisconsin, and another one act drama, A Restive Audience, has been published in HELLO GODOT! AN ANTHOLOGY OF ONE ACT PLAYS Volume 2 by Som. He also enjoys painting, drawing and photography.
Photo by Kaspars Eglitis on Unsplash
They called her the face in the window. Practically everyone in the neighborhood knew her--the woman who would sit in the upstairs bedroom window of her house, looking out into space, seemingly oblivious to the world. Some people said she’d gone crazy after husband left her or died, others said she’d lost a son or daughter to a horrific crime; nobody knew for certain. She was simply known as the Window Watcher, her face always blank like a mask.
Jim Heller knew that she had once been known by a different name, one that had been lost to the world. He was the one who brought her food, and checked in on her. She never acknowledged his presence, although she obviously ate, since she left empty containers and bags behind her front door when she was done. Jim knew that she had money, presumably from an inheritance, and she got Social Security and Medicare. Beyond that, however, he, like his other neighbors, knew almost nothing about her. Even so, he came to see her at least once a week.
“Good afternoon,” he said on one of his visits. “How are you feeling today?” She was sitting in an old rocking chair, her blank face turned towards the slightly dusty window. Jim cleaned the window as he continued to talk. “It’s getting colder,” he remarked. “I’ll adjust your heat before I go, okay?” As always, she didn’t answer, although Jim knew that she could hear him. She was a fairly small woman, with short, grayish brown hair, and pale eyes. She wore simple clothing and a sweater, which was different from the last outfit she’d worn. Jim knew that she took care of herself when he wasn’t around, and she slept regularly at night, but she would still sit by the window the same time every day like clockwork.
“Well, I guess that’s about it,” Jim said as he left her dinner on a tray. “I guess I’ll see you next week, then.” She still didn’t acknowledge him, but Jim sensed that she knew he was there and was quietly grateful for his company, or at least he liked to think that she was. Jim nodded at her, and left, leaving her to her seemingly eternal privacy.
Jim wasn’t a prying person by nature. When he first met her in person, he’d simply been curious about her, and a little concerned as a conscientious neighbor. As time passed, however, his visits had turned into conversations-one-sided ones, but he still talked to her. It had become an odd, one-sided “friendship” that Jim felt obligated to keep going.
Jim himself was recently retired, a casualty of a changing economy. He’d been looking for something to do when he first decided to visit the woman. He’d simply knocked on her door one day, she’d silently let him in after giving him a brief appraisal. Apparently meeting her approval, she silently left him a key to the front door, and he’d been seeing her ever since. It was a now-familiar routine...until, one day, he came to see her, and she wasn’t there.
That in itself was strange. Her chair was there, showing a depression where she’d been sitting. But the woman herself was gone. Concerned, Jim went through the rest of the house, asking after her, but got no answer. It was a small place, lightly furnished with older furniture. She had no TV, no phone or computer. Now becoming worried, Jim went to her neighbor across the street, who was about the same age and who had probably seen her at the window longer than anyone else.
“An ambulance came by, a few days ago,” the neighbor said. “I asked what was up, they said she was being taken to the county medical center. I saw them putting her into the ambulance, but it looked like she wasn’t breathing…she must have passed away earlier. I’m sorry; I knew you were visiting her once a week.”
Jim tried to comprehend what the neighbor was saying. Logically, he should have expected that she might pass away some day, but emotionally, it was still difficult. “What about her house?” he asked.
“The city will probably take it, try to sell it. But I think she left something for you inside, on her coffee table. Some type of a note or letter. I saw her sitting downstairs right before she passed. It looked like she was writing something.”
“I didn’t see anything,” Jim replied, “and I went through the whole house looking for her.”
“She must have put it somewhere. Maybe in a drawer close to where she’d been sitting?”
They went back to the house together. After some searching in the front room, they found what they were looking for-an envelope that had been put in what Jim knew had been a previously locked side table drawer. The neighbor watched as Jim opened the envelope and took out its contents. It was a letter, penned in neatly written ink.
“Dear Jim,” it read. “I know that by the time you read this, I will already be gone. I just wanted you to know that I really did appreciate your visits, and your talks with me. I am sorry that I never got to say anything in response. My neighbors were right--I did lose others, and then I suppose I lost myself for a long time. But I think now I’ve finally found myself again. Yours, Judith.”
“Judith,” Jim said. “Or maybe, Judy, or even June…I never even knew her name.”
“I don’t think anyone did,” the neighbor replied. “Maybe she was waiting for the right person to tell…maybe that was you.”
Jim silently nodded. He had been a part of her life, and she his, perhaps that memory was what she had wanted to leave him with.
And he would always remember her.
Matthew Spence was born in Cleveland, Ohio. His work has most recently appeared in Short Beasts and Floral Fiction.
Photo by Yaopey Yong on Unsplash
Eleanor Bradly moved in and out of the heavy downtown traffic with ease. A light mist engulfed her car. The windshield wipers squeaked across the damp surface. Her pounding headache intensified. She had to get home before…
The swirling images meshed together into a glob of nothingness. Her mouth opened but no words came out. Why? Her eyelids were heavy as lead. She tried desperately to fight the urge to succumb to the darkness.
Voices. A male voice. Repeating her name. Over and over. “Eleanor Bradly. Can you hear me? Eleanor Bradly. Open your eyes.” She wanted it to stop. But something inside told her—listen to the voice. “Eleanor Bradly. You need to open your eyes,” came the stranger’s voice once again. Eleanor clenched her jaw. She struggled to unlock her sealed eyelids. Her mind faded in and out. Distorted images. Focus on the voice!
The lights were dim. An older thin man in a long, white lab coat. Eleanor could see the stranger’s face. Peppered gray hair. Wrinkles pulled into a wide smile. Green eyes peered above the thin wired glasses set on a pointed nose. A square clean-shaven chin. He held up his index finger.
“How many fingers can you see, Eleanor Bradly?” asked the male voice. He stood waiting for an answer. Eleanor squinted. She could see clearly—one.
Eleanor swallowed. Her throat was dry. “One,” she croaked. The mysterious male gave a solid nod up and down.
