First Available Cousin – Ray Busler

 

It had still been dark when we were called. It wasn’t a pajama run; I was dressed, but still slept a few miles in the car. There were no cousins for me to play with this time. We lived closest, most available for urgency, first on the scene.

I couldn’t wait on the big porch, too much winter for that now. I missed the wooden swing, missed the creaking and mesmerizing motion of the thing. Last summer we rode, four cousins abreast in that swing for hours of false alarm. My oldest cousin told of broken swing chains and loose eye bolts that, in some parallel child universe sent chubby pink tots, not unlike myself, sailing in full pendulant moment, sailing loose in the air before finding the steel spikes of the wrought iron fence well below porch level. A lucky one missed the fence to be only crucified in the mock orange bush. She was saved, as the tale went, by an uncle by marriage, and merely had her eyes gouged out by thorns for her trouble. We cousins loved that swing, relished the idea of it and I longed for the day I could be the oldest cousin and tell the tale, with some improvements that I whetted in idle mental minutes.

Now, it was winter and I waited in stale stifle too near the gas logs in the parlor. When there was a full complement of cousins the parlor was off limits, too many fragile memories to be exposed to the rough usage of youth. One was an acceptable number though. I sat on my hands deliberately avoiding the sensuous feel of Dresden figurines and the other flotsam of irreplaceable family history.

There was, almost lost in the repeating wallpaper pattern of pink roses, a painting – a woodcut really. Japanese, I suppose today, assuming that then future role of older cousin. Blue ink and black, with a touch of red in the eye of a rampant, distant sea risen dragon, an icon of the storm in the foreground. The real hero of the drawing was the wave about to crash down on a frail boat. There could be no possible reprieve from that wave. It was a wave of inevitability. I watched the wave until I could hear a phantom wind, smell spectral salt and rotting squid. I watched the wave until…

“Your Grandmother has passed on.” The words woke me.

“Do you understand? Do you understand what I mean by death? Your Grandmother is dead.”

Of course I understood death. That’s why we were here, wasn’t it?

 

Ray lives in Alabama with his long suffering wife of 40 years. That is to say she is older than 40, but didn’t suffer for the first 20.  Ray writes for the pleasure of the writing, and the joy of inflicting it upon others.

Nickeled-and-Dimed – Iris N. Schwartz

 

Brooklyn, New York; 1967

In the middle of the sitcom “Love on A Rooftop,” Lenore, eight, announced she had swallowed a nickel. Her voice was low, her words measured.

Imogene rushed over. “Are you sure?”

Her sister nodded.

Imogene paced the living room, muttered, “How could this happen?” Regarding her younger sister on the sofa still watching Judy Carne, the eleven-year-old again probed, “Are you sure?”

Lenore smiled, slightly.

“Why? On the one night Mother and Dad go out!” Suddenly Imogene was speaking with an emergency operator. “I don’t know how it happened!” and “She’s breathing fine.”

She hung up, shut the TV, glared at Lenore. “You better not be making this up!”

“I’m not.”

“Because if you are…”

The doorbell rang. Two lanky young men in police uniforms were at the door. They probably hadn’t spotted the mold on the mezuzah.

“Is this the household with the coin swallower?”

“Yes, yes, oh God,” the older sibling responded.

Blond Policeman sat down by the unsteady kitchen table. Brunet Policeman stood nearby in the living room, examining the family’s antique, glass-doored bookcase. He seemed rooted there. Would he be nesting soon?

“Can I get you coffee?” asked Imogene. “Gum?”

“No, we’re fine.”

Brunet finally walked into the kitchen. He and Blond questioned Lenore about how she’d swallowed a “Buffalo nickel,” which she “collected,” and was “examining in the dark.” She “didn’t want to bother her sister” by turning on a light. When the eight-year-old held the nickel high, it tumbled from her left thumb and forefinger into her open mouth.

Blond: “Any trouble breathing since the incident?”

“No.” Lenore spotted a humongous water bug by the table leg closest to Blond. Would he notice?

Brunet asked the older sister their parents’ whereabouts.

“Oh, God… they’re at a PTA meeting, and were planning to eat out. They haven’t been out in years, and…”

Brunet: “Well, we need a family member over eighteen to tell us whether she’ll stay here or go to the hospital…”

Lenore gulped. She hadn’t been to a hospital since her tonsillectomy. They hadn’t given her ice cream afterwards like they promised. Just watery Jello. She wouldn’t go! She tried to stomp on the water bug as it neared. It sped away.

