Friend

by F.C. Malby

You used to listen to my questions, your mind racing faster than life itself. Your thoughts were sharp and fast. You asked questions: Thoughts about life, and God, and justice. You cared and you worked to help others. I used to look into your green eyes and wonder how we became friends; I, almost three years your junior, and far less cool and together; you, slim, sophisticated and ‘on point’ when it came to fashion. It was the eighties, then. I remember talking to you about school buses and timetables at the Girls’ Grammar. You wore a pale pink shirt pulled out over a slim belt, and a white, flowing skirt. Your lips were glossed and you sparkled. You were beautiful.

The years created a certain kind of cynicism in your mind. We talked about boys and future children, about passions and God. You became worn down with questions and I know you now have the answers. I go to pick up the phone when I want to talk to you or tell you something, a big event or a new child. I replace it and think back to what you might have said to me. I try to feel grateful for the time that we had, but life is cruel.

Then it came, the phone call – the first to tell me you had ten years. Those ten years were long. The second was unexpected. It was exactly ten years later but it was a surprise. They told me you were gone. I didn’t believe them, not when they called, not when I went to pick up the phone to call you, not when I stood and gave your eulogy in front of hundreds of people to tell then who you really were. I believed them, finally, as I walked up the hill towards your open grave. It was brutal, the shock, the tears, the feeling in my body that made my legs want to give way. I felt an arm around my neck and a voice telling me, “Take your time, it’s ok.” I broke at that point and hung back so as not to cause a scene. Emotions can do that, cause a scene that no one wants to witness.

I made it to the edge of the grave, sprinkled earth over your coffin, looked down and wondered when we would meet again. Life is cruel, it can be short, it can be a struggle. Yours was lived with grace, you handled pain and uncertainty with ease. You fought, but you also knew when it was time let go. I’m not sure that I ever have… let go, my friend. You are hard to replace.


F.C. Malby is a contributor to Unthology 8 and Hearing Voices: The Litro Anthology of New Fiction. Her debut short story collection, My Brother Was a Kangaroo includes award-winning stories, and her debut novel, Take Me to the Castle, won The People’s Book Awards. Her short fiction has been longlisted in The New Writer Magazine Annual Prose and Poetry Prizes by David Gaffney, and won the Litro Magazine Environmental Disaster fiction competition.
Find out more on her website and follow her on Twitter @fcmalby

The Last Unexplored Frontier

by John M. Carlson

Dad sometimes joked about how messy our garage was. “Our garage is the last unexplored frontier! We’ll have to explore it someday!”

Meanwhile, Mom thought that exploring was nice, but cleaning the hopeless chaos would be much better.

Dad died of cancer the spring I was 19. I knew that Mom would decide to clean the garage sooner or later. Most of the mess was Dad’s, and there was no need to keep it now that he was gone. So I was hardly surprised one July morning when Mom told me we’d start cleaning the garage that day.

After breakfast, we headed out to the detached garage, and started studying Dad’s last unexplored frontier.

Dad was a thrifty pack rat. He collected all sorts of things “that might be useful someday!” All those things had pretty much taken the garage over. There was barely—barely—enough space left to park the car.

Mom and I stood, looking at all the odds and ends that Dad had saved. There was a china cabinet, which he’d planned to fix up for Mom, who’d wanted a china cabinet to hold her good dishes. There was a pile of parts for his old truck. (He really should have let the guy who’d bought the truck have the parts. The truck was so unreliable it would be needing those parts sooner rather than later.) There was a mountain of parts for the family car. There was a big pile of scrap lumber. There was an old wood stove that Dad could install in the house if heating oil prices became totally unaffordable. There was a big shelf full of various chemical concoctions, like furniture stripper.

Almost all of this stuff was junk as far as Mom and I were concerned. It would take a natural tinkerer like Dad to make use of most of this stuff.

I thought of all the work it would take to clean up this overwhelming mess. We’d spend endless hours in this hot, stuffy garage. We’d make countless dump runs to get rid of stuff. We’d probably spend weeks trying to find people to take the more usable stuff, like car parts. All in all, this project would be a nightmare.

I briefly fantasized about cleaning up this mess using a gallon of gas and a lit match.

Finally, Mom sighed. “I really want this garage clean. I’m so tired of fighting to cram the car in. But I can’t face doing this! Especially with all the other stuff we need to get done this summer.”