“I’m glad you’re back. You gave us quite a scare for a moment. How are you feeling, Eleanor?” His voice soft. The thought of her body had not entered her mind. She wiggled her fingers and toes. She hesitated.
“Any pain?” he asked. She slowly shook her head side to side. Eleanor glanced around the white room. Why was she in the hospital?
“Do you remember what happened to you?” he asked. She realized this man was a doctor.
“No.” The single word sound strained. The man came closer to the bed. He gently placed two fingers on the inside of her wrist then looked at his gold watch. Seconds later he took a step backwards. He crossed his arms and tilted his head.
“You don’t remember anything…anything at all?” he asked again. Eleanor sorted through the web of images. A car. Her car. Traffic. A headache. A bad headache. And then…nothing.
“Not too much. Driving and trying to get home. A headache…” her voice trailed off into silence. The doctor placed his hands within the pockets of the lab coat. He tilted his head to one side.
“You blacked out, Eleanor. And then hit a car. It could have been worse. You were lucky the vehicle was parked. You sustained a head wound. Slight concussion. Minor scrapes and bruises. I’d say you were lucky, Eleanor. It could have been much, much worse. I’m going to let you rest for a bit. The nurse will be in to check on you.” The doctor turned to leave.
“Wait!” she called out. “What’s your name, doctor?” He glanced back over his shoulder.
“Dr. Ebstein. Now rest.” And the man left the room. Eleanor suddenly felt spent. She closed her eyes and decided this time not to fight the darkness.
The dark coat stranger kept his back to Eleanor. The fedora hat tipped slightly to the right side. She knew him even without seeing his face. Eleanor called out. Her words drifted away in the wind. He did not move nor turn around. What is this place? Her muscles were taunt. Legs strong. Yet, she still could not move. Then slowly, slowly he inched his way around to face her.
A cold shiver jerked Eleanor from the peculiar dream. A nurse was checking her blood pressure. The warm cuff inflating to the brink of pain. She smiled at Eleanor and gave a quick nod of approval.
“Perfect. Dr. Ebstein will be in shortly. I’m sure you’ll be released today, Ms. Bradly.” The attendee turned and left Eleanor alone. The pain in her head was gone. She felt refreshed.
Suddenly, the wood door swung open. Dr. Ebstein walked in and glanced down at Eleanor. For a brief moment, he did not speak. Eleanor stared at the doctor in white. She still could not remember what happened and how she ended up at the hospital. In fact, she had no clue on how long she had been here. Or for that matter, what day it was either.
“Well, well, Eleanor. The color has returned to your face. How are you feeling?” Dr. Ebstein crossed his arms. A gold watch poked out from his long sleeve.
“Actually, I’m alright. Muscles are tight. No headache,” she responded. His head moved slightly.
“I’d say you’re good to go home. I’ll prescribe migraine medicine for your headaches. It’s not a cure, but it can be a deterrent. If you have any other questions, please feel free to give my office a call and they will schedule an appointment. Good luck to you, Eleanor.” Dr. Ebstein tapped her covered foot. Eleanor watched the doctor as he left the room. She glimpsed her clothes neatly folded in a pile on a chair.
Easing herself up, Eleanor sat at the very edge of the bed. Her feet dangled. Without hesitation, she plopped down onto the cold, linoleum floor. Minutes later, Eleanor was dressed and ready to leave. She pulled open the closed hospital door and exited down the long hallway. Outside the sun shined brightly. She squinted at the blinding sun. It was then she remembered she had been in a car accident. Where was her car? At a body shop? At the junk yard? Did it get towed to her house? Eleanor never bothered to ask. Nor did she bother asking the doctor how long she had been in the hospital. Where was her briefcase? Inside the car? With no cell phone or wallet, Eleanor had little choice.
“Excuse me. Is there a phone I could use? I was just released from the hospital and my briefcase is…is, I guess still inside my car. I was in a car accident. And I’m not sure where my car is either,” explained Eleanor. The attending receptionist was stoic. The senior citizen pointed to an off-white courtesy phone on the tiny table near the waiting room chairs.
“Thank you very much,” said Eleanor. She picked up the phone then stopped. Who could she call for a ride? For a moment, she couldn’t remember her brother’s number. As she began to set down the phone, a number popped into her head. Quickly, she placed the call.
“Hello?” answered a deep male voice. Eleanor blinked. “Hello?”
“Gabe?” whispered Eleanor. Silence filled the line between them.
“Eleanor? Is that you?” asked Gabe.
“Can you pick me up?” asked Eleanor. “I’m…I’m at the hospital. I had a car accident. I don’t remember much. I was just released. And I don’t know where my briefcase is or my car, for that matter.”
“A car accident? How could the hospital release you without giving you any kind of information…especially the whereabouts of your car?” Gabe exhaled. “Was it totaled?”
“I…I don’t know. My briefcase was in the car. It had my wallet and cell phone. It’s not at the hospital. I’m just confused, Gabe.” Eleanor ran her fingers through her mussed-up hair.
“I’ll be right there. Which hospital, Eleanor?” he asked. Eleanor looked around the waiting room. People moving back and forth. A huge sign hung over the exit.
“Center Side Cedar,” said Eleanor. “I’ll be right out front. Thanks Gabe.”
“See you soon,” replied her brother.
They both remained silent as he maneuvered in and out of afternoon traffic. Gabe had taken the liberty in contacting the police with regards to where his sister’s car had been towed. Within thirty minutes, Gabe pulled into the only impound lot in Grand Rapids. Eleanor instinctively reached for her purse. But it wasn’t there. She let out a huge sigh.
“It’s okay, I’ve got this,” said Gabe. She gave him a half smile.
“I’ll pay you back. Hopefully, my wallet is still inside my briefcase and everything else,” commented Eleanor. The two of them walked to the small brick building. Inside, behind the shatterproof plexiglass, sat a female police officer. The long ponytail pulled behind her pretty, young face, swished back and forth as she skirted to greet them.
“May I help you?” she asked through the round mic. Eleanor leaned closer and explained her situation. The officer gave a slight nod.
“Give me a moment,” replied the young woman. She disappeared through a door. Gabe was looking out of the window at the locked, electronic metal gate. Eleanor shuffled over to her brother.
“I guess she’s looking for my car,” commented Eleanor. Gabe did not reply. Minutes later, a tapping noise emanated from behind the partition. Eleanor instantly turned around.