Imogene decided their parents should be called and brought home.

Dad grumbled that this was the first time in three years they’d gone out, and now they were back. Early. Mother wore makeup. The sisters knew not to look her in the eyes, hers with mascara, theirs not.

Blond told Mother and Dad that Lenore could get her stomach pumped in a hospital, or the collectible coin would come out the next couple of days if she ate fibrous food and drank lots of water.

Brunet admired out loud the glass-doored bookcase. Was it for sale? Dad and Mother shook their heads, no.

The parents let nature take its course. They didn’t yell at or spank Imogene or Lenore. Mostly Dad grunted; Mother favored silence.

Two days later a dusky Buffalo nickel was affixed to orange contact paper, accompanied by Dad’s funny words. This was taped to the door leading to the basement. Anyone who visited could read it. It hung on that door for a year.

Lenore had dreams involving Blond and Brunet till early spring.

 

ins current cropped (1)Iris N. Schwartz is the author of more than forty works of fiction. Her literary fiction has been published in dozens of journals and anthologies, including 101 Words, The Flash Fiction Press, Gravel, and Jellyfish Review. Her poetry and creative nonfiction have been published widely, as well. Ms. Schwartz’s first short-short story collection, My Secret Life with Chris Noth: And Other Stories, is scheduled to be published by Poets Wear Prada in Autumn 2017.

Eustace – Sandra Arnold

 

The shock of seeing Eustace in the charity shop window almost rattled Miranda out of her skin. She’d never believed her parents’ insistence that they hadn’t got rid of him. But twenty years later there he was. Eustace as he’d looked at the edge of the sea, watching her father tip grandpa’s ashes into the waves. Watching her father’s tears as the arc of grey grit hit the water. Listening to tales of grandpa’s fishing days; how he’d taught generations of boys to swim and fish and sail; how he was the best of men. While her cousins watched bits of crushed bone drift away on the tide, Miranda watched the boy. His white curls haloed around his head like the seeds of a dandelion clock before they’re blown away by the wind. She asked him who he was. “Eustace,” he said.

The psychiatrist suggested art therapy as a way to unlock whatever had caused Miranda’s mutism. However, he added, as several of her cousins exhibited the same symptoms there was probably a genetic component.

While Miranda painted Eustace he told her he knew why all the girls in her family were mute. She didn’t go back to art therapy. Instead she talked to Eustace.

The psychiatrist reassured Miranda’s parents that imaginary companions were common in solitary children, and it was simply coincidence that the boy in Miranda’s painting resembled her grandpa’s brother who’d drowned as a child, and when Miranda started socialising with real children the imaginary one would disappear. He did. And so did the painting.

“Nice painting, eh?’ said the charity shop owner.

She nodded. “I’ll take it.”

She’d show her cousins. She’d tell them about Eustace. She’d tell them everything.

 

Sandra's author photoSandra Arnold lives in New Zealand. She is a novelist, essayist, short story and flash-fiction writer with a PhD in Creative Writing from CQ University, Australia. Her work has been widely published and anthologised in New Zealand and internationally and has won several awards. Her flash fiction appears in numerous journals including The Airgonaut, Spelk, Jellyfish Review, Flash FrontierBlue Fifth Review and was selected for the UK 2017 National Flash Fiction Day international anthology, Sleep is a beautiful colour. Learn more at http://authors.org.nz/author/sandraarnold.

Reel Life – Chrissi Sepe

 

Why did I choose “Dance of the Dwarfs” when my dad’s best friend, Elijah, had me perform piano for his new friend? This stranger was a glum man with a blonde bowl haircut and bangs: the spitting image of Paul Williams.

“You must listen to her play!” Elijah said. “She’s a child prodigy!”’

My piano teacher gave me the song only hours earlier. What made me think I could play it? My fingers fumbled, and I knew I was horrible.

“Always a pleasure,” Elijah said.

Elijah had heard me play dozens of times. I gazed up at Paul Williams from the piano bench. He simply nodded.

“Why don’t you sit in with us in your dad’s studio?” Elijah asked.