And with that, we escaped from the garage.

The last unexplored frontier would remain unexplored. It could remain unexplored forever, at least as far as I was concerned.


John M. Carlson is a writer living in the Seattle area. You can find more of his work on his website.

Mercy

by Frank Linn

We did it because we wanted to help her. That’s all there is to it, but it wasn’t that simple to the police.

As if it was yesterday, not two years ago, I remember it, and more recently, the very public trial that has followed. I was on the couch when it started, my stomach churned after each of the cop’s questions. My sister was next to me then, just as she is now, but now we’re not on my mom’s couch. In this courtroom, the defendant’s chair is hardwood, it feels the same as the cotton stuffed corduroy cushion felt.

Two days ago, the officer who questioned us about our mother’s death told the jury what we told him then. He wasn’t lying, we were, well at that time we were.

Four years ago our mother was diagnosed with cancer, stage one, nothing we were too concerned about, so we were told. Our mom’s oncologist said it was treatable. My sister, the nurse, told us it was treatable. Treatable cancer that just continued to come back, grow, and spread. Each time it crept back and hit our mom a little harder. She was a strong woman, but that was maybe our biggest weakness in this battle. Each time she bounced back only to get knocked down harder. Eventually, the bounce backs were slower, and the knocks down were harder until she couldn’t get back up.

We admitted to killing our mother, not for the reasons the tabloids, pundits, and b-list attorneys made it seem, and not for the charges against us. We weren’t guilty of murder because we wanted money. But when the State Attorney got wind of how much money my sister and I would get from our mother’s estate they ordered an autopsy.

The state traced the painkillers our mom overdose on to my sister’s job. The cruel word – overdose. That word was thrown around in the trial that it seemed coined for us, that we were killers or drug dealers profiting from the addiction of victims. “Forcing their mother to overdose,” the prosecutor said.

No, all we did was end our mother’s suffering. She begged us, for months she did, and finally, when I started suggesting it to my sister, just starting to, she finished my sentence. We were in sync but still too ashamed to say it to the other.

We admitted our story, we announced to everyone we didn’t want to see her suffer. That wasn’t enough for the prosecutor. He only had a few days left before he could put his name in to run for governor. I’m sure the campaign posters started coming off the presses as soon as the jury went into deliberation. We were his ticket to higher office. The only price was our agony of reliving the worst days of our lives. A win against us, any sort of victory, even a day’s sentence would validate him.

We stood for the judge, he had just received a sheet of paper from the jury. It was the moment two years had been building to. He placed the paperback on his desk and leaned forward to the microphone and spoke.

Our attorney tried to sympathize us so the jury could see us as merciful daughters ending the suffering of our mother. That we took care of her just as she took care of us.

All I heard, “Guilty.” The strategy didn’t work.

The next day we returned for sentencing. The jury that seemed to view us as monsters was dismissed. Only the judge would decide our fate. The prosecution had pushed for the maximum; more for my sister since she “trafficked the drugs to commit a homicide.”

We only got time served.

The printers of the campaign posters must have halted. The prosecutor’s face became red.

It took us a while to figure out what had happened. Later that day our attorney called me, I was back on the corduroy couch. It was comfortable again, not as comfortable as it was before killer, and much too far from how it felt when my mom was on it beside me.

As it turned out, our attorney told us, the same thing happened to the judge. His mother had cancer in her bones. He watched her suffer. He took it as long as he could before he gave in to her wishes, the same wishes our mother had, for her daughters to bring her peace.


Frank Linn is a short story writer living in Miami, a good place for great inspiration. Follow him on Twitter @AuthorFrankLinn

Whispered Answers

by C. Joy

Dom knelt next to the broken body on the road. He wouldn’t need a medical examiner to tell him what he already knew. He had watched the blue mist of the guardian and light of the soul depart, one upward and the other not. There’s an advantage to knowing your guardian personally. His was named Arerial. As a hired contract killer, it was nice to know he still had one.

A small cry from the crumpled car startled Dom as he rose up from the pavement. Not possible. Intel had the target traveling alone. A quick shot to the driver’s forehead had been the plan. Quick, and clean. But the shot had gone low and wide, shattering the side mirror instead. Instantly, the target was aware. Dom had dropped from the tree he was in, when the car suddenly spun, losing control and bee-lined directly for the very spot he was in. Another quick shot found its mark and finished the job, but left him directly in the path of the out of control car. Escaping a direct hit, the bumper had caught his hip and flung him to the pavement.