“Ms. Bradly? You do realize your vehicle cannot be driven. You’ll have to arrange for a tow truck. Then it can be released. The investigation on the accident is still pending. You may want to inform your insurance company.” The female officer waited for a response.
“I understand. But I need to retrieve some personal items from my vehicle. There is my briefcase…cell phone, things of that nature inside my car. Any chance you can take me to my car and I’ll just get them out?” asked Eleanor.
“I’m sorry. I cannot allow you inside the impound lot.” The young woman turned to leave again.
“Wait!” called Eleanor. “Please, could you go and get my things? I really need them. I don’t even have the keys to my apartment.” Eleanor placed her hands together as if she were in prayer. The officer hesitated.
“Sure. Give me a couple of minutes.” Leaving Eleanor standing there. Gabe finally turned to face his sister.
“I hope your things are still in the car, Eleanor. Just because they’re cops don’t mean they won’t take them. Not all cops are honest.” Gabe turned away. Eleanor nibbled on her thumb nail. Several minutes passed by. She crossed her arms and thought about the accident. Why can’t she remember what happened?
“Gabe, did the doctor tell you what happened…what happened to me?” she asked her brother. Once again, he turned to face his sister. He gave a quick shake of head back and forth.
“Just that you blacked out and hit a parked car. Some bystander called 911 and the ambulance came and the paramedics took you to the Emergency Room at Cedar. Your car was towed to the impound lot. That sums it up little sister. You’re lucky it wasn’t much worse. Now, the million-dollar question is why did you black out?” explained Gabe.
Eleanor shrugged her shoulders. She had no clue. Suddenly, the side door opened into the waiting lobby. The young officer step inside. She was holding Eleanor’s briefcase.
“Here you go, Ms. Bradly. I checked the floor of the vehicle. The briefcase was intact.” Eleanor smiled at the woman.
“Thank you. I will call my insurance company right away. They can decide what to do about my car.” Eleanor touched her brother’s arm. The two of them left the impound lot.
As they drove away, Eleanor quickly checked the inside of the briefcase. She felt the keys at the bottom of the bag. The cell phone screen touched her fingers. Eleanor let out a huge sigh.
“Is it all there?” asked Gabe while he glanced at his sister. Eleanor gave a slight nod.
“It’s all accounted for including my wallet. That’s a relief. Can you take me back to my place, Gabe?” Eleanor placed the briefcase on the floor between her legs.
“Sure. Did you want me to come in for a bit? I can help you get settled…” his voice trailed off.
“I’ll be fine. I think I’m going to lay down and take a nap. For some odd reason, I feel exhausted.” Eleanor looked out the side passenger window.
“Well, you’ve been through a lot, Eleanor…with the accident…and just being released from the hospital. I’d say anyone would be exhausted after all that just happened.” Silence filled the moving car.
“It could have been so much worse, little sister,” said Gabe in a low voice. “You could have been…” Gabe stopped talking. His eyes watered. Eleanor watched her older brother tear up.
“But I didn’t, Gabe. I’m fine. Just a little tired. How about lunch tomorrow? I’ll let you treat me. Seaside Café. One o’clock?” asked Eleanor in a light voice. Her brother forced a half smile. He turned the steering wheel a hard left then started to slow down in front of the two-story apartment building. Gabe stopped the car. Eleanor unbuckled her seat belt then reached down for her briefcase.
“One o’clock—sharp,” he said. Eleanor leaned in to her brother and placed a quick peck on his stubbly cheek.
“See you tomorrow…and thanks again.” Eleanor slipped out the passenger door and gave a quick wave over her shoulder as her brother drove away. She fumbled for her keys to the weather-beaten metal door. With only four apartments, it rendered itself a quiet and peaceful place to live. But before she could stick her key inside the lock, it slowly opened up. Eleanor backed up to let whoever it was out. Instead, a tiny white haired elderly woman peaked out. Her granny glasses in the middle of her thin, pointed nose. Many wrinkles pulled across her aged face.
“Hello, Mrs. Jenson,” said Eleanor. The old woman shuffled further out the opened door. The flowered dress hung loose on her frail frame. Her bare feet riddled with arthritis.
“And who are you?” she asked squinting. Eleanor gave a sad smile. It must be hard never knowing what memories would still be there each day. Mrs. Jensen had been diagnosed with the beginning stages of dementia.
“I’m Eleanor Bradley, Mrs. Jenson. I live in the apartment directly above you—apartment number four.” The old woman tilted her head.
“Eleanor…oh, Eleanor. Why deary, have you seen my cat? She must have got out. I don’t why she insists on running outside all the time?” The old woman took another step outside. She looked all around.
“Mrs. Jenson…you don’t have a cat,” stated Eleanor. The aged lady’s eyebrows crunched.
“I don’t? Oh, that’s right. I have a dog. Now where did she go? I let her out to do her business and that silly mutt ran off,” she huffed. Eleanor gently took hold of the elderly woman’s elbow.
“Mrs. Jenson…you don’t have a dog, either. Let’s get you back inside. You don’t have any shoes on. How about a cup of tea?” asked Eleanor while guiding Mrs. Jenson back inside her cluttered apartment. Once inside, Eleanor helped her to the couch. Seconds later, Mrs. Jenson had fallen asleep. Eleanor draped the worn, torn blanket over the sleeping lady. She quietly left locking door behind her.
Eleanor walked the two flights of steps to her own apartment. Using her key, the door opened into her cozy dwelling. Oriental throw rugs decorated the varnished wooden floors. An oval shaped table with two spindled chairs doubled for her kitchen table and desk. White cupboards, which needed painting, were way beyond their use. But Eleanor considered them antiquated. A single based sink and a black and white tiled countertop shined. The appliances were second hand and well used. The kitchen opened into her living room space which housed one brand new cushioned couch, an end table with a lighthouse lamp, and a poor excuse for a recliner. The 42-inch screen television was mounted on the wall above the fake fireplace. Down the narrow hallway was a half-bath and shower and her 10x10 bedroom. It wasn’t much, but Eleanor called it home.