The studio was actually my parents’ bedroom where my dad kept his reel-to-reel machine. There were seven people already crammed around the double bed, all facing the reel-to-reel that stood to the side of the room on a small, wooden table. Everyone focused on the melodic music of trumpets, drums, guitars, and the sweetest voice that ever emanated from a woman: Marcy with the beautiful, long, blonde hair. She had a tiny brown, cut out leather purse strapped around her gold turtleneck sweater and those Indian moccasins that dominated the streets of the 1970’s. Elijah closed his eyes as we listened to the song written by my dad.

“Beautiful! Bravo!” Elijah said, eyes now open, his hands applauding loudly.

“You are an amazing singer!” my dad exclaimed, turning to Marcy.

My heart gently sank because my dad never complimented anyone on their singing. He was a singer himself, therefore a harsh critic.

Back in the living room, my mom sat on our couch, reading a magazine. I sensed that she didn’t like when musicians hung out in her bedroom on a weeknight. Why did she want to spoil the fun?

“Mom?” I asked. “Why do you think Elijah closed his eyes while the song played?”

“It helps people listen to the music better.”

I was surprised she had an answer.

Several years later when I was a teen, my dad died, and Marcy sent us a condolence card. I told Elijah how thoughtful that was.

“Oh yeah, Marcy! She blamed me for not contacting her to tell her how sick your dad was. She’d heard from someone else that he’d passed. I hadn’t heard from the woman in years, and she reams me out?!”

When my mom tossed out most of the sympathy cards, I grabbed Marcy’s from the pile and brought it into my bedroom. I cradled it in my hands.

Over the years, I’ve mostly remembered how my dad complimented Marcy’s voice and how Paul Williams only nodded after I’d played my song. What I should carry more closely in my heart is how Elijah invited me to hear my dad’s reel-to-reels. And how my mom knew exactly how to answer the question of why Elijah’s eyes were closed when he listened to the music.

 

unnamedChrissi Sepe is the author of novels, “Bliss, Bliss, Bliss,” and “Iggy Gorgess.” Her essay “Anais Nin – A Recipe for Immortality” appears in Volume 13 of the Anais Nin Literary Journal, and her short story, “Caramel Macchiatos and Conversation,” is in Volume 14, both published by Sky Blue Press.

Darjeeling – Sudha Balagopal

 

The voice on the scratchy microphone announces a weather-related train delay. Rubbing cold hands, Jon makes his way to the station’s cafeteria. A petite young woman with high cheekbones sits at a table by the window; her hodgepodge bags lie strewn.

“May I?” he points to the vacant chair.

When she nods, he settles down, orders Darjeeling tea —fitting for Northeastern India. Despite grimy windows, the snow-capped Himalayas are breathtaking, clouds bobbing around majestic peaks.

“I’m Jon.” He rests his elbows on the table. “You’re from here?”

She resettles the woolen shawl over her shoulders. “I’m… Saya.” She gestures toward the mountains, says, “I’m from there,” in accented English.

“Lucky.”

She shrugs.

Tea arrives; he removes the cozy, pours himself a cup.

“I suppose your train’s delayed too? On your way home?” he asks.

“No.”

The tea is delicate, fragrant. She’s prickly.

“I’m heading further north.” He smiles, attempts humor. “Perhaps I’ll find Shangri-La.”

“Good luck.” She frowns. “You won’t have cell phones there, or internet. No movies or restaurants.”

She doesn’t like her mountain home?

He watches as she gathers her belongings and leaves the cafeteria.

***

Later, he spots her huddled against cutting wind, peering at the tracks on the opposite side of the platform. No trains on either side. More raspy words emerge from the microphone.

He pulls the hoodie over his head, approaches her.

“Hello, again!” He intends to inquire about his train.

She doesn’t turn around to look at him.

The wind swirls her words, attempts to take them. He thinks she says, “Go away!”

“Where?” He tries humor again.

“What?”

“I want to find out about this train delay. Please understand I’ve come a long way to see the Himalayas.”

“What you imagine isn’t… I can tell you my mountain village is closed, small, suffocating. The sameness…” She’s bitter; her nostrils quiver.

“I shouldn’t look for lost paradise?” He hopes his smile is disarming.

“You and your Shangri-La!” She turns to look at him, her cheeks red.

“What’s wrong with wanting to find it?” He pulls on gloves, drops the smile.

She glares at him. “It’s not real!”

Another incoherent announcement comes through the system. He tilts his head and closes his eyes to make sense of it.

When he opens them, she’s slipped away in her noiseless manner.

***

He walks into the station manager’s office. They tell him all trains, up and down, are canceled until tomorrow. He must find lodgings for the night.