He was too old for this…then he heard a whimper again. His knee cracked as he quickly strode over to the car, glanced inside and inhaled sharply. A small girl, luckily still in her seatbelt, which was the only reason she didn’t resemble the body on the road. None of his targets were innocent, but this job had been compromised. Quickly calculating multiple variables, Dom reached into the car. He had a decision to make.

Dom started walking, away from the body and the wrecked car, carrying the small, delicate form. As he walked the quarter of a mile to his car hidden among the trees, small twinges of pain broke through the fog of adrenaline. Dom looked down. His arm was broken and he had torn something around his knee. He also suspected he might have a broken rib or two based on the tightness in his chest, but he would deal with that later. Gently and gingerly, he laid the child on the seat next to him, started the car with his one good hand and began the drive toward town. His focus: find a hospital.

As he drove, he kept constant watch around him and on the little blond girl laying on the seat. This job had come with too many surprises and he couldn’t afford anymore. And he recalled the hesitancy in Arerial tonight. Curious, since Guardians weren’t supposed to use judgment on if to save their subject of protection, but only on how.

Dom was well known for his human mercenary abilities, but secretly favored his supernatural ability. To see the light emitted from souls, alive or otherwise definitely aided with his occupation. But recently, his senses picked up other possible entities. The little girl stirred and whimpered again. Dom pressed down on the gas pedal.

It had taken him awhile to understand what he was seeing. In his line of work, being observant was the difference between job security or involuntary early retirement. Over time, he had noticed more. Blue misted guardians protected, helped find lost keys, whispered answers and gave inspiration to their charges. Shadowy tormentors, well, they were the snide thoughts of insecurities, nightmares and vicious doubt and they seemed to be multiplying.

Years ago, as he was piloting a soon to crash twin prop fireball at 15,000 feet after a sniper targeted his fuselage, Dom had dejectedly muttered “think this rides over, thanks for the good run”. Expecting silence, Dom had nearly jumped out of the burning airplane when he heard a soft, controlled voice whisper.

“It’s not your time”.

It was the only time. But he often wondered what happened to Guardians when their human charges passed on. Did they retire, or were they reassigned to incoming charges? Were they reassigned by lineage or was it a random draw?

The bright orange blinking arrow pointed toward the Emergency Department. Dom followed the sign, parked the car, and tenderly carried the girl toward the entrance. He could sense that Arerial was close, and he was comforted by it. Which is why when another, sharper pain coursed through his chest and took his breath, he was unsettled. It quickly subsided and was forgotten when Dom was overtaken by nurses questioning about the child in his arms. Quickly, they whisked her away with a flurry of activity and hushed voices.

It was ironic, that in a hospital, Dom felt safe. Spiritually, it was Grand Central for both tormentors and guardians, as regrets, hope and sorrows were abundant. Humanly, he was safe from other snipers as they preferred a much more secluded location.

Dom signed some forms before taken to an exam room. On the way, he watched a blue mist followed by a lighted soul rise from a curtained area down the hall. An old soul. Not the girl. Relieved, Dom let out the breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding.

Mistaking it for pain, the nurse left Dom in the room in search of morphine.

“We have done good tonight.” Dom stretched his neck, and looked for Arerial. But something was off. He felt…alone.

It was as if he was missing…something.

The pain hit him again, stronger this time and dropped him to his knees. He struggled for a breath. A heart attack? This wasn’t the exit he had planned. His chest exploded in another wave of pain and darkness began to close over him when Dom heard a familiar soft, controlled voice whisper.

“It’s time.”

The little blonde girl lay on her side and watched a second bright light receded down in the hall. She wasn’t alone, even though she had heard the nurse whisper to the Doctor she was. But she wasn’t scared. She felt…safe.

“You’ll stay now?” she asked softly. A small blue mist had settled next to her.

Understanding, she whispered “Thanks, Arerial.”


A reading gypsy, C. Joy enjoys traveling and people watching, finding inspiration in both.

Lasting Impression

by Alexis Hunter

Her hand hovered over the door handle. She had saved this room until last. She was unsure if she could bring herself to cross the threshold. The thought occurred that she could leave this room and let the people who bought the house deal with it.