Eleanor tossed her keys into the shell-shaped half dish on the countertop. She felt tired and drained as if she had exercised all morning. Plopping down onto the comfy couch then rested her heavy head. Her eyes dry and itchy she briefly closed them. Within minutes, Eleanor was fast asleep.
Swirling dreams and images of people she did not recognize. Asking. Pleading for her help. Help with what? She tried to speak, but no words came out of her mouth. The room around her had light blue walls. Bright. Cheery. But full of people. Strange people. Young and old. Asking and pleading…pleading and asking. She shook her head back and forth. Everywhere she turned—strangers. All wanting--her! Suddenly, her breathing slowed and the spinning images slowly disappeared. Eleanor gasped for air then quickly leaned forward. Her eyes popped open. Sweat lined her upper lip and brow. Glancing about her tiny apartment, she realized she was alone.
Eleanor got up and called her brother, Gabriel. He answered by the second ring.
“You, okay?” he asked before Eleanor could get out a word. She smiled
“Yes…yes…I’m fine. I just had a strange dream even though I was barely asleep for…” Eleanor did not finish her sentence. It was then she noticed the clock on the wall. If it was correct, she had been asleep almost three hours. How was it possible?
“Eleanor? Are you still there?” asked Gabe. Eleanor walked quickly to her bedroom. An alarm clock sat on her dresser.
“This can’t be,” she mumbled.
“Eleanor! Please answer me! What’s going on?” pleaded her brother. She gently sat on the edge of her bed.
“I thought…I thought I closed my eyes for a second but…it seems I took a nap for almost three hours,” she explained. Gabe cleared his throat.
“Happens to me, too. You just got out of the hospital, Eleanor. Cut yourself some slack. You're tired from the drugs they probably pumped into you after arriving at the hospital. Don’t beat yourself up.”
“So THAT’s why I had such an unusual dream,” said Eleanor. “Must have been the medication.”
“You want to tell me about your crazy dream?” asked Gabe. Eleanor hesitated.
“Why not? So, I was in this room…bright colors. Just standing in the middle of this room surrounded by people—strangers. They were all talking to me. Asking me, pleading with me, to do something. I don’t know what. I tried to talk, but it was as if I had no voice. Scrambled words coming from all different kinds of people—young and old.” Silence filled the line between them.
“Maybe you had some type of out-of-body experience. I’ve watched a few shows about how head trauma can open a door to the other side,” replied Gabe. Eleanor couldn’t believe her ears.
“Are you saying I’m connected to another realm…as in dead people?” Eleanor exclaimed.
“I guess. I mean we don’t use our total brain capacity. In fact, we use very little. And some people I know, don’t use their brains at all, but that’s a totally different thing in itself. Anyway, I’m just saying you should consider the possibility, if you keep having the strange dreams or tell your doctor. They’ll arrange for another MRI. Or send you to a shrink.” Eleanor sat quietly.
“If it were me, I keep a record of the dreams. You’ve had bad headaches since you were a little girl. Maybe the car accident just reinforced a connection…a connection to the other side,” said Gabe.
“You’ve never talked about this subject with me. I mean, I’ve read books on the afterlife, but never once considered myself a medium of sorts,” said Eleanor.
“The connection could have been there the whole time. But you may have not recognized it. Just keep an open mind, Eleanor. And jot down anything you can remember when you dream. Did you want to stay with me?” he asked.
Eleanor thought for a moment. “No, Gabe. I’m fine here in my apartment. I’ll keep a journal in the nightstand. This way when I get up in the morning, I’ll jot down what I can remember. Why don’t we meet for lunch in a couple of days? It will be my treat.” Eleanor smiled.
“Sounds good to me. Just send me a text with the info. And Eleanor?” he said.
“Call me day or night. I’m here if you need me. Take care, Eleanor.” And with that said he disconnected the call between them.
The night was filled with a mirage of distorted images. People, endless people, reaching and trying to grab Eleanor as she waded through the sea of visions. Deep within her mind, she knew she was fast asleep in bed and that she was caught up in a tangled mess of dreams.
She awoke to the sound of her cell phone playing a familiar tune. Eleanor rubbed her dry eyes and reached for her phone. Blurred letters and numbers appeared on the screen.
“Hello?” she answered in a whispered voice. Static filled the line. “What in the name…” clicking off immediately. She dropped the cell phone back onto her nightstand. Eleanor sat up and glanced about her dark bedroom. Smokey apparitions evaporated as she gasped. Instantly, she threw back the covers and stood up. Alone. Spooky spirits lingering about her cozy apartment. Maybe she did whack her head in the accident. Besides the crazy dreams, now she could see ghostly shapes while she was awake!
Eleanor looked at the tiny alarm clock sitting on her dresser. Six o’clock. She stifled a yawn. It was then she remembered the journal. She reached for the small, lined book and the pen. Quickly, she jotted down what she could remember of the strange dreams and the wispy mirage.
Was Gabe serious about her connection to the next realm? Had it been there the whole time waiting to be opened? How could she deal with something so taboo on a daily basis? Who would believe her if, indeed, it was true?
The insurance company claimed the car irreparable. Eleanor sighed. She sat at her kitchen table and sipped the lukewarm coffee. She was scheduled to work the next day. Now, she’d have to take a bus downtown until she could find another decent, yet cheap, car. Uber was too expensive. She grappled with the idea of calling her brother and asking him for a ride. But then dismissed the thought entirely. Why should he spend his time carting her to and from work each day? It was too much to ask of her sibling bond.
The remainder of the day was spent catching up on emails and lightly cleaning her apartment. A couple of times, Eleanor went down to check on Mrs. Jenson only to be received by a vacant knock on the door. Worrying for the elderly, sweet woman, Eleanor tried once more around nine o’clock that evening. Finally, the squeaky door opened a smidge. Mrs. Jenson peered out.
“May I help you?” asked Mrs. Jenson in a shaky voice. Relieved, Eleanor leaned against the hallway.
“Hello, Mrs. Jenson…it’s me, Eleanor. Eleanor Bradley from the upstairs apartment? I thought I’d come down and see if you needed anything. I tried a couple of times today knocking on your door, but you must have been busy or taking a nap,” explained Eleanor. The old woman smiled.