A commotion as an older, heavy-set man bursts in. “Saya!” he yells, the single word wrapped in menace. Jon doesn’t understand the rest.

While officials attempt to calm the man, Jon’s eyes scour the platforms.

The sun weakens and heavy clouds gather. Soon, the mountains are obscured. Along with Saya, Shangri-La is lost in the horizon.

 

Author2.1Sudha Balagopal’s recent short fiction has appeared in Foliate Oak, Peacock Journal, Right Hand Pointing and Jellyfish Review among other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn, and two short story collections, There are Seven Notes and Missing and Other Stories. Read more at www.sudhabalagopal.com.

The Easter Bunny on a Glass Elevator Going Down – Zach Smith

 

In retrospect the event seems so bizarre, that it’s more like a dream.

My aunt had taken my cousin and me to the mall.

It was in the spring, at some point shortly before Easter.

The Easter Bunny was stationed in a playful land of candies and eggs and fake plastic straw of every color imaginable. This was in an open area at the bottom of the mall’s glass elevator. An Easter variation on the mall’s Santa set up.

I don’t know if this still goes on, the mall Easter Bunny that is, I haven’t seen one in years, but I haven’t been looking either.

The setting was accompanied by music played from a DJ stationed nearby.

At Christmas there are plenty of songs to play on a continuous loop to keep the atmosphere. You don’t even need lyrics. Anyone can recognize “Jingle Bells” by melody alone. The same goes for “Frosty the Snowman,” or “The Christmas Song” (though everyone knows the latter as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.”)

For Easter, the music choices are more limited. There’s “Peter Cotton Tail” of course, but it’s not nearly as recognizable, considering DragonForce did a song using the same chord progression and nobody noticed. If you want to get real religious you could opt for the song “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)”… but that’s probably not the best choice either. There are not a lot of “great” Easter songs to play for the mall Easter Bunny. So what is a DJ to do? Why, play some of the contemporary hits of course.

The year was 1991, I was six years old at the time.

When we got to the bottom of the glass elevator to see the Easter Bunny, the song he was dancing to was… “Losing My Religion” by REM.

The argument that the song title is a southern expression that roughly translates to: “losing your temper” is weak at best. The phrase too specifically implies something else. Even the music video is very religious oriented, with fallen angels and so on. Playing that song for the Easter Bunny would be the equivalent of playing Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” at a wedding.

Consequently eighteen years later “Single Ladies” was played at my wedding, with both my aunt and cousin in attendance, despite the fact that that specific song was placed on the “Do Not Play” list. Come to think of it, it might have been the same DJ since both were utterly deaf to lyrical significance and/or irony.

At the mall, I asked my cousin the obvious question:

“Why is the Easter Bunny dancing to ‘Losing my Religion?’”

“Ah… because it’s a good song,” she said, sarcastically, as though I should have already known something so obvious.

That’s debatable… and also not the point.

 

with hatZach is a graduate of Chestnut Hill College and has been writing for more than a dozen years, struggling all the while with dyslexia. His work has previously appeared in Crack the Spine, Revolution John, Fast-Forward Festival, the Short Humor Site and Schlock Magazine, among others. You can find out more about him at his blog: theobscuritysymposium.wordpress.com.

Silly Love Songs #1 – Stephen Mossop

 

She lay beside him, under a summer moon.  The swing swayed above them, casting brief shadows over their faces.

‘You know what?’ she asked, expressing a random thought, ‘I’d love it here, even if it was snowing, as long as you were laid beside me’

He smiled.

‘In winter, when the air is clear and cold, when all is silent, and when you can feel yourself breathing in the gathering frost, if you look up to the sky you can see even more stars than you can now’.

She snuggled closer.

Those moments when his mind hovered between here and there, when his voice spoke of eternities and certainties, when his spirit moved between fire and ice, were the ones she loved the most.

 

unnamedStephen Mossop was born in Lancashire, raised in Cornwall.  A former University Librarian, he is now a full-time writer living in Devon. He is married to Brenda. They have three grown-up children and beautiful teenage twin grand-daughters. His passion for writing and story-telling started early.  As a teenager he edited and published ‘Riff-Raff Poetry Magazine’, and several of his poems from that time were published in anthologies. With four books published since 2013, clearly story-telling comes naturally to him – ask his kids, who are never quite sure if he’s making things up…