They wouldn’t be assaulted by the memories of sitting cross-legged on the handtied rag-rug, reading to Mamma as they were warmed by the sun streaming through the high windows. They wouldn’t hear an echo of Mamma’s voice or feel the drying clay on her hands as she clasped theirs with joy or consolation.

They also wouldn’t have the memory of opening the door and finding Mamma’s chair overturned. Of Mamma lying across the rug looking as though her colour had drained away into the vivid tufts.

Mamma’s voice gently rebuked her, “Don’t be daft girl, get in that room and do what needs to be done.” She ghosted a smile and opened the door.

The room was as it always had been, save for the unfinished pot on the table and the chair, now righted, sat against the far wall. The lump remained in her throat, she couldn’t deal with the pottery table right now. She chose to pack the rest of the room.

~*~

An hour passed, each piece of craftwork, materials and knick-knacks were now lovingly packed and stored in boxes for the movers to take to the storage facility. The misplaced chair was gone, the colourful rug had been rolled and stored. There was only the table remaining.

Mamma loved to make small pots, pinching and shaping the clay until it was transformed from a formless lump into something beautiful and with purpose. She smiled, Mamma had used the same technique on her, coaxing her into the best version of herself. Mamma said that the clay did most of the work and she only guided it to where it was supposed to be.

She touched the clay with some trepidation. It had dried out, moisture leaching away in the weeks that had passed since Mamma had died, setting the pot into this shape that it would retain forever. One side of the pot was buckled, almost pressed flat into the base. She could picture Mamma sitting here, molding and pushing the clay, and then the stroke had happened. She imagined Mamma being frightened, not sure why she felt so ill, not able to move part of her body. She imagined her fingers crushing this piece of ridiculous clay as she was trying to call out for help or stand.

She wanted to crumple the clay, crack it’s dried out edges so that it became dust. Her hand slipped into the crumpled part of the clay, and her breath was suddenly gone. Her hand fit perfectly into the four distinct grooves there, and it was as if Mamma was in the room with her. The warmth and brightness of the sun was her smile, the clay her gentle hands.

She knew what needed to be done.

With care, she unpacked the desktop kiln and turned it on. While it heated, she made calls to home and to delay the removal company, she needed a few more days here. She loaded the pot with caution into the kiln, ensuring she preserved the most important part, and prepared herself to wait the few days it would take for the pot to set and cool.

~*~

In the days that passed, she slept on the floor of the craft room and talked to the walls as though Mamma was still held within them. She talked about the things that had happened in the months since Mamma died. She spoke about Dad and his new home, how he missed Mamma so much that it was almost as if she had lost two parents. She confessed how she missed her, though they had seen each other less since she moved away. She even spoke about the incident with Aunty Pam sneezing in the pastor’s face at the wake. At the time it had seemed a strange and removed series of events, and now, in this room with the memory of Mamma’s laughter made possible, it became hilarious and caused tears of mirth which felt like a release.

When the pot was finally ready, she wrapped it with care and secreted it in her handbag, packed the remaining items away and then locked the house. She would never return here.

~*~

She drove the few hours to home, but before being able to kiss her husband and children, she had an important stop to make.

There was a raucous game of bingo in the communal hall as she arrived at the care home. She knew her father would not be with the crowd. He wasn’t ready to join in yet, but she was hopeful that he would make some friends to help him fill the lonely hours. Now that he was close by, she could be here often too.

When she opened the door to his suite, he was exactly where she expected him to be, in his favourite armchair, staring out of the window with his sad expression. There was no tv or radio to fill the silence in which he enveloped himself, only the deafening sorrow for his lost half.

“Hey, Dad,”

He turned, “Hi pet. You all finished?” She nodded.

“I brought you something.”

He withdrew a little, “I can’t…”

“Trust me.” She put her handbag on the chair and drew the package from within. She unwrapped the pot, coloured now the warm and faded orange of all terracotta. She had chosen not to glaze it so that the clay would have the perfect texture. She took his hand and slid his fingers into the four grooves where her mother’s fingers were forever imprinted.

Some of the torture slid from his face.


Alexis Hunter is a self-published author of a children’s picture book, Clara’s Search for Magic, from the North East of England. She loves exploring short stories or all genres and talks to her imaginary friends daily. They always reply. Follow her on Twitter: @casnarrative