“Eleanor…you say?” Well, I surely wasn’t taking a nap. You see, deary, you don’t need sleep when you’re dead!” exclaimed the aged senior. Eleanor’s eyebrows crunched together. Not sure how to respond to such an odd statement from her elderly neighbor.
“Just making sure you’re doing alright,” replied Eleanor. “Have a great evening.” Eleanor turned to leave.
“Oh Eleanor?” called out Mrs. Jenson. Eleanor faced her neighbor. “Thank you so much for all your help and concern over the years. You were a blessing, my dear.” And then Mrs. Jenson gently closed the door. Eleanor remained motionless. What was all that about?
Walking slowly up to her apartment, she thought maybe Mrs. Jenson was having a good day—a lucid day. But once inside, she jotted down in the journal her strange encounter with the elderly neighbor.
The following morning, Eleanor got up early in order to catch the 8:20 a.m. bus. As she headed down the steps, the door to Mrs. Jenson’s apartment was open. Two men were carrying out the old, worn sofa.
“What’s going on?” blurted Eleanor. Her heart thudded inside her chest. The younger of the two men slowly set down the ratted piece of furniture.
“Just cleaning out the apartment so a new tenant can move in, ma’am,” he said. Eleanor stepped down two more steps and peered inside Mrs. Jenson’s place.
“Where’s Mrs. Jenson?” she asked the man. Both men shrugged their shoulders.
“Mrs. Jenson? The elderly woman who lives in this apartment?” insisted Eleanor. Her face flushed.
“I heard she died a few days ago. We were hired by the landlord to move out stuff. We don’t know much more. Give him a call.” And with that said both men picked up the sofa and eased it out the front door to the dump truck.
“Few days ago? How’s that possible?” mumbled Eleanor. “They’re crazy! I just talked to her last night.” Eleanor quickly left the building to catch the bus. Many commuters were using the public transportation system leaving her with a back seat. She watched the traffic move slowly beside the bus. Her thoughts flew instantly to her neighbor, Mrs. Jenson. The moving men were probably wrong. Maybe Mrs. Jenson was taken to a care facility. At least there, someone could keep an eye on her. Eleanor noticed Mrs. Jenson’s behaviors were becoming more and more bizarre due to the progression of the dementia. She couldn’t imagine what it must feel like to slowly lose your mind. But then again, how would you know if you were losing your mind?
As the bus quickly emptied, Eleanor realized she was alone beside an old woman who held on to the metal bar attached to the seat in front of her. The elderly senior was humming a familiar tune. It was then Eleanor knew. It was a Yiddish song her grandmother would sing to her when she was a little girl. How can that be?
The old lady turned to face Eleanor. Her smile tugged at the endless wrinkles embedded into her aged face. “Hello, Eleanor. I missed you so,” she said with a slight German accent. Eleanor blinked several times. It can’t be!
“Grandma?” whispered Eleanor. “How…how…you’re dead…you died when I was…” Eleanor’s voice trailed off into silence.
“You’ve grown into a beautiful woman…my little Elle.” A name used only by Eleanor’s late grandmother.
“This isn’t real,” exclaimed Eleanor glued to her seat. The elderly grandmother smiled again.
“Anything is possible, Elle. You have a gift. A special gift. I had it too. Reach out and accept your destiny, Elle. It’s awaiting you. Don’t be afraid.” Suddenly, the bus came to a complete stop jerking Eleanor from her trance. The backdoor of the bus opened. It was Eleanor’s stop. A whisp of smoke dissipated where her grandmother sat.
“Grandma?” Eleanor stood up and twirled around.
“Hey lady! Are you getting off or what?” yelled the impatient bus driver. Eleanor’s heart beat against her chest. Was she losing her mind?
“I’m getting off!” replied Eleanor loudly. Almost tripping down the three steps to the concrete, she hurriedly moved away from the bus. As it slowly crept away, her deceased grandmother waved. Eleanor lifted her hand to the impossible image inside the bus. No one in their right mind would ever believe her.
A horn blew as she stepped off the curb. Eleanor jumped back. She waited anxiously to cross the four lanes of traffic. But it was never ending.
“I’m going to be late for work,” she muttered. Without hesitation, Eleanor moved swiftly toward the corner. The light changed. She dashed across the road staying within the boundaries of the fading crosswalk. Eleanor pushed on the heavy glass door. A few patrons turned to look at her as she entered the diner. Jack Wilson, the owner, was wiping the counter.
“Morning, Eleanor…I saw you get off the bus. Car trouble?” he asked. Eleanor forced a smile as she passed him.
“You could say that,” she replied. Eleanor opened up a side door that had the word OFFICE stenciled in black letters. She plopped down in the rickety wood chair at the worn oak desk. Eleanor turned on the computer. Instantly, it came to life. As she started her data entry work for the day, her thoughts drifted back to the strange incident on the bus. Was she dreaming or was it truly her grandmother in spirit?
Eleanor kept typing. Minutes later she called her brother from the diner’s landline. He answered immediately. Before he could say a word, she delved into what had happened at her apartment building with Mrs. Jenson and her brief encounter with their dead grandmother on the bus. Gabe remained silent.
“Did you hear what I said, Gabe?” Eleanor’s blood pressure increased. A slight pain inched its way behind her left eye. “I think…I think I’m going crazy!”
“I heard. We discussed this before Eleanor. I truly believe the accident only confirmed the realization of your gift. Our grandmother was different. Mom would get so upset when people called grandma a ‘crazy lady’. But I believed her when she would tell us stories. Why else would she tell them? She could see people—dead people. Communicate with them. And you can too!” he exclaimed.
“So…so THAT’s why I have…what you call a gift? Because our grandmother could see things others can’t? Is that what you are trying to tell me? What if I don’t want it?” Eleanor couldn’t accept what seemed to be so obvious.
Her brother sighed. “Accept the inevitable, Elle. Don’t fight it. Embrace it. Who knows…you might find it useful,” he chuckled.
Eleanor closed her eyes. She felt defeated but also elated. Her life was changing—for better or worse? Only she could be the judge of what her future could hold.
Alice Baburek is an avid reader, determined writer and animal lover. She lives with her partner and four canine companions in northeast Ohio. Retired from one of the largest library systems in Ohio, she challenges herself to become an unforgettable emerging voice.
Photo by Alex Dukhanov on Unsplash
“Never ever forget that we are all commie members,” my granny would impress upon me. “And that means we share everything.”
Cosmo Goldsmith is a 'semi-retired' English and Drama teacher with a passion for all forms of creative writing. He has had poems and a short story published in British and American magazines over the last three years.
Trademark, by Jenna Calloway
Photo by Viviane Okubo on Unsplash
The sound – a loud clang and elongated scratch – jarred him awake. Dylan clutched his throbbing head and swallowed down the rising remnants of his scrambled egg/Rainbow Skittle breakfast. His tongue felt thick, chalky. His head…where was he? He rubbed at his scalp, trying to eliminate the haze. He couldn’t believe he agreed to play – again! Even as they’d held the chloroform up to his face, minor doubts began to assert themselves. Mostly, it had been his mother’s voice expounding on the dangers of the internet. The stupidity of the Tide Pod Challenge. “That boy died of liver failure, you know!” Still, it was too hard to resist both the adrenaline rush and the thrill of inclusion by the clique squad. Popular kids didn’t invite just anyone to their well-established circles. Especially a newbie. Dylan squeezed his eyes shut; the sound again – louder, grating. Think, dammit, it’s all part of the game, right?!
The Reverse Hide and Seek Challenge was straightforward (notwithstanding obtaining the right chemicals), the only differences from the original game were that the player was knocked unconscious, hidden by the group, and, upon wakening, had to seek home within the allotted time frame. Simple. Dylan let out a breath. The name of the clanging and scratching sound sat on the tip of his tongue, but his fuzzy brain couldn’t grasp it. More clues. Somewhere warm. He wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead. Where was he? He looked at his watch. Technically, illumination wasn’t allowed but the light was faint at best. 3:15 pm? No. Impossible. His allotted time ended in 15 minutes. How had he…crap, an overdose! Suck-ass bastards!
Adrenaline surged through his system, plunging his brain into hyper-focus. Well-played, boys! Game freaking on! That sound…his brain swirled, then landed. It was so familiar, he himself made it each time his mother asked him to clear snow off the sidewalk. A shovel, hitting then dragging over concrete! Ok. That narrowed things down. Dylan shifted; his bones cracked in protest. It was cramped, the wall hard against his back. Somewhere dark, confined. The woodshop cupboards? There were always shovels for cleaning up sawdust and wood scraps. No. Wouldn’t be this muggy. So? Dylan lifted his wrist, directing the watch’s light above his head. Outlines formed amongst the dark shadows: loaded shelves and textured brick walls. The school’s pottery studio! The extra-large wood-fired kiln. Ha! It was close to the parking lot where he was supposed to meet them. Idiots! He just had to…Dylan slumped against the brick wall, all oxygen leaving his body. Oh, shit! The kiln. He was inside the actual kiln!
Dylan took in a few deep breaths. Think, it’s just a game. He shone the dim light towards the shelves. Vague shapes lined each unit: vases, mugs, plates, and disfigured faces staring through uneven eyes with fanged, lopsided grins. Ogre bowls. Deep bowls with grotesque appearances holding yarn for crafters who inexplicably enjoyed pulling woolen snot from creatures’ nostrils. The school’s pet project. Apparently, there was a huge global market. Dylan shook his head. The world was full of freaks.
Yet…his heart accelerated…if the shelves were lined to this degree then - Double shit!!
He screamed, shrill and unyielding.
Someone had to hear him; someone was working that shovel! They may be preparing to light the fire. Dylan hyperventilated. No, not preparing. Ms. Jacobs’ lectures cascaded through his mind. 2300 degrees Fahrenheit! Ash and coal. Fire bars to feed… The firebox! It was located just in front of the loading entrance to the chamber. Ok. Thick air, rising temperature, oxygen depletion. Calm the hell down. Dylan exhaled. Slow your breath. Still time.
He moved carefully around the shelves. There was a low space, not much, but enough to belly-crawl through. Besides, Ms. Jacobs and Principal Walters would not be pleased if he damaged any of the creations. Additional funding for the school and all that. He visualized the kiln, moving as quickly around the chamber as his crouched position allowed. Chimney stack…chamber…he touched the loading entrance. It was walled off.
Shut up, he admonished himself, fighting panic. Standard procedure. Don’t lose it. He leaned into the wall and cried out, “I’M HERE!!”
“Did…hear?” A faint voice from outside said.
Dylan bit his lip. Ms. Jacobs! She heard him! He brushed the loading entrance, fingers sliding over the warm bricks, hoping… Yes! Dry stacked! Small gaps allowing for the contraction and expansion of gasses. “Ms. Jacobs! I’m here!” Dylan screamed through the minute openings. His fingers found purchase, skin scraping as he pushed and pulled at the brick. Tiny drops of blood dripped down his wrist, obscuring the watch’s tiny beacon of light. Didn’t matter. She heard him…she…
Dylan listened. Other voices.
“Sorry…Baxley singing…badly. Might…heard.” The shovel sounded again, faster this time.
No! Confess, please!! Dylan shrieked, pounding on the brick, his heart thumping unsteadily until he collapsed.
He pressed his lips against the wall. “You…win,” Dylan croaked, his voice spent, “Here…” He took in a hot breath, lungs struggling for air. “I’m…here.”
“Fired the kiln over the weekend, Jane?” Constable Lake said to his long-time friend, looking around the pottery studio.
Ms. Jacobs nodded, removing the last of the ogre bowls. “We had a lucrative new order. I heard Dylan went missing. Did you find him?”
“No. That’s the fourth kid in two years. I’ll put him on the missing registry, same as the others but…” Constable Lake shrugged, “I doubt he’ll be found. Chase and Baxley mentioned Dylan talked of running away. I just need to ask a few follow-up questions.”
“They’re diligently cleaning up, as per usual. Back soon if you care to wait.”
Constable Lake looked at the immaculately clean kiln and walked to the display table. He picked up an ogre bowl. “Sure. These are beautiful. The boys mentioned they helped prepare everything - said the key to the glaze is…”
“All in the ash. They are my best students.”
This year, Jenna Calloway has had two pieces of short fiction published: French Cuisine by Jenna Calloway for Flash Fiction Magazine, and Pier 21 for 101Words.com
Photo by Alex Azabache on Unsplash
Niko felt that strange combination of adrenaline and trepidation as he made his way across the lively streets at 2:17am, headed for Satyric Park. All kinds of scenarios were running through his mind, vying for his utmost attention. Yet he remained composed and focused, with the belief he could engineer the reality he desired, an execution of his plan. On this execution, the prospect of his country making history rested.
He felt very much an island of temperance in a sea of intoxication; an ironic position to be in, given his high-octane, all-action, party-round-the-clock lifestyle. All around him people were celebrating, whooping, reciting their favorite chants, smashing glass bottles for good measure. And why wouldn’t they be? Hours earlier, Switzerland had won their final group match of Euro 2008 to secure their place in the quarter-finals, and the veritable wave of excitement which had pervaded the host nation exploded, and some. The Swiss populace knew this would likely be the only opportunity to see their country stage a major football tournament in their lifetime, and their representatives in red reaching the last eight was cause enough for celebration. Yet, for Niko, the mastermind of the whole operation, the quarter-finals was not enough. More of this intoxicating fix was needed for satiation.
Into the park he strode, his luminous white trainers conspicuous in the late-night blackness. He sent a text message to his crew members back home, both to update them on his progress, and reassure himself. Lorik, Conrad and Felix were monitoring the mission back at base. In this case, it wasn’t the coalition who determined this operation; rather, the operation decided the coalition. Among his many contacts in his home district of Cadien was Conrad – a fellow DJ, always spaced-out, often aloof, sometimes laid-back to the point of semi-consciousness. Nonetheless, the two had over some years built an intimacy that bordered on telepathy, and it was Conrad’s vision – whilst in a state of trance after a marathon of drink and drugs in early April – which became an idea, and that idea a plan. As it turned out, anyone who took the special gear he visualized were bestowed with unparalleled talents for around two hours afterwards. After concocting the gear, Niko tried it himself in his garden, and simply could not believe what he was able to do: run twenty yards in a nanosecond, pass a ball with pinpoint accuracy, leap higher than trees, see in all directions without moving his head. Imagine the damage the football team could do with this gear inside them! Passion and dreams aside, nobody could refute that the 2008 vintage of their national team was decidedly mediocre. With this ace card, though, Switzerland could genuinely go all the way. And Niko had the intelligence, the courage and the means to play this card to the nth degree.
Niko’s heart rate intensified when the dealer appeared, but he made sure there was no trace of it in his self-assured demeanour. After a perfunctory touching of fists, the dealer engaged him in conversation about the possible winners of the tournament, and ever so subtly slipped the gear into Niko’s right hand. It felt as though he was somehow a stranger Niko had already met. Niko opined that Spain may be the team to beat, handed the dealer three bank notes – amounting to three hundred Swiss francs – and winked at him before casually heading back towards the town. The mission was not complete until he returned to the hotel with the gear, evading detection. Surely it would be a relatively straightforward task to blend his way back into the crowds, in such a euphoric atmosphere?
Another key member of Niko’s crew was Felix, a gregarious and inventive MC with stripes shaven into his eyebrows and lyrics perpetually written on his brain tissue. Felix had – via his music contacts – a direct line to the Swiss national team captain, top scorer and talisman Xander. Xander’s brother had once played the piano on one of Felix’s records, and they’d since kept in close contact, each in the audience when the other first performed live. Xander was not the captain by accident; anyone who knew him, or had even seen one of his press conferences or team talks, knew the full range of the power of his charisma and its ability to captivate. Once Xander was on board this corner-cutting voyage, it would be nigh on unstoppable.
A conference of connivance was held at Niko’s cottage, on the understanding that this was a colossal risk; in any case, their stockpile of gear would only cover the three group games, after which further supplies would have to be obtained – a perilous mission. Still, Niko’s master plan was for Xander to approach the national sport science labs – where the apparatus for conducting drug tests on athletes was kept – with his old science teacher, under the pretence of filming an educational video for students, with Xander making a ‘special guest appearance’ to increase its appeal. The subterfuge was played out successfully, and having gained access to the labs, Xander conducted tests upon himself, half an hour and an hour after having consumed the gear. Not a trace came into view on the results. This was a surefire winner!
Xander then gathered the entire squad in his house late one Sunday night for a secret meeting, using his powers of persuasion to some effect. His teammates knew Euro 2008 may well be the acme of their playing careers, and so they acceded to Xander's demands; under no conditions were they to breathe a word of this to their veteran coach Jürgen, nor to their families, the media, the Swiss fans or any of the behind-the-scenes staff. They could easily cite their country’s position as host nation, and its related rapture, as the pretext for their miraculously elevated performances. In any case, Jürgen was retiring after the Euros, and there could be no better valediction than attributing a best-ever tournament showing to his leadership.
Niko was on his way back to the hotel when a police car came to a halt beside him. Out stepped two officers. Niko’s heart rate suddenly intensified. This was precisely why he’d been reluctant to take on this mission after the original gear had run out. Lorik was to be the port of call if Niko ran into the law; his connections to the special forces unit provided Niko with a ‘get out of trouble free’ card, another layer of metal onto an already well-reinforced exterior. Even so, Lorik was not to be contacted unless absolutely necessary, and there was no guarantee he would be awake at this hour. At any rate, if the gear was seized and impounded, it was game over, mission abandoned.
As the officers approached Niko, he wondered how passionate about football they were, how badly they wanted Switzerland to succeed in Euro 2008, whether it was really in their interests to derail Niko’s operation there and then. They might even have been at the opening ceremony, he thought, and seen first-hand the flags, the singing, the strangers embracing each other, the unifying power of football, the inception of this month of euphoria.
The opening ceremony had preceded a disappointingly lacklustre 1-1 draw with France, but the gear began to pay dividends in their 6-1 obliteration of the Republic of Ireland four days later, in which gifted midfielder Tymon wrongfooted and outclassed the opposition defence with a guile and an artistry that almost defied belief. The following Saturday, captain Xander was at his devastating best, netting a hat-trick in the 5-2 win against tournament holders Greece, who themselves required victory to overtake Switzerland and qualify. After his side went behind early on, Xander rallied his troops and invigorated the crowd by taking matters into his own hands. The post-match celebrations had a passion and a verve to and about them that hadn’t been felt for so long. Xander conducted the fans’ clamorous rendition of the national anthem, then pointed towards the upper tier of the arena. There, in amongst the sea of red, was all of Niko’s extended crew, each given a free ticket for their part in the operation. Next stop: the quarter-final on Wednesday night.
One of the officers asked Niko if he had seen a young Swiss fan in a tracksuit and baseball cap; it transpired that there had been an affray between the sets of supporters, and they wished to speak to this young fan. Niko serenely replied that he hadn’t, and was only out to buy a few cans of lager at the off licence down the road, if that was alright with them. They bought his quickly-thought-out explanation entirely, wished him a pleasant night and drove away. Niko smiled to himself as relief displaced all other emotions. Now nothing could disrupt the carefully-choreographed march to the semi-finals. It’s back on!
Once safely inside his hotel room, Niko snorted a celebratory line of cocaine by means of his keys, then made an exultant phone call to each of his crew in turn. They conferred on final plans for the next stage of the operation, to be executed upon his return to Cadien later that Sunday. He was to take the 11:36 train after breakfast; Felix had resourcefully laid out an assortment of coffee and amphetamines on the kitchen table to maintain the crew’s energy through the day! Yet Niko was someone for whom chaos could – sporadically and without warning – supplant the rule book. With no coherent basis for doing so, he decided to knock on the door of room 45, whence music and vivacious chatter was audible. A young man in much jewellery answered. Half-expecting to be laughed out of the corridor, Niko explained with elemental honesty who he was, reeled off a list of dance hits brought into being by his record company and presented his reserve supply of MDMA crystals. And in he went! All he could see was young people at the very top of life – gleefully chatting, inhaling large quantities of nitrous oxide, moving and swaying to a compilation of late-1990s dance anthems, the soundtrack to this most surreal of times.
Back in Cadien, the sun rose above the mountains, infusing this Sunday with a spirit that had a sense of destiny about it. Lorik was strolling along the nearby fields, an amalgam of chewing gum and blue pills in his tracksuit pockets, when Niko messaged his change of plan: the trip home would be postponed until Monday, hedonism taking precedence once again! Lorik felt at once ejected, dejected and rejected. The last two months had been a seemingly incessant feast of sunshine, music, drugs, camaraderie, and the general notion that everything made sense. Now, it felt as though everything was happening, yet nothing was happening. He threw another pill into the sky, caught it in his mouth and strolled on.
Meanwhile, in room 45, the speakers were turned up and the restraint down. Niko immediately took to his new comrades, spinning amusing yarns about musicians he’d signed amidst further lines, with his default demeanour of continual glow. His mood had been enhanced beyond measure by the curious compound of conversation, alcohol and narcotics. He even had the audacity to play a few memorised classical pieces on the piano in the hotel restaurant during their ‘off-our-heads’ breakfast – an audacity that could only be found in the special energy that greets such sustained saturnalia.
Niko bounced on, boarding the replacement bus service – owing to a technical fault on the railway, he was told – with an accelerated heart rate and pupils the size of a tennis ball. Time passed so quickly, punctuated by the conversations of fellow passengers. Niko felt as though they were all on his side, yet he was wary of attracting their attention whilst still very much ‘high’. He had entered a new world with those people – those who fate took him towards – and was drowsy with hope that this reverie would continue for a while yet, into the afternoon. When it finally subsided to leave reality, he firmly believed that reality would be Switzerland in the semi-final. Every waking moment of the next 24 hours, in part or in whole, would determine that.
Niko returned to Cadien that afternoon. The following 24 hours were an intense fusion of the surreal and the practical, principally occupied by the rendezvous with Xander in a secluded coppice (the captain had claimed his grandmother was seriously ill to be exempted from duty for the day). He paid the crew sizable sums in return for the gear, and agreed to allocate the gear at set times during Tuesday’s training, for consumption directly before their quarter-final against Portugal. Xander knew exactly at which times there would be the most players and least coaching staff present at the training ground; his captain’s armband was comfortably large enough to conceal the gear. Foolproof indeed.
And so to Wednesday night, and what a night. The crew had rejoined Niko in his cottage to see the action unfold. Switzerland played beyond their normal limitations in the first half, besieging the Portugal goal with adventurous attacks, only to be thwarted by either goalkeeper or woodwork. As the match went on, however, the effects of the gear were abating and the red squad were manifestly tiring. With six minutes remaining, striker Marco unthinkingly gave away a penalty kick, and the nation placed its faith in goalkeeper Denis. The stadium reached an incalculable decibel level when he guessed right and palmed the penalty away to safety. Denis osculated his gloves, Jürgen jumped up and down on the touchline, the substitutes embraced each other. Yet Niko was momentarily engulfed by a sense of foreboding; why had he not put together a contingency plan for the probable event of extra time? How could he have been so naïve?
The ensuing half an hour of extra time delivered moments of brilliance and frustration, before substitute Rikki took possession thirty yards from goal, with eyes for only one target: the top corner. Niko’s cottage erupted when the ball hit the net; the gamble had paid off after all! The final whistle sparked further jubilation on the pitch and uninhibited elation in the stands. Tears rolled down Xander’s cheeks as he celebrated with his teammates. After all those years of hurt, Switzerland had finally reached a semi-final.
Felix took on the duties of measuring out lines and cutting straws into quarters, ready for a whole-crew coke rampage. They were going to bleed the place dry! As the other boys laughed and sang, Niko flicked onto the news channel and discovered that all trains on the Cadien-Satyric line had been cancelled indefinitely, following a fatal crash on the Sunday, not a technical fault as he had heard. The crash killed all passengers and staff onboard; it occurred shortly after the train departed from Satyric, at 11:36am.
This young writer from the south of England has been coming up with ideas for as long as he can remember. So far, his work has been published by a Science-based journal in 2009 screened at a theatre festival in 2019 and featured on no fewer than four literary websites this year.
HalfHourToKill.Com is a literary website publishing authors of Flash Fiction and Short Stories in the genres of Fantasy, Horror and Noir. Feel free to submit your Fiction, Poetry and Non-Fiction work to us year round.
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